Posts Tagged ‘music’

New Zealand – far south, far down, far out

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

So my big dilemma in New Zealand was whether to join one of the well-established backpacker touring companies (Kiwi Xperience, Magic Bus or Stray), or really be independent and hire my own vehicle. Each had their own advantages: a tour bus would probably be cheaper and come with a ready-made set of friends (each company advertised a different type of “crowd”); hiring a vehicle would allow me to “get off the beaten track”, and have a flexible schedule.

Finding someone to share a vehicle with seemed sensible, not just for cost efficiency, but to stave off any madness that might come with driving around alone for three weeks. I checked a few adverts that were in my youth hostel in Christchurch, but nothing seemed quite right. So instead I decided to prostitute myself with the poster you saw in my last blog post.

Not sure whether I would get any responses or not, I went out to explore the city.

Christchurch is very quaint. Wandering around the city centre, you really do wonder whether someone is having a bit of a laugh by creating this little piece of Britannia on the other side of the world. In fact it’s more English than England; everybody’s manners seem to be impeccable, wearing wool seems to be a national pastime, and the main park in the city has its trimmed hedges and colourful flower beds. It was also much colder than autumn would have been in London!

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They must have even imported a few punts from Cambridge or Oxford; something I was very pleased to see, given that I was a punter at school. (But I was disappointed to see the punting is done Cambridge-style here.)

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Back at the hostel, I was delighted to see I had received a few messages responding to my advert. I arranged to meet the first guy that got back to me, and it was obvious Hadyn and I were going to get on famously, so we planned to get a campervan together.

The next morning we picked up our new home-away-from-home, made a trip to the supermarket for important supplies (we would be cooking for ourselves in the back of the van) and ventured out into the countryside!

Ideally when sharing a campervan with someone, one should be able to split the driving. The slight hiccup we encountered was that Hadyn didn’t have his driving licence with him and so all of the driving would be down to me until his licence had been couriered over from the UK. Thanks to Fraser Island, I had somewhat increased my experience since passing my test last year, but only a little. This probably explained why we went for the highest level of insurance we could on the campervan (i.e. no excess).

With my driving responsibilities fixed for the next week or so, Hadyn became known as The Navigator (much to his chagrin).

We drove that afternoon as far as could from Christchurch, southwards towards Mount Cook. As it was getting dark, we set up camp at a camping ground and tucked into our first of many van-made meals.

The sleep wasn’t too uncomfortable, and I woke to find The Navigator preparing breakfast. Perfect!

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The summit of Mount Cook is beyond the reach of the non-mountaineer, but we made use of the freedom our campervan gave us to drive to Mount Cook village (at the end of a 50km dead-end road) and go for a walk in the nearby valleys. Once again we were stuck by how friendly everybody was; nodding and saying “Hello” to everybody we passed on the track was virtually compulsory.

When we reached a glacial lake, I wasn’t quite convinced that the large lumps of ice were real (since it seemed pretty warm), so I went in for a paddle to check. To water was exceptionally cold (just above 0C would sound about right), but of course I put on a brave face.

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That night we had our first of many nights of dubious legality by the side of the road. It didn’t seem necessary to go to a campsite every night as you don’t really need a warm shower and electricity everywhere you go. As we settled in for a beautiful sunset by the side of a deserted lake, I did lock the doors from the inside, lest we be visited in the middle of the night by an angry local farmer brandishing a shotgun!

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The next morning we drove past four cars (of which two were police cars); where was everybody?? And to really rub it in, we were held up by a farmer and his flock for a few minutes.

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Later, we arrived in Oamaru, a charming town on the south-eastern coast of South Island (our first signs of civilisation for a couple of days). We asked the friendly staff at the place we ate lunch, what we could do in the town.

"Ummm, well you could go to the cinema."

Even though this part of the country is stunning, we were beginning to realise that there’s not much to do around here. We eventually managed to tease out a recommendation to see the Moeraki Boulders, strange rocks that are almost perfectly spherical.

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That evening, we returned to civilisation (i.e. a campsite), if only to make use of the hot showers. Hadyn had been avoiding the alcohol since we met, but tonight would be his first night off the wagon, so we ventured into Dunedin city centre in a bus from the campsite to get merry. Dunedin is the student capital of South Island, so has a great bar scene. (We heard that Freshers’ week a few weeks previously had got dramatically out of hand for the nth year in a row). It is also the start of a strip of New Zealand which has a predominantly Scottish, rather than English heritage. Does my travelling companion look drunk in this photo of the end of the night?

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Dunedin also has the strange claim to fame of having the steepest street in the world. We decided against driving the van up Baldwin Street in the morning and instead planned a run to the top instead. Halfway up, we decided against this also.

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The next "Scottish-themed" town on our route was Invercargill, the most southerly city in the world. On the way, we stopped off to admire some of the marine wildlife of Nugget Point. There are actually hundreds of seals in the photo below.

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Unfortunately the weather was rather depressing when arrived in Invercargill, and we beat a hasty retreat to some of the nearby attractions instead. The Rough Guide to New Zealand really came up trumps at this point, as we directed ourselves to a random waterfall in the middle of nowhere…

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… and a random cave in the middle of nowhere …

Of course, caves have their dangers, but here I demonstrate how to deal with a fall from grace in style.

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Exhilarated by our random trips into the middle of nowhere, we later arrived in Queenstown, possibly the exhilaration capital of the world. I was determined to do a bungee jump, and this was the place to do it. Oddly enough I didn’t really feel particularly worried about doing one; I’ve never had an issue with heights and a bungee seemed like it would be a good chuckle.

A.J. Hackett were the people who brought bungee jumping into the mainstream. They have three different jumps in an around Queenstown but rather than spend my time working up to the biggest jump, I thought I would just sign up for the biggest straight away and see what all of the fuss is about.

The Nevis Bungee is done from a suspended platform that is 134m (440ft) above the Nevis River about 30km outside of the town. Coach transport was arranged, and as we travelled to the bungee site, no one was talking and the driver was playing death metal rock music at full volume. Our party was only then starting to realise when we were getting ourselves in for; you could smell the adrenaline in the air.

Our group was winched over to the bungee platform suspended over the middle of the canyon, accompanied by the occasional sound of screaming and a body-shaped object falling over the side of our destination. Once we had arrived, our harnesses were checked and each had to wait their turn. This gave us an opportunity to inspect the rope (really just lots of rubber bands bundled together) and admire the jumping technique of those before us (dive, don’t drop).

The whole time I am holding my (self-delusional??) smile; I’m still really quite excited.

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My name is called out. Must be my turn. I have to sit down in what looks like a gynaecologist’s examination chair for the final straps to be attached and checks to be made. Yes, still smiling…

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Once we’re happy to go, I’m instructed to shuffle (my feet are tied together after all) onto the “meat slab”, essentially the modern day equivalent of walking the plank. “Don’t look down” is the advice we’re given. And I don’t; and I’m still smiling.

1 – 2 – 3 …

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It was at that very moment, as I dived off (or toppled off?) the meat slab, that I realised how much I had been kidding myself the past few hours. How actually it’s completely ridiculous to jump into the void, with the ground so far away.

But hang on, the ground is getting closer. Is this going to work?? The wind is sweeping past my body and there are no signs of slowing down. Besides the wind, it’s also quiet. Having been pumped up with loud music for the past few hours, it now seems eerily quiet and I feel strangely alone. Am I going to die alone??

Needless to say, I did slow down (amazing this modern technology) and I bounced up and down a few times before unhooking my feet and returning gracefully back up to the platform. For an 8½ second experience it did seem to last an awfully long time, and once I got back to the campervan, I tried to sleep it off, but the experience echoed in my head over and over again. For several days afterwards, the experience would spontaneously recur like a scratched CD, and even now my stomach plummets whenever I watch the video, (I can’t imagine what my parents think). Would I do it again? Possibly not. But that’s the point of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Finding Nemo

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The English Channel is cold. At university I decided it would be great fun to learn to scuba-dive with the sub-aqua club. After a few months of Monday evenings at the University of London Union in the classroom and pool, we were sent down to Plymouth for a week of fun in water that was only 12 Celsius and very murky.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR), off the coast of Queensland, on the other hand is supposed one the best diving locations in the world. Diving the reef was an opportunity not to be missed. In particular, as a BSAC Sports Diver with over 40 dives under my belt, I now consider myself a pretty good diver who could really do the GBR justice. I signed up to a three-day live-aboard all-in trip with Prodive, Cairns. They promised eleven dives (including a couple of night dives) at a number of different sites on the reef.

Fitting 11 dives into three days was going to necessitate a lot of early starts. The first morning was no exception as we met at the Prodive centre at 6:15am. Along with 35-or-so people, we were driven over to our boat in the Cairns marina. By no means luxurious, it was well kitted out with a large lounge and sun deck, a galley with full-time cook, twin bunk cabins and lots of scuba equipment; what more does one need for a fun three days?

After a two-or-three hour journey out to the reef and the first of many great meals (although I can never fault with any fried breakfast) it was time for the dive briefing! As an “experienced” diver, about 12 of us were separated from rabble and taken to the top deck for an illustrated induction.

Dive briefing on the top deck 

Dive briefing board

I was actually really impressed by how professional everything was, and by the trust and independence the crew gave us. Everyone is overly concerned with safety in the UK (probably justifiably given the cold and murky water) and my other trips in the tropics have seemed more like guided tours. Here, the message was very much about having fun and feeling free to explore.

Marie, from Sweden, and I linked up as dive buddies. It was to become a successful relationship as we both used modest amounts of air and so could stay down longer than many other dive pairs over the next couple of days. We would frequently be the first couple into the water and the last pair out. Here we are enjoying the sun deck.

Alex and Marie enjoying the sun deck between dives

Another reason for being very lucky to be paired with Marie, is that she had an underwater camera. Here I am!

Alex underwater

In case you are wondering why I appear to be wearing a wetsuit in tropical waters, it’s actually a stinger suit used to protect divers from the jellyfish that inhabit these waters at the time of the year.

At times it really did seem like we were on the set of Finding Nemo. Although I don’t know the names of the fish, I was constantly recognising characters from the film. Strangely enough, it was the fabled clownfish (Nemo himself) that was hardest to find, but here is a magnificent photo that Marie took of two we found.

Clown fish

The two night dives didn’t lend themselves particularly well to photography, but they were both great. Each diver gets allocated a fluorescent glowstick (attached to the air tank) and a torch (tied to a hand with strict instructions no to lose). For most of the dive you don’t see anything except these items on the other divers – very eerie. Nonetheless some different wildlife comes out at night. As our second night dive was starting, the crew were throwing away the leftovers from supper over the side of the boat. Then the Jaws theme music starts being played over the tannoy! As we were kitting up, we could see about eight reef sharks swimming around the boat. Reef sharks supposedly don’t eat humans, but the group was fairly hesitant as we were signed out of the boat. My cries of “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived” went down a storm. Needless to say, everyone made it back okay.

Once back in Cairns, we all met up for drinks. Cairns itself is a bit of a hillbilly town, which is somewhat pleasant but wouldn’t have enough to keep anyone entertained for more than a day. However, in backpacker circles, a bar by the name of The Woolshed is legendary. Here it is acceptable to dance on tables (yes I did join in, if not lead the way). One can also watch groups of young ladies take part in something called a wet T-shirt contest. The guy with the jet-spray wasn’t looking as happy as I would expect someone with his job should.

Wet T-shirt guy

And yes, photographs of the girls were allowed. (Not sure why I ended up with a front-row view, but it was probably because the bouncers had to kick me off the stage where I was dancing)

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So I hope to have reassured you all of the cultural aspects of my great trip abroad!

Singapore Sling

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Singapore doesn’t fail to impress. Compared to some of the rundown terminals at Heathrow, Changi Airport is very well turned out without being too garish (like some Middle Eastern and Asian airports). But my lasting impression won’t be made by the architecture and interior design, but instead by immigration.

Those used to travelling to the United States will know how bad the immigration experience can be; fingerprints, photographs, plain rudeness. Not in Singapore; here you are greeted with beaming smiles and a professional manner. To top it off, after everything had been checked, stamped and found to be in order, I was offered a mint…!

“Welcome to Singapore”

Too tired to tackle the city on my first night, my first adventure was to find breakfast the next day. Guided by a Wikitravel page insisting that I eat a traditional Singaporean breakfast, I walked a few blocks from my hotel to Orchard Street, the main shopping street in the city, to find a place to eat. Breakfast typically revolves around “kaya”, a sort of coconutty butter spread on toast, accompanied by soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and strong coffee with condensed milk. I had no idea what to do with the two eggs and bowl of soy sauce handed to me, but the cashier came over to my table to help explain everything. (“Break the eggs into the bowl of soy sauce and give it a good stir”)

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Typical Singaporean breakfast

Food in Singapore is brilliant. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and European food is readily available, and often brought together to create a Singapore fusion cuisine. I met a coursemate from Imperial College for lunch. Neil took me to a food court where around twenty different stalls were selling different foods, which all smelt fantastic. We ate on a roof terrace overlooking the city.

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Old ISE coursemates: Alex and Neil overlooking Singapore

The majority of the city seems to be covered in distinctive high-rise office buildings, luxury appartments and shopping malls. However, each of the different communities in Singapore has a cultural heartland: Chinatown for the Chinese, Little India for the Indians, Arab Street for the Malays (and I suppose the old Colonial district represents the European heritage). They each show a quirky side to the city that once was before the massive development that has taken place over the past 40 years.

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Arab St – the Malay quarter

Little India, Singapore
Little India, Singapore

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

Singapore Cricket Club with skyscrapers in the background
Singapore Cricket Club with skyscrapers in the background

On my last day I visited the resort island of Sentosa. Connected to the Singapore mainland by cable car (and monorail), much of the island has been extensively developed into a pretty excrutiating family theme park with observation towers, beaches and cinemas connected by covered escalators piping out elevator music. Prices were also very high compared to the mainland, and my cash vanished far more quickly than I had expected. Nonetheless, there was a very good aquarium which made the journey worthwhile. My cable-car trip back to the mainland that evening also afforded some fantastic views.

For my last few hours in the city I walked along the riverfront and really experimented with all of the different settings on my camera to create some fantastic nighttime city images.

Singapore Harbourfront skyline
Singapore Harbourfront skyline

Last stop Raffles Hotel (apparently the place to be seen, but not to stay) then I was on my way to Sydney with another mint from immigration!

Hot Alex in front of the Raffles Hotel, Singapore
Hot Alex in front of the Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Summer’s here!

Thursday, 6 April 2006

A marvellous thing happened on Sunday afternoon…

Millions of people in the UK associate their childhood with a particular music that rings along residential streets in the summer months. Since I’ve lived in central London for the last few years, and have just recently moved to north London, I heard an ice cream van for the first time in years.

I ran out of the house with a friend Lucy and rapidly ordered two “99 Flake”s. The ice cream man said he starts at the beginning of April and continues for 6 months. Long may he continue!!