Posts Tagged ‘times’

Doubtful Sound in superlative

Monday, 4 May 2009

After our exciting adventures in Queenstown, we felt like doing something a little more tranquil for the next few days, and so we made our way to Doubtful Sound in Fiordland. It’s virtually impossible to travel there independently, so we joined a tour group. We were a little startled when we realised we would be joining a group of around 50 sexagenarians as the tour began, but why shouldn’t we all get along?

More interesting however, was the style of commentary used by the tour guides for the remainder of the trip: it was very much in the realm of the superlative.

Our entire trip would be within Fiordland, New Zealand’s largest national park; it’s also one of the least explored areas of the country. We started our journey by taking a ferry across Lake Manapouri, which is the fifth-largest and second-deepest lake in New Zealand. The skipper was keen to point out Pomona Island (the lake’s largest island) on the way for some particular reason, but we had reached our superlative quota for the minute, so it passed us by. Instead we enjoyed the view from deck.

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On the other side of the lake was the Manapouri Hydro-Electric Power Station, New Zealand’s most controversial infrastructure project of the twentieth century. Original plans had intended for the water levels in Lake Manapouri to be raised by 30 metres, but massive nationwide protests prevented this from happening.

The power station is at the beginning of New Zealand’s most expensive road, which leads to Doubtful Sound. (It is not part of the road network and was built only as a supply route for the construction of the power station in the 1960s). We boarded a coach to be taken over a mountain pass and down to our boat in Doubtful Sound via the “million-dollar view”.

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Once we arrived at Doubtful Sound (New Zealand’s second-largest fjord; the largest, Dusky Sound, is accessible only from the ocean by boat), we were able to check out our new home, the Fiordland Explorer. After a week living in a campervan, the promises of a soft bed and having meals cooked for us were very reassuring. The boat was quite a heavy beast, but had masts and some sails which we thought were probably just added for decorative reasons.

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As soon as we set off, we were assured about what an amazing trip we were going to have. Most tourists visit Milford Sound to the north, but Doubtful is “three-times longer” than Milford, and has “ten-times the surface area”. “Oh good,” muttered the crowd. Furthermore, we were told we were the luckiest tour group for some time, as we had such amazing weather; it normally rains 300 days per year.

As we proceeded to the deepest point (430 metres) of the fjord, we looked up at the exceptionally steep sides of the fjord and we wondered how it was that the trees and bushes were able to grow on near vertical slopes…

The tannoy kicked into action and a reassuring voice, reading from script, informed us that:

“Mosses, lichens and liverworts grow on the damp exposed rock, which lay the foundation for hardier colonising shrubs, which in turn allow trees to grow.”

It was a phrase we were going to hear many times over the remainder of the trip.

The boat had a number of kayacks available, and I made use of one primarily to escape the running commentary.

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After an (intentional) swim in the 11C water (which was fairly bracing but great fun), we cruised towards the mouth of the fjord. It is named “Doubtful” as Captain Cook was doubtful of whether he would be able to sail out if he entered.

We passed Secretary Island, which is New Zealand’s fifth-largest island. At this point, Hadyn and I were beginning to wonder if it was really necessary to mention a fifth-place ranking, particularly one specific to quite a small country.

As we endured more statistics being reeled off, we were delighted to be joined by the southernmost population of bottlenose dolphins. For what must have been the better part of an hour, around ten dolphins were jumping in front of the ship or in its wake. I really got the sense that they were enjoying themselves and that we were one of the highlights of their day.

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The next morning produced far more typical Doubtful Sound weather: rain, and lots of it. Not one to be affected by the conditions, I donned my rain jacket and grabbed a mug of tea before proceeding to the deck to be informed again about the mosses, lichen and liverworts. Nonetheless, the fjord took on an aura of mysticism with the low clouds rolling by and the sound of rain pattering away.

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It was time to retreat from this fairytale kingdom and head back to the campervan. We saw some marvellous scenery, and although listening to the consistent onboard commentary was fairly laborious, we ate very well and were looked after by staff who must have to do the same thing over and over for each group on the boat.

On the coach journey back to the jetty, our driver decided to run a quiz to see which nationality could remember the most statistics (Hadyn and I did the UK very proud). Finally, as the driver pulled up to the jetty, he remarked with a grin on his face:

“Of all the groups we have had on this trip, I’ve great pleasure in saying that this group in particular has been the most

recent!”

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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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The largest sandpit in the world

Thursday, 16 April 2009

After buying myself a new pair of sunglasses (identical to the ones I had lost overboard while sailing), I started another exceptionally long coach journey. Given that I am trying to work out what my next career step should be, and that the scenery in Queensland doesn’t change for hundreds of kilometres, I was forced to confront my career plans.

Zzzzzz, the next morning, I was in Hervey Bay, gateway to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. The plan here was to embark on a four-wheel-drive safari for a few days, and once again cut myself off from the mainstream of Australian culture.

The hostel I was staying at was going to arrange everything. We would be put into groups of ten and packed off to the 4WD rental agency. In fact, they were so efficient, they treated us more like cattle and barked orders at us (not great for 6:30am in the morning). Our mutual dislike of the barking woman made our group gel pretty quickly.

We started to wonder what we were getting ourselves into after arriving at the rental agency. We were informed about the numerous ways we could damage a 4WD and have our deposit (several thousand AUS$) taken away from us. Due to lack of sleep, I nodded off several times during the informational video, and so relied on everyone else to update me later.

Admin over, now time for the fun bit (mildly disrupted by the revelation that Liz had spent AUS$14 from the kitty on a watermelon while doing the food shopping)! [Don’t worry Liz, we didn’t mind really]

A 4WD was absolutely necessary for Fraser Island. As soon as we drove off the ferry, we were bumping up and down sand tracks in the middle of a forest. There is no earth on the island and anything that grows, grows in the sand. Once we got over to the other side of the island, we found Seventy-Five Mile Beach, the equivalent of the M6 Toll in this neck of the woods.

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In the evening we were able to cook for ourselves at the well kitted-out campsite.

Nat in charge of sausages.

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Left-to-right: Joachim, Martin, Josh, Jørgen

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Left-to-right: Mary, Emily, Anne Line

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The next morning we had our first close encounter with the local wildlife. While cruising along at 80kph on the beach with all the windows open, someone notices a huge huntsman spider on the rear windscreen [follow the link, they look pretty scary]. Cue outrageous screaming from everyone… We’re all tied in with seatbelts so there’s nowhere to go. Ten people hopping up and down screaming in a fairly tight space was certainly entertaining. Then the spider starts to move towards an open window! Cue more frantic movement as everyone rushes to close their window. The poor spider, possibly sensing the loud noises, then disappears.

Two minutes later, the same spider appears behind Josh’s head (fortunately still outside of the van). Josh seems terrified when everyone points at him and starts screaming again!

We never saw it again, although we endured the rest of the journey to the next headland with all of the windows closed. Happily I was able to enjoy a cool breeze once we arrived.

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Bad news at lunch: the ice water has leaked into our remaining meat supplies. The only items of food left are some vegetables, lots of bread, crisps and Eric the watermelon (having now acquired a name).

Resisting the urge to ration, we dig into Eric immediately. Liz bids fond farewells to her love…

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…and we gorge ourselves…

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That afternoon I had my first go at driving the 4WD. I can’t quite remember how many people I had told I had only driven two times (thanks Kirstin and Bosun!) since passing my test last April, but the reactions were fairly positive as I was speeding along at 90kph on the beach (except the time I shifted from fifth down to first gear – I was aiming for third).

On our final day, we explore more of the island interior, which as well as having forests is covered by the odd vast desert…

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… and a scattering of crystal-clear freshwater lakes…

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…before a manic Martin videos himself driving…

… on the way to catch the ferry back home.

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Full photo album at http://www.flickr.com/photos/alxdxn/tags/fraserisland/

Video of Martin’s driving at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj3kpg7TY1s

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!

The blog is dead; long live the blog

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Ummmm…

So I haven’t written anything on here for a while. In 2004 and 2005 I was somewhat ahead of the times in having my own web log (or more specifically, a travel web log).

Then it died.

Mine wasn’t the only one. Gartner speculates that blogging peaked in 2007 and there are now in the region of 200 million blogs which are not being updated (apologies for the lack of reference, but this is from Wikipedia, so it must be true).

I left my job before Christmas and am now travelling around Australia, New Zealand and China, so this seems an ideal opportunity to resurrect the blog.

Hopefully you’ll be hearing more from me on these pages over the coming months. I will be back in the UK on 24 April.