Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

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!

Trials in Cape Tribulation

Sunday, 8 March 2009

My first 10 days travelling were fairly luxurious: I stayed in a hotel in Singapore and on Sarah’s sofa in Sydney. Now I was alone and on a budget; the youth hostel beckoned…

I arrived in Cairns airport at 6pm with nowhere to stay and a five-year-old copy of the Rough Guide to Australia taking up 1kg of my luggage allowance. After picking up the rucksack I am to become fairly attached to, I was relieved to see a huge accommodation board in the corner of the terminal with a free telephone to check availability. Two phone calls later and I am sorted.

There are no taxis and two huge red-necked middle-aged Australians at the taxi rank. To my surprise, when a taxi turns up after a few minutes, they invite me to share a cab with them into town. I probably only spoke to two Australians that I wasn’t buying something off in Sydney, so this was an opportunity to double my tally. Although I tried to act cool by dropping in lots of “mate” and “cheers”, they immediately label me a pom.

My two new friends have just flown in from Wongamolla or somewhere equally bizarre-sounding. They have very little luggage, but a large polystyrene box with some impressive yellow tape wrapped around it emblazoned with the words “PASSED QUARANTINE”.

“So mate, what’s in the box?” I ask hesitantly.

“Ahhh mate, it’s a turtle…”

Apparently, one can hunt them in the place they just got back from, and the two of them had made a boys’ week away out of it. Then again, perhaps I just didn’t get the Australian sense of humour.

I had a couple of days to kill before my liveaboard diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef left from Cairns. So encouraged by my roommates at the hostel, I arranged a two-day trip up to Cape Tribulation, north of Cairns. Cape Tribulation was so named by Captain Cook in 1770 when his boat hit the reef and he had to stay put for three months to make repairs. This mishap combined with searing tropical heat and unfriendly locals lead the captain to name the cape after the trials and tribulations he experienced when based here. Nowadays the cape is magnet for backbackers who want to experience the fun of the World Heritage listed Daintree tropical rainforest.

When booking my trip to tropical Queensland, I had not properly investigated the weather, and although the south of Australia is in summer (even given the rain in Sydney), the north of Australia is actually in “wet season”. Within two hours of leaving Cairns and in the middle of a boardwalk (a trek through forest on a walkway) our entire party gets completely drenched within a couple of minutes. The extreme humidity also means our clothes can’t get dry until we return to civilization in Cairns.

I check into the Cape Tribulation Beach Hut with Clio (UK) and Khanh (Canada). “Hut” in this respect means “close to nature” (we are eco-tourists after all) and so all huts in the complex appear to have been colonised by these huge golden silk orb weaver spiders. Fortunately the colonisation has been limited to the exterior of the buildings and the insides appear to be invertebrate-free.

Golden Silk Orb Weaver outside my hut in Cape Tribulation
Golden Silk Orb Weaver outside my hut in Cape Tribulation

First adventure activity of the trip is jungle-surfing! This involves being kitted out in hard hat and safety harness and zip-lining between trees within the forest canopy about twenty metres above ground. Great fun had by all.

Alex aka Crocodile Dundee kitted out for zip-lining in Cape Trib
Alex aka Crocodile Dundee kitted out for zip-lining in Cape Trib

Khanh prepares to take a leap
Khanh prepares to take a leap

Clio in mid-"surf"
Clio in mid-surf

Next adventure activity: a night-time rainforest walk. All the best wildlife is meant to come out at night, however I was a bit disappointed and getting a bit bored towards the end of this excursion, particularly when our guide started explaining the “three stages of spider web evolution”. Next adventure activity: how to get back to your hostel two miles away in the pitch black with more tropical rain threatening to make an appearance. Khanh, Clio and I had came to into Cape Trib town to enjoy a few bevies with some of the other people on our tour bus including Helen (UK). Once the bar had shut we needed to get back to our beach hut which was further away than promised – Khanh and Clio had already made the journey one-way. The solution? Get two Aussies to give us a lift in the back of their pick-up truck (called a “Ute”)

Next day, and the adventure continues: how about some horse-riding through the rainforest and along the beach? When my horse had two hooves in the sea and two on the dry sand, I was in theory inside two different World Heritage sites at the same time (the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef). The group got up to a canter which was great fun considering some of us had little experience (my childhood memories of trotting in the New Forest now eclipsed).

Taking the horse for a little wander along the beach
Taking the horse for a little wander along the beach

For elevenses, we stopped off at a creek with a natural pool. I went for a swim and took along a biscuit to break up and feed to the fish. I misunderstood the advice from the guide however and didn’t realise I shouldn’t go swimming with the biscuit. Within seconds I’m surrounded by fish nibbling at my hand. Shocked by the creatures I can’t see, I let go of the biscuits sending mushy pieces all through the water. One obviously confused fish then mistakes my nipple for a tasty bit of cookie… my yelp was mistaken by some in our group as the start of a crocodile attack!

On the way back to Cairns, Helen, Clio, some more in our group and I swam in the famous Mossman Gorge. However, this was no creek, and anyone swimming in it has to make sure they aren’t swept down the river into the rapids!

All-in-all, Cape Tribulation was a little expensive (I suppose I did do a lot) but tremendously fun. I just had to make sure I got enough rest for the 6am start the next day to go diving; apologies to Helen for not making it out that evening