Do they know it’s Christmas? Bondi Beach

Sunday 22nd December
Since being in that dark place I experienced on my arrival in Moscow when I really had no idea how to read any of the signs let alone understand how to get to my hostel, using public transport has got easier. Admittedly that is because in New Zealand and Australia I can speak and read the language (for the record I speak “perfect English” according to various Germans I have met). Therefore the train to Bondi Junction and then the bus, (fortunately the same journey I took with Victoria two weeks earlier) really didn’t seem a big deal. I arrived at the hostel dumped my bags, and then did what most Brits do when they are at the seaside around dinner time…I looked for some fish and chips.

After walking down the main promenade which I figured would be my best hope I finally came across a place called Surfers Seafood Fish and Chips. This not only claimed to be the best in Bondi but the best in Sydney since 2011. Now that is a field of eating I’d be interested in becoming an expert in (following on from the Vanilla slice story in Tasmania Part 2). Having got my order and with the sun shining and perfect blue skies I found a little picnic area to protect me from the hungry looking seagulls. Like Joey from friends “John does not share his food”. The portions were big and the chips were proper chips so I felt fairly content as I waddled back up the hill to the hostel.

I signed up for the Christmas Eve hostel BBQ and was disappointed to find out nothing was planned for Christmas day itself especially as rain was scheduled for the one day I’d designated for just relaxing with a book on the beach doing and worrying about nothing. Looking at the skies that Sunday night and how hot the room was that night, rain seemed an impossibility.

Monday 23rd December
As before when I was in Sydney the various chores had piled up. They aren’t really chores but I feel I’ve become very lethargic and even simple tasks take longer to complete than I feel they should. I did two loads of washing and having started at 9 didn’t finish until 12. I could have used that time for something else but instead it was a blur of walking up and down the stairs to my room from the laundry room. It didn’t help that after the first load I discovered a few receipts from a night out had snuck in to a back pocket and covered everything in small bits of paper meaning I had to individually brush everything down before putting it in the tumble dryer.

I also phoned Nikon and was disappointed when I was told they still haven’t even assessed my lens so the chances of having it back before I go to the Australian Open and then Adelaide and Perth are getting slimmer. I also went to the shops but as before just wasn’t in the mood for buying in large quantities. I like a variety of foods, I don’t want to only have pasta for a week and I am starting to understand why people go backpacking in small groups or pairs. Still I managed to get 3 meals for under $5 each which seemed reasonable.

Back at the hostel, which I already preferred to the one in the centre of Sydney I went out on the balcony with the intention of finishing the Tasmania blog. Instead I got chatting to two people from Glasgow who were in the process of booking on to an all you could drink cruise with a backpacking tour company called Oz Party. At this stage I’d not really met anyone else and I have to admit this appealed more than a BBQ at the hostel where I was still the only name.

I phoned the company and was told that officially they had just sold out but that as I was only looking for one booking I would be put on the guest list. Basically I assume this just meant the events manager had one less guest as I still had to pay the same price! Still I was going. I went down to reception and asked if I could cross my name off the list and have my money back. I was still the only name and they kindly agreed.

I then spent a number of hours finalising activities mum and I will do when she arrives in Sydney on 28th December. This included a day at Port Stephens, a tour round the Opera House, a free tour around “The Rocks” and the Sydney Tower Eye. The one thing I’ve realised about my self on this trip is I’m a bit obsessed with attention to detail so when everything was booked I recorded all the pick up times/locations in my spreadsheet and saved all the booking confirmations on to my tablet. People from work will be pleased to note I’m saving everything in the “correct” format so I won’t be out of practice when I get back.

During the course of the day two new room mates, one from Germany and one from France moved in. I found them sitting outside with a small group so walked to the nearby beer store to stock up on supplies as alcohol seems to be the best way to break the international boundaries. Perhaps the EU should just sit around the table and do a few shots and say what they really think when they need to resolve the next crisis.

We discussed plans for Christmas Eve as apart from me no one had arranged anything. We decided to set up a Facebook chat to share ideas and to meet up and I had a tinge of regret that I may have been hasty in booking the cruise.

Tuesday 24th December – Christmas Eve
I don’t really remember how I spent the morning but I think it was looking at possible ideas for a mini East Coast getaway for the week before the Australian Open. I had already done the main tourist traps three years ago but both David my tour guide in Tasmania and a fellow traveler had given me some further ideas.

After having a light lunch/late breakfast I realised I was still hungry so joined Dom, Adrian, Simone and Jici for more food at a fairly cheap Thai restaurant. Again we discussed possible plans for Christmas and looking at the clouds overhead and noticing it wasn’t that warm as we shivered in shorts and t shirts it appeared the forecast of rain the following day would be a reality. I mentioned the Horse Racing that I’d arranged to go to with Duncan on boxing day and as it was free for those with international passports it seemed a decent activity especially as none of us had ever been before,

I returned back to the hostel and realised I had absolutely nothing even remotely festive for the boat cruise. I therefore decided to go smart casual and as I got to the bus stop in saw a group which included the two from Glasgow and decided to tag along with them. I’d brought a ticket which meant I had to change at Bonding Junction to get the train however we met at Darling Harbour to a sea of people in various festive and ummm not so festive costumes. This included a group of guys in bikinis, guys dressed as female elves, various super heroes and some what predictably lots of Santa’s.

The cruise itself was really good fun, those in fancy dress were down to earth like i consider my darts group to be and everyone just chilled out talking about home (mainly what they didn’t miss), where they were working (fruit farms) and where they were heading (Gold Coast). The free punch was fairly nice despite being packed full of sugar but the beer was imported from somewhere bizarre (Mauritius?!) and it didn’t taste that great. We had a lovely view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House lit up at night and all in all the whole night was certainly a memorable way to start the festive celebrations (even if it seems Australian Christmas DJs haven’t heard of and therefore don’t play Fairy Tale of New York).

On my way home I stopped at the Christmas tree in Martin Place where a spontaneous group appeared to have started singing carols and took a picture of myself appearing to hold the star so I could send it as my electronic Christmas card. When I got back to the hostel Jici was still up but he’d been moved the room and although it wasn’t quite 12.00 those that i was still sharing with had gone to sleep (though in Adrian’s defence he had only arrived earlier in the day).

Wednesday 25th December (Christmas Day)
Throughout the night I could hear the wind causing the rain to rattle against the window and imagined I was back in the UK (though it sounds those storms have been particularly violent). I woke up to some great news. My colleague who had been quite unwell since the beginning of December had been told she could be discharged so she wouldn’t have to spend Christmas day in hospital (it was still Christmas Eve in the UK).

I was up fairly early as I had arranged to have another Skype conversation with Caroline. I set myself up in the corner of the lounge and after a while my room mates came down for breakfast. I introduced them to Caroline, gave her a tour of the kitchen and as before there was a lot of laughing.

Unfortunately the rain effectively kept us prisoners in the hostel. As far as I’m aware pretty much everything was shut and like me people had booked Bondi for the beach yet despite not being far from it we could barely see it from the hostel’s windy roof top. There was a festival happening somewhere on the beach called “Sunburnt” but there was no chance of that happening and whilst I had initially been tempted I wasn’t in the mood to get drenched. Instead I spent the time planning and booking events for my east coast adventure which had gone from idea to intention in the past 24 hours.

I retuned to the lounge for dinner and the group I’d gone to the cruise were at least trying to create a festive mood. I joined in the singing and dancing of “Fairy Tale of New York” and as it was now Christmas Day in the UK shared some messages with my house mates (I guess technically not my housemates at the current time) who were having their own orphan Christmas Dinner. I also had a Skype conversation with my dad and Jenny and attempted to speak to my mum, auntie Sue, uncle Pete and Grandma but apart from hearing them sing the connection unfortunately wasn’t that good.

Thursday 26th December (Boxing Day)
The rain and wind looked a distant memory. Bondi beach was again a golden sand with blue skies. I had already laid out my clothes for the races expecting more cold wet weather and therefore had to find something new. Being boxing day, and as Watford were playing later that day I decided to finally christen the shirt I’d brought especially for the trip but which I’ve forgotten to take with me when ever I’ve done activities. It was meant to have been photographed at all the famous land marks. Dom and Adrian  had a little toy dog and we joked that they should set up a Facebook page recording its adventures.

With the entry being free I’d allowed myself $15 spend/loss on bets ($5 per race) and with 8 races I hoped I’d eventually “get on a lucky one, at 18/1”. It was the first time for all of us though I’ve bet on the Grand National and was able to explain the different terms such as win, place and each way. I made my first bet each way on the second favourite, Simone bet on the favourite and both Luke and Duncan bet on the one with the best sounding name. The race started and we had a good view as the horses came to the finish line. Mine looked like it was either 2nd or 3rd and Simons’s was in 1st whilst the other horse we had an interest in trailed in second to last place. Mine managed to cross in second so two of us had “won” though when I collected my “winnings” I realised to quite a bit of laughter I’d still made a 30c loss!

Adrian, Dom and Jici had turned up just before and Adrian had also picked the winner. He spent the winnings on another bet only to realise it was for a race at another track and unfortunately he lost. After the result of my each way bet i decided i might as well go all out to win and my new tactic was to bet on the apparent favourite “Sweet as Bro” and Duncan did the same but also put $1 on the outsider. I mention this because his outside bet one and the favourite came somewhere in the middle. This should have told us that the odds weren’t necessarily an indication of who would win but we didn’t care and were just having fun. Like Adrian, Duncan then accidentally bet on another track but luckily for him the favourite won, though for a time his underdog had led the pack.

Luckily I pursued with my new tactic because in the 3rd race the favourite won and having received $18 I was finally up by a massive $8. This was probably the one race I hadn’t paid much attention to so it was only as they passed I realised mine was in the mix to win. Sadly for me this would be the high point and after race 4 and 5 I was back to -$3. This was the point Duncan and Luke decided to call it a day (Luke without any wins) but I’d come for the day and I knew I’d already missed the only other event I was tempted to witness – the Sydney to Hobart boat race. I did have a tinge of regret that I hadn’t made a diversion on my way to the horse racing to see the hundreds of yachts lined up in the harbour but I hadn’t been sure what type of view (if any) that I’d get.

I opted not to bet on race 7 just because there were two favourites and instead decided to listen to what the pre match expert thought at the “theatre of horses”. This was a small arena where the horses were paraded around. Whilst i took pictures everyone else in the crowd were making notes and appeared to be doing calculations on their mobiles looking pleased when they thought they’d worked something out no one else had. Ironically neither of the favourites won much to the clear frustration of everyone around me except one guy that was spinning his partner around in jubilation.

I wasnt going to bet on the final race but I saw on the internet there was a tip on “Big Money” and at least two separate groups I’d overheard said what a beautiful horse it looked. I have to admit apart from being a bit ginger it looked the same to me but as one of the groups (not to stereotype) were Irish I followed them on the bet. I have to admit I also liked the cheesy name. Big Money started off badly but as it approached the final corner it had worked its way in to second then first but for some reason it then gave up. Maybe it was a beautiful looking horse but all it did was remind me of Watford and how whilst they play nice football still haven’t won a match in a whopping 10 games…

I returned back to the hostel and couldn’t contact the others so after dinner and sorting my East Coast transport and accommodation went to bed. I woke up an hour later and realised some football matches had already begun then noticed the Watford match was one of them. Millwall were down to 10 men and we were 1.0 up. I felt confident the horrid run might finally end and when I woke again it was 4.0 and full time. Victory. Relief.

Friday 27th December
I had to make a few early calls because I noticed my train ticket had me listed as a 16 year old student in a Queensland secondary school rather than a international backpacker. I’m fairly certain this was their system and not me and luckily as it was the same cost they were happy to transfer it with no fee.

I felt a bit bad that I’d spent 4 whole days at the beach and not actually set foot on the sand but the weather hadn’t been great. There was also a nice coastal walk I’d planned to do but I decided to save that for one of the days with mum. It’ll be nice to explore Sydney properly with someone else rather than alone and there seemed little point in doing everything twice in a month.

I arrived at what will be our accommodation for the next week, The Wesley Colleges Sydney university halls which are being used as a hotel during the peak season. Compared to Aberystwyth Penbryn Block 7 which seemed more like a prison block it is a hotel and it’s certainly nicer than a hostel but it is basic. I hadn’t appreciated how full up Sydney became just for New Years Eve until I heard the receptionist at the Bondi hostel say they were full and it sounded like the person she was talking to had tried everywhere. It also seemed everywhere had also put the prices up so for the price we’ve paid it’s probably fair.

It’ll be lovely to see mum again as it’s now over two months since I left and I haven’t seen a familiar face since meeting Victoria at the Jack Johnson gig over two weeks ago. I think I probably also need a bit of TLC and being able to talk to someone priperly about how much I’ve achieved out here will help me prepare for the next chapter. I just have to remember everything happens for a reason.


Walk of Life: Tasmania (Part Two)

Sometimes in the course of my travels a relatively minor event will occur that i intend to include but which I forget about when it comes to writing the blog (even though I try to keep daily notes). Part of the reason I decided to write this was because I wanted to keep a record of my travels so that once I’m back in the UK I can try and use it to remind myself of how I felt at certain times. The highs and the frustrations. I also wanted to record my observations of different places and people and to add a bit of personality to my various adventures so that it remained interesting. An example of an omission was my experience when I arrived in Hobart and the blog has been updated to include this.

Thursday 19th December
Having spent the night in Launceston and not really seen any of the town at all we were up early so we could do a short walk through Cataract Gorge. This is where the South Esk River enters the Tamar River and our walk was from Kings bridge to the first basin. It was looking to be another nice day, in fact we had been told it would reach a high of 27 degrees which apparently is impressive for Tasmania.

Tasmania is bigger than I expected and on most days as we had a lot of ground to cover we needed an early start to ensure we covered the itinerary however it also meant the first activity was met with slightly less enthusiasm. The walk itself was therefore nice enough but I was still fairly tired from another early start and I don’t think I maybe appreciated it as much as I could have done and it wasn’t particularly memorable (and that isn’t meant to sound blasé).

There was a nice garden and a number of peacocks walking around one of which blocked the path in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to get our attention as it showed off it feathers. It seemed to work. Carrying on alone I saw a wallaby bounding up the steps towards the suspension bridge and I expected to see it again when I got to the top but it appeared to have vanished when I got there. I crossed the bridge met up with the guide and we waited for the others.

Our next stop was the Bay of Fire which was named because of the red/orange coloured rocks on the beach. Unfortunately what had started a very sunny day was now becoming a bit cloudy though it was still warm enough to go in the sea and we all had a lot of fun climbing over the big rocks. There was a little outcrop of rocks just off the shore and I was able to walk to them because I found a “path” through the sea where the depth was relatively shallow. I guess this is why we had been told to be careful because the beach wasn’t even.

Leaving the Bay of Fire we continued our journey to Bicheno where again we had opted to have another $5 own cooked meal together in the hostel. Before lunch a few of us felt we hadn’t been as active as some of the previous days so we went on a short walk to see a blow hole. The weather was calm and as a result there wasn’t really a lot happening. I decided to get a better look by climbing down on to a ledge and the back of me got a bit wet when a freak wave came up from the side. If only someone had got a before, during and after photo.

I had been a bit reluctant to decide whether to participate in the penguin parade at Bicheno. I’d only just seen the ones on Phillip Island and wasn’t sure I could justify doing something similar again. This was meant to be a more personal experience and because the majority of the tour were taking part I decided to join, mainly because of the FOMO phobia (fear of missing out).

The guide provided more information for example the little blue penguin (Australia’s only penguin) is a species which is around 45 million years old. It is the smallest type in the world averaging a height of 45cm. The Emperor penguin (the tallest) as a way of comparison has a height of up to 130cm. The little blue penguin is walk half a kilometre when they return from the sea, where they have been swimming and fishing all day, which is the equivalent of me walking 15km after work.

I’m glad I joined, it may sound a silly reason but for a start the moon was spectacular and appeared to rise out of the ocean. I don’t recall every seeing this before and when it had “risen” it provided a faint trail through the water. Obviously the penguins were just as cute second time round and this time we were allowed to stand on the actual path used so one ran up to my feet before deciding to pass through Eric’s legs instead. We also had the opportunity to see inside some of the nesting boxes to get an even closer look.

Returning to the hostel some had stayed back to play monopoly but there was no I chance of a winner because no one was prepared to sell. I tried to help Luke make a deal but this was rejected and the game ended with each claiming they were the winner. The “jump tour group” who were on a similar circuit returned after us having been to the pub and decided to do some drunken cooking but luckily this time a fire engine was not required.

Friday 20th December
We had another very early start as it was hoped the weather would be nice enough for us to walk Mount Amos in the Freycinet National Park home to a mountain range known as the Hazards. Unfortunately because it was so early there was a lot of sea mist and cloud cover so the lookouts didn’t really provide any view of Coles Bay or Wineglass Bay on the way up.

In some ways it was nice because it gave the surrounding mountains a mystical appearance however it was also rather damp and under whelming. Despite a bit of rain and being eaten alive by mosquitoes we carried on walk down to Wineglass Bay itself and my spirits were raised when we saw a mother wallaby and its joey. The walk down was quite steep (meaning it would be another painful walk back up) and when we go it the bottom some of the mist had lifted and there was a patch of blue sky. It was however far to early to even consider going in the sea and as there wasn’t much to do me and Vik started the climb back up before some had even reached the bottom.

We passed the baby and mother wallaby again whilst also still being eaten by mosquitoes and made our way back to the top in less time than we had expected. We carried on back up to the lookout. Whilst it still wasn’t that great in terms of weather some of the cloud had lifted and we could see the land mass on the other side of the bay.

We arrived back in the car park much earlier than expected so I decided to do 15 minutes along the Mt Amos track because the cloud had lifted off the peak and I fancied seeing the mountain more clearly. On my way I saw a Bennett wallaby that I named “Gordon” who seemed particularly at ease with visitors. I saw the same wallaby on my return and soon after the rest of the group returning from the beach walk had caught up and Gordon (the) Bennett received a lot of attention.

We briefly stopped at a small town where the population was probably lower than Dagnall but it somehow seemed more active called Coles Bay. This was to get some supplies (if needed) for the journey back to Hobart though we did stop again at Ross where one bakery claimed to sell “world famous scallop pies” and the other claimed to sell the “best vanilla slice in the world as voted by vanilla slice experts”. How exactly do you become a vanilla slice expert? Is it a self proclaimed title? Either way if it was the best in the World I won’t be having one again for it was my first and apparently it can’t be bettered even though my reaction was a mere “it’s alright I suppose”. The scallop pie however was quite nice, mainly because of the curry flavoured filling, even though when I ordered it I knew I was taking a big risk because I don’t normally enjoy fish…

We arrived back in Hobart and had a meal at a fish restaurant called Mures. We weren’t really sure where to go out but had heard the Salamenca area was quite good. A few of us were also still hungry so went in search of a taco van that was roaming the streets though I gave up deciding to join Duncan for a liquid supper instead. Unfortunately because he was wearing thongs/sandals he wasn’t allowed in to “Irish Murphy’s” so instead we headed for the pub next to the hostel where they were doing karaoke.

Some of the other group members joined us and there were two groups in the bar totally wasted and too sober for the event with us all sadly probably falling in to the latter category. I wanted to have a go because well I thought I couldn’t be any worse than those already on stage (I probably was worse) but no one else was keen. I managed to convince Noelia to do a quick duet of Summer of 69 and it got the crowd going more than the other songs but by then some of the group had left and with another fairly early start the rest of us left once we’d finished the song.

Saturday 21st December
Today was the final day of the tour and it was amazing how quickly the time had gone. We started off by driving to Richmond which is famous for having the oldest road bridge in Australia still in use. The bridge like most of the buildings in the town/village were built by convicts. After a brief stop and walk around we carried on to Port Arthur the old penal settlement which had replaced Maria Island.

The Tasman Peninsula was almost a natural prison as it only had a narrow strip of land connecting it to the mainland and it was therefore remote. Port Arthur was therefore for those convicts that had re-offended once they were in the colony and it was a place of hard labour and to be feared (the emphasis was on breaking the prisoners spirit).  The sun was shining and the somewhat poignant remains of the Gothic buildings making up the settlement were nicely juxtapositioned against the surrounding landscape. It is true that some may visit and be surprised that a prison island could have such natural beauty.

After a brief walk to the old shipyard of which nothing remained and which I hadn’t realised before heading off I made my way to the church via the restored gardens. The gardens were particularly nice and almost looked artificial and modern due to the fact this had been a prison but apparently they were authentic and had been planted for the non convicts living on the island.

I made my way back to the visitor centre to join an organised 1 hour walk where the guide provided us with lots of information and gave us some ideas about where to visit during our remaining time. Luckily for me we finished near the separate prison which I had wanted to see. This building was isolated from the main prison with the intention that the prisoners spirit would be broken if they were not part of the comradery sprit. The prison also included one cell at the end of a passage reached by 4 doors to ensure no light got in. When I was looking around (the doors were open) Lenka shut the final door on me. I had expected this but after a while and it being silent outside I started to wonder if she had left. I felt along the wall trying to find the door when she suddenly opened it much to the amusement of a group of children. It was amazing just how dark it was and that was with 3 of the outer doors still open and it’s no wonder many of the convicts were later sent to the islands asylum – not that there was a link at the time.

We then made our way to the boat cruise where we saw the Island of the Dead, the resting place for the prisoners who died in the prison and the settlers that lived in the community outside the prison. We could also see Point Pier which was the boys prison and the guide explained how the intention had been to teach various crafts and skills. The views were very nice and we could see the passage out to the Tasman sea.

We had been given a playing card each and the idea was to go around a display in the visitor centre to find out about an individual who lived on the island. I had the 5 of clubs which belonged to Daniel Fraser a Scottish 19 year old male who had 7 years transportation for breaking in to a house and then received 7 years in Port Arthur for absconding from work and remaining at large until caught.

Leaving Port Arthur we travelled through the Tasman national park to a number of geographical features along the coast which included the Tasman Arch, the Devil’s Kitchen and another Blow Hole. The sea was calm and the views lovely but neither the blow hole or the devils kitchen looked as menacing as they must do on stormy days.

When we arrived in Hobart the tour was officially over and I’d made plans to see my friend Amy who I’d met in New Zealand. She had a few work colleagues over for pizza and beers and after that we headed to a pub called “the telegraph”. I hadn’t had an opportunity to visit Mt Wellington and there was a brief discussion about visiting for the sunrise at 4am but after the night out I was rather relieved I didn’t receive the call the following morning!

Sunday 22nd December
The weather had become rather bad over night and because it was Sunday most places were closed until at least 9am. I had hoped I’d be able to fit in a quick visit to the famous MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) but realised my flight was to early. As with Melbourne I wished I’d just allowed that extra day because in hindsight it’s not really like I was in a rush to leave.

Instead I saved myself some money and did my own walk around the historic area though I have to admit the rain didn’t make me that enthusiastic especially when I reached battery point only to find it was a village and the mist that had rolled in prevented any views of the bay. Instead I consoled myself with a proper lamington from a local cafe which had jam in the middle and was much fresher and larger than the one I’d had on the “puffing billy tour”. It still wasn’t as good as mine though (joke).

I’d had a bad feeling there would be a problem with my airport shuttle booking because when I called the office had sounded very busy. I’d also been told to call 24 hours before I needed the booking and had accidentally given 48 hours notice and then lost the booking number. I’d contacted the company about 15 minutes before the pick up and there didn’t seem a problem. 10 minutes after and still no shuttle I called again and was told I was on the list for the day before. I had a minor panic even though I still had enough time and luckily there was a driver in the area (who I’d seen coming from the airport when I’d been waiting) that could take me there. The driver was very friendly and had just spent some time in Europe and we discussed various things on the journey including the cricket which I try to get out of the way quickly.

As seems to be the way with Jet Star the flight was delayed so with the extra time I completed a survey for the Tasmanian tourist industry. Next stop Christmas on Bondi Beach.

More Than a Feeling: Tasmania (Part One)

Monday 16th December
I had booked the tour through Topdeck but the operator was Under Down Under and the first part of the morning was spent travelling through Hobart picking up different people. There had initially been 4 of us in the YHA and by the time we left for Strahan our numbers had swelled to 20. The bus was a little bit cramped but with people from all over the world including Argentina, Israel, USA, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong and much of Europe so between us we could probably have resolved many of the world’s issues.

Our first stop was the Mt Field National Park where we had a pleasant early morning 20 minute walk to the 45m high Russell Falls. Whilst we were on the way we made a brief diversion to see the Horseshoe falls. The Russell Waterfalls were tiered and there must have been recent rain as they looked quite impressive especially in their rainforest surroundings. We didn’t see any Platypus but we did see a wallaby unique to Tasmania called a Pademelon.

We carried on our journey travelling in to the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. Here we had the option to do a 1 hour walk to Platypus Bay on Lake St Clair Australia’s deepest natural fresh water lake. We didn’t have a lot of flexibility with the time but myself and two others decided to do this walk and got to the platypus viewing platform in 20 minutes. We waited about 5 minutes but there didn’t seem to be any activity so we continued to the beach where we saw the remains of a sunken barge and on our way back we saw another Pademelon.

It was turning in to a very sunny day and our guide Ducky told us that another walk could be fitted in and this would be through the heritage listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. We started off by filling up our water bottles in the Franklin River which whilst it appeared slightly discoloured was perfectly fresh and safe to drink.

The intention had been to walk Donaghys Hill however unfortunately the footpath had been closed due to a fallen tree which after two weeks had still not been cleared. This had sounded a particularly good walk because it was a bit more challenging and would have given good views of Frenchmans Cap. Instead we did a shorter walk to Nelson Falls which were slightly taller than the Russells Falls we’d seen that morning.

As a result of doing a shorter walk we had a bit of flexibility with our times so when our guide saw a new lookout on Lyell Hwy had opened he contacted head office to see if it was suitable for a van and trailer. Google maps implied it was fine so we went to investigate. At the top we had a fantastic view of the Iron Blow an Open Cut mine and the old mining town of Gor

We made a brief stop in Queenstown a small mining town where the West Coast Wilderness Railway to Strahan would normally have departed from. Unfortunately it is currently closed pending track maintenance and a new owner which is limiting the number of tourists to the west of Tasmania. The sun was shining and the town seemed quite nice in its industrial landscape however our guide said on wet days it can feel very remote and not very desirable. It sounded like Australia’s Blaenau Ffestiniog. One quirky fact about the town is the teams football pitch which is made from gravel and sand because it rains so much the grass pitch was often cut up.

We arrived in Strahan and after a BBQ cooked for us by our guide I decided I wanted to walk down to the harbour because there was an opportunity to see some Platypus in a nearby stream. A couple of people decided to join me but by the time we got to the harbour it was starting to get dark. We did however see a creature that appeared to be a platypus swimming through the harbour water and as it made the “v shape” ripples through the water it kept ducking under. The low light meant it was hard to get a decent picture but we were fairly certain in what we had seen and as it wasn’t a bird it could only also have been a seal or a crocodile neither of which lived in the area.

Tuesday – 17th December
The next morning I’d decided to join the World Heritage Cruise from Macquarie Harbour in Strahan to various sites including Sarah Island the site of an old penal settlement and a journey along the Gordon River to a rain forest where some huon pine still grew.

Whilst the sun wasn’t shining and it appeared overcast it didn’t look like there was any danger of rain and the sea was calm. As we made our way through the Harbour (larger than Sydney in size) we were presented with some good views of the 40km Ocean Beach, the longest stretch of uninterrupted beach in Tasmania. We could also see the ‘Training Walls’ which were built in 1900 to maintain the channel in the same place and to help deepen it. This was intended to make it easier for boats to travel in to the harbour because the harbours natural entrance was difficult to navigate and culminated in “Hell’s Gate”.

Hell’s Gate is a narrow passage and the only way in and out of harbour. Whilst it didn’t look it on the day we sailed as it was high tide the water is shallow and only a maximum height of 1 metre on the other side. The captain said the sea was particularly calm so we were able to travel out in to the “Roaring Forty’s” in the Southern Ocean as far as Cape Sorell home to a 45m lighthouse the second highest in Southern Hemisphere. We then returned back through Hell’s Gate to Macquarie Harbour where we saw the salmon fish farms. Tasmania has the cleanest air in world and due to the near perfect conditions 15000 tonnes was farmed in 2010.

We made our way through the harbour to Sarah Island which was home to a penal settlement between 1822 to 1833.  The convicts gave the the island the nickname “Devils Island” and for many of its years in operation it was a place to be feared because of its harsh/fearful landscape, hard labour, cruel and vicious punishment. However under the leadership of  David Hoy a Master Shipwright from Scotland it became Australia’s most productive shipyard despite still using convict labour.

During this period the Island became an education centre and led to convicts becoming skilled labourers allowing them to find employment once released. This also led to the authorities agreeing to various concessions so that workers/convicts had a better lifestyle which enabled them to carry out the work to a high standard. Unfortunately the success was ignored and when Port Arthur replaced Sarah Island the government reverted to the style of prison which was meant to break the spirit.

After visiting Sarah Island we made our way up the Gordon River to a rain forest which is home to Huon Pines. The high oil content meant the wood didn’t rot as quickly in water and therefore the timber was of great value to ship builders. The trees were logged in the convict period of Sarah Island and then again from 1860 to 1964.

The Gordon below Franklin Dam became a global issue in the 1980s when the Tasmanian Government wanted to build a reservoir and a hydroelectric dam to encourage industry and jobs. A group of conservationists were determined to protect the last free flowing river in Tasmania and in 1984 the Franklin-Gordon National Park gained World Heritage Status. In the same year the Federal Bob Hawks led Labour Government defeated the Tasmanian Labour (state) Government in court and the result changed the Australian political system and the constitution. The captain told us that it is estimated tourism has created more jobs and brought in more money than the dam would have.

Returning back to land we saw a Huon Pine timber cutting display and then made our way to Ocean Beach. By now any lingering cloud had totally disappeared and the sun was shining brightly presenting fine views of Cape Sorell lighthouse and the Southern Ocean. After leaving Ocean Beach we travelled to the Henty Sand dunes where there were impressive 30m high sand mountains. At the entrance Ducky our guide pointed out a piece of cardboard suggesting we could try and use it as a sand board however I was the only one to give it a go and it just sunk in to the ground. Instead we all ran and jumped off the top of the dune to get a group picture.

That evening we saw the longest running play in Tasmania called ‘The Ship That Never Was’. This was based on a true story about how a group of convicts that built the last ship and were to sail the ship to Hobart where they would then be transferred to Port Arthur decided to seize the ship and sailed it to Chile. The play was very funny and whilst it was hard to follow at times it was captivating. There was a lot of improvisation like a pantomime and members of the audience had to participate. My part was to play the rain during a storm which meant spraying water over everyone whilst stamping my feet to represent thunder.

Wednesday 18th December
Every tour I’ve been on has always had a morning song, which has always been nice because when ever I hear it, it takes me back to those special moments. My first backpacking tour abroad was to Europe in September 2009 and the song was “Walking on a Dream” by Empire of Sun. This time it was our choice and I suggested “More than a Feeling” by Boston which was initially agreed on as a classic. However by day 3 a little mutiny was taking place and “What did the fox say?” whilst not the official morning song was becoming the song of the tour.

Our first stop was back to the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park, this time to the Cradle Mountain location. We had left the hostel early however the weather conditions didn’t look that great as there appeared to be a lot of cloud and we didn’t stop at the first viewing platform because there was no view to see.

Whilst it was still early and despite a small patch of blue sky and the fact the cloud seemed to be fairly quick moving and thin I was still surprised when by the time we started the walk all the cloud had disappeared. The  views of Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain were spectacular and as it quickly heated up I soon had to take off the fairly thick jumper I had started with.

I’ve done a number of ‘hikes’ since starting my “walkabout” and I would have hoped by now they’d be getting easier. Instead each just makes me fear I’m getting more unfit though at least this time I was one of the pace setters.

We walked past Lake Lilla and Wombat Pool on our way to Marions Lookout where we would get more good views of Dove Lake below and Cradle Mountain. We had hoped to see some wombats and whilst we saw a lot of droppings we were not in luck. Wombats are nocturnal and as it was a particularly hot day we were told they were probably staying in their holes.

I decided to do the slightly longer walk down to vary the walk which took me past Crater Lakes and Crater Falls. I walked down with Constantine and Vik and whilst we were setting a good pace the heat was getting a bit intolerable and none of us had eaten lunch. When we saw a crossroad with one path to Ronny Creek Car Park and one to the path we wanted back past Lake Lilla we realised we’d not got the time. We decided to call it a day and headed for the car park so we could get the bus to the visitor centre.

After leaving the national park we made our way to Launceston and on our way passed the poppy fields at the foot of Mt Roland. These are harvested for medical purposes and clear signs suggested there might trouble if they were illegally picked and used for any type of reason…Eventually we arrived in the town of Sheffield which has a number of murals throughout. When I say a number, I mean 50 in a town of just over 1000 people. Still if that’s what you need to do to attract the backpackers that need a brief toilet stop so be it. I decided to check out the fudge shop and had a ‘blue heaven’ milkshake which I can’t really describe the flavour of.

We were half way through the tour when we arrived in Launceston, though apart from visiting the shops we didn’t really explore the second largest town in Tasmania. Luke is a chef and rather than eating out we all decided to put $5 for him to make dinner (with assistance from the rest of us). The night before he’d cooked us a stir fry and tonight it was burritos with enough left over for lunch.

Feeling A Moment: Melbourne

Friday 13th December
Having said goodbye to those on the tour I had a busy couple of hours ahead. I had spent a lot of time thinking about what i wanted to do in Melbourne but realised I hadn’t actually booked anything. First I tried the Neighbours tour – yes I was prepared to pay to be shown round Ramsey Street. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you think it would have been a waste of money) all the tours that weekend were cancelled.

Instead I made my way to the tourist information centre for advice as I also wanted to get to the Puffing Billy steam train to travel through the Dandenong Ranges National Park, to see the evening Penguin Parade on Phillip Island and a tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol. The lady at tourist information suggested a tour which combined a morning trip on the train and a afternoon and evening visit to Phillip Island. This seemed a reasonable price and seemed less hassle than arranging my own transport to the island. Unfortunately tourist information couldn’t book a popular ghost tour of the Gaol and when I tried it went to voice mail (with a message saying it was sold out).

I found a cheap Indonesian restaurant near the Gaol where the food was good and service quick and with a full stomach headed towards the Gaol hoping I might get lucky with a ticket on the door. I arrived slightly after 20.15 as that was when doors opened however everything still seemed a bit…shut. I saw a few people outside and figured I was in the right place and noticed one person who looked like a tour guide (due to his clipboard and tablet). I built up the courage and said “is this the meeting place for the ghost tour and are any tickets left?” i was in luck there was.

It was only when the guy started talking about murders and driving to various sights that i began to realise I may have booked on the wrong tour. There were 5 of us and I didn’t want to admit to my misunderstanding instead claiming I’d wanted to do something spooky on Friday 13th and the Gaol tour was full.

It was actually quite interesting in a morbid way and the guy running the tour had obviously done a lot of research. It certainly wasn’t your typical ‘tourist has just arrived in a city and does a tour’ tour though. In hindsight however, I think seeing the places where these terrible events occurred also made the different criminals and their crimes more life like when it came to reading about them when I did eventually visit the Gaol.

We visited numerous locations where murders took place between 1850 and 1950 some buildings were original some had been knocked down. Some were fights, some were brutal and others more tragic like the case of one man hung for the murder of a child only for 80 years later the forensic evidence to be questioned which proved his innocence and him receiving a pardon. The final visit was to the location of a murder by a particularly brutal psychopath called Frank Debbing who is believed by many to be and who was a suspect at the time to be Jack the Ripper.

Saturday 14th December
I had a very early start and a very long day ahead that was scheduled to exceed the time I spent on my feet in St Petersburg. I found the coach pick up point and on the journey out of Melbourne lots of sights were pointed out to us including the various sport arenas. We also travelled through part Victoria that had been destroyed during Black Saturday on 7th February 2009 and when 173 people in a number of small settlements had died. The guide told us the speed we had been doing along the freeway and said if conditions are ‘right’ a fire would have over taken us. I hadn’t quite appreciated that’s how quickly fire spread. We also passed through Tecoma which is the village protesting against the opening of a McDonald’s.

Eventually we started passing through the Dandenong Ranges National Park and arrived at Sherbrooke Forest home to Mountain Ash Trees. Here we had some lamingtons (I told the guide I’d made my own before leaving the UK) a ‘Bush Billy’ tea and Vegemite with crackers. I don’t get the big deal with the Marmite/Vegemite rivalry – I can handle either and to be honest they both taste the same to me. There I said it.

I went on a very small brisk walk towards Sassafras Creek however this was really just to get away from the crowds rather than any real belief I’d get anywhere in the short time available. Returning to the bus we made our way back to Belgrave and one of two reasons I’d booked on the tour – Puffing Billy.

It was only at this point we were told we were only travelling to the first station which I found quite disappointing as the journey would only be 30 minutes. I suppose the point of a tour is to cram in as many activities in to a small space of time but you can lose out on spending time at the main point of interest (the same could have been said about my Batu Caves tour in Kuala Lumpur)

Anyway with that mini rant over, the train ride lived up to my expectations though I added to my misfortune by sitting on ‘the wrong side’ so I didn’t really see any views. Just lots of trees. We arrived at our stop and I made sure I milked my time on the station by getting a photos of the surrounding area and as the crowds cleared one of the train.

We carried on to a small village called Sassafras which In truth was a glorified toilet stop. I considered getting some lunch but had been told we’d have time back in Melbourne before leaving for Phillip Island so instead I found another short walk to kill some time whilst I waited to get back on the coach.

We got back to Melbourne slightly late and our new coach driver said we didn’t have time to get food. Lunch therefore consisted of a pack of unopened fizzy snakes that I’d brought in New Zealand in the event such a catastrophe should arise (or if I needed a sugar rush).

Our first stop was to Churchill Island to visit a historic working farm to 19th century conditions. I have to admit when I looked at the list of places we were visiting this hadn’t struck me as a place I felt would be a memorable highlight and I found it a bit boring walking around on my own. The sun was shining however and it was certainly a nice location – I just couldn’t get excited about seeing sheep shearing for the second time in two weeks.

We left the farm and continued on to the Koala conservation centre where it was possible to walk on a raised platform through the trees. Whilst I had seen them in the zoo 3 years ago it had felt a bit artificial however this was a more genuine bush environment where they are more free to roam (if on an island). This will probably be as close as I’ll get to one in the wild as when I was on the boardwalk I was initially looking high up to the tops of the trees only to realise one was sitting on a branch level with my head. It even seemed to wake up for me so I could get a picture before I left it to continue its nap. I sympathised with how it felt.

I couldn’t see any of the wallabies that were free to roam around the centre and island. I saw a kid staring in to the undergrowth and briskly walked over wondering what he had found, hoping it was a possum which as previously mentioned I seem to want to see even though I have no idea how I’ll react. It turned out it wasn’t a possum, it was actually the only type of snake that lives on the island and which like most things over here is poisonous. The snake seemed nervous and was trying to hide itself in the grass and so I also left as i didn’t want it to tell its snake friends I’d upset it (which I hadn’t!)

After leaving the Koala Conservation Centre we headed for ‘The Nobbies’ the western coast of the island and a set of rugged rock formations created by volcanic outpourings 65 million years ago. The slight breeze had created good conditions to see the ‘blowhole’. This was a small cave where the waves crashed inside and water appeared to be ‘blown back out’.  The area was a breeding ground for seagulls and whilst initially I thought the babies looked ‘fairly’ cute when they opened their beaks they looked just as aggressive as their parents.

Eventually we arrived at the Penguin Parade which was my main reason for visiting the island. We were told that there used to be 10 colonies but human damage to their environment meant there was now just one remaining. Apparently the penguins have been nesting on Phillip Island for 100s of years and each day they leave the island to find food in the sea before returning late at night.

My ticket included the ‘penguin plus’ option which meant I was on the smaller viewing platform that is closer to the main paths that the penguins take up the beach. It was getting dark and to protect the penguins eyes artificial lighting is kept to a minimum. As I was sitting in the middle and people were talking it was a bit hard to see and hear the penguins forming in their groups out at sea however as it approached 9.00pm I suddenly saw some washing up on the beach.

As they began to waddle along making their way up the paths I couldn’t help but feel slightly excited. As the first small group went past me two babies came running out from under the viewing platform trying to grab food from one of the adults which effectively looked like a mugging whist the other adults continued by. Throughout the rest of the evening the babies continued to attack other adults which made me and those surrounding laugh.

A group of seagulls also landed on the path and initially there was a bit of a stand off with the penguins however the seagulls ran away when more than 10 penguins started walking towards them. Next a wallaby decided to join the action though seemed more interested in eating grass than interrupting the parade.

It was a very special phenomenon to see and hear especially as some of the little birds had to walk up a fairly steep hill which looking at their size was an unbelievable effort. Each time a group made their way up the beach another group would come up on to the rocks to take their place and in total there must have been well over 300 of the little penguins. I had been told the coach would leave at 10.00 and I had left it tight. On my way back and at 9.55 I saw a crowd and was told the only path back was closed because 2 of the penguins were wanting to cross it. Unfortunately they were being very indecisive/scared and they weren’t in a hurry (like me). After what felt a nervous eternity one of them crossed and the other went in the opposite direction so the path was reopened.

I ran the last bit and with some disapproving looks made it to the bus just in time; we got back to the hostel at 12.30pm. The night before I’d had the 4 person dorm to myself but this time when I got back my room mate was already sleeping. I crept around in the dark trying to find the chargers for my tablet and camera and without waking him up when all of a sudden the fire alarm started. Luckily as I’d only just returned my main valuables were still in my rucksack so I didn’t have to think about what to grab like the similar situation I had in Brisbane 3 years ago when I left my passport behind. At least when we were eventually allowed back in I could use the light to sort myself out for the next day.

Sunday 15th December
I allowed myself a bit of time to have a lie in and after checking out headed to the Old Melbourne Gaol. This had been something I was quite eager to visit since watching the Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom film “Ned Kelly” which I thoroughly recommend if you’ve not heard of it. There is also a version with Mick Jagger…The Ned Kelly story is a fascinating one, was he a victim of police corruption or a terrorist against the state? Either way he has become a Australian folk hero and it was only last year that his body was finally laid to rest (albeit without the head which was stolen and has not yet been recovered).

The Gaol had closed in the 1920s and part has been demolished but the section that was still standing and open to the public was very haunting. There were a number of displays within the different cells on the various convicts and I read about many of the events I’d been to the locations of on the Friday evening ‘murder tour’.

I then made my way to the Melbourne Watch House which is located in between the Old Magistrates and the Old Gaol and remained a holding place for criminals until December 1994. After being told by the sergeant that I’d been arrested for being a public nuisance I was made to join a line of other criminals. I was then bundled in to a cell with 11 other guys and whilst I protested my innocence (“Everyone says their innocent” Red Shawshank Redemption) the door was slammed shut and the light switched off. We were plunged in to darkness.

Then the sergeant opened the door and led us to the exercise yard where luckily the demonstration ended as i was worried we’d be made to do pushups. Instead we were given a brief history. Apparently the building was closed in 1994 due to overcrowding when during the weekends the ‘dry cells’ were known to hold up to 18 drunk people. There was no where to lie down and only room to sit. This remember was in the late 1980s and early 1990s yet the conditions sounded worse than 100 years earlier.

After leaving the Watch House I made my way to the State Library where I had been told there was another exhibition on Ned Kelly including the body armour he wore in the final shootout. When built the library was free to all members of society so long as ‘they had clean hands’ and my first stop was to the top floor to get a view of the doom.

I then made my way to the exhibition on the state of Victoria and how it had sought independence from New South Wales by approaching the British Government. They eventually agreed because the settlers had said they would name the state after the soon to be monarch Queen Victoria and name the capital after her mentor Lord Melbourne.

The exhibition on Ned Kelly was also interesting and included a number of original artefacts including the famous letter he wrote but which wasn’t published at the time. His armour made from plough shields was also on display, as was his gun and some of the dents from the police bullets could still be seen.

My time in Melbourne was nearly over for now and I realised I didn’t really have time to see the CBD or Federation Square properly. I opted to catch the free historic tram which over 90 minutes took me to most of the main areas so that I now have a better idea of what to see when I return. My final trip was to the Queen Victoria Market which felt like a cross between all the best London Markets because it seemed to sell everything. Whilst the food court wasn’t as big as Borough it still seemed to sell the similar foods and fresh produce and I was able to get some reasonably priced food to eat.

I then before heading back to the hostel and on to Southern Cross Station to get the Airport shuttle. I checked my bag in and when I got to the security check realised I hadn’t transferred my sun cream and after sun. I asked where the bin was and the man at the desk look puzzled and said “why do you need to throw them away? It’s only a domestic flight”. I didn’t realise that liquids can be carried internally in Australia but it was good news and with a bit of spare time I was able to relax in the lounge before my flight to Tasmania.

Bat out of Hell: The Great Alpine Way

Wednesday 11th December 2013 (11/12/13)
I had an early hostel pick up and when i got to the mini bus I realised it would be a small group with only 6 other travellers. To me this was a good thing because as it was only a short 3 day trip it would be easier to get to know each other. However aside from the tour guide I was the only person who spoke English as my first language with 2 from Hong Kong and 4 from Germany.

The tour guide explained that we were lucky to be on the tour because from next year it will no longer be running. Whilst it travelled a good distance and visited some nice places it hadn’t really caught the imagination of the backpackers who only tend to visit the East Coast, the Centre and the Great Ocean Road.

Leaving Sydney we headed south towards the Australian capital Canberra. I’ve heard a lot about the city, both positive and negative with the general view being that because it is very organised it has no real soul and is considered a bit boring. As I’ve said before I’m not really here for the city life but I was still glad to pay a brief visit even if I know it wasn’t enough time to justify me forming my own opinion.

The guide explained In 1901 Australia’s separate colonies were federated and became states and a new capital city had to be built because of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. In 1911 a international competition went out to design city which Walter Griffin and Marion Griffin won with work starting in 1913. Canberra’s architectural design has been heavily influenced by symbolism with the ‘all seeing eye’, capital hill which houses Parliament overlooking the city. The name given to the area by the Ngunnawal tribe “Kanberra” meaning ‘Meeting Place’ was then chosen as the new capitals name.

We started off by visiting the Marion Griffin view point where we could look down on the city and clearly see its large open spaces and organised road layouts. Closest to us was the War Memorial and beyond Lake Burley Griffin we could see the old parliament house and behind that Capital Hill and the new Parliament House opened in 1988.

Next we made our way down in to the city where we visited the War Memorial. Looking at the various displays I became aware that I hadn’t quite appreciated how much Australian civilians, especially in Darwin had been effected by the second world war once Japan had seized Singapore. My history lessons at school tended to focus on the European impact without much emphasis on the war in the pacific and now we are very much a global world and it was a global conflict I feel that needs to be addressed.

Since meeting so many Australians and New Zealanders both on my travels and living with them I have known about the significance of Anzac day. It was however still incredibly moving to read the Eulogy to the Unknown Australian Soldier from the first world war who now symbolises all those that have been lost in conflict.

After leaving the War Memorial and after getting some lunch we made our way to Parliament House on Capital Hill so that we could do a small tour and to see the House of Representatives and the Senate in session. Apparently there had been a protest earlier in the day but I’m not sure what it was about. That morning one of the car manufacturing companies had announced they were closing a factory so it may have related to that. Either way it seems that the new Australian government is starting to experience the same challenges faced by the British government.

Listening to the way the Senate and then the House of Representatives squabbled like children I realised what I already knew that politics in every country is the same. It was quite depressing to see the same issues being discussed that I’d once heard at the Houses of Parliament. One party now out of power had turned a surplus in to a massive deficit and the new government rather than coming up with proper solutions to solve recent challenges continued to play the blame game. Even the media influence appeared just as a strong as in the UK with one of the ministers using a newspaper article to justify government policy. Unbelievable.

After leaving the sessions we made our way to the roof which had a grass surface. The guide joked it was perfect for a BBQ and I said whilst it had already gone over budget they might as well have gone all out and built a mini beach complete with wave machine. We also got a closer look of the Australian coat of arms – the kangaroo and the emu. These animals were chosen because not only are they indigenous to Australia but they cannot move backwards and this is meant to symbolise the Australian spirit.

That evening we stayed in Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains which apparently receives more snow than the Alps in winter. Even in the summer it was fairly cold and there were still a few patches of snow. Surprisingly despite being on a topdeck tour and 4 of the group being from Germany (the home of Oktoberfest) I felt a bit of an alcoholic when I eagerly ordered a refreshing lager and then realised no one else was drinking.

Our guide did however tell us a free shot was included but we had to do it as a Shot-ski. This was a ski that had 4 holes to fit shot glasses. 4 of us lined up and those at the end (I was one) had to lift the ski up and then on three tilted it so we could do the shot. The shot had come from a local brewery and was surprisingly sweet tasting.

Thursday 12th December
After a fairly relaxed start including a decent breakfast of pancakes we made our way to the village so we could get a chairlift to the start of a walk up Mt Kosciuszko the largest mountain in Australia. Apparently the explorer who named the summit made a calibration error and he thought another summit was the tallest. When the error was discovered by explorers during another expedition they transferred the name so the mountain with the name Mt Kosciuszko remained tallest…if that makes sense…

My intention was to reach the second view point overlooking Lake Cootapatamba as I didn’t feel that there was enough time to get to the summit. I wasn’t sure exactly how long the walk would take and having under estimated the walk through the Tongariro National Park I decided to use caution. I didn’t take any breaks on the way up and limited photo shops because I knew I could take them on the way back if I had time.

I walked the 4km to the second view point in under an hour and looked at my watch. If I went for it I realised I probably could get to the summit which was another 3km and be back at the chairlift in time. Knowing it would be tight and as I wasn’t sure what the remaining terrain would be like I decided to take in the stunning surroundings and head back.

I took my time coming down looking for the little black river fish and looking for pygmy-possums that live under the rocks. I’m not sure why I was so desperate to find these as the description had said they were effectively mice and as I have a phobia of those particular creatures I figured I’d probably freak slightly. Somewhat sadly I never got the opportunity to find out how I’d react as I didn’t see one on this occasion.

I got back to the chairlift and still had over 25 minutes despite walking back very slowly. As it had been very windy and cold I decided to treat myself to a ‘gourmet’ hot chocolate at the cafe, the highest in Australia. I did however have a tinge of regret for not making more of an effort to get to the summit.

Once we were back on the bus we passed Lake Crackerback and then a short while later the driver suddenly pulled over saying he’d seen an animal crawling in the undergrowth at the side of the road. This turned out to be a Echidna which looked like a big hedgehog and we managed to get quite close before it clearly got a bit scared and tried to start burying itself in the long grass.

We carried on to the Bombala river where there was a small platypus colony. The Platypus tend to be more active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. They can also stay under water for 14 minutes. The weather conditions were pretty perfect and although we eagerly watched the water waiting for a “v shape” in the current unfortunately none surfaced. We did however see a skink, a small lizard and two wedge tailed eagles in the distance.

Our final destination was Lakes Entrance a small town which is located on the channel connecting the Gippsland lakes with the Bass Strait. We crossed over the bridge which connects the town with Ninety Mile Beach so that we could watch the sunset. There was a bit of cloud which meant the sun disappeared at one point but it returned in full before eventually appearing to disappear below the sea.

Friday 13th December
Unfortunately for us our guide had to catch a flight from Melbourne back to his home in Brisbane after dropping us off. This meant that we had to leave at 5.00am to ensure he had enough time. Those have lived with me or been in my company when I wake up will know I am not a fantastic morning person and I struggled for the rest of the day.

We had a long drive ahead of us to reach Melbourne and on the way we stopped at Wilsons Promontory National Park the furthest point of south east Australia. Last time I was in Australia I only saw one kangaroo in the wild but the tour hadn’t really been to any national parks and therefore my experience of the East Coast had focussed on the party towns.

Stepping off the coach we saw two male kangaroos squaring up to each other and having a fight. The guide told us some bizarre facts that may one day come in handy during a pub quiz. Apparently the male kangaroo can hide it’s genitals to protect them when fighting. Secondly the female kangaroo can keep a joey embryo for up to 5 years without developing it further. This is so that the joey is only born when the environment conditions will be right to bring it up for example not during a drought.

Carrying on a bit further in to the National Park there were Kangaroos everywhere though some of them were initially hard to spot because by staying still they blended in to the vegetation. We also followed some Emu dung and eventually found one. The guide told us that whilst the female emu lays the egg it is the male that guards them until they hatch and brings up the offspring. We also saw some cockatoos and a number of wombat holes but unfortunately as they are nocturnal none emerged from their holes whilst we were there.

Returning back to the coach we travelled by road as bit further so that we could undertake a 2 hour walk to Squeaky Beach where on the way we had nice views of the beach and the Bass Strait. There was a bit of cloud cover so it wasn’t really hot enough to sunbathe (sunbake) but it was still a pleasant location to eat our lunch.

The coach met us at the other end and we continued our journey to Melbourne. The guide began to get a bit stressed when it appeared there had been an accident on the free way which was creating a appeared traffic jam but luckily we were dropped off with enough time for him to get his flight. My time in Melbourne this time round is brief and though I will be back for the Australian open it is possible I will need to fit in a third visit.

Upside Down: Down Under in Sydney

Friday 6th December
Landing in Sydney my feelings this time were different to three years ago. Back then it had felt slightly overwhelming landing in a city that was so far away from the UK especially as it had been my first trip alone outside of Europe, and a very long flight. This time I almost felt like I’d arrived back home (don’t worry I am coming back!)

The hostel was in the centre of the city opposite the Central station so looking very much like a tourist wearing my “Mind the Gap” t shirt from my work colleagues I arrived at Central station. I stepped off the train and somewhat ironically misjudged the gap and as my bag toppled over the weight caused me to do the same. As it was rush over I was courteous so as I fell I did so to one side so the commuter behind only had to step over my leg not my crumpled body. Everyone on the opposite platform had seen and as i hung my head in shame I scuttled off in search of the exit. I did however also find the situation totally hilarious and wished someone had been there. Instead I made do with sharing it with Victoria knowing as she was awake and at work she’d find it as funny as me.

After checking in I went in search of the local 7/11 to get a new sim card for my 3 year old “old school” Samsung. Sadly when I got back and tried to charge the phone It wouldn’t do so and I realised I needed a new “old school” phone. I headed towards one of the shopping centres and found a shop selling electrical goods where I got a Nokia phone I later realised allowed me to play snake. I tried to register the simcard but had a bit of an issue as even though I’d opted for prepaid they still wanted an Australian address which is difficult when you’re living life as a Nomad.

Saturday 7th December
I’d arranged to meet up with Victoria for lunch and so after a morning relaxing in the lounge watching the cricket (not really relaxing towards the end as Australia began to annihilate our attack) I made my way to Chatswood.

I was filled with excitement at seeing one of my most dependable friends again. Partly because the plans and discussions had been in place for so many months it was a bit hard to believe we were finally together again. Where to get lunch was an easy decision though it had to be Mexican, Pizza or Indian for us and as Victoria had a recommendation we headed off to get a burrito. It was a short but sweet catch up as we watched my Canyon Swing and Bungy videos but Sunday was to be longer as we’d arranged a day out to Bondi beach and we also had a Jack Johnson concert on Tuesday to look forward to.

After saying goodbye I went in search of some cheap new shorts as one of my pairs had reached the end of the line in New Zealand thanks to the weather at the Bay of Islands. It took longer than planned but eventually I made a decision and returned back to the hostel.

That evening I was going to Sina’s for a leaving party in Waterloo and contacted Timo and Mitch to see if they were going as well. I checked to see how to get there by public transport and after getting some of the Montrith Cider I’d taken a fancy to in New Zealand I headed to the bus stop. I was checking the bus timetable when to my horror I saw the one i needed speeding towards the stop but despite signalling it was to close and I had to watch it sail by. The next one was 30 minutes away and little did I know I could have got another number.

Eventually I arrived but wasn’t totally sure where the building was. Luckily there was a McDonald’s so I was able to use a bit of WiFi to confirm my location and the address. The apartment was next door however getting in was like Fort Knox and even after Sina had called down to me from her balcony I still had another security doors to pass.

Mitch arrived a bit later and it was good to see them both again as well as to meet some new faces however unfortunately Timo didn’t make it after his BBQ. The balcony had been set up for a DJ and as the music pumped out and the hours ticked by curtains seemed to twitch as the neighbours looked to see what was going on.

I made sure I got the final bus back towards the city as I wanted to feel fairly fresh for my day at the beach the next day.

Sunday 8th December
Despite going to bed late I woke early and attempts to get back to sleep failed so I got ready and completed a couple more internet chores before making my way to the station. I’d arranged to meet Victoria at Bondi Junction and after I’d heard her shout my name we caught the bus to the beach.

We chilled In the sun just chatting, relaxing and just generally enjoying each others company for a few hours. Luckily Victoria had found us a good spot so after a sudden wave swamped an area in front of us we remained dry whilst those in front had to scramble to pick everything up. It seems I’m still learning about the sun and even though I put on sun cream and reapplied it I still managed to burn the top of my feet where my sandal straps must have rubbed the cream off.

After leaving the beach we went to get a particularly yummy ice cream and then made our way back to the bus stop. Victoria had kindly agreed to take and store my winter clothes that I had needed for the Transmongolian but the bag was a bit more bulky than I think both of us had expected. We therefore caught the train together to where her car was parked and I then made my way back to Central Sydney.

I didn’t really enjoy life at the hostel over the first few days because I missed the buzz of the tours and as I was staying in the centre it didn’t really feel I was on holiday. Don’t get me wrong, Sydney is lovely but the CBD is a CBD and having come from a city I feel I’ve come to Australia for a different lifestyle. Victoria suggested I find a hostel in Bondi with the added benefit that she could come and visit. It was a brilliant idea but that’s why I know I can rely on her to give advice I might not have even considered.

I have missed all of you back home at various points, not a home sickness as such, more just that events happen that I’d like to share instantly but that the time difference makes it totally in practical to do so but I’m glad for Whatsapp and Facebook.

Once I was back at the hostel I was able to finally have a Skype conversation with Caroline someone else I can rely on for support however as is often the way most of the conversation was spent in hysterical laughter. This caused me to receive a few weird looks from those in the hostel because it hadn’t been possible to find a private space. The highlight was when she found Santos the Camel the gift I’d got her from Egypt and he performed a little dance for his ‘daddy’.

My mum and the rest of the family had gone to my dads for his 60th birthday so we’d arranged to speak on viber but it wasn’t due to be until midnight Australian time. All the people in my room had gone to sleep and whilst I tried to read a book to stay awake I crashed out waking up an hour late. Luckily a quick whatsapp message meant we were soon able to speak however unfortunately the lounge was locked and even though I tried to talk quietly I knew how much sound had travelled over the floor and standing in the corridor didn’t feel very personal. It was great to speak to them both, especially as I was sad I couldn’t be there to celebrate in person but it really does show how instant communication can be. I’ll be doing the same for the work Christmas party 😉

Monday 9th December
This was the first day of chores and there really isn’t much to say except that I travelled through Lewisham and Croydon to reach Rhodes where I took my camera to Nikon. I didn’t have any of the warranty information and even though it was registered the systems were down so they couldn’t find me. It has felt on this trip that companies need to do more to help those travelling and or become more economically friendly so information is available electronically and not just on paper. I already have a travel wallet full of various documents and if I had more I’d have no room for the actual items they’d be covering.

I was also able to finally register the sim card (with more assistance from Victoria) and then spoke to the company who confirmed they only needed the address I’d used if I needed a replacement sim sent to me. I made the call because I didn’t want any more address issues especially as the moneycorp fiasco had finally been resolved.

After this I made my way in to the city so I could pick up my Bruno Mars ticket I’d brought all the way back in May and then back to the hostel where I had the joy of doing 3 loads of laundry. I could have probably done less but I didn’t want to over load the machine.

After that was finally done and I had clothes to last me until I’m back in Bondi me and one of my room mates, a guy called Marcus from Canberra went in search of food and beer. Leaving the lift I randomly mentioned this to girl called Trish from America who had been on the search for water but decided to join us instead.

We went to the Scubar next door to the hostel which was a fairly classic back packers joint. But $7 for a jug of beer and $10 for all you could eat pizza seemed fair. They also had crab racing for $1 ‘a great Australian tradition’ according to the guy with the mic but this was quite clearly rubbish as was the sign saying the bar was “world famous”. Anyway as I’m here for a while I entered because the prizes were free tours.

We had to name our crabs and I wished Caroline was there with me as I knew she’d think of something hilarious. Mr Crabs seemed cliché as did the possibility of making the host say ‘I have Crabs’ though of course both those names were used. I settled for Crabastian the Lobster. Sadly for me Crabastian decided to sleep and when it did decide to move it barely even left the circle. Darth Vader won but I reckon he’d used his Sith powers and the race was fixed.

After the ‘free’ pizza ended at 10.00 and as the music became louder and more intolerable we left to find a off licence and a pack of cards. I brought a can of the red gum Bunderburg coke and rum i’d enjoyed so much on my first visit 3 years ago. We played a couple of different card games and then I decided to call it a night. It had however been nice to finally share some company in the hostel.

Tuesday 10th December
I started the day in my customary way by planning on having a shower to wake up however there was a major problem. Some building work had started in the bathroom on my floor the previous morning and I realised I’d left my shower gel and shampoo in there and of course it had now vanished.

Shortly after i received a message from Victoria confirming the meeting time and place for our Jack Johnson gig later that evening. This gave me time to finish off my jobs one of which involved uploading over 1500 pictures that I’d taken over the past couple of months. I’d been putting this off since Moscow when I’d missed the first opportunity and since then the number had escalated.

This took more than 3 hours and in future I shall make more effort to do the uploads on a more regular basis as it was almost unmanageable especially as I was having to decide which ones not to include at the same time.

After that was done I did the other big task I’d been putting off. Establishing how much money I’d spent to date and more importantly what was left. New Zealand had been more of a black hole than I had anticipated but I seemed to have balanced that by spending less in the previous stages. I also reminded myself I won’t be doing anymore bungy jumps or canyon swings whilst a fair chunk of my accommodation and trips are already paid for.

Finally because the start next morning was a 6.30 am pick up I decided to ensure that I was packed for the next day and because I’d brought some new t shirts and an extra pair of shorts the bag was tighter to pack than I expected. Marcus saw me struggling and suggested I try rolling everything up. I was sceptical at first but it was an inspired idea and I realise I’m probably the only ‘back packer’ that wasn’t aware of this technique.

Leaving the hostel I got a message from Victoria to say she’d left work early and my ticket would be at the booth. Picking up the ticket I made my way to the seat and quickly realised they were pretty damn perfect. Central to the stage and only 6 rows from the front. The sun was just starting to set which made the setting absolutely perfect for an evening gig. The harbour bridge and the Opera House both looked as fantastic as I remembered when I did my ‘bridge climb’ and I look forward to being reunited with my Nikon so I can try and capture a sunset scene.

The gig itself was equally impressive as the location and Jack Johnson was in superb form and appeared to enjoy a bit of a chat with those in the front rows who called out various requests. He also performed with a number of guests and whilst I didn’t recognise every song I shall certainly be making a effort to look them up. The experience totally contrasted with the wet concert I’d experienced with my dad and uncle only a couple of months ago in Hyde Park.

Despite the fact it was getting dark it still felt early when Jack Johnson departed the stage for his encore but looking at my watch realised it had been nearly 2 hours of non stop guitar playing and singing. I had a feeling that at least one of the songs in the encore would be “Upside Down” as that was the song that had encouraged my mum to buy one of his albums. He performed it with a couple from Hawaii and in some ways it sounded better live than on the album.

Once it was over I walked with Victoria to the train station so we could say a temporary goodbye as the next day i would be embarking on a journey ending in Melbourne before flying over to Tasmania. I realise it’s a busy time of year but it was lovely to see a familiar face, especially someone I shared a number of adventures with in London. I look forward to seeing the rest of you that live “Down Under” over the next 4 months. Just send me a text on 0422525117 or a Facebook message.

Earlier in the day I received some very sad news from my manager Kelly that one of my colleagues is very unwell and my thoughts and prayers at this time are with her.

Final Countdown: Bay Of Islands

Wednesday 4th December
I’d checked the pickup time the evening before and it said 7.30am but I had a gut feeling that I should arrive early just in case. When I was woken by one of those in the room at 6.10am (20 minutes before the alarm) I decided to get ready. I left the hostel at 6.50am with the intention of getting a drink and using the free McDonald’s WiFi but could already see a small crowd at the pick up. Venturing over I was told the time had changed and the pick up time was 7.00-7.15. Nice of Kiwi Experience to let me know!

As it was we didn’t leave until about 7.30am because 2 girls had been at the wrong location and had got lost en-route. Luckily they found us and we were able to set off. What had already felt heavy rain became even heavier and a great mist had descended up us making visibility from the coach windows non existent.

There was literally nothing to see outside the window and then rather suddenly the bus started to reduce in speed as we approached a hill. The 2nd kiwi experience bus I had been on had suffered the same fate as the first I’d been on and was breaking down. Only this time we were unable to limp home as the radiator had decided to drop its load into the road meaning we had no option but to pull over. An engineer was called but we were 40 minutes from the next city so in total were waiting nearly 2 hours. We watched a movie and with about 10 minutes remaining the picture cut out so we only had sound.

Eventually we were underway and made it to the scheduled toilet and lunch stop. As we approached we could see armed police everywhere and about 5 police cars. Whatever was going on appeared to be quite dramatic but luckily we were able to use the facilities despite initial fears we’d be waved on.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and when we arrived in Paihia it was still raining ferociously. We were over 3 hours late but even if we had arrived on time all activities would have been off. Luckily Aaron the guy I’d sat next to on the coach had my approach to the weather and neither of us wanted the rain to prevent us doing something. We therefore took the ferry over to Russell so we could see the first European settlement and what became the first capital…this was the cultural reason. The real reason was so we could drink at New Zealand’s oldest pub.

There were not many people on the boat and we quickly got in to conversation with our fellow travelers that were braving the conditions. When we arrived at the Duke of Marlborough pub we took a table and started to try and dry off. Another group looked like they were seeking a table so we invited them to share and got in to conversation with them as well. These were locals that apologised for the weather but said the region was in need of it as they’d had 6 weeks of sunshine.

When we left the weather appeared to be clearing and we could almost see the other side of the bay. This was only a temporary reprieve and it soon started up again with all the fury of before. I had a “nautical” rain coat on that had survived the Sicily Isles and Cornwall but it was no match for the New Zealand rain and my shirt underneath was drenched.

Returning back to the hostel, where the rest of the group had remained in the dry I had a shower then made my way to the BBQ that had been arranged. I stayed out for a couple of beers but i knew my time in new Zealand was coming to an end.

Thursday 5th December
I had a very realistic dream that I woke up, the sun was shining and I went swimming with the dolphins as planned. When I did wake up I couldn’t hear rain but could hear birds and thought maybe it wasn’t going to be a dream. i went in to the bathroom and opened the window to look out. In return I got a face of fierce windy rain. I knew my back up tour to see the Hole in the Rock and dolphins would be cancelled but I still went through the routine of walking to the Harbour ‘just in case’.

I wasn’t disappointed about not seeing or swimming with dolphins as I’ll surely get the chance in Australia… I’ll be there long enough but it was a bit of cruel blow that I’d be so close to the Bay of Islands but not actually see them. Even more disappointing was the confirmation it would be clear by the afternoon as I was leaving and knowing that every other day in the past month had been so perfect.

But you can’t control the weather you can only control how you react to it so I decided to go to the Waitangi Treaty Ground Museum. I got slightly lost as the rain continued to show little sympathy to my plight and nearly got taken out by a wave that came over the promenade on to the road but eventually made it.

I watched a short video before joining a guided tour by the 6th generation relative of the local tribe chief Hone Heke who was the first to sign the treaty and then the first to rebel against it when the mid translation between the British and Maori versions became a contentious (understatement) issue.

Apparently the local tribe are only now having their case heard which seems quite shocking especially as I understand that many of the other tribes have already had their historical grievances settled and that they’ve been compensated accordingly. On the one hand the video at the museum had portrayed the treaty as a positive, the birth place of the nation whereas on the other it appeared the guide I had still held a level of resentment towards it. I totally understood why they’d feel aggrieved and maybe I was just feeling touchy but being from ‘Mother England’ (not Britain) I felt partly responsible and slightly uncomfortable when it came to admitting where I was from.

We saw the giant Waka which is in the Guinness Book of Records, the Treaty House, one of the oldest buildings in New Zealand which had been restored and the Maori Meeting House built for the 100th anniversary. The meeting house was therefore meant to be symbolic rather than original. Located opposite the Treaty House it is meant to show the unity of both cultures and the wooden carvings inside represent each of the tribes across the country.

There was also a flagstaff marking the location where the treaty was signed. Unfortunately I assume due to the wind and rain none of the flags were flying but there should have been the three official flags New Zealand has had since 1834 and which are still maintained by the Navy. The flags are: The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, the Union Jack and the New Zealand flag.

After this I walked down to Nias Track to Hobson’s beach. This was the route William Hobson and his party took when they landed at Waitangi and made their way to where the Treaty participants were assembled in 1840. By now the sun was creeping through and I could make out shapes beyond Russell and I’d like to think they were some of the islands that gave the bay its name.

By the time the coach left it was getting very hot and on the journey back we stopped at the Whangarei waterfall. The recent heavy rain made this one look particularly wild especially as it was possible to get fairly close and it was a pleasant way to break the 4 hour drive.

We arrived back in Auckland on time and I got the Ferry to Devenport for the final time. Peggy and Peter collected me and we travelled to David and Clare’s house for dinner. As when I’d arrived about 3 weeks earlier the sun was shining. I will forever be grateful to them for their hospitality and for making me feel so welcome

The next morning after Claire had kindly washed and dried some of my clothes we departed for the airport. I can’t quite believe how much I have done in such a short space of time and I’m reluctant to check the final credit card statement but these memories will live with me and I don’t regret any of them…not even the whale watching camera breaking tour!

Next stop Australia – the main reason for me undertaking this little walkabout.

Everybody Hurts: Christchurch

Tuesday 3rd December
My accommodation in Christchurch was the old jail house – part of the old jail that had been preserved and was now used as a hostel. The owners had made an effort to keep to the theme but walking up the stairs to the second level and opening the big heavy cell door I was relieved to see the beds were at least more than a mattress on the floor. I also discovered I was in a dorm of 6 sharing with Sina and Ashleigh so at least there were some familiar faces.

After our meal the night before our taxi driver had provided a bit of personal insight about the events of 22nd February 2011. We had noticed there were still a lot of road works taking place and the driver said it was because water and sewage pipes had been cracked so every road had to be dug up and relaid. He didn’t think the roads would be sorted for 10-15 years which was staggering. Worse still was the human impact in the poorest neighbourhood in the East of the city where we were told 10,000 houses had to be demolished due to liquidification. This equated to approximately 30,000 people who had been forced to leave the city, more than the entire population of Berkhamsted if it needs a context.

I had booked a flight for late in the afternoon because I had wanted to see how the city was rebuilding. Whilst I felt guilty for wanting to do this I also felt the that if I and other tourists returned and spent our money on the local businesses it would help the city to recover. Out in the suburbs where we had been staying the impact wasn’t quite so immediately noticeable. I’m not sure for example whether the jail house had suffered any structural damage. As we got closer to the city centre however the impact became obvious.

It was only 4 months ago that the main central area affected including Cathedral Square had finally reopened. I was walking in with Hayley and Karen and on the approach to the Bridge of Remembrance it was painfully evident the re-opening didn’t mean everything had been rebuilt or replaced. The Bridge of Remembrance had once been the main entrance to the cities historical heart however it was still closed and under restoration.

The second bridge we tried to use to cross over the Avon river was also closed and after walking past the punting office we finally found a open crossing. Walking along the main street and heading along in the rough direction of Cathedral Square we saw gaps where buildings had once been. Then we came to an open area where there was an isolated old looking wooden building that from the approach looked like it had been relatively unscathed but from the back had been completely ripped open.

We could see well known shops in the distance including Subway and Kathmandu and naively I thought these big chains had reopened already. They hadn’t, the buildings were empty but adverts and opening hours remained in place. The streets were mostly empty which made us feel like we were in one of those end of the world film scenes only this was very much real life. We could now see the top of the Cathedral so headed in to the square.

The damage the Cathedral suffered had been one of the most iconic photographs during the disaster(s) because the building had been the focal point of the cities heritage. From one side I was surprised at how intact it was and then I saw the damage sustained to the other side. The remains of the famous bell tower had been partly removed, but the front of the building had been demolished and near where the visitor entrance/ticket office was located there was a gaping hole in the ceiling. The area was also becoming over grown which I assume is a result of the legal battle over ownership between the church (who want to demolish it) and the heritage group (that want to preserve it).

There was some sign of life in the square as the tram had recently reopened and was shuttling up and down the street towards the Canterbury museum. We headed in the opposite direction towards the new shopping centre which has been built inside ship containers. It was a very unique idea and it looked quite good but a bit hard to comprehend that these approximately 10 containers were the cities main shopping district.

Karen and I continued on our way to the Cardboard Cathedral. I think I had half expected to see a cardboard cut out Gothic style building (like one of those 3D puzzles) but in reality it looked more like a plastic style greenhouse. Opposite was another fenced off area with a gap with nothing in it except for a small pile of stones in the centre. There were also some flowers and a poem tied to the fence and we became painfully aware this must have been the site where 115 people lost their lives.

We followed the tram tracks (though they were not running along this section) and we eventually came to New Regent Street which had been restored and the shops reopened. Trams were running from here on a short section to the Canterbury Museum via Cathedral Square and we decided to have a short ride. The driver gave a brief summary of some of some of the cities old landmarks and how the rebuild and restoration process was slowly taking place.

After about 15 minutes we arrived at the Canterbury Museum and after a brief walk around a few of the displays decided to look around the botanical gardens. On our way back to the hostel we bumped in to Sina and Summer and the 4 of us went searching for food eventually settling on a place that was recommended to us.

Sina, Summer and I had similar time flights so had opted to share the shuttle to the airport. There had been a mix up and another party had been forgotten and were luckily able to share with us. The driver was rather eccentric but a good laugh and we got to the airport in plenty of time. I checked in and waited at the gate before hearing an announcement that the flight would effectively be delayed until 30 minutes after it should have arrived in Auckland.

There were no further dramas and I arrived in Auckland over 1 hour and 30 minutes late and after taking the bus from the airport to the hostel went in search of Hell’s Pizza knowing this really was the last chance.

It didn’t look far on the map, a 20 minute walk but it was approaching 9.45, dark and starting to rain. I wasn’t sure if it would be open or live up to my memories and with a heavy heart decided to abort the mission.

I’d been attempting to contact Mitch as he was staying at the same hostel but without success and knowing I had an early start grabbed a takeaway and returned home. It was only 10.30pm and already everyone in my room was asleep which meant I had to creep around in the dark whilst I sorted my bag for the next day.

Earth Song: Milford Sound, Lake Ohau and Mt Cook

Saturday 30th November
We said goodbye to 10 people at Queenstown and as the coach departed it felt rather empty as we began our journey to Milford Sound. Our first stop at lunch was to the small town of Te Anau which was our last opportunity to have contact with the outside world before entering the Fiordland National Park.

I hadn’t really read or seen any pictures about this part of the trip so didn’t have any real expectations except for the fact I knew it was meant to be spectacular mostly untouched scenery. Before entering the national park Craig made us close our eyes and put some atmospheric music on and then told us to open our eyes. The atmospheric soundtrack continued and combined with the low hanging cloud the scenery took on a mystical quality. Even with the summits covered in cloud the views from the coach were indescribably wonderful and we weren’t sure whether to look out of the left or right side such was the fear you’d blink and miss something amazing.

Our first stop was to the Mirror Lakes so named because on a settled day the lakes reflect the views of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the conditions couldn’t have been any less ideal. There was a slight breeze creating ripples, there was a bit of rain and the mountains were surrounded by mist anyway. Still it was a nice location, just perhaps not perfect picture weather.

After stopping at Monkey creek to get some pictures of the Upper Hollyford valley we continued travelling through the beautiful scenery and were given a brief description about how a valley is formed (by a river) and how a Fiord is formed (by glacier).

We got to the Homer Tunnel where a temporary entrance had been built because the original had been destroyed in a fairly recent avalanche. We stopped to get a few final pictures of the Hollyford valley before it started to rain/snow. Unfortunately the tunnel was only one lane and there appeared to be a problem with the lights so we were waiting some time. Eventually the lights did change and to the tune of Mission Impossible we entered the 1200m long tunnel. Next Star Wars was played and as the music ended we emerged to views of the spectacular Cleddau Valley.

We arrived at the wharf for cruises around Milford Sound. The weather was starting to improve and whilst there was still quite a bit of cloud the mountains still looked dominating. From a distance in particular it was obvious how much they towered over cruise ships of a similar size to ours.

The rain had made the main waterfalls particularly impressive. The rain had also created smaller waterfalls that would not have been there in drier weather and water appeared to be sluicing directly from the rocky cliffs. We went close to a number of waterfalls and having already broken one camera I was careful to make sure I was inside when we approached. I could see people on deck taking pictures up until the final seconds and then rushing away before the bow was swamped in spray.

The guide explained the water of Milford Sound is mainly fed by the Tasman Sea however due to regular rainfalls rain water washes sediment down from the cliffs which creates a darker fresh water layer above the warmer sea water. This creates conditions that allow deep sea water species to thrive despite in reality not being far from the surface. The guide also explained the area had been shaped by earthquake activity but that the region was overdue an earthquake by approximately 200 years.

The journey through the sound was over 2 hours and apart from the seeing the waterfalls and mighty peak of Mitre Peak we also sailed close to a New Zealand Fur Seal colony that were lazing on some rocks. We had also been told to look out for a rare breed of small penguin and amazingly saw three of the little birds despite the fact most would have begun their migration away from the region.

We were spending the evening at a chalet near to Milford Sound and that night we had a roast lamb meal at a nearby restaurant. If the weather had been nicer a walk home along the river may have been pleasant but it was cold and wet so we all boarded the coach when it was time to leave. Late nights, early starts and action packed days with no real naps were beginning to take their toll on my eyes and after a shower to heat up fell asleep.

Sunday 1st December
On leaving the accommodation our first stop was to ‘The Chasm’ which we’d had to skip the previous day as a result of the delays caused by the malfunctioning traffic lights to the Homer Tunnel. This area was in a forest location and had been created by a earthquake and the erosion of boulders as the Cleddau river plunged down waterfalls and forced its way through the narrow chasm.

On leaving the Fiordland National Park we stopped at The Anau and I saw a Kiwi Experience bus. This was a hop on hop off bus company so I wondered whether anyone from my first trip would be on it and I wondered how Phil and Simon were getting on. Then I heard my name and like something out of the “Truman Show” there they suddenly were with 2 of the girls from the trip. I’d had my haircut since seeing them all but we only had a few minutes to catch up before they had to board the bus to Milford Sound.

We then made our way back towards Queenstown briefly stopping at a town on the outskirts for lunch before making our way through the Gibbston Valley. The Gibbston Valley is the southern wine region of New Zealand and we were told how the sometimes harsh and unpredictable climate is combatted to protect the grapes.

We then travelled through the old mining district of Cromwell though we didn’t stop to see any of the remains of the old settlements. We did however pass Lake Dunston where part of the settlement of Cromwell had been located before the historic area was removed so a dam could be built. The region is now used for fruit growing including cherries and as with the wineries the owners have to combat the weather that doesn’t suit the fruit. We carried on to ‘Jone’s fruit store’ where I had a fresh kiwi fruit mixed with frozen yogurt ice cream.

We’d been told today would mostly be spent travelling but we were now on the final leg towards Lake Ohau crossing over the Lindis Pass in the process. During this stage we saw a wild fire slowly being controlled by a helicopter but it still looked pretty destructive and were told the story of Shrek the Sheep. Shrek was a sheep that went missing for a number of years and his wool grew very long. When he was found he became a New Zealand celebrity.

We were now in the Mackenzie District, named after a man that stole sheep at ran a farm in the area before he was caught. When we got to Lake Ohau the cloud of Milford Sound was a memory and we were presented with a fine view of Mt Cooks flat topped summit. A few of us walked down to the lake to get a better look of Australasia’s highest point.

Returning to the lodge we had dinner and a few games of pool. I was on the winning team for all three but can’t take much credit for the first as it was really down to Mike. However in the second and third matches Shane and I united as the Northern Hemisphere against the Southern Hemisphere. First in a match against Dee and Mike and then against Dee and Jacob. Despite a gallant effort, especially from Dee, Shane and I were in inspirational form especially once we’d had an opportunity to sing along to our war song “Fairy Tale of New York”.

By now the sun was finally beginning to set so I went back down to the lake to get some more pictures. Despite my main camera still being out of action I was pleased that my old camera was just about managing to do what I wanted it to capture.

We’d been told the night sky was particularly good for star gazing and that it was protected from further possible light pollution development. I’ve been to a number of places that have provided a dazzling amount of stars and this more than matched them and probably even beat Iceland. It really was something else to look at. I always enjoy looking up at the stars, it helps to ground me and makes me appreciate how small our planet is. I also always have that kid like hope that a shooting star (or a UFO – joke) will fly by.

Monday 2nd December
The sun was shining and as it was a clear day the beginning of our final day as a group was spent on a short drive to the Mt Cook National Park. From Mt Cook Village we went on a short walk to Kea Point which provided good views of Mt Cook, the Hooker Valley, and ice faces of other surrounding mountains. We’d been told to listen out for bits of ice breaking off the mountain due to the ice melting as the season moved towards Summer and as we waited to get on the bus we heard what sounded like thunder. We turned to see what looked like a small waterfall tumbling down the mountain side but what was actually ice.

Getting back on the bus we travelled more through Mackenzie country before reaching Lake Pukaki which was a particularly interesting turquoise colour. The reason for the unique colour of the water was ‘rock flour’ created when the basin was gouged out by the glacier moving across the surface leaving sediment in the melted glacial water in the process.

We stopped at the village of Lake Tekapu, on the shore of the lake with the same name for lunch and again had the opportunity to take pictures of a lake with snow capped mountains in the background. This village also had a church called the ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’. This was a fairly modern and unspectacular Church built in 1935 but its location has meant it’s become the most photographed church in New Zealand. There was also a statue of a border collie to signify how important the breed of dog has been to sheep farming and the Mackenzie economy.

Whilst we were in an area where farming is still so important we visited a sheep farm. Here we were shown sheep shearing and saw the border collie in action herding up the sheep. Next we had the opportunity to feed them and some held a very cute little lamb. I’m not sure how I expected the sheep to react when I stretched out my hand to feed it but I had certainly not expected it to try and start feasting on my hand like it did. There was a sheep called Mary that provided some amusement and it kept calling to us whilst we were given scones with jam and cream.

Our final stop before our return to Christchurch was Geraldine though this was just for the coach to be filled with petrol and we didn’t explore. Leaving Mackenzie country behind we crossed new Zealand’s longest bridge and we attempted to hold our breath the whole length to the sound of Chariots on Fire. There were no prizes except possible death so I gave up but two made it to the end.

As we crossed in to the Canterbury Plains we had another game of guessing the soundtrack this time to movies and then all of a sudden it was announced we were arriving at the Jail House. The tour was officially over. After checking in the majority of us arranged to meet up for dinner and that was a nice way to bring the journey to a close rather than a sudden stop which is what normally happens.

To everyone on the trip, it was an intense action packed 14 days, with something new to see and do everyday but it’s the people that make it extra memorable. I wish you all the best in your future travels and I’m sure our paths will cross again.