Sunday, 6 July 2008

Victoria, Seattle (again), Denver, Wyoming, DC and NYC

I write this as I'm sat in the departures lounge at JFK. Yes that's right - my travels are finally at an end and I'm going home. I've wangled quite a good flight, leaving at 10:30pm and landing back at Heathrow at 10:20am. Thus with only 5 hours time difference and working on the basis that I get some sleep on the plane, I should have minimum jet-lag. Or that's the plan anyway. No doubt I won't sleep a wink and will be thoroughly grouchy on getting home. Still, I'll have the comfort of my own bed with no worry of having to be up before a 10am checkout - bliss :)

The last few weeks have been great. When I last wrote I was in a tiny town called Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. It was quite a sweet place but dead to the world and I was quite pleased to get on to Victoria, which as well as being the main city on the island, is also the capital of British Columbia (Canada's Western-most province). Victoria was beautiful - I had good weather, the town is inescapably British in it's vibe, and the hostel was nowhere near as bad as I'd anticipated. It was without doubt dated, with I think 2 electric sockets between 16 beds and a distinctly 'institutional' feel, however I quite liked it. It was in a great location and perfect for venturing out for strolls along the harbour complete with ice cream (which as far as I could see THE thing to be done there). 

I did a tour of the Parliament, which was housed in a very beautiful building and was actually quite interesting. The very informative 40 minutes was ruined only slightly by the period-clad historical characters popping up along the way, though they did get full marks for effort. I also went to the cinema whilst I was there to see the Indiana Jones movie. I have to say even though it was a shocking story-line and ok, maybe Harrison Ford wouldn't survive a nuclear blast, I did quite enjoy it. And that was pretty much my Victoria visit!

I then got the 'Victoria Clipper' (a ferry) to Seattle as I'd been told that once you add up the fare back to Vancouver and the time it takes you to get past the land borders, you're better off going by boat direct, even though it's more expensive. It was so straightforward, and I was at my new hostel within hours of leaving my old one, so it was all in all a pleasant experience. And I didn't get sick, something that when boarding a boat has worried me ever since Kaikoura in New Zealand...!

Back in Seattle I yet again wangled quite a good bed (bottom bunks rule) and eventually found a socket that my straighteners would work in (it had been a frizzy few days...). I'd given myself 2 nights there so as to do all the things I'd wanted to do on my last trip, on the day in-between arriving and leaving, and so the next day I headed over to the Seattle Center to do the 'Experience Music Project'. I wasn't disappointed - it really is a fantastic museum. One of those interactive ones where you don't feel like you're just reading things the whole time. Whilst there I almost learnt how to play bar chords on the guitar (a long-standing ambition of mine which would have been realised had there not been an impatient German banging on the door of the booth), and after watching series of films on his life, now profess to be quite an expert on Jimi Hendrix. Or at least I now have a better idea of who he is and no longer think he's overrated (don't all shout at me at once). I also got a few pictures of the Space Needle up close and then had a nice dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in town. I'm now quite good at going to a restaurant on my own and chilling out with a book, my meal and a glass of wine. Not sure how much the waitress loved me sitting there taking my time though but oh well!

I then flew on to Denver on the Thursday, and after a misunderstanding with meeting my cousin at baggage claim I eventually met up with Tom as planned. There was however an hour of both of us sitting at either end of the baggage belt, as the flight status had come up as 'in range' which Tom thought (as would any normal civilian) meant that I hadn't landed yet. Anyways, all was fine in the end. We then met up with Donna and Jessie (his wife and daughter respectively) and had a lovely Chinese meal in town. I'd forgotten how easy to get along with (and cool!) my American family are and so I relaxed quite nicely and enjoyed myself. It's always a bit awkward when you're meeting up with family you've only met once after a long time, but it was fine and to be honest I was spoilt rotten for the weekend.

Tom and Donna had planned for us to drive up as a family to his parents ranch in Wyoming where their son Willie had been staying for a week anyway. We drove up in a real-live truck (this was very exciting for me) with motorbikes and kayaks strapped to the back (they're one of those 'active' families), and his parents, Bill & Mary, were seemingly pleased to meet me. We went on a hike as soon as we got there, which probably wasn't the best idea as I firstly didn't have the right footwear for such scrambling, and secondly, had been struck down that morning with what felt like the beginnings of flu. Still, I almost made it to the top of the hill and felt nonetheless quite proud of the achievement. The next day I straight up passed on the kayaking, feeling pretty awful after having pretty much no sleep on account of feeling rough. I was worried my hardcore American experience was going to be completely ruined by my illness, however on our final day there, I perked up enough to go on the back of my cousin's motorbike for a ride around the ranch. We got up to speeds of 60mph I'll have you know and even though I'm not a fan (I'm a wimp) I can see the attraction of the things.

Tom, Donna, Bill & Mary are all crazy about motorbikes and their garage is full of them. It should be mentioned that though Tom is my generation in the family, he is in fact a grown up and his parents are more 'elderly' grown ups. Thus, seeing a 70yr old couple having a ball riding around on their Kawasakis really makes you feel pathetic if you don't join in. So I did. But yes, that was my main 'adventurous outing' for the weekend.

We then drove back to Denver on the Sunday evening and Tom drove me to the airport Monday morning for my flight to DC. After a brief panic that my flight might no longer exist as Tom informed me that Frontier Airlines (my carrier) had been declared bankrupt the week before, I got on the flight fine and nothing was delayed.

I landed in DC to terrific heat - the East Coast in the summer really is quite unbearable. Such humidity! Still, my hostel had air-conditioning and so I can't complain too much. The next few days I hit all the major sites and monuments: the White House (tiny), the Lincoln memorial (surprisingly beautiful), all the war memorials, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and in general soaked up the 'important' feel to Washington life. It's quite an expensive city but very well-kept. There's loads of green areas and it's totally accessible on foot which makes quite a difference for taking it all in. Still, there's a lot I didn't do (i.e. any one of the millions of free and reputedly fantastic museums) and I think it's yet another place I'll have to go back.

Then after 2 days, I got the bus to New York. I should mention that I more specifically caught a MegaBus to New York and have to say that it was one of the nicest and cheapest bus experiences I've had my whole time travelling. MegaBus now operates in quite a few states over here and it cost me all of $5 for the 4 hour journey. The driver was lovely, the bus was brand new and clean, and they even put a movie on for us. Not bad for £2.50!! Anyway, it was an early bus and I made it to the city by lunchtime, and after checking in at my hostel, made it to not quite the back of the reduced broadway show tickets line (TKTS). They didn't have either the shows I wanted to see (Legally Blonde or In the Heights) and so I ended up just going straight to the box office for a ticket to the latter. I didn't get a reduced price by any means but I had a fantastic seat (something a lot easier to get when you're only looking for one ticket) and the show was pretty good. I didn't think it was as amazing as some of the reviews I'd read, but maybe that's because I didn't get a lot of the Hispanic-New Yorker in-jokes that pervaded much of the performance. Still, the actors were great and it's a pretty good soundtrack so I may get it when I get home.

I''m lucky enough that this was in fact my second visit to New York, and thanks to my parents insisting on the full cultural experience last time I was here, there was actually little that I wanted to see this time around. I saw Grand Central Station and the Public Library (both beautiful architecture) and being my last stop on my travels, I did quite a bit of shopping (Abercrombie was my downfall). I had wanted to do Ellis Island and see Ground Zero but with shocking weather today and 'inappropriate footwear' due to my being packed up ready to leave with my backpack in a locker already, and not fancying the boat journey in the rain, I didn't get those two done today as planned. Still, NYC still rates as one of the best cities in the world in my book (joint place with Paris and London for sure) and I loved my brief 48 hours here. It was Independence Day yesterday too, and so I felt it was a fitting end to my journey to celebrate my last night, stood on the pier at the southern-most tip of Manhattan, watching the fantastic fireworks in honour of the holiday (albeit in the rain)!

Today has been a bit odd as I'm obviously really looking forward to going home and seeing everyone, but I have had an awesome time these last 5 months and so the prospect of normality is a bit depressing. But still, my travels aren't over yet. I may have an action-packed final flight home (though I am hoping for a smooth journey)!

Still, will leave my final blog for when I get home (it feels presumptious to write it here - like I might not get home) and so will do thank-yous then. Fear not though, the final entry is in sight!

More tomorrow probably (for the last time...sniff)!

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Seattle, Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies

All my blogs seem to start with the word "Well...", so I thought this time it wouldn't (because as you can see I've started with "all" instead). Quite an opener for what promises to be a riveting blog I'm sure you'll agree.

So if you've stayed with me past the babble above, the lowdown is that I'm now in Whistler, which if you haven't heard of it, is one of the most famous ski resorts in the world and is about 75 miles north of Vancouver. Obviously it's not winter and so skiing is out of the question and anyway, seasonal excuses aside, I've never actually touched a pair of skis. 

Whistler in the summer however is almost as busy as it is in the winter. They're big on being active here you see. On the bus on the way to my hostel I must have passed about a million people on mountain bikes and even around the village itself, everyone seems to have the telltale 'panda-like tan' that proves they've been out and about being energetic with goggles.

Anyway, I only arrived this morning on the 8am Greyhound from Vancouver, and will be leaving on an 8am bus tomorrow as well and so haven't really seen everything (or even anything really) that I wanted to but I've still got quite a good vibe from the place. My hostel is lovely, and though smells half of wet paint and half like a guinea-pig hutch in places, is in a fantastic location, right on the lake, looking up to the mountains. It's a bit out of the way though and is most of the reason why I haven't been able to see much. There's a bus that goes to the hostel but it's only 4 times a day, and whilst their is a walking trail to the village, I'm too scared of getting eaten by a bear to do it on my own (the downside to travelling on my own that I didn't foresee - bear danger).

Though it may sound funny, 'bear-awareness' is a big deal here. Throughout BC and Alberta (and probably the rest of Canada, though I haven't been there), they have 'bear-proof' bins that stop them raiding them, and there are signs everywhere telling you not to leave your food lying around. As for what to do when confronted with a bear I've received mixed advice. Apparently you're supposed to curl up into a ball and let them sniff you and decide if you're a threat or food (not sure if there's any middle ground there for not being eaten). Or you should try to scare them with an aggressive front, something not really on my list of options given all 5ft2 of me. So you see, I would actually have little chance of survival if confronted with one of these grizzly specimens and they were in a bad mood. So the walking trail was out.

I caught the second bus of the day to my hostel, got there around half 11, found out that check in wasn't until 4pm, and then had to wait another couple of hours for the next bus into town, only to spend a few hours there exploring, before catching the last bus back to the hostel. Thus not much wiggle room there for proper exploration. Though I quite liked Whistler Village itself. It's obviously a complete resort town that preys on the fact that it can charge what it wants for things given you're half-way up a mountain and your options are slim, however it does have a charm about it. Not to mention the buzz that's going on in these parts as Whistler and Vancouver are about to jointly host the Winter Olympics in 2010 - it really does feel like quite a nice place to hang around. However, what with time restraints and my desire to see other parts of Canada before I leave, I just can't afford the time. A shame, but not a big deal really.

So going back a week or so, after getting on a plane in San Francisco, I spent a few lovely days in Seattle before heading up to Canada. It's safe to say that I was feeling a bit bummed about travelling alone after 2 weeks with Barney but luckily I have various family/family friends in Seattle who kept me entertained.

On landing, my Aunt's best friend and partner picked me up from the airport and took me back to her incredibly beautiful waterfront condo where I was to spend the night. Having been none to keen to return to staying in dorms in a hurry, having my own room and bathroom was pure luxury. The next day Karen and her parents took me to  see the Salmon ladders (things that help salmon breed in the rivers) and Snoqualmie Falls, which is about 20 miles outside of Seattle, and we had a lovely meal there. All in all, I had a really nice day and was even lucky enough to be dropped at my hostel.

I needn't have feared the return to communal living - my hostel in Seattle was nothing short of fantastic. Huge bunk beds with individual power sockets, reading lights, fans, and curtains around each bed. Not to mention the free wireless, free meals and generally great atmosphere. So basically the next few days I mostly spent chilling out around Seattle's various coffee houses (being the home of Starbucks, there is actually one on EVERY corner) and doing minimal sightseeing, for which I felt not the least bit guilty. I finally had time to sort out my camera (the memory card was full), back things up on my laptop, and generally get together the last few weeks of my time away. There are obviously things I still want to do in Seattle, and since I fly out of there on Thursday next week, I'll still have the opportunity to go up the Space Needle (maybe... bit bored of high-up, city-view buildings) and do the Experience Music Project. Whilst I was in the city I also met my father's cousin for the first time which was nice to put a face to the name and in general, to be able to see a bit of the city suburbs.

From Seattle, I got the Amtrak train up to Vancouver, which is actually only a short journey, and takes about 4 hours. The journey up there was brilliant - incredibly spacious seats (better than any plane I've been on) and the ability to move around occasionally (something you can't do on a coach). However, on arrival in Canada, I hadn't counted on being interrogated like a common criminal.

I've been quite lucky with customs/security through all the countries I've been through so far. Maybe too lucky and so my luck ran out. Either way, on getting to the station in Vancouver, I was greeted by a stuck-up, power-tripping, thought-he-was-all-that customs officer, who seemed to be of the belief that I was either intent on staying in Canada for an indefinite period of time in order to sponge off their state (despite my showing him my ongoing tickets), or that I was actually there to smuggle drugs - "you mean you've NEVER experimented with drugs?!" he says to me condescendingly as he searched through my bag. No Mr Wanker I haven't! Canada was the last place I expected to go through a tough time getting through. I mean, it is my Queen on the back of their ridiculously-shaped coins. Anyway, he did eventually let me go albeit with the feeling that I'd done something wrong - not a great start to a new country to the say the least.

This bad start was followed up by another couple of incidents, the first being Vancouver's way of charging you commission on getting some money out from the station (it's a big station yet none of the ATMs accepted VISA), and then once I got money and had walked 2 minutes to the SkyTrain (monorail) station, a tramp tried to give me an old ticket, and on my polite decline of this less than generous offer, he then proceeded to try to swipe my change from the ticket machine as I bought a proper one. Words can't describe how pissed off I was feeling at this point, and as he stood there with my money held tightly in his hand I yelled at him as loudly as possible in front of everyone at the station, until he looked so embarassed he allowed me to snatch the money back off of him. Canada and I really didn't get off on the right foot...!
It then took me ages to get to my hostel as I'd misjudged the distance with my heavy bags, and when I finally arrived at my hostel in the West End (the nicer suburban part of the city), I'd definitely strained something in my back/neck for sure. The hostel was nice, but by this point, having had an early start to catch my 7:40am train, and all the crap afterwards, I was far from enamoured with Vancouver. So, I decided pretty much straight away to book myself on to a tour to get the hell out of there ASAP. That's where my 'adventure' on the Moose Network (hop on, hop off backpacking bus) tour began...

To say it was a complete disaster would be an exaggeration. However, I can confidently say that almost everything that could go wrong, did. On the first day we got lost and ended up at the hostel hours too late to see anything. The next day the bus broke down on the side of the motorway and we were stranded for 6 hours before arriving at our destination at half 1 in the morning! The next day I had a different driver (mine seemed to carry all the bad luck with her poor thing) and so I made the short journey to Lake Louise from Banff hitch-free! However on getting back on my original driver's bus a couple of days later, she managed to lock the keys in the car with the lights still on. Thus by the time we broke back into the car (largely thanks to a Kiwi couple who were incredibly handy with a wire coat-hanger) the battery was flat. Thus we then had to find a car with jump leads to get the car started again. All in all, not a good start to the day! Then a few days later my poor driver (it should be mentioned here that it was her first tour), managed to clip the bumper of a car in the supermarket car park whilst reversing. Gutted. Anyways, the last day back to Vancouver was hassle-free (ish) and we managed to get back to town on time, giving me and some of the girls from my bus time to investigate Granville Island (not actually an island) market which was pretty cool.

Along the way I did actually get to see a few places properly as well. Shuswap Lake and Banff pretty much involved just sleeping there and leaving the next day quite early (Banff I think I even spent a record of just 5 hours in the hostel). Lake Louise was my first proper 'jump-off' stop though. The lakes around the Rockies are full of glacier water (excuse the shocking scientific explanation here) and so in the sunlight they look the most beautiful turquoise!
I've just discovered the ability of my blog to put photos in so I've shoved one in above so you can see how fantastic the colour is. Anyway, I had a lovely time relaxing in a lovely, alpine lodge style hostel and walking to/around the lake.

On the way back to Vancouver, we stopped in Revelstoke and Kelowna, and here I didn't really get to see much of them either unfortunately, due to the time we arrived. However what with a few pretty cool stop offs (a wolf centre where we learnt how to howl and a wine tasting - mmm), the trip wasn't a total loss, and a far preferable way of travelling to the Rockies without the 13 hour Greyhound journey.

On returning from the tour I spent a full day giving Vancouver another chance as we really did get off on the wrong foot. I explored around the Stanley Park area and along the coast line of the city. There's loads of lovely cafes and shops you can stop in around this part of Vancouver and so it was quite nice just to stroll around. Then the next day I went up to Whistler (see above) and on leaving Whistler this morning, I've now arrived on Vancouver Island and more specifically the Eastern coastal town of Nanaimo. It's quite a sweet place with little to do except wander the beach front and eat ice cream (no complaints here) and my hostel is beautiful (it's like an IKEA showroom!), however I'm pretty glad I'm only staying a night.

Tomorrow I'll get another Greyhound down to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and the main town on Vancouver Island. Having only today heard that the hostel there is less than stunning, I'm now a bit apprehensive about my 48 hours there, however I'm sure I'll find loads to keep me busy. As a city, it is supposed to be lovely.

But there it is. Next update probably coming after my long weekend in Denver/Wyoming with my cousin and family, but before I hit Washington DC and New York (the last stops on my travels). Well that's the plan anyway. This could well be my penultimate blog - sad times. 

More soon!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The long-awaited catch up blog: Fiji and California/Nevada/Arizona

Well, I'm writing this from my bed in a fantastic hostel in Seattle, having been recently reunited with my laptop. It has, obviously, been hideously long since my last entry. It's all for a good reason though and I've actually been trying the last 3 nights to write this entry here in Seattle. However, I've been roomed with an up and coming film director who insists on calling me Gigi, (Lulu Fries'dat - check out her film on voting participation in the USA - and a woman who grew up in a house 2 doors away from me yet who I've never met before. So basically, with such interesting people around, I've slowed down on the blog front for a brief period so as to not miss a beat on my travel adventures.

Ok, so I'm blatantly making excuses and haven't written for the obvious reason that Barney was here and we were tearing round everywhere at great speed and in general spending some time together, given we hadn't for 9 weeks. Now that I have my faithful laptop with me though, and wireless seems to be readily available everywhere in North America, I'll be much better on updating. Promise!

Anyway, I should do a catch up on things since I left New Zealand. I went to Fiji. And left Fiji. After 2 days. The weather on my arrival was shocking, and with no sign of improvement for the next few days, I decided to cut my trip short and got my flight to LA rescheduled a couple of days earlier. Sod's law, the next day things brightened up and I had a fair amount of time chilling by the pool with a book. However I couldn't count on the weather staying nice enough for me to book my trip off to the islands without risking wasting my money. Anyway, in the end I was quite happy with my decision to get away a couple of days earlier than planned as it gave me a while to get used to the time difference and nurse the wounds that COVERED my legs and feet after getting bitten alive by bugs in my short time in Nadi.

My flight to LA was fine and I was sat next to a Canadian guy and his wife who gave me some tips on Vancouver and Las Vegas, yet maintained the tricky balance of not being annoying and talking too much during the 11 hour flight. And on going through US security the hardest question I had was "So why did you want to study law?". The officer may have just been making conversation, or it could have been part of their interrogation process. Either way, despite having answered the same question about a hundred times on application forms last summer, I came up with the incredibly articulate response of "um, er... I don't know really". Nevertheless, they let me through with nothing more than a friendly smile and advice not to talk to strangers or drink the water - funny man.

In the couple of days on my own in a beautiful hostel in Santa Monica, I didn't do much other than drool at the windows of Abercrombia & Fitch on the promenade there. I did meet a couple of nice girls in my room though - one Aussie and one Columbian. We had a nice evening together lambasting the huge size of American fast food portions after feeling sick after a regular sized McDonalds.

Anyway, Barney arrived on the Saturday and after 9 weeks of not seeing him, I was obviously pretty damn excited waiting in the arrivals lounge of LAX. His flight was a bit late and after getting stroppy with the hordes of limo drivers who kept blocking my view of the passenger exit, Barney eventually arrived, albeit a bit late. We went and picked up the car in anticipation of our Californian roadtrip, and were pretty pleased with our lot. We had a silver-coloured convertible (oh yeah!) Chrysler Sebring, and aside from being a beast in size and not that powerful, it did the job beautifully for our poser needs. We then headed off to our hotel (the Hilton, you know how it is...) and were pretty pleased with our lot there too. Having shared a room with up to 7 other people and having to manoeuvre corridors in the dark with a torch to find the bathroom, a whole room for just me and Barney (and with it's OWN bathroom!) was a novelty that didn't wear off pretty much for the whole 2 weeks!

LA wasn't at all how I imagined it. For one thing it's so spread out and just in general so huge that you can't cover everything and have to be quite selective in what you see. On our first day we went for a drive to Beverley Hills and stared at the expensive shops on Rodeo Drive and people with their dogs (THE accessory in LA  as far as I could tell). Then we chilled out in Santa Monica for the afternoon/evening. Having both had pretty long flights within the last 48 hours we weren't game for hardcore 'squeeze absolutely everything in' sightseeing, which was actually quite nice. The next day however we hit Universal Studios as a compromise on my wanting to go to Disneyland and Barney being too cool for it. It was actually quite good fun - highlights included the Studio tour (driving down Wisteria Lane!!), the horror house (I screamed at everything), and the brand new Simpsons ride (don't mention it to Barney though). 

On our last day, before schlepping to Las Vegas, we spent the morning tracking down the Griffith Observatory which is apparently the best place to see the Hollywood sign. Signs with directions off the freeways are shocking though and it took us quite a while to get there. I'd like to say it was worth it, and I suppose I would have been gutted if we'd missed it, but honestly it's just SO small! Obviously we had to get a few pictures with it though...! We then did some shopping and Barney bought himself a flash new SLR camera which he was quite pleased with.

The drive to Vegas seemed to take ages, and I hadn't got the guts to get behind the wheel yet so for Barney who was doing all the driving, it must have seemed even longer. I do love driving (especially when a convertible's involved) but American driving is so different from the UK. Aside from the ridiculous things like 4-way stops (put a roundabout in silly people!), there are also rules like you're allowed to turn right on a red light, and there are no rules about lanes or undertaking on the freeways - mental. Still I eventually got used to it and it actually turns out to be quite a good system (except the 4-ways - they're still weird).

Anyway, we got to Vegas quite late and it being my first time there (Barney went a few years ago) we drove down the strip to get the 'Vegas at night' vibe. It was fantastic! I was worried I'd find it tacky or too garish, but not at all - I loved it! And our hotel for the first night wasn't bad either. The Sahara is quite a way north on the strip but was an absolute bargain and was perfect for what we needed considering how late we got there and how early we needed to leave the next day.

The next day we were off to the Grand Canyon, which was going to be another 5-6 hour journey. However this time we split the driving and what with stopping at a few vista points and in general playing stupid car games, we had a really fun drive. The scenery is of course stunning as well which helps big time. For the last few days we'd been worrying about what we were going to do about accommodation as the ones actually in the park are quite limited in numbers. However we'd got lucky with what must have been a cancellation and had booked a nice lodge in the Grand Canyon Village itself a couple of nights before. We arrived with enough time to go for a mini stroll and position ourselves for the sunset. I can't emphasise enough how beautiful it was. At first we'd tried to find a secluded spot of just us and our bottle of wine but soon realised everyone else had the same idea. It was quite a nice atmosphere though, all watching the sun go down perched on rocks along the rim of the Canyon, and we got some stunning photos. Definitely one of my travelling highlights so far.

The next day we made an early start and did a couple of miles stroll around the rim, again with amazing views. We then set off quite early after that and made our way back to Vegas via Lake Mead where we had lunch by the waterfront and Barney had a good time harassing the fish. For our proper break in Vegas (the night in the Sahara was just to break up the schlep to the Grand Canyon really), we were living it up a bit and staying in the MGM Grand. I wish we'd taken a picture of our room before we trashed it - it was so Vegas! I won't go through every detail but the main "how cool is this?!" features were a phone in the toilet and a TV in the bathroom mirror - I kid you not.

That night we had one of the best meals either of us have had at the top of the Stratosphere, where the restaurant revolves as you dine so you get to see all over Las Vegas. We had a fantastic table staring straight ahead to the view and the food was brilliant to boot - another highlight without a doubt.

The next day we took some well earned chill-out time after so much driving, and following a mammoth lie in we spent a few hours chilling by the pool with beverages, books and enormous hot dogs. For our evening entertainment, Barney had got us tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show on at our hotel - KÀ. It was AMAZING. I'd seen Cirque du Soleil at the Albert Hall in January before I left and it was obviously pretty good, but this show was phenomenal. The stunts they do and the visual effects have you entranced the whole time and with the MGM's purpose built theatre for it, with speakers in the headrests and special structures/stages, the show really comes to life.

After the show we then strolled down the strip, both of us getting snap-happy with the pretty lights, and stopped for a while outside the Bellagio hotel for their fantastic fountain display. It runs every 10 minutes or so and alternates between songs and corresponding performances but is consistently beautiful. Definitely something to entrance you for too long if you're not careful! After that we had a quick meal back at the hotel and then proceeded to lose money on the slot machines as both of us were too chicken to play with the big boys on the tables. Safe to say, gambling is not my thing!

We again set off quite early and after stopping at the Flamingo and Koval junction to get some photos of where Tupac was shot for Barney's housemate Osman (yes - really), we set off for the Joshua Tree National Park. We'd been torn between going there or driving through Death Valley en route to Santa Barbara (which is back towards the coast, about an hour north of LA), but decided on the Joshua Tree as it made for a better stopover. We were glad we did as we stayed in a beautiful little motel (where U2 stayed once apparently) and the night we arrived, quite by chance there was a stargazing party being held by the local astronomy club in the park itself. It was quite stunning and after some lessons with a laser pen, I feel quite confident I could point out most of the signs of the zodiac in the night sky... maybe. 

The next day we also did one of the nature trails through the park and were able to truly appreciate the weirdness of the trees - they really do look like something out of a Dr Zeuss book. Anyway, we set off back to LA and I had my first experience of LA freeway driving of which I'm now an expert (Barney: "can you please try to keep over to the left!!!").

We got to our motel in Santa Barbara which yet again was something a bit out of the ordinary and we had a very weird but very cool room. The town itself was lovely and one of the few places either of us could actually picture living in. It sits on a gorgeous beach with a lovely main street full of lovely Mediterranean-style architecture. The courthouse was the centrepiece of this style and was absolutely beautiful (see facebook photos!).

The next day we drove up the coast to Monterey (quite a schlep) via the famous Highway 1, which is one of the best scenic drives in the US. It curves around the coastline with stunning views and a seal colony en route. However it did take forever given that you can't speed around tight, winding, coastal roads. We eventually got there though and yet again had wangled ourselves quite a nice motel with a pool and a jacuzzi. We browsed around town and after Barney made friends with some twattish locals by almost running them over (they were asking for it I swear), we milled around and absorbed the seaside, fish-themed tourist tat on display. We then headed over to Carmel (where lots of famous people live) and strolled along the beach whilst the sun was still out. Then we drove down the (semi)famous 17-mile drive to Pebble beach, which winds around exclusive mansions and lots of trees and vistas over the coast.

We'd decided to do some horse-riding and signed up for a trek with the local Equestrian centre. Despite both being wusses and grabbing for the helmets after seeing the sizes of the horses we'd been paired with, we had a brilliant time and both really enjoyed it. I was on a (female) horse called Giorgio (stupid name) and Barney was on a very amusing horse called Hope, who would stop every few minutes to have a chomp on a nearby patch of grass. Anyway, definitely something I'll be doing again on my travels. That night we had a lovely meal on the pier in Monterey and followed it with a few mojitos at a jazz bar. The band were really good and I can't help but think that places like that in America just wipe the floor with our equivalents.

The next morning was the last major piece of driving we'd be doing, as we were heading up to San Francisco. However, before we could do that, Barney wanted to stop at the Monterey Bay Sky Diving centre... I know. What a copycat. However he claims he wanted to do it way before I did it... whatever.

The guys he did it with were really good actually, and despite my belief that it would be nowhere near as professional as the operations they have in New Zealand (given it's pretty much the adventure capital of the world!), they were actually really good. We had to hang around quite a bit, waiting for the other people in his group to turn up but it was totally worth it. He had amazing weather and a really good tandem guy and camera-woman. He even got to do some fancy spins! The film (as much as it kills me to say it) was way better than mine as well, as firstly you only have you on it, not the other people on your plane as well. And secondly, more impressive still, he got to pick his own music for both the build-up AND the freefall. Pretty cool I thought. Anyway, he had an awesome time and despite getting a bit sick from the bus ride back from the airfield afterwards, definitely enjoyed himself.

We then headed (slowly and with sick-bags at the ready) up the last stretch of highway to San Francisco. I've always wanted to visit the city but being the beginning of the end of our holiday together, it did have a bittersweet tinge to it as we drove into town. We did (yet again) have a lovely little motel, situated on Lombard Street in the Marina area. It had sweet little courtyards and even garages to park the car in and so we were suitably impressed. That night, (because I'm a cruel, cruel girlfriend), we went to see Sex & the City: The Movie. I have to say, despite obviously loving the film (will refrain from airing my few issues with the storyline so as to not spoil it for anyone), my first American cinema experience was very enjoyable! They do this very sweet thing of wooping at appropriate moments and some even clapped at the end - made me smile anyway.

The next day we went across to Alcatraz and wandered round. There was a fantastic audio tour with real-life inmates/guards narrating your time there, complete with appropriate 'clunking cell-door' noises as you went round. It was beautiful weather as well and the view across to the city was pretty good too. The next day, being our last, we took it easy and went to the Golden Gate Bridge, did a bit of shopping in Union Square, and then went home mid-afternoon to pack - boo. We'd changed motels at this point as rooms in San Francisco, though pretty hideously priced during the week, are astronomical at the weekend and we'd managed to bag a suite at a little B&B down the road from our other motel. The room was beautiful, with an oriental theme and jacuzzi - definitely a good way to end the holiday!

Anyway, that evening we had a lovely Italian meal in the local neighbourhood and said our goodbyes to San Francisco. The next morning we got to the airport ridiculously early as we're both paranoid about these things, and flitted between the domestic and international terminals, checking ourselves in. Won't go into details but obviously, having travelled as a couple for 2 weeks and with the prospect of going back to being a lone traveller, saying goodbye royally sucked. 

Anyway, I got my flight to Seattle, Barney his to London and we both got to our respective destinations ok. I'll leave it there as this is a substantially large entry that I'm sure most people haven't even followed through this far (apologies for the inane detail if you have made it all the way down). Anyway, will post again soon after my adventures in Seattle and Canada! Only just over 3 weeks until I come home - aaah!

Monday, 19 May 2008

The North Island and my last few days in New Zealand

Well, the North Island has been and gone, and tomorrow I shall be jetting off to Fiji for a few days. Before you get all jealous and bitter though, please be assured that the forecast for Nadi (apparently pronounced Nan-di), is actually a bit pants for my first few days. Nonetheless I'm optimistic that I will indeed get some sunshine in before I arrive in LA and will redress the ridiculous paleness that my skin has developed since leaving Australia.

So. The North Island. After my last blog I went on to have a fantastic evening in Kaikoura with a great group of guys I met on the bus, and came as close as I probably ever will to winning a pub quiz. Alas, we came second and only received a $30 bar tab between us. However, after the barman took pity on one particularly poor member of our group halfway-through, we received a fair number of free shots to compensate. Big shout out to Luke who both took my free shot for me before anyone could shout at me for being pathetic, and also gave me his Lonely Planet San Francisco guide the next day. My hero!

The next day out bus split, with half of us disembarking at Picton for the ferry to Wellington, and the other half going on around the South Island. The ferry journey wasn't as bad as I'd been told it could be and the crossing was more like a scenic cruise. I managed to bag a reclining seat on the front row of the lounge area at the front of the boat, and so the views were actually pretty spectacular. However, I did manage to doze for most of it as my ferry buddy (who incidentally comes from Hatch End and who I bumped into randomly in Christchurch) will verify.

I then spent 3 nights in Wellington, as due to the bus timetable, it was either 1 or 3, and since Wellington has a late drop off and early pick up, if I'd spent 1 night I wouldn't have actually seen anything of the place. This wasn't a problem though. Having now been through all the major cities in New Zealand, I can quite confidently say that Wellington is by far the nicest of the lot! There's loads to do there and the fantastic national museum 'Te Papa' was quite frankly awesome. It's a mix of history and geology type displays all about NZ, with a heavy emphasis on the Maori culture, hence the name (Te Papa = 'our place' in the Maori language).

I also did a tour of the Parliament, mostly because it was a good free way to kill an hour but it actually turned out to be quite interesting. There's loads of similarities with the British system and the actual Parliament building is quite attractive inside. I also took the cable car and walked back down through the Botanical Gardens which was quite nice, but not as impressive as I'd hoped. The highlight however was catching back up with my friends from the Kiwi bus who got in on my last night, and we went to the rugby for the evening. We saw the Hurricanes (Wellington's team) play Perth's Western Force. The game was probably quite good, but between changing seats every 5 minutes to try and get under the covered section (we'd paid for the cheap uncovered seats) and taking an extended half time break indoors, I'm pretty sure I missed most of the exciting bits. The weather was AWFUL! I thought I'd seen enough NZ rain in my few weeks in the country, but what I'd seen so far was nothing compared to this. It absolutely thundered it down and on legging it from the stadium a few minutes before the game ended to try and get on the first bus, Claire and I got absolutely soaked. My umbrella ripped under the force of it all, and by the time we got in to the hostel, it was all about a hot shower and putting clothes in the dryer. But still - an experience and definitely a mandatory one when spending a few weeks in New Zealand I reckon!

The next day it was on to Taupo, the sky-diving capital of New Zealand and pretty much, the world! I'd hoped to only have to spend 2 nights there, but after hearing horror stories of people hanging around a week waiting for good sky-diving weather (they don't take you up in certain conditions), I'd allowed for 4 nights if need be. Luckily, I didn't need it, as even though I didn't get up on the day we arrived as it had already clouded over, the next morning was without a doubt, fantastic weather for jumping out of a plane.

All along, I'd said to myself that I was only going to do a 12,000ft jump, rather than the 15,000ft one, just because I didn't really believe the stories that it wasn't as good, and I thought it was just a way to get more money from you. However when it came to it, I was sucked in like the rest of them and signed up to do the maximum (15,000), together with the photos, DVD and t-shirt. Well you only do it once, right?!

Anwyay, I was signed up to do the early jump (by request - I didn't want to have too much time in the morning to think about all the things that could go wrong), and so was picked up bright and early at 7am from the hostel. Sure enough, on the bus there was a couple who were trying for the 3rd day to do their jump and had even got as far as being up in the plane, having the door opened, and then the red light going on and them having to come back down again - both gutting and frustrating I bet! Anyway, the sky looked clear-ish and so I had my fingers crossed. We got to the centre and luckily they said it was fantastic weather to sky-dive. In fact they said on a day like today you could see both sides of the Island and we should really try to make the most of the views up there - something a lot of people forget to do what with the initial shock of it all, can't think why though...

Anyways, we got suited up and luckily I was paired with an uber experienced 'tandem master' who didn't make the oh-so-funny 'no, your harness is on completely the wrong way' jokes that some do when you're up in the plane. We literally crawled into the tiniest plane EVER and made our way upwards. It wasn't the most comfortable journey up. There were 10 of us in there (3 divers + tandem buddies, 3 camera-men divers, and 1 plane-based camera-man), and since I was going to be last to jump, we were crammed in the far end of the space with the other jumpers nearer the door. I'm not sure this is a good thing, as I'd heard lots of people being fine until they see their friends fall away out of the window, but luckily I was ok!

I had to half sit on my instructor as he harnessed me in which was quite frankly a bit intimate but to be honest worth it, not wanting to risk not being strapped to him tight enough, him having the all-important parachute and all. Anyways, when it comes to actually jumping, you don't really have much choice on the matter. The plane was so diddy anyway, I would have much rather jumped out of it than land in it. You slide yourself down to the window opening (you're kind of glued to the front of your instructor, much like a baby-carrier), and dangle your legs outside the plane. I'd had instructions to bend my legs at the knee backwards and tip my head back against his shoulder as we leaned out (this I would later learn was so I didn't knock him unconscious with my head snapping back as we jumped out!). Anyways, in a matter of seconds, he'd said ready, I'd said nothing, and then we were gone, my camera-man following us not long after!

If I haven't said it enough, it was AWESOME! The feeling was amazing. I'd honestly thought I would panic or not enjoy it for being so scared on the way down, but I must have psyched myself up something proper because I loved every second. I honestly can't remember not feeling safe at any point, which is ridiculous really. It didn't even feel like I was falling for the freefall, more like floating in a whizzing kind of way (sorry, description isn't really my forte). Then before I knew it, and after a lot of "WOO-ing!" and "YEAH-ing!", several attempts at the Superman pose/swimming action, and a few spins, the parachute was up and we were yanked up quite sharply. After that, it was smooth floating and everything was so quiet, I actually had a conversation with my instructor. Nothing intellectual though, obviously. Mostly "my ears hurt" and "I can't believe you do this for a living" (in a 'you're so cool!' kind of way)! It was so beautiful on the way down. The people in the office were right, the views were amazing. How we ended up landing in the right spot though, I'll never know, but it was a (semi) graceful landing and I didn't fall flat on my face which was cool. So yes, that's it. Apologies for the mammoth description but it's not every day you jump out of a plane and so I thought it deserved a bit of a spotlight.

Anyway, I stayed another night in Taupo, though this time in the Base hostel. It was without a doubt, the NICEST Base hostel I've stayed in EVER (and I'm pretty sure I've stayed at all of them now!) which was good as sometimes they can be a bit of a dump. I'm talking individual bed-lights and power sockets, en suite bathrooms with super nice showers, and even a balcony so Claire had somewhere to smoke - ideal. Anyway, I mostly chilled for the rest of the day. Even though I was on a high still from the jump, all the adrenalin kind of exhausted me and I had fun things like laundry to do.

The next day it was on to Rotorua, aka Rotten-rua/Roto-Vegas. This is a huge tourist destination famous for it's sulphur smell, spas with stinky mud pools that cleanse etc., and a lot of Maori cultural experiences. The Kiwi bus gets a really good discount on one of these experiences and so we stopped at the office on the way in to have a brief introduction talk and sign up for the event that evening. Anyway, the most important bit of this brief diversion from the mainstream of my visit there, is that there were bone carving necklaces up for grabs as prizes for answering questions, and I did win one. I know, I know - too exciting.

The actual event that evening was pretty cool. Suzanne, Claire and I went along and after I got over the initial disappointment of not being able to be the 'Chief' on behalf of our bus-load for the evening on account of my sex (take note New Zealand Maoris - sexism isn't cool), it was a pretty good experience. You arrive and the chiefs of all the buses have to face off with the chiefs of the Maori village as they do a haka, which involves loads of funny faces and a lot of intimidating yelling and noise-making. Note here, that as a by-stander you are forbidden to laugh or smile as apparently this upsets the Maori tribe, which is fair enough but quite an effort with some of the faces they pull and the sounds they make. Still I managed to not offend and keep a straight face.

We then got to walk around their 'village' which is more like a load of huts and people at each one talking about different aspects of their traditional crafts and lifestyles. We then had a Maori concert which was awesome! They danced, sang and entertained really well for a good half hour before we went into the dining room for our uber buffet meal. I'd been tipped off that they seat all the backpackers together as they eat more (you have your own allocated table of food) but honestly, I have never seen so much food, it really wasn't an issue! So the stories we'd heard were true and we had an awesome traditionally-cooked Maori dinner.

The next day, after having a leisurely lie-in, we hit the luge tracks of Rotorua! We got the cable car up the hill and bought 3 tickets for the 'Scenic', 'Intermediate', and 'Advanced' tracks. Now, the first route (scenic) would have been great if my cart hadn't stopped dead half-way down the track, and resulted in a mother and toddler duo, bumper-bumping be down the rest of the way, much to the amusement of Claire and Suzanne who had finished a good ten minutes before and were wetting themselves at my arrival. Still, I had better luck with the next track and was having a great time until I went straight into one of the walls, screaming my head off - ouch. Big shout out to Claire who once again, nearly wet herself laughing from behind me. The Advanced track was probably my best run down, what with no accidents or kart-incidents, and this I feel points to my skill on the luge tracks. Ish. Anyway, it was a fun 2 hours or so. We then went further up the road and I watched as Claire and Suzanne each did Zorbing. Not really my thing but looked pretty cool.

The next day we headed on up to Auckland, which gets (unfairly I think) a lot of stick for being a dull city with nothing much to do. It's New Zealand's biggest city but doens't have the cultural appeal of Wellington (or it's Capital status for that matter), nor the picturesque quality of Christchurch. All the same it's a city and I for one was quite happy to have my choice of two Starbucks anyway.

The next day however, I headed on up to the Bay of Islands (Paihia) which is North of Auckland and a real tourist spot in the summer months where it's all about sailing and crystal blue waters. I didn't do any activites as the weather wasn't fantastic but nonetheless I met a great group of people and had a pretty awesome night at the hostel bar, which resulted in some going for a midnight swim on the beach (not me though - sensible). Much fun was had anyway!

Back in Auckland (Paihia was only a 1 night trip) I was reunited with Becs and Claire, and since the latter was leaving NZ the next day, we planned to have a last decent night out. Together with my new chums from the Paihia trip and some randomers (one of whom apparently got arrested at the end of the night), we had a pretty good time, and clad with her newly acquired 'free when you purchase 4 bottles of some disgustingly pink vodka drink' bikini, I think Claire had a pretty good last night.

The next day, after seeing her off at the bus stop, Becs and I ventured up the SkyTower, which is Auckland's, as well as the Southern Hemisphere's, tallest building. The views were actually pretty fantastic and after getting over the initial fear of walking over the clear glass floor panels, we took some pretty cool pictures and amused ourselves quite nicely. We randomly bumped into our friend Adam there as well and the three of us went for a walk along the harbourfront as the sun set which was also quite nice.

Then Becs left to do her Paihia trip and for the last few days I haven't actually done much to speak of. Most of my time has been spent on the internet trying (and failing) to re-jig my travel plans. So, for anyone that's interested, my plans are unchanged. I'm still doing the West coast of the US and Canada, and I'm still hitting Denver, DC and NYC before heading home on the 5th/6th July (woo)! It was all very complicated coming round to this conclusion though I assure you, a lot of effort (and internet dollars!) went into attempting to change it.

Anyways, I fly into Nadi in Fiji tomorrow and will have 4 relaxing nights at the Nadi Bay Hotel, which sounds posh but is still dorm accommodation. Though reportedly nicer than your average Oz/NZ hostel though (also woo)! Then it's on to the US where I have two Saturdays, flying into Los Angeles before I left Nadi - weird. But yes, so obviously majorly looking forward to seeing Barney and doing our American roadtrip around California. Will hopefully get a blog in at the end of my stay in Fiji as I'm pretty sure I'm going to be majorly distracted in the US for the first 2 weeks and there'll be a distinct lack of blogging. Anyway, will see! Hope everyone's ok and counting down to my coming home (just under 7 weeks, in case you've lost track on your own countdowns) :p

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Finally, some sunshine!

Well people, my prayers have been answered and I am currently in Kaikoura (again) being bathed in beautiful rays of sunshine. Though obviously not right this second as I'm quite clearly sat at a computer indoors. However the sun was shining when I came into the cafe, and from my seat here I can confirm that it is still shining beautifully :)

Anyways, so I'm in Kaikoura again (location of ill-fated yet nonetheless awesome dolphin spotting trip), and as mentioned it's a lovely day. My pass on the Kiwi bus means that I go through here and Christchurch twice, which I initially thought was quite annoying but am now quite glad of. As I said before, I'm a big fan of Christchurch (even though no one else is for some reason!) and though there's not much to do here in Kaikoura if you've already done some kind of marine life spotting/swimming adventure, it's quite nice to have half a day of 'unplanned activity'. Or rather no activity at all! Anyway, I'm here and this means that my time on the South Island is almost over. Tomorrow in fact I'll be getting the ferry from Picton over to Wellington which is right at the bottom of the North Island. I'm most definitely looking forward to the North Island, and not just for the warmer weather. There's some great things to look forward to and it'll be nice to cross paths with some people from my bus here and even from before in Australia.

So when I last blogged I was in Franz Josef, killing a day with sewing and the like. The next day we drove off to Wanaka, which is just north of Queenstown and stands on a beautiful lake (aptly named, Lake Wanaka). We had some lovely weather on the drive down and got some nice photos which was good. I really can't emphasise enough how much the weather makes a difference to enjoying New Zealand's stunning scenery. Anyway, we got to Wanaka mid-afternoon and were staying at the Wanaka hotel, which sounds quite fancy but isn't really. Though don't get me wrong, it was hands down the nicest dorm accommodation we've had so far on the trip. We had en suites (with actual baths!), fridges and TVs - oh the luxury. These things really are exciting when you're used to nothing but the basics.

Everyone was quite tired as we'd had a big night in Franz Josef the night before, and the first night in Queenstown the next day was rumoured to be a big one too, so not many people were going out. Claire and I however wanted to go to a quirky local cinema that screened films with intervals so you can get a meal/hot cookie/drink inbetween, and had sofas and an old VW Beetle to sit in to view the film. Very random but was quite a cool experience! Though not for Claire as much who found a fly on top of her hot chocolate - ewww. Anyway, the film we saw was 'No Country for Old Men'. Half way through the film if you'd asked me if it was good I would have said yes (though a bit violent for some stomachs I'm sure). However, given my bewilderment at the end as to the actualy meaning of the closing of the movie, I feel ill-equipped to confidently state that it's a good movie. Anyone else who's seen it, please feel free to explain to me the ending or if not, join me when I say 'what the hell'?! Regardless anyway, it was a novel cinema experience, and to add to the randomness, I bumped into 2 girls from my Whitsunday sailing trip who were sat next to us!

We then headed on to Queenstown the next day and since it wasn't as long a journey we made it there by lunchtime-ish. Most people tend to spend minimum 4 nights here, just because there's simply sooooo much to do! You can bungy jump, sky-dive, canyon swing, jet boat, and pretty much every other extreme sport on the planet! I only stayed 2 nights though but to be honest wasn't too gutted about it. Queenstown is awesome for going out and the aforementioned sports but the only thing I was really limited to doing there was seeing Milford Sound, and since it's quite an expensive place to stay if you're not doing loads of things, I didn't want to hang around too long.

The first night all of our bus went out and had a good night at our hostel bar, followed by the World Bar. I really have been so lucky with the people on my buses so far - everyone's really nice and easy-going. Anyway, it was a late night and I was potentially regretting this the next day as I had booked my day trip to Milford Sound. I was slightly tired, but after sleeping most of the 4 hour journey there, had a great day. The views were spectacular and I will no doubt be littering Facebook with the photos soon! Still, it was a long day and I didn't get back to the hostel until gone 8pm. Still, no one else in my room seemed game for a late night anyway so we all had reasonably early nights after a chilled political discussion following the news of Boris. I know I have no right to complain when I didn't sort my proxy vote out in time but still - what were you thinking London?!!

Anyway, I then got the bus nice and early the next day back to Christchurch and went to bed embarassingly early the first night. The next day I did pretty much nothing except for stand in bookshops for hours debating whether to buy a California Lonely Planet book for my impending roadtrip with Barney, and then after coming to the conclusion that $60 is not an acceptable price for a book (Oz and NZ: what is up with your overpriced books?!), whiled away a couple of hours in Starbucks writing postcards (oh yes - I know how to soak up foreign culture). Thus after not doing anything of note that day and more importantly, spending minimal money, I decided to treat myself to the cinema that evening. I went alone, which was a first for me, and was actually not as weird-feeling as I'd anticipated. Almost liberating in fact. Only in a 'yes, I'm on my own and I don't care' kind of way though. Anyway, I saw 'Gone Baby Gone' with Casey Affleck and Ed Harris, and it was actually quite a good movie. I actually understood the ending for this one so that straight off made it a winner.

So that's me for the last week anyway: almost finished with the South Island and it's onwards and upwards tomorrow (literally) to the North Island. It does involve a 3 hour ferry journey (even though it looks like a tiny crossing on the map!), however I am fully prepared with seasickness tablets this time - a sound investment I'm sure. Apparently it can get choppy so best to be prepared rather than faced with an embarassing bucket display I feel. So that's it for now, hopefully more from Rotarua/Auckland when I get there.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

New Zealand so far...

Well I've been in New Zealand exactly a week now and so my commitment to stay on top of my blog seems to be going ok so far...ish. If I can remember everything that's happened so far. It's all been a bit of a rush with lots of places, and stopping for only a night at a time, but I'll do my best. In Senegal I kept a journal so I didn't need to remember but here there's just no time as it is!

So yes, I arrived in Christchurch last Wednesday (23 April) and got to my hostel quite late. I was staying at Base hostel which is one of the nicer ones of the chain - right on the square and a great location. For those who haven't travelled around Oz and NZ, Base is a chain of hostels that loads of people stay at - they have loads of rooms, good bars, and tend to be the more sociable hostels to stay in. They also do a lovely 'girls only' section of dorms called the Sanctuary, where you get nice fluffy towels (a big deal when you're sick to death of a travel towel which resembles a chamois!), free toiletries and free champagne - worth the extra few dollars anyway! So I stayed there for a couple of nights anyway and met some really nice girls in my room who were also doing the same bus as me (the Kiwi Experience), albeit on different dates. I'm of the opinion that the people in your dorm tend to be the same type of 'travel people' as you - i.e. in the Sanctuary I tend to find that it's mostly girls travelling on their own who want to actually see things as opposed to just get wasted/laid. Whereas big mixed dorms tend to feature the aforementioned 'travellers'. Not that I think there's anything wrong with that - if you spend a lot of money going away you should definitely spend your time doing what you want to. But still, not my thing really!

I had one day in Christchurch to look around and managed to take in most of the major sights. It's a really nice town - not very big and very like England in a quaint and pretty way. It reminded me of places like Cambridge anyway. I had beautiful weather as well which made a welcome change. Faultless blue skies and though it was still a bit chilly, plenty of sunshine. I had a wander around the cathedral which was actually quite stunning. Then I followed a walking tour from my trusty New Zealand Lonely Planet book (LP books have been my lifeline the last few months!) around the city and saw the old tramlines and parks etc. - all the more lovely in the sunshine too. I then hit the Art Gallery which was nice and small, and had enough understandable art that I felt I got something out of it. A good way to kill a couple of hours anyway. Then I wandered through the Botanical Gardens which were lovely too. I then had just enough time to have a brief stop at the Canterbury museum (a bit average in my opinion) and then hit Starbucks to chill for a couple of hours, plan my next few days travel and speak to Barney for a while on my new shiny New Zealand sim-card. Which for the record is an absolute rip off! In Australia you can get a Vodafone sim for $2. In New Zealand, it costs $35! I asked how they could justify such a price difference but unfortunately the response was that since they're the only providers in the country they can charge what the hell they want. So fair play really. But it still sucks. If anyone fancies texting/calling me anyway, my number is +642102933094.

The next day I started my 'Kiwi Experience'(!) and had to catch the bus at 7:30am outside my hostel - hideously early. The bus was actually late as there was a dawn parade through the town for Anzac Day. Which in itself was actually quite cool as when I woke up at 6am, I could here hymns being sung outside - a bit random!

There were loads of people getting on my bus. Some had just already come round the South Island and were going on to the North Island in a couple of days, whereas some, like me, were just starting their trip and would be finishing in Auckland. I met a couple of nice people, but to be honest at this stage, everyone was going to different places for different amounts of time and so I haven't seen most of them since.

Our first overnight stop was Kaikoura, a town famous for whale and dolphin spotting along its coast. Sure enough I signed up for a dolphin watching tour, which for those who knew me when I was at school, was an absolute dream come true for me. I used to be obsessed with dolphins - posters, crappy keyrings and little model figures of them - the works. And we did see loads. We came across a pod of about 200 and for those who had paid the extra $100 odd to swim with them, it was a mostly amazing experience. However, as usual with my blog, there has to be some element of vomit involved... The sea was actually quite choppy and the journey out to the open waters was more like a theme park ride. Still, I'd been ok then and not being particularly susceptible to sea sickness that I was aware of, hadn't taken any prevention tablets beforehand. However once we were actually amongst the dolphins and the boat wasn't travelling anymore, just bobbing up and down in the same place, I began to feel the waves. I got one 30-second video of the most amazing dolphins, frolicking, jumping and playing with the swimmers, and then spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the bottom of a bucket. Pleasant. For the record I wasn't the only one who couldn't handle the movement though. By the end of the trip about a dozen had made friends with the buckets, and so I didn't feel too lame. Just a bit gutted that I'd missed out on such a good photo opportunity. Anyways, that was that.

The next day we travelled on through to Picton, where half of the bus changed over to get the ferry over to the North Island, and we were joined by the people who'd just done the North Island and were now heading south. So basically a whole new bus of people. On the way to Nelson, our overnight stop for the night, we stopped at a wine tasting place which was cool. The north of the South Island has loads of good vineyards and I'd planned to stop at some on my way back towards the North Island, so it was a good one of the stops they make on the bus. Some people hate the fact that the Kiwi bus takes twice as long to get to anywhere because of all the places it stops at along the way but I quite like the random stops.

Anyway, we got into Nelson quite late which was a shame as I only had one night there and so felt like I was just there to cook and sleep before moving on somewhere else - a bit of a waste of time in my opinion. I had wanted to stay there 2 nights to see the apparently beautiful Abel Tasman National Park nearby but because of the bus timetable, I had to either have 1 night or 3, the latter being too long for my tight schedule. Anyways, I had time to visit the local Warehouse store (like Primark) to stock up on a few warm clothes before cooking some dinner and having an early night - definitely a wasted stop but oh well.

The next day was on to Westport, which is pretty much a nothing town along the West coast that was once (semi)famous for being a gold miners town. We stopped on the way for a walk down to a seal colony along the coast towards the lighthouse. It was a really nice walk and had some stunning views - plenty of good 'New Zealand scenery photos' coming to Facebook soon, that's for certain.

When we got to Westport, the hostel was only ok in general, but myself and 7 other girls were lucky enough to be put into a huge dorm room that had it's own toilet, lounge area, kitchen and TV - very random! But quite cool. The best bit was the proper fire that we had to load up with coal every hour or so - quite good fun! Anyway, there wasn't really anything to do there so we just went out for pizza and a few drinks. From Westport right through to Queenstown is a sector on the bus so knowing that I'd be with the same people for the next week was more incentive to remember names and get to know people. Luckily I've got some really nice people with a good mix of characters, so we had a good night out.

After Westport we went further down the coast to the stop the Kiwi bus is most famous for - the Poo Pub. Which is actually shortened from the name of the nearby lake: Lake Mahinapua (Maa-he-na-poo-a). It's a completely random stopover down the coast to break up the schlepp from Westport to Franz Josef and is a great night. There's no mobile phone reception and nothing around for miles except the lake and beachfront (both of which were stunning at sunset). Anyway, you have a group meal there with your bus that the random elderly owner cooks for you with your driver, and then you have a themed party in the pub. Ours was themed 'bad taste' so we were given an hour and a half in the town of Greymouth on the way down, to stop off in the $2 shop and create a costume. It was definitely an awesome night, but one that ended with me realising that my alcohol tolerance has somewhat diminished since going travelling, and I can not drink like I did at uni - mortifying I assure you. Still, the girls in my dorm were great and made sure I was strategically close to the bin before collapsing on my bed (a lower bunk thank goodness). I'm just all about class...

The next morning we left early and started our journey to Franz Josef which hosts the fastest moving glacier in the world! It wasn't a particularly long journey, but nonetheless, was broken up with a stop at something called Pete's Bushman Centre: a tiny museum dedicated to the way people have lived on the West Coast and hunted. The West Coast of the South Island is famed for people with too much time and a slow approach to life, inbreeding, and a hell of a lot of rain. Though this was probably the stereotype exaggerated to us by our driver, it still made for some amusing commentary as we drove through.

The museum wasn't really my thing. After my heavy night the night before, the last thing I wanted to watch was the history of how dead animal carcasses have been transported from the mountainsides over the last 50 years. For anyone who's interested, apparently the Kiwis pioneered capturing and hunting with a nets and a helicopter - fascinating stuff. Anyway, the museum also hosted some possums which were actually quite cute, and a wild pig that provided many comedy moments when one of our group had to feed it (they're actually quite vicious animals)! Still, I was quite happy to leave and move on...!

We arrived in Franz Josef not long after 1pm, which was good as with previous stops we'd arrived later and not had much time to do anything. However, the weather was so awful that it made for a miserable day in general. The rain was unbelievable - if it stopped, it was only for a few minutes and then it would be hammering it down again - ick ick ick. Anyways, safe to say it put me off booking on to the glacier hike today, which I'm sure I'll do one day when it's not torrential rain. In fact, the day we arrived in Franz, the river had been too high with the rain to even get to the glacier - oh how I love kiwi weather.

I am actually quite disappointed about the weather here. Obviously I knew that it wasn't going to be fantastic, but little did I realise how much difference there is from going in February/March, as opposed to April/May. There's just so many activities that don't run or that you can't do. For example, there's loads of beautiful walks that you can stop off and do along the way with the Kiwi bus but we just haven't been able to because of weather. And lovely lakes to swim in. Gutted. Nonetheless, this just all points to the fact that I have to reurn to Australasia at some point. I already want to go back to Sydney and Melbourne for definite (though this time not as a backpacker), and so I'll just HAVE to add NZ on too. Maybe...

Anyway, so basically today has been my first day of nothing since Christchurch. Though at least there I did sightseeing I suppose. Here in Franz, there's 2 streets, 1 supermarket, and nothing to do really unless you're hiking the glacier. Which, like I said, isn't really my idea of fun in the pissing rain. So yes, I've nonetheless been productive. I did laundry (fun fun fun) and even managed to fix a few of my clothes (holes in my trouser pockets and hoodie shoulders - not ideal). That's right, I sewed - how cool/self-sufficient am I?! So yes, not much going on today. Tonight should be nice though as I'm going to cook for myself and some of the other girls in my dorm, which makes a change from cooking solo - easily the most annoying thing about travelling solo as you just waste so much! But yes, looking forward to a nice chilled evening before tomorrow's early start on the bus!

Tomorrow we head to Wanaka, just north of Queenstown, and in itself a reputedly good place for extreme sports (which everyone flocks to Queenstown for). There's supposed to be good views and walks there as well though, which should be nice (weather permitting though obviously)! Then in Queenstown I'm only staying a couple of nights, but long enough to get out to Milford Sound which is supposed to be stunning. Really looking forward to getting back round to the East side of the Island anyway where all the best weather appears to be! Hopefully blog again from Wellington when I get to the North Island anyway.

Hope everyone is well :)

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Chez Steve Irwin, snake bites, faded Wimbledon stars, and Maria

Noosa: 8/4 - 11/4

Byron Bay: 11/4 - 13/4

Sydney: 13/4 - 20/4

Melbourne: 21/4 - 23/4

Well, yet again it's been ages since I last blogged. I don't know why it is that I blog so much less than when I was in Senegal. I mean obviously things are a bit more hectic here and involves a lot more travelling inbetween but really, I have no excuse. I think maybe because life here is blatantly not as interesting as it was in Senegal and so I'm distinctly less inclined to bore you all with my lack of scandalous tales. But anyway...!

So firstly, I am missing Senegal a bit. Travelling around a lot is great in that it allows you to see everything, but it does get very exhausting. I really didn't realise how much I would miss living in a home and having some degree of routine whilst I was in Dakar. But it's not making me not enjoy myself though by any means. Just a side note that I am missing it.

So when I last blogged I was in Noosa. Noosa is, as mentioned before, a very exclusive township on the coast of southern Queensland. Beccy, Leah and I spent 3 nights there, and as beautiful a town as it is, there isn't loads to do there if you're on a budget. Still it was nice to be in the same place for 3 nights in a row, something that hasn't happened on this trip since my stay in Cairns! One big thing we did do though, was visit Steve Irwin's zoo 'Australia Zoo'. I wasn't too bothered about seeing it but Beccy and Leah were set on the excursion and after encouragement from the lady at reception 'I've been 5 times in the last year' at the hostel, I decided to suck it up and pay the $40.

Now I'm not overly familiar with Steve Irwin's work. I saw the clip of the baby-dangling incident like everyone else, but to be perfectly honest, until he died a few years ago, I had no idea who he was. Thank goodness though, the courtesy bus that takes you to the zoo (they go all over the Gold Coast), plays his videos constantly... Don't get me wrong though, the zoo was great - they've really got a positive attitude to wildlife and the animals are very well-kept. However, I find Steve Irwin a bit fake. He's just a bit overly enthusiastic about everything that I couldn't help but think it was a bit put on. Obviously there's no doubt that he loved nature/all animals etc, but it feels like it's being marketed for you and that can't help but put me off quite a lot. There's only so many times you can hear "What a beauuuuuty!" and feel the sentiment is genuine. Though I'm sure lots of people will tell me I'm wrong.

Anyway the zoo itself had what was to be expected: crocs, aligators, snakes, birds, koalas etc. But there was also a show on during the day in the 'Crocoseum' (oh. yes.) and because it was the school holidays, Bindi Irwin (his daughter) was performing. Now it's important that you understand that Bindi is marketed in Australia in a similar way that Mary-Kate and Ashleigh Olsen are marketed globally. She has her own show (Bindi the Jungle Girl) and now her own dancing boyband troop, the Crocmen, who help her sing and dance to various songs about protecting the environment and our animals - touching stuff I asure you. Anyway, bitchy comments aside it was a really good day out and I'm glad I went!

The rest of our time in Noosa was fairly chilled and with some much appreciated sunshine on our last full day, our time whiled away quite nicely. Then the time came and we got back on the Oz Experience bus on the Friday. It was a fairly chilled journey down the coast, but with loads of stops as we were passing through Brisbane and Surfers Paradise first before getting to Byron Bay in the evening. Beccy and Leah were getting off at Surfers for a few days and I was going on solo to Byron.

Surfers Paradise is basically a slice of Californian life, with theme parks, sunshine, beaches and lots of bars. I'd heard mixed reviews about it (love it/hate it style opinions) and so had decided that with my tight timescale I'd give it a miss. Which I'm glad I did. Byron Bay was beautiful: very small, stunning beach, and great little shops and cafes. I had a really nice chilled 2 days there and mainly chilled, read, went to the beach. I did do a walk to the lighthouse there though that proved to be eventful...

The walk wasn't too long: about 6km round trip to my hostel, and was supposed to be beautiful. As well as admiring the stunning coastline, you also pass through rainforest and bush - it's a nice walk. Anyways, I stopped when I got to the foot of the main hill climbing up to the lighthouse to take a phonecall from Maria who I was meeting up with in Sydney the following week. Anyway, after getting off the phone I then noticed that I was joined by a young woman and her mother who was asking me how to dial 000 (the emergency number here) from a mobile. Being utterly unobservant and failing to notice the younger woman's ankle bandaged up, I apologised and said I was English and I thought you just dialled it. THEN I noticed the woman's foot and made suitable splutterings of apologies and concern. It turned out she had been bitten by a snake whilst going up the path I was just about to go up. Eeek.

Anyway, I managed to get through to Triple Zero on my network and lent my phone to the frantic mother. It turns out the woman was pregnant and so it was even more serious if the snake turned out to be venemous. The young woman was quite cool though. She was a local and just really embarassed that it had happened. It turns out that in the sunshine the snakes come out to sun themselves on the path and she just wasn't looking and stepped on it - ouch. But yes, that was my excitement for the day. Torn between giving up on my walk due to the realistic possibility that I might die from a poisonous snake bite and ploughing on through, in a burst of enthusiasm, I carried on. I watched the path like a hawk though! And I'm not too proud to admit that that last half hour bush walk section of the route scared the crap out of me. Ignoring the numerous rustles from the bushes and ducking the spider webs, I saw NO ONE for the almost the entirety of this stretch and was convinced that I'd gone the wrong way. Still, I made it and without any bites to report so that was good. The walk was actually quite stunning in places. Byron is on the most Easterly point of Australia and so the views are pretty good. Watching the hangliders from the lighthouse was pretty fun too. But yes, that was my one burst of energy for what was otherwise a very chilled weekend. I didn't go out either night and even spent one evening in the TV room watching a Harry Potter film that was on - bliss.

Anyway, I left Byron on an overnight coach (12 hours) heading to Sydney. I'd only bought an Oz Experience pass from Cairns to Byron Bay so as to avoid the unwanted stopover at Surf Camp on the way to Sydney, and so instead it was to be coaches from here on out. I took a Premier service and it was actually very good (they're a cheaper Greyhound alternative). I had loads of leg room (I know I'm short but I still notice these things) and two seats to myself, so actually managed to get a fair amount of sleep. And they played a couple of movies early on in the trip which was quite nice.

I arrived in Sydney hideously early (06:35) and headed straight for my hostel which was luckily round the corner (my bag has got heavier and heavier and it's all I can do not to cry when I have to put it on my back). Even more luckily, the nice man behind the desk let me check into my room right away even though check-in was officially 1pm. This meant I was able to get a few hours sleep before meeting up with some old family friends who had offered to meet me in town and show me round the city a bit.

The weather was absolutely foul - raining and raining - it truly felt like England. However, even in the rain Sydney is quite a stunning city. Very similar to London as well which made me feel a bit homesick. But not too much. And my friends took me back to theirs for dinner which was lovely. I hadn't seen them since they were visiting in London a few years ago so it was really nice to spend some time with them. They even dropped me back at my hostel which was awesome considering how tired I was and the rain!

The next day I explored Sydney on my own and walked all over, taking in the obvious sights: the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Botanical Gardens, the Rocks and Darling Harbour. Sydney is fantastic and I definitely want to go back. If not just to experience it in better weather, as well as not being on a budget!

For the next 2 nights I was going to be staying with Maria and Shaz in Bankstown (a suburb of Sydney) and so I got a train to theirs Tuesday evening. Now firstly, Sydney's trains are so nice. They're double decker and even have a special section for women to go on at night that's patrolled by a guard - so clever. If only the tube were as nice! Anyway, I cannot explain how fantastic it was to see Maria. She met me at the station and we wandered back to where she lives. I hadn't realised that she actually lives with the Brothers who run the school that she and Shaz work at, which sounds strange but they are so nice! Not how you would expect monks to be at all! And they were fine with me staying. Maria and Shaz have a mini apartment to theirselves and have landed themselves a pretty sweet deal to be honest. They work at the school next door and the big house they live in is beautiful. But yes, was really glad to be there.

Maria then took me out for a meal that evening to the Bankstown Sports Club, which apparently is a kind of Australian institution. More like a community centre that resembles a casino complex rather than an old people's home and is something that all members of the community contribute to and, by the looks of things when we visited, attend pretty much every night. Anyways, we had a lovely italian meal and a bottle of wine and in genral caught up on things.

The next day the 3 of us then went to Sydney Aquarium, something neither of them had done yet and something I'd really wanted to do, though not on my own! Anyways, it was pretty good. It started off a bit avarage as aquariums go, but then when we got to the sharks, I was sold! A good few hours were spent there and far too many photos taken! Then we browsed around the Harbourside shopping centre at Darling Harbour and then mosey'd home to get ready to go out.

We got the train back into the city and got off at Circular Quay to check out the Opera House and Bridge at night. It was an absolute bugger to get good photos of but still, was an amazing sight. Totally makes you understand why so many people consider Sydney to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world! We then hit a bar called the Three Wise Monkeys which is on George Street (the main road going through the city centre) after we were told that Darling Harbour isn't the place to be on a Wednesday night. Anyway, we had another bottle of wine and soon attracted the attention of one guy in particular. He was as wasted as you can be before they stop serving you and had decided he wanted to have a chat with us. We humoured him for a bit and aske dhim what he did. A tennis coach apparently. Used to be quite good. Even played Wimbledon and Queens several times and was ranked 86th at one point. Yes Michael, sure we said. He got a bit upset, told us there was no need to be sarcastic, and insisted we google him. Anyway, we soon lost him and moved on to another beer called Cheers.

The bar was much like a rip off of the TV show that you'd expect it to be, except that this one came complete with a Russian bouncer who insisted that Maria looked 'intoxic'. Anyway, after some shocked and sincere 'we've only had a glass' exchanges, he let us in. And it was pants. Pretty much empty and Maria and I had drunk so much already we couldn't even finish the glasses we ordered. But still, we thought we'd check out one last place that was supposed to be good, called Scruffy Murphy's. We started wandering down and were accosted by a young guy attempting to skid down the pavement in the puddles asking us 'Hey, can you do this?!'. I think Maria may have given it a go, failed, and then he asked to tag along with us to Scruffy's. We wandered down, and actually had a pretty awesome evening. Maria caught the attention of a random Swede called Jonas and the rest of the time we amused ourselves with Ryan from Bondi's (the skidding guy) dancing, which resembled a monkey on ecstasy. Fantastic entertainment I assure you. When the bar closed at 5, Maria did attempt to find somewhere else that was open but after the bouncer laughed at her we decided we'd go home, via a bakery where Ryan from Bondi stole goods from under the counter and we went our separate ways.

Going to bed at 6am, a couple of minutes before the Brothers got up was a bit weird, and sleeping until lunchtime and then getting up did complete throw my body clock for the next few days...but it was totally worth it. Best few nights in Sydney, hands down. And that afternoon Maria and I googled our alleged Wimbledon star, and to our amusement he was in fact telling the truth. Michael Tebbutt did in fact play at Wimbledon and was apparently, quite good. Bugger.

Anyway, I then left Bankstown and headed to another suburb called Blacktown where the family friends I'd seen on Monday lived. They'd also offered to have me for a few nights to help me save on hostels etc. The next day we all went up to the Blue Mountains, and though it was yet again shocking weather, I still had a really good day. We went down into the bush via the steepest railway in the world, had a nice walk, and then came back up via a cableway. On coming home in the evening we then rushed out again for Loretta's (the eldest girl's) martial arts (no idea which one) grading. It was pretty cool to watch and seeing someone do the punching through tiles malarkey to get his black belt was worth hanging around for. Had a unique experience of typical Australian suburbian life anyway!

The next day we hit the shopping mall at my request as I was lacking many warm clothes! I hit the jackpot with a shop here called Cotton On which had a sale. Hoodies and leggings are IN, vest tops are most definitely out. I may have to invest in even warmer clothes come New Zealand!

I then spent my last night in Sydney back in a hostel in town and met up with the people I'd met further up the coast (Lisa, Sarah, Leah, Beccy etc.). We had a night out and it was really good to see them again. To be honest though, most of them are going on to NZ too though so I'll probably catch up with them there.

The next day Lisa and I did a Harbour cruise to see the city from the comfort of a boat! Actually got some really good views. Then we gave the monorail a go and wandered through Paddy's markets and Chinatown. Then I simply killed time until my coach that evening.

The coach this time (to Melbourne) was a Greyhound and nowhere near as nice as the Premier I'd got to Sydney - I got hardly any sleep. Still, it did the job and I arrived yesterday (Monday 21 April) in Melboune at 8am. My hostel (Base, St Kilda) is lovely and I've had a really nice 48 hours here. Definitely a fan of Melbourne! The weather has been sunny but not hot and I'm in love with the place! Yesterday I did the Melbourne Museum which is a surprisingly good way to spend a few hours. And I wandered through Carlton Gardens and the Royal Exhibition Centre (beautiful building) and finally around Federation Square. I had an embarassingly early night on the basis that I'd had pretty much no sleep the last few nights and then today explored the city a bit more with a lovely walk by the river and through the Botanical Gardens which, for the record are infinitely more lovely than Sydney's. Not that I'm choosing sides but I am really.

Anyway, I leave tomorrow for New Zealand and after flying via Auckland, should land in Christchurch about 21:20 - fun fun fun. I'm looking forward to NZ but am genuinely concerned about how cold it's going to be. I think my one day in Christchurch before I get on the Kiwi Experience bus on Friday will be spent investing in a nice warm, waterproof jacket (I'm so cool)! But it is supposed to be a beautiful country so I shan't complain too much.

Lastly, I know this is a shockingly long and yet again belated blog attempt but I really will get better. Hopefully I'll be more on top of things once I'm in NZ. Until next time then... :)