Richard's Travels

Tales from the Southern hemisphere

Friday, May 12, 2006

Back at home

I've now been back at home for a couple of weeks. Arriving home was actually pleasantly warm compared with what I expected - apparently it was one of the hottest days for some time (about 15C). Having said that, the sea was 30C where I was before getting on a plane, so it still has some way to go!

Travelling around New Zealand, Australia and Fiji is probably one of the best things I've done. I had such a great time, and met many cool people. I hope to stay in touch with some of you - feel free to let me know what you're up to!

I have managed to get a bit behind on filling in my blog - at the time of writing I have not yet added anything about Fiji (the last two weeks of my holiday!). These should be done when I get a chance, then I will start working on sorting out the thousands of photos I have, putting up some very edited highlights on my website!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fiji Experience

Thursday 13th

After a fairly late night out for my last night in Australia with Nicky & Orla, I got up fairly early to pack everything together. It was at this point that I realised I had probably chosen the wrong hostel to stay at, as the other one I was considering was just across the road from the station I now had to walk to. Anyway, I eventually got to the airport and had a fairly uneventful flight to Nadi (which is pronounced Nandi - Fijians seem to pronouce the letter d as nd). As with all places this close to the equator, it was dark when I arrived in the early evening. However, not too dark to notice that there were hundreds of birds all around the runways - that would've kept the bird chasers at Heathrow busy for ages trying to keep them clear! The second impression I got of Fiji was the group of men singing in the arrivals hall to welcome us to their country. Singing would become a major part of staying in Fiji! While waiting at the baggage carousel, I saw a rather large pair of legs in a skirt walking towards me. Expecting a rather large woman, I realised that men seem to wear skirts too (actually called Sulus).

After collecting my bag, I left to try and find transport to my hotel. Everyone at this point was being directed to one of a few meet and greet people, who were putting shell necklaces on everyone as they arrived. Eventually, someone showed up to take me to my hotel. Which was actually called a hotel for a change, and not a hostel, although I was still staying in a dorm. When I got into my room, there were two Australian girls in there who had just got back off the Fiji Experience, which I was leaving on in a couple of days. As they were going out with some more of their group for drinks, and I was at a loose end, I tagged along. For the first time in a long time, the bars we went into were not mainly full of tourists. In fact we were distinctly amongst the minority, as although we were staying in the tourist capital of Fiji, we were not actually staying near many hotels. Still, it was an interesting night, finished off by talking and drinking with some of the locals in a park and on the beach.

Friday 14th

The next day brought with it a taste of what Fiji could be like- very wet. It started raining mid morning, and continued throughout most of the day. I decided to start making my way into Nadi town in order to have a look around and find something to eat. I didn't really know how far it was, but started walking anyway. As with other countries I've visited like this before, there are a multitude of little minibuses driving around, eager to pick up as many people as possible to pay for their journeys. Shortly one arrived, and for the expensive sum of 50c (about 17p!) I got a lift the rest of the way. On arrival in Nadi town, I found a variety of shops, from obviously tourist-only expensive looking department stores, to supermarkets and little shops frequented by the locals. Another trait of countries like this is the large number of people trying to get you into their shops. The natives of Fiji are a mix of Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The Fijians tended to be more friendly, while the Indo-Fijians seemed to try much harder to get you into their shop. As I didn't have anything else to do, I let one of the Fijians take me to his shop, where he talked with me for a while about Fijian customs, and did a mini Kava-ceremony. For those who don't know, Kava is the traditional drink of Fiji and many other Polynesian islands. It is made from the yaqona root, which is crushed up then mixed with water, so that it looks (and tastes) like muddy water. Apparently it has mild hallucinogenic properties if you drink enough of it, but it doesn't really taste good enough to try and achieve this. Kava ceremonies are a way of life for tourists as they are welcomed into shops, homes and villages. The natives also drink it a lot, mostly in place of alcohol. There would be quite a few more opportunities to try Kava on this trip!

Saturday 15th

Today saw the return of a big green bus as my primary method of transport - I was starting the Fiji Experience. Run by the same company as the Kiwi Experience, this was a similar idea, although it was a much smaller trip (due to Fiji being, well, much smaller than NZ!). A much larger emphasis was put on culture on the Fiji Experience also, possibly due to the lack of adventure activities to take its place. After getting up nice and early and being ready on time for the bus, it eventually showed up (Fiji time!). We met our guide Luke (Luk-e, who I'd met out last night already) and our driver Ray who proceeded to explain a few things about the trip. The term "Fiji time" was mentioned quite a few times, indicating that the locals aren't very good (or bothered about) timekeeping. That is, unless it involved us. If we ever had to be ready for the bus to leave, to check out of somewhere etc, then it would always be English time (I wonder, have they tried catching buses in Southampton?).

To show us some of the best Fiji has to offer, our first stop was a beautiful beach where we could spend some time sunbathing and going for a swim while Luke and Ray prepared our lunch - a BBQ. As the lunch got closer to being cooked, many people had drifted in from the beach, mainly because the sun was getting a bit too much for some people - this was a really nice day!

After lunch, it was back onto the bus to head towards our next stop, a Fijian village. There wasn't much going on at the village, apart from children running around and playing. This is because the adults, rather sensibly, lie down and do nothing during the hottest part of the day! As a mark of respect, everyone entering the villages must cover their legs up, and for some reason this is normally accomplished by a skirt, so we all had to wear these! Mine was just a sarong, but some people had splashed out and bought proper Sulus, skirts with pockets! At least it meant they didn't have to try and figure out how to tie a sarong. The kids were running around putting flowers in people's ears, probably to try and be nice to them so at the end of the visit we'd give them some money. For some reason I wasn't singled out for a flower in the ear, but an entire necklace made out of the things! Hmmm.

Back onto the bus, we started heading towards our final destination for the evening (Mango Bay resort), and the good weather started to disappear. By the time we reached our resort, it was raining heavily. And much of the resort was still being built, there was much soft ground getting waterlogged to walk over. The dorms here were cramped to say the least, but it wasn't too bad. Food and entertainment for the evening was presented in the form of a lovo (food cooked in an earth oven, a bit like a New Zealand Hangi) and singing and dancing from some locals. This went on for some time, and included getting the audience involved. After this, people stayed in the resort bar and nightclub.

Sunday 16th

Our second day of the Feejee Experience started with getting up early (must always leave on English Time!) so we could head out on a trek. We stopped off for a short food stop to get lunch, then parked the bus up somewhere and transferred to alternative transport, a big truck, to get us up the dirt roads to the start of the trek. Some of the people on the tour were clearly not expecting this sort of stuff and were complaining most of the way - fortunately most of these opted to skip the trek and meet us at the end. We'd been told that the trek would involve walking through a stream, and would last for a few hours. However, many of us didn't quite realise how muddy some of it would be - we were after all in a rainforest! Many of the group were wearing trainers, which I suspect would have been thrown out after the trip! The first part of the trek was only hard because it was in the direct sunlight for quite some time. However, we soon got to some cover, walking through the thicker parts of the rainforest. This is where we got a few more moans from certain members of the groups, as the ground turned very muddy. Eventually we reached the small "walking through a stream" bit, which turned out to be more like "walking along a stream for quite some distance"! Was good fun anyway. The route appeared to have been prepared entirely for Feejee Experience groups, as there were signs along the way pointing out which way, and warning us to beware of crocodiles etc. By the time we got to the end of the walk, I was glad there wasn't too much more to go. Getting back was much more fun - we jumped into big rubber rings and floated down the river. However, the river was slow. Very slow. For a while anyway, then it sped up a little. Just as it was starting to get to rapids level, they told us to stop and go to the bank. At this point we got to jump into a big pool where a stream flowed down the steep hills to join the river, where the water was pretty chilly!

After all this, a short boat ride took us back to where the bus was waiting, for us to get changed into something dry and proceed onto our next destination, which was a resort just outside Suva, the nation's capital. Apparently we weren't missing much by not staying in the capital - everyone I spoke to in Fiji that had been there said it wasn't really a place to write home about. The evening here was quieter than last night, but there was a small group of singers while we were eating, and this turned into a Kava ceremony with all of us being fed Kava (some less willingly than others) and being made to dance around the place! After this, bed was in a very large dorm, with about 20 people in!

Monday 17th

With regards to the itinerary, today was a bit of a let-down. To start with, we were supposed to visit a school today, but as it was Easter monday (and Fijians seem to regard Easter as more of a holiday than we do), there was no school. Instead, we got a sightseeing tour of Suva, which was fairly short and consisted of a few buildings.

Our next stop of the day was another village, where we were supposed to meet the village leader and have a Kava ceremony. Unfortunately, he wasn't available, so we met another village member. After lots of Kava was drunk, we made our way to a river to do Bili-bili rafting. These rafts were essentially a number of bamboo poles lashed together, and were fairly unstable when people were trying to stand up on them. As we were split fairly unevenly between the rafts, the races we were trying to have were quite unbalanced. In the end we just made our way leisurely up the river, until we started playing a game of girls-vs-boys catch with a rugby match in the river. The girls definitely had the advantage of numbers, but the Fijian men that were our guides seemed to have feet made of leather, as running around on the stony riverbed was not a problem to them. After we had finished the game, we had a bit of a race back to the start. We found that instead of paddling (especially as one of the other groups stole our pole), it was better to get someone to walk in the river and pull us along, as it wasn't that deep anyway.

After we finished the rafting, we headed off down a dirt road to our next overnight stop. At the time I was trying to finish a book, so was paying little attention to the road. However, I had registered that it would definitely class as a "white road" by rally standards, and that we were in a large bus. At some point, I was distracted from my book by the bus sliding sharply to the right, and ending up at an angle. Upon looking up, I realised that the driver had been driving along the edge of a ditch, and while trying to get past a car the bus had fallen into the ditch. We spent a fair amount of time standing around by the side of the road with many locals watching our plight, as the driver and a few intrepid locals tried making a towrope out of a few tatty bits of wire. The first few of these, predictably, snapped or untwisted rather violently. We were using other passing buses to try and pull us out, and after some of their attempts there was a heavy smell of burnt-out clutch in the air. Amazingly, one of the attempts worked, involving two long bits of metal wire twisted many times together, managing to hold long enough to move the bus along a bit. However, this did not get us out. More locals had turned up to have a look, and there were beginning to be long queues in either direction of the blocked road. The next towing attempts were in the other direction (down hill, so a bit easier).

Eventually the bus managed to get free of the ditch, although it sustained some heavy cosmetic damage to the front end! This put us a bit behind to reach our stop, Volivoli resort. This was possibly the best thought out hostel I've ever stayed in, with lots of nice little touches. The evening's entertainment, once we'd eaten, consisted of games that we used to play in primary school, such as passing a ball under and over to the back of the line!

Tuesday 18th

Today was the last day of Feejee Experience, and the first day that we didn't have to get up very early! We were allowed a lie in, as we didn't have to leave until 11 (English time!). This meant that I could go snorkelling in the very nice sea. The snorkelling wasn't that great until you got quite far out, at which point the water got very itchy (sea lice I suspected). We passed the time until it was time to leave. There wasn't really much left on the tour, apart from stoping at an Indo-Fijian restaurant for a curry for lunch. By the end of the day, we were dropped back off at our hotels. I opted not to stay at the hotel I had before, mainly due to it not being anywhere near either the town or the beach. I stayed at a beach hotel instead, with Jodie & Gabby, two of the girls from the trip. We stayed for long enough at the hotel to get some food, before getting a taxi back to the hotel where everyone else was staying in order to meet up for a couple of drinks. However, this wasn't like my first night here, and the post-trip night out was a much quieter affair finishing nice & early (probably a good thing as we were all knackered!).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Byron Bay to Brisbane

Saturday 8th: Hervey Bay to Byron Bay

Well today I had booked onto a bus to Noosa, which had been my next destination on my plan. However, on the way to the bus station I had a look at my calendar and realised that I really didn't have much time left in Australia! Instead, I changed my bus from the 5 hour trip to Noosa to a 12 hour trip to Byron bay, which was going to be my next port of call! So nothing much interesting about today!

Upon getting to Byron bay, I found out that Nicky & Orla had got here from the South the day before, so checked into the Arts Factory Lodge, which is the most bizarre hostel I've stayed in yet! A very hippie style place, with a strange mix of different room styles, including teepees, and a bus! My dorm is perhaps the biggest I've stayed in so far, with bunk beds stacked 3 high! I have to remember not to jump out of the bed in the morning!

Sunday 9th: Kayakking with Dolphins

As I had missed out on swimming with Dolphins in New Zealand, I was determined that I wouldn't be leaving Australia without seeing them. The option available to me in Byron bay was to go kayakking with them, so in the morning I found somewhere to do this. Once I found the place, we put on lifejackets and helmets and carried the kayaks down to the beach. At this point I realised that we would have to paddle out through the fairly big surf being enjoyed by all of the surfers! Of course to start with we weren't used to this, and by the second wave our kayak had been flipped and we had to get back in. Eventually we managed to get past the breaking waves, and after waiting for the second guide (who had to return as one person bottled out!), we headed out a bit further. It wasn't very long before we got our first sighting, 3 dolphins who came right up the kayaks. We also saw them jumping through waves.

When it was time to head back in, our guides started telling us how to catch waves. There seemed to be a lot to do, and most of it was reliant on the person behind me being able to steer well (I wasn't hopeful as he hadn't been too great so far!). After almost catching a few small waves, a big one came along which we managed to just about catch, although not straight into the wave. Unforunately, the guy steering wasn't able to recover, and after a few seconds we were thrown out. We'd almost made it back to shore anyway by this point, so that marked the end of our trip.

After taking the kayaks back, I started to do the Cape Byron walk upto the lighthouse at Byron bay and beyond through a forest. However, after the first hill I decided to abandon this for a later date, and headed back. In the evening we had our first Sunday roast for a while, before a couple of drinks and an early night.

Monday 10th: Nimbin

Even when I got up this morning, I hadn't decided what to do with my day, go diving or try and spend a bit less! In the end I managed to convince myself to leave the diving for Fiji, and went on a day trip to Nimbin. For those who haven't heard of it, Nimbin is an old hippy town, whose sole extistance these days seems to be to sell marijuana to tourists! The bus trip was supposed to also include waterfalls and rainforest, but these were a bit of a disappointment as there wasn't much water in the waterfall, and we were at the top of it anyway. When we arrived in Nimbin, I managed to walk for a whole minute before being offered pot, cookies and other dubious substances! I found it amusing the range of people who were dealing - it ranged from people I would've expected to be dealers to old women!

Back in Byron bay, I decided to have a quiet night in, so watched a film (Syriana) at the arts factory cinema - an interesting cinema as most of the rows were made up of faux-fur sofas, and the front 5 rows being lie-down sofas! Perhaps that was part of the reason I nodded off briefly!

Tuesday 11th: Byron to Brisbane

I made a very early start today - getting up at 5am to get the hostel bus upto Byron Bay lighthouse in order to watch sunrise at the first place in Australia to see it. As I'd been waking up fairly early here anyway (annoying bush turkeys jumping on our roof!), this wasn't too hard. I wasn't sure how many people on the bus had just got up, and how many hadn't yet gone to bed though! I was hoping to see more Dolphins playing in the surf, but unfortunately this was not to be. I did the rest of the Cape Byron walk which I'd intending doing a couple of days, as I didn't have to bother with walking up big hills to start with!

Today was another of those fairly boring days spent mostly travelling. I arrived in Brisbane at lunchtime, and just spent the day exploring the city and popping into the museum & art gallery. In the evening I made use of the cheap tuesdays at the cinema by seeing another film - V for Vendetta.

Wednesday 12th: Random Meetings & Koalas

My plan for today had been to get up fairly early and get on a bus to visit a Koala sanctuary. However, I nipped out for breakfast first, and on my way back into the hostel I ran into Sues, who had randomly stayed in the same hostel as me last night! Sues had been on her elective placement in the Solomon Islands, and had just arrived in Brisbane to spend a week travelling down to Sydney. So instead, I spent the morning catching up with her before she left for Byron Bay with her friends.

Next, I hopped on a bus for the Lonely Pine Koala sanctuary. This did not just house Koalas (although it did have a lot!), but also many other australian animals, including Kangaroos, Dingos and many different birds. After getting the obligatory "cuddle a koala" photo and catching the birds of prey show (with some impressive Eagles and owls), I headed back to the city for my final night in Australia! :(

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Fraser Island

Due to getting the night bus, I arrived in Hervey bay very early in the morning. I was able to check into my hostel to get a couple of hours sleep before walking around. Hervey bay is a strangely non-touristy place compared with everywhere else I've seen on the east coast so far - it doesn't consist entirely of tour operators, travel agents and souvenir shops! Most people who come here have already booked a trip to Fraser island, so I guess these things aren't needed.

My day was spent walking along the very long beach, with a welcome lack of "no swimming, jellyfish" signs. After a walk along their 1.5km pier watching the locals fishing, I visited Vic Hislop's Shark Show. The owner, a local shark catcher, runs the place in an attempt to educate people about how dangerous sharks really are. According to him, the government covers up a lot of shark attacks because of the value to the tourist and film industry (apparently it costs $5000 to swim in a cage with great whites!). He has many pictures, shark jaws and videos of him catching sharks from a little beach. The one I liked the best was a video of him catching his 4th tiger shark of the morning, 300m from where a dive boat was anchored!

Later in the afternoon, we had to meet back at the hostel to sort out our groups for Fraser island. It became quickly apparent that as a driver I was in demand, as 2 groups almost couldn't go due to a lack of drivers! They like to send out each car with 3 drivers (over 21, held license for 2 years). The groups were showing what I'd noticed about lots of places in Australia - they are full of gap year students who are only 18 or 19. After watching briefing videos and sorting out our food, an early night was needed to recover from the overnight bus and prepare for getting up early in the morning.

On Wednesday morning, we assembled by our vehicles to collect all of our equipment. Our transport for the next 3 days would be a Toyota Landcruiser with an extra tall roof for our equipment. We were in a group of 11 people, 3 of us drivers. However, neither of the other 2 girls really wanted to drive, so it looked like I'd be the full time driver! After eventually fitting everything into the van and being shown all the little things like changing range, we departed for the ferry. Immediately I discovered that lower cars are much better than higher ones - even going round small corners this one felt like it would tip over! I wasn't looking forward to the offroad tracks on the island!

When we reached the island, we moved into 4wd mode to tackle the inland tracks of the island. We had to get across to the other side of the island in a fairly short time, as the amount of time we could drive on the beach was limited by the tides. To start with, driving was limited mainly by the cars in front, as we were all just learning. Once we all stopped off at Lake Mackenzie for a quick look (will mention more about this later), we headed back out onto more empty tracks. The speed limit for these tracks was 35km/h, which was very difficult to achieve! Additionally, some of the tracks leant over to the side quite dramatically, giving us a bit of a scare. However, we soon realised that we weren't in the worst vehicles on the island as we came across a Mercedes ML beached, blocking the single track. Of course the hire centres didn't think to equip us with tow ropes, so we spent ages (along with some other cars) trying to help push him out. Eventually a ranger turned up, and helped get the car unstuck (while grumbling that they weren't really supposed to be using their towropes for this - what do they carry them for then?). Unfortunately, this cost us too much time and we weren't able to reach our target destination before high tide. Instead, we stopped off at Happy Valley township for a drink, then drove upto Lake Garawongera for a bit of a swim.

As it got closer to the time when we were told it would be ok to go back on the beach, we restarted our journey northwards. Rather than visiting any more spots on the way to our destination, we decided to go straight there and set up camp to make full use of the daylight (the sun sets really early in Australia!). This went reasonably well, with everyone getting the tents up and starting cooking without any trouble. Dinner wasn't the most elaborate, and we began to regret blindly following the suggested recipes. Then again, many of our group weren't even used to cooking for themselves, let alone for 10 people! After the sun went down, we used the lights in the van to sit around drinking and playing cards for the rest of the night.

Once I'd gone to bed, things started getting a bit wierd. One of the blokes in our group, an 18 year old manc who had seemed really nice earlier, woke us up by shouting at one of the guys in my tent, who went out to see what the fuss was about, getting hit in the face for his troubles! At this point I went back to sleep, but when I got up in the morning I realised what exactly went on the previous night. After drinking about 3 litres of goon (cheap boxed wine), the guy couldn't find his lighter and decided that someone had stolen it. After waking quite a few people up, he fell on one of the tents (breaking it while there was someone inside), threatened a few people in our group and harassed one of the girls who locked herself in the car. In the morning it became very quickly apparent that noone wanted to continue with him in the group, so we agreed to take him over to the ferry and get rid of him.

Before making the trip over the island back to the ferry, we first went to visit the champagne pools, a set of rock pools and the only saltwater pools on the island. From the walk up to the champagne pools, you are supposed to be able to see sharks & dolphins in the sea on a clear day. Which it wasn't. In fact on the way back from there it started raining a lot, so much so that driving on the beach became quite scary due to lack of visibility! Fortunately the rain didn't last more than 30 minutes, so driving back over the inland tracks wasn't the nightmare I had envisioned. After getting rid of the guy at the ferry, the mood in the car picked up immensely, and we got back on with enjoying our trip. The afternoon was spent with a walk upto Lake Wabby, another lake surrounded by sand dunes. After climbing up the sand dune to see if there was any sort of spectactular view (nope!), running straight down into the lake seemed the only sensible thing to do. It would've been very good to have had a body board there, as sandboarding down the dune into the lake looked like it would be fun! In the evening we spent a lot of time deliberating about whether to cook dinner at our campsite, or go off in search of a fixed campsite with public BBQs. The latter option was eventually chosen, making life a lot easier than trying to cook all of our meat on our camp stoves.

For the final day of our trip, we decided to head back up the beach to get a look at a shipwreck on the beach which we'd driven past a couple of times, but not stopped at yet. It was from an old boat which had survived WW1 and had been retired, but was being towed over to Japan when bad weather struck. The wreck is actually on the beach and you can walk around the one side. After this, we headed back to Lake Mackenzie, the nicest lake on the island. Lake Mackenzie is the biggest lake on the island, and the water is so clear you can drink it. Probably one of the biggest tourist spots on the island, this was full of all the groups similar to ours, passing the time before catching the ferry back to the mainland. Once we'd finished here, our time on the island was over and we headed back to the hostel to hand everything back A pleasant surprise was that when we got back, the hostel gave us the deposit of the guy who'd gone crazy on us instead of keeping it to pay for the damage to the tent! Drinks were on him that night as he'd already left.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Whitsunday Islands

Wednesday 29th: Cairns to Townsville

For my final day in Cairns, I'd planned to take a bus trip around the Atherton tablelands and some waterfalls. Unfortunately, that bus trip didn't run on the day I needed to go, so I had to find something else to do. After considering hiring a car on my own and doing the same trip (and deciding it wasn't worth the money), I decided to jump on a bus headed for Airlie beach, but just go as far as Townsville for the night. The only thing notable about the bus journey to Townsville was that we passed through Innisfail, the town destroyed by the recent cyclone. The scale of the destruction was huge; entire fields of banana crops all folded over at the same point, sugar crops ruined and many houses and buildings destroyed. I could see some sort of industrial building with a very tall chimney that was just bent in half!

Thursday 30th: Townsville to Airlie Beach

Today I caught an early bus the rest of the way to Airlie beach. Upon arriving here, I was fairly surprised to learn that there wasn't really a usable beach, despite the name of the place. Although there was actually a beach, like most of the rest of Queensland, the sea is full of jellyfish so you can't go in it. Instead, an artificial lagoon provides the only easy swimming facilities. Airlie beach is a small tourist town, which seems to consist entirely of travel agents, hostels and bars (plus a few small tourist-orientated shops). It is the main departure point for sailing trips to the Whitsunday islands. My day in Airlie beach was spent exploring the town and sorting out everything I'd need for my sailing trip tomorrow.

Friday 31st-Sunday 2nd: Whitsunday Islands

Today I was starting a sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. The boat I would be sailing on was Condor, an 80ft racing yacht that has won all of the major races twice. As well as 4 crew members (headed by Captain Kirk!!), there were another 20 or so of us on the trip. We started by gathering at the marina to pick up some last minute drinks and board the vessel. To start with, we left the marina using the boat's engines. Once clear, the sails were raised and we moved onto wind power. This sailing trip took us round some of the islands making up the Whitsunday group. Before long, we anchored at Blue Pearl bay and all jumped onto the tender to go out snorkelling. Although the water wasn't particularly clear, there were a lot of fishes to see. Back on the boat, the dinner was started while we got cracking with the beers. As the night drew to an end, people started figuring out where to sleep. Although the inside of the boat does have enough beds for everyone, saying that they are cramped is abit of an understatement! And as the boat was built primarily for racing rather than taking people on tours, it didn't have anything in the way of air conditioning. This made for quite a hot night! As a result, most people opted for sleeping up on deck (which wasn't comfortable either, but was cooler). I decided to sleep inside, opting for comfort. It was a lot cooler with everyone outside! However, this didn't last as it started raining in the night and everyone came back in, shutting the skylights on the way in!

The second day was spent moving around entirely on the motor, as the wind was virtually non-existent. Early on in the day, the captain made a detour as he spotted fins in the water. We all thought they were dolphins, but he later explained that he wouldn't chase dolphins as they tend to bugger off just as you get there. These were actually pilot whales, which look quite similar to dolphins. They swam with us for some time, right next to us at the front of the boat! Later on in the day we stopped for another snorkelling spot at Mantaray bay (unfortunately no manta rays to be seen - since seeing manta rays in Sydney aquarium I'd wanted to see them in the wild). Once back on the boat, the weather started to turn for the worse, with some rain approaching. Our next stop was Tongue bay, where we went ashore for a walk upto a lookout over Whitehaven beach, probably the most famous part of the Whitsunday islands - a beautiful beach with white sand and clear blue water. The weather wasn't very good at the lookout, so I was a bit dubious about walking down to spend more time on the beach. However, the sun came out as we got closer (for a change!). As the weather had been bad on the boat, noone had bothered to bring stinger suits. But when the sun came out, the water was so nice we went in anyway - noone had seen any jellyfish anyway! The water was crystal clear, and shallow enough to see the stingrays swimming around on the bottom. After stopping for a group photograph, it was back to the boat to head off towards our stopping point for the night. On the way, the captain decided to try and use the wind that was available, and raised the spinnaker sail. It didn't drag us along very quickly, but certainly looked impressive going up! For the night, we were anchoring just off Long Island resort, so that once we'd had dinner, we could go ashore to the pub there, as it was one of the crew's birthdays.

The final day of the sailing trip was just spent travelling back to the marina, with no stops on the way. Once back in Airlie beach, the rest of the day was spent relaxing due to not getting much sleep on the boat, before meeting up with the passengers who were still around for dinner & drinks later in the evening.

Monday 3rd: Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay

As there is really nothing to do in Airlie Beach apart from book whitsundays trips, diving and getting drunk, I didn't really have much to do today. After checking out, I went to the lagoon, but had to spend the time alternating between cover and sun as it kept raining. This was just to pass the time until my night bus to Hervey bay, taking 12 hours! Fortunately it wasn't as bad as I thought and I was able to sleep.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Tuesday: Cairns

I guess it was because the flights to Cairns from Alice Springs yesterday were cancelled, but my flight was rescheduled for later in the day, and when I finally got to the airport, it was delayed even more. However, I eventually arrived in Cairns. I found a hostel from the airport, then got picked up and checked in. As we drove through Cairns, I could see trees blown over in quite a few places, but no other real damage. Cairns got off lightly with the damage, just receiving some high winds.

Once I checked in, I just spent the rest of the evening walking around Cairns. Many of the hostels here provide vouchers for meals in a couple of the bars. Although the meals aren't exactly great, you can pay extra to have proper food. A steak for A$6 isn't too bad!

One of the guys in my dorm was a divemaster working for one of the dive companies, and I found out from him that the visibility in the water wasn't great. I was hoping it would improve with each day I left it, as I was in Cairns primarily to do a diving trip!

Wednesday: Around Cairns

Upon talking to the hostel staff, it became apparent that the damage from the cyclone was worse than I thought. Although Cairns had not really been affected, towns south of Cairns (mainly Innisfall, but also Mission beach) had been hit quite hard. With the high volume of rain that the cyclone had brought, the main roads south had become flooded and the buses running south were not running. This was my planned route out of Cairns!

I spent the day walking around Cairns, visiting travel agents and trying to find some good deals on a trip to Cape Tribulation and a dive liveaboard. However, due to there being another cyclone off the coast and headed inland, I was also considering further options of flying to Brisbane and working my way overland back up to Cairns in the hope that the sea will have settled by the time I got back. However, this would require me to buy 2 extra flights as I'd have to get back to Brisbane at the end. I did actually decide to fly, but then realised this too late to book the ticket. In the end I just booked a 2 day trip to cape tribulation to do tomorrow instead, hoping that things would have settled by the time I got back.

Thursday-Friday: Cape Tribulation

I was picked up today to go on a bus trip upto Cape Tribulation, an area of tropical rainforest along the coast north of Cairns. The day began driving along the Cook Highway, with nice ocean views along the way. At the end of this, we took a smaller road and ended up at a river crossing. While the bus went across the river on a ferry, we took a boat trip down the river with the intend of finding crocodiles. Although it wasn't the best season to find crocs, we eventually found one sitting on a bank, and further along a female in the water next to some babies!

Back on the bus, we carried on heading north. It soon became apparent that this area had also received high rainfall, as some of the many creeks crossing beneath the road had risen to flow over the road. The first one we came to was preceeded by a line of cars unwilling to try their luck with the fast flowing water. The depth markers indicated 40cm of water. Our bus was fine though - obviously intended to do this sort of stuff! I did wonder how high the water had to be before the bus wouldn't go through!

Cape Tribulation is an area of tropical rainforest, where many areas of land had been given to veterans as somewhere to live. Some of these areas of land have been converted for tourist use, by the owners or by the government. We went for a walk around the rainforest, seeing mangroves and lots of other plants. And a very big spider! By this time people were starting to get bitten quite a lot by mosquitos, so we headed back to the bus to finish our journey. By lunchtime we arrived at PKs jungle village, where we would be spending the night. However, shortly after we arrived, it started to rain. A lot. It would be continuing this for the next 24 hours, the time we were meant to be staying here! My original plan had been to go kayakking, but this was cancelled due to the weather. Instead, I just went for some walks, dressed in swimmers and a lightweight shirt, just accepting that I would get soaked! The beach next to our accommodation wasn't as nice as I expected, but I was using pictures of another beach as my reference! I tried to walk along the beach to the nicer beach, but came across a creek flowing into the sea with a warning sign indicating crocodiles had been seen here recently. I decided not to try my luck swimming across and turned back.

The next day, I found the beach I was looking for by walking along the road instead. I still had to cross the same creek however, as it had risen above the road. Not as bad as the one from yesterday, but still 20cm of fast flowing water. I was more concerned about a car coming through at the same time and soaking me! When I reached Cape Trib beach, it was probably the nicest I've ever been to, the mythical white sandy beach with rainforest behind, and no signs of other people in sight. If only it had been sunny, it would've completed the image by adding green and blue water as the reef was just off the beach.

On the trip back to Cairns, we stopped off for some more walks and photo opportunities. Back in Cairns, I found out that while I had been away, the second cyclone had changed its course and was almost down in Brisbane! A good thing I didn't fly down there in the end. I booked a dive trip to leave tomorrow, and went for some food.

Saturday-Monday: Dive Trip

I was collected in the morning for my 3 day trip aboard Cairns Dive Centre's boat, the M.V. Kangaroo Explorer. KE spends its time on the outer reef, where the best dive sites are, and customers are transferred out there by their day boat, Sunkist. This trip took 2 hours, and had a few of the passengers making trips to the toilet with seasickness! KE was a twin hulled boat which was much more stable and more comfortable. After a spot of lunch, we were shown to our cabins. Comfortable, but very small beds and with a ceiling about 2 foot above my bed!

Over the next 3 days, I did 10 dives. After the first dive, I was quite disappointed by how low the visibility still was - well below 10m. In my previous dives, I've been spoilt with 20m visibility normally! However, there was still plenty to see - in the first dive we found a turtle, and there were hundreds of other fishes around. For our first dive, a guide was provided. However, on subsequent dives, we had to pay extra for a guided dive. Lots of people took this option, and on the second dive we ended up with one guide for about 10 people! This was more of a problem than originally thought when Kate (my buddy) and I realised that we were following the wrong group when they started doing open water course skills! The two groups had got quite close in the water, and with the bad visibility and unfamiliar people we'd followed the wrong one! We decided to surface as we had no idea of where to go to rejoin them, and neither of us had done unguided dives before!

The third dive was a night dive, another new experience for me. We were given torches and then proceeded as normal, with a few extra procedures for signals in the dark. This time, Kate & I were making sure we stuck right behind the guide, although it was actually better visibility with the torches than during the day! Didn't see anything extra special on that dive, but I enjoyed it! For the rest of the dives, we had pretty much the same visibility. However, in the middle of the second day we went to a much better dive site with hundreds of fishes, swimming about in big groups. Saw turtles, sharks, stingrays, nudibranches and much more that I haven't a hope of remembering!

At our final dive site, I had to do an unguided dive as the guide wasn't available. We'd seen quite a few turtles swimming around on the surface, so my objective was to see another one up close. Fortunately, this was accomplished very quickly as we saw one at the start of the dive! Navigation on this dive wasn't really a problem, as we could see where to go from the boat, and no matter where we came up at the end it wouldn't be a long swim back! This was good as we actually surfaced on the far side. This marked the end of my dive trip, and we got the day boat back to Cairns. Now I have to try and find somewhere else in Australia to get a dive or two with great visibility!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Melbourne to Alice Springs

Thursday: Rugby 7s

As the commonwealth games were on in town, it seemed like a good thing to do to go and watch something. I didn't really fancy watching badminton or table tennis, but the rugby 7s sounded like it might be interesting. So at 5:30, I headed back up to my original hostel (I'd had to move to a much worse one, All Nations, due to there not being any space available at Friendly for my last night) to meet Nicky and go to the Telstra Dome, conveniently located just behind our hostels.

The Telstra dome is a huge arena, fortunately covered. After queuing up for ages to get to the security checkpoint, I opened my bag showing my camera and was told I'd have to go to a different checkpoint "so they could give me advice on using my camera". Grr. Went to the second checkpoint and didn't bother opening my bag, the guy didn't even notice the bottom section of my bag full of cameras, my ipod etc! Anyway, I eventually found my seat to watch the end of South Africa thrashing Uganda. Prior to this holiday, I didn't really know anything about Rugby 7s. Basically it is like rugby with only 7 minute halves and 7 men per team, making it very quick. I was surprised that the scores were so high in such a short period of time! There were a few matches with good teams in our session, including England, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia. However, many of these were obviously unmatched (Fiji-Scotland for example, watching the scottish bounce off the big Fijians!). The most entertaining games were the ones between two smaller countries, like Tonga & Uganda. Until the final game of course, England-Australia! Australia scored one try in the first half, but we were able to come back with 2 in the second half. In the last seconds of the game, Australia managed one final try, making it 14-12 to us, all resting on the final conversion. Which was missed :) That shut up the noisy australians sitting next to us :)

After making it out through the huge crowds at the end, popped into a bar next to the hostel for a few drinks.

Friday: Melbourne to Alice Springs

I had an early start in order to catch the Airport shuttle today, which ended up being an entire minibus just for me. Obviously noone else would be silly enough to leave Melbourne that early in the morning! Upon arriving in Alice Springs (which is in a wierd time zone, 9h30 ahead of England, quite confusing!) I was greeted by lots of heat, and a few flies. I'd been warned about the flies beforehand, and this was immediately obvious why. The temperature was about 35C, and there are always flies buzzing around you when you're outside. I found the hostel minibus and went to check in. Other things I'd heard about Alice Springs - there is nothing there apart from a dry river and lots of aboriginees drinking. This turned out to be true. Once checked into the hostel, I went for a walk into town, finding nothing apart from tourist shops, bars and places to eat. I was trying to find the supermarket, and this was made easier by the regular aboriginees walking towards me carrying boxes of cheap wine!

Didn't do much for the rest of the day, as there wasn't much to do! Dinner in the hostel was surprisingly good for $5, and I sat in the bar trying to watch the rugby finals. Unfortunately, after showing Australia lose out on the bronze to Fiji, they decided to show some local rugby instead of the England v NZ final. Got an early night as next day was an early start (again!).

Saturday: To Kings Canyon

Today I was beginning a tour of the Uluru area with Wayoutback safaris. This meant being picked up at 5:45, way too early! However, I would find out later that this was a lie in! Two of us from my hostel were collected (both of us Richards!). Upon getting into the minibus I was glad that it was fairly comfortable, as we would be spending a lot of time on the road. After picking everyone up, we drove up to Anzac hill to watch sunrise and sort out payments etc. The lady there strongly suggested that we buy some fly nets, so an extra stop was made to pick up some of these. Then we headed off towards Kings Canyon - a long drive, including a 100km long dirt road. Fun for the first 5 minutes, but gets a bit boring after a while! I was glad to be back on sealed roads so I could read more. We reached our campsite at about midday, when we made some lunch. And hundreds of flies descended on us. I am not normally too bothered by flies, as long as they don't try and fly in my eyes, mouth or ears. Which they did of course, so we had to resort to wearing our fly nets. This became a very common practice over the next few days! The afternoon was spent walking around Kings Canyon, in the heat of the afternoon (36C on the thermometer at the base of the canyon). Kings Canyon is part of the central australian desert, but it was still covered with plant life, that has adapted to the environment. This was more obvious when we got to a sheltered part called the garden of eden, full of plants and with a large rock pool, which we went for a swim in. And the good part about this was that when you are in water, the flies aren't interested in you!

When we got back to the campsite shortly before sunset, our guide started cooking dinner and we sat around with some beers. We slept under the stars, in swags (like big sleeping bags with mattresses and pillows). Fortunately the flies all disappear as soon as the sun went down.

Sunday: Uluru

Another early start (5:30am) today so that we could get to Uluru quickly. It was still dark by the time we'd finished breakfast, and we were on the road for sunrise. With a couple of stops on the way, we reached Uluru by midday. First we walked around the cultural centre, which seemed to be more full of signs telling you not to take photos or videos and signs saying please don't climb uluru than cultural stuff. Can't say I think too much of the aboriginal art, which seems to be predominantly made of dot patterns. Not that it's bad, just that they seem to try and sell it for extremely large amounts of money!

After this, we walked around the base of Uluru. Even though I wasn't planning on climbing Uluru (not for cultural reasons, more because I didn't think there would be much of a view from the top!), we couldn't anyway as there was a rescue in progress. The walk around the base was still good enough, and seemed a lot easier. There were also considerably fewer flies around today, which made it a lot more comfortable.

We got back to the campsite well before sunset, so that we could walk up a hill to a lookout over both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). We had some champagne and nibbles to take up with us too. I got up there early and set my tripod up with the camera pointing at Uluru, mainly to reserve a spot. Unfortunately, the few clouds that were around decided to get between the sun and Uluru, meaning that it didn't go the brilliant red it was supposed to. The sunset over Kata Tjuta was more impressive, and eventually I had to move to take pictures of that. Oh well, we were going to get to see sunrise too!

Once it got dark, we went back for dinner, and had an even earlier night, as we were having an even earlier start!

Monday: Kata Tjuta

Worst start of the trip so far - 4:45am wakeup call! This was in order that we could reach a lookout at Kata Tjuta for sunrise, which we did. There were considerably fewer people at this lookout than the sunset one (rightly so, most of them were probably still in bed!). This time, there was nothing in the way, and the sunrise over Uluru was spectacular.

When we got to Kata Tjuta, it became obvious that yesterday's reprieve from the flies was only temporary. However, the walk we did was through the Valley of the Winds, around some of rocks making up Kata Tjuta. Today we found out how both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed - movements of the earth forced the rock to rotate up out of the earth. This is more obvious in Uluru, where lines of sediment are almost vertical. At Kata Tjuta, the lines were only about 20 degrees. Both of these rock structures extend below the earth some considerable distance.

At the end of the walk, we got back on the bus to begin the long journey back to Alice Springs. I was a little troubled to hear that Cairns was currently being battered by a cyclone, as that is where I'm flying to tomorrow! When we eventually got back, everyone from the tour went out for dinner and drinks in town.

Tuesday: Alice Springs to Cairns

I'm sitting at the hostel waiting for my shuttle bus to the airport - although Cairns has been battered by a cyclone, flights are still on, and I'm going to be mainly doing diving up there anyway, so will see what happens when I get there. There isn't much else I can do without having to buy extra flights anyway. Hopefully everything should be settling down, and the areas I want to visit might be unaffected anyway. However, there's another cyclone that might be heading that way - I may have to move once I get there!