Sunday, 1 November 2015

Three weeks in a campervan in New Zealand

Day 1: Christchurch

We arrived in the city of Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand’s south island at around ten o’clock at night and, because we couldn’t pick up our campervan that late, we stayed at a nearby Airbnb that night. Having arrived with nothing but a phone number for our Airbnb host, we sampled our first experience of New Zealand generosity when a lady behind a rent-a-car desk guessed that we were looking for a payphone (it must’ve been our headless-chicken-like jog around the arrivals area with our phones in our hands), and asked us if we would like to use her desk phone free of charge. A good start. After getting a lift to our accommodation from our extremely quiet host (who drove half of the journey to his suburban bungalow with his lights off despite it being night time), we hit the hay for the night. We collected our Hi-ace campervan (which we later christened ‘Bear’ because of the random roar that the engine gave off every so often without any change in pressure on the accelerator) the following morning and parked it up in a campsite overlooking South Brighton Lake just outside Christchurch. Although it was supposed to a year 2000 van, it looked around ten years older, but the engine had a healthy growl to it so we decided that we were happy enough with it for the moment at least. In the evening, we headed into Christchurch to meet an old college friend of ours by the name of Johnny White, and went for a short walk around the city centre, much of which is still being rebuilt after the earthquakes in 2011 and 2012. Afterwards, we headed back to the campsite and, after spending around half an hour desperately trying to assemble our bed with wooden boards and couch cushions, headed to bed for the night.

Day 2: Christchurch again, and a windy drive to Ashburton

After a surprisingly good sleep, we woke up to the sound of birds chirping and a view of the lake behind us, and reassembled the back of the van into a couch/kitchen (we were really quick at doing this by the time we handed the van back to the rental company), after which we had a breakfast of Weetabix and fried eggs cooked on a small gas hob in the back of the van (this also happened to be our breakfast almost every day for the next three weeks). Then, we headed into Christchurch, where we met another friend (Nicole) from my days in Grange. In the afternoon, we hit Highway 1 with the intention of driving drive down the east coast to Timaru, where we were planning on stopping over for the night, but, after being delayed by both a traffic diversion (which brought us down a dust road on which we could hardly see a metre in front of us when a truck passed us by going in the opposite direction) and strong winds (which felt like they were about to flip Bear over more than once), we decided it was best to stop and stay in Ashburton (around 90 km south of Christchurch) for the night.

Day 3: Ashburton to Dunedin

We hit the road for Dunedin shortly after breakfast, and arrived at around half five after multiple stops on route. (The spectacular views along the way were sometimes too much for Aisling to handle – every so often as we were driving along she would let out a roar about the scenery, and I’d have to pull the van over and have a look to calm her down again). The road that we took brought us right through the heart of the south island’s agricultural land, with huge open fields full of sheep, dairy cows (and deer), and long irrigation pumps on wheels that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see (we were told that some of them can be up to a kilometre long). On our way down, we stopped for a look at the Moeraki boulders, giant natural football-like stones sitting on a beach. After arriving in Dunedin, we visited Kathryn, a Kiwi friend that I knew from my days in Grange, who gave us some good Irish whiskey to warm us up in the cold weather and make us feel right at home!


Day 4: Dunedin to Queenstown

The next morning, myself, Aisling, and Kathryn headed for a walk on the Pineapple Track in Flagstaff Scenic Reserve just outside Dunedin city, accompanied by Kathryn’s trusty hound, Moose. From the top, we got great views of Dunedin and the sea on one side, and the mountains on the other. After the walk, we said our farewells to Kathryn and headed off on the four-hour drive to Queenstown. There are two main roads that we could have taken, but we decided on heading north out of Dunedin through the towns of Palmerston (where, of course, we stopped for a picture of Aisling under the Palmerston sign on the way into the town), Ranfurly, Wedderburn, Oturehua, Alexandra, and Cromwell. Just like the journey to Dunedin, the drive to Queenstown took around two hours longer than expected due to our unscheduled stops several times along the way to take in the views of the incredible landscape around us. Lesson learned – allow extra travel time!


Day 5: The Nevis swing and Queenstown Hill

At ten o’clock in the morning, we headed on a bus from Queenstown to do the ‘Nevis Swing’, organised by a company called A.J. Hackett. This swing, which is apparently the biggest swing in the world, consists of two people being strapped into harnesses in a launch deck suspended 160 m above a canyon floor, and dropped into a 300 metre swing arc reaching speeds of up to 120 km per hour. A.J. Hackett set up the world’s first commercial public bungy jump back in 1988, and we passed the site of this jump, the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge located just outside Queenstown, on the bus journey out to our swing site. The bus from Queenstown took around half an hour, and the driver pumped out ‘highway to hell’ by ac/dc just as we started to make the final steep ascent to the swing location. Once we arrived, we were lead off the bus and out onto a walkway fixed to suspension cables that hung between two mountains. The walkway lead to the launch deck, which was really just a cabin with a semi-open front and railed platform facing towards the canyon. Once we got into this box in the sky, we were hooked up, hung out over the edge with nothing below us except the canyon floor, and dropped after a one-to-three count. The drop itself lasted only a few seconds, but there was a free-fall for the first few second where the rope wasn’t taut and we were in free-fall. Then, just when we were wondering if the harnesses were still attached, it tightened around us and fixed us into a seated position as we swung into the valley – relief. After eventually getting back onto solid ground, we headed back to Queenstown for a walk to the summit of Queenstown Hill, which gave us great views of the snow-capped mountains around Queenstown, as well as Lake Wakatipu. We finished the day with the ‘famous’ Fernburgers, where people queue from morning to night (literally – we saw queues at ten in the morning and at nine in the evening), for a taste of the famed burgers, which, in fairness, really hit the spot.  


Day 6: Jet-boat tour and drive to Te Anau

We headed down the next morning to Steamer Wharf in Queenstown for a jet-boat tour of the Kawarau River and Lake Wakatipu, the third largest lake in New Zealand. This gave us great views of the Remarkables (the justifiably-named snow-capped mountains overlooking Queenstown), as well as the forest that runs alongside the river, and the 360 degree spins that the boat driver pulled off were class. After the jet-boat, we hopped into the van and headed south-west for the two-hour journey to the town of Te Anau, situated just outside Fiordlands National Park.


Day 7: Milford Sound

We hit the road early the next morning for a group tour of Milford Sound, the spectacular fiord in the Fiordlands National Park. The bus journey to Milford Sound took us through the spectacular landscape of the park, including several locations from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. To add to the Lord of the Rings theme of the day (which wouldn’t be our last such day in NZ), our driver told us that he was in the Rohan Army in the third film (it didn’t mean much to me but, during one of the break stops along the way, Aisling grilled him on his role until he finally got tired of being questioned and made a quick escape back to the bus). As well as the typical tourist photo-op stops, the drive to Milford Sound also took us through some avalanche warning areas, which are sometimes closed depending on the risk (of avalanches, obviously), and we also drove through the 1.2-km long Homer Tunnel that goes right through a mountain (the Darren Mountain) and which took 19 years to fully complete, including two delays due to World War II and an avalanche in 1945. Upon reaching Milford Sound, we hopped on a boat that took us through the fiord. It was a typically wet day for our visit (it is one of the wettest places in the world), but this was a good thing from our point of view because it made the waterfalls there (most of which are temporary, according to our guide) even more impressive. Just to freshen us up, the captain of our boat sailed us almost right under some of the waterfalls and, as we sailed along the river towards the sea, we saw penguins hopping around and seals lazing on the rocks. The overall highlight of the trip was the group of dolphins that we saw swimming alongside and in front of the boat as we sped along. We were told that it was a very rare occurrence that a group would see penguins, seals, and dolphins all in the same day, so we left the boat as very happy campers altogether as we headed back to Te Anau.


Day 8: (A short part of) the Kepler Track, and the drive to Cromwell

Te Anau and the surrounding area is apparently one of the top walking spots in the World, so it would have been downright irresponsible of us if we didn’t sample some of the treks the area had to offer. So, to pacify our collective conscience, we decided to walk part of the famous (but not that famous) Kepler Trek, a 60-kilometre tramping trail that cuts right through some of the most dramatic scenery that the Fiordlands National Park has to offer. The trek, named after the German mathematician and scientist Johannes Kepler (I’m not sure why), is one of the so-called Great Walks of New Zealand, along which more adventurous visitors than ourselves can trek for hours on end (and for days, if so inclined, facilitated by the conveniently-located backcountry huts scattered along the walks). The section we did, from Rainbow Reach to Motarau Hut, brought us through 6 kilometres of moss-covered forest (and some bog land) to an otherwise uninhabited beach overlooking a lake. After the walk we headed onwards to Cromwell (we were supposed to go to Wanaka but had some directional issues!), along a (surprise surprise) very scenic route, especially as the road passes alongside the monstrous Lake Wakatipu, which meant that our journey again took much longer than expected because of our constant hopping in and out of the van to take in the views.


Day 9: Cromwell to Fox Glacier

We overnighted in Cromwell and hit the road in the morning for Fox Glacier (which is the name of the township and the glacier). The journey should have taken around four hours but we stopped for a short walk along the Blue Pools Track in Mount Aspiring National Park so it look a little longer. The complete journey to Fox Glacier took us along the banks of two huge lakes, Lake Hawea (141 km­2) and Lake Wanaka (192 km2), both of which are surrounded by towering snow-topped mountains, and then through and along the northern border of the national park. After we passed the region of Haast, the road lined the western coast of the south island before finishing up Fox Glacier in Westland National Park. Before heading to our campsite, we did another short walk, this time the Te Moeka o Tuawe Valley Walk for a look at Fox Glacier from a distance.


Day 10: Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson, and on to Franz Josef

The next morning, we packed up the van and headed back towards Fox Glacier for a closer look. The car park for visitors is about an hour’s walk from the front face of the glacier itself, so we parked up the van and hit the walkway, which brought us winding around small grey-coloured streams and up and down small shale hills to around 200 metres from the front face of the glacier – as far as anyone was allowed to get on foot (the alternative was to land on the glacier on a helicopter). After hanging around in front of the glacier and taking the obligatory photos, we hit the road again for the ten minute drive to Lake Matheson, which we were told had a scenic walkway around its perimeter, famous for its mirror-like reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Unfortunately, there were a few clouds about on the day we were there so, after a less-than-spectacular walk, we made the drive to Franz Josef, which took us about an hour and a half.


Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier and on to Greymouth

The township of Franz Josef is home to the second of the two well-known glaciers in the area, so we headed up to the glacier for a look in the morning. The glacier itself was fairly similar to Fox Glacier, which didn’t really surprise us a whole lot, but the walkway to Franz Josef was slightly more picturesque, with the pathway meandering through the piles of shale in the glacier valley, and there was also a couple of nice waterfalls thrown in along the way. After we’d had our fill of frozen ice, we headed for Greymouth, around a three-hour drive away. As soon as we arrived, the heavens opened with torrential rain and our campsite turned into a walk-in pool for the night.


Day 12: The rainy drive to Nelson

We awoke the next morning to a wash-out (a young Australian couple in one campervan had to walk ankle-deep in water to get out of the grass site they were parked on), so we started the drive to Nelson first thing. The green, flat farmland and multitude of Irish surnames on letterboxes and road-signs (Butler, Browne, Quigley, Healy, and Kirwin to name a few) along the road between Greymouth and Nelson (especially around Reefton) made us feel like we were on a day-trip somewhere in Ireland, until we were quickly reminded of where we were when the even landscape gave way to the shadowy mountains and winding hill-roads that we had by that time become accustomed to in New Zealand. Around four hours after leaving Greymouth, we reached Nelson and plugged the van in for the night.


Day 13: Nelson to Picton and the ferry to the north island

Our ferry to the north island was booked for quarter past two in the afternoon and, since Nelson was only a two-hour drive from Picton (the ferry departure point), we had time to watch the New Zealand versus France match in the rugby world cup with a bunch of Kiwis in the campsite before making the journey. The drive to Picton started where the one from Greymouth left off, namely with narrow and winding mountain roads where we had to crawl around hairpin turns until getting near the top of the hills, and then rolling slowly down again. Even so, we arrived at the ferry port in Picton an hour early. The ferry crossing itself took around four hours altogether, and we headed to a campsite just outside Wellington (which was really just a parking lot in a hotel, but it did the job all the same). We headed to bed early that night with our alarms set for quarter to one in the morning, and got up to watch Ireland play Argentina in the rugby world cup.


Day 14: Wellington to Masterton (with a stop at Rivendell)

The next morning, we headed into the city centre to pay visit to the brilliant Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa), after which we walked to the summit of Mount Victoria for a lookout over the city and the port. Afterwards, we hit the road for Masterton, a town about two hours’ drive away. On the way, we stopped for a visit to a public park where the scenes for the Lord of the Rings town of Rivendell were filmed. Unfortunately for Lord of the Rings fans (including Aisling), Rivendell was deconstructed after the filming was wrapped up, and the only evidence of anything Lord of the Rings related remaining at the site is the information signs dotted around the area showing where the town once briefly stood. Luckily, someone reconstructed a smaller version of one of the stone entrance arches shown in the film, so Aisling was happy enough with seeing that. We arrived at Masterton at around eight o’clock, and battened down the hatches, because the rain and wind were back with a vengeance.


Day 15: Masterton to Turangi

We spent most of the day driving and arrived in Turangi late in the day. On route we passed through the Tongariro National Park (which is the setting for Mount Doom and Mordor in Lord of the Rings), and got a glimpse of Mount Tongariro that we were to see up close tomorrow.  


Day 16: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A few days beforehand, we had decided to give this walk a go mainly because we wanted to attempt one of the longer and more challenging walks that New Zealand is famous for, and also because a couple of people we had met in New Zealand had told us it was supposed to be one of the best one-day walks in the world. The crossing itself is located in Tongariro National Park, which is New Zealand’s oldest national park and also a World Heritage area for both natural and cultural values due to its important Maori cultural value and impressive natural volcanic features. The marked walk is 19.4 km long and passes along the terrain of the active volcano Mount Tongariro and along the east base of the nearby Mount Ngauruhoe. Since the crossing finishes in a different place than where it begins (and since we didn’t feel like making the return journey of the crossing or walking 26 km by road back to the start point), we booked a shuttle bus from the National Park town to and from the starting and finish points of the crossing. We were due to get our lift to the start point of the crossing (a place called Mangatepopo) at half eight, and since we had stayed around an hour’s drive from where we were to get our lift (and also wanted to have a decent breakfast before we started the walk), we got up at half six and hit the road to our collection point, which was at a motel that also doubled-up as a shuttle bus company. Once we arrived, we got ourselves together and hopped in the bus with four other walkers. We reached Mangatepopo after around ten minutes in the bus, and were then given a short briefing of the route by our driver. The first section of the crossing was the Mangatepopo Valley Track from the Mangatepopo carpark (at 1,120 metres above sea level), passing the Mangatepopo Hut (these huts are for multi-day hikers to sleep in) to a site called Soda Springs, at the foot of the steep Tongariro saddle. The terrain for this first section of the crossing was fairly flat, with there being an increase in altitude of only 230 m over a few kilometres. As we made our way along the section, the looming outline of Mount Ngauruhoe came in and out of sight as the clouds and mist disappeared and reappeared with the change in the wind. A lot of the section was also covered in a wooden path that made it much easier to walk. The landscape itself, which consisted of old lava flows covered in dark mosses and lichens, looked dead and brown along this section, and the soil was a reddish grey colour that looked as if it had just been scalded out of the ground. The only trickle of movement (apart from the wind) was a small stream (unsurprisingly called the Mangatepopo Stream) that broke the monotony of the raw volcanic landscape around us. After an hour of walking, we were in good form and were making good time. That was until we began the ascent from Soda Springs to South Crater, a 350 meter incline over a fairly short distance, and which covered two lava flows from eruptions in 1870. Like most of the crossing up to that point, this section was covered in wooden steps and boarding, but the fairly sudden incline, as well as the increasing wind that came with it, made us think that the crossing was turning into a serious affair. As we walked up, the weather became harsher, and as we neared South Crater the snow that was once a distant sight was now beside us on either side of the walkway. Once we reached the South Crater, the snow was well and truly upon us. Once we reached South Crater at 1,650 metres, we noticed the turnoff for the trek to the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe, which our driver had warned us not to take because it was closed due to snow cover (we could see from the turnoff point that the track was completely covered in a thick layer of snow). As we reached the South Crater and began the generally flat eastward walk along a ridge leading to Red Crater, visibility reduced to almost nothing as the ground flattened and became covered with thick layers of snow that crunched and sometimes gave way under our feet as we walked, so that we sunk to our ankles where the snow and ice was too weak to take our weight. Even though visibility was poor (we could barely make out the flagpoles that marked out the track), the snow and air were blinding bright, which made it even more difficult to find our way. At one point, we could see so little ahead of us, and footsteps in the snow in front of us became so few, that we had to stop and wait for sounds coming from behind us to let us know we were still on track. After around half a minute, we heard faint voices behind us and continued on, with our feet sinking into the snow up to our ankles until we reached another incline. As we continued upward, the snowy ground gave way to a more rocky terrain and, as our walk got steeper again, the wind also steadily increased to the point where we had to link arms to stop ourselves getting blown over. As we neared Red Crater, the track narrowed to a couple of metres, with steep falls on either side. The wind blew fiercely from our left and stung our faces with the cold as we walked along the ridge. When the wind momentarily cleared the cloud on our right, we could see the countryside for miles in that direction in the background, with a steep fall into an icy crater in the foreground. As we got near the top, we met a women who had decided to give up on completing the crossing coming towards us. “That’s me done” she said as she passed us by. “I’m happy with how far I’ve come”. We didn’t blame her for quitting. It was freezing at that stage and the crossing had narrowed to single file as we tried to navigate around the rocks that sat awkwardly in our way. After another few minutes of uphill struggling, we saw a group of fellow trampers sitting down on the now shale surface of the walkway, and we realised we had reached the summit of Red Crater, the highest point in the crossing at 1886 metres. As we walked toward them, the small hill in front of us disappeared and gave way to a spectacular panoramic view. We could see a snowy hill in front of us, which itself was nestled behind a completely frozen lake sitting in a small crater in front. White monsters of mountains dominated the view from the left, and a massive volcanic crater with read and grey soil plummeted hundreds of feet on our right sides. In front of us slightly to the right were the Emerald Pools, so called due to their turquoise-emerald colour caused by minerals leaching into the waters from the surrounding thermal areas (the Maori name is Ngarotopounamu, meaning greenstone-hued lakes). When we finally looked back over our shoulders, the wind had cleared to reveal the summit of the mighty Mount Ngauruhoe, which glowed like a god in the sunlight to the backdrop of a pool-blue canvass of sky. We sat on the Red Crater for around ten minutes taking in the reward for our walk, warmed ourselves on the volcanic soil, and eventually made the steep descent on the loose scree towards the Emerald Pools. The next section of the Crossing brought us from the Emerald Pools to Ketehahi. The first few hundred metres or so of this walk brought us across the flat snow-covered valley beside the lakes, but we soon ascended towards the craters edge, which ran beside the frozen lake that we had seen earlier from the top of Red Crater. The snow was thick on the ground, and our steps were uneven as we walked – sometimes our feet fell through the snow’s surface several inches with a crunch, and other times our steps landed on rocks hidden just below the surface by a thin film of white. As we made our way alongside the frozen lake along the flanks of the North crater, the wind rose up and drove us sideways again, until we turned to our left to follow the track around the mountain. When we turned we were met with a torrent of wind that made our clothes stick to us, so that we had to lean forward to stop ourselves being blown backwards. As we made our way towards Ketehahi hut, and started to descend toward the finish, the pathway cut across two thick layers of ice that stretched down from the top of Mount Tongariro, leaving five-foot high walls of snow on either side of parts of the crossing. As the altitude decreased even more, the snow disappeared altogether from the walkway, and the sulphurous scent of thermal vents filled our noses, until there were plumes of volcanic smoke a couple of hundred metres from us on either side of the walkway. In front of us we could see the lowest level of clouds at our eye level, and Lake Tongariro spread out and filled the landscape in front of us. As we approached Ketehahi hut, the foot-worn clay track turned back into a wooden walkway and, after passing the hut to get down as quickly as we could, the crossing ended in a hardwood forest near the road. Fortunately, our shuttle bus was sitting in the car park waiting for us, like a welcome open hearth ready to warm us up. Then we headed back to Turangi.


Day 17: The rainy road to Rotorua

We left the campsite late the next day, but eventually made the two-hour drive from Turangi to Rotorua. That night, we walked from our campsite to the night market in Rotorua, which didn’t exactly match up to the standards of the impressive markets we had seen earlier in Asia. So, after a few minutes in the market, we went for a pint in an Irish pub where we spent an hour listening to some traditional Irish folk songs (sung by a man from Scotland).  


Day 18: The living Maori village, redwood forest, and a thermal bath

We made the short journey the next morning to Whakarewarewa (which is the shortened name for the village – the actual name is Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao), a traditional Maori village that sits on active thermal springs. We were guided around the village by a Maori lady whose family still resides in the village. She told us that the residents use the natural hot springs (which constantly bubble and steam as they are heated by the scalding rocks underneath) on a daily basis as baths, and also use the steam that randomly comes up from the soil and rocks to cook their food. At the end of our tour, we were treated to a Maori cultural show, where locals in traditional dress sung Maori songs and performed a Haka. After the tour, we headed to the Rororua redwood forest, supposedly one of the top things to see in the area. There were a few walking trails of different lengths around the park, so we felt like taking it easy and did the shortest one. Afterwards, we went to see what the fuss about the thermal pools was all about and went for a dip in one of the many volcanic baths in the area, recommended by some for their supposed healing and health properties (I wasn’t particularly convinced but went anyway). Then, we headed east for a small town called Ngongotaha, where we got fish and chips to cap off a not-so-stressful day.


Day 19: Hobbiton

This was the day that Aisling had been patiently looking forward to since we booked our trip to New Zealand, namely a day in Hobbiton, the actual village set used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. The tour brought us all around the set, which is still exactly as it was since being built for the Hobbit films, and which is built on the land of a local sheep and beef farmer. The site for the fictional village was apparently chosen from among dozens of potential areas shortlisted during helicopter searches around New Zealand. The initial set used for filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy was built using non-permanent materials and was subsequently dismantled and removed after filming finished but, after realising the tourism potential of having a real-life permanent Hobbiton in existence, the village was rebuilt for the Hobbit exactly as it was in the Lord of the Rings, but this time using sustainable permanent materials that would last for at least fifty years. Our tour guide walked us past all thirty-something hobbit holes that were built, all complete with front doors and chimneys built into the hills. None of the houses had an inside (except one, but it was tiny inside and was like a storage press), but the exteriors of each of the hobbit holes was detailed and realistic down to the fake moss on the fences outside (which apparently took one employee eight months to put on every fence in the village). The size of the hobbit holes differed depending how big they wanted to make the actors look when standing in front of them. Only one of the houses was one-hundred percent to scale, and the rest differed in size. We finished off the tour with a drink in the Green Dragon pub, and then hit the road for Auckland.


Day 20: Auckland

The campsite options were surprisingly limited in Auckland, so we stayed in a site a few miles south of the city. We wandered in for a couple of hours and went for a roast lamb dinner in one of the several Irish pubs in the town (the one we went to was called ‘Father Jack’s’).


Day 21: Off to South America

We packed up the van and said our goodbyes to our home of three weeks (we got no response, because it was a van), and headed to the airport for Santiago in Chile.


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Cairns to Sydney in 9 days by car

Our overnight flight from Perth landed in Cairns at about four in the morning, so after picking up our rented car, we filled the time before we could arrive at our accommodation at a reasonable hour by getting a couple of sausage sandwiches at the local butcher (who also doubled-up as a take-away). Then, after settling into our Airbnb house and getting a couple of hours of badly-needed shut-eye, we headed to the (supposedly) famous Rusty's food market, which was like an Australian version of the dozens of fruit and vegetable markets we had already seen in Asia, and spent the rest of the evening investigating the backpacker haven that is Cairns. 


Day 1: Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

We headed down to the Marlin Jetty in Cairns for our ferry trip, which left the pier at eight o'clock for the first of two locations we were to visit on the Great Barrier Reef. After a bumpy ride (sickbags were required for a few of the more inexperienced sea-legs on board), we arrived at our first site (Hastings Reef) after around an hour and a half, and then spent around 45 minutes snorkelling around the reef, looking at the fluorescent fish and the oddly shaped and weirdly coloured flora and coral of the reef. A giant turtle that was floating around the reef also gave a few people some good photo ops (I'm fairly sure I saw someone getting a selfie with the turtle using a go-pro and a selfie stick). While snorkelling, Aisling somehow (it was the 'undercurrent') managed to get herself stuck on the coral, which somehow defended itself from her attack and left her with a lovely sting on her knee. After getting back on the boat for our BBQ lunch we headed for the second and even more impressive location, known as Breaking Patches Reef, and headed back to the pier after another hour of snorkelling all the while warming up in the afternoon sun on the upper deck of the boat.


Day 2: Cairns to Airlie Beach (0 to 620 kilometres)

We left our accommodation at the later-than-planned time of half ten for the 8-hour drive to Airlie Beach, the closest town  to the tropical-beach haven of the Whitsunday Islands. The road to Airlie brought us along the coast through some large towns, but also through some smaller towns reminiscent of something found in parts of the deep-south of the US. During the first few hours of the journey, we were gifted with scenic views of the towering mountains that stretched along the roadside, which included some of the highest peaks in Queensland. Eventually, this mountainous landscape mostly gave way to the monotonous sight of large fields of sugarcane plantations, that ran almost consistently for hundreds of kilometres along our route until we reached Airlie Beach (almost all of the sugarcane produced in Australia comes from Queensland, apparently). Along with these plantations came dozens of small-but-long sugarcane trains that hauled full carriages of harvested cane from around the vast plantations to the large mills that were dotted around the region (and which could be identified by their heavy plumes of smoke). The tracks for these trains crossed the roads several times on route from Cairns to Airlie Beach. We ended up finishing the last couple of hours of our journey in the dark and, since dusk is apparently prime time for absent-minded kangaroos crossing the roads, we were fully attentive to any stray marsupials that might interrupt our journey. We weren't disappointed, because a couple hopped across the road right in front of us as we drove along. Luckily we didn't hit any, but a lot of others weren't so lucky as suggested by the dozens of kangaroo and wallaby carcasses that lined the roads. Creeks are everywhere along this route, and all of which are signposted with lots fairly unusual names (like Kangaroo, Christmas (the signs for which were covered with Christmas decorations), Banana, Cabbage, Broken-pole, and Murdering Creeks, along with loads of others that I can't remember). Anyway, we eventually arrived in Airlie Beach at half nine and, despite being relieved to finally reach our hostel, we were less than ecstatic to discover our hostel reception was closed for the day. Luckily, after a call-out from the security guard we eventually got into our room and hit the hay with dreams of white sand in our heads.


Day 3: Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands (one of them at least)

We were not very well organised before arriving in Airlie Beach (a popular backpacker town on the mainland and the main departure point to the Whitsundays), so we ended up having to book our ferry to one of the Whitsunday Islands on the morning we wanted to go. Luckily for us, there was a company that took bookings until just before the ferry departed, so we headed down to the ferry port and hopped on (tickets were $29 per person each way). We headed to the lesser known Daydream Island, a small lump of land and one of the closest of the Whitsunday Islands to Airlie Beach, and spent most of the day there swimming (well, floating), lazing and doing a bit of snorkelling. There was also a short rainforest walk on the island that connected a couple of the beaches. The beaches on the island were mainly coral rather than the almost snow-white sand usually associated with the Whitsundays, and there were wallabies hopping around freely all over the island, including in the balconies of the hotels.


Day 4: Airlie Beach to Hervey Bay (620 to 1,493 km)


Day 5: Hervey Bay (and Fraser Island), and River Heads to Noosa (1,493 to 1,689 km)

Our first full day in Hervey Bay included (yet another) boat trip, this time to the Great Sandy Straight between the bay and Fraser Island to do some whale watching. We were lucky that we were in Australia at a really busy time during the whale-watching calendar and, once we reached the prime area to see the humpbacks (after around an hour on the boat), we were spoiled with all the whales we saw. Firstly, as our captain told us over the loudspeaker on the boat, we saw a mother and her calf slapping their fins down on the surface of the water (apparently this helps to scare off predators), after which both went for a little swim during which they regularly popped their heads above the water’s surface for a little look around. After following them from the side for a while, we came across a group of six or seven whales, one of which was a female who was apparently in heat, meaning that the other male whales were having a little contest to try to catch her attention, and were swimming after her while she tried hard to evade their advances (I’m not making this up – the captain said it!). Twice the female swam under our boat in attempts to lose her rowdy pursuers, after which all the whales spectacularly breached the surface of the water  on the opposite side of the boat. After a good four hours on the boat, during which time we also saw a few dolphins (which the captain told us were also a type of whale - mind blown) we headed back to the pier and dry land. That evening we downed some grub in an Irish bar (of course) with two homeless lads that were living out of a small van. The next morning we headed by ferry to Fraser Island, which we were told is the biggest sand island in the world and famous for the wild dingoes that roam the island. We parked our car up and boarded the ferry (only four-by-four vehicles are allowed on the island) and headed off from River Heads pier at nine o’clock. We only had a few hours on the island, so we went for a little walk through one of the forests there and spent the rest of the day on the beach. We headed off the island at 2 o’clock and headed south for Noosa on the Sunshine Coast.


Day 6: Noosa and Noosa to Pottsville (1,689 to 1,961 km)

We only had one full day in Noosa so we decided to do what we did in all the towns along the coast and go to the beach! This was the nicest beach we had seen in Australia so far – the sand was like flour and the seawater was as clear as rainwater. Strangely enough, there were lots of wild turkeys running around, but nobody else seemed to be surprised by this so we assumed it was a normal occurrence. After the beach, we went to Noosa National Park and walked the coastal route to a cliff area called Hell’s gate, where the sea violently crashes off a rocky cove. There are panoramic views of the Noosa Heads beaches along the walkway, and we saw some dolphins swimming along coast as we walked along. I was also about an inch away from stepping on a three-foot long lizard that was sunning itself on the footpath, so I took my eyes off the sea every now and again to check for scaled creatures on the ground as we went along the path. On our way back from Hell’s Gate, we headed off the main route and descended some steps carved out of the cliff-rock to one of the beaches for a little swim. That evening we headed to Pottsville, around two-and-a-half hours by car away from Noosa.


Day 7: Pottsville (around a 30-minute drive north of Byron bay).

We landed in Pottsville in the evening so didn’t head down to Byron Bay until the next morning. Again, we only had one full day in Byron so, again we headed for one the top-rated things to see there, namely a trip to Byron lighthouse. This walk was really similar to the walk we did in Noosa, and again included a Cliffside walk overlooking the Pacific, from where we could again see whales and dolphins doing their thing in the water and lizards soaking in the sunlight along the pathway. Also similar to Noosa, there were lots of wild turkeys running around the bush area beside the walkway. In the evening, Byron town was buzzing with people watching the AFL grand final that was on that night, and there was a group of hippy-esque lads and ladies keeping the  sunset-viewers by the beach entertained with bongos and other drums (and one lad with a saxophone).


Day 8: Pottsville to Newcastle (1,961 to 2,619 km)

The landscape during this journey was noticeably different than that of our earlier journeys, in that there were less mountainous and barren-looking fields and more trees and green fields with cattle grazing.


Day 9: Newcastle to Palm Beach (2,619 to 2,787) and then on to Sydney (2,787 to 2,832 km)

After staying the night in Newcastle (with a really nice and helpful older couple from New Zealand), we got up the next moring and headed to Palm Beach, also known as Summer Bay (that’s in Home and Away for anyone who doesn’t know!). After a walk around the beach (and the surf club, Diner, pier, and bait shop, all of which were a five-minute walk from the beach), we got back in the car and headed for Sydney airport and New Zealand. Next stop: Christchurch.

Sugarcane was everywhere along the east coast of Queensland

A whale (take my word for it)

I'm a sucker for a good sunset. This one was in Hervey Bay.

A happy Aisling after seeing some whales

The ferry to Fraser Island


The beach at Fraser Island

And at Noosa

The view along the coastal walk in Noosa

Hell's Gate


The view from the coastal walkway in Byron


Another view from the Byron coastwalk

Byron lighthouse

Panorama shot

Aisling contemplating life at Byron

Drum (and saxophone) session at Byron Beach


Summer Bay beach, also known as Palm Beach




Friday, 25 September 2015

Perth, Margaret River, and Cowaramup (Australia)

We flew from Singapore at 8 o'clock in the evening and arrived at Sydney airport at around 6 am local time with sleepy heads on us. Luckily, there was a shuttle buses that took us straight from the airport to right outside the door of our hostel, where we landed at around 9 o'clock. We spent most of our first day in Sydney walking around the main city area and sitting in a park (I can't remember the name) overlooking Farm Cove with the harbour and the opera house in the background. The next morning we headed on a free walking tour of the city that took us all around the main sights including the Sydney Harbour, the opera house, and the Rocks. In the middle of the tour, we stopped for a break in Australia Square and happened to bump into the one and only Alf Stewart (yea, I know that's not his real name)! It's not lost on us that the chances of meeting such a famous Australian face on our first day in the country are probably fairly slim. We also met another familiar face in Sydney in the form of Charlie Robinson, an old friend of ours from our days in UCD. For the next couple of days, we stayed with some relatives of mine who live in the suburbs, and had a big family barbeque on the first night there, where we got to meet some distant cousins who really made us feel part of the Australian Purcell family! After another day of exploring the city (including a walk around Darling Harbour), and another Purcell family dinner, we flew to Perth. We stayed in a house in the Perth suburbs (we booked it on AirBnB) for three days. On our first day there, we drove our rented car to Caversham Wildlife Park, located around half an hour outside Perth city centre, where we got to meet-and-greet kangaroos, koala bears, and lots of other Aussie animals. After a few hours at the park, we headed to Freemantle for some fish and chips (the 'best in WA' apparently) and sat on he beach to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean (cue vomiting). The next day we headed back to Freemantle for a tour of the former prison there, which was the home of thousands of convicts sent to Australia from the UK and Ireland. The tours we went on in the prison brought us into all the main areas, like the exercise yard, cells, kitchen, death row, and the gallows. After a walk around the famous Freemantle market, we headed back to Perth for a walk around Kings Park where we got an impressive night-view of the city and the Swan River. After our few days in Perth were finished, we headed south for a two-day trip to Margaret River. The drive from Perth took around 4 hours, and the road brought us right through the heart of wine-making country, with acres of vineyards on either side of us as we drove into the town. After arriving in Margaret River, we took a walk through a wood near our hostel to the river itself, and went for fish and chips in a local pub afterwards. The next morning we hit the road to Lake Cave (located just off Cave Road, of course), one of many caves in the area but supposedly the best (and the highest-rated attraction in Margaret River on TripAdvisor). The cave didn't disappoint. After walking the steep steps down to the cave, we were met with spectacular views as the stalagmites and other formations in the cave reflected off the water of the lake inside. After coming back up to daylight after the hour-long tour, we pretended to be cultured and headed to a free wine-tasting in one of the wineries in the area (there are over 120 of them, and the ones with 'cellar doors' signs offer free wine tastings).
On our way back to our hostel, we stopped at an olive farm and a chocolate factory, and paid a visit to a small town called Cowaramup, which is an atypical town with an interesting history. Situated in the heart of Margaret River's wine region, Cowaramup was initially formed as a 'group settlement scheme' to promote dairy production and to populate the high-rainfall area of the south-west in the mid-1920s. Families that moved to the area were given grants of around 160 acres to farm. Eventually someone copped on to the fact that it might be a good place to grow grapes and make wine, and thus the first commercial winery in the area was opened in 1967, after which the area eventually developed into the prime wine-making spot it is today. At a quick glance driving through Cowaramup, the town looks normal enough, but with a second look the slightly strange and definitely unique trait of this town is obvious. Scattered around the town, on the pavements of the main street and on the green areas of the small park in the town ('Pioneer Park'), are 42 fibreglass, life-size cow sculptures. To make this cow-related story even weirder, the fake cows were unveiled to the general public on July 15th, 2012, which so-happened to be International Cow Appreciation Day (yes, that does exist). In addition to the cow sculptures, the town also holds the record for the most people dressed as cows (1,352 to be specific). As a result of this apparent obsession with cows in Cowaramup (or the difficulty in pronouncing it's name), Cowaramup is affectionately referred to by the locals as Cowtown. Even more weirdly, the name Cowaramup actually has nothing to do with cows, but is supposedly based on the Aboriginal word 'cowara', which means 'purple-crowned lorikeet' (a bird). There is also a large gold-coloured cow sculpture called 'free as a cow' in Pioneer Park in the town, but I won't go into that.
Anyway, on our last day on Oz's west coast, we made the drive back up to Perth for our 'overnight' (4-hour) flight to Cairns.

Aisling with a couple of her marsupial friends

A koala bear tries to sleep while we annoy it

The inside grounds of Freemantle Prison

The gallows. 40 hangings were carried out at Freemantle Prison, which was the only lawful place of execution in Western Australia between 1888 and 1984. 

The view of the prison from one of the watchtowers

The front entrance to the prison

Freemantle Market


The blurry view of Perth city from King's Park
Next stop - Africa. One of the beaches that we stopped at on our way south to Margaret River from Perth.

Margaret River

Walking down to Lake Cave. The scene in the background shows trees above ground level with a steep drop into a large crater-like hole, where some ground collapsed above a part of the cave. This probably happened at least 500 years ago as indicated by the ages of some the trees in the collapsed area.

The gap to reach the cave is narrow and we were told to duck our heads to avoid hitting two rocks nicknamed 'headache rock' and 'splitting headache rock' 

The walkway through cave (on the extreme left) runs alongside the lake (just left of centre)

The walkway in the centre of the photo with the lake on either side

Stalagmites inside the cave 

The vines in one of the wineries in Margaret River.

With some of the cows in Cowaramup

In the green areas

In front of shops on the main street



An old-style wooden church in Cowaramup

'Free as a cow'