Monday, December 18, 2006

Greetings from a very wet Taupo (and I'm not just talking about the lake)

Wednesday 6th December 2006

Got bus from Albany to Perth. I think travelling such vast distances has been good for my patience as the 6 hours seem to pass quite quickly. It is noticeably warmer on arrival in Perth (30C+). I spent the afternoon updating photos online and then went for a long walk along the Swan River. It was beautiful in the evening sunshine, and interesting to watch all the locals cycling and jogging. After cooking and eating I had an early night to prepare for the long day/night ahead

Thursday 7th December 2006

I took it fairly easy in the morning, mainly staying around the hostel, prior to getting the airport shuttle bus at 3pm. I did some further stuff on the internet (managing to get some extra free time when the whole system crashed on me), cooked a leisurely lunch and read for a bit.

I met a chap from France (Thomas, from Annecy), while waiting for the bus. He had been staying in the room next to mine at the Perth City YHA, but we hadn't met previously. I spotted his french accent, so we started chatting from there...

Also spoke to a Kiwi (a person from New Zealand, that is, not a flightless bird!)) on the bus, so got some tips about where to go in New Zealand.

On checking in at the airport, Thomas discovered that his luggage was overweight (a bit like being in an episode of "Airport"). Some re-packing was required, before going back to try again. He had got the excess baggage charge down quite a bit, but there was still some money to pay (which he as prepared to do). The next problem, however, was that he only had a single ticket, and New Zealand immigration requires an onward ticket in order to let you into the country. He therefore had to buy an expensive (but fully refundable ticket) which could be reimbursed on arrival. Ah, the joys of antipodean bureaucracy!

We finally got our seats allocated (next to each other, so we could have some in-flight language lessons) on our third attempt and the kind ladies at the service desk waived the excess baggage charges (either feeling sorry for us, or won over by our anglo-french charm offensive).

Thomas proceeded to buy me a coffee as a thank you for my translation services.

The flight was really good, mostly spent chatting in French and English and drinking a very nice Pinot Noir. Didn't manage to sleep a wink, so I think the first few hours in Auckland will pass in rather a blur.

Friday 8th December 2006

Arrived in Auckland very early in the morning. Customs were kind enough to wash my boots (a bit of poo on one of them apparently) and took away my tent for a thorough inspection. The bloke in front of me had 2 big spiders in his swag, so I guess they have a good reason for making a thorough check. Still, it was a bit annoying that they had made a pig's ear of repacking my tent - I ended up having to spread it out on the airport floor and start again.

Got the bus into Auckland city centre and dumped my bags at the hostel (Auckland Central Backpackers - just off of Queens Street in the centre of town). Couldn't check-in until 11am so went for a coffee and pastry with Thomas. Lovely little cafe and excellent coffee. Good first impressions. Auckland seemed much busier than Perth, which made a nice change. Giant papier-mache (well, maybe fibre-glass) Santa attached to one of the buildings. Rather creepy looking, as it has a winking eye an a come-hither finger. A bit sinister and rather disturbing. The Daily Mail would be outraged and probably instigate a campaign for its removal.

Managed (somehow) to keep going during the day. Wandered around Auckland, did some food shopping (cheaper than in Australia - hooray), had a leisurely lunch/dinner and carried on practicing my French with Tomas, who is a really nice bloke.

Spent the evening with some more french-speakers (France/Quebec) and finally went to bed once the bar - right next door to our room (typical!) - had closed. This was at 11pm because whilst it normally closes at 7:30pm, there was a special party on (with pumping dance music - oh joy), to celebrate our arrival (?)...

Saturday 9th December 2006

Slept for 12 hours solid. Luckily not too noisy one the party had finished.

Spent the day making further excursions out into Auckland. Had lunch with Thomas in an Asian food court. $6 - almost like being back in Singapore. Booked bus up to Paihia and bought BBH card.

Later in the afternoon went to supermarket (again) to assemble picnic stuff. Took this up to the Domain for the Christmas in the Park extravaganza. Lovely park with museum in the background (the new atrium was opened by the Prime Minister the day before). The rain began almost as soon as we had sat down and opened the wine. It was really cold - my hands quickly lost all feeling. Up until that point the weather hadn't been too bad. There had been a brief band of rain on Friday evening and a couple of short showers during the day on Saturday, but out of the wind it had been warmish when the sun came out.

Still, we sat it out and munched on bread and salami... all the while enduring the awful entertainment. Perhaps that should be in inverted commas. It really was sub-Royal Variety Performance stuff: kids singing carols, precocious child singer-songwriters, assorted other tat. We made it to the interval, getting wetter and wetter all the time. By that stage we had had enough, so decided to head back to the hostel and eat our fruit-course (good strawberries) and finish the wine in the dry.

We finished off the evening by going to a couple of bars for a nightcap. Nice to be in the warm and dry...

Sunday 10th December 2006

Up (too) early to get the bus to Paihia. Beautiful journey - green hills, glimpses of the sea and estuaries along the way. Lovely stuff. Arrived at lunchtime.

After erecting the tent and eating I had a wander around the town before lounging on the beach for a couple of hours. Quite nice out of the breeze and in the sun. Otherwise pretty chilly. Seemed like a nice quiet town, with a lovely location looking out to the bay (rather unsurprisingly dotted with islands). Got some bits from the supermarket (including a heavily discounted bottle of Pinot Noir) and headed back to the hostel.

Really friendly bunch of people around the hostel (including a nice couple who are looking after the place while the owners are away). Nice courtyard for eating al fresco, although several layers are required.

Monday 11th December 2006

Beautiful sunny start. Starting to feel more human after a really good night's sleep.

Quite chilly, but the eat-as-much-as-you-possibly-can buffet breakfast does a good job of warming me up. Absolutely stuffed: minimum lunch will be required for the next week...

Got ferry across to Russell. Chatted with friendly middle-aged couple from Wellington (NZ, not Somerset) on boat. Lovely relaxed holiday atmosphere.

Russell is a really pretty little town. Clapboard houses (is that the right term? Anyway, painted wooden constructions) and lush green hills behind the town remind me of Carriacou. Gorgeous.

I spend the day walking all around the peninsula on which Russell sits. Amazing views from various lookout points - especially from the end of the peninsula: the 360 degree views of the bays and islands is indescribably beautiful. This, plus the fact that my camera has miraculously started working again, makes me feel almost euphoric. So much so that I even braved a swim in the freezing (16C) water. By this time the air was really warm, so it was actually quite refreshing (and the sea lovely and clean). Further walks through pretty, fern-filled woods led me to other nice beaches and viewpoints. I eventually worked my way back to Russell for the return ferry. All in all an amazing day.

Met some more nice people back at the hostel including Gallit (who went to Art College in Exeter), Simone from Italy (changing from French to Italian and vice versa seems to be getting a bit easier - maybe I'm learning to switch more quickly), Faye (from Coventry) and Colin (from USA, via Melbourne)

Got told off by the dragon-like owner for talking after the curfew (1 minute past 11pm). Her face is so sour she could curdle milk. It must be years since that last time she smiled. Luckily the gorgeous star-filled sky meant that I went to bed happy despite the altercation.

Tuesday 12th December 2006

Another gorgeous sunny day. And another gluttonous attack on the breakfast buffet.

Today walked to Opua and back. First up to the look-out behind Paihia (amazing views of the bay). Beautiful forests - still amazing to see so many tree ferns and other unusual plants. Feels like tropical rainforest. Track follows a ridgeline a few kms behind the coast. Unfortunately the trees obscured what would have otherwise been fantastic views (Dad, you would have been really irritated by this), but the tranquility and isolation (didn't see a single person) made up for it. Glad to be in the shade in actual fact as it is really quite hot by the middle of the day.

Joined gravel road and followed it down the hill to Opua. Lovely views as I approached the coast. Opua is a pretty little town/village. Loads of flowers and some stunning looking residential properties (probably all holiday homes).

The track then follows the coast back to Paihia. It's rather reminiscent of sections of the SW coast patch around the estuaries of S. Devon/Cornwall. I stopped for a brief snooze on the beach continuing.

Later in the afternoon I managed to have a Wood-style mishap while standing on a bench (rather precariously) to take a photo. I somehow lost my balance, slipped off the back of the bench, scraped my shin and took a chunk out of my foot. Luckily I had my first aid kit with me, so I was able to clean up the wound and apply a plaster (thankfully I was not seriously injured).

I hobbled back to the hostel - I was already nearly back when I had my whoopsy, so there wasn't that far to go.

Put feet up and had some wine for its anaesthetic effect. It was a nice Cab/Merlot from Hawkes Bay (I'm trying to drink local!), which goes rather well with my Spag Carbonara.

Spent the rest of the evening chatting with Gallit/Faye/Maya - the latter from Slovakia - very pleasant... helped me forget about the chunk missing from the foot.

Wednesday 13th December 2006

After two mammoth walking days I decided to take it relatively easy and do some organisational stuff. I decided that it would give me some peace of mind to know where I will be staying over the Christmas period (other people have spoken about places being booked up, etc.). I also had a lovely chat with Mum and Dad, making use of the free credit I got when buying a BBH Hostel Discount Card.

I found out about the Naked Bus from Faye (I'm hoping it won't be full of naturists). It has fares starting from $1. I managed to book a few cheap tickets online and even splashed out on a $6 fare. Naked bus can't quite get me everywhere that I want to go on the North Island, but it covers a big chunk. I will fill in the gaps with Intercity/Shuttle services.

I also called a few hostels, which responded with varying degrees of friendliness. One tells me that it is ridiculous to book so far in advance (the person on the phone made me feel really stupid for trying to do so), so I decided that perhaps I don't want to stay there after all. The Cat's Pyjamas in Whitianga seems really good, on the other hand (a lovely lady answered the phone and it only costs $12 a night for tent pitches). So I decided to stay there over Christmas. It's quite satisfying to have a plan - especially when it costs so little. I hope the South Island proves to be a similar bargain, but I rather doubt it, from what I've heard...

Another nice evening, out in the courtyard of the hostel. The friendliness of my fellow guests is the polar opposite to that of the owners. It is good that Gallit, Faye and Maya are all staying at the hostel until Saturday, like me, as that helps to give the hostel a really homely feel. They are also all going on the same trip to Cape Reinga tomorrow.

Forgot to say the exciting news that I found a Woolworths earlier in the day, which has a much better selection of foodstuffs than the Four Square in town and is still quite a bit cheaper than Australia, even in a touristy place like this. That's an added bonus for a food obsessive like me.

Thursday 14th December 2006

I managed a brief raid on the buffet table before catching the tour bus at 7:15am. It would prove to be a long day ahead (12 hours), taking in 90-mile beach, the Kauri Forests and Cape Reinga, etc. The Guide sounded just like Clive James, but without the sense of humour. He seemed to find it amusing to make unfunny jokes about Australians, women, rugby... groan. The selection of music was awful too. Instrumental (mainly saxophone) muzak versions of "classic" hits and Boney M's Greatest Hits on repeat. Joy. Luckily the sights compensate.

The journey up the coast is beautiful. More bays, estuaries, hills, forests, beaches. Lovely.

Our first stop was to look at the giant Kauri trees in an ancient forest. Nice boardwarlk through the forest, but quite cool in the cloud (it was the worst weather since Auckland, but at least it didn't rain.

Next we stopped at a bit of a tacky Kauri-wood souvenir shop for morning coffee. I resist both the overpriced coffee and the tat on offer in the shop. The drive along 90-mile beach was much better. It was really strange to drive along such a long beach in a Coach and the driver took great satisfaction in telling us all about all the people who has got stranded by the tide/caught in quicksand, etc.. The weather was still a bit overcast, but not too cold.

We stopped at some giant sand dunes for what proved to be the highlight of the day: boogie boarding down the dunes. It was quite a trek to the top (the dune must be 100m high), but was worth it for the views and the thrill of sliding back down and getting a lung/nose/eye/ear-full of sand!

Got to Cape Reinga about lunchtime. Interesting to think that there is nothing between us and Russia. Otherwise it is a bit disappointing. Have seen nicer coastlines in the UK. Ah well, at least I can now head South in the knowledge that I haven't missed anything... The drive back in the afternoon was a bit of a drag. We stopped at a nice beach for a late lunch stop, but after that it was just straight back down the road, only stopping a couple of times (for a refreshment break at the same tat shop as in the morning, and then a fish and chip stop for an early tea at 5pm. Naturally I declined on both occasions).

We were all pretty tired when we got back in the evening, but had another nice sociable courtyard dinner (with the bonus of finding quite a bit of good stuff in the "free food" box). Getting freebies are proving to be definite highlights of the trip.

Friday 15th December 2006

Morning spent gorging myself on breakfast, doing my washing, and beginning to write this (I am now finishing it and posting it from Taupo, where the internet connection is slightly cheaper and better).

In the afternoon I walked to the waterfall (can't remember the name - all the Maori names sound really similar to my ignorant western ears), through more forest and mangrove. Lovely walk and the falls were quite nice in an understated way, although the sign warning of raw sewage meant that I wasn't too impressed about getting covered in spray. I saw several interesting birds, including a Tui, which has white baubly things under its chin.

Another evening of chit-chat under the stars. The weather has been really good and so has the company. I really enjoyed my time in the Bay of Islands... it was very laid-back and relaxing. I'm sure it would have been a bit dismal in the rain, but so far I have been lucky...

Saturday 16th December 2006

I got really lucky and met a couple from Sheffield the previous day who were driving south to Auckland in the morning. They offered to give me a lift and so I was able to get a refund on my bus ticket. Maya from Slovakia also got a lift so we bought them a case of beer to say thank you (but still saved over $30).

We stopped at Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa en route. Really interesting to have a small culture fix after so much natural scenic beauty. The detail in the toilets is amazing, although it feels a bit odd taking photos of a thunderbox/pissoir (luckily no one was in there at the time).

The kind couple dropped me off right at the bus station in Auckland, so from there I jumped on my bus to Taupo. It was a long drive and the bus stopped twice for refreshment breaks, which was a bit annoying as I just wanted to get to my destination.

The drive was quite scenic, in an pastoral English kind of way. The weather was still quite good, so things looked especially nice in the sunshine.

Arrived in Taupo in time for my first Pak'n'Save experience (New Zealand's Lidl equivalent), which yielded a few bargains (e.g. heads of broccoli for mere pence!) and made me a happy bunny with a full shopping trolley and later an even fuller stomach (accompanied by more wine sampling).

The hostel seems nice. A bit bigger than the one in Paihia, but still friendly and welcoming. Went out for a drink with a few others (English, Danish, Australian, German), although the local Irish bar wasn't up to much. Quite a late night, so rather exhausted come the end after 9 hours travelling during the day.

Sunday 17th December 2006

Rather overcast today, with rain forecast for the afternoon. Still, it wasn't cold so I decided to get out early and walk up to Huka Falls and beyond. It was a beautiful riverside walk, with the river an amazing blue colour, even in the cloud. Passed some hot springs which flowed out into the river and thought about going for a dip on the way back (the trail was the same there and back).

Got to the falls quite quickly and was impressed by the flow of water (more a giant series of rapids than a waterfall, but stunning nonetheless). Decided to carry on along the trail to a place with another name I can't remember (it begins with an 'A'). There, the river has been dammed and the water is only released a few times each day. Luckily I arrived just in time to see the discharge and it was amazing to see how quickly the rapids filled with water after the gates were opened.

It seemed quite a long walk back (a good 3 hours each way) and the clouds were thickening all the while (it had been relatively bright in the morning). It was just beginning to spit with rain when I reached the hot springs so I decided to plough on back to the hostel instead. This was just as well as the rain increased in intensity just as I got back inside. Excellent timing and a really satisfying day!

The hostel is proving to be just as good as the previous one and I'm finding loads more nice people to talk to. Either I'm getting more tolerant in my old age (btw I have been asked for ID on several occasions - so can't look that old), am picking the right hostels, or just being lucky. Whatever the reason, it is rather nice and shapes your impressions of a place so much...

Monday 18th December

I don't think the rain stopped since yesterday evening, and it rained steadily all morning (and all afternoon... it is now 6pm and has just [finally] stopped raining). This rather scuppered my plan to walk up the mountain behind Taupo, and even my plan B of walking around the lake was scrapped when the rain refused to stop, even momentarily. Instead I went to the library to read some newspapers, and then to the supermarket... followed by long lunch, a snooze, several cups of tea and now some time in the internet cafe (5-7 is happy 2 hours, and therefore a bit cheaper). It really was a grim day weather wise, and the forecast is for it to continue in this vein for the next few days. Ah well, I have been really lucky thus far, and being in New Zealand, I know that I have to take the rough with the smooth and the wet with the dry. It is also a bonus staying in a nice hostel, with nice people as at least this provides a diversion from the greyness outside.

Several people did the Tongariro (sp?) crossing today in the rain (normally it is closed in bad weather but the forecast was much better than it actually turned out). They all came back totally soaked and miserable. You couldn't see beyond your feet, apparently. One chap got lost and only found the path when he heard voices in the distance. I'm glad I decided against it...

And there we are... just about up-to-date. At least if the weather continues like this I won't have so much to write about in the future!

Sorry about the epic posting. You've done well if you've got this far without falling asleep or needing a toilet break (even the spell check is telling me that it is too long!).

Time to go and eat my first New Zealand lamb (under 1 pound for two chops!), with ratatouille and sweet potato. Which rather calls for a nice bottle of wine, methinks.

Best wishes to you all,
James xx

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Resumption of play

Well, I am back in the library and have been informed that I can happily type up my blog on the computer's word processor for free, save it to disk and then upload it from a different computer (outside of the library). I think I should be able to bypass the second step and paste it directly into my blog (as long as no-one is watching). If this appears then it is England 1 – Australia (or, at least, Albany Library Services) 0 (unlike the latest Ashes disaster, which just doesn't bear talking about).

So, where was I?

Friday 1st December 2006 (continued)

Got to the hostel in Albany in time for lunch and discovered, much to our delight, that in addition to the v friendly and welcoming owners (who somehow managed to remember the first name of everyone in the hostel), there was free bread around the clock. Bonus.

After a carbohydrate-packed lunch, we drove into the Torndirrup National Park, where we saw beautiful beaches, interesting rock formations (so many huge lumps of granite around here) and impressive blowholes. It was at the latter where an amusing incident elapsed. Sebastien and I were almost upon them when they first blew (a violent gush of spray about 10m high). We almost jumped out of our skins (or as Melanie later put it, “into each others arms”). Melanie, who was a few metres further back, found it hilarious. Well, it was funny at the time. The swell was huge, so the views, as well as the blowholes, were all very dramatic.

On the way back to the hostel we visited Dog Rock, which, as you might well imagine is a large granite boulder in the shape of a Dog's head. The locals have painted on a collar, and its likeness is so rubbish that it is actually rather amusing.

Arriving back at the hostel I discovered that Rob and Caroline (who I had met in Augusta) were staying at the hostel. I spent a very pleasant evening with them and the two Canadians, over a couple of bottles of wine which we had accumulated on our various tastings (them more than me – their car was a veritable wine cellar).

Saturday 2nd December 2006

Started off the day going to the office of the bus company to claim my refund. You'll be pleased to hear that this amounted to the princely sum of 90c (mainly as a result of me being issued with the incorrect – and overly discounted – ticket in the first place). Ah well, even 90c isn't to be sniffed at, especially when I got a free tour in place of the bus journey.

Later in the morning we went to the farmers market (pretty rubbish and usual overpriced “organic” nonsense) and saw an exhibition of wildlife photography. But the highlight came when we popped into Alkoomi Wines to see if they had any tastings on offer. And did they ever! Their vineyards are in Frankland River (a couple hours north of here) and as it is rather off the tourist trail, they offer tastings in Albany as well.

Perhaps the wines weren't quite as good as those that I had tasted in the Margaret River/ Pemberton/ Denmark areas, but what they lacked in quality (and they weren't that lacking) the lady more than made up for in quantity. Each “tasting” was a good three mouthfuls and after 12 wines, we (me and the 2 Quebecers) were decidedly tipsy.

We felt a bit more with it after a long, bready lunch (I'm going to look like a loaf soon), so, together with Melanie and Sebastien, I went to Two People's Bay Nature Reserve. Little Beach was another corker and we managed to find a spot out of the wind (which was just as well, because in spite of the glorious sunshine there was a chilly breeze). Went in for a couple of swims and messed about in the surf. Very refreshing/invigorating but not as cold as I thought it would be (apparently the Leuwin Current reaches around the corner as far as Albany and thus keeps the temperatures higher than would be expected for the Southern Ocean).

A seagull bit Melanie while she was sunbathing (they are worse than they are in Sidmouth around here) and there was an amusing incident with a “bastard fly” (a bit like a horse fly – they bite – but I don't know the name so I invented my own). Anyway, one landed on Melanie, she screamed, we told her to sit still so that we could swat it (they are quite slow and death-prone), she carried on with her fit, insisting that at least that way it wouldn't be on her. Well, a couple of seconds later Sebastien slapped Melanie on the thigh, and lo, there was the dead fly. Hmm... another on of those “you had to be there” comedy moments, I suppose.

Another pleasant, wine-fuelled evening with the same group and after finding anywhere nice to have a night-cap, we went to have another look at Dog Rock. This time by night. And still rubbish.

Sunday 3rd December 2006

Lost an hour's sleep overnight, as the clocks went forward for the first time in W.A. (for a 3 year trial period).

Sad to say goodbye to the Quebecers and Liverpudlians, as we had spent a really enjoyable few days together. Still, it was nice to have a morning to myself, which I spent looking around town and doing some food shopping. The shops (including the big supermarkets) all operate rather archaic opening hours here, so the only place open was the local IGA (a Super Spar, if you like).

After lunch (some lovely seed bread from the free-bread bread-board – which made me feel a bit homesick), I went on a mammoth walk to Middleton Beach and Emu Point. Another 20k-er, I reckon. It was a beautiful sunny day and much warmer than the previous few days (high 20s). There were loads of lizards (King Skinks) about, clearly enjoying the warmth as much as me.

Albany has a really lovely setting, with granite strewn hills, white sand beaches and deep blue natural harbours. The town itself isn't up to much (typical sprawling Aussie suburbia), but the surroundings, and areas of wilderness within, more than compensate. It rather reminds me of Sardinia and is more Mediterranean in Character than I expected (someone else at the hostel likened it to the coast of Turkey). I thought it would have been lusher, but the vegetation is maquis-like and aromatic, rather than damp, woody and vivid-green.

I made another lovely curry (trying to use things up before moving on to NZ) and then had a very early night. It had been a hectic and very sociable few days.

Monday 4th December 2006

Spent the morning catching up on diary and internet housekeeping (mainly at Albany Library, where it is free). Weather took a turn for the worse again (preparing me for New Zealand?) so there was no great rush to get outside.

After lunch (yup, you guessed it, more bread – this time in the form of tuna sandwiches), I went for a walk, up to one of the hills overlooking Albany. This was delayed to begin with by a large patch of drizzle, so I popped back into the library for further blog updates (it's taking longer than I thought).

The sun sort of glimmered through the clouds, but the views weren't as good as the previous two days. It's amazing to note the difference between here and Perth. It was 35C in Perth today and struggling to reach 20C in Albany. Still I was reading on the interweb about the flooding in Scotland (and have since heard about Budleigh Salterton's storm-related power cut) so I mustn't grumble.

Had another quiet evening. Chatted for a bit with a pleasant divorcee from Holland, read for a bit and then had another early night.

Tuesday 5th December 2006

Penultimate full day in Australia today. Another morning of chores. This time washing, blogging and weather-watching (the sun came out at about 10am – hooray – I managed to get my washing dry).

Went for a long walk in the afternoon with Petra, the aforementioned Dutch lady. Very pleasant, although I'm quite glad to be moving on tomorrow (I think we just about exhausted her surprisingly limited English). The weather was great. Warm and sunny, but with a cooling onshore breeze. Walked up to another viewpoint overlooking the city, which still houses some gun emplacements which we were able to look around (and even go inside some of the large gun-type-things). Also revisited Middleton Beach (much quieter than on Sunday – only a handful of people along the entire 5km length). More lizards, birds, wildflowers... it's just a shame that Albany town is such a sprawling mess, as we had to walk back through endless bungalow land (and not everyone is proud of their gardens here, unlike the majority of Poms). Car is king, and if you haven't got one you just have to endure roads which weren't designed for walking.

Well, here we are, up-to-date at last. I am sitting in the Library at 7:30pm, the sun is still shining (thanks to the clocks going forward – it doesn't get dark until after 8pm now), and the Aussies are doubtless being smug about our latest cricketing disaster. I think it is time for me to flee the country, which (with mixed feelings – I have really enjoyed Western Australia) I will be doing on Thursday. I notice the 5-day forecast for Auckland is for rain on my first 2 days, so I had best pop out into the late evening sunshine and enjoy it while it lasts...

Best wishes to you all,
Love James xx

Snorers delight

Good morning. I've just had a sleepless night, courtesy of a very loud snorer. Earplugs were useless against this particular beast, and the whole bed shook with each blast. I'm typing this through tired eyes, so please forgive any perceived bleariness.

Thursday 30th November 2006

I ask the Canadian couple (who aren't actually a couple, but a bloke called Sebastien and the sister of his ex-girlfriend [Melanie]... it's a long story) if they would mind dropping me at the nearest vineyard, so that I could walk back. They said that they were planning a tour of various vineyards themeselves and that they would be more than happy for me to join them. I jumped at the chance.

First stop was Howard Park Wines. V friendly lady, who advises us on which other wineries would be best for our subsequent stops (there are lot!). Good selection of wines (Mad Fish = cheaper range; Howard Park = more expensive - both the same winemaker). Unfortunately they are out of Temperanillo, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to compare it to a Rioja.

Next stop Karriview Wines. A rather sour-faced lady here and a tiny winery with only 3 wines available for tasting. One Pinot Noir was decidedly odd.

Next up was Harewood Wines. Seriously good wines (lots of awards) and v (over?) friendly chap. Things take a turn for the surreal when said chap (Peter) announces out of the blue that he has terminal cancer and only 6 months to live. What do you say to that? At first I wonder (rather cynically) if this is some form of elaborate marketing ploy. But it is just too sad/bizarre for that, surely. It emerges that he has shunned conventional treatments (against the advice of his doctors) and is now following a purely spiritual path (partly thanks to his new girlfriend - who he has just met [gold-digger?]). He showed us his crystal and proceeded to hold it against his cancer. He also talked about his magnetic bracelet and the hours of meditation he does every day. And the piece of resistance: He insisted on a group hug before leaving.

Prior to this episode the Canadians were considering buying a case of wine (and I was half-inclined to buy a $24 bottle of delicious Pinot Noir), but we were completely thrown by Peter's little announcement, so ended up making our excuses and leaving without making a single purchase (after what must have been at least 30 minutes of trying to make the right noises and listening to Peter's spiritual ponderings). Very sad and not just a little odd, he must have desperately needed to get it off his chest, although talking to a bunch of strangers who had just rocked up for a bit of wine tasting might not have been the best time or place.

Luckily there were no such revelations at Somerset Hill Wines, just fresh mushrooms grown in their cellars and some nice wines (I bought a half-price bottle of the 2002 Pinot Noir for $12). Before that we had briefly popped into another winery (can't remember the name) with a cheese-tasting place attached, but the woman there was so off that we only stayed long enough to fill up on cheese samples, quaff a couple of wines and beat a hasty retreat.

By this stage of the day we were all feeling in need of some further solid sustenance (the cheese didn't quite succeed in soaking up all the alcohol), so we popped back to the hostel for lunch.

This left just two of the best wineries in the area for a final fling. West Cape Howe was first, where the wines were excellent and the lady helpful and informative. We also tried some delicious olive oil. I bought a bottle of cleanskin (no label - therefore cheaper) Pinot Noir for $10.

Fortunately, we had saved the best experience for the end of the day (or maybe it was because of our ever-increasing intoxication*). Either way, Forest Hill was fantastic. Despite a heavy cold the lady was charming and funny (even joking about the fact that her 3 step-children hated her... we were beginning to feel like counsellors by this stage!). She seemed to give us bigger measures as we went on (and they were pretty big to begin with). Then, at the end of the tasting, she asked us if there were any wines that we would like to taste again. We said that we had rather enjoyed the rose, so she proceeded to give us the bottle and tell us to help ourselves. A nice end to a rather epic (and at times frankly bizzare) day. Cheers to that. Hic.

It was also the perfect way to avoid the worst weather of my trip so far. It was overcast and cool all day, with rather frequent heavy showers, so it was nice to just have to run between the car and the cellar door.

* well, for Melanie and I, but not for Sebastian as he had drawn the short straw and was driving (and therefore skipping a lot of the wines and spitting rather than swallowing).

Friday 1st December 2006

The two Canadians were driving to Albany so offered me a lift (and tour en route), instead of taking the bus. I was therefore able to cancel my bus ticket and would be able to pick up the refund from their office in Albany.

On the way we drove the scenic route and popped into West Cape Howe National Park (almost as good as the winery of the same name). My camera sort of started to work again, but only in video mode (it takes photos but they are massively over-exposed and therefore almost a complete white-out). Shelley Beach was stunningly beautiful. The water was crystal clear despite the huge waves and I saw a seal playing in the surf. From the lookout above the beach you could see the Porongorup and Stirling Ranges in the distance... quite beautiful.

Have to upload this now as apparently I am not allowed to update my blog on the library computer (it counts as e-mail in their [somewhat skewed] eyes). So, the remainder will have to wait until later.

Bye for now,
James xx

Monday, December 04, 2006

Second update of the day (avoiding the drizzle)

For some reason, this computer won't let me go into the previous post and edit the title - hence the air of strangeness (now corrected - blink and you'll have missed it). The weather today has taken a turn for the worse, so I have postponed this afternoon's walk and decided to continue updating the blog from the library instead. Hopefully the drizzle will cease and I will be able to make full use of the extra hour of daylight that Western Australia now enjoys. Anyway, back to 26th November for the next installment...

Sunday 26th November 2006

Bought the Sunday Times, which is more of a Mail on Sunday. At least it gave me a slight flavour of what is going on in the world (well, mainly Australia, but there was the odd international story). The front page showed the England cricket team with rabbit ears, under the headline "England's Bunnies". The lady in the newsagents didn't get my joke when I asked if there was an alternative front cover. It must have been my French accent which threw her.

I cooked a substantial pasta meal for lunch, making full use of the hostel's excellent kitchen, as I wasn't sure what time I would arrive in Pemberton (the bus was scheduled to arrive sometime after 8pm). I then went for a walk along the estuary. It wasn't as nice as yesterday's coastal walk but I saw an interesting lizard and lots of nice wildflowers. The weather was hot and sunny, so it was nice to be out and about and there was a bit of a breeze right next to the water.

In the evening I caught the bus to Pemberton (only one other person on board). It was a beautiful drive through fields and forests, with the evening sun casting an amber glow across the landscape.

It was dark upon arrival. They had no record of my booking, but luckily I was able to take the last available bed. Lucky, or what?

The other person on the bus (a Danish girl), checked into the same hostel, so we decided to go to the town's (only) pub for a drink. It was the final of Australian Idol (on the big screen), so there were quite a lot of drunk Aussies, which made of interesting people watching. And the standard of the competitors made X-Factor look positively professional in comparison.

Although I am unsure whether or not the Danish girl irritates me (I am erring towards yes-she-does), I decide to give her a chance and arrange a plan for the following day, which will involve a long walk through the forest and a visit to 3 wineries. It will be good to walk with another person because I am always conscious that it would be a bit dodgy if anything should happen to me in the middle of the Australian bush.

Monday 27th November 2006

An early start today as a lot to pack in. We got a lift to the Gloucester Tree with an Australian man (from Adelaide*) who was staying in the same dorm. We climbed to the top (60m up). The views were really good, but it wasn't quite as exciting as I thought it would be. In fact, it could have done with a death-slide from the top to complete the experience. There were some friendly parrots at the bottom (very colourful and noisy)... which gave it something of the feel of a tropical forest (as did the temperatures, which were already pretty warm).

After this we left our taxi driver behind (he was driving on to his next overnight stop) and went to a nearby vineyard (Gloucester Ridge) for some early-morning wine tasting (we arrived at 10:05am, just after they opened). Nice range of wines although a bit more pushy on the sales front. Luckily we had the excuse of a 15km walk ahead of us.

From the vineyard we walked back into town and then out into the forest along the Bibbulmun Track (a long distance patch connecting Albany and Perth). The eucalyptus forest was beautiful with some absolutely massive specimens (even higher than the one we had climbed). Interesting sounds (birdsong, insects and assorted rustlings in the undergrowth) and the wonderful smell of Olbas Oil heightened the sensory experience.

We had lunch next to a stream, dangling our hot feet in the cool, clear water (which also smelt of Eucalyptus). Lovely. Got to Big Brook Dam feeling rather hot (there wasn't the cooling sea breeze this far inland) and so were glad to have a refreshing dip in the reservoir.

From there we walked back towards Pemberton, stopping at a couple more wineries en route. A couple from Stuttgart, who were staying in our hostel, gave us a lift for part of the way, which was welcome as the walk had seemed further than anticipated.

The first winery (Hidden River Wines) was the best one of the day. Really friendly staff, sizable measures, good selection of wines and no obligation to buy. Feeling a bit squiffy upon exit.

Walk to next winery (Woodsmoke Wines) for more tastings (not as good as earlier ones - the Chardonnay tastes of armpits) and then start to stagger back to hostel. A kindly Australian couple (from Melbourne) must have noticed our zig-zag path, as they offered us a lift back to Pemberton. Perhaps the Danish girl (who had hitched part of her way around Australia - yes, she's a bit crusty) was able to telepathically persuade drivers to stop and pick us up.

After getting back I scrumped from fresh fruit (nectarines and loquats) from the hostel garden and made a noodly dinner. In bed by 9:30pm, after a full and satisfying day.

* I have met quite a lot of Australians travelling around, either visiting places as a tourist, or travelling to a new area to look for work. This seems to illustrate both the sheer enormity of their country and the questing, pioneering spirit of such recent colonists.

PS Saw a snake during our walk (not sure what kind, either a Dugite or a Tiger Snake... both of which are pretty venomous).

Tuesday 28th November 2006

Up early again. Leisurely breakfast and more scrumping of fruits (I'll be getting the squits at this rate) before checking out at 10am. Danish girl has already left, after securing a lift with a couple heading in the same direction. Quite glad about this as she was getting more irritating as time went on. Unfortunately she said she'd come and find me in Denmark, as we would both be staying there that evening.

I left my stuff at the hostel and went for a wander around the town. It's got a real wild west feel - timber houses with big verandahs, an abandoned railroad and a large timber mill at the bottom of the hill. And all this is surrounded by massive forests, increasing the middle-of-nowhere atmosphere.

I found a nice spot next to the town swimming pool (a dammed-up lake in the forest) to sit and update my diary. There were lots of little beasties around (including mozzies), so I hoped I hadn't been bitten to shreds* (which luckily, as it turned out, I hadn't). More walking (it was a bit cloudy and much more humid), followed by a trip to the supermarket to get stuff for lunch and dinner.

I sat outside to have my lunch, but was forced to seek shelter by a heavy shower (the first rain since leaving Perth). It didn't come to much but was quite grey. A further few showers drove me back to the hostel to read and wait for the bus in the dry.

Another scenic bus journey through hills (getting a bit bigger) and forests...

Arrived in Denmark a bit early as, once again, there were very few people on the bus. Hostel is tiny and very homely (there is a smelly dog - flint - and chickens pecking around under the building - like a lot of places around it is built on stilts). Have a lovely evening cooking curry (enough for 2 nights) and chatting with fellow guests. They wind me up about the Danish girl, who despite staying in a different hostel comes to see me and asks what I am doing the following day. She is becoming a bit too clingy (I know I am in Denmark, but this is surely a joke), so I decide to say that I would rather have the day to myself. Funnily enough, I don't see her again. Phew.

* I'm not sure what tense I should write this in... I was writing it as it happened, but now that is several days ago... appologies for any grammatical errors/air of confusion.

Wednesday 29th November 2006

I am offered a lift over to Green Pool by a German lady (I was thinking about hiring a bike to cycle there), so I decided to accept the offer and walk back from there along the Bibbulmun track (about 20km one way).

The weather is rather unsettled and the heavens open almost as soon as I set off. Luckily my waterproof is up to the job and I soon dry off once the rain stops. Then the sun comes out and eveything looks beautiful. The sea is a fantastic range of greens and blues, the sand is white and the smooth granite rocks frame everything wonderfully. I decided to scramble around the coast to look at the different beaches and rock formations (Elephant Rocks - which look like a herd of elephants, Waterfall Beach and other coves, pools and inlets).

After the rain the rocks were quite slippery... and so, following the Wood tradition, I managed to slip into the water at one point (my trainers got soaked and so did my bum!). Luckily the sun was still shining at this point and I soon dried out. This was aided by stopping for an hour (lunchtime) at Light's Beach, where I was able to change into my swimmers and lay my wet stuff out in the sun to dry. There were a few mozzies/flies about, but otherwise it was stunning.

I start walking up the steps from the beach and was about to take a photo when I realised that my camera was missing. I searched everywhere to no avail... so start to retrace my steps (it wasn't long before lunch that I was taking pictures, so it can't be far away).

It doesn't take long to find it, but unfortunately it is lying at the bottom of a rock pool. Aaaarrrrggghhh. This is pretty gutting, especially as I really can't understand how it got there. I take it out and try to dry it off the best I can, but obviously it doesn't work. No life at all. Not a sausage.

I just don't know how it could have happened. I am always so careful (almost to the point of paranoia). Maybe I had left my bag unzipped, or it had been in the pocket of my waterproof coat (also unzipped?). Maybe as I swung around to swat a mosquito, it was somehow flung into the rock pool... who knows... just one of those mysteries, I suppose.

That incident rather marred my journey back, but the scenery was wonderful (immense granite boulders, in and out of the forest, some so big that they jutted above the trees; dramatic coastal scenery and lovely wildflowers... a shame I couldn't capture any of this on film).

Got back to the hostel and decided that a glass of wine was required. Luckily, everyone in the hostel was very friendly, so they consoled me about the camera and my mood was lifted. As the German lady (who had given me the lift) said, at least I hadn't broken any bones. Furthermore, the pictures I already had on the XD card were still there (I was able to check on another camera which took the same type of card), so not all was lost.

Later in the evening I got chatting to a couple of friends from Quebec. They currently live in Montreal, but originally come from a place near La Patrie, which just happens to be the tiny village where I used to have a school penfriend. Another "small world moment" on A Sidmouthian Abroad! They are really nice and amazed that I can speak French, as for some reason they seem to have the impression that on-one in England can speak a foreign language.

Well, time is getting on and the sun is back out, so I think I shall venture out for my walk now. I hope to finish updating my blog tomorrow and upload those photos that I have when I get back to Perth. Until then...

Best wishes,
Love James xx

Last few days in Australia: trying to get this thing up-to-date before NZ

Tuesday 21st November 2006 (continued)

Left Bunbury at 3:30pm after a leisurely lunch and some "chill-out" time reading the paper. Gorgeous weather - warm and sunny. Nice drive to Dunsborough, close to the coast with good views of the sea. Beaches and sea got nicer as we approached Dunnie. Dropped off close to the hostel, which was just as well as it is 3km from the hostel to the town centre.

YHA has a beautiful setting, right on the beach. Full of Japanese, working at nearby vineyards. First of all it seems a bit cliquey, but I soon find people to speak to. Get a free lift from the manager to do some shopping in town. Buy a bottle of Margaret River Cleanskin, which turns out to be a very nice, Bordeaux-style wine.

Later in the evening I relax in The Shed, overlooking the beach/sea and with amazing views of the southern sky at night. Start speaking to a couple of Aussie chaps who are in a band, touring the area, and who will be playing a free gig at the hostel the following night. Good to speak to some people who share the same taste in music and don't just listen to the same surfer-music-nonsense. Get given a free copy of their latest CD, which, unfortunately, I can't listen to on my MP3 player...

Wednesday 22nd November 2006

Walked along footpath/cycle-track to Dunsborough (6km there and back - which you may already have worked out from yesterday's entry). Alter bus ticket to get picked up from the same place as I was dropped off. Pasta for lunch with a glass of wine to help thin the blood! Then a nap...

Walked along the beach to the west in the afternoon. Gets rocky towards the end with red granite rocks, white sand and beautiful clear blue water. Stunning (especially under a cloudless sky). Water is shallow a long way out, which means that sharks can't eat you and the water is really warm. Luckily it is the perfect depth for swimming, so I have a gloriously refreshing dip.

Get back to the hostel just as the band are setting up. Band played two early-evening sets, one acoustic and one electric. Pretty good sound from just voice, drums and guitar. Lovely setting in the (pretty) garden of the hostel, with sea and emerging stars as a back-drop. Hostel is probably the best one that I have been to so far. Really friendly management, fantastic garden and location and lots of really nice touches around the place (beds ready made on arrival, free tea and coffee, herbs from garden, nice pictures on the walls, good decorations, general friendliness, etc.).

Stay up quite late (past 10pm!) chatting... just sitting under the stars (so clear and bright, and, of course, totally different from the northern skies). Gets quite chilly as soon as it gets dark. End up wearing both of my jumpers (amazing to note the difference, as it was up to about 30C during the day).

Thursday 23rd November 2006

Took it relatively easy in the morning: relaxing on the beach, swimming in the crystal-clear sea, and making the most of the free tea and coffee. Really hot today and sun is burning by about 10am, forcing me to stay in the shade...

Got bike in the afternoon (luckily by 2pm it had hazed-over and cooled down a bit). Meant to pay 10 dollars for 4 hours, but got it for free! Cycled out to Cape Naturaliste, via Eagle Bay. Beautiful coastline... more red rocks, little coves of white sand and lovely turquoise sea. Much greener than further north, but more Mediterranean than British. Still quite a lot of wild flowers about. Rather hard going on a fat-tyred mountain bike in the increasingly strong wind.

Got to Cape Naturaliste only to find that you had to pay to get into the area around the lighthouse. Rip off! Therefore the views up and down the coast aren't as good as I hoped they would be. I would have had to walk a few kilometres further to get right to the point, and I didn't have the time/energy - my legs were beginning to ache!

On the way back to the hostel I stopped off at Wise Winery. Really nice place and lovely lady at the cellar door. Had a great conversation about food/wine and got to taste 16 (sixteen) wines. This included their premium wines ($45) which they don't normally offer for tasting, but which the manager had accidentally opened earlier in the day. All really nice and quite European in style (suited my palate perfectly)*. Winemaker uses quite a lot of oak, so all the wines share an earthy house style. Delish!

Wobbled my way back on the bike and after dinner had a well-deserved early night (I think I cycled about 30km in 3 hours and what with the wind and the wines I was pretty shattered upon return).

Today was the first day of the Ashes, so there was lots of banter from the Aussies around the place.

*The 2002 Primitivo in particular was great, but at $45 not exactly a backpacker wine!

Friday 24th November 2006

More Ashes banter today. Things are not going well in the cricket at this early stage. Everyone is forced to leave the hostel today because school-leavers (schoolies) have booked the place out for the next 10-days. Luckily my next stop (Augusta) is far enough south not to be affected by the plague of young revellers. Although, having said that, the ones that I have met so far have all been a lot friendly (and more courteous) than their British counterparts.

Had a nice relaxing morning (I needed it - and so did my bum - after yesterdays endeavours) - updated diary and went for a nice swim. Still hot and sunny in Dunsborough. Cooked big lunch before getting the bust at 1:15pm.

Nice bus journey through vineyards and forests. It could have been Burgundy if it wasn't for the Eucalyptus and the lack of ancient Citroens, Peugeots, Renaults... Chatted to a nice group of Aussie lads, one of whom was born in Exeter (to South African parents).

Weather clouded in during the journey, but the sun was back out on arrival in Augusta, which seems to be a pretty little town (and pretty quiet too). The town is perched on a slight hill, overlooking an estuary and the Southern Ocean. The hostel is very clean and spacious, and consistently wins awards it would seem.

Nice group of people but generally quieter than Dunsborough. I treat myself to half a bottle of local Pinot Noir (must have been the early associations with Burgundy). Second half tomorrow...

P.S. The same annoying Swiss woman from Bunbury (did I mention her?) is now in Augusta and is still poo-pooing everything that I say and generally winding me up!

Saturday 25th November 2006

After some impressive triple snoring during the night (not bad for a 4-bed dorm, in which I am occupying the only snore-free bed), it is amazing that I don't feel more tired than I do (thank goodness for my earplugs - proving to be absolutely essential).

Things are going even worse in the cricket. I am pretending to be French. Bof. What ees ziss game, creekeet?

Walked out to Cape Leuwin, mainly along the foreshore. Brisk wind meant that it didn't get too hot. Beautiful wild seascapes. Quite different from the west coast. In fact, it could be parts of the South West of the UK in places.

Still lots of wild flowers out down here (courtesy of the cooler, wetter climate). Nice contrast between smooth granite boulders, white sand and rough sea. Highest lighthouse in Western Australia at point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. So much sea spray and a real surge between the two oceans.

Walked back to Augusta slightly inland. Warmer here, out of the wind. Didn't see a cloud (or another walker - well, apart from the annoying Swiss lady) all day long. I covered at least 20km so I was pretty tired as I wrote this. The second half of the Pinot Noir (14%) saw me off...

Lots of friendly people in the hostel, including a young Liverpudlian couple (Rob and Caroline), who I might meet up with again in Albany. They've got a hire car, so it might prove to be a useful contact! Glad to chat to them as it allows me to avoid the Swiss madam. I think she probably invented the word shadenfreude as she takes the utmost pleasure in other peoples misfortune ("ah, the weather was so much better when I was there", "well, I wouldn't want to go there, I've seen the same thing better elsewhere", etc, etc...).