Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Sydney


Ok, the reality is we've been back home longer than it is until i go off on another trip to Turkey. So this really is playing catch-up! (At this rate, expect a write up of climbing in Turkey over new year sometime late spring!)

The last 5-day leg of our trip to Australia was to the city of Sydney. Once again we were cursing our lack of research into this trip as our arrival in Sydney coincided with the last week of term and a whole host of school kiddies booking out all the cheap accommodation. After phoning around we managed to find a double bed in the city centre YHA for our first night, but there after it looked like we might have to swap dorm-room/hostels/hotels each night until flying home.

A last minute saviour was found in the form of my long lost cousin, Stacey. A Sydney resident for the last few years, but I hadn't seen face to face for many more. We were massively grateful to Stacey and fiance Dennis for offering to put us up for the remainder of our trip, but I was equally massively embarrassed to discover it had been 22 years since we'd last seen each other at Melanie's wedding!

Our time in Sydney was spent at a more relaxed pace than the previous 2.5 weeks with more museum/art gallery/stately home visits than you could shake a stick at. We walked a huge distance despite having bought 5day travel passes to the tube/train/ferry/bus network. These were a godsend and cheap way to travel, but Caroline managed to tear her ticket on the first day and for the rest of the trip had to wait in line to show her dogeared ticket to the attendant to be let through.

Our first use of the travel pass was to take a ferry under the iconic harbour bridge.

We simply got on the first ferry going that way and found ourselves at Ballast point. Here we found some bizarre art installations making use of the industrial detritus of the points previous function as a fuel storage depot. We also found numerous engraved padlocks fastened to the foreshore, perhaps celebrating a loving couple or commemorating the loss of a loved one?



Our top 5 Sydney attractions:

1) Maritime Museum: Lots of interesting exhibits including a 1960s destroyer and Submarine to go aboard and explore

2) The harbour - bridge/opera house and all that: Iconic views; need i say more?


3) Elizabeth Bay House: A 18th century folly that bankrupted the governor who built it. Needless to say it's a very fine example of Georgian architecture and the view from the lawn across the bay is almost peerless. We also enjoyed winding through the newer high-rise building to find a stoney grotto and koi pond which were part of the original house gardens.

Stoney grotto a short distance from Elizabeth Bay House, but now hidden in  away between high-rise blocks of flats


4) Fish markets: Dennis dropped us at the fish markets on his way to work one day, and we ate a massive fish supper of calamari  snapper, crab sticks and salmon all deep fried and served with chips.


We really could have done with a lie down afterwards, but carried on walking around town and found...

5) Sydney Art Museum: An unexpected bonus as we stumbled upon a late night opening to celebrate the life of Francis Bacon. I'm normally an art philistine, but really enjoyed the displays of aboriginal and modern art.


Some other photographic highlights of Sydney:

Coming second in the pub quiz; Australians seem to think that asking questions about Europe makes their  quiz difficult, when in reality it just means that ex-pat teams take the prizes... (Me and Caroline pictured with $40 certificate and Stacey in the middle)
$7 BBQ yourself steak - hmmmm....
Caroline viewing the 3 Sisters in the Blue Mountains - so named after the haze produced by Eucalyptus trees that often hangs over the valley

A spectacular waterfall seen whilst on our daytrip to the Blue Mountains - The one bit of climbing i did here on a boulder above the path quickly deposited me back on my bum with a broken hold in my hand.


Feeding the colourful parrots on Stacey's balcony on the last morning (Rainbow Glories?)

Eventually the trip had to come to an end, and much like all our previous flights, we turned up late for this one too. Checking in with 45min to spare on a 26hr flight is not to be recommended but somehow we made it through security in time and settled in for the long flight home, via a brief 1hr stop in Singapore airport.

Arriving back to a dark Heathrow morning and 2 Celsius was thoroughly demoralising, and work on Monday morning all the more so, which just leaves one question...

...When are we going back?





Thursday, 6 December 2012

Cairns

The reality is, that we're actually back home now, so in an effort to write up the whole trip, i'll try and condense the last 10days of the trip into just two final posts about Cairns and Sydney.

The main highlight of our 5night stay in Cairns was scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef (see separate post) but the remaining days also proved entertaining. We visited amongst other things:

Cairns Tropical Zoo: 


Salt water crocs are huge. Don't mess with them.


Petting Koala's and Lizards doesn't seem right - they're not fluffy lambs like at the kiddies petting zoo at Chessington world of adventures. This establishment definitely fell on the "zoo" side of the sliding scale between animal exploitation zoo & environmentally sensitive research/conservation zoo (ZSL as an example)

Cairns Museum:

This was an unexpected treat, with our own personal guided tour from one of the volunteers, Clint, who told us many anecdotes about the local history and made us pose for photos with some of the exhibits!



Koranda

Kuranda is an old gold rush town and was originally accessed via a trainline, that is now only used as a scenic route. The journey up took just over an hour and weaves its way through a multitude of tunnels, tight bends and cuttings. The train slows at each view point to maximise the photo opportunities  for the passengers with the best coming at a wide gorge crossing.


Barron Falls - as we saw it.... 

The train also stops for 10mins at the Barron Falls which claims to be the highest/biggest volume of waterfall in Australia - these claims seemed a bit far fetched for what we got to see of the falls!

...and how it looks in the rainy season
After arriving in Kuranda and having a light lunch, we split paths and Caroline went off horse riding for the afternoon.

I was then left to explore Kuranda at length;
- I went off on a long walk along the river side and through the rain forest which left me feeling very de-hydrated from the suffocating heat and humidity.
- Upon returning to the town itself, I sought out a refreshing banana smoothy in the "world famous"  hippy markets which were all CND insignia and brightly coloured tie-die fabrics - Think Camden Market with a heavy fog of blue smoke and "herbal" aroma. There was even a pipe-whistle dance troop that shuffled about with "far-out" look in their eyes... whilst occasionally tripping over their own feet
- Once I'd extracted myself from this stoner heaven I finally found some real culture (as opposed to the "alternative" culture scene that comes across as being identical in every hippy hang-out/traveler destination i've ever been too). This came in the form of a Aboriginal Arts Co-Op where i fought my natural philistine instincts and admired the canvases and sculpture available. Maybe I'd inhaled a bit too much of the herbal aroma earlier, as i even found myself buying a small canvas depicting a crocodile to bring home with me....

We descended via the Skyrail; which was a glorified ski-lift over the jungle with 2 stops/nature walks on the way down. We weren't allowed out at these stops due to a threatening electrical storm so had to ride all the way down to the road head and get the bus back to town. Both Caroline and I struggled to understand how this has been voted as Northern Australia's premier tourist attraction for the previous few years based on this experience.


A dinner of kebab/moussaka in  "Ala Turka" restaurant completed the day and Caroline claims this was our first official dinner date despite being together 8months!



Some other memories:
Caroline's favourite place - the Cairns Laguna. Here looking very disappointed on the first day not to have a bikini with her :-(

Reverting to childhood ways on the hotel water slide

Hand feeding Kangaroo's at the Cairns Zoo. The fence between the 'roo enclosure and the crocodiles looked pretty flimsy and i wondered if any of them had strayed in and been munched previously?


Saturday, 1 December 2012

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

When planning this trip away, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef was one of the "must do" things both Caroline and I agreed upon. Logistically, this really shouldn't have posed any problems as there are a huge number of dive outfits operating from Cairns. However, for the following reasons we stacked the odds against ourselves:

1. The Solar Eclipse
When we booked our flights to Cairns, 6 weeks before flying we noticed a massive difference in prices between Tuesday and Wednesday, so plumped for an extra day in Melbourne before flying to Queensland. Once we'd gotten to Australia we started to hear brief radio and press mention of the upcoming Eclipse. However, it wasn't until a few days before we flew that we got online and checked when exactly it was going to occur. Yep, you've guessed it, early Wednesday morning, right when we were scheduled to be airborne. Mild panic ensued when we heard that Cairns was getting so busy with tourists/astronomers that supermarkets were running low on essential supplies. This last story was actually a bit of a media exaggeration, as it turned out that only bottled water and potato chips (crisps to the British reader) were the main items lacking stock.

We used up half a day in Melbourne arranging accommodation in Cairns, settling for the only available cheap hotel, which failed to mention it's out of town location and the fact that the airport shuttle bus didn't go there.

Overall, the Eclipse meant that Cairns and the surrounds were super busy and all the dive operators fully booked until the day before we flew. This was no good as you're supposed to leave 24hrs between diving and flying, so we were left with just one boat that had availability on the Friday. Thus, we plumped for Hobson's choice and paid our $175 each to join them for a trip to Hastings reef and Breaking Patches.

What we missed - the front cover of the local newspaper the day after we arrived

2. Proving we were capable divers
This should have been easy; I'd remembered my PADI card, but had slight concern that it'd been 3 years since i last dived. This wasn't a problem and i was allowed to dive with no issues. Caroline's qualification couldn't be located before departure and here parents were tasked with finding the documentation and emailing it to us on the road. This they did with a few hours to spare, but the dive outfit hadn't heard of BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) and hence once again Caroline's parents had to find further documentation in the form of her logbook and scan in pages of this and send to us. Phew, all sorted and Caroline was diving despite the operator over looking the fact her last dive was 9 years previously....

3. Sea-sickness
I have been known to turn a pale shade of green on-board small boats, so I made sure i had a supply of motion-sickness pills for this trip. Boy was i glad of these; paying $175 to spend the day filling up little brown paper bags as one poor chap did would not have been fun! (You're not allowed to spew in the ocean and upset the local eco-system).

The diving itself was wonderful with a massive diversity of coral and fish; so much more than my last dive trip to Cambodia were the visibility was low and seeing a dozen fish was considered a good dive.

Highlights were seeing "Frank" the resident Maori Wrasse (nearly 2m long - a whole lotta fish) and "Nemo" (clown fish) at the first dive site, and a group of a dozen Humphead Parrot fish and a white tipped shark at the 2nd site. I doubted the effectiveness of my waterproof camera for "proper" diving so don't have any photos on these dives. This doubt was proven well founded when i took said camera snorkeling and it managed just 7 photos before dying. Thankfully the baking hot sun dried out the camera on the return journey to Cairns while at the same time baking Caroline and me a brilliant shade of lobster pink!
A Maori Wrasse - Frank looked a lot like this (image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maori_wrasse )

Humphead Parrotfish - the same type as we saw on our 2nd dive at Breaking Patches (image pilfered from wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_humphead_parrotfish )

Another type of Parrotfish - the big teeth allow them to bite off chunks of Coral which is their staple diet. The last photo before my camera temporarily died.
JAWS! aka Triaenodon obesus the Whitetip Reef Shark (image from wikipedia again)
A wave before we hit the waves...