Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Road-trip 'Round Aotearoa

Part 1: North Island

I've had a few people say, "Wow! New Zealand! How's that been?" Well, this post will be an attempt to answer that question.
The first thing I should is explain how I went round New Zealand, as that has had a bearing on my experiences. I'd considered getting a car or campervan, then just going wherever the mood took me, but being a solo traveller, I decided against this, as the difficulties of finding suitable travelling partner(s) would have been numerous. With retrospect, that probably would've been a more adventurous approach, but never mind... During my first week in Auckland, I heard about various companies which take independent travellers around the country in buses, namely Stray, Magic, and Kiwi Experience. The basic concept is the same for all three: you buy a pass for a route covering a certain areas of the country, and buses follow that route, taking you to all the cool places along the way, offering special deals on fun activities and recommending suitable accommodation en route. If you want to spend longer in any given place, you can jump off the bus, then get on the next one passing through. So it offers the best of both worlds: you're still independent, and you can do your own thing, but you get to meet people on the bus, so you're not a Billy No-mates all the time. Great!

In the event, I decided to go with Stray. Kiwi Experience seems to be aimed at a younger clientele (18-21), whereas Stray emphasised getting off the beaten track in its literature, and seemed to offer a longer programme than Magic. I finally got organised and booked myself onto the bus leaving Auckland at 8am on Monday 1st May, eager to get on after waiting in the city over the weekend. Having duly set my alarm, I inexplicably woke up at 8.45 in a blind panic, realising that I'd missed my first bus - not a great start! I 'phoned the office, and after reassuring me that it happens all the time (I can believe it!), the lady suggested I just got the next bus, the following day. What a good idea! I was going to spend a minimum of a week on the North Island, followed by a minimum of two weeks on the South Island, stopping at places for extra nights when the whim took me.

First stop was the summit of Mount Eden, for great views over Auckland. It is one of the few places in the world where both sides of a country can be seen which are completely unconnected seas. (Of course the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea do meet at the Northern point of NZ, but we'll brush over that for the moment.) Mission for Day 1 was to head east up to the Coromandel Peninsular for a spot of sea-kayaking at Hahei. Sea-kayaking was an excellent way to explore this beautiful stretch of coastline, which included Cathedral Cove and some impressive volcanic islands which had been spewed into the sea by a volcanic eruption several kilometres away sometime in the last few million years. Our guide even made us cappuccino on the beach as we had a break! That night our driver, a Welsh woman called "Nads" (short for Gonads) made us all a big roast dinner. Just what we needed!

Day 2: headed south and back towards the West coast to the surfing spot of Raglan. Stayed in the Karioi Lodge, set up on a mountain deep in the native bush, great for walking! After the excesses of kayaking (and drinking) the previous day, decided to give the surfing a miss and wait until I got to the warmer Australian waters. In the evening, we were served a great meal by the resident chef for a bargain $8! After chilling out watching a film in the cosy lounge, we rounded off the day by having a go on the flying fox, a kind of swing fixed to a cable going down a hill. Fun, but greater thrills were to come.

Day 3: Did underground abseiling in the caves at Waitomo. After getting kitted up in wetsuits and miners' lights, and being given basic training in abeiling, we headed down into the caves. Not for the claustrophobic, or those who aren't comfortable with water or heights, we got into some pretty tight spots! Many classic comments from Leah, my north-country friend, including "you must be fooking jokin'!" when I pointed out that the only way out after abseiling down a 10-metre waterfall was to crawl through a flooded chamber, the end of which could not be seen. Since I volunteered to help the guides by directing people when they got to the bottom of that waterfall, I was placed in the position of having to reassure Mark that the tunnel was "really not far", despite the fact that I hadn't been down it myself. We were also told about the life-cycle of the glow-worm, which isn't in fact a worm at all! All-round, a great activity. We then headed to Rotorua, where we spent the night at the Hot Rock backpackers. This was one of the Base chain of hostels which we shared with Kiwi Experience passengers, and some of our experiences there may have gone some way towards forming our prejudices about such people. Leah, Laura and JP know what I mean...

There was plenty to do at Rotorua, a site of much geothermal activity, and adventure activities also, so we decided to spend a few extra nights there. Day 4: visit to Whakarewarewa Historic Maori Thermal Village, where we were shown how they harness geothermal activity for most of their cooking and heating needs. The village prides itself on self-sufficiency, having relied on tourism for its income for well over 100 years. We were treated to a traditional Maori cultural show, including singing and dancing, and the famous tribal war-chant, known as the haka, and still performed by the All Blacks rugby team.

Day 5: White-water rafting on the Kaituna River was a good way to wake up and spur into action! After basic instruction, we assumed our positions in the bright yellow raft and prepared ourselves to face the rapids! As we approached each set of rapids, the question was always, "Will we capsize or stay upright?" Furthermore, "Will I stay with the raft or get swept away to a watery grave?" The key was just to hold on tight and hope for the best! Despite going down Tutea Falls (at 7 metres tall, the highest waterfall open for commercial rafting), we still didn't capsize, although we did manage to sabotage another craft, which was fun. The highlight for me was when the guide suggested that we jumped out and go down the rapids outside the raft, feet first - cool! After that, the rest of the day was quite easy-going. We had a wonder down to Lake Rotorua, quite a pleasant spot, spoiled only by the strange, sulphurous smell of the geothermal activity. In the evening, Laura and I went to the Polynesian Spa for a relaxing soak in the natural thermal waters, spoilt only by a Japanese coach party. We then met up with the others for a gourmet burger, and hit the Lava Bar in the evening, for some alcohol-based fun and frolicks.

Day 6: In the morning, we did Zorbing, which involves getting inside a big inflatable ball (rather reminiscent of Rover from The Prisoner) with a small amount of warm water, then being pushed down hill along a zig-zag path. Lots of fun! After this, we went to the Luge, which is essentially, a glorified go-cart which, like the Zorb, also follows a circuitous path down the side of a hill, except somewhat faster, you can steer and brake, and you can see where you're going. That, too, was a lot of fun. I'm runnning out of ways to describe that....

Well, that brings me neatly on to the sky-dive at Taupo. I certainly didn't expect to be jumping out of an aeroplane strapped to a guy with a parachute, but everyone else seemed up for it, so I thought, "why not?!" I was the last to go up, after quite a long wait, so I wasn't particularly nervous, as I'd seen everyone else come back down safely. That changed somewhat when we got to 12,000 ft. and the wind rushed in through the recently-opened door of the 'plane, while I watched the three girls I had gone up with (and their tandems, of course) fall like flies without wings through the air. Since I was jumping from 15,000 ft, I still had a few more minutes' anticipation, and the adrenalin started to flow as I realised that there was no other way to get back down to the ground. That said, I kept a fairly clear head, and remembered to do what I'd been told to do (with my limbs and head), although when it came to it, I had very little control over what was happening: Roy, my instructor simply shuffled towards the door, and then before I knew it we were gone. I at least expected some warning, or for him to even ask if I was ready, but fortunately I was blissfully unaware of what was happening until a second or so had passed, I felt the wind against my face and it occurred to me that I was in free-fall, plummeting towards the ground. Going last meant that the sun was setting, although I was hardly in a position to enjoy that, as I was too busy screaming! After a while, Roy held three fingers in front of my face. I didn't know what this meant until he put one of them down, and then the other, so only one remained. "Oh, he's going to pull the cord!" I thought, just before it happened, and suddenly, all was calm. That was one of the most peaceful experiences I remember having, just gently wafting towards the ground like a feather. After the rushing of the wind in my ears, I could also hear Roy perfectly clearly, and distinctly remembered his first words: "Welcome to my office!" After that point, I just enjoyed the view of the sunset over Lake Taupo, whilst Roy played around with the parachute a bit, so that I could experience the peculiar forces acting on my body. It was all over too quickly. Would I do it again? Definitely! But maybe when I've got a bit more money in the bank account! After the skydive, the group was driven back to the Urban Retreat in Taupo by the Skydive limousine. True style! In the evening, we eat, and we drank.

Days 7-8: After the excitement of Zorbing, Luging and Skydiving all in one day, we decided to take it easy in Taupo for an extra couple of days. Taupo is a perfectly pleasant but fairly unremarkable sort of place, sometimes described (rather extravagantly, in my opinion) as the Queenstown of the North Island. I enjoyed the opportunity to take stock of what I'd done so far, plan what I wanted to do, sort out my photos, catch up with family and friends, and all the other stuff that you don't get a chance to do when you're on the road. We discovered a few moderately entertaining night-spots, and went to the cinema (where I saw and enjoyed Bobby), and that's about it.

Day 9: A very early start to do the Tongariro Crossing, known as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. This was actually the main reason we'd decided to spend longer in Taupo, since it had been called off due to poor weather on the day we'd intended to do it, and it was hailed as a "must do" in NZ. Well, it wasn't disappointing. We embarked on the hike at about 7.30am, having hired or bought all necessary outdoor wear from Tongariro Expeditions (including a "beany"-style hat, embroidered with the letters "NZ"... upside down). It was a bit chilly at first, the sun not having emerged from behind the mountains. This was jus as well, because after an easy-going 45-minute introductory gentle slope, we faced the Devil's Staircase. This is such a descriptive name that further elaboration on the reasoning behind its nomenclature is rendered unnecessary. Having conquered the Devil's Staircase, we had a pretty good view of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, which was an optional extra walk up endless scree on a crazy angle for those who found Devil's Staircase easy. We didn't do it. We passed some surreal lakes, bright blue in colour, and the overall impression was one of a desolate moonscape. Once we had reached the top of the pass, the view over the valley below made it all worthwhile. A long zig-zag descent followed, during which the view change little, making it the most boring part of the walk; whilst it hardly seems fair to brandish it "boring", it faces some pretty tough competition as far as NZ scenery is concerned, and at that point, we'd started to look forward to a beer. The end of the walk was through pleasant and cool forest.

After the Tongariro Crossing, we were taken to our hostel, the beautiful (and aptly named) Park, in the heart of the Tongariro National Park. Relaxation was the name of the game here, and it was the place to do it, as they had a spa to ease the aches in our tired muscles, a beatiful lounge, complete with 52-in TV and roaring fire, and one of the best kitchens I'd ever seen in a hostel.

Days 10-11: In light of the favourable conditions at the Park Hostel, we decided to stay there for an extra couple of days. Fortunately, the weather was fairly bleak, so we didn't feel compelled to do any walking, so we had plenty of lie-ins, drunk a lot of tea, watched a lot of telly, and in the evenings, either stayed in and drank, or went out to one of the two pubs and drank, sometimes both. On this last topic, it seems timely to mention the drinking game "Ring of Fire", introduced to the assembled company by JP from Galway (the legend himself!) which we played on at least four subsequent occasions on the trip. It's fair to say that it's a very effective way of passing the time, amsusing oneself in pleasant company, and getting pissed. If you want to know the rules, ask me later.

Day 12: On tearing ourselves away from the peaceful refuge that was the Park Hostel, we were picked up by James, one of my favourite drivers - very professional, insane sense of humour, and all-round nice guy - who took us down to Wellington. On the way, we passed some spectacular scenery: lots of lakes and mountains. After checking into the clean and well-presented Wellington City YHA, we went for a wonder around the harbour front, and went around Te Papa museum, before settling down for a few pints in the Mac's Brewery, a very nice bar. After this, JP, Laura, Pauline, Rachel and I went to a nice Indian place for dinner. In the evening, we took a night-cap in Molly Malone's Irish Bar, during which we were entertained by a singing pianist, to say good-bye to Pauline and Rachel, who were heading north back to Auckland.

That will have to do for the moment, the first installment of an unforgettable trip... Photos to follow!

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Probably the most terrifying thing I've ever done

When I first decided to go to New Zealand, I have to admit that I was more drawn to one of the most beautiful and diverse natural environments available in what is a relatively small land-mass, than to the prevalence of activities to satisfy the adventure junkie. I thought, rather snobbishly, that such thrills were all well and good, but the real beauty and interest in a place lay in a place's people and natural environment, and not in the number of different ways you can simulate near-death experiences. Well, I have not been disappointed by the beauty of Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ), but I will deal with that later. For now, I will deal with the activity which has inspired me to put pen to paper (metaphorically) for the first time in too many months, which was the Canyon Swing over the Shotover River, near Queenstown.
During my first few days in Auckland, I realised that I probably would not be able to leave New Zealand without having thrown myself off some high place with some safety equipment attached. I assumed, naturally enough, that I would do a bungy jump (an activity that was re-invented near Queenstown some 20 years ago, and has since dominated the adrenaline seekers' agenda here). However, I decided not to, partly because the idea of bouncing up and down on a glorified elastic band didn't much appeal, partly because "everyone does it", partly because of the cost, but mainly because I don't want to do everything on my first visit to this wonderful place, since I would like to return one day. I had not imagined that I would do a sky-dive, but I did, a couple of weeks ago in Taupo, and that was amazing. I wasn't that scared, really, I was just overawed by the sensation, and by the view. In fact, when my tandem pulled the cord to open the parachute after 60 seconds of free-fall, it was rather relaxing.
Something I certainly did not anticipate doing, mainly because I didn't know of its existence, was the "Canyon Swing". It's quite difficult to visualise how it actually works, so I recommend visiting their excellent website if you're interested, but the basic principle is that you are attached to two cables (each capable of supporting more than a tonne) which are supported by a connection to other cables midway in a deep canyon. You start from a platform at the top of one side of the chasm, then you jump off. At first you just fall vertically downwards for 60 metres, which lasts a couple of seconds, before the cable starts to pull you towards the other side of the canyon. You then swing like a pendulum a couple of times before they winch you in. Sounds fairly straightforward, doesn't it? Well, having done it yesterday (not once but twice!), I can testify that it's absolutely terrifying! If you don't believe me, have a look at the videos! To see the second jump, just click play below; the first one is here.

Although there was no point when I actually believed I would die, the instinct not to jump was overwhelming, and the initial sensation was truly exhilarating. Would I do it again? Well, after the second jump, I said to my friend James, "I'm never doing that again". Is that definite? Who knows? Only time will tell, but I'm certainly not in a hurry!

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Iquitos, Amazonian city

Iquitos is probably the strangest city I have been too. With a population of 400,000, it is the largest city on Earth that cannot be reached by road. I was originally to go overland as far as possible, then take the three-day trip downriver, but in the end, events took over and I whimped out and bought a plane ticket. However, that was not exactly devoid of interest. Iquitos International Airport is the tiniest commercial airport I've been in. After getting off the 'plane, we walked to the Arrivals Hall, which was basically a room with a conveyor belt, and Customs and Immigration (not that I needed to use them, only having flown domestically from Lima) huts in the corner.
Arriving, as I did, at nearly 3am, the flight having been delayed by a couple of hours, the place seemed pretty dead. That was until I got outside, and was faced by an armada of taxi drivers all touting for service. Not being able to distinguish the differences between the level of service that each would offer me, I asked a nearby policeman to recommend one. He too, judging by his indifference, neither knew nor cared which one would drive me to my hostel in safety and comfort, so just picked the nearest one and marshalled him towards me. It turns out that the vast majority of vehicles in Iquitos are motorbikes, since everything that is not produced in the city or jungle has to be "imported" by river. If you want to get from A to B, you hire a mototaxi, that looks like a cross between a golf buggy and something out of The Prisoner, for those of you who remember the cult British TV series. The ride was entertaining for several reasons. Firstly, the surreality stakes were quite high. Secondly, he gave his friend a lift with me too, dropping him off at his own (broken down) mototaxi. Then things only got better when my driver extended his right leg in order to push his friend's vehicle. I thought this was just to get it started, but he pushed him a couple of miles, changing legs halfway!
Well, he got me to my hostel relatively inexpensively, and woke up the night receptionist for me, so that I didn't have to feel guilty doing it, and I slumped into a bed in the corner of the dorm in the Hobo Hideaway in downtown Iquitos.
Well, I suffered a rude awaking at about 6am, when the mototaxis started going past. I reached for my earplugs, and went back to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up, I resolved to find myself an Amazonian adventure trip, since I had nothing booked. Last night's mototaxi driver had already given me a recommendation, and I noticed a sign on my bedroom door suggesting a tour company. After having a flick through the Lonely Planet (and gasping at some of the prices), I decided to just head into town, grab some lunch, and just see what happens.
Most the people in Iquitos seem to either be a jungle guide, pretend to be a guide, or know a guide they can recommend when they see a gringo (i.e. person from N. America or the Old World), and it was a pleasant surprise when I was called over to a lovely restaurant by the river (not the Amazon, but one of its tributaries), sat down to a 2-course meal, with fresh juice thrown in, for 8 soles (about US$1.50). It turns out that my two new-found friends are also guides too, but are chilling out drinking a beer after several days in the jungle. They are much more easy-going, and less pushy than the others, and appear to take more of an interest in me, so, after sharing a post-lunch beer with them, I arrange to meet them in the Plaza de Armas later, having checked in the mean time that their operation is registered with the local tourist authority.
At the appointed hour, they show me to their office, which appears quite professional, and one of their staff who has himself sixteen years of guiding experience talks me through a proposed 6-day itinerary. The emphasis seems to very much on preserving a living rainforest, on conservation and on education, which definitely appeals to me. He described lots of exciting activities, including waking up at 5am to watch the sunrise over the Amazon.
And so I am going to be spending the next six days in the jungle, away from human distractions, and away from the Internet. No doubt I will have lots of photos to share with you on my return, to compensate for the lack of illustration of this post.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Lima: Days 1-3

The first week of my round-the-world trip was spent in Lima, the capital of Peru. Set half way up the country on the Pacific coast, the city was established by Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of Peru, in 1535, to provide a port from which to control the area. For most of the duration of Spanish rule, Lima was one of the most important cities on the continent and today, a third of the population of Peru (which is incidentally much smaller than the pre-conquest population) live in the capital.

Now we've got the facts over with, time for my own experiences. My first two days were spent with my friend Lucy, whose presence in Peru acted as the initial catalyst for my decision to go. We enjoyed eploring the caf├ęs and restaurants of Miraflores, the touristic heart of the city, where our hostel, one of the Flying Dog chain, was based. Situated in front of Parque Kennedy, the area was pleasantly green, and attracted children to the playground outside our window at all hours up to about midnight. Having just stepped off the 'plane from wintery Britain, the climate seemed hot and dusty to me at first, and I took my time in acclimatising myself to it.

On our first whole day, we caught a taxi into Lima Centro to see the historic heart of the city. The taxi ride was fairly typical of my experience of Peruvian driving. The ambition of most Peruvian taxi drivers appears to occupy that space of road that is either uncomfortably close to the vehicle in front, or happens to coincide with the same space of road that another driver has his eye on. How this usually manifests itself is overtaking without indication and on either side to gain a small lead on the car in front. If a car in front happens to be travelling slower than oneself, applying the brakes seems to be a last resort. Far better just to drive closer to the offending vehicle so that its driver knows you wish them to travel faster, or just go round it, using the "nature abhors a vacuum" school of thought. Of course, liberal use of the horn and gesticulations improves communication between drivers. Suffice it to say that a taxi ride in Peru is never boring.

We asked to be dropped outside the cathedral in the Plaza Mayor, the city's central square and focal point. (In the centre of the Plaza once stood an equestrian statue of Pizarro, which was apparently later moved into a relatively obscure corner of the square by the city authorities at the request of the clergy, who considered the orientation of the horse offensive, since its rear end faced the cathedral). The highlight of our day was undoubtedly the guided tour around the 16th-century San Fransisco Monastery. Apart from the beautifully crafted materials used in its construction, many of which had been imported from Spain, and the impressive library containing thousands of antique books, the monastery also boasted catacombs in which were openly stored the remains of members of the monastic order throughout the centuries. (The catacombs, however, didn't benefit from the systematic storage methods employed during the relocation of the remains of Paris's dead into its catacombs in the 18th century - a sight worth seeing!)

The next day, we checked out the Museo Larco, named after the archeologist who discovered a large portion of its contents, and from whose private collection its exhibits were drawn. The museum is well laid-out, and puts pottery from the different geographical areas of Peru over the ages into context. There were two noteworthy differences between the Larco and any other pottery museum. Firstly, in most museums, you only get to see the proportion of the collection which is currently on display, with no idea about what might be stored away out of sight. Here, on the other hand, I had just finished going round the galleries, thinking to myself, "wow! this stuff must be really rare," when I went into the store room and saw rooms of glass cases from floor to ceiling with thousands of similar examples. The other reason to visit the Museo Larco is its collection of erotic pottery. This provides the studnet of anthopology with a fascinating insight into the sexuality of pre-Columbian Peruvians, and provided me and Lucy with a giggle or two.
Photos (from top to bottom): View from Flying Dog Hostel over Parque Kennedy; Central fountain in Plaza Mayor; San Francisco Church. For more photos, check out my page on Flickr.com

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Wandering around the world

My decision to travel around the world was, on the one hand, a rather impulsive one. After a conversation with my brother Phil (currently expatria in the Land Down Under), and an e-mail to my best friends from college, Lucy, who was on a medical placement in Peru, I decided it would be fun to meet her out in Lima (albeit only for a few days), rather than wait until her return to the UK. So from there, came a sketchy plan to spend three months in South America, which, in the space of less than a week, evolved into a RTW trip taking in South America for 3 months, 4 weeks in New Zealand, five-and-a-half months in Australia (principally to see my family, and to earn money to actually pay for the trip!), then taking 6 weeks to return via South East Asia. Since I set off on 20 January 2007, the more astute amongst you will notice that I am scheduled to be back in time for Christmas.

So all this is rather exciting and sudden. But is it? I have been thinking about a big adventure (a “gap year”, if you will), involving travel to far-flung places for a while; I think if I had to pin it down, I would say that my horizons were first opened to this possibility about a year ago when I was studying in Paris, and I met people (Belgians, mostly!) who had experienced much more exciting adventures than the orchestra tours I have been on to such places as Barcelona, Stockholm and St. Petersburg, beautiful as they are.

The time-line of events went something along the lines of the realisation that I had to stop doing what I was doing and go somewhere else occurring on a Wednesday, the realisation that I would have to hand my notice in at work on the Thursday, and actually doing it on the Friday. (That was a very liberating experience!) Meanwhile, I had told my family and work colleagues – that was the point at which I was committed to this crazy plan! Then I visited the travel agent’s the following week, and bought the ticket three weeks before I flew. I bought most of my kit (probably most of which I won’t use more than once, if at all) in the last week before departure, and actually packed the night I left. That was after going to the work Annual Party, which I rather egotistically took to be my leaving do. Not bad, a formal dinner, followed by an 8-piece band at the Portsmouth Guildhall just for an office boy who’d only been there 4½ months!

As most of you have probably guessed by now, I am writing this retrospectively, after several weeks of travel. I would like to apologise to those of you who may be reading this who felt that it would have been curteous of me to let you know I was going before I set off. You are, of course, right. I only managed to catch up with a handful of the people whom I had intended to see, call, or e-mail, and I can only offer in mitigation the fact that the weeks before my departure were rather stressful, and somewhat frenetic! To anyone considering embarking upon a similar project, I’d say “go for it!”. There are problems with trying to do everything at the last minute, and it’s not for everyone (particularly if you have a heart condition!), but I don’t have any regrets.

I will send more news when I have a chance. In the meantime, love and best wishes to all my kin. See you in a year!