Thursday 12 January 2012

The Final Weeks...

One thing is for certain: We aint in the southern hemisphere any more people! As I write this blog entry, I’m sitting in a pub on George Street, Edinburgh, surrounded by posters of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott, bottles of single malt whiskey, a plethora of cask conditioned ales and lots of Scottish folk.

It would be hard to envisage such contrast in backdrops from our hidden away jungle idyll in the farthest reaches of Borneo, where just a few months ago, we sat baking in the tropical sunshine. Since then we have:

  • been on 2 flights
  • several train journeys
  • clocked up many more miles on the bikes
  • navigated our way through 4 countries
  • I turned 32
  • visited friends and family in France, England and Scotland
  • Mel has worked in Lush Edinburgh
  • Moved into the flat we’ll be renting in Musselburgh
  • couch surfed with more great people
  • missed Nelson a lot!
  • been to Lucy and Ed Todd’s wedding
  • met our new niece, Felicity
  • and much, much more

I can barely express the mix of emotions I’m experiencing as I go over all the stuff we’ve done since the last entry. I’m also not sure how to end this blog or even if I should – I’ll have to give it a new title mind you, can’t exactly go on calling it our adventures in the southern hemisphere any more can I? In fairness, anything I do from now on would pale in comparison with all that has happened since we left Newcastle a lifetime ago. Hmm. Best make this the last entry then. We’ll add more photos before too long, but I didn’t want to leave it much longer without bringing you up to speed.

Are we happy to be back in the UK? Happy to see our friends and family again and happy to be able to buy cheap fruit and veg in the supermarkets again. But if we’re honest, New Zealand was as close to heaven as any place we have ever visited in our lives. The entire trip we have just undertaken was more life affirming and enriching than anything we could have done had we stayed at home. It was the best journey we could have hoped for.

I think it would be best if I finish with a few words of advice for anyone thinking of doing something like us whilst the best part of your life is still ahead of you.  The most important part of your life is right now, it’s all you’ll ever have, be present and live it well!

To all those we have met and to all those who have kept up with this blog - Many thanks for reading – We hope to see you again soon…

The End

Mel unpacking her bike at the airport in Paris
PS: Mel and I are hoping to get this printed some time in the not too distant future, we would really appreciate any comments or witty anecdotes you may have – feel free to post them on this web page and we’ll add them to the book.

Waiting to board the ferry to England in Dieppe

Monday 5 September 2011

Malaysia & Borneo, the first 12 days, 23rd August – 3rd September 2011

It took us 10 days to find it, but I think we have stumbled across our own little bit of Borneo paradise. ‘Sepilok B&B’ is quiet, simple and surrounded by wildlife. We arrived here a few days ago by coach from Kota Kinabalu, which by comparison was not such a nice place to visit. Mel and I have vivid memories of our last backpacking journey through Asia and all the guest houses and bamboo huts we frequented along the way and since we arrived in Borneo (after spending one night at the ‘Tune Hotel’ at Kuala Lumpur airport) we have been searching to find a similar place. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it ticks most of our boxes. Mel would still have liked hammocks and fresh fruit on demand, but apart from that it’s amazing really.

We flew from KL to Kuching – the capital of the state of Sarawak the day after arriving into Peninsular Malaysia. Kuching is a nice town. It has everything one might expect from an increasingly developing Asian state capital. Lots of shopping, lots of restaurants and hotels. There is a real blend of the old and the new. We spent our first 2 nights at the Singassama B & B on the fringes of the old town. This was a good, clean hostel with an excellent roof-top bar which also served as the breakfast room in the mornings. We enjoyed our stay there. The staff were very nice, if a little too cool for school in attitude during the day. I’m not sure what they smoke there, but the apathy was well rehearsed.

Borneo is famous for its native wildlife and when pressed to tell you what animals come from Borneo, most kids will say orang-utans, or perhaps; “Those orange monkey things”. 20,000 of the worlds 27,000 orang-utans are here and no trip to Borneo would be complete without visiting one of the rehabilitation centres specialising in re-introducing them to the jungle. This is a process which can take many years and as a result, many of the young orang-utans remain close to the staff and the rehab centres as they can always receive free fruit twice a day without actually having to do any work for it. We visited Semengoh orang-utan sanctuary after a short local bus trip out of Kuching and we were happy that we did so.

Semengoh rehab centre is situated at the end of a 1 km road that takes you from the main highway through the jungle, past some amazing botanical collections, before snaking its way down into a valley where one is met by a welcome sign and a clear warning not to approach the wildlife, because they may injure you. It was such an awesome experience to be so close to these primates and we had timed our visit to coincide with the 3pm feeding time. Overall we must have been able to view 8 or 9 orang-utan, including a mother with her young baby. I can hear your collective ‘aahh’ from here!! The park rangers were very clear that we should not do anything to spook the animals like no noisy cameras, no loud talking. Of course, the three gap-year Brits next to us spent the entire time talking loudly about how amazing their camera was and pointing and laughing loudly at the natural behaviour of the orang-utans – makes me so proud!

Semengoh appears to be a well run place and despite the annoying idiots who come to visit from time to time, it is well worth the visit and so much better than watching animals in the zoo. There were even a couple of very large crocodiles in very small caged enclosures, basking in the 34 degree temperature. We made some short films there and they are available for you to see on Flickr at your leisure (once our internet condescends to upload them!).

After a short walk back to the main road, through one of the botanical collections of bamboo, (did you know some bamboo can grow as much as 1.2 metres in length each day) we were back at the bus stop where we put our feet up for an hour and watched a stray looking dog dodge expertly in and out of the fast flowing traffic. Millhouse would have been flattened many times in that hour.

We wanted to visit Bako National Park from Kuching and we were able to do so by local bus and then a small boat. We arrived and hopped off our boat to be greeted by our campsite neighbours, the very friendly Mosquitoes! It was only 10 Malaysian Ringgit per night to camp out there, that’s £2 or roughly $4 to the rest of us. Not bad, for an almost empty campsite in the very heart of Borneo’s jungle.

It is very hot and very humid here, not really surprising, but I can tell you in all honesty that I was not able to sleep at all in the tent during our 2 night stay at Baku because it was so unbelievably sticky. It was defiantly worth the trip though. We saw so much wildlife and enjoyed quiet beaches and hiking through the jungle. It would have been even better if there hadn’t been a chronic water shortage and therefore no showers or any means to flush the toilets during our stay. How lovely we smelled!!! To be fair though, the sea was warm and we just did our best to wash in there each morning. We actually found 1 tap near the entrance to the café that worked, so we managed to fill a bucked and use that to wash hair on the second day.

We came into close contact with the following jungle dwelling creatures during our visit to the park: bearded pigs, a monitor lizard, a vine snake, pit vipers, stick insects, a flying lemur, lots of geckos, skinks, kingfishers, a drongo, Proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, bats, swallows, ants, mosquitoes, bees, fire-flies, hornets, assorted fish, spiders, squirrels and Speedo wearing German tourists! Mel was attacked in 2 separate incidences by the Macaques. It was only her fierce Scottish tones which saved her from physical harm, as the screaming little Chavs attempted to intimidate her into surrendering her bottled water. I was not present at either altercation, but I was able to hear the attacks from some distance away.

During our trip to the jungle there we also came went on a night walk with a guide in the hope that we would see some of the mammals which frequent the forest at night. Sadly, we didn’t see any rare cats or tree dwelling mammals, although I was bitten by an ant which felt like someone putting a cigarette out on my ankle! While there, we met a Spanish brother and sister who went out at night in search of wildlife and showed us some lovely photographs of snakes and a cat, so at least we know that they were out there somewhere.

The humidity was eventually broken on our second night in the tent. The thunder claps and lightening started at around 12:30am and it began to rain at 5:30am, sending me and fellow camper Matt scampering out in the rain to grab our still wet clothing off the washing line in our boxer-shorts. We must have looked hilarious, the American and the Englishman, running around in the half naked in the dark of the jungle, frantically trying to collect our belongings before the real deluge began.

That morning, in between rain showers, we had breakfast with Matt, a programmer from Atlanta who works wherever he wants, due to the nature of his job and Naomi, formally a Ballet dancer turned world explorer, from Skegness, Lincolnshire. We all got a boat back to the port together and met up for a drink that evening at the roof-top bar of the hostel we had stayed at on our first 2 nights in town.

There is plenty to get your teeth stuck into in Kuching, including a good selection of markets and shopping centres, as well as different types of food, as long as you like everything fried. We were able to find a vegetarian place which weighs the food you choose to eat from the buffet in order to figure out how much to charge you for your lunch or dinner. I think that is a much better way of doing the all-you-can eat thing than charging a flat rate to everyone. KFC is everywhere, and judging by the ever increasing number of fat people here in Malaysia, it is consumed regularly.

We went on an evening sunset cruise on the river on our first evening there, and we also went to visit the interesting cat museum. They seem to really like cats here -the cities name, Kuching, means cat in Malay. We also spent time searching for bargains and trying out new and interesting looking fruit in the old towns’ market area. Most of the stalls selling clothes sell knock-off polo shirts and so-called designer sunnies. It’s a shopper’s paradise really, not quite as good as Thailand for value, but getting close.

Before long it was time for flight number 3 in just under a week, as we moved onto Kota Kinabalu, again with the impressive Air Asia. We were really looking forward to another city with lots of character and its own unique atmosphere, as we had found in Kuching, but to be honest we were not that lucky. We arrived during the meeting of the end of Ramadan and other national holidays to a city which is more or less empty and closed up at this time of year. We made our way via a hostel that no longer exists, except on the internet, to the ‘Borneo Adventure Backpackers’. Not a nice place to stay, we moved the next day to ‘Lavender Lodge’ which is much better and included breakfast.

During our 3 nights in Kota Kinabalu, we enjoyed our first wedding anniversary. It had been a year since we were standing in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane with Tim, Debs, Savannah and Rob and we decided to celebrate by taking a trip to a nearby island to go snorkelling. Sapi Island was packed with more people than it could comfortably fit on the main beaches, so we ventured around to an empty beach to enjoy the clear waters and do a spot of snorkelling. It turned out to be OK. We were a little saddened by the piles of rubbish everywhere, glass, plastic, all floating everywhere and destroying the otherwise pristine waters, if you discount the non-existent coral. I guess it’s just a sign of the times. That day we met a couple of nice Kiwi ladies who are teaching in Jakarta and we all agreed that the best time to visit this area was probably 50 years ago. For our anniversary meal, Mel and I visited a really nice restaurant and enjoyed lots of fresh, unfired veggies (really very rare in Borneo) and a nice bit of home-made chocolate brownie each.

That all brings us rather nicely to our trip by coach across the state of Sabah to our current location of Sepilok. The coach journey was a good experience, we could see the mountains on both sides of the road, including the world renowned Kota Kinabalu which was very impressive. The saddest thing has been the amount of destroyed jungle, cleared for mono-culture and in particular for palm-oil groves. If you have any respect and concern for the wildlife of this world and the global impact that has been brought about by all this truly awful destruction of native, irreplaceable rainforest and jungle then please stop buying products with palm-oil in them. Buy ethical cosmetics from companies like ‘Lush’ and always read the label before you buy anything which contains oil. By making your own feelings known by buying ethically, the extremely rich oil producers will be forced to find ways of producing oil without damaging primary rainforest.

Our accommodation here, as previously stated, is much more what we have been searching for since we arrived in Borneo. The place seems to be surrounded by all the sights, smells and sounds one would expect from the jungle. On our first evening here we spotted an Oriental hornbill in the jacaranda outside our room, they are the most stunning birds, apparently they are everywhere here, I hope so.

2 evenings ago we visited the ‘Rainforest Discovery Centre’, which is a 5 minute walk from the B & B. If you are ever here then you simply have to visit that place. It has one of the best collections of plants that you simply can’t grow in our home climate, as well as lots of jungle walks and a fantastic canopy walkway. There was practically nobody there and Mel and I had the canopy walk to ourselves as sunset approached. It was quite something to watch all the parrots and a hornbill flying around trying to find a suitable roosting spot for the night. There don’t really appear to be any staff around either, so if you are staying close by then you could probably just walk in the early evening and enjoy the place for free, not that it costs much to get in anyway. Just make sure that you don’t hurt yourself because there would be nobody to help!

We had thought about booking to go and spend the night on ‘Turtle Island’, so we sent into Sandakan city yesterday to go and find out more. Having explored the costs and weighed everything up though, we decided against it. It sounds like a great deal of money for another over populated trip where you are told when to eat, when to take photo’s and no doubt when to buy over priced tat. We have decided that 4 more nights in the jungle suits us best, much more our style. The trip into town was enjoyable though, as we made our way up what are known as the ‘100 steps’ to the ‘English Tea House’. We enjoyed a pot of tea and some lovely crumpets beside the Croquet lawn. The light breeze and the great views were a welcome break from the rather intense tropical heat.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Christchurch 20th - 23rd August 2011

To be honest we weren’t sure exactly what to expect from our trip to Christchurch. We were reminded each and every day on the news about how much damage had been done to the CBD and how they have had to endure literally thousands of aftershocks since the last big quake in February which killed 183 people. We had actually been fortunate enough to find a Warm Showers host for a few nights, Richard, a real stroke of luck, given that more than 50,000 people have been displaced during the last year of earthquakes. Richard even had plumbing in his house. Richard, a Psychiatrist, actually had many extremely cool things, such as a warm welcoming character, a passion for cooking and a million dollar view from his apartment, high up on the hill in the Cashmere area of the city. Richard was working nights at the hospital when we stayed, but he still took the time to drive us round some of the affected areas of the city (Littleton and Sumner), along with his good friend Chris, another doctor, from Auckland, visiting for the weekend.

After loading up our bikes after our long bus trip from Te Anau, we cycled up to Richard’s place and experienced our first Cantabrian earthquake of note. The city shook all around us as a 4.3 struck just 10 Km deep. It was the first of 3 notable quakes which we felt during our stay with Richard. We arrived at Richard’s to a note on the stairs inviting us to make our own way in and help ourselves to a very tasty dinner of vegan curry, still warm on the stove and to make ourselves at home. We had just put our stuff into his massive spare room when he and Chris arrived. We enjoyed a chat and his great hospitality that evening, before heading off to bed, wandering how many more quakes we might feel before next morning.

I’m told that there had been quake during the night, I was not aware of it though – although Mel was still awake at 1am and felt everything shaking. After cooking porridge we all made our way across the hill to Littleton, one of the seriously damaged areas of town. We played Petanque and drank coffee together at the recently created Littleton Community Garden, an area of wasteland created when a warehouse collapsed in February. Everywhere we looked buildings had been removed or had been given different coloured stickers attributed to homes and public buildings designated for either repair of demolition. There were lots of families out spending time together, I noticed lots of parents our age playing with their kids or out drinking coffee in the impromptu cafes dotted here and there. Indeed, everywhere we travelled we met families who were happy to be together outside in the early spring sunshine.

We made our way through town a few times to visit different attractions and Christchurch still has much to offer the visitor. The Botanic Gardens and the Air Force Museum were both well worth the free entrance fee. We had to leave our bikes outside the Botanic Gardens one day and we were lucky to return to them with anything left on them. A thief had decided to open up all the zips on my cycle panniers and my tool kit. He took a couple of things, but nothing worth any money, a swiss army knife which Mel had found on the side of the road and a spanner that had cost me $3. Why not just take the cycle panniers? They are worth hundreds. People are strange.

Our time in NZ was coming to an end for now and we were both all too aware of that. We spent quite a bit of time walking round the Botanic Gardens together and reminiscing and acknowledging all the great events we had experienced together and all the great once-in-a-lifetime moments we had made possible by jacking in our old lives for a while in search of the adventure. As the plane took off from Christchurch airport and as it flew way over the Southern Alps before crossing the Pacific and the great land mass of Australia there was more than a frog in the throat and an understanding smile shared between us. The best year of our lives? Probably.

South of the South Island, NZ -Te Anau 13-20th August

Te Anau seems another lifetime today. I’m sitting on a park bench in the semi-shade of a timber-framed lodge set in the heart of what is left of the Bornean jungle in the state of Sabah. Since my last entry many thousands of miles by land, sea and air as we continue what can only be described as the most self-indulgent honeymoon in history. 

It is hard to overstate the juxtaposition of our experience during our final days in NZ to where we are now, so I’ll simply describe our final days in wonderful South Island and then go on to describe our first 10 days in Malaysia and Borneo in a separate entry.

Te Anau is one of the gateway townships that lead to the massive Fiordland national park that sits on the far south west of New Zealand. It is still relatively unspoilt in areas and still contains vast stretches of forest untouched by humans since the dawn of the country. Packed with stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes and lush woodland, it attracts masses of tourists every year and although we do leave an impact, it is still fair to say that DOC have done their best to keep much of the area intact.

We booked onto a tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound on our penultimate day in the national park and we were treated to fine weather and a really good tour guide. We were chatting with him about our upcoming trip to Borneo and he explained how he and his wife had been here and they hired a car and saw lots of the island that way. We decided it was food for thought. He also told us how sad it was to drive through the thousands of acres of Palm-Oil groves here, where there used to be jungle (more on that later). The tour took us on a winding road through ancient forests of beech and over crystal clear waters, past enormous avalanche piles on both sides of the highway and these served as a reminder as to how lucky we were with the sunny conditions that day. That highway is the only road in or out of Milford Sound and due to the large amounts of tourist buses going through, up to 150 per/day in the summer months, they do a pretty good job of keeping it clear.
The Mirror Lakes on the road to Milford Sound

Avalanche area!

The road ahead - a bit chilly

On arrival at the ferry terminal, they tried to sell plane and chopper tickets to us for our return journeys, with prices starting from as little as $600 for around 35 seconds in the air I estimated. They do make their money! Once herded onto one of the massive boats, the 2.5 hour trip around Milford Sound began. I had heard it stated that it is impossible to describe the beauty of Fiordland because of it’s immense scale; powerful waterfalls, 2,000 metres to the bottom of the Fiord, 1,500 metres to the top of the mountains, dolphins, penguins, fur seals… You get the general picture. Had Mel and I had a little more time on our hands, I think we would have spent the night there though, so that we would have a chance to see all these things without the other tourists. There were people on that ferry who didn’t even go outside to look at it all. The was a young boy of around 12 who sat and read his book for the entire journey, a spiteful look on his face, and everywhere, the sound of digital cameras turning off/on/off/on. People spend more time photographing things of interest and outstanding natural beauty than they do looking at them. Why travel at all if this is your obsession? We had a brilliant time, don’t get me wrong, It’s just people I don’t understand at times. Over the last few years, the same thing had been happening during every event imaginable. Kids filming other kids getting beaten in the classrooms, people fighting to get the front at a Kings of Leon gig to watch the entire thing through their blue-screened little touch phone, after the riots in Tottenham, people meeting and greeting the Prince of Wales, not even looking at his face in case they missed a chance to capture it for their Facebook or Youtube site. I must be getting old or out of touch, but does anyone else out there agree that we should think about enjoying the reality of things a bit more again? My point being that Milford Sound can only, truly be experienced through your own senses, any effort on my part to seriously describe it can only fail – go and see it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Failing that, check out the photos and smell my hypocrisy.

Mel and I were really pleased we took in the national park and we felt rested after being confined to our room for the vast majority of that week. Just as well really, as we were about to head up to the shaky city on a 10 hour coach journey the following morning.

Monday 15 August 2011

Te Anau 15th August

Mel and I are in Te Anau staying at the YHA. The weather forecast for severe snow storms coming straight from the Antarctic has proved correct and has lead to masses of snow down to ground level, so we will sit it out here until the predicted onslaught is over. I can’t believe that we have been on our travels for over a year now, but so much has happened in that time that I suppose it has to have been that long. We are looking forward to our tour of Milford Sound in a couple of days time, we expect to spend 1 night in Milford after taking a trip on a ferry to visit the timeless beauty that surrounds the area. Figures crossed we don’t get stuck there for too long.

It has been a massive shame to see and read so much about the riots back in England. It is all many people can talk about with us and everybody has an opinion about how and why the individuals involved have done what they have done. I must admit my first reaction to the national mess was that of anger. How can so many people of all ages have so few values to the extent that they want to kill, burn and loot from their own communities? Here in New Zealand, where 50,000 people have been displaced by the consistent earthquakes in Christchurch, with so many loosing everything they care about, the sense of community and togetherness has been very powerful. My point being that it always seems to take an absolute disaster to actually make people from every background realise that we are all in this together and that we must value each other and respect each other to stand a chance of rebuilding the values which made England a decent place to live for the majority, for a long time. I think our friend Claire Howard summed up the true feeling of the good people out there when she posted ‘Make tea, not war!’ on her Facebook page. Let’s hope more people take notice of that message in the months to come.

Since we left Dunedin it has become tougher to cycle from place to place and we have reluctantly given in to the weather and booked buses from place to place. We did manage to clock up 180 Km in just 2 days from Invercargill to Curio Bay, via Slope Point and back to Invercargill last week. It was such a feeling of achievement to make it to Slope Point as it is the most southern point of New Zealand’s mainland and means that we have now set foot at each point of the axis of both islands and we have done it mostly by bike, clocking up thousands of kms in the process.

The journey down to Slope Point proved to be far easier than the return trip to Invercargill. We were blown down the road by a healthy tail wind which grew into a monster overnight and hit us straight on the following day, throwing us off our bikes at least a dozen times. I’m just grateful that we weren’t injured or run over to be perfectly honest. We just have to be grateful that the roads are almost empty down here.

Invercargill proved to be an interesting experience. We stayed at a BBH in Invercargill called ‘Southern Comfort’. It was exceptional. Our double room was $64 per night; it was warm, brilliantly clean and extremely tastefully decorated. What made it even better was that the lady running the place was one of the friendliest and welcoming hosts you could ever wish to meet. For comfort and style, my favourite hostel since ‘Kahoe Farms’ in Northland. We stayed at the hostel for 2 nights overall, 1 on either side of our cycle south to Curio Bay.

Slope Point and Curio Bay are definitely well worth a visit. It is a bit of a struggle to cycle the unsealed road down there, but it wasn’t as hard on the gravel of the South Island, as it was on the metal in the North. There is a yellow sign on the cliff-top there letting the traveller know that they are pretty much equidistant from the equator and the South Pole at that point. It did feel rather closer to the South Pole than the equator when we were being blown all over the shop by bitter Antarctic winds, grimacing into the camera to make sure that we marked the moment with photographic evidence. Later that same day we arrived at Curio Bay and checked into another lovely hostel, run by another nice lady, Glenda, and her great kids. It’s called the ‘Lazy Dolphin’ and as the only guests, we enjoyed sea views from our dorm. We went down to visit another colony of yellow eyed penguins, the same highly rare breed as those we saw whilst staying with Peter in Oamaru.  We also saw a 170 million year old petrified forest before dinner that evening. We were lucky to have timed our visit perfectly as the tide was out and we saw a pair of penguins making their way up over the prehistoric rock formations to their overnight shelter amongst the shrubs and flax.

We stayed at a Couch Surf for our final 2 nights in Invercargill. We really enjoyed getting to know Carla, from Argentina. She is very excited at the moment as the national rugby team will be playing in Invercargill next month in the World Cup and she has tickets to see them against Romania. We spent a lovely evening with her on our first night there; she cooked some seriously nice soup, roast veggies and apple pie. On the second night there, her husband Marc turned up to join us for the evening, having been away in Queenstown the night before and we cooked for them. Carla whipped up a fantastic chocolate custard pudding for us for afters that evening as well – she is a seriously good cook that one!

Invercargill was also memorable for its great public gardens, which includes a really impressive winter garden. We sat and ate our sandwiches in a little pagoda in there. It was lovely, warm and peaceful, surrounded by a great collection of flowering plants and a crystal clear pond full of goldfish. The gardens are also home to an interesting collection of farm animals and an ostrich. There is a museum built in the shape of a pyramid that adjoins the gardens. We went in there a couple of times and visited Henry the Tuatara. All of his wives and children live with him. He is over 110 years old and still going strong. Perhaps if we all ate bugs and lived in a hole in the ground…

When we left Invercargill by Intercity, we were the only passengers to begin with, later being joined by 4 more brave souls, all heading to Te Anau. The YHA here is clean and slightly more populated than it perhaps might otherwise be at this time of year. Most of the guests here seem to be stuck here due to the weather – we are now stranded as all the roads are closed due to heavy snow falls. It’s early evening and Mel is busy making some dinner for us in the kitchen as I write – and in fact she has just called me to ask for some assistance so I better go.

Monday 8 August 2011

Dunedin Highlights 7th August

Dunedin has lots of affordable activities for the interested visitor, we have managed to cram all sorts into our 8 days here and we haven’t been left bored at any point. One of the best highlights for foodies like us is the sheer variety of cheap, good quality cafes and restaurants littered about the centre of the city. This week we have frequented a fair number of them, on occasion eating a 2 course meal for as little as $11 and enjoying triple portions at an all-you-can-eat vegan buffet.

Not much has gone wrong this week, so it’s probably best if we get that sort of stuff out of the way before ploughing on with all the good news. We suffered a bit of a blow 2 days ago on our way back from an amazing trip out to see the Royal Albatross colony at the end of the Otago Peninsula. As we were crossing a road on our bikes my back wheel collapsed as I attempted to ride onto the cycle path from the main road. It has always been a bit of a dodgy back wheel and one which countless bike shop engineers have chuckled to themselves about on seeing it, suggesting that it was a terrible wheel; “…completely inadequate for the type of cycling you are doing, whoever built it is having a bit of a joke, mate.” It seems they were correct. The spokes shattered and I had to carry the 20 kilo frame all the way to the brilliant people at R & R in the town centre, where they built me a brand new back wheel and sorted out my gears for $170 – more than half that which I paid for the bike. The moral of that story being; don’t buy second hand cycle touring gear again. This has slowed our departure down somewhat, so instead of leaving on Friday the 6th of August to head towards the Catlins, we are now leaving tomorrow, which is the 8th, choosing to spend a couple of nights at the YHA for old times sake.

Aside from that bike issue, we have been so happy here. Our hosts, Naomi and Manna, Dave, Rachel and Scott have all made us feel so brilliantly welcome in their homes and we have enjoyed spending time with them. One of the great things about couch surfing with people is the opportunity to enjoy each others music, movies, conversation and food, as well as picking up all the local tips on what to do and where to eat. The slight irony on this occasion is that Mel and I have been in New Zealand longer than our hosts had, as we arrived in September and our friends from the USA & Canada have only been in town for since this year sometime. The view from the two properties we stayed at are million dollar views of the sea and the city respectively, I just hope that their respective landlords learn about this new fangled thing called ‘insulation’ before next winter.

So, to the activities which we have enjoyed most since I last checked in. Well, you will remember the brief talk of the botanic gardens, the Turkish eateries and the art gallery. Well, since then, we have enjoyed lunchtime theatre at the university and that $11 two course meal on the same afternoon. The play was called ‘Norm & Ahmed’; a 45 minute story about racism involving 2 characters, one from Pakistan, the other form Australia. It is set at a bus stop in Sydney at around midnight. It was a good piece of lunchtime theatre with a sadly predictable ending in which Norm beats the crap out of Ahmed and leaves him lying in the gutter. After the show, we made our way to the student union on Albany to enjoy a Hari Krishna lunch. It was amazing; Daal, Samosa, Puree and a nice pudding of crumble with a sweet semolina - halva.

That same day we went for a little look around the shops and bought Mel a new dress. It was form a real treasure trove of a shop (Yaks & Yetis) where they sell anything and everything collectable from Nepal and South East Asia. We probably would have really blown the budget had it not have been for the luggage allowance regulations and to be honest we maybe shouldn’t have spent what we did, but it was worth it because she looks lovely in it!

That was Thursday. On Friday, before the bike died, we had managed to clock up 80 km cycling out onto the Otago Peninsula to see the Albatross and back. I was so excited to see them, but it was Mel who spotted the first adult in flight. We were settling down to a coffee as I waited to go on the guided tour of the nesting sight when Mel jumped up and ran outside, shouting to me that she had seen what she thought was a Royal Albatross. As it turned out, she was right and it was clearly one of the massive birds as it had a wing span much larger than that of the black backed gulls and shags sharing the same air space. Satisfied with that, Mel sat back down with her hot drink and I set off with the tour group to hopefully photograph the maturing chicks up at the nest site, which has been strategically cut off from the rest of the free area, so that people are forced to pay up to get a glimpse of them. The centre gets 130,000 visitors a year, each paying at least $30 to look at the nesting site. I found that it was well worth it though. I have always loved Albatross – their comedy way of taking off and landing, their 9’6’ wingspan and their amazing ability to live life on the wing – spending up to 6 years in the air at a time and flying at speeds in excess of 120 km/ph! There were 5 chicks visible on the nesting sight, big fat blobs, weighing up to 13.5 kilos. They are around 4-5 weeks away from flying for the first time and they consume 4 kilos of fish and squid everyday at the moment. Fatties!!

‘Circadian Rhythm’ is a name to remember for all those of you who enjoy good vegan food. It is on St. Andrews and has the best selection of pies, cakes and hot foods available. The service there is also great. The first time we went in there, we were frantically trying to find Mel’s phone in our bags. We quickly realised that we had dropped it somewhere in town, so they let us use their phone to ring it – turned out some nice guy had picked it up and we were able to get it back, they didn’t have to do that though – it’s the small touches that make a restaurant, you know? Their buffet is great, $9 – $12.50, depending on what day of the week you go in, you can enjoy daal, koftas, rice, spicy veg, purees and more. If that wasn’t enough for you, there is an impressive vegan café at the Saturday market, situated next to the beautiful train station. We had breakfast there yesterday which consisted of a ‘chilli dog’ and an ‘Elvis special’. The ‘chilli dog was’ a sausage wrapped in tortilla with delicious spicy sauce. The ‘Elvisl’ was veggie bacon, banana  and peanut butter in a toasted ciabatta, topped with a double choc-chip cookie – all vegan and all home-made.

Something else you can do when visiting this city, if you want to keep costs down, is to visit the very impressive graveyards. Mel and I went for a walk through a small area of the Northern Graveyard, which covers 8 hectares and has some beautiful tombs, as well as stunning trees and a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. We saw lots of parrots in the trees there! It is not far from the botanic garden, so you can wander from one to the other easily, which we did. 

We decided to go and visit the aviary again, as we had done earlier in the week. It is always sad to see the birds cooped up in cages. However, they are great fun to be around, especially the Kaka, as they seem to spend their time rolling around on their backs, drunk on something or other. There are some parrots who can talk there too, good for big and little kids alike – one of them kept saying ‘have a cuppa tea’ and ‘what’s up doc?’.

A visit to the Robbie Burns pub is always worth a trip as well, on your way to the aptly named ‘Khmer Friendly Noodle & Satay’ restaurant. We were treated to a fine drop of single malt whiskey and a lovely pint of beer there by the friendly barman, before indulging in yet more brilliant food at the Khmer place.

In conclusion, our time in Dunedin has been much influenced by our love of good food, great company and plenty of free activities to indulge in. The perfect town really and the weather hasn’t been bad either.
Vegan cake - yum!

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Oamaru and the Penguins

Peter is a single, gay guy, who lives just outside the main hub of the town of Oamaru. A most amiable chap who put us up in a separate cottage on his property. He had some great stories about his 20 year stay in the US where he lived in Florida and New York, before returning home to help look after his aging parents in the area he grew up in, which is where he remains to this day. We enjoyed fine conversation and a couple of great days with him. Peter is as big a fan of wildlife as Mel and he took great pleasure in taking us to visit 2 separate penguin colonies whilst we were in Oamaru. The nocturnal blue penguins which frequent the rocks and protected scrub by the sea right in the centre of Oamaru were a treat on our first night. We really enjoyed watching them waddle from place to place. It was quite strange to see them tucked up against the side of great big warehouses and the like, somehow one doesn’t think of penguins in this environment, but there they were, going about there business.

The following day we visited the more stereotypical yellow eyed penguin colony a little further down the coast at Moeraki. These are an endangered group with great characters. It amazed us how close we could get to them and just how good they are at climbing with many of their nesting boxes being quite a long distance from the sea shore. Incidentally, these penguins travel around 60 Km out to sea every day to go fishing and when they have chicks, they take it in turns to babysit them, alternating days out to sea. Out at Moeraki there is also another large colony of seals, sunning themselves on the hillside and the rocks. There was a brilliant sun set that evening. 

On our way back into Oamaru, as a way of saying thank you, we talked Peter into allowing us to buy him fish & chips at his favourite chippy in Hampden; “The best on south island!” he said, and they are!

Having fixed a puncture before being able to set off the following morning, we set off reluctantly towards Palmerston which would hopefully be the last stop before arriving into Dunedin. We had to spend quite a lot of this day on the hard shoulder of Highway 1. Not a great deal of fun and sadly something that turned out to be a real problem for my inner tubes. I actually had to repair 4 punctures that day and I even ran out of puncture patches. I had just enough to get us into Palmerston, but as it turned out not even having a spare inner tube to hand would get us as far as Dunedin. We woke up in our room the next morning and found that the tire had gone down again over night, so we decided to catch a bus into Dunedin with the bikes and get to a cycle shop as soon as we arrived. It was frustrating in the extreme, but it couldn’t be helped.

Our bikes were damaged by the poor handling of the bus driver, who meant well but was very aggressive in putting the bikes into the storage area of the bus and this put me in rather a bad mood as we were dropped off outside the very impressive Dunedin train station. As luck would have it though, we passed a bike shop on the way to the YHA we hoped to stay at and we were able to pick up more inner tubes before heading up to the hostel. I changed the tube again and we were back on our bikes and investigating the town before dinner. We did have to pop back to the bike shop to get some help with damaged rear wheel on my bike before we could completely relax though. The guy in R & R sports was brilliant though – fixing the wheel, sorting out the gears and advising us on a few things, all for the princely sum of $0. What a brilliant gesture – thank you R & R Sport!

That evening we dinned at a small Turkish place near to the YHA. It was the best Falafel kebab that either Mel or I had ever tasted. We celebrated this by enjoying a glass of red wine back at the YHA. It was at this point I decided that life wasn’t so bad after all.

We are into our third day here in Dunedin now and we have packed a fair bit in. I am loathe to say that we have tested with yet another puncture on my bike again today, but I’ll not dwell on that. We have been staying with Manna, Naomi and Dave, all from the USA, in a house which overlooks the city and a surf beach, just off a road known as Norfolk Street, so I feel right at home! We have been to two lectures, one at the impressive Art Gallery and another at the University of Otago, enjoyed another Turkish falafel delight and a tour round the gallery, as well as enjoying a pint with new acquaintances at a real ale pub last night and seeing lots of the town. It’s been good to be in a vibrant city again; lots of students, great food, a superb botanic garden and so far, clear, sunny days. I am writing this entry sitting at our warm shower hosts’ kitchen table, looking out at the glinting evening lights of the city stretching out to the hills that mark the boundary between the suburbs, the ocean to my right and the Otago Peninsula opposite.

Tomorrow we are going to stay with some couch surf hosts, Scott and Rachel, on the other side of town.