Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Nuggets from the Northern Hemisphere.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Hello everyone, hope you had a brilliant Christmas and you're looking forward to New Year. It was a bit of a funny one for us, we spent Christmas in Phuket, Thailand which couldn't have been more different from what we had originally planned, but once we embraced it for what it was we actually had a pretty awesome time - apart from missing everyone in the UK of course, and the many Christmas dinners we usually get to tuck in to. As the title of this post suggests, we are actually north of the equator now and will remain there for the foreseeable future. We've gone from taking life veeerrry sloooowwwwly in the van to traveling very quickly again, which has come as a bit of a shock. I started to say to Fia that I was getting a bit tired of the chaos, but actually we've just arrived in Cambodia and I'm feeling the excitement again. I just saw a man ride past on a moped one-handed, carrying a dozen live ducks upside down, tethered at the feet, alive and quacking(!) - the way someone might carry some dead ducks in Europe. Surely they should be dead before you string them up like that?

I guess you had to be there really...

In any case I think Cambodia has a lot of the weird and wonderful for us to see, eat, and experience, but we'll save these details for the next post. There are signs in the hostel advertising a 'fish massage', I'll let you imagine what that involves for now.

We left New Zealand on 18th December and now in Cambodia, this is the fourth country we've visited since then. First off was a brief stint in Australia. We only had three nights there so we stayed with Andy Harrison (some of you may know him) in Bondi, Sydney. I won't pretend we didn't spend the majority of the time drinking beer, however we did get to see the harbour and city centre as well as Bondi Beach and The Cross. Surprisingly we both left Sydney feeling as if we could quite happily live there for a few years, it's a bit like London but really close to some amazing beaches and just seems to have a really friendly, summery vibe about it, although we didn't meet any Australians! Everyone was either a Kiwi or from nothern England. It was pretty expensive to visit and beer was about 5 pounds for a scooner - about 400ml - criminal! The harbour bridge and opera house were every bit as impressive as we expected.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Fia in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Opera House

Me and Andy on his balcony in Bondi

Next on the itinerary was Singapore. I will be honest and say I wasn't really that fussed about going there, but it had it's charms, especially the way the whole city operated. From what we'd read it sounded like the Asian equivalent of Hitler's Germany - it's illegal to chew chewing gum, you could get the death penalty for almost any crime and all types of fun are illegal. This wasn't the case at all, the strict laws seemed to work really well, there was no real litter anywhere, there were very few police about (there didn't need to be either), everyone was friendly and we felt safe the whole time. From what we were told it's a really nice place to live and there's a lot going on, lots of community spirit and all the different races get along well. The people were a mixture of Indians, Malays, Chinese, and just every other nationality that decided to come and live and work there. There were different districts in the city based around the key nationalities, Little India was especially cool - loads of tacky/chic Indian gifts and really nice smelling food everywhere. There were temples and other religious buildings on every street, each seemed to be for different beliefs yet they all got along. There didn't seem to be a huge problem with poverty either. Apparently the tax banding is between 10% and 20% maximum as they don't need to throw huge amounts of money into public services, like litter clearing and huge police forces, and the whole place seems to run very well. with the people pocketing more of their hard earned money, even if it's less than we earn in England.

One of the many temples around Singapore packed with people

A man holding joss-sticks outside a temple

The only rubbish thing about it was the humidity. Singapore is pretty much smack on the equator and they have no real seasons. It was 30 -35 degrees all day, barely cooled at night, and stayed at around 80% humidity - sweaty as! Oh, and a pint of beer in a bar costs about 8 quid, but you can find it cheaper in their Hawker food centres. Hawker food centres are dotted all around the city, it seems everyone eats out in Singapore, understandable when you can get such amazing food, like spicy duck noodles, soup and beansprout salad for as little as a pound. Also on the menu was turtle soup, spine meat soup, meat balls (bollocks of some sort... a'hem...!) soup, brain soup, and good old stomach soup. Yum :os

Another surprising thing was that EVERYONE spoke very good English and they went mental about Christmas. It wasn't anywhere near as hectic as we had imagined either. Even the Germans don't run their cities as efficiently as Singapore.

Gingerbread house decorating competition in one of Singapore's amazingly well air conditioned shopping malls - we spent a lot of time going inside to get out of the humidity. They must make a killing over there.

Marina Bay, south of the city

Singapore again was a bit expensive compared to what we expected from the rest of South East Asia and unfortunately we are starting to run out of funds a bit, so we decided to move on after 3 nights.

We had a marathon journey ahead. We thought we'd just get on a bus and see where we ended up before getting too tired. We ended up travelling by bus all the way to Butterworth, near Penang in Malayisa. Penang sounded a bit like Singapore so we skipped it out. We passed by Kuala Lumpur on our way up but the connecting bus to Butterworth was leaving in a few hours so we kept going. Thinking back on it we perhaps we should've tried to see a bit more of Malaysia but we really wanted to spend Christmas on a beach somewhere and it just didn't seem possible in Malaysia - Thailand it was. We slept for a few hours in Butterworth, woke up and had breakfast in the bus station - an Indian dish called Tosai, a pancake type thing with three curry-like dips - then continued on to Hat Yai and finally Phuket, Thailand. We left Singapore at 7:30am on the 21st and arrived in Phuket about 9pm the next day.

Me and my Tosai

As usual when travelling there's always something waiting to go wrong. The journey up, despite being long and the bus pretty sticky, was actually quite bearable. We'd booked a great looking hostel the day before over the internet (hostelbookers.com) and received our confirmation email so all good. Until we arrived in Phuket! We got to Cheap Charlie's Backpackers, where we'd booked, only to be met by a blank looking guy who said "Oh, shit, it's been so busy I haven't bothered to check my emails and we're full". Great. Fia was basically in tears and somehow we had to find a hostel that wasn't infested with cockroaches and rats, that wasn't already booked up a couple of days before Christmas, and wasn't ridiculously expensive. Luckily Gregg at Cheap Charlies handled it well. He sat us down with a free beer each and then drove us around in search of a comparable place to stay. Somehow we hit the jackpot, a double room just down the road in a place called Sea Blue Backpackers, far enough from the bars to get a decent night sleep but close enough to the action to walk to and from the main strip, and... it had a balcony with a Jacuzzi bath! It only cost us 50p each a night more than the hostel we originally booked so we were quite happy.

First glimpse of the room


Now, as I mentioned earlier Phuket (more specifically Patong beach area) was not the island paradise we originally planned for. At first it seemed like the Blackpool of Thialand with topless 40 - 50 year old, pot-bellied single guys - grey chest rugs and gold medallions everywhere - with 20 - 30 something pretty Thai girls hanging off their arms (about as cultural as their experience will get), watching football in one of the hundreds of bars that are built next to the beach. Patong beach had a massive McDonalds towering over it and everywhere you looked were sun loungers with these old blokes and their girls (and maybe not in some cases...). After a brief period of despair we realised that we'd only seen one part of the island and decided to hire a moped the next day. From then on it got a lot, lot better. The roads were pretty mental, hundreds of bikes everywhere, most carrying more than 2 passengers, and the law seemed to be - if you're turning into a road it's your responsibility not to crash in to the person coming out of the road, but if you can't be bothered with that rule then it's their responsibility not to crash into you. Basically, ignore the signs, lights and whistle blowing traffic police and pull across three lanes of traffic as quickly as possible (they only have two lanes in most places, but there is in fact an invisible middle lane that's used for weaving in and out of traffic beeping your horn to make it all fine).

Phuket from the road side

We zipped around the island (wearing our helmets - Mum and Dad!), and found some really nice beaches. They were still fairly busy but then it was high season and it was loads better than Patong. The water was crystal clear blue, and the sand was white. It was 35 degrees most days, with a gentle breeze to keep it just below too hot. We were even blessed with some small, clean waves on Christmas eve and Christmas day. Christmas dinner was substituted by a good old Fry up - we went out for a few on Christmas Eve and needed some grease to make us feel better. It was actually surprisingly good - thanks to Stanley's English Pub for that one. We ended up having the staple noodle soup for dinner in the evening. Fia chose chicken, I chose beef because it came with dumplings... or so I thought. As soon as I bit into those one of the two dumplings I realised they had the wrong texture. Surely the had to be something else? I took another bite, it was chewy, very rubbery and tasted like some kind of meat I hadn't eaten before. Yep, you guessed it, they were balls of the testicular variety. I will never be the same again. The worst bit is they definitely weren't cow balls because they were too small. Answers on a postcard please.

On Boxing day we got some really good snorkelling in at the southern cape of Phuket. We saw tonnes of colourful fish swimming amongst the coral, blue starfish, strange crabs and a massive school of squid. Pretty cool way to spend the Christmas period in the end.

Longboats in Phuket
Thai longboats

Fia surfing on christmas eve, Kata beach, Phuket
Fia catching a Christmas Eve wave

The coastline south of Patong

Christmas lunch!

Beaching it up on Christmas Day

I'll finish with some pictures of Patong at night to give you an idea of how mental it was. If only all of you guys were there to make it as fun as it could've been. We could've gone to the Ping pong show together, or even the Egg Show... I'll leave that up to your imagination!

Patong at night

"Ladies" of the night... maybe where the balls in my soup came from.

Happy New Year everyone xxx

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

New Zealand - South Island

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We've done a total of 8,500 km in New Zealand!

So it's been a while since our last post, mainly because we've been in some pretty remote places, but also because we haven't actually been anywhere for more than a couple of days before we got here, to Christchurch.  We have sold our van and tomorrow we fly out to Sydney for 3 days, before heading on to Singapore.  The map above shows the route we took for the whole of the South Island - Tony did a lot of driving!  So this post is all about what we did after the Big Al and the Mofo in Queenstown when Sky joined us for a couple of weeks on the trip. 

Queenstown itself was OK, it certainly was a really pretty town but it was also very touristy, and they are really really strict about where you can camp (you can get an on-the-spot $800 fine for camping within a 10 km radius of the city!).  So we stayed at a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite just outside the city called Moke Lake Reserve.  Apparently there were fish in the lake so Tony and Sky got right on it, with the obligatory beers as well.  Little did I know that this was to become a major theme of the rest of the holiday in New Zealand...fishing, surfing and drinking beer!

Moke Lake Reserve, near Queenstown
We decided to go to Milford Sound after Queenstown, as Sky had never been either.  The weather started to get progressively worse the closer we got to it.  It was cloudy, rainy and windy.  Apparently the West Coast and Milford Sound are pretty much always wet, so the photos you see of Milford Sound looking all spectacular in the setting sun are pretty much flukes, taken on the one sunny day of the year.  This is what it says on Wikipedia "With a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm on 182 days a year, a high level even for the West Coast, Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world."

So we must have caught it on a really wet day:
What we saw of Milford Sound...
It's funny how all of the tour guides and operators and people you meet never tell you these things...this is how it could look:


So unfortunately we just took a couple of rainy photos, and then headed to our campsite at Lake Gunn for the night before heading down to the South Coast and the start of the surf trip.  We headed to a place called Monkey Island for a couple of nights which is just West of Invercargill, and then skipped Invercargill out (it wasn't that great) to head straight to Bluff.  Bluff is for some reason known as the most Southern point of the Island, even though it's not.  But we went there anyway as Tone and I got a photo at the Northern most signpost so we thought we should get one at the most Southern one too.  We also stopped off at Slope Point (the actual Southern most point) and found that we were closer to the South Pole than to the Equator!  As you can see it was pretty cold down there.  It felt a lot more like England, all overcast and grey and with the constant threat of rain. 

Bluff (not the most Southern tip of the South Island)
Slope Point - the actual most Southern Point
The guys did a lot of driving for those few days.  Mostly trying to find surf and somewhere free or cheap to stay.  We finally got to a lovely place called Curio Bay, or Porpoise Bay and they got some decent surfing in.  Porpoise Bay actually gets its' name from the Hectors Dolphins that hang around in the waters there - they are the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, and can only be found in the seas around New Zealand.  We saw quite a few on our way around the South Island, so we were either lucky or they aren't as rare as we thought...

I didn't go in here as it was a bit big for me, but Sky and Tone seemed to have fun.  I was the official photographer...

Sky surfing Porpoise Bay
Sky surfing Porpoise Bay
Tony surfing Porpoise Bay
Tony surfing Porpoise Bay
We spent a couple of days at Curio Bay as the camp was really nice and the surf seemed to be good. After that it was on to Dunedin, stopping off at Kakanui on the way so that the guys could do a little fishing  and I could get a little surf in :)  They didn't catch any fish, but they did catch a crab.  We weren't sure about eating it though...

Fia surfing in Kakanui
Me surfing at Kakanui
Dunedin was quite a nice city actually, it seemed to have a lot more old buildings than many of the other Kiwi cities.  You could definitely tell there was a Scottish influence there as well, and people actually said "wee" as in "a wee bit"!  The highlight for Dunedin though was the world's steepest street.  Sky had us driving around the whole of Dunedin to find it and finally we passed it, and we couldn't believe how steep it was.  I thought we were just going to look and take pictures, but obviously Sky and Tone both wanted to drive up.  Now, our van wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'space rocket' and it certainly wasn't getting any younger either....I was a little worried to say the least that the van would suddenly just cave in and we'd go hurtling back down the street into oncoming traffic.  Luckily no such thing happened.  We were actually pissing ourselves laughing going up the hill, and at the top there was a really nice view of Dunedin.  I was more worried going down hill, and at the bottom there was a group of people just laughing at us, saying we were mad!  I'd have thought this kind of thing was common occurrence, but then the sign does say no turning and no exit... 

The World's Steepest Street in Dunedin!
The van is in 1st gear and we're not sure it's going to make it up...
On our way up to Christchurch we stopped off at a couple of "points of interest" along the way. One of them was a New Zealand Fur Seal and Penguin Colony, and the next was the Moeraki Boulders. The Seal colony wasn't exactly happening, as you can see we saw one seal, and if you look at our Flickr stream you'll notice that Tone took about a hundred photos of it. We didn't see any penguins either. In any case there were pretty much always seals in the water when they guys were surfing, which freaked Tone out a bit.

New Zealand Fur Seal chilling out on a rock
The Moeraki boulders were cool. It probably would have been better to go and see them at low tide but we couldn't really be picky. We got there just after a bus load of Japanese tourists, and as Tone and Sky started to mess around on the boulders, trying to jump at the same time from one boulder to the next, they started taking loads of photos and videos of them on their phones and cameras! It was pretty funny, especially since Tone has lost so much weight that he kept having to hold on to his board shorts so that they didn't fall down half way through the jumps! They were quite slippery as well, apparently, so they were both really concentrating on not falling off them and breaking something.
Tony and Sky on the Moeraki Boulders
Jumping at the same time on the Moeraki Boulders
After the boulder jumping, we made our way to Lake Ellesmere, just outside Christchurch, where we'd stay the night before heading to the surf spots around there. We tried to stay at this one site, but were told to move on (well, it was right outside a holiday camp and a load of houses, so no surprise there!) but were recommended a reserve on Lake Ellesmere, where it was free to camp. We had been relying on Sky's sat nav, which up until then was pretty reliable (apart from a couple of "short cuts"), so we headed in the direction of what we thought was the lake. We got to a gate which had a DOC sign on it with the title "Lakeside" and so we just blindly followed him in. We were in a field, and we couldn't see the lake anywhere...after driving through the first field we started to suspect that we weren't quite in the right place, as there were sheep all around and there wasn't even a track, let alone a road! I think it took us 10 minutes of driving in a field before we realised that we were in the wrong place! Good old sat navs...

We finally got to Lake Ellesmere, but it was so infested with mosquitoes that we just ended up sitting in Sky's van all night. Luckily we'd bought a load of beers and some tequila so we thought we'd play a couple of drinking games and some cards to pass the time. Then the camera came out, and we started taking silly photos of us drinking tequila on a slow shutter. Then we suddenly got an attack of the munchies (having not had any dinner) and proceeded to cook some egg sandwiches. I've never seen someone eat so many eggs in one sitting, I think Sky ate 10 eggs and Tone ate 8 eggs. I think I only ate 3, or maybe 4...anyway, there were a hell of a lot of eggs being cooked. Probably helped keep the hangover away the next morning!

Tequila night...
So after our Tequila shenanigans we headed to Magnet Bay, just outside Christchurch, for a nights camping and a days surfing.  I couldn't get in again as it was all rocky and bigger than I was used to, but it was a really pretty spot.  We headed to Christchurch for a night and then on to Kaikoura, which is a couple of hours North for some more surfing and general lazing about.  The breaks there were pretty hardcore, all rocky and not exactly inviting for a beginner like myself.  On the first or second day we were there, we noticed some people diving in the shallows at low tide, and Sky said they were diving for Paua.  Paua are a large mollusc, and we (i.e. Sky and Tone) decided it would be a good idea to have a go as well so that we could actually say they caught something (seeing as though they'd been so unlucky fishing).  You have to be really careful to get the right size Paua, as the New Zealand fishing Association are pretty strict and you can get a hefty fine.  I think they had to be over 12.5 cm.  The Maori guys who were diving had a load of professional gear, with a proper measuring knife which doubled up as the tool to get them off the rocks, whereas Tone and Sky just had a soup spoon.  Still, they managed to get a good few and so we decided to cook them up with some yellow pepper, garlic, chili and olive oil in a pasta and it turned out really tasty!

Hunting for Paua

The Paua out of it's shell - some of it sliced really finely
Paua and pepper pasta!!
They were pretty weird looking, and also a little bit tough and chewy.  But all in all it made for a satisfying dish!

Some of the surf spots around Kaikoura are world class, especially Mangamaunu, which is rated the same as Raglan in the NZ Surf Guide.  It's a right hand point break which you can ride for up to 300m on one wave!  Tone and Sky both had waves that they caught and rode all the way to the beach.  Unfortunately you then have to get out and walk all the way round to get back in again...but they said it was worth the effort.  

Tony surfing Mangamanau
Tony surfing Mangamaunu
Most of the beaches are rocky as well, and another place they surfed was called 'Meatworks'.  Apparently it gets its name from the days that surfers didn't have boots and cut there feet up on the rocks trying to get out there.  Tony didn't just cut his feet on those rocks, I think the Paua diving and some other fishing related escapades previously cut his feet up, but they certainly weren't made any better by surfing Meatworks:

Tony's feet - ravaged by rocks, paua and surfing
We spent about 3 days in Kaikoura.  It was a really nice little fishing/surf town and people were friendly.  We had to head back to Christchurch, however, in order to start getting our van for sale.  Sky also left us to start heading back to Wanaka at this point.  It was sad saying bye but the 2 weeks had been really good fun.  

We spent most of our time in Christchurch whilst we were selling our van in Sumner and Taylor's Mistake.  Sumner is a cute little seaside town, and Taylor's Mistake is a beach just over the hill from it.  For about a week every day we would get up, go and have a cold shower at the toilets in Taylor's Mistake (or not if it was really cold and windy) then go to Sumner to make breakfast and wait for the calls about the van (we had no reception over the hill).  Occasionally we would head into Christchurch, and Tone would do a bit of surfing.  We also managed to get the local DVD rental place in Sumner to rent us some DVDs, so we watched the entire second season of Dexter, and season 3 and 4 of The Wire.

It was quite stressful selling the van - we turned down a couple of offers as we thought they were too low and we wanted to get more money for it.  We thought we had loads of time but as our last weekend started creeping closer and closer we started to panic.  In the end we sold it just last Saturday to 3 guys, and thankfully for not too much less than we wanted.  Panic over!  It was such a weight lifted off our shoulders, and we could now go and chill out and relax in Christchurch. We treated ourselves to an Indian that night at a little restaurant in Sumner called 'Indian Sumner', it was really good, and I have to say better than any Indian i've had in the UK.
A civilised cup of tea in Christchurch
The Tram
Playing chess in Cathedral Square in Christchurch
Christchurch is quite a nice city, we're staying in a really friendly hostel called Around the World, where the lady bumped us up to a double room for our first night for no apparent reason other than she liked us!  We went to see the Ron Mueck exhibition, which was amazing.  I had seen one of his sculptures before, ages ago in the Tate Liverpool, but this exhibition featured a load more.  
Feeling some lips at the Ron Mueck exhibition
"Mask 2" by Ron Mueck
"A girl" by Ron Mueck

We fly to Sydney tomorrow, where we'll be for 3 nights, and then we fly to Singapore on the 18th December.  We still haven't figured out where we'll be for Christmas and New Year, but i'm hoping a nice beach somewhere. New Zealand has been really, really good fun, and it's a shame we have to leave it now - I think we both would have liked to spend more time here and do some of the things we missed out on.  Plus the Kiwis are just so friendly, you can't help feeling at home here!  

Fia and Tone xxx