Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Action Packed New Zealand

Well we've been in New Zealand a week and we've managed to squeeze a lot into those 7 days. We landed in Auckland but only stayed long enough to have a peek at One Tree Hill ( long story short - there was a native NZ tree planted there as a monument to the Maori people, the British cut it down and replaced it with a foreign tree, a few years back the Maori's attacked it unsuccessfully but went back to finish off the job more recently, so that really it should be called One stump Hill.)
Next stop was Rotorua. It's situated in a volcanic area, by the side of a thermal lake. It was incredible to see vents of steam just coming up from the drains and out if the ground in scrub areas.
Besides the lake and thermal springs there isn't all that much to do in the area naturally, so of course they have developed a few attractions.
First up for us was Zorbing. We climbed into a giant inflated ball, had some water thrown in on top of us and then got rolled down a hill - great craic altogether.

Fossie's actually in there!

Another pose-y one!

Then we did the Luge. We got a cable car up a hill then went down the hill in what was kind of like a go-kart with no engine, and really basic steering and brakes. We probably would have enjoyed that a bit more if it wasn't bitterly cold, we didn't have wet hair from the zorbing and it hadn't just rained making the seats (and our bums) soaking wet. It was still fun though.

To engage our cultural sides, we took a visit to Tamaki Maori Village. We got to see some traditional Maori weapons, songs and dances, and enjoyed a lovely hangi meal , that was supposedly cooked in a traditional ground oven. The food was good but the rest of the evening felt very fake, a bit like New Zealand's answer to Bunratty.

After Rotorua, we headed to Taupo, stopping of along the way at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, to admire volcanic features like craters, hot springs, mud pools and most impressively the Lady Knox geyser.

Taupo is another lakeside town with a few natural attractions and lots of manmade ones. This time we decide to do a high ropes activity course. This was brilliant fun. It was all walking beams, ropes and shaky bridges that were 12- 15m above the ground. We both loved it and even though Fossie is afraid of heights he still managed to do the whole course.

Foss on the shaky bridge!

Once you got to the top of the pole all you had to do was stand up and jump off - Easy!

Yes - he did have to trust me not to drop him.

After all that we went to Tongariro National Park and got some crazy notion that we should climb a mountain. So we did - just about. (I lay equal blame on an overload of adrenalin from all the other activities and an enthusiastic email from Curran - thanks a lot for that Kev!) And what better mountain to climb than the active volcano, Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. Well actually, the itinerary was to climb the saddle of Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro, the mountain beside it like this guided tour.But on the day the weather was so fine that we actually got to go all the way to the summit of Tongariro. The guides made out like this additional extra was a good thing, that we were lucky. I swear it nearly killed me. I have to say it was really full on. We were given crampons (spiky things for you shoes so you don't slip in the ice or snow) and ice-axes in case we did slip so we wouldn't slide right over some edge or halfway back down the mountain, and you really had to climb in some parts. But I suppose it was worth the effort. The views were amazing.

Looking enthusiatic at the start - not having any idea what was in store!

At the summit, with Mt. Doom behind us. I still don't know how we managed to muster smiles!

Since we were up in the snowy mountains, we said we might as well do a bit of skiing too. I have to say I much prefer being transported up the mountain in lifts and coming down it on skis.

If you look closely you can see the top of Mt. Doom above the cloud line in the background.

After all that we headed to Wellington and caught the ferry across to the south island. As we were driving along the coast to a little town called Kaikoura there were loads of seals just basking all along the shore.

And just nearby there was a little stream with a small waterfall that had a pool at the bottom. The female seals swim up the stream to have their cubs and leave them in the pool, so it's like a little seal nursery. It was so cute to watch them all playing in there.

(The 2 black things on the right are seals, one is jumping)

So it's on week inNZ done, 4 more left. Let's hope they're going to be as much fun!

Jan and Paul.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bula from Fiji

Didn't get up to all that much in Melbourne. James took us to some of the tourist spots like Chapel St. (a  trendy shopping street with lots of fancy cafes too) and St. Kilda ( a kind of beach side area.) It was great to meet up with Luke. The 3 of us went to an AFL game in the MCG together. Setanta Ó h'Ailpín's team were playing and he had been tipped in the paper as one to watch so were all excited about seeing him. Just our luck that he was pulled a few minutes before the game, we never found out why. We enjoyed the game anyway, but it might have helped if we actually knew the rules! Half the entertainment value was from the fans around. Listening to their shouts and jeers was hilarious, worse than any hurler on the ditch!

It was on to Fiji then. We flew in to Nadi, which is on the West Coast of the main island. In the sea just to the west of it there is long chain of little islands. The islands at the bottom of the chain form the Mamanucas and the ones above that are called the Yasawas. There is only one boat a day heading to the Yasawas and it leaves at 8.30am. Unfortunately our flight was delayed and so we missed it. Instead we decided to hit South Sea Island in the Mamanuca group. We were welcomed onto the island by a group of musicians and lots of Bulas (Bula is the Fijian version of Céad Míle Fáilte (welcome) but they really apply it, we were made feel very welcome. Now we weren't expecting the island to be very big, but it was absolutely tiny. It must have been only 100m across. I swear you wouldn't even fit a GAA pitch on it. To walk the whole way around the island, at the waters edge when the tide was fully out took less that 5 minutes. It was just like one those little islands you see in cartoons, literally just a ring of sand with a few trees in the centre.

That night the staff at the resort organised a (hermit) crab race. There was a circle painted on the ground and whatever crab got out of the circle first won. My crab won the first round, we think Fossie's was dead. It didn't even peak out of it's shell not to mind try to move out of the circle. Anyway in the second race mine was making good headway when it decided to start going sideways and he just about qualified for the final. He left the rest for dead in the final though and as a reward I won 4 cans of Fiji Gold. Not bad going!!!

From there we got the boat to Kuata island. Kuata was a bigger island and the resort was only part of it (though the rest is unoccupied). The resort here was much different. It was made of lots of little huts, called bures and 2 bigger dorm huts plus the dining room/bar area. We were lucky that our first night there was a traditional Fijian theme night. It started with a Kava Ceremony. One chief was chosen to represent all the guests. He had to ask the chief of the tribe for permission to visit their island. Then both chiefs drank Kava and all the members of both 'tribes' did too. Kava is a drink made from grinding down the roots of a trees and putting the powder in a little muslin sack and soaking that in a big bowl of water (kind of like making a giant cup of tea). It tasted like muddy water to be honest but it seemed to have some sort of anesthetic effect, making your tongue kind of numb. So that was the official welcome.

After that we ate dinner in a cave, which was really just a kind of overhang, nothing too dramatic. When dinner was finished we were entertained with plenty of traditional music and dance.

It was a really great night!
The following night we had some more dancing and a fire show from the Bula Boys.

At the end of the night they got us all up and tried to teach us one of their dances.Foss ended up as an unwilling 'volunteer'

We did a village visit to the island across the way from us and got to visit their school. It was very basic but the kids all had really good English (nobody is allowed to speak Fijian on the school grounds) and the level of work they were doing seemed a little bit harder than they would be doing at home at the same age!

After only 2 days we were sad to leave Kuata, the people there were so friendly and it was such a nice place.
Our next stop was further north on Matacawalevu island. we stayed at the Long Beach Resort here and true to it's name the beach was fairly long. It was the crystal clear, turquoise waters that really impressed us though. It really was like being in a travel show or some exotic film. It was stunning. I don't think any of the photos we took do it justice and you just can't convey the beauty of it. If you close your eyes and imagine what you think paradise looks like I reckon you won't be far off. We couldn't believe it when we saw it.

After 2 days there we headed South again back down to Manta Ray Resort, on Nanuya Balavu Island. As our boat was pulling in we heard them sounding the drums to say manta rays had been spotted in the channel between 2 nearby islands. So we had a quick change, hopped back into the boat and off we went to swim with the mantas. We ended up seeing one manta ray and two stingrays. The were amazing, way bigger that I expected. Fossie reckons their 'wingspan' was over 6 feet from tip It really looked like they were just flying through the water.

Our next stop was Waya Island and the Octopus Resort. This place was lovely, definitely the most developed resort and closest to what you might expect at home. There was a mix up over our booking though so we almost had nowhere to stay, and that was a bit of a worry because the boat just runs once a day and once it's gone, that's it. Anyway they did manage to rustle up beds for us but it wasn't what we'd booked unfortunately.
They had loads of organised activities there so I learned how to weave a basket from banana leaves. Here's one I made earlier.

We did another village visit there too. You had to climb the hill behind the resort and the village was down in the opposite bay.There were magnificent views from the top of the hill.

This village was much bigger than the last one we visited and the villagers came out to perform some songs and dances for us.

On the morning of the day we were leaving we were woken by rain banging down on the roof, and even though it dried up, the wind never died down. The boat journey back to the mainland was seriously rough. Besides the crahing waves and groaning of the boat the other main sound effects were shrieks and screams and of course plenty of retching. Luckily for us half a packet of seasickness tablets saw us through without having to see our stomach contents. By the time we reached the port there were more green faces coming off the boat than if a spaceship had landed from Mars. Not the nicest way to finish our little island hopping trip, but we can't complain really.

So next stop is New Zealand. The weather there will probably be a shock to the system but we're looking forward to doing some skiing and maybe some of the other extreme sports and activities they offer there. Hopefully it will be fun.

Jan and Paul

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and Great Ocean Road

Well since the last post we've seen some of the iconic sights of Australia.
From Cairns we got on a 3 day liveaboard diving trip out on the Barrier Reef. We had an early start the first day (well every day actually), we were collected at 6am and by the time we got our diving gear and sailed out to the reef, we were ready for our first dive at 11am, and 2 more after that. We were supposed to have a night dive the first night but because of strong currents we weren't able to. That meant 5 dives on the second day and to be honest it was tough going, but we really enjoyed it. It was our first time diving without a dive guide and we only got lost twice! But we did managed to make our way back to the boat on our own without having to get the 'tow of shame' from the dinghy. Over the course of the 3 days we did 11 dives in total, spent 442 minutes underwater and managed to spot 8 sharks, 5 turtles and a huge variety of little fish and some amazing coral. We also did our first night dive, which was a little bit wierd at first but amazing once we got into it. We're now qualified as Advanced Open Water Divers.

After all that excitement we caught a flight to Darwin, to see Kakadu. Kakadu is a 22,000 square mile National Park. The whole park is a huge flood plain with one elevated plateau running through it. During the wet season a lot of Kakady is under water and most of it is unaccessible. The rain that falls on top of the plateau then flows over the edge creating some amazing waterfalls. Some of them had dreid up by the time we were there because the dry season had started, but the ones that we did get to see were fairly impressive. We got to swim in some beautiful plunge pools and waterfall gorges. We did a few treks up to the top of the plateau to look out over some of the amazing scenery. At some of the falls we were only able to swim at the top because there was a chance of crocodiles in the water below!

Speaking of crocodiles, the first part of the trip included a jumping crocodile cruise, where they lured the crocodiles to jump out of the water by dangling meat over the side of the boat.

We spent the two nights sleeping under the stars. The first night we slept in swags. They're basically big waterproof sleeping bags that you put your actual sleeping bags in. The creepy crawlies weren't too bad but you'd never realise how much noise little mosquitoes can make when they're buzzing in your ear.

The second night the mozzies were worse so we pitched a tent.

We took part in an Aboriginal Cultural Experience too, and we both tried our arms at spear throwing and playing the digeridoo.

From a very hot Darwin (35 degrees) we flew to Adelaide in the opposite end where we were greeted with 10 degree cold. Bit of a shock to the system! Adelaide was actually quite like home. It was all green fields as we flew in, and with the grey misty weather, windy roads and cold we did get a little bit homesick. We spent a whole day driving to get to the start of the Great Ocean Road. The following day we started along the road, stopping off at all the major sights.

All the main attractions/formations were at the start of the drive and after that you could have been driving around the Dingle Penisula. It was just like any other coastal road we have at home.

We hit Melbourne then and we've been here for the last 3 days. We're staying with James and Kate, the Australian couple we met in Asia and James has been showing us some of the sights here in between shopping! Having great fun.

Jan and Paul