Saturday, 23 August 2008

Birthday fun: Part Three - Snow and pizza

After our balloon flight, we warmed up back at our hostel with a bowl of hot chilli. Amy then thrust a giant birthday card into my hands, featuring a picture of a very cute Syrian hamster holding a birthday cake - full of birthday greetings from friends back in London.

We headed up to Coronet Peak for an evening of sunset/night time snowboarding where we both managed a few exhilarating rides down from the very top of peak - an achievement that was particularly pleasing as that was our big target from the start. Then, we headed into town for a late dinner of pizza, beer, wine, sambucca and drunken dancing. We treated Queenstown to our singing as we walked home in the tiny hours and finally collapsed into bed.

Amy's hard work for my special day made me realise that obviously, I'll have as much fun in my 30s as my 20s and that after all, it is just a number.

Birthday fun: Part Two - at 12,000 feet

After the gig we drove back to Queenstown (Amy kindly abstained from drinking) and flopped into bed at around 2am. At 6.30am I was rudely awoken by Amy turning on the lights and jumping on me as she threw balloons all over the room. "Get up! Get dressed! We're going" she said.

"Wha...what!? It's still dark. What time is it? Where are we going?" I groggily replied.

"Just get dressed!" she said with an excited grin on her face. "And wear something warm". I panicked. She'd booked something but I didn't know what. With it's reputation for extreme activities, a surprise like this in Queenstown could mean one of two things: bungy jumping or sky diving, neither of which I fancied.

Wrapped in warm clothes, Amy bundled me into a minibus after telling the driver and all the other passengers that they were not allowed to talk about what we were about to do. We drove out of town towards the airport and my stomach felt like it had puking butterflies in it. "Oh no, not this" I thought. I was convinced that she was about to throw me out of an airplane.

Finally we arrived at a field where there seemed to be a big parachute lying on the floor. Confused about where the plane was, I discovered that to my relief, Amy hadn't planned to send me hurtling towards the ground, but rather, we were about to ride in a hot air balloon.

Hugh, our balloon pilot, welcomed us and we watched as he filled the massive balloon with air with the aid of some very noisy fans. He invited us to climb into the large wicker basket and before we could even wonder how it would fly, we had launched into the crisp morning air. We ascended above the mountains to over 12,000 ft (which Hugh admitted was probably the highest he'd ever been in a balloon) and in silence we all looked over the cloudless scene before us. Snow-capped mountains stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, peppered with lakes.

We threw some paper airplanes from the balloon as Hugh pointed out the sights below us and in the distance. I'll let these pictures tell the rest of the story from up there.

We had a very gentle landing in a field with two curious horses (who tried to eat the balloon as it was packed away). After a champagne breakfast, Hugh lined us up and by blessing our foreheads with champagne announced that we were now 'balloonatics".

Birthday fun: Part One - Recloose

It was a bit of a landmark day for me yesterday - my 30th birthday. 'It's just a number' they say. I'll spare you the rest of the mental anguish that I put myself through as I said goodbye to my 20s and just give you a bit of insight into how I celebrated my big day.

On the eve of my birthday (the 22nd) we were in a small town called Wanaka where rather bizarely, one of my favourite DJs was playing (a New Zealander called Recloose who wrote a track called 'Dust' which I often play in my DJ sets). Back home in London, Recloose fills major live music venues, but in his home territory he was playing at a cheesy pub in a town with only 3,000 residents. Despite the humble setting, he played a fantastic funk/disco set and at midnight he picked up the microphone and announced to the whole venue that it was my birthday. This was how I entered my 30s.

We should just get jobs in a zoo

We were told about a place perched up on a hill called Deer Park Heights, where you can drive through in your car stopping off to feed various animals on the way. The winding roads climb higher and higher as you go, with fantastic views across Queenstown and surrounding areas.

We befriended goats, donkeys, pigs, llamas and a few brave deer. They only wanted to be our friends because we had a big tin of animal feed, but we enjoyed their affections anyway. You'd think they'd never seen food before, the way they react when they see you - check out these donkeys! And I was chased by a llama when he realised I'd left him for a friendly looking doe.

Horsing around

As we're planning on doing a lengthy horse trek while we're in South America I decided it might be wise to actually get a wee practise run in first. Although once an experienced rider, I haven't actually been on a horse in about 8 years, and Adrian thinks he may have been on one once. So. Off we went to a tiny village called Glenorchy, and once there we were introduced to our steeds for the afternoon.

Adrian was lucky enough to be given Harry to ride, a filmstar, no less! Harry starred in two of the three Lord of the Rings movies. My horse, Little Red, was not famous but was lovely nevertheless. We spent nearly three hours on horseback riding through a valley and across the Rees River. The scenery was stunning and the ride was great fun.

The trickiest puzzle known to man: snow chains

We had never really driven in snow or icy conditions before. So when we were told that we would need to use snow chains to drive up mountains we thought 'brilliant! We'll attach some chains to the front of our car and sit back and be pulled up!' - how very wrong we were...

This is how they work: When you're driving up a mountain and it starts to snow and there's ice on the road, you have to get out of your car and into the freezing blizzard to wrap chains around your car tyres. But the problem is that the chains are really short and you have to pull really hard to link them up on the outside and the inside of the tyres. It takes about 20 attempts for each tyre, so after around 30 minutes of shunting the car backwards and forwards while trying to attach these things while your shoes are freezing and soaking wet and your fingers are numb, we finally got them on and drove off cursing the person who designed them (who I'm told by one local lady 'must have been a man'). You can see them in place on our lovely rental car above.

There's no business like snow business

One of the main reasons for our visit to New Zealand were the mountains. Particularly the snowy mountains, which when combined with a snowboard, a willingness to take a few knocks and bumps and some very warm clothing, make for great fun.

We've had about five days and nights on the slopes at two different ski resorts: Coronet Peak and Cardrona. These sites were witness to plenty of exhilarating cries of 'weeeeee!" as well as some less-exhilarating and painful expletives.

Conditions ranged from delightfully sunny (we both have pink noses) with thick powder snow through to freezing blizzards with hard ice, zero visibility and strong winds. But when it was clear, we were treated to stunning clear views of surrounding mountains.

We went from being beginners through to being able to whizz down both Green (beginner) and Blue (intermediate) slopes (some of these colours from the slope coding system must have rubbed off on us as we've ended up with green and blue bits all over our thighs). But, by the end of our final night, we had both managed to ride all the way from the top of the mountain without killing ourselves or those around us.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Country no. 11 - officially the furthest we've ever been from home

We said goodbye to Dais, adieu to Australia and hopped on our flight for New Zealand wondering how it would differ to it's neighbour. Turns out it much more affordable, which is rather pleasing! The flight over was pretty impressive too - as we started to descend we had the most awe-inspiring views of the outstanding landscape we would soon be exploring.

We arrived in Christchurch (the main town on the south island) last Wednesday evening. Had some locally brewed beer and some grub and headed to the local art gallery which, luckily for us, was open late on Wednesdays. The building is absolutely fantastic but the works inside were less inspiring than what we'd just seen in Sydney.

Adrian and I were up early the next morning to catch our bus to Queenstown in the NZ Alps (lazy lot, can't even be bothered to come up with their own name for these stunning hills). The journey there took about 6 hours, and doubled up as a pretty impressive tour - the views were amazing. We went over mountain passes, through valleys, passed by a huge lake.... We were glued to the window.

Less than 30 minutes after our arrival here the snow started to fall. Heavily. Being Brits, we were pretty excited about this. Then, when we were shown to our room with huge glass doors overlooking Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables (mountain range, see above, taken from our hostel) I actually jumped up and down uncontrollably because I couldn't believe we'd arrived in what appeared to be the land of Christmas, and it was right outside our bedroom window, in August! It's not just the land and the clocks that are upside down here.

Who says you can't flog a dead horse?

It just so happened that Sydney was hosting a massive modern art event while we were there - the Sydney Biennale, an exhibition that spanned several galleries. Amy and I visited two of the larger venues for the exhibition and were generally really impressed with the work on display. Although there was one particular installation that dissapointed us: at the corner of one gallery was a decorating table with paint pots and tools placed on to it. At first we thought that the installation was unfinished, but we discovered that one artist had simply laid this out as his artwork. Hmm...

However, one installation that really stuck out for us was an actual stuffed dead horse, suspended from the ceiling, with elongated legs. It had in incredible impact on the viewer and seeing the creature's stillness and walking under it created a really surreal sensation. Taking photos in the gallery was strictly prohibited. We ignored this. Enjoy.

Sydney Harbour

Pickling kidneys for runs in Sydney

After Hunter Valley we drove our little car through backroads to Sydney. After a few hours of cruising through sunny valleys and forest we finally hit the traffic of the city, crossing over Sydney Harbour Bridge and passing Sydney Opera House on our way to our friend Dais' flat.

That evening, we went to the Opera House bar for a few drinks and dinner. It turned out that our host was to take part in City 2 Surf, a 14km run from the centre of his town to Bondi Beach the very next day. So that evening, we plotted a strict training programme to prepare Dais for his run: we decided to get him drunk at the Sydney Opera House bar. And when we'd all had enough, we headed home to watch the Beijing Olympics and drink more, to inspire Dais for his long distance run the next day.

Our alarm woke us up hours after we went to bed and the sun shone brightly. As Amy and I crawled out of bed, Dais was already warmed up for his run. While he made his way from the flat the start line, we headed to Bondi Beach via trains and buses and waited for him at the finish line.

It turns out that the alcohol must have done something to improve his run. Dais finished the 14k run in just 76 minutes, which is pretty impressive, even for someone who was not sleep-deprived or dehydrated.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Time for Wine

One thing we were really looking forward to about coming here was our visit to Hunter Valley, an area about 90 miles out of Sydney packed with vineyards.
Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in the country and is best known for it`s Shiraz and Semillon varieties. Some of the vines there have been going since the 1820`s! And it`s not just the grapes that thrive in this fertile land, Hunter Valley is also a region known for its cheese, chocolate and olives.

There were over 140 vineyards to visit but we were advised to select four or five from the very exciting visitors brochure we were given (we had to leave some time to visit dairies and chocolate factories too). We stayed in a cabin in a caravan park and relished having our own little kitchen area in which to cook delicious meals to enjoy with our wine & cheese purchases!

At one vineyard called Tyrells we met our `wine guru` - an enthusiastic Scot who showed us around the winery, demonstrating how wine is made and tested our knowledge along the way. At the end of the tour, he was determined to make us try as many different wines as he could, eager to educate us on different varieties.

It was frustrating (albeit good for our bank balance) that we couldn`t walk away with cases of our favourite wines, especially as there were some excellent deals.

The scenery in the Hunter - as it`s known by the locals - was spectacular too. Driving around from one winery to the next (I gallantly volunteered to drive and `spit` my wine) you are surrounded on all sides by rolling hills and miles of beautiful green fields and trees, as well as the occasional kangaroo.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Tie me kangeroo down, sport

You may have noticed that Adrian and I have a bit of a penchant for wildlife...

After leaving Byron Bay we picked up a car and drove down the coast in the direction of Sydney stopping off at various places along the way.

One of our detours was, of course, to Billabong Wildlife Reserve which is dedicated to native Aussie critters. We were able to stroke the koalas and feed some very curious and friendly Kangeroos.

Surf`s up dude!

We left Cairns and flew to Brisbane (yes - flying was actually cheaper than the bus) where we hopped on a connecting bus which took us to Byron Bay. We nearly didn`t get a room as there was a huge festival going on (which we sadly missed out on - tickets apparently sold out months ago, in 20 mins!) and ended up with two dorm beds which we shared with some very boozy teenagers. We felt very old!

I decided it would be a good idea to have a refresher surfing lesson after I`d been defeated by the big waves in Bali. You cannot come to Australia and not surf properly! Luckily it made all the difference and the instructors were so good Adrian and I both went back for more the next day. By the time we went out alone we were better than we have ever been - cruising all those waves in to shore! We felt very pleased with ourselves.

A megalopolis for fish - The Great Barrier Reef

One of the main reasons for visiting Australia is to see the Great Barrier Reef. Larger than the Great Wall of China and the only visible living thing that can be seen from space, the Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

We visited this place from our first Australian port of call - Cairns. From here, we jumped on a fast boat for an hour long trip to a site about 100kms from the city. As we lay on the sundeck, we spotted a puff of water which turned out to be from a humpback whale. In fact, we ended up seeing three humback whales on our way to our dive site - the first whales we`d ever seen.

All of a sudden, the water turned bright green and we could see the ocean bed. We kitted up ready for our first dive. Amy and I descended into the sea and saw the famous Reef up close. A massive coral mass, where every single inch is occupied by a living creature. A megaloplis for fish that streches 2,300kms down the coast of Australia. Along with this coral reef, we saw hundreds of clownfish (Nemos), stingrays and giant clams. We also spotted a turtle, although sadly only from the boat.

We went on to another dive site where we snorkelled. As the tide went out, the tips of the coral from the reef stuck out from the sea and just below the surface, the reef was teeming with colourful, smiling parrotfish, munching away at the reef (see above!).

One of the unfortunate things about travelling is that you become quite hard to impress. We agreed that there are prettier and more diverse dive sites around, but for pure scale, you cannot beat the Great Barrier Reef.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Australia - the happiest place on Earth?

We've made it! We're now DOWN UNDER! Officially, the furthest we've ever been from home. And you know what, this place is STRANGE! I mean, really strange.

When Captain Cook arrived on the Endeavour and found Australia, he wrote that the Aborigines 'are far happier than we Europeans'. A view we shared with Cook when we first experienced the natives of this land.

We arrived in this country of opposites at about 2am and our first Australian encounters were with the airport staff at Darwin airport. We expected to be snarled at by gruff immigration and customs officials, jaded by the fact that they have to work through the night, but they were all, without any exception, so happy! They were joking with us, telling us to have fun, smiling and even looking us in the eye. And this trend for happy Aussies has continued unabated for the last few days. Quite extraordinary - especially for us Londoners whose main aim for any human interaction is to make any exchange with strangers as quick as possible.

The second big, big difference here is that it is ridiculously expensive. We're used to paying anywhere between three to ten pounds for a room. Here, we're paying around 30 quid EACH for a bed in a smelly dormitory! We went to the supermarket (a Woolworths if you must know) to stock up on food so that we could save money by not eating at restaurants and discovered that grocery shopping prices are OUTRAGEOUS! A regular block of cheese is three to four pounds, orange juice is about three pounds per carton - more than London prices!

In rounding off his account of the natives of this land, Cook wrote 'They think themselves provided with all the necessities of Life and that they have no superfluities'. Well our route takes us through quite a few of our new 'necessities of life' - diving on the Great Barrier Reef, surfing in Byron Bay, organic hippy villages and the vineyards of Hunter Valley before arriving at the bright lights of Sydney Harbour - if our experience over the next two weeks lives up to its expectations, then this really will be the Land of Plenty in our eyes.