helping keep hungry backpackers fed:

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Welcome to Bangkok!

Leaving Australia after a year of living and working there was a weird feeling full of mixed emotions. Our plane flew right over the red centre reminding me of the amazing road trip we had taken through the Australian outback just a few months earlier. I have found Australia to be a country of great contradiction; the majority of its residents reside in comfortable leafy suburbs around the major cities and live life in their cars from drive through takeaway restaurants to sprawling shopping centres with anything they might want immediately accessible. In stark contrast other towns we drove through on our travels were 3 or 4 hours’ from any sign of civilisation and contained a pub, a post office and a general store. It was everything I’d expected it to be and a great shock all at the same time. what I had enjoyed greatly about our stay was the great earning potential we had found in Australia and we were leaving the country in a far better economic position than we had arrived in despite a 3 month road trip during which we earned nothing, spent thousands of dollars on petrol and lost out considerably when we were forced to sell our van for only 40% of what we had bought it for.
As we caught our last fleeting sights of the north west coast I tried to get myself into a different mindset; an Asian mindset. This was my first time visiting this exotic continent (and the fourth I can cross off my list) and I was unsure of what to expect. I hadn’t even been to a non-English speaking country since we had lived in France, and my French is passable so I was nervous about our ability to communicate with locals. This was made worse by constant stories of rip-offs and scams we could encounter on the streets of Bangkok. When we landed we were detained for over an hour by a gate change resulting in us disembarking away from the terminal and being transported by bus to immigration. The terminal building was surprisingly clean and attractive and immigration was pretty hassle free (although none of the pens intended for filling out the arrivals cards worked) we found our way to the airport express train station (by following English language signs) and boarded a train of the exact same design and furnishing as trains in the UK. The train deposited us at our stop of choice and we made our way the exit. As we walked onto the street the humidity finally hit us and we were heckled by a bunch of taxi drivers who wanted to drive us to the city for a flat fee (something to avoid as the metered rate in Bangkok is always a bargain) we followed the directions we had for our hostel, getting lost a few times and stopping to buy water at a 7-11 (there is a 7-11 every hundred meters in Bangkok) and finally found our way into a quiet residential neighbourhood with narrow alleyways and uneven streets. With a little help from a nice Thai guy who we were wary of due to the endless tales of scamming, we found the guest house and sunk into our beds for a much needed night’s sleep.

We had only booked the guest house for one night as it was easily accessible from the airport but far away from any of the sights of the city, so the next morning I tried to plan a route into the hub of the city. This proved challenging so we decided just to hail a taxi. One stopped immediately and despite some initial confusion about where we wanted to go, aggravated by neither of us speaking even vaguely the same language, and the driver having forgotten his reading glasses, we arrived in Banglamphu 25 minutes and 80 Baat (less than 3 dollars) later. We wandered away from the tourist ghetto of Khao San road and towards the slightly more tranquil riverside area, where our guide book indicated that there were a lot of reasonable places to stay. We came across one of the properties mentioned in the book, noticed that the prices were reasonable, and checked in. at this point we had been lugging backpacks around for a while and hadn’t eaten anything since the plane the night before so went on the search for food. We bought some bananas from a stand right outside our hotel and some mystery juice from a woman crushing an unrecognisable fruit at a stand on the corner of the road. We followed the river south hoping to find yummy eating spots and ended up in a university which we later discovered to be Thammasat. We continued following the river and unknowingly wandered through the amulet market, where a legion of discerning Thais were inspecting a wide variety of useless looking things with eyepieces and magnifying glasses. We stopped at a seemingly popular barbeque meat stand and bought some chicken skewers which were delicious. We meandered aimlessly and ended up at the Grand Palace, however lacked the energy or commitment to actually enter. We tried to relax in the park next to the palace but got sick of being harassed by people trying to provide unofficial and illegal tours of the grounds and decided to head back towards the hotel to search for sunglasses, as the sunlight was glaring and starting to give us headaches.

We made our way down a winding collection of alleyways (which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find again if I tried) and somehow ended up on the road adjacent to Khao San, where there was no end of stands selling “Ray Bans” and “Oakleys” we found pairs that we liked, parted with the 300baht (10 dollars) we were asked for, being too lazy and frazzled to haggle, and avoided TukTuk drivers who wanted to take us on magical mystery tours of jewel shops and antiques dealers. We scurried back to our quiet little corner of the city and found a restaurant with an extensive cocktail menu and some adequate food options. After drinking a mango daiquiri I realised that it was almost entirely crushed ice and gave up on my attempt to avoid the drinking water. The food was uninspiring but the setting very relaxing and a combination of the previous day of travel, the lunchtime alcohol and the heat made us feel extremely lazy and relaxed. We decided to head for the river and cruise down to Chinatown on a passenger boat. After purchasing our tickets we realised we’d been ripped off, being sold tourist boat tickets for 10 times the price of the normal commuter ferry, but since it was still only a few dollars weren’t largely bothered. After seeing the commuter ferry we were glad we were on the spacious, uncrowded tourist boat as it was rammed with people and lacking in seating space. We enjoyed cruising down the river with a cooling breeze in our faces and were somewhat disappointed to have to disembark in Chinatown. We navigated the cramped alleyways watching a mainly native (bizarrely no one looked Chinese at all) crowd haggle and barter for a vast and somewhat strange selection of goods. When the people and lack of personal space became too much we headed back to the ferry terminal and returned to our hotel room, desperate to shower away the dirt and sweat of the day.

We had a relatively uneventful afternoon and evening which mainly consisted of drinking beer and cocktails in a variety of bars and having dinner in a very inauthentic restaurant with the largest, and most misspelt, menu we had ever seen. The vastness of the menu was accentuated when we realised that the menu that The BF was holding varied in many ways from my own. We went to bed quite early, worn out from the chaos and unfamiliarity of Bangkok.

The next morning we decided to throw ourselves into the deep end of city sightseeing and to visit The Grand Palace, stopping at a restaurant to have breakfast of a surprisingly delicious stuffed omelette. We arrived relatively early and were ushered into a room to cover up my immodest shoulders and legs. We spent a couple of hours wandering aimlessly around the beautiful temple and palace, admiring the craftsmanship and grandeur and watched the changing of the guards in a pretty courtyard. By this point I was swelteringly hot, swathed in what felt like many layers of robes so we left and headed back to the university area we had discovered the previous day. we took the opportunity to cool off and chill out by the river and watched a group of Thai girls wearing what looked like graduation robes and posing for pictures. After a stroll down a road that was described in my guidebook as “the Champs eleysees of Bangkok” and a few good photo opportunities we decided it was time for lunch and found a nice air conditioned place right next to the river. I thought it looked like a more authentic restaurant as everyone inside appeared to be Asian although once seated we realised that none of them were actually Thai. One couple spoke with strong American accents whilst another group was from Hong Kong and all were speaking English. Never mind! I ordered something described as spicy and found the mixture of herbs, chillies and peppercorns a little overwhelming, it definitely seemed authentic in flavour and The BF agreed that his stir-fry was the tastiest thing he had eaten since arriving.

It had got to the point in the day where a shower seemed necessary so we headed back to the hotel room to relax a little then spent a second lazy afternoon hanging out in bars with free Wi-Fi, uploading pictures for our friends and families and organising our finances and other exciting things. We took a tip to Khao San Road, the tourist ghetto and discovered that our skills of tout avoidance had improved considerably from the previous day. We nursed drinks at a busy bar and people watched, enjoying the chaos of the street outside. We had dinner in an awesome jungle style bar which seemed to specialise in Northern Thai cuisine. The food was amazing and we decided that eating-wise the day had been a great success. We returned to the hotel criminally early and planned events for the whole of the next day in an effort to ensure that we would get to see everything that we wanted to before the arrival of friends in the evening. We were planning on leaving Bangkok the next day and heading to a slightly less touristy spot.

Free with entry to the Grand Palace was a ticket for visiting a giant Teakwood mansion somewhere north of the neighbourhood we were staying. We decided we might as well check it out and set out early. It was already a swelteringly hot day and as we walked I dreaded having to cover up my legs and shoulders again to gain entry. The walk turned out to be much further than expected and when we finally made it we were shoved into a guided tour in a language we didn’t understand (either Thai, Korean or Chinese we deduced) with hundreds of school children and bus groups. We were the only white people in a sea of Asians and kids kept staring and pointing at us! The mansion itself was stunning and was obviously cleverly designed to be kept cool regardless of the temperature outside. The grounds were also beautifully maintained by a literal army of gardeners and we strolled through them towards the old elephant stables which now housed a museum on the subject of the relationship between Thai royalty and the animals. Leaving the grounds of the mansion we headed towards the river, past a very pretty flower market and took the ferry boat to Chinatown. We were excited to try some of the district’s famous street food but found the whole thing a little overwhelming and didn’t actually know what anything on sale was! All we had had for breakfast was some mystery baked items from a stall and we were reluctant to get the guidebook out in such a bustling area, so we found a reasonably priced restaurant with an English menu, specialising in something called fish balls and ate there. After the food we were less grumpy and headed towards the metro station. Just like the airport express the system was ridiculously efficient and clean and we found ourselves in Lumphini Park before we knew it. Exploring the park consisted of a lot of time sitting next to the lake, where we watched huge aquatic lizards climb out of the water and explore the banks. We had planned on renting a paddle boat and cruising around the lake, but the idea of peddling seemed unnecessarily difficult so we just relaxed and watched the world go by. .....

to be continued

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: The Great Ocean Road and Adelaide

Today's Scenery:
Crazy Rock Formations on the Great Ocean Road

The great Ocean Road is a popular tourist drive in Victoria, which winds its way along the coast and through a number of small surfing villages and towns. It was constructed by returning WWI veterans in the memory of their fallen colleagues and meanders for over 200kms of slow but attractive shoreline. My advice for anyone planning on going there; bring a wind and waterproof jacket.
Cute Little Lighthouse

We started our great ocean road adventure in the town of Torquay where we had stayed the previous night after leaving Melbourne late in the day. Torquay seems to be almost entirely dedicated to surf culture and industry and is a short drive from the famous Bell’s Beach. Unfortunately the miserable, rainy weather that we encountered on our visit to this sacred surf mecca, coupled with it being a weekday in term time, resulted in us failing to see any spectacular surfing stunts from the handful of hard core enthusiasts on the water. We continued down the road to the extremely quaint split-point lighthouse in Aireys Inlet and braved the wind and rain to take a photo. It was at this point that the road became a lot more rustic and winding and our speed dropped considerably. We spent most of the morning negotiating sharp cliff top corners and wishing we were in a slightly smaller, more easily manoeuvrable vehicle.
The 12-ish Apostles
It was once we reached the shipwreck coast section of the drive that we realised what all the hype was about. The ferocious seas around this area have created a number of interesting and attractive rock formations, and suddenly there were scenic lookouts signposted every kilometre or so. Unfortunately this section was also horrifically touristy and swarming with Asian bus groups. With all the windy roads, and stopping to see the 12 apostles and other interestingly shaped rocks we had spent almost the entire day on what would normally have been a 3 hour journey so we stopped in the unexciting but relatively large town of Warrnambool for the night. In all honesty we were somewhat unimpressed by the great ocean road and didn’t feel that it lived up to the hype surrounding it. Maybe it was partially to do with the weather (although we have been assured that wind and rain is somewhat typical of this stretch of coast) but we felt there were just as stunning and far less touristy costal drives in Queensland and New South Wales.
ANZAC cookies
The next morning we realised that it was ANZAC day; a national holiday in remembrance of Australian and New Zealand servicemen who fought in the Battle of Gallipoli in WWI. We drove into our 4th state of the trip and headed towards South Australia’s second biggest City; Mount Gambier. Famous for extinct volcanos and great lakes we were somewhat surprised by the size of the city when we arrived. We quickly realised that if this was the second largest settlement in South Australia we were in for a boring drive to Adelaide. To break up the journey we visited the couple of the lakes and parks around Mount Gambier and had lunch in a pan-Asian takeaway restaurant with a baffling, seemingly never ending menu. Before leaving Gambier we bought ourselves some ANZAC cookies; the obligatory foodstuff of the aforementioned public holiday.
Turk meets some friendly German Ducks
The drive to Adelaide proved to be even more boring than we had expected with roads which stretched for hundreds of kilometres through nothingness. At one point, after I had just taken over the driving The BF whinged “That’s not fair, this is your second turn in the road, how come you get all the fun?” We broke up the journey by spending a night sleeping at a rest stop on the side of a road and when we eventually found civilisation the next day we were like caged animals escaping from captivity. We stopped in the town of Hahndorf, a traditionally German settlement 30kms from Adelaide, and had a fantastic time browsing shops full of cuckoo clocks, cured meats and tacky souvenirs. We decided to stay in Hahndorf the night, and headed to the Hahndorf resort, a very pretty tourist park with a large hotel as well as a number of extremely cute Bavarian style chalets and a far less fancy caravan park area. The resort had a number of friendly and tame resident ducks which delighted the BF no end (Ducks and Puppies are his joint favourite animals.) We headed to a pub for dinner and decided it would be wrong not to eat something vaguely German, so ordered schnitzels and beer, which actually ended up being one of the most reasonably priced meals of the trip thanks to a voucher from the resort.
Weird art in Adelaide

 The next morning it was time to head into Adelaide itself, and we were again shocked by the size of South Australia’s capital city. We checked into our backpackers and went for an explore. We were meeting our friend Lauren, an Adelaide resident, for lunch but had arrived over an hour early so decided to check out the main shopping street alone. It turned out that this was plenty of time to get our bearings, as Adelaide city centre’s main shopping district seemed to consist of one long semi-pedestrianized street. We had a nice lunch and catch up with Lauren and made plans to meet up for drinks that evening. After she returned to work, the BF and I felt somewhat lost and decided that we should go and get haircuts as we were both starting to look a little scruffy. Wondering aimlessly though a mall we saw a sign reading “Men’s Haircuts $20, Women’s Haircuts $30” this seemed reasonable to us so we went inside and found a small Korean lady in a tiny hair studio. Her English wasn’t fantastic but her hairdressing was and despite her clearly not understanding what either of us actually wanted her to do with our hair we were happy with the eventual results. Scary moments included her grabbing the majority of my hair and chopping it off en masse far shorter than I had intended and the slightly bizarre shoulder massage which she included half way through the cut; maybe she’s found this helps her customers’ stress levels at the uncertainty of their future appearance. We maintained composure as we paid and left the shop and then broke into hysterical giggles ten meters from the door. Thank god neither of us is particularly vain!

 After a fruitless couple of hours looking for desperately needed new clothes we met up with Lauren and went for a drink or five and some dinner in the slightly overpriced Rundle Street area. We had been told that most of the pubs were situated the other side of Rundle Mall at Hindley Street but our local tour guides ensured us that these establishments were a lot less pleasant. When Lauren decided to head home we weren’t in the mood to hang out at our backpackers so found a tiny cinema hidden behind some pubs and watched the next movie starting (which turned out to be Hunger Games)
Enjoying some food and wine

 The following day I awoke unreasonably early but decided to get a start on the day. after showering and dressing the BF was still fast asleep so I decided to check my emails and catch up on my correspondents. It was then that I found an email telling me that I had been granted my Canadian Working Holiday Visa; something I had been awaiting for months and which had been causing me endless amounts of stress! Elated, The BF and I headed into town and found a Taste of Australia food and wine festival being set up along the riverbanks. To kill some time we visited the Adelaide museum and had some lunch then headed to the festival and spent a happy day toasting our good news with many a glass of wine and a constant stream of delicious finger foods. Basically, we were in our element! It was a lovely sunny day and a combination of the setting, the wine and the relief at obtaining my visa made it one of the high points of the entire trip.

The next morning, however, was one of the BF’s low points as I dragged him out of bed with a horrific hangover to go on, of all things, a wine tasting tour. He succeeded in being sick on a bin as we prepared to leave but decided he would soldier on and come anyway as he had already paid for his ticket. Before getting to the serious business of wine we headed to the giant rocking horse, an Adelaide Hills landmark and then onto the whispering wall; a bizarre phenomenon in which a dam wall was found to have amazing acoustic properties resulting in a person standing a hundred meters away sounding like they are next to you. All this time the BF was complaining that he was dying and was going to be sick again but after a visit to our first winery, Jacob’s Creek, and a couple of sips of different wines he was miraculously cured. The rest of the day passed much like any wine tour should, with a brief stop for a BBQ lunch and concluded at Seppeltsfield winery, an establishment famous for its aged port. We all tried ports of various ages and were even allowed to smell a 100 year old variety! Heading back to our hostel in the Groovy Grape tour bus the BF and I agreed that we had been pleasantly surprised by Adelaide and its (mostly wine-based) charms, although neither of us would recommend it as a place to go to shop or get a haircut!

Turk Meets....A giant Lobster
Turk was licking his lips at the sight of this giant crustacean

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Melbourne

Today's Scenery:
Melbourne's Trams

Todays Travelling Track:
Coolio- Gangster's Paradise

Myself and the BF had both been enthusiastically looking forward to Melbourne for the whole trip. We had been told it was a city with a great vibe, an emphasis on food and drink, and a vibrant alternative culture, all of which are things which greatly appeal to us. The city definitely didn’t disappoint.

We were staying in St Kilda, a seaside suburb a few Kilometres outside of the city and a hub of backpacker activity. It seemed like a long time since we had been in real civilisation and relishing the prospect of an interesting, imaginative meal, we parked the van, dumped our things in our hostel and immediately headed out to lunch. We found Acland Street, which served as our base for the next few days. The street is a foodie’s paradise, chock-a-block with restaurants, cafes, bars and takeaways and is lively at all hours of the day and night. We had lunch in Fringe, a relaxed looking bar/restaurant with an innovative menu. I had an amazing duck gnocchi and, despite it being 11:30am, a pint of Heineken (and in Victoria a pint is actually a pint unlike other Australian states.) Giddy with happiness and beer we decided to explore St Kilda a little more and went to look at Luna Park, the famous old school theme park just off Acland Street. The Palais theatre opposite caught our eye and we noticed that British comedian Ross Noble was performing there that evening. We were in a somewhat impulsive mood and decided that we would go and buy tickets (we were also well ahead on budget as the previous week had proved to be very cheap indeed) but were told that tickets were far cheaper if paid for by cash, so we scurried off to an ATM. As we walked down the street a girl coming in the opposite direction caught my eye. I thought she seemed familiar but couldn’t quite place why. I realised she looked just like Claire, a girl who had worked with the BF on Hamilton Island…then I realised she was looking right back at us. It turned out it was in fact the actual Claire, not just a doppelganger. She had nothing to do that day and uttered the immortal words “let’s go for a drink and catch up!”
The Graffiti Lanes

We headed to Fitzroy Street (via an ATM and the Palais to get our tickets) which turned out to be a cheaper, less classy version of Acland street with all the same character and charm (I tend to quite like scummier areas as I spent 3 years as a student in Brighton and also find they are usually far kinder on the budget…) and to a café/bar called Banff. Drinks were ridiculously cheap (although the beer was New Zealand Gold, which no one had ever heard of) and the food menu was interesting and very reasonably priced. We ended up at Banff for the next 5 or 6 hours drinking beer and chatting to Claire, and later another friend Cindy who arrived just as Claire was leaving. We soon realised that the time on our Ross Noble tickets was fast approaching and Cindy decided to join us for the show, which I don’t really remember thanks to the beer. The BF assures me that I seemed to enjoy it at the time! The plan had been to head out for the night after the show, however as we sobered up and our hangovers started to kick in we decided that wasn’t such a good idea and headed back to our hostel instead. I spent the night feeling extremely ill and vowed that I would never drink New Zealand Gold again!
Coffee Art!
Over the next couple of days we explored the city and met up with other friends and family members of the BF. It seemed that everyone we knew in Australia had moved to Melbourne and we had no shortage of people to hang out with or things to do. We managed to largely avoid touristy activities (aside from going to the immigration museum which was really interesting) and instead spent the next few days in the manner we had become accustomed; eating nice food, drinking nice drinks and enjoying nice company. It was nice. We had a hilarious lunch in china town with our friend Sarah and experienced one of the angriest waitresses I’ve ever come across. She dropped everything onto the table from a height of at least 20cms and brought us about 14 sets of cutlery as if she was trying to convince us that we didn’t actually know how to use chopsticks. Later that day we headed to Chapel Street, another interesting hub and took advantage of happy hour at a number of pubs along the road, including one that we later realised was a gay bar, and a really cool hip hop club which played awesome 90s music!

After a few days in Melbourne our livers and wallets were suffering somewhat and it was definitely time to move on. We had found it to be the most liveable place we had visited and decided to make it our backup plan if we couldn’t find jobs in ski resorts. On our final morning we went for a slightly hung over breakfast on Acland Street one last time, got the van serviced (which seemed to take an age) and headed off towards the Great Ocean Road!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: 'The Prom', Phillip Island and Puffing Billy

Today's Scenery:

Wilson's Prom
Today's Travelling Track:
Walk off The Earth- Magic

Our decision to visit Wilson’s Prom was based mainly on my need to walk around a bit and blow off some steam, and also partially because it is the most southerly point on mainland Australia. As we headed towards it we realised we wouldn’t make it there before dark and decided to stop at the Wilson’s Prom YHA which was in the nearby village of Foster. This was one of the most bizarre hostels I have ever stayed it. Basically just a normal house, it was unmanned and to gain access you had to call the owner, who would then deal with your reservation over the phone, allocate you a room and give you the code to get into the door. Despite this slightly confusing and disorientating process, once inside it was like someone’s seaside holiday home and the size gave it a great community feel (I also enjoyed having power points, lights and warm showers since we had been sleeping in the van non-stop since Sydney)

The following morning we said goodbye to all our new friends and headed to the Prom (referring to it as ‘The Prom’ makes it sound like we were attending a coming of age school dance, but it’s just what the locals call it, honest!) After a fairly long drive into National Parkland, we arrived at the information centre, where maps were available and camping fees payable. Cue somewhat bizarre conversation with bored-seeming National Park worker (B.S.N.P.W)

Me: We’re just after an unpowered site for the night if possible?

B.S.N.P.W: (in mock British accent) an unpowered site? (Back to own accent) love it! So we just need a few details, obviously you’re from the UK? (Starts filling in registration forms)

Me: I am indeed

B.S.N.P.W: I’ve always wanted to go to England, but I’ve heard there’s not a lot of jobs there at the moment with the recession…is that true

Me: Not really, as long as you’re not too specific about what you want to do you can usually find something.

B.S.N.P.W: Oh ok, so the unemployment isn’t as bad as the news makes out?

Me: Well, I have a lot of friends who have been made redundant from jobs a couple of times already and are only my age.

B.S.N.P.W: Oh that’s such a sad story, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay anything for camping tonight. You should tell everyone that story!

Me: (somewhat confused) Urm, ok, thanks….

B.S.N.P.W: Well best of luck both of you in your search for a job

The BF: (mumbled so as not to show his Australian accent) Thanks…

So that was slightly strange and I felt somewhat guilty accepting a handout from someone who had somehow got the impression that we were destitute Brits who had come to Australia to seek our fortune but free camping is free camping so we let it slide.

The BF's pet Wombat
We spent the rest of that day happily tramping around hiking trails and taking in the views. We had realised early on that the hike to the actual most southerly point would take a couple of days, and there was no way to drive closer so we gave up on that idea and headed along a couple of beaches, through a gully which had been partially destroyed by floods and landslides and finally up a mountain to see some panoramas of the area. We returned to our (free) campsite, exhausted and hungry, only to find that the takeaway and general store had closed at 4pm. We were forced to eat our emergency packet food which was upsetting as we felt we deserved a good feast after all our walking, but the BF was rewarded later on when a wombat wondered right into our campsite. After a lot of photography, and demands to be allowed to cuddle it, or take it in the van with us, I managed to pull him away.

Penguins in their nesting box
The following day we headed towards Phillip Island. This was the part of the trip I had been excited about since we had started planning it. Penguins are my favourite animals, and although I prefer the big King and Emperor varieties, this would be my first chance to see the species in the wild. I remembered watching a documentary back in England about Phillip Island’s colony and had wanted to visit ever since. We bought our tickets for the penguin parade as soon as we got onto the island and headed to the main town of Cowes hoping for lunch, and to find a caravan park, before it was time to head over to the penguin beach. We were successful in both, finding a yummy gourmet burger bar and a campsite right in the town and after a bit of a relax, headed down to the Summerland Peninsula. We had read that there was a large colony of Seals off the shore here and that they were visible from the Nobbies (a rocky headland on the peninsula) however we were disappointed when we got there and realised that they were living on an island a couple of kilometres from the coast (unimpressive to people who have been spoilt by the San Francisco Sea lions…) we decided just to head to the Penguins early and were very happy we did so. There were already a lot of tourists there and the information centre was very interesting and taught us a lot about the little penguin species. There were also nesting boxes with peep holes in them, some of which contained extremely cute sleeping penguins.

Trust me, I checked...
Before we knew it we were allowed to go over to the viewing area and The BF and I secured a prime position on the concrete benches. I feel I was very well behaved and patient at this point (and the BF agreed) as we had to wait a whole hour for the sun to set on the beach. Finally, as darkness drew in, we saw one tiny little penguin arrive on the shore. He looked around nervously and scurried his way across the beach. After this all the birds came in groups, and most skittishly returned to the water 4 or 5 times, building up numbers and waiting for any imagined dangers to pass. Finally, they would decide it was appropriate, form a tight knit pack and charge across the beach at speed and into camouflage. We watched this for a while and then decided to explore the boardwalks around the area, where the penguins would hang around, grooming each other and chattering away. We got to see lots of them up extremely close and even saw one little guy collecting materials for his nest. After being slightly too ambitious, trying to pull a live branch off a sturdy looking bush, he knocked himself over onto his back and rolled around for a second before getting back to his feet and (I swear) looking very embarrassed. Finally, the volunteers ushered everyone off of the boardwalks and into the centre again. I was extremely happy and was only slightly disappointed that we weren’t able to take any photos of the penguins (although understood entirely why this was the case!)

Celebrating my victory!
The next morning we headed to the Phillip Island Circuit, where the Moto GP is held. We weren’t allowed on the circuit itself (which is reserved for Hot Laps and Track days) but we decided to go Go-Karting on the scale replica of the original track. When I was a teenager I used to go go-karting every weekend, but I was definitely out of practice and took a couple of laps to warm up. By the end I was having an amazing time though, and had allowed my competitive side to come out, which is why I was so disappointed when the session ended, just as I had managed to catch the BF and was about to overtake him. I was happy to discover that I had the best lap time of the day (although we were the first visitors, so really I only beat the BF….) but decided it was probably best to let the BF drive Turk just in case I decided to start accelerating into corners or overtaking fellow road users in dangerous places.

Puffing Billy
We headed off Philip Island to the Dandenong ranges and the town of Belgrave, to ride the Puffing Billy steam train. Our Sat Nav was being particularly annoying and at one point even tried to direct us onto a ferry (adding an hour onto our journey) just to find a suitable spot to do a U-turn. Later in the day it directed us to a field in the middle of nowhere claiming it was a caravan park. When we (miraculously!) arrived at the train we realised we were one of the select few passengers who were not off of the same Japanese tour bus. This was entertaining as everyone in the group seemed exceptionally excited about the journey. I wondered if they were from some kind of trainspotters association. The train was beautiful and we were allowed to sit on the window frames with our legs dangling outside the carriage as it chugged through the hills. My favourite part was a big wooden bridge it crossed, and all of the level crossings were fun, where photographers always gathered trying to get the perfect postcard shot. After a happy couple of hours and a meander around a lake whilst we waited for our return journey we headed for a caravan park and slept soundly, excited that the very next day we would be in Melbourne!

Turk Meets....Some Highland Cattle
Turk was feeling a little camera shy today, but he had a nice chat with these furry guys!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Canberra, The Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps

Todays Scenery:
The view between parliament house and the ANZAC museum

Today's Travelling Track:
Rage Against the Machine- Killing in the Name of

Oh dear, I really have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. As I write this we are currently in Coober Pedy, an opal mining town in the middle of the desert, on our way up to Ayres Rock and Alice Springs and yet according to you guys we’ve only just left Sydney! My apologies, time to get myself organised and write some blog!!

 The BF was extremely unenthusiastic about visiting Canberra. Despite my protests that it was the capital city of his country and should hold some kind of special place in his heart he was pretty determined that it was going to be boring and characterless and persuaded me that it wasn’t worth staying longer than one night. In all fairness he was probably right, I felt that we were able to see everything of interest in our short stay, however there were a lot of things I really liked about the city:
1. Everything was free- we went to parliament house, the royal mint, the ANZAC museum and drove around all of the embassies and we didn’t pay a cent for any of it. We also found free parking a 5 minute walk from the centre of the city.
2. Driving around was easy- the crazy spiralling circle design of the roads meant that none of them were ever at all congested or busy, they were however somewhat confusing
3. The food was excellent- we walked from our caravan park to Richmond, and found an array of reasonably priced Asian restaurants and pubs and had a fantastic Malaysian meal, the next day at lunchtime we went into the commercial centre and found an number of cafes and restaurants. We ate at a bustling bakery/takeaway/café which served amazing, simple food in massive portions at local bakery prices.
4. Everything was very clean and shiny- nothing really looked old or disused.
5. Some of the architecture was stunning- it may have cost a ridiculous amount to build, but parliament house is quite breathtaking and there are great views from it to the ANZAC museum and vice versa.

 So Canberra was a pleasant surprise for both of us but not the sort of place really worthy of a proper holiday.

Lake Jindabyne
Returning to New South Wales we decided to check out a few of Australia’s ski resorts. We are planning on spending a few months in this area after our road trip is over. We drove to Jindabyne, a pretty little town on a very attractive lake. Obviously since we were visiting in the spring it was far quieter than it would be in the midst of the winter season but a few of the shops and restaurants were still open and we spent a happy afternoon browsing a variety of snowboarding gear and meandering around the lake. The next morning we drove up to the resorts of Perisher Blue and Thredbo to see the actual skiing areas, although it’s very hard to visualise how they will look in snow. The drives themselves convinced us that ideally we’d like to find a resort with staff accommodation next to the slopes; Jindabyne was over 40km from both and we could imagine the roads to be difficult in snow. After a stunning but scary drive on an extremely narrow road which wound through the ranges (and upon which motorcyclists and trucks decided it was appropriate to charge around blind, narrow corners at about 150km/h) we arrived in the town of Mansfield. The next morning we drove up to Mount Buller and did our final ski resort town inspection.

At this point I had started to go a little bit crazy, even though we’d visited lots of mountains we hadn’t really had time to explore any of them properly or let off any steam. Now, whilst the BF can quite happily spend a whole (non-hung-over) day lounging around in bed, I am the kind of person who would get bored of this relatively quickly and need to go for a walk or a run or a cycle ride, all of which were great activities to do in the towns we were passing through. We decided to head down to Wilson’s Promontory to spend a couple of days hiking around and to expel some of my hyperactivity. After another beautiful but scary mountain road we ended up in the town of Healesville, where the BF told me there was a famous wildlife sanctuary. After the tense, winding road I had become restless and annoying (I am as bad as a child, honestly) and we decided to stop for some lunch. When I suggested an upmarket winery the BF was surprisingly enthusiastic- I think the idea of forcing some alcohol on me was appealing as it was likely to calm me down…

 The Innocent Bystander turned out to be one of the most confusing places I have ever entered, with an artisan bakery, cheese tasting, wine tasting and restaurant all in one building. Lines of people snaked in various directions and the smells of all the delicious food wafted around temptingly. The building was like a giant converted warehouse with open kitchens all down one side and decking with extra seating on the other. Eventually we located a waiter who spent some time using a piece of space-aged high tech equipment to find us an empty table (which ended up being the one literally in front of him). The food was quite pricey but we decided to share one of their gourmet pizzas and a serve of homemade fries and even managed to steer ourselves away from our usual carnivorous leanings and order an entirely vegetarian pizza, with pumpkin, goats cheese and pinenuts. With a glass of sparkly wine in my hand and chaos all around me I finally managed to calm down. The food was amazing, and due to the waiter making an error and bringing us the wrong pizza (resulting in us waiting about 3 minutes longer than we should have done) we ended up only paying for the chips and wine. Good result in my eyes. So if you’re ever in Healesville go to Innocent Bystander, I promise you won’t regret it! 

Turk Visits....Poop Fell On Me Creek
Turk had a little giggle at this hillariously edited sign

Friday, 20 April 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Sydney and Around

Today's Scenery:
The Opera House and Harbour Bridge

Today's Travelling Track
MGMT- Weekend Wars

Here’s the thing about Sydney, and I’m not saying I don’t like it, or didn’t enjoy my stay there, but I feel its slightly missing something. Don’t ask me what or how this could be changed, but there’s a definite lack of the je ne sais quoi that makes my favourite cities feel different, special and generally nice places to be. Maybe it’s the age of the place, or the sheer number of tourists and backpackers compared to full-blooded Sydneysiders. Whatever it is I found I was looking for something more during my whole stay. Despite this I had a great time there and spent a good few days wondering around its streets, parks, malls, gardens and shops. The following are some of my highlights

1. Chinatown: Sydney’s Chinatown is probably the best I’ve visited, although it has grown into more of an Asiatown with restaurants of every cuisine you could imagine from the continent. Myself and the BF spent decent chunks of two different days meandering around its streets looking at the culinary delights on offer. As backpackers our favourite place was the food court in the mall above paddy’s market; almost a microcosm of the streets around it offered sushi bars, Thai noodle carts, yum cha and dim sum and everything else under the (land of the rising) sun. All the food we sampled there came in huge portions and was tasty and reasonably priced. A lot of Chinatowns are rundown streets in the bad end of town, but here in Sydney it’s an affluent area full of life and colour. It’s nice to see and almost gives you a feel for what classier districts of Asian cities might be like.
Cool statue we saw on tour

 2. Free walking tour: For the first time in Australia we managed to find a free city walking tour. Whilst backpacking around Europe, free tours like this one had been our favourite pastime and were generally the first thing we would do in any city. Sydney’s offering took us around all of the walkable sights, although it lacked kooky fun elements of tours we took elsewhere; in Berlin our tour guide was an opera enthusiast, and treated us to a rendition of one of his favourite songs outside the venue which was hosting a performance of the play from which it came that evening; in Prague our slightly mental Czech guide told us stories of ghosts who wander the city streets and took us to a piece of modern art which was a mechanical representation of a man peeing. If you text a certain number your message would be spelt out by his urine stream. Despite no urinating statues, or opera renditions the tour gave us some great photo opportunities and helped us to get our bearings for the rest of our stay
Old Skool rides at Luna Parl
3. Self-directed wandering. The BF and I try and use public transport as little as possible. We had a couple of days in Sydney where we just walked with some vague eventual goals and points of interest along the way. We walked from kings cross to the fish market. We were too late for the auctions themselves and yet too early for lunch so we had an oyster each and returned to the city, passing the lovely Darling Harbour area. On another occasion we walked from our hostel into Woolloomooloo and then around the bay into the botanic gardens, after exploring them for a while we headed to the opera house, and then decided to just do the whole tourist route and traversed the Harbour Bridge. We visited Luna Park which felt like a slice of 50s seaside entertainment aside from all the One Direction merchandise everywhere (we think they were playing a gig there that night.) It is the opportunity for this aimless meandering which is the most enjoyable aspect of stops in cities and it makes me sad how many people miss out by taking busses and trains everywhere.

4. The Royal Easter Show: ever since I arrived in Australia the BF has been telling me that I HAVE TO go to a show. It seems these shows are the highlight of any Australian child’s year. The Sydney Royal Easter Show is the biggest of these shows, which seem to have originated as an agricultural event designed for showing your best animals and developed into a crazy mixture of Carnival, food festival, Outback performance and children’s toy shop. Show bags seem to be a large focus; these are packs of merchandise put together by a startling array of companies and sold for extortionate amounts. They’re sold in show bag halls, where kids run riot trying to decide which is the best combination of bags to buy to ensure the most chocolate and yet also the coolest toys and gadgets. We walked through arts and craft tents showing off the countries best photographers, sculptors, cake decorators, embroiderers and everything else imaginable. We filled up on free samples in the gourmet food tents and watched a particularly bizarre wood chopping competition. 
In the largest stadium the evening’s entertainment included rodeo, country music, motocross (unfortunately cancelled due to rain) and finally an amazing fireworks display, set to aboriginal music and complimented by lasers. It was a pretty cool day, but I left just wondering how much money the average Australian family would spend at such a show, especially considering the number of pricey show bags dangling from the back of each pushchair and up the length of each mother’s arms.

Bondi Beach
5. The beaches: On one afternoon whilst in Sydney we took the famous Manly Ferry from central quay to the buzzing suburb of Manly. We had been told that half of the fun of visiting was the journey, as the ferry offers views to rival all the luxury bay cruises operating around the area for a fraction of the price. True to form, we found Manly itself busy and unoriginal. Bondi Beach, on the other hand, pleasantly surprised us and despite a cold snap which had arrived overnight, we explored some costal walkways and then enjoyed some food and drink in one of a plethora of cool, gourmet cafes. In fact the BF and I both agreed that it was the only area of Sydney that we could actually see ourselves being able to happily spend an extended amount of time in.

6. The Blue Mountains: on leaving Sydney we headed to the Blue Mountains and spent a couple of days there. Despite the suddenly arctic temperatures (it was getting down to 5 degrees at night) we had a fantastic time and enjoyed a very long and somewhat challenging hike down a steep staircase under the three sisters and around the valley below. Later on that day we went mountain biking around some fire trails and awoke the next morning very sore and tired. The natural beauty of this area makes it a great city break, although we found it slightly touristy around the three sisters themselves, where parking costs were even steeper than in Sydney’s CBD.
The Three Sisters
Our experience in Sydney was also marred by a couple of minor details. Firstly we were there over the public holiday of Easter and staying in Kings Cross we found the area almost intimidatingly busy, this made driving around and parking very difficult and deterred us from visiting any of the bars, clubs or nightclubs in the area (the term meat market can be accurately applied to the streets of king’s cross on a weekend) Secondly the staff at our hostel, whilst very nice and friendly, were lacking in organisational skills and didn’t have much knowledge of the area. When we signed up for a pub crawl on the Monday it was cancelled due to lack of promotion and no one thought to let us know that it wasn’t going ahead. A lot of our fellow guests were staying at the hostel long term and didn’t seem interested in meeting new people or making us feel welcome. Nonetheless we did enjoy our stay and came away with some great memories, and even better photos!

Turk Visits....Bathurst Race Track
Turk lived out a lifetime dream of racing around Mount Panorama in Bathurst!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Learning to Surf, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley

Today's Scenery:
Newcastle at Sunset
Today's Travelling Track:
Beach Boys- I Get Around

Spot x is an awesome place to visit even if you aren’t interested in learning to surf. Situated on a fantastic, deserted beach and aimed at backpackers it is a great place to waste a few days. The all-inclusive meals package is also amazing and I would have happily stayed there just to lie on the beach and eat. The camp is extremely relaxed and uncomplicated; I’m sure if we had wanted to we could have stayed for twice as long as we paid for, attending meals and surf lessons and nobody would really have noticed. Unfortunately, what myself and the BF learnt from our stay at Spot X is that surfing isn’t really for us, I will sum up why with a list of pros and cons.


· Surfboards are harder to carry than snowboards
· The hardest part is actually getting out to the right spot in the water, you spent most of your time battling past waves which break on your head and send you flying backwards, making your last 5 minutes of struggle pointless
· When you finally make it to the right place to catch some waves, the monster waves which crashed down on you as you struggled deeper into the sea invariably disappear and are replaced by an entirely calm and flat expanse of water with nothing remotely surfable
· So as not to offend anyone else, you then have to wait your turn with the other 50 surfers wanting to rip it up.
· When a wave finally comes, and it is finally your turn you then have to hit it in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right speed. If you don’t you will either end up popping up in the calm water behind the wave, feeling and looking like an idiot, or nose diving into the swell, just as it breaks and wiping out so hard that you lose track of where your board is, and swallow half of the ocean. You then have to repeat the previous steps.
· This all results in actually catching a wave correctly about once every half an hour, making it somewhat difficult to actually progress
· When you do actually catch a wave correctly, you then have to pop up perfectly, with your feet in the correct position and immediately attempt to turn if you actually want to get anywhere at all.
· After a couple of hours of all this, your knees, toes, fingers, elbows and any other part of your body in contact with the board will be covered in a painful, ugly rash. You are also likely to have swallowed a decent amount of salt water, and have water stuck in your ears. Even if you remembered to apply sun cream, it will have washed off and you will probably be sun burnt

· You look pretty cool
· It is quite fun when you actually catch a wave
· Once you make it past the waves, it’s pretty relaxing sitting on your surfboard out back, and the BF even caught sight of a sea turtle at one point.

 I think I’ll stick to snow.

 We spent 3 days at Spot X, with surf lessons at 7am and spent the rest of our time eating, lazing in the sun, reading and relaxing. We also had a very entertaining Saturday night, when the staff organised drinking games and got everyone involved. The fellow campers were all really friendly and there was a definite community vibe that we enjoyed greatly our whole stay.
Painted Rocks at Port Macquarie
Moving on and back into the real world, we headed south along the coast and stopped late afternoon in a town called Port Macquarie. It was nice to see the seaside without beaches to make a change and the bay was framed with large rocks, which had been painted by different people in a variety of fun and inventive ways. As we meandered along the front looking at the rocks, we saw a pod of dolphins swimming in the sea, just a few meters away from us. The lack of reaction from the fishermen, tourists and locals alike assured us that this was a somewhat common sight. We spent the night free camping at a rest stop and headed towards Newcastle the next morning. We definitely arrived in this city from the wrong angle, and were grumpy because unleaded fuel was proving very difficult to find in New South Wales (where apparently they are phasing it out in favour of bio-ethanol which we can’t use in Turk.) The main strip of pedestrianized city centre was a bit of a dump, and somewhat deserted as Newcastle is a university town, and its students were on Easter Break. In search of food we wondered onto Darby street, a far more lively hub of restaurants and cafes and finally started to warm to the city.
Stockton Bight
We decided to stay in a caravan park to save some money and drove around to Stockton, a charming little seaside town just two minutes on passenger ferry from Newcastle itself. Our second first impression of Newcastle was much better from the water and the ferry deposited us onto the wharf, where there was a brewery and lots of expensive looking restaurants and a historical walk, marked by plaques started nearby. We enjoyed a locally brewed, alcoholic ginger beer and then headed off on the walk. We found ourselves liking Newcastle more and more with its pretty Victorian buildings and naturally beautiful headlands and beaches. We ended up on Newcastle beach as the sun set and watched the surfers catch their last few waves as the sky turned pink. We ended up back on Darby Street and had a fantastically priced curry for dinner, then returned to Stockton via the ferry.

 Stockton is most famous for the Stockton Bight; a 32km stretch of sand dunes which look a lot like a miniature dessert. We tried to visit them the following morning; however they seemed quite difficult to actually access. We ended up driving all the way to Anna Bay, where the dunes end and went for a little walk around them. They were really quite spectacular!
Amazing food at Mojo's
 We headed into the Hunter Valley; New South Wales most extensive Wine country. Following the instruction of our guidebook we headed to Mojo’s on Wilderness, a deli and fine dining restaurant owned by a Michelin starred chef. Surprisingly the deli was very reasonably priced and served us the best meal I have had in Australia so far on a tray whilst we sat on beanbags in the grounds. Extremely happy and full, we headed to our hostel, The Hunter Valley YHA, probably the only budget accommodation for a 100km radius. Despite booking and paying for the cheapest beds possible in an 8 bed dorm, we were moved into a 4 bed dorm of which we were the sole occupants for our entire stay. The owner was very friendly and helpful and arranged for us to go on a wine tour the next morning. The tour was fantastic value for money, and for only $45 dollars each we visited 3 different wineries (with extensive free tastings,) as well as an olive shop with a variety of gourmet spreads and sauces, a chocolate shop which gave us a sample of each of its most popular products, a dairy with some of the tastiest cheeses I have ever come across, and finally the blue tongue brewery where the BF and I shared a tasting paddle of their different brews. The next morning, successfully sobered up after all of the wine, we drove around all of the shops again, also visiting a gourmet smokehouse, and collected up supplies for the best picnic lunch EVER! We drove up to a lookout point in the hills above the valley and ate the delicious food with a great view. After a short walk we left the hunter valley, extremely satisfied. It’s an amazing place to visit if you like food or wine and doesn’t have to be as expensive as you would think!

Turk Meets...A Giant Banana:
Turk gets one of his 5 a day!