Oceania Day 20 – The Voyage Home

The bus which was due at 01:50 didn’t turn up until 02:25 which just goes to show another of New Zealand’s transport system fails at providing a reliable, on-time service. It wasn’t a pleasant wait in the cold, but it was nice to feel the warmth once the bus did arrive. It was near impossible to sleep though so by the time the connecting shuttle bus had taken us from Manakau City to the airport we were understandably tired.

Fortunately we were able to check our luggage in straight away (5 hours before check-in officially opened) and get some breakfast. To be honest it wasn’t great and wasn’t even as good as breakfast served on planes which is saying something. Hanging around the airport we continued to wait several more hours, trying to waste time by looking around the gift shops and attempting to sleep in the uncomfortable chairs.

For lunch we went to Subway as it was the most reliable looking of the food places in the airport. After going through security we were then stuck waiting for our flight which suffered delay after delay due to engine problems. Finding out what was happening was hard work, with the Air New Zealand helpdesk being no help whatsoever. By the time the scheduled time for departure had come and gone we’d already been waiting a couple of hours for news of our flight and eventually we were told an estimated time which gradually slipped as time went on. After 2 hours we were then given NZ$10 vouchers to spend on food and drink, but shortly after the boarding call for our flight was finally announced. By the time our flight left we were over 2 and a half hour behind schedule but still had plenty of time to get our next flight from Melbourne.

By the time we arrived in Melbourne we had gone around 40 hours without sleep and still had a 24 hour flight back to the UK ahead of us. The check-in was relatively quick and for an evening meal we just had a light snack as we knew we’d get food during the next flight. Once we’d eaten I sat and read for a while but eventually couldn’t concentrate on the book or anything for that matter – I was struggling to keep my eyes open yet the noise of the airport gate was keeping me awake. All I wanted to do was sleep, but eventually we were called for boarding the flight back home. As expected I didn’t really sleep between Melbourne and Hong Kong, nor from Hong Kong back to London so was extremely tired by the time we landed.

After three weeks travelling around Australia and New Zealand we had finished our journey and was home. It was hard to believe everything we had seen and done in this time, but we had done it and in a few short days I would be off again to do the Three Peaks Challenge climbing another 3 mountains around the UK over 3 days.

Oceania Day 19 – Mount Doom

Our last night in a hotel had now passed and our final activity was upon us. The plan was to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and to climb Mount Doom. The night before we were told it was likely to be cancelled due to the extreme weather conditions that were predicted. However we went ahead with the climb regardless. It took somewhere around an hour to get from Taupo to the Tongariro National Park.

Volcanic Landscape, The Tongariro crossing

Preparation for this climb basically consisted of making sure we had walking boots, zip-off trousers, a base layer and a fleece. The climb starts by travelling across board walks which raise you up above the volcanic, rocky surface. After about 3km you start to ascend what is known as the devil’s staircase – it’s supposed to be a slow climb up them but we left our guide behind and ascended them quicker than he was used to. Part of the way up we encountered several groups heading down having decided it was too risky for them to continue. Eventually we came across a Channel 3 News guy who spoke to our guide and recommended we turn back before the weather gets worse. He’d been up near the South Crater and couldn’t proceed any further. Still, we pushed on up the Devil’s staircase as it started to rain.

Once we reached the final toilets (which we weren’t told they were) we took this chance to equip ourselves with gaiters, waterproof trousers, waterproof coat, gloves, woolly hat, and backpack cover. We were now prepared to continue our ascent. Eventually we got to the base of Mount Doom but chose to continue on the main track first instead – we thought this was something we could come back to later. Climbing up to the South Crater we started to encounter snow and ice, and by the time we reached the crater the rain had turned into hail. The view wasn’t great from the crater either due to about 5 metres visibility. It was understandable why every other group had turned back at this point, the weather was getting far worse and the wind was starting to pick up speed.

We may have been mad, but we chose to continue on. We walked across a kind of plateau that was actually fairly easy going, it was just the sleet to contend with at this point. It was a bizarre landscape that looked like it would have been better placed on the moon. There was no sign of life, just ash and rock.

Some of the climbs were incredibly hard work and also quite precarious. Our guide was the sort who didn’t mind taking risks and going away from the normal track. At some points the only way across was to stretch out and jump, grabbing on to rocks wherever possible. As the climb got higher there were more and more places like this and we knew if we missed a step we’d slide down the mountainside and wouldn’t likely stop before reaching the bottom. It might not sound too bad but falling down the side of a mountain through ash and rock would likely do more than just ruin your day.

Eventually we climbed down away from the snow and ice to a place called The Emerald Lakes. The rain continued on but the wind had calmed a little which allowed us to sit inside a tent put up with great difficulty with no pegs or poles and kept on place by us sitting on the edges on the inside. This gave us chance for a small reprieve to recover and have something to eat. Outside the green lakes looked amazing, but both them and some vents caused the area to reek of sulphur.

Once we had been fed we continued our ascent to the summit of Mount Tongariro. Every step we took was opposed by the wind and a struggle to keep our footing. It seemed that every dozen or so steps required us to catch the breath the wind was stealing from us. Clambering over rocks we eventually reached the summit to touch the summit rock.

On the way back down our guide said he knew a shortcut; it did however turn out to be a particularly dangerous path and on a couple of occasions I was knee high in volcanic ash and still managed to slide down the mountain only to be stopped by grabbing a rock. On the last occasion, after regaining my footing my friend lost his footing and came sliding down but fortunately him crashing into me stopped him from falling any further. At various points along this shortcut we had to climb higher to allow the guide to get his bearings in this poor visibility environment. To his credit he did eventually get us back to the plateau, but alas it was not clear sailing from there. When we reached the level plateau we encountered winds exceeding 120kmph which made it so much harder to move forward. At times you’d plant your feet firmly on the floor to brace for the wind and would still get blown backwards, creating gouges in the floor where your feet have been forced back. Even when the wind wasn’t blowing us backwards it wad either halting any forward movement or slowing us considerably.

It felt like a lifetime crossing those winds but eventually we did get to descend again and the closer we got to the devil’s staircase the calmer the wind and rain. The last 2km of our 19km walk gave us chance to dry off as the cloud cover started to break.

Me during the Tongariro Crossing

We hadn’t just climbed to the summit, we had survived the climb and lived to tell the tale of a crossing we should never have persuaded the guide to do. Everyone we spoke to had said the conditions were too bad and should have been impossible to climb, but our guide got us there and back again. It feels kind of ironic to know the place doubled as Mordor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy just because it was described as having an evil there that does not sleep.

By the time we got back to Taupo we couldn’t really face waiting 8 hours at the bus station for our Intercity bus to Auckland. Instead I suggested we check back into the Colonial Lodge for several hours to give us chance to shower and get our clothes dry.

Oceania Day 18 – Christchurch to Tongariro

We spent the morning in Christchurch with a short walk to the Botanical Gardens, around them and back. The round trip only lasted a couple of hours but it took long enough to use up the time before we needed to get to the airport. The domestic terminal for Christchurch International Airport isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it was at least possible to get a sandwich and drink even though you can’t get a proper meal there. The departure lounge for the gates certainly isn’t big enough and with two 737-300 flights queueing it meant the queue was actually stopping people from going through the security desk.

The Ferrier Fountain, Christchurch

The flight to Wellington was short and easy. Due to turbulence they weren’t serving water on the flight which I think should have meant it should have been handed out on boarding instead. Even though it was late leaving we still managed to make the transfer to the flight to Taupo with a couple if minutes to spare before the boarding started. The plane to Taupo, a Beach 1900, was incredibly small and could probably seat around 12 people.

Captain James Cook

The airport in Taupo is incredibly small and would be incapable of taking a Boeing 737 as the departure and arrivals are actually the same room. The baggage collection is actually a trailer wheeled around to the front of the building. From here we took a taxi to the Colonial Lodge – our accommodation for the night.

The Colonial Lodge isn’t bad for a hotel really, it includes free Wi-Fi, has cooking facilities, a jacuzzi and a shower. A short walk from the hotel is a pub called Jolly Good Fellows which serves good Lasagna.

On our return to the hotel we phoned the company we were doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with to confirm we’d be there the following day. Sadly they tried to get us to cancel due to weather concerns but suggested an alternative route may be available if the weather didn’t improve by 8am.

Oceania Day 17 – On the Road to Christchurch

Lindis Pass or Misty Mountains?

Leaving Queenstown behind us we got on the Great Sights tour bus to begin our journey to Christchurch via Mount Cook. We were told at this point that Mount Cook would not be visible due to the cloud cover and the rain. This meant our entire itinerary for the South island was a waste of time. Our first stop was at Jones’s Fruit Stall which was a shop selling an amazing variety of fruit. The point of the stop was that the production of fruit was very important to the economy of the nearby town of Cronwell. It still seemed like a waste of time stopping though.

Xena: Warrior Princess

Along the way we took pictures of the man-made Lake Dunston and the Lindis Valley. Omarama was another point we stopped at for a half hour break. In this small village there is an antiques shop that has props from Hercules and Xena on display. Other than that there isn’t much there other than a sheep called Shrek who is well known by the locals because of the amount of wool it produces.

Our last lookout point before reaching Mount Cook was a very windy place called Peters Lookout. We only stopped for a few minutes but that was probably enough. The last stretch if road then had a view if the milky looking water that was used in a hydroelectric dam.

Our stop at the base of Mount Cook was the Hermitage Hotel where we had a NZ$45 buffet lunch which wasn’t too bad. Sadly we were still unable to see the mountain and flights to it were grounded also.

Lake Tekapo

We stopped at Lake Tekapo briefly to pick up more passengers and then moved on to the Church of the Good Shepherd and the statue of the sheep dog. The statue was erected in recognition of how important the dogs are to their economy.

More hours passed and eventually we reached Christchurch. They were going to drop us off at the Copthorne Central instead of the Holiday Inn on Avon though as they didn’t ask where we were staying. At this hotel I actually had the best steak of the holiday.

Oceania Day 16 – A Tree Blocks The Road

In the early hours of the morning there was a thunderstorm so strong that you could feel the rumbles. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have taken photographs.

Hours later the day started properly with a cooked breakfast and an exciting day ahead. Real Journeys turned up early and the journey to Milford Sound had begun.

After an hour and a half of travelling the driver took a phone call. Once finished the driver made an announcement that the trip had been cancelled due to a tree blocking the road to Milford Sound.

Thirty minutes later we reached Te Anau which was the point we turned back to start the two and a half hour drive back.

Rainbow in Te Anau

In the Real Journeys visitor centre in Te Anau there is a sign which says “Milford road is” followed by a magnetic sign saying closed. This suggests it happens often enough for them to require these notifications which suggests that they need a better system, preferably one where a tree on the road does not take a day to remove. If a tree fell on a road in the UK it would take an hour at most to remove it and get traffic going again.

Back in Queenstown we were told the tree would unlikely be moved in time for anyone taking the trip the following day as well. I think it’s a bit shocking how they handle fallen trees, even if it’s quite a remote road it does have frequent tourism related travel down it.

Kea (Nestor notabilis)

Unsure of what to do for the afternoon we went to subway for lunch and a short stop at the tourist information place helped us to find a Kiwi wildlife reserve. The Kiwi place charges NZ$35 but the price of the ticket goes back into the conservation of Kiwi and other endangered birds. Although they have several kiwi there they do not allow photography of the birds. Their conservation efforts have allowed the birds to live as though they were still in the wild but with night and day cycles reversed so that these birds can be seen whilst it is day for us. Apparently their conditions are so good that they are only one of two kiwi breeding programs to keep their animals on display during mating season.

Once we watched their show about conservation we headed down to the shops to waste an hour looking at souvenirs before heading back to watch the kiwi feeding session.

Next to the Kiwi place is a crazy golf course which can easily be completed in an hour should you have time to spare. We didn’t do too great on the course but it was a close competition.

Returning to the shops we finally did some souvenir shopping for New Zealand. I bought a small Maori statue and a kiwi ornament. Whilst in town we also ate at a restaurant called Flame which charged an extra 15% on top of the price. Apparently this was down to it being a public holiday which we didn’t realise as we had noticed that day a school near the kiwi place which was open.

Oceania Day 15 – Off to New Zealand!

After another early 06:00 start we made out way to Sydney International Airport. At the airport we were told that proof of an outbound flight from New Zealand otherwise upon arrival we’d be transferred back to Sydney. Fortunately we did already have a ticket, but it makes me wonder how a backpacker could ever spend an unknown number of days there like they could in Australia. We were also told our connecting flight did not have automatic baggage transfer which meant we’d have very little time to clear baggage claims, customs, check-in and security.

After boarding the plane our flight was delayed due to two passengers being ejected from the flight and having to wait for their luggage to be removed. Then another delay due to a plane being stationary on the runway running calibration tests.

In Christchurch it was a rush, but we did make it in time. On arrival we had to declare hiking equipment as we had walking boots, and also that we had come into contact with wild animals. After this our hand luggage and suit cases are X-rayed before we could finally head for the domestic check-in desks. They weren’t booked as two flights so it’s mad that they were treated as such. The plane to Queenstown was then very small; so small in fact that it had propellors.

Queenstown, New Zealand

An hour later we had arrived on the small town of Queenstown. The taxi driver commented that the traffic was never that bad there and after an evening seeing very few cars I can believe that. Once we’d checked in at the Earnslaw Lodge motel we took a short walk into town and found that the view from the pier there was even better than the view from our room.

Queenstown Waterside

Looking around the town we eventually settled on eating at Avanti. Whilst sitting outside I spotted a couple of people who had been with us on either the Melbourne or Darwin tour. It’s kind of strange to be in a different country and actually recognise someone. The food there was excellent as was the service. For the meal I had just an ordinary Hawaiian style pizza, but for dessert had the most amazing, large slice of chocolate fudge cake ever.

Oceania Day 14 – Climbing to Extreme Heights

Our first activity of the day was a climb to the summit of the Sydney harbour bridge through a company called BridgeClimb. It’s not a very long walk from Pitt Street to the harbour bridge and surprisingly it wasn’t that hard to find the entrance.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

As we arrived early we were able to go on a slightly earlier climb at 8:45. The first thing you do is to fill in a form that declares yourself fit, and then you are breathalysed to make sure you’re not a danger to yourself or others. After this you are issued with a one-size-fits-all overall and told to remove everything from your pockets and that watches are also removed. If you want to wear sunglasses or prescription glasses then a strap for them is attached to the overalls before you go into the next room. In this next room you are issued with a belt with attachments for clipping onto the safety line and for stowing a radio. There is the a quick practice ascending and descending ladders similar to what can be found on the bridge.

Once everyone has been geared up you then walk into a room where you attach your belt to the safety line and begin your walk out onto the bridge. The first stretch runs underneath the bridge to the south pylon and at the time had a small diversion onto a temporary walkway due to work being done to remove the lead based paint that was corroding and to replace it with a fresh coating of paint.

After going through an area known as “the squeeze”, a narrow passage way you have to duck and climb over you finally get through the pylon and take a walk across “see-through” walkways to the ladders which lead up through the road surface and onto the outer shell of the bridge. Once there it is a steady walk over the arch to the summit. Along this trip there are various points where your photograph is taken and you are told about the history of the bridge.

Once we’d done the bridge climb we headed back to the Circular Quay station to get some food. One of the places there sold filled cobs at a decent price so got one with a chicken and cheese filling. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best of sandwiches as it contained bits of tomato, carrot and even a bit of bone.

Looking down on the Sydney Harbour Bridge

We then double backed to the bridge to find the pylon lookout. Sadly the road signs aren’t the best in Sydney as even outside BridgeClimb there was a sign for the place sending pedestrians in the opposite direction, just as there was for the Opera house. Eventually we found the pylon lookout and climbed the stairs to the top. We may not have been able to take our cameras on the bridge climb but here it was no problem. On the way up there ate exhibitions telling the story of the bridge’s construction and on the top floor there is a great view of the city.

Sydney Opera House

Following the Quayside around the edge we made our way to the Opera house. By this time the temperature had risen to the mid thirties (Celsius). The tour of the Opera house felt a little overpriced at AU$35 as you’re limited with what you can photograph due to the copyright of stages in the rooms, there only being 3 rooms on the tour, and it consisting mostly of video. The entire tour lasted for around an hour and has the option of including a badly photoshopped photo of your tour for an extra AU$10. The quality of the photo is bad enough to make me wonder how they ever manage to sell them.

Inside the Opera House

At the side of the world famous opera house are the Royal Botanical gardens. What is strange about these is it’s a public park on the waterfront which actually closes at 18:30. If it had been a place with an admission fee, or closer to sunset then it would have been understandable. It would have been nice to get a sunset shot of the opera house and bridge from there though.

For an evening meal we went to the Ice House, which is a worldwide franchise though in Sydney it does have seating which is not frozen. Nevertheless the service was a little shocking.

After 15 minutes of waiting our order was finally taken even though the restaurant was practically empty. Five minutes later the waitress came back to take my order again as she had forgotten what I wanted. Again I thought I’d go for a well done steak, and just over 45 minutes later we started to wonder where it was. Asking the waitress for an estimate of how long we’d need to wait she then returned with our meals as if they’d magically been finished that moment. My steak however was not cooked well done, and was not cooked as well as my friend’s medium steak. Their inability to cook steak properly and to keep it warm is pretty shocking.

Cat in Lights

Oceania Day 13 – These Mountain’s Got the Blues

Another early start for our first day in Sydney, though the 07:15 pickup turned up 10 minutes late. The meeting point at the corner of Angel Place and Pitt Street was actually a very short walk from the Medina. As we headed over the harbour bridge and out of the city some sights were pointed out such as a pub with a notorious past due it having an underground tunnel to the harbour. It was said that some unlucky people used to be knocked unconscious and carried down that tunnel and cast aboard boats which set sail before they awoke so they’d have to work on them to get passage back to Sydney.

Eastern Grey Kangaroos

The first stop on our Sydney Wilderness Tour of the Blue Mountains was the Featherdale Wildlife Park. If you’ve already seen other parts of Australia then chances are you won’t think of it as anything special as most of the animals in captivity there aren’t too hard to find in the wild. About the only animal there I hadn’t seen in the wild were kangaroos.

Common Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

Wentworth Falls was the next stop but we only had 15 minutes here, not nearly enough time considering the available walks there. Some of the available walks could have lasted up to an hour.

Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains

The next stop seemed pretty pointless and no one on the trip knew why the tour operator chose to go there. Leura is a small town started by British settlers wanting to escape the heat of Sydney and is known as the “Garden Village”. When the settlers arrived they also brought with them a lot of English vegetation which is evident as you look around. They made a specific point of taking us to the candy store and to a really small Christmas shop – both of which we looked round swiftly. I did however take advantage of this stop to get some band aids due to a blister from walking around Cairns after some soreness from wearing fins on the boat. This seemed like a stop just to delay our arrival at “Scenic World” due to it being a busy place.

At Scenic World we started off with an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch with a nice choice of desserts such as Black Forest gateau. All the restaurant tables were on a revolving platform which made it a bit disorientating when going to and from the buffet.

Three Sisters

From the restaurant you could see the “Three Sisters” rock formation, a better view of them than from the viewing platform. To get to the viewing platform we took the train down which is basically like a steep rollercoaster ride with the Raiders of the Lost Ark overture in the background. On the way down you don’t get to see much until you reach the viewing platform. Around this area you could easily spend an afternoon, but we had 45 minutes to get back using the cable car. The story we were told of these rock formations on the way back up was that an Aboriginal shaman had 3 daughters and that whilst out hunting they were attacked by a bunyip and to save them the shaman turned them into stone. Having realised what the shaman had done the bunyip turned on the shaman so he turned himself into a lyre bird.

Our next stop was at the Eagle Hawk lookout where we got another look at the 3 sisters. From there we went to Narrow Neck lookout but didn’t stop – we just paused for a moment then carried on to a place called Govetts Leap. Apparently it is named such due to a highwayman who committed suicide there. From this lookout you can see a very weak waterfall called Bridal Veil falls. Unfortunately whilst here I managed to lose the eye piece off my camera.

After a few hours later we arrived back in Sydney and at the Olympic Park. This was another stop I don’t feel was entirely necessary and could have just been pointed out on passing. Everything in this area was built for the Sydney Olympics back in 2000.

Sydney Cityscape

It was then a short drive to the ferry crossing where we caught a catamaran called the Rivercat – this took us through the harbour, under the harbour bridge and past the opera house. As it turned out it was then a reasonably short walk to the hotel.

After dropping off our heavy backpacks we didn’t give our weary feet a rest but went out into the city to look for somewhere to eat. After going round the night market at The Rocks twice we eventually decided to go to an Italian place that sold steak. A 250g Scotch steak there cost AU$34 and if you want it well done it’s a 25 minute wait due to the thickness of the meat. It was a good meal but sadly after the 25 minute wait it was only cooked medium.

Eye of a Saltwater Crocodile

Oceania Day 12 – Last Day in Cairns

After a night on dry land it felt good to be back on terra firma – no more constant rocking or sudden jolts whilst you’re trying to sleep. For the first couple of hours we repacked our bags and made sure they were in a condition for flying. Once we were checked out out of our accommodation we stored our luggage there and headed out onto the city.

Cairns seafront

Our first planned stop of the day was at the Casino as they have a wildlife dome above it which we thought might be worth a visit. On the way there we took a walk down the Esplanade – another place infested with green ants. Along this waterfront there is also a lagoon – a public swimming pool which is free to use. The beach and decking around this area is littered with warnings that the sea there contains stingers (jellyfish) and crocodiles. It being salt water would mean any crocs in there would potentially be quite big.

Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles)

Just across from the lagoon is the Cairns Casino. As you enter the building the lifts in the lobby take you up to the wildlife dome. Entry is AU$22 and the ticket implies you get to have your photo taken with a Koala and a python – you don’t though, those stubs aren’t for anything and the photos actually cost between AU$15 and AU$30 a time. Throughout the course of the day the dome has various “shows” in the middle of the dome but they’re not really anything special.

Cairns Casino and Wildlife Dome

We watched there 11:30 reptile showing but found it to be quite pointless. The number of animals in the dome are quite limited due to the confined space. There are about 5 species of bird including the Kookaburra, and other animals such as freshwater crocodiles, one salt water crocodile called Goliath, and iguanas. The gift shop there is pretty much a waste of time as most of the items look quite tacky despite some if them having high prices.

For lunch our aim was to find Subway as it meant we could get a sandwich to take away and eat at the airport. It turned out to be trickier to find than expected – we had to resort to asking at a tourist information place. Once we’d bought our food we didn’t pause to eat it, we made our way back to Grosvenor and got a taxi to the airport. Before checking in we quickly ate our lunch and reorganised our bags a little better.

Amazingly the domestic flight was considered a domestic flight and allowed us to take food and drink through the airport security – something we hadn’t experienced up until then. The flight left on time and actually arrived on time 3 hours later in Sydney Airport. It being a domestic flight meant it was straight into baggage claims and a 15 minute wait for the luggage to start coming through.

The taxi seemed rather useless again – the driver didn’t recognise the name of the road so asked us if we were sure that was the right name before checking his satnav. Once we got dropped off he then charged AU$12.50 extra for a toll road which cost him less than AU$5.

The Medina Classic apartments looked nice on the inside, but awful on the outside. Our balcony overlooked a narrow alley with a car park. The apartment itself wasn’t as nice as the one in Darwin, but nicer than the one in Cairns.