Sunday, 30 November 2014

New Zealand, week two

New Zealand continues to amaze me daily, with the stunning views and the brilliant variety of things to do. We've just finished our second week travelling around this beautiful country on the Kiwi Experience bus. You can read about my first week of New Zealand adventures here

We travelling from Taupo early on Monday morning, stopping at several places along the way, before finally arriving in River Valley at around 6pm. We stopped for a walk en route to River Valley to enjoy the incredible sight of Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings and we also saw the spot where Gollum found the ring. I loved the views, despite not having watched the Lord of the Rings films! We stopped at the base of an impressive waterfall for a picnic lunch, before continuing our drive to River Valley.

Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom

This is where Gollum found the ring [apparently]

Perfect place for a picnic 

We stayed at the River Valley Lodge, which is nestled between huge cliffs in the valley. The lodge has a huge 32-bed dorm room, some private rooms, a big bar/dining/common area, along with White Water Rafting and Horse Trekking facilities. We cooked a delicious curry dinner and enjoyed the happy hour deals on bottles of red wine and drank a little too much, in the very homely and cosy lodge. I woke up early with a fuzzy head in the morning, and quickly packed my bag, ready to go White Water Rafting. I had been looking forward to this for ages, so was really excited, despite feeling a little worse for wear! 

Dinner with Emily, Alyssia and Jon

We were given a wetsuit and loads of other gear to wear, including a life jacket and helmet, before being driven around 30-minutes in a minibus to the starting point on the river. We were given a safety briefing before jumping into a boat and starting the initially gentle ride down the river. There were six of us in our boat including our guide, who was a funny guy and great at showing and explaining to us how to navigate ourselves through the rapids safely. We stopped part way down the river to jump off a six-metre rock, which was fun but quite scary! I'm such a wuss. The river got increasingly gnarly and fun, before getting gradually more gentle as we travelled closer to the lodge. White Water Rafting was loads of fun, however I sadly I don't have any photos to show for it. Photos were charged per boat and would have been super expensive as only three out of the five people on our boat wanted them. Emily and I both really want to go again! 

Road block - New Zealand style!

Our Kiwi Experience bus was waiting for us after we'd finished and we started the journey towards Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. We thought it was hilarious that the road was completely blocked by sheep not far from the River Valley Lodge and once we got past them in the bus, there was a farmer on a quad bike ambling along behind them. Only in New Zealand. 

We decided to add an extra day to our stay in Wellington, otherwise we would have had literally 12-hour in the city before being picked up the next morning, so would have missed out on seeing much of the area. Emily and I headed out into town with our friends Alyssia and Jon the next morning and went for coffee at a really cool coffee shop called Fidell's, which is on one end of Cuba Street - hipster central. Our guide book said the old fashioned Wellington Cable Car was worth checking out, so we paid for one-way trip, which took us in a straight line up a steep hill, which had an incredible view of Wellington at the top. There was a lovely walk down from the top through the Botanic Gardens, and then continuing on down past the New Zealand Parliament buildings [the main one is aptly named The Beehive] and back into town. 

Wellington Cable Car

Wellington views

'The Beehive' - New Zealand Parliament Building 

I really like taking photos of different Fire Stations around the world, no idea why! 

We decided to check out the Harbourside and were really excited to stumble upon the Sam Simon Sea Shepherd ship. Sea Shepherd are a conservation group who run campaigns to help stop illegal marine activities in our oceans, such as whaling. Sam Simon is one of the co-creators of The Simpsons, who donated the money to buy this particular ship. We were given a free tour of the ship by two of the crew and shown a video in the ship's lounge. I also got to sit in the captain's chair which was pretty cool! We were told that the organisation had bought the ship from the Japanese government, who used to use it for whaling. They had to set up a fake company with carefully named bank accounts etc to buy the ship - what an amazing story! This organisation is great and I have loads of respect for the amazing work they do. I also bought a Sea Shepherd t-shirt :)

Standing alongside the incredible Sam Simon Sea Shepherd ship with Emily

Sat in the Sam Simon Captain's chair!

We also visited the Te Papa Museum in the centre of Wellington, which is essentially a display of all-things New Zealand. The museum had lots of interesting information about earthquakes and volcano activity in the country and had a pretty cool dinosaur exhibition too. It was a nice place to browse and was completely free of charge.

We heard about free beer tasting at the local Parrotdog Brewery, in our copy of 'Neat Places' we picked up in our hostel. A friendly local guy gave us free samples of several of the brewery's beers and explained all the flavours and stories behind them. The brewery had recently done a collaboration with the Te Papa museum, brewing a special beer called Jurassic Ale to coincide with their dinosaur exhibition. This brewery is well worth a visit if you're in the area!

Beer tasting at the Parrotdog Brewery in Wellington with Emily, Alyssia and Jon

Later in the evening we headed back into town for pizza and beer and for drinks at a swanky cocktail bar called Motel with Alyssia and Jon. Emily and I were so excited to be served our delicious gin cocktails in parrots! We love a good gimmick.

Cocktails in parrots at Motel with Emily!

Our day started very early the next morning to get back on the Kiwi Experience bus to travel the short distance to the ferry port. We boarded the ferry here to take the three-hour trip across the Cook Strait from Wellington in the North island to Picton on the South island. The views from the ship were really pretty and we were lucky to have a fairly calm crossing. The Cook Strait is notoriously choppy and despite there being swells of up to a metre during our crossing, it mostly felt very flat. The ferry was 20-minutes late leaving Wellington and it took 45-minutes getting off, so it was a pretty unorganized journey. Something went wrong with the ramp as we tried to disembark, so the foot passengers were left waiting for ages to get off, before being sent through a different gate. Car passengers were stuck on for much longer while they waited for the ramp issue to be fixed.

Views from the Interislander Ferry on the Cook Strait 

We met our new driver Jared in Picton, who stopped at the Marlborough Winery after driving for not much more than half an hour. We paid two dollars each to try four different wines in a small bar and we enjoyed the lovely scenery in the area. 

Marlborough Winery Vineyard

Our first overnight stop on the South island was a tiny place called Kaiteriteri, where we stayed at Kaiteri Lodge. We thought this stop was a bit random, as there was very little to do in this tiny place, where there was the lodge with a bar attached and a mediocre beach. The local town of Nelson seemed like a much more logical choice, but our stops have mostly been really good, so we can't complain too much.

The following morning we got back on the bus to start the journey to Westport, a small beach town further down the coast. We stopped at the Nelson Lakes National Park on the way, where we're told that jumping off the jetty into the lake for a great photo opportunity is popular. The weather wasn't great and the HUGE eels in the water put everyone off swimming, but the views were impressive. A few people tried to get close-up photos of the eels, but I kept well away! 

Nelson Lakes 

Scary eels at Nelson Lakes

On Friday we arrived in Westport after a few quick photo-stops along the way. Westport is a sleepy little coastal town, which is a popular place to surf, with huge waves at the local beach. We stayed at Bazil's Hostel, where one of the owners was the New Zealand surf champion a while back. He runs surf lessons, but we decided to give these a miss as we arrived so late in the day. 

Emily, Alyssia, Lian, Jenna and Charlotte toasting marshmallows on the beach

Our driver Jared drove us to the beach for a bonfire later in the evening, which was awesome of him, as it was in his own time and not part of his work schedule. We enjoyed a few drinks on the beach and most people toasted marshmallows too. It was a bit strange and creepy seeing loads of sketchy looking cars driving fast up and down the waterfront and appearing to slow down to see what we're doing. Just local drag racers basically. We decided that they weren't actually trying to cause us any trouble, but were just curious as very little happens in their tiny town!

"We're a long way from Kansas, Toto"

The next morning we stopped after a very short bus journey go on a VERY windy 45-minute walk along a coastal trail, which passes a Seal Sanctuary on the way. I didn't manage to get any decent photos of the seals, but they looked really cute sliding over the rocks with their little flippers. We stopped a bit further along the coast after another drive at a place called Pancake Rocks, aptly named due to their appearance. This was a pretty little area and there was a big cafe opposite where we stopped for lunch. 

Pancake Rocks

We made a few more stops along the way, whilst travelling the relatively long distance to Franz Joseph.  We arrived in this glacier town late in the afternoon and checked into a place called the Glow Worm Cottages. We pre-booked a double room here, with Alyssia and Jon doing the same. Kiwi Experience are great and guarantee you a room at every stop, but as we found in Wellington, often the hostels can't offer you a second night and have limited availability on private rooms, as they have to keep the rooms available for the Kiwi buses arriving the following day. This hostel turned out to be great, as it was much cheaper than other places we have stayed in New Zealand [70 NZD for a double room] and has free soup available every day at 6pm, free breakfast, free popcorn in reception and a hot tub outside in a little shed, free to use too!

The main activity to do in Franz Joseph is hiking on the glacier, which is only accessible by taking a short helicopter ride each way. Emily and I had already decided not to do this, as although we thought it would be amazing, we had only recently booked a snowboarding holiday for March next year, so used this as a good excuse to not do this relatively expensive glacier trip. Frustratingly for a lot of people on our bus, most of the scheduled flights were cancelled due to bad weather, which is apparently very common. In fax, most of the flights for the last three weeks have been cancelled. A few of our group got lucky with their flight times and managed to go on this incredible trip inside windows of good weather on Sunday afternoon.

Walking along the river to view the Franz Joseph Glacier

Emily standing pretty much as close as you can get to the Franz Joseph Glacier without a helicopter!

Emily and I went hiking along several of the very well signposted and maintained tracks in the town. One of the tracks takes you very close to the glacier, after walking alongside an impressive river. Emily and I aren't that keen on walking usually, but we really enjoyed the walk, despite it hailing during the afternoon! We warmed up when we got back by visiting the local Hot Pools, which is a posh little complex with three hot pools, one at 36 degrees, one at 38 degrees and another at 40 degrees. 

Tomorrow we're travelling from Franz Joseph to Wanaka, where we're meeting up with our friends Harvey and Rachel who we met earlier in the year whilst working in Verbier, Switzerland. We're then heading to Queenstown for three days, before a quick visit to Lake Tekapo and onwards to Christchurch. From Christchurch we fly to Melbourne in Australia in just over a week, which has come around so quickly! I'll post about our third and final week in New Zealand next week. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

New Zealand, week one

After an incredible five-weeks in Asia, Emily and I were excited to being the next leg of our adventure, flying from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Auckland in New Zealand. Our flight times were pretty brutal, with a six-hour layover in Melbourne in the middle of the night, with little to no sleep due to the time difference and unaccommodating airport seats! Despite being shattered, we were pretty excited to board a 'double decker' plane for the first time, which flew us from Melbourne to Auckland. It was crazy how so many people could board one plane! The sunset somewhere over the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Australia was incredible and a hundred times more beautiful than I could capture in the photo below.

We arrived in Auckland and boarded a one-hour Airbus Express to the city centre, where we were greeted by a huge Santa and Rudolph! The city centre is fairly average and not all that dissimilar to any other city centre, meaning we could have been anywhere really. We checked into our hostel at Base and had a walk round the harbour, before getting an early night ready for an early start and busy day the next day. 

We booked Kiwi Experience through STA Travel when we booked our round-the-world air tickets earlier in the year. Kiwi Experience is a hop-on-hop-off 'flexible travel network', which allows you to choose a route and then take up to a year to complete that route, stopping where you want on the way for as long as you'd like. Due to our flights and wanting to be home in time for Christmas, our schedule is pretty busy, with 14 places to visit in three weeks. Most places we stay for just one night, but a couple of places we stop at for two nights and we have four nights in Queenstown. We were ready for pick up outside our hostel at 8.15am and got chatting to some of the other passengers while we waited. A guy called Joe was from our home town of Cheltenham, which was cool and we quickly got chatting to lots of other nice people. 

After our driver guide Mac introduced himself and we went through all the formalities, we got going and headed towards Hot Water Beach, which was our first overnight stop. We stopped at a supermarket along the way to give everyone the chance to stock up, due to there being few options at our destination. As happens each day on the bus, a clipboard is passed round and you can book your room for the night, which Kiwi Experience guarantee availability for each day. You can also book various activities, however we decided not to sign up for the kayak tour that day as we'd done kayaking a couple of times fairly recently, including only a couple of weeks ago in Halong Bay [read here]. I'll do a full review of the Kiwi Experience bus service at the end of our stay in New Zealand.

Most people choose dorm beds for the night, but as we've found generally with travelling, two dorm beds don't cost much less than a double room and we prefer the privacy and comfort. We loved staying in this little shed for the night in Hot Water Beach - it was so small but so cosy! 

After quickly checking into our shed and dropping off our stuff, we were driven a short distance and then walked down to Cathedral Cove with everyone else on our bus who wasn't kayaking. The views on the walk down were stunning and the beach was lovely. I went into the sea for the sea but it was FREEZING! Some people managed to stay in for a while, to swim out to a rock and dive off it, which looked like loads of fun. I'd have loved to, but it was simply far too cold for me. 

Hot Water Beach is famous for having geothermal hot springs under the sand. At low tide you can dig yourself a hole and bathe in hot water that comes up naturally. If you get lucky you can dig yourself a very hot pool. We missed the morning low tide, so headed out at 11pm, despite being very tired and still recovering from our flight. Thankfully we were lucky enough to enjoy the hot pools that other people had dug and abandoned, although we did dig a little deeper to refresh the hot water supply. 

Early the following morning we got back on the bus a little bleary-eyed and stopped after a little while to go on a walk around some old gold-mining caves, which you can access over rope bridges like the one below. The Kiwi Experience bus makes many scheduled stops on the way to the evening destinations, which is a great way to see lots of interesting and beautiful parts of New Zealand. 

Our destination that day was Waitomo, which means 'water hole'. This town is famous for it's extensive network of underground caves, around which you can book a tour with a handful of local companies. We booked with The Black Water Rafting Company via our driver guide, who seem to be the biggest operator in the area. I did quite a bit of caving in Somerset, UK when I was younger, however this caving experience was completely different. We were in a group of 10 with two guides and we were each given a large tractor tyre inner tube to carry into the caves. The cave tour included jumping off waterfalls backwards so that we landed in our tubes, floating down the flowing cave water on our own and in a chain and floating through some sections with our headlamps off, to enjoy the spectacular glow-worms. It was a really fun experience that I would massively recommend if you're visiting the north island of New Zealand.

The following day we again boarded our bus and travelled further to Rotorua. This town is famous for being built on top of geothermal springs and the whole area smelling like rotten eggs! This is due to hot water under the ground boiling and reacting to sulphur in the soil. We stayed at Base hostel, which has an amazingly warm outdoor pool, which is naturally heated. We had a wander around the town during the day, where we took a closer look at some geothermal springs and stumbled upon this very cool yarn bombed tree outside an arts centre. 

Early in the evening we were collected by bus to head to the Tamaki Maori Culture Evening which we booked early in the day through our driver guide. Many of the other passengers on our bus were also going, including some awesome people that we had got to know particularly well over the last couple of days. The evening started with Maori people doing the haka and inviting us into their village, where they demonstrated traditional skills in their incredible restored traditional Maori village. They were all traditionally dressed and were great fun. We were then seated in an auditorium, where Maori dances and songs were performed, which was really impressive. The evening culminated in a huge feast, which was traditionally cooked by being steamed in big underground pits. There was a huge amount of food to enjoy and my vegetarian option of Pumpkin Lasagne was incredibly delicious. This whole evening was massively enjoyable and I can't recommend it enough. 

Taupo was our destination the following day, which is a quiet town built around the enormous Lake Taupo, which appeared as the result of a huge volcanic eruption millions of years ago. Our bus stopped a few miles down the road at Huka Falls on the way, which is an impressive channel of very clear water, with gushing rapids, which was a very impressive sight. 

We booked a sailing trip around part of Lake Taupo, with a company called Barbary Sails. Around 15 of the people on our bus came on the boat with us, where we could bring our own booze. It was really lovely chatting on the boat and enjoying a few drinks with a very impressive backdrop. We headed out to a local bar after the cruise, where we had great fun dancing to super cheesy songs! We had our first 'day off' on Sunday, where we stayed an extra night in Taupo. It's been great moving around a lot and squeezing a lot in, but it was also good to catch up on sleep and our laundry and enjoy a much more relaxed day exploring the town. 

 Barbary Sails trip with the very awesome Alyssia and Jon from Toronto, Canada

After Taupo we're heading to River Falls, where we'll stay in a small lodge in what we're told will pretty much be the middle of nowhere. We're going White Water Rafting in River Falls, which we're really excited about. I'll write about that and our second week of our New Zealand adventure in my next blog post soon. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

George Town in Penang, Malaysia

After visits to Kuala Lumpur and the Cameron Highlands [read here], our third Malaysian destination was Penang; a huge island on the west coast. Penang is like no Asian island we have visited before: there are dozens of high-rise buildings and it is a very busy place, connected to the mainland by  large bridges. We headed to bustling George Town, to a road called Love Lane, which our guide book suggests is the go-to place for backpackers. We stumbled upon a brand new guest house called Xaviers Lodge, which had opened just three-days before and was still in the process of being finished. It was really reasonably priced, was a great place to stay on a nice quiet road and the manager Singh couldn't have done more to help us out - he was awesome! 

George Town itself is pretty interesting, with lots of heritage and sights such as the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Monument displaying evidence of the past colonisation of Malaysia by Britain. George Town hosts a street art festival each year, with both painted and tangible pieces of art displayed all over the town. The town has really capitalised on having this awesome display of art, with free maps guiding you round some of the bigger pieces and lots of local shops selling souvenirs, including t-shirts printed with street art images. I've posted a few of my favourite pieces of street art in the last few images on this blog post.

We enjoyed wandering around the town, where there are plenty of interesting shops to look in and an abundance of quirky coffee shops. The historic Chew Jetty was a small, but lovely place to explore and there was a quiet area at the end to view the busy port, which connects the island to the town of Butterworth across the water. As we'd already discovered when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is very multi-cultural and this is particularly evident in George Town. In any one road you may find an ornate Chinese Temple, a Mosque and a Church. There is also an area called Little India in George Town, which really is like stepping into another country, with vibrant colours, delicious smells, lots of fantastic Indian restaurants and shops selling interesting Indian wares. The variety of sights, smells and sounds in George Town and in Malaysia in general is fantastic.

Chew Jetty

We took a local bus to Batu Ferringhi Beach on our second day in Penang, which was surprisingly easy compared to our expectations of getting very lost! The beach was fairly mediocre, but a nice place to spend the day relaxing by the sea. If you are looking for spectacular beaches and snorkelling opportunities in Malaysia, we've been told that the Perhentian Islands are the best place to go, although the resorts there are mostly [or perhaps entirely] closed at this time of year due to bad weather.

I'd been watching people Parasailing all day and had been considering giving it a go myself. I went Paragliding in Switzerland [which you can read about here] earlier in the year, but that was tandem with a guy who did all the technical stuff. I was a bit apprehensive about landing the parachute myself, but the guy kept lowering the price until it was so incredibly cheap that I couldn't refuse! It was loads of fun and the view was awesome. I loved that I got a Captain America parachute and I did feel a bit like a superhero when I was flying around up there on my own!

We decided at fairly late notice that we wanted to visit Singapore, as we were so [relatively close]. We booked a night bus from Penang to Singapore, which took around 12-hours. On our last day we had a long time to kill between checking out of our guest house and being picked up for our bus journey at 9pm. We'd hoped to see lots of tourists sights, but it was raining pretty heavily all afternoon so we spent a lot of the day in an internet cafe. We did manage to visit Fort Cornwallis before the heavens opened, which is a historic fort and a nice place to chill out for a while. 

Penang was a lovely place to visit, although we felt like we were in a dangerous area for the first time in Asian, when walking just a short distance from our guest house at night. There was lots of strange people around and a large number of prostitute lining the streets. We quickly walked on, but felt amazed at how close this was to the busy tourist area. 

There is a National Park on the island and many other areas to visit, which may be worth checking out if you have a bit more time than us. We enjoyed Penang and would recommend you visit if you're travelling around that part of the world.