Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Japin' Round the World: Business Time

It's strange to think about this time next month I will be going home. It's not a thought I'm particularly relishing as firstly, I will have to decide what to do with my life for the next couple of years, and secondly I will probably have no money at all. I've also really enjoyed my time away and for it to end at any time would probably feel too premature.

I'm now in the second-to-last country on my trip, which is New Zealand. I didn't know much about this land before arriving, except for what I'd learned from watching rugby; films such as Lord of the Rings (for the record there is a distinct lack of hobbits here), Once were Warriors, and from TV like Flight of the Conchords. So from that creates an image of New Zealand as Middle Earth which is full of drunken violent maoris, who play rugby and indulged in novelty music once in a while. Of course the reality is totally different

What is true is that the landscape is epic, and to that extent New Zealand is Middle Earth. I noticed this on the plane, as it flew over the Southern Alps. I was pleased to have a window seat for this as I would have missed out on something amazing. Also the view provided a distraction to the in-flight film, which was Couples Retreat and to be fair it's easy to find an excuse to skip that film. I also hoped the quality of the movie wasn't going to be an omen for the rest of the trip.

Christchurch itself is very - and I mean VERY - similar to England. Once again there are familair names left right and centre. It seems as if most of the founding fathers of this town were from where I lived as there are districts here called Bromley; Beckenham; Sydenham and Shirley. Also the buildings look like English buildings and the plants look like English plants, and the climate isn't far off English weather, which thankfully hasn't included rain (yet). The only thing that took this edge off was a Maori dance group performing in Cathedral Square, and I was also quite pleased to see my first haka of the journey.

The things to do here are very quaint. For instance there is a cathedral you can go into; you can go punting on the River Avon; there are restored trams from the 1920s you can ride etc. I personally had a look round some of these things and also at a museum which charted the history of the town and the Maori etc, and also at a local aquarium, which included a kiwi house. I was fortunate enough to see the strange bird, and all I can say is that it looks like a very large feathery kiwi fruit with legs and a beak. It also had a habit of shuffling around the undergrowth in the enclosure with it's long beak.

One thing I should say is, when planning a round trip of New Zealand which occurs over Easter weekend, book it fairly soon in advance. I made the mistake of turning up and booking what accomodation remained in a mad rush. Still that being sorted now, and no more confounding days off occuring during my time here, I shouldn't have many more worries out here. Still I think this trip is going to feel like a bit of a rush at the end.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Japin' Round the World: There's a Lewisham and Croydon in Sydney. Better get the stab vest out again.

For my final stop in Australia, I was able to indulge in a few home comforts. For this stop I was staying with relatives, so for the first time in 7 weeks I had a room to myself, and a night without being juddered around by the person on the bunk above or below. Also it was nice to be in a foreign city and knowing someone from the off. It's not too bad going it alone, but it's a nice novelty to have a contact in an unfamiliar city.

But anyway I was in Sydney, one of Australia's premier cities, although it's another place which is very similar to London; not least considering there are several places named after locations I know in London, such as: Hyde Park, Paddington, Lewisham, Dulwich, and even Croydon. Thankfully the Croydon of Sydney is not the knife ridden grey place I've frequented on nights out, although I am told it's a little dull. Maybe better dull than stabby.

One of the first things I went to see was the Blue Mountains. Believe it or not they are actually blue, thanks to the eucalyptus haze. I was lucky as well, as I went up on a nice clear day and got to take advantage of some amazing views. There are many lookouts around the national park, and most offer breathtaking vistas and views where you can see for miles. It's a little like what I'd imagine the grand canyon to be like, except blue.

I've also done, what pretty much every person does whilst here - but it's still amazing to do - was go to see the harbour, with the bridge and opera house. The opera house, despite being one of the worlds most recognized and photographed buildings, it was still really cool to see in reality. The harbour itself is really great. I know it's just a harbour, but you really have to see it for yourself. Another benefit is that it's nice and breezy down there and there are cruise liners that dock in the main harbour. My only regret is that the QM2 wasn't in port. Seriously that thing is supposed to be like a floating city, which is hard to believe given the size of the average cruise liner, which is pretty big.

Also just across the harbour is Watson Bay and The Gap, to which I took one of the many harbour cruisers out to. This is a very quiet area, and also there is a great fish and chip shop here. It's one of the only places I've found in Australia where they make their own chips, as the rest of the time they are simply the frozen variant which have been fried. I had expected better than Australia for that. Still at least they call them chips here as well - You hear that America! Fries indeed. What was quite amusing, was that after doing this tour between the harbour and Watson Bay, was that they showed it on a Australian travel TV show the same day. It was quite nice to smugly dismiss the feature with a 'been there done that' attitude.

I was very impressed too with the botanical gardens, which are right next to the opera house. The reason why was that the wildlife couldn't have been more different to your average park (In England). There were loads of tropical birds just sitting idly about. I walked past one tree and it had three or more Cockatoos sitting in it. It's, to me being a Brit, the equivilent of me finding a non-deluded/self absorbed contestant on the X-Factor, quite rare thanks to the stage-management from the producers.

Later I was drawn to some trees where a spectacular racket was coming from. It sounded like some screechy birds, so I scanned the tree for some. I couldn't see any birds, but then realised that there were several hundred bats just hanging from the branches. I've never really seen bats up close, so this was pretty cool. Although, unlike those at DC comics would have you believe, it didn't inspire me to suit up and fight crime. Maybe if my parents had been killed in front of me in a freak robbery gone wrong it might of been a fairer test. But then again most superhero origins are nonesense, most people involved in radioactive accidents(involving spiders, cosmic rays or otherwise) sadly tend to succumb to radiation, rather than developing amazing powers. After all the hero count after Hiroshima is still zero. No Godzilla either for that matter.

I also (for the first time in many years) did a spot of fishing. I'm not really an avid fisherman, but decided to have a go for a laugh. Also my host here, Carl, (my aunt's brother, so he is basically my uncle, but not officially. Dahh! It's too complicated, we'll just say he's my uncle and let that be an end to it) had all the rods and equipment. So me him and one of his neighbours went along to try and torment some fish for our amusement. For a lot of trip I didn't catch anything. I kept casting my line out, only to find the bloody fish had nicked the bait and swam off. Just as the whole excursion was becoming an apt metaphor for my love-life, I managed to catch a whiting, which wasn't that big but that didn't matter. The point is I'd showed nature who's the boss in the smallest possible way, and in these days of man's domestication that means a lot more than it used to.

Having enjoyed tormenting the aquatic life of Australia so much, I decided to follow suit the next day when I popped to the Sydney aquarium. This was pretty cool, as there was all manner of marine life to see including Sharks, Octopus, Jellyfish, Crocodiles and even Dugongs. I have to say I was pleased to meet one of the writers of Family Guy up close.

Also I couldn't have left Sydney without paying a quick visit to Bondi beach. Now, I was preparing myself for a cesspit of a beach from what I'd heard from locals about the place, but seeing it for real it wasn't that bad. Although maybe as it was midday on a tuesday, and none of the drunken tourists were about.

What was funny about the area was the amount of supposedly 'fashionable' types you saw walking around. Now I have never had much time for keeping up with fashion, as many who see my wardrobe would be able to tell. To be fair seeing some of the types around Bondi I wonder who looks stupider, me with my rather unflashy and unfussed appearance or them with their fussy attempt to look more scruffy for me (normally including one pretentious or shocking t-shirt statement.) and slicked hairstyles. Given the fact some of their clothes looked like they were made to look broken or uncoordinated they probably paid a fortune to look like a complete tramp. A bit of spray on perfume that made them smell like they'd not showered for a week, and people would be throwing them change in no time. I bloody hate fashion me.

Fashion rant aside though there is a really good walk over the cliffs past the other eastern beaches, and to be fair the others are nicer than Bondi and less crowded too.

One downside of Sydney is the public transport. Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible; it's a hell of a lot better than some cities I've been in. However, when I went on a night out I had to deal with the rather sub-par level of customer service. For instance, when I asked what time the last train would be the response was the less than helpful, "To be honest, I don't have a bloody clue," which conjured up images of the British Rail era at it's worst. It's a shame really as this is the first time I'd really dealt with a surley Australian.

I also reached a milestone in Sydney as I finally came face to face with the elusive Platypus. Now this rascal had been quite hard to find, as one wildlife park was yet to open it's platypus enclosure when I was there; and in another the platypus was hiding, and was nowhere to be seen. However, here in Sydney I managed to finally see one. Quite a funny thing though - as if an poisonous egg laying mammal beaver duck thing couldn't be - was that when it swam it moved like a wind up bath toy. I was expecting a more graceful creature as they appear on the aboriginal art, however it was just as clumsy looking as it looks. At least it's really real, as I was having doubts the creature was an elaborate hoax. Still this meant I had seen all the weird creatures I had wanted to in Australia, and in just the nick of time too, as I only had a few days left before I flew to New Zealand.

On another of my final days (in Sydney, that did sound a bit ominous otherwise) I took a trip out to Manly beach. There was nothing particularly masculine about it, but I must say it was a really nice beach. Way better than Bondi, and less crowded too. On my way back from this I then went to the famous 'Harry's Cafe de wheels' pie shop for a quick pie. It was an interesting place adorned with photos of famous faces such as: Rolf Harris, Frankie Muniz and, strangely, Colonel Saunders.

Still I had finished my brief affair with Australia, and overall it had been fun. Still I had barely scratched the surface of this giant continent-state. To do the place any justice would have taken months or even years. Still, I'll try and come back one day and maybe this time see Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Uluru (although really it is just a big rock in the middle of the desert) and all the other things I missed this time round.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Japin' round the world: Dave and the Beer Factory, and other such adventures

So it's been another week, and I've made it to another city. This time it's Brisbane on the east central coast of Australia.

To be honest when I landed here, my first impression was: "hang on this looks a bit like England," perhaps reinforced by the overcast weather overhead. Then as I was driven to my hostel my opinion changed. In some ways Brisbane stylistically seems like a mix of English, Australian, and American cities. Theres a blend of old world colonial style buildings and ultra-modern sky scrapers and it's rather hilly and steep.

One strange thing I've noticed, is that there a few sights which are similar to London. First of all they have an area by the river called South Bank, and - weirdly - it looks distinctly similar to our South Bank from certain points; complete with London Eye style big wheel (though not as big), and buildings that look like the old IBM building, and the London South Bank center. What I also noticed out the corner of my eye when walking back to my hostel - which is in an area called The West End -, atop the hills surrounding Brisbane, were radio antennae which looked just like Crystal Palace tower. Not a remarkable sight I suppose - they are a common form of trasmitter - but for a moments I wondered if being away this long was starting to make me go a bit insane.

Brisbane in general could be referred to as a little big city. It's one of Australia's largest cities, yet is pretty easy to walk across. It takes less than an hour to circumnavigate the CBD of the town, and on my first day of looking round pretty much covered all the museums and parks the city has to offer. I did notice another funny shop name however: "Mr Toy's World of Toys". The reason I found this amusing is that it kind of points out the obvious. I don't think many people expected a business called 'Mr Toy's' to specialise in selling alcohol or performing vivisection after all. I also indulged in a meal at 'Hungry Jack's'(the local name for Burger King)and decided, with a distinctly, 'when in rome' attitude to try the Aussie Burger. This was a mistake as the burger which speaks for the culture of Australia, in this burger franchise, was a concoction of beef, bacon, cheese, salad - so far so good - and then beetroot and egg. It's worth mentioning beetroot is the one food in the world I would say I hate. Most other foods I'm indifferent to, or am happy to eat. Beetroot on the other hand I normally won't touch, and the thought of eating it with egg as well wasn't really a pleasant thought either. However, still armed with my last shreds of optomism I ate it. Luckily as this was a franchise chain burger, there were no distinct tastes to be found in the meal so the beets didn't even register on my tastebuds. It was a bit of a shame I had really hoped for something better from the Aussie burger, like Macadamia nuts, Kangaroo or Ostrich meat to be enjoyed in it. Hell! even Koala meat would have done in the sandwich. Something different, and not disgusting, would have been nice. Also, in a serendipitus turn of events, I got chatting to a local Brisbanite, who offered to give me a quick tour around the federal courts (similar to the crown court in Britain). The courts were quite modern looking, and I'm told they're quite new and had several million dollars pumped into them by the Australian government. It was also interesting to see another country, like ours, which has lawyers and judges who are required to wear the old fashioned wigs. It's friendly chance meetings like this that make me really like this country.

So where to next? And for this I had to be creative as Brisbane doesn't take long to see. There are a few left field options. One of which was a trip to another Koala sanctuary. Here I 'oohhed' and 'ahhed' at all the funny Australian wildlife. I was pretty happy this time to actually see a wombat - which are really big - and a tasmanian devil - which don't spin around and gibber like in the cartoons, much to my disappointment. I also actually held a Koala this time, which are soft and actually quite heavy. Aside from that I did the usual kind of zoo gawking, fed the kangaroos again, etc.

I also decided as I was in the area - I wasn't really, 2 hours away to be precise, but to be fair with Australia being relatively big this is pretty close - I went to Byron Bay for the day. I had a pretty nice time walking around the town and up the hill to Cape Byron, where I stood at the most easternly point in Australia. Unfortunately on my way down from the cape it began raining, and I mean bucketing down. Obviously being English this is something I'm used to, but there are two things that worked against this. One: I'm in Australia for gods sake, one of the sunniest and warmest countries on earth; a land which conjurs up the images of sunkissed beaches, and two: I didn't necessarily want to get wet. Aside from the poor weather at the end of the day, I enjoyed Byron. It's got a nice small town feel, despite being world famous. It's got a real vibe of it's own, with all the arts crafts and alternative therapies on offer, and also the beaches are pretty awesome there.

Finally I took a trip to the Castlemaine XXXX brewary on the east side of town. This was pretty interesting as I got to learn all about how beer is made, complete with talking models of famous Castlemaine figures. I also got to see the inner workings of the factory, complete with a view of the production line churning out (what seemed like) many thousands of bottles and cans of beer a minute, whizzing around on their converbelts. An additional bonus to this tour was that after I enjoyed - which were included in the tour price - 4 taster glasses of the beer. These weren't little sipping cups either, but rather proper glasses. So in a way I can say I've now enjoyed a piss up in a brewary, or something pretty close.

Still I had pretty much done Brisbane to death by now. It's a fine city, but if you're a tourist you pretty much exahaust the sightseeing oppertunities after a week. So I now make my way to Sydney, which is going to be a bit familiar after arriving there last week, and not least because I'm meeting with a few people that I know there.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Japin' round the world: I was going to call them Chuzzwazzahs

So I'm now in Australia, which is as far round the world as it is really possible to go from my home in England. It also marks my first time into the Southern Hemisphere (the water draining in the opposite direction is really not that remarkable or noticeable) and my return - to my relief - to a predominantly English speaking country. There are lots of little novelties to enjoy about being here, aside from the English language alone. For one thing I can drink from the tap again without fear of some kind of sickness or death, there are no tuk tuks or mototaxis, or people trying to pester me into buying gimmicky crap.

On the downside however, Australia is pretty expensive. Not just by South East Asian standards - which I knew was always going to be hard to adjust back to expensive western prices - but even by English standards on some items. Also as with much of the rest of the world, the keyboards don't have the pound key!

So my first port of call was to Cairns in the northernmost tip of Queensland. My early explorations of this town were a little limited as I took a while to recover from the rather long trip from Bangkok to Sydney, and then switching to the domestic flight to Cairns. I didn't have a walk around the until the evening, and my first impressions were it's a bit spooky, especially by night. It's really quiet. It feels a bit like a ghost-town walking around the place. There are a few tourists around and maybe a couple of drunk aborigines. Of course it's hard to judge a place on first impressions alone. What I have learned about Australia, in the short time I've been here, is that the people are amongst some of the friendliest and chilled out I have ever met. When you go into shops, you don't meet the dour scowling kind of shop attendants who are affronted by being asked to do their job, that we have in England. Instead you are met with pleasant cheerful and chatty people, who genuinely want to help you. It's quite infectious.

What has been amusing however has been some of the names of things here in Australia. First of all flip-flops are called 'thongs'. For most English people, being told to remove your thongs, or to be told 'I can see your wearing thongs' could lead to all sorts of misunderstandings, due to the underwear connotations the word carries back home. Also there are strangely named shops. There are a lot of places named after crazy people (so far I've spotted a Crazy Clarks, and a Crazy Johns), and I have also spotted a place called 'Mr Meats' and another called 'King of Knives' (also leading to several jokes about what is really called a knife, as is the Australian custom thanks to Crocodile Dundee). One thing is for sure, Australians like formalities in their shop names.

Shopping has also proven interesting, as there is a type of cheese called 'Coon' which if sold in the UK could result in severe racial tensions, and possibly a revival of 'Till Death do us Part,' and I don't think we want that now do we. Also I noticed a type of drink called 'Sars'. Funny really. As I always thought it was quite unpleasant strain of flu, but they can't seem to get enough of it here, given that they're paying for the privilege to own it and there are several brands available in the shops.

As for activities in Cairns, it wouldn't have been right to come this far north and not see the Great Barrier Reef. For this I did some snorkeling for the day out on a quiet part of the reef with a day trip boat. It turned out to be really amazing. It really is swimming with life, and even that which isn't swimming is pretty lively too. The range of colours to be seen down there are varied also, much more so than the stuff I saw in Thailand. What unnerved me a little at first was the abundance of jellyfish in the water, being the coward that I am. However, these ones were harmless thankfully - in fact you could pick them up without receiving a sting - and added a bit of ambiance to the experience. There were also some reef sharks swimming around for a bit, and a resident large fish nicknamed 'Darth Vader' and was named so for being "big, dark and evil looking." Basically he was a local bully of the other fish, chasing them away when food was thrown into the water. Annoyingly also I didn't find Nemo. Despite the popularity of the film he's a slippery character, and I think the fame has driven him underground. Still I'm not satisfied! And Nemo had better hope that I don't find him, or else something bad may happen!

I also spent a day at pictureseque Karunda village, which is in the rainforest covered hills just north of Cairns. For this I took the aptly named "Karunda Scenic Railway" up the hill, and to be fair it did what it said on the tin. It went to Karunda, it was scenic, and it was a railway. That's one thing you can appreciate about Australians, they call things as they see them. Once up in Karunda itself, I went to the Koala Gardens up there, mainly as I felt it was now time to do the touristy thing, and gawk and point at Australian wildlife. And gawk and point I did. I saw the usual: Koalas, Kangaroos - which I got to feed - Wombats and lizards et al. One observation about Koalas I have to make is they seem (maybe due to them being nocturnal, and requiring most of their energy whilst awake to digest the highly toxic eucalypt leaves they eat)permentantly hungover. After bothering the slumbering marsupials, I headed back to Cairns using the Sky Rail (Another truiumph of the Australians unfussy approach to naming things) which was a gondola ride down the hills. This was amazing as I got to see the forest canopy from above and also a long sweeping view of Cairns and the sugar cane fields surrounding it, all the way to the sea. Seriously if you come to Cairns don't give this a miss.

Next stop is going to be Brisbane, where I hope to explore a bit of the Gold Coast etc. Surprisingly I didn't see that many cane toads up here in north Queensland (which is related to the name of this blog, if you don't know what I mean watch the episode of The Simpsons 'Bart vs Australia').