Frisco, You’re Makin’ Me Blush

As is the recurring theme of this blog, our arrival at every new place is characterised by immense tiredness after a far from ideal journey. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something exciting about travelling by night. You put your earphones in and feel the hum around you of whatever vehicle you happen to be taking, be it plane, boat, train or coach.

But, please picture in your mind a map of California and Nevada before I list the mainstops on our 18 hour Greyhound journey from Las Vegas to San Francisco: Vegas, LA, Fresno, then Oakland to San Fran. Of course, the fitful night of being disturbed from our uncomfortable doze every couple of hours by the loud bus announcements, and the man beside me’s hat falling off, was worth it when we started crossing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge towards the city itself.

When long journeys are over you can sometimes barely believe you’ve reached your destination. What made this arrival more surreal was that it was St Patrick’s Day, and apparently the Market Street parade through the city is the third largest in the world, after those in Dublin and New York.

Our usual bargain-basement hotel was characterful, we supposed, with a 1920s heating system (the owner explained that this was why it was incredibly cold). She didn’t mention that the wiring and plumbing was also of the same era. But we didn’t care. We were in the city we’d been looking forward to for months, and it was ours for the taking.

There was so much to do, from the classic sights of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, to walking in the footsteps of the Beat Poets in North Beach and sampling the fantastic food available at every corner. Omelettes, burritos, blueberry pancakes, bagels, sour dough sandwiches, patties. The food was fabulous!

Here are some photos of the best bits…

The clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf:

The gorgeous architecture of Alamo Sqaure and surrounding areas:

The friendly police (unless you’re speeding):

Alcatraz – the island with many past inhabitants:

Of course, the Golden Gate Bridge:

And many, many more photos to come…

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Vegas and the Grand Canyon

We Take the Gambling World by Storm in Las Vegas…

Like seeing an old-fashioned screen star without her makeup, Vegas during the day, without its bright lights, looks almost exposed. In fact, it just looks like a huge theme park-style collection of shopping centres, with a slightly seedy edge. That’s only from the strip, of course. Once you get inside Excalibur, MGM or Circus Circus, it could be any time of the day…and that means you can do anything you like at any time at all.

We walked and walked and explored every corner of this bizarre place, during the day and during the night, from the acres of slot machines which fill every casino lobby, to the tacky mock-ups of European cities (whatever anyone says, The Venetian does not resemble Venice at all), to the tiny wedding chapels which advertise ‘Drive-Thru Weddings’, to the neon-lit sleaze of old Vegas Downtown.

Although enjoying more than a few Happy Hours (there are bargains to be had during the week), we were cautious when it came to hitting the games, I’m afraid; we seemed to lack the carefree attitude of others at the poker table. One guy we overheard boasted at having lost $600 the night before and those stakes were too high for us. Following the theory that ‘You can’t go to Vegas without placing a few bets’ we carefully considered which game could fulfill both of the following stipulations:

a) that we understood the ‘aim’ of the game. I.e. we knew what we were betting on and could assess whether we had won (or lost) with a minimum of embarrassment.

b) that the game required a bet which we could manage losing without too much pain.

We settled on the simplest game of all: roulette. Livening up an otherwise dull-looking table – why do people sit at the table which such a sober look on their faces? Aren’t they enjoying losing their money? – we gradually lost and then promptly won back a whole $20. So, about 10 minutes of entertainment. Risk averse, we decided to take our proud ‘winnings’ to the bar for greater value and less anxiety.

The Grand Canyon & Hoover Dam

If Vegas is like an exercise in the scale and bad-taste of human architectural accomplishments, then the Grand Canyon is nature’s answer. And it wins without contest.

On the way to the canyon we stopped at the immense Hoover Dam via route 66 and we were lucky to arrive at this famous landmark on a sunny afternoon. Most of the winter snow had melted and, according to forecasts, we had made it just before a new layer which was predicted at the weekend.

Our only previous impression of the Grand Canyon was from television shows, and I had imagined it may be rather like a giant version of the artwork ‘Shibboleth’ by Doris Salcedo, also called ‘The Crack’, which divided the turbine hall of the Tate Modern in 2007-08. So the view across the many miles of bizarre and impressive rock formations created entirely by the strength of the Colorado river, peeling away and eroding the rock by a thickness of a piece of paper each year over billions of years, was quite a surprise. Even more surprising was its emergence from an otherwise flat stretch of featureless desert. It might be best (but inadequately) expressed in some photos…

Walking along the rim for a couple of hours, we were captivated by the range of colours and shades in the layers of rock, and the circling birds above.

An extraordinary mixture of the work of man and nature had astounded and excited us in our brief stint in Nevada and Arizona. But, before we knew it it was time to jump on that Greyhound again. And this time our stop was the most exciting yet: San Francisco herself.

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We wind our way through the isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island, meeting native wildlife along the way

We’d watched the stark Aussie outback whizz past from train windows, slept at campsites warning us of crocs in the water and had more than a few hairy moments with unwanted insects in SE Asia, but New Zealand’s south island gave us a new perception of nature and isolation. As we gradually made our way south there were moments of near panic as we drove towards a wall of seemingly impenetrable mountain rising ahead. The map didn’t lie, of course, but we didn’t anticipate that much of the journey would be taken at 20mph (or less), a sheer cliff on one side of the road, descending clouds blocking the view downwards; the South Island’s roads are engineering marvels.

Exploring on Foot

As in the north, most of our nights were spent at DC Campsites where nearby steep hikes rewarded us with views over surrounding countryside, entire ancient kauri forests to ourselves and packed lunches beside hidden waterfalls.

Tom jumped for joy at the view beside our site in Mount Aspiring National Park from Pleasant Flat:

Waking up after a rainy night to see nearby peaks covered in snow may not be exciting for those who usually live close to mountains, but we were thrilled by the temperature contrasts between peak and ground level and the year-round glaciers which produce bright blue rivers and clear pools.

The views above Queenstown made paragliding tempting…for a moment…

Negotiating with Nature

As those who live there know, the stark beauty of New Zealand’s landscape comes at a cost. The weather can be unpredictable: after a heavy night of rain at Pioneer Park campground the exit road was impassable for us because a three-foot stream of water ran over it so we watied with friendly fellow campers; ferries across the Cook Strait are often delayed due to stormy weather.

The ground itself can be fragile too. The people of Christchurch experience almost daily seismic activity, a reminder of the terrible earthquakes which have struck the city over the past two years. We were in the country on the year anniversary of the February 2011 earthquake and the world remembered those who tragically lost their lives. We can only hope that the city has a brighter future as a tribute to them.

Surprising Finds

New Zealand has a unique ecosystem in which birds, including, of course, the country’s icon, the rare kiwi, have thrived. Although the human introduction of certain predator-free mammals such as the possum have caused problems for the country’s biodiversity, efforts to control their population means that you can walk in the woods to a soundtrack of beautiful birdsong. Fantails, which flick their pretty tails on low branches, were a common sight for us, as was the lovely South Island Robin:

We were surrounded by glow worms on a nighttime stroll through the woods beside Pelarus Bridge campsite and the grumpy grownup seals and tiny pups in and around Kaikora provided hours of photo opportunities:

We had naively expected to follow the summer around the world but there were increasingly chilly nights towards the end of our stay and we relished the thought of a warm indoor bed. Our campervan had got us up close with some great bits of New Zealand’s beauty and we’d met some fantastic Kiwis along the way; we left for LA vowing to explore the country further in the future.

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New Zealand’s North Island – ‘Like driving through a model trainset’

After a couple of weeks in the blazing heat of north Queensland, we arrived in the middle of the night at Auckland airport and were surprised to find that it wasn’t as cool as we thought. The next morning we were delighted by our view down Queen Street in the city centre and treated ourselves to a delicious coffee and muffin in the posh High Street area.

It wasn’t long before it was time to hit the road again, though, and after just two nights in the city we picked up our ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’-themed hired  campervan (seriously, the van in Australia was a Ferrari in comparison to this ramshackle rustbucket). We chose the ‘Thermal Explorer’ route south through the centre of the island. Despite the occasional volcano and spirt of steam rising from thermal springs, the rolling countryside, dotted with grazing livestock, otherwise resembled England’s landscape or, as Tom put it, it felt rather like driving through a model trainset.

We stayed mostly on Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites, which are dotted throughout the whole country and allow campervanners to stay in some spectacular and secluded locations. One of our favourites was this gorgeous lakeside campsite near outdoor capital Rotorua:

We arrived promptly at 9.45am one wet morning to witness the eruption of Lady Knox Geyser in the Wai-O-Tapu volcanic zone, and were also amazed by the colourful springs and bubbling mud pools in the area. Here is the famous Champagne Pool:

But, as every visitor to New Zealand’s North Island knows, no trip is complete without a visit to lovely Hobbiton for hours of ‘out of scale’ entertainment.

The sizes of the hobbit holes varied between 30 and 90% of ‘life size’ but scenes in which both Gandalf and Frodo appeared were filmed in two separate studios: for Gandalf the room size was scaled down and for Frodo made to a larger scale.

We could have explored the North Island for weeks, but time was pressing and so we hurried south to take the ferry to Picton.

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We Embrace the Great Aussie Outdoors with Surfing, Camping, Fishing and Diving

You can’t visit Australia without having a go at riding a wave or two. Dreaming of the crashing waves and blue skies which we’d seen on so many beaches so far, we began a five day surf tour on a wet and miserable Monday morning…which turned into a wet and miserable week, actually. Where was that famous Australian summer we’d travelled halfway around the world for? The weather didn’t ruin our experience, though, and we can’t imagine anything better we could have been doing that particular week than spending all day in the sea.

Tom had surfed before and so picked it up again, impressively standing up and moving to smaller boards within a day. I took slightly longer to get the hang of it, but it’s no lie that catching your first wave to the shore gives you a real high! We met some great people on the camp and spent evenings by the camp fire enjoying more than a couple of beers; a brilliant week and one of the highlights of the trip so far (photos to follow…).

After our five days of surf were over, our destination was chilled and gorgeous Byron Bay followed by Brisbane, where we decided to pick up a campervan in which to take our trip north. A great way of meeting fellow explorers and some friendly Aussies, we journeyed up towards Cairns over the next couple of weeks and learnt quite a bit more about Australia’s scary wildlife.

In the town of Seventeen Seventy, we were invited out to go mud crab fishing on the mangrove-lined river with a fellow camper. A Mission Beach resident frightened us with tales of crocs in primary school playgrounds, spiders as big as your hand and giant stick insects. After that, we avoided more than a few camp sites just because of the ‘Warning: Crocodiles’ signs at the entrances.  At Mission Beach we did also find a gorgeous creek to cool off in, which was a welcome alternative to the singer-ridden sea. We also met a lady who had a snake living in her house behind the phone, which she was loath to move out because of a bad previous experience with an angry snake.

On the final day of our Australian experience we decided to take a dive on the Great Barrier Reef, where turtles bobbed up to greet us and swan beside us underwater, we spotted some ‘Nemo’ clown fish and were seriously wowed by the ‘Wonderwall’ of coral just a few miles from Cairns. It is such a terrible shame that rising sea temperatures may mean future generations do not get the chance to enjoy its beauty.

We came to the end of our eight-week journey from Perth to Cairns feeling sorry to leave the varied and wonderful Australia, but excited to begin travelling at our next stop: New Zealand.

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The Delights of Sydney – The Best Looking City in Australia (We Think…)

We couldn’t have arrived in Sydney in less inspiring circumstances. It was fairly cool (in the low 20s), drizzling and we’d had a sleepless 12 hour long Greyhound journey up from Melbourne. But as soon as we got off the coach at Central, Tom led the way to the colossal Central YHA and we perked up at the sight of the roof terrace, pool, sauna and cinema (not exactly your average hostel).

With the essential powernap after the overnight journey out of the way, we began our week long adventure in Australia’s most good looking city (in our view, anyway). Here are some of the best bits…

1. The Harbour and Opera House

The first glimpse of the (yes, I am going to use the word) iconic harbourfront really does make your heart speed up. The bridge looms over the historic Rocks area and you peek the white, shell-like structure of the Opera House through the numerous busy ferry terminals. As you walk around the bay you are rewarded with the ever-changing view of this exciting building, which never seems to look the same colour, shape or form from day to day. It really is photogenic…

We had decided to try to get tickets to see a performance and were pleased to see that the opening night of Opera Australia’s Turandot by Puccini was on the Tuesday after we arrived. After contemplating the tickets still available, we decided to try for standing tickets, which only go on sale on the day of the show. Tom arrived at 7am to begin ‘queuing’ in case of a rush (there are only 10 standing seats available) and no one else arrived until 9am, but at least we got some!

It was a truly memorable night. The inside of the house itself does not dissappoint, with the entire curved back wall of the ‘shell’ following the shape of the harbour, so you get a panoramic view of the harbour, from the bridge to the opening towards the sea, as the evening turns to night. The opera itself was staged in the ‘original’ Peking setting, with striking use of colour – red on black, yellow on white. The soloists playing Turandot and Calaf had beautiful voices and the accousics of the hall made the choral sections almost deafening in power.

The nearby Botanic Gardens, with the flying foxes clutching scarily in the trees, and the bridge itself were worth a day of exploration.

The Beaches

One of the best things about Sydney is its proximity to so many great places to be outdoors, the beaches being one example. There’s surfy Manly:

Posing Bondi:

And, our personal favourite for a sunny afternoon, lovely Bronte:

Blue Mountains

Looking back over the photos, the Blue Mountains are incredibly beautiful. It’s just hard to appreciate the Three Sisters when there are a hundred other people snapping them at the same time.

That said, the trek from the top down to the old mining area passes great waterfalls and is worth the scary 52 degree-angle train ride back up (sort of…). We only had a day exploring there and wish we could have stayed longer.

Night Life

One of the greatest things about being in Sydney was being reunited with our friends from home, Shaun and Al, for some dancing in the, ahem, less seedy bars of King’s Cross and surrounds. And the long walk home when we stayed too late!

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