14 September 2009

Back by popular demand...

1) Christchurch has the highest nutter-to-population ratio。 Probably in the world.

2) Base Hostel doesn't keep track of it's visitors.

3) New Zealand beer, despite what they say across the Ditch, is really quite nice.

4) Brazilians speak Portuguese.

5) They don't like speaking English.

6) Despite nice beer, Kiwi's don't do pubs like us Poms.

7) Never take a 70 year old woman's advice on walking times. She's clearly never done the walk before.

8) Cookies, Nutri Grain and Biscuits are not great trekking food.

9) Walking shoes, as opposed to running trainers, are needed for walks that last more than a few hours.

10) Hitchhiking is safe. And very, very enjoyable.

11) Factory work is tedious, dull and humiliating.

12) Removals work is the opposite to that.

13) A vase will not survive a fall from a balcony rooftop.

14) There are too many Irish pubs.

15) Cookie Time is the food of Kings.

16) Penguins and dolphins are overrated.

17) I will never again attempt to cook a fry-up.

18) Bungy jumps are MUCH better than Skydives.

19) I am an expert skimmer. Sian is not.

20) The West Coast gets a lot of rain.

21) Kiwi's can't drive. (Not the bird form, the human form).

22) If you put a pretty girl in a pub of just men, those said men will try everything to get with said girl. Even if she is clearly with someone.

23) Blenheim (NZ's wine country) does not serve spritzers, house wine or rose.

24) Always wake up before 7am if you are sleeping in a designated 'No Camping' zone.

25) Any New Zealander that claims Auckland is busy has never been to London.

10 June 2009

Australia 25 things...

After a pretty positive response of 25 things I learnt through Asia, here are the things I have picked up from my last 90 days Down Under.

1) In Australia, when a sign says 'No Swimming' it really means No Swimming.

2) If you tell a Western Australian that a bin is on fire, don't expect them to react in an alarming way. Eventually it will get sorted, it may just take a few hours.

3) Outback Australian life can be summed up in the sentence 'It's pretty warm. And the flies can be a problem.'

4) German people actually do have very good sense of humours.

5) Oil tastes nothing like water.

6) Arriving at a campsite to find your neighbour, the only other person in a 40km radius, is fully naked, taking a shit and owning appearance similar to the killer in Woolf's Creek is not a pleasant feeling.

7) If Uluru (Ayers Rock) is Australia's heart, then Port Hedland is Australia's arsehole.

8) Karratha is what the arsehole produces.

9) Sunbathing on Broome's famous Cable Beach can be limited to before 9am and after 6pm due to the searing heat there.

10) Raves are not my scene.

11) Seeing a shark in the flesh is a rather scary experience. Even if it is just a baby.

12) Ningaloo Reef is better than the Great Barrier. That's definitely not a bitter comment.

13) When boarding a flight, always check weather conditions in the place you are arriving too. Which leads me to point number 14...

14) Melbourne is much MUCH colder than anywhere else in Australia (except Tasmania)

15) The English accent really does work, if you are prepared to milk it.

16) Aussies have all sorts of strange names for things. Flips flops - thongs. Sandwiches- sangas. Sausages - snags. Sweets - lollies. And are prepared to 'rip the shits' for your 'improper' use of the English language.

17) Phillip Island is colder than anywhere else, possibly in the world. And the penguins there are not visible to the human eye.

18) Ramsey Street is smaller than you would expect.

19) Grill'd burgers are perhaps the greatest in the world. (Bird & Brie if anyone is stopping by Melbourne soon or, ahem, is heading to London soon and fancies bringing me a gift.)

20) Tasmanians refer to Australia's mainland as the 'North Island.'

21) $4 pizzas are $4 for a reason

22) Fat Yak is the greatest beer ever made

23) Transport services in developed countries are not always better than in Asia.

24) The average stopping speed in a 1982 Toyota Corolla with tyres that came when the car was made is roughly the length of Britain.

25) Despite all good intentions, a night on Goon will be followed by an unproductive day.

Melbourne Living

I guess it's one of life's dilemmas. Two things. Opposites almost. Half the population will go for one, and the other half the other. Blonde or brunette? Fact or Fiction? Sydney or Melbourne?

There is no question that Nick is a blondes man, while I will go for brunettes everytime. Nick prefers to read books based on facts while I prefer to lose myself in a novel. And then there is the question of which is the greatest Australian city. Nick maintains that it is Sydney, while I will argue until I am blue in the face (where the hell did that expression come from by the way?) that Victoria's capital city is the greatest city down under.

It is not that I dislike Sydney at all. In fact the official Harbour - Circular Quay as it is known by locals - is one of the most striking in the world, with the incredible Opera House on one side of the water and the domineering Sydney Harbour Bridge across from it. And then there is Darling Harbour, just around the nautical corner from it's famous cousin, and it is here that I have enjoyed probably my favourite beer. Chilling out with my travel buddy, watching ships enter the harbour looking back on a brilliant last three months in Antipodean land.

But, for me, that is all Sydney has to offer. It is made up of two streets, George and Pitt, that are quite possibly the longest in the world. You walk and walk and walk along these streets all the while feeling like you are getting never close to the end. If it wasn't for the endless amount of pubs that support that long walk along George Street I don't think I ever would have made it to the end. In fact, now I come to think of it, I don't think I ever did. But that may have actually been due to the pub's presence not absence.

Well then how about Melbourne? Admittedly it may be due to the fact that I have spent 6 weeks getting to know the city that I am so fond of it, and it is the only place in Australia that I could honestly see myself living in.

The climate may have something to do with it. Unlike most other places here, you can walk further than ten metres without needing to dive under the nearest piece of shade. But I arrived in Melbourne from Darwin and, unwarned of the near-arctic conditions by my contact there, arrived in attire that had seen me through the last two months of plus-30 degree. In a t shirt, boardies and flip flops (or 'thongs') I left the airport building, but not to blazing sunshine and women in skimpy tops, the sort of sights that I had got used to. No, all the Melbourne skies offered me were a dull, cloud-filled sky and 15 degree weather. I could have had this at home.

But a climate with a likeness to home is not all that Melbourne has to offer. In fact, as the signs dotted around the city proudly announce, it was recently voted the 'World's Most Liveable City', and that may have something to do with the amount of exercise that Melburnians tend to do. The sports presence in the city is more obvious than any other place in the world. As soon as you arrive you are met by the hugely impressive MCG, the famous 110,000 seater stadium that has been host to some of the world's most famous cricket matches and also hosted the Olympic Games way back in 1956. Added to that is the endless amount of cyclists and runners that run around Melbourne's streets throughout the day.

But nothing compares to Melbourne's love for that strange, strange game Aussie Rules. A game played by blokes in skimpy tank tops ('singlets') and shorts tighter than a Scotsman in a pub, at first glance appears a mess of a game. But I eventually took a liking to this game, still undecided between Fremantle and Essendon by the way, and I have an irrational hatred for Hawthorn Hawks. Every weekend during the season, the city hosts at least two games a weekend, sometimes up to five, and each game attracting at least 50,000 spectators. In a city of just over 3 million people, that is a high percentage attending just one sport. In fact most Melburnians will ask you the same thing on meeting you 'Who do you barrack for then?' All those that speak English out there, that translates as 'Who do you support?'. Add to this the fact that Melbourne is host to the Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne Cup and Australian Open Tennis then there are very few cities in the world that rival this place as a sporting capital.

Federation Square is also a brilliant focal point for the city, alongside the stunning Flinders Street station, and also host to a pub that serves the world's greatest beer Fat Yak. The city centre is also small, compact and easy to get around and you are never more than a five minute walk from one of the many stunning parks. Although when the weather is like it was when I got there, just head for Fed Square for a nice pint of Fat Yak.

1 May 2009

Hobart, Tasmania

Even three years as a university student, desperately clinging to the overdraft limit, could not prepare me for the desperate times in store as a backpacker. Now let me make one thing clear, I am not, for one second, claiming I know what it feels like to truly struggle for money, unable to pay the rent/mortgage or even eat one good meal a day. I know that if times got incredibly desperate then my parents will bail me out or, failing that, I will fly home and live rent-free as I enjoy some home cooked meals. But for me personally, this is as desperate as things have got.

I make this point for one reason. When I booked this trip over six months ago I set myself a few targets for my three months in Australia. I wanted to drive the length of the West Coast from Perth up to Darwin (check). I wanted to visit at least some of the national parks in the Northern Territory (check). I wanted to see at least one kangaroo in the wild (check). And finally I wanted to see the few states that I had not yet visited in Australia; South Australia, ACT and Tasmania. Now South Australia and the nation’s capital, ACT, can wait for later parts in this trip, for now my focus was on getting to Tasmania, a small island off the Southern coast of mainland Australia.

Now it is not a place I have heard too much about. Even in Melbourne, just over the water, the most information I got about this small island was that it is a place where incest is rife, whether Melburnians genuinely believe this or not I am not too sure, but it is about the most I could get out of people. So I carried out my own research and discovered that it is one of the most striking and unique climates on earth. Even more isolated than mainland Australia (which, incidentally Tasmanians call the ‘North’ island), it is a place that was cut-off from foreign influences for thousands of years, means Tasmania has developed it’s own unique characteristics. It is home to some of the world’s tallest trees, not much shorter than the famous Redwoods of California, as well as their own unique wildlife, most notably the famous Tasmanian Devil.

So the plan was set. Take the overnight ferry from Melbourne to Devonport on the island’s north coast, hire a car and spend a week or so discovering this unique place. And then two things happened. Firstly, I checked my bank statement. Not only would I not be able to afford accommodation (in the meantime I had found a free place to stay in Melbourne), but also the hiring of a car was a definite no-no, particularly given that I had absolutely nothing left on my ‘emergency only’ credit card. Secondly, I checked the prices of the overnight ferry. Now there are a few things I question about Australian wisdom, in particular why a great many of people here still see the mullet as a good look (I’m not even joking I’ve seen a few blokes, even some women, fashioning this ‘haircut’), but a 10-hour overnight ferry on hard wooden seats priced at four-times that of a one-hour air conditioned flight does not strike me as an ingenious business decision by the ferry companies. So with that in mind, I booked myself on a flight to Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, and a flight back again four days later. Unfortunately I would not be able to see a great deal of the island during this time but it would at least give me a taste.

With it being just a few days trip, I decided to pack as lightly as possible for my little jaunt across the Tasman Sea. I chucked a few spare t-shirts, a jumper and a book into my little day bag and felt the seasoned traveller as I arrived at the desk with no bags to check-in. A big grin on my face, I bounded up to the check-in counter, pleased with myself at being so smart and handed over my passport. The friendly man behind the counter accepted this little gift and began typing my name onto the keyboard in front of him. A confused look came up on his face and he tried again. ‘I’m sorry sir’ he said ‘but we don’t appear to have a booking for you.’ That’s weird, I thought, I’d booked myself onto the flight online just the day before and I told him the same thing ‘That’s weird’ I said ‘I booked myself onto the flight yesterday. Online.’ – just in case you didn’t believe me – so he went back to looking on his computer screen. I’m pretty sure a slight chuckle came onto his face as he looked at me and said ‘Oh you actually booked yourself on yesterday’s flight, sir.’ Shit.

So as you see, dear reader, it wasn’t the greatest start. But not to be deterred, I handed over another 120 dollars to get onto this particular flight (I told you, I was not missing out on this place) and made my way through security.

I arrived into Hobart airport perhaps an hour or so later and despite my slight mishap morale was still high. I strolled straight off the plane, past those silly fools that had checked baggage in and into the fresh air of Tasmania, still delighted at myself for not experiencing that most dreaded part of travelling, waiting to see if the airline company has sent your bag to some far-off place like Alaska- don’t laugh that actually happened to me. A tall, bearded man in a luminous workman’s jacket stood smiling outside the terminal building so I approached him to ask how I could go about getting a bus into town. ‘That’s what I do’ he replied in a gruff accent that I came to understand was how they spoke down here ‘now jump on this bus’ he pointed to the bus next to him ‘and we’ll get you into town. Just after everybody has collected their luggage.’

Located on the southern coast of the island, Hobart’s two most distinctive features are water and mountains, wherever in the city you are in view of at least one of these. Mount Wellington is the most defining mountain here, standing 1271 metres above sea level it watches proudly over the city and it is where my Hobart adventure would begin. Arriving late the day before I had walked around to get a feel for the place, but being late not much was open. So early the next morning I was heading up the mountain in a small group to begin the ‘Mount Wellington Descent’, an overpriced but enjoyable few hours of riding bikes from the mountain’s peak to the bottom. Now, seeing myself as a fairly experienced traveller I am used to being over-charged every now and then and must point out that this activity did not really feel like a ‘rip off’ but how a company can justify charging 70 Aussie dollars (about 35 English) to drive you for 30 minutes up a mountain, kitting you up with a waterproof jacket, helmet and half-functioning mountain bike I will never know. Nevertheless I was foolish enough to pay the price and here I was at the top of the mountain in the hope of overlooking Hobart Town from this wonderful location.

Of course, being as far South as you can in Australia and it approaching winter here it was not quite like the Australia seen on post cards, of stunning beaches and bikini-clad women. So rather than having a beautiful view of Hobart Town below me, the only view I had was of a cloud of fog. However, as we rolled our bikes down the mountain (roll being the key word here, there was absolutely no ‘riding’ to be done) the view became clearer and suddenly I found myself with the exact view I was hoping for. It reminded me much of my favourite view on this planet, at the top of Queenstown Hill on New Zealand’s South Island. Off in the distance we could make out the Hobart suburbs set in green-rolling hills, separated by the stunning Derwent River, and there directly below lay the sprawling town of Hobart, petering on the edge of the water. Unfortunately being of the male form and therefore unable to do two things at once, I was able to enjoy the view but this act had completely devoid me of having any control over my bike at the same time. Feeling suitably inspired by the view below, I took in a deep breathe of that fresh Tasmanian air and returned my gaze to the road in front of me. Just in time, as I headed directly towards a rather large truck that was making it’s way up the mountain. I managed to react just in time, steering my bike swiftly away from the oncoming traffic but almost directly into the poor young lad in front of me, who from then on, it must be said, did not quite enjoy the experience quite so much. But in my defence he was South African, and really quite annoying so I did not feel quite so bad.

The group stopped a few hundred metres further down the mountain and the leader informed us that we would now be heading off-road. Being that this section would be a little more difficult that the riding we had done thus far if anyone did not fancy it then they could continue down the road, following the van that was carrying our luggage back down to the bottom. The whole group decided to head onwards, although I am pretty sure I heard a shrill quiver from the boy that I had nearly sent toppling off the mountain a few minutes before, and we continued along a pleasant route that made me feel quite the professional mountain biker.

We stopped a few minutes later above a steep path that made me question the judgement that had me believing so strongly in my biking abilities. The hill that ran below was incredibly steep, on a similar gradient to, say, a vertical line. But not just that, the path wound around all sorts of corners and had huge lumps of rock as big as your fist, which you had to navigate your way around. ‘Now this is much steeper than anything we have done so far’ said the leader ‘if anybody feels this is too much for them then you may walk with your bike down this bit. I must warn you it is very difficult.’ I looked around the group and for a moment it looked as if no-one was to be the coward of the group, when suddenly the young South African lad slowly lifted his hand up, still looking petrified from our earlier encounter and dismounted from his bike. I felt a few daggers in my direction but stayed focused on the hill ahead of me.

Well how I am still here writing this article I cannot tell you. I tumbled downward and downward, picking up speed all the way down. I managed to avoid a couple of those oversized rocks by sheer luck alone and went straight into a few others, but minutes later I arrived at the bottom of the hill, somehow in one piece.

After my adrenaline-inducing first day my next day in Hobart was to be much more relaxing. With it being ANZAC day and with that another Bank Holiday in Australia (they even have days off for the Queen’s Holiday, here something we don’t even do. And have a day off for the Melbourne Cup. A horse race!!) there was very little open to tourists like myself. So I slipped on my most comfortable shoes and decided to do something, unlike mountain biking, I feel I am very good at. Walking. I walked and walked and walked with no real intention in mind. I found myself crossing the Tasman Bridge, linking Hobart with those stunning suburbs I could see from the mountain the day before, and walked further and further along the coast line. About four hours or so later I found a park bench and pulled out a map to see how far I had covered. I discovered that I was in Bellevive, directly across the water from Hobart, and had covered about 10 kilometres but it was then I realised I would have to retrace my steps and do the return trip. Before that long process I was to discover what Bellevive had to offer and only then I remembered a conversation I had had with a Hobartian the day before. I had asked if there was much to do across the water. The response I got was pretty straightforward ‘No’ the lady said ‘Bellevive gives a fairly decent view of the town but other than that there’s fuck all.’ And they were almost right, apart from an international cricket ground- and those that know me will be aware that I am very keen on any sort of sporting stadium – there were a couple of bakeries and not a great deal else. So I looked at my watch, it was 4pm and starting to rain, and began the four-hour return trip.

Due to the previous days’ ANZAC Parade, the town’s famous Salamanca market was changed to a day later. So here I was on my final day in Hobart exploring this marketplace. Now I don’t know about you but for me the name ‘Salamanca’ brings to mind images of laying back on a sunny, Spanish beach, Sangria in my hand and fresh fish at my side. So when I woke up on that final morning to a dismal overcast sky it was with some trepidation that I made my way towards the market. But despite the weather and my lack of funds, giving me a spectator rather than participant status, it was an enjoyable experience.

Although the weather was familiar, feeling more like stepping straight into a drizzly November morning back home, the Salamanca Market had a very different to feel to any market I have experienced. My only memories of English markets are in dirty industrial towns of old-glories with the Saturday afternoon market now being the highlight, selling everything from second-hand toasters to mobile phone covers for phones that stopped being used five or so years ago. Even through Asia the experience is different again. These places are filled with all sorts of smells, noises and foods that you are unlikely to be experience anywhere else and although the people here are generally friendly they can sometimes be a tad annoying, hassling you continually to buy one of their products.

Here in Hobart, as the sun began to break through the atmosphere was much more laidback. The stalls sold all kinds of things, including homemade jams and every type of hat you can imagine. While the products are not the sorts of things I intend to carry around in my backpack for the next eight months until I get home, this day was much more about the overall experience than the things on sale. As you made your way through the stalls all sorts of musicians giving a taste of their music. The musicians here were of very different demographics, a group of Chinese students played a collection of classical songs by way of violin, a crowd of men who looked like they had just stepped out of a XXXX Beer advert gave a few renditions of songs I had never heard before with all sorts of percussion instruments, and a young lad who can only be described as ‘hippy-looking’ strummed away happily on his guitar. It was an experience that I certainly was not expecting.

As pleasant as the Salamanca market is there is only a certain amount of time one can spend looking at stalls without the intention of buying anything. So a few hours later I made my way away from the market and towards the harbour. Now when you visit certain parts of the world there are things one must try before leaving the place. For instance, in Mexico at least one of shot of Tequila should be consumed, preferably swallowing the worm afterwards, or in Dublin a pint of Guinness should be at least attempted. And so it is in Hobart, a place with the water playing such a key part of the community and fishing being such a large part of the economy, Fish and Chips must be tried.

There are many arguments I have had with Aussies as I have made my way around the world. Most of these involve their strange takings on the English language, and even stranger pronunciation of these words- the argument is generally ended abruptly when you ask what the language is called that they are speaking- but one of these that has resulted in some heated discussions is the merits of fish and chip meal in each country. While the British palate may not be the equal to our Italian or French friends, we have three meals that I would proudly call British, these being fry-ups, Roast dinners and of course fish and chips. So when our antipodeans cousins claim that their take on the meal is better than ours it gets to me a little bit. But having experienced first hand this tiny little independent fish shop on the harbour front I am willing to stop arguing. It is perhaps the best I have tried and, yes, that includes the Sutton-at-Hone fish bar, Mum.

Of course, as Sod’s Law would have it, on returning to Melbourne I discovered that people I had not spoken to previously about Tasmania had much more information on the island than what I had collected before going. ‘Oh you stayed in Hobart’ they say ‘oh you really should have got up to Launceston, or even just down the road from there is the Huon Trail. I can’t believe you missed it.’ I try to explain that my budget would not allow it this time and I am gutted to have missed them, but generally they are not listening, they are off telling me about another incredible part of the island I just HAD to see. That is the thing about Tasmania, while it may not be a place many have heard about, or if they have it is not a place that has appealed much, those that have speak incredibly fondly of it and I am certainly one of those. As soon as I have enough money I will be in a car and heading that way again.

2 April 2009

Road Trippin'

It's a strange thing about hire cars. They seem incredibly reluctant to leave behind the place they have been hired from. 'Metallica' our Wicked campvervan (she was swiftly renamed) took us on a stressful tour of Perth and it's surrounding suburbs for a good hour before finding her way onto Highway 1 and heading North.

Nick and I had spent an enjoyable but mildly crazy month and a half travelling through South East Asia and arrived on Australia's West Coast looking for a slow-paced, laid back place where we could rest up for a week or so. Which is exactly what we had in store when we arrived in Perth. Official statistics might tell you that 1.5 million inhabit Western Australia's capital city, but what Perth's residents get up to I couldn't tell you. I awoke my first morning in Perth, a Saturday, expecting to find a city teeming with life but as I strolled around, the amount of people was incredibly minimal. At one point in the early afternoon my random stroll took me past a classy cafe. it was 1 o'clock in the afternoon and was closed. Now I'm no business genius but if I were to open a cafe business the one time of day I would have it open would be 1 in the afternoon on a Saturday. This seemed to sum up the laidback lifestyle that seemed to go on in Perth.

I don't want you for a second to think that Perth is a lifeless city because it is not. In fact, it's quietness and remoteness adds to the charm. The people are among the friendliest I have experienced, the harbour and skyline are among the best I have seen and, as strange as it may sound, it has the most striking blue sky I have ever seen.

But it is not a place one can spend too long in. So it was a week or so later that Nick and I found our way navigating our new hire van around Perth's northern suburbs before eventually finding the route North and on our way to the incredibly distant Darwin, 4000kms away.

Apart from being unable to navigate her way out of Perth - which was, of course, her fault and not mine as the driver - the hire car had one other notable setback. She was loud. Very loud. Down one side in brash, blue writing was written 'Metallica' (hence the name) while the other was filled with a huge fireball, spraying yellows and blacks down the side. Now neither Nick or I are of the hardcore rocker variety- in fact we rolled into one outback town with Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer' blaring out of the speakers. So when we navigated our way onto the Hepburn Highway and saw a sign for Geraldton, our first night's accommodation, it seemed fitting to rename her Audrey. A splash of beer on the dashboard and the christening was complete.

As we made our way North along the coastal hightway it soon became evident that Audrey's loud appearance did not exactly fit in with the laidback nature of Western Australia. Let me give you a story that I feel sums up the relaxed nature of the people of Australia's far west. We were making our way from the incredible Cape Range National Park, on the Ningaloo Reef, towards Karratha an industrial town in the state's far north, when we stopped to re-fuel and grab some lunch in a tiny outback town called Fortescue River. Now this tiny community consisted of the petrol station we had stopped in, a tiny tavern of the sort you would expect in rural Australia and a bridge of the river that gave the town it's name. In short, a place in the arse end of nowhere with not a great deal to do.

While filling up the car, a friendly young lad who worked there came over and began discussing the artistic merits of our wonderful vehicle. After a couple of minutes our conversation got round to what life was like in this tiny place. He stood there for a moment scratching his head and staring off into some void space behind me. 'Well' he begun in that West Australian drawl that would remain just as calm if his hair suddenlt caugh alight 'it's pretty warm. And the flies can be a problem.' Then he gave me a little smile, turned on his heels and headed back into the air-conditioned shop, presumably where it was not quite so warm and flies were less of a problem. And that was it. Life in Fortescue River. Now I ask you to picture the scene. I had been stood out of the air-condition van (oh yes, Audrey is air-conditioned) for no more than two minutes and already I had great lumps of sweat falling onto my already sodden clothes. Pretty warm? I though to myself. Pretty warm is going outside in shorts and a t-shirt, not witnessing your own skin visibly crackling in the heat.

And the flies? 'A bit' of a problem? I think not, they are more of a catastrophe, akin to SARS or Bird Flu. Lord knows I'm susceptible to the odd case of over exagerration but as I stood there re-filling the car I must have had more than a hundred flies buzzing around me. And here's the thing about Australian flies, they are nothing like those back home. Those that buzz around you, rest on your shoulder for a shit or whatever it is they do and then move on to their next victim. Antipoden flies seem more intent on mocking you, or at least they do me. They fly around your face for a minute or so, allowing a whack that they cockily avoid. Then the onslaught begins. They go for you ear, then your nose, then your mouth. When they discover that the human reactions are better than they anticipated they grab a mate in the hope of distracting you from one orrifice as they attempt the other. But alas, when this attempt is blocked the process begins again but this time the amount of friends increases ten-gold each time. Eventually you get so frustrated and lash out so fiercely that you hit yourself full on in the face with a wooden spoon. The fly the allows itself a little chuckle, and I'm convinced I've heard this laugh, and flies on.

Aside from the heat and the flies Western Australia is a truly stunning part of the world and somewhere I urge you to go to while it remains a hidden gem. I intended to write about the places in this post but as I jot this down in the searing heat at Litchfield National Park a fly has just attempted a descent into my ear. I know Phase II of the attack is about to begin and I need to get inside before it does.

12 March 2009

Australian Beginnings

'I tell you what' said Nick on the bed opposite 'I'm glad I had that virus in that Bali guesthouse rather than in some dorm room. Especially this shithole.' Yeah you're right, I thought to myself. I would much rather be spewing my guts up in a clean Bali guesthouse providing air-conditioning and an en-suite bathroom than some dive backpackers in the Northbridge area of Perth, in a dorm room with 8 other lads and the nearest toilet a five minute walk away and the sign on the door proudly boasting that it had not been cleaned since January the 12th. Two months ago.

As Nick returned to his book, I slowly made my way to the door and once through it sprinted along the corridors attempting to hold that nauseous feeling down. I burst into the toilet, found the only available cubicle and bought up the remains of a god awful Chinese meal I had eaten earlier in some Perth shopping mall. Yes, I thought to myself as I slumped against the cubicle door, it would be much better to be doing this in a clean bathroom in Bali.

That was my first day in Australia. After 6 reasonably healthy weeks through South East Asia where I was careful about every meal I had, my first day in a Western country was to be spent looking down the toilet as I ignored one of the unwritten rules of travelling- Never eat in a place that boasts luminous food on it's menu.

But that was three days ago and while I have not quite recovered from the food poisoning that so cruely struck me down, I am enjoying this place a lot more. In four days time I will be beginning a dream that I have had for a long time. A proper road trip around Australia, well not really around Australia but from Perth on the South West Coast to Darwin in the far North. 3 weeks and 4000 kilometres will be covered.

I'll let you know how I get on.

5 March 2009

What I have learnt so far

Six weeks ago I arrived at London Heathrow airport bigger, cleaner and had much shorter hair than the mess that I know own. But there were a few lessons that I had not learned back then, things that I have picked up over the last month and a half travelling through South East Asia.

Tomorrow the first part of the trip is over. Nick and I will be leaving behind unpaved roads, and squatting toilets for more familiar surroundings in Australia. So here is what I have learned during the brilliant first part:

1) Remembering a street name just because it has a swear word in it can sometimes be the best way to direct a taxi driver home when you are half-cut.

2) Eating Western food in an Eastern country can be incredibly satisfying.

3) Irish people will only put up with a certain amount of 'Potato, potato, potato' and 'Tirty tree tree trunks' before storming off in a huff.

4) A missed bus is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a change of plan can throw up positives you did not expect.

5) Every Aussie that has ever travelled in Asia is from Melbourne. And they are usually very friendly.

6) Welsh people don't travel. Certainly not to SE Asia anyway.

7) Cambodia is not full of mud huts and there are actually people there that drive Mercs and Lexus'.

8) Tubing is worth missing.

9) Pol Pot was not the sort of person you would invite to your house for Sunday lunch.

10) 'Hocking' and gobbing is not considered rude in Asia.

11) There is a clock that runs to 'Asian time' and it is 20 minutes behind all over world clocks.

12) There is no safe way to travel around Vietnam (and that includes by foot).

13) Drunken decisions are often the best ones.

14) Never pick up a stray cat without having first had the Rabies jab.

15) Never shake an Asian person's left hand.

16) Four year old kids can be good at Tic Tac Toe.

17) A monkey in a dress may be cruel, but damn it is funny.

18) The hose is more refreshing than toilet paper although can lead to partial flooding of a toilet cubicle.

19) A sleeper bus is not as attractive as it's name suggests and should be renamed the 'light doze then breakdown' bus.

20) 12p tastes like it really should cost 12p.

21) Surfing in Bali is tougher than in Devon.

22) A floating bamboo hut may look like a good place for a room but is not ideal in aiding a blissful night's sleep.

23) Ear plugs are a sound investment.

24) Watching a 2 foot pike being fed dinner is a worthwhile piece of afternoon's entertainment.

25) Water puppetry is not.

26 February 2009

On some of the many stupidly long bus journeys that we have so far taken on this trip, my travel buddy, Nick, and I sometimes play game to stave off the boredom. No not 'Hide the Sausage' but 'Where Am I?'. I won't pretend it's anything more than an incredibly dull game that helps stav off boredom that bit longer but it has been useful on certain trips. The game is simple, you think of a place, name some landmarks in that particular place and the other person has to guess where in the world you are talking about.

Let us play a game now. I am in a trendy restaurant. I am sat on cushions with a tray-like table folded across my lap. The man on the table over from me is on his laptop using the Wi Fi service that is available in the particular eatery. Think you've got it yet? What were your guesses? Paris? London? Heck, even somewhere in Eastern Europe?

The answer ladies and gentlemen...Cambodia. Yes that's right that country that few of you have probably have heard of and if you have you are sure it is to do with some genocidal campaign here sometime in the twentieth century. I am not mocking you, dear reader, for lack of geographical awareness because this was my view of the country once known as Kampuchea before I arrived here one sunny January morning.

Cambodia is a country on the rise. It is not at the top, nor is it anywere near, but it has recovered incredibly strongly from one of the most murderous regimes ever experienced and in my opinion will continue to climb. Ironically it is interest in the infamous Pol Pot regime that is attracting tourists to the country and therefore helping the people recover. But first, for those not aware of the Khmer Rouge, a little history lesson.

Pol Pot's regime - Democratic Kampuchea- came into power in Cambodia in 1975 after the American War (yes there was an American war in Cambodia as well as Vietnam,using that war to blame the current government and convince the public that they were the best people to run the country. Which, of course they were not. Within a few months of being in office, Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, was evacuated and the habitants forced to move (and by move I mean walk) to the countryside, promised by the authorities that they would be able to return once the 'American bombardmet of the city' had ended. Once again, you can probably guess what. There was no American bombardment of Phnom Penh. Soon the evacuees were forced to begin work on the countryside, as the Khmer Rouge (yet another name for Pot's party) began to ban anything that represented a stabilised country. Religion, currency, education. Everything was wiped out.

But this was not the worst of it. Then the killings started. Over the next four years, 1.7 million people were killed. Some by guns, others by being slammed so viciously against trees all in order to save bullets. It was barbaric. Vietnam entered Cambodia in 1979 managing to overrun Pol Pot and his regime. Yet even now, 30 years on, the worst perpetrators have not been bought to justice.

Pol Pot's aim was to wipe out order and class in Cambodia. Beginning the calendar at the Year Zero and starting the country from scratch. One of the main points of his campaign was to rid the nation of corruption that is so often existant at the top of many governments. Due to this, the majority of the victims were either in the upper classes or well educated. But by the end it appeared that even the lowest ranking people were killed.

Which is why it is so strange that tourism forms such a large part of the country's growing economy and why tourist's interest in the S-21 prison- whre many prisoners were held in dreadful, sickiening conditions before being carted to the Killing Fields - and the Killing Fields themselves are one of the main drags for people visiting Cambodia. And it is based around these thousands of tourists that restaurants like the one I m currently sat in exists.

But a morbid recollection of a disturbed past is not all Cambodia has to offer. Although admittedly a tight schedule and badly sunburnt back prevented me from visiting, I am informed there are some of the most beautiful beaches around. And the Angkor Wat temples, incredibly impressive 12th and 13th century article, that may or may not be one of the Seven Wonders- I couldn't be bothered to look it up.

If he could see the state of the country now, Pol Pot would be turning in his grave. And too f*cking right.

13 February 2009

Thailand: Sold to the Highest Bidder

The Kho Sahn Road is perhaps most famous as the opening scene for Alex Garland's novel 'The Beach'- or as it was described to me 'that Leonardo di Caprio film where he sh*gs the girl in the water'. The books main character, Richard, describes the infamous road as a place teeming with neon lights, tackiness and Thai salesmen, and he could not be more accurate. Whether your opinion of the road is a good or bad one- and believe me I have met people whose views go from one end of the spectrum to the other- there is no doubt that this place is as loud, dirty and noisy as any other place on earth. All those who have done a night in Cardiff, imagine Chippy Lane in the early hours of a Sunday morning, multiply it by ten, add a few sex shops, and fried cockroaches for sale and even then you are about halfway there.

Mates of mine will be suprised to hear that this particular element of Thai 'culture' did not make a positive impression on me. Recently, in fact, up until less than a year ago, this street filled with cheap beers and hot young women (not all hookers, but certainly a high majority) would have had me rushing there everynight but I left the place, and Bangkok overall, a little disappointed.

I'm going to be blunt here, and the title of this post gives this away, but Thailand has sold it's soul. A country that has as much natural beauty as most other places on the planet and friendlier people as well seems more keen on promoting the ugly drink and drugs scene that so many travellers seize on it for. On the beautiful island of Ko Samui, the original 'backpacker island' has replaced the untouvhed beauty of the beach with more flashing lights and KFC, Burger King and McDonald's within a few yards of each other. Locals on the even more stunningly attractive Ko Phi Phi who once used their boats for fishing trips to feed local people have become the most annoying people on the planet that bug every passing Westerner whether they would like 'taxi boat, I take you, very good, very cheap.'

But let me point out that this is not as negative an article as the first few paragraphs suggest. As with a country so large and diverse, it is impossible to put one country into the same bracket. There are places in Thailand that have held onto their traditions.

Kanchanaburi is just two hours outside of the capital city, but for the difference it offers it might as well be an overnight train journey, then a twelve hour plane trip. While Bangkok is fast, frenetic, crazy and smelly this small-town is laidback, slow-paced and a pleasant place to be. The tuk tuk drivers are still their in their droves at the bus station, but once you have hoped aboard with the most friendly looking one, it is pure laidback lifestyle. The place is most famous as the scene of the 'Bridge over the River Kwai' much glamoroused by yet another book-turned-film but what is refreshing is that most of the monuments are free to use and, unlike Bangkok, you never get the feeling that every person that passes you in the street and even shakes your hand- as many of them seem to want to do- wants to part you with your hard earned, or in my case just earned, cash.

Another example of this is the island of Ko Tao. Not nearly as attractive as it's Adnaman neighbours Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan but this is no doubt a good thing. It seems that Thailand's money hungry have not caught on to this diving mecca, which keeps the prices down and the atmosphere friendly.

And finally Krabi, the launching point for many trips to Ko Phi Phi, is the most laidback town I have ever experienced. Tourists, and mostly backpackers, fill the streets but there is still a real feel for local Thai people about the place. Not the types that will hassle you in the street until you literally have to scream at them to "F*ck off" but the ones that will smile at you in the street and perhaps shake your hand as you pass, asking where you are from, but not once mention that one word that seems to be tearing the heart out of this country "money."

24 January 2009

First Stop...Hong Kong

You might not have noticed it but there is a global recession occurring at the minute. In my home town, London, and most cities around the world people are doing extra hours and pretending to work much harder than normal just to hold on to their jobs. Not so in Hong Kong.

Asia's self styled 'Global City' appears to be the capital city of pointless jobs. While the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline prove that many people, both Chinese and international, are making much money here, there are also a number of jobs that really are unnecessary. I have lost count of the amount of traffic controllers I have seen directing cars along one-way streets, an old man is employed to hold a gate open at the Star Ferry terminal all day (I did the trip twice just to make sure) and divers meander in the water in case a passenger on the world famous ferry falls in. Admittedly, I got a little carried away and made one of those up. In essence it is place where money continues to be made.

Due to the relatively small area of this ex-British owned country, the buildings are made extremely high. As I sit here in a 50 storey high waterside apartment (oh, how the other half live) I can make out at least 11 equally high buildings next to me, mostly designed for the thousands of businessmen you see around the place in their flash new cars, complete with personalised number plates. This is clearly a place where status is important.

But far from being an eyesore and ripping the soul out of the place, this sign of wealth and success is what makes Hong Kong, well, Hong Kong. Glimpses of the traditional Chinese way of life are dotted around, but essentially it is place where Western values dominate. The fact that Nick and I managed to navigate our way around the underground system without ending up at the Chinese border is testament to that. Although it didn't come without it's problems, a simple Devonian boy that is unable to understand the tickets are generally needed to get through ticket barriers can be a bit frustrating.

The old-fashioned yet impressive tram taking you to the city's highest mountain, Victoria Peak, is another example of Western, and in particular, British influence. Hong Kong's famous peak- or not so famous, depending on whether you have heard of it or now I guess- gives a different view to the buildings that cause such neck-ache down on the ground. A clear day allows for spectacular views across the city with more mountains in the background, and being the culture vultures we are, Nick and I topped off our sightseeing day with a visit to the authentically Chinese restaurant of Bubba Gumps shrimp restaurant, the diner themed on the fantastic movie, Forrest Gump.

Back on flat and you are quite literally shipped back to China's past on the rickety old Star Ferry. The landmark takes you across from the much more traditional Kowloon island to the mostly modern and skyscraper-dominated Hong Kong Island. The further outside of the city you travel the closer you get to the religious heart of the place. The 10,000 Buddhas is an impressive, if taxing, climb where the Buddhist way of life is celebrated as well as Diamond Hill which boasts an impressive nunnery as well as one of those most stunning parks I have ever visited. Unfortunately, as stunning as the place is it does not allow for coffee to be drunk outside, but obviously I am not bitter about this so will leave it there.

The tired old cliche that has been said a million times- a million and one now- that Hong Kong is a real blend of East and West culture is, in my opinion, slightly off the mark. While old-style China is recognisable in certain aspects, it is the dream of rags-to-riches that dominates here. Or as I like to call it, the New China.