Back to reality

I arrived at London Heathrow early on Friday, June 1. The flight was okay and I’ve decided British Airways is better than Jetstar but not as good as Qantas. When we landed, we were asked to remain seated, and some police officers came and took away the two men sitting on my left, who had seemed like nice blokes. I waited for Dad in the arrivals area, and I didn’t have to wait long before he came and drove me home.

The jetlag was definitely worse on the way back than the way out. Yesterday, I fell asleep at 4pm. I’m missing the warm weather (even Melbourne seemed warm compared to here) but I’m not missing hostel life. I’m relieved that I’m back in one piece, and so is my stuff, particularly my camera, netbook and phone. The only things I lost were my socks, on the beach at Byron Bay, and my phone charger, which I left in Melbourne, and that’s not bad at all. It’s going to be a while before I can afford to go on holiday again, but I know that I’ve done more in the last three and a half months than some people do in a lifetime. I’m looking forward to returning to Exeter at the weekend, seeing my friends, finding a new job and starting a new chapter of my life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Back to reality

Bangkok: An assault on the senses

I nearly missed my flight to Bangkok because I spent as long as possible with Jess in Melbourne and then the airport security staff made me unpack my bag because they were convinced there was something metal in it. The offending article turned out to be my hairbrush (which has no metal parts and has never caused an issue before) and I think I was the last person to board the plane. I hadn’t flown with Jetstar before, and I didn’t like the fact you had to pay $5 if you wanted to watch a film and $2 if you wanted to listen to an album. There were no complimentary alcoholic drinks either. I tried to sleep for most of the nine-and-a-half-hour journey.

I got a taxi from the airport to Viengtai Hotel, and although the journey took about 40 minutes, it only cost about £10. We drove past a number of elaborately decorated buildings, and culture shock kicked in. Even though it was about 10pm when I arrived at the hotel, the streets were buzzing and the temperature was about 29 degrees. Feeling shattered, I decided to leave exploring until the morning. I fell asleep to the sound of live English/American music coming from a bar nearby.

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I found that the streets were just as busy the next morning. They were lined with stalls, most of which had either unidentifiable foods or cheap clothes for sale. The cooking added to the temperature, which was in the mid 30s, and at times it smelled and looked delicious and at other times it smelled and looked nauseating. It was easier to walk in the road, but it was a risk given all the motorbikes, scooters, cars and tuk-tuks roaring around the corners. I quickly became very lost because none of the names on the street signs seemed to be on my map, and the best solution was to get a cheap and fun ride in a tuk-tuk. I was frequently pestered by stallholders and tuk-tuk drivers, but I was surprised that so few locals seemed able to speak more than a few words of very basic English, given all the tourists around. At times this presented a challenge. As I wandered around, I noticed that I was quite tall compared to most Thai women, and it was nice to see things from a different perspective. That evening, I went out for a type of curry I hadn’t had before, and a beer, and it came to about £4.50. It would have cost a lot more than that in Australia.

On Thursday, May 31, I got the hotel’s free shuttle bus to the spectacular Grand Palace. I’d never seen anything like it. Although it was a bit too gold and sparkly for my taste, I could appreciate that it must have taken a long time to get all the mosaic pieces into place. After wandering around the complex of buildings, I went for a walk to see the river and a couple of notable temples (from the outside only), Wat Arun and Wat Pho. I went past a lot more stalls selling everything from bottled water for 10p to huge framed portraits of Thailand’s king (no One Direction posters here!), Buddha statues, birds in little cages, large knives, pirate DVDs and CDs, and the odd laptop, phone and camera which I suspected had been obtained illegally. I also wandered up the famous Khao San Road, and impulsively spent about £11 on five tops. Of course, I also had a soft serve cone or three in McDonald’s, but it tasted a little bit different. My day in the Thai sun resulted in a better tan than I got in Australia.

I spent my last few hours in Thailand sitting in the bar across the road from the hotel so I could still use the hotel’s internet service. The tourists on the table next to mine were working their way through a bag of large grasshoppers, and when they noticed me watching them in horror, they offered me one. At first, I politely declined, but then I thought “When in Rome…” and I’m known as someone who’ll try anything once, so I couldn’t refuse. I thought if the people on I’m A Celebrity can do it, I can do it. I shoved the insect into my mouth and attempted to chew and swallow it as quickly as possible, but it took a lot of crunching to break it down and it felt like the legs got caught in my throat. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten and I was retching for a few minutes afterwards. I’m never going near one of those again! I tried to wash it down with beer but it didn’t really work. Bottled beers were only about £1.20 and I was a bit tipsy by the time I had to get a taxi to the airport. I was just a 12-hour flight away from getting back to reality.

Posted in Thailand | Comments Off on Bangkok: An assault on the senses

The last few days in Oz

My last few days in Melbourne were among my favourite days of the whole trip because I got to spend them with one of my best friends. On Saturday, May 26, I was up very early so I could meet Jess at the airport. I showed her around the city a bit and then we went to Melbourne Cricket Ground for her first Aussie rules football match. We decided to back local team Richmond Tigers, and they beat Hawthorn Hawks 137-75. The MCG had a capacity of 100,000, making it the largest stadium I’d ever visited. Even though there were only 51,617 spectators at the match, there was a fantastic atmosphere, and it was a thrilling game.

The next day, we visited the market (where we got Richmond Tigers socks) and went up Eureka Tower. Then we went to St Kilda where we ate cake, played Cowardy Custard on the beach, had drinks at a couple of pubs, went to the end of the pier and saw a couple of penguins, and had a nice dinner. When we returned to central Melbourne, we went back up the tower to see the city at night. We made it with six minutes to spare before last entry!

On Monday, May 28, I hired a car – a red Hyundai i20 which we named Scarlet – from Europcar, with the intention of seeing as much of the Great Ocean Road as possible. We travelled about 570km altogether, and would have done more if it hadn’t got dark so early. We visited Torquay, which was only interesting because it shared its name with a town near Exeter. Then we went to Bells Beach and watched the surfers catch some pretty big waves. Then we decided to head to the 12 Apostles and work back. It started to rain, but at least that meant that we had the more unusual sight of a rainbow over the famous rock stacks. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time before nightfall to see the other places on our list, so a quick comfort break in Lorne was our only other stop. We were lucky enough to see a kangaroo by the side of the road on the way back. Later, we went to Nando’s and met up with Jemma in the bar next to the hostel.

On Tuesday, May 29, it was time to leave. We went for a drink in the cafe by the hostel and then headed to the airport. It was hard to say goodbye because it’s going to be a long, long time before I see Jess again, but I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off from Australia and, I think, Jess couldn’t have asked for a better start to her own adventure down under.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on The last few days in Oz

Everybody needs good neighbours

Even though I haven’t watched Neighbours since I was about 22, I couldn’t visit Melbourne without acknowledging the role that the soap played in my life for several years.

On Monday, May 21, I went to the Elephant and Wheelbarrow pub in St Kilda for the weekly Neighbours night, accompanied by Lizzie who was my roommate in Cairns. On this occasion, the expected stars were Alan Fletcher (Dr Karl Kennedy) and Carla Bonner (Steph Scully) – both of whom I was excited about meeting – and James Mason (Chris Pappas) who I didn’t know because he only joined the show a couple of years ago.

There was a question and answer session and then the actors went to each table and spent time chatting, posing for photographs and signing autographs. They were really friendly. This was followed by a general knowledge quiz, and Carla gave my team the answers to a couple of the Neighbours questions. My team came second, but this wasn’t good enough to win any prizes. After this, Alan and his band, Waiting Room, took to the stage. They performed one original song, but the rest were covers of songs by the likes of Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Snow Patrol and Bon Jovi. Alan is a better actor than singer, but overall it was a fantastic, fun night, and I liked the fact it was so informal.

On Wednesday, May 23, I went on the Neighbours tour. I was told to meet at the official Neighbours centre, which was just a few doors down from the hostel. I found out on Monday that we would be meeting Kym Valentine (Libby Kennedy) but I didn’t expect this to be at the beginning of the tour, and it was a surprise when Kym walked through the door. She was lovely (and like Carla, much shorter than I’d imagined) and she spent about half an hour with us, talking about Neighbours, playing Baby in the Australian stage version of Dirty Dancing, and motherhood. She also posed for photographs and signed autographs.

Our funny and knowledgable tour guide took us by minibus to see the outside of the high school, although I didn’t really recognise anything, the studio, though we could only see part of it, and best of all, Ramsay Street, which is actually called Pin Oak Court. We posed for photos with the street sign outside the familiar houses and it felt a bit surreal to be there. I might have to watch Neighbours again now. Just one more time…

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Everybody needs good neighbours

Hello Mel

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I updated this blog. The last parts of my trip were arguably the busiest parts, but I know that’s a poor excuse.

The view was beautiful as I flew away from Cairns on Saturday, May 19. I arrived in Melbourne as the sun was setting. This was at about 5pm, which was noticeably earlier than in Cairns. It was also noticeably colder than in Cairns.

I got the Skybus into the city centre and a taxi to Nomads, which wasn’t a very nice hostel. I stayed there for the two nights I’d booked when I booked my flight, and then I moved to the ever-reliable YHA, where I was joined by Jemma who I’d met in Sydney and Brisbane.

Melbourne had a unique atmosphere. There were lots of street entertainers (some of which were good and some of which were awful), horse-drawn carriages taking tourists up and down the streets, graffiti-covered laneways, grand old buildings alongside modern ones, and trams to dodge as well as cars and buses. The free city circle tram was really useful.

I didn’t see much Melbourne nightlife – after all, pints generally cost over £6 and cocktails over £10 – but I went to the famous Young & Jackson Hotel. There were lots of places with rooftop bars, but the ones I visited didn’t have a decent view, and it was cold, so I didn’t stay long. I had a memorable evening in the bar next to Nomads with a couple of Aussies, after we won quite a lot of money on the games machine. I also spent a few evenings in the bar next to the YHA hostel, where Jemma, my roommate Michelle and I won a free jug of beer in the quiz.

I visited the large Queen Victoria Market, which seemed the best place to go for Australian souvenirs, and the very relaxing Fitzroy Gardens and Carlton Gardens, which contained the impressive Royal Exhibition Building. With all the red and gold leaves falling from the trees, I had to keep reminding myself that it was May. I also visited the Botanic Gardens and went up to the 88th floor of the Eureka Tower. There were amazing views of the city from there, and it made me realise that Melbourne is huge. I only saw a small section of the city.

I took the tram to St Kilda, about 20 minutes from central Melbourne. It was quite a quirky place, and I liked it. There was some cool public art, and some cake shops that made you feel like you were putting on weight just by looking at the goodies in the windows. There was a nice beach, and at the end of the pier, at dusk, you could see little penguins returning from the sea, which were really cute. It was while I was sitting at the end of the pier that I got chatting to an Aussie called Brad, who took me out for dinner followed by copious amounts of wine. We went to a bizarre bar called 29th Apartment which was fitted out like an apartment, complete with bed, bath, television and fish tank, and enjoyed some live music.

There were some very strange people in Melbourne. The one that stood out most was an old woman called JJ, who came and sat down at my table in McDonald’s. Without removing her sunglasses, bright red coat or black beret, she spooned ice cream into her coffee and told me all about her life and thoughts about the world. She was an inspirational character, who claimed to have never had a bad day. She said there was always a positive way of looking at things. I have tried to remember that.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Hello Mel

A day in the rainforest

Yesterday I went on a day trip with Active Tropics Explorer to Daintree National Park, north of Cairns. I was picked up from my hostel at 7.25am and returned there about 11 hours later. The tour guide, Drew, was very friendly and impressively knowledgeable.

The drive along the coast was really pretty, and we saw lots of wallabies, but I’ve yet to see a wild cassowary. I was excited to see some crocodiles during our 45-minute cruise on the Daintree River. We even saw some 14-week-old babies, which were quite cute miniature versions of their mother. We also saw a tree snake.

We went for a walk through the rainforest which was really good. Some of the ferns were ginormous, and haven’t changed since dinosaurs were around. We had a brief visit to the beach before lunch at Cape Tribulation, and then we stopped at the Daintree Ice Cream Company for some delicious refreshment in four exotic flavours including wattleseed.

We went to a lookout point to see the coastline and the mouth of the Daintree River, and then we went to Mossman Gorge. We learned a lot about Aboriginal culture from Rodney, who was half European. I was a bit disappointed because, although his talk was interesting, I’d expected something that felt slightly more authentic. We drove back to Cairns via Port Douglas, an attractive resort town.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on A day in the rainforest

Finding Nemo (or one of his relatives, anyway)

I’ve always thought snorkelling or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef would be an amazing experience. It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

On Tuesday, May 15, I went on a trip to Moore Reef, part of the outer Great Barrier Reef (which is supposedly in better condition than the middle reef), with a company called Reef Magic. Because I’m a YHA member, I got a free introductory scuba dive, worth $120, but if I’d only gone snorkelling I’d still have seen everything. Moore Reef was about 50km away from Cairns and it took about an hour and a half for the catamaran to reach the pontoon. It wasn’t a smooth ride and several people were sick. I don’t usually get seasick so when I felt ill I put it down to nerves – anyone who’s heard about the scuba dive I did five years ago would understand – but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

I was in the first group to go scuba diving, with three other people plus Brendan, our instructor. The water was 26 or 27 degrees but we wore wetsuits because the marine stinger season isn’t officially over until the end of the month. We swam in a line with our arms linked together, which ensured that nobody got left behind or had a problem that went unnoticed. The only time we separated was to have our photo taken with a huge Maori Wrasse called Wally. The dive lasted just under half an hour, and it was incredible. The water was perfectly clear, and we saw fish and coral of all shapes, sizes and colours. I was happy when we saw some clownfish and I could claim that I ‘found Nemo’. The fish were all around us, and some didn’t make any effort to swim away from us. After the dive, we went snorkelling, and I saw a turtle, which made my day. I used up the film in my disposable underwater camera, but I was disappointed with the results because they didn’t do the reef justice at all.

When I was a bit tired of swimming, I went on a 25-minute ride on the semi-submersible boat and saw the same sort of things. We had five hours on the reef altogether, and we were provided with a hot and cold buffet lunch.

I would’ve liked to see a ray and a reef shark but I certainly can’t complain. It was a day to remember, and another thing crossed off my ‘bucket list’.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Finding Nemo (or one of his relatives, anyway)

Goodbye Greyhound

The journey from Mission Beach to Cairns was my final ride on the Greyhound bus, and it brought the total distance I’ve travelled by Greyhound up to 3,020km. For most of my travelling companions, Cairns was the end of the road, and everyone was talking about home. Although I still had Melbourne to visit before leaving the country, I also started to wind down a bit.

My time in Cairns got off to a bad start on Friday, May 11, when I lugged my bags to Nomads on the esplanade only to discover that the woman at Mission Beach had booked me into the other Nomads instead – the one so far away it wasn’t on the map of the city centre. As I’d already paid for my first three nights, I had no choice but to go there. The air conditioning didn’t work, which made life uncomfortable as the daytime temperature was 28 or 29 degrees and the nights were also warm. There were other aspects of the hostel that I didn’t like very much, so on Monday, May 14, I moved to the YHA hostel where I was happier. I made more friends there and I enjoyed the barbecue and free cheese and wine (well, goon) night.

The city centre was nothing special, but it had an Abbott Street, and two branches of McDonald’s where I could get my cheap ice-cream fix. The best part was the esplanade, but I didn’t think the lagoon was as good as the ones in Brisbane and Airlie Beach. I also passed time at the shopping centre, the night market and the park, all of which were unremarkable. On the plus side, accommodation was slightly cheaper than further south, and it didn’t get dark quite so early.

The highlight of my time in the city was my night out that technically didn’t end until 6.15am. It included a visit to the famous (and although everywhere in Australia claims to be famous, in this case it’s true) Gilligan’s. But that’s all I’m going to say about that night on here!

The main reason for going to Cairns was to go on a trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef, but that deserves a post to itself. I also went on a trip to the rainforest in Daintree National Park, north of Cairns, and that can also have a separate post.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Goodbye Greyhound

Mission Beach

I got to Mission Beach on Wednesday, May 9. I didn’t know much about it, apart from it’s a popular place to go skydiving, but having done a jump in New Zealand, I wasn’t desperate to do another so soon. I just wanted a change of scenery, to break up the journey to Cairns, and to chill out for a while.

I stayed at Absolute Backpackers. Soon after I arrived, I was taken on a short minibus tour to look for cassowaries (we didn’t see any) and wallabies (we saw loads). I went out for dinner with Dave, who I first met at surf camp, and Tanya, which was a treat. We took part in the hostel’s Pictionary evening which was quite fun, and we came third.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Mission Beach

Maggie May

On Monday, May 7, I headed to Magnetic Island (known locally as Maggie) purely on the recommendation of one of my football teammates. The day didn’t get off to a great start. Firstly, I couldn’t have any breakfast because someone had stolen my Coco Pops (but left the box behind, which showed they hadn’t just been moved). Secondly, the bus broke down and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half.

Eventually we arrived in Townsville and I got the 3.45pm ferry to the island. It was about 8km away and it took about 20 minutes to get there. I got the bus to Horseshoe Bay and checked into the YHA’s Bungalow Bay Koala Village – the only hostel in Australia with an on-site koala sanctuary. It was a lovely hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and a haven for wildlife including possums and wallabies.

On the first night, there was bingo in the bar, which was fun but I didn’t win anything. On the second night, there was a quiz. I resurrected the team Fat Kids Always Win At Seesaw with Amy, Hugo and three new faces. There were 12 teams taking part and we won without even needing to cheat, as we only dropped three points. It was the first time I’ve ever won a pub quiz. We won three jugs of beer, and were told that we would have got the prize for the best team name but they wanted to let one of the other teams win something.

The sanctuary was worth the visit. I discovered that it’s state law to pay to hold a koala (the money goes towards conservation) but unlike other places, there was no charge to hold and have photos taken with other creatures. There were six people in our group, and we walked around the sanctuary with a keeper, at a relaxed pace. I held a six-year-old saltwater crocodile called Barbie, a skink, a dragon, a turtle, and – I never thought I’d say this – a python. I wasn’t very comfortable with the snake, especially when it tightened its grip on me a bit more than I expected. We also met a wombat, a temperamental cockatoo and, of course, a koala. The whole tour lasted around an hour and three quarters, and finished with a short walk on some public land behind the sanctuary where there were hundreds of large and colourful butterflies.

The 3km Forts Walk, not far from the hostel, was renowned as one of the best chances to see koalas in the wild. I saw one, which I would have missed if someone hadn’t left an arrow made from twigs pointing in the direction of the tree. Although I’d hoped to see a few more, it was still a good walk, with some spectacular views.

Posted in Australia | Comments Off on Maggie May