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Down Under 2

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Some more musings on our holiday to Australia...

  • Coins - The one and two dollar coins appear to be made out of the same metal, yet the two dollar coin is much smaller than the one dollar.  Strange, though I prefer them to our huge two pound coins.
  • Transit lanes - Great idea.  Basically a lane where you have to have at least a certain number of people in your vehicle to use.  Only problem I see is how to police the system as I don't see an easy way to count people automatically.  It's probably easy enough to tell if people are in the front two seats with a thermal imaging camera, but the back row(s) of seats would be more difficult.
  • Breath tests - Whilst over there, we did two breath tests.  One I did before I was allowed to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the other Katherine did as a random roadside test whilst driving through the Blue Mountains.  On both occasions we scored a blood alcohol level of zero, but the interesting thing is the equipment they used.  Rather than blowing through a tube to collect a sample like in the UK, you simply speak into a nozzle (we were asked to count to ten) until the machine beeps.  It saves having to sterilise a new tube for everyone (the whole team doing the bridge climb used the same tester) and is a lot quicker and easier.
  • Internet cafés - Cheap and plentiful.  Handy for checking email, facebook, etc. and we were able to check in online for our return flights.  Oddly, most doubled as travel centres rather than as cafes.  One launderette I noticed was offering internet use while you wash your clothes.
  • ISPs - we obviously didn't pay for an internet connection on holiday, but I noticed in all the promotions that you pay for a fixed download allowance, rather than the (reasonably) "unlimited" subscription model followed over here.  I suspect that we're going to go down the same route sooner or later as the ISPs in the UK are straining under the ever increasing load and I'm sure would love to be able to charge more for their services.

Down Under

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We got back from Australia a couple of days ago.  I have to say I've had the time of my life in and around Sydney.  Rather than write up the entire holiday like I attempted with New Zealand a couple of years ago, I'll instead list a few highlights and other interesting things that I did or noticed.  So, in no particular order...

  • Sydney harbour is just gorgeous.  We took so many photos of the area - some of which I'll stick online soon, though I doubt they'll do justice to the place.
  • We stayed in an area called Manly, just a half hour ferry ride away from the centre of the city.  It's a lovely laid back beach town and we were renting a nice apartment in a building overlooking the beach.  Bondi beach was just a tourist hole in comparison.  When we arrived, the three day Manly Jazz festival was just starting and on the second day, the local rugby league team won the Premiership by battering Melbourne 40-0, leaving a lot of very happy people around!
  • The temporarily very favourable Australian dollar to British pound exchange rate made the prices of things rather reasonable.
  • The Sydney Harbour Bridge climb is a great experience.  If you do it, make sure you do the longer Discovery Climb.  It was just great clambering around on catwalks under the roadway with just a metal grating and a cable attached to your waist between you and the waters far below.  The views from the top were spectacular - it was a great shame I wasn't allowed to take my camera up there.
  • The Blue Mountains were equally spectacular, though more touristy than I had expected.  The busiest area around Katoomba was utterly rammed with coachloads of people, and the Three Sisters which are meant to be the highlight aren't actually that impressive when you compare it with the views at the lookouts around Blackheath.  Climbing out to Panorama Lookout along a jumble of rocks and gravel with a huge drop on either side is well worth it.
  • We attended a wedding in the bandstand in Balmoral beach which was lovely.
  • We hired a car for the last week of our trip.  It had an automatic gearbox which was really weird to get used to (and seemed to burn fuel at an incredible rate).  My left foot kept lifting for the clutch.  It wasn't helped by the windscreen wiper and indicator controls being swapped around from the usual places.
  • Public transport - Very cheap if you buy a weekly season ticket and you can get more or less anywhere easily.  The ferry is the best way to travel!
  • E-tags - These are a tag you put in your car which you top up with credit and automatically pays tolls on motorways, bridges and tunnels when you pass through a gate that detects the tag.  The problem was that the hire car wasn't fitted with one, and some of the toll roads don't accept cash meaning we had to avoid certain roads (thankfully we were given a list of which roads to avoid).  Surely it would have been easier for the hire company to just fit a tag to the car and charge us at the end of the hire period?
  • Beers - small and expensive.  Where's a proper pint when you need one?
  • Wines - lovely and cheap.
  • Supermarkets - they don't sell any booze at all.  You have to go to a bottle shop to get a bottle of wine to go with your meal and it's always wrapped in a brown paper bag as though the country is ashamed of drinking alcohol.  This is far from what I expected from the typical Australian beer swilling stereotype.
  • Taronga Zoo - Wow, what a location overlooking the harbour.  Easy to get to on the ferry too.  Difficult to find your way around though, as nearly every path seems to lead back round to the central food area and signposts appear to contradict the map you're given with your ticket.
  • The Sydney Opera House is one of those rare buildings that just looks amazing from any angle.
  • Television - Seems to be way ahead of British TV in some aspects.  We had several High Definition channels available to us (though oddly half the channels were duplicated at least twice on the TV we had).  Some of the channels seemed to be showing US dramas the day after they are on in the US.  For example, we saw several episodes of season five of House M.D. in HD which won't be on in the UK for months and will be standard definition when shown (at least on terrestrial TV).
  • The Sam Neill TV adverts saying you should eat lean red meat three to four times a week and that eating red meat is the reason our brains have developed to the size they are.  That would never have been shown in the UK.  The vegetarian society would have had it banned before it even got off the drawing board.  I like the Aussie attitude to this!
  • Flights - I hate long haul flights.  I can't sleep, and we were sat near business class so the look of those comfy chairs made my horrible hard uncomfortable chair feel even worse. On the way back we had to check out of our apartment by 10am, then do stuff all day, get to the airport in the evening, endure a fourteen hour flight to Dubai, hang around there for a few hours, then another flight to Gatwick, followed by waiting around for an hour for a train home.  In total I was awake for 43½ hours.
  • The flight to Australia was even worse, because the airline had booked more babies on the flights than there were bassinets available (basically a cot which attaches to the wall).  Despite checking in online a whole day before the flight, we were forced to share one, meaning there were several screaming babies on the flight that were really tired and unable to sleep properly - and causing the other passengers to lose sleep also.  To deprive an adult of sleep for a whole day is bad enough, but to do this to a baby is basically nothing short of child abuse - the airline shouldn't have done this and will be receiving a strongly worded letter of complaint!!!
  • Hiking - We did plenty of long walks, and carrying our baby in the sling or pushing him in the pram just makes it even more exercise, meaning I managed to lose half a stone in weight in three weeks without even trying.  WIN!
  • Food - The Australians seem to like all of my favourite foods.  Lots of meat, pies, meat pies, burgers, barbecue, etc.  I was also introduced to the lunchtime delight of toasted ham and cheese croissants, which should be sold over here immediately!  Also Kangaroo is nice to eat and they claim it's more environmentally friendly as they do not require loads of grazing land, nor do they produce as much methane as cows do (which I'm sure is carbon neutral anyway given that it comes from grass that only grew in the previous few weeks, and methane breaks down into water and carbon dioxide fairly quickly in our oxygen rich atmosphere, but that's another discussion).
  • Weather - A couple of days of rain, but mostly blue skies and temperatures in the high twenties.  We used a lot of sun screen!
I'm sure I'll think of more things to add to this list in the coming days.

Buggy

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We're off to Australia for a well earned holiday in a few days.  One thing we realised is that we needed a new buggy for our son as the one we already have is very good, but too heavy and bulky for an airport.  The other option would be to carry him in the Baby Bjorn sling but doing that every day for three weeks solid would get pretty uncomfortable and tiring.

So, off we went to the big Mothercare supermarket in Weybridge to spend our money.  We wanted a buggy as light as possible, that folded up as small as possible.  Being in the UK it also had to have a rain cover.  The place was quite busy, but we were able to try out all the buggies in our own time, wheeling them around and folding them up, etc.  After fiddling around with everything that was on offer, we settled with a Maclaren Triumph which seemed to meet all our requirements (in charcoal grey, not the eye bleeding bright pink which comes up on the site by default).

Then we went to the till to go and buy it, but the woman claimed she wasn't trained on buggies and couldn't help us.  The other staff were all helping other customers.  We waited around for a while, gave up and went to the Argos next door to see if they had it (they didn't), and went back.  This time a different woman was serving who just went into the back and got one for us.  We paid, shoved it in the car and headed home.  Job done.

Why did the first woman refuse to help us?  It seems daft.  We knew exactly which buggy we wanted - we weren't asking her for advice on what to buy, we just said "We'd like to buy that one please".  The only thing I can think of is that she wasn't trained for lifting stuff from the store room (despite the whole thing weighing only 6kg including packaging).

Now we need to work out how to pack all of his baby stuff into ½ a normal personal baggage allowance for the flights (luckily, the pram itself won't be counted as part of that).  Then we need to find out definitively what we need to do about baby food.  Neither the airline or airport websites are particularly helpful on this subject so I guess we'll have to phone them.  We can't take all his food ready made because 24+ hours out of a fridge is too long to remain sterile, so do we take baby bottles full of sterilised water (which are bigger than 100ml and could be confiscated) and add the powder when he feeds s we do at home, or are we forced to buy lots of those expensive little ready made cartons of baby milk?
I've been a bit slack in writing up our journey around New Zealand as of late, so it's about time I caught up. Anyway, were was I... We stayed the night at the roadside in Pokeno. In the morning after breakfast we headed back to State Highway 1. We needed to refuel the van soon, so we stopped off at a petrol station in Cambridge (nothing like it's English namesake). This is where the trouble started. I filled the van full of diesel with no problems, but when I came to pay for it I ran into problems. I gave the pump number to the bored looking woman at the till. She took my card off me and swiped it. I assumed the system was the same as Chip 'n Pin in the UK, so I entered my pin on the keypad and pressed enter. Nothing happened.  After a few seconds it decided to reject the transaction. I looked at her and she scowled and barked "Select account!" at me.  I asked her what she meant.  She then gave up and got the manager, saying that I was causing trouble! The manager turned up. I explained I was on holiday from the UK and there was obviously something I was missing, but I had no idea what the woman had meant by "Select account". The manager took one look at my card, saw the Visa sign and assumed it was a credit card. He swiped the card again and pressed the CR button on the keypad (making sure to make me look like an idiot in front of the ever increasing queue) and asked me to enter my PIN. Depite it not being a credit card, this appeared to work (thank you to Visa and my bank!!!). You see, despite reading through the guide book and asking people about the country, I was unaware that in New Zealand, people have one card and attach all their accounts (credit, current account, savings, etc) to it, so you have to select the account type on the keypad and then enter the pin number for that card. It's a good idea in that it saves space in your wallet, etc - except that if you lose that one card then access to ALL of your accounts is lost. I just wish someone had explained that to me before I inadvertently pissed off a lot of people in a petrol station. Anyhow, I eventually got back in the van and we were on our way. Next up - Hobbiton!!!
Being driven on roads that varied from bumpy to just gravel whilst having a rather queasy stomach is no laughing matter. In fact, I puked all over someone's front lawn (sorry about that whoever you are), though the toilet in the camper van saved many an accident. Anyhow, despite my illness, we continued our journey, working our way down the coast through Auckland and onto Reporoa where we stayed for a few days and attended a lovely wedding. However, I'm getting ahead of myself. The first place we visited on our Southward progress was Kawakawa, where there are some rather unique public toilets designed by Hundertwasser. They feature multiple coloured tiles with glass bottles embedded in the walls. A great place for a poo (one of many that day...). We then continued to Whangarei where we visited the impressive local waterfall and had a lovely walk around the area.  After sitting down nearby for a rest, we watched some local Maori boys swimming in the water, fearless of the nearby waterfall.  One of them then proceeded to climb quickly to the top of a ridiculously high tree and dive into the water.  We weren't the only ones impressed.  The boys noticed some other tourists had taken a video of his dive and so went to them to see the resulting footage. Onwards we went, to see Goat Island.  We originally planned on getting a boat trip around the island as described in the guide book, but we were out of season so it wasn't running.  Instead we clambered all over the rocky beach, noticing odd tiny copper sculptures embedded in the stone and the bizarre looking trees overhanging us.  As there were a lot of rock pools around, I inevitably slipped one foot into a shin deep example to much laughter from Katherine and an old Scottish couple who had come from nowhere behind us to witness my mishap and laugh about it. We decided that we would rather tackle Auckland's traffic in the evening rather than the next day, so we tore our way down State Highway 1 to find the little town of Pokeno as an ideal quiet place to park up for the night. To be continued...
After the urban delights of Auckland, we drove north up State Highway 1 to the Bay of Islands. It's pretty much as it says on the tin, a bay with lots of little islands in it - though we didn't actually visit any of the islands. Instead we first visited the small quiet coastal town of Paihia (I've still no idea how to pronounce that) and had a wander around. It's a lovely looking place, though I suspect it'd be heaving with tourists in the middle of summer. We then headed a little further north to the Waitangi treaty grounds. This is the place where the treaty unifying New Zealand as a country for both Maori and Europeans was first signed. The area itself it fairly unremarkable, with a simple building known as the Treaty House, another meeting place building, a flag pole to mark the spot where the treaty was signed and a (modern reproduction) Maori war canoe. What is remarkable is that New Zealand seems to have benefited enormously from the Waitangi treaty, it certainly appears a more unified country than Australia. We then headed up to see Mount Bledisloe and Haruru Falls. Spectacular views at both (I'll get round to putting the pics up when I get an evening/weekend day free - difficult in December). For the evening, we decided to use the camper van to the full and so parked up at the waterfront in Paihia. Overnight, the trouble started... My belly had decided it didn't like something in the local water or food, so was insisting on emptying itself at every possible opportunity. Thankfully, the camper van was provided with a toilet with a large enough waste tank and plenty of deodorising chemicals to put down it. The next day I still wasn't feeling good. Thankfully, the water heater in the van was able to provide enough water for two quick hot showers. We searched out a pharmacy and I bought some anti-diarrhoea tablets, which in retrospect was a mistake. Let me warn you about these things. While they do the job of stopping you needing to go to the toilet every ten minutes, it does mean that you puke several times during the day and have horrible stomach cramps, especially when being driven around on bumpy gravel roads. Two days of that was not fun, though we continued our holiday unabated. Next, the Road to Rotorua!

New Zealand: Auckland

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The first couple of days of the NZ holiday were spent in Auckland. After landing we picked up the camper van and were both really tired from the flight, so we tried to find somewhere to park up for the night. We were in a large city. I say a large city - in fact Auckland has approximately a quarter of the population of New Zealand living within its boundaries. There are probably less than a handful of cities in the UK with a similar population. We decided to go to a campsite since parking up at random in such a large place probably wouldn't have been a good idea. The guy at the van rental place recommended the Auckland North Shore Top 10 Holiday Park so off we drove looking for it (over the impressive harbour bridge). When we got close we spent ages driving around in circles trying to find out which road the massive blob on the map actually referred to. It seems most of the roads in Auckland lead to State Highway 1 so we ended up stuck back on that a couple of times. Eventually though, we found the place and parked up for the night. Next day we caught a bus into the city and did the tourist things. A nice walk around the harbour area was followed by a trip up the Sky Tower. It claims to be the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, although the top third of the tower is a transmission mast which I feel is cheating a bit. Nevertheless, the views from as high as you could go were indeed impressive, though it was really warm and stuffy in there. Also, the glass was really dirty making taking good photos difficult. The quickest way down off the Sky Tower was to slide down a cable off the side, though I gave that a miss as I wasn't feeling too brave that day so we shuffled back to the lift. The lifts have a glass panel in the floor you can look through as they move up and down. The lifts shift at quite a rate. A quick bite to eat and a hot chocolate in a corner café (OK, a Starbuck's) left us refreshed and hungry for more sights. We caught the bus to Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter & Underwater World and spent some time being impressed by penguins, stingrays, sharks, assorted marine life and (for some reason) a plastic killer whale eating an equally plastic seal. The underwater tunnel is well worth a walk through and I got some great video and photos there (which I'll post up when I get the time to sort em out). When we left Kelly Tarlton's we wandered up and down trying to find the bus stop back to the city. All they needed was a sign to point you in the right direction but there wasn't one to be seen. I guess once they've taken your money they're not bothered how you get home afterwards. Anyway, tired from our flight we headed back to the camp site and were both asleep by 8pm. Next time, the Bay of Islands!!!

Jet Lag

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I'm back in the UK now and absolutely shattered. I'll write up some of the highlights of the holiday in the coming days, but for now I'm too tired to think much beyond how tired I am. I awoke in our rented campervan parked in a little town just south of Auckland at 7am on Saturday (6pm Friday UK time) and was awake from then until I got home at about 8am on Sunday. That's being awake for thirty-eight hours straight - something I've not done since I worked at Warthog Games a few years ago in the mistaken belief that working that many hours was worth it. I tried to make sure I didn't sleep on the first leg of the journey to Singapore so I could force myself back to UK time. I fully intended to spend most of the second flight to Heathrow asleep, but the journey was so turbulent I just couldn't nod off. Fourteen hours of clutching my stomach to stop its contents from sloshing about is not my idea of fun. A bumpy landing at 5am on Sunday with a gusty galeforce crosswind was met with a spontaneous round of applause from the passengers. I don't think Boeing designed the 747 to bounce on runways, but this one did. I slept a couple of hours yesterday morning and then tried to stay up the rest of the day, but only managed to stay awake till 5pm, which of course meant waking at 2:30am and not really sleeping the rest of the night. After a slow day at work (living on caffeine all afternoon) I've managed to stay up till nearly 9pm as I write this, so I think I'm making progress on making up the thirteen hour time difference between New Zealand and the UK. However, I was so tired I declined an offer to go to the pub tonight. If you know me, not going to the pub when invited is a pretty rare occasion. Anyway, if anyone has any really good ways to get over jet lag, you know where the comment button is... Zzzzzzzzz...

Singapore

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Well, I said I wouldn't post again until I got back, but here I am in the middle of a six hour stopover at Singapore Airport.  We're both pretty bored, though found some free internet stations.  It's also flipping HOT.  32 degrees when the plane landed earlier. Saw Pirates of the Carribbean 2 on the plane last night.  OK, but not exactly spectacular.  More of the same if you've seen the first film.

Max & Paddy

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I'm off to New Zealand for a couple of weeks with my girlfriend touring the North island in a camper van, so I shall not be posting here again until early December.

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