A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

Nelson, Greymouth, Franz Josef & Queenstown

sunny 18 °C

Due to a combination of poor internet connection, being on the go and generally having no spare time this blog update is long overdue. I just arrived in Fiji today so I feel guilty blogging about my stay in a country I’m no longer in. Anyway better late than never so here’s a quick recap of the last ten days. I’ll try to keep it brief so it’s not too long!

The boat trip to the South Island was straightforward. I had been used to getting small ferries during my time on the islands in Thailand so it was a change to be on quite a large one that was very similar to the ones you would take from Ireland to Wales. There was some lovely scenery on the way (the Marlborough Sounds) but unfortunately due to rain and mist you couldn’t see a great deal. I had heard the Magic Bus would be a lot fuller on the Southern Island but this was completely untrue. At best each bus was half full (same as the North Island) but I didn’t mind as it gave you more room and made it easy for people travelling alone to talk to one another. One other interesting observation is that there are very few guys at all travelling through New Zealand – I would say 25% at best, and most of them are travelling with their girlfriends. Anyway I met a group of girls and two couples early on who were all travelling separately so I’ve pretty much been hanging with them since. In hindsight I’m very glad I chose the Magic Bus over the Kiwi Experience – if you’re 18-21 that bus is perfect for endless clubbing and drinking sessions. But when you reach your late 20s 1-2 nights out per week is good enough for me, especially when you’re on so many early starts and doing a lot of sightseeing/activities.

My first stop was Nelson and I spent two nights here. There wasn’t a great deal to do or see in Nelson itself but it allowed for easy access to Abel Tasman, one of the hikes I had pre-booked. On the way there we got to stop at a winery and try out a few local wines. We weren’t there long enough to get drunk but the obligatory purchase of a bottle soon followed after. It was consumed nicely over a game of ‘I have never’ that evening in the hostel which turned out to be quite interesting! Back to Abel Tasman – it’s one of the most highly rated walks in New Zealand and I could understand why. It’s about a 13km walk but was fairly easy I must say. Aside from a 20 minute spell uphill at the start, it’s mostly downhill from there. It felt great to do a 13km walk as I’ve had no gym access since I’ve left which is really annoying me now. That night we chilled out in the hostel and watched Point Break on DVD – classic! I enjoyed it even more having done the sky dive a few days earlier.

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The following day we left for Greymouth where we spent 1 night (unlike Australia you can’t skip a lot of the stops). There is really little if anything to do here once again. The highlight was a tour of the Monteiths Brewery, a local NZ beer/cider group. The best part of course was the free tasting sessions and a free dinner which was included in the price.

Franz Josef was our third destination of the South Island. We arrived on Friday and spent 3 nights here. It was such a huge contrast to the rest of the country - it was like being at a ski destination in the Alps. I had pre-booked a full day glacier hike in advance. Unfortunately on the day we were due to do it, it lashed rain all day long. I think it stopped for about ten minutes, which was just enough time to eat our lunch! Despite being in rain gear we all felt soaking wet. Our bags were beginning to leak at one point and unfortunately my mobile phone is no longer working despite being wrapped up in two bags within my main bag! Thank god the camera was saved. It was a difficult trip – about 12km long but a lot of it is uphill hiking over ice/glaciers. They give you the proper equipment to climb and then descend but you have to be very careful not to fall. Despite all this though it was amazing to actually hike through a glacier and the scenery was still stunning. One plus point about the rain is that it had a real mystical feel to it. When we finally got home though I was only too happy to get back into normal dry clothes and have a hot chocolate to warm back up. It was a pity about the weather, but what can you do. Since September last year only three days have affected my holiday weather wise, the other two being at Surfers Paradise when I was visiting a couple of the theme parks. So overall I can live with it.

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The day after our hike it lashed rain all day again. This time I didn’t mind though, it was a complete chill out day – laundry and DVDs. I managed to watch Lord of the Rings Part 2 & 3 during my stay here (unfortunately part 1 had gone missing – mental note: watch it when you get home!). It was funny watching the films after having seen New Zealand. Before you visit you can easily believe that it may be Middle Earth but afterwards it’s just so obviously New Zealand. A few of the scenes in one of the films had the Glaciers which you could see from the TV room. There goes that illusion!

Our final stop on the South Island was Queenstown. On the way we stopped off at a few nice stops for some scenery shots. Before we arrived into Queenstown one of my Canadian mates Cari was able to do a bungi jump enroute – I was more than happy to just watch rather than take part. My heart was pounding just watching her jump off the bridge. It confirmed nicely that I have no need to do it anytime soon. But never say never. Queenstown a lovely village/very small city with gorgeous mountain scenery in the backdrop. There are three things any traveler must do when visiting this place – try a Ferg Burger, do an extreme sport and go clubbing. It would have been rude not to do all three so I was happy to oblige. The Ferg Burger was first up – I’m not a big burger fan at all. In fact, I’ve never even tried a Big Mac. But I must say this was by far the best burger I’ve ever had and everyone else says the same thing as well. You must go to this place when visiting New Zealand.

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The next day I booked myself on a River Surfing trip. Essentially it’s a mixture of whitewater rafting and surfing. You don’t stand up and surf as such but you do go down rapids ranging up to a grade 4. They also teach you how to surf one of them too – it was hard but I think I managed to get an actual surf in for a whole five seconds. Go me! I absolutely loved this. It was completely different to anything I’ve done before and far more fun than whitewater rafting I must say. I would highly recommend it.

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That night a gang of us went on a pub crawl – 6 bars, 6 free shots and lots of discounted drinks. The picture below was taken at the start of the night and says it all really. It seems I was too drunk to even take any photographs from that point onwards which is a first for me.

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The following morning I was up at 8am with a serious hangover and off on a flight back to Auckland. I only had two nights in Queenstown, a real shame but I ran out of time. I would advise on spending at least three to four nights here. My last day in Auckland was spent having dinner with Emma and then the cinema with another mate of mine. I saw Limitless, not bad! One massive highlight on the flight from Queenstown to Auckland with Air New Zealand was the 'safety briefing' video shown featuring Richard Simmons. It was without a doubt one of the funniest and campest things I have ever seen. The look on the other passengers faces when this was shown was pricesless, especially the Indians onboard. Link here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iaTEgoezNQ

My three weeks in New Zealand completely flew by, more so than any other country I’ve been in over the past six months. It contrasts really nicely with Australia and South East Asia. There may not be a lot of history here but it’s visually the best country I’ve visited. There are tons of outdoor activities/sports to enjoy and the people are just wonderful. It’s highly underrated back home I think – Australia gets all the attention but hopefully that will change in the future as they compliment one another very nicely.

Today was yet another early start for my flight to Fiji. The flight was smooth and only 3 hours. It was a bit like what I imagine Hawaii to be when I arrived in the airport – lots of large men in flowery t-shirts with flowers in their hair singing and playing very stereotypical Polynesian music. Despite the cliché I did enjoy it. It’s coming into winter here now and to be honest, thank god. It’s roasting! I’m sweating like crazy here and I’m just typing away on the keyboard. The mosquitoes are back too so it’s going to be constant spraying over the next twelve nights. And I'll have to be on my guard again Asian style - when I tried to go into the internet cafe a guy outside insisted on shaking my hand introducing himself and asking me lots of questions. Stupidly I was honest and said I had just arrived. He then insisted on giving me his card. I told him to bring it into the cafe but no, I had to walk around to some dodgy shop where I was introduced to another guy and told to take off my shoes and sit on a mat while he explained everything I wanted to know about Fiji and would help book me 'cheap deals'. I had to lie and say I was late for a skype chat with my mum in order to get away! From now on I'll just tell them all I've been here ages, best policy I think.

I’m staying in Nadi for a couple of nights and tomorrow I need to figure out what islands I’m going to visit. It should be a fun two weeks here with plenty of swimming, snorkeling, some scuba diving and relaxing. Tough old life!

Posted by mattld 01:50 Archived in New Zealand Comments (8)

Taupo, National Park & Wellington

sunny 22 °C

In my last entry I moaned at the end about my hostel in Rotorua being too quiet. Well, I take it all back! That night, after I got back I discovered that another large group of 15 year old American teenagers had invaded the place I was staying at. Chaos ensued that night with most of them running around screaming like kids. At 28 I suddenly felt very old. I decided to lock myself in my room and play my Nintendo DS, which is the first time I had used it properly since I've been travelling. After about 11pm I think the teachers had sent the kids packing to bed. I sneaked out and hit the hot thermal pool and hung out with the bus driver that would be taking me to Taupo. The next morning we departed Rotorua at about 7.30am. It was quite foggy and cloudy out and I was told that if it didn't clear my sky dive may be cancelled. Not again surely? Once in Byron Bay was enough. At this stage I really just wanted to get it over and done with, I was sick of waiting to do this...

We drove for a good bit and every mile we did brought me closer to the dive. I went through stages of feeling really nervous, blacking it out and not caring. It kept changing. Enroute that morning we stopped at two sightseeing attractions which helped take my mind off it. The first was the Wai-O-Tapu thermal park. The place is sculptured out of volcanic activity over the past few thousand years. It's one of the most colourful and diverse geothermal sightseeing attractions in the country - I can't compare it to anything else I've ever seen, only to say walking through the area was the closest I'll ever get to visiting another planet. The park is made up of strange rock formations, eggy smells, exotic colours and weird mud pools. It reminded me a little of that film Labyrinth. The highlight is the geyser (pictured just below) which erupts daily at about 10.15am.

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The second stop was the Huka Falls. Essentially it's the Waikato River which is normally 100m wide but is squeezed through a 20 metre wide gorge and over a 20 metre drop. Up to 220,000 litres of water blasts through the gorge and shoots out of 8 metres beyond to create a blue/green pool. It was like looking at a Hollywood special effects scene from one of the theme parks in Florida - except it's real! Pretty cool...

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By 1.30pm we had arrived at our hostel in Taupo. We were dropped off and I had about five minutes to chill out before we were picked up by the sky dive company. By this stage the weather had cleared, there were very few clouds in the sky and there was no chance it was going to be cancelled. Now or never... I got into the van and in it three girls and a guy were sitting. It was their first dive too and we were all a bit nervous, some a lot more than me. Ten minutes later we were at the dive centre - I had pre-booked and paid in advance. I picked the 15,000 feet dive as opposed to 12,000 - may as well go all out! After a quick briefing we were into our diving clothes and hurried onto a plane. I was surprised at how small it was - there was very little room inside, just two long bench type seats across from one another for everyone to sit on. Off we went and as the plane ascended my dive instructor attached himself to me and talked me through it. Basically there wasn't a lot to do, except hold on to the straps on my chest when jumping and then keep my legs up in the air. I thought I was starting to calm down until at 10,000 odd feet they put an oxygen mask over all our faces so we could continue to breathe easily!

I was second last to dive. It all happened very quickly. I was hooshed up along the bench as the shutter door on the plane was thrown up. I was told to smile for my photo which I just about managed to do before I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable. He went to throw us out and then pulled me back in. Agghh, get it over with! The second time we jumped proper. It was a really weird feeling - I knew what I was doing but my head was telling me it was all wrong. I kept my eyes closed as we tumbled out and then opened them. Wow! What a view. The instructor opened out my arms and then at the moment I realised I was LOVING IT. What a rush. It didn't have the feeling of 'falling' like you'd probably get on a bungee jump. It was like looking at a stunning postcard with a wind machine on maximum in your face. The sixty second fall just flew by. After having my photo taken by the camera guy a few times my instructor pulled open the chute and we shot back up a bit. The next part was a bit scary I'll admit - you're literally dangling there.. 8,000 feet in the air just waiting to land. I tried to enjoy the view as much as I could but my thighs were a bit sore from the straps and I just wanted to cling on. It's hard not to imagine a worst case scenario at least once during this part i.e. the straps breaking!

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We soon landed and I was on a total high at this point. I just jumped out of a plane. Wuhoo! I've been wanting to do this for years but never had the courage. And it's over! And I actually loved it. We landed at the centre and got our photos and DVD loaded onto CDs. Off we went back to the hostel and my energy levels quickly crashed. With all of the adrenaline in the past hour I was feeling exhausted. I needed a drink -vodka and redull would do nicely! I managed to talk the other divers into it and with it being Saint Patrick's day it was quite easy. We headed to Mulligan's pub at 5pm and there we spent the next 10 odd hours drinking and dancing. The rest of the group from our bus joined us too. I was very impressed by the effort of the locals and tourists. Some had gone all out with costumes and paint etc. If anyone realised I was Irish they'd be thrilled just talking to someone who was from the country. I got asked so many times 'what is Saint Patrick's day all about'?? I'll admit I couldn't really give them a proper answer but I did my best to waffle something half meaningful. I must look it up on Wikipedia for next year...

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On Friday morning I had to get up at 7am in order to move from Taupo to the National Park. It was quite rough to say the least. I managed to crawl out of bed, shower myself and pack up. As soon as I got on the bus I just lay there feeling half dead. Everyone else on the bus was in the same way including the driver. I slept a bit before we arrived at our next attraction, the Waitomo Caves. This is another activity I had booked in advance. It involves a mixture of caving and tubing. I had never gone caving before and always wanted to try it out. It's actually not a bad way to get over a hangover! We had to put on wet suits (they literally were wet, and cold). We were taken underground and on a tour through the caves which involved a mixture of walking, crawling and tubing. We got to see tons of glow worms, stalacmites and stalactites. I knew those Geography classes back in secondary school would come in handy one day... There were parts completely in the dark, a bit where you had to jump backwards over a small waterfall into the water holding onto your tube and finally, a waterslide! It was brilliant fun I'd highly recommend it.

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That night we arrived at our hostel at National Park which was in the middle of nowhere so we all got food together, played some cards and had an early night. The next day we headed towards Wellington. There were no major stops on the way but I didn't mind. It was nice to just chill out and enjoy the scenary. The past two days had involved enough action. We got a brief tour once we arrived into the city. It's a really nice place, in fact out of the places I've visited on the North Island I'd be most likely to live in this one. The city is much larger than Auckland but the main CBD is quite compacted so it's very easy to get around. The whole place has a San Francisco vibe to it, from the steep hills to the actual houses. I later found out that the houses had been intentionally designed in a similar way to the ones in San Fran. And Wellington is its sister city - that explains it! Wellington is also the home of film making in New Zealand. They're very proud of Lord of the Rings in New Zealand and rightly so. Peter Jackson paid for a huge statue of a camera on a tripod in the middle of the city and he's investing a lot of money in film making studios here.

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That evening a few of us had dinner and saw the Adjustment Bureau in the cinema with Matt Damon. It was an interesting film and entertaining but wouldn't exactly say it was brilliant. After that a last minute decision to head out clubbing for the night resulted in most of Sunday being written off. I didn't get home until very late so I ended up sleeping well into the afternoon - damn jaeger bombs! I just about managed to do a food shop in the supermarket across the way, get a few things I needed and get my laundry done. That evening I was on my own as the rest of my group were only staying one night. I went back to the cinema and finally saw Black Swan. It's exactly as people described it - good but weird and a bit creepy.

Today a bit of sightseeing was in order so I headed to the Te Papa Museum - this is the largest museum I have ever visited. It's huge! There's all sorts of stuff to see here and considering it's free in it's a bargain. My favourite bits were the simulator rides you could go on and a random retro section which had loads of action figures, dolls and various toys from the 1960s onwards. Check out the pic below of the 1980s part, you can see the Turtles, Ghost Buster and Star Wars action figures! I spent many a year playing with them.

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Tomorrow is an early start as I'm getting the ferry over to the South Island. My first stop is Nelson for two nights.

Posted by mattld 23:56 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Rotorua

sunny 23 °C

I ended up being awake for most of Sunday night. I managed to get asleep by about 11pm but unfortunately woke up again at 1am and spent about an hour just sitting there. I think my body was telling me that the 12 hour sleep I had the night before was too much! In order to try and get myself tired I went on the internet in the main lobby of the hostel. Randomly I ran into Richard and Veronica, two Norwegians who had been on my Fraser Island trip last November. Blast from the past! I have a lot of fond memories of that three day trip so it was great having a catch up. I certainly didn't expect to run into them again. An hour later I finally went back to bed. It felt like my alarm had gone off literally five minutes later. I checked my phone and it was 6.30am, time to get up...

The bus picked us up an hour later and off we went. The first stop was Mount Eden which I had done the day before with Emma. I didn't mind stopping again though due to the view and the weather was a lot sunnier. I was surprised to find that the bus was only half full - apparently though it's low season and the Christ Church incident isn't helping. I was wondering why my bus trip around the country had been reduced from $1,200 to just $499 (roughly 260E)! After that we travelled for a good bit and passed by a small town where we stopped off to try L&P, New Zealand's own brand soft drink, otherwise known as Lemon and Paeroa. An obligatory photo was also taken beside the largest statue of the bottle in the country. The drink itself was quite sugary and had more of a lime taste to it than lemon. Good to try but wouldn't be a huge fan I have to say.

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Our next stop then came at the much anticipated Hobbiton Farm. From there we were able to go on a tour of the movie set for the upcoming film The Hobbit, due out in Christmas 2012. The village is identical to that featured in the first Lord of the Rings movie. It was very surreal and a bit like being in a section of Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory - everything was just far too colourful and perfect. It's so peaceful and beautiful out here though it was easy to see why Peter Jackson picked it as one of their filming locations. I also got to see some of the set that will feature in the new films but I'm not allowed to upload pictures of that!

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Following that we were taken back to the main farm hub area where randomly, we were shown a sheep being sheared. I always pictured the farmer shaving the wool off as the sheep was standing up. The reality is the sheep is dragged out and turned on its back and then its stomach as it's sheared. It looks like quite an awkward process and apparently it can take up to four years for a farmer to perfect this method. The poor sheep wasn't too impressed initially but seemed alright by the end of it and no doubt happy to be a bit cooler given the hot weather outside.

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I got into Rotorua by 6pm that evening. The first thing I noticed was the smell... rotten eggs! There is sulphur in the air but thankfully it was nowhere near as bad as what I experienced in Tokyo a few years ago at the hot springs. I didn't have to hold my nose this time - it's only when you breathe in quite deeply that you can get a really strong smell for it. I've been here the past three days now and I'm barely noticing it anymore. That evening I had dinner with an English girl and a Swedish lad I had met on the trip that day who were also travelling alone - we played some cards and then got into the hostel's main unique feature - a hot thermal pool! At about 40 degrees it's a pretty nice way to finish off the evening before bedtime and I've made it a nightly tradition since.

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Tuesday was spent enjoying two of New Zealand's eco-friendly outdoor activities. The first one was the Zorb ball. I had only seen pictures of this before my travels and wasn't too familiar with it. Basically, you're driven up to the top of a large hill where you climb into a huge rubber ball which is within another ball separated by a metre or two. They then throw a couple of litres of water into it. They release it and you tip yourself over the hill. From there you can sit back and enjoy what is essentially a waterslide mixed with a rollercoaster. I really loved it but my only gripe is that it was over too soon. It's not cheap either costing twenty Euro for thirty seconds but it was just about worth it for the experience. They should have offered discounted prices to go again, I definitely would have done it.

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Once I had dried off and changed I headed to the Luge. The last and only time I have done this was in Singapore way back at the start of my trip in the beginning of October. Essentially it's a downhill go-kart without an engine. It's a lot of fun and fairly cheap so I decided to take the gondola (a ski lift style ride) up the mountain and do three different rides down the tracks i.e. scenic, intermediate and advanced. Scenic is what you'd expect, fairly straight forward, quite long and with some nice views. Advanced was mental, you have to pull back on the breaks a lot of the time or you'll crash quite badly. I played it safe and made it down in one piece.

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Today I decided to do some local sightseeing. I booked a tour of the Buried Village which is a small town area that was covered in lava due to Mount Tarawera erupting. It happened in 1886 and is New Zealand's greatest natural disaster. You can walk through the village where a lot of the buildings have been preserved in time. There wasn't too many mind you and it was slightly disappointing given what I was expecting. The scenery made up for it though with a massive waterfall near the village that you can a walk to. Once we had finished our driver who is a Maori (with Scottish ancestry) took us up to see Mount Tarawera and was only too happy to tell us a range of stories from around the time. The Maori people are well known for being good story tellers - this guy is 71 years old (he looked no more than 60) and full of life, smiles and laughter as he recalled tales of his ancestors. Oh and Kia Ora is the native word for hello. It's nice to know where the name of that drink I lived on in the 1990s came from!

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Rotorua is quite a nice town but definitely a bit too much on the quiet side for me. I'm not sure if it's due to low season but it all seems a little dead here. Everything shuts down really early and you can walk through the 'city centre' (I can't believe they call it that) at times without seeing anyone. The hostel I've been staying in is one of the cleanest and most comfortable (Kiwi Paka if you're wondering) but at best is only 30% full. Aside from a gang of rowdy American girls who arrived in a tour group yesterday you could practically hear a pin drop! Hopefully I'll get a better atmosphere at the next place I'm staying at. Having seen a little bit of the countryside so far it's safe to say already that New Zealand is the most picturesque country I have ever visited - the South Island is the part everyone talks about so I can't wait to see it in person. Tomorrow enroute to Taupo promises to be quite exciting - indoor cavetubing in the dark followed by the skydive...

Posted by mattld 21:54 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Greetings from New Zealand! Auckland

sunny 22 °C

I'm sitting here in an Internet cafe on Queen Street trying to update this blog and upload photographs. An old man has just sat down beside me to look up porn. RUDE. His screen is turned my way so I can see everything and it's very off-putting! He doesn't look like he is going anywhere so I'm just going to move computer... Right, sorted! I should have reported him but I can't be bothered (Update - I changed my mind and reported his ass... ooh yeah!). Anyway, back to my blog. I've been in New Zealand now since Thursday and so far everything is going great. Once again my flight was with Qantas so I was delighted - more good food and in-flight entertainment. The film I watched though ended up being pretty crappy - it's called Monsters. Don't bother with it. I was surprised at how short the flight was, only two and a half hours. You feel a bit isolated from everywhere else when you're in Australia, especially down south but Oz and NZ are only a little further apart than Ireland and England. I got the feeling though that a lot of Ozi people don't visit New Zealand which is a shame.

Thursday was pretty much spent getting my bearings on the city. First impressions were good. Landing into Auckland was a bit like coming home to Dublin. There is green everywhere! I had heard this from a number of people beforehand and it really is true. It was nice to see as there wasn't much at Christmas time when I went home so it's over six months since I've seen a decent bit of green. The city itself is much smaller than Sydney but a lot larger than Dublin, with high rise building and some skyscrapers. It reminds me mostly of Toronto in Canada funnily enough. It looks clean and has a 'new' quality to it. This makes sense though as New Zealand was only founded properly in the 19th century! Walking through the streets the crowd do look different to the Australians. Forgive me for saying but they're definitely not as good looking as their neighbours! There is a good mix of nationalities with Kiwis, Asian, Maori and surprisingly Indian. Every bus driver I've encountered over the past four days has been Indian, and a good few have been quite rude I have to add. The Maori people appear to mix in a lot better than the Aboriginal people and Australians do which is nice to see. But then again this is only on first impression. Another weird thing is religious groups - in the space of three days I've been approached four times by these people asking will I do interviews or if I want to join. If you're blind, thank you very much. Final first observation are the Kiwi people themselves - they're as friendly as I expected and only too happy to help with directions or information if you need it. One guy around my own age stopped for five minutes to look up the GPS on his phone so he could point me towards the correct bus stop. This sort of thing simply doesn't happen in Europe.

I was looking up hostels to stay in before I left and everywhere in the city centre was getting bad reviews. Instead I opted for one in Mount Eden which is about ten minutes away by bus and had great reviews. In order to save some cash, I decided to opt for a five bed share dorm in order to try them out again. I had done it a couple of times on the East Coast of Oz and was never mad on them. This one though was probably the worst I've encountered and it has rightly put me off share dorms for the rest of the trip. It's back to 'flash-packing' for me. Don't get me wrong, the other people were very friendly (a Swedish couple and an English girl) but we were put into a 'family room'. You couldn't swing a cat in there. The space between the beds didn't help either. I had a good time chatting to them and this is a great way to make new friends but upon sleeping time I quickly discovered that it's just not worth it. I had a chat with the Swedish couple earlier in the evening about snoring and both said that they didn't. Thank god for that. So I was surprised and annoyed when the tiny little English girl snored like an old man! It was pretty bad. After a while, the Swedish guy decided to join in with her. After tossing and turning for what must have felt like forever, I switched on the iPod but that didn't help much. Two sleeping tablets and another hour later I finally drifted off. However like on a plane or a bus, you are always kind of conscious and it doesn't make for a peaceful sleep. I woke up about four hours later with everyone up and about and I was in bits but had no choice but to venture out for the day and to start getting things done.

My main plan of the day was getting my tour around both islands booked. After a bit of research I opted to go for the Magic Bus group. I'm sure the Kiwi Experience tour is great too but Magic seemed a bit more personal and I had heard some great reviews. The agents in the office on Albert Street were so helpful - they talked me through everything and organised the itinerary with me. With little flexibility to extend days where I want to, I opted to book all hostels in advance so it's out of the way. I've got about 16 nights travel ahead of me and starting from the top of the north island I will slowly make my way down until I get to Queenstown in the south. From there, I'll spend a couple of nights and fly back up to Auckland before I move on to Fiji. After further thought I've decided to remove Christchurch from my trip. From talking with locals it seems the last thing they want or need is tourists taking photographs so I'll leave that for another time. The only downside is I'll miss two other areas close to it with Lake Tekapo being one of them. However it gives me a good excuse to come back and visit another time. With little in the way of history, New Zealand is best known for its outdoor eco-adventure sports. Over the next three weeks I'll be doing:

  • Zorbing - erm, Google it
  • 15,000 Feet Sky Dive - aggghhh!! I'm finally doing it after my last one in Byron Bay got cancelled
  • Caving/Tubing - unlike Laos I don't think there will be alcohol this time lol
  • 1 Day Glacier Hike
  • 1 Day Mountain Hike

It's quite action packed and completely different from what I've done to date so I'm quite excited about it all. After getting my trip sorted, I headed to the Auckland Sky Tower. This baby is 328 meters high and offers a view of 80km in every direction. It's very similar to the Sydney equivalent but with a few differences e.g. in the lift on the way up part of the elevator is glass so you can see the bottom and again on the top floor you can stand on glass sections which is very weird and kind of freaky. I walked across it knowing it was safe but my mind kept telling me not to.

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That night I met up with Emma who is the sister of one of my very good friends from home. She moved over here in 2009. That night I headed out with her and a couple of her mates. After downing a bottle of wine and a sambuca at the house, we were well geared up for a good night of dancing. Now I know where her younger brother gets that appetite for shots from! A great and very late night was had by all...

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On Saturday I checked myself out of my hostel and moved into Base in the city centre. The bad reviews online were unjustified - it's clean, spacious and the private room is perfect. I would highly recommend it. The bathroom is shared but I can live with that. They'll all be like that for the rest of the trip and I don't mind once I can get a good sleep and don't have to worry about personal things getting stolen. That afternoon I had planned to visit the Auckland Museum but on the way into town I had noticed a large number of Irish people on the bus. In addition an older gentleman had a shamrock attached to his t-shirt. I knew St. Patrick's Day was on Thursday so I didn't think too much of it. There are plenty of Irish in Sydney too so that novelty has kind of worn off. When I got into the city centre though I was like 'what the hell?!'. There were Irish flags and people dressed up everywhere. It turned out their annual parade was about to start... happy days! I rushed over to Base, quickly checked in and headed back out to watch it. It's no Dublin but this was such a pleasant surprise. I genuinely wasn't expecting much but they put on a real effort - the crowd and parade walkers were a mixture of Irish settlers in New Zealand, tourists like me and New Zealand locals who just wanted to join in with it. The parade lasted just over half an hour and watching Irish people walk down the main street proudly holding Irish county flags even brought a few tears out. I may be enjoying my time out of the country right now but I'm extremely proud to be Irish - what other country has a national day dedicated to them and a pub specific to them in almost every country in the world?! It's the first time I had felt homesick since Halloween.

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After the parade people settled up the street where Irish singers and dancers entertained for a few hours. I told Emma to get in as quickly as possible. She eventually turned up about five minutes before it all ended but at least she got to enjoy the end of it. Her friend Sarah who was out with us the night before joined us for lunch. That night I managed to stay awake until 8pm (with great difficulty I must add) before a much needed 12 hour sleep - the two previous nights had really caught up with me. Today I finally got around to visiting the Auckland Museum. This is one of the recommended highlights in the Lonely Planet. The best and most unique part here was the area devoted to the Maori people. I got to see a Maori culture show which included local songs, games and traditions. I'm loving the whole Maori thing and really feel it adds something unique to the country. The rest of the floor featured artwork and the upper levels had everything on display from New Zealand's involvement in World Wars I & II to pre-historic life in the country and a section on volcanoes.

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Later in the afternoon I met up with Emma and she drove me out to Mount Eden. New Zealand as most people will know is entirely built on volcanoes. I'm a volcano virgin myself so I was thrilled seeing one even if it hasn't erupted for over 60,000 years. You can see from the photo below it's now covered in grass but you can clearly tell that it was once a volcano from the shape. We also got a great view of the city up there too. After that we passed by Eden Park where Ireland will be playing Australia at the Rugby World Cup in September. Despite being completely empty and quiet it was quite thrilling to see.

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I've really enjoyed the last few days in Auckland. It's a nice city and I must say thanks a million to Emma for being my tour guide and wonderful host. She made me feel really welcome and her mates were good fun too. Tomorrow morning I'm getting picked up and brought to my second NZ stop, Rotarua. I'll spend three nights there before heading for my big sky diva in taupo. I'll be doing it on St. Patrick's day itself which is kinda cool! Next update will be just before or after the dive so keep the fingers crossed for no cancellations or panic attacks. Happy St. Patrick's day everyone!

Posted by mattld 18:51 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Sydney III & Mardi Gras

sunny 27 °C

It feels like a couple of weeks now since I was last in Bangkok. Leaving that day I can't remember a whole lot, except it was very straightforward. The airport there is huge but funnily enough I ran into Will and Suze who were flying out to Amsterdam for a few days before returning to Dublin. I knew they would be there around that time but didn't expect to run into them so it was great to be able to kill half an hour having a chat while they had lunch. My flight was even more straight forward. I'm now a huge fan of Quantas. Every flight I've ever taken with them has been superb. The service, the comfort factor (for economy), in-flight entertainment and food were all excellent. I watched a couple of films and took one sleeping tablet but unfortunately I only managed to get an hours rest. I got into Sydney at 6am but couldn't check into my room until 2pm so it was a painful wait before I could finally sleep properly.

It was a little bit strange arriving back into Sydney. I was so used to living in Asia for the past two months it was a bit of a novelty when I got there - mind you after half a day it was like I had never left. I was also half thrilled to get a full search when I landed by one of the security guards along with a long series of questions e.g. why are you here, how long are you here for, who are you staying with, when are you going back to Dublin, how much cash do you have, do you have a job, what job is it etc. etc. I'm a big fan of that Australian airport programme back home on tv that exposes people with drugs or illegal goods so for a change I didn't mind it for once! There were no camera crews unfortunately - I would have been waving at it saying 'hi mom!'. After about 15 minutes of probing they let me through. I had forgotten just how good the transport system is. It is just so simple and I'm normally terrible for getting public transport in a foreign country. A five minute walk brings you to the train and from there it goes straight to the station by my hostel. I think it took about 20 minutes. Compare that to London where it feels like you are walking forever and it can take hours to get into the actual city centre. Or Ireland where there is no train system at all!

I didn't do a whole lot of sightseeing given that I had done it before but I did take a tour of the Opera House. This is my favourite building in the world. It's just stunning to look at. It was great seeing the various concert halls and theatres inside as well getting a full background and history of how the building came to be. It's a good story too with a Danish man who had never been to Australia winning an open competition to design the building. His entry was originally eliminated but when one judge arrived late (from Finland *cough*!), he went through all of the entries that had been discarded, picked this one out and declared it the winner. The rest is history. The designer fell out with the Australian government during the building phase as it was taking a lot longer and costing a lot more money. Unfortunately he resigned and returned to Denmark. Despite being re-employed by the Government in the late 1990s to work on the interior of the building, he never got to return due to poor health and died a couple of years ago. It's weird knowing that the designer never got see his finished work which also happens to be one of the well known and respected buildings in the world. Other sights I took in included the Aquarium at Darling Harbour and Sydney Tower - two attractions I had paid for on a multiple entry last year so they were free to do again.

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I had three major nights out over the past week - Friday, Saturday and Tuesday. Saturday was the main event with Mardi Gras taking place. You don't realise how huge this thing actually is until you're at it. There must have been at least 50,000 people lined up and down the streets, all from various walks of life. The parade itself was excellent. It featured everything - weird, wacky, funny, sexy and at times heart moving floats. So many gay specific minority crowds were accounted for: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, European, parents/families, religious, firemen, police and people with disabilities. It was one big party and everyone was invited. There was even a float for fag hags!

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For a country that is so liberal in terms of gay life, it's astonishing that gay marriage has not yet been granted. This is something the LGBT crowd are fighting very hard for and I have no doubt they will get it within the next few years. Walking up and down the city there were gay people everywhere and many couples holding hands. It was nice being in the majority for a change. My friend Tracy who I stayed with in Brisbane flew down for the weekend and along with my gang we watched the parade and then partied late into the night.

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The past week has been brilliant fun. It was great catching up with all my buddies from last year and the few from Ireland that have moved over here. It's such a great life here I really don't blame them. I never thought I would fall in love with a city but it's kind of hard not to. Everything here is just perfect - from the weather to the people, attractions, city itself, nightlife, entertainment etc. I've been quite sad at the thought of leavig the past two days but I'm pretty sure I'll move over and work here for a year or two at some point in my life. In comparison to Ireland, companies are just crying out for skilled staff here - one friend of mine Orla got her flights paid for and put up in a five star hotel for two weeks when she arrived! Hard life eh?

Tomorrow I head to New Zealand. I fly to Auckland in the morning and will spend a few nights there before booking a Kiwi Experience style bus trip that will take me from the top of the Northern Island to the bottom of the Southern Island. I'll spend three weeks doing it so I'm getting ready for lots more bus trips, sightseeing and meeting new people. I'm a bit weary and apprehensive about Christchurch but luckily that is towards the end of my NZ trip so I will see how it goes and take any official advice given. Either way, I know it's going to be a lot of fun.

Posted by mattld 23:01 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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