A Travellerspoint blog

San Diego & Tijuana

sunny 17 °C

I’m sitting here in an internet café a few minutes down the road from my hostel. A large middle-aged man has fallen asleep on his keyboard and is currently snoring the house down. I’ve tried informing the woman working here (like as if she hasn’t heard) in the hope that they would wake him up. She just went ‘yeah he is’. So I’ll just try and ignore him as I type this.

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Sunday was indeed the longest day I’ve ever had – 41 hours! It was all nicely straight forward though I must admit. The flight was just under ten hours. I managed to get the aisle seat I was hoping for, watched a film (Hereafter with Matt Damon, bit rubbish) and then drifted off to sleep, all without the aid of my precious sleeping tablets. I must have been more tired than I thought. When I woke up, it was time for breakfast and I was almost there. I just love it when that happens. When I arrived into LAX airport the security was a pain in the arse. It took me well over an hour to clear not one but two customs desks that did the same thing. And an additional baggage scan. There must be a lack of trust going on with the Americans and their security guards. I thought showing the passport, having my photograph taken, giving them my fingerprints and answering a long line of questioning would be enough to satisfy them. Obviously not! Still, better safe than sorry I guess.

Once I finally cleared customs I took a shuttle bus to the train station and from there a three hour train to San Diego. The scenery on this drive is meant to be great but unfortunately I fell asleep for most of it and missed it! I’ll have to try and keep myself awake on the return journey for a bit of it. After checking into my hostel, I went out for dinner and had a general look around. Apart from the much cooler temperature in comparison to Fiji, the first thing that really sticks out at you are the homeless people. There are a lot of them in San Diego. In fact I found out today there are 10,000 homeless living here, out of a population of just over one million. Scary… In addition on my second day I came across seven different people who were definitely insane – they were just randomly on the street when I was walking around. Most of them are talking to themselves out loud (they weren’t on their mobile or ‘cell phone’). Others just stand there looking spaced out in an almost zombie style fashion. It’s weird, you go to countries such as Laos and Cambodia and you don’t see any of this. But in the USA you can’t escape it. The other stereotype of morbidly obese Americans is also rearing its ugly head (the ones in scooters wearing flowery moo moos) and I haven’t even visited a theme park yet.

Anyway, the homeless, insane and morbidly obese aside, I’ve enjoyed the last few days here in San Diego. It’s a little bit overhyped if you ask me but it definitely is a city worth visiting. On my first day I took a bus to Balboa Park which offers a vast array of attractions including a handful of museums and a massive zoo. I decided to visit the Air & Space Museum. I mainly went for the space section, which of course you had to pay extra to get into. You can view space shuttles, take part in interactive educational games, touch a piece of rock from the moon and view videos on space travel. One good feature there is the infrared camera. You can see a picture of me below – the red parts are the hottest sections.

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After that I stopped by the Science Museum which was free in. They had an IMAX there too so naturally I had to go. You can’t beat those documentaries on those huge screens! I saw Galapagos, a nice little feature film on some of the rare and endangered wildlife on the famous island which is just west of Ecuador.

The next day I took the ‘hop on, hop off’ bus around San Diego city. I got off at two of the stops – one was at the Old Town which is heavily commercialized into a ‘Wild West’ style town. Another stop was at the Marine harbor where you can visit three large ships and two submarines. One of the old fashioned pirate style ships is being used for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean film. That evening I headed out for drinks with another guy Dominic who I met here and found a nice little bar featuring ‘buy one, get one free’. A very drunken but cheap night was surprisingly had.

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Today I woke up with a banging headache but had no choice but to get up. I booked myself onto a tour of Tijuana, the Mexican border town. It’s only 45 minutes away and I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico. Naturally I’ll go back another time and visit it properly. I had heard a few dodgy reports prior to the USA about going to Tijuana. Stories about police robbing you, holding you hostage etc. had been told to me by more than one person. I was assured by the tour company that if it wasn’t 100% safe they wouldn’t be running it. I met another girl in the hostel who wanted to do it too so we took the gamble. Obviously as I’m writing this, I’m still alive and not locked up in some Mexican prison cell! I wouldn't have been impressed.

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It was a great trip. We only had a few hours to spend in Tijuana. I’m a huge fan of Mexican food so first on the list was getting some nice authentic Fajitas for lunch. A Vietnamese tourist from the bus joined us. It's not often you see tourists from South East Asia as given their salaries most of them unfortunately cannot afford to travel far. However this guy is working as a senior brand manager for a drinks company which explained it. It was cool having a chat about Vietnam with him, discussing the cities I had visited and having a go at some phrases I had learnt along the way. He made a comment that he didn't like the pushy style of the Mexicans. Before I could say 'pot kettle black?' he admitted that the Vietnamese are just as bad. I didn't argue. Anyway, the waiter in our restaurant made our salsa in front of us which I thought was a nice touch. The food itself looked great. I’ll be honest in saying it wasn’t the nicest Fajitas I’ve ever had (there were bones in the chicken pieces) but it was still tasty and nice to finally try Mexican food in Mexico. After that I went searching for a small souvenir and managed to get myself something for three dollars (bargained down from 14). The Mexican people are incredibly pushy. They are essentially all over you like a rash clambering for your dollars. My experience in South East Asia has gotten me used to this type of thing so it didn’t bother me too much. Just smile, say no thanks and quickly walk on. And keep repeating it!

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The final part of the trip involved getting some photographs and an obligatory cheese-fest photograph which you can see below. Even I'm a bit embarrassed by the level of commercialised mozzarella cheese in this one but I paid a dollar so it’s being featured either way. I felt sorry for the donkey (painted as a zebra) so I bought some food for him after.

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On the way back to the border we could see the two large walls separating the two countries. You can see a photograph below. The crosses on the walls signify the death of each Mexican who was killed trying to cross the border illegally. This was quite sad to see…

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When entering Mexico, you’re not required to show your passport (bizarre). On the way back to the USA, it’s like getting into Fort Knox. The queues are incredibly slow and in similar fashion to the airport you’re given a long line of questions to answer. The officer I had couldn’t find my American Visa stamp on my passport – I frantically had to search through the pages for it and for a few seconds I had that awful feeling of ‘what if they didn’t stamp me in LAX?’. Thankfully, they did and I got through – but not before they could ask me ‘why have you been to so many communist countries?’. He was referring to my stamps for Laos, Cambodia and possibly even the Russian Visa I have. Even though they’re no longer a communist country he did scrutinise it quite closely. I kind of froze up and stupidly replied ‘I’m not a communist. I was just visiting as a tourist’. He looked at me straight in the eye for a few seconds with the standard serious face before finally telling me to go through. Phew!

Tonight I’m getting to bed at a decent time as I’m up early for my train back to Los Angeles. I’m meeting up with my Canadian buddy Troy and we have a nice little itinerary planned for the next few days. This time next week it’ll be back to reality at home again in Ireland so I better make the most of it…

Posted by mattld 20:11 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Fiji - Mana Island

32 °C

Weather wise it's been an interesting few days. Fiji is still in its rainy season and if it wasn't obvious on the mainland it certainly is now. The weather the past four days has been so extreme - one minute it's scorching hot with no clouds, the next there's thunder and lightning going on. A few minutes later, back to the sun and then vice versa. Worse than Ireland!

I left Nadi (pronounced Nandi) on the 6th heading to Mana and it lashed rain throughout the journey. To say the boat ride was bumpy is an understatement. It's just as well I don't suffer from sea sickness easily, otherwise I'd have been throwing up my breakfast. I must add that the boat itself was about 90 minutes late, but then it's Fiji time right? I booked myself in for four nights at the Rato Kiny resort which is essentially a flashpackers hostel and I'd highly recommend a stay here. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is included and they always have activites going on, most of which are free. I decided rather than do four nights on four different islands, it would be better to spend it at the one place and actually do something. As soon as I arrived I booked myself in for the Advanced Padi course. I had gotten my original Open Water cert last November in Australia and wanted to get further qualifications as diving is something I really have a strong passion for now.

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I got a private room at Rato Kiny which had an ensuite and apart from the fact there was no air conditioning (again) and cold showers it was really very comfortable. In fact the cold showers were sort of a blessing as it has been so humid, despite torrential rain on and off. That day I chilled out and started reading up on the chapters in my divers manual. The following day (Thursday) I took a trip to Mamanuca island where the film Castaway with Tom Hanks was filmed. I've still not seen that film for some reason but I definitely will when I get home.

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Anyway, we spent a good morning touring around the small island being shown various spots where scenes of the movie were shot. After that we got to snorkel for about an hour before a severe uphill trek to the top of the island for a fantastic view. They didn't warn us very well in advance though. I ended up practically climbing up the island in flip flops with a wallet/passport/camera in one hand and the other trying to cling onto almost anything that was stuck there. Out of six of us that did it, only three made it to the very end (including me, I wasn't giving up, I've had worse on those Glaciers in NZ). The good news is all this outdoor activity has finally given me a bit of a tan again - there weren't many opportunities to get one in New Zealand and I'm not a fan of sunbathing. If I'm going to be in the blazing heat, I need to be moving around doing something, not sitting there waiting to cook like a roast chicken.

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Friday morning was an early start. We had three dives that day to do. The first one was a Deep Dive where we went to 30 metres. My previous lowest dive was only 12 metres so there is a big difference. If you can do 12 though you can easily do 30, it's not that much harder and you barely notice it until you're down there. We had to a few skill tests including a maths one - I was twice as slow competing it 30 metres underwater as on the surface which is meant to show you the signs of nitrogen narcosis (the feeling of being a little bit drunk, or slower to think). The other diver doing the course with me was the same. The next dive we did as a Buoyancy Dive where you have to learn how to balance and steady yourself in the water without using your arms or legs. It's all about the breathing! It's quite difficult actually and takes a lot of practice to get it right. I got there in the end.

That evening we did a Night Dive. I was quite excited about that as I've wanted to do one for a while now. I felt like James Bond going out on a speed boat in the dark with thunder & lightning going on in the torrential rain. I did question myself at one point 'am I crazy?' but the answer came back as a no so I continued on. Jumping into dark waters with no visibility is a weird thing. Your only source of light are your flash light and the other divers around you. It was real interesting swimming 15 metres underwater against a coral wall - it was very empty as most fish were tucked up in their beds. Only a few cool fish remained and I wondered, does their mother know that they're out? Everything looks completely different at night time. It definitely had an eerie feel about it, especially when you point your flash light into the darkness away from the coral. It's pitch black.

The next morning we did a Wreck Dive. This is the one I most wanted to do. I'm a bit of a Titanic nerd and love watching any programmes related to it. We got to dive 25 metres deep to the Saramanda, an old transport ship that had been purposely sunk after being de-commissioned 15 years ago. I can't describe the feeling of gliding over the bow of the ship, it was just awesome. It's the closest feeling to flying I've ever had. Gliding past the rooms with your flash light was so strange yet thrilling. My dive instructor brought her camera with her on this one so you can see some cool shots of it below.

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The final dive was a Navigational Dive. We were brought to a site where the visibility is very poor and you had to swim in a rectangle only using a compass for navigation. I had done somthing similar before on the Openwater Cert so it was quite easy. In addition to doing the five dives we had to complete a lot of coursework over the three days. I got it all done and I'm now qualified as an Advanced Diver! The final evening was spent getting drunk (as you do). There was a Bula Special of a jug of vodka and orange juice for 30 Fiji Dollars. That's roughly about 12 Euro and when they give you six shots it's a pretty good deal. A late night of singing and taking part in Bula games was had.

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The return journey from Mana to the mainland today was even worse than on the way over. It arrived almost two hours late (Fiji time) and it was like travelling in a washing machine. About 15 of us were squished onto this tiny boat where your main worries are: am I going to get sick, sunburnt or saturated? Or all three? The highlight was getting off, where I was given the honour of carrying my suitcase over my head in deep water as the boat couldn't dock close enough to shore. Anyway, today is officially the longest day I've had the pleasure of living. Seeing as I'm flying to LA tonight at 10pm Fij time, I will in fact have a 41 hour day. I'll get to LA at 2pm (which is 3 hours ago as I type this, weird eh). I'm just hoping now I'll get an aisle or window seat as it's not letting me book online...

Posted by mattld 22:22 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Fiji Time! Viti Levu

sunny 32 °C

I’ve been in Fiji now for six nights now and I must say the time is going by quickly. I was worried it may be ten nights on my own reading books and wishing the time away. It was originally twelve nights but I it reduced by two so I could spend more time in San Diego (30 Euro flight change, nice one). Thankfully though, boredom hasn't been an issue. I used Friday to do some much needed laundry and to figure out what I was going to be doing during my time here. After a bit of research I came to the conclusion that doing a four night tour around the main island (Viti Levu) followed by four nights on one of the smaller islands (I picked Mana) was the way to go.

Before I get into what I’ve been up to, here’s some information on Fiji:

• Fiji is made up over 320 different islands, the two main ones being Viti Levu and Vanua Levu
• Cannibalism used to be rife on the islands – however since the British paid a little visit a couple of hundred years ago this has all stopped. Thank you neighbours!
• Fiji’s climate is very warm and tropical – temperatures in March reach up to 35 degrees but it always feels hotter due to the humidity. I've heard that awful (but funny) phrase 'sweating like a paedophile in a sweet shop' by more than 1 person since I've arrived.
• Bula = Hello. This word is used all the time, and I really do mean ALL THE TIME. Fijians like to use it for plenty of other phrases instead of just a greeting. For example it can also be used to say cheers over drinks, goodbye or just generally any form of celebration or after a song. Most hotels seem to have a ‘Bula Hour’ in the evenings. You cannot spend one day in Fiji without saying this word at least forty-fifty times (give or take). They just love it. Bula!
• Vinaka = Thank You
• The currency is the Fijian Dollar, with a lovely oul pic of the English Queen on the front. A teeth whitening job beforehand wouldn’t have gone a miss I’m afraid…
• Mosquitos are absolute bastards here. Forgive the language, but they are relentless. You end up spraying yourself at least four times per day and you still get bitten. If you leave any part of your body without spray they’ll get you. Forget the toes, one lad on the trip had a nice big bite on his eyelid. His feckin eyelid! I’m at the stage now where I’d probably buy a can of 100% deet if I come across one.
• The water in Fiji is like a bath – I hate getting in cold seas. In fact I just refuse to do it, so… LOVE IT.
• Fijian roads = not good. Not good at all. In fact, they’re the worst/most bumpy roads I’ve ever experienced. It makes the roads in Laos and Vietnam seem like brand new motorways. If you like the sensation of potholes, you’ll love travelling in a bus here! If not, you’ll just have to deal with it.
• Fijian people are so friendly – whenever you drive by or pass them on the street, they’re always waving, smiling or greeting you with a Bula. The kids in particular are the cutest – they seem genuinely thrilled to see a bus full of us tourists. At one point my arm was soar from all the waving.
• Giving the two fingers to someone else is a giving a symbol of peace. I was wondering what all the kids were doing on my first day.

There is feck all to do in Nadi. If you’re heading to Fiji do not spend more than two nights here, one just to arrive and another to plan out your trip. The main town itself is not very nice – I’m trying to be polite about it as I know Fiji isn’t exactly a rich country but walking through it wasn’t very pleasant. By Saturday morning I was ready to head off on my trip – only I accidentally switched off my alarm clock by touching the screen (my alarm is now a Nintendo DS thanks to my mobile breakage at the NZ Glaciers).

Anyway thankfully there’s another common phrase in addition to Bula over here. It’s called ‘Fiji Time’ and it’s said really quickly in a strong Fijian accent. It basically gives every Fijian or anyone working in this country the civil right to be late. And not just five minutes late, but up to an hour late. Maybe two. Fiji makes Laos look like the most punctual country I’ve ever visited. I woke up ten minutes before I was due to be picked up, but somehow I managed to shower, finish packing, check my main case into the luggage room, have breakfast and check emails before the bus eventually arrived. I’m loving Fiji Time now.

The bus company I had booked with was the Feejee Experience – sister to the Kiwi Experience. I know I had moaned about that in my NZ blogs but there is very little choice here and being only four days I didn’t really mind who I was going with, once there was a good recommendation or two. The crowd ended up being older than I expected. There were about 15 of us on the bus: five English, two French, six Danes travelling together, one Dutch, one Australian and little old me from Ireland. Wes, Rochelle and Fiona (three of the English) were staying in my hostel in Nadi so we got talking quite quickly and formed a nice little group for the remainder of the trip. That’s the thing about travelling, you must such cool people but unfortunately there’s always a goodbye at the end of it.

Our first day was spent travelling to Mango Bay on the south of Viti Levu. On the way we stopped off at Natadola Beach which is apparently ranked as one of the top thirty beaches in the world. It was beautiful but having seen so many beaches over the past six months they’re starting to all look the same. Or maybe I’m just spoiled. I think it’s the latter, especially after visiting Whitehaven Beach on my Whitsundays trip in Oz (still the best beach I’ve ever visited). Anyway we spent a couple of hours here, had a swim and then a BBQ afterwards. Nom Nom.

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Our next stop was the Sigatoka Sand Dunes for some sand boarding. I was bit weary of this one. My last and only encounter of sand boarding was in Mui Ne in Vietnam and it turned out to be a load of rubbish. This one though was far better. Apart from the painful walk up through the hot sand and steep slope to get there it was great fun. The board I got to use was a proper one this time and it flew down.

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That night we stayed at the Mango Bay Resort. Initially I had booked myself in for private rooms but having gotten to know the group I thought it would be rude not to share and I was saving cash too (very important at the end of these long trips I tell ya). You would think that Fiji given its heat would have air conditioning in the rooms. Apart from Nadi, not a chance! Therefore the only solution is to get drunk. And this is what we did for the last few nights. There was good entertainment on too with a Fijian show featuring dancing and singing. Afterwards we were encouraged (or forced, however you decide to look at it) to do a Fijian dance with the locals and then randomly, a good Congo around the room. We looked like ejets but it was good silly fun.

The end of the night ended with a few hardcores joining the driver and our tour guide for some Kava and more alcohol. Kava is Fijian plant roots mixed with water. It looks like mucky water or dirty dish water and tastes, funnily enough, like mucky plant roots. We were told it would get you a little bit high or chilled out in a similar way to smoking weed. I’m not a weed smoker now but that was enough to sell it to me and a few others. So we downed four cups of the stuff. Rotten.com! The first thing you notice straight away is that your tongue goes numb. And then nothing. After a few cups though you do feel more relaxed and chilled out – not in a complete stoner-ish sort of way but you do feel a bit buzzed off it. Or maybe that was the drink. Either way it was great night and I had the best nights sleep in ages. In a dorm with 14 other people and no air conditioning. Who would have thought. Nice one!

The next morning we were up early. After breakfast we drove to the rainforests. From there we embarked on a three hour trek which included a stop at a secluded waterfall for some fresh water swimming. They told us to bring an old pair of runners as ‘they may get dirty’. They were definitely having a giraffe. My poor white pair of runners got destroyed! We walked through dense forests, sections of wet muck that were up to our knees and rivers filled with water that wasn’t exactly taken from the local health spa. It was one of the muckiest, dirtiest and filthiest days I’ve had but also a lot of fun! Once you got over the fact that you were going to be covered in crap you could enjoy it. I’ve since tried washing my shoes out but they’re still filthy. I think my next idea is to put them in a washing machine and let them dry out. If that doesn’t work, they’re going in the bin because they stink.

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That afternoon we arrived looking like homeless people at the Uprising Beach Resort. This also happened to be the best hostel I’ve stayed in over the past six months. It’s more like a hotel, with a few dorms attached. It cost roughly 12 Euro a night which included a roomy dorm, 1st class condition shower/toilets, a lovely pool and an excellent breakfast buffet. It was the perfect way to get clean and unwind after the rainforest trip. That evening another bout of drinking ensued (around a camp fire but minus the Kava) and I slept well once again.

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On Monday morning we went to one of the local schools for a visit. On the way we stopped off at a supermarket and bought a bag of school stationary as a gift e.g. pens, rulers, copy books etc. The school we were visiting was one where the families of the children do not have a lot of money to spare as most come from farming backgrounds. Therefore every penny counts and we were only too happy to provide some equipment for them – it beats cash donations any day. Every Monday morning the Feejee Experience bus pays a visit to this school and the children really seem to enjoy it. They get a chance to practice their English, talk to people who generally live on the opposite end of the planet and of course, get out of a few classes. We spent an hour here where they took us on a tour showing us the classrooms, common areas and dorms for those who board here. We were all surprised at their confidence and how outgoing and confident they were. It was great to learn a little about their daily and weekly school routines – in hindsight it’s not all that different to ours back home.

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Our next stop was a village visit for a Kava ceremony. I had been dreading this. Saturday night was all about the Kava for me but after four cups of it and waking up to a taste of stale plant root in my throat I decided I would have no more. However there was no getting out of this one. After a long ceremony with the chief and two assistants we were all offered (or once again forced) to drink a cup of Kava. You can see in the picture below I’m trying to look all spiritual but didn’t quite get it across. To top it off my tour guide asked me to be the spokesperson for the ‘visiting village group’ so I ended up having to make a fool of myself while trying to recite off Fijian phrases and perform some of the rituals as the Kava was being made. Thankfully there are no photos of that.

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The last activity of the day was Bilibili bamboo rafting. I had done some bamboo rafting in Thailand a few years earlier so I kind of knew what to expect e.g. sit or stand on the raft as someone slowly paddles it down a lazy river i.e. pleasant plus. However I was completely wrong. The Fijian style raft didn’t really float at all. It was like sitting into a bath as the water plunged into the raft. It sank several times too so we had to get out on a number of occasions and literally push the thing. At the time I hated it as walking in the river was like walking in deep poo but looking back on it now it was funny. At the end we all played a few games in the water and then headed back.

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That evening we stayed at Volivoli Beach, another excellent hostel resort. That night, well you guessed it, more drinking! Thank god I didn’t stay in dorms the whole way through the last six months – I justified spending lots of money on alcohol due to the saving I was making by not getting a private room. I’d have ended up getting drunk most nights in order to sleep and by this stage I’d be a raging alcoholic.

On the final day we had lunch with a local Indian family in their house (there’s a large portion of Inidian Fijians on the island so it was good to get an insight into their culture). I’m not a big fan of Indian food but the curry was really tasty and thankfully not too spicy. The Feejee Experience had one last stop for us, the Sabeto Valley Natural Hot Springs and Mud Pools. Basically you get in a dirty muck pool, get out, apply a load of mud on your body, get back in and then head to a hot spring which is at least 50 degrees hot (i.e. scolding). I decided at this point I was all mucked out. I wasn’t the only one but a few plunged in and it was fun to watch their squeamish faces in the muck and then the boiling hot water.

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That night we headed back to Nadi for a relaxing evening which involved a nice meal and a big bottle of water. Looking back on this trip we did a lot and had a brilliant time. We had a lot of laughs – it’s definitely up there with the Frasier Island and Whitsundays trips I did in Australia. Today I head to Mana Island where I’ll spend four nights before the big flight to LA. I've got my two day Advanced Padi Diving course ahead of me which involves ship, night and deep dives so I can't wait. However, with just two weeks of my trip left my thoughts are starting to wander back to home...

Posted by mattld 03:03 Archived in Fiji Comments (4)

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)

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