Wednesday, 10 September 2014

On the move: To Sydney

Melbourne to Sydney

After New Zealand, Sydney was the first place we had been to that we didn't know anyone, and although it felt strange after being so settled, it felt good to be on the move again.
Our method of transport was on the overnight bus. As this was the first leg we booked, so the closest time-wise to the time of booking we decided to do this rather than flying because of the significant price difference, however, the experience itself was not as enjoyable as we had hoped.
Being used to the National Express and Megabus in the UK, where the system is fairly simple compared to flying, just like the train; you book your ticket, turn up at the station, find the bus/train and get on, where the ticket will be inspected.
However, as became apparent in Melbourne bus station, ‘YOU CANT JUST GET ON THE BLOODY BUS AND SIT ANYWHERE YOU LIKE’ as the driver reminded me when I approached him soon after it became apparent that you should have a seat reservation. In my opinion, and from my experience, I would not recommend the Firefly bus to anyone over Greyhound or flying, as for the price it is hardly cheaper and you are stuck on the bus for the whole night. 
While I am more than happy to not be too comfortable on an overnight bus in Thailand or India, the price there reflects the service you receive. Especially when there is no language barrier, there is, in my opinion, no real excuse for poor customer service when you are paying nearly $70 a ticket with no reclining seats, but come the morning, we arrived in Sydney.

The sunrise that met us when we left the bus station

The weather was glorious as we arrived in Sydney. It was early in the morning so we hit up the classic 7/11 coffee, great value at all hours of the day. As usual, after an overnight bus journey, I felt pretty spaced out, as I can never quite sleep properly unless I’m fully reclined, no matter how smooth the ride may be, or if I’m just sitting in a chair.

The first view of the harbour area

We had to wait till 2 to check into the hostel so we went to check out the Sydney harbour bridge and the Opera House, at least from a distance. Part of our planning when leaving Melbourne was to cut down on baggage so that we didn’t have to rely on checking baggage on flights, but also to avoid having to lug a big bag round all day and get taxis when arriving at a new town. As a result we made our way in the glorious sun to the bridge, which was a fantastic view as the first since Melbourne.
The Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the Botanical Gardens all surround the harbour area which is buzzing with people, mainly tourists, every day. After taking some photos and looking around, we decided to check into the hostel, which was the cheapest one we could find online.

Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House

Chili Blue Backpackers in Sydney is rock bottom in price and offers a free breakfast to guests. If you are looking for cheap, then it’s a good enough option, with no bed bugs and a kitchen, but if you’re looking for a relaxing stay then you might want to check out other options. If you are looking for a 24/7 house party then this is definitely the place for you, although expect for the mess to never be cleared up and frequent defecation on the floor, not always restricted to the bathroom.
The free breakfast consists of the cheapest white bread, strawberry jam and processed cheese money can buy, with a large amount of cold boiled eggs. Enjoy. If you’re looking for any help or advice then you’re more likely to get it from another guest than the staff, who were as useless as a chocolate teapot. It’s worth going out in a group if at all possible as the area can be quite rough and intimidating after dark, especially if you are quite young but it’s easy enough to avoid.

Bondi Beach

Although you can get a bus to Bondi Beach, we decided to make a day of it and get a feel for the city so we decided to walk, although I am not sure that I would recommend it to others as it is quite a long distance. 
Although it is a nice beach, and it was a nice day, I was underwhelmed at Bondi compared to some of the beaches that I had seen on the South Coast, and would see on the East Coast. There is a nice coastal walk which goes around and over the cliff which I would recommend, although the amount of people traffic can be quite tedious as runners constantly try to come through at speed. To avoid this it might be worth going early in the morning or later in the evening, although I am not sure if this would make a difference. Still, there are some spectacular views and the possibility of viewing dolphins and whales if you’re lucky.

The Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are also really worth a visit if you have time. Although they are a distance outside the city, it is very easy to get a double decker train there and the views are spectacular. I would recommend going early in the morning, as the light was beginning to fade by the time we were leaving and it would have been good to see a bit more of the paths available. Staying in the area would be another option which would make this easier, and the towns around are very friendly, with lots of free tourist information available.

Jon in the forest as the light began to fail

We only stayed in Sydney for a week but I feel that, much like Melbourne, unless you were living and working there that would be plenty of time if you wanted to see everything from a tourist point of view.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Melbourne: Hot Town, Summer in the City

Melbourne Part 2
Thanks to Rhys and Dan Shinners and Karl Shami, it was easy to make friends in Melbourne. I had met Dan and Karl a few years earlier on a trip in America and Mexico, and both hailing from Melbourne, introduced us to people and places which we would not have been able to nearly so easy if we were just backpacking in a hostel. We’re both very grateful to them and everyone else we met in Melbourne for their help and it certainly made everything even more enjoyable. (If any of you are reading thins, thanks very much again!)
Time moved on and Rhys moved into our flat, following the discovery by the boys of a futon on the street. We put this in the front room and went on rotation, so splitting everything by 3 made it even cheaper to live there. Happy days.
Despite being a basement flat, I never saw any spiders or insects which we had feared would be around, until one day when I thought I saw an enormous spider scuttling under the fridge.
After a seek and destroy mission, we assumed that it must have escaped through the hole in the wall behind the cooker, but after several weeks, and a few further sightings we realised that it was no more than a friendly mouse in the house. As a result, I decided to go to Specsavers, where I got a great deal; buy 1 pair of prescription glasses, get a pair of sunglasses free. I also tried out the contact lens trial, but after 30 minutes of repeatedly poking myself in the eye and dropping the lens, I realised that I was not going to get on with wearing them. N.B: I need to try again as I just can’t stop myself from blinking when I go to put the lens in. In the words of Rhys Neild, desperate times.
In Melbourne I learnt to Ice Skate under the instruction of Dan and Rhys, after only ever going to two previous sessions
1. Disco skating in Bradford in 2012,
2. A tiny ice rink in London where I realised it was much harder than I had imagined. 
Although it took quite a long time, I can now confidently do a lap, though I still have trouble with the turning to brake, but I imagine that will come in time.
The four of us drove down the Great Ocean Road, which was a beautifully scenic drive and one that I would say is a must to anyone who has enough time. The roads in Australia are very similar to those in Canada, New Zealand and America, with plenty of space to move, and although it is built into the cliff in places, like the route previously mentioned in my New Zealand post and the West Coast of America, it would be an easy drive even for those not too experienced behind the wheel. If I returned, I think I would get a camper van and stop at a couple of the beaches along the way, where there is a great sense of community and some great surf.
All too soon it was time for us to leave Melbourne and head up the coast. We drew up an itinerary as, although we had originally planned to drive, a surprise trip to Adelaide made us realise just how long and expensive this would be. (Thanks to Adie, her Mum, and all the people in Adelaide who made the drive worthwhile! We had a great time in Adelaide and I would describe it more, but unfortunately we were only there for one night so I don’t feel like I know it well enough to describe it, but from what I saw it see there’s much to see, mainly churches.) I would recommend booking all flights as soon as possible as the cost really does go up massively overnight so forward planning can really save you a lot of money.
The next stop was Sydney, and though it was hard to say goodbye to everyone, we knew that we had to move as the Working Visa was ticking down and we needed to either qualify for the second year or leave the country before November, which would mark 1 year from out original entry.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Melbourne: Work, Life and Chapel Street

New Zealand was a great experience, but all the time we were there, I couldn’t help thinking about the money that we were spending and not replacing. Following the return flight from Auckland to Melbourne, where we were picked up at the airport by our good friend Rhys, the need to find a flat and a job really began to hit home.
I have been in similar situations a few times before, but usually when money began to run short in the UK I could lock down and work as a temp for a few months to build up a fair base of money. However, being unemployed on essentially a holiday, going out was also vital, so all the while we would try to save, we would inevitably be spending out a small fortune every time we went out, even just to the pub.


Rhys had kindly let us stay in his flat where he had a sofa bed on the understanding that we would find our own place as soon as possible and get jobs. This, as we soon found, was harder than we had hoped.

While the majority of backpackers on the working holiday visa would stay in hostels and work in bars and restaurants for a short time, we were keen to get something more permanent. Our plan was to live in Melbourne for 6 months at least, saving up some money before hitting the rest of Australia and south east Asia. After seeing how people on the working visa in New Zealand were living in hostels, crowded dorm rooms with people coming in throughout the night, cooking in cramped kitchens, the idea of getting up for work in the morning after the temptation to join in the party would be too hard.


After being in hostels even just for 6 weeks we knew that while it had been fun, it was not likely to get us any money saved. Luckily, after a few weeks of searching, and just as we were giving up hope, we came across a flat in Prahran, just north of St. Kilda and only an hours easy walk from the city centre. After a walk, which turned into a bit of a trek, through South Yarra at a fast pace, we arrived just in time for another open house off the 
RealEstate.com website and after previous options it seemed that we had found the perfect location. A run down, single glazed flat with 2 bedrooms, a large front room/kitchen and a bathroom, complete with off road parking for a very affordable rent, and as we worked out would actually be cheaper than staying in a dorm room of a hostel. Perfect.

We moved in just before Christmas after saying goodbye to Rhys, who was back off to the UK a couple of weeks before, leaving us his trusty Mazda 3 to use, which was crucial in the moving in process. Although we still had no jobs, we realised that we were unlikely to get any before Christmas so we went about furnishing the house from Gumtree, freecycle and Ikea until it was looking pretty decent. 


The main reason for the low rent was the mould problem, which we quickly went about rectifying by painting over with thick ceiling paint. By Christmas day it was looking pretty good, so we celebrated by cooking a roast chicken and trimmings while watching all 6 Rocky films, drinking a ton of beers and hitting the pub later in the evening. Emotional.
After Christmas came New year, and after New year, thankfully, came employment for both of us. 

The world of Gumtree jobs can be brutal, from starting a job on commission giving out free plugs door to door, which it turns out nobody wants, to the prospect of having to work as a waiter for free for a few shifts before finding out if I would get a job out of it, things did not seem to be going well. 


Then I got a phone call from an agency, Randstad, who seemed like a promising lead. After melting the glue in the soles of some supermarket smart shoes on my walk to the interview, I completed some office skills tests and was told they would be in touch.


Sure enough, within a few weeks, they offered me a well paid position, where I started as a temp for a few days which stretched out to quite a few months, and I was able to start saving for the rest of the trip.

I also signed up to Hays, and they offered me a role the day I was starting for Randstad, as I was walking to work in fact. I would highly recommend anyone on the Working Holiday Visa to try agencies as they are generally better pay than most of the backpacker jobs we encountered, and are usually normal office hours so are quite good for city living. I wish that I had emailed my CV sooner, and I would recommend others to do it as soon as you arrive. Of course, it doesn’t really feel like a holiday if you left an office job in the UK but it does pay the bills very well.













Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Final Leg: Dunedin, Magic, Castles and Bros

The South Road Round


When planning a trip to New Zealand, it is very hard to tell which parts are worth going to and spending time in, and although there is a wealth of information and resources available, it is near impossible to allocate how much time you can spend in certain places before you actually arrive there.

A perfect example of this was that as we headed to Invercargill we had little idea what to expect. The landscape got gradually flatter as we drove away from the Fiordland, and became increasingly developed and grey as we approached Invercargill itself. While other visitors may have had a great experience and feeling, we were reaching the tail end of our trip, and after seeing the majority of the landscape of both the North and South Islands, it was definitely not one of the more inspiring sights to greet us.

The Final View of the Fiordland

After parking up and walking around for a bit, we had an emergency conference over a coffee, and decided that as it had taken much less time than we had allocated to arrive, and there not being much to do that we would change our itinerary. Though we had originally planned to see Bluff, the furthest point south on the Island, we agreed that it would be near impossible to see a sight more impressive than the rolling hills and epic mountain range, and after consulting the Lonely Planet and our remaining time in the country decided to head towards Dunedin up the East coast.

Arriving in Dunedin, I could instantly feel the effects of the Scottish heritage, and the age and layout of the buildings really reminded me of home. Set on hills, rather than the flatter towns around, the grid system fails to remove the sense of curiosity and interest that the winding and vastly altered gradient of the streets creates.

After assessing the options from the Planet, we had decided that we would stay at one of the more unique hostels, Hogwartz. Although themed on the Harry Potter series, this hostel was largely unaffected by the tacky potential that such a half arsed attempt at recreating the Hogwarts Castle could have had. This said, it may have been largely due to the lack of alternative accommodation on the weekend we arrived, or the fact that no one else was British that the hostel held a great niche appeal on this front. While you could be easy to be put off by the name and description at face value, I would highly recommend the hostel for overall cleanliness, of rooms, bathrooms and kitchen, the helpful staff and the crowd that it seems to attract.

The old Sunny's time draws near

We were given a full map with great details of where everything was and how best to get there, and set off to see the city. I would really recommend doing this before setting out, as we usually would have done, for walking down the wrong hill can lead to serious arguments in a group if you have to walk back up.

While it was not term time at the University, we decided that we would go and see the campus, which is quite interesting, but I wouldn’t bother with it if you were here for only a limited time.

One particular attraction is the World’s Steepest Street. While this is a tourist attraction, there is no charge to walk or drive up it, but on reaching the top, you have to wonder about the credibility of the claim. While I agree that it is indeed, very steep, the top isn’t that far away, and cars can still drive up it with relative ease (NB: Don’t try to take a camper van or small car based on this) it holds little on the hills in San Francisco, although I doubt that you would visit Dunedin just for this attraction so that is probably of little consequence.


It was in Dunedin that we were to meet two of the most influential people in our travels. When we returned to our hostel, two Australians had moved into our room and were just starting their New Zealand trip. There names were Josh and Jake, and after realising a shared love for beer, we headed into town. While this was to be our last night in Dunedin, we all got on really well, and decided that we would keep in contact as we planned to head up the east coast of Aus the following year, and would meet up in Brisbane. Jealous of their upcoming NZ adventure, we headed off the next day, but not before realising a shared love for the fine range of baked and fried goods on offer at 7-eleven. Seriously, an absolute bargain, especially the Cordon Bleu. highly recommended to all. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

Sheer Drops and Awesome Rocks: Enter the Sound

Boats and Bros - Milford Sound

After staying for around a week in Queenstown, it was time to move on to the next part of our journey, to take in the spectacular Milford Sound and the surrounding area. Although it was initially very hard to move on again after meeting so many great people, it was much easier once we were once again driving through the stunning isolated beauty of the largely flat winding road, with very few other cars driving in each direction.

The Road through the Fiordland

Having lived in Sevenoaks; what I would class as a 'small' town in the south east of England, just off the busy M25 ring road around greater London, it was still very strange for me to see such little traffic for such a huge stretch at a time, and even then with only a couple of cars, it often made me wonder what driving must have been like not only recently before the motorways were opened, but even before that, as Cars are only a very recent invention. The ability to travel so freely, even on roads such as the two lanes in and out of the wilderness to the sounds is still truly remarkable to me and, coupled with the availability of cheap flights really means that, within reason, there really is nowhere on earth that it is, in the current age, impossible to get to.

The Alpine Flats

These deeper thoughts flicked through my head intermittently in between the awesome selection of classic rock and the freshest Australian hip-hop from last century provided by navigator in chief, MC Jonny Davies.

Stopping for several breaks to admire the view, and go for some easy circuit walks around lakes, which I would really recommend if you have time to get a feel for the area, we stopped to camp for the night before heading out early the next morning to see the sights of the Sound.

J.K. Davies enjoying a Coffee and Nature. His two favourite things

We drove up early, leaving the tent at the campsite, to get on a Jucy Cruze which we had  booked really cheap through the last minute ticket website bookme which I would highly recommend checking in Queenstown before booking a tour through a travel agent. The breakfast and UNLIMITED FREE COFFEE provided in the price was much more than we had hoped for, and while our boat didn't go all the way out to sea, the views and wildlife we saw were definitely worth the money. 

The tour guides and staff on the boat were very helpful and friendly, explaining not only the landscape, but also providing a lot of information about the area and answering any questions that visitors had. We even got lucky and got up close to some of the native penguins which was a particular highlight.

If I was only looking to do a shorter trip in New Zealand I would definitely put Milford Sound, or at least a trip to another Fiordland attraction in the top sights to see as the landscape truly is breathtaking.

Milford Sound

The feeling that I got on the cruise reminded me of the scene in the Fellowship of the Rings where the company are heading down the river after their meeting with Galadriel and the elves following their escape from the mines of Moria. Although not the same location, the sheer size and epic faces of the rock really give a sense of the vast power and force of nature.

Returning from the sound, we packed up the tent and car, and with glorious weather decided that as it was still morning we had time for the Key summit walk, which is signposted to take on average 2-3 hours. Although I regretted applying too much sun cream to the forehead, with the sweat making it run and sting my eyes for a short time (school boy error) the walk was a success and very enjoyable. There are several such walks along the route and I would highly recommend doing several or at least a few to experience the alpine wildlife and vegetation.

The view from the Key Summit

 The next step of our trip was to take us towards the south and Invercargill, and it was with a great couple of days behind us we headed towards the final stages of our visit to New Zealand.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Onwards to Queenstown

Queenstown


Although Queenstown was the next major town on our journey, we decided that we would take a detour through the historic Arrowtown, which is located about halfway between Wanaka and QT. While New Zealand in general is know for its 'old England' feel, with the small being much more isolated than most of the UK, Arrowtown residents and businesses have focussed on this as the towns major selling point, and although it sounds like a possible non-event like so many similarly marketed towns I have seen, especially in America, I was not disappointed and it is definitely worth a visit if you were to have time. I highly recommend trying the micro-brewery in town, with a very passionate and helpful local brewer who explains the whole process on a wide variety of in house ale, it is hard to not want to get your own brew on as soon as possible after a visit.


The Lake - Queenstown

After a night at a less than scenic camp site, we headed into Queenstown itself, which is only a short drive away. Having had several recommendations from friends we had met along the way, the Black Sheep seemed to have the most passionate following among other backpackers so we headed straight there.


The Black Sheep is probably my personal favourite hostel that I stayed at in New Zealand, or at least on a par with the Brown Kiwi in Auckland. The mix of social space, room layout and relatively small kitchen didn't give great promise immediately, but as we agreed with many other guests from different times, the crowd it draws just always seem to work. The free Hot Tub out the back has no small part to play in this, and there were many rainy afternoons where 'Tubb Lyf' made a rainy day seem like paradise. (Tubb Lyf was a bunch of guys from across the world drinking beers in a hot tub.)


The Black Sheep Hot Tub

After the relatively small towns that we had been to since arriving on the south island, even including Wanaka, Queenstown appears immediately huge, but is actually relatively small compared to the cities and very easy to navigate. It is located on the edge of a lake, with a stunning surround of mountains with various activities available. Although there are some challenging hikes, and downhill mountain bike trails, these seemed like so much effort, but my recommendation would be to get a few people to head up onto the free luge on the mountain. While it does look immediately easy, the competitive nature soon comes out and normally the most unlikely driver (pilot) ends up winning but still never knowing exactly how. There are other more extreme activities available such as power boating and a bungee jump on the mountain, but there are lots of other leisure activities too, so all visitors have no excuse not to enjoy their stay.

There are a few places in the town itself that need a mention. The World Bar is probably the best club/bar, with a great dance floor and good, yet pricey, range of cocktails available in tea pots, which always makes things better. The bar crawls around the town are probably the best way to see everywhere, and although probably not the primary reason for signing up, don't expect a 'free pizza'. At least, expect A 'free pizza' between about 10 people, though the organised fun does mean that you don't have to worry where you go and get on with meeting new people.


Fergburger

The other main point is Fergburger. Recommended by lonely planet and pretty much anyone (excluding vegetarians and vegans, though the chips are also awesome) who has been to Queenstown, Fergburger has to be tried at any time of the day. Davies was a huge advocate of the morning range, but unfortunately I rarely had enough of an appetite to make them financially viable myself.  From the range of names (inc. the Codfather, Mr. Big Stuff, Bun Laden) to the great favour and value for money, everything here is as good as it looks and sounds. I would say more but there's too much to say. I'll leave it at IT'S AWESOME and YOU MUST GO. Enough said. 

Queenstown was amazing for me, though this was for the people I met there as much as the town itself. I think that the only way it could be better is if it was ski season, which I imagine would be fantastic. It is very easy to make Queenstown a hub for going on different trips if you don't have your own transport and I'm sure that anyone else who has visited would agree that it is a must see in the south island.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Mountains and Mayhem

The Town by The Lake


The next stage of our trip was Wanaka, located just North of Queenstown on the South Island. The stunning location of this small town really is a sight to behold on the drive in, and the town really backs this up being big in hospitality and small town charm, while still being the centre of a lot of activity in the area. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had won a few free nights accommodation during our stay in Wellington which were only redeemable at the X-Base in Wanaka. With only a few hostels in the town, the X-Base plays host to several of the bigger bus tours which go up and down the island, and as a result, social activities are laid on heavily every night. The only drawback of this is that while you make great friends one night in the bar, which I rate highly at this particular base, they will move on the next day most of the time with the rest of the tour and be replaced straight away with a new group, which can be quite draining, especially when people are tired and can’t really be bothered to deal with new people with the standard conversation, not to mention the toll on the wallet.




This wasn't an issue for us as we’d been relatively isolated for a few days so were quite prepared to put in the leg work and meet some people. After a free BBQ (again highly recommended for the meat alone, without mentioning the free salad – also good), a few beers and a game of killer pool, we were well set for a great night with a great group of people. Although the night life at the hostel was great, about 10 of us decided to go into town, where we were surprised to see a good mix of averagely late opening places; and while many tourists we met previously had dismissed Wanaka as being too quiet at night I would beg to differ. A great night was had, although specifics fail me.

Davies admires the view of Lake Wanaka

The following day, I received a highly rated haircut at Ali-Barbers, the only barbers in town, and we rented mountain bikes and headed North East. Although we (mainly I) are not experienced mountain bikers, the routes are well made and professionally built with a good range of trails to suit all abilities. The lakeside track which you have to follow to reach them is great, although I'm not so sure I would say the same in inclement weather, in terms of scenery and readability.

Misty Mountains: The view from Mount Roy

Following another night at Base, we decided to try out the YHA in town as it seemed a bit quieter and didn't have an in house bar, which we were finding to be a major drain on financial resources. Located just over the road from X-Base, the front window offers a panoramic view of the Mountains over the picturesque lake on the shore of which Wanaka was built. This mountain range is classic Lord of the Rings Misty Mountains territory, and we planned to walk up one of the closer ones, Mount Roy, the following morning.

Me, Halfway up, Zipped off trousers

Setting out early, we loaded up on a good breakfast from the Car Boot Kitchen and headed to the start of the trail, only about 10 minutes outside the town centre. The trail was quite a steep walk; and although no challenge for International Tri-athlete I had to take quite a few breaks. Still, at a steady pace, and after several hours, the views are highly recommended, and for anyone looking for an easy/moderate walk with spectacular reward I would really consider doing this one, although I am sure the views would be equally good from any other trail. Although we would have loved to carry on to the trail which this was only the start of through several other hills, we knew that we had to get moving on, so after a return which seemed to take minutes, rather than the hours which it had taken to walk that morning, we headed back to town, picked up some coffees and headed on out; destination Queenstown.