Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bungy Jumping was closed for the day :( Time to go skiing again(!)

10th Sept 2007:

Seeing as it was my last day in the area, I decided it was time to do that crazy activity which the area is renowned for: Bungy Jumping!

I spent last night doing my homework and investigated which of the three available bungy jumps would be the best to do.

The first and original bungy jump is from a bridge over a river. Its 34 metres high and you jump into a canyon down to the water below. This is the most popular of the three.

Next up is the "Nevis" jump which is from a cable car which is suspended between two mountains. This is 120 metres high and requires nerves of steel to perform.

Last up is "The Ledge" which is located in Queenstown itself. You jump from a height of 400 metres down to a platform 57 metres below. This is the most convenient of the three to get to as you can walk there from the main street of the town.

So, which to do? I had my eye on Nevis. I thought I'd check with my fellow travellers though and fortunately some had recently done the Nevis jump. Unfortunately, the comments weren't very inspiring: "Too high to be enjoyable" was the consensus and when asked would they do another bungy jump, most answered that they had been put off the experience by being so scared the first time. Hmmm....

In light of that, I went with option 1, the Bridge. Feeling a little nervous with what I about to commit to, I entered the bungy company's office and gingerly approached the ticket desk. Composing myself, I asked the girl at the desk: "When's the next available time slot today for the Bridge jump?". Once I had asked the question I felt much better: the decision had been made and I was committed.

I was not expecting her answer: "Never!". All I could blurt out in surprise was "Huh?". It turned out that the bridge jump was closed today for "promotional reasons" whatever that entails. All that psyching up was for nought: major bummer. :(

The Ledge jump only occurs in the afternoons so at 8:30 in the morning
I found myself wandering around the streets of Queenstown a little bit lost. Every other shop was closed and none of the other activities jumped out at me: Canyon Swinging, Paragliding, Parasailing and canyon power boating all sounded ok, but they weren't the bridge jump. The nearby Skylift Gondola was open though so I took a ride up the near vertical cable car system upto the viewing complex nearly half a kilometer above Quuenstown.

The skylift complex is also where you can "Luge" down the mountainside. Each Luge cart is a little four wheel push cart and it travels down a concrete track: all you have to do is steer, brake when necessary and hang on(!) Unfortunately, the track was temporarily closed due to icy conditions :( "At least there will be a view", I thought to myself. Sadly, it was cloudy. And then it started snowing.

Shortly afterward I decided I'd leave the adventure activities behind and go back to having fun! The next available ski bus to Coronet Peak left in 10 minutes so I jumped on and went back to showing the beginners how its done on the slopes. I even went back to face my nemeses, the Blue slope where I fell two days ago and went at it again: not a bother this time around and the extra speed/risk with the faster slope made it all even more exciting.

I felt quite sad coming down the blue slope for the last time today as I wasn't ready for it to end. I'll be popping back to Europe for Christmas: Methinks I'll have to look at stopping somewhere on the way (mmm... Whistler in Canada maybe?) for my next ski fix.

Milford Sound

9th Sept 2007:

Before coming to New Zealand I kept hearing from the Aussies that New Zealand is "so pretty". So, as an investigation, I decided I'd go on a sight seeing trip to the most famous place around these parts: Milford Sound.

The most common way used to get to Milford Sound from Queentown is to use one of the many tour bus operators. Its such a popular option that I nearly booked it without investigating alternatives first. Thankfully I happened to ask one of the hostel staff for her opinion and her quick answer instantly put me off: "its ten hours by bus" was all she had to say.

So, instead, this morning I made my way to the airport, jumped in a small 4-seater airplane and flew there. I was joined by two Chinese girls and our pilot for the day was a local girl, "Terry".

I had never been in such a small plane before and when Terry asked who wanted to ride in her co-pilot's seat I jumped straight in. I found it all fascinating: I had the head set on and was listening to the chatter between the tower and the pilot while watching her prime the engine and start taxiing along the grass towards the runway. Within minutes we were given the go ahead from the tower and shortly afterwards we had lift-off.

Small planes are very exposed to winds, I found out. Our flight path also took us over a mountain range and we had a lot of turbulence from up-drafts. The plane was bouncing around the pace and the engine kept sounding like it was struggling with the wildly changing air patterns: it was great :) One of the other passengers wasn't so impressed and had to make use of the sick bag, but I found it fab. Only problem was that it finished so quickly: 25 minutes after taking off we landed at Milford Sound. The flying option is 50 NZD more expensive per leg than the bus option, but for me 25 minutes v 5 hours made the extra cost well worth it.

Shortly after landing we jumped on a ferry and started taking a look at Milford Sound itself. A "sound", it seems is a flooded valley which is caused by erosion (e.g. by a river). Milford Sound though, despite its name, is actually a "fjord" as it was created by glaciers. The result does, in fairness, look specular with mile high snow capped mountains towering over smooth blue water below, into which flowed numerous crashing waterfalls.

The captain of the boat gave a running commentary of what made the place different from everywhere else. What stuck with me from his descriptions was that the walls of the fjord are too narrow to support soil and yet the walls are lined with a Beech tree forest. It seems moss can stick to the rocks and the trees can in turn cling to the moss. The downside of this growth approach is that the trees are linked: if one tree gets knocked over, the tress below don't have a solid enough root support to hold the falling tree and so the trees below also fall creating a "tree avalanche". The area also gets phenomenal rain fall with upto 24 inches a day and 7-9 metres of the stuff every year: all that rain makes the rocks slippy, which makes it harder for the moss to stick to it which makes tree avalanches quite common. It was a dry day when I was there though, so no timber action was visible.

The waterfalls are also quite impressive: "Spencer Falls", for example, is over 140 metres tall which apparently is higher than Niagra Falls. The captain maneuvered the boat right in front of the bigger falls and we could get a nice cool shower in amongst the rainbows if we wanted (given the freezing conditions, surprisingly enough there weren't any takers).

Also along the way we spotted penguins and seals. Apparently there can also be dolphins which ride the bow way in front of the boats but sadly they weren't there today.

A round trip around the fjord took about two hours and once we returned to the dock, Terry collected us and flew us back to Queenstown.

Overall it was a nice morning and was worth going to. Would it be worth 10 hours in a bus? I don't know... Maybe I'm just used to seeing pretty landscapes in Ireland. Nevertheless, well worth visiting if you have the chance.

Skiing day 3: A bridge too far?

8th Sept 2007:

The weather changed for day three. The previous two days had been blue skies with no wind, whereas today started cloudy, was much colder and there was a slight breeze. I could feel my face drying out more and more with each passing minute and had to wrap my scarf tightly around my whole head.

This scarf-cocoon is what I'm blaming for my first mistake of the day. In preparation for this mornings class I went back to one of the beginner slopes and at the top of the slope I pushed off and was soon whizzing down. Despite the wind, I still just about heard someone shouting behind me "Stop!". I was already committed to going down though at that stage so I kept going and soon noticed that the slope was very quiet and there was nobody else around... It turned out that the slope was closed and more importantly the ski escalator to bring me back up the slope was shut off... On the positive side, I was no longer cold after trekking back up the mountain side :)

Progress with the ski-learning had gone well in the previous two days so after skiing for a combined total of 7 hours, today I took it to the next level and moved onto the Blue intermediate slopes.

There were eight of us in today's group and together we took the skilift to the top of the main intermediate slope. In hindsight, 7 hours of skiing may have been a little quick to move onto the next level... Whereas I found the green slope exhilarating, for the blue slope I was just nervous. I had not fallen over yet while skiing but when I saw how steep the blue slope was I had a feeling I wouldn't escape much longer.

Our instructor for the day, Melina from Japan, took us through the lesson, guiding us on the correct technique to use for the steeper slope. I stuck near her the whole time and we gradually tackled the slope in sections. I lasted longer than I had thought before I fell over, but it did eventually happen and my until then dry jacket tasted snow. As the class wore on and I became more and more drained it happened again and just before the bottom of the slope it happened a third time... I was pretty relived once it was over. I reckon I'll stick with the green slopes for the foreseeable future.

Despite my over-exuberance on the last day, I found skiing to be great. The main experience I will take away though from the last three days is that its best to take it in steps and most importantly: its best not to rush!

Skiing day 2: The survival of the fittest

7th Sept 2007:

The second day started off slowly at the mountain. There seemed to be some school groups around and it took aaagggeeesss to get the gear rented. Once I finally got my stuff together though, I joined my new group for the day. There were six of us and this group size worked much better than the bigger twelve from yesterday: with six we all learned each other's names and could support each other better.

The second day was all about learning how to turn. Turning, it turns out is the hard part of skiing. Today's lessons weren't as easy as yesterday's and other people on the mountain seemed to have a hard day also. I suspect it was due to the conditions: whereas the snow had been fresh yesterday, today it was more compacted and slippier in places. Whatever the reason, the first-aid skidoo seemed to be constantly going up and down the mountain with injured people. And then came the helicopter. Somebody elsewhere managed to injure themselves such that they needed to be heli-vacuated off the mountain and we all stopped to gawk at the UN (?) helicopter which appeared out of the blue to fly the injured person to hospital...

Putting the danger of the sport out of our minds we pressed on, left the beginners area and jumped on the chair lift up the mountain. Having worked on a chair lift before I knew what to expect and gave some advice to my ski-buddies (the main thing to remember is: it doesn't stop, so get into position as quickly as possible and once the chair appears just sit back and hang on). Getting off at the top of the lift was interesting as you are ejected down a steep slope and its quite easy to loose your balance and get in the way of the people coming off next...

The different ski runs are colour coded for different levels of difficulty. Green is the easiest, followed by Blue (intermediate) and the hardest being Black. Blue and Black was beyond us, so once we were all at the top of the Green run we gingerly took off doing wedge-turns down the slope.

After going down a proper slope, I can see now why the sport is so popular. Its exhilarating pushing your boundaries and very rewarding when you survive a seemingly impossible section of the ski-run.

Our little team did well the first time around, but it quickly degraded into a survival of the fittest. First, one of the girls in the group fell and injured her wrist so she left to get it seen to and her partner went with her. We were down to four and then someone else, Laura, had a fall. I'm not sure what happened to her because the rest of us were down at the bottom of the slope looking up at her lying on her side half way up. We all got back on the chair lift to get back to her and could see that one of the instructors had placed her ski-poles in front of Laura in an "x" shape which apparently means that there is an injured skier nearby. By the time we got back down she had gone... Hopefully it wasn't anything too serious :(

Speaking of injuries, in addition to skiing you can also do snow boarding which is like surfing on snow. After seeing the snowboarders in action over the past two days I sure am glad that I chose to do skiing: snowboarding looks painful(!) Beginner snowboarders seem to spend most of their time falling, either on their backside or more dramatically on their face! Our instructor explained that its easy to get the basics for skiing but hard to get good, whereas its the opposite for snowboarding. I could sense a level of frustration with the beginner snowboarders which did not exist with the beginner skiers.

By the end of the second day the survivors of our group had gone down the green slope at least half a dozen times. Confidence was high and we were all ready to take it to the next level.

Skiing at Coronet Peak

6th Sept 2007:

As luck would have it, it snowed the night before and skiing conditions were described as ideal. The bus collected me bang on time and within forty minutes had dropped me off at the local ski field: Coronet Peak.

It turns out there are four main places to go in the area: Coronet Peak being the closest and its main competitor being "The Remarkables". Anybody I've chatted to who has been to both says they are both very similar, but that The Remarkables is an hour's commute time which is noticably longer than Coronet Peak. Even further afield is Cordona and finally there's Treble Cone.

Coronet Peak seemed relatively busy when I arrived and it turned out that there was an international competition being held: bad news if I had wanted the advanced slopes, but it had no impact on me with the beginner slopes.

After getting off the bus, I wandered over to the Ski School part of the complex and found myself chatting with a girl from County Down and another from Tipperary. They were thrilled to hear another Irish accent, though they didn't seem as happy when i did my duty and clarified that Cork was The Real Capital(TM) ;)

After getting my ski-pass from the Ski School I popped over to the equipment rental and collected my boots, skiis and ski-poles. Ski-boots are weird: the hard outer shell and hard sole result in a shoe that has no flexibility whatsoever and each foot step results in a clump-clump feeling. Even the ski-pros taking part in the competition seemed to find the most challenging part of walking around in the shoes, walking up and down stairs, a challenge.

Beginners lessons began shortly after and twelve of us were grouped together under the expert guide of our instructor "Simon", from the UK. Simon's accent was straight out of the TV soap "Emmerdale Farm" and it was hard to keep a straight face at times while listening to his funny accent (which, to be fair, probably isn't half as funny as mine must sound ;) Even funnier though was trying to snap the ski-boots into the skiis while trying to look cool and not falling down on your bum: not an easy thing to do, as you might imagine.

Skiing reminds me of Scube Diving: it seems completely alien initially but quickly becomes almost instinctual. It didn't take long for all of us to learn the basics of moving forwards and backwards, stepping sidways up hills and most importantly of all the best ways of getting back up when you fall down.

With the basics out of the way we spent the rest of the morning skiing down a gentle beginner slope, skiing between ski-poles and crouching down to ski under a barrier. Oddly enough, we weren't taught how to stop until near the end of the morning session(!) but learning "The Wedge" (an inverted V shape) proved to be a big confidence booster.

Each session lasted one and a half hours to two hours which seemed to be just long enough without wearing you out. We began the afternoon session thinking skiing seemed to be quite easy. We then all had a good laugh then when Simon announced that we would be spending the afternoon without our ski-poles: the laughter quickly died away though when we realised he was serious and suddenly skiing became somewhat intimidating again... He also led us away from our beginners play-pen and we took a ride on the "Magic Carpet" (a ruberised conveyer belt) up a long and impossibly steep slope (in hindsight, it was a gentle slope, but it seemed steep initially...) and once we reached the top we nervously looked at the little people down below. The purpose of the afternoon session was practising skiing without poles, being able to slow yourself down in the wedge position and some gentle turns slalom-style: it turned out to great fun! It seemed rather basic when compared to the pros whizzing down the steep slopes, but everyone in our little group found it to be a great buzz. It was very disappointing when the time came to catch the bus back to Queenstown :( I couldn't wait to go back for another go.


5th Sept 2007:

Queenstown is a relaxed little town which is situated in a valley and is surrounded by snow capped mountains. The town itself is quite picturesque with lots of little shops lining the streets. The place screams MONEY with every building expensively finished and every car resembling a big SUV.

Its pretty clear from the variety of shops what the main focus of the town is: adventure sports. The main street is lined with businesses which offer activities such as skiing, rafting, paraglading, parasailing and that which made the area famous: bungy jumping. Apparently the original NZ bungy jump location is nearby so perhaps its something which I should look into...

The people who work in the shops are, so far, locals and its giving me a great opportunity to try out my Kiwi accent. I dated a Kiwi girl in Sydney so felt ready to sound like a local. All you need to do is replace "e" with "i" and vice versa, except when either of the letters are repeated. So, for example, "weekend" is pronounced {week-ind} and "ten" is pronounced {tin}. It can lead to confusion for those who are caught unawares: a British couple on the shuttle bus from the airport reacted with horror when the driver mentioned that they could relax on the "sun deck"(!) (use the above translation guide to hear how it was pronounced ;).

Weather is good: blue skies and no wind. It is, however, very, very cold. Within minutes of standing outside the ears had frozen and the eyes were watering: just the winter weather I was looking for!

Another point to note about the place is that town planners seemed to have come to the inspired decision of banning all traffic lights and traffic seems to be non-existent. I could get use to this place!

I'm staying at the YHA Lakefront which is a ten minute walk from the town centre. The hostel, as the name suggest is situated next to a lake and has good facilities. Initially I thought it was lacking that most important of modern necessities: a tv(!) Thankfully that nightmare scenario was averted when I found a cosy tv room, though the choice of prime-time TV programs reminded me of Ireland in the '90s: "Friends" or "Coronation Street".

The staff at the hostel are quite helpful also and as they had promised on the phone a week ago they took care of the skiing booking within minutes of my arriving. All I need to do, it turns out, is be at the front door at 8AM and the rest of the ski prep and transport will be handled for me: convenient!

On the way to Queenstown, New Zealand

5th Sept 2007:

Summer is returning to Oz after what feels like the shortest, warmest winter ever with just about five weeks of cold as opposed to my more regular five months in Ireland: it doesn't feel normal!

So, in an effort to experience some really cold weather before the hot Aussi summer, I'm now on my next trip to... ice cold New Zealand!

I'm flying to Queenstown with Air New Zealand. I've had a good opportunity to experience many different air carriers over the past year and a half, and this particular airplane with Air New Zealand has the dubious distinction of having the least amount of leg room, and its winning that title by a long margin. Using the highly scientific Time-International-Magazine-as-a-measuring-tool, the leg room equates to 3/4 of the length of the magazine. Still, being so close to the snoring person in front of me, the sound of which drowns out even the roar from the jet engines, is a nice distraction from the only available in flight movie: Mr Bean 2.

This is a two part flight, with the first leg being from Sydney to Auckland (North Island of New Zealand) followed by a connecting flight to Queenstown (South Island). The captain was refreshingly honest about the weather we could expect in Auckland, describing it as "miserable"! The rest of the flight crew were friendly but just as direct: today was the first time I had ever heard a flight crew member shouting at someone, though whoever unbuckled their seat belt and stood up seconds from landing into Auckland when the plane was nearly level with the buildings outside was clearly looking for some stern words...

Flying into Auckland provided my first glimpse of the country and my first thoughts were green, hilly, lots of farms, wet: looks a LOT like Ireland!
As I'm writing this, though, I am on my way to Queenstown and we are flying over forests with snow-capped mountains. In fact, I've never seen such an impressive landscape. There are French kids behind me and every couple of seconds there are shouts of "REGARDEZ!!!" as we look down on snow capped mountains which tower over valley's below.

Its nice to see the snow as my main focus on this trip will be skiing. Having never done it before, I don't know what gear to hire or where the best places to ski are. Apparently I have to get something called a "ski pass" and will probably need to get one or two ski lessons before I hit the "black slopes", which are apparently the most challenging. Thankfully, though, the hostel I'm staying in has promised to sort everything out for me which is convenient.

Well, the plane lands shortly: let the next adventure begin!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The worlds tallest commercial abseil: the 140 meter (460ft) Gordon Dam, Tasmania

7th April 2007:

Every once in a while I like to try something I haven't tried much or at all before. In Thailand it was Scuba Diving, Cairns it was Sky Diving and here in Tasmania it is Abseiling.

Abseiling, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is where go stand at the edge of a high structure (usually a cliff), and lower yourself down to the ground via a rope. You are strapped into a waist harness and in addition to your rope there is also a safety rope as a backup.

Now, I did go abseiling once before. About 15 years ago as part of a school outdoor excursion trip I abseiled from a height of about 20 meters(about 60ft): it seemed high at the time.

In Tasmania, though, they claim to have the "World's highest commercial abseil" and while I was in the area I figured I might as well give it a go.

How high is the world's highest? It is 140 meters (460ft). Putting that in perspective, its taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is roughly equivalent to a 38 story building. Gulp.

Joining me in this madness was an esteemed bunch. I met up with Drew who was a dental surgeon, and a husband and wife who were engineering lecturers in a university in Melbourne. All three originally hailed from India and having never met a native Indian it was a good opportunity to find out about Indian culture.

The tour operator for the day was Aardvark Adventures and our guide's name was Tom. Tom came across as a real outdoor adventure type: it seems he regularly goes on white water rafting expeditions which last over ten days. Based on his descriptions of the rafting, it might be something I could pencil in for the next time I'm in the area as it sounds like great fun.

The trip to the Dam took about 2 1/2 hours and we traveled in our Mercedes van through some pretty remote countryside. And boy was it pretty: there was no wind so all of the lakes were mirror-like, the countryside was lush green and mountains towered over the countryside below.

We were all in high spirits during the trip there although looking back I don't think we talked about the activity we were doing today at all: there may have been an unconscious decision not to even think about the ordeal ahead(!) But then we arrived at the Dam and avoidance was no longer an option...

We could not get over how big it was. The approach road for the dam comes in from above and we were all trying to peer down from the high vantage point to see the base of the dam but it was just too deep. It went on, and on and disappeared down into murky darkness.

Once the insurance waivers were signed, Tom brought out the gear and got us all strapped into the waist harnesses to which the ropes would be attached to the front. We then each grabbed a bag of equipment and labouring under the weight of the long ropes we made our way down onto the dam structure.

There are three possible abseil points on the dam: 30 meter, 50 meter and the full 140 meters. Tom explained that because we were all inexperienced, we would not start on the 140 meter height straight away: he wanted us to get some practice on the 50 meter height (about 13 floors in a building) first. That was fine by us because standing on the dam structure itself we did finally see the base 140 meters below: I wasn't nervous with the Scuba or Sky Diving, but standing on the pedestrian walkway on top of the dam and looking all the way down to the bottom, I found my heart rate starting to quicken slightly(!)

Drew was first up. The second hardest bit of this abseiling business is climbing over that safety rail (while attached to the safety rope) and clinging on to the rail knowing that there is a bit drop below. Once Tom finished attached the guide rope (the main rope which is used to control your descent) to Drew it was time for the hardest bit: letting go of the rail and leaning backwards until you are horizontal with the ground below.

By now we had gathered a little crowd of onlookers and soon it was cheers all round as Drew let go of the rail and started to walk down backwards. It all went without a problem.

Then it was my turn. My usual tactic for these activities is to just not think and to get on with it. Despite clearing my head of all thoughts, climbing over the rail started the heart rate beating faster, clinging onto the rail on the other side with the big drop below waiting for the guide rope to be attached made it beat faster again and then it was time to let go of the rail...

As it turns out, abseiling it like riding a bike: my one encounter with it 15 years ago came in most useful and I was straight away bouncing out from the wall, letting the rope fly through my glove and letting the friction of the rope going through the waist harness slow down my descent and pull me back into the wall, where I bounced out again for the next near free fall.

All too soon I was at the bottom and after unclipping the ropes from the harness, I raced back up the stairs ready to go again.

After another normal abseil, we decided we'd try something a little different. I took off my harness and put it back on backwards so that the ropes were attached to my back (instead of my front). I climbed out over the rail again and instead of leaning backwards, I leant forwards and did a front abseil where you walk/run down the side of the dam face first(!)

We only got to do that once as it was time to go to the main event: the 140 meter abseil. Drew went first again and made it look very easy. He also looked microscopic once he arrived at the bottom. Calling down to him was also pointless, Tom explained, as he was just too far for somebody's voice to travel. I went next and again just stopped thinking and went with it. This particular abseil was different to the previous ones done that day. The dam has a concave curve at that point so as you descend the wall slopes away from you and you end up sitting in the air 38-floors above the ground. I hadn't noticed how comforting the wall had been in the previous abseils until I could no longer touch it. Also, not having a wall to stabalilse yourself with meant that I gently started twirling a little left, then right. The view down through the gorge behind the dam was great and all too soon I reached the bottom, feeling great having successfully done the world's highest (commercial) abseil.

All in all, it was well worth the effort. We did have a 2 1/2 hour drive back to Hobart which was a pain, but otherwise it was all good. Another box ticked on the list of activities!

Port Arthur Ghost Tour

One of the more popular activities around Hobart is to do a tour of the nearby penal settlement, Port Arthur.

The tour operator I went with for the trip was called "Port Arthur MEGA day tour", with the mega in capital letters making it sound suitably exciting. The hostel receptionist had said that most people who come to Hobart do things which aren't very active and sure enough this particular tour, most of which involved being chauffeured around, was full with people all of whom were about my age. Joining me in discovering some history about the area was a bloke from Staten Island, NY, two Taiwanese girls, two Malaysian girls and a French speaking couple from Montreal, Canada.

The first stop on the tour was a quick drive by the Hobart Zoo. Seeing as it closed down in the 1930s, there wasn't much to see except an open field. However, its claim to fame is that the last known Tasmanian Tiger died here and now that species is extinct. The pictures which the guide showed displayed a very unusual animal: picture a kangaroo with four legs and a dogs head. It was able to go back on its back legs like a Kangaroo and even had the same pouch for carrying its young, but its head looked like a dog: very odd.

Next up we drove through Richmond Village, which is famous for having the oldest of just about every type of building in Oz (e.g. the oldest Post Office, the oldest bridge, etc.) The bridge resembled a million other bridges I've seen around Ireland, except for one minor detail: when it was built in the 1850s, it wasn't trolls under the bridge that you had to worry about, just sharks! Changes to the harbour closer to the sea since it was built has prevented sharks from coming in and today the only creatures in the water are the ducks.

The route to Port Arthur took us next through "Dootown", where every house uses the word "Doo" eccentrically enough(!) Some were normal ("Little to Doo"), while for others you'd wonder how the home owner keeps a straight face whenever he is required to write down his address somewhere ("Doo Me"). The village was located in the exciting sounding area called "Pirates Bay" which makes those Doo addresses look even more unlikely ("I swear officer, I do live at Doo Me, Pirates Bay"!)

After Dootown we made our way into Port Arthur. The tour guide took the unusual step of warning us NOT to ask a particular question. It seems within the last ten years, a local kid lost the plot and ended up murdering 33 people in the space of a few hours. Many of the locals were there when it happened, so the guide told us not to say anything about it.

Port Arthur itself was a penal colony where the British sent the worst of the worst to live out their days doing hard labour. Today, many of the old buildings remain and our tour group was booked into doing a Ghost Tour of the ruins, late at night...

We arrived at dusk, so Roger (from NY) and I did a quick walk around the ruins taking pictures before it got too dark. About two hours later though, when it was pitch black and freezing cold, a group of about 20 set off on the candlelit tour. When the tour guide asked for volunteers to hold one of the three lanterns, I didn't hold back: the candle inside did a great job of keeping my hands warm.

As we went around from building to building, the ghost tour guide gave us lots of details on the ghoulish deaths which prisoners suffered during the (final) stay there. The tour operators wanted to "keep it real", so if you are after scary music, funny lights and people jumping out at you, you may want to try elsewhere.

At one point in the tour, one of the group became agitated because she saw something dark moving in the shadows outside. Sadly it was just another tour group, but everybody's laughter had a slightly nervous aspect to it. Otherwise, nothing else weird happened during the tour. However, when I was looking at my photos afterwards, I did spot some weird white spheres near peoples heads. I hadn’t seem them when taking the picture, but they did appear in the photograph. Make what you will of it in a particular photo in my photo gallery.

The ride back to Hobart along the dark roads proved to be just as unsettling however. Nighttime is when most of the wildlife in Oz becomes active and there was quite a bit of road kill on the side of the roads. It happens quite regularly that a kangaroo will start jumping across a road just as you come around a corner... despite it being late at night I had no trouble staying wide awake while keeping my eyes glued to the road.

Hiking up Mt. Wellington

6th April 2007:

Towering over the city of Hobart is the rather imposing Mt. Wellington. At a mere 1,270 meters in height, it is high enough to be regularly shrouded in clouds. It also acts as a giant sponge, soaking up most of the rain from those clouds and helping to make Hobart the driest of Australia's capital cities. Walking up it sounded like just the thing for clearing away the cobwebs from the last couple of months of work.

To go up the mountain, the cheapest option is to hop on a public bus to its base, and start walking. While nice 'n cheap, you would need to be well prepared: what if you were in the midst of the forest which blankets the lower parts of the mountain and the clouds suddenly descended making it hard to see...? navigating could prove tough... So, keeping that in mind, I booked myself on a day tour with an experienced local who acted as a guide, chef, comedian and chauffeur all rolled into one.

The tour started at 8AM. Hobart was deserted at this hour of the morning. All you could hear were the beep-beep-beep noises from the pedestrian crossings and I found myself looking out for tumbleweeds rolling down the streets: there was literally nobody about.

My fellow travel companions for the day were two Melbournians and once we met up with the tour guide and got out of the ghost town it wasn't long before we were all trudging up the steep slope. The others in the group were all experienced hikers so we kept up a good pace. There had been a serious fire in the 1960s which burnt out most of the forest along with 4,000+ nearby houses and 40 years later we hiked through the remains of the dead trees which still towered over the forest floor.

If you do take the walk up the mountain also, dress warmly. Once we got to the top it was chilly and our breaths were hanging in the air in white puffs. We just made it before the clouds started descending and the view over the valley below while it lasted was well worth the effort of the climb.

It did become a bit surreal when a stranger came up to me at the peak, noticed I had a Canon camera similar to hers and asked me to show her to to operate her camera. Soon, the word spread amongst the different groups of strangers up there that I had "Tech Skillz" and people kept coming up to me asking how to delete pics from their cameras, how to do panoramic photos, how to stop getting blurry photos and half a dozen other photography related questions. If my career of IT doesn't work out I might setup a stall at the top of that mountain and start a little advice-giving business :)

Thankfully we didn't have to walk back down the maintain as the ride down was provided as part of the tour. We got back into Hobart for about 6PM and it was then that my lack of planning for this trip showed through again: being Good Friday in the Easter weekend, all the shops were closed and I had done no shopping: oops! Fortunately, Kentucky's finest restaurant (KFC) was one of the few businesses open. However, due to the bars being closed, my plans for a social drink in a nearby bar were dashed :( As a fall back, I made do with discussing the merits of globalisation and the lack of multiculturalism in post-millennial TV show Neighbours with an English girl and a Spanish girl both of whose knowledge of the show somewhat outweighed mine (seeing as they both had actually watched the show before).


5th April 2007:

Having just left the sprawling Sydney airport, Hobart airport was "cosy" in comparison and if anything resembled a large room. So, conveniently, the baggage carousel was meters away from customs and the baggage carousel was next to the shuttle bus pickup area. The position of power for arrivals security was handled by a Beagle dog who sniffed the bag of each and every passenger as they passed for dangerous contraband items: I'll never look at oranges and bananas the same way again.

The shuttle bus cost about $12 and the ride into the city took about 20 minutes. I was sharing the bus with a seniors athletic team who mischievously tried to convince me that I had the wrong address for my hostel. They were messing with the wrong tourist though(!) and once I whipped out my GPS sat nav'd pocket pc showing the route we were taking with the exact distance in meters to my destination, they had to give up and concede defeat.

The sweet sense of victory was short lived though, as looking outside the window of the bus I noticed something unexpected. People were wearing coats & scarfs... My coat and scarf was 17,000 kilometers away (in Ireland) as based on my bible for all things Australian, the Home and Away TV show, there is never a need for anything warmer than a t-shirt in Oz. I had packed a Sydney jumper which was probably designed to keep you warm when its 20C and realising that the next stop south of Tasmania is Antarctica, I suddenly felt somewhat unprepared....

My preparation for finding accommodation, on the other hand, worked out rather well. I am staying at the Central City Backpackers hostel in a private room and as the name suggests it is smack bang in the center of Hobart. Hobart itself reminds me of Cork in Ireland: all low-rise buildings in the city center and you could walk from one end of the shopping district to the other within ten minutes. The city itself has a population of about 250,000 people and is based around the mouth of a large river.

The girl manning the hostel desk was very friendly, although in hindsight she may have been just bored as the hostel seemed quite quiet compared to others I have stayed in before. She did ask what I planned to do in Hobart and once I described my little list of activities she responded: "You plan to do WHAT?! We don't get many active people here...", which left me wondering just what, if any, people do come to Tasmania?

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the shopping area (I thought I did rather well, lasting 20 minutes before shopping-boredom set in) and then I popped down to the harbour area. The highlight here was a ship that was rather hard to miss: it was painted bright orange and was an Antarctic Ice Breaker: cool!

On the way to Tasmania

5th April 2007:

Its the Easter Weekend down under, as I'm sure it is all over the world(!), so its a handy time to take off on my next trip.

I had looked into going to a variety of locations for this weekend including the Whitsundays, Vanuatu, Fiji and Cairns but I'm slowly learning that the airline industry in Oz is not like Europe: you can't just book flights a couple of weeks in advance of leaving and hope to get a good deal. All flights were upto five or six times more expensive than normal with the only good deals being for the Pacific Island of Samoa which was cheap because of civil unrest/rioting and... Hobart, Tasmania. Hobart does not have the excuse of rioting so I'm not sure why it was comparatively cheap but regardless: Hobart it is!

I knew NOTHING about Tasmania before booking the flights. Its a big island south of Australia and I just presumed that it was its own country with its own government, similar to New Zealand. My geography, it turns out, sucks!

Tasmania is another part of Australia. Apparently it was the last stop for the original explorers (Amundsen and the rest of the team) who traveled to the South Pole and the main comments most of the locals have about it, after "why bother?!", was "nice scenery" followed swiftly by "dress warmly".

My main source of information was the official tourism website, and there seems to be quite a few different activities to do: it comes across as being similar to New Zealand, but less developed.

The flight down from Sydney takes about an hour and a half and cost nearly $500 return (Ryanair: please come to Oz! I miss the 1 cent flights!). It was business as usual at the security center in the Airport as I was "randomly" selected for additional chemical/explosives testing. Ironically, the only flight in my world travels where I have not been selected for the explosives testing was in the Middle East in Bahrain airport where I stopped off on the way back from Europe over Christmas. Still, getting selected for the additional tests did give me a chance to get the security guard's opinion about Hobart, although his responses of "it never even occurred to me to travel down there" and "is there anything to do there at all?" sounded somewhat similar to the other opinions :)

I'll only be in Tasmania for 4 nights so I'll try pack as many activities in a possible. Lets just hope the local's are mistaken and there are actually activities to do!