Reboot

And… I’m back. And reminded of how we humans did not evolve and adapt to 29 hours of flight crossing the world, because I’m feeling physically tired from the flight, but also disorientated to be back in my home country, a place I should understand, and yet also a place that threatens to sweep my life away uncontrollably with a new job, new place to live, and new way of life. And it’s cooooold.

Although, I actually missed being cold. That feeling of being tucked up in a soft jumper, or of warm tea coursing through you, pushing out the chills, was one thing I welcome back.

Like any holiday, it feels like it went quickly, but I remember that we did so much, said and saw so much, and I filled my 64GB iPhone with pictures and video, so there’s even proof. But no matter how inexorably slowly time passes, when it creeps over a deadline it feels like it went in a flash.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog updates from our trip down the East coast of Australia, and it’s persuaded you to embark on that adventure if you’d been mulling it over for far too long. ┬áThe really scary thing isn’t the trip, or even the coming back, it’s that the time will creep up and fall away whether you plan something or not.

 

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Opera Win: Free

Whoops! Be caaaaareful when you add events to Google Calendar, and then change time zones. We had a right mix-up in our first two days in Sydney, because 11 hours time difference can make events move days!

Being a conscientious and proudly prepared nerd, I had added the Dr Who Symphonic Spectacular to my GCal, and even set the exact start and end time, so that I would have the information readily available when we were planning routes to and from hostels using public transport.

So imagine my dread when I look at the date on my phone, then my ticket stub, freshly printed, dated for yesterday. Something inside me drops as I realise I should have been there 24 hours ago, and the show went on without our bums in the seats, two perfectly empty holes in the audience where our bodies should have been.

Google had helpfully added 11 hours to my original time. Worst of all I knew it had that feature anyway – GCal assumes you’re using GMT in London, then happily converts it to local time when you tough down in Sydney. I’d seen it munge our flight times, too, but knew the dates too well to be fooled then. But that’s not how humans work – we like local times so that our brains don’t get upset when it looks like the middle of the night but our cutting edge electronic gadgets tell us it’s 1:30pm.

And so it’s with embarrassment, then delight, as I return to the box office with my vestigial stump and they exchange it for tickets for that night’s performance. In a world of no refunds and limited culpability, the Sydney Opera House were very understanding and accommodating.

The show itself was a mixture of camp self-aggrandisement and stunning orchestral flair, and while the video screen showing Dr Who clips certainly set the scene, it was easy to forget the music was being played live as it was so flawless.

And of course, every so often a dalek appeared to wave its plunger menacingly at the audience, or a cyberman stomped along in a shiny faux-metal exoskeleton.

I just wish I’d recognised more of the themes and plot from the series – I think for that special kind of Dr Who nerd, it was the perfect night out.

 

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Why pout?

Standing up on a surfboard is really not all that difficult – even when it’s on the water. I would suggest, however, that staying on it is the hard part.

Whilst in Byron Bay Laura and I wanted to take a surfing lesson (and even briefly considered the 5-day lesson tour which takes you down the coast as well), and we signed our lives away with ‘Soul Surf’ who did a combination package with kayaking (which apparently gave you the best view of dolphins). They, like many of Byron Bay’s inhabitants, were chilled out but dedicated hippies who had already mastered the art you have decided to fickly attempt.

Since the swell (i.e. the tide force, not a twee Americanism) was actually pretty rough, we all drove down to Lennox Head, and with about 10 other beginners, were shown how to lie on the board (it’s important to position your weight by using the length of your body for reference), and how to hop up – we were shown the quick way, and a more reliable 3-step method.

But no matter how much preparation you make on the beach, nothing prepares you for the wobbly experience of controlling a greased up sponge sliding over baby oil – all of your reference points are gone and most of your concentration wavers over to just trying to keep hold of the longboard beneath you.

They’re also tied to you around the ankle, so should you fall in, you might also get dragged along with the tide by your leg. The board was actually surprisingly easy to pull back, but once, while rattling around in the swell, it did pull me along somewhat unhelpfully as I bubbled around, trying to surface.

Laura and I both stood up; even at the same time, surfing in parallel. I can see it will take many hours before I could reliably paddle for waves, or look anything even approaching stylish.

We also saw a few dolphins swim by, their iconic fins rolling in and out of the water as they carved a route about 10m away from us.

I encourage anyone on the fence to give surfing a try; it was fun just throwing myself at waves, and if you have the aptitude you might end up looking professional, if somewhat fleetingly, after a few hours.

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Tubular

8 years old again, I’m shivering with excitement and fear – and more than a little cold – standing at the top of a monstrously tall flight of metal stairs, ready to throw myself down a mysterious dark tube that threatens to gobble me up forever.

Or at least this is the strongest memory that comes to me as I wait in the back of a small plane, in one of two rows of people ready to throw themselves out of a window at 14,000 feet. And it feels crazy to be there at all – when it would have been so easy to stay at ground level, but now that I am here, I know I could never forgive myself if I chickened out.

You might not think skydiving had much in common with the water slides at Coral Reef swimming pool in Berkshire, but they resonate with the same excitement and fear. And I know I’ll feel proud when it’s all over. But now that I’m 31 I’m very aware that this should be fun, and that’s it going to be exhilarating.

And, even if I do die, it’ll be over quickly. I’ll see the ground coming and then… Nothing. The universe stops.

Fortunately though, I don’t die. In fact my tandem skydiving partner is extremely experienced and the company with which I am jumping has a flawless safety record. So perhaps that’s what I needed when I was 8 – someone strapped to my back.

I’d heard a horror story about misplaced straps removing vital male body parts when they’re improperly placed – so to break the ice I admit this to my tandem buddy: “I’m mostly worried about my junk.” Perhaps he’s heard it before as he replies, “I’m not paid enough to worry about that.”

The wait is probably the most nerve wracking as the plane slowly climbs; slicing through clouds and building up more and more height. After a while the distance becomes surreal, fortunately, and any gain in height becomes somewhat inconsequential as it’s simply a different extraordinary view above Byron Bay.

Then my partner instructs me to put on the eyeshield, tightens the straps that connect us, and one of the crew-members at the front opens the sliding door revealing perilous views below. There isn’t much more of a wait as two, three pairs throw themselves out, and I see Laura tumble away… And then, on edge, we start edging towards the edge.

I was told that as the tandem front-partner, you hang out of the plane awkwardly before you both spin off, but that point seems to take no time at all, as we’re hanging out, then twirling into oblivion straight after.

There is a brief moment of serenity, the split-second after we separate from the plane, then my partner stops our spin and we face right towards the ground, and then the wall of air hits… And I yell out as I’m attacked by atmosphere, and experience free-fall as I plummet towards the Earth, but it doesn’t feel like I’m falling – just that the ground is growing gradually amongst the tumult.

This part is difficult to remember and feels like it lasted next to no time at all – but I’m told there’s approximately a minute of free-fall. It starts cold but then seems to warm up – am I being heated in the atmosphere, like a spacecraft returning to Earth? Before I can consider it for long a tap on my shoulder tells me we’ll open the parachute as my partner Adam pulls on the necessary levers – and a surprisingly gentle jolt yanks us backward to slow our descent, and brings complete serenity as the rush of air is quickly replaced by a calm flapping of blankets in the air.

It’s beautiful as we glide left and right – and observe the model world below us. It reminds me of a brief glider flight I had years ago, but now I’m in the open air as well. We practice me lifting up my knees as we come in to land, and the planet eventually comes to meet us in a similarly gentle landing. Adam lowers me onto my bottom and I hop up, giddy with excitement and adrenalin.

I look around and find Laura who is also regaining her bearings, and we share a smile as we’re both glad – not just to have survived, as we knew how many safety procedures would be in place – but happy to have not walked down the metal stairs, childish stares judging us, but to have thrown ourselves down the water slide with full gusto.

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Insane in the Brisbane

Taking the typical tourist route from Cairns to Sydney, you get a skewed impression of the inhabitants of Australia. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was filled purely with tour guides, tour representatives, and touring Europeans. I’ve met more Swedes in the last 2 weeks than the last 2 years in the UK, which has been only moderately infuriating for Laura as I practice my vocational language skills.

So it’s with great pleasure that I found myself in a trendy bar in the centre of Brisbane, flanked by Australians on all sides, thanks to a shortcut to the centre of a large social group: modern jive dancing.

I’ve been associated with Ceroc, a franchise of the dance, for about the last 3 years, and in the last 6 months got more involved to the point of helping out beginners as a ‘taxi dancer’, demoing on stage, and applying to teach. So when I was looking at Australia as a holiday destination, it seemed natural to investigate the dancing scene. And there’s a burgeoning outcrop of several branches, not just Ceroc but also ‘Le Step’, ‘Le Groove’ and ‘Nuroc’. It’s popular in the bigger cities like Sydney and Brisbane, and even though we were only due to stay 1 night, we found where a vaguely local class would run and decided to join in.

I’d heard odd reports of Australian dancers being much more stylish than our homegrown counterparts – but I just didn’t believe it. Any country is so full of such varied people that I tend to believe that all abilities are represented, and as a class or group gets bigger, the more alike they become. So I was surprised when we were shown some relatively difficult moves in the beginner’s class at Chermside, just North of Brisbane centre.

I was disheartened, however, to discover some slight difference in the timing and was thrown off when people started moving slightly too early – it seems like in Le Step (as oppose to Ceroc) you anticipate the move by stepping back on the last quaver of the bar, and not the first beat. At least: I think so. Having been to two classes I’m also starting to think it’s potentially interchangeable, or perhaps makes no difference to anything except your own footwork.

But trying to work through some discrepancies, and rationalise everything I have seen, I can say that there are still plenty of Australian beginners, but the moves that are taught have a definite slant towards flash. This resulted in a few more sloppy mis-steps but also a general haze of elegant twists, turns, drops, and even some (banned in Ceroc) aerials when viewing from the sideline.

It was very amusing to be singled out as British visitors – especially when Mick, the proprietor of Le Step, announced our presence at the start if the intermediate lesson. We found everyone was very friendly, interested in our backgrounds, and helpfully offered a lift home – which we gratefully accepted.

So we might not be special as the awkward British tourists trying surfing for the first time, or grinning inanely when holding a koala, but at our hobbyist club we were a gratifying mixture of fellow companion and quirky ex-pat.

We just had enough time to take a wander around Brisbane, and wonder if they’d styled it heavily while looking at London. Their ‘Southbank’ is eerily similar to our own – complete with stony museums and performing arts centres and a Ferris wheel offering views over the city.

Brisbane is yet another city we’d love to explore further but our aggressive schedule keeps us pushing on. But perhaps that air of the unexplored gives any location a mystique I would prefer not to demystify in this case.

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Just a Fraser we’re going through

I yearn for my shoes! Hot sand becomes unbearable in approximately 2.5 steps barefoot, and if your walking surface is too fine, sandles spoon through it and unhelpfully lift clumps as you trudge along. And on a ‘9/10’ walk, feeling a bit dehydrated and fragile, I curse my previous decision to bring my hoody instead of my laceless trainers.

Fraser Island! 122km long, 20km wide, and it’s all sand! You might think this would limit the local geography to dunes and dustbowls, but it’s surprisingly varied with lush rainforests and streams which run across the island, and several luscious freshwater lakes.

It’s easiest to transfer from Hervey Bay but you probably shouldn’t bother booking your stay there for long – even the shuttle bus driver admitted “there’s fuck all to do here.”

After a short ferry crossing we boarded the coach with our enigmatic guide Jon, who was friendly and helpful but had little tolerance for stupidity as he was not best pleased when we failed to locate the alternate exit from a particular attraction. I suppose he does this all the time and the route must be painfully obvious to him. But to Fraser virgins we had no idea there is a tiny forest entrance hidden behind a steep dune.

After a brief introductory walk we went to Lake McKenzie, a freshwater lake which is slightly acidic (apparently just enough to make your hair soft), which had beautiful clear and still water.

We’d had an early start and no time for breakfast, and after attacking the island like a cat lunging on an unsuspecting mouse, I felt a familiar ache come over me, one of caffeine withdrawal and mild exercise. It reminds me just how far removed from military – or even mildly athletic – life I am, as I sense a headache that I know won’t go away without a cup of tea and 5 minutes in a darkened room.

And at lunch I fill myself with the reserves needed to go on. At least I know my own fenickity body, and with enough stew and tea ingested, the energy was there. Human bodies are able to perform near alchemy (some people live on just crisps after all) so mine just needed the persuasion to work on my stores and carry on. Damn it, I was going to make it work.

Aware of our upcoming walk across what sounded like a desert, I purchased a rather expensive hat. A red ‘Fraser Island’ cap.

And after a coating of factor 30 I’m ready to go – although I mistakenly leak out a bit of British cynicism as I grumbly give up my sandle-powered perambulation and go au naturelle with the footwear, favouring tenderised soles over a severely handicapped forward motion. I’m sure Jon hears a lot of complaining though.

Walking to Lake Wabby is worth it as you march through sub-tropical rainforest, emerge on sand dunes feeling like Lawrence of Arabia, then reach a clear fresh lake. The sand here is especially hot so you hurriedly hop to the shore to cool off in the water.

Someone later mentioned there are snakes in there. That may have affected my decision to submerge.

That night we stayed in the Eurong resort. Perhaps your travel buddies will be more enthusiastic but Laura and I found it considerably more fun to make animal shapes in front of the floodlights than get drunk in the beach hut.

The next morning we took a short flight and got to look over the entire island and marvel at how much water and tree grips onto this fragile world made from sand.

We climb Indian Head, a rocky outcrop on the East shore, and get some great views over the beaches and inland. It’s marked by a sombre history, though, as we are informed that the aboriginal police forced many aboriginals to jump off the cliff face decades ago.

I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of inherited guilt or just a sadness that sets when you think that the original inhabitants lived on K’gari for 8,000 years before foreigners slaughtered and forced them off, then renamed their island paradise.

To complete the tour we stopped at Eli Creek and we both wade through the water and try to take in more of the essence of the island as we look out to sea.

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Daydreaming

If you’ve ever played Bioshock, Far Cry, Dead Island, or any one of many adventure games where you start off on some ‘facility’ before disaster strikes, you might, like I did, feel a slight undercurrent of impending doom if you go to stay on an island resort.

It’s so beautiful. It’s a tropical paradise. You can sit by the beach, dip a toe in the refreshingly cool water, then drink a cocktail before mooching off to one of the island’s restaurants under a clear array of stars. And not just the big ones – the extended family is out to play and all the star cousins and in-laws can be seen like a glittering patchwork blanket hovering above you.

But when will the terrorist coup / nuclear deployment / viral outbreak strike?

I also didn’t bump into the island’s charismatic yet clearly deluded leader and narrowly avoid convincing them not to self-destruct the resort. In fact, it felt very odd to leave before I triggered any of this. Was there some logic bug in the gameplay script?

Laura and I primarily went to the island for its aquatic tours, after hearing that you could hold a shark and feed stingrays. These tours were great and we did that and more – we were handed a starfish and a sea cucumber (which is as flaccid and slimy as it sounds), we fed barramundi which snap up and grab the food out of your hands, and fed stingrays. These critters are like floating muscley pancakes which jostle each other for food, and will bump into your ankles affectionately before trying to hoover the food out of your hand. If you are of the ticklish disposition, like me, it’s difficult to stay still while a rubbery water dog is licking your foot via the medium of water pressure.

The island has some quaint but well stocked restaurants, and a novel outdoor cinema where we sat and watched Pirates! – the Aardman film. There are some water sports available and we also tried paddle boarding for free.

We paid a small fee to ride the banana boat, towed along by one of the crew on a jetski. I never realised Laura was so susceptible to g-forces, as she screamed for the duration of the ride… In fact I think every exhale was a yelp of some sort. This made the trip quite hilarious for me.

The island was stunning and very relaxing but did seem clouded in an inescapable ether of humidity. We craved the outside breeze as it was the best way to stay cool and dry.

If you’re in the Whitsundays I recommend staying the night on an island to feel like you really immerse yourself in them.

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I suck less at snorkelling

Foooo–ishhhhhhh…. Foooo–ishhhhhhh…. Images flit through my mind of Darth Vader, or perhaps a morbid future self hooked up to a ventilator, but as I practice snorkelling in the Airlie Beach lagoon, I’m concentrating more on making it feel ok to breathe through a snorkel than anything else.

As you may have read a few entries previously, I had some difficulty on my last snorkelling adventure. Essentially the thought of having my mouth below the water level and inhaling posed quite the neurotic mental challenge, and limited me to fleeting glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef as I struggled against my own inadequacies.

But with the next snorkelling trip fully booked, this time to a calm spot in the Whitsunday islands, I’m attempting to reprogram myself sufficiently to enjoy it. And so I’ve bought my own snorkel, and found a spare hour to go to the free local lagoon around the corner from the hostel. I might have skipped this experience, but Laura just pushed my spontaneity past some kind of mental energy barrier with some gentle cajoling and I went with it.

And after the first length something definitely begins to shift inside my head. Here, with the ground solidly underneath me, no pressure to take photos, no awkward flippers, and the ability to whip off the mask any time I like, I’m more able than ever to keep it on. Blocking up my nose with plastic still doesn’t feel comfortable, but it does take on a sense of the familiar.

And the benefits of snorkelling come into play. No longer is the water a murky ether swallowing my body, instead it’s a different universe into which I can peer with a newfound vision.

So when we get on board a small raft and jet off to Whitsunday Island, I wonder if the skills will be transferable.

We’re tossed around on the boat for about 50 minutes, which is exhilarating if somewhat anxious – I felt the need to cushion myself at the tail end of most bumps. Then we take a walk on the island itself, up a steep path through dense vegetation and in an oppressive and humid heat. But it’s all worth it when we arrive at the lookout and see the ‘swirling sands’ of Whitehaven Beach, and beautiful spiral of clear blue sea and bright white sand.

Then we get to walk down to the beach, where the sand is hot underfoot, and the water refreshingly cool. We grab lunch from the boat and try to keep the food the blowing off our plate in the wind – with plenty of seagulls ready to pounce on any adventurous pieces of lettuce or ham.

Then, in a surprising act of cruelness to those less accustomed to the sun such as myself, they left. The rays beat down upon me and my poor sunburnt feet (one of the few places of me left unprotected by the stinger suit (or as the tour guide keeps calling it: my sexy suit)), and shade is too far back up the beach, so for 15 minutes I bury myself up to the ankles and curl up into a ball to minimise my heat absorption. Some pity comes from Laura and she stands near and provides some human shade, but the sun is high overhead and she casts a selfishly narrow shadow.

When the boat returns I wonder if my homework will be undone; my thoughtful preparation foiled by conspiratorial overexposure. Some queasiness rolls over me but it could just be the aggressive speed of the craft as we throw ourselves on every unsuspecting wave around the island.

Fortunately there is no rush to don snorkel equipment, and I’m relieved to hear they won’t be handing out flippers – now I don’t need to turn them down, I’m actually taking all the intended equipment (their reasoning was that flippers may damage the reef – understandable given that it was very shallow in places). I give myself some time to get comfortable with my mask (a far superior model to my own, happy to sit on my face without trying to consume it), and take a ‘noodle’, a floatation device that you’d be forgiven for mistaking as a draught excluder. They had plenty of them. Oodles, or so I am informed.

With sunstroke at least keeping a polite distance, ocean queasiness staying at bay, and a sense of determination, I jump into the water and assess my situation. After a few seconds I conclude: I’m floating comfortably, breathing feels less alien, and there’s no pressure to swim a great distance back to the boat. Biting down gently on the snorkel tube, I submerge slightly and discover something else: I can look and breathe underwater without panicking.

Using the noodle I get a really good look at the coral this time, and can study the schools of fish just below me. It’s fun to point at things underwater with Laura as we can both peer into the deep for extended periods.

After about half an hour, we return to the boat, then see a turtle just off the other side. It’s a bit of a fleeting glimpse, though, and after I hurriedly jump in after it, I quickly lose track of its position. But still, I saw one.

After a bumpy ride back to the mainland I depart with a sense of overcoming not so much a fear, but at least a hampering neurosis.

Now if I can just get over my fear of swallowing medicinal pills, I might start to resemble a human being.

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En-gorged

On our last day in Cairns, Laura and I went for a trip up the coast with a friend we met in the hostel: Matthew, a fellow Briton from Newcastle. The plan was to see as much of the Atherton Tablelands as possible.

Our intentions were far too optimistic, though, and we really only got 1/4 of the way through our journey, but we still saw a hidden gem – an idyllic rock pool at Mosman Gorge. It was full of boulders that you could swim to, and climb on, and then look up to a vast mountain encircled with misty clouds. For a second I felt like I was in a level of Zelda, and I was going to climb it and fight a boss at the end.

We spent far too long in the water and I was shivering by the end, but not before I had climbed several boulders, slid down a natural water slide (with some bumpy rocks along the way), and jumped off a giant rock (my ‘seal-like’ climbing technique, upon said rock, proving quite entertaining for both Laura and Matthew).

We’d hired a car for the day and driven up to Palm Cove, a lush beach with little else to do but eat and drink up the comfortable atmosphere and have a swim in a safe (from jellyfish) netted area of the sea. Then we pushed up to Mosman Gorge.

If you want to do a crocodile tour you’ll need to be there early; information we didn’t know as we wildly missed all the departure times… We just had time to return to Port Douglas for some dinner, mess around taking stupid photos on the shore, and head back to Cairns.

So we might not have seen Juliet Falls or any voracious crocodiles, but we did have a unique day out – which was the plan all along.

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Bats, man

Walking back to our hostel in Cairns, we saw lots of bats roosting in a couple of trees. I’ve never seen so many bats during the day. It was weird, but somewhat demystified them for me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57rUNe0q99Y

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