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A Brit and a Canuck Down Under

a travel blog by olliejohnson

This is the story of Ollie and Angela's trip to Australia, New Zealand and other random places.
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Setting Off

London, United Kingdom

After 10 weeks back in England, my travelling started again when I picked Angela up from Manchester airport at the ridiculously early time of 6:00. So began a whirlwind tour of England that would take in many of the major sights: Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Cockshutt, Shellingford… Taking full advantage of BA’s online check-in facility, I moved us into the emergency exit seats. For the 13 hour flight to Singapore, I thought this was a genius move. There was concern that this might mean we lost our individual TV screens, but as we later found out, you still get one - it’s just hidden away in your armrest. Phew!

As we were waiting to go through the security checks at Heathrow, I glanced behind and saw a guy that looked a bit like Michael Clarke (Aussie cricketer) a couple of places behind me. Reasoning that the World Cup (which Australia had won) had only just ended in the Caribbean, I thought it couldn’t be - going through London seemed a little like going the long way round. But then Andrew Symonds (another Aussie cricketer, with pretty recognisable dreadlocked hair) came through a side bit right by us. As he walked through, the chap in front of us offered a good-willed ‘congratulations’, only to be sneered at in reply. Slightly baffled by this confrontation, Angela asked whether I knew who that guy was. I told her, and she looked suitably non-plussed. “Oh. I thought he just worked here or something. It seemed a bit strange that someone was congratulating him.“ I tried to impress on her how big a deal this guy was - “he plays for Australia!“ Nothing. “They’ve just won the World Cup!” Then, around the corner came 3 more players, including the captain, Ricky Ponting. Disappointingly, he wasn’t actually carrying the World Cup itself through security. For some reason, I’d always imagined that’s what people would do if they won major things like that. Seeing as our flight was eventually heading to Sydney (though we were getting off when it stopped in Singapore), I’d assumed that they’d be on our plane. Unfortunately not (though I didn’t actually find that out until about 11 hours in to the flight. This hadn’t stopped me from telling the guy next to me that the cricketers were up front in 1st class.)

permalink written by  olliejohnson on May 6, 2007 from London, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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3 Days in Singapore

Singapore, Singapore

We arrived in Singapore mid-afternoon to find there was a subway connection from the airport into the city. Stepping onto the underground, we tried to keep in mind the several Singaporean laws we’d checked up on at Ben’s (Ollie’s brother) earlier in the day. Thanks to my Nana, we had already learned of the “No spitting out gum” and “No littering” laws, but Wikipedia was able to fill in the rest of the gaps for us. These included:
You must flush toilets
No eating/drinking on public transit
No standing water
No Malaysian newspapers (which we thought was going to be most difficult to comply with--how could we cope 4 whole days without one?)
No oral sex, except as foreplay

Along with Ben and Ellie, we puzzled over how exactly the Singaporean police enforce the last one.

After we got off the impeccably clean and efficient MRT (the Singapore tube/metro, which Ollie insisted on calling the “tram” for no good reason), it was a short walk to our hostel. We followed our given directions for a couple blocks past Raffles Hospital, past the Sultan Mosque (which we would later learn was the location of our trusty alarm clock), but were unable to find the hostel. A few locals took one look at us with our backpacks and pointed us in the right direction. After getting settled in, we headed out for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Walking along, it was clear everyone obeyed the “no littering law,” as there wasn’t a spec of garbage (“rubbish” to some of you) in sight. Ollie commented that Singapore was quite like going into that friend’s house we all had when we were little that was spotless and filled with expensive things and you were afraid to touch anything.

We had plans to catch up on our jet lag and sleep-in as late as we needed to, but unfortunately the Sultan Mosque had other plans for us. Shortly after 5:30 am, we were awoken by some strange singing. My first thought was that it was a songbird (speaking of songbirds, how’s that annoying mocking bird-frog in the yard, Dad? Have you “taken care” of it yet?). Ollie (rather sharply for such an early hour) pointed out that it was the dawn Call-to-prayer at the mosque. After about 10 minutes, our friend stopped singing, but it wasn’t until much later that I was finally able to fall asleep.

When we did wake-up willingly, it was monsooning outside. Ollie insisted that these types of things usually only last an hour. After two hours of monsoon, we decided to face the day and see some sights. Ollie’s Grandpa and Hazel (my 80-year old friend I made on the plane from Toronto to Manchester) both suggested we go to Raffles and get a famous Singapore Sling. It was a bit of a hike to Raffles place, but the building was impressive. On the second floor, we found the Long Bar-- home to the $25 Singapore Sling. A few minutes of hesitation later, we decided to go for it and splurge on the famous Slings. Because we were throwing down $50 for two cocktails (and also because Ollie was drinking a cocktail), we made sure the occasion was well photographed and remembered. Our next “tram” journey took us to the Boat Quay, just at the mouth of the Singapore river. Here, we had some dodgy Chinese food at a riverside restaurant, Seafood on the Harbour, where the waiter seemed a little confused by the fact that we didn’t order any seafood. We then checked out some nearby sites, including the statue of Raffles, the parliament buildings, and the Merlion.

The following morning we were again awoken at 5:30 and later journeyed to Sentosa, a small island off the south of the main city. At first it seemed like Singapore’s version of Disneyworld, without so many rides. It had some nice beaches to the south and pretty sites throughout. While making our way to the mini golf, we stumbled upon some multicoloured mosaic fountains. We decided that someone from Sentosa must have visited Barcelona-- either that or Gaudi had visited Sentosa. Our game of mini golf wasn’t quite as enjoyable as we’d hoped. Rather than that usual felty, green stuff you play mini golf on, it was instead more like gym floor. The ball wouldn’t stay still long enough for you to putt it, so it was a bit of a trick working it all out. The rest of the attractions seemed a bit overpriced and the heat was starting to get unbearable, so we headed back to the main city. That evening we went for dinner on the famous Orchard Road. The street is lined with several shopping malls, each housing different types of stores from discount to high-end.

We had a flight to catch the following morning at 9:05 and figured we should be getting up in time to catch the MRT at 6:00 to be at the airport for 7:00. We discussed not setting our alarm at all and letting the dude at the Mosque wake us up at 5:30, but I was worried that because it was Saturday they may not do things at the same time. He proved me wrong when the singing came that morning at 5:30, just as my phone alarm was going off. We headed off to the MRT in good time and got to the airport in plenty of time. We stopped off at a pharmacy in the airport and tried to buy some gum to chew on the plane to ease the pressure changes. The woman at the pharmacy insisted on taking our passport details if we wanted to buy the gum (in case we intended to OD on chewing gum?), so we passed and just coped on the plane without it. Our boarding cards had stickers with “GATE CLOSES 15 BEFORE TAKE-OFF” in bold letters, so we were surprised to look up on the screens 45 minutes before departure to see “LAST CALL--GATE CLOSING” beside our flight number. After dashing to the gate, Ollie set off the alarm on the scanner door-thingy you walk through. It seemed either child labour is legal in Singapore or it was “take your kids to work” day, as Ollie was frisked by a boy no older than 12. And he’d like me to add that no, he didn’t enjoy it.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on May 6, 2007 from Singapore, Singapore
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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Hunting Roos in Perth

Perth, Australia

As we flew over the Indian Ocean on the way to Perth, Angela was still trying to get her head around the severe penalties for drug trafficking in Singapore. Flicking through the 60+ on demand movies that Qantas were offering us for the journey, I’d suddenly hear a sigh, followed by “I just can’t believe that you get executed for drug smuggling…it’s just ridiculous….I mean, so much for believing that drug dealers can turn their lives around eh?!” Wondering exactly what’d caused this little outburst I smile, sympathetically shake my head, and return my attention to the movie before checking my bag for any Canadian-bound merchandise that might have been planted there.

Waiting in the taxi queue at the airport a few hours later, Angela thought she’d enquire about the tipping etiquette. Big mistake. The hobo that had somehow found employment looking after the taxis at the airport was incensed by the very idea. “Bloody Americans!! Another bloody stupid idea by them to get us all to pay more, so the bloody employers don’t have to pay any wages! It’s a bloody disgrace.” Slightly taken aback, slightly jetlagged, we just stood there, thinking that he’d said his piece. Oh no. As though we’d attempted to defend this scandalous practice, he suddenly turned around again; bright red nose and wrinkly cheeks poking out through the grey scraggly mass of beard and hair that had seemingly overtaken his head. “Look, just you pay what it says on the meter. No more, no less, alright?” With one last exasperated sigh and shake of the head, the issue had been laid to rest. Welcome to Australia.

We eventually found our way to the hostel (which was just north of the city centre) and settled in. We started job hunting and flat-hunting straight away, but both had a similar amount of success. That being none. As the weather was still surprisingly warm, and because it had been recommended to us to do so, we made our way to the west of the city while we continued our search. Here we stayed at a hostel right next to Cottesloe Beach, which (as far as we’re aware) is thought to be pretty much the best beach in the city. It was while we were here that we finally had some success in our searching - we’d both landed a job (for at least the next 2 weeks) at the same place. Hooray! Although, we did feel that we’d kind of earned it after sitting through a 2 hour induction at the temp agency run by a guy with halitosis. Our stinky friend at the agency described it as working for a government department, which sounds a hell of a lot more mysterious, and well, like 24 or something, than the actual agency we’ve ended up in…. the Plumbers Licensing Board. (Incidentally, after taking the 24 personality test online, I was delighted to find that I’m Jack Bauer. Angela claims that I lied on the test, but I maintain that I would, on discovering a bomb, cordon off the area and then disarm it myself.) Work could be a lot worse though; it’s pretty easy, and we’re in the same place (well, sat opposite each other to be exact) so we’ve been pretty lucky really. The only thing is that it’s to the north of the city, and not wanting the ridiculously long commute that faced us staying in Cottesloe, we decided to move back to where we’d started; Northbridge. A couple of days later, we’d also sorted out more permanent accommodation too, which we move in to this weekend. It’s in a massive house-share, but at least we get our own room.

Aside from the moving and working, we’ve managed a few little journeys in and around the city since we’ve been here. Last weekend we headed down to Fremantle, which is a really nice little harbour town about 30 mins away by train. We went to the Fremantle Market, where everything from fruit and fish to local art and crafts were on sale, before heading to a really cool bar that we’d read about; Little Creatures. This is a brewery / bar / restaurant right on the harbour, where you can drink the beer that’s been made right on the premises. And it’s pretty good too.

The next day we headed to Heirisson Island, which is in the middle of the Swan River, just to the south of the city centre. Here, we’d heard about a wild colony of convict kangaroos that were fenced in to the lower half of the island. Having not seen any wild kangaroos since we’d arrived, I thought it was best to pay them a visit.
When we arrived, I was delighted to find that you could actually enter the roos’ enclosure. Angela however, was not so sure. “Can’t they break your leg with a kick or something?” I reassured her that I could probably take a roo if it tried any funny business, before darting through the gate to begin the hunt.

15 minutes later we’d still not seen even the slightest hint of kangaroo. We’d seen some rocks that looked like roos from a distance and a statue of some naked aboriginal guy pretending to lift some weights, but no actual roos. Just as I began to lose all hope of finding my marsupial friends I stumbled, Steve Irwin-esq, across some roo tracks. My expert eye told me they were recent. 5 minutes of tracking later, and I had found them - poking out of some reeds; a couple of ears, and attached to the ears, a kangaroo! We inched closer, but the roos were so chilled out / tired / tame, that we were able to get right up next to them for the obligatory photos. I was pretty excited about it all. Little did either of us realise what horrors were awaiting us over the next week.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on May 25, 2007 from Perth, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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Gary, Eddie and the Great Escape

Perth, Australia

After we got home from work on Friday (the day before we were due to move into the house share), Ollie called our landlord, Gary to see what time we should be moving in. “Hi, is that Gary?” “No, this is Eddie” “Oh, hi. My name’s Ollie. I’m supposed to be moving into Gary’s house share tomorrow” “OK, bring your stuff by the house at 10.” We were a little confused by the whole Eddie thing, but figured he might be Gary’s house mate or brother or co-landlord or something. Ollie informed me that Eddie sounded like Gary on drugs.

On Saturday, we were really looking forward to moving in to our own place. A guy from our hostel (a Yorkshire lad whose choice expression when describing any situation from an unfavourable to an awful one was “bloody nightmare”) had a rental car for the weekend and offered to drive us with all our stuff. Gary was there in his cleaning gear (including hot pink rubber gloves) to greet us. He was short, with greasy black hair and looked like he spent a few too many hours in the weights room, and, as you may have guessed from the pink gloves, was obviously quite stylish. Before we saw him in person, Ollie bet he was either really fat or really skinny. He maintained that he was partially right. Although we didn’t get to meet him, we found out that Eddie is also short with greasy black hair and muscles he’s pretty proud of. He has the same gloves! But Gary and Eddie aren’t twins-- they’re the same guy.

We’d already paid a deposit and Gary insisted we pay three weeks rent upfront. We said that it wasn’t possible and gave him a week’s rent and told him we’d pay the next two on Wednesday when we were paid at work. Surprisingly, he didn’t scream “I want my money now, bitch!” at us, and simply said we were to have it to him by Wednesday (for reference please see Will Ferrell‘s video, “The Landlord”). Shortly after, Gary and his rubber gloves set off. We started talking to some Irish girls who were also living in the house share. They explained to us that the names Gary and Eddie can’t be used interchangeably-- sometimes he’s Gary, and other times he’s Eddie. One girl even said that she called one time and Gary answered so she said, “hi, is that Gary?” and he said, “no, I’ll get him” and the same voice came back on the phone 5 seconds later as Gary. They said he’ll try to scam you out of any money he can for any reason, like leaving your bedroom light on (upon our arrival, we were presented with a little booklet of rules that Gary, in consultation with Eddie, had cooked up for us). Aside from a 40-something year old weirdo who was constantly sitting in the same place staring at everyone, the other tenants seemed really nice. They didn’t have many positive things to say about Gary or the house itself though.

After being there only an hour, Ollie and I began to discover the horrors that awaited us in Gary’s little house of fun. The kitchen was filthy and was equipped with 3 plates, approximately 4 forks and knives, and zero bowls. The bathroom was in quite a state as well. Bloody nightmare. Our room was alright, but we discovered some strange little white electronic device, which I promptly covered with one of my scarves in case it was a pervy camera Gary was using to spy on people changing. We tried to reassure ourselves that we’d only be there five weeks and that at least the Gary/Eddie split-personality thing was pretty damn entertaining. Anyway, it could’ve been worse-- we could’ve had a lush like Pearl for a landlord.

Not 24 hours after our arrival, Ollie and I were already contemplating an escape. Suddenly “only 5 weeks” became “a whole 5 weeks.” We went to Fremantle for the afternoon, and to pass the time while sitting in a café, started to make a list of pros and cons of our leaving and going back to our old hostel . This soon became a serious task and a points system was introduced to clarify the importance of each item. Here it is, verbatim:

Lose one week’s rent (5)
Lose deposit (9)
No private room (7)
More expensive per week (3)

Clean kitchen and bathroom (5)
Save money when we go away on weekends (4)
No critters (5)
Closer to train station (1)
TV, DVD player, x-box (4)
No Gary and Eddie (5)
No stupid rules (3)
No having to clear up other people’s stuff (4)
No more weird stares from creepy Irish dude (2)
Great feeling from being naughty and running away (3)
Good blog material (1)

It became clear what we had to do - the pro’s had it 37-24.

Because Ollie was so cruelly denied an action-packed government job where he could practice his Jack Bauer skills, we decided to shine as field agents in a daring escape. We knew we had to be out before Wednesday evening, when Gary was coming by to collect our next two weeks instalment. Our contacts in England and Canada were all in favour of our escape, as were our co-agents at our office. Immediately after we returned from work on Tuesday, we began packing our stuff up. Packing and unpacking are usually such annoying tasks, but this time it felt good. We had a lot of stuff, so we knew we couldn’t move it all in one go. Also, we had no one running point on the mission to configure satellite images or alert us of Gary’s whereabouts (for someone who claims to be an English version of Jack Bauer, my partner sure didn’t have a lot of connections). We first moved our smaller bags over to the hostel. Moving our big bags was going to be a challenge, since the kitchen was equipped with a security camera and was full of other tenants (Gary could’ve had a mole within the house). I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Gary (or more likely Eddie) spends all his time at home watching the feed from the security camera. When we returned to the house to complete the final leg of our mission, we were in for a surprise. Gary was in the house. Fortunately, a mole hadn’t alerted him of our escape (though my bet would’ve been on the creepy Irish guy or Nina Myers). Gary was there because two girls had had a bed bug infestation. We had to wait it out until Gary left and then we strapped on our big backpacks and surreptitiously slid past the camera in the kitchen and out the front door. The short walk to the hostel seemed to take ages and I think every short, greasy-haired, overly muscular guy in Perth was out for a walk that night, because a few times we thought we’d come face-to-face with Gary.

So that was that. As you can see, we really shone in our mission and so narrowly escaped. The film documenting our bravery and skill should be coming out in the next year. If we hadn’t made the wise decision to leave, we’d still be stuck in a dirty house and would probably be pretty miserable. Although it did mean we lost our deposit and a week’s rent, I’m happy we left. We now have an endless supply of plates and cutlery, managed to escape the many bloody nighmares that we had to endure (critters and weird stares, in particular), and have hopefully been provided with some decent blog material. After a stressful week, we decided to treat ourselves and headed down south to the Margaret River wine region for a weekend of wine tasting.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on June 10, 2007 from Perth, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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The Canuck and Mr Orly go Wine Tasting

Margaret River, Australia

Escaping from the evil clutches of Gary and Eddie, we made our way to the only nearby hostel that had room for us: a hippie haven called Bambu. Once there, we discovered it was only marginally better than the hell-hole we’d left, and came complete with bed-bugs, crappy kitchen, filthy bathrooms and zombie-like French stoners endlessly stumbling about the corridor. (As I sagely noted to Angela, if you will market your hostel to hippies, you’re only ever going to end up in a whole heap of shit.)

Luckily that weekend was a bank holiday weekend (or long weekend if you’re not English), and we’d booked a weekend away in the Margaret River wine region about 3 hours south of Perth. We picked up our car rental as soon as we finished work - and got a car that was only on its’ second rental. (Why is new stuff always so much better? It even had that new car smell, and on the way down I was sadly excited to be taking it over the 1,000km mark on the distance counter thing.) Somehow we managed to make it down to our accommodation in Dunsborough without getting properly lost, and also without taking out any kangaroos. There was a slight surprise during checking in; as over the phone during booking, my name had apparently morphed into Johnson Orly, (a slight variation on the ‘Johnson London’ that the lady checking my U. S. Visa when travelling from Albany to Montreal had taken me to be.) Though I was more than happy to be addressed as Mr Orly for the duration of my stay, the presentation of my passport sadly cleared up the issue.

We signed up to a wine tour for the next day, which, although billed as a ‘half-day’ tour, still managed to take us to 5 vineyards, a cheese company, a chocolate company and a brewery. Andy, our driver and tour guide, looked more like the sort of bloke that enjoyed the odd keg of beer rather than the odd glass of wine, but he did seem to know his stuff. He threw plenty of wine facts at us as we careened around the dirt tracks between the vineyards, and I was left clinging to the hope that my knowing the names of a couple of grape types would see me through without too much embarrassment. I thought if I could throw in a couple of ‘mmm……fruity’ comments, or mention something about tannins then I’d be able to cover my tracks.

The first vineyard was an ‘open tasting’ one. This meant that rather than only letting them know when you didn’t want to try something, you had to be proactive and ask for stuff. Naturally, this ended up being the place where we had least. The next vineyard was legendary. Here, they plied us with every single wine in their range, which I think was at least a dozen, including reds, whites, rosés, sparkling whites, sparking reds and port. As I was in the process of working out how the Merlot was heavier in the mouth than the Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Ang came towards me brandishing a piece of laminated card that was to become our laymans guide to bull-shitting a wine-tasting. On it we found a massive list of adjectives that could (apparently) be used to describe a wine‘s taste or smell. Some of the more interesting ones: forest floor; pencil shavings; bacon fat; burnt toast and scorched earth. Aromas could be anything from ‘playful’ to ‘daring to be different’. Angela actually reckoned she could taste some burnt toast in hers, and not looking to be the one with crappy taste-buds I pretended I could too.

By the fifth vineyard, we both felt that all the wines pretty much tasted the same, and evidently Andy was becoming a little bored too, as we then began to investigate the other fineries on offer in Margaret River. First to the chocolate company, where, if you were prepared to join a queue at least 20 people deep, you could take as many chocolate drops as you could carry for free. Then off to the cheese place. As much as I do like cheese, free samples of this didn’t quite excite me as much as the free wine had. Finally, Andy decided to take us off to the first brewery to be set up in the area. It’s been there 12 months. To be fair though, the beer was decent, and sipping it while looking out over the surrounding fields as the sun set was a pretty good end to the day.

We spent another day driving down to Augusta, which is right on the coast about an hours drive further south from Dunsborough. Here, we saw the point at which the Indian and Southern Oceans met, and had also hoped to see some migrating whales. It was only when we got there that it occurred to us that we might not actually be able to see them from the shore. The road back took us through some really nice forest and, nearer to Dunsborough, past some massive caves. We stopped at Mammoth Cave for a look around and an argument about which ones were stalactites and which ones were stalagmites.

On our way back to Perth we stopped to spend some time posing for pictures at Bunker Bay on the white sandy beaches in front of a turquoise sea. All thoughts of bedbugs and crazy landlords were banished. We’d managed to book back in to the first hostel we’d stayed at (and our favourite), so were able to look forward to a nice, easy, stress free last few weeks working in Perth.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on June 23, 2007 from Margaret River, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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Befriending Quokkas on Rottnest Island

Perth, Australia

One of the ladies we work with, a former travel agent, stops by our desks every day telling us about places in the world she’s been and would like to go with great excitement: “I love Mauritius,” “I can’t wait to go to Brazil.” So when she told us that Rottnest was underwhelming and boring, our expectations weren’t set very high. I reluctantly got up early on the morning we planned to go and we made our way to Fremantle to catch the ferry. I was excited to meet some quokkas (the small marsupials that inhabit Rottnest Island), but wasn’t sure what else the island might have in store. Right when we got to the island, we walked a few minutes to the bike rental shop and picked up our bikes and some ugly helmets (we got there a few minutes too late, so all the slick helmets were gone). Taking a look at the map, we saw that the serious nature was to the south of where we were and the only settlement on the island was to the north. The self-proclaimed marsupial hunter decided it would be best for us to go south, explaining that the quokkas would likely be away from the town. I trusted him and we started off down the hilly roads of Rottnest Island. There’s a main road that runs all around the island along the coast, so we followed that and only encountered other cyclists every 15 minutes or so. Aside from the little town to the northeast, the island’s covered in beautiful greenery, with lots of small salt water lakes in the middle. We’d stop every few minutes or so when we came across a bay to get some photos. More importantly though, we’d stop any time Ollie spotted shrubs that he thought might make quokka-friendly homes. Unfortunately, we encountered 3 departed quokkas before seeing any live ones. We only had about 4 hours between our ferry arrival and departure, so the pace required to make it around the island was pretty steady. Luckily, we had perfect weather for it-- sunny, with a nice breeze. Neither one of us having biked in a long time, we were pretty proud every time we overtook other cyclists, even though we didn’t admit to ourselves at the time that everyone else was probably just taking it easy to take in all the sights.

The relentless quokka-hunt appeared to have failed as we came close to finishing our loop of the island and neared the town. As we were cycling into the town, Ollie calmly said, “there’s a quokka.” Based on the lack of expression in his voice, I thought it was another dead one. But sure enough, there was a little quokka outside a small hotel just hopping around. It was a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. Suddenly, two more quokkas hopped by and didn’t seem to be the least bit timid. Bruce, Sheila, and Shane Quokka appeared to have abandoned country-life, recognizing the possibilities the town held for them, and became young urban quokkas. Quokkas are about the size of rabbits, with pointy faces and short little arms and their hop looks a bit like what you would get if you took a video of a kangaroo and put it in slow-motion. For some unknown reason, when Dutch explorers came upon the island in the 1600s they thought the quokkas were rats and named the island ‘Rats Nest.’ Crazy Dutch. I gave Sheila Quokka a piece of my banana and in her quokka ways, she let me know that I was always welcome on Rottnest.

Before long it was time to catch our ferry back to the mainland. We really enjoyed our day on the island and were lucky to have gone in the Australian winter, because we heard that in the summer months the island is packed with tourists. We even got to sneak a journey on the ferry down the Swan river and returned to Perth with sore leg muscles from our Tour de Rottnest.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on June 30, 2007 from Perth, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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A week on the Coral Coast Part 1

Monkey Mia, Australia

After 7 weeks working to keep Western Australia’s plumbers in check, we decided we’d had quite enough of earning and saving, and thought we’d spend our last week on this side of the country exploring the west coast as far north as Exmouth (about 13 hours’ drive north of Perth.) Our planned route began with a couple of nights in Monkey Mia, before crossing the Tropic of Capricorn on the way up to Coral Bay, where we’d spend a few nights. Finally, we’d head down to Kalbarri for one night on our way back to Perth, hopefully just in time to catch our midnight flight to Auckland.

So, after work finished on Friday afternoon (where we were given a grand send-off party by a grateful Plumbers Licensing Board,) we went back to the hostel and packed ready to set off first thing the next morning. I had one last score to settle though. The week before we had made a lasagne and left half of it, labelled, in our bag, in the fridge to have for lunch at work the next day. When we came down in the morning, half of that had disappeared. A couple of days later, the same thing happened with a bread and butter pudding I’d made. I decided that if someone really had to have our leftovers, I might leave a little surprise in there for them. So, a Friday night trip to the chemists was made and, a couple of hours later, a delicious laxative-laden bread and butter pudding was lovingly left in the fridge, labelled exactly the same as the one before and left in the same spot. You can only begin to imagine my disappointment when we came down the next morning to find that the hostel mouse had decided to just take a spoonful on this occasion.

Our journey to Monkey Mia began with a short trip over to another hostel in Perth to drop off Matt (A friend of Angela’s from home) and Emilia, who were leaving Perth after a week’s holiday to head back to the Gold Coast. After the best part of an hour’s driving, we were surprised to still see signs pointing off the highway towards Perth City. A quick check of our Greater Perth street directory revealed that we’d managed to get lost before even leaving the city, and had in fact begun to drive in a massive loop around it. Fortunately, from this point on we managed to keep to the right route, and 9 ½ hours after setting out, pulled in to the Monkey Mia resort with a moth-splattered windscreen.

Angela was pretty excited about the main attraction at Monkey Mia; wild dolphins that came to the beach every morning for a bit of showing off and half a bucket of fish. Apparently it all began one evening 40 years ago with a fisherman’s wife throwing the scraps of her husband’s catch to a pod of dolphins she saw nearby. The dolphins re-appeared the next day and they’ve been coming back almost every day ever since.

Angela pored over the rules and regulations regarding dolphin etiquette in the little leaflet we’d been given when we’d arrived. You were supposed to stay in a straight line with the other visitors just out of the water. If the dolphins swam up to you, or you were asked to go up and give it a fish, you were under no circumstances allowed to touch it (Angela mentioned the next day that she had a strange dream that night, where a baby dolphin swam up to her during the feeding, and forced her to pat it on it‘s head with its flipper. What a weirdo.) The leaflet stressed that these were wild animals and that they could bite. My brother-in-law’s views on dolphins rang in my ears; “vicious little buggers……The badgers of the sea.” I paid particular attention to the dolphin stress signals that the leaflet identified: tail slapping on the water, coming out of the water with teeth bared and making loud clicking sounds were all included.

As we woke the next morning to sheet rain coming down, we decided it was probably best to wait till the next morning to try to catch the dolphins; nobody knows if / when they will appear, and they’d already had two feeding sessions that morning. So, we decided to hit the beach at the earliest possible feeding time the next morning, and as soon as we headed out we could see a crowd had already formed and the dolphins were there waiting for us. There were 4 dolphins in the shallows, slowly swimming around. The park ranger had us all arranged along the edge of the water, as apparently that made the dolphins more likely to swim along the line. They were introduced to the crowd as they waited for their food, and after about 20 minutes of swimming around, waving flippers and looking cute, they were given their food. Random people were picked from the crowd to give the fish to the dolphins, but neither Angela or I made the cut. We decided to pop to the resort’s shop on our way back to our room, and while Angela was still in there choosing postcards, I noticed that the dolphins had reappeared out on the beach. We made our way back down again, were able to get a really good view, and I was even given the honour of feeding one of the dolphins when the time came.

Afterwards, we began the journey up to Coral Bay. Just outside Monkey Mia, we stopped off at the aptly named Shell Beach. It’s a massive beach made up entirely of tiny shells (which apparently is 5 metres deep.) An hour further up the road we made another detour to see the Stromatolites . I didn’t really understand what these were, but from what I do understand, they’re something like the first forms of life on Earth. They’re not much to look at though; just little mounds that would look to the layman (me) like weird little stumps of rock. And the information board next to them made the disconcertingly vague claim that stromatolites might have allowed all other life on earth to evolve. For me, if you’re going to claim responsibility for starting all life on Earth, you’ve got to sound certain about it. Perhaps allowing my mind to wander over such important issues, my focus drifted off my speedometer….

permalink written by  olliejohnson on July 5, 2007 from Monkey Mia, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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Up/Down the Coral Coast Part 2

Kalbarri, Australia

Well, after that little cliff-hanger Ollie left you off with, you’ve probably been itching to know what happened next. It kind of reminds me of that season-end cliff-hanger they left us with on Friends, when at the alter with Emily, Ross said “I take you, Rachel.” You’ve probably already guessed that Ollie did indeed receive a speeding ticket. The Great Northern Highway that takes you up the West coast toward Exmouth is anything but great. It’s flat, straight road that goes on for hundreds of kilometres with barren, red sandy outback on either side and you can drive for 20 minutes without evening seeing another form of life or a bend in the road. After receiving the speeding ticket, Ollie tried to explain it to himself and to me by bringing up all these factors as excuses. I think we both knew that the real reason behind it was that tricky little speeding gene Ollie had inherited. Anyway, out driving in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t expect cops to be hiding in the bush. Sure enough though, they were. I was under the impression that for those radar guns to work, you had to actually pass the vehicle, but these cops caught Ollie from about 200 metres up the road. I guess radar gun technology exceeds that of the rest of the world in the outback. Supposedly, the cops don’t fine people for speeding if they’re driving 129 and Ol got a ticket for driving 130. Through all his disappointment and frustration, he failed to notice the name of the ticketing officer-- Officer Dicks. After I pointed this out to him, he was a little happier. Const. Dicks explained that there are several cattle roaming wild in the outback and we could hit one at any time. To that point, we hadn’t seen any.

We arrived in Coral Bay in the early evening and checked in to our hostel. Coral Bay is a town built around a bay, with it’s main attraction being-- you guessed it-- a coral reef. It has the Ningaloo reef (the world’s largest fringing reef, as far as I can remember) on its doorstep. That evening, we booked into a glass bottom boat/snorkelling tour of the reef for the following day. We picked up our flippers and masks before getting on the boat and then set off. The water was a bit murky, but we still had a good view of the coral.

I think the reason the coral here is pale in colour, rather than bright, is because it’s not in tropical water-- but I wasn’t listening to the guide too carefully, I was too busy looking for a Nemo fish. The first fish we were introduced to were the spangled emperors. These fish are quite big and love swimming right along the bottom of boats and close-by swimmers. We kept getting pulled around by the current while trying to put our masks on, because the guide told us to get in the water before putting them on. It wasn’t a great introduction to snorkelling for me. We got back on the boat after that and went to the next snorkelling spot. The wind was pretty strong and I was freezing, so I opted out of the second snorkel while Ollie went in.

While returning our snorkelling gear, we signed up for a kayak/snorkel trip for the next day. We were both pretty excited about this trip, because we thought it would make us proper adventurers. Our kayaking started in the afternoon, so we decided to try to make it to Turquoise Bay in the morning. The bay turned out to be further away than we’d anticipated and we had to turn back before even reaching it in order to make it to the kayaking on time. It turned out to be a 300 km detour in the end.

The kayaking place supplied us with flippers, masks, and wetsuits and gave us a brief introduction to snorkelling and kayaking. Kurt, our very stereotypical Aussie guide, gave us a very useful hint, telling us to keep our heads underwater or else the current would pull us around. The only other people on the tour were our guide, his friend, and a German couple. My excitement over finally knowing more about a sport than Ollie was shattered when Kurt said that the guys would sit at the back of the boats and steer and the girls would sit in the front. We quickly turned into the star students on the trip when the German couple had to be towed along by our guide. When we got to the first snorkelling spot, we tied up our kayaks to the buoy and jumped in. We got up close to the spangled emperors again. Ollie pointed out that the fact that these fish are so friendly and that they’re also rumoured to be quite tasty was a rather unfortunate combination for them. The first snorkelling spot was cool, but the second spot was amazing. Anytime we came by our guide snorkelling, he’d point out another sea creature we hadn’t spotted: two types of rays, a reef shark, a turtle, a clown fish. He had an underwater camera and got loads of photos of different sea animals and us snorkelling. Once underwater, it was easy to forget that there was a world of wind and choppy waves above us. The water underneath was so still and calm. When we stayed still for a few moments underwater, a friendly school of small, brightly coloured fish formed a wall around us. After a couple hours out kayaking and snorkelling, we returned to shore covered in salt and feeling pretty proud of our afternoon’s accomplishments. It was definitely the most fun day we spent in Australia -- aside from those countless thrilling days spent at the Plumbers Licensing Board, of course.

The next day took us about 700km back down the coast to Kalbarri; a small seaside town set beside Kalbarri National Park. The day we arrived, we went to check out Kalbarri’s main attraction; Nature’s Window, a giant rock shaped like a picture frame that overlooks Kalbarri’s river gorges. Unfortunately, 50 flies had the same idea and flocked to Nature’s Window (most hitching a ride on Ollie’s back) with us.

The following day we went to see the coastal gorges, which were infinitely more impressive than the river gorges. We learned a history lesson or two about the stratosphere, and then got some photos along the coast. We had a flight to catch that evening at midnight, so began our journey back to Perth (with a stop at the Pinnacles in between.) The Pinnacles desert is full of thousands of tall limestone pillars that punctuate the landscape. Before we arrived we expected to have to park and then walk to the pinnacles, but were pleased to find a sandy road marked out with rocks winding through the desert. As the sun set, we took our pictures, but were continuously blocked by some idiot with his tripod out and his family alongside, who all looked slightly embarrassed, and more than a little bored. We managed to avoid the kangaroos on our last journey on the West coast, which took us back to the airport. We checked in for our flight, which was to take us to Auckland with a connection in Sydney, and waited in the departure lounge.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on July 6, 2007 from Kalbarri, Australia
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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The Honey Smuggler

Auckland, New Zealand

Our journey to Auckland was to actually take 2 flights - the first would take us to Sydney, where we were to have about an hour wait until the next flight took off to Auckland itself. Unfortunately, our first flight departed about ¾ hour late, and was then held up above Sydney for a while before landing. While waiting for the shuttle bus between the domestic and international terminals to arrive, we saw our flight to Auckland change from ‘boarding’ to ‘last call’. And we still had yet to go through the international flight security checks. So this led to the sight of me sprinting from there to our gate while trying to re-dress myself (belt, jacket, shoes and wallet had to be removed; laptop had to come out of its case etc…)

Our time in Auckland airport didn’t go any more smoothly. Our flight apparently was the last of 4 or 5 arrivals in the last few minutes, meaning a queue of over and hour to get through passports checks. After this, we headed over to the baggage belt to collect our backpacks. We picked Angela’s up and waited for mine to come around. And waited. And waited. And waited. I went to check the other belts in case it was on one of those for some reason, but it wasn’t. So, we went over to the lost baggage counter and reported it. Apparently some of the bags hadn’t made the transfer in Sydney, but mine wasn’t on the list; they had no idea where mine was, but not to worry, hopefully it should turn up soon, and in the meantime, here’s a washbag with mini toothpaste and toothbrush, shampoo, shower gel, and most importantly, a Qantas t-shirt and shorts.

There was one more hurdle before we could get out; handing in the landing card declaration and bag screening. We handed in our forms, and one backpack lighter than usual we loaded up our stuff onto the x-ray belt. As we waited for the bags on the other side, the lady scanning the bags asked what the jar in the bottom of Angela’s bag was. Completely confused as to why there was a jar in the bottom of her bag, she had to think for a second before remembering that she’d bought a jar of honey as a gift for someone. She had failed to note this on the landing card. Another chap was called over upon this admission, who inspected the jar and confirmed that yes, it was indeed honey, before sending us over to the naughty corner to have a word with a another man called Vijay, who had a very obvious-looking toupee. Vijay inspected the jar of honey very closely, passing it from hand to hand, and then read the script on the side carefully. He sighed. Something was clearly bothering Vijay. He looked like a man attempting to piece together a very complicated puzzle. With a furrowed brow, he placed the honey loosely in one palm, then lowered and lifted it slowly. He repeated the trick with the other hand. Finally he decided to make eye contact, and fixed Angela with a firm glare. “This is a very heavy item Angela…(dramatic pause) You claim that you did not remember that you had this jar of honey in your bag….. I’m wondering how you could possibly fail to notice such a heavy item in a bag?” After further questioning, a few mentions about the possible 5 year jail term for smugglers, and successfully managing to make Angela cry, he decided that the $200 fine was the most appropriate measure, and sent us on our way. Never have I been so happy to be out of an airport.

Once in the city, despite all our experiences up to that point (and all we‘d heard about it), we found ourselves really liking Auckland. A city with 2 bays and surrounded by various mountains and volcanoes, it is unsurprisingly very easy on the eye; but it also has a real vibrancy, with lots of cool bars, shops and cafes, and a decent arts scene. And to cheer me up even more, the morning after we arrived my backpack caught a taxi from the airport to our hostel. And just in time too. A few minutes later we had our own taxi to pick up our campervan (which we’ve rented for the duration of our time here in NZ.) After a ridiculously short tour of how everything worked, the van was all ours. It’s pretty cool - a converted Ford Transit with a stove, microwave, fridge, sink, massive bed, bathroom and loads of storage space. Before we made our way north, we decided to spend another night in Auckland to see more of the sights, including going up an extinct volcano; Mount Eden, to get the best views of the city.

Unfortunately, our journey up into Northland coincided with the second worst storms in 100 years in the region (the worst being in March this year.) 24 hours of constant rainfall marooned us for a day in a small town on the way up to Cape Reinga, but when we did finally get there, we were pleased we’d made the effort. It’s at the very northern tip of the North Island, and from the lighthouse stationed amongst a rocky outcrop there you can see the point at which the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean - which is more than just an imaginary line in the sea, as massive waves are churned up in the spot where the different currents from the two clash. On our way back down, we stopped at an ancient Kauri forest to see a 2,000 year-old tree. This wasn’t quite as spectacular as Cape Reinga, but we had to respect the tree’s longevity. As we made our way back down past Auckland, my excitement about our next destination was palpable. We were off to Hobbiton.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on July 7, 2007 from Auckland, New Zealand
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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More Journeys in the North Island

Wellington, New Zealand

Since I’ve only seen the 1st and 3rd Lord of the Rings films and have never read the books, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Hobbiton set. Still, I knew Ollie was excited about it and we made our way to the small town of Matamata to see the farm where the scenes in Hobbiton were filmed (apparently one of 150+ LOTR sets across NZ). We paid $50 each to go on the 2 hour tour, so I thought there would be some serious Hobbitness going on, considering the length of the tour. I expected we’d see all the Hobbit holes in their on-screen form (or close to it) and the little Hobbit village all intact. After all, charging $50/person, they could certainly afford to do a lot of upkeep. The farm that was home to the set was massive and really lovely, and the set hardly took up any of the land. I was disappointed to learn that after filming, they had bulldozed most of the set. The guide stood before patches of what simply looked like grass to me and would say “this is the place where they had Bilbo’s birthday party!” and “over there is where the mill and the pub were!”, then would look around expectantly. Pretty much all that remained of the set were some of the hobbit holes, though without their gardens and décor. The clever sheep of the farm had apparently found the hobbit holes to be great winter homes for raising their young and had moved in. I tried to get a picture of one of these hobbit-impersonating sheep, but it didn’t really turn out. Ollie seemed to have found the patches of grass a little more interesting than I did and liked the tour.

The trip to Hobbiton did take us by some beautiful countryside. From here, we made our way up to Mount Manganui on the Bay of Plenty. It took about a half hour to climb and we got a really nice view of the bay. We were also entertained by some kids with their Kiwi accents calling their dad “Diddy.”

A few kms down the road we arrived in the city of Rotorua, with its distict sulphuric aroma, thanks to high geothermal activity in the area. It’s known as both the geothermal capital and Maori-cultural capital of NZ. So we knew we had to experience both these things while there. The first day, we went to Te Puia, the Maori cultural centre which is something like an amusement park, with Maori performances, a Kiwi-experience (where we saw kiwi birds), some geysers, and several mud and sulphur pools. As a side note, I thought some of you might like to know that English people pronounce “geysers” like “geezers.” The Kiwis and Aussies seem to make the distinction between the things that explode from the ground and old ladies, but the English remain confused. That evening, we went to a Maori cultural evening. This consisted of seeing a Maori war canoe, watching a traditional Maori performance and eating a hangi (a traditionally cooked meal, cooked on hot rocks in the ground). The evening was a lot of fun and the food was pretty good too. Our Maori guide took a special liking to Ollie and me and kept calling us “Canada” (at the beginning of the evening, he’d asked the group of 70+ people where everyone was from and had decided that Ollie was also Canadian so I wouldn‘t be the only one) and saw to it that we got front-row seats at the performance, hurrying us along with “follow me this way Canada, hurry so I can give you the best seats in the house.” The next day we treated ourselves by visiting a thermal spa and went in the mud baths, then a sulphur pool. Although it may not sound or smell lovely, it was really relaxing and is supposedly really good for your skin.

Next on the itinerary was Taupo, “the skydiving capital of NZ,” an inland town on a large lake. Ollie decided he would be doing some serious adventuring. We hiked to Huka falls, which is on the river in the town. Rather than being steep like most falls, they were really gradual and then dropped a couple metres. Much smaller than Niagara falls, less touristy, and cleaner. Not just here, but all over NZ, the water is amazingly clear and blue. In a few of the places we’ve been, the locals said they just take drinking water directly from their lake/river. Later on we went for a sail around Lake Taupo on a small yacht. A couple guys run this tour company, which takes you around the lake to see some Maori rock carvings and the greater part of the lake. There were only about 8 other passengers on the boat, one of whom was, by the sounds of it, a paparazzi (she said she works on a cruise ship taking pictures of celebrities). Anyway, she seemed to think her paparazzi ways were both suitable and required for her to get pictures on this quiet, friendly little sail boat. Anytime there was something interesting in sight, she would spring forward with her camera, obstructing anyone else who had their camera out while she took picture after picture. Part way through the journey, the skipper got out some biscuits and started feeding them to some ducks flying by. He then asked a little boy on board and any other passengers if they’d like to feed them as well. The little boy took a turn, but was soon pushed out of the way by the paparazzi’s mom, who seemed just as ruthless when it came to bird feeding as her daughter was when it came to photo taking. When the ducks refused to take her biscuit, she started muttering “stupid animals” at them. I had a turn and the ducks ate from my hand, probably because they were Timbit’s Kiwi relatives (Timbit was our pet duck when I was younger, may he rest in peace). Anyway, we saw the Maori rock carvings, which were impressive, then went back to land before it began to rain. The next day, Ollie decided he wanted to go ski-diving. The weather had been up and down, so there was a chance that it might not be on if it was too overcast. I was secretly hoping it would be, because I was a little nervous about the whole ski-diving thing. It ended up being a go, so Ollie went off to be a dare-devil and I went to an internet café and called the family (I couldn’t really go watch a moving plane). A couple hours later, we met up in the city again. I was pretty relieved he was still in one piece. He told me before hand he would be going for the cheapest option (a 12,000 ft dive, with no DVD), but ended up splashing out and going for the 15,000 ft jump and the whole DVD/picture set. The DVD was pretty cool./hilarious to see, with Ollie pulling some interesting faces during the jump. Importantly, we also saw the new Harry Potter movie while in Taupo.

On our way down to Wellington, we stopped to look at the mountains of Tongariro National Park. The clouds were pretty low though, so it was difficult to get a good view. After getting a little lost looking for the campsite, we settled in Wellington for the night. While it did have a nice, free museum that we explored for about an hour and a pretty harbourfront, the city was pretty boring. We wouldn’t have planned any time for Wellington, had we not needed to catch the ferry to the South Island from there. The ferry crossing was, as we had heard, very beautiful. The water was really calm the whole way over and the Marlborough sound that you journey through at the tip of the South Island was amazing. Three hours after having taken off, we arrived in Picton, and so began our time on the South Island.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on July 31, 2007 from Wellington, New Zealand
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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