Friday, 6 March 2009

Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

Moving on from Cairns we took a 3 hour flight to Ayers Rock or Uluru to call it by its Aboriginal name (which is something you should definitely do). The landscape changed dramatically en-route as we left behind the northern rainforests and passed over an ever changing landscape of bush, salt flats and finally red desert.

When we got off the plane we were hit with a tremendous blast of heat - it was like opening the oven door to check on your Yorkshire Puddings (don't do that - you'll ruin them!). We found out later that it was 41 degrees and unseasonably cold for the time of year!

Our itinerary for this entire trip has been extremely efficiently planned out (I can't take any credit for that). I wouldn't say that our schedule is tight, but it's certainly snug and, with an unfortunate delay in our flight, we had just 15 minutes to check into the hotel, find our room, get changed and be picked up for the first of 3 trips that we were making in our less than 24 hour

We'd been advised to purchase fly-nets - like Bee-Keeper's headgear, and at fifteen dollars for two I can honestly say I've never spent money so wisely. I thought the flies could get irritating in our suburbarn garden in West Yorkshire. This is a different world! We were told it's the worst it's been in five years, fly wise... the one crumb of comfort.. they're one of the few things in this country which isn't poisonous!

The first trip took us on a short drive to see the Olgas or Kata Tjuta (again, its Aboriginal name, again, the right-on thing to call it). I had no idea these existed, I just thought we were coming to see Uluru, but if anything, these are more spectacular. There are 36 "domes" (great big lumps of red mountain) and we took a short walk in the baking heat through a gap between a couple of them.

The next day we visited Uluru itself (setting off at 5:45am - when it was still warm enough to fry eggs). We watched the sun rise and light up the huge iconic rock in a pink glow.

A short while later, the clouds gathered. It hasn't rained here for months, our guide informed us. Well now it had. It lashed it down and Uluru shimmered like silver. Then the waterfalls started, as the rain decided it had enough of sitting on the top and began to pour down channels in the sides. It was all very spectacular and, by the sound of it, quite unusual to see.

Now we have past form on this. When we visited the Sahara desert and rode camels out into the sand dunes, it rained. And on our visit to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan (again, not a place you'd usually take an umbrella) we experienced flash floods and had to be rescued by guys in army jeeps. So while everyone else says "wow, I can't believe we've come to the desert and it's raining!", we're starting to think "it might be our fault".

Travel tip number 3. If you do take delicate electronic devices (such as digital cameras) out into the desert, and it rains, try to keep them dry no matter how spectacular the waterfalls look. Otherwise you might end up with a camera stuck on the same exposure and zoom settings which can only take one photo between each "reboot".

Love Is Like A Butterfly (If You Like That Sort Of Thing)

To provide a little balance, given how many comments I've made about Justine's fear of spiders, let me now make the admission that I hate little flying, flapping, fluttering things, especially moths. So my therapy session was to be at the Butterfly Centre in Cairns' rainforest. We travelled up into the hills on (another) cable car, or "Skyrail" as the marketing people would have it.

This gave us the chance to see spectacular views behind us over Cairns and out to the ocean and, in front, the seemingly endless, blanket of trees. It's probably tiny as rainforest areas go but it just looks enormous.

The skyrail drops off at a couple of stops and you can get off and walk around amongst the trees and the spiders... some of them even bigger than our house guests. This is either going to send her crazy or she'll be purchasing a pet funnel-web when we get home. The end of the Skyrail deposits us at Kuranda, a little village which now seems to cater solely for tourists visiting the various attractions, one of which was "Butterfly Hell House"! We went there first and I prepared myself for what lay ahead...

It was awesome*.

A huge mesh tent with trees and water and loads of brightly coloured butterflies and I could have stayed there all day taking photographs (again, if anyone wants to see my butterfly photos, allow a good chunk of time).

Warning... Things now get cute and fluffy, as it's time for Jus to cuddle a koala. This seems to be legal in Australia, so we stand next to a painted rainforest backdrop, one of the keepers extracts a koala (which seemed to have been minding its own business in a nearby tree) and brings it over. The unfortunate bear is draped over Jus and they both smile for photographs.

Then to my horror, the nice young koala-catching lady asks if I'd like to join in. After she asked the third time I shuffled over and stood next to the happy couple. "You can stroke him" she said. When she'd said this for the third time, I felt it would be rude not to so I gave him (the koala) a little tickle on the head. They've got really deep soft fur and I have to admit he was very cute, although not as cute as Eric (our cat for those who don't know).

* (c) Eddie Izzard using the original meaning of the word awesome. Not the new one which is sort of for socks and hot dogs: "Hey! Red and yellow - awesome! You got red and yellow socks, they're awesome!"

Good Grief - It's The Barrier Reef

Warning to some of my more sensitive readers (you know who you are Paul). The following post contains scenes of me topless.

One of the things you have to do whilst in Cairns is to visit the Barrier Reef. A small catermaran with about 15 other like-minded people was just the thing for us and with a blue sky and a fair wind we were all set. After a relaxing couple of hours sailing out to the reef, the mainbrace was hoisted, the anchor dropped, and the poop deck was... well you get the idea.

The plan was for us to go snorkelling before lunch and dive afterwards. The "fair wind" had turned into a "gentle gale" and the sea was a bit on the choppy side so we were given some buoyancy aids called noodles - we looked like we were in a junior swim class.

As PADI-Qualified Advanced Open Water Divers (just showing off there) it would seem silly to visit the Great Barrier Reef and then just go snorkelling - although, apart from one other guy, we were the only ones who thought so. So the salty sea dogs who ran the boat helped us on with our scuba equipment (very nice - you usually have to do everything yourself and are exhausted by the time you hit the water). We plunged into the ocean (nice and warm, around the 30 degree mark) and after a final safety check, descended into the depths of the Barrier Reef. The visibility wasn't as good as we've experienced elsewhere, probably not helped by the gentle gale I mentioned, but we still saw plenty, including turtles, sea slugs, squid, brightly coloured fish, giant clams and lots and lots of coral.

After a 45 minute dive, we were led back to the boat by a huge batfish (this is not a fish which dresses up in leather uniform and a cape, and it does not have a sidekick called Robin-Fish).

As we arrive back on the boat, the weather (which had improved considerably while we were under water) took a turn for the worse. The blue sky had turned a darker shade of grey. I quite like a bit of drizzle (I'm from Manchester - it's what we do best) so I was happy to sit out on the hammock-nets at the front of the boat while everyone else sheltered inside. Soon the hailstones started. The weather improved gradually (although the sea was still rough) and soon I was joined by some of our European friends who clearly were feeling embarrassed about an Englishman looking crazier than them. Every wave soaked us with warm sea water as we were thrown around on the nets. It's the first time I've found myself lying half-naked alongside two wet, screaming, German girls - and it will probably be the last!

Oh, travel tip number 2. If you are going to dive the Barrier Reef and then lie out on the front of the boat being showered in sea water and, like me, you have the skin complexion of an English Rose... put lots of waterproof sunscreen on first!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Oz Cuisine - Our Way

Our apartment in Cairns has the essential Aussie cooking apparatus... a barbie. It's an electric barbie (we've also got an electric frying pan), but it's still a barbie. So, eager to be able to "throw another shrimp on the barbie" we've been off to see what Cairns has to offer on the groceries front. We were pointed in the direction of the local supermarket which we found, to our surprise, was Woolworths. Out here, it seems, Woolworths has an almost Tesco-like market share in the supermarket business. As supermarkets go, you couldn't fault it - we found a wide range of things which looked burnable - steak, lamb, kangaroo and,of course, shrimps.

One thing that was conspicuous by it's absence in Woolies though, was alcohol. This must be what supermarkets used to be like in the UK, before they were allowed to sell everything at any time of the day. It was a big store and we wandered up and down every aisle but it became clear that they aren't permitted to sell booze.

Well you can't have a baabie (I'm trying to do the accent now) without a couple of cold ones so we needed to find an off-licence. And we found a "drive-through" one. Thats's right... A drive through off-licence!!! Except they're not called off-licences, they're called Bottle Shops. This drive-through was like a B&Q (not the normal ones, the huge aircraft hanger B&Q Warehouse type). And merry Australians could either park up and wander in to get their beer, wine or the exceedingly popular cans of coke with rum or whisky. Or alternatively they could drive in, choose a couple of tinnies from the fridge and drive out again. That's what McDonalds should do in our country (instead of pretending to serve food).

So I bought a couple of stubbies (small bottles of beer for those who don't know) and some Mango wine for the lady.

We then popped into Brumbys the bakers (think of it as a slightly more upmarket Greggs) for some stuff for breakfast. I was staggered to hear Justine ask them if they could recommend a good type of bread for dipping in our balsamic vinegar and olive oil (very middle-class, us). On the point of dragging her out of the shop with embarrasment I was even more staggered when a friendly face (possibly Mr Brumby himself?) appeared and provided such a recommendation. Something along the lines of "that one's very soft and doughy... it'll be fantastic for dipping". And it was! You wouldn't get that in Greggs!

Armed withe these ingredients, we've eaten very well indeed, in true Australian style, with a hint of Guardian-reader Englishman (olives and sun-dried tomatoes were also on the menu). Although I don't think I did the Kangaroo justice - a little overcooked.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Living In The Rainforest

We're staying in a self-catering apartment which is within touching distance (literally) of the rainforest. This is a national park now and there's no way you'd be allowed to build property in this location today.

Just two minutes up the road is a walk which leads along the river and you can swim in pools of crystal clear rainforest water. I was a bit reluctant to jump in, but Jus had been in there for fifteen minutes without being eaten by anything, so eventually I relented and (having furtively changed into trunks under a towel) I gingerly went in. It was cooling and refreshing, and sitting under a little, but surprisingly powerful, waterfall I decided that this was, on reflection, much better than Skipton Baths.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Spiders From Mars

A short drive away from the centre of Cairns, and Justine, Kylie and myself arrive at our rainforest retreat. We are greeted by Laura and Jon (our hosts) and introduced to two of the locals. A pair of enormous spiders hanging from the roof near the (otherwise welcoming) decking area. Jus shrieked (and did a little dance of terror)! They're by far the largets spiders we've ever seen in the flesh, and given that the normal spiders which crawl up the plughole in the bathroom would cause Jus to phone the emergency services, we're in for an interesting time. "Is that as big as they get?" we enquired. "Oh no" came the reply, "once they get to be fully grown, they come down from the webs and eat birds and mice."

Australians seem to come to terms with the fact that their country is out to kill them from an early age, but I think they sensed that we were not so used to mammal-eating arachnids and Jon (a keen amateur spider-wrangler) soon rounded up and moved the "insurgents" much further away from the house.

Now, at least for the time being, we're able to stay here. Just need to keep an eye out for snakes, sharks, electric ants, jellyfish and stinging trees - that's right, even the trees are out to get you!

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Kylie, The Ford Laser... She's A Beaut!

We'd arranged to hire a car when we arrived in Cairns and were picked up at the airport and taken to a place a few minutes away where they specialise in hiring out "older" (unreliable?) cars. We specialise in owning older, unreliable cars!

The very helpful chap there gave us some maps (including an entire Yellow Pages which had a good map of Cairns in the middle) and then took us out to meet Kylie (he didn't call her that, but I quite like to). She's a Ford Laser, she's white(ish), with a few bumps and grazes and bits of rust. The air-con works - that's proved to be essential, but the radio doesn't - that hasn't worried us too much (already heard Men At Work's quintessential offering on this trip - anything else is likely to disappoint).

Oh and she's an automatic. Why do automatic cars exist? They're really hard to drive - I keep wanting to press something down with my left foot but the only thing to press is the brake, which is a really dangerous thing to do if you're driving at 80km per hour and suddenly think "I need to change gear, I'll just use the clutch". I've got used to it now, but I can't help feeling that if you're not changing gear, you're only half in control of the car.

Sniffer Dogs Keep Up The Fight Against Apple Scrumpers

I'm not keen on dogs, always been a bit scared of them.  Probably down to some particularly challenging paper rounds I undertook on the mean streets of Timperley.

So when we arrive in Cairns I'm a little uncomfortable to be asked to join a single line of fellow passengers who are to be "snifffed".  I immediately let my imagination invent a beast from the depths of my darkest fears, part rabid wolf, part Greater Manchester Police drug squad officer.

Instead, we are to be "sniffed" by a cute little puppy (let's call him Bouncer) wearing a very smart purple dog jacket.  Relieved that the Drug-Wolf has not materialised, I allow my guard to fall.  But wait... Bouncer's on to something... it's Justine's rucksack... he knows there's something in there... he senses that she's carrying... APPLES!

The Australian authorities really don't want you to bring anything in to their county which might tip the ecological scales one way or the other, be it animals, fruit and veg, or even dirt on your shoes.  So if your bag had been used to carry a couple of apples (now eaten), Bouncer will come down on you like a tonne of bricks.  The quarantine people were all very friendly and polite, but as they hunted (without success) for illicit orchard-ware in our baggage, you sensed that they felt they were closing in on one of the world's most notorious Cider Barons.

She Just Smiled, And Gave Me A Vegemite Sandwich

Our flight from Singapore to Cairns stops off in Darwin (not Darwen, near Blackburn - that confused me for a minute).  We trudge off the plane at 4am (their time), who know when (my time) to set foot in Australia for the first time in our lives.  And the first thing we hear as it's piped out of the transit lounge's speaker system...  Down Under by Men At Work.  I couldn't have scripted it better.

Just One Corn-Etto

After finishing a trip around incense-heavy temples in Chinatown, we headed to Orchard Road via the tube. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of Louis Vuitton or Gucci (more Top Man or Burtons, me) so the monstrous strip of shopping malls left me cold. It didn't feel very exotic, in fact if London's Oxford Street had temperatures approaching melting point, I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. But one thing we did find there, and I challenge someone to find me this on Oxford Street, was sweetcorn ice cream. We bought some - it's ice cream... and it tastes of sweetcorn.

Sentosa - A Holiday Destination Of The Future?

It starts with a cable-car journey, gliding high over the trees and the river below. You then fly into an opening in a skyscraper which feels like you're arriving at a Bond Villain's lair. Then back out into daylight and down below must be the largest expanse of construction work currently being undertaken on the planet (I have no data whatsoever to back this up). This is the part of Sentosa Island which has been designed, but not yet built. It's fascinating to look at from so high above, but it's not pretty.

On arriving at the other end of the cable-car, it's a bit Disneyland. We walked down to the beach, past a family of giant plastic cows, dressed as tourists, wearing lipstick and grinning for a group portrait. Behind them looms a three hundred foot concrete Merlion (yes, part lion, part mer-thing).

When you arrive at the beach it's a little confusing. There's sunshine, sand, palm trees, cargo ships, kids building sand-castles, more cargo ships, factory chimneys in the distance and then some more cargo ships. And they do weddings here. If you want to get married with one of the busiest shipping lanes in Asia as a backdrop, Sentosa's for you.

We travelled up and down the length of the resort on the little "train" and at each stop a happy sounding lady encouraged us to "have fun".

We decided to "have fun" by crossing a long "King Kong-ish" rope bridge to an extra bit of land which is apparently the "Sowthernmost" point of the Asian continent. And if you can tightrope-walk along a palm tree which has grown almost horizontally out over the sea then you're presumably about as "Sowthernmost" as you can get. We did just that, and took silly photos to prove it.

Justine's lasting impression of Sentosa... Fantasy Island crossed with Center Parcs, on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Glad we went, wouldn't have wanted to stay there.

Going Underground

The Singapore MRT is efficient, cheap, cool (as in air-conditioned), clean, and was surprisingly free of undesirables.  Except me of course.

Little India

Eager for more street-markets, we continued on to Little India. I've never been to "Big India" but this certainly had the atmosphere. A convoy of strobe-lit rickshaw-bike-things was whizzing up one street while others had shops pumping out the meanest "Bhangra 'n Bass" I've heard for many a year.

Taking the advice of a colleague (and not fancying fish head curry) we sought out an eating establishment which advertised the availability of "dosa" and we were very happy we did. Onion masala dosai, rawa masala dosai and spicy dougnutty things, washed down with lassi and carrot juice, for three pounds fifty a head (including tip). Nice one Cliffe!

Bugis Street

The guide book led us to think that this was a bustling street-market, much like the Souks of Marrakesh.  Having been to Marrakesh recently, I'm pleased to be able to say that this felt considerably less life-threatening.  There was also a much wider range of things made out of plastic available, gold-plated plastic in many cases.

We're All Going To The Zoo Today

Mmmmmmm, curry for breakfast. Not the cold, last-night's leftover takeaway sort either. Freshly made, authentic, and with stuffed parathas and dosai and chutneys to go alongside. This is what breakfast should be like! I maybe went a little far by having bacon and sausage as well, plus Danish pastries and coffee to finish. Still, you only live once.

Don't think I've been to a zoo for at least twenty-five years, but Singapore Zoo seems to be on the list of "Things to do in Singapore", so off we go. I won't bore you (assuming you're not already bored) by listing all the different animals we saw, but it was a wide and varied menagerie, including more monkey-type things than you can shake a stick at (don't though, there are signs telling you not to do that sort of thing). Baboons, gibbons, probiscus, chimps, spider, orang-u-tan, macaque... However, some of you will be disappointed to hear that I failed to spot any VB Developers*.

I'd also recommend "Carlos" the sea-lion and the enclosure which is full of bats and lemurs which you just walk into and they walk (or fly) right up to you. Don't ask to see my photos of the bats unless you've got a couple of hours to spare.

*"In Joke" for those C-Sharpies amongst you.

The Mandarin Oriental

Starting the holiday on a good foot, we had decided to stay at a plush hotel, and this one was recommended to us by Justine's parents, Eunice and Tony. It has super-whizzy glass lifts which shoot up to the twenty-odth floor and back down into a pool of cool looking water, making you think you're going to get wet feet. I could have spent hours photographing the interior - each floor smaller than the one below, creating a tapering effect which made you feel dizzy as you looked up. The staff were, without exception, extremely friendly and helpful. A great recommendation E&T.

Happy Birthday To Me

A quick travel tip for everyone.  If you're going to go away somewhere, go on (or around) your birthday.  Then you get free stuff!  Especially if your AMAZING wife talks nicely to the British Airways customer service people at Heathrow ("If you don't ask, you don't get" she said).  So on our flight to Singapore we were upgraded to bigger, faster seats, with footrests and blankets and eyemasks.  Still only third class - second class you get your own little booth which turns, "Transformers-style" into a bedroom, and first class we weren't even able to go near - I think you get a separate plane... encrusted with emeralds.

On top of this, the charming Australian air steward who looked after us, couldn't stop giving me booze.  When I asked for a glass of red wine with my meal, he gave me two bottles (and a third later).  I must just look like I need it or something.

We arrive at our hotel in Singapore and Justine happens to mention that it's my birthday today.  So we get a "newly renovated" room, and we're not talking "60 Minute Makeover" here.  Later that evening a waiter arrives and presents us with a birthday bottle of red wine (which I subsequently asked to swap for a bottle of white, because Jus doesn't like red, but the white wine waiter convinces me that I should keep hold of the bottle of red too).

See, free stuff.  Mind you, it's just as well.  If I fancied a small can of Heineken from the mini-bar (which I don't) it would set us back the best part of eight quid...  free wine anyone?