Location: Hong Kong
We left the southern hemisphere for the first time in six months and arrived in hot and sticky Hong Kong, late Saturday night. We seriously feared for our lives during a hair raising taxi ride from the airport to the hotel - our guide book said it would take an hour, but somehow we made it in 35 minutes! As it was our last week, we booked ourselves in to a nice mid range hotel in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong Island and managed to get a room on the 23rd floor with great views over the city and the nearby Happy Valley race track.
Our first impressions of Hong Kong were that it is a very manic city but exhillerating and enchanting at the same time. There are so many people cramed into such a small space, but surprsingly everyone just dawdles along! We thought it would be like London where people speed walk their way around town.
Taking no risks exploring, I padlocked my new camera to my belt, however, it wasn't long before we twigged that no one was interested and had their own far superior cameras anyway! We soon realised that Hong Kong consists of shops, shops and more shops! We checked out the famous twelve storey Times Square mall, where the top floor is purely dedicated to electronic gadgets, which was brilliant for me! Our first experience of an internet cafe was in a dark room full of young locals frantically playing violent computer games and all we could here was the roar of machine guns. Luckily when we returned to our hotel we got upgraded to a room with a computer and internet access which was brilliant no more internet cafes!
On our first clear day we took the tram up to The Peak which gave us amazing views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The tram takes you 400m above sea level on a really steep incline and we were grateful for the cooler temperatures at the top. The next day we took the bus to the South of the Island to the town of Stanley and mooched around the famous market and had lunch on the beach. We then headed back up North and caught the Star Ferry across the harbour to Kowloon where we enjoyed bargain hunting in Temple Street night market trading standards would have a field day here with all the fake rolexes and Ralph Lauren polo shirts! As we sailed back across the harbour we saw the skyline of Hong Kong Island in all its glory - a fantastic light show as all the massive sky scrapers flashed multi coloured lights.
We were beginning to feel the need to escape the city so we headed to Lantau island (where the new airport is). This is twice the size of Hong Kong island but only 88,000 people live here compared to the 1.5 million on HK Island! When we got off the metro we got an hour long bus ride up to Ngong Ping to see the Tian Tan Buddha, the biggest outdoor buddha in the world which opened in 1993 having taken 10 years to build. It reminded us of climbing the steps up to the Christo statue in Rio. Everyone was in awe of its size and it was clear to see that it had spiritual significance to the many people praying underneath it.
Hong Kong is an amazing place, which at times feels like its where East meets West, i.e British road signs and electrical sockets but still clear differences in language and culture. We can see why its referred to as "one country, two systems" because this retail focused city definitely has a capitalist feel in Communist China.
It's hard to believe that this is the final night of our travels and we fly back to London tomorrow morning. We would definitely advocate this experience to anyone with itchy feet and a desire to explore the unknown. However unlike a lot of travellers we have met, we have no aspirations to emigrate and this trip has only confirmed how much we like England and value friends and family. Keeping a blog has obviously enabled us to record our memories but more importantly its been a real comfort to know people back home have shared this experience with us.
Location: Whitsundays, Australia
We headed back to Brisbane enroute to the Whitsundays this time with pre-booked accomodation to avoid all the dentists! Brisbane is a nice city with many features that reminded us of London, like its South Bank area which is full of arts and craft markets, theatres and alfresco cafes. There is a great man-made lagoon which transports you to beach life in the middle of a bustling city. We also enjoyed Brisbane's cosmopolitan village - Fortitude Valley where we ended up going to the arthouse cinema three nights in a row!
Four days later, we flew with JetStar, Australia's economy airline up to Proserpine, which is on the Whitsunday coast. After a short bus ride we arrived in Airlie Beach early evening and did our usual scout around to find accomodation. We managed to find a great place just out of town right next to the sea with amazing views over Boathaven Bay and as we were staying for ten days we got a good discount which was icing on the cake.
Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, off the coast of North Queensland which revolves purely around tourism and is cramed full of everyone from backpackers to pensioners on holiday. It is a bit like Byron Bay but without the pretenciousness. The first three days we had great weather relaxing by the pool and catching some rays. We had planned to do a boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef and take a cruise around some of the islands, but unfortunately the weather turned to grey skies and rain right up until we left, so we decided not to waste our money. As you would expect Arlie is lined full of bars and our one big night out started with Marcus entering a pool competition only to be knocked out in the first round due to a disagreement over the "snookering" rule! His opponent was from Crewe (Cheshire) so so much for the international competition! The evening ended with a foam party which we anticipated to be as hedonistic as the one we went to in Greece four years ago. However, we arrived to find a room full of foam but no people (!) so we called it a night and headed home.
We left Airlie Beach on a rainy Friday morning and caught the ferry to Hamilton Island, our last stop in Australia before heading to Hong Kong (via Cairns). We had high expectations for our stay on the island as it is marketed as an exclusive luxury resort and we'd decided to push the boat out seeing as we were coming to the end of our trip. Sadly the resort was more like a slightly up market Butlins where we didn't see one bit of blue sky and our booked watersports were cancelled due to high winds!
Since leaving Sydney we've come to the conclusion that there isn't much to do on the east coast of Australia if you don't have sunshine, as nearly everything is focused around the beach. Obviously we could have done thë bush country route, that wouldn't have been so weather dependent but after the intensity of South America, Australia was always going to be about relaxing and not much else! Sydney has been the highlight of our visit here and ranks only second to Buenos Aires for top cities on our trip.
Location: Surfers Paradise, Australia
Well so much for taking it easy. It seems that whenever we rest on our laurels we run into trouble, being less security conscious in New Zealand resulted in the camera theft and then just as we decide to chill out for awhile, we find everywhere is fully booked.
When we arrived in Brisbane we were told that all accomodation, (including hostels) was fully booked until the weekend for Brisbane's dentist conference and school holidays. We were convinced this was an exaggeration and began calling around various places, but after the fifteenth attempt we realised the man speaketh the truth! It was too late to get a bus further north so we ended up getting a bus half way down south, back towards Byron Bay, to Surfers Paradise. It was definitely not our day, in two hours we managed to lose our bus tickets (which Greyhound thankfully replaced), give all our change to a faulty phonebox and loose an hours work on Planet Ranger. Somehow we managed to get to Surfers Paradise in one piece which is definitely in name only. The town is like Blackpool with Benidorm weather and we weren't surprised to find that our bad luck run wasn't quite over. We had booked accomodation over the phone in Brisbane, just in case a surfers convention had taken over the town! We'd found a studio so we could save money self catering, only to find a studio in Surfers Paradise means a hotel room, but of course we couldn't relocate because Byron had taught us that it's best to pay up front in Australia! It was a relief when the day was over and we returned to our room half expecting it to have be broken into!
Location: Byron Bay, Australia
After a long thirteen hour journey up the East coast we arrived in Byron Bay at 9pm where we found a cheap motel and crashed out for the night. We were dissapointed to wake up to more rain so we spent the day mooching around town. We quickly realised that Byron was far "too cool for school". It is a paradise location, full of incense smelling arty shops, pricey cafes, massage/yoga studios, petition stalls for everything and everyone living for the surf. If the locals aren't catching waves they're studying the latest surfer moves on a plasma in a bar. However in some ways its as though Byron is trying too hard to be hippyesque!
The following morning we had another run in with a hotelier, which is becoming something of a habit! We were told that we would need to vacate the next morning for a guest who had phoned to request an east facing room. We were gobsmacked, any Fawlty Towers fan can relate this to the hotel inspector episode! Apparently even though four nights had been verbally agreed, because we hadn't paid up front they were entitled to move us! Our complaints fell on deaf ears, the hotelier stared at us blankly and kept saying our paper reservation wasn't in the computer, over and over. It was the best "computer says no" scenario ever! Annoyingly as we were in the cheapest motel in town we just had to swallow our pride and move across the corridor.
On Sunday the sun was shining so we explored the beach which is one of the most beautiful bays we have seen on our trip. It is a stereotypical Aussie beach scene, with surf dudes everywhere but it's very clean and spacious and occasionaly from the look out point you can spot dolphins. Later we began scouting for a bar showing the World Cup, only to discover that Byron's licencing laws don't extend past midnight on Sundays. So we watched what was another bland England match in our room; staying up so late to watch the games just makes their dissapointing performance even more irritating.
The following night it was Australia's second round match against Italy and we were confident that as was the case in Sydney, the locals would be making a night of it. However it seemed we were more into it than anyone else - the bar was half empty. Football and surfing obviously don't mix in Byron! The next day we found an arthouse cinema showing The Worlds Fastest Indian, partly set in New Zealand's Southland, which is such a good film. Voted the most comfortable cinema in the world, it had novel fur-covered reclining sofas so we could take off our shoes and lie down. They even provided us with cushions.
We decided in Byron, now that we're on the last leg of our trip, to stop exploring every corner of each place we visit and slow the pace a little. The plan had been to tour Australia's coastline stopping a few days at a time in each town, but instead we're yearning to head north to the sunny Whitsundays coast, find a beach and not move for a week! We managed to get a great deal on a flight from Brisbane so we said goodbye to Byron and caught our last Aussie bus over the New South Wales border up to Queensland.
Location: Sydney, Australia
After a great three hour flight crossing over New Zealand's snow-covered Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea, we landed in Sydney in glorious sunshine. One of the first things we noticed was that the pace of life in Sydney was so much faster than the cities of New Zealand but the people were not as friendly. We booked into a cheap but dodgy hotel for the first night with the aim of scouting around bag-free to find a cheaper hostel for the remainder of our stay. We managed to get a good deal, against everyones advice, in Kings Cross, the red light district that is also the backpacker hub. We were pleasantly surprised with the area as it was buzzing and didn't look too dodgy, despite every other shop along Darlinghurst road (next door to our hostel) being an "adult book store" or a "massage parlour"! We were blessed with gorgeous weather for the first few days - the sun was shining and it was T-shirt weather again at last. As usual we managed to walk ourselves into the grund on our first day, covering what we thought was just about every corner of the city. As we walked through the botanical gardens we had our first glimpse of the opera house and harbour bridge. It really is magical, after seeing them both in films, magazines and on postcards, it was amazing to see them in the flesh. Whichever angle you look at these two landmarks, they always look an ideal picture-postcard image.
As we were strolling around Claire picked up a brochure of "what's on" at the opera house. Since I've known her, she has often recounted when she went to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture at the Albert Hall, with her Dad many years ago and how it blew her away. Strangely enough that was the programme of the Sydney Symphony Ochestra the next night! Not being a huge classical fan Claire managed to persuade me that this would be the ideal way for me to lose my "classical concert virginity"! We ran to the opera house and managed to get two of the last six tickets available, we were very excited about going to a concert in such a famous venue. The following night, after a great concert, we switched from cultured traveller to pommy backpaker mode and headed back to Kings Cross to don our England shirts for the upcoming game against Trinidad and Tobago at 2am. It was great to see the vast numbers of fellow England supporters also out for the game. We started watching the game in a nightclub that our hostel advised us on, but soon realised that the thumping house music would be continuing and overpower the comentary, so we headed to a sports bar for the rest of the match.
After five nights in Sydney we realised that our weeks stay wouldn't be long enough as there was so much to explore, so we extended our stay to ten nights. We managed to have an Italian meal in the city's "Little Italy", tour the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Chinatown and eat Tapas in the Spanish quarter! We visited the great Taronga zoo and saw our first koala, kangaroo and black swan and got a great view of the city from the top of Sydney Tower. We found the citys oldests buildings by the Rocks market in Sydney's first district and took a trip to the famous Bondi Beach. For England's third match, against Sweden, we wimped out of staying up until 5am and set our alarms to watch it in bed and then went back to sleep!
After missing out on whale watching in New Zealand we were excited to find that you could view whales on their annual journey up the east coast for breeding, from the waters just outside Sydney. The trip however didn't turn out as planned. We were warned that the water was a little choppy but none of us were prepared for what was about to hit us. The waves were huge, taller than the boat and we shot up and down so quickly we had to hang on for dear life! This was all great fun for the first hour, but soon people started dropping like flies with sea sickness. It started with the odd "I feel a bit queazy" until about 70% of the 30 passengers (including myself) were stuck in the cabin throwing up for the tenth time, with the sight of whales being the last thing in the world we cared about! The thought of another two hours on the boat overshadowed the excitment of the trip. It was a comical sight to see so many strangers doing such an undignified thing together in such a small space!
Unfortunately pouring rain for the last few days of our stay ruled out a trip to the Blue Mountains so we decided to book a train ticket up to Byron Bay in search of sun. As our train was leaving at 7.15am on Friday morning, we thought we may as well watch the Australia/Croatia match. Rucksacks on backs we checked out of our hostel at 5am and headed to an Irish pub near the station and watched what turned out to be a brilliant match. Australia drew and therefore go through to the second round which they have never done before. The atmosphere was amazing and as we ran to the train station, horns were beeping, people were cheering and it felt like they had actually won the World Cup!
Sydney is definitely a brilliant vibrant city that we bonded with and would highly recommend to anyone.