Sunday, 29 June 2014

Awesome! In the true sense of the word

Where to  start…the journey to Milford Sound. We came through Te Anau, the kick off point for all the trips. Great little town with everything you could want including somewhere to buy a hat for me that makes me look like I’ve escaped a mental institution but keeps my head and ears warm, and a lovely friendly information centre.

We start the 120km drive alongside the Earl  Mountain range over bridges, through gorges and beside babbling streams. It’s late and the light is poor so we don’t stop for many pictures but are still gobsmacked by the sight of the vast ranges of mountains and imposing beauty all around. We manage to get a funny shot of a campsite called ‘Knobs Flat’, gotta be done! And about 5.30 with the sun well and truly gone we pull in to a conservation campsite called Kiosk Creek and park amongst the trees with a view of the terminal moraine. Haven’t got a clue what it is but that’s what the information point said. We have trouble getting a flat spot but settle for a gentle slope. The weird thing is when we wake up my head is wedged into the front corner of the van and it feels like we’ve sunk in one corner. I’m worried that perhaps we’ve got a flat tyre. Oh no, nothing as mundane….Chris  forgot to put the handbrake on and we had rolled gently down to nestle in a dip!

I am so excited about seeing the Fiords that I worry about  whether I’ll sleep or not and set the alarm in case. So 7am we’re up. I would say bright and early but it doesn’t get light until about 8.30 so just early. Anyway, we start the last 50kms in the pouring rain and the gloomy morning stopping for just a few more shots to save the camera battery. The journey is more mountains appearing out of the clouds, a flat plain with deer on, a tunnel that is literally a hole bored through the mountain, and a steep descent to the Sound.  We make it and then deliberate on going out as the weather is so poor but excitement wins and we book a lunchtime nature cruise.

The boat and staff are fabulous. The views are spectacular. The clouds are clearing and there are a few, and I mean a few, blue patches with the sun straining to shine through. When it does the scenes are breathtaking. All the rain means we get to see waterfalls that are three times as high as Niagra Falls belching out glacial water with so much power, and they do actually use it at a power station. We spot dolphins playing in the water and our boat turns a few times for us to see them. We are then joined by half a dozen kayaks who really do get up close to the dolphins with one guy having a dolphin jumping out of the water and over the front of his kayak. It is absolutely delightful to watch and I know if that was me in the kayak  I’d have cried. Although to get me in a kayak in the cold and that great big expanse of water would have been a minor miracle! Oh yeah, Chris had already thought about it.

The commentary from the two young men on the boat is entertaining and they take us up along side two huge waterfalls and tell you to get outside with your ‘Go-Pros’ as the boat goes into the thundering cascade of tons of icy cold water down the sheer faces of craggy rock. One suggests that its like a ‘glacial facial’, certainly something I need but can do without. We are shown where the glacier has carved and moulded vast swirls and tracks into the rock over the course of thousands of years and finally end up at the mouth of the Fiord looking out to the Tasman Sea. This is where we are told he’s turning the boat and so would be cresting the waves of one the choppiest seas and either you’ll love this or you’ll be vomiting over the side. We head to the bow in preparation of me hurling over the side but instead it’s like a roller coaster ride but wetter. I love it!

Coming back down the east side of the Fiord we see more immense waterfalls and an overhang of ten metres that is 700 metres up. The scale of it is so hard to capture in a picture but imagine ‘The Wall’ in Game of Thrones, it’s a bit like that but not snow.  We also spot a group of six or seven fur seals laying out on a rock. I would say basking but it was too bloody 

cold so not sure why but they were sleeping. Very cute and everyone rushed for pictures. Chris and I are then dropped off at the Under Water Observatory, we thought it would be interesting, though no one else did as we were the only ones there. It’s a floating platform that goes 10 metres under water so you can what’s going on with the wildlife. Quite interesting, bit of blurb about how much rain they have, what’s going on with the eco system blah blah. But the coolest bit was coming back. We were bought back on a small boat with the manager and we found a pod of dolphins that were playing and jumping right beside the boat. They were actually looking at us and we could almost reach out and touch them (See the video in Gallery). Contented we went to a nearby campsite where we met the most inquisitive bird - a New Zealand Kea. It was a perfect end to a superb day.

So though it was rainy and overcast we had the most amazing day and I have to say that New Zealand does conservation like a professional. 

On the other side of the world

Getting into Japan. Easy. Getting out, however, is a little more problematic… We had been warned that Japan would require outgoing flights before we were let into Japan so we begrudgingly bought them. Ironically, when we get to Japan no one is is even vaguely interested in these and we sail through feeling a little miffed.

Fast forward six weeks and 50 minutes before we are due to leave Japan and the airline's check in lady tracked us down in an airport café to ask when we would be flying out of NZ because she forgot to ask 2 hours previously. A little confused, because this is all happening in Japan, we say we don't know. And, as soon as she establishes we have no outward flight (from the country that isn't hers), she rushes off to find a supervisor because her rule book says that, technically, they are supposed to check that people leaving their country to go to another country have flights out of that country to someplace else. Irrespective of whether nobody else in the world gives a flying fuck!.

We argued every which way right down to the fact that we were BRITISH! I even signed their disclaimer waiving any rights to sue anyone in Japan if they fined us in NZ but still they insisted we booked a flight or missed ours. So with everyone now boarded and are bags stowed and the plane sitting on the tarmac having missed our slot we try to book something which we would cancel later. But, believe it or not, the land of technology has the slowest free wi-fi in the world at their airport and we are getting nowhere one of the inscrutable ones cracked and, contrary to everything that is inherently Japanese, made up a flight number and made us promise (squibsies) to book a proper flight during our stopover in China.

We of course didn't, braved the consequences and, surprise, surprise! Nothing happened. Customs were more interested in our declared half jar of Marmite we were bringing into the country than when we would be getting ourselves out!!!

So  here we are in New Zealand. After getting a good night’s sleep we collect our camper van. We had seen this part of our travels as the “Dirty Camping” bit even though we had gone a little up market and got a van with a sleeping bay above the drivers cab. We were therefore a little surprised to be given an upgrade to a huge camper with satellite tv, toilet, shower, four hob cooker etc. that was 4 times the price of the one we had paid for. To put that into appreciable terms we will be travelling in style for the next month or two in this behemoth of a van for £18 a day! That’s accommodation, transportation and ability to cook all our own meals. Who said NZ was expensive!!!

We headed off straight down to Banks Peninsula and are immediately entranced with the beautiful scenery. The rolling green, grass covered hills dotted with sheep, cattle, rock clusters and small knolls of pine trees lie beneath a unique shade of blue sky. A rich, warm blue that I have not seen elsewhere and in itself is a backdrop for ribbons of long white clouds (Mauri’s called this the land of the long white cloud and it's easy to see why). It’s instagram but in real life. Incredible! I am writing this 8 or 9 days into the journey and there are truly not enough superlatives to match the glory that we see not only daily but minute by minute.

We are intending to freedom camp as often as is possible. First night, however, is in a campsite so we can figure out how to work everything. Because we got up graded and didn't get a run through by anyone we don't quite know what we are doing. We spend our first hour pushing buttons, pulling levers, re-configuring seating layouts and learning how to work the tourist gps radio, the internal gps, gas bottles and water reservoirs and waste disposal systems.

We are taking pictures of the views we are presented with first thing every morning and as a record of camping sites they are a great advertisement for New Zealand. The country is ideal for a road trip and the campsites are numerous. Paid for private ones (about $34) with all the whistles and bells, Department of Conservation ones (about $12 )that range from a portaloo to shower blocks, toilets and communal kitchens and, for those like us who are self contained, freedom camping (Sweet F.A) which means you can stop most places as long as you are considerate.Consequently we have already stayed in some  beautiful places (and a couple of lovely lay bys).

Akoroa is a beautifully set harbour on the Banks peninsula which looks out on startlingly clear waters and is dotted with Victorian bungalows and houses. From there the windy road go up and over the backbone of the peninsula along summit road to Okain’s Bay where we stayed in a pine forest next to a quiet, deserted bay with the wind rocking the van enough for Rachel to make up the lower double bed for night until in the dim light of morning cold, loneliness and lessening of wind brought her back up to the big bed to cuddle up. The following day is driving through farmland and into the low hills and wooded valleys along the east coast until we stay for the night in a quiet, wooded freedom spot next to the Rakaria Gorge. This Gorge has a wide stony river bed running through it with a fast flowing river roaring along the centre. It’s a scene would normally have Brad Pitt fly fishing as a young man and almost fulfils an image of somewhere I have always dreamed of being. As the sun sets the wind rises again but Rachel is brave this time and we cuddle up and quickly go to sleep in our two duvet nest.

The road trip has so quickly become our life. It’s great. OK the lumbering great van is not causing any big problems with parking and turning and the extra space we have inside make it really comfortable and, dare I say, rather cosy. We have a dining table and effectively two sofas and a chair so we can sprawl out easily. The kitchen is big enough to give us work space and our cupboards are rammed with food so we won’t go short. It’s a real joy driving here as so many of the roads are long and straight and there’s virtually no one on them. Even the towns are easy with wide main thoroughfares and many with parking lanes and bike lanes.

Route 72 is a scenic route we are following and it’s a joy. The weather is glorious and as well as the huge scenery we trundle through little towns of only a few hundred that look like wild west outposts. We have not got enough warm clothes however and have dropped by various 2nd hand shops and charity shops to buy sweaters, a rather fetching old lady felt ensemble for Rachel and two pairs of salopets to wear when we get to the ski slopes. OK we don’t look trendy but we are at least warm when the sun disappears and we bring a little joy to those ladies of charity in the far flung towns of Southern New Zealand. The next few days are wonderfully enjoyable and we see yellow eyed penguins in Oamaru, the huge round boulders of Moeraki  that litter the beach. 

These huge huge marbles of 1 metre plus across resemble footballs with hexagon sections marked off by lighter stone deposits, the seals basking on the rocks at Shag Point and lovely bubbling green pastures of the Catlins where Hobitown was created in the Lord of the Rings Film. Invergargil (most southernly city) and then west into the sunset and Fabulous Fiordlands.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Bright lights, big city…..

Tokyo is a big city. There is something like 13.5m people calling it home but like everywhere else here it doesn’t feel that busy. Sure there are pockets of intensity (sounds like my trousers), but walk down most streets and it’s less crowded than Colchester. We spent 5 days tramping around the place and only covered a small amount of what there is to see because, well, there’s a lot to see. It’s not all about high rise buildings either, although there are many wonderful architecturally interesting edifices of glass, steel and concrete soaring up to the skies, one of our favourite being the golden sperm building.

Cleaners wait in preparation to clean to next incoming
dollop of sperm off of their already covered building
There are areas of quaint shops and alleyways, never ending malls both over and underground, huge parks with little, quiet temples nestling in them and man-made islands to extend the already substantial footprint of the city. Japan is pretty much a mono culture. Although there are identifiably foreign faces here they are not high in numbers and are usually around the more obvious tourist attractions. Consequently, we still enjoy being somewhat singular in the crowds. This might be because, comparatively, we look like tramps as the style of these people continues to enthral us as high fashion is positively vertiginous here! We have seen hundreds of girls following the Harajuku fashion which I can best describe as Goth meets Victorian school ma’am.

Harajuku Girls
It’s an interesting look but even to a man who grew up in the punk era it takes some getting used to. This is extreme but there are also a multitude of other dress styles to captivate you and people watching for hours we were unable to spot duplicates in clothes.

The city has a real sense of energy about it and this increases vastly when the sun goes down and the lights go up. Then, and only then, do you see the slight easing of the Japanese regimented and placid nature. Girly bars, karaoke bars, clubs, love hotels et al suddenly seem to be everywhere and once you hit the more liberal areas the senses are overwhelmed with the neon, the flashing, the music and vibrancy all around and above you.

By far one of the best things we did in the evening here was to visit the Robot Restaurant. An acid trip with Robots is probably the closest my imagination can get…Scantily clad women cavorting about with real and dressed up robots. So many mirrors and flashing lights that a strobe sensitive epileptic would fit in seconds. The music thumps through your head, the kinetic energy of motorbikes, skaters, flying props etc is dizzying and being as there are only 120 people in the audience it feels like you are right in the middle of the madness. Which, effectively you are since you have to duck occasionally to avoid being struck by a passing foot or glitter covered propeller as the performers do their thing in the limited space available.

Another night we got invited to eat free sushi and drink beer in a hotel that was filming for a tv show about travellers and I prepared a sushi dish I called ‘Road crash’ in front of the cameras. Luckily, I didn’t shit myself and have to run out of the restaurant like our last filmed appearance in India (see Varkala blog).

Day time was a mixed bag for weather so our plans of clambering up Fuji were scuppered and will have to be realised if and when we manage to get a job here – something we both feel strongly about and will work hard to make come true. Even so we did other interesting things but to keep this concise will mention only our visit to the man-made Obaido Island. Here, is the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation where we saw one of the most advanced robots – Asimo – perform various tasks; The Mega Web Toyota showroom with kids car rides and adult driving circuit running through the middle; Divers City Mall with a 12 metre robotic statue at the entrance and the lovely walkways through the gardens that give great views across the harbour and include a small Statue of Liberty.

Although we wouldn’t want to live there. Tokyo is still a city to visit. As, indeed, is Japan. We had no plans to visit here but now would want to live here for a while. The quality of life, social responsibility and the people make it seem quite utopian. Who knows until you try though heh? Here, however,  are just a few reasons why IFLJ.

The bus drivers all sound like they are talking your knickers off as they pull up to and away from bus stops.

We watched a Japanese man watch his dog piss then he took out a water bottle to sloosh down the area.

There are men whose job is to stand with a mesh guard to protect passers by from flying debris from other men strimming.

The bowing…. Lovely!

They are non-confrontational so no shouting.

People queue in an orderly fashion to both cross roads and get on trains.

I left my wallet on a counter at the dance festival and a few minutes later I was found and had it returned.

They have seasons

You can drink the water from the taps

And they all smell nice

They make funny noises.... iiieeeeeeeeeee(a surpised noise) , okeeokeeokee (agreement), hai (yes, good, uh huh, yeah, i see).

Three cheers for Japan UNLESS you are travelling to another country without forward tickets to get out of said country. Will explain that in the next blog.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Hokkaido - Land of work and fun!

The north island of Japan was to be our second workaway experience in a ski resort but in the spring, so no skiing. Small cheer from me! Scott and Sanae are an Australian/Japanese couple who have several guest houses and restaurants in Niseko Hirafu, a small ski town set between two mountains. Mount Yote is called Fujisan and is the north's version of Mount Fuji. This area is one of the popular ski regions in Japan, particularly with Australians. The air is clear most of the time and it's bloody hot. We thought it would be cooler and in fact it should be. So we have been panicking about warm woollies and sock and waterproofs when we should have been bringing suntan cream and yet more insect repellent.

This work exchange is different to the last in that this is a business so six hours of hard work and a list of chores that are expected to be completed in exchange for a comfy bed and three meals a day. We work bloody hard and we are fed exceptionally well. We have crab and scallops and are introduced to some fabulous Japanese delicacies. Several mornings we have even woken up to still warm fresh made bread that Sanae has left us....absolutely delicious. As it's off season there is only us and one other worker here. Noemie is a completely bonkers young French girl who is spending three months in japan. Our evenings are spent with Scott, Sanae and Noemie, just eating, drinking, talking and laughing. 

We do get some free time and we took one half day to visit the next town along, Kutchan. We borrow a minivan from Scott but it has a flat battery so we have to jump start it and leave with Scott's words ringing in ours ears....'make sure you park on a hill'. Kutchan has absolutely nothing worth mentioning though we might have stopped and walked around had we been able to find a hill, Kutchan seems to 

be the flattest town in Hakkaido! Another morning was spent with Noemi trekking up the smaller of the two mountains (bigger one needs at least 8 hours). We get to about 1000 metres and Chris and Noemi decide they want to try to get to the top but it's still snowy and overgrown so they slide down on their arses and find me waiting, just chilling, listening to music. This gives us an idea....let's dance around like loonies with the big mountain as our backdrop and film it then post it on FB! So we did, exhilarating fun. We spent another couple of afternoons in the local hotel's pool and spa which was a well earned rest.

After 9 days we hit Sapporo and we were going to get straight down to Tokyo but there's a dance festival on, Yosakoi. It's absolutely spectacular. There are groups of dancers, upto 200 in a group, and they go through the streets performing their routines like a carnival procession with magnificently gaudy costumes and Japanese songs being performed from on top of a decorated lorry, all ending in a beautifully manicured park. This goes on for 4 days with 100s of 1,000s of people. And there's two huge areas with so much food that even we have difficulty choosing what to eat. Brilliant, glad we stopped here.

Now on our way to Tokyo by bus, ferry and bus via Sendai. This was at the epicentre of the earthquake a few years ago so we're not stopping as there are still radiation concerns and we've got enough problems without growing two heads or losing our hair! 
So Sayonara to Hokkaido and Konnichiwa to Tokyo and Mt Fuji. Excited about seeing this famous city!