Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Into a Land Far Far Away

The recent lack of posts stems not from laziness or lack of inspiration but from quite the opposite. Since arriving in New Zealand I have spent most of my waking hours gawking at the world around me, not quite comprehending the amount of natural beauty packed into one small country. And we're not talking isolated pretty spots here and there; we're talking full-on stunning pretty much anywhere the eye falls.

This has made hitchhiking a boundless joy, not only because I have met people ranging from weird to wonderful to both but also because wherever I have been dropped off I've been more than happy to just sit for a while and enjoy whatever new delight the countryside threw at me. But more on hitchhiking adventures in a little while...

I arrived into Christchurch, written off by many travellers (and Kiwis, for that matter) as not worth visiting because the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 left it in a state of devastation. Indeed, destruction is widespread - but being shown around by my most excellent couchsurfing host Mike, who'd grown up here and returned recently after living in Cairns for a while, I got to see the amazing, often brilliantly quirky, rebuilding and beautifying efforts of the hardy local population (only 10% of them left after an earthquake that destroyed most of the city's vitals!). This was not only apparent in the ongoing rescue of many old buildings and lots of pointy, pretty roofs lying on the ground after being hoisted down with cranes to prevent collapse, but also in the city's main shopping avenue. Most of the buildings lining it having collapsed, a new set of shops has opened up - all in stacks of containers. These aren't ugly building-site containers, though - these were beautifully and often artfully painted, cheery and generally very fun, filled as they were with young people having a good time. If I had the right camera with me as I write this, I would post photos of all this to convey a better image but for now, words will have to do.

The next day, Mike drove me and Kirk, a Texan couchsurfer who'd gotten stranded in ChCh after missing a bus, out to the Banks Peninsula. This is an area of scarce human habitation by European standards and consists mostly of low hills and a stunning bay with a narrow spit of land jutting out into it; this was our destination. What struck me most is the incredible intensity of the colours - in winter this area is lush and green but we found it drier and so golden colours prevailed and contrasted beautifully with the azure sea. Having someone to drive me around here who knew the place and was good company was brilliant as the place is rather too big to get around otherwise, and thankfully tourist buses don't yet seem to have this area as overrun as many others.

All that said, the famous adage that a picture says more than a thousand words rings particularly true here, so here's a few thousand words' worth...

On the drive out.
Banks Peninsula with Okawe jutting out into the bay, connected to the mainland by a very narrow strip of land.

En route onto Okawe. Crazy things going on with the colour of the water, probably sediment-related(?).

Kirk, myself and Mike on Okawe.
On the whole, Christchurch proved thoroughly enjoyable not least because having a knowledgeable host makes all the difference. Nevertheless, I headed off northwards in high spirits, about to embark on my first bit of hitchhiking. The day went well and I never had to wait more than about half an hour, despite taking four different rides. This included the coach of Canterbury (county) Cricket who ranted about his batsman(?) being injured, a Presbyterian church admin guy and one gentleman who seemed pretty seriously into his medieval re-enactment: he had a full suit of armour and a sword in the back of his van and talked excitedly about the jousting world championships. Had I only known earlier that such a thing existed...!

Anyway, each of these could only take me a short distance before our paths diverged, and it was my fourth ride who took me the remaining 200-ish miles to Nelson. This older (~70-80) gentleman drove a very shiny red muscle car with a 6-litre, 350-horsepower engine, and he drove it aggressively. He was very quiet at first but turned out to be a bit of an adventurer - he had worked in the Canadian oil fields and was a hobby pilot and touring car racer. Given this background and that he handled the car with supreme confidence even at high speeds (we hit >140mph/220kmh a few times, a nail-biting affair on New Zealand's winding roads...), I was comfortable enough despite the fact that he was missing a thumb for reasons he did not elaborate.

On the whole, I was very happy in his car until he started getting rather racist. And not that almost forgivable kind of old-people-racist which one tends to overlook because they are often so set in their ways, but really offensively racist; I kept my mouth shut because he was, after all, driving me all the way to Nelson and he did it fast, but it wasn't easy.

Nelson itself was very pleasant, a small coastal town on the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island and located near the Abel Tasman National Park, where I was going hiking for the next few days. Before, though, I had to procure a tent, sleeping bag and mat - cue a day's hectic running around between the town's various outdoors shops trying to find the cheapest items. In the evening, I found the time to nip up to the "Centre of New Zealand" on a nearby hill. This is not, as one might assume, the geographical centre of the country, but simply the point from which the first official survey of the country was carried out. Still, it was a pretty and serene spot and my ascent was accompanied by some pretty dramatic Tchaikovsky from a nearby open-air concert.

Looking inland from Nelson's Centre of New Zealand.
Early the next morning, I shouldered an uncomfortably heavy bag to set off for Abel Tasman National Park the next morning. The Abel Tasman Coast Track is one of New Zealand's nine Great Walks - in a country full of gorgeous hiking trails, that's saying something - and is dominated by lush temperate rainforests interspersed with outrageously golden beaches leading, as always, to perfect blue water.

Crossing the tidal flat which marks the beginning of the Coast Track - some tourists opted for horse rides instead, making for a Lord of the Rings-esque scene.
One of many stunning views from outcrops along the walk...can't see myself tiring of this!
The weight of my pack soon caught up with me, though, and I thoroughly regretted my decision to do the track in just 48 hours. Besides messing up my hipflexor with my backpack's waist strap, I also gave up the option of ambling along one of the many beautiful side tracks or just hanging around at a random beach for a quick break. The hipflexor, in fact, became painful enough by the end of day 2 - 44 of 54 km done - that I decided to call it a day and catch the bus home from there instead of risking more serious injury. After all, there is plenty more of New Zealand that I would like to explore on foot!

To finish off this one, just a few more from Abel Tasman - I figured I'd cover New Zealand in smallish chunks in the hope that my gushing about the beauty of the place will be less trying if it comes in several smaller episodes...

All of New Zealand's lakes and rivers are incredibly clear - kayaking almost feels like gliding on nothing. But more on that next time...
...and even the sea displays colours I've rarely seen before!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A Tale of Two Springfields

So the title is a little random here - I was thinking about the two cities I am about to cover here, and from nowhere at all this title of a great old episode of The Simpsons sprang to my mind. Given how different my experiences were in Canberra and Melbourne (which I revisited), it certainly seems apt. 

After spending a fair few days in a rain-sodden Sydney doing, on the whole, very little, I decided to take action and head down to Canberra; it's not reputed to be the most riveting place in the world, but if one has the time, one might as well go see the capital of this continent-country. 

My generally none-too-high expectations for Canberra were, however, did not prepare me for the dreary reality. The place is basically a bunch of giant, often unsightly, concrete creations separated by cumbersome distances and connected by empty superhighways, with the empty spaces in between filled with what could be lovely parks but what are ultimately just vast expanses of dull, unplanned lawns and scrub (see below - both photos are taken right in the city "centre"). I'm a little loathe to paint such a bleak picture of any one place, but within a day and a half or so I had had thoroughly enough of Canberra. Getting anywhere is an enormous faff (which, to some extent, is of course my own fault for coming to a country this size without a driver's license), but that's no excuse for the complete absence of any character or soul or, for that matter, life. 

The one good thing I will say about Canberra is that the Parliament building does look cool, integrated as it is into a large hill. It's just that the rest of the city feels like a sort of motorway rest station catering to the Parliament, which for inexplicable reasons was put in the middle of nowhere. It's a beautiful example of a compromise benefitting nobody, as the only real reason for Canberra's existence is Sydney and Melbourne squabbling over which should be the country's capital. 

Clearly whoever planned Canberra lacked a thorough understanding of the complex intricacies of Basketball...and of sports courts in general, as this one was completely fenced in and there was no door.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I was glad to see the back of Canberra and make my way, for a second time, to Melbourne - the joys of a rail pass and infinite free train journeys! This turned out to be an excellent decision, although you wouldn't have known after my first night at the hostel I checked into. Nestled snugly between two train stations it was never going to be a quiet night, but the guy on the bunk below me returning completely drunk at 4am with a lady conquest and having (or attempting to have...?) sex for some 3 hours took levels of general discomfort to a whole new level. The muttered German sentence fragments drifting up from below were nothing short of depressing at times (the girl said "it's too small" several times - I struggle to conceive of any sexual situation where that might be good for the guy), and the squeaky rocking of the bed was not much of a lullaby, either. 

The next day, however, I got home to a very hungover, contrite and thoroughly apologetic bunkmate who actually turned out to be a good guy; with him and 4 others we spent the evening drinking cider (they had actual Bulmers, which is about the best that can be hoped for here) at an Irish Pub. On our way back the buskers lining the streets - which were still teeming at midnight as it was Chinese New Year - were nothing short of fantastic. They included a guy with a telescope trained on Jupiter, which thoroughly blew my mind, and someone in a penguin suit playing the bagpipes which is not easy to top in terms of sheer randomness. 

The hard at Melbourne's central rowing clubs. Not bad for a backdrop!
You know you have it good when palm trees grow where you row. Bit of a contrast to hearing of windswept -10C outings in Ely from Helena...
More importantly, earlier that day I had been for a run. This is not unusual in itself, but the halfway point happened to be at a place called Power House Rowing Club, and this also happened to be where I suddenly needed the loo something fierce. The girl outside the club turned out to be their captain, Caitlin, who kindly let me use their facilities. We chatted for a bit (I'm not one to forgo the possibility of rowing chat) and one of the club's men squad joined us. Nick turned out to be an HRR semi-finalist and they invited me along to the next day's squad session; I don't think I've ever accepted an invitation quite so gratefully. 

And so it was that I found myself in a shiny new pair, going for a pretty good sightseeing paddle down the Yarra - and subbing into a couple of the club's crews at the Ballarat Regatta the next day. This was a fun, laid-back affair, the equivalent maybe of St Neots Regatta or something along those lines, and I raced in a novice 4+ and an IM3 4+ (or thereabouts). Incidentally, we won both races, and I am now a proud owner of 2 Australian rowing medals and a new one-piece. It was the best possible way to spend my last day in Melbourne, and a thorough pleasure to fully immerse myself in all that we love (and love to hate) about the rowing world, including the terrible chat, the faff, blisters, scratch crews and dodgy rolling starts in awful conditions. Thanks again to all of PHRC! 
The winning Nov4+: Pav, Marcus, Tara, myself and Brad
Closer action in IM3 4+; also me stroking my first ever non-small boat!
Winning IM3 4+: Ross (I think?), Nathan, Dave, Caitlin and yours truly
In other vaguely cool news, I have now rowed on three Olympic rowing lakes: Melbourne 1956, Moscow 1980 and London 2012. 

And suddenly I find myself just a few hours shy of leaving Australia for New Zealand, where I will attain the furthest distance from Europe at 19-odd thousand kilometres. I am planning several sweet hikes which will hopefully result in some more exciting photos, so stay tuned!

Monday, 11 February 2013

A Hasty Retreat

Before embarking on the adventure of writing about my last few days here in Australia, a brief explanation of the lack of news from the tropics is in order. After a few muggy but pleasantly lazy days in Darwin, cyclone Oswald (seriously, who comes up with the names for these things?!) made an appearance on Australia's east coast at the same time I did. The torrential downpours it brought were decidedly unconducive to pedestrian exploration, let alone taking photos, and so prompted me to hasten southwards in attempt to escape to sunnier climes. As it happens, I got lucky and my trains from Cairns to Townsville and from Townsville to Brisbane were the last ones to run before the railway lines were shut down due to expansive flooding.

And so I found myself back in Sydney over a week earlier than I had intended. It was horrible even here for a few days, so I took this opportunity to take care of some general admin and refuel on travelling and being-outside motivation. As such, I thought I'd post and write about a few photos I took at and around Bondi Beach during these days. 

I found them to be of interest because for the first time in a very long while I felt like I'd made a step in the right direction, as it were, in terms of photography skill. Not in terms of camera handling or technical knowledge, but more in being able to frame an interesting shot and taking the time to get it right (or, for that matter, losing out because I fretted too long and a window of opportunity closed). Thanks, as always in these matters for me, are due to Jimmy Appleton and Andy Marsh, who I feel have taught/helped/inspired me the most in my efforts so far. 

Feedback from everyone on these is much appreciated, by the way. As has been the case in this blog so far, these photos are unedited and unprocessed; I have only done some cropping here and there.

When I got down to the beach I found, much to my dismay, a rather nondescript - or nonexistent, even - sunset obscured more or less completely by clouds... I wandered a little looking for other interesting things to photograph. I ended up on a rocky outcrop which appeared to be exposed at low tide but not at high, so there were rivulets, pools and channels incised into it through which water from waves and swells would rush at low tide. These turned out very handy for a bit of foreground interest. 

Eventually, the tide started coming back in and very nearly washed me and my tripod off our respective feet a couple of times, so I decided to seek higher ground. A nearby fisherman complacently agreed to be a prop... did the fish he caught, albeit less complacently: as it was deposited of in one of the aforementioned rivulets for later gutting, I got a shot of its death throes and another as it finally lay still ("finally" being relative - it did twitch a little every now and again...), with the bloodstained water an extra oddity. 

At this point it started getting too dark to do much other than a few more landscapes, yet again trying to bear in mind the importance of some foreground interest in most compositions. Luckily for me, the fisherman stood still enough for long enough to come out properly even in the 20-odd second exposure below.