Sunday, December 30, 2012

The year that was...

The Great Ocean Road (Victoria)
We finished off our travelling for the year in Melbourne (with a side trip to Apollo Bay) as Elizabeth did a pilgrimage to the places and people of 30+ years ago when she lived here. We were lucky enough to stay at the house of family friends who are also life long travellers with several year long travels under their belt. They travel similarly to us,  staying in the cheapest accommodation they can find and deciding as they go where to go. It was great fun swapping stories and trading tips; thanks Max and Julie for your hospitality and great company, we also nearly stole your dog :-)

But too too suddenly we found ourselves on our 40th flight for the year on December 16 with our year of discovery, our gap year, the year that was, over. It was great seeing family and friends at the airport to welcome us back and their support and encouragement during the year is much appreciated. I must have the best kids in the world, and now time to get to know my one year old grandson Sam.

Well, time for the wrap up of the most fantastic adventurous year of my life. According to Travellers Point we have travelled 130,721 km (81,230 miles) or put another way, circled the Earth 3.3 times over 335 days. During that time we have slept in hard beds, soft beds, bunk beds, king, double and single beds, in a tent and a cave, on the floor and pull-out sofa beds, on bus seats, train seats, plane seats, in caravans and in couchettes but most comfortably in a 5 star hotel in Cairo and on average in a different bed every third night. Thanks goes to my fantastic travelling partner Elizabeth. You do not realise how compatible and perfect you are for each other until you spend 24/7 living, confiding, having adventures, facing trials, making decisions and supporting each other for nearly a year.

Other interesting stats (for us anyway)
Travelling stats
33 countries
117 different places
335 days away from home
53 train trips between cities
40 plane flights

Walking stats
I got a pedometer app on my android phone from the first of June so through to 16 Dec
2,155,335 steps
1,724 km
Averaged and applied to the whole year I would estimate
3,512,398 steps
2,810 km
Biggest walking day Paris on Bastille Day at 28 km

Blog stats as of 31st Dec 2012
3,601 page views
Most popular post at 55 views "The most beautiful road in the world?"
Most viewed from country: Australia (1,738) followed by the US (532) and then the UK (375)

Stand out moments
Most memorable day (scary, exciting and beautiful) "The day we took on the volcano.."
Most special place "Machu Picchu Anniversary Magic"
Most amazing moment: The moment of total solar eclipse "I was Eclipsed in Shannonvale"
Most cool activity: Walking on a glacier "
Claim to fame: Being interviewed by Norway television for a documentary on the train trip (trains-trains-and-trains-to-norway) (10hours in real time)
                                 The documentary: 
                                 Elizabeth's interview at: 08:23:00

Best of's...
Best waterfall: Iguazu Falls
Best canyon: Grand Canyon
Best cave: hmmm toss up between the Jenolan Caves in Australia and the Cango Caves in South Africa
Best glacier: Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia
Best national park: Torres Del Paine also in Patagonia
Best animal experience: Being among all the elephants while on safari in the Chobe National Park in Botswana
Best accommodation: The cave we stayed at in Cappadocia (Elif Star Cave Hotel) or the Fairmont in Cairo, depending on the most interesting or the most comfortable.
Worst accommodation: The hostel in London near Hyde Park. Our room was on the 5th floor (no lift) and the toilet and bathrooms were two floors below us.
Best place to drive: The US - good roads, great scenery, awesome speed limit and fantastic radio. The stations seem unlimited and cover everything from 24/7 doctor talkback to non stop classics from the 70's and 80's.
Worst place to drive: The UK, I hate those roundabouts.

So what have I learnt? I have been surprised at how generous people can be. All over the world people have been inviting us into their homes and helping us out. This was totally unexpected to me. The world is also much bigger and much more varied than I expected. After 10 months we have barely scratched the surface, and the more I travel the more I learn about other places I want to go, and things I want to see.

Having lots of time to think, look, discuss and read during the year, I have also learned that the world is in a lot of trouble. The world is a lot poorer than I thought. Over 3 billion people live on $2.50 per day or less, something you rarely consider or can even comprehend when living in a country like Australia but while travelling through South America and Africa you come up against the type of poverty that makes you despair and wonder what you can do about it.

Then we have climate change and I was able to witness a lot of the effects during the year. From the many receding glaciers to the European heat wave, the US droughts and the wettest year on record in Great Britain, there did not seem to be a single place we visited where the locals were not bemoaning their changing climate. The year saw the lowest summer ice extent on record (by a wide margin) in the Arctic and nearly 100% surface melt in Greenland (unprecedented in the records) and increasing extreme weather in the form of floods, droughts and heat waves. This is the year when the scientific warnings from the 80's were found to be underestimated and events are occurring faster than predicted. This is an issue we all need to involve ourselves in; it is crucial for our children. If you want to know more there are two other pages in the above tabs on climate change: 'the blue dot cafe' and 'why I know I am right'.

If you thought you are finally rid of me and my posts, think again. I have the travel bug and my thinking is it needs to be fulfilled now rather than later. You never know what 'later' is going to look like, both in your own life and the state of the world. So I will keep this blog open and updated with any future adventures as they occur. Thanks for your support and I hope to be writing and posting pictures here again very soon.

Happy New Year
Don't leave until tomorrow the dreams you can accomplish today 
"Seize the time
Live now
Make now
always the most precious time
Now will never come again"
Jean Luc Picard, Star Trek
Hillarys Boat Harbour in Perth (my hometown)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Living off the grid

Teah the dog at the dam playing with the kids

Laundry and bathroom

Farrants Hill, New South Wales, home of Elizabeth's sister Angelique and where we spent some family time. Angelique lives in the bush and mostly off the grid (not connected to a power company at all) - solar hot water, rainwater tanks, composting toilet etc. I found living here really interesting in a house powered by solar and backed up by batteries for night time. Even my GPS did not know how to get here; the last several km Matilda (the GPS) would keep repeating 'at the first opportunity do a U- turn' and would display a visual showing the car stranded in the bush. The house has most of the mod cons including a television and computer.
Composting Toilet
Bath Time

We stayed in a caravan on the property surrounded by free range chickens, really free range having the run of the place most of the day. We offered to help where we could and one of my jobs was putting out the two goats. This worked great the first time, Lilly & Liquorice following me down to a grazing area where I clipped them on to a rope so they didn't go any futher and start eating other plants and trees trying to grow. The next time I tried was just after they had been to the vet for some tests. They were a little on the skittish side, especially Liquorice, and after over an hour of trying to coax, chase and trick her into letting me get the rope on her I conceded defeat and had to put them back in their pen until mother Angelique came home.

Teah getting dry
Besides the several pythons that made their presence known it was really fun to live off the grid and enjoy the simple life for a while.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The mountains of Australia

Compared to what we are used to the mountains of Australia can hardly be called mountains, but being Australians how can we not explore the mountains of Australia :-) Our final destination was Melbourne in Victoria in our journey down virtually the entire east coast, so the Blue Mountains outside Sydney were the first ones for us to visit. We stayed at a town called Katoomba, which was a perfect central location to visit the Blue Mountains, in a guesthouse called the Metropole. The perfect place for cold nights with its large 1930s rooms and furnishings complete with guest lounge, games and reading rooms. Unfortunately we arrived during the December heat wave and it was terribly and unseasonally hot.

Katoomba Falls

Luckily though this made our first day there perfect for exploring. This included taking the Scenic Skyway which is a ride across the top of the mountains with spectacular views including the Katoomba Falls, and the Scenic Cableway takes you down to the Scenic Walkway, which is a series of walks through the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Rainforest. We came across a lyrebird and there is also a coal mine that is mocked up like the olden days. All of the above can be found surprisingly at a place called Scenic World (not as much an adventure park as the name sounds).

The Three Sisters are iconic rock formations that you can see from most spots but especially at a place called Echo Point, from where the rocks are lit up at night. The legend goes that the three sisters fell in love with boys from another tribe and to prevent them getting hurt during the tribal war the witchdoctor turned them into stone; unfortunately the witchdoctor was killed and so the unlucky sisters are still stone today.

Our timing was perfect as the next day we went to the Jenolan Caves just as the weather changed and we were literally enclosed by the clouds as they rolled in. Unique feeling being rained on while under cover. The caves were magnificent. We have seen some amazing caves; in particular the Cango Caves in South Africa were amazing in the sheer size of their huge caverns but these caves were much better preserved, intricate and beautiful. For texture, colour and variety I don't think I have seen better. They went on for kilometres and you have a huge range of caves to choose from. Fair warning, you should phone and book the cave you want to visit as they are seen by tour only and you could wait hours or even miss out if you just turn up.

From here we headed to Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains (on the border of New South Wales & Victoria) and my goal to climb the highest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko. It might be small at 2200m but that is only because it is much older than larger mountains and so has had a lot longer to be worn down. So this grand-daddy of mountains was going to get the Granpa Fab experience.

Unfortunately the weather had different ideas. Day 1 was windy and cloudy so we were told not to go as the view would be disappointing. Instead we checked out the town and did a lovely forest walk to a nice place called 'Dead Horse Gap' (luckily it did not live up to its name). Day 2 was bloody snowing, is this not SUMMER? We spent the day at the indoor pool and gym at the local leisure centre and even played some basketball. Because we had only planned on needing two days we added another day on to our stay.

Day 3, JACKPOT! Beautiful sunny day. We set out early and took the chairlift to the highest restaurant in Australia (Eagles' Nest). From here we walked on a nicely set out path to the top of the mountain. On the way we stopped and used the amenities at the highest toilet block in Australia. Finally we made it to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, with only one tricky part. There was so much snow that at one bit we had to walk through a large section of steeply sloping snow. A bit difficult without crampons and we did fall on our butts several times and slide a bit. (On the way back we went with it and slid down on our butts on purpose, reminding us of our paddle ride down the volcano in Pucon.) Finally the top: magnificent views, pictures of our achievement, post to facebook and down we go.

Sunset over the Blue Mountains
The rest of the day (only half left as it was a 13km round trip to Kosciuszko) was going on the bobsled ride six times (as I have said before, growing up is overrated), and another swim in the pool. That night was a trip to our favourite Thredbo restaurant, a solid satisfying night's sleep and then off to Melbourne in the morning!

Elizabeth on the bobsled

Me on the way down on the bobsled

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Our little island getaway in Queensland

Fraser Island
Our home country Australia. Been all around the world but have hardly scratched the surface of the country of my birth. So even though there was a major family component to Queensland (Elizabeth has much family here) we tried to include some travelling discoveries as well.

Fraser Island
Hervey Bay
On our way up to see the eclipse we stayed for a few nights at Hervey Bay that included a day trip out to Fraser Island. Fraser Island is mainly a resort island with most places inaccessible except by 4 wheel drive so a true exploration of the island traditionally involves 4 wheel drive tours. We took things much more leisurely preferring to take the ferry out on our own and just do some hiking trails. Not the best of days as it was raining, sometimes heavily, but with umbrella in hand we did a bit of a tour anyway; the weather just added to the atmosphere of the place. Allthough famous for its dingoes, we failed to find one. We had a brief stopover in Airlie Beach and then high tailed it up to the eclipse.

Mossman Gorge
Marrdja Boardwalk
Straight after the eclipse (very early in the morning) we headed to the Daintree Rainforest. We started at the Mossman Gorge and followed the dreamtime walk where we were introduced to strangler figs, a type of tree that climbs like a creeper around another tree and then strangles it, thereby making the shell of the tree its initial support base as it grows. Then we headed to the Marrdja Boardwalk where rainforest turns into mangrove and back into rainforest. This was followed by Cape Tribulation where the forest goes right down to the beach and 'Lord of the Rings' trees look ready to walk with their little tentacle root systems like legs balancing on the sand. The Daintree was a really beautiful experience.
Cape Tribulation

Millaa Millaa Falls

Off we went heading back down Queensland stopping at a few waterfalls on the way and spending a few days at Magnetic Island. We have affectionately named this place our little island getaway as it was a very relaxing idyllic location where time stands still. We stayed at a place near Horseshoe Bay called 'Bungalow Bay Koala Village' that was so dark at night we needed a torch to find the loo and our bungalow. The place included its own koala sanctuary with daily tours to meet some of our more exotic animals where we got up close and personal with pythons and crocodiles. Once a day on the path they would bring out food for the rainbow lorikeets that ravage like a pack of wolves, whooshing and swooping fighting over every morsel.

So our typical day at Magnetic was a run, breakfast and then hiking along one of the many trails available. Back for lunch and then a swim and lounge around the pool area, before experiencing the ravaging birds reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The day was finished with a walk along the beach or to one of the beautiful nearby bays, followed by dinner at our favourite beachside restaurant. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I was Eclipsed in Shannonvale

Over two and a half years ago I decided that I was going to see a total eclipse after listening to a physics podcast about them. Two years ago I found out that the next nearest one to me would be in Cairns in 2012 and booked a spot on the lawn of Elizabeth's aunt's tropical fruit winery in Shannonvale near Port Douglas, smack bang in the middle of the path of total eclipse. (They actually let us use their caravan). Our planning for our year of discovery had to take us to this spot on November 14th.

So it was with immense excitement and expectation that we drove through Cairns on the 12th of November only to find out that they had run out of eclipse viewing glasses. The next day in Mossman the same thing occurred: totally out of eclipse viewing glasses. It was not until 6pm on the 13th that we found some glasses left in the tourist office of Port Douglas. Whew, ready to go.

The early eclipsing sun is in there somewhere...
The weather forecast that night was giving us a 50/50 chance of a clear sky for the eclipse starting at 5:44am with totality occurring at 6:38am. I set the alarm for 5:30 and went to sleep. I woke at 5 and could not get back to sleep. We grabbed the camera, some coffee and drove down the road to a location where we could see the sun (the winery was too low). Clouds were in the sky but initially the sun was clear. As the time drew near the clouds closed in and things were not looking too good.
Elizabeth and Trudie
looking for the sun

Just before totality
Wide shot on auto
Then with minutes to go the sky around the sun cleared. We stared at it with our eclipse glasses, watching the moon eat away at the final pieces of the sun. As totality approached I took off my glasses and looked behind me. The last remaining rays of the sun were casting an eerie contrasting glow on the landscape. Near night time darkness washed over the landscape within seconds. I was surprised at how quick it was and how cold it suddenly got. I checked my phone, 6:38 plus a few seconds, it is at this time you can look directly at the sun. I turned around and was awestruck at the sheer size and amazing beauty of the eclipsed sun, with easily visible flames licking out from the outside of the moon valiantly trying to contain its power.

The fully eclipsed sun!
Final glimpses back at
the winery
You always think that pictures are enhanced of eclipsed suns - special filters, equipment, timing etc - but not so; it was as you see it in my picture using an average digital Canon camera on automatic with the only adjustment being an override of 2 f stops under-exposed. I was interested in hearing if the animals and birds went quiet but I completely forgot to register whether that happened at all as I stared at and photographed the eclipsed sun for the full two minutes (and a few seconds). Minutes later clouds started moving in again, and over the next hour the sun would come out intermittently and we would rush to put on our glasses to have some final looks. 

This was truly an amazing natural event and I am so glad that I put in the two years worth of planning and effort it took to get me here and that the clouds and the location randomly worked in my favour. Many people were not as lucky; places in Cairns stayed clouded over and apparently in Port Douglas on the 4 Mile Beach half saw the total eclipse unimpeded while the other half of the beach was clouded over. Thanks Tony and Trudie for letting us stay in your caravan and for the brilliantly quiet and secluded location where we were on our own as we witnessed this little cosmic miracle.

I think I am now a confirmed eclipse chaser and I have since found out the next one is in 2015 with the best spot at the Faroe Islands near Iceland. Now how to break it to Elizabeth...