Friday, April 29, 2011

Face to face with Tasmania's wildlife

Launceston, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, Hobart, Port Arthur, Maria Island, Freycinet National Park, Bay of Fires, Devonport, AUSTRALIA: 13 - 28 April 2011

Tasmania is known for its convict prison history and great trekking. So when you add in the fact that it is the size of Ireland you get my kind of place!

I rediscovered my interest in the nineteenth century penal system when I went to the Old Melbourne Gaol, where I bored Kate with what I could recall from my final year history dissertation on that topic. So in Tasmania I enjoyed brushing up on this history by reading Thomas Hughes' "The Fatal Shore" and visiting Hobart, Maria Island and Port Arthur.

Apart from a couple of days in Tassie's two main cities, Hobart and Launceston (both nice enough with quite a British feel: the highlight being Hobart's unique MONA art museum), most of my time in Tasmania was spent exploring nature. This brought me face to face with much of Tasmania's wildlife: during a scuba dive on the east coast I saw, among other things, a sea dragon; a nighttime tour brought me to a penguin rookery to see "little" or "fairy" penguins; on a day hike in Freycinet National Park I saw a snake on my way down to picture perfect Wineglass Bay; when I swam there some dolphins were just 20 metres further out in the bay; then when I came out of the water I saw a wallaby on the beach; and on my way down from the Bishop and Clerk peak
during a sunny day hike on Maria Island I saw kangaroos.

But it is my first sighting of a kangaroo that will be my abiding image of Tasmania. I hiked the six day Overland Track in the Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park, where I stayed in basic huts along the way. On the second day a kangaroo bounded across the track and stopped just in front of me. Standing on an open part of the track with a 360 degree view of stunning scenery with just me and the kangaroo there looking at each other was pure magic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

$2.50 for a banana! Are you joking?

Melbourne, AUSTRALIA: 5 - 12 April 2011

I often thank my lucky stars that as a "government-funded traveller" I don't have to do the things that some other backpackers have to do to fund their trips. Like recently when almost everyone else in my hostel in Napier in New Zealand was working either as fruit pickers or packers. Or like on my first night in Melbourne when one of Kate's (a friend from Cork who I happily stayed with for the week) Irish housemates told me how he "works" as a guinea pig for medical trials to fund his stay in Australia.

However, while I may not have the same financial worries as other backpackers, here in Australia my budget wouldn't stretch far enough to buy a banana! The floods in Queensland earlier this year destroyed 80 percent of Australia's banana crop. So shops have signs that say something along the lines of "Support Aussie farmers by buying really expensive bananas". I doubt if something similar would work in Ireland.
I had a great week in Melbourne. It felt to me like a very liveable city, which might explain why I know so many people living there. Happily my week coincided with the Comedy Festival, so I went to a couple of shows. But even without that there was loads to do. I spent my time catching up with friends, riding the trams, going to some excellent museums (including the Old Melbourne Gaol where I saw Ned Kelly's death mask)
and I attended an AFL game at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground.
I really liked the feel of Melbourne - I could imagine living here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Road Trip NZ

Springfield, Okarito, Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mt. Cook, Kaikoura, Picton, Nelson, Karamea, Wellington, Napier, Gisborne, Te Araroa, Whakatane, Whitianga, Coromandel, Waihi Beach, Auckland: NEW ZEALAND, 27 Feb - 5 April 2011

From pristine, touristy Queenstown, where myself and Ciarán did a sky dive (an "awesome" experience, as Kiwis say),
to welcoming the world's first dawn in the remote, mainly Maori East Cape, my five weeks driving around New Zealand were "sweet as".

Myself and Ciarán started our tour of the South Island (which is bigger than Ireland but has only a population of one million people) by flying to Christchurch five days after the devastating earthquake. We collected our rental car at the airport, so we didn't go into the city itself. Being in a country dealing with the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster reminded me of being in Chile last year after the Concepcion earthquake and made me wonder how Ireland would handle something similar.
For a road trip, it involved a lot of walking. New Zealand is a country where natural beauty is complemented by a great tourist infrastructure, with helpful tourist information "i-site" and Dept. of Conservation offices ever present, which all makes "tramping" relatively easy to do. But then again, given that my recent long hikes in Ethiopia and South America were greatly aided by backpack-carrying donkeys, the fact that we had to carry our own gear, including tent and food, made my hikes in NZ more than just a walk in the park.
With Ciarán, I combined the Greenstone and Routeburn tracks into a great four day loop, and then we did two days of walking along the Queen Charlotte Track. When Ciarán left to get a flight out of Auckland, I walked the Heaphy Track over four days. Each walk was different: some were through alpine valleys;
some were partly coastal;
and one included sightings of dolphins. Although having porridge for breakfast, ryvita and tuna for lunch, and pasta, pesto, cashew nuts and a carrot for dinner every day was a bit repetitive, my tramps in NZ made me want to do more long treks.
After tourist activities including a whale-watching boat trip in Kaikoura and a cruise around the spectacular Milford Sound, I stepped off the tourist trail in Wellington. There I met the parents of my friend Jason, who treated me to a tasty home-cooked meal, and I stayed with my aunt Jacqueline. My visit coincided with that of my first cousin David, his wife Alexandra and their bright blue eyed daughter Morgaine. It had been over ten years since I last met David, and it was very nice to spend some time together with them all.
New Zealand is an interesting country of one lane bridges, expensive books, tasty pies, chatty shop assistants and barefoot shoppers. I've really enjoyed my time here and I'm looking forward to coming back for the rugby world cup in September.