Friday, 4 January 2013

The big island, Hawaii

The little 50 seater jet from Honolulu to Hilo was great fun. I couldn't stand upright. It took off what seemed like vertical then banked steeply squashing you into the seat. The weather was stormy which delayed us 30 minutes. The flight to the big island only took 45 minutes. You NEED to hire a car on the big island - it's more Polynesian than American, and public transport is minimal. The conversation with Avis went something like this;

Me: Hi! I'd like a car for 3 days - what's the cheapest you have?
Avis: We have a special right now - for $90 a day you could have that;
          *points to bright blue convertible Mustang*
Me: *wide-eyed* ooh, I'll take the Mustang!
Avis: Great! You won't regret it!

 So there I am - sitting in a purring, left-hand drive, automatic Mustang in the pitch black airport car park. I've not driven a car in over a year. I change from park to drive, release the handbrake and cruise out of the airport - ill prepared but ready for adventure - I know Volcano village is about 20 miles south-west. It's raining hard, then clears quickly leaving an incredible vista of the stars through the windscreen (shield?). I take it easy, I have no idea what this car's capable of - I notice that the traction control is on and sports mode is off - I think I'll leave it like that for the moment.

Volcano village is tiny - one general store, the lava cafe, a Thai restaurant, a petrol station and some tourist accommodation. My hostel was called HoloHolo and was hard to find down some tiny dark roads. The hostel is deathly quiet, and quite cold. In the dorm room were two US geologists studying the volcano - they were getting up at 3am the next day to go to the lava lake - something that's off-bounds to tourists. I asked if I could join them, but special permits were required.

My reason for coming to this Island was to see some lava. The geologists said that the walk from crater drive was now 7 miles over old lava terrain, and impossible if you didn't know where to look for the lava. They suggested going from the north side, but it would require a guide as it would be on private land - costing $300 on your own, or $150 in a group. Also the rain was a factor - it was constantly raining heavily. As time went on I didn't find people willing to shell out $150, and I wasn't prepared to pay $300 - so the lava idea faded.

I took a drive in the rain down crater drive, where you pass various dated lava flows. The road winds down a huge hill to the sea and then the road stops abruptly, where a 2003 lava flow decided to cross! It's from here that you can hike 7 miles to the active flow if you so wished.

Lava says no to road

A flow from early 2000

I spend the last night before flying out in Hilo at a little guest house slightly out of town, called the Hilo tropical garden hostel. I meet up with two gnarly Alaskans who'd fled to Hawaii from the oppressive cold - as they (and many Alaskans) do every year. We drive up to the observatory at Mauna Kea. An interesting drive that steadily climbs and climbs and climbs, seemingly never-ending. The only indication that you're getting higher is the car using more and more fuel. We hit the clouds and heavy rain for 10 minutes then pop out into brilliant sunshine, and the observatory at around 13,000ft. From base (at the bottom of the Pacific) to the peak (33.000ft) it's twice as high as Everest (base to peak) We're not able to drive to the summit in my muscle car - this is only accessible by 4x4. There's some great little walks around the area on the red martian landscape but the wind-speed is incredible!

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

O'ahu, Hawaii

I arrived in Honolulu before I left Sydney. Crossing the international date line fiddles with the mind a little. This became especially apparent when I arrived at the hostel on Waikiki beach and asked to check in. On seeing the a frown and and pursed lips on the face of the friendly receptionist I immediately realised that I'd not actually booked a room for that night. I could only think of the high-end hotels around the area and how much this mistake might cost me! Sleeping on the beach popped into my head, but in raining season probably not an option. I popped on the net and checked for any spaces in hostels - but of course, with new years eve the next day, there was nothing. I ditched the bag and went on a rece to the hotels in the area to get an idea of prices. All were between $350 and $450 per night, and seemed to be only the high-class rooms - although I must admit it was tempting to grab a penthouse suite with spa, and full sea-view for one night. Eventually (and quite close to the hostel) I found a hotel that had a $125 room - I took it immediately!

Back at the hostel I grabbed my bag and got chatting to a friendly, cute girl from New Zealand. We were both heading down the beach so decided to hang out. I had to get changed into my swimming shorts at the hotel but the room wasn't ready. The receptionist said I could use the bag room to get changed, but there was CCTV with a monitor in reception - she promised not to look and I donned my shorts, superman style.

The next 18 hours, we decided, was our new years eve - a sleep-deprived whirlwind of conversation, sunshine, swimming, cocktails and terry-towelling jumpsuits - I've rarely had such a fantastic, instant, connection with someone. At 5am the next morning I waved my new partner-in-crime off in a taxi - she, sadly, had to fly home.

After catching up on sleep I moved to the hostel, where I had a booking for that evening. The official new years was that evening, but I wasn't feeling it - dramatically missing my Kiwi buddy. In my hostel room were some welcoming Argentinians who'd already started the celebrations - they thrust a beer in my hand and the party, once again, started!

At midnight thousands gathered on Waikiki beach to watch the fireworks. Afterwards we did a little clubbing, dancing about to some dubstep then ended up swimming in the sea around 3am. The dip sobered me up quickly and then I had to go back and get some kip. New years eve (part 2) complete.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch feels like a ghost town. Looking at the still-evacuated security guarded buildings, empty car park like spaces, spire-less Churches and shops with fallen chairs and fluorescent light dangling down anyone would think this happened yesterday. It's horrifying to walk around - one can only imagine the terror. Being here on Christmas eve/day makes it even quieter - there's almost no-one about. But the spirit of the people to bounce back is very evident - pop-up things have popped up everywhere; old buses turned into bars; shipping containers turned into a mall; palettes turned into a makeshift theatre and gig venue; street corners into mini-golf! When I was there they'd just opened up the area around Cathedral square, with a view of the battered Cathedral and the promising plans for the future. It's going to take a long time but you can feel the optimism. I'm sure this is going to be a stunning city once again, but with a green and youthful edge.

Hope shines


Friday, 21 December 2012

Mount Cook, New Zealand

The entry into Mount Cook national park wasn't anything special - mainly because of the low, drizzle-dropping clouds.We past a glacial lake, which is supposed to be bluer than blue, but today was just blue (the coach drivers words not mine). Arriving at the YHA there was nothing to be seen around, and the rain was relentless so after a brisk walk about I retreated to the common room and did some reading. The hostel resembles an alpine chalet - and makes me think about dusting the snowboard off. I pop a few emails home to friends to see if any plans are afoot. There's a sauna - I've always wanted to like saunas but feel like I'm going to die. I can sit for about 2 minutes before gasping for cool air. It mocked me every time I walked past! 

Next morning I'm up at sunrise and out. The weather had cleared and the surrounding mountains were super-epic! The sun was scorching a hole in my head within two minutes, I had to break out the hat. I'd make a cheese sandwich and bought some peanut bars, and also stocked up with water. There's a nice walk up to the glacier face (or as close as you can get) called the Hooker trail. It reminded me of the trek up to Everest a lot - with cute bridges and rough scree-like terrain. It takes about 2 hours to get there. On arrival I was amazed to see an iceberg - I've never seen an iceberg before. It's was just there, sitting in the lake, looking kinda stuck on the bottom. I wonder how common they are. The other walk is called the red tarn, or tarn... I  forget. This walk's steep up, with some nice views. I would say the most scenic part of this whole area is on the glacial plains though - with the flowering lupins and the soft blowing grass you would be happy to lay in the grass and never wake up again :)

I wanted to do a stargazing tour, and the YHA had a poster with a 10% discount. They called for me but the company said the offer had been retracted. They had one space left on the tour and I asked If I could get that for the 10% off price - they said no. I decided to go solo and wondered off onto the plain. The stars pop out of the sky from everywhere - billions and billions! I didn't had a release or tripod to get the absolute best shots but here's my efforts;

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Queenstown, New Zealand

The Queenstown YHA is stunning, set in a big old building with a kitchen and communal area overlooking the lake. I hadn't pre-booked a room and (again) was lucky enough to grab the last bed. Also staying there was someone I'd met in Kaikoura - the backpacker world is a small world! Qneenstown itself is ridiculously picturesque. Everywhere you look is crystal clear water or rugged mountain peaks (the Remarkables, as made famous by Lord of the Rings). The town itself is tourist central, with pretty much every shop catering for one extreme sport or another. From here you can go parachute jumping, bungee jumping, rafting, jetboating, river-surfing, skiing, heli-boarding, mountain biking, water-skiing, diving... the list is endless. 

We opted for one non-extreme and one extreme. The non-extreme was a trip to Milford Sounds - the gigantic glacier-carver inlet on the west coast. We booked a BBQ bus. The driver had an amazingly dry sense of humour - very entertaining. The journey to Milford is about 4 hours - with a half-way stop for the BBQ. Cooked from a trailer at the back of the bus it took about 45 minutes, while we walked amongst the forest and sat by the river. Back on the road we snaked up the mountain past some incredible scenery - New Zealand must be the most beautiful place on the planet. At the top of the pass you go through a tunnel and pop out into the top of the Sound.

On the boat you get a real sense of the size of the Sound as the boat keeps close to the vertical cliffs. Occasionally you see seals basking in the sunshine. The boat gets to the sea and U-turns back to dock, via (almost literally!) some impressive waterfalls. 

Fergburger!  An institution in Queenstown. One of my top 3 burgers ever... totes. I opted for a smelly blue-cheese coated meat-fest. We ate these on the beach, and washed it down with some pear cider while the sun sets. 

I've been wanting to skydive somewhere beautiful for years. I've been refused several times due to bad weather conditions - mainly in Cape Town but also recently in Franz and Fox. Today was going to be the day! I booked with a company recommended by the YHA, with a discount. All was set and we paid, and got in the van - when 20 minutes into the drive the car radio blarted out that the wind was too strong to jump - foiled again! Back at the town centre they said that another company did jumps from a different area, and that we should try them. They were indeed still jumping and we got a slot on the next plane. The guy doing the safety briefing was a Brummie - it was reassuring to hear the accent.

The jump site was stunning, surrounded by mountains and people falling from the sky. The cameramen are insane - they have to get to the ground before the customers and swoop down, skimming the ground at incredible speeds. There's music, giant chess and toilets to ease you before heading out. You're put into a jumpsuit and harness, then greeted by your cameraman and tandem. The planes are tiny - you're attached to your tandem then slotted in for the order of exit. I have no fear of heights but the brain says "no, this is wrong" when you're balanced on the edge of the plane door, with the cameraman hanging off the wing. The tandem then holds your head back for safety and slides you out. Once out you're in a spin, you have no idea which way anything is for a second or two, until the tandem corrects it. Our fall was 45 seconds but felt like 5! When the chute opens you start to feel the adrenaline - I would love to do this solo, the buzz must be ridiculous! The tandem asks if you're ok - I was in wooping American mode so he did a few spins and spirals down to the ground for a feather-light landing.