Summary of the trip: Pacific Islands and Australia

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip, but so they stay relevant I am going to do some as I go along. So I’m going to split my trip into thirds. The next logical third is the Pacific Islands including Easter Island, Tahiti, New Zealand and Japan (technically its an island chain at least mostly in the Pacific.) as well as Syndey Australia. I know I haven’t posted my final Tokyo post yet, that is still to come after this one.

Best site

Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand, Milford Sound was an absolutely stunning place to visit and it was well worth doing the excellent overnight cruise on the Fjord.

Best museum

A Bomb Museum, Hiroshima, Japan, though flawed as I covered in the Hiroshima post the A bomb museum was very good and covered the important facts about the first use of the nuclear bomb. All of the signs were also in English and the audio tour covered most of it and was available in 20 or so languages.

Best tour company

Oz Trails, Sydney for managing to organise and excellent and full one day tour of the Blue Mountains in Australia for a reasonable price as well.

Best city

Tokyo, Japan for its excellent public transport, great sites and it appears to have strong nightlife as well (though I didn’t experience it myself.). It is also a modern and vibrant city.

Best non-Family accommodation

Te’ora, Easter Island, this award has been practically guaranteed since Easter Island, but Te’ora was amazing and I would definitely go back for the accommodation, unfortunately Easter Island is really the sort of place you only go once, I recommend it to all levels of traveller, whether you stay in youth hostels (well it is a little expensive) or the Peninsula.

Best food for under US$25

Creviche in the blue restaurant on Easter Island, assuming you stay at the recommended accommodation this should be enough to go on, creviche on Easter Island was absolutely delicious.

Honourable Mention

Okomomiyaki, Hiroshima, although I didn’t speak English at the restaurant this was absolutely amazing, and was better than the Tokyo version which I had today (and haven’t discussed yet).

The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger

Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.

Burger Hut at Le Petit Village, Mooera for being absolutely delicious and a bargain for Tahiti.

Honourable Mention for South America

As the award started in Chicago, the USA is exempt so it goes to the BK Argento, Argentina.

Best nightlife

Queenstown, New Zealand, because I actually went out there, and unlike Sydney it had character and wasn’t full of non-descript hotel bars.

Best Activity

Shotover Jet, Queenstown for being great fun (especially the 360 degree spins), not too expensive for New Zealand and for finishing just when you wanted it to.

Honourable mention for the Americas

Mountain biking in Arequipa, Peru which was great fun on bumpy roads, and I even managed not to fall off!.

Friendliest People

The Japanese the Japanese, especially those I have stayed with have all been very friendly, even when there is a language barrier between us.

Best Transportation Company

Japan Rail, Japan, any train company which can make you forget to photograph something as cool as the Shinkansen because it “just works” so well is incredible, every train has been virtually on time in the entire country and the transportation system here in Japan is nothing short of incredible. Japanese trains are how it should work everywhere.

Best bargain

The free temples in Japan for often being as good as some of those you have to pay to enter.

Biggest rip-off

Tahiti for being totally overpriced for what it was. It was even a total rip-off in comparison to the utterly remote Easter Island, and Japan whose currency has gained 70% over the pound this year. This is really reflected in it only having 2.5 times the tourist numbers of Easter Island which is much harder to get to.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

The winner is Dan in Real Life for being the only romantic comedy I have ever seen that didn’t disappoint its genre by being a) funny and b) about real love.

Honourable Mention

The counterfeiters which was very interesting, but a little short for my liking.

More photos online

After arriving on the bullet train into Kyoto I sat down and uploaded some more photos at my hostel these are now online on Flickr and named (some not very well though), enjoy, but now I’m off to bed as its midnight here.

Tokyo and Hakone

First thing on Wednesday morning I headed to Ginza as I needed to buy some socks; the mission to do this was successful and after that I headed to Tokyo station to get the rest of my train tickets reservations. After this I headed to Ryogoku and the Sumo (really pronounced with a very short u rather than a long one that I’ve always used.) area, which wasn’t particularly exciting though after a Chinese lunch I headed to the Edo Tokyo museum which described the history of Japan from the Shogun era which was very interesting and I spent 4 hours there. The only issue was that there was clearly more information only in Japanese that wasn’t in English. Spanish would have been OK too but they didn’t have any information in that either :p. After that I did some important stuff on the Internet before coming back home.

The next day I got up at 6am and after showing and breakfast I got the 7am train headed towards the mountains. It was a steam train too; though unfortunately the steam was on the inside of the carriages rather than coming out of the engine. After arriving in Odawara I got my “Hakone Freepass” (which of course wasn’t free but cost ¥3900 (£28)) and I then got the train up slowly into the mountains before changing again onto a narrow gauge railway heading up to the Fujiya hotel where I had some tea and cake. After that I went to the Hakano open air museum. As the name hints they had a lot of outdoor displays but also some indoor displays though theses weren’t partcularly great. The outdoor displays included a massive Pegasus and rider, several moderately erotic nudes and a massive climbing frame made out of segments you could climb inside. All in all I spent two and a half hours there so afterwards I had to get a move on. So I got the train further up the mountain and grabbed a sandwich before jumping on the funicular (though in Wellington New Zealand it would also be a cable car) and then getting on the cable car to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain you emerge over a volcanic valley which had lots of steam coming out of vents in the mountain and was very impressive. I did go on a walk to get closer but I didn’t get too close as I’ve seen them before in New Zealand and Chile. I also got to see a great view of mount Fiji though there was a little cloud low down on one side of the mountain.

After that I got the cable car down the mountain the other side to the side of a volcanic lake – like Rotaruha lake but smaller. At the bottom I got the boat across to the other side. The views were good but the boat was very cheesy and even had a Lord Nelson cartoony statue. Then at the Mokihakone I got off the boat and went for a walk to the second stop. On the way I walked along an avenue of tall Cryptomeria trees before reaching a viewpoint which let me see Mount Fuji again – this time without any cloud at all which was great. As the sun set I saw the Hakone barrier built on the road to Kyoto by the second Shogun before catching the bus back to Odwara.

At Odwara my journey got more exciting as I decided to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo as it’s free on my railpass (otherwise it’d be about ¥3500 or £25) I didn’t think it’d be much slower. However in 24 minutes I had covered the approximately 75km from Odwara to Tokyo. In the UK this is approximately the distance between Oxford and London which takes 55 minutes on the fastest train. The train even stopped on the way at Yokohoma and even so it managed an average speed of 180km/h! After that I took a trip on the Tokyo loop “Yamato” line to Shibuya. When I arrived on the platform to find it almost completely full. This train was the busiest train I’ve ever been on and I nearly lost my backpack on two occassions due to people pushing onto the train. Imagine the final top banana of the year (or if you aren’t a Warwick student a very, very, busy club) and then add some more and you get how busy the train was. It even got difficult to breathe as I got slammed against the people around me completely. And they didn’t even have to get the White gloved platform attendents involved to push people on (though they did get involved later on the journey on the train from Shibuya.). Then from Shibuya station I took two further trains to get back to where I’m staying in Tokyo. Due to the speed of the Shinkansen I got back in 75 minutes rather than 95 on the way out; even though I also got lost at Shibuya station for a bit. Overall though I’m getting used to the Tokyo public transport system. Maybe I should list the ability to use public transport on my CV as a skill :p.

The next day I headed north towards Sendai first catching a couple of pretty busy local trains to catch my Shinkhansen north out of Tokyo which I just managed to catch. As my seat was by the window in a row of three and the seats next to it were already occupied I tried to sit elsewhere but it’s clear the Japanese catch trains they have reserved seats on unlike the British who often don’t. I decided to get off the train early to see the Japanese railway museum as after travelling on all these trains I was curious about how they worked. There was some information in English but that was using a mobile phone barcode reader which didn’t work particularly well. Though the information I did learn was very interesting and mostly was interesting even if like me you ride on trains mainly to get from A to B (though I admit I went on the Shinkansen yesterday purely to travel really fast.) I’m sure it would have been much better if you understood Japanese. Numbering the exhibits and providing printed information in different languages would have worked far better in my view.

Journey to Tokyo

I took the train up from Wellington to Auckland on Saturday which was pretty good and the train left early on Saturday morning for it’s journey first along the coast and then through the mountains. Unfortunately the windows are far too shiny to really get a good photo and there is too much pollen on the viewing platform for me. We did stop at lunchtime which gave me a chance for a quick walk as I’d already had some sandwiches on the train.

We arrived into Auckland in the evening (though 1.5 hours late which I wasn’t at all happy about – the reason was that the track was too hot.) and once there I went to sleep before my early 7.30am flight to Brisbane. For this flight I got up at 4.25am which is ungodly and then as the airport bus was early (4:40 not 4:44 as it was supposed to be.) I had to run up a 1:4 hill to catch it before collapsing on the floor of the bus (you try it with a 18kg rucksack – I’m not in the army.). I did manage to get a shower at the airport in Auckland. The flight was uneventful except that I had to run for my plane at Brisbane and JALWAYS gave us lots of food and drink though the films were all absolutely terrible. The best one was about a playboy bunny and solority houses and I’m not even kidding. It was also followed by the worlds longest taxi into the airport.

After that I made my way through the friendly and efficient security checks (the other airport staff and people around the airport were friendly too – male and female :p) to get my Japan Rail Pass and train ticket to Shinjuku station. I should also mention how insanely reliable the Japanese trains are. The 18:10 rapid train that I didn’t catch shut it’s doors at 18:09:5x but was still standing in the station when my iPod touch went over to 18:10:00. The track is also insanely smooth as it’s dark outside it doesn’t feel like the train is actually moving at all, ok it had stopped but I hadn’t noticed.

Further on on the journey we passed houses with garish Christmas lights though in general Tokyo is a lot darker with far fewer lights visible than in a Western city. The centre is still very bright though.

The other thing I’m immediately interested in discovering aside from the general culture is the technology. Japan has a reputation of being the most technologically advanced country on the planet, yet most of the most successful companies for 100 years have been American; from IBM to Microsoft to Apple and Google today.

Oxford Christchurch

I arrived into Christchurch on Thursday Evening on the train. Unsurprisingly the train was 20 minutes late even though there didn’t appear to have been any reason or obvious sign of delay while on the journey.

After arrival I went to a local French named restaurant/bar called Dux de Lux, though the interior was a more traditional wood panelled building like most of the good Oxford pubs. There I had some Green Mussels which were delicious though they could have done without the Chili in my view. After that I had some delicious chocolate cake before returning towards my hostel.

On the way back I passed a small arthouse cinema and as I had nothing else to do that evening I went to see a film. One of the films on was called the Counterfitters which I went to see. This was seriously arthousy and didn’t have any previews or ads at the start and just got straight into it. The film was excellent and described German efforts to forge the pound and dollar. The film was apparently a true story as well.

Spoiler alert: text in white – highlight to read.

These notes were designed so that they were 100% indistinguishable from the originals. They did this with the help of a Jewish expert counterfitter from Berlin who had been arrested in 1936 and was trying to counterfit the dollar a the time, then when working for the Germans they gave them the pound and then delayed the dollar until it was too late and they survived the war.

After watching that I went to bed and the next day I headed to some museums – first heading to the Canterbury Museum which had excellent displays on the Antarctic. After seeing that I then went briefly into the bontanic gardens before going to the Christchurch Art Gallery. On the way I passed Christ’s College which had the requisite “Keep off the grass” signs as well as a traditional Oxfordian ugly concrete building (though the engineering department is uglier.) around a fairly pretty quad. After that I saw there was an opportunity for Punting. Though due to health and safety reasons you apparently have to pay a man in a straw hat to punt for you rather than doing it yourself. Then I headed to the art gallery which had interesting collections of New Zealand and modern contemporary art and I even managed to get a free one-on-one guided tour of the gallery.

At that point I got my stuff and just caught the bus to the airport so I could drop off my stuff and visit the nearby international Antarctic centre which was interesting and it contained a cool room to simulate the temperature as well as a great ride in a Hägglunds (all-terrain vechile) but it was a bit expensive for my liking at £17. They also had a collection of good looking 45 minute videos which I missed due to lack of time. I then caught a the totally painless flight up to Wellington.

Back to Christchurch

So I got up at 8am on Thursday for the 9am bus which was later than everyone else in my dorm who had mostly only arrived the day before – I think people are trying to do the whole country in 2 weeks. I’ve spent 5 weeks here and could have spent more time in several places fairly easily (doing some more walks, rafting and some mountain biking would have been great.) so coming back would still be great. I am still glad to be moving on as I’m getting a little bored of the UK in the southern hemisphere.

So I left Franz Josef on Thursday morning for day 1 of 4 of travel until Japan. First I headed up the coast to Greymouth. First we stopped at about 11am to have morning coffee and I also had a local delicacy of possum pie which was delicious. Basically in New Zealand they have 80 million possums and they are a pest so eating it is definitely a good thing. After that we followed the road up the coast including going over 2 bridges that the road shares with the railway line (trains obviously have priority). After that we headed up for lunch before getting into Greymouth for the train.

The train headed into the mountains across to Christchurch and first headed through a pretty valley before going through a massive tunnel to take us up to the small village of Arthurs Pass in a pass in the mountains called Arthurs Pass. The New Zealanders generally take the same attitude to naming that Warwick University does. In New Zealand the northern island is called “North Island” and the southern island is named similarly. At Warwick the cafe under the library is unsurprisingly called “Library cafe”. As we passed along Arthurs Pass we headed through lots of small tunnels and viaducts surrounded by beautiful scenery as we made our way to Christchurch. About 30 minutes before arrival we left the mountains and went across the heavily farmed but fairly featureless canterbury plains on our way to Christchurch.

Franz Josef and more

After a long coach journey I arrived into Franz Josef on Tuesday evening. That evening I went for a few drinks and learnt that the town is completely dependent on tourists. It’s population is only 100 but swells to approximately 3000/day in the summer which is absolutely massive. I also found that in appreciation the bars charge less to those small number of locals than the tourists by giving them discounts off the menu price.

The next day I went to the visitors centre in the morning and saw an interesting video on the southland area and some further exhibitions. The video was especially good as it included commentary as well as epic scenery. In the afternoon I headed out onto the Franz Josef glacier (access to the nearby Fox Glacier and many of the walks nearby are currently closed due to being washed out in the rains while I was in Mount Cook.) and I got to use crampons and walk on the ice of the glacier which was really cool, especially when we walked through a narrow crack that reminded me of te Cu Chi tunnels in Viet Nam. Also this was all for a bargain price of NZ$92 (£33) so I was pleased to do something for under NZ$100 for once. It was a good day and even though I was in the “advanced” group it wasn’t too difficult though there were ropes to hold onto in places.

In the evening I watched the repeat of a British ITV program called “ladette to lady” which was about converting “the worst” young women in the UK from drunken whores into ladies at an old fashioned finishing school the show itself was entertaining but not that great as it was fairly sexist and old fashioned (though as it was ITV from 2005 it was probably the best show broadcast at the time!). Basically they got them to learn all the stuff you might learn in finishing school such as embroidary, flower arranging, sarcasm and of course playing hard to get. That is at least seems ill-advised – I mean the chances to win someone actually worth having are few and far between (and besides there are the inevitable accidental mistakes.), games don’t help and I can’t believe that if you were serious about someone you’d care about whether they were “easy” to win or not – it doesn’t reflect on them as if you a good match for them are the exception not the rule.

Though this does lead to alcohol abuse which is probably the most serious problem in the UK at the moment*. Now I certainly enjoy a few drinks occassionally but the general culture of drinking in the UK in unacceptable. Currently 800,000 people a year go to hospital for alcohol related issues (which is approximately 1.3% of the population) and the number is increasing so unfortunately the government is going to need to regulate it and step in as it must cost the economy billions of pounds a year in lost productivity and wasted police and hospital time. Maybe we’d grow as fast as Viet Nam does instead of resession if we sorted it by the end of the year, but unfortunately it’s an embedded part of our culture so will take a long time to fix (like 5 to 10 years or more).

* = I’m sure some people are thinking our trains are worse but they aren’t really that bad: probably only France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, China and Singapore and maybe Russia, Finland, Sweden, Italy and India (not for reliability but because they make huge profits – I believe £2 billion in 2007.) have better systems. So out of 190 odd countries in the world only 11-16 have better train systems. Whereas probably only 10-15 countries have worse alcohol problems and I can’t think of any of them.

Up the West Coast

So I’m now making my way fairly quickly back to Auckland. At this stage I’m wishing I had decided to fly from Christchurch to Auckland but I’m taking the train instead from Wellington to Auckland which I booked at the start of my time in New Zealand so i’m only flying from Christchurch to Wellington.

First I wanted to see the West Coast so I caught the bus up from Queenstown to Franz Josef glacier. This was uneventful except for the gorgeous scenery until 11am when we stopped for an early lunch and I had a “mutton” pie and water and the pie was literally the worst I’d ever eaten and reminded me of school dinners.

After that we went through some rainforest as we headed north which contained lots of beech trees, the whole area was what I thought northern Argentina would be like but obviously colder. At 12 noon we went to see a waterfall called the Thunder Falls and we got a new driver called George who was great fun. He discussed the insane rainfall on the west coast of New Zealand (the next land mass at this latitude is South America which is a *long* way off.) by talking about the rainfall and how his wife measured the rainfall in a recent afternoon and their had been 45cm of rain between noon and 6pm. Overall they have 6 to 9 metres of rain a year.

After the second lunch stop at 2pm at a salmon farm I had some lunch and saw the salmon swimming below us. To me it looked like seeing a battery hen farm which isn’t really what you want to think about. After this we got to Franz Josef at 4pm.

I’m heading out onto the glacier and seeing what there is to do in town and I’ll let you know more once I get to Toyko on Sunday where they have seen the light of having free WiFi available.

Queenstown and Milford Sound part 2

Continued from part 1

So at 4pm on Friday after quite a few viewing stops we arrived at Milford Sound, as it was cloudy we didn’t get much of a view however. Then we got on the boat and headed into the sound itself which was seriously stunning to see. Actually the sound itself is stunning whatever the weather and you don’t need sunny weather to experience it properly. First we sailed up the fjord (actually Milford Sound is a fjord not a sound as it’s a sea-flooded glacial valley rather than a sea-flooded river valley) past a peak called Mitre mountain as it looks like a Bishops mitre. However amusingly the Maori name for it translated into English calls it the male symbol which is very amusing. The obvious solution is that the mitre is supposed to represent the male symbol as well.

Then we sailed up the fjord to near to the entrence before returning to the bay were we were going to spend the night, there is only one place that this can happen as that is the only place were the water isn’t too deep for a mooring to be placed – even then the moorings go 80m down. But this depth allows you to get really close to the waterfalls pouring down the cliff faces.

Once we moored we headed out on a smaller boat to get close to the shore which allowed us to see small penguins on the shore and swimming in the water where they were very graceful. There was also the option to go swimming instead but as the water was glacial it was extremely cold so I didn’t do that. After this we returned to the boat and had a great 3 course lamb dinner and I chatted with my shipmates before bedtime.

In the morning I got up at 6.30am and had a shower as there were only 6 showers on the boat with 30 people on board I expected a queue – the last place I went with such a ratio was New York which had 2 showers for 30 beds but there people got up between 7am and midday so it worked better – here people all got up between 6.30am and 7am.

That day it was bright and sunny in the fjord so we got a great look at the surrounding mountains as we headed up the fjord and back out to the sea. Then we headed back up the valley to Te Ahau which was much prettier than the previous day as it was bright and sunny. It was surprising how few people stayed on the bus as most people even on the backpacker boat they all flew back which cost over £100 per person. After getting back to Te Ahau I went on another tour to see glowworms. This was a pretty cool tour and there were lots of glowworms around. The only problem was the German speaking tourists with us who were incapable of being quiet even though we were asked. I ended up telling the 60 year old tourist next to me to shutup at one point which must have been embarrassing for her. But they should have known better at their age. After getting back to my hostel I had a walk along the lakeside for a couple of hours and then on Sunday I went back to Queenstown.

Once back in Queenstown I had a delicious sandwich before getting the last seat on the 2pm shotover jet. This was a jetboat which went up and down the shotover river getting incredibly close to the rocks on either side. I thoroughly enjoyed it too. The only problem was the overpriced photo packs.

After that I headed up the gondola above Queenstown to get the view over Queenstown and to go on the life there. It was also good and after the first run I was racing lining the corners (this is where you enter the corner on the outside and pass on the far inside of the corner in the middle which let’s you go as fast as possible around the corner.) I did get a little cocky and managed to crash out on the fourth run. I didn’t get hurt though.

In the evening I had a curry and watched the last samarai at the hostel before trying to arrange insurance for a skydive which meant I went to the Internet cafe 3 times today as they are only open on UK daytime hours. Unfortunately I was unable to get insurance and the weather was awful on Monday so I skipped the skydive and went to Arrowtown which had an OK museum and used up a fair part of the day. There is little to do in Queenstown when the weather is bad – it’s one of the disadvantages of the town. I did have time to buy some souviners from a very friendly store called Aotea near Real Journeys. They are probably the friendliest souvinier shop I have ever been to. In the evening I then watched “forgetting Sarah Marshall” in which Russel Brand starred (Russel Brand is a British comedian whose main claim to fame is that he’s slept with Kate Moss et al and according to himself he has a big penis.) and also actually managed to be funny. It was an impressive feat for a man who is usually as funny as a brick wall (maybe I’m just less jealous or something though…).

On Tuesday I got up early to go to Franc Josef Glacier and headed off out of Queenstown.