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.

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.

Queenstown and Milford Sound part 1

The Mount Cook post has just appeared beneath this one, sorry its the WordPress iPod Touch app getting the dates wrong again.

After quite a good bus “tour” with some commentry I arrived into Queenstown on Tuesday. On Tuesday night I went ou with people from the hostel and had the novel drink of a cocktail in a teapot. As I left my camera at home I don’t have any photos of this but it was a cool novelty.

Then on Wednesday I had a bit of a lazy day and didn’t do much as I’d rushed all the way from Wellington travelling each day and I needed to stop so I just did some shopping and planning my Milford Sound overnight tour and then returned to watch movies at the hostel including the hilarious and weird Hot Fuzz talking about the “high” crime in English country villages, it is a very weird but good film. In the evening I had some delicious fish and chips with a Singaporean and Omani from my hostel which was great fun.

After that on Thursday I went river rafting which was expensive at about £60 though it was also great fun and well worth it. We didn’t get to go on the more difficult Shotover river as the rain had made it too fast to be safe and the alternative river was fairly peaceful so we got to mess around in places on the river. We also got to swim through one of the rapids which is the first time I’ve swum with my glasses on. After changing back out of my wetsuit I returned to Queenstown. In the evening I went out for more drinks with my American roomates. I was also going to go on the jetboat but I didn’t think I had time in the morning beforehand (though they actually offer a combined trip with the rafting so I could have done both and both places are next to each other.). You may notice I haven’t mentioned Bungy Jumping or Skydiving because it’s too expensive I’m too scared maybe a bit of both.

Then on Friday I headed to Milford Sound on an overnight tour. First we went along Queenstown lake to get to Milford Sound. There was the option of a steam train for part of the journey but as it was £35 for a 30 minute steam train I decided to give it a miss. We followed through more good scenery on the way to Te Anhu, as a bonus I can confirm that the coach was comfortable by dosing through parts of the ride. It’s no Via Barriloche but it isn’t bad. After that we saw the spectacular scenery of the drive down to Milford Sound and we stopped in a few places to take photos, including stopping at a place called mirror lakes which had a cool reflected signs in the water. The rest of the time I had to take photos through the glass of the bus which given that it is glossy rather than matte means it reflects light so I have lots of faint images of my camera and the bus. I do wonder whether it is possible to make matte glass as it would be genuinely useful on Apple computers coach trips. The bus ride went through spectacular scenery but this paled in comparison to Milford Sound itself. The view of the mountains from the boat was absolutely stunning and I think that may be an understatement. I’ve briefly got wireless so I’m uploading this now and will continue the story later.

Mount Cook

So I got up ungodly early (6.30) and skipped breakfast for my bus ride to Mount Cook and once I got on the bus (I was the last one on) we headed off to Mount Cook. Additionally for once the bus had some interesting commentry so I can’t complain about the lack of entertainment on the bus. We stopped off on a few places along the way for photos on the way and got to Mount Cook at lunch time. This was also the first journey I got a good deal with my FlexiPass paying only £34 rather than £78 which is a 50% discount which you certainly can’t complain about! After arriving in Mount Cook I had lunch in the cafe before going to the Mt Cook Alpine Centre to see their great exhibition and film on Ed Hillary as well as a planetarium and the only view of the mountain I was destined to get on a 3D projector (I actually found that the mountain was supposedly clear at 7.30am the next morning while I was still asleep). After that I went on a quick walk before having a delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant (they don’t have cheap food here) before playing some gin rummy and going to bed.

The next morning I got up bright and early at 8.30am and went on a tour of the lake to see the nearby Tasmin glacier by boat. This was really interesting as the Tasmin glacier is very slow so is incredibly rocky and dirty on the surface. There were also a lot of large icebergs on the lake and I learnt a lot about both the icebergs and the glacier itself. We learnt about how the water at the surface attacks the ice because it is so “warm” (about 2 degrees) that it melts the ice – and this is a major cause of breaking the ice into smaller pieces. We even got to see blue ice above the surface which is usually only visible for a short time after the icebergs appearance above water as the sun turns it white in less than 30 minutes. In the afternoon I then headed back onto the tour bus to head to Queenstown for at least the next couple of days though I want to fit in an overnight cruise at Milford (thanks Tessa) and hopefully the gloworms at Te Ahunu too.

Unfortunately even though the weather was fine on the second day I missed seeing Mt Cook as I didn’t get up early enough but I do have some great pictures of the surrounding mountains which were still showing through the cloud a little after 7.30am.

Arrived in Queenstown

I’ve just made it to Queenstown and that looks to be cool so far and I’ll add details of the Mt Cook stuff (which was good but I didn’t see the mountain) when I can get on some cheap/free WiFi.

The trip to Christchurch

As I didn’t want to go on the internet for an hour I haven’t been on Wifi for a while so I haven’t made any posts. So the post on Wellington is also new.

First thing on Saturday I headed across from Wellington to the port on the South Island known as Picton. The boat ride across was fairly windy but the boat was so big (and undoubtably has stabilizers) that it didn’t get tossed around by the sea. After arriving in Picton which was a bit chaotic but I safely made it onto the train south and as it left at 1pm I had plenty of time for lunch too. Then after a relaxing train ride down the coast I arrived in Kaikoura. My accommodation, like most accommodation in town was a long 500m walk from my hostel which wasn’t much fun. In the evening I went to a fairly pricey restaurant to try some crayfish which was very well cooked but unfortunately the crayfish itself didn’t really taste of anything (so basically the sauce was nice).

Then in the morning I got up early for the Dolphin Encounter, the weather wasn’t as nice as the previous day so the boat rocked and heaved a lot in the water. It was also really cold especially on my hands and feet, though even on Tahiti I don’t think the sea is exactly warm. Anyhow getting to see the dolphins so close beneath you was amazing and a hugely rewarding experience and there were loads and even some with babies and even though they didn’t pay much attention to us, maybe because the sea was so rough or they were bored with people in their water. On the last trip when returning to the boat one of my flippers fell off so I had to swim faster than I’ve ever swam before to get back to the boat; I think the sea was pushing me away and then I did feel seasick.

After that I had a simple but good chicken and Brie panini and hot chocolate which definitely warmed me up inside. After that I headed back to the hostel to get my stuff for the train. The train ride passed through a lot of tunnels and spectacular scenery visible through shiny glass on it’s way to Christchurch. Once I got there I got a taxi for the first time since Iquique in Chile to my hostel as I wasn’t going to carry it from the train station to my hostel. In the evening I avoided McDonalds for a cheap meal by having some Greek food for dinner. You may notice I haven’t had much traditional New Zealand food (like guinea pig in Peru) as you aren’t allowed to eat Kiwi and even the Maori meal was chicken and lamb. I then went off to the cinema to see the new Bond film which was excellent and it had a good plot as well as lots of action, the only criticism was that it was a bit too Hollywood (I.e. Bond would get shot at lots and all the bullets would miss and he’d shoot back once and hit.) The cinema was pretty comfortable too; much more comfortable than the cinemas in Oxford.

Wellington

After a long and boring bus ride down from Turangi, aside from viewing north islands largest volcanoes on the way I arrived in Wellington on Wednesday evening. First I drove up with my cousin to a viewpoint (whose name I have forgotten) overlooking the city of Wellington. After that beautiful food we went back to her house for some dinner before bed.

The next day I caught the train down into town and bought some new shoes to replace the old wet and ruined pair from the walk in Turangi before going to the Te Papa national museum. There I saw some interesting modern New Zealand art and some other fairly interesting exhibtions including one on Scottish immegration to New Zealand and some frankly mediocre rides on adventures and underwater volcanoes in New Zealand. It also included an outdoor exhibition which wasn’t amazing but to be honest I’m a bit sick of museums at this point. Even so I spend several hours there and afterwards I walked along the warves back to the train station.

Then on Friday I headed back into the city centre and first took a free tour around the parliament building. It was great that they still gave the public access to it (including foreigners) in my view and we even got access into the chamber itself. The tour was free and good too. After having a brief look in the national museum I had an excellent lunch in the lively backbenchers pub opposite the parliament which included cartoons and caracatures of several MP’s.

After lunch I went to St Pauls cathedral in Wellington which was a very modern stunning building which I was very impressed by. Then I went to the New Zealand national archives to see the treaty of Waitangi, which was the treaty with the Maori to give New Zealand to the British. After that I saw the old St Pauls which was a small wooden church and was also very pretty and a complete contrast to the modern version. Then I headed up to the cable car and the cable car museum which was interesting but the cable car had far too many stops for my liking having 3 stops from top to bottom where noone got on or off. Later we headed into the bush for a bit to see tree ferns before returning home.