Exploring Sydney

We had only 1 full day here but managed to see quite a lot before heading to Auckland including catching up with John’s cousins Michael in Manly. Our first stop was Hyde Park Barracks as we were interested in learning about the history of Sydney and how the convicts from Britain shaped the city.DSC03690

Britain used to send their convicts to the US, but as the US approached its independance in 1776, it refused to take them leaving Britain to find another solution. That solution was Australia and in 1780, they started shipping their convicts there. This building housed the convicts of Sydney whilst they build the city. But only the men were here- women and children prisoners were sent to another part of the country leaving Sydney with a dearth of women and a problem. So, they started an immigration program with Ireland- Irish women got free transport to start a life here and they were housed in this building (after conversion of course) whilst they waited to jobs and full integration into the town.

We then explored the harbour area on foot and got our first view of the iconic Sydney Opera House

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Across the water from the Opera House is the beautiful Harbour Bridge. For $250 you can harness yourself to the bridge and walk on top of it which we would have done- if not for the pricetag! We walked part way across it on the road level and got a great view!

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We could not leave Australia without seeing kangaroos and koalas! We saw several kangaroos in the wine country as we drove through the country but we hadn’t seen any koalas, so we snagged some cheap tickets to the Wild Life Sanctuary in Sydney to see some. They were even cuter in person and we were able to get quite close to them- they didn’t do a whole lot, mostly napped up in the tree all curled up in the fetal position but they were still cool to see!

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There is also a resident crocodile- 40 years old and 4 meters long at the center.

After that we took a 30 minute ferry ride to Manly to meet up with John’s cousin Michael who moved to Aussie from the UK around 2007. We found a deal on beers beforehand then went to a great microbrewery for some excellent beer and dinner!

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Return ferry ride and a nice walk through the park back to our place. On the way we saw a possum trying to get into the garbage bin. Although a pest to the Aussie’s, we found it cute and in typical tourist fashion, several pitures were taken:)

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Amazing Bhutan- a very late posting from our time in Thimpu and Paro!

We learned about Bhutan after reading some articles about the least visited countries in the world. It is a small land locked country between China and India that controls many of the Himilayan passes and was only recently opened to tourist travels. They have heavy regulations regarding tourism so the only way to get in is to book a “tour” with a government approved agency- the agency will then book flights, make hotel arrangements, provide a guide and transportation and even take care of meals! There is a government minimum spend which is ever-changing but currently $280 per person per day. I suppose this is so they can influence the number of people in the country. This was a lot of money so we only stayed 3 days (and in that time, spent the same as a whole month in Thailand)!

It was great because there were so few tourists there- in fact, most places we saw there were only a few other people there and sometimes, it was just us. Our guide was Kinga, he picked us up from the airport, escorted us everywhere giving us a great history of Bhutan and the things we were seeing- he taught us a great deal about Buddhism. It really felt like a friend was taking us around showing us the best stuff and telling us about the history which helped to make this one of our favourite trips.

There is only one airline that flies into Bhutan, Druk Air, which is owned by the Bhutanese government. The airport is a tricky one and relies on visual approach without instruments (much like Lukla) and with the weather off the mountains, it can be tricky. We were meant to arrive on March 13 but even between the time we took off from Kathmandu and 20 minutes into our 30 minute flight we had to change course due to weather. We landed in Kolkata, India to wait out the weather. We waited all day in the transit lounge but in the end, went back to Kathmandu.

The next morning, we tried again and luckily, the weather cooperated and by 9am we were in Paro, Bhutan! I should mention that the view of the mountains were spectacular – we could see Everest and tried to identify Island Peak without success but it was amazing to fly at the same altitude as those mountains.

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Kinga met us and we spent the first day exploring Thimpu after a lovely 2 hour drive from the airport. We stopped along the way at a beautiful old iron bridge and monastery. Our lunch spot was the only place we ran into other tourists- most of whom we knew from the flight! The food is excellent and our favourite dish was roasted chili in a cheese sauce which is quite spicy but very delicious and a traditional Bhutanese dish.

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Our accomodation was really nice- very spacious, clean and comfortable. This felt especially good as we had become accustomed to much less:)

Day 2 was spent on visiting Punaka Dzong (a 3 hr drive) which is a huge dzong built in 17th century where Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers come together and is the country’s most beautiful zhong.

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We really appreciate being able to walk around these historic buildings which are still very much in use- after taking these pictures, we walked into the dzong among the monks the Kinga spent a couple hours teaching us about the principles of Bhuddism which is really interesting (and complex) and so different from the religion we know.

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Day 3- We got an early start and despite me feeling a little rough made the jourey to Paro to start our hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). It was a fairly good hike to get to the top but the sun was shining most of the way and the view was inspiring so it was enjoyable. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top where we had to surrender our cameras, bags and phones (all electronics as this is a holy place) then went into all 3 shrines. The first shrine was very small and inside housed the usual Buddhas and offerings but there was a monk inside who blessed me and John with white scarves which we took with us. Kinga explained that when we get married, we are to exchange scarves with each other. We have kept our scarves separate throughout all our travels and just mailed them home to London for safe keeping but we intend to exchange them on Dec 8!

Our first good view of the monastery after 45 minutes hiking.

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The view improves after 2 hours- we round the corner to the left and hook around to enter which takes another 15 minutes.

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Us in front of the town of Paro.

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Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built in the 17th century but destroyed in a fire and re-built in 90′s. It was originally built over a cave where an Indian Bhuttist guru meditated for 3 months in the 8th century. We saw this cave which is basically a small, dark and cold hole in the floor which is in one of the shrines. The legends and stories of how the monastery was built and why it is named after the tigers liar is interesting but complex and with many versions- the wikipedia link covers both stories we heard and is worth a read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paro_Taktsang

All in all, Bhutan is at the very top of our list of best places so far. As we travel, a popular question people often ask. Our answer varies of course but often includes Bhutan. It is beautiful with an interesting history. The people are friendly and easy-going and there are few if any tourists. Bhutan is led by a young king who recently married and they are progressive, supporting innovative things like hydro-electricity. Bhutan earns 60% of their government revenues from exporting hydro electricity to India. This especially stands out next to Nepal who have a similar landscape and capacity to generate energy but can’t even manage enough for their own needs (12hr blackout scheduled regularly) nevermind exporting any!

Given the chance, I would definitely return to Bhutan and I might do some hiking and explore the other parts of the country as we only saw 2 villages (the most popular bits).

Catching Up- a post from Stef even though it says John (it always does that)

We are in Auckland- flew in from Sydney yesterday. We have 4 days here before we head out to explore the North Island. We decided to spend this time catching up on things and planning as we will be unable to do so in French Polynesia. So we have an awesome flat with a full kitchen and plan to cook in and just relax for awhile.

John making one of our favs- beef & walnut risotto and the white wine we randomly bought to cook with (the best deal at the store) turned out to be an outstanding drinking wine:)

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So apologies in advance for some blog entries which are massively out of order. We will move them around in a bit but for now- they are posting as I write them!

July 9 we head to French Polynesia for 5 weeks!! We won’t have internet as some of the islands will be very remote. We still have a mobile phone for emergencies and will be able to check email occassionally but otherwise, we are pretty unplugged from July 9-August 17.

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Hello to my friends in Swindon- I miss you guys and can’t wait to catch up in person in November. I hope you aren’t working too hard:) Plan a BOP day soon and someone get a ham, cheese and egg one for me! They are the best, I swear!

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On the hunt for wedding wine in Barossa Valley

It’s a good excuse to taste a lot and not buy anything..

We visited Penfolds and Wolf Blass wineries this morning.. they are some of the biggest brand names here, and it’s interesting to see where the stuff you buy in UK supermarkets and wine merchants comes from. The wine is good – mainly their top labels are on for tasting – but the price buying at the cellar door are 50% to twice the cost of buying from a UK or USA wine merchant.

We alternated wineries with food places – an olive shop, a cheese place and a bakery – until we had enough supplies for lunch, so we went back to the hostel and ate it (with a bottle of wine of course). And now it’s time for a nap!

Penfolds:

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Wolf Blass:

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It’s an important academic exercise – notes must be taken:

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Diving the SS President Coolidge in Vanuatu

After two days, Stef was feeling nearly well enough to dive, and either way time was getting short and I needed to get on the wreck! We had chosen Allan Power’s dive operation to go with – the most experienced on the island. Stef decided not to go on the first dive of the day and see how she felt in the afternoon.

The site is only 10 minutes drive from town, and at the briefing when we got there, it became obvious that even the first check-out dive was going to push us beyond our previous experience. I had expected this, and had looked for someone in Cairns to do the deep diver speciality course at least (and thinking about the wreck diver speciality) – and even asked for these at Allan Power – but they didn’t have an instructor available. So, I jumped in at the deep end with a dive around the outside of the wreck to 39m (the deepest I’d been before was 32m). It also soon became obvious that the dive profiles required will very quickly break through the no-deco limits on the conservative Suunto computers.. despite the claim in the briefing that “this’ll be a no-deco dive”. I guess/hope the dive guides had more liberal computers. Also the going near or a little beyond the limits is compensated for by additional safety stops – at 6m and 3m (or in the case of my second dive the next day 10, 6 and 4m) – and 4 hour surface intervals between dives. So, my dive computer went into deco mode for a couple of minutes before we started to ascend, but as soon as we got to our safety stops it kicked back out into no-deco – not anything to panic about – but definitely focusses the mind that this isn’t the kind of dive you could bail from with a CESA – and your buddy is your one good chance of survival if something goes wrong with your air supply – so better stay really close!

The wreck is very close to the shore indeed – there isn’t really a surface swim required for it – more of just a walk out then a swimming descent down a rope onto the side of the bow. The visibility on the first dive wasn’t great – and it was difficult to get a good idea of the size and layout of the ship – sitting on its side with bow in about 20m of water and stern all the way down at 70m. Previous divers had retrieved some rifles and shells from the wreck and placed them on the top which provided some nice photo opportunities in relatively shallow water. We swam along the wreck a while and the guide pointed out below where the mine had hit – but to be honest in the poor visibility and low light I couldn’t see anything. We swam around and descended down the top deck and swam back towards the bow – a big gun mounted on the deck of the bow was interesting. This was an OK dive and good for safe experience pushing to 40m without being in an overhead-limited environment. I think I felt a little bit narced (a bit slow and dreamy) but not exceptionally so, with basic logic functions still intact!

The second dive was much better – and Stef joined me this time. The visibility was a bit better (although still poor for this site – maybe only 10-15m). We descended straight along the top deck and swam in through the cargo hold doors. There were trucks/jeeps and tracked vehicles to see – plus huge shells/bombs as well. We found our way through to the main part of the ship and examined some medical supplies (still sealed with dry powder in a jar) and saw a row of toilets looking strange mounted sideways on the wall. It was always difficult to understand the orientation and layout with the ship on its side. We also saw some bio-luminescent lanternfish which was amazing, but we couldn’t get a picture in such low light (it’s supposed to be a very cool night dive because of this). We didn’t go as deep but the level of penetration was further than we’d gone before – and in particular pushed Stef close to her limit of claustrophobia. But we made it through and saw some really cool things. Again my dive computer went into deco mode for a minute or two (and Stef’s was about a minute behind mine too).

On the third dive the following morning Stef decided not to join me because she wasn’t feeling 100% and because the plan was to visit “The Lady” which involves going even further into the wreck than we went yesterday. I wasn’t too keen on pushing much further beyond the limits set by both the dive computer and my experience – but this was an opportunity too good to miss. Luckily I had an experienced dive guide all to myself – the safest way to do it, to avoid overcrowding and so you don’t have to keep an eye on anyone else. “The Lady” is a porcelain statue/relief of a lady and a unicorn which was mounted on the wall of the first class smoking room of the original cruise liner – you can see it in the original photographs of the ship in its best days in the 1930′s and early 40′s, before it was converted into a troop transport. At one point it fell off the wall and was remounted (by Allan Power I understand) in the First Class Dining room. To get there we entered the ship from near the bow and descended along one of the floors (which would have been relatively open wide spaces in the original upright ship, but felt like a long tall corridor). It took us about ten minutes to navigate through these spaces and find the Lady down at 40m. There was also a chandelier from the dining room. By the time we had finished taking photo’s, my computer already showed only 1 minute of no deco time left so we began to make our way back – swimming the whole length back to the cargo holds near the bow which I’d seen yesterday. We then went into the chain locker (a pretty tight entrance, exit and space inside) where we saw some of the lantern fish again. By this time my dive computer had been in deco mode for a while and the ascent back to 24m was not satifying it, so I signalled to the guide that we needed to ascend. We exited through a small hatch near the bow, and it was a relief and a great site to see the huge ship in the light behind us and to have appeared from such a small hatch in it! We then took a further 15+ minutes to ascend and decompressing at 10, 6 and 4m. My computer didn’t kick back into no-deco mode until I had been sitting at 4m for a couple of minutes. Out of the water with 75 bar in the tank, and knowing that there were extra tanks at 5m if we needed them, meant I wasn’t really too nervous about this. But it’s definitely pushing things far further than we usually would, and not something I intend to make a habit out of. But what an experience! (Stef here- I’m glad John enjoyed this dive but I was really the nervous fiance at the surface!!)

In the afternoon I decided not to dive as I thought I’d already taken on enough nitrogen and we were flying the next afternoon, so Stef went for a dive without me on Million Dollar Point. Hey- Stef here:) This was the second dive for the others so it was a shallow (relatively), easy one. The wreckage runs from shore to 40m deep and it was neat to see stacks and stacks “stuff” and try to determine what it was- jeeps, bulldozers, cars, trailors and building materials are everywhere. The highlight was a wreck of an Australian ship that sank whilst trying to remove the original WW2 wreckage for sale back in Australia. It made one journey and was on the second mission full of stuff (particularly copper) when it cut its hull on metal and sank- directly on the wreckage it was taking- ironic eh? It was also neat to see how the coral and aquatic life have made this scrap their home. We saw loads of fish including huge wrasse & crocodile fish as well as hard coral.

On the first dive: me with a WW2 rifle, rusted and encrusted after nearly 70 years in the Pacific Ocean:

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Second Dive – vis slightly better – able to make out the huge bow with the cannon mounted on the front:

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Stef with some of the ammo from the big gun up front.. it looked pretty heavy – I thought the dive guide was going to let go and Stef would sink to the bottom with it ;-) :

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Entering the hold – yes it’s pretty dark in there. I think the tracked vehicle is some sort of bulldozer, not a tank. There were also a few jeeps:

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“The Lady” at 40m:

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The Lady and I:

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Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

In the end we decided to spend only 5 days in Vanuatu, as our time and budget is becoming increasingly tighter. The main reason for us to come here was to dive the SS President Coolidge – a fascinating WW2 wreck nearby the main town of Luganville.

Unfortunately when we first got here, Stef had bit of a cold and couldn’t dive, so the first two days we spent exploring some other places. We met Carsten (from Switzerland, in search of volcanoes) at breakfast on the first morning, so we shared a taxi to go to Million Dollar point for some snorkelling. It’s so called for the millions of dollars worth of material disposed there by the Americans at the end of WW2. Santo (and nearby Efate) were important military bases in the battle for the Pacific – with up to 500,000 soldiers vs the native population of 60,000 in the whole of Vanuatu. The bases played an important role in the battle for Guadalcanal, athough the activity was fairly short-lived, as the main theater of war quickly moved much further north. So there were vast amounts of stored equipment and munitions here when the war came to an end, which needed to be disposed of under “Operation Roll-up”. They tried to sell their remaining equipment to the British and the French, who wouldn’t pay any money for it, so eventually they just dumped it all into the sea – jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, fork lifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron, unopened boxes of clothing, and cases of Coca-Cola. Thursten Clarke described it: – “built a ramp running into the sea and every day Americans drove trucks, jeeps, ambulances, bulldozers, and tractors into the channel, locking the wheels and jumping free at the last second. Engine blocks cracked and hissed. Some Seabees wept. Ni-Vanuatu witnessing the destruction of wealth their island would never see again, at least in their lifetimes, thought the Americans had gone mad”. Ironically, the bulk of the surplus, an estimated 90 percent, consisted of civilian items – it’s a shame the Americans didn’t give this away to the Vanuatuans rather than dump it.

But it does create a fascinating dive and snorkelling site, and we found some interesting bits and pieces on the shore as well.

Stef and one of the many Jeeps dumped at Million Dollar Point:

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Diving to one of the tracked vehicles – I think a bulldozer of some sort:

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The next day we were still not up for scuba diving yet, so we shared the cost of a tour with Carsten along the eastern side of the island. This area has some very nice beaches (Stef thinks that Champagne Beach and the beach at Port Olry are the best in the world). We stopped to look at a coconut drying plant, at the beaches and at the Blue Hole. Snorkelling at the beaches was pretty good – great hard corals off Champagne Beach and at Port Olry we saw two turtles (one of them was huge) and a black eagle ray. The blue hole was a very beautiful spot as well, at a calm spot in the forest, with deep clear water great for swimming. All of these places were very quiet with few visitors, and we were lucky to have great weather.

Champagne Beach:

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Stef getting some sun:

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Port Olry – restaurant where we ate lunch by the beach:

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Swimming at the Blue Hole:

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3 day Liveaboard Dive Trip on Great Barrier Reef

We always knew we wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) but after talking to divers in Indo, Thailand and Philippines, we were not expecting much. I think GBR was at its best about 10 years ago and has since been abused and partially destroyed. We actually contemplated skipping it altogether and re-allocating the budget to diving in French Poly. But in the end, we couldnt leave Cairns without at least seeing it. So after hunting around for the best deal, we settled on a 3D/2N liveaboard with ProDive. We boarded early the first day and had a really rough 3 hr to the outer reef- sea sickness was barely averted!
The weather at sea was sunny and beautiful which made the water a gorgeous see through blue. But its soooo windy. The first dive was a real surprise for 2 reasons: first it was FREEZING 24C. We both wore 2 wetsuits but I shivered the whole time and did not particularly enjoy it (I know, we are really spoilt to have become accustomed to 28-29C water). The second surprise was the state of the reef which was better than I thought it would be- we were on Milln Reef which hosted several sharks and turtles and loads of fish. Also several sand sting rays and both hard and soft coral.

The diving here is without guides so there is a thorough briefing w compas headings then we are on our own. Its not worrying though as the diving is shallow and we almost always ran into other divers. And we had good kit including compases and safety sausages.

We did 3 dives the first day (skipped first night dive), 4 the second and 1 the last. The second night dive was pretty cool and very easy- we hung out under the boat watching the grey reef sharks (2) hunt the long tom fish that were attracted to the boat lights. There were so many fish under the boat and the shark just swam around at its leisure, sometimes coming within a few meters of us!

The reef definitely appears to be recovering and whilst there is plenty of dead coral, there is also loads of growth and health coral. Generally more hard coral with lots of table coral, staghorn and finger coral but soft coral is also fairly common. I was pleased. However, there is still a lot of work to be done including stopping the shark fishing which is not actually illegal in Australia. The dive leader was explaining that its not illegal unless you just take the fins. So- the fishermen take the whole shark and dump the body on land:(

Our friendly whitetip:

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One of the many turtles we encountered:

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Plenty of good hard coral provides a nice backdrop:

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