Category Archives: Oceania

Travelogue New Zealand 3: Waiheke Island

WAIHEKE ISLAND
5-7 February 2016

The whole trip had come about because Bronwyn, my most long-standing (we now shy away from the word “oldest”) friend, hatched the plan for an epic 40th birthday weekend with about a year’s worth of notice so we had time to plan. We (probably) would have gone anywhere, but her choice of destination made the choice a no-brainer. Bron had also done all the admin and bookings for the weekend so really all we had to do was pitch up in Auckland.

We’d been included in the ‘family’ plan so would be staying at a bach with Bron and James, Aunty Lorraine and her friend Di (“The Mothers”) and Tyron (Bron’s brother) and Helena and their baby, Tyler.

The term “bach” – so we were told – stems from the word “bachelor’s”, as in “bachelor pad”, and was used where men had accommodation away from the family home. In older times it possibly implied a modest dwelling, but nowadays the term apparently carries no size reference, nor implication of modesty from what we saw and experienced.

Bron and James were super organised and had sorted all sorts of groceries and drinks to take along for the weekend so they took their car across (with all our luggage) on the vehicle ferry, pairing us with The Mothers on the 09h30 passenger ferry. The ferry ride sails across the harbour and past Auckland’s largest volcano, Rangitoto. The passenger boats are comfortable, fast and frequent making the half hour odd experience a painless one.

I’d grabbed a couple of pamplets at the ferry port to do some last minute research and found out that Waiheke Island is “the jewel in the crown of the stunning Hauraki Gulf”. The name comes from the Maori language meaning “cascading water”, although the island is now equally well known for its world-class wines, freshly pressed olive oils, cuisine and art. It’s a lot bigger than we expected, with 133km of diverse coastline dotted with coves, inlets, beaches and walkways. All good to know.

Bron had updated us when they arrived to say that we couldn’t check into the bach yet so we were in no rush and opted to walk the 20 minute distance to get to Oneroa Village (what the island’s locals refer to as “town”) rather than catch a bus or taxi. You can’t often go wrong taking a walk along a road when it is named “Ocean View”.

We used the rest of the waiting time wisely to grab a brekkie at the Beach Club restaurant and browse in the generous handful of shops in the main hub.

Soon enough it was time for check in so we reversed our journey to walk up Ocean View road to the bach Bron had chosen for its convenient location across the road from the party venue for the following night.

Our bach was large and luxurious, with 4 double bedrooms leading off a spacious open plan entrance hall. The other half of the house was plushly carpeted lounge and sitting room, diningroom and large kitchen with centre island and bay windows overlooking the vineyard neighbour that stretched across the valley and infinitied into the sea beyond. A wide verandah lipped the house, dotted with comfortable couches, loungers, table and chairs and a suspended wicker egg chair. The front shared the perspective and view with the kitchen; the back looked onto a gravel courtyard with jacuzzi, outdoor patio and pizza oven with a backdrop view of Cable Bay wineries on the hilltop opposite.

We had a grand old time settling in, wanting to sit on every couch, lounger and – most of all – the egg chair. The day had also gone from the morning’s overcast to a fine drizzle so there was no incentive to leave our luxury sanctum.

Bron had some guests that had followed our thinking and made a weekend of it, and she’d invited them around to our bach for a Friday evening braai. Since we had an outdoor pizza oven as well, we had to use it, and soon had a production line going loading pizza bases with delectable combinations of toppings as starter snacks. Christian did a top job single-handedly manning the braai and delighting with rare rump fingers to whet the appetites for full grill he masterfully managed to have ready all at the same time.

The house was perfect for entertaining and there was a natural flow of people between the verandah, through the living area and kitchen, and spilling out to the jacuzzi and around the pizza oven. It was great to meet Bron’s Auckland friends and get to spend some time getting to know each other in anticipation of the big event the next day.

Saturday morning launched with the opening of presents! Bron languished over the mountain of gifts laid out on the table on the verandah and everyone ooo’ed and aaah’ed as each new treasure was revealed.

The rituals set back breakfast a bit, but Tyron (a chef by trade) hit the kitchen to make eggs benedict for all of us. The other bachful of guests had by this time arrived so poor Ty was posted at his pot on the stove for quite some time poaching 30 eggs the authentic way to feed the hungry masses.

The weather wasn’t great, but spirits were high so we all went down to Oneroa Beach. The sun was covered by the clouds and there was intermittent drizzle, but not enough to dampen our enthusiasm – and the people swimming were wet already anyway!

Christian and I then did a breakaway from the group to sneak in a wine-tasting at Cable Bay. It seemed the neighbourly thing to do since we’d been admiring them as our view since we got there – and we had to pass the entrance on our way home anyway so the odds were stacked in our favour to make it happen.

Waiheke’s climate is hotter and drier than the mainland and the ocean acts as a fan and an insulator providing a longer, warmer season and more moderate temperatures. This is why there are more than 30 different wine-makers on the relatively small island and the overall general quality of the wine is so good. The Cable Bay winery and cellars were very busy. Hardly surprising for a Saturday when it’s so easily accessible from the city. We sampled the wine, which was (almost) as good as the view!

By the time we got home it was time to get ready for the party. The ladies were already well underway, but the boys were blissfully unfettered about time, lounging in the jacuzzi.

I helped Bron with her finishing touches then threw myself together and we headed back out the driveway and across the road to Mudbrick Estate, which is where the party was to be held.

Lots of guests were already there, all “dressed to impress” as the dress code had called for. The venue was beautiful and shared the view we had from the bach but, being further up our hillside, there was just more of it from that vantage point and with the silhouette of the Auckland skyline on the horizon across the bay the whole effect was breath-taking.

Bron’s party had been allocated an outside terrace and a function room for (later) formalities and jovialities. The wine flowed and guests mingled as naturally with new friends as with old, so it was a really good vibe. The estate’s catering was as excellent as the wine and the format of finger foods and nibblybits worked well with the relaxed atmosphere and allowed everyone opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous sunset.

Bron also had a DJ lined up, who kicked in as it got dark and got the guests bopping with a playlist of Bron’s favourite tunes interspersed with popular crowd-pleasers. Bron, Tyron and I all said a short speech, but otherwise it was all fun and festive “kick off your shoes” from there.

Needless to say, we were there until closing and a bit beyond. Even though the stars seemed closer and brighter than they ever are at home, the driveway was still very dark as we made our way back to our bach in the early hour of the morning. Again we were grateful for Bron’s genius plan so we weren’t among the group of people waiting to get a taxi back to the harbour to return to the city on the last ferry of the night.

Sunday morning was a later start for everyone and once we were up and packed up, we waved The Mothers and Tyron & Helena off (they had an earlier flight so needed an earlier ferry) and walked into the village for some brekkie (conveniently having sent our suitcases down in Bron’s car).

As a last hurrah we did a midday cheeky bottle of Dog Point cab sauv at The Oyster Bar before it was time to get to the ferry and bid fond farewells and make all the “see you soon” promises we need to make to endure the parting of ways.

From there it was really easy to grab the Skybus from across the road from the ferry port to the airport. $16 and 45 minutes later we were at the airport, due to start our long journey home. We were obviously in much better stead for the great trek home as this time Christian didn’t set off the alarms as we walked through the security scanners. He had done so in Sydney where the combination of the heat and the rucksack he was carrying had left him with a sweaty patch down the middle of his back that set off the sensors and required a pat down. The security man was quite sheepish when he realised the source of concern.

Travelogue New Zealand 2: Auckland

AUCKLAND
3-4 February 2016

We’d booked the short Wellington to Auckland hop on Jetstar for the plain and simple reason that it was a shedload cheaper than any of the other airlines. Aware that it was a ‘no frills’ carrier, we didn’t expect any bells and whistles, but started to doubt our choice when everyone we told had something negative to say about them – and mostly from firsthand experience!

Our morning had started rushed and on very little sleep after a spirited farewell to the lively city of Wellington, so we resigned ourselves to ‘what will be will be’ and looked forward to napping on the hour-long flight.

But it was not to be. In a bittersweet turn of events, the air hostess woke us shortly after take off to give us breakfast. It came as a surprise since the budget fare didn’t include hospitality and we hadn’t opted for it as an extra. Moreover, the hostess hadn’t offered to everyone and was still making her way toward the back of the plane, singling out the lucky recipients.

We can only presume that Jetstar must be aligned with Qantas, that has a partnership with Emirates, with whom we are Silver members of their Skywards loyalty programme, which (clearly) comes with all sorts of fringe benefits, like surprise chicken and bacon Caesar wraps.

Arriving in Auckland was uncomplicated with an unusually open plan set-up with no restricted access between the carousels and the Arrivals hall and – thanks in no small measures to NZ efficiency – it was mere minutes before we were united with Bron, my longest standing friend and the primary reason for this trip in the first place.

The drive from the airport was an education (of the fun kind). Bron and I had loads to catch up on, while she pointed out places of interest and explained the lay of the land intermittently as we went.

She has based herself in Mission Bay, which we were soon to find out was central and convenient. We did little more than drop off our bags and pack a togbag for our planned sleepover at other friends, and then head out again with Bron who dropped us off some 1km down the road at the beachfront.

In no hurry and with the entire day to see Auckland, we’d opted to walk into town, which we were told was as simple as “making sure you keep the sea on your right”. It turned out that it actually was that simple and, 6 or so kilometres later, we were at the Ferry Port in Auckland with the CBD rolling inland on our left.

By this point we were starving – and in no  state to dawdle with lunch – so trusty Burger King was essential. The aircon was welcome after the exposed walk along the beach path (about which I refuse to whine seeing as we were passed by countless runners and cyclists so it couldn’t have been that bad!) and the free wifi well timed for me to complete my online exam for the Digital Media course I’d done over January and that had to be completed by the weekend, which was going to prove tricky with our itinerary being what we’d made it!

Christian in the meantime Googled “what to do in Auckland” and where it was that we’d arranged to meet Danni (my long term friend – and outsourced right brain – who I’ve never met in person) to go to their place for the night, so as to fashion us a plan for the rest of the arvie.

The meeting point was an easy one, as Christian discovered that the road was up and to the left of our current homebase and very nearly in plain sight from where we were sitting! Thus, the pivot for the afternoon became to go up the Sky Tower to get aerial views of the city and surrounds and really to, well, see what we could see.

Auckland is a very complex animal to fathom from on the ground since its coastline (at least from our direction of approach) is all twisty and turny, with a series of bays that link towards the city skyline, and then a whole bunch of other stuff across the water and much talk about “The Bridge” which seems to be the grand divide between the city and outer suburbs on the Northern side. As always, it feels like info overload upfront…. but starts coming together as you move around the area. And the Sky Tower seemed like a genius way to accelerate getting our bearings.

SkyCity is an entertainment complex that houses restaurants, eventing facilities, gaming, Auckland’s only casino and the Sky Tower. At just under 400 metres high, the tower has glass elevators that shoot you up to the viewing deck where, at 200 odd metres up, you can see far and wide in all directions. There is also bungee jumping, which seemed to thrill the onlookers almost as much as it thrilled the jumper!

Winding our way back to the meeting point was simple enough and there were lots of shops windows to hold our attention as we walked, and went into one or two of interest. One such produced a Manly Sea Eagles training vest, which was too cool for Christian to resist (although he did remind me that the area was now to be called just “-ly” because he wasn’t there anymore).

Meeting Danni was a strange, awkward, surreal, meaningful, closing-one-chapter-and-opening-another awesome moment.

We had met through work when she had already emigrated to New Zealand and was introduced to me as a freelance designer who could help me put together a portfolio of sellsheets for the marketing materials I had been enlisted (also as a freelancer) to create. The content of the mailers was all travel related so an obvious and natural launchpad for peripheral and anecdotal conversation since it was a passion we already shared – and Danni made everything that was in my head look so much better in real life!  It was soon clear to me, no doubt thanks to our shared dedication to verbosity and over-investment, that Danni was the pictures to my words… but with plenty (articulate) words of her own!

That work stuff came to a close, but had entrenched a solid go-to relationship (on Skype and much later on Facebook Messenger) which is now mostly recreational, but I have found every possibly excuse to work with Danni since – and drawn on her generous nature to help me with things above and beyond, like ludicrously ambitious personal projects and my wedding invitations.

I’m assuming that the face-to-face meeting must’ve thrown her off too since her opening gambit was just that I am taller than she imagined. Not in a weird way, just a brainfart.

Danni’s husband Shawn was with her, catching a ride home after his day at work in town. I’d met him before, once or twice in SA just before they’d emigrated, where I’d just started the freelance job doing the marketing materials and he was also doing some work.

Introductions and salutions sorted, the 4 of us headed off to the car (in the extortionate inner city parking lot that is, if you can believe, even more expensive than Sandton City, at some $20 a day!) and the conversation was already flowing smoothly as we emerged from the lot back into the daylight and Danni and I had managed to get the “this is so weird” out of our systems.

Our final destination was Gulf Harbour, one of the most Northerly suburbs of Auckland. Both of our hosts are passionate about their new home town, which made for steady and vivid narration on our commute/tour out of the city, across The Bridge and along the through the suburbs. How very lucky for us that they lived diametrically across from Bron so we covered enormous ground on our first day’s sightseeing!

Auckland traffic – at 4.30pm anyway – is nowhere near as bad as Joburg’s. The inner city traffic seems to be more because of the amount of time allocated to pedestrian crossing rather than a crush of cars and, while a bit congested on either side of the bottlenecking at bridge, the traffic moves smoothly. I suspect the Kiwi drivers might be more conservative, with traffic violations actually being enforced and that, in turn, less accidents lead to less avoidable congestion.

Of course, the experience was completely biased by me not having to drive and with everything new and exciting and with 3 travelmates for company… so perhaps I should get a party car going for the work before I’m absolute in my judgement.

We were surprised and delighted with a sunset excursion at Shakespear Park, starting with a fun cheesy pic at a permanent giant photo frame with *the most* spectacular view as a backdrop.

We then stopped at a free park – where anyone can come and picnic/camp for free AND there are gas braais and all sorts of things provided – and walked down to the most divine little beach, where we could kick off shoes and dip toes in ocean.

This bay is a well-kept secret and there were only a handful of people sharing the beach with us. It was still light as day, although easily past 6pm by this point. How winning to be able to wash away the cares of the day with a frolick and a splash on your way home!

Danni and Shawn live in a Utopian suburb that has wide pavements and no fences and rolling lawns and views that make your eyes transfix. Their home is equally lovely and we had a comfy guestroom with luxurious thick soft carpets and it all felt like we were having a holiday within a holiday at some sort of leisure resort!

We’d pre-planned for dinner at their local pizza place so as soon as we’d dropped our things, we took a toddle down the street, along the path and across the field to the restaurant. Sunset was only now becoming dusk, approaching 8pm.

We settled on the terrace and ordered pizzas and Guinness (for the Index, logging the $9,60). When it got a bit chilly – the restaurant is beside a lake, so it’s inevitable – we moved inside to enjoy desserts and share a steady stream of funny stories about exploits and antics all over the globe!

Not sure if it was sadly or serendipitously (seeing as we all had an early start with respective work and play commitments), but Christian and I were wiped from the short night’s sleep the previous night and a long day travelling and adventuring, so we called it a relatively early night.

After the best night’s sleep since we’d left home, we were up according to plan and ready to leave just after 7 for Danni to drive us down to Gulf Harbour Marina to catch the ferry into town with Shawn.

It could just be novelty factor, but after the Manly and now Gulf Harbour experiences, it would appear that we are ferry fans and could envisage ourselves using them as work commute transport. Not a particularly useful self-discovery when you live in Jo’burg!

We’d pre-planned for Bron to meet us opposite the Botswana Butchery, right outside the ferry terminal and she was there like clockwork, with her mom and mom’s friend Di (referred to almost exclusively collectively as “The Mothers” over the duration of our stay) in tow.

We were driven to Hakapuna (on the other side of The Bridge) for a delicious brekkie in a scenic seaside café. We really were being treated to seeing Auckland from every possible angle!

Breakfast seems, from our small sample experience in Australia and New Zealand, to be a lot more expensive than at home. Not just in translating the exchange rate but also in price comparison with other mealtimes. Consistently $15 – $20 for a plate of food (at 12:1 in Aus and now 10:1 in NZ), it’s a far cry from the good ole Spur Unreal breakfast for R25!

We had a gap before we were due at our next engagement – drinks with Christian’s ex-colleagues in the afternoon – so we returned to Bron’s house to shower and relax while she went to a meeting and then came back to pick us up again. We were very lucky she was so accommodating with playing Taxi Driver for us!

Bron still had some things she needed to arrange for her party (decor items and whatnot), and her excursion to the mall was as good as any, so we tagged along, more providing moral support than anything of real value.

A shopping mall is a shopping mall so not much to report there… except that McDonald’s has pies. The fact is that everywhere has pies – NZ is as pie mad as SA – but somehow it was cooler to get a Georgie’s pie from McD’s. I got a mince and cheese and Christian got a butter chicken, which he said wasn’t as good as the one from Fix, and neither one was as good as Pieman’s Pantry pies at home.

While out and about, it made sense for us to go straight to our afternoon meeting so we got Bron to drop us just out of town so we could get a walk in en route to our designated meeting point, which was loosely arranged as being Wynyard Quarter, the quayside area just past the ferry terminal. This area is a collection of lots of vibrant eating and drinking options so we were bound to find somewhere to suit.

Even with the walk-in we’d requested, we were still early. It gave us an opportunity to peruse the stretch and we decided that Jack Tar was to be the bar du jour. It was a bit windy – the bane of being coastal – so we sat inside, relegated to enjoying the view through the (literal) bay windows.

Our company for the afternoon was 2 of Christian’s ex-colleagues, who both had relocated to Auckland (independently of each other), which was less than coincidental since both are Kiwis. They are festive chaps and order of the day was a nostaligic re-run of our beer o’clock shenanigans in SA. It was great to catch up, which we did over a few choice spots on the quayside.

Both are very happily settled in Auckland and echoed our other friends’ sentiments this city brings a very good work/life balance. The “life” feedback was that it was mostly outdoorsy stuff like beaches, kayaking and general quality time which is a bonus because drinking and snacking in Auckland is very expensive!

Although we’d planned to catch a bus back (how awesome to have safe and reliable public transport), we got an Uber back to Bron’s with one of the chaps since he lived close to her house.

We’d managed to meet Bron, James and The Mothers in by minutes, so still had time to swap stories on how we’d spent our respective days before it was time to turn in. What a lot we’d squeezed into our 2 short days in Auckland!

Travelogue New Zealand 1: Wellington

WELLINGTON
1-2 Feb 2016

The decision to go to Wellington was Christian’s, with his logic being that we’d recently been to the world’s most Northerly capital, on our visit to Reykjavic, so it made sense to counter with the world’s most Southerly. I hadn’t even known that Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, assuming it to be Auckland!

It was just a quick pop-in-pop-out pitstop and, much to my delight, cousin Lucy confirmed that she’d be hopping across from Christchurch in South Island to join us. It was only a 30 minute hop for her, but not so bad for us either with a manageable 3 hour flight over the Tasman Sea from Sydney.

It’s always weird to gain or lose time by crossing time zones when travelling and I was again reminded that it feels like you’re being robbed when you lose time during a holiday. This time we lost 2 hours, having left Sydney 09h30, travelling for 3 hours and arriving in Wellington at 14h30. Felt like we’d spent the whole day travelling since we’d been up and out early for the 2-hour before international flight (which feels like it shouldn’t be, as a Saffa lumping Oceania together as close cousins) deadline. Imagine the converse: sleep in, get to the airport in Wellington by 09h30 for an 11h30 flight and land in Sydney at 12h30. Far more sensible. Mental note to self to plan for intra-itinerary time gain to make holidays as long as possible!

Lucy’s plans had her arriving in Wellington in the morning, so our arrangement was for her to get a lay of the land and meet us at our hotel at 6pm. We’d factored a whole wedge of time for the airport/city commute which, much like Sydney, was completely unnecessary since the bus stopped right outside the Arrivals terminal, happened to be there when we got there and took all of 10 minutes for the full journey. Our earlier-than-planned check-in allowed us an earlier meeting time… and soon it was all hello’s and hugs for the long-lost cousins.

We started our Wellington experience with the quayside, taking a walk along its full length before stopping at one of the many bars and cafés on the waterfront. Lucy and I were already chatting away like old friends, so Christian must’ve been quite relieved to have a cold beer for company!

Although we had originally factored an early dinner into the quayside excursion, nothing appealed so we chalked it up as sundowners and shifted to sharing jugs of beer with midi glasses so that we could enjoy a few more of the numerous places, all humming with activity and many with very relaxed beanbag and blanket mats on the riverbank.

Hunger always outs with us though and so, since it was getting chilly with the sun having disappeared behind the tall CBD buildings across from the waterfront and a too-cool breeze coming in from the water, we walked back up Willis Street intending to go past the hotel and on to the Courtenay Street which is famed for its entertainment options.

We didn’t make it that far. Just before our hotel we spotted Capital Market, a sort of food court of restaurants and take aways. Once we were inside, we were hooked. There was every possible type of food and it was tricky deciding what to have.

As usual, curry won. This time the tie-break being Lucy’s admission that she too is curry mad. It also helped that the shop had a canteen-style display, so we could see what we were going to be buying… and it was impossible to walk away once we were close enough to see and smell the delicious food. To top it all off, the special – 2 curries, rice and naan – for $12 made it a no-brainer. We’d been paying way more than that in Aussie Dollars, so had an all-new definition of “bargain”!

Fuelled and ready to rumble, we turned the corner (literally) and began our Courtenay Street adventure. It was about 8-ish by this point and an impressive collection (it was Monday night, after all) of patrons were out to play. Most of the road is bars and restaurants, vying for their slice of the entertainment pie with offers of $10 jugs and meal options. Clearly a university town.

We ended up at a place called Mish Mash… until way later than intended because you don’t get the ambient sense that it’s home time when nobody else is leaving.

En route back to our hotel we stopped in at a Fix 24-hour store. Christian had drank himself peckish and had a hankering for a cheese and ham roll. I was going to be social and use the opportunity to sample an NZ pie – which seem to be as popular and as accessible as at home – but there was something in the warmer that distracted my attention. Deep-fried crumbed lasagne! Oh. My. Word. Complete genius! (And, oddly, half the price of a pie)

Tuesday’s open of play was set for a generous 10am following the antics of the previous night and not wanting to repeat the oversleep episode so soon after Saturday. Our thinking was that we’d take the cable car to the top of the mountain that provided Wellington’s backdrop and walk down through the Botanical Gardens, which would deposit us at the top end of the Quayside; we’d walk the length of the waterfront (again) which would get us to Oriental Bay where we’d lunch and sloth before trekking up Mount Victoria to the look-out point and then return to the city down the other side which conveniently leaves you at the bottom end of Courtenay Street and all its options for whatever we wanted to do next.

We managed all of that, sort of.

The cable car offered quite a few surprises. Firstly, its station was right in the middle of town and not at the base of the mountain where I just assumed it to be since most of them are really, aren’t they? Secondly, it was a public transport vehicle so it was mostly normal people doing normal things,  going up and down and stopping at their normal stops in normal ways. Thirdly, it was much shorter than I expected, so we didn’t chug up a steep face like Hong Kong and weren’t deposited in the clouds like Table Mountain.

We did have a very sedate walk down through the gardens… which was quite cathartic after our late night the night before.

The only thing I did learn was that Agapanthus is treated as a weed because it isn’t indigenous and self-propogates so easily. I should have used that as a justification in the whole “no Roses, Marigolds or Agapanthus for Pebbles” debacle with Mother in 2006/7!

The garden route deposited us more or less at the top end of the quayside, as planned. The walk in the morning was quite different to the previous evening thanks to the market of pop-up shops in shopping containers along the land side of the boardwalk, providing good conversation fodder as we joked about buying impractical momentoes like heavy statues and elaborate Maori feather skirts.

We bypassed the Te Papa Museum – noted as a premium tourist attraction in Wellington – thinking we’d do a visit later if there was time, and made our way to Oriental Bay.

The beach wasn’t what we expected. There wasn’t the waterfront of (seafood) restaurants that we’d intended to choose from for lunch. In fact, there was only one (expensive) restaurant on the beach side and one (expensive) gelateria/pizzeria take away on the right. We’d originally considered basing ourselves in Oriental Bay for the lush apartments and beautiful views… but I think we’d have been quite disappointed at the lack of action.

Wasn’t so bad as a walk-through excursion though and we enjoyed dipping toes in the ocean and admiring the view from “the other side”.

The downside was that we were 1,000 steps ahead and 1 lunch behind… and there was a literal mountain between us and mealtime. Valiantly, we stuck to our plan and took the high road up Mount Victoria.

It was a huff and puff of note and more than a few times I questioned our commitment to completing the climb. But we did. We trekked up the mostly steep sandy slopes, slops slip-sliding, brows sweating, conversation waning… expecting to summit as an intrepid explorer planting a flag in new ground, a bald patch in an otherwise untamed bushy apex.

Except, when we got there, we were not only not the only summitists but, worse still, we emerged onto a tarred parking lot with *cheaters* who had driven up to view from the very civilised concrete viewing deck, with printed info boards and whatnot. Very unrewarding after our blood, sweat(, sweat, sweat) and tears to get up there.

The one thing this civilisation did not deliver was a cart/kiosk/canteen of any sort with any form of edible. We were starving! And had to walk all the way down the other side to get fed!

Fortunately, the downside is also the downhillside so it was a much easier journey.

It was quite rewarding and inspiring to pass the landmarks that we’d admired on the way up so so so much quicker on the way down!

The path led us straight to the end of Courtenay Street where, after some hours of wishful thinking and craving sharing, we found what we’d already predetermined to be our destiny: a Mexican restaurant.

We feasted on burritos, nachos and quesadilla, which was equal parts quality and well-timed, making it The Best Mexican Meal Ever.

It’s amazing how a life-saving experience can re-inspire. Nourishment gave new motivation for cultural enrichment and we set off for Te Papa to see the much-spoken-of Gallipoli War exhibit.

It was such a good move. I have never seen such a quality production! Giant models that put Madame Tussaud’s to shame, artifacts and personal testimony that would clench the hardest heart. Maudlin as it was, it was a classic once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What a long day that was. Like, a 25 thousand step day!

We all needed a refresher so retreated to our hotels for a shower and change before communing on the rooftop bar at the top of our hotel for sundowners. It was lovely when we got there, if not a bit on the hot side (which they were obviously aware of, seeing as there were complimentary sun hats and lotion available).

As always, when the sun retreated behind the buildings and the breeze sets in, it gets nippy. That signalled the time to move to town.

We still had the Cuba Street box to tick. Perfect opportunity to double-bill with Murphy’s Irish Bar!

… which we propped up until closing.

… and then did a nightcap on Old Faithful, Courtenay Street.

Having not eaten since the Mexican fiesta in the arvie, all the walking and talking had driven us to midnight munchies.

The 24 hour food options are quite a business in such a vibrant party town, but are so disorganised that it takes some PT to check all the prospects if you find yourself hungry with no specific hankering.

It took a complete up and down the street to settle on butter chicken pies for me and Christian and a veggie toastie for Lucy. From different stores, obviously.

By this point it was 2am and time for teary goodbyes (read: mad dash to get Lucy back to her hotel safely and us back to our sanctum while there was still vague hope of 4 hours of sleep). It was surreal that it’d only been 32 hours since meeting Cousin Lucy… but boy had we made the most of our short time together! (And lots of promises to repeat the experience soon and repeatedly!)

Sooner than you can say “6.57 bus” it was 6am and time to get up, showered, packed and off to the airport.

We’d tracked the route the night before, sacrificing precious minutes of sleep to have an empirical idea of our flight plan for the morning… and yet still Christian was ready and waiting (impatiently) ahead of schedule, visibly agitated at me drying my hair (which I’d planned to do).

We left on time and rattled our trolley cases down the desolate early-morning Willis Street and rounded the corner into Dixon quite calmly, bus stop in sight ahead, until we heard the bus coming up behind us.

We BOLTED down the street with our cases and, fortunately, the bus got waylaid at a red traffic light. We pushed across the road on the pedestrian crossing in front of the bus and the driver was nice enough to not only open the doors for us, but also say that we could sort the fare at the bus stop that was still a hundred or so metres away.

Christian shot me the very meaningful “told you so” look at our nearly missing our bus.

I felt a bit sheepish until I spied the big digital clock above the bus driver. We’d nearly missed the 6.46 bus… not the 6.57 we’d planned on catching!

Travelogue Australia 2: Sydney

SYDNEY
28-31January 2016

It was a good thing our transfer from Port Douglas to Cairns Airport was booked for when it was (1pm) because our little last frolick on the beach had flash-fried a decent tanning, which continued to set over the course of the drive to the airport and through the flight. Any longer and we (well, I. But you knew that) would have been burnt to a crisp!

Coral was again our driver but was (this time being in a people carrier with four other people) considerably less chatty and, from our position at the back of the van, the trip was all scenery sans narrative. A coup for Christian who had snoozed on the way there – and would most often opt for the road less Attenboroughed.

We were well in time for our flight and had even scored the prized front row seats with extra legroom (obviously online check-in isn’t a “thing” with the mature audience with whom we’d shared our off-season mini-break). We hadn’t expected an onboard meal so had had Hungry Jack at the airport (an amazing feat with one girl manning the cashier, cook and delivery functions; easily a 5 man operation at home)… but, never afraid to be a meal ahead, ate the roast beef and the chicken stir fry – and relished the Lindt ball and strawberry ice-cream dessert – that was served to us anyway.

Arriving at Sydney Airport, we were again pleased by our bags arriving on the carousel within minutes. It had given us just enough time to gather data for the bus/shuttle/taxi/train options, and we were set on taking the train to St James Station.

The airport is within the city so a mere 15 minutes later we emerged from the station at Hyde Park in Sydney Central. Around a corner and up the road and we were at our hotel, Megaboom.

Post check in, we were pleased to be vindicated that the hotel we’d chosen for its fun name was perfectly appointed and our suite nicely decked with the requisite creature comforts.

Everything had been so quick and easy since arriving that we got ahead of the game and took a trot down to Circular Quay to get an advance night sighting of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It was all very exciting, bar the Bridge having had its thunder stolen somewhat by the miniature (original, predecessor) version of it that we saw in Newcastle last year.

Friday morning’s first mission was to meet up with Christian’s cousin, Helena, who had kindly offered to take time off to tourguide us on our Sydney weekend – along with her family, travelling from Canberra (Grant and Kurt coming from home) and Woolongong (Gabriella coming from uni) to spend time with us.

Helena made it really easy for us, planning daily bundles of excursions in advance but giving us bitesize sets of instructions to follow. It was easy enough to catch the 373 bus to Coogee and head towards the steps… and there she was!

After enthusiastic reunioning and introductions, group consensus was to begin our planned beach walk, which would wind us along the coastline all morning and end up at Bondi where we would meet up with Grant and his cousins (out from Germany and on their last day in Sydney) for lunch.

Coogee was a lovely beachfront, really idyllic and picture-perfect and, had it to do again, we should probably have spent more time there. But you never know these things up front and it seemed more pragmatic to get some walking under the belt while fresh – and less than practical to start the journey of 10,000 steps (hopefully) with wet swimmers and sandy slops.

The conversation – catch-ups, introductory staples and general – flowed easily as we walked along the path and up a hill and round a bend and through a park and past a bowling green… and emerged at Gordon’s Bay, which was a bit rough for swimming. Around the next bend found us at Clovelly, an interesting set-up with concrete decks on either side of the bay turning the inlet into a sort of outsized open-ended swimming pool. This apparently had been a busy-work project initiated by the government during the depression to keep people employed and productive. What a great idea; would be good if the devils at home could manufacture a few decent projects like that to keep some idle hands working.

Walking machines that we were, we whipped past the bathers and baskers, around the bay, out the other side, up and around the bend to Bronte Beach, where we stopped at one of the pavement cafés for a wetty. It was a really beautiful day so the area was buzzing and the beach populated (attributed to uni not being in session for the year yet); great for people-watching in our downtime.

Back on the road, the coast next took us to Tamarama Beach, where we must have looked the part since a lady craned out of the passenger side of the car to “excuse me” us to ask for directions to the Tamarama Beach Club, which by dumb luck we were able to provide since we’d just walked past a building with that name emblazened all along one facade (but which was obscured from the lost lady’s view because of her direction of approach) and the path to that building ran alongside the pavement (which she also wouldn’t have been able to see from her car).

Clearly old hats at this beach walk lark, it was little surprise when we rounded the next bend and were faced with Bondi Beach.

We had to cross most of the beach itself to get to the narrow swimming zone, demarcated by lifeguard flags. It was tough, being South African, to leave our things in our bag unattended on the sand while we swam (which obviously for me meant mid-shin wading).

In the meantime, Grant and his German cousins had arrived in Sydney, so we navigated them to our spot on the water’s edge. They were keen for a swim but since angry grey clouds had pulled in, we moved off the beach to the undercover corridor at the pavilion. None too soon either as soon it was raining up a storm!

No mind though, it would take more than a few raindrops to dampen our spirits (especially since we were still damp from the seawater!) so we walked down the road to the Bondi Hotel and had a very tasty lunch, meaning a barramundi and chips for Christian and I.

Over lunch we got the back story on the Germans. It was Grant’s cousin, Barbara, and her son, Simon, who were on a 5 week holiday in Aus. Fortuitously, their stay had overlapped with ours as they flew out of Sydney the day after we flew in, giving us the serendipitous Friday sweetspot. From lunch we got in another swim at Bondi before Barbara and Simon were driven to the airport and we returned to our hotel.

We reconvened with Helena and Grant at our hotel in the evening and headed to a recommended dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, in Chinatown for dinner. We were hungry again after our 25+ thousand step day and shared a combination of steamed and fried dumplings for starters and all sorts of exotic treats for mains. Although not particularly late, we were among the last to leave the restaurant.

Saturday started with a panic. Somehow my phone – despite being on the powerbank – had died overnight and Christian’s alarm hadn’t gone off, so we woke up 45 minutes later than the planned meeting time!! Our gracious travel companions were very easy going, so had thought nothing of it and gone ahead with meeting their kids as planned. We threw on some clothes and chucked some swimgear in our togbag and hightailed down the road to meet them at the coffee shop they’d chosen for brekkie.

They were very chill about our faux pas (now diagnosed as a flat powerbank and a 5-day week alarm) and perfectly happy enjoying their own company. So nice to meet the 2 new faces to put to all the stories I’ve heard over the years – and who I so narrowly missed meeting on their last trip to South Africa.

Group communed, we were ready to walk down to the harbour to catch our ferry to Manly Beach, which is across the water and just past the heads that serve as the entrance to the harbour.

Manly is very cool. The landing point must’ve served for decades because it’s all old buildings that look like they could easily be 100 years old. From there it’s a legit beachtown with wide pedestrian streets, market stalls and buskers and entertainers swapping atmosphere-creation for cash.

We did a bit of ambling and browsing, but really only attempted direction when the subject of lunch came up. Grant had mentioned earlier, when we’d arrived, that there was an infamous spot called Hotel Steyne that always made tabloid headlines for brawling among liquored Manly Sea Eagles, so that was enough to pique our curiosity and secure it as lunch destination du jour.

The restaurant was a lovely airy sea-facing dining room with self-service counters at the back. The food was delicious and we had very tasty toasties and pizzas. The Hotel seemed too savoury to believe the stories… until I realised, on going to find the loo to change into swimwear, that there was a whole lot more to it. Passing through the big front bar, the bustling courtyard full of checkered characters and the stale-beer smelling pokie room at the back, the stories seemed a bit more plausible.

We hit the beach and all enjoyed frolicking in the cool Pacific Ocean water, at our various chosen depths. Christian, still not getting the rules and compliance thing, got into trouble with the lifeguards for a constant commitment to swimming beyond the demarcated flag zones. The guards were tooting away on their whistles and bleating requests on their megaphones as he carried on bobbing, blissfully unaware… much to our amusement, watching from ankle-depth in the safe zone.

A family after my own heart, the suggestion was tabled to go get ice-cream so that brought to a close our episode on yet another of Sydney’s glorious beaches.

The ferry ride back to the city is quite quick and pleasant, so it must be a pleasure to live somewhere as lovely as Manly and commute in and out of the city.

On our way back in, we happened to pass a Gallagher’s Irish pub so felt obliged to stop in to measure the Guinness Index. $10 a pint, putting Sydney into 2nd place (still behind Hong Kong). The Wellington 7s was on and our timing totally coincidentally coincided with the SA vs New Zealand, which we narrowly lost in the last plays after the final whistle. All was not lost though since we were still through to the next round and teed up to play Australia in the quarter final.

Having made the pitstop, we had to move to get back to the hotel and get showered and changed to meet the others for dinner.

We’d decided on another visit to Chinatown after the success of the previous evening – and on Gabriella’s recommendation of an authentic but modest dumpling place. It was an excellent suggestion and everything we ordered (to share between us) was amazing!

The big plan for Sunday was to meet up with old friends from SA, Carrie and Andre, who had emigrated in 2015. The arrangement was for us to go through to their house in the ‘burbs in the early arvo, so it left the morning for us to see The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

The Rocks is the old section of town which had been the first settlement when the original migrants had made Sydney their home. Helena and I had a lengthy discussion as we walked en route about the hows and whys of who went past this then-remote neck of the woods, thinking that it seemed very out of the way in a time when travel was, to be base, a bit of a schlep. We rationalised that it perhaps was in perspective when you consider that those voyagers were traversing the globe for a few spices and whatnot and if that was enough to motivate, then maybe a little tropical pitstop was a treat after all. Gabriella picked up the tail end of our convo and piped up “Well, I’d come here for a packet of chips and a high five”, which is a winning tagline for the Sydney Tourism Board if I’ve ever heard one!

Not sure about the first settlers (“unlikely to have scored a bag of chips nor cared for a high five” as Gabriella put it), but the next few batches can’t be faulted for wanting to stay. The Rocks is a perfectly preserved slice of history, with the turn of the last century buildings and narrow cobbled streets now housing a generous helping of cafés and restaurants as well as a street market (possibly only a Sunday thing?)

It was easy enough to find space at a café to settle in for some brunch and an enormous toastie and milkshake hit the spot, as we soaked in the atmosphere in the shadow of the famous bridge.

Keeping up our steps, we walked from The Rocks to Darling Harbour. Part of the fun was taking in the foreignness of all the strange Aussie names of things:
Girra Girra Steps, Waranara Terrace, Nawi Cove. All very exotic.

We were given some background on and a basic run-through of Darling Harbour, which was sadly the end of the line for our tour courtesy of the Michls. The few days we’d had together had been so much fun that it was with a heavy heart that we parted ways at Town Hall station to embark on the next segment of our adventure.

Dab hands at the train system, we found the train to Hornsby effortlessly and were soon on our way – for the first time – over the bridge and into the ‘burbs.

Carrie was waiting for us at the station (for some time, I suspect, since our timings had been so sketchy) and we were delighted to reunite! She took us on a quick tour through her new home town and we were soon at their lovely new(ish) home.

It was awesome to catch up with the Boshoffs who, we couldn’t believe, had lived in Sydney for a year already! They were still amazing hosts and lavished us with a lamb shank feast in their charming lush green back yard to the soundtrack of the babbling creek that flowed in the bridged canal flowing between the house and garden.

With a bellyful of deliciousness on board, the plan was hatched to take a trot down to the Cole’s store to get some brownie mix and ice-cream for dessert. A good opportunity to see the neighbourhood on the ground. We also ended up buying a replacement case of beers, which was less than optimal for poor Christian who had to hump them all the way home!

The brownies more than made up for it though, teasing us with delicious aroma while we waited patiently for them to bake, amusing ourselves with trying to fathom the mystery that is Aussie Rules football.

Comfortable in the living room, we watched the first few episodes of The Last Man on Earth while we enjoyed our dessert and stretched the last section of our day together, before our hosts drove us to the train station for our return journey to the city.

Now very au fait with the lay of the land, we opted to go to Town Hall station… and logicked on our walk back to the hotel that this would also be the better station in the morning because, even though a little further on the train, it’d be an easier station to get to in the morning throng since it was a flat walk with fewer traffic crossings than the shorter, downhill, weaving walk to St James. And, with a 09h45 flight requiring us to be at the airport around 07h30, prudence  would be of the essence.

We could not be more wrong. We emerged from the hotel at 07h00 to an empty street and only encountered the first other lone sole at the first intersection! There were progressively more people as we approached the station, with a few mini-bursts of life as our flightpath happened to cross-section a bus stop… but certainly nothing you’d call a “rush hour”. Maybe Central wakes up later because it’s retail driven? Maybe there’s a business district bustling elsewhere?

We were at the station in minutes, convinced that we’d be faced with a flood of people coming in on the train we’d need for the airport journey, as has been common on our previous experiences with metropolitan primetime public transport travel. We stood back on the platform, prepared for the influx to disembark before we tried to enter the train.

The train arrived.

We waited for the rush – both people – to exit before making ourselves comfortable in the caboose we had all to ourselves.

The hard part done, Sydney Airport International Terminal was only 5 stops for us, so we were at our destination before 07h30. What a win!

Sweet sorrow to conclude our Aussie Adventure. And really sad news that they’re all first world and automated so there’s no stamp in the passport to commemorate a truly excellent vaycay.

Travelogue Australia 1: Port Douglas

AUSTRALIA: GREAT BARRIER REEF
22-28 January 2016

For the first time ever, our beloved Emirates didn’t run like clockwork. We were informed as we neared Dubai that our landing would be delayed because of thick mist over the airport. The delay was only an hour… but an hour was enough to jeopardise our connecting flight to Brisbane!

On (eventually) landing, we were relieved to see that we hadn’t missed our flight because, like many others, it had been delayed for 2 hours in the domino effect the mist had caused. The relief was short-lived as we realised that this salvation was at the very real risk of missing our next flight, the connection from Brisbane to Cairns, which had only 2 hours transit time.

Never ones to have our spirits dampened by logistics, we drowned our concerns in the buffet in the Business Lounge. Scottish salmon, prawns, Champagne, a hotdog and mini doughnut (for good measure) later and we were truly in a “what will be will be” headspace when we boarded the plane for our 16 hour flight.

Sadly, the Bourbon-fuelled old worry-wart next to us in the window seat of our 3-seater row, reminded us several times of the implications of the delay since – sorry for him – his connection was an hour after the original landing time so he had a snowball’s hope in hell of catching it. And had us in hell living and re-living the prospect.

But, the travel gods (or rather, the Aussie work ethic since it was all thanks to our luggage coming out on the carousel quicksticks) were on our side, and we whipped through the controls, which deposited us neatly in front of the Virgin Australia check-in desk to hand over our luggage for the short hop to Cairns. What simple genius to have a Domestic check-in counter in the International Arrivals so you don’t have to hump everything across the airport between terminals!

And a good thing too because Christian got into trouble as it was for jumping on the terminal transfer bus through the back door, which was right in front of him when the bus stopped. Despite no signage to that effect, the driver was insistent that it was Exit Only and made Christian get off the bus and come through the front door… only to walk down the length of the bus to take the exact same seat. Christian might have been less compliant if he’d already humped our 2 big suitcases in with him!

The 2-hour Cairns flight was an excellent time to nap, with lots of legroom and nobody sharing our 3-seater, and we were soon in sunny Cairns with our private transfer driver ready and waiting for us. Her name was Coral, not a word of a lie! She joked that the only thing that contested with her for most things named after it, is Cook this-that-and-the-other, after Captain James Cook, who had the first contact with this part of the world.

Coral (The Driver) was very knowledgeable and shared snippets of interest on what we were passing as we took the scenic hour-long drive along the Cook Highway (a bit of a misnomer, being a delightful meandering mostly single lane road). It was mostly tropical forest creeping up the mountain (the same range that runs all the way down to Sydney) on the left and the Coral Sea on the right, with intermittent traffic circles which allow access to the artery that runs to the coastal towns dotted along the tropical North East Queensland coastline. The Australian Government has strictly regulated big chain access into this part of their country, so everything is still quaint and countrified.

The road into Port Douglas – our final destination, EVENTUALLY, having left home on Friday night and arriving Sunday afternoon! – is lined with hundred of huge palm trees, a disproportionately grandiose entrance to the charming boutique seaside town.

We had booked into By The Sea luxury apartments because of its high rating for location, but its reviews had understated completely. Placed on the corner of Macrossan Street (home to all the retail and entertainment action) and The Esplanade (running along our end of 4 Mile Beach), we could not have asked for better. And we didn’t have to ask. For anything. The hotel included EVERYTHING in their package. We could get (free) beach chairs, loungers, towels, beach games, bicycles, cooler boxes, ice, DVDs, books, gym equipment, laptops, tablets, boardgames etc etc etc from reception. No charge, no rush to return. How very awesome; what a nice touch!

After our long haul to get to Port Douglas, we were amped to see the place! A quick shower and some clean clothes later and we were on our way out and into town to get some supplies. Being walking distance from anywhere to anywhere, Port Douglas manages to cram everything you need for a perfect holiday – beach, restaurants, pubs, excursions suppliers and essential holidays goods shops – in a handful of roads and we had placed ourselves perfectly to access everything.

Starting with a gander of the famous (well, to us anyway, having read all the travel info in the onflight magazine) 4 Mile Beach, we slipped off our slops and hit the sand. It’s a strange beach; not the soft white sand you’d think, the sand is compacted and solid underfoot, like the tide permanently only just went out. There are also “stingers” rife, so you can’t swim anywhere but in a small demarcated area, fenced by tight mesh nets and manned by lifeguards. It’s really unusual to see so many people walking along the beach, but not breaking the waterline.

I delighted in walking on the little balls of sand that (presumably) crabs spit out when making their tunnels. It was sort of like sandy bubble wrap or crashing through piles of crunchy leaves; weirdly addictive.

Beach seen, we tried the other direction. A short trot down Macrossan Street (well, the full length) and we were at the bayfront, which Coral had said was a popular sundowner spot. We agreed, so we double-backed and got the groceries (the usual bread, bacon, cheese, eggs), as well as a selection of local beers – tinnies singles so we could sample a selection.

We returned to By The Sea to drop off our spoils and take advantage of the cooler box and ice on offer. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we headed for the park to enjoy our first Aussie sunset.

There were several people who had the same idea – a mixed bag of young and old, families and couples – so we had plenty to keep us entertained with the sea in front of us and (amongst other things) the heated family cricket game right behind us.

It’s really good to see people enjoying public space. And even more so to see them respecting what they have been given. The park is spotless and well maintained – even the public ablution block which is unmanned, but clean and in perfect working order, which would sadly never be the case at home.

On our way home we made the traditional stop in the Irish bar (uncreatively named Paddy’s) for a Guinness to log it against our growing Index. At R96 a pint, it comes in 5th behind Hong Kong, Toledo, Reykjavic and UK. It’s an expensive way to comfort us against the extortionate price the Baron charges (R36 a pint), which prompted the global research!

While at Paddy’s we were recommended pizzas at Rattle & Hum Pizza bar and, never ones to turn down a pizza, it made the perfect dinner plan. Needless to say, the whole experience was different to home… but the most disturbing was when we asked for the condiments (expecting chopped garlic and chilli) and we given little sealed tubs of prepacked “garlic aoli”, a sort of creamed garlic sauce. Really not the same.

Exhausted from the travel, we were home and in bed by 9!

… and only woke up at midday on Monday! 15 hours sleep to get over the travel!

It was overcast which had no doubt contributed to our lie in, but it was still 27 degrees with 90% humidity so the beach was the natural choice for the afternoon.

But, before that, we had important business. Lunch. And booking our Great Barrier Reef Tour.

We walked down to the Bay since that seemed the most logical place for boat companies and we hit paydirt. We got megawraps at Hog’s Breath Diner from their lunchtime bargain $9.90 menu AND we got a chance to review the literature on the various company and tour options. We narrowed down our choices and crossed off the shortlist by visiting the respective companies until we settled on the Calypso full day tour to the Outer Reef, with 2 snorkels and a dive (Christian’s first!) between Agincourt and Opal Reefs.

Very pleased with our accomplishments, we walked back to our sanctum to commence our afternoon’s beachtime.

Arming ourselves with loungers, towels and books from the resort library, we took the left turn onto The Esplanade and hit the 4 Mile Beach. Knowing what to expect this time, we handled ourselves like locals, dropping off our loungers and our bag near the lifeguard tower and taking a long walk along the beach to see if the 4 Mile bit was literal.

We can’t be empirically sure, but it seems credible enough. The beach is on a shallow concave bay so even though it feels like you’re walking in a straight line toward a corner, you never reach the corner because you’re on a constant gradual curve. We gave the curve a half hour and then turned around and retraced our footsteps.

The burst of activity having made up for our slothly start to the day, we felt justified in spending the rest of the afternoon lounging about and soaking in the view, until it started to get dark so we retreated to the heated pool at our resort.

Impossible to resurrect ourselves for public consumption, we decided to get DVDs from the resort library and make nachos for dinner (we had all the supplies already and our unit had a convection microwave, so it couldn’t be simpler). Again we were grateful for our choice of digs – literally everything we could ask for!

By the time we’d cooked, eaten (in a very civilised fashion at the table on our private patio) and watched our movies, it was (again) the early hours of the morning. It was clear that acclimatising wasn’t going to be an overnight game!

Tuesday started a little later than planned, but still in the a.m., which was a good start. As it turned out it was a public holiday, Australia Day, so there were festivities planned in town. We prepared with a bacon sarmie, using one slice of bacon each… although Aussie bacon packs the same size as home consist of only 3 humongous rashers per pack! Each rasher being easily as long as my forearm, elbow to fingertip!

In keeping with the patriotism, we decided to tick off all the hotspots on the tourist map we’d been provided by our reception on arrival. On closer inspection, we were tickled to see that few of the landmarks were of actual historical significance and we’d incidentally already seen/been to most of the places on the map.

Still, we needed to take a turn past the festival being held at the park and that was the start of Murphy street which ran parallel between Macrossan and the sea and would loop us neatly back to our beach, where we could complete the afternoon.

Getting to the park was easy. Lots of the restaurants and shops in town were closed for the public holiday… and EVERYONE was at the park. The organisers had picket-fenced off most of the park for a big marquee that housed 4 eating stations (obviously the 4 top restaurants in town) and they’d even set up 2 smaller marquees on either end, one with a generous band line-up and the other with entertainment like pie judging and tug ‘o war contests. Very festive.

We circled the event and then realigned with our original plan to head up Murphy Street to the lookout point. The map did not show how steep the road was though and – in the stuffy humid heat – we were puffing, panting and sopping by the time we got to the top of the short hill. The view was pretty though, so glad we did it, all considered.

At least we were able to go down the other side of the hill and end up at our corner, grab the usual collection of beach paraphernalia and call it a day.

Having to be at (and that means walking to) our dive shop at 8am for boarding our dive trip, we needed an early night. We hit the Cole’s supermarket (the only chain allowed in town – and fast becoming our favourite place thanks to their range, prices and unwavering commitment to airconditioning!) and picked up a tray of lasagne. We complemented our glamorous dinner fittingly by picking up a bottle of wine from the hole-in-the-wall bottleshop; literally a booth counter in the wall, with a glass window where you could browse the merchandise, which you ask the cashier to fetch for you.

Despite our best attempt at responsible behaviour, we both still nearly didn’t sleep a wink, both worried we’d sleep through our 3 alarms (all set to different times in line with their respective SA / Dubai / Aus settings) and miss our dive trip.

Of course we (Christian) didn’t and soon enough it was 7am and we were fuelling up with scrambles on toast, heading out the door, traversing town like seasoned pro’s and at the dock with time to spare.

There were about 30 people in all on our trip; 7 diving, with all but me on an intro dive. This meant that the best course of action was for us to snorkel the first site and then dive separately at the second (Chris with the intro group and me with a dedicated dive master who could take me a few metres deeper than the intro group) and then the option existed for us to either snorkel or dive the last site.

The boat took us out to the farthest point and we had a brilliant first experience with the world-famous (!) bucketlist (!) Great. Barrier. Reef! The visibility was spectacular. being able to see 30-40 metres in the crystal clear water… not that you needed to when the action is all so close to the surface. With the coral growing best in the sunlight, there is a great deal to see within a few metres under the surface. Even so, at the edge of the coral shelf, where the depths plunge, the water looks bright royal blue and is translucent so you can still see quite a distance below, to see the likes of the turtle and small shark we saw within the first few minutes of the excursion!

It seemed like a tall order to beat, but the scuba diving was truly spectacular. Christian had an incredible opportunity to have his first dive in such a magnificent place – and he’s amped to do it again (although we’ll have to carefully consider where if we’re going to meet his expectations with the bar set this high!). My dive was naturally excellent too, being lucky enough to have a private dive at my pace and duration. The highlight was seeing sharks up close. Even though these local sharks are too small to eat people (and have no interest in us), it was still electrifying to be so close to something in the wild. At one point I was nothing short of mesmerised by a shark a few metres from me that was swimming in a loose figure of 8 through a shoal of silvery fish that shimmered and sheened around it giving it an ethereal glow. Of course the dive instructor took all the magic out of it later when he explained that this was likely part of the shark’s ecosystem / hygiene routine… drat.

We opted to snorkel the last site since it was a high reef with lots to see on the surface and worked on our free-diving with the snorkels instead to add to our rapidly-increasing range of aqua skills.

What a day. Really truly awesome.

We rounded off with a seafood dinner (of course) of the local speciality, barramundi, a white flaky fish that was done beautifully in a thick, fluffy and crunchy batter and served with a mountain of chips. It started to drizzle during dinner and our timing could not have been better because soon after we got back to our spot, it started coming down in sheets! So hard it took out the town’s electricity and the whole of Port Douglas was in blackout.

The rain here is something else. It comes down hard for long periods. It rained through almost every night, incessant throughout the night. Presumably it’s typical of tropical climates (and this isn’t even anywhere near monsoon season!). And they do say that the rain in Port Douglas is measured in metres, not centimetres. And it is kind enough to rain at night rather than dampening the daytimes. But surely all this rain should ease up the humidity somewhat?!?

It’s probably why the beach sand is so odd. It’s always like some rogue wave has washed up the shoreline and flattened what should be soft white sand. No doubt it’s a combination of the punishing rain all night and the inability for anything to dry because of the humidity. It had taken Christian’s shirt 2 day to dry after our traipse up to lookout point – and that was on our covered patio under the ceiling fan!

Our last morning was a bright and sunny one so we ditched our original plan to use resort bicycles to take a ride down the beachfront to Wilderness Village (a zoo habitat thingie) in favour of taking advantage of our beach a last time. The sun was bright, the sky blue and the sea (well, our little demarcated swimming section) warm as a bath. Paradise!