22-24 November 2015 - Vancouver to Sydney, Australia. This was a long, direct flight (almost 16 hours) but the plane was relatively empty, so I had three seats to myself and was able to stretch out and sleep a bit. We left and arrived on time and, as it was 8ish and I didn't have to check into the ship until 3ish, I spent time in the airport using the free wifi so as to catch up on my e-mails and let friends know I had arrived down under. I then caught a 12-person van (I was the only passenger) for $25 to the cruise terminal on the far side of the harbour bridge, White Bay, as opposed to the one by Circular Quay. It was a bit of a journey but the van was comfortable, though the a/c was too high, and much cheaper than a taxi, which I was told would be Aus$70! Not much else to report once I got onto the ship via registration, customs and security. I had arrived just in time for the passenger emergency drill, but after that was over, was able to unpack, grab an early supper and get to bed.
27 November 2015 - Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. After two days of crossing the rollicking Tasman Sea, I wasn't really sure what to expect, but figured, for what was described as “scenic cruising,” that there would be time spent outside on the top decks, hopefully in dry weather conditions, photographing pristine nature, like we did in Alaska...or Norway, for that matter. Well, pristine it was, but I was surprised not to see more animal and bird life - at least bird life (we were told rails, parrots, parakeets, robins, ducks, grebes and kiwi all lived in this park.) We were also told there might be humpback whales, seals, dolphins and penguins, but all I saw during the entire day were what were perhaps two albatrosses, though it was hard to tell for certain as they were so far away, so they may only have been sea gulls!
In the early morning, starting about 7 a.m., we navigated down Milford Sound (technically a fiord and not a sound), with the weather starting out misty and cloudy but clearing up gradually...before the rain hit, to the town of Milford and its strong-flowing Bowen waterfall, due to storms and heavy rain the night before. Once it reached Milford, the ship turned round and headed back out to sea the same way. The below photos are of this impressive waterfall at Milford.
In the afternoon, after continuing southward down the West coast of New Zealand, we headed into Thompson Sound and out Doubtful Sound and about an hour later into Breaksea Sound and out Dusky Sound. Again technically these are all fiords and not sounds. Fiordland National Park, covering 1.2 million hectares, is the largest national park in New Zealand and one of the largest in the world, and is part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area as of 1986. There are a total of 14 fiords in the park, with the longest running 40km inland. It is a very rainy and wet area with an annual rainfall ranging from 1200mm at the eastern boundary to 8000mm in Milford, and averaging 200 days of rain a year. The majority of the forest is made up of silver beech and above 1000 metres, tussocks dominate with alpine flowers.
28 November 2015 - Port Chalmers, New Zealand. We are now on the East coast of New Zealand's South Island where the sea is calmer and some passengers who have been seasick and have been staying in their cabins have begun to emerge. I am lucky in that I am not affected by the rolling waves (touch wood). Port Chalmers is the gateway to Dunedin 12 km away, a Scottish town (Dunedin is the Celtic name of Edinburgh). I had booked a wildlife cruise for the morning and wanted to do some serious internetting. Moreover, I had no NZ dollars, was not about to pay $6 in exchange fees on the ship, and there was no branch of the bank I was told my Canadian bank was partnered with in Port Chalmers, so I was unable to pay the $10 return bus fare into Dunedin. Nevertheless, I was quite happy to stay in this small port town at which our ship was docked for the day, a day that went from sun to rain and back to sun again.
Our two-hour cruise in Otago Harbour to Taiaroa Head in the morning was with Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours on the M.V. Monarch. We were provided with binoculars and warm jackets, but I made do with my own layered clothing and the long lens of my camera. Otago Harbour, 22 km long and 2 metres deep on average, was formed by the flooding of two river valleys and the combination of wind and tide provide food for many birds and mammals, including Northern Royal Albatross, New Zealand Fur Seal and Little Blue Penguin, as well as dolphins, shearwaters, petrels, shags, gannets, gulls, terns, herons, spoonbills, oystercatchers, stilts and black swans. The lighthouse on Taiaroa Head dates from the 1860s.
We were lucky to see many of these species, though I was not able to catch all on my camera. Unfortunately, we did not see any of the rare yellow-eyed penguins. The blue penguins that we did see were swimming on the ocean and were hardly up on the waves when they ducked down under water. However, there was a bull fur seal on the rocks together with a harem of females, and they were fairly easy to photograph. Shags (aka cormorants) were the most prolific species, with both Little Shag and Spotted Shag making an appearance. Royal Spoonbills were just about visible nesting in the trees and black swans with their red beaks were recognizable on the water. The Royal Albatross, too, were fairly easy to spot, either nesting in the grassy area or soaring overhead with their massive three-metre wingspan. While we were watching the nesting albatrosses, a park ranger was checking the eggs they were sitting on and, due to the trust built up over the years, the birds allowed the man to come up quite close to their nests. The hectors dolphin that apparently appeared for a moment I missed seeing altogether. Two white-fronted tern are seen sitting on a pole in the water in the below photograph. To the right of them is an oystercatcher on a sand bank and I photographed the red-billed gull below walking along the street in town.
After a couple of hours catching up with e-mails using the free wifi in the port, I returned to the ship to have lunch and then, armed with my umbrella, rainjacket and camera, I set out to explore Port Chalmers itself. I first walked along the scenic (but steep) route round the back of Iona Church to Lady Thorn Rhododendron Dell and through the cemetery to Carey's Bay with its iconic grey stone hotel. I returned into town skirting the edge of the container terminal along Macandrew Road, then I turned down Beach Street, which ran parallel to the log yard, filled with Radiata Pine logs, ready for export to China, Korea and Japan. Finally, I climbed once again up a very steep path, through a supposed sculpture garden, though I never saw any sculptures, to the Flagstaff lookout for the view below of Port Chalmers. At this point, the rain began so I returned to the ship via the roadway.
29 November 2015 - Christchurch, New Zealand. Though our port city was the lovely Frenchified town of Akaroa, I had booked a tour to take me into, and drop me off at, Christchurch, the main city of the South Island, that was still showing, and suffering from, the effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. The third of these had been the most devastating and had killed 185 people, most of whom, we learned, had been in one building that had not been properly built, structurally. The engineer who built it is still being sought, though he is believed to have escaped to Australia. During our two-hour bus ride from Akaroa to Christchurch, we listened to lively commentary from our driver, Frank, as we passed sheep-covered green hills, black swans swimming in lakes, fields of lupins, a pub, a farm, a Maori marae and dairy cows. Frank told us that in fact the number of sheep in New Zealand today are about half the number there used to be at about 9 sheep per human inhabitant of New Zealand. This is probably due to the fact that there was a move away from sheep farming and toward dairy cow farming. However, the selling price of milk powder per kilo (sold mainly to China) is now half of what it used to be so dairy farmers are finding it hard to make ends meet and a high number of suicides among dairy farmers lately have been the alarming result.
The first thing I did upon our arrival in downtown Christchurch, as we had four hours to ourselves, was to venture into the Botanic Gardens inside Hagley Park, through which meanders the Avon River. I visited a rose garden, a New Zealand fern garden, ponds, and fountains and photographed flowers, ponds, birds and ducks. The walk was pleasant, fragrant and calming. I even caught sight of a couple of punters punting groups of punters in punts down the Avon.
Next I ventured away from Hagley Park toward the still existing signs of earthquake damage, as I passed acres of rubble, new steel-girded construction, and many street murals. The number one tourist attraction, I believe, is the Anglican Cathedral, which was heavily destroyed by the quakes and is still undergoing fund raising to make repairs. I was also keen to visit Re:START, a new mall made up of colourful containers where LuluLemon and Ballantynes (department store), among others, had set up retail shops. There were also plenty of places offering hot food and a number of rather good buskers to entertain us. About that time, I was secretly craving a Starbucks coffee, but the only outlet I found was in a boarded-up building, and when I asked, I was told there was only one working Starbucks in Christchurch now, and it was far outside the city centre. Next I wandered into the New Regent Street mall, where two warlocks were calmly sitting over coffee and discussing (magic tricks, perhaps?) and across the street from them were these lovely coloured pots of flowers. Further on at Latimer Square stands the interim Anglican Cathedral, with pillars made of cardboard. I wonder how it would fare in an earthquake. Would we see a tumbling house of cards? A block away was a hard-hitting memorial of the 185 who had died, called “185 chairs.” There were all sorts of seats from baby bassinets to wheelchairs, all painted white. One was invited to sit on one of one's choice and contemplate. Apparently, similar memorials using chairs have been constructed in Japan, New York, Poland, etc. to remember equally devastating events where lives were lost.
As the bus drove us out of Christchurch mid afternoon, we passed an equally destroyed Catholic Cathedral. A large billboard inside the grounds shows how the Cathedral used to look, with rounded towers. Now, containers hold up the sides to prevent any further damage from walls crumbling and falling. In our bus, we climbed back over the main ridge of hills between Christchurch and Akaroa and were offered a final stop at the crest to photograph the view of Akaroa and the passage of sea up which our ship had sailed before anchoring in the harbour. And finally, as we lined up on Akaroa's wharf to catch a tender boat back to the ship, I noticed the below amusing sign, showing, I suppose, just how laid back Akaroa is...perhaps!
30 November 2015 - Wellington, New Zealand. A nice, warm, sunny day for a change. Finally! This is what I had escaped winter in Vancouver for! My tour this morning was a city drive in a bus with Graham, originally from the UK, but he spoke with more of an Australian accent then a Kiwi one. He drove us out of the port, once again laden with tons upon tons of radiata pine logs, all to be exported to the Far East - according to Graham: in Australia and China they use them for building, in Japan they make them into boards, whereas Korea takes the smallest logs and cuts them all up into matchsticks and sells the matchsticks back to New Zealand!
Wellington is the current capital city of New Zealand. Before Wellington, it was Auckland, and before Auckland it was Russell in the Bay of Islands. Consequently, our first stop was the Parliament building, aka the beehive, and a few streets away we got off the bus in order to visit “Old St. Paul's” Anglican Church, still on consecrated ground, but no longer used for services - though it is available for weddings and funerals. The newer and much bigger Anglican Cathedral a few streets away has taken over its regular services. A bit sacrilegious, I thought, because inside the old church they were selling Christmas ornaments, Santa Clauses and reindeer, all to raise funds to keep the building repaired. Built in the 1860s this church is, strangely enough, actually closed on Christmas Day!
Next we travelled along the beach road to Oriental Bay and skirted the water on a route heading toward the airport, then we turned left onto a switchback up Mount Victoria until we reached the lookout on the top for some lovely 360-degree views of Wellington and its surroundings. Up there, native tui, a beautiful blackbird-sized bird with blue and green colouring and a tuft of white under its chin, were flying among the flax plants gathering nectar from them. There were also a number of sparrow-like birds doing the same thing.
The bus then descended the mountain and travelled back over another road through outskirts and into the bottom of the Wellington Botanic Garden, so that we might visit The Lady Norwood Rose Garden, which was first opened in 1953. Lady Norwood was the wife of Sir Charles Norwood, a former mayor of Wellington. The roses were blooming outside in formal beds and behind them a greenhouse contained more flowers and plants, such as orchids, begonias, and other flowers you see above and below.
The three-hour tour was long enough to give us a taste of Wellington and an idea of where things were located. Then those who wanted to go to the shops in downtown Wellington were dropped off and the rest of us were returned to the ship for lunch. After lunch, I took my camera and my ID and walked from the cruise ship port into town to discover it another way. I walked along the very pleasant Wellington Way along the sea front, seemingly a very popular route for runners, bicyclists, roller bladers, etc., passing the Railway Station, the ferry and helicopter ports, and reached Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, in about 35 minutes. The photo of the man's face below is on a huge billboard by the museum. Not being much of a museum person, I flitted through the various exhibits and thought it a lot of very expensive space. I then carried along on my walk, past the marina, various statues, oriental parade, where the boat houses in the below photograph are located, and as far as the end of Oriental Bay Beach, an artificial beach, but a very popular one on a day like today, clearly the start of summer here as the youth begin working on tanning their white bodies. I then walked quickly back to the ship reaching it in half an hour. The last photo has to do with a public referendum at the moment on choosing a new flag for New Zealand. These are the five choices and voters are to rank them from 1 to 5 as to which they like the best. Three of them are very similar as they all contain an image of a silver fern - a Maori symbol. I wonder which one will be chosen. It is possible, I was told, that Kiwis may just decide that the original flag is best - it is very much like the flag of Australia but additionally Australia's has the Southern Cross.
1 December 2015 - Napier, New Zealand. The sun has fled again and we are back to cloudy skies. Napier, founded in 1855 and located in the region of Hawke's Bay, famous as a wine-growing region, is somewhat of a unique town in that it, too, suffered a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that lasted, I believe I heard our guide say, two and a half minutes! This was back in 1931 and practically the entire town was destroyed, or all but five houses. The earthquake caused the inner harbour to be raised and over 7,000 acres of land were “created.” The houses on the hill were safe, however, as they were older and built of wood. It was decided that the central business district would be built from scratch in the style of Art Deco - in vogue at the time - using sunbursts, fountains, chevrons, and innovative geometric shapes. So it now rivals South Beach, Miami, for the number of Art Deco buildings, in total, 123 of them. And not only will you find commercial buildings in the Art Deco style but also residential buildings in the outskirts. Napier continues to have earthquakes today and is the spot with the most earthquakes in the entire country of New Zealand.
Before I took the one-hour bus tour around town just to get my bearings, I was interested to see Radiata Pine lumber lying in the port among the logs this time. I was told that this timber is exported to China and India. At the end of the tour, after strolling through the central business district, where the bus dropped us off, to photograph the various art deco buildings and murals, I was delighted to find a Starbucks. The bronze statue of a woman and her dog is modelled on Sheila Williams and her dog Raven. Her father, Ernest Williams was a key figure in the town's re-build after the 1931 earthquake. A number of the town's tourism ambassadors were present, decked out in clothes from the 1930s: gangsters in zoot suits and their molls in flapper dresses. There were also a number of classic 1930s cars available to drive tourists about the town, like the one in the centre photo below. After my Starbucks, I strolled along the very strollable Marine Parade sea walk photographing various sights. The statue in the gardens, bottom right, is Pania of the Reef, from a local legend. She was a beautiful maiden who was lured away from her one true love by the sea people who dwelled off the coastline of Napier. She apparently walked into the Pacific Ocean never to be seen again. That's how one write-up I read told it. Another pamphlet I picked up on site says that according to a Maori legend Pania left her sea people to marry Karitoki, a chieftain who lived on the hill. Upon returning to the sea, she was turned into a 1.6 km submerged rocky reef.
My goal, after I passed the public toilets painted in Art-Deco style (first row left below), was to visit the so-called National Aquarium of New Zealand. With such a name as that, I was expecting something grand, but it was rather ho-hum and expensive at $20 for what it contained. Though I did enjoy photographing the two blue penguins, it was difficult to photograph any of the fish or sharks, and impossible to capture images of the Kiwi birds, as they were not only behind glass but also, being nocturnal birds, were kept in the dark. They were difficult enough to see with the human eye, impossible to see with the camera eye. I had to settle for photographing a stuffed kiwi. Napier also has the oldest prison in New Zealand, bu I somehow missed that building.
Back on the ship, I fulfilled another bucket list event this evening, by being a fashion model on the runway. One of six female passengers selected (actually we volunteered), I modeled a black top and black-and-white trousers of a Canadian designer, Joseph Ribkoff, as well as a Jacqueline Kennedy-copy enamel bracelet. I was also the one to pull the winning raffle ticket out of the hat for an AUS$50 coupon to the on-board shops! I was not the winner, but for participating in the show, we models do have an extra 10% discount on clothing at the shops!
2 December 2015 - Tauranga, New Zealand. Tauranga is one of the gateways to Rotorua, the geothermal capital of New Zealand, full of lakes, geysers, bubbling mud and hot springs, not to mention a permanent odour of sulphur. But I had been to the Rotorua area to visit the excellent Tamaki Maori Village back in 2012 and was more interested in staying closer to the ship this visit, in fact exactly where the ship was berthed, in the town of Mount Maunganui. It was a cloudy day, unfortunately, so the town was not looking its very best, but it was in fact excellent weather for walking around the town and my goal, climbing the 232-metre high mountain, Mauao, a sacred mountain for the Maori, a historic reserve.
I read that it took 40 minutes on average to climb the mountain, so of course I wanted to beat that time. Even with a few stops for photos during my ascent, I managed to reach the peak in about 30 minutes. There is a great view over the town from the top with beach both sides. The left hand side is a surfers' beach, voted New Zealand's best ocean beach and containing pristine, white, silica sand. I descended the mount more slowly afterwards, so as to enjoy the scenery and listen to the birdsong, as well as capture a few images on my camera. Then, on reaching the bottom, I took the base track, a 3.1 km level path that circumvents the mountain. During this part of my walk I met a Kiwi man, born in the 1950s, who was there without the “bloody wife”as he called her, whom he had met on a cruise ship 49 or 50 years ago. He had a daughter who had worked one summer in Kicking Horse Pass in British Columbia. He was visiting Mount Maunganui by caravan, staying at the motor home campsite by the mountain's base, known as the Beachside Holiday Park, and was revisiting his past. When he was a boy in the 1950s, the area had a population of 20,000. Today this has grown to 120,000. He pointed out an area that we walked past together, where a ship had gone aground due to the force of high waves and 20 lives were lost. The sole survivor, a young man about age 20, managed to swim to a safer part further along the coast, he told me.
There was, as you can see, plenty of wildlife to behold, including various birds - even a couple of very colourful parrots or perhaps they were macaws(?) - rabbits and domestic sheep, several tui, this domestic blue, brown and black New Zealand bird with the tuft of white feathers under his chin, which I found fascinating, and cormorants, aka shags, who were feeding their young in nests built among the tree branches.
Having completed my circuit, I moved on toward the surfers' beach to watch their action in the waves for a while. There was a black-backed gull who had found a fish, but he unfortunately lost it when a large wave came up to the beach and swept it back into the sea. It was a most enjoyable day of strenuous and then gentle walking, communing with nature and overall beauty.
3 December 2015 - Auckland, New Zealand. Today, in New Zealand's largest city, referred to as the “City of Sails” for its 135,000 yachts, former capital, and birthplace of Sir Edmund Hillary, I had two goals, one was to walk across the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the other was to go up the SkyTower. Heading out early at 8:45a.m., it took me about an hour and a half to walk from our berth at Queen's Wharf to the Bridge, and once I finally managed to get there, after asking quite a few people, and getting diverted a few times due to construction, I was told it was not possible to walk across the bridge as it was for vehicular traffic only. If I wanted to, though, I could pay $125 and climb the bridge on a guided tour, or I could pay $160 dollars and bungy jump 40 metres off the bridge with AJ Hackett (the price includes a t-shirt and certificate, but photos or a DVD of my jump would cost extra.) I passed on both these options and reluctantly headed back toward the city centre, this time on a more scenic route along a boardwalk by the harbour. I saw a lovely kingfisher perched on a bar of a yacht's mast, but unfortunately, by the time I got out my camera and attached my long lens, it was gone.
I then walked quite a way uphill along the downtown streets until I came face to face with SkyCity, where I had to descend to the basement to find the kiosk where tickets were sold. The price here was $28, and I had a coupon for $2 off, but in view of the weather at the time, I decided to give it a miss as well. I did note that there were options: one could just go up the elevator for the previously-mentioned sum, but were I more adventurous, I could have either jumped 192 metres off New Zealand's tallest free-standing building (and, they say, also the tallest man-made structure in the Southern hemisphere) at a speed of 85 km per hour with SkyJump wearing a harness on a cord, or walked a 1.2-metre-wide outer ledge walkway around the SkyTower at 192 metres above the ground without handrails - but also attached to a harness and cord. I could even have enjoyed a discount, had I decided to do both. But alas, today was not the day for either, or both, so adrenaline intact, I headed back to the ship for lunch.
After lunch, laptop in bag, I headed toward the only downtown Starbucks on Queen's Street for a coffee and to log into their free wifi. I was very disappointed to discover that for all the expense of the coffee, I was limited to one hour or 100MB. Apparently, I had more than 100MB to download in e-mail attachments, for I was cut off after a few minutes of use, and notified that I had reached my limit. Moreover, it did not allow me to log on again using a different e-mail. Luckily, Auckland has its own free wifi, with a limit of 1GB and I had no troubles at all accessing that with my laptop, though I never managed to access either Wifi system with my android, curiously enough. By this time, the sun had emerged and it had turned into another sunny, warm day. E-mails done, I strolled at a leisurely pace back to the ship in time for a special presentation of Maori singing and dancing on board. I remembered some of the singers and dancers from the show they presented onboard three years ago. They seemed not to have changed their material either. Nevertheless, it was very entertaining.
4 December 2015 - Bay of Islands, New Zealand. The Bay of (144) Islands is at the tip of the North Island and is our last call on land before our return to Sydney. With a population of 58,500 (2011), its two claims to fame are 1) the Waitangi Treaty Grounds (where our ship's tender deposited us) and where in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Maori and the British Crown, and 2) the location of the first capital of New Zealand, Russell. The Maori, in the form of Kupe, the Polynesian navigator from Hawaiiki, arrived on these shores in the ninth century. Nine hundred years later, Captain James Cook was the first European to sail into the bay and Russell became the first permanent British settlement. The shore leave destination for sailors, whalers and traders during the 18th and 19th centuries, Russell became a lawless and bawdy port. Today, it is the base for an annual regatta and big game fishing.
My tour, paddling in a 50-foot traditional Maori waka (canoe) with the Ngapuhi Tribe learning Maori culture, Maori songs and chants and viewing wildlife, was unfortunately cancelled due to the fact that not enough people signed up for it. This was to be the highlight of this leg of my cruise. So, disappointed, I decided to wander about on land with my camera and photographed birds at Waitanga (the three photos above: the first, oyster catchers, the second, a kingfisher and the third, a fast-running quail). Then I walked the two or so kilometres under a short shower of rain and my umbrella, to Paihia, a larger town. I tried using the free wifi at the library there, but it failed to connect. I then looked into the tours, but found them too expensive. Next, eager to get rid of the NZ$4.30 I had left over, I looked into various tourist shops (nothing less than NZ$5), at offerings of ice-creams and coffees (nothing less than $5) and even a dollar store (OK, so there were things less than NZ$5 there, but it was all rubbish). Finally, I found a small grocery store and bought some edible provisions for Sydney where I will be staying after the two back-to-back cruises.
A note on Paihia, where the remaining seven photos were captured, missionaries were the first settlers here in 1823. The main industry today is tourism - scenic cruises, swimming with dolphins, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, kayaking. There was also a craft market area and the cup cakes below, photographed at one of the craft booths, are not, in fact, edible, for they are soap!
7 December 2015 - Sydney, Australia. The first leg of my journey is over and I am back in Sydney for a few hours. The only notable event during the past two sea days was that I was invited to attend the luncheon for the top 40 passengers, i.e. those that had sailed on Princess Cruises the highest number of days. I was number 41 apparently, as someone had dropped out, and I met numbers 42 and 43 at my table, too, as two more Elite passengers had dropped out. However, getting back to today...although we were allowed to sleep in, unlike the disembarking passengers, and allowed to have a later breakfast, as long as we finished by 9 a.m. (it was quite a treat to sit on my own by the window at breakfast, in the sun, with an up-close view of Sydney Opera House!), we were still obliged to go through Australian customs at about 10 a.m., though all they did was collect our outgoing passenger card. They did not inspect our passports or our day packs. Then, as we were told we could not embark the ship again until after 11:30, I hung around a bit at Circular Quay, and tried logging into a free wifi. That didn't work so I continued on round the Quay to the Opera House where I was able to use their free wifi though it was intermittent. I then looked to see if there were any operas or other shows at the SOH during my four-day stay in Sydney in two weeks' time, but they only had a couple of kiddie shows for those dates, which was disappointing.
I then walked into the Royal Botanic Gardens to photograph the wild fauna and the flora therein. I walked along the sea walk, around which many joggers were running, as far as Mrs. MacQuarie's Chair. Then I took a path back right through the gardens, coming out the other side at the Opera House once again. Then, thinking I had seen a path to the Harbour Bridge from there, I followed it up to the main road. However, there seemed no way for pedestrians to get onto the highway that was leading toward the bridge, so I asked a young lady with a lunch box, figuring her for a local, and she directed me back toward Circular Quay. Instead, I decided to walk through the Central Business District and then down George Street into the Rocks. I asked once more in a shop and was directed to a set of stairs for pedestrians to climb up in order to reach the level of the bridge. Once I was on the bridge, it was a fairly easy path, and a group doing the “bridge climb” for vast amounts of money was visible on the top of the “Coat Hanger” as it is affectionately called.
I walked all the way across to the end of the bridge and down the stairs into the neighbourhood located there, then I turned around and walked back across, all in my flip-flops (thongs). As I still had time, I decided to climb the one bridge tower of four that is available to pedestrians for higher views of the harbour. I believe I read that it took me 282 metres above sea level, which would make it higher than the mountain I climbed at Mount Maunganui, yet it was only 330 steps from underneath the bridge to the top of the tower (yes, I counted them!). The view was nice, it being a glorious sunny day, but I expect it would be much the same from the very, very top, where the climbers were climbing, so I didn't feel I had missed out by not doing the “bridge climb.” And the cost to climb up the stairs to the top of the tower was only AUS$13! I then made my way to the ship through the Rocks, picking up at the Sydney Information Centre, in the Rocks, a mass of brochures about things to do in Sydney on my return. I had just put them in my daypack and was getting out my Android to check the internet again, when I found, from asking a Princess Cruises representative I saw rushing past me, that I had only 5 minutes to get back on board. So I did that and headed to lunch before they closed up the cafeteria in order to execute the lifejacket/muster stations drill.
10 December 2015 - Lifou, New Caledonia. After two days on the sea, we have finally arrived at our first stop in the South Pacific, Lifou in New Caledonia, the latter of which has a population today of over 10,000 people. It is a French overseas territory, consequently French-language based and education is under the French schooling system. Lifou, from “L'île fou,” French for “the crazy island,” is the largest of New Caledonia's Loyalty Islands. It was first inhabited by the Lapita people whose culture dates back to around 800 B.C. and who are common ancestors of Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians. France took control of the islands in 1853 and declared New Caledonia a penal colony from the 1860s until 1897. During that time about 22,000 French criminals and political prisoners were sent here. Many returned to France after serving their time or being granted amnesty. The economy is based on tourism and some vanilla and, religiously-speaking, Protestants and Catholics live peacefully here side by side.
We are now in the Coral Sea, in the tropics and it's finally time to break out the shorts, wear sunscreen and mosquito repellent and carry bottled water to drink. The sea here is a gorgeous aquamarine and the sand is powdery white. On our morning tour to the Beach of Luecila, we passed the “OK”, “Yes” and “No” tribes (aka villages), though we weren't absolutely sure if our 23-year-old young guide Francis wasn't just pulling our leg, for he also said there were lions and elephants in the bush here! He also told us the locals sometimes traded in yams, rather than money (that fact I did believe). Prior to our stop at the beach, we were given a short tour of Wé, the principal town on the island, consisting of a jail, various government buildings, banks, a post office, a gas station, a super market and a few other shops.
Lifou is also the largest raised coral reef island in the world. Entirely made of fossilized, porous coral, it has no surface water, instead it depends on a large subterranean freshwater reservoir accessible via caves. Though the western-style houses we saw were fairly simple, on each property, in addition to a regular house there was also a grass hut or “case” built upon marriage and used as the sleeping quarters of the married couple.
After my tour, I went for a walk on my own, first down to Jinek Bay, to where, apparently, people flock from far and wide to snorkel and dive as, I read later, it is a fantastic place for colourful fish such as angelfish, clownfish, acropora, parrot fish and Picasso fish. It is at this spot that I met the three youths you see in the bottom row of photos. They explained that Lifou was given the name “crazy island” because when the Europeans landed, they found smiling, laughing people, and consequently thought they were crazy. However, they were just happy for they were living in paradise. The young men directed me to a shortcut through the bush and back to the road so I could continue my walk to the historic, but small, chapel of Notre Dame de Lourdes, built in 1898 by Catholic missionaries. As it was located at the top of the hill, from its perch there were wonderful views of Santal Bay, as well as many flowers and butterflies to photograph.
In general, in addition to the stunning colours of the water, the sand, and flowers, I found that people were very friendly, eager to talk - in English or French - the children adorable - there was no problem taking photos of them - and flying around us there were plenty of birds (swifts or martins perhaps) and at least three types of butterflies.
11 December 2015 - Vila, Vanuatu. My pre-conceived idea of Vanuatu was of a remote and primitive place - similar to Papua New Guinea...and, in fact, it is not unlike Papua New Guinea, I was to learn, due to a shared interest in penis gourds and cannibalism! I was especially looking forward to my two tours today, highlights of my entire four weeks, with a wreck dive in the morning and a visit to a cultural village in the afternoon. As it was, I decided to cancel the scuba dive, not only due to its inordinate expense, but also due to the fact that I had had a long-lasting cold that I was only now feeling free of...and thirdly, was I really ready for wreck diving? I endeavoured to replace it with a snorkelling trip for about half the cost for the morning but was told it was sold out and although I was put on a waiting list, a space never came up. Nevertheless, this was the capital of the country we were visiting so I bet there would be something to see and do in town to fill up my time. After all, an international survey in 2006 found the citizens of the nation of Vanuatu to be the happiest, healthiest and most content on earth. Yet malaria does exist here, according to our afternoon warrior/guide.
For a bit of background information then: archaeological excavations find Melanesian people (or South-East Asians?) living in the area of Vanuatu at least 30,000 years ago. Then about 3,000 years ago, Lapita people from the Philippines settled here. Vanuatu was then “discovered” by the Spanish in 1606, and became its own island nation in 1980. Vila, the capital and the largest city in Vanuatu, is located on Efate island, with a population of 40,000 out of a total of 200,000 Vanuatans on 83 islands, speaking 115 different languages. Official languages, however, are English, French and Bislama, a type of pidgin English. Bungee jumping was invented in this country - on the island of Pentecost. It's called land diving or “nanggol” in Bislama and men climb nearly 100 feet up handmade towers of wooden poles tied together and jump off the top with 94-foot-long vines attached to their ankles. Vanuatu was harvested for its sandalwood back when the early explorers came.
I disembarked the ship early enough and visited all the handicraft stalls just outside the port gates first, to get a sense of just how sophisticated this country was. I was impressed by the souvenirs, photos of which I took many, of kids and handicrafts - asking first, of course - and the friendliness of the people - and it was non-aggressive friendliness. Yes, I knew whom to avoid and whom to say no to, of course and they respected my independence and left me alone. One of my first stops was to get a passport stamp - well a stamp in my passport. The man kept on saying “thank you very much,” “passport stamp,” and “in God we trust,” which made me think he believed I was American, so I said, ”No, I'm Canadian,” but then I read the very wet inked stamp he had just placed in my Canadian passport and read that ”in God we trust” is also the motto of Vanuatu - at least that's what I assumed as it said so on the stamp. He charged me AUS$2 for it, and as there were 4 or 5 different stalls offering passport stamps, I thought they would all be the same. However, at the end of the day, I went to a different stall to get a stamp put into my British passport, and it was entirely different! No “in God we trust,” anywhere at all! Then I started wondering if those three phrases were the only bits of English he knew...
My next action was to take a AUS$5 boat ride across the bay to downtown Vila as the pier to which we were tied up was 4 to 5 kilometres away from the downtown core (according to the onboard port lecturer). It was suggested that by boat was the best way to go, as taxi drivers were unreliable as to road safety, and although I had no qualms walking the 4 or 5 kilometres, I was a bit concerned regarding time as I had to make sure I was back at the ship in time for my afternoon tour. So I waited for there to be enough people to fill a motor boat (8 in this case) with a nice local man whom I asked about education and hospitals. A few large yellow beetle-like insects were flying around us and one or two landed on me, so I asked him to hold one so I could photograph it but both attempts he made were thwarted as the flying beetles flew off before it was possible. On the boat to the downtown wharf, we passed Iririki Island, which our port lecturer had told us was a nice place to visit...he had somehow failed to find out first that the whole island had been shut down and closed off due to a cyclone that had passed through back in....March 2015. So my confidence in his recommendations were greatly shattered. This was in fact my second disappointment after finding out about the spectacular snorkelling opportunity I missed yesterday in Lifou, because he had not talked it up and given it its proper due.
In any case, there were a few more attempts to engage my attention when I disembarked the motor boat at the downtown wharf but I had a mission, to visit the bottle shop, where I was told the alcohol was the cheapest in the South Pacific - for a souvenir to take home. I have in fact bought local wine in Italy for less, but in Aussie dollars four-fifty for a bottle of red wine was not to be ignored! We had to pay then and there and according to the ship's policy, we were told that the bottle shop would deliver our purchases to the ship and the ship would store them for us and deliver them to our cabins on the last day. Secondly, I visited the tourism information bureau next door to get some maps and pamphlets, and asked them where the closest free wifi was. I was directed to what I heard as “The Number One Café” back near the wharf. So I went there and ordered a coffee, but I had finished it before the wifi actually started to work. And when I say actually worked, I got telegram to work, but not my e-mails or my facebook, so for what it was, it was a pretty expensive cup of coffee for a third-world nation. Nonetheless, it was a nice place to relax and the skinny mocha I had ordered was excellent. I then looked around and noticed that the name of the cafe was actually Numbawan Cafe. And I later noticed on the map that I had obtained from the tourist information bureau that elsewhere in town there was a building called Numbatu which housed a bank. So “Kofi blong yumi” would translate literally as “Coffee belong you me.” Also from asking about other Bislama phrases during my afternoon tour, I figured out that the Tabu sign in the photo above basically means keep your town clean, don't throw rubbish. “Keeping town belong you, I clean alltime.” So it was finally time to head back to the ship and grab some lunch before my afternoon tour. On my way back to the motorboat wharf, I photographed the group of boys above who were playing up for my camera as they took turns to take different kinds of jumps and dives into the water. And the rather serious-looking little boy above was standing at the gates of the cruise ship pier with what looked like his entire family, led by a seated elderly man (possibly blind?) playing a guitar, singing gospel songs. The little boy was clapping along in time.
And now for the afternoon tour - perhaps the best cultural tour I have ever experienced from a cruise ship, but made all that much nicer by our being a small group. I don't think we were more than 8 or 10 people in total and we were the last of four groups to visit this cultural village today from the ship. First, we were picked up in a van and taken to Ekasup village across the island by Serge, our young guide, who pointed out a few buildings on the way. One of them was the Conference Centre in the shape of a ship's funnel, in which, Serge said, in 2017 a meeting for the Commonwealth would be held. When I asked him which Commonwealth, he didn't know. I suspect it is the British commonwealth, but one of the other (elderly Australian) passengers suggested it might in fact be the G20. I told myself to look it up when I next got the chance. Since Vanuatu depends on both the British and the French governments and to some extent Australia, it is no doubt understandable that he might well be confused.
When we were dropped off at the village, the first person we saw was a young man blowing a conch shell. Serge then passed us each a can of mosquito repellent and had us all spray our exposed bits. After we had done that, we were invited to follow the youth up a well-groomed pathway that wound and turned as he continued to blow the conch shell at intervals. We then started hearing men's voice around us, and they aggressively started moving in on us, shouting strange words, threatening us with bows and arrows and spears. Of course I knew it was all play-acting, and though I later learned we were supposed to act afraid, I couldn't help but smile, naturally, and click away - we had been told we could take as many photos and ask as many questions as we liked, so basically I was in my element. In fact, we were thanked especially for coming on this type of tour, because without us tourists interested in this sort of thing, they would no longer have a reason to keep their culture let alone teach their culture to their young people. A warrior/guide, Nouidia, then introduced himself and introduced us to the village chief (the last photo on the right, above), who welcomed us. Next we were invited into an open area with seats and were given the first presentation on hunting and fishing. Our guide showed us how they catch fish with a stick with vines. Apparently they all get into shallow water around a school of fish and stab the stick with vines onto the ocean floor. The sap that is released from the vines into the water causes oxygen to leave the fishes' bodies so, starved of oxygen, they float up to the surface and are gathered up for a feast. Every time there is a wedding, the extended family will gather, consisting of about 500 people - so a lot of fish is required. And every time there is a funeral, the extended family gathers again...499 people! Secondly, he showed us how they trap lobster with a special basket. I have this explanation in the video below. Thirdly, he talked about another way of catching fish using a stick with a triangle on it, in this triangle they gather spiders' webs from this type of spider called “big spider!” It only bites when attacked.
Next, in a separate area, he showed us how they capture wild chickens and wild pigs using traps. I saw one chicken wandering around on the compound, but no pigs. In a third, covered, area, he began telling us about certain local plants used for medicine. He rubbed together the leaves of one type of plant, purple in colour (called collier?) and squeezed water out of them, which was also purple in colour and contains iron. They give this to pregnant women to keep up their energy. He then did the same for a green leaf collier plant and the green water he squeezed out is said to cure headaches. He then demonstrated how they clean their teeth by peeling a young coconut with his teeth and rubbing the outer husks against his teeth and inside his mouth. Once he had removed the outer husk totally and was left with a whitish breast size fruit, he inserted a straw and pumped the nut like a breast. This is the milk they feed to babies when their own mothers cannot breastfeed them. Again, the video below demonstrates these two actions, so it would be easier for you to watch that than see the photos I took of the process.
Finally he talked about engagement, marriage and cannibalism. Instead of engagement rings, the woman is tattooed to show she is promised to a man. On another island, however, the practice (still today) is to knock out the two top front teeth of the engaged woman to indicate that she is off limits to other men. As for the men, they wear a bracelet made of wild pig tusks, shown in the photo. But this is unfair, because, the men can always remove the bracelet from their upper arm, whereas the women cannot hide their tattoo or grow back their front teeth!
Next we were taken to the outdoor kitchen area, where a fire was burning, yams and gourds were roasting, one woman was grating a coconut, one was weaving a mat and a third was doing something with roast yams and large palm fronds. Then these three small kids emerged and my attention was distracted and I clicked away...We were offered juice, water and fruit, but we had all just lunched so no one touched the fruit though the kids were helpful keeping off any potential flies with branches. They were also selling trinkets and handicrafts in this area, but again I didn't see anyone buy anything. I was still mesmerized by the children and tried asking them questions in French and English but only received shy looks in reply. When I asked our main guide the children's ages he said he thought the eldest was 10, and went to French school, at which information I was quite surprised, as she looked and acted much younger.
Our final presentation was a dance and then two musical numbers, one with local instruments only and the other with singing and instruments. Only the men and boys were involved in this presentation. The video, which you will, finally, find below shows the dancing and singing. Note the bottles and wooden implements used as instruments. It was very well done, the entire presentation. Finally we were invited to return to the place where the van had left us earlier and as we awaited its return, we talked to a very large 13-year-old girl from the tribe who told us she was in grade 8 at school and hoping to become a lawyer. There is a very large university (well, large for the islands) that specialises in law and which we passed on our way to the village. On our return to the ship, Serge was not with us in the van. Instead we had another young man who told us he used to work as a bartender and then in the dining room as a waiter on cruise ships and had been promoted 3 times, but all in all, he felt life was better in Vanuatu where he could be his own boss!
13 December 2015 - Port Denarau, Fiji. Port Denarau is a newish (started in the 1960s) resort development from reclaimed mangrove swamps on an island off the northwest coast of Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island. Fiji is made up of 330 islands of which only about 105 are inhabited. Being a Sunday, there was not much point going into Nadi (pronounced Nandi), the largest town and location of Fiji's international airport, so I chose from the three tours offered by the ship (all very expensive), the one with the best price per hour. Yet, it was extravagant for what it was. According to my experience in the Caribbean, a similar tour would have been less than half of what this one cost me. Looking at tour brochures for similar trips in Fiji, though, it seems the prices are high overall in this country. Apparently there are other tours one can do from Port Denarau, including visits to Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, to Kula Eco Park and the Garden of the Sleeping Giant which houses Raymond Burr's collection of 2,000 varieties of rare orchids. There is also an Indian temple (Sri Siva Temple) and a traditional village to be visited. Otherwise, the island is home to a very large golf course, which takes up most of the space, around which are six or seven resorts belonging to American and French chains such as Sofitel, Hilton, Westin, Sheraton, etc. The Shangri-la resort is also not far away.
Our (expensive) tour then was to Savala Island, a small pile of sand (a caye) in the middle of the ocean, which we reached by a slow, motorized catamaran. Between the cat and the island we were taken in small motorboats that seated about 10 to 12. I heard that the island had recently been bought by a Chinese company. On it was a main building, basically a roof and pillars holding it up, under which were several picnic tables. The floor of the building was sand. There was also, in the back, a kitchen and two toilets. The toilet I used was not flushing. About 8 staff accompanied us roughly 80 to 100 guests. According to the tour description, we would see an abundance of tropical fish in the crystal clear waters and there would also be bird life. We would be offered snorkelling, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, massages and swimming. Snorkelling was offered first, while it was still high tide, and they did provide the snorkelling gear, but I was disappointed with the reef: a lot of the coral was dead and the few fish I saw were very small. The only interesting sealife were the very blue star fish, like the one in the photo. Perhaps, since I have discovered scuba diving, snorkelling is no longer fulfilling to me. There were a few birds, sitting on the rocks, terns perhaps - black ones and white ones - but that was it for wildlife above the sea.
It was hot and sunny (luckily, actually, as yesterday, a sea day, it had rained for many hours), and there was a breeze, as long as you were inside under the shade, but it was really too hot and the sun was too strong to do any other activities where you would be unprotected for too long. So after my snorkelling, I sat at the picnic table and read a book until they served lunch of hot vegetables, a pasta salad, bbq chicken and sausages, brown bread rolls and then papaya, watermelon and pineapple. They did invite us to come and watch them feed a few baby sharks with the bread after lunch, but most of it was gobbled up by the terns. And although there were a few paddle boards and kayaks on the beach awaiting customers, I never saw any massage beds or masseurs.
During the meal, the male staff serenaded us with a few American songs and alcohol was free - it was not free before or after the meal though. Once we were finished eating, one of the men gave us a presentation about the coconut, the tree of life, and demonstrated how every part of it was useful and used: the roots to prevent rock fish poison from entering your body, the trunk for furniture, the leaves fronds for roofs of houses, children's toys, hats, baskets, clothing, etc. the stems for brooms, and for chasing errant husbands out of the bars...and the nut itself, for food and drink. So if you are ever stranded on a desert island, look for a coconut tree. One coconut will feed you for a day. The coconut tree produces coconuts all year round.
Considering that the transport to the island each way was about an hour and a quarter, during which we were offered tea, coffee and banana cake, we were on the island, a caye really, for about 4 hours. Once we arrived back at Port Denarau, I managed to reach the main duty-free-shopping square just in time to watch the last cultural demonstration, a dance, and I took a photo of the troop. Then I walked quickly round the complex, which held clothing shops and restaurants for the most part - including a Hard Rock Cafe - and got my passport stamped for another AUS$2. I took a few photos of a couple more bird species I had not seen before and then headed back to the ship on a large local catamaran, instead of the usual tender boat.
14 December 2015 - Suva, Fiji. According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji about 3,700 years ago. The first European to sight Fiji was Able Tasman in 1643, followed by James Cook in 1770. However, Captain Bligh passed between the islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu when he was set adrift with his companions after the mutiny of the H.M.S. Bounty, and when he returned to England, he took command of another ship and returned to Fiji to charter 39 islands. Fiji became a British colony in 1874 but has been an independent nation since 1970. Founded in 1849, Suva (meaning “little hill” in Fijian) became the capital of Fiji in 1882. It sits on a peninsula on the southeast coast of the island of Viti Levu, the biggest island of Fiji, and has a population of 174,000 (2009).
The weather forecast from the ship called for 20% expectation of rain, and rain slightly it did. The tour I had chosen for today was a visit to a traditional Fijian village, but before that there was a so-called “river cruise” into the Namosi Highlands. We were taken to the Navua River via a large, comfortable bus and were provided with lifejackets, large plastic bags in which to put our things, and a poncho for the rain. Then they put about six to eight of us each in each longboat propelled by an outboard engine. We started off satisfactorily. I was in the last boat with an older Australian male whose fourth visit to Fiji this was, and four young female crew members from the ship, of which two dancers, one shop worker and the main videographer, who bagged the front seat...however, that did mean she got wetter than the rest of us. There were a number of rapids to get over along the river, which they said they nicknamed the Anaconda River, because the film Anaconda II was filmed here, though no anacondas actually exist in Fiji, yet they do have three other constrictor or poisonous snakes. The first part of the river was uneventful, and there was nothing much to see, but then the boat in front of us with four elderly couples as passengers, broke down, so we towed their boat to the bank and we all had to get out of the boats, so that our boat could return to the boat jetty where we had started our cruise in order to pick up another engine. This delayed us a good 30 minutes and there was nothing much any of us could do, or photograph, at that juncture. Finally our boat and both drivers and the replacement engine arrived, the engine was replaced and we piled back into our respective longboats. The river then got a bit more interesting as we saw horses, cows, a few wading birds, a heron and then people on the banks, with what seemed like an entire village washing their clothes in the river at one stage.
The delay meant that we arrived at the waterfall we were supposed to visit just as the other four or five groups were returning from it. The short walk up to the falls was well paved and had rope banisters to hold on to, and the waterfall itself was quite impressive, (you will see it at the beginning of the video below) but time was shortened for those in our two groups who wished to swim in the pool under the falls. I wasn't one of them. The ride by longboat back down the river through the same rapids, with a couple of short showers, seemed overly long and I was afraid the village (Koromakawa) would start their ceremony without us. Nonetheless, they had waited, and one woman whom I asked how long they had been waiting said only about 20 minutes. However, some people then began to worry that one or two of the activities planned for the tour would have to be cancelled due to this delay in order to get us back on the ship in time, but after discussion with the videographer, it was deemed we could go ahead with all the planned events.
So first was the traditional kava (Yagona) ceremony. To start, one young man poured water from an elaborate gourd-based tube into a large bowl where there were bare roots from a pepper tree. Another young man sitting in front of this bowl squeezed and kneaded these roots into the water, making it into “dirty water”. The rest of the ceremony I have in video form. The guide in control made a speech introducing who the guests were, and the fellow who had travelled on our boats with us and had been a photographer, then made a speech. There was some singing and some dancing and some hand clapping. Then our elected “chief” who happened to be a Kiwi, was a offered half a coconut shell (made into a small bowl) of kava to drink. He was instructed to clap once before drinking it all in one go and then to clap three times after putting it down on the ground to signal that he was finished. Then the small bowl was refilled by the man at the kava bowl and it was next presented to the photographer chap, who drank it and clapped. Then a third bowlful was presented to an elected member of the village - a large man on the side, and finally the man who had been doing all the talking drank the last bowlful. At this point, we were told the ceremony was over, we were welcomed into the village and were free to make ourselves at home. I should mention that before we were allowed to enter the building in which this ceremony took place we had to remove both our hats and shoes (women as well as men).
Next, two of the young men picked up guitars and began singing and some very fierce young warriors came in and waved their spears and shouted in our faces as they danced. Then it was the women's turn and four of them presented a much milder dance. The man in the video explains beforehand the meaning of the flower in the ladies' hair: worn on the left means you are single and worn on the right means you are married. “left you are looking, right you are cooking.” Also if you wear it in the middle of your hair, it makes you look too desperate, so don't do it! This is repeated in the video below.
We then had lunch and they made 1-foot submarine sandwiches on brown bread in front of us just like at Subways! There were also local foods cooked in a lovo (underground oven), but I was more anxious to get out photographing the village and the villagers, since I was told time was short, so unfortunately I left about half my sandwich. The rest of the photos are of the fascinating children, as well as the colourful flora and fauna of the village, and the multi-coloured building is the village school. The two young ladies sitting outside the school are the two attractive teachers. I believe the bird is a myna bird, which I continued to see in the islands and back in Sydney.
I was much relieved when we were told that we would be taken back to the ship via the busses because another long journey on the river by longboat would not have been my preferred mode of transport. In fact, on the way back to the ship, the bus drove us through the downtown shopping core. It was crowded and dirty and I felt no incentive to get off, which was an option since there would be free shuttles to take us back to the ship, yet in fact the ship was close enough to the centre that one could easily walk back to it. However, I stayed on the bus with most of my fellow tour passengers and we were delivered back to the ship with only a 10 to 15 minute delayed from what was planned. In any case, I wanted to get back to wash and get ready for my second fashion show as a model, and tonight I wore more clothing by Joseph Ribkoff, a top and capri pants with Swarovski jewels, as well as a necklace made from three strands of pearls and the same bejewelled enamel bracelet as the last show, both from the Jacqueline Kennedy collection.
15 December 2015 - Savusavu, Fiji. Savusavu is situated at the south-east of the other main island of Fiji, Vanua Levu. My excursion today, in the 260-acre Waisali Rainforest Reserve, was considered a rigorous tour, noted as a hike on our tickets, and one American man in his 60s, whom I passed on the hike, told me, as he paused for breath and drank water, that he had read that if you were over 50 you probably shouldn't tackle it. I had not seen that warning, but I had read that we would need proper shoes, so I wore my running shoes, having not brought any hiking boots with me. I was also fully covered in sun cream and mosquito repellent and wore long trousers and my Tilley hat. I was surprised therefore that there were several elderly people on our bus, and I noticed one woman wearing a dress and ballet slippers! Sensibly, a group of 8 overweight, elderly Polish women decided not to attempt it, and stayed at the picnic tables in the park, and I believe another group turned back half-way, but it was a circular route with lots of steps, a steepish path down to a small brook and consequently a steepish path up again, but well laid out with pine plank steps and a few posts, not all of which still had banisters attached to them though the nails were still there. There were a few sign posts indicating what certain plants were, but it was mostly green, so not much to photograph except for the very occasional flower. And although there were supposed to be several species of birds, as well as 7 reptiles, including frogs and skinks, I saw none and only heard cicadas (or perhaps they were frogs). For the most part, I was on my own as I had passed many people, and though the guide, when asked, told us the route would take 20 minutes, he greatly exaggerated, and even the fastest two men took at least 30 minutes, I reckon. I was the third person and first woman to complete the hike. I felt as though we should have been given medals at the end though...but really quite a mild hike considering some I've done and nowhere near the challenge of the Grouse Grind!
As a result of our own speediness and a lot of unfit people attempting the hike, we had a long time to wait after we had finished for the others to arrive back. (Surprisingly, eventually they all managed to do so...in their own time, with only one guide with them, a rather ineffective one at that. His spiel on the bus on the way there consisted of: “to your right is a hospital...to your left is a school...” as if we hadn't figured that out for ourselves). So I got talking to some American men from Tennessee (younger and fitter friends of the one I had passed on the trail), and later some Australians from Sydney and then the local forest ranger (52) and then his wife (50) who had had 5 children. Their youngest, a boy (10), was with them as was their eldest, a 22-year-old girl, who was unmarried but had given birth to a baby boy just 2 months ago. The baby was there with her as was her male cousin. The mother told me the girl was at university studying languages and wanted to be an interpreter, so I sat down and had a chat with her. Eventually hoping to become a court intepreter, she is studying in Lambasa, the other main town in Vanua Levu, on the west coast. She is currently studying Fijian language, because her goal is to interpret between that and English (their main language which she was taught all during her school). Fijian she does not know so well, as it was not taught in the schools during her time. However, due to a new prime minister elected last year, Fijian has now been made a compulsory subject at schools, since people were starting to lose this language. She is finding it a bit of a struggle, but plans to have her baby with her at school, and expects to graduate from the university when she is 25. She told me that one of her language courses is held via satellite. They can see their teacher on a screen though he is physically located in Vanuatu! Her mother was responsible for providing fresh watermelon and pineapple slices to us hikers, so we had those and then the entire family (father, mother, daughter, nephew, son and grandson) got into our bus with us and were dropped off at the entrance to their village down the hill.
After the bus had dropped us off at the jetty in Savusavu, I wandered along the stalls where mostly women were selling souvenirs, and took a few photos and then I walked through the park and along the harbourside path to take some more photographs. Most of the people there were having their lunch as they waited for busses to take them to their villages since this was where the main bus terminal was located. Then, finally feeling hungry and thirsty, I headed back to the ship via tender boat for lunch.
16 December 2015 - Dravuni Island, Fiji. Dravuni Island is located at the northern end of the Kadavu Group, south of Suva. The entire Kadavu Group of Islands has a population of only 12,000, of which less than 200 live on Dravuni. It is one of the smallest populated islands in the Fijian archipelago and is surrounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef, named after the ship, Astrolabe, belonging to the French explorer Dumont d'Urville, which struck the reef in the 1820s. The drop-off from the outer reef can extend 1.6 kilometres downward.
Dravuni Island might be described as a slice of paradise. There are no automobiles, no stores, no cinemas, no industry, no phones, no wifi, no computers, just one village with a tiny church and a two-room school, a hill to climb, lots of coconut palms and a white beach that stretches almost right round the island, apart from two rocky points, one at each end. The inhabitants had graciously opened up their island to us. We were free to explore their village, climb their hill, wander along the three paths across their island, swim in their sea, sunbathe on their beach and they had handicrafts, pareos, shirts, food, coconuts and massages to sell us. Also I believe they were offering a sea-based circumnavigation of the island on their fishing boats.
Their children sang a welcoming song for each tender boat load as it arrived and their adults put on a dancing and singing show for us on the village green at noon. Both of these events can be watched in the video below.
“What did I do?” you ask, well, I took my camera with me, of course, walked pretty much all over the island, took photos of people, flora and fauna, and by fauna, I mean insects (large spiders, butterflies), reptiles (small lizards) and domestic dogs and pigs, though the latter were kept in pens. The village was quite clean. There was no smell of garbage or sewage (not even near the pigs), and many houses had well-tended flower gardens. On one of my walks across the island, I noticed a garden for pineapples and yams, etc. There were, however, several items on the beach on the far side of the island that had perhaps been washed up by the sea - bits of plastic, clothing - that had not been collected and taken away, and were somewhat disconcerting, tarnishing the island's idyllic state, I thought.
Inside the first classroom of the two-room school, the following had been written on the blackboard for our information (yes, a real old-fashioned blackboard with chalk!): “Welcome to Dravuni Primary School. Dravuni Primary is an infant school up until Year 4 only. It was established in 2002 thanks to the major donor the Australian Govt. The chn (sic) all come from this island which consists of about 30-35 families. Total population roll is not more than 200. From here the chn (sic) go to another primary sch. (sic) in another island about 30mins boat ride from here. We always welcome and appreciate your generous Donations to help us in our school Admin. School roll: 30, Year 1: 4, Year 2: 5, Year 3: 5, Year 4: 2, Kindy: 14. Only 3 teachers at Dravuni.” I also visited the church (probably protestant), and noticed that on the cross outside there was an image of Christ, but he was unfortunately headless!
I am not sure how high their peak was but many fit and not so fit tourists were climbing it, many in flip-flops (myself included) despite it being steep in some parts. I removed my flip-flops once I had descended the peak and walked along the sandy beach. However, I think that if I were to live here I'd soon get bored, and might well end up spending hours just watching the sea as it played with a coconut, such as in the below video I made!
18 December 2015 - Noumea, New Caledonia. Located on the South-east side of Grande Terre, the largest island in the Pacific, (if you don't include New Zealand, Japan or Papua New Guinea, our port guide told us), Noumea is the capital of New Caledonia. Situated as well within the world's largest lagoon and the second longest Barrier Reef, Noumea was settled by the French in 1854. Supposedly, Noumea has more sunny days than any other Pacific Island capital but we were unfortunate, though the islanders counted themselves lucky, as today it rained, and it was the first rain they had had in Noumea for two months. Not knowing what to do in this port, I ended up signing up for a ship's bus tour around the city. At least we were under cover in our large bus, unlike the people on the tchou tchou train tour. First the bus drove us up the hill, called Mount Ouen Toro at 420 feet, where I was disappointed with the views as we could only see outer islands, with poor visibility at that. There wasn't even a view of the city from the top. However, pointed out to us in the distance was Amedee Island, on which sits the tallest lighthouse in the world. It was built in Paris then broken down into over one thousand pieces, brought over to New Caledonia, and reassembled on that island.
Our second stop was a hotel, whose name I never found out, located not on the beach but near shops and restaurants, where we were given refreshments and had five minutes to explore their scant gardens. Our guide, a very perky Vietnamese girl, told us it was the cheapest hotel in Noumea, where rooms cost about UAS$120 to 150 per night. Next, we were dropped off for 90 minutes at Anse Vata beach, said to be Noumea's most well known resort, boasting glistening white sands, turquoise waters and green slopes. Again none of this was apparent to us as it was clouded over, it was drizzling and the beach itself seemed to be made of turf, not sand. It was not as windy as we were told it would be, though it is here where people boardsail, in fact it is known, I read, as the South Pacific's windsurfing centre. I tried my best to find things to photograph along the shore line, but apart from a pétanque game played by locals, a Christmas fair (a few booths manned by locals selling food and Christmas trinkets) as well as gulls and myna birds, I was otherwise uninspired (as you probably noted by the few photos today). For most of our 90 minutes of alloted time to spend on the beach, I sat at a cafe that had free wifi and checked my e-mails. No one was swimming or sunbathing. Back on the bus again, we returned to the container port where our ship was berthed, passing on the way the Aquarium des Lagons, the Baie des Citrons (actually Baie des Six Troncs, but misheard at some stage in history), the two museums of note, and the Place des Cocotiers, which was indeed large but empty of people, since it was raining more heavily by then. Usually, this is the liveliest place in town, they say, but today it was not.
Well, good-bye to the Pacific Islands. We now have two sea days on board before we arrive back at Sydney on Monday.
21-22 December 2015 - Sydney, Australia. My group was let off the ship at around 9 a.m. and when I arrived in the terminal and had picked up my luggage, I asked how to get to my hotel in Pott's Point. I was told the best way was to catch a $9 ferry ride, operated by Captain Cook Cruises, from the wharf a short walk away, to Circular Quay, and from there take the train ($4) to King's Cross. So I did that, and eventually arrived at my hotel somewhat tired. Then, as the weather was not looking promising, I decided today would be my catch up day, so apart from finding a grocery store, where I bought some food for the next four days, and looking at a few fast food places to see what else was available, I spent the rest of the day catching up with work and personal e-mails. I was then unhappy to discover, after checking the weather forecast, that we were to have rain in Sydney during the rest of the week - so much for my four full days to discover this city. Nonetheless, I decided I just had to make the best of it.
Tuesday therefore, I was up bright and early and, after consuming my grocery-store-bought breakfast in my room, I walked to the street parallel to my hotel, which I was somewhat disconcerted to find was the red light district (!) and bought a ticket for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, good for 24 hours, which cost $40. As it was raining and raining hard, there were not many of us brave enough to venture out on the HOHO bus and of those of us who were there, all elected to sit downstairs so as to stay dry. However, this meant that views from the rain-splashed windows downstairs were compromised, not only by the rain drops but also by the windows being fogged up from passengers breathing. Moreover, with the sky overcast, many tall buildings were covered by cloud. Nonetheless, I had no choice and I figured it would at least be a way to orient myself should I decide to walk in Sydney on subsequent days, so I completed the Sydney circuit once, and saw a wild yellow-crested white cockatoo on a fence at Woolloomooloo (meaning “baby kangaroo” in an Aboriginal language, incidentally) Bay, on the way. Then I joined the Bondi explorer circuit at Central Station for damp visit to the beach, where, despite the rain, there were surfers, though clearly no sun worshippers lying on the sand. There were some lovely murals to photograph, however. It was about lunch time at that point, so I stopped in at McDonald's for their free wifi and connected, and had a bite to eat and some lovely hot coffee.
I then hopped back on the bus and completed my second circuit of Sydney, as water cascaded down the stairs of the open top bus, and took more photographs ... of the rain, puddles, people with umbrellas and rain slickers, storm drains...Finally, since I had time and was not eager to venture out into the rain at all, I took a third circuit, sitting on the opposite side of the bus for different views.
23 December 2015 - Sydney, Australia. To my delight, I found out that the weather forecast had changed, no doubt due to the surplus of rain yesterday, and cloudy skies with sunny periods were on the menu instead. I made sure to catch the first HOHO bus out from King's Cross once again, as my 24-hour ticket was still good, and prior to getting on, bought an Opal card for the rest of Sydney's transportation system at the newsagent's on what I refer to as the “red light” street, perhaps aptly as there is a huge Coca-Cola sign at one end. I took the bus as far as Circular Quay this time and boy was I glad I did. As it was a dry day, I sat on the top, open deck and re-took some of my photos from yesterday and got far better shots, including the Sydney Tower Eye, the city's tallest building. I also saw some sights of Sydney I had not seen yesterday, as they had not been visible out the windows of the lower floor. My goal today, though, was to visit Manly, the other famous beach of Sydney, next to Bondi. This involved a ferry ride costing $7.18 each way. There were great views of the downtown skyline, the opera house and the coat hanger, not to mention the walkers on the coat hanger, as I sat at the back of the ferry facing the city.
Manly was lovely, full of surfers and local tourists. I first visited the famous beach and photographed beach-volley-ball players, surfing students, this and that, then I decided to walk along the path to Cabbage Tree Bay and Shelly Beach, where there were scuba divers, and on through Sydney Harbour National Park. The latter was quite a wild area where there were long stretches of rocks and bushes and no people so I wasn't entirely sure where I was going or if I knew I would be there when I got there. Nevertheless, the few people I crossed on the path seemed friendly and there were also one or three runners running the circuit so I felt safe.
Finally though, I arrived at a road and followed indications back into Manly through a residential district. I decided by that point that it was time to find a washroom and then lunch so I ended up at Subway's in the ferry building and then had a coffee nearer to the beach as there was no Starbucks here. As it was sunny by then, I sat on the beach wall and watched the lifeguards, as I tried to get free wifi there. It was very slow so I eventually gave up and headed back to the ferry, to Sydney proper and to my hotel arriving by about 5 p.m. I was watching how much money was being deducted on my Opal card and, on questioning one transportation staff, learned that no matter how much you travel, the most that will be deducted from your Opal card in one day is $15. So I thought that was a pretty good deal!
24 December 2015 - Sydney, Australia. Through my hotel, for my last day (I thought), I had booked a tour to the Blue Mountains with FJ tours for today. The hotel staff I talked to had recommended this company as being the best, and though it was not cheap, I went for the full package, which included lunch, three rides and a river cruise. It also included pick up at my hotel, so I was ready at 7:30a.m. but found that the people at my hotel were the last group to be picked up so that meant a lousy choice of seats on this full-capacity bus. So, no window seat, which made me grumpy for the first little while. Nonetheless, the guide, brought out of retirement especially for the business holiday season, was very entertaining and what he had to tell us was very interesting. He was a bit of a name-dropper though, as he had been a driver-guide for Beyoncé Knowles on one of her concert tours to Sydney, as well as a few other famous people.
Our first stop, about an hour in, was Featherdale Wildlife Park, a mostly hands-on visit with local mammals, reptiles and birds so I was very happy photographing, though of course I hate having to shoot through cages or glass. Nonetheless, we were given a good hour and a half here so I was quite happy and feel I got some good shots of wildlife though I never did see the Tasmanian Devil, the Emus were too far away and the Dingo was asleep and too close to the fence for a good shooting angle. I loved all the little colourful birds, the like of which we do not get in Canada.
A good 45 minutes after leaving Featherdale, we stopped for lunch at a golf course, Wentworth Falls Country Club, for a buffet of bbq chicken, battered fish, chips and salad with an apple crumble for dessert. After that we drove on to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains proper, and stepped onto the Scenic Skyway, which apparently has a glass floor though I did not notice it as I was looking and photographing out the glass windows, notably at the Three Sisters and Orphan Rock rock formations. One of three rides at Scenic World, whose tickets were included in the price of my tour, as mentioned above, the Scenic Skyway, at 270 metres, is the highest cable car in Australia. After we had passed over Katoomba Falls and arrived at the Top Station from the East Station, we then transferred over to the Scenic Cableway which holds 84 people and is Australia's largest cable car. It took us over the Jamison Valley down to the bottom station. From there we walked round a series of walkways, through ancient (Jurassic Age) temperate rain forest, where we saw a plethora of ferns, Eucalyptus trees and vines and a few rusty old coal mining implements on display. I read that it was the longest elevated boardwalk in Australia totalling 2.4kms but I was quite bored at this point, despite it being a world heritage listed wilderness, as it all looked much the same to me and there were no animals or birds to photograph. Our last ride was the Scenic Railway, which has a 52-degree incline and is thus the steepest passenger train in the world. It took us facing backwards up to the top station and played some music though I couldn't distinguish whether it was the theme to Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones.
Our final stop in the Blue Mountains was Echo Point, a large viewing area said to be Australia's number one viewing point. From here, there were some more good shots possible of the Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters. There was also an Aboriginal Centre at this venue, where didgeridoos were sold and Aboriginal artwork was displayed. There was no time to see their performance of didgeridoo playing and dancing, however. Then it was a long ride back to Sydney and we were dropped off at a pier next to the 2000 Olympic Games venue and taken on a river cruise back to Circular Quay via the Parramatta River, which was nice, as the weather was glorious. The animatrice onboard was a 20-something year old Chinese-Canadian girl from Toronto!
25 December 2015 - Sydney, Australia and return to Vancouver, Canada. When I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning to check my e-mails, there was a message from my airline telling me that I could now check in. I had tried to do this last night but it was not allowing me to do so and gave no reason why. I found out this morning that in fact the flight was delayed for eight and a half hours. So instead of noonish today, it wasn't leaving Sydney until 8:30 p.m. This gave me a whole extra day to spend in Sydney. Luckily, I would still arrive back in Vancouver in good time for Christmas dinner, so I was not worried. Also it was another sunny day, so I looked into what I could do and decided that all I had left to do really was see what was going on in Darling Harbour - though I did wonder if things would be open on Christmas Day. I checked the various offerings online and also checked with the hotel concierge, and they seemed to think it was a good bet, so I put some more money in my Opal card after I had breakfasted and left the hotel, storing my suitcases with the hotel office first, and took the train to Darling Harbour via Central Station.
I found I could get a package price on three venues that were pratically in the same building on the harbour: Sydney Sealife Aquarium, Wildlife Sydney Zoo and Madame Tussauds. So I bought a multi-ticket and was advised that, in order to avoid the crowds, I should visit the aquarium first. So I did. It was OK, but nothing special, despite it being the biggest aquarium in Australia. My main complaint was that it was so dark. However, I was interested in photographing the platypus duck (too quick for my camera) and the dugongs, as I had seen and photographed neither species before. Everything, naturally, was behind glass and constantly moving, so the photos were rather disappointing, but I spent about an hour there I suppose and was ready for the so-called zoo. This latter was disappointing after Featherdale Wildlife Park yesterday, for everything was behind glass, with the exception of one central court that had a net over it so that birds could not fly out. Nonetheless, I did manage to get some good photos of birds and reptiles, in addition to a Tasmanian Devil and a couple of Echidnas. There was also a butterfly and frog garden where I had fun focussing on the butterflies using my manual focus.
By this time I was tired and hungry so, as I had noticed a Starbucks at the entrance to the harbour when I had arrived on foot from the train station on George Street, I went there for lunch and checked my e-mails with the free wifi, which actually worked. Then I walked back the harbour walkway to Madame Tussauds, which had mostly Australian personalities (e.g. Dame Edna Everage, Evonne Goolagong, Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin), but also some world leaders, and a few world-wide-known film and music stars. As they were posing so well for me, the photos came out really well! Finally it was time to say good-bye to all that and head back to my hotel, pick up my bags and get the $14 shuttle to the airport. I was the last person to check into my flight and the rest of the journey back to Vancouver proceeded without a hitch.