Highway 6 Revisited

Today’s title is adapted from the famous Bob Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited.  Highway 6 is the road that runs down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island and we were back on it this morning as we set off for our next stop in Manapouri. We had decided to take a look at Queenstown on the way past as well. When she was here as a young woman, Ishbel chose her 21st birthday present here. It was a seascape painted by a New Zealand artist named Mark Thomas. She wanted to see if she could track down the gallery and maybe find out what that artist was up to these days.

There are two suggested routes: the easy one, which carries on along Highway 6, or what we’ll call the fun one: the Crown Range Road. This is the highest main road in New Zealand, peaking at 1121 metres as it traverses the Crown Range. The ascent and descent are full of hairpin bends and the locals are not averse to sharing both lanes as they go round bends, so it pays to stay alert. It’s worth taking this road for the spectacular views all the way along the route but particularly at the top of the pass.


It’s always interesting when you’re looking down on an aeroplane. This is an Air NZ flight descending through the valley to land at Queenstown. This wasn’t the only flying object that Ishbel managed to capture while we were there.


This New Zealand Falcon happened by while she had her camera out.

After having our cobwebs blown away at the viewpoint, we got back into the car and headed for Queenstown. We re-joined Highway 6 and were on a straight route into the town, until we passed Wet Jacket Wines, which offered not only wine tastings, but cheese tastings too. Unable to resist, we pulled into the car park and signed up for both. The cheese was all locally made and we bought a cheddar and a blue to have after dinner that evening. The wines were also local, but we didn’t buy any. They were nice, but the biggest red wine production in NZ is Pinot Noir, and I’m not a huge fan of that grape. My tastes are too crude, I guess. One other attraction they had at the place was a reconstruction of an old wool shed, which brought back childhood memories for our brother-in-law as he recalled the same tools being used on the farm on which he grew up.


After this stroll down memory lane, it was back in the car and on to Queenstown. The town was very full when we got there but we managed to bag a parking spot just next to the main library, so it was easy to walk everywhere we wanted to go. Our first target was the Skyline, which claims to be the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, rising 450 metres to the top of the imaginatively named Bob’s Peak.

This was always going to be an interesting exercise as neither Ishbel nor her sister are particularly fond of heights. They decided to sit together facing the upward slope, which meant we got excellent views back down over the valley and lake as we ascended. Their view improved about halfway up when they opened their eyes.

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We declined the add-on activities that were available at the top – bungee jumping or taking a wheeled luge down a concrete ramp – for fear of invalidating our travel insurance. Instead, we had a nice, sedate coffee then went back down the hill.

We took a stroll around town and located the gallery where Ishbel acquired her painting all those years ago. They had some recent works by the same artist available but his style has changed considerably since then and his current oeuvre didn’t strike a chord with her. We wandered through a street market, and some musicians entertaining the cafe crowd that thronged the centre but didn’t find anything to detain us further so headed back to the car and, once again revisited Highway 6. We still had 170km to go before we reached our next AirBnB at Manapouri, so it was time to be on the move.

We were unsure how big or well stocked the shops in Manapouri might be, so we took our first opportunity to stop off and buy provisions for the evening meal. We bought some food but, more importantly, spotted an appropriate beer. Monteith’s brewery is in Greymouth, where we alighted from our train a couple of days ago, and they produce an IPA called Highway 6. It was fate – we had to have some.

We arrived at our “Crib” and settled in. I’m not trying to be gangsta. In the South Island, a crib is a holiday home. Once again, we had lucked out with views over the Waiau River which feeds Lake Manapouri – one of the deepest lakes in New Zealand being over 450m at its deepest point.


After dinner and a taste of the delicious beer, it was time for bed. We had to be up early the following morning as we had booked a tour to Milford Sound. This is the place that 90% of people will recommend if you tell them you are visiting the South Island, so we were looking forward to the trip. We had decided to take the organised tour as it was a long drive there and back so we wanted to let someone else take the strain.

We were organised and ready to go dead on time the following morning. The tour started from Te Anu, a 20 minute drive away, so we set off as soon as we were ready, parked up near the pick up point, and had breakfast at a nearby cafe. The drive across had been quite foggy, but the forecast was for that to burn off as the day warmed up.

We got on the bus and set off, with everyone having a quiet time except the driver and guide, both of whom were very knowledgeable about the landscape through which we were travelling and very entertaining. We made a brief stop on the journey and the mist hadn’t quite cleared yet.


As we got back on the bus, I noticed the lady who was sitting across the aisle from Ishbel and me. I wasn’t sure and obviously looked too intently at her as she started to appear quite concerned at my scrutiny but I eventually decided I was right and addressed her by name. She looked surprised but when I told her my name, she recognised me. My beard had grown since we last met, but she was a former colleague from my last place of work. The world is a small place.

But the main object of the day was to get to Milford Sound and enjoy our boat journey. We made it just on time for our scheduled 10:30 departure and boarded the Milford Mariner.


We set out on the sound, which is actually not a sound (apparently) but a fjord. The inlet is narrow and surrounded by towering peaks that plunge down into the water on both sides.

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As we cruised along, we passed several waterfalls, with the flow from some of them creating dazzling sea level rainbows.

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From others, the water simply cascaded noisily down.


We were lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny day at Milford Sound, which is the first place I’ve ever been where I was told we should come back when it’s raining. In the rain, waterfalls appear from every mountainside and vast quantities of water flow down into the sea. I was happy with what we got and with staying dry.

We once again saw dolphins and, once again, they remained too elusive to get a really good photo. They move too fast and pop up in unexpected places. These are not criticisms one can levy at the Fur Seals, who are content to remain in one place and offer up photogenic poses.


We returned to dock and made our way back to the bus. After our early start and long day, it was a quieter journey back to Te Anu. We collected our car and returned to Manapouri. The weather was still lovely when we returned so we took a stroll around the town and stopped by the local pub for a drink before dinner. It was Saturday night and they had pulled out all the stops for entertainment.  The local Young Farmers had organised a “Bark Off” where contestants were to bring along their dogs and their barks would be judged against their peers (pee-ers?) for the chance to win a range of prizes. Sadly, we found we had to leave before the competition got into full swing, but we did have the chance to scratch behind the ears of some of the contestants. And their dogs.

The road trip was now almost over. Our last night in Manapouri then we were off to the bustling metropolis of Dunedin.


“This train is bound for glory…

…this train.”

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Today’s title is borrowed from a traditional American gospel song, “This Train“, which also gave its lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s biography, Bound For Glory, and which has been recorded by artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Bob Marley. And the Worthing Bluegrass Jam guys. I am missing those jams!

Anyway, the title is a tenuous link to our Sunday adventure, which started with a trip on the Kuranda scenic railway accompanied by our German dive friend, Ellen. The railway may now be described as scenic, but the construction process, which started in 1886, was far from enjoyable for anyone involved. The first two contractors on the job went bust trying to complete Section One, a 13km section from Cairns to Redlynch, rising to just 5.5m above sea level.

Section Two was the real difficulty, intended to ascend a further 320m over the next 24.5km. Eventually, this part of the railway passed through 15 tunnels, rounded 93 curves, and crossed dozens of bridges positioned across ravines and waterfalls.


All of the work on this section was completed using hand tools as it was impossible to get powered equipment up the track. Over 150 men died in accidents while working on the railway’s construction, while an unknown number died from the natural hazards of jungle work, such as disease or snake bites.  The railway was eventually completed and the first train completed the journey between Cairns and Kuranda in 1891. Interestingly, this also spelled the demise of Port Douglas as a commercial centre since all of the traffic from the tablelands now passed through Cairns, relegating Port Douglas to relative obscurity and, ultimately, to an economy based almost entirely on tourism.

Nowadays, one makes the journey in vintage rolling stock, built between the 1900s and 1930s, pulled by a slightly more modern diesel electric locomotive, built in 1966.


Since the carriages are so old, there’s no air conditioning, so all of the windows are wide open to catch any passing breeze.


On the trip up, we saw plenty of evidence of the extreme weather the area has suffered recently. Because of the rain, many rivers are in spate and look very brown as a result of silt being washed into the waterways.

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The journey time is two hours, which includes a 10 minute stop at the overlook point at Barron Falls, before eventually arriving at Kuranda.


Having climbed 1,000 feet, we were hoping that the elevation might have made the temperature more bearable. Sadly it was not to be. The  temperature up here was 36°C and the humidity was stifling. There are some signposted footpaths around the station and village so we followed the river walk. After 500m in the signposted direction, we reached a point where the river had burst its banks and the path was impassable. We returned to our start point and tried the other direction. Again, we only managed around 500m before encountering another flooded bank.

There was a jungle boardwalk on the other side of the village so we walked up there and, this time, there was a sign posted, warning that the path was blocked. This was just opposite the tourist information point so we went over there to ask whether there were any paths available. They informed us that, although the sign said it was blocked, the first 1.5km was still passable. By this time, (with the heat, humidity, and distance already covered) we were perfectly happy with a 3km round trip.

We walked down the boardwalk until we reached a creek that flowed along a valley floor. Once again, we were reminded that in this part of the world, it doesn’t take long to completely leave civilization behind and find yourself in dense tropical rainforest.

Back to the village for a cold refreshing drink – another mocktail – and then on to the Skyrail for our return journey. The Skyrail isn’t a train – it’s a cable car. It descends from Kuranda to Smithfield over the rainforest canopy, providing a unique view of the jungle.

DSC_0689Like the train on the way up, the windows are wide open to catch in any breeze there may be. We had another opportunity to disembark at Barron Falls, which we took, and the view from this side was even more dramatic than from the train stop on the way up.

IMG_3621Back on to the cable car after this and on to Red Peak station where there is a compulsory change as the cable is divided into two sections. Since we were getting off anyway, we decided we would take the guided ranger tour as the next one was due to start in just 6 minutes. We waited the appropriate length of time then the ranger talk started dead on time. In Chinese. That ranger pointed us on to a group ahead which was in English so we went and latched on to that. It was a private tour. That ranger pointed us on to another group even further ahead so we joined that. Another private tour. By this time, we could hear an ominous sound. Silence. The cable had stopped running. We gave up on trying to find a public, English-language tour and walked back to the cable car station to investigate.

When we got there, they were putting out seats and handing out bottles of water to be shared one between two. The water – not the seats. We didn’t need the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to recognise that this was not a good sign. An approaching storm meant that the cableway was switched off. I imagine that, being made entirely of metal and protruding from the forest canopy as it does, the system is a preferential target for any lightning strike. We waited for about 15 minutes then heard the sound of the cable starting to run again. Another 10 minutes later, we were in a car bound for the end of the line where bus transfers to our Cairns hotels awaited us.

It was a relief to be back in air conditioning. After freshening up, we headed out for dinner. We met up with Ellen again on the Esplanade and wandered in search of an eating spot for our last night in Cairns. Through general indecisiveness, we ended up eating at Rattle n Hum, where we had enjoyed a beer with our dive colleagues on Friday. Although philosophically opposed to dining in a bar named after a U2 album, I actually quite enjoyed the food here. And the beer. 4 Pines American Pale Ale is a tasty drop.

After dinner, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel to think about how on earth we were going to fit our new diving accoutrements into our luggage and stay within Jetstar’s draconian baggage weight limits.

“Peace on the reef”

The title of this post has been stolen from the skipper of our dive boat. Warren made a number of announcements to us during our three days on board and ended each one by saying “Peace on the Reef.” By the end, we were all responding in kind, and on one occasion even pre-empted him by saying the phrase en masse before he had the chance to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Having qualified as PADI Open Water divers on Thursday afternoon, Ishbel and I didn’t dive again on the day. However, we were determined to have our first unsupervised dive together on Friday, 8th February. The dive schedule had three dives planned for Friday, the first of which was to take place at 6:30am. Wake-up time was scheduled for 5:45, twenty minutes before sunrise on the reef. After Thursday’s second dive, we had moved from Milln Reef to the Boulders site on Flynn Reef, which was to be the site of Dive 1 this morning.

We had devised a cunning plan to be last into the water and, ideally, first out so that we wouldn’t be getting our newly qualified selves in the way of the more experienced divers. The first part went exactly to plan. We let everyone else off the boat then stepped in to the water ourselves. On this memorable occasion, I contrived to mess up my giant step. The key is to look at the horizon as you step out. Stupidly, I looked down, the result of which was to push my mask off my nose and up on to my forehead. Luckily, I didn’t lose the mask completely. Only my dignity. Ishbel joined me in the water with considerably more grace and we swam round to the rope which we decided we would descend before swimming off to the reef.

This particular site is one which doesn’t require any real navigation skills as you descend the rope to a concrete block to which the boat is moored, then swim off. There is a steep reef wall on your left hand side, so you just keep it on your left on the way out, and on your right on the way back and you can guarantee finding the boat again.  Finding the boat is a skill all on its own and even some of the experienced divers missed it on some of the dives. Sometimes, they were close enough to be able to swim back on the surface but on a couple of occasions, someone from the boat went out in the little motor launch to tow them back home. It was comforting to know that we were in no danger of getting lost.


For our first dive, we had a great time. No dramas, as Australians are fond of saying. We swam along the wall as recommended and saw a wide variety of fish and even a couple of reef sharks, about 2m long. For all the hard work that we put into the course, and the even harder work our instructors put in to getting us through it, this was the payoff. Our relaxed dive along the Great Barrier Reef, going down to 18m for 28 minutes, was a wondrous experience. We weren’t even first back to the boat as we were enjoying it so much.

Winds, tides, and encroaching weather were all conspiring to make life difficult for the skipper and crew in determining where the next dive would be. The boat changed position in the hope of finding better sea conditions, but it was still very choppy. The decision was taken to cancel one of the Day 3 dives to give more down time between them and allow a longer dive rather than two abbreviated dives. We decided conditions were too rough for us to venture back down, and a couple of other people sat out the last dive as well. The boat was rising and falling quite noticeably as we sat at our mooring, so we decided this was a good time to take another seasickness pill. If it was like this when we were at rest, it was going to be very rough on the way back to Cairns.

One interesting event did occur between the two Friday dives. As we sat around the tables in the lounge area, someone said “I think I can smell burning” two seconds before a loud bang and a flash emanated from one of the cabins. There was a group of three American couples, all qualified divers, and the emergency occurred in one of their cabins. Nothing actually went up in flames, but someone had hung up a wet costume immediately above an electric point where they were charging their phone. The drips had fused the power, and melted the charger. The group are all current or former members of the LA Fire Department!

We skipped Dive 2, although Ishbel went out to snorkel the shallow part of the reef. After Dive 2, we headed back to Cairns, after repairing a mooring buoy at one of the sites that had been snagged the previous day. We ended up getting back to town about an hour later than scheduled, but it didn’t interfere with anyone’s plans so we weren’t unduly concerned by the delay.

The homeward journey also allowed for a moment of reflection on the whole experience. Our decision to go through the diving course was something of a whim that we had decided would be a fun thing to do on our travels. I had certainly underestimated the scale of effort required to get through it and certainly wish that I had worked more on some basic fitness before the course started. Our fellow open water students were a diverse bunch of people, ranging from 18 up to, well, our age since we were the oldest. They were from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Despite the obvious differences between us all, the sense of camaraderie was overwhelming, We could always put that down to the fact that we were united in adversity, all trying to qualify as divers. But once we were on the boat, that diversity increased as we met qualified divers from Denmark, Sweden, the US, China, Taiwan. And everyone still got along really well. There’s something about the experience that just brings out the best in everyone. We loved it.


As we approached Cairns, we were informed of a tradition whereby the instructors book tables at a German Beerhouse in town for the evening of our return to port. So it was that we showed up at 7:30 and met up with our fellow divers and a couple of the instructors for possibly the last time ever.


After some 3 litre beer towers and schnitzels, the group moved from the beerhouse to another bar where live music was playing. We had a last drink there with our fellow divers, then headed back to the hotel.

The next post will be just a collection of photos from the dive boat that will hopefully be of interest to everyone who was on board at the same time as us.



Day 2 in Hiroshima

Still working our budget as well as we can, we opted out of the hotel breakfast and instead ate in one of the station Starbucks (there are several) on Tuesday morning. We had decided that we would visit Miyajima Island to see the Itsukushima shrine there. It’s a 25 minute train journey from the central station followed by a 15 minute ferry ride across to the island but, luckily, both the train and ferry are operated by Japan Railways so our JR Passes once again meant free travel for us.

The Torii at the entrance to the shrine famously stands in the sea and the shrine itself rests on stilts because at high tide it is surrounded by water and, according to the commentary we heard on the boat, the pillars are 10m in circumference. When I heard that, it aroused my inner geek and I immediately calculated (2πr) that they were just under 3.2m in diameter. Sorry, I can’t help myself. 


Ishbel was able to get a couple of photos of the Torii as we arrived at the island. When we disembarked the ferry, we were surprised by the number of apparently tame deer wandering around the streets. There are warnings not to feed them and that seems to work as they don’t actively approach people begging but neither do they shy away from us. I’m assuming that there is no Japanese equivalent for the phrase “as skittish as a deer”.


We walked from the ferry terminal to the shrine and performed our duty as tourists by buying the combined ticket for the shrine and the “Treasure Hall”, for around £3.50 each. Almost every site we have visited in Japan has been free, or levied a nominal charge, with the exception being the Tokyo Tower which, at 2,800 yen (just over £19) each for the top deck visit, was still highly competitive when judged against comparable attractions in other cities.

The shrine visit was interesting, although we were slightly disappointed that the tide was out. The shrine is manned by quite a number of monks who go about their business largely ignoring the ogling tourists and the praying believers milling around their temples. After the shrine itself, our visit to the Treasure Hall was brief. The treasures no doubt hold greater significance for those who understand (and believe) the religion more than we do.

We decided to climb the stairs to another shrine further up the hill away from the sea. I was delighted to see a vast array of little buddhas wearing knitted hats as we walked up. 

They reminded me of groups of rival football supporters all wearing their respective colours.

After our stroll around this shrine, we headed back down to the town, stopping off for a look at the five storied pagoda.


To my delight, the town had its own brewery and we stopped there for a pint of their lemon IPA which was very nice. We then made our way back to the ferry then to the train back to Hiroshima station.

After the disappointment of not getting in to Kemby’s the previous day, we tried again and, I’m pleased to say, succeeded in getting seats. We were there quite early in the evening so didn’t have much competition. We ordered burgers and took some time over the important matter of which beer to have. They had two of my favourites in the fridge: Brewdog’s Punk IPA and Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. But I didn’t come to Japan to drink Scottish or American beers, so we ordered a couple of their house Hazy IPAs which were excellent and went very well with the burgers.

After dinner, we realised we were within walking distance of the Peace Park once again, so decided to go along to see it by night and to pay our respects once more.

img_3482After this, we took a tram back to the hotel to get ready for our return journey for Tokyo the next day. The Japan leg of the trip is almost over, but we have one more day in Tokyo and will enjoy it to the full.