Reeling in the years

Saturday morning, we packed up to leave Cozumel. We had breakfast then took a taxi along to the ferry terminal. The embarkation was considerably less stressful than on arrival and, before long, we were comfortably ensconced on the modern ferry that traverses the 12 miles to Playa del Carmen in about 45 minutes.

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We had reserved a rental car for the rest of our stay in Mexico from a company called Carflex which combined competitive pricing with the convenience of an office on the pier at Playa del Carmen. They handed over the keys to a Chevrolet Aveo into which we crammed our luggage and set off south to visit our friends.

We first met Donald 35 years ago in Copenhagen, when his first words to us were, “You must be Brian and Ishbel. Would you like a beer?” With a greeting like that, how could we not be friends? We were in Copenhagen visiting mutual friends at the time but we’ve stayed in touch over the years across many different geographies. He has retired from working in the US to live in Chicago with his wife, Azza and they have kindly agreed to host us for the rest of our stay here. Donald greeted us in the traditional manner, so we had a beer and chatted for a while, combining a catch-up on recent events with random reminiscences from years ago.

They live in a beach side community populated by a number of ex-pats and we met a few of them on Saturday evening and enjoyed a delicious meal in the local restaurant where we had a lovely meal as the Caribbean lapped against the beach. After dinner, chatting and drinking continued until, eventually, we all ran out of energy and called it a night.

Ishbel was up early on Sunday morning and went for a walk along the beach. The wind was blowing hard that morning and the sea was quite lively.

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The weather mellowed a little as the morning wore on and, before too long, Ishbel was able to capture this picture of an osprey after it had caught a fish.

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The Yucatan Peninsula rests on a bed of limestone. A defining feature of limestone is its porosity: water seeps through the stone and, over time, creates cavities and channels. The caves formed by this erosion are subject to subsidence above, creating sinkholes, similar to the one we saw in Australia. Here, these sinkholes are called cenotes, and were sacred in the pre-Hispanic Mayan culture. The cenotes come in various shapes and sizes. Some are steep sided pits, others look more like rivers with an extensive water course at ground level.

Nowadays, many of the water-filled cenotes are used as swimming holes, or for cave diving. On Sunday, we visited the nearby Casa Cenote, a U-shaped lagoon-like version where we were able to snorkel to our heart’s content. I was so intent on looking for marine life with my eyes focused below the water that I was surprised when I looked up and saw a sign instructing me to go no further without a guide. I decided to turn around and was even more surprised to see a sign I had already passed bearing the legend: “Caution. Crocodile area.”  Donald reassured me later that it was only a small crocodile that lived in the cenote, and it didn’t eat people.

On the way back, we stopped at La Buena Vida in Akumal for a late lunch on the beach. Once again, the food was delicious and there was an added bonus since they had craft beer on draft. Donald and I shared a pitcher of Mundo Maya IPA. We headed back to the house and relaxed for the rest of Sunday. I realise my life hasn’t exactly seen a lot of stress for the last six months, but this beachfront living is particulary relaxing!

New Zealand’s Oldest City

We took our leave of Manapouri on Saturday and set out on the 300km drive to Dunedin. In New Zealand, a town officially became a city when its population reached 20,000. Dunedin breached that threshold in 1865, three years before Christchurch and six before Auckland, making it the country’s oldest city. The city enjoyed(?) a major influx of Scots in the mid-19th century in an expedition sponsored by the Free Church of Scotland it and derives its name from the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh. In fact it was originally going to be called New Edinburgh but the city fathers preferred Dunedin. After the Scottish immigration, gold was discovered nearby in 1861 and it was the associated population boom that pushed Dunedin to 20,000 people and cityhood.

This was to be our last stop on the South Island and we had a couple of things we wanted to see here. First was the colony of Royal Albatrosses that nest out on Taiaora Head on the Otago Peninsula. We made good time on our long drive and drove straight out to the Royal Albatross Centre to get booked in for an official tour. We were lucky enough to see not only a couple of the chicks who hadn’t yet fledged but also some adults returning from feeding expeditions.

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I was surprised to learn that these graceful, elegant birds weigh around 7kg, and make very ungainly landings.

As part of the Centre’s tracking program, they put steel rings on the legs of the chicks at this stage before they leave the nest, but add coloured identification rings only when they return. I questioned the wisdom of this since I thought it would be easier to catch a young albatross before it could fly. The guide told us that when they leave the nest in New Zealand they spend 5 years on the wing or on the water. When they get back to Dunedin, it’s the first time they’ve been on land in all that time and they have what she described as “severe jelly legs”, making it easy to catch them and put on their identification rings.

After our highly educational tour, we went for a short stroll along the headland and spotted a group of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks below. To be honest, I’d been looking at them a little while before I realised what I was looking at. Can you spot all nine in this picture?

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Having enjoyed a healthy portion of fresh air, we made our way to our AirBnB stop for the night and had a quiet evening. The following morning, we were packed and ready for our flight to Auckland but still had a couple of hours to spare. We decided to use our time taking a look at Dunedin’s centre.

We strolled around the city’s streets, which are laid out around a central octagon, called The Octagon. The city’s layout had, apparently, been planned from Scotland during the first expedition, with no attention paid to the hilly landscape. This meant that the vision on a two dimensional map doesn’t quite translate on to the contours, one impact of which is that the town contains the steepest street in the world – Baldwin St.

We took a look at the Renaissance Revival masterpiece that is the railway station.

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This construction earned for its architect, George Troup, the nickname Gingerbread George. The interior is full of decorative elements that reflect the design aesthetic of the time and has a preponderance of ceramic tiles from floor to ceiling.

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After seeing the town from street level, we drove up to Signal Hill to get a look at it from above.

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As we looked at the town and tried to identify what we could see by comparing it to points on a map, I was struck by just how many Edinburgh associated names have been used for different suburbs: Musselburgh, Portobello, Leith, Corstorphine and Calton Hill all appear, and I’m sure there are many more. The Scottish influence and fraternal relationship continues.

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We finished our Dunedin reverie and headed for the airport, dropping off our trusty Rav4 at the Thrifty desk before checking in for the Air NZ Auckland flight. Once again, everything went smoothly and we took off and landed on time.

We retrieved the one checked bag we had and headed for a shuttle bus to our car hire provider here: Ezi Car Rental. I was a little nervous as I’d never used this company before but I needn’t have worried. The pickup worked fine and we were processed quickly at the rental centre and were, once again, back in a white Toyota Rav4 for the next part of the journey.

The first task we had was to get to the Luggage Hotel to pick up the suitcase and instruments we had left with them the previous week. We phoned ahead and the gear was waiting for us when we arrived. Then we were off to Whangaparaoa, just north of Auckland for our next AirBnB. The reason we chose this town was that Ishbel’s sister’s husband’s sister and her husband live there. For convenience, I’m going to refer to them as Wynn and Linton as I’m not typing all that out again.

The evening was wearing on by the time we got there, so we checked into our AirBnB then just grabbed some takeaway food which we ate up at their house. They have a lovely view over the bay and we sat out on the terrace and relaxed while we ate and made plans for the following day.

We were going to take Linton’s boat over to Tiritiri Matangi, an island in the bay from which all introduced mammalian predators have been eradicated and that is now home to a number of New Zealand’s endangered species. We agreed a start time and called it a night.

The following morning dawned bright and breezy. The breezy part was a concern. Landing at Tiritiri Matanga would be problematic if the wind didn’t either abate or shift. Even if it shifted, it might shift back after we landed and leave us stranded ashore. The decision was taken to sail out there and make a decision closer to the island.

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We sailed out in this 12m yacht and, once the sailors on board (of which I am not one) assessed the situation, the decision was made not to attempt a landing on the island. We chose instead to sail across the bay and anchor for a while to have lunch. And very pleasant it was too. We had killed the diesels and were travelling under sail only, which was very peaceful. We returned to harbour using wind power as well, only starting the engines again to manoeuvre back into the berth.

While it was slightly disappointing not to have landed on the island, we knew it was the right decision for the conditions and we had an excellent day on board in any case. For the evening, we headed back up to their place for dinner and relaxed as the sun went down over the water.

We had a lovely time in Whangaparao, but the following morning it was time for Ishbel and I once again to strike out on our own. We would be saying goodbye to family and driving due north.

 

Tranz Alpine Express – I see what you did there

We were booked on the train from Christchurch to Greymouth on Wednesday morning. The ‘Z’ annoys me. Yes, I know it’s New Zealand but…just don’t. Moving on…

The train was due to leave Christchurch at 8:15am and they want you there 30 minutes before departure. With AirBnBs, we’ve discovered that the rate determining step on how quickly you can get people on the move is bathroom and shower access. Invariably (so far) there’s only one, so an early start means an even earlier start to make sure everybody can get cleaned up before departure. We overcompensated on this occasion and were at the station by 7:25. The train is set up for this specific journey which means there is negligible luggage space in the passenger carriages so suitcases need to be loaded in the allocated luggage car at the rear of the train.

IMG_3153 We had already established that the train had a restaurant car. It was in carriage C, so we were delighted to discover that our seats were at the rear of carriage D. Handy for the cups of tea necessary for a four hour journey.

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The journey offers spectacular views of the Southern Alps, and of the striated rivers that cut through the mountains. IMG_3203 2

The train winds its way up to its highest point at Arthur’s Pass, 737m above sea level and VERY windswept.

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While it may be windswept, at least it was dry while we were there. That can’t be said of a couple of other settlements that we passed through. I’m reluctant to call them towns as they are really only a few houses clustered round the railway line with the occasional outlying farm. The on-board commentary that the annual rainfall in some of these places is over 5 metres. That’s five times more rain than Glasgow. By any reckoning, that’s a lot of rain.

Eventually, we descended into Greymouth where we had booked a rental car. Having witnessed the volume of bags that had been loaded onto the train in the morning, my guess was that most people would be leaving the train here and not taking the return journey. I deduced that this would also mean that most people would be picking up rental cars at the station, so devised a plan that allowed the ladies to go and pick up the bags (like a true renaissance man) while the gents rushed to the rental counter to beat the crowds, show our licenses, and be the designated drivers for the rest of the trip (slightly less renaissance man).

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Anyway, it worked. We were first at the Thrifty counter to pick up our Toyota Rav4 and by the time we had finished, the queue behind us snaked out of the station building and back along the platform.

We skipped off gleefully to assist the ladies with the bags then loaded the car. Our first stop on the road trip was south in Hokitika, but we had decided to head north to see the pancake rocks. Although it’s my first time in NZ, all three of my travelling companions know it to a greater or lesser extent. Ishbel spent some time here nearly 40 years ago visiting her sister, who lived here for over 12 years and married a New Zealander. There was a lot of local knowledge for me to tap into, which was hugely helpful in defining our itinerary.

We drove out of Greymouth in the rain, and arrived at Punakaiki in the rain. It was wet today. The pancake rocks are an interesting limestone formation that it would have been delightful spending some time at. If it were drier.

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After the pancake rocks, we set off south, back through Greymouth and onward to Hokitika. As we drove, the cloud lifted and the sun started to push through. It was sunny again.

IMG_3521By the time we arrived in Hokitika, the sun was shining and it was getting warm. We had a brief stroll around town and did a quick grocery shopping for essential supplies and dinner, then headed out to our AirBnB. This turned out to be a lovely place on the riverbank.

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Also, our host had left us 8 eggs laid by his hens, fresh grapes grown in his garden, and a still warm loaf of home-baked bread. So often, it’s the little things that make a difference.

 

On the road again

Another stolen title, this time from the classic song by 60s American blues-rock band, Canned Heat. On Monday, we were headed out of Cairns back to the Gold Coast for a couple of days with Ishbel’s sister and brother-in-law (V&G).

Despite having heard the occasional horror story about their tendency to cancel flights at a moment’s notice, our Jetstar return experience was just as straightforward and trouble free as the journey up to Cairns nine days previously. It felt like we were getting out just in time as the heat had rolled into town with a vengeance with temperatures hitting 36°C. We had enjoyed a farewell breakfast with Ellen before she left for the airport earlier in the day to start her long journey back to Germany. Our own, much shorter, flight to Brisbane was taking off in the afternoon so we hid from the scorching sunshine in the air-conditioned mall near the train station.

We went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and summoned our taxi. On arrival, we readjusted our bags to make sure everything was within the weight limits: 21kg for our single hold bag and 7kg max per person for hand luggage. They hadn’t checked the carry-on on the way up but we decided to err on the side of caution. We were glad we had done so when, as we were waiting at the gate to board, one of the crew members walked along the line with a pull-along scale asking each passenger to place their cabin bags on it. At least one of our fellow passengers was obliged to check his bag, and pay AUD 40 for the privilege.

Our flight was mostly uneventful, although I question why a six-year old feels it necessary to recline his seat on a two hour flight. Especially if he’s in the seat in front of me. Rant over. We arrived safely at Brisbane and collected our bag before heading for the train station. It was rush hour in Brisbane when we arrived, so we didn’t want anyone to drag themselves through that traffic to collect us when there was a direct train from the airport to Helensvale.

We were fortunate enough to find a train due to leave in 8 minutes sitting at the platform waiting for us so we ensconced ourselves in the carriage, signed on to the Queensland Rail WiFi service, and relaxed for the 80 minute journey. We were picked up at the station and were back at V&G’s house in no time. Over a lovely dinner of roast chicken and salad, we forced them to listen to our dive reminiscences before fatigue eventually overtook us and we retired to bed.

On Tuesday, a farewell dinner had been planned for the evening with V&G, their children and partners, and the grandchildren. During the day, the four of us went up to Mount Tamborine, Queensland’s first National Park, declared in 1908. We took a walk down to the Witches’ Falls lookout point where it became apparent that this part of Queensland has experienced less recent rainfall than the north.

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The falls had dried to a mere trickle. One bonus of the walk, however, was the opportunity to see a kookaburra.DSC_0778

We also encountered a termite mound just off the path that appeared to have suffered some damage. The termites were hard at work trying to repair it, which meant a tasty meal for any passing lizard.

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We made our way back up to where we had parked the car and drove to Eagle Heights hotel for a bite of lunch with a view over the whole of the Gold Coast. The air was a bit hazy but the high-rise buildings of Surfers Paradise 22km distant were clearly visible. Temperatures were in the low 30s, so after lunch we drove back to Helensvale and had time to jump in the pool to cool off before the rest of the family arrived.

Once everyone rolled in for the evening, we had a nice, relaxed dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. We chatted a little about the Australian concept of “long service leave” whereby employees who stay with the same employer for ten years are rewarded with eight weeks paid holiday. I remember my own tenth anniversary at work, when I received a signed letter from the CEO. On balance, I think I’d have preferred the eight weeks. At the end of the evening, we said goodbye to the younger generation. It’s always odd taking your leave of friends and relatives in Australia because you never know when or if, you’ll see them again. Although global travel is much more accessible now than it was on our first visit here back in 1995.

Wednesday dawned hot in Queensland (again). Ishbel was up and out early taking a last opportunity for some bird photography at Coombabah Lake. After deciding there wasn’t much going on there, she moved on to Oxenford Park and managed to get a couple of interesting shots.

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Once she got back, we finished our packing and V&G once again drove us off to Brisbane Airport’s domestic terminal for the next flight on our RTW schedule. We were off to Melbourne today. This time, we were travelling business class with Qantas with plenty of luggage allowance so none of the concerns we had with Jetstar on the Cairns side trip.

Arriving at Melbourne, we picked up our bags then, as instructed, called the rental desk of our car hire company, Ace Rentals. We had booked this car through a consolidator, Rentalcars.com, because of the highly competitive rate they offered. We had reserved a Nissan Qashqai and, after going through the formalities at the desk, I received my documentation and went out for the always compulsory walk around the car to inspect for damage. I was surprised at a couple of things on the documents themselves: the high mileage (over 65,000km) and the number of dings and scratches already identified. I was even more surprised at the very first thing I spotted on the car.

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We were driving to Adelaide and I wasn’t keen on a 1500km round trip with a gash like this on the sidewall of the tyre. I trotted back in to the desk and asked the young gentleman to come out and take a look. His verdict? “It doesn’t go all the way through, so it’s up to you if you want to take it.” I didn’t want to take it. We were offered a Mitsubishi ASX which was slightly smaller but had tyres I felt better able to rely on.

Having straightened this out, we hit the road. Time confusion was pervasive at this point. Victoria was one hour ahead of Queensland, so we had lost an hour on the flight. However, Adelaide is in South Australia which is a half hour behind Victoria, so a half hour ahead of Queensland. I had booked a motel at a town called Ararat which was about a two hour drive from Melbourne airport, but I hadn’t checked which state it was in, so I had no idea what time it would be when we got there. As luck would have it, it was still in Victoria, so we arrived just before 9:00pm. Reception there was scheduled to close at that time, so we just made it. We also discovered that the latest opening restaurant in town closed at 8:30pm. One takeaway was still open until 9:30pm so we grabbed a pizza from there after checking in. We drove up to collect it and were struck by how much the town looked like a scene from a movie set in the 1950s.

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We couldn’t even finish the pizzas and eventually just crashed out, looking forward to a good sleep before finishing the drive to Adelaide the next day.

“Scots wha ha’e…”

Saturday dawned sunny in Cairns. We had decided to travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway on Sunday, leaving Saturday free for a visit to Port Douglas. First, though, we met one of our fellow dive students, Ellen, for breakfast at a little cafe called Che Zest. All three of us ordered Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. We had been (inadvertently) drinking salt water for the past three days solid, and I guess we were missing the taste of the sea. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel, the IBIS Styles. We rented a car from the Budget office attached to the hotel for AUD 60 for the day. There are cheaper places around but as the temperature hit 30°C, the convenience outweighed the price for me. Port Douglas is around 70km north of Cairns and the road between the two is reminiscent of the winding coastal road that we took from Cape Town to Hermanus back in December.

As we glided along the road in our little Suzuki Swift, we enjoyed regular, stunning views of the coastline ahead and behind us.

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As we drove along, I entered a little reverie around the history of British colonialism. The fact that I was travelling between two towns with Scottish derived names led me to ponder the influence Scots must have had on Britain during its colonial heyday. There are Scottish names all over Australia, but this was also the case in Hong Kong. And South Africa. It struck me forcefully that Scots were very much part of the history of Empire – both for good and ill. Hence the title of this post: another Burns reference. It’s amazing what can go through your head when you’re supposed to be concentrating on driving in a foreign country.

Despite this, we made it safely to Port Douglas and stopped first at the viewpoint overlooking the town, where we witnessed what appeared to be the inauguration of a new colony of tree ants. The queen (pictured below) was travelling along the railing at the viewpoint followed by a number of much smaller workers.

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We then drove into the centre and enjoyed a fruity mocktail at a pleasant little cafe, whose name now escapes me. The temperature had risen significantly since we were last on shore earlier in the week and it was oppressive to walk around. I had opted for a cotton shirt today, which was to prove a schoolboy error. We walked from the cafe out to the historic lighthouse, which is hidden down a narrow, shaded path between two houses. We successfully sought it out and discovered it to be historic but not necessarily enthralling.

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After the lighthouse, we strolled back along the shady path and back towards town. Then I discovered that my cotton shirt was no match for the local mosquitoes’ mandibles. I had acquired three bites on my upper right arm which started to itch furiously. Luckily, one of the first shops on the main street was a chemist where I was able to acquire insect repellent and itch easing cream. I’m not in the habit of publicly exposing my flesh but the irritation was so extreme that I had no hesitation in stripping off my shirt and asking nurse Ishbel to minister to my puncture wounds. Relief was instant, as promised by the packaging. I immediately put the shirt back on and we both liberally applied repellent to all exposed flesh and any possible point of ingress. I am generally a mosquito magnet and Ishbel need not worry about bites when she’s with me as I appear to be a preferred food provider for mosquitos the world over. But once I’ve sprayed, she needs to as well. When visiting the quaint towns of Northern Queensland, it’s easy to forget that these are mere pinpricks of development in a vast swathe of tropical rainforest. Don’t wear cotton shirts in the jungle.

Now safely armoured, we headed back to the car and drove through the town to the car park by the beach. We wanted a stroll along the beach and this seemed a nice spot. There was an area netted off for swimmers and lifeguards patrolling. There was also a warning that marine stingers were active, so we decided not to dip our toes.

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I had already experienced stingers the previous week when we had a swim near Surfers Paradise. My heels and top of my foot suffered at the hands…tentacles…of small stingers known locally as bluebottles. These menacing little creatures are not actually jellyfish but siphonophores, related to the Portuguese man o’ war although smaller and less venomous. The pain lasted about an hour and there were no ongoing ill effects but I was in no hurry to repeat the experience.

After a shortish walk enjoying the sea breeze, we turned and headed back towards the car park. That was when we spotted the osprey circling above and, eventually, witnessed it diving into the sea and emerging with a fish.

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Ospreys are so rare in Scotland that we were hugely excited to get an opportunity to see this, even though they’re ten a penny in Australia. This was a pleasant way to finish off our Port Douglas visit so we headed back to the car and pointed ourselves towards Cairns.

As we approached the city, we decided to stop off for what is fast becoming a tradition on this trip: a visit to the Botanic Gardens. After the vast acreage of the gardens of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Brisbane, it was a nice change to stroll through Cairns’ considerably smaller version. It did, however, offer us one of the most appropriately named plants I have ever seen:

DSC_0482 2.JPGthe Beefsteak Heliconia. It’s not an Australian native, but it’s quite a striking plant.

After the Botanics, we drove back to Cairns and had an early dinner, before calling it a night.