Kyoto (and Nara) – Part Two

We took Sunday at a slightly slower pace. We’d only booked to stay two nights in the AirBnB before relocating to Hotel Mume closer to Gion. When I’d booked it all I wasn’t sure how we’d go sleeping on the floor so opted for something that was more familiar for the second half of our stay.

We woke up at 7, lounged, got up and made breakfast. Had a shower. Packed. Then I proofread Glen’s research paper, thinking I had oodles of time but Glen hadn’t changed the time on his laptop so it was a bit of a rush towards the end. Our host arrived at 9:30 and her husband gave us a lift to our other hotel.

We checked into Hotel Mume with its big red door. It’s close to/in the Gion district and is warm and comfortable. We couldn’t get into our room as it was still only 10am but we checked in, had a tea and some biscuits and then got some recommendations from the lady at the desk.

We decided to go to Nishiki Markets again, buying prawns on a stick and ambling along through the crowds. And then we bumped into Ravinder!

She was meant to be at Imperial Palace but decided against it and was going wandering so she came with us. I bought some different flavoured coated peanuts. We settled on lunch at a curry ramen place that was tucked out of the way. Usual issues over food but I said I was absolutely fine with the choice and would have the chicken, which was fine. It was wonderful to sit down.

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Red gate

The start of spring

The 3 February was the start of spring which is celebrating with a lantern festival, one of which was happening out at Nara, which was the first capital of Japan. After lunch we took the slow JR train to Nara where we got some info at the tourist centre about sites to see and the lantern festival, then walked through part of the city, stopping for a hot chocolate, before seeing the five-storey pagoda and then deer.

Lots of deer.

Deer you could feed.

There were only a few at the first park we were at but as we got close to the temple housing a giant buddha, they were at plague proportions, commensurate with the number of tourists feeding them biscuits. We joined in and the deers got aggressive. They were biting my jacket! And those teeth looked sharp.

But it was nice to see wildlife, even if it’s become totally habituated and they probably have to put a few down…

Lots of baby deer though.

We went through to see the giant buddha in the giant building. Wandered around. By that stage (how long had it been? Two days?) I was over temples. Afterwards we stopped for crepes and tea/coffee and a rest until it got dark.

We wandered along the lantern-lit path to the temple where the festivities were taking place. When we reached it, the crowd thickened. We joined a queue. The lanterns weren’t as impressive as we thought they’d be, and after meandering along in the throng for a while, we jumped out of the queue and left. I do not regret this decision in the slightest.

A 2.5km walk back to the train station and an hour train ride, we finally arrived back in Kyoto. We dropped Ravinder off, said our farewells, and returned to our hotel for a sleep.

The red gates of Fushimi Inari-taishi

We woke at 7:30 on Sunday and decided to take things a bit easier today. Nevertheless, we were out of the hotel by 10ish. We caught the subway down to Fushimi Inari-taishi, otherwise known as the Red Gates, otherwise knows as Hell is Other People.

The combination of it being a Sunday and a popular tourist destination made for a horde of people. We joined the throng, going along a vendor-lined street. Glen bought wagyu on a stick and I laughed at the photos I took of him eating it.

We entered the temple complex then joined the line of people marching beneath the gates, everyone trying to get a photo but unable to get one (rarely) without other people in it. Interestingly, if you look back the way you came, you see black writing on the columns which isn’t visible from the other way. With no interpretation around, I wasn’t sure what it all meant.

The crowd thinned a little the more you get to the top. We didn’t do the full loop but probably got a third of the way up, then turned around and came back. We got some photos and I contemplated writing a book about how god awful travel.

Back down the hill we went and caught the train back to Sanjo in the city. We walked to the handkerchief place so Glen could buy some for his mum, then we went for lunch on the seventh floor of a department store (sushi, soba and tempura – I liked it and it didn’t come with the stress of figuring out what to eat). Next stop was a 7-Eleven to get more cash and then to Aritsuga, the knife shop in Nishiki Market, and bought a wonderfully sharp kitchen knife.

After that, Glen saw a massage parlour so went for a 30-minute massage while I went back to the hotel to do various odds and ends. My feet hurt, I didn’t want to buy anything else, and I didn’t want to see another temple.

In the evening Glen wanted steak so we went for steak. Luckily they had chicken. The staff at the hotel had explained to the restaurant when they rang that I didn’t eat red meat or pork so for the little amuse bouche they gave me smoke salmon. Really considerate of them. We ate our food, had dessert, had some drinks, and then wandered home.

Such was our last evening in Kyoto. Not that I’ve got a need to go again, but I’d probably opt for more experiences next time, such as a tea ceremony or origami class. Then again, I can probably do that elsewhere and somewhere new.

Osaka and home

The next day we’d decided we’d just go to the hotel at the Osaka airport and chill. We caught the train, arrived sometime around one, had lunch and checked in. There were a couple of things in Osaka we thought might be interesting – the noodle museum and Universal Studios – but the airport was over an hour on the train from each, we were running out of time, it was cold, and unfortunately I had just received some work from my publisher that I needed to get on to. So Monday was very much a chill day.

The next morning we packed up, went to the airport, checked in, fast-tracked past the horror security queue, and then sat in the lounge until our flight. We’d managed to get business seats from Osaka to Hong Kong. Then in Hong Kong we used the lounge (The Pier, very nice) before our Premium Economy seats into Perth, landing about 10:30.

We were home and while I was glad for some of it, I actually really wanted to go skiing again. Whoever would have thought I’d find it addictive?

Kyoto – Part One

We’d heard a lot of good things about Kyoto…which always worries me. Other people’s experiences and high praise of things usually results in me being underwhelmed. Nevertheless, Kyoto appeared to be offering a bit more of the ‘Japanese’ experience than being surrounded by a lot of foreigners (mostly Aussies) in the snowfields of Hokkaido. We’d been to Tokyo last time so Kyoto was the next destination after Niseko.

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A long day of travel

For such a small (group of) island(s), it took a long time for us to get from Niseko to Kyoto. On Thursday we took the shuttle from Niseko (probably a little earlier than necessary) to New Chitose airport and then had about three hours to kill there. (We shopped, ate and looked at the inner workings of the chocolate factory.)

Then we flew down to Osaka (a couple of hours) and then caught a train to Kyoto (another couple of hours) and then a subway to near our AirBnB. We arrived at about 8pm so it was nearly 12 hours worth of travelling.

I’d booked an AirBnB because Glen and I wanted something that was a bit ryokan like. We probably should have paid for a proper ryokan guesthouse but instead we got someone’s house. It was bloody freezing until we put all the heaters on. It was quaint and small, with tatami mats and sliding paper doors. I guess that’s what we were after.

After the host left us, we went looking for a restaurant, finding one that had pictures of a few dishes and then an eel drawing on the sign. I had reservations but Glen was gun-ho so we went in.

They only served eel. Glen doesn’t eat eel. But by then we were inside (we were the only other set of customers in there apart from a man and woman) and we’d been given tea.  So we ordered one meal between the two of us, which had rice, soup and some veg, as well as grilled eel.

The eel wasn’t bad and I made the way through it for the both of us. The restaurant was warm, a family affair, and an adventure. Glen was still a bit horrified. We then went to the supermarket downstairs and bought things for breakfast and snacks, then went home and snuck off to bed with the heaters on.

Temples, monkeys and markets

We roused ourselves early enough on Friday morning to go meet our friend Ravinder, who was also in town from Perth for a few days, at the Golden Pavilion. This meant taking a couple of buses. Thank god for Google. We figured it out and luckily I’d read how to use the system and what you paid in Lonely Planet. We caught our two buses, the second (205), full of tourists (and some monks) heading to the very popular Golden Pavilion.

We didn’t see Ravinder and she didn’t have wifi so we went in, navigating around tourists. Golden Pavilion was beautifully scenic, especially when the pond was still and reflective. We eventually got away from the crowds and wandered around the rest of the gardens. The crowds intensified again at the souvenir stands. We then exited and sat to have a bit of food and to see if we could find Ravinder. Glen eventually spotted her; she was looking for us too. Mission accomplished.

We caught a taxi to the bamboo forest, having a few bits of food at the food stalls just at the entrance. I had one of those fish pastries with the red bean paste centre, and then a blobby dough thing dipped in sugar soy sauce, which was gross.

The bamboo forest wasn’t as impressive as we were all expected, probably to do with it only being a small area and you walk along a stone path rather than through the forest. But there was a really nice bit so I was happy.

Next stop was the monkey park but we stopped along the way, besides the river, and had some lunch. Ravinder and I had a really nice set menu thing with some fried croquette things, vegetable selection, miso soup and rice. I loved it. Glen’s wasn’t so enjoyable for him.

Across the bridge to the monkey forest and then the killer walk up the hill to the top where the macaques were. They were wandering around and there was a caged building where you go inside and feed the macaques hanging outside. It was pretty cool, though they’re fairly habituated and probably very overweight.

And then we wandered down, walked to the train, caught that all the way to near Ravinder’s hotel and the Nishiki Market. We went through Takashimaya department store, ogling all the desserts and chocolates and sweets, then the different food on display. We bought some sweets and then some pastries, walked down some shops in the Nishiki area.

Glen bought some new shoes – FINALLY! He’s been moaning about those shoes for god knows how many years and on god knows how many trips.

It took forever to get through the shops and I was glad when we finally reached the hotel and stopped for a drink and some food. We then walked through more markets and I bought some new hiking type shoes to replace my boots as they’ve got a hole in them.

A lot of the Nishiki Market was closing down as it was late so we walked more streets, into Gion, saw where the geisha restaurants were (and caught a glimpse of three real geishas rushing into a building beneath the flash of cameras.

We then walked along the street behind the river. By this time I was hangry and tired and just wanted to eat but there were the usual problems of not being able to read the menus or finding something we can settle on.

We eventually choose a place where you cook your food on a hot rock. We had the big room with the window view all to ourselves. Ravinder and I had the fish set and it wasn’t bad. I was just glad to eat.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes and Glen and I caught a taxi home and returned to the freezing house. We had more to do tomorrow.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Glen and I hit the ski slopes of Niseko, Japan, in late January. It’s the first time we’d been skiing in two years (the last time was also to Niseko) and I couldn’t wait to get out there again. Even better than going skiing, our friend Rob was also going to be in Niseko at the same time.

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From Perth to Japan

We left Perth late on 25 January flying Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then on to New Chitose. As awful as this is going to sound, it’s the first time Glen and I have flown anything other than business class on ‘long haul’ for a while. But don’t go feeling too sorry for us (I’m sure you were going to) as we had Premium Economy seats to Hong Kong (but then Economy to New Chitose).

When we got to Hong Kong we had some time to kill. Glen gallantly said I could go with Rob (who’d gone in business) to the lounge but when we got there, he wasn’t allowed a guest because he didn’t have status. A shame. So I went back with Glen, we got a drink, bought a Bay-Max mug from Disney and then went to our relocated gate to wait.

We were in economy for our flight to Sapporo in a terrible configuration of 3-3-3. It was full. Glen had the window and I the middle while a mother had the aisle. I slept for a bit around take-off, which was delayed, but then was awake from breakfast and from then on. I watched Ronny Chang’s sitcom and then we landed sometime around 3.

Flying overnight was definitely a bit gross, and I was very glad when we got to Japan finally…only to end up in a horror immigration queue. Unlike last time, this was our point of entry into Japan so we had to go through the whole shebang. The queue went forever and I think there must have been another plane or two landing at the same time.

The minutes ticked past and we were rapidly running out of time. We had to get through quarantine and then collect the wifi dongle and then catch the 4:30 bus, all in about 20 minutes. I was panicking a bit. We got through quarantine at quarter past and then I left Glen and Rob to sort out the bus. I ran to get the dongle and then returned to Glen only to find Rob gone (he had a different bus) and our bus delayed departure until 5:10.

This at least meant we hadn’t missed the bus and we could get some money out. We then went to find some food, settling on a couple of pieces of fried chicken and some drinks. We got back to our group and then there was more of a wait before moving where there was more of wait before getting outside to wait for the bus.

Despite it snowing and being chilly, it was great to be outside in the fresh air and to see snow again. (Mind you I was a bit jealous seeing a friend’s photos of him in Bali.) We finally got on the bus which took about 2.5 hours to get to Hirafu in Niseko. Strangely, despite leaving a good amount of time before us, Rob arrived probably only about ten minutes prior to our arrival.

After we checked into The Vale at about 7:30pm, we met Rob downstairs at our hotel and went for dinner at a Japanese cuisine restaurant over the road from our hotel. We had a good, filling dinner then went home and to bed. I was anxious to see what the next day would bring, what with it being the first time on skis in two years, first time since my patella fracture, and with a sore back that had been persisting for a couple of weeks. I was going to be devastated if I only got a couple of hours of skiing out of a possible five days.

Ski, onsen, eat, repeat

On the first day, after breakfast, Glen and I collected our rental skis (from just behind the hotel. So convenient) and our lift passes and went for a few easy runs to get our ski legs back.

We took a very easy green to start off with and then I wanted to do it again. I was able to get down, turn, go fast, pretty much like I used to so after we did that twice, we then went up the next lift to get higher up the mountain. There were some greens and reds (Canadian blues) here but I felt pretty confident going down. It looked like things would be alright after all.

By that stage it was already close to midday so we stopped, had lunch in the hotel, then went out to meet Crystina from Czech Republic, our ski instructor. We had two hours of a pretty good lesson, which I kept trying to practise over the new few days. Really, it would have been better to have another lesson a day or two later to help improve more. That’ll be something for next time.

After skiing we went to the onsen in the hotel. The hot water was heavenly and helped release some of the tension in my legs. Though over the next five days, they would get weaker and weaker. I was obviously using them too much and didn’t have optimal efficiency.

From the onsen, we returned to our room and relaxed. I even fell asleep. I think I was so relaxed (and tired from the skiing) knowing that I didn’t have to do anything until the day we left. The lesson was the last timed thing so the rest of my time was my own.

In the evening we went for dinner with Rob, trying a different restaurant, and then went our separate ways about 8pm while plenty of the young and hip people were still partying the night away.

And so that was pretty much the pattern for the next four days. We’d ski in the morning, have lunch, go skiing again, onsen, rest, eat dinner, go to bed. The restaurants we went to were Ginger (twice – nice food, mixed service, expensive), Bang Bang (or Bang 2 – yakitori – awesome, wanted to go again), and then another restaurant on our last night with the slowest service ever.

You shall not pass!

It snowed almost non-stop while we were there, and while that was great for the powder, (sorry, the ‘pow’) some days it was a bit much. We lost the mountain or couldn’t see downhill more than a few metres. I managed to go to three sides of the mountain but the Anapurni side I couldn’t get to via the lifts because the top ones were closed.

At one point my goggles iced over and I could fix them until after I’d skied down a hill. It was snowing heavily so I took my goggles off and skied into the snow, resulting in snow going straight into my eyes. At that time, Rob went a different way and ended up to his neck in snow.

The snow didn’t really let up until the day we left and by then it was too late.

The mountain demands a sacrifice

On the last day we’d skied in the morning and then decided to take a rest after lunch. Glen and I lounged in our room for much of it after going to the onset. I read a book and took it easy but the pull of the snow — and the fact it was our last day — was strong enough to make me anxious about fitting in one last run.

I figured I would go but prior to that, Glen was stacking the dishwasher. I hurried around the side of the bed to collect a cup to give to him and BAM! kicked the end of the bed with my left foot. I was sure I’d broken the three middle toes it was that painful! And even worse, it was looking like I couldn’t go skiing.

Nevertheless, the threat of not being able to ski again was sufficiently strong enough for me to push on. I struggled into my boots, got outside and went down the green as a test run. I made it but the whole way I was worried about my toes, and my quads were so sore I thought I was surely going to have an accident if I did anything harder. I decided then that it was time to call it a day.

I returned the skis, returned Glen’s too, and went back upstairs to await dinner. So ended our skiing.

Five full days of skiing was pretty good. It gave plenty of downtime, plenty of opportunities to ski without feeling pressure to fit a whole lot in. Perhaps next time we’ll explore a bit further afield for some variety but otherwise, it was an awesome ski trip (minus the broken toe – I had it x-rayed when I got back).

Next stop…Kyoto

Daintree Rainforest Day Tour

On Wednesday I went for a day tour of a small part of the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland with tour company Billy Tea Tours. The day started with me getting picked up at 7am in Cairns and then driving north to pick up the rest of the tour group, a mix of nationalities and ages.

Our first proper stop was to catch a boat and take an hour-long cruise down the Daintree River. I think this was the best part of the tour as we saw the most wildlife here. This included three crocodiles (including one big one called Scarface), a brilliant blue kingfisher, three tree snakes, a Papuan frogmouth and other birds.

Whenever the boat stopped, the oppressive humidity slopped in and made everything uncomfortable. The bonus was we could get some photos (but I was glad after a while to get moving again). We met our bus driver at the river ferry on the other side and set off to a lookout.

The takeaway I got from the tour was that the rainforest was dinosaur country. It has three of the prehistoric tree types – conifers, cycads, and ferns – plus a lot else that more than qualifies the Daintree Rainforest as a world heritage site.

We took a walk along a boardwalk through the rainforest as the guide told us bits and pieces about the flora and fauna. One thing that really interested me was the purple fruits that he called the cassowary plum. Without the cassowary swallowing these fruits and stripping the flesh to reveal the seeds, the tree they grow on wouldn’t be able to survive. A great example of the cassowary as a keystone species.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any cassowaries during this trip. Next time though.

We had lunch further up in the rainforest, where we also fed Agile and Swamp Wallabies. Very adorable. I, unfortunately, got into a conversation with a couple of 70-year-olds from Colorado who voted for Trump. I couldn’t get away fast enough. Considering this was also the day of the same-sex marriage survey results, I was already feeling pretty raw.

After lunch we headed up to Emmagen Creek. No crocodiles in this part of the river so we were allowed to go for a swim. The rain was starting to come in so it wasn’t as warm as expected but definitely not freezing. I was first one to get in, and a few others finally plucked up the courage to submerge themselves.

Meanwhile the guides set up tables of tropical fruit, damper and billy tea. The rain bucketed down on us for a while so rather than get dressed, I was standing around in my speedos eating mango, sour pop, black sapote, papaya and jackfruit. Couldn’t get any wetter so why not.

The rain stopped, we ate damper, warmed up with a cup of Daintree tea and then set off for a beach on Cape Tribulation. No swimming allowed as crocodiles swim all up and down the coast, but we watched tiny crabs pushing balls of sand out of chambers in the beach. I also got changed.

Drive back down we stopped at an icecream shop that makes different flavours depending on what’s in season. Today’s four-scoop selection included coconut, wattleseed, soursop and passionfruit. I probably didn’t need it but I had it anyway.

We zoomed back down the rainforest, caught the car ferry across and then continued down the coast, dropping people off as we went. I was home by 6.

If I ever go again, and I think Glen should come and see it too, I’d prefer to do one that includes more venturing into the rainforest (despite the snakes and the large tarantulas I know live in there) with the hope of seeing more wildlife. The tour I did was a good taste for now.

A Day on the Great Barrier Reef

After my conference in Brisbane, I’d booked to head up to Cairns to check out the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Glen vowed never to go on a boat again (he gets bad seasickness) so considering how “close” I was, it seemed like the best opportunity.

I arrived in Cairns on Monday afternoon and had a day on the outer reef booked through Tusa Dive T6 for Tuesday. I walked to the marina just after 7am for a 7:40am departure with about 20 other people.

After setting off we had a 1.5–2-hour journey to Norman Reef. While the sky didn’t look too foreboding or the seas all that rough, the swell was significant and after about an hour I was out the back of the boat hurling up my breakfast.

Much embarrassed, I wasn’t the only one to be feeling ill (this is despite taking the seasickness pills that were being sold – perhaps I needed something stronger). Others joined me, were handed white paper bags and looked green as until we reached the reef and the rocking of the boat eased. I did feel much better after throwing up a few times though.

Dressed in a wetsuit and carrying a pool noodle, I went snorkelling through the reef. The highlight was seeing a medium-sized Hawksbill Turtle (so cute) and a rather large fish, the name of which I’ve forgotten, who kept following the photographer around.

We swam around for about 1.5–2 hours. Saw loads of fish and coral. It wasn’t as bright as I was expecting (or hoping) but I was staggered at the size of some of the coral (they look more like giant boulders). Plenty of colourful fish as well.

After snorkelling, the boat moved to another location, we had lunch (I didn’t eat much, worried about the return journey to Cairns) but it was good food, and then fell asleep during the nature talk (probably due to the seasickness pill).

Next stop was Saxon Reef for another snorkel, this time 1.5 hours. Giant reef shelves here with also a lot that were shallow and close to the surface (had to be careful not to kick the coral).

Highlights here were the giant clams. The largest ones were too far for me to reach but still easy to see. They’re huge. Also saw two dead ones with the halves sitting there being picked at by fish. The other bonus was seeing a long white-tipped reef shark in the distance. I wasn’t fast enough to get closer but was impressive to see from afar.

No seahorses. No Nemo or Dory (though I think someone else saw Dory). Nevertheless, I was glad I got to see it, experience a small part of this amazing and large reef, and sad that so much of it has been destroyed. (Being a tourist probably doesn’t help much either.)

Back on the boat and about 1.5 hours back to shore. While on the journey, I realised how sunburnt the backs of my legs had gotten because I stupidly went without putting sunscreen on. Tomorrow they’re going to be worse.

No seasickness this time (unlike the poor guy who didn’t get a bag in time) and I slept for part of it. We arrived back at the marina at 4pm and went our separate ways.

Conquering Kings Canyon

On taking the early morning rim walk around Kings Canyon and the Karrke Aboriginal tour.

Much to Glen’s horror (and mine if I’m honest), we were up before the sun on Sunday morning so we could go on the early morning rim walk around Kings Canyon. We wolfed down some breakfast with a bunch of other eager hikers and then went to reception to meet our guide.

Glen and I were the only ones going on the tour so we had the guide to ourselves (as well as a giant bus). We arrived at Kings Canyon with the sun almost ready to burst over the rim. The guide, Marcus, was happy to have just two, seemingly fit, “young” people in his group as that meant no stragglers and no waiting for people with dodgy hips etc. The walk, advertised to take about 3 to 4 hours was going to be over in no time.

Walking the Kings Canyon Rim

We started with the 500 steps up the side of the canyon, setting a cracking pace that left my throat burning and my lungs heaving by the time we reached the top. We then set off around the rim, going through staggeringly beautiful rock formations bathed in the sunrise light. The rocks were so red!

We passed through Priscilla’s Crack, a split in between two rocks that featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We’ll have to watch the movie again now. There was also a tree that Elle McPherson had posed against. You can easily understand why it’s a popular spot for photos.

We continued on at a good speed, heading out to lookouts, seeing fossils that Marcus wouldn’t normally stop for if there was a larger group. (So happy was he to have only the two of us that he mentioned it to just about every other tour-led group, inspiring envy as we left their 24-strong hordes behind.)

On one of these slight detours we spotted a wallaroo (or Euro if you’re from WA) amongst the spinifex. Hooray for wildlife sightings!

We bumped into the British doctors we met at the Fields of Light dinner at Uluru; they were hurrying to get it done before embarking on their 500km-drive back to Alice Springs to catch their plane.

We went up and down rock ledges, down to the Garden of Eden (a water hole that can no longer be swum in because of all the sunscreen polluting the water), and I finally got to eat something off a bush – a native fig. Tasted like a fig.

We took photos along the way, continued our march that didn’t feel too strenuous for most of it, and then came around the other side of the canyon and began our descent. We reached the bottom two and a half hours after we’d started. If we’d not stopped, we would have easily done it in two, but then we wouldn’t have seen anything.

We got back on the bus with another group of people who’d done the shorter and easier creek walk and then arrived back at the resort at about 10am to find that Optus had installed a mobile phone tower nearby and we had signal again. (We’d been without it since yesterday…yet managed to survive.)

Karrke Tour

The middle of our day passed with naps, lunch, and reading, until we had an Aboriginal cultural tour booked for 4pm. It took place about half an hour down the road and was called the Karrke Tour. (Karrke is the name of the bowerbird local to these parts.)

We were greeted and joined a German couple who were halfway through their tour. The tour guides, Peter and Christine, took us to different stations where we learnt about different types of ochre, making jewellery, and bush tucker. They showed us live honey ants, their abdomens full of juice, and then how to cook a witchety grub. They pop when they’re done. After that it was different medicinal plants.

The Germans then finished and we continued on to see the large amounts of work involved in collecting and grinding seeds to make a type of flour and then turn that into a tasteless, utilitarian bread.

We were shown different hunting tools and weapons, and then real live witchety grubs as they were extracted out of the roots of trees. They’re soft and squishy to touch, pretty big for a bug and apparently taste of raw egg when raw. When they’re cooked, they take on the taste of the tree they were growing in so if they burrowed into eucalyptus leaves, they’d taste of eucalyptus.

The tour went for half an hour, was well structured, very interesting and Peter and Christine friendly and engaging. I’m glad we went along. While we were chatting to Peter on our way back to the car, we said how we’d seen a wallaroo earlier in the day. He said he’d lived there 15 years and only seen them three times, that’s how rare and shy they are. He also said that the number of kangaroos and emus has gotten low so now they’re a rare sight too, when before they’d be plenty of them to see. We were now more likely to see dingos (which we had).

Back at the resort, we packed our bags, went for dinner and had an early night ready for our return to Uluru in the morning and then our flights home.

Kata-Tjuta to Kings Canyon

On visiting Kata Tjuta, walking the Valley of the Winds and Walpo Gorge, seeing wildlife (perentie, dingo and eagle) and arriving at Kings Canyon.

I was keen to get going early on Saturday morning as the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta (formerly The Olgas) had closed the previous day after 11am due to the heat, as well as us having to drive 300 km to Kings Canyon in time for dinner.

Despite this, however, when the alarm went off at 6am, Glen and I both dismissed the alarms and went back to sleep. I thought Glen had a backup alarm set for 6:30am but he didn’t (at least not for a Saturday morning) and we both woke up at 7am instead. A quick shower, a quick breakfast and we were on the road before 8am.

Kata-Tjuta

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Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas) is the other big rock (or collection of rocks) on the horizon in Uluru – Kata-Tjuta National Park. From a distance it reminds me of a sculpture gone wrong with bits jutting out all over the place; or like it’s the unfinished version of Uluru.

I drove us to Kata-Tjutu and straight to the Valley of the Winds, which was due to close at 11am due to the rising temperature (slated to be 37°C). There are two lookout points at Kata Tjuta, one easily reached, the other part of a 7km loop. We set off and I wanted to at least get to the second lookout, and agreed with Glen that we didn’t need to do the full loop which would take about 3 hours.

We got to the first lookout, continued on through the gorge, and ascended to the second lookout. We were soon joined by about 25 high school students on some sort of trip, perhaps a last hurrah for year 12. We took our photos, rehydrated and then returned, bumping into the couple from Sydney we’d met the night before. They were going to do the full loop…and more power to them. We were quite satisfied with what we’d seen haha.

The trip took us about two hours with breaks included. It lived up to its name with the channel being quite windy. We made a stupid joke about Glen’s name meaning ‘Valley’ so he was ‘Glen of the Winds’ for a while and you can imagine the connotation that has.

Back at the car we headed for Walpo Gorge, a 1km trip that took about an hour return. It was spacious, rocky and ended in a cool shady spot. I was thrilled that, along the way, I spotted a 1-metre long perentie, happily strolling along beside the path. That provided much amusement – and filled a gap in what has been a fairly wildlife-free trip.

While it’s been awesome to see these iconic Australian places, I’ve got to say that as far as gorges go, Karajini National Park is by far the best we’ve been to.

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Uluru to Kings Canyon

After Walpo Gorge we hopped back in the car, got petrol at the resort and then booked it up the Lasseter Highway to reach Kings Canyon. Google said it would take four hours but somewhere I managed to do it in three. (It would have been 2 hours 45 minutes if we hadn’t stopped a couple of times.)

The drive was uneventful all except for THE DINGO! Glen spotted a sign for a rest stop and wanted to pull over. When I pulled in, I headed for a park bench and pulled up alongside it. At which point we both noticed the dingo sitting under the bench. It was completely unperturbed by our presence. We took our photos, and for some reason Glen didn’t want to get out and say hello.

We left after five minutes. I was absolutely thrilled to see a wild dingo. During the drive we’d also seen a wedge-tailed eagle flying overhead, which brings our animal count to about six (including zebra finches, rock pigeons and a small lizard).

We arrived at Kings Canyon Resort a little after 3pm and checked in. The guy at the counter seemed a bit unsure about what the hell was going on. He gave us our room key but we’d booked a package that came with a bunch of other things so it was a bit of rigamarole from there on. It was all sorted in the end though and we booked, for Sunday, a 6:30am Kings Canyon rim walk (ugh…so early), as well as a cultural tour at 4pm.

After getting into our room, we crawled into bed for a few hours and woke up groggy at 5:30. We’d booked another special dinner, again outside. I’m not sure about Glen but I was starting to feel a little over fancy dinners by this stage but we’d paid for it so we went. I think it’s been the best food out of the three we’ve been on.

Dingo
Dingo!

Under a Desert Moon

We joined two other couples – one from Melbourne with four kids and another from Brisbane nearing their seventies – for champagne and canapés. Conversation began with where we were all from and quickly progressed to talk about Uluru and dingoes.

We then were shown to our tables, each seating two and placed around a fire, which at the start of the evening was too hot for all of us but was eventually forgotten and pleasantly comforting.

We had a six-course degustation that took Australian ingredients and gave them a different twist. Remarkably there was no lemon myrtle. We had kangaroo loin with mushrooms, emu koftas (and other Middle Eastern inspired flavours), a delicious granita of passionfruit and pineapple (which tasted like a frosty fruit and I could have eaten way more), barramundi with beurre blanc and parsnips, and then a macadamia baklava with bush berries and vanilla icecream. Delicious!

Conversation bounced across the tables as we shared our experiences of what we’d seen and done. I think that when people look at Glen and I they think we’re in our twenties and we’re doing these things as our ‘one nice treat’ on a holiday that would otherwise be spent in backpackers or in the back of a 4WD. I think they’re surprised when they find out what we’ve done.

Thankfully dinner was all over by about 8:45 because that meant we could have an early night. We said our farewells and got back to the room, preparing ourselves for an early morning start. I think Glen’s hankering for one of those sit-by-the-pool holidays…I might be as well.

Uluru and the Best of Intentions

Uluru

On contemplating the climb/no climb situation; taking the Mala Walk; opting for driving instead of walking around Uluru, and dinner under the stars at Tali Wiru.


In preparing for this trip to Uluru, I’d checked the weather and was chagrined to find most of the days we’d be here the temperature would be well over 30°C. Today (Friday) and Saturday were slated to be 37°C – not the best temperature when you want to walk 10 km in the open sun.

Despite waking at 7, much earlier than we’d anticipated, we didn’t hit the road until 9am. The concierge recommended we join the Mala Walk, which is guided by a ranger, that started at 10am. That gave us time to stop at the cultural centre first (great building with strong thematic interpretation, however, overloaded with text and poorly attended) and then get to Mala Car Park to wait for the guide. The heat was already getting up there.

Because of the 36°C+ weather, the route to climb Uluru was closed and so only people who’d gone up there earlier were given access down. Glen and I were both surprised at the numbers tramping down the side of Uluru considering the prominent messages about climbing it being a mark of disrespect to the Anangu people who consider Uluru a sacred site.

The numbers of people doing the climb have dropped to about 20% of visitors, and a guide said that the reason the climb is still open is because it’s believed, by certain tourist bodies, that if it were closed there wouldn’t be anything else for tourists to do.

Now, no doubt getting up there, climbing the rock and seeing the valleys, the pools, the difference, would be something worth seeing, but, in my opinion, not at the expense of disrespecting another culture, especially one that’s suffered so much as the Anangu (and other Aboriginal people). I also struggle to understand how people can quite easily, it seems, disregard a heartfelt entreaty not to climb it, purely for their own self-satisfaction.

Getting Around Uluru

Uluru

We followed the tour guide for an hour-long guided walk along the Mara track, which took us to significant Anangu sites (including rock art) and ended down Kantju Gorge where there was a waterhole. We heard various stories relating to the Anangu mythology and how they lived off the land.

Once the tour finished, we hummed and haahed about continuing our walk around the rest of Uluru which would take at least three hours and cover 10 km. The heat rose and fell as we went from no shade to shade, and so did our willingness to undertake such a trek. In the end, with the heat beating down on us, we opted to drive around Uluru instead and justified it any number of ways. And now that we’ve done it, I don’t regret it at all.

We got back to the car and went clockwise around Uluru, stopping on the side of the road at various opportunities to take our photos (though not of sacred sites where we were told not to). There is something truly magical about the place, and I loved the variability of the surface of the rock. We imagined faces, or the flood of water during the wet season, or that Uluru was itself dropped from a great height and sinking into the earth because of the way the lines ran.

We stopped at Kuniya Walk and went along the track to another waterhole, stopping at caves where there was more rock art, and then took a break at the waterhole. Hundreds of tiny birds that peeped flew around us. They were so small that even when tens and tens of them landed on a branch, it barely moved. They were also so small that it was easy to overlook them until they launched into their air and the sound of their wings beating furiously amplified in the enclosed space.

There were also a bunch of berries around (and a helpful sign that said which of a few were edible or poisonous). I didn’t eat any, as much as I wanted to. Glen was concerned I might poison myself so for his sake, I didn’t.

Our trip around Uluru took a fraction of the time and saved us from dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Once back in town we stopped for lunch, bought a few things and returned to the hotel for a bit of a relax before the night’s dining experience.

Tali Wiru

When I booked the holiday and accompanying experiences, I booked us in for Sounds of Silence, an outdoor dining experience with tables of ten. Last night, Glen read the description of it and realised that we were going to be repeating what we’d done the night before except without the Field of Lights. As good as the experience was, we didn’t need to do it again.

When we talked to the staff at the counter in the morning, they seemed uncertain about us getting a refund because it was less than 24 hours away but “while they checked” they upsold us on doing Tali Wiru. Tali Wiru is another outdoor dining experience, but limited to 20 people and an a la carte menu.

We caught the big car thing at 6pm, a vehicle so big it reminded us of the polar bear trucks in Churchill. We drove for about twenty minutes through the outback to a remote location (past the industrial area for the resort) where we stopped and got a nice view of the helicopter that another couple had arrived via. Glen and I instantly had FOMO (fear of missing out) that we hadn’t arrived in such style. I spoke to them later and heard how wonderful the experience had been. Ahhhh next time.

We walked up the hill to a fire pit where one of the staff was playing the didgeridoo. We were served champagne and then a series of canapés consisting of scallops (with ants), kangaroo and another that I can’t remember. All delicious. The chef then came out with an arranged platter of difference bush tucker which she explained and then offered us to sample.

I ate one of the ants which tasted salty, sweet and sour all at the same time. I also had a bush tomato which tasted like beef jerky. Most of the ingredients came from rainforest in Queensland so I felt a bit cheated that they weren’t local ingredients but instead under the broader umbrella of ‘indigenous’ ingredients. Still, they were delicious.

We struck up a conversation with the helicopter couple who’d come from Sydney but it was broken when we were shown to our seats. There were only 18 of us, all in couples, and all with our own tables. We were still able to chat with people as and when we felt like it. I also had a good view of Uluru in one direction and Kata Tjuta in the other until the sun went down.

Different from the dinner the night before, we were given a la carte choices, of which I had pressed wallaby as an entree, toothfish for a main and then a lychee and bush-fruit-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of dessert. All came with matched wines so it was a merry night.

We had a star talk again tonight, though this was longer and went into Aboriginal astronomy as well which was interesting. We also saw six of the zodiac constellations. After dinner we sat around the fire with hot chocolate (and cognac for those who wanted it) and heard a bit about the local Indigenous people and how they hunted. Made me realise we only scratched the surface on this ancient culture and its practices.

While around the campfire we chatted to an American couple who have been living in Australia for six years. They’d driven from Melbourne with their three children (two of which are four years old). They’d stayed in Coober Pedy and Port Augusta and one of the children had caught pneumonia. They were very happy to have a night out without the children.

After dinner, we climbed aboard the monster truck again and were driven back to our hotel. So ended another day out in Central Australia.

The Red Eye to Uluru and the Field of Lights

Long gone are the days of doing things on minimal sleep. We caught the Red Eye from Perth to Sydney at five minutes to midnight on Wednesday. There are no flights direct from Perth to Uluru. The only ones that go near enough are to Alice Springs which would have involved spending a night there and either catching another flight or driving. We opted to go via Sydney instead.

The winds over Australia must have been on point on Thursday because we landed in Sydney early (and sat on the tarmac for a bit) and our flight to Uluru also took less time than estimated (which we lost waiting in queue at Avis).

I’d slept a bit on the plane over to Sydney and then, much to Glen’s horror, fell asleep, horizontally, in the Virgin lounge. I would have been appalled too but I was too damn tired to care. People go in there in thongs, for God’s sake, so I doubt anyone minded.

Because Glen didn’t sleep through any of the four-hour layover, he was verging on delirious, evidenced by him panicking that we needed to head to the gate because they’d called our flight. I checked the board only to see he had gotten confused and thought we were going to Darwin. Crisis averted in time.

The flight to Uluru seemed to go forever because of the lack of a good sleep, but Glen and I had a seat between us that we intermittently used to bend ourselves in half and doze on.

Ayers Rock Resort

We waited about 40 minutes for our hire car, mostly because of hold-ups with other people who were in front of us. A queue formed behind us and by the time we were sorted, it was about ten people long. I felt for the staff who’d have to deal with each of them. Still not sure why everything took so long, considering everything is prebooked.

We drove down to Ayers Rock Resort, the self-contained town with all the amenities and accommodation. On the way we saw Uluru in the distance, obscured slightly behind a haze of what I’m assuming was due to burn-off. Much like the Rockies that are seemingly plonked onto the Albertan prairies, Uluru is just, well, there. The surrounding landscape isn’t as barren as I’d expected, as there are plenty of scrubs, trees and grasses all over.

We checked into Sails in the Desert and had lunch while we waited for our room to become available. By then, we were both tired and in need of a proper horizontal, no interruptions from flight announcements, screaming children or loud-talking businessmen on mobile phones. We were given our room about half an hour later, got in and promptly went to bed for a few hours.

We woke up at 5:15 when the alarm rudely shook us out of our slumber. We had dinner/tour reservations and needed to get going, but that awful tired/sick feeling took a while to shake off. However, we were out the front of the hotel and waiting for our bus with time to spare.

Field of Lights

IMG_2913

In the evening we went on the A Night at Field of Lights experience. British artist Bruce Munro created a light installation using 50,000 lights and a lot of optic cables that was so popular it’s now being kept until March 2018. It covers 49 square kilometres and is powered with solar power. When the sun goes down, the lights turn on to create, literally, a field of light. It was one of the reasons we wanted to come to Uluru in the first place.

Our experience, however, began before the sun set. About a hundred people got off the buses and walked up to a spot where we were served drinks and canapés (crocodile, kangaroo, prawn and some other vegetables) while the sun gradually set. This gave us the chance to see Uluru and a silhouetted Kata Tjuta. Two American couples struck up a conversation with us so we had a chat with them about their two-week holiday in Australia and New Zealand and a bit about earthquakes in California before being directed to our tables for dinner.

Glen and I were the last to be seated and joined a table of three other couples: a 51-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter; senior husband and wife from England; and two young English male doctors working in Cairns. Normally the idea of making small talk with random strangers is our version of hell, but everyone (including us) was friendly and fun.

Dinner was huge. After a starter of soup (with the perennial favourite lemon myrtle), the main was a buffet that consisted of salmon, kangaroo, beef, chicken and prawns, as well as vegetables and other sides. We were stuffed by the end of it (yet still managed to sample a wide variety of the desserts that were available later).

In between the main and the dessert, we were treated to a short astronomy presentation that was full of small bits of interesting information and terrible-but-oh-so-good jokes. The presentation aside, however, the stars, when the lights were turned up, were astounding. The night sky looks a little different in this part of the country from what I’m used to and of course the sheer number of stars was staggering. Makes such a difference when there’s little-to-no light pollution around.

After dessert, we were given about half an hour to walk through the Field of Lights as they changed colour. It was a subtly beautiful experience, as the lights aren’t turned up as bright as they could be but instead the colours are muted across the landscape and seemingly go on forever (until you reach the edge and realise you have to hurry to not miss the bus).

We left at 10 and happily climbed back into bed.

Greece: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By no means is this meant to be a definitive list of the good, the bad and the ugly in Greece. I spent fewer than two weeks there so it’s just based on short-term observations and limited personal experience. Having said that…

The Good

Food

Meze

On the whole, everywhere we ate was delicious or, at least, not awful. Only about three meals out of…what…30 were subpar. Everything else was tasty, good quality, enjoyable. Paired with some good wine or some cocktails and to-die-for views and eating out was a pleasure. Athens is also generally really well priced for food. Mykonos more expensive and Santorini somewhere in the middle depending on where you eat. Easier to find good find in Athens too as you can generally eat where the locals eat without much hassle.

Price

Athens was cheap. In some cases, really cheap. The downside to a struggling economy, I suppose. Food was exceptionally well priced (unless you’re going for the super fancy, which we didn’t, but I can’t imagine it’s outrageous. Definitely nowhere near Australian prices). Taxis were also ridiculously cheap in the city – just make sure they put the meter on. The reasonable and cheap prices in Athens make up for the higher prices in Mykonos…but what do you expect?

Chilled drivers

I drove for two days in and around Athens. I was anxious that they’d be like the Italians – aggressive and excessively using their horns. Not so. The Greeks drive super fast, drift across lanes without indicating and there’s a lot of cars on the road BUT they’re pretty laid back. I found myself copying their style, sometimes intentionally as I was about to go down the wrong road, but I didn’t feel harangued. Mykonos and Santorini you’re dealing with smaller roads but drivers still going the same speed.

Beaches

 

IMG_1316 (2)We only went to Elia Beach in Mykonos but that was well set up and the water was beautiful. It was incredibly chilled and I could have stayed there for days. The beaches on the mainland looked really good too and the water is clear as. Perfect way to spend the summer days.

Archaeology

IMG_1055

More ruins than you can poke a stick at. Lots of history, lots of picturesque ruined temples. Being also the main sightseeing drawcard, it was wonderful to see that sites like the Parthenon and the oracle at Delphi weren’t excruciatingly busy. It’s probably awful in August but in June it wasn’t too packed at all. Also, unlike India, you’re not harassed by people trying to see things. Only downside is you can get a bit ‘over’ seeing ruins all the time.

The Bad

Transport on Mykonos and Santorini

It can get a bit expensive using taxis on Mykonos and Santorini. Next time I’ll hire a car for the islands as you can see me. We ended up taking the bus quite a bit on Mykonos which was really cheap (€1.60 and €3.20) but the buses aren’t all that frequent so you run the risk of not catching them.

Trying to Get the Bill

IMG_0921Staff in restaurants are in absolutely no hurry to bring you the bill, or, once you’ve got the bill, the card machine (or take your money and bring back change). This can get a bit frustrating when you’re eager to get going (or running late for a bus). We pushed it along by getting up to pay at a counter which usually involved us being asked to go back to our seat and being reassured we’d be dealt with shortly.

The Ugly

You can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. At all. The pipes in Greece are too thin that toilet paper will just block them and cause a whole lot of trouble. One or two pieces is fine but on the whole it’s a no-no. Instead you throw it in the bin. As a result, just about every toilet in Greece has a small plastic bag-lined bin next to it which you throw the paper in. It takes getting used to, and to get over the ick factor but you deal. The amount of plastic waste that then gets thrown away isn’t worth thinking about.