Whale Sharks of Exmouth

The bus picked us up at 7:20am and took us, along with 16 other excited passengers, to the jetty where we’d board the boat for our day of swimming with whale sharks. Despite having heard positive reports about a currently good run of sightings, I was a little worried we’d spend a day on the boat without much to show for it.

While we waited for the inflatable to take us to the boat, a sea turtle intermittently popped its head out of the water in the bay next to us. Kind of like an aquatic version of whack-a-mole. If nothing else, we’d seen a turtle’s head.

Once on the boat, we were given a safety briefing and provided with full body stingy suits, attractive things that make you look like a human condom. They also smelled of human sweat so it was a relief to get moving so the breeze could blow the smell away.

We went for a snorkel in the bay first, drifting down a ways as we floated above coral and a bunch of fish. I saw many of the same species I’d seen the day before including a large starfish and a cat fish. The water was warm and it was a nice way to, well, get our feet wet.

Back on the boat we were soon zooming out to see as a whale shark had been spotted nearby. The captain was happy we wouldn’t have to travel for 45 minutes to reach it, as they’d had to do the day before. Glen and I were in group two, each group consisting of nine people plus a spotter.

Group one hopped in and we got ready, slipping on snorkel and mask and flippers. Once we received the go ahead we jumped in and lined up with the spotter, waiting for the shark to come in line with us and then it was on for young and old as we swam hard to try to keep up.

The shark we saw was a juvenile male, about 4-5 metres long. He was so beautiful. The spots on his side are so well defined and the strange shape of its head and mouth is captivating. I swam as fast as I could, which admittedly isn’t very fast, but this shark, with a few flicks of its powerful tail, steamed ahead and left me behind. Others were much better at keeping up.

We had seen a whale shark. Mission accomplished!

Poor Glen didn’t have such a good time of it though. He often gets seasick so to be on a boat and then to have to snorkel through choppy seas made him feel decidedly green. Up came his breakfast and after two dives with the shark, he decided to call it quits and have a lie-down.

The rest of us went in and out of the water with this juvenile male over the next hour or so before he finally had enough and disappeared. We then saw a much younger and smaller whale shark who was double the adorable level and was quite happy to hang around and have a look at us for a while.

Even though we didn’t see one of the giant ones, I’m really glad we saw what we did. I couldn’t get over how beautiful they look.

After the swims we had lunch on board and then were taken to a part of the reef for a snorkel. That is until they spotted a tiger shark near the boat. It didn’t come to the surface but based on how big it looked from above, it was likely to be a bit of a monster. After that sighting, the skipper wasn’t keen for us to go snorkelling so instead we drifted along spotting more sharks.

Apparently we saw different types but one tiger shark was enough for me.

We got back to land at about four, Glen very happy to no longer be swaying left and right. Despite the seasickness, I think we can claim that trip as a success.

I’d like to come back and see the humpback whales and the manta rays but I think Glen will abstain from them. Anyone else want to join me?

Mini-break in Exmouth

This weekend we’re continuing our exploration of Australia by heading up to Exmouth to swim with whale sharks (much to Glen’s horror). We saw so much of Canada that it seemed ridiculous to not see more of Australia.

We left drizzly and grey Perth at 11am, boarding an almost full flight up to Learmonth. We landed an hour and a half later, flying up the coast and seeing the pointy bit you see on the map. I think it’s Shark Bay, but don’t quote me.

After collecting our luggage and picking up the hire car, we drove into Exmouth and had a late lunch. Based on a recommendation we then drove around the tip to Cape Range National Park to reach Oyster Stacks.

High tide was at 4:20 and we got there about 3:30. It was windy and the water looked choppy. I was anxious about getting in the water, made worse by the signs warning of dangerous jellyfish. But FOMO won out in the end and I got in the warm water with my snorkel and mask.

Fish everywhere! Thousands of very small, silvery fish in a massive swarm coalesced around me. Large fish in a variety of colours, iridescent fish, tiny bright blue fish, yellow fish, zebra fish, a fish with a long snout that swam close to the surface, starfish, sea cucumbers and coral…all amazing.

I chose not to swim out to the actual oyster stacks (columns of rocks with oysters on them) purely out of fear of getting stuck out there and not being able to get back. Nevertheless, I saw a lot, and really happy about it.

Glen stayed on the beach, taking photos of sea snails and crabs in the rocks.

The sun was getting low in the sky on the drive back, casting a golden glow across the landscape. We soon saw an emu and later a kangaroo nearly jumped into the side of the car. We stopped and took photos of Sturt’s Desert Pea on the verge, then went up to the lighthouse. People were gathering with their chairs and bottles of beer to watch the approaching sunset.

Back in Exmouth we bought food at IGA, then checked into our accommodation, a caravan/camping/chalet place like the ones I used to stay at with my family in Albany. We cooked snapper with carrots, broccoli and sugar snap peas, and watched tv. It’s like being on holiday.

Glenorchy and Ziplining in Queenstown

Friday was our last full day in Queenstown. There’s still a few things I would like to have done (such as take a trip to Stewart Island to look for kiwi) but there are only so many hours in the day. While Glen was at the conference in the morning, I took a drive to Glenorchy, a town 40 minutes away from Queenstown.

A few people had recommended the drive there and it didn’t disappoint. I travelled along winding roads that hugged the coastline with glimpses of the lake and the mountains offered up as I zoomed along at 100 kmh. I got stuck behind a four-car convoy for part of it, all doing 80, but eventually managed to get around them and zoom along. I made good time.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who think I should have taken the drive slow but where’s the fun in that? Going around sharp corners at speed was much more enjoyable.

There’s not much in Glenorchy but I did stop and take some photos from the jetty and the bank before getting back into the car and going back into Queenstown. Forty minutes later I was back in town, content with my speed sightseeing, and sitting have a tea and poached eggs at a cafe on the shores of the lake.

I picked Glen up from the conference venue around midday and we caught the gondola up the hill for our ziplining appointment.

Ziplining Down the Mountain

There are plenty of adventure sports that you can do in Queenstown, including skydiving, bungy jumping, paragliding, mountain bike riding and a whole lot more. As we went past the bungy platform on the gondola, my stomach started feeling queasy. Definitely not giving that a go if I can’t even look at the platform without feeling ill.

Instead we booked in for a ziplining experience that took us down the mountain on six ziplines over three hours (including a 20-minute walk between the last two ziplines). there were ten of us in the group with two lots of three-person families (a dad and two daughters), us and a man and a woman (one from the US, one from Auckland) who pull together conferences for companies.

We were given our harnesses and, despite having gone to the washroom about three times before the tour began, as soon as the harnesses were on we were both busting to go (TMI I know). Still we engaged our kegels and soldiered on. We are not yet incontinent.

Unlike the ziplining I did in Newfoundland, this one doesn’t involve any braking on our behalf; it’s all handled by the guides. So really we’re just locked onto the line and off we go, stopping safely at the other end and drawn into the platform. This meant we were free to do what we wanted on the line, including going upside down.

This turned out to be my favourite thing to do on five of the lines (we didn’t learn how to do it until the second). Travelling along at speed upside down as the mountain goes whizzing by is a bizarre but fun experience. We felt fairly safe so the whole ziplining experience was pretty chill, even the last line which is advertised as the world’s steepest.

We ended up at the bottom of the mountain, took off our harnesses and went on our way. I was starving by this point so we went for an early dinner at Botswana Butchery, luckily getting a table because we’re nannas and eat early. At 6 pm it started to get busy and there were no seats available without a reservation. We ate well then went home for a bit of a rest before our stargazing experience.

Upside-down! #Queenstown #newzealand #gaytravel #ziplining

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Stargazing

Unfortunately the air conditioning at our accommodation broke down a day or two before so the shipping container house was absolutely freezing. It prepared us for the stargazing tour which was starting at 8:45 pm.

We went back to the gondola, caught it up to the top, only to be told that the tour might be cancelled because the clouds had rolled in. The day was looking so promising too with a fairly clear sky but alas, the weather had other plans.

We waited around for a little while but at 8:30 it was clear nothing would proceed. We were fortunate to get a refund (we couldn’t rebook as we were leaving the next day) and went home. Glen was not-so-secretly pleased as he didn’t fancy standing outside for a couple of hours in the cold. Instead we went home and watched Getting On on Netflix and went to bed at 11.

Doubtful Sound

A couple of people had recommended Doubtful Sound to me, preferring it over Milford Sound, so I booked a day-long coach and cruise tour. This meant getting out of bed at 5:30 am, a horrible time of the morning at any time but after crappy sleep for nearly a week, it’s a bit of a shock. Glen dropped me off at the bus pick-up point at 6:15 and the coach came by soon after.

Much like when we did tours in Iceland that started during the darkness, the next two hours were just driving so I fell asleep at some point for a little while. When I did look out the window it was to see farmland, mountains, low-hanging clouds and rain. Beautiful.

The coach dropped me and another couple at Te Anau, before another bus picked us up and took us with others to Manapouri. From there we caught a ferry across the lake, and then onto another bus to go through Wilmot Pass. The drive took another hour, stopping at a few places along the way to get some snaps at suitable vistas. At the end of the drive we then boarded another boat, which took us into Doubtful Sound.

The three-hour cruise took us through the sound out to the Tasman Sea. The whole thing reminds me of a similar experience we had in Newfoundland – stunning expanse of water, tree and moss covered hills surrounding us, little tree-lined islands and waterfalls dotted here and there. Standing at the front of the boat, feeling the wind blowing in your face as you go past a majestic landscape…I couldn’t help but wish I’d brought my beanie.

We didn’t see many birds on the trip, really only spying a few seabirds when we got to the ocean, but we did, however, see about 20 fur seals. They’re so cute! No wonder sharks like to eat them. They were chilling out on one of the rocky islands. They’re so small! We watched them for a while and then headed back into the sound. We also were on the lookout for dolphins but alas, none were sighted.

We then repeated the backward journey, going by coach over the Wilmot Pass (no stops this time) to the return ferry across the water to Manapouri and then back on the same coach from the beginning back to Queenstown. (We passed a coach that had taken the corner too fast and slipped off the road. Luckily that wasn’t us.)

I got dropped off at 7:30 pm and Glen was there to meet me. We then went for dinner with a couple of the radiologists. Much food and drink and chats were had.

Queenstown and Arrowtown

We flew from Auckland to Queenstown at midday on Tuesday, taking what must be one of the most beautiful flights in the world. We passed over the fiordlands as we came down to land; instantly the place reminded me of a combination of Newfoundland and Banff. Honestly, if the flight hadn’t been so sure, I’d have thought we’d detoured to Canada.

After landing, we collected our car (a green one this time but not a mini) and drove to our AirBnB: a converted shipping container perched on top of a hill with an enviable view of the mountains and the lake. Could we just stay here forever?

We’d bought some food at the shops in town on our way through so we had lunch, chilled out a bit and then, before we really knew it, it was an acceptable time to go for dinner. We headed back into town to a fish and chip van situated near the fancy restaurants and the lake.

We bumped into a couple of radiologists from back home and then sat watching the sky get dark and warded off three very determined ducks who were after our fish and chips. They didn’t succeed. After dinner we scurried home to our box and read our books.

Arrowtown

Wednesday was the start of the conference and Glen dutifully went off to attend a workshop. Meanwhile I went exploring and decided I’d do the good thing and go for a short hike. I went to Arrowtown, an old gold mining settlement that has been turned into a quaint tourist attraction. It’s also a good spot to go for some walks.

I picked the Sawpit Gully walk, a 2–3 hour walk up hills, through forests and along rivers and a pipeline. I figured that I’d be at the shorter end of the timescale but after setting off and stopping for a rest pretty soon in, I worried I’d be pushing the three hours. Not to mention my knee (the one that fractured) was feeling tender. Nevertheless, I persevered.

I was rewarded with wild strawberries (very much at the end of the season) and wild blackberries. Glen hates it when I eat random berries growing in the wild but a) these weren’t random and b) he wasn’t there. It’s not like I ate anything else.

A couple of birds showed interested in me at one point so perhaps I was near their nest, and then one of them followed me for a little way and came quite close. They certainly didn’t seem afraid of my presence.

In addition to the berries and the birds, there were also lots of funky fungi (which I definitely did not eat), which reminded me a lot of the national park we went to in Quebec, La Mauricie, and all its fungi.

I ascended the hill and then marched across highlands and descended into valleys with little rivers. For much of the first hour of my trip I was alone except for one woman who came jogging up behind me and then disappeared. Jogging! While there I was dying! The isolation was wonderful but I could also understand how people get agoraphobic. The hills were open and expansive and I felt very exposed, but I still enjoyed myself.

It wasn’t until the descent that I started seeing people who’d taken the track counter-clockwise. I think they would have the harder route. Time marched along with me until eventually I came to the start of the track again (there were moments I was afraid I’d taken the wrong turn and would have to endure even more exercise and fresh air). I was pleased to find that despite the stops I’d taken along the way, the walk took me exactly two hours.

Once back at the beginning I walked into the Arrowtown settlement and had a look around. I didn’t find anywhere I wanted to stop for lunch so thought I’d try one of the wineries I’d passed on the way in. Unfortunately, the sat-nav took me another way and I bypassed them completely. I had to settle for chicken salad when I got home, which was probably for the best.

Onsen Hot Pools

Despite having a whole afternoon free to go explore more of what Queenstown had to offer, I was perfectly content to stare out the glass door of our accommodation for a while and then get some work done.

I sat outside on the balcony to begin with but soon my fingers froze so I retreated inside to the warmth. I managed to edit another chapter of my book and get a few other things done before it was time to pick Glen up at 5:30.

Later that evening we went to Onsen Hot Pools, a destination recommended to us by the woman at the Air New Zealand check-in at Auckland Airport. We booked a late-night lantern-lit hour-long experience, starting at 9 pm. The water was hot and the jets were of reasonable strength which was perfect for my sore legs. (I’m really not a cardio kind of guy.)

Less perfect was the argument we had about ten minutes into our time there. Still, the open air with its frosty breeze and the warm water were pleasant, if not exactly romantic. Unfortunately, it was also a cloudy night so we couldn’t see the stars or the moon. Oh well, we’re still lucky.

Looking for Hobbits and Dolphins

Glen decided to attend a conference in Queenstown so we tacked on a few days beforehand to spend in and around Auckland. (Of course, there was no way I was going to be left behind.) We left Perth at 6:15 pm on Friday and flew direct to Auckland. Ordinarily getting to New Zealand involves a stopover somewhere on the east coast so to fly direct was great. Not so great was arriving at 5:30 am having had next to no sleep on the flight.

After getting to the accommodation sometime around 7, we slept most of the morning away. We roused ourselves at lunchtime, walked into the city and found some brunch type food. Our stomachs were unsure whether to have breakfast or lunch. Lucky it was a Saturday when brunch is a thing.

We were unprepared for how warm Auckland was. I brought shorts with me but Glen didn’t so after a bit of walking and a bit more complaining we stopped in and bought new shorts. Yes, I bought some too…and damn, are they comfortable.

Worn out from shopping and walking, we returned to the accommodation, took an afternoon nap, then got up for an early dinner at a Japanese restaurant called Masu. Friends had recommended it so we gave it a shot, taking a seat at the bar because there were no free tables until 9pm. Food was delicious and the cocktails were nice too.

We contemplated going to do something with our evening and would have gone to one of the events at the observatory but tickets had sold out. We went home and vegetated on the couch, our body clocks completely out of whack. Sleeping was very difficult that night.

Hobbiton

The main reason we stopped in Auckland was to go to Hobbiton. Glen had learned they do an evening banquet so was keen to try out this bit of kitsch. We checked out at 9 am on Saturday then collected our hire car. I’d booked just an ordinary white Toyota sedan but Europcar had done a very clever bit of marketing.

Out the front of the store, they’d parked three Mini CooperS. Glen’s always wanted one so we paid the extra charge and drove off in a light blue one with a Union Jack painted on the top. Having now driven one, I don’t have any burning desire to get one; same for Glen. It’s large enough on the inside and zippy but I didn’t love it.

I drove us down to Matamata, stopping for lunch along the way. We also stopped at a kiwi fruit orchard and went on a tour. The tour was advertised yet the people supposedly running the tour didn’t really know what to say. We managed to get some good information out of him and we found it interesting. Turns out kiwi fruit is quite profitable too.

We were early for our check-in at a farm stay, so we went to Blue Springs, which was just past Matamata. The water looked amazing and had these long underwater grasses growing in them. They were really beautiful. We even saw a bit of bright blue water. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim in it; the springs provide about 70% of New Zealand’s bottled spring water.

We drove back to our accommodation, which was pretty much a B&B on a working farm. We dumped our bags then drove to the Hobbiton Movie Set. After collecting our tickets, we got on the bus and entered Hobbiton.

I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies once and I’ve never seen the three Hobbit movies. Despite this, I’d probably seen more of the movies than most of the other people on the tour. There was, of course, one group of five friends who were diehard fans. I think the tour was more targeted at them (the minority) than really at the majority (the biggest market share).

We followed our guide through various bits of the set, which, when recreated for the Hobbit movies, was made permanent as opposite to the ply and styrofoam version for the first movies. It was cute, we posed for photos at small doors as we pretended to be hobbits. We took our photos and then reached the Green Dragon where we had our banquet.

The tables were laden with food, offering a selection of duck, salmon, chicken and beef with sides of various vegetables. Dessert was less extravagant but nevertheless full of ample choice. The food was excellent – which was a big relief. We were a little worried we’d be served something substandard a la Disneyland. Not so much to our full and expanded bellies’ horror.

After dinner, we gathered together, picked up a lantern and set off to take a walk back through parts of the set lit at night to the coach. Many of us, including the heavily jet-lagged American family with small children who’d flown in that morning, thought we were just going to be taken straight back. Instead, we stopped in the field to hear about the party scene from the third movie and then take a ‘memory selfie’.

Cute ideas but after what had been about four and a half hours already, the tolerance level in the group had largely vanished. Glen and I couldn’t wait to get on the bus, and would have been completely satisfied if we’d just been taken straight back to the bus. We did get a nice photo at the end though.

We reached the coach just in time as the heavens opened once we were on and didn’t let up until we got home again.

Dolphins

After breakfast on Sunday morning, we returned to Auckland to go on a 4.5-hour boat cruise in the bay to look for whales and dolphins. I was worried how Glen was going to go on such a trip as he often gets sea sick but he managed. He might even have enjoyed himself.

I was the first person to spot dolphins, seeing four off to our right. I alerted the cruise operators and then we spun around to go meet them. They soon came up to the boat and everyone was very excited about seeing our first dolphins. We then continued on, spurred on by promises of seeing larger pods of dolphins further out.

We saw two or three other large groups throughout our tour, as well as the fin of a shark near one of the groups. There were young dolphins too, sticking close to the mothers. The dolphins took advantage of the forces created by the boat at the front and the back, regularly leaping out of the water and zooming along with us. We saw flocks of seabirds and dolphins going to town on schools of fish. Watching gannets dive-bomb into the water was spectacular.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any whales, but at least we saw plenty of Common Dolphins. The weather held out until we got back into the harbour and we’d spent a good amount of time lying at the front of the boat and soaking up the sunshine.

Once back on land, we drove to our next accommodation. I’d given Glen the address to plug into the sat-nav and that took us to somewhere in central Auckland. The owner of the AirBnB was meant to be back at six so we weren’t too concerned that no one answered the door when we arrived at 5:30. Instead, we went for a walk to find a toilet and maybe some food before wandering back at about 6 and sitting on the porch to wait.

We were there about ten minutes before Glen wondered, aloud, whether we were at the right address, which was probably code for ‘I’ve put the wrong address into the sat-nav.’ He hurried back to the car and sure enough had put in Seafield Rd instead of Seaview Rd. In his defence, the sat-nav wasn’t all that user-friendly but still… Poor Glen won’t be able to live this one down for a while.

We eventually found the right place, the owner leaving as we arrived. The accommodation was lovely, a beautifully decked out room above the garage with newly decorated bedroom and bathroom. Very cozy. We went for dinner at Woodpecker Hill (I think that’s what it’s called) and then came home to get some sleep. Our sleeping patterns were still out of whack. In the morning we were leaving for Queenstown.

 

The Long Road to Mumbai

Another early start to catch a taxi to the airport at 6:30am. The taxi driver was a maniac, zooming through intersections and honking his horn. We all feared for our lives but, thankfully, arrived in one place. Even if a little shaken.

To get into the airport we needed to show a ticket and our passports. We had our passports but not the tickets. Luckily I was able to show something that showed we had a booking, but the blank looks from the person I showed it to suggested she didn’t really understand it but let us through anyway.

Check-in was slow but we got through without much trouble, and then through security where bag tags were put on our hand luggage and then stamped to show they’d been screened.

We then sat and waited for our flight. And waited. And waited. It was over an hour delayed. I started reading a new book, The Loney. When the bus arrived to take us to the plane, we then showed our boarding passes and baggage tags to security…although there wasn’t one on my small bag.

I then had to be taken back to the x-ray machine…only to find that it had already been screened. I got rolled eyes and ‘geez-you’re-dumb’ looks from the people involved. We boarded the plane. The flight took about two hours and then we landed in Mumbai.

We walked to our hotel which was opposite the airport. We arrived at 12 and checked-in, which took a while, and then were told we’d be notified when our room was ready as check-in is usually at 2. We sat. And we waited.

At 1 we checked if the rooms were available. No, they weren’t.

We waited again.

At 2, I checked if it was ready. No, they had high occupancy and the rooms weren’t ready yet.

We waited again. And then went for lunch instead.

I came back up about an hour later. Rooms still not ready. They’d be ready in 15 minutes.

They weren’t.

Then they’d be ready in five minutes and they’d notify us.

They didn’t.

But eventually we were given rooms.

Although Christine couldn’t get into hers. Twice. No, I think three times.

No apologies. No attempt to sort this out quickly. They were useless. It was not a good start to getting in the hotel.

Then there were problems with the rooms so overall we weren’t impressed with the start of our stay. However, what was good was the buffet. Some delicious food.

I went to the gym, which is in the open air of the hotel, which is humid and not air-conditioned. I sweated, which is unusual for me. I felt better for having gone though (once I was sure I wasn’t going to pass out). I think I’ve put on weight during this holiday. Not good.

In the evening we went downstairs for dinner at a Lebanese/Moroccan restaurant, which was nice, and enjoyed the ambience. Not a bad way to end a bit of a trying day.

Two more days to go before going back to India.