Need a Hand with that Flat Tyre?

I’d wanted to check out Coral Bay while we were up in Exmouth but there wasn’t enough time to do it without getting stressed and being rushed. Instead, I’ve filed it away as something to do on the next trip up here. So, in exchange, we slept in and decided to take it easy, eventually choosing to go for a snorkel at Lakeside.

We packed up the cabin, put everything in the car, and then I went to the campers next door and asked if they wanted our leftover food (carrots, weetbix, garlic etc). The guy gratefully accepted it and then said, ‘Do you need a hand with that flat tyre?’

Excuse me? What? Flat what?

I popped me head out and looked at the car. Sure enough, the back right wheel was completely flat.

Oh.

The guy was happy to lend a hand. In fact, he changed the whole thing and saved us having to get our hands too dirty. Thank god we didn’t have our hearts set on going to Coral Bay early or else we would have been in a flap. He changed the tyre as if he’d been doing such a thing for years, said thanks again for the food, and we were on our way.

We drove around to Cape Range National Park again and then to Lakeside to go drift snorkelling. Glen stayed on the beach as he was extremely worried about jellyfish. Meanwhile I went in with nothing but speedos and flippers.

It was fun to drift on the current while looking at the fish. The water was warm. The experience pleasant. Although when I drifted down the current picked up a bit and made it harder to go back into shore. Luckily it wasn’t that deep and I could simply stand and walk back in. Snorkel and swim complete, we returned to the car and to town.

We stopped for lunch in Exmouth, where I ordered something revolted that I couldn’t finish. We filled up the tank and headed for the airport. Two emus sat beside a floodway sign so we stopped and looked at them. Strangely, an empty 4WD was parked near them, its occupants nowhere to be seen. Glen surmised that they had probably stopped to take photos of the emus and had subsequently been eaten by them. Sounds plausible enough.

Got to the airport, discovering that I was missing one beach towel. Very annoying as it was one of our favourites from Canada. I hope someone finds it and makes use of it. I then dropped off the keys…in the wrong rental car hire box. I’m sure they’ll get it in the end.

Short flight home, landing in much colder weather than we’d experienced in Exmouth. Time to rug up. And the cat looks like she wants cuddles too.

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.

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.

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.

 

Tigers of Ranthambore

I’m always amazed when I think that we saw polar bears and beluga whales in Churchill. Our luck at seeing ‘big’ natural things doesn’t always come through. We tried many MANY times to see moose in Canada, all to no avail. We tried to see the Northern Lights in Iceland three times, again with no success. And we’ve even tried to get a good look at the Grand Canyon, only to be disappointed the first time because of snow whiting it out, and the second because of a broken knee. Because of this – and the fact that we were trying to see tigers which are especially reclusive and rare – we didn’t set our hopes high when we went to Ranthambore.

The six-seater jeep picked us up just after 6am. A man from Bangalore was already in the car with us, and we then picked up a German couple who had booked three seats because of all their camera equipment. The guy from Bangalore also had impressive lenses. I had camera envy with my much smaller lens. Glen had an iPhone.

We were given Zone 1 to explore for a few hours, getting into the park just as the sun came up. We were soon rewarded with the sight of sambar deer to our right, and then two hare on our left, before seeing a group of spotted deer. So far, so good.

No tigers though. As we drove on and saw more deer, we passed another jeep who told us about a tiger footprint they’d seen. We soon found it too, making out a vague shape of a footprint. I suddenly felt electrified seeing it, certain our luck would come in and we’d see one. Especially hearing that the zone had a female with three cubs in it. We continued on.

I shouldn’t have got my hopes up though, and considering the man from Bangalore had been out five times previously and not seen anything, I kept reining in my expectations. This was the first time for the Germans, but they had another five trips to Ranthambore planned with a total of 21 tiger safaris booked across India. They REALLY wanted to see a tiger.

I had to keep reminding myself that while it would be so awesome to see one in the wild, I have been up-close and personal with tigers (including cubs) on a number of occasions when I worked at the zoo. Still…in the wild…

Anyway, we saw plenty of deer, stopped by a waterway and watched for birds, seeing osprey, cormorants, parakeets, two types of kingfisher (the sacred kind and the stork-billed kind, a rarity that got the others very excited), other types of birds and even a crocodile floating down the middle of the river. THAT was cool.

We also heard deer giving out their alarm call, a sound that echoed around the hills and made us all stop, hopeful of seeing, if not a tiger, then perhaps a leopard. Hyena and sloth bear also live in the forest.

We saw none of them.

Considering the large number of deer we saw everywhere, we were hoping that they’d be enough to entice some predator out, but alas, no. Glen even got out to go pee at one stage behind a tree, but nothing attacked him either. Disappointing.

After a few hours we returned to the main road, hearing from the guards that people in Zone 3 had seen a tiger that morning. Good for them.

On the way out we saw lots of black-faced langur sitting around, many with babies and young, so we all went gaga over them. It was a nice way to end the safari. While I’m disappointed we didn’t see one, I’m not surprised. Sixty tigers live in Ranthambore which is pretty big and the chances of seeing one are slim, as our friend from Bangalore understood very well. I hope the Germans have better luck, at least once out of their 21 planned visits.

Will we try again? I’m not so sure.

One thing that struck me about Ranthambore was how most of the town is built around the tigers and eco-tourism. There are many ‘wildlife’ or ‘eco’ resorts outside the national park so that provides a lot of employment for the locals, as do all the guides and drivers required for the tours themselves, which run twice a day. I’ve never seen a place so built around capitalising on people’s desire to see wildlife, in this case, tigers. When it comes to poaching, it’s easy to see that poaching serves the interest of only a few people while preserving them (hopefully) benefits a whole community. It’s making sure that people feel like they have enough that’s the tricky part.

We were dropped back at our hotel, had a quick breakfast, packed up and got in the waiting car for Mr Singh to take us back to Jaipur. I left one of my favourite t-shirts behind, somehow, discovering my stupidity only once we’d got back to Jaipur. Shame.

Three-and-a-half hours of driving later we arrived back into the madness of Jaipur afternoon traffic. We picked up our suits and shirts from the tailor. We look very sharp though my jacket feels a little tight under the arms. If I stand up straight and hold my shoulders back, it’s not so back, but I slouch. Maybe it’s time I learned not too. I do look pretty good in a fitted suit though. We were very tempted to order more but sanity prevailed.

In the evening, after we’d had a rest, we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant and bought a suitcase from the bazaar. We should have got a bigger one but oh well. I returned to the hotel, my headache still not gone and not feeling like being hassled to buy things, while Christine and Glen went and bought stuff. On to Mumbai in the morning.

Jaipur to Ranthambore

We had the morning to see more of Jaipur but when Mr Singh suggested going to the City Palace (again), none of us were too enthused. Instead he suggested getting a 90-minute ayurvedic massage. Christine and I were sold, and after a little more time, Glen agreed too.

The place itself was not much to write home about. Dark and dank rooms in a rundown building with the staff using their mobile phones at the reception. No soft relaxing music or scent of rose and jasmine here. It all felt a bit grimy.

We were given our options with all three of us choosing a 70-minute basic ayurvedic massage and then each added a different 20-minute experience. I went for a hot poultice back massage thing; Christine for a face beauty therapy thing; and Glen for a sinus clearing thing. We were then shown to our rooms.

Glen and I shared the same room, a curtain drawn down the middle. We were told to disrobe then a flimsy loin cloth was put on us. Definitely no use in being coy about being naked in front of clothed men here. At least it was dimly lit.

I then sat and had oil massaged into my scalp for about ten minutes, the experience invigorating for the head, while at the same time feeling like a roly-poly white lump sitting on the edge of the massage table. Perhaps needless to say, I didn’t exactly find the whole experience relaxing.

I then lay on my back while he massaged my legs, arms, torso and belly; then I turned over and he worked again on my legs and my back. Strangely, he missed my neck which really could have done with some attention.

I’m not much of a fan of massages unless they’re therapeutic and really going for a particular knot. The relaxation kind makes me uncomfortable and leaves me feeling oily, unsatisfied and uncomfortable. On the whole this was no different. There were times when I felt relaxed but there weren’t many.

The hot poultice thing was a bit strange as the poultices had to be the right temperature or else they’d burn my skin. They weren’t always cool enough so I hissed a few times. Mostly the hot pouches smelt like chapattis so they made me hungry.

At the end of the 90-minutes, I was towelled down and then I dressed, the residual oil making my clothes stick to my body. The knot in my shoulder that has aggravated me for weeks loosened a bit so that was a bonus. I was happy to get home and shower.

The Drive to Ranthambore

There weren’t many things I desperately wanted to see on this trip to India. In fact, there were only two must-dos: the Taj Mahal and an attempt to see tigers in the wild. I’d organised for Glen and I to go to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, a three-to-four-hour drive from Jaipur. Christine chose to stay behind and go shopping.

Mr Singh picked us up at 12:30 and off we went along terrible roads into country Rajasthan. While I spent most of my time reading (the roads unfortunately too bumpy for me to do any work without getting car sick), I occasionally looked out the window at farms and hut villages.

Despite the obvious poverty and subsistence living that these people had, there was something soothing about these simple dwellings. They weren’t part of the hustle and bustle of the cities with their mountains of rubbish, constant honking of horns in chaotic traffic, or the buildings in various states of existence or destruction. Instead there were fields of greenery, cows and other livestock, thatched roofs and mud huts that, even though I’d struggle to live in, had something wholly satisfying about them.

We zoomed past them and arrived in the town of Ranthambore, driving through it to our hotel. Mr Singh dropped us off and we checked in, seeing a few black-faced langurs hanging about in the gardens.

The hotel was fine. Nothing too fancy, but it was green and spaced out. Very attentive staff, including the manager who wanted us to put in a TripAdvisor review the minute we arrived, and then asked again after dinner. I told him, politely, to back off.

We dumped our luggage, I finished off some work for a client, Glen wrote some reviews on TripAdvisor. A group of tourists arrived and the wifi disappeared. We eventually went to join the ‘cultural’ program which was a bit  of bad singing and tabla playing. I didn’t mind it so much as I was reading my book and enjoying being outside in the evening without the chaos we’d had over the past week. Glen, however, couldn’t stand it and went and hid in his room.

We had dinner, more overly attentive staff. Glen couldn’t eat much because of all the capsicum. I made do with what was there, and then we went and hid in our room until it was time for bed, both dreading and looking forward to our early morning safari to see the tigers of Ranthambore.