A Day in Copenhagen

Tuesday was our only full day in Copenhagen so we had to make it count. About a week or so prior I’d looked up some things to do, bypassing most of the museums in favour of outdoor or quirky things. Perhaps we could have crammed more in but in the end we got to enjoy a pleasant day walking around Copenhagen.

First stop was the Royal Library Gardens, a quiet spot near the national museum and Jewish museum, that has a very tall fountain and typical country gardens, all well manicured. The sky was a bit grey at that time of the morning but it was still a pleasant place to be.

Freetown Christiania, billed as an anarchist community, was next, after going for breakfast at a bakery chain we’ve since seen around the place. Christiania was, as expected, a bit wild looking with graffiti everywhere and a homespun feel, and the whiff of marijuana smoke in the air. We strolled through, walking a long way up the peninsula and then down through a separate part of town that was quiet, well ordered and, by the looks of things, expensive. The opera house was nearby…

I really enjoyed walking through these disparate areas, even if we didn’t actually go into anything. We cut across bridges and well-maintained cycle paths into the slightly touristy area of Nyhavn, with its canals, boats and brightly coloured buildings. It reminded me of The Danish Girl and, as I’m sure most people think, found it the prettiest.

We were headed for the Medical Museoin next, which took us past a beautiful domed church (Frederiks Kirke). We went inside for a while (and to sit down, praise be). The inside of the domed roof looks 3D but I’m sure it was just painted to look that way. It was a wonderful spot for a rest.

Medical Museoin

The Medical Museoin was on the next corner. I’d read a bit about it and, considering we’d had a good time at the Wellcome Collection in London, thought it would be a good option for a visit and something that Glen would find interesting.

I don’t know what it is about museums nowadays but I really struggle to engage in anything to a deep level, usually ready to leave in about 30 minutes. We wandered through the displays, some of them well designed, and others looking a bit slapdash. 

There were a few interactive displays that were excellent, however, such as the life game (where you choose different body sections that either increase or decrease your life expectancy) and a pill dispenser that dispenses actual pills (sugar pills I think) based on the options you choose along the way.

The building was once something to do with the early medical profession and was both living apartments as well as laboratories/medical examination rooms etc. It even had an auditorium and a pharmacy. One fact though was that Niels Bohr grew up there!

Glen spent a while looking at the fetuses in jars, finding them educational. Some of the diseases and their effects made me feel a bit ill. I wondered how Dion would handle such a place. There was also a whole display on genes and blood samples that I thought would resonate with Ben. 

After about an hour, I was done and my back was starting to hurt so we left. It’s not a big museum and if you’re into medical things, it’s worth a visit.

 

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The old pharmacy

 

A Picnic Lunch and the Little Mermaid

We wandered into the Design Museum…for lunch, but left without ordering as they only had open-faced sandwiches. I have a feeling we probably should have visited the displays as well, but we were hungry and that’s not good when trying to learn.

Rather than cough up a huge amount of money for lunch, we went into a nearby supermarket and bought more food than we could eat and went and had a picnic in the park. The sun came out—as did the ducks eager for a handout. It was incredibly pleasant to sit out in the open, beside a river, and chow down.

We walked through the park, capturing beautiful vistas on our phones, seeing cygnets and ducklings, as well as lily pads. I’ve never seen lily pads outside a botanic garden so I was thrilled. We soon approached a church and a fountain—and a lot of tour buses. We were on our way to the Little Mermaid statue.

There was a crowd at this statue on a rock. I got close, took some pictures around the gaggle of tourists and that was it. Tick. We then walked the exceptionally long way back to our hotel, beside train lines and parks and busy roads. We cut through what is probably the gay district as we saw a lot of bars, clubs and shops targeting gay men. At that point though, all I wanted to do was sit down.

Taking it Easy

The rest of the afternoon, once we got back to the hotel, was spent lounging around and recuperating. So much else to see in Copenhagen but I thought we’d done enough to satisfy ourselves. I really like the city and could have spent a few more days there taking it easy, especially as the sunshine and warmth was bliss.

In the evening we went for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, taking over a table that was probably reserved but we got served anyway in this small hole-in-the-wall place. We walked through a few more streets, cutting closer to the town hall and taking silly photos at the bull-and-fish-monster fountain.

Despite us being home by 9, I was worn out and happy to flick through TV stations for a while. Meanwhile, outside the sun was still shining. In fact it was still up when I closed the curtains at 10:30pm and we went to bed. Daylight savings is great…if you’ve got the stamina to stay up and enjoy it all. We’re going to be in Faroe Islands and Iceland when there’s nearly 24 hours of daylight. That’s going to be interesting.

The Wonder of Petra (with flies)

I didn’t have as restful sleep as I’d hoped, mostly because we slept with the curtains open. The moon shone through (man, it was bright) and then, later, dawn. Thursday had begun. After breakfast, we left at eight for the drive to Petra.

We stopped at a shop along the way; I’m sure the guide got a commission because he was in absolutely no hurry to get us moving. I really could have done without it. After what felt like far too long, we finally made it to Petra.

Indiana Jones woz ‘ere

As is their way, tour guides give information about the places we’re visiting. Some are better at it than others, and while Adnan was good, he must have told us that Petra was used as a location in the ‘American film Indiana Jones’ about forty times. It became a running joke among us.

Petra really wasn’t what I was expecting. I think I was expecting that it would just be there. That you’d go immediately down and it’d be red and atmospheric and cool. Instead, it was a bit of anticlimax. I think that’s because I’ve seen it — we’ve all seen it, but just not been there. It’s strange.

After getting our tickets we walked down an open-air track, past some of the buildings, all the while sloping down towards the canyon. You then keep going, some bits narrower than others, shadier than others, and then, after 1200 metres, you emerge to where the Treasury building is. This is the site that everyone knows.

Thing is, along the way, it stinks from horse and donkey shit (you can go in a cart rather than walk, and I don’t really blame anyone for that), there are flies everywhere, and you’re approached/hassled about every 100 m by someone trying to sell something. Then when you get to Petra, there are boys and men around trying to get you to buy them as a guide to take you to the top to get the view down. The constant harassment (i.e. selling) reminded me of tourist sites at India. 

We took our photos of the Treasury and then wandered down to the open air area which I was a lot more impressed with because it was something I hadn’t expected. There were a couple of spots where we could go inside the carved rock into rooms and I was struck by how cool in temperature it was in there. It would have been wonderful to lie down in and avoid the hottest part of the day.

We also saw the theatre and more carved buildings. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to see much else; Petra continues on down more of the canyon to temple ruins and other buildings, all of which would have been awesome to see. Glen and I trudged back, dying from the heat, while our friends went with a guide up to get the photo looking down. I had mild envy but considering what a steep climb it was and how rushed they were, it didn’t linger long. We guzzled water, got back on the bus, had lunch nearby and then high-tailed it for the border.

To Tel Aviv!

We had no problem getting out of Jordan. On the other side, however, my bag was pulled aside to be opened and scanned again. Apparently the protein powder was a cause for concern. Finally through, we were back on the bus and driving to Eilat to catch a flight to Tel Aviv.

The flight was short; Glen and I had some food, we were also very tired. We landed at a tiny airport, got our baggage and then got dropped off at the Carlton Hotel, which was by the beach (and next to the gay beach as well).

Glen and I then went to bed. We’d bought tickets to a separate party from the other boys that night, and slept until about 11pm, got up, got ready and went to the party to meet our friend from Sydney. Had a great time, staying out til well past our second bedroom and home after the sun came out. Tel Aviv Pride had begun.

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.

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.

Trastevere and the Vatican Museums

Tuesday morning Glen went off to the conference while I got to sleep-in, though it wasn’t for long. Up for breakfast on the terrace again, getting some work done and then planning what I was going to get done for the day. I hit the streets by 10am.

The Cats of Rome

Pantheon

Even though I’ve been inside it before, I wanted to get another look inside the Pantheon. I find it such an odd mix, the ancient dome and temple exterior, the marbled Catholic church decoration and altar, along with the tombs of Italy’s two kings and this throng of people looking at the hole in the roof and taking perspective photos.

In all the hustle and bustle there was an Italian man, probably in his fifties, standing to attention in front of the tomb of one of the Italian kings, Umberto I, and his queen, Margherita. Dressed impeccably in a blue suit, he took this moment of quiet to pay his respects to a king long dead.

Then, when he’d given his dues, he walked over to the guard on duty, saluted him, shook his hand, wrote his name on the ledger, saluted the guard again and walked out of the Pantheon and up the street. I know, because I followed him for a bit and was tempted to ask what he was doing and how often he came to complete this ritual. There was something beautiful and sombre about it all.

I’ve since learned that the soldiers (there is one for each of the tombs, the other being for Vittorio Emanuelle II) are the Honor Guard to the Royal Tombs of the Pantheon. For 136 years, the Honor Guard have stood beside the tomb to honour the kings who did much to unify the country. I wonder if the man in blue had been one of them.

After the Pantheon I headed south to see the four temple ruins and their stray cats who have found sanctuary there. It’s a cat haven that invites people in to help care for the city’s many, many cats, but it wasn’t open when I arrived, with me being too early. The temples themselves were impressive and just sitting next to a busy intersection in Roma.

From here I walked through the Campo de’ Fiori where I bought a substandard peach (I’ve had a few really good ones on this trip so this one was disappointing), and then onto the river, crossing the Ponte Sisto and into Trastevere.

Tramping through Trastevere

I’d read a short itinerary of things to explore in Trastevere, an area across the Tiber with cobblestone streets, narrow arrows and a bit of a hip and rough feel. It was a beautiful day and wandering through these winding and shaded streets was a treat.

First main stop was the Basilica di Santa Maria. I took a seat inside this church which is heavily decorated in gold Cavillini mosaics. The light is subdued so it exudes this warm, earthy feel. Definitely worth a visit, and one of the few churches I’ve been in on this trip. Even better was that there were hardly any tourists, perhaps ten or so, the rest of the small group being locals come to pray.

Too early for lunch, I took the hike up some steps to the Gianicolo, the eighth hill of Rome. I walked along the Passeggiata del Gianicolo to get an excellent view across the city of Rome. The area is also filled with sculptures of heads, presumably of important people during the Risorgimento, as the hill also sports a giant Garibaldi sculpture.

After a look over the city, I then took a different path down the hill. I’d hoped I would be able to cut into the gardens below but they were gated. Instead, I walked through an area that I would have been terrified to walk through at night, and was a little uneasy about during the middle of the day.

The path was a dirt track, cutting through undergrowth littered with bottles, shoes, other bits of rubbish and a couple of spots where homeless people had slept. I could hear the people above so if anyone did leap out and attack me, they’d hopefully hear me. I only felt marginally better when I saw someone coming the other way. Of course, I survived with no problems what so ever and came out back at the top of the stairs for my climb down.

I tried to find a palazzo next, which I think I saw but didn’t go in. There was another villa nearby and the botanic gardens but I was done with much of the sightseeing and keen to try a recommended restaurant nearby.

I walked past John Cabot University which had soldiers posted out the front, something that is common for most, if not all, universities and government buildings in Rome. Are universities really such a target that they need armoured guards and gates and constant checks? The same happens at the Sorbonne in Paris. As if university isn’t (sometimes) stressful enough.

The main restaurant strip in Trastevere was beginning to come alive, though there was definitely a distinction between the more ‘authentic’ places that opened at 1pm, and the others for tourists which opened earlier. The place I wanted to try – Pianostrada Laboratorio di Cucina – was one of the authentic that didn’t open until 1pm. It was only just after 12 and I didn’t feel like hanging around.

Instead I wandered the streets, guided by TripAdvisor reviews (which is a surefire way of making yourself doubt every decision and come out feeling even more anxious about buying lunch), until I finally settled on a place that looked good enough and was serving.

I ate a fairly simple but decent pollo alla romana with some green beans, downed a bottle of water, and then continued on my way out of Trastevere and to Isola Tiberina.

Isola Tiberina

This little island in the middle of the Tiber is connected with two bridges and is so small you can walk across it in about five minutes. There are some restaurants, a church, probably a few places to visit but otherwise there’s not much. It nevertheless intrigued me enough, this island in the middle of the river, for me to stop on. A man was also sunbathing on one end of it.

I think I was again mistaken for being Jewish, a semi-regular occurrence wherever we are in the world. This time by a waitress outside a restaurant who at first tried to encourage me in but when I declined she said, ‘There is no kosher on this side of the bridge.’

I couldn’t tell whether she was being insulting, i.e. ‘we don’t serve your guide here, piss off’, or helpful. I later learned that the Jewish area is in the vicinity so perhaps she was being helpful, if presumptuous.

I had a quick look at some more ruins that were nearby, a great example of ancient Roman architecture at the bottom, with Middle Age architecture in the middle and modern on the top. Pretty cool.

My travels then took me up through the city, walking the busy Via del Corso, and back to the hotel. I think I fell asleep on the bed.

A(nother) Sinner in the Vatican

As part of the conference, the committee organised an after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. I met Glen at the entrance at 7pm and we joined a couple of hundred other medical professionals on a tour through the Vatican’s junkyard (as a lecturer once described it to me).

We were in a group of about 20 people, our guide taking us through a selection of the rooms, some of which I remember from my visit here about 16 years ago. We went through the room of maps, which looks even more brightly decorated and stunning than I remember. Then there were tapestries and statues and various other bits of art (including all the male statues which had their penises chipped off) that the Vatican had collected over its 2000 year history.

The Raphael rooms were an interesting stop along the tour, the way Raphael had included figures such as Leonardo da Vinci (not the only homosexual in the Vatican, I’m sure), Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo and even Raphael himself in the paintings. Nice to see these more humanist elements sneaking their way into supposedly sacred works. The room then got hot with all the people in there and we were glad to get out.

The Sistine Chapel still puts me in awe. I remember the first time I saw it, on a school trip, and it had recently been cleaned. The room shone. And I couldn’t believe that the other kids on the trip would rather sit down than look up at this amazing work of art. Then we weren’t allowed to take photos, but tonight, we were.

And of course we gazed on the Day of Judgement on the wall and heard about the skinned saint holding his skin (which had the face of Michelangelo on it), and the rest of the interpretation of the painting. We looked at it and above our heads for a while, relishing the sight, before moving on and setting a cracking pace through a few more rooms until we were back at the entrance/exit.

A quick bite to eat near the hotel and then we collapsed into bed at about 11pm, surprisingly one of our latest nights on this trip.