Thursday, 20 January 2011

Bobby Waistline.

Being in Japan was like having a mini winter in the middle of our Kiwi summer. 10 days of freezing cold and one morning of heavy snow is quite long enough for me and despite loving Japan it was nice to pull the shorts and flip flops out again on the south island. We landed in Christchurch and spent a day stocking up on essentials and visiting the fantastic Ron Muek exhibition . I also experienced my first earthquake albeit a (thankfully) very minor aftershock. Loads of shops were closed in central Christchurch and evidence of the big September quake were all around. Scary stuff.
Being back in the land of the long white cloud again we had our sights firmly on one pursuit- tramping. This kiwi term for hillwalking has always tickled me. Particularly the book I once saw called "101 Great Tramps". I've often modelled my life on those "great" tramps. The heroes of the parkbench standing proud with can of Tennants Super in hand...
Anyway we were here for the walking and having pre booked ourselves into the bunkhouses for the "kepler track" a four day hike we had some serious training to do. We did a couple of training one day walks including an incredible day climbing Avalanche Peak near Arthur's Pass on a cloudless day. The views were mindblowing and the summit accompaniment of half a dozen Keas was the icing on the cake (see pic).

The Kea is a very amusing bird in a land of interesting avian life. It's a big, friendly-but-cheeky, comedy Alpine Parrot. Seen inthe urban setting it slides down the windscreen of cars on its bum and will pinch anything you leave lying around.
New Zealand is a fascinating place historically due to its extreme isolation. Humans only made it here 10,000 years ago and what they found when they arrived was a sort of massive banquet waiting for them. The only native mammal in New Zealand is a bat. No wombed critters with sharp teeth and cunning running around with which to upset birds by pinching eggs or biting wings off. So birds evolved to become very large, without fear and some forgot how to even fly! What a mistaka to maka!
The hungry Maoris found such walking feasts as the Moa which were inquisitive, without fear, were 12ft tall and weighed in at about 35 stone! Just imagine the family bucket if Colonel Saunders could have got his hands on one of those bad boys!

Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly the Moa and some other birds were rendered extinct by their own tastiness. Then came waves of intruder animals. Rabbits arrived and their popululation exploded. So stoats were brought to eat the rabbits. The stoats also eat loads of birds too and so a further hit to populations occurred. Other introduced pests included possums, rats and mice. The department for conservation here do their best to trap and kill stoats to help protect native birds. However I think that the process of introducing other animals to hunt the ones already introduced should have been continued to its logical conclusion. Christ, with a bit of forethought and planning I could have been on a three week safari here looking at tigers, lions and elephants rather than the odd tiny bird or alpine parrot!
Training complete, we took on the Kepler track and thoroughly enjoyed it. Staying each night in bunkhouses you need to carry your own food, clothes, sleeping bag etc. We planned what we would need to eat for the four days and went shopping but on the morning of the treck found that our packs were far too heavy for what could have been a gruelling bit of walking. So we left what we could and set off. Sadly for us we left too much food and we were starving hungry for pretty much the whole thing. Don't get me wrong we had enough food for breakfast lunch and dinner but the amount of calories we were burning were not being matched by our meagre rations. We are still alive. That's about all you can say for the amount of food we had.
Thankfully three months or amazing Indian food followed by Xmas and New year excess had left me with a few pounds to shed. I even toyed with a new band name for when I get back: "Bobby Waistline and the Ample Reserves". What do you think?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Round up

Australia passed in a bit of a blur. Reverse culture shock, jetlag and alcohol blurring the edges. It really was unusual being in such a clean and ordered place where we could move around easily, have a hot shower, use a real towel and drink good coffee. I'm not a huge coffee drinker at home but not being able to get any decent coffee in India for three months had made me crave it. For a country that produces it's own coffee it really was served up in ways that just were not my cup of tea (ahem). From the watery, simply had a bean wafted at it version served in the Indian Coffee House (of all places) to the freeze dried, powdered milk and sugar already added abomination served almost everywhere else it simply was not good enough. Cut to Melbourne and New Zealand and it was like dying and being sent to heaven by being roasted, ground, put under pressure and having hot water flushed through us. Café culture is in an extremely advanced state in Melbourne and we rejoiced in it. Mine's a double shot flat white if you are buying.

We stayed in luxury with our friends Simon and Mo and their two kids Ezra and Sylvie. It was the perfect place to decompress. We managed to take in some sights, galleries, a gig (Little Dragon, De La soul and Gorillaz) and take a trip to the Grampians to do a good walk. We stayed in the town of Halls gap and did the Wonderland Walk to the Pinnacle and then carried on and did the Sundial circuit. It took 7 hours but was really enjoyable. Lots of good views and nature then back to the pub (complete with Emu's in the car park) for a Chicken Parmigiana and some beer. Perfect.

New Zealand was next and the promise of some real outdoor activities; weather permitting. Katie and Pete let us stay at their place in Wellington which has amazing views. Wellington was one of my favourites last time I was in new Zealand and it was again this time. Fantastically manageable and gorgeous city. We eat great food, drank more coffee and saw Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Embassy theatre and Gemma and Katie were in a select few invited on stage to dance with Sharon. Great performance (the gig was ok too).

Our main goal leaving Wellington was to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit before Christmas. The circuit is a three/four day trek regarded as the one of the best in New Zealand. However as has been the norm on this trip the weather wasn't kind to us. Visibility on the day of our trek was about... oh fifty yards? We made do with a sodden woodland walk for a couple of hours then changed our plans and decided that the best course of action was to seek out an activity that the weather couldn't stop. It was time to go underground. We abseiled 100metres into the 'Lost World' and the caves below Waitomo. The abseil itself was great but I particularly enjoyed the cave walk and the gloworms that light up the roof like stars. Decent compensation I think you'll agree.

From Waitomo we made a whistlestop tour of the rest of the north island to Auckland. Rock climbing and hot tubs in Taupo, geysers and geothermal wonders at Wai-o-tapu and lake swimming and woodland walks near Rotorua.

A boozy Christmas eve was spent in Auckland before we basked in the joy of business class on the way to Japan with Katie and Pete thanks to her airline connections. I can honestly say that I didn't want to get off that flight after 11 hours. I also appeared to be quite drunk and had gained a stone in weight. A strange side effect.

So to Japan. It's a place that I have previously discounted on the grounds that it would be expensive and difficult to get to grips with as a traveller. I was wrong on one of those things. It was shockingly easy to get around and to do things, especially after our experiences in India. Despite the obvious language issues, obtaining information was incredibly easy. People went above and beyond the call of duty to help you out. Japan is the very antithesis of India. The cleanliness of everything, the order, the readily available information, the punctuality, the neatness and politeness. I wish we had flown straight here from Mumbai. Our heads may have exploded.

In the sea in Goa, as she did a fast front crawl, Gemma was pursued by an Indian man and then asked if she liked swimming. I was also accompanied by a gentleman as I jogged along the beach one morning with my headphones on. I took them off and as he breathlessly ran beside me he asked me what I was doing and whether I liked running. The endless inquisitive nature and complete lack of awareness of personal space or solo activity by Indians was at once comical and utterly infuriating. In contrast I think if I was to stand up on a train platform in Tokyo and juggle fire clubs naked with a feather sticking out my bum while shouting obscenities, I wouldn't attract a sideways look. The places are very different. I didn't find one speck of dust in 10 days in Japan. In India I didn't see any dust either because it was covered up by shit*.

Our first night in Tokyo saw Pete and I popping out for a quick beer to change some high denomination notes before bed and stumbling immediately upon what is now one of my favourite little bars of all time. An analogue heaven in a digital city. The Corner spot was a jazz bar that could hold 20 max. It had an old record player playing dusty jazz records, stacks of records and smoke stained cd's, boxes of musical instruments and a friendly sozzled proprietor watching ice skating on the tiny old fuzzy telly. After a confusing and unsuccessful attempt to order a drink: “two beers please (translated from the guide book)? Asahi? Birru? Erm...”) and convinced that Japan was going to be difficult, I was informed loudly in English that the bar sold only beer or whisky on the rocks. Pete and I had a few beers watching the ice skating and then ended up in a sing along to Beatles songs played on the guitar with the only other patron.

Our ten day trip took us to Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima before heading back to Tokyo for new year. Kyoto was fantastic with and incredible train station. amazing shrines and temples, food and little bars. We even got a thick layer of snow on our final day. Eating was a real highlight though: Okonomiyaki, Sushi, Yakatori, Ramen, Gyoza, Tempura and the list and variety goes on and on. Mmmmmmmmmm.

New year was a bit unusual. Most of Tokyo seemed to have disappeared and at midnight we were in a bar that was almost empty in a city of 35 million. Most people were queueing to visit a shrine to make their prayers for the following year. We made do with good company and high quality booze and saw in the new year in fine style.

On our last night we had an early drink in the Park Hyatt hotel bar (from Lost in Translation) on the 52nd floor. Unbelievable views of the city and fine wine. Just don't ask for the bill (cheers K and P).

After a mere ten days of winter (quite enough if you ask me) it was back to New Zealand and summer once more. A new year of contemplation, not of work just yet, but instead my ever expanding waistline. Some serious exercise required but I reckon I'm in just the right place for it.

*I'm being deliberately harsh here for comedic effect. I truly love India to bits.