The Great Barrier Reef

What a fantastic day we’ve had today. Woke up early – 6.30 and got a taxi down to the jetty. The boat we are going out on is a big catamaran called Passions of Paradise. We’re welcomed aboard and offered coffee and muffins which go down at treat and once the crew have introduced themselves we’re off.

The Great Barrier Reef, stretching along the length of the Queensland coast is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. The coral polyps are made up of tiny animals. They excrete a small amount of limestone in order to protect and support their soft bodies and as old ones die, their skeletons bind together building an ever growing reef. The sheer size of the reef makes sit difficult to understand how this amazing ecosystem could be in danger but threats from land based pollution, global warming and over fishing are damaging to the reefs future. I have read that the Australian government have taken steps to try and combat this.

An hour and a half later and we arrive at Michaelmas Cay. This is a small reef island in the middle of the ocean and the sand is pristine white. One of the crew Emma explains that it is a protected part of the national marine park due to the bird population and the boat we are on is the only boat of the 71 that sail out of Cairns allowed to moor there. Maisie and I are ferried across to the reef island and having struggled into our wetsuits, fins and snorkel masks put our heads under the water for the first time.

It’s so cool. Just 10 feet from the shoreline the seabed falls away and an amazing, strange and colourful world is revealed. There seems to be so many different types of coral. We see soft brown stringy coral and purple and yellow hard coral. The fish are amazing, huge parrot fish are all around. We have seen them before when we visited the Red Sea Coast in Egypt. (Another of the worlds top dive sites) but there are lots of them here. I ‘m lucky enough to see a big stingray, right by the waters edge and best of all are the giant clams. Absolutely massive, Maisie could have sat in them. You could see their clammy mouths sucking in and out and their huge curved shells covered in little barnacles. Really amazing!

We have half an hour swimming around which is enough. The water temperature is around 25 degrees but despite our wetsuits it feels quite cold and I’m glad to get into the boat. Simon and Ali are diving but Maisie is too young and we have decided to have a ride in a glass bottomed boat instead. It’s really good; Nicky gives us an interesting and informative tour of some of her favourite spots. We see Nemo and learn all about life on the reef.

We get back to the catamaran and catch up with Simon and Ali who have both dived for the first time today. They loved it and what a fantastic place for your maiden dive. Simon swam with a green turtle; he said it was around 3 feet long. How cool is that. There are some great underwater photos taken as proof! Lunch is served at 1ish and what a feast. Lots of different types of salads, cold meats and huge fresh prawns with a selection of fresh fruit for pudding and a nice cold Corona. Yeh!

We motor on after lunch to Paradise Reef. By now the sun is lovely and I lie on the front of the boat on the bow net in my bikini. Emma takes Ali and Maisie out snorkelling, with floats and a ring. It’s really great, as she shows them a giant clam closing, squids changing colour and shoals of fish all around them. The sea is very rough but they’re well looked after and I’m really glad that we splashed out and went with a more expensive company. When everyone gets back on the boat cheese, crackers, salamis and pickles are offered and despite our large lunch we dig in.
For me one of the best things was on our way back. The Captain shut the engine off and we sailed back. It was fantastic, pretty rough and bouncy. Most people stayed inside but me and the kids stood outside clinging onto the rail and occasionally getting a drenching. It was exhilarating and a perfect end to a wonderful day trip. At last we can see Cairns in the distance and the kids have a time for a quick cup of tea and biscuits. Emma shows them some card tricks which have us all flummoxed and we look at the photo’s taken by the crew throughout the day.

We chat to a couple of lads from Holland; they are at the end of their RTW trip and as they are due to fly home in 3 days, ask them if they have any camping equipment they want to sell. As luck would have it they are after 40 dollars for their tent but Simon offers them 20 and it’s a done deal. One of the fellas from the hostel has given us a really good sleeping bag which we’ve laundered and we’re almost ready to go at the weekend.

Back at the hostel, Simon cooks us Thai red curry for dinner. My friend Nicky emailed and asked if I had missed doing any cooking. What a laugh, as she well knows I never did any at home anyway. Eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner had been for me one long, happy menu choice and I don’t think I would ever get tired of it. We have a few beers, swap reef stories and Bruce our new Aussie mate lends me his sweater. Lovely way to end a really special day.

Sunrise in Oz

We woke up this morning around 6.30 to the most amazing racket. The cockatoos all sit in the surrounding trees for the dawn chorus and it sounds as if we are in the jungle. We get up and stand looking at the sunrise. Simon takes the most beautiful photograph and I’m sold on Australia with that one picture.

Everyone is rushing around, Justin getting ready for work and Tara getting ready for school. Although it also seems so familiar, getting the kids breakfast, making sandwiches, I don’t miss any of it and can only think that I’m glad I won’t be doing any of that for a while. We sit having a coffee then Justin drops us off at the hostel.

We all have a quick shower before packing up our stuff and moving rooms. We were in ’2 Kangaroos’, now moving to ’3 Turtles’. This room is better, a bit bigger with a double bed (Simon and I have been sharing a single). Our old room only had 2 bunk beds and was really tiny so we were all starting to get on each others nerves a bit!

We then head off for The Esplanade, basically a seafront promenade it’s lovely along here and as it has finally stopped raining we can hopefully start to appreciate Australia’s famous sunshine coast a bit more. There is a huge, manmade saltwater lagoon surrounded by grassy areas. There are lots of people lazing around in the sun, having a swim and cooking food on the free BBQ stand. (What a great idea that is)

We wander around a bit, have a go in the arcade where Maisie and I whip Simon and Ali at air hockey and enjoy a cappuccino over looking the boats before heading to the tourist information centre to book our reef trip. In the end after much debate we decide on a day long trip to a slightly quieter area of the reef. The total cost is 160 pounds which is loads and we are a bit shell shocked at having to cough up so much money. Still, can’t come to Cairns without visiting The Great Barrier Reef so pay up happily enough. I’m sure it will be a fantastic day and there seems to be quite a lot included in the price.

We go shopping on the way home at the supermarket and get enough food to last us the next few days. When we get back the kids continue their literacy lesson on the wildlife of the wet tropics of Australia. We all learn a bit and I’m very pleased with their presentations. Maisie especially has worked hard and seems very confident. Simon spends some time chatting with the Aussie fellas who are staying here. It seems to be a magnet for lots of blokes working in the area as it’s cheap and despite their rough and ready exterior they are very friendly and seem to enjoy a good chat. One fella who knows the area really well tells us we have picked a good trip tomorrow on a good boat and not been skinned too much on price so I’m pleased with that.

Its 9pm now and just getting ready for bed. Didn’t sleep too well last night and feeling tired so figured an early nights in order before our day out tomorrow. I hadn’t given Australia any consideration until I arrived and therefore hadn’t thought about the reef. But now we’re going there I’m feeling very excited. Can’t wait for the morning.

Roast Beef Dinner

We woke up fairly late this morning and spent the morning fairly quietly, chatting to other travellers. Its interesting talking to them and I spend a long time discussing the UK as a budget travel destination with a fella from South Africa. He spent 2 months in England, Scotland and Ireland and I was pleased to hear he loved it and can’t wait to go back.

Ali is busy hustling at pool with an Aussie who has spent the past 6 months living in Papua New Guinea. He regales us with stories of his time spent there and I wonder if we should go there as it’s close to the northern tip of Australia. When he tells me how dangerous it is there and that some of the locals still practice cannibalism I soon change my mind though!

Alister has also been teaching an Aussie guy how to play the guitar and they have a nice little jammin session for a couple of hours with another fella. It keeps him out of mischief and it’s good to see him teaching someone else for a change.

Around 5pm Justin comes and picks us up. He lives about 15 mins away from where we are staying and we call off on the way to pick up some wine and beers. We haven’t met his family before and as his wife is expecting a baby any day soon, I think she is very brave inviting us over for dinner and to stay the night. Their house is great, Justin described it as being small but it seemed pretty spacious to us and had the added bonus of no windows just shutters and a pool. How great!

We have a lovely evening. Gill cooks a fantastic roast beef dinner with all the trimmings and we provided the puddings. Maisie and Tara (their 8 year old daughter) have a lovely time giggling away and playing in Tara’s room. Their 2 year old son Davy makes us laugh when he sits talking to the TV which we move to the floor in order to use the table.
(Hello movies! Bless!) It’s great for Simon and Justin to catch up on some of the rugby news from home and we quiz them on their life here and some of the local customs. They tell us political correctness is virtually unheard of and how much the Australians love to get a rise out of us whingeing poms!

We have taken loads of information leaflets with us and they tell us the best places to visit. Then best of all they make us a fantastic offer of borrowing their 1970′s original VW camper van to tour around the Northern region and Tablelands in. Oh my god how cool is that! It must be one of the ultimate back packer dreams and I can’t believe we’re so lucky that they have made us such a generous offer. Apparently it needs a service on Friday and then will be good to go. Awesome!

We get off to bed and Simon and I lie there excitedly imagining life on the road in a Scooby Do mobile. Tomorrow we are going to sort out our trip to the reef. Very excited about this also. Travelling really is the best.

Cairns

G’ Day Sports.

Woke up around 8.30 this morning and feeling a lot brighter. The kids are still fast asleep though and in the end I have to wake them both up. Despite our early night last night Ali in particular still seems tired and we plan a slow day to ease us gently into the Aussie way of life.

The sky is still ominously grey but it’s very warm and optimistically I point out small patches of blue to Maisie. Simon goes and gets some breakfast cereal and bananas. Although Australia is very expensive in comparison to our recent living costs, many hostels including this one have kitchens and we are hoping to prepare some food ourselves in order to keep our expenses down. We take the opportunity to have a good look around, do some laundry and sit listening to Ali playing his guitar for a while.

At 12 o ‘clock we set of for The Esplanade. We have arranged to meet Justin, a friend from Plymouth who has been living here in Cairns with his family for the past few years. We sit in the sunshine at Coast Roast waiting for him to arrive, when he does its great to see him and we have a quick coffee before he has to go back to work. We plan to meet up tomorrow and catch up with him and his family properly and to our delight he offers to cook us a roast dinner in the evening- hurray!

We call off at the cinema on the way back to the hostel and book tickets to see Pirates of the Caribbean at 5pm. We then go shopping for food. It seems quite strange to be walking around a supermarket as if I was at home. We get stuff to make sandwiches (Brown bread -yum) and everything we need for Spaghetti Bolognese for dinner. Although we have eaten some pasta since we’ve been away we’re all looking forward to some home cooked meals.

After lunch we settle down to some schoolwork. There are lots of colourful information posters on the walls of the hostel about wildlife in the wet tropics of Australia and we use this as a basis for literacy. Ali researches insects and ground mammals and Maisie researches tree mammals and birds. They make notes and plan a 10 minute, 2 part presentation each on their findings. This takes nearly an hour and we decide they will refresh their memories and present their topics tomorrow when we have more time.

We rush off to the cinema, but are unfortunately only up the road when it starts to pour down. I’m fumbling with my umbrella I share with Maisie when this kind fella runs up his drive and gives me another brolly. How lovely of him, I tell him we will drop it in later but he just says “no worries it’s spare!”

Just got back from the cinema and Simon has cooked dinner for us all. The kids nearly died of shock when I said they had to do the washing up, dry the plates and put them away. How funny and how lazy are they? I think it was on the tip of Maisie’s tongue to ask where the dish washer was. She actually even said it wasn’t fair! We have always made them help clear up and load the washer at home but it obviously was a bit of a surprise! Hehe!

I’m sat on my bunk now. This room is very small and cramped for 4 of us and not that cheap at 64 dollars a night. Justin suggested we move nearer to his home and we might .It would be nice to be nearer the beach. Haven’t really made any plans for the next few days, we’re still tired and as our trip out to The Great Barrier Reef will be fairly costly we want to check out a few operators first to make sure we get a good deal.

Off to bed now. Hopefully it will be sunny tomorrow and we gat get out there and explore a bit.

Asia to Australia

In the end we catch a taxi to Chek Lap Kok airport and arrive at terminal one with a couple of hours to spare. We haven’t eaten so make our way to an Italian restaurant. I have anti pasto and the kids and Simon have pasta. Not very Asian for our last meal in Asia but hey!

The flight to Singapore goes swimmingly, we are lucky enough to be on a brand new airbus with the most up to date on board computer thing. There is power to recharge the PSP’s, word processing and USB connections. Plus over 100 films on demand and loads of other gadgety stuff. Added to this is the bonus that the plane is half empty and we have lots of room to spread out. Yeh!

We hardly have time to get from one plane to the next at Singapore (half an hour) before we set off again this time bound for Sydney Australia. This plane unfortunately isn’t as good and full. The fella sat behind me isn’t too impressed when I put my seat back but as I am being squashed by the fat chunker in front of me who has pushed his seat right back I don’t have much choice. In the end after putting up with him punching the back of my seat, continually touching my hair and then apologising loudly and generally being an arse, I take a sleeping tablet.

I lie there listening to my MP3 player, drifting in and out of sleep and reliving our time spent in Asia. I do cry a bit, I feel really empty and heartbroken that we are leaving and if I had the choice would definitely head back to Bangkok and then onto Cambodia and maybe Laos. Despite the fact that almost everyone I know who has visited Australia seems to love it I’m not too sure how I feel about going there. I know Simon and the kids feel differently and I’m determined to make the most of our time anyway.

I wake up half an hour before we are due to land, fairly refreshed and having slept for about 5 hours. I feel a grim sense of satisfaction when I hear the knobhead behind me complaining of having had no sleep at all and I make a point of exclaiming loudly how well I slept in the hope of pissing him off. We buy a speaker for my MP3 player with the vouchers that we were given by Singapore Airline way back at the start of our trip.

We get our gear and catch a shuttle bus to the Virgin Blue part of the airport where we check in once again, this time for Cairns. We are all completely knackered by now and the kids crash out until 9.30am. By 1030 we are once again in the sky and the flight attendants are kind giving the kids something to lean on as they struggle to get comfortable. Finally we land around 1.30pm, another long journey over and I’m so glad.

We get in a taxi and head for Cairns City Backpackers Hostel. I’m a little upset when we arrive to find a notice on the door saying they are closed and will be back in about 2 and a half hours. I’m too exhausted to make a fuss though and sit there like a weary turtle with my rucksack still attached too tired to even take it off. Simon goes off up the road and phones the fella who arrives apologising about 20 minutes later. He shows us to our room, not so good we had wanted 2 separate rooms and have ended up with a 4 bedded dorm. He also informs us that although the hostel price includes dinner at a restaurant in town. (One of the reasons we booked it) the kids won’t be able to get theirs as the place is licensed and they won’t be allowed in – great. He does give us 4 dollars off the room and a couple of internet vouchers but we’re still a bit fed up.

By now it’s raining heavily but we have to go out to get some food. We trudge off to the local shopping mall but as its mostly closed end up eating at a restaurant. The food is good we have pie and chips and wolf it down. Wander back to the hostel and crash out on the bed, it’s only around 8pm but we’re all asleep by about 5 past.

Shopping

I woke up first as usual around 8.30 this morning. We spend the morning completely unpacking our rucksacks and compiling a massive pile of stuff including CD’s, clothes, entrance tickets and souvenirs to send home. Our packs have been so stuffed over the past few weeks I was worried some of the zips might break but luckily they have held up well and are all intact.

We have some fruit for breakfast that we bought from the 7-11 next door in an effort to try and save some cash and then head off out to the mall. Simon buys a few new clothes and we get the kids some new sunglasses. We also take Ali’s guitar to a nearby music shop. He has been gutted over the last week as the strings have started to buzz and despite changing them it hasn’t improved. The fellas in the shop are cool and explain that the change in temperature from Beijing to Lijiang to Hong Kong have caused the neck and frets to move slightly. Anyway a bit of fiddling around and tapping at the frets and it sounds great to Ali’s delight.

We go out in the evening to a Japanese restaurant and have a fabulous meal. We weren’t too sure of the portion sizes and when it arrived I thought we had over ordered but we ate most of it and agreed cooking our own food at the table was good fun and well worth the money.

Its 1130 now and i’m in bed – last night at The Holiday Inn and I do feel a bit sad. At last our Asia adventure is over and we are flying to Singapore tomorrow at 4pm and then onto Sidney. We will arrive in Australia around 6 in the morning and have booked a further flight straight onto Cairns. We had originally planned to work our way up through Queensland to The Great Barrier Reef and then back down again for our flight to New Zealand at the start of July but when we investigated into trains/buses this morning found it would be cheaper to fly.

Going to sleep now last night in a comfy bed for a while I guess.

Hong Kong Island & Victoria Peak

We have had a very good if tiring day today. Although we had set the alarm for 9am I was wide awake by 7.30 and up writing a few emails by 8. We have planned to spend the day sight seeing and after breakfast at Starbucks we set off on The Star Ferry for Hong Kong Island. The famous ferry has been taking passengers across Victoria Harbour for over 100 years and we told the kids Simon may have been on that exact ferry when he lived in Hong Kong as a baby!

From the ferry port we caught a bus up to The Peak. This is an expensive area to live in, as it is cooler and breezy up here and the views across the harbour are, on a clear day outstanding. The kids made us laugh they loved the bus ride and claimed never to have been on a double decker bus before. I’m not to sure about that but -simple things!

At the top we wander around taking a few photos before making our way up to the viewing platform on the top of a shopping and restaurant complex. We stop off for a drink and lunch at a Forrest Gump themed place. The food and the views are great but oh so pricy! Maisie has a blue drink that costs a fiver and despite the fact that it’s nothing more than slush and not very pleasant we all have a swig when she can’t finish it!

On the way down, we stop off at a gaming station where Ali kicks my arse in a boxing match on the Xbox and I have a go on Need for Speed Carbon on Nintendo Ds. Next on our list of things to do is ride the worlds longest escalator, this is Maisie’s choice but before we reach it we get distracted by the shops. We buy some CD’s- The View, Arctic Monkey’s, Towers of London and The Fray. They are quite expensive, around the same cost as in England but we are desperate for some new sounds on our MP3 players and don’t mind paying. We also buy a Lonely Planet Guide to Australia and NZ and choose the “On a shoe string” version as finances are starting to look a little tighter these days.

The world’s longest escalator turns out to be “nothing short of thrilling”(Sarcasm) even Maisie gets fed up and we decide to head back to Kowloon. We catch the MRT back to Nathan Road and Maisie and I take advantage of the rooftop pool for an hour. Its good having a bit of luxury, I feel of all the places we have stayed during our trip that Hong Kong has the most potential for having much fun and it’s cool to be staying somewhere really nice.

In the evening we go to a Brazilian style restaurant and have a great time. We have a buffet that includes lots of different types of salads, vegetables and puddings and the waiters continually bring different skewers to the table. The choices include legs of lamb, racks of beef, pork ribs, goose, sausages, chicken legs and squids to name just a few. We had a flag on the table to indicate if you want the waiters to keep offering and Simon was in 7th heaven! We have a bottle of red wine and leave there having once again overeaten with the sound of Brazilian guitars ringing in our ears.

Get back to The Holiday Inn and plan our last few days in Asia which basically results in no plan. We had thought about going to Disneyland tomorrow but having looked it up on the internet it isn’t geared towards older kids at all with Space Mountain being the only big ride. We weigh up the costs and in the end decide to give it a miss. We’ll think of something to do in the morning.

Hong Kong Museums

We wake up to warm, humid sunshine. Hurray! What a relief after the cooler weather of mainland China. My first impressions of Hong Kong are really good. It looks exactly as I expected with massive tall buildings, bright neon signs everywhere, narrow, dingy alley ways and a distinctly Asian feel. I love it! Feeling very at home here already, Nathan Road reminds me a bit of our favourite city Bangkok and I can’t wait to get out and about.

We walk up the road and find a French style deli for breakfast. We only have fruit and yogurt but it still comes to over 12 quid. (170 Hong Kong dollars) Scary! We head off first for the History Museum and what a great choice. It’s so good here, we have a brilliant few hours wandering around the exhibits and I could have easily stayed for longer. We largely ignored the ancient history and concentrated on trying to explain to the kids the more recent events as they have shaped Hong Kong.

In the late 16th century trade between China and Europe began in earnest. There was a huge demand for Chinese tea and silk but unfortunately there was nothing the Europeans could offer the Chinese until they began running opium into the country. The British had a virtually inexhaustible supply from the poppy fields of Bengal in India and by the start of the 1800′s opium was the basis of nearly every British/Chinese transaction.

China’s attempts to stamp out the trade included confiscating and destroying a massive shipment of the drug which had left millions of Chinese in the grip of addiction, but this gave the British a reason for military action against China. In 1841 a British naval landing party hoisted the Union flag on Hong Kong Island and in 1860 Britain took possession of the Kowloon peninsula. In 1898 a lease was granted for the New Territories and it would be another 99 years before Hong Kong was finally handed back to China.

We also learnt a lot about the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong and some of the natural disasters that have happened here including typhoon damage. There are some examples of the so called “spirit money” here also. I love this Chinese custom. The Chinese are very superstitious and honour their dead ancestors in many different ways including providing them with paper offerings of every conceivable thing they could need in the after life. These paper cars, houses and domestic appliances etc are burnt on the graves of the dead. We also see some massive Chinese dragons.

By now the kids are flagging a bit and we head off to the space museum where we spend an hour looking at space suits, planets and solar systems. (Not really as interesting I thought but they seemed to quite like it!)

We go to Pizza Express for lunch and then to the hairdressers. Maisie and I are so desperate for a haircut and I end up having my fringe chemically straightened as well. Whether it will last as long as the fella reckoned I don’t know but we’ll see! It’s not that cheap at 27 quid but in comparison to prices in England a bargain I guess!

We spent the rest of the evening quietly enough, had dinner in a local place which was good and fairly cheap at 11 quid and then walked along the harbour front. Feeling very tired now so off to bed.

Hong Kong

After going through customs and immigration we caught the KCR rail line to Kowloon. We have booked some accommodation, through the hostelworld website we have been using throughout China, in “Chungking Mansions” on Nathan Road. Described as the crumbling home to scores of guesthouses our expectations aren’t very high and we’re not surprised to find a real dump when we arrive. Still it would have been ok apart from the completely unreasonable owner. It was a long story but in the end Simon and him had a big row over the state of the room and the cost and we decided to cut our losses and try elsewhere.

Right next door is The Holiday Inn. Simon has been saving points up on a loyalty card that allows us some free accommodation at Holiday Inns and we decide now is as good a time as any to use them. Hong Kong is a very expensive destination and any decent place will cost around 90-100 pounds a night so we go for that. It’s in a great location 5 minutes walk from Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong’s famous skyline. What a treat, after our time spent in China it’s a luxury to be in a good hotel and we can’t wait to jump in the bath and sample the complimentary bits and pieces.

We head off out for dinner and chose an Indian restaurant with good reviews. We are fairly conservative with our order but despite this our bill still comes to 47 quid. Oh my god, so glad we won’t be here too long.

At 8pm we go to the harbour front to watch the nightly light show. It’s very cloudy but it’s still really great. The lasers cut across the sky and the tall skyscrapers are lit with every different colour. It’s beautiful like a firework display and has a slightly surreal feel to be gazing out across the choppy water in the humid, warm breeze. Simon gets some fantastic photos to show off on our site.

We get back to the hotel and make some plans for tomorrow. We have discovered that all of Hong Kong’s museums are free on Wednesdays so plan to take advantage of this and will be heading off for a bit of history and culture.