Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Bicycle Touring Packing Lessons (For NZ at least)

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
Carrying everything you need and nothing you don't. The ultimate goal.

Carrying everything you need and nothing you don’t. The ultimate goal.

I recently returned from 43 days away with my bicycle, riding some of the Great Rides throughout the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
I had never bicycle toured before, so it was a bit of a learning curve for me. There was very little I packed that I didn’t use. So I’ll start with those, then I’ll list what I think are must haves.

Didn’t use at all:
Almost all my spare parts for my bicycle: only used one spoke. However, if I had of needed cable, brake pads, patch kit, tube etc I would have been in a hard place without them – so totally worth packing and schlepping around. I used all my tools at some stage – though not always for what I packed them for!!
4 batteries for the GoPro: I rarely emptied a single battery, let alone all 4. The only time I had to use my second without being able to recharge my first was during my dive trip when the public power only worked while the compressor was on.
3 batteries for my camera: I never had one empty battery.
14 SD memory cards for my GoPro: I used a 32Gb and ¾ of a 64Gb plus about 20mins on another two 64Gb sticks. I have a LOT of empty, brand new SD cards. I initially decided to break my cards into locations/activities so if something happened I wouldn’t lose all my data. I gave up on that about 2 weeks in.
Lighter: Didn’t need it, but if the spark on the camp stove had died I would have been screwed.

If I was returning to a location, I would leave all unnecessary items behind and pick them back up on the way through.

If I was returning to a location, I would leave all unnecessary items behind and pick them back up on the way through.

Couldn’t have done without:
Hong Kong Shopper Bag: Yes. One of those cheap and nasty red, white and blue striped bags. I would pop my panniers in it for flights, bus trips, train trips etc. It also folded/rolled down to almost nothing. In NZ you are allowed one bag on buses/trains. Put the panniers in one of these and boom – one bag and no extra costs (except for the bike). I did get quizzed a lot while lining up to check in on my flight, but can’t recommend one enough. It also worked as a “blanket” on which to sit and eat without getting a wet/dirty bum for the many picnic meals and snacks.
Enviro Green Shopping Bags: I broke my gear down into these (different sizes and colours), then packed them within my panniers. This meant I could quickly pack and unpack or find things. Bath gear – grab and go. Cooking/Kitchen gear – grab and go. Tools and Spare Parts – grab and go. Packing was SOOO simple with this. Roll and pack. Done. It also meant I didn’t have to bring panniers into my tent (often very dusty). I didn’t even always take them off my bike.
A hat: I packed the hat I was riding in at home, but unfortunately lost it about 2 weeks in. I replaced it ASAP but having a hat was imperative. While it was unseasonably cold, it was also ridiculously sunny pretty much everywhere we went. As soon as the helmet came off, the hat went on. It meant my face was never burnt in 40+ days of sunshine.
Reimanns 10 hour sun block: Put it on in the morning – done. So easy. My travelling partner had to reapply every 2-4 hours and was always digging her sunscreen out of her packs. She also used almost two full bottles. I used 2/3 of one bottle. While it is a tad expensive, it’s totally worth it. Given that the sun was up till 9.30pm, having a long lasting sunblock was great.
Lifeproof cases on my iPhone 6 and iPad Air: The iPhone was dropped multiple times and brought out in rain. My iPad got knocked around a lot – bashed by cooking gear, dropped on gravel and tea spilt on it. No issues.
VivoBareFoot Ultra Shoes: These weigh almost nothing (lighter than thongs) yet cover the whole foot like a sneaker (with big holes in the top/sides) and are fantastic for camping (night time bathroom tracks, showers), perfect for stream fording, stream bathing and such a break for the feet after a day in the shoes I packed for cycling/walking. I used the neoprene inserts when I rode in the rain so while my feet did get wet, I still had dry socks and shoes in my panniers.
Camp stove: I took one large and one small pot with me and a frying pan (all part of one set). I am pleased I carried all three with me – as often I boiled water from streams or had access to tap water not safe for drinking – as such, I didn’t have to decant hot water to use a pot. It was also fantastic for a quick cup of tea along the trail. Many of the holiday parks I stayed in didn’t provide any cooking equipment – so the pots and pan got used even when the stove did not.
Measuring cup/coffee cup: While the cup itself wasn’t really big enough for a satisfying cup of tea, having the measurements inside was a godsend. I often packed processed carbs to go alongside the veges I would cook – so having the right measurements of milk/water for pasta packs, mashed potatoes and being able to make perfect couscous was brilliant.
Mophie Powerstation XL: This was my first thing I put to charge wherever I was. I would also ask cafes/restaurants if I could charge. This could fully charge my iphone 6 4 times, and my ipad 2.5 times. I also had my 2 year old little charge stick that was super convenient to charge and for use on a bus/train etc to just keep the charge up while watching youtube/killing time.
Power board: Many places I went only had one or two power points. People would be waiting to plug in and charge – then I would turn up with my power board. Many happy people! It also meant I could charge everything at once vs having to swap and change.
Solar panels: Fantastic for charging my mini charge stick. This meant I always had power. Only once in poor weather did my phone almost die as my Mophie was sucked dry and I couldn’t get enough sunlight to recharge the stick. On the back of my bike, next to my tent, on a picnic table – anywhere and everywhere – awesome. I would recommend buying a decent quality one, as the one I had was a tad heavy (it was a loaner and less weight would have rocked).
MSR HubbaHubba: I did some research and just about everywhere on the web said this was THE tent. I can confirm, it is THE tent. I went with the two person version and very pleased I didn’t get the single. It meant I could dry things overnight in the tent with me, no claustrophobia, easy clothing changes etc. This tent is SO easy to put up and pull down. Tent would be up and I’d be gone while other people were still trying to set up their tents. It also dealt with 43km hour winds and insane gusts that sounded like freight trains coming through the trees. It dries super fast so long as there is a breath of breeze and a little bit of light. It’s also incredibly light. I didn’t use the MSR ground sheet designed for this tent. I’m pleased I didn’t, as it meant I had a small landing off the grass for panniers or my knees. The only thing to beat my tent was my bike, which got blown over by the wind and broke one of my poles – but the tent came with a repair piece and my tent wasn’t out of action at all.
Emergency Blankets: I was given two by the guy who sold me my tent as a “just in case.” Thank god. I only used one, but I used it a lot at the start of my tour. The weather was unseasonably cold, 8C less than average. This meant I camped in weather down to -4C. I put the emergency blanket between my inflatable mattress and the inside of my tent to reflect my heat back at me and keep the cold of the ground well away from me. This meant I didn’t ache in the mornings. I still had some cold nights where I wore almost everything I owned (including wet weather gear) but I wasn’t chilled to the bone or unable to sleep due to the cold (except for my first night as I hadn’t packed a thermal inner – I bought one the next day).
Thermal Inner: I bought one that added 8C to my sleeping bag. In the cold weather it was brilliant, keeping me warm(ish) and then as it became warmer, it replaced my sleeping bag. I also had a silk inner which I used often.
Garmin Edge Tour: At one place of our adventures, the trail was closed due to major infrastructure works. We went the alternative route recommended, again to be thwarted by infra works. My Garmin found an alternative route got us to where we needed to go (through parks and eventually multiple back streets and pretty flat – as I set it to avoid hills as much as possible). I had no phone reception so couldn’t pull up google maps to help.
Bath Foofy Thing: Those ball like body wash/exfoliators. The trails were dusty – very, very dusty. To be able to scrub off the ingrained dirt was bliss after a day on the bike. I was so dusty at the end of the day I always looked so much more tanned than I was.
Baby Wipes: A quick wipe down of the bike for a bus trip or to bring it inside where I was staying. Having a dirty bike and expecting someone to handle it or allow it inside is just disrespectful. Also great for cleaning bird poo off the tent. I also used them a lot for an end of day wipe down when a shower/stream wasn’t available. This meant that most of my sleeping gear was pretty clean as I wasn’t grubby when I went to bed.

Just me and my bike. Perfect day.

Just me and my bike. Perfect day.

Things I wish I packed but didn’t:
Vegemite tube: I caved and bought a tiny jar but a tube would have been lighter.
Valve adapter: Using my teeny pump was a pain.
Insect Repellent.
Anti-itch cream.
Thermal Inner: See above.

I would give my packing #fourwellpackedpandas

howmanypandas.com 4

Queensland’s Inquiry Into Cycling – My Thoughts

Friday, December 13th, 2013
Myself, Lord Mayor of Brisbane Graham Quirk and Co-Convenor of CBDBUG Donald Campbell at the BCC's Bike Skills Lauch

Myself, Lord Mayor of Brisbane Graham Quirk and Co-Convenor of CBDBUG Donald Campbell at the BCC’s Bike Skills Launch. Skills are great, but doesn’t make up for poor infrastructure

Two weeks ago, the Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee Inquiry into Cycling Issues delivered their report, listing 68 recommendations.

 

I had some initial strong thoughts of support and opposition for various recommendations listed but really wanted to think the recommendations through and their implications for Queensland.

 

Contrary to how it was covered in the main stream media, it wasn’t just all about making the world kittens and chocolate for cyclists. People who ride bikes aren’t all “cyclists.” To most, a “cyclist” is someone who rides a road bike, travels at around 35km/h and sticks to the roads or occasionally the bike paths and generally makes a motorist’s life a PITA. Most of the people I know who ride, aren’t cyclists per se. They ride bikes. Sometimes they ride really fast on the road on ludicrously light and expensive machines, other times they fly down a rough path, jumping ditches and dodging trees, and at other times again, they trundle about more sedately, using their bicycle as a utilitarian form of transport. I know very few dedicated sports cyclists, what most would call “avid cyclists,” yet I know and ride with lots of people on bikes.

 

Rebecca who rides a bike but as you can see, isn't a "cyclist." This was taken at Style Over Speed.

Rebecca who rides a bike but as you can see, isn’t a “cyclist.” This was taken at Style Over Speed.

The media tended to focus on the “cyclists.” They obtained quotes from “cyclists.” They spoke to “cyclist” representative bodies, especially those ones that say they represent everyone but really just focus on sports cycling. What they didn’t do much of, was talk to people who ride bikes. And the thing is, the Inquiry’s findings mainly impact those who aren’t “cyclists,” and people who want to ride.

 

The larger picture in Queensland is one of sedentary behaviour. Of people driving their cars because car culture has reigned supreme here for decades – and still does. Did you know that 70% of all trips in Brisbane by car are <10km? 10km isn’t very far on a bike – and is immensely doable, even for those who aren’t “cyclists.” So the Committee did their best to address this increase in sedentary behaviour, the escalating health expenses (not to mention the huge expense of subsiding motor vehicle transport and the gaps of Brisbane’s barely coping public transport network) by making recommendations that would, on the bulk increase the numbers of people riding bikes.

 

There are many reasons people cite when asked why they don’t ride. The big one is not feeling safe, followed by lack of infrastructure, which unsurprisingly impacts how safe you feel when you ride. The vast majority of recommendations directly impact these two. The minimum one metre safe passing distance is a great start, but real infrastructure is sorely needed, and the Inquiry recognised this, even calling out substandard attempts at infrastructure.

 

Some of our infrastructure (main North-South route on the Southside) goes through storm drains - safe? Hell no

Some of our infrastructure (main North-South route on the Southside) goes through storm drains – safe? Hell no

They correctly (in my opinion) pushed for more infrastructure, everywhere! That every road (I don’t mean motorway) should be seen as a bicycling option, and that parking in a bike lane is farcical. That infrastructure should be included in developments and train stations should cater for the casual commuter. To many around the world this would sound like common sense – but this is a HUGE leap here.

 

There was much made of the relaxation of mandatory helmet laws. People who have followed me on Twitter for many years, especially after the launch of CityCycle, would know that I used to think that a helmet made you safe.

 

What makes you safe is infrastructure, enforced road rules that protect vulnerable road users, and everyone working together to make sure we all get home safely.

 

Yep - I do wear a helmet, just not all the time.

Yep – I do wear a helmet, just not all the time.

After my “smoosh and drag” last year, where my helmet was knocked off during the impact (someone went and found it back down the road and brought it to the Fire and Rescue Team), I realized that just because I should be safe, didn’t mean I was. It was a harsh reality check that questioned my values in almost everything – including mandatory helmet laws. As I slowly recovered, I stayed focused on returning to riding (on a new bike as my old one was totally destroyed while saving me from a more frightening outcome) and given my total lack of confidence in my fellow man, I refused to ride on the road. As I learnt the way to and from almost everywhere without putting rubber to bitumen other than crossing the road at pedestrian crossings, I realised just what safety theatre the helmet had become. As such, I am totally in favour of the relaxation of MHL as recommended by the Inquiry – it doesn’t mean you can’t wear one, it just means that if you’re tootling along a pavement or in a park, you won’t be fined. It comes down to perceived and actual risk.

 

I suppose my biggest disappointment with the Inquiry’s recommendations, was their avoidance of the “20 is Plenty” idea. Essentially, this limits residential and city streets to 20mph or 30km/h. This would have instantly reduced the likelihood of accidents, the severity of any accidents that occurred (the correlation between injury severity/death and speed limit is well documented), as well as making so many streets truly “bike friendly” without painting a yellow bike on them and a token share the road sign, followed by crossing fingers.

 

The legislative requirement of infrastructure funding tied into the target bicycle riding participation percentage was another big one that I think the Committee overlooked. However they did link in the amount spent on safety communication to be tied with the percentage of the population that rides (18%). The “buy” for such an amount would be huge! This can’t be a bad thing, even if it isn’t exactly what I wanted.

 

I must admit to being perplexed by the lighting requirements. All it is really doing is adding another barrier to entry and perpetuating the idea that riding a bicycle is dangerous (it’s not supposed to be). Also, the “colour” of bicycle lights are different to those of motor vehicles, and don’t work as well during the day – so I’m not sure how they would be visible at such a distance during the day.

 

The equalising of fines didn’t really bother me too much, until I thought about how that would work with children – as their parents/guardians would be held accountable for any fines. If a small child rides and inadvertently breaks a road rule, they are fined at the same rate as a motorist and the parents have to pay? I don’t have a problem with this is we are talking 16 year olds, but young kids playing on a local street? Oh, and if you think they shouldn’t be playing on a street to begin with, then you are the target of the cultural shift mentioned in the report.

 

Riding should fun, safe and awesome!

Riding should fun, safe and awesome!

Overall, I am very much in favour of nearly all of the findings made by the report. It isn’t surprising, given that most of my 34 recommendations to the Inquiry got up in their entirety or in a similar format.

 

Now the biggest question is which of the recommendations made by the Inquiry are going to become law. Already the Transport Minister has stated that some points, like the one metre minimum passing distance will go ahead. However, to truly make a difference to how Queensland moves, he needs to not just cherry pick the easy ones. Scott Emerson needs to  show true political will and foresight, and implement recommendations that may initially be seen as unpopular (eg parking in bike lanes which is illegal in both NSW and VIC) but will be regarded as creating a safer, healthier and altogether better Queensland. This is his chance to be the one who draws the line in the sand. To be the one who is remembered for what he did, not what he failed to do.

FIVEPANDAS

 

 

#fiveoutoffivecyclingpandas(even if I don’t agree with everything it is to be applauded

PS. If you want to see the best and worst that Brisbane has to offer riders, check out my photoblog.

Getting there… Not always as simple as you think

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

12 hours behind schedule but here!

As many of you know, I am on holidays. Officially clocked off and kicking back.

I travel a fair bit, more than most I guess, but a lot less than some.

The last 24 hours was “up there” for the most bizarre in my travelling experience to date.

Dive on in and see why I think we flew in breach of CASA regulations, how cancelled flights get uncancelled, and why I had a wake up call at 1.15am Brisbane time only to face two more delayed flights!

Crazy day

For those of your who follow me on twitter would know that at lunch time yesterday, I was due to fly to Nadi. My flight got delayed, and after a couple of hours with no departure time listed due to engine problems, QF391/FJ910 SYD-NAN was cancelled.

It sounds so simple, but it was far from it. It also turned out not to be true. It was eerily familiar to how my dive trip was cancelled for 24 hours.

My day started with a text book perfect flight up from MEL with Qantas (well not the breakfast – it was a breakfast burrito, and it was revolting). The CSM Christopher was just brilliant. I was chatting to him, he started chatting to me, so the other J crew talked to me too. All very friendly, much laugher, highly enjoyable. The woman sitting next to me ask, after they walked away, “Are you on TV? They are just so nice to you.” Don’t people realise that if you are polite and genuine to the crew, they are polite and genuine right back? We also had a brilliant tailwind, so landed 10 mins early.

There may have been some serious enabling going on (Ross and I before all the Tatts)

Highly conveniently, we gated right opposite the International Transfer desk, and the driver opened the doors as I came down the escalator. I went to the First Desk, got my express passes and I was through. I was contemplating buying gin (really limited selection) for my dive trip (local beer and wine included but BYO hard stuff) when Ross called. He was already upstairs with Mark. I got in no worries, even after the desk staff asked if we are on the same flight. YAY team! It was Tatts time, then I went to Payot for a massage, but they only had beauty staff available, so I got a manicure. (For the record, I did buy some gin, some No. Ten Tanqueray)

Mark and I before he skedaddled to Shanghai.

With careful fingers and slippery hands, I had brunch with Mark before his flight to HKG-PVG, then when Mark left, I was joined by Ross. I had some icecream to keep him company (I am just that nice). Much Tatts was consumed, but it was soon time to go. Or maybe not. My flight was delayed, update to follow. Update was a little worrying, engine problems, parts, maintenance staff issues – potentially ON’ed in Sydney. Nothing more Tatts can’t cure. I realised I was totally and utterly smashed when I called Ross Mark for about the 3rd time. Cheese plates were ordered and conversations were had with the table next to us.

It is SO not on time....

I must say that the personal attention I received regarding the delay and subsequent cancellation for the Service Desk in the FLounge was fantastic. Paige followed up connecting flights for me, and Michael personally came and told me before the announcement was made in the Lounge to see the service desk. I got VERY clear instructions, and knew about the cancellation before it was announced at the gate so I was right at the front of the business class queue when the announcement was made.

After about 15 minutes during which we were asked to be patient by the Menzie’s staff, people were starting to get a bit peeved. Michael had told me very clearly what was going to happen, it sounded messy (we would have to get our luggage, reprocessed back to Australia, given taxi vouchers, accommodation vouchers and rebooked). And while it was tempting to stay in the Lounge for a facial (after hearing all that I thought it would take hours), I decided that since they were not Qantas staff, I should get there and be processed I case they clocked off after this flight. Just as well I did. It went from, “We are just finding out what we need to do,” to a lone of the gate checkin staff letting out a cheer. It was now 3pm and the flight was back on!!

A big thanks to all the AFFers who answered my plea on Twitter for the Air Pacific contact number. I had a separate booking to Suva, so I quickly had to call to make sure it was linked to my coming in on the delayed plane. The girl on the phone told me the flight was cancelled, I told her I was on board, and while it would be close, I could just make the connection if they held the plane for a few minutes. She assured me there were indeed a number of people making that connection and now that the flight was back on, we would be expected.

The families boarded first, and I was the first into business class, planting my drunk self into 1A. The CSM welcomed us aboard and a cheer went up from economy. We thought we were off! Thought. Turns out 4 pax had decided to do something else when the flight was cancelled…. Like I almost did. So rather than the door closing and taking off, their luggage had to be offloaded… Another delay.

After this the most bizarre thing occurred. The airport manager for Air Pacific walked to the front of the cabin and told us his name and position and that the curtains had been closed to Economy… I must admit to being a tad worried. What was he going to say? He started by telling us what we already knew. The flight was cancelled. One engine kept sending a warning to the cockpit and they didn’t have the part to fix it before the engineers had to finish ( they were due to finish their shift at 4.30pm ). So he tells us that after the flight was cancelled, they contacted Nadi to advise of the issue and its inability to be resolved. The engineers at Nadi told the crew here the sequence to get the alert to turn off, as the engine was otherwise working. (I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a tricked system on a packed 747, but I digress).

We (the business class passengers) were exchanging glances that pretty much said, “Why is this guy sharing this information with us?” Why soon became apparent. He told the crew that since the flight was cancelled to have a drink and eat some food. What meals did they eat? The business class meals. He told us that he had eaten a prawn cocktail with the crew, and that he stood by his decision. So what was left? Burja mix (nibbles when you get a drink) some cake and all the cheese plates. He told us he would approve any requests for reimbursement to the value of nice meal in a nice restaurant. It was disappointing, but hey, we were still going, and we had to leave ASAP so that the flight crew didn’t go over their hours. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t against the law for flight crew to work a flight under the influence of alcohol? If the drinks (discussed shortly) were made by the crew, they were well over 0.05 IMHO.

It is now 3.30pm, luggage has been offloaded, we can hear the doors shutting. Huzzah!

Captain comes on, we are waiting for a tug.

Shortly after we can hear all this noise under us in J.

After about 15 mins Captain comes on. The tug can’t connect. Engineering services are called.

It is now 4pm.

I am resigned to the fact that we are going to get deplaned.

We hear more banging and revving under the plane.

4.15pm.

We then see a tug going flat out in our direction. I have NEVER seen one of the big ones move like that.

4.30pm.

Banging and we move!

Another cheer erupts from Economy. I am now sobering up and feel a headache coming my way. We need to get airborne so I can drink it away.

We finally push back at 4.38pm (original departure time was 12.55pm so just under 4 hours late). The captain took us high, v high. Fight time was crazy fast. We made up just under 45mins!!!

Overall, it was an OK flight. The funniest part for me was asking for tonic water for my gin and tonic. I think they were pouring heavy, very heavy. When I poured in the Tonic Water, you could see the alcohol move – it was that strong!

I watched a lovely sunset over the pacific.

We land.

I get my first bag instantly (Priority Baggage rocks), I then had to wait for oversized (dive gear). Oversized comes out, no bag. I give it another 15mins. I am checking the carousel, but no more pink tagged bags are left and I see nothing that looks like my bag. So now I am at Baggage Services. My bag made it to Sydney, good start. Oh yes, it made the plane. Great. It was oversized. But it isn’t with oversized. I am given a lost baggage claim. I am in the queue now for customs when the Baggage Services guy turns up with my bag! From the look of my bag, I think it fell off the trailer (so much for the fragile tag). It was covered in dirt and a chunk of the black plastic had worn down (photos on the iPad in the room so no pic ATM). So it is now about 40minutes since we landed but I’m happy. My dive gear made it, hopefully in one piece, and I can now find a service desk.

At the service desk (just realised she didn’t give back the print out of the my electronic ticket – I needed it twice yesterday Liam, so pleased I printed it all out), I am told I can be on the first flight out… 5.30am. Umm no thanks. The staff agree to put me and all those after me on the 6.30am. I get an accommodation voucher and wait for the van from the hotel near the airport.

It shows up, but it isn’t wheelchair friendly, a Fijian gentlemen then can’t get in the van. Me, the driver, his wife and 3 japanese passengers (the first group to make it through after me to Suva) finally manage to get the man on board. We then repeat at the hotel, which is like 800m away.

We have a transfer to the airport at 5am, so would we like a wake up call at 4.15 or 4.30am? Thank God I didn’t go for the 5.30am flight. As it was I was rung at 1.15am Brisbane time, some three hours after I got to sleep.

It is 11.15pm I am checked in at the most horrendous hotel (Trans International at Nadi Airport AVOID!), but I am so hungry! I had lunch with Mark at 11am, and with no real food on board and waaaay too much champagne, gin, and baileys, I need to eat. My meal voucher was good to $26FJD so I got some grilled chicken and mineral water. Apparently I couldn’t just have a sandwhich (which was all I wanted).

Part Two

It is now 12,20am on Wednesday Jan 11th (I am supposed to be asleep in a 4 star resort on Lami Bay just outside of Suva, instead I am in a barely 2.5 star hotel) – my wake up call is 4 hours away.

After such a day of random happenstance, I need to sleep…. here is hoping there are no problems toorrow morning since I don’t have my print out of eticket anymore.

Part Three

11th Jan

Oh huzzah!

I finally got to sleep after 1am (10pm Qld time), and woke up a few minutes after 4am.
I was at the airport a few minutes after 5am, and saw that the 5.30am flight to Suva was still accepting check-ins. SCORE!!! I have flexible fares, they have inconvenienced me, I was gunning for this flight.

“We are sorry, Miss, but that flight has been delayed till 7.30am departure.”

I think, no problem, I am still going to get there before the 5.30am plane – SCORE!

“We are also sorry that the 6.30am plane has also been delayed. It will leave at 7.30am as well, we are combining the flights.”

He then tells me I have excess luggage.

We had quite a conversation, with me pulling up my international allowance, and that this ticket is indeed linked to my international booking. He calmly circled the 15kg allowance. I calmly point out I had 63kg on the way here, and under international economy rules, I have 32kg, of which I am using a little over half. In the end, he realised I was saying after I highlighted the fact that I was delayed, missed my flight and have had only a handful of hours sleep. (I choose to ignore the fact that it was indeed on a separate ticket and he was right, because I was tired, inconvenienced and I won).

So it is 5.10am (though Apple insists it is 4.10am), I have had 3 hours sleep and there is no lounge. I settle in for the 2 or so hour wait.

Interestingly, the Fijian gentleman (disabled) and his daughter were given breakfast vouchers, but no one else was from our merry band received them. The disabled gentleman was quite upset about it and wanted to go tell them whatfor. I just said I was so tired, I didn’t think I could eat without throwing up. I was so tired my eyes were watering and I just wanted to die (I didn’t sleep very well the night before I flew out, only 4 hours, and again 4-5 hours at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport).

22 minutes - we go up, get some water, collect bottle, we go down.

Finally we are called, I am screened and we board the cutest little ATR that ever was for our 22minute flight to Suva.

We land, and wait for the luggage.

Only my dive gear turned up.

I look around and see one of the three Japanese still waiting for his bags and 2 Fijians.

The ground crew go back to the plane and unpack the tail luggage section. SUCCESS!

Both my bags have made it through 4 flights, 2 close calls of going missing but they, and I are here, all be it late.

I jump a taxi and make it to the hotel 12 hours behind schedule.

I don’t ask for an upgrade, I didn’t care. I have the second best room available anyway. Fully refurbed, wonderfully cool even without the AC, brekky, unlimited wireless and broadband. I need for nothing, just sleep and food (and gin).

My room over looks the pool and the beautiful bay with its sailboats and islands with low hanging trees. You can see a panorama of it by clicking this link.

May I please have a perfect view with my breakfast? Oh tar!

The order of business today is as follow:
Finish breakfast.
Nap or swim (whichever comes first once I finish breakfast).
Swim then nap.
Stroll to the local store and buy some balcony snacks and some Fanta and Coke so I can make a Spezi.
Nap then swim.
Drink in the bar.
Balcony drinks.
Swim.
Sleep.

But for now, breakfast is over and hopefully an internet password awaits me.

Pillow… zzzzzz

Part Four.

Fresh out of the pool.

I spent the day napping, swimming and lying by the pool. Glorious.

I am two cocktails into the lobby bar’s cocktail list. I was happily surprised that all the cocktails had gin in them… Turns out it is a Gin Lounge!

I better eat soon or it could get messy. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

I have ordered and sunset just got amazing. Final pic….

Gin Cocktails and Sunset. Perfect.

 

 

PS More photos to come when I get myself organised.

Overall rating – trip to Suva if you take out catching up with great people with lovely food and champas, it would rate a #oneandahalfpandas

PPS. You can be damned sure I am writing one hell of a complaint letter to Air Pacific and copying to Qantas.

Vitamin Me Update – Christmas in Cairns – 2011

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

 

Me loving the Vitamin Me @ Agincourt Reef with the SilverSonic

Saturday – December 24th, 2011.
After reading news reports on the huge volume (56,000) of people expected to be through Brisbane Airport on Friday December 23rd, I must admit I was somewhat filled with dread at the idea of negotiating the crowds and the queues. The large number of people on the AirTrain did little to assuage these fears. However, it wasn’t too bad at all. The Priority Check In line at Virgin Australiacertainly made it better – I just walked straight up, then plonked myself in The Lounge. I was still full from a wonderful lunch with my team at La Dolce Vita (Milton), so didn’t partake in noms but did have a few glasses of Les Petites Vignettes.

Champas and my boarding pass. Pity I couldn't spell the name of the Brut correctly

I was informed by the Lounge Angels (do we call the guys that too?) that the flight was full, so no chance of an empty seat next to me, so I stuck with my seat close to the front and hoped for no kids. Joy of joys, the other other people in my row failed to board! HUZZAH! As such I had a lovely trip, relaxing for the 2ish hours from Brisbane to Cairns, while everyone else was squished.

I should say that I haven’t been to Cairns since 1985. I remember a tiny airport, roads with no gutters, big trees overhanging roads and old houses. Imagine my surprise as I looked out the window to a lovely city below me. Yes the character houses were still there, but now there was a thriving (well kind of, the GFC was not kind of Cairns) CBD.

I had pre-booked a transfer into town with a company I had never heard of (CoralSea Coaches), and figured that if they didn’t show, it was only $15 return after all. My transfer arrived, on time and in a perfectly clean mini-bus I was deposited directly at my hotel. It probably took all of 5 minutes as I was the only passenger they were meeting from my flight.

What a view to wake up to!

My hotel is the Mercure Harbourside. While I don’t generally stay in Mercure, it seemed like a good location and the price was great. Unfortunately it was arranged before the 50% Accor sale but still incredible for being right on The Esplanade. Nevertheless, I had high hopes – all be them 3.5star hopes. After initially being told I didn’t get an upgrade (I usually do), the Check In staff decided to give me a double upgrade. I had booked a queen bed suite facing the mountains – I got a king bed suite facing the Coral Sea. When I woke up this morning (24th of December) and looked out my window (whole East wall) I saw the sea, the islands and the sun streaking orange across the lightest smattering of clouds.

Don't linger or the crocs will get you!

Even though I had consumed a fair bit of wine on the patio the night before, I was up and about early to beat the heat. I went for a relaxing stroll along The Esplanade into town. Mercure Harbourside is about 2km from the centre of town – so close enough to be walkable and far enough to be quiet (and it is right next to a bottleshop). They also run a free mini-bus to and from town hourly. So the plan was to stroll, take photos, enjoy a relaxing breakfast, buy some more goodies for balcony wine, something for breakfast Xmas Day, and most importantly, anti-seasickness tablets as I am going diving on the SuperSonic out of Port Douglas tomorrow before jumping the free ride back to the hotel for a swim and perhaps a nap.

The walk itself was divine. There was a light breeze that offset the heat and humidity nicely. Unsurprisingly, there were lots of people out. From cyclists, to mums pushing prams and a few walk of shames plus all the runners and dog walkers. The way the light reflected off the water or dappled through the trees was just perfect. I had to laugh when I saw the no swimming due to crocodiles sign. Naturally I stopped to take a photo! These two old guys walking an incredibly old pooch came up behind me and said with an evil laugh “Don’t linger or the crocs will get you!” I love Queensland humour!

I love these Angel Fish fountains.

One of my favourite images of Cairns has to be the gorgeous angle fish fountains/sculptures in the Lagoon. There was no way I was missing that photo opportunity given the perfect morning light and snapped a couple of pics while wishing I had brought my bathers with me. The Lagoon reeks of chlorine but looks so inviting. What is really cool about the Lagoon, apart from the water, is that it is in the shape of Queensland.

From there I strolled up the main street a little, to get away from the overtly tourist targeting cafes to find breakfast. Even though the tips on Foursquare for Perottas weren’t that favourable, I decided to give it a go as everyone there seemed to be locals (wearing real clothes, greeting eachother etc). I wasn’t disappointed. While I paid the same for what I would have paid for my hotel buffet breakfast, the quality was far superior. Lovely scrambled eggs, roasted field mushrooms and bacon on toasted sourdough drizzled with olive oil. Their decaf latte was superb. Just writing about breakfast makes my mouth water. Located right next to the Cairns Regional Gallery it catches the breeze nicely, has lots of ceiling fans and great service and food. I may just come back on Monday or Tuesday.

Saturday Afternoon – December 24th, 2012.

After breakfast at Perotta’s I hit Woolies to buy some food for the balcony meals and tried to buy anti-seasickness tablets. Unfortunately the chemist closest to where I was was closed till 11.30am and while I was waiting for the mini-bus back to the Mercure Harbourside, I thought to check FourSquare and found one a couple of blocks from where I was. I had 10 minutes to get there – only to discover it was a shopping centre. I managed to get back to the pick up spot in 12 minutes – all be it stinking hot and perspiring.

Back at the hotel, I spent the day relaxing by the pool, reading a book, slathering on sunscreen and cooling off in the water. Naturally, during the high UV periods I disappeared back inside, but even with these precautions, I still managed to burn in a couple of places where I hadn’t reapplied my sunscreen carefully enough. Nothing bad – just a little pink in a couple small places (unlike many of the guests here who were bright red in the evening). I am not one that can sit around and do nothing for hours on end, but the warmth of the sun, the lightness of the breeze and the coolness of the water made the time pass quickly – though I constantly checked the time so I wouldn’t burn.

A twitter follower recommended a local Balainese restaurant for dinner, the chicken curry was to die for. I was dropped off at BayLeaf by the hotel mini-bus. I waited at the lovely bar of BayLeaf as my highly recommended dinner was cooked. The restaurant had a lovely feel to it – and I adored the use of Tourquay bottles for water. I picked up dinner and strolled the 500m back to my hotel, and promptly poured some wine and mineral water to enjoy another balcony meal.

It was still incredibly hot and muggy, but the light breeze made it spectacular. The sunset was amazing – with the colour streaking all the way back to the East. As the night closed in, the fishing trawlers out in the Coral Sea had their lights on, so their port and starboard lights looked like Christmas lights out to sea. (EDIT: I looked today and they might be the warning lights around a large sand bar but I think the boats sound much more romantic). The sounds of night closed in, soft laughter drifting up from the restaurant and bar by the pool as I watched the green and red lights blink on and off while I fell asleep.

Perfect day.

Christmas Day, Sunday December 25th.
While people were opening presents and gorging on food – I was lazing around the pool at the Mercure Harbourside, carefully ensuring I didn’t burn. I finished a chick-lit book by Sheila O’Flanagan and ate leftovers from the wonderful BayLeaf. I should explain there is a still a meal worth of leftovers upstairs in my room.
It does amaze me how determined some people are to “brown.” I didn’t think there was still that belief where they think if they go lobster red then they will go brown back home. The number of people I have seen burnt under peeling skin is just scary. The message of Slip Slop Slap doesn’t seem to carry or isn’t communicated as it used to be – and certainly not to those from overseas. Perhaps there should be some sort of communication about it.

Boxing Day however was a totally different day for me.

Boxing Day, Monday December 26th.
I was collected from my hotel and taken up the very scenic Captain Cook Hiway to Port Douglas to go out diving on the SilverSonic – run by QuickSilver. Unfortunately, the pick up was running about 25 minutes late to some guests who weren’t where they were supposed to be, so it was a mad rush to get onto the boat when we arrived in Port Douglas. The driver was a lark! He catered very well for his audience. At one stage there were only 2 non-international passengers on the boat, so he made sure he pointed out the kangaroos, shared stories in basic English and pointed out other touristy things to do while in town. Driving through Palm Cove was divine. I said at the time, it looked like a beach in Thailand or Vietnam – still, island off shore, shady trees, quiet little beachside town. I can’t wait to stay there!

The day itself on the SilverSonic was incredibly well organised and the ratio of staff to guests was MUCH higher than I expected. From multiple life guards, to swimmers with the snorkelers and 1 dive guide to 6 divers (all put into groups in line with experience) it was a very slick operation. I had read reviews from other dive/snorkel boats where the certified divers had to hang around under the intro divers – this was absolutely not the case for SilverSonic.

The tour participants were broken into groups – with snorkelers first called to be given their gear, then the intro divers to do their safety briefings and watch the what to expect video. Finally we were called down, and we were given a very thorough safety briefing – all be it a little hard to hear at times over the intro divers. I must admit I was surprised by the quality of the gear on the boat. I had brought my own because I once used hire gear on holidays and it was terrible. Everything looked reasonably new and very well cared for. Noone in our group had any problems with their gear. It should be noted that the gear (not including stinger suits) is included in the price of diving.

For the first dive, there wasn’t a sense of rush – we got into the water, got our bearings and slowly made our way down. It was a nice easy dive, so our very professional Dive Master/Guide Erin Smart could assess us and what we liked. I was impressed how attentive she was to her group – constantly checking on us – not just during the first check dive, the following two as well. I saw noone pop, look worried etc, and she timed the dive really well so we came to the mooring about 35 mins into the dive so we could drop off those with 50bar. We also spent the safety stop not just hanging out, but exploring at 5m – very well planned. The dive we did was Garry’s Gut – and provided us with a good entre of what we would see. Turtles, reef sharks, lots of aquarium fish etc.

The second and third dives we did were drift dives. As such we had a little bit of a scurry to get ready and into the water. I felt like I had just got comfy and relaxed up on deck and I, along with the certified divers were called back down again. This was probably my favourite dive of the day. Panova was a great site. Reef sharks, turtles, aquarium fish, great bommies, nudis, and a lovely medium sized maori wrasse. In the blue I also caught a glimpse of 3 devil rays that Erin spotted for us. That was a great surprise!

Our third and final dive was another drift dive – Just Magic. This was an incredibly relaxing dive – we all hung around 10m for most it and again stayed down the maximum time 50 minutes. I came up with 100bar, as did most of the others, but it was time. I was starting to feel the chill of three dives in a few short hours, even in 28c waters. Again we saw turtles, reef sharks, and lots of aquarium fish. There was also a photo stop where Erin took photos of a couple of the divers with their cameras behind a well positioned Nemo family. I passed but Erin took an awesome one of me on the second dive.

For 5 hours on the reef, we spent most of it underwater. Each dive was 50 minutes. Each dive had a real focus on safety and Erin’s care of her group was fantastic. If you do get the opportunity to dive while in Cairns or Port Douglas, I highly recommend the SilverSonic, not just for the excellent staff to guest ratio, but also for the huge amounts of food at lunch (the guests and the crew didn’t come close to eating it all – and it was a good range, including vegetarian), the quality of the guide staff (ask for Erin), but most importantly because of just how fast and stable the SilverSonic is. We blew past the Poseidon, and I wouldn’t want to be on her on a rough day – she was moving a bit and it was pretty much dead calm as we left Port Douglas.

It wasn’t all perfect though. Unfortunately, one of the other boats in the QuickSilver family had an engine problem, so returned to shore about 20 minutes late. Then four guests went missing who were supposed to be on my bus. Even though we were told very clearly, do NOT go shopping, there isn’t time, two went shopping, and the other two were having photo problems from the boat. We finally left after I had been waiting an hour. I understand maintenance delays – I fly a lot, but people who think they are more important than the other 30 odd waiting really annoy me off. In the end we left without two of them, and the QuickSilver team had to send a bus back for those two guests – what a waste of time and money for the company.

This was a great trip, and I highly recommend.

Upon returning to my hotel, I filled the bath, washed my dive gear then beelined for the pool. BLISS! It was so good to just be covered by the water and just relax. Bed came shortly after, as you can imagine after 2 hours on a bus, 3 dives and a day in the sun.

Tuesday December 27th.
It was hot. It was the first morning when I woke up and thought “Oh so this is what people have talked about.” The heat and humidity was oppressive so I decided to just hang out around the pool for the day. This turned out to be a brilliant idea, as I got to get some final relaxation in. The highlight of the day would have to be the sounds of thunder in a clear blue sky. Shortly after a huge storm front was barrelling across the city into the bay. It was brilliant. The next thing I know the heavens opened and the rains fell. The apparent temperature in Cairns fell by 13c and I had to get a pot of tea to warm up! The really nifty thing about my hotel was an automatic roof in the bar/cafe. So when the first drops fell, the roof closed keeping me and the other guests dry (well we had been in the pool so dry-ish) while we watched the show. It rained like in the video for 45minutes and it was still raining (lightly) 2 hours after the first drops. It was fantastic to experience my first tropical storm in the tropics.

Unfortunately, at 5pm my poolside relaxing had to come to an end, and I changed into “real clothes” and headed to the airport. I was again picked up bang on time by the lovely people at Coral Sea Coaches. Again I took advantage of the Priority Boarding queue and checked my dive gear in. Unfortunately, there is no Lounge in Cairns, but I didn’t have to wait for too long before I was back on a plane to Brisbane.

All in all, this was a fantastic quick getaway.

Organisations mentioned in this post:
www.sunloverholidays.com.au
www.virginaustralia.com.au
www.coralseacoaches.com.au
www.silverseries.com.au/sonic.htm
www.mercure-harbourside.com.au/
www.bayvillage.com.au/bayleaf
www.cairnsdining.com/509

 

 

Vitamin Me

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Thanks to Tourism Queensland for the image

Hi all

Not a regular post (or semi-regular as it has been a while since I blogged).

For those who follow me on the Twitters, Facebook and Path know, I won Tourism Queensland’s Vitamin Me competition.

I have had a lot of questions on how it all works, how I got it and what I plan to do with it.

So, since I am, at my heart, incredibly lazy – read on.

Tourism Queensland ran the Vitamin Me competition, promoting having a break in Queensland to recharge yourself – getting your dose of Vitamin Me. This competition was part of a larger marketing strategy – which is still going on. By visiting their webpage, you could test your own levels (feel free to post your score in the comments). Since I am often away , am always thinking about what I might do for my next adventure, and 90% of the time love my work, I scored very high. This high score did nothing to help me win, but made me feel better about taking some many weekends away.

There were 175,000 entries, of which some 44,500 were unique. I only entered once.

From these 175,000 entries, my entry was randomly drawn and I won the prize – $10,000 of Vitamin Me time in Queensland.

The prize works similarly to a gift voucher. I don’t have to use it all at once, however it expires in 12 months.

I can use the voucher on anything that can be booked through SunLover Holidays – the travel agency associated with Tourism Queensland (these are the same peeps who did “Best Job in the World). This means flights, transfer, activities, tours, hire cars etc can be attributed to the voucher. The only time food/drinks would go on, would be if they were part of a resort package or cruise etc. Unfortunately I find the SunLover Holiday webpage terrible to navigate but if I search on google, then search for the provider there I can generally get around it.

So what am I planning to do?

Well, firstly I am using a small amount to do a day trip diving out of Port Douglas on the SuperSonic. I will be in Cairns over the break anyway, so this will be my first chance to put the prize into use. I was going to do a day trip anyway, this just means I do it on Tourism Queensland vs my Visa card.

Other things I am planning are (in no particular order):

  • The Dinosaur Stampede at Winton
  • Diving the Yongala
  • 4 day Coral See Mike Ball Dive expedition (was thinking of doing it at Easter but some friends are thinking of going in May, so will probably go then).
  • Mt Isa Rodeo
  • Mountain retreat with some friends and some wine (and spa treatments if I can find somewhere)
  • Mackay – so I can eat at Sorbellos again!

I will be flying Qantas as much as I can as I am hoping to reach Platinum status (geek moment).

All in all this is an epic prize. Crisscrossing the state is going to rock. I love Queensland – such an amazing state! I can’t wait to experience more of it.