Month: April 2014

All Around the World: Dubai

Thursday 27th March
I had managed to get about 4 hours sleep before there were to many distractions that I couldn’t ignore any further. This included the person behind coughing and a baby a couple of rows back crying and screaming. It was to late to watch a movie so I watched the final two episodes of ‘The Wrong Man’ which I’d missed when I’d left at the end of October. I tried to rest my eyes but first they came round to give breakfast and then to take the blanket I was using to cover my face.

We landed at around 6am and I made my way to the visa and tour booking desk. The guy at the desk confirmed there was space and because I wasn’t staying at a hotel the solution was for me to be picked from the nearby Premier Inn. It looked nice outside and I was also able to book a morning session to visit Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world). I felt quite apprehensive as I passed the baggage claim and it felt like something was missing when I left the airport with only a small rucksack.

Eventually I made it out of the airport towards the Dubai metro and I was thankful that the machine made it clear how to buy tickets. The notifications on the train were in Arabic and English so I had no problem getting off at the correct station though I had regretted not sitting on the other side as I would have seen the Burj Khalifa. After arriving it was unclear which way I needed to go but eventually I opted to follow signs to the Dubai Shopping Mall though I was surprised that all the signs for Burj Khalifa had disappeared.

The walkway was lot longer than I had anticipated and I wasn’t even sure if I was heading in the right direction. I looked out of the windows on both sides but I literally couldn’t see, and therefore felt lost trying to find the tallest building in the world. I finally entered the shopping mall and I have to admit even I was impressed and slightly overawed by its size. I finally saw some signs to the Burj Khalifa and made my way.

I was in no hurry to rush round the displays so I took my time and was surprised to discover that the Burj Khalifa was nearly double the size of the Twin Petrona Towers I had visited in Kuala Lumpur. I made my way to the lift and travelled to floor 124 which was 1,483 feet from the ground. The view was obviously impressive but there was quite a bit of haze in the distance which meant I couldn’t for example make out the Palm Islands.

There is only a certain amount of time you can spend looking down on a city so I soon found myself feeling ready to go back down. Before I did one of the telescopes became free and it was amazing to see the contrast between the city now and in the relatively recent past when it had been mostly desert. Once I was finished I decided to make my way to the Waterfall inside the mall before going outside to the Waterfront where I was able to appreciate just how big the Burj Khalifa is.

My colleague Sue had given me a suggestion for a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Rangoli where for very little money I could “eat like a King”. After arriving at the nearest station I started walking to the restaurant however as soon as I turned the final corner the local shop keepers were trying to tempt me in to their shop to buy t-shirts. I let out a sigh inside. I’ve been in the situation many times before and have learnt to ignore what I’m being asked but I really feel it is mentally tiring when people stereotype and assume I’m a walking £ or $ sign. It’s very frustrating when you know where you want to go and people keep trying to block your path but luckily I could see my destination so I persevered.

It wasn’t quite lunch so I ordered a mango lassi and waited for the kitchen to open. Eventually I made my way upstairs and ordered the Gujarati Thali. The plate given to me was big and had a few small metal dishes on it but I feared portion sizes looked on the small side. How wrong I was. Soon various waiters were bringing out Chapatis, Papads, and various curries and a dhal to fill up the bowls and when ever one was finished more food appeared. I loved it, though I wasn’t a big fan of the complimentary buttermilk drink.

Full and happy I made my way back to the train station and boarded the train. I had been careful not to board ‘Gold’ class but I made another tourist error. I accidentally boarded the “women and children only” carriage however luckily I was able to quickly move down the train when the mistake was pointed out to me. I arrived back at the airport to get a free shuttle to the Premier Inn but as the carpark was predictably very busy I couldn’t see where it was.

I had been told a taxi would cost about 25AED which I was prepared to pay to avoid the hassle of waiting for the shuttle. Sadly I had the floating £ and $ sign above my head and when I enquired I was told over 50AED so I said no thanks. There was still no sign of the shuttle so I went back in to the airport to the taxi booking desk and again the girl confirmed the price. I was then approached by a taxi driver which is always dodgy and he quoted 80AED. Declining that offer I went back outside and thankfully this time I saw the shuttle bus to the Premier Inn and I waited there for the pick up.

We drove out of Dubai and as we entered the desert I was over come by tiredness and dozed off. Our first stop was a garage to fill up and as I chatted to a guy from New Zealand I hit my head on an overhanging sign which at least woke me up. The owners were trying to get me to wear a traditional head scarf and I wasn’t interested at all. I really wanted a fizzy drink to wake me up but sadly the drinks didn’t have prices on so whilst I knew I was being conned I couldn’t work out the exchange rate quick enough.

Our first proper stop was to see a Peregrine Falcon display. The guide provided quite a bit of information and told us that he had a detonator to blow up the bird if it escaped because it was tame and wouldn’t survive in the wild. We were all quite horrified but he then assured us he was only joking. The Peregrine falcon is the fastest bird and it was impressive to see it in action as it was so fast it wasn’t possible to get a clear picture of it swooping down.

After leaving the display we started our journey to our desert camp but to get there had to cross the sand dunes. I had done something similar in Wadi Rum in Jordan but this seemed even more extreme and it was great fun. The constant up/down and side to side movement meant it was like a never ending roller coaster so I was slightly relieved when it was all over as I think by that point we were all feeling slightly dizzy.

We arrived at a lookout to see the sunset and the lighting really was quite impressive the sun looking like a small orange ball in the sky. It gradually sunk lower before disappearing beneath the sand dunes and with that my last sunset of the holiday was over. I’d travelled across 8 countries but my last day was now over. The next time I’d see the sunset would be back home and that would be assuming it wasn’t blocked by cloud.

The desert camp wasn’t really what I expected because it was much busier than I had anticipated but it still looked nice and had a good atmosphere. I started off by having a short camel ride which was really just around a small area of the camp before getting a henna tattoo. This had seemed a good idea at the time but almost immediately before it had tried I knocked it therefore destroying one of the patterns but still causing it to leave a faint mark / stain on my arm.

The dinner was huge but because I had a flight I didn’t want to over indulge to much however I made sure I had enough to keep me going until I had to board the flight. As we ate the main course the hosts provided a belly dancer for some entertainment which was particularly popular with some teenage boys on the table behind. After the belly dancer had finished the lights in the camp were turned off so we could see the stars. I have to admit whilst it was a clear evening it wasn’t as spectacular as what I had seen in New Zealand or Australia but I still enjoyed it as I knew once I was back in London I’d be lucky to see anything at all.

The Journey back was uneventful and The driver kindly took me direct to the airport where I checked back in and waited at the gate trying my best to stay awake.

Friday 28th March
I boarded my last flight of this incredible journey and saw the plane was a Airbus A380 which I knew had been plagued by engine failures in 2010. After taking my seat I found a movie called ‘The Sapphires’ which had been recommended to me by Victoria over a year ago. The movie had been about 20 minutes in when the safety demonstration began and I must have fallen asleep during the latter because when I woke the movie was playing and we were in the air. Almost immediately upon waking up there was an in flight announcement from the Captain. “Some of you may have wondered why we are only 6,000 feet in the air, unfortunately we appear to have developed a minor engine fault”. I hadn’t noticed and this was a somewhat unpleasant surprise.

I had no idea how serious it was but the captain sounded very calm and very professional however I know that if some Australian’s tell you about the danger of sharks, snakes and spiders they’ll always play down the risk. When they tried to fix the fault but ultimately couldn’t identify it he remained calm, almost jolly as he told us ‘hey folks we’ve tried to fix the minor problem but it appears to be a bit more serious than we first thought’. Whilst I remained calm the thought did briefly cross my mind that this may have been Australian code for there is a snake and it has bitten us.

I was in the middle seat and as i couldn’t see anything carried on watching the film. It almost sounds silly in hindsight but I thought if the worst does happen I’d at least want to know how the film ended. I guess the film was a distraction, whilst it was playing I was in a bubble where the reality of the situation couldn’t get to me. I just assumed we would be fine which is probably a bit naive especially as we had to dump fuel in to the sea to lighten our load as we were initially to heavy to return to Dubai. We were also escorted on to the runway by fire trucks but weren’t told to get in the brace position and the captain did try to assure us it was a formality ‘for the situation we were in’. I guess I’ll never know what situation that was.

The landing was smooth but the captain claimed an over enthusiastic fire engine had parked to close to us meaning we couldn’t taxi. I naïvely thought we’d be allowed off the plane fairly quickly. We weren’t. The airport staff wanted us to remain on the plane whilst the engineer assessed the situation. Personally I wasn’t overly keen on staying on the same plane though I knew the engineer with his neck on the line would have only given a go ahead to fly if he was sure. He couldn’t and the flight was officially cancelled. It was now about 3.00am but still we had to wait on the plane.

There was an interesting looking documentary on formula one racing so I decided to start watching that not really expecting to see the end. Gradually people were asked to leave, starting obviously with business and first class. Sadly I was near the back so I was amongst the last group and by then I had seen the whole documentary which was over 1 hour and 45 minutes. I have to admit the organisation was atrocious. I didn’t mind being amongst the last group because I had no dependants but I just couldn’t believe those with children, especially babies hadn’t been given any type of priority. I was also surprised that where people had a connecting flight from London there wasn’t an effort to fly them direct to their final destination.

Once I was off the plane which was after 6.00am I got chatting to a lad from New Zealand who was about to start a new life in London. We had been told we would all be treated as individuals and those at the front of the queue were certainly taking their time. By the time it got to us the approach had changed and no questions were being answered and all they were doing were handing out meal vouchers. I jokingly asked if I would be home by Sunday and I received the response ‘most probably’. Not most definitely, not even most likely. By now it had gone 7.00am so I’d officially been awake for more than 24 hours.

The duty manager kindly let me use her mobile phone as my phone battery had died after I had updated dad but I wanted to speak on the phone to confirm I was ok and to make sure he wasn’t going to Heathrow. I felt hungry but I also felt very tired and just couldn’t bare the thought of going upstairs so I stayed by the desks saving my meal voucher for when it was less busy. After about two hours of waiting someone at the desk told me to take a seat in the lounge and told me that there was a flight from Melbourne and a flight from Sydney both arriving from Heathrow. They still needed final authorisation but the intention was to combine the flights (effectively cancelling one) and for one of the planes to return straight back to the UK.

At 09.35 we finally received confirmation that we would be departing at 15.00 and due to arrive in Heathrow at 18.30, 13 hours late but at least not 24 hours or more which is what I’d feared. After waiting around downstairs a bit more I saw the lad from earlier and together we went up to the business class lounge. Qantas/Emirates had failed to find us a hotel due to everywhere being booked by the time it had got to our section of the plane. We were both tired and needed somewhere to sit down but we didn’t really expect to be let in however it seemed other passengers in our situation had thought of the same idea.

I have to admit I didn’t really explore the lounge as I was to tired. They had free computers with WiFi and a comfortable chair I fell asleep in, that was all that mattered. I woke with a start and noticed it was 12.30 so I’d probably been asleep about an hour if not more. The food option choices available with the voucher weren’t great but I opted for what I will ensure will be my last McDonald’s for a considerable amount of time.

I had two vouchers which entitled me to two drinks and two burgers of any type. I didn’t really want two of each so asked if I could swap 1 burger and coke for a portion of fries instead. Initially I was told no but then the manager agreed and after exchanging what was left of my money I made my way to the gate. There I started chatting to someone from Australia who was about to do the huge 49 day Topdeck tour round Europe. He was a bit nervous as it was his first big trip abroad and I told him everyone would feel the same and that things could only get better after the start he was having.

Soon we also got chatting to a guy from Devon and it gradually became obvious the flight was going to be delayed further and this was eventually blamed on catering issues. We finally boarded at the time we should have departed and once I was seated I put on my next choice of film “The Delivery Man”.

Rather than trying to sleep I was now trying to stay awake as long as possible and watched ‘The Butler’ which I thought was quite thought provoking. Almost as soon as the film ended I crashed out and woke up about 4 hours later because the guy next to me had jabbed me in the side as he wanted to escape. The flight had fortunately been uneventful and once I made it through security I was officially back in London after a fantastic few months.

Unfortunately the drama wasn’t quite over. We’d all had a bad feeling that changing planes would result in lost luggage and whilst my sleeping bag came out almost straight away there was no sign of my backpack. It was a bit concerning because they would have been added together and as the crowd slowly emptied I was one of a handful of people left. The backpack did eventually emerge but the detachable rucksack was no longer attached and didn’t come out.

There was quite a crowd of people from my flight at the lost luggage counter and when I finally got to the front I was redirected to the back of another queue that dealt specifically with damaged baggage. The guy who served me was helpful and filled out a report however it was understandable that he could give no indication as to whether Qantas would accept responsibility.

I finally made my way through customs and saw dad and Jenny waiting for me. It was nice to see some friendly faces after the journey back I had endured. It all felt a bit surreal especially as I’d only seen the the week before but my journey was now over.

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Posted by Travels and Rambles in Asia, United Arab Emirates, 0 comments

Drops of Jupiter: Thailand

Monday 24th March
During the flight I watched four films because there were a few I had missed at the cinema that I had wanted to see. I started off with ‘Captain Phillips’ followed by Philomena. Both of these had required my full attention and were quite moving so I needed something to lighten my mood and therefore opted for ‘The Interns’. With time still available I managed to squeeze in ‘Rush’ though I made a note to watch the accompanying documentary on my next Qantas flight. I did however watch a few classic Mr Bean episodes and a documentary about ‘The Ashes’ which was effectively a Aussie gloat fest at how embarrassing English cricket has been in all years except 2005, 2009 and 2010.

I arrived at Bangkok and whilst I did have directions on how to get to my hotel the city suddenly seemed very big when I was told the bus I had been told to get no longer ran. I was determined not to get a taxi because I knew mentally I couldn’t face the battle of trying to find one that wouldn’t try to con me and I knew that unlike the good old cabbies of London they didn’t have to sit an equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’. Thankfully I got on the free internet and worked out that the train journey from the airport was simple and it would only cost about £1.

The train was modern but busy though no where near as bad as in Russia and I was able to position myself by the door. I could the see the CBD in the distance and it all looked very modern but the outskirts of the city looked very traditional and seemed to still be surrounded by tropical forest. I guess whilst this looked unusual to me it would be no different to passing through a London suburb such as Richmond that still maintains a ‘traditional English Countryside’ feel.

Once at my station I had a short walk to the hotel and whilst the pavements were either non existent or blocked by food stools I finally made it inside. Compared to some of the places I had stayed it was luxury and to be honest none of the criticisms I’d read seemed justfied for the price but I guess some people had a much higher expectation than me. With free breakfast and WiFi I was in paradise.

After sorting out my things (dumping them on the floor) I went back out in search of some traditional Thai street food. I went to where I thought the stools were but I couldn’t see any and as the road appeared from a distance to be a dead end and had a unsavoury smell I returned back to the main street. I looked at the menus of various restaurants and tired and hungry eventually settled for the one outside my hotel purely because it was close. I ordered a Chicken Pad Thai which was very nice but cost slightly more than I expected though still a lot less than what I’d have paid in London.

I returned to my room and flopped down on my bed. I decided I’d figure out how best to spend my time the next morning.

Tuesday 25th March
I woke up and because my knowledge of Bangkok and Thailand was pretty non existent except for the fact I knew one of the ex Prime Ministers was the owner of Birmingham City FC  and In prison. I knew this had resulted in political turmoil but when it came to tourist attractions all I knew about was to get a Thai massage and toi try some Thai street food.

It turned out there were some lovely Buddhist temples in the city so I decided I would see a selection of them and the Grand Palace. It looked an easy journey on the bus so I went down to fill up on breakfast in the hope it would last to dinner. The selection was as good as that I’d had in India and I was able to have 4 different courses including Indian, traditional English, fruit and pancakes.

I started by booking myself a 1 hour massage for that evening at the spa recommended by the hotel and where I got a discount. My right knee ligament has been aching if I have to cross it since January though I am unsure exactly what caused it and I hoped the massage would cure the issue. I also thought it would be a nice way to relax after what I hoped would be a busy day exploring the city.

I waited at the bus stop and the traffic wasn’t moving at all and there was no sign of the bus. Taxi drivers kept trying to gesture towards me but I stayed strong ignoring them. I’d read a few of the taxi tips that morning and the final quote had said “Don’t worry, for every bad taxi driver there are two good”. Those odds as far as I am concerned are shit and whilst I felt familiar with all the tricks they would try and pull I had no intention of needing to do so.

I realised after a while that it was becoming a bit pointless waiting for the bus because there was a lot I wanted to see. I therefore flagged down a taxi. The driver seemed genuine enough and I made it clear I wanted to go to the ‘Grand Palace’. Unfortunately after about 5 minutes we still hasn’t moved that far. He then told me the Grand Palace was closed and asked if I wanted to go to the ‘Floating Market’. I explained near the Grand Palace was fine and that I wasn’t interested in shopping. He then became persistent and told me that protests had closed the Grand Palace. I had no interest in going to the floating market as being taken there by a taxi driver was one of the cons I’d read about. However at the same time I knew that even if the Grand Palace was open, traffic caused by the protests meant I wouldn’t get there, and I didn’t really fancy being out on the streets in those circumstances anyway. I therefore paid the equivalent of about £1 and walked back to the hotel.

My new plan was what I had originally intended to do in Bangkok, exercise and rest & relaxation. I’d been carrying my gym kit around for nearly 5 months and I finally used it by going on the running machine for 20 minutes. My fitness wasn’t quite as bad as I feared but the machine was old and kept stopping for no reason which is why I didn’t run for longer. I did some weights before going outside and doing a few lengths in the swimming pool. I felt quite pleased with myself and was glad I had at least done something with my day.

I arrived at the Spa in good time and thankfully it looked as fancy and non seedy as I had hoped. Kirsten had told me Thai massages were painful and even though the lady was short she pressed very hard and seemed to know exactly where my body was showing signs of wear and tear. At one point it felt like she was walking across my back, though as my head was buried in a pillow I guess I’ll never know if she was. The conversation tended to be “pain?”, “hmmm no” (even when I once broke my arm I didn’t admit how much it was hurting), “ahh need little pain” followed by some action which resulted in the pain level rising a notch and me yelping.

My body was clicking and whilst I haven’t been a careless owner it was clear I probably haven’t looked after my body as much as I should. Body I promise vegetables and exercise will be the norm once we’re home. In case anyone is thinking it, there was no seedy side and no happy ending once my hour was up. I wish I could say I felt like a new person but I think I need more than a quick fix. I went downstairs, drank some tea and even though I hadn’t had lunch or dinner I returned back to the hotel as I didn’t feel particularly hungry.

Back at the hotel I stayed up later than I should have done considering I had such an early start the next morning. I was trying to use the free WiFi to upload as many pictures to Dropbox from my tablet so i could create space to transfer more pictures from my camera. Time seemed to go by much quicker than I had hoped and I hadn’t achieved everything I’d wanted to and wondered exactly where the day had gone.

Wednesday 26th March
I woke up early so that I could get breakfast before the tour to the Khao Yai National Park however I decided not to eat as much as the day before because I was feeling quite tired due to the lack of sleep. I was probably running off adrenaline because I was looking forward to finally seeing some of Thailand and at being able to travel on an elephant. It was nice being fussed over as the reception staff sought to ensure my needs were met and even said they would let me know when the pickup arrived. I was particularly grateful for this because I was a bit paranoid that there would be a problem with the hotel pickup.

After collecting me the driver said we were picking up two others and we’d therefore have a pretty much private tour. He didn’t seem to know where the other hotel was and had to keep asking for directions but eventually we found it. I’m terrible at guessing accents and I put my foot in it when I asked where in Canada the couple were from only for them to say they were from the States.

Our guide provided us with quite a bit of information about the history of Thailand and his thoughts about the political instability gripping the country as a result of corruption. There were also some more quirky facts for example ‘The Beach’ was filmed at the national park we were going to. He also provided some advice on how to navigate our way through Bangkok and the taxi scams he warned the others about sounded like my own experience. He also gave some other day trio ideas and I personally hadn’t realised the Bridge over the River Kwai was in Thailand.

Our first stop on our way to the national park was at Nakorn Nayok a province around 100km from Bangkok and which our guide suggested would be better suited as capital. We started off by looking round the market and tried some fruit. The first was called Rambutan and looked like a giant grape but tasted like a melon. The second tasted like Mango and may well have been but our guide said it was a fruit that you could only get in Thailand. The other fruit was unidentified though may have been a tamarind however it looked very strange as it came in what looked like a giant pea pod and unlike the others it wasn’t very juicy.

Whilst I had been feeling tired the walk through the market woke all my senses up and the smell of the live/fresh meant (including a pigs head) meant I tried to only breath through my mouth as I’d done on shark cage dive. We saw live eels, frogs and turtles all of which were food as well as dead birds however we were told the live birds weren’t yet for food and were for people to release as part of a celebration e.g birthday. We also saw lots of different eggs including some that were pink which had been treated in a way that means they can last a long time however personally I wasn’t keen to find out if that was true.

We left the provide and as we passed a number of locally built temples our guide explained they were built by families who were seen as doing a good deed because they could be used by the public. Soon we arrived at a rice farm in Baankwan which was owned by the tour company we were with. After being shown around a traditional house and wondering over to see the Ostrich we got on to a cart so that a cow could transport us around the fields.

It was very bumpy and obviously the old wooden cart didn’t have any suspension and I half expected it to fall apart at any moment. It did however carry on going and we just about managed to stay in. The ride was meant to give us an idea about the traditional rural way of life and whilst it was a nice setting without our guide we didn’t know the significance of what we were looking at. We were all wearing traditional hats and after the ride was over we got an opportunity to sit at the front to look as though we had been controlling the cows direction.

We then watched our dinner get cooked and at one stage there was a very impressive burst of fire in the frying pan. Lunch included a shrimp Soup, fried chicken and stir fried vegetables. What I tried was tasty but there was to much and the other two had suffered recent food poisoning so didn’t eat to much.

We arrived at the Khao Yai National Park and started a short walk to the Heaw Narok waterfall. The National Park is listed by Unesco so people are no longer allowed to hunt and as a result there are a number of different species of animals including 250 elephants. We didn’t see any on the walk but we did see evidence that they had been in the area and also a big fence to protect the elephants from getting close and falling in to river. This was built in response to an accident in 1992 when a baby elephant fell in to a chasm and as the adult elephants tried to help they also fell in. In total 7 elephant calves died.

We finally reached the end of the walk and then had to climb down around 190 steep steps to see the waterfall from a lookout. It had been dry so there was actually no water but it still looked quite spectacular. On our way back up the steps we saw a lizard and just before we reached the car park we saw two monkeys, a baby and an adult. Our guide was quite optimistic we’d see more later in the day so we carried on walking.

We drove theough the national park and I drifted off to sleep and woke up to a brief thunderstorm and very heavy rain. It stopped for a while and saw some deer but then came down with even more fury which meant we didn’t stop to see the monkeys. Fortunately by the time we arrived at Pak Chong it had stopped raining and even though we hadn’t seen the monkeys up close at least we had seen them on the walk.

The elephant ride had been my main reason for booking the tour and was great fun. I started off sitting in a special seat which even had a seat belt but eventually my ‘guide’ got down and I sat on the actual elephant. It felt a bit unstable and I was surprised at how hairy it was but it kept plodding along occasionally it’s warm ears flapping against my legs. It was a bit naughty though as one point it got hungry, stopped and started to use its trunk to snap tree branches. The highlight was crossing a small creek which was surprisingly deep after after the ride we got to feed them some bananas.

On the way back our guide was giving us some tips on how we could spend the next day and he was going to take us on a tour of some of the temples as it sounded easier than doing it ourselves after the previous problems I’d had. I thought I still had another day as I still had one final night in the hotel but I just happened to glance the date on the counter and all of a sudden it struck me my flight was in a few hours time and I didn’t have an extra day.

I would have liked to have had time to nap as I’d already had very little continuous sleep and I knew I had to stay up 17 hours in Dubai. For the first time I was looking forward to being home but only because I would be sleeping in a bed again. After uploading some more pictures to dropbox and transferring the days pictures to my tablet I finished packing. I had booked the hotel taxi to the airport so arrived at the airport in good time.

The check in desk was very busy but eventually it was my turn and as I watched my luggage being labeled I had an uneasy feeling that something would happen to it though couldn’t explain why. I made my way to the gate and as I tried to stay awake I ended up talking to the girl next to me who it turned out had also been travelling around numerous countries and was on the way home. This was my first flight with Emirates and it was a nice touch they had left a wash bag on my seat however I was so tired I was probably asleep before the safety demonstration video had ended.

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Posted by Travels and Rambles in Asia, Thailand, 0 comments

End of the Line: Flinders Ranges

Friday 21st March
I woke up feeling slightly melancholy because I knew that my tour to the Flinders Ranges was my last activity before leaving Australia and I wasn’t sure, when, or if I’d ever be back. It was a tour I’d booked late partly because my trip to the Nullarbor hadn’t gone via the southern section due to bush fires and because my trip from Alice Springs to Adelaide hadn’t taken us off the Stuart Highway. I was therefore also excited because I was looking forward to visiting the outback one final time and to have at least one more night to sleep under the stars in a swag.

The other passengers on the tour were slightly older than me but I think I’ve always been able to have a conversation with anybody and age doesn’t really mean anything to me. Ultimately we were all there for the same reasons. To discover “real” Australia. Besides I’d been one of, if not the oldest on my previous tours so it was lovely to be considered so young for a change.

Our guide Mark kept talking to a minimum letting us rest for the first section of the journey as it had been an early start. Whilst I didn’t sleep the sentiment was appreciated. The lady sat in front of me said she was a tour guide undertaking research and although Mark was having a conversation with Martin the passenger in the front seat the passenger in question kept asking for information to be repeated. Eventually I told her to relax in my belief that if Mark felt something needed to be shared we’d all be told especially as we’d be driving over 1000km in 3 days so had plenty of time to ask questions.

During our first stop it was unfortunately clear I wasn’t the only one that had felt mildly irritated and in fact one person was quite honest about the fact she’d crossed a line in her behaviour. After leaving the first stop we passed some wind farms and in the township of Snow Town there was a propeller blade from one of the turbines which made me appreciate just how big they are. It was a very cloudy and windy day so when we passed the Southern Flinders and saw evidence of the January Bush Fires it was difficult for me to remember just how hot it had been when I’d passed by the area in late January when apparently the fire had been burning for 18 days.

Mark started providing us with some information explaining the Flinders Ranges are made up of a series of mountain ranges not just one. Most of the information however was about the surrounding the vegetation we were passing. As we were passing fairly close to the Spencer Gulf there were a lot of bushes called Mangroves which is evidence of a good water eco system. We also passed Mallee scrub and Acacia’s which we were told grew better in the region. I also finally got to see the famous Ghan train which was heading in the opposite direction as well as a wedge tail eagle, possibly even two.

We had another stop at Port Germain where I walked to the jetty but didn’t walk to the end it because despite it being shorter than it once was it is still over 1.5km in each direction. There was also a lighthouse just before the jetty and it appeared that restoration work was taking place to smarten it up though it is no longer used or in its original location. Before Port Germain we had passed Port Pirie which had a smelter that is currently out of action because the lead levels in the town were to high. In the UK the older generation often bemoan the lack of heavy industry but I think we should consider ourselves lucky we don’t suffer the ill effects especially as I still remember when the chemical factory in Berkhamsted caught fire. Let’s also not forget the Buncefield explosion which would have been catastrophic if it had happened on a Monday and not the middle of a Sunday night.

We stopped at Mount Remarkable National Park for lunch before going on a short walk in the area around Mambray Creek. There were two main types of trees in the area. The first were the only pines native to Australia called Callitris or cypress-pine which are apparently resistant to termites so the wood was used for the original telegraph poles. The other type was the Red gum (a eucalyptus tree) that was also useful to the early settlers this time for railway sleepers. Aboriginals used to make a small hole to ‘burnt out’ the inside of the tree to get rid of insects and this then made it possible to store food or even to use as shelter.

Whilst it was a short walk, it was still a good introduction to the Flinders Ranges and whilst we saw lots of emus and a kangaroo we didn’t see any of the Euros, another name for the walleroo. The views down towards alligator gorge in one direction and the Spencer Gulf in the other were nice. We also saw a slag heap from the copper mine workings and we later passed a mine shaft.

We departed the national park and headed for Quorn. I had heard of this town before the trip because it was one of the stations on the Pichi Richi Railway which runs along part of the old Ghan railway route. It looked quite a spectacular journey through the lower Flinders Range as it passed through tunnels and over dry stone walls. We also passed the Devils Peak as well as Mount Brown which was named after Robert Brown the naturalist on Matthew Flinders boat HMS Investigator. We briefly stopped in Quorn and whilst I would have liked to have had a quick look around the exhibition at the station I didn’t think there was time. Instead I headed with the group from Netherlands to the bottle shop (off licence)

Our final stop of the day was Kanyak Homestead a cattle station which had been built by Hugh Proby in 1852 but was eventually abandoned after severe droughts. It was quite eerie to look at and to think that at one time early settlers had tried to make a livelihood in such a remote location. There was a big ants nest so when we were taking pictures we had to be careful where to stand. There was also a creek bed near the homestead but there wasn’t any water flowing.

We arrived at Rawnsley Park and Mark cooked us a BBQ and I cheekily asked if it was going to be my last in Australia and he said he’d cook another one for lunch on the final day of the tour. It was a really good BBQ as well, and despite eating my fair share we still had a number of sausages left over to have cold the next day. I helped with the washing up and left my cider to one side, turning round a few minutes later to discover that unfortunately it had been mistaken for someone else’s. In their defence we had been sitting next to each other and whilst the flavours were different they were by the same company.

Some of the group weren’t camping like me and the family from the Netherlands so they departed and I opened a 3rd bottle of cider before having a shower and eventually setting up my Swag. Martin and Casey decided to join me outside but they didn’t have a swag so pulled their foldable beds out of the tent. The night sky was as stunning as I hoped and I tried to take some photographs but my mini tripod was too loose to support the camera and it was too dark to work out what was wrong.

Saturday 22nd March
We didn’t have to go to breakfast until 06.30 and because I was packed and only had to leave the swag in the tent rather than rolling it up I had set my alarm for 6am. Unfortunately one of the others had set theirs for earlier and because I was outside I couldn’t escape the noise or activity. I therefore decided to get up as well though it did mean I was able to have a shower before I made my way to breakfast and had what would be my last Vegemite on toast in Australia.

We got on the mini bus and made our way to our first stop Wilpeana pound, arguably the most famous feature of the Flinders Ranges. We were able to drive in to the national park and started a short walk to Hill’s Homestead. We saw a few trees that had fallen down and saw evidence of branches that were effectively forming new trees from those that had fallen as they grew to try and get more light. As it was early in the morning I had hoped to see a kangaroo or a Euro but we didn’t see anything. It was also much colder than I had expected.

We arrived at the Hills Homestead and there was a moving story about the early inhabitants and their struggle to survive in such an isolated landscape. There was a walk to a lookout overlooking the Homestead I thought we were going to do but we didn’t and instead returned back to the mini bus. We took a different route back in the belief it would be warmer and to see a different path. I had been told the day before that the only real way to appreciate Wilpeana Pound was from the air and as we didn’t have time to climb the main lookout I think this is probably fair because walking at ground level you couldn’t get a sense of how impressive and extensive it actually is.

Once we returned to the mini bus we had quite a long bus journey to just outside of the national park to see some Aboriginal rock engravings at ‘Sacred Canyon’. The date of these are unknown but the local clan believe they were left during the dreamtime Stories so it is fair to say they are very very old. The walk there was through a dry creek bed and whilst it was flat there were a few big boulders towards the end but all the group managed to make it through some with a bit of support from Mark.

The engravings were on a rock face in a really lovely secluded location and as the symbols were similar to the cave paintings I had seen I instinctively recognised the pattern for kangaroos, emus and water. There was also some ‘modern’ graffiti dating back to the 1800s though I wasn’t sure what the initials stood for.  It was amazing the engravings had survived so long because if the rivers water levels rise enough there is a risk the symbols can be hidden under water.

The drive to the Aroona Valley was very picturesque and took us through the Bunyeroo Valley where we saw a number of Euros sitting under the trees. From the Aroona Valley lookout there was a nice view towards the Heysen Range named after the Australian painter Sir Hans Heysen. There is also a walking trail named after Heysen. The walk stretches 1200km (750 miles) from Cape Jervis (where I caught the boat to Kangaroo Island) on the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges. We had lunch and then did a short walk where we saw an under water spring. When we were at the top of the lookout we heard what sounded like a fire engine and we realised one of the fire trucks had arrived to fill up their tank. Mark had to quickly move the mini bus as we were blocking the fire hose but it didn’t cause any problems as there weren’t actually any fires in the national park.

As we drove through Brachina Gorge Mark said he had a surprise for us and we made our way to the bottom of a much larger slag heap than the day before. There were quite a lot of people looking at what only appeared to be rubble and hope built up inside me that it was a spot that is popular with the rare Yellow footed wallabies which now only live in the Flinders Ranges. It didn’t take Mark long to spot one under a tree. When it stood up and still it was nearly impossible to distinguish it due to its colour but occasionally it shook its head.

We walked along the road a bit more and soon realised there was another one by a big rock. This one was slightly more active and was eating food off one of the branches From a nearby bush/small tree. I’d seen a lot of wallabies and kangaroos but this was a particularly special type because it had a lovely black and yellow ringed tail. The fur was one of the main reasons that this type of wallaby had been hunted by the early settlers and as a result it had nearly become extinct. I had hoped at best to glimpse one from a distance from the bus so it was a highlight of the trip that we got to see them so close. I knew we were lucky that it had been a relatively cool day which had encouraged them out rather than them seeking shelter under the rocks.

We continued our drive through Brachina Gorge, which is known as the ‘Corridors through Time’ to see the gradual evolution of the rocks in the area. This included the Wonoka Formation a limestone and siltstone formation which is 570/580 million years old. We also saw some rocks that had the oldest fossil evidence of animal life known as Ediacara fauna. Having seen the stromatolites on the West Coast it was interesting to now see the fossils of the first animals.

On our way back to the campsite we drove along the Moralana Scenic track. Whilst the scenery was still stunning it had been a tiring day due to all the fantastic things we’d seen we all started to doze off. We did however stop off at two more lookouts. The first was of the southwestern wall of Wilpena Pound which looked particularly impressive framed in between two trees. The second was of the Hills of Arkaba which were a favourite of Sir Hans Heysen when he was painting.

We returned back to the Rawnsley Park and this time Martin, Casey and I made sure we were in a good viewpoint for the sunset. There wasn’t any cloud and it didn’t quite look as good as the day before but it was still a nice way to end a memorable day. There was a wall in the kitchen providing cooking recipes which included “Spaghetti on Toast”. This included useful instructions such as ‘open the can’. I enjoyed the rest of my ciders this time keeping a careful watch over them to ensure they didn’t go missing.

Before going to bed I set my camera up as I was determined to get a picture of the Southern Cross. Eventually I was satisfied I couldn’t do any I rolled out my swag for the final time and fell asleep with a million stars above me.

Sunday 23rd March
I woke up feeling a lot warmer than the night before and feeling quite refreshed and after sorting everything out including rolling the swag as tightly as possible I made my way down to breakfast. I arrived just as the bus arrived and helped carry some of the boxes for breakfast in. Throughout all my other tours breakfast for me has been a slice of toast with Vegemite and a slice of toast with jam. Sometimes I add a bit of excitement by having cornflakes as well. Today however Mark surprised us by doing a cooked breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs.

Feeling quite full we set off on our long journey back to Adelaide where we passed through Hawker and briefly stopped off in Melrose the oldest settlement in Flinders 1853. I hadn’t planned on getting off the mini bus to get a tea or coffee but the group from Canada came back with some home made ice cream. It wasn’t that warm outside but I suddenly realised it would be my last opportunity to have some in Australia so quickly kept out of the bus. The guy that served me had what only can be described as a Justin Bieber haircut not that I can judge, my hairs not been cut since I was in New Zealand and it now looks like an unshaped scruffy mop.

We were slightly ahead of schedule so Mark made a decision to carry on to Wirrabara where we set up lunch in Wongabirrie Park. Mark then lived up to his promise of cooking a BBQ and this time I knew it really would not only be my last ‘down under’ but due to the British weather my last for a while.

We carried on and despite wanting to stay awake to take in the view of nothingness for the last time however unsurprisingly I was eventually overcome by sleep. Eventually I woke up as Mark started to provide some information about the Clare Valley and eventually we pulled in to Taylors Estate (Wakefield in UK) for a few samples at their cellar door. The first white I tried was a Chardonnay from their Jaraman range which was a fusion of 2 regions. Then I tried a sparkling pinot noir Chardonnay brut cuvee which I preferred but at the price of the bottle I’d have been surprised if it had been disappointing. I may have tried others but they had no dessert wines or sweet late harvest wines and as no one else appeared to be sampling I rounded off with the Tawny Port.

We arrived back in Adelaide and I discovered I was in the same room as before. I hadn’t previously mentioned it but one of the beds had towels all the way around so they had complete privacy and it was above this bed that I now had to spend my final night. I was somewhat startled when as I was packing my bags for the last time someone emerged from behind the curtains as for some reason I had assumed no one was there.

My flight was at around 06.00am and although normally for an international flight check in is 3 hours before, this wasn’t possible because I was told that the airport wouldn’t be open until 04.00am. I therefore set my alarm for 03.00am with the intention of phoning for a taxi around 03.30am.

Monday 24th March
The alarm went off and it sounded particularly cruel. I tried to silently climb down the ladder but anyone that has stayed in a top bunk in a hostel knows this is near impossible and it squeaked loudly at every step. I made my way to the reception and as I waited for the taxi I think there was a small group that were just getting back from a night out.

I got to the airport and even though it had gone 04.00am it appeared it was still locked even though the lights were on and I could see staff. I wasn’t the only person waiting and when they finally did open the doors and then the desks it was clear that like me those serving wanted to be in bed. The lady serving me was particularly miserable and my luggage, despite being within the weight limits was deemed by her to be oversized because I’d attached my sleeping bag. I’ve done this for near enough all my flights so it seemed odd that during the final part of my journey it would suddenly be an issue. Anyway I did as I was told and took it to the oversized baggage desk. As I approached the guy asked why I’d had to come over and when I explained he laughed in that classic Australian way and told me she was being over zealous.

It wasn’t a great start and things got worse when the flight was delayed by 15 minutes due to ‘issues’ at Sydney Control Tower and it doesn’t bode well when the very first flight of the day is delayed. Then it started raining as we were leaving which meant we bounced around dramatically as we lifted off. Turbulence is never a particularly nice sensation but even worse when there is no screen in front to look at in order to create a distraction. Instead I had to make do with the in flight magazine which had a number of articles on different holiday destinations including Antarctica but it then failed to say who the tour operators were. Not that I can or should even consider a holiday for sometime after how fortunate I’ve been to experience what I have over the past 5 months.

The view of the sunrise was spectacular but soon the ground below us was hidden by cloud. We were near Sydney. The air traffic team still had issues so we ended up circling for a further 15 minutes making us over 30 minutes late by the time we landed. Not only that I realised I had to transfer from terminal 3 to terminal 1 and it took longer than expected.

When i reached the terminal required the last call for boarding was already going out for my flight and I had to clear security again.
Three ladies were serving at the Qantas desk but when it got to me they seemed to vanish. Eventually I lost my cool and called out to one of them that was just standing around looking gormless that my flight was leaving in 20 minutes and I was going to miss it because my qantas flight from Adelaide had been late. She suddenly looked a bit faint and came trotting over and gave me a priority boarding card. It allowed me to take a short cut up a hidden passageway but didn’t seem to help with security. I ran through the duty free where I had hoped to buy myself some Bundaberg rum to take home and as I ran I heard someone say anyone for the Bangkok flight. Luckily I had my name ticked off the list and this meant they effectively held the plane for me until I arrived at the gate.

We still departed on time but as we were taxying on the runway 6 planes somehow got in ahead so we were late leaving. I was desperate for the toilet as I hadn’t been since 3am and it was now gone 10.00am so as soon as we were airborne and the seatbelt sign went off I jumped up. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered there was already a queue. I had for some reason expected a routine departure where I should have had time in Sydney to buy souvenirs. Unfortunately it wasn’t at all the way I’d wanted to say goodbye to Australia.

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