Australia: Living in the Bush

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It’s not a bad start to the day. This is what I’ve been waking up to every morning, along with the sound of barking owls, blue-winged kookaburras, and brown honeyeaters. It’s very noisy. The dawn chorus seems so much louder out here. I’ve also watched a wallaby scampering around whilst I’ve brushed my teeth. This is life in the Northern Territory. The nearest town is Batchelor, some 15km away. The nearest city is Darwin, which is about 130km away. It’s the dry season and most days have been about 34c.

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It means that forest fires are common. I took this photo from the house. It was about 2km away and lasted well into the night. Even from that distance, the smell lingered for hours. The farmer here has a fire truck. He told me I only had to worry if I could hear the ‘crackling’ sound. Alright then.

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It looks like a graveyard, but these are magnetic termite mounds at Litchfield National Park. Some of them are about 3m high. They’re built with the broad areas facing east and west – the termites’ clever method of climate control.

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This has been my favourite spot for cooling off – Wangi Falls. I took a daft photo for a friend who warned me about the crocodiles here. I pretended one was in the water. Ten minutes later, there was a very wide wake near the rocks – wide enough to make the swimmers stop and come closer to the steps. I’m trying not to think about it.

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Here in the Territory, they have tropical fruits that I’d never even heard of. This is a star apple. It’s soft, quite creamy and sweet. The seed parts are a bit like lychees. I also love soursops. They’re prickly on the outside and their stringy white flesh on the inside looks a bit like chicken. They taste like a tropical fruit drink mixed with bubble gum. Delicious.

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The only thing that can put me off a slice of watermelon is one of these. Huntsman spiders will give you a nasty bite.

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So will a bat apparently. Here’s another one of my favourite headlines from the local newspaper:

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A special moment after a browse around Mindil Beach Market in Darwin:

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Hundreds of people sit on the sand to watch the sun go down and there’s often a round of applause! The Territory’s a world away from the cities down south. It’s been a memorable month. Next stop – Bali.

Australia: WWOOFing Again

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It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. This is Thompson’s Farm at Batchelor in Australia’s Northern Territory. The last time I was WWOOFing, I was picking buds off vines. This time, I’ve been picking watermelons off vines. They’re slightly heavier. 12kg heavier in fact.

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The trick is to look for one that’s already caught the sun. There should be signs of a yellow patch on the skin. You then give it a tap. If it makes a noise like a ‘ping’ or a ‘bounce’, it’s good to go. If it’s dense, it’s overripe. If it’s hollow, you have to turn it around for a closer look because something else has obviously got there first. Watermelons are a delicious feast for white ants, cockatoos and wild pigs. I’ve had to chase off wallabies who love the shoots.

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You can understand why these ‘sugar babies’, (as they’re affectionally known) are so popular. There’s nothing better than sitting on the back of a truck after a hard morning’s work and eating a slice of sweet, juicy melon warmed by the sun. We’ve called it ‘testing’ although that doesn’t really make sense, because the rest of it can’t be used. Do you see the cunning nature of our work?

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We’ve also been picking bananas. They’re covered in plastic to keep the moisture in and the moths, rats and spiders out. The first step is to feel for a full fruit. Then, if you open it up and it looks like some of the bananas are turning yellow, it’s time to cut off the bunch.

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You leave a few inches on the stem so that there’s enough room to hang them and get the bananas fully ripe.

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Once the fruit is picked, it’s time to cut down the entire tree. This is because one tree can only produce one bunch. It’s surprisingly easy – the trunk is fibrous and mushy. You just have to get out of the way when it falls.

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Laying down irrigation lines is dirty, dusty work on a hot and windy day – and it has been hot, with an average of 34c. I love the rich red colour of the soil but up until three years ago, some of this couldn’t be used. Years of chemicals had taken their toll. That’s why the Thompsons started using organic farming methods instead. They now use soil enhancers like gypsum, agralime and chicken manure. The main pesticide is neem oil. They also use potassium silicate, which feels like small shards of glass. The results are good. The watermelons can now grow up to 12 or 15 kilos. Five years ago, they only reached 8. The yield from courgettes has tripled.

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They’re a favourite with the cows here. Any bad fruit or vegetables that we’ve picked has gone straight to them. They’re the happiest beasts you’ll ever meet.

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The farm shop has been another satisfying part of the volunteering – proudly displaying the produce you’ve carefully planted, picked or packed. Customers talk about how much better they taste than the fruit and vegetables they buy in the supermarket.

The farm manager and his wife are expecting their first baby in November. He wants the soil to last long enough for his own children to grow vegetables here. That’s why the organic way works for them.

Australia: Catching up with the Expats

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They look like a group of ants on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was one of them – 134 metres up in 37 kmph winds. There’s a good view up there but peering down at the traffic below your feet is an unusual feeling. The climb was a gift from one of my relatives in Richmond, NSW. I hadn’t seen him since I was three years old. That’s the problem with Australia – it lures people away. In his case, he left Britain after reaching retirement age in the RAF. The former Spitfire pilot wasn’t ready to give up flying just yet, so he decided to join the RAAF where he could take to the skies for a few more years. Of course, not everybody’s family came here by choice. I heard a story about a woman called Mary Reibey from Lancashire. In the late 1770s, she disguised herself as a boy to try and get on in life and was arrested for stealing a horse. Apparently, that was enough to be sent to Australia on a convict ship. She married a junior officer from the Britannia and as the years went by, they made a fortune in property and cargo. After her husband passed away, she took charge of everything and even set up the Bank of New South Wales in her own home. Mary Reibey’s now on the back of the $20 note.

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Not bad for a horse thief from Bury.

I learned something else during my first week in Australia – kangaroos are huge. I spotted my first one hiding in the woods:

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He was scratching his bottom against a tree. It wasn’t the scenic first encounter I was hoping for.

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Look closely at this door. It’s down a side street in Melbourne. It looks like the exit from a restaurant kitchen but it’s actually the entrance to a swanky bar. Experiencing Melbourne nightlife is a bit like being Alice in Wonderland. You can go through random doors and walk up several flights of stairs before finding a rooftop terrace with fantastic views or exotic bars with eccentric themes. The friends who showed me around this city also left Britain for Australia. No horse stealing, just looking for a new way of life.

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When I arrived in Queensland some very trusting friends let me drive on the beach at Cooloola. It felt amazing touching the waterline and not being entirely successful in missing the bumps (I helped clean the car afterwards). Miles later we reached the cliffs. We climbed to the top and I heard a loud exhaling sound:

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It was the first time I’d ever seen a whale playing in the ocean. A pod of dolphins then arrived wanting a piece of the action and it let out a moan. It was magical.

We then took a walk around Noosa National Park. It’s amazing what you can find when you look hard enough:

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And it’s amazing what you can discover when you’re hungry enough. Think of all the dockland areas you know that need to be redeveloped and then take a look at this:

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This is Eat Street Markets in Brisbane where rows and rows of ship containers have been transformed into mini restaurants and the pallets and reels have been turned into tables and chairs. Here, a forkful of food can transport you to France, Singapore or Mexico and you can listen to live music under the stars.

My next stop was the Great Barrier Reef.

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This was a very nosy Maori Wrasse at Miln Reef. It was a privilege to meet him and hundreds of others after turning up uninvited:

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It’s breathtaking but it needs to be protected. The latest threat is from a huge mining development. Read this: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/great-barrier-reef

Cairns was my final stop before heading up to the Northern Territory for a month. It was time for more WWOOFing – this time, in the Australian bush.

Beautiful, Hospitable, Unpredictable New Zealand

Sunday 15th June 2014 – that day was stolen from my life somewhere over the Pacific. So once I arrived in New Zealand, I thought I’d better make up for it.

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A few seconds of sinus pain were followed by a few seconds of serenity. Then came a few seconds of bewilderment – on the river below my head, staff were shouting up at me and telling me to grab hold of a pole, (apparently it helps them pull you to safety). Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown is the site of the first commercial bungy jump in the world. It marked the end of a three week trip where I’d met some of the most hospitable people in the world and seen some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world.

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It all started on the North Island. I battled the jetlag by taking a long walk around Auckland. I started at the Wynyard Quarter, strolled around the fish market and went up to Victoria Park Market for a coffee. After my second, I climbed up Franklin Road and into Ponsonby. There were dozens and dozens of coffee shops, (can you see a pattern emerging in this part of the world?) boutiques and beautiful wooden villas. The best views were from Mount Eden (above) which is the highest volcano in the city. There are beaches too. The next day, I took a bus down to Mission Bay and looked out towards Rangitoto Island. Auckland Art Gallery is also worth a visit, just for Lindauer’s and Goldie’s Maori portraits alone.

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Have you ever seen anything like this before? It’s the Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu. The geothermal landscape around Rotorua is so unusual. Almost everywhere you look there are plumes of steam coming out of the ground and when you get closer, you can actually hear bubbling and belching as the air escapes from the hot mud. The hydrogen sulphide makes it smelly too – sadly for Rotorua, it’s a bit like rotten egg. On a Thursday night though, all that changes when you’re seduced by the aroma of hot pies, paella, crepes and cakes. All the local traders hold a market on Tutanekai Street.

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It’s where I tried my first cronut – a cross between a croissant and a doughnut. Delicious.

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As I was on the North Island, it only felt right that I should go to the final test match between the All Blacks and England. So, I went back to Hamilton and endured the hardest eighty minutes of my life – a minority England supporter drowning in a sea of black. Despite the outcome, seeing the home side in action was a privilege. (Besides, there’s always the World Cup …)

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It was time for more coffee and Wellington was the city that converted me to flat whites – microfoam poured over a double shot. Cuba Street was the best café spot for this taste of Kiwi culture. To learn more about Maori history, I spent twenty minutes inside a vault. I went to Archives New Zealand and scanned the faint signatures on what remains of the Waitangi Treaty. There was water by the door, so that people who believe in tapu could sprinkle themselves and leave the spirits of their ancestors behind. I was the only one inside that room and in those few minutes I felt closer to Maori history than I did after three hours at the Te Papa Museum (as brilliant as it is). I then carried on down to Parliament House and dipped into PMQs. The Speaker threatened to throw out one of the MPs. It seems that wherever you are in the world, it can always be a source of entertainment.

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This was a sight I wasn’t used to. Those lovely leafy vines in sunny California suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was winter here in Marlborough, but luckily the cellar doors were still open. I tasted some of the best Sauvignon Blancs of my life at Cloudy Bay and at the organic Rockferry winery. But it’s not all about the grape. It’s also worth stopping off at the Makana chocolate factory (the macadamia nut brittle is delicious) and the Moa Brewery, just for something different (who knew that warm, spicy beer could actually taste quite nice?)

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It’s been three years since Christchurch’s fatal earthquake. I was surprised to see the odd squatter hanging out in the remains of an old business block or bar which are still waiting to be saved or scrapped. It made me realise just how devastating the earthquake was. I was advised to skip this part of New Zealand because there was ‘nothing to see’. They were wrong. Beyond the bridges and between the broken bricks you can still see signs of a beautiful city and a visit to the brilliant Re:Start mall is time well spent and money well spent to help the city get back on its feet.

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This is what a pit stop looks like in New Zealand. I thought that travelling by bus would limit my options in such a beautiful country, but as car park views go, this spot at Lake Tekapo wasn’t half bad. The drivers even point out landmarks or seal colonies for you along the way.

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Doubtful Sound is one of New Zealand’s last remaining pristine wilderness areas. It took two coach rides, two boat journeys and about four hours to reach it, but it was totally worth it.

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This is the view from one of Wanaka’s hiking spots – Mount Iron. The township is a more laid back version of Queenstown. I loved it. Sadly, no skiing at Cordrona because the weather wasn’t up to it, but that didn’t matter. I had a great time. This is because I was with a group of people who’d welcomed me into their homes. It wasn’t the first time either. Thanks to some friends in the UK, I met some legendary New Zealanders who went out of their way to help me make the most of my time here. What’s more, I’ve never been offered so many lifts by complete strangers who genuinely just wanted to help.

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Beautiful and hospitable. Unpredictable too – with it’s steaming pools, volcanoes and earth tremors, I felt like anything could happen at any moment. Sadly though, not a hobbit in sight.

Santiago – in Pictures

After Peru, Chile was a shock to the system. It was so cold that I took a salsa class just to keep warm. Another tactic was to keep walking…

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Student protest. The tear gas and water cannon made me walk faster. Despite the streaming eyes, a good result.

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View of Santiago from Cerro San Cristóbal.

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‘Chile Before Chile’ exhibition at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

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Spotted at one of the university buildings. This is a city where you have to keep looking up. You might miss something.

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I wouldn’t think of visiting the Cementario General, but I’m glad I did. The architecture is stunning. I was accompanying a friend who was a clown – strange but true. There are special areas where people are buried according to their profession and her fellow payasos had a mausoleum in the shape of a Big Top.

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Ricardo Mesa’s raised fists door handles at the Gabriela Mistral Centre. I was told they were turned upside down during Pinochet’s military rule.

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There are stray dogs everywhere. Apparently, over 2,000,000 in Santiago. They’ll happily follow you from A to B – I even saw them running around with the protestors and the police. Some of them look quite healthy and have doggy coats because people look after them.

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This isn’t a wardrobe – it’s a lavatory. Who knew that Narnia was at a restaurant in Santiago? Peluquería Francesca is worth a visit just to check out the quirky antique interior. A good hot chocolate too, on a cold day.

Next stop – New Zealand.

Hats of Peru

More ladies than men seem to wear them – perhaps for modesty, perhaps it reflects the region where they’re from. That aside, if you’re not keeping the sun off here, you’re having to keep warm – often in the same day …

TOP HAT:

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Older ladies seem to wear these. Fancy.

BOWLER:

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If it’s good enough for a London City Gent, it’s good enough for a Cusco City Lady.

PANAMA:

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An Ecuadorian influence perhaps.

FLAT:

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They create a lot of shade. Baby Alpaca is optional.

FLOPPY:

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All the children (and some parents) wear these. A bit like Paddington Bear.

CHULLO:

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They look cool on the slopes, but you saw them here first.

Mystery and Majesty

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“Urubam, Urubam, Urubamba!” Shouted the driver. I’d just arrived in Peru and decided to spend a few days up in the Andes. I wedged myself between a man balancing a child on his knees and a woman sucking the life out of an orange. I suddenly caught the driver taking my rucksack and putting it on the roof. I decided to get out and supervise. “It’s OK!” he shouted, “Safe!” I handed him my chain lock just in case. As we made our way through the Sacred Valley, the mental images I had of Peru suddenly came to life – snow capped mountains, women carrying children in their mantas and even the odd alpaca.

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Once we arrived in Urubamba, I found myself in the middle of the Señor de Torrechayoc festival. Hundreds of people were parading through the streets carrying an image of Christ. Apparently, it celebrates a time when travellers in the town experienced weird dreams near the site of a cross.

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I wondered if that was why some of the dancers wore weird masks. The festivities lasted for days but my dreams were no stranger than normal.

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In the morning, I’d walk into town and go to the market. It had the best tomatoes and avocados I’ve ever tasted. I turned down the guinea pig.

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The women here are fit. I don’t know how they carry their children and their groceries up those hills. The altitude made me feel like there was an elephant sitting on my chest, but it was good preparation for what came next.

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What little breath I had, was taken away at this point. Hidden high in the mountains, Machu Picchu is mysterious and majestic. The questions about why this city was designed with such definitude are only replaced by more questions about how it was all achieved.

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Can you make out the condor with its open wings on the rocks behind it? This temple represents the ‘upper world’ inhabited by superior gods. It’s thought the head may have been used as a sacrificial altar.

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These reflecting pools were used to watch the sun and the moon.

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It was then time to spend a few days in the historic capital of the Inca Empire. I wasn’t expecting to see a Starbucks and a McDonald’s in Cusco, but I suppose that’s a positive side of being in a busy travellers’ hub – there are places that have treats. And when I say treats, I also mean fresh green vegetables. I made up for lost time in the cafes around Plaza de Armas and San Blas. The odd salad, milkshake and cake may have been scoffed more than once at places like Green Point, Cafe Morena and Jack’s Cafe. (By the way, Green Point does a brilliant four course lunch for just S10.00 / £2).

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For the more traditional side of Cusco I went to San Pedro Market. You can by-bass the tourist gifts and go where the locals go. There are lines of stalls making any kind of juice that you want …

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… or any kind of food that you want. All of it fresh and all of it local.
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Is there anything cuter than this? It was one of many parades in the city. I picked the right month. June is apparently Cusco’s anniversary month and all these events lead up to the Festival of the Sun.

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I wish I could have stayed on to experience it. Peru is such a beautiful and mystical place and I only saw a small part of it. Next stop – Chile.