Photo theme - Rainbows

Photography. It’s all about capturing the light, and rainbows are a pretty raw form of that substance. I challenge anyone not to be amazed by their colour and beauty, the way they appear to follow you, or run away from you, always elusive, always stunning. Below are some of my favourite rainbow photos that I have taken.

Double Rainbow in Germany, shot from the car

Rainbow in waterfalls, Mitchell Falls, Western Australia

Double rainbow at sunset in Australia

If you liked these photos, why not take a look at my other photo theme posts, or have a look at my album featuring my 100 favourite shots from Australia. Enjoy!

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Tips for your first time… in New Zealand

Today’s guest post comes from Amanda Williams of A Dangerous Business. Amanda lived in New Zealand for a number of months, and kindly agreed to share her tips on what do do as a first timer in NZ. This works out wonderfully for me as I’m flying to New Zealand for a year in a week today…

Tips For Your First Time… in New Zealand

Southern AlpsSo you’re planning a trip to New Zealand. Aotearoa. “The Land of the Long White Cloud.” It’s a great little country to have an adventure in. Whether you want to try out some of New Zealand’s adventure sports, tour some of the country’s notable wineries, get a taste of the popular rugby culture, hike some of the most beautiful tracks in the world, or simply get lost in the area’s “no worries” attitude, there’s ample opportunity.

But with so many options, how do you choose what to see, where to go, and what to do?

As someone who has spent a fair bit of time in New Zealand, I’m happy to share some suggestions. Here are a collection of Top 5 lists covering all the “musts” in New Zealand, as I see them.

Must-Visit Cities

Auckland

Auckland Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city. It’s often referred to as “the City of Sails” due to its large harbour and vast number of sailboats that can be seen on the water during the good-weathered months (which are many in this northern city). Explore the city by bus or on foot, making sure to visit the waterfront and take a stroll down Queen Street.

Side tracked:

For a truly unique day trip, sign up for a tour to “Hobbiton,” the movie set that was used in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Located in the small town of Matamata, Hobbiton is an easy 2-hour drive from Auckland. If you book through Red Carpet Tours (www.redcarpet-tours.com), expect plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and glimpses.

Rotorua

WaiOTapuLocated near the centre of New Zealand’s north island, Rotorua is best known for its  geothermal activity and Maori cultural offerings. Book a tour to Wai-O-Tapu and the Lady Knox Geyer to get your fill of natural wonders, and then visit Tamaki Village or Te Puia for a Maori cultural celebration and traditional hangi – dinner that is smoked in an earthen oven.

Side-tracked:

If you have time, make the short journey to Taupo from Rotorua. Taupo is a small city that sits on the shore of the great Lake Taupo, with views of three of New Zealand’s most notable volcanoes – Mt. Tongariro, Mt. Ruapehu, and Mt. Ngauruhoe. Taupo and its surrounds are said to have some of the best trout fishing in the world.

Wellington

WellingtonWellington is New Zealand’s political and cultural capital. The city is situated right on the southern tip of the country’s north island, and is characterized by its vibrant harbour, hilly landscape and quirky atmosphere. Spend an afternoon learning about New Zealand’s history at Te Papa – the country’s (free!) national museum – then head further downtown for a tour of the country’s Parliament buildings, one of which is nicknamed “The Beehive.”

Grab a bite to eat on the culturally-infused Cuba Street, take a stroll along the waterfront, and head to Courtenay Place after dark for a lively nightlife scene. For a bird’s-eye view of the city, either take the historic cable car up to the botanical gardens, or take a bus to the lookout atop Mount Victoria.

Side-tracked:

Looking for a day trip from the Wellington region? Head out into the Wairarapa wine country for a tour and some tastings.

Christchurch

Christchurch Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s south island, is often referred to as “the Garden City.” The city is overflowing with greenery and flowers, along with plenty of interesting churches and architecture. Visit Cathedral Square, take a trolley tour of the city, or even go punting (think like a gondola ride) on the river Avon.

Side-tracked:

If you’re looking to get out of the city for a day, head a couple of hours north up the coast to the quiet coastal town of Kaikoura. Kaikoura boasts New Zealand’s best whale watching experience, as well as opportunities to swim with marine life such as dolphins and fur seals. Plus, the little town is nestled right at the base of an arm of the Southern Alps. Note - since this psot was published, Christchurch suffered a devastating earthquake, unfortunately rendering much of the city centre inaccessible. Re-development is in progress though!

Queenstown

QueenstownQueenstown, located on the lower half of New Zealand’s south island, is the place to go if you’re in search of skiing, or any of the country’s popular adventure sports. Sitting on one end of Lake Wakatipu and at the foot of the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown is a stunning locale, no matter what you’re aiming to do. Try bungee jumping or jetboating, take a dinner cruise on the lake, do some souvenir shopping, or take the Skyline Gondola up over the city for an impressive view.

Side-tracked:

Many day trips from Queenstown are available. You could book a day tour to Milford Sound (arguably the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand), or, if you’re looking for something a bit quieter, head up to the town of Glenorchy on the opposite end of Lake Wakatipu for some great scenery. For a bit of history, drive half an hour to the old gold mining village of Arrowtown.

Honourable mention:

Dunedin

BaldwinStreetDunedin, while mostly a college town, is still worth a visit if you’ve got some extra time while on the south island. Visit the Cadbury Chocolate Factory downtown for a Willy Wonka-esque tour, admire some of the city’s gothic and Victorian architecture, and climb up Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world.

Side-tracked:

If you’ve got some extra time, definitely take a drive out to the Otago Peninsula from Dunedin. Here you can tour New Zealand’s only castle (Larnach Castle), see rare yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place, and visit one of the only land-based colonies of wild albatross birds in the world at Taiaroa Head.

Must-Have Experiences

1. Attend an All Blacks rugby match. Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport, and the kiwis are very supportive of their national team. If you’ve never seen rugby played before, get oriented by seeing one of the world’s best teams in action.

2. Sail through Milford Sound. Whether you visit this natural wonder on an uncharacteristically clear day or on a more typical wet one, Milford Sound is stunning. Tall mountains rise out of the sea, and, when it’s raining, hundreds of waterfalls pour down into the dark water. When it’s sunny, the blues and greens will take your breath away.

3. Take a helicopter ride or fixed-wing plane flight over the Southern Alps on a clear day. Fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound (or vice versa), taking in the snow-capped peaks and crystal-clear mountain lakes. It makes for an expensive afternoon, but I promise it’s worth it.

4. Drive the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins. Take a roadtrip from Dunedin to Invercargill, being sure to snake along the coast of New Zealand’s south island via the Southern Scenic Route. You’ll pass through an area known as the Catlins, where wind-swept coastal scenes will quickly drain your camera battery.

5. Visit Mount Cook. During your south island travels, be sure to make at stop at Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Getting there, you’ll pass Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo – both scenic lakes with uniquely blue water due to glacial runoff.

Must-Try Adventure Sports

TaupoBungy1. Bungee Jumping. This crazy sport was purportedly invented in New Zealand, and A.J. Hackett bungee operators won’t let you forget it. There are a number of places to bungee across New Zealand, but for the original spot (the Kawarau Bridge) and some truly panic-inducing sites, head to Queenstown.

2. Zorbing. Head to Rotorua for this zany experience. You dive into what looks like a giant plastic hamster ball, and then you tumble down a hill. It’s a blast.

3. Jetboating. Zip through narrow canyons at high speeds and pull 360-degree turns in a boat that skims along the top of the water. Again, you can jetboat all across New Zealand, but the best operation is the Shotover Jet in Queenstown.

4. Skydiving. Want to jump out of a plane? New Zealand offers plenty of opportunity to do just that. Some popular spots to skydive are the Bay of Islands, Taupo with its lake and volcanoes, scenic Wanaka, and, of course, Queenstown.

5. River Surfing. Forget about white water rafting. Instead, coast over those rapids on a modified boogie-board. This Queenstown-based adventure sport is not for the physically unfit, but it’s definitely a rush!

Must-Eat Foods

1. NZ lamb. Since there are roughly 40 million sheep (and only 10 million people) in New Zealand, you’re likely to find lamb and/or mutton on just about every menu – including Subway’s.

2. Kiwifruit. This delicious New Zealand specialty comes in two varieties – the traditional green kiwifruit, and the slightly sweeter golden kiwifruit.

3. Vegemite/Marmite. While definitely an acquired taste, this dark brown paste – made from yeast extract – is an experience any first-time visitor to New Zealand or Australia must have. It’s thick, salty, bitter and sticky, and is most often eaten on top of toast.

4. Green-lipped mussels. These mussels are a New Zealand specialty, not to be found anywhere else in the world. They are large and fatty, and have dark green shells with (can you guess?) a green lip, giving them their name.

5. Hokey-pokey ice cream. Looking for a tasty dessert? Go for the hokey-pokey. It’s essentially a vanilla ice cream with hunks of sponge toffee mixed in, and it is nothing short of delicious.

Things on My “Next Time” List

Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand, there are still some things that I never got around to doing. My “next time” list is extensive, but here are my top 5 things that I’d like to do on my next visit.

1. Hiking the Tongariro Crossing. This 18.5-kilometer, day-long trek within Tongariro National Park is supposed to be the best one-day hike in New Zealand – and possibly one of the best in the world. The crossing spans the length of Mt. Tongariro and takes 7-9 hours. It’s not the easiest trek, but all the photos I’ve seen of it (especially the Emerald Lakes) make me think it would totally be worth the sweat and sore legs.

2. Franz Josef Glacier trekking. This 12-kilometer-long glacier sits within Westland National Park on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island. The glacier extends from the Southern Alps through temperate rainforest, and is one of the main tourist attractions on the west coast. Guided and unguided hikes on the glacier are available, as well as helicopter tours that drop you off atop the ice field for a guided trek.

3. Attending the Rugby Sevens in Wellington. Each year in February, Wellington hosts a rugby sevens tournament at Westpac Stadium. Rugby sevens is a modified version of rugby, played with only 7 players on a team (as opposed to the normal 15), and with much shorter matches. Teams from 16 countries compete in the Wellington tournament, and tens of thousands of spectators attend each year. The Welly Sevens has a reputation for having a party atmosphere, and many fans come in elaborate, silly costumes.

4. Swimming with Hector’s Dolphins in Akaroa. On the Banks Peninsula, not far from Christchurch, sits the little resort village of Akaroa. This French-infused town is said to be beautiful and charming. Rare Hector’s Dolphins (only found in New Zealand) call the Akaroa harbour their home, and swimming with these small, friendly dolphins is a popular attraction.

5. Visiting Nelson. This city, located near the top of New Zealand’s south island right on Tasman Bay, is surrounded by mountains on three sides and is best known for its quirky, artsy atmosphere. Nelson also has one of the best climates in the country, often topping national statistics for sunshine hours.

RugbyAs you can see, there’s so much – maybe too much! – to see and do in New Zealand.  The possibilities really are endless. I lived there for 5 months and still didn’t fit everything in!

But, rest assured, no matter what your travel style or interests, Aotearoa will have something just for you.

 

Here’s to hoping your first time (in New Zealand) is memorable!

Thanks Amanda for a truly great post! Amanda can be found talking more about travel and New Zealand on her site, A Dangerous Business. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she posts as @DangerousBiz.

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4 More Highlights of Western Australia - Blowholes and pinnacles

Wave crashing at sunset - Western Australia - Australia

I did a post recently on my highlights of Western Australia, where I covered my four favourite spots in Western Australia.

Unfortunately, after much thinking, I have concluded that it’s just too much of an amazing place to be happy with only highlighting four spots.

Here, therefore, are four more spots that you should try and take the time to visit if you are lucky enough to have time to spare in this amazing state.

From desert to water, and mountains to sealife – you won’t run out of things to do in WA!

The Pinnacles Desert

Where? Near Cervantes, 231km NW of Perth
Why? The Pinnacles are a series of weird limestone rock formations poking out of the desert sand, much like the fossilised fingers of some giant underground desert dwelling animal. Interestingly there is no agreed upon geographical explanation for their formation, with at least three competing theories vying for prominence. 

Pinnacles Desert 1 - Western Australia - Australia

What can be agreed upon is that the rocks are absolutely spectacular. Jutting out of the fine desert sand, the contrast of the limestone against the immense blue of the Australian sky is incredible. You will find yourself wandering around the area, mesmerised, taking photo after photo.

The best time to visit is during Spring (August – October), when the temperatures are not so high and the wildflowers are starting to flower. Early morning or late afternoon provides the best light, when the shadows of the rocks play out across the sand.

Carnarvon Blowholes

Where? 75km N of Carnarvon, approx 1000km N of Perth
Why? This stretch of the Western Australian coastline is host to jagged rocky coastline   and massive, angry seas. Whilst this is not ideal for swimming or surfing, it is perfect for being impressed by the power of nature, as waves crash relentlessly against the seemingly unyielding shore.

Blowhole near Carnarvon, Western Australia

The blowholes, just north of Carnarvon, form a spectacular sight as water is forced through holes in the rock to explode in a plume that can reach over twenty metres in height.

Just a kilometre or so from the blowholes is a cheap camping spot on a sheltered cove with safe snorkelling in the lagoon and a beautiful white sandy beach to wander along. Folk come here for a while to stay, and there are a number of semi-permanent tin shelters which give the impression that you have found a post-apocalyptic village. Absolutely worth a visit.

Francois Peron National Park

Where? Shark Bay World Heritage Area, Peron Peninsula, approx 700km N of Perth
Why? Shark Bay is a giant bay formed by four peninsulas jutting off the Western  Australian coastline into the Indian Ocean, the largest of which is the Peron peninsula. The northern end of the peninsula is given over to the Francois Peron National Park, which is a must-see for fans of striking contrasts, wilderness and marine life.

Dugong swimming shark bay Australia

Here, red sand dunes meet white sandy beaches and the sparkling turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. There is excellent snorkelling, bushwalking and wildlife viewing, particularly of the marine sort. At Cape Peron, for example, you can stand on the viewing platforms and look down at the fabulously clear and shallow waters, where manta rays, turtles, sharks and dolphins will cruise on by. Shark Bay is also home to the almost mythical dugong – oft mistaken for mermaids by sailors in times gone by. Presumably after many tipples of rum. 10% of the world’s population of dugong lives in Shark Bay, feeding off the massive seagrass meadows which are found here.

Beach camping is an excellent option in this park, which is four wheel drive only due to the sandy tracks. There is also, most bizarrely, a free hot tub at the park entrance, which is fed by geothermal springs. Finally, if you are in the Shark Bay area already, you would do worse than to visit the stromatolites of Hamelin Pool – one of the only places in the world where you can see a living example of the organisms that created the oxygen in our atmosphere nearly three and a half billion years ago.

Kennedy Ranges National Park

Where? 150km east of Carnarvon, aprox. 1100km N of Perth.
Why? The Kennedy Ranges are not exactly on the radar as a must-visit site when  cruising around Australia, which is a bit of a shame. They are, certainly, a bit out of the way, involving a fair amount of driving on dirt roads to get to, but they are absolutely worth it.

Honeycomb Gorge, Kennedy Ranges, Western Australia

The Kennedy Ranges are a 195km long mesa which rises entirely unexpectedly out of the surrounding flat land as a cliff face which, at points, is over a hundred metres high. On top of the mesa are 15,000 year old red sand dunes, which sit atop this remnant of an ancient land surface. Numerous gorges lead into the mesa, with stunning rock formations rising to either side as you explore and scramble along the loosely defined paths. The most impressive of these are at the Honeycomb Gorge, where the rock has eroded away to form surreal shapes, as if some giant beehive was once in existence here.

Trails lead to the top of the mesa, as well as down a number of the gorges. The views from the top across the outback wilderness are stunning, and well worth the climb. Sitting at the base with a cold beer as the sun sets is an unforgettable experience. Basic camping facilities are available at the foot of the mesa, to fully appreciate the place I’d recommend staying at least a night, if not more.

If you are in the area you could also visit Mount Augustus, the worlds largest monolith (twice the size of Australia’s somewhat more famous monolith, Uluru), which is about another 300km drive inland.

So. Another four tremendous spots in Western Australia, and I still haven’t covered it all. If you liked this, you will probably enjoy reading about the previous four spots I highlighted, or the article about art on a salt lake, far away from anywhere.

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Photography tips – depth of field

Today I’m going to do something a little bit different, and share some basic photography tips. If folks like this idea, I may expand it into a recurring theme. I’m going to tackle a useful subject when it comes to photography, that being depth of field and how to manipulate this when taking pictures to get the results you want.

The first question of course, is what is depth of field? Put simply, it’s all about how much of the shot you are taking is in focus. The best way to demonstrate what I mean is with a couple of photographs.

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Photo theme - Waterfalls

I always find flowing water to be mesmerising, be it in the form of waves, rivers, or as the case with the photos here, falling over edges. The power of a waterfall can hold my attention for an age, watching the water tumble endlessly onto the ground below.

These shots show some of the waterfalls I saw on my trip around Australia. Australia may not have the waterfall height or majesty that you would find at say Niagara or Victoria Falls, but every waterfall is unique and worth watching for a while in my opinion!

Waterfall - Otways National Park - Victoria - Australia

Waterfall - New South Wales - Australia

Waterfall in NSW

If you liked these photos, why not take a look at my other photo theme posts, or have a look at my album featuring my 100 favourite shots from Australia. Enjoy!

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A visit to Hitler’s bunker

Copy of Part of Hitlers bunker We spent a night over at Vera’s grandparents cottage in the countryside this weekend, the location I have previously described as being almost James Bond like in it’s wonderful sixties vibe. I may have mentioned then, as I will also now, that the cottage is near the site of one of Hitler’s bunkers from the Second World War.

When one mentions Hitler’s bunker, the mind is usually drawn to the Berlin based complex where the last few days of the war panned out for the man himself. However, this wasn’t the only bunker that Hitler had, even if it was the most famous. Hitler had fourteen bunkers in total, situated in various strategic locations, which served as field headquarters during the war. He also had a train, which served as a mobile command post.

The bunker near the cottage was known as the Felsennest, or Rocky Eyrie, and it was one of Hitler's first field headquarters during the war. A fairly simple four room affair, it was used by him earlier on in the war, when things were going fairly well for the German army. It was from here that he coordinated the invasion of France and the other low countries on May 10, 1940. He was also here during the battle of Dunkirk. Key members of the German command visited during this period, including Goring and Himmler.

Me in part of the remains of the bunkerOf course, a bit of time and some high explosives have somewhat changed the site from it’s heyday in the 1940’s. It suffered allied aerial bombing twice and in 1945 the retreating German army laid charges and blew it up, prior to it being captured by US troops on the 7th of May, 1945.

These days therefore, quite a bit of imagination is required to get an idea of what the site may have looked like. What is left are giant boulders of concrete with steel reinforcement rods poking out haphazardly, spread across a wide area. Where the bunker itself was is merely a hole in the ground, the force of the explosion having pushed out all the concrete to form a vague rim.

Original bunker interior showing Hitlers bedroom The trees and shrubbery have come back with a vengeance, and moss coats nearly every surface. There are no signs or markings to indicate what happened here over half a century ago. There is a definite sense that the dereliction is intentional, that the events of the past are not worthy of any memorial. In time, the forest will entirely reclaim this spot and it will exist only in history books, photos and memories.

We left the bunker and returned to the cottage, quiet in our thoughts. On the way, we crossed the field which served as the airstrip to ferry dignitaries to and from the site. It was hard to believe the events that happened here, in what seemed to be a sleepy little village on a hillside, set in rolling fields with cows all around. Once these skies played host to heavily armed aircraft, and the hills to soldiers. It certainly gave me a lot to think about and reflect upon.

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Highlights of Western Australia

Western Australia highlights bungle bungles Western Australia. A state so big and varied that you could easily mistake it for a country in its own right. From the giant trees of the south, to the harsh desert of the centre, to the rugged coastline and wilderness of the north, and finally to the cosmopolitan delights of Perth, there is something here for everyone.

I have picked my four favourite spots in this wonderful state, each offering something different. It was tough to come up with only four, but after much brow furrowing, here they are:

Purnululu National Park - the “Bungle Bungles”

Purnululu bungle bungle cathedral gorge entrance 2

Where? In the north eastern corner of WA, 250km south of Kununurra
Why? The world heritage listed Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley region of WA is home to the absolutely staggering sandstone formation known as the Bungle Bungles. These are a series of improbably striped orange and grey rocks, towering as much as 580 metres above sea level.

There are domes to wander around, cones to goggle at and chasms to explore. It is a seriously surreal landscape, with the orange and grey rocks set against the deep blue of the outback sky. Truly unmissable.

If you are in the Bungle Bungle area with a bit of time in your hands, you may also want to pop a few hundred kilometres further south and visit the Wolfe Creek meteor crater. Made famous by the horror film, this 875 metre wide crater is worth a visit in its own right.

You can wander the rim, walk down to the crater bed, and wonder as to the immensity of 50,000 tonnes of rock hitting the earth at phenomenal speed.

The southern forests of Western Australia

One of the fire trees in Western Australia. Climb it - if you dare

Where? South Western Australia, around 300km south of Perth
Why? The majesty of the forests with their towering giants is in stark contrast to the outback wildernesses of much of the rest of the state. You can walk amongst these huge trees and drink in the peace of their majesty whilst marvelling at their stature - these are some of the largest examples of trees of their type in the world.

If that all sounds a bit too relaxing and in touch with mother nature for you, you can throw all caution to the wind and climb one of the three fire trees, a challenge fit only for the truly insane with a good head for heights.

The fire trees were established in the 1930’s as a means to quickly detect forest fires. They consist of a simple platform at the top of a seriously high tree, the highest being the platform at the top of the Dave Evans Bicentennial tree, at 68 metres above ground.

The way up these trees is a series of giant metal pegs which are hammered into the tree to form a heart-stoppingly scary spiral stair case. There are no safety features, no floor, and nothing to stop you, other than a sign warning you that you climb at your own risk. I made it to about 25 metres up and the first “breather” platform before, body shaking, I retreated to ground level and safety. Good luck!

The Stirling Ranges

The Castle Rock in the Porongorup Ranges, Western Australia

Where? 337km south west of Perth
Why? If you love hiking and stunning mountain scenery, the compact Sterling ranges are for you. Whilst perhaps not as alpine like (or as high!) as the Victorian Alps, the Stirling Ranges offer some fabulous and easily accessible hiking opportunities.

So much so, in fact, that one of the walks, up Mt. Toolbronup, made the list of my top three day hikes in Australia. As you would expect, the walks are fabulous. Some, like the climb up Bluff Knoll, the highest peak for 1000km in any direction, are pretty tough, but the views from the top are absolutely worth it.

Also in the area is the Porongorup range, a series of peaks formed over 1.2 billion years ago. These offer slightly easier walking options than the Stirling ranges, with the added bonus that you can see the entire Stirling ranges from their peaks, a dramatic silhouette.

The Castle Rock is a highlight here, an incredibly tall chunk of boulder, accessed via a series of fairly scary ladders and stairs, with a rewarding view from the top if you make it!

Ningaloo Reef

Beach of Turquoise Bay, Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Where? The north western tip of WA, near Exmouth
Why? Ningaloo is the worlds only large reef located practically on the beach. At its closest  point, it is a mere one hundred metres from the beach.

Unlike Australia’s other famous reef, which requires some serious boat time to access, you can literally wade into the sea and be getting up close and personal with the marine life in minutes. And the marine life is quite staggering. Turtles, rays and exotic fish will vie with over 250 species of spectacular coral for your attention.

There are a number of highlights along it’s 300km stretch. One of my favourite spots is Turquoise Bay, where you swim out then allow the current to drift you along parallel to the shore to the sand bar at the end, where you can get out, walk back along the beach and start again. Snorkelling without the effort! Does it get any better that? And if snorkelling doesn’t float your boat, then visit anyway for either the whale shark migration or the humpback whales breaching in the bay. It’s a sight you’ll never forget.

Well. What an amazing state. Marine life, beaches, forests, mountains and outback. Western Australia really has it all. And I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s the Gibb River Road, the gorges of Karijini National Park, the trains of Port Hedland (seven kilometre long trains have to be seen to be believed!), the dolphins of Monkey Mia.. the list goes on. There’s even art on a salt lake! If you’re visiting Australia, I urge you to take some time and visit this state. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Close encounters of the camping kind

UFO Combi VanOne of the great things about being on the road and staying in a different place nearly every night is the variety of people you meet. My year long trip around Australia was certainly no exception.

We were living fairly basically under canvas, which took us to some pretty out of the way locations for sleeping – the budget was tight, so free or incredibly cheap was the way forward. We slept beside rugby pitches and bowling greens, in trailer parks and on beaches. We camped under the stars, in the outback and in parking lots. Nowhere was out of bounds, if there was a free (and legal, of course) camping option, we took it. And we weren’t the only ones.

We met a whole range of folk, from the grey nomads who had permanently moved to a lifestyle lapping Australia by RV, to fellow work and travel visa holders, to families who had just upped sticks and headed out, all of us united in the goal of finding somewhere to stay the night at minimal cost.

On the road we encountered wonderful kindness, usually of a food and drink based nature. I will never forget being presented with a dish full of buttered chicken whilst parked deep in the outback, merely because I had remarked of our neighbours (the only other visible humans for perhaps hundreds of kilometres in any direction) that whatever they were As long as you wake up to coffee, where you camp is almost irrelevant! making smelt good. Nor the chap, out fishing for the day, who noticed at 11am that I looked a bit hot, and calmly presented me with a chilled beer for my journey.

We also encountered some pretty, well, interesting folk. At the top of the list, without any doubt at all, was the man we later referred to as UFO man. I’m sure he had a name beyond this, but it has been forgotten.

Our encounter with UFO man started off well. We were in the north-western corner of Western Australia, just south of Coral Bay, coming from a few wonderful days snorkelling on the Ningaloo reef. We pulled into one of the free camp areas just off the highway, which was possibly one of the least visually appealing sites we had visited. It was a large car park, with a couple of shelters, and the obligatory pit toilets, set in the middle of a barren wasteland. This was also the first day in around three months where the weather was not wonderful blue skies. It was, in fact, grey, windy and threatening to rain.

Cheap camping. It's not all champagne and caviar folks.This obviously worried us a little, as our camping set up wasn’t really geared towards strong winds and rain. We struggled for a while to erect camp, as the wind swept across the barren plains and pelted us with dust and giant spots of rain. Clearly, this was a sub-optimal solution. After struggling for a while however we had managed to rig up our tents in a vague approximation of uprightness, partly sheltered by our vehicle. It wasn’t perfect, but we figured it would have to do.

Then a chap approached. He had, he said, a large coach, waving to the other side of the car park, where indeed, a giant coach, painted all in black, was parked. Perhaps we would like to set our tents up in the shade of it, thus getting a lot more protection than our landcruiser was providing. This seemed like a wonderful idea, and thankfully we deconstructed our attempts at shelter and moved to the shade of his, entirely blacked out, coach. And it was a big thing too. Clearly converted for a lifetime on the road. Perfect for shelter provision.

I should add that we were not the only inhabitants of the car park. A couple of Belgian girls had their combi van nearby, in fact this was their second night at the spot. I’m not sure why they had elected to spend two days in what was essentially a car park off the main highway, but Belgium is pretty flat, so perhaps it felt like home. Anyway, Our camping in the rain skills evolved as the trip progressedthere is the scene. We were firing up dinner and getting to know our new friends. We cracked out the remains of our beer and whiskey supplies, and got through them. Darkness fell. All was well with the world. We chatted about the usual things, where we had been, where we were going, who we were.

Sadly, just after darkness fell, we ran out of alcohol. This was not a problem, informed our new coach driving friend. He happened to have a large supply of bourbon. We were welcome to have some. A bottle was procured, of a brand I had not heard of. We tried it, it was fine. Some shots were consumed. After we had drunk a fair portion of the bottle, it was revealed that the brand on the bottle was in fact largely irrelevant, because the chap brewed it himself. We looked at each other slightly nervously. We were accepting home brewed bourbon from someone we had only just met, who lived in a giant and, now it was dark, fairly sinister looking coach. In terms of things not to do when travelling, this was perhaps one of them. Even more suspiciously, he didn’t seem to want any himself.

Slightly unnerved, and handling the “bourbon” with a bit more fear than previously, we continued to chat, hoping that the fears were needless. After all, the Belgian girls had been there the night before, and they hadn’t been dissected in the back of the coach or anything. All must be well.

Some more time passed. All seemed fine. Some Korean chaps appeared, and made camp nearby. I was clearly worried about nothing. Then of course, the conversation went a little bit weird.

“Did you see that?”, said the coach man.

“See what?” We replied.

“The UFO that just flew by..”.

Close encounters of the rock art kind I goggled at him. My mouth was, I suspect, somewhat agape. I think I may have managed some quiet gurgling, which was not meant to be affirmative.

He went on: “I see them all the time of course.”

I really wasn’t sure where to go with this whole line of conversation, being somewhat out of my depth. I mean, I have chatted generally, and usually over beer, as to the possible existence of other life forms in the universe. When staring into the vastness of an outback night sky, it is hard not to.

But to have someone sitting right opposite me, in the shade of a darkened coach, clearly state that a UFO just flew over us, and that this happened regularly, was a bit beyond my standard repertoire.

Luckily, I was saved from having to actually come up with anything intelligible to say by one of my travelling companions, who was very interested in the whole thing. She asked all sorts of questions on the subject of UFO’s, from which we learnt all manner of thing. For example, we learnt about the different kinds of aliens that visited. We learnt their reasons for coming to earth. We learnt about human organ harvesting. We learnt that in a few Mostly the camping lifestyle was in fact, totally awesomeyears the whole earth was going to split in two, with only the chosen few being likely to survive. All very interesting stuff, all delivered with absolute conviction. All of which I tried desperately to listen to with a straight face and a calm, don’t cut me up in the back of your coach as a non-believer air.

After a while, I made my excuses about needing an early night, and headed to my tent, which wasn’t exactly far away. The Belgian girls had already made a run for it. My travelling companions weren’t far behind. We left the UFO man, rambling to himself at this point, to it. The next morning, we woke up happily still all whole, packed up, and left before he emerged, wondering quite what had happened. At least the bourbon had been good, and the conversation certainly hadn’t been boring.

Have you had any weird encounters whilst travelling? As always, let me know in the comments section below!

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Kölsch in Köln

The pretty lights of the outdoor area. I was hoping to be writing an insightful, witty and brilliant piece on the wonders of going out drinking in a foreign city today. I intended to sparkle brilliantly on ponderings such as the cultural differences that I noticed on the evening. Much humour would have been had.

As it is, the very act of researching the cultural differences has left my brain a soddled mush of a thing, so you are instead going to get, well, the below. I will try. Be gentle.

Firstly, I had heard it said that continental Europe starts their drinking somewhat later in the day than the UK. I can now confirm this to be true. By the time we left the house to hit Cologne, it was nearing midnight. In the UK, if you head out at midnight, you are likely to be wandering darkened empty streets from closed pub to closed pub. 24 hour drinking is, in theory, legally allowed, but most pubs still adhere to an eleven or twelve finishing time, at which point you need to find an overpriced club to drink in. For this reason most people in the UK are out much earlier, with the mindset that as much as possible must be drunk before the doors are closed.

Germany does not have such complex drinking restrictions, so the night was still young when we left the house, despite it being nearly the next day already. We had prepared ourselves by consuming a number of Kölsch’s at home, for the journey as it were. Kölsch, for those not in the know, is the beer local to Cologne. Other beers are probably available. These are not mentioned in polite company.

We wandered, remnants of our home beer in hand (another wonder of Germany, drinking on the street is entirely legal) to our venue for the night, a local and somewhat alternative venue by the name of the Underground, which, contrary to the name, wasn’t.

Currywurst being created. Image slightly fuzzy due to camera being held by inebriated manUpon arrival, I was quickly whisked to the on site sausage stall, and provided with a large pile of currywurst and chips. Another uniquely German idea, currywurst is your average giant German sausage, smothered in spicy curry sauce. Presumably the intention was to  give me strength for the night ahead. Strength was needed. As well as a huge outdoor seating area, where multiple parties were carefully engaged in beverage review activities, there were two dance rooms, plus a whole room dedicated to table football. Which is a game to be taken very seriously in Germany.

Strengthened by sausage and more refreshing Kölsch, we hit the dance floor. The music was skating dangerously close to grungey metal, with the result that the dance floor was less about dancing and more about trying to survive in the mass of bodies. To the uninitiated, it may have looked just like a large fight set to pounding German metal. Perhaps, in fact, it was. Memories are a tiny bit hazy.

Some carefully trying to avoid being trampled later, we retired outside. It was a fairly warm evening and the surroundings were genial. Coloured lights lit up the courtyard area, much jollity was being had. Conversation flowed, all of it, I expect, brilliantly sparkling and witty. It was a rather wonderful time.

However, as with all wonderful times, they must end, and the time arrived whence we opted to quietly stagger home. I am incredibly lucky to go out with a girl who shares a love of anchovy coated pizza (amongst other things), so we stopped off en route for a romantic pizza in a nearby kebab house. The chap who created the pizza was a genuine artist, forming the pizza base from actual dough in front of our very eyes before lovingly coating it in lashings of cheese, tomato sauce and those little salty fishy wonders. I quietly hiccupped my thanks at him and trundled home, whereupon the pizza was devoured before the bed was hit.

Hangover recovery food

Later on in the day the morning dawned beautifully. I slept through this, and woke up as the afternoon was just coming around. It was a blisteringly hot day, just what you need when your skin feels like all the moisture in it has been surgically removed.

Luckily the “day after drinking” regime is no different in Germany to the UK, so we staggered to the nearest cafe and ate as much fried food as we possibly could, accompanied by strong black coffee, at which point I started to feel a lot more human.

We left Cologne in the afternoon sun, with the top down in the convertible, the temperature in the mid twenties, and some suspiciously bad German hip hop on the CD player. The green leaves of the trees flitted overhead and I wondered to myself, as I often do, how I had managed to get so lucky as to be able to experience moments like this in my life. Even if the day seemed a mite fuzzy around the edges…

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Photo theme - Lightning

Weather, and in particular stormy weather, can be a tricky subject matter to photograph, what with managing the available light, capturing the scale of the event and keeping your equipment dry. When in Australia I was witness to some pretty spectacular lightning storms, and I managed to get a few shots of lightning that I was pleased with.

Photographing lightning is definitely a case of hit and miss, as you never know where it’s going to go off next. My technique largely involved pointing the camera at the storm, opening the shutter with my remote, and waiting. Hundreds of pictures of blackness, or just out of shot bolts ensued, but sometimes, I got lucky. As the shots below show. Let me know what you think.

Lightning over Cape Le Grande

Lightning over Kalgoorie Boulder

More Lightning over Kalgoorie Boulder

If you enjoyed these photos, feel free to browse my other photo themes posts!

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Tips and Advice for Visiting Fraser Island

The lake was nice. Fraser Island.

Given that previous entries in this series have focused on entire states, it may seem a bit odd to dedicate an entire article to one small island off the Queensland coast where we only spent three days. But Fraser is a very special island, and I believe you will agree, entirely worthy of it’s own piece.

Some quick geography for you. Fraser Island is located just off (literally about 500 metres) the Queensland coast, some 300km north of Brisbane. It is 120km long, 24km wide, and it is the largest sand island in the world. Yes folks, it’s just one giant sandbar.

This presents some issues to the traveller. For starters, the entire island is four wheel drive only, because the entire island is sand. The main “road” (which doubles as a runway for the scenic flights) is the beach on the east coast, which stretches up the majority of the island. Interior tracks exist to get you to some of the interior highlights (more on those later), these are seriously deep sandy trails. This article, in fact, would happily fit into the off-road in Oz theme.

Planes landing on the beach are just one of the hazards...

There are some differences however. Fraser, whilst harder to get to on your own wheels (unless you have a 4WD), certainly has no shortage of tour operators running trips. Which is good news if you want to get out there and see the place without buying your own vehicle. You can also hire a 4WD just for the trip, but do take care if you are not an experienced off-road driver. Rules of the road apply on the beaches, and there are police patrols who enforce the islands speed limits (80km/h on the beach, 40km/h on the interior tracks).

If you are doing the trip on your own, you just need to get the ferry (and a permit to visit the island, from the rangers office), which takes you from one sandy beach point to another. 4WD tip – deflate your tyres before setting off across the beach to the ferry.

So, enough about all that, what is the point of visiting Fraser? All of these roaming backpackers and tours, what is the lure? Well, Fraser is, in a word, stunning. As soon as you arrive onto the island, and start driving up the beach, the place just feels magical. The surf crashes on one side, the sand dunes give way to tropical rainforests on the other. There is nothing quite like driving along the beach, gulls screeching in indignation, to get you in the mood for enjoying Fraser.

I like beaches. 75 mile long beaches you can drive on especially

There are a number of absolute must-sees when visiting the island, top most at this list being a visit to one of the islands lakes. A giant sand bar may not seem to be the most logical place for lakes to form, but Fraser has over one hundred, and they are particularly special. Known as “perched” lakes, the fresh water is prevented from draining away by compacted sand and vegetable matter.

More views of the 75 mile beach

It is some of the cleanest lake water in the world, and it is absolutely clear. We visited perhaps the most popular of the lakes, Lake McKenzie, where pure white sand meets turquoise water. In fact it is hard to believe you are not on a tropical seashore. Certain parts of the beach were absolutely stuffed to the gills with tour groups, but the end we were at, just around the corner from all of this, just had us on it. We could have been all alone in the world.

Beyond the lakes is a lush tropical rainforest, just perfect for a bit of hiking. We did an 18km loop, which included the stop over at Lake McKenzie, which was wonderful. Interior hikes don’t seem to be at the top of the tour groups to-do lists, so for the majority of the time you are walking alone, with just the green canopy and bird song for company.

Clouds reflecting in the water on the Fraser island beach - Queensland - Australia

There are other highlights that must be visited. Eli Creek is Fraser Islands largest freshwater “river”, pouring 80 million litres of water into the sea everyday. This water takes hundreds of years to filter through the sand dunes into a giant aquifier, and is bloody freezing when it emerges into the light of day, to flow into the ocean. A refreshing spot for a dip.

Further along the coast from Eli Creek is the wreck of the Maheno, a former Edwardian liner which wrecked on Fraser Island in 1935, as it was being towed to Japan to be scrapped. The ship has sat forlornly on the beach ever since, getting rustier and more barnacle covered with every passing year. It’s a great spot for photography, the mix of rusted metal shapes, pure white sand and azure ocean may capture you for hours.

Wreck of the Maheno

If astounding views are more your thing, then driving further along the 75 mile beach to the Indian Head headland will be for you. Named by Captain Cook in 1770, this raised rocky spot offers superb views along the 75 mile beach in one direction, and the rest of the northern part of the island in the other, with the fabulous lushly green interior to your back and the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean providing the soundtrack.

Rusted Metal Fraser Island Shipwreck

We spent three nights in total on Fraser, which was enough to see some of the highlights and get a feel for the place, but honestly, we could have stayed for much longer.

There are a number of accommodation options, ranging from the luxury, through to the backpacker, through to the do it yourself camping on the beach behind the first line of dunes. Being on a serious budget meant that we opted for the latter option, which was, in my opinion, by far the best. We were far away from the madding crowds, usually having no-one else anywhere near us, with just the glorious night skies, crashing surf and moonlit sands for company. Oh and the dingoes, the Australian wild dog that exists on Fraser in perhaps it’s purest form, unfettered by cross breeding.

View from Indian Heads, Fraser Island

If you are visiting Australia, you will meet people who have been to Fraser Island. They will no doubt wax lyrically about it. There will come a point where you will start to believe that it can’t be as good as everyone says it is. I certainly was at that point before we went. Luckily, it is exactly as good as everyone says it is, if not better. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Going offroad – things to know

Fluffy - our Toyota Landcruiser 80 series.

When I set off on my trip around Australia in 2009, I knew very little about off road driving. After completing the 60,000km road trip around Australia in an off-road vehicle, covering surfaces from smooth tarmac to unsealed gravel to, well, no clearly definable surface at all, I thought I would share some of the things I learnt.

These might help out if you are a first timer considering spending some time off the beaten track, or even if you have been off-roading for a while.

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Four amazing outback Australia film sets

In case Australia didn’t already have enough to offer you, what with the endlessly beautiful outback, the stunning and often empty beaches, the mountains to climb, the surf to ride, and so on, here are some reasons that might give the film buffs out there some extra excuses to visit on top of everything else.

Below are four films that you may recognise which were predominantly filmed in Australia. In my opinion these showcase some of the best scenery and locations that outback Australia has to offer. I was lucky enough to visit all of these locations on my recent trip down under.

Film  Pitch Black.
Location – Coober Pedy, South Australia.

Highlights Underground living, opal mining, Painted Desert, moon plain.

Pitch black spaceship Coober Pedy Australia

A cult horror / sci-fi classic starring Vin Diesel, this film is set on a barren desert planet. Handily, the empty desert like landscape surrounding the already surreal town of Coober Pedy in the South Australian outback fits perfectly.

This is the opal mining capital of Australia and there are something like 200,000 holes in the ground dug by hopeful miners. As there are so many holes already, it seems only natural that most of the local residents choose to live underground too, a sensible choice as it avoids the scorching heat and freezing cold of the desert climate, and results in a pleasant 24 degree ambient temperature year round.

You can find churches, a camp ground, pubs and even a golf course underground. Wander around town a bit, and it won’t be long before you start coming across props from the film, including a giant chunk of spaceship. Or, you could head out of town a few kilometres to the aptly named Moon Plain, a seriously barren bit of land which looks, as you would expect, like the surface of the moon might.

A bit further on and you come to the absolutely surreal painted desert, a pile of oddly coloured sandy dunes that look like they actually did fall out of science fiction.

Film Crocodile Dundee.

Location – Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park.

Highlights  Aboriginal art, stunning natural scenery, rockpools to cool off in 

View from the top of Ubirr

This film is about as Australian as you get. Like Kangaroos, barbies (the grilling kind, not the doll kind) and XXXX, it’s instantly recognisable as an Australian classic.

The Australian parts of the film were mostly filmed in Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Two key scenes were filmed at Ubirr (pictured), a massive bit of rock overlooking a floodplain (conveniently full of crocodiles) and Gunlom, a waterfall featuring a pool, handy for a bit of spearfishing (in the film at least!).

Both of these sites are absolutely worth the visit, Crocodile Dundee aside: Ubirr for the vistas across the floodplain and huge numbers of ancient aboriginal paintings, Gunlom for the refreshing swimming hole and huge waterfall.

Film – Mad Max 2.

Location – Silverton, New South Wales.

Highlights – The spookily abandoned ghost town.

outback road mad max australia silverton

Once a booming mining town playing host to over three thousand inhabitants, Silverton has now become a ghost town with less than fifty permanent residents. This hasn’t stopped an absolute multitude of films being shot here, with arguably the most famous being the post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson-a-thon that is Mad Max 2.

The pub, one of the main features of the town, has details on all the films that were filmed in the area, with photos of cast, crew and productions. It also has Max’s car from the film parked outside. Which is pretty cool. The small town, now home to a number of artists as well as tea shops, is worth a wander around, although it won’t take long, and the views of the barren landscape surrounds are breathtaking.

Film – Australia.

Location – Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Highlights – Staggering outback scenery.

Rock formation - Western Australia - Australia

Whilst perhaps not the box office smash that Baz Luhrmann may have hoped for, one thing this epic did manage to achieve was a demonstration of quite spectacular outback scenery. The film focuses particularly on the scenery of the Kimberley region in the north-eastern part of Western Australia.

There are a myriad locations featured, as the Kimberley region is roughly the same size as the state of Victoria, so there is a lot to choose from, including the amazing Gibb River Road and Purnululu National Park. Once I had given up on the plot of the film, and focused instead on viewing it as a giant tourist brochure for Australia, I enjoyed the whole thing a lot more.

Those were four films that, in my opinion, showcased some amazing Australian scenery. If you happen to be passing by these areas, and need an extra excuse for a visit, hopefully this will have swayed your opinion! Let me know if I've missed your favourite Australian film location off my list in the comments below.

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