Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

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Beautiful also from the surface, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen all the way from space

Diving is like dreaming. Everything is a little blurry, movements slow and sounds muffled. The corals glide past me when I float forwards observing the life around me. I’m not really part of this strange world. I’m just visiting. When I break the surface, it is like waking up.

It has been six years since my previous time scuba diving. Way too long. It is high time to go visit the ocean again. And it would be a shame to leave Australia without saying hi to the Great Barrier Reef. Who knows how long it is going to last. Last year some reporters already announced the Reef to be dead, but that was a false announcement. The warm water temperatures have been enforcing the bleaching and large parts of the reef have lost its colour, but it is not yet dead. (Here is an interesting article about the current state of the GBR)

The 2 300 kilometres long Great Barrier Reef lies off the coast of Queensland in the northeast Australia. We head to Cairns, a popular destination for those who wish to visit the GBR. Summertime is not the best time to visit tropical north as the temperatures reach nearly 40C and the beaches are closed because of the stingers. Air condition and public outdoor pool are truly appreciated. Locals say that the winter is nicest time in Cairns as it is usually +25C then. However, late summer is fine as well: the shops are open, restaurants full and people out at the pool.

To get to the Reef one has to go with a diving company. We didn’t book in advance but manage to get places aboard Down Under for the day after tomorrow. Full day on board of a large modern vessel, two dives, gear & stinger suit, lunch& snack (although we were always the last ones to finish the dives so there was barely any food left) = 209AUD. 150 people packed into a luxury yacht does not sound ideal to me but there are no smaller, less flamboyant options available. Luckily not all the passengers go diving. Half of the people snorkel, some just chill, some do intro dives and only 10-20 people dive knowing what they are doing.

After a bumpy ride out to the reef half of the tourists are seasick. I feel sorry for them, but I’m getting excited to go diving. Snorkellers rush into the water and create a happy colourful mess that the crew is trying to look after. Divers take turns. The crew fixes the gear and I just need to put the vest on and jump in. Because we have only one dive master diving on board those who want can go wander around the reef in pairs. Those who want can go with the dive master as a group. I follow the pink mask and yellow fins of the dive master and check out the things he points out. Colourful fish, beautiful coral, sea sausage, jellyfish… there is a lot to see, but frankly, I expected the reef to be livelier. After two dives and some snorkelling its time to call it a day and head back.

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Down Under is a fine dive tour/cruise company, but it has its downsides. My brother spent another day with Quicksilver and said that they were more diver-focused. Less hassle and more interesting diving locations. And the food was better. But then again, it is a bit more expensive.

Hot Stuff

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New Zealand consists of active volcanos: it is constantly boiling and steaming underneath the pretty surface. In the middle of the North Island is especially active volcanic area Taupo Volcanic Zone. The largest city in the area is Rotorua, which is an interesting travel destination with redwoods, spas and geothermal parks. There are several places around Rotorua where one can go goggle boiling water and bubbling mud. Some are very expensive, some free. Some are better than others.

Orakei Korako

Geothermal Park Orakei Korako is 45 minutes drive away from Rotorua. Lonely Planet has praised it as “the best thermal area left in New Zealand”. Adult ticket costs 36.00AUD. Ferry takes the visitors from the visitor centre to the other side of the river where steaming water runs down the rocks. I can feel the heat radiating from the ground. Tough algae enjoys the heat of the rocs decorating them with the shades of orange and green.

The route through the park takes one to two hours. It visits hot springs, mud pools and the Ruatapu/Aladdin’s Cave – one of two existing caves that have been found from a geothermal field. There are up to 23 active geysers, but I do not see any of them erupting. Along the way, wee info boards provide information on the plants that surround geothermal spots. The ferns and trees provide shade and an escape from the volcanic smells. Look out points give a beautiful view over the colourful rocky fields and lush vegetation. There are some twenty others in the park while we explore it, no crowds or lines.

Te Puia

A circle of arching pillars by the road on the edge of Rotorua marks the entrance of Te Puia where the visitor can spend all day and all his money. Te Puia combines geothermal wonders and maori culture: national art and craft schools teach and practice traditional wood and stone carving and weaving there. The centre offers a selection of experience packages which include dinners and maori shows. The basic ticket to the area costs 52.00AUD. That gives access to geothermal field and Kiwi house. One can also have a look at the maori style buildings, waka boat and see art students performing.

When Pōhutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere, erupts it spits out white water up to 10 meters. Sometimes it can reach 30 meters but even 10 is impressive. Droplets around it sparkle and the water hisses and fizzes. People lean on the railing taking pictures while a miniature train hauls more tourists to admire the geyser. The ground is hot. Are my shoes melting?

The geyser is great but the Kiwi house is a big disappointment. Dark room with red lights is separated into two: one for the people and one for two Kiwi birds. Night and day are reversed in the room to allow people to see the nocturnal bird. However, the glass is dirty and reflects the room so that it is extremely difficult to see through the glass. When you add in the people who come in with flash lights and crying babies, there is no point even trying. I have to go there twice to see the butt of the Kiwi waddle in a corner.

Kuirau Park

If spending around 50AUD for a ticket to see a few hot springs feels ridiculous, you can head to Kuirau Park. This park is located in the centre of Rotorua and it is completely free. It is a little outdoor area with mud pools, hot springs and a crater lake. In other words: much of the same stuff as the others. Just on a smaller scale. In addition, there are free thermal foot baths for tired feet. There are also picnic tables and benches if you need a rest (or a breather, like they say here) or want to have a picnic lunch. The park is a green grassy park but the paths are paved and the springs and pools have fences around them so the park is safe and easy to get around.

Wether it costs or not, it is not guaranteed that you’ll see everything that is promised. Some geysers erupt every hour, some once a day and some prefer sleeping. They are rarely pedant and can not be forced to erupt when the tourists ask for it. Geothermal activity depends on the rainfall and during the summer the geysers tend to be smaller and mud pools dryer. But they are still pretty great.

Cathedral and a Creature

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The magnificent Cathedral Cove

“Did you see it? Was it still there? So awesome! I mean so awesome!” A young American guy shouts at his friend as she gets up from the water. She takes off her mask and fins and smiles widely, “Yeah, it was amazing! I have never seen a ray before”.

On the east side of the Coromandel peninsula is a town called Hahei. It is a small one, but somehow it feels bigger than Coromandel town which on the map is about three times larger. Maybe it is the amount of tourists that come and go. The tourist magnet is the Cathedral Cove. The cove, familiar to some from the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, is only a short walk away from the town.

Signs in the beginning of the path give an estimate of 1.5 hours to the Cove. Maybe it takes that long with high heels and a walking stick, but an average person gets there faster. Sturdy, partly paved path climbs over the hill and follows the shoreline. The path passes by two smaller beaches which are recommended snorkelling spots. We stop by the Gemstone bay. It is a boulder beach, not very comfortable for sun bathing, but interesting below the surface. It is within the Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve which protects the marine ecosystems on the area. The signs on the shore as well as on the buoys on the water have information on the habitats and the species found underwater.

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Gemstone bay is not the most comfortable one

Water is surprisingly cold, the winds have been bringing colder water in recently, but after the first shock the body gets used to it. We hired snorkelling gear form the local diving shop for the day ~25AUD/set. Green and blue, big fish, small fish, striped fish, funny fin fish… Plants and sea urchins. And then I see it. A dark blue stingray glides underneath me. It swims slowly making a big circle. I follow it. Stingrays don’t sting unless they are annoyed. But still, creepy. And so beautiful.

The other beach before Cathedral Cove is called Stingray Bay. Now I get the name. The idea of being surrounded by a whole bunch of rays is a bit nerving so we continue straight to the Cathedral Cove. High smooth walls arch towards each other creating a triangle shaped walk-through cove. The sea on the other side sparkles and the silky sand slides underneath toes. Long beaches on both sides of the cove are dotted with people sunbathing, swimming and taking photos. Despite the people, the area is calm. No loud noises, no bright signs. No shops, no cafes. Just nature. Stingrays have chosen a good place to chill.

Curvy Coromandel

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The drop to the ocean on the left is over 20 meters. A few straws of hay play the part of a fence in between the drop and the skinny road. A hasty Audi driver takes over a truck between the curves. This is the Coromandel. The roads are very scenic yet very chilling. And they get even better. Only one lane left and no pavement. Curly ribbon road follows the steep mountain slopes up and down. Speed limit 100km/h. Remember to keep left and try to stay on the road.

Coromandel peninsula is a beautiful holiday destination the New Zealanders, followed by tourists, like to go for a weekend. It is about 1.5 hour drive away from Auckland. There are no busses (although there are few ferries to Auckland) so hiring a car is the best option. Roads might feel a bit hazardous but nothing forbids driving slowly. If you hire a car, keep in mind that you have to have a driving license that is accepted in NZ. That is, the license should be in english or accompanied by an international driving license or a translation.

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Coastal roads are beautiful but the driver might not have a chance to admire the view

Coromandel town is a small town. At first it seems poor and run down; some other towns we drive through while in the Coromandel are lot more attractive. Thames for example is a western style old gold mining town with lots of cafes and interesting looking inns. However, Coromandel town does get busier on the weekend. There are a few restaurants and a grocery store and the Top 10 Holiday Park where we stayed was fine and not too expensive. Most of all, it is located nicely in the middle of the Coromandel so it is easy to plan day trips to all over the peninsula.

The serpentine gravel road we are driving leads to the northern tip of the peninsula. It ends at the Stony Bay campsite. The other end of the road is 11km away at the Fletcher Bay campsite. Coromandel Coastal Walkway is a nice moderate hike along the coast. The path starts to follow the coast within a half shaded forest of green firths and thin, long trees. The later part of the trail wanders on the grassy hills among the cows. The ocean is always near and if you are lucky you might see a whale or a dolphin there. At least that’s what the procedures say.

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There are drop off – pick up tours available, where you walk only one way, available from Coromandel town. But if you are on your own you have to return to the beginning by foot. 22 km in a mostly flat terrain is doable and requires only good shoes and enough water and food (no drinking water available at the campsites). Of course you can always decide to walk the track halfway and turn back then, or camp at the other campsite. But do not use all your energy and the daylight on the walk if you have to drive home! The roads do not get any better while you are walking. Even though the park ranger at the Stony Bay said that driving in the dark is all right because it is easy to see the other cars, I would not try that. I’m more keen on seeing where the road goes.

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Speed limit only 100km/h

Around Auckland

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Fastfood restaurants and traffic lights are the current reality of Auckland. Queen street is lined with fashion clothing stores and the harbour hosts huge, shiny boats. However, modern Auckland is lot more. A great way to explore the city is by bike. You can get away from the very centre of the city without being restricted by Hop on Hop off bus timetables and routes. Bikes can be hired from local shops for approx 40AUD/day (Adventure Capital).

A pleasant bike route from the centre to Mission Bay follows the curvy shoreline. Tamaki Drive promenade is an easy and safe route as it has a separate bike lane from the beginning to the end. Bike travels effortlessly on the flat ground and there is time to admire the sea views. Approximately 8 km route leads to a sandy beach. Perhaps there happens to be a craft faire when you get there. Rows of small tents filled with useful and useless things, people marvelling the strange products and kids playing in the water fountain. Even without the faire it is a nice place for a swim and a picnic.

Bike is an easy way to get around the city and to the places like Domain and Mount Eden as well. Auckland Domain is a green park where old trees, calm pathways, and grassy fields surround the Auckland Museum. Families with kids, old couples and a locals feeding the swans and ducks. This park could be anywhere in Europe. It is a destination for a sunny day as well as a rainy day.

The Eden, despite its name, is far from a green and lush paradise. It is one of the many volcanos in Auckland. It’s bare slopes and crater are covered mostly by grass, but the view to the city is great. You can see the whole of Auckland and both oceans surrounding it. The path is quite steep so it might be wise to lock the bikes underneath the hill and walk to the top.

Both destinations are located uphill above the city centre. That means that you will get familiar with the hills. Taking the straightest and the steepest road up might not be the best idea (although you’ll get a great ride down on a street like that!). Wondering a bit is good and might take you to unexpected places and enables you to see real neighbourhoods where local people live. Might even spot a house which has a baby doll sized superhero character standing on every window! I’m sure no tourist info will tell you a way to that house.

Tāmaki Herenga Waka

 

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Nga Tumanako performing Kapa Haka

His eyes are about to pop, the tongue is hanging out and a roar shakes the whole body. People stare at him. Him and the ten other men on the stage making similar faces to the audience that sits on bright coloured beanbags taking photos. Meanwhile two carvers continue decorating wooden statues and a man is getting his shoulder covered with traditional tattoos. What could be a better way to start a trip in New Zealand than arriving in the middle of a Maori Heritage Festival?

Tāmaki Herenga Waka is a three day culture festival held in Auckland’s waterfront. It offers a peak into the history of the New Zealand. Maori music, kapa haka performances, story telling, weaving, crafts and more… Young maori explains the story behind the facial tattoo, moko, and the general meaning of tattoos in different parts of the face and the body. His squirly tattoos on the back and shoulders represent his family history. The visitors can get their own temporary moko. Men with full face paint and women with chin decoration and blackened lips wander around Auckland. Furious looking children hold their parents hands and lip-shape bruises appear on the cheeks of the babies.

 

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Enjoying the festival, good food and the sunshine

The festival covers the ancient culture of the island but the modern New Zealand is quite different. Few weeks will not be enough to explore the whole NZ but I’ll try to make the most of it.

(Thanks to the poor internet connection this post is about a week late already)

the Whole World in a Day

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“Look at the camera and say: I wish I was in…” I’m standing in a photo booth surrounded by rolling hills and snowy trees. I chose that landscape from the selection. “Whenever you are ready.” In this photo booth I can wish I were anywhere in Finland. But today I can wish I were anywhere in the world really. And if I’m not careful, I might soon find myself from a plane to Turkey or Tanzania.

Annual Travel Fair has invaded Messukeskus, the Fair Center in Pasila, Finland. The whole world is visiting. There is Finnish archipelago, small stands form a network of islands in the corner, there is Sweden with neatly organised stands, and somewhere behind Qatar and Thailand, there is a selection of African countries all decorated with impressive pictures of wildlife. 80 different countries all over the world are represented at the fair. Travel organisations, airlines and travel destinations advertise, give guidance and sell their products to the visitors who meander around the massive hall. Over 60 000 visitors come each year, mostly from Finland but also from the other side of the border.

“I wish I was in the Northern Finland, skiing on the hills, surrounded by snow and nature.” I think I just gave my permission to use that wish for marketing purposes. I grab my free I wish I was in Finland canvas bag and dive into the crowd. My aim is to find out more about Australia and New Zealand. But how can I find anything from the labyrinth of the stands?

Cheap flights, luxurious travel packages, exotic destinations… Free candy, free leaflets and free raffles. I write my name and (thrash) email address on raffle tickets featuring prizes such as bicycles and Le Cordon Bleu cooking classes in Paris. All the other 60 000 will take part in the same raffles so the chances to win are minimal. But why not? Among the stands, there are few stages where talks and interviews, as well as music performances from Moomin children’s songs to Sami rap, engage the audience.

I do find the Australia stand. Unfortunately, there is only one small stand, Australian Tours, for the whole continent. I pick up the leaflets featuring New Zealand and Australia and flip them through. I have to wait 10 minutes before I get a chance to chat with the people at the stand, but at last I get some answers and tips. “The rainforest is another must see in Cairns. Can’t go without a guide, though. There are day trips where you take a small mini-bus-like-car and you serpentine in the thicket alongside the river. It’s really good”. Well, maybe I’ll check out the rainforest. Next week I’ll take off to NZ and then to Australia.

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