Along the Away

travel, dream, create, inspire, appreciate

Archive for February, 2015

I am now breaking the post-New Zealand holiday catch-up transmission to share something much more recent.

Last month I had the opportunity to go on my first overseas work trip! The company I work for is an Australian owned and operated company so opportunities to do business outside Australia have been limited in the past (that’s eleven years – I’m a stayer!). However, we are currently tendering for contracts in Singapore… so I got to go there for three days!

Business of course was the first priority and it consumed most of the time I was there. We stayed at the Furama Riverfront hotel which was just wonderful for our purposes. I wrote a review on TripAdvisor about it, but in summary the rooms were modern and functional, and the staff were so friendly – particularly in the business lounge. They greeted us cheerfully every morning and were so accommodating to our group of ten taking over the conference room. They kept the cappuccinos coming to fuel our long working days.

Fast forward through that bit, which was heaps of fun for me but no doubt fairly boring to you. On the Friday, after we had delivered the presentation we went there to do, we all headed to Sky on 57 for a special lunch on level 57 of the amazing Marina Bay Sands building.

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

We enjoyed the three course ‘executive lunch’ there – it was delicious and is beautifully presented!

Sky on 57 Restaurant meal

That’s all I’ll say about the food, the pictures say it all. The next day I headed out with my colleagues to the Gardens by the Bay. We had spotted the gardens from the top of the Marina Bay Sands the day before and for obvious reasons they had drawn our attention. I read a review in the Sydney Morning Herald calling the gardens something out of Avatar…. and yes, they really do seem like something out of Avatar with somewhat other-worldly, playfully-vibrant infrastructure (not to mention the thriving plant life!)

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The outer gardens are free to wander around, that in itself makes for a lovely visit: a walkway along the water, various groves, ponds and nature walks and an awesome kids water playground.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

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Included in the paid ticket is entry into the two big glass domes and the tall purple flower structures.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The domes were so impressive, a very unique experience.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The first we went into was a mountain environment. Total eery Avatar moment. The air is really cool and floating metal walkways wind around and up the ‘mountain’. All the plants – and there is an abundance of them – are what would grow in a cool mountain climate – ie, not Singapore.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

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Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The second dome was warm and the air was sweet. It was full of…

Flower Dome, Singapore

Flowers!

Flower Dome, Singapore

Galore!

Flower Dome, Singapore

Plants!

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

And art.

Ants in the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

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My favourite was this one; a gift from Changi Airport to the gardens, a sculptured family made out of bronze showing how visitors to Singapore leave a piece of themselves behind when they leave.

Flower Dome art, Singapore

I was most fascinated by the purple things so it was great to discover that it’s possible to get the lift halfway up one and stroll along the elevated walkway between the others.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Such a great way to see the city and experience the innovation and creative thinking of the people – it blew me away!

Unfortunately my time in Singapore then came to an end. My workmates and I had time for a quick wander through Marina Bay Sands and a shopping stop at Vivo mall before we headed to the airport for the overnight flight back to Sydney.

Changi airport is supposed to be pretty amazing – I’m not sure to be honest; maybe it depends on the terminal. There was this pretty awesome ‘media-tree’ when you can snap a picture and it is added to the mix.

Changi Airport, Singapore

I was able to enjoy the QANTAS flight home as the work deadline was behind me so I cozied up in my window seat and watched some movies (how good is the Skeleton Twins?!?)

As always, the window view helps pass the time as well :-) And that was the end of the whirlwind four day work trip!

Flying home to Sydney

Skiing was a big deal for me as I have only done it once in my lifetime, and it was on the disaster scale. I was seventeen, on a student trip to the USA west coast on the G’day USA program. We went to the snow somewhere in the extreme north west of the country, I can’t even remember the name, it was south of the Canadian border. Our group instructor seemed bored and not that bothered. He gave us a half-hearted lesson before putting us all on the chairlift up to the top (it seemed like a ginormous mountain, but I concede that time may have increased the dramatic scale in my memory). The chairlift was fun, but when we got to the top I didn’t know what to do! I put my feet down, slid off the chair and then kept sliding. Down. The. Mountain. The good news is that I didn’t crash. The bad news is that I didn’t know how to turn or control my speed at all, so I picked up speed until I was literally airborne for half of the descent. When I neared the bottom I saw that it leveled out to end in an excavation pit where there were trucks and bulldozers (again, memory scale maybe be slightly distorted). So to avoid skiing off the cliff, I had to throw myself sideways, where I cut my cheek on the ice. Epic ski fail.

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

Cut to 15 years later and I thought I’d give it another go.

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

Because I was on my own I visited Snow Biz the afternoon before to book in a gear hire beginner package which included ski and clothing hire, lessons and bus transport up the mountain. I rocked up very early the next morning to get fitted for skis, pants and jacket then was one of the first to get in line for the buses, which depart right outside the shop. There are two options – The Remarkables and Coronet. I did some googling which would be best for a beginner and decided to go to The Remarkables.

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

The bus ride was easy, though pretty intense considering the steep, winding climb on a narrow, snowy road! We arrived and I felt a bit out of the loop on what/how. Everyone was there in friend or family groups and seemed to know what they were doing. The intrepid solo traveller is not immune to occasional pangs for the comfort and ease of being with friends. But the only option is to brush it aside and make it work. I watched for awhile and then changed into my ski boots there in the car park and then trudged up to the people-conveyor-belts (what are they called?) and to the building with everyone else.

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

I figured it out from there – I put my bag in the storage room, leaned my skis on one of the numbered stands, went to the cafeteria for a coffee, snapped some photos and then it was time for my first lesson!

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

Luckily there were some other solo peeps in my group so we quickly forged a bond of support to keep each other’s morale up and clapped and cheered our gradual improvement. Our instructor, a twenty-something Welsh guy, was absolutely wonderful. Funny, kind and understanding – he played a huge part in building my confidence. We had a two hour morning lesson, stopped for a lunch break and then had an afternoon two hour lesson.

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

I couldn’t believe that by the end of the day I was capable of skiing down the beginner slope, controlling my direction and speed and most importantly STAYING UPRIGHT!

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

I had a blast the whole day, the lessons were fun, the environment was stunning and I felt pretty proud for having tried something new that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I would love to come back another time for a week or so, and I have to say, I think it would be a lot of fun with a group of friends. Add it to the travel list :-)

Beginners Lesson at The Remarkables

Glenorchy Horse Riding

While in Queenstown, I went horse riding at Glenorchy, arranged with Dart Stables who came and picked up a group of us in town. It was a 45 minute scenic drive to the stables travelling along Lake Waktipu with a couple of photo stops along the way which was appreciated… I mean, look at this scene.

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

When we got to the stables we had the option of borrowing gear for the ride which was a good idea given the river crossings we would be making. I borrowed some gumboots and a big waterproof riding jacket – I felt like I was off on a mountaineering adventure, but better to be prepared than sorry (and wet and cold).

Glenorchy Horse Riding

I went on the two Hour ‘River Wild’ ride which was perfect for all riding abilities – especially beginners!

Glenorchy Horse Riding

It was breathtaking.

Glenorchy Horse Riding

We meandered along the northern part of Lake Wakatipu with a mountain range backdrop and lots of glacial river crossings.

Glenorchy Horse Riding

I rode a beautiful horse named Merlin – he was very kind, and only a little bit curious about wandering off the track a couple of times.

Glenorchy Horse Riding

The two female riding guides travelling with us were great, they kept all the horses happily in line and gave us plenty of instruction in regards to riding through the river crossings and how to lean backwards to make it easier for our horse.

Lake Wakatipu

I was just enthralled by the beauty of the mountains and the golden light.

Glenorchy Horse Riding

As the sun set the temperature dropped – my feet were so so so cold! My toes felt like little pebbles in my shoes by the time we got back – I couldn’t feel them at all, and that was with two pairs of merino socks on, so be warned if you read this ahead of doing the ride – rug up your feet!

Glenorchy Horse Riding

Totally worth it though!

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My time in Queenstown was jam-packed with activities – fittingly so, as Queenstown has the reputation of being one of the world’s adventure tourism capitals.

I skiied! I luge-ed! I horse-rode! I danced!

I loved the winter village feel of Queenstown. The streets were bustling and everyone was rugged up warm and cheerful.

Queenstown

Every direction offers a postcard view – it’s the mountain horizon that does it. Even the view from our apartment was pretty special.

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I explored with some friends from the bus tour over the three days we were there. On one night I went with Mel and Michael to a fabulous whisky bar with a big fireplace and hard-core bartenders who laboured intensely to create a very fancy Old Fashioned for my friend and an expresso martini for me – both were awesome.

Queenstown drinks

We kicked on to meet a large group at the quintessential backpacker nightclub, The Buffalo Club, where we drank cocktail jars and danced the night away.

The next day I rode the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak on Ben Lomond Mountain, which was well worthwhile for the amazing views at the top.

Skyline Gondola

Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown from above

While I was up there I figured I may as well ride the luge – it was fun for novelty’s sake and not expensive, but the view is definitely the highlight.

Skyline Luge Queenstown

We traveled back down and walked into town to meet some others at Fergburger – the famous burger hotspot. Being a vegetarian I wasn’t sure if I’d get the same experience as it’s the Fergburger original that everyone raves about – but they had a few veggie options so I tried the “Bun Laden” – a falafel burger. It was pretty damn good actually!

In the afternoon I wandered around on my own for awhile – time for some solo time-out! The evening was beautiful down by Steamer Wharf, I even appreciated the chill as I walked around, it lent a special atmosphere.

Queenstown Lake front

Queenstown Lake front

Queenstown Lake front

That night we went to the Below Zero Ice Bar – which, you guessed it, is made of ICE! Including the cups…

Below Zero Ice Bar

And the decor…

Below Zero Ice Bar

And the light fixtures…

Below Zero Ice Bar

Basically everything! It was fun to visit for awhile, we stayed for about two hours. To be honest, it’s not really that cold (compared to being outdoors in NZ haha!) There is a photo booth in there plus an ice puck table and vodka on the rocks – plenty to amuse oneself for a couple of hours.

For dinner, Mel, Michael and I kicked on down to Steamer Wharf where we’d independently walked around earlier that day and seen some interesting restaurants.

We walked back and forth a few times before deciding on ‘Public Kitchen‘ which was quite special. Their menu is based on collective dining and sharing food, so while we all ordered our own ‘main’ meat or seafood we ordered a number of delicious veggie side accompaniments – yummo! We were there for a few hours, chatting and laughing and sharing tales from their life in Darwin (fascinating – I want to go even more now!) and my travel stories from India. Seriously, it’s the people you meet while on the road that make the most lasting memories; it was one of my favourite nights.

I’ll share more in my next couple of posts about my skiing and horse riding adventures. I would love to return to Queenstown again, either in winter so I could properly learn to ski, or even in Spring or Summer to go hiking and enjoy these great outdoors.

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If I HAD to pick one single highlight of my trip to NZ it would probably, most likely, OK definitely be the glacier heli-hike I did on Fox Glacier. It really was one of those top-of-the-top travel experiences. Sure, everything you do when traveling is a special experience and rates high on the life scale far above the base line of sitting at home on the couch. But there are some once in a lifetime epic experiences that skyrocket off that scale to be seared into your memory forever. The glacier hike and opportunity to poke around in some ice caves was absolutely amazing – plus, you get there by helicopter!

There was a lot of debate on the road and even amongst travellers online about whether it’s worth doing the half day (4 hour) heli-hike, which is expensive at NZ$400, or doing a much cheaper half day hike or even a drive-and-hike instead. I understand that there’s a point where you just can’t multiply the dollars in your pocket, but if you do have the cash and you’re just weighing up where else you could spend it – don’t hesitate. This is one of those things you have to do while you’re there.

I went with the company Fox Guides. They fit you out in any gear you need; I was wearing water resistant hiking pants already but opted to wear one of their water-proof, insulated jackets plus their leather hiking boots. I had my waterproof Palladium boots but because you wear crampons on the ice I preferred the assurance of a perfect fit and performance on their own hiking boots.

We were assembled into groups based on on our individual weights and then had to stand together on a massive scale to check we weren’t over the helicopter requirements. I went with a few of my travel buddies from the bus tour which was great – we were all giddy with excitement! We were group 2 out of 4 helicopter loads, so we got to watch the group in front of us follow procedure as they ran to the helicopter and hopped in. It took off in a thunder of noise and arc-ed up and disappeared in between the mountains. The excitement mounted for our group as the second helicopter landed and it was our turn to beeline for the door, jump in and enjoy the ride!

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It was a very smooth flight, all of us grinning ear-to-ear with our headphones on and eyes pinned out the window. The mountains loomed up and around us, the higher up we went it dawned on me just how high and big they are, a perspective you just can’t fathom looking up from land or birds-eye from a plane.

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The glacier is an expansive long stretch of ice holding apart the opposing stark mountain sides that it runs between.

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Fox Glacier Heli Hike

I was studying it for a long time before I noticed that a couple of the specks below were actually the other helicopter and the first group standing on the ice! Seriously, just as you think you’ve wrapped your head around the scale of the area it knocks you over again. We circled around as the group below all crouched down with their heads tucked and hands over their ears.

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The helicopter lifted off the ground and drifted away back to pick up another group. Ours descended to the drop off spot and we touched down lightly. I stumbled out and beelined carefully over the ice to the group, we crouched and braced as the helicopter lifted off sending gusts of wind and sheets of ice across our huddle. Once it was gone we gingerly stood up and with the help of our guide put on our crampons which was not too difficult.

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What a godsend they were! As soon as they were on I felt sturdy and safe, I could walk on the sleekest patch of ice and stay totally in control.

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We followed our guide in a single file, taking care to step where he stepped (don’t want to fall through into a cave!) It was unreal, unlike any other environment I’ve ever been on.

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Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world with the odd distinction of ending in rainforest, 13km away from its beginning in the Southern Alps. It has both retreated and expanded over the years – the vegetation revealing its past.

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My favourite thing about the hike was walking through the ice tunnels.

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They’re cave-like, but not far below the surface, most of the time you can see the sky through gaps and holes in the ice above – they’re more like crevices I suppose.

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They are just so beautiful.

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Peaceful and ethereal.

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Smooth and glossy, surprisingly dry to touch.

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At times the tunnel was so tight I had to contort my body to slide through – and slide is the right word. If it weren’t for the smooth slippery walls of the tunnel I’m not sure I could have pushed myself through. I had to contort, lean into the wall and slide around, trying not to fall in a puddle once I’d made it through the tricky part.

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Sometimes the ice was solid above me, but mostly I looked up to see a sliver of the sky between the curve of the ice above.

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We climbed back up to the ground level of the glacier and crunched our way back towards the helicopter pick-up point, stopping for some group happy snaps.

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Our guide chopped up the ice so that once we took our crampons off we didn’t slip and slide.

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We repeated the whole crouch and brace routine again before it was our turn to hop on for our ride back to base.

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Lucky me – I got to sit in the front! I was the ‘co-pilot’ (in my head). Susie looks a bit worried but was happy really.

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The whole morning was just wonderful, I loved very minute! If you ever have the opportunity to go in your lifetime – do it!

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This was a day I woke up with excitement fluttering in my stomach. As soon as my eyes opened I remembered what the day ahead held and I jumped out of bed with giddy anticipation, a bit nervous but with a big smile on my face. It was one of those holiday days where you’re going to do something you’ve planned to do before even leaving home.

A once in a lifetime thing.

Like SWIMMING. WITH. DOLPINS.

DUSKY DOLPHINS!

But the Dusky Dolphin pod lives off the east coast, and I was still in Nelson on the northern tip of the South Island. So onto the bus we got for the drive to Kaikoura, back through the Rai Valley and the Marlborough Wine Region. The early morning start was beautiful, I had my eyes and camera pressed to the bus window.

Driving Rai Valley

Driving Rai Valley

As we drove down the coast we stopped at Ohau Point to watch some New Zealand fur seals. They were cute, but pretty lazy, so we stopped long enough to take photos and stretch our legs then got on our way again.

Ohua Point

Driving Rai Valley

Driving Rai Valley

Driving Rai Valley

While most of the bus group went on a whale watching cruise, myself and my new friends Susie, a fellow Aussie from Sydney, and Emma, from England, went out on the dolphin swimming cruise with Dolphin Encounter. It was expensive but worth it for the most amazing day!

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

‘Most amazing’ is an epic statement to make considering I spent some of said awesome day emptying my stomach into a plastic bucket.

AND into the ocean.

Metres from a Sperm Whale.

This is the price one must pay on intrepid sea adventures.

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

The sea swell was classified moderate-rough and the pod proved a little elusive to find, so we were on the water for over an hour before we spotted some small groups from the pod.

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

A lovely girl on the crew, who spent most of the time handing out and rinsing out plastic buckets, said it took us twice as long as normal to find them which would be why so many of us experienced sea sickness, and why I had it even though I’ve never been sick at sea before. Motion sickness has never been my problem, I can read a novel in 8pt font in a 4WD jeep driving on rural dirt tracks and I won’t even notice. But this time, I won’t lie, I felt pretty rotten.

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

Luckily, I fell into a cycle of 10 minutes feeling queasy, 5 minutes over the bucket, 10 minutes feeling just fine and dandy.

I’m grateful for small mercies, those 10 minute periods of dandiness meant I got to get in the water with the dolphins and have an absolute blast doing so.

Once we found the whole pod the captain positioned the boat a short distance away and we all popped into the ocean off the back of the boat. It took a bit of coordination with all the gear on and the excitement coursing adrenaline through our veins. It was then up to the dolphins to join us – they did not hesitate for a second!

It’s hard to describe, but let me try.

I plunged into the icy water and bobbed between the hectic chaos above surface and the eerie calm underwater. I pushed away from the crowd trying to get away from the flippers kicking my head, the arms splashing air bubbles in front of my goggles, the noise and disturbance all around me.

I swam toward some calm and started seeing flashes past my goggles; flippers of a different kind. Long noses, sleek dusty grey blurs, eyeballs passing right by my eyeballs. My breath caught in my chest, my heart thudded, I couldn’t breathe. The coldness of the water and the adrenaline seized me. A golden moment in time, pure joy, the power of the universe flowing into me and out of me as it does in only the most special of moments.

I bobbed up to the surface to take 10 seconds to pull myself together. I wanted to laugh, to cry, to throw up, to leap, to reach out.

I took some deep breaths. Adjusted my goggles. Calmed the hell down.

I ducked back under and took my time just hovering, watching. There were hundreds of dolphins darting all around me, every which way, it was unbelievable. I was conscious not to touch them but they had no qualms brushing past me, but oh so fast. I probably couldn’t have intentionally hugged one if I tried (I didn’t). I remembered what we’d been told and started to mimic their behavior. We wanted them to think we were just like them, a special kind of dolphin that had come to visit. I squealed through my snorkel, I flipped one hand back and forth and spun in a circle while they did the same around me. I was playing with dusky dolphins! Bloody amazing!!

I’m sure to the dolphins, we’re just indistinguishable to them as they are to us. But there were moments where I locked eyes with one for a fleeting moment and I wondered; what is this connection? Two species playing, one land based, one ocean dwelling. No reason to be here doing this together other than heartfelt curiosity on the part of one with the intelligence and means to adapt to an alternative environment, just for awhile. And the other, heartfelt curiosity and the intelligence to recognise the opportunity.

I was seriously blown away.

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

It was the best day, ending in a sunset cruise back to shore.

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim

Kaikoura Dusky Dolphin Swim