Before I begin, I must warn everyone that this is the trip report of trip reports – I have 47 days, and ten countries (counting the 3 in the UK I visited) to cover, so bear with me.
Last October/November, I took off on my first round-the-world trip. Planned right through my student days; finally I had a job, the cash was in hand, the paid leave earned, and I was off.
While boarding Air New Zealand Link’s SAAB 340 at New Plymouth, last flight out for the day, we were warned that there was a rough flight ahead, and I strapped myself tightly into my seat as we taxied along the runway, before turning for take-off. Take-off was a typical one out of New Plymouth; that is shoved back into your seat, barely able to hear yourself think, swinging off down the runway trying to keep on the centre line, then rising into the air, gear up, last look back at the lights of the city, and banking left to avoid the Methanol plant to the north at Motunui. We flew in s-shaped bends around the worst of the weather and bumped all the way to Auckland. The kind and attentive flight attendant managed to get some tea and coffee and biscuits into us between the worst of the bumps. Then the Captain came on: “If we can we will do a visual approach into Auckland via Weymouth, otherwise it will be an instrument approach via Whitford which means another fifteen to twenty minutes of this.” We were all dying to get off this horrible flight by that point, and we all peered out the windows, trying to sight the bright lights of Auckland amongst the murky darkness. Fortunately for us, Weymouth appeared through a gap in the clouds, and we zoomed down and lined up for approach into Auckland. Other flights that evening were not so lucky. Apart from a couple of nasty drops this was fairly uneventful considering the rest of the flight, and we were down, on to the rain soaked runway in a shower of spray. Our F/A ushered her slightly green cargo off the Saab and wished us a good evening in Auckland or our onward destination. (This flight connects with quite a few international flights out of Auckland.)
My baggage had been interlined through to APW, so I walked over to the International Terminal to sit and wait for the 10.30 departure to Samoa, with a bit of trepidation. By the look of other people in the gate lounge, they were thinking the same thing.
We were not disappointed – the Air New Zealand Boeing 767-300 took off as if some dynamite had been let off under her rear, and rocketed into the clouds, sometimes up with vertical currents, sometimes a bit of a drop down, but mostly leaving our stomachs behind somewhere thousands of feet below. The Captain said we just had a bit of bumping ahead as we crossed the rest of a front. The bit of bumping lasted over an hour, delaying the meal service, not that I felt much like eating anyway. I gulped down three glasses of wine instead – get the money’s worth!
A couple of hours later, I had my first sight of the island of ‘Upolu – ringed with villages that seemed to flow into each other, judging by all the street lights. It looked like the entire island was ringed with a string of pearls. We did an orbit of the entire island, along the north, east, south, and west coasts, lining up for landing at Samoa’s Faleolo International Airport. It’s such a charming little airport, one jet on the apron at a time! The Immigration Hall was hot and sticky, with just a few fans stirring the hot still air. The immigration officer looked very suspiciously at the visas in my passport for Syria and Lebanon, and I explained my reasons for going (more later on that), and got my visitors stamp. Then out I went, met by the travel agency I had booked before leaving New Zealand, and driven to my hotel at Apia. When I got to the hotel, I found out that 20,000 homes in Auckland were without power, due to the storm we had just flown through.
I was at a delightful hotel out at Moto’otua, where you got tropical fruit, cold toast, and lukewarm tea for breakfast. I soon learned I had to make my own tea, but they were very kind people, and passed the time of day with their guests in an easy and friendly way. They also had lots of cold Vailima beer on sale, and a pool out the back of the hotel, with traditional Samoan fale in the garden. I went for walks – 4km up the valley to Vailima, the home of Robert Louis Stevenson. He lived at Vailima (five streams, or water in the hand, depending on the translation); for about four years, dying there of a stroke. There is an amazing room lined with tapa cloth, and Robert and his wife Fanny had separate bedrooms, one painted blue and with
his desk and chair and bed, and one lined with Californian Redwood for her next door. They had a hatch between their bedrooms, which they would either exchange remarks or insults, depending on their moods. I took off up to the top of Mount Vaea where their tombs are with a NZ family who were holidaying in Apia too. Lovely views out over Apia and the harbour, the jungle clad hills, and the plantation filled valleys.
I managed to get bitten by one of the many stray dogs that roam Apia’s streets and ended up at Apia Hospital to be patched up. Two other hotel guests ended up there after an excursion to the sliding rocks at Papase’ea went wrong.
Meanwhile I took off in a rented jeep with a guide from the hotel, reflecting guiltily that I had just spent the average monthly wage on its hire... The Baha’i temple is wonderful, eight sided with a roof of Niue limestone and geometrical gardens with yellow and red plants outside it. And I was sure there were more waterfalls above the small ones at Togitogiga, which meant we walked up the river for about two hours with no luck and got very wet. I’d recommend the beautiful gardens and look-out at Sopo’aga Falls, with each plant labelled with it’s Samoan, English, and Botanical names. However, the much higher Papapapa’ita’i Falls (100m – highest in Samoa) are free, and on the main Cross Island Road just below the Baha’i temple, dropping straight down a cliff into a forested gorge. The Fuipisia Falls on the Mulivaifagatola River are impressive too – supposedly the entrance free included a guide to the waterfall, but we had to find our own way there, along a slippery track with a 55m vertical drop and no hand rails to our left. No Occupational Safety and Health in Samoa! You can also stand at the top of the waterfall and look 55m straight down, if you’re brave enough. I settled for a side on view.
Back at the hotel, I did an excursion to Papase’ea myself. I took an Australian doctor with me, who volunteered for several months each year at the Apia Hospital, and the guy from the hotel. The Samoans take off down the moss covered rocks, and waterfalls there, while the palagi (white people) look on from the side and gasp in horror. I eventually tackled the smallest one (2m) – ending up in the pool at the bottom in a total heap, but the Samoans clapped and cheered anyway (!). As for the 5m and 10m ones – discretion was the better part of valour. No hospital visit this time, just paracetamol for a bruised butt.
Then after four eventful days in Samoa, it was off to Los Angeles, taking off at 2am, which is quite usual for international flights out of Faleolo for some reason. This flight was utterly boring, and very long. I don’t sleep well in aeroplanes, so marched into Los Angeles in a very lousy mood... and as for that ridiculous arrival form... do I intend to enter the USA to commit a crime... don’t get me started! Instead of the expected electric kettle and refrigerator, I was greeted with a coffee perculator and ice bucket. I spent the rest of the evening trying to get the perculator to work and flooding the hotel room.
After a visit to a friend of mine in Los Angeles and some pizza with her and her family, it was off to Lincoln, Nebraska, via Denver. Great views of the Rockies, but UA don’t get much points for inflight service, one drink and one packet of nibbles for a nearly three hour flight!!!
I spent five days with some good friends near Lincoln, out on the prairie, walking in the woods and along the Big Blue River, visiting the Strategic Air Command Museum off the motorway to Omaha (if you love aeroplanes, that is where you have to go, the biggest world war two planes I have ever seen), walking the Old Market District in that city, and shopping at unbelievably large shopping malls. I caused a minor sensation by buying weird things like eggs, butter, and flour to cook from scratch. (I made pikelets, a NZ institution, little sweet pancakes served cold with cream and jam); had a wonderful time and moped most of the way back to Denver (!).
Then off to see some friends in Dallas, who’d been sent out from New Zealand to work on a project there. I was on a nice Boeing 757 LAX –DEN, those little CRJs in and out of LNK which I really don’t know what to think of, and then at DEN we had a last minute gate change, last minute aeroplane change (smaller model of the 737) and people being asked to volunteer to change flights. Luckily, I wasn’t approached; and finally, off we went. A few days later, after visiting the JFK museum, having a morbid walk along Houston Street, walking among a stampede of iron bulls that tumble down a hillside in downtown Dallas, and visiting the Texas State Fair and finally eating Fried Green Tomatoes, I was off again, this time to London.
London! Financial centre, centre of the commonwealth, fort of the Romans, ford on the Thames, centre of government, and home to Her Majesty. I had wanted to go there ever since I could remember. And now, the United Airlines 777 was banking, finally out of the endless loops over Surrey, cleared for landing at Heathrow. I was lucky enough to be sitting on the right hand side of the aircraft on a very clear morning, so I saw the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, that weird gherkin skyscraper at Canary Wharf, Bucking Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Hyde Park, and more. The head f/a became quite formal as we drew up at Terminal Three; “this is London’s Heathrow International Airport. Welcome to the United Kingdom.” I was already falling under the UK’s spell as I walked past signs on the walls ‘BAA Heathrow’ and lined up for immigration and customs, and took the Underground to Shepherds Bush, where I’d found a hotel, run by a friendly family of Italians. And so began an absolutely mad dash around a mad country, where I did mad things, met mad people, and had an absolutely wonderful time.
I was running very late for meeting my friend Conal from high school days in NZ at the Ritz for afternoon tea. We had always said one day we’d do it, so I handed over the horrific amount of money required, and looked forward to it. Anyway, I was desperately trying to get into a proper jacket and tie on the underground, and ignored the rules of not talking on the tube for fear of being thought insane. Before I knew it the gentleman next to me was helping me tie my tie, and a lady down the carriage was re-arranging it for me, and they were all wishing me well for my job interview (!). I started thinking the English are actually dying to talk, it’s just you have to get them going somehow.
The Ritz was everything I could have thought of, shameless opulence, thick damask tablecloths, gold gilt on the walls, snobbish but very polite waiters, and plenty to eat. Five sandwiches, three scones, and five pastries each, plus berries and cream (had to ask for that one, black mark), and several pots of tea later, we staggered to our feet and headed off into London. Of course, we went straight to Soho, where we watched some most interesting and unusual people while sipping hot chocolate, and Conal walked my legs off around Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, and along the Thames. I saw the Tower of London, and went to see a performance of Phantom of the Opera.
And then I was off to Yorkshire. Train to York, train to Malton, bus to Pickering, and then the steam train to Grosmont. It felt very strange pulling into Goathland, which I had been watching on the telly years before, when I was into Yorkshire Television’s Heartbeat series. (We get a lot of British programmes in NZ). I got very well looked after at the B+B at Grosmont, three course dinners for 15 pounds, and then the next day off I went on a ‘little walk’ – fifteen miles or so. It turned out to be twenty three miles because I kept getting lost. I eventually got pointed the right way on Sleights moor by a father and son out walking – ah of course, follow the cairns (!) instead of almost falling into a quarry while trying to find a track – much more sensible. Then I staggered down the very steep hill into Littlebeck Wood – great place, filled with all sorts of trees and birds native to the UK – like something from a “what England used to be like” or ‘how England is characterised to tourists” book. I read the wrong page in my guidebook and struck up on the wrong side of the stream and ended up in barbed wire whichever way I turned. In the end, it was a choice between crossing the stream on a mossy and slippery log with a holly bush at the far end, or doing a forty-five minute detour. I chose the log. Several scratches and lots of swearing later, I was on the right path, and heading up through the forest onto Fylingdales Moor. I had been warned several times about avoiding RAF Base Fylingdales (not a runway to be seen) as I would be arrested if I got too close. That meant I lost the track fairly quickly, and having horrors of falling into the clutches of the British Military Police, I struck off across Widow Howe Moor, heading for the main road I could see in the distance.
Then I fell into a peat bog. Struggling out, dripping wet, I carried on. Eventually I ended up in Goathland, recognising Greengrass’s farm (really a caravan park) and the church, and of course the petrol station and store and pub and railway station, but sadly the police house was miles away in Otley. I got lost yet again out the back of Goathland, and headed off down the path to Grosmont as it got dark. Very dark in fact, so when I got to a group of cottages, I was very relieved to find those two things that pop up all over England in the most unlikely places, a telephone box, and a post box. I rang the B+B who were about to call the Whitby Police for a moors rescue, and a kind couple in a nearby cottage gave me a cup of tea, listened to the tale of woe, and drove me back round to Grosmont. The B+B owners washed my muddy gear, cooked my dinner, and next day bought me a pint in Whitby... I later discovered they had shrunk my jersey to the size of a ten-year old’s – maybe that was by way of apology.
Off to Durham next... what a wonderful cathedral, pretty town centre, peaceful and quiet down by the River Wear, and the greediest *******s to ever run a B+B who ought to be tarred, feathered and thrown into the Wear.
I decided the weather was too inclement, my pack too heavy, and my track record too lousy to attempt the trans Pennine walk via High Cup Nick to Cumbria, so instead I took the train via Leeds... up the vale of the River Ribble, past the three Peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside, and Pen-y-Ghent, through tunnels, more viaducts, (Ribblehead most impressive), and to a B+B at Kirkby Stephen. I discovered they had similar problems to NZ with idiots taking off into the hills in stiletto heels and no coats, etc. Other than that, it was suits of armour in the hall, lots of books, great cooking (if anyone says you cannot eat well in the United Kingdom, they’re a liar) and comfort+++. They were wonderful.
Back on the train – Glasgow. Hard, working city, but very friendly locals, who drank all the way from Kilmarnock into the city, to wet the baby’s head and all. Very proud young Dad. It was interesting going through the Tenement House, and walking down Sauchiehall Street and just seeing the city. Off to Perth but no white water rafting after all – as no rental car and no public transport. I went to Edinburgh instead and I don’t think I lost out. On the way, I managed to burn my arm on superheated British tea, set off the emergency alarm, and ran into Snoopy, the Court Jester, and Miss Tweety Pie who were all dressed up to go and cheer on Celtic versus the Tangerines (Dundee United) at Dundee Stadium. They were extremely drunk before they got anywhere near Dundee...
Edinburgh – I know I have been very descriptive about other places, but this one rather beats me to describe. The castle, the jumble of the old town, the careful planning of the Georgian new town, Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat, what a beautiful city.
Then – off to Brecon in Wales, to do a bit more walking in the countryside... It was about time for a new disaster to hit, and it did. The mist came down very quickly as I headed up the side of Corn Du in the Brecon Beacons, and my map and compass nearly blew away in the wind. It seemed like everyone else had turned back in the rain and mud, but I was determined I was not to be beaten... and anyway we’re used to rain and cloud in NZ... Aotearoa land of the long white cloud indeed, land of the many black clouds would be more appropriate sometimes. But anyway... Corn Du was one thing, as there was only one way off it. But when I got to Pen Y Fan, it was another matter... quite a few ways off it. Luckily for me, in the midst of 80mph winds, horizontal rain, and being able to see about ten metres in front of me, I was greeted by two men over from England as a fellow lunatic, and given two cups of tea. They showed me the way down into Cwm Gydi and the short cut back to Brecon. They were going the other way with their rather cold and chilly looking Labrador.
And after a brief return to London to visit my sister, it was farewell to the United Kingdom, Lufthansa out of Heathrow to Frankfurt and Helsinki.
Lufthansa... the flight attendants looked like they were belted into RAF uniforms albeit with yellow scarves, and their hair was tied into hard little knots at the backs of their heads. They stalked about the cabin shouting “Tea!? Coffee!?” and slamming meals on trays – “here is sandwich, you eat!” They were so wonderfully ghastly, it was like a Monty Python airline. I laughed all the way to Helsinki, and asked for more wine. A fairly decent Hock, I think.
And finally I met my dear friends in southern Finland... luckily they speak very good English because my Finnish is lousy. Fascinating country with a fascinating history, and some rather interesting music. I still listen to my Finnish operatic metal CDs I bought there; and really look forward to visiting again, and this time seeing a bit more of the country.
After that, Austrian Airlines to Vienna and Damascus. I sat next to an Austrian Army officer off to do some peacekeeping in the Golan Heights. He was very enthusiastic about Syria and said he always requested to go there on his assignments. I had wanted to go for several years, ever since I lived in a flat beneath the house of my landlady in Wellington, a Syrian from Damascus. She had told me so much about her country, and thanks to the Star Alliance round world airfare, I was able to go.
We descended over the Anti-Lebanon Range – love that name! – and it felt very strange coming in over the desert, it felt like we were about to land on Mars. And stranger still, pulling in next to the Iraqi Airways jet, about to depart for Baghdad... Immigration didn’t believe New Zealand existed, saying that the visa was issued in Canberra, so why was I not on an Australian passport? They had to ring HQ in town before they believed my tale that our visas for Syria are issued in Canberra too. They seemed to think NZers should be on Australian passports and were part of Australia... well they invited us very nicely in 1901 but we said no thank you, and here we are today, two different but reasonably friendly countries. Anyway!
After an anxious wait, the immigration officers rushed back, handed me my passport, shook hands, and said welcome to Syria. And before I knew it, I was in town and at the hotel. And then walking past the Damascus Citadel, and down the Street Called Straight – possibly the one bit of satire in the Bible – it isn’t at all straight. It’s amazing, roofed with curved corrugated iron, shot full of holes by French aeroplanes in 1925 when the Syrians didn’t want to be under the French Mandate – most ungrateful of them (!).
There are shops, shops, and more shops. One metre wide most of them, each selling one sort of good. Sweets in one, towels in another, arab head-dresses in a third. (Yes, I bought one, but the iqqal – the band – is very stiff and hard to get on your head). Most of the local men were bareheaded though. You just have to wear long pants and long sleeves or they’ll think you’ve left your clothes and your dignity at home. As it happened, it was pleasantly warm in Damascus, not too bad. The Azem Palace with its banded stonework, ornate interiors, and bright colours, is fantastic, and the Ommayad Mosque, third most important in the Islamic World and the size of two rugby fields, is almost beyond description. A sense of history was on me, even deeper than when I was in the UK if that was possible, someone once said that there has always been a Damascus... she has seen a thousand empires, and will see a thousand more before she dies.
I went off to Beirut. A total phoenix, destruction down through the ages; and it still survives. I took a photo of the bombed out Holiday Inn from the civil war next to a brand new pink luxury hotel down on the Avenue De Paris – stepping over a police line to do it which earned me an interview with the local Army Squadron Commander... they let me go fairly quickly. Security was unusually tight due to the marathon on, and I would ask a soldier if I could walk further down Rue Omar Daouk and he’d say yes, and take me under armed escort to the end of the block, chatting in a friendly way all the while, and then hand me over to his colleague, who would do the same. I could not believe the gold, jewels, and posh handbags sold in Hamra, compared with the poorer suburbs all around me. The scenery is fantastic, out to the Mt Lebanon Range... and I went to Baalbek, the largest Roman temples ever constructed – stones marked Julius Caesar, the temple of Bacchus where all night orgies were held with the Sacred Prostitutes and whoever else happened to be around, with lots of wine and song... we had to detour across the fields a few times on the way as protestors had blockaded the road with burning tyres. Petrol costs US$2.40 a litre there, with average annual wage at US$4000 – no wonder they were upset. The scenery was fantastic, the people amazingly friendly and hospitable. I found I had been given the wrong visa – the Canberra people had written single entry on my visa and as it was in Arabic I didn’t realise... the kind Syrian border guard saw my hotel reservation and ticket out of Damacus and gave me a transit visa for free.
I had quite a night out on the town the last night in Damascus... wandered into a restaurant hung with pink silk and gold fountains, was told to sit down and look at the menu as that was free... and ate a plate of mixed dips/salads, a pile of arab bread, plate of free vegetables with gherkins and chillies on the side, a pint of fruit smoothie, four arab pastries with clotted cream and pistachios, and three cups of tea... total bill US$8 including service. Being a kiwi, I can never get used to the tipping practice... used to all inclusive. But never mind.
And then off to Bangkok. Bit of a quandary – I have to take my medication,
but I have to lie fairly flat afterwards due to the inevitable blood pressure drop that follows. I couldn't get the seat reclined enough, staggered up, and collapsed. The Austrian flight attendant found me flat in the aisle, and dragged me off to the crew area... feet up on the jumpseats with four concerned F/A’s feeding me sips of coca-cola and almost literally holding my hand...
Bangkok... just a eight hour stopover, but long enough to go have a brief look at some amazing temples amongst the dirt of the city, and walk through the markets, and watch offerings floating by on the Chao Phraya River...
Friends and family to visit in Brisbane including their dog who walks too far and ends up being carried home in utter ignominy, before finally heading home. Back to New Plymouth, back to work... what a trip. Worth every cent I paid, and looking forward to doing another big one another day.
[Edited 2006-06-05 05:46:39]