A Travellerspoint blog

Things that go bite in the night

sunny 25 °C
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Unlike the wild and dangerous land of Oz, overflowing with life-threatening creatures of all shapes and sizes, there's not a single thing living in the whole of New Zealand that is able to give you a fatal bite.

Not that this fact stops Kiwis from being ever so slightly paranoid. Take for instance my “brush with death” the first night I slept in a caravan.

To set the scene, I guess I should begin by explaining how I came to be resident in this caravan in the first place.

Needing an escape from Auckland, I opted to set sail for the thumb-shaped Coromandel Peninsula lying two hours by boat to the east of NZ's biggest city. I should have realised I was heading for a special land when my journey across the Hauraki Gulf was accompanied for part of the way by a playful bunch of dolphins. Again, hopefully I'll one day work out how to upload video to this site so you can also have a look.

All the same, I was not really expecting to stay for much more than a weekend. The Coromandel Peninsula had other ideas though, and the eponymous township in particular quietly cast it's spell over me. I couldn't have bust my way out of it's funky and semi-comatose atmosphere if I'd tried.

My favourite haunt was the locally famous Driving Creek Cafe, sited about 3km up the road from Coromandel township. A strictly vegetarian place, with much of it's menu organic and locally-sourced, and it's décor having strong Hindu and Buddhist influences, I hung out at this caffeine dealership so much that I ended up helping out – washing dishes, clearing plates and cups, keeping the place tidy and clean – and in return the owners gave me a roof over my head.

A caravan-shaped roof. First impressions of my new abode weren't great as it was also home to an overpowering musty pong of serious potency. Still, what caravan-lending alternative lifestylers lack in carpet cleaner they more than make up for in copious amounts of incense, and so I burnt a large bunch of the smell sticks attempting to make the place breathable.

And then came my first night. Although the caravan was only a ten minute walk from the cafe, it was ten minutes up a remote country side street in complete and utter darkness. Seriously, I could not even see me. I might as well have been blindfolded. I was wearing a head torch, but if anything the small triangle of unnatural light that it threw forward made everything even eerier. So it's possible that even before I reached the caravan and laid down for the night my brain was already filled with images of creepy things laying in wait.

A few hours into a stuttering sleep, I woke violently with a lurch and a sharp piercing pain shooting through my right cheek (on my face, just to be clear... ) Within a minute or so, the pain had been succeeded by a numbness, and then a swelling that seemed to be threatening to outgrow my cheek and spread to my neck and forehead. I fumbled for the small, years-old tube of antihistamine I'd been keeping close by, and smeared the affected area with a large creamy splodge.

With no electricity in the caravan, the next morning's early light was my first chance to take a look at the damage done. Although the numbness and swelling seemed to have retreated a bit, the centre of my cheek was marked by a nasty raised red lump. Not unlike a mosquito bite, but far more intense looking. Heading into the cafe, I let Jessica (one of the cafe's owners) have a look and she immediately proclaimed me the victim of – gasp – a White-Tailed Spider bite.

The White-Tail is probably New Zealand's best go at having it's own eight-legged death-dealer. Like the Funnel Web, Redback and many other genuinely nasty arachnids that antipodean cousins in Aussie so love to tell tall stories of, mention of the White-Tail within earshot of many Kiwis starts a chain reaction of worried looks, nervous reassurances and overinflated yarns of just how dangerous this (pretty rare) little spider can be.

Being diagnosed in a cafe that prides itself on it's use of natural ingredients and it's boycotting of chemical nasties meant that I was not going to be prescribed any kind of 'Western' tablet drug as remedy. Instead Jessica sold me a small vile of nature's best echinacea, with the instruction to dilute a capful in warm water and sip on that every few hours. And, oh yeah, if things don't improve within three days, run like buggery to the nearest qualified medic.

None of this dampened the concern shown by locals or staff at the cafe though, and I became quite proud of my bite, showing it off to anyone within range whilst also half-wishing it was more serious than it really was. Still, it couldn't last, and the echinacea kicked in with impressive speed. So fast, in fact, that I was robbed of my facial conversation piece within just 48 hours of being bitten.

I wasn't taking any more chances. I moved out of the caravan after my third night (by which point I was sleeping under hefty anti-bug netting, just to be sure) and into a bunk house much closer to the cafe.

Of course my change of living quarters had nothing to do with my encounter with the White-Tail, or the ten minute scary stroll home each evening. It was simply because I'd exhausted my supply of incense and was now losing my fight with the funk. At least that's what I told everyone else.

And you believe me too, don't ya?

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Posted by Serge78 18:41 Archived in New Zealand Tagged vegetarian Comments (1)

Under the bridge

sunny 30 °C
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What were we thinking.

12 hours. 30 degrees Celsius. 3 bottles of wine, each.

It was always gonna end in embarrassment.

But let me explain. You find yourself in Sydney, on New Years Eve, on an immaculately blue and cloudless summer's day in a city that prides itself on it's end-of-year knees up and light show, carrying two eskies laden with funky grape juice, sitting in front of that bridge, with great company and alongside several hundred like-minded revellers...

… if all that doesn't excuse serious red wine spillage on a friend's pristine white top, or adopting mock Mancunian accents several decibels above shouting, or parading the leftover food contents of an esky (now drained of booze) in front of a bus load of celebrators, or wondering out loud why everyone else on said bus looked so damn miserable...

...I don't know what does.

If pictures tell a thousand words, then this little lot sum up my 31st December 2008 perfectly. Spectacularly blurry. See if you can fill in the gaps, cause I sure as Vegemite can't do it for you.

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In addition to the stills above, I've got somewhere several minutes of video - different sections of which were shot progressively throughout the course of NYE. It all ends with a nice long ten minute sequence of bangs, whoops and exploding light as Sydney's harbour erupts come 00:00 on 01/01/09. Technical difficulties prevent me from sharing it with you here, but I may be persuaded to persevere in getting the thing online if anyone is interested.

First though, I've got to summon up the courage to watch the video again - I've still a lingering feeling of cringworthy terror that I may have added 'commentary' to the video in my slightly tipsy state.

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My time in Australia, made up of two different Sydney-shaped eleven day lumps sandwiched either side of a week's worth of Perth filling, was not really travelling.

Unlike the previous two months, I wasn't changing location every other day. I enjoyed the total luxury of staying with friends rather than switching between random guesthouses.

A friend from back home, currently on his own half year-long walkabout, recently wrote about how quickly a state of constant travelling becomes the norm. Any event that breaks this new pattern, such as staying put in a city you already know (especially amongst friends from your pre-travelling life), can be a bit of a jolt at first.

It was a lightening quick and heady four weeks, during which I managed to gain weight (five whole kilograms, mainly in calamari and Budvar) and lose hair (for heat loss efficiency, I shaved my head), witness first-hand the Aussie's last layer of cricketing superiority sandblasted away (thanks to one Jean-Paul Duminy), and generally live the life of Riley. Or whatever name Riley's antipodean cousin goes by.

But I just have a feeling that it may all be as dull as ditch water to anyone but me, so please forgive me if this is my one and only Australia post.

Here's a huge big massive thanks to (amongst others) Al, Mr and Mrs D, Fendi, Animal, Denusha, Magic, Charlie and Thea and Chloe and family, Shiv, Vin and Raenu and Rohan, Gaj, Viv and hubby, Deano, Zoz and Matt and family, Jordy, Isis, Jessie, Den, Angie, Jen, Jules, Shamila, Tulloch Wines, Clarke's Point, that Asian restaurant in Parramatta with the extra special calamari...

...but most of all Mano, Aunty and Uncle Kumar and the extended Melbourne crew. I owe you big time. Living with you all for a month was too much fun.

Posted by Serge78 22:26 Archived in Australia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

A real looker, eh bro?

sunny 25 °C
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Miss World.

Been coming in for a bit of criticism of late, hasn't it. In these enlightened times, parading impossibly good-looking women with an allergy to clothing in front of a panel of 'expert' judges (or some old pervs), herding each contestant through an extended and underdressed interview process just to end up with the world's hottest spokesperson for children / old people / international travel, no longer seems like a right and proper thing to do.

And if this is indeed the case, then we are in danger of losing the only truly global competition on Earth, one that every country on the planet can enter regardless of it's comparative wealth. Think the World Cup or the Olympics are fair worldwide events? Nope, success in either largely depends on cash and resources. To stand a chance in the Miss World contest you only need to stump up your top totty. And everyone, everywhere, has some of that.

But don't fret, I have a solution. Open, fair and friendly international sparring can continue. We can retain the classic Miss World format, even keep the judging criteria, but instead of giving bikini models marks out of ten we can replace all the human eye candy with... the countries themselves.

That's right. Each country gets a chance to put on it's best, most revealing clobber and swan around in front of a global audience in search of votes.

I think it's genius.

There is just one tiny, small, minor, little problem. New Zealand would win every time. Every year, each contest. All of them. NZ would sweep the board. Lets face it, when it comes to lookers, Aotearoa New Zealand is a real sort. Hot as hell. F.I.T.

And it would irk every other country who bothered entering this pan-world peep show of a competition to know that New Zealand manages to maintain it's stunning appearance without any noticeable ego on show whatsoever. No fancy jewellery jangling, no strutting arrogance and no elaborate (and false) face paint. Kiwiland is not just one of life's natural born lookers, it is as close to visual perfection as anyone could imagine.

Sure, other countries may also possess long flowing rivers, some of them may front equally impressive mountain ranges, and I've no doubt that curvaceous rolling hills are not an NZ exclusive, but I bet you can't name another country on the planet that has all of these assets. In such number, at once, and often on show simultaneously.

New Zealand is the complete package.

A few mug shots by way of example, but I'm afraid they in no way do this place justice.

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And I haven't even reached the best bit yet.

More salacious material once I've delved further south.

Posted by Serge78 19:21 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A slice of kiwi life

sunny 23 °C
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It hurts me to type this, but i've only got just over four weeks left in breathtaking New Zealand.

Actually, it hurts because last night I had a little accident. Midway through carving up a pumpkin for me dinner, the knife slipped and went through the nail of my right index finger. A clean-cut chunk of bloodied finger nail landed on top of my veg pile.

Luckily for me, I spotted it and removed the offending digit shield before I put the veg in the pan to cook. Phew. Maybe even luckier than that, I had also somehow stopped the blade just in time to avoid adding the rest of my finger to the meal.

But I was bleeding profusely. Like lightening, with my well-earned First Aid At Work certificate flashing before my eyes, I strangled the wounded pointer with a scrap of lint and two strips of sellotape. A cowboy hatchet job for sure, but it worked. Long enough for me to finish cooking at least.

So as you read this, please know that every fouth or fifth character was typed with a little grimace and a tiny drip of blood.

Perhaps I'm just searching for excuses, as I've been incredibly slack at keep this blog up to date of late. New Zealand? I hear you cry. But only a minute ago you were one of life's little losers in a Macau casino...

Yeah, in bloggo-time that is all true. But in real life, Macau and Hong Kong were almost three months ago. I've managed to tell you nothing about Sydney, Perth, Sydney again, or any of my time in the most effortlessly spectacular country anyone could ever imagine – Aotearoa New Zealand.

Enough of feeling sorry for myself, time to start filling in a few large gaps.

Posted by Serge78 19:15 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

What are the chances?

semi-overcast 11 °C
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The power of luck is a curious thing. Make a one man weep, make another man sing.

As Huey Lewis almost said.

There's no doubt in my mind that Huey would have rewritten the words to his 80s 'classic' had he just emerged bleary eyed from a Macau casino.

Instead luck decided that it should be me who should find himself hailing a cab outside The Venetian Macao on a bright and nippy December morning, having spent all night amongst the gambling tables and slot machines of perhaps the gaudiest building ever built in Asia.

And how did I find myself in Macau in the first place? Pure chance.

There I am, happily strolling south on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong, when I bumped into Pato, a Chilean traveller I had met in Irkutsk a month and a half before. Pato was with a friend he'd met elsewhere in Asia, and together they told me stories of how they had won, lost and then won again, a tidy pot of cash by gambling the previous night away in Macau.

They were really keen to go back, and take me along for the adventure. OK, I think first we set up a deeply contrived device to help us decide whether we were going or not - something lame like "If we see a deck of cards in the next ten minutes then it's a sign we must go!" - but fate had already grabbed us by the wallets and was silently dragging us towards the ferry terminal.

Macau is only an hour away from Hong Kong by catamaran, and your visit is rewarded with a stamp in your passport. Visas and immigration stamps are gold amongst most traveller types, collected with the same enthusiasm that war vets display medals or Russian mafia hitmen wear tattoos. The dangling carrot of two more marks in my passport was the deal clincher.

And so we went.

Macau is all about gambling. 70% of the Macau's GDP comes directly from gambling taxes. Thought Las Vegas or Monte Carlo were the betting capitals of the world? Nope, not even close. Macau is streets ahead in terms of turnover, and is expanding still further with more colossal gambling dens under construction.

Already an established money pit, The Venetian Macao was our home for the night. First thing that hits you about the place, apart from the tacky-as-anything reconstructed canals around the outer edge of the main buidling, is that The Venetian is mammoth. It's the fourth largest building in the whole wide world, based on floor space. I don't know exactly how much of that is given over to the hotel, but the casino side of the operation is just vast - well over half a million square foot.

Huge banks of slot machines, rows and rows of gambling tables, as well as bars, restaurants, an indoor music venue... it's all set up to drain you of as much money in as short a time as possible. I was a backpacker, what on earth was I doing here?

But I hadn't totally lost the plot. After getting off the catamaran, I'd taken some cash out of the first ATM I saw. 500 Macau dollars. A little over 50 quid. Not exactly a high roller, but that was it. That had to stretch through the entire night.

Some hope. Most of the tables were set up for baccarat, and had a minimum bet of $100. Even if I worked out exactly how the game worked, i'd almost certainly get wiped out in seconds. I gave the slot machines a quick go, but they were unlike any slot you'd find lurking in the corner of a British pub. With their flashing lights and weird symbols, they confused me no end. And so with a fifth of my nightly fund already now resting inside one of these coin receptacles, I crept away in search of another game.

I decided to join Pato and his friend at the electronic roulette table. Hey, I even knew how this one worked. You pick a number, bet some money on the little white ball falling on that number, and collect your winnings.

Or, you work out this incredibly complex strategy for predicting the next number to come up - the casino even provides you with paper and pens so you can plot it all out - and, once settled on a plan of action, go all in and clean up.

What a rip. As anyone who sat through GCSE Maths should remember, when you've two totally independent events (in this case, two rounds of roulette) the ball is no more likely to drop into one pocket than another. Regardless of what that little round bastard did the previous round! Yet, you'd be amazed at the excuses gamblers come up with for why it must, MUST, land on red 27 this time.

It's infectious. And I fell into this trap face first. Black 8, no red 23, no that was last time, er must be a black this time, we've had 2 reds in a row, no red 32 again, no black 15... no green 0... GREEN? Where'd green come from? Oh, red again, black, black, red, red, red, black, red, red, black, bl... out of cash.

Bummer.

It probably took a mere ten minutes for me to lose it all. I was so busy chasing numbers, trying to predict the next pocket, I didn't realise that my modest pot of money was evaporating at a stupendous rate. And that was that.

It was probably not even 1am. I had no means of leaving Macau, the first boat back to Hong Kong wasn't until 7. And so I watched. A lot. I worked my way around the tables, trying to work out just what was going on in each game. I felt the intense excitement that built up when a gambler was doing well, and shared in their despair as they lost everything after playing that one hand too many. It was fascinating. Wow, do the Chinese like to bet.

The VIP baccarat tables were overflowing with emotion. Super high stakes, people with thousands upon thousands of dollars invested, all relying on the deal of a card or two. And the screams. Whenever anyone won big time, they really did let every other soul in the casino know about it. Wild whooping and shouting, other players grinning, even the dealers seemed to glow a bit.

After a while though, it all gets a bit much. The overpowering stink of money, combined with the utterly tasteless excess of the surroundings, creates one big sleazy dirty funk. The hangers on within the casino, those 'professionals' who come to work the gamblers rather than the tables, are tolerated by staff for much of the night (no doubt some kind of symbiotic deal has been struck) until around dawn - when in a scene straight out of a Benny Hill sketch, security men literally chase them off the gaming floor. It's a desperate sight.

Around 6am, having covered every one of the 500,000 square feet, I returned to the electronic roulette table. Pato was still there, winning, going strong. I left him to it, and later heard that he'd finished that morning well on top. He'd beaten the casino, even if in the long run we're not talking about a fortune.

But the casino had definitely squashed me, and I jumped in the first cab I could find and headed back to the port. What a funny place Macau is, totally reliant the addictive desire for easy money.

Never forget that it is the casino who is boss, I told myself when safely back in Hong Kong, they are running the show. They're the ones who have done all the planning, the calculating, worked out all the angles. The only thing you have on your side is luck, and sometimes that's not worth a penny.

Posted by Serge78 17:40 Archived in Macau Tagged boating Comments (1)

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