Tuesday 18 March 2014

Brisbane to Bodalla, and Back Again

Another year, another summer, and another excuse for a road trip!

First up, here's the big video edit, for those of you too lazy to scroll. All the explanations and more videos/photos are below…

This all came about because my Swiss friend Anna was visiting for a couple of weeks, and we hatched a plan to explore some parts of the country that I hadn't seen, as well as some I knew very well from when I was growing up.

Her trip was based around Sydney, so first I had to get there. For various reasons I ended up leaving a day late, and I had to compress my journey down a little. That didn't stop me from finding some spectacular spots though!

Day one saw me drive from Brisbane to a place called Wollombi Falls, which is East of Armidale. The drive took me about five and a half hours, and I only just made it to the campground before dark, with just enough light left to make dinner.

In the morning, it was time to get the big quadcopter out (what, you didn't think I'd bring my toys?) and go for a fly. The whole area has been drought-stricken for a while, so Wollombi Falls were completely dry. The gorge was still spectacular though and after a shaky start, I had a couple of nice flights from two of the lookouts there.

Wollombi Gorge
Then it was time to move on. As I had to drive back through Armidale, I stopped off at another (currently dry) waterfall, called Dangars Falls (not to be confused with Dangar Falls, a relatively nearby but completely different spot near Dorrigo).

Dangars and Wollombi were both spots I had wanted to visit for a long time, having seen them (and the rest of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park) from the air many times between Brisbane to Sydney. Despite being dry they did not disappoint; the gorges drop away from the plateau and provide a wonderfully scary place to fly – because if you crash here, you can basically kiss your gear goodbye!

I very nearly lost my mini quadcopter at Dangars actually – due to bone-headedness on my part. I forgot to attach the video transmitter antenna and so lost my signal suddenly, and had to ditch the copter (and hope it was above something soft, and not the enormous gorge!). Luckily I somehow avoided the cliff, the water, and managed to crash without ripping the battery out, so my lost model beeper was still working. Without it, there's no way I would have found the copter in the bush.

Anyway after that little bit of excitement it was time to press on, to my friends Kath and Cameron's place, just outside of Gloucester. I had a fly around their property, then they fed me a yummy dinner and sent me on my way to my other friend Dave's place up the road in Buladelah, for a nice single malt night cap or three.

Day three was all about getting to Sydney. I braved the lovely traffic to grab some mini quad spare parts from my mate Alan's place and then settled in with my parents for the night. Phase two was about to start.

Anna had been staying with friends at Umina, so we met at the station and started our journey South. The first spot we were headed was Jervis Bay, to meet up with my sister and her family for some weekend camping on the Beecroft Peninsula at a spot called Honeymoon Bay.

I spent quite a lot of time in my childhood (and later years) visiting places just South of Sydney, as my Great Aunt lived just outside of Berry (more about that later), but I'd never really explored further South than that, so this would all be new.

After a little shopping detour in Wollongong (that took slightly longer than expected) we made it to the campsite with plenty of daylight to spare.

Heather, Evan and the kids joined us shortly after that, and we settled in for a couple of nights and lazy (and sometimes kid-crazy) days. Honeymoon bay is as ridiculously pretty as it looks, and there are also several other nice beaches and walks nearby.

Bizarrely, it is also located in the middle of army land, and they regularly blow stuff up in the general vicinity, so it's only open on weekends. There's something quite incongruous about seeing families and kids swimming and playing next to a sign that says "Beecroft Weapons Range – open for public access".

I had a couple of nice quadcopter flights there of course, over the scary rocks…

…and then later at Point Perpendicular on our way out. This is a famous climbing spot with vertical cliffs dropping down to the ocean below. It was extremely windy that day, so my quadcopter flight there was very limited – I almost didn't fly, but in the end the shots were worth it.

From Point Perp it was time to explore, so Anna and I headed off South. We spent the first night at Kioloa Beach and then explored nearby Merry Beach and Murramarang National Park the next day, before driving further down the coast, past Batemans Bay and Moruya Heads to Bodalla, and a great spot called Potato Point.

Murramarang National Park
There we discovered a great caravan park, right on the beach and in the middle of the National Park. We spent a couple of nights there, camping under the Spotted Gums, and surrounded by friendly wildlife (plenty of Kangaroos, Wallabies and even Emus were around). It was pretty magical.

The nearby forest was also very pretty, and great place for proximity flying with the mini quadcopter…

Apart from that there was a lot of lazing about, and a little drive through the back country to Narooma and back.

Wallaby in the undergrowth
Sadly though, we couldn't live in this paradise forever, and it was time to move on, so after nourishing ourselves at the amazing nearby Blue Earth Café, we ambled back up North, via one of the prettiest back road tourist drives I've done in ages. Starting at Nelligen, it followed the Clyde River for some time, and we were both slightly sad when it ended and spat us back out onto the highway.

In the end we made it as far as Lake Conjola, where we spent the night after attempting to poison the local Seagulls with some sun-baked blue cheese (it was still good and nobody got poisoned).

Lake Conjola Inlet Panorama
The following day saw us head further up the coast, still making it up as we went along (this was one of the nice things about this trip – the general lack of planning).

Murray's Beach, Jervis Bay
We snuck in a look at South Jervis Bay, and one last beach, and just missed syncing up with Jess, and old friend, before heading to Berry, one of my favourite little towns.

As I mentioned before, we used to come here a lot, because my Great Aunt lived up on the hill behind the town. It's a great drive, and so we headed up Woodhill to see the old house (I even snuck in a flight there), before heading down the back to Kangaroo Valley, where we spent the night at the caravan park. It was less "idyllic" than the previous spots, but that didn't stop Anna seeing a wombat in the middle of the night, her first live one in the wild. Gotta love Australia.

Then it was time to head back to Sydney, and ultimately Zurich for Anna. We made good use of the last day, stopping first at touristy Fitzroy Falls and then much less touristy Belmore Falls. The latter was a picnic spot of choice when we were kids, and it was extra-nostalgic to visit.

It was also super scary to fly off, but I'm glad I did, as some of my favourite shots from the trip are taken there.

We headed on to Burrawang after that, another spot from my childhood where my Grandmother used to live, topping off an especially nostalgic and poignant couple of days for me.

Then it was back to cranky old Sydney for farewells and a few quiet days of reflection and catch up with friends/family. All in all the week felt a lot longer than it was, which is always a good sign. Thanks Anna, for voting me best travel mate (or at least a prime candidate), it was awesome.

Home was still 1000km away though, so after a few days rest I headed back, catching up with my friend Katy and Cousin Andrew in Newcastle on the first night. Lovely meals and quadcopter demos were the order of the day.

Then I pushed on, following the coast this time, to South West Rocks, and nearby Hat Head National Park (how cool is that for a name?).

South West Rocks has the famous and amazing dive spot known as Fish Rock Cave, so I figured I may as well stop in for a couple of nights, do some diving and explore the surrounds.

The diving was predictably awesome, despite bad visibility. Here's a quick video to prove it…

The nice surprise though was the beauty of Hat Head National Park itself – there are sand dunes next to the campground that stretch for nearly 2kms, so of course I had to go and fly over them on more than one occasion.

In fact, my day consisted of early morning flight, diving, and evening photo walk followed by more flights with the mini quad, and a bit of guitar to soothe my camping neighbours' nerves as they put their little boy to bed. So a pretty perfect day really.

It started raining that night though, and the miserable weather continued into the day, as I headed off to New England National Park which was to be my final camping spot for the trip.

Trees in the mist, New England National Park
On the plus side, I practically had the whole campground to myself, but on the minus side, the wet weather really set in. I had an amusing attempt at flying in the fog…

…but it was really too wet for anything else.

The next morning was not much better – wind and rain squalls meant that flying was pretty much off the cards, which was a pity because the lookout (imaginatively named "Point Lookout") is utterly spectacular, and would have been one of the most amazing and scary places to fly of the trip.

Instead though, I settled for some time lapse stuff,  that came out pretty well.

From then it was on to Lismore, and one last night catching up with the lovely Annette and Pietro before heading home to steamy Brisvegas.

All up, it was nearly three weeks of fantastic sights, sounds and experiences. Thank you to everyone who helped make it that way. :)

Now, on to the next adventure! In the meantime, here's my flickr gallery of photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/strepto42/sets/72157641340879773/

And here's a second compilation of flights, this time flying in "manual" mode which is much more like a plane.


Thursday 12 December 2013

FPV QLD Camping Trip to Bald Rock, NSW

Wow, I can't believe it's been more than a year since the eclipse. Time for a new post at last!

Those of you who know me will know of my relatively recent obsession with quadcopters and FPV (First Person View) flying.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, it's basically flying remote controlled aircraft with cameras and a video transmitter on board. The video is beamed back to a set of goggles worn by the pilot, who can see what the aircraft sees in real time. At the same time the high definition video is recorded on board, so you can play it back later in high quality and share the footage.

It's basically as close to flying like a superhero as you can get, but without the risk of actually going splat when things go wrong. And oh so much fun, if a little expensive at times…

Anyway, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I've discovered a bunch of local people who are into the same thing, and we meet regularly to fly, build, design and swap ideas.

I've wanted to take my quadcopter out to a place called Bald Rock for ages. I visited it years ago (http://www.truffulatree.com.au/outbackNSW.php) and thought it would make a great spot for some spectacular footage.

A few of the other guys were interested as well, so we organised a camping trip. The original plan was to stay at the National Park, but as luck would have it one of the guys knew some people who lived very close to the park (like, basically next door) and were happy for us to come and camp on their land.

Unfortunately due to bad timing and illness only four of us made it down – three for the whole time.

Damien headed down before the rest of us on Thursday night to set up a tarp. What a life saver it was! As Jim and I headed down on Friday, a massive storm brewed up and we arrived in the middle of a downpour. All in all, the farm had 55mm of rain overnight.

Nonetheless we were mostly dry and settled in to the sound of the rain.


On Saturday morning it was still grey and overcast, but at least the rain had abated. Coptergeist from Warwick joined us for the day, and we got out the mini quads for some general tooling around. Having so much open space was great.

Jim's Mini

I had a good run with my mini (and its ridiculously overpowered new Blackout MT1308 motors), and a few spectacular stacks. Todd ran his QAV400 around for a while without incident, but then the gremlins struck and he had to stop for the day.

Damien tested his shiny big Scarab quad out, with the newly installed brushless gimbal – and it shot very nice footage!

After lunch the clouds closed in though, and another storm loomed, so Coptergeist headed off just as it hit and we bunkered down for the night.


Sunday morning started off fairly clear, but the clouds soon closed in so we three lazy bums slept in again.

After a leisurely morning of quad-wrangling, Damien got his mini working (at last!) so we headed off on a little exploration venture to Boonoo Boonoo (pronounced more like "bonna-boonoo") falls.

Bald Rock was of course the main reason we were there, but the wind was up and we agreed that it could wait. Flying off the top of a huge rock in high wind was nobody's idea of fun.

Of course we got distracted and ended up driving around the property for quite some time before even getting to the main road. Along the way we found a pair of old abandoned car bodies from the 50s or 60s in a paddock and I earmarked them for some footage later.

The old cars (see below for video)

Eventually we got to the main road, and after a few stops made it to the falls, mini quads in hand.

However, once we saw the scenery, a two word consensus was rapidly reached on whether to fly. The second word was "that".

While spectacular, the falls offered a zero (0) chance of recovery if anything went wrong, and we all wanted to go home with our mini quads. If I'd had the bigger once I might have been more tempted (it has the added safety nets of GPS and altitude hold), but still it would be a daring prospect; the picture doesn't quite do justice to the extreme drop we faced.

Boonoo Boonoo falls - scary dropoff!

Still, it was a pretty place and a nice walk. Maybe I'll go back there and fly next time. ;)

On the way back Damien decided to take the road less travelled, and we headed down some tracks through the bush for a while. In the end we had to backtrack, but not before getting the minis out for what I suspect may be a world first.

With the three of us in the car, we drove down the road – Damien driving the car, and Jim and I chasing it with our minis. This was the first time I've FPVed from a moving vehicle and I can tell you it is HARD. And WEIRD; your eyes tell you one thing, but your body tells you another, and when the car lurches to avoid potholes it is very difficult to fly straight! I suspect this sort of activity would actually make quite a lot of people motion sick. Luckily my stomach is tough.

The front paddock

After that little adventure we headed back to the property, and stopped at the front paddock for another fly, just because it was so damn pretty, and there was so much cool stuff to fly around – trees, rocks, dams, big open spaces – we had it all.

With our mini batteries flat it was time to head back, but I had more flying to do, so I picked up the big quad and shot some nice footage of the rusty cars and paddocks as the sun was nearing the horizon.

(here's a link to the flight data: http://www.flytrex.com/mission/quadcopter-tbs-discovery-with-gimbal-mark-cocquio-4916)

It was a good way to end the day (that, and shooting some stills of the local bird life back at our hosts' house).

Red-browed Firetail Finch - Neochmia temporalis
We also had a fire that night. Wet wood is no match for a cup of petrol. ^_^


I woke early to utterly still, clear blue skies, so there was nothing for it but to get the mini out and use it as an alarm clock to rouse everyone else.

After buzzing the campsite a couple of times Damien emerged, but we had to wake Jim by banging on the van. Apparently he had dreamed of flying his mini into a school, and having to apologise to the principal. I take no responsibility whatsoever for this dream. :p

Anyway we knew the good conditions wouldn't last forever so we had a quick cuppa and then hit the road to Bald Rock itself.

The climb up didn't take long (we took the short, *steep* route up), and the day was amazingly clear – we would see all the way to Mt Warning, 130kms distant.

Bald Rock is spectacular – it is the largest granite rock in Australia from memory – and it's well worth a visit.

The flights were great. All three of us had several – Jim with his mini, Damien with his Scarab, and me with the big TBS Discovery.

Quadcopter and moon

Jim flying FPV

Reconn flying FPV

All three of us took it pretty easy; a crash would have been inconvenient to say the least, and nobody wanted to go home with smashed (or lost) stuff. So the footage isn't as daring as it could have been – but it's still spectacular, and has given us many ideas for the next visit.

Here's a compilation of my four quadcopter flights over Bald Rock.

And here's a link to the flight data: http://www.flytrex.com/mission/quadcopter-tbs-discovery-with-gimbal-mark-cocquio-4866/

All up it was a great trip. It's a shame there weren't more of us but in a way that stopped the airwaves from getting too crowded, and anyway there's always next time.

Huge thanks again to Damien for organising such a great spot (with a tarp!) and our hosts Jeff and Clare for having us. Can't wait for the next adventure.

If you'd not sick of the pictures yet and want to see more, you can view the whole set on Flickr:

Saturday 17 November 2012

Cairns 2012 total solar eclipse!

Hello all!

So, last week I left you with my Spanish story, written once I got back to Australia. But it wasn't time to stop having adventures - I had one more up my sleeve, with the potential to be a real doozy.

After one day of very good sleep and one day of none at all, I hopped on a plane with my friend Jenny to head up to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, and a date with a total solar eclipse.

This event had been on my radar for a very long time; probably since about 2001 when I was eyeing off the 2002 Ceduna eclipse. I eventually decided not to go, and to wait for the next Australian one instead. Well, this was it.

My return from Europe was actually based around being back for this, so it's fair to say that I flew half way around the world for it.

So after a nice squishy plane ride (I'm so loving those lately, please, give me more…) we arrived in Cairns and settled in with a dodgy hostel voucher dinner (don't trust them when they say the cheap food is "huge". It's still cheap), and a few "good" old Aussie beers (I think Europe has made me even more of a beer snob than I was).

We were picked up by the dive shop guys at 6:15 the next morning. By now I was well used to being a jetlagged zombie with no sleep, so the early departure wasn't excruciating. Plus – diving! Did I mention there was going to be diving? I mean, it's not like I could go to Cairns and NOT dive. In addition, I know what Cairns can be like – cloudy. I figured that there would be a better chance of seeing the eclipse from out on the reef – and I chose wisely.

The weather was pretty questionable on Tuesday morning though. Rain squalls and nasty SE winds whipped up a neat old swell on the way to the reef, which had a few of the boat's 30+ visitors feeling queasy. Me, I've never gotten seasick. The closest I've come is a bit of a knot in the stomach but it always passes.

On this trip though, the alarmist supervisor insisted that everyone would get horribly ill, and I decided not to second guess myself and took a pill beforehand. I suspect I would have been fine without it. As it was, I had a nice snooze while some of the others fed the fishes from the back of the boat.

Turtle having lunch
Once we got to the shelter of the reef, things calmed down a bit, and we got on with the serious business of world-famous diving in lovely 27 degree water. The vis (visibility) was reasonable, at about 10-15m, which is to say bad for the location but still pretty good for diving overall.

Jenny normally dives with me, but unfortunately she's busy re-enacting my ACL injury/knee surgery/long recovery adventure from a few years ago so it was just snorkelling for her. Instead I got teamed up with other random dive buddies. Luckily the sites are very easy - no real depth, decent vis and no current – so you can find your buddies again when they take off without you. ;)

The diving was great, and we got into the usual pattern of dive/rinse/eat/drink/rest/repeat. After two dives on Milln reef we moved to nearby Flynn reef and had our last afternoon dive there, followed by dinner and a night dive.

Night dives are awesome. All sorts of things come out to play and it's like diving in a big black cave, full of eels and things with lots of legs and tentacles. Some people would probably find this terrifying, but I love it.

Then it was early to bed, and fingers crossed for the morning weather. I slept well (I always do on boats, the rocking is soothing), but had various dreams about the upcoming eclipse, mostly of the anxious-about-the-weather variety.


If the weather really was terrible, my plan was probably to go diving, just to see it get dark underwater (and, in fact, a couple of the people on the boat did – more about that later). However, we woke to fairly clear skies, with just some thin high clouds and a few lower puffy ones drifting through. Excellent!

It begins...

First Contact

It looks like the moon! Oh wait, it is the moon! AND the sun!

Then it was eclipse time! It was… really quite indescribably awesome. Extremely moving. One of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. Well worth flying home from Europe for (and sorry Europe, this shat all over your best cathedrals).

The lead-up, as the moon crept in front of the sun, was very cool. It got gradually darker. It looked more and more surreal. At one point I remarked "hey, it looks like the moon – oh, well, it IS the moon. AND the sun!". Hah. Duh.

About a minute from second contact (just before totality) a little cloud came through and we had to scare it on its way with some bad language, but it heard us and drifted off, and suddenly there was the flash of the diamond ring and the sky went dark in a matter of seconds.

Going, going...

Total Solar Eclipse

The wind, which had been pretty much constant for days, dropped right off. It was only afterwards that we realised though, as everyone was busy hooting and cheering and jumping up and down like little kids (ok that last thing might have just been me).

We had about two minutes of totality. It went incredibly fast. I was taking photos frantically, but also trying to stop and watch and look around so I wouldn't miss it. It is hard to describe the feeling; I think overall I was just amazed that I was actually getting to see it, after all the journeying, planning, lack of sleep, bad weather, and so on… and the fact that it was just an incredible, special thing to see. I completely understand why some people chase eclipses, often at great expense, around the planet.

The Diamond Ring, or if you prefer, black eyeball of DOOM
People who know me know that I rarely get particularly excited. For those two minutes (and a while after) I was like a kid again - a kid who's just received something enormous and really fucking cool. Something that they have really really wanted, for ages.

The time of day and location were also perfect; the reef we were on was pretty much slap bang in the middle of the path of the umbra, and the waves and reflection of the sea made it fantastically pretty. If the sun had been any higher, the reflections wouldn't have been as nice. Like I said, perfect.

Anyway the moon sped on like it always does, and suddenly there was a flash and a diamond ring from the other side, and then it was like a great big dimmer switch got turned up again and it was over (well, apart from the other 20 minutes of partial eclipse, but we'd just seen one of those).

Post Eclipse reflections
The next big Australian one is in 2028, and runs straight through Sydney (can't win 'em all). I intend to be there.

Anyway, we were all pretty excited as we had breakfast. The three guys who went diving reported that yes, it got dark very suddenly down there, and that the fishes got a bit confused. Apparently all the eels came out to play and the little fish kinda had to run for it.

The rest of us hopped back in for a couple more dives before we had to head back. The water was a bit murky on the first dive and I nearly sat out the second, but in the end I had a "come on, you're on the bloody barrier reef, when are you coming back here?" moment and went in. I'm glad I did, it was one of those really lovely dives where everything just flows. The water was clearer and we spotted some cool stuff, like some barracuda and a white tip reef shark.

Then it was time to head back to Cairns, for one more night (there's no flying for a day after diving).

Flynn Reef
Then we had to dive on this

On the way back, we were given one final treat, when some dolphins appeared and proceeded to ride the bow wave of the boat. They put on a great show, leaping out of the water repeatedly. The skipper of the boat said that it was quite unusual for them to stick around for as long as they did. Perhaps they were running off an eclipse high as well.

Dolphin action
I spent a fair bit of the remaining journey swapping pictures with some of the other divers. The Gopro time lapse shots aren't mine. I've forgotten everyone's names already but thanks – it was great sharing the whole experience with you.

Happy Eclipse watchers!
Now I'm well and truly back home from this round of adventures. In time, I will get all my pictures up onto flickr (www.flickr.com/strepto42), in addition to the ones attached to this blog. I might even add some older travel stories from my 2010 Aussie road trip and 2010/2011 New Zealand adventures.
Or I might just go somewhere else exciting next year. Wait and see. For now though, I'm signing off. Enjoy the pictures!

P.S. You can also enjoy any strange videos I might make from time to time on youtube and/or vimeo. See www.youtube.com/strepto42 and www.vimeo.com/strepto42 - and don't forget strange music and sounds at www.soundcloud.com/strepto42 (notice a pattern in the URLs yet?)

Here's a timelapse of the eclipse - I have slowed it down for the totality part - you can't really see the sun, but watch how the moon's shadow moves across the sky! Very cool.

In time I will also embed an edit of all my diving videos from the trip here. I just have to make it first...

Edit: Here it is!

Ciao for now!

Sunday 11 November 2012

Week 6 - Sitges


So here I am - after seven weeks, five countries, five flights, 21 major train journeys, countless minor train journeys, four bike rides, three cable cars, two funiculars, one taxi and who knows how many kms walked - safely home... and sitting back in front of my gigantic screen in Brisbane.

(said ridiculous screen does look gigantic whenever I come home after travel – for about a day. Then I get used to it again)

Carl and Kai, view of Sitges
Anyway, my last European stop after Paris was in Sitges, Spain, where my friend Carl lives with his family. Spain had always seemed like a nice, warm, mellow(er) place to end up in after travelling for a while, and indeed it was.

Sitges isn't far from Barcelona, but it's smaller and more chilled (at this time of year, at least. In summer it is apparently a bit of a Euro Gay Mecca party town, which amuses me greatly).

Anyway, there is a beach, with real sand and everything. There are almost even "waves", although I put the term in inverted commas so as not to confuse any hopeful surfers (the local bleached hair brigade, who don't know any better, still try to ride them).

I spent two of the first three days doing pretty much nothing apart from churning out blogs and enjoying the sunshine and a more relaxed pace of life. After busy Paris and not having a break for a while it was a welcome change. That said, I had four-year-old Kai and six-month-old Lily to keep me from getting *too* relaxed, but by and large they were perfect days.

The Thursday was a public holiday, and Carl's in-laws had us (and a bunch of other rellies) over for lunch. I was treated to proper homemade paella with some very nice 11 year old wine, followed by a most pleasant, almost bushwalk-like walk up the local hill.

Calçots – yum!
On Saturday Carl and I took off to a local winery, called Jean Leon. According to their usual "we love ourselves just a little bit" video, the winery's namesake made his fortune in America running a restaurant for the rich and famous, before returning home and starting the vineyard. It's owned by a big Spanish wine company now, but they have retained the brand and make smallish batches of select wine from their local plantations.

After the video we got a tour of the cellars (which were wonderfully musty, like a wine cellar should be) and had a generous tasting of their wines. We bought a bottle for about $25, which is a reasonable amount in Spain, but probably really corresponded to a $30-40 bottle in Oz.

These are graves
(Carl insisted we drink it before I left – not a hard task – and it was very nice, although not *amazing*. Aussie wine has spoiled me somewhat)

After the "serious" winery, we stopped off at a little market type place where they sell wine from big barrels for a couple of Euros per litre. You bring your own bottle/tub/bucket/whatever and fill it up. It's pretty young wine but it's perfectly drinkable as table wine, and it doesn't give you a headache (as Soni's father said when I first had it at their place – and he wasn't lying).

So, a taste of both ends of the spectrum.

For lunch we hit a local spot and I got to try Calçots, which are like small leeks or big spring oniony things (only actually nice – some of you know how much I detest spring onion). They barbeque them and you have to eat them in a specific way (see the photographic evidence below, complete with bib).

Sagrada Família (outside)
Carl and I also checked out the ruins of a medieval church up on a hill, where there are remains of a children's cemetery. They have actually carved little child-sized graves out of the rock. The bones are long gone, but the graves - which are mostly full of water - are still there. It's all a bit disquieting.

Sunday was a low-key family type day. Entertaining kids is always fun though. Carl, Kai and I went for a little walk along the promenade in Sitges as the sun went down.

Sagrada Família (inside)
On Monday and Tuesday I tackled Barcelona. Carl works there, so we met up for lunch on the first day, and beers after work on the second. Both occasions were excellent. In particular, the beer place was rather good. They had an enormous range, most of which were very strong (>7% alcohol). I found a rich, chocolaty beer called "Monk's Elixir" particularly to my liking – I think it was about 10%.

As for the days, I spent the first one checking out the famous Sagrada Família - the church designed by Gaudi. It is still unfinished, but nonetheless awesome. In construction for nearly 130 years, they estimate it will be completed in another 10-20 thanks to more modern methods.

The outside is impressive - a mixture of old and new (and cranes) - and the inside is quite unique. Gaudi used a lot of naturally inspired shapes in his work, and the church is no exception. Columns branch like trees towards the roof, and there are spirals everywhere. Pictures do not do it justice.

Sagrada Família (staircase)
My other Barcelona day was more of a tourist ramble. I walked down to the docks and took the cable car over the harbour, before wandering around the Gothic quarter and ending up in the Parc de la Ciutadella. I didn't realise quite how touristy Barcelona was until that day; the hordes wore me down eventually, so the beers with Carl were extra-welcome.

My last Spanish excursion was to Montserrat, a big lump of conglomerate about an hour by train from Barcelona. I took the – unfortunately packed – cable car up (have you worked out that I really like cable cars yet though?) and had a nice little wander around.

Noseless lady near Hotel Miramar
The mountain has been home to a monastery for a long time. There are also ruins and little shrines further up, and lots of paths to connect them up. This makes for some really easy walking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself right up on top of one of the higher peaks with very little effort at all. I guess compared to Australia, most places like this have had people wandering all over them for years, so the paths are quite well defined.

All in all it was a really nice final "trip" within the trip, and a welcome relief after the craziness that was Barcelona the previous day.

Chapel up on Monserrat
I spent my final day wandering around Sitges looking for some nice whiskys to bring home (alcohol is so much cheaper in Europe), and for some ingredients to cook a nice risotto for the guys, who looked after me really well and put up with me for longer than anyone else in Europe. I'm pleased to report that all missions were successful <sips Caol Ila> and that the risotto turned out pretty well too.

Carl has suggested that I nominate Spain as the most awesome European country, but I do have Italian background, so I better not go choosing favourites. That said, it is worthy of the label "a pretty damn awesome place". Great food, (good) cheap wine, and a nice friendly culture. A bit like Italy, and similarly disorganised. Also – sun (although, to be fair, some of the other less sunny countries do have better weather at times too).

Really, at the end of the day, my little Europe jaunt has been very interesting, and incredibly enjoyable, and every country has had a lot going for it.

View from Montserrat
Many unexpected things have happened, almost all of them lovely. I've gotten a taste of at least five uniquely different cultures, with all their quirks. Europe is still so incredibly tribal, albeit in a refined sort of way. Exploring a slice of it has given me a lot more personal insight into all the history that I already knew, and the people I've met over the years from various countries.

Sitges sunset
It's not cheap though - I have to say that without the lovely free accommodation I had throughout, I would be coming home somewhat poorer. So thank you everyone, not only for the free B&Bs (and Ls and Ds), but also for taking me out, hanging around, and generally letting me be a part of your lives. I was exactly what I had in mind when I planned my little invasions – relaxed little snapshots of local life with a few select touristy things thrown in.

Stay tuned for another adventure next week!

Edit: The full set of pics are up on Flickr at last!

Friday 2 November 2012

Week 5 - Rheine and Paris

Time for another update!

Kirmus colour
So, after leaving Berlin I took a train to a little German town called Rheine, just north of Münster. It's not very well known, probably because it's small and nothing particularly momentous goes on there.

However, my old school friend Jenny lives there, and it was time for a visit, to catch up with her, her hubby, and finally meet her kids.

Horizontal pipe organ (shades of The Goodies?)
After the general hubbub of Berlin I was expecting a few fairly quiet days, but it turned out that my first evening there was also the last night of Kirmes, which is like a travelling fair that moves about German towns (as I understand it). So I ended up wandering around a noisy packed out carnival, with rides and music and food and people being suspended upside down and spun around, while I had a beer and caught up with Jenny. It was quite amusing.

Amelie with chocolate ice cream - perfect
In the end I opted not to be spun upside down, although it was slightly tempting, as to do that sort of thing at home you generally have to queue up for an overpriced theme park and then wait for hours. We did go on a spinning chair ride though, which turned out to be quite a fast, *high* spinning chair ride. Most enjoyable :) I also succumbed and finally tried a German currywurst. Quite edible, but not exactly a delicacy...

Anyway things settled down into the more expected routine for the next two days; basically hanging out with Jenny and her two girls, Amelie and Laila, and her husband Christian in the evenings.

Münster promenade
Laila with leaves
We spent one day visiting Münster, where we ambled around the town and had some lunch (and, more importantly, an ice cream). I also got to check out the house that Jenny and Christian are building in Rheine – construction in Germany is somewhat more solid than in Brisbane. I guess you need that when it can get down to minus-something-ridiculous in winter.

The weather was a bit grey again, but it wasn't raining, so on the second day Jenny and I hopped on bikes (with a trailer for Laila) and went for a little ride. There were autumn leaves and mist and deer. We finished the day off by stuffing our faces at the local Chinese restaurant. Later, Christian produced some single malts which went down extremely well.

So all up, Germany was pretty good to me. It struck me as slightly messier than Switzerland, but I think Berlin is a relatively un-German city. Rheine was certainly more sedate and organised. The people seemed relatively friendly too (as long as you obey the numerous rules – don't you dare disrupt the supermarket queue or stand on the bike path though!).

I'll definitely have to come back and explore more some day.

And then, I was off to Paris. I got there a day late due to the French deciding to have a rail strike. You have to love them – any country that throws up rioters who sets fire to cars in protest of having to work more than 32 hours a week gets the thumbs up from me.

Parisian skyline
Paris itself was interesting. I found it amazing and unforgiving at the same time. It's a big, fast city, and is definitely less relaxed than Berlin. Admittedly I spent more time on my own and less with a local guide, but nonetheless, it's a pretty fast moving place.

Pere Lachaise cemetery
I arrived in the afternoon and found the place I was staying pretty easily. Nick is an old friend of my sister's and he very kindly put me up for four nights. It turned out that his flat was practically next door to the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, so I went out for a look and took some nice moody photos in cool grey evening.

bumming around the Eiffel Tower hur hur hur
Later, Nick arrived home and we headed out for some drinks and dinner with friends of his. This turned into quite a lot of drinks which was just fine by me. The food was great too.

On Saturday I hopped onto the metro and found my way into town for an exploratory wander. I started near Notre Dame and ended up taking in a selection of Parisian landmarks, like the Louvre (from the outside), the Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe. I finished up at the Trocadéro and Eiffel Tower, both of which were quite photogenic in the failing light.

In the evening Nick's girlfriend cooked up a lovely curry, and on Sunday some friends of theirs popped over for a very civilised crepe-based brunch. In the afternoon we headed out to the cemetery again and this time we sought out the famous graves of Jim Morrison (boring) and Oscar Wilde (much less boring), before I headed off to ascend the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower – or IRON MAN?
The plan was to get up there at dusk but the queues were much longer than they had been on the previous day, so I was stuck in the cold wind with hundreds of others as the sun went down. I took the stairs up to the second level (unfortunately they don't let you walk up to the top – they should have a separate line for crazy fit guys who don't like crowds!) and had myself a nice cup of mulled wine as the lights of Paris came out. I thought about you all then. No, really, I did. It was like when a cat who has the cream sits thinking about all the other cats. ;)

Anyway, I took my time looking about the tower. Also I took my time ascending to the top, because there was another enormous queue on level 2. And I love big groups of people *so* much. The view from the top was spectacular, and the freezing wind bracing.

bum OF the Eiffel Tower?
All up it was an exhausting evening, but also awesome and well worth it.

I had one day left in Paris, and after tossing up various options I decided to visit the Louvre, because it would really have been a bit silly to visit Paris and not do that.

Paris by night
Unfortunately it was also French school holidays, so in addition to the usual droves of tourists, there were also countless extra visitors. As a museum, the Louvre is amazing. It is huge! And you walk around and run into famous things. I was walking through rooms of really nice Roman statues when I thought "oh hey, that one looks a bit like the Venus de Milo – oh wait, it IS the Venus de Milo...". Nice to know I can recognise at least one famous artwork.

Horus making shadow puppets in the Louvre
There were rooms and rooms of amazing sculptures, paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi and artifacts from all sorts of ancient cultures. And that was one wing of about five.

I was getting pretty tired of the crowds though. The Pergamon in Berlin was quiet, like a museum should be. The Louvre... was not. I had to resist the urge to strangle people more than once. Still, I figured I would explore one of the other wings and go see the silly Mona Lisa while I was there.

Perhaps it's an amazing work for all sorts of reasons that I'm not cultured enough to understand, but I've always found it underwhelming in pictures. Reality was no different. There was (for example) a cool painting of a lion eating a chubby infant, while the horrified mother looks on, waving her hands in the air, that I found much more interesting (and amusing, but that's just me).

Oh look here it is:

(I can only imagine that the boob was sort of conveying that the infant had been torn from it, and not that the artist was being gratuitous)

Anyway, the crowd of sheeple queueing for the Mona Lisa was at least as diverting as the picture itself. When I went to take a picture of the crowd some silly security lady told me it was forbidden, and I got into a little war of words with her about it, such was my mood. It was a good indicator that it was time to go home, which I did.

Next time I think I will check out the hunting museum, which, in place of huge crowds, apparently has an animatronic talking pig.

Anyway all up, Paris has a lot to offer, but I'm so not a big city guy, and I doubt I could live there. Bonsoir, Paris! See you again sometime, preferably in summer when everyone has buggered off to the South of France!

Huge thanks as usual to my lovely hosts, Jenny and Nick! I'd be a lot poorer, culturally and financially, if it weren't for everyone looking after me here.

Update: the complete sets of pictures are now up on flickr.