Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mum comes to Sydney...marvellous

Not going back to the UK much, you may think that 2 weeks with the family would be enough.  Not for me.  Oh no.  I am what you would call in the common vernacular, "a glutton for punishment".  After an amazing couple of weeks in the UK seeing family and friends, old and new, I then brought my mum and one of my sisters BACK with me!  Albeit, the quietest sister.  I swear, at times you wouldn't even know she was there.  Apart from sporadic "marvellouses" every now and then she is an introvert's dream.  Marvellous.

Cast your mind back 18 months and you will recall mum came back to Sydney with me for her first Australian trip.  And, some might say surprisingly,  she also found her way back home at the end of her 3 weeks.  Yes, she did 4 loops of Sydney international terminal, and almost got on a plane to Qatar from Singapore.  But, she made it home safely.  And that is the important bit.  OK, i made the bit about the plane to Qatar bit up, but you get the picture.

So, with mum now being a seasoned traveller, and knowing a bit of Sydney, a few weeks back here, with my sister would be a breeze.  Wouldn't it?  The only danger, as I could see, would be that mum would leave my sister sat in a cafe somewhere in Mosman, forgetting she was there.  It's easily done.  She is so quiet and reserved that you think you are sat in glorious isolation.  It's like forgetting your umbrella on the train.  Kind of.  Up you get, and you are halfway home before you realise she is missing.

It turns out mum has her own inimitable way of navigating Mosman.  "Look for the man's head", she said.  Man's head?  What the devil is she talking about?  "I walk up the road, to Vinnies (local charity shop), and on the way back, walk past Bird Bath Table (actually Bed, Bath, and Table!), past the kid's toy shop (to see if there are ANY kids she hasn't yet bought a gift for), and when I see the man's head, I turn right down your street."

Let's get one thing clear.  Mosman is no war torn village, in a country ravaged by civil war.  So you don't go around expecting to see the heads of men casually on street corners.  But on my next visit to work, the penny dropped.  She was looking for Dom.  A brass bust of a late, former local Mayor of Mosman.  Strategically located, for mum's navigational purpose, at the top of my street.  Now, like all good family histories, mum was passing this knowledge on to my sister, so future generations don't get lost wandering around Mosman.  Let's hope Dom doesn't fall foul of the local council, and get removed.  Where would we be then?  Or, more specifically, where would mum be?

Thankfully, as it turns out, mum, or my sister didn't get lost.  At least not in a literal sense.  Although, if she described her day to you, you could be forgiven she had been on a different planet completely.

She wanted to meet me in"Darwin Harbour", til I explained to her that Darwin was many, many miles away, in the north, and it would take us a long time to get there.  We established she meant Darling Harbour.  A similar thing happened when she wanted to meet for lunch in Canary Wharf.  Now, I am sure there are some cracking food options in Canary Wharf, the thing is, it is in London, and we were in Sydney.

When I suggested somewhere closer would be more convenient, she piped up, "how about Neutron Bay or Split Junction?'.  Yes mum, would that be Neutral Bay or Spit Junction?  As long as she made sure she didn't get on the "hopalong bus".  Worked that one out?  The "hop on, hop off" tourist bus.

And the fun just continued.  She wondered if Milo was a wine?  Tried to order "spankyoli" in the Greek restaurant, in place of spanakopita, and then got home and asked if i would "get the Skype box out" so she could call home.  You couldn't make this stuff up.   Well, you could, it jut wouldn't be as funny.

You could possibly think the coup de grace would be the time she locked herself into the toilet, getting her leg up on the frame to try and force the door, only to realise she was pushing, and not pulling.  But no.  For me, the best was saved til the last days of a very enjoyable, and very memorable holiday, when she looked aghast when i informed her that dinosaurs are real.  "You mean they were not made up for Jurassic Park?" she genuinely enquired?
Mum, I salute you.  Once again I loved having you here in Australia with me and giving me the opportunity to spend quality time with you.  It makes me realise how much I miss you, and having you around.  I look forward to our next adventure.

Oh, you see, I almost forgot.  My quiet sister.  It was great having you here too, and so glad that you managed to get to do the things you wished for.  Although, you come all the way to amazing Sydney, with it's iconic sights, and your highlight?  Alf's bait shop in Summer Bay (Palm Beach)!  Rubber dinghy rapids bruv.  Marvellous.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Whale of a time - but no Ryan Giggs

My first reaction upon being asked if I wanted to go and see Wales was, "I'm sure Giggsy retired a long time ago, so, no thanks".  Yes, they are doing a mighty fine job in the Euro qualifiers, thanks to that fella playing at Real Madrid, but still, no thanks.  Once it was pointed out to me that there is life outside football (really?!?), I realised it was in fact whales that were on offer.  Specifically humpback whales. The uber whales.  

Of course, I am using “uber” in the sense it was meant, before Uber meant tech start up taxi company! Just whilst I am on that, have you used it yet?  Uber.  My introduction was via a friend, and thus a free (actually $25 credit) ride.  Once he had shown me the app, and how to use it, I was off.  Literally.  Not even the effects of several large beers was enough to discombobulate me as I navigated through the options.  Within minutes, I was watching my uberX (the uber cheap option) slowly move towards me on my iPhone screen, like a little video game.  

After a short wait, my driver, Zain, in his little Honda Civic, turned up.  He was a very pleasant chap, if somewhat over chatty.  I avoided all Peter Kay impersonations, purposely not asking him if "he had been on long", had been busy.  Once Zain realised I had no taste for talking, we got along mighty fine.  Riding from the CBD, over the hulking Harbour Bridge, to the Lower North Shore, minus my promotional credit, I was left with a tab of just over $4, which is debited from the payment method you indicate when you set up your account.  Easy peasy.  And the (next) best thing?  As a new user, I get another $25 credit if I get a friend to use the service.  Cue me tweeting and emailing the link out to as many people as possible.

For me, the service is a winner.  Opening up the somewhat monopolistic taxi market.  I read that around the world, "real" taxi drivers are up in arms about the whole thing.  Even burning donkeys in Paris.  Or was it car tyres?  I'm never sure with the impassioned Parisians.  Isn't healthy competition what drives an economic market?  The "invisible hand" of economic theory described by Adam Smith in 1776?

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, whales...

Specifically humpback whales.  Which Wikipedia reliably(?) inform me are called (Megaptera novaeangliae).  I see that this entry was recently edited so could be any name.  It is all latin to me.  It could actually be the name for a brontosaurus.  Or should that be the old name for brontosaurus?  I recently discovered that they never really existed.  It turns out that some museum curator put the wrong skull on the wrong skeleton, and lo and behold brontosaurus was born.  Only when the mistake was discovered did the brontosaurus become extinct for the second time.  You learn something new every day.

Well, humpback whales.  With the adults reaching up to 52ft in length, and possible of weighing unto 36,000 kilograms they are surprisingly majestic in the water.  With their distinctive body shape, and very large tail, they are acrobatic animals known for breaching and slapping the water with its tail, which is believed to be one of the ways they communicate.  Just try and catch the tail flip in a photo.  I did see a few tail flips, even if I am unable to show evidence.  Promise.  I have witnesses.

We are very lucky in Sydney in that each year we can witness their migration north from Antarctic.  With the whales swimming inland just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour, our afternoon cruise from the city, once we got on the right bloody boat!, took us out through the Harbour, into the open sea.  From here we sailed alongside the whales up past Manly, and north to Palm Beach as they frolicked their way north, up to the Great Barrier Reef, where they mate and eat.  Hoping to gain more than 10kgs each day from birth, this allows them to survive in the sub zero water temperatures they encounter once they migrate back down south with their calves to feed on the crill under the ice in the Antarctic.

Calves stay with mum for about 10 months, then they are on their own in big wide world, or the ocean.  Males stay even less time, their main aim in life being to mate with as many females as possible, and just keep moving on.  If there is a reason to believe in Buddhism, this has to be it.  With reincarnation being one of the tenets of Buddhism, I’m coming back as a whale.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Winter Coat That Wasn't - A Tale of Customer Service Woe

If a coat gets delivered, but there is nobody there to witness it (in fact there was, but more of that later), was there even a coat in the first place?

Back in the day, when you wanted something new, you saved up your pocket money, waited until the weekend, and went shopping.  In real shops.  with over bearing shop assistants. 

The arrival of the internet saved my soul, and my sanity.  Online shopping had arrived.  No longer did I have to fend off the unwanted attentions of under worked shop staff.  Making such asinine comments as “can I help you with sizes?”.  No thank you.  Surprising as it may seem to you, I am also able to read the labels in the back of clothes, and select the ones that I think I would like to try on.

Now, with just a few clicks, I could shop to my heart’s content, and in peace.  So simple.

Until it was time for my bounty to be delivered.

Are couriers, and delivery companies in general yet to catch on to the idea of customer service?  The idea that you create your business model around the needs of the customers you are meant to be serving.
Arriving home to find one of those little cards in your post box that explains they tried to make a delivery today.  With a handy little number to ring to re-arrange delivery.  But here is the snag.

When you call and ask for the delivery to be made on the two days you do not work, you find out that they only deliver Monday to Friday.  Hmm.  OK, you haven’t yet caught on to the idea that most people work through the week, so give me a time through the week that you will deliver it, and I will arrange to be in for that time slot.  Hmm again.  The response is usually that they are only able to give you a day, and you have to be off work the whole day waiting for them to turn up.  No puedo hacerlo.  No can do.

It appears that DHL, and their ilk, are not planning to change their draconian ways, so enter my saviour.  The humble parcel locker.

With services currently offered by Australia Post, and Officeworks, this is a cracking idea.  And free.  You sign up, get an address which you use for your delivery, and your parcel gets delivered into a secure locker, that can be accessed 24/7 via a unique code.

And until recently, my experience has been excellent.

Until…Spit Junction post office get involved.  Or specifically “Rosa” from the post office.  As I was away on holiday when the eponymous winter coat got delivered, the time it was allowed in the secure locker expired.  As is the process, it was then removed from the locker, and taken into the post office for me to collect over the counter.  And the communications I got through this process reassured me all was in hand, as “Rosa” had signed for the coat.

And subsequently lost it.  Somewhere.  In a post office the size of a large shipping container.  When I went in to collect my coat, I was told that I should call back again when they had chance to have a full search of the post office.  Which I did.  On 3 occasions.  And still no coat.  And no apology.  And no taking ownership of the issue.  I was told that I would have to chase up all parties involved, from the online store I bought the coat from, to the courier service that had delivered the coat.

All this despite having evidence that the online store HAD despatched the coat.  The courier HAD collected and delivered the coat.  And “Rosa” HAD signed for the coat at Spit Junction post office.

Still, Julian, the manager at the post office, told me it wasn’t his problem, and that I had to do my own chasing around.

Not happy with this appalling lack of customer service, I had Julian raise an official complaint.  Meanwhile I tried contacting Witchery customer service.  Which was equally appalling.  Don’t these people want customers?  All the accountability was on me, the customer.  There was total apathy, a total lack of concern for my loss.

In steps my saviour.  PayPal.  To the rescue again.  Like my cloud hosted knight in shining armour.

A company that truly seems to be on the side of the customer, and the service we deserve when we are spending our hard earned cash.  Having previously rescued me from the wretched clutches of Next.com, the Aussie outpost of the popular UK site from an unbelievably bad customer service / delivery experience, I again had to revert to their "resolution centre" to reclaim my funds.

It looks as though PayPal had the same problem getting any joy from Witchery, and when they hadn’t responded to PayPal with the requisite 14 days, PayPal refunded me the total amount. An amount they will now claim back direct from Witchery.

It has now been over 5 weeks since this whole saga began.  I am older, and slightly greyer for the experience.  At the time of writing I still have not heard from either the Post Office, the Postal Ombudsman (to whom I escalated my complaint), nor Witchery.  Lord knows into which black hole my query / complaint / rants have gone.  

Probably the same place as where my coat is.

In the meantime, Rosa may have a new coat, but I now have some money to spend.  Where's that laptop?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Winter? Already? Not the time to start enjoying water sports!

I come from an island.  The greatest island in the world, in my opinion.  And being surrounded by water I must have grown up spending plenty of time in the water.  Right?  Wrong.  Have you ever tried dipping your toes into the North Sea off Filey?  Without a full body wet suit?  And that's protection against both the confluence (right word?) and the baltic temperatures.  It has to be said, I have spent time in the water in much warmer climes.  Such as learning to scuba dive years ago in the Whitsunday Islands.  And taking advantage of my new qualification in the balmy waters of the Red Sea in Egypt.  But for these diving experiences, this is where it stopped.

Moving to the second greatest island in the world, Australia, I could now take the opportunity to spend lots of time in the water.  Right?  Once again, negative.  Granted the water is warmer.  Ever so slightly, at least at my local beach, Balmoral on the lower North Shore in Sydney.  Granted, it was like a very warm bath in Far North Queensland over summer.

Living in the UK, not a few hours from any coastline, you would have thought I would have seamlessly segued into life by the sea.  Like a duck to, well, water.  Not so.  I have always had a natural aversion to getting wet.  This includes baths.  And showers, of any kind.  But somehow I manage to maintain these, regularly, and hence my general hygiene.  I think.  <<quickly checks around and wonders why nobody near>>

With all this in mind, this year was the year it was all going to change i posited.  Literally throwing ourselves into the deep end, it was on a boat trip to Nusa Lebongan, off the coast of Bali, that we jumped into a 2-man kayak, and without any experience, off we paddled.  What great fun it was, pretending to be in the opening credits of Hawaii-5-O.  It could almost hear the theme tune falling into sync with our oars as we circled the boat in the sedate waters of the Bali Sea. 

Bali Fun Ship

Fresh from our aquatic adventures, the next challenge was closer to home.  Even with the memory of the successful kayak trip giving so much confidence, it wasn't without some trepidation that I decided we should try stand up paddle boarding (SUP) for the first time.  Seeing people float around Middle Harbour, looking like they are walking on water, I thought, "how hard can it be?"   Hmm, I soon found out.  I've never tried surfing (maybe next), but standing up on a 12 foot board, in the open sea, is easier said than done!   Staying on the board, and out of the drink, was positively going to be a challenge. 

Down to our swimmers, sporting very fetching life jackets, we negotiated our way out from the paddle board centre without too much trouble.  It was only then, after being lulled into a false sense of security, that things got interesting.  "Catching" waves (or more realistically ripples) from passing boats of various sizes really tested the balance.  Feet firmly planted forward, oar in hand, concentrating on the core of my body, I managed to make my way without much drama out into Middle Harbour.  Some twenty minutes in, in water somewhat bereft of vessels, I started to get complacent.  

Paddling away, laughing, joking with other "boarders", I maybe didn't see the size of the boat about to cross my path.  If I had seen it, I definitely didn't anticipate the size of the swell it would produce.  Before you could say "man over board", I was wobbling around on my board, looking punch drunk, with legs like jelly.  

Hawaii - 5 - 0!!

In other news, in what has been a life bereft of luck (get out the violins), I seem to have hit on to somewhat of a winning streak.  Never usually one to fill out feedback cards at the end of meals, I'd rather use crowd sourcing apps such as Foursquare, I'm rather glad I made an exception at my last visit to one of the local Greek restaurants.  Imagine my surprise, and delight upon reading the monthly newsletter and discovering I had won dinner for two for the month of June.  Although the free meal may well be the last one I choose to have there, due to very surly customer service.  I may not have been paying for our meal.  At least not the first $80 of it.  But quibbling that I couldn't pay the balance on my bank card because it "was not worth it for you" is not going to win you my repeat custom.  The "Dancing Zorba" in Mosman will be the next Greek restaurant we frequent.

My next slice of luck came hot on the heels.  They say you have to be in it to win it.  With this in mind I bought my raffle tickets for the Cancer Research "Biggest Morning Tea".  And wouldn't you know, I got pulled out for a prize.  And not a bottle of old, dusty, cheap sherry.  I actually won something I would use.  Something that will come in very useful for our trip this weekend.  

They (whoever "they" are) say luck comes in threes.  What's next?  Lotto?  <<logs onto website>>

Oh, did I mention our trip this weekend?  Winter has arrived this week in Sydney, with a vengeance.  As I write it is a demonstrably chilly 13 degrees.  The winter wardrobe is out, yet it is not enough.  I need to escape this artic hell.  OK, I haven't gone THAT soft.  But it is cold.  

So, on Saturday, off to Thailand we go for some much needed warmth, rest, and relaxation.  Our destination is the island of Koh Samui, off the east coast of Thailand.  I'm looking forward to kicking back in the pool bar with a cocktail, or two, and very much interested to see how the island has changed in the last 15 years.

Hasta pronto chicos!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Driving the road trip off the bucket list

It has taken a long time to get around to this latest instalment of the Australian odyssey.  I could blame a lot of things.  But where would that get me?  It would just reinforce the tired, lazy stereotype of the "whingeing pom".

So, here I am, in Max Brenner, the self proclaimed bald expert on chocolate, as I sip an Italian hot chocolate, which is so luxurious, I am half inclined to further procrastinate.

But let's cut to the chase.  Bucket list.  What springs to mind when I say bucket list?  A film starring Jack Nicholas?  (not his best btw).  A rather morbid checklist of all the things you want to do as you count down your final days?  Or just a list of items that are more a wish list than something you are actively working towards completing?   An "aspirational list"?

For me, it's possibly an amalgam of all these.  But without doubt, the overriding factor is a list of things that I am determined I will do.  In my lifetime.  Whilst I am still young.  Yes, I know this is patently up for debate, but it is my bucket list.  My rules.  Ergo, I AM still young.  For now.  And my bucket list is something I am actively tackling with much gusto.  Hopefully well before the bell goes on my time here and I shuffle off this mortal coil. 

And for this reason, all the items I have on said list are eminently doable.  As is being proven by my working through the list.  The most recent achievement being the camper van trip. 

What started as a germ of an idea over 20 years ago, on a walk through the salubrious surroundings of Halifax town centre, finally came to fruition, almost a lifetime later, at the other side of the world.  Where I now currently call home.  Australia. 

I suppose there are many places where you could have the quintessential road trip.  Across Route 66, following in Kerouac"s footsteps from Chicago to California.  There is also the Pacific Coast drive, on the west coast of the US.  Taking in the Big Sur, beloved of Steinbeck, up past Portland, Oregon, onto Washington state.

Port Douglas
But for me, in my adopted home country, the east coast was the place to embark on my first camper van trip.  The romantic, idealist that resides in me would have wanted to do this trip in a grandly restored VW Kombi van.  With split windscreen etc etc etc.  But, a good friend of mine would have no doubt warned me how unreliable these Teutonic beasts could be.  And would question whether I would want to be worried about breaking down at any moment, being chase by kangaroos, or mad killers of the Wolf Creek variety.  No, you are right.  

Palm Cove - the hidden secret of FNQ
We went for the rather more modern, if less stylistic, mode of campervan transport.  Which these days is a Toyota Hiace.  But, as you will have seen from my last blog, it ticked all the boxes.  And over the next 4 weeks we were lucky enough to have experienced such highlights as:

Palm Cove - one of far north Queensland's best kept secrets.  We ARE going back
Kuranda - via the worlds longest cable car (or gondola as they are known in Oz) - 
Port Douglas - my new "would love to live here" place

Daintree - the place for crocodile spotting.  Well, only if you have "crocodile girl" with you it seems.  I did.  She was travelling with me.

Tiny Daintree village
Cape Tribulation - quite splendid isolation.  Idyllic.  And at Cape Tribulation camp site...awesome wood fired pizzas served onsite, with cold beers to wash them down.
Mission Beach - as it says on the tin, on the beach.  With a cold XXXX.  Does it get more Australian?  Fair dinkum.
Yeppoon - emergency stop having disciovered we would have had a 10 hour drive without it.  My bad.
Halifax - admittedly not really a highlight, more of a 1 pub, 1 street, town.  But on the list due to its name 
Hervey Bay - one of the best coffees of the trip.  Believe, I tried a few.  And have you ever seen SO many mobility scooters?
Bundaberg - does it need saying?  Rum...
Airlie Beach - where we spent Xmas, and had Xmas Eve sailing and snorkelling on the Great Barrier reef.
Noosa - now famous for having no camp sites with vacancies, prompting a frantic day of driving to find our home for the night. (with a bit of schmoozing, we managed to get into a site in Mudjimba).
Coolum beach - just beautiful.  And worth repeating.  Beautiful.  Oh yeah, and a damn good latte.

Having dropped the van in Brisbane, via a few toll roads (which would come back to haunt us), the trip continued by good old buses, with us having the relative luxury of real rooms at night, with a real bed.

Brisbane - New Years Eve fireworks, and very good change from Sydney, albeit on a much smaller scale
Surfers Paradise – for just being Surfers.
Byron Bay - notable for being awesome, as Byron always is, and for the magic powers of the alcohol that doesn’t manage to get you drunk.  Until you wake up in bed with a kebab, and wonder how you, and it, got there.  You know who you are.

Selling "magic" beer
And how better to end the travelling experience than to take the overnight, 13 hour, bus journey back into Sydney.  There weren't many smiles in my travelling party of two, when the driver announced the 3.30am meal stop at a road house.  At which everybody would have to be off the bus so the driver could secure it.

Maybe chugging into Sydney, over the Harbour Bridge, on a glorious morning, at 7.30am, was not the best time to reflect on the whole journey.  But with the benefit of a good rest, a proper nights sleep, I think it was unanimously declared a success.  And something that has to be repeated.

So now, camper van trip remains on the bucket list.  Next venue?  New Zealand perhaps.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

No Fixed Abode - Road Trip part 1

If you are reading this, and know that I am without gainful, paid employment, there is no need to worry that I am finally destitute, and now living on the streets of Sydney.  No, that is not going to happen for at least a few weeks yet.

The title refers to the recent road trip, and not my current living arrangements.

Inspired by writers such as Kerouac, I have long wanted to be “On the Road”.  Set free to explore, windows down, wind in my hair, no agenda, and a very loose itinerary, I finally got to tick off another item from the bucket list.  A camper van road trip. 

"Chubby" - how I miss this little van!
However, not one that didn’t start with a little trepidation.  Neglecting to pay for additional insurance (well, I am still a Yorkshire man), thus leaving me with a $3000 excess should anything happen to the van, had me ever so tentatively reversing the camper out of the parking spot in Cairns, after checking all mirrors so often my neck was hurting.

The road trip started in Cairns, after flying up from Sydney two days earlier.  Cairns has continued to develop and improve over the years, now catering for a slightly more up market clientele, and not just for the hundreds of backpackers that have a visit to “The Woolshed” as a rite of passage on their overseas adventure. 

New waterfront developments, bars and restaurants, targeting the cruise ship arrivals no doubt, add some much needed drink and dining options if you tire of the $10 beer and burger offers proliferating central Cairns.

And as an element of this trip morphed into being a search for the east coast’s best coffee, I found a definite contender in Cairns.  If you ever find in town, and in need of a caffeine fix, head to “Caffeined”, a Mebourne-esque alley way coffee shop, with coffee that will make you want to stay in Cairns.

Hipster-ville, in the centre of Cairns

From Cairns, the plan was to head north, across the Daintree river, all the way up to Cape Tribulation, until the road runs out.  Literally.  The sealed road ends in Cape Trib, only allowing for 4x4 vehicles to travel past that point.  From Cape Trib, we were going to turn around (it is one road in, and only one road out), and then head south, back over the Daintree, back through Cairns, and continue until we hit Brisbane, a few weeks later.  It was in Brisbane that we had arranged to drop the camper van off, hopefully strike off the $3000 excess on my credit card, and then continue by bus to Surfers Paradise and Byron Bay.

The state of Queensland

Quite an adventurous undertaking, with some 3000kms of road to cover.  All of our road trip would be done in Queensland, Australia’s second largest state.  To provide a sense of perspective, Queensland is about seven times the size of Great Britain, covering an area of 1,727,000 square kilometers.

But we were in no rush, had no constraints, and set off with a great sense of adventure.

My next instalment will be to cover off the highlights, and lowlights, of the trip.  Make sure to keep reading.