Tag Archives: Diving

Unruffling our feathers in Nha Trang

The countdown to returning home is nearly over; just two more sleeps and we will be back in Blighty.

I can’t help but think of the chickens my pal Marcia keeps in Christchurch (bear with me, there is a connection).

We learnt that when you collect freshly laid eggs, it is important to leave at least three eggs behind in the nest (or golf balls, which the chickens hilariously mistake for the fruit of their loins). Apparently, chicken counting goes “one… two… many”; they can’t quantify numbers larger than three.

I can relate; when we had several days before the flight to LHR, I was able to convince myself that there was still loads of time left on our travels. Now the number has ceased to be “many”, I am a squawking, clucking, freaked out chook.

Nothing better to unruffle our proverbial feathers than some downtime in the beach resort of Nha Trang, south central Vietnam.

image

image

While it was a great place to relax, the beach was not particularly remarkable save for the surprising number of Russian holidaymakers there; even TV channels, shop signs, menu translations etc are in Russian in this “little Russia”. It seems Nha Trang is to Russia what the Costa del Sol is to Britain.

Anyway, we ignored the restaurants pushing blinis and borscht and sought out a couple of local specialities, following tips picked up from Vietnamese foodies in the know The Ravenous Couple and my buddy Anh from Banh Mi 11.

First was nem nướng, barbecued pork meat and crunchy crackling. You make a fat cigar by smoothing out a sheet of rice paper, topping with pork, a forest of herbs, as many chillies you can handle and whatever condiments you fancy before rolling up and dunking in some sauce between bites.

image

Nem chua (fermented sour pork wrapped in pretty parcels of banana leaves) got the same treatment.

image

Then it was time to move on to another street joint to sample what may now qualify as the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten: sứa (jellyfish).

image

Before this, the weirdest thing I had ever eaten were deep fried locusts, which were a struggle to force down. Happily, jellyfish is actually really good! It has a mild, fresh flavour and isn’t slimy or rubbery as I thought it may be – it was a crunchy and refreshing topping for my seafood pho. And no sting! I could even imagine it adding some interesting texture to something like paella.

Mark eschewed the jellyfish option, although he experimented with a local vegetable drink which tasted healthy/medicinal, not unlike wheatgrass.

image

Knowing our travelling days are numbered (in chicken-friendly quantities), we splashed out on our last day in Nha Trang with a couple of scuba dives. I certainly regarded jellyfish with a fresh perspective!

image

In many ways however we are looking forward to coming home. It will be wonderful to be reunited with family and friends. Not to mention a proper cup of tea…

Advertisements

French Polynesia: Tahiti and Moorea

The long flight from South America to New Zealand can be broken up by island hopping via Easter Island and Tahiti in French Polynesia. Unbelievably, this route cost little more than the direct option, even though it allowed us to see some of the most beautiful and remote islands in the world. When planning the trip, we also thought a bit of beach lounging would be welcome after the chaos of South American cities.

When the time came after four months of solid backpacking, we were looking forward to Tahiti more than ever. I realise this is a disgusting “first world problem” but the truth is, we were starting to feel travelling fatigue, particularly in the increasingly wintry weather (i.e. “not ANOTHER historic Catholic Church/plaza/viewpoint/museum…I suppose we should really leave the hostel…go on then, let’s take a bloody photo and get it over with”). We were losing our mojo and and aching for the chance to kick back.

Although travelling gives you an unmatched sense of freedom, it rarely feels like a restful vacation: usually you’re knackered from sleeping on busses, hiking up mountains, lugging your bags around etc. Maybe it’s just us, but we both (especially Mark) feel a need to justify taking so much time away from work, family and friends and make the most of a once in a lifetime experience. It is classic “FOMO”- fear of missing out.

So Tahiti represented a hiatus; a few days of high end holiday time in the middle of months of backpacking on a budget.

Mark decided to go all out and treat me to a few nights in a five star hotel (thanks to his friend Ed for hooking us up with his Intercontinental connections).

image

In hindsight it was clear what he was up to – he wanted to make sure we were in the lap of luxury so he could pop the question. Knowing how my mood is directly linked to hunger, he waited until I was in a blissful state and guaranteed to say “yes”: reclining in a hammock, digesting after stuffing myself silly at the extensive breakfast buffet on the first morning.

image

No ring to show off yet; Mark proposed with a bit of costume jewellery to avoid carrying an expensive real stone in his backpack. We celebrated as is only right when in Tahiti – with a couple of luminous cocktails and a dip in an infinity pool.

image

image

image

Mark with a flower behind his right ear, which means you’re attached (left ear means looking for love)…

image

Oh, and later that evening we went into town to continue celebrations and happened to bump into Seb Coe and his lovely wife, who were in town for a local athletic competition. Mark was feeling bold and went up to say how brilliant the London 2012 Olympics were. Before long we were invited to join their table and our new pal Seb was getting the drinks in! Surely a good omen for our betrothal.

Actually this was one of several good signs and happy coincidences: Mark and I first met in the same week five years ago. And we discovered later that some dear friends also got engaged at the same time we did. Love was undoubtedly in the air!

My fiancé (eek!) and I are loving simply being engaged and wholeheartedly enjoying the last weeks of our travels; any wedding planning will wait until we are back to reality (sorry mum).

Another dance show, and another opportunity to be pulled up to embarrass yourself onstage. This time it was both of us!

image

image

image

image

The days following our engagement (after we had to leave the five star hotel room, boohoo) were spent on the stunning island of Moorea, which is also a surf and dive paradise and where I completed my PADI Open Water course. Mark was pumped after a 4 metre tiger shark turned up on one of his dives! I made do with cuddling some friendly stingrays.

image

You don’t need a five star hotel to take in views like this.

image

image

image

Happy days indeed.

A Glorious Week in the Galápagos Islands

I grew up on tales from my biology teacher father about the voyages and discoveries of his hero, Charles Darwin. I have always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s observations of the shared traits and subtle differences of species which make up the diverse wildlife inspired him to develop the theories of evolution and natural selection.

Actually setting foot in a place I have known for my whole life via teachers, books, pictures and museum exhibitions felt like visiting the Promised Land.

Most people on the islands are Darwin geeks who care passionately about nature and conservation. But the Galápagos attracts all walks of life; even creationists come to marvel at the flora and fauna, some of which exists nowhere else on earth.

One guide we met believed that these islands were the Garden of Eden; the animals have a carefree life without fear of humans or other predators. There is even a forbidden fruit: the apple-like manzanilla, poisonous to humans but a key part of giant tortoises’ diet.

The main island of Santa Cruz is surprisingly busy, with 20,000 inhabitants – I had always pictured the Galápagos to be more of a wilderness.

We went to pay respects to “Char-less Darwin” as he is known here (my last name is always pronounced “Dook-ess” throughout South America).

image

Although this statue was a respectable tribute to the local hero, in other places on the islands Darwin is depicted as a freaky Poseidon-like deity…

image

There are several giant tortoise reserves around the islands, all committed to preserving endangered species and preventing another sad story like that of Lonesome George, who lived for decades as the last surviving member of his subspecies, and died recently without passing on his genes to any offspring.

image

Thankfully, many tortoises are thriving at these sanctuaries. Mark and I were lucky enough to visit during feeding time, which only happens once every couple of days.

image

It was quite hypnotic watching these ancient creatures creak over like grumpy old men, to munch painstakingly slowly at the leaves.

We were also allowed to check out the breeding area. Tortoise eggs are taken from their underground nests (mothers don’t miss them as they abandon their eggs once they’ve been laid anyway). The eggs are incubated until they hatch (fascinatingly, the sex of the tortoise s determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation) and then the tortoise babies are kept safe from dangers like hungry rats and careless goats for the first three years of their lives. This ensures the babies have a much greater chance of reaching maturity and ultimately helps to keep tortoise population numbers up.

image

Although much more wildlife exists on the more remote and less populated islands, Santa Cruz island is home to many sea lions, who seem to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. Sea lions snoozing on park benches, lounging in small boats, or begging for scraps at the fish market are a common sight.

image

Similarly, the pelicans on Santa Cruz use the main harbour as a convenient lookout point before they dive for fish.

image

image

Santa Cruz’s beach at Tortuga Bay is a fantastic place to spot marine iguanas.

image

Usually the black reptiles can be found on dark lava rocks, but here, against the super fine white sand that looks and feels like talcum powder, they stand out beautifully.

image

While we waited for a multi day trip to the more far-flung islands to become available, we went on a couple of day trips.

Isabella island has a lagoon which white tipped sharks use to sleep in. Although these sharks do not attack people, I was glad that we could see the lagoon from the safety of dry land.

image

Dangerous or not, something about the way sharks move gives me the shivers!

The Galápagos islands have some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. As a diving novice I wasn’t allowed to go to Gordon Rocks (you need at least 30 dives under your belt before you’re deemed experienced enough to navigate the changeable currents). For the first time in months, Mark and I split up for the day: I went on a dive boat headed for the more manageable, but still excellent, dive site at Seymour while Mark went off to Gordon Rocks.

Although you’re virtually guaranteed to spot dozens of hammerhead sharks there, Mark was unlucky and saw none at all, but still saw plenty of white tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and many types of big pelagic fish.

image

image

Amazingly, a snorkelling excursion we signed up for at Kicker Rock on San Cristobal island was miles better than either of our scuba dives, or indeed most of the 70+ dives of Mark’s whole experience.

image

The water was cool, clear turquoise and just brimming with wildlife: Galapagos sharks (which don’t bother humans unlike tiger or great white sharks), massive sea turtles, rays, and about a million different kinds of colourful fish.

image

image

At one memorable moment we had to swim through the narrow channel of a gorge between two tall, sheer towers of rock.

image

As the channel was only a couple of metres wide so it was a bit of a thoroughfare for sea creatures passing through. Because of the narrowness, the current of the water passing through was really strong and we had to swim hard to navigate the ebb and flow of the swell. It was incredible doing this with a snorkel mask on, able to see all these different species right under us, all swimming hard against the current like we were. It was like being part of a wildlife documentary!

image

A motor boat took us between the three snorkel locations – at one point Mark and I were sitting on the bow of the boat as it roared past mini islands, through stunning turquoise water with the sun beating down and the wind in our hair, thinking of our friends slaving away at work back home…and how much they would hate us if they could see where we were!

The final snorkelling spot was one of a few places where we were able to play with sea lions in the water. So memorable!

image

We managed to get a deal for a last minute, 4 day 3 night cruise. It may be more fitting to say “boat trip” as this poky thing, ironically named “King of the Sea”, is hardly the type of luxury vessel normally associated with the word “cruise”.

image

It was big enough for some impressive jumps and divebombs from the roof though, and we had a fun, young group.

image

image

Over the four days we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Española and Floreana. We saw hundreds of sea lions…

image

There are about 28,000 sea lions living on the Galápagos, the same number as human inhabitants. They’re so chilled out around people that you can join them for one of their many naps…

image

As well as black marine iguanas, some of the islands like Floreana have coloured species…

image

I think the one on the bottom left looks like he is showing off full sleeve tattoos. Well ‘ard. Look at the chap on the top left, eating a discarded sally lightfoot crab shell (for the calcium, apparently).

Here are some which got away…

image

image

After a few days in the Galápagos, we saw so many sharks while snorkelling that I stopped feeling uneasy about them. I love this photo – two white tipped reef sharks sleeping ON TOP of a ray!

image

There are also huge flocks of blue footed boobies – apparently their feet become even bluer when it’s mating season, but they were pretty blue!

image

Like the sea lions, they’re totally nonplussed by humans so you can sit and chill with them.

image

Hundreds of them can be found around the cliffs of Floreana, where they circle overhead and dive down to pluck fish out of the crashing waves.

image

image

The waves hit the cliffs with such force, the spray is as strong as a geyser. Sometimes unfortunate iguanas get shot 20m straight up into the air by the water!

image

There always seemed to be a new type of bird to look at in the sky.

image

Clockwise from top left: oystercatcher, mockingbird (Darwin had his eureka moment when studying the beak lengths of mockingbirds from different islands); albatross, flamingos, frigate bird (with its red chest puffed out to attract a mate), Galápagos hawk.

Although visiting the islands is famously expensive (flights, entry fees and costs of mandatory tour guides add up), we let our credit cards take the hit. Knowing this would be a once in a lifetime experience and that access is very likely to restricted in the future for conservation purposes made the eye-watering cost easier to bear – and the experience was worth every penny (and subsequent debt!)

Please can I stay forever and be a castaway, or a stowaway on a pirate ship?!

image

image

Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn is a windswept, semi-arid steppe in Argentine Patagonia. Our first encounter had some surreal echoes of home with the grey and freezing weather, Welsh-speaking people and fish & chips on the coast.

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

Fish & chips, Argentinian style

In the 1860s, Welsh nationalists encouraged around two hundred settlers to relocate to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, to create a cultural colony to preserve their heritage and language. We felt sorry for the first people to arrive from Wales, who had been promised paradise but found a barren landscape, no water and some small caves for their first shelter.

The wildlife seems to like it though. There are sea lions, seals, magellanic penguins, orcas, and in the right season (which of course it wasn’t), southern right whales.

Leila had her first ever scuba dive – and with sea lions! A memorable experience. She was, as expected, a natural. The sea lions were like puppies: inquisitive and playful.

image

image

image

image

The penguins were predictably comical. Punta Tombo, just down the coast has an enormous rookery of c.500,000 breeding pairs.

They were in the middle of their moulting period, which lasts around ten days. They can’t return to the water until their fluffy feathers have totally shed, so they have to stuff themselves with fish in preparation.

The combination of bloated bellies and patchy feathers is not the best look.

image

This is the “awkward adolescent” phase in the life of a penguin

image

If I close my eyes maybe it will all get better

Some of the cooler kids already had dashing new suits…

image

Flirt

These hairy armadillos were a pest, continually trying to steal our food.

image

Rheas:

image

Guanacos:

image

Cuis:

image

And (trust me here) these two black spots are a pair of Orca. Sadly they weren’t hungry enough so stayed a long way offshore.

image

Despite the rocky start (literally – haha) the Welshies stuck about. Several schools continue to teach Welsh, there are music and poetry festivals and a sense of pride about the history. There are also lots of people named “Jones”, “Roberts” and of course “Griffiths”.

We went to a Welsh style tea-house which, whilst not a patch on the Ritz or Dorchester, served up a pretty decent and plentiful afternoon tea. It was lovely to have our first proper cuppa in months!

image

image