Down Under by Jayant Doshi(A report of a trip to Australia and New Zealand with Bhagini ) On a cold Sunday of 4th February 2007 at 8.30 in the morning, forty five enthusiastic travellers boarded a coach at Harrow Leisure Centre to take them to Gatwick airport to catch a long flight to Melbourne in Australia. The meticulously planned trip by Bhagini as usual started with a packed lunch being provided to each traveller, and that little box became a blessing for many since the airline had made a mistake and only half the passengers got a vegetarian meal which had been ordered. After a stop over in Dubai and Singapore, the long flight landed on Tuesday early morning in Melbourne. The distance and the timedifference meant that we literally skipped a day on our way to Australia. But the twentytwo hour journey, and the eleven hour time difference might have ruffled most of the groupmembers, but they were still in high spiritswhen we landed in Australia.Melbourne, with a population of 3.6 million,is a very well planned city on a grid basis,has wide roads, and some impressive andoutstanding architecture in its buildings.Melbourne, like England, has four weathersin a day, and lot of greenery though rightnow Australia has been suffering fromdrought for the past decade. It was a freeday for us, but most of the members of thegroup decided to catch up on the lost sleep.Our hotel was right in the middle of the city,and that gave us an opportunity to explorethe surrounding areas. There were restaurants of various nationalities, and as is to be expected, the China town was nearby too. We took a circular bus and train ride and had a glimpse of the city life. The central city circular service was free and lots of locals and tourists were taking advantage of this wonderful service. The city seemed in very good state, clean and neat and well looked after. The buildings, which ranged from colonial style to ultra modern, were impressive to look and well maintained. Many of the modern buildings had lovely sculptures decorating their fronts. The city, and for that matter the country, shows its loyalty and ties with home country by adopting names of British royalty and early
explorers for naming its streets and locations. Melbourne has been voted as the best city tolive in, the city of sport lovers and as thesafest city; and during our short stay wecould say that we would agree with thoseawards without any reservations.Next morning we started our sightseeing byfirst visiting Sovereign Hill, once a bustlinggold mining town, but now a replica of thelife in 1850’s is captured in a museum. Ourlunch was to be a picnic on the shores of alovely lake, but when we reached there wewere told that the drought and the globalwarming had taken toll of the lake. Thehuge lake, once filled with clear bluewaters, was devoid of a drop of water whenwe reached the shores of the lake area. We were then taken down the gold mine. Later wewent on top of the Rialto Towers, which is the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the southern hemisphere and is well known for its unique design and glass façade. We had a panoramic view of the city from the top of the towers. The day finished with a dinner followed by a game of bingo. Travelling in a large group has its advantages. Long flights and coach journeys become pleasant with jokes and songs, with talking and laughing, with friendships built and bonds made. Meal times had lot of chattering and talking going on, and laughter was a common scene. Evenings after dinner became show time with sing-a-long, jokes and games.We had the fortune of having some talented people who made the trip jovial and pleasantwith well prepared jokes and entertainment, which was there at every point in time whenmembers of the group were feeling sleepy or bored.Next day we had a tour of the city, and the guide highlighted the main features of the city,and pointed out some of the important buildings. The wide roads, and the lovelyarchitecture made Melbourne a veryimpressive modern city. We were then takenfor a tour of the world famous MelbourneCricket grounds. We were given a conductedtour of the grounds and the stadiumbuildings. With a capacity of 98000 seats,and the turf quality of the higheststandards, the grounds pride in itsmaintenance and quality of management. Itcaters for various ball games, and it can beadapted and changed from one game to theother in matter of hours. The grass looks likevelvet spread on the ground, and we weretold that the turf on the grounds cost amillion dollars. Inside the buildings we saw
photos of famous cricketers and statutes of the most famous. Even the old seats from thepast stadium have been exhibited on the walls.After lunch, we were given some time forshopping, and in the evening we were takento Phillips Island. The island is famous forits penguins. The penguins come out of thewater at night only, and as such we weretaken to the island when we could viewthese little creatures walk out of the water.But it was enchanting to watch the calmwaters of the ocean, and suddenly to see apenguin coming out from nowhere andwalking on to the sands. It was a lovelysight, though not as exciting as weanticipated, nor did we see hoards ofpenguins coming out of water as weexpected. Melbourne was cloudy and cool; but our flight to Cairns took us to hot sunny weather. Cairns is a small laid back town with easy going life. While south east suffers from severe drought, this part of Australia gets enough rain to make it lush with greenery. The cable car ride over the rain forests of Kuranda, with waterfalls cascading from its steep slopes, was the highlight of the day. The forest, a preserved area, was covered with thick growth of trees. Later we walked through a small town, with shops displaying wonderful aboriginal and other paintings. Our night stay was in a resort spread over a fewhundred acres with three lovely swimming pools, and lots of greenery. We took advantageof the swimming pools to cool us down before we left for dinner. Dinner was followed by adisplay of a cultural show by the aboriginal people. Their music and some dances werepresented which, however, did not impress most of us. The show was followed by adisplay of fireworks. The aborigine shout of “piri piri” was copied by one of our groupmembers very effectively, and entertained us with the shout many a times during the trip.This part of the Australian coast is knownas the famous Great Barrier Reef, and islisted as a world heritage site. GreatBarrier Reef is considered as one of thewonders of the world. It is the largest areaof ocean with corals and hence itsimportance as world heritage site. We tooka catamaran to go to Green Island. Some ofus did swimming and snorkelling in theocean. After lunch we had a ride in asubmarine, followed by a ride in a glassbottom boat. The ocean bed is filled withvariety of corals and fish, and we had good
sighting on our submarine and boat trip. Compared to the corals we saw in the Red Sea, I was not much impressed with the corals here, though I believe there was a lot more to see which we could not manage in a day. Next day was a free day. We started the day with yoga in the open ground. Morning passed away relaxing and swimming. After lunch we walked around the shops, and later saw a movie. After dinner we had group games and fun. Next morning we did yoga in a room, and spent the morning swimming. Later we flew to Brisbane, and were straight taken to Tangalooma island. The highlight of theday was watching the dolphins being fed at night. These dolphins come out of the ocean inthe dark only, and are fed by the tourists under the guidance of trainers and experts.It rained whole night. I decided to wakeearly and take a walk on the beach.However due to a mix up on the alarm, Iwoke up and went for the walk, not realisingthat it was midnight. However, it was apleasant walk in the cool of the night. Todaywe had a tour of the island, and thehighlight was going to be “skiing” on sanddunes, but due to rains previous night wewere deprived of this pleasure. Instead wewalked up the sand dunes, and had somefun doing so. On our return, I took advantageof a swim in the ocean. After lunch, it wasraining heavily and we had to restrictourselves to a game of cards. Later that afternoon, we left for Gold Coast, and passedthrough the city of Brisbane with a population of 1.3 million. The city faces severe watershortages, and that seemed to be the plight of most of Australia. Our night stay was in avery large resort in the Gold Coast. It was Valentine’s Day today, and every member of the group woke to find a unanimous Valentine card. At breakfast, everyone exchanged Valentine Day wishes, and some were trying to work out who could have sent those cards. Our day was to be spent in the Movie World, which is based on similar theme as Disney world and other such theme parks. We experienced and had a look into the magic, fantasy and escapism of movie making. There were rides to suit every taste, and some of the shows were enthralling. Everyone enjoyed the day in one’s own way. Some of us spent time swimming while othersrested before the Valentine night dinner which ended with some singing and jokes.
Next morning we had a tour in anamphibian bus. Firstly, we had an hourof sighting of rich and famous people’smagnificent houses along the broadwater area. Then the amphibian buswent into the sea, sailed around for awhile, and then gave us a taste of duckdiving by splashing into the water. Restof the day was spent at sea world withits numerous shows. The highlightswere the dolphin show, skiing showand the 4-D show which wasremarkable.Having completed the first phase of ourAustralia tour, we took an early morning flight to Auckland, the capital of New Zealand inthe north Island. New Zealand, consisting of two islands, has a population of four milliononly, with 1.5 million living in the capital city of Auckland. From rain deprived, drought stricken dry atmosphere of Australia, New Zealand was a total contrast with lush greenery all around. The flight time was not that long, but because of the time difference (3 hours), our day just passed in travelling. From the Auckland airport, we drove through the city covered with trees all around, and greenery that was pleasing to the eyes. We had a hill top view of the city. Our hotel was located near a lovely park near the sea. The residences had some lovely features and designs. Auckland, we understood, has a large Indian population and a few temples. Some of us went for an early morning walk in thepark and along the sea, and we saw the giant Queen Mary liner docked in the ocean witha large crowd of spectators.Next morning we had a tour of the city which included the Harbour Bridge, the WarMemorial Museum and the Sky Tower. From the top of the sixty floors high Sky Tower, wehad a panoramic view of the city. Themuseum had some living artefacts, and thearea of the museum was so huge that evena few days will not be enough to give itjustice. We drove to our next destinationand passed the richest and largest inlandcity of Hamilton. As the population is sosmall and land plentiful, the size of farms isenormous. On route we saw huge farmswith lush green crops. We visited thelimestone caves of Waitomo which isfamous for the glow worms. We had a boatride in the canal in the caves, and we sawthe ceiling of the caves covered with glowworms which glowed like stars in the sky.
Our overnight stay was at Rotura on the shores of a lake. This area is over a volcanic plateau which is dormant now; and famous for the steam and hot water springs that come out of the volcanic activity underground. The hotel had pools with actual hot water from these hot water springs. The water containing sulphur is meant to be beneficial for the skin. Every one took advantage of this facility in the few hours we were spending in that hotel. The visit to the world famous sheep show at Agrodome was the programme for the next day. Besides the sheep shearing show and a tour of the farm, the farm had anarray of amazing adventure activities. However, we were not given any free time to enjoythe same, and I am not sure many besides myself, would have been interested in thoseactivities.After lunch we visited the geothermal volcanic area, which have huge reserves of thermalsprings. One could witness boiling waterand steam gushing out from the ground. Wehad the afternoon free. During our walk inthe area we saw hot water and steamcoming out of many houses and gardens.We later called others to come and see thesame. The water was extremely hot andcould burn ones skin even if a drop was tocome in contact with the skin. Next morning,on our walk we saw a place offering mudbath and we took advantage of the same.Everyone was jealous and angry that theydid not get a chance to experience the same.Queenstown, the adventure capital of theworld, is situated on a huge lake, and its natural beauty is stunning. The area is famousfor its lakes, fjords, water sports and bungee jumping. However, the itinerary did not allowmuch time to see or enjoy all this. We reached Queenstown in the evening and wereleaving the town in the morning, which did not allow someone like me to try hand glidingor free air drop. However, after dinner we had the opportunity to visit the famous Minus 5bar. The bar, size of a normal sized bed room, is made totally of ice, with table, counter and shelves and some sculptures, all made of ice. Each visitor, with a warm coat and gloves, is allowed thirty minutes, and given one drink. The drink is served in glasses made of ice, which the customer smashes in a dust bin before leaving the bar. It was a totally unique and unusual experience for us all. Franz Josef glacier descends to just 250 metres above sea level amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest. The plan was to take a
helicopter ride to see Mt. Cook region. But the travel from Queenstown to Franz Josef tookmuch longer than anticipated, or perhaps itwas a bungling of the itinerary planning.The trip to Franz Josef was interrupted bya stop at a gold mining town of Haast, andwe stopped to watch a water fall withstunning scenery. But these stops, whichmany did not find worth visiting, meantthat we were too late for the helicopterride. While most of the group memberswere reeling in disappointment, some of uswalked right to the mouth of the glacier,and took some stunning photos.We all woke up early in the morning sothat we could do our postponed helicopterride. However, luck was not with us as all the flights were cancelled due to thick mist andrain. Our journey to Christchurch was arranged in a train ride that would take us throughthe beautiful scenery that is New Zealand. The Trans Alpine train rails have been cut through Alpine mountains that result in nineteen tunnels that we pass during our journey. We pass through lush greenery, mountains, rivers, lakes and valleys that represent the enchanting beauty of the country. In Christchurch, our first visit was to what is termed as Antarctic experience. All the major nations of the world cooperate on research and preservation of the continent of Antarctic, and the headquarters are based here in Christchurch. All the expeditions, and the research, are planned here and they start from here. A replica ofthe conditions in Antarctic is created so that millions who cannot actually travel there canexperience it here. Firstly we were given a taste of travel in Antarctic by being driven insnow plough tractors which are actually used in Antarctica. Then we were taken insidethe centre where they have created the conditions and atmosphere as they are inAntarctica – the snow, the gusting winds, the cold and even the penguins. We were givenwinter coats and gloves to withstand the cold and face the winds. It was a wonderfulexperience, and the thought occurred thatwe should have our next holiday cruisingAntarctica. Of course, it would be difficult totravel on land in Antarctica for many of us,but a cruise ship that would show thebeauty of the glaciers, the water falls, andthe snow covered land would be a sightworth seeing, and certainly different fromall the man made cities we have beenholidaying so far. The city tour includedsome lovely flower gardens that sent all thecameras clicking frantically and posesbeing set amidst the colourful flowers.
I tried to book balloon ride for some of the group members, but no spaces were available. I booked a sky dive for myself, and got ready in the morning with all the excitement and trepidation in my mind. However, after waiting past the given time, I was informed that the sky dive had been cancelled due to bad weather. We flew to Sydney that evening. Our trip started with the usual coughs and colds, and minor ailments ever since we left London, but overall everyone was in good health on this trip. However, when we reached on the last leg of our trip, on our flight from Christchurch to Sydney, one member of the group collapsed in the plane, causing panic for a while, but then it did not seemas bad as it appeared at first. However on reaching Sydney, the member had to beadmitted to hospital. Being a week end she was kept in hospital for three days, though itwas later found that she was suffering from nothing serious.I have been on many Bhagini trips over theyears, planned meticulously by theenthusiastic Bhagini committee members,and arranged with some tour company.Success of such trips depends a lot on themanager of the tour, who executes theplanning that has been put onto paper. Ifthis tour can be classed as successful, thenall the credit goes to the tour manager.When the news came that the tour managerwas a lady from India, there were facesmade amongst the tour members andspecially the committee members. When wefirst met her, she seemed harsh and aloof.But then over the days during the tour, we found that she was the most caring, wellinformed and thorough tour manager we had ever experienced. She made sure thateveryone was looked after at meal times and that everyone enjoyed and saw all that wasworth seeing, and she persuaded those who would not go on rides or shows to do so. Shetook care of each and every group member, and ensured that no one was left out orignored. She was well informed and well prepared for all the sights we had to see each day. It was a pleasure to have a tour manager who complied with her duties so thoroughly, and who was so caring for each and everyone. When one of the group members was admitted to hospital, she went and saw the patient twice a day. She even asked her sister, who lived in Sydney, to sit with the patient for one whole day. After a whirlwind tour of the city, we were taken to the botanical gardens. We had a fixed time appointment to have a conducted tour of world famous Sydney
Opera House, but some of the group members got lost in the botanical gardens, and thetour manager had to leave them behindand take the rest of the group instead ofmissing the booking. We stayed behind tofind those who were lost, whom we foundafter a while. The coach came to pick usup, and the tour manager had arrangedspecially to ensure that we do not miss outon the tour of the Sydney Opera House.The planning of the marvellous SydneyOpera House began in 1956 and lastedthree years. The construction, whichstarted then, lasted till 1973. It has fiveauditoriums. We were given a chance tosing in the famous auditorium, and someladies took advantage of the same.Continuing our Sydney tour, we visited the Harbour Bridge and the Rocks. We stopped atthe famous Darling Harbour. Our visit to the Sydney Tower, and a panoramic view of Sydney from the top of the tower was breath taking. We visited the aquarium with a walkway built under the huge water pool which contained sharks and fishes of various varieties. The boat ride and the show in the aquarium did not impress us at all. Weather again spoilt our ride to the famous Blue Mountains as we missed all the stunning scenery due to thick mist and fog. However, the world’s only train ride into the valley which travels at 45 degrees compensated for our loss. The valley has well built paths and bridges and we took awalk in the thick forest in the valley. We had a cable car ride followed by an amazing filmshow which realistically portrayed as if we all were riding a helicopter all over Australia.The mountain is covered with many caves, but we had time to visit only one cave, namelyChiefly caves. But the walk through those caves was fascinating, and the variousformations of rocks and limestone were impressive. The abnormal rock formations werefocused by lights being thrown on them,and photos could be taken of thoseabnormal structures of nature.Next two days were free days for us. Thewalk on the rounded arch of SydneyHarbour Bridge looked daunting from theground, but I decided to try it. And basedon my presence, eleven ladies and onegentleman decided to join me. The bridgewas built between 1924 and 1932. Thewalking on the top of the bridge started in1998, and now that walk is almost like anindustry employing hundreds of people,and creating revenues in millions. I was
told that between 500 and 1000 people walked the bridge everyday. A group of up to 12 left every ten minutes. During summer months, walking on the bridge is open twenty four hours a day. Most of the group was not sure what to expect, and fears of failure to walk or aching legs was common. We were dressed in special suits, that would withstand any winds or rain, and every item on our body was removed. Even caps and handkerchiefs were properly tied. After some training instructions, we started our walk. There were plenty of stops all along, and of course photos were taken by the guide as our cameras werenot allowed. We had a belt with a hook that fixed on the side of the railings so that therewas no question of falling or tripping during the walk. After a few flights of steep steps, wecame to the semicircular arch of the bridge.This part, from the ground, seems the mostdifficult, but in reality that was the easiestto walk. At last, we did complete the walk,and everyone was ecstatic. Photos of thesuccess and our smiles, and the hairfluttering in the strong winds, werecaptured in the camera by our guide.Overall, it was a wonderful experience andan achievement everyone could be proud of.The evening finished with a gala dinner,where jokes were told and songs sung andeveryone enjoyed the jovial spirit of thegroup. This was our last night of the trip,and good byes were exchanged withpromises of keeping in touch.Next morning, the day we were flying back, was free for us all but I booked a free fall from a plane from a height of 14000 ft, but in tandem, and this time I was excited and determined that I will go through with it. I went to the office, and I, together with three others, was taken to a remote air field outside the city. There we learnt that there was some delay and we will have to wait. We were four of us, all from various European countries, sat there partly excited and partly worried, but all determined to go through with the experience. Then we were dressed up in suits and given preliminary instructions. It seemed as if the time for the experience was approaching fast. We waited andwaited. Few phone calls were made, and ultimately we were told that the plane hadmechanical problems and our trip had been cancelled. There was disappointment on everyface and I knew that I had missed my last chance to experience this wonderful sport. We
were taken back to the city and I joined therest of the group at lunch. We spent theafternoon walking around the sea side andthe shopping along there.Later in the afternoon we were driven tothe airport. Our flight took us to Bangkok,where those going to India, disembarked.Then our flight landed in Dubai whereanother group disembarked to spend a fewdays there. Rest came back to London. Itwas a satisfying and pleasant holiday,though the two countries have so much tosee that the trip seemed too short. But, asusual, Bhagini maintained its reputation ofa well planned and executed trip.(If you wish to trip photos then email to : email@example.com) – websitewww.jayantdoshi.yolasite.com)Not for publication without permission.