Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Putting The Pieces Together...


I have been using booking.com for overseas trips since 2014. Over the years I have leveraged some fabulous deals via the site. At the same time I ran into a couple of tough situations during the Trans-Siberian expedition. At Mogocha I was turned away by the keeper of the Yalta Inn saying that he had never had access to Internet and hence, the online booking could not be honored. That resulted in driving more than 1500 km that day to Chita. In the next instance, the hotel confirmed by the site in Novosibirsk had been shut for over three months! Barring these instances I have got more than expected from reservations through the site. Hence, this time too, for both Australia and New Zealand, I decided to go with booking.com despite the suggestions to try Airbnb, Trivago, etc. Travelling alone in Australia, I have chosen hostels to keep costs low, while in New Zealand bookings are primarily in apartments.

I had to do quite some research to get the best deals for car rental in Australia and New Zealand. I was assisted by Praveen Tomy, my cousin in Sydney, to arrive at the right type of car and the price. Praveen was insistent that I should use a sturdy vehicle for the solo trip. Despite a cheaper deal for a sedan I took his advice and settled for a Mitsubishi Outlander from Apex Rental. At AUD 2000I got a decent deal for a 37-day SUV hire. From Auckland Archana approved of my selection of Toyota RAV4 for the drive in New Zealand through Rentalcars. In both case I picked the zero excess and full on-road assistance options to keep all worries away. Fuel price is on the higher side in both countries with fuel in New Zealand being more expensive. However, toll roads are fewer in New Zealand than in Australia, I understand.

Getting used to driving in Australia and New Zealand is only a matter of being more disciplined than one is used to in India. I don’t have to get used to driving on the right side of the road or left hand drive cars. One can drive in New Zealand with a valid Indian driving license for a year. However, a valid International Driving Permit is required to drive in Australia. I secured mine from Ernakulam, Kerala from the authority that had issued my driving license. With digitization the process has become almost completely hassle free.

VFS Global handles visa applications for Australia. With the necessary documents and papers I completed submission of the visa application in less than ten minutes. I was a wee bit apprehensive if my application would receive sufficient early attention as I had submitted it almost four months ahead of the proposed travel date. The saving grace was that I did not have to submit the passport along with the application, which gave me the choice of inserting the New Zealand visa application the very next day at TTService. For New Zealand visa the passport submission was part of the process. While I got the stamped New Zealand visa in 10 days the Australian e-visa took over five weeks. I presume that my application was overlooked for more emergent applications.

With both the visas in the bag, in a manner of speaking, I tuned to the packing list. Over the past few years I have developed an omnibus list of items to be packed. Depending on the climatic conditions, duration of travel and the mode of travel the list is pruned, adapted and finalized. Since accommodation has been finalized in all the locations identified for overnight stay I scored out the tent, tripod chair, bio toilet, sleeping bag and mat from the list. Since New Zealand may require layering of clothing the same was factored into the list. Food items have been completely eliminated from the list since both countries have severe restrictions of what can be taken into those countries. To capture the beautiful landscape I am taking along an SLR with tripod, GoPro Hero3+ and a good phone camera. Besides, Praveen has already sourced a DJI drone camera for me from Hong Kong. I hope to document these two expeditions better than the previous ten! If wishes were horses….

Ferry crossings are part of the itinerary, both in Australia and New Zealand. While the Tasman Sea separates mainland Australia and idyllic Tasmania the choppy Cook Strait separates the northern and southern islands of New Zealand. Rentalcars in New Zealand provided a free ferry crossing as part of the car rental. The Interislander ferry takes over 3 hours and, I was told, is not meant for those who are prone to seasickness. The Spirit of Tasmania ferry between Melbourne and Devonport set me back by over $350 despite opting for just the recliner seat in the ferry. The ferry takes all of ten hours each way - it is an overnight ride from Melbourne and a day ride from Devonport.

I had to do quite some research to get the best deal from an airline. The site kayak.com helped me weigh options. Since my itinerary was multi-city spread over eight weeks I had to be sure with the dates and baggage rules.  Finally, for under USD 1000 I secured bookings with Qantas Airways from Chennai to Sydney, to Auckland and back to Chennai from Christchurch. The 30 kg baggage restriction meant that I had to be choosy about what I packed. This is a huge change from my previous international road trips. Since I had started out by car in my previous trips what I put into the car was only limited by the space in the car! The packing list had to exclude a lot, as they entered the ‘non-essential’ list. Bags were packed, weighed, repacked and reweighed…how many times, I do not remember now. Finally, this morning I decided that the next repacking would happen only later in the day when I am at the Chennai airport for check-in.

The most critical part of such a long stay away from home is to ensure that the house is kept clean and certain routines are delegated to the house maid. I stayed at home one day to meet with her, explain what needed to be done daily, fortnightly and monthly. I am most worried about the three fish I have at home. The fighter fish are of resplendent colors and they even respond to my whistles. I feed them twice daily and from now on they have to be used to a one time feed. On Sundays they will go without food – Lenten time for the fish. The bowls have to be cleaned fortnightly and the fish must be given the luxury of fresh water. However, the fighters are a hardy variety and I expect them to withstand the change in their routine. The indoor plants have to be watered, pruned and vases cleaned at regular intervals. Soot has an uncanny ability to stick to glass windows and fans. They have to be dusted and cleaned with Colin every fortnight. The cupboards, crockery and cutlery too have to be attended to regularly. The trustworthy maid, Saraswati, who has been looking after my flat for the past two years, was all ears when I took her through the paces. I have also left written instructions with dates for actioning the items.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Trip Down Under, And About Time...


Almost immediately after I had returned in August 2014 from the path breaking drive to London from Cochin planning for the next adventure had begun. The exhilaration of an international expedition, the challenges related to it and attempting to do something that had not been done till then, all combined to spur the renewed interest. Tours of South East Asia, South and North Americas and Australia and some more jostled for attention in the mind. Detailed plans were drawn up for expeditions in South East Asia, North America and Australia. South East Asia tipped the scales and a 77 day solo round trip was completed between Feb and May 2015 from to Cochin, which included Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia besides India and Singapore. Then, in August 2015 I successfully completed the first solo Trans Himalayan expedition in 18 and half days. May-June 2016 saw the most adventurous of the road expeditions till date, the Trans-Siberian Highway, which began in Chennai and ended in St Petersburg. En route I drove through Myanmar and China before successfully tackling the 11000 km Vladivostok-St Petersburg stretch, the second longest highway in the world. 2017 saw the Four Corners of India being negotiated solo in a record time of 88 hours. Four tough expeditions, three international and one national, in three years and ‘yeh dil mange more’ (this heart yearns for more).

All the above while the Australian dream kept bubbling and expanding. Finally, I decided to do the Australian Highway 1, which arguably is the longest highway in the world, along with a drive in New Zealand from the north tip to the southern. Google enquiry consistently throws up the Pan-American Highway as the longest highway in the world, at over 45,000 km. I feel that this is not valid for two reasons. One, the highway spans two Continents across several countries. It could have even been extended to the northern-most point in Canada to make the highway even longer! Secondly the Pan-American Highway is broken by the Darien Gap, across which one cannot even ferry a vehicle. How can this then be the longest Highway in the world? Thus, the highway network that circumnavigates the content of Australia should, in all fairness, applies for the distinction of being the longest highway in the world at over 15,000 km, which includes the island of Tasmania.

Thus, after 42 months of planning, researching, sourcing and saving funds time is almost at hand for what promises to be an exciting trip. Advice came in from many quarters about the vehicle to be used in Australia, communication system, precautions to be taken and places to be visited. Along with that came offers of accommodation from family and friends. This will be the first time that I would be using a rented car for my expeditions. There are three reasons for this decision. The first is that I would have to ship the car from Chennai to Sydney and back. Without having to drive in India, I considered it pointless to record huge expenses for two way shipping and uncertain shipping time. The second is that the cost of Carnet can be avoided, the process for which has, mercifully, been tempered down. However, the Carnet fee of Rs. 150,000 can be put to better use Down Under. The third, and most important, factor is that I have not been supported in any of my ten previous expeditions by any car manufacturer in India despite my fervent appeals. Be it Maruti, Ford, Hyundai, Isuzu or Mahindra deaf ears and complete disdain of proposals I have been met with. Even my travelogues that espoused the cars, such as “A Glorious Endeavour” and “An Indian Cheetah in Siberia” have been assiduously ignored by the car makers. In such a situation, I did not consider it financially prudent to give these brands mileage without being given some small change, at least, in lieu.

On 1 March I will fly to Sydney from Chennai and pick up the rental car at the designated place at the airport premise. After a couple of days in Sydney, shaking off the jet lag and getting accustomed to the new Continent, I will start the Australian Highway 1 expedition. The route (proposed night halts) is Melbourne – Devonport – Hobart – Devonport - Melbourne – Adelaide – Ceduna - Border Village, Nullarbar – Norseman – Albany – Perth – Carnarvon - Port Hedland – Broome - Halls Creek – Katherine – Darwin - Daly Waters – Borroloola – Camooweal – Normanton – Cairns – Mackay – Brisbane – Sydney. The 31 day round trip from Sydney, during when I will be covering nearly 15,000 km, includes an extra day each in Melbourne, Adelaide, Ceduna, Perth, Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane for local visits. After finalization of route and booking accommodation online I wished I had factored in a couple of days more in Tasmania. In fact, the entire Continent needs a couple of months to fully enjoy the landscape and diversity.

From Sydney I will fly to Auckland with three friends – BN Shukla, my railway batch mate, his wife and Hetal Shah, a family friend; a merry band of three hardcore vegetarians and a cannibal! Archana Kaul, a railway batch mate settled in Auckland, painstakingly went through the proposed itinerary, suggested changes and additions and identified must see places on the short tour of the Northern and Southern Islands of New Zealand. After reading references to New Zealand in Sapiens I wished I had more than the 19 days I had set aside for that country. The stunning landscapes, rich diversity of flora and fauna (the author of Sapiens attributes this to the fairly recent occupation of the land by the destructive Homo Sapiens) and the friendly people make this a fairytale land in modern times. Tom Sanders, an American from Florida settled in Christchurch, New Zealand, who I met recently in Chennai, told me that he had gone to New Zealand for tourism, fell in love with what he saw there and decided to move base to that country. The proposed itinerary in New Zealand is Auckland – Cape Reinga – Whangarei – Whitianga – Rotorua – Gisborne – Wellington – Nelson – Greymouth – Wanaka – Te Anau – Bluff – Dunedin – Christchurch, covering 5,500 km.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...