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June 25, 2006


So I was planning a little trip up to the Blue Mountains on Saturday... managed to wake up at 3PM (and it takes 2 hours by train out there, on top of the half hour bus ride and subway to get to the longhaul trains.) I originally planned to leave here by 10AM or so, have a nice day's hike, camp, hike back, etc. Well, of course, I'm not quite sane, and those of you who've hiked with me know I always seem to end up hiking in the dark anyways, so I didn't see any reason to cancel my plans. :) Got to Katoomba a bit after 9PM; I hiked from the city down to the area I wanted to be in, then worked my way around... got lost a few times (wasted an hour climbing down and back up a really steep landslide that I was just supposed to go across; oops!) Then it took me quite a while going up some major climbing-heavy zones that I needed both hands for (in the dark... Need a helmet mount for my flashlight if I do that again! Holding it between my teeth isn't quite so comfortable.) And got lost some for another hour up top! I guess that's why there were repeated signs that only experienced bushwalkers should proceed further, with at least one skilled navigator in the "group." (Guess I forgot the group part this time. They probably would strongly advise against night climbs too, silly Australians. But I guess I'm a real "bushwalker" now! At least there aren't any large unfriendly animals in that part of the country; just tons of poisionous spiders and snakes to watch for.) Fortunately, I'd picked up a topo map of the area, and brought a regular compass along to supplement the GPS, so I managed to work out my course with all the navigation aids. Between two flashlights, a backup mini led light, two cellphones, GPS, compass, 4 sets of AA batteries, 5 extra flashlight batteries, topo map, camping gear, some spare clothes, basic first aid, 3L of Gatorade, and ~1500 Calories of energy bars, I was pretty well prepared I think!

Anyways, I FINALLY got to my destination, Mt. Solitary (quite aptly named for a solo camping trip!), around 7:15AM. 10+ hours of hiking. Took me a good bit to find an appropriately flat, non-overgrown campsite, and finally fell asleep around 8:30... Started back down at 2:45PM Sunday! Going back down was quite a bit quicker starting in the light (also my pack went from 11kg to 8kg from having consumed all of my food and most of my liquids), but sadly it got dark before I saw some of the stuff I wanted to see. I got to the bottom of the climbing-heavy section just as it was getting dark, so that made the trip much quicker since that was the hardest part in the dark; the steep, rocky trails after that were easy enough with flashlight in hand. Still got a lot of amazing views though! And the lack of light pollution was awesome; I saw tons of stars and unfamiliar constellations (I can identify the Southern Cross now, but that's it down here!) The Milky Way was nice and clear across the middle of the sky, a sure sign that you're properly removed from civilization.

So yeah, I'm a bit crazy, but I got one more thing done that I would've been sad leaving without doing! I'm still working out the distances (GPS reception was really spotty in the lower areas, so my track data is intermittent and the odometer not useful; but I have all the segment times and resting times written down so I can go back and figure it all out.) I think I did approx 24km on Saturday and 15km on Sunday. There was TONS of crazy up and down, and a huge section of sheer rock after sheer rock to climb. I think there was around 800m total elevation change in each direction. I camped out at 950m (after starting at 930m at the trailhead, descending to 750m via stairs, bottoming out at 650m or so, and peaking at 990m.) It was freezing up there too; around -3 or -4°C up top, but I was actually TOO warm (I didn't even have enough space to stick the layers I needed to remove while hiking!) Woke up sweating wearing just jeans and a short sleeve shirt in my sleeping bag; guess I know now that I can go way colder than I did if I'm fully layered! I had to abort the full return route Sunday as I wasn't going to make the 8:25PM train otherwise; I ended up taking an alternate route up and getting a cab back to the Katoomba train station to make it in time (next train was at 10:55, and getting from Sydney to where I'm staying in Seaforth at 1AM on a Sunday night would have been a huge pain via public transit or very expensive via cab.) Oh yeah, silly sign, the Golden Stairs only take 25 minutes to climb, not 60! (I'm not sure how I did that at the end of my long trip with my aching shoulders and decently heavy pack. I was about to fall over and die as I reached the top of the ridiculously tall and steep "stairs"; fortunately the cab company knew exactly where the Golden Stairs were, and they got there right after I got to the top! Made it to the train station with 10 minutes to spare.) Got back to Seaforth just before midnight; 30 hours for quite a memorable little trip, not bad at all.

And half my toes hurt like hell. Ow. Apparently I need new insoles for my hiking boots. I'm surprised I'm actually not more sore; I feel like going for a run or something right now! No knee pain either, yay. Now, time to get back to more diving! (And I found a scuba-diving travel bug in the one geocache I bothered to find on my hike, amusingly enough.)

June 23, 2006

Blub, blub

I didn't think diving would be this addictive! I'm now up to 15 dives, and I'm now a certified Underwater Navigator and Enriched Air Diver. Navigator was quite fun; the last task in the course involved being given a heading and distance before descending (we measured approximate distances before with fin-kick cycles and timing over a given distance beforehand), then navigating to 6 different markers underwater via compass that each lead you on to the next... while drawing a map of your course! (No handy GPS like I'm used to on land!) Nitrox (aka Enriched Air Diver) was pretty simple (I was bored enough with the material to offhandedly memorize a few formulae that were just given to you in the exam anyways), but now I can rent tanks with up to 40% O2. Not for the reason you might think though (having more available oxygen might be one's first guess!) The main point of nitrox is to lower your nitrogen levels, so you can stay underwater longer and have shorter decompression intervals. In fact, you can't go deep for as long using nitrox on repetitive dives since you have a higher risk of O2 toxicity.

Anyways, I've been having a TON of fun diving down here if you couldn't tell. :) I picked up a mask+snorkel and a pair of fins so far (Tusa X-Pert Zoom split fins; I'd been renting that type for a while and decided to buy them since I might not always be able to rent split fins on my travels, and I do a lot better with them than plain old flat fins.) It's been around 16 - 17°C in the water here, but I've been quite warm in a wetsuit! (Even having lost a few more pounds that I really didn't need to lose from all the exercise I've gotten in here; I managed to bottom out at 50kg but I've been gaining it back eating more than well to make up for all the activity.) Unfortunately scuba gear is unreasonably expensive here, or I'd have already picked up my own wetsuit or semi-dry, diving computer, and perhaps some other gear. (And I grabbed an underwater slate. It's useful to be able to write when you can't talk!)

So I'm off for an overnight hike in the Blue Mountains by myself tomorrow night, I think... should get down to around 0°C. Then back to Sydney on Sunday, and then up to Cairns! I'm going to do my Advanced Open Water course up there on a liveaboard boat over a couple days. I can't wait to do some diving in the WARM water around the Great Barrier Reef. All the folks down here say that since I've been having such a great time diving down here, I'll absolutely love it up there. I'm probably off to Melbourne the weekend after that to do some sightseeing and visit a friend. Then it's off to Japan on Jul 5. (Oh yeah, did I mention I changed my ticket so I could get more diving in down here? :) I was originally scheduled to leave for Japan on Jun 20!) Maureen's been amazingly kind in letting me stay here all this while.

Anyways... I've been mostly keeping busy, having tons of fun underwater, and plotting my evil plots. I'll probably check in from Japan once I make it there, assuming I don't just stay in Australia even longer! This country is absolutely wonderful, in many ways. And I again expect everyone back home to be a certified diver so we can go diving when I get back! Or else!

June 08, 2006

Underwater adventures!

I am now a certified PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver as of a few hours ago! I'm glad I finally got certified since it was so much fun. Tuesday was Confined Water Dive day, in a 27C/80F heated outdoor pool, with cold pouring rain from above. Went underwater with all the gear for the first time. At the end of the day I had to swim 200m and then tread water. Since I absolutely suck at swimming on the surface, it's a good thing the swim was untimed. Then I flailed about for the requisite 10 minutes for the water tread. Ended the day freezing cold and tired (sleeping less than 5 hours the night before didn't help.) So I was a bit concerned about diving in the 17C/63F open water on Wednesday... but I was plenty warm in a wetsuit, and the rain stopped and sun eventually came out, so it was a great experience right from the first time in the ocean! We did two 45min open water dives on Wednesday; we saw a ton of sharks on the first dive which was rather cool (little 1m baby ones.) Lots of other interesting fish too, of course! Then on the second dive my instructor was trying to show me this electric manta ray-type thing that was hiding on the sea floor, so she tried to brush off some shells and sand from it when it decided to zap her! (Much to my amusement. :) We're going to go get sushi tomorrow for some revenge!

Took the written exam and finished the third and fourth open water dives today, so I'm now signed off as certified! We saw a big cuttlefish on the last dive which was quite cool (I poked at a slimy tentacle!) As it happened, I was the only person signed up for the course this week, so I basically got private lessons for the price of regular lessons which was nice. I opted to do the extended version, which means I get two more dives tomorrow, so that should be quite fun since we'll be mostly just swimming around seeing interesting stuff rather than practicing and testing skills. I'm going to take my camera and underwater case too. I'm still having a bit of trouble with buoyancy control so an extra day of diving with my instructor will fix that up. (I'm fine until I try to do something like navigate with my compass or play with the dive computer, then I sometimes forget to breathe properly and accidentally end up drifting upwards. Oops.) I got signed off on all my skills, requirements, and course completion, but my instructor wanted to hold off until tomorrow to submit all that so that I'm fully comfortable with buoyancy, so I'm TECHNICALLY not quite a card-carrying certified diver just yet, but close enough! Anyways, anyone who likes the water, or hates the water, should definitely try out scuba! It's amazingly fun. So now I'll be able to dive most anywhere in the world with other certified folks, so I have yet another exciting thing I can do along my trip! (Friday Update: Yup, I'm now officially fully certified as an Open Water Diver. Got my certificate and card, dated yesterday even! Yay.)

Oh yeah, and my visit out to Tooraweenah last weekend was a lot of fun. Started off visiting the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo which was a disappointment; spent AUD30 to get in for the 3 hours I had there, and decided to take the walking trails which seemed well placed on the map. Except there were tons of OTHER random trails and none of the trails were marked at all so I ended up getting lost more than once. Missed a couple feeding times I wanted to see and spent more time wandering around trying to find trails than I should have had to. It's a nice zoo at least; tons of space so all the big animals are in open areas with natural barriers rather than caged up. Headed up to Tooraweenah after that, stopping to go over to James' "shed night" with him, which was a informal gathering of about 20 guys from his religious group, but other than a couple people telling their personal stories there wasn't any of that stuff involved, and everyone there was really nice. It's interesting talking to farmers who live out in the middle of nowhere with a completely different lifestyle and background from mine. Tons of tasty food too. And they had an old blacksmithing setup that a few people were playing around with! (Complete with bellows and coals and huge showers of sparks and all.) Seeing red-hot iron emerging from a shower of sparks and being hammered into random shapes isn't something you get to see every day. Got a bunch of pictures of that in action with sparks flying and fire burning (no brimstone though), and a nice tour of the wool shed where they shear the sheep.

On to Tooraweenah itself for the weekend, where I stayed with James and Petria. It turned out Saturday was the inauguration of the new public grill in the park, so we went down to have some tasty sausage sandwiches and meet some townsfolk. The outside of the bathroom had this big mural painted around it depicting the infestation of Australia by rabbits, and one of the artists who'd done a bunch of the work on that was there so she took me around the mural and explained it all. (I had no idea the rabbit problem had been so bad!) It's really great how friendly these rural folks are (and Australians in general) compared to much of the world.

We went up to the observatory in the national park there as well and saw the inside of one of their big telescopes. It's great being in an area with about zero light pollution. Of course I had to introduce James and Petria to geocaching, and there happened to be one right at a scenic lookout that they were taking me to anyways, so yet more geek sporting! Saw a bunch of wild kangaroos there too; I got out of the car at one point and walked RIGHT up to some of them for some photo ops (I managed to be non-threatening enough to get within 1m of one kangaroo while it posed for me!) Oh yeah, I rented a car out of Dubbo to go the 120km up to Tooraweenah, which was my first time driving on the left! At least it was country driving and not trying to navigate around a city so it was pretty easy. I was a little nervous since I was warned about errant kangaroos and wallabies randomly hopping into the road, but I didn't run into any. Though when we were driving around the Tooraweenah area in the dark James had to brake suddenly a few times to avoid the hopping obstacles in the road.

Took the train back from Dubbo on Sunday (I'd flown over there, but decided to do the 6 hour train ride back for the experience; it was somewhat scenic but I think I'll fly both ways if I go out there again!) Had "Australia's Award-Winning Best Meat Pie" in the bakery across from the train station, which was pretty good, though I'm not quite sure meat pies can quite be considered a delicacy. As far as the next couple weeks... I might head up north where the water's warm and do some diving up there now that I can do that! Still planning to hit Melbourne over a weekend, though probably not this weekend since I'm pretty exhausted from too little sleep and tons of activity. I'm booked to leave for Tokyo on Jun 20, but I might push that back by a week or so so that I can see and do everything I want to in Australia.

Oh yeah, I've decided I'm going to go off by myself on an overnight camping expedition in the Blue Mountains sometime in the next week (gets to around 0C/32F there at night.) Great hilly terrain to hike, caves to explore, and wonderful views. I got a bunch of info from a local friend who's familiar with the area and picked up a nice detailed topo map of the area, so it's just a matter of packing my tent, sleeping bag, warm clothes, food/water, requisite gadgets (but I bought an actual non-electronic compass as backup!), and making it out there! Only a couple hours west, and the Sydney trains go all the way out there at certain hours. I'm looking forward to my first solo overnight adventure in a strange country with unfamiliar terrain, animals, and weather.

Well, that's my past week in a nutshell. If you're somehow not bored and still reading, go sign up for scuba diving lessons right now or else! I expect everyone back home to be certified when I return so we can go diving!

June 01, 2006

To Dubbo I go!

Sitting at the Sydney airport, waiting for my 1hr flight to Dubbo... (And train fares here are weird. It cost me AUD17 for the 2:45 trip to Newcastle, but it just cost me AUD12 for the 20 minute trip from the city to the airport.) I'm going to spend a few hours at the zoo there (it's supposed to be really good; it's an extension of the Sydney Zoo, which is very small, so they put way more stuff out in Dubbo.) Then it's off to Tooraweenah, 120km to the north, population 76, to visit my friend James. I'm renting a car out of Dubbo, and I've never driven on the left side of the road in my life, so this should be interesting! At least it's on fairly unbusy country highways, not in a city. Be scared, Australian drivers... I've been warned all about the dangers of kangaroos and wallabies that jump in random directions into the road too. Exciting animals they have here!

The past couple weeks have been quite fun. I've done a bunch more hiking and walking around the area, to the point where I seem to have slightly injured my left knee, so I've been giving it a rest the past couple days. Went wine tasting with Shana as planned when I was up in Newcastle as planned which was a lot of fun. We hit half a dozen wineries and a brewery, and I tasted more wine than I'd have thought possible in a single afternoon. Bought a dozen bottles of wine total, and her parents are in the shipping business so I left it up there and they'll arrange shipping it home for me for much less than it'd otherwise cost!

Let's see... I met up with Sam (of Sam and Noam) on Monday, and she took me all around the Eastern Suburbs which was a lot of fun. The coastline has tons of beaches as well as rocky cliffs, so it's rather nice. I saw the famous Bondi Beach of course! Tuesday, a nice geocaching friend in Sydney took me on a geocaching tour of the city; found 7 caches while getting a very nice walking tour of all the interesting places in the city. The funniest thing happened after finding one cache in the middle of the city: we started crossing the road and this random guy pops up from behind us and is like "so how'd you like the park?" So I started wondering why this strange guy was talking to us... And it turned out he was the owner of the cache we'd just found! What a random chance encounter. He'd seen me taking pictures of the cache site and figured we were hunting it.

So this weekend should be fun... I'll have limited net and cell access (apparently if I find a tall hill I MIGHT get a cell signal), so it'll be nice to be removed from civilization temporarily! I'm going to some sort of Christian men's club-type activity with James tonight; he assured me they're completely non-confrontational about religion so it should be fun to meet these folks who live in the middle of nowhere. I'm sure they'll all be wonderful people.

Oh yeah. I've decided I'm going to get certified in scuba diving next week! I'm going to take a 3 or 4 day course, which will give me my basic certification. Then I'm going to try to head up to Cairns the week after and go diving around the Great Barrier Reef. Should be tons of fun; I've been meaning to get my certification forever. Gotta make it up to Melbourne some weekend too to visit a friend there.

Well, I have a flight to catch so that's that for now. Oh yeah, obligatory geek commentary: I finally got my nice 1U Opteron in service, since it's been sitting there for months (while my 6 year old Celeron 433 steadfastly held its own.) Moved over all the websites from the Celeron, and now I have a box with tons of disk space and enough CPU power to run Gallery at more than a crawl, which is a step in getting my pictures in place. Off to DBO!