Category Archives: Travel

Voting in Stockholm

So, I’ve finished my mad dash from the north of Norway, to Stockholm, in order to vote in one of the only two locations in Scandinavia and the Baltics that Australia makes available (the other being Copenhagen). Australia typically only provides voting facilities in embassies, and as Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania only have honorary Australian consulates, there’s no opportunity to vote in any of those countries (unless, of course, you have a permanent address there, and thus can get a postal vote).

The voting process was all very straightforward – a room had been set up on the ground floor of the building which houses the embassy, so there was no need to pass through any faux-security measures in order to get in, unlike when I voted in The Hague back in 2001.

No identification was required, as is typical for Australian elections – it was just a matter of completing what was probably a postal vote envelope, and then filling out the ballot papers. The electoral officer then explained how to vote on each paper – the instructions were accurate, though I felt she emphasised a little too strongly that the Senate ballot paper was big, which I suspect caused a couple of people who followed me to vote above the line. That said, she did point out that all the group ticket preference allocations were available for people to read, if they wanted. I always vote below the line, so I didn’t have any need for this.

I was amazed, however, at a question from one of the other voters in the room: “This isn’t for local elections, is it?”. Seriously, I know I’m more attuned to politics than the average person, but a question like this is probably a good argument for compulsory civics lessons in schools. I find it somewhat unbelievable that state schools still brainwash children with religious education, but fail to teach them the basics of how our democracy works.

Arctic Circle

For the last two weeks, I’ve been drifting around northern Norway, spending a few days in the university town of Trondheim, before moving further north to Bodø and the Lofotens.

Trondheim sunset

I was lucky enough to arrive in Trondheim during the St. Olav festival, a week-long smörgåsbord (ok, that’s a Swedish term) of music and food, including a concert by one of Sweden’s biggest bands, Kent who, surprisingly, have absolutely no profile in English-speaking countries whatsoever.


My visit to the Lofoten islands included a couple of nights in a small fishing village with the simple, easy to spell name of Å, after a three hour ferry ride from Bodø, which left me feeling decidedly nauseous, although I’m not entirely sure if that was from the rough seas, or just the smell from the other passengers who had thrown up. Either way, I was glad to get back onto land.

The Lofotens would be, I imagine, a hiker’s ultimate dream. Huge dramatic peaks emerging from the sea, and unbelievable views from the top. I’m not anywhere close to being an experienced hiker or bushwalker, but I have been getting out and walking up quite a few of these mountains, and in one case, high enough that there was still some snow at the top. On a clear day, you can see for miles, and there’s virtually no sound other than the wind, and in some cases, running water.

I’ve found Norway to be particularly easy to travel in; almost everyone speaks English to some degree – and furthermore, Norwegian is very similar to both Swedish, which I took a short-course in three years ago, and written Danish, which I’ve attempted to teach myself, in the past, thus reading signs, menus and travel websites isn’t too much of a problem. Being a Germanic language, Norwegian also shares quite a bit of vocabulary with German and Dutch (both of which I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to), as well as English itself, or at least the parts of it that weren’t bastardised by the Normans. Unfortunately, my attempts to try a bit of Norwegian don’t usually work too well, and I usually have to fall back to English.

One thing that is really fantastic here is the extent of good broadband internet access; I’ve been in tiny little towns, often with populations of one hundred or less, and it’s been clear from the wifi signals (and, admittedly, a little prodding of the open ones, on my part) that good broadband is available widely. There would be towns of similar size in Victoria who still have trouble getting a reliable dial-up connection. Mobile broadband also appears to be widespread, and not just from the former monopoly telco Telenor, but also a second carrier Netcom – and while the prices are, naturally, fairly expensive for an Australian, Netcom at least allows unlimited downloads for 20kr (AUD$3.6 / €2.50) per day, rather than capping or just pretending that it’s unlimited and then charging for excess usage (ie, more than 50Mb per day) like a certain telco in the Netherlands did to me.

I’m now in Narvik, a port city and part-time ski-resort, waiting for a bus to take me to my northernmost destination, Tromsø. I had originally planned to go further north to Nordkapp, but unfortunately the Australian election has put paid to that, and I have to get to Stockholm before August 21st, to vote.

Narvikfjelle summit

While the midnight sun has long passed, it still does not get completely dark at night; it’s possible to wander around at midnight and not require any artificial lighting at all. Two evenings ago, I walked up Narvik’s closest mountain, leaving at about 3.30pm and not reaching the summit until around 8pm – the sun was still high in the sky, and it was as bright as it had been in the middle of the day. It took me another two hours to walk back down again, and at 10pm, the sun was only just beginning to drop below the mountains to the west.

Scotland – Highlands tour

Wow. I really am inept at keeping this up-to-date.

Well, I’ll make the last month brief: Toronto (a week recovering from my travel so far); London – UK (two weeks recovering from my week in Toronto); Edinburgh (not surprisingly, recovering from London – I see a pattern developing here).

Following Edinburgh, I signed up with Macbackpackers for a five day tour of Scotland’s Highlands and Isle of Skye. I don’t normally take tours, generally preferring to travel independently, but not wanting to drive, this tends to limit my options to cities and larger towns. I’d also had recommendations from friends about this company, so I decided that it would be a nice change.

And they certainly weren’t wrong; the tour was the most fun I’ve had during my trip so far. Our guide, a native highlander was excellent. From the moment he entered the bus, he had the group (of around 21-22 people) laughing and kept it up for the entire trip. His knowledge of the area and its history was first-rate, and had an amazing gift for storytelling while keeping the bus on the road.

The tour is designed for people under 35, but they don’t enforce this, unlike many of the “youth tour” operators in Europe (who won’t let someone like me, two years older than the cutoff point, aboard); they’ll welcome anyone onto the tour, as long as you’re happy to keep up with the fairly vigorous program, such as walking up steep hills, swimming in the freezing Loch Ness and late, alcohol-fueled nights in pubs. And then 9am starts the next morning.

Swimming in Loch Ness

Accomodation is at the company’s many hostels, which range from utterly excellent (Castle Rock, Edinburgh) to fairly cramped and lacking sufficient numbers of showers, but otherwise clean and friendly (Inverness); but you’re not obligated to stay in these – you can book hotels or B&Bs seperately, if you prefer.

The first day took us north from Edinburgh, via Pitlochry, to Inverness, visiting Ruthven Barracks and the Culloden Moor Battlefield. Day two was onwards to Skye, with a stop in Ullapool for lunch, and a scenic drive south along the west coast.
Following this was a day doing a circuit of Skye, including a couple of walks through the highlands.

The fourth day was packed with a boat trip on Loch Ness, and yet more walking, this time through Glen Coe. The tour’s evening grand finale was a night of Ceilidh Dancing in Oban, which is great fun; essentially it’s barn-style dancing, sometimes with one partner, sometimes with multiple partners, to traditional Scottish music.

After that, we wound down with a tour of Oban’s whisky distillery and a visit to the National Wallace Monument… and then a relaxing drive back to Edinburgh.

Ceilidh Dancing in Oban

I didn’t know any of the people I was travelling with prior to the trip, but within just a few hours we all got along really well. It’s amazing how quickly people will bond, if you pack them into a bus, goad them to strip down to their underwear (or bathers, for those of us who are slightly more prepared), bribe them to get into a freezing lake, and follow it with a bottle of whiskey (allegedly to warm them up, but frankly I think there was an ulterior motive).

Anyway, I now find myself back where I started: it’s taken me the best part of a week in Glasgow and Belfast to recover from this…

Standard disclaimer applies: I’m not affiliated with this company at all, but I really really enjoyed the tour, and highly recommend it.

Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa

I’ve spent the last week in Canada, firstly in Quebec City and then Montreal. Quebec City gave me a bit of a chance to improve what little French knowledge I have – this amounts to a four week summer school course that I took at Melbourne University back in 1997, most of which I’ve forgotten.

Montreal, on the other hand, turned out to have a large English-speaking population, which is something I didn’t expect from the largest city in a province that is so rabidly francophone that even their stop signs are in French:

From what I remember of France, for all of their anti-English sentiment, they have “Stop” on their stop signs. Clearly, they’re softies in the face of anglophonic cultural imperialism.

I’m now in Ottawa, and hoping very much that this city, which seems to have had a history not unlike that of Australia’s capital (chosen for its location midway between two bickering groups), isn’t anywhere near as boring as Canberra.

New York

I’m currently in New York, and have had the chance to see a live amateurish terrorist attack in progress. Well, at least, thousands of people standing around, on the streets surrounding Times Square, while police yell “Keep moving! You can’t stay here!” to little effect.

I haven’t exactly been keeping this blog up-to-date with my travel progress; so far, since Vancouver, I’ve travelled to Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, and now here, all by train (and one bus). So I’ve now officially travelled the US from west to east coast, entirely over land. I haven’t even done that in Australia.

In the unlikely event that one of you actually wants to read more of my travels (and other mindless, off-the-cuff thoughts), I’m on Twitter as paul88888.

At least it’s not 47 hours in the air.

Well, the question I asked in my previous post is redundant. Turns out that due to Amtrak’s strange pricing, it would have cost me US$100 extra to break the journey, which seems pretty silly. I’m not going to hand over that amount of money for something which effectively costs Amtrak nothing at all, and therefore am now an hour into a 47 hour train journey from Seattle to Chicago. In coach class.

Fortunately, I have a power-point, a netbook and a mobile broadband adaptor, although I suspect that net access is unlikely to be available between towns…

Vancouver and a request for travel advice.

I’ve temporarily re-entered the real world of metric measurements and free public health care in Vancouver, Canada.

My plans are to backtrack to Seattle tomorrow, and then on Thursday, catch a train eastbound to Chicago. However, I have a slight problem – the train journey takes over two days, and the last thing I really want to do is spend two nights in a row in a coach class seat on a train. Hence, I’m looking to break up the journey somewhere, preferably in a location where the train arrives late-morning or very early afternoon, so that I don’t have to get out of bed at an insane hour the next day.

As far as I can tell, this limits my options to some very small towns in Montana: Cut Bank, Shelby, Havre or Malta. I know very little about any of them, and on past experience, small towns tend to bore the hell out of me. If anyone has any recommendations about the pros and cons of staying in any these towns, I’d appreciate it. (And before anyone suggests it, no, I’m not flying. That’s cheating).

Portland, Oregon

I’m currently sitting in Portland’s Union station, waiting for a train that will take me north to Seattle, to connect with a bus on to Vancouver. I’ve been in Portland for the last three nights, staying at the Hostelling International North-West hostel (see here for my review of it).

Portland is reputedly one of the US’s most liberal cities, and there’s certainly no shortage of anti-Bush stickers still attached to the bumper bars of the cars here, even though it’s well over a year since he left office. It’s a pretty relaxed city, but it doesn’t have the buzz to it that San Francisco and Berkeley had – in fact, there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of people out and about, and Portland’s Chinatown was utterly dead, even at lunchtime, a far-cry from what I’ve seen from Melbourne and Sydney’s Chinatowns.

Liberal and relaxed or not, I’ve had my first encounter with an angry, middle-aged, paranoid, white American male, who threw a hissy-fit in the middle of the street because he thought I was staring at him. Apparently walking around in mirrored-sunglasses freaks out the nutjobs – it’s not just a fashion-crime on my part, anymore.

So, why am I in the US?

I meant to post this several months ago, but didn’t get around to it. In a nutshell, I am taking 2010 off, and am backpacking around the world, without much of a plan. It has been five years since I returned to Melbourne from Amsterdam, and in that time, I barely left Victoria at all, other than a couple of trips to Sydney. Time to get out again.

I started off in mid-January with a trip to New Zealand, beginning in Wellington for LCA and then three weeks circumnavigating the South Island by train, then bus, and finally heading over land and sea up north to Rotorua, Waitomo and Auckland. New Zealand is truly awesome.

I’ve now been in the US for three and a half weeks, having spent time in San Francisco and Berkeley, Yosemite National Park, Las Vegas, Flagstaff (Arizona, for the Grand Canyon) and Santa Barbara.

The general idea was to catch a train across the south of the US, however I’ve now changed my mind and will be working my way up the west coast, to Portland, Seattle and into Canada for Vancouver, and then across to eastern North America, all over land. Following this, I have a flight in mid-May from Toronto to London, and I’ll spend the rest of the year wandering around Europe, and perhaps parts of North Africa and the Caucasus.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the Capital Corridor train, travelling from San Jose back to Berkeley, where I plan to perform some surgery on my Acer Aspire One D150. Just under a week ago, its hard disk drive had a fit, making horrible clicking noises, becoming temporarily invisible to the bios, and then showing hundreds of filesystem issues when fscked. While it has now been running fine again since then, I don’t trust it anymore and will be replacing it with an SSD drive, which will hopefully be far more tolerant of being thrown around in my backpack.

Las Vegas

I’m currently in Las Vegas, being blinded by the overabundent flashing neon lights.

This place looks expensive. Indeed, it’s hard to believe just how much money is wasted here, let alone spent. One flashy casino has a half-hourly water show out the front of it – this is in a desert, mind. And while the water is probably recycled, I’m told that a good amount of it would probably evaporate while being sprayed into the air. Another casino has built a mountain, replete with waterfall on its front boundary. And yet another has a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower (along with a number of other Parisian replicas) at its entrance. All of which don’t really serve any purpose other than to show off their wealth.

Clearly many visitors here have too much disposable cash: if the ipod vending machines (yes, those are machines which dispense ipods. And digital cameras) weren’t a clear enough indication of that, the sight of the blue-rinse set pouring their retirement savings into a sea of slot machines at 4am certainly is.

And the thing that is really difficult to grasp is that for every five-star themed uber-casino up and down The Strip, there’s probably half a dozen crappy no-name casinos elsewhere in the city. Or more. Each with their own hotel attached. Which all adds up to a sea of rooms that aren’t filled because of the effects of GFC – and thus some can be very, very cheap. My room is costing me US$30 per night, and I was amused to look at the rate card on the door to find that in peak times, it is $501 per night.

The casinos aren’t limited to Vegas either; one merely has to cross the border on the road from Los Angeles into Nevada and the first tiny rathole encountered is spruiking its casino and insanely cheap food. As does every town that follows.

The traffic here is insane. To the city’s credit, there’s a cheap and frequent shuttle bus up and down The Strip, but due to the heavy traffic along there, it’s almost useless. It takes almost an hour to travel the length of it, and it’s really only about 2km or so long. I wonder why they’ve never heard of bus lanes.

All said however, there’s more to Las Vegas than merely throwing money away and setting oneself on the road to heart disease from five dollar steaks. The nightlife is pretty amazing, and Vegas puts on a huge number of shows. There’s at least six different Cirque du Soleil shows, countless caberet acts, as well as comedy. And then there’s the various sex shows too.

I went to see Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio – their aquatic show, which was nothing short of stunning, and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Vegas.

Interestingly, though, for all of Las Vegas’ glitz and bright lights, it’s fascinating how quickly it peters out – taking a walk just five minutes down the east side of Fremont Street led me straight into one of the dodgiest places I’ve seen. Run down buildings, motels with that rooms-sold-by-the-hour look, aimless loiterers. Evidentally, the wealth doesn’t get redistributed too well.