European holiday: Escaping the winter

(I am prone to do long overly-detailed blog posts about my holidays, perhaps more for my benefit and enjoyment than yours. Here’s the first instalment. This post is backdated. Published 26/7/2017)

This holiday was a long time coming. Co-ordinating with my sons (including university holidays) and work and M and relatives, let alone getting the money together, took some time… in fact it would be my first time in Europe since 1999.

But the day had finally arrived. After a flurry of packing, and wondering what would be forgotten*, we left the house about 11am, train to the City.

On the way through, I noticed some of the scaffolding had come off at Flinders Street Station, and showing the new, less mustardy yellow colour. I snapped a photo of it to post to Twitter.

A few days later the Premier’s Department rang asking if they could use the picture. Heh, you’d think own their media unit could get one, but oh well — maybe I happened to snap it just as it was in transition and nobody else did. They added some captions and posted it to Facebook:

I do like the new colour. Apparently the section on the right is also zinc sheeting rather than the brick, which explains the different look.

To the airport

Anyway, we hopped off the train at Southern Cross, then Skybus to Melbourne Airport. It’s expensive (currently $35 return, times three of us), but as long as you avoid peak times, it’s usually quick and convenient.

The Skybus driver said the trip would be about 30 minutes, depending on traffic. I timed it: it was actually 23, though I still felt a bit jipped because we didn’t get a double-decker bus.

While on the Skybus I noticed one bloke up the front was constantly looking through his bags, murmuring to his travel companion and looking ever more concerned. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten anything important.

M met us at the airport, and there was plenty of time for a silly selfie in the departures area — but first we had to get our luggage and boarding passes sorted out.

Silly selfie at Melbourne Airport; about to be over by a tram

Airlines and check-in

I’d booked with Singapore Airlines, based on the loose criteria of: wanting one of the better airlines, availability on the dates we needed, and not some weird route taking 40+ hours to get to Europe. They also have WiFi in their planes, though this is a paid extra.

It wasn’t particularly cheap – nothing is in July, thanks to Australian school holidays and European summer. But with other contenders such as Qantas/Emirates and Etihad all being a similar price, Singapore won out thanks to having slightly less cramped seats – apparently an extra inch of space.

I’d checked-in online the day before. The flight was pretty full, so there weren’t any practical choices of seats.

But I this I find a bit puzzling: The queue for those needing to check-in was really long. The queue for “Internet check-in” was really short. So we got to bypass the queue like rockstars despite booking Economy.

Once at the desk, they weigh your bags, ask you questions about what’s in them, tag them, and give you boarding passes. So what’s the difference between this and checking-in at the airport? Just the lack of seat selection, which wasn’t an option anyway? Oh well, it certainly saved us a bunch of queuing.

After grabbing a sandwich and a drink (at the predictably incredibly exorbitant airport prices – maybe next time we should just make a sandwich at home), we headed through the departures gate (quick selfie against the tram-themed backdrop – see above) and through security.

Unbelievably, at the automatic gates at passport control, the bloke in front of us had left his passport in the scanner. Perhaps he expected it to zip through the machine and come out the other side like an old school mag stripe ticket gate. We called out and passed it to him. That’s not a mistake you’d want to make without realising until later.

Then the looooong walk to gate 14 via the duty free shops.

Melbourne Airport in the drizzle

Melbourne to Singapore

Despite some rain outside, the flight was away on-time (3:40pm).

The food on the flight was pretty good – with actual metal cutlery! I read for a bit, watched some classic West Wing.

Note to self: always grab the airline earphones. They’re hopeless, but your own snazzy earphones, which actually cut out some of the flight noise, won’t work – you get mono sound unless you have an adapter. Honestly, would it kill them to wire the plane sockets up so they provide stereo sound for stereo earphones?

Before we knew it we were landing at Changi. Two hours to kill in the huge transit lounge, browsing the shops. You can also watch a free movie or visit the in-terminal butterfly house. Notably, one shop was running a promotion to win a trip to Melbourne.

Singapore Changi Airport - win a trip to Melbourne!

I tried to sign on to the free airport WiFi. It wanted to send an SMS activation code to my phone, which would normally not be a problem, but this was when I discovered that my phone roaming wasn’t working.

This would be a problem for another three days, as I tried repeatedly to contact Telstra to get it resolved. Their Twitter people are very helpful but unable to actively fix very much directly. Their online chat people try to be very helpful, but anything complex tends to outfox them.

In this case (I think on the second contact attempt, a day or two later) one of their so-called solutions was a suggestion for me to ring up another department. DUDE, I CAN’T RING ANYBODY BECAUSE MY ROAMING ISN’T WORKING. And even if I could, it’d be costing me $2 a minute to make that call.

Having a fully-functioning phone was important to me. Although I was planning to buy a second SIM (my phone can take two), some of the services I use, such as banking, uses SMS for two-factor authentication. I also wanted to receive text messages and calls from home.

The hassles I had with getting it fixed is probably the sort of issue that convinced the Australian Government MyGov web site to suggest turning off 2FA when going overseas.

After a number of sessions on their online chat system over several days (well into the holiday proper), it was finally resolved, though frustratingly I don’t even know why it didn’t work in the first place, since roaming is meant to be on by default.

And there was a sting in the tail of this problem. Stay tuned.

So anyway, a little while later we boarded a huge bulbous Airbus A380 to continue on, departing Singapore at 11:30pm local time. I don’t quite know how these ridiculously big planes manage to get off the ground, but they do.

After the “supper” meal, I slept for a bit, though light from toilets kept made it difficult to get back to sleep once awoken.

We flew on into the night, headed for London.

*What got forgotten? My sun hat. Would I need it to prevent getting sunburnt? Yes, as it turns out.

Caught in the snow

(Post backdated to the day it happened. Posted Tue 10 Oct 2006.)

Over breakfast we pondered if we should go up Mount Wellington. The night before we’d rung about a bus tour, but looking at the weather that day, with snow forecast for the peak, and a lot of fog visible around the top, it wasn’t looking good. (There’s also a bus up, bike down tour which would be fantastic on a nice day). Eventually we decided to hire a car. Thrifty had one for about $80 plus fuel — the last one they had left, in fact. And as a bonus we could pick it up in the city and drop it at the airport, for no extra charge.

The car was going to be ready at 11am, so first we headed down to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for a look around. A dinosaur greeted us at the door, and didn’t even charge us admission. Some interesting displays of Hobart’s past (including the whaling — mmmmm… blubber!), Aboriginal culture, and a few other less-related displays too. A notable bit of colonial history was a blue gum couch dating back to the early 1800s. Yep, a couch older and rattier than mine.

Thrifty is just a stone’s throw from the museum (slightly further if you initially walk in the wrong direction, like we did). We picked up the car (a little manual Hyundai jobby) and tried to get back to the B&B to pick up the luggage. Central Hobart is awash with one-way streets, and it took us a little while to figure out which particular combination of them we needed to get to where we needed to be. Add to this unfamiliarity with the car, and the dread of having to do a hill start in traffic, and I wasn’t having a good time during the initial few minutes of driving.

Thankfully there didn’t seem to be many differences in road rules. I’d already noted the UK-style yellow lines indicating parking restrictions, but apart from the one way streets, otherwise nothing seemed different. (As a pedestrian I had noted the pedestrian lights seemed much more responsive than most Victorian ones, and at many intersections they wisely gave pedestrians a few seconds’ head start over cars.)

We managed to find the road up to Mount Wellington. Quite soon we were seemingly beyond the main residential area, the only signs of life being the occasional house and the Hobart “Metro” bus stop signs. A little later even these were left behind, as the road wound its way up the mountain, me gripping the steering wheel and trying not to look over the edge of the road past the guide rail to the plunge below.

View from Mt Wellington

The little car did well climbing the mountain, and nearing the top, we found trees with some snow on them. Right at the peak is a comms tower and a car park, and we stopped and parked, then added whatever layers of clothes we could find to have a quick look around.

It was bitterly cold up there, and we initially took shelter in the observation shelter, before braving a couple of the lookouts to take some pictures. The fog had lifted a bit, and we could see some of the city below. Then it started spitting, followed by a little snow, and we high-tailed it back to the car, and headed back down the mountain.

Stopping momentarily about halfway down, it started snowing. The kind of snow you see in movies: big, visible snow flakes. I’ve never been snowed upon before, and it was a nice moment, even if most of them were melting as they hit the ground.

We kept on driving, but instead of going straight back into Hobart, went to the Cascade Brewery. They do tours there, but we hadn’t pre-booked so that wasn’t going to happen. But we did have a rather delicious lunch, accompanied of course with Cascade Lager.

Then onward, back through central Hobart, and out again across the rather impressive Tasman bridge. Down the freeway for a bit then we turned off and headed to Richmond. More and more the country was reminding me of West Sussex where some of my relatives live — very green, but mostly farmland. We initially drove through Richmond and found the bridge: the oldest bridge in the country still in use, in fact, built in 1823.

Richmond bridge

Some ducks were quacking away nearby, and when the drizzle stopped and the sun came out, it was all rather glorious. Quite soon more tourists arrived, and soon they (and us, I suppose) were swarming around taking pictures. We strolled up to the nearby Catholic church (again, the oldest one in the country) and had a look inside and around the graveyard, a very picturesque location on top of a hill, with graves both old and new dotted around.

Richmond church

We went back into Richmond proper and had a little look around, before driving to the airport, watching out along the way for a petrol station. I thought I saw one in Cambridge, just before getting onto the freeway, but thought “there’s bound to be one at the airport.”

There wasn’t. The Thrifty people looked shocked that we would have even dreamed that there would be such a thing as a petrol station at the airport, and warned us of the surcharge for filling up the car: basically you pay about double the price per litre that you’d pay if you did it yourself. Well, it was only a quarter of a tank, and a small car, and I couldn’t be arsed going and finding a servo, so I said they could do it themselves. And it turned out to be $20 all up, so for the avoidance of effort, $10 wasn’t so bad. Different story if we’d been driving a 4WD and the tank was empty.

Checked-in and were told the flight was delayed 30 minutes. Sigh.

Went through security and I got randomly scanned for explosives.

Got to the lounge and found…

The soccer club boys. Sitting around a table, drinking beers and possibly looking a little the worse for wear after two and a half days’ rampage through Tassie.

We got a newspaper and some drinks and nibblies and filled the time until the flight boarded. Thankfully we were booked on the Qantas flight, whereas the soccer club boys were on the Jetstar flight that left just behind us. The flight was uneventful. Being Qantas, they had what they claimed was a “dinner service”, though it was just an elaborate ham, cheese and salad roll, plus a small chocolate bar. Better than nothing though.

We flew over the rest of Tasmania, Bass Strait and then over metropolitan Melbourne (with me, bored of the Qantas magazine and having checked-in my novel, trying to spot landmarks), then touched down at Tullamarine, before heading home.

All in all, it was a terrific few days. Hobart was really nice. The people seemed friendly, the traffic (even in peak hour) was okay, and, having recently read the book about Whelan The Wrecker’s career, which documented many of Melbourne’s historic buildings, it seemed to me that the city is being similar to what Melbourne might be if it had stopped growing in the 1890s or so, with so many beautiful old buildings remaining in use.

Maybe I should have predicted this before we went, but it seems like I’ve only had a small taste of Tasmania, and there’s plenty more to see. I look forward to going back.