Friday, 28 August 2015


When I got on the bus after leaving Auschwitz I immediately jotted down some bullet points about my experience. The first point reads:

- Literally the most fucked up place I've ever been

And if that doesn't concisely summarise what it is like to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp then I'm unsure what could.  Not only did this place operate as a concentration camp, but an extermination camp.  An estimated 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz prior to the 1945 liberation.

The lane between buildings - Auschwitz I

The initial tour starts at Auschwitz I.  As a group you are lead through room after room of photographs of victims and items confiscated from them upon arrival.  Shoes, clothing, suitcases, and most shocking of all hair.  Literally piles and piles of human hair shaved from the heads of the prisoners as they entered the camp.

Suitcases taken from the victims

A small portion of the shoes

Pots, pans and plates. If you knew you were going to die you wouldn't pack any of these items? People thought the concentration camps were work camps.  They thought they would be starting a new life.

Cans from the poison used in the gas chambers.

Another area contained rooms used for punishment.  One room had standing cells which were less than 1 metre square. Four people would be forced to stand within each tiny cell.  There were also starvation and suffocation cells. The starvation cell was used for prisoners who would not receive any food.  The suffocation cell was closed so as to prevent occupants from receiving enough oxygen.

Outside in the courtyard was a wall against which prisoners stood for execution.

In the corridors filled with victim photographs, each picture was captioned underneath with a date and place of birth, occupation, date of arrival and date of death.  Many were lawyers, teachers or doctors prior to entering the concentration camp.  A number of dates of death were mere days after the date of arrival at Auschwitz.

While the initial victims were photographed upon arrival the practice was soon stopped.  Not only was photography expensive at the time, but documenting peoples appearances was pointless when weight loss was so immediate and extreme people were unrecognisable almost instantly.

A gas chamber and crematorium remains standing at Auschwitz I.  Walking through that door was the most chilling feeling.  So many people died within those walls.

Auschwitz II is on an unbelievably massive scale.  The barracks were spread over a wide area and were more numerous than I anticipated, without counting those which were built of wood and subsequently destroyed by fire so only the chimney and foundation remains.  The living conditions must have been horrendous.  It is no wonder many died of disease.

The main entrance to the extermination camp.

The gas chambers at Auschwitz II would have been much larger than the one still standing at Auschwitz I, but there had been an attempt to destroy the buildings prior to the liberation.

Remains of the gas chamber.

Auschwitz II has a memorial to all those who were killed.

In summary, Auschwitz is one of those places you can't explain to someone who hasn't been there.  Hearing numbers thrown around like 1.1million killed really hits home when you see the mountains of possessions and walk through a gas chamber into the crematorium room.  I don't think I would ever go back.  Once you've seen Auschwitz once there really is no need to return because you will never forget.  The human race is messed up.  It is scary to think people could do this to other people.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Topdeck - Day 12 to Day 24


The last half of the Spirit of Europe Topdeck trip is an absolute whirlwind of culture mingled with physical exhaustion and a little too much alcohol.  Some of my favourite stops on the tour were during this part of the trip.  They were made particularly favourable due to the cheapness of travelling to most of the countries in the Eastern Bloc.

DAY TWELVE: Slept the majority of the drive from Venice to Vienna, Austria.  Upon arrival we walked around the summer palace gardens of Schonbrunn palace.  Scorching hot weather.  After a brief driving tour we checked into Wombats hostel Vienna and continued to sweat due to the lack of proper air-conditioning.  Went to the theme park, Prater.  Had an amazing time riding roller coasters and various other rides, especially 'exstasy'.  There were no lines which allowed us to go on a handful of rides in the few hours we were scheduled to spend at the park.

Schonbrunn palace

DAY THIRTEEN:  Sweated balls all night and woke up unrested.  Had a really relaxed day looking at a few stores, having lunch and lying in the park under a shady tree.  The location of many of Vienna's historic buildings is extremely central.   This meant that we saw many of the churches, museums and palaces in the central area despite putting in very little effort to actively seek them.  It was such a novelty to have no sense of urgency to see heaps of things in the short time we have in each city.  For dinner we went to a restaurant that offered 1 metre of ribs.  I personally went for the 30cm option and still felt extremely full as it was a massive serving.  In the evening we attended a classical music concert.  It wasn't really my cup of tea, but I could still appreciate how talented the musicians are.

DAY FOURTEEN:  Yet another travel day, this time via Bratislava headed to Budapest.  Again we had three meals in three different countries.  Breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovakia and dinner in Hungary.  Bratislava was really nice.  I enjoyed being in a less bustling place than some of our other destinations, even if it was just for a short lunch stop.
Budapest is an impressive city with a lot to offer.  I will definitely be returning to spend more time exploring.  The views over the city were amazing!  One down point is the strange currency which meant it was difficult to know whether what you were purchasing was priced reasonably.  Budapest offers something for everyone, including some unique bars like Szimplakert for the quirky types.

Overlooking Budapest

DAY FIFTEEN:  A full on day in Budapest barely scratched the surface on what we could have done in this city.  Early in the morning we went to the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to Hungary's war history.  The museum is housed in the building which was once used to imprison, torture and kill hundreds of people opposed to various regimes Hungary was subject to throughout the countries history.  The intense video in the lift down to the basement makes this museum worth visiting, without considering all the other informative exhibits.  After lunch we relaxed in the thermal spa, Szechenyi Bath.  The bath boasts 18 public pools of varying temperatures, both indoor and outdoor.  After the amount of walking we had done in the previous days our bodies were in dire need of a relaxing soak.  Outside the parliament building on the waterfront there is a moving tribute to people who were shot on the river bank before their bodies were dumped in the river.  One highlight of Budapest was the beer bike we hired in the late afternoon.  It seated 13 passengers and we pedalled our way down one of the main streets, around the major memorial monument and into the park, all while consuming plenty of beer.

Shoes on the river bank

DAY SIXTEEN:  By day sixteen I had well and truly perfected the art of sleeping on the coach on route to the next destination.  The road to Krakow allowed us to have another 3 countries, 3 meals day with breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovakia and dinner in Poland.  Otherwise the day was mostly uneventful.

DAY SEVENTEEN:  A full on day of exploration.  We got up early to avoid the lines for the Krakow Salt Mines.  The underground cathedral was unbelievable and made the trip worthwhile on its own.  I could have lived without riding the rickety elevator to the surface, but I survived the experience so now harm done. Schindler's Factory on which the film is based is now converted into a museum.  I personally expected more from the museum that focussed more on the war as a whole and less on the actions of Schindler in saving his factory workers.  We explored a little in the less desirable areas of town, the former Jewish ghetto and the square where the flea markets are held.  Krakow's main square is great.  The markets are fantastic, there are plenty of food options and historic buildings.

DAY EIGHTEEN:  The travel day to Prague took us via Auschwitz the concentration camp.  Holy shit.  I will write a separate post about Auschwitz in an attempt to do justice to how powerful this place is.  It was quite late by the time we arrived in Prague so we went to dinner and then directly to the 5 story night club.  Each floor was a different theme, including an ice bar, RnB floor, oldies and a chill out floor.

DAY NINETEEN:  Got in bed when the sun was up and slept until 10:30am.  After breakfast we caught the tram into the central area, when we finally got the correct tram.  After the previous night we were too shattered to do more than wander around a few stores, markets and the square.  Not long after dinner I was more than ready for a power nap so we caught the tram back to the hostel.  For dinner a group of us went to a medieval themed restaurant where a show was provided while we ate.  The show involved fire, live snakes, sword fights, dancing and singing.

DAY TWENTY:  Our departure from Prague was delayed slightly by a few group members who failed to wake up in time for the bus.  On route to Berlin we stopped at Dresden for lunch, a city which was 90% destroyed during WWII.  The buildings reflected the damage through smoke blackened stones salvaged from the destroyed buildings which were incorporated in the newly built structures alongside new white stones.  Once we arrived in Berlin we did a quick driving tour before having dinner and heading upstairs to the rooftop bar of Wombats, Berlin.

Church of Our Lady, Dresden. The black part on the left is the original brick.

DAY TWENTY ONE:  A great guide took us on a walking tour of Berlin starting at the Reichstag building, taking in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler's bunker which is little more than a carpark nowadays, Brandenburg gate and finally ending at Checkpoint Charlie.  Following the walking tour we trained to the East Side Gallery.  Some talented people created those murals on the remains of the Berlin wall.  I think it's awesome that something with such a deep negative history has been turned into something beautiful, vibrant and positive.  Once back in central Berlin we designed our own chocolate flavour at Bunte schokowelt! My white chocolate combined with raspberry, strawberry and lemon pieces was delightful.

DAY TWENTY TWO:  Slept a good 90% of the drive to Amsterdam.  We went to a farm where they made cheese and clogs.  The leader of the demonstration was more than a little eccentric.  Perhaps he had been living in Amsterdam a little too long.  Once we reached Amsterdam city we proceeded to the red light district which in itself is an experience, seeing all the girls standing in their windows attempting to entice people into their rooms.  The sex show was more than a little traumatising.  I never thought I would sit and watch people have sex on a stage, and I will never look at a vivid marker, candle or banana in the same way again.

DAY TWENTY THREE:  Amsterdam is such a cool, relaxed city... until people get on their bicycles and start getting rowdy with the bells.  In the morning we joined the mad cyclists with a guided tour run by Mike's Bikes, taking in the I Amsterdam sign, Vondelpark, past the Anne Frank house and the bench from 'that scene' in The Fault in Our Stars. (Watch the movie. You will cry.) For the rest of the day we wandered around the streets and participated in a spot of souvenir shopping.  Dinner tonight took place on a canal ferry.  We then celebrated our last night together with too many body shots considering it was a Monday!

DAY TWENTY FOUR:  Finally the time had arrived to return to London, via Bruges (Belgium).  Bruges was really cute and had great waffles, as one would expect from Belgium.  Many of the souvenir stores had the Smurfs memorabilia as the cartoon originated in Belgium.  As per usual it was raining when we arrived in the UK.  Saying goodbye to the travelling crew was kinda sad. We had been in each others back pockets for the past 24 days following the same routine, so the idea of waking up without a pre planned breakfast time or time when the bags must be put on the coach was strange.

AND WE MADE IT! What a full on 24 days. Such a whirlwind.  I'm looking forward to sleeping in the same bed for more than 2 nights and not having to repack my suitcase quite so often.  Can't wait to go back and explore some of my favourite spots in greater depth.  This trip has barely finished and I'm already planning the next one!

Monday, 24 August 2015

Topdeck - Day 7 to Day 11


Italy was beautiful but hot.  So much history.  It would take a long time to properly explore everything Italy has to offer.

DAY SEVEN:  Drove to Pisa and took cliche pictures by the leaning tower.  I had no idea the leaning tower was not the only building in the town square, but merely the bell tower to the cathedral and baptism chamber that stand alongside the tower.  Online you usually only see photographs of the leaning tower.  The weather was around 39 degrees so the pool at the hostel in Florence was well utilised.

DAY EIGHT:  A lot of time was spent on my own two feet today, starting with a walking tour of Florence.  As with most cities on our stop there is a beautiful church and plenty of stories to go with the various bridges, statues and buildings.  We went to a leather factory to see some examples of products made in Italy as leather work is one of the traditional industries.  On the coach and of to Rome where we launched straight into the second walking tour of the day taking in most of the major central monuments including the Colosseum.  Once we finally reached the accommodation it was around 9pm and I was absolutely exhausted.

DAY NINE:  The Vatican City tour was good but not great.  The ceiling art and buildings were amazing, but the number of people and the seemingly disinterested guide put a bit of a dampener on the entire experience.  After the tour we proceeded to the Colosseum where we had a guided tour amidst the thunder storm.  I had anticipated to building to be more intact and require a bit less imagination to picture it as it once was, but it was incredible nonetheless.  The city view from the top of the Victor Emmanuel Monument were really amazing.  That being said, the actual building stands out from the surrounding monuments for all the wrong reasons.  It almost seems too new and white for Rome.  Back at the hostel things kicked off a little thanks to 5 euro bottles of wine at the "Beauty and the Geeks" themed party.

DAY TEN:  Back on the bus and on route to Venice, via Verona.  Romeo and Juliet supposedly lived in Verona and Juliet's balcony is a popular spot for people looking for an extra bit of luck in love.  At the Venice hostel the pool was awesome, but as soon as the pool party was over we were straight to bed for an early night.

DAY ELEVEN:  Venice streets are ridiculously narrow, winding and confusing.  Not to mention packed with tourists.  Felix took us on a walking tour taking in yet another cathedral.  We then went to demonstrations for both glass blowing and lace making.  When in Venice one must always ride a gondola, which is exactly what we did.  After getting a little bit lost in the city we headed back off the island to the hostel for a swim.  In the evening we had a masquerade party.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Topdeck - Day 1 to Day 6


Europe's alright ae.  This post will give a bit of a rundown of the first few days of my 24 day Topdeck tour.

DAY ONE: After an early start at Wombats London and a quick introduction to our travelling group and the group leader Felix we set off across the English Channel headed for Paris, France.  A good time later we arrived at the Generator hostel.  The rooftop bar provided some great views and delicious mint mojitos.

As it began to get dark we boarded the bus for a night tour taking in the major city monuments. The Eiffel Tower literally sparkles with lights which looked absolutely beautiful.

DAY TWO: The coach dropped us at the Louvre where we proceed to take photos outside of the Louvre pyramid.  The lines were insane so we didn't proceed inside, instead heading across the Love Lock bridge (which no longer holds the millions of love locks) to Notre Dame Cathedral.  The lines were super long so we didn't go inside and instead took the underground towards the Arc de Triomphe.  Had some absolutely amazing macaroons from Laduree.  We then climbed the Arc de Triomphe and took in the phenomenal views available from the top.  It's really cool how there are no modern buildings or skyscrapers close to the central area so your view is not obscured in any direction.  Of course we visited the Eiffel tower again before doing a bike tour of the major monuments.  I hadn't eaten enough throughout the day and had to get the tour to stop because I couldn't see where I was biking and almost fainted.  But besides that it was fab.  The full on day continued with a picnic under the Eiffel tower where I ate frog legs! We then went to a cabaret show which was mostly like a strip club, complete with a carousel of motorbikes ridden by topless girls.  I had anticipated more can-can than we witnessed, but it was a pretty fun night regardless.

DAY THREE:  Switzerland.  The Swiss Alps looks like a postcard or a computer generated image.  I really want to return in the winter.  The drive from Paris to Lauterbrunnen was ridiculously long.  We had a red and white party at the hostel bar where everyone drank too many sperm shots and just alcohol in general.  My cabin mates were 2 Kiwis and a girl from the Gold Coast, Emily.  While standing in the snow melt stream one of the Kiwis managed to make Emily sit in the water which sent the rest of us into fits of laughter.

DAY FOUR: Train to the summit of Jungfrau.  More incredible postcard perfect scenery.  At the top of the mountain I did a zipline which was super fun and provided a different angle to view the mountains from.  The gopro footage turned out great.  Everything in Switzerland is ridiculously expensive which is the only negative thing about it!

DAY FIVE:  Woke up and had breakfast in Switzerland.  Stopped for lunch in Italy.  Dinner in Nice, France.  3 meals, 3 countries, 1 day.  Once in Nice we took a walk down to the beach which has neither Waverley's black sand or regular white sand, but instead stones which hurt your feet and make climbing in and out of the ocean an issue.  After dinner we went to a pub called Wayne's Bar which had a live band and awesome Long Island Ice Tea.  After a few too many beverages and sweating so much it was beyond ridiculous we headed back to the beach for a cheeky night time dip.

DAY SIX:  Nice is a lovely relaxed place.  All morning we soaked up the sun at the beach and enjoyed the water.  I ticked off another "to do in France" item and had snails for lunch.  They were so covered in garlic sauce you couldn't taste the actual flesh, but the texture was comparable to overcooked mussels.  Monaco was the next stop on the itinerary.  Visiting for the evening made me feel like a peasant. I have never seen so many flash cars in one place.  The casinos charged an arm and a leg (16 euro) for a cocktail, which was nothing compared to the bets some people were throwing down on various tables.

The next blog update will cover my adventures in Italy!

Thursday, 13 August 2015


Arrived at the Wombat's City Hostel around 11pm on Wednesday 29 July. Crashed out to sleep as soon as I climbed into my bunk.

The view from the hostel

In the morning I walked down to the river Thames and went onto the HMS Belfast which was actually surprisingly interesting.  The ship has been turned into a floating museum, so you can see what the ship looked like when it was operating as a war vessel while also having the opportunity to read about some of the histories and stories associated with the ship. The boiler and engine rooms which sit below the surface of the water were quite claustrophobic, and if you aren't good with ladders then this is not an activity for you.

I then went up the tower bridge and shocked a terrified lady by walking across the glass floor as if it was a normal floor.  The poor women hadn't even stepped foot on the glass and was already shaking like a leaf.  The view from the bridge is pretty cool, even though the Wanganui river is probably a lot cleaner than the Thames.  The tour price includes seeing the mechanics behind lifting the bridge as well.

In the evening I participated in a pub crawl which started in the basement bar of the hostel.  The participants were mainly Australians which I guess is to expected when the name of your hostel is Wombats.

Friday the 31st I ticked off most of the big bucket list London locations; Buckingham Palace, the St Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben/Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.  I also managed to get my head around the London public transport system which is far less complicated than I had imagined so I was able to avoid walking for miles to reach these destinations.

Saturday the 1st of August (Aaron's 25th birthday) I had a pretty chill day packing and preparing to depart for my topdeck tour the next day.  Rode the London eye in the evening as the sun was setting which provided some fantastic views.  The pod next to the one I was riding in only had 3 people, a couple and someone serving wine.  As expected when they reached the top of the wheel the man dropped to one knee and proposed.  It was quite adorable.

Ready for a full on 24 day topdeck tour!