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Trip Report Our really quite big adventure, Act 2: a short intermission in Hong Kong

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Those who want to read about the rest of our trip, and how we planned it, may wish to start here: http://www.fodors.com/community/australia-the-pacific/our-really-quite-big-adventure-part-1-overture-and-beginners-please.cfm.

Those who don't - read on!

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    What, you’re staying at the YMCA? Surely not!

    We all have places that we want to see, don’t we, but would find ourselves hard-pressed to explain exactly why. That, for me, was Hong Kong. Impossibly far away, oriental, remote, and inaccessible. But suddenly within our sights and a real possibility due to our decision to take a long trip to Australian and New Zealand.

    It took a while to decide how long to stay there, but in the end we settled on 3 nights, and based on recommendations from fellow fodorites, decided to stay at the YMCA on Kowloon side: http://www.salisburyhotelhongkong.com/ [For more information on how we came to this decision see my thread http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/hong-kong-how-long-to-see-highlights.cfm with particular thanks to thursdaysd who first suggested the YMCA as a good place to stay in HK].

    “The YMCA?” I hear you cry - that doesn’t sound like an obvious choice for two middle-aged brits keen on their creature comforts. Nor did it to me, but it turns out that it also operates as a proper hotel with standard [and in fact very comfortable] hotel rooms, at very reasonable prices - approx £100 per night, which incidentally was our self-imposed limit per night for the trip. And the icing on the cake is the view - our room enjoyed what must be one of the best views of the harbour in Hong Kong.

    So after a journey that included a 6 hour drive to LHR, [using a hire car rented for the day to avoid bank-balance breaking car parking charges over the 5+ weeks we would be away] the usual trials and tribulations of airport security and a 12 hour flight, we arrived tired and grumpy at Hong Kong airport. Where things began to get better as we were assisted very cheerfully by the girl at the tourist information, who advised us to get the train to Kowloon Central, and then the free airport shuttle bus. This worked brilliantly; the bus stops at various hotels on Kowloon side, including the Peninsular, and the entrance to the YMCA turned out to be just 50 yards away from where the bus stopped outside that venerable HK landmark. Result! Things looked up even more when we were upgraded to a room with a full harbour view [rather than the partial view we had booked] and the view did not disappoint. It was already getting dark by the time we reached our room on the 10th floor and we were immediately drawn to it, more or less ignoring the staff member who was trying to show us the room’s various features. But eventually we dragged ourselves away from the twinkling lights and explored the first of the 14 rooms we would be staying in on our 5 week trip.

    And very nice it was too - a queen bed, plenty of storage space and good lighting, a large bathroom with what turned out to be a very efficient shower, a mini-bar [not something we use much but useful for storing our own drinks] and tea/coffee making facilities. DH, who had been a bit sceptical when I first suggested the YMCA for our first stop of our trip, was clearly won over, and after a quick unpack of essentials, we grabbed our maps and set off to explore Hong Kong. [well, not all of it, you understand, but as much as our tired bodies and minds could cope with after approximately 36 hours without sleep!]

    First stop was the walkway along the harbour to see the nightly 8pm light-show - am I allowed to say that we found this a tad disappointing? The walkway is nothing much and seems to be a wasted opportunity - no cafes or bars, one very large hotel with windows overlooking the harbour, a few vendors selling this and that - it could be so much more. But eventually we did find a bar at the far end and managed to get that all important first beer, the drink that tells you that you have finally arrived and the holiday has started in ernest. Now we were hungry and using the TA app on my phone tried to find somewhere to eat, but everywhere it sent us seemed to be shut or closed down. I should explain that at home in the UK DH has an intolerance to “chinese” food but surely we could find something else in multi-cultural Hong Kong? Well we did after a bit of a hike, and a decision to avoid Pizza Express et al - we ate in rather strange very modern cafe offering what we decided was some sort of japanese food. [the miso soup was a bit of a clue]. But it was hot, tasty and cheap so we were happy.

    Finally we found our way back to our hotel and fell into bed, keeping the curtains open so as to be able to enjoy the view in the morning, assuming that there would be something to see, that is!

    Tomorrow - Day 2 - now, how do we find those escalators?

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    Never mind the escalators, how do you find the time to do all this ? You travel, work, raise children and animals, garden and hobby farm. I'm exhausted!

    Last night I read the excellent Iceland with a cucumber, and felt your shame at the three point turn, I hung my head with you.

    Keep up the great story telling, can't wait to read about your Oz adventures (and that little place across the ditch)

    Ciao bella.

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    I once stayed 5 nights one at the Salisbury YMCA and it is one of my favorite places Anywhere (probably wouldn't be so in love w/ the place w/o that million $ (make that 2,000,000.00) view.

    Walking distance to everywhere and basically across the street from the star ferry. Had tea at the Peninsula for the 'posh factor' but could not have been happier w/ the Y.

    (next time your hubby will trust you and fodorites :) )

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    Tomorrow - Day 2 - now, how do we find those escalators?

    As suspected, our first day in Hong Kong dawned wet and misty, but somewhat to our surprise we woke up early enough to see it.

    My experience is that Jetlag is a funny thing. Last year in Sri Lanka, despite a similarly long journey lacking any sleep, we awoke at a very respectable hour, bright and bushy tailed, and ready for anything. This time too, on the outward east-bound trip, we suffered no ill-effects and adjusted quickly to changes of time-zone. However, after the homeward, west-bound journey, we took approximately a week to get back in synch, and the first few days were really difficult.

    First stop was the hotel cafe for breakfast - on check-in, we had been equipped with some discount vouchers for the cafe and restaurant, and decided to start with the cheaper cafe option first; if that proved acceptable, we would probably stick with it. Acceptable it was, with both hot and cold options as well as juice, coffee, tea, all for about £6 each. Although "american" and other breakfasts were also available, we stuck to the basic buffet every morning, and were quite happy with it, especially as we could get more discount vouchers from reception when we needed them. We could have gone out for breakfast, but I doubt that we'd have done better, or even as well, for less. And had we wanted something more elaborate, we could have gone to the restaurant proper, but as we like to be hungry enough to eat lunch, we never did.

    Duly refreshed, we ventured out and made for the Star Ferry, which I'd always wanted to see and travel on. Pleasant surprise - it's really cheap - about 25p per journey across the harbour. We used it a lot. [no, we're not cheapskates, but we see no point in spending £2.50 on a metro ticket when 1/10th of that will achieve the same thing, plus i would rather walk about in fresh air above the ground, than under the ground in those interminable “correspondences”].

    Once on the other side, we made our way along the seemingly endless walkways that link so many of Hong Kong's buildings. Although there are sign-posts, primarily they are for locals to move around sheltered from whatever weather is being thrown at them, so we didn't find them that easy to negotiate this first time, though we got better at it during the three days we were there. Our goal was to follow the tour suggested in our guide book and see as much of central Hong Kong as we could on the way up to the Dr Sun Yat Sen museum, and then to wend our way back down again. To do this without exhausting ourselves, we needed to find the escalator to take us up to the top of the mid-levels but finding the entrance was quite beyond us. Even the waitress in the bar where we stopped for a drink didn't seem to know what we were talking about. [In retrospect, that seems most unlikely, unless she was as new to Hong Kong as we were; using the escalator is as natural as breathing to visitors and locals alike]. However, another customer took pity on us, and kindly showed us the entrance, which to be fair was not easy to spot unless you knew what you were looking for.

    "What is she talking about escalators for?" you may be wondering, and indeed before we started this trip, I had no idea of their existence. For those who are in a similar state of ignorance, outdoor escalators run from the centre of Hong kong island to the top of the “mid-levels”, primarily to meet the needs of the many workers who need to negotiate the very steep hills on their way to the office; they therefore run downhill in the mornings, and then from about 10am, they reverse and run uphill until about midnight. Once we were on the escalator we were whisked quickly to the top, and after a false start, we found the museum. http://hk.drsunyatsen.museum/index.php

    Equally, you may be asking yourself “who is or was Dr. Sun Yat Sen?”, and again you would be in good company. According to the extensive exhibits in the museum, he was the father of the Chinese revolution [no, we’d never heard of him either, I thought that was Mao Tse Tung, who didn’t feature at all] and did a great deal to prepare the way for the overthrow of the chinese warlords, despite ill-health and a great deal of opposition. A lot is made, surprisingly [to me] of his Christian faith and its influence on the good he is said to have done. An amusing incident occurred when we were watching one of the videos they show of his life; a chinese gentleman who had been watching it at the same time approached us as it ended, bowed, said what an honour it had been talking to us, and then left.

    Feeling rather better-educated than when we’d got up that morning, by now we needed some lunch, so we walked down to a street full of restaurants and antique shops and found a cafe offering smoothies and toasted sandwiches - truly Hong Kong is multi-cultural! While we were on the hunt for lunch we’d passed some jewelers so I’d had a quick look in some of the windows, as I had a hankering for some jade earrings, but a quick look at the prices [when there were any] quickly disabused me of that idea - the cheapest cost more than our entire trip.

    By now we were beginning to flag, so after some more exploring, we decided to catch the metro back to our hotel and have a nap. Easier said than done, as we had a job finding the station, and then finding the right exit at the other end, but we did it in the end and had a nice cup of tea back in our hotel room, [so pleased that the english custom of providing a kettle and tea/coffee making facilities in hotels has spread to Hong kong - let’s hope it soon makes it to France!] followed by a nap.

    Despite his problems with chinese food, DH had nobly offered to accompany me to a proper chinese restaurant for dinner this evening, and we’d already located one we liked the look of nearby - the night before when we walked passed it had been full of locals and what we understood of the menu looked good, so we set off in what we thought was good time to get there before the crowds. Wrong. Could we find it? I knew that it was just round the corner from the local post office, but we couldn’t find that either. However after quite a lot of walking up and down very similar looking streets we found it and though it was pretty full, we managed to get a table. And were then given a menu. Which of course was all in chinese. After what seemed like an age we were offered a menu with pictures and after a few hopeless attempts to communicate what we wanted with the staff, they found someone who spoke english - allegedly. Of course this all added to the fun; we had a good idea what we wanted and even managed to order it. Many of the tables around us had ordered hotpots - there seemed to be two sorts, but in either case, they were brought prodigious quantities of meat and vegetables to cook in them. However we were very keen to eat the wind-dried goose we’d seen on the menu, and followed that with stir-fried seafood and vegetables, and fried rice, thinking that if we were still hungry, we could order something else. No chance of that - the goose, though just a 1/4, was huge, delicious and very filling. [they served it cold with plum sauce rather than shredded with pancakes as we do with crispy duck in the UK, which dare I say I think suits it rather better?] The seafood with vegetables was very good too, and by the time we were half-way through, it was obvious that we didn’t need anything else, though we did try the rather strange desserts that we’d seen others eating which looked a bit like “slushies” - you helped yourself to them from a central servery where they also had drinks like coke, water, iced tea, and other things we didn’t recognise, as well as chilli and other sauces and condiments. Unfortunately we didn’t find these until rather too late in the meal, but next time!

    All this came to about £15 each, which seemed pretty reasonable to us, and even better, DH suffered no ill-effects. I’m not sure why that should be, but I was glad he [and I] had not had to suffer for our pleasures.

    Next - Day 3 - trams, markets, and gardens.

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    For those who still don't know who Sun Yat Sen is, he's the guy who led the revolution that took down the crumbling Qing Dynasty in 1911. Mao led the communist who established the current People's Republic of China 38 years later, in 1949.

    Locals do know about the escalators. But most don't consdier it's a "tourist attraction", and if the waitress you talked to is a local Chinese, her English is probably just too bad to understand what you were talking about.

    The restaurant you went to for dinner serves all-you-can-eat hotpot mostly at this time of the year. The condiments you found in the middle of restaurant are for them, not for a la carte diners. And probably the dessert as well, which may have been prepared with tapioca and taro; or with a fungus called Tremella fuciformis. The roast goose was prepared in the local Cantonese style. Only restaurants specialized in Peking/Beijing or Northern cuisine serve "Peking Duck" in Hong Kong.

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    rkkwan - thanks for the elucidation - much appreciated; though i think that most of us would know who Mao was, Sun Yat Sen had passed me by.

    The waitress BTW, who didn't know about the escalators was Aussie, so no language barrier, at least not with us. the dessert was a slushy ice and fruit concoction, a bit like the stuff you can get in the UK - one was strawberry, the other coconut, though they did have other desserts on the menu which would appear to resemble what you are talking about.

    I don't think that the very small amount of condiments that we took would affect the restaurant's profits!

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    Checking in here to keep tabs on this part of your TR!

    Reminds me I have a cousin (albeit much younger than I) who lives in Hong Kong. He hosts parties during the Rugby 7s tournaments.

    Perhaps I should consider your experiences an inspiration to get on a plane that will take me out of Europe. Hmmm.

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    Kathie - agreed. Though the trams were pretty cool too!

    Day 3 - trams, markets, and gardens.

    The previous day we’d seen the trams, but not known enough about them to venture onto them. However, overnight I did my homework, and thought it might be fun to have a ride on them, so after another good [and good value] breakfast, we caught the ferry across to HK island again, and after a few false starts with finding a tram stop, jumped on. According to the guide, you get on at the back and then exit at the front, paying your fare as you leave. Like the ferry the fare is peanuts, but you need the correct money. If I remember rightly the fare was $2.40 or the equivalent of 25p, so rather than worry about the change I just rounded it up to $2.50 and paid $5 for both of us, which seemed to work.

    Originally we were going to get off about 1/2 way along and explore, but then we saw on the map that there was a market further along, so we stayed put. The tram took us into what might be described as a non-touristy part of HK, and the market was the same - full of locals going about their business of buying and selling lots of food stuffs which were totally unfamiliar to us, though there was much we could recognise too. Best were the fish stalls - a wonderful array of the freshest fish and seafood, some of it still flapping, but there were interesting fruit and veg, and some meat products too that had us guessing. But the overwhelming impression was of the importance of freshness, and daily shopping, though I wonder where ordinary people get the time for this.

    By now it was raining quite hard, so Plan A [get the tram up to the Peak] was jettisoned in favour of Plan B - go to markets in Kowloon and do some present shopping. Yes, it was hard to think that we might leave HK without getting up the Peak but there seemed little point in going to all that trouble and expense if we wouldn’t be able to see anything when we got up there. And there was still tomorrow, as our flight didn’t leave until late evening. This would have been the ideal time too to have some dim sum, but try as I might, I just could not persuade DH that was a good idea. So, dim sum-less, we jumped on the underground, and were whisked at super-fast speed back to Kowloon and where our map showed us the markets started. Now, perhaps we got there too early [or too late?] and perhaps we were in the wrong place. But in any event, whatever we had been expecting, this was not it. Really what there was most of was a lot of tat. Things that can be found anywhere, often at better prices. Oh well, at least our afternoon was not going to be too expensive!

    We wandered around the stalls a bit, DH bought a leather belt that he needed, I bought a small and powerful torch that came in very useful later in the trip, and we walked on, gradually moving south back towards our hotel, though it was pretty far off. Eventually, after what seemed like a very long time, we came to some lovely public gardens [this was more like it] where we enjoyed looking at the birds and ponds, albeit it was a) raining, and b) dusk. And finally, after a diversion into M&S [more expensive than the UK], there we were back at the hotel. Thank goodness for that. At least our afternoon’s shopping hadn’t cost much - £10 for the belt, and £2 for the torch.

    Having had a good rest and cup of tea, we decided that for our last evening, we would go back to the area around the mid-levels that we had liked so much the day before, and care of the Star ferry and the escalators, this proved an excellent move. DH said that he fancied thai, [I will eat almost anything] and we found an excellent thai restaurant, with what DH pronounced the best tom ya gai he’d ever had. What I had was pretty good to, and we were both happy. Hooray!

    Tomorrow - to Peak or not to Peak, that is the question...

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    Great report so far, Ann. The Y definitely sounds better than the Langham at which I stayed when I visited HK. Agree with you about the ferries and the trams, although I decided to get an Octopus card (similar to London's Oyster card) rather than worrying about exact change; it served me well during my stay there. Hope you made it to the Peak. Did you venture down to Stanley too?

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    Nice try, tripplanner, but flattery won't get you a sneak preview - you'll just have to wait until the next instalment to find out whether we "peaked" or not.

    in retrospect, we should have ignored those who said that there was no point in getting an octopus for a 3 day stay - it would have made life a lot easier, and with the cost of ferries and trams so small, who cares if you don't actually save any money? better than missing the ferry because you're fiddling around for tickets.

    Interestingly [to me anyway] the Langham was one of the other hotels i looked at and they had quite a good offer on about 10 days before we travelled. But in the end we decided that the Y was a better [and cheaper] choice, and I'm glad we did. No hotel is perfect, but for the price [or indeed for quite a lot more than we paid which was approx £120/night including breakfast every day] I'd find it hard to fault.

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    Ann, I believed we saved some money on the Octopus cards, but for me, it was the ease of use, being able to add money at many locations throughout the city, and not having to worry about tickets as you mentioned. There's a cost to purchase the card but I received most if not all of it back when I turned in my card at a desk at the airport when I was leaving.

    There are two Langhams, both located on the Kowloon side. I stayed at the one in the Mongkok neighborhood. It is convenient in that it is located above an MRT station and the rooms are decent in size, but was too bland for my taste. And there we're no views like what you're describing.

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    Has it really been 10 days since the last instalment? Sorry folks!

    Here it is:

    Day 4 - Up the Peak

    Was there ever any doubt that we would get up to the Peak at some time during our stay in HK? I suppose that if it had continued to rain we might not have done, but our third and last day dawned bright and sunny so after taking a load more photos out of our window trying to capture the sights if not the sounds of the city, packing, and eating another excellent breakfast, we checked out, and leaving our luggage with the hotel, headed for the Star Ferry again.

    For the first time we were able to take photos of the water front as we crossed the harbour but we were soon docking and walking up to the beginning of the funicular, which is less easy to find than you would think. Of course we weren’t the only people with this idea, and by the time we got there several coach parties had been disgorged and the queue looked dauntingly long. Thankfully it moved quite quickly, and we spent the time waiting chatting to a german woman who was en route to Australia, which passed the time quite pleasantly, at least for us. We found ourselves being loaded into the front carriage of the funicular, which progresses up the hillside at what seems like snail’s pace and at an improbable angle. When it’s moving it’s nothing special, but when it stops to take on or let off passengers, it is rather like hanging in mid-air, and walking up or down in order to alight at an intermediate stop must be interesting.

    It took about 15 minutes in all to arrive at the top, and then almost as long again for us to find our way out of the building and into the sunshine. Once we had negotiated the obligatory gift shop, there were plenty of signs to the Sky viewing platform [at extra cost], the restaurants, and other attractions, but none that we could find to the exit. After what seemed to be a very long time going up and down the escalators, we pigeon-holed an employee [in short supply] and with her help managed to find it hidden in a corner, and we were out. Dare I suggest that they do their best to keep you inside spending money?

    Outside, there is an obvious path out to a view point which we took, and then we wandered further until we came to the road, when we decided to turn back and see if we could escape the crowds and find our way right up to the top. Lacking a decent map or plan of the paths we wanted to visit the tourist information but despite this time there being a load of signs pointing this way and that, we just couldn’t find it [are you spotting a theme here?]. Eventually the light dawned - that ancient carriage in the middle of the square? - that’s the TI. Obvious when you know. Strangely they had no maps [or none that they were willing to give us] but they took us outside the carriage and pointed to where the path started, which was good enough for us.

    The first part of the path to the top took us up a road past some apartments on one side, and the forest on the other, which soon opened out into a public garden, complete with children’s playground and flower borders. Even more surprising, after some more woodland, we found a botanical garden which was full of “just marrieds” having their photos taken. Finally the path opened up onto a wide plateau topped by a large pavilion, with magnificent views towards the south of the island. We sat in the shade of the pavilion enjoying a cold drink from the tiny kiosk with only one other family for company, [mum, dad, very small babies, and grandparents obviously visiting from the UK or OZ - vey sweet] until yet another wedding party arrived of course.

    Time to go, we thought, so we walked back down the way we’d come, taking about 20 minutes to reach the main area below - half the time it had taken us to walk up to the top. By now our stomachs were telling us it was lunchtime, in fact it was well after 2pm, but fortunately the rather swish bar and restaurant which sits amongst the trees was still open for business, so we asked for a table in the shade, and admired the view.

    http://www.peaklookout.com.hk/

    What a pleasant spot it was, but not cheap, so we stuck to beer and club sandwiches, which were excellent. Service was a bit erratic, but it didn’t disrupt the mood, and we passed a lovely hour or so surrounded by the forest, before we decided that we must drag ourselves away and start to make our way back down to the city.

    For reasons which I can’t now remember, [possibly not trusting ourselves not to get lost on our last day when we had a plane to catch] we decided to get the funicular back down, and after what seemed to be a very long wait in the sun, we we loaded again, and facing up the hill, were transported down to the terminus. We still had several hours before we needed to make for the airport, so we decided to take a stroll around the near-by botanical gardens, and we spent a very pleasant hour admiring the plants and birds. But eventually we had to tear ourselves away and head back to the hotel to collect our luggage, and board the courtesy bus from outside the back of the Peninsular Hotel [the closest we got to it during our stay] to Kowloon Station and thence to the airport for our evening flight to Brisbane. Have I mentioned that I had tried to check in on line? This had proved somewhat problematical as we couldn’t get the boarding cards to print in the hotel, and DH’s mobile phone would not let me load his boarding card, so I had both of them on mine - hardly convenient. And as it turned out completely unnecessary as there was hardly any queue to check in, and the check-in staff completed the process very quickly.

    We had about an hour or so to spare so after negotiating passports and security without too many problems, [DH is always one of those who gets singled out for one extra search or other] we wandered around looking at the myriad ways there were to spend your money, before stopping at one of them to have a cup of tea. We must be a sad disappointment to those who run airports as we tend to spend very little, except for the odd beer and snack and the very occasional bit of duty free; we certainly found nothing to buy in HK airport, except a bottle of water for the flight which although it had been sold to us airside, was confiscated at an extra security check on boarding. Why? “You are not allowed to bring liquids of any sort onto flights to Australia”. But why? We never did get an answer to that, and in fact when we flew to Sydney from Christchurch, NZ, there was no problem at all. Weird.

    So far as I remember the flight was unremarkable - DH slept, I didn’t, the food was what it was, and we arrived in Brisbane in good order and on time, in plenty of time for us to catch our connection to Cairns, thank goodness. I had consulted the experts on the Australasia board as to the time it would take to get from the international to the domestic terminal at Brisbane as we had a 3 hour gap between our scheduled arrival time and the departure of our VA flight to Cairns. It turned out that it was even easier than we’d thought - we were able to check in at the VA desk in the international terminal, and after catching the courtesy bus to the domestic terminal, all we had to do was a bag drop. Easy peasy.

    So that was the end of the beginning of our trip. General impressions of Hong Kong? For “country mice” like us, it took a little while to accustom ourselves to the crowds, and general busyness of the city, and it’s not a place that I’d like to spend a lot of time in. 3 nights was about right for us to recover from the first leg of the flight and as a short stop-over it was ideal and I was glad we’d spent that time there. Were we to do it again, we would get octopus cards, and do some better research on the transport system and restaurants. But overall it was a success.

    Tomorrow: Bye-bye Hong Kong, hello OZ!

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    Ann, glad the weather finally let up for you and you were able to get up to the Peak. I had no problems with liquids flying from Bali to Darwin, although we did extra scrutiny over some wooden items we brought in from Indonesia.

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    tripplanner - the prohibition made no sense to me, not even economically as they were very liberal with free water during the flight. i saw that about 20 bottles had been confiscated, so we weren't the only ones.

    I wonder if it is HK flights to OZ, or all international flights to Brisbane - but we'll probably never know.

    Thursdaysd - the walk right up to the top was not particularly strenuous, except for the heat to which we were unaccustomed. And the views were well worth it.

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