Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Night at the Races

It has been many years since Jules and I have been to the horse races, but the opportunity to visit Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Races was simply to good to resist. It remains one of the cities major attractions and is always listed as a ‘must see’ while in town. However, there are a few things that make this particular race meeting different from many others in the world. The location of the track is right in the heart of Hong Kong, which makes it particularly accessible, while the towering buildings that surround ‘The Valley’ adds to it’s unique atmosphere. Looped by the cities famous double decker trams, this weekly event attracts thousands of race goers every Wednesday night. Indeed, the fact that it’s a night time race meeting has probably been the biggest reason for its success over the years, with punters regularly streaming in after work to enjoy the colourful and exciting spectacle.

So for the first race meeting of 2012, Jules and I decided to join the crowd. We had found out about a special tourists ticket that enabled us to gain access to most areas of the course, so we walked casually through the members entrance as if we knew all about the racing world, which we certainly don’t. The first thing that struck us was the sheer size of the track and grand stand area. This was clearly an event that took pride in its status as a longstanding Hong Kong tradition and has continued to reflect its success through ongoing upgrades of its facilities. The sense of wealth was obvious and over the years it has clearly attracted some of the major owners, trainers and jockeys from around the world. On the night we were there, top Australian jockey Darren Beadman was on board several horses. In fact, he rode one of our first winners, although I must admit these were actually ‘hypothetical bets’ that we were having when we first arrived. It was unfortunately a very different story when we began to place ‘real’ money on our tips. Like so many other punters before us, our foolproof system of choosing horses based upon their names eventually let us down. However, our meager losses didn’t detract from the fun of the evening. We simply enjoyed sitting high in the members stand eating our Chinese dinner (a little different than the regular Aussie pie and chips) and watching the activities below. Whether it was the sizable brigade of ‘divot fillers’ who systematically ventured onto the track between races, the horses parading before their big race or the roar of the excited crowd at finish line, it was all part of a big night at the Hong Kong races.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Our Hong Kong Stopover

After a great Christmas of catching up with family and friends, we headed back to Japan, but this time it was suggested that we might like to break up our journey with a quick stop over in Hong Kong. As we had never been there before we thought that would be a terrific idea, so we allowed a little time and just a bit of space in our suitcases for some last minute shopping. After all, ‘spending’ is what this city was built upon and it continues to live up to its reputation as one of the great ‘retail’ capitals of the world. Jules was certainly in her element, although we were both amazed by the sheer number of ‘high end’ shops, many of which were simply out of our league. Nonetheless it is fair to say we did make a small contribution to the local economy as we continued to explore this bustling city over the next three days.

Being winter we tended to limit our sightseeing, but of course a trip to Hong Kong is not quite complete without a visit to Victoria Peak. So we jumped on board the funicular railway and made our way up the steep slope. As we headed upward, we were literally pushed back into our seats by the sheer angle of the incline and with the increasing chill factor, it gave us some idea of our viewing altitude. Yet, despite the cloudy haze, there was no denying the quality of the ultimate view. It certainly provided us with an amazing insight into the scale, architectural achievements and population density of this great city.

By sunset we were back down at sea level and enjoying a nice cocktail at the ‘Felix’ bar (designed by Philippe Stark) at the iconic Peninsular Hotel. This landmark of Hong Kong was originally built in 1928 and remains a lasting reminder of the British colonial days when the hotel entertained rich and famous visitors who had traveled from Europe on the Trans-Siberian rail link. More recently the grand hotel was a pit stop for Michael Palin as he traveled ‘Around the World in 80 days’. From here we headed down to the foreshore to watch the nightly light show from the Kowloon side of the harbour. Lasers scanned the sky and coloured lights danced across various high-rise buildings, adding to the excitement of Hong Kong by night. However I must say, the colourful skyline was just as impressive from the vantage point of the water ferry that regularly moves back and forth from Hong Kong Island and the mainland.

The next night we had the opportunity to explore the nightlife a little further when we caught up with our friends from Japan who had originally suggested our stop over. As regular visitors, they certainly knew all the best spots and had no hesitation in recommending that we head to the Soho entertainment district. This was not far from our hotel and was easily accessed by the extensive overhead walkway, which has what is recognised as the worlds longest escalator system. This was quite an amazing part of the old town; filled with restaurants, bars and nightclubs and on a Friday night it was really jumping, with happy crowds spilling into the streets. Clearly the expat community had discovered this neighborhood many years ago and had cultivated it into a very popular nightspot. We had previously explored the somewhat quieter side of this area during the day, as it is renowned for its many small galleries and antique shops, as well as the nearby Graham Street Market, which is the oldest continually running street market in Hong Kong (160 years). As an expert on the worlds great food markets and as a true connoisseur of fresh produce, Jules was in awe of what this place had to offer and of its ridiculously cheap prices. It seemed that whether it was the humble street market or the exclusive luxury brand arcades, Hong Kong had something for everyone and we had only just begun to scratch the surface! I suspect that this won’t be our last Hong Kong stopover, but I think there may be the need for a little more suitcase room next time.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Trekking the Mount Lofty Pass

It is over ten years ago since my good friend Daryl suggested that we should both tackle a walk to the top of Mount Lofty, the tallest and only significant mountain close to Adelaide. I guess at that stage in our lives we had the ominous feeling that middle age spread was beginning to set in, so we were both looking for interesting options to improve our fitness. A trek up a misty mountain in the early hours of the morning had a certain challenging appeal! We knew that the Waterfall Gully to Mt. Lofty walking track had been there since the pioneer days of South Australia, rambling upward to the summit, providing a 7.8km round trip walk. At that time the trail had remained relatively unchanged, despite the fact that many an intrepid hiker had tackled the steep slopes over the years. As we found out for ourselves, the narrow path weaved through gum trees, over rocks and across mountain streams, occasionally providing tantalizing glimpses of the flat pains below. At the summit we were rewarded for our efforts with a spectacular 180-degree panoramic of the city and surrounding area, as well as coastal views across Gulf St.Vincent through to Yorke Peninsula on a clear day.

Over the years Daryl and I had always enjoyed this leisurely walk and in between huffing and puffing, it allowed us time to talk and reflect upon the events of the day. We solved many of the world’s problems on that trail, while also seeking each other’s opinion on life’s big issues. Whether it was in the scorching heat of summer or the drizzly depths of winter, we regularly enjoyed the picturesque walk and it remains a ritual that I have missed since we moved overseas. On this trip home, Daryl and I again tackled the trail, both a little older, but no less enthusiastic. To be honest, the trek is a little different today than my ‘watercolour memories’ of it from all those years ago. It has clearly become much more popular and as a result has subsequently undergone considerable upgrades. The rocky, uneven tracks that I remember, have now been widened and paved in many areas to cope with the increased foot traffic, with seats and resting points along the way. New generations of hikers, fitness fanatics, nature lovers, tourists, families and friends have been introduced to the this unique walking trail and not surprisingly it has now developed into one of Adelaide’s most popular natural attractions. From our traveling experience, its close proximity to the city still remains quite unique on the world stage and with an easy 15 minutes drive from the city, it provides a seamless transition from the suburbs into natural bushlands. However, in order to admire the stunning view you will need to work a little harder than that! Although the trail is not too punishing, it is challenging enough and in the end, if your prepared to give it a go, I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed with the outlook or the satisfaction you will feel as you head down the somewhat easier down hill run.