Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mount Cook

We arrived at Mount Cook that evening and just chilled out in front of the TV. Unusually, Andrew was extremely cold. He sat under the heater and in front of the fireplace with a hat on and he was still freezing. Usually that’s me, but this time I was so hot and I just couldn’t understand why he was so cold. That night I couldn’t get to sleep because I kept thinking about the bungy jump that wasn’t. I was toying with the idea to go back there the next day and attempt it again but decided to sleep on it before making any decisions. The next morning when I woke up I was fine with the fact that I didn’t jump. It’s just not something I need to do. At least not right now. I was never keen with the idea but got so wrapped up in the hype and the excitement of it that I really wanted to do it. And I still want to do it but I also know that I can’t do it and I don’t want to waste the money to try.

I thought Andrew might be getting sick but the next morning, although he wasn’t sick, his stomach was hurting him. It is so unusual for Andrew to get sick that I was a little concerned but we couldn’t pin point what it was. We had both eaten the same thing and I was fine, and he obviously wasn’t sick (as in having a cold sick), which lead us down the path of “was it the bungy jump?”, but then we remembered he had drank some water from the water bottle we had filled up at the gross hostel in Queensland. I didn’t drink any of that water and I was feeling fine so we concluded it must be that. He didn’t eat anything all day and only ate instant noodles (very healthy choice) at 6pm.

The plan was for us to do a hike that day but since Andrew was still not feeling well, we decided to stay in. We watched some shows we have on our laptop, read and napped throughout the day. I was also finally able to catch up on the blog! Mount Cook (the village) does not have a grocery store so we were very limited in what we could eat. We finished off all the instant noodles we had, and I had eggs with toast for dinner, which pretty much finished off all the food we had. We were staying at the YHA, and it was very weird for me to see 3 families (kids and all) staying there. A hostel is not a very child friendly environment as the shows on TV are not children appropriate (remember, it’s a bunch of 18-35 year olds staying there) and there isn’t really anything for them to do. The parents at least kept them occupied so they didn’t intrude too much but I don’t think the hostel staff were thrilled to have them. When they were checking in I heard them saying, “you want to stay here with kids?” The rest of the night we spent in front of the TV.

We have learned, although there is a lot to do in NZ, it’s a lot of water and summer activities which limits what we can do now, in the winter. In addition, the things we can do are very expensive so we have to pick and chose what we do, which leaves us in front of the TV quite often. Being in an expensive country and having a limited budget makes it very difficult to stay positive and motivated to continue traveling. Ultimately we’re always asking ourselves, what’s the point of traveling if we can’t afford to participate in anything? That’s why we’re really looking forward to Indonesia (we leave in 4 days! July 25!) where our budget will go a lot further. We love NZ but I think we both know we haven’t experienced it to its fullest potential. If we come back to NZ again, it will definitely be during the NZ summer.

Bungy Jumping

Our plan was to get to Mount Cook the next day, but before we could leave the Queenstown area we had to complete a bungy jump first. We arrived at A.J. Hackett, were weighed in and paid for our jumps. They said they would call us in a few minutes as the operators were taking a break. At the same time a “Kiwi Experience” bus arrived and with it a whole bunch of people. The jump is a first come first serve basis so when the operators were done their break there was a bit of a lineup of jumpers. Andrew and I decided I would go first so he could take pictures and he would go once I was done. We walked out onto the bridge but I had to wait a good 20 minutes for all the other jumpers to go before it was my turn. It was a lot colder that day than it had been up until this point so I was shivering by the time it was my turn. Andrew was fluttering around between me and the waiting deck, and I’m not sure if he was just nervous for his own jump or he was looking for the best angle for pictures. Either way, when it was my turn to get harnessed up, he was nowhere to be seen and I went into the “jumpers only” area without seeing him. Once you’re harnessed up, they sit you down and wrap a towel around your ankles followed by a rope. I guess the towel is there so the rope doesn’t cut into your ankles. I was so nervous I couldn’t think straight. The guy was talking to me trying to distract me but the music is so loud in that area and I was so nervous that I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I kept looking at the observation deck but I couldn’t see Andrew. I felt like I was drunk with fear. I couldn’t see or think straight. The operator than hooked up the bungy cord to my feet and I was surprised by how heavy it was. I felt like it was going to pull me down, which was ridiculous because the whole point of me was to jump off the bridge anyway. As soon as I stood up I could feel the weight of the rope and I inched towards the ledge, which was very awkward as my feet were tied together. I shuffled my feet forward a couple of times, stopped and said I can’t. The operator said, “that’s okay, we’re not jumping yet”, but I lost it, started crying and started shaking my head no and started shuffling back. I had such fear I felt like I was going to throw up. The operator guy told me to relax but I said no and sat back down. He kept asking if I was sure and that’s he didn’t like seeing people back out of it and that everyone who had been terrified but did it anyway loved it afterwards. He told me to go have a cup of coffee and see if I wanted to try again. Then he reminded me that I wouldn’t get my money back. I could not get out of there fast enough and was openly sobbing at that point. I wasn’t scared, I was terrified. But I was also so disappointed with myself. I really thought I could do it and I didn’t expect myself to react this way but I could not stop crying. I walked down the bridge and finally saw Andrew and just started crying in his arms. He told me it was okay and that I didn’t have to jump if I didn’t want to. I was so glad he wasn’t trying to talk me into it. I was hysterical and couldn’t stop crying. I was so angry with myself that I couldn’t do it! I still had an opportunity to jump, but I knew I couldn’t do it. There was no way I was going to go up there again and try. Watching other people made me want to throw up. Any excitement I saw in it before was gone.

Andrew then went to the bridge for his jump. As I expected, as he was getting harnessed up and tied in he was laughing the whole time. I know he was nervous but it was a different kind of nervous for him. I was terrified where he was excited. I watched him walk right up to the ledge and the operator had to hold him from jumping right away. They first take a picture with their cameras. They then counted him down, 5-4-3-2-1! And I saw him jump up and dive into the air. There was a “whooo hooo” scream that came out of him. It all lasted less than 10 seconds but for me it was forever. He was lowered into the dingy waiting at the bottom in the river and all I could see was a huge smile and he looked up and gave a huge thumbs up! I was trying to be happy for him but I was so disappointed with myself I had to force myself to smile. He had to walk back up to the top and while he was walking I had to tell myself, be happy for him. This is something he really wanted to do, stop feeling sorry for yourself and be happy for him. Which I was, so I was surprised when he finally made it to the top, to see that he wasn’t as excited as I expected him to be. I expected him to be high on adrenaline but when I asked him how he felt, he shrugged and said “good”. Later I found out he expected it to be more of a rush. He feels the rush doesn’t last long enough and just when you’re getting that rush, it stops. Apparently jumping off a bridge is not enough of a rush for him.

The only consolation I had for myself was that I now knew the answer to the proverbial question: “If everyone was jumping off the bridge, would you?” I know now the answer to that question is no!

We left AJ Hackett after purchasing the photos and video of Andrew jumping so we can have this moment on camera forever.

Milford Sound

We headed towards Te Anau that evening but since we were quite tired we stopped at a town halfway there where we found cheap accommodation. The next day we arrived at Te Anau and found out the road to Milford Sound had been opened but you still needed to carry chains with you. The information office showed us some pictures of the roads and we opted to book a bus for the trip there, since we weren’t sure our car could handle all that snow. We booked a bus and ferry for the next day. That night we spent the night at Bob & Maxine’s hostel. They are a great older couple that had built a building just for the backpackers but it really feels like a large cottage with stunning views of the mountains from the common room. We had paid for a dorm room but were lucky enough to have the room to ourselves that night. The bus we were taking to Milford left at 10am and the 2 hour ride was accompanied by commentary provided by the driver. It was really nice to be on a bus again and just relax. For the past 6 months we had been the ones driving and we really missed just sitting back and relaxing, reading or sleeping.

Part of the bus journey is some stops along the way but the snow hadn’t been cleared off in the parking lots along the way so we couldn’t stop, which resulted in us arriving early at the ferry terminal. The drive to Milford Sound is stunning and it feels like you’re in a different world looking at the snow capped mountains. But there wasn’t that much snow. The crews had done a great job of clearing the snow from the roads, but there wasn’t that much snow on the sides of the road either. We really couldn’t see why the road had been closed for almost 2 weeks! The amount of snow that fell there wouldn’t even be considered a significant snow fall in Canada. Another Gold Coast Syndrome.

We boarded the ferry just after 1pm (even though I vowed I wouldn’t get on another boat again) and we couldn’t wait for the buffet lunch that was included in the price of the ticket. We were starving! We were lucky as the weather that day was amazing with the sun shining. Apparently this area gets an average rainfall of 8 meters a year and it has topped out at 10 meters one year. The cruise is along an outlet into the Tasman sea and you’re cruising among gigantic fiords. Even though the weather was nice it was still quite cold. Too cold to spend too much time outside so I was content sitting inside and looking out the window. I was excited to see a couple of seals, one in the water and one on the rocks! On the way back we saw another seal on the rocks and the boat came right up to it so we were able to get some pics. The drive back was pretty uneventful except for a herd of sheep that was on the road. There was at least a thousand of them. They were so cute. The farmer was herding them over to another field with the help of his dogs. It caused quite a stir on the bus. Other than that we spent the trip back napping on the bus and it was great.


We left Franz Joseph and were heading towards Queenstown but first we had to pass through the Hass Pass. This road goes through the mountains and some high altitude terrain and is prone to snow falls. Most of the way it was clear but as we climbed higher the snow started collecting on the ground. Rain had turned into snow. The tires on our car are not very good and it became slippery very quickly. We pulled over to put our chains on and joined a family of 3 who were trying to put the chains on their camper van. Neither Andrew nor I had even put snow chains on so it was interesting trying to do it for the first time in the cold. I was instructed to document this with Andrew’s camera. I could see the family was having a hard time putting their chains on so once Andrew was done with our chains, I asked him to help them, which he did. As soon as they were done with the first tire, a guy drove up in his pickup truck from the opposite direction and told us once we passed the hill, the rest of the way was clear so chains weren’t really needed. So the family opted not to put the chains on the second car and we left. The guy in the pickup was right. As soon as we had passed the hill the road cleared and we had to pull over and take our chains off. It wasn’t that bad on the roads and we coined a new term, “The Gold Coast Syndrome”. It was based on the warnings of free-camping in the Gold Coast and the fines associated with that, only to find out it was all hyped up. The Gold Coast Syndrome is wide spread throughout Australia and NZ.

We arrived in Queenstown late in the afternoon after stopping in Wanaka, which turned out to have very expensive accommodations. We booked 2 nights at a hostel in Queenstown, but quickly found out the standards weren’t very high. We saw people wiping the floor with the tea towels in the kitchen and then hanging them back up. Andrew was completely disgusted by this and we started pre-washing and not drying everything we used. We refused to use the tea towels. Also, the fans in the bathrooms did not work so the condensation from the shower would collect at the top of the ceiling and if you went to use the toilet the drops of water would drip on your head. It was gross. It was a good price however so we decided to put up with it. We really liked Queenstown as it’s a medium sized town but it has a very cool vibe with a lot of skiers in the area. It’s definitely a vacation town. That night we went out for a few beers and we really enjoyed the $3 beers before 9pm.

The next day Andrew did some research on the ski conditions as well as the cost of renting ski clothes and equipment while I caught up on the blog. Then we went for a Fergburger, for which we had to wait an hour for! Fergburger is a very popular gourmet burger place. The burgers are homemade and huge. A very good deal for just $10 each and we were quite full after each eating one. We didn’t even need fries! Andrew went to an internet café while I went to get a haircut. It has been a year since I cut my hair and it needed a trim very badly. The cut and blow-dry cost me $65 but it was a necessity.

One of the trips we wanted to do was go to Milford Sound from Queenstown, but it was a 4 hour drive there. The town of Te Anau was in between so our plan was to stop there, but we found out the area had received a lot of snow in the past couple of days and the highway between Te Anau and Milford Sound was closed, but they were expecting to open it any day.

The next day we decided to drive to Te Anau, a 2 hour drive, in hopes the highway would open the next morning. We had a phone number to call to learn about road conditions but it’s updated every 3 hours and they don’t receive definitive information about when the road will open up. Te Anau is a very small town and there really isn’t much to do there. We decided to stay at another “park” (similar to what we stayed in for the Tongariero Crossing) but this one had a really good common area and the room was heated fairly well. Unfortunately the bathrooms and shower areas are not heated. I again spent the time writing the blog while we watched TV. Unfortunately the road to Milford Sound did not open the next morning so we decided to head back to Queenstown.

We decided to stay at the same hostel again since the price was good, but this time we stayed in “The Shed” outback as it was much quieter. We didn’t get a lot of sleep the 2 nights we had already spent there due to the coming and going of others. This was literally a garden shed converted into a room with no insulation, but it had a pretty good heater which had to be on the whole time in order to keep it warm. The lack of efficiency is extremely frustrating! This applies to everywhere we had stayed up until this point. In order to keep the hostels warm, the heaters have to be on the whole time because otherwise the heat just escapes.

The plan was to go skiing the next day but we slept in and spent the day checking out the ski hills in the area and visiting the A.J. Hackett bungy jumping center. We had been talking about bungy jumping in Queensland as it was the place it was started. It was very interesting the people jumping from the bridge and as I was looking at them I though, I could do this. It didn’t seem that bad and I said “Let’s do it. Let’s go now”. But Andrew started saying “The lighting for pictures is not that good, it’s very gray outside, let’s do it another day when the light is better”. I told him let’s do it now because I may chicken out but he was confident I wouldn’t so we left. We went and picked up the ski rental equipment and clothes we would use for skiing the next day.

We started our evening by pre-drinking my wine before heading to the bar. We had a great night drinking 2 for 1 beers and we topped the night off with a Canadian Club on the rocks. Needless to say the next morning we woke up with a headache. Unfortunately we had already paid for the equipment rental so we had to go skiing. We decided to take our chances and try going to Milford Sound again, so we checked out of our hostel before going skiing.

We went skiing at Coronet Peak which is approx 1650m high, however the ski area starts at 1100m so there is only 500m of ski area, just a touch higher than Blue Mountain. We were not in our best shape that day and we hadn’t been on skis in over a year and half so it was hard going. Also, since it was Saturday there were a lot of people on the hill and the wait for the lift was around half hour. The views from the top were stunning. From the top we could see the Remarkables Mountain Range as well as Queenstown. Unfortunately during our 3rd run a cloud came in and covered the peak and the views were gone. After 6 runs we called it a day, my legs were done and I didn’t think I was going to make it down the last run. It wasn’t worth the $95 per person we had paid for the lift tickets. On the back down the mountain, I looked up and saw only the peak of the mountain was covered in cloud. The rest of the sky was crystal clear. Figures.

Franz Josef Glacier

There are two main glaciers people visit while in NZ. Franz Josef and Fox. They are with 50km’s of each other and actually come front the same glacier at the top of the mountain range, but split off in their respective valleys. We arrived at Franz Josef in the evening and found a cheap double room at the Franz Chateau. It’s not actually a chateau but a hostel, but I loved it as in addition to the heater in the room, we had electric blankets! This was the first time I was toasty warm since arriving in NZ. I didn’t want to leave the room!

That night it was pouring rain. It was more like a torrential downpour combined with hail. I thought the streets were going to flood as I watched the rivers of rain on the streets. In addition to the pouring rain we had thunder and lighting. It was all very exciting until the power went out. Andrew went to check out the situation but I stayed behind to hold on to the warmth of the electric blankets. We now had to heat at all! Luckily the power came back on within 30 minutes but as soon as it came on a siren started wailing just down the street. We had no idea what the siren was, and everyone in the hostel as well as the surrounding hostels came out to see. We were close to the sea and we thought it might be a Tsunami warning. The worst part was the owners of the hostel had left for the night so there was no one to tell us what was going on. After a good 10 minutes Andrew and I got into our car and drove around looking for the source to discover it’s the volunteer firefighter’s station and that’s the siren they use to call the volunteer fire fighters in case of emergency. The fire alarm had gone off in the YHA next door. Once the firefighters arrived the siren went off. When I actually looked at the map later on, we weren’t that close to the Tasman Sea so a tsunami wasn’t really a concern here. It just goes to show how paranoid we had become about a tsunami.

The next day it was still pouring. We had planned on doing a guided glacier hike but it didn’t look very appealing in the rain. We stayed in bed for a good portion of the day but went for a drive to the Fox glacier village just to see what was in the area. When we came back we went to see what the weather would be like the next day to see if we could do a glacier hike and the weather looked somewhat promising for the next morning so we booked a half day hike.

We woke up early the next day and put on our warmest clothes, had a good hearty breakfast and walked over to the office where we were to meet the guide. It was still raining but not too bad and we were hoping it was going to clear up. As we waited in line to check in we found out all the hikes had been cancelled for the day due to extreme weather coming in. We were so disappointed! Now what were we going to do for the rest of the day? We decided to do the walking trail which would take us right up to the Franz Josef glacier. It was the next best thing to actually climbing the glacier. We did the 1.5 hour return walk without encountering any rain. It was windy and cold, but no rain. We felt ripped off (even though we got our money back…although we did end up losing $13 from the return because of the exchange rate) as we could have done the hike! After that we drove to the Fox Glacier village to do another hour walk. It would turn out the extreme weather didn’t come in until that night, with some serious thunder and lighting. Andrew said it had been the biggest thunder and lightning storm he had ever seen, but I slept through it all. It seems I can sleep through pretty much anything.

Nelson & Greymouth

We arrived in Nelson in the afternoon and we decided to spend the night there as we had been up early that morning and were quite tired. The town is quite small and after some grocery shopping we stayed in, made dinner and watched a movie. The TV room was quite small and cold so I turned the heater on as I was really cold, but I guess it got too hot as a guy and a girl told me it was too hot in there and to open a window! I wouldn’t let them open the window and told them if they wanted to they could open the door. But I did turn the heater off. We also enjoyed a free chocolate pudding and vanilla ice cream offered by the hostel. It was delicious. We also opted to stay in a dorm room because it was much cheaper than a double room. It’s always interesting spending the night with a room full of strangers. That evening we met a kiwi and we started chatting about the road conditions in the south with the snow that had begun falling lately. He told us there are times when road are closed (which could hamper our travel plans to get to Christchurch on time for our flight) as well as roads where you will require snow chains. That is something we didn’t have. I knew we could have rented them with our car, but since we rented the car in Auckland, we didn’t even think about snow or snow chains. We called the rental company and found out they have an office in Greymouth where we could stop and rent a pair of snow chains. Which is exactly what we did the next day on our way to the Franz Josef Glacier.

Picton, South Island

I was excited to go to the South Island as it’s known for its mountains and stunning views. All of NZ is known to be beautiful but particularly South Island. The ferry we were taking was leaving at 8am but we had to check in an hour before for the 3.5 hour journey. This meant we had to get up much earlier and I was not happy about it at all. It also meant we were taking another boat and I just hoped the time would pass quickly and perhaps I would be able to get some sleep during the journey. We took our car on the ferry and because we were right on time, we were one of the first ones on the ferry, which meant we had to park in the lower hold. This also meant we would be the very last ones to get off. This is what happens when you arrive on time. Tardiness pays off sometimes. We spent the hour exploring the boat and waiting for the sun to rise, as it was still dark outside. Once we were finally off I tried to sleep, but 20 minutes into our journey, an announcement came on that a Tsunami warning had been issued and we had to change course, which would add an hour to our travel time. I looked at Andrew and told him “Every time I get on a boat something happens! It’s like I’m destined to drown! After this we are not taking any more boats or ferries!” I have tried to tell myself I’m being silly and all these things are coincidences but they keep happening when I get on the boat. Luckily 40 minutes later the announcer came back on and said the Tsunami warning had been cancelled and we were back on course. I could breathe again. But there was no way I was going to sleep. I had to keep my eyes and ears open for any signs of danger.

I didn’t get to see the sights as we were pulling into Picton as I spent the last hour in front of the laptop trying to catch up on the blog. It has been extremely difficult to keep up with the blog especially in Australia and NZ. We are constantly on the move and in a different place almost every night so we spend all our time walking around and exploring and I never have the time to sit down and write. It’s amazing how time consuming it is! Sometimes I have to give up seeing something or participating in something just not to fall too far behind. I fell 2 months behind at one point and it took forever to catch up. You just don’t remember the details after that long.

Once we arrived in Picton, we had to wait an extra 30 minutes to get off the boat. Once we were off we stopped to have fish and chips but it wasn’t very good and we didn’t feel too good after it. Picton is a very small town so we kept moving on. We took the scenic drive to Nelson, and although the views were amazing, it was pouring rain. Something it would continue doing while we were on the West coast of the south island.


We arrived in Wellington in the evening after a long drive. It’s very difficult to find cheap accommodation in Wellington, especially with parking, so we were happy when one of the recommendations in Lonely Planet had availability. It had been a long day of driving so we went out to get some food, did a quick walk around Wellington, and headed back to our room for an early night. The next day we woke up early and headed out on the town. Our first stop was Te Papa (kind of like our science centre), which was free so we took full advantage of that. It had a lot of information on how NZ was formed, the Maori customs, the different wildlife and a lot of information about the fault lines NZ is on and how earthquakes affect the country. From there, we visited a free art gallery but it was one of those weird ones where the art isn’t really art, it’s just strange. An example of an exhibit was 2 TV sets next to each other, with one running a video of a lady giving birth and the other one of a lady in her last moments of live just as she’s dying in her bed. I believe it was called Life & Death. Of course there was a plaque to describe how the “artist” thought it was profound to see the two images sides by side, one lady giving life and the other one dying. For us it was just disturbing.

We followed the recommended walking tour in lonely planet, and we also did a tour of the NZ parliament building. We also drove to the top of Mont. Victoria to see the view of Wellington from the top. We also went to see where the ferry was leaving from that we would be taking the following day to Picton, South Island.


The next day, after a freezing breakfast, we were off to Rotorua. But first I wanted to stop at the ski hill of Whakapapa (read: Fa-ka-pa-pa). The name was very intriguing. The ski hill is quite small and the village even smaller. There wasn’t too much to look at. To get to Rotorua we had to backtrack about 100km’s, but I really wanted to see the hot mud pools and geysers. For some reason there’s a lot of different thermal activity in that area. Our first stop was Te Puia. This is a park geared to educate people about the Maori history as well as to showcase the mud pools and geysers. The tour guide was free to so we decided to visit the park with him. It’s a good thing too because otherwise there wouldn’t have been much to see. Except for a couple of mud pools and one active geyser, there wasn’t much to see. But the guide takes you through the history of the Maori people and that was very interesting, but not interesting enough to pay $40 per person. I was a little disappointed in the whole experience. We were going to stay in Rotorua overnight, but the town is quite small and there wasn’t much more for us to do, so we ate some food and moved on to the area near the Waitomo caves. This is a popular area to see glow worms but the prices are ridiculous (over $100 per person) and were way out of our price range so we just stayed at the hostel for the night (I grilled the lady on the phone about the conditions of the hostel and inspected it before we even considered staying there. She thought I was crazy). We spent a relaxing evening in front of the T.V. The next day as we were about to leave the hostel, I noticed a lonely cow standing in the field that belonged to the hostel (I think). I was sure it was going to run away as I came up to it, but no, he stood right where he was and was very happy to have me pet him and rub his head. He (I think it was a he) kept pushing his head into my palm and Andrew and I had a blast giving him the rubbies. He was very cute. And then, I turn around and I see a big pig in its pen. And there’s a little piggy with it. I coaxed it into coming over, but surprisingly cows are a lot softer than pigs. After all the petting, Andrew and I smelled like a farm. The goal was to reach Wellington that day so we didn’t have a lot of time to waste as it was an 8 hour drive. We did get to drive by Mt. Teranaki and I’m glad to say it did not erupt and it was only an illusion we had seen during our Tongariro Crossing.

Tongariro Crossing

It was a cold morning trying to prepare breakfast in -9 degree Celsius. It was too cold to wait outside for the bus to come pick us up so we parked the car in front of reception with the heating on. When the bus finally did come I was happy it was well heated. We were fitted with hiking boots, crampons and were given the option of borrowing fleece pants and rain gear. The day was very sunny without a cloud in the sky so we knew we wouldn’t need the rain gear, and we also knew once we started hiking we would warm up so we didn’t take the fleece pants either. We were confident our cargo pants with the under layer of under wear we had bought the day before would keep us warm for the day.

The Tongariro Crossing is a 19.5km crossing in-between the Tongariro & Ngauruhoe mountains. Most people do the crossing in the summer months, with thousands of people completing it every day, but it is possible to complete the crossing in the winter as well. In the summer you can complete the crossing by yourself but in the summer months most companies will provide a guide to assist you. As we got off the bus we were handed an ice axe. I had never used one before and I became a little worried as to why we would need one, but decided not to worry about it too much. There were a total of 3 guides on the trek and the first guide, Sarah, started walking as soon as she was off the bus. We didn’t bother waiting for the others and followed her as soon as we had obtained our ice axes. She was a good 500 meters ahead of us with others from the bus who had caught up with her. We didn’t mind walking alone as we’re pretty quick walkers and it allowed us to walk at our own pace. Pretty soon we had caught up with Sarah and the fast walking group.

After walking for an hour we had our first break. Up until that point it had been an easy walk as a lot of the trail had been a manmade walkway. At first Andrew said it ruined the “experience” for him to walk on a manmade walkway, but since in the summer up to one thousand people complete this crossing, it was understandable why it was there. As we were resting, there was a group of guides from another company who were completing training, and they pointed out the beautiful view of another mountain, Mnt. Taranaki, about 120km away. It was such a clear day that we could see it clearly but it was disturbing to see smoke coming out from the top of it. Mount Taranaki is an active volcano and everyone was speculating as to whether it was really erupting or if it was just an illusion. Perhaps a passing cloud? Our guide, Sarah, said she had never seen it do that before and thought it was strange. Everyone laughed it off however and we continued our hike. Here is where the real work began. This was the beginning of the Devil’s Staircase. Before we started however, we were separated into 3 groups. Sarah took 11 people as part of group 1, and we were part of her group. There were over 900 stairs we had to climb. At first I thought, this will be hard but it won’t be there hard. Boy was I wrong. About ¾ of the way up the staircase I had a really bad cramp in my left side, and was panting like a dog. I had to stop because I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath and was suffocating. Every breath I took made the cramp even worse. I was also very hot in my jacket so I took the opportunity to take it off. After a good 5 minute rest I continued on trying to catch up with my group who had continued up. As I came around a corner, I saw the whole group standing there waiting for me. Sarah said to me “You’re going to have to keep up, okay sweetheart? If you want to be part of group 1”. I was furious. First of all, I don’t like it when people are condescending enough to call me sweetheart. Second of all, I really couldn’t care less about her stupid group. We had paid a lot of money and as far as I was concerned, she was there to guide me through the crossing and it was her job to make sure I crossed safely. There had been no discussion on how quickly we would be climbing as part of group 1, and the other 2 groups were well behind us. I nodded my head but didn’t say anything and decided to hold a grudge.

Once we reached the top of the staircase, it was a pretty flat walk in between the two mountains. Sarah had insulted me further by asking Andrew, and not me, if I was okay. Like I wasn’t even there! I was boiling inside and but there wasn’t much I could do about it so I decided to ignore her. Although she did keep my blood boiling as she told another girl, with me right next to her, that she wasn’t concerned about her climbing abilities. There were other people’s climbing abilities she was concerned about, but not hers. And she said she was ruthless in telling people to keep up. Unfortunately I knew exactly who she was talking about. Who the hell did she think she was? But I had decided to ignore her and not speak to her, like the mature person that I am. Soon it was time to put our crampons on and Sarah had us form a circle to be able to watch how to do it properly. She was getting frustrated that people weren’t listening to her, and I could see she wanted to kill me when I told her my crampons broke. The look of death she gave me made me smile. I obviously was not getting on her good side anytime soon. She ignored me for a while with my broken crampon but came over a few minutes later and said this happens all the time, and luckily she had spare parts. She fixed the crampon and helped me put it on. The next part would be a steep climb on ice, and it would also be the first time we would be using our ice axes. Luckily it wasn’t a difficult climb, just a dangerous one as we could slip on the snow and ice, but I had no trouble keeping up and I’m glad to say I was one of the people at the front of the group. It was a small victory for me.

Finally we reached the top. I was completely out of breath but the view was stunning! We could see the peaks of different mountains around us and 2 beautiful turquoise lakes right below us. We were having lunch at the top. One of the mountains right next to Mt. Ngauruhoe, Mt. Ruapehu, is an active volcano, with the Ruapehu mountain erupting as recently as 2007 while people were on the mountain skiing! We were sitting on the ground while eating lunch and it was surprising to find the ground warm with steam coming off the sides. Although the ground was warm the wind was quite cold, since we were 1978m (6490 feet) above sea level. After lunch we started our descent down. Sarah told us usually in the winter there is so much snow on the top that she has everyone sit down and slide down on their butts. Unfortunately winter was taking it’s time to get to NZ, and even though there was snow at the top, it wasn’t enough for us to slide down and we had to walk. The walk down was easy as we still had our crampons on. Sarah had Andrew and I lead the way (first again!) and along with 3 other people, very quickly we had left everyone behind. The 5 of us waited for a while to see if they would catch up, but they didn’t so we kept going. We figured it couldn’t be too difficult to get down and there was a marked path we had to follow anyway. The further down we went the less snow there was on the mountain so we decided to take off the crampons. Right after that we saw Sarah, alone, trying to catch up to us. We waited for her, but the other 3 people went on. Sarah just asked if we had taken our crampons off, which we had, so she passed us and went down trying to catch up with the other 3. She finally saw them a bit further down the mountain and called out to her to stop at the hut. I guess they would know when they reached it. We continued at our own pace, and the views from the other side of the mountain were stunning, although clouds were starting to roll in which was limiting our visibility. We finally made it to the hut and had to wait for everyone else to come down, including the 2 other groups. Once they did, we were told this was a “free” walk from now on, and that it would take us another 2 hours to reach the bottom and the bus, but that we could all walk at our pace and leave as soon as we were ready. Andrew and I decided to head off right away to make it down as soon as possible. No need to sit around and wait for nothing.

Going down turned out to be harder than going up. My thigh muscles were on fire. Although going up is hard on the lungs, going down you’re constantly using your thigh muscles to support your weight to not walk too quickly. I estimated we would be down the mountain in an hour and a half and when we finally made it down I was only off by 2 minutes! Andrew wouldn’t give me the victory however and said it doesn’t matter if you lose by an inch or a mile, you still lose. He was just jealous of my accuracy. At the bottom the bus was waiting for us with sprite and I was so happy when I could finally sit down. My legs were jello.

We made it back to our room, ate some food and showered in the freezing bathrooms. The guy at reception said this is the coldest they had ever had it. Of course it was…because we were there. It seems no matter where we go in the world we are always experiencing the biggest, the worst, the hottest, the coldest or whatever. Not sure if this is people’s tendency to exaggerate or just our luck. Either way, we were cold and again bundled in for the night. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and into a heated room! I would be a lot more diligent when booking accommodation from now on.

Whangarei & Paihia

First stop was Whangarei (read: Fan-ga-rei). Whangarei is a typical small big town. Too small to be considered a city, but too big to be considered a small town. There’s a lot to do here but all of the activities are for the summer. In the winter there isn’t really much to do here. So after grabbing a quick bite to eat we continued north to Paihia (read: Pie-a). Paihi is a very small town but it’s the hub for the Bay of Islands and sits right at the edge of the water so the views are stunning. There is also a lot of things to do here, except just like in Whangarei, they’re all for the summer. Unless you’re a hardy outdoor enthusiast and you like to go kayaking and swimming in the cold. But the view was nice and we didn’t want to drive late into the night so we found a nice hostel and decided to spend the night there. We made dinner and hung out around the fireplace and the TV for the night. The entertainment of the evening came when a guy in his early 20’s went on to the porch of the house and started making phone calls, one after the other. We learned by his screaming at the top of the lungs, that he had obtained his 2 year working visa for NZ. He was really excited because every call he made he started if off with “Mom? (Or Bob, or Jane or whoever he was talking to) I GOT MY VISA!!!!!!!!! Yeah! FOR 2 YEARS!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!” This went on for a good 10 minutes before he would make the next call. 6 or 7 calls later we were sick of hearing about his 2 year visa. We walked into the TV room and said to one of the girls, sarcastically, “I think that guy got his visa” and the girl took it very seriously and started telling us how he just obtained his 2 year visa. Our dry humour was lost on them.

We checked out the next day and drove even further north. The plan was to get to Cape Reinga, the top of NZ. The weather was gorgeous as the sun was shining, and even though it was cool, it’s wasn’t cold. The views were stunning. Gentle rolling hills covered with grass the colour of neon green. It was so beautiful if I wasn’t there myself I wouldn’t have believed it could have a colour like that. Scattered around the hills were cows and sheep. Although NZ is known for their sheep, we were seeing more cows than sheep. We later learned it’s because the government stopped subsidizing the sheep farmers and where there used to be 20 sheep to each resident of NZ, the numbers had dropped to just 8 sheep per resident. It’s still a high number since they count all the citizens of NZ, even the ones who live abroad. We had a pleasant drive up to Cape Reinga and when we reached it we had a gorgeous view of where the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean meet. We spent some time walking around the area and then started heading back south. On the way back to Auckland we stopped at a local woodworking shop and we were able to see a HUGE staircase carved into the inside of a massive tree. Unfortunately this was the only time we didn’t have a camera so we didn’t take a picture. We reached Auckland that evening and Tara was stunned that we could make it so quickly from the Cape to Auckland and we had a small debate about whether Andrew is a fast driver or if Tara is a very slow one. I think Ben sided with us. We had seen a spot where we could take some photos of the Auckland skyline so the 4 of us spent the night taking photos.

The next day, before we left Auckland we went to have lunch at Villa Maria, where Tara works. It’s a stunning winery right next to the airport. You drive through an industrial area thinking how could there possibly be a winery here, only to see how nice it really is once you drive in. You feel completely secluded from the city. Unfortunately the drive there is not that peaceful. We knew the winery is next to the airport, and we could see it on the map so we just figured we would follow the signs for the airport and from there it would be easy to find the winery. It turns out it wasn’t the winery that was hard to find but the airport itself. The first signs we followed to the airport, took us to a small regional airport. So we had to find the highway again and now followed the correct signs this time. We got off the highway according to the signs and got stuck in traffic in a tiny suburb with all the main traffic going through there. After driving for 10 minutes there were no more signs to the airport and we thought we must have missed something so we turned around. I called Tara to tell her we were running late and she could tell I was not impressed. This was an international airport and we couldn’t find it! Finally we got back on the highway, followed our map rather than the signs and finally found the airport! It took us an hour and a half to get there and we were an hour late! We were not impressed with how hard it was to find the airport. The way the signs lead you make absolutely no sense. Tara agreed it was not properly labeled and shared my frustration. When we finally arrived at Villa Maria we had a delicious lunch paired with wine. We had a great time during lunch but we needed to get going. We wanted to Tongirero National Park that evening.

Auckland, New Zealand

Our flight to Auckland was scheduled to arrive at 11pm but because Air New Zealand was flying under the ash cloud (while other companies were not flying at all – Quantas and Jet Star grounded all their flights for almost 3 days) they had to fly at a lower altitude and therefore couldn’t travel as fast as they normally would as the air at a lower altitude is much thicker. So although all scheduled flights were operating, there were delays as it took longer for the flights to arrive. We were the last flight out to Auckland that day and we experience an hour and a half delay. Unfortunately we had no more credit left on our phone and we couldn’t call Tara and let her know our flight would be delayed. When we finally arrived in Auckland it was 1am. I was just glad to have made it to New Zealand (NZ) finally. We cleared customs very quickly and went to get our luggage.

It had been a year since I had seen Tara. The last time we saw each other was right before she left Canada to go to NZ. She had spent a year in NZ a few years back, and after her visa expired she returned to Canada and that’s when we met at work. We hit it off right away as we both have a passion for travelling. During Christmas 2 years ago she went back to NZ for a friend’s wedding and fell back in love with the country and decided to pursue a residency visa. At the same time Andrew and I were starting to plan this trip, so we had a great time over the next month discussing our plans and sharing our fears and doubts about our plans. Although we had spoken via skype on numerous occasions over the past year, I couldn’t wait to see her so we could chat about how the past year had unfolded and whether it had met our expectations.

We walked out and I was worried I wouldn’t recognize Tara, but very soon I saw her waving to us. I was so happy to see her! We went to the car and met her boyfriend Ben, who was waiting in the car keeping it warm for us. That night we didn’t have a lot of time to catch up since it was late, so we checked into our hostel and went to sleep. But before they left, Ben was kind enough to inform us our hostel was in the Auckland red light district. Who knew Auckland had a red light district? The area is that bad but it is loud as we found out that night. The clubs were playing music up until 4am and since our room was facing the street we could hear everything!

The next morning we woke up and went looking for food. Since this area is known more for its night life, there wasn’t too much to pick from and we had forgotten to exchange money before we left Sydney so we had to look for a place that took credit cards. During the half hour of searching for food we very quickly realize NZ was cheaper than Australia. The prices were the same but they were in NZ dollars so right away we were saving a ¼ off the price. Tara came to pick us up and we started off our tour of Auckland on top of a volcano. A dormant volcano but a volcano nonetheless. The volcano is called Mt. Eden and it offered us spectacular views of the city. It was definitely much cooler here than in Australia but the sun was shining so it wasn’t too bad. We spent the day with Tara driving us around and showing us various landmarks in Auckland. There’s a 2 hour difference between Sydney and Auckland and we were feeling a little jet lagged so we agreed to meet up for dinner at Tara & Ben’s place. During that time we relaxed in our (new) room. We had asked if they had a different room available and they did so we had switched into a larger, quieter room. Although this hostel wasn’t in the best part of town, we had free wi-fi, free breakfast and very friendly staff so we were quite happy with it. We would recommend K Road Travelers to anyone who is looking for budget accommodation in Auckland. Other hostels might be nicer but everything else is extra. And the staff there couldn’t have been more helpful. When Andrew was looking for something to eat at 2am (which is almost impossible to do because things close early) the guy at reception told him he had some bread and eggs and offered to make it for him. We didn’t take him up on the offer but I was surprised anyone would go out of their way to offer their food to us at 2am.

We had bought a SIM card so we finally had a way to communicate with Tara and the outside world. That night Ben came to pick us up and we had dinner at their place. After dinner and a few drinks we took a taxi and headed to a bar. The first one was dead so we went to the next one. And that’s where we stayed for the remainder of the night. I’m not sure what time we decided to leave but I know Andrew and I decided to walk back to our hostel and after stopping to eat a kebab on our street we arrived back at our hostel at 4am. The next morning I felt like death. I was so sick that I didn’t get out of bed, except to run to the toilet, all day. I’m convinced I had food poisoning from the Kebab the night before and it had nothing to do with the alcohol I consumed. Unfortunately the following day was Monday and Tara had to go to work so Andrew and I spent the day sightseeing around Auckland. We had switched hostels that morning, thinking we were getting a better deal, and we booked a free tour of the city. It was more of a sales pitch about the tour company than a tour of Auckland but we still had a good time. We then met up with Tara and Ben for dinner at their place again.

It turned out the new hostel we were staying at had a lot of charm as it was an old Victorian building, but the walls were paper thin and you could hear everything going on in the next room (in our case, a bathroom). And we didn’t actually get to sleep in the Victorian house, but in the shed out in the back yard that had been converted to rooms. We were in a twin room with bunk beds and since I was on the top, anytime I moved the bed squeaked so loud that Andrew would wake up. And anytime someone went to use the bathroom I could hear them on the other side of the wall and I would wake up. We didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. This would prove to be a common theme throughout NZ. On Tuesday we walked around all of Auckland looking for a good deal for a rental car. We wanted to take a ferry to one of the small neighboring islands and do a hike but it was constantly raining so we decided to rent a car, head north for a few days and on the way back down to the hike. We arranged to pick up the car the following day and that night Tara and I went out for coffee for some girl time. We had a great time catching up and too soon the night was over. It was great to spend some time catching up with her without the guys around.

We had grown quite fond of Auckland as it’s the perfect little city. It’s big enough to have everything you would need (big buildings, shopping malls, great restaurants, a red light district ) but it’s still small enough that you can walk around the whole city in about an hour. It also has a lot of charm with the different architecture that’s incorporated. This is definitely a city we could see ourselves living in. If only it wasn’t so far from the rest of the world! We picked up the car the next day and were off to the top of North Island. For those of you who don’t know, NZ has 3 main islands; the North Island, the South Island and Stewart Island (south of the South Island). Other small islands are scattered around the three main islands.

Back in Sydney & Goodbye Australia

We arrived in Sydney on Thursday and caught up with my aunt and uncle that night. We had to break the news to them we would be leaving Australia as soon as we could sell the van. They were quite disappointed because they really wanted us to love Australia as much as they love it, and they wanted us to see as much of it as possible, but they understood how expensive it was to travel there. On Saturday we would be celebrating my uncle’s 50th birthday party and there would be 100 people attending. There were people flying in from all around Australia for the party so we weren’t able to stay with my aunt and uncle but my uncle’s parents were kind enough to take us in. We had a blast staying with them for 5 days. They are in their “golden” years but nothing is slowing them down. They are very entertaining to talk to as it’s wonderful to hear their stories from when they are younger, but they are also very easy to live with. They never made us to feel like we were in the way and made us feel very much at home.

Friday, before the party, we arrived at the banquet hall to help decorate. We blew up at least 500 balloons, but in the end it was worth it because it really changed the way the hall looked. Saturday night was a like a wedding! It was amazing to see so many people come out for my uncle’s birthday. It was a night of great food, speeches and of course dancing. My aunt and uncle love to dance so no one was getting away without bustin’ a move. The next day we all stayed in bed most of the day. It was a very relaxing day at my uncle’s parents house as we didn’t feel the pressure to get out of bed at all as they also stayed in bed or napped on the couch while watching TV.

On Monday we spent the day at King’s Cross trying to sell our car. King’s Cross is where everyone goes to sell their camper vans. The only trick is you can only park for 1 hour before you have to move your car, so every so often you see a whole bunch of vans cruising around looking for a parking spot. You know parking control has come by when everyone all of a sudden gets into their vans and starts moving them around. It’s also easier that way because then you’re really only swapping spots with someone else. The parking control guys are pretty cool as they said as long as we move to another spot, they don’t mind us hanging around there. The business owners are a different story. They hate backpackers and we had them threaten us with getting towed, telling us we’re not allowed to sell our car on the street (not true, all we were doing was parking and hanging out for sale signs on our windows which is not illegal) and even going so far as to take pictures of us, although we’re not sure what that was supposed to achieve. Standing around at King’s Cross felt like a waste of time. Since it was low season, there weren’t that many backpackers looking to buy vans, and those who were, were looking at spending no more than $2000. The only benefit we had was that we had a very nice & clean van and everyone who saw it said we would have no problem selling it. The only problem no one was willing to spend the money!

We moved back in with my aunt and uncle on Tuesday. Our goal was to sell our car as fast as possible and leave Australia as it was costing us a small fortune to stay there. Andrew had made some contacts while we were in Sydney last time and on Wednesday he was back at work. On Thursday I went to Adecco to see if they had any temporary jobs and I was at work on Friday morning. The following week we were still concentrating on selling the car while working. Andrew had posted the car online and although we had a few people interested and make offers, they all ultimately fell through. This was taking a serious toll on Andrew. He was so worried the car wouldn’t sell he wasn’t sleeping at night and then he had to be up early for work. I was actually quite worried about him and tried to calm his fears by telling him I was confident the car would sell, which I was. In the end I was right because the car sold that week and it was like a weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were able to start planning our trip to New Zealand. We booked our flight to Auckland, but right after that the Volcano in South America erupted and the ash cloud had disrupted flights in the southern hemisphere. The day before our flight, we received a call that our flight was cancelled. We started making inquiries and found out Air New Zealand was flying below the ash cloud and were able to book a flight to Auckland for the next day for only $100 more.

That night we said goodbye to my uncle, as he was working the next day and wouldn’t see us before our flight. It was an emotional goodbye as we had grown quite close to them over the 5 months we had spent in Australia. The next day my aunt drove us to the airport and we said goodbye. We know that wasn’t the last time we will see each other. We checked in without any problems, we said goodbye to Australia and we were off to New Zealand to see my friend Tara.

Overall we spent 5 months in Australia and it’s hard to capture everything that happened during that time in along with what we thought of Australia. If I had to summarize our experience in Australia I would say it’s very similar to Canada in the culture as well as some of the scenery. We only saw ¼ of what we wanted to see in Australia, so it’s hard to say we have a complete picture. Of course the beaches are stunning and it would be hard to compare them with any other part of the world, but once we got away from the coast, the scenery really was similar to Canada. We found the public facilities to be very tourist oriented. The free swimming pools/lagoons, free (clean) public toilets, free showers and free BBQ’s are what make the travel experience very easy and enjoyable. Underwater the marine life was stunning. Although we had already seen a lot of the marine life in other parts of the world, the size is what’s really stunning. Because the Great Barrier Reef is a protected marine park, the fish are able to grow to their full size and they are huge. It’s a very surreal experience swimming with such large fish. The main part we struggled with was the cost of everything. Although a lot of the high costs of food were associated with the floods Australia had experienced this summer, other costs were completely unrelated to the floods. It’s easy to justify some of the costs with the fact that Australia is a large island and thus everything that is not made here needs to be imported from very far away, it does make it very difficult to travel on a budget. A quirky “phenomenon” we witnessed was people walking barefoot…EVERYWHERE! One of the grossest was public bathrooms. And in all types of weather. It was hard to watch during the days when it was only 15 degrees Celsius outside and raining, but particularly hard when it was 15 degrees and raining and the person with no shoes on was a 5 year old and her parents were wearing nice warm UGGS. Which brings me to my last point…UGGS are cheaper than in Canada but not cheap enough for me to buy them and lug them around New Zealand, Asia and wherever else we might go. $180 is still a lot to pay for shoes I can get for the same price in the U.S.

I am thrilled to have visited Australia and fulfill my lifelong dream and I know I will be back as there’s still a lot more to see. But more than that, visiting Australia allowed me to meet family I didn’t know that well before, but also to learn a lot about my family history. So I guess you can say I discovered a lot more than just Australia.

Newcastle & Hunter Valley

Next stop was Newcastle. We had a couple more days before we needed to be back in Sydney and I wanted to stop in Hunter Valley to do some wine tastings. Newcastle was the closest large town to Hunter Valley. We arrived in Newcastle in the evening amongst reports of heavy rains and possible flooding in some areas of NSW. The sea was really rough as once we were already in Newcastle and driving along the beach road, the waves were crashing onto the street. We had dinner at a small Indian takeout restaurant and found a place to sleep in a residential street on a hill in case of any flooding. The next morning we had a very hard time finding a public toilet. Everything was closed and we couldn’t find a McDonald’s and after driving around for 30 minutes we found a shopping mall that was just opening up and we were able to use the toilets there.

We did some shopping for food at Woolies and had breakfast at a park overlooking the water. Newcastle is actually a pretty nice town. It reminds you a little bit of Hamilton as a lot of large cargo ships come in there, but the layout of the town, which is spread over a few hills, combined with some historical architecture give it a very pleasant look and feel. After breakfast we left Newcastle and made our way out to Hunter Valley. Unfortunately we had missed the 11am winery tour of Whyndam Estates so we went to McGuigan Winery, a wine I was introduced to at one of the many dinners we had been to with my aunt and uncle. At McGuigan we found out that wine tastings are free! You can sample up to 6 wines for free! Andrew and I had a great time tasting the wines and we found a wine which we loved. Unfortunately it is only available at the winery itself and you cannot buy it anywhere else nor can you import it. The other unfortunate part is that I can’t remember what it’s called. We ended up buying two bottles but after we drank them once back in Sydney, we didn’t think to write down the name! From McGuigan we went to the Lindemans winery but we found them to be a little snobby. It turns out Lindemans doesn’t actually grow their grapes in Hunter Valley, but in Southern Australia, and the winery we visited is only there for them to have a presence in NSW.

While at McGuigan we found out we had missed their wine tour as we were too late but they had told us Tyrrell’s Winery was having a tour at 1pm we could attend. So we did just that. We found Tyrrell to give the largest samples of wines with full glasses. I was pretty drunk and actually started refusing wine by the time it was tour time. The tour lasted around an hour and it was very interesting to find out how the wine was made and bottled. After touring the winery we decided it was time to head south. We would reach Sydney that night.


On the way to Cairns we slept at a couple of free rest stops. Upon our arrival in Cairns we learned of the poor water condition out in the ocean. The weather in Cairns wasn’t the best either but it was much much warmer than it had been in the Whitsundays. Unfortunately it was raining. Cairns itself is a small town, so it didn’t take us very long to explore it. That night we slept in an industrial area in between two trailers. We decided to put off the diving in Cairns and to head up to Port Douglas and wait for the diving conditions to improve. We drove up to Port Douglas and the scenery to get there was beautiful. We were driving right along the water’s edge and the road was curvy, just like Andrew likes it. The scenery is beautiful and there aren’t a lot of people in this area so it feels very remote. Port Douglas is a very small town so there isn’t much to do. We parked the van and walked up and down main street. Since we are on a tight budget we couldn’t really eat in any of the restaurants so we bought some food and made it in our van. We weren’t sure where we were going to sleep that night but we saw a few camper vans parked in a parking lot at the end of main street. We talked to some of the people in the vans if the cops would give us a hard time for camping there and they all said they didn’t know. So we decided to camp there too. If the police would be handing out tickets at least we wouldn’t be alone in receiving one. That night we plugged in the laptop and watched a movie.

The next morning, after eating breakfast and using the free public washrooms, we left to drive further up the coast to Cape Tribulation. This drive proved to be even more beautiful as this area is known as “where the rainforest meets the sea”. The mountains and forests literally come down right to the waters edge. The drive was beautiful with views of the ocean and stunning deserted beaches. We arrived at Cape Tribulation after a few hours of driving, and quickly learned this was barely a town. It’s more like a convenience store and an information booth all in one. And they’re both run by the same lady. She literally sits in between two counters and depending on which door you come through, she swivels in her chair to help you. It was funny for me because when we arrived I didn’t realize it was the same lady who operates both the store and the info booth, so when we walked in to the info booth and spent a few minutes talking to her about what to do in the area, we then asked her if there was a better and bigger store in the area. She said there was one more store up the road but it was the same size as this one. So we left info booth and went around to the entrance to the store. It was only after we walked in that I realized that it was the same lady who owns/runs them.

We found out there was nowhere we could camp for free in the area but we found a park where you could camp for $5 per person, but you had to call ahead to make a reservation. Unfortunately we didn’t have cell phone reception but we were able to use the pay phone at the info booth and make a reservation for that night. Then we went for a walk along the creek. We were looking for crocs! This was definitely croc country but they aren’t as easy to come across as you would think. Of course it’s dangerous to go into water, especially murky water, because there could be a croc there (and as we found out at the Australia Zoo due to the way their scales are located on their backs, crocs don’t make any ripples while swimming underwater). As we were walking around the waters edge looking for a croc, there were a couple of French guys looking for crocs too, but they had actually seen one the day before. After walking and looking in the water (without getting too close to the water as that’s when you’re the most vulnerable) the French guys thought they spotted a croc in the water. Or more accurately, croc eyes peeking out just above the water. Unfortunately there was no way to get close enough to confirm if this was in fact a croc or if it was just a log. Andrew took a picture and then zoomed in and we were fairly certain it was a croc but not 100%. We continued out walking out to the beach where it was low tide but we didn’t come across any more crocs. We headed back to the car and made our way to our camping spot where we had dinner, watched a movie on the laptop and went to sleep.

The next day, after we had some breakfast we decided to drive even further north to see how far we could get. We knew we wouldn’t get too far as after a certain point the road turns into a dirt track and you need a 4x4 to keep going. I felt like Kramer from the Sinefeld episode where he goes to test drive a car with the car salesmen and keep driving to see how far they can get until the gas runs out. It’s very anticlimactic. We drove until we got to Emagen. On the map it’s a listed as a town but in reality it’s only a creek that runs across the track and separates the drivable road from the non-drivable road. You arrive there and all you see is the creek and a sign that says you need a 4x4 from this point on. We really only had one option which is to turn right back to where we came from. As I said, very anticlimactic. Before we left however, we had to search for crocs. Andrew had become obsessed with seeing a croc in the wild. There was a large sign advising us to be careful as we were in croc country, which to Andrew translated into “Go into the bush here! You will find what you’re looking for”. We were walking along the “track” until we reached the rocky beach and I was very happy that we didn’t see any crocs. We walked back to the car and headed back to Cape Tribulation. Since we were in a rainforest and 3000km north of Sydney, it was much more humid here. Andrew’s determination knows no bounds so we went for another walk along the creek to see if we could spot a croc. We came across a couple an Aussie girl who was fishing in the creek and she showed us the croc sunning itself on the other side of the creek. Apparently it had been there for a few hours and she had been worried the croc might at anytime cross the creek and attack her. I thought it wasn’t that close that she wouldn’t be able to run away but in reality crocs are extremely fast in water and it was right near the water’s edge so it was somewhat realistic. The good news was that we were able to get a few good photos of the croc and satisfy Andrew’s need to see a croc in the wild.

We started our drive back to Cairns but made a few stops along the way to do a few walking trails. It was extremely humid and as soon as we stepped out of the car we were all sticky. This called for an ice cream stop. There was a small café along the way that made their own ice cream in various flavors. I had chocolate hazelnut while Andrew tried their Guiness flavoured ice cream. I thought beer flavored ice cream would be disgusting but it turned out to be quite good. It wasn’t sweet but it had a nice refreshing taste.

The weather out on the water wasn’t improving very much so we decided to go to the Atherton Tablelands. We had planned to visit that area on the way out of Cairns but we had some time before the weather would improve so we decided to do it right away. The Atherton Tablelands is an area West of Cairns up in the mountains. It’s a very popular spot in the summer as when Cairns get very hot and humid, it’s a great escape as it’s a lot cooler in the mountains. It’s also the case in the winter. While Cairns was warm and pleasant, as we drove higher into the mountains it became cloudier, cooler and rainy. The stunning views made up for the poor weather though. The views were of gentle rolling hills and a lot of greenery. We found a camp area that was a memorial park for WW2 soldiers and you could camp there for free if you made a donation for the upkeep of the park. There were toilets with cold water there so we could brush our teeth but not much else. Also the camp area was nothing fancy as it was just a grassy field, but it was more than sufficient for what we needed. We were able to find a day park, in the camping book we had bought, that had free hot showers. We made use of those showers a few times over the next few days. This is what I really love about Australia! It’s very easy to travel as it’s well prepared for road travelers. It’s quite easy to find free showers and toilets if you know where to look.

We took a few hikes around the area and we also drove around to see some waterfalls by following the waterfall trail. One night while we were getting ready to go to sleep we went to use the toilet. When I came back all the lights in the car were off and I was climbing back into the car, I hit my eye right on the edge of the top bunk in our car. The beds in the car are made from wood and plywood with mattresses on top. We had taken the mattress off the top bunk as we didn’t use it and this way we didn’t have the mattress slipping around while we were driving. It hurt like hell because I was not expecting anything to come right at my face in the dark so I hit it with all my force. I also hit my myself right in my eye so at first I was scared I had done something to my eye. I called out to Andrew, who was coming back at this point, that I hit myself. He wasn’t too concerned as I tend to hit myself quite frequently but I started crying and told him “No, I really hit myself”. He came right over but I wouldn’t take my hand off my eye because I was too scared. After he finally pried it off we were able to determine my eye ball was still intact but there was some damage right by my eye and there could potentially be some swelling. We didn’t have anything cold because we didn’t have a fridge in the car so the only thing we could think of was to drive to McDonald’s 20km away to get some ice. Unfortunately since it was already midnight and we were in a very small town, McDonald’s was already closed. So the next best thing was to go to a bar and ask for some ice. I don’t know how Andrew got out of that bar without having to explain himself further after he told the bartender he needed some ice because his wife had hurt herself. A little suspicious. I spent the next hour with freezing ice on my face but at least we were able to tone down the swelling. The next morning my eye was a little swollen but it wasn’t that noticeable. Luckily my eye didn’t turn blue so I didn’t have to walk around in sunglasses but I did have a scratch right in the corner of my eye.

After a few days spent in the Atherton Tablelands we went back to Cairns. Finally the weather had improved out on the water so we booked our dive trip. Andrew hadn’t cut his hair since we had left Canada so we decided it was time for a cut. We found a hair school that was willing to cut Andrew’s hair $10. We asked them to cut his hair into a “fauxhawk” which we thought would be an easy enough request. 2 hours and 4 hairdressers later we were done. It was a very intense experience. Andrew felt so bad for the girls he left them a $10 tip. That night we went to the Casino and I won $5! It doesn’t sound like much (and it’s even less in Australia) but it paid for a cup of coffee the next day.

The next day we went diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We completed 3 dives each. Even though it was hot in the city, once we got out onto the water the wind was quite chilly. The winds were around 12 knots, which is not very much, but it was interesting to see the amount of people who were getting sea sick. During one of our dives we were able to swim with a turtle. It was a highlight because this turtle was not shy at all and he would swim right up to us. Another highlight of the dive trip was the helicopter rescue we watched from a dive boat next to us. While we were putting our gear on we heard the chopper approaching. At first you’re not sure what you’re hearing because you’re in the middle of the ocean, but then we saw the chopper appear. It was crazy to watch 2 guys descend down a line onto the boat. Apparently it’s a very dangerous procedure. We thought it might have been a diver that was getting rescued but later we found out it was a staff member suffering from appendicitis who needed to be rescued. We had such a great time diving we decided to do it again the next day. We really liked the company we had gone diving with, mainly because we didn’t feel like we were treated like children whose hands needed to be held. We didn’t want to go diving in the same spot again so we decided to drive back to Port Douglas and dive the Agincourt reef, which is also part of the Great Barrier Reef. We drove up the night before and slept in the parking lot again. We met a couple of British guys at the marina who were fishing for shark. It was entertaining watching them because they didn’t even have fishing poles. All they had was a thick fishing line and they were hoping to pull out a small shark with it. I gave up on watching them and went to sleep but Andrew stayed with them for a while longer. The next day we went diving and again had a great time, although nothing as exciting as the chopper rescue occurred.

We decided it was time to head back to Sydney and ultimately leave Australia. It was a hard decision as we had only seen ¼ of the country, but we had spent all the money we had made over a period of 2 months in less than a month. In addition, my uncle’s 50th birthday was coming up on June 4th and he was having a large party and we definitely wanted to be there. We had about a week to drive back to Sydney, and on the way we wanted to stop in Gold Coast again as our friend Kasia from Canada was visiting a friend there. Before we got to Gold Coast we drove through Mackay. We definitely couldn’t stay overnight as we had to get to the Gold Coast by a certain day. However we did stop in Mackay to buy some wine (we found the best prices of alcohol in Mackay) and we decided to give my aunt’s husband, Chris, a call to see if he was perhaps in Mackay on business. We gave him a call and it turned out he had just landed in Mackay. The three of us went out for a nice Thai dinner but too soon we had to get going. We wanted to reach the Gold Coast the next day. We didn’t reach Gold Coast until a couple days later but we were thrilled to see Kasia. It had been around 6 or 7 years since we had seen each other so we had a lot of catching up to do. Life had gotten in the way of staying in touch so it was great that we were thousands of kilometers away from home and we could meet.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Whitsundays, QLD

Our next stop was Airlie Beach, which is really just a gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. They are a stunning group of islands off the east coast of Australia. The weather was stunning with the sun shining, not a cloud in the sky and since we were heading further north it was getting warmer. After having lunch at a park at the beach we went looking for deals to sail the Whitsundays. We were going to book ahead but decided against it since it wasn’t the high season and we thought we could get some last minute deals.

We walked around from travel shop to travel shop and finally found one that had employees who knew what they were talking about. We booked a 3 day/2 night cruise aboard the Kiana sailboat for the following day. We were able to get a great price for it because it was so last minute, and after talking with Anne she booked with them too. She would meet us at Airlie Beach later on that night. Included in the price was 2 nights at a hostel. Since parking was scarce we decided to stay at the hostel that night (so we had somewhere to park the car) and then again when we got back from the trip. Andrew negotiated a great price for us and even received a further $10 off because, as the guy told him, just because you asked. So there you go folks, proof that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

We bought some burgers and beer at the grocery store and headed to a park to use one of their free BBQ’s. We had a great time watching the sun set while grilling the burgers and drinking some beer and wine. After dinner we checked into the hostel and Anne met us there shortly. The 3 of us had an 8 person dorm room to ourselves and we went to sleep early as we had to be up early to meet the boat the next day at 8am.

We arrived at the marina and boarded the boat. Our captain introduced himself and explained the rules of the boat and everyone introduced themselves. The weather was stunning and we were excited to get going. We were a little behind schedule but soon enough we were on our way. Earlier in the morning it had a been a little chilly but the sun was higher up now and everyone was slowly taking off their sweatshirts and sitting at the front of the boat in their t-shirts soaking up the sun. We learned the weather would be changing, not for the better, for our return trip. As I’m sure everyone is aware by now, I’m not a fan of boats so I was not happy to hear this news. The captain said we would have a “fun” trip back, with a mischievous grin. That was all it took for me to start worrying. I approached the captain and kept asking him if we would be okay on the trip back and he dismissed me with an “of course”. Andrew kept telling me not to worry but again I felt like I was being dismissed. Since it was a few days before I really had to worry I put it out of my mind. We were on the open water now and on our way to Whitehaven beach. We had lunch while anchored in between two islands to block out the wind. After lunch we made our way over to the famous Whitehaven beach. It was stunning!

The colour of the water was amazing and the pure white silica sand was almost unreal. We took a small tender boat and were dropped off at the beach. Ben, who was our dive master as well as our tour guide for the trip, took us on a walk to the lookout over Whitehaven beach. The view was stunning and seeing the rivers spilling into the ocean, combined with the silica sand was almost unreal. We took turns taking photos getting a couple of group shots. Then we headed back down to the beach where we would spend the next few hours.

Back on the beach everyone laid out their stuff and of course wanted to go in the water. Before we could go in the water however, we would have to put on the “stinger suits”. They were needed because that area has a lot of deadly jelly fish during a particular season, but they can really be there at any time. These stinger suits are full bodied thin wet suits and cover everything, including your head, except for your hands and feet.

Andrew and I took a walk on the beach and were amazed at how fine the sand was. Ben had told us there had only been 3 times in history when permission had been granted to take the sand off the island. Since the Whitsundays are a protected national marine park, you cannot take anything off the islands, including sand. It is an offence and if caught you could be fined up to $10,000. Permission had been given to a couple from Hawaii to take a vile of sand, then a resort on one of the nearby islands was given permission to take the sand for their beach. The last, and most interesting, time permission was granted to take the sand was for Nasa to use for the Hubble Telescope. The mirror is actually made of the silica sand from the Whitsundays! After our walk we met up with the group and found out those that had gone swimming had seen some stingrays (not to be confused with the stinger jelly fish). Andrew and I quickly changed into the stinger suits (we looked like ninja’s) and went in the water. I had a great time floating around in the water. While floating around I actually got to see some stingrays. There were only 2 but it was still great to see them from shore. I had seen a lot of stingrays while diving, but the novelty was that now I was in waist deep water. Of course I couldn’t get too close as they would swim away.

Once on the beach we all hung out as a group and we were all chatting about what everyone does back at home. I was so excited to meet Luca from Italy because he is a chef in a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Italy. Anyone who knows me knows I love to cook and Italian food is my favourite. I knew I was going to have a great time with Luca picking his brain over the next few days. It also didn’t hurt he was cute J (Sorry Andrew!).

We headed back to the boat and while still docked we saw a large turtle swim by. We headed off to a bay where we would be spending the night. While sitting at the front of the boat and watching the sun set, the captain came out and we started chatting. I, of course, started asking him about the weather for our return trip. He was trying to blow me off again but I didn’t let him. Finally he said the swells might get high but the boat could handle it. He summed it up pretty well when he asked me what I was afraid of and my reply was “The boat tipping over”. His response shut me up – “Why would we get on a boat that would tip over?”.

We had dinner that night and again we were all chatting together when I asked Julian, one of the guys, where he was from in Canada. He said Mississauga. After chatting for a bit it turned out we went to the same high school at the same time. It was so weird to be on the other side of the world talking to a guy I went to high school with, even if we didn’t remember each other. We knew a lot of the same people but not each other.

The next morning we were going diving. There was a free dive included in the price of the trip and if you wanted to participate you had to dive this particular site and not the Great Barrier Reef which we would have an opportunity to dive later. The dive was first thing in the morning and I’m not usually feeling the best when I wake up so I wanted to do the free dive later on but Ben said it had to be this site or I could miss it and just pay for the remainder of the dives. I was puzzled why this was so but didn’t argue further. The next morning I woke up, put on all the dive gear and went diving. Very quickly I understood why this was the free dive. The visibility was crap as we were near an island and the tides caused the sediment to stir up and cause the poor visibility. I was a little annoyed because at this point we had completed a lot dives during out trip and I was very disappointed with this particular dive as I couldn’t enjoy myself because I kept having to make sure I could see the dive master at the front.

Once we were back on the boat, I was freezing. Although the weather was fairly warm it was by no means hot. It was warmer in the water than out of the water. We hung around the bay for a few more hours as Ben took all the people who had never been diving before but wanted to try it. Anne was one of those people and she was ecstatic when we came back on the boat. From the bay we had a 3 hour sail to the Great Barrier Reef where we would be completing more dives for those who wanted to participate and we were also spending the night there. I was excited to see the reef but I was a little nervous about the 3 hour open ocean sail. It turned out the sail out wasn’t too bad, although there was some swell, but some people started to get sea sick regardless. I’m lucky in that I don’t get sea sick, but no one can understand my fear of boats. A couple of hours into the ride I started to feel queasy from watching others get sick so I decided to go under to our cabin. Since we had gotten up early that day I was feeling tired and cold from the wind so when I lay down I fell asleep quite quickly. When we arrived at the reef I was still cold and sleeping so when they started asking who was going for the next dive I opted out. I woke up just as they were coming back from their dive, and knowing how cold Andrew was I made him a cup of tea to have as soon as he was back on board.

We had lunch and relaxed for a bit and when it was time for the afternoon dive I decided to take part. I was still cold, since we were out in the open ocean but I didn’t want to miss out diving the Great Barrier Reef. One of the main differences between diving in the open ocean (far away from land) and diving in bays or near islands is the current you can experience. Usually you can swim across it and no problem, and you can also plan your dives so you drift down with the current and meet back up with boat so you never had to swim against it. On the Kiana there was a small tender boat that would drop us off away from the boat and then at the end of the dive, if the dive master knew where he was going and if we all lasted with our air, we would emerge right by the boat. We went under water did experience some current but nothing too strong. The visibility was much better than that morning, but since the sun was low on the horizon, it wasn’t as light as I would have liked. In Australia, they are very safe (some would say paranoid) in their diving techniques, and the rule was no one was allowed to be underwater for more than 43minutes. This is unusual because we usually stay under until someone reaches a certain point in their air and then we all surface, no matter how long we had been under. Andrew and I can usually stay under for approx 55 – 60 min. Because of this rule, I knew exactly how much time we had left under on this dive, and that’s why I was expecting to keep swimming around and exploring, but we started heading back. And this was completely against current. The only way for me to describe the 5 minute or so swim against current is as the hardest run you have ever had to do, but you’re unable to stop and catch your breath because the current will just sweep you right back, and because you’re in the open water you don’t see the progress you’re making so you feel as if you’re standing in one place. In addition, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath and felt like my regulator wasn’t providing enough air. Near the end I was panting underwater as if I had just ran a mile. Luckily we had made it back to our boat and we were holding on to anchor line to complete our safety stop. I really don’t know if I would have had the energy to complete the safety stop without the assistance of the rope. When we finally surfaced I was glad to see everyone was out of breath. I still don’t know why we had to swim against the current like that but I was very annoyed.

That night after dinner our captain gave us a small lesson is looking at stars. I don’t remember much from that lesson, but I do remember the stars you’re used to seeing in N. America are either not there or in completely different places. Everyone went to bed early that night as we were all tired from diving and swimming that day, but Julian, Luca, Anne, Andrew and I stayed up for a bit chatting and drinking beer.

The next day there was time for one more dive but Andrew and I didn’t go mainly because we didn’t feel like getting up at 6am and for financial reasons. Then we started heading back to Airlie Beach. We had about 3.5 – 4 hours to sail back. I remember this was the day where the weather was going to deteriorate and the winds were expected to be at 25 – 30 knots. Our captain warned us to expect swells but that overall it was going to be a fun ride back. Since he knew I was worried, he told me to sit at the very back of the boat on the starboard side. I didn’t know why that was the place he chose for me because as soon as we got out to open water, the boat was at a 45 degree angle and I could almost touch the water with my hand! This is exactly what I had been worried about! The boat tipping over! After an hour of this I began to calm down when I slowly allowed myself to believe the boat would not tip over. It was around the same time when people started getting sea sick. I was so worried about the boat tipping over that I didn’t even think about motion of the boat or the swells, which were around 3 meters. Since quite a few people got sick on the boat the captain kept asking me if I’m okay and if I need a bag and I just couldn’t get him to understand that I wasn’t sea sick but that I was scared! There is a difference. About an hour or so later, Sebastian, another Canadian who was with us on the boat (and it turns out had worked as a rep in Montreal for my work…again small world), who was sitting up at the front and getting soaked spotted dolphins near our boat. I attempted to go see the dolphins but we were at such an angle that I didn’t trust myself to go up to the front, however Andrew got a few good photos as well as a video of the dolphins. When I was ready to return to my seat someone else had taken it and I had to sit on the opposite side. This is when I understood why that was such a good spot for me. Even though the boat was at a strong angle, the barrier was holding me up and I didn’t need to fight gravity to remain up right. Whereas on the other side, where I had to remain for the remainder of the trip, I was constant fighting gravity and was struggling to remain seated. Also, on this side the water was constantly splashing. The captain was wise.

We returned to Airlie beach in the afternoon, thanked the crew for taking care of us and headed back to our hostel. The boat company had reserved a seat for us at a bar for that night to all catch up. We went down to dinner and met up with everyone there. We were all exchanging photos and video and the alcohol was flowing. We didn’t stay up too late that night since we had all woken up quite early that morning, but the next morning I knew I had had too much to drink. I had a headache. We said goodbye to Anne and were thinking we might meet up in Cairns, which was the next stop on the itinerary, but Anne was looking for work so she wasn’t sure when she would make it up north. After stopping to pick up some groceries, we were off to Cairns.