The Land Down Below

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When I first met my wife, Mindy, over thirty years ago she was very clear about her goals in life.  She wanted to a) get married  b) have children and c) travel to Australia.   We checked the first two items off that list within the early years of our relationship and even tossed in trips to Europe, Japan and Africa but as we approached thirty years of marriage we still hadn’t fulfilled her dream to visit Australia.  Realizing that we weren’t getting any younger, we decided that traveling down under would be a great way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and planning began in earnest in early 2017.

My desire to travel to the Southern Hemisphere was ratcheted up several notches when a friend told me about a New Zealand based photographer named Trey Ratcliff and I began following his blog.  It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the spectacular beauty of this island country and to decide that I needed to see this place for myself.  Therefore, it only seemed logical that if we were going to travel half way around the world to Australia, we might as well tack on another 2,500 miles and see New Zealand.  Neither Mindy, nor I, regret that decision.

When we stepped off the plane and saw this Ibis bird literally scrounging for table scraps, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore

Getting to Australia is quite a schlep and our journey was made all the more difficult by some bad information from our travel agent.  We were told that visas were not required to visit these two countries but that was only partially correct.  You don’t need a visa to tour New Zealand providing you can prove that you have a ticket to exit the country within 90 days.  You DO need a visa to enter Australia and when we arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport without one, they wouldn’t let us on the plane.  Thankfully, a wonderful American Airlines representative worked diligently to procure the necessary documents online – even calling the Australian consulate – and we made our flight with little time to spare.  We experienced first-hand why airlines want international travelers to arrive at the airport several hours before departure time.  As we found our seats on the plane, we both breathed a jumbo-jet sigh of relief.

Boston to Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia is about twenty hours of flight time and we were very happy to step off the plane and claim our presence on continent #6 – Antarctica being the only continent we have yet to visit.  Immediately we were greeted with something that would accompany us throughout most of Australia – rain.  It rained eight out of the ten days we were there but we didn’t let it damper our spirits.   Armed with Gore-Tex jackets and umbrellas we did just about everything we set out to do and had the good fortune of rainless periods during our major planned excursions.

Australians and New Zealanders drive on the wrong (left) side of the road and that proved to be quite challenging.  I got my feet wet immediately upon arrival as the drive from the airport into downtown Brisbane was particularly terrifying – especially when navigating roundabouts.  Fortunately, Aussies are pretty laid back people (no worries, mate) and any close encounters were met with polite gestures that I needed to be on the other side of the road.  By the time I got to New Zealand, driving went from terrifying to just plain scary.

Spring in the Southern Hemisphere is very colorful

Our first hotel was located in the small seacoast community of Byron Bay.  Situated right on the edge of a rainforest, our room was within earshot of many tropical birds and the sound of the rain added to the ambiance.  Byron Bay has a Key West kinda feel to it with lots of free-spirited and eccentric people making up its population.  Surfing is its raison d’être.

Too many bird species in the rainforest to keep track of

A surfer makes his way to Byron Beach
It’s a steep climb to the Cape Byron Lighthouse  (iPhone photo by Mindy)

Our least enjoyable day trip was time spent at the Gold Coast – Australia’s version of Miami Beach – located about an hour north of Byron Bay.  Home to high-rise luxury apartments and fancy yachts, its beach known as “Surfers’ Paradise” was closed due to rough seas caused by an impending storm.  We settled for a harbor cruise that was enjoyable mainly for the fact that the rain had temporarily stopped.

The Gold Coast on a not so bright and sunny day

The Gold Coast wasn’t a total waste of time.  As we walked the beach, Mindy spotted a monk cloaked in red proceeding to feed a flock of seagulls.  I hurried to photograph the scene and feel very fortunate to have captured this serene moment in time.

Our next stop was the city of Cairns, the launch pad for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef.  A lovely seaside town dotted with outdoor restaurants, this was the only place during our three week trip that we could wear summer attire.  Our hotel was directly across the street from a waterfront promenade and evening and early morning walks featured warm, gentle breezes (when it wasn’t raining) as well as pelican sideshows.  Our only regret is that we couldn’t bottle up this warmth and carry it along to our other destinations.

Seeing the Great Barrier Reef (a.k.a. “The Reef”) was both exciting and slightly disappointing.  I envisioned colorful coral and aquatic life as seen in National Geographic magazine but in reality, the reef is now faded and gray – especially on a sunless day like we experienced.  Mindy and I snorkeled and the crew was very accommodating to first timers like us.  In addition to snorkeling and diving, the outfitter also had a glass bottom boat moored nearby and that proved advantageous for two reasons.  First, we got a much clearer look underwater than we did snorkeling in rough seas.  More importantly, upon Mindy’s request, this boat took her and me out to a small sandbar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and deposited us there for about a half an hour.  Occasionally pelted by wind-driven rain we nevertheless treasured this time on our own private, deserted little island.  We both knew this was something very special.

A romantic experience somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

From Cairns we flew north to south across Australia to the city of Melbourne.  The highlight here was a safari like excursion out into the “bush” to see kangaroos, wallabies and koala bears in their natural environment.  Kangaroos outnumber people in Australia and finding a group to observe and photograph wasn’t difficult.

“Tie me kangaroo down sport, tie me kangaroo down”

Wallabies are a bit more elusive and we just happened to stumble upon several both here and later on the island of Tasmania.

A baby wallaby in its mother’s pouch is called a joey

Koalas, on the other hand, are extremely rare and difficult to find in the wild but our exceptional guide named, Sally, worked with her team of expert spotters to locate three of them in one day.  Once the spotters pinpointed a koala they would geo-tag the location using Google Maps and Sally would use her cellphone to guide us through the woods and find the sleeping buggers.

This koala was photographed in the wild
This koala was photographed in a sanctuary

The island of Tasmania was our next destination and the southernmost point of our travels.  The city of Hobart is surrounded by mountains and it’s only a short ferry-boat ride to many smaller islands.

The city of Hobart as seen from atop Mt. Wellington
Penguin sculptures in Hobart Harbor near our hotel

We made the day trip out to Bruny Island and enjoyed its unpaved roads and bare-bones accommodations.  The outing culminated with a climb to the top of the Bruny Island Lighthouse and some interesting tales offered by the resident tour giver.

View from the Bruny Lighthouse tower

Our end point in Australia was the wonderful city of Sydney, home of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.  Mindy and I both agree that it has the most beautiful harbor (spelled harbour down here) of any waterfront city we’ve ever visited.  Great sights, super friendly people, and lots to do.

Sydney Harbour
The Sydney Opera House

Wanting to be a little adventurous, we decided to climb to the top of the Sidney Harbour Bridge – all 1,400 steps round trip – and view the city from this extraordinary vantage point 400 feet above the water.   The website promotes the climb as “360 degrees of wonderful” and it didn’t disappoint.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge
Climbers make their way to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The 3.5 hour adventure includes a fair amount of prep time and practice climbs on indoor ladders and walkways.  Each climber is outfitted with a jump suit (no one actually jumps) equipped with hooks to fasten glasses and hats as well as a belt to latch onto the safety cable that accompanies the walkway.  Pockets must be emptied and jewelry and watches must be removed.  Cameras are not allowed except for the guide who has it harnessed to his/her body.  The guide shares all of the photos taken and are free to use as desired.  We picked the perfect time of day as we got to see both the sunset and the early twilight minutes.  A truly spectacular experience!

The following bridge climb photographs were taken Brad.

The walkway was originally built for construction and maintenance workers.  A safety cable was added later.
Thankfully, it didn’t rain on this day!
Military helicopters made an unexpected fly-by
Twilight over the city
A perfect sunset

While we were in Sydney, Mindy reunited with a friend from her high school days who is now living in Australia that she hadn’t seen in fifty years.  Thank you, Pam, and your wonderful family for having us over.  The home cooked meal was just what we needed!

As much as we were sad to leave Australia we were equally excited to see New Zealand.  The roughly three-hour flight from Sydney to Queenstown on New Zealand’s south island was uneventful until we spotted the snow-capped mountains and rugged terrain during our descent.  After admiring those scenes, it became blatantly obvious that we had made a great choice coming to this southern Pacific paradise.

iPhone photo by Mindy

Queenstown is a smaller city than we had envisioned and that suited us just fine.  Our hotel was about five miles out of town and we took a water taxi to and from the downtown area.  An absolute must-do activity in Queenstown is to take the gondola ride up the mountain to Bob’s Peak overlooking Lake Wakatipu.  Coincidently, I had read an article on the flight over how construction of the gondola was almost thwarted by the then mayor in 1967 arguing instead that a skating rink would better serve the city’s residents.  Now in its 50th year of operation, roughly 18 million people have taken this steep cable-car ride up to Bob’s Peak and it’s doubtful anyone ever regretted it.  We certainly didn’t.

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from Bob’s Peak
Queenstown is surrounded by mountains

From Queenstown we took an all-day excursion to Milford Sound and cruised the many fjords lined with snow-covered mountains spouting waterfalls around every bend.  The fjords are home to seals, dolphins and penguins and  we got a good look at a tiny penguin reported to be part of the third rarest penguin species in the world.

Milford Sound

The boat captain spotted this cute little penguin camouflaged by the rocks

Another tour took us on a jet boat down the Dart River, eventually making its way to Lake Wakatipu.  This wasn’t your typical pleasure cruise but rather a 70 mph rush through shallow waters complete with carnival like twists, turns and 360 degree spins.  We did stop briefly to catch our collective breaths and take in the breath-taking views.

These folks chose the slower rafting option

Leaving Queenstown we embarked on the six-hour drive through the Southern Alps to the city of Christchurch situated on the east coast of the southern island.

New Zealand’s Southern Alps

This drive was absolutely stunning and stops in Lake Wanaka, Lake Putaki and Lake Tekapo were icing on the cake.  Had I known it was this gorgeous I would have traded the time in Christchurch for a few extra days in this region.

Lake Wanaka
New Zealand allows free camping at Freedom Campsites such as Lake Putaki

Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand and it just so happened that the Rugby League World Cup tournament was taking placing.  Staying alongside us at the hotel in Christchurch was the national team from Scotland but they didn’t have much to cheer about as they were trounced 74-6 by the home team in a match played at Christchurch Stadium.  I briefly watched some of the game on television.  It’s a bit more barbaric than American football since the players don’t wear helmets or protective padding.  Tom Brady might not fare very well in this league but Rob Gronkowski certainly would.

In Christchurch we met a nice couple from Colorado who gave us an excellent recommendation about a dolphin cruise about 90 minutes away in Akaroa Bay.  Not the easiest place to get to, the route took us over mountain passes and down some steep, narrow and winding roads – all with impressive scenes.  This was a small, family run, cruise business and the captain and crew were committed to showing us dolphins, seals, penguins and other wildlife.  They even made use of a cute little dog named, Buster, to help locate the dolphins.  With his acute sense of hearing, Buster would listen for sounds of dolphins underwater and signal their presence.  A low-tech, but effective, four-legged sonar system.

The long and winding road to Akaroa Bay
Akaroa Bay – well worth the drive
With Buster’s help we saw many dolphins up close
Seals frolicked on the rocks, basking in the sunshine
Impressive rock formations

Leaving the south island, our next stop was the city of Wellington to the north.  The Australian rain eventually caught up to us thereby prompting some indoor activities.  Highly recommended was the Te Papa museum in Wellington – the official keeper of the country’s history and related artifacts. The featured exhibit for 2017 chronicles New Zealand’s entry into World War I at the battle of Gallipoli in Turkey and with free admission, the price was right.  Fighting alongside the Australian army, the New Zealanders totally underestimated the Turkish forces and consequently suffered enormous casualties.  The highlight of the exposition is a series of giant-sized figures constructed with elaborate detail that depict the soldiers’ pain and suffering.  I’m not much of a war buff but this was a very moving exhibit.

The figures were very realistic looking
Inside the Te Papa museum

Next on the itinerary was a one night stop in the city of Rotorua located on the shores of its namesake lake.  It is best known for its geothermal activity and is home to many geysers and hot mud pools.  An unpleasant sulfur odor radiates from the mud pools hence it is nicknamed the “Sulphur City”.

One of the many hot and smelly mud pools

Rotorua is also home to many Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.  Just outside of town they have established a re-creation of an ancient Maori village.  Here you can “discover Maori art, take part in ancient rituals and learn about fascinating Maori traditions”.  Included is dinner cooked in large underground pits fueled with hot volcanic rocks.  We learned quite a bit about the Maori culture and it proved to be a very entertaining evening.

The last destination on this whirlwind tour was the city of Auckland – New Zealand’s most populous city with approximately 1.5 million residents.  Our lodging was once again located on a wharf and cruise ships and ferry boats were just a stone’s throw away.  Whales are often spotted just off the end of the wharf but they chose not to make an appearance for us.

Auckland, New Zealand

If you visit New Zealand and don’t bungee jump off a mountain, bridge or tall building, you’re considered a wuss.  I didn’t let that sway my decision to stay rooted on the ground, but Mindy and I did go up to the observation deck of the Skytower – the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here, we were afforded a 360 degree view of this modern and charming city.

Bungee jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge
View from the Skytower observation deck (you can bungee jump off of here, too)

We took a 40 minute ferry-boat ride out to Waiheke Island which is home to several wineries and some very scenic hiking trails.  We opted for the latter and explored the island’s trails which meander along cliff tops, down to the beaches and into cool areas of native forest.

Waiheke Bay
We walked out to many of the Waiheke cliffs

Our final activity was a four-hour tour of the city with a gentleman named Michael who took us off the beaten path and was even kind enough to stop for ice cream so that we could get our last “fix” before departing for America.  The more we saw of the city and learned of its climate and culture, the more we contemplated that this could someday become our home away from home.

We’ll see!

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