In 2009, I hit a birthday milestone and was lucky enough to have a full-time freelance career that allowed me to take three weeks off for a journey I’d been wanting to take since I was about 12: Australia!
Now, the package deal I secured also included a brief stop in Fiji (pro: made the flight from L.A. shorter; con: wrong time of year) and also roped in New Zealand (pro: everything; con: not long enough). So this was what the trip was like — and I’d go again in a heartbeat!
Fiji (November 2-4)
The ride from the airport in Nadi, Fiji (10 hours from LAX, in case you’re wondering, and over the International Date Line) was around an hour or so. The weather was pretty gray and plain; we passed by many villages of tin-roofed homes and small personal farms, and a few schoolchildren in uniform heading off to classes. I was a little out of it, but got this quick photo of the Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple.
The Outrigger on the Lagoon 5-star resort located on the Coral Coast, surrounded by 40 acres of tropical gardens. It’s not so isolated, exactly; if you walk down the beach to your right and off the reservation there are homes and shops.
Again, unimpressive weather, which would continue unabated for the whole time I was in Fiji.
Inside the Outrigger. It’s a hugely impressive lobby (check in is to your right, some shops and stores below). That’s all wood in the ceilings and everything is lashed together beautifully with dyed-in and woven-in designs. It’s an open-air lobby, so I’d wager those fans get a real workout when it’s hot.
The view out my room. Along the left is a water channel surrounded by sand; in theory when the tide comes in it should fill, but I never saw that. A nice little place to rest, but not appealing without good weather.
The pool. It’s not usually this empty; this is before breakfast. If you get up early enough the only people you’ll meet are the working Fijians at the resort, all of whom greet you with “bula!”
I love saying that word.
The Outrigger has a spa situated at the top of a nearby hill; you need a shuttle to get there. The lobby entrance is off to your right, past the white parked bus. But this gives a sense of the passing by road and some landscape. And just off to the left of this photo are….
Cows, just taking it easy. No fences, either.
Beach. I can see where this would be delightful. For what it’s worth, and not to harp, the weather was crummy but here’s how: Chilly yet humid, always about to rain or in the middle of a drizzle. Total yuck.
They don’t call it the Coral Coast for nothing. These looked like bones to me.
There was a small group of us doing the Fiji leg of the tour, and the Outrigger set up a special kava ceremony to welcome us to the island. Workers in grass outfits ground the kava and mixed it with water, and then you’re supposed to swallow it. It’s just a root and a bit of H2O, but I definitely had a very fast buzz.
On our way to kavaland!
Me and the kava-making Fijians, post-ceremony.
The guy behind me had some very nice guns.
I’m clearly high.
They also did an amazing fire-walking ceremony the next night, but my camera couldn’t capture it in the rain. So here’s me, a firewalker, and the drizzling rain. Oh, and my frizzy hair. Nice!
Where’s the kava?
VIDEO New Zealand: Auckland (November 4-5)
Welcome to New Zealand!
We were slated to be here for 9 days, which for some reason I hadn’t parsed when looking over the trip reservations. I initially referred to this as my “Australia” trip, but since we were in Oz for 12 days and NZ for 9, it rightfully is the trip of both countries. And let me say: New Zealand really can’t be topped. Sorry, Oz: You fulfilled expectations. NZ: I had no expectations.
Our small band of tour group folk flew into Auckland from Nadi and landed around 1pm, boarded a bus, where we met the other 20-odd folks we’d be riding with for the next several weeks. The bus also became a very familiar — perhaps overfamiliar — location; we were on it a lot. The driver, Danny, was a real character and our tour guide Kay was just spectacular (she’s with Australian Pacific Touring and really knew her shit.
So here I am at our first bus stop destination in Auckland, down by the harbor. The weather, at least, was better than Fiji but still a little cool.
Also down by the waterfront: These big rusty “driving wheels” from the vessel Whakarire, if I’m reading the plaque right. Nice placement of the trash can, folks.
View of the water off Auckland. I’d like to remember exactly what every bay is called, but that’s not going to happen. In any case, depending on the light the color of the water just kept shifting. Wait until we get to Franz Joseph for some amazing water.
A view of the ocean.
Next stop: The Michael Joseph Savage memorial; he was the first labour prime minister of New Zealand. Apparently he did many wonderful things…
… if you can read them on this sign … but I sense that the real reason people come to the memorial is not for the big phallic symbol…
t’s for views like this. That’s Auckland in the distance; the big pointy thing is the Sky Tower. I went up in it for $25 NZD, but at night, so I can’t attest to the full glory. The wharf area you see on the right is where the big wheels were.
View of the Auckland suburbs from atop the memorial hill. It looks quite packed but really at the memorial it felt like we just had vast tracts of green, beautiful open grassy space. Middle of the day, but there were plenty of people, many who did not even appear to be tourists, lounging around.
This was actually taken at the rose gardens (see below) but it’s another big open space. Clearly the tide comes in at some point here.
Right, the rose gardens. The Nancy Steen Gardens. And not to say that a rose garden isn’t, well, pretty — I live in New York City and we have the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which naturally kick ass in the rose department. But, pleasant enough.
This way to the roses.
Info on Ms. Steen.
By any other name…. Roses, like butterflies, are the easiest of photography targets. It’s hard to screw up a photo of one of them.
Archway leading into the park. I love the stone work here. The roses are actually off to the left of the arch.
The Sky Tower, which is the tallest point in the Southern Hemisphere, as I understand these things.
Anything you could ever want to know about Sky Tower.
Your mind says “go ahead, the sign says it’s ok to stand on it” but your gut says “it’s glass, you fool” while some third part wonders if you stand on it whether someone can look up your skirt.
As long as they’re sure.
My room at the Crowne Plaza Auckland. Pleasant enough, and new-feeling.
VIDEO New Zealand: Rotorua (November 5-7)
So after a night in Auckland, we hit the road, Jack, in our shiny big bus. Once we got out of the city, this is pretty much what we saw for 90% of the drive to Rotorua, a place I can never pronounce without thinking of drain clogs.
Danny The Bus Driver. Note stuffed animal on dashboard; that’s Kay’s and it’s a New Zealand possum. They’ve made the best out of the bad situation of having them (they’re nonnative to the country) and you can get lovely soft fur and duvet covers that are made of possum and mohair. They’re quite expensive so I just got a pillow casing. A purple one. Fantastic.
Danny, meanwhile, was funny in a corny way but had a million good things to tell us as we drove. And no, that’s not Scotland out there. It really is New Zealand.
I’d like to have more photos of this place, but a) we were in a cave and b) then we were in a boat flowing on an underground stream in total darkness except for thousands of phosphorescent glowworms on the ceiling. Which was amazing.
Also amazing: In the cave leading to the underground cavern, we came to “the Cathedral” section — a very high, acoustically-sound place. The tour before us suddenly burst out into “You Are My Sunshine” and we were like, “Bwah?” But when it was our turn our cave guide suggested a song. Kay said she could sing, and we thought, okay, hit it. And she launched into a full-throated “Ave Maria” that made everyone around stop and listen. And, of course, the “You Are My Sunshine” folks feel silly.
Still green, still rural. Loads of cows and sheep everywhere. And, from time to time, a paddock filled with … deer. They don’t let them run wild, but people like the meat, so deer are now a farm animal. Very odd to drive by a clutch of deer just sitting lazily around like, well, cows.
Irony alert: Some people really like the gamy taste of venison, but since farm-raised deer don’t have that, they’re looking now for ways to put the “gamy” back in. People are perverse!
If you can pretend that it’s not somehow demoralizing to reduce an entire cultural body into dinner theater, you’ll enjoy a “traditional Hangi feast and cultural performance.”
As you see, they eat a lot of chicken. And potatoes. (There were other options.) This is all outside, steaming over coals. We took a look at the food, got a little lesson in Maori culture (at least the Maoris run the place that exploits their heritage, so, okay then) and then….
Viola! Chicken and potatoes.
…. it was down to the little creek they have running through the property to be greeted by the Maoris in full traditional costume, on a canoe. On the route to the creek stood a Maori wooden head with traditional face markings. Hair not necessarily true to form.
After dinner and canoe, there was the performance. We’re under a roof, the performance area is pretty exposed to the elements. There was a lot of spear waving and husky shouting and displays of courage, then some music and dancing and poi. The kids were the cutest things ever.
All this way, to find the Big Apple. It happens.
The room in Rotorua’s Millennium hotel. Not bad, but pretty basic. I was only there one night; more on that in a bit.
Mad Max: Beyond Agrodome
“In this chapter, our Aussie bad boy hero takes on the rabid sheep who have taken over the Lands Down Under….”
Now, this is a stage act I can get into. Each of those sheep is a different breed, and they’re all raised in New Zealand. Our host brought them out one by one through a panel on the side of the stage. He also hauled out a cow, and I volunteered to milk it; got the certficate and everything. Of course, I neglected to remember that when going up to the stage he would ask my name, and I also neglected to remember that he’d probably not snicker when I said “Randee.” Such is life: He’s stuck with the sheep.
Sheep not in the big city.
These sheep (or rams) have massive horn ability, and their coats are so thick you can sink most of your lower arm into the wool before reaching actual sheep. I think they’re really only the size of cats.
The final part of the act had the sheepdogs come out and herd — not sheep, because that would be a stampede on stage — but ducks. This is not what I thought a sheepdog looked like, but that’s quite all right. They were very sweet, and on cue jumped on top of the sheep’s backs.
Next, off to the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife park to not see a kiwi.
This is both a kiwi and not a kiwi, as it is stuffed. The real ones are nocturnal, but despite keeping them in a dark room they were asleep when we came by, so I never saw a real-live kiwi.
The Kea, one of New Zealand’s native species. Smart little f-ers, they’re of the parrot family and have been known to attack wildlife. Also, if you leave your car in the carpark out in wild areas to go hiking for the day, they’ve also been known to strip it of its rubber.
Seriously, there are places in Rotorua where you can’t build houses, because the ground is literally steaming.
Also, the place smells like sulphur.
More Maori culture appreciation, at a place called Te Puia, which is a thermal reserve. This is a traditional hut.
And this is a traditional … uh, doorway?
Back in the workroom where Maoris are still practicing traditional carving techniques. The skills are gender-separated, which I don’t dig, but that’s how it is. Men carve, women weave.
My first chance to see a geyser. Pretty impressive stuff.
This is off to the side of the geyser; it looks toxic but is really the mineral runoff that goes into the river. Despite the yuck on the side, note how clear and clean-looking the water is.
Say it, don’t spray it.
Erupts pretty much constantly.
Night two in Rotorua was actually spent at the home of Joy and Owen Roberts, who own a small four-acre farm in the even more rural area outside Rotorua and rent it out as a B&B. I took up the “homestay” option for tonight, as did two couples from my group, and we stayed here. (Some other couples stayed elsewhere, and some remained in the hotel, which seemed to me to defeat the purpose of actually going to a foreign country: To meet the people.)
The cat is named Topsy and generally didn’t like anyone, but the owners were delightful. If you want to stay with them, I have their business card. Phone: 0064-73331664 / email:
They had some tufted chickens, which were beautiful and amusing.
And they had a small group of cattle and the dog, Bailey, who loves chasing the ball. His fellow Jack Russell family resides over at Joy’s daughter’s home, just next door and it was hilarious to see that many Jack Russells gamboling in the grass all at once.
My room at the Roberts’. Got a bit chilly in the evening but there were loads of blankets and I was very comfortable.
Next day, Joy took us all to this farmer’s market (see left) where she and her daughter sell things like honey (if I remember right) from the farm. I took this picture of the pond because it’s a thermal pond. See the small ripples? That’s where it’s bubbling, not where fish are rising to the surface.
Flying to my next destination: Christchurch!
VIDEO New Zealand: Christchurch (November 7-8)
Sadly, we had very little time in Christchurch, which was one of my primary issues with the trip: I could have used a little less bus time and a little more “check out the city” time. But that’s the risk you run with a tour. In any case, we flew down from Rotorua (tiny airport, natch) to Christchurch on the7th, hopped on a new bus with a new driver (bye, Danny!) and got a tantalizing drive around town, up winding hillsides to this spectacular view. Note: Weather improving considerably!
Mugging before the view. Jackie O, eat your heart out.
The bus had stopped near this beautiful building, the Sign of the Takahe. It’s a restaurant and bar, and while we were there a wedding was in progress.
Me and the view.
Again, very little time in Christchurch — by the time the bus dropped us off at the hotel we had maybe an hour or two to wander before dinner — but of course, you can’t see Christchurch without … the church. Or rather, the Cathedral (web site warning: Sound).
The square that sat off to the right of the church reminded me a lot of Copley Square in Boston, and they even had trolley cars driving around. Amusing side note: The city apparently abbreviates its own name as Ch-Ch. I ran around and checked out a few places but we were clearly in the touristy/university area of town so, didn’t get a whole lot out of it. Still, fun to just poke into the regular shops and groceries.
My serviceable, if not special, room at the Crowne Plaza Christchurch.
Just outside the back entrance of the Crowne Plaza (the front leads to a complicated raised driveway, and is across the street from the casino (many cities have these 24-hour casinos, but they tend to be enclosed in just one building). Traveler tip: You can exchange your money in a casino for no surcharge and they’re open 24 hours. They’re hoping you’ll “lose” some on the way out at the tables, but of course you don’t have to.
I did; following a superstition that once worked for me (seriously) in Vegas, I put $10 NZ on Number 8 at the first roulette table I found. It didn’t hit.
New Zealand: Franz Josef/Hokitika (November 8-9)
After too-brief a time in Christchurch, it was on to the TranzAlpine train “through spectacular gorges, river valleys and across the magnificent Southern Alps” (so say my official materials) to the West Coast of New Zealand. It was fairly chilly, but this was really a wonderful ride.
I love train rides. I especially love train rides with a view. And the views as we headed to the West Coast just got more and more rugged and mountainous, which made them unforgettable.
The train had an open-air viewing platformthat was just packed with tourists snapping photo after photo. That’s me with some hot chocolage, trying to keep hands warm, in the warmest jacket I had brought. Still, you could say it was a “peak” experience….
A brief stop at Arthur’s Pass (the apostrophe in that possessive is so tiny, yet I’m thankful it is there).
Basically we were in the hinterlands of what many consider to already be the end of the world, and there was something pretty amazing about the fact that no matter how remote you thought you were, there was always someone, some place, more out there than you.
Another brief stop to catch views of the rising mountains. Alas, it was impossible to get a shot of the rising mountains without also getting the interfering tourists as well.
Blocking a perfectly good view of the mountains.
That odd Caribbean blue water — apparently minerals from the mountains turn it that color but again, this was yet another chapter in my love of New Zealand’s natural water resources. Just stunning.
After we disembarked it was back on the bus. I no longer remember our bus drivers’ names, but this one was quite a nice guy. He went on a bit about how in this area everyone comes out to fish for whitebait, a fish I don’t think I’d ever heard of. Tiny things, like smelt.
This here is Hokitika, a town with a name you can’t stop saying, that’s right on the edge of the Tasman sea. The photo below is the clock tower, which you can see at the deep center of this picture.
Cute little tower! There was virtually no one on the streets. Hard to say if that’s because it was a Sunday or if it’s just always this sleepy.
See the sea. Chilly and windy but invigorating.
So, the driver went on and on about whitebait, saying the best thing he could think of was a “whitebait sandwich,” and as an adventurous sort who also loves fish, I thought, I’ll try that. He directed us into a nearby shop where we lunched. A whitebait sandwich, as it turns out, are little white fish encased in egg, put on bread. That’s it. Totally bland. And if you flipped the “patty” over you could see all the little whitebait fishies’ eyes.
Is it me, or does 1 kg at $60 NZ seem like a LOT of money for those things?
And so, we arrived at the Franz Josef Glacier.
The big rocky area is where the Glacier used to be; there are signs even further back up the walk indicating where it had once been and in what year. It’s very slowly backing away from us.
Anyway, the white segment in the middle is the glacier. It’s a pretty far and rocky walk to get to, and — no surprise — we didn’t have time to do the hike anyway, so there are just a few shots of the whole thing.
Note: Weather has turned!
Closer up view of the glacier.
Again, blocking a perfectly nice view of the glacier.
This was one of the nicest places we stayed: The new wing of the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel. Those throw pillows are covered with the possum/wool mix and are incredibly soft.
The view from my balcony. It felt like I was sleeping in the rainforest.
After being shut up on first a train and then a bus for most of the day, traveling through terrain I was dying to hike in, I took the short time we had after arriving at the hotel before dinner to find a place to do a little footwork.
It wasn’t much, but the Terrace Walk was within walking distance of the hotel, and seemed a pretty easy path. I was alone the whole time on the walk and would just stop and listen to the forest from time to time.
This one tree (at left) seemed to have a face in it, which was very Lord of the Rings-like.
After I got back to the hotel we all had a luxurious dinner together and a fairly early evening. The town itself (still not sure of the name, frankly; it’s in the middle of a national park) was really geared to the hikers/outdoors lovers who were passing through, like a small Alpine village.
VIDEO New Zealand: Queenstown (November 9-11)
We left Franz Josef in the morning and headed through Haast Pass and drove along the shores of these enormous lakes: Wanaka and Hawea on our way to my very favorite place in all of New Zealand.
Note cows. Note cows in relation to size of lake. Big, big lake.
More lake. More mountains.
At a brief stopover, some lovely flowers. Wisteria, I believe.
And my favorite place in New Zealand?
It’s fairly far south on the Southern Island, and has a very ski-resort town feel to it (and there is a lot of skiing that goes on in season, as well as many other outdoor sports). But it also had an Aspen feel to it — upscale stores, neat places to poke in and out of. I bought some Christmas cards with Kiwis and Emus on them here. Anyway, you’re looking straight on to our hotel (with the slanded roofs). All the main streets in town lead down to Lake Wakatipu.
It was really glorious, the weather, the feel of the place, the whole thing.
Another shot of the lake/beach area. Just behond this beach is a raised wall and people seem to come out to the area and treat it like any old park, not so much as a beach exactly.
One of many WWI memorials, situated just off the beach.
Have you ever seen sky that blue?
I’m not the only one who fell for Queenstown; Peter Jackson filmed much of the “Lord of the Rings” films in this general area. You can take horseback rides to some of the filming spots, but many of them were on a farm whose owners now ban visitors. Probably with good reason.
So, I liked Queenstown so much that I spent too much time roaming the town and got my dinner plans confused. I was almost an hour late to sup at the skyline restaurant, which you had to take a gondola to get to. That’s it up above.
And that’s the view down below. As I ascended (it probably took about 10 minutes) I started hearing bleating, and was surprised (though I probably shouldn’t have been) to see sheep grazing on this very steep hillside.
Then I kept hearing odd “hurrah!” sounds. I couldn’t imagine where they were coming from — the restaurant was too far away and there were no homes. Then — I caught it. That raised platform in the second photo with a green awning? That’s a bungee jump. People were bungeeing.
And this is the view you get up at the restaurant. It was kind of cafeteria-ish in an upscale way, and the food was really great. They had two youngish guys playing live music off to the side, and they kept going through old 70s tunes like “Landslide” (kind of funny up on the mountain like this) and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I went over and said they’d get $10 NZ if they could play a Verlaines or Chills tune (both classic Kiwi pop/garage bands) and neither could. I gave ’em $10 anyway and they gave me a suggestion: Go buy some Chris Knox albums.
Anyway, take note of the peninsula on the lower part of the screen. More on that in a minute.
The very comfy and pleasant room at the Crowne Plaza Queenstown. That was a nice hotel.
So despite all of the bus riding the day before, we were slated to get on the bus really, really early the next morning to head out for Milford Sound — about 5 hours away. And I thought: You know what, I’ve seen a lot of scenery and a lot of wildlife and while I’m sure that will be a great trip, I want to see this town. Plus, I wanted to do something “normal” like get a manicure/pedicure and I’d already sussed out where I was going. So I opted to stay in town (since we were staying over another night that was possible) and I rented a bike and went riding around the peninsula in the photo above, hopefully heading to Franktown.
I probably should have gotten the mani/pedi after the ride, but, live and learn.
On the bike ride to Franktown, about to be disappointed: This was taken on a bridge, and at the end of the bridge bike traffic had been closed off while a hotel was being built. I could have kept going on the highway, but I didn’t need to live and learn to figure that wasn’t a really wise idea.
Plus, the mountain bike they’d rented me had a seat with zero padding, so it was time to turn around.
Another shot from the bridge. Just pointing out: The water, people, the water. How clear is that!
For the second half of my free day in Queenstown, the weather cleared up and I spontaneously got aboard this steamboat across the lake.
You could take it all the way to the other side and stop off and have dinner (see final photo below) but I didn’t want to spend that much money. The ride out and back, at sunset, was perfect.
More about the boat.
It was perfectly windy and cold, but also just plain perfect.
I would totally move here tomorrow if I knew I could get a job.
So would you.
New Zealand: Mt. Cook (November 11-12)
And so, away from Queenstown and on to Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. If memory serves right, that’s it in the photo on the left, that mountain with the scooped-out area in the top.
Hello: The water? Look at that lake! Have you ever seen more shades of blue in a photo?
More lake. More mountains.
As mentioned before with the possum, virtually everything non-native to New Zealand is a pest. If a driver pointed out “those pretty yellow flowers” by the side of the road, the next thing he’d say was “it’s a pest.” New Zealand apparently was like the Boy in the Bubble, and as soon as even the simplest outside element got inside, it became damaging.
So it was with deer.
The previous picture and these two are connected; we’re at the spot where some genius said “let’s let some deer loose for hunting” and then, of course, they all but overran things.
Deer have been controlled in New Zealand since, but folks have a taste for venison — so they actually have deer farms.
I do like a country that has a commemorative plaque to a) the release of wild animals and b) the mistaken release of pests
Closer now to the Mt. Cook mountain range. This is the view from our hotel. To offer some perspective, look in the lower third of the photo for a small white square.
That’s a bus. Not our bus, but a bus. Standing where I am taking this photo and looking at the base of the range it’s easy to think “I could be there and back in an hour.”
Don’t count on it.
Also, I found it amusing and very different that these mountains just shoot up out of nowhere. It’s completely flat and then — mountain! No gradual ascent or rocky terrain — just flatland and boom.
Also a view from the hotel; that’s Mt. Cook on the center right, scooped-out top and all.
The Hermitage Hotel in Mt. Cook National Park.
Probably the least-interesting of all of the rooms I had, but not that big of a deal. What’s interesting is that since this is a national park, the Hermitage and the nearby small town are open to visitors — but no one but government officials get to live out here. Now, that’s remote.
On the way back from Mt. Cook the next day we stopped in this tiny church, which was adorable, and convinced our tour guide Kay to do her cave-cathedral performance again.
This time, we got “Amazing Grace,” and we all joined in. A very nice moment. The church is situated on Lake Tekapo.
The final photo delights me because I am a Monty Python fan: Lupins!
(Which, by the way, are a pest.)
Now, I don’t know exactly what day these next two photos were taken at Knight’s Point. It’s near Haast Pass so it could have been on the way to Queenstown, but I can’t be sure. So, for your edification, a lovely view from Knight’s Point.
They’re all lovely views, in my opinion.
And that’s it for New Zealand! The rest of the day was spent driving through the Canterbury plains back to Christchurch, where we got on board the plane for Sydney, Australia!
Australia: Sydney (November 12-15)
Ah, yes, Sydney.
A flight from Christchurch brought me to the city I’ve longed to visit (and, hey, the country) since I was about 12. Bear in mind that at 12 Australia largely meant “home to Air Supply and Tristan Rogers of General Hospital” — I still wanted to go. It just took a few more years than I expected.
Typical Sydney and Melbourne architecture (at least in the older districts). Not unlike New Orleans, this particular design — with the very ornate balconies — indicated wealth back in the day. The iron for the balconies came from cast-off deadweight ships carrying cargo (or ferrying it away, which would make more sense) would dump on the shores of the city.
Now, seriously, the room is not usually the highlight of the city. And really, it’s Sydney so, of course, my place in the Shangri-La Hotel was not truly the highlight. But it was the BEST room on the WHOLE TRIP.
That’s because this is the VIEW from MY WINDOW. Plus, the room was very large and I almost went downstairs to confirm that this was actually my place for two full nights. I didn’t, and it was.
Shangri-La was really the best of all the hotels for many reasons, not the least of which was the room — and the free Wi-Fi downstairs. You rock, Sydney Shangri-La!
Next morning, we all got up early for BREAKFAST WITH KOALAS.
Capital letters are important here. First of all, I got to touch one, on his back haunch, with the backs of two fingers. Fur. Very nice. Second, koalas — at least these koalas — do not smell funny. A lot of people told me they’d reek. They were just sluggish and sweet looking when I was there, not mean little buggers, which I’ve also heard.
We didn’t literally eat in the same enclosure as the koalas; we all got our pictures taken with the beasts and then went downstairs for a so-so breakfast at Sydney Wildlife World.
Following breakfast we all hurried to a nearby port for a cruise around the harbor. Check out the changing weather; it’s practically stormy as we head under the bridge, but by the time we’re swinging back toward the Opera House, it’s blue-ing up.
Look at the top of the bridge; it is possible for a (large) fee to climb to the top, which initially I was going to do, but it felt like a big chunk taken out of the day to essentially get to the top of something, and a big chunk out of my wallet. So I passed.
But we waved at the folks up there.
The photo with all the waterside homes is the really ritzy part of Sydney. Very pretty architecture.
Following the cruise, it was time to get up close and personal with the Opera House. (So much for the nice weather).
I was surprised to see that the tiles of the Opera House alternated in shades of beige and white, and that some were matte while others were gloss.
Inside we learned how difficult it was to get the place made, and how the architect — Jorn Utzon — apparently got inspired after witnessing how an orange’s segments folded into a sphere. Or something like that.
I asked if the shape was meant to be sails or wings or something else, and we were told it could mean many things, that nothing was for certain.
Shocking trivia (at least to me): It’s only been open since 1973.
Surfers plotz right about now: This is Bondi Beach (pronounced like bond-eye).
Not all that warm still, but I had to head down to the surf to dip my toes into Bondi Bay.
A truly lovely area, and apparently quite shark-infested.
That night I headed out to an area called King’s Cross (notorious for its somewhat shady reputation but also of course the hotbed of great stuff to do) to catch a play I knew nothing about called “Strange Attractor.” Great show, small theater, exciting performances.
After, I turned to two women who had been sitting near me and asked if there was a subway nearby. I knew there was — I’d seen a map — but I wanted to make sure I was heading in the right direction, and I’d taken a cab to get out there. They looked confused a moment and then pointed me to … a Subway sub shop. “Uh, no,” I said. “What do you call it here? The Underground? Metro? Tube?”
“Um, just trains,” they said.
There are many nice things to say about Sydney, but originality is not one of them. Here’s the inside of the subway. Or the trains.
The next day we had entirely to ourselves, which — finally! — meant I could explore the city. A friend had recommended some trendy shopping neighborhoods but I failed to be impressed and found the repetition of cheap electronics/clothing and meat pie shops to be a little depressing.
So I headed to more obvious touristy things — Hyde Park and St. Mary’s Cathedral within. They were wrapping up Mass in the Cathedral, so I sat quietly and listened to the sermon delivered in that delicious Aussie accent.
The bird, if I’m writing it correctly, is an ibis and they hang around the park like pigeons do — but if pigeons were the size of poodles. They seem fairly gentle but I did hear that if you leave your sandwich out, they will just nab it.
On the way through the park I passed by a small group of folks dressed up as zombies (why?) and paused as a protest filled up one of the main streets as I headed to the hotel.
But before heading home, I came across The Queen Victoria Market — once a government and small business home, and now basically a shopping mall.
Outside, the little dog statue was of Queen Victoria’s Skye Terrier (looked a lot like a Cairn to me) named Islay. A prerecorded voice came from the well and asked for you to donate money, which goes to charity. So of course I wished and tossed in a coin.
What a mall! It was simply breathtaking, and I loved just wandering around among the people and the stores.
Inside toward the center, the clock pictured at left is called The Great Australian Clock, and it was pretty great.
What other mall has stained glass?
Being that it was November there was a Christmas tree up, but the weather was so fine I had to remind myself that this is how it goes in this part of the world.
Taking my picture.
Celebrating my birthday at the Sydney Tower Restaurant — which rotated, of course! — was a lovely way to end the day. (Thanks, Louis!)
(The tour group actually sang Happy Birthday to me, too. On the bus. Thanks, guys!)
VIDEO Australia: Melbourne (November 15-17)
Another short flight, and we’re in Melbourne!
Which, on first glimpse, is pretty uninspiring. The poor place is really suffering from the years-long drought; the park grass is brown and stiff, and the trees just look sad and limp.
Then, our first stop at this town’s Queen Victoria Market …well, let’s just say this QVM can’t even compared to Sydney’s. The tacky was tacky even to this American’s eyes, and that’s saying something. However, here you can get things made with kangaroo hide, so that’s a change.
Also, you can apparently see a band dressed up as police personnel singing “Poker Face.”
And you can think “oooh, hot American doughnuts” and then get a bag of fat wads of fried dough (NOT in doughnut shape, I may say) with jelly in the middle.
Gross. If they’ve been there for 60 years, the folks in Melbourne have been hoodwinked for over half a century.
Things got better, though we were still confined to the bus for what was now a routine drive-around; this is the Melbourne Museum.
And this, the Melbourne Conservatory. Nice flowers, nothing overwhelmingly special. A little greener at least than the rest of the city. And a fountain in a drought!
Nothing could compare to the Shangri-La, but the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins was quite decent.
Melbourne has trams running all around the town, and are an extremely efficient way to get anywhere. This particular tram is a restaurant!
So we got to eat a lovely dinner on board while driving all around the city. (And this actually was my birthday, so I think I even got a special dessert, which was really nice.)
I am dining with some of my favorite folks from the tour! (Apparently one is the author Cinda Williams Chima, which I was not aware of at the time.)
And at the bottom: Yes, they served ham, too. Kidding. That’s our tour director Kay, singing it up with the head waiter. I think they did a round of “Waltzing Matilda” and “New York, New York.”
Next day we had all to ourselves, and the weather wasn’t kind but I decided to take the local train system out to the beach area. Also, I’d read that it would let me off near some interesting shopping streets.
This is the train station — just gorgeous and somehow seeming out of place — shouldn’t this be a depot in Turkey or something?
Inside the station.
I got off in St. Kilda and did a little wandering around, down to the beach, past more architecture and the Palais Theater.
It appears to be active and houses regular live acts, but the whole place — the Palais was next door to a closed theme park with an entrance that was a clown’s open mouth — had a Peter Straub/Stephen King “The Talisman” feel to it.
I scooted, looked for the stores, found a few but nothing impressive, and headed back into town to do more wandering closer to home.
Look, you go to Australia, you really should check out one of the jails. Or gaols. As they call them.
This is the Old Melbourne Gaol, which once housed the notorious Ned Kelly.
They even had plus dolls of Kelly in the gift store!
I had fun …. maybe a little too much fun…..
Australia: Alice Springs (November 17-18)
An early morning flight brought us to our next destination….
Now, it’s technically not desert, just “arid.” But when you step off of that plane onto outdoor tarmac and you feel 114 degrees of F on your face, those distinctions aren’t important.
The redness of it all still strikes me; it was a beautiful, deep, rich, clear hue — see the pathway in the first photo — punctuated by a lot of dry scrub and trees, like this striking white one (I think it’s mulberry but I could be wrong). In any case, this gives you a sense of what we were going to be looking at for the next several days.
First stop, the Alice Springs Old Telegraph Station. These are freestanding buildings set up with life-size diorama type sets to give you a sense of what trying to communicate out here was like way back in the day. You know, before cell phones.
All the buildings were open to just walk in, and there was a lot of wildlife hanging around, not being very wild, because, you know: 114 F.
We all went bananas at sighting the wallabies. They’re not kangaroos; kangaroos, I learned to my dismay, are nocturnal. You know, like kiwis. So I ended up only seeing one kangaroo — you’ll see that one shortly.
More dozy wallabies.
I wandered a little away from the group and found these amazing gray and pink parrots — galahs, they’re called — flying all over the place. There were also many on the ground, just hanging out, beaks agape as they tried to cool themselves with slightly-spread wings.
Some galahs up high.
They were vaguely nervous about me as I came closer, but I didn’t make sudden moves and just sat on the grass for a good ten minutes or so, soaking up the heat, hanging with the birds. It was pretty awesome.
And then they showed us what was at the back of the Old Telegraph area: Alice Spring!
The actual Spring! The awesome natural water source that had given birth to not just a town, but a fantastic novel by Nevil Shute!
Still, remember: 114 F. That’s an impressive body of water in such high temperatures, particularly dry hot weather. So no laughing! At least, not much.
Next, we headed over to the actual base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which really is a marvelous thing, but the presentation was just a bit dull.
And finally, since no visit to any town in New Zealand or Australia appears to be complete without it, the obligatory visit to the war memorial atop a high hill. Here, we’re on Anzac Hill and may I once again say: Have you ever seen a sky so blue?
From the top of the hill we could see a supa-dupa-secret American base (seriously, though not pictured) below, and the actual town of Alice Springs.
After the bus ride around the town we got out and shopped and a few of us found a pub to eat in. Later, we headed to the hotel, but I really have virtually no recollection of the actual room.
I do recall going out on the porch and watching the hotness all around. This is the Crowne Plaza Alice Springs.
That night, we were driven away from the hotel to a nearby quarry/ranch area (the ranches here can go in the millions of acres, so it’s really just vast) for an “Outback Bush BBQ.” Now, you say BBQ to me, I think: Ribs! Pork! Maybe some steak! And those maybe a little still stuck on old Aussie ad jingles might say “shrimp on the barbee!”
Nope. You get steak. You don’t eat steak, you still get steak. And a potato and some salad. Plus, this thick bread they make right on the hot coals called damper. Right before the damper making (and a discussion of Aboriginal culture I found … let’s say less than PC) there was a boomerang demonstration (visible in the video, though you have to follow the movement of the camera to see the boomerangs fly). After, we had dinner and a fellow came out with a guitar and played us traditional campside songs. Finally, they turned out the lights and gave us a guide of the vast heavens. My stars!
Alas, the Southern Cross was not in the night sky this time of year. I’ll have to wait to find out what Crosby, Stills and Nash were talking about.
VIDEO Australia: Uluru (Ayers Rock) (November 18-19)
On the road again! This time straight, straight through the Northern Territory, constantly searching out for kangaroos, never seeing one.
Saw a lot of small rock cairns, though; apparently they’re set up by bikers/hikers going through the area, and don’t mean anything specific.
We stopped off at ths neat little middle-of-nowhere place called the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse, which apparently is Aboriginal-owned, though the folks running it inside were not Aboriginal.
Here, I rode a camel (basically to one end of the paddock, and then in a trot coming back) …
Me and my pal.
saw a kangaroo (finally, though really, if they’re in a cage how is that different than the zoo at home?) and …
a dingo! Not eating a baby, thankfully.
When we all first saw this formation (top) everyone on the bus assumed it was Ayers Rock (better known as Uluru these days). But nope: This is Mt. McConnell, just a tease. There are actually three rock formations like this, all relatively near one another, just strange raised mesas (or boulder-like formations) that rise out of the desert seemingly out of nowhere. Mt. McConnell is the first; Uluru is the second, the final one is commonly known as “The Olgas.”
It’s all part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and these are considered sacred sites for the Aborigines. In other words, they can pretty much do what they like on the land, but if you’re not an Aboriginal, you have to be respectful, which largely means: Don’t climb on the rocks, please.
This is Ayers Rock/Uluru.
It is traditional to try and climb up it, but it’s not encouraged (though there is a kind of rope guide in case you’re fool enough to do it. Initially I thought I’d be happy to, but with the indigenous no-no and once again: 114 F — I decided to be respectful and just admire at a semi-distance.
I say “semi” distance because there was an area where we got out of the bus and were taken to a protected overhanging area with cave drawings. That’s our guide/bus driver giving us the full scoop.
What you don’t see here are the flies.
I noticed them in Melbourne, just a few but not like flies you may remember. These flies adopt you. That is, they land and they’re not all that disturbed if you wave them off. They either don’t move, or they come right back to where they just left. There were just one or two in the city … but out here, as I’d been warned, they are all over you. The “Australian Salute” apparently is someone waving them out of their face. They don’t bite, but they want your moisture, so they go for the eyes and mouth. I bought a veil to wear under my hat, and it came in mighty handy once or twice. You’ll see that little garment soon enough.
And here, the lodging for the night: The Sails in the Desert Hotel…
… and outside balcony. I would have spent more time out there, but the skin would pretty much sear off of your skin if you stood on the tiles barefoot, so I avoided any outdoor lounging. Those are some hardy plants, I tell you.
And another bonus: Random peacockery! This guy was just strutting around by the pool outside our hotel and while I stood there gaping at the glass, unfolded his finery and showed off for everyone.
That night, virtually the entire group of us had signed up for the “Sounds of Silence” dinner, held outdoors nearby Uluru. We were shuttled out to this sandy hill, where we were served canapes and champagne while a didgeridoo player entertained us. He did this thing with his hand on the instrument that seemed to correspond with the sounds, but later told me one had nothing to do with the other — it’s just to keep people interested.
So we hung out at Uluru while the sun went down, then all gathered at tables for a buffet dinner. The food was okay — I didn’t have a bad meal in Australia but I can’t say I had an overwhelmingly good one — and I tasted kangaroo for the first time. Tough meat. It interests me that in the US our national symbol, the bald eagle, is a protected species. You can’t hardly breathe on them.
In Australia and New Zealand, they eat their national symbols.
After the meal it was much like the night before; the lights went out and we were given a tour of the stars. This time they had two telescopes set up nearby and gazing up through them was transformative. I saw Saturn!
Downside of the night: At one point I wondered to a waitress whether they had to have to pay royalties to Simon and Garfunkel. She had no idea what I was talking about.
And because some of us are a) masochists and b) not planning on being back any time soon, a few hardy souls, including myself, decided to go back to Uluru for the sunrise.
When we got to a communal parking area opened for just such a purpose there were probably about 100 people also there, so it was hardly a quiet, reflecting time, but it was lovely seeing the sun come up over the desert, and the dramatic way Uluru changed thanks to the trick of the light. It almost doesn’t look like rock, but rather soft folds of some kind of fabric.
Then, coming back — a rainbow!
And, since we clearly hadn’t gotten our fill of large rock formations, later that morning the tour group — on the way to the airport — drove by the third of the three major rock groups out there, this one being “The Olgas.” (Aboriginal: Kata Tjuta.)
Anyway, a few of us braved the heat and the flies (there’s that classy “veil of the desert” I have on) and hiked about 20 minutes into one designated area.
The first photo is facing into the cleft; the second is us posing for animal crackers (apparently) at the end of the trail, and the third is the view from where we are standing, facing out.
Even without a bright sunny day, you can see how awesome it all is, and how the colors are incredible. I run out of adjectives right around now.
Australia: Cairns/Dunk Island/Kuranda (November 19-22)
Following our morning trip to Kata Tjuta, we took yet another flight to Cairns (photo at left is part of the outlying city, which rests along mangrove swamps and the ocean). Now, I have a Cairn Terrier, and we pronounce it “Karen.” They say “Cannes,” like the place where the film festival takes place. You say tomato, I say what the heck?
The brief time we were in Cairns, I really liked it. We were there only for an evening, and had just enough time to run from the hotel (this time the Shangri La Hotel, The Marina — couldn’t compare to the one in Sydney) to get dinner at a nearby bustling outdoor waterfront area. It reminded me of a calmer, saner Miami Beach. I also liked that kids were playing in the park after dark, and clearly felt safe about it, and that they had a ground-level open-air public pool that started out as a shallow place where you could splash your feet, then gradually deepened into something you could swim in. And people were doing it! It wasn’t even a big public official pool, more like just a lovely wading area. I saw one woman yakking on her cell while dunking her legs in, and I splashed a bit before heading out for dinner.
Next morning: Off to Dunk Island for the next two nights. We drove a bit from Cairns before getting on a ferry for a half hour, and coming to the small “Island of Peace and Plenty” called Dunk. It isn’t really a place to live, exactly; there’s just a big resort there with a lot of water sport options.
The main group went on a snorkeling trip the next day, but as the only person in the group who wanted to/could SCUBA dive, I was sent solo with a different group and got to go underwater at the Great Barrier Reef. Truly awesome: We saw giant clams, touched sea cucumbers and a blue-violet starfish, and just had a marvelous time. I did two dives, which were only my second and third dives in salt water (the first was in Fiji).
Before the diving day (that was on the second day) we had this amazing weather shown in the top photo (the following day, when I dove, was more gray out). I got a jetski and went out for a half hour, saw a sea turtle floating around and had a whooping good time. (I know jetskis are obnoxious but they are awful damn fun. And a half hour is plenty.)
The food was quite nice here, and there were all kinds of activities. One night a group of us participated in a trivia game, and lost — I think we were outbrained by a team that included several children.
A highlight: I went to do a round of archery. We shot at the usual targets, and at one point were told if we hit the coconut in the middle of them (called Wilson) we’d get a prize. I am happy to say that that is my arrow lodged in Wilson’s neck joint area.
I got a free drink. Yay to me!
Leaving Dunk, we had a half-day to spend in Kuranda if we wanted, and that was a lot of fun. The town is full of arts-and-crafts and souvenir type stores — not the junky crappy stuff we’d gotten used to seeing, or at least not all of that — but a lot of Aboriginal art and various other goodies. There was also a fellow making salt water taffy, though he insisted that’s not what it was called (even though he was Canadian) — but I can’t remember what he called it, something like soft candy or what have you.
At one point I saw a woman and some children parading around with a baby pram — with a small wallaby in it. The idea being that you could pay to have your picture taken. This seemed not just wrong, but exploitative, and I steered clear.
After several hours in Kuranda we took the Kuranda Railway down the mountain and back to our bus, which led us into Cairns.
A lovely view, but a very plodding train, and at this point I was sort of ready to just have a minute to collect myself and breathe.
Twenty-odd days on the road meant I saw amazing sights and met wonderful people and ate way too much bacon, but it’s also more than enough time to want to get back to a routine.
All in all, a trip of a lifetime!
If you’re thinking of taking this kind of trip, by all means, do! But if possible — and if this fits your speed — find one that allows a little more time to yourself. There was more than one place I would have liked to spend some more time wandering around, and after a while the bus became a tyranny.
Additionally, be prepared: The people who take trips like this — not hugely luxurious but time-intensive — are either newlyweds, parents/adult children or retirees. I was not a spring chicken and let’s just say I was the youngest on the tour (with the possible exception of a woman traveling with her mother). So, fair warning.
For those wondering about the flights: I went to Los Angeles for a couple of days from New York. From LA to Fiji was a 10-hour flight, not great but not unendurable. The hops from Fiji to Auckland and around that part of the globe were cake, comparatively.
I lucked out coming back, and had been set for a brutal day: We had an early flight from Cairns to Sydney, then the long bounce from Sydney to LA. (Then for me, once I got to LA a layover of a few hours and then on to Austin for Thanksgiving with the family.) But I sat next to a nice British guy and we talked while waiting for the plane to take off. He mentioned he had a friend who worked for Qantas. A steward came over and asked if the guy was such-and-so and when he confirmed it, said they had a place for such-and-so British guy in Premium Economy. I figured, OK — well, at least I’d have a space next to me wide open and I can stretch out for the next 14 hours. Instead, Mr. S&S said, “Can I bring my friend?” And they did!
So that is the story of how I got to fly home on one of the longest flights on this earth in Premium Economy. I wish I’d gotten his contact info: I totally owe that guy a drink. Mr. S&S, if you’re out there, ping me.