This is the a copy of the travel blog I maintained for my first solo trip abroad, a four month long jaunt to Australia and New Zealand back in 2008. Most of the best photos from this trip can be seen here.
Caverns, Wupatki pueblo ruins, Vegas, the Grand Canyon! – from Carlsbad to LA
USA | MONDAY, 22 SEPTEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
Here I am in LA, seven hours away from takeoff. It’s been an incredible week, just one amazing sight after the next. Tuesday we caved in Carlsbad. It’s absurdly huge, each chamber like an underground cathedral. In the “big room” some of the stalagmites are like hills. Everything is massively larger than any cave I’ve ever been in, and it’s truly amazing, especially for a cave enthusiast like me. Then we did a tour of an undeveloped section, lit only by our helmets. We had to climb from the big room down a rope and ladder into this cave, which was much smaller, and very rugged – no path, so lots of crouching, crawling, and climbing, and banging my knees and elbows. But it satisfied the adventure bug.
Roswell was a bust. They seem to be trying to forget the whole alien thing.
Wednesday was the Petrified forest NP. Let the pictures speak for themselves – the painted desert views were so beautiful. And what a diverse park – the blue mesas landscape was different from the surrounding desert and so alien. The petroglyphs, carved drawings by natives on rocks, were also just so…beautiful, thought-provoking, amazing – words fail me. It was ancient graffiti, and it was all over these rocks, and was just all kinds of pictures. I think I saw one large one of a man playing a flute that has become iconic – this picture is in gift shops, etc. I wonder if it started with this petroglyph. Then there was the petrified wood, literally coming out of the ground for the first time since dinosaurs. And it looked like real wood, freshly chopped into slices, and the minerals that have replaced the wood are even colored like wood! So you pick up this ancient stuff thinking it’ll weigh as much as wood, but it’s heavy as rock, because that’s what it is.
That night we stayed at a great historic hotel, La Posada, with incredible food and weird paintings of presidents and first ladies, painted by the vain owner.
I don’t have much time left to update this, since we have to leave the hotel. So we also saw:
– An enormous meteor crater, over 500 feet deep
– Ancient pueblo ruins, houses built by natives, 900 years old and still standing. The oldest human structurres I personally have ever seen. These were spiritual.
– Volcanic crater in the mountains
– The grand canyon! It lives up to all the hype. It’s less a canyon and more a vast landscape of rivers cutting cliffs into the rock thousands of feet deep. Check out the pictures.
– Las Vegas, where I won $10.78 with just $2, then won another $10 off of just $1 on theslot machines. YES I am so lucky. Vegas is incredible, each hotel has its own theme, casino, MALL, and there are monorails connecting them. It’s adult disneyland, just pure decadence and sin. You just have to give in to it!
– Venice Beach in LA, with this crazy outdoor market. There was a guy on rollerskates playing electric guitar (amp in backpack). You can buy anything, and see anyone do anything. We walked all the way to the Santa Monica pier. LA in general sucks, but what awesome weather.
Once again, look at the pictures, (link to the right) for a better idea!
Cairns, Australia – it begins
AUSTRALIA | THURSDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER 2008 | VIEWS  | COMMENTS 
Well, I made it to Oz. I couldn’t help but be surprised as Australia came in to view that it actually exists, and I’m actually there. I’ve been thinking about this time, and place, for long enough that I didn’t think it would actually happen.
I gave myself three days to “recover” but I didn’t need it. Jet lag just made the day I got here (monday for some, tuesday for me) an extra long day. I got fed a lot of food on the flights, by the way – four meals total, all of them great, including two breakfasts. I guessAir NZ isn’t in any trouble.
Cairns is great. The weather is incredibly nice, which I didn’t expect at all. It’s very breezy, and it can get a bit hot (not anything compared to Gainesville in August) but the breeze is cool and blows that away. The town itself is a big-time tourist zone, but not horribly cheesy. It’d be a fun place to live. The area is very unique geographically – it’s tropical, but with mountains that go straight into the sea, as if someone pushed the appalachian moutains about a thousand miles south and raised the sea level enough to make some of them islands.
The first thing I did was walk down to the Esplanade, where I expected some kind of beach but got a miles-long mud flat. There are no beaches in Cairns. There is one like 30 minutes north, which a wild Serbian bus driver gave me a discounted fare to because of a misunderstanding. That beach was no great shakes though either.
The coolest thing I saw in Cairns in my first two days there was an enormous fruit bat colony right next to the library, in downtown! The wild screeching coming from the the two trees they live in sounded at first like birds, but then something flew – and then I saw them hanging by their feet, by the hundreds, all flapping slightly to stay cool, or fighting each other (still upside down). At night you can hear them screeching all over town.
Today I went to Fitroy Island, a mountain rising from the sea, covered in rainforest and surrounded, just off the beach, by reef. The contrast between neon blue water, huge granite boulders, and lush green forest was simply beautiful. The coral is more beautiful and diverse than any I’ve ever seen. There were blue corals, yellow, wavy anemone things, spongy corals, horned corals – tons, and not too many fishes but the ones there were bright blue little things, parrotfish of course, and some kind of multicolored triggerfish. Unfortunately it was very windy most of the day and visibility was poor.
But plenty else to do on the island. My plan was to kayak a quarter way around the island to a smaller one just offshore. It was tough going after a while, and I finally got within a couple hundred yards of little Fitzroy. The strait between the islands was dangerously wavy and stormy, and even where I was, the wind became so strong I could not even keep from being turned around. Just as well, because a tour boat came by and they were very angry – apparently I had gone way, WAY farther than allowed. I interepreted “don’t leave the bay” as “don’t go to far away”.
After a grueling paddle back against the wind, it was now time to hike! There is so much to do on this island, and everything is in close proximity. You can hike up a forest and boulder-clad mountain and five minutes later be snorkelling with sea turtles. I half-ran up to the summit of the island, where the wind was gale force and the views were incredible. Then it was a shorter hike into a thicker rainforested valley, and another short snorkelbefore heading home.
Welcome to Butcher’s Creek
AUSTRALIA | SATURDAY, 4 OCTOBER 2008 | VIEWS  | COMMENTS 
I’m back from a week at a farm. I volunteered there through WWOOF, which hooks up volunteers with farms. They get free food and accomodation through, supposedly, 4-6 hours of work per day. Some of these look like a lot of fun, and this was going to be a big part of my experience in Australia. I chose this one in particular because it’s surrounded by rainforest with “four waterfalls” and an extinct volcanic crater on the property, as well as close proximity to “the fourth best walking track in the world”, which leads to the highest point in Queensland.
I managed to get picked up in Cairns, and the first doubt in my mind started when I was told to lock the doors when we made a stop because of “the blacks”. My driver, Vicky, who is the wife of the farmer and works in Cairns, is an ex-cop who claims she is a “realist”, not a racist.
Her husband, Alan, also an retired cop, couldn’t even claim that veneer.
Here was Australia’s Rush Limbaugh. Every nationality except Australians and most Europeans had something wrong with them, but most especially the “blacks and the mooslims” which apparently the government is shipping to Australia by the boatload from Africa. This sentiment isn’t helped by the fact that a neighbor’s son was the closest to the Bali bombing in 2002, which mostly killed Australians. But the racism against native aboriginals from him and everyone else in the farming community of “Butcher’s Creek” (guess how it got that name) was the worst. While discussing a recent crocodile attack in the news, a neighbor said, “After 40,000 years of eating coons, the crocs have learned to wash their food!” Everyone had a hearty laugh, except me.
Even the worst rednecks in Alabama would blush a little at such talk, but Australians are incredibly not politically correct. A lingerie store in the Cairns mall is called “bras n’ things” for example. A large medicine bottle says simply and in bold capital letters, “FOR CONSTIPATION”. They make no bones about it.
Back to the farm though – it was indeed surrounded by rainforest, but I was immediately given a bunch of reasons why going in would be extremely dangerous, and there were no trails. So it’s pretty hard to get to those waterfalls, too. At first it seemed that this was an experience I could just as easily have in America, and I wanted to leave immediately. But then while working in the crater (which is real, and has hundreds of cattle at the bottom) and stepping into that dark rainforest and feeling the immediate drop in temperature while trying to avoid “stinging trees” (apparently the pain drives you insane), and later in the day seeing a duck billed platypus in a pond (an elusive creature which 95% of Australians haven’t seen in the wild), I changed my mind. And the tropical birdlife truly was unique – there were screeching yellow-crested cockatoos, beautiful green parakeets with red patches under their wings, and the conspicuous kookaburra (it makes an incredible sound much like the monkeys in an old Tarzan movie – “oo oo oo oo AH AH AH” – look it up on youtube).
Besides that, the food (meat and potatoes in huge portions every night) was great, the work was sporadic and not too hard, and I was given my own cottage to live in, although this was infested with mice and fleas.
After a while, I was ready to move on simply because I thought that as long as I’m on this continent, I may as well see as much of it as possible. And incidentally, I was driven back earlier than expected because the family planned to meet in Cairns for the weekend. And then it really ended abruptly yesterday when Vicky, who was already in Cairns for work, was rushed to the hospital and apparently throwing up blood.
So now I’m back here planning my next move. Would you believe it, but there are people with campervans looking for extra passengers to share gas with! I’m trying to get in on one of these. Negotiations with a french fellow going to Perth ended poorly, with the following text on my phone: “thank you, stupide cunt. je te souhalte de crever en australie”. So anyway. But I’m supposed to meet a german going to Alice Springs and Adelaide for lunch. I find it much easier to understand germans.
Rainforest and Reef
AUSTRALIA | THURSDAY, 9 OCTOBER 2008 | VIEWS 
So while I’ve been in Cairns, I’ve been able to stay with Mary, a friend of a friend’s mom. Her house is like a tree house – raised up on stilts, surrounded by bamboo, brush turkeys and other critters, and open air. I mean, REALLY open air. There are only a few windows (which are permanently open anyway) no screens, just everything open to the elements. Very cool, except for the mossies! She’s an amazing cook, and I’ve been able to enjoy the food and a nice bed for only a few chores and $10 per day.
I also did the Skyrail – a cable car (one of the longest in the world) over the rainforested mountains around Cairns. It’s a great way to see the rainforest canopy, and see the best views possible, which include a gorge complete with a big waterfall, now just a trickle at the end of the dry season.
But in the past three days, I left Cairns altogether and went to Cape Tribulation, a beautiful stretch of beach a couple hours north, where it really starts to get remote. And though becoming a major tourist attraction, it is still both – almost empty, but with nice sandy beaches flanked by World Heritage rainforest on one side and cyan-blue water on the other. The cape itself is a rocky hill, almost an island flanked on three sides by water and connected to the mainland by a low isthmus. From the side my hostel was on, you can walk up the beach and right over the isthmus to the other side, an even more remote beach with a vast lagoon of two-feet deep water protected by a reef, where I saw a rather large ray puff up from the sand! But the reef is not coral, and so after a few hours of exploring, I really had seen all there was, though I gave myself two days in the area. The next one I had reserved to climb Mt. Sorrow, a short climb to a supposedly beautiful vista overlooking the rainforest and sea. But the trailhead is practically hidden, and I traipsed right past it. By the time I realized my mistake and found the damn thing, I had used up half my water, but forged ahead nonetheless. The trail, though technically short, is incredibly steep and barely existent in some parts, so I got about a quarter or a third up and ran out of water. According to the map, it only gets steeper from there, so I turned around, with nothing to do for the rest of the day. It wasn’t a total bust though, because along the trail was some of the best rainforest I had seen yet, with iconic jungle flora such as strangler figs, big fan palms (with circular, radial fronds like helicopter blades), and tons of vines everywhere.
The next day was the big reef trip, out to a highly regarded, outer reef, right at the edge of the continental shelf. The amazement is instant – I’ve seen coral before, even the same kinds on Fitzroy island. But it’s all so IMMENSE – just like with Carlsbad caverns, I’ve been to caves before, but it’s just a whole new, epic type of thing to experience. There were cliffs and hills of coral underwater that were 50 or 75 feet high – and though the fish were also the most numerous, diverse, and beautiful that I’ve seen on any reef, the coral really steals the show. There are so many species, colors, shapes, textures – and all on the same surfaces, so that you see this psychedlic patchwork landscape of texture and color underwater. It’s really one of nature’s most surreal creations. I only had a piddlykodak disposable to take it all in, but they rented high end underwater cameras for an exorbitant price – which I sprung for, and thankfully so. Enjoy the results!
Now I’m headed off on another adventure into the outback. The thing that has really blown me away about Australia is how easy this is to do – I’m just hitching on someone else’s ride that they offered. It was between this and a sailing trip down the coast! It’s tough, really tough, but if New Zealand is anything like this place I can do a sailing trip in my last month there.
AUSTRALIA | MONDAY, 20 OCTOBER 2008 | VIEWS 
I’m in Alice Springs, having spent the last week and a half in the outback. I got here by travelling with two germans, Kerstin and Judith. Kerstin has a car and was looking for travel buddies for a two week camping trip out here. I was really impressed, initially, how easy this was to be a part of, and I felt ahead of the curve, because I’d save tons of money doing the same things that other people spend thousands on tours for, and at first, it really seemed it would work out like that.
We started by staying at Dave’s house. Dave is a friend of Kerstin’s who was also hosting four other Germans and an Australian, all of whom had gone to Cape York together. Dave is the most generous person on the planet. Australians as a whole are incredibly nice people, but this man was absurd. Kerstin’s car apparently needed a small repair, which Dave fixed for free. Meanwhile, we explored some more of the Tablelands in HIS car, seeing these crater lakes, a giant fig tree, and a weird vertical volcanic crater. He gave us bedding to sleep on for the two nights we were there. And when we left for good, he drove AN HOUR to try and catch up with us to deliver a small amount of food I left, before he finally gave up and turned around. And full of stories, the ones about komodo dragons being the best. I wish I had travelled with him instead.
Everything went smoothly upon departure – there were tons of waterfalls on our road out, and we stopped at three, two in the wildest, most natural mountain rainforest I’ve seen yet (complete actual rain, for once). I even got stuck with leeches in a stream.
The next day, we started to go down from the plateau and into some serious heat and dryer land. The trees started to get shorter, and the land more brown and red. We passed the first “road trains” – semi trucks with several trailers attached, signalling the edge of the outback.
With the heat that afternoon, and every one afterwards, I would’ve killed to swim in a waterfall, and here we we had been skipping some the previous day. You see, there was no air conditioning – Kerstin didn’t want to spend the money on it. No problem, I thought, her car, her rules.
But that night, something happened that should’ve sent me running right then. I was dying for a swim or a shower, and there was a caravan park in the town we stopped in that had both, where we could stay for only $10 a night. But there would be none of that, and we went straight for the free rest area with no amenities she wanted to camp at, only to find there was no camping permitted. So after contemplating camping on the side of the road, or driving about 40kms in the dark (which she knew was dangerous, having hit a kangaroo before at night) to a free site, she finally sprung for the caravan park. And Judith said nothing the whole time. She is one of the most quiet people I’ve ever met, and most of the time, she had no opinion on anything, and was utterly Kerstin’s lapdog, agreeing with her every time and following her everywhere. There wasn’t a heated argument or anything, but that night I felt a permanent break with these people, and as the days progressed, they apparently felt it too.
But I figured we were all there to see the sights, not be best friends. So I let things go, and after enough time, I thought we started to come to compromises on issues and work things out. But apparently this was not so, and as I found out only two days ago, my travelmates were compiling lists of all their grievances towards me.
Meanwhile the outback stretched on, and on – and on. It’s a weird landscape of short shrunken trees on flat land, so you don’t see much of a desert vista, like in Arizona. The northern part isn’t really even a desert, since there’s somewhat of a wet season, which is why there are still trees. But to make things more interesting, termite mounds were everywhere, by the millions. Most looked like stalagmites reaching out of the earth, but others were as big as refrigerators. And we did see some wildlife too, including emus crossing the road, and enormous eagles feasting on roadkill, which was at least one thing plentiful out there. Outback roadkill is enormous – cows and kangaroos hit by road trains, and the smell is equally massive.
It’s also worth mentioning that in terms of human activity, the American southwest is Manhattan compared to this place. Towns, of any size, (and none except a handful have more than 1,000 people) are hundreds of miles apart. There are no giant billboards telling you how many hundreds of miles you are from South of the Border. There are no friendly green signs displaying what fast food restaurants you can choose from at the next exit, because there is no exit, and no fast food. It is vast and utterly empty, and this only adds to the dangerous edge you can often feel out there.
And then in western Queensland, the flies began. Oh, the flies. You have no idea unless you’ve been there. They look just like houseflies, but half that size. And they don’t bite or sting, but I’d take a mosquito over these guys any day. Some bugs occasionally fly in your ear or eye by accident, and fly out. These things WANT to do that. They go straight for the face, and even shaking your head won’t get them off, you have to physically brush them away. Except that then they only fly to another part of your face, and there can be as many as ten to 15 doing this at one time. And they’re fast as houseflies, and equally as hard to kill.
So the situation wasn’t the best by the time we rolled in to Devil’s Marbles, the first really interesting thing to see since we left the rainforest four days prior. This is a field of enormous boulders eroded from each other in a way that looks like a strangely balanced hodgepodge of gigantic red pebbles, like a bunch of little Ulurus. It’s far south enough to be in a true desert setting, and standing on a high point of one of these piles gives fantastic views, especially at evening when the rocks glow orange and red. We were able to camp there while we watched a full moon rise like a huge pumpkin, illuminating the rocks in a different but equally beautiful way.
After reaching Alice Springs, our next move was into the MacDonnell ranges, which stretch several hundred kilometers east and west of Alice. We went to the western ranges, which have more interesting sights. These mountains are cut by innumerable canyons, gullies, and gorges, all of which are walkable because the rivers are almost always dry. But there were plenty of hikes overlooking these features, giving fantastic views. However, the best feature of this landscape, seen nowhere else in the outback, are permanent waterholes set in the otherwise dry riverbeds between walls of that golden-red rock so iconic of Australia. And diving in one of these, which are freezing cold, after a day of heat in the low 100s (I’m not kidding) feels like the garden of eden. We camped that night a short hike away from one of these magic waterholes, which was hemmed in by a fantastic gorge that narrowed to a mere crack. The night sky was for once not bothered by the moon, and the whole tapestry of stars could be seen like a planetarium, from a place so quiet it was like being in a cave.
The next day was a real broiler, and we quite literally were lost in a wide desert basin for a while, having lost the trail markers (if they were ever there). We assumed a fold in the mountains led to the way back, but when the first one didn’t, we had to guess whether the next one did or do the arduous and long hike back through the canyon we came out of, which was covered with either river rocks or sand, neither of which was easy to walk over. We sallied forth, and turned out lucky, though it was still a long, hot walk back.
But the waterhole we swam in later that day was the largest and most beautiful yet, and so deep you could jump off the surrounding ledges into the irridescent green water. My travelmates had nothing to do with this, however, as with many things I would do or want to do.
Everything seemed alright until we got to Alice Springs and they told me to stay behind. I don’t want or need to get into why. We just had different ways of doing things, whether it be cultural or personal.
But I can turn this into a good thing, because I’m kind of done with the outback anyway. I’m leaving either tommorrow or the next day, to go either north back to Cairns or south to Adelaide, and either way making my way eventually to Brisbane. We’ll see what happens.
AUSTRALIA | SATURDAY, 1 NOVEMBER 2008 | VIEWS  | COMMENTS 
I went for the major travel foul and came back to the east coast on the same route I got out to the Red Centre. And I also learned from my past mistakes and hitched again with a random car full of strangers who were, once again, all Germans. This time it was a couple who could barely speak english and rarely went to the effort, and a girl who could speak english so well she did with an American accent (having spent a year in Missouri for high school). But everyone had much more easy going personalities. They weren’t as polite as the first group, choosing to speak german most of the time while I could only sit there stupidly. But they acted more like normal people! And that was enough for me.
We did actually go a different way once we reached Cloncurry, choosing to go east rather than north. The idea was to go north to Cairns once we reached Townsville on the east coast, and I presume that’s what happened, but I got out at Townsville. My goal, and practically the whole reason I came back to the east coast was to find a sailboat to take me south on an island tour. I called ahead to an internet cafe in Cairns that I knew was by the the noticeboard on the crazy hope they’d check it for me to see if there were any sailboats headed south. Well, they did check, and there were none, so that saved me at least a couple days and a bus ticket. Townsville seemed just as likely a place, and besides, I had been invited to stay at Carlie’s mom’s house on Magnetic Island, a large island just off the coast from Townsville.
I didn’t seen any sailing notices in Townsville either, so Magnetic Island it was. Maggie was just what I needed. It’s an easy going tropical island famous for a large concentration of wildlife, great bushwalking, and beautiful deserted beaches. And Sharn, Carlie’s mom, just made it so much better. She had four other guests at the time besides me – her niece and her niece’s baby, and two WWOOFers. So I had to sleep on the verandah, but besides a possum eating some of my food, that was just fine, and I went to sleep to the sounds of the multitude of critters all around every night.
But yeah, Sharn – she was awesome. I think she’s a buddhist, very into yoga, and I could even hear her do some kind of chant at night that I assume was meditation. But the important thing is that she fixed us really good, gourmet food, two or three meals a day . All I’d have to do is wash some dishes, help the WWOOFers do some work, and then have the rest of the day to go to the beach, snorkel, and do some bushwalking, which Sharn was happy to facilitate if need be. We did a walk up to some old World War 2 forts and some koalas in the trees right there. The next day I spent the whole afternoon exploring everything else worth seeing, getting to some amazing views in the mountains, and exploring hidden coves and bays.
I left on monday – far too soon, but I was still hoping for finding a sailing trip in the sailing capital of Australia – Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, possibly the most beautiful archipelago of tropical islands in Australia. I was fearing the worst, but found a couple of promising flyers, and called all the numbers I could – no luck, they either didn’t answer or had already left. That sucked, but the next day I got an incredible last-minute (standby) deal on a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip, for $190 when they are usually $329. Fortunately, I only had to put down a $45 deposit, because then one of the yachties called me back, still looking for crew! So of course I said yes, but was still skeptical. He said, “we’ll leave saturday – or sunday, or monday” which I knew could mean next month. He himself wasn’t even in Airlie Beach at the time. But it actually all turned out to be legit, and I’m setting sail tommorrow after waiting here nearly a week! While I’ve been waiting, by the way, I was able to do some great bushwalks in Conway National Park that led to amazing lookouts of the Whitsunday passage, giving me a juicy preview of what I’m in for now. So that was cool, but now the real adventure begins – we’ll sail the Whitsundays for a couple of days, then head south to nearby Mackay, where I’ll fly out of to Brisbane.
Sailing the Coral Sea
AUSTRALIA | MONDAY, 10 NOVEMBER 2008 | VIEWS  | COMMENTS 
As we motored out of the marina, I could still scarcely believe that I had lucked out enough to find a yachtie willing to cruise the most beautiful islands in Australia with a bunch of landlubbing backpackers paying less than it costs to stay in most hostels. I was really happy to finally leave Airlie Beach as it faded in the distance and new islands started to take shape around us in the bright blue tropical sea.
The first stop was Blue Pearl Bay, which the skipper (John) insisted was the best snorkelling in the islands. We got there in the late afternoon and paddled in the dinghy to shore where we started snorkelling. I was mildly impressed at first – it was really good snorkelling for a fringing reef. And then I got farther out and realized that this little reef was at least as good as the Great Barrier Reef itself, with huge coral formations of every color, and even some fish I hadn’t seen at the big reef. So that and some great jumps from huge boulders in the water made for a perfect afternoon.
Then I thought I heard John shouting at us to come in, so we did – only to find that while we were gone he had become absolutely blind piss drunk. John, who is an old salty Aussie sea dog, is normally a little hard to understand. But now he was babblingcomplete nonsense, and abundantly. But the situation worsened considerably when he started screaming at a nearby moored boat. This went on for HOURS, and made it really uncomfortable. We couldn’t ignore him any more when the guy on the other boat started shouting for us, and threatened us that he had called the police. This did not help John’s paranoid fear of these people, and the shouting continued. But eventually he passed out, and the police never came, and the four of us had a good laugh about it that night.
My crewmates were about ideal – I know well how travelling with random people can turn bad, so I really lucked out here, too. There were three others, for a total of five on the boat, which was just enough so that it wasn’t too crowded, but still enough people for some variety. All were about my age, and they consisted of a german guy, and a couple, A danish guy and welsh girl. Everyone was pretty chilled out and fun, and I think we all got along better than any group I’ve travelled with so far.
There was no chance for a morning snorkel, because when John got us motoring out at the utter crack of dawn, before even 6:00, perhaps out of fear of being reported or something. But it was a beautiful morning to sail, and we sailed along Hook Island with its fjord-like bays, and then through a narrow strait between Hook and Whitsunday islands. After mooring at a bay right just adjacent to the famous Hill Inlet, with the more famous Whitehaven beach just beyond. We paddled to the peninsula separating the bays and walked across it to one of the most beautiful places in all of Australia. The shallow, perfect blue water in the Hill Inlet snakes between the incredible powder white sand that also makes up Whitehaven beach for 7 kilometers on its right side. We then walked down to the left side of the inlet, where most tour groups don’t even have time to go! But we had all the time we wanted. On the left side is a smaller beach that has to be the most perfect I’ve ever seen, and for the first 30 minutes, no one else was even there! The water gradually faded from super light blue to dark, and the sand was as white as moon dust. It is so reflectant that even it never even gets hot in the tropical sun.
After rowing back to the yacht, we sailed over to Whitehaven proper, where we anchored maybe only a hundred meters offshore for the night. We spent sunset on the beach, where the sand turned almost pink in the starlight. Few people of ANY budget get to do that. After another quick trip to Whitehaven in the morning, it was off sailing again to the next island.
The rest of the week was spent hopping from one uninhabited island to the next. None were as beautiful as Whitsunday Island, where Whitehaven beach was, and they all looked like weirdly out of place – there were very few palm trees anywhere (we would joke that the difference of one palm tree put a certain beach closer to paradise), but the islands’ mountainousness and tropical conifer trees gave them a temperate look, even in the middle of that neon-blue water. Nevertheless, my crewmates liked the second island we came to even more than Whitsunday. The beach was almost as fine, and the clear blue water was visible even farther off the beach than at Whitehaven, owing to its shallowness. A short walk beyond the beach led to the other side of the island, which had rocky cliffs against which a fierce sea crashed, providing another kind of beauty and a wonderful contrast. Though it, like all the islands after Blue Pearl Bay, had no coral, there were still some tropical fish among the rocks forming the bay. I snorkelled along these, and after walking across the narrow rocky spit forming the left side of the bay, I saw a blacktipped fin just feet off the rocks on the other side! The water was clear enough that I could see the shark, and just as I worked up the courage to look at it underwater, another larger fin appeared! I left after that, happy to have my ankles intact. We had a fire on the beach that night, built out of the plentiful driftwood. How does it get more perfect than that?
Meanwhile, John was behaving himself, besides some occaisional swearing, was generally a nice guy who didn’t even expect us to help much. Nevertheless, I got some great experience sailing, although we never did anything too complex – we went fast enough on just the jib (smaller front sail) alone that we never even uncovered the mainsail.
Besides some strong wind (which obviously wasn’t too bad of a thing!) the weather was really nice, and only started to get overcast and stormy as we sailed into the Mackay marina, where I ended my part of the sailing trip and flew to Brisbane, where I am now.
That may have been my favorite time in Australia so far – but there’s still almost two weeks left here and tons to do, so we’ll see…
Fraser Island, Brisbane and around – last days in Australia
AUSTRALIA | FRIDAY, 21 NOVEMBER 2008 | VIEWS  | COMMENTS 
Today is my last full day in Australia. It’s a beautiful country, and except for a certain few fellow travellers, is filled with really great, hospitable people. But next time, I’m getting a four wheel drive, which you really need to experience Australia at it’s most. Nowhere was this more apparent than Fraser Island.
When I got to Brisbane the Saturday before last, my friend Carlie who I’ve been staying with was one week away from turning in her Honors thesis, and I don’t think she had written half of it yet, so it was a good time to do some more stuff on my own, and Fraser Island was the only thing on my Australia “must do” list besides the Great Barrier Reef. I had planned on going up there and getting together with a group, but I found a tour operator that ran out of Brisbane, and that was just too convenient.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. It’s 70 some odd miles long, with dunes the size of mountain foothills. It’s a barrier island much like the one I grew up on, but with a unique and complex ecosystem all it’s own, and for that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was discouraging at first – we left at about 7am, and the tour guy seemed hungover and unmotivated, and though it only takes a few hours to get to Fraser from Brisbane, we didn’t actually get there until after 1pm because of a ridiculous number of long stops along the way.
It had been raining off and on the whole way there, and that looked to continue as the ferry approached Fraser, as rain was visible on one half of the island while the other looked clearer, giving it an ominous, otherworldly look. The ferry dumped our 4WD vehicle right on the beach, and we gunned it as the gate dropped, reminding me of D-Day or something. Only 4WDs are allowed on Fraser to limit development, and the beach acts as a main highway, with sand tracks throughout the interior.
It’s really windy on Fraser Island all the time, or at least it was when we were there. Clouds of sand snaked across the beach as we drove, and the surf was a cauldron of foam. When we got to the campsite, many of the permanently set up tents were blown apart. Further confusion resulted when our guide didn’t know what to do about the tides, which at this particular time of year can get high enough to cover the entire beach. That meant we couldn’t go to a famous shipwreck that afternoon, and had to go to a closer feature, Lake Wabby. Lake Wabby is on the edge of a sandblow – a gigantic moving sand dune that is made up of excess, unsettled sand. It can envelope entire forests, and indeed, tree tops are sometimes visible through the sand. In this case, it’s in the process of covering a lake. Even though this was the first place we went, it may have been the most impressive. The sandblow was a dune desert, like a small Sahara surrounded by rainforest, with a green crescent of a lake at the bottom edge. Of course, I had to barrel roll down the side of a steep dune straight into the lake.
That night our tour guide got us greatly discounted cabins at the campsite, and good thing, too – the winds were gale force and there was occasional bursts of pouring rain.
The next morning we went inland and visited some more lakes, among them Lake Birrabeen and McKenzie, which are famous for being crystal clear and surrounded by that same powdery white silica sand that’s on Whitehaven beach. There was a tinge of green in the lakes because of all the rain, but it was still perhaps the clearest water I’ve ever seen. The lakes are so clear because they are slightly acidic, and you can feel this on your eyes. But it sure does make them pretty.
We also took a rainforest hike in the very center of the island, where there is a species of tree that is among the tallest in Australia, and found only on Fraser Island and nowhere else in the world. It could’ve been the most beautiful rainforest I’ve seen yet, and so unique – like a redwood forest with palm trees, vines, and giant ferns (supposedly 2,000 years old) with a crystal clear stream running in the middle.
But regrettably, that was all we had time to see on Fraser Island, and we left after only about 24 hours on the island. We saw perhaps the best features, albeit briefly, but this is why I say the best way to see this country is your own 4WD – to see the best parts, which are invariably remote and hard to access, at your own pace.
The tour wasn’t over, though. Next we drove along a stretch of beach on the mainland just south of Fraser. It’s called Rainbow Beach because of giant sand cliffs made up of colored compacted sand being eroded away by the sea. We really zoomed through here to beat the tide again, but ended up at a headland with tropical blue water and great surf. There’s good surfing all along that coast, so I got off the tour on the way back to stay in Maroochydore and surf the next morning. It was a total bust, with rain at first and then winds that just churned up the water to a froth. It was weather I’d have to get used to.
Soon after I got back to Brisbane, Carlie was finishing up her thesis, which I helped her print and turn in no more than five minutes before the absolute final due time. We and another friend went camping that weekend in the mountainous hinterland, where we camped one night before virtually nonstop rain began the next day. The mist gave the mountains and forest a cool looking atmosphere, but made us cold and wet, so we left early.
Bad weather continued most of this week in Brisbane, and last night we got caught in the worst thunderstorm I may have ever experienced. The sky looked ominous with huge darkening thunderheads and occasional lightning while scores of those flying foxes flew across because it was dusk. Then in seconds came a flood of rain and the strongest winds I’ve ever been exposed to – well over tropical storm force. We were just walking across the city back home, and the rain was blowing so hard it was hard to even look ahead. We took shelter under an entryway, while gusts knocked the trees around like you see on the worst hurricane videos. Then the top of a drain pipe above us exploded with water, and we had to look elsewhere for shelter. The winds calmed after that and the rain was only on and off, but the lightning was visible, I’d estimate, at least five times a second. Most of it was in the distance, though, creating a near constant rumble. I got a great shot of the city with the clouds lit up behind it.
All this and nothing about Brisbane itself. Well, it’s a fairly unremarkable city about the size of Tampa. Carlie may live in the coolest part of it though – in walking distance to the museum complex, close to downtown, and with a ton of cheap but delicious ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood. There’s also got a really cool speedboat ferry that runs along and across the river. I can’t think of much else substantial to say about it, or maybe I’m just tired of writing.
Anyway, New Zealand’s North Island is next. I fly to Auckland early tommorrow morning.
North Island of New Zealand: Auckland, Surfing, Kayaking, Caving, and learning the Haka
NEW ZEALAND | TUESDAY, 2 DECEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
I finally have a bit of downtime. It’s been a really hectic week and a half (that’s it?) since I left the lazier pace of life in Brisbane. I’ve been on a whirlwind tour of New Zealand’s North Island for most of that time.
When I left the Auckland airport, the blast of cool air that hit me was a fantastic welcome from the stifling heat building up in Australia. The morning I left I woke up in a sweat.
I was in Auckland two days longer than planned, because of the tour’s stupid booking system and partially my own carelessness. It’s a fairly big city, which is always a novelty for me, and there’s at least a few days worth of activities, so it wasn’t all bad.
The highlight of my first full day was hiking around Rangitoto island, just 25 minutes away by ferry from downtown Auckland. This is a volcanic island just 600 years old. Auckland itself is pockmarked with other dormant volcanoes in its suburbs, another of which, Mt. Eden, I climbed a few days later for spectacular views of the city at sunset. Exploring dormant volcanoes is becoming kind of routine for me – there were those I saw in Australia as well as Arizona.
But Rangitoto, while not all that pretty itself (lava flows covered by shrubs) has some pretty cool lava tubes. I forgot my flashlight, but they were short enough to avoid total darkness. It was cool just to find the caves in the woods and then explore them on my own without tour, commentary, or a walkway with floodlights.
The next day was spent at the Auckland Museum, which is really fantastic. It covers Maori and Pacific Islander history and culture, natural history with emphasis on New Zealand, and NZ war history. It’s much more concise and less aged than the Museum of Natural History in New York, and not as kid-oriented as the Smithsonian. $5 well spent.
When I finally got on the tour, our first stop was Hahei, which mainly features spectacular coastal scenery, including eroding volcanic remnants with dramatic high cliffs just offshore. The tour is hop on, hop off, so I took an extra day here to explore. This included kayaking the next morning, which was, according to the guide, the best day that week, and he probably wasn’t lying – the sea was lake-like, with some of the prettiest water I’ve ever seen in a temperate place. We circled an offshore islan, went through a sea cave, and then ended up at Cathedral Cove, which is a white-sand beach with iridescent green water that for all the world looks like it belongs in the tropics. It also features some of those eroded volcanic columns dotting the bay, and a very large sea cave (the “cathedral”). The only sad part here was an injured baby penguin that had washed ashore.
Midday was spent at Hot Water Beach, where I had my first geothermal experience in New Zealand. There’s a thermal spring under a large portion of the sand on this beach, and people dig holes to have their own little spa. Some of the sand is so hot that you can’t even do this, or walk on it, lest you burn your feet! You may be able to see the steam from the sand in the photo I included (link to the right).
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a clifftop walk along the Hahei coast, which might have even been better than kayaking, because of the fantastic views of all of the islands in the bay, and some beyond. The trail also goes through thick tropical-seeming forests with giant fern trees. There’s even a place to snorkel along the trail, of all things. There’s no coral, of course, but still a great variety of fish, a stingray, and even the kelp on the rocks looked pretty. This was a place that was trying really hard to be tropical but nevertheless had a temperate climate – the opposite of the Whitsundays, which seemed more temperate than they were.
It was one of the best days I’ve had on this trip, and that night was spent revelling with the people I’d be on tour with for the next few days.
Surfing was on the intinerary next, at Raglan beach, on the North Island’s west coast. This is also an area of fantastic coastal scenery, but different also – here the beaches were some of the widest I’ve seen, with fine, gray (perhaps volcanic?) sand, framed by steeply rising green mountains. And the surf was huge, and consistent – I wasn’t good enough to really even get past the break unless there was a pause. And even when I did, the breaking wave was too big to catch, and I wiped out every time. However, the whitewater from these huge waves was more than adequate to catch a fairly good ride, especially on the softboard I had. And the crowds? On this fantastic beach, the only other surfers were other clumsy tourists like me, and not many of them! The real surfers were on another nearby beach that was even better.
The whirlwind continued with caving the next day. I was torn between the “adventure caving” option, with waterfalls, rappelling, and rock climbing included, or the easy one with tons of glowworms – and there’s nothing quite like either, as far as I know, in the US. I went for the adventure cave, where we were geared up with wetsuits, rappelling equipment, and a helmet with a light. The cave is on someone’s private farm, unmarked, and it’s just a little narrow crevice to climb down into. Once in the cave, we immediately rappelled down further into a vertical shaft, maybe 75 feet or so – this was fantastic, as I had always wanted to do true-grit caving like this. It only got better when we did two more rappels, these shorter, but waterfalls were pouring down these ledges. It was a guided tour, but not even that easy – you had to really pay attention to what they were saying and do it quickly. Often this involved finding a hidden hole, barely enough to squeeze through, which also had freezing water flowing through it. At the end, there was a rock climb that was tough enough to make my fingers numb, and I had to use every once of strength to pull myself up. It wasn’t for everybody, but that’s what made it fun. The cave formations and the few glowworms in the cave seemed pretty ho-hum in comparison to the adventure of actually getting through it.
That night was the Maori cultural experience included on the tour. A very clever Maori entrepreneur named “Uncle Boy” has groups over at his marae (meeting house) for a night of food, dancing, and an overnight stay. After dinner, the “chief” from our group (a elderly frenchman, nominated by Uncle Boy) has to take part in this elborate ritual involving some kind of token he had to pick up from the ground, while a Maori (see the photo with the teenager with a spear, outside) approached aggressively, making contorted faces and pointing his spear. If he (the “chief”) screwed it up, we’d have to leave – which I’m sure isn’t true, but Uncle Boy seemed quite serious.
After this ceremony, (which fortunately went without incident) we solemnly entered the marae, rubbing noses with the Maori dancers and singers as we went in. They did a few dances and songs for us, but the main emphasis was on OUR performance – the men were taught the haka, which is the Maori war dance (still performed by New Zealand’s national rugby team before each match). It involved a lot of stomping, grunting, eye popping and tongue sticking out, and so much leg slapping that the next morning my upper legs were bruised purple. Meanwhile, the girls learned how to twirl pois, little swingy toys on the end of a string. I definitely felt more in touch with Maori culture, although it was hard to shake that this was, after all, a commercial enterprise. These people spoke english first and didn’t wear their silly dancing garb or pop their eyes on a daily basis. But it did make for some good photos.
The rest of my adventures in the North Island will be up soon. Stay tuned!
North Island: Rafting, Boiling Waterfalls, Steaming Craters, and Crossing Mordor
NEW ZEALAND | SUNDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
The last few days have been slower ones spent in Wellington, where I’ve been WWOOFing at someone’s house a few minutes walk from downtown. It’s been a good chance to figure out my next steps, explore a city, enjoy the fantastic weather (it’s in the 70s and the kiwis complain of the heat…pah!) and of course keep you lovely people updated. It’s also AWESOME to sleep in a bed again, as the last few nights in hostels were pretty terrible.
Anyway, I think I left off at Uncle Boy’s. After a night sleeping in the marae, we left for Rotorua, New Zealand’s geothermal capital. But the tour didn’t stop at any of those attractions, and just as well – there would be better and less touristed geysers and hot pools further south. Instead, we went white water rafting. I wasn’t going to do this at first, because it’s something I can do at home. But this river includes the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, so I thought it’d be worth a go. The trip was very short, but great fun getting sloshed around, and the scenery was fantastic – mossy, fern covered cliffs framed by a perfect blue sky. They took some great photos, including of the big waterfall, which I’d recommend you check out (link on right).
Then it was on to Taupo, a town next to the biggest crater lake in the world, where the largest recorded volcanic eruption took place, in 181 AD, and where many much larger eruptions occurred before that. There’s a very large snow-capped volcano behind the lake, so it all makes for a very picturesque setting.
The next day’s weather report for the Tongariro Crossing, which is the best one day hike in NZ and a big highlight for me, was poor, and I also wanted to see some geothermal things in the area, so I stayed behind in Taupo.
I woke up with a cold, and the shuttle to the best geothermal area in NZ, Orakei Korako, wasn’t running for lack of passengers, so it wasn’t the best start to the day. Instead I went to Craters of the Moon, another major geothermal site which featured steaming craters of various size, formed by the buildup of gas underground and the subsequent collapse of the gas pockets. I forgot my camera, so no pictures, unfortunately. But Orakei Korako, which I fortunately was able to see the next day, (despite, again, there being no other passengers for the shuttle) had similar things and much more.
The major feature at Orakei Korako are silica terraces, which are a series of escarpments of silica rock psychedelically marbled white, orange, and brown. I think they are formed by mineral buildup from the thermal water that constantly flows down them. Within these terraces are geysers, steaming holes, and cyan-blue hot pools, the most beautiful of which was called the “artist’s pallete”. There’s also some mud pools and a “geothermal cave” with clear, warm water underground which was apparently used at one time by Maori women as a mirror. On the way back, just as I passed it, a geyser built in the side of one of the terraces suddenly started erupting, sending a gush of boiling, steaming water down the face of the terrace. I was right next to the top of this geyser, so I couldn’t see the flow too well from my vantage point, but when I ran down to the bottom, it had already abated. Still pretty cool.
The next day I finally got to do the Tongariro Crossing. This is a 12 mile hike over a vast variety of terrain that is notorious for unpredictable weather. In fact, the crossing had been closed the previous day. Low clouds and moderate winds were the forecast on the day I walked it, but I’d soon understand the futility of predicting the weather in this place.
The trail had an ominous aura at its start: low clouds hung over a desolate, treeless landscape, with nothing but colorful lichens and mosses to cover the otherwise barren reddish-brown rocks. Soon a light drizzle began which went on and off, and the floodplain I now walked over had a million little trickles running through it. The Mordor analogies began here, with the landscape looking a lot like the ghost swamp from the movies.
Then the trail went upwards and upwards, and the low clouds turned into a complete fog. Only craggy outcroppings could be seen through the mist, and there was nothing to see of that fantastic scenery we had all come here for. Then as the trail relentless went up, the wind picked up…a lot, blowing wet, cold mist all over any exposed surface. A stream of would-be hikers were coming the other way, apparently turned around by the warden. This worried me, but there was no sight of him as I reached the top of this section. Next was kind of a break, a flat walk over the sandy, desert landscape of a huge volcanic crater. The feeling here was so Mordor I half-expected orcs to come shambling out of the mist. But then there was the hike up the other side of the crater, and here it might as well have been the hike up Mount Doom (side note: one of the three volcanoes in this park, the one right next to Tongariro, which is the most conical one in the pictures I have, was in fact Mount Doom from the movies). Up until now, there had been helpful steps leading up all of the inclines. Not here. Instead it was a very slow trudge up black sand and gravel on an extremely steep incline against tropical-storm force gusts. But I nevertheless reached the “top”, where there would have been a spectacular view of the “red crater”. Not today. But further on, the famed Emerald Lakes, and the still-steaming volcanic slopes leading down to them were close enough to the trail to be seen, and the clouds were even clearing at times – but my camera ran out of battery power. So a very nice couple took my picture next to one of the Emerald Lakes and miraculously emailed it to me. My hands were so cold and numb it was a struggle just to write my address.
Further on was the alpine zone, still bereft of trees but sporting a quilt of colorful lichen on the rocks, and plenty of glacier-like snowbanks. And then I reached the south slope of the mighty volcano – to see a spectacular view all the way across the mountains to Lake Taupo, for which I have no picture of course.
The trail was completely downhill from here, and after I left the volcanic zone behind (a hot stream crossed the trail at one point), low scrub quickly gave way to tall shrubs, which eventually gave way to a beautiful forest. By now, the sun had long burnt away the clouds, and the air was warm, sunny except for the shade of the trees, birdsong was in the air, and a picture-perfect stream bubbled over mossy stones. I had gone from Mount Doom to Hobbiton in less than two hours. Soon I had made it to the end, but not without a sense of dissapointment – I did the crossing, which was satisfying in itself, especially given the conditions, but hadn’t seen the best of it – and then when I actually could see some of the best of it, my damn camera decided not work. Hell, I might do it again.
South Island: Coastal Exploration and Sea Critters Galore
NEW ZEALAND | FRIDAY, 26 DECEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
“Here I am again on my own”
Thus concludes a two and a half week journey all across New Zealand’s south island with my dear old dad and a fully equipped campervan. This is really THE way to travel, and I saw more sights in less time than at any other point on this whole trip. So, I’ve got a lot to write about – I’ll try not to abbreviate anything, but I apologize if I do, because this trip isn’t over yet and I didn’t come here to spend all my money in internet cafes!
Both of us flew in to Christchurch on the same day and were off to Kaikoura after getting fully equipped and prepared. The campervan, by the way, was basically a van with a raised roof, a mini-kitchen, and a table and benches that were convertable into a queen sized bed. A shelf for an additional bed slides out above this. It is THE way to travel.
Kaikoura is a town in the northeastern part of the south island that is very big on whale watching tours, because of a very deep trench (thousands of feet deep) literally just offshore. Sperm whales come to feed on giant squid in the depths. Going in, I didn’t expect to see anything, but after only a very short wait, a whale was spotted and we jetted in its direction. He (only males dive to these depths to eat squid) was just resting on the surface, so we only saw the tip of the iceberg as it were, but even that was like watching a surfaced submarine. You could fit your head in one of those blowholes, easily – and then he was back down for another hunt, giving us a great fluke (tail) shot before going under.
But that was just the beginning. Then dolphins started showing up, flipping around and swimming along with and ahead of the boat. These were dusky dolphins, which have a little more color and our smaller than their bottlenose cousins in Florida. And they travel in enormous numbers…they kept arriving, until perhaps a hundred were doing ever more complex flips, backflips, and dives, with, we were told, twice that number underwater. Then seals started showing up, and in the midst of this fray, the whale surfaced again two more times! I saw him surface both times, which was unexpected and really exciting (despite the slight seasickness I was feeling at this point). The second time we were very close, with the dolphins going absolutely mad around the whale, and he went under again, apparently annoyed. We went in after that, and given my stomach situation, I wasn’t too dissapointed.
The road north hugged the very edge of the sea, with a sheer cliff on one side. But we didn’t get to enjoy it for too long before the battery died. The upside is that I got a picture of a quirky seafood shop with a giant crayfish on top. The car started later, but not before we already called a repair guy.
The next two days were a camping trip by kayak. In what would turn out to be a trend, the day was sunny despite forecasts for rain (the next day was overcast despite a sunny forecast). We kayeked in the beautiful Abel Tasman national park, on a stretch of coast lined with crescent shaped bays that had orange colored sand, which provided quite a contrast with the nearly tropical looking turqouise water (tropical looking, despite being as far from the equator as New York). There’s plenty of seals that make this land their home, and we saw one flinging a quite large octopus tentacle back and forth before snacking on it, just feet from our boat. These seals were as big as our sea lions, and I thought they were the same thing. But New Zealand has their own kind of sea lion too, which is a really massive beast we saw much later.
We landed at a perfect looking bay, and camped under a grove of trees that’s otherwise right on the beach. Then we ventured inland a bit – trails crisscross all over this park, and the “great walk” here is NZ’s most popular. We first came by another, much larger and more crowded bay that made me appreciate our secluded cove all the more. Then after exploring a small cave and an interesting rock formation, we kept going up and inland, into the mountains, which provided great views of a vast sandy expanse – this turned out to be a tidal lagoon, so despite being the size of a small town, it fills up and empties out twice a day! The huge tidal range in this park would end up being quite an inconvenience.
We ended up at “Cleopatra’s Pool” a wide spot in a cold mountain stream. The attraction is a perfect slide carved into the rock – perfect except for the jagged rocks at the end, but it’s fun going down.
The next day we kayaked even further, around a large seal colony on an island, in a vast bay that we never seemed to reach the end of. After another hike, we came back to find the kayak far, far up on the beach because of the tide. Seeing such a change is a little surreal but mostly irritating, because it meant we had to carry the kayak all that way.
After handily catching a “water taxi” all the way back to our start point (and marvelling at the distance we had covered) it was down towards the West Coast. We stopped briefly at Nelson Lakes national park, which afforded a fantastic view of a lake and snowcapped mountains, but also our first and worst experience with sandflies, a notorious biting bug in NZ. Maybe a hundred got into the van after only a minute of the door being opened, and proceeded to bite us all the way to our stop that night.
The next day we reached the West Coast itself, a rugged, beautiful and nearly empty stretch of shore. It’s also one of the rainiest places in the world, but we got by with only a little cloud that day, and were rewarded with views of beautiful cliffs and crumbling offshore islands. It reminded me somewhat of California, as many other places in NZ have, but so much more lush.
The highlight of the day, which was right across the road from a limestone cave that’s free to explore on your own (NZ is lousy with caves, and this wouldn’t be the last or biggest we’d explore unguided), were the Pancake Rocks. I didn’t think these would be any great shakes coming in, but they’re actually these amazing limestone formations that look like stacked layers of rock, riddled with tunnels and forming arches and strangely shaped piles. Dad likened it to a Dr. Seuss landscape. The mighty Tasman Sea crashed spectacularly against these formations, adding to the drama.
That night we made it to the glaciers, and got a glimpse of the snowcapped peak of a far away mountain. We’d be seeing a lot more of that kind of thing in the days ahead.
South Island: Glaciers, free falling, and the most epic hike of all time
NEW ZEALAND | SATURDAY, 27 DECEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
The next day was for hiking up to the glaciers. There are two of them, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef. You can hike up to a viewpoint for both, but there’s really nothing stopping you from waltzing all the way up to the terminal face (where the ice is) except a few barriers, warning signs (“extremely dangerous unstable ice” and “do not proceed”), and shouting tour guides. So that was on the agenda for sure.
Glaciers are one of the most impressive things you can ever see – just look at the photos. The valleys that enclosed them would have been prime attractions by themselves as well, had it not been for the ice within.
The walk up to Fox was shorter and with less warning signs, so we went all the way up to the face, where I almost got hit with a falling ice bomb as dad tried to take my picture.
Franz Josef took more effort – much more effort, including a detour over steep wet rocks, with a rope to hold on to and pull ourselves up with. But this glacier was simply spectacular, with a taller and much more imposing face than Fox. The valley was more beautiful as well, with tons of waterfalls on either side, reminding me of what I heard of the fiords further south. But the combination of extremely explicit signs that all but warned of certain death, my prior experience at Fox, and the intimidating sight of the glacier up close made us turn away before reaching the face.
The next morning was the helihike, which blew everything else out of the water. In a helihike, you ride a helicopter all the way to the top of the glacier and walk around. This is where the best ice formations, and perhaps even ice caves, would be.
The helicopter ride was half the fun, providing the best views I’ll probably ever get of snowcapped mountains, the glacial moraine, and, of course, the gigantic ice snake that is the Franz Josef glacier. He flew in low over the glacier before we landed, and it wasn’t too hard to imagine that this was Antarctica or Greenland.
This was even more true when we landed, and nothing was visible of the valley or the town below, or anything at all except snowy mountains and the mass of jagged ice we were standing on. It really is a chaos of ice, with giant ice slabs and ice boulders piled on top of each other in completely random fashion, pockmarked with melt holes, and with little ice streams running throughout. There’s no path, of course, so our guide had to chop little steps with his ice pick here and there so we could get over obstacles.
Just when I thought the tour was over and I wouldn’t get to see an ice cave, our guide told us he had something cool for us to see if it was still there. And sure enough, there was a tunnel carved through the ice. The walls were as smooth as porcelain and glowing blue in only the way that glacial ice can. I only had time to go in for maybe half a minute, but it was fantastic nonetheless.
We hit the road once we ‘coptered back to base, going inland now and through fantastic scenery – the sky was overcast, but there were still plenty of waterfalls and giant lakes to enjoy along the way to Wanaka, where we stayed that night.
The next morning there was rain, so fortunately we had not booked anything. But when we got to Queenstown, the “adventure activity” capital of New Zealand, the sky had only scattered cloud, and once we got to the top of Queenstown’s gondola, the sun was out, revealing the hyper-blue lake below and “The Remarkables”, which is the jagged mountain range that borders this lake. There’s a fantastic luge course at the top of this gondola that was one of the best bang-for-your-buck experiences I’ve had on this trip. I’ve heard luge described in several different ways, but here it is basically a motorless go-kart that is powered by gravity (remember, Floridians, this is on a mountain!). Great fun, and takes a little more skill than a go kart to keep from tipping over (and I still have a small scar to prove it!).
We had one more day before our epic three day hike across a mountain range, so I filled it by doing a “canyon swing”, which is basically a bungee jump, but instead of bouncing back up you swing across a canyon after the free fall. The 200 foot freefall was one of the most intense things I’ve ever experienced – you know you’re attached to a rope, but you can’t feel it, or anything other kind of grounding or tension, and your brain acts accordingly. I think I would have enjoyed the 600 foot swing across the canyon at the end, but I was still getting over raw panic from the free fall.
So it was finally time for our big hike, and the day of, which we had fretted over endlessly because of bad weather forecasts, was perfect and sunny, dotted with only a few friendly clouds. And the walk was glorious, more beautiful than I imagined any mere hiking trail could be. First was a hike through still-soggy temperate rainforest, then along one of those surreally blue New Zealand streams running through a gorge. Mountain tops were visible all around, but when we got into Routeburn Valley, things really got amazing. This was like Land of the Lost, or the Yosemite Valley that no one had discovered. Waterfalls hundreds of feet high poured down every slope, and where the valley forks into two, there sat a fantastic range of snowcapped peaks, finally visible in all their glory after days of being covered by cloud to anyone who wasn’t in a helicopter.
But then we got to the “hut”, which was more like a hiker’s resort overlooking this valley, and it rained, and rained and rained. And continued to rain the next morning, as we crossed the tree line into alpine territory. But then, being so high up, it started to snow, with just a few flakes at first, but heavy flurries following! All of this in the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of mid-June.
With everything shrouded in cloud, it was perhaps foolish to go on a side trip along one of the steepest trails I’ve ever climbed to get better views. But we did, and there was enough of a break in the clouds to see some of the surrounding peaks and alpine scenery, including an alpine lake (called a tarn) below. The way down was even more treacherous, but by looking at where my feet were going so much, I noticed some really beautiful green and purple stones, and some marbled with quartz. This kind of colored rock was all over the trail, and I suppose it was the greenstone the Maori valued so much in the area.
The rest of the day was cloud cloud cloud, except for a small break revealing a beautiful lake where the next hut was located. The way down was through one of the strangest forests I’ve ever seen. It’s so wet here that lichen and moss of many varieties grows on every possible surface, from the rocks to the trees to the ground.
The hikes weren’t taking as long as I anticipated, so there was some downtime each day, during which we played chess using trail mix for the pieces. I won both times.
Cloudy conditions continued the next day, covering the Hollyford Valley, which, as I saw later in clearer conditions, is even better than the Routeburn Valley. But then the sky cleared up in minutes as it only can in New Zealand, so we hiked up another side-summit for reasonably good views of valleys on all sides and the peaks surrounding them. But I was almost too beat at this point to notice.
I had been trying to guess if certain birds I had seen along this trail were Kea, New Zealand’s mountain parrot. But as we reached the parking lot, a huge green bird landed on a car, and there was no mistaking it. These parrots are incredibly tame, and will tear at your packs in search of food, even when you’re around. But it made for a great picture, I think.
South Island: Fiordland, Cave Exploration, and Penguin Spotting
NEW ZEALAND | SUNDAY, 28 DECEMBER 2008 | VIEWS 
I’ve been a little negligent in these journals recently, but now that I’m back in the land ofcheap internet, stay tuned, because you’ll get a new tale and new pictures (links to the right, as always!) every three days until I come home. So stay tuned! Anyway, forging on:
It was four hours back to Queenstown on a bus, and after an exquisite celebratory dinner, we felt well justified in sleeping in. But we had to drive back the exact same way the next day, and a bit further to get to Milford Sound, one of the world’s most spectacular fiords, for a cruise. But we didn’t calculate how long this “bit further” part would take, and so we missed the cruise, but fortunately got on the next one, which also fortunately coincided with a break in the seemingly endless drizzle (but not the clouds). Despite all this, Milford Sound, as so many places in New Zealand have before it, beat expectations once again. In fact, the recent rain may have made it better, because so many of the several-dozen waterfalls tumbling down the sides of the fiord, some of them roaring huge, are only fleeting and temporary, and only come with the rain. But the really amazing thing about this place was the sheerness and incredible height of the mountain-cliffs that make this a fiord. The tops of some were a mile high, and no slope or anything, just a sheer drop. Would’ve made a great bungee-jump or canyon swing…
The wind picked up as the cruise ended, and then it started raining again as we left, going down the Milford Sound road for the third time. It wouldn’t be the last.
After that we finally had a perfect blue sky day, which was good because we had a tour to kayak down another fiord, Doubtful Sound. This one is quite out of the way, and required a boat ride across a lake, followed by a bus ride to the fiord itself. This one didn’t have nearly as many waterfalls, probably because of the sunny day. The carved mountains that made up the fiord may not have been quite as tall as at Milford, but I think there were more of them – Doubtful Sound is much more extensive. And it’s quite a good experience to be out on the water, of course, even though it put us on the warpath of an angry seagull protecting her nearby nest.
The day continued to be so impossibly sunny, even when we returned to town, that it seemed silly not to do something else. So we went back on the Milford road, for thefourth time. But for only the first time, the true beauty was revealed, in the golden-red evening sun under finally cloudless skies. Those amazingly beautiful wildflowers that are every shade of color from purple to pink seemed even brighter, and then there were the mountains – amazing across the wildflower floodplains, and then truely awe inspiring close up, with their immense snow covered faces looming straight up ahead. This was the real New Zealand, the way it needs to be seen. At one lookout, we could even see the ridge we had hiked along for the Routeburn track, and the beautiful valley below, visible now where it hadn’t been before. And then, despite ourselves, we had driven all 190 kilometers (120 miles) that evening to Milford Sound to see the sun set against the great mountain at the sound’s head, Mitre Peak. It wasn’t until 11 that we returned to Te Anau, but the best scenery available in New Zealand made it well worth it.
Despite the late end, it was an early start the next day to take full advantage of this sunny spell. The plan was to do part of the Kepler Track, another “Great Walk” like the Routeburn. It required a water taxi across the lake to the start of the track, which climbed through forest seemingly forever before opening to alpine scrub and amazing views of the lake and the snowcapped mountains rising straight up, fiordlike, on the other side. We continued until the trail started to descend, because after all we had to go back the same way we came, and just barely made it in time for the water taxi.
The sun continued the next morning as we cruised along the southern edge of New Zealand. But instead of enjoying it, we explored a cave. I’d be slapping myself for doing this, but this cave wouldn’t have been possible in rainy conditions, because it would flood. What was cool about it, for a caving buff like me, is that you can just go in and explore it at will, free of charge. And this one, unlike the small cave near the Pancake Rocks, just went on and on, chamber after chamber, with plenty of tight squeezes and crawlspaces in between. It was also home to more glowworms than I had seen at the “adventure cave” and therefore more than I had ever seen.
We wizzed past a multitude of sights and attractions in order to traverse the south coast in one day, but did stop at the most southerly point on the South Island (but not New Zealand…the third largest island, Stewart Island, is even further south) which is also the “highest” latitude I’ve ever reached. And then, we drove out to a truly beautiful place, Nugget Point, where there are supposedly elephant seals. The weren’t, but we did enjoy the view of the wave-smashed and kelp fringed islands sprinkled off of the end of the point, as well as the cliff-faced coasts on either side. And then, on a beach next to the parking lot, was a real sight: this is where yellow eyed penguins, the rarest kind in the world, nest. Late afternoon is when they come back from the sea, and while waiting in the viewing hut for this to happen with a pair of binoculars, I’d never felt more like David Attenborough. One waddled halfway out of the surf and then scuttled back in a desperate, pathetic “run” when he caught sight of a gargantuan sea lion lazing on the beach. And then, just as dad was about to drag me away so we could keep going, a pair came out of the surf and all the way across the beach to some rocks where their nest was. A really amazing way to end the day.
That night we got to Dunedin, and the next day I stupidly insisted on going to the Otago Peninsula to see Albatrosses, (which weren’t readily visible) and then going surfing, (though there weren’t any waves) instead of going on to Mt. Cook. But because we dawdled, by the time we did get there the clouds had moved in again, and they only got worse the day after that (Christmas), which was a disappointing way for dad to end his trip, and definitely a bummer for me as well. On Dec. 26th there was enough sun to see one last sight of the Alps north of Cook, but not the mighty mountain itself.
I spent the rest of the week until New Year’s Eve in Christchurch, planning, plotting, and writing heaps to keep my loving fans entertained. New Year’s was going to be spent at a music festival right in the middle of the mountains of Abel Tasman National Park, where you may recall I had been before. Of course, now that I was in a city and it didn’t matter, the weather was perfect every day. I tried to rent a car to get to the festival a day early and take advantage, but they had none, and I was lucky to get one when I did.
This whole trip I had been longing for a native cultural experience – that was coming next.
New Year’s In New Zealand
NEW ZEALAND | WEDNESDAY, 14 JANUARY 2009 | VIEWS 
I had been intimidated about renting a car in Australia or New Zealand, because of the left side driving. But I really wish I had before, especially in Australia, because I got used to it faster than expected. Nevertheless, a car is always a liability, and within an hour of renting it the side view mirror fell off and I was pulled over by a cop. Someone had actually called them for my supposedly “reckless driving”! I had been eating something, and probably had one hand on the wheel. The kiwis have such a great country – maybe they should enjoy it instead of picking on harmless tourists!
I had to get back north in a hurry, so I couldn’t take the scenic route, but my route was plenty scenic enough, with rivers winding through forested mountains, and even a snowcapped mountain or two. And it seemed all the better, because I was finally driving myself!
Since the morning of the festival was New Year’s Eve, traffic was rush-hour crazy at 9am, even in the nearby country town where I had stayed the previous night. I had been here before, but now went west into the mountains instead of east to the coast. The final 11 kilometers was an horrible hardscrabble road composed of small rocks or large gravel, and definitely not meant for cars going two ways. But upon finally arriving, all of my beer was confiscated, so I had to go right back up that terrible road again and back to another town to get more.
I had been gone a long time trying to think of clever ways to hide my stash, though by that time in the day they didn’t even bother to check my car. Fortunately, I didn’t miss much of the festival – it had been raining, and continued to do so, until the clouds drmatically parted extremely rapidly, like they only can in New Zealand. And then it was party time – DJs spun like mad all night, which I kind of resented at first because I like live bands better, until I got into it. And then, to mark 2009 there was a ceremony with costumed goat-men on stilts walking around a suspended ball spouting red flame. But no countdown for some reason, so it was a little anticlimatic.
Music was everywhere, and even though this festival was thankful only a fraction of the size of the one I had been to back in Florida, stages with different kinds of music and themes popped up everywhere. One band even took over the smoothie stand and just started playing there! Most of it was electronic dance music with DJs, but there was a hardcore/metal band (Captain Killjoy) and rock/jam bands during the day. It was about 48 hours of straight, unending perfomances, which were still going on when I crashed at 4 on New Year’s night, and continued as I woke up at 8.
The morning was beautiful, and I finally got a good look at the amazing location for this festival – high up on a plateau in the middle of a national park, and surrounded by mountains and forest. The camping grounds were just on the other side of a stand of trees from the stages and vendors, providing easy access either way. The music was great, the climate and setting were beautiful, and the atmosphere was phenomenal.
So, of course, that afternoon I left.
It was really, really stupid. I was strongly disappointed that I had not seen Mt. Cook, and desperately wanted to see similar mountains before I left the South Island. I had been told that there were alpine, snowcapped mountains in the nearby Kahurangi National Park, and since the day was so perfect, I decided to skip the festival that afternoon, drive all the way down hell road again, and check them out. Getting in the park was slow going down a road barely fit for one car, and when I finally got out of the forest to a lookout point, I could see that they were not snowcapped and not all that dramatic, but most importantly, that I had wasted an inordinate amount of music time just getting there for what, at best, would have been a ten minute photo op. Adding insult to injury, I blew a tireon the way down. But hell if I was going to miss any more of the festival to go get a legit replacement, and I drove straight back after putting the spare on.
Things didn’t improve that night, as I was falling asleep far too early, and getting extremely cold besides. I was slumping back to my tent, downtrodden, when I came across a bizarre “play” put on by the festival workers or volunteers. They held up signs signifying different actions and acting them out, which was often funny but always surreal, especially in my hazy state of mind. It went on and on, with the same signs and actions cycled through for what seemed like hours, with bizarre confessional-like monologues by the different actors occurring in between. For some reason, watching these kids getting into this, while wearing far less than I was in the bitter, freezing nighttime cold, lifted my spirits, and I got back up and enjoyed the music until the sun rose.
The next day was a blurry headache as I mechanically went through one task to the next in a mad effort to pack up in the rain, return my rented things, and drive 3 and a half hours to the ferry, which I’d be catching at 5 the next morning. But I did still have enough brain juice to enjoy the drive through the mazelike Marlborough Sounds, a whole network of flooded valleys in the northeast corner of the South Island. I got to see them again on sea level when the ferry motored through them and beyond, back to Wellington and the North Island.
NEW ZEALAND | WEDNESDAY, 14 JANUARY 2009 | VIEWS 
The only highlight of my brief second stop in Wellington was the giant squid on display at the national museum. It was pretty gross. Giant squids only inhabit great depths with strong pressure, so when they are pulled to the surface, they kind of decompress and come apart, like people would on Mars or something. So it was missing an eyeball, some tentacles and much of its formerly bright red skin, but you still got a sense of the frightening immensity of such a creature – especially as it’s an invertebrate, which in all other environments can’t even approach that kind of size.
I was headed back to Tongariro National Park to give the Tongariro Crossing another go. When I had hiked it the first time about a month before, the clouds and wind had been too bad to see anything for the most part, and my camera ran out of batteries besides. But this was a major highlight for me, and I wasn’t going to give up so easily.
But first I decided to hike Mt. Ruapehu. This is maybe the most impressive single mountain I’ve ever seen. It’s flanks seem to have more snow than almost any other peak in New Zealand, and it is massively wide. It has a ski resort, which I took a shuttle halfway to and hitched the rest of the way. The lifts still operate in the summer for hikers, and I was surprised at the number of doughy tourists and their families going up to give it a try. The dour ranger at the visitor’s center had told me crampons and icepicks were required, and that going on an expensive tour was a good idea. So I thought it was all a bunch of cautionary nonsense as I rode up the lift, which was plenty scenic in itself, with good views of the Tongariro volcanoes and the top of Ruapehu itself. The top didn’t seem that far of a climb.
The first part beyond the top of the lift was a tough rock scramble with no trail to speak of. That was the easy part, because then I saw what the ranger was talking about: a vast, steep bowl of snow that I would have to climb. I had to side shuffle, spider crawl between rock islands, and make up a lot of ground between sliding. I managed to get beyond the snow by going up the side of this bowl, but I still had to climb loose rocks and muddy sand up an extremely steep slope. The top always seemed “almost there” – but a new horizon of rock kept appearing.
But then I made it – not to the top, but to the top of a ridge which made for a more level climb to the summit, which is really more like a wide basin where I assume the volcano erupts. The walk beyond this was a spectacular white landscape with rings of jutting rock cutting through the snow. And then, my destination: the steaming crater lake of Ruapehu, situated in a deep bowl surrounded on three sides by a jagged ridge. I really hadn’t thought I’d make it, and the feeling of being there was just incredible. Getting down was an absolute blast, too. Instead of fighting the slip and slide that comes with ascending a snowy slope, you just go with it and butt-ski the whole way down! It’s numbing, and a bit of a thrill when you’re going too fast to stop and there are rocks below, but fantastic fun nonetheless. And I even saw another ice cave on the way down, with a river running between the rock and a shelf of snow above.
So the next day was my final showdown with Tongariro, and while there were clouds, they were all on distant horizons. Everything was clear, and being able to actually see my surroundings made it seem as if I had never been there before. When I reached the lip of the Red Crater, which is the highest point of the trail and it’s highlight, the whole Tongariro complex was visible: the archetypal volcano Mt. Ngaruhoe, with its nearly perfect cone shape, the deep crimson of the Red Crater itself, the Emerald Lakes, sparkling in the sun this time like jewels, the more distant Blue Lake, and the desolate volcanic landscape all around, up close and into the far distance. But the trail was no less exhausting, and the swim in the idyllic babbling brook in the forest below never felt better.
I had struggled for a long time to figure out what to do next, but decided to continue on my volcano tour and go to the Taranaki region, home of the volcano of the same name, which was actually visible on my climb of Mt. Ruapehu.
Besides “The Mountain” as it’s called, Taranaki is known for its great surf. So that was another drawcard, as well as the famous “experimental art” museum in the region’s capital, New Plymouth. I went surfing first, at the town’s main beach. But despite this, it was relatively uncrowded, especially as the surf fluctuated during the day. But when it was going, it was such great surf – the waves were all groundswells, breaking cleanly in the calm water. As always, the limiting factor was my own skill. But these were great waves to learn on, and between either wiping out or not picking up enough momentum, I did get some good rides, and I think I felt myself improving.
But I paid dearly for it. I forgot how little overcast skies block UV rays, and neglected to somehow get sunscreen on my lower back, which developed one of the most painful and long lasting burns I’ve ever endured.
That night was a free concert at the local park, part of a month-long festival with events every night. It was an (all white) kiwi afrobeat band, which is kind of like jazz with an african…beat. They were alright, but the park was amazingly lit up, including a waterfall that had changing colored lights for each of its terraces.
I took it easy the next day, which was rainy anyway, and checked out that “experimental” museum. I thought most of the art was kind of trite or uninspiring, as so much modern art can be, but the exhibits by internationally-famous kiwi Len Lye were pretty cool, including a trippy animation that seemed to show weird microbes evolving, and a big electrically powered metal band that rolled back and forth while hitting a hanging ball to make cool sounds.
But then it was time to experience the big mountain, but I was ready for a relaxed hike that just took in the views rather than climb it, as I felt fulfilled in volcano climbing after Ruapehu. A two day circuit skirting the mountain and weaving through the adjacent Pouakai range was recommended to me by a local, so I did that.
The first day of the hike undulated back and forth along and between the spines of the mountain, whose upper reaches were inevitably and annoyingly shrouded in cloud. But the views beyond were quite good, including a massive bubble of dried lava that had cracked, creating a deep gorge, and very ecologically important and fragile swamp between Taranaki and the Pouakais.
The trail crossed this swamp next, and steeply traversed the Pouakai mountains up the hut, my accomodation for the night. I had been mildly anxious it would be full and I would have to sleep on the ground, as reservations cannot be made for this hut, but I was theonly one there. In fact, between crossing the swamp and at the end of the trail, a period of over 24 hours, I saw not a single fellow human being. Just before the hut was a fantastic view of Taranaki – the clouds were finally parting. And on the other side, the twinkling lights of New Plymouth far below began to shine, with the Tasman Sea beyond. I had to build a fire to boil water for my dehydrated meal, which took me maybe an hour, but was highly satisfying when I did, as I was extremely hungry and getting the wood lit from matches alone had been a challenge. And just as I had a fire roaring, the clouds were alight in one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, and Taranaki was finally free of clouds. It was just about perfect, and I slept more that night in the hut than I have in the past month.
The next day was harder, with my sunburn flaring to new levels of pain, and the trail becoming a rough, vaguely defined path through a rugged, wet rainforest, crossed by a multitude of ravines and streams with only roots for steps up and down the muddy, steep slopes. But there are few things more satisfying than the completion of a multiday hike, and few better excuses to pig out on kumara fries and mint fudge afterwards.
So that brings me to Auckland for the grand finale: a surfing, trekking, and snorkelling tour through the far north of New Zealand, which I’m in the midst of as you read this.
The Tail End
NEW ZEALAND | FRIDAY, 23 JANUARY 2009 | VIEWS 
In the beginning, there was Maui. One day, Maui and his brothers went fishing in their canoe, and Maui, wanting to catch the biggest fish, brought out his magic fish hook, which was the jawbone of his grandmother, a sorceress. He baited it with blood from his own nose, tied it to a strong rope, and cast it over. He soon caught an immense fish, and struggled with it for some time but finally landed it. The fish became New Zealand’s North Island, Te Ika a Maui, with Wellington Harbor as its mouth, the East Cape as its dorsal fin, Taranaki as its flipper, and the northern peninsula as its tail. The canoe, meanwhile, became the South Island, Te Waka o Maui.
My last week in New Zealand was spent exploring the tail of Te Ika a Maui. Tail end of my trip, tail end of the fish.
Just like I did when I visited California, I decided to splurge and rent a car for an entire week to do this. There’s a lot to see north of Auckland, and I was tired of dealing with buses.
My first stop was Goat Island Beach, NZ’s first marine reserve and supposedly a great spot for snorkelling. Now, I know I’ve raved about the water in New Zealand before, but…this was something else. For all the world, it looked like tropical water you’d see over the Great Barrier Reef or the Bahamas. Crystal clear and aquamarine. The only way to tell the difference was to step in, because it certainly didn’t feel tropical. There weren’t tons of fish, but a good variety nonetheless, including huge snapper, sea urchins, blue maomao, and what I think was a purple sea slug.
But that was just a sampler to get me ready for the best snorkelling New Zealand has to offer: the Poor Knight’s Islands, which Jacque Cousteau rated as the 7th best dive spot in the world.
That night in the hostel, however, I overheard an older Canadian couple talking about a great place to see glowworms. I ended up driving them there. It was a place in the forest actually, and just a short walk revealed a rock wall absolutely covered in the buggers. That once place alone probably had twice the number, or more, of all the other glowworms I’ve seen in New Zealand combined. And it wasn’t even in a cave. There were so many that you could make out faint bluish shapes by their glow alone.
Once again, the harbor where I left for the Poor Knights was that same beautiful color Goat Island Beach had been, and the day was cloudless. The islands are volcanic remnants, much like the islands off of Cathedral Cove are, but larger and taller, with sheer cliffs that go straight into the sea and continue downward for 50-100 feet. These cliffs are eroded into an array of arches and caves, including the biggest sea arch in the southern hemisphere and biggest sea cave in the world, by volume. An air horn blast in this giant cave (the boat easily just steamed right in) seemed to echo for the better part of a minute.
While snorkelling, I could just swim right in another large cave, which was really cool but a bit precarious, as water continually rushed in and out with the heaving sea. This motion created a powerful blowhole from an another, almost-submerged cave. With a strong swell, a firehose blast of air and water would spray out of the tiny opening remaining above the water level. From under the water, I could see a huge air pocket under the shelf of rock, which was tempting to swim into but obviously dangerous, as it continually got blasted out with each blow.
So the geology was in many ways more interesting than the marine life. There were more fish, and a greater variety than at Goat Island, but still nothing compared to a coral reef. The highlight of the day, fish-wise, was a yellow moray eel – smaller than its better known green cousin, but far more beautiful, with golden flecks glinting on its skin as it wiggled like a worm around the kelp.
My next stop was Ahipara, in the Far North. This is a beautiful place with a nationally-renowned surf spot. It lies at the very beginning of ninety mile beach, which continues all the way up to Cape Reinga. The hostel I stayed at was possibly my favorite ever style-wise: it’s an all-wood 150 year old home, the oldest in the area, that’s right on the beach.
The day after I got there the surf was not too good, so I did a day trip up to Cape Reinga and back. On the way, I stopped at the Te Paki giant dunes for some sandboarding. I was awed by these dunes – they were absolute mountains of sand, bigger even than what was on Fraser Island, and far more vast. After a painful climb up the main sandboarding dune, I looked out to see a dunescape all the way to the horizon, like a little Sahara. So I buried my sandboard and went for a walk – but these dunes were so extensive, I got lost for lack of any point of reference! When I finally did make it back, I had to climb back up to my sandboard only to find it gone. Someone returned it to the rental hut, but when I retrieved it I was a little tired of sand, being covered with it from head to toe.
After a fantastically cleansing wash off at a secluded beautiful bay (which would have been great for surfing – if only I had had a board!), I made it to Cape Reinga – the end of New Zealand. The Cape isn’t the most northerly point of the North Island, nor the most easterly – but it is where the Tasman Sea side (west) and the Pacific side (east) meet – you can even see where the currents clash, in a foamy line far below the cliffs. High up on the cliffs by the old lighthouse, you can see miles of coastline on both sides – it’s a really beautiful spot, especially in early evening. And having made it there, I can now say I’ve made it from one end of New Zealand to the other: from the southernmost point of the South Island to the northernmost (accessible) point of the North Island, and all over land or sea, no planes.
It wasn’t until two days later that the surf was up in Ahipara, and word had gotten around – apparently, this was the end of a long drought of surf, and I think half the town was there. Unlike most surf spots I’ve been to, this is a point break, so the waves sort of break at a 45 degree angle to a line of rocks, rather than right on them. In this way, you can get a ride for a long time here. After a couple of hours of practice and trying to find a medium between lack and surfers and good surf, I started to have the best surfing of my entire life. These were gentle waves with a long lifespan, making them perfect to learn on, and I could practically feel myself getting better by leaps and bounds. My last ride, after six hours, was unbelievably long, and probably by a factor of two or three the longest surf I’ve ever had. It was fantastic.
I had to leave that night to head south, and stayed in Pahia, the Bay of Islands’ main town. I debated even going here, because I couldn’t see the appeal, really, but it was more or less on the way and it is Northland’s main tourist attraction – people come up here solely for the “beauty” of the Bay of Islands.
I was right to have doubts – this was, by far, the most overrated place I’ve been to in New Zealand or Australia. Sure, it was picturesque, but utterly ordinary for New Zealand, and frankly, a good deal less appealing than almost anywhere else I had been to in the region. The islands were just green and brown lumps in the opaque greenish-blue water – which was probably prettier before all the boats started plying on it. The attraction is the hundreds of different tours and activities, which is likely why I’ve heard about it so much.
Also on the way south were the largest of New Zealand’s giant kauri trees: it was a little hard to be impressed with these after seeing giant sequoias, but one, the Father of the Forest, seemed to come close, with a circumference of over 16 meters.
Finally I made it to a place I could be suitably impressed by: Piha Beach, set in the Waitakere Ranges, a large nature reserve that’s remarkably close to Auckland. My accommodation was super-funky: an old camper-trailer welded together with a little hut to make a two-bedroom cabin. There was no running water except for the propane-heated shower.
I came here to surf, but it was impossible not be distracted by the beauty of this place. I throw that word around a lot, probably because it applies to so many places in New Zealand – and yet, so many of them are still uniquely beautiful, as Piha was. The beach is set in a basin surrounded by tall black-rock cliffs topped with rainforest, with a huge monolith, Lion Rock, as a centerpiece. There are innumerable trails up and around these cliffs and mountains, and since the surf wouldn’t be good until evening, I took advantage of these. The trail gave some amazing views of the coastline, which is mercilessly pounded by the Tasman Sea – this isn’t a sheltered bay, like the surf spot in Ahipara is.
I experienced this first hand and up close that evening. At first, it was seemingly impossible to get past the endless walls of whitewater, but it was possible by walking around the rocks at the end of the beach, and going in from a spit of sand that had collected between the cliffs and a big offshore rock. A little paddling, and I was quickly in amongst the big rollers. And they were tremendous – I didn’t do much actual surfing because the waves would either roll under me or roll me under. And if I did happen to catch one, the ride would be so wild that it’d be impossible to control the board or stand up. Twice, in fact, two absolutely titanic waves broke behind me, sending forth a deluge of water that felt like being hit with a liquid freight train. All I could do was hug the board and hold on.
It was a wonderfully surreal experience to be out there, though, rising and falling from mountain to valley in the golden light as the sun set.
Though I debated it, I really didn’t have time to surf the next morning, the day I had to return the car. So I went for another hike instead, to the last waterfall I’ll probably see for years. I expected a little trickle of a thing, but instead got a 130 foot tall, multi-terraced gusher, set in a secluded rainforest and shining in the morning light. Still impressive after all the other ones I’ve seen. The Waitakere Ranges and Piha Beach were a fantastic way to close out my four months of adventures.
So after that, I had to make a mad dash back to Auckland, take a shower, get some kiwi-exclusive treats I’ll never find in America, and type this up. And that’s about it.
Well, it was fun. I’ve got a plane to catch.