Heading North

Dubbed as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is a mecca for mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, parasailing, skydiving, and water sports. As much as I would love to retail you with stories of jumping off of stuff and careening down things, I did very little (read: none) of that during our couple of days in Queenstown. What we did, mostly, was enjoy being in town and catching up with some of Tim’s old friends. We spent a couple of days drinking our way around town and enjoying the bustling, light-hearted atmosphere of the place. Queenstown itself is beautiful; surrounded by hills, perched on a gorgeous lake, it is certainly your picturesque New Zealand town. This is somewhere a person could happily spend a few months out of the year.

Queenstown

It was then time to begin our long journey north. We left in the afternoon, after Tim squeezed in a quick mountain biking trip, and headed towards Castle HIll. Castle Hill is an area dotted with very unique rock formations, and has become a popular spot for climbers and boulderers. We pitched out tent for a night in the nearby campground (for a whopping $12/night) and managed to get a solid half-day of climbing in amongst the boulders. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Picton that evening, where we were to catch the 2 a.m. ferry back to the North Island. Upon arrival in Wellington somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 a.m., we didn’t waste any time before commencing the 8 hour (ish) drive back up to Auckland. The hurry was purposeful, though, as we got back to Tim’s family’s place at a reasonable hour in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We had an amazing Christmas – my second in a row in this half of the world – and I was completely spoiled and  felt right at home with stockings, a turkey, and thoughtful gifts. Though missing all of the crew back in Canada, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better time in New Zealand.

And there we have it! (I’m finally almost caught up!) We had a couple of days to pack, and pack again, and shove all of Tim’s remaining stuff into closets in the garage, and we were all of a sudden off to Mexico in a very short amount of time!

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Steam and Caves

We left Coromondel for Rotorua, where the smell greeted us before much else. There is a huge amount of geothermal activity in the area surrounding Rotorua and Taupo, which are situated in Central North Island in New Zealand. So much so that places in the centre of town are steaming pools of sulfur. In places, sections of brick or cobblestone pathways will be blocked off, due to the bubbling water surfacing through the infrastructure. Despite the rotten-egg smell, Rotorua is the host of many pleasures to keep a tourist entertained for at least a couple of days. There are a limited number of places that the public can access warm sulfur pools for free, but they tend to be a bit tricky to get to. We visited Hell’s Gate, one of the commercial offerings, and after a walk around the grounds, which were full of pools of varying heats (some reaching far above the boiling point of water, possible due to the high mineral content of the water,) we indulged in a mud bath and sulfur soak. Frankie says relax.

Rotorua is also well known for it’s Māori cultural performances. With, I’ll admit, rather low expectations of the event, we attended a show at Te Puia in the evening. A tour of the area, including Pohutu Geyser, was followed with a cultural show and hāngi – a traditional Maori meal prepared in, essentially, an oven dug into the ground. We learnt a good amount about the culture of the Māori people from the area, marveled at the geyser spewing 20-odd metres into the air, and settled down to watch the show. The talent of the performers was undeniable, but the authenticity for something like this is always a bit lost on me when the set-up is so commercial. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable evening, and the food was far beyond expectations. This sort of evening won’t be a steal, with the guided tour, performance, and meal combo running $150 a head. We had wanted to visit the park to see the geyser anyway (which is also not free), and part of the crew was very keen on the performance, so we decided it was worth it to combine it all and splurge on a big evening.

Geyser

Continuing the highlights of North Island New Zealand the following day, part of the crew went up to Matamata to visit Hobbiton, where they were thoroughly impressed with the exceptionally cute miniature hobbit houses set into the hill. Dad and I opted for a day around Rotorua, which most notably included a couple of hours at The Wall, where I got Dad up on his first indoor rock climb.

The next overnight was New Plymouth, where some slightly removed cousins of ours live, and had generously offered to put us up for a couple of nights. En route to New Plymouth is Waitomo Caves, a series of underground caves that have been developed for tourism and adventure tourism. With different levels of intensity to choose from, the family and I were all happy. Everyone else went for a couple of walking tours through two different caves (Ruakuri and the Glowworm Cave), while I opted for a five-hour adventure called Black Abyss with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.

Black Abyss took the team down a narrow abseil, through a section of Ruakuri cave and included rafting in the darkness, below a canopy of glowworms; jumps into and swims through the water; and a free climb out of the cave over two waterfalls. The day was awesome, and satisfied some of the craving for adventure I’d been feeling.

The next couple of days were spent in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island, at our cousins’. My personal highlight for the area was Mount Taranaki, a rather imposing volcano a little ways from town. I spent a few hours hiking up and down the mountain, and got picked up around five p.m., just as the wind was really picking up and the rain started. A couple of days later, we heard the tragic news that two experienced hikers had gotten stuck on Mount Taranaki the same day I had been there, and had both passed away. Mount Taranaki claims the lives of more people each year than any other in New Zealand, due in a large part, I’m sure, to its easily accessibly location. Furthermore, the volcano sits essentially alone, close to the coast, as in the line for fast and variable weather. After seeing how quickly the weather can change firsthand, as well as the steep, icy ascent to the summit, I can believe the stats.

Taranaki

A big day of driving was ahead of us the day we left New Plymouth, as we headed past Auckland to the town of Whangerei in Northland. En route to Whangerei is Kawakawa, whose main tourist attraction is the public toilets. This sounds a bit odd, but the Gaudi-esque toilets, designed by Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser are actually well worth stopping for. With that pit stop behind us, we continued to our destination. Whangerei itself was a bit average, but our days surrounding it were quite superb. In the morning, we headed up to the Bay of Islands, and ended up jumping on a last-minute cruise through the islands. This trip far exceeded our expectations, mainly due to the outstanding dolphin spotting we were privileged to. The islands and surrounds are beautiful, but the pod of dolphins we saw – playing, jumping, and splashing through the water – was the pile of cherries on top of a very tasty cake. That adventure turned into a full-day affair, so we saved the rest of our Northland to-do list for the following day. This involved driving over to the west coast to visit a large Kauri tree stand, which includes some of the oldest Kauri trees in the world. The incredible size and age of the trees before us was outstanding. Google Kauri trees. (Because I still have no photos. Fail. Fail. Fail.)

KauriDolphins

With that, we headed back to Auckland to explore the city for a couple of day. This was an opportunity for my family and Kiwi’s family to meet, which they did, over brunch. Things on that front all went very well, which is obviously a huge bonus.

And then it was time to go. Well, for them to go. After spending a month with my family, and picking up essentially where we had left off over a year ago, it was definitely a tough goodbye. I’m incredibly lucky that they were able to come down to the other side of the world for as long as they did. We had an amazing trip, and made some amazing memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks guys!

Queens of this Castle

So I’ve failed, and now continue to fail in a slightly less severe way. These blog posts are waaay overdue. And now they are happening, but sans photos. No photos because I somehow didn’t get around to going through all of the photos from the family vacay, and now they are sitting on a harddrive in Auckland, not to be seen again until Christmas, when I will have enough time to sort through several hundred, do a quick edit, and belatedly add them to this blog. Yes.

So, sadly, for now (because otherwise these posts will probably, let’s be honest, never happen) there are stories, and no pretty shiny photos. See: fail. Nevertheless, the show must go on, as they say. And this show left off somewhere in Coromandel, in the North Island of New Zealand.

Coromandel is a pretty stunning part of New Zealand, dotted with beautiful bays, excellent beaches, and tumbling hills that offer extraordinary views. During the first full day we had to explore the area, we headed south from Whitianga to Hot Water Beach. New Zealand is full of hot springs, and on this particular beach (It’s best to hit it on receding tide) hot water bubbles up from underneath the sand. A small spade or two is all you need to build yourself your very own private spa pool. The trick is getting the delicate mix of steaming water coming up from below and cold water on the surface right. What appeared to be perfectly fine hot pools lay abandoned, and a cautious toe into the burning water told us why. We ended up with a reasonably well-combined pool; frequent stirring keeping one side from remaining too hot and the other too cold. The occasional breach of the sand wall between your pool and another could throw off your system entirely, and frequent shoveling was required to keep the small walls from caving down entirely. Yet somehow this rated exceptionally high in the quality of spa pools I’ve sat in. Perhaps only higher is a friend’s homemade, perfectly round (and therefore rollable and movable) spa that uses a removable woodburner to heat the water. (And yes, we’ve already had the debate of whether a spa made of wood that eats wood is slightly cannibalistic.)

Hot Water Beach

After that we headed over to Cathedral Cove, where a stunning naturally formed archway dominates the beach. The area is accessible only by a small walk or by water, which adds to its appeal. I’m sure there’s a lovely photo, somewhere. Damn it.

Cathedral Cove

The following day we split ranks, half of the group opting to take a glass-bottom boat trip around the area. My mom and I planned to take the gravel road back across the peninsula, visiting some stops along the way including a Kauri tree grove and a walk up to Castle Rock. Kauri trees have got to be in the race for the largest and oldest trees in the world, and they can be found in different groves across New Zealand. Castle Rock was what I was particularly intrigued with, as it been described briefly as a short but tough hike up to the rock, with amazing view of the peninsula from the top. Guidebooks and Google searches offered not much more information, so we though we’d give it a go.

From the beginning, it was clear that this was not a standard, touristy, well-developed hiking trail. We headed down an almost unmarked road that appeared to generally be used for logging. Our Toyota minivan’s capability was put to the test, as we climbed steep gravel inclines, not entirely convinced this was the correct way. We finally parked the van in a deserted logging lot and walked uncertainly toward the start of the “trail,” an unmarked path heading rather subtly into the bush. It appeared to be roughly pointing the correct direction – up – so we began our adventure. The trail was certainly rustic and was quite a mission to navigate towards the top – apparently too much of a mission, as we ended up missing the split in the trail, and somehow seemed to be heading back down in a loop, a loop that did not include the top of the rock or any particularly fabulous views. Rather determined to see this through, I spotted a break through the bush heading up – someone had clearly done the same as us and decided to break their own trail through the slippery and uncooperative vine-like trees that were growing there. Struggling up, I realized it would actually be quite a lot more difficult to come down, so I carried on. I eventually rejoined what appeared to be the main trail (it was very hard to tell, as it was little more than a few broken sticks and a lightly worn dirt path), and continued on in the general direction of up. I finally made it to the promised rock scramble to the top, briefly weighing the possibility that I would not be able to get back down (Mom had waited at the break in the trail, not particularly keen at the idea of wrestling with a vine forest), and I wasn’t sure if my voice would carry if I got truly stuck. With the relative confidence I’d gained from my recent endeavors into rock climbing, I decided to continue, and scrambled up to the top of Castle Rock. The view was truly something, most of the peninsula in my sights from the vantage point. The exposure was also quite thrilling, and it took me a couple of minute to be comfortable exploring the few square meters at the top. After savouring the climb for a moment, I began the mission back down which, as with all steep and technical hikes, was rather trickier than going up. I came out where we should have turned initially, and realized upon exited why we had not seen the nearly nonexistent break in the trees that led to the other trail. Mom and I finished the descent, rather pleased with how the unexpected adventure had panned out, and headed back home for one more night.

Castle Rock Views

Castle Rock

 

The TrailThe Finish Line

Te Ika-a-Māui

Contrasts are one of the best parts of travelling. Finding yourself in foreign lands where donkeys carting loads of hides reaches a new level if the person pulling the donkey is chatting on their iPhone. One of the most interesting countries I’ve visited, from that view, is Morocco, where beaches crash into snow-capped mountains that crash into desert, a heady mix of spice markets and high-end shopping found in the midst. As this section of the world would arguably never reach the same level of confronting contrast as many developing countries would, it was still an excellent jolt to go leave the hot, orange, flat and empty deserts of the Australian Outback and be transported to the incredibly lush, green, rolling hills and winding roads of New Zealand’s North Island.

North Island

We arrived in Auckland and promptly left, as we planned to spend our time in Auckland at the end of our two weeks in New Zealand. One night at what we affectionately dubbed the IKEA Hotel near the airport and we were off to the east (roughly), to spend a couple of nights in the Coromandel Peninsula. On the way to our overnight destination of Whitianga, we made a couple of most excellent pit stops. We began our culinary adventure in New Zealand with a stop at the Coromandel Oyster Company, just outside of the town of Coromandel. My uncle had been on a mission for oysters since arriving in Australia, and I think that we finally found the place for him. We actually drove past it initially, and were about 5 kilometres down the road when we all voiced what we’d been thinking, that this shack near the water would damn well be the best place we’d experience fresh New Zealand oysters, and we turned back in the pursuit.

I’m not a big fan of shellfish. Or, indeed, most ocean-dwelling creatures – apart from fish. (Which I love. Sushi is the best thing ever. Mmmm … sushi ….) I once read an article or a blog post or some such by a man who hated olives and had, by chance, found himself living in Spain where an olive is more likely to be found as an appetizer (and all of the time, really) than really much else. (Incidentally, Spain produces something like 80% – 90% of all of the olive oil in the world and much of it is shipped first to Italy, to be packaged and branded as Italian olive oil, before it is distributed to the rest of the world.) His solution to this conundrum was to eat every olive he encountered, with the theory being that he would eventually stop hating them. Tried and true, this theory worked for him, and I assume he is off on a Spanish island somewhere, scarfing/scoffing* down olives by the handful. I found this a useful gem of inspiration, as I have often felt as though I am missing out with my inability to appreciate seafood. I have previously tried this method of eating all encounters with mushrooms, something that my family can attest to I’ve hated since childhood. The result was that I no longer shy away from these common fungus, and even go as far as suggest their addition to a multitude of dishes.

My transition to seafood has taken signicantly longer. I have learnt there is little point in trying calamari when someone who loves calamari says that it is average, as it just puts me several steps back in my journey to love all of these weird, slimy, chewy, mushy, bits from the ocean. So, I have refined my tasting journey to only include what seafood lovers would consider good. This was certainly one of those times.

Coromandel Oyster Company

Our other main stop during our first day’s drive was at what I have dubbed Secret Beach. Wainuiototo Bay is known as one (if not the) most beautiful beaches in New Zealand and, according to the locals, is one of the ten best beaches in the world (I have yet to see this claim echoed by any measuring body). Part of the appeal of Wainuiototo is its seclusion and entire lack of development. The beach is reached by a 30 minute walk, mostly over large, slippery rocks, from the town of Whangapoua. There is no development visible from the beach, a fact that, is likely to change in the coming years. A visit to Wainuiototo in its current state is something that you may not get the pleasure of again.

Secret Beach View

Secret Beach

And with that, we continued our twisty, windy, curvy drive towards Whitianga, our jumping off point for the next couple of days.

Views

* I had a fight with my British roommate over the correct word to use to describe eating aggressively and excessively. Urban Dictionary confirmed that scarfing is the North American slang and scoffing the British. Important things.

Red Earth

We arrived in Alice Springs into a rare bout of “rain” and cool weather. It was only about 27 degrees, and I counted at least 12 raindrops coming from the sky, which is apparently quite the downpour for the desert town.

With little intention to linger in Alice Springs, I did have the chance to briefly catch up with a friend of mine, who I had met in Canada and had returned home to Alice. We had a brief catch-up, and she gave us some recommendations for our trip. The major one of these was to take the “other” way of getting to King’s Canyon, our first stop on this leg. The main, highly touristed route goes south from Alice along the Stuart Highway before cutting west and then back north for a short jaunt to the canyon. It appears to travel mainly through relatively boring and not particularly scenic desert, and will take you about five hours (461 km and 4.5 hours, according to the King’s Canyon Resort website).

The second option was to head west and then south, following a slightly more direct route. This route cut through the Macdonnell Mountains, took the Mereenie Loop Road, and was promised to be “heaps better” than the alternative. There was also a large proportion of it, or 198 km to be exact, that was unsealed. “A normal gravel road,” Kirsten stated. “You can go like 80.” This route would also take about 5 hours. (320 km and 3.5 hours, according to the website. This is a lie.)

It was clear what option I was pushing for.

The first bit of the trip was lovely, the only fault was perhaps in our choosing of the stops along the mountain range. One we did nail was the Ellery Creek Big Hole. Outstanding scenery, the water appropriately icy for a desert watering hole, and a strange blanket of calm and serenity in the air made a swim here an incredible experience. A few feet from the shore, I fought the shivering in my bones and the rising goosebumps on my skin and submersed myself entirely. I burst the surface of the water, and the cold seemed to wrap its tendrils around my chest as I struggled to catch my breath. In a moment, my breath and heart rate seemed to have returned to normal, and I took a few strokes to the center of the water hole. Sound from the shore seemed to drop away and I was pulled forward by the urge to keep swimming towards the rocks that rose up around the far edges. As I floated there, in a rare state of serenity, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we had arrived at someplace very special.

We carried along our route with a couple of unorganized and un-thrilling stops; time, indecision, and popular opinion restraining us from partaking in any of the gorge walks throughout the mountains.

Gorge

We carried on, wanting to arrive at our destination, King’s Canyon Resort, by a decent hour. And then we hit the unsealed part of the road. It felt like someone had churned up piles of spiky rocks into rock hard concrete, let it set, then broken it up a bit, added some serious potholes, and covered the whole lot in a thick layer of unrelenting washboard. All 198 kilometers of it. Several times, we saw a shredded tire laying on the side of the road, making us cross our fingers in hope that our Rav’s rubber would stand up to the challenge. A breakdown out there would have been dismal, with no cell reception and the frequency of other vehicles being about once an hour.

This was not taken particularly well by my travel companions, though everyone did hit a point after about two hours where we could do little more than laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It was comparable to the level of sleep deprivation where everything just becomes exceptionally funny.

Each rise in the road came with a surge of hope that we would spot the end in front of us, and subsequently squashed when we reached the crest and saw the wide, rocky “road” stretching out into the distance. Each paved floodway, steep incline, or set of sharp corners was met with a sigh of relief accompanying the momentary reprieve, and then slightly bitter resignation when the road returned to the jarring sound and vibrations of the endless washboard.

Trying to remain positive through the mounting tension in the air, I viewed this as an interesting twist to our adventure. I even had the thought, though I doubt I bothered to voice it, that if we went fast enough we could potentially just skirt over the top of the washboard, smooth sailing. This optimism was not necessarily shared by the rest of the group, though, weeks later, comments were made about their bitter memories of the road softening with the passage of time.  After doing some research on the road after the fact, it appears to the be the universal opinion that this, in fact, the best way. Reviews mentioned “some corrugations,” and it may be that we hit the road immediately before it was scheduled to be grated. Despite the mission, I would still give this route another go, just making sure to allow a solid day for the drive to give enough time to enjoy it and the stops along the way.

The Road

Eventually, the washboard ended and the rattling faded from our ears into the black night sky behind us. We set up shop for one night in our sweet cabin in King’s Canyon Resort. Feeling the desire to treat ourselves, we headed out for dinner, most of us opting for the parma on special. Aussies seem to have attempted to claim Chicken Parmigiana as their national dish. I’m not sure how or why they’ve adopted this Italian classic and claimed it as their own, but it’s a staple on most pub menus, and any proper Aussie will undoubtably, at one point, insist that you have a parma while visiting their country.

The following day, we split ranks, and my mom and I headed off to walk around the top of King’s Canyon. The rest of the group did the creek walk through the center of the canyon. I found King’s Canyon to be one of the most stunning places we visited in the Australian Outback. The walk was excellent, with very few guard rails inhibiting our ability to get to the very edge of the best views. The walk started with a large staircase that looked as though it had been more coaxed into being than made by hand. The natural rocks formed a solid staircase-like climb to the top of the Canyon, where we skirted along and around the top of the canyon before making our way down.

King'sStaircase Mom and I - King'sKing's

Out next stop was, of course, the iconic Uluru though, along the way, we discovered something that none of us had been aware of before the trip. En route to Uluru, there is an even larger monolith that sits on a privately held cattle station. Without a tour, stopping at the roadside lookout is the only way to view Mount Connor / Attila. A couple of post-trip Google searches later, and I have very little information on the mountain, with one website telling me that the height of Mount Connor is only a few metres shorter than Uluru, but that its circumference is about three times greater.

Mount Connor

We stayed in a two bedroom cabin in Ayers Rock Resort, a few kilometres from the entrance to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. We spent our first evening lounging on our patio, enjoying the warm desert air and making plans for the two days we had to explore the rock and surrounding area.

My Dad and I woke bright (not literally) and early the following day, and headed off in the dark, cold, morning in order to catch the changing colours of Uluru as the sun peaks over the horizon and lights up the rock. We were, of course, not alone in this endeavor. We watched, with growing trepidation, as a line of tour buses made their way to our communal destination. The park had, of course, catered for this influx of camera-toting tourists (some even came with boxed breakfasts and coffees) and had built a two-tiered viewing platform so everyone could capture the majestic and serene moment of the sun rising over Uluru in the remote Australian Outback. Right.

In an attempt to recapture some of that magic, we headed down to the walking path a few metres in front of the platform (where about six other people were milling about, their view of the iconic rock unobstructed by the half-balding heads of random tourists) and watched the glowing red rock come to life in peace.

Uluru Sunrise

After returning home for a quick nap, we were up and out to the rock again, this time to walk the 10.4 kilometre track around the base. The rock was actually much more fascinating up close than I would have initially guessed. Most of the postcard-esque photos we associate with Uluru show the rock in its entirety, sitting in what seems to be the centre of the remote and endless Outback. As I walked around the base, however, I was struck by how much it changes and how many sections of the endless red stone appear entirely unique. The surface of the rock is incredibly varied, with some sections so interestingly textured they could have been carved or painted. We saw water holes and the dry evidence of waterfalls, a source of life for people and animals alike, hidden amongst the barren surroundings. There were a number of sites along the base that hold special significance for the Aboriginal people of the area, and are said to be equivalent in importance and their history as an ancient religious scripture. We also saw the site that houses the still-operational Uluru climb, despite the fact that it is widely accepted to be disrespectful to climb the rock. The proportion of visitors who climb Uluru has dropped significantly over the last ten years or so, and requests for people to respect the culture of the Aboriginal people and not climb Uluru are printed in most of the tourist paraphernalia and on signs around the climb itself. There is a strong push to close the climb entirely.

Base Walk

Rock Detail

Water Hole

It was my mom’s birthday that day, so that evening we went out to celebrate. In true vacation style, the previous morning we had all wished her a happy birthday, as we had all lost track of our days. Now on the correct day, we went to an outback barbecue where we purchased a selection of meat (kangaroo, crocodile, emu, steak), cooked it ourselves on the barbecue, helped ourselves to the buffet salad bar, and sat back to listen to a one-man cover band . Excellent birthday.

Kata Tjuta (known also as The Olgas) is also in the national park and actually has more cultural significant to the Aboriginal people of the area than Uluru. Comprised of a cluster of large rock formations that provided shelter and was a haven for water, life, plants, and animals, Kata Tjuta was therefore a haven for a survival.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta View

We had a flight to catch early-ish that day, so our exploration of Kata Tjuta  wasn’t as extensive as I would have liked. We got some incredible views of the place as we drove to and fro, and took a short walk into the rocks for a closer look. You could happily spend hours exploring the numerous pathways and lookouts that snake through the formations.

Kata Tjuta with Fam

And that was pretty much that for our time in the centre of the vast country. We prepared to board our plane back to Sydney, and a rush of excitement overtook me as we headed towards home. Home to the friends and the love that awaited me in the closest place I’ve had to home in quite some time.

I left the rest of my family to their own devices for a day and a half in Sydney, and they organized themselves a trip out the Blue Mountains and some sightseeing around the city. I took advantage of my day off from touring to catch up with the crew, do some life admin, and repack my bags in preparation for New Zealand.

Adios Outback

It’s a Family Affair

Travelling with family is different. It’s a challenge, it’s enlightening, it’s fun, it’s strange, and it can be a bit of a struggle. Particularly when said family completely fills up a silver Toyota RAV4 and spins across several hundred kilometers of Australian coastline and outback in two weeks. Perhaps the most fitting adjective for the first leg of my family vacation, though, is awesome.

My parents arrived in Sydney on a Friday morning, accompanied by my aunt and uncle. Due to financial complications because of an injured right knee (see previous post), I opted to put one last shift in at work and forego the airport reunion. I rationalized that a 3 p.m. finish wasn’t too bad, and arranged to meet them all at my work around that time.

It’s been nearly a year since I left Canada, so a year since I’d seen the parents. Seeing them appear in Sydney, tourists on the streets I’d come to know, to love, and the streets that were as close to being called home as anywhere, was surreal. They looked, for all purposes, the same. I’m sure I did, too. Yet somehow it seemed as though this year away had removed me more from the life I had grown up with than all of my previous moves, trips, and time spent abroad. I didn’t feel any less close with them, but the reality of the fact that I’ll be spending a lot more time away from “home” really hit. Perhaps these big blasts of reunion time, once a year or two, is what we’ll be forced to become accustomed to.

A couple of days of being tourists in Sydney happened to coincide with the city’s International Fleet Review, when tens of thousands of other people were also playing tourist in downtown Sydney. A few plans spoiled by road and ferry closures still resulted in a great evening perched on top of a hill watching a fireworks display that was echoed down the harbour, part of one of the largest events the Sydney Harbour has ever seen.

Fireworks

We then packed ourselves and our stuff into the trusty Rav rental and headed off for the coastal drive towards Melbourne. We stopped overnight in a small, picturesque town called Eden. What commenced when we got there was a rather desperate search for food, as our 8 p.m. arrival appeared to coincide with the closure of all eateries in town. We wandered down the empty street to the Fisherman’s Club, and lucked out with late night dinner offerings extended to 8:30 p.m. Each of us ordered some form of fish and stuff, and I stared at the wine list for approximately 10 minutes, nearly refusing to believe that you could buy a bottle of wine for $15. I’d become far too accustomed to Sydney prices, where you’d be more likely to get a glass for that amount.

Eden

We made it to Melbourne the following evening and began to explore the city. I’d been there before for a few weeks and enjoyed playing tour guide to some of the excellent spots I’d discovered on my first go. Graffiti covered walls in alleyways, shiny rainbows of apples at the Queen Vic Markets, and delicious Pho coloured our short time in the surprisingly captivating city.

Melbourne

Street Cars

Queen Vic Markets

Graffiti 2  Graffiti 3

Graffiti

We spent two days navigating the curves of the Great Ocean Road that stretches west from Melbourne. Cute seaside towns, dramatic rocky coastline, and rather remarkable winds encouraging our journey.

Great Ocean Road

Apollo Bay

We visited some of the most popular rock formations that dot the coast, including The Twelve Apostles (there are currently some number less than twelve left) and London Bridge. When London Bridge collapsed in 1990, two tourists were trapped on the remaining rock. This made me rethink my previous comment of how cool it would be to be present when one of the Apostles or another rock formation collapsed into the sea.

Twelve ApostlesTwelve Apostles

London Bridge

A major highlight of the Great Ocean Road is koala bear spotting. Kennett River is well-known as prime koala bear spotting, and spot we did. Take along some old bread and you can also have the pleasure of brightly coloured packs of birds careering at your head to feed.

KoalaKoalaGreat Ocean Road Birds

Another excellent spot to try to catch sight of those furry little balls that spend most of their time in trees, asleep, or casually munching on eucalyptus leaves, is on the road out to the Cape Otway Lightstation. The lighthouse itself is average, but the bears on the gravel road on the way there were amazing. We saw many more than we had at Kennett River, including a baby hanging off the back of its mother while they went about their business in the trees. The most remarkable thing we saw – and heard – was two koala bears fighting over the same branch of the tree they inhabited. The deep, throat, guttural growling sounds they were making was unlike any sound I’d heard. Generally sleepy and rather slow-moving creatures, it was quite strange to see the aggression that emerged. Their scuffle was resolved relatively shortly (the koala on the branch in question managed to hold down his turf) and the challenger retreated to a neighbouring branch. They both returned to their munching in peace.

Koala Fight

Koala Fight

Koala Fight

After taking the inland track through Colac back to Melbourne (which saves a significant amount of time on the return journey), we woke early and prepared for the next leg of our trip: a flight to Alice Springs for a few days in the Australian Outback.