S. Island – New Zealand

Day 7: Christchurch to Arrowtown
The Southern Island is as equally stunning as its Northern sibling except that its beauty is bigger and further away. While the North Island has beautiful green, rolling hills pretty much everywhere, the Southern Island is completely flat around Christchurch (where we flew in). There are tremendous snow capped mountains and spectacular clear lakes but they’re at least an hour away in every direction (more if you go South). The only reason we made it all the way to Arrowtown on the first day was because there was nothing around to see along the coast. It was like driving in Kansas but with sea gulls… And without seeing the sea. The only notable place we stopped at was Shag Point. There were a lot of seals and penguins there. Besides that, I recommend the Inland Scenic Route for anyone planning to drive from Christchurch to Queenstown in the future. I’m guessing that’s prettier.

Day 8: Arrowtown, Queenstown
Arrowtown is an old miner’s town with one main street tucked away between huge, green mountains. It was cute and cozy as we walked down the street and I really liked it there. Queenstown was much bigger but also more picturesque as it was on a lake. The city was okay but the true beauty was in its park. At one point there’s just an open view of mountains and lake and I absolutely adored sitting there even when it started drizzling. We also saw tons of parasailers floating down from the mountain and I was so close to going myself… We also drove up to Glenoarchy that day searching for the Misty Mountains. Unfortunately, it was a bit too misty and we couldn’t find them, but the drive itself was worth it. That lake is just so big and magnificent.

Day 9: Milford Sound
It took us approximately 4 hours to drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown. It took us even longer to get back since we stopped at multiple scenic points on the way back. We took a cruise into the fjord at Milford Sound and it was so stunning. Everything there was so green and alive! I saw some of the tallest waterfalls I’ve ever seen rushing down cliffs and we also got to see more seals, go in an underwater observatory, and kayak on the sound! Driving back to Queenstown, we also stopped at the Mirror Lakes (a World Heritage Site, like Milford Sound), Cascading Creek, and many other cool lookouts and stops.

Day 10: Arrowtown, Fox Glacier
To get to the glaciers we had to backtrack so we ended up staying another night in Arrowtown since it was about $15 cheaper to sleep there than in Queenstown. The next morning, Marie went to find where they shot Rohan, while I walked along another hiking track (there are lots) in Arrowtown and checked out the Chinese settlement (much more hyped up than it should be…). Then we drove out to Fox Glacier and for the first time in months, felt truly cold. The glacier itself was small and dirty, but still cool.

Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier, Great Alpine Road, Akaroa
Franz Josef is a much larger glacier but also rocky and rapidly retreating, with a reasonably strong river flowing from it. Almost every 5 minutes you could hear a helicopter fly by overhead. We got to check out pictures of how much the glacier had retreated in only 4 years and it was pretty dramatic. Afterwards, we took the Great Alpine Road up to Christchurch and experienced another inspiring drive through mountain ranges that seemed too perfect and beautiful to be real. We passed Christchurch and drove straight to Akaroa, a wondrous little town situated on the East coast. Unfortunately, a storm hit after we arrived so we didn’t get to do much that night… On the other hand, we learned that storm watching is pretty mesmerizing.

Day 12: Christchurch
It was still raining the next morning so we weren’t able to sail out on the voyage we’d originally booked. Instead, we just walked to the lighthouse and drove back to Christchurch. We got to explore that city which was, unfortunately, very broken due to an earthquake that had hit in 2011. There was construction everywhere and the mall was relocated so the shops were in trailers. We also visited the Christchurch Museum, which had some pretty interesting Maori history artifacts. But mostly we just ended up walking in circles since we kept getting blocked by construction.

Now after spending the night in the Christchurch airport and making it through both Australian and US customs, plus a 13 hour flight, I’m finally in LAX. Back in the right country with familiar customs and free wi-fi. Australia, you were amazing but now, I can’t wait for the holidays!

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S. Island – New Zealand

N. Island – New Zealand

New Zealand is gorgeous. The two islands are actually pretty different. For instance, the north is incredibly green and hilly and beautiful everywhere you look. Every road is a scenic road and it gets hard to concentrate on driving because all you want to do is stare out the window at the rolling hills and the grazing sheep and cattle and the stunning grasslands. Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyways, here’s our amazing North Island itinerary:

Day 0: Auckland
We flew into Auckland in the late afternoon and spent the night at a hostel near the city center. We walked along the waterfront and the skyline was gorgeous! There was also an outdoor contemporary art exhibit going on so we took lots of cool photos there.

Day 1: Auckland – Mission Bay
Somehow our booking for our campervan was messed up so we were forced to spend nearly half the day getting it sorted out. We also had to buy plane tickets and reserve a car for the South Island since ferry tickets were sold out. In the afternoon, we went to Mission Bay which was, of course, stunning. Even with the weather being extra bipolar (changing between rain and shine literally every 5 minutes), the water was the prettiest blue. At night, we drove out to Coromandel Beach and met up with Ingrid and Aslak.

Day 2: Coromandel and Rotura
The next morning we went sea kayaking at Hahei beach and it was so fun! I had some trouble steering our double kayak but we still made it though a cave and landed at Cathedral Cove okay. We also got to see a seal and these really cool penguin-looking birds. Before leaving for Rotura, we also stopped by the hot water baths but unfortunately didn’t get to experience them ourselves since it was high tide… But the sand was pretty warm! Upon reaching Rotura, we also briefly stopped at their thermal springs (which smell exactly like the ones at Yellowstone).

Day 3: Hobbiton
One of the best days ever! We visited the Shire and learned how crazy perfectionist Peter Jackson is. We were so excited on the tour, we shamelessly took pictures at every hobbit hole, chimney, and grassy hill. Even Aslak, who isn’t even a LOTR fan, really enjoyed it! We got to see everything from Bagend to the Party Tree. At the end, we even got to try some drinks at the Green Dragon. I also, very briefly, lost our car keys when we got back to the parking lot but quickly got them returned. 🙂 At night, we stayed at Lake Taupo.

Day 4: Wellington
We drove down to Wellington the next morning and quickly realized how stressful city driving is. Without planning it, we had accidentally arrived in New Zealand’s movie capital on the day of the midnight premiere of The Hobbit 2. As a result, we were unable to go on the LOTR movie tour we’d originally planned (there are a lot of LOTR tour companies here). Instead, we took in some of the city sites by walking around the bustling city, including visiting Embassy Theater (where the LOTR world premiers took place).

Day 5: Wellington and Upper Hill
The next day we decided to conduct our own mini Lord of the Rings tour. We’d already seen Mount Doom driving down to Wellington so we were off to a good start. After struggling to find The Black Gate, our first stop was Weta Cave, the Academy Award studio responsible for making most of the props and digital effects for movies like LOTR, Avatar, and the Avengers. It was really cool looking at all the replicas and learning about all the care and attention that go into making a movie look good. We also visited the sites where they shot Isengard Gardens and Rivendell, but both had almost no trace of their movie glory. On the other hand, we ran into the official LOTR tour twice and sneakily listened in on the tour guides. Yay for saving $85?

Day 6: Waitoma and Christchurch
After driving up to Waitoma the previous day, we got to see the glow work caves in the morning! I decided to do the black water rafting adventure (Black Labyrinth) and I am SO HAPPY I did. Even though I accidentally missed my initial tour, I was able to go on the following one. As a result, our group was just me plus 11 Germans who were only so-so at English. Still, they were very nice and I had a blast! The water was freezing but our wetsuits kept all but our fingers warm. We got to jump off waterfalls and crawl through the openings, as well as, float along the stream with our heads back and mouths open, staring up at the beautiful, tiny blue lights glowing above us. The end was the coolest because they made us paddle in complete darkness without the guides saying anything. Our instructions were to just follow the glow worms. So cool.

As soon as that tour was over, I hopped in the shower and Marie and I sped up to Auckland to catch our 5pm flight to Christchurch. After switching Homer (our campervan) for Jess (our compact car), we managed to make it to the mall that same night and watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Which, personally, I found pretty disappointing but I’ve heard otherwise from others. Judge for yourself, but I suggest you read the book just to have a reference.

N. Island – New Zealand

Sydney

We spent 3 lovely days in Sydney – capital of Australia and real life hustling, bustling city. Here are some of the highlights:

George Street and Pitt Street: Our YHA hostel was right on the corner of both and we walked both streets quite a few times to get to different places. Both are lined with stores, restaurants, and businesses and have a thorough mix of casual tourists and formal business men and women walking along the sidewalks. When I think city, this is exactly what I picture.

Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge: Stunning, both during the day and at night. There’s also a great skyline from where they are and a really busy line of pubs along the waterfront. We also visited the Rocks and Circular Quay.

Hyde Park/Botanic Gardens: I liked the Botanic Gardens a lot better than Hyde Park, mostly because it was bigger. We saw a lot of native plants species, got to tour the governor’s mansion’s grounds, and see the ANZAC (google it) Memorial. At the Botanic Gardens, there were a ton of super intense people working out… Guess that what happens when you live close to so many beaches.

NSW Art Gallery, Library: The Art Gallery had really neat collections, except the special contemporary art exhibit. That one was kind of disturbing… The entrance featured a dead body covered by a sheet. On the other hand, the library was GORGEOUS and also had mini exhibits of its own.

Paddy’s Markets: These were amazing. Everything was super cheap and featured things from clothes and souvenirs to unique foods and massage stalls. It was also right under an outlet mall and a delicious food court.

Chinatown: Almost right next to Paddy’s. Lots of merchants and restaurants. It was actually interesting because almost everything around Sydney was translated into Chinese underneath the English, not just in Chinatown.

Victoria Building: Super expensive shops, huge Christmas tree, really neat clocks. Most beautiful building in the city.

Darling Harbor: All throughout the city there were Christmas trees and lights and banners and it was awesome. Darling Harbor also featured a million Santas. We ate at one of the restaurants at night and also tried out the Lindt Café. There were carols at night but we missed them.

Sydney Aquarium: Ever since seeing the Beijing Aquarium when I was little, I’ve been pretty disappointed with every aquarium I’ve visited since. But Sydney Aquarium was actually very different and impressive. Part of it was that the animals were more unique (platypus!) but also the underwater tunnels were awesome! We saw sharks, dugongs, and sting rays swim around and over us! Pretty cool.

Manly Beach: This was undoubtedly my favorite part of Sydney. Upon recommendation by several people, we went there instead of Bondi Beach and I’m so happy we did! We climbed up to a lookout and the coast was absolutely beautiful. The beach wasn’t too crowded and we basically napped on the rocks. Everything else (besides the markets) on this list was free and we only had to pay a ferry ticket to get out here. It was so worth it. Up on the lookout you couldn’t even tell we were only 20 minutes out from downtown Sydney. It was a perfectly clear day where you could see all the way to the horizon… I absolutely adored it.

Say what you will if we missed any important sites, but I really liked our itinerary for our short time in the city. Especially since it meant food and accommodation were our biggest expenses!

Sydney

The Outback

I now understand what all the hype is about. If you ever come to Australia, I strongly recommend going out to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I’ve really enjoyed the drive simply because I enjoy driving but the scenery is a little deserted (haha, get it?). There are other ways to get out there so go on! It’s worth the trip!

We spent 3 days hanging around Uluru national park. You’re not allowed to sleep in the park so we stayed in a really nice campground about 15 min from the entrance. In my opinion, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) looks like a giant croissant. It’s immense and red and has a ton of folds and cracks and holes, but also looks incredibly smooth at the same time. We went to see sunrise and sunset (both beautiful) and drove around the base since it was too hot to walk. We also stopped at the cultural center. It wasn’t too impressive but it was interesting learning about all of the stories and histories the people living there had found to explain the land.

We also spent a day at Kata Tjuta (Olga’s). It’s bigger than Uluru and only about 20 minutes away in the same park. I’m not sure why it’s not as well known except maybe because it isn’t considered as sacred? This was actually my favorite of all the places we visited because the rocks looked so artistically spread out and formed. Here, we hiked tthe Gorge Walk and the Valley of the Winds Walk. Both were super pretty because you actually walked between the rocks and got to see so much more. The whole track was worth photographing and we were pretty sure it was a very natural path; so natural, in fact, that we had to go around sometimes because a creek had formed on top to the rocks. It was great!

The last big attraction we stopped at was King’s Canyon, a couple hours away from the other two sites. We did the Kathleen Springs Walk but were immensely disappointed because everything was dead along the way… Apparently there had been a wildfire a year ago and nothing had grown back even. We could see scorch marks along the rock walls where the fire had climbed and there were only a few ugly weeds along the way. Even the spring at the end was black and mosquito infested. On the other hand, the Rim Walk was a completely different story. We climbed to the top of the canyon and the geology was so cool! The top looked like a city of mounds because of how the wind and rain had shaped the rocks and the canyon itself was so deep and green! The complete opposite of the bright red rock face. Imagine any scene you’ve seen of a bird’s eye view flying over a ravine and multiply that beauty by 100. So thrilling!

Our best night of the trip was completely unexpected. We stopped at “Australia’s UFO capital” to camp and the owner said he had a surprise for us. We went into his office and he gave both me and Marie a pillowcase containing a… Wait for it… BABY KANGAROO! A real, breathing, soft, adorable joey who we got to hold and pet and feed and look after for the next few hours. I cannot begin to express how awed and excited we were to be playing with such cute fluffy babies!! They were only a few months old and sadly their mom had been shot. Aboriginals brought the babies in. I was so happy to be with them, even when I had to chase my baby (Toby) around because he got frightened from the noisy birds overhead squawking. Also worth mentioning: Black Dog (actual name, aka Blackie). This big, black dog had apparently fallen out of a yute and also been adopted by the campground owner. He was so friendly and playful and especially took a liking to Marie. He followed her around everywhere and was even lying outside our tent when we woke up. Love him!

Now, road trip #1 is complete with both of us plus Totoro (our car) totally safe. Can’t wait for Sydney and road trip #2 to begin!

Oh and sorry ’bout the lack of pics. I didn’t take any on my phone but maybe I’ll add them later.

The Outback

ROAAAD TRIP – Oz Style

Marie and I took 8 days to drive from Townsville to Uluru/Ayer’s Rock and back. GoogleMaps advised us it would take ~30 hours one way. Overall it was your standard budget camping road trip but there’s some things you should know.

1) It’s HOT out here. Like 41*C every day. They’re not kidding about the whole desert thing so don’t go if you won’t have A/C.

2) Gas stations are scarce — maybe 100 km apart in some sketch looking “town” consisting of one building and 2 old Aussies. We already had to help one lady who ran out of petrol 25 minutes away from the nearest station.

3) Camping is cheap — $15ish per night — but so are the accommodations. Hot shower, toilet, and sinks. They also throw in complimentary flies to swarm your face. Once, we got 2 peacocks!

4) Everything looks the same. Red dirt. Yellow brush. Green trees. The road’s almost completely straight the whole way so you better have a great soundtrack ready as you barrel 130km/hr down the highway.

5) There’s so much roadkill on the road. Mostly kangaroos and wallabies, sometimes cows. You can always tell when it’s coming up because a whole crowd of crows and hawks will suddenly take off of the road as you approach.

BUT it’s definitely worth it. The destination is great and this was my first road trip experience sans parents. More on the attractions next!

ROAAAD TRIP – Oz Style

King of Thieves

IMG_1777Brush turkeys and kookaburras are dangerous!

Kookaburra sits in the ol’ gum tree
Merry merry king of the brush is he

He might be merry but those signs are no joke. After our first final, Tara and I were walking from the library happily munching on delicious cookies our friend Gigi had baked. Out of nowhere this huge bird swoops pass me, its feathers within an inch of my face.  I was so glad it missed me when I turn to see Tara madly swearing and cursing at a large kookaburra who had just stolen her cookie. He’d snatched it from her hand and was just sitting on the ground looking between it and Tara. It was one of those funnily tragic moments. Luckily we could still share my cookie. But lesson learned: beware the birds!

King of Thieves