Pelotons of lycra-wearing men riding their $5000 road bikes down the main drag in Noumea at 6:30 am was not what I expected from a South Pacific island. It turns out you can’t keep the French from enjoying a good cycle, even if you plop them in South Pacific. We saw over 100 riders, some solo, some in groups of 15+, on a random Tuesday morning while we were waiting for the bus. New Caledonia is weird.
Only on a French island would this be the beach trash
Unfortunately, our second full day did not bring great weather, even though my parents in Fiji had good weather. We started with an AM snorkel. Since it is winter in New Caledonia, the water is cold. With my wetsuit shirt, I lasted about 30 minutes, and Katy lasted a little longer in her summer wetsuit. The clouds were still there after we finished our snorkel, and we decided to go for a walk. The town was a lot more alive than the day before, a rainy Sunday. We ended up at the same supermarket, Casino, as the first day and restocked on some staples (including a selection of local beers). Just in case anyone cares about my opinion, Casino is a stupid name for a supermarket, especially in a city that actually has casinos.
Trying all the local beers
Since we are experts, we grabbed another bus back to our hotel. There are taxis in Noumea but very few of them. It is next to impossible to just flag one down on the route. Uber has not yet reached most of the Pacific islands, including New Caledonia.
We ate a mixture of olives, cheese, cured meats, and baguettes for a late lunch. The weather was still not very nice, but we were determined to be outside, so we hung out on the beach chairs and read our books. The towels ended up migrating to on top of us since it was a tad chilly. We then cleaned up and went out for some beverages. Food and beverage in New Caledonia are not cheap. I would put prices a little higher than Hawaii. A beer pint of beer costs $9-12. We first went to the local brewery, 3 Brasseurs, and got a beer. We then migrated next door to another drinking establishment and got another round of beers. It was one of those places that calls itself a brewery but doesn’t actually brew any beer.
We ordered an appetizer plate, which ended up being enough food for dinner for the two of us, and they provided such an excess of cured meats that I probably took 1/3 of a pound home. It cost ~$75 for four drinks and the appetizer. We had an early night since we had early diving plans the following morning.
The common poisonous but not really dangerous sea snake all over New Caledonia
Booking a diving excursion was like pulling teeth. First, we tried calling all of the dive shops, and they would not answer their phones. Then we attempted to ask the concierge for help arranging diving, and no one was there the three times we inquired. The next day we found the concierge, and he turned out to not be helpful. We then walked to a booking office for one of the operators, and they were closed (even though the hours said they should be open). Then the next day I tried calling again, and one place said no dives until the weekend, and finally, one place said they were going the next day and to meet at the boat dock at 7 am, she even took my first name as a reservation.
We took the 6:27 am bus, which disgorged us a few minutes early, and so we had time to explore the local market. Eventually, the operator arrived a bit after 7 am, and we processed through. We then had to wait because the cook didn’t know we were going out that morning. Eventually, we headed out to Amadee Island, which is an island with a lighthouse built in France in ~1850 on Napoleon’s orders and shipped to New Caledonia in pieces, then assembled on the island. We went for two dives and explored the island. Luckily the sun came out for parts. Lunch was a very French experience. We were told that lunch was going to be fish. I immediately thought it was going to be an overcooked white fish. It turned out to be marlin cooked medium rare with a French Rochefort sauce.
We were pretty hungry by the time we got back to the port, and we decided to head back to the hotel for some more cheese and baguette, albeit with a fresh baguette.
I had forgotten to rent a car the previous night for the last day, and we were unable to do it that close to the rental time when we got in. The last day we did a combination of riding bikes, snorkeling, walking into town, and hanging out at the beach. It was a windy day with windsurfers and kiteboarders out in force, but a little sun did pop through which was welcomed.
We grabbed an airport shuttle at 8:30 am our last day which got us to the airport excessively early. We arrived well before check-in for our flight even opened. The Noumea International Airport was not a hopping place. Two early morning flights had already departed, our flight to Vanuatu and an Auckland flight we’re departing around noon, and a Tokyo flight left at midnight (it turns out New Caledonia is rather popular with Japanese tourists, but not Chinese tourists). Luckily we got near the front of the line for security when it opened, and it was a slow process. I got selected for explosives screening, which added five minutes to the process. We then made it through immigration and were on our way to Port Vila, Vanuatu after a short delay.
Katy and I are off on another adventure. We have spent over 50% of our nights not at ”our house” since the wedding, traveling a ton. I was excited about the honeymoon, but there was so much going on around it. Getting married, trying to spend as much time as possible with everyone in Boulder during the wedding weekend, and moving were minor distractions before the trip that took my mind off it. This trip I am genuinely excited for and felt the excitement for several days before leaving. The goal of the journey is to take advantage of being a three-hour flight from tons of pacific islands and to explore the South Pacific for a few weeks. I have to admit that before this trip I don’t think that I could tell you that all of the places we are going to were countries. The trip starts with five nights in New Caledonia, then eight nights with my parents in Vanuatu, and then ten nights in Vanuatu just the two of us, a quick one night in Fiji, and then back to New Zealand.
New Caledonia is the largest lagoon in the world with the entire country being surrounded by reef.
New Caledonia is officially a special collectivity of France, which is just another name for being a territory. New Caledonia had a referendum in 2018, and ~53% of the population voted to remain part of France and ~46% voted to become independent. The turnout for the vote was over 80% with very high participation among young Kanaks, the indigenous population. There will be another referendum in 2020 and 2022 according to an agreement signed by France in 1998. Since it is part of France, there is a large number of European expats and French tourists, especially this time of year since it is summer holiday time in France.
We had an early morning, catching a 5:35 am shuttle for our 6:40 flight to Auckland. When we got to Auckland, it actually took a while to get through immigration, and we only had 10 minutes to grab breakfast and a few Bloody Marys (Katy). We had a very uneventful flight to New Caledonia. Despite being in row 14, we had about an hour wait for a cursory immigration passport stamping. The wait turned out to be a moot point since our bags were two of the twenty last bags off the plane. It was at that point where I was starting to hope our bags actually had made the flight.
We took an expensive, disorderly shuttle bus to our hotel. It turns out that since New Caledonia is part of France, they drive on the right-hand side of the road, and this is the first time in about nine months that I’ve seen drivers not on the left.
The only reason we are in New Caledonia is that the Le Meridien hotel was offering any room in the hotel for 4,000 more points per night (than the base rate) and the fifth night free. That means for 160,000 points (fewer points than opening one credit card and making two referrals) we booked the 2,000 sq ft presidential suite. I assume it was a glitch, but who knows. It priced that way for several months, so I am not sure if it was intentional or just a very long price mistake.
We arrived at Le Meridien, and I have to say that I was slightly disappointed. This is the only time in my life that I will have reserved the presidential suite beforehand, and they didn’t even mention it upon check-in. It was a very French, very efficient, check-in. Upon arriving at the end of the corridor, we had a slight hesitation since the room numbers ended, and there was a door without a keycard blocking the hallway. We pushed that open, and our terrace was to the right, and the room was to the left. During their recent renovations, they had turned five rooms into the suite we have for five nights.
There is a dining room table for eight, with place settings for eight, including a stove and dishwasher. One thing that was lacking was a single piece of cookware. Enough silverware for a seven-course meal, but not a single pot or pan. Hmmmm. I think that there is not a positive correlation between having the only stove out of 250 rooms and actually using it. We were slightly bummed since that meant either getting aluminum foil to cook eggs on or forgoing eggs for five days. Luckily, I have experience with attempting to use aluminum (please pronounce this in your head al-you-min-EE-um) as a cooking surface and recognized that that never ends well.
We then discovered our rather large couch (Katy: perfect for cuddling!) with a good-sized TV (so far this space makes up 2 of the previous five rooms). Then we had a desk, and a media room with a larger TV equipped with a remote containing exploded batteries, which made the tv permanently stuck on. I halfheartedly tried to remove them and failed. There was also a half bath off the media room.
Then we had the bedroom (size of two rooms) with two chaise loungers and a circular couch. Behind the bedroom was the bathroom, which was approximately twenty feet long and only had one upholstered chair in it.
We had about 60 feet of balcony off the room and a private terrace across the hall. It was acceptable. We unpacked and went to the pool and beach for a bit. Even though we woke up early, it was nice to be settled in our room by a little after 2 pm and only to have traveled one-time zone, making us 15 hours later than EST instead of 16.
Our first activity was to cook in the sun at the beach/pool for a little bit. The beaches in Noumea are public (which is not the case for many Pacific Islands) and being a Saturday, and there were a fair number of people out. We then went for about a two-mile walk along the beach and walkway to a grocery store. New Caledonia/Noumea is “weird.” It is the first beach destination that I have been to that doesn’t cater to English speakers. The design aesthetics are a mix of French, island, and pseudo-Soviet block concrete buildings. It is by far the most prosperous South Pacific island that we have been to. There are Porsche’s and Audi’s. Buildings seem to be recently painted and in good repair. It has a very functional bus system. The main town is sort of a mix of Waikiki, Cancun, and France without the crowds. Since it is part of France, French wine is cheap, and there are a ton of specialty wine stores. Bakeries plying people with freshly baked baguettes, and grocery stores with a large, cheap cheese and cured meat selection (imported from France) are abundant. It is a cool place. We are just staying in the main city since we are doing outer islands in Vanuatu, but there are a ton of smaller islands that you can visit too.
My feet had some rubbies from my sandals after not being used to wearing them (during winter in New Zealand), and we had groceries, so we decided to take the bus back. We waited 20 minutes, paid our $2, and hopped on the bus. We then ate ramen, cheese, cured meats (only me), and baguette for dinner. I drank some IPA that I had brought, and Katy drank a French Bordeaux. After we finished eating they surprised us with a cheese platter and a bottle of champagne, which reaffirmed our happiness in the hotel room.
The next day was forecast to be the worse weather day of the following five. It was sprinkling in the morning, and we decided that we should do a morning snorkel. We asked the towel guy where we should go, and he said between the wharf and the restaurant on the pier. Katy put on her wetsuit, and I put on my 1mm wetsuit shirt, and we headed out. We saw some huge stingrays, but no coral and few fish for the first ten minutes. We started to think we had been led astray when we started to swim back to the shore and discovered the coral. The coral was some of the least bleached coral that I have seen in years, with a lot of fish. Unfortunately, it was approaching low tide, so we swam around the edges since it was too shallow to go over and visibility was less than awesome.
We then rinsed off and put on some sunscreen on and took our rain jackets and headed to town to go to the cultural center. Luckily they offered Katy an umbrella to borrow at reception, and I had a well worn, rather sad, pocket umbrella that is half-collapsed and turns inside out with the smallest of wind gusts (it is about 23% effective). We grab the first bus and deftly get off where we aim to and then discover the next bus we need doesn’t come for 40 minutes. We start walking around town and discover that Noumea shuts down on Sundays, and everyone hibernates when it rains.
After some consternation about where to wait for the next bus, we get the line 40 and head to the cultural center. It is a very impressive building with a lot of potential, but it lacks some of the background history on the Kanaks that Katy and I would have liked.
During the week the buses run every twenty minutes, but since it was a Sunday, it was down to every hour. We then headed back to the center of town and waited for line 10 back to our hotel. We waited and waited. Line 90 came, which would have taken us halfway, but we passed since it was raining heavily. We waited. Eventually, a little soggy, our bus arrived after thirty minutes. We took the bus to the stop before the hotel and grabbed an ice cream and a fresh baguette from the store. We decided to repeat the dinner from the previous night in the room, albeit with the bottle of champagne we didn’t drink the night before. I won both games of Catan.
July is not summer in New Zealand; it is the heart of winter. New Plymouth likes to celebrate winter by being 50 degrees and overcast. There is also a healthy dose of rain to make sure the weeds grow even faster than in the summer. Fiji, on the other hand, is a warm island that has abundant cheap beer to drink.
Katy worked overnight and got home from work at 8:30 am and was planning on going straight to bed, but she was too amped up from leftover work endorphins coupled with the excitement of the beach. We grabbed a 12 pm flight to Auckland and after visiting our favorite Auckland airport lounge, Strata, and getting fortified with a few beverages we boarded our plane for an uneventful three-hour flight to Nadi, Fiji. It is pretty crazy how close New Zealand is to the Pacific Islands, closer than even Australia. It also has the same time zone as New Zealand.
After an uneventful flight we arrived in Nadi and did some line cutting to jump the immigration queue. Well, we didn’t really jump the line, we just ducked under a rope to a shorter line… Katy left immigration with a giant smile since she got a passport stamp and the agent did a very orderly job of stamping her passport in a spot she approved. We then took a 30-minute van ride and a 20-minute boat ride to our island, Serenity Resort. Katy was a trooper all day, but by this point, she was exhausted after less than a handful of hours of sleep in the past 30+ hours.
We arrived at Serenity Resort and transferred to a launch to take us the last 100 yards over the reef surrounding the island. One of the staff was standing, waiting for us while playing a nondescript cheerful song on the guitar. We then scampered down some movable stairs, trying to avoid the incoming waves and keep our shoes dry, we were successful. We checked into our room and went for a night walk on the beach. Unfortunately, it turns out there were sandflies on the beach, and Katy ended up with about 20 bites, which would lead to a lot of triamcinolone use over the next four days.
The next morning we had a 7 am wakeup call thanks to some beautiful music being played by the gentleman sweeping the sand off the boardwalks around the island. After our morning wakeup, we walked to the restaurant for some breakfast. The resort is pretty small with less than 30 rooms, but since they are all separate bungalows the resort is rather spread out. I was warned that breakfast was going to be $9 USD for a continental breakfast and $18 if you wanted hot food. We were pleasantly surprised that the continental breakfast was actually more expensive than the hot food, with my staple of grilled fish with hollandaise costing $6, $9 if you got two eggs with it.
I was worried that the nine beach bungalows were going to be snagged early, so I made a beeline for them, only to discover that only three were used all day. We transitioned to a beachfront bungalow with a hammock and lounger after the first night, and it turns out that everyone with a waterfront bungalow hangs out in their own area, leaving the beach cabanas largely unused.
After heating up in the sun, we went for a snorkel, and it was okay. There were lots of fish, but not a lot of coral. We later learned that the best snorkeling started about 50 feet from the farthest point down current that we went. We took a break from the snorkeling to go and “feed the turtles” that they were “rehabbing.” It turns out that there was not any feed to give to the turtles, so it turned into a turtle cleaning sessions which consisted of toothbrushing their shells to remove any algae that had built up on the shell. We then grabbed some lunch and headed back to the beach.
It was a good day on the beach with good weather. The next three days were much of the same, but with varying amounts of clouds. We had many great snorkels. The dry season in Fiji also corresponds with their winter. The water was slightly chilly, but I brought a 1 mm neoprene wetsuit shirt that actually worked and kept me warm. I normally freeze in water, but I actually got cold after Katy with the shirt. A side bonus was that it protected me from the sun and the amount of sunscreen that we needed to use. We are currently in rationing mode since we only have so much of “the good stuff” and about a month of South Pacific trips planned. The air temperature was warm, but unless you were in the sun it was not so hot that you started sweating.
The food ranged from great Fijian food to them running out of fish and not being very good. I have to say that overall, the food was not the best part of the trip. Drinks were expensive on the island, ranging from $5 for a local beer to $12-20 for a cocktail. We did spend $58 at the duty-free store in the airport for 2 liters of rum and a dozen beers. We drank all the beers, but not all the rum. During our trip, we had four local lagers Vanu Lager, Vanu Export, Fiji Bitter, and Fiji Gold. Vanu Export was my least favorite, followed by Fiji Gold (Katy’s favorite). Fiji Bitter was my go-to since it was cheap and had slightly more flavor than the other ones, but Vanu Lager was a better beer, and if it was the same price, it would have been my go-to. The water on the island was desalinated and tasted salty. It tasted gross. Luckily we had brought some sugar drink mix to make mixed drinks. If we mixed that with the salty water we ended up with gatorade which worked in a pinch.
We attempted to go diving one day, but it did not work out and resulted in us sitting around for almost an hour. The resort was great but definitely had some issues. Our last day on the island we were planning on leaving on the 1 pm ferry, but it rained the entire night before we were leaving and it was still raining in the morning. We decided to attempt to change to the 9:30 am ferry and were successful. We first walked up the ramp onto our resort’s launch and in the rain headed out to the catamaran ferry. We then deftly stepped from one boat to the other with the waves and successfully made it onto the ferry. We had a very uneventful ferry ride that stopped at about five other islands to pick people up before we arrived at Port Denarau. It rained the entire journey, and the boat went from pretty empty to completely full. When we arrived at the port, it was an unorganized mess coupled with rain. We eventually grabbed our bags that we rather wet and headed to a bus for the ride to where we were staying. After waiting for 15 minutes on the bus, they said that we were waiting on another ferry to arrive. I was frustrated at this point by the rain and waiting and went to explore getting a taxi. The bus driver was actually really helpful and called one for us, and it was well worth the $3.50 taxi ride.
We used a “free night certificate” at the Westin. The credit card costs $99 a year, so it is a prepaid $99 hotel room, in my opinion. When we checked in, we were offered an upgrade to a one-bedroom suite, but it turns out that the room had a leak in the roof, so they gave us a room with a private outdoor plunge pool. It would have been great, but the rain put a damper on enjoying our private pool and all the pools of the resort. Katy did get her swim on, but I was a little too chilled so I turned the room into a giant clothes driving cave so our bags would be dry for the plane ride home the next day. The rain subsided in the evening, and we were able to watch the sunset without getting a tropical soaking and enjoyed a beer. Katy then enjoyed a massage. We then headed out to the airport the next morning and flew back to New Zealand.
It was a great trip. It was not sunny the entire time, but the weather was still good and our bad weather day was on the best possible day.
The third part of our trip to Australia was the Great Barrier Reef, one of Katy’s bucket list events. Katy had wanted to get certified to scuba dive for the past 15 years and thought this was a good time to get certified. We decided to do an e-learning class, pool day, and a three day liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef. Since I had not been scuba diving in the past twenty years, I decided to do the class with Katy. It was also cheaper to redo the class than do a refresher dive along with the liveaboard fee.
The first day of our class was pretty uneventful, and there were only three of us which made it go pretty fast. The van pickup in the morning was pretty amusing, and they seemed to do the pickup in order of the cheapest accommodation to most expensive accommodation. Naturally, we were picked up first, and the couple staying at the Shrangra-la was picked up last. That evening we wandered around Cairns some more and discovered a giant lagoon pool in the center of town. Cairns for being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, actually does not have a beach in town, and this giant pool is what they do to compensate. Katy was rather bummed that she was wearing sneakers, so she was deprived of the privilege of stomping through the shallow section. We stopped by Hemmingway’s Brewery, which was better than the average microbrewery we have encountered in Australia/New Zealand.
We had a nice and early 6:10am pickup and were transferred to ScubaPro, our boat for the next three days. We were given one of the three cabins that had a window, but not one of the two double bed cabins. Katy immediately chose the top bunk since it looked out the window. The boat headed out, and we were advised to not hang out inside for the four-hour cruise to the reef due to the prevalence of people getting seasick. Since Katy has a solid history of getting motion sick, she was the among the first that headed out to the sundeck. I waited a quick minute to grab our reef safe sunscreen and headed up with Katy to put a solid application on to try to avoid becoming a lobster, something I am genetically predispositions to become in the sun. After a peaceful, uneventful ride, with only one victim of seasickness, we arrived at our first dive site.
The first day we did two training dives and one snorkeling trip. The coral on the Great Barrier Reef is more impressive than I remember other coral that I have seen. Plus there are a ton of fish and more than a few sea turtles hanging around. The second day involved two dives as part of the class, and the rest were on your own. We had the privilege of having a rather annoying gentleman join our lesson on the boat, and we were rather excited not to have to dive with him anymore. The day ended with a guided night dive where I saw sharks and Katy saw giant spheres of light. Her night vision is not good yet for night diving we discovered.
Our last day, we had two more dives before we headed back to Cairns. It was a great learning to dive experience. It was also a great cap to our trip. We had one night in Brisbane and then we flew back to New Zealand.
We woke up our first morning in Cape Tribulation with no sense of urgency. The lack of urgency was due to the fact that about thirty minutes after we crossed the ferry the previous night they closed it. They very rarely close the ferry, and it is not rare to go an entire year without closing the ferry once. We logged onto the Douglas Shire council’s Facebook page, and their update informed us that the ferry might open up later in the day, but it wasn’t guaranteed. This meant that many businesses were closed, since the workers live on the other side of the ferry, and they could not get to work. The water was also too high to do any of the river cruises or crocodile safaris we were considering.
We were very relieved to discover when we headed out that the water level had dropped a decent amount from the previous night, and the road leaving the accommodation was no longer flooded. I was not looking forward to driving through that again.
The roads were delightfully void of cars, but rather full of debris. You could tell that the water had gone down significantly since there was not as much encroaching upon the roads and far fewer waterfalls actively attacking the road. There were two sections of the road with trees down, and it looked like a local had taken a chainsaw and cut a section large enough for their car to fit through and then continued on. Thankfully my car was smaller than their car, so I was able to squeeze our car through as well.
We eventually made it past an epic car-eating pothole to our destination for the day, the Daintree rainforest discovery center. There was a ground level walk, an elevated walking path around 20-30 feet off the ground, and a tower that took you to the top of the canopy. It was interesting, but most of the wildlife was hidden away since it was still raining out.
Our next planned stop was to get ice cream, but both of the ice cream shops were closed. Katy was not happy in the slightest. We abandoned the idea of ice cream for lunch and went for real food. The first two places we tried to go were closed, but the third place was open. We learned that much of the Daintree shuts down if the ferry shuts down.
We then went for a walk on a beach boardwalk through mangrove forest where we actually encountered a human and made two stops on the beach. The beach is not really a great swimming beach because it is currently stinger season (box jelly fish), and there are saltwater crocodiles that occasionally come to the beaches. We then headed back to our bungalow/treehouse. The water had risen some since the morning, but the water was still not on the road. I then went for a walk through the fruit orchards and picked some mangosteens (a fruit the size/color of a plum, but that contains pieces of white flesh inside, and is mild and juicy).
After our dinner of grilled barramundi (local white fish) we checked the ferry status, and it turns out that the ferry only opened for about an hour all day, and water levels were still at the upper limit of moderate flood levels. Part of the issue with the ferry is that the rain also correlated with a king tide, which is the highest of high tides. The ferry opened at the low tide mark, and they predicted they would open around 12:30/1pm the next day, once the tide went out again in the morning. This timing worked for us since we wanted to cross the ferry at about that time.
The next day we ate breakfast, went for a walk around the orchard, marveled at how much lower the water level was (although it was still flood stage), and headed back to the elevated jungle walk. We saw a lot more animal activity, which probably corresponded with the rain having stopped for the first time in several days. Along the way we were still skunked by the first ice cream place, but the second one was open, and we got some jungle fruit flavored ice cream.
It was then my turn to drive onto the ferry, and boy was it easy compared to Katy’s conquest. The ramp lowered at a manageable level, and there was no water to wade through on either end. We then headed to a sugarcane and cocoa farm tour. The tour was just okay. You could tell the farmer had a set script, and it was his wife’s idea, but there was a canola farmer on the tour that asked a bunch of interesting questions, which made it way better than it would have been otherwise.
We then jumped into our car, overjoyed that it was still not raining, and headed towards Port Douglas. Port Douglas is a coastal tourist town about 45 minutes north of Cairns. I was expecting a high-end ritzy town and was pleasantly surprised by how laid back and pleasant the town was. We booked into the Pullman hotel, which was a touch more than we normally spend on hotels, but in low season it was less than half the price it normally is. I somehow was expecting the drive from the sugarcane plantation to take a lot longer than it did and started to give Katy grief about her navigation when she was telling me to go on all these side roads, but I was wrong, and she successfully guided us there in record time. I somehow had accumulated low level status with Accor hotels, but I have no idea why. The hotel was kind enough to give us an upgrade to a one bedroom suite and a bottle of champagne.
The main reason we were staying at this hotel was the pool. They claim the pool is the largest one in Australia, which might be a true statement… It doesn’t exactly have a lazy river, but it is pretty impressively large with columns supporting tiki torches throughout. Shortly after we arrived, we headed to the pool. Katy being Katy has forced me to pack her lollipop floaty. This floaty took up 1/4 of my bag and is about six feet long inflated. Katy of course designated me as the lollipop inflator. Let me tell you, next time I am bringing a pump even if it takes another 1/4 of my bag. After ten minutes of blowing the floaty up, it was only 3/4 inflated,and my face was as red as a beet. This entire time Katy looked on urging me to blow it up faster and to not take any breaks so she could “lollipop” sooner. I finally topped it up,and off she went into the pool. Unfortunately our evening pool time was interrupted by what started as a sprinkle and turned into real rain. At this stage, the lollipop came in handy since we popped it over our heads, and it was an instant giant lollipop umbrella.
It turned out that our room had a full kitchen and laundry which was a giant win. We made a quick grocery store run and cooked some dinner. I think that after dinner I promptly fell asleep. At least I tried to be sneaky about it by falling asleep briefly in three different places for varying times. Meanwhile Katy was productive and finished up her scuba diving certification e-learning.
I started the next day with a bang by setting off the fire alarm while cooking soy breakfast sausages at 8:30. Boy was the alarm loud, and thankfully I was the only one who felt a need to leave the building like the alarm was instructing you to do. I may place the blame with the fake meats, but it truly was user error. Afterward, I finished cooking breakfast by microwaving the breakfast sausage, and then we headed out to the beach.
Even though our resort was on the beach, we had to drive about 10 minutes down the road to get to an area where it was safe to swim. It is the middle of stinger season, and they have certain lengths of beach completely surrounded by nets that are small enough to prevent the small irukandje and larger box jellyfish from coming in and ruining your day. After beaching for a few hours, we wandered and explored “downtown” Port Douglas. This really means that we walked down the Main Street until Katy found a place she could get a turmeric latte and that was where we ended up eating lunch. On the way home we stopped at the weekly farmers’ market and grabbed a couple more avocados for $0.70 each (this is a steal since they are now out of season in New Zealand, and they were $3.50 USD when we left), some rambutans, and a guava Apple (it was named something like that). It was then time to head back and do some more pool lounging.
Our final morning at the Sea Temple I managed to cook breakfast without setting off the fire alarm, which was a major internal victory for me. Katy then went and got in a final pool session for about 30 minutes. It was a great weather day, and we headed towards Kuranda so Katy could add to her list of alternate modes of transportation. With much excitement, Katy paid the $160 bill to ride a really long gondola (7.5 km) to a mountain jungle town and then a 1.5 hour scenic train ride back. My enthusiasm was tempered because I took it that we were paying money to ride in a metal sweat box for an hour in 95 degree weather with near 100% humidity.
A positive was that it was not raining and relatively clear, providing views of the hinterland. I think this is the first time I have heard someone use the term “hinterland” in earnest, rather than in jest. Soon after we made it in the sweat box to the first platform, the breeze picked up, and it became downright pleasant. It was actually a pretty cool ride above the trees. We saw many Ulysses butterflies, which are the bright blue ones, some green parrots (I have no idea if they were parrots, but it sounds better if I say they were), and many types of flowering trees.
We eventually made it to the town of Kuranda where the gondola terminated and we made a beeline to the koala gardens. Katy had discovered that she could hold a koala and get her picture with it, and she decided it was a must-do on the trip. The koala park zoo was rather small, but there was a part where you could feed a variety of marsupials ranging from the small pademelons to the larger wallabies. Then it was time for Katy to hold the koala. We got in line for the “cuddle a koala” experience, and Katy gave me VERY strict instructions to be very slow taking pictures of her holding the koala, and then for the group photo of both of us and the koala to be slow to walk over to give her more cuddle time with her koala. Needless to say, Katy enjoyed cuddling the koala and has talked about it for days afterwards.
We then explored the town some more and grabbed the train back to our car. The train turned out to be 90 minutes of screeching brakes with maybe 10 minutes of views. It got a little old after the first 15 minutes. In hindsight doing the sweat box gondola both ways is the right choice.
We then made it back to Cairns, checking into our pleasantly nice $50 backpackers hostel, returned the car, and went to a couple happy hours around town. Cairns is definitely a real city with some solid tourism infrastructure. The second part of our trip was a blast, even though the weather wasn’t the most pleasant. There is something to be said for being in the rainforest when it rains almost two feet; it certainly adds to the atmosphere.
We headed out of Sydney right when the weather was finally predicted to become nice to head up to Cairns for 10 days. The issue was that the night before our departure, a cyclone struck the northern part of the state we were heading to and then got stuck there due to a pocket of low pressure. This meant that we headed from rain to more rain. Even though it rained a bit during the first part of the trip it was still great
Our flight was an uneventful three hour journey to Cairns, and then we hopped in the shuttle bus to our rental car. It was raining. Cairns is an ocean front town, which many of the major cities in Australia are, that is frequently used by visitors as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. We got our car and stocked up on food and headed to the Atherton Tablelands. The tablelands are an area about 30 miles inland that are at 2,500-3,000 feet. They are a big agricultural and dairy farming area. The rain thankfully stopped before we left the grocery store. We had a very, very windy road to gain the elevation, with some misty clearings, but most of the views were socked in by the clouds. We made a couple stops, with the first being a giant fig/ficus/banyan (pick your terminology) tree and the second being a dairy/cheese/chocolate factory.
One difference from New Zealand that we noticed right away is how red the soil is, coupled with slightly different fauna, and with a lot less ferns and palms. We continued our drive and stopped at a random farm stand and picked up some avocados, limes, peppers, and potatoes for the next few days. The limes were a big score, since for some reason they are $20 USD/kg in New Zealand and were only $3 USD/kg at the stand. Our next detour was to Malanda Falls, which would have been an awesome swimming hole if the weather had been better. Instead of swimming we went for a short walk looking for tree kangaroos. We walked at an excruciatingly slow pace since Katy held onto my arm and looked up into the trees the ENTIRE time, trying to catch a peek of the elusive tree kangaroo. We eventually made it to a platypus viewing platform, where we saw a bunch of turtles and a bush turkey, but no platypus. Katy did take a break from peering at the treetops when I discovered a pademelon which is a marsupial hopping around on the ground. We got skunked on seeing any tree kangaroos, but at least we saw a few creatures.
We then arrived at our AirBnB, which was a little cottage next to a couple’s home a couple miles off the main drag, past the milking station, past where the two-way road narrowed to one lane. It was a great AirBnB. The owners brought over some purple and yellow passion fruit, which have slightly different tastes. They also showed to us a couple nasty jungle plants to avoid, including the stinging tree and the lawyers’ vine. We settled in with some beer and a game of settlers and they came back with a giant granadilla which is the largest fruit in the passion fruit family. They cut it open and explained how to cook the flesh which is starchy and slightly fruity. I would put it close to a potato, in that it is fairly bland and goes well with any seasoning, which worked out well since we were making a curry for dinner. We managed to avoid rain and mosquito bites the rest of the night, but had to retreat into the house after settlers due to Katy not liking the size of bugs (Katy: HUGE!!) that were attracted to the outdoor lights.
The next day we woke up and realized why they had a fire going in the house the previous night when we arrived. It was wet, the type of wet that makes your completely dry jeans damp, and that will prevent your clothes from ever drying. As we were packing up the car it was lightly raining/being 100% humid, and once we pulled out of the driveway it started to rain for real. Unfortunately this rain was stubborn and would last all day and into the next one. When it was just medium strength raining, we were going to take another shot at seeing platypuses, but a few seconds before we pulled into the parking lot the rain intensified significantly, and so we abandoned that plan. We then continued on to a coffee plantation and went on a tour and had a coffee. We were doing decent on time at this point, but that was not to last. We then continued our drive towards the Daintree River ferry, but we discovered the road was closed 10 miles before a junction that we needed to reach. This necessitated a driver change and what turned into a 3 hour detour to backtrack. The road was closed due to flooding, and the waters were still rising at that point. Due to the detour, we had to skip all of the activities we had planned to do that day and basically spend 6-7 hours driving instead of 3ish.
We used our internet skills and found the Queensland road closure page and were able to assess that we could still make it to our destination. We also found the Douglas shire council’s Facebook page, which was giving updates on the ferry we needed to cross the river, and they said they might have to close at 5:30pm instead of midnight due to high (and still rising) water levels.
We made it to the ferry before they closed due to flood levels. The ferry is an old school river ferry that operates on a cable system and goes straight across the river. It is the only access to the area by car. We could see why they were saying it might close because the water level was a touch high. The scary part was getting off the ferry. The exit ramp was rather flooded and luckily there was a car ahead of us so we followed them and made it to dry ground without a hitch. By rather flooded, I mean the river was so high the exit ramp from the ferry was at almost 45* instead of the normal 15*, and there was probably a foot of standing water at the junction of the road and the ferry ramp. I have to admit that I was glad I was not driving and also glad that somehow water did not come in through the car doors. The rest of the road was pretty manageable, but you could tell the rain was rather intense with a lot of the ground flooded, but the levels were not over the road.
It did create a large number of waterfalls at or near the road, including one to drive your car through if you wanted a free car wash. We made it to within 200 meters of where we were staying, a tree house on an exotic fruit farm, and there was water on the road. The difference with this water was that it was actually flowing across the road at a decent clip. I got out of the car and sussed it out to be ankle deep and was really considering parking the car and walking, which I really did not want to do. At that moment another car, albeit a small SUV, drove through it without a hitch. That gave us probably a false sense of security, and we decided to drive across, but Katy made us switch and made me drive. We successfully forded the creek and finally ended our drive a touch after 5pm, with a few new white hairs.
The accommodation was an exotic fruit farm that had 3 rental bungalows (Katy called it a tree house), and it is definitely nicer than our normal backpacker/shared bathroom type accommodations. We fell asleep that night listening to the sounds of the ongoing heavy rain and the surrounding rainforest.
Katy had managed to not use any of her six weeks of vacation during our first five months in New Zealand, and despite that we have managed to travel extensively around New Zealand. We decided that March was a good time to head to Australia for two weeks, so Katy took her first two weeks of real vacation for a Sydney and Cairns trip.
Eight days after we got back to New Plymouth (after each of us had been traveling for 15 days) we headed back to the airport to head to Australia. Our shuttle driver commented that since there was a police office at the airport, the prime minister was probably flying in for a local music festival. A single police officer. This highlights just one of the differences in flying domestic in New Zealand, not to count the fact there is no security or ID check in the entire airport. Shortly after we arrived the prime minister with her baby and husband in tow came off the Wellington flight after flying domestic economy and headed to their waiting car. Very casual.
We then took our puddle jumper to Auckland, and this time we lucked out with the “larger” and newer 68 seat plane instead of the old 50ish seater we normally fly. Our next leg was flying to Sydney, and we had decided to bid an effective $55 USD for premium economy for the 3 hour flight and got the upgrade. I was pleasantly surprised with premium economy, which was nicer than US domestic first class, and they were serving alcohol from the business class cabin for a good portion of the flight. One lame thing about flying in New Zealand is that we can’t get around checking our backpacks that we usually carry-on in the States. They have a 7 kg limit on carry-ons which is often enforced. Especially since we take a small plane from New Plymouth, they have a scale and weigh each bag that needs to be gate checked.
We arrived in Sydney after a short delay, and of course my passport did not like the automatic eGate, and so I was ushered to the line with a human. My passport has only worked once out of the last seven eGates I have tried with it, so I am getting accustomed to having a friendly chat with the border agents as everyone else bypasses them.
After we collected our bags, we headed through the airport and saw a sign for SIM cards for $20 with 27 gigabytes of data on the most extensive network, which caught my eye. It was literally a 60 second transaction, and we had a SIM card we could tether from our WiFi egg for our trip. It is amazing how easy it is to get SIM cards now.
We then took the train downtown and checked into our hotel/hostel. It was a reasonable $75 USD/night for downtown Sydney. It did have shared bathrooms, but the room was large, and there was a kitchen and laundry on each floor. This allowed us to stock up on food and avoid going out for breakfast. We then went out to explore Darling Harbour and grab a beer at a brewery. Sydney is two hours behind New Zealand, so it was not a super late night.
The next day we started off exploring the area. Katy’s number one priority in Sydney was to see Sphengic, a king penguin at the aquarium that was raised by the gay penguin pair Sphen and Magic who were given an egg from young irresponsible parents who built a subpar nest. We visited the aquarium and then headed for a walk around the harbor and the area. We saw a giant line of people outside of the rice yoghurt stand so we got one. We saw them making Asian cream puffs on an automated machine for $0.25 USD so we got a few. We then swung back by our place and grabbed Settlers of Catan and went out for some happy hours. It then started to rain for the first time that day, even though it was rather cloudy all throughout.
After dinner we wandered back to the area near our hotel and enjoyed the weekly Saturday night fireworks show on Darling Harbour. The fireworks were surprisingly good for being a weekly, non special event show.
Our second full day in Sydney it was raining for real. Like lots of rain. Since it was St Patrick’s day, and Sydney has the second largest St Patrick’s day parade in the world we (read Katy) decided that was a must for the day. Let’s just say it rained a lot, but if anything that emboldened the Irish spirit that was present.
After experiencing the Irish festivities, we were solidly saturated and gradually made our way back to our lodging. We were feeling a little waterlogged and headed back to desaturate. After a a little indecision, we decided to wander around and find some dinner in China town. The first place we sussed out was a loaded fries place, but we discovered that it was actually a vegan restaurant that tried to ruin your fries with a bunch or fake meats and fake cheese (Katy: would have been delicious probably). If I am getting loaded fries, the last thing I want on them is cashew based cheese.
Our third day in Sydney was suppose to be a “good” weather day, so we figured it would be a good day to go to Bondi Beach. We grabbed a train and then a bus and arrived in time for Katy to grab an açaí bowl for breakfast. I don’t really know what an açaí bowl is, but I think a prerequisite to selling them is to also sell turmeric lattes. Bondi Beach has a real beach town feel and definitely a different vibe than the rest of the city. We explored the area, and then we started on the coastal walk to Coogee, a town a couple miles down the coast. The weather decided to start to sprinkle, and the sun disappeared. The walk was rather dramatic, and I can see how the entire area would be very appealing on a nicer weather day.
We then grabbed another bus and headed up towards the opera house. It is amazing how Google has made traveling easier, especially taking public transportation. I remember on my first trip looking at the bus schedules listed in Lonely Planet and not really being able to take local buses except by asking locals what bus to take. Often I had a phrase and destination written out with where I wanted to go in the local language.
We made our way to the opera house, which is truly a unique building on a really prized piece of land. They had some foresight when they decided to build it. We then decided to take a ferry to Manly and grab some lunch there. We decided that spending two hours on ferries for $10 USD was a little more palatable than a harbor cruise for $25 each. When we got to Manly, which is an outer neighborhood of the city on the same harbor (which is the largest natural harbor in the world, which means it is massive), and we stumbled upon an international surf competition. It was very pleasant to watch good surfers and what they are able to do on a board. After watching many surfers along the Taranaki coast, it was easy to recognize that these ones were really good. When we went to board the ferry for the ride back, we missed it by a solid 90 seconds. That meant that we needed to go to happy hour on the ocean front bar next to the ferry terminal until the next one, thirty minutes later. Our Settlers game and $3.50 USD beers made us decided to wait two ferries before we headed back to Sydney proper.
Our last day in Sydney turned out to have way better weather than we were anticipating. We made a plan that focused on indoor activities, but ending up trashing it because it was finally sunny and warm outside. We started by going for a stroll around the botanical gardens, which were better than expected. We then went home the long way, past many of the sites we saw on St Patricks Day when it was down pouring, and they looked way more pleasant in the sun. We made another quick stop at the aquarium, so Katy could ride the the penguin ride one more time and say goodbye to Sphengic. We then went and finished some laundry and packed for the next segment of our trip.
“Are you nervous or excited?” asked Taylor, one of the five people on our 45 minute boat ride to be dropped off to start the Dusky Track, as our boat pulled up to shore. It was a very valid question, and I think everyone had some feelings of both as we hopped off the boat to start one of the most isolated treks in New Zealand. Less than 1,000 people a year do the Dusky Track, and our boat operator reinforced how isolated it is when she said that she would be back in four days if we decided we wanted to back out.
The Dusky Track is a 68km (43 miles) hiking track that normally takes 7-8 nights to complete. The reason for the absurdly long time is that there are 23 rivers/ravines with three wire crossings and dozens of streams, rivers, and gullies without any crossing assistance, and kilometers of thigh deep mud, and more tree roots than you have ever seen. When it was first established, there was a disconnect between the track marker and the track builders, wherein the direct line was marked, but the builders were suppose to put in switchbacks but decided to build the direct route instead and install chains that you can use on the verticals sections… Needless to say it is a type 2 fun track that Katy wanted nothing to do with.
We disgorged from the boat onto the bank of the deepest lake in New Zealand and headed to a hut nearby to prepare to head off. Sandflies are nasty small flies that typically hover waist level and lower. Their bites sometimes pinch when they happen but can itch for three weeks. They are a very unpleasant creature, and unfortunately the track is full of them, including the first hut. I had no desire to stay and be bitten by sandflies as people were eating breakfast, since I had already had four sausage rolls. I instead started the hike.
New Zealand has made many very well formed great tracks. This is not one of them. The entire first day I do not think I was able to put 15 steps together in a row without needing to avoid a stream, mud pit, or other obstacle, which makes for slow going. The entire area is wet, and the water has learned to take the path of least resistance, which is the track. I started my trudge in the rain, dodging tree branches and mud. After about an hour I made it to the first of 23 three wire bridges. It was actually fairly manageable and not very unstable. Many of the bridges have debris stuck in them from when the water has risen.
During my first boot adjustment one of the guys caught up with me, but I shortly passed him and did not see another person for over 24 hours. I made it to the first hut around 3pm and tried to dry my feet, taking off my boots and socks and eating some lunch in the hut. There were not any sandflies around when I first got to the hut, but they sure did come out after 5 minutes. The sign on the door of the hut “shake the sandflies off you before you open the door” speaks volumes about how miserable the sandflies can be.
After a 20 minute break and a recharge of soppressata and sharp cheddar, I headed out. Most people spend the night at the first hut, but it is less than four hours to the next one, and it was only 3:30, so I decided it was too early to call it a night The path had turned to a stream, and any dryness my feet had achieved was quickly undone. The last hour of the hike felt like it took FOREVER. I do not think that I ate enough during the day. I did not know how many days I was going to be on the trail, so I packed for a lean 8 days and a comfortable 5 days. I finally reached the top of the mountain and my hut, which was empty. When I took my pack off, I discovered that my rain cover had disappeared sometime during the last 3 hours of the hike. I put a note in the hut, hoping the guys behind me would find it and bring it, but it turns out it was lost for good.
The second day of the track started with me thinking I would get a really early start and get going. My motivation was not there, and it was cold (the group the next night lit a fire it was so cold) so I ended up heading out shortly after 8am. It was great having the entire hut to myself since I employed the “Todd” organization strategy that had stuff strewn everywhere. I was worried about my fuel situation since I only brought 8 ounces of fuel for 4-8 nights so I ate some trail mix for breakfast and skipped a hot breakfast.
The weather was typical New Zealand Fjordlands, with rain, clouds, sun, and bits of blue sky. It was actually very pleasant, and the views from the top were pretty great, when they were not socked in by clouds. I thought that I was going to have a day without a bunch of mud, but the rain the previous night had turned the entire plateau into a mud pit which started less that twenty feet from the hut.
I made good time on the plateau and then hit tree line for the descent. This is where the day got interesting. The trail took the most direct route down, which is basically straight down. Whoever made the trail was probably sick of being eaten by sandflies and choose to forgo switchbacks or anything that would make the trail construction take longer. Luckily trees in New Zealand take pride in their stout roots, which double as hand holds.
When I approached the bottom it was time to see how the day would turnout. At the bottom of the mountain there is a swamp that is prone to flooding, a river, and then the hut. There is a ladder with 18 rungs that leads to the longest three wire bridge on the track to get across the river. When I got to the swamp, the trail was under a little water. I then spied the swing bridge, which had some debris stuck in it, but was substantially higher than the river. The ladder leading to the bridge had 14 rings visible which meant that the last 50 yards of the swamp was pretty flooded. I then prepared myself to get wet and plodded through the waist deep water to the bridge. It was raining at this point so I figured more moisture didn’t really make a difference.
I read that it was only 80 meters from the swing bridge to the hut and boy did it feel like a long 80 meters. I was ready for lunch, and in my mind the hut should have been right there, but there was a little hill to climb to reach it. I finally (read 5 minutes that felt like 20) reached the hut. After releasing my feet from the boots I went in the hut and discovered that there were four people there already. Three looked like they had no intentions of going anywhere and had spent the previous night there. The fourth person was had started the same place that I was going and was able to report that the trail was passable. This was a serious concern to me because everything that I read talked about all the stumps in the lake behind the hut and that they can indicate high water, and only a few were above water so I assumed that the water was higher than normal.
After a repeat of yesterday’s lunch, I set off. This was a longer section, taking over 6 hours. It was the only section that I did not beat the estimated time on and that was due to the weather. The entire track is really really weather dependent, and if you are trudging through mud and have deep streams/rivers to cross, it really adds a lot of time.
The river crossings were really high on this section, and there were definitely some sketchy river crossings on logs. The nice thing is that there were a couple kilometers that had dry trail, on which you could get a decent pace, and was punctuated by roots and rocks. There wasn’t a single section in the previous ones that had “good track”.
At one point the trail was so great that there were a lot of small trails. I ended up getting off the trail and a little lost. My GPS didn’t like the fjord cliffs so I couldn’t figure out exactly where I was. I chose to continue on and veer toward the river. I knew that the trail was between me and the river and I eventually found it, which was a nice relief.
When I reached the sound, I had an option, either the low tide route or the high tide route. The low tide route is tromping through the sound, and the high tide route is a bouldery scramble that takes an hour. I couldn’t figure out if the tide was low enough for the low tide route, so I headed on the high tide route. It was a rough way to end the day, and I was pooped when I got to the hut.
The hut was on the Dusky Sound, which is actually a fjord. There was a solitary fishing boat hanging out in the sound and still no other people. I hung up my stuff to dry (by this point my gators were full of mud) and went out to explore the sound. Since it was a low tide you could walk out pretty far. The sandflies were pretty adamant on getting to know you intimately if you stopped for more than 60 seconds in one place. I tried fishing with the landline and came up dry, so I gathered up some clams to add to my pasta for dinner.
The next morning I had a lazy morning and tried my hand at fishing again, but failed. This time I was prepared and had just about every surface area, except for my eyes covered. I decided to brave the low tide route since the appeal of going back through the high tide route was not there. I didn’t even bother putting on dry socks since I was headed straight for the sound. After several attempts at finding the passage through the channel and getting water up to my chest while holding my backpack over my head, I failed to find the route. I ended up skirting the shore for a bit, in deep mud and trees and finally make it to the conjoining point after about 45 minutes, with 20+ of those minutes walking through mud. You learn to appreciate the different qualities of mud while hiking on the dusky trail…
I was only heading back to the hut I bypassed yesterday, but this was not my day on the trail. At one point I got really frustrated because I thought I was on track to do the hike in 8.5 hours, far longer than the previous day. Well it turns out that I miscounted the number of three wire bridge I had done and was actually 20% farther along the trail than I thought. I made it to the hut around 3:30pm after a steady march with minimal rain!!! It was pretty amazing how fast the water rises and falls in the region. The trail was a lot less muddy, and I did not get wet on a single stream crossing. The lake was probably at least 3 feet lower than I had seen it 27 hours previously. Two of the guys I took the boat with were in the hut when I arrived so there was some lively hut conversation until we started reading our books that night. The main take away from the conversation was that people don’t like sandflies, and one of the guys was heading to the North Island after this since he was sick and tired of sandflies. When I took off my boats I discovered that I had a blister on my left heel and on one of my toes. I popped them both and cleaned them to prepare for the next day.
My fourth day on the track was another that I planned on skipping a hut. The first section of trail was pretty flat next to a river and is prone to flooding. The main trip report that I followed said they had thigh deep mud and river crossings up to their chest. I hit it on a good day. I was able to walk on logs over all the river crossings and only had mid calf deep mud. There were sections of the track where you could go for a couple minutes without running into any obstacles and also sections of the track where you were basically walking on tree roots. I have to say that trees in New Zealand grow impressive roots. The second part was a steep uphill. Right when I got to the uphill section, it started to rain so the rain coat went back on. I used tree roots as hand holds, and where there were not any tree routes there were stainless steel chains to use to climb up the rock faces.
After an hour of uphill sweating in my rain jacket I arrived at the pass. Luckily the clouds broke a little ,and I got some views in before descending to the next hut. The last hut was set in a marsh, which some kind DOC workers had laid walkways around. It was glorious to be able to walk a couple hundred yards on walkways instead of sinking into mud.
The last hut turned out to be crowded. The two other guys I rode the boat with were there since they skipped the journey to the Dusky Sound and then three people from the previous boat were also there. I ate a victory oatmeal with melted chocolate after dinner to celebrate that I was almost done with the hike.
The final day was an uneventful hike out. No real great views until the end, but the weather was fantastic. No rain.
I was told that there were three ferries leaving at 11am, 230pm, and 415pm. I got to the ferry terminal at 1:30pm, and there was a ferry there that I was literally able to walk on, and it left 5 minutes later. Talk about great timing. I was the stinky person on the ferry, since I had only brought two shirts on the trip, one for the huts and one for hiking. The ferries exist because there is a power station there, and it is also where tours to Doubtful Sound pass through. I basically hopped on in the middle of a Doubtful Sound tour and paid $30 for the ferry back to where a shuttle picked me up to start the hike.
It was a great hike. I ended up loosing my toe nail due to the blister on the third day, but I somehow prevented it from getting infected. There must be antibiotic properties in keeping your feet submerged in mud. The hike is definitely one that Katy would not have enjoyed, but I am really glad that I got the opportunity to do.
This year it was hard to get in the Christmas spirit. I think that is because New Zealand does Christmas very differently than the states.
The obvious difference is that in New Zealand Christmas occurs just a couple days after the summer solstice, so it was light until 9:30pm, sunny, and in the 70s-80s F. That just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Coupled with the weather, New Zealanders don’t hunker down on Christmas. It is an outside holiday, where you normally grill, enjoy the slip-n-slide, and eat popsicles. It sounds lovely and enjoyable, but honestly the difference in environment made it hard for me to get in the Christmas spirit.
Another difference is Christmas lights. They are rare. People just don’t do them. Many towns have a few lights on the main street in the downtown section. I saw less than five houses that had light displays out. To be fair New Plymouth has the Festival of Lights, which is a public light display that lasts two months in a park near our house, but that does not really have the feel of Christmas, as it is more of an art installation.
Christmas trees. There are actually a fair number of places to buy them. They tend to be reasonably priced, $20-50USD where we got ours. The rip off is the stands, which they want $30USD for. Don’t get me started on that. Many businesses also have Christmas trees out. I have to admit, this is one area that New Zealand does well. It might have something to do with it being so green and that trees grow like weeds here.
New Zealanders just don’t have the holiday spirit that is exuded in the US. You could say that it is a good thing, but Katy would strongly disagree. It is hard to really describe this, other than they care about having the holidays off from work and care less about the actual holidays. Katy worked New Years Eve, and it was the only emergency department she has ever worked in that didn’t acknowledge when it turned midnight (which happened 18 hours earlier than for you on the East Coast).
The one thing that they do better in New Zealand for the holidays is time off of work. All but a few businesses are actually mandated to be off on Christmas Day. The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, and the day after New Years Day are both federal holidays. Restaurants that are open on Christmas/New Years charge a 50% holiday supplement to cover the increased wages they need to pay their employees. Many businesses are closed until January 3rd or the following Monday, January 7th. This year many businesses start their holiday the Friday before Christmas. That meant that A TON of small businesses were closed from 12/22 to 1/7 this past Christmas. This ranges from restaurants to auto repair shops. I am used to limited hours on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years Day, not businesses closing for over two weeks. It honestly is not a bad thing.
We had a great Christmas with Tristan and Lemac (who is used to summer Christmas from growing up in Brazil), but it was a very different Christmas season than in the States.
New Zealand does not do Christmas lights. It is depressing. Most aspects about New Zealand life are very easy to adapt to, but the lack of holiday cheer and the prevalence of bare feet at the grocery store are two things that Katy and I might not get over.
We arrived back from Rarotonga, and Katy had three days of work before Tristan and Lemac came to visit over Christmas. Katy was able to leave her last shift an hour early, and we headed up to meet Tristan and Lemac at a farm AirBnB in the Waitomo district. Kiwi’s have a culture of renting out spare rooms or even spare houses (for some reason the number of spare houses that people have on their properties is way more than you would anticipate), and many have switched from traditional platforms to AirBnB. We arrived at our farm in the middle of nowhere New Zealand (this means it truly is in the middle of nowhere), and Tristan and Lemac with impeccable timing showed up five minutes later. Tristan was ecstatic to see us, but I really think that she was ecstatic to get out of the car after experiencing Lemac’s first attempt at driving on the lefthand side of the road.
After staying up too late recounting the last four months since we had last seen each other, the next morning we headed off to Hobbiton. Katy and Tristan grew up reading the Lord of the Rings and were really excited to see some hobbit holes. I, on the other hand, was reading the books for the first timer, and Lemac had only seen one or two of the movies. There was obviously a very large gap in our respective excitement for hobbit holes. There was some debate as to what time our tour was, and it was decided that it was at 11:25am. We wanted to get there 15 minutes beforehand because they said they would give our spots away 5 minutes before the start time if we hadn’t checked in by then. We have a semi stressful drive in which Katy pretended our Prius was a race car, and we arrived at 11:17am. Well, it turned out that we figured wrong, and we were suppose to be there at 11am for an 11:15 tour. Luck was on our side though, and they gave us tickets for a 12:25 tour. Win. We passed the intervening time with coffees and milkshakes, which was also a win.
Hobbiton was interesting. It is one of those places that the more you like Lord of the Rings the more you will like it. You could tell that in our tour group there were fanatics and others who had never seen the movies or read the books. I have to admit that Katy and Tristan were a lot more pumped than me and Lemac.
We finished up at Hobbiton and spent one more night on the farm. The next morning we headed to Glowing Adventures for some caving. It turns out that it was the first time that Lemac and Tristan had ever been in a cave. Glowing Adventures is not your normal cave tour. There are no improvements in the cave, and so you get dressed up in a sweet costume appropriate for the elements. Lemac and Tristan decided on Glowing Adventures, which coincidentally was the same tour we had done with my parents. We got lucky this time, and it was just the four of us on the tour. It meant that we ended up going to a room that they normally do not take people to. You could tell from how preserved the glowing white cave was that it did not see a lot of traffic. The cave tour was pretty awesome again.
On our way back to our next farm stay we got some real fruit ice cream at our favorite roadside shack, Big Azz. Being from The States I first thought that it was suppose to mean big ass, but I now realize it means big as (Katy: I think it’s meant to be both…). New Zealanders love to add “as” to adjectives, like “sweet as” (the most classic), “spicy as”, “big as”. It took me a while to figure out that they use it to mean “spicy as [the spiciest thing imaginable]”. At Big Azz we got a fruit ice cream, which is fat free frozen yoghurt combined with fruit purée at a 3:1 ratio and whipped together to get a fruit flavored soft serve frozen yoghurt. It is surprisingly good (Katy: I don’t know why Todd finds that surprising. Fruity frozen yogurt is obviously delicious in any context). We then headed off to another farm stay AirBnB. This one was a dairy farm, and we got a pitcher of fresh milk to enjoy in the hot tub that they had.
The next morning we parted ways, and Katy started four days of work. I had the privilege of moving a third time into our mansion. It only has 3 living rooms, a formal dining room, and a snooker (a.k.a. billiards) room. I don’t even really know what snooker is, nor am I really inclined to find out. On Christmas Eve, Katy finished work at 11:45pm, and we started driving to Tongariro National Park where we had rented a cabin for the next several days. At 11:59pm, we promptly pulled over, so that at midnight, Katy could open a present and attempt to be the first person in the world to open a Christmas present on Christmas Day. After doing the countdown, she ripped open her present, with the zeal she always devotes to opening presents, and was rewarded with festive paper straws… Keep in mind that it was 4am on December 24 in LA when she did this. We then continued the rest of the way and arrived at our AirBnb around 3am.
One of my first tasks was to setup our Christmas tree. Our Christmas tree was very, very sad by this stage. It had started out as a grand tree, but it ran out of water while we were in Rarotonga and proceeded to slowly desiccate over the next two weeks. It had lost all of the vigor out of its needles, and they were starting to droop. Nonetheless, Katy insisted we pack it up and take it along to enjoy on Christmas morning. Luckily it had not completely dried up, and only 97 needles fell out while the tree was jammed into the back of Yoshi, our Prius. We put some red balls and a strand of battery powered lights on it and called it perfect.
We slept in the next morning until then Tristan and Lemac arrived. They got about the same amount of sleep that we did, since they were practicing the Brazilian style of celebrating Christmas, which is having a big feast at midnight on Christmas Eve. We proceeded to have a great low key Christmas Day. We opened a few presents. We spent a good amount of time in the hot tub. The hot tub was set to about 104F when we arrived, which was too hot for me, and I was eventually able to negotiate a cooler temperature. We also participated in the Kiwi tradition of BBQing on Christmas Day since it is only a couple days past the summer solstice, and we grilled up salmon and veg.
The following day we had a rather leisurely morning with a little drizzle before we headed off on a hike. We decided that Tama Lakes was going to be our hike of the day. It is located on the south side on Mount Ngauruhoe. You might recognize Mount Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. Katy and Tristan sure did, and within 100 meters of the trailhead I started to hear the Lord of the Rings theme song being sung.
Part of me was happy when it ended about 500 meters later because I would not put it past those two to sing it the entire 12 miles of the hike. The hike was cool and interesting, but honestly a lot of the hikes in Colorado are more spectacular. Since New Zealand likes its clouds, we were not able to see the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe until we had started our descent. It was a good day hiking, followed by Katy and Tristan trying to get me and Lemac to watch the Lord of the Rings. We both fell asleep (Katy: their loss, it was Epic, as usual).
Our third day in the Tongariro area was our day for the Tongariro crossing. The Tongariro crossing might be the most famous hike in all of New Zealand, and it is definitely the most popular one on the North Island. It is a ~12 mile one way hike with multiple companies offering shuttle transportation from the end back to the start for $35 per person. We decided that we did not want to pay $120 for the shuttle, so I dropped everyone off at the start and went and dropped the car off and took the shuttle. When I say that it is the most popular hike on the North Island, I am not joking.
It is a mess of people. Imagine people stretched out single file for most of the hike, back to back to back, and the trail not being wide enough to comfortably pass people. It was not a pleasant hiking experience in regards to the number of people on the hike. Luckily 95% of the people on the trail headed the DOC’s official advice to do it in the direction that we did it. If not, it would have been that much worse, battling a constant stream of people going in the opposite direction. Saying all of that, the hike itself was fantastic. You walk past lava fields, steam vents, bright red volcanic rocks, sulfur pits, and hoards of slow people.
After an agonizingly slow descent we made it back to the carpark. Our first stop on the way back to the hot tub was to get ice blocks. Yes, ice blocks. I don’t mean the large ones that you carved into ice luges in college. I mean what New Zealanders call popsicles. Katy’s idea, of course (Katy: I hand them out to children at work all the time, I felt like I deserved to enjoy one myself). After we fortified ourselves with ice blocks, we went back to the cabin and enjoyed the rest of the day on the deck and in the hot tub.
The following day was our second-to-last day together, and we had to meet the 10am checkout, New Zealand’s semiofficial checkout time just about everywhere we have stayed. We then started a trek up to Auckland. We discovered that just about every small shop was closed for the holidays. Closed for the holidays here means closed for two weeks (or more), a little different than The States. It is amazing how little business gets done between December 22nd and January 3rd. We spent the day in Auckland, and the next day Tristan and Lemac flew to the South Island to do some exploring on their own. It was a great trip with them.