Exploring Australia: Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, Cairns

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.

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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. 

The vines are called lawyers tongue/wait-awhile and have hundreds of barbs in them and can really slow you 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). 

Mangosteen at top (white inside), the green thing’s pulp tastes like vanilla ice cream, the orange thing tastes like a starchy mild papaya

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. 

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Exploring Australia: The Rainforest in a Cyclone

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.

Four different types of passionfruit given to us by our hosts

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. 

The river was only about four times higher than normal

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.

This was the road. Just a small waterfall spilling right on it.

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. 

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Exploring Australia: Sydney is Different than New Plymouth

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.

The mouth of Sydney Harbor, looking out to the Tasman

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.

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Exploring New Zealand’s Dusky Track

“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.

Everyone getting set to leave the start of the track. Sandflies have already found us.

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.

The track has some serious mud at times (read most of the time). You can see a couple orange blazes in the distance. I found that if you don’t see a blaze in a couple minutes to turn around.

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.

I can’t figure out where and why they put the three wire bridges. There are rivers that you need to cross that are pretty high, but then some they put a swing bridge over.

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.

This is the track. It is a little wet.

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.

Can you spot the trail? It comes from the bottom right of the photo, crosses the stream in the middle, crosses the roots, and exits from the top of the photo.

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.

You can see how the water has flooded the trees in the background and the parts of the ladder that are above water.

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. 

This old mining equipment is literally on a cliff 300 feet from the bottom

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…

At one point the river was within six inches of the 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.

You can kind of see that there really not anything under the trail and the tree roots are the only thing preventing it from collapsing into the river due to erosion.
Very few of these stumps were visible the first time that I encountered the lake.

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 joy this simple walkway brought is pretty immense. What you can’t tell is that if you step off the walkway you will sink at least a foot 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. 

I did not think twice by the end of the trip to walk on wet logs

The final day was an uneventful hike out.  No real great views until the end, but the weather was fantastic.  No rain. 

I could tell the end was near when they had actually cut sections out of fallen trees.

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.

This was a proper boat, that even had a concession stand.

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.

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How New Zealand does Christmas

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.

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Tristan and Lemac come to visit New Zealand

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. 

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Rarotonga, not Tonga or Toga, but the Cook Islands

Katy and I decided that that we wanted to explore someplace that wasn’t in New Zealand after our 27 days of visitors, so after my parents left we came back to New Plymouth, Katy worked four shifts, and on the fifth day we started our journey to Rarotonga. I have to be honest and admit that until recently I could not have told you if Rarotonga was a city or an island or a state or where it was. Well, it turns out that Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands with a whopping 12,000 people. The Cook Islands are an independent country in free association with New Zealand? Seriously, what does that mean?  I had to resort to the google. What that means is that they are self governing on local issues, but New Zealand handles their international relations and defense. We decided on Rarotonga because we were able to get there one-way on a frequent flyer ticket and pay cash during a fare sale for the ticket home, so it came out to 12.5k miles and $133 per person, which isn’t bad at all. We transferred miles to Singapore Airlines (you can transfer Amex MR, Chase UR, or Citi TYP to Singapore) and used their frequent flyer program to book a ticket on Air New Zealand. 

Katy finished up the last of her four night shifts about two hours early and came home and took a four hour nap. We were then off to Auckland. We first did a stop at the Three Sisters, one of Katy’s favorite beaches around.  We hopped out of the car and were instantly aware that we did not time our visit with the low tide, but this time we were prepared and knew the tide was going out. We then had the age old debate of whether Katy should wear her swimsuit (yes this is an age old debate, a frequent one), and she decided to forgo it this time, so off we waded in knee deep water.  As soon as we made it onto the beach after 100 meters of wading through water, Katy proclaimed that she wanted her swimsuit (some things never change).  We hung around the area, and Katy splashed in the water and whinged that she should have brought her swimsuit so she could have properly swam in the water.  We spent the night near the airport and then headed to the airport early the next morning. 

The airport was efficient as usual, and we shortly were through immigration and in the lounge. My passport has an issue with the automated gates and refused to automatically scan through, again. That means I had to go and talk to an immigration official who asks me why I didn’t use the automatic gate and if I tried twice (I did).   We were soon on our Air New Zealand, four hour flight to Rarotonga. We were pleasantly surprised to see “The Works” printed on our frequent flyer tickets, which means free booze and food on the airplane, as Katy has never been known to turn down an airplane beverage. 

We landed in Rarotonga after an uneventful flight. The airport is literally in the main part of town, and you can instantly tell that you are on an island.  Everything screams laidback island time, from the gentleman playing the ukulele at baggage claim (well he was also playing it at customs, immigration, security, and duty free since they are all in one not very large room), to the main vehicle of choice being mopeds, to the multitude of signs saying that pig feed was back in stock since the supply ship had arrived.  The main (only) road around the island passes between the airport and the ocean, and at points it seems like the runway is less than 100 meters from the ocean. We left the airport and found our car rental agency, and they wrote our credit card number down on a piece of paper and gave me the keys to the car,, and only later did I realize that my name was spelled wrong, a minor detail in the Cook Islands. When I think of Rarotonga, I think of a remote Pacific Island that I just learned existed six months ago. When a New Zealander thinks of Rarotonga, they think of a Pacific Island that is the same distance away as Australia, with multiple airlines (including a budget one) flying there, with cheap alcohol compared to New Zealand, that uses the New Zealand dollar, and that it is not a big deal to go there (Katy has colleagues who vacation there every year).

We then visited the grocery and liquor stores for some food and beer before heading to our Airbnb. The prices in the grocery store ranged from just about normal to $5 USD for 1.5 liters of soda. Our Airbnb was ~$100 a night and was a beachfront house with two decks looking over the west coast of the island. We went during offseason, which does mean it is hotter and wetter than normal. We were a tad bummed that the forecast called for rain everyday, but we figured (hoped) that it would be a passing rain cloud. 

Katy quickly made herself a tropical explosion mixed drink, and I opened a beer, and off we went to discover the water.  After a grueling 24 second walk (most of that time was spent debating to lock the door or not), we arrived at the water. We didn’t fully committing to the water due to seeing numerous blue jelly fish in the surf, which we later discovered are Portuguese man o war, and they do sting. I had briefly read something about them but couldn’t remember what I had read, and since internet is really pricey because it is all via satellite we couldn’t google to figure it out. We actually had to talk to someone and ask, very archaic. We settled for wading in the water, which was about the same temperature as Hawaii a month earlier, but nowhere near as warm as Sri Lanka. We then had a beer and played some Settlers on our deck while 30 feet from the breaking waves.  We decided to go out for dinner, since we did not pick up any fish (of course they don’t sell fish in the grocery stores) earlier in the day.  We walked about half a mile and ended up getting a seafood platter that included: tuna (cooked a little too much for me), really good calamari, Cook Islands’s version of ceviche with coconut milk (tuna), shrimp, scallops, tuna sashimi, and fish and chips. Including drinks, dinner came to $70USD, which isn’t bad for a beachfront meal.

The next morning I woke up a little after seven and headed to the bakery to grab a fresh loaf of cheese bread.  I also tried to go to the fish store, since I read that they close when they sell out of fish, but it wasn’t open yet.  There is one store, Ocean Fresh, that sells fish and one small grocery store does too. None of the other grocery stores sell it, which I wasn’t expecting.  Ocean Fresh has a couple boats, and one of them got beached earlier this year, so the fish supply at times is minimal.  They have a board with the price of fish out front and scratch off as they sell it.  One day at noon they just had albacore left, but the first day when we got our fish they had yellowfin tuna ($7.30/lb),  mahi mahi ($8), albacore ($6), marlin ($4.30), offcuts ($2.90/lb) and a few other fish that I forget.  It isn’t bad for fresh fish that was caught that day.

After breakfast with semi ominous clouds in the sky, we drove a couple kilometers down the road to Aroa Beach, what turned out to be our favorite snorkeling beach on island.  Driving around the island can take a couple minutes, even though it only has a circumference of 20 miles, since the max speed is ~35 mph, and in some towns the speed limit dips to a blistering 19 mph.  We did round one of snorkeling, and of course I called my round a little earlier than Katy, since I got cold and she couldn’t stop examining all the fishes.  When I got to the beach it started to drizzle, and when Katy came in it started to rain, and so we scampered to the car while she described every single fish that she had seen and asked if I had seen them too. While it’s fine to snorkel in the rain, sitting on the beach in the rain is not my definition of fun, so we continued around the island.  We saw a brewery, so we stopped by.  I tried to buy a six pack each of the IPA and the lager, but they bottle everyday and only had 2 bottles of their IPA left, and some lager, so that is what we got.  They encouraged bringing back their bottles to recycle, and a closer examination of the bottles revealed that they were previously recycled Heineken (or whatever) bottles that they could get their hands on.  The rain then dissipated, and we went to another snorkeling beach, Fruits of Rarotonga, named after a fruit shop across the street from the beach.  This one involved a decent swim out, and even though there were multiple snorkel tour boats there, it wasn’t as good as Aroa Beach.  Overall the snorkeling quality was better than Oahu, with tons of fish, but some of the coral was dying, and you could tell that it had seen better days.  

We finished up our tour around the island, stopping for some really good mahi mahi and tuna sandwiches for lunch, and a stop in town to pickup some mahi mahi and tuna for dinner.  Our last stop was the fruit seller down the way.  We picked up a breadfruit, passion fruit, nu (young drinking coconut), a papaya, and some mini bananas.  We also got a mini lesson on how to cook the breadfruit, which may be a fruit but tastes way more like a starchy vegetable (the seller compared it a potato).  You first boil it like a potato, then pan fry it a touch to add some crispness, and it is actually pretty good (Katy: to me it seemed most similar to yucca).  It is pretty easy to navigate an island that only has one main road, as you only have the choice to go either clockwise or counter clockwise and no matter which direction you choose you will pass your destination in less that 45 minutes. The dinner turned out great, with the mahi mahi being some of the best that I have every had.  

We started our third day on the island with another good snorkel.  This turned out to be the best weather day of the trip, with the sun out most of the day.  The other days there was a good amount of cloud for a large portion of the day.  We did the snorkeling at Aroa Beach again, and halfway through our visit were joined by one of the local preschools.  Bringing 30 four year olds to the beach does not sound like a particularly relaxing day as a preschool teacher, but I guess when you live in an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you are used to sand and water.  After our beach and snorkel time, we went to town and grabbed a fisherman’s platter that had tuna sashimi done three different ways for $14 (two person serving), and Katy got a tropical fruit smoothie. Since fish is so cheap here the portions are huge, and our lunch probably had at least 12 ounces of tuna on it in the various dishes.

 We picked up some marlin, albacore, and yellowfin tuna for dinner (they were out of mahi mahi).  When we were driving back to our beach house, we came across a conundrum, an airplane sitting on the runway.  This normally is not an issue when you’re driving since planes hang out in airports, and cars hang out on roads.  The issue here is that the road is about two meters from the runway, and there are signs to be cautious of jet blast, and to stop if a plane is taking off, but you have no idea if the plane is about to take off or not.  I made the split second decision to not stop, since no cars in front of me were stopped, and I saw oncoming cars.  About a minute later the plane did take off, right over the main town….

We played some more Settlers (Katy was on a winning streak) that night and made some fruit juice, rum, coconut cream, passion fruit, coconut, and papaya adult beverages.  When you cut open a passion fruit, it is just seeds inside, and they are flavor explosion of tart and sweet when you bite into one (Katy: I highly recommend adding them to drinks, where they’re like tart fruity boba).  

Our fourth day on the island was much like the others, and it was great.  We did switch it up in the evening, and we went to an Island Night.  An Island Night is like a luau in Hawaii, and it was surprisingly good.  There was some consternation as to whether it was going to go on due to lack of people signing up (low season), but they were able to gather about 25 people, and so the show was on.  The food was actually one of the highlights of the event.  There was goat curry (no luau in Hawaii would serve this), unlimited tuna sashimi, tuna ceviche, seared tuna cooked medium rare (the best cooked buffet tuna I have seen), pork belly, pumpkin poke (pumpkin, coconut milk, arrow root, milk, and water mixed up and cooked into a gel which was surprisingly good), rukau (cooked taro leaves…Katy has edited this twice to say spinach, but it was not spinach…with coconut cream that tasted a lot like Indian saag), a couple salads, and some other boring meats like chicken.  Normally, in my opinion, the food is an after thought at these type of events, but it was actually cooked well and very good at this one.  The dance troupe that came out had at least 29 people that were are part of it, split between dancers and musicians, with three fire twirlers.  Don’t worry, only one set himself on fire, and only one dropped his flaming stick of doom (I may be reading Lord of the Rings at the moment). They also forced everyone to get up and do the assorted dances with minimal instructions.  There was no choice like at every other luau to not get up and make a fool of yourself.   It was a great evening, and to top it off it was only $38USD per person, which is more than reasonable, and the rain even decided to stop so we could walk home without getting drenched. 

Our last day turned out to be a wash.  It rained (hard) nearly the entire day, but we still went out for a snorkel.  It was actually surprisingly good with a lot more fish than normal.  The snorkeling spots normally had no more than a handful of people actually snorkeling at a time, and this time there wasn’t anyone else.  The water was warm enough for about 20-30 minutes, and then I needed a break (except on the sunny days).  We then headed back and did some packing, and Katy got one last float in her pink floaty that we had carted back from Hawaii. It then started down pouring. Our AirBnB host was gracious enough to let us stay as late as we wanted, since we had a 130am flight, and he didn’t have another booking for a couple more days.  It was raining so much that we were worried that our plane might be delayed or cancelled, and since we didn’t have internet there was no way to check.  On our way to dinner we stopped by the airport to look at the monitor, and it turns out they don’t have monitors at the Rarotonga Airport….

After dinner we worked on sorting out the car (dropping it off turned out to be more a pain than we were hoping), had a beer at the bar down the street from the airport, and then checked in.  We flew Jet Star for the first time, which is an Australian low cost carrier.  We were prepared and had bought the extra legroom seats, a checked bag, and guesstimated our weight of each bag (total carryon limited to 7 kg, checked bag 15 kg).  It turns out that no one in front of us did that, and since there were no self checkin counters or mobile boarding passes, the line moved painfully slow as EVERY SINLGE PERSON (except one group) had to move luggage around or throw things out to meet the weight limits.  We were lucky, and our checked bag was 14 kg, and the heaviest carryon (Todd’s) was 6 kg so we were issue free. A lot of the flights to New Zealand have Cook Islanders on them since 60% of Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.  This is mainly due to the fact that the median household income in the Cook Islands is about 1/4 that of New Zealand, and many of the workers in the Cook Islands are actually from other island chains. We went back to the bar and discovered that they were all closed at 11:45pm on a Friday night.  Friday night is the night that they are allowed to stay open until 2am, but apparently they were not in the mood (Katy: probably because they found the rain discouraging).  We had an uneventful flight back and even though it is a four flight, there is a 23 hour time difference, so we left the Cook Islands at 1:30am on Saturday morning and arrived back in New Zealand at 4:30am on Sunday morning.  It was a great trip, and we were glad that we did it.  We did wish the weather was a little sunnier, but it is low season and the prices reflect it.

Cook Island Santa Parade
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New Zealand: 27 days of visitors

Yes, 27 days in a row of visitors. It actually sounds bad written out, but it was a blast. It all started the day we after we got back into New Plymouth after our Hawaii trip, and we decided to move again.  The decision was pretty mandatory, either that or move into Yoshi, our Prius. House #1 was on the market when we moved in, and we paid below market rate rent for a house that is near the top of the market in New Plymouth, but they sold the house.   The rental market here has very few furnished places, and they tend to not be very nice, but we did find one that was nice and in a good location, but it wasn’t available until December 22nd.  We temporized by moving into house #2, which just seems to shed dirt and grow cobwebs in a manner that I thought only South Mountain hunting lodge could.  House #2 does have the advantage of being two blocks from the coastal walkway and a big backyard and patio area, but hopefully house #3 will be our last one…

When we finished moving, we then had the privilege of cleaning our old place, and we got all sorted by around 9pm and started to settle into house #2.  We had a big decision on our hand when we moved in and that was which of the four bedrooms to have as ours. My vote for the bunkbed room was quickly overruled (I am not sure why Katy has veto power).  My suggestion of the room with bunkbeds and a queen bed was also over turned.  I then decided to let Katy choose, and her choice was the room with the most spiderwebs in the closet, and my job was to remove them before we could start unpacking.  

The next morning we started a three week stretch of visitors.  Katy’s aunt and uncle, Lynette and Dave arrived first.  I scurried off to the airport to pick them up, and immediately Lynette went to get into the driver’s seat (left hand cars are tricky).  She quickly realized that old habits are hard to break (Katy and I play the whoever-goes-to-the-driver’s-seat-is-the-driver game, regardless who actually intended to drive) when you are driving on the left, and then we headed to the house.   I made them do a couple detours on the way to pick up some avocados and suss out a pepper stand that I haven’t seen before since the road to the airport has a couple good produce stands.  

We had a good three days with Dave and Lynette before Katy had to go back to work, and they set off to explore more of the North Island.  The most memorable, and either the best or worse, part of their New Plymouth portion of their trip, in my opinion, was our White Cliffs hike.  It is a hike that you need to time with the tide since part of it goes along the beach.  We did our Boy Scout due diligence and arrived at the trailhead at the appropriate time in regards to the tides, and yet the water had not receded to the normal low tide level.  We were perplexed as to why the tide wasn’t as low as we thought it should be, and in not the most intelligent move of the century, we decided that we must have read the chart wrong (since it is New Zealand, we don’t have cell coverage at the trailhead, seriously it is pretty terrible here) and went on the hike.  We came to the last section of the hike, along the beach, and started out.  The last 300 yards back to the car, the waves were crashing across the entire beach.  At first you could miss the waves if you timed it correctly and sprinted to the next inlet, but the last 100 yards, the waves were breaking all the way to the cliffs.  I waded through the waves and made it without falling and only got wet up to my waist. 

The other parties in the group did not fair so well, and it was scary at times.  It was not the best decision that I have ever made.  It turns out that it was a “spring tide”… What does that mean?  I had no idea until I consulted The Google and discovered that it just means a high low tide, which frequently occur in the spring.  The moon does confusing things.  We ended the trip with a stop at Mike’s Brewery and a beer before continuing back to New Plymouth.

Then Dave and Lynette headed off to explore more of the North Island, Katy went to work for two days, and then my parents arrived.  The weather in New Plymouth had been really nice while Dave and Lynette were here, but as soon as my parents arrived they got the Taranaki special.  That means rain, lots of it.  Since Taranaki is one of the wettest places in New Zealand, it has taken a little bit to get adjusted compared to the dryness of Boulder.  We spent four days on the North Island around Taranaki with my parents, and then we went to the South Island for ten days.  My mom did a great job blogging about our South Island adventure, so I am just going to show it in photos.

A stop at the Three Sisters, where we timed the tide a little better. We only had to take off our shoes and roll up our pants on the walk out, and by the time we went back to the car the tide had gone out.
Coming off of the stay at the bird park, we continued the theme with a stay at a miniature animal park in the Waitomo region. Our stay even included a tour of the 50+ miniature animals on the farm. Katy was delighted.
Katy was not allowed to take it home, and she may have her coffee cup filled with wine.
We went for a little more adventurous cave tour than normal. Our gum boots were filled with water by this point, so you got a good squelch with each step.

Please note that I am not showing any photos of all the rain in New Plymouth before we headed off to the South Island.

Our whale watching adventure got rained out, so we changed our itinerary last minute and ended up on a working sheep ranch in Arthur’s Pass. It may have been raining at this point, and some people in the group may have been in the lodge drinking wine.
Monro Beach Fjordland Peanguins
This is the viewing spot for the Fjordland Crested Penguin, which is a thirty minute walk from the lodge that we were staying at. There may have been man eating sand flies at this beach the first time that we attempted to see the penguins there.
Heading to Wanaka we stopped at a waterfall. The water was Soca River colored and the waterfall was not that impressive. We of course ended up behind a really long line of campervans when we left the car park.
Our plans to take a tiny plane to the Milford Sound and do a fjord cruise were thwarted by these low clouds and the accompanying rain.
We did this hike overlooking Wanaka lake instead of the trip to Milford Sound. My parents are really striking out with the weather this trip. No sun in New Plymouth, no whale watching, and no Milford Sound.
We left the cloudy weather of Wanaka and headed down to the Caitlins, which were having unseasonably warm and sunny weather.
We did a hike to another waterfall, and Katy found a tree where she could pretend she was a hobbit.
That large blob in the foreground is a sea lion, and that stuff that looks like rain and clouds might actually be rain and clouds–or I photoshopped it in.
We were all informed by my mom that this is not a sea gull, but a specific type of gull. I have no idea what type of gull it is, but we saw them at the Royal Albatross Center. The Albatross Center was actually a lot more exciting than I was anticipating, and we got to see a lot of small blue penguins that night.

We had a great trip with my parents, and at this point we split off, and Katy and I went back to Wanaka to spend two more days with Dave and Lynette, while my parents began their trek back to the States. We had a great trip that was marred by a lot of crappy weather, but the company made up for it.

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Sand, Geothermal Water, Beach = New Zealand

We then started the third distinct part of this trip (part 1, part 2), getting back to New Plymouth, via the scenic route. We had a great couple days in Hawaii, and since Katy has fourteen days off we still had a couple more days before Katy had to get back to work. We decided to take a very different path, the long way, than the path we took to get to Auckland. Our prime objective was to experience the Coramandel region. We opened up our go to trip planning book, Touring the Natural Wonders of New Zealand, and headed east in Yoshi. 

We made it to the Coromandel peninsula and turned north, along the west coast of the peninsula. We filled up with gas in a small town that was having a steam punk festival (Katy: what is that, even?), and boy was everyone dressed up in assorted steam punk wear, except for some locals who were looking at the festival goers in a decidedly quizzical way. We decided to bypass the festival and go and see some kauri trees. I originally wrote “There are just a handful of these trees left in New Zealand, and they really are huge. It was well worth the detour”, but honestly what matters is that these were massive trees.  They might put sequoias to shame.  When Katy put her arms around the tree, there was almost no bend in them.  I didn’t think that going and looking at a grove of 12 trees would be “cool”, but it was.  It also makes you think about what the world once was and what it is today.

We had a couple more stops  (none was memorable enough to write about it a month after the fact) on the way to Jackson Bay on the far north of the peninsula. The last 15 miles of the road were a pretty narrow gravel road along a cliff side, the type that can be quite frightful for the passenger. The passenger in this case was me, since we have discovered that car sickness doesn’t happen when Katy drives, and this is the type of road that instigates getting car sick.

We pulled into the DOC campsite that had a lovey older couple as the camp host, the 70 year old kind that has that innate ability to turn every conversation into a 15 minute saga where some knowledge about someone’s grandchildren is learned.  They gave us a bucket for our food scraps to feed the worms (they have a worm farm, naturally) and told us to pick any tent site we wanted, since they were not very full that night. As we headed down the road, we heard a very loud screeching sound from the right front of the car, not good. We decided on a spot after awakening any camper who was taking a 5pm nap with the mechanical noise, and then it was time to figure out what is wrong with Yoshi (which is what we’ve named the car). I looked and couldn’t see anything wrong (with my vast car knowledge), but we had 3G one bar signal, so I turned to google, albeit slowly. After watching a YouTube video about strange car noises, I decided that the one thing I could do something about was if a rock was stuck in the brake rotor. I jacked up the car on the nice soft and sandy soil that tried to swallow the jack and took the wheel off. I then looked and couldn’t see a stone. Dejected, thinking that I was going to have to drive 30 miles to the closest town with a cacophony of noise at every tire revolution, I decided I would give it a second look.  I retrieved  the headlamp and took one last look and discovered a very tiny pebble, smaller than a #2 pencil’s eraser and poked it out with a stout twig. Having successfully solved our car problem, my mood dramatically improved and my grumpy mumbles ceased.  We enjoyed dinner and the first beer of my New Zealand home brewing adventure (it was not good but subsequent iterations have improved substantially).

The next morning after some yogurt and granola, we headed out of the campground, Yoshi not making a racket this time. A few minutes after we left it started drizzle. It then started to rain, an on-and-off occurrence that would go on for the next day. We passed a brewery and decided to have a stop in the afternoon and got talking to the owner.  The brewery trends in New Zealand tend to follow those in the US, and right now they are on a big American pale ale kick.  This means that they import a ton of US hops when they grow hops in New Zealand that are really expensive in the states but are pretty cheap here.  I don’t understand why most breweries focus on making beers with US hops.  We then decided to go to another hot water beach. This one is the most famous one in the country, and the crowds reflect it.  I had come prepared and had packed a shovel, and when Katy and I left the car she looks at me and laughs because I am holding our backpacking small poo hole trowel.  She immediately asks why I thought to bring the smallest shovel that we own instead of our avalanche shovels.  I had never even thought of bringing those…. I then fortified our sand moving instruments with our wash bucket and off we marched past hordes of people that have paid $10 to rent a real shovel.  We get to the area of sand that has scalding hot water bubbling out, and I am very unenthused.  I can think of only a couple things that enthuse me less than being in a bathing suit in a slight cold drizzle, thinking of digging a hole in the sand that will fill with a little water while getting covered in a crust of sand/salt/water. 

We decided to go for it, and since we were fashionably late, the tide was still going out (this is an activity done within two hours of low tide) when we started our hole in front of all the other ones (as the tide goes out more beach becomes available to dig), and we ended up on the line closest to the ocean.  I put aside the fact that I was a salty sandy mess, and my inner seven year old came out thinking that we have to build walls to protect our hot water from the cold water of the waves.  It turned out to be a blast and way more exciting than we anticipated.  

Our desire to spend a night in a tent while it was raining was very low.  There is something about car camping in the rain that doesn’t do it for me (it is less than satisfying).  We then pulled up the Googles, and Katy says that we should stay at the Bird Park. She had discovered a place with terrible advertising that had rooms for $35 USD, the cheapest around.  You needed to bring your own sheets, but I had put a couple sheets in the car before we left to cover our stuff while it was parked at the airport, and it ended up working out great.  We pulled up to the park after giving Yoshi’s suspension a workout on a wonderful dirt road and settled into our room.  Like many accomidations of this type, there was a common kitchen to use, and I headed off there and was greeted by a large peacock, not what I was expecting.  Katy came over to see what had stopped me from my dinner tasks, and was trailed by a couple of ducks that had learned that if you follow humans around you might get food, and she quickly corrected me, telling me it was in fact a peahen and that I should carry on making dinner (Katy: truth be told, there were actually both a peacock and a peahen).

Our last day in the area we decided to hike to one of the most famous coves on the North Island, Cathedral Cove. It was impressive, but it was also full of people.  I think that in Taranaki (pronounced more like todd-a-knucky), where we live, there are a couple that are just as cool as this one, with far fewer people.  We were there still during the shoulder season, but I imagine that if you wanted to swim in the cove in high season, it would be like swimming at Bethany Beach in the summer.  We did a couple more brief excursions and called it a night. 

Cathedral Cove


The next day we did the four hour drive back to New Plymouth, and the following day we moved into house #2 (not counting motel #1 as a house) in New Plymouth.

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Hawaii: The closest Pearson Testing Center…

Normally when I fly to Hawaii I am really excited and pumped.  I have to admit that I was less excited that normal because it is an eight hour flight over all these cool remote Pacific islands to get to Hawaii.  I would rather have gone to almost any of them instead of back to Hawaii.  After our mini road trip to Auckland we took an overnight flight to Hawaii , and I steeled myself for the gauntlet of time share salesmen leaving the airport, but first we had to go through immigration.  Immigration was a breeze with no line whatsoever thanks to Global Entry, but the foreign entry lines looked like a solid one to two hours wait.  I had steeled myself for nothing, as there were no timeshare salesmen to go through, which is probably because they want to sell them to US citizens, and there are not a lot of them arriving through the international arrivals hall.  International arrivals was actually pretty dingy, and the Honolulu airport was otherwise like I remembered. 

We went and got our rental car, and the compact car we had reserved turned into a Range Rover Evoque due to Katy’s Presidential Circle status with Hertz.  I have to admit it is a lot nicer car than our 8 year old Toyota Prius that speaks Japanese that we own in New Zealand.  We then made our first run to Costco and spent over $500 dollars.  That might seem like an excessive amount to spend for a four day trip to Hawaii, but we were stocking up on things that are cheaper in the US than in New Zealand or things that we can’t get in New Zealand at all.  We then headed to our Marriott Beach Club Resort that we got on VRBO that was someone’s timeshare.  Since this is a work trip for Katy it did not make sense for us to use points since the expenses will be reimbursed.  I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to add my Marriott account information and get credit for the stay even though it was a timeshare stay.  We then hit the beach for some afternoon ocean action.  The US had just turned the clocks back with daylight saving times, so it meant that even though it was an eight hour flight to get there, Hawaii was only one hour later, but on the previous day (Katy: international date line makes my head spin…).  It also meant that sunset was at 6pm when we were used to sunsets at 830pm, which definitely makes a difference.

Our first full day in Hawaii we went to Kahe Point and did some snorkeling.  We were lucky enough to see a sea turtle and a bunch of fish.  We then decided to go and put some miles on our Range Rover and explore the island a little bit.  We stopped to grab some garlic shrimp and poke for lunch and then headed to Turtle Bay to see sea turtles.  It was a semi letdown since the turtles were in the water swimming and a little difficult to spot, and there were large crowds of people watching them. Seeing them while snorkeling was way better. Waimea beach was our next stop, and we were able to get a parking spot without an issue. We hopped in the ocean for a bit and did some body surfing. The waves were surprisingly small for November but fun to play in. We then decided that our next step should be sharing a shaved ice. We split a green tea shaved ice with red beans and condensed milk (Katy: Yum!). Our next stop was the obligatory one at the Dole Pineapple Plantation. The last time I was there I got one of my all time favorite shirts, my Hug A Pineapple shirt, but this time I showed restraint and didn’t get a replacement. We did split a dole whip float, which is dole whip in tart pineapple juice. It was then time to head back to the Marriott for some more beach time. 

The real reason we were in Hawaii was that it is the closest place with a Pearson Testing Center for Katy to take her board exam. Katy had an early 6am departure to the testing center in downtown Honolulu. I decided that since Katy had absconded with the car that I needed to spend the day hanging out at the pool and beach.  When I went to make Katy a mai tai for a celebratory post test beverage, I discovered that the freezer had frozen the rum. I had to thaw some of the rum, but was able to pull together a mai tai with some fresh pineapple. I have to admit that fresh Hawaiian pineapple puts US pineapples to shame. After Katy conquered her exam we spent some time at the beach (read: Katy hung out in the ocean in her pink floaty for an extended period of time). We did the standard Hawaiian luau to celebrate that Katy is one step closer to being board certified. 

Our last day in Hawaii we attempted to go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, but the parking lot was full. We decided to hike Diamond Head instead. We were lucky that after a couple minute’s wait we were able to get a parking spot. We were eyeing a fresh pineapple when we finished the hike. We discovered that they only took cash, and while we were flush in New Zealand dollars, we were deficient in US dollars, so no pineapple treat for us. We decided that the best way to handle being shutout in the pineapple game was to go and get some ramen. 

We recharged on ramen and then headed to Waikiki. We were able snag a free parking spot and staked out our corner of the beach and went for a swim. We actually planned ahead for once and had our water shoes, which made the water a lot more enjoyable.  The next day we woke up “early” and eked out all the beach/pool time we could before we left to go back to New Zealand and take the long way back to New Plymouth. 

Flying southwest to New Zealand. Depending on how daylight savings falls in each country, New Zealand is 21-23 hours ahead of Hawaii

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