New Zealand 2

April 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm | Posted in New Zealand | Leave a comment

February 22 – March 17

We began the second half of our New Zealand adventure by heading towards the highest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook, standing at 12,316 feet. It was a bright sunny day and being that we were staying in the center of the island (New Zealand’s Outback), a little lift in elevation was a welcoming idea. The glacial lakes we passed along the way were thick with powder silt and the bluest color imaginable. We easily reached the mountain pass and we hiked along the popular Hooker Valley Trail over swing bridges and rocky pathways until we reached the base of the mountain and its massive glacier which produced the river that we had followed. We told stories, practiced spelling, boulder-hopped, held hands tightly along cliffs and dipped our toes in the frigid glacial water. We were very lucky to see Mt. Cook’s peak and glistening face on such a glorious day. This hike was one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand. It was absolutely perfect. The famous New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, had a mountaineering institute nearby and we viewed the photos and the poignant statue of the man who had recently passed on. The boys still think that we are going to climb Mt. Everest when we get to Asia.

Our next stop was idyllic Wanaka – small town, great cafes, beach on a blue lake, surrounded by mountains and forests and the great outdoors and no traffic. Alas, the place was booked and the helpful gentleman scratched his head trying to think of where we could go and remembered that a nearby campground had a few permanent tents that were new and roomy. We went across town where there was even less traffic, more lake and bigger mountains and found the tents to be better than we could have imagined. They were brand new, had three rooms with all the fixins and had comfy beds with mattresses. It was like a hotel outside! We all loved it and the boys were thrilled. They started right away gathering sticks to make forts and a table centerpiece out of pinecones. They took all of the dishes and played restaurant for hours. It was simple surprises like this that we were always thankful for. We wished we could have the stamina and where-with-all to camp more often on our journey but we never really had the opportunity to research renting camping equipment, etc. We stretched one night into four and made friends with the family in the tent next door and shared some stories and went on a couple of hikes together. The nights were so starry and crisp and the mornings so refreshing.

We headed towards the wild west coast and stopped seemingly every few kilometers to duck into yet another inviting rainforest with yet another waterfall and blue-green stream washing over boulders surrounded by ancient ferns greener than green. Besides rainforests, there were rocky and remote beaches to visit some sea lions basking in the sun and further along was the shadowy faces of the mountains that zipper their way down the coast with frosty glaciers to visit. Beach, Rainforest, Glacier and Meadows – it was all there for the taking in a day.

Surrounded by all of this gorgeous scenery we were inspired to skydive. This was the place to do it so we weighed the pros and cons for hours and hours and even contemplated whether we should leave the boys with the skydive crew and go together (could be catastrophic) or go one at a time (not as fun or romantic). Finally after confirming their safety record, we signed up to jump together the next morning. It is amazing how many scenarios you must analyze and conjure up before embarking on a skydiving escapade. What if…what if one of us…what if both of us…should we, shouldn’t we…kind of takes the fun out of it. Well, the fun was taken out for us when we woke up the next day to overcast skies and winds that did not make for a scenic nor safe flight. But, it was a good “What if” exercise. Probably best to do it when you are 20 or 80 and not in between.

We visited natural thermal springs in Hanmer Springs which was not only therapeutic but the fast waterslides made for great family fun (yes, we had to drag Peter away). We visited a vineyard owned by a friend of ours from Marblehead and his brother in NZ. The children learned all about the winemaking process while the parents carefully tasted as much as they could to discern the fragrances unique to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Along the way, we practiced our math and independence by letting the boys buy groceries on their own and ensure they got the right change. They loved it and would argue over whose turn it was to make the next purchase. We listened to the soundtrack of Dr. Dolittle a hundred times until they learned all of the words by heart. They still want to know if a Push-Me Pull-You really exists. Dr. Dolittle was a good choice for them as he was a great animal advocate and an inspiration to the boys as they journey around the world seeing all of these creatures in their natural habitat and truly appreciating their existence and importance. We are now reading the book which we purchased in one of the dozens of bookstores around the world that we lounge around in for hours. It is one of the boys most favorite things to do especially when they find some books that they recognize from their home collection.

We drove through mountain passes as we criss-crossed New Zealand from the middle, to the west, to the east, back to the west, back to the east and then back west to Abel Tasman National Park. We rented a cottage overlooking green mountains as far as the eye could see and took a speedboat to a trail deep inside the park and hiked the fantastic coastal trail for 6 or 7 hours back. It was another perfect place to hike and one of New Zealand’s 9 official Great Walks.

This was all on the fabulous South Island where we spent about 5 weeks and then we spent 1 week on the North Island. We explored the volcanic and thermal history of the north island and the boys were forever impacted by New Zealand’s Pompeii where we explored an outdoor museum where actual homes remain covered by volcanic soil and poignant remnants remain of those who perished. Smoking cauldrons of land and hot mud pools abound on the north island and volcanoes were no longer a mythical occurrence only seen in books and movies. The children had a deeper appreciation of Mother Nature’s abilities than before as did we.

We ended our trip with a coveted visit to a Kiwi sanctuary where we saw the comical birds scamper around their nocturnal house. They are so rare and are endangered by the import of weasel-like creatures in the last century that it was exhilarating to see them. It is very strange to see a bird with no wings! We ended our stay on St. Patrick’s day and the boys spent hours decorating the sliding glass doors of the hotel with shamrocks, pots of gold and rainbows (which they can now proudly recite the colors of in order). With a quick jaunt around Auckland, we felt we had been on familiar and comfortable lands long enough to drum up our courage to venture into cultures and environments very different from what we were used to.

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New Zealand 1

April 22, 2008 at 2:05 am | Posted in New Zealand | Leave a comment

February 9 – February 21

We arrived in New Zealand after a relatively short flight and after thorough scrutiny by airport officials looking for foreign matter that may affect New Zealand’s pristine and unique habitat. We pass and then have to agonize over renting a used vehicle as all of the big name brands with new cars were fully booked. Always worried about getting stranded with the kids, we get the used vehicle (1985) and figure that there are worse things then getting stranded somewhere in New Zealand. Our vehicle turned out to be reliable and cheap but paled in comparison with the ubiquitous flowery, hippie-era campervans so popular in this part of the world.

We drove into town and looked for a place to stay. There are hundreds in Queenstown but, alas, it seems to be the high season and also Japan’s tourist season. We finally found a nice motel and were so excited by the look and feel of Queenstown, we wanted to stay for a week. But, the hotel could only give us a room for 3 days so we had to move on but in our short stay we took in the formidable and craggy Remarkables mountain range, crystal blue lakes, watched extreme sports taking place in the air, on the water, from bridges, mountains and any other inhospitable location to increase the fear factor. The boys skimmed stones, sniffed out playgrounds and asked to participate in all of these extremely expensive extreme sports. In the end, we did not partake in any as the journey alone was the thrill of a lifetime and didn’t need any extreme punctuations (nor did we want to limp home early with a broken limb).

We tried desperately to capture New Zealand’s beauty and largesse in pictures but it was always a frustrating task. It was here that Laura was ready to sink some money into an upgrade but realized that seeing it is more important than capturing it. We were relieved to see a common motto on many t-shirts “Same Shirt – Different Day” as it depicted the culture here – relaxed, lots to see and no need to spend your precious time doing laundry. We were beginning to grow weary of the laundry and began to extend its wearing-power over a few days (Don’t study the photos too closely!). Luckily, the fabrics and colors we chose for our clothes made us always feel neat and clean even after a few days.

The boys seemed to struck by the beauty of New Zealand in their own subtle ways. Perhaps they looked at a scene a bit longer than usual or marveled at a dragonfly or remarked on the number of sheep in a meadow or were inspired to play hide-and-seek in a grove of inviting, fat trees. They did not hesitate to strip down and jump in the cool, sparkling water of a pristine lake and shrieked with excitement at the face of a baby calf or lamb. They would ask if they could take a picture of a sublime, snowy mountain peak or pick a small bouquet of wildflowers as a gift. Slowly but surely, nature’s bounty would have an effect on them and their compassion towards it would grow with each passing day as they voiced wanting to protect and preserve it when they grow up and be either a park ranger or cowboy (close enough).

New Zealand’s diversity was unparalleled in the proximity of seemingly unrelated rainforest, snowcapped mountain, ocean and dusty trail – all existing side-by-side. One can experience 4 different climates in one afternoon. We visited fjords in the far outreaches of the south island’s western wilderness and we explored a remote water-filled, pitch-black cave in a tiny boat that the driver steered with a pre-fastened pull rope so we could see the bioluminescent glow-worms displaying their blue constellations overhead. It was truly a gift of nature that these otherwise repulsive larvae could unknowingly create such beauty. We explored thick, green rainforests looking for young, not yet unfurled ferns – the symbol of birth and growth and the national symbol of New Zealand.

We drove along the most southern route of the South Island – the most south we had been on our journey around the world. The wind was furious and exhilarating. We found refuge in the tiny hamlet of Owaka. I knew we were in the country when I asked the waitress if they had kid’s milk and she shook her head and said, “No, only cow milk”. The environment was not good for humans and therefore, great for maintaining a safe environment for wildlife. As usual, we sought out wildlife and became up close and personal (relatively speaking ie: not a zoo) with sea lions, the world’s rarest penguins – the yellow-eyed penguin, and the world’s smallest penguin – the blue penguin. The boys played traffic cop while guarding the tiny blue penguins nightly arrival to their home conveniently located across a fairly busy side road. Our exciting encounter was with the Royal Albatross – a very large bird who nests on steep, windy cliffs which it must leverage for takeoff to support its heavy weight. We stood vigil alongside the cliff waiting to see these magnificent birds leave their nest in search of fish. Most of these animals are endangered thus reinforcing for all of us, the criticality of their protection.

(click photo for link to slideshow)

Australia Part 4 – Great Inland Road

April 7, 2008 at 10:19 am | Posted in Australia | 1 Comment
January 30 – February 8…………… 11 days

With our Great Barrier Reef adventure under our belts, we took a big sigh and headed for our long, long, long drive back to Sydney. 1,800 miles to go. There was heaps (Aussie for “lots”) to see on the way up but we were not sure what was in store for us on the way back. Our plan was to follow the Great Inland Route (there are only a handful of recommended, paved routes). It was not far enough inland to be truly considered the Outback but far enough inland to be considered The Bush. With all of the flash floods, heat warnings and huge expanses of deserted land, we opted to not venture too far inland.

Our first stop was at a town not far from Cairns that had a lot of shops and, more importantly, a bat rescue center. Our boys had grown quite fond of flying foxes during our adventure in Australia and were anxious to get a closer look. Down a small pathway, a generous lady houses dozens of bats that have either been injured or orphaned or stuck on fences. She rescues them and takes care of them until they are ready to be reacclimated to the wild. She held a variety of bats for us to look at closely. She held them upside-down, as they prefer, and fed them cookies. She explained that despite their name, their closes relatives are primates and that they are very smart. She walked over to the cage containing all of the hanging bats and called “Tilly!” and sure enough, one single bat eased her way from the middle of the cage rung by rung with her feet and walked, upside-down, over to the lady. The bat knew it’s name and the other bats knew they were being spoken to and didn’t budge from their hanging perch. The flying fox had the cutest furry face and deep, dark eyes and nudged around looking for cookies. It resumed it’s vampire-like position with its wings symmetrically covering its body. For us, all evil connotations were permanently thrown out the window.

We were impressed with the amount of recycling that Australia does. Wherever there was a public trash bin, right beside it was a recycling bin. All of the streets and sidewalks were 100% litter-free. All of the toilets used low flush and motels encouraged their guests to leave glass, paper, and cans aside for proper disposal. Australia being an isolated destination, needs to be careful of how it uses it resources and needs to vigorously protect its unique wildlife. The customs folks nearly confiscated our grass baskets from Africa as they may have contained miniscule mites but we got away with a good dousing of spray instead.

When we spied a group of kangaroos from afar at a golf course, we knew we might be in a good place to get up close and personal with these giant mice. Up until now, we had not seen them in the wild. We read about a good campground with cabins nearby so we headed for it. Tourism was low in these parts due to recent floodings but there was no rain in sight and we were one of only a few guests at this huge campground – or so we thought. After selecting our sight, we were surrounded by about 30 kangaroos and wallabies hopping around the campground. It was such a treat to be alone with these strange creatures. They were very cute and came complete with joeys to make our encounter that much more special. Kangaroos are big while wallabies are smaller and prettier. To further accentuate our outdoor adventure, Kookaburras were everywhere flitting from tree to tree overhead. We hadn’t seen one of these large birds in the wild either. We couldn’t believe our luck. We slept in strange pod-shaped plastic huts to the sounds of the Australian bush and woke to an outback-style breakfast outside where we cooked our toast over fire and sat on logs while eating our oats. The boys loved it.

We had to hit the road again and dodge the enormous “road trains” that barrelled past us every 20 miles. They were huge trucks hauling 4 cars carrying coal. The whole car would shudder and shake when they rolled past us. We think we counted 74 tires on these road trains. After the kangas and kookaburras, that was about all the excitement there was for a few days. Just the road and more road and more road. We did see beautiful parrots along the way and a flock of emus here and there but otherwise, the infamous long stretches of Australian highway was what we saw. There was lots of time for pondering so we had to answer some hard questions like “What are eyeballs made of?” and “Can people run faster than the wind?” and “Do germs have germs?” We listened to My Father’s Dragon and watched the beautiful country scenes pass by dotted with old windmills, purple fields, horses, crops, and towns that were a potpourri of saloon-style buildings, victorian hotels, and non-descript motels that we called home.

After spending a couple of nights in the Australian country music capital of Tamworth for some good barbeque and to watch a depressing Superbowl (yes, it was televised in Australia), we finally made it to Sydney and without reservations, needed to go around door to door looking for a place to stay in the outskirts in a town called Manley. Everything was extraordinarily expensive or booked so we ended up in a backpacker-style place (ie flimsy beds, old furniture, no soap, don’t look in corners) type of place. Ughh. We spent the days in Sydney returning the car, going to the museum, touring the Opera House and strolling through the botanical gardens decorated with flying foxes in the trees. We mailed home yet another box of collected trinkets and felt that our adventure in Australia had been successful and worth every mile.

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