Tuesday, March 27, 2012

New Zealand- South Island

Even though I've written five previous posts about New Zealand, I still have so much to say about it.  I was worried that it wouldn't hold the same wonder and excitement the second time around. Especially since we had just been to so many unique and exotic places. My fear was that we had become jaded and had lost our ability to be amazed by anything. It had been almost a full year since I left New Zealand. I had been sent to the North Island last year for work but didn't ever make it to the South Island so we purposely chose to start our trip on the South Island. If you've read my previous post on Australia then you know that we had to show proof of an outbound flight. This was booked in haste at the Sydney International Airport. In hindsight, I regretted booking our departure from New Zealand at just two and a half weeks later. It's just not enough time to see all of the amazing things there are to see. In defense of New Zealand's immigration policy, if we hadn't been forced to book an outbound ticket, we'd probably never want to leave.

Our entrance into New Zealand was just as chaotic as our exit out of Australia. We flew from Sydney to Wellington and had an eight-hour layover before our thirty-minute flight to Christchurch. That's right, an eight-hour layover for a thirty-minute flight. But when you book flights just two days before your departure, sometimes your options are very limited. It was midnight when we entered Wellington International Airport. New Zealand has one of the strictest policies in regards to what is allowed to be brought into their country but it's what keeps New Zealand so unspoiled and free of potentially harmful invasive species that can destroy their entire ecosystem. Fines for not declaring prohibited items start at $400. We weren't sure about certain items in our possession so we declared everything and then asked officials just to be sure. They inspected our bags and took some packets of honey and apples that we had forgotten about. They also inspected our sneakers. If you have any dirt or mud on your shoes and you've recently been in contact with animals, then your shoes can be taken away. I knew about this since my co-worker had his golf shoes cut to pieces and thrown in the garbage last year so Darren made sure to clean all the dirt off of our shoes and they passed inspection. We were then given a chance to double-check our bags to make sure we still didn't have any prohibited items that we had forgotten about.

Darren is known to have a problem with food hoarding. He collected packets of condiments, bread rolls, crackers, tea bags, etc...from all over the world. At home, he always likes to keep a pepper or sometimes a carrot in the refrigerator. He never eats it and it usually rots and then he buys another one and the cycle continues on and on. I call it his "comfort vegetable". It makes him feel safe just to know it's there. He is always thinking about food which he claims has to do with fear of another Potato Famine. I don't accept this as a valid excuse considering he was born 120 years after the end of the famine. So knowing that he has this eating disorder, I asked him to please check his bag one more time. If the customs officials found any food then we'd be fined $400. So he checked his bag and sure enough, in addition to the apples and honey, he had stashed a full box of pasta and an entire bunch of carrots. If he had a jar of sauce it would have been a complete pasta dinner. Luckily, he declared it before they searched any further. They confiscated the carrots but let us keep the pasta. Darren was a little bit anxious now that he had no comfort vegetable but he remained strong and handled it quite well.

We had about seven more hours to go before our flight to Christchurch and the airport was now closed. I had never been in an empty airport before and it felt kind of eerie. We really wanted to go to sleep and we didn't know where we could go. We showed our tickets to an airport official and he escorted us in an elevator to one of the main terminals. All of the shops were gated and the cafes were all closed. He showed us some benches where we could go to sleep. There were only about seven other people at the airport. We got only three hours of sleep before being woken up and asked to move on when the airport was open again. Then we had to check-in and wait for our next flight. We left Australia on January 7th and when we arrived in Christchurch it was 8am Sunday, January 8th.

We had reserved a Jucy camper van-one of the few things we actually were smart enough to book in advance on our world trip. We picked one of the more economical options so it wasn't so much a camper van as a modified minivan. There were cushions in the back that fit together like puzzle pieces to make a bed. Ours was a little wonky and kept falling apart in the middle of the night so Darren would wake up and find himself stuck in a hole. It also had a pump sink, a small refrigerator, and a butane stove. It came with towels, sheets, a blanket, cookware, dishes, and a DVD player. This would be our car and home for the next two weeks.

You may have already forgotten about the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch last year but I was in New Zealand at the time and it's definitely something I will never forget. The week before this second trip back to NZ, Christchurch suffered several more earthquakes. Given my magnetic attraction to natural disasters, we chose to do Christchurch a favor and leave as quickly as possible. We drove southwest from Christchurch towards Queenstown. We were so exhausted that we had to pull over at a rest stop and sleep for a couple of hours before continuing. It was raining and it was also unseasonably cold considering it was January and mid-summer in NZ. Back in the United States, they were having a record warm winter but on this side of the world, they were having a record cold summer. So if you live in North America and you're wondering where winter went, it got lost and wound up in New Zealand.

Lake Tekapo
When it stopped raining we drove past the most unbelievable lake I've ever seen called Lake Tekapo. It was ice blue and surrounded by snow-capped mountains and fields of wild lavender. I was relieved to discover that we had not become jaded after all. It was just my first day back in New Zealand and it was already blowing my mind. There are just not enough adjectives to describe New Zealand but I'm going to use the word "unbelievable" a lot because what I've seen just does not seem real. Even though I had described what New Zealand was like to Darren, he realized that words are just not adequate. Even though I told him how beautiful it was, he still couldn't believe it when he saw it for his own eyes. He described New Zealand as one big botanical garden with a few little towns here and there. I'd say that's a pretty accurate description but don't forget to include the 40 million sheep. We drove on and there was another lake that was just like the first but even bigger called Lake Pukaki. It was incredible. We were too tired to keep driving to Queenstown and so we stopped for the night in a little one-street town called Twizel. 
Lake Pukaki

It cost $16 per person to park the Jucy van in a non-powered site at the campsite in Twizel but there are strict laws against "Freedom Camping" in most parts of New Zealand. It's not like Australia where you can just pull your car into a rest area and sleep for the night. Fines for Freedom Camping can be $200 and it's difficult to be inconspicuous when driving a lime green and purple van so we abided by the rules. The reason for the strict rules is to keep the land clean and free of pollutants. You can only camp at a legal campsite (which can cost anywhere from $18-$30 per person for a non-powered site) or a designated Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite (these are usually between $0-$8 per person but are just basic plots of land with maybe a vault toilet and maybe a water spout). Our site was not a DOC site so it was pricier but at least it had showers and a kitchen where we could cook dinner.

We made it to Queenstown the next day by 1 pm. The first campsite we found wanted $56 just to park the van so we drove to Frankton, which is just on the outskirts of Queenstown and found a holiday park with a spot right on the lake for $36. This was an amazing deal considering what we'd have to pay for a hotel room with a view like this!
Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown is a charming and vibrant little city. I wouldn't even classify it as a city though. It was more like a small ski town. It had tons of activities for outdoor adventure enthusiasts and also lots of interesting shops and restaurants. It had great energy. While in town, we found a payphone and booked a guided glacier climb for the following day. That's correct. We were actually learning from our previous experiences and booking things ahead of time. This is not always easy to do without a phone but we chose to not have a phone because we wanted to fully experience everywhere we visited without the constant distraction of text messages and phone calls. I was capable of living without a mobile phone attached to my head for the first 24 years of my life and after a couple days of phone withdrawals, we both felt happier and freer without one. So we tried to book our trip from a payphone and just as I was giving her my credit card number, the phone disconnected. We had to scrounge up more change and call back. I find that figuring out how to use foreign payphones is all part of the cultural experience because they are all a bit different and the currency is always confusing. Just the challenge of trying to use a foreign payphone is an adventure. We finally got through again and booked our glacier climb. There are only 2 companies that conduct guided glacier tours. We chose the more expensive one for the simple reason that it included free admission to the Glacier Hot Pools afterwards and the pools would also have showers that we could use so it was a great deal.

We also visited the information center while we were in Queenstown. Every town in New Zealand has a free information center where you can get free maps and ask questions to a live human being. It is truly the most tourist-friendly and easiest country to navigate in the whole world. We asked for a map of all of the Department of Conservation campsites and they directed us up the street to the DOC information center where we got information and maps to every DOC campsite in the country. New Zealand is just so easy.

On our way to Franz Josef Glacier, there was a sign that said "Last chance to get petrol for 141 km." In New Zealand, you can drive for hours without seeing another car or petrol station. When you see a sign like this, you stop and fill up your tank because the mountains are steep and winding and you will use up all your petrol before you make it to the next station (as I learned on my previous trip. Read the post: New Zealand-Tauranga & the Coromandel Peninsula). When you don't have a phone to call for help, this can be dangerous. There's just one "highway" connecting each little town. The highways are just one-lane roads with no shoulder and no traffic or street lights. We only encountered one traffic light in all the south island. The towns are usually just one street long and you can drive through them so fast that if you blink you will miss it. 

The west coast of the south island gets more rainfall per year than Ireland and despite the constant rainfall we had experienced, there was a drought in Franz Josef. The Council's solution to the water shortage was to fill the reservoir with untreated water so all drinking water had to be boiled. We ran out of butane while cooking dinner so we had no clean water to drink or wash dishes with. Because of the water shortage, we only stayed one night.
Franz Josef Glacier

We went on our glacier climb the next morning. The tour company provided us with raincoats, "over-trousers", wool socks, boots, and crampons. This was really convenient because we had shipped our winter gear home from Australia. We took a short bus ride and then hiked through the rain forest into the glacier valley. Because the glacier was so massive and the valley so wide, it looked like it was just a ten-minute walk away. It was actually an optical illusion and took us about forty-five minutes to hike to the base. At a certain point, people are not allowed to continue without a guide. It is an active living glacier and the ice could break and rocks or ice could (and did) fall. People have gone over the barrier without guides and gotten killed. Paying for the guided tour was worth every penny. You can't see, touch, or walk on the glacier from the barrier and it was an absolutely amazing experience to climb up the glacier and crawl through the icy caverns. It was one of the most memorable times of our entire world trip. It was so fun and bizarre to be walking on a glacier surrounded by rainforest in the middle of summer. New Zealand is like a fairy tale.  Relaxing in the outdoor hot pools that night surrounded by rain forest was the perfect way to end the day and soothe our sore and cold muscles after the glacier climb. And we got to take a shower!

We drove that night to a town called Hokitika and arrived at the DOC campsite around 11pm. The directions on the DOC map simply said, "across from the hotel." This cracked me up yet despite the total darkness, the town was so small that the site was easy to find, right across from the hotel just like the directions said. 

Our next destination was Abel Tasman National Park. We were packing up the van and getting ready to leave in the morning when an old man just walked up to Darren and started to chat, seemingly oblivious to the pouring rain. He asked Darren where we were headed and what route we planned on taking. Our plan was to take what looked like a shortcut on the map via State Highway 7 but Darren said he wasn't sure. The man said that taking the coastal route via State Highway 6 was much more scenic whereas SH 7 was all farmland and we'd be missing all the great views and it wasn't really that much quicker. Then he just said, "have a nice trip" and went away. Good thing we listened to that mysterious stranger because the route up the coast was spectacular. We stopped in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Puakaiki and walked to some cliffs to see the Pancake Rocks. It was absolutely amazing. The rocks are literally layered like pancakes. Scientists know that they are millions of years old but have no idea how they were formed. Just another New Zealand magical mystery.
Pancake Rocks

The Blow Hole
There were rock formations called the "Teapot" and the "Blow Hole." When the waves crash against the rocks, the spray shoots up through the holes formed in them and it looks like steam blowing out. It was fascinating.

There was so much beautiful scenery to admire that we stopped several more times along the way and weren't expecting to make it to Abel Tasman until the next day but we wound up arriving around 7 o'clock that night. We figured we'd keep driving and try to find the DOC campsite. The DOC book said it was 11km down a narrow unpaved road. We drove up through the mountains for a long time and I was starting to think we were lost because there was nothing around and just then I spotted the turn-off. The road was seriously steep and narrow and on the cliff's edge. It was just dirt and gravel and could only fit one car. We drove and drove and there was nothing around. I was not feeling good about this campsite. We passed a sign that said "washout" next to where a rockslide had occurred. The forecast was calling for more heavy rain which could easily cause another landslide. If the road was washed out or blocked by fallen rocks, we'd be trapped in the middle of nowhere with no phone to call for help. Once the road got wide enough we turned the car around and headed back the way we came. We never did find the campsite either.

Abel Tasman National Park
We took an alternate route into Abel Tasman via the coast into the town of Kaiteriteri and found a $25 campsite called Bethany Christian Camp. It was packed with hundreds of families that were living there for their entire summer break and there were kids everywhere. We just wanted to cook dinner because by that time it was 8:30 and we were tired and very hungry. The kitchen was so busy that there was a long line to wash dishes. Camping is supposed to be relaxing but with all the tents and kids running wild it looked more like a circus. It was a safe place to stay for the night but we had no plans to stay another especially since they charged 50 cents for a 6-minute shower. It rained so hard that night that the water came through our slightly opened windows and soaked our sheets and blankets. Sleeping in the van every night was already getting old. We got out of there first thing the next morning and didn't bother to take our 6-minute showers. We found a new campsite in the next town over that had just a few sites and was incredibly quiet. It was also only $20 and the showers were free. Next, we had to find a payphone to book our car ferry to the north island for that weekend (notice the booking in advance again!). Their computers were down and they asked if they could call us back. We told them we didn't have a phone and they could not comprehend this. It was as if we told them the sky was yellow. We had to keep finding payphones and change and calling back until they could finally confirm our reservation. 

Coquille Bay
We drove back to Abel Tasman and hiked the coastal route to Coquille Bay. As usual, it was unbelievably beautiful. Cars are not allowed in Abel Tasman but you can get a permit and camp overnight at one of the many campsites in the park and hike through the entire route from one end to the other. Outside the entrance to the park, there is a really interesting sculpture garden exhibiting the work of local artists.

We stayed another day and rented sea kayaks before driving on to the town of Picton which is where we needed to catch the ferry to the north island. 

We found a DOC campsite on a gorgeous lake just a half-hour from Picton. I made tacos using our little butane stove, we swung on a rope swing and watched ducks while another camper played guitar. It was another perfect New Zealand night filled with millions of stars.

We met an interesting American man named Steve who was also traveling the world and wanted to form a group to fight for the right to freedom camp in New Zealand. He had gotten caught and was fined $200. Almost all of the DOC campsites are unmanned. You put your money in an envelope and dropped it in a box. It's typically on the honor system but once in a while, they do come around to check that you have paid your fee. We noticed many people would wake up and leave very quickly in the mornings before the officials came to check the box. I have to admit that I respect their efforts to keep the land unpolluted but it often did not feel worth the money to pay just to park our van on a patch of grass when there was no running water or restrooms. 

We were up early the next morning to catch the ferry. The weather was clear and mild and the sky was a brilliant blue. We lined up our green and purple Jucy van with rows of magnificent antique cars that were headed to a car show in Whangamata. Poor Jucy was feeling fat and ugly but then the other car owners became jealous when we were making coffee on our little stove while waiting to board the ferry. The ferry ride was three hours but the ride was so scenic, relaxing, and enjoyable that the time went by very quickly. 

In an effort to make this post a reasonable length, I will be writing a separate post about the north island. Please come back soon to read more or you can Subscribe to this blog by clicking the Posts button in your right-hand sidebar or click Follow on the top left corner of your screen.
In the meantime, click one of the links below to read some of my previous posts about New Zealand:

Adventures in Kiwi Land

Monday, March 12, 2012


Australia was very different from the rest of our trip in that we spent most of our time with friends and family. This was a nice change after two months on our own. Australia was one of the countries that I had picked. Darren lived in Australia for a year about 15 years ago but I had never been there and always wanted to go.

It was almost Christmas and every hotel was booked up. Fortunately for us, Darren's relatives live in Surfer's Paradise on the Gold Coast. I got to meet them for the first time and Darren got to see them for the first time in 15 years. It was so nice to spend Christmas with family rather than with a bunch of strangers in a guest house.

Although Darren's aunts originally came from Ireland, they settled into Australia pretty quickly and easily. They immigrated to Oz in the '70s and got jobs the very next day working as seamstresses for a man who was selling surf apparel on the beach. That company is known today as Billabong and now has 677 stores worldwide and made 1.79 billion dollars in revenue last year.

We thought Australia would be an easy country to travel around since it was English speaking and modern. What we found was that it was like a really expensive version of the United States except with funny accents. With all of the McDonald's and shopping malls, it didn't feel like we were in a foreign country at all. Darren's recollection of Australia 15 years ago was much different than it is today. He said it had become much more commercialized and incredibly expensive. Back then, he was able to travel around Australia for months without spending a thing. Plus, it's a huge country and all of the major attractions such as Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef are days apart from each other. We didn't want to make the same mistakes we had made in some of the other countries we visited with trying to see everything so we realized we'd have to choose one or the other. Both would take 3 days by bus and another 3 days back. We chose to drive from Surfers Paradise to Townsville to see the Reef and fly back down to Sydney so that we could meet our friends, Anthony and Leanna, for New Year's Eve. After many phone calls, we found a company that actually still had spots available for a reef trip on the 30th. We'd have to leave on the 27th and drive with few stops. We looked into camper vans but everything was sold out. After hours of searching for rental cars, we finally found what seemed to be the last car available in the country but at a very high price. I didn't want to be in Australia and not get to see one of the great wonders of the world so we booked the car. Then when we tried to find accommodation in Sydney for New Year's Eve, everything was sold out or required a 7-10 night minimum. Even the hostels were charging $150 a night! Leanna told us that Sydney University rents dorm rooms to non-students but when we looked into it we found they were charging $140 a night with a minimum stay as well. We could only find accommodation outside of Sydney for the 1st so we'd miss New Year's Eve but at least we'd still get to see Anthony and Leanna while in Australia.

On Christmas day Darren and I had our picture taken with Santa. In Australia, Santa rides in a boat instead of a sleigh and he's guided by kangaroo riding surfboards instead of flying reindeer! There was a cyclone up north over Christmas so the surf was really dangerous in Surfers Paradise. Just a handful of some very experienced surfers were in the water so we didn't attempt to go surfing but we did get to try stand up paddleboarding. Darren's cousin took us on Boxing Day (we don't celebrate Boxing Day in America so this was my first!). I was instantly hooked and am now obsessed with this sport.

We set out for Townsville on the 27th and drove until it got dark. We spent all of our money on the car and had none left for hotels. Plus we didn't have much time to stop if we wanted to make it there in time for the reef trip. Australia is very accommodating to drivers and has rest stops everywhere. Some even have bathrooms and picnic tables. And they're free. My favorite thing was the "free driver reviver." It encourages drivers to pull over and rest if they're tired by giving out free cups of coffee and cookies. What a brilliant idea!

We pulled in at a rest stop but we had no tent or sleeping bags so we had to sleep in the back of our hatchback economy car. It was really hot so we opened the windows a bit but then all of the mosquitoes came in and were feasting on us. Needless to say, it was not the best night's sleep. For some reason, Darren is tastier to mosquitoes than I am and he was covered with bites.

Early the following morning we were back on the road driving through the Australian outback. We came across a small-town post office with just one little counter manned by two sweet ladies. We shipped home some of our winter gear we didn't need anymore, some souvenirs and gifts we had picked up along the way, and Darren's raincoat. He said he hadn't used the raincoat since we were in Nepal and since the Gold Coast boasts 300 days of sunshine per year, he didn't need it anymore. Not three hours later we found ourselves driving right into the cyclone we had been hearing about. Darren was exasperated over shipping the raincoat home and I had to pull over because I couldn't even see the road. I am known for attracting earthquakes but this was my first ever tropical cyclone. We waited on the side of the road until the rain slowed up a bit and then Darren took the wheel. It was coming down so hard the car was shaking back and forth. We pulled over at a gas station and waited nearly two hours but it hardly slowed down. We tried driving some more and made it to Airlie Beach. To my dismay, I discovered that there is no beach in Airlie Beach. It's a charming and lively port town on the waterfront but its name is deceiving. We could find no campsites and the cyclone was getting dangerous. Despite signs prohibiting camping overnight, we had no choice but to pull in on a quiet side street and sleep in the back of the car again. There were no mosquitoes but this time we got soaked.
The skies were finally clearing the next day. As we drove through the bush we witnessed the aftermath of the storm. Several cars had skidded off the road and overturned and there were dead kangaroos all over the road.

We made it to Townsville by that afternoon. We stopped at the dive shop where we had booked our Great Barrier Reef trip for the next day. They told us to check back with them in a couple of hours. They said the trip might be canceled due to the weather and rough seas. We had driven for two days, went straight through a cyclone in an overpriced rental car which we slept in for two nights, all to see the reef and now there was a possibility it would be canceled. We tried to remain calm and optimistic and looked for a place to stay.

Townsville was a ghost town. In Australia, all of the businesses pretty much shut down for two weeks during Christmas time and New Year's. If the trip was canceled we didn't know what we'd do.
We found a hostel that was incredibly overpriced considering it looked exactly like a prison complete with cinder block walls and views through the bars from one cell block to another. But it was better than sleeping in the car. We had grown a great appreciation for simple comforts like pillows and brushing our teeth with tap water-things most people in developed countries take for granted.

We went back to the dive shop a couple hours later and learned that all trips to the Great Barrier Reef were canceled until January 2nd. Our flight to Sydney was leaving on January 1st. If I had to pick the most disappointing part of our trip, the canceled trip to the Great Barrier Reef would be it. We had driven all that way and spent all that money for nothing. We were devastated but it was a minor upset compared to all of the things that could possibly go wrong while traveling around the world so we decided to try and make the most of our time in Townsville.

The information center in town told us that if we couldn't see the Reef we could go to the local aquarium, Reef HQ. They said it was the next best thing. So we paid $21 each to visit the aquarium and felt it was a big waste of time and money. It didn't even come close to an actual visit to the reef and in my opinion, the Phuket Aquarium (see Thailand post) was far better. All it did was make us more depressed about our canceled trip. I will say that while the coral tank was completely lacking in labels or interpretation, they seemed to dump all of their money in a nice exhibit upstairs with interactive technology and flat-screen video signage. If the fish in the displays get switched to different locations or die, then all they have to do is change the information on the monitor rather than printing and installing a new sign. This is really smart and could definitely make their coral and other exhibits on the first floor more informative and interesting.

Rather than visiting the aquarium, I'd recommend going across the hall to the free Cultural Center. The museum's focus was all about the history, struggles, and traditions of the Aborigines. I found it both interesting and alarming at how similar their stories are to those of the Native Americans and the Maoris in New Zealand. What struck me the most was how mixed or "half-caste" Aboriginal children were taken away from their parents to be raised in institutions. In addition to the cultural museum, there was an art gallery featuring some very nice works of art by Aboriginal artists.

Afterward, we had a picnic lunch at Kissing Point. It's located at the very end of The Strand (This is the road that runs parallel to the beach in Townsville). At Kissing Point there is a giant saltwater rock pool that they built in the ocean. It protects people from stingers, jellyfish, and sharks. It was much more creative and attractive than a traditional shark net.

Then we drove up to Castle Hill which is just a few meters shy of being classified as a mountain. At the top, there are views of the beach, Magnetic Island and all of Townsville.

We also visited the Queens Gardens. Townsville has three separate gardens which together form Townsville Botanic Gardens. In addition to Queens Gardens are Anderson Gardens in Mundingburra and the Palmetum in Annandale. Initiated in 1870, Queens Gardens is the oldest Botanic Garden in Townsville and is heritage listed.

Afterward, we tried to find an Internet cafe so we could check our email and make our plans for Sydney. We couldn't find an Internet cafe all week so we had to come up with creative ways to get free WiFi.

Travel tip: If you sit in the parking lot of McDonald's you can pick up their WiFi signal. No password is needed. No purchase necessary. We never once resorted to eating at McDonald's during our travels but they are very handy when you need to use the restroom or check your email.

On New Year's Eve, we took a ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island. It was a scenic boat ride that took about 35 minutes. It cost $175 for the car ferry so we left the car and rode as passengers for 56 AUD for two. Of course, all of the rooms on the island were booked up for New Year's so we'd have to get the last ferry back to Townsville or sleep on the beach. An all-day bus pass cost 7.50 AUD and we were able to ride from one end of the island to the other and stop at all of the beaches in between. Magnetic Island has more than 22 secluded beaches and bays and a national park. With 320 days of sunshine per year, it is the sunniest spot on the Queensland Coast. The island earned its name because of the apparent "magnetic" effect it had on the compass of Captain Cook's ship as he passed the island when sailing up the east coast of Australia in 1770.

After a long relaxing day on Magnetic Island, we took the ferry back to Townsville. It was the quietest place I've ever been to on New Year's Eve. We strolled into a pub and some locals began chatting with us. They wanted to know what we were doing in quiet little Townsville on New Year's Eve. We told them how we couldn't get to Sydney for New Years and how difficult we were finding it to go anywhere or do anything because of the expense. They told us that most Australians actually travel overseas on vacation because it's cheaper than traveling within Australia. They said that they fly to Thailand or South Africa every year because international flights are even cheaper than domestic flights. This explained why we saw so many Australians in Thailand. Then they told us about a concert and fireworks at Reid Park. This wound up being a fantastic tip. We found Reid Park and a huge open-air concert was going on. There was also a massive fireworks display at midnight. The best part was that since it was summertime in Australia we were comfortable outside in t-shirts rather than freezing in the snow in New York.

On New Years Day we flew back to Sydney. I say "back" because we had a four-hour layover in Sydney when we flew from Thailand to the Gold Coast. In hindsight, this was poor planning. Or lack of planning which has been our style throughout most of our trip. Sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn't. Especially when things need to be booked in advance during major holidays! So we were back in Sydney again. We spent several hours taking the wrong trains before we found our hotel so our first day there was pretty much over.

The next day we met Anthony and Leanna at Circular Quay. Having no phone, this required careful coordination and a lot of emailing from McDonald's. They asked us how we didn't lose each other while traveling with no phone. We demonstrated for them a travel tip given to us by our friends Jan and Woody.

Travel Tip #2: Create your own personal bird call. When you can't find your partner or spouse, call out something like, "WHOOP WHOOOP!!" All they have to do is follow the sound and you will be reunited again.

It was great to see familiar faces again. We had missed seeing our friends in India and I was worried that the same thing would happen again. Anthony is from England and was my coworker and roommate when I was in New Zealand last year (see New Zealand blogs). Leanna is Australian and I met her when she came from London to help out in our office in New York last summer. They were in Australia visiting Leanna's family for Christmas. Now here we all were an American, an Englishman, an Irishman, and an Australian. All we needed was a punchline.

We took the ferry to Manly and walked around the beaches and shops. We also explored some amazing cliff walks before heading back on the ferry and getting drinks by the opera house at sunset. Afterward, we walked around The Rocks and found a pub. Anthony liked this area the best. I think this was because it's Sydney's historic old town with charming cobblestone laneways and historic buildings that reminded him of England. The rocky sandstone ledge known as "The Rocks" is where members of the First Fleet stepped ashore on January 26, 1788, and the British settlement of Australia was first established.

The next day we met Anthony and Leanna at Circular Quay again and then we all went to the Royal Botanic Gardens for a picnic. The Botanic Gardens are free and located on Sydney Harbor and have great views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. One place of interest in the park is Mrs. Macquarie's Chair. It's an exposed sandstone rock cut into the shape of a bench, on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour, hand-carved by convicts from sandstone in 1810 for Governor Macquarie's wife Elizabeth. The peninsula itself is named Mrs. Macquarie's Point and is located at the end of Mrs. Macquaries Road.

Our stroll through the gardens led us to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibits were a mix of contemporary, classical, and Aboriginal art. At that time there was a special exhibit on Picasso. It was not his work that was on display but rather photographs of him and his family and videos of Picasso himself at work in his studio.

Afterward, we walked through the city center to take in all the sights and then finally finished our little day tour at Darling Harbor.
The following day we packed up and moved again to a serviced apartment in Bondi just walking distance from the world-famous Bondi Beach.
By this point in the trip, the new flip-flops (or thongs as they call them in Australia) I had purchased in September just before we left for our trip had become completely worn down. I racked up so much mileage that I wore a hole straight through to the bottom so that my toe was touching the ground. With no shortage of surf shops in Bondi, a replacement pair was not hard to find.

The next day we bought two round-trip bus tickets to Circular Quay for 14 Australian dollars. Then we paid 22 AUD for two ferry tickets to the Taronga Zoo. When we got there we learned that admission was $44.50 each! Even with the two 15% off coupons we had, it still cost $75 for admission to the zoo. I can't imagine how Australian families can manage to afford to do fun things with their kids with prices like that. It's not like it was an overly impressive zoo either but with what they were charging you would think it would be like Disney Land. There wasn't anything realistic about the animal habitats. They were basic enclosures that said nothing about the animals' natural environment. Although, we did get lucky with our timing because it was the animals themselves that made the experience enjoyable. We saw what looked like a gang fight between some angry chimpanzees. They were screeching, beating their chests, and chasing each other for more than twenty minutes. It was really exciting. We also were there just in time for the giraffes to be fed and got to see the baby elephants taking their baths.

We had planned to stay in Australia for 3 weeks or more. Even though we stayed with relatives for almost a week, the expense of just about everything had put us way over budget. So we had to cut our trip short at 2 1/2 weeks. That night, we booked flights to New Zealand for January 7th.

The day we left Australia we found ourselves in airport limbo yet again. We had to check out of the apartment at 10 am but our shuttle to the airport wasn't until 3 pm. We had to carry our packs around with us for 5 hours because the serviced apartment was not like a hotel where there would be luggage storage. A good use of our time would have been to book outbound tickets leaving New Zealand but instead, we found a park and watched a cricket match. When we were checking in at the airport at 4 pm they asked to see our outbound tickets. We had none. We had wanted to stay in New Zealand for three weeks or more and had no definitive schedule or plans. Apparently, the New Zealand Government requires proof of a plane ticket out of their country in order for you to be allowed in. I had been to New Zealand less than a year ago and they never asked to see my outbound ticket but apparently, things had changed. We had to run to the nearest Internet kiosk carrying 25-pound backpacks through a crowded airport. They wanted $10 for just 20 minutes of Internet. I refused on principle so we ran carrying our packs like we were in that TV show "The Amazing Race" to find the free Internet kiosks at the food court. All three kiosks were being used by Facebook addicts but just as I was about to tackle someone for their computer, they got up and we booked the fastest flights in history. Darren was able to connect to the food court WiFi and download the tickets onto his iPod. The woman at the check-in counter said she needed to see a paper ticket but it's 2012 and we live in a paperless society. Get with the program.
When we ran back to check in again, we got a different agent who reluctantly accepted our electronic ticket and checked us in for our flight.

Travel Tip #3: If you are traveling to New Zealand, you must have a paper ticket showing your outbound trip or you will be running like a lunatic through an airport trying to buy a plane ticket.