Oceana

Australia Part II

The first driving stop after Sydney was in Port Macquarie, a quaint coastal town. By far the highlight was the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. This hospital becomes a home for koalas in need of medical care for any number of reasons; whether it be loss of habitat because of development, car accidents or the common case of chlamydia (seriously). At the hospital you can “adopt” a koala, and of course the pictures of the poor little things in desperate need of care brought out my wallet. I left the hospital $50 poorer, but the proud “parent” of Bermuda Barb – a little koala who got hit by a car and had a tiny cast on her arm.

The Gold Coast is a 35km strip of coastal highway that is the most built up in all of Australia, a sort of Las Vegas of OZ, complete with tacky neon signs advertising cheap buffets. Apparently the strip is booming as 1000 people each week migrate to the area for the ideal weather, sort of a retirement mecca, as Florida is to the US. Other than the main theme parks (also like Florida), there isn’t really much to do there but lay by the beach or surf.

Brisbane is home the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, definitely one of the highlights of the trip thus far. This is where they allow people to pay extra to hold a koala, which I gladly forked over for this experience I had been eagerly awaiting for so long. The koala I got to hold was a little nervous after the group of kids in front of me were finished heckling her, but she settled down with a few eucalyptus leaves and cooperated fully with her handler and sat very still in my hands as she had dozens of pictures taken. She was surprisingly heavy, about 25 pounds, and had much bigger claws than I was expecting. Her fur was not the soft rabbit like texture I had anticipated, but very coarse and dense. I have now joined the likes of Pope John Paul II and Marilyn Manson on the list of people who have visited and held the prized marsupials. In another section of the park, is an area where the kangaroos run “wild”. Of course the definition of wild is a little skewed because a majority of them were taking a nap in a shaded area, while the hungry ones anxiously waited on their hind legs for tourists to come right up and hand feed them, and of course we were more than willing to oblige them. Most of them were quite tame and let you come right up to them to pet them or if you stuck out your hand they would nibble the food right from you, leaving your hand a saliva coated mess. One of the moms was carrying a baby in her pouch, which at first was hard to see until the little guy started moving around, and stuck his head out. The furless creature looked like a chihuahua, but we only got a short glimpse of it before the dutiful mom pushed the head back in the pouch. Overall, it was a very exciting day for me.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The only way to travel it is in a 4WD vehicle, which you rent at an exorbitant price to drive around a jungle straight out of Jurassic Park and along the oceans beach. You set up camp, and hope that it holds up to the tremendous winds (it didn’t) and cook dinner and hope to see (or not see, depending on your views) a dingo. Dingoes are basically wild dogs that look emaciated and wander around camp sites in hopes of finding food. There was a criminal trial about ten years ago that a young mother claims that a dingo carried off her baby, she was acquitted of murder. One wandered up to our camp site, but then wandered away without incident so it doesn’t really make a good story, but I at least got to see one.

The Whitsundays are beautiful group of islands that offer postcard perfect beaches and snorkeling. We took a day cruise to a couple of different islands, and were fed a bbq lunch, which I got to experience twice because of my wonderful ability to get horribly seasick. Despite the fact that it rained and I only enjoyed the land portions of the day, seeing Matt in his stinger suit (for the jellyfish) definitely brought a smile to my face.

In Cairns Matt and I signed up for a combination learn-to-scuba-dive course and live aboard boat trip with the company Pro-Dive. In our classroom/pool sessions, of our 18 person class, we were the only ones from the US, thus from the first ten minutes of class, we were known as “Team USA”; individually I was known as “Miss America”. You can imagine my response to such a title… After two successful days in the pool and classroom, we were off for our 3 day/2night cruise to the Great Barrier Reef. We did our first four dives with our instructor leading the way for our group in lines, just like kindergarten. Our next five dives were much more interesting as we were on our own. The number and variety of fish and coral was simply amazing! On the night of the newly certified divers’ first (and only) night dive, the crew was throwing frozen fish off the back of the boat to attract sharks.  Of course we all thought this was the coolest thing to see – a real live shark.  Five minutes later we were all called down for our pre-dive briefing.  As the instructor was going through protocol for the dive, suddenly the lights dimmed, and the theme song from Jaws could be heard over the speakers.  The instructor then proceeded to tell us what we’re expected to do in the event of a shark sighting; form a close circle with our air tanks to the outside (like a steel cage), with the most knowledgeable person in the middle (i.e. the instructor). After forming the close-knit circle, we were to shine our flashlights on the unlucky person hovering next to us for one minute, just enough time for the instructor to surface unscathed.  After that one minute, we were on our own to escape to the surface or attempt to outswim the shark.  Unfortunately for everyone, we weren’t able to implement this plan.

Off to Africa tomorrow!

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Australia Part 1 – Victoria and New South Wales

After our early morning flight from Hobart to Melbourne, we headed out to conquer the city.  First stop was Victoria Market – a huge (one of the largest in the southern hemisphere) outdoor market selling everything from organic produce to outrageously expensive Nikes imported from China to the ever stylish “Bill Cosby” sweaters.  It was unbelievable that the asking price for a pair of cheap Nikes (which may or may not have been knock-offs) was $100 US; what was more unbelievable that people were actually buying them at that price. Nevertheless, it was an interesting place to wander around and people watch. 

Federation Square is the eclectic modern art center of the city.  Not being an architect, it may be harder for me to appreciate the “beauty” of the buildings and other random pieces of permanent art set up, but to me it seemed odd to have a classic looking church overlooking the stainless steel, slanted building with electronic message boards running messages about how much water a waterless urinal saves each year (1 million liters apparently).  Regardless of your taste in architecture, Melbourne has something that nearly everyone can appreciate, and I can even more so now that there hasn’t been one available on every other street corner – 7-11.  Not only did the city have the “real” 7-11, but they even have slurpees

After a couple of days wandering around Melbourne, we picked up another rental car and headed out to the Great Ocean Road.  The GOR is a Pacific Coast Highway type road; that winds you around the southern coast which has some pretty spectacular scenery.  The main attraction are the Twelve Apostles (only eight left though) a collection of limestone formations that have been formed by erosion. 

The Blue Mountains, a national park about two hours outside of Sydney, was the next stop on the  itinerary.  Right outside of the hostel (literally I was woken up by them) were dozens of wild cockatoos.  For those not familiar with parrots, these are fairly expensive pets at around $1500 a piece in the US, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing eight or so of them munching on a berry tree three feet from the car.  I probably wouldn’t have even noticed them, but Matt slammed the car door and spooked a couple of them who took off.  On further inspection, the park housed probably hundreds of the wild birds, many of which were bathing in the waterfalls.

Sydney came next, and provided a relatively long stop of six days, which was nice to feel a little less like a gypsy for even a brief period of time.  As luck would have it, on our way to see the famed Opera House, we stumbled upon the Australian Flugtug.  This first annual event, involved homemade “vessels” that attempt to “fly” off of a 20 foot platform into the Sydney Harbour.  As expected, most of the attempts involved the people transporting it, also falling or many times intentionally jumping off of the platform in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering fans. 

Then there was of course the typical Sydney attractions, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, the 2000 Olympic Park (sadly, mostly abandoned), but nothing too exciting happened and I’m tired of writing for today. 

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Tasmanian Devils

We left beautiful New Zealand behind and made our way to Australia.  We basically spent the entire day flying and relaxing at the airport.  We had a connection in Sydney with a gap of about 8 hours, this time without getting to stay in the first class lounge as we were not flying on the oneWorld alliance but flying Virgin Blue, Australia’s discount airliner.  Slumming it with the normal people was awful…we had to pay for our own food and drink, sit at a noisy gate in uncomfortable chairs with no internet.  Finally we made our way to Hobart in Tasmania. 

The next morning, we rented a car to make our way around Tasmania.  After traversing our way through the winding roads and stopping at every exotic fauna crossing sign for Jill to take a picture, we made it to our first stop, Port Arthur.  Port Arthur reminded us of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village at first with its 19th century cityscape.  However, Port Arthur is actually real.  In fact, its initial use was a convict colony, where Great Britain sent its felons.  They were sentenced to “transportation”.  Basically, the convicts were slaves in Port Arthur as they supplied the labor of what became an export colony of manufactured items such as shoes and boats and of raw materials such as lumber.  Some of these convicts had ridiculous sentences for the crimes they committed; one in particular was “7 years transportation for stealing £2 of merchandise”.  On the downside of Port Arthur, it hasn’t aged very well, many of the buildings have lost their roofs and many of the buildings’ brick structure was dismantled for building materials in Hobart.  All in all it was fairly interesting. 

Next stop, Cole’s Bay.  There is a national park here with a bushwalk that leads you to the gorgeous Wineglass Bay.  Unfortunately, due to inclement weather, the bane of our existence, we were unable to make the trek. However, on the plus side, we got to stay in this “caravan”, which was a camper straight out of the 60s with its florescent blue upholstered seats and matching tables, and a change of pace from the normal hostels we have been living.

On that note, we made our way back to Hobart for a few days and stayed in the most despicable hostel we have stayed at in our lifetimes, which by now has totaled about 50 or so.  Lonely Planet claims that this hostel was “clean and quiet”.  On the contrary, the health department would have a field day with the kitchen.  The pots were disgusting, there were no scrubbers to clean them, and one of them had a fork for a handle.  The microwave was an ecosystem.  The bathrooms had no toilet paper.  The dining tables had a plastic liner that was probably 5 years old and had mold growing all over it.  The shower curtains hadn’t been cleaned in what seemed to be its entire existence.  The group of tourists was obnoxious until all hours of the night.  The other people in our room were rude, lascivious, outrageous.  We planned to get back at our roommates when we left for our early flight at 4AM, but to our surprise, they woke us up at 4AM when they came home.

Hobart is a fairly big city, about 200,000 people, or half the population of Tasmania.  It seemed so strange to us that everything in Hobart stops at 5PM every day, and often with shorter hours on the weekends.  Shops, restaurants, Starbucks all closed.  The only thing that was open late was Target on Friday night.  We just can’t understand for the life of us how shops and what not can stay in business if they’re only open during normal working hours, when do most people get to shop?

Anyway, we’re off to Melbourne, Australia now where we will drive our way to Sydney.

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New Zealand

After taking the three hour ferry from the North Island to the South Island, our first stop was the town of Kaikoura.  Kaikoura is known for its marine life – most notably whales and seals.  Because paying $150 per person for the chance to view the tail of a whale was beyond our budget, we had to settle for viewing the seal colony.  Even the consolation prize of seals was pretty neat to watch as they swam around and tried to hop onto the rocks with their big bodies and small flippers.

The trend of wildlife continued was we moved south along the eastern coast with a brief stay in Oamaru, known for their penguins. Apparently, the penguins are quite mobile out of the water and even make their way across roads often enough to warrant “penguin crossing” signs posted frequently along the coastal roads.  There is a popular overlook where you can view the penguins making their way from the water to the sandy shores for the night, and we were lucky enough to see four little guys waddle to their homes. 

Hamner Springs is known for their thermal pools full of minerals. These basically hot tub type pools each have different mineral contents, the most noteworthy pool is chock full of sulfur.  That particular pool’s stench emanates and envelops any who dares to enter the area, which we of course did.  Our skin reeked of rotten eggs for several hours after, not surprisingly we didn’t make any friends that night. 

 Our next destination was the college town of Dunedin; there isn’t really anything too exciting to do though.  The civil engineers might find this interesting (for the rest of you, it is sort of a ‘world’s biggest ball of twine’ attraction), the world’s steepest street is proudly located just outside the town center.  The average slope of the street is 1:3.41 with the steepest section registering at 1:2.86.  The street has its own souvenir shop, complete with certificates for climbing the 1/10 of a mile long street.

 When I went sky-diving a couple of years ago I promised my mom that it was a once-in-a-lifetime, so true to my word, I skipped the adrenaline-laced activities of Queenstown (that and my bare bones health insurance doesn’t cover extreme “sports” such as voluntarily jumping out of planes).  I instead substituted learning to drive a manual.  It wasn’t as hard as I had thought to stay focused on staying on the wrong side of the road.  The only complication involved getting used centering myself in the lane with a right-hand drive car – I may have slightlyveered left, which is far better than steering into oncoming traffic in my opinion. 

Christchurch is used as a major jumping off point for Antarctica, and as such of course banks in the tourism dollars at the International Antarctic Centre.   Matt and I were seemingly sick of the perfect mid-70’s and sunny skies weather, and needed something a little closer to the Michigan winter we were ‘missing’ out on.  In the Antarctic Centre they had a snow and ice experience, where temperatures reached about 20 degrees F, and wind chill was about 0 – not much different than a Michigan winter, though for some reason we were drawn inside the setup for the ‘storm’.  A group of several guys didn’t even bother putting on the parkas provided, and when asked why, their only response was “we’re from Canada”. 

In Christchurch, a historical jail was converted to a hostel.  Few changes were even necessary to complete the renovation, as the doors to the rooms were left alone, creating cells for patrons.  The irony of the hostel was that it was the best nights sleep I had gotten in awhile because the walls were made of concrete two feet thick. 

Making our way back across to the North Island to catch our flight out of Auckland, we stopped at the Tongariro National Park.  Our first attempt to do the acclaimed Tongariro Crossing trek got rained out, but luckily our second attempt the weather cooperated and we completed the day hike.  During the hike you get to see a very diverse landscape – a volcano, the crater, the “emerald lakes” (which are by far the greenest body of natural water I have ever witnessed), then down through forest – not a bad variation for a 6 hour hike. 

Our final stop before heading to Auckland to turn in the car and catch our flight to Australia was at the Waitmo Caves.  These caves have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and contain the highest concentration of glowworms of any of the numerous caves in New Zealand that house them.  It was kind of cool to see them, but in the end I feel like I paid $28 to see lite-brite pegs glued to the ceiling of a cave.    

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“I don’t want to go on a rant here”

Why do Americans complain about gas prices?  Everywhere we’ve been so far, gas has been far more expensive than in the US.  For example, here in New Zealand, gas is NZ$1.749 per liter, or approximately US$5.42 per gallon. Waaahh, my gas prices went up 33% in one year, I can no longer afford the “necessities” like an American SUV or a European car, high-speed internet, a cell phone with tons of minutes and a data plan, designer clothes, an expensive house (that is no longer expensive), a plasma TV, an iPod, and everything my neighbor has.  Try living in New Zealand for a little bit where bare essentials cost multiples more than they do in the US, and mind you New Zealand is a farming country.  Eggs are US$2.50 a dozen, Milk is US$4.60 a gallon, liquor/beer/wine is 100% more expensive than in the US (from excise taxes I assume, domestic stuff is just as expensive), Boneless/skinless chicken breast is US$8 a pound.  Shoes are twice the price as in the US.  Maybe this is because the dollar is weak or because New Zealand is an island, but I’ve talked to New Zealanders who have complained to me about their high prices.  “We’ll all go broke,” said one Kiwi. 

Why are eggs so expensive?  So we were in the library in Auckland and I picked up a magazine called “Organic NZ”. It is a periodical dedicated to the organic farmer in New Zealand.  There was an article in there that talked about how chicken batteries are essentially banned in New Zealand.  A chicken battery is where Napoleon Dynamite worked, where chickens are in a warehouse in tiny little cages (probably all over the US, not just Idaho).  If eggs are produced from chicken batteries they have to have a label on the egg carton that says “Caged Eggs”.  These eggs are hard to find, but are cheaper.  I would assume that this has to affect the price of chicken meat (chicken batteries can have an estimated 10,000-20,000 chickens per acre of warehouse stacked 5 high 1 foot apart in aisles 7 feet apart).  There are apparently a ton of government restrictions here that seem to raise prices on many things, not necessarily just because it’s an island.  We were watching one of the two TV stations we had in Oamaru on the South Island.  The show was like Animal Planet’s “Animal Precinct” but for farm animals.  The “detective” went out to a pig farm and warned the owner that his pig pen was “too muddy” and didn’t have enough clean water and shelter.  Just goes to show you what lengths New Zealand goes to protect its animal’s rights and prevent cruelty.

By the way, the best invention since [insert favorite lame invention, a good example would be sliced bread] is flavored tuna.  I used to hawk this stuff in college.  It was so cheap.  But I’d have to add mustard like crazy to it to make it taste good (not mayonnaise as I was actually trying to stay fit in college).  Anyway, in New Zealand, they have a ton of flavored tuna like “Mexican Salsa” and “Spicy Thai Pepper.”  It’s like candy.  They come in these cute little 100 gram containers for like NZ$1 each.  They don’t need to be refrigerated, nor do you need a can opener. Yum yum.  Jill for some crazy reason hates tuna and all fish for that matter.  She won’t let me in the same room as her when I eat it.  She said she had a bad experience with fish, just as with yogurt when her brother allegedly put a bagel lathered up with yogurt in his mouth and “made it talk” and the yogurt went all over the place.  Apparently she was unable to eat yogurt again for 12 years.  So maybe the tuna trauma will end soon.

Am I missing something?  Compared to South America (especially Rio), New Zealanders seem to be way more courteous.  I swear, anytime you’d look the other way while waiting in line in South America, someone would jump right in front of you.  In New Zealand, a Kiwi will approach you and ask, “Is this the end of the queue?  Cheers mate!”

 “What the hell does rant mean?”

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Monopoly Money and Pokémon Cards – North Island New Zealand

Because Matt has chosen to write an editorial, I guess it becomes my job to provide a synopsis of New Zealand thus far…

After spending a few days wandering around Auckland, we got our rental car (a little Ford hatchback in surprisingly good condition for $20 a day) and took off for the rest of New Zealand.  I don’t know how to drive a stick-shift and refused to learn while driving on the “wrong” side of the road, so Matt has gotten drive quite a bit of driving time in the last two and a half weeks. Luckily he’s only had a single incident of looking left instead of right entering one of the numerous round-a-bouts.  Besides that lone honk I am happy to report no accidents while driving or crossing streets, especially because unlike Great Britain, there is no paint on the streets telling tourists the proper direction to check for oncoming traffic.

Our first stop was in Rotorua, where we saw a Maori show and ate a traditional hangi  meal.  A hangi is a type of cooking that literally a hole is dug in the ground and filled with hot volcanic rocks and food and then buried in the ground for three hours when it cooks.  It was here that we also discovered the amazing desert New Zealand calls pavlova, where I felt the need to make up for the 25 years I didn’t know this wonder-food existed.  

While in Taupo , having little else to do because of the poor weather, I decided to go be a science geek and learn about volcanoes at the Volcanic Activity Center.  The outside of the building says a lot about it; its main purpose is to entertain (and maybe slightly educate) six year olds going on school field trips.  However, the façade didn’t dissuade me from the $9 entrance fee, which was money well spent for the “earthquake simulator” if nothing else. 

All in all New Zealand is a very welcome change from South America – it is so nice to be able to understand what people are saying, even if they overuse the words “cheers”, “mate”, and “wee”.  English does apparently come at a premium on this island however, as most things are ridiculously expensive.  The basic staple of any college diet, ramen noodles, which provide a decent meal for a mere 10 cents in the States, cost over a dollar here.  The same economy-priced crap that you find in a $1 store in the US, is now conveniently located in the $2 store in NZ.  The fact that this is a relatively small island has something to do with costs I’m sure, however the declining value of the US dollar certainly doesn’t help the cause either.  One radio dj here valued the US dollar to be somewhere between Monopoly money and Pokémon cards, which unfortunately I am finding to be the truth. 

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