NOTE TO EVERYONE: Many receiving this already know, but we have cut our trip short by several months from the original plan. Currently we are scheduled to return to LA on November 6, and should arrive in Corvallis a few days later. See you then!
Saturday, Oct. 2 to Monday, Oct. 6
Wagga to Sydney, Australia
After getting the camper repaired, we drove a few hours from Wagga Wagga to the town of Cootamundra for the night, and stayed in a caravan park just outside the very small downtown. Rich had some fun there, but for the rest of us it was just a stopover as we attempted to cover some considerable distance.
Beer Guzzling Aussies
The fun Signe referred to was having a beer in a local pub. On the way to Cootamundra we were pulled over for a routine spot Breathalyzer test, Australia is trying to force responsible drinking. Anyway that evening I went to a likely pub for a beer with the locals. There were three others in the pub when I got there about 8:00 PM. It took some time before I got into a conversation. After a while the crowd started to leave. The barkeep offered to get me another one before closing, but I declined and was the last one out of the pub at 9:30 PM.
Before leaving in the morning, we went by a jerky manufacturer, who makes various sorts of jerky or biltong, including alligator, kangaroo, etc. Unfortunately he had just moved to new quarters, and had not yet started making the good stuff, but gave us some free samples of some beef jerky that was interesting, but too hot.
We arrived by early afternoon at the small town of Cowra, and decided to stay at Wyangala Waters State Park, instead of the usual caravan park. This was about a 45-min drive out into the hills, which in this area were thickly studded with the rocky remnants of glacial activity. The reservoir itself was a bit of a shock, as it was down very low, ringed by a broad strip (perhaps 1/4 mile wide) of dry red soil, so it was not very scenic. Apparently the rain had been very scanty in this area, and it was very dry. The park was nice enough, however, and not very crowded, which turned out to be a good thing, since there were some definite similarities to American camping parks - a lot of people brought along their radios and such, and played loud music! This never happened in the privately-owned caravan parks. It was not overly bothersome, though.
I took the opportunity of being stopped for an afternoon to make a choc. chip cake in the oven, which turned out OK but not great - the camper was non-level enough that the batter ran to one side, so it was a bit sticky at one end and burnt at the other. Then we took a pre-dusk walk on one of the short nature trails in the area, hoping to see some wildlife. Once we found the trail, it was quite pretty, climbing steeply up one of the rock-studded hills, where we were able to watch the sunset. We didnt see any wildlife, though, except a few birds.
During the night someone pulled out our power plug, as a prank I suppose. Fortunately Rich heard it happen and went out to plug us back in, or we would have gotten very cold - the nights were quite chilly, and we had to keep the heater running all night. In the morning we took another walk - we practically had to drag Colin out of the camper, but once we got started he enjoyed it. We had just expected to take a short stroll on a nice sunny morning, but as we walked towards the lake, we saw a mob of Kangaroos down by the water, so we headed that way. They allowed us to get pretty close, and we could count 15 members, and watch them grazing, playing, and laying around. Rich got lots of pictures before they finally decided to move off a ways. Colin spent most of his time digging in the sandy soil with a rock, one of his favorite pastimes on this trip.
Sat. Oct 4
We drove to the fairly large town of Bathurst, located on a high, cold plateau past the first ranges of the Blue Mountains, but not quite in the Blue Mountains National Park area. Our first stop was an ice cream parlor with homemade ice cream which I had seen advertised. The ice cream was excellent, a nice change from the generally indifferent ice cream weve had most places, and we turned out to be parked just down the street from an Internet Cafe in one direction, the Visitor Info center in the other, and a grocery store and toy store within walking distance, so we spent several hours taking care of various business. Rich got hung up on the Internet trying to download something that took way too long, so it was getting late by the time we drove to a very pleasant riverside park for a picnic lunch.
Our next stop was Oberon, a small town less than an hour away, and conveniently-placed for visiting the biggest tourist attraction in the area, the Jenolan Caves. We registered for our camping spot, then immediately drove off for the caves over a long winding mountain road, and arrived just in time to pick up our ticket for the tour we had scheduled, so we thought. But by the time we got to the departure point the tour had departed without us. We walked into the cave for a little ways hoping to hear the tour, but didnt, so we went back to the office and were able to trade the ticket for one of the next tours, at 5pm.
The Jenolan Caves are part of several limestone cave systems in the area. This complex includes an underground river and many caverns full of lovely limestone formations. There are many different caves open for touring, and the one we ended up in was Imperial, a fairly short, easy tour (just as well - the one we missed had something like 900 stair steps in it!) We saw lots of pretty formations, nicely lit, and refreshingly free of the silliness of some cave tours (except when the tour guide was playing to the kids). At the end we descended a spiral staircase to view part of the underground river, which was so perfectly clear that, in the areas where there was no apparent water movement, you could not tell that there was water over the sand and stones on the bottom. It looked to be about 8 inches deep - we were told it was actually over 6 feet!
We wished we had allowed time for more cave tours, but since that would have required a return visit the next day over the rather harrowing (with a camper) mountain road, we (Rich) decided not to.
But the next day, Sunday, we did something else equally fun. We visited Scenic World in Katoomba. The Blue Mountains, east of Sydney, are famed for the blue haze, caused by Eucalyptus oils, which hangs over them, and while not overly high, have many dramatically precipitous ridges and cliffs. Scenic World is as commercial as its name would indicate, but takes good advantage of one of these areas. We first took a ride down an extremely steep cliff in a funicular, accompanied by the Indiana Jones theme as we dove between the high sides of a crack in the cliffs. We debarked a couple of minutes later in a valley rain forest (temperate, not tropical), laced with heavy climbing vines and metres-tall tree ferns, and walked along an raised wooden ramp to explore it. Many varieties of plants were labeled, and we heard many birds, though the only one we really saw was a large female Lyrebird rooting unconcernedly in the base of a hollow stump. Historically there was quite a bit of coal mining in the area, and some of the history was still there, mostly in the form of things that had been discarded over the cliff when no longer needed; these too were labeled.
At the end of the walk we climbed aboard a large cable car for the ride back to the top, just as a huge black rain cloud moved in and made the rain forest true to its name. At the top everything was much more crowded than when we arrived, and we got seated in the slowly rotating view restaurant for lunch just ahead of a huge Japanese tour group. Our timing was certainly good! We got to explore the forest ahead of the rain and the crowds, then sat out the rainstorm in the (overpriced) restaurant.
We left via a scenic northern route into Sydney, even though it was still raining, and were rewarded as the rain stopped with some magnificent views over the mountains towards tremendous cliff faces. We had to view them on the fly, though, as the only look outs were down slippery dirt roads that we didnt dare take in the camper. As we crested the mountains, we ran smack into a thick cloud, just in time for our arrival at the Mount Toomah Botanical Garden. At my insistence we stopped anyway, and soon the sun broke through and we had a nice wander around a very lovely Botanical Garden. Its only lack (in my opinion) was that it was very similar to what we would have seen at home - this high, cold area in the mountains can support temperate plants that wither elsewhere in Australia, so every garden, including this one, was full of those local rarities, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camellias, Daphne, Daffodils, Tulips, etc...in other words, everything that we see blooming every spring in Corvallis! There were also some exotic (to us) plants, though, and lovely streams and ponds, as well as a childrens search game - Colin enjoyed finding the little Pot People who were hidden here and there. He was also enjoying taking pictures with his very own camera - he had been asking for weeks to have a disposable camera of his own, and we finally got him one. He handled it quite well, and since flowers and gardens generally hold still, probably got some pretty good pictures.
Rich wasnt feeling well, however, and spent most of the time in the camper, and when we left, we still had a fair drive down out of the mountains in the rain to an unknown stop. We were a little worried about finding a place for the night as we got closer to Sydney, but the first Caravan Park we came to was nice and had space, so we spent our last night in the camper (yay!!) in reasonable comfort.
Mon. Oct. 6
We spent the morning packing up everything to leave the camper, then began what should have been about a 1 hour drive into Sydney. We stopped at a visitor info center at a town along the way and got a list of airport hotels, an also spent some time trying to find out if any shipping store would be open - today was Australian Labor Day, and we had realized too late that most everything would be closed, and we had three packages we wanted to ship before boarding the plane! No luck there - everything of that sort was closed.
We managed to take a a very circuitous route to the airport. In an effort to go to it fairly directly, I probably picked a slower road than necessary, (not really understanding what each category of road meant in driving time), we got lost for a bit in one town, then when we started seeing airport signs and decided to follow them, they led us a merry chase almost all the way into downtown Sydney and out again before we finally reached the airport, almost three hours after we had started! The long drive through Sydneys rather dreary and endless suburbs and center convinced us that we werent missing anything by not having scheduled any time to visit this city. Hungry by this time, we got a quick lunch, left our luggage at a not-too-expensive hotel with a large room available, and went to return the camper - only to find that there was no sign of the company at its purported address! A phone call revealed that they had moved down the road, though the map they had given us didnt show that, and we finally dropped off the camper, not without some complaints about the various problems, and walked across a park to our hotel.
Miraculously, and unexpectedly, we found that we could get an Internet connection over the phone line for only the cost of the call. This allowed me to spend much of the damp afternoon and evening researching lodging in Christchurch, and I found what looked to be a nice house for a few days, called, and reserved it. We also got a car reserved at the airport, so when we flew to Christchurch early the next morning, we were able to pick up our car and set off quite quickly.
Tues. Oct. 7 to Friday, Oct. 10
Christchurch, New Zealand
The flight to Christchurch was rather nice, in that, for once, we both took off and landed in daylight, and since we flew over NZ from west to east before landing, we got a nice view of rugged snowcapped mountains. We arrived about 4pm, after a 4-hour flight and 3-hour time change (or was it a 3 hour flight and 4-hour time change...?) and after picking up our car, along with a large load of tourist information brochures and maps at the airport, we drove to the home of the person who owned our rental house to pick up keys. After seeing her house, which I wont even attempt to describe, I should have had the sense to cancel right then and there, but it was getting late and I managed to hope that the rental would be OK. It wasnt. We havent ended up in a worse dump since Ealing Guest House in London, and after some attempt to convince ourselves that it might be OK, I called and canceled the rest of our stay after the first night.
The next day we got out as quickly as possible, drove the 30 min. back into Christchurch, and got most of our money back on the house. Then we did a little needed shopping at a nearby mall, and stopped for a snack in a huge park right by downtown Christchurch. The park includes a large Botanic Garden, though we didnt visit it today. Instead we watched a group of retirees pilot their remote-controlled boats around a large artificial lake, and fed the flock of ducks which quickly convened around us.
Now we had a car full of groceries and no place to put them, so we spent most of this lovely, sunny day collecting information at the visitor info. center, and finally, making phone calls, to secure a new place. One thing that is different about New Zealand is that the motels, though they look much like the ones we are used to in the US, offer self-catering apartments as a matter of course, and cater to families especially, so rather than try to get another vacation house out of town (Christchurch seemed to be quite a pleasant small city anyway) we opted to look for a motel in town. We found quite a nice one, called Middlepark, and it had a large grassy area with a playground in the center. The beds were too soft in the unit, but other than that it was basic but comfortable, and in the three days we were there, Colin formed a wonderful playgroup with several other small boys, and they played most mornings and every evening until dusk (which wasnt until 8, since NZ has daylight savings time).
While we were there I went to a local Chiropractor for a back adjustment, since the days in the camper had put my back out and it wasnt getting better. He did a good job, following instructions my Chiro. at home had sent, and I felt better. We also spent a lot of time trying to decide whether we should do the long drive south and west to the Fjordlands, or skip them and do something shorter. (We finally decided to go, and were glad of it).
One evening we went to Willowbank, a small wildlife preserve nearby, which also has a Maori show. The Maori give the group a traditional welcome (rather intimidating, with lots of extreme facial expressions and dangerous-sounding talk), then put on a lovely musical performance of Haka, Maori songs which are traditionally about war, but nowadays can be about most anything. Then we adjourned to a village re-creation, where they demonstrated various crafts, including flax weaving, which Emily was so taken with that she got a book on the subject, and has been snipping flax (Phormium tenax) leaves to weave ever since! It was a small introduction to Maori customs, but the performers seemed to be enjoying themselves and to enjoy passing on information, so we enjoyed it too.
Afterwards we had a brief tour of some of the wildlife, most notably Kiwis in a darkened habitat - we mostly saw them as oddly-shaped shadows rustling here and there, but even that small view of them was interesting. They are very odd birds, and terribly endangered here.
Friday Oct. 10 we had a busy day. We began by moving to a different, and nicer, apartment in the Middlepark complex because the one we were in had someone else scheduled for it. Then we went to the Antarctic Experience center near the airport. New Zealand is the major jumping-off point for American (and many other) expeditions to the Antarctic, which has several busy outposts, and all flights for there leave from this airport. There is also a training center which the people heading to that inhospitable climate go through. The center was quite interesting, with information on the formation of the southern hemisphere continents from Gondwanaland, and how Antarctica got to be as cold as it is. There was an Antarctic room, for which we had to put snow clothes on, and which was set up like a piece of Ross Station there, complete with a fake storm which was realistic enough that poor Colin was terrified. There were a lot of informative displays on life in the Antarctic and the research being done there, as well as real-time weather reports. We also went on an adventure ride on a Hagglund, an all-terrain vehicle used there. It was a rough ride over the training course, up impossibly steep slopes, across a crevasse that a wheeled vehicle would have fallen into, and through a small lake to demonstrate its semi-amphibian capacity.
In the afternoon we visited the Botanic Gardens for awhile, mostly so Colin could play on the large playground there (which was virtually deserted), but we did walk through a small part of it, enjoying the water features and the spring flowers just coming into bloom. Then we visited the Christchurch Arts Center, and found a number of excellent craftspeople working, and more work by others on display and for sale.
Sat. Oct. 11 through Wed. Oct. 14
South NZ and the Fjordlands
We departed Christchurch after a failed attempt to find an Internet cafe open and allowing laptop hookups. We drove through mostly-flat farmland, with the not-too-distant mountains almost always visible. When we could see the ocean, it was a superb shade of turquoise. It was not unlike the Willamette Valley, with one significant difference - New Zealanders like hedges. BIG hedges (30 tall). Most fields and many roads were edged on one or more sides by tall, thick hedges of any of a variety of plants, some left to grow wild, but a surprising number rigidly pruned (we have yet to spot the trimming machines that must do this huge job). This lends the countryside an interesting broken-up effect, quite unlike the low, mixed hedgerows favored in the UK.
Our first stop was the seaside town of Oamaru, where we rented an adequate cabin in a holiday (caravan) park, whose redeeming feature was that it was located right in the huge park/botanical garden right in the center of town. This is where we spent most of the pleasant afternoon, visiting the playground, aviaries, ponds, etc. There were lots of interesting bits of architecture, particularly relating to the river running the length of the park; a stone bridge, a red lacquer bridge, a pond with a rockery around it, and more.
In the evening we took an excellent bus tour to visit the other high points of the town: a nesting area of the Yellow-eyed Penguin, where we saw and heard a few of them, and admired the gorgeous pastel ocean and clouds as they dimmed past sunset; then we drove through the town as the driver pointed out and gave the history of many of the historic limestone buildings in the town. The Oamaru Limestone is an especially pure limestone which is very workable when quarried, but hardens on exposure to air, so many of the buildings were beautifully ornamented, and the town has an air of prosperity out of keeping with its small size.
As it got dark, we came to the high point of the tour, the Blue Penguin nesting area. These are very tiny penguins, actually the same kind as nest in South Africa and Australia, and their nesting habits lend themselves to being viewed by humans, an event we had missed in the previous two countries but would see here. We sat on bleachers placed near the nesting area, and as it got dark, and the informative speaker fell silent, the penguins began coming in on the waves in rafts of about 10-20 birds. They made their way up the rocky shore, then piled up at the edge of the road they would have to cross to reach the babies which had been awaiting them all day. We could almost hear the penguin discussion going on as they jostled around the edge of the road; You go first! No, you go first! Ill go first...no I wont... It was very funny to watch. Finally one would start determinedly across, and others would follow, until they had all disappeared into the nesting areas, some being met by babies too eager to wait in their burrows.
The entire colony is tagged, protected, and managed by humans, who keep an accurate count of numbers and breeding success; and interestingly, the penguins breed better under the close scrutiny of humans than at a less-intensively managed area further down the coast. Their eggs and babies are subject to predation, as is so much native wildlife, by introduced stoats, ferrets, and dogs, so they need the protection.
Sunday we spent most of the day driving, skimming through the pastorally scenic country of the Southland. Our first, and main, stop was just a short distance further south, at Moeraki Beach. We stopped because of a geological oddity, a group of almost perfectly-round boulders on the beach which had eroded out of the hillside. All the small boulders had long since been taken as souvenirs, but the really big ones were still there, and quite impressive. Some had cracked open, revealing a strange honeycomb interior, whose formation I have not seen adequately explained. One had a miniature tide pool inside.
The boulders were not the only interesting thing about the beach - it was littered, literally, by seashells of many sorts, especially thousands of a small, lovely striped snail with a mother-of-pearl interior. We fossicked (I love that word, and intend to keep it in my vocabulary) around eagerly, and collected so many fine shells that we wished we still had Colins beach pail, which we had left in Australia, to hold them.
We also stopped very briefly in Dunedin, a very Scottish-influenced city (it looked it), but mostly we drove, through increasingly-hilly farmland dotted with herds of sheep, cows, sheep, red deer, sheep and sheep. As we approached our destination the land rose and grew drier and more rugged, and the not-too-distant snow-covered peaks of the Fjordlands came into view.
Te Anau is a very small, pretty town on the edge of Lake Te Anau, seemingly dominated by tourist motels and other rentals. We lucked into a very nice motel, whose proprietor gave us a discount for three nights in a brand new, exceptionally spacious two-bedroom apartment which even had a spa bathtub (much to Richs delight, as his back had been hurting him since the too-soft beds in Christchurch). The grounds were attractively landscaped, with views of the mountains (hard to avoid, here), and there was even a fine trampoline right outside the window, which the kids loved (and Colin only fell off of once...) Even with the discount it was a bit expensive, but well worth it.
Monday Oct. 13 we were up early for the reason we had come here, a tour of Doubtful Sound. The Fjordlands are a huge, rugged, remote area of glacier-carved fjords, rivers and mountains, protected for many years, and mostly inaccessible except by foot, boat, or plane. Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, actually fjords but misnamed by early explorers (OK, you probably dont know the difference any more than I did. A sound is a river valley which opens to the sea, a fjord is a glacier-carved inlet from the sea) are the only two fjords with accessible public tours. We opted for Doubtful because it was less commercial, longer, and required less driving to get to (we had heard that there were so many boat and air tours of Milford Sound that it could resemble a military site).
We drove the short distance to Lake Manapouri, and boarded a boat run by Real Journeys, a company which runs many of the tours in the area. We began with a 90-minute cruise across the lake, surrounded by ever-changing mountain and water scenery. We each spent some time on top of the boat, but it was very windy there. The weather was partly cloudy, but since we had been told that the sound was at its most beautiful after a rain, we werent too worried.
We disembarked from the boat, and loaded ourselves aboard buses for the 20-min. land journey across the pass to Doubtful. This stretch of road, the most expensive in New Zealand, was built for the express purpose of allowing in heavy equipment (delivered by boat to the Sound) to build a hydropower station (which we would tour later) to power an aluminum smelting plant. Because of public outcry, the power station wasnt built in the usual way of damming up the river, but instead makes clever use of the considerable drop in elevation between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound. The water drops from the lake through the turbines to create energy, then runs through a tunnel bored through the mountain to emerge in the Sound, and the lake levels are managed within their historic norms, not extremely low or high.
The bus driver gave interesting commentary on the land, plants, and human history of the area, in a slow, clear voice that was very easy to understand over the sound of the bus (I complimented him on it). Colin sat right behind him, and was enthralled just watching him drive the bus. After a steep (up and down) ride, and a tantalizing view of the Sound from a viewpoint, we arrived at the boat which would take us to the mouth of the Sound, a large catamaran. The weather on this side of the mountains was mostly clear, with just enough clouds to provide interest, and we embarked on a sunny, wonderful cruise. The scenery was magnificent, with sheer cliffs dropping straight into the water, and occasional waterfalls to make it interesting. (Immediately after a rain there would be many more ephemeral waterfalls). After about an hour we had reached the ocean mouth of the Sound, and fortunately it was calm enough for us to continue out a bit (though the swells were still much rougher than inside the protected fjord). We approached an island that fur seals use, and sure enough there were many of them lolling about, ignoring our boat as it bobbed nearby so we could get a good view. Then back down the fjord, and we stopped at another island in hopes of seeing a very rare penguin, the Crested Penguin, whose yellow crests look like bushy eyebrows. As if on cue, one appeared from under a bush, made its way to a small pool, and began drinking and bathing - apparently it hadnt heard that they are supposed to be shy and secretive! We also saw a couple of Kea on this island, a native, dark green parrot of large, sharp beak and extraordinary intelligence and curiosity, which it often uses to get into and damage things humans would prefer it didnt.
Mostly we just enjoyed the wonderful scenery, especially when the crew turned off the loud engines in a still area for a few moments of the sound of silence, which is there in abundance.
On our return we toured the power station, or at least a small part of it, which Colin had been looking forward to eagerly - he has a book that tells about dams, so he knows all about turbines and power generators, and was anxious to see the real thing. The tour first involved diving into a 2k long tunnel blasted out of the mountain itself; the turbine room, which is all of the station we saw, is a huge room also blasted out of the rock, deep within the mountain.
On the return boat trip, many people dozed, and we generally paid less attention to the scenery. I had an interesting talk with an Indian woman, whose family was on a 2-week guided tour of both Australia and New Zealand. She envied us our flexibility and ability to relax now and then on our much longer trip, while I envied her not needing to plan everything everyday! All in all I prefer the way we are traveling, though - so many things we wouldnt have done if wed only gone to the tourist places.
to be continued...