Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whitsundays + Townsville

Since Marybeth didn't have any tips from her trip for us further north, we were on our own to figure out what we wanted to do next. We had decided to visit the group of islands off Airlie Beach called the Whitsundays, which are 74 different islands, most being national park. Unfortunately, we still had over an hour and half to drive north from our campsite at the beach, so by the time we arrived in Airlie it was almost 8:30, and most boats leave around 8am.

We visited the i-site center in town in a panic and they informed us of one boat that leaves at 10:30 that still had a few spaces open. We figured if we didn't go on this trip, BIG FURY, we wouldn't get to see the islands at all. A bit skeptical having done little research and knowing nothing about the company, we booked the beach and snorkel trip for the day.

It actually turned out to be a great day out cruising the islands and snorkeling. The boat was small and only held 35 people, which was ideal since it's no fun snorkeling with tons of people. It was more like a raft, with a quad engine on the back, and supposedly gets out to the islands faster than any other boat out there. Which was good due to the later start.

We got to see many of the islands as we went past and then arrived at the largest, called Whitsunday Island, around noon. The beach was a blinding white with bright turquoise waters. The sand is 98% silica which creates the dazzling white effect on the island. The guide went up to the picnic area in the shade of the trees to prep lunch while we found a nice spot on the beach.

The very bizarre thing about this part of Australia is the "stinger suits." Once you get north of Agnes Water, you are in box jellyfish country from October thru April. Now box jellyfish are not your average jelly or your average sting. They are the most venomous creature alive in the world today. One little sting and you are in agony, dying within 2-3 minutes. These guys are so incredibly lethal that the people here have gone to great lengths to figure out how to avoid them. One option is the "stinger nets" on many beaches up this way which enclose an entire section of water at the beach in netting to keep the stingers out. The other way to avoid certain death is by wearing a (very dorky) stinger suit, which is essentially just a lycra jumpsuit. Pantyhose are another effective option, but since the development of the suits, most people opt for those.

So the scene at the beach was quite odd with people zipping up into their suits just to cool off in the warm tropical waters. It looked like something out of an old sci-fi movie where no one could touch the ocean waters anymore. The good part is that they keep you from getting sunburnt too. Erich refused to wear one as he did have a longsleve wet-suit too and long boardshorts on as well and thought they were ridiculous. Of course I wore one, but still got stung by something on my upper lip, but luckily nothing dangerous.

The lunch was great, all sorts of sandwiches, salads, prawns etc. and we enjoyed all the food the owner makes everyday for the boat. After that, Erich and I walked to the very end of the beach to check out a coral reef there that we had read about. It was unreal. This area is by far the most amazing snorkeling either of us have ever done. There is just so much life and color and variety out on the reef, with giant clams, cleaning wrasse, schools of fish, fluorescent coral heads... it was unbelievable to just float and watch the intricate world below. We only had about a half hour before we had to get back down the beach to board the boat with the rest of the group to head out to our intended snorkeling spot.

We cruised out to Border Island, on the leeward side, so it was nice and calm and glassy. Everyone jumped in and swam 5 or 10 minutes over to the shallower reef and again, it was stunning. The forty minutes flew by and we saw such a huge array of fish and coral. On the way back, they served "afternoon tea" which was basically doughnuts, and passed through some narrow channels of islands different from the way out.

We had great weather the whole day and were happy we had made it in time to get out in the water on the Great Barrier Reef. We got some dinner at the marina area and watched the sunset, then it was back on the road. We needed to get a couple hours of driving in, up to the Townsville area, so we would not have such a long trek the following day. Luckily we didn't hit any Kangaroos which were along the roadways throughout the drive, and made it to Bowling Green Bay National Park to spend the night.

The area was on Alligator Creek, which was not encouraging, but we didn't see anything too deadly when we pulled into a picnic spot, so we popped the top, threw the surfboards out the side and got ready for bed. In the morning, wild brush turkeys picked at the front bumper for dead bugs, and a few kangaroos chewed on grass next to the van. The night before we had seen a lemur up in the trees, but it was dark so we didn't get a good look. Tonight we actually saw the biggest bat I have ever seen (or even heard of) in my life. It was easily 4 feet across and when it was hanging upside down, it nearly pulled the whole branch off the tree.

But nothing was more startling than the trip to the bathroom that morning in the park. I was just using the toilet for a minute, and all was clear when I walked into the stall. However, when I turned to get some toilet paper, a HUGE brown and hairy spider was sitting ON the back of the toilet seat with me! It looked like he was getting ready to take a big bite and of course I freaked and ran right out of there. I'm normally not all that squeamish about spiders but this one was easily 5 inches across and looked like a flattened tarantula. I knew this would happen eventually, practically expecting it, since everyone has a spider in the bathroom story from these parts of the world. Erich didn't even bat an eye when I ran out completely frantic. He just gave me the car keys, said it was fine, and went in to his side of the bathrooms. (I did some research later, and this spider is actually one of the few things in the country that is not incredibly lethal, in fact it is non-toxic but does hurt when they bite if annoyed.)

We cruised into Townsville for the morning before we had to drive the rest of the way up to Cairns. It was before 8am, so the temperatures had not reached their usual scorching highs for the day, so we decided to hike up Castle Hill, a landmark near town. It was all stairs, but a good workout, just incredibly hot even that early in the day. The top had some fabulous lookouts over the city and up and down the coastline. It was a nice spot to get oriented with the town.

Following the hike we were drenched in sweat (as we are most of the time here) with faces flushed bright red, and needed to get into the water to cool off. We headed to the northern tip of town to the beach and rock pool. This little beach section has a stinger net so we could safely jump in the water and cool down which felt great. The rock pool was right next to that and is an artificial pool with saltwater that is filtered and stinger proofed for people to swim. We felt much better and were ready for the rest of the day.

The next stop was the massive aquarium in town called Reef HQ. This may seem very counterintuitive to go to an aquarium when you are on the brink of the Great Barrier Reef and are a certified diver. However, we did not have enough time to actually go out and dive all day, and we wanted to learn more about the reef and fish before the next couple days of diving from Cairns. The aquarium was huge and featured a massive coral reef tank, probably 18 feet high, and a large predator tank with sharks and rays. We got a tour from one of the volunteer guides that happened to be starting shortly after we arrived. Maybe not the best topic before going diving, it was titled DEADLY CREATURES OF THE REEF. I realized that I had so much more to worry about than just sharks on dive trips! There are deadly sea-snakes, lion fish, stone fish, conch that stab you with a poisonous dart, and of course the infamous box jelly. Basically I learned, wear a wet-suit or stinger suit and do not touch anything, ever.

We really did learn a lot about the coral and kinds of fish on the reef and enjoyed our time there. We saw a short movie about the reef and checked out the interactive zone. It was nearing 1:30 and we had to get moving to be in Cairns by tomorrow morning.

The drive was long (about 4.5 hours) and uneventful, the major highway is inland about 10-20km so there aren't too many ocean views. We arrived at the holiday park in Cairns for the night and it has a friendly relaxed feel and seems like everyone is pretty quiet. We leave early in the morning to head out to the reef for an overnight dive trip which hopefully will be as good as the snorkeling!


After our night in the holiday park, we were on our way back to the beach at Noosa Heads to get in one more surf session before hitting the road. Unfortunately, the swell had come down a little bit over the night, but was still surf-able. To help us get some more waves, we rented a 7'6" board similar to the one back in San Diego and traded off between that and the Flyer. The longer board clearly was more fun and much easier to get waves, but on either board we enjoyed the warm azure waters and the sunny skies. After our couple hours of rental time was over, we dried out on the beach before walking into the little town just a block over from the water.

It happened to be our 3-year anniversary (at least in Australian time, in San Diego it was one day short) and since we had no idea where we would be that evening, decided to celebrate with a nice lunch. We sat outside at a cute euro-inspired sidewalk cafe and watched the tourists, surfers and the trendy elite walk past. Erich was happy with the fish and chips and I loved the snapper saffron risotto. We could have sat there all afternoon, but after awhile we had to motivate to keep moving north.

Australia is really big. I mean really really big. All of the European countries can fit within the island, with plenty of extra room to spare. We have to cover 1650km by Thursday of next week to make our flight, while trying to enjoy ourselves and see some sights at the same time. Noosa was just barely north of Brisbane, so we had to make up some distance for the last few days.

We drove and drove for the afternoon, but at one point passed a seriously bad accident. It was terrible and we heard later that at least one person dies every week on this roadway. The guy said it's because people get comfortable on the straight and easy road and they just fall asleep. This may also be partially due to the fact that is is light at 4:45 every morning and nobody can get any rest, or Erich's theory is that they purposely throw themselves and the car off embankments to escape the desolate and boring scenery. Either way, we were daunted by the accident and since it was dark after around 6:15, we pulled into a rest stop / picnic area for the night. It didn't seem that close to the highway, but the trucks kept moving all night and were really loud. I survived with earplugs, eye-mask and tylenol pm, while poor Erich was awake the entire night and was subsequently exhausted by morning.

Trying to bring him back to life with sips of my coffee, we managed to get back on the road and continue. We kept wanting to stop for the day at a nice beach or National Park, but every time we looked at the map we had barely even budged on the massive continent. Our one stop was to pick up some food at the Woolworth's grocery store, which for some weird reason they put inside a massive shopping center. With the temperatures outside, the place was packed with people walking around window shopping to get into the air conditioning. For some reason you can't buy beer in the grocery stores here, so we booked it (with the shopping cart) through the entire mall to the liquor shop on the other side, barely missing the entire Singapore navy who seems to be in port, just to grab a six-pack.

We also had to get some lunch and Erich was overjoyed that Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia. They had giant size bulls at various points around town, just in case you missed that part in your guide book. We got a recommendation from the local i-site and went to the happening "Hog's Breath" near the mall with the grocery store. The place started out dead, but filled up quickly and had a biker bar theme but with the ever-present American 80's music playing. Erich got the Aussie burger, which kind of wasn't even a burger at all. It was a thick piece of steak between the bun, which he ended up eating with a fork and knife claiming it was one of the best pieces of steak he'd ever had. I struggled to find even one item on the menu with no beef, and out of the two choices, chose a wrap.

After our lunch break, we pushed on through the staggering heat (thankfully we have good ac) and lifeless landscape to reach Cape Hillsborough National Park. We had considered going way out of the way to Eungella National Park, where the platypus live and you have a chance to see them in the wild (if you are lucky), but decided this park would be a better spot for the late afternoon and evening.

The campsites are right on the beach and it is quiet except for some of the strangest and loudest bird (?) noises we have ever heard. They say there are crocs here so we are keeping an eye out for them. The van is still 100 degrees, but does cool off with the night air fairly quickly.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noosa Heads

We got another good tip from Marybeth about stopping off in Noosa Heads, a trendy town and National Park. It was gorgeous and tropical and the surf looked really fun when we arrived at the National Park. It's a right point break, but really nice since it is so spread out, you can have your own little spot to yourself. It would have been better if we had bigger boards, but was fun anyway. The water is about 75, and clear and aqua, reminding us a lot of Hawaii.

There was a big rush in the morning (and seemingly all day) to get a parking spot, as there isn't much room, so we left the van there after surfing to go for a hike in the park. The coastal track had great views looking out towards the ocean at the various bays and points we came across. At one point, we looked up to see a koala bear just hanging out up in a tree over the trail sleeping the afternoon away.


The trail continued around the headland of the park and out to the windier Eastern beaches. As the next section of trail crossed the soft sand beach and the sun was searing at the Australian high noon of 10AM (remember sunrise is before 5AM) we decided to take the shortcut back to the slightly cooler coastal track we had come in on.

Arriving back at the van we did some organization the best we could in the lessened camper space than we had in New Zealand and hung out for a bit by the beach until the urge for ice cream was felt and a change of scenery.

The lazy beach day continued into the early evening with only a break to find the night's campsite. We decided there would be no other choice but to stay in one of the local Holiday Parks and the Noosa information center pointed us in the direction of the closest. Although the park is full to the brim with campers (estimated over 100) and is booked solid everyday of the year according to the park attendant (this is still off-season despite the crowds apparently) the campsite was relatively quiet, aside from some punk kids yelling out their car window, until of course the sun broke over the Eastern horizon at 430am and the birds started losing it. This time Sara was prepared with her ear plugs to pop in once the commotion began.

Overall the night was less restless than the night before as we added some padding to the bed set up with the comforter laying underneath us. The bed is like a bad convertible couch with metal bars running across it in three different spots. We believe there may have been a Koala fight in the trees over the car, but since there aren't supposed to be in Koala's in town, it probably was a mango hitting the car roof and one of the wild turkeys or local cats screeching about. Even our neighboring Euro campers managed to keep quiet last night despite their constant need to play techno.


We were sad to leave New Zealand after falling so in love with the country during our time there. The people are so exceptionally friendly, the spaces are uncrowded and the scenery is fabulous. We are lucky we got to spend as much time there as we did, but easily could have stayed longer.

Onward to Brisbane for our next stop. We didn't realize we had to get an Australian visa, and then the surfboards caused a bit of a panic with their weight, but everything got sorted out. Brisbane is a huge city and reminded me very much of a hot and tropical Boston. Skyscrapers towered over old stone churches and the suburbs stretched on for quite a ways. We stayed at a pretty nice hotel downtown where we could walk to see the older buildings and get some dinner. The people at the hotel were nice enough to let us store two enormous bags of winter clothes and 4/3 wet-suits and booties there so we would be able to make the weight limit on the flight back to Brisbane. Our plan is to drive up to Cairns and then fly back down from there.

I really hadn't considered how incredibly tropical this area of Australia is. It is really really hot and humid and the water is just like Hawaii, warm and crystal turquoise colored. I guess we were still in winter mode with all our New Zealand items, but quickly realized we would need no more than shorts and t-shirts at any time of the day.

We picked up our new camper van from Kea which we would drive north. After being so totally spoiled in the Wilderness Camper we had just had, this one is certainly a bit of a disappointment. It's much, much smaller, about the size of a VW Bus, but the good thing is that it's much easier to drive and an automatic. However, there is barely any storage space at all, and you have to pop the top to comfortably camp, which is pretty conspicuous if you want to freedom camp. There is no inverter, so therefore no electricity like the last van unless you are plugged in at a fancy holiday park. No toilet, bathroom or indoor shower either. There is a little shower out the back which works well for post-surfing. In hindsight, getting the camper van here may not have been the best idea. It is so much more urban and extremely developed with high-rises and endless neighborhoods, that it is not very easy to find a quiet secluded spot like in New Zealand.

Nonetheless, we got onto the M1 which felt like a super-highway with it's 6 lanes across compared to what we had gotten used to, and headed north. Taking Marybeth's advice (thanks MB!), we decided to go an check out the Australia Zoo, popularized and developed by the late Steve Irwin. The place was amazing and so much more interactive than the zoos we are used to in the US. We fed an elephant several pieces of fruit, which she snatched with her trunk from our hands. Her trunk was like hairy sandpaper, not the leathery feel I thought it would have at all. Next we were able to pet the snoozing koala bear, which was so soft. There were lots in the trees, all sleeping. Apparently that's what they o for 20 hours a day because of their low-energy eucalyptus diet.

After getting a snack and checking out many of the crocs, we saw the wombats and red pandas, and then into the venomous snake house. This was an a very cool display with lots of information, but did not encourage us to go hiking around the bush here with so many lethal snakes all over. But the best part of the zoo was the way the kangaroos are set-up. It's just like a huge open park and you get to go in and feed them, or pet them as Erich did. He was like a kangaroo whisperer in there, they would come up to him and one put it's paw in his hand and just left it there, sort of holding his hand. Others just loved to be pet while laying on their sides. I was pretty jumpy around them, they are just such foreign and weird animals like nothing I have ever seen. Completely fascinating to look at, but I wasn't sure how much they could be trusted until I watched Erich with them. They fed from our hands although with all the food these guys get during the day, they were less than thrilled by the time we got there at 4:45pm.

The zoo closed at 5pm, so we barely got to see the Dingos, Emus and Kimodo Dragon before having to leave. It was such a great place, but a little sad too as Steve's pictures are up all over and there is a memorial for him there too.

We drove up the coast, delusional in thinking that it would be simple to find a park or beach to spend the night. Unfortunately, we couldn't find anything as the entire coast line is so incredibly developed. Imagine driving from downtown San Diego north and thinking you are going to find a quiet little covert spot to sleep for the night near the beach. Doesn't happen (at least not legally). Finally we ended up in a tiny park area, just out back of a little asian market and luckily no one said anything to us.

The time zone here is pretty bizarre. It's like they really messed up when figuring out what time it should be here. It is literally, I am not exaggerating, daybreak at 4:45am. Now when the sun rises is also when the crazy tropical birds start to go nuts, so we got a good loud wake-up call around then. The the even weirder part is that people just get up then and go about their day like that's normal! And then it is totally dark by 7pm, with the sunset about 6:30pm.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bay of Islands and Kauri Coast

We woke up on the beach and peeked out the windows hoping to get in another surf session before moving on for the day. Unfortunately, the swell had dropped considerably, and there wasn't much left to ride. In lieu of waves, we cooked up some eggs and sat outside in the grass enjoying the morning ocean scene. After we cleaned up, we left Sandy Bay to head north to the Bay of Islands.

We arrived in the touristy, but cute, town of Paihia, right on the Bay. It was a gorgeous view, although overcast, of the blue waters and as the name clearly states, the bay full of islands. Sailboats were out in abundance, cruising past islands on their way towards the ocean. We walked around town poking into the small shops that lined the main street, and some really good gelato.

The Waitangi Treaty grounds we visited next we interesting, but disappointing at the same time. We had heard they were a must-do sight here, but they didn't provide much historical information at all. The signs and graphics were limited to the same information over and over and the majority was about the house that was restored on the property. The 20-minute movie we watched at the beginning was all told from a Maori perspective and they actually called the Europeans the "white goblins." To me, this isn't even history, it's just a skewed and one-sided viewpoint of what actually happened. I wanted to know why the Maori were still fighting each other, instead of teaming up to fight the Europeans? What changed after the Treaty was signed? What happened with the tribunal that came along much later and why was there a need for this? NONE of these questions were answered or even mentioned in the video, much less the entire complex. When we left, I felt like I had learned nothing new from my guide book, and had hoped for a much more detailed recount of the events that led up to, and followed, the signing of the treaty.

The Kauri trees we saw next were unreal. They were massive and easily the size of our giant Sequoia trees in California. Unlike the Sequoias, which are more open and spread out with space in between, these trees are packed into a dense, lush rain forest environment, with so many plants crowding for light. The biggest tree was impressive, but we also enjoyed the (rainy) hike through Trounson Forest. This area had many more Kauri trees, including the famous "four sisters." This tree had a twin truck, which happened to grow up against a Kauri with a twin truck as well. The two merged, and now the tree looks like one massive base with four trunks emerging. It's sad to think these are the last remains of the giant Kauri trees, but we're lucky we even got to see these, as they could have all been completely wiped out.


One of the highlights of our guide books in this area was the Waitangi Treaty House which is where the Maori and British formed an agreement over on-going disputes. Although we were slapped with a hefty entrance fee of $20/adult to see this "sight," we have had many burning questions as to how the Maori assimilated into the British culture to become New Zealand.

The visit was very historically informative, but we still don't quite understand what those Maori tribes that wanted nothing to do with signing the treaty did over the coming years to deal with the impending takeover of their lands and way of life.

The most interesting part of the treaty grounds had to be the meeting house and its ornate Maori carvings covering every inch of the ceiling and walls.

Our next destination was the Kauri Coast on the West side of the Northland District peninsula. It started to rain not long after departing the Bay of Islands Area and the visibility started to get low. Mostly the area was rolling sheep paddocks so there probably was not too much to miss from the roadway.

The West side is very much a rain forest in these parts, and the level of moisture that was coming out of they sky was an obvious fact of where the plants obtained all their water. In the Waipoua Forest there are the Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) Kauri tree which is said to be the oldest (estimated at 2000 years) and largest tree in the world. After driving the windy road thru the forest we finally reach the tree and it was massive. The Kauri trees are just one of those tree species that make you speechless when you stand next to them and are in complete awe of their sheer girth (of 45 feet around).

Of course like all great things in nature, the Kauri tree were nearly wiped to extinction by the early settlers of New Zealand and many other Europeans, Americans, and Australians. The Kauri tree is so tall it is perfect for use as ship masts so it was heavily sought after in the 1800's.

On down the road we went to another section of the forest that contained many more Kauri trees along the well-maintained hike in the woods. None of these were quite as big and old as the first we had seen, but many were well past 1500 years and just as amazing to look at.

The rest of the evening was spent heading South again towards Auckland as we had many kilometers to cover to make up for the previous days of heading North. We pulled back in to one of our favorite campsites at Wenderholm regional park just before the closed the gates at 9pm.

Tonight is our final night in New Zealand and we could not ask for a nicer campsite next to the ocean with huge Pohutakawa (NZ Christmas trees) towering overhead.

Poor Knights Islands

Yesterday evening, while driving up the northern coast towards the Bay of Islands, we took a smaller coastal road to check out some of the beaches along the way. We passed by the tiny town of Tutukaka, and knew this is where many dive companies were based. We figured we'd just pop in and have a look around, ask them about the diving, and get the prices for the boat trips. We hadn't really planned to go diving, but we had heard about this location from several Kiwis as well as in the States before we left. We were persuaded by the good conditions and figured we should take advantage of the opportunity, and luckily they still had some openings available for the following day's dive.

My biggest hesitation about the dive trip was the water temperature. I learned to dive in Hawaii and the last place we dove in Key West had a water temperature of 88 degrees. Here, it's only around 62 degrees. This requires a cumbersome 7mm wet-suit farmer john sort of pant-suit as well as a jacket and hood over top of that. I had also requested a shark skin under-layer which helped add some warmth. When you have to wear this much neoprene, you are more buoyant and therefore have to wear much more weight to keep yourself submerged. It all sounded much less inviting that our usual tropical dives.

Aside from the cold water, the Poor Knights sounded like a diver's dream. They will tell you an endless amount of times that the infamous Jacques Cousteau rated these islands as one of his top 5 dive sites in the world. Even today they are still rated among the best of the best diving areas worldwide and were just on the cover of a top dives book. What makes them so famous are several things. First, they touch the tropical current coming down from Australia (think the turtles in that current from Finding Nemo) which adds a few degrees of warmth, but also brings in tropical fish that would not normally be here and are no where else in New Zealand waters. It is also where the Pacific and the Tasman Sea meet, which creates more nutrients in the water and allows more life to flourish there. It is also has been a marine reserve since the early 80s, which lets fish to survive longer and grow bigger. And lastly, there are sheer cliffs all around the islands that plummet 100s of feet down into the water and provide lots of nooks and surfaces for things to grow, hide and feed.

We started our boat trip out at around 9am, after checking in and getting all of our gear sorted out at 8:15. The conditions were great, as promised, mostly sunny skies and very light winds. The dive company, Perfect Day, was impeccably organized and OCD which was great since there is quite a bit of equipment and people to deal with on these dive boats. We each got our own waterproof bag for our gear, complete with a name tag and where you were from on each, and these were stored under the bench seats around the large boat. We also all got custom lunches (meat or veggie) in neat little brown paper bags with our names written on them. There were two levels on the boat, plus the bow, so it allowed plenty of room for people to spread out and take in the views as we motored out to the islands.

The first dive was at spot called Rikoriko Cave which was exciting since I have never gone diving in a cave before. The company gave you the option to have a dive guide in a small group, and having never dove in the cold water and in a cave, we figured we'd take them up on the offer. We were in a group of 6 people with our dive guide who looked exactly like Kate Bosworth, but without the different colored eyes. She made us all do a buoyancy test one-on-one with her to make sure our weights were okay (mine were 20 lbs instead of the 8 lbs I had on in Key West!) and we were ready to dive. I wish they had warmer booties (or even gloves) since the only part of me that became numb were my toes.

Once we went under, it was overwhelming how much there was to take in. The cliff and cave walls added a new plane to the usual top and bottom of diving, and within the water were thousands and thousands of these little clear, sort or rainbow--ish organisms floating all over the place. Some were bigger, maybe 7 inches long, while others were teeny tiny and they looked like something you would see under a high-tech microscope. The walls were a kaleidoscope of colors, with fluorescent moss-like growth on the walls, to technicolor nudibranches, to bright blue anemones and on and on. You could literally just stop and stare at this wall from about 1 foot away forever and see so many small and intricate things. If you turned your back to the wall, schools of fish danced along and rainbow colored fish came around to see who was in their territory. Once in the cave, the light dimmed and there were more fans growing on the wall and even bigger nudibranches to see. Since the dive was around 65 feet, our air only lasted about 40 minutes or so and then it was back to the boat. The one tricky thing about diving here is that everything is in metrics and your air gauge is in BAR not PSI. It took some time to get used to that.

After each dive, we were greeted on the back of the boat and someone would take your fins and mask for you and set them with the rest of your stuff. Then they would immediately ask if they could make you a hot beverage, like coffee, tea or cocoa, or if you would like some hot soup. Then while you peeled off your layers of wet-suit one of the crew would go in the kitchen area and make just what you wanted and have a steaming mug back to you when you were trying to warm up. It was pretty unbelievable for a dive operation to offer that level of service.

On the surface interval, the sun was shining brightly and it was nice and warm so we lazed on the bow of the boat and ate our lunches. Then they started up the boat and drove it into the world's largest sea-cave, which we had just dove into, and it was pretty amazing. It was massive inside, so much space that another few boats could have easily joined us in there.

The next dive was at the Maomao Arch, which was that actual spot that Jacques Cousteau had rated one of his favorite dives. You drop down off the boat in front of the arch and then have to pass through a swim through tunnel under a huge boulder to enter into the narrow corridor under the archway. Walls on either side of the rock arch drop down from the surface and create this neat passageway where the fish tend to relax from predators. We saw an enormous scorpion fish hanging out on the bottom, at least 4 feet long, and tons of those rainbow fish and cleaner fish and a school of fish with two white dots but I forget the name. The walls were also covered in millions of colors.

The captain of our boat, Sam, was a really nice guy and had helped us decipher the surf report the day before and give us some info on the local breaks. He was a great captain, always briefing us on the dives and sharing bits of history about the ancient Maori who used to live on the islands. Apparently, a chief on the other side of the North Island had it out for the chief on the Poor Knights. He waited until he was away, and then took his warriors over and slaughtered every single person on the island. When the other chief returned and saw what happened, they claimed the islands as Hapu, or sacred/cursed, and never came back. They left the entire village as-is and to this day it is a protected sanctuary and you are not allowed on land without a special permit.

Anyway, Sam had said that he heard the surf looked really fun over at a local break, so once the dive boat had cruised back into the marina around 4:30, we decided to drive the 10km up the road and paddle out. Some of the guys on the boat that we met had talked about renting a board and surfing too, so we ended up bringing over their 8" board in the van as well. There were so many nice people on the dive boat, and from all over the world. Two guys were local Kiwis, two from Australia, two from the US, one from England, a lady from Norway, a guy from France, a girl from Germany, a Dutch guy and on and on. The Kiwis were really fun, and the guys from the States were cool, although one was actually originally from South Africa. These two, Eric and Grant, were the ones that came surfing with us.

We pulled up to Sandy Bay with only a few guys out, and light off-shores. The waves were only about waist-to-chest, but you couldn't have asked for a better setting. Islands sat offshore, including the Poor Knights, and the long golden beach stretched the length of the bay. Green grassy rolling hills were visible from the water as far as you could see. We had a great time playing around and even the boat captain, Sam, came out a little later as well.

The guys were going out for pizza and beer in town, so we decided since we had already sorted out a place to freedom camp, we would join them. We got to the place and they were closing, as most local restaurants tend to do right at 8pm. We begged them to make just one more pizza, not knowing if the other guys had been there yet or not, and they agreed. We sat out on the deck overlooking the marina when the rest of the group showed up. Unable to coax the chef into making any more pizza that night, they had to go next door where we met up with them afterwards.

On the deck we heard another American couple prepping their two girls for a few weeks at sea on a sailboat they were taking out in just two days. The girls struggled to wrap their heads around what exactly they would be doing at sea for this period of time, and the parents tried to explain they would learn a lot about sailing and see lots of neat things. Erich was about ready to go over and ask if he could come along too it sounded so nice.

We met the guys at the bar after the pizza where they played 80s music on full blast (complete with videos) the entire time. The french guy was there too, from Toulouse, and happened to be an Army paratrooper in New Zealand just to learn english for one month. You'd think they would have sent him to England to accomplish this, but he lucked out and gets to go to school in Auckland and stay with a family there. The South African was a pilot for Southwest so Erich was interested in hearing about that.

After our big night out, we drove back to the beach where we had surfed and parked right up against the sand where we could listen to the waves all night. It's amazing to us there are so many places here where you are able to temporarily have ocean-front property for free.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Northlands (and Sheep World!)

Last night, while making a a run to the park toilets before bed, I happened to spot an amazing New Zealand Christmas Tree while waiting for Erich. It was the most perfect climbing tree, so I got up about 15 feet and when Erich came out, called him up into the tree too. The limbs were at a perfect angle to recline and look up at the infinite amount of starts gleaming overhead. The branches blocked a few spots, but still, we saw shooting starts and the upside-down Orion's Belt. It was right on the water and it was so quiet in the park, all we could hear was the breeze through the trees and the lapping of the tiny waves on the beach. After awhile, I got too chilly, and we climbed back down and into the heated van for the night.

In the morning, we decided to do a brief hike up the mountain to a lookout over the bay. It was a gorgeous hike, with vines and palm trees and fern trees, looking so tropical yet I was wearing pants and my down vest. At the top, there was a fabulous view of the bay and the clear turquoise waters. Off the coast, dozens of islands dotted the horizon. Back at the start of the trail, we checked out the historical victorian-style house and gardens at the base of the cliffs that has been moved slightly twice, but was built there in the early 1900s.

Back on the road near Warkworth, we passed by one of our stops for the day at the Honey Center. It was neat to see the thousands of bees buzzing around behind the glass bee hive, and they had tastings of at least 30 kinds of honey. All of them were good, but it's interesting when you taste honey like that, back to back, you can really tell the difference with the subtle flavors, sort of like wine tasting.

We needed to get going at that point in order to make the 11am show up the road. When you think of an attraction called "Sheep World," most people probably wouldn't be too upset about missing it. But for me, this was a huge highlight of the Northlands area and I was giddy to go see the sheep shearing and watch the dogs herd. Erich was nice enough to go along with the whole thing, seeing how excited I was about the place and the show and demo they do twice a day.

Surprisingly enough, the show was not that crowded. The employee joked when I was the fifth person in the barn that they were going to have a busy day. Our host, Ross, started by introducing the dogs, one spastic border collie named Dog who could not sit still for even a second, and another New Zealand working dog (a mix of a collie, lab and fox hound) named Sam. Ross is a real hard-core New Zealand farmer. Older now, he has been shearing sheep for 45 years, while most guys only last about 10 due to the exhausting strain on the back and neck. He worked full-time as a shearer and in one year could shear 80,000 sheep. His best time was 30 seconds, although he claims the record is only 14 seconds for a full grown sheep. They have to work so quickly because they get paid per sheep. Back when he was working, the rate was $0.95 per sheep, and now it's up to $1.75.

The demo began with all ten of the audience walking outside and then Dog taking off like a bullet to bring the sheep into the pen. Ross had a shepard's whistle on his neck and by blowing it different ways could steer Dog in different directions or tell him to hold-off or speed up. Dog herds the sheep by nipping or staring at them, while the other work, Sam, has to bark to get the sheep moving but will not nip.

Once all the sheep were in the barn, he explained why they have colored spray paint markings on their heads, markings on the ears and about docking the tails, and then started the sheep shearing demo. I was so excited I was able to get up on the platform and try my hand at shearing the sheep with the clippers, it was actually much harder than I though since you had to avoid the wrinkles in their skin so you wouldn't cut them. I even got to keep my stinky little pile of wool that I had shorn.

After the sheep was sheared, Ross, who I now think of as the Sheep Whisperer, put this sheep to sleep just by rubbing a pressure point behind his left ear. He said he's had vets come from all over to watch and learn how he does this, and supposedly his success rate is 95%. The sheep just slept on the stage while he went on with the show.

Next was the cutest part, when seven baby lambs came sprinting into the barn and we all got massive bottles with warm sheep's milk to feed them. They were feisty little guys, all running to find the nearest bottle and start sucking like crazy. Mine was especially energetic and sloshed me with sheep's milk and then downed the whole bottle in half the time of the other lambs. Erich's certainly had the softest head and they all just reminded us so much of Coco!

Next it was out to the petting area, where we were randomly chosen to feed the calves their half-gallon size bottle of milk. These guys were huge, and they were drooling and one reached out it's enormous tongue and slurped Erich's hand, wanting more food. We continued on to see the alpacas, birds, and pigs but just missed the eel feeding. (These eels live in rivers and ponds and are common all over New Zealand, but really they just look like super long and skinny fish.) There was an eco-walk, a short trail that featured some bird calls and signage which was nice.

Once it began a light drizzle, we headed into the Black Sheep Cafe for lunch, and can you believe what Erich ordered? After our nice time bottle-feeding babies, he orders the LAMB sandwich. But did say is was very good.

After so much farm fun, we had seen all the animals and got back in the camper to continue north. We drove up through the big city of Whangarei and on towards the Tutukaka coast. The area is beautiful with small islands along the coast and blue clear waters. We are camped on a quiet bay with a perfect view of the ocean and soft sand beach. Tomorrow we will get up early and be on our way out to the famous Poor Knights Islands for some (very cold) diving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The longest left in the world. At least on a really really good day. But while we were at Raglan for two days, it was just about your average left point break.

We woke up to our neighbor's squeaky van door in our "eco-camp" (which really mean they just don't have any facilities) this morning up on the hill over the ocean. They seemed to be in a rush to get out of there, probably down to the surf, while we took our time waking up to coffee and yogurt. We drove down the steep driveway to Manu Bay, one of the best surf breaks in the Raglan area.

Now Manu Bay is not your average kicked-back local wave. There is quite the scene in that little parking lot with just some showers and toilets. There are guys out there with their super zoom lens expensive cameras taking photos, the Volcom rep is in his painted Volcom van, there are guys video taping this wave, the little blond surfer groupie girls checking out the the guy surfers, and some just hanging around with beers (at 9:30am actually) watching the wave. It seems as though everyone is a rasta, with at least 1 in 3 guys in Raglan having a big long head of dreadlocks.

There was no question that it looked like a really good wave out there this morning. Calm, glassy conditions and a peeling left off the rocky peak were so appealing we jumped into our wet-suits and booties (although the later was more for the rocks, as the water was hovering at 60 degrees) and headed out for a surf. At first I thought it would be no big deal to hop off the little boulders and into the white-water. But once I stood down by the waves, on the sketchy volcanic rocks, and saw another surfer struggle to get out, I decided I should just head for the boat ramp. Although this was a longer paddle to the peak, I'd get there without getting my hair wet, or getting my board beat up on the rocks.

When we'd watched the wave from the camper, there were only about 10 people out and there was a nice zippy shoulder coming through that a lot of guys were missing since they were out at the peak. I scoped out the spot, but when we got out there, things had changed. Now, the number of people had tripled and the rising tide had drown out any fast shoulder I had seen. It was frustrating to try and get waves out there, and felt a lot like a cool gray day out surfing at Swami's (only a left) back home. After awhile, the wind had picked up and the crowds had not lessened, so we paddled back towards the boat ramp and called it a day.

We went into the little odd town of Raglan for some chai and a late breakfast and sat at a cute cafe and watched the hippie crowd pass by the windows. After we ate, we decided to drive a ways down the road to see Te Toto Reserve, which is actually a gorge right on the ocean. Apparently, this is the spot where Maoris pushed off other Maori slaves, including women and children, to their death hundreds of feet below. It had a gruesome past, but all we saw was a wooden viewing deck that hung out over the gorge and looked out to the ocean. It was not quite as dramatic as the Pali Lookout in Oahu (where King Kamehameha pushed off hundreds of men in battle) but impressive nonetheless.

On the way back towards town, we checked the beach break in Raglan, but the conditions had worsened with the wind picking up and the swell on it's way out. Figuring we didn't need to stick around for the surf that was going to be smaller over the weekend, we headed north towards our last area to visit on the trip, the Northlands.

We did have to make one small detour, however. I had just drank the very last bit of the Starbucks coffee that I brought and that certainly qualified as an emergency. Erich, as always accommodating and so understanding of my neuroses and caffeine addiction, agreed to drive out of the way to the city of Hamilton where they happened to have one of the few Starbucks in New Zealand. We finally located the store in the heart of the downtown, but had some fun checking out the urban lifestyle here as well. We passed a cinema where "New Moon" had just opened, but we missed the start of the movie by ten minutes. Erich was certainly not overly excited to watch the teenage vampire cult movie, so he was off the hook and it was decided I would go see it when we did not have places to get to before dark. So, Jerilyn, you will have to go see it again, or I'll just get to go in Boston when it is snowy and cold.

We pushed on to the north, passing New Zealand's brownest lake and smelliest highway section (there must have been a slaughterhouse) through the massive city of Auckland with it's high-rises and traffic, to the Northlands. This is the peninsula, which they claim is a tropical paradise (even though the water is only 62) is supposedly gorgeous with miles of beaches and off-shore islands. We've enjoyed the scenery so far, and have decided to camp in a very nice spot, Wenderholm Regional Park, on the ocean. It's an open park like setting, with plenty of room to spread out from the few neighbors around.

Turangi to Raglan

It rained off and on all last night and in the morning there were still gray clouds and showers lingering. We lazed around the camper, relaxing with the rain slowing our pace, and once it seemed to just be a misty drizzle, left the marina area where we camped for the river. We thought since we still had the pole and had to buy the flies, we might as well try our luck fly-fishing again. Unfortunately, after barely a half hour on the river, the rain came back with a vengeance and forced us to call it quits.

The downpour lasted most of the morning, with the gray clouds seemingly stretching on forever. On our way out from the river we stopped by the Turangi National Trout Center, since it was hyped up in all of our guide books, to see if we could watch someone who really knows how to fly-fish. The visitor's center was closed for construction, but we did see the hatchery and where they raise the trout for a pond where they teach children to fish. They also keep this stock of trout in case anything should happen to deplete the rivers and lake. The baby fish just looked like little tadpoles and scattered when we came near the tanks to take a closer look.

With the rain still falling, we decided to turn in our rod and head out of town to our next stop, the infamous surf town of Raglan. The drive took a few hours, but on "major" roads by New Zealand standards (still only one lane) and we stopped for a nice lunch at a roadside cafe. It was modern and open with all exposed wood and magazines strewn around for people while sipping their coffee.

We did drive right past Waitomo Caves, which is supposedly a huge attraction here, but it sounded like to even see the caves at all, you would have to sign up for one of the many pricey tours. Some of these sounded short, like the glow-worm boat cruise, while others lasted 8 hours, full of repelling and wading and swimming and spelunking. They also offer the unique "black water rafting" where you hop in your inner-tube with headlamps and raft down the pitch black underwater river, complete with some small waterfalls. We figured if we wanted to backtrack the hour or so to see them if the weather was bad, we could.

The town of Raglan is probably the hippest little surf town we have visited so far with art galleries, cafes and small bars, and of course, a lot of surf shops. We drove around and checked the world-famous breaks, even though we had read the surf report in the morning that stated things were blown-out and messy. It was still a little messy and a good 5-7 feet, so we watched and checked out the paddle-out spot and saw the after work crowd scramble to get out in the water. We had to find a "real" campsite, called a holiday park in New Zealand, as there was no freedom camping allowed and no Department of Conservation sites which is our first choice. This little eco-camp, as they call themselves, is $30 to park in a gravel lot with some toilets nearby. Since they didn't even have laundry, we drove into town and did the wash in Raglan before going out for fish 'n chips which Erich had been craving all day.

We'll see how it looks in the morning with the weather and the winds, and hopefully this front will be done passing through tonight. Today is the first officially bad weather day we've even had here with the gray rains, usually it seems to clear up mid-morning.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tongariro + Turangi

We slept in a great spot next to a gurgling stream in Tongariro National Park and slept in because of the quiet. In the morning some clouds were rolling through but no rain, so we got ready to head into town and ask about fly-fishing. We stopped at the i-site but unfortunately, there seemed to be no fishing guides available in the entire area, and she had tried to call five of them. So instead we bought a hiking fold-out map of the National Park and went across the street for breakfast.

The cafe was nice with high ceilings, wood paneling and trendy ambient music playing on the stereo. Erich was quite looking forward to a "toastie" which they serve in some cafes which is basically a piece of toast with an omelette sort of thing on top. They didn't seem to sell them, so he settled for an egg, bacon and sun-dried tomato panini instead.

After breakfast, Erich wanted to check out the local mountain biking shop to rent a bike for the afternoon (see below.) Once I heard the trail would certainly have big mud puddles all along it, I opted for a day hike instead while he went to ride. The forest walk within the National Park was beautiful, with signage along the trail with information about the huge, old, native trees growing within. I didn't pass one other hiker the entire trail which was nice and gave the woods a serene feel with only the streams and river making any noise.

When Erich got back to the camper, we drove up to Turangi to see about fly-fishing up there. You would think in the FLY-FISHING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD as they call themselves this would not be a hard feat. In the first shop we visited we talked to a grumpy old man with glasses who told us that we couldn't fish in the evening due to the cooler temps and the weather might be bad in the morning so we should just wait until then. We walked across the pedestrian walkway to the other fishing shop where two of the sweetest older ladies told us everything we wanted to know about fishing in the area. They also told us to go to the thermal pools up the road, a good spot to park the van for the night, and hooked us up with a fly pole and five flies, nylon and a permit. We were glad we had gone in to talk to them and headed out of town following the little maps they had given us.

We peeked into the thermal pools, but they seemed to be more of a local venue and I'm just not crazy about the rotten egg sulfur smell that seems to surround many of these places. The pools were connected to the thermal river and there were signs around stating not to put your head in the water to prevent ameobic menegitus. The certainly made our decision and we left feeling glad we had already gotten our thermal pool fix down in Hanmer Springs.

Continuing a few kilometers down the road, we pulled into the dead-end culdesac on the lake where we planned to sleep for the night. The women in the fishing shop indicated there was decent fishing here, so we pulled out our step-by-step paper she had given us with how to tie the nylon to the rod and then the fly to the nylon. I love learning new knots and this one was simple, so we were ready to go fish! It seemed after about a half an hour that fly-fishing, or maybe even fishing in general, is really like a picnic (complete with beer) by a river or lake where you sort of throw a line around in the water too. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing at all, but had fun laughing at each other trying to figure it out. Needless to say, we did not catch any trout. However, it does seem to take quite a bit of focus, trying to get that little feathery thing to look like a fly bobbing around on the surface, so it was pretty fun to think you might actually catch something. Erich got distracted by some sort of dramatic duck fight (I was using the bathroom at the time) and let the fly sink to the bottom of the lake. When he tried to pull it out, it had gotten entangled in something on the bottom and broke the nylon, loosing one of our glow in the dark flies for evening fishing. Luckily we had bought three similar to that one, and two for the morning, so we could keep fishing.

The camping spot is nice and seems like it will get quiet as soon as the New Zealand fire department finishes whatever drills they are doing next to the lake. Out the window, we can see the vents steaming on the hillside from all of the thermal activity around the area. Hopefully the rain will hold off in the morning so we can try our trout luck on the river once more before we have to return the poles and head west to the beach.


As Sara mentioned I rented a mountain bike today. As all things backwards in the southern hemisphere (like the way your toilet water swirls when you flush) the bike brake levers and shifters were on opposite sides. This of course made it interesting to stop quickly with the rear brakes when I was grabbing a handful of lever to come to a quick stop to find I was stopping the front wheel and practically hurling myself over the handlebars. Luckily there was a fair amount of play in the brakes so this was not too huge of an issue, and the mud seemed to keep things a bit on the slower side. The trail was not anything too New Zealand extreme as we would have had to put the bike in the van and traveled up the road to the "42nd Traverse" which is supposedly NZ's #1 mountain bike ride, but it requires about 8 hours and 20+ miles with over 3000' of elevation change so that didn't seem like it was going to happen today. As Sara said, she jumped off the bike idea since it was "pissing" a fine mist (New Zealand term for raining) and the thought of a muddy ride. I figured it would be nice to get a quick ride in whatever the trail conditions and then I could get it out of my system of mountain biking in NZ.

The trail meandered thru some amazing old growth beech forest and an experimental planting area where the pervious NZ conservation department prior to the current one tried to determine what they could get to re-grow successfully to re-plant many of the cut down forest around the country. I never could figure out exactly what this massive tree was that was around every 100 yards or so. The trunk was the size of large truck and must have been hundreds of feet high. I was definitely well into the woods with no one around minus one Department of Conservation agent I saw checking possum and stoat traps. The downhill portion of the trail was a muddy disaster. Since this was practically rain forest, mud bogs went right through the middle of the trail and the bike would literally sink in to the wheel hubs, slinging me to a screeching halt. I didn't even know bikes could slug into this much mud and still ride, but somehow the bike and I labored on and eventually the slowest downhill ride of my life (slower than even riding uphill) ended and I got back to the van where Sara was waiting after her hike.

We were so close to catching a trout this evening. Sara finally perfected the motion of the fly after spending 20 minutes while I casted carefully studying the water bugs bouncing off the water. I told her we should record her new found master technique and deliver it to the New Zealand National Trout Center which is located here in Turangi as a central museum for the whole country. We are not quite sure how no one has ever fully figured out this secret technique, but now we can make it public since Sara is willing to pass on the knowledge to fellow trout fishermen and women.

I expect the only reason we don't have a 20 pound trout on the grill right now is because they just were not here due to the fine "pissing" and apparent cold weather that Mr. Grumpy in his fly shop says drives the fish away. I think its always cold here so what the heck does that really matter in the trout capital of the world?

Wrapping this up, the first fly was only lost because some demonic duck was attacking another defenseless duck who was squacking to have the other one stop, but the bully just would not quit. I was looking for rocks on the ground to throw at the pain in the duck and apparently the fly sunk deep enough to find the only piece of wood within striking distance of our fishing grounds. Growing up on the most tree and stick infested lake in America I am fairly highly skilled at dislodging hooks from rotten logs, but the failure was in the 8 pound tess line attached to the fly and quickly broke as I tried to flip the lure loose. There was absolutely no way to avoid our first fly casualty and the lake probably need it more than we did anyway since it would have just been one less trout in the water if we still had it available to us in our trout fishing arsenal. Fish and chips shack here we come!