Monday, April 20, 2015

Epilogue 7: Sydney, Australia

We made the most of our 5 days in Sydney, taking all modes of transportation to get around (including walking of course!) and seeing a variety of sights and tourist attractions.

We rented an AirBnB in Darlinghurst, which was walking distance from the downtown. It was a tiny studio apartment, but much, much better than staying in a hostel for 5 nights and cheaper than a hotel room. It had a great balcony where we ate breakfast every morning.
Our first tourist venture was taking a hop on/hop off Explorer bus tour of the city. It was a perfect way to get the lay of the land from a double decker bus and hear the history of the city.
The bus tour even took us to Bondi Beach, one of the most famous beaches worldwide. It was a really beautiful coastline, but crowded on a cool autumn day. Can't imagine the number of people during the summer!

Next, we got a perspective of the city from the harbor via a sunset dinner cruise with Captain Cook Cruises. They say the views of the city are best from a boat. We concur. The dinner was yum and after we disembarked from the boat, we enjoyed Saturday night fireworks over the harbor. Not as spectacular as those done on New Year's Eve, I imagine, but pretty darn good.

On Sunday, we escaped the city to Blue Mountains National Park, a 2-hour train ride away. Most of the Blue Mountains make up a World Heritage Area. We did little hikes there adding up to 6 miles or so and the scenery was beautiful, but nothing can beat what we've seen the past 5 months in New Zealand. The one thing that was unique was the fact that the mountains are separated by gorges, creating a canyon. There are lots of sandstone cliffs, but there is also a lot of forest/rainforest. That's not typical of the canyons we see in the states.

We planned indoor activities for Monday because it was supposed to rain. Well, it ended up being a ferocious storm with teeth. We debated buying an umbrella to protect us as we walked around the city, but every rubbish container was an umbrella graveyard, so we figured why bother.
RIP umbrellas.

Our first indoor activity, believe it or not, was the Wildlife Zoo. An interesting building design because the animals were outside, but patrons were inside. All of the mammals, reptiles, etc. at the zoo were those found in Australia. So of course this included the koala bears, kangaroos and wallabys.

But there were so many others we didn't even know about! Australia is home to many of the world's deadliest wildlife, including the spider, snake and bird! Knowing what we know now, I have decided that it is probably not a good idea to ever go backpacking in Australia ... J is still willing to try.

We really enjoyed the Wildlife Zoo. J's favorite Australian native is the cassowary, the 3rd largest bird, which is flightless.
As for me, I fell in love with the Tasmanian Devils. Always in motion, like I like to be! (This made it hard to get a pix of them)

In the afternoon as the lashing wind and rain persisted, we toured the most visited attraction across Australia, the Sydney Opera House. This building design was the result of a contest during the 1950s and now it is one of the world's most recognizable buildings! We got lucky with our tour because the ballet dancers were rehearsing in one of the theaters and the orchestra in the other. So we witnessed mini performances!!

The bonus about our time in Sydney is that we got to meet up with our Te Araroa hiking partner, Kevin, one last time before parting ways indefinitely.
Which of these guys trimmed their beard and got a haircut since the trail?

So, after 149 days out of the United States, this ends our international travels ... for now.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Epilogue 6: Christchurch

Well, our 5-month New Zealand grand adventure has come to an end. We flew out on Friday morning and are now are in Sydney, Australia. This was after a brief "oh crap moment when the airline said, "do you have a visa?" And we said, "no, we are only in Australia for 5 days." And they said, "you need a visa if you will be in the country more than 8 hours." It all got sorted out quickly thanks to the awesome customer service agents in NZ.

In any case, our last stop in New Zealand was Christchurch (ChCh). While in ChCh, we were lucky enough to be housed by 2 trail angels, Max and Lyn.
We met Max and Lyn at the north of the South Island right at the start of the Richmond Range. We were 5K from the start of the trail and they pulled over in their camper van to ask if we wanted a ride. We declined, but had a nice 10-minute conversation with them, which ended in, "here is our info and when you come to Christchurch, we'll put you up." Only in NZ will you meet people who will take you into their home after barely 10 minutes of "knowing" you.

Max and Lyn are extremely well traveled and Max (who is nearly 70 I might add) is almost done section walking the length of the South Island. We had plenty to talk about. Max and Lyn definitely showed us our last bit of the amazing Kiwi hospitality. They housed us, fed us, drove us around (including to the airport at 4am) and played tour guide all around ChCh.
The first thing we did in ChCh was experience an earthquake. No, really, we did ... 3.1 on the Richter scale.

ChCh is very well known for its earthquakes. On Feb. 22, 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated NZ's second largest city, killing 185 people to make it the country's 2nd deadliest natural disaster. Most of the deaths occurred in the 6-story television building, which collapsed at the time of the earthquake.

The earthquake and its aftershocks left nearly 50% of the buildings in the central downtown in disrepair. Four years later, the city appears as if the big earthquake just occurred this year. There are countless condemned building waiting for demolition, ongoing construction and closures around every corner.

This includes the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, built in 1881. Not only did the cathedral's spire fall and stained-glass windows destroyed, the earthquake left the structure unsafe. It is estimated the cathedral's rebuild would cost millions and it is still up for controversial debate whether it will just be demolished or not.

The city is forever changed and emotionally scarred. It is very sad. But, we saw the signs of rebuilding and rebirth and the city is slowly coming back to life. There is a really cool "restart" shopping district, where all the stores occupy containers. There is also a beautiful temporary cathedral open for worship, which is built out of cardboard, although you would never know that.

Touring the earthquake's disaster path was not the only thing we did. We also visited the International Antartic Centre. ChCh is the gateway to Antartica, which is only less than 4,000 kilometers away (2500 miles).
J & I would like to someday get to Antartica, but for now, NZ is the closest we will get. The Centre helps you experience a taste of life at the research stations with a simulated storm chamber, a ride on the Hagglund tractor vehicle used to get around down there and a 4D film taking you on a boat through icebergs.

The bonus at the centre is that there is a blue penguin exhibit. NZ is home to more species of penguins than any other country. Now we can say we got to witness the habits of two different penguin species! These little tykes are much smaller than the yellow-eyed penguins we met the other day in the wild. And these guys are injured or ill in some way, but they are safe at the centre.

And so our NZ grand adventure has ended. Boo. We both fell in love with NZ and hope someday we can come back ... Maybe even to live!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Epilogue 5: Dunedin

Dunedin was never a planned destination for our post-Te Araroa travels. Dunedin was the Plan B when Mother Nature decided New Zealand should have the shortest fall ever and go straight into winter, thus axing our the last of our backpacking plans.

We went from the snowy West Coast mountains to the rainy East Coast shoreline. Dunedin is a hilly city on the eastern coast with the South Pacific Ocean in view. Dunedin had the second largest Maori population on the South Island until the 1840s European settlement. As it turns out, the settlement came from those of Scottish descent, and their influence remains today.

There is a lot of interesting architecture in the city, including the railway station, featuring mosaic tile floors and stained glass windows. What once was NZ's busiest train station, it now only operates as a departure point for scenic train tours. It also has the claim as NZ's most photographed building.

We found plenty to fill our 2 unexpected days in Dunedin.

First, we toured the Cadbury factory, a good rainy day activity, especially for chocoholics like myself. The Cadbury family started their chocolate business in England (which is why their brand color is purple--color of the Crown). The Dunedin-based factory has been here since the 1930s. The tour was delicious. Literally.

The other thing we put on our agenda was wildlife viewing on the rural Otago Peninsula. We took the Elm Wildlife Tour, which bused us from the city out to the head of Otago Peninsula. Along the way, we spotted tons of NZ birds we have come to love along the trail, including kingfishers, oystercatchers and pukekos. But, the mother of the bird was waiting at the end. And that would be the albatross.

The truth is, I never knew what an albatross was. I always thought it was some sort of sea creature. Nope. It is a MASSIVE bird. It has a wing span of 3 meters (9 feet), making it the largest bird in size (not weight though - that's the condor). Albatross spend 85% of their time over the sea, so typically they are found on remote rock masses/islands in the middle of the ocean. But the Otago peninsula is a breeding ground for the Northern Royal Albatross species, as it is surrounded for thousands of kilometers of sea to the south and east and has that nice Antartic breeze to go with it. Albatross and their hearty wings can fly for 4 days straight with the help of the wind! At Tairora Head of Otago, there is a colony of 150 or so. Spotting them wasn't hard because their size is just MASSIVE (did I say that already?).

Albatross were not the only exciting species found on the Otago peninsula--there were penguins, sealions and fur seals, all of which gave us private shows.

The yellow-eyed penguin are the rarest of the world's 18 penguin species and their population is declining. They will probably be extinct in 25 years. They can only be found in NZ. We got to watch about 7 penguins as they returned to their nests with full bellies after being out to sea to feed.

The Hooker Sealions are the rarest of the world's 5 sealion species and again, only found in NZ. They were extremely playful and even gave chase to us a few times (we quickly retreated, as not to mingle with a 600-lb animal.

Last, but not least, we enjoyed the company of the NZ fur seals, which were smaller than the sealions, but just as cute. 

You can probably agree, Dunedin turned out to be an unforgettable Plan B!

Now we are in route to Christchurch, our last NZ stop before flying out to Australia on Friday.