A whirlwind trip to Victoria Australia and Queenstown, NZ

I was needing an excuse to check out Australia and my good friend Torry had some free time over the 4th of July holiday and also wanted to check it out. The plan was to meet in Warrnambool, Victoria and then drive the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne. Torry has a friend living in Woomera, Australia’s equivalent of Area 51, so he first headed to Adeleaide. I wanted to explore Melbourne, so I spent the weekend there before heading on a train to meet him.

After spending so much time in Auckland, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in a ‘proper’ city. Melbourne is definitely a ‘proper’ city, actually reminding me of Santiago. There’s a life to the city—it’s a living being, not just a destination to drive into for work and then leave after a day’s work. It’s brimming with life, culture, food, universities, people, and activities. Oh yeah, it also has beaches! It’s the kind of city I’d like to live in one day.

The train ride was pretty uneventful—it left Melbourne and went through the countryside. Probably what caught my attention the most was the train network and how many people used it. It reminded me of my time living in Spain. And to boot, the trip from Melbourne to Warrnambool only cost $30 USD! I arrived about 30 minutes earlier than Torry but when we met up in the evening, we wandered the town of Warrnambool in search of food and found a small pizza and pasta place with delicious food. My pizza had the perfect crust—not too thin and not to thick, crispy outside and chewy inside. It was a nice feed after a long day of travel.

We headed off the next morning, first checking out the nearby Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, where I saw my first Kangaroo, Koala, and Emu. Then it was east down the Great Ocean Road toward the 12 Apostles rock formation. Overall, the Great Ocean Road was very reminiscent of California’s Pacific Coast Hwy, with windy roads following the natural terrain along the ocean side.

I had picked up a guide to the Great Ocean Road, which had different options for side trips, such as gastronomic tours that went to cheese, wine, whisky, and chocolate producers, as well as more natural excursions, and driving roads. We made our own path, visiting a variety of each, taking plenty of time along the way to take in sights. Torry made all the reservations for budget hotels and hostels along the way and one night we ended up in a ‘hostel’ that was in reality more like someone’s house. When we first showed up, the address given was literally someone’s home that could have been on an episode of Hoarders. The guy that greeted us said he was just ‘filling in’ for someone else, but seemed to have as good knowledge of the place as anyone. He said that the place we arrived (the Hoarders home) was full, but down the road was empty. We followed him and I immediately noticed the ‘For Sale’ sign out front. It seemed like these guys were renting out homes for sale. The cupboards were full of food, even with fresh milk in the fridge. I was tired and didn’t feel like putting up much of a fuss. We stopped by the grocery store and self-catered for the night.

The final leg of the trip led us into Melbourne. After driving the Great Ocean Road, we took a flight to Queenstown, New Zealand. We planned a few activities, such as snow shoeing, taking a jet-boat ride, and off roading, but unseasonable warm weather prevented us from snow shoeing. The jet boating ride was along Shotover River and was amazing. The river forged its route through a canyon and the driver tried to get as close as possible to the walls. Since it was a jet boat, basically a giant jetski, it was able to spin on a dime. We only got a little wet, but it would be really refreshing on a hot summer day!

We considered taking a 4×4 tour of the area but after reading a review ‘You are picked up from your hotel in a comfortable 4WD Minibus,’ we agreed that we’d be better off renting a 4×4 than paying to ride in a ‘comfortable 4WD Minibus’. So we rented an AWD Toyota Rav4 and went on our own routes. It was probably the most comfortable way, as we were able to stop and take pictures whenever we wanted. We didn’t get the Rav4 stuck, even though Torry thought I should have tried harder.

After a few days in Queenstown, it was time to go back to work. Sadly, just as we were leaving, the snow began to fall. The morning I left, all of the hills were covered in snow and would have provided plenty of interesting snow shoeing opportunities.

I can’t wait to return to Queenstown in the summer!

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Getting out of Auckland

It is definitely long overdue, but now that I’ve settled in New Zealand, here’s my first blog update in over a year!

I started my job with 0 days of vacation, but have been slowly accruing free time. In the meantime, I’ve been spending most of my time exploring the Auckland area, which definitely has a lot to see. My company shut down over Christmas, so I decided to take some much-needed travel. I experienced a number of ‘firsts’ on the trip, such as the first time camping in New Zealand, the first time using my new tent (I was told that NZ is very strict about bringing in a ‘dirty’ tent, so I brought a new one), and my first extended road trip outside of Auckland.

I chose to head south to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for the first stage of the trip. The Crossing is a trail just short of 20kms over volcanic terrain with amazing scenery. A friend of mine decided to come along for the ‘adventure’. We loaded up my car and headed south. When we got close, we looked into the details of the Crossing.

The trail isn’t a loop, so we had to arrange transportation. There are several bus companies that offer drop-off and pick-up service, but I thought the price was really steep–$35/per person. To put it in perspective, there’s a bus company here that offers trips between Auckland and Wellington (8hrs away) for $29.99. Of course, most people we talked to had the scare tactic—that it’s quite common for cars to get broken into, etc. I had a suspicion that it was actually the bus company operators that break into cars—to scare people into submitting to exorbitant fares.

We headed to the campsite and set up camp. It was a basic campground, with water from the mountain and a non-flush toilet. It was really crowded though—reminding me a lot of camping at the Bonnaroo music festival. We met a Croatian couple in the same situation as us—not wanting to spend so much money for the bus, we decided to drop off one car at the end and the other at the start. It worked out well, and we ended up having company on the hike.

The trail starts at about 1100m, climbs to 1900m, and then drops down to around 750m. Fortunately, the weather was good—overcast and windy, but not rainy.  Like elsewhere in New Zealand, it changes quickly—when there are clouds it is cold, when the sun peaks out, it’s scorching hot. Most of the hike was above the tree line, and the views were extensive. In a few places there were still hot spots of activity, mostly steam belching out with the off smell of sulfur. Only the final few km’s were in the forest.

After finishing the hike, we returned to the cars and fortunately the bus operators hadn’t broken into either of our cars! We hit the road a little further south to another campsite, this time a bit less crowded.

The next day we headed on toward to the town of Whanganui, a quaint city bordered by river and sea. We stopped in a restaurant and had a feed (Kiwi term), glad to have a filling meal after the hike of the previous day. Afterwards, we headed along the coast to the town of Hawera. It was raining so we decided to get a room rather than set up camp in the rain.

Refreshed (and dry) we headed up toward Mt. Taranaki for some light hiking and sightseeing. It was Christmas day, so almost everything was closed—except a few gas stations and Chinese-run fish&chips stores. We checked out the city of New Plymouth and then hit the road heading north toward the surfing town of Raglan.

Raglan has a rugged and beautiful coast—not best for swimming, but a ‘world-class’ surfing spot. Not far away is Bridal Veil Falls (seems like a common name), a 55m drop. There were a few freshwater eels in the stream below the waterfall.

Finally, after a few days on the road, we headed back. I feel like I know a lot more about New Zealand and appreciate all it offers. I can’t wait to start exploring more…once I get some more vacation. And I’m definitely looking forward to some more excellent driving conditions to exercise my Honda Euro R!

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