With my brother gone and five days left one our world tour we decided to make our way to Rotorua, New Zealand's Maori cultural heartland and home of Zorb. To get there we decided to try our hand, or shall I say thumb, at hitch-hiking. It was very easy get rides and we never waited for more than 20 minutes. Everyone who picked us up was so nice and the last driver into Rotorua drove to us to doorstep of our couchsurfing hosts.
Kylie and Maureen, our amazing hosts showed us a great time. Firstly, these girls have a fully functioning "pub" in their garage! They showed us around town and took us on road trips to lakes and beaches but the best part was when we went to "Hot and Cold". This is a magical place where two rivers, one naturally hot and one cold meet. You have to swim around to find the ideal temperature between the two rivers. It was very cool!...and hot. The best time to swim is at night, apparently as not to see the sliminess of the water. People bring candles which give this natural wonder a romantic touch. We loved it so much that we went there a second time!
We never made it to the Zorb but we did have one last chance to go white water rafting. We went down the Kaituna River and its class 5 rapids. The craziest part was when we went over Tutea Falls, the world's highest commercially rafted waterfall, a whopping seven meters. It doesn't sound like much until you go over the edge!
Considering Rotorua is Maori country, we had to get a little but of Maori culture in. We visited the Mitai Village where we experienced a full night of Maori culture. We were greeted by Maori warriors who performed their various haka, a Maori traditional dance and yes, they use a lot of tongue. We were provided with explanations of traditions, rituals and the meaning behind the tattoos. We then got to partake in a traditional hangi meal that is cooked in the ground. At the end of the night we saw our first glow worms in their natural habitat, although I probably wouldn't have noticed them if they weren't pointed out to me.
With one day left of our fantasy life, we hitched back to Auckland. That's it, January 11th we sat on the plane and made our way back to reality. We flew Auckland to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Minneapolis and finally Winnipeg. The return was bitterweet. On one hand I was so sad that our travels were ending (and I was coming back to Winnipeg in the dead of winter). On the other hand, we get to start our real life and live out life's wondrous adventures. I have to admit, the tears were falling as the luggage came off the carousel but as soon as I saw our friends and family greeting us, the biggest grin spread across my face.
It actually felt good to be back!
With our trip to Australia drawing to a close it was time to look across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where more discovery and adventure than we knew was waiting for us. Upon reconvening in Auckland, having taken different flights, we met with our gracious host Stephan with whom we’d be spending a couple days. The weather the next day wasn’t exactly fit for exploring, so we decided to check out the Auckland Museum, for a backpacker’s price, of course.
For anyone curious about anything to do with New Zealand, this is the place to visit. This museum covers everything from initial Maori settlement, the country’s involvement in the World Wars, and even massive freaky birds who wandered the land millions of years ago. There’s even a section about the volcano in the middle of Auckland Harbour, and what can be expected should it ever erupt. The simulation of being in a house in the volcano’s path is enough to knock your socks off, and anything else depending on how well you hold your nerves.
From Auckland we took a flight to Christchurch, our gateway to the Southern Island and ironically the center of Chabad Lubavitch in New Zealand. We rented a car there, being cheaper than taking the ferry, and quickly resumed on our way. Our first stop was in Dunedin, where we would see how chocolate is made at Cadburry World, and how beer is brewed at the Speight Brewery, both special commodities society simply cannot live without. Rebecca had the time of her life sampling beer at the brewery; she will never turn down a cold one. We also found out that Dunedin has the steepest street (Baldwin St.) in the world, not San Francisco.
At the invitation of a phantom couch surfer we drove to Queenstown, where the most avid thrill seekers come to ride on the silver backed fern. While initially we thought we would go white water rafting, a new idea unique to Queenstown presented itself at the agency. Canyoning turned out to be an exiting activity where we would jump, slide, and climb, rappel and zip-line through gushing mountain rivers. First you’re dressed in a wetsuit, helmet, and marched up a never ending trail. When you figure the heat has become too much, that’s where the excitement begins. The inauguration isn’t exactly smooth; you’re specifically instructed step, not jump, from a height of 10 meters and land on your back, if you want to face another jump.
The next challenge would be one I’d have to face on my own, especially with my fear of heights. I had never considered doing bungee jumping before but when we made our way to Queenstown, New Zealand I thought, "When in Queenstown." I was apprehensive at first about jumping into the abyss, but then slowly I gathered my wits and made it to the edge. Then I took a deep breath, spread my wings, and with the help of a countdown I leaped to what I was told would be like flying. While the experience was undoubtedly exhilarating, I did not feel the promised flying sensation but rather a falling one, which coincidentally is exactly what I was doing. Now that this endeavour is off my list, it's time to pursue one not nearly as reckless, or perhaps one far worse...
With the thrill of Queenstown behind us, we looked to activities far more subtle, but none less breathtaking. In Wanaka we decided to check out Puzzling World, a place where every perception of reality is fooled by your own overactive imagination. You haven’t seen everything until you see people standing sideways, water flows upslope, and Gadi and I simply, “change sizes.” Further down the road, our journey consisted of many good hikes, and the vain search of the silver backed fern. One night even included sleeping in the car we rented, since poor planning and high demand resulted in all accommodation occupied for the remainder of our visit.
By this time I had only a few days left in New Zealand, and took as much warm weather as I could before I had to return to Calgary. We stopped in Golden Bay to see one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but found it hard to appreciate it being pelted by sand. Gadi also got too close to a seal, unaware they are just as agile on land as they are in the water.
Fed up with the lack of available accommodation, we returned to Christchurch and stayed with our gracious hosts Merryn and Michael for the next couple days. This warm and loving family spoiled us by taking us on a boating trip. It was the perfect end to an incredible trip to see the other side of the world, and where I would part ways with Rebecca and Gadi, for now. The only thing now to do is wonder where I will go next. See you all there!
Like many of Rebecca's and Gadi's close family and friends I have been following their exiting trip since the very beginning. That is no longer the case since I've been given the honour of taking part in the last leg of their journey, and getting away from our sunny, yet very cold Canadian Winter. After the usual airport mess and several near-missed flights I was finally reunited with them in Sydney after ten long months.
The reunion party was to be short-lived, as was my first visit to Sydney, because straight away it was off to Newcastle and the first stop on our way to the Great Barrier Reef. The view and ambiance of Newcastle driving in was unimpressive to say the least, especially with public urination in broad daylight. All hope was not lost, because the next day we continued north to the quaint town of Port Macquarie, home of the Koala hospital. While we were disappointed that we weren't allowed to hold the poor little devils, we were thrilled that they weren't asleep when we arrived.
At the invitation of Rebecca's and Gadi's new-found close friends Nathan and Becca, we continued on the Brisbane where I was to have my first experience in a big Australian city. Like most big cities, Brisbane has a lot to offer locals and tourists with extensive resources, but for backpackers on a budget, we could always enjoy the healthy blend of older and modern architecture from the river cruise.
From Brisbane it was off to Hervey Bay where we would embark on journey of excitement and discovery into the Australian wild, and plenty of 4x4 driving. We booked the self guided tour of Fraser Island where we were grouped with travelers like us from all corners of Europe. The trip included everything from the most crystal clear freshwater lakes, just like the pictures in the brochures and miles of gorgeous, yet shark infested coastlines. The trip was also one of great enlightenment, for instance we learned that Dingoes, for all their fierce reputation, are nothing more than a pack of pussies scavenging for people food. Our group was foolish enough to the leave the grease-covered grill overnight only to be covered with dingo prints the following morning.
We were also introduced by our Dutch counterparts to their peculiar concept and custom of swaffeling, something that has been known to cause international incidents. It basically involves hitting one's semi-erect penis against other persons, objects, and world-famous landmarks. No more details necessary.
However, by far the most memorable experience on the Fraser Island tour was the outcome of me drinking too much cask wine, locally known as "goon." There were already several achievements that I had done, such as displaying my aptitude for the butterfly swim, and speaking German (according to them) without an accent, something so far I've been unable to replicate in my own language. Nevertheless, my moment of applause came when a busload of tourists specifically stopped to witness me getting sick from the combination of excessive goon and 4x4 bouncing, I didn't feel like walking too far from the road. Nothing a swim in the crystal clear Lake McKenzie can't fix.
The last destination in Australia, and the most North that we would come was Airle Beach, from where we would experience the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The sailing tour we booked involved snorkeling to see exotic tropical fish and coral, visits to beaches of sand so pure it doesn't heat, reef sharks no larger than a cat, and some sailing. We thought that while snorkeling we had found Nemo and his parents, however upon verifying with the chart we were disappointed to find that they were only found his long-lost cousins.
Our Australian Outbackish experience was complete, and it was time to return to Sydney and civilization. In two days we drove more than two thousand kilometers, a feat admired by many locals. Though my time was limited, Sydney made a lasting impression on me which I hope to enjoy one day soon in the future. A visit with my army friend Josh resulted in a day of sailing on the harbour to see a race of the fastest sailing ships in the world. At night time we explored the vast variety of culinary treats, from world-famous Sydney meat pies to churros that rival the very same in Madrid.
And so concluded our short yet very sweet tour of the land down under. I still never understood why the British sent their convicts to a land of Paradise. While there we compiled a list of our five favorite activities;
5. Learn to drive on the left and not confuse the turn signal with the wiper blade lever
4. Master the Aussie accent and language
3. Learn to pronounce local towns and cities
2. Spot live wildlife, including koalas and kangaroos
1. Try not to run them over
Traveling in Australia is very easy and so was the transition. Same language, similar culture. The biggest shock was the prices, especially after traveling through India and SEA. Everything just seems so expensive.
We landed in Sydney and were greeted by Matt and Marisol, friends we met back in Thailand. They were so nice to drive us around town and show us some of the major sites, including their favorite beach and the Olympic Complex.
After a couple of days of relaxing in Sydney we took off to Melbourne. I really loved this city. We stayed with a friend and former co-worker, Yuri. This guy knows how to party! The first night we went to the famous Queen Victoria night market and then out to a bar. The next night we started at one drinking-hole called Bimbo's before heading over to Crown Casino. I wasn't allowed into the night-club since I was eating flip-flops (the downside of having a limited wardrobe). Instead we sat in a bar where we drank two bottles of champagne. Then it was off to another disco to dance the night away. The evening ended around 5:30am with a night-cap back at Yuri's place.
We did manage to do some site-seeing too. We rode the free tourist bus around town to see the Docklands, Shrine of Remembrance and the Botanical Gardens. An interesting museum is the Australian Center for the Moving Image, a fascinating gallery dedicated to film, TV and digital media. I re-lived my childhood by playing the original Nintendo!
Melbourne is a city worth exploring. Just walk around the various neighborhoods, taking in all the sites and easy going culture.
Our stay in Cambodia was very short because there is still so much of the world to see and so little time. Less than two months to go before the end of our "adventure of a lifetime"!
Our main goal was to visit Angkor Archeological Park. We spent one day checking out the sites of Siem Reap including Pub Street and the day market. We also went to the night market where I got a pedicure done by tiny little skin-eating fish. It tickled at first and I'm not gonna lie - I didn't notice much difference. Oh well, I've always wanted to try it.
We wanted to see all the major sites of Angkor in one day so to get the most of it we joined a group tour. At $13 a person we had transportation in an air-conditioned bus, a guide and unlimited water which is much needed on a hot day. I would recommend this option as opposed to getting your own tuk-tuk. Firstly, it costs about the same. Second, drivers don't offer much information. Last, AIR-CONDITIONING!!
The temples did not disappoint! We checked out Bayon and Ta Prohm which is the famous "Lara Croft Tomb Raider" temple. Angkor Wat was saved for last where we watched the sunset over the magnificent temple.
From Cambodia it was back to Bangkok. We took the opportunity to catch up on some shopping. MBK Mall is six solid floors of shopping goodness. You can buy anything and everything here. Of course, Koh San Road offers some great deals too. As a break, we went to the Royal Palace which was far more beautiful than expected. The temple is incredibly decorated with little mirrors that twinkle and dazzle in the sunlight.
That marked the end of the "Asia" portion of our trip. It was time to change gears and move on. Australia, here we come!