08 October 2009

finishing up new zealand and australia (plus 7 tips for traveling down under)

Okay, the super-quick catch-up post. Well, probably not super quick, but it should cover a lot of ground.

So, after Dunedin, we went to Hanmer Springs where we soaked in thermal hot springs ranging from 35-42 degrees Celsius (the hottest ones steaming with the pungent aromas of sulfur). Hanmer Springs itself was a tiny town (surrounded by snow-covered mountains, of course), with more cool NZ cars.

We took a quick hike through some misty trees...

and then took the bus (with more beautiful NZ scenery)...

to Christchurch, where we visited the lovely botanic garden, featuring more gondola-like punting down the Avon River and a beautiful fountain, in addition to all of the trees and flowers.

We spent our last night in New Zealand in Christchurch and stopped by the Art Center in the morning before rushing off to the airport.

The Art Center used to be the University of Canterbury, but it has been converted into all these tiny art galleries. Though it’s sad that it’s no longer a university, I thought the buildings and grounds were beautiful and the space conversion was very, very cool. Here is the old chemistry building, in honor of my partner:

And here are some of the art installations on the grounds:

From Christchurch (bye, New Zealand!), we flew to Sydney, hung out with one of my old Aussie friends from middle school (yay, TAS!) and headed straight to Newcastle in the morning. Newcastle was a cute town with some beautiful beaches, but I was most taken with the Blackbutt Nature Reserve we visited, as we hadn’t seen much Australian wildlife until then. When we were in the outback, we saw sign after sign telling us to watch out for kangaroos, but we didn’t see even one. Go figure. And the Blackbutt Reserve was free, which was pretty awesome.

We saw beautiful birds, mostly wandering out in the open, but my favorites were in a (large) cage:

My partner liked the black swan best:

These peacocks were wandering around the picnic area, and I thought this synchronized pecking was funny:

I've seen quite a few peacocks in my day, as they're native to where my mom lives in California, but the male peacock we saw at Blackbutt was the most magnificent I've ever seen:

The poor wombat was pacing back and forth. I think the peacock eyeing him made him nervous.

We saw red kangaroos and grey kangaroos...

and even little wallaroos (between a large (6') kangaroo and a little (2') wallaby, at about 3' tall):

My favorite, though, was the koala:

I'm not a stuffed animal person or one of those cooing 'how cute' types usually, but man, these koalas are irresistable. No teddy bear could ever match how cute they are, and they are the perfect size for snuggling.

They just sleep and look peaceful while curled into a little ball, or they stuff eucalyptus leaves in their face when they're awake.

We got to see a koala with its baby, which was pretty much the cutest thing ever. They are about the size of a hand:

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise in Newcastle the next morning...

and discovered that the Aussies are a lot smarter when it comes to train seat design, as these seat backs could be swiveled to face either direction, allowing passengers to face forward no matter which way the train is going. Nice. I’d love to see those everywhere.

Continuing on, we took the Intercity train back to Sydney and set off for Bondi (pronounced Bon-dye, not Bon-dee, oops) Beach for our last day in Australia.

The beaches reminded me of perfect California beaches, and we had a great view from our hostel roof:

Bondi had some neat graffiti art and some great mosaic walls:

We enjoyed a nice sunset on our last night:

When the sun went down, surfers started coming in:

We got to meet up with a couple from our diving course in the Great Barrier Reef who were living in Bondi, and we really enjoyed hanging out at this little bookstore café, Gertrude & Alice:

We hung out at a swanky German bar after that, rounding out a perfect last day in Australia, and then said goodnight to Bondi (and goodbye to Australia) before catching an early flight back to L.A.

So, here are seven things we learned from spending a month in Australia and New Zealand:

1. Travel in Australia is best by plane, as it really is a huge continent, and there are several good discount airline options: Virgin (V Australia, Virgin Blue, Pacific Blue, etc.), Jetstar and Tiger.

2. Just remember to bring food/water on your flights, as the discount airlines won't give you a thing (you can bring empty water bottles and fill up after going through security). The discount airlines also have really, really strict baggage requirements (7 kilos for carry-on bags, and yes, they check) and charge for checked bags (less if you pay ahead of time than at the airport).

3. If you're flying from the States, Qantas' Aussie AirPass is worthwhile (and Qantas is a great airline with terrific service-- and the only way (so far) to fly between Alice Springs/Uluru and Cairns).

4. Campervans are cool to rent for the experience, but they will not necessarily be a cheaper option, once you pay for your insurance, petrol, etc. For visiting Uluru, though, it's nice as it gives you freedom and flexibility. You can also look into relocation specials that can be either free or really cheap if you're going the against typical tourist traffic-- i.e., down the Gold Coast rather than up.

5. In New Zealand, you can travel really well via bus or train. I'd recommend the TranzAlpine for a scenic train ride, but for everything else, the buses will be cheaper and give you many more options-- and the hop-on-hop-off tickets are great. We went with Intercity, which is a big coach bus that was comfortable, punctual and reasonably priced, and we heard that Atomic/Naked (smaller buses) is a bit cheaper and also decent. The other two, Kiwi Experience and Magic Bus, are more expensive and more like party buses for 20-year-olds (which wasn't what we were going for this time around). 

6. Our favorite place in Australia was Melbourne, and we would definitely spend more time there next time. For guaranteed (free) wildlife, I'd check out the Blackbutt Nature Reserve.

7. We loved everything about New Zealand, but I'd say Te Anau was my favorite place, especially for the glow worms, and tramping on Fox Glacier was one of the coolest things I've ever done.

Phew! I thought I'd be able to do it all in one mega-catch-up post, but I think I'll have to break it up into two parts.

So, next up: the U.S., Mexico and a day in the Netherlands.

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