The West Coast

The West Coast

Around every corner, every bend in the road, every hairpin turn and every rise along the highways, New Zealand reveals stunning, drop-dead gorgeous landscapes and scenery. Hills, mountains, valleys, farmland, rainforests, rivers, lakes, oceans and seas. It’s truly a scenic postcard paradise.

The road signs continued to amuse and delight us. Were they made by convicts like in the U.S.? Was the penal system trying to create work for them? Who thought of placing signs in these positions and how did they decide? Were they high when they decided?

Brilliant!

Brilliant!

There is one road sign I appreciate and adore. That is the one for cars to share the road with bicycles. I wish we had more of these at home.

Kiwis are really laid back and very friendly. I was in a supermarket and asked by the bagger in earnest, “What did you do today?”

After our white-water rafting adventure we continued west to the ‘left coast’ of New Zealand’s South Island. Instead of heading south as originally planned, we took the advice of our white water rafting guide and headed north. This was the New Zealand I’d dreamed about. It was early evening and the roads were empty. For the first time, I was driving on a road without seeing another car for over 1/2 hour. And it was beautiful. The west coast is wild and wind-whipped, the Tasman Sea relentlessly pounding the shore.

That night we ‘freedom’ camped in the wild for the first time. We have the ability to do that because our camper is certified as ‘self-contained’. That is, we are totally self-sufficient with drinking water, self-contained waste disposal and a commode. Night was falling and I knew we wouldn’t make our destination. I’d been wanting to ‘free’ camp since starting our campervan trip and this was a perfect opportunity. We passed a road where I noticed signs that said “beach access” and “no exit” (“dead-end” in our parlance) so it seemed like this would be a great place to check out. It was.

first free camp

driftwood

Cindy, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm for the isolation.

Cindy shares her inner-most feelings on free camping

Cindy shares her inner-most feelings on freedom camping

The next day we continued north to the ‘end of the line’. The road ended at the northern most point on the west coast, a beach called Kohaihai. It was also the start of the Heaphy Track which is a 4-5 day hiking trail that stretches over Kahurangi National Park . We hiked the trail for an hour to Scotts Beach before heading back to the car and doubling back down the road to continue south along the magnificent and hearty west coast.

Scotts Beach along the Heaphy Track

Scotts Beach along the Heaphy Track

There was a small museum in Hokitika that I really enjoyed. It had displays on Maori culture, New Zealand settler and mining history and whitebait fishing.

Followed by Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki……

Stylobedding geologic formation of Pancake Rocks

Stylobedding geologic formation

The village of Franz Josef is the launching pad for many tours and activities in the area. We had to gas up our van paying 15% more for gas than we’d seen anywhere else on the South Island. An excellent example of American-style “if you don’t like the price go drive 100km to another station” gotcha capitalism; the type I was surprised we didn’t see in many other places.

We’d heard conflicting information about whether or not you could walk up to the head of Franz Josef Glacier for free. Since it was raining hard and we decided we wanted to do a tour where we could walk on a glacier, we signed up for a walking tour of Fox Glacier for the next day. We went into a coffee shop, drank coffee and tea, went on-line for a bit and then sat in the van for a couple of hours until it looked like it was clearing a bit. Venturing out late in the afternoon, it turned out to be a great move. The rain stopped and there were few other tourists on the trail. The terminus was actually at the glacial moraine left in the last big retreat of 2009.

Franz Josef Glacier. Receding faster than my hairline.

Franz Josef Glacier is receding faster than my hairline.

During our guided walk to Fox Glacier we were on top of, and under, the glacier. It was a beautiful day.

Ice cave in/on Fox Glacier

Ice cave in/on Fox Glacier

We free camped for the second time just south of Haast, the last sizable town on the southwest coast. This campsite beat the first for its exquisite location on a windy expansive beach. The wind was so strong it was rocking the van. Like the other free campsite and many other west coast beaches, it was strewn with drift wood. It seemed perfect….until the wind died down and the sand flies (similar to black flies) came in droves followed by an equally massive numbers of mosquitos . It was like the scene from the movie, “The African Queen”. We weren’t sure how they were getting in the van but they were en masse, and we kept swatting away. The walls and ceilings of the camper were blotted with their guts and cadavers. The guy we rented it from said he has a $100,000 motorhome and no matter what he does, he can’t keep insects from getting in.

Free camping in Haast. Don't bug me, man!

Don’t bug me, man!

We traveled inland and south stopping several times for some wonderful walks.

Blue pool

Blue pool

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The South Island of New Zealand–WOW!

The South Island of New Zealand–WOW!

We arrived on an overnight flight at 4:30am losing 2 hours in the time difference. It was a tiring trip. We took a nap in the lounge of our hostel when we arrived, then went out to buy some waterproof jackets and pants, as well as some provisions.The parachute-material ‘waterproof’ jackets we’d bought in Durban were windproof but certainly not waterproof and had to be replaced. We got back to the hostel, checked into our room and zonked out for a couple of hours more. By the next day we were pretty well recovered.

Christchurch was devastated by a couple of earthquakes back in 2010 and 2011; much of it still looks like a wreck with whole city blocks laid flat. I can’t help but feel empathy for the people who lived through the tragedy, those who died in it, and those remaining there who have had to rebuild.

Domus in luxuria?

Our Cruzy Camper Company campervan got dropped off at our lodge the next day. It took a couple of hours going over the ins and outs of the van’s operations before we did a bigger food shop and got our telephone/data SIM card bought and set up. Then we finally took off for our campervan adventure.

As we headed up the east coast of the South Island, cross winds must have been gusting at about 30+ mph. Our campervan was getting blown around the road and it felt difficult keeping it under control. It was especially hairy when the road narrowed on bridges. It’s another white knuckled drive and I’m holding on to the wheel for dear life. Fortunately, it got easier after a couple of hours. This is perhaps the only time I’m ever driving way under the speed limit and consistently getting passed by 18-wheelers.

campervan

We stopped for a couple of nights in Kaikoura. The coast is flanked by The Seaward Mountain Range and its most notable feature is the peninsula that juts out eastward into the Pacific Ocean. The geologic features of the ocean floor off the coast cause the upwelling of currents which stir nutrients and plankton setting off ecological chain reactions that result in an array of diverse sea life.

Kaikoura Peninsula walk

Kaikoura Peninsula walk

New Zealand Fur Seal Mother w/pups

New Zealand Fur Seal Mother w/pups

We stopped in picturesque Picton for lunch and some sightseeing. We were on the way to our second camping stop in Nelson, a pretty town surrounded by mountains on one side and wide, white sand beaches on the other. There, we hiked to The Center of New Zealand– the surveyed geologic center, that is. It provided for a very nice hike and some great views.

Town of Nelson from The Center of New Zealand

Town of Nelson from The Center of New Zealand

Tahuna Beach in Nelson

Tahuna Beach in Nelson

The campground was quite different than the one in Kaikoura. Our van took up a small portion of our campsite but all the other campsites were compactly filled with huge tents and campers–some even sported full sized refrigerators. We were surrounded in seemingly tight quarters and feeling quite hemmed in. There were babies screaming and crying, mommies yelling at their babies, and planes flying over head coming in or out of the airport nearby. A small kid cut through our campsite and one of our neighbors used our extra space to park his truck for a while after moving his trailer. This was the outdoor version of Paul Simon’s song, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”.

The second night Cindy asked to be moved to a quieter site. It was a much better campsite as it was on the end with a decent view and steps from the beach. Just minutes after we settled in, a tractor came roaring by towing a trailer full of kids. And then it came around again…and again…and again. It finally stopped after a few times around, and once gone, the relative quiet of that campsite was pleasantly enjoyed.

A shameless 'selfie'

A shameless ‘selfie’

Little Kaiteriteri from the bike track

View from the mountain bike track

We stopped in Kaiteriteri, a tourist town with a beautiful beach. I was itching to rent a bike and we found a local eco-lodge that rented them. I did a 2 hour bike ride in a mountain bike park which was adjacent to the lodge. The trail was groomed with neatly banked hairpin turns. While I biked, Cindy swam in the pool, took a sauna, steam and a soak in the hot tub. The bike and pool-time were a nice diversion before getting on the rode to Able Tasman National Park.

A NZ oxymoron

An oxymoron

Up and down mountain passes, the drive had more hairpin curves than ants on corn syrup. The scenery was just stunning. In fact, we’d been seeing spectacular scenery from the time we left Christchurch. Kiwis (New Zealanders) we’d met along the way were extraordinarily friendly. Perhaps they were the friendliest people I’d met since the start of our journey.

At Abel Tasman National Park, we stayed in a Department of Conservation (DOC) campground at Totaranui Beach. There was more space for each camper and it was less structured than the private campsites. Campers could pick their own sites as opposed to having sites chosen for them at private campgrounds. We had a hard time deciding where to ‘pitch’ our camper when we got to Totaranui. We were hoping for a modicum of quiet and privacy. After moving our camper a couple of times and walking around the grounds, we found a site tucked into a corner of one bay that seemed sparsely occupied compared to the others . We moved our camper one last time pleased we’d scored a bit of paradise. It was about ten yards from another Cruzy Camper campervan and in the morning we were greeted by a young british couple who acknowledged us with a “Hey, you guys rented from Cruzy Campers, too”. They were headed in the same direction and we ran into them a couple of times down the road.

We were also ‘greeted’ by a DOC ranger who woke us up at 7am by knocking on our van window. He thought we hadn’t paid but there was a clear lack of communication and/or coordination by the rangers. Not only had we paid the day before we arrived, we were also checked in by another, more senior ranger upon arrival. I looked forward to having a chat with both rangers later to address the error. When I did, they (separately) both blamed each other. At least the senior guy had the temerity to apologize.

That day we hiked one of the DOC “Great Walks”. We headed south along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track past Goat Bay, Waiharakeke Bay and Awaroa Inlet to our destination, Onetahuti Bay where we arranged to be picked up by a water taxi. Timing was critical as Awaroa Inlet can only be crossed within an hour and a half of slack tide. We found out when got to the inlet it also meant taking off your shoes to make the crossing. It was cool to be able to do a one-way hike and loop back by boat along the coast. However, the DOC rangers’ verbal descriptions of how long it would take to hike differed with our experience on the trail. Also, the posted signs regarding the time it would take to complete the walk were conflicting. Despite building in what we thought was a whole extra hour to complete the 3-hour walk, we were really hustling at the end to make sure we caught the water taxi. Generally (but not always) the directions on signs were fine, but when it came to the posted walking times we found them inaccurate on frequent occasions. The estimated walking times were usually conservative but not in this case.

Totaranui Beach in Able Tasman National Park

Totaranui Beach in Abel Tasman National Park

Crossing Aowara Inlet at low tide

Crossing Aowara Inlet at low tide

Aowara Inlet

Aowara Inlet

When we got back and looked at our campground bay, we thought we had entered the wrong one. There were gobs of huge tents and a slew of people who had arrived when we were gone. The entrance to the Cruzy campervan next to us appeared to be just a few feet from a monster tent. It’s been high season in Australia and New Zealand since about mid-December and all the kids are off from school until mid-February. Happenstance was that we couldn’t plan around some bad season somewhere traveling the globe and New Zealand high-season was going to be the one. Even our guide book suggested avoiding New Zealand at this time and now I can see why.

After a morning hike in Abel Tasman we rolled inland and south passing through an amazing river valley until we stopped in a quiet, near-empty campground just outside of Murchison. I was so excited because this was the entrance to the Buller River Earthquake Rapids area where we would go white water rafting, rated on-line as being the best place in the country to do so. We arranged to go rafting the following afternoon, so in the morning we went to do a short hike of the Skyline Trail just on the other end of town. This was one of several short hikes to choose from in the area. There is hiking all over New Zealand. How awesome!

View from Skyline Trail

View from the Skyline Trail

After lunch we connected with our river guide as planned. No one else signed up for the trip so it would be just the three of us. We hit perhaps 3 or 4 stretches of big water and at one point I swam, or actually floated some of the rapids. Later, I climbed rocks on the shore to make a few jumps off a 10 meter cliff into the river.

Did he say "wave" or "paddle"? I can't hear!

Did he say “wave to the camera” or “paddle”? I can’t hear!

ww rafting splash

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STATUE CHECKING FOOT

Much credit goes to the ART therapist, Joseph Coyne, I saw in Australia for plantar fasciitis. Although my foot is not 100%, after treatment he gave me some practical exercises that have allowed me to hike to my heart’s content…and just in time for New Zealand where there are daily opportunities for great hiking.

Melbourne

Melbourne

The original plan for Australia didn’t include Melbourne but all the Aussies we met who had lived or visited Melbourne told us it’s such an awesome city, we decided we had to see it for ourselves. Melbourne is our kind of town, a walking town. We walked across the CBD (Central Business District) several times as it was only about 2 kilometers across and perhaps 3 kilometers wide. We took a free walking tour which gave us a great overview of Melbourne’s highlights. There’s a lot of cool architecture, much of which dates back to the gold rush days of the mid to late 1800’s.

The LaTrobe room of the State Library

The LaTrobe room of the State Library

It has a lot of trolleys and we took advantage of the free #35 that circumnavigated the CBD. It’s also a hip city. Art, film, music, street art and the performing arts all have happy homes here.

Street art abounds in Melbourne

Street art abounds in Melbourne

New Year’s Eve felt more like the 4th of July since we usually associate fireworks with that holiday. Maybe also because we missed it at home. It was also kind of weird to be celebrating the new year in warm weather.

outside the library

Melbourne has an unusual set up for fireworks display. Instead of having them at one central location, fireworks are set off at different places around the city, from the beaches to the river Yarra, to parks and even off the tops of high buildings.

fireworks

Cindy asked the hotel manager if we could see the fireworks from the roof. He turned us down while in the lobby, but then quite unexpectedly, took us aside and quietly invited us to the top of the roof to see them with his family. We really felt special and we got a real kick out of taking the elevator down and settling back into our room minutes after the fireworks were done.

We felt so at home in Melbourne.

We felt so at home in Melbourne.

Cairns to Sydney

Cairns to Sydney

We took 18 days to travel the more than 2600 kilometers from Cairns to Sydney. It was hard to judge exactly how much time was needed to make the trip with the objective of optimizing our journey but without too much driving. In the end, it seems it was planned and executed quite well, especially considering that peak travel season started around mid-month when school lets out for vacation. The other big consideration was how to travel in expensive places like Australia while reducing costs. Fortunately almost all hotels, motels and vacation accommodations provide refrigerators and light cooking facilities. We took full advantage by food shopping and making almost all our meals on the road.

Little known factoid: PB and J is one of the major food groups.

Little known factoid: PB and J is one of the major food groups.

Sydney was the most expensive place we’ve been to date. As an example, we had spent a very full Christmas day touring the town and were tired and hungry and more than ready to eat. Several restaurants were closed and we finally stopped into a contemporary looking pub for dinner. I had a hamburger and fries with a draught beer, Cindy had sausages, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut with water and the bill came to $50 (US). To ease some of the costs we stayed in locals’ homes we found through the airbnb website. Overall, we had very positive experiences having had excellent –and interesting– hosts and always more space than we would have in motels or regular guest houses. It’s also a good way to meet locals and get the inside scoop on what to do and see as well as what to avoid.

In Noosa, we did some hiking in the National Park, biked around town and kayaked on the Noosa River.

Tea Tree Bay, Noosa National Park

Tea Tree Bay, Noosa National Park.

The Australian Bush Turkey.

The Australian Bush Turkey.

Beautiful Byron Bay was the first town we weren’t able to find accommodations due to its popularity and the onset of high season. It turned out to be fortuitous as we stayed in Lennox Head a few minutes drive south. Byron Bay was über touristy and quite a busy place. More of a village, Lennox Head was quiet and our BNB was only a couple of hundred meters from the beach.

Byron Bay Lighthouse on the furthest point East in Australia.

Byron Bay Lighthouse on the Eastern most point of Australia.

Surf culture.

Surf culture sans the Beach Boys.

Byron Bay.

Byron Bay.

We took a ride inland to a scenic area known as the hinterland situated between the central coast and the outback. It was very hilly and the winding roads were quiet without many cars. This was one of the places I really wished I’d had a road bike; it would have been perfect. We stopped in the town of Nimbin. Formerly a quiet dairy village, it changed after the Aquarius Festival in 1973 to become a “hippie” town, now full of long grey-haired, colorfully dressed residents. It had quite a few “head” shops selling varieties of rolling papers, pipes and drug paraphernalia. It also distinguished itself as the only town I’d seen to date with police officers walking a beat.

bringabong pic

“The Entrance”, located about an hour north of Sydney, has daily pelican feedings.

pelican feedings I

Up close and personal.

Up close and personal.

We’d been warned about strict enforcement of traffic laws, especially around the holidays. We only saw a handful of patrol cars but you’re constantly being watched and monitored with radar and cameras; and an innumerable number of signs everywhere let you know you’re under surveillance. Here is an incomplete list of the signs we saw on the way to, and in Sydney:

Check speed, heavy fines, loss of license
Speed cameras used in this area
Average speed camera
Red light camera area
How fast are you going?
Road work: speed limits enforced
20 dec to Jan 1: double demerits apply (I assume it’s some kind of point system)

And two types of ‘public service’ billboards to drive home the point:

One is a picture of a police officer’s head and helmet with mirrored aviator sunglasses. Caption: We have our eyes on you!
The second pictures a doctor asking, “Late or crushed skull? Choose wisely.”

I found the multitudinous road signs and surveillance cameras very intimidating.

closed circuit sign

The “average speed” camera is a real kicker. There are actually two cameras positioned a few kilometers apart that clock a vehicle over the distance and then measures the average speed to determine if it was over the limit. If this were done in the Boston area everyone would be arrested.

Signs notifying the existence of the cameras are sometimes labeled as being for public safety. It’s creepy to know you’re being watched all the time and paranoid-inducing to be continuously reminded of it. At home, you may be on camera but don’t know it. The Boston Marathon-day bombers were quickly caught with cameras’ assistance. Perhaps that’s the best way to use them.

road safety sign

Public hazard warnings are common.

This had the most sardonic icon.

A most sardonic icon.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge, aka The Coat Hanger.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge, aka, The Coat Hanger.

We hit Sydney with a bang on December 26th, Boxing Day. It’s a national holiday and also the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Everyone comes out at various points along the harbor to see the start of the race.

Seconds before the starting gun.

Seconds before the starting gun.

Minutes after the start sailors are 'followed' by motorized spectators.

Minutes after the start competitors are ‘followed’ by motorized spectators.

Five days were bearly enough to take in Sydney. It’s a clean, vibrant international city with a massive harbor. If one were to measure the total linear distance of the shore line of the banks and islands it would surely be an astronomical figure.

The drive down the coast from Cairns featured one beautiful beach after another. Bondi Beach was no exception and it was only minutes away from downtown Sydney.

Bondi Beach.

Bondi Beach.

Next to Bondi is a gorgeous walk which takes you along the coast to more beautiful beaches. Amazing!

shore next to bondi

England’s answer to rising crime in newly industrialized 16th and 17th century society was banishment, or euphemistically, “transport”. After they lost America to the revolution, Australia became the choice location. The Hyde Park Barracks Museum was about convict life in the colony. Harsh and brutal, it also came with the possibility of starting a fresh life with economic opportunity.

hydde park barracks

The most surprising experience in Australia occurred on a public bus in Sydney when, just after crossing the harbor bridge, the driver missed the exit. There were some choice curse words from his mouth and a couple of gentle smiles from some other passengers while Cindy and I sat in bewilderment. I looked around the bus and was also surprised that there were no other reactions from other passengers. The driver simply re-routed the bus back to its normal route and it was like nothing had happened. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere. If it happened in a major metropolitan area in the U.S. I imagine there would have been at least several passengers speaking up.

Australia has a very laid-back feel to it. It consistently ranks as one of the most desirable places to live with the highest level of satisfaction. There appear to be a lot of job opportunities and the cities attract a lot of foreign workers in the hospitality and service industries. One of the reasons the cost of eating out is so high is that the minimum wage is $20 per hour. Tipping is not customary but the hourly wage is guaranteed so there is no need for strikes by fast food workers who get wages that are impossibly low to live on. This is a workingman’s country. The reputation of most work-a-day folks is that there is a “9 to 5” attitude about doing their jobs. I met a young financial analyst who spent his last semester of school in the U.S. and all the resident seniors were hard at work hustling to find jobs when they graduated; he said it served him well providing good motivation at an important time. On another tour we met two young 5th-year medical residents who only worked 38-hour work weeks–the maximum number of work hours per week set by the Australian government!

Retail stores close relatively early and even in metropolitan areas it can appear ghostly sometimes. There was no big commercially charged shopping frenzy before Christmas. Aussies’ big shopping day is the day after Christmas, December 26th, Boxing Day. (Traditionally, it was when servants and tradesman got gifts from their bosses or employers. It’s also a holiday in the UK, Canada, and some other Commonwealth –or former Commonwealth– countries).

It’s no utopia as I’ve heard voices of frustration regarding over-zealous government regulation squashing entrepreneurship and innovation. And on another occassion, a small business-owner, a painter, had been hit by the down-turn in the housing market around the time of the global financial crisis of 2008. He has since recovered but not at the level that he was earlier. He went from 25 employees to about 6 or 7 where he’s been since then. And for me, when I consider all those posted warnings and the constant surveillance it can feel like I’m in a ‘nanny’ state or that an Orwellian “big brother” is watching.

But people I talk to do seem pretty content with their lives. And although the ‘best places to live’ surveys may not be infallible, I believe there is probably some statistical significance to them.

Sometimes I find myself getting annoyed when talking to foreigners from other western nations about things like the recent government shut down, comparative healthcare systems, and the embarrassment that creationists are even slightly involved in American children’s education. But, like Dorothy said in the original land of Oz, “There’s no place like home”.