There and Back Again: Our journey to New Zealand’s North Island

Our visit to New Zealand’s North Island was a special one. This was our first trip outside of Australia since we arrived 5 months ago!  Our first stop: Auckland – the largest city in New Zealand, and more than 5 times the size of the capital, Wellington.

IMG_0679

Skyline in Auckland

The city is currently undergoing a transformation and plenty of major infrastructure projects are on their way. There’s also plenty of great restaurants, cafes, bars and new trendy shops opening at every corner of the CBD!

I guess tourism in New Zealand has boomed in the last decade due to the popularity of Lord of the Rings. Even the airport welcomes you in a true LOTR fashion…

image1image4

image2

After spending a day in Auckland, we drove 230 km south to Rotorua, a town famous for its geothermal activity, geysers, mud pools and… it’s rotten egg smell! It is, after all, affectionately nicknamed Sulphur City because of its unrelenting hydrogen sulphide emissions. After a short walk in the Whakarnewarewa Forest (or Redwoods Forest for Māori illiterates), we visited a spectacular geyser and bubbling mud pools at Te Puia. We then relaxed in the hot springs of the Polynesian Spa, a famous hot mineral water bathing spa on the edge of Lake Rotorua. And, in case you’re wondering, our bathing suits still smell like rotten eggs…

IMG_0611

Geyser at Te Puia

IMG_0612

Bubbling mud baths in Te Puia

The landscape in the North Island is beautiful: rolling green hills dotted with sheep, dense forests, and crystal-blue water.  It’s hard not to stop and take pictures!

We kept driving down south and stopped at Huka Falls, a set of clear blue waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains into Lake Taupo. We even saw someone crazy enough to kayak down the falls and do an Inuk roll!

IMG_0616

Huka Falls

IMG_0618

Huka Falls

The next day we began our journey through Mordor, following the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (voted “the best day hike in the world”). Fully equipped with our winter gear (helmet, crampons, ice picks, and gaiters), we set off to follow Frodo’s footsteps. We first made our way up the Devil’s Staircase, a gruelling, never-ending uphill climb. Seriously, we climbed the equivalent of 249 storeys that day (thanks iPhone Health App)! Some of our fellow hikers gave up halfway up the climb and had to turn around. Unfortunately for them, the best view of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) was at the top of the staircase!

IMG_0634

Chris and I made it to the top of the staircase – our legs felt like jelly! View of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom)

LOTR fun fact 1: The movie crew was not allowed to film the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe because the Māori hold it to be sacred, so LOTR shots of Mount Doom are of Mount Ngauruhoe base, with a CGI’d summit!

We eventually made it to Red Crater, the summit of our hike.  It was snowing and icy at the top, but luckily there was hot air vent on the mountain crest to warm ourselves up and have lunch (this is, after all,  a volcanically-active area!).  Unfortunately, after lunch, our group was forced to turn around due to the harsh and icy winter conditions. So much for bringing all that winter gear! We were pretty disappointed since we were really looking forward to seeing the Blue and Emerald Lakes (pictured below).

Tongariro-Alpine-Crossing-emerald-Lakes-aerial-view-2.CE9_8A

Blue Lake and Emerald Lake at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Photo Credit: Great Lake Taupo

We left Mordor feeling a little unsettled (I’m sure Frodo would have kept going!) so we decided to do an another hike in a magical Elvish-like forest nearby, along the Whakapapa village walking track.

IMG_0475

Keeping the fantasy alive, we decided to visit Hobbiton. What a cute little place, literally! Peter Jackson spotted the Alexander Farm during an aerial search before shooting The Fellowship of the Ring and thought it was the perfect site for Hobbiton. It definitely was!

IMG_0645

Chris and I visiting our dream house

IMG_0506

IMG_0648

IMG_0551 (1)

LOTR fun fact 2: The oak tree above Bilbo’s house is a fake!  It is made up of over 200,000 hand-painted leaves from Taiwan. A few days before shooting began, the colour of the leaves had faded, so Peter Jackson hired someone to repaint every. single. leaf.  Oh, did I mention that it only had about 2 seconds of screen time in The Hobbit? Well…it did.

Bag end

Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole Bag End beneath the fake oak tree

We then headed to the Waitomo Caves, famous for their illuminating glowworms. The experience is surreal: you walk down a dark cave, and hop on a small boat in total darkness. The guide manually steers the boat to an area deep within the cave, and then you look up…and there are millions of little blue-ish fairy lights over your head!  It was magical – like staring up at a sky full of stars!

Non-LOTR Fun Fact 1: The glowworms dangle threads of mucus and shine brightly in the darkness of the caves to lure and trap insects. When insects get stuck, the glowworms reel up the line so they can eat them. Delicious!

2

Photo Credit: Waitomo

Our last stop on the North Island was at Mount Maunganui where we, in true kiwi fashion, walked up to the summit alongside some wild sheep. We’ve seen plenty of sheep during our trip but this was the first time we got to see them up close.

You gotta love them moutons!

MoutonsIMG_0556

Advertisements

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Western Australia

When Chris and I first started planning our move to Australia, we planned to check off quite a few items on our bucket list:

  • Diving in the Great Barrier Reef ✓ (check!)
  • Seeing the sunrise/sunset at Uluru ✓ (check!/check!)
  • Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge ✓ (check!)
  • Learning to surf on the Sunshine Coast ✓ (check…but still a work in progress!)

But one of the activities that we really wanted to check off our list was swimming with whale sharks at the Ningaloo Reef!

So in June, at the beginning of whale shark season in Western Australia (or WA), we headed to Perth to begin our journey to see the biggest fish in the world! And this time, Chris and I would have company. Mel (Chris’ sister) and Lisa (a friend from McGill) would be joining us on our road trippin’ adventure. Check out the awesome video!

We flew across the country to Perth, where we caught up with our friends Kerry and Jean-Gab and met their adorable boys: Louka and Remi. They welcomed us with a BBQ feast… and yes, we finally had some shrimp on the barbie!

Perth is the capital of WA and is a large hub for big name mining companies. The skyline is lit up with logos such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and South32.

skyline-of-perth-at-night-in-australia

Perth skyline

But perhaps Perth’s largest claim to fame is how far it is from, well, everything. If you thought Australia was far from everything, wait until you’ve been to Perth! After all, it is considered to be one of the world’s most isolated cities. The nearest big city with a population of over 1M is Adelaide, which is 2,700 km away or a 28-hr drive!

Although the city may be a little boring (Australians like to hate on Perth), there are a few awesome attractions nearby. One of which is Rottnest Island, home to the cutest animal in the world: the quokka! Mel, Chris and I rented bikes and took a 45-minute ferry to Rottnest, in search of the friendly animal.

IMG_8444

Biking on Rottnest Island searching for quokkas! (Photo Credit: MOT)

We were not disappointed. Less than an hour after being on the island, we spotted our first little marsupial, who brazenly approached us on our bikes, curious as to who we were and what we were doing.

Since there are no predators on the island, these miniature creatures are not afraid of anything, and they were definitely not afraid of us! They are extremely curious and will hop up to you to sniff you out. Quokka selfies are a must!

Apart from these adorable little guys, Rottnest Island is quite stunning, with beautiful beaches (great for snorkelling!), rocky cliffs and pods of New Zealand fur seals!

IMG_8478

New Zealand fur seals waving hello to us on Rottnest Island (Photo Credit: MOT)

IMG_8413

Hanging out on the beach at Rottnest Island (Photo Credit: a big rock)

IMG_8457

Rottnest Island (Photo Credit: MOT)

The next morning, we packed our bags and started our 1250-km drive North to Exmouth, the starting point for our whale shark adventure!

Our first stop was Kalbarri, where we were visited the Pink Lake at Hutt’s Lagoon.  The Pink Lake is a salt lake containing pink algae, used as a food-colouring agent in cosmetics and supplements.

IMG_0523We also stopped by the Kalbarri National Park where we hiked a small canyon and scared off a group of swans.  FYI – Everything is reversed in Australia: swans are actually black!

IMG_8555

Kalbarri (Photo Credit: MOT)

IMG_8567

Kalbarri (Photo credit: MOT)

After more than 13 hours of driving, 5 pit stops and a dozen car games, we finally arrived in Exmouth, ready to explore the Ningaloo Reef!

IMG_8885

Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Site (Photo credit: MOT)

IMG_8638

Photo Credit: Another big rock

The Ningaloo Reef stretches over 260 km along the Ningaloo Coast, which was declared as a World Heritage site in 2011. It is Australia’s second largest reef, after… you guessed it, the Great Barrier Reef!

The great thing about the “Ning” is that you don’t need to jump into boat to explore it. You can simply grab your snorkel gear and head to the beach! Which is exactly what we did. We started by snorkelling in Turquoise Bay at the Cape Range National Park, a beautiful turquoise-coloured beach (duh!).

IMG_8823

Turquoise Bay (Photo credit: MOT)

It was a cool and windy 20C when we decided to snorkel (it is winter in Australia after all), but the water was a warm 25c. However, getting out of the water was quite painful.

IMG_0560

Snorkelling in Turquoise Bay

We would later return to Turquoise Bay to do a “jumping” photo shoot for the blog!

IMG_8819

IMG_8810

IMG_8800

The next day was our big day with the whale sharks! We got picked up in the morning and started our day with a snorkel in the lagoon where we spotted some awesome marine life: a shovelnose ray, a stingray, an eagle ray, some dolphins, a few reef sharks, a leopard shark, and even a hammerhead shark (which we luckily spotted from the boat)!

20160606-20160606-142504_MG_9206

Snorkelling in the lagoon at the Ningaloo Reef

20160606-20160606-142132_MG_9198

Chris chilling with a white tip reef shark

20160606-20160606-093455_MG_9042

Leopard shark

20160606-20160606-095756_MG_9083

Shovelnove ray

20160606-20160606-095928_MG_9084

Stingray

20160606-20160606-052604_MG_9077

Hammerhead shark!

In the early afternoon, a spotter plane was sent out to try to spot the whale sharks.  It took some time but just before noon, our boat got the call that a whale shark had been spotted not far from where we were! We all eagerly zipped our wetsuits back on and waited…

When our guide gave us the signal, we jumped in the water and waited for the majestic creature to swim toward us. Slowly, in the distance, we could all see a dark shape getting larger and larger: it was approaching! An 8-m long whale shark slowly swam next to us with it’s mouth wide open.

20160606-20160606-120958_MG_9089

Stunned and amazed, we all thought: “Oooooh! Aaaaaaah! So big! So spotty!” (as our tour guides said we would) until we quickly realized that we better start swimming to keep up!

20160606-20160606-123635_MG_9128

Might as well take a selfie with one. It definitely was not as easy as taking one with a cute little quokka!

IMG_0534

Whale shark selfie!

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world measuring up to 14 meters long, and can weigh up to 30 tonnes (that’s about 10 elephants)! They are considered sharks (not whales) – you can tell because (a) they have gills, and no blow hole (they don’t need to come up for air); and (b) their tail flaps side to side, and not up and down. They are merely called whales because of their immense size.

20160606-20160606-124326_MG_9146

Whale sharks are filter-feeders and eat tiny ocean organisms and plankton. They are extremely docile and harmless to humans, just be sure to stay clear of their humongous tails! Researchers and marine biologist know very little about these gentle giants, what they do know is that they spend most of their lives at incredible depths and only come up to the surface to warm up. This gives us the opportunity to swim with them! But mating, pregnancy, lifespan, and social behaviours, etc. still remain a mystery.

20160606-20160606-130547_MG_9165

High on adrenaline, we wanted more!  The next day, we woke up at 6am and drove 1.5 hours south to Coral Bay, to swim with manta rays!

Similar to the whale shark experience, our boat had a dedicated spotter plane to search for manta rays! It took a few hours, but we finally spotted one of the more popular female manta rays in the area, and she had a brought a male friend along as well!  We jumped in the water and waited for the manta rays to swim by (actually, manta rays look more like they are flying underwater). It was like swimming on top of an underwater magic carpet. These creatures were so elegant and laid back, grazing the bottom of the ocean and communicating with one another when they needed to change direction. The larger manta ray had a wingspan of over 4m! So cool!

IMG_0576

Manta rays in Coral Bay

After our manta ray experience, we continued moving south and stopped at Monkey Mia in Shark Bay, where wild dolphins swim to shore almost every morning for a feeding. Obviously this Australian Pelican didn’t want to miss out!

IMG_0586

Australian Pelican and dolphins in Monkey Mia

Before heading back to Perth, we stopped in Cervantes to see the Pinnacles, a series of limestone formations, which came from seashells in an earlier era that was rich in marine life. How the Pinnacles were formed is still a subject of debate.

PInnacles

The Pinnacles in Cervantes

We had one last stop in Lancelin for Mel and Lisa to try sand boarding!

IMG_9036 (1)

IMG_9027

IMG_9051

We then made our way back to Perth to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

Our trip to Western Australia was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience! We checked off another major item on our bucket list: swimming with whale sharks and, as a bonus, swam with manta rays too!

IMG_8979

A special thanks to 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive for taking all the amazing photos during our Whale Shark Experience!

Tasmania: The Land under Down Under

After a short hour and a half plane ride down south, we landed in Australia’s second oldest capital of Hobart in Tasmania (affectionately known as Tassie). Hobart is a charming, skyscraper-less city and seems quite underdeveloped compared to the rest of Australia. It almost feels like we went back in time to the 1970s, which was a strange, yet nice break from the busy Melbourne city life!

We woke up in the early morning and headed straight to the Salamanca Market, near the Hobart wharf. Open only on Saturdays, the market stalls sell local fresh and gourmet produce, arts, crafts and handiwork from all over Tasmania like local honey, merino wool scarves, eucalyptus cutting boards and of course, the iconic UGGs!

DSC03379

Salamanca Market with Mount Wellington as a backdrop

After sampling some local food at the market (seafood pastie and Bruny Island cheese!), we drove up to the top of Mount Wellington!  The top of the mountain has great views of the city, wharf, and nearby islands.

DSC03394

View from the top of Mount Wellington

After taking a few photos at the summit, we drove to the MONA Gallery (Museum of Old and New Art), a museum that was opened in 2011 by Tasmanian millionaire, David Walsh, who made his fortune developing gambling systems used to bet on horse racing and other sports.  FYI – gambling is a serious problem in Australia, with “pokies” (slot machines) at almost every other bar.  Not-so-fun fact: apparently Australia has 20% of the world’s gaming machines!

Anyways, David is quite the eccentric art collector and his museum does not disappoint!  It’s even been dubbed the “world’s most far out museum”.  Where else can you see a rain-painting machine that drips water droplets in the shape of words?  Or a”great wall of vaginas”?  But without a doubt, the weirdest installation at the museum is the Cloaca: a set of glass vessels, pipes and tubes meant to replicate the human digestive system.  It is simplistically, yet accurately dubbed the “poo machine.”  There is a daily feeding in the morning (club sandwich, anyone?), and, like clockwork, every day at 2pm, people gather around and wait… for the machine… to poop.  Seriously.

7394067696_9053019e8e_b

Cloaca (aka the Poo Machine) at the MONA Gallery

But despite the oddities (or perhaps because of them), the museum is truly striking, with an amazing collection of ancient art presented alongside contemporary installations.

The next morning we drove through the eerie and misty fog at dawn to make our way to Cradle Mountain – one of the highest peaks in Tassie! We arrived at The National Park and boldly decided to hike to the summit.

DSC03433

Crater Lake, Cradle Mountain

The great thing about Cradle Mountain is that you don’t actually see the mountain until you’re about to climb it.  Chris and I walked through forests and up and down hills for close to 2 hours before we saw it: the jagged rock formation in the middle of flat grasslands.

DSC03450

Cradle Mountain – yep, we’re climbing it!

At this point – we couldn’t turn back, so up we went!  We hiked up nearly vertical inclines, climbing up boulders on our hands and knees (and on our butts on the way down!).

The hike was one of the most challenging hikes that we’ve done to date, but the view (and the sense of accomplishment) made it well worth it!  And luckily there wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day and we had a stunning unobstructed 360-degree view!

DSC03463

Summit at Cradle Mountain

DSC03470

View of Cradle Mountain from Dove Lake (post hike – we made it!)

After a 5-hour hike, we weren’t done yet!  Chris insisted we spend some time in Latrobe, the self-proclaimed platypus capital of the world!  He had booked a tour with a local park ranger, aka “the platypus whisperer”, who would lead us to the elusive brown creature.  Apparently the whisperer has been spotting platypuses  (or is it platypi?) for tourists for over 30 years, and even led the Planet Earth crew (including David Attenborough) through the lakes and rivers of Latrobe to find them.

So the park ranger took us the Warrawee Forest Reserve and after waiting patiently for about half an hour, we finally spotted one!

The platypus is a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed animal that uses electro-receptors in its bill to locate its prey at the bottom of the lake. Although they are small and cute mammals, the males have spurs under their hind legs that can inject venom in enemies if they feel threatened, so don’t pick them up!

DSC03473

Chris can’t contain his excitement at meeting the platypus whisperer in Latrobe

The next morning we continued our journey down the Tassie coast by taking the Great Eastern Drive stopping by Bay of Fires, one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever visited!

DSC03482

Bay of Fires

DSC03483

Bay of Fires

DSC03492

Bay of Fires

We then continued our drive down the east coast and stopped at Wineglass Bay in the Freycinet National Park, one of Tassie’s most visited destinations.

DSC03512

Hiking up Mount Amos with a view of Coles Bay

Wineglass Bay is another gorgeous place but has a very sombre history. In the 1800’s, whalers set up camps in the bay and took their boats out to the ocean to hunt whales. They would drag the carcasses back to shore to butcher the whales, boil down the blubber and extract oil. The blood made the Bay look like a red glass of wine, and the name “Wineglass Bay” stuck.

Fortunately, this type of whaling practice no longer exists and Wineglass Bay is now a crystal clear blue color and can be best viewed from the top of Mount Amos. The hike up was also a difficult one but was extremely rewarding since you only get to see the bay once you’ve reached the summit!

DSC03502

View of Wineglass Bay from the summit of Mount Amos

We finished our hike and made our way back to Hobart to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

We did a lot in the 3 days we spent in Tassie: hiked great mountains, drove through amazing landscape, ate delicious foods, and enjoyed a part of our new home country that not many tourists get to visit. Tasmania was definitely one of the nicest places we’ve seen since moving down under, but then again, we haven’t been to New Zealand yet…

Welcome to Melbourne!

Chris and I finally made it Melbourne after an amazing month-long adventure traveling around Australia! We’ve been to lots of places (see map below) and there is even more to see.  We’re looking forward to further exploring Australia: Tasmania, Western Australia, Darwin… and traveling to (not so far off) places like New Zealand, Indonesia and Fiji.

Map2 (1)

We’ve now settled into our new apartment in Fitzroy (the hipster capital of the world!), and after more than 2 months living here, we’ve discovered 6 cool facts about our new city:

  1. The food is some of the best in the world
    The restaurant and food scene is unlike anything Chris and I have ever experienced.  Every single restaurant is amazing (we’ve had some of the best Asian and Italian food within the last 2 months, in Melbourne) and Melburnians take “going out to eat” very seriously (see third point below).
    Just to give you an idea: on our street (Rose St) are what the NY Times calls  “the world’s best croissants“(Lune Croissanterie); and just north of where we live, is “best pizza in the world” (400 Gradi).  We tried both: incredible!
  2. The coffee is amazing
    Technically, this could go in the previous category, but given its importance in Melbourne and to Melburnians, it deserves a paragraph of its own.  The coffee is delicious: everyone has their “go-to”coffee shops and refuses to get coffee anywhere else (I go to Industry Beans and Little Bean Blue and nowhere else, jk). I mean, this is the place that gave us flat whites; where Starbucks came to die, and where there is no such thing as “regular drip coffee”.  I once went to a coffee shop that asked me what kind of coffee I wanted: filter coffee, cold drip, french press, espresso, Chemex… Huh?

    Coffee

    Cappuchino at Little Blue Bean

  3. Melbourne loves to queue
    Most top restaurants in Melbourne do not believe in making reservations: if you want to eat here, you gotta wait.  So Chris and I have waited for over 2 hours to eat at popular restaurants in the city, and, we even waited 2 hours for $11 croissants at Lune.

    Lune queue

    2 hour queue at Lune…they sell out everyday before noon!

  4. It’s the sporting capital of Australia
    The number of sports that are played, hosted or actively followed here is impressive.  Melbourne hosts the F1 Grand Prix, the Australian Open, and the Melbourne Cup (horse races).  Chris and I went to the F1 in Melbourne this year, and met up with our Montreal friends Geri and Andrey who were visiting from Canberra!

    But the biggest sport that Melbournians follow is Australian Football, better known as AFL, Aussie Rules or Footy. For those who don’t know what Footy is, here’s a short 5-min video explaining the game.

    So obviously we needed to watch Australia’s most hard-hitting, testosterone-raging sport! We saw Collingwood and Melbourne play at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a stadium that hosts the AFL Grand Final for over 100,000 fans! Melburnians love footy, so much so that they made the AFL Grand Final a public holiday, no jokes.

    IMG_0172

  5. The graffiti is really cool
    There is a strong “street art” culture here: buildings and laneways are covered in cool, artsy graffiti, and businesses will often commission street artists to tag their buildings: it’s the cool thing to do.  Hosier Lane (a popular street in the CBD), is entirely covered in graffiti and changes daily as graffiti artists paint over eachother’s artwork.

  6. It’s better than Sydney
    When we tell people we moved to Melbourne, they ALWAYS ask: “Really?  Why not Sydney?” Our answer is: “We visited both cities, but fell in love with Melbourne.  It’s charming, hip, fun and downright cool.”  The way we see it is: Sydney is like a beautiful one-night stand… but Melbourne is the one you want to build a relationship with.

One of the first things Chris did after we settled in was join a hockey team…Canadian priorities, eh?!  His mate Brent told him about his Premier A hockey league: Chris went to a tryout and (surprise, surprise) got drafted to Brent’s team: the Braves!

Chris and I are also taking advantage of the many, many public holidays and long week-ends in Australia!

Our first weekend getaway was a day-trip to the Mornington Peninsula with our friend Lisa from McGill. We walked to the tip of the Peninsula to see Port Napean from Portsea. We continued our trip to Cape Schanck to see some more beautiful views and then ended our trip to the hot springs to relax!

Our next weekend getaway was to The Grampians. We stopped in Ballarat, a  major settlement town during the Victorian gold rush in the 1850s. They replicated what a gold rush town would look like back then, it felt a little like we were in a western movie!

The next day, we hiked the long way (5 hrs) up to the Pinnacle of the Grampians.  Despite the mediocre weather we still saw some cool rock formations and beautiful views!

We also spent some weekends visiting the beaches at Brighton and Halfmoon Bay, and hiking the Dandenongs, all less than an hour away from Melbourne!

For our next weekend trip, we’ll be flying down south to one of the most striking places Chris and I have ever visited… Tasmania!

Zippin’ through the Great Ocean Road

*Reader beware…dad joke alert!

After ferrying away from Kangaroo Island and getting back onto mainland Australia, Chris and I drove 4 hours south east toward the great state of Victoria (aka the Cabbage Patch)!  We spent the night in Mundulla, a small town on the South Australia-Victoria border. Away from the light pollution, we spent the night outside staring at the stars and the Milky Way, sipping on our warm beers (Chris even saw a shooting star!).

DSC03134

Stars in Mundulla

The next morning we continued our road trip in Victoria and stopped in Port Fairy, near the Western end of the Great Ocean Road. Port Fairy is a picturesque, little seaside town, established in the early 19th century by whalers and seal hunters, who named the bay after their ship, The Fairy.  Port Fairy also has a large endemic mutton bird population on nearby Griffiths Island.  We walked on the island, stopped by the lighthouse and witnessed the birds coming home to nest.

The next day, we were off to start our journey on the Great Ocean Road!

DSC03174

Port Fairy Lighthouse

We only had 2 days to drive the Great Ocean Road since we had a deadline to pick up the keys to our new apartment in Melbourne!

The Great Ocean Road is an Australian National Heritage site which stretches over 243 km along the south Victorian coastline. It was built by WWI veterans between 1919 and 1932, and was dedicated to their fellow soldiers killed during the war. Who knew that one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions is also the world’s largest war memorial?

map-great-ocean-road

We decided to skip Warrnambool and make our first stop at London Bridge, a beautiful limestone rock formation, similar to the Rocher Percé in Gaspé, Québec. Originally, the rock connected to the mainland – this was the main section of the bridge; but it collapsed over 25 years ago, leaving a few tourists trapped on the newly-formed island until helicopters rescued them a few hours later. *Luckily they weren’t on London Bridge while it was falling down!

DSC03199

*London Bridge has fallen down!

We then walked to The Razorback and stopped at Loch Ard Gorge to see beautiful mixed scenery of green vegetation, sandy cliffs, dark caves, and clear blue water.  There are signs around the gorge warning visitors not to stay too close to the cliffs, as the walls are under erosion and may collapse at any moment.  In fact, the shoreline cliffs retreat about 1 cm every year!  Fortunately, we left the gorge unscathed.

We then continued to the most popular site on the Great Ocean Road: the Twelve Apostles. We went to the viewpoint then made our way down to the beach to eat our packed lunch. Not a bad spot for a picnic!

We continued our drive on the Great Ocean Road and stopped in Apollo Bay to snap a few photos and to take a much needed bathroom break!

DSC03272

Apollo Bay

Between Apollo Bay and Lorne (where we would be spending the night), the scenery changed drastically as we continued our drive. The forest filled with blackened trees due to the recent forest fires during the Christmas holidays which temporarily closed off a section of the Great Ocean Road a few weeks back.

After a night’s rest in Lorne, we hiked Erskine Falls and Sheoak Falls. Unfortunately, we were visiting the falls in the dry season and there wasn’t any water (so not so interesting)!

We made a quick stop in Torquay for some fish and chips, then relaxed on the beach watching the kite surfers before undertaking the final leg of our trip: to Melbourne. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful beach is less than an hour and a half away from where we’ll be living!

DSC03298

Watching kite surfersat the beach in Torquay

So we finally made it to Melbourne after an amazing month long vacation touring Australia!

Chris and I officially moved in to our apartment in Fitzroy in early March, and a few weeks later we received our 457 work visas. I’m now back at work and Chris is looking for job, but he’s already found a hockey team (obviously)!

We’re both excited to start living Down Under and continue to travel. We rented a 2-bedroom apartment so friends and family are always welcome: first come, first served!

Stay tuned… more adventures and more blog posts to come!

Festivals in Adelaide and hoppin’ around on Kangaroo Island

At midday, we boarded the historical Ghan train from Alice Springs, and settled in to our seats: the journey to Adelaide was going to take close to 24 hours!

Without any Wi-Fi or movies to keep us entertained, this was going to be a long ride. And to top it off, the train ride was so shaky that reading was almost impossible. The view was not particularly exciting either: red flat lands as far as the eye could see. So what could we do? Play cards, obviously! Over the next few hours, we ended up playing almost every card game we knew: briscola and scopa (Italian cards), poker, rummy, 500… FYI, I schooled Chris.

At around 10PM, the train came to a stop and we alighted in the middle of the Outback. The train crew had prepared some fires along the train tracks for us to warm ourselves, and warned us not to stray past the fire’s light, as we may get bitten by brown snakes, or taken by dingoes or other wild animals. Needless to say, we stayed pretty close to the train.

After a shaky night, we arrived in Adelaide at midday and decided to hit the town. We grabbed lunch at the Adelaide Central Market, and walked on Rundle Mall (pedestrian area with street performers), toured the Botanical gardens (with lots of black swans!), UniSA (University of South Australia) and visited beautiful Glenelg Beach. Chris and I were happy to see some ocean after spending 4 days in the dry Red Centre. Sparkling shiraz is very popular in South Australia and Victoria, so we bought a bottle to watch the sunset on the beach with an American couple we met on the train.

Adelaide is also known as the festival town and we (luckily) timed our visit with the beginning of the Fringe Comedy Festival, so we had to go see a show! At night, walking through the city, the entire city was buzzing: people everywhere, outdoor shows and beautiful illuminations projected on buildings. Not bad Adelaide…we’ll be back.

The next day we visited South Australia’s wine country, the Barossa Valley (Penfolds is its most famous export), and then headed south to catch a 45-minute ferry to Kangaroo Island, which is apparently one of the most expensive short ferry rides in the world ($200 round trip, each!). They do this to limit the amount of tourists who visit the island…but that didn’t stop us!

Kangaroo Island is Australia’s 3rd largest island (after Tasmania in the south and Melville Island in the north). It is a beautiful island with diverse wildlife, natural parks, and impressive scenery. We started by visiting the Australian sea lions at Seal Bay Conversation Park. There were dozens of sea lions simply lazing on the beach after having spent a 2-3 days out to sea hunting for food. They were sleeping, or rolling around in the sand, with seal pups playing around in the waves and on the shore.

We then headed off to visit the beautiful Vivonne Bay (which reminded us of the water in Barbados) and then tried sand boarding in Little Sahara. Sand boarding was really hard, but Chris got the hang of it right away! We then visited the caves at Kelly Hill and headed back to the hotel before dark.

One thing to note about Kangaroo Island is that there are a lot of wild kangaroos and wallabies (surprise, surprise), and they are a menace on the road, especially at night. Unfortunately every morning there were dozens of dead animals on the road, victims of the night before. We had our fair share of near misses while driving during our 2-day visit on the island!

On our last day, we went to Flinders Chase National Park where we saw koalas in the wild! We then went to visit Cape du Couedic, the park’s southwestern point to see fur seals as well as visit the Remarkable Rocks granite formations (yep, that’s what they were called).

That was it for Kangaroo Island… now back onto Australia’s most expensive ferry and off to The Great Ocean Road towards our new hometown of Melbourne!

The Outback: No shade, no shame!

We woke up at 3:30 am to take the bus to the Cairns airport so we could catch our early morning flight to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock)!  This was the part of the trip that I was most excited about.  It conjured up ideas of adventure, Crocodile Dundee, intense heat and of course, poisonous snakes! Did you know the Outback is home to 7 of the 10 most poisonous snakes in the world? Neither did we at the time.

In addition to being home to deadly animals, the Red Center (as it is known) has one of the most annoying creatures in the world: flies. How bad can it be, right?  Chris had traveled to Africa before, and I had spent some time in the rainforests of Costa Rica, so we thought we could handle it.  We couldn’t.  As soon as we landed, we headed straight to the local store to purchase our own the mosquito face nets. They’re all the rage in the Outback: all the tourists wear them and those that don’t, wish they did. By far, this was the best $6.35 we spent on our trip. And then there’s the heat.  Holy cow was it hot there. The temperature never fell below 30°C, and by 9am, it was up to 38°C.  Chris hated it all: the flies, the heat and the hike, and kept regretting our decision to ever leave Port Douglas.

Chris flies

But honestly, the Outback is a pretty amazing place. The scenery is unlike anything we had seen before: flat lands with orange sand the colour of butter chicken, distant canyons, small mountains that seemed to have popped out of the ground by themselves, and the remoteness of it all: there is nothing or no one for a hundred kilometer at a time.

On our first evening in the Outback, we visited Uluru to watch the sunset, which set right behind us, gorgeously illuminating the rock as it went from brown to red, to orange and then black.  We were also lucky to be there during the full moon, which we saw rising beside Uluru.

The following morning, we returned to Uluru to watch the sun rise bright and early before driving 300 km to the Watarrka National Park (King’s Canyon).

Some interesting things we noticed during our drive in the Outback:

The vastness, and emptiness
The Outback is huge, but hardly anyone lives there. There are no houses or shops or huts, it’s just you, the road and the sand. Gas stations are 100 km+ apart, and the attendants seem to suffer from cabin fever. Gas prices are also pretty insane at 1.96$ per liter.

The isolation
Approximately 200m outside of the Yulara resort in Uluru, we lost internet and phone connection. There is no way to connect to the outside world, no directions (or GoogleMaps), no radio or music. However, once we got to King’s Canyon, we did pick up one radio station that played the same soft rock elevator music song… on repeat.

Camels!
We saw a herd of camels (8-12) traveling in single file across the horizon, during our drive. Camels were originally brought from Afghanistan to Australia in the late 1800s as a means of transportation to explore the Outback. When the Ghan train from Darwin to Adelaide was completed, camels became a superfluous mode of transportation, and they were let loose in the desert. It is estimated that 11,000 camels now roam free in the Outback.

At King’s Canyon, we hiked the 2-hour Canyon Rim walk.  It was 11am and a balmy 45°C weather when we got there, and the rangers were about to close the hike for tourists due to the heat.  Well, we hiked it anyway.  Crazy, I know, but totally worth it! This was definitely the hottest that either of us had ever experienced.  And to top it all of, we wore our mosquito nets shamelessly for the whole hike. The scenery was spectacular: deep and gorges and cliffs, amazing wind-shaped rock formations and beautiful views of the Outback.

The following day we drove to Alice Springs, the only “real” town in the Outback.

Alice Springs

We immediately set off to see the sights at the West MacDonnell Ranges. Our first stop was Standley Chasm, an impressive split rock formation.  We then headed off to Ellery Creek Big Hole to have a quick dip in the cool pool between red cliffs; and finished our day at Simpson’s Gap, a popular watering hole for black-footed kangaroos (unfortunately, we didn’t see any).

We then made our way back to Alice Springs to ANZAC hill, a memorial hill for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, where we watched the sun set over Alice Springs.

The next day, we hopped on the historic Ghan train, where we will be spending the next 24 hours on our way to Adelaide!  All aboard!