Mingalaba Myanmar!

B: Myanmar is a place we had heard about from other travelers as being unique, untouched, and in the midst of a cultural explosion so sensitive it must be seen before it’s too late. Complicated Burmese politics call for a brief history of the country in order to fully understand the land we had decided to visit after Bali. Although crudely paraphrased from online sources, here we go: Burma gained independence from Britain in 1947. A new union of various tribal states sought to form a collective government for autonomous rule, but the utopia was never carried out to fruition due to internal squabbles. In 1962, military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected government and installing himself as leader. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently silenced and General Saw Maung seized power in another coup, installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and renamed the country Myanmar. Elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party (National League for Democracy (NLD)) winning a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote), but SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she endured on-and-off for 20 years.

The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government, which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but evolved into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in Pakokku. Yangon became the center of these protests, especially around Sule Pagoda. The government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shutting down Internet communications with the rest of the world, leading the USA, Canada, Australia, and the EU to impose additional sanctions. Despite international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after the protests. She was eventually released November 13, 2010 and is currently participating in politics with the prospects for democracy looking hopeful. Since then, tourism restrictions have been relaxed and more Westerners are deciding to visit this ever-evolving society.

Today’s Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has slumped into a depressed state due to widespread corruption. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010, increased tourism and the promise of elections in 2015 offer hope for a new direction and brighter future for all Burmese.

Although Myanmar has become more accessible for foreigners in the past few years, it still isn’t easy. Guidebooks are perpetually outdated and prices are rising by 25% each year. Our visa had to be arranged prior to arriving, which we did in Australia and were given an estimated time of four weeks. The only flights into the country are from either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We opted to spend a couple days hanging out, shopping, and eating Pad Thai with my friend Dustin in Bangkok while transiting from Bali to Myanmar. It’s always great to see old friends while travelling—thanks for the hospitality buddy!

Dustin and Blake

G: We landed at the Mandalay International airport in midday and the prickly heat was full blast. At first glance, the concrete building we stood in was looking rather drab and was in definite need of a face lift. Passports stamped, we proceeded to get some cash in hand, as it was recommended with the unknown status and availability of ATMs. (In fact, ATMs are now quite prevalent in major cities, but non-existent just one year ago.) We changed over $1,000 for the next 3 weeks, but their largest bill is the equivalent of $5, so we walked out with quite the stack! We just happened to miss the free Air Asia shuttle into the city and immediately a crowd of young Burmese men with white paste on their face and arms (which we later learned was sunblock) stuck to us like magnets offering taxis. Patience. There was no one else coming out of the airport until the next plane landed, so we finally caved and paid $10 for a private taxi into the city. Immediately, we noticed the driver sitting on the right side of the car, but also driving on the right side of the road! —Another oddity of unstable leadership and a hodgepodge of resources. Why isn’t there just one universal rule for driving?! The picture out the window was one of over-grown, dry and vacant fields with white and gold pagodas scattered in the distance. Once we got closer to the city, the noise of the traffic, the smell of burning garbage and petrol, and the sight of substantial poverty were overwhelming the senses. It felt like a Buddhist India.

We eased into the culture by staying at a fairly new and very comfortable hotel, which also included a tasty western breakfast, for $30 a night. That evening, we jumped on a motorbike taxi and drove to Mandalay Hill for some sightseeing. First, we headed to Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery to see some carvings of Buddha and his disciples that dated back to 1865. Next was Kuthodaw Paya to see world’s largest book of Buddhist teachings, which were carved on slabs of marble set inside what seemed to be an infinite row of white pagodas. Stray dogs and cats lay fast asleep on the steps as we walked around; they must be so enlightened by now. 🙂 As dusk approached, we stubbornly denied an overpriced taxi up to Mandalay Hill and instead hiked up hundreds of steps to watch the anticlimactic sun as it disappeared into the smog before touching the horizon.

That evening, as we attempted to find a taxi back to our hotel, we met Jojo, a 21-year-old local with great English, and negotiated a tour the following day with his friend as our driver. Our grand tour of Mandalay began with an introduction to making gold leaf, a drive down a dusty street of locals carving jade sculptures, and an impressive woodcarving workshop. Then we visited Maha Muni Paya to slap some gold leaf on the famously amorphous Buddha figure.

Before lunch, we visited a Buddhist Monastery to see how the monks live and receive their alms. Women in tattered clothing sat with their naked children and begged for anything. The monks, without hesitation, shared from their bowl. In the afternoon, we took a horse cart ride around Innwa to see villages and more pagodas, then walked up Sagaing Hill for views of the city and the Irrawaddy River. Afterwards, we visited the famous U Bien Bridge for sunset. As we walked the world’s longest teak wood bridge (1.2 km) we noticed other tourists talking to monks. I turned to Blake and asked, ‘Why haven’t we talked to a monk yet?’ Within minutes we met eyes with an older monk and he beckoned us over. How’s that for manifesting?! 😉

B: This man was very well-spoken and genuinely interested in a conversation without a motive (quite rare in Asia). He was rather candid with his thoughts on the recent political turmoil and future prospects of a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, something I read to shy away from in conversations. Oddly enough, he’s only been a monk for the last eight years. He has a wife and kids at home and used to sell cars for a living! So much for the “pure and enlightened” path. It’s was pretty stunning to learn that one can go in and out of the monastery throughout life and decide to become a devoted monk at any point. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes, and then it was time to grab a seat and a beer with a view of the sunset dropping behind the bridge.

The next day we walked Mandalay’s inner city, a dusty place with children happily playing in a pile of garbage, locals staring at our pale skin, and baskets of tobacco leaf waiting to be rolled into pouches for men to chew and spit streams of red betel nut juice. On the corner near our place men played an obscure game involving bottle caps and sea shells, vehicles roared past with exposed engines and no filters, deeply resonant bells rang in the distance, and even among the filth and destitution, gold leaf pagodas shined like Hershey kisses in the sun. I stopped off at a local bar for the afternoon special of a glass of draught beer for 500 kyat (50¢)—buy 3, get 1 free, plus snacks! Then we indulged in a heaping portion of local Burmese food across the street for $1. Both of us! For $1! What a strange and interesting place…

*note: Mingalaba means “hello” in Burmese

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Going going Back back to Bali Bali

G: After an amazing year in Australia, our one-year Working Holiday Visa was expiring. Although we missed our families, we didn’t want to go home just yet—Soooo…back to Asia! My sister Patrycja, her husband Eric, and their daughter Kayah planned to spend February in Bali, so it was an obvious decision to join them for 10 days. Bali is an easy place to go back to and once we arrived it felt like slipping into an old pair of shoes.

After a long line up at customs, it was back to negotiating prices in tropical paradise. We paid too much for a cab and made our way to Sanur, about 45 minutes from Denpasar airport. Sister wasn’t there yet, so we got cozy in our fancy hotel and decided to take a quick stroll around the block. I almost forgot about the perpetual nagging of “Hallo madame! Yes, looking! You buy, you buy? Taxi? Maybe tomorrow?” Welcome to Asia! Streets are lined with shops offering a buffet of goods for sale, while beautiful Balinese offerings bless the roadside every few steps. As touristy as it is, I was happy to be back. There is something beguiling about the Balinese air…

We had our grand reunion back at the hotel, caught on video thanks to Brother E. Words can’t really express the sheer joy of seeing and hugging your family again—there is nothing like it! Within hours of being back in Bali, we sipped fresh coconuts, enjoyed a $6 massage, and caught up over a candle-lit dinner on the beach. What a great start to our holiday together!

B: The next day we took a bumpy 30-minute ferry to Nusa Lembongan, a little island south-east of Bali, for a week of relaxation. We were greeted by our smiling host, as well as our bungalow-dog Mickey, and settled in at Suka Beach. The traditional beach huts are made of local Teak wood and coconut husks. The main entrance is the bathroom (weird) located behind the bungalow without a roof (great ventilation 😉 ), while the loft space upstairs consists of an intricately carved bed and dresser with a nice little balcony offering views of the beach and seaweed farms. Underneath the loft is a platform with a mattress and hammock, perfect for hanging out and gazing at the orange and pink sunset disappearing into the distant horizon with Bintang beer in hand.

The seaweed farms were organized in grids of large rectangles, which looked like shadows sitting in the turquoise water. Farmers tended their crops in the early morning before sunrise and worked into the night planting more seedlings. It was impressive to watch as the men filled their small canoes with stacked seaweed and the women carried full baskets on their head to shore. The seaweed was then sun-dried on large tarps, some of it covered in plastic so as to change it to an orange or pale color. When finished, it is made into a powder and exported in its dried form.

G: The next day, and really every day after that, we made sure to fit in a massage or two. 🙂 Sister, Brother E, and Blake braved our local masseuse Wade’s so-called reflexology massage, which to my understanding translated to a deeply therapeutic meridian-intensive massage.

B: It hurt!!! (in a good way…)

G: Sister said she was cursing for the entire duration of the massage, so I decided I would opt for the more relaxing I-could-fall-asleep kind of massages. Our evenings were spent admiring the divine sunsets and then following Mickey the dog to a local restaurant to indulge in delicious Indo food (of which he got the scraps). One evening we tried to watch the Sochi Olympics to see Eric’s niece (Keltie Hansen) ski the women’s half-pipe. The internet was shoddy, but with some persistence (and help from sister Kamila back in Canada) we got to watch her first run at the amazing event. Great job Keltie—we’re so proud of you!

One morning we jumped on some motor bikes to explore the island at our own pace. Weaving through villages, we waved to the children jumping with excitement to see Westerners.  At a mangrove, we stopped for fresh coconut water and visited some baby spider monkeys on leashes, but Sister got too friendly and got bit! Later, we took a walk on the corrugated cliffs overlooking the deep blue waters with a view of Bali in the distance, visited Dream Beach, and drove past a ceremony with a large crowd walking down the road, thick smoky air, and loud traditional music, which we later learned was a funeral.

B: While in this lovely tropical paradise, I took the opportunity to complete my PADI Open Water Diving Certification at the dive shop next door. We had seen lots of places along our travels to become a certified diver (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia) and the cost of doing it in Asia is less than half of what it would be in the Western world, but I never spent the time or money to do it. Eric has been diving for nearly 20 years and we wanted to do some dives together, so I made the investment and hit the books. Since it wasn’t the busy season, I had a personal instructor (Made) and could speed up the lessons to finish in three days instead of four. The OWC consists of watching four hours of instructional videos with quizzes along the way, four sets of pool exercises, treading water for 10 minutes, swimming 200 meters non-stop, proving proficiency on four open water dives, and passing a 50-question exam.

The first day I just watched a few videos in the morning, and then jumped on the motorbike. The second day was exhausting with pool exercises, two dives, and more videos. The first two dives were mainly for skills, and although the sea life was interesting, it wasn’t amazing. The third day I did more pool exercises and planned to go out with Eric for dives 3 and 4 to complete the OWC. The third dive was incredible with manta rays up to 7 feet in length! There were dozens of them effortlessly gliding through the water! The girls came out for a snorkeling trip and got to swim with them, too. Unfortunately, after the dive my left ear became plugged and I suffered from a reverse block, which meant I couldn’t do my final dive that day and complete my certification. I was in the early stages of a head cold, but didn’t want to admit it (first mistake), which caused the block.

The next day I felt better, but still a little funny, and went diving anyways (second mistake). Eric had so much fun the day before he came out for two more dives with me. The first was an awesome drift dive, which meant the boat dropped us off at the top of the current, we drifted along the reef for 30 minutes, and then it picked us up. We saw tons of sea life and beautifully colored coral. My ear had difficulty equalizing on the way down, but felt ok back at the surface. I was so excited about completing my four required dives and being in the water with Eric, I went out for another one (third mistake). Again, the underwater world amazed us with lion fish, scorpion fish, barracuda, and moray eel. When I came up this time though, my ear was really plugged. I thought it was normal and would work its way out overnight, but it stayed plugged for days. I finally went to the doctor and was told that my ear drum was bulging and red from a middle ear infection caused by diving with a head cold. This was especially worrisome because we had to fly in just a few days. Fortunately, the medication kicked in and I got the thumbs-up from the doc the day before we had to fly that my ear drum wouldn’t burst on a plane. More importantly, I’m now a PADI Certified Open Water Diver!

G: While Blake was mastering the underwater world, I tried my hand at surfing the break with Sister and Kayah. We met a lovely Swiss man that offered to be our instructor and away we went.  It wasn’t long before we all took a few spills and Kayah was the only brave one to continue. Afterwards, my back and shoulders were aching terribly from so much paddling and carrying the board a long way back to shore. Still, another one off the bucket list!

After saying a sad farewell to family, we continued inland to relax in Ubud. We did a bit of shopping, but mostly tried to heal ourselves from my stiff back and Blake’s ear infection. Ubud is easy enough to relax for a few days with cheap prices and Western comforts. We would have loved to stay in Indonesia for longer, but new countries were calling our name…

Tasmaniacs

B: Since we sold the car easily and made our money back, we decided to take one last trip down to the rugged terrain of Tasmania. We originally thought to take Maggie across on the ferry, and then come back to Melbourne to sell her, but it actually turned out to be cheaper to fly and rent a vehicle. We hired a campervan for 11 days (since we secretly had van-envy while driving around in our station wagon) complete with sink, fridge, bed, and stove.

The adventure started in Launceston where we visited the beautiful Cataract Gorge and strolled around the quaint city center. The next day was filled with short drives and quick stops to gourmet food producers. We indulged in raspberries and strawberries of all form (jam, sauce, muffin, wine), freshly-made cheese from a dairy farm, sustainably-farmed salmon and ginseng, and honey straight from the hive.

In the afternoon, we stopped by Trowunna Wildlife Park for the 3pm feeding of the Tasmanian Devils. We couldn’t come to Tassie without seeing the Devil and this place delivered! There were dozens of Devils scattered across different enclosures. They’re a bit bigger than I imagined and their bite sure can pack a punch. They apply the same pressure per square inch as a saltwater crocodile! The trainer brought over fresh meat and held onto the leg of it so we could see more Devils come out to feed, otherwise the first one would just grab it and drag it back into his hole. They’re quite solitary animals and it’s virtually impossible to see one in the wild because they’re so elusive. At this park, they also had wombats, kangaroos, and echidnas (another animal we’d yet to see). One wombat was feeling particularly social and we got to hold it. The stocky creature is closely related to a koala and feels like holding a real-life teddy bear! There were also bird enclosures for those healing from injuries. I couldn’t get enough of watching the funny little Devil though!

G: Our next stop was to Cradle Mountain, one of the most famous hikes in Tasmania because of its sharp, craggy peaks. The weather was perfect (a rarity in Tassie) as we hiked up to Marion’s Lookout over Dove Lake. This is also where the famous Overland Track begins, which takes 6 days to complete. Afterwards, we drove up to Ulverstone on the central north coast for the night.

The next day, we enjoyed the rocky coastal scenery along the northern edge of Tassie while driving through the towns of Penguin, Burnie, and Wynyard. Blake spoiled himself with a whiskey tasting in Burnie at Hellyers Road since I was driving.

B: The slightly-peated blend has a deliciously smoky finish! 😉

G: The distances were so short that we decided to press onwards to Arthur River on the west coast. There’s a point called the “Edge of the World” where wind whips through across the cold expanse of ocean moving north from Antarctica. While gazing westward, one becomes intrigued with the thought that there is nothing but ocean from here to South America. We camped on the west coast after watching brave wind-surfers in the frigid water.

B: Moving back east, we stopped in Stanley to tackle The Nut. This huge boulder-like plateau rises above the sea on a peninsula that offers wonderful 360˚ views on a clear day. The rest of the day was spent driving southeast across the island, but fortunately through beautiful scenery and World Heritage listed forests. We rolled into Lake St. Clair with just enough time to do a short walk up the lake to platypus point, but unfortunately didn’t spot any platypuses (platypi?).

The next morning we rolled over to Mt. Field National Park to check out Russell Falls and few other waterfalls on a beautiful day-hike. Being only a couple hours to Hobart, we headed over to the capital city and drove up to Mt. Wellington in the late afternoon. The view from the top was stunning as the weather was clear and sunny. We thought about doing another walk around to the Organ Pipes, but it was getting late and we were feeling tired.

G: The main attraction in Hobart is the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), which showcases a collection of antiquities, modern and contemporary art of Tasmania’s millionaire David Walsh. Rows of grape vines lined the drive way in, and a short walk to the top opened up to cafe, as well as the local Moorilla Winery and Moo Brew Brewery on site. As you walk up to the entrance, sculptures and installations invite you to walk around and take in the surrounding landscape of the peninsula. Inside, the building itself is like an interactive installation with an endless winding staircase three flights down to a cave-like labyrinth, amidst dim lighting. It was easy to feel lost or to wonder what was waiting for you around the corner. Nevertheless, it was spectacular. At the bottom, the very classy Void Bar sits against a gorgeous slab of earthen wall. In the hallway, guests sit on art deco inspired furniture while sipping spirits – absinthe was suggested as a way to start the tour. 😉 Welcome to MONA!

There were no labels on the wall like in typical museum. Instead, we had iPods with GPS to detect which art piece you were near, which you could then click on to find out more about the artist or artwork, including videos and/or audio interviews. The exhibitions were brilliant, from Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a machine which turns food into excrement, Zhang Huan’s “Berlin Buddha” consisting of 8 tons of incense ash collected from temples around Shanghai, as well as Balint Zasko’s small scale figurative water-color and ink paintings, which depict mythological and/or dream-like states of figures interacting with nature and technology. It was like a playground, weaving through sub-floors filled with television sets, or walking into a 40-foot upside-down boat set up to watch a film on two spheres. I LOVE ART! I love having the opportunity to question life and its meaning through creative means and esoteric experience!

In the afternoon, we drove into Hobart to explore the very European Salamanca Place full of art markets and cafes, as well as Battery Point, one of the first neighborhoods in Hobart.

B: When we left the next day, we headed south down the Port Arthur peninsula through Dunalley. The typical tourist stops were made at the Blowhole, Devil’s Kitchen, and Fossil Bay, but the highlight was the walk to Waterfall Bay. I’m not sure why it’s called this, since there aren’t any waterfalls along the way, but it sure was beautiful. We also passed through the hilarious Doo Town, where everyone had some “doo” iteration sign on their lawn.

Moving back north brought us to Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay. We had read that the eastern beaches are gorgeous and boy did they deliver! Perfect white sand lay between stoic rocky outcrops and beaming blue water. We camped for the night at Friendly Beach, which was aptly named for us. As we struggled to find a spot on the campgrounds, a friendly French couple offered to move their van over a bit so we could fit two. The next morning, as we walked along the rocks on the beach, we saw the French man fishing near the water. We chatted with him briefly and discovered he’d already caught three fish and was excited about how great the catch was here. As we were talking, he caught a fourth and offered it to us! He quickly reeled in the line, pulled the fish from the hook, snapped its neck in one quick motion, drained the blood, and handed it over to us. Freshly caught Tasmanian salmon! That night I learned how to clean and fillet a fish for our delicious Valentine’s Day dinner!

G: We spent the rest of the day driving through the hills and up to St. Marys, where, despite overcast and rainy weather on the coast, it was warm and sunny. We indulged in wholesome treats from the Purple Possum Wholefoods and Café while relaxing in their backyard garden.

Further up the east coast, we came to Binalong Bay. The beach was, again, gorgeous and we couldn’t get enough. A short drive up from there is the Bay of Fires, a scenic coastal drive with flaming red rocks. The red color is from a particular type of algae and is a stunning contrast to the white beaches and blue water. Despite this color though, that’s not why it’s called Bay of Fires. Apparently, early Europeans used to see many Aboriginal fires along the coast here, and that’s where it got its name.

B: Our last little hike took us to Columba Falls, the highest waterfall in the state. On the way back to Launceston we made a slight detour to Legerwood to see the wood carvings in the Memorial Park. I’ve never seen anything like it. Apparently, in 1918, nine trees were planted as a memorial to those who were killed in WWI from Legerwood. In 2001, the trees were declared to be dangerous due to their size. The locals were distraught to think that Memorial Ave would be destroyed, so instead they raised money to hire a chainsaw carver to create each stump into a likeness for whom each tree was planted. In 2006, the carvings were completed and a ceremony was held to unveil them. Truly remarkable!

All in all, Tasmania is a beautiful island. We packed in lots of activities and saw lots of amazing natural wonders. Living in a campervan was also lots of fun. It’s your entire house on wheels! You can never forget to bring anything because it’s always with you. Groceries get unloaded into the pantry from the parking lot of the store. If you’re hungry for lunch…pull over! Even though space was tight, the sink was small, and our kitchen/living room/bedroom/dining room was only about 40 sq ft, we loved every minute of it! It definitely gave us a taste of what we’d like to do when we retire. That is…if we ever get jobs! 😉

Tasmania 428

B and G on top of Mt. Wellington

The Coastest with the Mostest: Part II

G: The next bit of travel had us hopping down the coast, visiting quirky coastal towns, soaking up the sun on the beach, and escaping into the hills of the hinterland. The first obligatory stop was at Thursday Plantation, a tea tree oil factory, where we learned all about the history of and multiple uses for tea tree oil, a truly magic medicine that is indigenous to Australia! Then lunch in Yamba with a beautiful coastal walk. The next morning we passed through Coffs Harbour to glimpse the famous big banana and indulged in a banana split at 9am—healthy! Further south brought us to the tiny town of Bellingen, where after looking and learning about opals for months, I finally saw the most beautiful one ever and bought it!! Bellingen is nearby Dorrigo National Park, where we walked an amazing rainforest trail and got to see the Lyre bird doing his mating call – a rarity! Back towards the coast, we hit Nambucca Heads for the stunning Captain Cook Lookout and the V-wall walk along the harbor where large stones are covered in paintings and poems of wisdom and dedication. On our drive out, we saw a sign advertising $8 for a dozen fresh oysters that seemed too good to be true. The catch was they were unopened. Blake saw this as an opportunity to learn a new skill—oyster chucking!

B: Only cut my hand once, but totally worth it… 😉

G: The next highlight was the Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie where we learned more about these sweet bears (although they’re not actually bears) and the efforts of over 200 volunteers working to save these cute cuddly creatures. A couple of myths debunked: Koala’s do not get high off the Eucalyptus leaves, they just seem dazed and sleepy because there is little substance in the leaves other than water, which leaves them with little energy; Koala’s do have nerve endings in their bum, but there is also a large plate near the tailbone (like a sternum) which allows to sit in trees for hours on end without getting sore; Koalas are not bears, they’re marsupials. From there, we continued south for beach walks at Seal Rock, Tea Gardens, Hawk’s Nest, and finally welcomed the Christmas season on December 1 with a parade of Santa’s on paddleboards in Newcastle. What a sight!

B: Based on a recommendation from our travel buddies Valerie and Travis, we applied to stay the Satyananda Yoga Ashram near the Hawkesbury River (about 90 mins northwest of Sydney) as WWOOFers. After bouncing around so much from place to place, it was a relief to park the car, unpack our bag, and sleep indoors for a week! The ashram is in a gorgeous valley of gum trees with no phone reception and no worries. Orange robed Yogis and Gurus glide gently across the grounds giving a warm smile with each new eye contact.

The Satyananda way of life is based on karma yoga: selfless service as a means to purify the soul. We stayed free for a week in exchange for five and a half days of work. Our days began with a gentle yoga class at 5:30am, waking up mind, body and spirit, followed by a warm breakfast at 7am. At 8am everyone gathered for our first karma yoga tasks, typically cleaning bathrooms for us newbies—fun! At 9:30am we had scheduled tasks around the ashram (kitchen, grounds and maintenance, house-keeping, farm work, etc.) with a Yogi guiding us. Work didn’t last long though as morning tea/snack was 11-11:30am. Then back to our task until lunch at 1pm. The afternoon provided a different scheduled task from 2-5:30pm, but of course there was a break for Yoga Nidra (guided relaxing mediation) and afternoon tea/snack from 3-4pm. 😉 Dinner was at 6pm, we all helped to clean up after, and then an evening program at 7pm (yoga, meditation, or kirtan). By 8:30pm, we were ready to hit the sack!

G: It seems like a long and busy day on paper, but with all the breaks for meals and meditation it really wasn’t strenuous. The days were full of good talks, great food, and quiet contemplation under the gum trees. Since we were “een da boosh” now, the cicada’s had a strong presence and sang to us all day long. The evenings were fun with kirtan and chanted mantras where we grabbed instruments and had a jam session. My favorite was the Saturday night kirtan where individuals can write in to ask for a blessing for loved ones who have passed or for those in need of positive thoughts. This dedication is performed weekly at 5pm at Satyananda ashrams around the world as a time to offer blessings and healing to the world at large – a beautiful ritual.

B: Spending a week at the ashram taught us to maintain presence and awareness throughout our daily lives. Even though we were working or cleaning most of the day, there was no pressure to complete a task quickly or meet certain standards. As long as we followed instructions and performed the assignment in a timely manner, everyone was happy. The breaks throughout the day gave us time to reflect on where we are and how grateful we are to be happy, healthy, and surrounded by supportive people, something we hope to carry with us throughout everyday life. Karma yoga is intended to purify the soul for advanced reincarnation by contributing selfless work to the greater community. Whether or not one believes in such a thing is insignificant; it simply feels good to help others and provide a nourishing environment through meaningful work in a positive atmosphere.

G: At the ashram, we met a nice woman named Katy and told her our plans for exploring Sydney. She asked where we were staying, but we hadn’t worked that out yet. With a gracious, giving heart she offered us her apartment since she would still be at the ashram for another week. Wow, did we get lucky?! She has a beautiful place in Mosman that we called home while visiting the big and bustling city. Personally, I didn’t think I would like Sydney, because of how much I love Melbourne, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised! First off, how is a city not gorgeous set against a harbor where ferry rides are a constant mode of transport? It’s just a lovely way to be outdoors and get to where you need to go!

We had a full itinerary ahead of us for the next four days. We started from Circular Quay and met up with another friend from the ashram, Blandine. She gave us an amazing view of Hyde Park from her Aunt’s high-rise apartment. Then we wandered around the botanical gardens and explored the CBD. We had a quick jaunt through the Art Gallery of New South Wales followed by coffee brewed to perfection at Toby’s Estate (a coffee-making school). We strolled around The Rocks, the original Sydney settlement, and finished with dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant.

B: The next day had us exploring outside of the city with a scenic ferry to Manly. We did a coastal walk to the various beaches and eventually relaxed at one. In the evening we met up with our friend KC, who we met in Sri Lanka. He gave us a great tour of the city, driving us through town and out to the Eastern Suburbs for a spectacular view of the city. Then he brought us to Mrs. Macquarie’s Seat with a perfect view of the Harbor Bridge and Opera House, and on this particular night, faint sounds of Jack Johnson’s first-night concert in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House from across the water. (My backup vocals made up for the poor sound quality ;))

Of course, we couldn’t be in the same city as Jack without going to see him live! We had tickets for the second night (of three). During the day we explored around Mosman and Balmoral. Then, since we originally thought the concert would be in the Opera House instead of outside, we took a tour of world-famous landmark. The architecture is stunning and the history is fascinating. The architect’s design was actually rescued from a pile of “rejects” during the final cut of an international design competition. The original plan in 1957 was estimated to cost $7 million and finish in 1963, but ended up taking 17 years and costing $102 million! Now it stands as one of the most famous buildings in the world and icon for the country. Oh, and not to worry, the city made its investment back in about three years… I really wish we could’ve seen a performance inside, especially with my Acoustics background, but a tour will have to do for now. The Jack Johnson concert in the evening was great though! He played in perfect weather as the sun set against a gorgeous backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. We even went back the next night to sit outside and listen to his set with our friend KC. I can’t get enough of that guy!!

On our last day, we ventured to the Eastern suburbs to soak up the sun and walk the coast. The trail from Coogee to Bondi is well-known for its beach-hopping beauty and boy did it deliver! One after another, the beaches just kept getting better. No wonder it’s so expensive to live here. If you’re ever in Sydney, this walk is a must-see!

After all the city and beach time, we did our usual thing and escaped into the mountains—the Blue Mountains, to be exact…

Southbound & ‘Round

B: Continuing south from Uluru on the Stuart Highway took us over the border into our fourth, and aptly named state: South Australia. The desert didn’t end though and the landscape remained flat and dry all the way to Coober Pedy—opal mining capital of Australia. I assure you, there are few places in the world like Coober Pedy, where the temperature is considered mild at 40C/104F, hotels, homes, and stores are built into underground caves known as “dugouts” to escape the heat, and the entire town lacks trees. The name “Coober Pedy” actually comes from the Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “white man’s hole”. We were already delirious from lack of sleep (which comes with living out of a car), apparently unaware of the time change (daylight savings), but it was time to fight the mild temperature (40C) as we hopped around shops for a crash course on buying an opal!

About 97% of the world’s opals come from Australia and around 80% of Australia’s opals come from South Australia, mostly Coober Pedy. The pock-marked landscape began about 20kms outside of town and sort of resembled Mars. Cone-shaped piles of light-colored dust and dirt stretched from the highway to the horizon. Enormous ant mounds! There’s a fortune to be made in the ground and each new hole brings excitement about making the next big find. It must be addictive, like Vegas but with better odds… Each little shack-like shop we visited had something special to offer with opals in all varieties for sale. The most valuable raw stone we saw wasn’t for sale, but valued at around $14,000! Store owners almost seemed surprised to have visitors and many of them only turned on their lights and display cases when we walked through the door. We also wandered into a shop with the most amazing didgeridoos and Aboriginal artwork we’ve ever seen, but unfortunately couldn’t take pictures. One shop even had a kangaroo rescue center out back and offered nightly feedings for a donation where we got to play with an orphaned baby joey! Although Coober Pedy isn’t exactly a top tourist destination, it certainly was a memorable experience.

On the verge of heat stroke and delirium, we continued south across the flattened landscape to an empty rest area for the night, enjoying a spectacular evening with sun melting into the deserted horizon. Few words can explain just how vast, empty and even haunting is the experience of central Australia. On the outback roads, you just keep driving as the sun moves over head and only stop to eat, refuel, and sleep. Fortunately, as we drove south the landscape changed from red to green and grew thick with trees as crisp air and rainy spring weather welcomed us in Port Augusta (a fresh reminder that it does not get warmer as we move south!). It was a quick stop off to find out more information for the Flinders Ranges, which is where we were headed next.

G: A windy and picturesque drive brought us to the Flinders Ranges, South Australia’s most popular National Park. We were lucky enough to witness the blooming purple wildflowers, a clear indication of spring that only lasts for 2-3 weeks. It really was a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by a lush green landscape with rolling hills and cooler temperatures. We had officially survived the outback!

After getting settled in at the campground we explored Aboriginal rock art at the Sacred Caves, peeked over Wingarra Lookout, and strolled along the Hill’s Homestead Walk to view the parks most famous attraction Wilpena Pound, encountering a pack of emus along the way. The next day we were more ambitious and climbed St. Mary’s Peak (1171m), which offered stunning views in all directions. We had lunch with the lizards at the top and then drove to Stokes and Huck’s Lookout before calling it a night in our tent. Before leaving the park, we made time for another short circuit walk to Arkaroo to see some amazing cave drawings and beautiful views over the protected landscape. The mountains are such a great refresher and it was good to get up out of the car and walk our legs to soreness without blistering heat.

The capital of S.A. and one of the most underrated Australian cities is Adelaide. We stopped for a few nights to reconnect with our metropolitan side, sleep in a bed, and avoid cooking dinner for a few nights – I was excited! We took our time exploring this modest city full of green parks and museums. I even took the liberty of doing an all-woman’s yoga class at The Heart of Yoga Studio while Blake explored the extensive South Australian Museum. Needless to say, it was nice to bask in some divine femininity.

On our last day, we drove to Glenelg Beach to explore a bit of the coast, which reminded us a lot of St. Kilda in Melbourne. We also went on a tour at the famous Haigh’s Chocolate Factory to learn about the history of the Haigh family and chocolate making (and obviously for some free samples). J They make it extremely difficult to leave the factory without buying anything after all those samples! Hence, with ginger chocolate and rocky road in hand, we bid Adelaide farewell and escaped east toward the hills.

B: Let’s be honest…the real reason we drove all the way to South Australia was for the wine – Barossa Valley to be exact. If you look closely, you’ll notice a large selection of South Australian wine to choose from back home, but it tastes so much better from the source! There were so many delicious wineries and beautiful vineyards to choose from so we started at random with a smaller one called Rockford. We strolled into the charismatic cellar and had a pleasant chat with the server, who informed us that this particular winery only sold within Australia, U.K. and Calgary, Alberta. Of all places, Calgary! All of the tastings were free, so we splurged on a special bottle of Tawny before sobering up with some lunch. I got to enjoy the very posh Keller Meister winery while G was my designated driver for the rest of the day. We ended our day at the Jacob’s Creek winery for a very thorough tour and tasting. We even got to sample wine that goes for $150 per bottle! I couldn’t really tell the difference though… Why would anyone want to train their taste buds to only enjoy wine that costs that much? I’ll stick with the cheap stuff! 😉

The next morning we strolled through the Barossa Farmer’s Market, Mengler Hill Lookout, and Sculpture Park. We then enjoyed a sun-kissed drive through palm-lined streets to one of the oldest and most successful vineyards, Seppeltsfield Winery (they had a family Mausoleum on the property!) that felt like we were in California. To end off the wine tour, we stopped at Wolf Blass and enjoyed yet another sampling from a $200 bottle! – not that we could tell the difference…

G: As we initially drove into South Australia there were large signs warning us not to enter into the state with fruit, veggies, nut or seeds, which are precautions to protect the wine region. We quickly stuffed our faces with as many carrots and tangerines as we could stand, then dumped the rest. Of course, no one ever checked our car… Then, as we left the vineyards behind and started our drive for the east coast via the Riverland, orange groves, avocado, and olive trees lined the highway. Road side stalls offered these fresh goodies, and frankly, my name was written all over them, so we pulled over and stocked up. The woman in the stall said we’d be fine and it was perfectly safe because we were outside of the protected zone. But then the signs returned, one after another with intimidating slogans warning of inspections and persecution. We panicked, and feared a hefty fine. We even pulled off the highway and debated dumping the whole lot in the bushes. Some happy bush animal could feast for days! Is $20 worth of fruit worth risking a $300 fine? Flashbacks from the Auckland airport filled our brain. We took the risk and kept driving. It’s just fruit, right?! But all was in divine order and since it was Saturday the officers were off for the weekend and the checkpoint was closed. We had those olives and oranges for weeks!

Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef

B: After all the planning and anticipation for our great Australian roadtrip, it was finally time to put rubber to the road! We went north from Cairns on the windy road up to Kuranda. The small village is located in the middle of a World Heritage Rainforest, 1,000 feet above Cairns. It had a ‘hippy invasion’ in the 1960’s, which transformed it into a base for vibrant arts and crafts. Today’s village boasts world famous markets, street art, and scenic walks for all ages (or the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for those less active). We walked through the rainforest at the Jumrum Creek Conservation Park and marveled at Baron Falls, even though it’s the dry season and it’s usually gushing with water.

G: From Kuranda, the drive along the highway was already new and interesting territory. Banana and coffee plantations crept around every curve. Scattered away from the highway were earthen mounds of various sizes that looked like rocks, but were actually termite nests. Some were so big and tall it was both impressive and disgusting to think of how many termites might be living in there! And although I expected it, it was still sad to see the frequent sight of kangaroos as road kill, already being infested by crows. The first night we camped at Davies Creek, a quiet little hideaway 6km off the main highway with great scenery. In the morning, we stocked up on our fresh spring water and took a quick dip to cool the rising temperatures of this hot country.

Next, we visited one of those local coffee plantations for a caffeine hit and then drove through Mareeba to Granite Gorge. Granite Gorge is a boulder park, swimming hole, and residence of the local rock wallaby. Complete with dinosaur footprints and rock canyons, we weaved through the mammoth boulders like a playground meeting the sweet and innocent wallabies along the way. Each time they hopped up, they would look at us presumptuously to feed them, since the owner of the site provides a small bag of dry food. When we finally fed them, they all gathered in colossal numbers!

B: The following day we moved faster, checking off sites of interest one by one as they were near to the circular highway route. The Curtain Fig Tree is a sight unlike any other, so I’ll just let the picture do the talking. Lake Eacham is an old glacier lake that I didn’t find particularly impressive, but the locals seem to like it. Millaa Millaa Falls is one of (if not the) most photographed waterfall in Australia. Apparently it was the sight of an Herbal Essences commercial, as the tour guides were posing long-haired women in front of the falls to snap a photo of the iconic hair flip. I probably could’ve tried it with my locks… 😉 It was scenic, but I preferred Josephine Falls with the rock waterslide. Then it was on to the Mungali Creek Biodynamic Farm where we indulged in the most delicious plum cheesecake. Finally, while searching for a free campsite we stumbled upon Paronella Park.

We were greeted in the parking lot by Mark, founder and co-owner of this unique piece of land. His enthusiasm for the place was off the charts, even though he’s been entertaining guests every day for over 20 years. He couldn’t quite give an accurate description, other than: Spanish-style castle, glowing waterfalls, canyon of kauri groves, #1 attraction in Queensland, forest-meets-Gaudi-meets-Dali-architecture, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it! Admission included free camping, but at $40 each we weren’t that gung-ho. He offered a 2-for-1 deal at the concession rate of $37, so it was more reasonable and worth the risk of this magical place. (He later told me, “You guys are about my kids’ age, so I have to look out for you.” I told him, “Thanks. That’s funny because my dad’s name is Mark.” He replied, “Good name!” 😉 )

We took a night tour that evening, guided by none other than Mark himself. His enthusiasm was non-stop, even at 8pm! A brief history: Paronella Park was created in the 1930s by Spanish-born Jose Paronella after amassing a fortune from property dealings in the area. On 13 acres of land, he built his dream house (more of a compound) by hand with most of the designs residing only in his head. By 1933 it had Queensland’s first hydroelectric plant and opened to the public in 1935. The Paronella’s hosted locals for Saturday movie nights, tennis matches, and built a pavilion with balconies, refreshment rooms, and changing cubicle for swimmers. There was even a museum! Unfortunately, unexpected weather events and the decline of Jose’s health found the property quickly deteriorating. Decades passed and family members failed to maintain the place through forest growth and harsh cyclones. In 1993, Mark and Judy Evans rediscovered the park and revived Jose’s dream by refurbishing all aspects as close as possible to their original state. Despite the recent cyclones, the park is in great condition and attracts heaps of tourists year-round. It’s eco-certified and heritage listed. The Evans’ continue to restore this beautiful property and preserve Paronella Park so that future generations can continue to glimpse into the past at Jose Paronella’s dream. Oh…and Gabriella was too scared to camp because of the resident 4.25m long python (see snake skin pic) that roams the property, so we slept in the car. 😉

G: After a circuit of the Tablelands, we stopped for a night in Cairns at a free campsite and met a friendly German trio with a unique campervan. We shared stories over wine for the night, and then parted ways as many travelers do. From there, we went north to Daintree Rainforest stopping at a few beaches along the way, including a free camp at Wangetti and quick tour around Port Douglas. The real attraction though came at Mossman Gorge. The drive in was pretty special, but then we ventured into a beautiful rainforest with walking trails, giant boulders, and a swimming hole. A portion has also been maintained as a private residence for Aboriginals from the area. Along the trail we ran into our German friends with the famous campervan!

B: Once we crossed the river into Daintree, phone signal cut out and the jungle began. The road curved in and out of dense forest with lookout points and boardwalks every few kms. Crocodile and jellyfish signs warned us to be on the lookout near rivers and beaches, with emergency vinegar handy as well. Yikes! That evening we stayed at Lync-Haven Retreat, which is also an animal sanctuary housing snakes and baby crocodiles in cages, a more-intimidating full-grown crocodile named Doris, and a few different kangaroos and wallabies. The next morning we were invited to watch a feeding and get to know the locals a little better.

Afterwards, we took the road as far north as we could to Cape Tribulation. It’s the furthest north along the east coast of Australia that anyone can go without a 4WD. The view was stunning; where the rainforest meets the reef! From there we cruised south, hopping from one beautiful beach or boardwalk to the next, checking off the sites of the tourist trail and indulging in biodynamic ice cream (once we chose a flavor!). One of the best stops was Cow Bay, where coincidentally we stumbled upon our German friends again! We explored the Jindalba boardwalk with them before parting ways for good this time.

G: My favorite part of the Daintree was when we detoured off the tourist map to an area recommended to us by our roommate in the Cairns hostel. It’s called the Blue Holes and there are no signs directing people to get there. We had ambiguous directions and figured we’d ask a local for something more direct. When we asked a shop keeper, he hesitated for a second, drew a blue dot on our map, and told us, “You didn’t hear it from me.” The Blue Holes are a sacred female Aboriginal site used for birthing. When the light hits the water properly, it glows a luminescent blue. There were a few other people there when we arrived, but the air was still and the energy was palpable. As with so many of the other amazing sacred sites we came across, this required a moment for meditation—to express gratitude to this infinite universe. Pure Bliss.

She said YES!

Just wanted to let all of our followers in the blogosphere know that Gabriella and I got engaged yesterday! Since everyone has asked: I trained a kitten to deliver a message that started her on a treasure hunt leading her to the top of highest building in Melbourne where a plane was writing my message in the sky at sunset while a string quartet was playing the first song we slow-danced to. Actually….that’s a lie. But the truth was even more amazing and she ecstatically (and thankfully) said “OF COURSE! YES!”

We celebrated the day with our great friends here and were skyping with family and friends back home to deliver the good news. Melbourne has already been a special place for us and now it holds one more great memory. I also wanted to make sure we could share it with our friends since we’re so far from home, which worked out perfectly. We look forward to celebrating with all of you the next time we’re back in the US/Canada.

engaged

ps – no, we don’t have a date or location planned. one thing at a time people. 😉

Great Ocean Road(trip)

B: The most quintessential trip in Victoria is the Great Ocean Road. It’s a coastal drive heading west from Melbourne that takes anywhere from 4-8 hours, depending on how many detours and pictures you want to take. We borrowed the car from Rhonda, Gabriella’s boss at the yoga studio, for a 3-day weekend out of the city. We had both been working hard and enjoying the city life for 3 solid months, but now was time to escape back into a natural setting and see more of what Australia has to offer.

We left on a sunny Friday morning and slid out of the metropolis towards Geelong. The first stop was in Torquay and the famous Bells Beach surf spot. This place holds an annual surf competition that’s known around the world. The water was quite frigid, but the surf was up and sprinkled with brave wave riders. Then we continued to Lorne and stopped for a fresh coffee in the quaint town.

G: It was hard not to stop every few minutes to pull over and take a picture, but we kept going until Kennett River. The guidebook recommended this spot as a great place to see koalas, and lucky for us, they were right! The little fuzz balls were dotted throughout the eucalyptus trees; some were even quite low so we could observe them up close. They don’t move too much, unless they’re hungry, and generally stay sitting within the V of tree branches. They don’t have nerve endings in their bum so they can sit there for hours!

Our drive continued along the narrow coastal highway until we stopped for the night in Apollo Bay. Since it was winter the days were shorter, and we didn’t get very far before the sun set.  The weather was quite windy and brisk, so we found a quiet hostel and had a nice dinner inside before we retired for the night.

B: The next morning was a bit overcast and we got a late start on the road. Our first stop was at Maits Rest to do a short walk through a rainforest to see a giant 300-year-old Myrtle Beech tree. The air was fresh and the ferns were huge! Then we continued south to the Cape Otway Lighthouse. We didn’t plan to go up to the top because it’s quite expensive, but the road that deviates from the Great Ocean Road to the lighthouse is right through a koala forest. All along the road we were spotting koalas high up in the trees; some in pairs, others hanging out solo. At one point we got out and walked around to get a closer look and snapped some great photos. From Cape Otway, we stayed determined in getting to the main attraction: the Twelve Apostles.

G: The first site of the Twelve Apostles comes at Gibson Steps. From the car park, we walked down a narrow set of stairs etched into the side of a huge cliff leading down to the beach. The sea was rough and the wind was tearing right through us. Once on the beach, we could see around the corner to the mammoth sea rocks known as the Twelve Apostles. We didn’t stay long because we wanted a closer look at this amazing natural wonder.

The Twelve Apostles used to be part of a land bridge connecting mainland Australia to Tasmania. Now they are colossal rocks that are constantly getting battered by the wind and sea to form uniquely beautiful shapes and colors. These formations are dotted along the coast, but the biggest ones are called the Twelve Apostles. This is the main attraction and sometimes the only stop tourists make on the Great Ocean Road (what a pity!).

B: A few kilometers down the road are more beautiful sites to admire. We stopped at Loch Ard Gorge, The Arch, London Bridge, The Grotto, and Bay of Islands. London Bridge isn’t actually a bridge anymore because it collapsed a few years back. As the story goes, there were two people on the other side when it fell and had to be rescued by helicopter! These are all amazing coastal sites only a short walk from the car park and MUCH less crowded than the Twelve Apostles. If you’re going to do the Great Ocean Road, you have to continue a bit further to see these places!

We stopped for the night in Port Campbell and found an empty hostel to stay in. The benefits of traveling in the off-season! Our only plan the next day was to travel straight back to Melbourne, so we took the opportunity to visit some of the amazing sites again, this time with different lighting. We took a slight detour on the way back and went north from Lavers Hill through Beech Forest instead of south through Glenaire. We did a quick walk to Triplet Falls, but it wasn’t too impressive. The beech forest was nice, but the road was quite winding and took longer than the previous route. Well worth it though!

One final stop before hitting the highway to Melbourne was at the Anglesea golf course. We heard it was a great place to see kangaroos feasting on the fresh green grass, and it certainly got that reputation for a reason. They were everywhere!

We made it back to Melbourne Sunday night after an awesome long weekend out of the city. It was refreshing to hit the road again and see what all the hype was all about. The Great Ocean Road is stunning and certainly one of the best drives I’ve ever done. You gotta go, mate!

Speechless Southern Serenity

B: Almost three months have passed since we journeyed across the Cook Straight and ventured into the South Island of New Zealand. Although time has gotten away from us, the incredible memories remain; surrounded by sea lions, the panoramic perfection of Bealey Spur, glacier gazing on the beach, and dolphins dancing at sunrise in Milford. The South Island is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been. Its wealth of natural beauty literally brought tears to our eyes. “It’s like walking into a screensaver,” said my friend Walter. The descriptions are limiting and the pictures can’t say enough. You’ll just have to see it for yourself…

Our itinerary was packed with hikes as we tramped through Middle Earth, camping along the way. From the ferry port in Picton, we drove southeast through the Queen Charlotte Sound to Kaikoura. As we got closer, the coastline became rocky with an increasing number of seals sleeping on the shore. We did a coastal walk around the Kaikoura peninsula the next day, admiring the geology and thriving sea life. As we were deep in conversation and looking only at the rocks beneath our feet, all of a sudden there was a loud roar warning us we had wandered too close to a sleeping sea lion! When we took stock of our location, they were suddenly all around us, camouflaged on the rocks. It’s important not to get between a sea lion and the water otherwise they feel threatened. Luckily we made it back unscathed, but those blubberous beasts can move surprisingly fast!

Next we headed back north and over west to Abel Tasman National Park. We hiked 13km in to Anchorage Bay and camped. The coastal walk provided countless views of golden sand meeting the glistening sea. This hike was especially challenging because we had to bring all of our food and camping gear on our backs!

We really got a taste for the wonder of the West Coast on our way south to Greymouth. The scenery was simply stunning and it was difficult not to stop every few minutes for pictures. Of course, we had to stop at Punakaki to see the pancake rocks, a geological phenomenon. The pancake rocks have been made through a layering-weathering process known as stylobedding. The Dolomite Point limestone has formed into what looks like stacks of pancakes. When the tide is right, the sea surges into caverns and bursts through blowholes!

Greymouth was…well…grey. We did one decent hike on the Point Elizabeth Walkway, but the view wasn’t too clear. The highlight for me was visiting…BLAKETOWN!! Complete with Blake Street and Blaketown School, I totally felt like Mayor!

Then came the most unbelievable territory as we drove east, inland towards Arthur’s Pass. There are a handful of hikes to do in the area, but we chose the Bealey Spur track. Encompassed by snow-capped mountains within alpine brush, the view was spectacular. Easily the best hike of the South Island. The mountains left our jaws dropped on our way back through Arthur’s Pass. It seemed like any time we started driving again, we immediately wanted to stop and admire our surroundings, filled with gratitude for today’s reality.

G: After the hike, while searching for a place known as Castle Hill, we stopped at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve to find directions. We were strongly urged by some locals in the parking lot that we had to do the cave walk here. Trudging 600 meters in ice-cold water, at times up to our hips, in a dark and creepy cave was not my idea of fun. But after a tiny nervous breakdown 🙂 I accepted this new challenge (face your fears, right?!). It wasn’t all that terrible (Blake loved it!), but let’s just say that I was pretty happy when we reached the small opening of daylight again.

Luckily, we found Castle Hill next and played amongst the massive rock formations in the late afternoon sun. A place that the Maori hold dear and the Dalai Lama claims as the most spiritual place in all of NZ, one could really feel the gravity of this place. Organic boulders of different shapes and sizes spread across acres, reaching for the sky with incredible views in all directions, it felt like a spiritual playground for adults. I could have spent hours there climbing the boulders and nestling into a perfect seat to take a meditation break as the sun beamed down.

Next, it was off to Franz Josef Glacier. The 45-minute walk to view the glacier took us through a valley of waterfalls spilling over massive vertical slabs of slate complete with lush vegetation. On the way, markers identified where the glacier used to reach, which gave a harsh reminder of how much ice has melted in recent decades. We got to within 500 meters of the terminal face, which was enough to truly feel the magnitude of this colossal block of ice.

Then, we stopped to freedom-camp at Gillespie’s Beach! The most amazing part wasn’t that it was free, but the spectacular view. We gazed to the left and saw Fox Glacier nestled in the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, and then to the right over the vast ocean stretching out to the horizon as the sun was setting. It was a good thing we set up our tent early because the campers kept rolling in and we were eventually packed in like sardines. As we finished up our dinner, we sat on the beach to watch the sunset, awestruck at the beauty in all directions.

We slept like babies under the stars, until 5:45am when we heard scratching at our tent. Soon after, a subsequent deflating of the mattress confirmed an unwelcomed surprised. I decided to get up to check out the area since there was no way I could get back to sleep. At first, I noticed a bird that looked like a parrot, and later while watching the sun rise, a local confirmed it was the Kea, an alpine parrot! I hadn’t seen the signs for it, but Blake mentioned there being indications not to feed these pesky birds, which gnaw like they are constantly teething.

After a bit of patchwork, we took a quick stroll around Lake Matheson in the clear and sunny morning. Then, we drove to Fox Glacier, which was our favorite between the two we visited. On our walk through the majestic valley to the glacier we caught a glimpse of large ice formations breaking off and flowing down the rising river at a rapid speed. We were able to get a lot closer to the terminal face and could see people on their glacier tours—something I would definitely like to come back to do. Larger sheets of white ice up against jagged peaks of turquoise-blue on the inner ice-walls created an incredible view. It reminded me of the Rockies back home, but somehow much more grand and magnificent.

We drove the coast for a bit longer before turning inland towards Wanaka—a cozy lake-town, nestled in the mountains. We had a day to unwind with mild weather, so we hiked up to get a better view of the city. The next day’s rains cancelled our plans for a longer, more challenging hike, so we took the opportunity to walk through town, go on a shorter hike, and make another delicious meal at the campground.

B: Then it was time for the infamous Milford Sound. Hailed by many visitors as the greatest place in New Zealand, it certainly had a reputation to live up to. We stopped in Te Anau briefly and booked a sunrise kayaking trip on the sound. We were told we had to drive to Milford that day because the Te Anau/Milford Highway doesn’t open until 7am each morning. The 90km trip took nearly 2.5hrs because of the curvy narrow lanes and amazing photo opportunities. This highway as rated as one of the top ten drives in the world!

Milford is the tiniest of towns where the only residents are those guiding tourists (through the sound or to their rooms). We awoke before dawn and slid into our two-person kayak as the sun began to color the sky. Our group of eight had the place to ourselves, engulfed by the towering rock faces while floating on water still as glass. We paddled past playing sea lions and through a waterfall taller than Niagra, but the absolute highlight was the dolphin pod that celebrated our presence. They swirled around us underwater and surfaced for air several feet away! There were even a few sea lions that were playing and pretending to be dolphins. We were amazed at the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat while sitting on the water in a kayak. Apparently it’s quite rare to see dolphins in Milford as they only swim into the sound once every few weeks. We paddled all the way out to the Tasman Sea, about 20km, in perfect weather with brilliant sights. Even our guide said it ranked as one of the top three trips she’s made. Certainly at the top for us! Fun fact: Milford is technically a fjord, not a sound, which is why the NZ gov’t renamed the area “Fjordland”, but couldn’t get people to stop referring to it as “Milford Sound”.

Since we started at sunrise, we were back to the campsite early and decided to do a hike to Lake Marian on the way out of Milford. It took about 90 minutes of tramping until the trail opened up to a beautiful glacier lake resting between rocky peaks.

Our last stop was to the adventure capital of Queenstown. I expected a large city similar to Auckland, but it’s actually just a small, quaint town with lots of adventure sports nearby. The drive here was, again, amazing, and we were fortunate to have sunny, clear weather. We did a hike to the top of Bob’s Peak, instead of riding the gondola, where we got a clear view of the Remarkables and the rest of Queenstown. This is a fun town with lots to do for young thrill-seekers with deep pockets (not us!). Coincidentally, we ran into a guy we had met in Laos (Scrub) as he was now working in town!

We would’ve liked to have stayed longer, but our money was running low and the car was due back. The South Island is truly incredible and we can’t wait to return. We said good-bye to our 3-week driving tour and ventured back into the world of WWOOFing. We made plans to stay with the Guyton’s in their food forest on the southern coast of the south island, in a little place called Riverton, 3 hours south from Queenstown.

yea, that's us again!

B and G at Fox Glacier

Herd it through the grapevine

B: Our next wwoofing adventure took us to an organic and biodynamic vineyard just south of Auckland. The Allen family – Wayne and Mandy along with their kids Sarah (21), Laura (19) and John (17) – own the Turanga Creek Winery and run the Wine Bar on-site. Margi is the farm manager and responsible for maintaining the precious grapes that get sent off seasonally for wine making.

When we arrived, there were three other girls living and working there already – Anya and Ellen from the US, and Marie from Germany. Our accommodations were in a small house directly next to the Allen’s home and about 1.5kms from the actual vineyard. We got right to work the very next day starting at 8am. The typical schedule had us working 8-10:30am, break, 11-1:30pm, lunch, and 2-4:30pm. We would work like that three days per week plus one half-day (stopping after lunch), the idea being we worked half a day for each day we stayed at the vineyard.

G: The land was beautiful with endless rows of manicured grape vines blanketing the hillside. There were about 100 sheep roaming the different sections at any given time. Some mornings we became sheep herders, which can be rather difficult. But Blake got it down pretty quickly. Jess is their new pup and being trained to herd the sheep.

Margi gave us a recap of the basics of biodynamic farming that we learned at Kahumana Farm in Hawaii. Biodynamic agriculture is an exceptional version of organic farming in that takes into account the sun, the moon, planets, and their forces in relationship with the soil, plants and animals. It emphasizes the use of manure and composts, planting based on the lunar calendar, as well as herbal and mineral preparations, all of which are meant to enliven the soil and promote optimal growth. I won’t go into too much detail, but check out schupdesign.com for more info. Chris was our farm-mate/creative-collaborator/photographer and built an amazing website, including a showcase of the Kahumana experience.

Back in Hawaii, I would devote mornings to mixing up preparations with love and spraying them while singing to our crops. At the vineyard, everything was at such a large scale that Margi had a machine mixing up the preps and a tractor spraying the vines. Instead, we did a lot of tucking, which means to tuck the vines under metal wiring to ensure they grow straight up. We also spent hours leaf-plucking and bud-rubbing, which is something the sheep usually do by eating the lowest leaves on the tree. We didn’t eat the leaves (much) but tediously removed them so as to have optimal air-flow and to make harvesting easier. Though it was too early in the season, we tried a couple of grapes and indeed they were sour. It would be nice to go back in March when it’s harvest time, but apparently there are many wwoofers (up to 12) and LOTS of work. I think we’ll pass this time.

B: In addition to the biodynamics, we learned about the different types of grapes to make the different varieties of wine. Unfortunately, at this stage in the season they all look small and green, but entire blocks were organized around a particular type. Whenever we switched working from one block to another, we had to change our gloves to prevent the possibility of disease spreading among the varieties. This was especially crucial because they are organic growers and can’t simply spray pesticide whenever an issue pops up (although there are natural alternatives). The most common illness is powdery mildew, which is why the sheep to eat the bottom leaves and allow the moisture to dry from the grapes after a good rain. It’s important to keep those things under control when you’re relying on your grapes to produce 40,000 bottles of wine per season!

While we were there, we had the pleasure of spending the holidays on a vineyard with Anya, Marie, and Ellen. The Allen family was nice enough to buy us plenty of food, a small present to open Christmas morning (spoiler alert: it’s a keychain), and even a tree! They went out of town as a family, but we spent the day cooking and baking delicious pecan pie and Christmas cookies. The wine helped our creativity. 😉 It was certainly different to be away from home for each of us for the first time, but we spent the day in good company making new Christmas traditions.

G: We also had a great time ringing in the New Year with the family present this time. Another opportunity for wine tasting! Wayne taught us the proper way to taste a wine, which involves letting in a bit of air as you sip to open up your taste buds.

B: I usually just chug it!

G: Anyways…a few days into the new year my best friend from back home, Carrie, came to visit and we embarked on a real journey to see what New Zealand has to offer!

B and G, sittin in a tree...

B and G, sittin in a tree…