The Coastest with the Mostest: Part III

G: While at the Satyananda ashram, our friend Katy told us about a mediation retreat in the Blue Mountains at the Brahma Kumaris Centre entitled “Nurturing Nature”. The cost was donation-based so that everyone could have an opportunity to experience the retreat atmosphere without breaking the bank. Right up our ally!  😉 We arrived Friday night to a serene setting in the woods welcomed by a tiny old lady with a perpetually beaming smile named Sally.

The program consisted of various workshops designed to recognize our connection with nature in everyday life. In one exercise, we went outside to find something in nature that represented how we were feeling at the present moment. Another had us blindfolded while a partner guided us to various sounds, smells, and textures within nature, all without talking. It’s amazing how when you take one of your senses out, the others become more sensitive and amplified. It certainly gives our imaginations a chance to be more creative and our sense of trust to surrender completely. One of my favorites was an exercise looking at the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) and finding which one or two represents you the most. What was particularly interesting here was that Blake and I portray opposite earth/air and fire/water, which allows us to keep each other well-balanced—how convenient. 😉 We also had an intro to the Brahma Kumaris way of meditation, which is practiced with the eyes open, focusing on any object or the center of your forehead. You are to imagine a point of light as a way to calm the mind for a few minutes in any setting.

B: On Sunday afternoon, we left the retreat center well-rested with our new-found inner peace. We spent a couple of days exploring the beautiful surroundings in the Blue Mountains National Park, starting with the Three Sisters Lookout at Echo Point, one of the most famous natural structures in Australia. Then we continued on to Govett’s Leap, a grandiose lookout over a huge canyon extending for miles. We settled in for the night at free camp in Blackheath Glen.

The next day we delved further into the park with the Neates Glen/Grand Canyon circuit walk (5kms). In the afternoon we checked off other quick sights, such as Evan’s Lookout, Perry’s Lookdown, Anvil Rock, the Wind-Eroded Cave, and Pulpit Rock. Typically, there’s something advertised that doesn’t exactly live up to its billing, but everything we visited was well worth the detour.

G: The beautiful setting and natural high from the retreat had us ready to go for another hike the next day, so we tackled the Wentworth Falls National Pass Hike. We actually took a wrong turn and ended up doing the longer version of the walk, but the scenery was beautiful and we didn’t mind the exercise. Plus, who doesn’t like the fresh mountain air and cascading waterfalls?!

After getting our fix of the mountains, we were ready to hit the beaches once more. We camped at the Berry Showgrounds where we met a female solo traveler from NY named Ale. She was hitchhiking down the coast so we thought we’d help out and give her a ride further south. Plus, she had a ukulele! We ended up spending three days together, stopping to soak up the rays at the gorgeous Jervis Bay, Murrays Beach, and Bermagui. This is where Australian beaches have made a name for themselves!

Despite the occasional blue bottle jellyfish, the most poisonous jellyfish that can leave one in pain for days, the scenery was postcard-perfect. Beautiful blue water kissed powdery white-sand beaches with only a few other souls in sight. Sometimes it was hard to leave. Ok…most of the time it was hard to leave. But we were on a schedule to make it back to Melbourne for the holidays, so we pressed onwards.

B: We dropped Ale off at Lakes Entrance so she could catch a bus to Melbourne because Gabriella and I had plans for one last stop at Wilson’s Promontory National Park that didn’t quite fit into her schedule. When we arrived at the Prom, the sky was a threatening grey and winds howled up to 50 km/hr with intermittent rain. Back in Victoria! We watched as people struggled to construct their tent, realized the weather wasn’t changing anytime soon, and then deconstructed their tent to go home and sleep inside next to a fire with a bottle of wine. I couldn’t blame them; we had similar thoughts. We decided to sleep in the car, but the gusts still rattled us all night. The next day was still overcast, but without the harsh wind. It actually made for eerily comfortable conditions for exploring the Park. We started with the Lilly Pilly Gully circuit track through fresh forest scenery. Then we climbed up to the Tidal Overlook for 360˚ views across the bay. The rocky outcrops engulfed in dense coastal forests looked like something out of prehistoric times. Wilson’s Promontory has a unique flavor that we hadn’t seen in Australia so far, further emphasized by the overcast weather.

The weather got even better the next day with clearing skies and a bit of sunshine. We were amazed by the Darby River/Tongue Point hike that gave incredible views of the Park and coastline. It ended with giant boulders that we scampered across to soak in the scenery and rest for a moment in silence, appreciating the present. Needless to say, we were happy to have made the stop at The Prom and recommend it to anyone passing through Victoria.

G: At last, we rolled back into Melbourne two days before Christmas after living in the car for 14 weeks. We wanted to be back for the holidays so we could spend it with our friends. (Plus, campsites go bonkers around the holidays because it’s the beginning of summer!) We spent a lovely summer Christmas Day with some of Blake’s old co-workers at Jules and Kirsty’s place (ironically, our old apartment). We moved into an apartment in Parkville the next day where we would sublet for the next four weeks. We had Jules and Kirsty over for a quiet New Year’s celebration, and then got to work selling our beloved workhorse Maggie. It took about three weeks to clean her up and find a buyer, including jumping through hoops to get the Road Worthy Certificate (mandatory in Victoria), but when we did she sold for more than we bought her for! And who says cars are a bad investment?!  😉

The weeks flew by as we stayed busy taking care of business and planning future travel adventures. We moved out of the Parkville apartment at the end of January and into a lovely house in Yarraville with a woman named Nicole, her adorable dog Calin, and three charismatic chickens. We’d never even been to Yarraville, but it gave us an opportunity to explore a new area of Melbourne. She has a great backyard with a BBQ where we celebrated Australia Day with our friends.

B: I also insisted that we splurge on “the original” Australian music festival Big Day Out, where we saw amazing performances by Portugal.The Man, Tame Impala, The Lumineers, Primus, Arcade Fire, and (the legendary) Pearl Jam! Les Claypool is one of my all-time favorite bassists, and G enjoyed the funky music, too. Eddie Vedder was also quite the showman, sipping a bottle of red wine and conversing intimately with the audience, while Mike McCreedy shredded on guitar all night long. You can’t go wrong with a band that’s been together over 25 years!

Over the last six weeks we fell in love with Melbourne all over again, especially with nicer weather! But we couldn’t get too attached as backpackers. Though we can’t call Melbourne “home” permanently, it will always have a piece of our heart. We will certainly miss this amazing city!

The Coastest with the Mostest: Part I

G: It took three long days of driving through desolate outback towns across South Australia and New South Wales, from the Barossa to Byron Bay, until we finally reached the densely populated east coast. In fact, 85% of the population lives on the coast. We were excited to get back to the ocean and marvel at the famous Aussie white sand beaches again. For our first stop, we organized some WWOOFing in Mullumbimby, just outside the famous surf town of Byron Bay. We worked a couple of hours per day in exchange for accommodation in a caravan. Our host, Grant, repairs caravans in his spare time, one of which we assisted him in fixing during our stay. He also records bands, takes photographs, is a reggae DJ, and hosts international travellers. It was glorious to stretch out in the caravan and not worry about finding a campsite or pitching a tent for six nights.

We spent our free time exploring the area and getting our fix of backpacker-mecca Byron Bay. The Surf Festival was held while we were there, bringing in a swell of locals. The town was full of cute shops with beautiful items for sale and the beach was gorgeous, which explains its booming popularity. Lately though (in the past decade), Byron has become more commercialized and has strayed from its hippie roots with designer stores moving in and prices moving up. It’s still a major hub for progressive minds, alternative living, and holistic health, but the surrounding towns maintain a more quaint authenticity of hippie life.

The northeastern corner of New South Wales is lush with rolling hills, a temperate climate, and beaches surfers dream about. During our visit we got lucky and spotted a few migrating whales, walked up to the Byron Bay light house to visit the most easterly point of Australia, and most importantly celebrated my golden birthday (29 on the 29th)! We had an amazing day, starting with an ‘I am abundant’ smoothie at Naked Treaties (a raw food café), and then purchased some jewelry from Divine Goddess. Later, we got incredible massages from a very spiritual man in Lennox Heads, and afterwards, thanks to my best friend Carrie, had a delectable meal at a classy Japanese restaurant! Spoiled rotten, I know…but there’s only one golden birthday! 🙂

After getting our Byron-fix, we ventured to the Crystal Castle & Shambala Gardens, an enchanting natural playground. This was an incredibly special place with ample spiritual energy wafting around every corner. I found home hugging every human-sized crystal and gem, mediating though the labyrinth, visiting the Peace Stupa, sitting in awe beneath the giant Buddha in the lotus pond, and breathing deep through the rainforest walk. They offer courses, aura readings, a café on site, as well as a very complete store of gemstones and jewelry to take home. Heavenly!

B: Once I successfully pried Gabriella away from the gemstones, we continued down the hippie trail to Nimbin, home of the 1973 Aquarius Festival and subsequent hangover for the last 40 years. To its credit, Nimbin has maintained the ideals of those who gathered decades ago and functions as a magnet for those seeking to escape the conventional social structure and live a simple life, off the grid, nourishing body, mind, and spirit (and maybe smoking a little pot…ok, a lot of pot…I got offered drugs three times within the first hour…maybe it’s time I shave and get a haircut…NAH!).

The town is comprised of one main street with rainbow colored sign boards sprucing up the façade of hemp stores, natural apothecaries, and organic grocers. The highlight for me was the Nimbin museum, a hodgepodge of exhibits created in an old house which narrates the history of the area and features memorabilia from the Aquarius Festival. Nimbin was certainly worth a visit and a time warp back to the ‘70s. I wish everyone could live more in harmony with nature and stand up to corporate greed, as they do. The current battle is against coal seam gas. Locals want to prevent natural gas companies from hydrofracking on their land and encourage residents to “Lock the Gate” to protest against such a harmful practice.

From Nimbin we met up with our friends Valerie and Travis in Burleigh Heads. We got there just in time for the Sunday night drum circle, when the park fills with a vibrant energy of locals sharing a drink and a jam. Burleigh Heads is a quaint and trendy beach town, full of activity. The ocean is scattered with surfers, cyclists ride through the streets, and the sidewalks are busy with joggers at all hours of the day. Agreeably, the energy is inspiring, but also a little awkward when we awake from the car and try to roll out inconspicuously onto the sidewalk to join the club. This obsession with appearances is due mostly to Burleigh’s proximity to the Gold Coast, a manufactured district of high rise buildings and flaunting wealth that is the antithesis of sustainability and practicality. We stayed a fair distance away and merely admired the sudden skyline at dusk.

We went to Burleigh to meet up with Valerie and Travis and experience their ‘home’ for the last few months. I worked with Valerie in Melbourne and she and Travis are on a similar trip around the world. Valerie showed us the comforts (and frugality) of living out of a car in Burleigh, with free BBQ stations, a sink to wash dishes, and hot water dispensers on tap! There are also public bathrooms and free showers nearby! They taught us where to park the car to sleep so we wouldn’t be bothered, but honestly, there were so many other campervans and not-so-inconspicuous station wagons around that we never had any trouble. We spent about a week hanging out with our friends, walking around the headlands, and enjoying a nightly beachside BBQ before going north back into Queensland.

G: It was onto the expensive and posh beach-town of Noosa. I’ve never in my life experienced so many roundabouts! Not only was I dizzy, but our GPS couldn’t keep it straight. I guess it was because we were driving in circles. 😉

B: Oh brother…have we been hanging out too much?

G: We stayed at a Scout camp just outside the town, getting up close and personal with the local kookaburras, known for its laughing song at dusk and dawn. Not only that, but in one perfectly calculated swoop, it will snatch food right off your plate! We were told the Boy Scouts like to hold a piece of cheese and wait for the kookaburra to snatch it from their hand. Unfortunately, this meant we guarded our food at each meal.

Noosa has beautiful white-sand beaches protected by dense headlands. One day we visited the Noosa National Park to enjoy some forest and coastal walking trails, as well as leisurely strolls past designer shops on the tourist strip. Noosa is particularly beautiful in that it is built around estuaries lined with modern homes, allowing owners to park their yacht at the doorstep. Must be nice!

B: But it wasn’t all beautiful beach destinations for us. We mixed it up by going inland to the National Parks where we could camp and hike for a few days, allowing us to maintain an appreciation for the days we acted like beach bums. It’s important to change it up every now and then, otherwise we really do start to have too much of a good thing. 😉 We visited the Border Ranges, Beerwah, and Lamington National Parks. Each had their redeeming qualities and great hikes taking us to spectacular lookouts. The wildlife never got boring either as we spotted wallabies, goannas, and all kinds of colorful birds. My favorite was Border Ranges, where we went on a hike that took us through a diverse rainforest, past amazingly unique trees, and gave us a stellar view at the end.

G: Spending all this time around northern New South Wales and southern Queensland had another purpose, too. We were killing time in order to meet up with our Melbourne friends Katrina and Macca in Brisbane, their hometown. It was so great to see them again, and if they weren’t generous enough from the start, Katrina’s parents offered to have us stay with them for a couple nights. Sure beats sleeping in the car! While they took care of business during the day, we explored the city, venturing to the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art), Brisbane Museum, the Botanical Gardens, the famous Festival Hall, and got our fix of delicious sushi (one of Brizzy’s delights). There was even a beach in the middle of the city! It was delightful to spend a few days in a real home with old friends. After Brisbane, we spun around a few times and decided to head south…TO SYDNEY!

Let’s Take This Outback

G: It’s quite fair to say that Australia has a lot of sights that can be found elsewhere in this big, beautiful world: ocean and beaches, mountains and rainforests, bustling international cities; but the one thing that sets it apart is the dry and dusty red center of the outback. A place so vast and empty you sometimes need to register your plans with the government, with areas that have still yet to be traversed by Westerners. A place with some of the most poisonous creatures, and roughest people, you’ll ever meet. A place with hot, dusty days and cool, quiet nights under a blanket of innumerable stars stretching all the way to the horizon. And a place we definitely wanted to experience!

Once we left the east coast, we buckled up for the 3,000km journey to the center of Australia with Uluru as our goal. One of our stops before it got too barren was a place called The Boulders, another incredibly gorgeous display of nature with a touch of spiritual energy whizzing about. Something that made this place even more special was our encounter with an Aboriginal, named Eric. He taught us about the important relationship the indigenous tribes have with the land and the correlation to their spirit animals. Before Europeans arrived, there were over 250 different territories inhabited by specific tribes. Each one had their own history, traditions, and language, and passed down their stories through art. Some of this can be seen today through rock art, traditional dance performances, and dot paintings on canvas.

B: It was only a couple hours south to Townsville where we stocked up our final supplies. From there we went west on the Flinders Hwy through outback Queensland. Almost immediately the scenery changed from rolling green hills near in the cool sea breeze to dry prickly spinifex bushes atop brown and red earth. Every so often we’d see an abandoned car off the highway, usually vandalized in some way, possibly flipped over. We were told they might be from travelers who broke down and it was too expensive to tow and fix, but others said it was the Aboriginals who no longer had a need for a vehicle and ceremoniously gave it back to the earth. Either way, it was odd and quite frequent. Small towns dotted the highway every 100kms or so with their own “claim to fame”. Most were related to a dinosaur discovery in the area, and we later learned that we were one the dino-trail through Queensland. It might be interesting to some visitors, but most of the big finds have been relocated to museums in the US or England. Still, the signs were witty and full of puns. We were also greeted with a swarm of flies every time we stepped out of the car. They’re persistent little buggers that try to fly up your nose, ears, eyes, and mouth, if allowed. I swear they’re solar-powered though because once the sun sets, they disappear! Fortunately, we got a fly net ahead of time.

Our first night landed us in the tiny town (if you can even call it that) of Nelia. We stayed with a nice man and his pet goat Sebastian, both quite the characters. He’s got a piece of land that he tries to cultivate with chickens, turkeys, and geese, but things weren’t very organized and the land was incredibly dry. We just liked the goat. 😉

From there we continued west through the odd mining town of Mt. Isa. Mining is the only thing that town stands for and it’s really not worth much more than a quick stop. There’s a huge mine in the center of the town! It’s disgusting. Back on the highway, we continued through desolation heading west. This became a consistent theme of the outback – hours upon hours of uninhabited driving under the magnifying glass of the sun. The sky blanketed blue in all directions and the sun crept slowly around the windows of the car, back to front typically favoring the right side (north), every few hours requiring a shift in body position or placement of clothing to cover from the burning rays. Despite the emptiness, it was intriguing. Because of the emptiness, it was mesmerizing. We listened to music, podcasts, and books. We finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. Although our destination was Uluru, the journey is what made the experience exponentially more worthwhile. It’s incredible how far you can drive across Australia without seeing anything of particular importance. And yet, the desert is teeming with life. Each roadside info stand talked of lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds that thrive in these harsh extremes. When there is just the least bit of rain, the whole landscape bursts to life and meadows appear virtually overnight. Unfortunately, they also disappear just as quickly when it becomes dry again.

Another full day of driving (8hrs) brought us to the Three Ways. The highway heading west literally dead ends halfway through the country and you can either go north to Darwin (12hrs) or south to Alice Springs (6hrs). We said, “Screw you, Darwin, and your perfectly sensible theories of evolutionary progress! We’re going to hang with Alice in her Springs!” 😉 But before we got there, we camped at the Devil’s Marbles. It’s an unbelievable natural phenomenon where the earth has eroded layer after layer over millions of years leaving behind giant clumps of condensed granite that have then been worn down from wind and rain, smoothing out the edges and creating the appearance of scattered marbles big enough to belong to the devil! (ya know…if you believe in that sorta stuff)

It was still another 4hrs until we got to Alice Springs the following day, but as we got closer the scenery came to life. Hills started rolling and rocky outcrops began rising from the desolate plains. Suddenly, there was a thriving oasis of a city in the middle of this barren landscape, complete with car dealerships, fast food joints, and high-rise hotels. The next major city (Darwin or Adelaide) is 1500kms away! Alice Springs was initially established as a telegraph station between Darwin and Adelaide, right on the Tropic of Capricorn. There would be one train that came in per week and it was the highlight for all of the residents. It brought much needed supplies, food stocks, and visitors. And this was until as recently as the 1960’s! Now, Alice Springs is the gateway to the Red Centre with several hundred thousand tourists per year coming in by road or plane. There isn’t much to do in Alice per se, but there’s a lot of natural beauty in the surrounding areas.

G: But the beauty of Alice is the hub of Aboriginal art galleries and exhibitions! It seemed that every second store down Todd Mall offered racks of hand-painted Aboriginal art including a laminated certificate of authenticity: the artist’s name, their tribe, a picture of them holding up the piece, and sometimes the meaning behind the symbols. I appreciated the transparency and acknowledgement that the artist was getting their deserved recognition and fair financial compensation. Some local artists work in studios provided for them, while others spend time painting at home in order to teach younger generations their family stories and techniques, and then bring it in to sell. After many stores and viewings, we settled on a very unique piece which I can’t wait to hang up when we find our nest back home!

B: But of course, after we shopped all day and spent a good deal on a quality piece of work, an Aboriginal woman approached us in the parking lot where we stopped to have lunch. She had paintings she wanted to sell and was currently working on a few in the park. We had a polite look at her stuff and I saw one that was decent, so I asked, “How much?” “20 dollars,” she replied. It wasn’t nearly the caliber of the one we had just purchased, but I bought it anyways to support her work.

Outside of Alice Springs, we spent a day exploring the West MacDonnell Range. We did some beautiful hikes in the red rock country, some with Aboriginal rock art. We also visited Standley Chasm, which was eerie to walk through because of the narrow opening between large rock faces. The area is famous for attracting local artists to capture the light, color and texture of the chasm.

Next, we ventured to Kings Canyon, about 4hrs drive from Alice. King’s Canyon is a 6km circuit, with the first 100m being a straight incline until it summits, and then it’s an easy trek along the beautiful red rock formations. It almost felt like we were walking amongst ancient ruins. The formations were pretty unique and displayed what the earth can do when left undisturbed for millennia.

G: But the main reason for trekking all of this distance into the outback was to see the giant monolith and sacred Aboriginal site known as Uluru. It seemed like we were never going to get there after four days and over 2,500kms of desolate driving, but about 50kms away, a small spot appeared on the horizon appeared. Uluru is essentially a massive rock that has formed in the middle of nowhere. It’s 3.6km wide and takes 10.6kms just to walk around the base! Geologists believe that it sits almost like an iceberg, in that about two-thirds of it is still underground.

We decided to free-camp about 40km away and woke up early to catch the sunrise the following morning. The park only offers a three-day pass for $25. Extreme weather conditions were in check, and it was easily 40C in the sun (104F), which made the walking trails only possible in the early morning. After the sunrise, we started the 10.6km base walk. The park recommends finishing all walks by 11am, but we could already feel the wall of heat by 9am. It was just too hot…but this is the outback after all!

Before our walk, we saw the spot where climbers go to summit the sacred site. Sadly, tourism to Uluru thrives on the idea of climbing to the top, despite the Aboriginals request not to. There were signs plain in sight, but people couldn’t care less. One lady we spoke to shrugged it off saying “I’ve wanted to come here since I was a little girl and hike this thing.” Interestingly enough though at the Visitor’s Center there was a book entitled I Didn’t Climb the Rock where visitors could explain why they didn’t climb. I don’t know why you’d want to climb, considering that 40 people have died trying. Likewise, there was another book of letters from people who felt guilty taking rocks and sent them back to be free of bad karma. A 17 year-old girl wrote in to say how she felt her life has had a dark cloud over it and she attributes it to taking a rock from around Uluru for memorabilia. Even around the base walk, there are signs that ask visitors not to photograph areas as it sacred to the dreamtime stories of the men and women of the area. The spiritual presence hangs heavy and all I can think about it how lucky we are to be able to experience this remarkable place.

B: We stayed at Ayers Rock Resort for a night, which hosts over 300,000 visitors per year with six different lodging options (and the only accommodations around). We finished our sightseeing early and found relief from the heat in the pool and the shops in the Town Square. I even participated in a didgeridoo workshop and learned more about the Aboriginal instrument that is traditionally only played by males. At sunset, we returned to Uluru for a dinner out of our portable home as the massive monolith was glowing orange and red in the sinking sunlight.

The next morning, we awoke before the sun and drove another 50km to catch the sunrise at Kata-Tjuta Dune Viewing (aka The Olgas) which coincidentally was a great viewing spot of Uluru in the distance. Kata-Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in local language, which makes sense as the the site is made up 36 domes. Once the sun was up, we headed further into the park for the 7.4km Valley of the Winds walk. The signposts where not as clear the first part of the trail so we got a little lost, but it was all worth it when we saw some kangaroos nearby. Back on track, the trek was beautiful as it climbed through valleys with views of massive boulders and sedimentary domes. Water stations appeared every so often to remind visitors to stay hydrated in the ghastly heat.

After the trek, we enjoyed a little more of the Ayers Rock Resort and then made it back to the free camp outside of the park where we stayed before. That evening, we mingled with an Aussie named Carl on a 6-month road trip with his wife Diane, both newly retired.  Over a campfire and under a glimmering blanket of stars stretching all directions, Carl recited his jovial bush poetry and stories of being a tour guide on Fraser Island. To top off the Aussie evening, we got a visit from a hungry-looking dingo sniffing around for scraps in the cool night air.

The outback is a big and beautiful stretch of country if you come prepared for the abundance of sun and lack of water. The heat is intense, the towns are remote, and the critters are deadly, but once you settle in with a fly net and a drink, it’s the true Aussie experience. I can’t imagine visiting Uluru any other way.

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Cairns and The Reef

B: A three-hour flight north from Melbourne took us from a wet and windy winter to the hot and humid temps of the wet tropics in Cairns. Even though we arrived after sunset, the air was thick and it felt like I was back in Florida. We set up camp in a hostel in the middle of town, right on the Esplanade across from the popular lagoon where everyone stops for a swim. Cairns doesn’t have any beaches because of the crocs; a new danger to us in Queensland, and one of many we’d soon learn about.

Cairns itself is a small city, but quite commercial. It’s filled with tacky souvenir shops, boisterous hostels, and travel booking agencies for the many excursions in the area.  Vacationing families splurge on nightly dinners near the neon-lit Esplanade while the young international crowd gets primped for a night of debauchery. The vibe reminded us a lot of Waikiki in Honolulu, as did the scenery of rolling green mountains flowing into the sea. The city council also offers free fitness classes in the park, different each night, and there are exercise machines in the park along the boardwalk, which we took advantage of one night with a bouldering class. One oddity was the overwhelming presence of flying fox bats dangling from the trees during the day and swooping and screeching through the streets at dusk (covering cars and streets with green guano along the way!).

All of our energy was focused on finding a car those first few days. We checked out a couple of backpacker station wagons, but either the mileage or the price was too high (or both!). Fortunately, on our third day we met a nice local man (Michael) selling a 1997 Mitsubishi Magna with only 147,000 kms. It had the Road Worthy Certificate (required in Queensland) and the price was right. It hasn’t been used as a backpacker car, so we had to buy the customary camping gear usually included with many used cars, but it’s worth it for a car in good condition with low kms. We jumped on this quality ride and became new homeowners within five days of landing in Cairns. Meet Maggie! Unfortunately, we parked her under bat-infested tree the first night and discovered her shiny silver had turned a mucus green… :-/

Cairns 003

Maggie!

G: The day after we secured the car, we celebrated with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We boarded at 8am and cruised for 90 minutes before reaching the first stop, Saxon Reef. The water was frigid and visibility was decent. While Blake geared up for a dive, I grabbed a noodle and went for a snorkel with my underwater camera. Much to my dismay, I failed to put sunscreen on my back and got scorched; a price I’d pay for the next week. 😦 Fortunately though, the sights beneath the surface were like swimming in an aquarium; electric-colored fish of all sizes, intricate and diverse coral, and clams almost a meter in length!

B: The dive was pretty amazing as well. I got to see larger coral structures and different kinds of fish at the greater depth. I was a little disappointed that we had to swim with linked arms though since I’m not certified, something that wasn’t necessary when I dove in Indonesia. We also only got to a depth of about 8m, but in Indonesia we went to 15m. Still, it was awesome to experience the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef in 3D.

G: Once Blake resurfaced, we had a buffet lunch on board before sailing to the next destination, Hastings Reef. As soon as we anchored, there were large fish, about a meter in length, clustering around the back of the boat in crystal clear water. We wanted to dive right in with mask and snorkel, but we had to stay dry and board a smaller boat that took us to a launch pad for a Helicopter ride.

B: Bummer, right?!

G: Indeed we splurged, but how often will we be at the Great Barrier Reef?! As we climbed higher over the sea, the large reef up close became small shapes of golden land, smooth in the middle and textured on the outer edges as it kissed the turquoise water. The scattered array of organic structures expanded for miles beneath our window.

After our ride, we came back to snorkel at Hastings where the visibility was much clearer and the underwater world more interesting. We saw a turtle and heaps more coral and fish, including Barracuda and Nemo. 🙂 (we found him!) Later, Blake even spotted a white-tipped reef shark! On the way back to shore, we enjoyed some local entertainment and dried out on the sun deck after a memorable day at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Now we’re ready to explore this big beautiful country with Maggie!

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Weekend at Grampis

G: Soooo…about three months ago, after a taste of country Victoria on the Great Ocean Road, it was soon time for another weekender out of the city. This time we ventured three hours northwest to the Grampians National Park (known as Gariwerd to local Koories), a bushwalker’s paradise showcasing some of Victoria’s most outstanding natural features. The Grampians boast a rich diversity of flora, varying degrees of walking trails, world-famous rock climbing, significant Aboriginal rock art, and the amazingly cute wallabies bouncing around everywhere!

It was the Queen’s Birthday Holiday weekend, so it seemed everyone wanted a little getaway. Because of the three-day weekend, accommodations were full and we almost didn’t go. Luckily, we found a motel (and time-warp back the 80’s) for the first night in Horsham, about 40km away from Halls Gap, the central town of the Grampians. After the drive, we made a quick stop to the information center in Halls Gap to get our weekend itinerary in check.

We went to the Boroka and Reed Lookout points first, with a short walk to the Balconies. The winding drive through the forest took us to great heights and amazing views of the surrounding ranges. The lookout points were an easy walk from the car park and offered vast views of Victoria.

Staying in Horsham actually worked out nicely because we hiked Hollow Mountain on the way there, which is in a part of the park that we wouldn’t have normally gone to. The incline for the trail got steep quite quickly, but for good reason. Our mountain goat mentality got us to the first resting point in 30 minutes, where rock climbers were already testing their bouldering skills above a crash mat. We explored the nooks and crannies of some of these amazing boulders ourselves and climbed into a cave with another amazing view. We continued climbing higher and found more adventurous rock climbers tackling huge faces before it was time to head back with the sun dipping into the horizon. Blake thought we may as well check out of the few rock art sites, so we had a quick look at the Gulgun Manja Shelter which had deep ochre and sienna colored hands imprinted in the sandstone.

B: The next day was devoted to the famous Pinnacles Lookout, an exciting climb through canyons, steep trails, and big boulders to a fantastical lookout. It was a crowded walk to the top, because of the beauty and the holiday, but the view was gorgeous. So gorgeous in fact that we Skyped my parents to show them what we were up to on a Sunday morning! There was a fenced off area where one could get right to the tip of the pinnacle and have full view of the Wonderland Range looking out for miles on the vast expanse of a very beautiful and spiritual place. After a bit of lunch at the top, we started our descent and followed another path down through the Grand Canyon. Not like the one in Arizona, but still pretty cool.

Then it was back on the windy Mt Victory Road to Mackenzie Falls. Now, we’ve seen many waterfalls on our adventure, but these were quite unique. A steep 30-minute walk down into a canyon revealed a gigantic curtain of gushing water over shimmering black rocks. It’s Victoria’s largest and most majestic waterfall.

G: On our way to the hostel in Halls Gap, we made a stop at the Brambuk Cultural Centre to learn a little more about Aboriginal history, culture, and terrain. On our way, we spotted some wallabies near the parking lot so we pulled closer to observe and soon saw a little movement in one of the mama’s pouches! We waited a few more seconds, and sure enough a sweet little Joey popped its head out for some fresh air! We spent what little time was left exploring the Cultural Centre before they closed. That night we cooked up a yummy dinner and sipped on some ciders in the cozy common room, bonfire warming our toes, getting to know some new Aussie’s.  Always a pleasure, and yes, they are as nice as Canadians. 🙂

The next morning, one of the lovely lady’s we met the night before, Nadia, joined us in the Dream Theatre at the Cultural Centre to watch a couple films on the Grampians National Park: one more spiritual and the other more geological and science-based. It was nice to see both versions and take away our own. Soon after, we were off on another hike!

B: We decided to do a circuit trail on Mount Rosea. There were little detours to waterfalls on the way, but main attraction was the view from the top. There was a bit of a landing area with some boulders to climb around to go all the way out to the edge. We each found quiet spot and took a short meditation break (only natural when you reach the top of a mountain). The views were stunning!

Finally, we stopped at the Bunjil Shelter, one of the most culturally significant pieces of rock art in southeastern Australia. It’s a depiction of Bunjil, also known as the creator and subject of the spiritual film we watched at the Cultural Centre. I believe he’s also referred to in the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “Walkabout” with the lyric, “A didgeridoo original man with a dream; I believe the aborigine; On a walkabout.”

All in all, we had an amazing experience in the Grampians. It was a perfect time of year to go, despite the three-day weekend crowds. There are heaps of moderate hikes offering great lookouts that don’t take too long. The Aboriginal rock art also a unique aspect when exploring this part of the world. Who knows, maybe we’ll come back in the summer!

Melbournians

G: Sad to leave New Zealand behind, we crossed the ditch to get cozy in our new home: Melbourne, Australia. It was finally time to take off our packs and stay a while, and there was certainly no better city. A real cosmopolitan hub, Melbourne thrives on international cuisine, delectable coffee, contemporary art museums, an eclectic music scene, plenty of green space, and an intricate network of bike paths.

When we first arrived, we couch surfed with a local who was offering up every room in his house to backpackers. We stayed with travelers from Sweden, Finland, Germany, and France for a couple days. We drank wine, cooked, and shared stories over meals gathered around a 6” thick, 10′ long wooden dining room table. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for long as our host was leaving for Sydney soon. We were already frantically running around city searching for an apartment and jobs while hopping from one wifi hotspot to another in blazing 30˚C (90˚F) heat, and now we needed a place to sleep on short notice!

B: After scouring the couch surfing website and sending out a dozen messages without a welcoming response, we finally were accepted by a host in Northcote. Katrina and Macca are a professional couple who were curious about couch surfing and had bravely accepted us as their first. When we showed up, they had dinner ready and a spare bedroom instead of a couch! Sweet as, mate! We shared nightly dinners to express our gratitude with our amazing hosts and knew we made some good friends to hang with during our stay in Melbourne.

We continued our apartment hunt in between the time I spent looking for a job. Most places we looked at were dingy, expensive, and had housemates packed in like sardines with one bathroom to share for eight people. No thanks!

G: Feeling a bit discouraged with apartment hunting, Katrina recommended checking out the housing board at University of Melbourne. We followed up on several notices, but one in particular felt right. Soon we met Jason, a 39-year-old Melbournian getting a Master’s in Public Health with an affection for Asia and whiskey. The room was one of three bedrooms in a townhouse in the hip neighborhood of Brunswick. The area was built in and around what use to be a brickworks factory, hence our street name Brickworks Drive. The architecture captured components of the old factory building and added new, modern & eclectic designs and bright colors – full of character! And what more could we ask for than to have our front door open out to a beautiful park full of gum trees (Eucalyptus) and an off-leash dog haven. Saweet!

Jason has the master bedroom with attached bath and uses the smaller room as an office. The room for rent was spacious with a huge closet and our OWN bathroom. 😉 The development was quite new and the interior décor showed signs of Asian influence, since Jason had spent about 8 years teaching English in Vietnam. We had seen enough by then to know that this was it and we quickly made our interest known. We moved in on Tuesday, which gave us a few more nights to enjoy as couch surfers with Katrina and Macca.

B: By the beginning of our second week in Melbourne not only did we move into our new home, but I had been hired as a fundraiser with Public Outreach, where I have been working full-time since March. It’s an awesome company and I get to talk to interesting people while raising a bunch of money for charity! I started out working on Cancer Council Victoria, then moved to Save the Children, and now it’s the Australian Conservation Foundation. The people I work with inspire me all the time and it’s been a very rewarding experience, although sometimes stressful. 😉 A couple guys and I also joined a basketball league with games every Sunday night, but our jerseys greatly surpassed our athletic ability. Gabriella happily found a job teaching yoga at a couple of studios. It’s given her the opportunity to branch out in her experience of health and well-being and to learn the art of teaching. She’s gotten great feedback and it has really awakened in her a new-found passion.

Though things slowed down a bit and we fell into a rhythm, we still made the time to explore in and around the city, including the Melbourne Zoo, St. Kilda, CERES Environment Park, and William Ricketts Sanctuary. We also went down the Mornington Peninsula for a weekend at the Peninsula Hot Springs and a day hike at Cape Schank with our friends Katrina and Macca. We’ve kept so busy we haven’t even had time to update this blog, but we’ve certainly been thinking about it and taking mental notes for when we publish more entries. Stay tuned…there’s more to come!

Foraging the Food Forest

G: After our solid three-week tour of the North and South Islands, it was time to rest our bones and give back to New ZeaLAND for a while. We wanted to go somewhere remote and live with the locals for our last WWOOFing experience. It was to be the longest we would stay in one place out of our entire year of travel; three-and-a-half weeks.

Our host, Robert Guyton, picked us up in Invercargill, 40km east of the tiny town of Riverton. Thirty minutes later, as we drove through the town center on a narrow two-lane road no longer than a kilometer without a building higher than two stories, I thought, ‘Oh god, is this a mistake!?’ When we arrived at the Guyton’s home we met Robert’s lovely wife Robyn. Within moments, in her quick and confusing kiwi accent, she welcomed us to get comfortable and settle in. She gestured to our accommodations, a short climb up a wooden ladder to cozy loft space above the garage.

B: Things were looking up!

G: As I climbed the ladder and poked my head into our bird’s nest, it was like a time warp—the space was filled with woven baskets of all shapes and sizes to the left, a small library of books on the right, stacks of photos, old lamps, one double mattress lying flatly on the ground, and lots of dust! The A-frame only allowed for proper posture in the center of the room and insulation was installed with single-size mattresses between the framing held in place by strategically-placed tree branches.

Also staying with the Guyton’s for a few days was Daisy, a sweet 22-year-old from Devonshire, England currently studying at the University of Dunedin. This was her second stay with the Guyton’s and she was envious we had plans to stay for several weeks. Little did we know just how famous the Guyton’s are and what an amazing place we had stepped into. Their home was built in a very rustic and sustainable way. Most of it was made from recycled material including a 150-year old sink in the bathroom, old light switches, two faucets at every sink (hot and cold), only one bathtub (no shower), and an old scale with iron weights for baking measurements. I was in rustic heaven.

On their two acres of land, they have the most developed food forest in the Southern hemisphere. It all started 23 years ago with the planting of their first apple tree. Since then, their permaculture forest has flourished into multiple varieties of apples, plums, and berries, beds of leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and herbs, a greenhouse full of seedlings, a chicken coop, and more. In the last few years, it has attracted tourists from all of New Zealand and has even gotten global recognition in several books and documentaries.

When Robert wasn’t maintaining the food forest, he was either inside writing articles for the ‘New Zealand Gardener’ magazine or serving on the Invercargill City Council for environmental issues. He’s built quite a reputation of fighting for sustainable farming practices and environmental issues across NZ. Robert and Robyn also host a weekly radio show about gardening and sustainability. They invited us to be guests one week to speak about our farming experience in Hawaii and natural skincare alternatives.

B: Enthusiasts often visit Riverton specifically to meet the Guyton’s and tour their land, some more shy than others. One day, Robert walked out to the curb and saw a couple in their campervan parked across the street. As he walked over, they immediately grabbed a map, pretending to be lost. Robert politely asked where they were going, to which they replied with a location that was at least 30km away (yeah, right). They tried to remain oblivious until asking, ‘Oh…aren’t you Robert Guyton with the food forest?’ He kindly replied, ‘Yes, of course. Would you like me to give you a tour?’ This wasn’t the first time… 😉

Robert and Robyn also founded the local Environment Centre in town. It’s a hub for the environmentalist community, offering local and organic food, natural house-hold cleaners and skincare, gardening tools, etc. It also offers educational resources for children and adults about sustainable farming, seed saving, and protecting native bush. It has become the primary source for sustainable living in all of Southland. Employees are mostly volunteers and get 1% discount for each hour they work during the week (up to 15%). Sometimes we would spend a few hours overseeing the shop instead of working outside. We spent three days sprucing up the kitchen—fresh paint, linoleum flooring, and new shelves—which Robyn and the employees were thrilled about.  We also hosted a movie night to show the documentary ‘Thrive’, which I suggest you all watch. (www.thrivemovement.com)

Most of our time was spent on projects in the food forest: creating teepee-like structures for grape vines to climb, clearing wild weeds by hand to form paths in the permaculture, trimming and transplanting native flax bush, netting plum trees and berry bushes from the birds, building a gate within a wooden fence, and harvesting lots of apples, plums, berries, leafy greens, root vegetables, and eggs. There were so many plums that we took the opportunity to learn how to make plum sauce, plum jam, and preserves to keep in the pantry for the winter.

We also did some bee-keeping, which was pretty awesome! We suited up in full bee-keeper gear from head to toe. Gabriella controlled the smoke while I did the dirty work. The smoke makes them think the hive is on fire, so they quickly rush inside to eat as much honey as they can, then become tired and passive with a full belly. The Guyton’s have about 10,000 bees working in a stack of three boxes. I removed the lids, cleaned the frames, looked for disease, added another box and screen, and got the hell outta there! The buzzing got louder and louder the longer I stayed to work and it was difficult to hear Robert’s instructions. I stayed calm throughout, because bees can smell fear (like panthers), but unfortunately one bee made its way inside of my face mask and stung me on the neck as I was retreating back to the house. Bee-keeper initiation complete! We waited four days for the bees to transfer their work down to the new box before returning to take the top box full of fresh honey. We absolutely look forward to having our own honey-making operation one day!

G: Next time you can do the smoke! Robert said I hadn’t quite become a true beekeeper since I wasn’t stung. I must say, it was quite impressive how quickly Robert moved to pull the stinger our of Blake’s neck by scraping a large knife across the skin. Blake – our true beekeeper. What a trooper!

Another cool story: One day, Daisy wanted to make real English scones and needed buttermilk, but we didn’t have any in the house. Jokingly, I told her to just mix some butter and milk! When Robyn heard that she shook her head and smiled. A few hours later, she called to us in from the garden to come learn how to make buttermilk. In the kitchen were three jars with a half-cup of cream inside each. She told us to shake the jars rapidly and it would eventually separate into butter and buttermilk. Aaaand…it was a competition! Within just a couple of minutes…voila! A chunk of butter began to form and we kept shaking faster until there was no more cream. This was a great example of Robyn’s spontaneity when she wanted to teach us something. It was perfectly normal to interrupt pulling weeds to make some buttermilk or come in for a cup of tea. No stress!

B: One weekend, Robyn took us to help her out with a children’s games day in Tuatapere, another small town about an hour away. This was yet another great example of Robyn’s love for simplicity and sticking to tradition. When we arrived, we quickly noticed the paintball section was receiving the most attention. We rolled up with stilts, quoits, puppet theatre, and potato sacks. I made one hell of a proscenium theatre for those puppets that about 3 kids enjoyed. Gabriella and I had fun tossing quoits and doing the sack race while other kids stayed at the dunk tank and pony rides. We had a blast and got to enjoy the simpler things in life. On the way home, Robyn gave us a tour of New Zealand’s southern coast stopping at Monkey Island, Gemstone Beach, and other scenic lookouts along the way. It was an absolutely beautiful day venturing outside of Riverton.

G: Some other perks at the Guyton’s was their fire-bath, which is a claw-foot bathtub in the middle of the forest with a chamber to light a fire underneath. Once it’s heated up, you can relax in the natural surroundings. Just make sure to sit on the slab of wood so you don’t burn your bum! 🙂 Without a doubt, I am going to have one of those someday… They also have an outdoor pizza oven built from scratch, which we used a couple of times. Much to my dismay I was my unable to sustain a fire every time I tried. Sorry Dad, I know you’ve taught me a million times!

B: Despite our initial apprehension, we had an incredible time in Riverton with the Guyton’s and their amazing food forest. Every day was a new adventure. I had the kitchen to cook and bake to my hearts delight (which was also heaven for Blake) sharing many amazing meals and talks. They even found time to move their youngest daughter (Hollie) off to college just a few days after their eldest son (Terry) brought their first grandchild into the world, baby Leo Archer. Surprisingly, the Guyton’s have never left NZ, nor do they intend to, finding comfort and excitement each day in their town of 1,200 residents. (Well…Robyn still wants to go to Paris…) We learned more in three weeks than I would have ever expected, for which I am eternally grateful. I can see why they have long line-ups of tourists and WWOOFers waiting to experience life with the Guyton’s!

Hikes, Honey, and Hot Springs

G: After three weeks at the vineyard, it was finally time to discover the beauty of New Zealand with the freedom of a rental car. As the amazing universe would have it, my best friend Carrie and her friend Andrea joined us to explore the North Island for one week! With a jam-packed itinerary scheduled, we all anticipated a great journey ahead.

The adventure began at 8am Monday morning when we picked up the girls, jet-lagged, but excited and a lot warmer than the Canadian winter they had escaped. We immediately left Auckland and drove the scenic coastline of Coromandel, lined with Pohutukawa trees and their bright red flowers contrasting the shimmering blue-green ocean. We stopped at a quaint café for lunch with a delectable menu and small library on site, and indulged in a bag of fresh plums – yum! Next we visited the Mahamudra Tibetan Buddhist temple for a quick walk of the grounds and meditation. And finally, we celebrated with a toast of manuka honey-flavored vodka to welcome the week (and help the girls relax into the new time zone)!

B: The next day we headed out early to make it to Hot Water Beach while the tide was still low. This place is unique because it’s a beach with geothermal activity just below the surface. At low tide, all the tourists show up with a spade to dig a hole in the sand deep enough to strike hot water. An all-natural hot tub on the beach! Despite all the tourists, this is one place that can’t be missed. Then it was off to nearby Cathedral Cove, a rock-formed archway on the beach that resembles the shape of a cathedral. The rest of the day was spent driving south to Rotorua with plenty of stops in between for pictures and a short roadside hike to a waterfall.

G: The next morning began our most colorful day while exploring around Rotorua, starting with some tree-hugging through the Whakarewarewa Redwoods Forest; a truly oxygen-enriching experience. The brisk morning air combined with the fresh smell of sequoias towering overhead made for a great start to our day.  Next we visited the Blue and Green Lakes for a few pictures, and then stopped at Mamaku Blue Winery to sample everything blueberry! After some lunch, we hiked up the Rainbow Mountain Track. Once we summited, the views were beautiful in all directions. There was also a lovely gentleman at the top in a cabin hoisted on the mountain on forest-fire lookout. He answered our questions about the wildlife, landscape, and anything New Zealand. Although we thought the skies were clear and the view spectacular, he told us that it’s usually much clearer, but the smoke from wildfires in Australia has been blowing over and creating a haze recently. He gladly refilled our water bottles for the return trip and took a picture for his Facebook scrapbook! What a character! Finally, we made it to the geothermal river known as Kerosene Creek where we soaked our aching muscles away…

B: We settled down for three nights in Turangi so that we’d be close to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – the best one-day hike in NZ, or as others may know it: Mordor. Unfortunately, when we got there our guesthouse informed us that the trail was only open halfway due to the recent volcanic eruption and we could only get there by shuttle, which is $40/person. We took a day to think about it and drove north to check out Taupo the next day. We made a summit of Mt. Tauhara that offered spectacular views of Lake Taupo and surrounding area. We stopped at Huka Falls, the Honey Hive (for all things honey), and relaxed in more natural hot springs as the sun dipped low in the sky.

We decided to skip the Tongariro Alpine Crossing due to the cost and the fact that we could only do half of it, which was absolutely the right decision. Despite perfect weather the previous few days, we woke up the next morning to rain and overcast skies. We tried to do a different hike near Mt. Ruapehu, but the rain lingered and the visibility was incredibly low. We would’ve been so disappointed if we paid $160, woke up at 5am, and were stuck on an 8-hr hike without being able to see anything! So instead we took advantage of the surrounding geothermal activity and went to some more hot springs. 😉

G: With Blake’s enthusiasm (as the girls were too relaxed from the warm soak), we went on a short geothermal walking tour outside the hot spring site. Well worth the leisurely 20-minute walk as we saw bubbling mud pools and geothermal water reserves with a variety of colors and textures. That evening we played some Frisbee in the nearby park, polished off the manuka honey-flavored vodka and cooked another wonderful meal together.

The next day was a long drive to Wellington. Along the way, we made a quick stop to take a picture in front of the world’s largest gumboot, and Carrie finally got to try the Kiwi’s Lamb Burger! When we got to Wellington, we took a driving tour before returning our rental car and saw the theatre where “The Hobbit” premiered (Peter Jackson is from Wellington)! In the evening, we enjoyed walking the city and spent some more quality-time together. The girls even treated us to our last meal together, with some wine to celebrate. Thanks Carrie and Andrea!

It’s safe to say that we were all more than thrilled with our week’s tour of the North Island. The landscape was amazing at every turn and the geothermal activity was unbelievable! Everyone said that the South Island is the place to be, but the North Island was quite impressive. Next, the girls headed off to Australia for two weeks and we took the ferry across the Cook Straight to see the South Island!

I love my Carrie!

I love my Carrie!

Buongiorno, Villa Romantica!

B: Our first wwoofing location was on the North Shore of Auckland at the Italian home of Raffaela and Paolo Delmonte. So much for an authentic kiwi experience! Raffaela picked us up from the bus station and took us to her beautiful home on 7 acres of land, quietly tucked away in the suburbs with a view of the ocean, appropriately called Villa Romantica. This wasn’t a typical wwoofing experience because we weren’t working on a farm, but rather helping to maintain her land and clean up around the house. There is also a small cottage next to the house that the Delmonte’s rent out for weeks at a time.

The home was made of dark wood with lots of natural light and open space. The wood provided just enough insulation that no HVAC system (heat and A/C) was needed, but the acoustics were terrible and every creak could be heard throughout the house. Our room was a large and sunny bedroom with a glass-sliding door leading to the backyard and our own newly-remodeled bathroom down the hall. Quite a treat after coming from some poorly maintained places in Asia!

G: Don’t forget the house cats: Giggo and Briccola! When they weren’t busy cleaning each other, I definitely got my fix of kitty love from them.

Giggio and Briccola

Our work schedule was broken up into four 4-hour days and one 8-hour day for a total of 24 hours per week. The jobs bounced all over, but mainly involved weeding, spreading compost, and relocating native bushes.  To Raffaela’s delight, we worked fairly quickly and moved through many projects. We were the last wwoofers she would host before the holidays, so there were many loose ends to tie up.

One of my favorite projects was the garden out back, facing the ocean in the distance. We landscaped the area to create levels along the slope and dug up various plants to move them using creative aesthetic. The permaculture varied from simple herbs like chamomile and parsley to cosmo flowers and olive and lemon trees and a blueberry bush. We found out pretty quickly that the soil in New Zealand is full of clay and farmers have to work hard with companion planting and composting to break up the clay in the soil. Later, we found out that planting chicory is a great solution for this. Often times, Blake and I would be working on different projects and there were times when I wished I were doing what he was doing. Like when it came to cleaning the chicken coop—ick!—he was fixing an enclosure for the new ducklings that would soon hatch. Or when I was clearing the thick jungle of shrubs and weeds by hand, Blake and his new best friend, the weed whacker, were bulldozing thick grass in no time.

B: You really wish you were swinging around that obnoxious thing?! I had to wear two pairs of ear plugs and even then I couldn’t hear myself think! I was probably weed-whacking over half of the time, while the rest involved hauling the wheel barrow somewhere.

I think the most interesting task was trimming the wings of the chickens. We had to sneak out to the chicken coop just after dusk when they were all settling in for the night. With Raffaella and Paolo’s help, and my creepy red headlamp, we would quietly snatch one chicken, trim the feathers off of one wing, and then put it back inside. The chickens quickly figured out what was going on and it became harder and harder to identify which ones were already trimmed because they would move around and hide. The objective was to make sure that they wouldn’t fly out of their enclosure, and by only trimming one wing they couldn’t fly straight with lopsided aerodynamics. It doesn’t hurt the chicken; it’s like trimming your fingernails.

G: Yeah, I wasn’t too crazy about the idea upon hearing it, but thankfully it really was harmless. It was also fun the day we helped Raffaella prepare for the launch of a new cookbook that used some of her recipes. The book was made by Ceres, an organic foods company, so all of the ingredients were amazing. We helped prepare four dishes that would serve 200 people! It was much better chopping, mixing, and tasting than working outside. Unfortunately, she did not host too many of her Italian cooking workshops while we were there, but I still learned about new products and a few cooking tips just from helping her make the nightly dinners.

A special treat was helping her make natural skincare, too. One afternoon we harvested rose petals from four varieties of rose bushes in the garden. It was a bit of a science experiment to put it together but the end result was truly sensational. It was one thing expecting her to be a chef and learning new things in the kitchen, but it was the cherry on top to make and have an additional cleanser, moisturizer, and lip balm with all natural ingredients. Her big tagline was making “edible cosmetics”! It doesn’t get better than this! 😉

homemade rose water

B: We had our fair share of ups and downs though; with the birds in particular. One day, a neighborhood dog wandered over to the property and jumped into the chicken pen. He thought the chickens were toys and pounced on one after another until Raffaela saw what was happening and chased him away. By then, 3 chickens and the lone rooster had lost their lives, leaving only 4 chickens left. It was quite an ordeal and very dramatic. Animal control came and the owner eventually agreed to replace the chickens.

On top of that, one of the ducks gave birth to 6 little ducklings a few days earlier, but the little yellow fuzz balls didn’t last long.

Unfortunately, one by one, they were found dead or went missing day after day. By the time of the chicken fiasco, there were 2 left, but they died the next day. It was suspected to be the work of the pukekho, a notoriously vicious bird found everywhere here in NZ that looks like a black chicken. I guess that’s just the reality of living with farm animals. Another duck was also sitting a nest of eggs for which I was building the enclosure, but we didn’t stay long enough to see them hatch.

G: All in all though, it was a good start to our wwoofing days in NZ. It was certainly an adjustment coming from Asia, with colder weather and a working schedule again. How lame does that sound, right!? We would soon find out how generous Raffaela was with keeping our tummies full, too.

B: Absolutely. It was quite a humbling experience to go from being a big shot in Asia with our own hotel near the beach, eating out every meal, and doing whatever we felt like doing, to a schedule of manual labor in an expensive country having to clean up after family dinners. We were so grateful to be accepted into the Delmonte home though and given the opportunity to learn and experience New Zealand (and Italy). Raffaela was great about taking us out in the afternoon to go on walks down the coastline or go shopping so that we weren’t cooped up in the house all week. I think this was the best place we could have landed to readjust to life back in the developed world.

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella