OBXer’s Getaway: Australia and Land of the Long White Cloud

By on June 3, 2018

Lyttleton Harbor, New Zealand. (Rob and Pat Morris photos)

Hatteras Island came to mind when we arrived at Kaikoura on the beautiful east coast of New Zealand, even though the two seascapes are geographically and visually worlds apart.

There, the mountains meet the coastline. The crescent beach fronting the small village is gray gravel and smooth rocks, some the size of your fist. It’s a natural phenomenon, but a startling one for a couple from a coast where the shoreline is relatively soft and, well, the color of sand.

What the two resort areas have in common are natural disasters. Between hurricanes and power outages, Hatteras Island has had its share.

Advertisement

In Kaikoura, our ship was the first to dock in a year. And that afternoon, the only road in and out to the north was opening for the first time since an earthquake rattled the region in 2016. We were told that the temblor upwelled and widened the beach by several feet.

The owners of the businesses that lined the main drag were delighted to see us. While some of our fellow travelers were booking whale-watching and other excursions, we were happy to sit and sip coffee and spend some money in the locally owned shops.

Kaikoura was well into a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia and New Zealand that started 12 days earlier in Sidney during late November and much of December, which is the beginning of summer there. Still, the relative proximity to Antarctica meant unpredictable weather, sometimes warm and sunny, but often cold and drizzly. Kind of like the Outer Banks in spring.

Three and a half days in Sydney gave us plenty of time to readjust after the 20-hour flight before boarding our Seaborne ship, which without the deal from Seattle-based Travel with Alan would have been priced well beyond our bank accounts and social standing.

Since we had crossed the international dateline, Nov. 30 disappeared. One couple with us would have no wedding anniversary in 2017.

Advertisement

Sydney waterfront.

Sydney brought to mind San Francisco with hills surrounding a magnificent blue and blustery harbor alive with ferries, sailboats and barges. We were given a broad visual overview on a bus tour, not nearly enough time to soak up the cosmopolitan lifestyle and multiple choices for enjoying lavish waterfront areas. But if you need a photo of the iconic Sydney Opera House, we have plenty.

There’s much more to tell about Sydney, but Googling travel websites and Wikipedia will fill you in better than space or attention span allows here. Besides, our trip was about to get more interesting.

From Sydney, we motored up to the Blue Mountains, with a stop at a somewhat dreary wildlife park, which was like a small zoo where the kangaroos and koalas looked pretty bored. But it gave us a sampling of the animals of the island.

Advertisement

Despite the rain and chill, the Blue Mountains were a wonderful surprise. We rode a cable car across a half-mile-wide gorge with a waterfall at a place called Scenic World — which is not as Disney-like as the name might imply, although the souvenir shop offered plenty of opportunities to burn money.

View from the gondola at Scenic World.

We took a shorter ride in a covered tram down a very fast, almost vertical chute into the chasm, where coal was once mined. A walk down a long and winding boardwalk through the forest to the bottom was wet and not as rewarding as we had hoped. But at least we were able to say we did it.

Next, Govetts Leap and Grose Gorge offered what was billed as one of the most famous lookouts in Australia. By then, it was raining harder and getting colder, but the clouds inside the gorge added to its mystique. We saw trees with bark that that turned multiple shades of red, black, gold and green from the rain. Rain also gives the Blue Mountains their name because of the color the eucalyptus trees turn during the damper months of the year.

Our stay in Sydney included a run to a sheep farm in the foothills outside of town. A nice diversion, it included sheep shearing, a roundup by sheep dogs and inept attempts at cracking whips and throwing boomerangs. But it felt at that point like we were just killing time.

We cruised out of Sydney on our fourth day headed for Phillip Island and looking forward to the touted penguin parade.

The little blue penguin, no longer called the fairy penguin, is the smallest in the world at around 13 inches tall. At sunset, hundreds emerge from the sea after a day of feeding to care for their young in hutches along the shoreline hillsides.

They speed by in waddling clusters on well-worn trails, ignoring the gawking crowd packed on a platform along the perimeter. Loud peeps provide a chorus of call and answer as the youngsters and parents seek each other out. At one point the sillouette of a wallaby bounded across the darkening ridgeline.

Cameras are not allowed to avoid risking stray light. Light dictates the life cycle of the nocturnal blue penguin, much like our sea turtle hatchlings, only in reverse: The turtles head out to sea toward the light of the moon.

Melbourne was a quick stop and offered pretty much what you would expect in a fairly large city. It provided some interesting people watching, however, and ample shopping, if that’s your thing.

Milford Sound, New Zealand.

On the map, New Zealand looks like a relatively short hop. But it’s 1,600 miles and more than two days by sea.

Our arrival at Milford Sound on the west coast of New Zealand was under rain and clouds that crowned the mountaintops enclosing an inland waterway that easily accommodated our 600-passenger vessel. We put on several layers of clothes and rain gear to explore the sound in an inflatable zodiac boat. It was cold and wet but unforgettable.

Because of the rain, hundreds of waterfalls plunged down the mountainsides. The one permanent waterfall dwarfed our boat as we motored by.

Imagine the tallest mountains in western North Carolina reaching up to 5,000 feet and dropping directly into water equally as deep and you might get the idea. It was impossible to capture in photos the scope of the scenery.

Looping down to the lower tip of the country’s south Island, we stopped in Oban at Half Moon Bay, a small port town that is the starting point for backpackers heading into an unpopulated network of trails, known there as tracks, into the sprawling wilderness of Steward Island. The hardiest hikers need to be equipped for a trek of over a week to explore the greatest lengths of the tracks in Rakiura National Park.

Heading up the east coast, our stop in Port Chalmers took us on a rugged jog over a mountain ridge in eight-wheel mud boggers to an oceanside cliff on a private preserve overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

A National Geographic scene included families of seals sunning on the rocks and a face-to-face encounter with a blue penguin peeking from a small door in a tunnel along a path toward the beach. It was a rare moment that we were not allowed to photograph, but it’s planted permanently in our memories.

After docking in Lyttleton up the coast a ways, the highway from the docks took us through a tunnel to Christchurch, where we spent our time in the Botanical Gardens, which offered plenty of photo ops but mostly non-native vegetation.

Later, a gondola ride up the mountainside over the tunnel seemed a little too touristy to me at first. But at the top, we were blessed by one of the most stunning views of our entire trip: a panorama encompassing the harbor below on the rim of a vast volcanic crater, the Pacific Ocean and the distant New Zealand Alps.

Lyttleton Harbor, New Zealand.

Next was Kaikoura and after that, Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. There, we took a bus ride on a narrow road out to the mouth of the harbor. Iridescent abalone shells, know in native Maori as Pāua, were abundant. But New Zealand is particular about its marine life, and any violation of the law could mean losing everything, including your home. So if you go, do your research before disturbing or picking up anything.

The Beach in Kaikoura.

Our ship jogged back to Picton on the upper end of the south island where we hired a cabbie with another couple to tour the surrounding hills and the wine country in the valley beyond. We’re not wine drinkers, so one row of vines quickly began to look the same as the next. After a couple of hours, we began to suspect that the driver was more interested in running up the fare than providing any new discoveries. We did learn that rose bushes planted at ends of the rows of vines were put there to attract pests that otherwise would damage the grapes.

At one point on our drive, we saw a young couple in a van equipped for camping — with a mattress in the back. We decided if we ever came back, we wouldn’t rough it quite that much. But we would rent a car and make arrangements to stop in various towns for a few days at a time, providing more flexibility for some serious exploring without running in a pack of tourists. We were told that the two main islands can be traversed in about 18 hours, so it’s clearly doable.

Aukland and Waitematā Harbour.

Looping around and up the east coast of the North Island, we met a bus in Tauranga that took us to a geothermal park in Rotorua, which didn’t quite live up to the tourism brochures. The guide gave us some interesting information that we could have found on Wikipedia, and the area was generally bleak and sulphuric. A pleasant surprise was the sudden entry to a tropical forest with a steaming Kakahi Falls where Maori warriors cleansed themselves in 104-degree water. The trip there wrapped up with a pleasant catamaran cruise on one of the many lakes in the region.

We wound things up in Aukland, New Zealand’s largest city. We did another quick tour to fill the time before the flight out and stopped at Bastion Point for stunning views of the city and Waitematā Harbour.

The flight to San Francisco out of Aukland was about a dozen hours, but my trick for enduring is to live in the moment — shut out thoughts of how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go. We missed the plane there because of a turnaround that was too tight and an inefficient and arrogant customs operation. A later flight took us to Dulles and the hotel where we had left our car.

After a night of rest, we headed back to the Outer Banks. The Wright Memorial Bridge was a welcome sight after a long journey — a trip of a lifetime. As always, it was good to be back home.

Recent posts in this category