Ok, so now that we’re into a shiny new year, it seems like a good time to do a wrap of the last several months of whirlwind travel. And, for a brief moment, I’ve managed to wrest the laptop away from Marc for my second blog post. 😉

NZAbel Tasman
New Zealand is paradise. I really mean it. In many respects it is far superior to Fiji in the paradise category. In two little islands floating in the South Pacific, you have towering peaks and glaciers, mossy, pristine waterfall wilderness, endless wild beaches, cathedral-like caves, seals, whales, friendly dolphins, penguins, fantastic birds (like the giant green pigeon, much more appealing than the nasty city variety; and of course, the famous flightless kiwi), and nothing that can kill you (except for the sharks). And that’s just the nature-y stuff.

Small town, mom-and-pop New Zealand is alive and well today, filled with generous, kind, friendly folk that, for the most part, took a genuine interest in us. (And we in them.) As for the urban centers, Auckland and Wellington are a little slice of Seattle and Portland, combined with a large dose of the U.K. In the south, Dunedin is a chill college town. Christchurch a larger city focused on culture and art and has its charms.

Foodies

Great, local, farm-raised, even organic food was everywhere, which, combined with fantastic wines (Marlborough Sav Blancs are to die for) and great beer (I particularly liked the Greenman Organic brew from Dunedin, also home to excellent Speights), make this a foodie’s wonderland. From green-lipped mussels (another specialty of the Marlborough region), to amazing fresh fruit and cheeses, I have to say we gained back a little of the pudge we sweated off in Fiji.

ice cave

Lest I forget, New Zealand is about not only enjoying life, but enjoying a great adrenaline rush. These ingenious daredevil Kiwis have figured out dozens of ways to risk life and limb in the pursuit of a thrill. We took our chances and decided to run off a mountaintop cliff (attached to a parachute and tandem instructor, just in case), luge down a volcano, raft on an underground river to see constellations of little glowing cave worms, helicopter to the top of a glacier, and hike 36 miles up mountainsides and through waterfalls into Fjordland wilderness.

On top of everything else, New Zealand is one of the greenest countries I’ve ever visited – light years ahead of the U.S. I suppose it helps to be on a small island with limited resources, subject to global warming-induced sea-level rise, in realizing you have to take care of your home. Being there was a good reminder of how a relatively sustainable country can work.

In other words, America, you almost lost me to our fair Kiwi cousins to the south. However, don’t worry, work visas are a royal pain and I don’t think they like to import rabble-rousers (they have a healthy crop of their own), or their dogs and cats, so you’re stuck with me.
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OZ
After NZ, our tour of the former British Empire continued west to the land of OZ. Australia is a land where remnants of the oldest rainforest in the world meet the world’s largest living organism (the Great Barrier Reef) on one side, and some of the vastest and hottest expanses of desert on the planet stretch across the other. It is a land of strange creatures from a far-off branch of the tree of life: a mammal with a bill like a duck,cassowary poison spurs on its webbed feet, that lays eggs like a reptile … a large bird-cum-dinosaur-descendant, the size of a human, with a bony horn on its head and poison talons … trees found in an isolated valley whose closest relatives are 240 million years old. Who could make this stuff up? (link to wollemi pine site and cassowary pic)

This magical country with its many wonders is a tough and unforgiving place, and its critters and human inhabitants have invented innumerable clever, tenacious ways to survive and even prosper.

stinger signWe chose an air-conditioned car as our means to survive the first few weeks in the smothering heat of northern Queensland, home of the largest and most aggressive crocs in the world (see this stunning photo), and some of the toughest people. Sunbaked, leathery old men in Crocodile Dundee hats, short-shorts and high-top black boots stroll the streets, stopping in to the local hotel (pub) for a XXXX beer. That’s “Four-Xs” in the local parlance and it’s the State Drink of Queensland.

On the other end of the spectrum, we met the owners of a solar-powered croc-watching boat who have not only dedicated themselves to sustainable ecotourism on the DaintreeWonderful croc tour lady who adopted the flying foxes River, but who have also adopted a couple flying fox orphans (hated and often killed by local fruit farmers, who keep the fruitbats coming by clearing more and more rainforest for crops).

Our first adventure included a truly awesome day of snorkeling out on the Great Barrier Reef. Donning a goofy red stinger suit (to prevent deadly box jellyfish stings) I plunged in on a snorkel safari with a marine biologist. We say innumerable amazing fish and coral species, and coolest of all I had a close encounter with a white-tipped reef shark and a loggerhead sea turtle on the outer reef. Both of which gave me the same feeling of awe, wonder, joy and being momentarily wrassesuspended in time as my manta ray experience. We know so little about the ocean, and there is so little time to save these precious and ancient fellow travelers on our little blue marble from extinction. I hope we have the guts and foresight and heart to do it.

Heading south we continued our Oz safari, encountering marsupials of every sort, from the koalas of Magnetic Island to the roos and wallabies of the mountains and grassy eucalypt glens of the Snowy Mountains. We awoke to laughing kookaburras and dozed offsea turtle laying eggs to the sounds of gregarious roosting lorikeets and the squawk of black and sulfur-crested cockatoos. We nearly ran down a deadly brown snake as long as our car was wide and witnessed three sea turtles laying their clutches on a moonlit, windswept beach. The Croc Hunter, God rest his soul, would have been proud.

Rain seems to have followed us all around the country, even through the drought, which dry reservoirhas been an epic drought. The rain has been an answered prayer for many here and stopped or slowed several bushfires that raged over a large area in Alpine National Park near Melbourne and a big swath of Tasmania. Australia has always been hot and dry, but this is the driest it’s ever been. Reservoirs are running dry, livestock and crops are failing and farmers have been committing suicide.

The realities of climate change are really starting to hit home here, as in many parts of the world. During our New Year’s visit to Melbourne, the city was in the process of instituting Stage 3 water restrictions, and will move to Stage 4 by April. There are now water cops wandering the streets on the lookout for illegal lawn-waterers and pool-fillers. I have a feeling this scene will be playing out in the Western U.S. soon too (wherever it isn’t already happening).

On another and more cheerful note, this huge country has a love of huge and strange things made of plaster. Here is our hall of the big and the bizarre things we’ve seen so far as we cruised down the East Coast:

big bananabig mangoNed Kellybig marino

big prawn

We hope to add to this collection as we explore western Australia for the next few weeks (we’re about to leave the sunny, cosmopolitan and isolated city of Perth as I write this). Overall, I have to give a big thumbs-up to this big, friendly, dusty and diverse country that we’ve only just begun to see.