Australia and New Zealand have been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Many times I explored trips that never worked out because of timing or other issues. Finally I found the perfect trip with perfect timing and saw everything I’ve dreamed of and more!
Our journey began in Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Our hotel was located on Darling Harbor, an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s home to a new Convention Center, National Maritime Museum, and lots of great seafood restaurants. There are so many miles of harbors, inlets and bays that it seems almost everyone in Sydney has waterfront property!
A pedestrian bridge crosses Darling Harbor at the Maritime Museum, which includes several historic ships as well as the beautiful building. The Welcome Wall is a tribute to the millions of diverse people who ventured across the sea to Australia.
It’s hard to think about Sydney without immediately picturing the magnificent Opera House that appears to float in the water next to the iconic Harbor Bridge. I would have paid the full price of the tour just to see the Opera House, and we were able to view it from every possible angle, starting with the view across the water from the Botanical Gardens. The Opera House took 14 years to build, due to lots of conflict over the design, financing etc. The harbor location suggests sails, or shells, depending on who you talk to. One guide told us the locals have nicknamed it “Nuns in a scrum.” Rugby fans will understand what that means.
The inside of the Opera House is almost as amazing as the outside. There are several different venues for opera, symphony concerts, childrens’ theater, etc. Amazingly, the interior theaters are not attached to the outside skin of the building. The concert hall above has great acoustics, and the organ has over 10,000 pipes. The smaller theater was being set up for a show that takes place in a night club. The sign outside seems to cover anything that could possibly affect and audience!
From the harbor area we continued on our tour of the city. Sydney has 9 million people and we saw lots of beautiful parks and thriving neighborhoods. There are two Jewish neighborhoods and one near a naval base that is home to many military families.
The upper right photo is from Gap Bluff, one of many parks with great views of the harbor. Since Australia and New Zealand used to be part of the British Commonwealth, they drive on the lefthand side, which took a little getting used to, even though I wasn’t driving. Oncoming traffic always appeared to be encroaching in our lane! The hardest part for me was that they also walk on the left side, so I was constantly bumping into people, especially on a stairway that had a railing down the center so you couldn’t easily get out of the way.
As you can imagine, Sydney has plenty of beautiful beaches. Bondi Beach is a favorite cooling off spot in the hot Australian summer (temps in the 90s and 100s while we were in Australia, a tiny bit cooler in New Zealand). This beach was made famous when beach volleyball was played here for the first time in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After lunch at Circular Quay near the Opera House, we boarded our boat for the Sydney Harbor Cruise. The Quay is a busy place for ferries, water taxis, cruise ships and almost any kind of ship you can think of. Here we are being greeted by Captain Cook himself as we boarded the boat. Garden Island was one of the first places the early British settlers tried to grow food. Also pictured here, the Sydney skyline and some typical Australian humor.
Sailing around the Opera House!
From our ship we got to see more of the city, including these expensive looking houses–if you have to ask you can’t afford it! I thought Sydney would be a fun place to live, but I’m afraid I’d have to get 50 of my richest friends to pool their funds to buy a house here. And I thought Portland was expensive! Renting isn’t much better. At first we thought it sounded cheap when our guide mentioned a price of $500, but it turns out that they pay their rent weekly here! On the other hand, people seem to get paid pretty well. Nobody tips in restaurants because the wait staff actually gets paid a pretty good wage.
There are lots of lighthouses in the Harbor, the one above is Bradley’s Head. Nearby is a monument to all Australian sailors killed in wars.
More sights from the Harbor Cruise: Apparently climbing the Harbor Bridge is a thing! Luna Park is unique in that it is the only government controlled amusement park. After a checkered history of closings and accidents, it is currently used as a movie location. The new bridge is known as the Anzac Memorial bridge, honoring the Australia/New Zealand Army Corps.
We had a great Italian dinner in The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest neighborhood, where this sculpture recognizes the early settlers in the area. After dinner we couldn’t resist one more shot at the Opera House.
Next morning we drove up into the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Our day also included a stop at the Featherdale wildlife park. As our wonderful tour leader, Jonathan, explained, on such a condensed visit to Australia and New Zealand we would be unlikely to see much of the whacky wildlife these countries are famous for in their natural habitat. Featherdale was a great place to see kangaroos, koalas, and other unique creatures. If you’ve ever read Bill Bryson’s book about Australia, “In a Sunburned Country,” you know there are a lot of different creatures here that can kill you! Featherdale has the dangerous critters as well as the cuddly kind. And those kangaroos really do look like they’re boxing!
More critters–you probably recognize the crocodile. The wombat (upper right) reminded me of the warthogs I saw in Africa…so homely they’re kinda cute!
Heading farther up in to the Blue Mountains, we stopped at Echo Point with it’s amazing views of the Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley. Legend has it that the three sisters fell in love with men from a rival tribe, and were turned to stone by an elder to protect them.
Our next stop was a bit Disney-esque, combining fabulous scenery with a network of cableways and funiculars (not to mention gift shops and visitor centers) that make this spectacular wilderness a little more accessible to folks like me who are no longer able to do a 10 mile uphill hike. After gawking at the scenery we returned for our last night in Sydney.
Next morning we left Sydney behind and flew to the village of Ayers Rock to see the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Uluru is the aboriginal name for the sacred site called Ayers Rock by later European settlers. Kata Tjuta translates to something like “many domes.” As described by our excellent bus driver/tour guide Graeme, this is a sacred site, but not in the sense of a church or an altar; rather the rock formations tell the stories and show physical evidence of the Creation. Graeme showed us the rock paintings and described how the red color of the rocks comes from oxidation of the underlying stone–one reason why this desert area of central Australia is sometimes called “The Red Center”. In the lower left you can see that even the pigeons are unique in Australia.
As if Uluru is not amazing enough in the daytime, the highlights of our visit were the sunset and sunrise views. While the sign says “sunset viewing area,” no one is really watching the sunset. They’re watching the effects of the light as they turn the rock vivid red. A glass of wine and some snacks in the parking lot completed the evening.
Sunrise presented a totally different view. This is not Uluru but it’s neighbor, Kata Tjuta. The partly cloudy skies last night and this morning were perfect for sky watching!
After breakfast we boarded our bus for the long day’s drive to Alice Springs. At one of the infrequent rest stops along the Stuart Highway, one of the first roads built in the area, we spotted this shower building open to “Sheilas” and “Blokes.” And your eyes are not deceiving you…that truck is pulling four trailers! Hauling mostly mining equipment and industrial materials, these “road trains” are perfect for the long, straight stretches of desert highway.
Alice Springs sits halfway between Adelaide and Darwin, almost in the exact center of Australia. The town has a proud military history, as troops were stationed here and many people were evacuated to Alice when the Japanese bombed Darwin in WWII. On Anzac Hill is a memorial to the many Australians and New Zealanders who have fought in all the wars of the last century. You may be wondering what all those boats are doing here in the desert…every year Alice Springs hosts the Henley on Todd Regatta. This is a unique event that celebrates the desert environment–the Todd is one of many rivers in the area that are dry most of the year. People roll their boats down the river on wheels, or carry them on their shoulders, any creative way to get to the finish. It’s the only regatta in the world that was ever canceled because of rain (in 1993).
We had another chance to see some wildlife at the Alice Springs Desert Park. A ranger told us about dingos, which have lived in most parts of the continent for thousands of years. They will attack and eat an animal as big as a kangaroo, and when cattle and sheep became big industries here, the dingos started eating the livestock. For many years the cattle stations tried to control the population until now they are considered a threatened species.
The bird show was another fun attraction, and a place to sit in the shade away from the 108 º heat. A variety of owls, magpies, and falcons zoomed over our heads. My favorite bird was this falcon that demonstrated how to break that emu egg by throwing a rock at it!
The town of Alice Springs started as a telegraph station in 1872. You can still see the original buildings and telegraph equipment.
After lunch in the busy Main St. area, we went to see two unique institutions that were born in Alice Springs. In the late 1920s and early 30s, a combination of radio communication and air travel inspired the formation of the Royal Flying Doctor service, which brings primary and emergency health services to remote Outback communities. In 1944 an educator heard a nurse give a health lecture to parents on the extensive network of radios used by the Flying Doctors. This gave her the idea of presenting education for students in remote areas by radio through what is now called the School or the Air.
BTW one of the big supporters of the Flying Doctors was the company now known as Qantas, the Australian airline. I always wondered why there was no “u” after the “Q”–that’s because Qantas is not actually a word, it’s an acronym for “Queensland and Northern Territories Air Service.”
The School of the Air is so impressive! At first the teachers just presented lessons on the radio, but eventually students were able to interact with the teacher and each other, helping with the social isolation in the Outback. Nowadays everything is done by computer and there are two TV studios here at the base where the lessons are broadcast. Students have to be 50 miles from a regular school, and they need to have internet service and a parent or other adult who can mentor them.
It was a definite shock for us to fly from the brutal desert heat to Cairnes in north Queensland. Cairnes sits between tropical rainforests and the Coral Sea. Our hotel was on the Esplanade, a pedestrian walkway along the coast with lots of restaurants and views of the water. I am used to pelicans that are either brown or white, so I really enjoyed the multicolored Australian pelicans.
The tropical air of Queensland was a relief after the desert, although I question the accuracy of that license plate slogan–there had been heavy rains and flooding for a few days before we arrived, and thunderstorms were predicted for the next day.
That weather forecast drove my decision to skip the Great Barrier Reef cruise. Two other members of our group also bowed out. I am not real good with boats on a nice day, so high winds and thunderstorms put me over the edge. Still, I had a great day, starting with a visit to the Cairnes Aquarium, which was conveniently across the street from our hotel. I felt like that giant prawn was giving me a dirty look–possibly because I had eaten 6 of his cousins for dinner the night before! One of the main attractions here was the shark and ray show. The kids really enjoyed watching divers come in and feed the sharks at the end of the show.
Jonathan had tipped us off to the unusual stained glass windows at the church across the road. St. Monica’s War Memorial Cathedral opened in 1968 in memory of those who died in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. The main windows tell the story of Creation, and on either side of the front entrance are the “peace windows.” This one depicts a fallen fighter plane that landed on the sea bottom and became part of a coral reef.
The weather outlook improved the next day, though the previous heavy rains affected us in ways both good and bad. The original plan was to take a scenic railway from Cairnes to the rainforest town of Kuranda, then come back on the Skyrail cableway. The train ride was canceled for fear of washouts on the tracks, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the scenery by bus. In fact, one of the main tourist sites along the way, Barron Falls, was more spectacular than usual, because of the rains. We had some free time to enjoy lunch and shopping in Kuranda. My favorite spot was this gem shop–opals and other semi-precious stones are commonly found in this area–the shop’s sign says “Established 90 million years ago.”
Boarding the Skyrail, we were able to get a view of Barron Falls from the other side, as well as skimming across the tops of the trees.
The “Kuranda Classic Experience” concluded with an aboriginal cultural performance. I loved the indigenous art style. Our guide Jacob introduced us to some of the traditional foods, and we watched a multimedia performance. That multicolored map of Australia shows the 100s of different “countries” that made up the diverse aboriginal world, with each one having as many as 6 different native languages.
Jacob and his friends also showed off traditional skills like making fire by spinning a stick in a pile of straw, playing the didgeridoo, throwing two or three boomerangs at once, and my favorite, throwing a spear using an atl-atl. The atl-atl allows someone to throw a spear twice as far as the Olympic javelin record holder!
Next morning we said goodbye to Australia and flew to Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. New Zealand has strict environmental protections, and we were instructed to throw away any food we were carrying before we landed, and to wash the red dust and microscopic critters of the Outback off our shoes. Auckland is another harbor city, like a smaller, quieter version of Sydney. I loved the friendly greeting on the TV in my hotel room.
Auckland is located on a peninsula on the north end of the North Island, so it’s almost completely surrounded by water. Our bus tour included sweeping views of the harbor and the city skyline, as well as lovely homes and a park with a Rose Garden. The tower above is part of the Michael Joseph Savage memorial. Savage is a beloved figure in the history of New Zealand, a laborer who rose to be prime minister during the Depression of the 1930s and established programs such as unemployment insurance and social security.
Auckland’s War Memorial Museum is impressive, both inside and out. Every aspect of New Zealand culture, history, and natural history is explored here. I found the map and displays about migration to Australia and New Zealand particularly interesting. I had always assumed that both countries had the same people speaking the same language. I was totally wrong! The aboriginal people of Australia came from East India and other parts of South Asia as much as 65,000 years ago. They speak 200-300 different languages. New Zealand was settled only a few thousand years ago, by Polynesians from the area around the Society Islands. They speak a Polynesian language from which many of us would recognize a few words that are very similar to Hawaiian.
And yes, the little girl is looking at a gigantic bird! That’s a moa, a bird that was once common in New Zealand but now only exists occasionally in the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Leaving our Auckland hotel, located in a busy port area with private marinas and a huge ferry terminal, we drove south. Our first rest stop was at this huge power plant, which uses geothermal energy.
A word about New Zealand’s famous Kiwi bird. I never got to see an actual, live kiwi, as they are nocturnal, and even in places where they create artificial darkness cycles for viewing them, they always seemed to be shy the day I got there. Here are some examples from the Auckland museum. The kiwi is a flightless bird that is so common in New Zealand it has become a nickname for the people there. Unlike many demographic nicknames that are perceived as offensive, New Zealanders proudly claim the title of kiwi for themselves. When we Americans hear the word kiwi, we often think of the fruit, which was originally called Chinese gooseberry, until it was imported into the US from New Zealand and became known as kiwi fruit.
From Auckland we drove south to the famous Waitomo caves. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the caves, so I had to buy the postcard above to be able to show you the main attraction. After walking through the impressive limestone formations, we all boarded boats to float down the last part of the cave, looking up at the ceiling that was covered with these brilliant blue glow worms. Photos don’t do it justice anyway! The poster shows a group of women ready for the expedition through the caves in the 1920s, before it had trails, stairs, or electric lights.
After the cave exploration we made a brief lunch stop in a charming little town called Otorohanga. They had lots of New Zealand history on display–I had forgotten Sir Edmund Hillary was from here–as well as a little bit of Kiwi humor at the restrooms.
For the rest of the day we visited Te Puia Thermal Reserve and Maori Arts and Crafts Center. I found the Maori culture fascinating. This place is not only a museum but supports and encourages traditional arts and crafts. Here you can see students engaged in learning wood carving and weaving with flax.
Te Puia is in an area of great thermal activity, and although we never got to see the biggest of the geysers, we did enjoy watching the smaller ones and the bubbling mud pots.
That evening we were treated to a traditional performance followed by a fabulous meal cooked in the thermal ovens. I can’t seem to get enough of the New Zealand lamb. We spent the night in the small town of Rotorua.
The bicyclist is on display in the tiny Rotorua airport, where you can walk right in the door and over to your gate…no security! If you’re making a connection, you go through security after you get to your destination. We were on our way to Queenstown, one of my favorite spots in New Zealand. Arriving in Queenstown we saw my favorite of all the weird road signs on this trip, plus a map of the world made entirely out of jellybeans.
Arriving in the late afternoon gave us just enough time to see the spectacular view from the Skyline, an aerial tram. At the top station you can just gawk at the view of Lake Wakatipu, or sign up for all the adventures that make this The Adrenaline Capital of New Zealand–mountain biking, paragliding, bungy jumping, zip lining, etc. Next day we’d see more adventures on the lake, including something called the Shark Boat, which is a sort of enclosed jet ski that leaps in and out of the water like a shark.
We had a free day in Queenstown the next day to enjoy whatever our stomachs and courage could handle. A bunch of us, with the help of the hotel concierge, signed up for a cruise around the lake. It took 2-3 hours to see the whole length of the lake and get back where we started.
Lake Wakatipu is one of the largest lakes in New Zealand, 50 miles long and 1250 ft. deep. Queenstown sits on the north shore near the center of the lake’s length, and the Remarkables mountain range is across to the south. I thought I would have been over my disorientation about the sun being in the north by this point, but I still couldn’t seem to figure out where to look for sunrise and sunset!
Near the far end of our loop around the lake we were treated to views of the snow covered mountains in the distance. This was one of many parts of New Zealand that reminded me of Oregon. Returning to downtown Queenstown, we had another fabulous dinner at the Beach House, on the edge of the lake.
Our last two days in New Zealand were amazing. We started off in the early morning for the 2-hour bus ride to Lake Manapouri, southwest of Queenstown at the entrance to Fiordland National Park. There are more sheep than people in NZ, and we saw a lot of them on our drive. After a pleasant cruise across the lake, we saw the Manapouri Hydro Power Station, an amazing feat of engineering that hides its turbines underwater and was put into service without raising the level of the lake as a traditional dam would do.
At the other end of the lake we boarded a bus for the 40-minute drive on a gravel road over a mountain pass to where we would catch the boat for our cruise on Doubtful Sound. We stopped along the way at a viewpoint for our first glimpse of the sound. Doubtful Sound is the second most popular tourist destination in NZ, after the smaller but more accessible Milford Sound.
Doubtful Sound was first named Doubtful Harbor by Captain Cook, who wasn’t sure he could navigate out of it if he were to go in. Later whalers and sealers changed the name when they realized it was more than just a harbor. Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord, although the differences are small and pretty technical. This whole area of the southwest corner of the South Island is covered with fiords, mountains, and tropical rainforest. The people on this fishing boat got pretty excited when we passed by, pulling in all their lines so they wouldn’t get snagged.
This boat ride was pretty smooth, though it got a little scary at the mouth of the sound where I thought for a minute our captain was taking us right out into the Tasman Sea. He just wanted to show us the rocky entrance, where some seals were sunbathing. Then we turned around and headed back up the sound and over the pass to the lake.