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Tasmania: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur

Cataract Gorge near Launceston, Tasmania

The only state not part of the Australian mainland, Tasmania lies across the Bass Strait from the Australian state of Victoria. The Melbourne to Devonport ferry takes 9 hours to cross the 150 miles separating the two landmasses, but unless you need to transport a car, flying is a much faster (and sometimes cheaper) option. While one could easily spend a few weeks exploring the island, we just wanted a highlight tour, so we booked flights over a long weekend, hired a car, and started our road trip through the state.

Instead of flying a round trip to one of Tasmania’s major airports, we flew into Launceston in the north and planned to fly out of Hobart in the south. After arriving in Launceston on a Thursday evening, we spent the following morning exploring the surrounding area and got our first glimpse of the variety of landscapes in Tasmania. Only a couple miles outside of the city center lies a large national park and a recreation area known as Cataract Gorge. We walked to the mouth of the gorge from our hotel and hiked one of the trails to the main part of the recreation area. A large basin in the mountains surrounding Tasmania, Cataract Gorge includes a swimming pool, gardens, and a chairlift that carries visitors between the two sides of the gorge.

Ryan and Kristen on a quad bike in Tasmania

After a chairlift ride and a hike out of the steeper side of the gorge, we walked back to town and started our road trip. Our first stop was Cradle Mountain, the centerpiece of Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park. Given the nature of the landscape, it seemed best to see the area from the ground, so we booked a quad bike tour and followed our guide Ray along the trails through the national park. Though riding four-wheelers is practically second nature to Kristen, this was only my second time, so it took me a little while to get the hang of it again. But get the hang of it I did and I managed to successfully ford the large puddles in the track (since getting stuck meant owing Ray a case of beer). Unfortunately for me, however, Ray’s ride was a bit bigger than mine. This was fine for most of the trip, but when he flew past me through a puddle, I received a second shower for the day, much to Kristen’s (and Ray’s) amusement.

A Tasmanian Devil

We returned to the hotel after the quad bike trip, picked up our car and drove to the edge of Dove Lake, where the best views of the mountain can be had. We spent a bit of time there (and shot a few pictures, see below) before backtracking to begin our Devils@Cradle tour and meet Tasmania’s endemic carnivorous marsupial. The devils normally aren’t very tolerant of people, but a few of the animals bred in captivity have become acclimatized to our presence, so the keeper leading our tour brought one out and carried him around until he became a bit too excited and needed to return to his habitat. After observing feeding time and picking up a couple souvenirs, we returned to our room at the Cradle Mountain Chateau.

Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania

The next morning we got back on the highway and continued our road trip across the center of the island. We backtracked almost to Launceston before driving through the eastern part of the island on the way to the east coast. Along the way, our GPS accidentally directed us on a slightly shorter but unpaved route via the Old Coach Road through the eastern forests, so we were relieved to reach our destination and return to pavement.

After hunting down a gas station, we continued to the next part of the highlight tour, an hour-long hike to the Wineglass Bay Scenic Overlook in Freycinet National Park. While Wineglass Bay may seem to be named because it’s shaped roughly like a wineglass, the etymology is actually rather morbid: Wineglass Bay was once a base for whalers and the blood from their catches would turn the water red, hence the name. These days the water in the bay is a lovely shade of blue, and if we had more time we would have hiked the rest of the way to experience it for ourselves. Our itinerary had us in Hobart by the evening though, so we hiked back down and continued our journey. Upon arriving, we checked into the Wrest Point Casino and Hotel and had dinner in the revolving restaurant on the top floor.

Port Arthur, Tasmania

Our next and final day in Tasmania was spent in Port Arthur, a historic convict site southeast of Hobart on the Tasman Peninsula. Home to British and Irish prisoners from 1833-1877, the grounds and ruins are now a tourist attraction, where visitors can explore the original and restored buildings and even stick around for a ghost tour. In addition to the more traditional halls, churches, and houses on the grounds, the site also contains a panopticon known as the “Separate Prison”, where visitors can experience solitary confinement and even a chapel with individual cell-like pews.

Once we finished touring, we jumped in the rental car for the last time before returning it at Hobart’s international airport and flying back to Sydney. Though Tasmania may not make it onto an itinerary for a shorter stay in Australia, if you’re interested in a variety of landscapes or want to do some hiking, Tasmania has plenty to offer. There’s lots to do beyond what we covered, but the travel guide in me felt vindicated when we were browsing the gift shop and found a postcard with three highlights of Tasmania: Cradle Mountain, Wineglass Bay and Port Arthur.

More pictures are on Flickr: Launceston, Cradle Mountain, Freycinet/Wineglass Bay, and Port Arthur.

Ryan and Kristen at Cradle Mountain

New Zealand: The Rugby World Cup and Waitomo Caves

Ryan and Kristen and a giant rugby ball

It should be obvious by now that one of our prime objectives while in Australia is to experience as much as possible, regardless of how familiar we may be with said experiences. We’ve approached every possible trip, festival and event thinking “can we do it?” instead of “I’m not sure about this one”. This attitude has served us well, leading us to heaps of interesting events and places.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that, when we found out that the Rugby World Cup was being hosted in New Zealand, our first thought was “why not?” We looked into available weekends, picked up tickets for a Saturday night quarter finals game, and booked a flight to Auckland for the weekend.

When we arrived in Auckland in early October, we were thrust into a world of, well, generally enthusiastic rugby supporters. Coming from rowdy sports towns like Chicago, we were expecting a little more, um, rowdiness, but, this being our second trip to New Zealand, we’ve determined that “rowdy” is pretty low on the list of adjectives to describe Kiwis. “Thrillseeking” maybe, but for the most part the events we attended, including the match itself, were pretty tame. That said, we saw France and England play, not the All Blacks (New Zealand’s national rugby team), so maybe the French and Brits were all jetlagged.

Auckland from the Devonport Ferry

Having arrived on Friday night for a Saturday night match, we had a day to kill in Auckland before heading to Eden Park. Auckland may be New Zealand’s largest city, with over 30% of the population, but in a country of just around 4.5 million it’s still not an especially big place. We walked through the CBD and checked out some of the festivities, but found ourselves with a few more hours to kill, so we took a ferry across the Waitemata Harbour to the historic suburb of Devonport and got some lunch.

Returning from Devonport after some more wandering, we caught a train from the Britomart Transport Centre to Eden Park, where the match was being held. With rain showers threatening, we walked from the Kingsland train station to the stadium and found our seats, at which point we pulled up mobile Wikipedia and went through a quick refresher of the rules of rugby union.

Kristen holding up her Try! sign

At this point it should be evident that, while we were certainly very excited to be at the Rugby World Cup, we hadn’t actually attended a rugby match before and therefore had almost no idea what was going on. It occasionally looked like American football (“gridiron” over here), which proved to be a problem since the cheers one might yell during gridiron are not at all the same cheers used for rugby. We did eventually pick up the general rules of the game though, and since we didn’t choose an allegiance to either side, we went with the safe option of cheering whenever the majority of the crowd around us did.

After the end of the match (France won, 19-12), we squeezed back onto a train that traveled ever so slowly back to the city, where we had left our rental car. We picked up the car, flipped on the GPS, and made our way back to the hotel to get some rest for an early wake up call the next morning.

Ryan crawling through a cave while Black Water Rafting

While working in Melbourne, I was discussing the finer points of visiting New Zealand with a coworker (hi John!) In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that, several years prior, he and his wife visited New Zealand and went on a Black Water Rafting tour. Intrigued, I looked up Black Water Rafting and found that one of the best places for this type of thing is two hours south of Auckland, near a small town called Waitomo. While the prospect of floating and hiking in caves through freezing water may not seem exciting to you, it sure sounded fun to me, so I signed us up for the 5 hour “Abyss” tour, starting at 9am.

So, after that early wake up call, we drove south to Waitomo and began our Black Water Rafting adventure with 6 other brave souls, led by our guides Matt and Jah. After a 100ft abseil (rappel) into the cave, we zip-lined, paddled, waded, and crawled through the caves of Waitomo, eventually scaling two waterfalls to get out of the caves.

The caves of Waitomo also host one other interesting natural phenomenon. If you’ve seen the “Caves” episode of the BBC series Planet Earth, it starts with a segment on cave-dwelling maggots. Living in total darkness, these maggots “fish” for their prey with long strands of mucus and attract said prey with a bioluminescent blue glow. Called “glow worms” (because “glow maggots” doesn’t look as nice on brochures), these larvae cover the ceiling of the caves. At one point during our adventure, we all turned off our headlamps and were treated to a beautiful display of twinkling blue light overhead.

After emerging from the cave and heading back to base for some dry clothes and hot soup, we found that there was another glow worm cave nearby. Since tickets were half price after our rafting tour, we decided to stop by, since our guides said that the glow worms in that cave were even more spectacular, plus we could keep our normal clothes on. For this tour, instead of wading through the water, a guide took us on a boat through the caves to see the constellations of glow worms overhead. Way easier, to be sure, but not nearly as fun!

After driving back through the North Island country side, we were almost back to the hotel when we saw a sight that we hadn’t seen in months: a Wendys! After a fantastic dinner of burgers and frosties, we called it a night before catching a Monday morning flight back to Sydney.

Check out more pictures from this trip here and here.

We made it out of the cave!