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Sydney Reunion: Cohen, the Bergmans and New Zealand

The Bergmans, Adam and Ryan in Darling Harbour

It’s been almost a year since Kristen and I first set foot in Sydney, and what better way to round out 2011 in Australia than with a hometown reunion. The latest addition to our visitor log was Adam Cohen, a childhood friend of mine, who planned to spend a couple weeks with us over Thanksgiving. This happened to coincide with another childhood friend finishing a study abroad program in Melbourne, where his family met him to begin a trip through Australia before heading home. Due to a little luck in timing and scheduling, we all were able to meet in Sydney and get together on the other side of the world.

Adam and the Bergmans then flew to Cairns for some diving before the Bergmans returned to the U.S.A. and Adam came back to Sydney, at which point he and I boarded a plane and began our trip to New Zealand.

After doing a bit of research and reviewing options for a good road trip, we decided on a loop through the South Island, beginning and ending in Christchurch. Our original intention was to rent a campervan for the long weekend and stay out in the countryside, but the logistics didn’t work out for our itinerary, so we just planned to rent a car and make a few stops on the way.

The Fergburger logo in Queenstown

After a late arrival, we left the guest house and drove off into the New Zealand countryside. Departing from Christchurch, our route took us through a variety of different Regions before we reached Queenstown that evening. In addition to the fields and rivers of coastal New Zealand, we drove the winding mountain roads past spectacular lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) before reaching the Hotel Mercure in the Fernhill region of Queenstown. We checked into the hotel then got some dinner at that most popular of Queenstown burger joints, Fergburger.

No trip to Queenstown would be complete without a little thrillseeking and an adrenaline rush, so after a visit to The Station, Queenstown’s hub of everything extreme, we decided on hang gliding and drove up to the base of the Remarkables to jump off a mountain with only a guide and a wing. After catching a few thermals, taking in some stunning views, and getting a chance to pilot the glider (under careful supervision), we reached solid ground and continued on our journey through the Southern Alps.

Franz Josef Glacier meltwater heading to the Tasman Sea

Though the coastal plains of the island are nice, the real attraction is the mountains, and the next two days would not leave us disappointed. Our journey out of Queenstown towards the west coast took us past a pair of stunning lakes: Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. We then continued to drive through the first of a handful of national parks, stopping occasionally to check out waterfalls and other roadside attractions, before emerging from the Haast Pass and reaching the town of Haast on the coast. From here the road took us over and around the foothills on the coast before we reached the next of the South Island’s attractions.

An Otira Gorge Road Viaduct through Arthur's Pass

Descending from the mountains through temperate rainforests, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are among the most unique and accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors can drive to within a couple kilometers before completing the last part of the journey on foot, coming as close as 100 meters to the face of each glacier. While it’s possible to take guided tours onto the glaciers themselves, we contented ourselves with viewing them from the public hiking path before spending the night in the town of Franz Josef.

The final leg of our road trip took us back into the heart of the island, through yet another national park and an area known as Arthur’s Pass. Cutting across the middle of the South Island, the route is one of the few connections between the east and west coasts. As you might expect, building roads through the mountains can be challenging, but the Kiwis constructed an impressive set of viaducts to connect both sides of the island.

Devil's Punchbowl Falls waterfall in Arthur's Pass

We stopped again for a hike to a nearby waterfall before continuing back to Christchurch, where we stayed before our early morning flight the next day. We unfortunately were unable to explore much of the city, as the CBD is still closed off as a result of the recent earthquake. After an early wake-up call and a flight across the Tasman Sea, we returned to Sydney and began packing again, this time for the return trip to America for the Christmas holiday.

There are lots more pictures from the trip, check them out on Flickr!

Deaton Family Visit: Sydney and the Blue Mountains

Carol, Dave, and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Returning to Sydney, the Deatons set off to further explore the city and the surrounding attractions, starting with a view of Sydney from atop the Harbour Bridge. Sydney’s BridgeClimb remains one of our top recommendations for visitors to Sydney; it’s an entertaining and unique way to see the city and learn about the engineering achievement that is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge.  Having now climbed the bridge twice, Kristen earned her “BridgeClimb Master” certificate of achievement.

Carol and Dave on a Sydney jet boat

The next stop on the Sydney itinerary was a fast-paced jetboat tour of the harbour. Originally designed for the shallow rivers of New Zealand, jetboats have increased in popularity due to their maneuverability and operational versatility. After booking a tour with Harbour Jet, the Deatons set off on their journey past many of Sydney’s waterfront landmarks, including the bridge, Luna Park, Cockatoo Island, and, of course, the Opera House. Along the way, the driver did his best to spin and soak his passengers.

Cockatoos and the Three Sisters

The next day, Kristen and her parents set off to the west to see a couple more Sydney landmarks, starting with the Olympic Park. No longer covered with rides and farm animals, the Olympic Park is quiet on normal days, which makes it easier to explore and take in a bit of sporting history. After leaving the park, the Deatons continued west towards one of Sydney’s most famous natural attractions, the Blue Mountains. Named for the lingering blue haze caused by evaporated eucalyptus oil, the mountains host a variety of wildlife and several rock formations, including the Three Sisters.

Dave and Carol in the Blue Mountains

In addition to scenery and wildlife, the Blue Mountains are also rich in natural resources, the extraction of which constitutes much of the area’s recent history. Coal and shale mining began around 1865 and continued into the mid 20th century, until it was no longer economically viable. Though there are many replica artifacts to illustrate the story of mining in the area, original machinery and hauling equipment, long since abandoned and rusted over, can be seen as part of the scenic walks in the valley.

After a quick stop at the Featherdale Wildlife Park  on the way home, the Deatons continued their touring, getting to know more about our daily life and experiences in Sydney. In particular, Kristen took her parents on a tour of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) on the UNSW campus, where she spends most of her days. About 20 minutes south-east of the CBD, UNSW is conveniently located close to Coogee Beach for those days when class lets out early.

The Deatons’ two weeks wrapped up with a Sydney Harbour dinner cruise and a few more pictures in front of the Opera House before boarding a flight back to the USA. It was great to show Kristen’s parents around, as exploring Sydney was (and remains) high on our todo list. While we do spend a fair amount of time traveling, it was nice to become more familiar with the city we currently call home.

Dave and Kristen at UNSW

Deaton Family Visit: Cairns and Uluru

Carol and Dave and an Indigenous Australian

The second of our family visits began at the end of August with the arrival of the Deaton family. Also in town for two weeks to coincide with Kristen’s break between terms, the Deatons had a full itinerary and wasted no time getting started.

Carol and Kristen snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

After the usual Sydney orientation walks that all of our guests must endure, Kristen and her parents departed for Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. After dropping off their stuff at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, they boarded a Quicksilver tour at the Marina Mirage and headed out to the Agincourt Reef and Quicksilver’s floating platform. Complete with showers, a bar, and even a post office box, the Agincourt Reef platform offered everything a snorkeler or diver could want. There were even semi-submersibles docked at the platform for those wanting to see the reef without getting in the water.

A star of Hartley's Crocodile Adventures

Regaining their land legs, the Deatons then stopped by the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail before taking a trip with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. On the forefront of the “immersion exhibit” movement, Hartley’s features a massive lagoon containing 19 crocodiles. Boat tours run 5 times per day to show visitors the crocodiles in their natural habitat. That is, laying around on the banks of the lagoon most of the time. But the tours also include “pole feedings”, where a dead chicken is attached to the edge of the pole and dangled above the water. As you can see on the right, this seems to get the crocodiles’ attention.

Ryan, Kristen, Carol, and Dave near Uluru

After visiting with the crocs, Kristen and her parents flew to Ayers Rock Airport, where I met them for a quick visit to Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. Uluru / Ayers Rock is a giant rock formation in the southwest corner of Australia’s Northern Territory. A sacred Aboriginal site, the rock and the surrounding area have become a sizable tourist attraction, supporting several hotels and loads of tourist activities centered around this otherwise barren patch of outback.

Carol, Dave, Kristen, and Ryan on the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour

Since there isn’t really much else to do other than look at the rock while engaging in the aforementioned tourist activities, our trip consisted of two tours and one night in the Emu Walk Apartments. The first tour was the Sounds of Silence, which included an Australian BBQ and a narrated tour of the night sky by a “startalker” — a native storyteller + astronomer. Not that she had to say much… at over 200 miles southwest of the nearest large town (Alice Springs), a clear sky over Uluru doesn’t really need any narration.

The following morning, everyone woke up early for the next excursion, the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour. No, camels aren’t native to Australia, but after their introduction the animals thrived in the environment; Australia contains the last wild dromedary population in the world. Arriving early in the morning, we saddled up and rode our camels into the desert, just in time to watch the sunrise over the outback. Not that we needed to see it from the back of a camel, but that made it all the more fun. We dropped off our camels at the camp before stopping by the hotel on the way to catch our flight to Sydney.

While I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list, if you have the time during your visit to Australia, Uluru is worth at least a day or two. It’s easy to spend months in Australia without ever seeing the terrain that makes up the vast majority of the continent, but it’s worth seeing just how barren the outback can be. Sure, Uluru is just a rock, and perhaps not as remarkable as the Opera House or the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s worth a visit if for no other reason than to see what the rest of Australia looks like.

Check out 10 more pictures on Flickr

Buterbaugh Family Visit: Queenstown, New Zealand

Standing in the valley of Isengard

After a couple days of sightseeing in Sydney and a quick trip to visit Ayers Rock/Uluru, the Buterbaugh family was back at the airport on the way to the tour’s next stop. Queenstown lies in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, often regarded as the more scenic of the two islands. Situated next to a lake between the mountains, Queenstown reputedly received its name after a resident quipped that it was “fit for Queen Victoria”. Whether that’s true may never be known (Victoria never visited), but the area certainly lives up to the Māori name for the lake: “Wakatipu”, or “hollow of the giant”.

Ryan and Dad doing the Haka

Our first excursion was one that many visitors to New Zealand take: a tour of the film locations for the Lord of the Rings. While few actual sets remain (the most notable of which being Hobbiton in Matamata, near Auckland), the landscape of New Zealand and its place in the movie trilogy is just as stunning. Our Safari of the Scenes took us through Glenorchy to the film location of Isengard before stopping on the way back to the site of Ithilien Camp near an area known as 12 Mile Delta.

Our helicopter on a glacier

Upon returning to the Heritage Queenstown, we picked up Kristen at the airport before continuing to the Skyline Restaurant for a Kiwi Haka show and dinner. For those of you who follow rugby, you may already be familiar with the Haka performed prior to every game by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. The ceremonial dance is performed for a variety of reasons, but the one we watched prior to dinner was designed to include audience participation. Getting on stage was a bit embarrassing at first, so we did the only thing you can do: jump in with both feet, stick your tongue out and yell at the top of your lungs!

A Shotover Jet Boat, mid-spin

The next day started off early with one of the highlights of the entire Australia and New Zealand trip: a helicopter sightseeing tour over the Southern Alps and Milford Sound. Milford Sound is listed as one of the top attractions of the South Island, but it’s rather tedious to get to by foot or by car. Not so by air, and the views are way better. Our fantastic tour guides at Over The Top took us on an unforgettable ride over Queenstown, past Milford Sound and through the mountains before landing on a glacier and letting us get out and see the mountains up close. After spending a bit of time on the ice and snow, we got back into the choppers and continued back to Queenstown.

Our second tour of the day, and the final tour in New Zealand, was a ride through the Shotover Canyon on a Jet Boat. The Shotover Jet boats are specially designed for the canyons, incorporating extra maneuverability and the ability to run in as little as 4″ of water. They also sport one other feature: the ability to perform 360° spins on top of the water. Coming impossibly close to the canyon walls at full speed, the pilot would casually twirl his finger around in the air, which was code for “hold on tight”. He’d then spin the boat completely around in under a second and continue on with barely a pause. After disembarking, we stood on the shore to watch the next boat come in for the perfect photo opportunity.

This brought us to the end of our time in Queenstown and I have to say that I agree with the fellow who declared the place fit for royalty. Queenstown is a fantastic place for thrillseekers, adventurers or those seeking a few days of relaxation punctuated by the occasional jolt of adrenaline. Setting all of that aside though, the place is just beautiful, which is reason enough to add it to your list. I’m glad we did.

Panorama of Queenstown, New Zealand

Buterbaugh Family Visit: Cairns, Kuranda and the Great Barrier Reef

We found Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

The arrival of the Buterbaugh family marked our second official group of visitors and the first of two family visits. Despite only staying for two weeks, my family had a bunch of planned activities and wasted no time getting started.

The day after landing, we headed to the airport to fly to Cairns, the main entry point to the Great Barrier Reef. After landing late Thursday night, we slept for a few hours before heeding an early wakeup call and boarding a shuttle to the docks to catch our dive boat, operated by Tusa Dive. After a 90 minute, sea-sickness inducing ride to the reef, Kristin, Ali, Dad and I donned our diving gear to explore the world’s largest reef system over a series of three dives. In addition to some of the more standard underwater inhabitants, we were lucky enough to see a few sharks swimming around a formation known as the Three Sisters in Milln Reef.

Riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway

After a welcome return to solid ground later in the afternoon, we boarded the tour bus back to the Angsana Resort and Spa located in a northern suburb of Cairns called Palm Cove. After an early dinner to replace the meals that we, er, shared with the fish, it was off to bed in preparation for the next day’s activities.

In addition to the world famous reef system, the Australian state of Queensland is also home to several rainforests. Known as the “Wet Tropics of Queensland” on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the state holds the unique distinction of being the home of two adjacent World Heritage listed sites (the reef being the other one, of course).

Riding the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Fortunately for us, the Kuranda State Forest was conveniently located a short drive away from the hotel. It was made accessible by two fantastic means of sightseeing transportation: the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Our itinerary started with boarding a morning train to take us by waterfalls and across bridges to the end of the line, deep in the forest. After disembarking, we found ourselves in the town of Kuranda, a small settlement that seemed to be purpose-built for tourists. Through the course of our exploring and souvenir shopping, we happened upon the Kuranda Koala Gardens.

Holding koalas: more fun for the holder

As you may know, holding wildlife is against the law in New South Wales and Victoria, but not so in Queensland. Therefore, since we were spending a weekend in Queensland, one of the goals was to find a place for the girls to hold koalas. Luckily for us, the Kuranda Koala Gardens fit the bill and even let us take as many of our own pictures as we wanted. If you find yourself in the area and want to hold one of Australia’s iconic furry marsupials, the Kuranda Koala Gardens is highly recommended.

Just a napping koala

We then headed back to the top station for the Kuranda Skyrail to make our return trip down to the bottom of the mountain. Suspended above the canopy of the forest, the Skyrail gives tourists a birds-eye view of the flora and occasional fauna below. There are a couple intermediate stations on the way down, giving passengers a chance to explore some of the forest from the ground as well as from the air.

Upon reaching the bottom, we continued on to our final stop of the tour, which was a few hours at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. There were a variety of sessions about Aboriginal life and culture, but the most fun activity by far was learning how to throw boomerangs. Just make sure to keep an eye on them when they’re on the way back!

The Kuranda excursion marked the end our trip to Cairns, so we checked out the following day and flew back to Sydney for a bit more sightseeing before the next set of excursions.

The Buterbaugh Family in Sydney

Vivid Sydney and our First Official Visitors

Customs House lit up for Vivid Sydney

Regular readers (who manage to keep up with my erratic posting schedule) know by now that Sydney is a city of many festivals. If you look hard enough, there’s something going on somewhere in the city almost every day of the year. That said, things to tend to calm down a bit in the “winter”, a term I use loosely coming from Chicago. Winter in Sydney is more of what I’d call a moderate autumn, but it still gets a bit chilly and tends to push people indoors. As a result, the beach and park festivals aren’t as prevalent, so the city puts on other events instead.

Sydney Skyline during Vivid Sydney

One of the most visually interesting events during this time was Vivid Sydney, a festival of “Light, Music & Ideas”. There were many displays all over the city but, as usual, the best ones out there were found in and around Sydney Harbour, the home of Sydney’s most famous landmarks. Hotels, office buildings, museums and other landmarks all came to life as giant projector screens, with animated light shows bringing new life to the facades. The Customs House, for example, filled up with water, flexed in and out, and broke to pieces before turning into a giant microprocessor (courtesy of Intel, the sponsor). Even the Circular Quay train station got in on the action!

Sydney Opera House during Vivid Sydney

As usual, the centerpiece of the display was the Opera House, which hosted a variety of different light shows. Some were more fanciful, showing sea creatures swimming around. The best displays, though, were the ones that highlighted the building’s structure itself. Light turned the famous sails into fans, glass mosaics and geodesic curves. I took plenty of pictures; prints are available if you’re interested! Look for an upcoming picture post to check out more shots.

A night out with Nicholas, Tarrah, Kristen and Tessa

A few weeks later, we welcomed our first official guests (a few friends had come through as part of separate trips). Tessa and Tarrah visited for a couple weeks and traveled to Brisbane and Cairns before returning to Sydney to tour the city and surrounding areas. While here, they held koalas, went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, and got to meet some of Kristen’s friends. They and Kristen also climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an extremely touristy and fun experience that we recommend to all incoming visitors. As is frequently the case, the two weeks flew by, but it was great to see familiar faces and share part of our life in Australia.

 

Tessa, Tarrah and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge