Monday, February 28, 2011

Earthquakes and Rebellions and Floods and Cyclones, OH MY!

Queenstown Day 2

Hello again from the “Black Cloud” family! That's what we've been referred to several times over the past few weeks. While we have managed to, just, avoid all of the various calamities that seem to be occurring in our near vicinity with eerie frequency. We've had to cancel our plans to travel to Egypt thanks to a student led rebellion that led to the ouster of their long time dictator. Historic flooding occurred in the areas just North and just South of Port Macquarie. A serious cyclone that was Category 5 before slamming into Australia, near Cairns, passed directly over Vanuatu just 2 days after we departed there. And just a few days ago, a deadly 6.3 severity earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, as we were traversing across the South Island. We were approximately 55 miles away from Christchurch at the time it struck, but were blissfully unaware that it had even happened until almost 3 hours later when we arrived in Greymouth. We've asked the US Department of State to kindly notify the various emergency response organizations of the countries we'll be traveling to in the next 2 months of our plans so that they can ramp up their troops in preparation for the chaos our visit will, no doubt, be bringing to them!

Sydney November 2 054

Ok, so it's probably just coincidence, but still spooky and we're certainly happy that our travels, other than the Egypt business, have been essentially unaffected. Indeed, as I type this up in the waiting area in Auckland, New Zealand, we are all very happy and healthy. We have very mixed feelings as we leave New Zealand. We're excited to embark upon the long planned itinerary around the world, but we have, again, had a taste of this wonderful country and are not eager to leave. The landscape, particularly of the South Island, is varied and beautiful. It is rural, but modern. It reminds us of many different places, the terrain in one area is uncannily like Wyoming, in the next you could be driving along the Lochs of Scotland, the next driving through a mountain pass in the Rockies, and 20 miles down the road in the tussocked mountains of Alaska. At all times, just gorgeous, uncrowded and peaceful.

After leaving Port Macquarie we had a brief stopover in Sydney where we were able to take in the small, but quite nice display of the Terracotta Warriors of Xian at the New South Wales Art Gallery and an Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Museum of Contemporar Art.

Wellington_NZ 020

The next morning we flew to the New Zealand capital city of Wellington (on the Southernmost tip of the North Island). This is a very pretty city on a large bay, where houses climb the hillsides similar to a European/Mediterranean town.

Wellington_NZ 247

We visited the vast Te Papa museum, enjoyed a beer on the bayside, had a few drinks at a Welsh Pub, and a dinner at a restaurant specializing in Cajun and Mexican food. Sweet Mother's Kitchen is owned by someone who lived in Nawlins for several years—the food was impressively good considering the rarity of such cuisine South of the equator and the difficulty in getting the ingredients—they even had a very good corn bread and genuine okra in the gumbo! We enjoyed a cable car ride up the mountainside with nice vistas of the city.

Wellington_NZ 263

Kaikoura 019

After a few days in Wellington, we boarded a ferry that took us from the North Island across Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island. Picton was picturesque along Queen Charlotte Sound, and had some nice little tramps (hikes) we took advantage of, but it was a one night stop on our way to other destinations.

Picton New Zealand

We picked up a bright red Ford Falcon rental car (probably a Taurus in the USA) and wedged all of our bags (we're down to one suitcase + one carry-on bag each now) into the boot and headed down to Kaikoura via Blenheim. In Blenheim we visited the St. Clair Winery, had a small tasting and drove away with a couple nice bottles in hand. We drove along the rest of the wine trail through the Marlborough Wine Region, but didn't have much time to stop, we had plans for Kaikoura.

Kaikoura 028

Kaikoura 029

Kaikoura 045

Arriving in Kaikoura we checked into the YHA Youth Hostel that sat, literally, 10 meters from the edge of the break wall for the ocean! It was just an unbelievably beautiful setting, particularly for a budget accomodation. We threw our bags in the room, grabbed a quick lunch then headed for our planned adventure of the day—snorkeling with New Zealand Fur Seals in the open ocean! If you've ever watched a 3D IMAX movie, or even an episode of National Geographic on TV where the cameras are in the water and curious sea creatures swim right up, unafraid and curious, then they put on impromptu displays of water acrobatics then you have a small sense of what we experienced. We had to suit up in thick wet suits complete with hoods and booties. The shock of the chilly water was really something, but quickly the suits filled with water and warmed up and we were, as a family, swimming right along with the seals in crystal clear New Zealand waters.

Kaikoura 226

Kaikoura 180


Albatrosses sunned on rocks; cormorants flew overhead; seals spun, dipped, and dove all around us. One seal even bumped into Brendan as we watched. To the person, the kids declared this the coolest thing they'd ever done. Tamara and I had to agree. This was just an experience of a lifetime. That night, at a fine dinner of Thai food including the rare Paua shellfish, New Zealand Salmon, and a variety of tasty dishes we all agreed that we would have loved to have planned to stay several more days in Kaikoura. There were tons of other activities in the area including llama trekking, dolphin swims, whale watching and several tramps. That evening, Amarra joined me shooting some sunset photos outside our hostel.

Sunset at Kaikoura

Alas, we had a set itinerary and had to be off the next day to reach Greymouth.

It was a scenic, but fairly short drive and we stopped in the little hot springs town of Hanmer Springs, where Tamara found a nice Merino wool jacket she couldn't walk away from. We had a decent fried chicken lunch at a takeaway, and then started on our way. Sometime shortly after we left the quake in Christchurch occurred, but we knew nothing at the time. The drive through the Lewis Pass was gorgeous. Then we got to Greymouth.

Greymouth was a planned stop because the drive from Kaikoura to Franz Josef looked to be a very long drive and potentially more than we could do in a day. As it turned out, it would have been doable in just a day and would have been much preferable. Greymouth was grey, quite and boring. It was practically a ghost town. The youth hostel was in a 1930s era building that must've been a government building at some time, and they still used genuine skeleton keys in the locks. At least half the restaurants in town were closed, and this is mid-week 5-6pm. So many were closed that we gave up and just went to the grocery store and bought pasta, sausages and sauce and cooked our own. I can't even imagine what Bill Bryson would have said about this town in one of his books. It was probably our biggest disappointment of the trip.

Fox Glacier 2 081

Luckily, the town of Franz Josef Glacier was a totally different story. It was a town full of younger people either returning from or heading to the glaciers to do ice climbing, trekking, or exploring. There were transient tour buses with older folks too, but this is an active town with all kinds of tours of the Franz Josef glacier. Our plans, however, were for the Fox Glacier, a few kilometers down the road. Fox glacier is a larger, less populated, but perhaps prettier glacier. They allowed tours on the lower portion of the glacier for kids as young as 7 (we had to get Amarra to practice fibbing since she doesn't turn 7 until July). Brendan stated “They don't look like this in the books at school,” when he saw the immensity and intense blue colors of the glacier. It was quite a hike in borrowed climbing boots. Heath had one blister and Amarra 2, but nobody complained and they all were talking about how they now wondered what was more exciting, the seal swim or the glacier hike.

Fox Glacier 2 140

Fox Glacier 077

After another “too short” stay, we had to be up very early the next day to start the reportedly 10 hour long drive down to our Southernmost destination of Te Anau.

Doubtful Sound 046

Fortunately the drive was both very beautiful and only 7 hours long. We had time to do some hiking around lake Te Anau, to see the small wildlife center and enjoy the scenery around this nice little tourist town. The main goal of the long drive to Te Anau was to explore the vast Fiordlands National Park and to take a wildlife cruise on Doubtful Sound—our most expensive tour thus far. So early the next morning we boarded the first bus of the day. After a short bus ride we boarded a boat, had a 1 hour lake crossing, boarded another bus that stopped within a 2km deep power plant for a rather boring tour there, then proceeded across a pass to another boat at the harbor for Doubtful Sound. We spent 2 hours seeing sites and staring at the water looking for wildlife.

Doubtful Sound 170

Doubtful Sound 171

We did see some, including 4 of the only 300 living examples of the Fiordland Crested Penguin. We saw Blue Penguins (aka Little Penguins or Fairy Penguins), a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins (these guys a huge compared to their North of the Equator cousins), and a Fur Seal, but we all felt a little crestfallen. While the scenery was beautiful, it got pretty repetitive. The wildlife was fairly sparse, and we'd seen most of it in the past, and more up close. So, all in all after the long trip back by bus, boat and bus again the 10 hour day was exhausting without much reward for the cost and time. I wouldn't discourage others from doing it, but if you're young and active, a 1-2 night kayak trip on the Sound might be a better way to experience the area, and if you've seen these creatures before and just want some scenery, perhaps a nice flight over the area.

Queenstown Day 2

And now, our final destination in New Zealand, and probably our favorite. Queenstown, just a couple hours drive back up the road is just awesome. The drive follows a river and lakes and while curvy is really fantastic. The town itself is in a great area within an hours drive of 4 major ski mountains, sitting on a huge “Bahamas blue” lake, and surrounded by mountains. The plethora of activities in the area is overwhelming. It is the home of bungy jumping and the kids all had a hand at trampoline bungy—Amarra was even doing back flips!

Queenstown 237

Queenstown 289

Queenstown 274

Queenstown 367

They have parasailing, paragliding, parachuting, jet boating on the river or lake, and our chosen adventure activity—river rafting. The town is lively and packed with pubs and restaurants. They have a beautiful city park, a gondola, and lots of open air activities. Again, our YHA had an enviable location sitting right on the lake with views of the mountainsides and lakeside park. We hiked part way up the gondola served mountain before turning back. We found one company that runs family friendly white water river rafting trips. It was quite nice, very calm and safe, but still a lot of fun. We had a running history of the local gold mining as well as a running dialog of bad jokes—all of which added to the adventure. Ask the kids about the road to the site where we put in sometime—harrowing is putting it lightly!

Queenstown Day 2

Queenstown Day 2

Queenstown Day 2

We're now sitting in the Auckland waiting area for our flight to Sydney before we embark upon the rest of our trip. We flew from Queenstown on the first brand new A320 “All Blacks” plane—painted solid black except for the Silver Leaf on the tail. At only 2 weeks old and roomy with leather seats, this was a really cool 'going away present' from New Zealand. We're sad to see it go, and have every hope of returning, perhaps for a prolonged stay, at some time in the future.

Be sure to check out all the New Zealand Photos at the flickr set:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Moving On: Around the World in 66 Days

Ellenborough Falls

When an adventure takes 4 years of planning, 2 years of saving and an untold amount of anticipation to finally achieve, it's a bit hard to believe when it is coming to a close. While we still have over 2 months of travel ahead of us, we have just a couple of days left here in Port Macquarie before we leave Australia behind—for how long, we have no idea.

As we'd anticipated, not everything went as anticipated. Unemployed and without a salary for over 2 months cut deeply into our savings very early on. But since the hospital was good enough to provide a place to live and a car for that period of time, we also gained unexpected benefits. We traveled around Eastern Australia much more than we otherwise would have been able to had Evan been working from day 1. We were able to visit, and fall in love with, New Zealand for a full month when he unexpectedly ended up working there. We found we loved it enough that we had to organize a visit back before embarking upon the previously scheduled portion of our travels.

While the kids didn't have a chance to really make any Aussie friends due to our nomadic lifestyle here, they did make some wonderful new friends in the form of Cody and Sarah, the children of Steve (one of the other American docs at Port Macquarie Base Hospital) and Christy Ross. We have also met other ex-pat families, sharing experiences and hospitality--The Breshears, the Parks, the Pettys, & the McConkeys.

We've come to love the town of Port Macquarie, and who wouldn't? A place like this with 9 gorgeous beaches, year round moderate weather, small town feel and tourist town amenities would not exist in the USA. It would be jammed with tourists year round, it would be overly crowded, pretentious and expensive. Here, it's quiet, peaceful, and you can park on the beach, and anywhere in town on all but the very rare busy school holidays. Add in the fact that you're just a short drive from remote rainforests, can go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef with a short flight, or take a jaunt in one of the most upscale cities in the world in the form of Sydney or Melbourne in just a few hours makes this a very difficult place to leave.

While we have 66 days of travel ahead of us, we can't help but think of this as the beginning of the end of our adventure. Tamara & Evan are anticipating, with no little anxiety, returning to the grind of work at St. Johns. The kids are anticipating returning to 'real' school and their friends. Evan can't wait to throw a big Boston Butt on the Big Green Egg, and Tamara is to see family, friends, and patients again (and sleeping in her own bed)! In short, we all have a lot of mixed feelings.

So, speaking of not everything going as anticipated...since they were children, Tamara and Evan have wanted to go to Egypt...and then the recent 'fluff up' over there nixed that plan. A 3 city visit in Italy has been slotted in to fill that void. (What a hardship!) That, in addition to the previously expected planning, has kept Tamara (with a lot of help from Brendan) quite busy making the plans for the rest of our trip. I won't bore you with the details, but just the list of places we're going.

  • New Zealand (Wellington & the South Island)

  • Tokyo, Japan

  • Hong Kong (staying at Hong Kong Disneyland with a side trip to Macau)

  • Thailand (with a side trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat)

  • India (Golden Triangle Area)

  • Turkey (on a jet setting whirlwind tour)

  • Athens, Greece

  • Italy (Rome, Florence & Milan; of course, a side visit to the Vatican)

  • Spain (Madrid, Grenada, Sevilla, Barcelona)

  • Paris, France

For those of you keeping score at home, that makes 14 countries, counting Australia and Vanuatu (completed visit). The Vatican is officially a separate country, and we cheated and counted Macau as a separate one, since it was only reunited with China in 1999.

We return home via Chicago (where Uncle Ed is storing the Prius) getting into the Windy City on April 20th and then home to Nixa on April 23rd.

For those who follow us on Facebook and email, we'll do our best to keep things updated, many of the places we're staying we know have internet. However, we know that travel often leaves little time for internet activities. I don't think we'll have a phone (will email those who need to know if we do get an international SIM card) either, so don't panic if you don't hear from us until we're settle back at home.

We're moving on...we're better for our time here. We've had a wonderful experience. And we've got a new outlook on life....just as we'd expected.

Ellenborough Falls

Ellenborough Falls, New South Wales, Australia

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Viva Vanuatu!

Vanuatu 376

Greetings from the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The archipelago of volcanic origin is 1000 miles East of Australia, 300 miles Northeast of New Caledonia and West of Fiji (just hit the link or get a map). This independent nation of just 30 years was an amazing experience. People, we are talking true adventure travel in every sense of the word! Although our decision to visit was off the cuff, we all left with a sincere appreciation of Vanuatu and Melanesian culture, and we hope to return one day. Here's a few words and pics of a vacation that we will long remember. (as always, click on any photo or go to our Flickr site to see all the photos: )

Tanna Vanuatu 126

After a couple of weeks of taking our malaria prophylaxis, we flew into Vanuatu on a Sunday on an Air Vanuatu flight from Sydney. The sweltering heat and humidity that greeted us as we stepped out of the airport was a true indication of the week ahead.

Vanuatu 104

We were soaking wet by the time we arrived at our booked hotel. Although we had a wonderfully welcoming reception, the lizards in the entryway, ants on the kitchen counter, mold in the bathroom, and no air conditioning (quite a restless night) convinced the entire family that perhaps I had budgeted a bit too much on this accommodation. Feeling a little sheepish over our need for creature comforts, we switched hotels the next day and blissfully enjoyed the functioning pool, free breakfast and passable a/c. Hello Melanesian Hotel, we love you!

Vanuatu 015

We stayed in the capitol city of Port Vila (population ~ 40,000) on the island of Efate (ee fot aye). Efate is one of the 83 different islands that make up Vanuatu, and the only one that has paved (loose definition) roads. The electricity for this island ends just outside the city limits. The “ring road” around the island was completed in 2008 from a grant from the US.

Vanuatu 556

Most people speak English and French, (as both of these countries ruled jointly until Ni-Van independence,) as well as Bislama, a pidgin English. There are also 115 different native cultures and 115 different languages in Vanuatu, so some people routinely speak 4 languages---and we consider ourselves educated!

Port Vila Vanuatu 016

Vanuatu calls its people “the happiest people in the world”, and I believe it. As we roamed the town our first day there, many people came up to greet us and ask if they could help us with anything.

Vanuatu 018

Our first tour was booked with a company whose owner, after hours, gave me a verbal tour of the island, pointing out areas of interest and throwing in tidbits of culture and history. Although the Ni-Van people are truly poor by our standards, there was no begging, no homelessness that we saw, and no hustling. Uniformly, the Ni-Van appear happy with their lives and do not feel that their lifestyle is inferior in any way to ours. They are unbelievably proud, friendly people.

Vanuatu_final_day 047

On our first night in Vanuatu, we wandered the ocean front and ended up at the “Nambawan Cafe and Juice Bar” for a little Ni-Van pizza, Tusker beer (kids had fruit smoothies), and a movie shown on a rigged sail over looking the harbor. Ah, paradise!

Vanuatu 043

Vanuatu 046

Over the next few days, we explored Port Vila and the outdoor markets. Refreshingly, there is no bargaining or badgering. We enjoyed some traditional local 'street food' at the market, which is open 24/6—closed only on Sundays. The market food was very inexpensive compared to any of the local restaurants since it caters to locals rather than all the holiday folks.

Vanuatu 082

We took a tour around Efate with John, the adorable older man we met our first night in Port Vila. We saw a kastom village where the people still live in houses like their forebears (more the norm in Vanuatu than the traditional housing we are used to).

Vanuatu 165

Vanuatu 181

In a different village, we were entertained by the menfolk with traditional warrior dances in traditional costume. Fortunately, cannibalism and head hunting went out in 1940, so other than a hibiscus flower tucked behind our ears, we left fully intact!

Vanuatu 227

Vanuatu 321

Vanuatu 349

Did you know the US had a military base on Efate in WW2? Yeah, we didn't, either! We saw the remnants of the airfield and swimming pool before journeying onward to “Survivor Beach”.

Vanuatu 519

Survivor season # 9 was filmed in Vanuatu. We snorkeled off the beach seeing, “Nemo” fish, sea cucumbers, parrotfish, giant clams, angel fish, and blue starfish. Wonderful! Evan even tried his hand a opening a coconut in preparation for a future “Survivor” appearance!

Vanuatu 201

Vanuatu 532

Vanuatu 550

Another fantastic experience around Port Vila is the Mele Cascades. This is a waterfall that people can hike up. At the top are beautiful twin cascades that just scream, “tropical island paradise”. Brendan, Heath, and Amarra loved this even with the tropical shower that ensured we were fully drenched before we left. This is definitely “a must” if you're in this area.

Vanuatu_final_day 108

Vanuatu_final_day 141

Other places on our “to do” list were the Secret Garden and the Vanuatu Cultural Center. The Secret Garden is a privately owned park (mosquito spray provided at the entrance) that has an incredible amount of information on the history and culture of Ni-Van people. There was no way we could absorb all the literature provided, although we tried! Besides the displays of traditional housing and local fauna (lizards, snakes, and coconut crabs), we learned about the history, culture (Evan claims to be a big namba---ask him about this), and lifestyle of the indigenous people.

Vanuatu_final_day 073

Vanuatu_final_day 093

The Vanuatu Cultural Center is the national museum, although the opening hours are dependent upon the one barefoot curator's arrival time. Island time is lovely! It was very small, but packed with priceless statues, hats and pictures. We most appreciated the sand drawing demonstration, complete with story and song. The kids had a chance to practice their drawing as well!

Port Vila Vanuatu 073

Port Vila Vanuatu 060

Perhaps the highlight of our trip was our visit to the outer island of Tanna, a couple of islands South of Efate, to see an active volcano. We crammed into a single engine Cessna 206 , and dodged clouds for an hour to our destination.

Tanna Vanuatu 009

Tanna Vanuatu 022

Tanna's “international airport” had 2 flights that day---both private single engine planes! Yep, we did see chickens on the airfield. We were met by our guide and driver there. Half of us were in the truck's cab and the other half in the bed of the truck.

Tanna Vanuatu 024

Tanna Vanuatu 081

It took ~ 1.5 hours to traverse 20km to the other side of the island. The dirt road was washed out and very rough with few vehicles but many bush knife carrying villagers on bare feet. Once we reached the base of the volcano, we saw a few hardy souls attempting “sand boarding”, so, of course, the kids wanted to try as well!

Tanna Vanuatu 161

Tanna Vanuatu 168

We were surprised that the volcano actually had twin craters, both active.

Tanna Vanuatu 231

The eruptions were indescribable with first, a sound like a canon blast, and then flying pieces of magma soaring hundreds of feet into the air and a constant rumble of the earth under our feet. Of course, there was no railing, so even though Evan hung on the edge to take photos, the kids and I kept a judicious distance away from the rim. We could have stayed there all day, but our guide shooed us back to the truck to go for lunch and then start the long trek back to the other side of the island.

Tanna Vanuatu 232

Tanna Vanuatu 281

My description does not even begin to tell you how amazing this was. If you ever have a chance to see Mt. Yasur on Tanna, do it! (On a side note, since vehicles are few and far between on Tanna, we had several pedestrians stop our driver and jump in the bed of the truck to hitch a ride back with us to Lenakel!)

To wrap up, I have to say something about kava. The Ni-vans claim that they are so happy because of this. They say if someone fights or has a problem, just give them a little kava. They get happy and sedated (opposite the aggression and poor judgement with alcohol), and all problems are solved! Personally, although Evan and I did try it, the taste is awful! I can only describe it as bitter liquid grass taste. I think I'll stick with a glass of wine.

Cultural Show 013

Cultural Show 059

We're still having amazing adventures and enjoying the ride! We have just about 2 weeks left to our time in Australia before setting off on our 2 month around the world trip and expect to be back on US terra firma on April 20th.

Cheers, my friends,