November 25, Thursday
Finally, we were ready to take off for our long-awaited vacation. Fortunately, the flight was in the evening at 7PM so we got a lot of time in the morning to pack peacefully. We ate lunch, slept for a bit, and left for the airport. Our flight was to Sydney via Los Angeles. At LA, we had a longish wait and found out that there was an earlier flight to Sydney that we could take. But then we realized that this other flight would not have our special meals so we just decided to wait and stick to our original flight. We ate dinner at McDonald's (!) and took our long flight to Sydney. Luckily, we flew on Thanksgiving Day so the flight was practically empty. We both got three seats each and slept peacefully all the way to Sydney.
On the flight, we met this really friendly Bawa steward called Khushroo. Had a long chat with him about what all to see in Sydney. He gave us these fancy first-class kits, and a bottle of Bailey's (which we promptly finished in the trip to reduce load on our way back :)). I hope that the comfortable seats are what those first-class passengers pay for because the kits were totally sidey ;). So was the terrible vegetarian food in Qantas. They actually had a regular vegetarian meal (in the normal meals) but they could not give that to us since we had ordered special meals. And those were simply pathetic! We switched to normal meals as soon as we reached Sydney for our return flights and basically got nothing to eat. Not that it was different from having ordered vegetarian meals since we could not eat those anyway. This way at least we got some hot breakfast and desserts on the return flights.
November 26, Friday
Lost this day somewhere on the International Date Line (e.g. What's a good girl like you doing in a place like this? :)).
November 27, Saturday
Finally, after a long 14-hour flight, we arrived in Sydney. We got a first long-shot look at the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge, and then proceeded to spend the next two days just seeing those places :). We took this metro train to our hotel - the Radisson near Darling Harbor. The metro was cheap but the 'private' station at the airport has a huge gate fee so it was quite expensive getting to the city. On our way back, we just took a taxi and it turned out to be cheaper than the metro train. The Radisson was a steal at IBM corporate rates, and our room was also ready when we arrived. So we quickly got ready and set off to explore Sydney.
Our first stop was at Darling Harbor. We had a quick lunch on the way at Subway (we were really hungry and had no patience to find local food). Darling Harbor was a cute little harbor right in the middle of the city. It had a nice artificial lake, and was surrounded by restaurants and shops.After Darling Harbor, we walked to Paddington Bazaar which is a local market with little open-air tents selling local stuff like pots, clothes, jewelery, etc. very cute but we had promised not to shop until our last stop in Christchurch so we stuck to that :). Our next stop was Circular Quay (pronounced 'Key') - the center of the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge.
Circular Quay is the circular area surrounding the main Sydney Harbor. On one side, we have the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and the other end has the Opera House. It is a very lively place with ferry terminals, local people performing street shows like magic and fire stunts, and the quintessential restaurants and coffee shops. We first walked over to the Harbor Bridge on the left where we saw another local market like the Paddington Bazaar. We started crossing the bridge and went about a third of the way till we got a clear view of the Sydney Skyline and the Opera House. There was a high lookout called the 'Pylon View' that you could climb to get a higher view but we skipped on it. There is also a local company that organizes trips to climb the bridge along the metallic rails right up to the top. We skipped that too because it takes a half a day to go for that trip and we did not expect the view to be much different. We walked to the bottom of the Bridge where the area is called 'The Rocks'; this area has some old monuments and shops called the Argyle shops. Our next stop was the Opera House.
It was a long walk from the Bridge to the other end of Circular Quay to the Opera House. The Opera House is magnificent - you can see it growing bigger and bigger as you come closer to it. It is a spectacular building with large royal steps that lead right up to its main entrance. We wanted to see tours of the building from inside but it was too late since they had shows in the evening and were closing the tours for the day so we decided to stop by again the next day. From the Opera House, we walked over to McQuire's Chair which was an additional walk along the water to the farthest point accessible by foot. McQuire's Chair is the only spot along the Quay where you can capture the Bridge and the Opera House in a single screen shot.
On our way back, we took a stroll in the Botanical Gardens on the Quay. We walked back to the hotel looking at historical monuments like The Parliament House, The Mint, etc. We stopped for mass at a beautiful church called the St. Mary's Cathedral. Right across from the church was Hyde park - a green spot in the middle of the city. This has a huge boulevard canopied with thick green trees, a war memorial at one end of the boulevard, and a reflecting pool in front of it. We reached the hotel, swam for a little bit, and then had dinner at a Thai restaurant at Darling Harbor. The harbor was very lively at night with lots of people, performers, a band, and Christmas lights. Crashed out early as we were still a bit tired from the long flight.
November 28, Sunday
This was a slow day - we got up quite late and had a lazy breakfast at a nearby bistro. Incidentally, all these small sidey shops in Australia are run by Chinese people; some times you feel like you are in China, and not in Australia :). We went to Circular Quay to catch up on our Sydney Opera House tour from the earlier day. The Opera House is quite sidey from close by and from inside. First of all the inner sound system is totally detached from the outside building. This means that there is a completely separate building inside the outer shell. Secondly, all the inner passageways are made of concrete with no carpeting, or paint on the walls. And finally, 4 out of the 6 theaters inside the complex are totally sidey. NCPA Tata Theater in Bombay is so much more impressive. That said, the main concert hall was huge and really pretty. We were lucky to see a practice session of a ballet performance by some local school kids that was going to be held that evening. Looked very pretty in their colorful dresses. As far as the theater itself goes, nothing compares to the Royal Albert Hall in London. We learnt a lot about the history of the Opera House. They had a competition inviting designs for the Opera House, and the winner was a Danish guy called Jon Utzon. By the time the Opera House had to be built, the government fell out of the graces of Utzon, and they threw him out of the project. Then they had money problems and it took a long time for the building to complete. Recently, the government patched up with Utzon and he is helping with some renovation. However, he is yet to see the completed Opera House since he submitted his design many decades ago :). We could not take any pictures of the halls from inside as it is prohibited. As a result, they make even more money from poor tourists who have to buy at least one picture of the Opera House to remember it ;). Our tour tickets gave us free coffee so after the tour we sat along the harbor to have cold coffee.
After the tour, we took a ferry to Manly Beach. We got another beautiful view of the Opera House from the ferry. Manly Beach is about a half-hour ferry ride away from Sydney. We had a choice of going to one of the local beaches: Manly or Bondi. Bondi is more popular so we chose Manly expecting it to be less crowded but check Manly Beach out! We walked from the ferry terminal to the beach which was a pretty road lined with quaint shops and restaurants. We hadn't expected to swim so we hadn't got our swim clothes. We just walked along the beach and wet our feet. When we did that, we realized that the water was actually warm (unlike in the US), and we could potentially swim. So we quickly grabbed a bite and bought swim clothes for ultra cheap. We also rented a locker to keep our stuff and went swimming. We had a total gala time swimming there in the beach after so many years! Reminded me of Bhandarpule and Goa. Also it was so convenient to swim there: we could buy swim clothes, rent a locker to keep our stuff, and there were public showers after we finished swimming in the salt water.
After Manly Beach, we took a ferry back to Circular Quay and went back to the hotel. Dressed up and set out for the evening again. Our next stop was the Sydney Tower. We went there around twilight so we got a view of the city in daylight as well as at night. This tower is slightly inside the city so you don't get good views of the harbor including the bridge and the Opera House. But we had a guided tour at the top and the lady told us about all the other random buildings we could see from the top :). After spending some time at the top, we took the 'Sky Tour' which showcased four different areas in Australia: urban living, the arid outback, the beach coral reefs, and the sheep farms. We were ambushed by a big gang of Chinese tourists and we had a hilarious time listening to them talk without understanding anything at all. As it was our six-month wedding anniversary, we had found the address of the really nice restaurant but when we reached there we found that in fact, it was the Sydney tourist center! So much for that. We just grabbed dinner at a local restaurant called 'The Rock Cafe' in the Rocks, walked the better part of the way back home, and crashed out.
November 29, Monday
We got up early morning and took a cab from our hotel to the Sydney airport. Between the two of us it turned out to be the most convenient (and surprisingly cheap) option to go to the airport. We reached about an hour and half before our scheduled departure to Melbourne. We were flying Virgin Blue which provides cheap competitive domestic fares in Australia. The check-in was done in a matter of minutes and then we had a decent breakfast at McDonald's! The McDonald's at Sydney airport had a breakfast item: a set of 3 pancakes, that suited us just fine. Wonder why McDonald's can;t serve such stuff in the US? After finishing our breakfast we realized that our flight was delayed and ended up spending some more time in the lounge waiting for our flight. Finally, after about an hours delay we reached Melbourne airport. Virgin was an interesting airline: they had an a la carte menu on board. That was quite a neat idea because they don't have to serve food on short flights, and yet if you are hungry you get a decent choice of food.
At the Melbourne airport we rented a Toyota Echo from Hertz and decided to drive along the Great Ocean Road. Great Ocean Road is very similar to the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) in California. It has beautiful views of the ocean with steep cliffs along the road and runs along the southeast coast of Australia. We went to one of the beaches along the way and dipped out feet - it was too cold to swim there unlike the beaches in Sydney. We stopped at a coffee shop along the way where we (Gauri blames it on me and may be she is just right in this case!) forgot our bag that contained her passport and other important documents. Fifteen minutes down the road we realized that we were missing the bag, drove back with Gauri tense and on the edge of her seat, and found the bag with all its belongings. Thank God, otherwise it would have been a lot of trouble! We went back to this lighthouse where we had realized about the lost bag, and took a walk to the edge from where we got some more spectacular views of the ocean. While we were initially planning to drive all the way to the twelve Apostles we realized that we are not doing good time and decided to drive back from a little beyond this official arch.
We reached Melbourne around 7pm in the evening, checked into our hotel, Hotel Enterprize, parked our car (the car parking was not that easy and Gauri had to put up a good fight to prevent someone else from taking our spot while I drove the car there), and walked to the local casino.We spent the evening walking around the casino trying to find a good restaurant only to find that all of them were closed by the time we reached there, finally eating in the food court inside the casino, watching others gamble (window-gambling), and finally retiring to our hotel aroudn midnight.
One of the memorable features in Melbourne was a fire show outside the local casino. (Incidentally, we saw several casinos all over in our trip but did not gamble anywhere. They so lacked the glamor of Las Vegas :(). There were these 6-10 tall pillars right outside the casino by the river front and they had a fire show every hour on the hour. The first time, we only heard the gas hissing, and caught one pillar shooting some fire, and couldn't figure out what it was all about. Later on we asked someone and saw the whole show that lasted about 5 minutes. It was quite spectacular like 'Treasure Island' in Las Vegas. We stopped by several times to see 2-3 shows that night, and even the next night. This picture was taken on the next day from the other side of the river. Nice show!
November 30, Tuesday
We woke up early because we realized that our parking was valid only until 7:30AM, so we just got ready and decided to eat breakfast before we returned our rental car. Now Melbourne is really really weird: all the streets are one-way in some very funny fashion. We wanted to get onto this one road and there was absolutely no left or right turn any where to get onto this road. Plus they have this even more weird concept called a hook turn: so when you want to take a right turn, in fact, you go to the leftmost end of the road and take the turn when the opposite traffic light goes yellow. We spent one hour randomly roaming all the streets of Melbourne, not quite managing the hook turns, got atrociously hungry, gave up on breakfast, and just returned our car! We had breakfast at a street cafe, and the coffee was quite good. But not quite Italian coffee still. Then, we went to see the Federation Square Train Station. Someone told us that the plans for this station and VT station got exchanged which is why Bombay has a much grander station that Melbourne :). We bought day passes for the metro and took off to see the MCG.
MCG: Melbourne Cricket Ground. Home of the silly games of cricket and football. There are regular tours in the MCG when it is a non-game day, and we were lucky so we got to take a tour. Further there were very few (crazy) people who wanted to see the MCG so we got a dedicated tour guide for just 6 people. Prior to our tour, we walked around the ground, and took this picture with The Man: Sir Donald Bradman. We got to hear about all the nitty-gritty details about the MCG. We saw the players' changing rooms, the place where the third umpire sits, where the commentators sit, and where the rich, paying, corporate clients sit. The ground was undergoing a face-lift to prepare it with Astroturf for the Commonwealth Games that are to be held there in 2005. Would have been more impressive to see a nice green ground. As a saving grace, we got a spectacular view of the Melbourne skyline instead.
After seeing the MCG, we took a tram back to the city. We ate lunch at this ISKCON restaurant called 'Gopal's'. The food was quite reasonable; Mayur got this feeling that they were treating us as we were poor, impoverished people from India and gave us much more food in the fixed thali that they would normally give other people :). For some odd reason, his deep Hindu beliefs were a little jostled by the modern ISKCONish ideas ;). We walked around the downtown Bourke Street market. The streets were very cutely decorated with Christmas lighting and this big Christmas tree. We also saw 'Santaland' in this huge department store called 'Myers' (but nothing compares to Santaland in Macy's), and the huge Chinatown Gate.
We then took the trams around Melbourne and saw many different buildings: Old Melbourne Gaol, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), the state library. We got off at the Parliament House in the hope of taking a tour inside but there were no tours that day. We then took a tram to the Telstra Dome which has this huge ground in the middle and often hosts Cricket matches. It was quite a rainy day so we did not get down to take a walk inside but just rode the tram back. Our tram driver was a friendly Sri Lankan who had married an Indian lady from South India. He was telling us how he had planned to visit his sister in the US, and we were surprised that he could be so well-paid (as a tram driver) to take a trip to the US. The next stop was the Queen Victoria market which was closed by the time we got there; this was good because even though it was closed it was still stinking of meat and fish :(.
We went to Toovah Road which has roads lined with fancy shops, boutiques, and cafes. We had coffee there, stopped briefly on our way back at the Immigration Museum, and headed back to the Casino. They had a small 5-minute Christmas show with dolls and lights that we saw. We sat on the riverfront for a while and then went to this funky restaurant called 'Veggie Bar' in an area called Fitroy. This was a totally hippy area and we saw the weirdest hippy crowd there. The restaurant walls were covered with random posters and the waiters/waitresses were dressed like punks! Food was nothing great though. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped again to see the pretty casino fires from the other side of the river, grabbed dessert at the casino, indulged in window-gambling, and slept off.
December 1, Wednesday
We had to leave early in the morning for our Cairns flight - back to the airport! This trip was marked by flights (literally) every second day. As we checked out of the Melbourne hotel, there was this weired receptionist who always asked 'How may WE help you?'. Kind of gave us the Gollum feeling (We love the Precious!) :). Our flight was delayed so we had breakfast at our now-favorite McDonald's and reached Cairns around noon, an hour behind Melbourne. In Cairns, we stayed at this totally cool backpacker hotel called 'Gilligan's'. It had really really nice rooms, a spa, pool, gaming room, pub - all in one place. It was the one of the best places we stayed at. The Gilligan's guy who picked us up at the airport gave us a lot of good tips about Cairns. In general, Cairns is a party place. Lots of adventure activities, restaurants, pubs, discos etc. We had a sumptuous meal at a local Indian restaurant and then headed to the Cairns beach front.
Here we did PARA-SAILING!! Out of all the adventure activities we did in this trip, this was the one I insisted on. We were on the boat with another couple from the US; we went para-sailing first. We were strapped onto these belts and slowly we started climbing as the boat moved ahead. It was a splendid day so we got views all around us. At one point, he dunked us low enough to take a dip in the water :). It was not very adventurous but I liked it a lot. Probably not worth doing it again though. The boatman told us that with couples, its always the women who want to do para-sailing which was true for us and the other couple on the boat with us :).
After we finished para-sailing, we took a bus to a nearby beach called Trinity Beach. Cairns does not have it own beach but there are a lot of pretty beaches around, and on nearby islands in the sea. Trinity Beach was nowhere close to Manly Beach. We were late so there were few people, the water was colder and choppier, only one small section was safe enough to swim, and most importantly, there were no fun waves. We swam for a bit, drank coffee, and got back to Cairns. Had a light dinner of grilled sandwiches. Wanted to go hang out at a pub but then we had to go SCUBA diving early next morning so we ditched that plan and slept off early.
December 2, Thursday
The day of SCUBA diving had finally arrived! We had signed up for two introductory dives with TUSA dive which means that the instructor would come with us all the time in both dives. Our boat had about 10-12 uncertified divers, and many certified divers and snorkelers. We took off around 8:30AM and ate some muffins on the boat. Both our stops were at the Thetford Reef: the first place was called a horseshoe and the second place was called a canyon for their shapes. We got some basic explanation about breathing and clearing our goggles of water underwater, and then we got ready to dive!
We wore tight wet suits, and had air tanks fastened to our backs. We also put on some weights in order for us to sink in the water and not remain afloat at all times. The boat had a rope attached to it, and initially we held on to it while practicing how to breathe. The key thing is that you have to equalize the air pressure difference in your body and the water by forcing the air out through your nose and ears. Once you master that trick, you are quite set. Our guide was this woman: Kerstin. Mayur and I were paired with this other couple from Hong Kong, called Will and Grace (!). Our first dive started well. We reached the bottom of the rope in the water and let it go. After that, Kerstin held onto all of us - we were all in a line with our arms interlocked. The reef was just spectacular!! We saw very pretty corals all over. There were not too many fish but the corals were just amazing. I wish I could have taken some pictures underwater.
All was not lost however; TUSA dive, of course, had a professional photographer, whom we paid a hefty amount to get the two pictures of us underwater. . Well worth the price :). The first picture has only Mayur in it and here's the long story behind that. After about 20 minutes into our first dive, our guide saw a pretty coral slightly deeper that where we were. Since she was a good diver, she immediately went towards it, and I simply could not equalize that fast. I could not breathe underwater!! I tried very hard to tell her to let me go a little up so I would be equalized at that depth of water. But everything happened so fast, I had no idea what went on. She pulled the mouth piece out of my mouth (that's normal), and I tried to put it back on very unsuccessfully. After you put it on, you are supposed to say '2' with all your might to expel all the water that may have gotten into your mouth while the mouthpiece was out. I did 'Two' and 'Tooh' like 10 times and then gave up. I would call this a near-death experience ;). but Mayur thinks it was like the near-death experience that Ross has when the car backfires in 'Friends' :). In any case, Kerstin immediately let off the air pressure and I reached the water surface in 2-3 seconds. Boy - did that feel good!! I just floated for a few minutes sucking in all the air. People all around me were asking me if I was ok, and I was like - just let me breathe, man!
The unfortunate result of my mishap was that Mayur, Will, and Grace had to come up as my group too. Another guide who was underwater got them up. But all was well. We decided to go ahead with the second dive as well and that went perfectly smoothly except for my over-equalizing in the whole dive :). In the second dive. we went through an underwater canyon, which was just spectacular. I cannot express the beauty of that place in words and I wish I had concentrated a little more on the corals than on my own breathing! There I am with Mayur in the second dive. Mayur thoroughly enjoyed the second dive. In between dives, and after the second dive, we also snorkeled. The reef was so close to the water surface that we could see everything even there. In the second snorkeling session, we got pulled away by the current quite far from the boat. The captain got a smaller lifeboat close to us to ask if we would like a ride back. We showed lots of false bravado and said no because we did not realize how far we had drifted. Then we tried to swim back against the current and got so tired in less than 5 minutes. So he came back and gave us a ride back.
We dived to a depth of 11m. On the boat we met an interesting couple - the husband Cully was from US and the wife Cathy from UK, now both settled in UK. They were about 55-60 years old and have been diving for almost a decade. They showed us their diving log and it was interesting to see all the places that they had dived in: Egypt, Thailand, Philippines etc. I was quite impressed with them - nice people! After diving, we were totally tired (me much more than Mayur). We had a bath at the hotel, posted some quintessential post cards, did laundry at Gilligan's, shopped for a souvenir boomerang, and slept after Thai food for dinner. We stopped at the local Cairns casino but it was quite sidey even to window-gamble. All in all, the most exciting day of the whole trip, I think!
December 3, Friday
End of Australia! Off to New Zealand! We took a hideously-early morning flight out of Cairns to Auckland, NZ via Sydney. Pretty much the whole day went in the flight- remember the fly every second day rule :)? Rented a small Toyota Echo in Auckland; the guy at the counter was a Gujju from Baroda - as Kaladhar says, the third official language after English and Kiwi, is Gujarati in New Zealand :). We drove down to Rotorua in the North Island, our first stop there. The scenery was just beautiful - it was green all around! It was our first introduction to beautiful beautiful New Zealand - we spent the next ten days admiring all the nature around us.
We reached Rotorua really late - after 9PM and the backpacker hostel office had closed. Unfortunately, we had made no arrangements for them to leave the key for us. Luckily, there were some other people who were taking their key from the overnight key deposit box (they had been smart enough to make some prior arrangements!). We showed them our IDs, and they were kind enough to give us our keys. We had dinner at a local Indian restaurant called 'Mr. India', again run by a Gujju who had recently moved to NZ from Prarthana Samaj, Mumbai. We ate a lot of international food both in Australia and NZ because the local specialties were only non-veg.
December 4, Saturday
Early next morning, we had breakfast - most of the days we had grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast. They were fairly standard all over NZ just like coffee in Italy (I suppose I must stop talking about Italian coffee at some point of time :)). Our first stop was the 'Polynesian Spa'. Rotorua has a lot of thermal sulphur springs. This spa had made pools that were fed water from these natural hot water springs and are considered therapeutic. We took a pass for a set of common pools and hung around for a bit. Each pool had a temperature associated with it, and we moved from the coldest to the hottest slowly. The entire spa was by a lakeside, on the other side of which was a pretty mountain. Because of the hot water springs, the edge of the whole lake was smoky and misty. Very pretty! Incidentally, even our showers in the Rotorua backpacker place smelt of sulphur, and so did the air in certain parts of town!
We then drove in and around Rotorua, and saw two spectacular lakes called the Blue and Green lakes for the color of their water respectively. Saw one more lake called the Tarawera lake. The real charm with all these places was just driving around the beautiful countryside of New Zealand with winding narrow roads through vast greenlands, and tons and tons of dumb sheep grazing every where. After having lunch back in Rotorua, we started moving south towards Lake Taupo. On our way to Taupo, we stopped at another thermal reserve area called Wai-O-Taupo. Unlike the spa, this did not have pools to swim in but it had pretty thermal areas to view. There were many different smoky places, pretty colors due to various metals, lake, springs etc. We walked around there for a couple of hours seeing all this stuff.
Then we drove down to Taupo. On our way there, we stopped by to see Huka Falls. This was a small but very pretty waterfall. The water was very clear and even from the bridge above the falls, we could see the bottom of the water. The water gushed through a narrow canyon before falling so it had a lot of force. There was a jet boat ride from the other side of the falls that came quite close to the falls, and we wanted to take that ride. But it was raining that day evening and the next morning so we had to cancel those plans. From the falls, we went to our bed and breakfast. I was not expecting it to be at someone house but in fact, it was a room in Ron and Anne Bicker's house! And what a wonderful location of the house! You could get a view of Cherry Island right from their hall as well as our room. We were so impressed with the house, we just spent some time sitting and sipping coffee in the lawn outside the house. A must stay for anyone who visits Taupo!
After checking in, we drove to Craters of the Moon which was very similar to Wai-O-Taupo but not as spectacular. We drove around the huge huge Lake Taupo, and had dinner by the lakeside before retiring for the night.
December 5, Sunday
Anne Bickers served us excellent home-made breakfast the next morning. Mayur had this funny cereal mix called 'Muesli' which is supposed to be a NZ specialty. They were really nice people and we had a wonderful time chatting with them. They were telling us about their round-the-world trip in the late 50's, and how may stops they had to make in order to fly from NZ to England. Ron's family moved to NZ several generations ago but Anne was raised in the UK. She came to NZ for work and then just settled down there :). She had an interesting view about how life in NZ was so nice because there were so little pressure of people there (NZ has a population of only 4 million). After a chatty breakfast with them, we were off on a rainy drive to Waitomo to see glow-worm caves. It was cold and foggy: what a wonderful day to do our next adventurous activity of black water rafting.
So here's the basic idea of black water rafting: Waitomo has these huge labyrinth of underground caves which have millions of glow-worms on their ceilings. The caves are pitch dark and have water running through them all around. Regular tourists go by a standard boat and see the lit-up glowworms illuminate the cave. We decided to do black water rafting, where we were given rubber tubes to wade through the water. You had to stick your bum in the rubber tube, jump into the water, and paddle with your hands in total darkness. We had miner's helmets with lamps on them but were not allowed to turn it on in order to experience the beauty of the glowworms. Now all of this would have been a lot of fun if the water had not been that cold!
We got into our wet suits which were hopelessly cold! And no gloves although we had to paddle with our bare hands in the cold water. Initially they gave us a test jump so they took us to some local river. Facing the water with our backs, we had to jump into it, and wade a little distance off. I think I died in that first jump only - so so so cold! Then they took us to the caves. First of all, I could not understand a word of what they were saying with their Kiwi accent. Its ok to understand when the person is talking to you in front of you. Here, I was shivering in the cold, could not see their faces, and I understood not one word of the glowworm history and science :). Along we paddled, and then we came to the jump in the cave for which they had prepared us in the river. I refused to jump and just walked down the rocks :). I was frozen cold and could barely breathe! I think it would have been quite a fun experience if the water had not been so cold. There was one part of the trip that I enjoyed: we all formed an 'eel' by holding onto the legs of the person before us and were led by the guide. That was very peaceful since I did not have to paddle, and got to see the beautiful glow-worms in the ceiling. Half-way through the journey, they offered us fish to eat - either 'live' or 'deed' ('dead' in Kiwi accent)! Their accent was just amazingly funny!
Anyway, after this long perilous journey, we finally came to the end of the cave and went back to the office. Had a nice hot shower (very very welcome) and then had hot hot tomato soup. That shower and soup were simply the best :). We stopped for a little bit at the local 'Museum of Caves' but did not spend much time there. We then drove off to Auckland for the evening. In Auckland, we first went to the Cornwall Park which is the highest natural point in the city and we got an excellent view of the entire city from there. We drive along the beautiful harbor bridge and got more views of the city. Had coffee in the fashionable Ponsonby shopping district, and then did some more driving along the harbor, and Tamaki Street which has all these million-dollar houses. Along the way we got many views of this Auckland Sky Tower and a pretty rainbow next to it. Spent some more time just driving around and then went to our hotel which was close to the airport for our early-morning flight the next day to the South Island.
December 6, Monday
South Island - as if the North Island was not beautiful enough, that the South Island turned out to be even more spectacular! We flew into Queenstown and from the flight itself we could see the snow-capped Remarkable Mountains and lush green fields. From Queenstown airport itself, as soon as we climbed out of the plane, we saw the mountains again so close to us. We took a shuttle to town, checked into our hotel, and started exploring Queenstown. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand; it has all the adventure activities that you can think of doing: jet-boating, rafting, hiking, bungee jumping, helicopter rides, para-sailing, para-gliding, etc. We first went to downtown Queenstown near the huge Lake Wakatipu. This is a lovely lake with the town on one side, blue blue water, and snow-capped Remarkable Mountains on the other side. We ate lunch there and chilled out in front of the lake for a while. Our next stop was the famous Gondola ride up a local hill. The view of the town, the lake, and the mountains from the top was just breathless!
At the top of the gondola mountain, they had a luge ride. They gave us this scooter kind of thing using which you had to go down fast along a winding road. They had two different roads: one was a less dangerous scenic route and the other one was a 'thrill' ride. We both took the scenic route first. My default state was with the brake on, and when the luge came to a complete stop, I would let the brake go so I would a little bit more :). I think I reached the bottom of a 2-minute ride about 5 minutes after Mayur. He was peacefully able to take my picture as I was coming down whereas I had to make him sit in the luge separately to take his picture :). He also took another thrill ride but I could not even capture his photo although I was standing on a bridge above the luge path. He just went 'whoosh' past me, and all I got was his helmet in the picture!
There was a bungee jumping stand on the gondola mountain as well but they only started the jumps after 4PM so we skipped seeing those and went on. We decided to take a jet boat ride through the Shotover Canyon. This is a fast boat ride though a narrow canyon of water. It was fun with the 360 degree turns, and the spray of water all over you during the ride. The boat driver went very close to the canyon walls so there were a few moments of 'Woah' but it was a fun ride over all. We took some of these pictures the next day as we had taken the last ride out the earlier day so we did not manage to take pictures then. The next day we met this Maharashtrian couple - the Bhiwandkars - from Mumbai. They were quite enthu and were roaming around New Zealand all on their own. Mrs. Bhiwandkar was very happy to meet a Maharashtiran couple. And as Mayur says, we claim we are Gujarati or Marathi depending on the situation and the people we are talking to ;).
The canyon was a little far away from town so we had to take the bus to get there and back. After we got back to town, we just roamed around. There was another sidey casino there and as usual, we did not gamble. There was also this interesting pub there called '-5 degrees'. They have an underground pub which is completely frozen and everything is made of ice including the seats and the glasses. They let you go down in batches for about 30 minutes wearing warm suits, boots, gloves etc. Interesting concept! We didn't try it out though. We slept off early after dinner as we had long drives for a few days after this.
December 7, Tuesday
We had breakfast along the beautiful lakeside and as I said earlier, we went back to the Shotover Canyon to take pictures. We came back to town, and rented our super cool car+ from Hertz. Our first stop was Glenorchy which was another small beautiful place, an hour's drive away from Queenstown. The mountain ranges in this area have long hiking tracks e.g. The Milford Track, the Rees-Dart Track, etc some of which start from Glenorchy. These hikes are 6-7 days long and there are huts along the way, supposed to be very beautiful. On a later train journey, we met two ladies who had hiked the Milford track and they were telling us how pretty it was. We came back for lunch to Queenstown and started our long drive to Milford Sound. One can drive to the Sound in a day trip but it would be a very long day. So we had decided to drive up half way to Te Anau and spend the night there. We stayed at 'Barnyard Backpackers' in Te Anau which was right in the middle of a deer park so there were dozens of deer all around our room. It was just beautiful, and we spent quite some time at night just sitting outside our room and seeing these animals. A peaceful day! We had wonderful pecan pie for dinner at this Italian restaurant called 'La Toscana' in Te Anau downtown
December 8, Wednesday
Scenery-wise, this was the best day of the whole trip! Milford Sound, the road to it, all the villages around it were just spectacular! I can so imagine how cool it must be to hike in these mountain ranges. We started the day early from Te Anau and started driving towards Milford Sound. The road was very narrow, winding, and simply beautiful. On the way to the Sound, we stopped at the Mirror Lakes, Knob's Flat, The Divide, and The Chasm. These were all pretty vista points along the way till we got to Milford Sound.
At Milford Sound, we took a Red Boat Cruise through the sound for about an hour and a half. The weather was very good so we could see everything very clearly. We saw Mitre Peak, Sterling Falls, and Bowen Falls. The boat stopped a few minutes under Sterling Falls, and we got sprayed by the light mist of the fall - very nice!
There were many more natural mountains named after the shapes they resemble: Lion Mountain and Elephant's Head. We also saw Fairy Falls, Anita Bay, and a distant lighthouse The boat ride was just amazing and Milford Sound was just so so pretty. We met a guy who had come to New Zealand from Argentina for the summer, and was working in the boat cruise company. Totally surprising where all people come from and where they end up working!
We grabbed a quick bite at the local cafe there and set off on our long drive back. We had to go back to Queenstown as that is the only way to and from Milford Sound. We took a scenic drive to Wanaka where we climbed some thousands of feet in like a couple of miles! It was a very steep and winding road, and for a while we were hoping that our car would make it up safe and sound :). We ate in Wanaka: another beautiful lake town like Taupo, and spent the night in Haast. There was absolutely nothing in Haast - it is simply a stop-over point between Queenstown and Mount Cook National Park that has Mt. Cook and the two glaciers. Incidentally, we had a few maps that gave suggested times to reach certain places, and they were all always conservative. We always reached way ahead of time like one or two hours ahead! We had expected to reach Haast much later but we reached at 9PM and had a decent night's sleep before heading over to Mt. Cook National Park.
December 9, Thursday
This was supposed to be the day of our helicopter rides in the glaciers but the weather acted up and it was raining right from the morning :(. We drove up from Haast to Fox Glacier where we had booked our flight. There, they informed us that all flights for the day had been canceled until further notice :(. That was quite disappointing as this was supposed to be like the final adventurous activity of our whole trip. But we did have good weather throughout save for this one day so we were quite happy about that. We walked over to the face of Fox Glacier. Here's what a glacier is (for the uninitiated like me): It likes a huge river coming down a mountain that suddenly froze in time. So it looks exactly like a river but it is frozen. With Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, the ice at the bottom has been melting faster that it is being fed by the top of the glacier so the glacier has been receding for many years. The parts where we walked were all glacier once upon a time.
After Fox Glacier, we drove up to Franz Joseph Glacier, and took a short 'Sentinel Rock Walk' to the base of the glacier. There were day trips to go snow hiking but we had settled for the helicopter rides so we had not booked them. It would have also been too cold to hike in the rain and cold but some people were still doing that with their little backpacks, crampons, and ice axes. I had also just read the chilling book 'Into Thin Air' by Jon Krauker about this lost expedition to Mt. Everest so any thought of ice/snow climbing was simply appalling to me :)! Since we could not do the helicopter ride, we went for an IMAX movie of that area - it was totally sidey and would not recommend it to anyone. They would not even show the movie if less than four people showed up but luckily (or unluckily) for us, there were four other people so we did see the movie. We checked on our flights one last time; since the weather had not improved, we left for Hokitika.
Hokitika was this really small town and we reached quite early so we went to see the Hokitika Gorge and Falls. It had this interesting swing bridge which said only one person could cross the bridge at a time. So Mayur went very carefully to the other side, and then I went. Upon reaching the other side, we saw that someone had played a very smart prank by removing a '0' from the board, when in fact ten people could easily stand on that bridge :). The gorge was quite pretty and even from a considerable height we could see fish swimming in the clear water below. We went for dinner to this Irish Pub, but could not find anything vegetarian. The owner told us that there was an Indian restaurant 'Priya' just around the block. Totally surprised to see the Indian place: these Indians and Thai people have restaurants in the most remote parts of the world! We had desserts at the Tasman View restaurant from where we got a spectacular view of the Hokitika beach. We also went for a very short cold walk to the beach after the dessert. Our hostel in Hokitika - 'Stumpers' - had a bar so we had a few drinks before sleeping off.
December 10, Friday
Last day on the west coast of the South Island. We drove up from Hokitika to Greymouth. We dropped off our rental car with Hertz, and had lunch at 'Priya' again which was a branch of the place in Hokitika. I think we ate a lot of Indian food in this trip. We were going to take a scenic train ride called the 'Tranz Scenic/Tranz Alpine' ride from Greymouth to Christchurch. Since it was still raining and we weren't sure what we would be able to see in the fog, we thought for a while whether to continue with the train journey or then take the simple bus ride. Finally, we decided to stick with the train journey and left in the early afternoon. Here's our train at the Greymouth train station.
It was indeed a beautiful train ride, a bit marred by the rain though. Further, we had seen so much of beautiful New Zealand already that we had started taking this natural beauty around us for granted :). But the train journey was pretty, and the mountains along the way are rightfully called the Southern Alps. I can only imagine that Switzerland would be as pretty. The train ride was about four hours. There was a special carriage at the end which was open and had no windows so we went there occasionally to take pictures. We also met the two women in this train (as I mentioned earlier) who had hiked the Milford Track, and they told us about their experiences there. The train had two segments: Greymouth to Arthur's Pass and then Arthur's Pass to Christchurch. You can see Mayur at the intermediate Arthur's Pass train station .
Many people come from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass, spend the day (possibly hiking) there, and then travel to Greymouth. I think a better way to travel the west coast is from north to south - that way you reach the most spectacular place (Milford Sound) at the end. We did it the other way around, and Christchurch was nowhere as beautiful as Milford Sound.
We reached Christchurch around 6:30PM, took a shuttle, and checked into our hotel. We then walked into downtown - the Cathedral Square - and roamed around there for a bit. We found (yet another) Indian place that was serving a Gujarati 'Raj' Thali so we had aamras-puri for dinner that day :). We wanted to go the local Christchurch casino so we went to a downtown hotel and called for the free shuttle to the casino. The manager there told us very kindly that our sports shoes were not permitted there so we should change into some more formal shoes to go to the casino. Since we had no other pair of shoes :), the Christchurch casino was one place we were not meant to see.
December 11, Saturday
Christchurch is a small town with quaint little buildings and lots of gardens. So it is rightfully called the Garden City. I had been here before on an earlier trip for a conference. We just roamed around all day seeing the local sights. Again, we first went to Cathedral Square and climbed the church to get a view of the town. Victoria Square was the next place - where my conference had been held the last time. We walked along the Avon River and stopped at the Edmond's Rotunda. Saw other places like the Bridge of Remembrance, and the Friendship corner where there was a tree for each sister city of Christchurch.
As we walked along the Avon, we saw people punting in the river. We took a bus ride outside the city to Lyttleton Harbor. Christchurch also has its own little gondola to get pretty views of the city and its surroundings. But having seen Queenstown, we didn't expect this to be that spectacular so we skipped on it. At Lyttleton Harbor, we spent some time at the Maritime Museum. It has a lot of interesting working models of ships, and history of expeditions to the South Pole. Christchurch was the last stop on land before they would head out to the South Pole so they would stack up all the stocks here. Very interesting and very scary how people went there with such little technology at hand in olden days.
We took a bus back to the city, and spent a few hours shopping for souvenirs. We got a small Maori God statue for ourselves, and it is now proudly hanging in our living room :). Since Mayur really really liked the thali from the day before, we went and had it again :). Those people at the restaurant also recognized us - they must be thinking (if they remember us now) that we showed up two days in a row and have never shown up before or since then :). Kudos to the 'Raj Thali'! End of the last day of New Zealand and our wonderful vacation!
December 12, Sunday
Back to pavilion today! We had long flights from Christchurch to Sydney to LA to San Francisco. The amazing thing is that we would leave Sydney at around 11:30AM on this day and reach San Francisco the same day at around 11AM :). I liked this concept a lot (all thanks to our International Data Line)! Earlier, we had booked tickets to leave Christchurch the earlier evening so that there was no problem of being late and missing the connection from Sydney to LA. However, Qantas changed our flight to early next morning on the same day as our US flight so we now had a longish wait at the Sydney airport. Mayur had this ingenious idea to request them to let us use the first class lounge as a one-time favor for having changed our flight schedule so drastically. They actually agreed too :) so we had a very comfortable stay in the Qantas First Class Lounge. Very fancy bathrooms, and lots and lots of free food :).
The flight back to LA was uneventful but crowded so we did not get more than one seat per person. They also got very suspicious about my knitting needles so I had to check in one haversack with my needles even though they had been allowed on earlier flights. The fight from LA to SFO was also cool, and we got back home safe and sound. And then we proceeded to spend the rest of the day looking at the hundreds of emails that has piled up over the last 3 weeks :). Had a wonderful wonderful trip! I hope we get to go back and hike over the Milford Track!
Here's a list of hotels we stayed in (scale of 1 to 5 stars):
Radisson Hotel and Suites
72 Liverpool Street
Sydney, NSW 2000
Excellent hotel with a plush room and fancy roman-style bathroom. Gave us the room earlier than the regular check-in time. Quite far from Circular Quay area but walking distance to Darling Harbor. Got a good rate through IBM. Good restaurants and in and around the area.
44 Spencer Street
Melbourne, Victoria 3000
Old hotel with a very shady reception and staff. Good location - walking distance from the casino. Nothing else was special. Musty smell to the room.
57-89 Grafton Street
POB 7219, Cairns QLD 4870
This hotel was the surprise of our tour. We had a room to ourselves and it was excellent. Very clean and trendy - furnished with IKEA-like modern furniture. Very reasonable with free pickup from the airport. Convenient location to downtown Cairns. Very friendly staff. Adjoining the hotel, was a spa, a pub, and a game room. A must-stay for youngsters!
Rotorua, New Zealand
1140 Hinemoa Street
Regular backpacker hostel. The water smelt of suphur but I think that's probably true of all hotels in Rotorua given the hot water springs there. We had a little spot of trouble with the keys as the reception was closed when we got there so be careful to pre-arrange the key drop-off if you plan to arrive late.
Taupo, New Zealand
190 Spa Road Bed and Breakfast
190 Spa Road
A total steal in New Zealand. Its a small bed and breakfast run by an English couple Ann and Ron Baker. Excellent location with spectacular views of Cherry Island. Very friendly hosts and a lavish breakfast. Nice rooms - a must-stay!
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
Best Western Airport Garden Inn
10 Tidal Road, Mangere, Auckland
Nothing special - we just stayed here because it was close to the airport. There are no restaurants close by especially later at night.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Flagg Inn Lomond Lodge
33 Main Street
Excellent location - just a couple of blocks from the water front. Decent place - nothing special. Fairly reasonable given the Queenstown prices - but you get what you pay for. Clean and decent room.
Te Anau, Milford Sound, New Zealand
80 Mt York Road, Te Anau
Another steal in New Zealand. Located a little away from the town in the middle of a deer park. The living quarters were spartan but clean. It was a very peaceful atmosphere and very green. Deer were right outside our room and we sat out in the evening for a long time. Need a car though to travel to town which has many good restaurants. A good place to stop on the way to Milford Sound. Another must-stay!
Haast, New Zealand
Haast Highway Lodge
On Route 6 - Marks Road
A stop-over point while travling north from Queenstown. It was a nice place with good breakfast places around.
Hokitika-Greymouth, New Zealand
Stumpers Bar and Cafe
2 Weld Street
A good alternative to staying in Greymouth. Yuppy place with a nice bar and plenty of restaurants close by. Walking distance to the beach.
Christchurch, New Zealand
241 Gloucester Street (and Madras), Lattimer
Regular hostel-category accomodation. A decent walk from downtown Christchurch. Offered rides to and from the airport at a price, which was convenient.
+Just kidding :). We just had another Toyota Echo. This car was just parked outside our hotel in Queenstown.