The Melbourne Skyline from the top of the Shrine of Remembrance
Joe and Koala friend at the Koala Conservation Center on Phillip's Island, south of Melbourne
Penguin Parade on the Beach at Phillips Island, on Australia's southern tip below Melbourne
Anna and Joe Riding our Camel to Dinner
Stumpy and Bob entertaining us at our Outback Chuck Wagon Dinner
Duane Murray exercises his Outback Survivor skills by eating a freshly cooked Witchitty Grub
Joe with ULURU (Ayres Rock) in the background
Michael Ohge, our Collette Tour Manager, with our Alice Springs coach driver
Dave Phoenix, our coach driver and tour guide in the Outback will walk the historic Burke and Wills expedition to complete his PhD in Australian Exploration History. His walk from Melbourne in the south along the eastern Australia coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria, near Karumba in the north, will cover 3,000 kilometres (about 1,864 miles). Imagine having a man of this caliber as your guide through the Outback! We were indeed very fortunate.
Joe on Green Island Rainforest Walk
Relaxing at Dundee's Restaurant after our day at Green Island
A stop at the magnificent falls in the Rainforest above Cairns as we took the Sky Rail up to Kuranda
The ultimate Sydney shot with the Opera House and Harbor Bridge in the background
The entertainment at the Lowenbrau Keller in the Rocks section of Sydney
Joe and a Koala (that's Joe on the left) at suburban Sydney's Koala Park Sanctuary
Our "Captain Cook Cruises" evening Harbor Dinner Cruise vessel
Our introduction to the natural beauty of New Zealand at Franz Josef Glacier
Members of our group relaxing before dinner at our Franz Josef Glacier Hotel
A shot of the beautiful scenery taken during our Lord of the Rings tour near Queenstown
The view from the deck of our the Skyline Restaurant overlooking Queenstown on Tuesday, March 4
Our table at our mountaintop Skyline Restaurant
A great example of the landscape of New Zealand taken near Queenstown on our Lord of the Rings Safari
One of the falls in Milford Sound taken while on the Red Boat Cruise of the Fjord
Another picture taken from the waters of Milford Sound
Another example of New Zealand's splendor taken during the Lord of the Rings safari
Navigating the rough terrain during our Lord of the Rings Safari
On a precarious ridge with Lord of the Rings scenery in the background
Main Street in the gold-rush town of Arrowtown near Queenstown
Charles Nimmo demonstrates the science and art of sheep-shearing at his farm
Farmer and author Charles Nimmo and his wife and four children
Some of us enjoying a drink in the bar at Hermitage Hotel bar with Mt. Cook in the background.
Sir Edmund Hillary (statue), Joe, and Mount Cook in the Background
Coincidentally, Sir Edmund Hillary died earlier this year, on January 11, 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand. He was 88.
Hillary and his partner, Tenzing Norgay, were the first climbers to ever reach the 29,028 foot summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. He is honored at Mt. Cook with both a statue and an Alpine Educational Center. In the light of the historic circumstances related to Hillary this year, we were again fortunate to be at this location at this time!
OUTBACK TO THE GLACIERS
February 19 through March 9, 2008
E-mail to the folks at home
Joe’s adventure in Australia and New Zealand
Note: Because we were always about a day ahead of the USA while “down under”, the dates may be confusing. The dates shown are USA dates, but text references will usually be to the next day. Blame it on the fact that we crossed the International Dateline.
Mon. – 2/18/08 “Off to Australia and New Zealand”
Well, I'm off on another trip -- this time to Australia and New Zealand. We leave Vincentown on Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. and will hopefully arrive in Melbourne , Australia at 9:30 a.m. Thursday (their time -- we loose a day by crossing over the International Dateline). Elapsed time from takeoff in Philly to landing in Australia is about 33 hours, with 15.5 of those hours over the Pacific. Our tour includes Melbourne, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, Cairns, Sidney and then off to New Zealand on March 2nd for a week there, which includes Christchurch, the Franz Josef Glacier Region, Queenstown, and Mt. Cook. Then we fly out of Auckland, arriving in Philly at midnight on March 9th. There are a total of 23 people in our tour group, with 9 of us in my group. If you want to see a detailed itinerary, its on www.LauferTravel.com. But, as is my custom, I'll be sending emails along the way. I'm sending this one now in case anyone wants to "opt out" -- and I won't be offended if you prefer that I don't keep you on the list. So until I land in Melbourne, have a great couple of days. By the way, it is summer there -- and I hear you're in for a bout of stormy weather while I'm basking in the sun Down Under!
Wed. - 2/20/08 “Greetings from Melbourne"
Well, we made it! We arrived here in Melbourne a half hour ahead of schedule, arriving at 9:00 am, Thursday, which was your 5 pm Wednesday. We lost a day, but we're now a day ahead of you. Considering that we were in the air for 15 hours from LA to Melbourne (after two flights and layovers from NJ to LA) the trip wasn't all that bad (Qantas had good meals and good service) -- and now that we are here, it was well worth the "inconvenience". Michael Ohge, of Virginia Beach, VA, our Collette Tour Manager, met us at the airport. He is very organized and is a living encyclopedia of Australia and New Zealand – and quite humorous. We stepped out of the Melbourne terminal into a beautifully warm and sunny day and have already had a brief tour of the city, checked into our hotel and had a shower (well needed!) and I found this internet cafe about two blocks from the hotel. It is now 1:30 in the afternoon, Thursday (9:30, Wed., where most of you are). I am about to take the free tram around the beautiful and clean city, go to the pub the tour director recommended (Young and Jacksons, where there’s a major painting of a woman named “Chloe” – who stole the hearts of many a sailor on shore leave), take a walk along the Yara River, and then join the group for the welcome dinner tonight in the hotel. There are 23 in the group, but our New Jersey contingent of 9 is the largest from one place. We've gotten off to a good start and I just wanted to get this first e-mail off to let you know we are here and that all is well. Tomorrow morning, Don, our bus driver, will take us on a bus tour of Melbourne. One quick story: What can go wrong will -- and yesterday at check-in at the Philadelphia Airport, one member of my group had an expired passport (with two big holes punched in it as proof of expiration!!). She had a new one at home, but accidentally picked up the old one. She had to take a taxi back to Mt. Holly (at no small expense), missed our flight by minutes, but thanks to help from my wife, Penny, Collette Vacations and Delta Airlines, got on a later flight to Atlanta and caught up with us in LA. Moral: either shred your old passport when it expires, or, if you like to keep track of every place you've ever been, frame it or put it in the attic or some other remote place. Hope that is the only problem we encounter on this adventure. Over and out from Down Under. I’ll continue this travelogue later. Joe
Fri. 2/22/08 - “Greetings from Alice Springs, Australia”
G'Day! We arrived here at 10:30 am after a 2.5 hour flight from Melbourne. We exited the plane into 94 degree temperature and bright sunshine. It is expected to go up to about 100 by this afternoon. But there's a nice breeze! Earlier we toured the "Flying Doctors" headquarters and museum. Because we are in the middle of nowhere -- 900 miles minimum in any direction to any normal civilized towns -- they need airborne medical emergency services. We learned how and where they operate, the kinds of planes they use, etc. Quite an operation!
A visit to the outback was on my "Bucket List" -- so that's another one to check off. We will eat outdoors in the bush tonight. Tomorrow we will "ride a camel to dinner" -- literally. Because it is pure desert, Camels were introduced here when the British arrived -- and now they run wild in the area (wild camel population: 500,000!)-- but domesticated ones are used in Camel Races and for tourists like us.
Last night's experience at the Penguin Parade at Phillip’s Island (the lower tip of Australia – about a 2 hour drive from Melbourne) was very interesting. We saw Penguins "au natural" -- doing what Penguins do -- fish all day, and bring their bellies full of fish home for the kids and spouses. Amazingly, the tourist viewing area is set up so as not to disturb their natural habitat and routine (we were not allowed to take photos). We saw hundreds of Penguins waddle across the beach in small groups and head for their dens. Earlier, our visit to the Koala Reserve was similarly laid out for the benefit of both tourists and Koalas -- with boardwalks at a level mid way up the trees so we could get up close to the Koalas in the trees either sleeping or eating (the only other thing they do is breed -- and we didn't see any of that going on). I took some great pictures of Koalas up close and personal.
Our group is bonding -- all 23 of us are getting along well. I ate with a couple from Oklahoma last night. We have some from Fargo ND, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, South Dakota, California, Arizona and Minnesota. I forgot to mention that yesterday afternoon we went to "Queen Victoria Market" in Melbourne -- which is Australia's version of New Jersey’s Columbus Market. I got most of my souvenirs there. I really thought I was shopping at Columbus!
Hey, we're here for a one-hour lunch stop -- so I gotta go get a beer in a pub our tour director suggested -- he's great at pointing out the "hot spots". This one is supposed to be like one in the movie Crocodile Dundee. It should be fun.
Right after that we head to the telegraph station -- which is why Alice Springs exists. It is smack in the middle of the country and became a communication station (a “repeater station”) linking all the country and Australia with the rest of the world. (Right now it is Saturday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. -- we had to set our clocks back 90 minutes earlier than the time in Melbourne. Don't ask me how you get away with the extra 30 minutes -- it doesn't make sense, but that's how the time works here). We will also visit Anzac Hill (remember: Australian-New Zealand Army Corps – there’s a memorial in every town!).
More later as my adventure in the Outback continues. I hear you had snow in New Jersey! Sorry about that. Well, I'm headed out in the sun and 90 plus degrees. (Sorry to rub it in). Joe
Sat. 2/22/08 - “Sunday Afternoon in Alice Springs”
G'day mates! It is 12 noon in sunny Alice Springs as I write this from an internet cafe in a youth hostel just off the Main Street in the center of town. Today there is a street festival going on. I can hear the band through the walls here -- it is right up the street in the public square. All kinds of merchants are out selling crafts and all kinds of great food. It is very festive -- and only happens on two Sundays each month, and we just happened to be here on one of them.
To catch up, I spent yesterday afternoon at the pool; then last night we had "Dinner in the bush under the stars" -- it was fabulous. We ate chuck-wagon style (the Australian version) – the food was prepared by a young couple, Bob and Cathy, and we were entertained by a folk singer (“Stumpy”) and Bob played the didgeridoo -- with audience participation. The audience was only our group of 23 -- which made it extra special. Our desert was “Spotted Dog” – a cake we watched Bob prepare and bake in an in-ground oven. After dinner, our host took us out from under our bamboo, thatched roof cover to give us a lesson in the night sky stars of the southern hemisphere. We saw the "southern cross" which is on the Australian flag -- also Orion (who is upside down here in Australia) and even Mars. The night skies of the Outback are truly dark, so star gazing is a specialty here. This morning, after a hardy breakfast, we went back out in the bush to a remote area where we were greeted by native Aborigines (members of the Walpiri tribe) and were given a cultural lesson in their history and habits by a guy by the name of Con – who looked like Kenny Rodgers. His lecture was mixed with humor and very interesting. Some of the natives were there selling their original art -- which several of our group purchased. Tonight is our "Ride a Camel to Dinner" event, which we are all looking forward to. It includes a half-hour ride on camels -- in a caravan comprised of our group -- and then another outback dinner. The weather has been unseasonably warm (as opposed to seasonally HOT). In other words - IDEAL! Our tour director said he has never seen the weather so nice for tourists. We feel blessed. Our bus driver in Alice Springs was a woman! Tomorrow morning we leave Alice Springs for a 6-hour bus ride to Ayers Rock (locally called by the Aboriginal name of ULURU) further into the outback. We stay there for one overnight. The tour is moving along -- and everyone is raving about how glad they are that they came. It has been great.
Well, I'm going back out to the street festival now -- I passed a booth selling what looked like great knockwurst and sauerkraut -- I've been salivating since I saw it.
More from the next stop on our Australian adventure. Joe
Sun. 2/23/08 “Monday morning from Alice Springs”
Good Morning! It is 6:30 a.m. and I'm waiting for the restaurant to open for breakfast. It was funny watching the morning news (they call it the Today Show here, too) as the Hollywood stars were walking the red carpet for the Oscars -- 6 a.m. on Monday morning! (here).
Just a few catch up items that I missed in my earlier email: - While out in the bush we were given lessons on "non returnable" boomerang throwing -- a second type of boomerang the Aborigines use to disable Kangaroos and then kill them. No one in our group hit the target!
- Yesterday in the bush we were shown a "Witchitty Grub" - a three-inch creature about the size of a sausage -- live and squirmy. Something the Aborigines eat -- and something you'd see on "Survivor" as a challenge. Well, we were challenged to eat it if the leader cooked it. The only guy to accept the challenge was Duane Murray, one of our group from Oklahoma. As he ate the cooked grub, I was convinced he was trained for survival in some previous career.
I think that takes care of the gossip column for today. Last night we rode our camels to dinner -- and it was more fun getting on and off the camels than the 45 minute ride was. But we had a nice dinner. One of the delicacies was Kangaroo meatballs. And, oh yeah, out in the bush we were offered Kangaroo tail as a delicacy -- some ate it and said it "tastes like chicken" - sure!!!! I passed on it.
The restaurant just opened -- so off to breakfast, then on the bus for our trip to ULURU (Ayers Rock). Take care. P.S. Another thing I meant to tell you -- I watched the David Letterman Show the other night -- he's quite a star in Australia. Small world! Joe
Tue, 2/26/08 - “Arrival in Cairns, Queensland”
G'Day. We checked into our hotel in Cairns (pronounced "Canns") about an hour ago. I am in an 8th floor corner room with dual balconies overlooking the bay. The weather is tropical here (Palm trees, etc. -- the equivalent of being in the Caribbean in the summer, except that our relationship to the equator is reversed -- from the Southern hemisphere). It is a resort town with a look like the French Riviera -- and a favorite vacation spot for Japanese tourists during their winter. Penny and I were here a little over ten years ago, but the place has grown dramatically since then. This is our third geographic location -- Melbourne was the first at the south-eastern tip of Australia; Alice Springs and Ayres Rock are in the desert center of the country and now we're in the far north eastern corner. Each represents a different aspect of the culture: Melbourne: Colonization and gold-rush; Alice Springs: Frontier Australia; Ayers Rock: Aboriginal Australia; and now in the north - the Rainforest and sugar cane area. Our very intelligent and informative bus drive/tour guide in Ayers Rock was a guy named Dave Phoenix, who is about to do a doctoral thesis which replicates the discoveries of Burke and Wills, early explorers of much of Eastern Australia. He plans to retrace their south to north route on foot (1,864 miles). Check out Dave's very informative website: http://www.walk.burkeandwills.net.au
Last night we had a "bus" tail gate party at the overlook for Ayers Rock to watch the sunset. We had champagne, cheese, Kangaroo meat, and all kinds of other goodies as our Collette tour manager and bus driver hosted our Ayers Rock tail gate party. As the sun goes down, Ayers rock changes colors several times - a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- and experienced only in the central Australian outback. And the weather was perfect.
We started out this morning from our hotel in the outback to visit the "Olgas" -- a geological phenomenon similar to Ayers Rock, about a half-hour bus ride from the rock. We hiked partially into the crevices, then had lunch and headed for the nearby small single runway airport for our Qantas flight (2.5 hours) to Cairns.
One thing I haven’t dwelt on was the flies of the outback. All of us purchased nets for our heads and faces when we were in Alice Springs, on the recommendation of our tour director. We were glad we did. We had heard about the flies – but they were much worse than we had imagined. More of an annoyance than a danger! They didn’t bite, but they sure did distract. The nets were essential travel gear during our time in the outback! During the heat of the day they were a menace, but as soon as the sun went down, they disappeared.
Tomorrow morning we board our catamaran, from the bay just outside our hotel, for a 55 minute ride out to Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. We'll spend our day there swimming, exploring the reef in a glass bottom boat, snorkeling and just plain experiencing this underwater wonder of the world.
Hope all is well where you are. We are headed to a 7:30 p.m. dinner in our hotel -- then to bed as we ready ourselves for the Great Barrier Reef. Regards! Joe
Fri., 2/29/08 – “Fabulous Sydney”
G'day Mates. We arrived here in our Sydney hotel last night in the midst of a downpour at about 9 p.m. However, as has been our good fortune, we awoke this morning to sunshine! Our day began with a guided bus tour of the many neighborhoods of Sydney -- and there are many, each with its own character and contribution to the lively history of this harbor town. We headed straight for a location across the bay from famous and oft-photographed Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge, which served as the background for our Collette Group Photo. It was the perfect setting as the sun shone on the sail-domed Opera House and glittering harbor. We then proceeded from neighborhood to neighborhood (The Rocks where Sydney began, Kings Cross, Paddington, etc. with a great on-board guide-driver who elaborated on the history and architecture of the multi-faceted city. After being taken to breathtaking heights for panoramic photos of the bay and skyline, we were dropped off at an Opal shop -- for a demonstration of Australia's premier gem-- and a chance to purchase one for our loved ones. I learned a lot about opals and have come to appreciate their value and beauty. The rest of the afternoon and evening are our own. I went to the world's premier aquarium to see up close the aquatic life of the Great Barrier Reef -- walked among and under sharks through tubes -- and all kinds of other underwater experiences as I've never seen them presented before. I then walked along Darling Harbor (there are many harbors here) where the famous James Rouse (of Philadelphia fame, who also designed Baltimore Harbor ) lent his creativity to this ultra modern "Harbor-side". There's so much to talk about. Tonight I plan to go to an area called "the Rocks", which is where the original convict-settlers of Australia arrived and began to build the city. It has been preserved and transformed into a tourists delight with upscale restaurants and shops -- "the" place to have at least one dinner while in Sydney” (according to our tour director). Our hotel is very centrally located, so we can walk to just about anything of interest and importance -- and it is a rather nice hotel as well. Tomorrow night we will have an evening harbor dinner cruise, and attend a performance at the Opera House. During the day tomorrow (Saturday), we will visit another Koala sanctuary.
Everyone is having a wonderful time as we wind down our stay in Australia and prepare to travel to New Zealand for the final week of our vacation. But there's still lots to do here in Sydney, which I'll report on over the next few days.
To briefly catch up on days in Cairns. On Wednesday we spent the day on Green Island (taking a Catamaran out there – a 55 minute ride). We snorkeled, took a nature walk in a Rainforest, saw the crocodiles fed, and had lunch there. Some of us had a seafood dinner at Barnacle Bills on the Esplanade. Our afternoon in Cairns on Thursday included the Gondola Sky ride above and through the Rain Forest was fabulous. We saw water falls that rival Niagara Falls, swelling to their greatest display because of recent rains in the mountains (another case of being here at the absolute perfect time), and then we enjoyed some time in the mountain town of Kuranda. I had lunch in a German restaurant, and it happened that I noticed the Baden-Wurtemburg flag -- and asked the owner where he was from in Germany -- which happened to be the town of Baden , not far from the home of my ancestors. Gotta go- time is up on this computer. More Later. Joe
Fri, 2/28/08 - Friday Night in Sydney – Unbelievable
Hi. I just had to send you this email before returning to my Hotel for the night. This city is alive with activity as I walk back from "The Rocks" -- where colonization here began in 1788 -- a place in the shadow of the Harbor Bridge that is now the "hip" place to eat and shop. I ate at the Lowenbrau Keller -- a German establishment very similar to the Hoffbrau Haus in Munich, but on a slightly smaller scale. It has the long tables, the high ceiling, the waitresses who can carry 6 or more mugs of beer, and the guys in lederhosen, as well as the 4 piece oom-pah-pah German Band. I had a sampler of German sausages, sauerkraut and potatoes. It was a great meal, and a great place to be. It was packed with people and I barely got in. After I settled in, people were lined up outside around the block. But as good as that was, it isn't the end of the story.
As I made my way back to the hotel (and I'm not back yet -- I ducked into this Internet cafe) -- I saw all of Sydney celebrating the end of the work week -- or was it leap-year day? or what? All I know is that the entire downtown is packed with mainly young people still in their suits - after work, overflowing the pubs into the streets in celebration -- of "life" I guess. They sure know how to have a good time. The downtown is alive with activity -- and there was one place -- it seemed like one of those large concrete open spaces between office buildings that had at least - no exaggeration - 1,500 or more young people drinking beer and just chatting and laughing. I was drawn to it by the din I heard (similar to the sound of the waterfalls we saw yesterday in the Rainforest!). The downtown is clean, safe and vibrant, and it seems that all of Sydney is here playing. They are mostly people between the ages of about 18 and 40 -- mainly men, but still, lots of women. I just had to share this with you. I took some pictures to prove that this place is buzzing!
I may have misled you in my previous email because the computer was on a timer. This one isn't. But tonight is our second night in Sydney. Tomorrow night (our Saturday) will be our third and last night here in Sydney (and in Australia). We leave early Sunday morning for Christchurch in New Zealand. Our schedule for tomorrow is this:
1. Visit to Koala Sanctuary.
2. Guided tour of the Sydney Opera House
3. Free afternoon
4. Dusk Harbor dinner cruise
5. Performance at the Sydney Opera House (a concert by Yasmin Levy, of Israel – an internationally famous superstar – accompanied by a group of 5 musicians).
I've taken over 500 pictures while in Australia and will start a brand new chip when we arrive in New Zealand. I promise to edit them before sharing.
Thanks for listening. And if you ever get the opportunity, put Australia on your "Bucket List" -- even if you have to spend the family inheritance. See ya! Joe
Sun. 3/2/08 – Greetings from Franz Josef Glacier – New Zealand
It is 5:15 on Monday here on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The sun is shining, it is shirt-sleeve weather, and the only word to use to describe what we've seen today is FANTASTIC! We arrived in New Zealand yesterday afternoon in the midst of rain and a slight cool front. We took a quick tour of Christchurch (known as “The Garden City”, with its Millenium Cone and Gothic Cathedral) and then prepared for our special dinner date with local host families in their homes. Our group of 23 was divided into 4 groups of 5 to 6 people each. We were taxied to the private homes of our hosts for a sit down dinner in their homes. Gordon and Maureen Fairlie were our really cordial hosts. He is a retired manager of a food operation, she seemed like a socialite, and they had three grown children, one who lived in San Diego. The meal was equivalent to a Thanksgiving or holiday meal with typical New Zealand fare -- the meat being a lamb roast. The after dinner conversation included New Zealand Politics, Hillary, Obama and George Bush (in that order) and the economies of each country. It was all very cordial. We got some great insights into the culture of New Zealand and each of us brought gifts for our hosts (representative of our town, state or country).
Today was the fabulous day. Awakened to warm sunshine and a good breakfast, we headed to the train station to board the "Trans Alpine Express" -- a train with an open deck which took us half way to our destination, the Franz Josef Glacier. The trip through the NZ Alps was breathtaking as we climbed higher and higher and saw waterfalls, lakes, snow capped mountains and some of the most lavish greenery any of us had ever seen. We got off the train at Arthur’s Pass, re-boarded our bus (which raced the train from Christchurch up through the Alps) and then experienced several more hours of natural beauty from our bus vantage point. We passed through Otira and Kumara , arriving on the West Coast at Hokitika for lunch (it was the home town of our hosts for last night's meal in Christchurch). It was like a two street old-west town, on the banks of the Tasman Sea. I had to go down and put my finger in the Tasman Sea -- just to say I did it. I almost got my shoes soaked from a wave that came in. Our Collette Tour Director, Michael, told us that this was the clearest, most sun-shiny day he had experienced here in 20 years. Our bus driver, a life time resident, said it was the best viewing day he had seen in years. So once again, we have been blessed beyond any expectation. By the way, I have been impressed by a special phenomenon in both Australia and New Zealand. The tour bus drivers are trained tour commentators – and so rather than have “step on” local tour guides, as in most European and Asian countries, the bus drivers have the honors – and do a great job. After lunch we continued along the Tasman coast through the towns of Ross, Halhar and Whataroa. As the magnificent Franz Josef glacier came into view, we couldn't wait to arrive there to climb to the viewing station to see it as close as anyone is allowed to go (short of doing a professional glacier climb). I cannot begin to describe the view. The pictures will have to do it when I return. Needless to say, this was one of the major highlights of the trip so far. We are now set up in our hotel room at the foot of the glacier. It is very much like a German alpine town. In the lobby of the hotel there is an evacuation gathering spot in case the glacier splits up and comes down on the town! That’s how close we are. All in all, it is a day we will long remember. Tomorrow we head to Queenstown, which will be our base of operation for the next three days.
The contrast between Australia and New Zealand is stark -- each with its own claim to beauty and history. Here we are overwhelmed by the natural beauty that surrounds us here in New Zealand. By the way, here at the foot of Franz Josef Glacier is a lush Rain Forest.
Well, that's it for today -- other aspects of this little Alpine town beckon. I'll report on it all in my next email. Cordially, Joe
Tue. 3/4/08 – Greetings from Queenstown, New Zealand
Hello, everyone. It is 9:00 p.m. in Queenstown, in West Central New Zealand ( South Island). We left our hotel at Franz Josef Glacier this morning for an all day ride from the West coast to the inland city of Queenstown over the New Zealand Alps. We once again observed some of the most magnificent scenery on God's good earth. We went through gorges and river-made mountain passes, traveled along cascading rivers and viewed at least five extremely large, glacier-formed lakes. In addition to seeing much from the windows of our bus, we stopped periodically at observation decks to view the natural panorama, with scenery generally only viewed on artistic photo calendars of mountains, lakes and streams. We even got glimpses of Mt. Cook, which we will visit later in the week. There were snow-capped mountains along the way and formations the likes of which none of us had ever experienced before. And to top it all off, we had another sunny and unseasonably mild day. There was very little sleeping on the bus. I think we've seen over a million sheep here in New Zealand, as well as deer (they have deer farms here -- as they raise them for food) and lots of beef and dairy cows. During the second half of the day we went through New Zealand wine country. Half way here we went through a beautiful Mountain gorge called the “ Haast Pass”. Our lunch stop and “pit” stops were each at charming little towns, including Makarora for lunch, Lake Wanaka, and Cromwell, where we visited Mrs. Jones’ establishment, a rather famous fruit and vegetable stand.
We arrived here in Queenstown at around 3:00 p.m. This is a larger town than Christchurch, our first venue in New Zealand. Queenstown is a very active community and during their winter, a ski resort rivaling Aspen and other famous US ski resorts. We took a gondola to the top of a cliff where we had dinner in a restaurant that offered a panoramic view of Queenstown and the magnificent Lake Wakatipu on which it sets. From a cliff above us people were para-sailing down to the fields below; a few hundred feet below our lookout deck people were bungie-jumping. It is hard to describe the experience. Our dining area was fully glassed in overlooking the region, with para-sailers floating past the windows. Small planes could be seen below our vantage point flying over the lake. If it sounds surreal, it is. After dinner some of us attended a Morai Indian “Kiwi Haka” Cultural Show - these are the native New Zealanders who shared their culture and rituals with us.
My hotel room has a balcony which overlooks the lake with high mountain peaks in the distance. The hotel is on a high crest above the city. I am writing to you from an internet cafe in the center of downtown Queenstown. The hotel offers a free shuttle service every hour on the hour to downtown -- which is only about 10 minutes away, but because we are on a hill, it is a bit of a chore to get back home by walking up hill all the way.
Everyone is enjoying themselves. Tomorrow we head out for an all day tour of Milford Sound -- just a day trip, but it is supposed to be a spectacular site. On Thursday morning I am taking a "Lord of the Rings" safari in a four wheel drive that takes us to many of the locations filmed in "The Lord of the Rings".
The good news about this location is that we are staying in this great town and luxurious hotel for three consecutive nights -- one of the longer stays in one place on this whole tour. We are having mixed emotions about the tour winding down -- with only a few days left. Michael, our Group Leader is giving us instructions about the trip home which is a clear sign that our adventure is about to end. While we are eager to return home to family and friends, we'll certainly miss the people and places that we've come to love in Australia and New Zealand. More in a day or two. Joe
Tue., 3/4/08 – Milford Sound, NZ – “Words cannot describe…”
It is 7:45 p.m. in Queenstown. We just returned from 12 hours out to and back from the Tasman Seacoast where we experienced one of Nature’s great wonders of the world. We got up at 6 a.m. and left Queenstown at 7:30 for a 6-hour coach ride to Milford Sound on the western seacoast of NZ. While the Pacific Ocean is on the east coast, the Tasman Sea is the west coast border. We were headed to Fiordland National Park, one of UNESCO's designated "World Heritage" areas, created eons ago during the ice age. To get there we traveled through farm country dotted by innumerable sheep farms, deer farms and cattle farms in some of the most fertile farmland imaginable. As we climbed into the hills, we were reminded by our tour director that the weather here is very moody. On the east side of the mountains it could be sunny, but on the west side, raining (and vice versa). However, having had some kind of a compact with the weather gods on this tour, we were granted the unusual blessing of sunshine on both sides of the mountain range. Another beautiful day for us! To get to the west side, we had to go through the 4000 ft. Homer Tunnel (built by workers using only picks and shovels). There is only one road to and from Milford Sound -- and we were on it. As we emerged from the tunnel to the welcoming sunshine on the western side, a great canyon was revealed. We were now in Fiordland National Park - New Zealand's largest national park (out of 14) -- their " Yellowstone" (but there's no comparison). It had taken us 6 hours over 200 miles to get here. Two of those hours were spent along the way with pit stops, a lunch stop at a Mossburn, and a pit stop at a delightful lake and town called Te Anau, stops at overlooks and gorges (our trip back would be reduced by those 2 hours). Our destination was actually a Fiord -- on which we would take a two-hour boat ride (which included lunch), from the dock through the Fiord to the entry to the Tasman Sea.
Here's where words escape us. If I could create a term, it would be "Awesomely Majestacular" (Majestic, Awesome, Spectacular and Un-describable all rolled into one). Our boat (something like the Circle Line around Manhattan or the "Spirit of Philadelphia) when compared to our surroundings was like a match box bobbing in a gigantic bowl composed of cloud-piercing mountains, walls of rock, cliffs and waterfalls. The pictures I took will give you an idea, but the only way to appreciate it is to experience it as we did. The fiord is 9 miles long (out to the sea), so from start to finish we traveled for 2 hours for a water voyage of about 18 miles. We drew close to cascading water falls which sprayed us with glacial water; we saw Seals sunning themselves on the rocks along the mountain wall; helicopters and small planes flew through the caverns of stone above our heads.
Milford Sound is the most visited tourist site in New Zealand -- and rightly so. It is raw nature at its most majestic. Unsurpassed beauty that had all of us saying "Oh My God -- I can't believe we are here!" Apologies if this sounds over dramatic. But it beats anything I have ever seen or experienced in my life. As I looked up at a melting snow cap, I imagined that it could break loose at any time and fall into the water on which we were floating.
Dozens of photos later, we were back at the dock, realizing that we had a long coach ride back to Queenstown. It was 3:30 when we left the boat. Six members of our group purchased an option to fly back in small planes from an air strip carved out of the only flat section near the fiord. They paid $250 each for the privilege to take the half-hour flight over this magnificent area, while the rest of us poor folks took the coach back -- a speeded up 4 hour ride, with no tourist stops this time, but one pit stop along the way. We would get to either sleep or take the pictures we missed on the outbound journey. (By the way, the one person from my group to fly back was Janice Wright).
So that was today's adventure - one none of us will ever forget. Those who flew back were ecstatic about the experience.
I took my 1,200th picture today!
We crossed the 45th parallel on the way -- the furthest south below the equator I have ever been. The 45th parallel is half way between the equator and the South Pole.
On the way back in the bus I was reminded of something Mike Meyers and Dana Carey used to say on Saturday Night Live: "We're not worthy!" -- to experience this extraordinary creation -- on such an ideal weather-day (our bus driver and tour manager said our weather day was one in a million). I hope some of you who are looking for adventure in your life will be able to experience what we did today, and under the same ideal conditions. I don't mean to get sentimental and gushy -- but it was a great experience.
That's it for today. Tomorrow I go on the "Lord of the Rings" adventure -- to visit spots that were filmed in "Lord of the Rings" in a 4 wheel vehicle. It definitely can't beat today! Take care! Joe
Wed., 3/5/08 – Lord of the Rings Safari
Hello from the land of The Lord of the Rings! I just returned from a 4-hour 4WD safari through the natural scenery which was a part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Just as in my former correspondence, I have to describe it as "Awesomely Majestacular" -- on a perfectly clear day. We traveled over some rather rugged terrain -- through waterways and rutted dirt roads. Our driver even took us up concrete steps in the powerful vehicle. The well-trained drivers scared us to death as they drove us along cliffs, up to perilous overhangs and to the peaks of mountains for the most wondrous panoramic views we have ever seen. Anyone who has seen The Lord of the Rings might have wondered if the vistas were Hollywood computerized backgrounds or the real thing. I'm here to testify that they were the real thing. Our guides brought along photos of the actual filming and snapshots from the film itself and then we stood in the exact set locations. One of our two drivers was actually in the films as a "walk on" extra. We had a little picnic lunch along a stream deep in the forest and we panned for gold in the stream. It was a well-orchestrated optional tour that we all were glad we took. Now I have to rent the movies to see for myself in film what I just saw in real life.
The weather is again perfect -- and we have the rest of the day for leisurely activity in quaint Queenstown. Some of the group are taking jet boat rides on the Shotover River that runs through Queenstown this afternoon. I personally opted to take a long stroll through a beautiful park along the shore of Lake Wakatipu, observing sunbathers on the beach, boat-launched para-sailers, and a view of our hotel on the hill overlooking the lake in the distance. Tomorrow we head for one more natural beauty location: Mount Snow. We are told that we will have to ratchet our superlatives up another notch. Then we head back to Christchurch to prepare for our flight home. The adventure is just about over. Thanks for coming along for the ride -- and I may send one more quick email from Christchurch before we head north to Auckland, then onto a plane for a 12 hour flight to LA, then on to home. We'll arrive in Philly at about Midnight on Sunday night. Take care. Joe
Sat., 3/8/08 – “Final Night in New Zealand”
Just a quick note to say that we'll be on our way home tomorrow. We closed out our trip tonight with a farewell dinner at the historic Riccarton mansion in Christchurch, located in a pastoral setting along the River Avon and surrounded by “the bush” – an ancient native forest. It was the home to colonial settlers (The Dean family of Scotland) and before dinner we were regaled by historic vignettes about colonial New Zealand as we toured this recently restored home. Our meal was great and the goodbyes were sad.
The day began with a ride from Mount Cook to Christchurch, with a stop at Arrowtown, a quaint gold-rush city not far from Queenstown which once had a Chinese community. We made a quick stop at Tarras, drove through the beautiful Landis Pass, had lunch in Omarama, went through Twizel, Lake Takapo, Fairlie and Geraldine. We stopped a the “Tin Shed” near Rangitata to shop for woolen goods and to see their little zoo, took a pit stop at a big fish in Bakaia, and then later on in Leeston, visited a working New Zealand sheep and dairy farm as we approached Christchurch. A young husband and wife and their four children who operated this large farm opened their historic farm-home to us and demonstrated the use of their sheep herding dogs and sheared a sheep for us. Not just an ordinary stop -- but a really interesting several hours of learning and entertainment. Charles Nimmo, the 28 year-old farm owner wrote a book about the dogs we witnessed herding the sheep: Sam and Poppy. I purchased an autographed copy for my grandchildren.
Yesterday we were at Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, and another "wonder of the world". And once again, we had perfect weather -- to the amazement of the locals and everyone else who said people seldom see the snow capped mountain top. But we were once again blessed by the weather gods. Our hotel at Mt. Cook, the Hermitage, is magnificent – built into a mountain with rooms with a view of glorious Mt. Cook. As a part of the complex, there was recently created “The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center”. We were able to visit the museum-like halls, view a 3-D film about Mt. Cook, the story of Edmund Hillary’s (1919-2008) conquering Mt. Everest (with his practice climb on Mt. Cook). It was extremely interesting and educational. We also viewed a planetary show in the southernmost planetarium in the world – a part of the Hermitage Hotel complex. In the evening I was the only one of our group to join an outdoor star-watching group, where we saw the glorious stars in the dark southern hemisphere sky, with a magnificent view of Saturn and its rings.
Today was equally sunny for our final full day in New Zealand. After the long drive to Christchurch from Mt. Cook, we only had a short time to rest or pack in some sights of Christchurch. I decided to take a walk to the beautifully Botanical Gardens not too far from our hotel. New Zealanders love their large parks and open spaces in just about every city. At dinner tonight each of our 23 travelers was asked to relate the one thing they considered the highlight of the tour. To a person, everyone raved about the trip and selected different things that they considered the highlight. It was hard for everyone to narrow it down to one -- there were so many highlights. Needless to say, this was truly an adventure of a lifetime. I'll try to summarize when I get home.
Thanks to all who suffered through these emails. It was fun sharing. I hope some of you will be able to experience what we did sometime in the future. See you soon! Joe
Epilogue - Back in the USA
Let me conclude with a note about the trip back from Down Under. Maybe we were spoiled by all the good weather and beautiful scenery and virtually accident-free touring of the past 18 days – so we needed a touch of reality. It came on the return trip. Everything was fine as we checked in for our 1 hour and twenty-minute flight to Auckland from Christchurch. The transfer to Qantas Flight 25 went smooth, too, though the plane was a bit late in boarding. This would be our 12.5 hour flight to LA – or so we thought. As the plane taxied out for take off, the pilot announced that there was a problem with one of the gauges, and that we’d have to taxi back to the terminal for engineering to look at the problem. About an hour-and-a-half later, the problem was resolved, and we took off, almost two hours late. That would mean connection problems in LA! The flight was good, but, as anticipated, we arrived too late to make our connections. All of us had to be re-scheduled to packed flights at different times. Our group of 9 became 3 groups leaving on different airlines at different times – bringing some of us back to Philadelphia at 1:30 a.m., others at 5:30 a.m., and two others the following day.
Despite the nightmarish flight home, the tour was a huge success – beyond all of our expectations. Michael Ohge, our Collette Tour Manager, should be given a lot of credit for the way he made sure our group got the best of everything – first in line; best seating everywhere; “inside information” on when and how to get the most out of Australia and New Zealand. And wherever we went, everyone – bus drivers, hotel operators and staff, pit stop operators – they all knew Michael. We truly had the best! And he was fun, too – with a great measure of “fairness” thrown in for good measure – a talent needed when dealing with 23 people from diverse backgrounds. But without going into the details, we can say that we saw the best of Australia and New Zealand under the most ideal weather conditions. The beauty is unsurpassed; the variety of locales is unparalleled; the people are cordial; the history is unique. It was truly and adventure of a lifetime.
I recommend that Australia and New Zealand – as we saw them – be on everyone’s “Bucket List”.
Joe Laufer - Vincentown, New Jersey
March 12, 2008