Boil and Bubble at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand

The Champagne Pool
The Champagne Pool

If an army of Parrotheads and Grateful Dead fans ever invades New Zealand, I know exactly what strategy to take to stop the assault: The New Zealand forces would need to establish its positition and fall back, leading the unsuspecting invaders to the Mud Pool at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland south of Rotorua.

There, the marching Parrotheads and Dead Heads would come to a complete standstill. They would be rendered immobile by a combination of cannabis, the crazy colors and the pits of bubbling, boiling mud.

A long shot of Waiotapu
A long shot of Waiotapu

Look, I’m not exactly proud to admit this: I could’ve spent the entire day at the mud pit, watching as volcanic gas built up pressure, created huge bubbles, and then exploded, spewing the smell of sulfur and rancid baked beans through the air. It smelled like I was living with my dad again!

Here’s the thing – this part of the north island has a lot of active volcanic features. And here at Waiotapu, they really force their way to the surface. It’s a fascinating landscape of mud pits, boiling ponds, sulfur pits and other weird crap that I can’t even begin to describe.

So what’s so cool about watching mud boil and splash all over? Well, if you’re from a place as extensively paved as Phoenix, it’s wonderful to get a reminder that the earth is very much still alive. That there’s change. And that, for all our technology and influence on the world, humans are just a small part of the whole. And maybe not even the main part of it all.

I forget the name of this feature - I think "Incredible Hulk's Urinal" has a ring to it, though.
I forget the name of this feature - I think "Incredible Hulk's Urinal" has a ring to it, though.

Volcanism shaped both islands, and it’s exciting to think of the awesome power marshalling below your feet as you walk on seemingly solid ground. Look around you at Waiotapu and near Rotorua: You’ll see plumes of white steam venting from the earth randomly. The Kiwis are far-sighted enough to capture some for clean, inexpensive power. But they’re also smart enough to leave it accessible for people to see. It really did something for me to be able to look closely at this and see the living earth.

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Exploding mud!

It made me feel like the world is really new. In fact, I thought of a quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as Dr. Marcus leads Admiral Kirk into the Genesis Cave: “Let me show you something that will make you feel young, as when the world was new.”

Be sure to check the super-sweet videos below – boiling mud in live action, and wind whipping steam off the Silica Flats. Awesome!

Watch Wallabies and other Wildlife in Australia’s Top End

What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.
What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.

Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.

It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit: The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.

If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory. It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,  measuring nearly 60 by 120

Crikey, what a specimen!
Crikey, what a specimen!miles. Many of the roads are rugged, and barely even worthy of being called trails - much less roads. There are certain rental car companies that will not even rent their vehicles to people who intend to venture into the Kakadu.

And each square mile of both the Top End and the Kakadu is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.

During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):

Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong
Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong

Corroboree Billabong

This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s  a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.

But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.

Rock wallaby at Ubirr
Rock wallaby at Ubirr

Ubirr

There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guides are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking. You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.

White Lilly Billabong

While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.

Hold still, Skippy!
Hold still, Skippy!

This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!

The Termite Mounds

Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.

Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.

The Didgeridoo Hut

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – and your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high. During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.

Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut

Belize – The Right Destination for You?

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Exiting the plane old school-style in Belize.

The cool thing about Central America is that just because you’ve seen one of its countries, you haven’t seen them all. It might be natural to assume that Belize would be like Costa Rica, but with more Mayan ruins. It would also be completely wrong.

So is Belize worth visiting? That depends on you, traveling friends, and what you want out of your journey. No matter what, Phillip SW Goldson Airport will be Belize’s first chance to make an impression. This is a Mos Eisley Cantina of an airport – hot, stuffy and far more chaotic than an airport of its Lilliputian proportions should be. Plus points – no jetways! You get to kick it Old School by descending a moving staircase (unfortunately, it’s not attached to a truck like Michael Bluth’s ride in Arrested Development). You’ll also see large commercial aircraft lined up with three-person Cessnas from local airlines. That ups the Indiana Jones factor.

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