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:Â 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.Â 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,Â Â measuring nearly 60 by 120
And each square mile of both the Top End and the KakaduÂ 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):
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 Â 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.
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 guidesÂ 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.Â 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.
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!
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.
Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – andÂ your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high.Â During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.
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).Â You’ll also see large commercial aircraft lined up with three-person Cessnas from local airlines. That ups the Indiana Jones factor.
It’s easy to forget or to never even realize it – but much of northern Arizona’s landscape was shaped by fire. Or by lava, if you prefer a more precise word.
Volcanoes disgorged magma onto the surface, forming everything from towering giants like the San Francisco Peaks to the loaf-like dome of Mount Elden to the mysterious hoodoos of Red Mountain. But trees have covered the landscape, often concealing the area’s volcanic origins.
S.P. Crater – Way Off the Radar
S.P. Crater, however, will resist any attempts to whitewash its furious history. This beautifully shaped cinder cone had the foresight to belch a four-mile long lava flow onto the flat prairie lands. Today, nearly 71,000 years after its birth, S.P. Crater stands out among a multitude of lesser cinder cones in the area, beckoning visitors to peer into the crater that once spewed ash and blobs of lava.
Few hear its call, though – that’s likely because of the nearby Sunset Crater National Monument. The park might be slightly more picturesque, with its pine forest and an equally haunting lava flow.
But for me, S.P. Crater has an effect that its just-slightly Disney-fied neighbor doesn’t: a sense of solitude that practically takes me back in time. I can picture the lava glowing red as it churns across the landscape like so much hell-flavored soft-serve ice cream. I can smell the sulfur in the air as another family of bombs rockets out of the crater, borne aloft by super-hot gases. I can imagine fumaroles venting steam into the air.
Also, I can climb directly to the top, and even descend into the crater. This is forbidden at Sunset Crater, for concern of erosion. Park officials closed the slopes in the 1970s, propelled by fears that, one day, Sunset Crater would be nothing. I don’t know if there is any hard science to back that notion – if there is, I’d like to see it.
Not as Touristy as Sunset Crater
On a Memorial Day weekend exploration, I encountered not a single hiker. A few pickup trucks passed within a few miles, but our only company was the cattle (S.P. Crater is on land belonging to the Babbitt family, and I applaud them for granting access to those who want to visit the craters). When the wind died down, we could hear them lowing even from nearly 900 feet above them.
Engine noise from the highway is nonexistent, and you can catch glimpses of the brilliant colors from the Painted Desert; it looks just a few miles away, but is closer to 100 miles distant. You can watch small cloudbursts roll in, drop rain and disappear. Be careful, though, because some will contain lightning. Use your head.
If you’re in northern Arizona, I’d recommend visiting both of these iconic volcanoes. Each will give you a distinct experience that will be hard to forget.
How to Get to S.P. Crater
Just head north from Flagstaff on Highway 89. Go past the turnoff to Sunset Crater. SP Crater will soon be in view.
Look for a dirt road headed west. If you see Easy Joe’s Saloon, turn around and head back. The dirt road will branch off more than a few times. I’ve found my way to S.P. Crater more than a few different ways. Don’t worry about getting lost. It’s easy to get back to 89 one way or another.
Make Time for the Lava Flow
The lava flow north of the crater is worth checking out up close. It’s about 5 miles long and extremely rough – you’re not going to be able to see all of it. But who knows what’s waiting to be found in it? Lava flows are always a good place to find a lava tube.
These days, recycling is cool. And so are airplanes – even the Honda Civic of the skies that is the 737.
That makes recycling airplanes an off-the-charts, Ricardo Montalban-level of cool. I’m not talking about turning Cessnas into aluminum cans. I’m talking about turning Boeing jumbo jets into backpacker hostels, or shady old military cargo planes into jungle restaurants.
Here are a few really cool places where you can eat, sleep and/or drink in a recycled airplane. The small but vibrant Costa Rican town of Manuel San Antonio seems to have the largest number, per capita, of such projects. (NOTE: If you know of any others, e-mail me and I’ll include them in a future post).
Not So High-Flying in Costa Rica
El Avion (Manuel San Antonio)
This Fairchild C-123 is linked to the Iran-Contra Affair – but these days, it’s as benign as a glassful of house-made sangria. You’ll find ticos and touristas side-by-side chomping bar food and downing cans of Imperial. And enjoying an unmatched ambience – perched on a cliff, with the occassional monkey cruising by (especially if there’s an unattended trash can nearby). El Avion has history, scenery and a low price. Some of these aircraft carry a hefty price to enter, but at El Avion, a few colones for a pint is all you need. Last Visited – 2003
Hotel Costa Verde (Manuel San Antonio)
Most of the Hotel Costa Verde is pretty typical upscale jungle fare. Unless you book passage in the 727 suite. This room is not only cool for being inside a Boeing’s fuselage, but also more opulent than even U2’s 727! Costa Rica is pretty progressive about protecting its timber resources, and this suite is absolutely jammed with teak: Hotel Costa Verde might pick up some eco-points if it had a good source of sustainable wood for the project. Your seat on this flight comes at a premium: $300 per night in the off-season.
Grounded in the Wop-Wops Woodlyn Park (Waitomo Caves, NZ)
A perfect respite after a day of hiking, driving or caving – all in the nose of a plane!
Kiwi bloke Billy Black doesn’t do typical hotels – some masonry, a blocky design, the same ol’, same ol’. No – he scrounged an old Bristol freighter and turned it into a two-suite mini hotel. The cockpit room is where it’s at: Families can stow the kiddies in the 747-like cockpit hump for the night, and take the downstairs bunk for themselves. The room also includes a perfect shower and a kitchenette. The price was also very reasonable at $160 NZ per night – that was about $82 US! Be sure to check out the train room, boat hotel and hobbit rooms, too. Last visited – 2009
Outside the Woodlyn Park Bristol freighter
Sweden Goes Jumbo
Jumbo Hostel (Stockholm, Sweden)
When it comes to recycling an airplane, it doesn’t come on a much bigger scale than a 747-200. I first heard about this from my friends at SpotCoolStuff.com. Jumbo Hostel is parked at Arlanda International Airport – convenient! You can get anything from bunk bed-style rooms to a private room in the cockpit. The only other re-used 747 was turned into a restaurant in Korea. Since it went belly up, it doesn’t get a space on the list – Jumbo Hostel retains the biggest designation! (Update: Been there, stayed at it.)
Still a Mile High in Colorado
The Airplane Restaurant (Colorado Springs, Colo. USA)
It’s pretty fitting that you’ll find a place like this in Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Air Force Academy. The restaurant is alternately called Solo’s, or just The Airplane Restaurant. The centerpiece of the dually monikered eatery is a KC-97 tanker, but the rest is regular ol’ dining room. The food doesn’t appear to be anything really unusual, but I’ll give any place props for having a buffalo burger.
Southwest in the South
Parachute Inn (Walnut Ridge, Ark. USA)
This is the least exciting entry. It’s a 737 still in its drab rusty orange and faded yellow livery. It’s tacked into an existing restaurant. Its specialty seems to be southern cooking and seafood. It doesn’t have a Web site.
If New Zealandgave birth to adrenaline sports, QueenstownÂ is where those sports gestated. It’s flanked by the aptly named Remarkables mountain range, perched on a lake that rivals Lake Tahoe, and criss-crossed by canyons, rivers and gulleys. Here’s just a taste of what you can do in Queenstown in the summer in just two days – winter is a different animal, and very suitable for snow sports:
TSS Earnslaw – This steamship was built in 1912, making it younger than most of its current passengers. Okay, I’m exaggerating – but not much! Cruises can just take you for a lake excursion on Lake Wakatipu, or for a multi-course meal on the far side of the lake.Â Watch the steam engine crew at work, and hang out on the bridge with the captain, who will likely be rockin’ The Police while fogeys do a sing-alongÂ by the lounge piano. Sedate, but relaxing.
Street Luge– A cable car gives youÂ a great view. But you’d better focus on the twisty track when bombing down in an unpowered go-cart. It can get plenty fast, but the track is more tame than I’d prefer. Still fun, though!
Bungee Jumping – A signature activity. You’ll have your pick of operators and sizes.
Paragliding – Not quite as extreme as skydiving, but you’ll get an incredible view of The Remarkables, the town and Lake Wakatipu. It takes about 10 minutes. Get there around 9 a.m. so you can book your flight before the winds change – they often stop gliding in the afternoon.
Hiking – The street luge course is the starting point for some awesome long hikes. Some will take you to nearby mining ghost towns!
Think Twice About …
The Underwater Observatory – Sure, $5 NZ is cheap. But you won’t see much from this very small space with one window.
Patagonia Chocolates– Awesome desserts. Try the banana split ice cream. Everything is rich and tasty.
Fergburger – It’s a Queenstown legend. People who live 16 hours away talk about it. You’ll find some exotic meats there in addition to beef. However, Fergburger has one of the planet’s most annoying Flash Web sites, so I’ve shafted them out of a link here. Anything that automatically plays music and takes too long to load drives me crazy.
Aggys Shack, Fish & ChipsÂ – Locals say it only “looks dodgy,” and they’re right. This greasy place by the docks serves up fish ‘n’ chips, of course, and a raw fish concoction with coconut milk and the freshest green-lipped mussels ever. Super-cheap, too! No link – not for an annoying Web site, but for lack of one altogether!
The rise of Facebook as a great time-waster is pretty well-documented, and now aviation geeks have their own way to flush hours down the lavatory: Let me introduceFlightMemory.com, a Web site that lets you input all your commercial flights. It then tracks your time and mileage and plots it on a map. You can even order a poster based on your flight paths. (Thanks to Things in the Sky for the discovery.)
What’s kind of useful is that you can choose to enter the bare-minimum of details, or delve into
excruciating detail about every single thing the airline, TSA and airport employees did wrong – or you can praise them for those times when “customer service” isn’t a punchline.
I’m still working on getting my flights in, but I’ve made some headway. It’s quite a lot of fun, especially since it appears to be of German origin and translated by members of The Scorpions while they were on tour with Van Halen circa 1985 (“We can now offer you some new thingies for your pleasure – introducing the FlightMemory shop!” … tell me you couldn’t hear Klaus Meine saying that!).
I don’t know exactly what goes on inside Kiwis’ heads, or why they invented the Zorb. Is it that they have just eight television channels? Or that range animals overwhelmingly outnumber humans? The proximity to Antarctica?
There has to be some reason that Kiwis dream up contraptions and activities like bungee jumping, jet boats that spin in circles on the water and Zorbing.
Today, let’s talk about that last one … the Zorb sphere. Explaining this verbally is kind of tricky, so you’re lucky I have videos and photos to go along with the written word.
Imagine a giant beach ball with really thick walls. Let’s say it has a little tunnel leading to a human-sized inner chamber. You then dive into that chamber, and someone squirts a few gallons of water in there, seals the entrance and then rolls you and the ball down a hill lined with berms and turns.
Yep, that’s a Zorb sphere.
Sarah and I arrived in New Zealand with a full knowledge of Zorbing, and we were determined to
try it. We had some time to kill in Rotorua between geyers and stuff, so we headed out to the Agrodome, which has a number of crazy activities, some of which apparently involve sheep.
We had an array of Zorb choices: The twisty course, the straight course, wet, dry? We selected the wet twisty option, eliciting many choruses of “Good on ya” from the employees. Apparently, this is the favored option. If I recall right, it was $45 NZ.
Sarah went first as I shot photos. She emerged feet first, like the Green Giant’s golf ball giving birth to a human, complete with a rush of fluid. And like a newborn, she had a bit of trouble standing for a few seconds – the Zorb-O-Port employees had to prop her up a bit.
Then it was my turn. Clad only in a pair of shorts, I sat in the back of a truck with another couple. We drove to the top of the hill, where a conveyer belt-like device delivered the giant spheres. I was the first to go.
“Awright, mate,” one of the blokes told me. “Just back up, get a running start and dive into the hole!”
Click to watch … you can see me slosh about and nearly go over the berm!
I did as I was told, landing face-first in a puddle of water at the bottom of the inner Zorb chamber. The sphere was more opaque, so I couldn’t see out much. The bloke’s face appeared in the tunnel to the outside world.
“Awright, mate (most everything male Kiwis say starts with this phrase) … just push hard that way [points down hill], sit down and enjoy the ride,” he said.
So it began. The Zorb sphere quickly gained speed, and soon it crashed into a berm, bouncing me all sorts of ways around. Water was flying everywhere, and so was I. At this point, I was already laughing and gesticulating like an idiot to nobody in particular.
Moments later, it was all done. The blokes at the bottom corraled the sphere, aimed the hatch
downward, and out I slid with a hard THUMP! on the butt.
I was all excited and started telling my Zorb tale to the throngs waiting for their ride. Then I realized my wedding ring had slipped off – not to worry, though. We found it about five minutes later between the landing spot and the conveyor. Without further ado, on to my Zorbing tips!
1. Wear nothing but a swimsuit or shorts.
2. That means no jewelry, especially not rings!
3. Don’t be a wuss – choose the Zydro (wet and twisty).
4. Don’t hesitate when you enter, or you won’t make it all the way through.
To wrap it up, I simply want my own Zorb sphere and a decent hill. Or at least for Zorbing to become the next big thing here in the States.
Suiting up for a trip into the glowworm caves has made me look like a complete doofus. I’m wearing bright-white rubber boots, a pair of curry-brown pants, a wetsuit and a bulbous helmet with a light on top. And my hair is flapping out the sides of the helmet to perfect rodeo clown-effect.
Also, my nads are fighting a two-front war against a pair of encroaching canvas straps connected to my rappelling harness. Yes, I am ready for the cover of GQ magazine.
Bizarre as it sounds, this is one of the days of my New Zealand adventure that I’ve look forward to the most: the tour of one of the glow worm caves near Waitomo, up in the sparsely populated, ridiculously green and unbelievably quiet WaikatoÂ region. Sarah and I signed up with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. Don’t let the word “rap” fool you … nobody is going to bust out some rhymes while in the underground. It’s actually short for “rappel,” which nobody else really uses in New Zealand. Kiwis call rappelling “abseiling.” But no matter which word you use, it still means that males are going to spend several hours feeling like they’re wearing Satan’s jockstrap.
Getting Ready for the Glow Worm Caves
We started the day at the Triple R headquarters (my own nickname for the outfit) on Waitomo Caves Road, just a few minutes from town Te KuitiÂ and Otorohanga. There, we met a trio of sisters who’d share the adventure with us, along with our Welsh tour guide, Nic. At this point, we had all the gear we’d need for the trip – swimsuits, towels and spare socks. Triple R took care of the rest.
Then, we all piled into a van and started on our way, winding into the countryside. We were headed for glow worm caves owned by a local farmer, who essentially rents it to the company.
We eventually parked next to a small series of huts that stored equipment and housed changing rooms and bathrooms. There were rows of gumboots, the local term for the aforementioned boots that looked like refugees from the stormtrooper scenes in Star Wars. We also got out wetsuits, wide-legged pants to protect the wetsuits from the sharp rocks, helmets with headlamps and abseiling harnesses.
Nic gave us a great introduction to using a mini-rack. I’m not going into details about that here: It’s better, if you go, to give your guide your full attention. We trudged in out gumboots into what seemed like a small valley, but was really the fractured roof of a huge cave.
Sure, I’ll Go First
“Who wants to go first?” Nic asked, after we’d practiced our abseiling rope control on dry land. Not wanting to be like the sheep wandering around us, I volunteered.
The funny thing about abseiling: You know in your logical mind that everything will work. But if you rarely do it, there’s a visceral reaction to letting yourself ease off of a safe, stable platform into empty space. Just get over it – it’s way too fun once you let yourself go.
And let myself go I did, descending into the gloom toward an underground river, a shaft of sunlight peeking through the foliage to light my way somewhat. I touched down, unclipped from the mini-rack and hopped into the water.
Of course, it was chilly as it filled my boots … but I wandered straight in to get used to it, getting clear of the landing spot. One by one, the other five joined me. Nic had us grab an inner tube from a selection stashed along the river.
Fear of the Dark
Then we carried them along with our lights off, using the natural light as we slogged upstream. We headed up several hundred feet, and we started seeing tiny pinpoints of fluorescent green light on the cave ceilings. We continued splashing along, and soon the sunlight faded, leaving us only with the pinpricks of light above.
These, my friends, are glowworms. Each point of light was a small larvae.
“They’re maggots, with glowing bums,” Nic said, delicately. That’s right: They don’t poop.
It dangles a strand of web down from the ceiling, hoping to trick insects into thinking they are starlight. The insects, then, fly toward the light as bugs are wont to do. There, they get caught in the web, eaten and digested. The glow worm is the ultimate clean-burning machine – rather than pooping out the waste, they burn it in their butts, turning waste into a lure.
We eventually turned on our lights and got a close look at the slithery little creature, which are much cooler with the lights off. After spending some time milling about, Nic told us to plop our tubes down and hop in … right away, the currents rushed us back toward the entrance. I got a nice spin going for a 360-degree view of the glowworms, plus the Cylon Centurion-like glow of the red lights on top of our helmet lights. We had the main lights turned off for this portion.
Underground Tubing in the Glow Worm Caves
We passed the glow worm cave entrance, continuing downstream. There, the channel narrowed, turning the river into a great theme park ride! I was buzzing along like The Black Pearl before my wide tube got stuck in a channel … and then everyone plowed into the back of me! I had to wedge myself out to get everyone moving again.
We came to a dry spot, and it was time for fun and games. I gamely trotted up to Nic as Sarah and the sisters got out of their tubes. He waited for them to gather round before saying:
“Now, Justin has volunteered to take responsibility for you, so just follow him.”
He knew I’d pick up what he was putting down. He pointed up a narrow upward chasm, which I
slithered through, using my hands, butt, head, feet and practically my ears. We spent the next hour or so wedging our way through increasingly narrow spaces, a few of which made me genuinely nervous but oddly ecstatic.
How to Get Out of a Tight Spot
Nic taught us the best way to get through a cave obstacle: Upper body first, almost like a diver. It worked like a charm, really.
After all that work in the chilly water, Nic stopped us for a snack of some hot fruit-flavored energy drink and a bit of chocolate. Odd as it sounds, it worked great. We were then on our way back to the entrance, and our final obstacle: the climb up.
So if you abseil in, you can bet there’s probably not an elevator, escalator, staircase, dumbwaiter or anything like that.
Now, I don’t really cotton to rock climbing. This time, I went second instead of first (third, if you count Nic). The wall leaned in at an angle, and had lots of good handholds and footholds. But it was a bit wet and slippery. We were roped in by our harnesses, so I knew it couldn’t be too bad. But still!
Eventually, I got my way to the top and unclipped from the rope.
Getting Out of the Wetsuit
After this glow worm cave adventure, nothing feels as good as getting your wetsuit and harness off. Yes, my boys
were free of the encroaching canvass. And Satan’s jockstrap or not, this was a seriously great time. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a longer tour!
Nic ran us back to the headquarters, where they gave us a nice post-adventure cup of homemade soup. Since it’s wet down there, it helps to have a waterproof camera. The tour staff has one, and they’ll sell you a photo CD of your trip plus some stock photos for $25 NZ. It would be cool to take your own photos, but I didn’t want to risk my Pentax and a perfectly good lens.
Out on the Town
That night after some lengthy showers, we headed to The Thirsty Weta for dinner, and a walkabout through the nice rural town of Otorohanga. We had enough energy for a walk through the local Rotary Park, which was a pleasant way to cap the evening.
But enough about that: Let me conclude by saying that, if you don’t do a cave tour in Waitomo, you’re making a big mistake. I can’t tell you which company is best, but I enjoyed our time with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. I don’t recall the price, but I want to say about $135 NZ per person, and it was worth every cent. The only better cave tour I’ve done is the ATM cave tour in Belize – a long, crazy underground voyage complete with the calcified skeletons of people sacrificed by Mayan priest. Super-creepy! But in this case, there’s nothing wrong with being #2.
Fun – 4/5 (I’d give it a 5/5 if it were longer)
Fitness Factor – 3/5 (not that exerting, really)
Guides – 5/5 (great instructions, information and character)
If you need some ideas for a New ZealandÂ travel itinerary, I have you covered. Here are some suggestions for 14 full days in New Zealand that can help you put your own adventures together.
First off, visiting New Zealand involves a lengthy flight (unless you’re from Australia). That means spending at least two weeks is the only way to go. These ideas include some highlights from my trip and a few ideas of what I would’ve changed in my New Zealand travel itinerary with my newfound knowledge.
Day One: Arrive from Los Angeles at 6 a.m. local time. Drop bags off at hotel in Parnell near the downtown area. Grab a few flat whites at Ben’s. Ogle crazy foods at local Asian markets. Take a ferry to Rangitoto IslandÂ and hike to the top of the volcano. Return to hotel … check in and shower. Then off to dinner and wandering the streets of Auckland. Hindsight is 20/20 … and mine says I should’ve rented a car after the flat whites and driven the easy two hours to Rotorua, thus affording some time in the fun capitol, or extra time in Wellington. I was planning to feel far more jet-lagged, but the symptons never came.
Day 2: Bus from Auckland to Rotorua. Arrive around 2:30 p.m., check into hotel. Visit Kairua Park, walk around Lake Rotorua. Watch for the sulfury lagoon where the lake turns color. Eerie! Indian dinner at Ambiance. General hanging around the town.
Day 4: Drive to Tongariro National Park. Stop whenever we feel like it, especially at the Honey Hive. Continue on to Tongariro through Taupo. If you’re a hiker, get provisions in Taupo. Quick two-hour hike on Taranaki Falls Track. Dinner at Skotel. Arrange bus service for tomorrow’s hike.
Day 5: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a side trip up Mt Ngauruhoe. An epic journey requiring a post of its own … or two (coming soon). Drive to Waitomo, stopping in National Park at Eiven’s for a quick dinner. Then on through Te KuitiÂ into Waitomo. Fall DEAD ASLEEP!
Day 7: On the road by 8 a.m. for the drive to Wellington. You can do it in six hours without speeding, but more stops equal more time! We made an extended stop at Paraparamu Beach. Hang out on Cuba Street, have a great Indonesian dinner at Rasa.
Day 8: A quick visit to Te Papa Museum, followed by grabbing a few Wellington Phoenix shirts (Wellington’s soccer team in the A League). Then, we catch a flight to Nelson. It’s only about 20 minutes. Arrive, check into hotel, wander the streets and have a late lunch at Falafel Gourmet.
Day 9: Bus to Abel Tasman National ParkÂ (this will get its own entry soon). Walk for a few hours. Late lunch at The Park Cafe. Brews at The Sprig and Fern. Dinner at Little India. This may sound like blasphemy, but in retrospect I’d skip Abel Tasman and head straight to Franz Josef today to make up for an extra day in Rotorua.
Day 10: Bus to Franz Josef Glacier. Stop at the Sandfly CafeÂ … ate a possum pie! By the way, New Zealand likes weird food. You might want to make room in your New Zealand travel itinerary for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival.Â Various other stops – a very nice drive. Best 8-hour bus ride ever. Arrive, check out the town. Hang out a bit.
Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier tour. Unbelievable! That was pretty much the whole day, except for showers and cooking dinner at the backpackers’ lodge. It’s not physically that strenuous, but the experience of being on a glacier is amazing. This should be part of any outdoor-relatedÂ New Zealand travel itinerary.
Day 12: Bus to Queenstown. Stop in Wanaka – beautiful town on the lake! Continue to Queenstown through the heart of NZ’s grape and fruit basket. Lots of vineyards and vintners. Scenery turns more dry and stark. Clearly more commerce and mining, despite the isolation. Arrive in Q-town … we ate some fresh green-lipped muscles at the Aggys Shack chased by gelato from Patagonia – try the banana split flavor. It’s not what you’d expect! Then, off to the cinema to see Slumdog Millionaire where it’s still in a theater!
Day 13: Parasailing and street luge, followed by a nice run around town. We followed the lake’s edge for a few miles. Then to Aggys Shack, Fish & ChipsÂ for smoked eel and some sort of raw fish concoction. Took a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw. Fun, and beautiful views. Great to see a bird’s-eye of the crew working the boilers. Finally, a a nightcap atÂ Dux De LuxÂ following a nice pad thai at one of the local Thai restaurants.
Day 14: Breakfast atHalo. Go to Queenstown Airport. Say good-by to Q-Town. Catch a flight in Auckland. And this brings myÂ New Zealand travel itinerary to and end.
Franz Josef GlacierÂ on New Zealand’s South Island is one of only three places in the world where you can walk from rain forest to a glacier in less than an hour. It’s also one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers – and the day I spent glacier hiking on its icy bulk takes its place among my best travel memories.I booked a trip with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The company offers a number of options: Half-day hikes, full-day hikes, ice climbing and even a heli-hike. We picked the full-day, which was $150 NZ per person. We arrived in the small South Island town of Franz Josef a bit after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and checked into the Chateau Franz (Read about Chateau Franz). We got only the briefest glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier that day.
Of course, we were up bright and early to check in at 8:15 a.m. the next day. The Franz Josef Glacier Guides building is just a few minutes on foot away from Chateau Franz. It’s a well-kept Continue reading
You’re not supposed to feed him, but he’s hard to resist. Woodlyn ParkÂ Â Â From nz2
Booking a hotel on the other side of the planet is a lot easier thanks to the Internet. But really, you still don’t know what you’re going to get until you step inside a room. And Lonely Planet guidebooks can only tell you so much. So I’m rating hotels in New Zealand to give you some real ideas.
These are the hotels I stayed at during my two weeks in New Zealand, so you’re getting the straight stuff. Each selection varies – if you must have a huge plasma screen in your room, some of these won’t make you happy. But at all points of the price spectrum, they were great deals, especially with the U.S. dollar stacking up so strong against the New Zealand dollar. In fact, I will say that you will not find hotels anywhere near this nice for an equivalent price in the U.S., not even in the bleakest depths of the off-seasons.
Parnell City Lodge – I had originally booked a room at the Parnell Inn. Shortly before our trip, I got an e-mail from the Parnell Inn staff saying they’d overbooked. Rather than leaving us on our own, they arranged a similar room at the nearby Parnell City Lodge. Rather nice of them, really.
Our flight from Los Angeles arrived at 6 a.m., which put us at the Parnell City Lodge way before check-in time. But the staff provided us a safe place to stash our bags while we wandered the city. The office may look a bit run-down, but the rest of the hotel is in top shape. It was clean, comfortable and really close to the LINK bus line (look for the bright green bus) that runs in a loop throughout the area, including stops at the Britomart transportation hub and close to the Sky City bus terminal, which we’d need the next day to get to Rotorua.
Parnell is also a really nice neighborhood, with lots of great restaurants and a very nice park area nearby. It’s a 20-minute walk to the water. If you balk at that, just grab the LINK bus for a 5-minute ride to Britomart – that puts you near the water, where you can grab a ferry out to Rangitoto or other surrounding islands for a bit of fun. About $90 NZ per night.
Ann’s Volcanic Rotorua Motel and Serviced ApartmentsÂ – This is a really friendly and well-kept hotel a bit off Rotorua’s main drag. It’s very quiet, and the staff seems to be composed strictly of Ann and her family. Son Luke check us into a very comfortable and well-equipped room that included a small fridge, a kitchen sink and utensils. He also made a few recommendations on where to go and what to do. The rooms are bright and airy, and you’re not constantly hearing your next door neighbor’s TV. It’s a very short walk to a grocery store and some local pubs. Walkers like me are well within range of the downtown area, the lake and the free and very awesome Kairua Park, a thermal area right in the middle of town.
Cat lovers will enjoy meeting Stripes, Luke’s cat. Bonus! The Budget Studio was $99 NZ per night.
The SkotelÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz1
Skotel – Staying at the Skotel was not in our plans. We were hoping to be able to rent some camping gear in Whakapapa. D’oh! There’s almost nothing in Whakapapa Village – certainly not an outdoor store. So we were ill-equipped to stay at the huts in Tongariro National Park. We scooted to the Skotel Alpine Resort, which only had a few backpacker rooms left. That means – cue ominous music – shared bathrooms!
Doin’ it Ricky and Lucy style – in seperate twin beds!Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
But no worries here – those shared bathrooms are modern and immaculate. The rooms themselves? Ours was a cozy job with a homey wood interior and a trio of beds, two in bunk configuration. And odd configuration for a married couple, but what can you do? Bottom line? Warm (a big plus in Tongariro National Park, which turns into a ski area in winter), quiet and comfortable. If you didn’t bring a computer, there’s also reasonably priced Internet access. If you thought to do some grocery shopping in Taupo, there’s a well-equipped kitchen. Or you can opt for the excellent Skotel restaurant – try the pan-fried blue nose if it’s available.
The price? Get this … $49 NZ for two people. Seriously, anyplace at that price in the United States is going to come surrounded by crack houses and infested with cockroaches, not wrapped in the scenery of Middle Earth.
Woodlyn Park – I decided to splurge atÂ Woodlyn ParkÂ for about $160 NZ a night. What kind of room does that get you? Well, in this case, a 1950s-vintage British Bristol cargo plane that’s been turned into a two-room hotel block; each room has a bathroom, two beds (at least) and a kitchenette. We were assigned to the cockpit.
Looking into the cargo plane’s nose/bedroom from the living room/kitchen.From nz2
It can get chilly in WaitomoÂ at night, so host Billy Black provided a space heater that keeps things warm. You can hear the crickets chirping all night, and an incredible display of stars that comes with being out in the Wop-Wops (one of my favorite Kiwi-isms). The interior and exterior of the airplane give your stay an unforgettable vibe.
Exterior view of the Bristol freighter.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz2
Woodlyn Park has also converted a small ship and a railroad car into hotel rooms, and built their own reproduction of Hobbit houses. Come for the glowworm cave tours, stay for the killer rooms! Woodlyn Park is about a half-mile from a crazy place where you can watch the staff shear an Angora rabbit. If you stumble a little further, you’re at the upbeat and lively Curly’s Bar.
Comfort Inn Wellington – The Comfort Inn Elliott’s ParaparaumuÂ puts you square in the heart of Wellington. You’re steps from the quay, the fun Te Papa Museum and, of course, the Cuba District.
All this fun and frivolity come at a price: noise. If you’re there on the weekend, you’re going to hear a lot of merriment and revelry. City dwellers might not notice – those used to some quiet at night might get irritated. Still, the rooms are in good shape, if a bit dark. And you won’t lack for restaurant options – try the Rasa Malaysian & South Indian Restaurant across the street. There’s also a lot of shopping to do here.
The hotel used to be a backpacker hostel, but it’s in great shape. And it’s really kind of old-school grand, especially the huge wooden staircase. $80 to $120 NZ.
Cedar Grove Motor Lodge – In the U.S., motor lodge is code for a run-down old shack that hit its peak in 1963. Not here. Cedar Grove Motor LodgeÂ can definitely make a case as one of the nicest hotels we visited. A well-equipped kitchenette, a flat-screen TV and a standout bathroom along with a very helpful staff. It was also quiet and modern.
If you’re a runner, lace up your shoes and take a run on the path along the nearby river. If I had someplace like that to train, I’d be twice the runner I am. When you’re done, make the short stroll into town and grab some Indian food or a kebab at Falafel Gourmet. Everything is very close to Woodlyn Park, but Nelson is too small to have the hurly-burly of Wellington.
$150 NZ a night.
Chateau Franz – I was a bit worried rolling into Chateau Franz: Sir Cedrics – BBH. It’s just not in the best shape. The walls are thin, and things are a bit worn down. It’s also a backpackers place, which can equal a lot of noise.
But guess what? The shower is an absolute monster, and the rooms are actually warm and clean. The backpackers here weren’t a wild lot – probably too focused on getting up early for the all-day glacier tours rather than dropping X and raving all night.
There’s also a well-equipped kitchen, which is a terrific way to meet other travelers. There’s a very warm vibe here, and that counts for a lot. If I visit in winter, I may choose a more solidly built place to keep the chill out. But in summer, I’ll come back. One other thing – there’s a clothing-optional spa. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – say no more!
$60 NZ per night, backpacker room with ensuite bathroom.
An open and airy room at the A-line.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz2
A-Line Hotel – As I’m rating hotels, the A-Line HotelÂ in Queenstownand Cedar Lodge will probably slug it out for the absolute nicest rooms of our visit. Again, we got a nicely equipped kitchenette and a top-notch bathroom, along with a phenomenal view of Lake Wakatipu and the amazing Remarkables Mountain Range that will blow you away, no matter how many times you see it.
Some might find walking up and down the hill into town a bit of work – but those people shouldn’t shy away from it. Harden up, as your Kiwi hosts will say! It’s also very close to the chairlift that leads to street luge, bungee jumping and paragliding. Lots of great restaurants -Halo, Agyss Shack, Patagonia and Dux de Lux, to name a few- are an easy walk away.
You may also get an audience with Oscar, the A-Line’s official cat-at-large. Seriously, how can a place lorded over by a big friendly cat be anything but awesome? (I’m always rating hotels with pets higher than the rest.) About $100 NZ per night.
Mount Ngauruhoe is a rocky and barren place upon which your feet will find little purchase. The land surrounding it is a blasted hellscape devoid of much flora or any fauna. All that’s alive here is the earth, as proven by the number of vents gushing steam and shooting crystalline sulfur pellets from its fiery depths.
But walk a few miles, and the stench of sulfur will abate. A verdant rain forest will reappear.
As nice at is to see signs of life again, it’s the lava-scoured lunar surface that truly makes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by far the most incredible single-day hike I’ve ever done. According to most guide books, just hiking the crossing should take 6-8 hours, not including a side-trip up Ngauruhoe, which starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Mt. Doom, the hangout of bad guy Sauron. One look at it, and you’ll understand why it filled the role so well. It adds about three hours to a typical hike along the crossing.
I’m ready for a nice little walk.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
A QUICK TIME LINE – Just remember, Tongariro’s weather is highly variable. This was on a sunny and perfect day without much wind. Hour 1: The hike starts off going between lava flows for Mangatepopo Car Park. You’ll pass dripping springs and a turn-off to one of the huts.
Hour 2: You’ll start up The Devil’s Staircase, which is where things start heating up. The reward once you get to the top is choosing whether to climb Ngaurahoe. Just do it! It adds three worthwhile hours. Turn right toward the hulking cone. Veer to the left, following a bunch of big poles in the ground. On the ascent, head toward the large rock outcroppings. You’ll get the best footing. If you veer right, I’ll hope you like calf-deep volcanic cinders and going one step forward and four back.
Hour 3: Still climbing. you’ll come to a false summit. You’ve gotta go all the way to the top.
Looking into the throat of NgauruhoeÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
Hour 4: You’re up at the top of Mt. Doom! Snap your photos and head down. Pass the big rocks and follow the path past a vent surrounded by pellets of crystalline sulfur. From there, you can kind of “ski” down the slope. Look for a worn brown track. It’s deep enough that, if you fall, you’ll slide just a little way before the cinders drag you to a halt.
Ngauruhoe looms behind Red Crater’s fractured visage.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz1
Hour Five: March across a flat plain between Ngauruhoe that’s emitting steam from unseen holes. It’s startling and unearthly. At the end of the valley, you’ll find a shorter slog up to Red Crater.
Emerald LakesÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz1
Hour Six: From Red Crater, you’re onto Emerald Lakes, Central Crater and Blue Lake. There’s actually a small colony of gulls at Blue Lake, the first sign of animal life that I saw that day.
Headed up from the first view of Red Crater toward Emerald Lakes.Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz1
Hour 7: From Blue Lake, you’ll descend past more steam vents to Ketatahi Hut. Stop there and refill your water, if needed.
Steam rises from vents as vegetation grows. From nz1
Hour 8: On to Ketatahi Car Park. You’ll finally get in under some vegetation. This part of the walk seems to take a long time: You’re at least in the shade finally, but you can’t really see the end. Rest assured, it’s coming! Get to the car park, hop your bus and return to Whakapapa.
We started our trip at the north end at about 7:30 a.m., and we finished just before 4 p.m. As a frame of fitness reference, my latest half-marathon time was 1:57. Sarah’s latest marathon time is 3:59. That should give you an idea of what you might be in for.
Okay, onto the practical stuff!
1. Whakapapa Village is the starting point for most people to launch their hikes. We arrived in the late afternoon from Rotorua, which is two hours away. Our original plan had been to rent a bit of gear like sleeping bags and stock up on supplies. But there’s barely anything to Whakapapa Village: a few hotels, a very small store, a visitors center and the ski lift further up. Stop in Taupo, a much larger town, to stock up on supplies – especially food and hiking snacks.
2. Dress in layers. I wore a pair of REI convertible quick-dry pants, a long-sleeve Nike base layer, a Prana t-shirt and an REI jacket, which I took off while climbing up The Devil’s Staircase. On the feet, I had Smartwool socks and a pair of La Sportiva Trango Trek boots. I love those boots like a lifelong friend. I also had a backpack carrying 120 ounces of water and a bunch of Hamish Carter One Square Meal bars, which is all I could find at the little Whakapapa store.
3. Bring a camera or you’ll kick yourself.
4. Try to get an early start to avoid the worst of the crowds. Even if people aren’t hiking the full crossing, a lot of people are out there. It’s still wonderful, regardless of the crowds.
5. Even if you drive yourself to the park, most locals insist cars are susceptible to break-ins at the trailheads. Most suggest booking a spot with one of the local bus companies from Whakapapa. I wasn’t willing to risk it, and considered about $25 NZ per person a good investment.
6. On the way up, wear gloves! I used gardening gloves, but a pair of Mechanix gloves would’ve been better. Put them on the second you decide to climb Ngauruhoe, and your hands will thank you.
Descending DoomÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
Celebrating Stage 1 of an epic day at the crater. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
Another view of the lip … notice Ruapehu on the far side – and the tiny size of the other hikers!Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From nz3
A preface from Wandering Justin: I originally wrote this for another blog, but it seems relevant here. Enjoy!
Every time I go to band practice, I take the 143 freeway past Sky Harbor. I always look to my right and see a British Airways 747 parked at Terminal 4, getting ready to head to London.
And I wish I was getting on that plane. Not so much because it’s going to London, but because … well, I can’t explain it in one sentence. But here are the thoughts that jumble through my head:
-First, there is a certain something special and exciting about a 747. It’s an icon of style, adventure and anticipation. You don’t take a 747 from Charlotte to Pittsburgh. No, That’s what takes you to Hong Kong, to Paris, to Sydney, to Johannesburg. From the first time I rode one on the way to Germany as a 5-year-old boy, it has made me feel something no other airplane can replicate. The 777 is a marvelous piece of technology, and the A380 is built on a mind-boggling scale. But no aircraft save the Concorde cuts the same image on final approach, or puts that flutter in my stomach as I cross from the jetway into its fuselage. Sadly, less than a handful of American-based airlines still fly it.
-Second, it being a British Airways flight, I know that the people aboard will not be treated like cattle. Foreign airlines seem to have figured out how not to nickel-and-dime passengers to death, and understand that a good experience aloft will endear them to American passengers. I’ve only flown Qantas and JetStar recently. But people whose opinions I respect tell me Air New Zealand, British Airways and Air France are on their game. And I’ve heard Emirates and Virgin are dialed in, too.
-Third, I just love flying. The longer the flight, the happier I am. But put me in a seat with a few hundred people on the way to someplace that requires a widebody jet, and all is right with my world. Is it as comfortable as my reading chair? No. Is the food all that good? No. But I can afford to buy a seat and travel 7,000 or more miles and get off that plane in what feels like a different world. If you can’t get fired up about that, I seriously don’t know what the hell is the matter with you.
-Fourth, I love airports. Sure, the TSA seems like it’s deliberately trying to drive me crazy. There are throngs of people, completely bovine in their lack of situational awareness and clueless meandering. But outside, it’s a well-choreographed display of efficient motion. And there’s something electric in the air at a major international airport (as opposed to my local Sky Harbor, which hosts all of one flight from the U.K., and then a bunch from Canada and Mexico and another from Costa Rica. Hell, that’s barely enough to qualify.). All these people from around the world, all these aircraft that have been who-knows-where. It invigorates me, and gets me excited about everything going on in the world at every given moment.
For me, the inconveniences and discomforts become so petty and so worth enduring when I wake up in another city that my grandparents never could’ve imagined visiting in their lifetime.
At dawn, I found out what makes Sandy Billabong so cool: There is nothing like seeing a sunrise here. The water is cool enough to throw off curtains of mist, and the sunshine filters through them to create and incredible scene that your eyeballs won’t believe. It’s impossible to not get a great photo of it. I am still blown away by the sight. And these photos are very raw: There is absolutely no post-production digital manipulation. These are all JPEG files straight out of my Fuji Finepix S5200.Â Enjoy!
English Dave with his bush-style hat cast a perfect silhouette for my photos. I got a few of a German who tagged along behind us. And yes, I kept her away from the billabong lest she become a morning morsel for a croc.
Our first stop was about four miles from Sandy Billabong: It’s called Culture Camp, and a cheerful Aborigine woman named Jenny talked to us about really funny stories, bush tucker (what the native people ate) and various traditions. My favorite was about the husband of an Aboriginal goddess who was so well-hung that following her everywhere made him tired. So he and his prodigious wang settled down while she wandered the continent.
We also learned how to throw spears with a device much like an Indian atlatl, and had more encounters with my friend, the didgeridoo. I must say that I could hang with anybody who worked at Culture Camp.
We still had more to see, so it was back aboard the Possum.
The Possum was thirsty for gas and oil, and we filled it up in Jabiru, where we also grabbed some pastries from a rather well-known local bakery. Jabiru also features a Holiday Inn in the shape of a crocodile, which Amy described as “not at all over-the-top or anything.”
We cruised out to Ubirr, where got to see some truly awesome rock art. There was actually a good bit of history detailed in the rocks. Apparently, the aborigines had one wall dedicated to their hunting/fishing catches. And women.
“Just like a modern mechanic shop,” Amy said. “Nothin’ but huntin’ pictures and naked ladies.”
I’ll also point out that, on the “Things We’ve Eaten” wall, there’s a painting that definitely depicts a white person. It’s drawn in white, it appears to have a pipe and it’s carrying a gun. Did he wind up in a tribe’s belly?
This is where Sarah and I met up with the green ant. Actually, it’s a red ant with a green bottom. The Aborigines used these to season their food, but just the green bottom. That’s because they taste like lime. Pick one up and give its butt a lick, and sure enough it’ll taste like you dabbed your tongue with key lime juice. Amazing! Sarah’s ant took exception to the assault and dug its mandibles into her hand as she pulled it away. She had to give him a good yank to pry him loose.
We also climbed to the top of a hill that overlooks Ubirr. From there, we could see a huge rock that was used in Crocodile Dundee. Paul Hogan stood atop it in the scene where he swung the bullroarer around. A bullroarer is a flat piece of ironwood that aborigines put on a rope. They swing it overheard, where it makes a weird buzzing sound. Apparently, they use this as a telephone.
We were then on to White Lilly Billabong. Some members of the group grabbed a swim, but Sarah and I went to scout for kangaroo. Thus far, we’d only seen a few wild wallabies, and none had been obliging enough to pose for a photo.
But here, we got our first decent glimpse of gray kangaroos! They were pretty awesome, and so much faster than we expected! We also saw some kind of huge brown/orange snake that was chasing a lizard.
The Possum was having a bit of a problem getting started. Remember, this is one old truck. It’s only two trips away from reaching its mandatory retirement age. Fortunately, some other guides are around … everyone put their heads together to bring the Possum back to life.
Next stop, the termite mounds! They’re everywhere in Kakadu, but some of the most impressive were just outside Darwin. There, some geniuses tried to build wooden viewing platforms among the mounds. That’s like making mouse traps entirely out of cheese.
Finally, we were on to the last stop: The Didgeridoo Hut. Rumor has it this is THE place to buy a decently priced didge. When we got there, it had even more: A baby emu came running out to greet us. Inside, a little aborigine boy sought to impress Sarah by allowing her to hold his pet snake and a fat skink. But then, a baby wallaby bounced out from behind the sales counter. He’d let everyone pet him, and he’d usually lick your hand. His mother had been run over by a car, and the owners of the Didgeridoo Hut had been feeding it out of a bottle. This might be the cutest creature I’ve ever seen.
I also picked up a nice didge, about five feet long with art of one of the mimi spirits on it. But I spend most of the time petting the wallaby and taking photos of him.
We wrapped up with a short drive back to Darwin, where we checked back into the MOM, and this time in a room far away from the hurly-burly!
Let me tell you, it was really nice washing three days of accumulated bush crap off my skin and enjoying a nice shave! And a little air-conditioning, too… After getting all freshened up, Sarah and I met Orla and her friend, Karen from Canada. We spent the night wandering about town, stopping for a late-night snack and some sangria before heading back into bed.