a blog about seeing the world

Archive for May, 2011

Pies in the park: a visit to Sydney

Warm, sunny days, waterfront eateries, good beer, and beautiful parks are the recipe for a perfect city experience. And that’s exactly what we got during our two days in Sydney.

After an unappealing drive in through the suburbs, we checked into a hostel in Glebe, a lovely residential neighborhood lined with cafes and large trees. Leaves fluttered down and collected on the shaded sidewalks in crisp, cool autumn perfection.

Sydney’s harbor is as beautiful as we’ve always heard. We wandered along the docks in Darling Harbor in the morning—taking note of upcoming happy hour specials—and made our way out onto the Harbor Bridge.

Our first glimpse of the water at Darling Harbor.

Midway across, the sun cast the bridge’s shadow onto the sparkling blue harbor, and illuminated boats of all sizes that ply its waters. Scalloped dark green shores extended into the distance and the city’s iconic Opera House lured wandering eyes directly below.

We expected the Opera House to disappoint. Synonymous with Australia, slapped on a million postcards, and featured in many a token travel photo, the Opera House is victim to the kind of overexposure that often ends in letdown upon seeing the real thing. But it’s awesome. As we walked further across the bridge, the differing angles changed the shape of the sails entirely, giving it a totally new look. Up close, it’s even better. The tiled roof— actually, those of three separate buildings— soars into the sky, sloping gracefully away from your eyes, with the harbor and bridge as an unbeatable backdrop.

Landmarks aside, Sydney’s incredible Royal Botanic Gardens were by far the highlight.  The 75-acre gardens hold countless plants from all over the world, arranged aesthetically for maximum pastoral enjoyment. Enormous fig trees spread shade over swaths of grass, their thick branches almost skimming the ground. Vegetation of all shades and shaped is scattered around, while birds and flying foxes twitter from the treetops. At a turn of the trail, you can find yourself in a different environment— from the Oriental Gardens to the Rainforest Walk to the Fernery and the succulents. It’s just incredible. And it’s free.

One of the garden's many sprawling fig trees.

A perfect mix of garden and open space— this is how to design a city park.

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Walking the Wilderness Coast

Overnight backpacking trips are phase two of our money-saving strategy for Australian travel (phase one: live in a tent) — just another way to sequester ourselves even further from the expensive edible temptations of the developed world. Fortunately, exploring the wilderness on foot is an excellent way to see the country we are here to see, and our first four-day walk through Croajingolong National Park was a wild success.

The Wilderness Coast Walk extends along 100 kilometers of Victoria’s deserted northeastern coastline, and it sounded sufficiently remote and beautiful to warrant a few days of our time. We woke up in the wonderful Mallacoota Foreshore Holiday Park on Tuesday morning, shuffled food and gear around for a few hours, and finally left the Shipwreck Creek trailhead at the unimpressive hour of noon.

The first day of walking took us through gorgeous fields of pale green and wheat-colored grasses, swaying in a slight breeze and dotted with bright pink winter flowers. Over the edge of the cliffs, the ocean spread bright blue in the background, and filled our ears with a distant roar.

The trail changed character every few kilometers, and once again, we walked through miles of strange, foreign vegetation. Huge, spiky cattail-like spires grew from clumps of wiry grass, and little objects that looked remarkably like Furbies hung from the branches of trees. They looked like they might hop off at any moment and start scurrying around.

As evening fell, we crossed the mouth of the Benedore River and set up our camp on a dune high above the isolated cove. Unintentional but fortunate timing meant that our first night coincided with the full moon, and we waited patiently and eagerly for the clouds to break aside a crackling campfire. Before long the landscape was bathed in bright silver, illuminating the dunes and sparkling off the ocean…magic.

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Back to the working world… for two days.

As part of our ultimate goal of having enough money in our bank accounts to return home, our plan for Australia includes finding several weeks of gainful employment. It’s part of the reason we came to this part of the world in the first place— Australia and New Zealand are some of the few countries that grant one-year working visas to Americans.  Nine months ago, we applied for Working Holiday Visas online, and it seemed like an excellent way to extend our budget and our travels.

Nine months later, in the midst of a cool, cloudy week in Victoria, the idea of working for the first time in more than four months was less appealing. Still, we took advantage of Australia’s amazing National Harvest Guide and found the nearest town with ripened fruit. A few phone calls and a drop by the employment office later, we had signed up to harvest apples for a few days in Cobram. It is a very small town on Victoria’s northern border where not much happens and, incidentally, there is little else to do but pick apples. Perfect.

As far as monotonous manual labor goes, it was a remarkably pleasant way to earn some cash. We showed up at 8 in the morning, slung a picking basket around our shoulders, and got to work. The apples were cold from the night’s chill and dripping with dew, but the broken morning sun soon warmed them, along with our fingers. We filled enormous wooden crates— worth $35 each— with crisp, tart Pink Lady apples as fast as possible. Before long, we could swiftly pluck two apples per hand and fill a crate an hour with ease.

Note the blurred hand indicating incredible picking speed.

Each night, backs and fingers sore from the day’s work, we’d return to our campsite and reward our efforts with tasty food and a $3 wine called Bowler’s Run, surprisingly good for the price. After two and a half days, we’d filled nine crates, and snagged more than a few tasty apples as bonuses for ourselves. Not bad for our first return venture into the working world. It felt good to be a contributing member of society again, and we look forward to mastering the harvesting methods of other crops.

Once the last of the fruit had been picked, we headed back south towards the ocean and soon merged with the Great Alpine Drive, another of Australia’s scenic roads. After watching the sun rise over a fog-filled valley, we entered Alpine National Park, home to some of the country’s tallest mountains. As the road ascended into the Australian Alps (nice, though not nearly as impressive as the European or Japanese versions), a few inches of snow materialized on the ground.

The view from Mount Buffalo at 7:30 a.m.

Near the top of the pass, a trail snakes off the road along The Razorback, a long, undulating ridge headed for the distant Mount Feathertop, 11 kilometers away. Though the trail was covered in snow, the sun shone down in a clear sky, and soon we were hiking in our t-shirts.  The open ridgeline provided extensive views of blue rolling mountains as the trail wound its way past alpine heath and snow gum skeletons, leftover from fires years ago.

It was an ideal way to spend a sunny day, and an excellent warm-up for our next adventure: a four-day backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast in Croajinglong National Park.


Exploring Victoria: a road trip warm-up

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia winds along nearly 250 kilometers of spectacular coastline, looking remarkably similar to California’s Big Sur. It’s an easy drive from Melbourne, and we elected to rent a car and get out of the city for a few days while our newly purchased car was tuned up. From the unfamiliar left side of the road, we watched the ocean crash against yellow cliffs and long, cold beaches.

Sometimes the road hugs the cliff sides, and other times it veers inland to pass under koalas perched in roadside eucalyptus trees or next to pastures dotted with dairy cows. Frequent turnoffs and trails down to the water provide enough diversions to fill a whole day alternately driving and hopping out of the car to explore. It was quite a nice way to take in the scenery, and a refreshing freedom after the restraints of public transport in Southeast Asia.

Erskine Falls, a short drive inland from the Great Ocean Road.

The coast reaches its southernmost point at Cape Otway, and from there eastward it becomes even more rugged. For the next 120 kilometers, it is known as the Shipwreck Coast— over 80 ships sunk off the unforgiving shoreline in 40 years during the 1800s. We walked down to Wreck Beach, where two rusted anchors are visible at low tide. After snaking through low bushes and wild-looking, twisted trees that seem to have jumped out of a Van Gogh painting, the trail broke out into open, wind-swept headland before plunging down steps to the beach.

From here, it’s easy to see why the coast is so treacherous. The angry Southern Ocean was stacked high with frothy waves, which were thrown ashore at jagged cliffs, creating the sound of a roaring jet engine. (more…)


What we’ll miss and what we won’t

After three hot, wonderful months in Southeast Asia, we’ve landed on Australia’s southern coast, where winter is just beginning to set in.

Before we begin exploring this vast country, we wanted to share a few things we are thrilled to be leaving behind, and some things we will desperately miss.

Things we will not miss:

1. Riding in any variety of public vehicle.
2. Prevalence of hard-boiled eggs on said vehicles.
3. Being treated like an ATM.
4. Watching people throw garbage on the ground.
5. Toilet paper being replaced with a butt washing spray hose.
6. The beer selection.
7. The lack of cheese.

Steph loving her 12-hour train ride.

Things we will:

1. Fresh fruit on every street corner. Especially mangos!
2. Paying $3 for dinner and $10 for a hotel.
3. Wearing flip-flops all day.
4. A spring roll appetizer at every meal.
5. The feeling of being very far away from home.
6. A change of scenery every few days.
7. Thai curries and Lao sticky rice.
8. El Nido’s tropical beaches.
9. Rice paddies.
10. Excited children yelling “hello.”

Our favorite mango dealership. El Nido, Philippines.

Our first post from Australia is coming soon!


Tropical Perfection

After 11 days here—the longest we’ve spent anywhere since leaving Vermont— El Nido has started to feel like home to us. This tiny town, nestled between enormous, jagged karst cliffs, is indescribably beautiful. We look out every day at the many mountainous islands of Bacuit Bay, scattered across the turquoise water.

A short, steep hike leads to excellent view of El Nido from above.

We rise early in El Nido, largely against our will. The power shuts off across town at 6 a.m., taking our fan along with it, and before long it’s much to hot to sleep. It’s vastly more malicious and effective than an alarm, and street noise and roosters finish the job.

Most days then began by hitching a ride on one of the many tricycles—motorcycles encased in a sort of sidecar/carriage, painted bright colors and emblazoned with nicknames like “Baby Janelle” — to our favorite beach.

Tricycles waiting outside our guesthouse.

A ten-minute ride out of town, Las Cabanas beach is ridiculously gorgeous. It is the quintessential tropical beach that adorns postcards and calendars— a hundred foot wide crescent of fine blond sand backed by a grove of palm trees. Purple cowrie shells dot the water’s edge, and a rippled sandy bottom stretches out into clear water as far as you can swim.

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