a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “road trip

Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.

Australia Through Five Eyes

Between some lazy days enjoying our idyllic back yard and the late summer sunshine, we’ve finally been able to catch up on some editing.  This is the first of two videos covering our 82 days and 10,000 miles across Australia.

Strung around the outskirts of a vast, empty interior, Australia boasts a captivating array of landscapes— lush rainforest, snowcapped mountains, miles and miles of rugged coastline, towering gum trees, some of the world’s finest swimming holes, the beautiful city of Sydney. And, of course, in the middle of it all, the most famous rock in the world


How to be homeless

After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.

First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:

Tent vs. campervan

Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too?  Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.

Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.

Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.

Home away from home.

Where to sleep

While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.

DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:

Near Cannan Downs, NZ.


Two familiar faces

Right as the best American holiday, Thanksgiving, was about to pass by unnoticed here in New Zealand, some long-awaited visitors from home arrived. Nate’s parents, Jan and Dan, traveled with us for 12 days, bringing near constant sunshine along with them.

We decided it would be a mistake to try to recreate the classic holiday meal, especially over a campstove. So, we all gathered around the picnic table for a southern hemisphere Thanksgiving of greenshell mussels, local sweet potatoes and asparagus. Delicious!

From left to right: Steph, Jan, Dan, Alex, Nate.

Along with the perfect weather, they came bearing treats from home. After all these months of camping we could finally construct proper s’mores with some graham crackers!

And our favorite beer, Heady Topper, was the perfect addition to a sunny afternoon on the West Coast.

Along with repeating some favorites, we also used the trip to explore some new places.

Hmmm… caulk the wagon and float across?

After some debate we rolled across and continued up the valley to a place that could be mistaken for paradise. It was just like “The Oregon Trail,” without the dysentery.

The beautiful West Matukituki Valley quickly became one of our newest favorite places in New Zealand.

They also treated us to perhaps the best Christmas present ever: two cruises on the sounds of Fiordland… (more…)

Two moods of the Milford Road

The sounds of water are everywhere in the Fiordlands. Rushing down rock faces, dripping quietly from moss, splattering on the hood of your jacket. Rain – from yesterday’s pounding torrent to the present misty drizzle – is at home here. We chose to accept it as a travel companion instead of letting it change our plans, and began the drive in to Milford Sound. The road in proved to be just as striking as the famed destination itself.

The new rainfall fed a countless number of waterfalls. They cascaded down every crack in the cliffs, some massive and roaring, others as slender and wispy as a tendril of smoke.  Higher up, the clouds took over and the cliffs simply disappeared the sky, leaving the lofty heights to the imagination. Though we feared we might miss out on some of Milford’s iconic scenery, the weather leant a brooding beauty to the landscape.


Australia by the numbers

From estimating the hours left on long drives to imposing a strict budget upon ourselves, numbers dominated our time in Australia. We kept track of everything with a certain disturbing compulsiveness that made Nate realize he may be turning into his father. But it was out of necessity: after the budget paradise of Southeast Asia, it would have been easy to get carried away here in the land of $22 burritos and endless miles of road. Here is a breakdown of our time down under, in numerical format.

Home sweet home

82: total days in Australia.

77: nights spent camping. We are especially proud of this number. Proud, and pleased that they are behind us.

5: nights in a hostel. For the most part they were dirty, loud, and crowded, and made the thought of camping quite desirable.

<10: other people we saw camping in tents. It seems to be a lost art in Australia.

1000s: people traveling in caravans. The Australian dream: retire, sell your house, buy a caravan and live out the rest of your days in crowded caravan parks and grungy roadside rest areas.

12: most consecutive days of free camping. Between free rest areas, backpacking the Tabletop track, and taking advantage of lazy national park staff in Kakadu, we were pretty happy with this string of free nights.

20: an estimate in degrees F of the lowest temperature we camped in. It was a cold hollow below Alpine National Park, and we woke up to a tent caked in frost.

2:33: Minutes it takes us to set up our tent. Yes, we timed it.

Behind the wheel

15,110: kilometers driven in the Ford Falcon (plus 700 in our rental car)— just under 10,000 miles.

130: highest speed limit in km per hour— or 80 mph. In empty central Australia you have to go fast if you intend to get anywhere within your lifetime. Thankfully the government realizes this. On average speed limits were quite generous and nearly impossible to eclipse especially on curvy, narrow roads. We don’t know how anyone gets a speeding ticket in this country.

$2,595: dollars spent on gas.

$115 : most money spent on a fill-up. In the middle of the country, you can’t really afford to be picky. When gas comes along, you buy it, no matter how exorbitant the price…

$1.99: highest price per liter of gas, which works out to $7.50 a gallon. Ouch!

1: Kangaroo collision.

1000s:  Unfortunate roadkill encountered.

$500: what it would have cost us to tow our car to a garage when it refused to start outside Kakadu National Park one morning. Luckily we found a kindly mechanic on our own— thank you Rosco!

150: average length of a road train, in feet.

46: percent of our total Australian expenses spent on our car in repairs, gas, and maintenance. This doesn’t even include the purchase!


17: days where we didn’t spend any money.  Zero days were always exciting and a cause for celebration.

92: Australian cents a US dollar could buy at our dismal exchange rate.

$1.60: lowest price ever paid for a bottle of wine. Actually, this is just a 750ml portion of the two 4-liter boxes of fine Stanley wine that were on special for $18. Yep.

$2.77: most money ever spent on a single banana. Back in February Cyclone Yasi, in addition to mangling Hinchinbrook Island, took out nearly all of Australia’s banana crop. We bought this one for our Fourth of July fruit salad but otherwise refrained due to the price hike.

$12: cost of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s we spied in Melbourne.

Our Australian lifestyle

20: national parks visited.

26: degrees of latitude crossed. Ranging from 36 degrees south in southern Victoria to 12 degrees south in the Top End of the Northern Territory. The northern hemisphere equivalent to this would be driving from Virginia to Venezuela.

5,300: highest elevation reached, in feet. We hiked through snow part of the way to Mount Feathertop, in Victoria.

45: approximate kilos of pasta consumed. This is estimating three hefty pasta dinners per week.

152: kilometers we walked on our four backpacking trips. Or 94 miles, a third of the Long Trail.

36: bins of fruit (apples, oranges, and mandarins) picked.

2: longest silence in the car, in hours, after a large rock hit our windshield and the subsequent bickering.

5: longest number of days we went without showering, though we did swim!

9: approximate times we did laundry, which averages out to once every ten days. This becomes more disturbing when you factor in the number (3) of underwear Nate currently owns.

8:00: earliest bed time. There’s not a whole lot to do after dinner when you live in a tent.


Australia’s biggest icon

Two hundred fifty kilometers down a lonely stretch of road, an isolated hunk of sandstone looms in stark contrast to the vast and featureless plains of central Australia.

The remote but world-renowned Uluru is one of the most recognizable and iconic images of Australia. We’ve all seen photos of it a million times, and just about everyone can equate “that big red rock” with Australia. It’s the sort of thing you go see almost more out of obligation than desire: it just doesn’t seem right to travel to Australia and not see The Rock. Thus, we turned off the Stuart Highway along with countless trundling caravans full of traveling retirees for the 500 km out and back detour.

As it turns out, it’s awesome. And big. From the moment it looms on the horizon through the walk up to its base, you find yourself gaping upward and frequently muttering things like, “now that’s a big rock.”

Uluru rises 348 meters (1,148 feet) into the air — more of a mountain than a rock — and you can’t help but wonder how it got there. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is always supremely boring and usually revolves around the solidifying of sand layers and deathly slow wind and water erosion.

The local Anangu people have lived in the area an exceptionally long time and have some creation stories of their own which are infinitely more satisfying. Most of them involve ancestor animals battling and dying gruesomely on or around the rock, leaving scars in the earth behind. Cool. Some of these sites are sacred, and signs ask you not to take pictures on one whole side of the rock.

The Anangu officially own the land and lease the park back to the Australia government. Ownership details aside, it was unclear who exactly was raking in the 12.5 million dollars in park entrance fees ($25 per adult) that Uluru generates per year, but it sort of makes you wish you had a really big rock in your backyard doesn’t it?

A 9.5km trail winds its way around the base of the rock, which is not the bland, featureless oval that we expected, but a jagged spearhead shape with huge gorges, countless insets, caves, boulder outcroppings and odd formations. Two waterholes surrounded by leafy eucalypts sit peacefully, fed by rivulets cascading down the rock whenever it rains. Gazing up from the base, the massive red walls rise high above, until they curve out of sight against the bright blue sky. It was instantly and immensely impressive. Why had we never seen photos of it up close?



Inland and upward

Before Australia’s coastal hills flatten out into the interminable Outback, a worthy collection of the craggy, cliff-laced mountains that are typical of this country rise from Flinders Ranges National Park.

The park is best known for Wilpena Pound, a curiously circular valley surrounded by impassable red cliffs and deep, dry gorges. Once used to hold herds of sheep in the 1800s — and for Aboriginal gatherings long before Europeans arrived— it is now home to kangaroos grazing peacefully in the grasses and low bushes. A lot of them. We also spotted the odd group of mountain goats, introduced to the area long ago, which rangers are now apparently trying to stomp out. Australia has huge problems with their animal populations. There are tons of species that are not supposed to be here (foxes, goats, rabbits, toads, camels), and too many of the ones that are (kangaroos), as we would discover later.

These guys are supposed to be here: an emu.

We opted for a 23-kilometer overnight hike, which led us through the floor of the Pound, over the ring of mountains, and back along a forested trail.

After a night in the Pound (and the robbery of half of our dinner by some unwelcome crows) we hiked up to St. Mary Peak, dodging the enormous webs of some large and deeply unsettling spiders that enjoyed hanging just above eye level. The view from the top was well worth it. Rocky, rolling mountain ranges snaked into the distance, melding into the flat, unbroken plains beyond. No doubt there was interesting geology at work here.

This orb weaver spider was as long as my index finger.


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…)