Cramming Two Countries Into One Post: A 10-Day Recap

Posted February 29 at 11:48pm local time.

A lot has happened since my last update, so I’ll pick up where I left off and continue to give you an overview of our travels. Be prepared — this is a long post. Oh, and happy leap day!

On Sunday the 17th we attended Cairns Baptist Church because it was within walking distance of the Cairns Central YHA. I met a really neat guy from Switzerland who was there to improve his command of the English language. He was living with one of the families that attended the church and had invited him to live with them while he was there studying. We swapped contact information, and it’s possible I’ll get to see him again when I’m in Europe later this year. After church we went out to lunch with some of the other church members and had really interesting dialogue for a couple hours. We spent the rest of the Sabbath planning and resting.

The next day we headed out to snorkel and SCUBA dive, as detailed in my previous entry.

Tuesday we were picked up and taken to the Skyrail cable car station. Before climbing aboard, we stopped at the Aboriginal museum next door where we saw and read more about their history and culture, including a slanted short film which tried to promote the oxymoronic “noble savage” image. Australia still has problems dealing with the Aboriginals, and more events like Sorry Day aren’t likely to fix them any time soon. The situation is interesting, yet sad, and warrants a dedicated post sometime in the future.

When we did make it to the Skyrail cable car we were treated to a fantastic ride up over the mountains and through the rainforest to Kuranda where we visited a bird aviary and meandered through the shops targeted at tourists. We then took the train down and back into Cairns where we were deposited a block from our hostel.

On Wednesday we got up early and left the Cairns Central YHA to go to the airport where we caught our flight to Sydney. After about a six hour layover – where we made use of the free WiFi – we picked up our connecting flight to Auckland, New Zealand. We wove our way through customs, stocked up on local currency from an ATM, and found a shuttle to take us to our accommodations in the Apsen House in downtown Auckland.

Thursday found us sleeping in and then enjoying the complimentary breakfast served up at our “boutique budge hotel.”After a brief strategizing session we headed off to the Auckland Museum. We first hit up the gift shop where the cheerfully lady gave us over twelve dollars in free post card stamps with the post cards we purchased! The museum had a number of very well constructed, informative exhibits including one outlining each war in which New Zealand participated. We barely made it through the whole museum by the time it closed and we were given the boot.

On the way back into the city to find a place to eat dinner we paused to observe a small crowd and a number of TV cameras at the University of Auckland’s new business school building. Inquiring, we found out that the prime minister was about to arrive for a building dedication ceremony. We stayed to watch her arrive, then spent a few minutes talking to the people who were there to protest the Election Finance Act recently passed by the New Zealand government. After our first introduction to New Zealand politics we chose a Japanese restaurant for dinner where I was able to practice my chopstick-wielding skills on my bowl of ramen noodles. That night we explored the city some more, heading back to the Aspen House via Queen Street.

On Friday we had to vacate the Aspen House because we hadn’t reserved through that night and they were fully booked. While my dad stayed to take care of some business and planning he had to do, the rest of us took the bus through the rainy drizzle out to the Auckland Zoo. Besides the usual animals found in zoos, we saw rare native animals like the Kiwi and the Tuatara.

After reuniting, my dad and I took a taxi out towards the airport to pick up the rental van that will be our traveling companion during our stint in the country. The taxi driver wasn’t very happy because his taxi company had a deal with the rental car company for a flat $25 fee for the trip which the rental car company footed to get their clients to their location. Driving out of the city, then back in, during Auckland rush hour didn’t make the trip worth it to him, and he gripped about it the whole way as he cut off other drivers, blazed down the shoulder on the highway, and consulted his map for shortcuts when stopped at traffic lights. We were reimbursed by the rental car company since we paid the driver out of our own pocket in order to prevent his having to wait for them to come out and pay him. When we did sit down to complete the required paperwork the lady hesitatingly told us that the van they had for us was involved in an accident but suffered only minor siding damage. They didn’t have another they could give us at the moment, but they would have one by Monday and they wanted to swap us then. Even though we were going to be a couple hours away on that day, they still insisted that they would drive down to make the switch.

After receiving the keys to our Toyota van we picked our back to Auckland in the gridlocked traffic where we loaded up our luggage and moved to our new lodging – the YMCA. Most people have at least heard the song “it’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A,” and many have probably sang along while gesticulating the letters at the appropriate times, but I doubt many have actually stayed at a YMCA. Well, I’m going on record to say that I thought it was fun to stay at the YMCA. We ended the evening with a trip to the grocery store and dinner at Little Turkish Cafe where we were subjected to a TV showing a random assortment of music videos from The Talking Heads and Aerosmith to The Fray and Bon Jovi. The food was excellent though.

Saturdaywas spent resting, doing laundry, planning, and making reservations for the future.

On Sunday the 24th we attended the Reformed Church of Mangere. After church we were invited over for lunch by a homeschooling family in the congregation and had a wonderful time at their home. From our time with the Whetton Family we learned a lot more about New Zealand politics, the university system, and the homeschooling network in New Zealand. We were very blessed by their hospitality. They gave us excellent directions back to the highway and we headed on to Wiatomo. We arrived at the Big Bird Bed & Breakfast in time to see Ross, the owner, feed a number of the ostriches they keep and give a short talk about the birds whose brains are smaller than their eyes. Later that evening we made it to the Waitomo cave for the underground tour with stalagmites, stalagmites, and the featured glowworms. We returned to the B&B where we cooked our own dinner for a change.

Monday morning we arose early to receive the breakfast Ross’s wife brought us and greet the rental car company employee who arrived with the undamaged van. After loading up the van we headed a short distance up the road for the Ruakuri Cave tour. We were thankful that we went on the early morning tour, because there we no other people on the tour. It turned out to be a wonderful tour with an experienced guide named Zane who had actually worked on the renovation of the cave tour – digging, drilling, and installing the walkways we traversed. The $2,000,000+ renovation ensured the cave was beautifully lit and easily accessible. We were able to see more glowworms, many so close we could have easily touched them.

After a couple hours in the cave we trekked the bush walk that Zane recommended to us. It was defiantly worth following the trails to the end to see waterfalls, caves, and diverse foliage. When we pulled back onto the road we backtracked to Hamilton in order to hop on the highway towards Rotorua. Driving in New Zealand so far has been very pleasant because every drive is a scenic drive. The first thing we did when we arrived in Rotorua was stop at the i-Site visitors center to book at traditional Maori Hangi dinner. After unloading at the All Seasons Holiday Park we headed off to the hotel where the dinner and show was to be held. Most of the touted Hangi feasts pander to tourists and are held in modern hotel ballrooms built especially for the occasion. What was surprising was hearing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God to The” sung in a Maori tongue as background music before the show. The show included songs, dances, and lots of examples of the Maori warrior’s challenging stance – eyes wide open and tongue thrust outward and down. The meal was a very good buffet which included Hokey Pokey ice cream – supposedly a New Zealand tradition we had wanted to sample. We finally found out what it was all about after numerous attempts at asking locals which usually returned informative responses such as “well, it’s vanilla ice cream with Hokey Pokey in it.” To us Hokey Pokey tasted like caramelized sugar with a butterscotch flavor. The ice cream simply contains small balls of this crunchy and sticky substance.

Tuesday morning we drove to the other side of Rotorua to the Agrodome where we saw nineteen different breeds of sheep, a shearing demonstration, and a sheep dog demonstration. After lunch – the usual fare of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – the girls decided to relax in the car in the shade while the guys headed up the mountain on a gondola to the luge tracks. The luges we used were not at all like the luges used in the Olympics. They were black, three wheeled carts with shallow depressions for sitting in and spots on either side of the steering handles for your feet. Pulling the steering handle back pushed the wheel down, lifting the front and starting the luge rolling. Pulling the handle back farther lowers the wheel again – but not all the way – serving as a break. The first track we went down was mandatory as the first run. It was called “the scenic course,” so we thought it wouldn’t be that exciting, but it was actually really fun! We rode the chair lift back up and went down again, this time on the intermediate course. We flew down the hills, leaned into the curves, and had a blast racing each other downhill just like the gigantic billboard with all the warnings said not to do. :) My little brother John especially had a blast. In the past he has complained that our family never does anything fun and always spends our time at museums (which must all obviously be boring). Hopefully soon you’ll be able to read about his luging experience in his own words, as it is his current writing assignment.

No visit to Rotorua is complete without visiting the natural thermal springs of the area, so we went to Hell’s Gate Thermal Reserve to see the bubbling, steaming grounds. When we arrived the parking lot was barren save for only a few cars. The only other group there was a Japanese film crew there to film a Japanese model at the mud bath and spa. Apparently thermal spring mud baths are popular with celebrities as well as the general public. The sulfur smell was very strong and some of our party had a harder time dealing with it than others, but it was fascinating to see the scarred landscape and hear and observe the thermal activity as we wound our way along the path which was clearly marked with large warning signs displaying scary words like “danger,” “burning,” and “serious injury.”

I’ll end here and probably just save up for another 10-day overview in the future. A New Zealand photo gallery is in the works too. Be patient – this my holiday you know. ;)

A Day on the Great Barrier Reef

Posted February 23 at 11:11pm local time.

On Monday I had one of the scariest — yet most rewarding — experiences of my life. I went SCUBA diving.

We went out to the Great Barrier Reef with a company on the boat Silverswift. It was a very nice boat and they served complimentary tea, coffee, and snacks before departure from the dock as well as before leaving the last snorkeling/diving spot. On the way out to the reef those of us diving watched a brief video and then went over what we learned with one of the instructors. Just before we got to the reef we headed out back to gear up. We donned wet suits, SCUBA equipment, flippers, and a mask before walking off the edge of the boat into the ocean.

If breathing solely through one’s mouth isn’t weird enough, try doing it underwater. Fish live and breathe underwater; people live and breathe above water. My first breath underwater felt strange and frightening at the same time. I was breathing oxygen — I didn’t feel like I wasn’t getting any air — but it my mind seemed not to understand that yet. It was such a strange feeling that I can’t quite find words to describe it. Maybe it could be described as a mixed feeling of brief suffocation and claustrophobia. My first impulse was to rise to the surface, clamber back onto the boat, and just be content with snorkeling, but I overcame that and decided I’d attempt to stick it out. I then grabbed onto the rope that descended from the boat to an anchor below and remained suspended a foot or two below the surface, trying to stop breathing so hard. When my instructor Ben came over we proceeded to do the three exercises I really wasn’t looking forward to. First I had to take my regulator out of my mouth, hold it out while breathing out a tiny stream of bubbles, then put it back in and blow out hard to clear it and my mouth of any water. Next I had to take out my primary regulator and put in my backup, then switch back to my primary. Lastly, Ben lifted the bottom of my mask to let some water in which I then had to remove by tilting my head back, pressing my finger against the top of the mask, and blowing air out through my nose to force the water out. These weren’t as difficult or annoying as I expected them to be, and was thankful for that.

Ben and I then descended using the rope, stopping every meter or so to decompress by holding our nose and trying to blow gently through it. Then, since this was an introductory dive, I linked arms with Ben and we took off. I was mostly focused on trying to just breathe slowly, regularly, and easily, but I was also able to admire and marvel at God’s creation underwater. By the end of the dive I was really enjoying myself and had totally conquered my initial fears. On the next dive I suited back up and casually stepped out and took the plunge. Ben was right; it’s just like learning to ride a bike. Once you have the hang of it, it’s easy to do again. The second dive was so much better because I could focus on the marine life I both saw and felt. I also took a water-proof camera down with me. The thirty-five minutes underwater during my second dive passed by very quickly. When I finally did go out just to snorkel, it really wasn’t that exciting compared to diving. I would recommend that people snorkel first and then dive. Snorkeling will help you get used to breathing through your mouth and will still be enjoyable since you haven’t just been SCUBA diving. I’ve added SCUBA certification to my “to-do” list – right along with getting my concealed carry permit.

This is a Family Trip After All…

Posted February 23 at 1:22am local time.

To prevent any rumors, I want to go on the record to say that I don’t believe that taking a photo of a person steals their soul or anything, but it is true that I haven’t posted many photos of me or my family from this trip. This gallery remedies that. I hope this also quells rumors that I don’t actually have a family and instead am traveling alone, making up family members as I go along. Oh, and I am also not in the honors program at my school (sorry if dispelling that myth hurt).

An Overview of Last Week or: How to Skip to the Photos

Posted February 17 at 5:50pm local time.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted last, but I just haven’t had that much time to write and ready photos for uploading. Internet prices have also risen steeply since we left Sydney. I know a lot of you will probably skim this entry looking for photos, so to make it easier for you I’ve started an Australia Gallery.

Tuesday we went to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which is a science and design museum. It is located on the spot of the original Sydney power plant, and uses the old building along with newer additions. It was an incredible museum and we spent the whole day there, venturing out only to grab lunch at a nearby food court. I especially enjoyed the exhibits showcasing high school design projects and the 2007 Australian Design Awards, as well as the playground outside where there was a teeter-totter — a standard piece of playground equipment in an era gone by which now seems extinct. We headed back early in order to pack up and get a good night’s rest and had dinner at a Thai restaurant up the street from the guest house. Also, only in Sydney would you see a woman in a business outfit toting a rolling black suitcase with swim flippers strapped on top. :)

Wednesday morning Catharine was awakened to “Happy Birthday” sung quietly by the rest of the family in order not to wake the people in the rooms next to us. We took two cabs to the airport — since one normal cab wouldn’t fit us all — to catch our flight to Melbourne. The cab I was in with my parents proved to be the better of two rides because our driver was hilarious! He was originally from Lebanon but said he had been in Australia for 19 years and had 19 children. It wasn’t until after we expressed amazement at the number of offspring he had produced did he confess the number was only five. When he learned we were from Texas, he asked if we had brought our guns. He made gun gestures and said he had seen many cowboy movies. Sometime during the conversation he told us that he once picked up a drunken man who told him “take my anywhere.” After driving around for a while the man told him to take him home, but couldn’t tell the taxi driver where home was. Another time he had three passengers who kept telling him conflicting ways to turn at intersections, with one of the three always saying, “go up!” When we arrived at the airport my dad asked him if he took credit cards, which he did, then told us that one time a passenger asked him if he would accept bread as payment. He told the passenger he didn’t accept bread, only lollies (lollipops).

We landed in Melbourne and were on the road to Phillips Island by early afternoon. Getting used to seeing other people drive on the left-hand side of the road is different from getting used to it yourself, but we managed to safely make our way to Phillip Island on the southern coast of Australia to visit a koala conservation park, see the beautiful coastline, and watch the penguins parade on shore at night. There was a whole setup to watch the penguin parade — bleachers and all. We paid a little more and got better seats just a foot or two away from where they walked past to go to their homes. I was pretty bummed when I learned that there was strictly no photography or filming allowed, but I realized that it was for the protection of the penguins who would be barraged with camera flashes and lights by the majority of photographers who have no idea how to turn off their flashes. The penguins didn’t start coming in until dusk, but when they did it was amazing to see a wave from the ocean hit the beach and out pop a group of these little penguins. They are well camouflaged from the top because of their blue backs and well camouflaged from the bottom because of their white stomachs. A large group would congregate on the edge of the ocean before they would rush across the beach where they felt vulnerable. Their waddle was really cute, especially when a straggler was hurrying to catch up to the main group. You can check out a picture I did snap earlier that day of a little penguin here. After the penguin parade we made the long drive to Geelong to spend the night in a Comfort Inn — our first actual hotel this trip — before starting on the Great Ocean Road.

On Thursday morning my mom woke my little brother, John, up and asked him if he would be her valentine, to which he replied, “No, I have a date with sleep.” :) After loading up we stopped briefly at a grocery and bakery to gather food supplies for the day before hitting the Great Ocean Road. Every grocery store I’ve been to here so far has grocery carts (referred to locally as trolleys) that all have four independently rotating wheels. Say goodbye to fixed back wheels and hello to highly maneuverable, omni-directional shopping carts! Needless to say, it’s entertained me during our grocery excursions.

The scenery the whole drive was absolutely gorgeous. We drove winding coastal road with a number of stops. We stopped at a lighthouse, Erskine Falls, the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, the Grotto, and a plethora of other stunning places. We were pretty tired when we pulled into Warnambool to the Warnambool Beach Backpackers hostel. It was a great Valentine’s Day spent together as a family.

Friday we headed north through farm and pasture land to Grampians National Park where we spent the day driving to a couple spots and hiking trails to scenic overlooks commanding impressive views of that area of Australia. My dad and I both ate kangaroo for dinner, with the rest of the crew sampling from our plates. It gets very tough when cooked too long, so it is served rare to medium rare to keep it tender. It had a slightly sweet taste to it, but I didn’t think it was any better than a normal steak. That night we stayed in the Eco-Lodge YHA in Halls Gap, a hostel that Lonely Planet lists as one of the best hostels in Australia. It was a really neat place, built obviously in an eco-friendly, conservationist way with a modern, minimalist sort of style. They had solar-heated water, big windows and screens, and stickers on every light switch reminding patrons to turn them off when they leave the room.

Saturday we left at 5 am to get to the Melbourne airport in time for our flight to Cairns. We saw a couple kangaroos along one portion of the road while it was still pitch black outside, but thankfully none on the road. When we checked in at the Qantas ticket counter, my name again appeared as “Member of Parliament William Clayton” like it did for our trans-pacific flight and previous domestic flight to Melbourne. I think it is pretty funny, and maybe next flight I’ll approach them and see if I can get bumped to business class because of my obviously prestigious status.

Some of the family crashed and took a nap once we arrived at the Cairns Central YHA, but a couple of us explored the town a little and bought supplies (such as towels to avoid being charged for them at the hostel). We ate kebabs for dinner in the food court in the mall across the street and then waited for a lull in the rain to head back to the hostel. Hopefully the weather will clear up for when we head out to the reef to go diving and snorkeling on Monday.

Sydney and Surrounding

Posted February 12 at 12:40am local time.

Saturday, our first full day in Sydney, we had breakfast at a cafe across the street then headed to the mall a few blocks away to buy a SIM card to use our cell phone in Australia. After shopping around at the different carriers, we settled on the cheapest option and headed off through the drizzle to Darling Harbor. We spent the afternoon in the area and at the National Maritime Museum. The rain having stopped, we meandered through China Town that the evening and found an authentic Chinese restaurant for dinner (authentic according to my brother David who has spent some time in China).

On Sunday we did some bus hopping in order to attend church at the Christian Reformed Church of Sydney. We met a bunch of really nice people and were invited home by a man who, along with his wife, run a thrift store that donates all of its profit to the Bible League. We ended up spending the whole afternoon at their house enjoying their gracious hospitality and great fellowship. He even dropped us all off at the train station when we left.

We took the train to the Sydney Harbor Bridge and walked across. The bridge provides a great view of the city and of the Sydney Opera House. We wandered through The Rocks and over to the Opera House. It wasn’t as impressive as it always appeared in photos, but is still a very unique landmark. We stayed for the sunset then headed back by bus. A couple of stops before we got off a man in a brown coat tied closed with a thin green ribbon boarded the bus behind all the other passengers. Before the bus began to move he launched into some awkward form of a karate kata which he ended with a flourishing kick into the air. He then turned around and exited the bus, stopping outside to bow to us as we drove away.

Today we went on a tour with Sydney Tours-R-Us which included a stop at the Olympic Park, time in the Blue Mountains area, and a visit to the Featherdale Wildlife Park. They picked us up from where we are staying and at then end dropped us all off to catch the ferry back to the Circular Quay. We only spent about 30 minutes at Olympic Park, but it was interesting to drive through. One interesting fact told to us was that the Olympic Village was not built using any government money, but was entirely privately funded using a system where buyers agreed to lend their apartments out for the games in 2000. A brilliant plan that was well received and executed.

The Blue Mountains – named such because of the blueish haze covering the area caused by sun’s reflection off of oil secreted by Eucalyptus trees – is a magnificently beautiful area of forest-covered mountains. It reminded me a bit of the Great Smokey Mountains in the U.S. We went to Scenic World, taking a cable-car between two mountains and over Katoomba Falls. We climbed into the world’s steepest incline railway to descent into the rain forest below where we followed the winding boardwalk to the aerial cable car we rode back up. The area is privately owned because it used to be a coal mine. Scenic World also leases some land from the surrounding Blue Mountains National Park.

We had lunch in Katoomba and then drove to an overlook close to the Three Sisters – three rock spires extending from the mountain. We then headed back towards Sydney and stopped at Featherdale Wildlife Park. where we saw lots of living examples of Australia’s divers animal population, including the wombat, Tasmanian Devil, kangaroo, and koala. Our tour ended at the ferry back to the Circular Quay where we switched ferries and headed to Manly Beach for a great fish and chips dinner to cap off a great day in Sydney.

Copyright © 2007-2014 William Clayton