A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: jacquiedro

Surprising Sydney

Why didn't anyone tell us to stay longer?

overcast 24 °C

Travel tastes its best when expectations are exceeded, and nowhere on our trip has this been more the case than in Sydney. We planned a pitiful three nights in the city, really nothing more than a leisurely layover between New Zealand and London. Wow, did we ever regret that decision! Sydney, and indeed Australia, go to the top of our list of places to return to in – say – thirty years when we are able to enjoy extended travel once more ;o)

With so little time to spare, we headed out as soon as we arrived late on Tuesday afternoon to take in the iconic sights of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. From our hotel in Potts Point (nice, but - with hindsight we'd have spent the money to stay in The Rocks!), it’s about a twenty minute walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the home of the Opera House on Bennelong Point, and I think we were in love with Sydney before we even got there.

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The sign says: "Please walk on the grass. We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds and picnic on the lawns." Our kind of town!

The Botanic Gardens are right next to the central business district and offer a haven in the midst of the city. No one works through their lunch hour here, apparently, if the number of joggers in the park is anything to go by. Coming from a corporate culture where you need to get up at 5am to fit exercise in your day, I completely approve! I am a reluctant runner at best, but if you're going to do it, I'm not sure I can think of many more inspiring places than here, offering the beauty of the Gardens with a stunning Harbour vista.

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Waking to a fairly grey day on Wednesday, we strolled through Sydney’s clean streets towards Darling Harbour, home of a number of Sydney’s museums and tourist attractions. Full of tourist attractions and therefore tourists, yes, but touristy? No. At least not when compared to the likes of Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, for example. For this area also houses conference venues and tons of bars and restaurants which means that tourists are diluted with local officer workers and visiting conference attendees. We just loved it!

Our first stop was the Aquarium. Understand that we’re local to the Monterey area in California and big fans of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which on Tuesday night we’d have told you proudly was the best in the world. We might need to revisit that assessment. While the Monterey Aquarium will no doubt be a regular haunt once we return, the Sydney Aquarium was simply beyond words.

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Among even the first few exhibits, I simply adored the above-water-below-water displays, and spent a good half hour looking at the sea horses alone. And then we found ourselves following downward ramps into the ‘Oceanarium’ where a massive tank revealed itself. Two large windows at either end offered a superb view of the tank’s inhabitants, including a couple of sea turtles, one massive ray with a wing span of almost two metres, and numerous sharks. But best of all, walkway tunnels ran the full length of the tank on both sides, which allowed us to observe the sealife on three sides.

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We spent much longer at the Aquarium than we had planned, but late afternoon we couldn't resist popping next door to Sydney Wildlife World. Since we - stupidly - didn't allow ANY time to explore Australia, this was clearly, and sadly, as close as we would get to 'wild' life.

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After the Aquarium, we weren't surprised to discover that Wildlife World was another world class attraction. From butterflies and birds, to locusts and spiders, you can't help but be drawn in and - well - find stuff that has never been that interesting absolutely fascinating. And all that is before you even get to the koala bears!

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On the left: spot the wally. On the right: not quite Panda-cute, but pretty cute nonetheless.

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Let me out. Please?

Posted by jacquiedro 08:11 Archived in Australia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Ice-ing on our New Zealand Cake

Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

overcast 10 °C

Who’d have thought a lump of ice could immediately launch itself into our Top Five Experiences of the entire trip, but our visit to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday easily qualified. We had arrived in the Park late on Saturday evening and – with the mountains completely socked in with low cloud – decided to postpone our hike onto the glacier pending better weather. It was a risky strategy: we had to leave no later than mid-afternoon on Monday to get back to Christchurch in time for our flight onto Australia. Would the notoriously unpredictable west coast weather – that already upset our Milford Sound visit – give us a break and allow us to walk on the glacier?

On Sunday, we killed the hours by catching up on blog entries, and then hiking for an hour or so from Franz Josef to the face of the glacier. It’s a busy trail that ultimately takes you down a kilometre long valley carved by the glacier in previous phases (as recently as 1867, the glacier filled much of the valley!). But the reason that Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glacier are special – in addition to their relative accessibility – is that they are two of only three glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest. Yup, I said rainforest.

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Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glaciers descent into dense, Indiana-Jones type rainforests!

The flat valley floor in front of the advancing glacier tricks the eye in terms of scale, and it’s not until you get to the other end of the valley that the height of the ice-mass becomes apparent. With ice and rock falls a real risk, visitors are discouraged from getting too close, with enter-at-your-own-peril type signs and rope barriers positioned several hundred metres from the front of the glacier. But – fearing the weather wouldn’t allow us an up-close-and-personal, we couldn’t resist venturing in as groups of guided hikers made their way down the melting ice-face using stairs custom-hacked by tanned, shorts-clad young men.

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Those coloured ants in the middle of the first picture are people!

Even from the floor of the valley, the glacier is an impressive beast. Rocks in the base of the glacier act as deadly teeth and, strengthened by the immense pressure of ice above, carve valleys, leaving striations in rocks and ripping trees from their roots. It’s a living, breathing machine that demands respect and I felt tiny in its massive presence. Getting onto the ice was a nice-to-do until we saw it up close. At that point, it became an essential experience, and we knew that we’d both be devastated if we didn’t get lucky on our final morning in town.

The suspense was so great that I actually had trouble sleeping on Sunday night. Only Lloyd can tell you how grumpy I was when daylight revealed another dark day, with low cloud once again graying out the valleys. We were becoming expert as reading the conditions appropriate for a helicopter landing on the ice, and our fears were confirmed when we learned that the first helicopter trips of the day had been cancelled.

We reported for the noon flight nonetheless. And were thrilled when staff started to ready us for the hike. It looked like we’d get up on the glacier after all! Booted up, we awaited our final briefing just a few metres from the helipad, with the choppers’ blades screaming. The sky was still white with dense cloud, but – wait – was that a sliver of blue I just saw? I put it down to wishful thinking. Strapped into the helicopter, cars and trees shrunk until they looked like mere toys as we were whisked the few miles towards the glacier.

And then it happened.

Before our eyes, the sky was clearing. Not just slivers of blue, but vast, lush, delicious waves of the richest blue imaginable. My eyes could scarcely comprehend the beauty around me. You could have offered me a million dollars to stop smiling and I wouldn’t have been able to stop. I even forgot to get motion-sick on the helicopter!

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Below us, the glacier paraded its white-blue ruffles; a giant waterfall of cracked ice. We would not land on the very top where the ice is moving the most quickly at up to 6 metres per day. As the ice reaches the ridge and starts its journey down into the valley, it is clearly at its most unstable and that is strictly the domain of experienced ice climbers. And so our helicopter followed the glacier’s journey down towards the valley, and prepared to land. Below us, a seemingly fly-sized helicopter paused on the ice to drop the other half of our group, allowing a humbling scale perspective of the monster looming beneath.

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Spot the landing helicopter....

The clear day was transformed into a mild snow storm as the helicopter left us on the ice. Above us, clear blue sky. Behind us, thick grey clouds disguised the valley below. Though relatively low in terms of elevation, it felt like we were on top of the world! Once fitted with crampons, the ice was remarkably easy to walk on and – under the watchful eye of our guide – we were allowed to clamber about, posing with our ice picks and pretending we were real ice mountaineers.

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Lloyd and I simply couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we managed to get on the ice, but for the first time in days the sky had cleared as if on cue for our arrival. For just over an hour, we explored our tiny piece of Franz Josef, from small ice caves and crevasses to crystal clear glacial ponds and streams formed by the melting beast. Towards the floor of the valley, it’s actually pretty warm – certainly well above freezing – so the advancing ice needs to outpace the inevitable melting at the front end. It’s a battle the glacier is winning right now, and Franz Josef has been advancing for the last decade or so.

Click above for our Glacier Video Diary!

As we climbed up the glacier, it was clear that the break in the weather was going to be little more than temporary. Thick cloud was closing in around us, and – after about an hour and a half - our hike was abruptly cancelled for safety reasons: if the cloud closed in the helicopter landing area then we could very well be stranded on the ice. Our guide skillfully rushed us back to the makeshift helipad formed by a stone circle on the ice, and we returned without incident to Franz Josef Village.

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"Did anyone see where our blue sky went?"

We both longed to stay on the glacier, but we couldn’t be disappointed with the experience at all. For me at least, it was one of the most poignant moments of the entire trip, overwhelmed as I was by the glacier’s beauty, power and longevity. Landscapes are shaped by so many different forces, but here was one that I could touch and really feel. I was truly humbled.

Now, it was my first glacier and I am sure there are many at least as impressive as Franz Josef out there (and you can bet Alaska will make a strong appearance in my next ‘Places to Visit’ list), but if you have the opportunity to experience Franz Josef the way we did – by helicopter and a walk on the ice (aka ‘Heli-Hike) – then just do it. It’s pricey, so be prepared for that. But don’t even contemplate missing it.

We left Franz Josef just elated from our Heli-Hike which was probably a good thing as we (well, technically, Lloyd) had another long drive ahead of us. We were about six hours from Christchurch, and we wanted to get at least halfway there before finding a place to overnight.

Posted by jacquiedro 05:38 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Witnessing the Ultimate New Zealand Experience

What else to do with a high bridge and a long piece of elastic?

sunny 22 °C

New Zealand is the infamous home of bungy jumping and outside Queenstown is the bungy operation that claims to have started it all – AJ Hackett’s at Kawarau Bridge. We decided to stop and watch some brave folks leap off the 142 foot high bridge, which overlooks a particularly picturesque river ravine. With bungy elastic strapped firmly around their ankles, and loud heavy rock music pumping from the jump station, individuals nervously hobbled to the edge of the platform and plunged to the river below. A few were ‘helped’ with a gentle nudge if they were taking too long.

Even watching people jump leaves a lump in your throat. As perfect strangers stand on the platform, you feel nervous for them: everyone can imagine the all-encompassing and uncontrollable terror they’d feel standing in the jumper’s shoes. You’d have to be crazy, right? I mean, of all the adventurous pursuits, bungy is the one I said I’d never do.

I guess I lied.

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I didn’t have any intention of doing it. But as Lloyd and I watched, I started to feel tempted. We’re in New Zealand, the home of bungy. The more I thought about it, it became clear that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t do it. I’d never forgive such an overt demonstration of lack of courage. Though my belly was doing triple backflips just thinking about it, I concluded that there was – in fact - no choice. It simply had to be done.

Happily, the jump crews were taking a break for the twenty minutes or so before my jump, so I didn’t have to torture myself with experiencing the agony of jumps while I waited. But before I knew it, Lloyd and I were walking towards the jump platform in the middle of the bridge. Interestingly, I no longer felt nervous. I was 100% focused on the task in hand: I wanted to get off the platform as quickly as possible and reduce the opportunity for dithering or backing out. And I wanted – needed – to do it without once looking down.

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Waiting on the bridge to have my legs bound...

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Ankle binding.

Lloyd, prohibited by his back from jumping, left to get to the viewing area while I was taken onto the back of the jump platform. With a thick, blue towel for padding, my ankles were strapped firmly together while the crew member made some unwelcome small talk about the weather. There were questions I wanted to ask about the science behind the jump, but I was so totally focused on getting off that platform that I mostly sat there with a steel look of determination. When the crew attached the bungy cord to my feet ‘restraints’, I knew my time had come. Still, mysteriously, no nerves.

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Just seconds to go.... Focus. Focus. Focus.

I was helped to my feet and – as well as you can with your feet bound together – hobbled to the edge of the platform. I manage a pretty convincing smile for the camera and a wave over to Lloyd. The crew dude counts down from five. Five. “Just keep looking straight ahead.” Four. “This will be over in less than two minutes”. Three. “I just have to jump… the rest will take care of itself”. Two. “If I hesitate, it will just make it worse”. One. “Just do it.”

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Just did it!

I’m flying, and everything goes deathly silent. No rock music, no screams from the crowd, no water, no birds. Nothing. The last thing I remember seeing is the stunning vista ahead of me: beautiful blue sky and a river ravine. I realize I’m still looking forward. And then – the sensation of falling. While I feel every inch of the drop, I don’t see any of it. My eyes are wide open, but it’s as if my brain chooses to block out the terrifying sight as I plunge towards the water. As the bungy gets to work, and I bounce back almost as high as the bridge, my sight is restored, and I can experience three or four ‘bounces’ with all of my senses.

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Immediately, the ‘retrieval’ crew is coming after me, and – still hanging upside down from the bungy – I’m dragged into the dinghy. The relief is overwhelming. The achievement of having jumped feels massive. And as soon as everything stops shaking I’ll be able to confirm that I’m physically unhurt.

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And of course, I’m fine. A few hours post-bungy, I still had a massive headache in the back of my eyes, but was fine after a good night's sleep. It's hard to know what's left to beat it in our last two days in New Zealand.

Posted by jacquiedro 23:57 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (4)

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