Friday, March 27, 2009

Back on the Boat and Off to the Tropics

After almost 5 months in NZ and Australia, we returned to the Volendam on March 16 and put New Zealand behind us, at least for now.
It was comforting, as well as comfortable, to be back in a familiar environment after spending nights in about 80 different places during those 5 months, aided by the fact that the room looked identical to the one we were in last Fall. Almost immediately we fell back
into other familiarities, such as the towel animals left by the cabin attendant each night, not to mention the wonderful food and comfortable places to hang out on board.

Our first stop was Sydney, "across the ditch" as they say, but a fairly wide one at 1200 miles. The sailing into the harbor was exciting as we approached North Head, then viewed downtown over South Head,
and watched beaches and cliffside neighborhoods glide by.

We had a front row center seat in the harbor, next to downtown and just a few hundred meters across from the famed Opera House in one direction, and from the Harbor Bridge, aka The Old Coat Hanger in the other.

We spent two days in Sydney, and with perfect weather we could think of nothing better than continuing our hikes around the spectacular harbor. We walked 2 minutes from our cruise ship to the main ferry terminus, Circular Quay (pronounced "key" by the way), and twenty minutes later we were in Mosman Bay looking back at the Volendam and off into the bush.
The rocks in Australia are some of the oldest on the planet, a sharp contrast to those in New Zealand that are sometimes younger than cities in the US.

Our two hikes were along the north shore of the harbor, and we saw a surprising amount of fauna, including this kookaburra bird, pelicans, lorakeets, and a foot-and-a-half-long eastern water dragon.

The flora included eucalypts of all sorts, lantana, and the curious banksia, seen here in full bloom and in the late-bloom stage when it does an amazing imitation of a toilet brush.

We even got more than a few spectacular views, such as this one looking back out at North Head (left) and South Head, and some waterside views such as this stretch near Manly.

From Sydney we sailed two days and three nights north, into the Tropics. Our first tropical destination at 17 degrees South Latitude was Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Island group. A number of passengers took a bumpy boat ride 2 hours out to the Great Barrier Reef, but we headed instead to the island. The resort there was quite appealing, very laid-back, so of course we hiked right on by and uphill to this point where we could look back down the resort and -- to the far right -- the Volendam.

A little higher to the first peak and we could see ahead to Pinnacle Peak at the other end of the island.
They were generally nice trails that brought us to another closer view of the nearby reefs and our boat,
but alas just as we reached the second lookout the heavens granted us a tropical downpour. We had umbrellas with us and did not get totally soaked, though it was not far short of total by the time we were back.

Next was Cairns, just a bit further north. Here we joined fellow passengers Stuart and Carol for an interesting adventure. We caught a shuttle bus from town to the foothills where we boarded this cable car up into the mountains. From a high point we looked down to verdant fields of sugar cane, seen here close-up later in the day.

It was actually three cable car rides, the first two stopping at intermediate spots where we first did a rainforest nature walk, and at the next stop went to a lookout for a waterfall well below us. It was once much more spectacular, but the power company diverts most of the water these days to harness the 800' drop, about 2/3 of which you can see in this photo.

Notice that train across the gorge? That was the next part of our adventure, next that is after a lunch stop in Kuramba where we found this and other banyan trees. Close to where the cable car dropped us off we went to the leafiest train station

we've ever encountered, and boarded the Rainforest Railway back to Cairns.
It was a delightful trip over many trestles and through numerous tunnels, past several waterfalls besides the Big One, and past vistas back down to the coastal plain.

At last we were back on the boat, ready to refocus from the leafy rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef.

For an entire day we sailed along this famous place, but it was not anything like what we expected. Had we taken a small boat out to the reef and put on snorkeling gear, we're sure our aquasocks would have been figuratively knocked off, but we have to say that the Great Barrier Reef is anything but amazing from ship level,
unless you're Captain Cook or any of his many successors trying to steer a ship through this dangerous region. Many are "wet reefs," i.e. covered by water all or most of the time, and from our ship they were little more than light colored patches of sea. Some had a little more sand and a few plants, usually mangrove, and a few looked exactly like those cartoon images of an island with three palm trees, minus the stranded two sailors.

Notwithstanding the minimal visual impact, it was fascinating to see and to hear through commentary, maybe ten minutes out of each hour, about the human history of the reef -- you know, the usual murder, mayhem, shipwrecks and shark stories that are the stuff of Australian legend.

At last we sailed through Torres Strait, a relatively narrow passage between Australia and New Guinea with only one very narrow section deep enough for ships our size. Our final stop was Darwin,
which you may have seen depicted recently in the movie Australia. Our on-board historian and lecturer assured us that the movie was fairly accurate in how it depicted the first attack on Darwin. Although the Japanese attacked Darwin several additional times in WW II, it was Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974 that really devastated the town, every bit as thoroughly as Katrina leveled New Orleans. With little historical to see and a botanical garden that was pleasant but not overly photogenic, we had a quiet day and caught up on some email,
and paid a visit to the local museum where we saw a wonderful collection of animals that can kill you, including this fellow known as "Sweetheart."

We made an important decision this past week, and chose to take the boat all the way back to Vancouver rather than disembark in Kobe Japan. The thought of trying to get our tandem and a lot more back to Seattle by plane was starting to make us hyperventilate, and this way we can have it delivered right to a rental car in Vancouver for a much less stressful portage back home. We got permission to get off the boat in Kobe and back on two days later in Yokohama, so we will get to spend two days with Jeff's son and family in Tokyo.

Well, next up is Bali and Java, Singapore, Bangkok and many other exciting places. Hopefully the boat will stop at a few more less-fascinating ports like Darwin so we can update you through our blog!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Farewell to NZ, Hello Again to the Volendam

Our 17 weeks in New Zealand have finally come to an end, and in an hour we will walk from the Auckland Library, which has kindly provided us with many hours of internet access, and reboard the Volendam for our cruise north. We'll say more about the cruise at the end, but first it's time to say goodbye to New Zealand.

After Abel Tasman we spent a night in Nelson, a place that ranks high on almost everyone's list of interesting NZ cities. It's tucked behind the Southern Alps in a way that brings the rainfall down to modest levels but not so much as too make it look like parched Australia, and its also moderate temperature has attracted a counterculture crowd that livens up the place. One day was quite inadequate, and Nelson is on our ever-increasing list of places to return to if and when we make it back. We've put in just two photos, taken from the Heart of New Zealand walk, supposedly the geographic epicenter of NZ. In the first you can see much of Nelson and, in the distance, much of Abel Tasman National Park forming the right-hand half of the distant shore.
180 degrees around the hilltop, and you have this archetypal Kiwi landscape looking too perfect to be reality, as if it's from a model railroad layout.

At last we were on the Interislander boat again, heading down fiord-like Queen Charlotte Sound, with the Queen Charlotte Track somewhere in the hills there, a tramping track even easier to access than Abel Tasman with the added advantage of lodging spaced about a day's hike apart at three or four places along the way. OK, another spot to add to the "when we come back" list . . .

Finally, one last look back to the South Island, and before our 3 1/4 hour crossing was over, forward to the center of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. As a capital it has lots of embassies, and we took advantage of that fact to get our visa for China,
but most of our time was spent disassembling the bike, repacking the bags, and doing last-minute research on the computer for the remaining two months of our adventure. We were very fortunate to be the guests of friends Rob and Katrina, fellow-passengers on the Volendam on our cruise to New Zealand.
They were returning from 7 years in NYC where Katrina was an accountant for the United Nations, and have resumed life as Kiwis in their home town of Wellington. You definitely get a much deeper understanding of another country when you make friends with the locals, and Rob and Katrina were excellent cultural as well as social hosts.

But Auckland is where the Volendam was set to pick us up, so off we went on a 12-hour 423-mile adventure on the Overlander. It features a lounge area at the rear of the train, complete with a rear-facing picture window.
We could watch the commuters heading into town and tunnels stretch away behind us, and we even got one further look back at South Island, with its many memories.

The trip is wonderfully scenic, with river gorges and viaducts to stun you with, even if the weather was too socked-in for the usual views of nearby Mt. Ruapehu, the massive volcano that dominates the center of the North Island. The train had a buffet car, but it also stops for 45 minutes at midday at this station where Louise is getting a flame-grilled cheeseburger. Jeff settled for a Kiwi favorite, a mince pie, what an American might call a ground beef pot pie. Not too healthy, but gosh they're tasty!

In Auckland we moved back into the Waldorf Bankside, an apartment hotel that proved very comfortable in our first week in Auckland, and got these night and day images of Auckland from our room to take home with us.

We had the great fortune to be in town for a concert by the Eroica Trio, and we were just slack-jawed in wonder at the beautiful sounds these three women produced. We also caught up with Auckland friend Gae, who took us to the top of One Tree Hill, a city park that sits atop one of the 50+ volcanoes that make up Auckland, with a Kiwi way of keeping the grass mowed -- by sheep power!

On our last full day, we took a break from yet more computer research to enjoy the late summer flowers in the Auckland Domain (Kiwi for "Park") and to visit the Auckland Museum,
with its outstanding collection of Maori art and artifacts,
such as this century-old painting of a Maori chief by a pakeha artist or this enormous canoe (this is just the rear half!).
We also got to see the ice axe used by the fellow who shares with Kiri Te Kanawa the honor of being the most well-known Kiwi around the world, Sir Edmund Hillary. And, of course, one final Kiwi!

Well, except for that last Kiwi, we found Kiwis to be anything but stuffy. We found them exceedingly friendly and their country exceptionally beautiful. We hope to find time when we're back in Seattle to add a blog entry with more about the nuts and bolts of how to visit New Zealand, and plan to give several slide shows about this marvelous place. We can't urge you enough to come see it for yourselves!

And now the adventure has two more components. The second one is a week in Tokyo with Jeff's son Matt, his wife Akiko and their son, our third grandchild, Tyler. But just flying there would be too simple, wouldn't it? The Volendam will be taking us to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Malaysia, the Phillipines, China, South Korea and then Japan. You can see a map of the route and a printed itinerary for the first leg, to Singapore, at

and for the second leg to Kobe Japan at

We'll write next from one of those great ports!