Down Under

Day 23 Thursday, 28 Feb, 2008-02-29

Sitting at Pino’s Restaurant on Phillip Island. It is basically the only place open late. It is cold here, and windy.

Day 16 Thursday

Flight from Christchurch to Melbourne. Uneventful, as I like them to be. Caught the bus to the city, hiked a kilometer or so to a convenient bar, and left a message for Sara. Cell phone didn’t like the Aussie network, so I had to use a payphone. Message along the lines of, "I found a bar, on the river, next to the casino, with blue fabric on the handrails… come find me." It worked out. Had some beverages and a pizza if I remember correctly. Some background here for the non-Houston URS folks. Sara is a friend from Houston that transferred to Melbourne with URS. The Melbourne office is in a slightly more scenic location than the Houston office. She was kind enough to offer up the spare sleeper bed in the flat she shares with two other folks and spend the weekend with me touring the state of Victoria.

Day 17 Friday

Sara had to work so I did a walkabout in Melbourne. Saw a bit of the city. Sara finished work and we headed North to wine country. After a 3 hour road trip, we got to the hotel late, the sign in the office window read: "Larry Ragsdale, Room 17, key is in the door." Small town Australia, it appears, is not much different from small town USA.

Day 18 Saturday

Woke up at the Wangarratta Family Motor Lodge. Kinda like a farm house, but better. Got woke up by a rooster. We spent about an hour talking to the folks that ran the place as we were checking out. Turns out that one of the proprietors, a fellow named Eureka Smith, was a singer song writer. He knew Johnny Cash. Met him shortly after June Carter saved him from drugs and whiskey. Apparently they hooked up whenever Johnny came down under.
Went to a brewery in Beechworth, whose name escapes me. It shouldn’t because they are really, really good at making beer. Damn good. Sara bought some blackberry jam in Yackandandah, apparently it is really good. We ate some cheese and drank some wine at the cheese factory. Went to Thooma and caught their big event for the year. Finished off the evening at the Buffalo Brewery, which was more like a small town pub. Played some pool; it was kinda like the good ‘ole days, but in Australia, and Sara kept beating me at pool.

Day 19 Sunday

We ate some breakfast.
Shortly thereafter, we drank some wine.
We ate some smoked meats and other good stuff with some wine, maybe the Shiraz.
Road tripped far.
Stayed at a hotel on top of a bar. Kinda like in a Western movie, but in Australia.

Day 20

Cruised down Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Beautiful limestone coastal scenery. Blue water, massive surf. Be sure to check the pictures for this day. (Great Ocean Road)

Day 21

After making it back to the flat in Melbourne the night before, I took a day of leisure, while Sara was off to work. Slept in a little, surfed the internet, took care of some unfinished business, etc. Sara and I met up later in the evening for dinner at a Tapas place and a few beers. I had a very disappointing experience in walking into an Irish Pub at 10:15 pm, on a Tuesday, and being told they were closing for the evening. WTF ? Anyway, I stayed this night at a hostel. Two of my roommates were British lasses, doing a quick lap around the world. Since they were headed to Los Angeles, I gave them a list of highlights to hit, since that was all I really had time to do out there. Hermosa Beach was on that list for the nightlife…. I almost asked them to go to Sharky’s bar on Thursday evening, find the flip cup game, ask around for a chick named Elizabeth, and then give her a message……….

Day 22

Rented a car and headed south to the local tourist spot of Phillip Island. This one had an automatic, which is good, since shifting with my left hand would seem strange. Checked into the hostel, met my roommate Mr. D, who was a project manager for large steel fabrications, ie welded pressure vessels, mining equipment, etc. Good guy. Anyway, the tourist attraction is the Penguin Parade. For a mere $18, you get to join about 800 other folks on a beach, on concrete bleachers, to watch the Little Penguins come out of the sea, cross the beach, and make it to their nests to feed their little ones. It was just like National Geographic. They would form up in groups of 12-50, waddle across the beach, up into the dunes, and then regurgitate food into their chicks mouths. Their chicks were getting quite old, 6-10 weeks, and many were almost as big as their parents. Apparently around 12 weeks, the chicks take to sea and start catching their own food, with no instruction from mom and pop. Cool stuff. They bring in people by the busload for this, literally. Then off to Pinos to work on photos.

Day 23

Stuck to my routine of a big breakfast and then headed to the village of San Remo for the daily 11:30am Pelican feeding. Took some pictures.
Then hiked Cape Woolamai to some granite outcroppings called the Pinnacles. It was crazy windy. The path was along the beach, and then through the dunes. Took some pictures.
Then stopped at the Phillip Island Wildlife Park and took pictures of all kinds of animals. Drove to Smith Beach to try surfing, but the only people out in that wind were the two dudes windsurfing. And it was cold.

Then ate some dinner- microwave soup and a few apples. After that I headed west to The Nobbies to take pictures at sunset. Forgot the Graduated Neutral Density Filter in the car, so I feel the pictures are somewhat lacking. Haven’t sorted them yet, so I may be surprised. The wind here made the hike earlier feel like a stroll in Houston. That damn wind was blowing straight off Antarctica. Went back to Pinos with Mr. D and Mr. K ,the other roommate. They were both in town for the Superbike races at the racetrack. World Championships or something like that. There were a ton of bikers in town. Kinda like the Lone Star Rally, but smaller. Those guys headed out, and I stuck around to upload photos over the wireless network. I really hate paying for internet access- big strike against the Aussies and Kiwis. My new method to pick up chicks is this: look cool and type random stuff on a Macbook. When you are asked, "Are you a writer?" – you always answer yes. I really think it will work, chicks like that artsy crap, not math. On a math side note, this marks the longest period of time since at least August of 1995 that I have not seen or utilized my HP 48…..possibly since August of 1993. I hope I don’t forget how RPN works.

Day 24, Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap year, in Australia. Kick ass. Anyhow, I started the day with the usual "big brekky" as they call it here. It was raining so my morning hike activities were traded for what I thought was the elusive "free internet." But then it was added to my breakfast tab. Darn. Drove back to Melbourne, did a hike around the city to the bookstore. The scenery is good here. Now back to the hostel, sitting in the room, cleaning up and adding to the text started yesterday evening. I got two roommates so far, a chap from Ireland, Mr. T, and a fellow from Australia, Mr. G. We are all waiting for the Scandinavian blonde roommate to show up… though it will probably be another dude. Side note: a 200 ml bottle of Jim Beam is "Approx 5.8 Standard Drinks." Gonna hit the pubs this evening, and off to Tasmania with a familiar face on Saturday.

Morning of Day 25, Saturday, March 1, 2008-03-01

Other roommate showed up, it was another dude. Paid $9 for a beer at the Irish Pub. Then I paid $9 for a Guinness at the Crown Casino. Irritated at these beer prices, I found the dumpiest place I could- still paid $5 for the Australian equivalent of Bud Light. Time to move one.

New Zealand Wrap Up

Friday, 22 February 2008

So I’m in a condo on the 16th floor, overlooking some prime Melbourne real estate with the bay in the distance. Eight lanes of traffic are roaring by far below. Big change from New Zealand, as there were no freeways there. In summary, New Zealand was awesome, 2 weeks is not enough time to visit there, and I need to go back to see the rest of it. In Australia now to start anew…….

Day 10

Woke up, rolled Spaceship Neil down to Matheson Café, which was supposed to be the best breakfast in town. Good, but nothing special. Nothing in NZ can touch Mama’s Café back home. That is a real breakfast. Anyway, the highlight for today was (a) that it didn’t rain, and (b) I took a guided 7 hour glacier hike. We had a group of 11 people- our group got two guides that day, Sophie and Matthew. They did a great job of showing us around the ice. This trip was definitely worth the price (don’t remember how much it was exactly, maybe around $160NZ) Fox Glacier is melting on its surface, but it is actually getting thicker and getting longer at this point in time. Met some really cool folks on this trip; including Ms. A. She was headed the same places as I was, except by bus. Sticking to my mantra of no more stinky dude hitch hikers, I offered her a ride the next day. Since I am slightly cooler than a bus of old people, she accepted.
After cooking some dinner, took a hike around Lake Matheson to capture the photo of sunset and the lake. Well worth an hour of hiking. Then off to the shower and to the bar. They have excellent beer in New Zealand- great local ales.

Day 11

If ever there was a day of visual overload, it was today. Ms. A and myself met at the café and loaded up Neil and went south. In a sure sign of small town glacier village, I had met the young lady working the café counter at the bar the previous evening; and Ms. A was on a first name basis with her.
Within 20 km of leaving the glacier, we were driving along the beach…. and then lakes… and then to Knight’s Point. When we saw Knight’s Point, I believe our reactions were along the lines of ‘holy sh*t’. The water was blue beyond description, waves crashing far below, just freaking amazing. So then we drive a little further to Ship Creek- so named because pieces of a ship wreck near Melbourne washed up on the beach in this location in the late 1800’s. Anyway, there were 2 hikes here- the rainforest / swamp hike and the beach hike. We did both. The rainforest was amazing when you actually slowed down to take it all in. From tiny plants that look like miniature trees to huge trees, just freaking amazing to see. We were the only people on the swamp hike, so we thought the beach hike must be pretty good. It was.
Driving onward, we head off the main road to the fishing village of Jackson Bay. At the recommendation of the gas station lady, we stopped along the way at Neil’s Beach, which is where the locals go to the beach. Freaking amazing- blue water, hills along the coast, warm sun, it was hard to leave. On down the road in the village was Craypots- a seafood restaurant in a house trailer, next to the fishing pier, overlooking the bay…. They cooked a good piece of fish. Ran into a fellow Glacier Hiker at Craypots, he was headed south also and had heard of this hidden gem.
Going further off the main drag, we took a 20km detour down a gravel road to see the Cascade River overlook, this gravel road is the most southern road along the west coast of NZ. After that there are no roads, just National Park. Anyway, saw some cool mountains and some cool rivers. The mountains here were unique in that they have so much iron and manganese that vegetation will not grow on them. (Sounds like good candidates for a little strip mining!)
Then it was back on the main drag, headed away from the coast to the Southern Alps. That’s what they call the mountain range here. Drove along beautiful, pristine mountain streams, saw some great scenery- mountains etc. Stopped at a couple of waterfalls to click a few pics. Then we crossed the mountain pass and found ourselves driving next to these awesome mountain lakes. Just freaking amazing. I delivered Ms. A to her hostel, I found a camping spot and headed to the pub to sort through some photos. I actually got scolded by some lady for plugging in my laptop to their electricity, so I took my business elsewhere.

Day 12

I slept in, got some breakfast, and then hiked up Mt. Roy. 11km round trip, 1240 meters change in elevation- steep trail. I got some pretty mean blisters going up this one, but the pictures and the view were worth it.

Day 13

Rob Roy Glacier. Drove to Mt. Aspiring National Park to see this glacier. Saw some cool stuff, took some good pictures. Drove to Queenstown.

Day 14

Drove, took pictures, chilled.

Day 15 Wed

Chilled out- returned camper van Neil to his people.

Day 16

Breakfast with the good Dr., paid bills on-line, caught a plane to Australia. Cell phone doesn’t yet work in AUS, but managed to rendezvous with Sara anyway. I managed to stumble into what she considered to be the best bar / restaurant in the area as a meeting place.


New Zealand: Days 8-9

Thursday, 14 Feb 2008

Day 9
In town of Fox Glacier. Campground –they’re called ‘Holiday Parks’ here- has a nice kitchen area and internet access, so I’m hunkering down for the evening to download photos and recharge the laptop.

Back to Day 8 (NZ Day 6)
Picked up a French backpacker right outside the café where I left off the previous post- Mr. L, a mechanical engineer. He was hard to understand , nice guy though. He had been in Australia for 10 months and was midway through 2 months in NZ. We took the scenic drive to the town of Greysmouth, on the west coast. Strangely enough, Greysmouth is at the mouth of the Grey River. He was headed north from there, I was headed south. I hit a local pub for a few beers and to figure out exactly where I was headed. Ended up chatting with a lady from Switzerland, she was on a 3 month sabbatical from her job as a social worker. She was well spoken in English. I headed south to the village of Hokitika for a Holiday Park. Checked the black sand beach for while and hit the sack early.

Day 9
Woke up to rain; hours and hours of rain. Eventually I made the dash to the shower house and back to the camper. Headed into town for some breakfast , check the map and guide book, and hit some email. About the time I finished my email, the restaurant flooded. Apparently it rained so much the sidewalk/gutter system overflowed and the water detoured through the restaurant. This was about noon thirty, so I had already managed to piss away half the day. Great thing about sabbatical- you have no schedule if you don’t want one. I can’t remember the last time I have gotten this much sleep in a weeks time. I’ve actually been pushing 8-10 hours per night instead of 5 or 6.

Picked up another hitchhiker, a backpacker from the Chzeck Republic. Another decent fellow, however he smelled worse than the French dude. Better English skills than the French dude. He said only half of the Chzeck people hate America… the rest are still grateful for us lowering the Iron Curtain. I did not inquire which half he was in. Interestingly enough, he was a zookeeper. I felt guilty since it was raining so much, and thought it would be cool to have some company. We headed south to Franz Josef Glacier. It rained more. I was not overly impressed by said glacier. I am hiking on Fox Glacier on Day 10, hopefully glaciers are more impressive as you hike on top of them. Good scenery from there to here. My camper van smells like wet, stinky European. From now on I think I will only pick up female hitchhikers……

Happy Valentines Day.
or not...

New Zealand: Days 3-8

Wed, 13 Feb 2008

Day 6 in New Zealand. Currently sitting in a café about 800 meters above sea level in the village of Arthur’s Pass, conveniently located in Arthur’s Pass National Park- which I just learned is the 3rd oldest national park in NZ. Just tramped up to a few waterfalls and sipping on a local brew. You don’t hike in NZ, you ‘tramp’. Got a few miles of tramping in. Day 6 in New Zealand = Day 8 total.

NZ Day 1: Friday 8 Feb 2008
Pick up ‘Spaceship’ campervan. Each has a name, mine is Neil, for Neil Armstrong. Headed north out of Christchurch, taking the scenic route to Blenheim near the NE corner of the south island. A wine festival happens to be in Blenhiem on Saturday, so it makes a perfect destination. The country side reminds me of Wyoming, except with more sheep. Had some food along the way, took a few photos, and made it to the campground with no problems. I’ll clarify now, since some of the dirty-minded folks (Vic) out there are wondering- it is possible for two people to sleep in a campervan and not touch during the night.

Day 2
First thing in the morning, I learned there were no tickets locally available for the previously mentioned wine festival. However, with a short 20 km drive to Picton, tickets could be obtained. We loaded up Neil and went off to Picton. In addition to obtaining tickets, turns out Picton is quite a scenic villa- Well worth the drive. Had a great breakfast to boot. Will take time to mention that food is quite pricey here, breakfast for 2 can easily run you $30NZ ($24US). Shuttle bus to the festival was a 5 minute walk from the campground. Spent the day sprawled on the grass, listening to music and sipping on the wines of NZ’s Marlborough Region.

Day 3
Head south along the coast to the town of Kaikoura- famous for dolphin and whale watching. It did not disappoint. Made several stops along the way, good breakfast and coffee again. Some places, not all have Tabasco Sauce. Spotted a seal , sea lion, whatever it is called and got a few good photos. Original plan was to take a whale watch trip and then a swim with the dolphins trip. Made it to Kaikoura, found the whale watch folks- they said if you’re ready now, you can leave in 10 minutes. So off we went. For those that know me, I get seasick bad. Popped a few pills and survived this trip, but barely- it took several hours and glasses of wine to get rid of the queasiness. Anyway, we saw two whales. Apparently they have been seeing these same sperm whales since 1994…. We saw enough dolphins to cancel the need to swim with the dolphins the next day. Even got some decent dolphin photos.

Day 4
Head south to Christchurch to complete the journey. Spotted a few more seals along the way. Dr. T got a little close to one of them and we both though she might get eaten by an angry seal, but it worked out ok. Turns out seals are much more photogenic after they’ve been woken up. Spent the afternoon downloading photos, relaxing, and checking emails. Went out on the town that evening, had some wonderful Bangers and Mash- that’s mashed potatoes and sausages- if you’re wondering. Met up with Mr. S and we all played some pool. Pool in NZ is odd to say the least. The tables at this Irish Pub had American sized target balls with a baby sized ‘Q’ ball. In Kaikoura, all the balls, and the table also, were pint sized. Really screws with your game.

Day 5
We caught some breakfast, I dropped off the good Dr at work, procured a tripod, an iPod, and some groceries. Luckily, for some reason, the tripod was cheaper here than in the states, I assume its due to exchange rate and proximity to China. That said, the damn thing still cost more than most folks spend on a camera. Hopefully the photos it allows will justify the cost. iPod because the radio stations here have a severe lacking of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Groceries because I can’t afford to keep eating out every meal. It’s time for soup in can and room temperature meat on crackers. Eventually got out of town and headed west into the ‘Southern Alps’. Made several scenic stops along the way before rolling into Arthur’s Pass.

Which brings me back to present. 5 malt ale is finished- time to hit the road, find a scenic spot for lunch and travel to the next camping spot, wherever that turns out to be…….

Air Travel: Days 1-2

Oddest thing about international air travel is that Feb 6, 2008 did not exist for me. Left San Fancisco at 10:30pm on the 5th, landed in Sydney at 8:30am on Feb 7.

Made it to Australia just in time for a 9 hour layover in Sydney. Tried for standby tickets to avoid this situation, but no dice. Apparently international travel is not as flexible as domestic back home. The 14 hour plane ride was surprisingly pleasant- I fully anticipated a terrible experience. Slept most of the way, woke up as the sun was coming up over the pacific, and no jet lag whatsoever. Managed to have skinny young ladies in my seating row, so no overcrowding issues there. Only hassle was losing tools- first implement (knife with no blade) at Houston, second one (leatherman with no blade) on way out of Sydney. I love air screener logic.
Screener: Can’t bring this, looks like a knife.
Me: Yeah, but it doesn’t have a blade, the blade is in the trash over yonder, I’ll buy a new blade when I get to point B.
Screener: We think you might have a blade hidden on you.
Me: You just x-rayed everything and put me through a metal detector…
Screener: Doesn’t matter.
Bottom line- my knife given to me by Jimmy Riggs is in the possession of a jealous luggage screener in Australia.

Anyway, met a fellow traveler- Ms. M as we’ll call her- also headed to Christchurch. We quickly decided a jaunt into the city would be better than sitting around the airport all day. Checked out the opera house, harbor bridge, etc. Sampled some local brews. Ms. M was on her way to NZ for a 5 week trip with a friend living out of a camper van. After taking a detour on the wrong train, we eventually made it back to the airport and on our way to New Zealand.

Made it to New Zealand around midnight. Caught the shuttle to Dr. T’s residence and called it a day. We took the bus into town the next morning, the good Dr. had to work for a while, and I had to pickup the camper van, get the cell phone working and most importantly, procure some new shades. They have blue flames on the side- pretty awesome. Need to clarify one thing for the readers of the old daily series: Dr. T of New Zealand is not the same Dr. T as frequently quoted back in the day. Their respective political views are about as opposite as possible. In fact, if they were to meet, I believe it would be like ‘matter’ contacting ‘anti-matter’- instant end of life as we know it……


T Minus 2 days

House remodel is officially complete. Just in time. All it needs now is a professional cleaning and it should sell quick.

Trip preparations are frantically coming to completion. Took time off from preparations yesterday for Paintball and another going away party. The best travel advice thus far has to be "If someone throws a baby at you, don't catch it." Apparently crooks will toss a baby at you and when you catch it, they will steal your stuff while your hands are tied up and you are highly distracted. Sucks to be that baby.....

Worldly posessions are at Jessica's house in Katy. She threatened that if I'm not back to get my crap in 1 year, she would start selling things off. Seems fair.

Photo is the temporary home office. 5 gallon buckets start to hurt your rear after a few hours. Can't be much worse than sitting in coach for 14 hours........