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Archive for the ‘Camping’ Category

After nearly four months in South America, our time here is drawing to an end. We chose to spend our final weeks enjoying Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. We booked a flight from Cali to Santa Marta with the aim of exploring Tayrona National Park.

Unfortunately for us, our flight that was supposed to arrive up north just after 9pm was three hours delayed. For most people that travel regularly in the US, a three hour delay is fairly routine, annoying yes, but not a big deal. Apparently, this is not the case in Colombia. The flight delay turned into quite an ordeal. First, the captain came out to the gate to personally announce the delay and explain the reason; a flight attendant had fallen ill and could not make the return flight. The crowd exploded in an angry roar; from that point on, it was impossible to hear any of the announcements being made about the delay. Can you imagine an airline providing a reason for a delay other than “technical issues”?! Every time an airline official tried to take the microphone, the complaints from the crowd got louder. Then, our luck changed. Our delayed flight turned into some free food. To try and calm things down, the airline decided to give out sandwiches and juice. After 14 months of traveling, we will take any free meal we can get!

When we finally did arrive in Santa Marta, it was after midnight and there were only a few taxis still lingering around at the airport, so we had to share with a stranger. The driver told us, “no problem, I just need to drop this guy off in a neighborhood nearby.” What he didn’t tell us until we were already on the road was that the neighborhood is the ghetto of Santa Marta. As we drove further into the barrio, the driver slowed down to ask some rough looking guys for directions. This is when we both thought, “Great, almost done with Colombia and now we are going to get robbed in the classic taxi scam that we have heard so much about.” But oh, ye of little faith, we were wrong and thirty minutes later were finally safe and sound at our hostel and ready for some sleep.

The next day was spent gearing up for our Tayrona camping trip. Canned tuna, fruits & vegetables, 18 liters of water, bug spray and a bottle of rum all made the shopping list. It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and started packing up that we learned some dreadful news: bringing alcoholic beverages into Tayrona National Park is prohibited…nooooooo! But being the optimists that we are, we decided that there are worse things in life than being in the Caribbean with a bottle of rum that needs to be consumed in an expedient fashion. The next morning, we fought through some mental fog and made our way by bus to Tayrona National Park.

Tayrona National Park

Getting into the park itself proved to be a bit of a process. First, they search your bags for plastic and styrofoam, neither of which are allowed inside. Next, you go through a police check point where you get questioned and searched again, this time for drugs, weapons and alcohol. Once you’ve made it through both of these steps, then they let you fork over the 38,000 Pesos for the entrance ticket; a colorful wrist band gets slapped around your hand and off you go to hike to the beach. The walk itself was beautiful; it cuts through the dense jungle, in and out of coconut groves, up to viewpoints of the ocean and finally onto the sandy white beach, however, it was a very sweaty and exhausting journey and we were glad to find a place to camp at the end of the trail.

Camping Tayrona

When we departed Santa Marta for Tayrona, we didn’t know how long we would stay, but the tranquil beaches and awesome camping spot made us want to hang around a little longer. There isn’t much more to do in Tayrona other than lounge on the beach and hike, and that was plenty enough for us. Both are right up our alley. Part of the beauty of Tayrona is that each beach is its own cove, all of which are strung together by footpaths through the jungle. Every day we explored a new spot.

Beaches of Tayrona

While many campers choose to set-up  near the beaches, we opted for something less crowded, more laid back, and a lot more affordable. We found a campsite nestled in the jungle about 10 minutes walking from the sea. Being away from the water meant longer hikes every day to the beaches and archeological sites in the park, but we didn’t mind one bit. Even at that distance from the water, Tayrona is so remote that we could still hear the crashing waves from our tent at night, and during our daily treks we crossed paths with some of the craziest ants we have ever seen! Countless ant super-highways were strewn about the jungle.

Hiking in Tayrona

Eventually our food and water ran out, and while we would have liked to stay longer, we decided to hit the road and head west towards Cartagena and Playa Blanca, another rustic beachfront locale. With our days in Colombia numbered, we think back frequently on a slogan we heard when we first arrived in Bogota: “Colombia – the greatest risk is that you won’t want to leave.”

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“What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” -Traveler

“You would have to ask God to know, because I have no control over it.” –Javi, Hostel Owner

We overheard this brief conversation the other day, and we loved Javi’s response. We hear travelers complaining all the time about wind and rain, about it being too hot or too cold, about the sweltering sun and the fog that just won’t lift. But in the end, Javi hit the nail right on the head; no one can control the weather. We were reminded of this when we visited Chiloé, an island in southern Chile, last week. We had high hopes of camping for a few nights and enjoying the ocean. But, it rained and rained and just wouldn’t stop raining. It rained so much and the wind was so relentless that our tent soaked through. Leaving us cold and wet. So what to do?

We made a plan. We learned the mantra “we’ll make a plan” while traveling with our friends in Australia, and it has become a common saying for us over the past few months. When something isn’t going our way, it is useful to vocalize the decision that we’re not going to sit around moping; we’ll figure something out one way or the other! In the case of Chiloé, the weather forced us to change our plans. We ended up spending our second night in an awesome little cabin instead of our tent. Rather than hike, we read our books, wrote a few blog posts, and played cards all day.

Chiloe National Park cabins

While God controls the weather, people control the bus schedules. Unfortunately, like God, those people don’t always give you what you hope for. In a perfect world, we would have spent three nights at the national park in Chiloé, but in order to make our bus connection over the border into Argentina, we had to spend our last night in Castro instead. The benefit of staying flexible with your traveling plans is that you often encounter unexpected things, like the incredible food scene in Castro. While trying to escape the rain (again) we ducked into a small restaurant, which ended up being a really fun lunch spot. We didn’t recognize the names of the daily specials, but decided to give them a try anyway. As a result, we accidentally ordered a hot seaweed salad and ceviche intestines, both of which turned out to be surprisingly delicious.

One of Chiloé’s most well-known features are palafitos (colorful shingled houses on stilts). There are clusters of palafitos all over Castro, and we spent the majority of one day exploring them. While many are old and sagging slowly into the water, it is obvious that tourism has sparked gentrification and restoration of these old buildings. For better or worse, they are a cool architectural piece of Chiloé.

Palafitos Castro

After our culinary and architectural explorations of Castro, we tried to find the most affordable place we could to stay for the night. We were looking forward to a good rest considering the long bus ride ahead of us to Argentina the next day. We did end up finding a place that suited our needs. It was simple, but the price was right. No sooner had we paid the bill, than we looked out the window  to discover that it was right next door to the local prison. Our bedroom wall doubled as the exterior fence. Awesome, huh?

Castro Prison Hotel

Our visit to Chiloé reminded us of that old saying “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” While we can’t control the weather, or bus schedules, or where inmates are kept in a city, we can control how much fun we have despite the circumstances!

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Surprisingly, the title of this post is not a reference to food, although Pan de Azucar may be the sweetest national park in Chile. After the packed days of touring in San Pedro de Atacama, we were eager to enjoy more of northern Chile at a slower pace. Mike knew just the spot. Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is one of Chile’s best kept secrets. Probably more than 9 out of 10 tourists will blow right by this place on their way up to San Pedro and not even realize what they have missed.

Located just 30 minutes away from the dusty town of Chañaral, Pan de Azucar consists of rocky, desertous mountains, which run right into the Pacific Ocean. The result is a truly pristine and picturesque coastline.

Pan de Azucar

The national park is also home to some of the most stunningly beautiful and relaxing campsites that we have ever seen. Plenty of other parks in the world offer sites near the water, but few offer such a unique experience. Our site was simply AWESOME. Deserted beach, blue skies, island view, sunsets, sound of crashing ways, charcoal grill…Take a look for yourself!

Pan de Azucar Camping

We spent our days in Pan de Azucar doing what we do best, hiking and chilling. To get a feel for the area, we spent our first day strolling for hours along the coast until came to a nice rocky outcropping where we stopped for a bit of afternoon reading in the sun. Reading has been an unexpected pleasure on this trip. At home we enjoy reading and read novels every now and again, but were never “big readers.” 2012 may have officially been the year of the dragon, but for us it was the year of the book. We have read over 20 books each this year! Amy even took down a 941 pager.

Pan de Azucar

That night we enjoyed some wine and conversation with a French couple that we met while setting up camp the night before. As the night drew to a close, and they headed back to their site down the road, we took the rain-fly off of our tent and settled down to gaze at the stars above. The clear skies and lack of any major cities make northern Chile one of the best places out there for viewing the heavens. We got lucky that night as were able to catch four shooting stars before eventually falling asleep.

We were up early the next morning for an all day hike. Pan de Azucar doesn’t have as many sights as San Pedro, but it does have “el Mirador,” meaning the lookout/viewpoint. We spent six hours hiking to el mirador and beyond, stopping for lunch at the top and even catching the sight of a guanaco, a relative of the vicuña that we saw in San Pedro. Just one picture looking down on the park from above does a pretty good job of demonstrating just how beautiful the place is, and if you really consider that pictures rarely ever capture a moment, you might be able to imagine what it was like up there.

Pan de Azucar Mirador

If we hadn’t pre-booked bus tickets back down south, we may have stayed in Pan de Azucar for weeks. It is definitely a place we will visit in the future. After packing up camp on our last morning in the park, we walked out to the road and hitchhiked back into Chañaral, catching lucky car #7. Riding out of the park with the views of the rocky mountains plunging into the sea was a perfect end to our time in Pan de Azucar.

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A funny thing happens when you leave everything behind and take off around the globe. Regardless of how much money you save before leaving, when you pack up all your belongings into boxes and put them in storage (or leave them at your parent’s house like we did. Thanks again guys!) you essentially become homeless, for lack of a better word, and when push comes to shove will sleep wherever you have to; park benches, beaches, bus terminals and random couches have served us well. We ended our last post by saying that we woke up refreshed and ready to go after the night in Franz Josef. Truth be told, the evening soak in the spa wasn’t the only reason we woke up feeling good. We had intended to spend the night sleeping in the back of our Subaru because it was too cold for the tent, but the mountains surrounding the glaciers made the temperatures too chilling for even that to be feasible. The holiday park office was closed for the night meaning no possibility of upgrading to a cabin, so we sorted out our options and went with plan c: sleeping in the TV lounge. The little boy watching cartoons was less than pleased about us interrupting his late-night private screening of Looney Toons and quickly exited with a scowl. A soft sofa in a heated room beats a cold stiff car any day, and in a matter of minutes we fell fast asleep. We slept so well that our alarm clock didn’t wake us; the holiday park manager did. He was there bright and early, “goo’day ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to get up now. Let’s go. Guests will be waking soon, and this isn’t a sleeping room as I’m sure you’re well aware.” He was actually quite jovial about the whole thing, but we couldn’t help but feel a bit like bums being brushed from the sidewalk. In our defense, we had paid for a campsite (making us guests too) and the TV room didn’t have any closing hours posted. Anyway, we got a good night’s sleep in a safe cozy place and after some breakfast and coffee were ready to hit the highway and get our road trip back underway.

The west coast of New Zealand’s south island is the most remote place in the entire country. The crowds that cluster around the famous glaciers dissipate as you move north along the coast. Tall mountains, thick forests and rocky coasts made development of this region quite difficult. The towns are all very small and are few and far between, but like most of the island, the landscape is astonishing. We spent the morning hiking near Okarito Lagoon.

The nature reserves in this area are home to the endangered Kiwi bird from which New Zealanders get their nickname. Millennia ago, when the islands split from the ancient continent of ‘Gondwana’ land mammals and other predators had not yet evolved in the region making it a paradise for an endless array of bird species. Over time many of these birds, like the Kiwi, developed strange appearances and lost their ability to fly and became ground dwellers, but the arrival of humans and introduction of non-native species by European settlers has taken a devastating toll on many of these birds. On a lighter note, the Kiwis aren’t the only strange inhabitants of the area; isolation seems to have resulted in some very peculiar human residents as well. It is a bit tough to explain, but the citizens of the west coast definitely dance to the beat of their own drum. Something along the lines of the Beverly Hillbillies meets Jerry Springer show.

After our brief jaunt along the west coast, we made our way to the northwest coast of the south island to New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman. Although small, it certainly stands up to its competition. It is home to one of the country’s Great Walks, called the Coast Track, which is a 51km long trail that runs along the edge of the national park with incredible ocean views. We spent a few days camping on the beach and going on day walks along the Coast Track. The orange/red sand beaches, thick forests of fern trees and warmer rain-less weather made us think this is the place to be in New Zealand.

We got peeled out of the paradise that is Abel Tasman because of one of Amy’s big brothers, Aaron. Although not the most logical route, last week we drove straight through back to Christchurch, where we began our New Zealand adventure. Aaron is on his second year working with the U.S. Antarctic Program as a cook at the South Pole station and was being deployed from Christchurch. Naturally, we wanted to stop through town to see him! It was a fun two nights catching up over a couple of beers. He even let us be stowaways in his hotel room, adding to our list of unique places to rest our heads for the night. Although we’ve meet up with quite a few friends during our RTW trip, this was the first time we had seen any family in the past 9 months and it really felt good.

While Aaron was at training sessions, we made a day trip out to the Banks Peninsula, another amazing land formation in this country. The peninsula used to be a volcanic island but attached itself to the mainland after millions of years of erosion (check out a map, it’s pretty interesting). The town of Akaroa is situated on Akaroa Harbor which is the epicenter of the peninsula. From there, fingers jut out creating several bays. We took as many back roads as possible that day, putting ourselves in a few precarious situations on extremely narrow gravel roads. Amy even got chased down by a mama sheep while trying to photograph its two black lambs. Overall, it was one of our favorite scenic drives in New Zealand so far.

After saying farewell to Aaron and wishing him luck in Antarctic captivity for the next four months, we drove north to Kaikoura. While checking into a holiday park for the night, the receptionist asked if we were in town for the horse race. “What horse race?” we said. She informed us that it was the one day of the year when the local horse track got used for the Kaikoura Cup. Having never been to a proper horse race, we jumped on the opportunity. The sun was out, and so was the entire town of Kaikoura. It was a blast. There wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that comes with races like the Kentucky Derby, but the excitement, big hats and celebratory drinking were all there.

Kaikoura is known for its seals, and we definitely got our fix while in town. The day after the horse race we set out to hike around the Kaikoura Peninsula, an 18km endeavor that took a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but was well worth the trip. We would say that as a rule of thumb, when visiting New Zealand, check out every peninsula you can. The views of the snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with the turquoise blue ocean were stunning, not to mention the incredibly adorable fur seals that lounge on the coastal rocks. The next day, on our trip out of town, we stopped at a trail head that was suggested to us by our Kiwi neighbor, Steve, at the holiday park. We took a short walk up to a waterfall and had one of the most marvelous wildlife encounters we’ve ever experienced. There were 14 fur seal pups playing and lounging in the pool of the waterfall. Apparently their moms lead them upstream and leave them for protection while they are out to hunt. The sight of tourists gawking over the seal pups was almost as entertaining to watch (click here to see a video we took of the seals).

We continued to make our way north along the ‘Classic NZ Wine Route’ until we reached Blenheim. The Marlborough region is world renowned for sauvignon blanc production, and Blenheim is the center of the action. We had our eye on a free campsite along the Wairau River, but first took our time wine tasting our way through the area. Neither of us are huge white wine drinkers, but if we had to choose one varietal, sauv blanc would be it. The crisp, grassiness of the NZ brands are beautiful. We, of course, had to stop at the famous Cloudy Bay for some tasting, and we were also happily surprised by a few other wine makers that we’d not heard of: Hans Herzog, Staete Landt & Yealands.

After we hit our 5 winery limit for the day we began to make our way to the campsite. Unfortunately, after about 30km of country roads, we came to a 4WD-only section that our Subaru just wouldn’t have made. While trying to decide on a new game plan, Mike noticed a sign that said ‘Pine Valley Hut.’ A hut? Way out here? We were curious so decided to hike the 40 minute trail in to see what it was all about. Maybe it was all the wine we’d tasted, maybe the sunny weather had gotten to our heads, but what we found was a gem of a place. We knew right away that we had to hike back out to grab our gear. It was such an awesome hut that we decided to stay for two nights. It had been quite a while since we’d gone two entire days without seeing another sole. It was a fun time making fires, swimming in the river, and hiking.

Thus far, our New Zealand road trip has proven to be a real treat. While hitting the highway daily sometimes make us feel a bit like vagabonds, every day away from home makes us realize that we all share one world. After nearly a year since moving out of our apartment, we have become accustomed to calling whatever hostel bed, campsite, hotel room, apartment or couch our home. It is funny how many times we will be tired from a day of exploring and say, “let’s go back home.” We know that one day in the not so distant future we will be heading home for real, but for now we are thrilled to be continuing this once in a lifetime expedition.

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3,800 kilometers on the odometer, way too many tanks of gas and countless hours of car-time later, we have a lot to catch up on.

The south island of New Zealand is a magical dreamland. No wonder they chose it for the setting of the Lord of the Rings movies. We realized a few days into our road trip that the little gold symbols in our road atlas marked filming locations; a nerd’s fantasy. Since our last post, we’ve made our way to the southernmost tip of the south island and are awaiting a ferry to the north. Along the way, we’ve seen a lot of sheep, visited glaciers, had a day at the horse track, hung out with Amy’s brother Aaron and made our way all the way up to Abel Tasman national park.

First up after our visit to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula was the Catlins. This area is super remote (i.e. there are more sheep than people, by about 3 times). The people that do live here talk funny and are genuinely surprised to meet people that want to visit New Zealand. We stopped off at the southernmost point of the south island to say we were there and it was worth the trip down miles of gravel roads to get there.

Next up? The Fiordlands. This area of New Zealand is famed as one of the most stunning scenic spots in the country. We believe these claims, however it was so rainy and overcast that we never got much of a chance to find out for ourselves. The town of Te Anau was our home base for exploring the greater area and well known Milford Sound. We were lucky to make it to the Sound at all because of a huge landslide (or landslip, as Kiwis call it) that destroyed the road a few days before we arrived. One afternoon, Highway 94 opened up and we made our way in and out within a window of a few hours. Homer Tunnel reminded us a lot of the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, but much more rudimentary, with rocky dynamite-blown walls and sparse lighting. Possibly more beautiful than the Sound itself, were the countless number of waterfalls that cascaded down thousand foot rock faces as we descended from the tunnel.

We would have loved to wait out the fog and gloom for a clearer day in the Fiordlands, but we heard this is very, very rare so continued on our way. During our drive towards Queenstown, adventure-sports capital of the eastern hemisphere, we saw an awesome steam locomotive that Amy was particularly keen on. It’s the random sights like an antique train rolling by that really make road trips fun. The highway that runs along Lake Wakatipu is unbelievably eye-catching. The snow-capped mountains sit right along the crystal clear lake that makes an S-shape with Queenstown at the apex of the bend. We spent one of our days in Queenstown hiking a mountain that is also home to the town’s newly built gondola. At points we’d wish we’d taken the easy way up, but the hike was more rewarding once we saw the view from the top. By the time we made it back down, we were ready for a less strenuous  activity and our arrival couldn’t have been more well timed. We lucked out and stumbled upon a jazz festival in the center of town; our favorite act was a fun and unique rendition by a jazz bad and  special percussionist playing along to a silent Charlie Chaplin film.

On our way out of town we stopped at Lake Wanaka for a day hike, another drop dead gorgeous place (we were soon realizing that this is the way most of the south island is). The path curved around the perimeter of the lake with stunning views of the mountains. It also happened to be the sunniest and warmest day of our visit in New Zealand so far. When we reached the end of the lake, we stopped for a few moments for some photos before heading back to the car. As we started our return journey, Amy asked “you still have the keys right?” Mike reached into his coat pockets, patted his pants and said, “oh shit!” At some point during the hike the keys had fallen out of his fleece, and despite meticulous backtracking, we were unable to find them. Eventually we accepted defeat and the fact that we would have to call the rental company to report the lost key and figure out our options. As the lady from the rental company was explaining the costly re-keying process, she paused mid-sentence, “I’ve just received a message. Looks like someone found the keys on the trail and turned them into the Edge Water Hotel.” What a relief. The BIG MAN must have been looking out for us that day!

With keys in hand, we proceeded north and yet again the views were simply ridiculous. If we haven’t mentioned it already, Amy is a huge fan of informational signs; along the way we learned that Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s deepest lake reaching depths of over 1000 feet. Despite being in a mountainous area, the bottom of lake actually sits below sea level. Kinda blows your mind, doesn’t it?

After a night of camping and cooking an amazing meal of lamb pasta over the open fire, we headed for two of the island’s most famous glaciers, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. It was ancient glaciers that carved the lakes of Queenstown and Wanaka. The hikes though rocky expansive valleys leading up to Fox and Franz Josef really help you appreciate the creative/destructive power of glacial movement.

Due to various safety risks, hiking on the glaciers is strictly regulated, so we enjoyed our view from a safe distance and made our way to the nearby holiday park. We were in luck; they had a fantastic hot tub, and there is nothing like warm soak on your feet and body after a chilling night of camping and a long day of hikes. The next morning we awoke feeling refreshed and again took to the road. We started writing this post with the intention of catching up on all our South Island adventures, but have come to realize that we have just seen too much here to put in one post. So, we’ll leave it at that for now and continue next time with our tales of the West Coast, Christchurch, Abel Tasman, Kaikoura and Marlborough.

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The weather looked pretty dismal as our flight touched down in Christchurch. We walked out of the airport into a freezing torrential downpour and realized pretty quickly that our first stop needed to be a shoe store. Sandals don’t quite cut it during early spring in New Zealand.

Our first stop wasn’t actually a shoe store because we had to pick up our rental car first. They say that driving a car is like riding a bike; once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget. Whoever “they” are, they obviously have never gone nine months without sitting behind the wheel and then rented a car in a place where you drive on the left side of the road. After accidentally hitting the windshield wipers instead of the blinker about 100 times and continually repeating “stay to the left, stay to the left” every time we made a turn, we successfully navigated our way to Kmart without causing a single accident and were able to procure our much needed shoes. We know that it isn’t well known for having the best shoes around, but our plan to camp and road trip around New Zealand for the next month meant that we needed to purchase quite a few things. Kmart is the perfect place to gear-up when you need cheap stuff that doesn’t have to last too long. In less than an hour, we had everything we needed to hit the road in the morning.

When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and the sun was shining for our long drive south to Dunedin. You’d think we’d never seen mountains before with the way we were ogling over the Southern Alps and taking a million photos from the moving car. While we loved living in Colorado, we always said that if there was a place with mountains like the Rockies and a turquoise blue sea, it would be heaven on earth. New Zealand must be that place. You can nearly see skiers coming down the white-capped mountains while you’re standing on the beach with a view of the endless blue ocean. We started discussing our plans to move here only two days into our visit.

To break up the nearly 400km drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, we made several stops along the way. The first was for a “Driver Reviver.” We think this is the coolest thing ever; free coffee at a rest stop and with a clever name to top it off. The next stop was a picnic lunch along the Rakaia River with gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains, and just before the longest bridge in New Zealand (yes, that’s right, our atlas told us so). Following lunch and a few hundred more kilometers, we broke off the highway at a town called Oamaru. It reminded us of Leadville, Colorado, but on the water. Just up the road is another quaint sea village called Moeraki, where the ancient Moeraki Boulders are located (basically, round orb-like stones on the beach where tourists take pictures).

By the time we made it to Dunedin the day was almost over, so we pulled into a holiday park where we set up camp. Holiday parks in New Zealand are similar to KOA Campgrounds in the US; mostly electrical RV sites with some space for tents (only crazy people like us stay in tents this time of year) and tons of facilities like kitchens, showers, hot tubs and computer rooms. Despite it being a more commercial camping experience than we’re accustomed to, we were stoked to be sleeping in a tent after a summer without any camping. At about 2am we realized what a terrible mistake we’d made. It was freezing cold and our 55˚F sleeping bags weren’t providing much comfort. Thankfully the rental company had upgraded us to a Subaru wagon, so we changed our plans a bit and have been sleeping in the back of the car instead of the tent.

We set out in the morning to explore the Otago Peninsula. It was a gorgeous drive along the main road that winds along the north coast all the way to the tip where there are stunning cliffs and an albatross center. On the way back we took dirt roads that led us to inlets and viewpoints where we saw no other cars. There are sheep farms everywhere, and being the time of year that it is, their coats are thick and almost ready to be sheered.

Our final day in Dunedin was spent exploring more of the country side. One of the greatest things about New Zealand is that you never have to drive far to get out of the city and into nature. The transition from buildings to open spaces happens quite quickly. Our first stop was a short hike down to some cool cliffs known as Tunnel Beach. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot only to find a sign posted which read “Closed for Lambing.” Many trails that we had encountered the day before had similar signs posted making it difficult to find a nice trail. Now don’t share this next part with anyone, but we did something naughty…we ignored the sign, climbed the fence, and hiked the trail anyway. Nothing like a little excitement to get the day started. For the record, we did not encounter any sheep or lambs along the way. What we did see was more majestic New Zealand landscape.

Having a car for the next few weeks is an exciting prospect. For months now, we have been relying on public transit to make our way around the world, but in New Zealand we will come and go as we please.  We don’t have a guidebook, but we did buy an awesome road atlas, so our days are sure to be filled with countless scenic lookouts and quirky informational plaques. Here’s to the open road!

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This post is about our visit to Western Australia, but the story begins many months ago…

Split, Croatia – April 2012

While riding a ferry to the island of Hvar, we were attempting to take a picture of ourselves when a guy came up to us and asked if we would like him to take our photo. We began to chat and told him about our RTW trip. Upon hearing about our plans to travel to Australia, he quickly replied, “Well, it’s lucky you met me then!” and said nothing further leaving an awkward moment of silence. Does he work for the Travel Channel? Does he want to offer us a book deal? Maybe he’s a local hotel owner with a discount? Curiosity swirled through our heads until he finally chimed in again telling us that his name was Juan and that he and his girlfriend Saskia were on a lengthy road trip around Europe. Despite having only known us for about 30 seconds, he offered to host us at their home in Perth, Australia. We exchanged information, but at that point didn’t think much of it. After all, who would fly to such a remote place to stay with complete strangers?

This is the fateful photo taken on the ferry in Croatia

Fast Forward 6 Months

We landed in Perth at 5am after a red-eye from Kuala Lumpur. Out of it from not sleeping on the flight, we walked out of customs to see Saskia’s smiling face saying “Welcome to Australia!” I guess we are the type of people who fly somewhere to stay with strangers, not complete strangers though, as we did spend one crazy fun night in Split with Juan and Saskia making our friendship about 12 hours old.

After a few hours at dinner in Split, we decided they weren’t axe murderers

As we exited the airport, we saw that they had the car packed up for a proper camping trip and even had a boat in tow. And so began our road trip adventure through Western Australia. Straight away, we headed north from Perth towards Gnaraloo Station, a 12 hour drive that allowed us to see some true Aussie outback. The road we took made its way along the west coast through barren desert, fields of wheat, white sand dunes and rust-red flatlands. Just about now you are probably thinking, did they see kangaroos? YES WE DID. Sadly, the first 20 were all road kill (apparently hitting a kangaroo isn’t at all uncommon when driving in the bush) but eventually we began to see groups of them hopping through the shrubs. We even saw some emus too!

By the time we arrived at Gnaraloo Station, the sun had already set. We unloaded the camp gear, and before we knew it the night was upon us and brilliant stars had filled the sky. Pardon the pun, but the stars of Western Australia are truly out of this world. We have seen our share of clear, starry nights in the Rocky Mountains, but these stars take the cake hands down. Between the drive and the stars, the feeling of remoteness was astonishingly wonderful.

We awoke in the morning to views of the Indian Ocean with humpback whales breaching just off the shore and headed to Gnaraloo Bay for some beach time and fishing. Over the last couple of months in SE Asia, we have become pretty good at beach-time but when it comes to fishing we both fall in the novice category. Juan on the other hand is an avid fisherman and was happy to show us the ropes. Over the next few days we spent countless hours soaking up sun, snorkeling, fishing on the boat and flying a really fun kite (that’s right, kites aren’t only for kids these days). Although Saskia pulled in more fish than the both of us combined, we did land a few good catches. It was the best fishing trip we have ever been on.

Eating fresh seafood is something that we always enjoy, but the experience of catching fish at sea and then cooking them up for dinner is tough to beat. Juan even caught a huge squid that we grilled up on the camp fire.

What time wasn’t spent at the beach was spent telling stories and making jokes while we sat around the fire and looked out over the dunes and sea. For the first time in ages, we didn’t turn on our computer or feel the need to be “connected.” After just four days of camping our new friends felt like people we had known for years.

The end of our camping trip did not, however, mean the end of our visit to WA. Juan and Saskia still had a few things planned. Along the way down to Perth, we made our way to the coastal town of Kalbarri for a night. To get there, we passed some blowholes that shot sea water up through circular holes in the stone creating a whistling noise and huge bursts of water. Then we made our way through Kalbarri National Park which is home to a deep gorge that cuts through the red stone and provides a refuge for lots of annoying flies. Finally, we drove into Kalbarri, a cute little town on the ocean, where Juan and Saskia had booked us an incredible B&B where we stayed the night.

After a delicious breakfast, we drove out for the last section of our road trip back to Perth. Along the way, we stopped at The Pinnacles, an area of land that has interesting rock formations jutting out of the dunes, which actually reminded us a lot of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia. We even got a little unexpected excitement from a flat tire when we pulled off a road to see Pink Lake. After snapping a few pics of the interesting pink color that is created by beta carotene and fixing the flat, we headed on our way.

Our Western Australia trip came to an end at Juan and Saskia’s place, where we enjoyed a few more laughs and some tasty Jamie Oliver hamburgers. It is amazing how quickly a week can go by when you spend it with great company, exploring new places. The coast of Western Australia is amongst the most isolated places in the entire world, and were it not for that chance encounter on the ferry in Croatia, we probably never would have seen it. Turns out that Juan was absolutely correct; it was very lucky that we met him, because it lead to an unforgettable Australian experience and two new friends for life.

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