Coastal Gold

Dan’s friend Liz hosted us for four days south of Brisbane in the Gold Coast and was an excellent tour guide. On our first afternoon she showed us around to the various beaches and towns lining the Gold Coast. We had heard from other travellers that Gold Coast would be trashy, but it turns out that this is limited to the city of Surfer’s Paradise, home to the sort of clubs, hostels, and people that can make beach towns unbearable. The smaller towns of Currumbin, Coolangatta, Palm Beach, and Burleigh were chill and charming.


Burleigh Heads beach. Thanks for the tour Liz!

On Easter Monday we drove down to the famous hippie town of Byron Bay. Due to the holiday the area was packed – we couldn’t even stop to get out of the car to see the lighthouse. On the drive back we took a back road detour through the hinterland to see Minyon Falls.

Minyon Falls
Wild kangaroos near Currumbin! Note the mother and joey in the shadows on the left.

The weather was not terribly cooperative while we were in Gold Coast, but on the least rainy day we made it out to the beach at Currumbin. It rained on us literally the minute we arrived at the beach, but we braved the short downpour and were treated to a few hours of sunshine.

Currumbin beach with Surfer’s Paradise in the background.

On our last day we drove out to Springbrook National Park to do some hiking. Our former perception of Australia was mostly sandy beaches and dusty outback, so it was a pleasant surprise to find dense rainforest, rolling hills, and a silly number of waterfalls not far from the coast.

Antarctic Beech trees! Apparently fossilized remnants of these trees have been found in Antarctica, indicating this species existed when Australia, Antarctica, and South America were all part of Gondwana. The nearby “Best of All” lookout was pure clouds.
Dan thought he found a mysterious freshwater blue lobster. Turns out it’s a “common yabby”. The little guy can be seen in the centre-right foreground.


Brisbane reminded us of Florida – the city is relatively close to many beaches, it’s clean and quiet, there are a lot of waterfront condo buildings, and the public transportation is horrible.

The free “City Hopper” ferry is the only part of the public transit system that isn’t horrible.

We spent our first day wandering the northern part of the city. The on-river walking path provided pleasant views of the downtown core. We checked out a couple breweries in the Fortitude Valley neighbourhood. Our lunch stop at Soapbox Beer helped us discover that Australia has amazing fish n’ chips – especially when done with barramundi.


IMG_0097_blog The next day we walked through the Roma Street Parklands, which included a “fern gully” and at least one Australia-sized spider. We briefly stopped at the Queensland Museum and were impressed by the strangely large collection of taxidermy. We didn’t last long at the museum partly due to the overwhelming number of children on school holidays.

That night we witnessed our very first Aussie Rules football game. The sport is similar to rugby but involves a lot more kicking. Thankfully we watched a video before the match to help us understand the rules. The Collingwood Magpies absolutely obliterated the Brisbane Lions to a sold-out crowd of 34,000. Following the match we joined many other fans on the field to kick a football around with Wendy’s friend Gerry and her family.

The weekend was quite rainy so we aimed to stay indoors most of the time. Unfortunately on Good Friday that meant staying inside the hostel because everything was closed for the holiday. On Saturday we visited the Gallery of Modern Art which was hosting the Asia Pacific Triennial. There were some very impressive works by artists from Australia, New Zealand, and a handful of Asian countries, and we were pleasantly surprised that free access is given to such a large collection.

Elaborate house of miniatures by an Indonesian artist, reflecting on urban density and housing shortages.

Finally we met up with Dan’s friend Liz and her partner Clint for a couple beers in the West End neighbourhood, strolling between watering holes in between sporadic downpours.


Melbourne and the Marsupials

Prior to arriving in Australia, we had heard people compare Sydney to Toronto and Melbourne to Montreal. While we did not make it to Sydney, we can confirm that Melbourne feels plenty like Montreal: it’s a very international city with tons of good restaurants and bars, an active live music scene, neat-looking old homes, and plenty of art galleries.

On our first full day, we caught the train out to the suburb of Ballarat to visit Belinda, Wendy’s friend from camp. Ballarat was an old gold rush town and features some period-related tourist attractions, but we were far more concerned with seeing marsupials so we headed straight to the Ballarat Wildlife Park.

Kangaroos look weird when they nurse.

Back in the city, we took in some culture at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. At the Centre for Contemporary Art, an exhibit from Tom Nicholson presented the controversial history of Melbourne’s land being “traded” to John Batman – it seems he forged aboriginal chiefs’ signatures on a treaty to give himself full rights to the land. It was cool to learn about local history while appreciating local art.

One night we went out to the Horse Bazaar bar for an electro/funk/drum & bass show. We caught B-Syde, Mr. Manifold and the Resolution, and The Substance, all of whom put on great sets. B-Syde mentioned the decline of Sydney’s live music and nightlife so he was happy to be performing in Melbourne. We since read that lock-out laws have lead to a 40% drop in live music revenue and venues are being forced to shut down – even the Tiger Air in-flight magazine commented on Sydney’s “nosediving nightlife”.

We had read in a list of free things to do in Melbourne that penguins can be spotted from the pier at St. Kilda. After missing out in New Zealand, Dan insisted that we catch the tram out to this suburb on Sunday evening.

St. Kilda

We sat among the crowd waiting for the penguins to return to the rocks at dusk, and were able to spot a few swimming by.

While in the city we made sure to sample a few of Australia’s culinary specialities. We grabbed a delicious lamb and rosemary meat pie from the Queen Victoria Market. We also sampled Australia’s favourite late-night post-bar delicacy: the Halal Snack Pack. The HSP is a plate of chips (fries) covered in donair or kebab meat, and then slathered in your choice of sauces, with garlic/chili/BBQ being a popular combo.

We also made an effort to check out a few of Melbourne’s breweries. We were impressed by the IPAs from Fixation and had fun hanging out and sampling brews at The Mill.

One more similarity to Montreal was the availability of natural wine, something we had not come across much this year. On our last night in Melbourne we enjoyed some excellent fried chicken and funky wines from Belle’s.




Passport Patience in Petone

While waiting for Dan’s new passport to arrive, we settled into a cheap Air BnB in Petone (pronounced Pay-toe-nay), a suburb of Wellington. We used this down time (and the lousy weather) to catch up on internet chores, read books, watch movies, and cook in a kitchen with fewer than five other guests bumping into you.

Once the rain cleared, we had a nice view of Wellington Harbour and explored one of the nature trails nearby.

Wellington Harbour seen from our Air BnB.
Korokoro Dam, built to increase water pressure to fight fires in Petone back in the day.
We even found our first real-world Hobbit Hole!

In the end, Dan’s passport arrived in less than two weeks. We missed the time we had planned in Sydney, but were able to catch a flight to Melbourne.

“Fly, you fools!”

Back in the Van – Part 2

While Dan met with the Canadian High Commission in Wellington to plead for a new passport as soon as humanly possible, Wendy took a day trip to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula outside Christchurch. She walked through the Hinewai Reserve, admiring the beautiful views of the bay and ocean coast.

Wendy was given custody of Jean LeCastor for the day so she could take him on the Hinewai hike.

With the passport application submitted, Dan flew back to Christchurch on Saturday March 30 and we drove up the East Coast to Marlborough. We arbitrarily chose a convenient campsite in Rarangi, and were informed by the host upon arrival that there were a couple caves nearby with glowworms – a New Zealand phenomenon that we thought we were going to miss.

Our phone cameras are not suited to taking the long-exposure shots necessary to appreciate the glowworms. However if we shine a light on them, we can see the sticky silk threads they deploy to capture prey.

Taking advantage of the sunny Sunday skies, we drove up into Marlborough Sounds and hiked up to a lookout by Mistletoe Bay. The highway is very narrow and winding, reminding us of the Highway 1 drive down the California coast.

Monday morning was rather gloomy, so we absconded to the vineyards to sample a few Marlborough wines. We visited Lawson’s Dry Hills, Clos Henri, Huia, and No. 1 Family Estate, all of whom had some delicious wines on offer. The Sauvignon Blanc from Huia was a unique example for the region and the bubbles from No. 1 lived up to the name.

The skies cleared as we wrapped up our vineyard tour.

We had to return the van by Wednesday so on Tuesday we continued the drive back down the East Coast.  We stopped for a lunch break in Kaikoura, where we went for a short walk up to a lookout and then out on the shore before the rain threatened to return.

Point Kean Viewpoint. There are probably some seals hiding in this shot.

We made it back to Christchurch ready for a hot shower and a real bed indoors. We have since flown back to Wellington and are currently awaiting the arrival of Dan’s new passport.

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Our failed attempt at circumnavigating the South Island

Back in the Van – Part 1

On March 21 we picked up our campervan rental and set out on our journey to circumnavigate the South Island of New Zealand. Unlike our old Captain Caravan, the Spaceships rental minivan was actually designed for camping, including a large storage unit housing a permanent refrigerator and battery pack, on top of which one arranges a set of cushions to create a pretty comfortable bed.


Our first stop was Mt. Sunday, AKA Edoras from Lord of the Rings. Thanks to a 25km gravel road, the site is not too popular and we practically had it to ourselves.

Mt. Sunday, AKA “Edoras” is a small mountain in the middle of a valley.

From there we continued southwest and visited the eastern side of Mt. Cook, next to lake Pukaki. The hike through Hooker Valley was very popular, but provided gorgeous views of the mountains and glaciers without much climbing.

Driving towards Mt. Cook.

That night we camped at Lake Poaka, one of the free sites operated by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Camping in New Zealand is quite different from what we were accustomed to in North America. It is rare to find numbered campsites, reservations are pretty much non-existent, fire pits are extremely rare, and only about one in ten campsites has a picnic table. That said, the lack of reservations offers more flexibility, particularly when travelling off peak season.

Camping at Lake Poaka.

At this point we could see in the forecast that much of the south and west coast of the island was due to get several days of rain. With this in mind, we had a long day of driving and made it to Fiordland. We camped in the national park by Lake Gunn, and rose early the next morning to make it to Milford Sound before the rains hit. We were lucky to arrive at low-tide, allowing us to venture out past the shoreline.

Milford Sound. It’s actually a fjord.

The rain mostly held off through the morning, giving us time to hike up to Key Summit. The supposedly excellent views were obscured by the clouds, but we enjoyed wandering around the unique alpine wetlands at the summit.

Alpine wetlands at Key Summit.

From Fiordland, we had to backtrack to Queenstown before heading towards the West Coast, aiming for Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. This drive took a couple days, and again the worst of the rain held off so we were able to appreciate some more of New Zealand’s gorgeous scenery.

Then on Tuesday March 26, it f***ing poured.

We drove slowly (50-60 km/h on 100 km/h roads), crossed many rushing brown rivers, and drove through four sections of flooded highway. When we arrived in the town of Fox Glacier we were told by the holiday park host that the road we drove in on had just been closed. It continued raining intensely until the next morning. One nearby village reported more than 1 metre of rain in 48 hours.

“Allow extra time on New Zealand roads.”  Yeah, ’cause they’re flooded.

When we woke in the morning we were informed that the bridge to Franz Josef had been washed away in the floods. Since this is the only northern route out of Fox Glacier, we were forced to backtrack south, through Queenstown again, and all the way back to Christchurch.

Unfortunately during the rainstorm Dan’s passport sustained some water damage. This put the road trip on pause for a couple days while he flew back to Wellington to submit an application for a replacement. Tune in next time for Part 2!

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We visited Christchurch twice in the past two weeks – once prior to picking up our camper van rental and once upon returning said van. We originally planned on taking the inter-island ferry, but discovered it was cheaper to fly directly from Wellington to Christchurch.

View of the Southern Alps on the flight from Wellington to Christchurch.

Our first visit to Christchurch was less than one week after the massacre at two of the city’s mosques. This was naturally on our minds throughout our time here. The atmosphere of the city has felt quiet and sombre. We walked through the Botanic Gardens on both of our visits, and in both cases we found a large memorial of flowers, written messages, candles, and paintings lining the entrance.

The memorial remains in place three weeks after the massacre.

We attended a small ceremony outside one of the mosques where local Maori performed a Haka to show solidarity with those affected. Overall there has been a big outpouring of love and support here, though it’s impossible for us to really understand how difficult this must be for the local Muslim community.

Walking around Christchurch, it’s still easy to see the effects of the major earthquake in 2011. Apparently 80% of the structures in the Central Business District were damaged beyond repair. Currently, the downtown core features plenty of new modern structures as well as plenty of cranes working to tear down abandoned buildings and construct their replacements.

The front wall and steeple of the Christchurch Cathedral were knocked down during the 2011 earthquake.
This “transitional” cathedral was built to serve the city until the original cathedral can be repaired.
A common sight in Christchurch.

We also visited the “Quake City” museum to learn more about the earthquake. We listened to personal accounts of the events and learned about the phenomenon of liquefaction whereby sandy soil vibrating during the quake can act as a liquid, swallowing the buildings and infrastructure above.

Memorial to the 185 victims of the 2011 earthquake.