nature

Let the Good Times Ramble On

 

From Logging Roads to the Beach, My Trip to Vancouver Island

For six days I lived in a camper on the back of a 1990 pick-up truck, driving around on logging roads from deep forest to bright ocean, seeing what Victoria Island is all about with someone who knew it like the back of his hand. Before I left Hampi, Sam and I had discussed the possibility of doing a long road trip this fall – Vancouver to Panama – so we decided to do a trial run before I went back to the East Coast. This is how I ended up in British Columbia less than a week after setting foot on North American soil.

We started the journey in Victoria, a charming city with some classic architecture, a thriving port, delicious soft-serve, and, most importantly for us, Sam’s shack of goodies – two old VW vans, two 4×4’s that need some work, a couple surfboards, and countless tools, it was a window into a resourceful man’s world that I’d only heard about from Sam and would experience in the upcoming days. We grabbed what we needed and, after a few key grocery stops, left civilization behind.

Most of our trip was spent in the car, which probably sounds a lot more boring than it actually was. This was a test of road trip compatibility after all. We drove a ton, zigzagging across the southern half of Vancouver Island. I got very used to bumping slowly along gravel logging roads, swerving around potholes and letting the giant trucks hauling tree trunks have the right of way. We chatted, we listened to music, and I stared out the window, endlessly entertained by the gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery.

The weather matched our route perfectly. It was overcast with a misty rain for our hikes in two old growth forests, first to Canada’s Gnarliest Tree and then to Sam’s favorite tree, which has to be the biggest tree I’ve ever seen – it was sprouting full size trees as branches. These forests have been around much longer than any of us; they are impressive, spiritual places that reminded me just how small we really are in this vast world. Then when we reached the west coast the sun came out to welcome us to the ocean. We had perfect weather for our Tofino day, which we thoroughly enjoyed by parking the camper in a lot right on the beach so we could cook and eat breakfast with an ocean view. Tofino was already Day 4 of our trip and the most time we spent in a town; after our beach breakfast we went to the Roy Henry Vickers gallery – a gorgeous collection by this acclaimed local artist – and the Tofino Brewing Company for a tasting flight.

Each night we camped at a different site. The first night we were seaside at Port Renfrew, the second on Lake Cowichan, the third at an official campsite in Ucluelet (with showers!), the fourth at a new site on Kennedy Lake, and the fifth on Salt Spring Island. While they all had their own charm, and were really pretty, my favorite by far was the fourth night. We were the only people in this lovely brand new campsite. We played our new favorite radio station loudly and had a fire going late into the night. Attempting to find our way out the next day, lost deep in nameless logging roads, we saw a logging chopper land (apparently a rarity judging by how excited Sam was) before stopping to ask a man for directions. He happened to be a very talented carver and showed us some of his projects, including an orca whale that had a baby orca inside it that could be lowered down by a rope, and a figure that would support the roof of his house. His work was beautiful and we were happy to have had the privilege of speaking with him about it.

Along with just enjoying the incredible scenery the trip was a lesson in self-efficiency. I learned that in Canada firewood is not purchased but cut up with a chainsaw on the side of the road. I then learned how to chop said wood with an ax and build a better fire. I also learned how to drive an old stick shift truck with a camper on the back, play a djembe drum in sync with Sam’s acoustic guitar, and new ways to cook salmon and bacon-wrapped halibut. Every night we parked at a new site and set to work making a fire and cooking dinner together – we cooked some great meals in that camper – and then hung out late into the night in the warmth of the flames. It was a great way of life.

At the end of my trip I was sad to return to a city. Vancouver Island is truly gorgeous and a perfect place to live a simple life out of a camper, wandering around at will. I can’t thank Sam enough for inviting me up to his home and adventuring around with me.

Attempting to Recreate Habibi in the Similan Islands

We had experienced some of the best snorkeling in the world in the Whitsundays, on the boat where we all met, Habibi. It was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Australia. So when we read that the Similan Islands “offer[ed] some of the finest diving in Thailand, if not the world” we had to check it out.

Apple, the wonderful woman who ran our hostel Riverside Guesthouse, got us some super secret discount for a day trip (2,000 THB) that included three snorkeling sites and lunch. The whole operation was larger than expected; we arrived to find a hundred other people snacking on muffins and coffee waiting for the boats to launch. We were given our color coded wristbands and told to wait until we were called. As soon as it was our turn we acted like kids and hurried to get on the boat first so we could sit outside up front; the boat was a 4-engine speedboat and the only rule of sitting up front was that you had to hold on at all times. You could tell this boat could really launch over some big waves if it wanted to, although disappointingly it held back on the ride out. We blamed all the tourists for killing the fun.

It was an hour and a half ride out to the first location and just being on the water made me smile. The boat was actually probably the highlight of the day. All the snorkel sights were honestly slightly disappointing. There was a variety of coral but not nearly as colorful as we were hoping and the fish were just ok. The most exciting sightings were a group of squid and one turtle who somehow got stuck in the center of a hovering group of tourists near the boats. At each location multiple boats unloaded dozens upon dozens of tourists into the same patch of water. We tried to swim further into space but nothing was quite as captivating as we had experienced in Australia. Plus there were some evil little jellyfish in the water that kept stinging us.

We stopped at an island for lunch which did have beautiful white sand and turquoise water but was so packed with people it was hard to appreciate it. Our last island stop Chris and I didn’t even bother to go in the water. We wondered if we’d become jaded with this kind of travel, having seen too many nice beaches and snorkeling spots in Australia. I had at least taken a bit of a break in Vietnam and Cambodia; they came from Krabi and Phuket, more of the same. Of course it’s not exactly the same, but at some point a beach is a beach.

As if to shut us up, the weather decided to give us something new: rain. We, along with everyone else, ran back to our boat and hid underneath the covered back section waiting for it to pass. It was a quick downpour that had some lingering drizzle but Pascal and I came prepared with raincoats. What’s a little water? We resumed our positions up front and on the ride back really felt the speed of the four engines. A couple times I flew off my seat into the air, and learned to appreciate the “must hold on” rule. When the rain briefly picked up again it felt like little daggers stabbing me in the face. At least it didn’t last long.

We made it back to shore not regretting going for an instant, it was still a fun day, but perhaps a little less enthusiastic than I though we’d be when we booked the trip.

Khao Sok: A Perfect Place to Escape Christmas (and Sort of Celebrate it)

Within the first fifteen minutes of meeting Chris and Pascal we figured out that we would all be in Thailand for Christmas. We said we should meet up again there so we wouldn’t have to spend Christmas alone. It was a nice idea, but considering I had barely even learned their names, who knew if I’d actually want to see them again for the holidays.

Then we spent Whitsundays, Fraser Island and Byron Bay together, and to avoid actually saying goodbye when I left Byron we made real our first impression plan to meet up for Christmas in Thailand.

They were coming from Phuket on their way to Koh Phangan and I was coming from Cambodia on my way to Krabi, so we picked a location in between: Khao Lak. We’d never heard of it either… I knew I wanted to try to get to Khao Sok National Park, a can’t-miss recommendation from Josi (whose recommendations have never steered me wrong), and they wanted to do some beach time and snorkeling, and Khao Lak is the launching point for Similan Islands trips, supposedly some of the best underwater scenery in the area.

We met in Khao Lak and decided the order of events (partly decided for us by weather conditions): we would spend one night there, then do two days/one night in Khao Sok, then a snorkeling day trip to the Similan Islands, and still have a final day to chill in Khao Lak before going our separate ways.

This meant we were in Khao Sok for Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning. We were all united in our lack of care for how we spent Christmas. When you’re traveling holidays are just another day. I completely took this perspective to heart with Christmas. Why does a calendar have to tell me when I need to see family? Just because I was out of the country on December 25th doesn’t mean I miss them any more or less. I got to spend three weeks at home with my parents before I left and saw more family at a great going away party. To me that was more important time spent with family than a day someone centuries ago declared should be the family day of all family days.

Still though, there was something special about being in such a scenic place on the pinnacle of Christmas for both of us – the Germans celebrate on the evening of the 24th and the Americans on the morning of the 25th. We toasted to Christmas with our cheap red wine. And our next bottle of red wine. And all those beers. We toasted and played cards until they shut the power off on us and forced us to go to sleep, before 11 pm.

Khao Sok is gorgeous. We met up with the other 6 people doing the two day one night tour at an office near the park and were driven out to the dock, where we all crammed into a long tail boat and set out into the wide open lake. Karst rock formations rose out of the water all around us, more densely than I’d seen in Halong Bay but no less majestic. The water was a deep turquoise blue, a color I didn’t know a lake could be. Long tail boats sit low in the water and we were a lot of people in our little boat, so we got a little wet. This is why, about 20 minutes into the ride, our guide flagged down a passing bigger long tail boat and informed us we would be switching boats. There was no pier in site. We pulled into a little inlet where the water was calmer shielded by the mountain and jumped from the front of our boat into the new boat that was pulled up alongside us, and its former passengers did the reverse. Somehow this worked out and we were back on our way. I got to lay up front and watch the mountains pass by in the sky above. Not much longer and we saw where we would be spending the night: our floating bungalows.

The image in my mind of floating bungalows did not do them justice. In the middle of this expansive landscape of mountains and water, a small row of half a dozen traditional bamboo huts were latched together in a row, hovering on floating barrels. They were loosely attached to a permanently wet plank walkway in front (which I was terrified of falling off of in the dark after the wine) that connected to the most intact structure, the bathrooms, which linked to a few more substantial houses, lashed to the dining area, which was then attached to the staff area. When we arrived the dining to staff areas were in an L shape, when we woke up the next morning they were in a straight line. They’d made some adjustments.

When we got there we had lunch and free time before an afternoon hike. It didn’t take long to get our bathing suits on and jump into the water right in front of our bungalow (all three of us shared one bamboo bungalow – guess who got to sleep in the middle with neither of the two blankets). We took the kayaks out for a joy ride around a smallish island, the calm water making it easy to glide around. The jungle hike was more than expected; it was wet in Khao Lak so a lot of the path was just mud. We practiced our balance, jumping from root to root, playing hot lava with the mud; or at least most of us did, Chris gave up pretty easy and just trudged through the mud and water. We saw spiders and crabs and lots of rainforest trees. I even picked up a leech, which the guide quickly tore off of me. It had bitten me through my sock, which was now soaked in blood. I learned that leech bites don’t stop bleeding for a long long time. First a wasp in the Amazon, now a leech in the Thai jungle, it’s like my insect initiation into jungle life. After the hike we did a quick walk through an old cave and saw bats, more spiders, and played the stalagmites like chimes.

The next morning we were out on the boat before breakfast to spot some local wildlife – birds and monkeys – and had more swimming time when we got back before our after-lunch departure home. It was a peaceful two days with lots of down time, swimming time, hanging out time, learning new card games time, and generally disconnecting from reality time. Which I think was a great way to avoid the social media influx of Christmas reminders. I couldn’t be happier with how I spent the holiday and who I was with.

The ride back out was just as picturesque as it was on the way in. The rain flirted with us, it had been on and off all morning but mostly held off for our ride back out, but even in overcast weather Khao Sok was a magical place. As happy as we all were with our time there, more than two days probably would’ve been too much. There’s only so much nothing you can do sometimes, and we had fish to swim with in the Andaman Ocean.

Life Doesn’t Get Much Better than Habibi in the Whitsundays

When I left Cairns on an overnight bus for Airlie Beach I was excited. It was time to start my adventures. First stop: a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands.

I boarded Habibi with 19 other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Canada, and France, as well as our Aussie skipper and 3 crew members. Together we sailed off into the expansive blue ocean. Or more accurately, we motored off. The wind wasn’t in our favor so the skipper mainly used the motor to get around. We were convinced that the few times the sail went up was more for show than practical application. I didn’t care either way though, we were still out at sea living on a boat and it was amazing.

The boat was an older model with wood benches above and even more wood bunks below. As we set off we were told our sleeping arrangements. Claire and I apparently won the lottery; we were given “the orgy bed” – it was almost the entire back of the boat and could have easily fit more than just the two of us, but we were happy to be able to starfish and not even come close to each other. Our boatmates that were assigned the small bunks were not as happy as we were.

I got lucky with a good group. There’s always an element of risk when you book a tour like this, especially as a solo traveler. As I walked to the boat I wondered what kind of group I would be with: partiers? couples? awkward people? What I got was a friendly group who was happy to hang out on a boat in nature. By the end of our few days together I wished we could keep the group together for the rest of my time in Oz, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The Whitsundays are paradise. Deep blue sea dotted with uninhabited, green tree-covered islands lined with thin white stretches of sand. In one case we stopped at an island that was only a thin white stretch of sand. It was quiet, relaxed, sunny, warm, beautiful.

Our days on Habibi went as follows: Day 1 was spent just getting out to where we would spend the night. We played a get to know each other game but didn’t stay up too late since we knew we had a full day ahead of us.

Day 2 we were woken up around 6 am for breakfast and then shuttled off to the island that was home to Whitehaven Beach, famous for being the most pristine beach in the Whitsundays. We were first to the island and from a viewpoint above the beach we saw it empty, devoid of the throngs of tourists that would soon catch up with us. We had 3 hours to play on the beach. We walked in the shallow water with sting rays all around us, took pyramid and jumping pictures in our attractive stinger suits, played soccer, and lounged on the sand. Some people practiced yoga and I took my now-traditional cartwheeling picture.

We returned to the boat for lunch – Habibi has really great food – before our snorkeling afternoon. Stop 1 was all about fish. From a school of striped fish right at the boat to George the gigantic parrot fish, we were never alone. Stop 2 was all about turtles. We had seen some turtles bobbing their heads up around our boat where we stopped the night before, but at the second snorkeling location we actually got a chance to swim with three of them. There’s not a single person who wasn’t smiling after this encounter. On our way to where we would drop anchor for the night we learned how to summon eagles from an island we were passing: whistle very loudly and wave some meat. Twice we were able to successfully throw a piece of meat in the air and watch an eagle swoop to catch it. This is entertainment in the Whitsundays.

We watched the sunset, sending it below the horizon with a cheer, and in the darkness we played a game and watched for shooting stars before another early bed time. I slept on deck with a handful of others. My bed was a bench covered with a yoga mat that cocooned me like a wooden hammock. Surprisingly I slept pretty well.

Day 3 we had one final snorkeling stop before motoring back to shore. This ended up being my favorite location. The reef was colorful, varied, with tons of different coral and fish to keep me entertained for the entire hour or so we were in the water. I even saw Nemo! Or at least the blacker cousin of Nemo. If it wasn’t for the jellyfish we had to swim through to get out and back it would’ve been a perfect location. We just hoped they weren’t the kind of jellyfish that could kill us (they do exist in the Whitsundays).

As we made our way back to Airlie Beach everyone was quiet, gazing out at the water or napping in the sun. I sat with my feet dangling off the side of the boat and watched the islands pass by, soaking in the happiness of the past few days on Habibi.

The Whitsunday boat was a last-minute decision when I got to Cairns and turned out to be a highlight of my time in Oz. It was a relaxing few days with great scenery, nature and people.

It’s worth mentioning that this is where I met Pascal, Chris and Marie, three Germans who were doing pretty much the same trip as me. We had actually all been at Asylum in Cairns at the same time but didn’t know it; we met on Habibi, where we figured out we’d be on the same Fraser Island tour, and that our timing would align in Byron Bay and Thailand for Christmas too (minus Marie who had to go home after Fraser). When we returned to Airlie I spent the day with them before our overnight buses to Rainbow Beach, where we would reconnect in our hostel before Fraser Island. Their names will come up again in future posts. I was no longer alone in Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef: The Best Worst Decision I’ve Made So Far

From day 1 I knew I wanted to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. On Wednesday Nov. 5th that day had finally come. And then I fucked it up.

Let me rewind for a minute. I booked my boat and 2 introductory scuba dives through Poseidon, a company that had been recommended to me by my kayaking buddy Martin; it had good reviews and reasonable prices in comparison to some other places (this is not a cheap adventure) so I went with it. Error 1: if I’d booked it through my hostel they could’ve given me a discounted price and I would’ve gotten a free night accommodation. Things I didn’t know. But I’d been anxious to book this tour since it was the only thing I knew I wanted to do for sure. Oh well.

The day before they called to tell me that the Poseidon boat had to be serviced, so was I ok with being put on Silversonic, an identical trip that was actually a little bit better; newer boat, more time in the water, better food included. I’d looked at this one too but the dives were more expensive; they said they weren’t going to charge me more so I said ok.

I was picked at 6:30 am from Asylum; for an extra AUD 24 the package came with a ride from my hostel to the pier in Port Douglas and back. Maybe this early departure is why I wasn’t thinking clearly when I boarded the boat and filled out the medical information form for scuba diving.

“Do you ever get dizziness, loss of vision, blackouts, or faint?” Yes, this happened just two weeks ago. In truth, this happens to me all the time – I frequently lose vision for a few seconds when I stand up, but I don’t usually faint (minus the one time when I woke up on the tiled bathroom floor of my childhood home happy that I hadn’t seriously injured myself). I always figured it had something to do with dehydration or my awful circulation, even though I’m not always dehydrated when it happens, but now that I know it’s not as common as I thought maybe I should get it checked out… I recover quickly though so I never thought it was a big deal.

Australia thought it was a big deal. Why did I check this box? I don’t know. I had a momentary lapse of judgement and told the honest truth. They didn’t let me dive. I tried to protest, saying it really wasn’t a problem, I’ve scuba dived before, and I shouldn’t have even checked the box. It was too late. My dream of scuba diving the GBR was gone and I was stuck with just snorkeling for the day. At least they promised me a refund for the dives.

I sulked upstairs and took a seat at the back of the boat, watching the ocean race by underneath us as I listened to my iPod. What the hell was I thinking? How could I let my dream go like this? I stewed for about 10 minutes, letting myself be angry at myself, and then I let it go. I was going to be refunded over $100 that I could use for other parts of my trip. That’s a lot in backpacker money. And I still had the chance to snorkel at three different locations. I’d heard snorkeling was actually better here than diving, so maybe it would be ok.

It was completely ok. Not just ok, but it was actually an absent-minded blessing. At our first location of the day I eagerly jumped into the water, determined to make the most of my snorkel time, and within seconds was inches from the reef and its inhabitants. We had an hour and a half at this location and I spent almost all of it in the water paddling around the reef. I also used this opportunity to teach myself to dive without inhaling snorkel tube mouthfuls of water. As I did this, I caught sight of the introductory divers. They were nowhere near the reef; they were over by the boat holding onto a rope, practicing breathing and clearing their masks.

I realized something: the reef is not a place to introductory dive. The point of the day was to see the GBR, and the introductory divers had just a fraction of the time that the snorkelers had to do this. Between going through the learning process of how to use the equipment and only having 20-30 minutes of air in their tanks, their time to see the reef was minimal. I, on the other hand, had well over an hour in all three locations to see the coral, fish and one shark. The reef was my playground while the scuba divers were in class. (If you are certified though it’s probably worth it; you don’t have to go through the lessons and get to actually swim around the reef at a lower depth. Although really most of what you want to see is so close to the surface that I’m not sure it’s even better as a certified diver.)

So how was the reef? Expansive, interesting, full of a variety of coral and its residents – fish, giant clams, sea cucumbers, anemones, starfish, at least one shark, and apparently turtles, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. The three locations that we explored all offered something different, the third being my favorite due to it being the most colorful underwater landscape of the day. All in all though, I admit, I was a bit disappointed.

The GBR is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous, and it didn’t quite have that effect. It was beautiful and I’m so happy to have seen it, but this section of outer reef honestly wasn’t my favorite diving site (something I would discover in the Whitsundays). And the fish weren’t nearly as numerous and vibrant as I expected them to be either.

So in the end, with the impression I got from the GBR and the realization that learning to dive is better done not at a Natural Wonder of the World, my lapse in judgement to say I get blackouts ended up saving my day.

And it didn’t hurt my budget either. Remember how I said I’d booked through Poseidon, which had cheaper dives, but was actually sent out with Silversonic? Well they refunded me for the Silversonic prices, so I actually ended up with a cheaper day than they even offer just to snorkel. I’d count that as a win for me.

A Day Trip from Sydney to the Blue Mountains

When asking for suggestions for what to do in Sydney Josi adamantly told me I had to visit the Blue Mountains. More than once. So from the beginning of my time in Sydney I planned for a day trip out there. She was right to tell me to go.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love cities that have easy access to nature. This adventure, in addition to all the beaches, solidified Sydney’s place in that category.

The Blue Mountains are so easy to get to from Sydney, contrary to what it may seem like from the tourist information center. When I asked the Sydney info center about going there I was presented with day trips that would take me and a bus full of other tourists around to the highlights for the reasonable price of about AUD 100. No thanks. When I asked about taking the train out myself they said it was possible and my best option then would be to do a AUD 40 hop on hop off bus to the sites. I didn’t do this either.

Here’s how to do the Blue Mountains the backpacker way: take a train out to Katoomba and walk about half an hour to the information center at Echo Point, at the edge of the Blue Mountains. This info center is actually super helpful – the woman there helped me plan my day, showing me the different routes on maps and explaining how long they would take. If you want to continue in my footsteps, from there, hike your way to Leura, a small town where you can take a not-so-cheap lunch break (your most affordable option is a $7 gourmet bakery pie), jump back on the train heading in the Sydney direction for no extra cost, and get off at the next stop, Wentworth Falls, for a short walk. Then back on the train to return to Sydney. (A good thing to know: you can go back to Sydney from any of these stations with your return ticket or just use your Opal card.) It’s as easy as that, no tour needed. And this way you can hike at your own pace, choose to stay on the Katoomba/Leura side or go to the Wentworth side like I did, and just have a wonderful nature day without spending an exorbitant amount of money to be herded around with the rest of the tourist cattle.

As for the Blue Mountains themselves: gorgeous, of course. There really is a blue sheen over the treetops, which look like a foresty blanket stretching for miles over the valley. The surrounding cliffs add to the majestic appearance. At almost every viewpoint I stopped and let out a jaw-dropped “wow,” occasionally accompanied by “so fucking pretty.”

I definitely recommend hiking down into the valley. The views are amazing, but descending 1,000 steps into the forest surrounded by towering cliffs, giant trees, and random bird noises made the whole experience even better. The only problem with descending 1,000 steps into the valley is that you have to climb back up to get out. At least the trail planners were nice in putting these paths next to waterfalls, providing a pretty and cooling distraction.

The whole hike down, up and around from Katoomba to Leura took about 3 hours and was just strenuous enough to feel like I got in some good exercise. The decision to do a short Wentworth Falls hike again came from Josi’s suggestion. She said it was her favorite side because it was quieter; she was right. I did a simple 2 hour return hike out to the top of the falls and back for one final view. It was easier but a pleasant way to end the day.

I went back to Sydney happily tired and a little sunburnt from a great day in nature.

Alice in Rotorua

Leaving the South Island I was facing a two day journey to get back up to Auckland. Since I had the hop on hop off bus pass I decided to break up the trip a little with a day in Rotorua.

I left Kaikoura in the morning and made it to the Interislander ferry by 1:00 pm. It was nice to do the Cook Strait crossing in the daylight this time; the trip out of Picton is a lovely ride through green hills on either side of the channel. I arrived in Wellington shortly before 5 but didn’t venture back out into the city. I just took it easy at the hostel since I had to get on a bus again before 8:00 am the next morning. It was already afternoon by the time I got to Rotorua, so my exploring would mostly have to wait for the next day.

Rotorua is known for its hot springs and its stench. This town stinks. Literally. It’s because it’s a geothermally active area so the odor of sulfur is a constant presence. Having experienced this immediately, I wanted to experience its other prominent feature, so I looked into what my options were for the day.

NZ$69 to do a day trip to the best place to see the unique colors, geological formations, and geysers. Hot springs were all spas, not exactly an affordable option or even what I was imagining. I decided neither of these things was worth the budget expense; I was spoiled in the Salt Flats with our geysers and hot springs at dawn experience.

So what could I do in Rotorua on a budget? Have a pretty good day actually.

I spent the majority of the day walking around Rotorua and still was able to see the insanity of its natural make-up. I started with the path around the lake, which traversed land that appeared dead but actually had small geysers, bubbling holes, coffee-colored pools, and tons of birds. And of course the awful smell. I’m lucky my face went back to normal after an hour of walking around with my nose scrunched up.

I continued the walk south to the Redwood Forest. Try getting two more opposite landscapes within the same walk. Now I was surrounded by a lush forest with soaring Redwood trees and green fern trees. The oddity of Rotorua was not to be forgotten though as I traversed a bright blue river in the middle of the forest. Have I used Alice in Wonderland yet? Because if the Amazon was Dr. Suess and the Salt Flats were Salvador Dali then Rotorua is Alice in Wonderland.

It was a solid day of walking, with lots of time to think, listen to music, and to reflect on my month in New Zealand. That night I got on a bus to Auckland, my final stop before the next country. Rotorua was a fitting stop on my way out to see more quirky nature – I started in the North Island with glowworm caves and ended with geothermal wonderland. NZ really does have some of the craziest nature within such a small country.

Road Trip South Island: Milford Sound

Milford Sound is majestic. It is breathtaking, jaw-dropping, peaceful, beautiful.

It is the end of the world.

I had hoped I would make it to Milford Sound somehow, so when Josi said she was thinking about renting a car to go from Queenstown around the time that our car had to be dropped off in Queenstown it was just too perfect. Milford Sound would be the final excursion in our road trip adventure. So we drove 4 hours on Sunday to stay the night in Milford Sound Lodge before we boarded the earliest (and cheapest) boat ride on Monday morning at 9:15 am.

The drive there was already epic. The road wound first through forest and then through marshes with cloud cover all around; we weren’t able to see most of the mountains that were surrounding us but the “Warning: Avalanche Zone” signs told us they were there. At one point we had to wait for a light to tell us it was our turn to enter a tunnel cut into a mountain. This tunnel was dimly lit by a single row of lights on the ceiling and had no end in sight; we just knew we were going down. Thank you to the tape gods for choosing to play Bruce’s “I’m Going Down” during this part of the drive. “I’m going down, down, down, down, down.” So appropriate.

We arrived at Milford Sound Lodge and I immediately loved the serenity. Located in a valley between soaring mountains, it was an escape from the rest of the world. The evening was all about relaxing; we hung out in our coziest clothes, reading, writing blog posts, and sharing stories. We cooked a fantastic veggie curry with rice and played cards until bedtime. No internet, nowhere to go, and nothing to do but chill. It was great.

The next morning it was time to see the main attraction. We made it safely out of the parking lot, avoiding the pesky kea and sand flies that surrounded the cars, and arrived at the harbor in shockingly perfect weather. Milford is one of the wettest regions in the world and somehow we had blue skies. People say that it’s better in rain, but after seeing it in sun I think they just say this because most people don’t get to see it in nice weather.

The early boat was definitely the way to go (and I would recommend the one we chose, Jucy). These boats could easily fit a couple hundred people, but we had about 20. It was almost a private tour. It had free tea and coffee the entire time to warm you up, and the captain periodically told us facts and stories over the loudspeaker. It was an enjoyable, well done tour.

Then there was the scenery. There’s no way to do it justice. We were in awe the entire time. Mountains covered in green trees rose up out of the dark water. Waterfalls were everywhere; they seemed moderate in comparison to the mountains but were actually the height of skyscrapers. Sun rays flooded over the mountain peaks and created rainbows in the waterfalls. The entire scene was magical.

The water was fairly calm so the boat took us all the way out into the Tasman Sea and then back through the fjord, with two quick detours: one to see a building where they study the fjord with a snow-covered mountain background, and one to take a quick dip in one of the largest waterfalls in the fjord. We had plenty of warning and most people went inside to dry safety, but I braved the cold downpour to get it all on GoPro video. I think it was worth it.

We were sad when the cruise ended but you would never know it by the huge smiles on all of our faces. There’s a reason Milford Sound is talked about as being one of the best experiences in New Zealand: because it is. Any positive thing you’ve ever heard about Milford is right. It is an amazing landscape, nature that renders you speechless. All I wanted to do was stare, contemplate, and smile. Absolutely incredible.

The drive back out of Milford was just as epic as the drive in. With blue skies we were able to see the mountains and waterfalls that we had missed on our way in. I’m so happy we saw it both ways: mysterious in cloud cover, impressive in clear weather. And again the tape gods gave us something to laugh about: on our way back up through the mountain tunnel we were treated with M People’s “Moving On Up.” “I’m moving on up. You’re moving on out. Movin’ on up. Nothing can stop me.”

A few hours later we were back in Queenstown. Something about this trip to Milford Sound felt very final. After a fantastic road trip, Frank, Josi and I had gone to the end of the world and back together. We had come from the sandy beaches of Abel Tasman through the dreary downpour of Hokitika and the skydive-induced excitement of the glaciers to the peaceful fiord of Milford. This was the best part of my time in New Zealand and I couldn’t have imagined better travel companions to experience it with and a better way to end it than the magnificent Milford Sound.