If you've ever looked into hiking to EBC (or at the internet in general) you'll know that there's SO MUCH information and a million different options. Lonely Planet also has a long list of local and foreign companies. I was having a hard time getting a feel for everything from just websites, so I decided to figure it out when I got to Kathmandu. But, just like the internet, there's a place around every corner that offers guide and porter services. My plan was to walk into a few I'd heard about and go with my gut feeling. I met two girls my first night in my hostel who mentioned that they had just set up their Annapurna trek with a company called Suissa. The reviews were good: super helpful, answered all of their questions and were reasonably priced (less than our hostel was offering the service for). I tagged along with them the next day, while they tied up some of the loose ends, and talked with the owner. I told him that I wanted to deviate slightly from the traditional trek and go through the Cho La pass after EBC to see Gokyo also.  He walked me through each day - destination, terrain, walking time, temps, sights to see, etc. We figured, with the pass, it would take just over two weeks. I was impressed with the knowledge and service, but I wanted to meet the guide before I decided. We set up a time the next day and I left with a good feeling and a list of the gear I needed to get. I had some hiking stuff with me (like shoes, luckily), but I didn't have much cold weather gear or a sleeping bag. But, I'll talk about shopping in Kathmandu soon :)

I went back the next day and met Netra, my soon to be guide. The owner, Netra and I went through the itinerary again, talked about what I expected from the trip and just generally got a feel for each other. I needed another memory card for my camera, and hadn't been to the area with the camera store yet, so Netra walked me down and we continued to ask each other questions. He grew up in one of the  villages about an hour from Kathmandu and has trekked to EBC several times, first as a porter and then as a guide.  He has a wife, a daughter (who's adorable - lots of pics on his phone) and is the ripe old age of 22. In those 22 years he's hiked to base camp over 30 times and has done several treks in the other regions. So, he's done a lot of hiking and the last few years of it were as a guide. His English was a little hit or miss, and I know all of ten words of Nepali (hello, thank you, you're welcome and the numbers one through five - is that even ten words? Nope, only eight…) Anyway, even with the language barrier, I got a good feeling from Netra. He seemed to know the region, was fine with going on my schedule and he had a genuine love for the mountains. He told me he always felt at home in the mountains. I can definitely relate to that feeling. So yes, I went with the first company I found (that said everything would be great, I could do anything an everything I wanted and I'd have no problems at all) without doing any more research. Little foreshadowing, you ask? Yes, but don't worry, I make it out alive. :)

I spent the next few days walking around Thamel (the shopping area of central Kathmandu) buying all the things I needed. They have a North Face, a Mountain Hardware and a few other places we've got at home, but those all have prices similar to those at home. The other stuff in Thamel isn't the same quality, but I was only hiking for two weeks and it was good enough to get me through. Luckily, I already had shoes and my hiking poles. I have a jacket, a fleece and some thermal pants, but I wanted a few more layers. Also, I needed some more hiking socks. I wandered through the maze of streets checking things off my list. I found some thicker thermal pants and a top, another wicking t-shirt because I only had one, a new beanie because I'm obsessed, a "North Face" puffy jacket because it was $25, some fleece gloves and a pair of puffy gloves because they are awesome, some yak wool pants because they're also awesome (and warm) and a whole lot of socks. I also bought prayer flags to hang at base camp. I didn't want to buy a sleeping bag, but I needed one (a -20, at that), so I rented one.  

I met Netra Saturday morning outside Suissa and we grabbed a cab to the airport. The airport's a little different than any of the ones at home. There's two buildings, one for domestic flights and one for international. We got to the domestic terminal before it was open and waited around on the chairs outside until one of the security guards came to the door. Netra pushed his way to the front (he did this a lot; it seems to be a Nepali culture thing. The line concept hasn't really taken hold yet. It might have something to do with the sheer amount of people) and gave the guard my passport and our tickets. Security is one conveyer belt where you put your stuff and get a pat down. There are different lines for males and females and I always got to go behind a curtain for my security check. We made it through and waited for the Tara Air lines counter to open. When it did, we weighed our bags to see what the damage was. Mine was 16.4 kilos and Netra's was 4.9. In my defense, he didn't have a sleeping bag and I brought too much stuff :)  Then, we  waited. And waited. And waited. The two flights before ours had been delayed because of the fog, so there were lots of people sitting around waiting. Our eight o'clock flight time came and went. Nine o'clock came and went. Ten o'clock came and went. We kept getting the same information "We'll let you know if there are any changes. If the weather is still bad at noon, all flights for the day will be cancelled." In their defense, we were flying into the most dangerous landing strip in the world. There's a mountain on one side, a drop on the other, and a runway thats only 1,509 by 66 ft. There isn't really much room for error. Unfortunately for us, noon also came and went without the weather clearing. I'd heard that the flight to Lukla was often cancelled because of the fog, but it was one of those "won't happen to me things" until it did. We rescheduled our flight for six the next day and took a cab back to my hostel. It was a bummer, but I got back to the hostel and they had nothing left but a private room with a huge bed, so I took a nap and felt better. I got to spend one more night with the Alobar 1000 crew, and they're an awesome crew, so it wasn't all bad. I went to my first Nepalese disco. It was empty and I wasn't drinking, so I didn't do much (any) dancing, but it was fun nonetheless. 

Our flight Sunday was at 6, not 8 (to try and beat the fog in case it rolled in again), so Netra met me at the hostel at 4:30 and we started the process over again. Delayed, again. This time, though, they let us check our bags, and get through the second round of security to the terminal building, so we figured that was a good sign. But, again, six came and went. Seven came and went. Eight came and went. It wasn't until 8:45 that we heard that the fog in Lukla had lifted and we were ok to fly. We waited for the airline counter to yell out our flight number, three, and walked out of the building and into a bus. The bus took us to our little sixteen seater, twin otter airplane and we all piled in with the two pilots and one stuardess. After we sat down the flight attendant passed out candies from a little wood bowl. The front left seats are the best on your way to Lukla, to get a view of the Himalayas. I was at the end of the line getting on, though, so my seat was mid/back right. I had some mountains on my side also, and we were low enough that I could see the wider trails zig zagging through them. I also could see the mountains through the window across to my right when I looked that direction. Stunning views all around. Snow capped on the left, green and smaller on the right.  

Eventually we started to turn and descend and I looked out in front of the plane to see the runway. I could see why it's considered the most dangerous airport in the world.  There isn't really much room for error. Mountains on one side and a drop on the other.  But, for all that, the landing was really smooth.

We hopped out of the plane, grabbed our bags and began the journey! 

I didn't see too much of Lukla, other than stopping in one of the lodges for breakfast. We'd had chai and some biscuits while we waited at the airport, but were in need of some proper nutrition. I got the English breakfast (who knew beans with toast was so good) with coffee and we were officially off. 

We had flown to an altitude of 2840 meters to Lukla and were actually decending to 2610 to spend our first night in Phakding. The views along the way were incredible and the trail was mostly flat or downhill. It was perfect for getting used to the bag on my back and having my hiking poles in my hands again. We went through our first checkpoint at the end of Lukla and presented our TIMS card (not sure what the acronym stands for, but you need one to trek in Nepal). Afterwards we went through a mani, a ceremonial gatehouse and an arch commemorating Junko Tabei - the first women to summit Everest. Then, we were out of Lukla and on the trail. There was a steep drop to the first village, where they mainly farm cabbage, and then the trail leveled out. I had my first dzopkyo sighting - the cross between a yak and cow that lives in the lower, warmer altitudes. They aren't as hairy as yaks, but you can tell they aren't cows from the fur and horns.  We were low enough that there were trees and bushes everywhere. About an hour in we reached the first big village since Lukla, Cheplung. Big meaning it had lodges and its own gompa. A gompa is a place people and monks go to pray, meditate, learn about spirituality, etc. It can as small as one room or a large building. There were also prayer wheels and mantra stones.  I had seen them around in Kathmandu, but I didn't know much about them so I asked Netra. The prayer wheels usually have the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum (Hail the jewel in the lotus) written on them, and you spin them to help purify your soul, building up your good karma and getting rid of the bad. The stones also repeat the same mantra, among others, and you always walk with them on your left. 

When we left Cheplung we saw the Dudh Kosi River in the bottom of the valley.   There were donkeys hanging out on the trail, cows eating yellow grass, and we crossed out first bridge. The metal suspension bridges bounce as you walk on them. They're pretty high up and it first I couldn't really look anywhere but straight ahead without getting an entire colony of butterflies in my stomach. There aren't all that wide, either. You can cross at the same time as another person going the opposite direction, but yaks don't yield to anyone, so they have the right of way. They have the right of way on the entire trail, but especially on the bridges. We did some more slight ups and downs, seeing more mani walls, chortens, prayer wheels and a whole lot of prayer flags. 

The total trek to Phakding took about three hours (mainly because I stopped and took SO MANY pictures).  We crossed one more suspension bridge to take us to the end of the village and found a tea house with a patio for NR 200 (~$3.20). It was still the off season when we started, and we were pretty low, so the rooms were cheap. We found one for NR 50, but the sunrise lodge had an outdoor patio and the room had an attached bathroom and shower, so I splurged :) Netra stays free when he treks (along as he's got a paying customer with him) so he was ok with the nicer lodge. The rooms were always really cheap, but they hike up the food prices to make up the difference. It's still nowhere near US prices, but for Nepal it's relatively expensive. We ate a bowl of garlic soup to tide us over until dinner and then went to explore the Thaktul monastery above town. It was a quick, twenty minute hike and it felt easy without my big bag. I'd brought a small daypack for the day hikes I knew we'd be doing and all I had in it at the moment was some sunblock and water. We hiked under an archway made of branches and saw the monastery above us. Tibetan and Buddhist monasteries are all very colorful and this one was no exception - yellow and orange with a pink gate. It sounds like an awful color combination, but somehow they make it work. It's uplifting rather than gaudy. We took turns spinning the large prayer wheel and all the small ones that lined the outside of the building. So many prayers in so little time. Super efficient. :) 

We walked into the main building and there were three young boys playing haki sac. They were dressed in the traditional orange color of the monks, but I'm not sure if they were monks in training or just helping out at the temple. Either way, they ignored me until I had Netra ask if we could go into the temple room that was locked and then one of them scurried off to get someone with a key. There was a shrine to Buddha inside the room behind some glass and every color you could imagine. The walls were decorated with Buddhists stories and hymns and lined with these orange boxes that I later learned contained scriptures. 

We walked back down a slightly different way and encounted some cows and a large grass pile. We avoided the cows, jumped into the grass and were back at our lodge in no time. It was still only around four o' clock, so we had a few hours to kill before dinner. I started my book "Touching my father's soul,"  by Jamling Norway, the son of Tenzing Norway, the sherpa who climbed and was the first to summit Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. I journaled for a bit once I got through a few chapters and decided to try out my "hot" shower before dinner. I wouldn't exactly call it hot, but it did warm up after running for a bit. Luke warm, at best, but it was nice to take a shower and wash my hair. I knew showers were going to be scarce the higher up we got. 

Netra had been talking about how I needed to have some yak steak on the trip, so we both ordered it here. It was delicious, especially after a day of hiking. It was a little chewy, but the slathering of gravy with mashed potatoes and vegetables made up for that. I should have taken a picture, but I didn't think of it at the time. I hadn't eaten much meat in Kathmandu (I found myself with a slight stomach ache most of the times I had chicken), but I decided to risk it. I did end up with a slight stomach ache, but it was completely gone when I woke up. That's one thing travel is good for - a stomach of steal.

Not too long after dinner it got dark and the temperature dropped, so I went into the main lodge, bought a pot (1 L thermos) of ginger tea and finished my journal entry before heading into my room. I unrolled my sleeping bag, changed into my yak wool pants, read a little more under the light of my headlamp and fell into one of those nice sleeps that comes after spending the day in the crisp mountain air. 

Day 1: Three hours. 4 miles. Success. 

Australia is such a huge country and I only had two weeks there. So much I didn't get to see - the outback, Melbourne, Tasmania, Uluru, the list goes on and on. I guess it's always that way, though. You cross off one thing and add five more.  But, I digress. I actually did pack a lot in in the two weeks I was there.  And, it was like a little slice of home spending time with the Allens and the Bubliks (a Czech family friend from home was visiting her brother in Brisbane while I was there). I got to see the normal, every day side of Australia as well as the tourists side. 

Each place had it's highlights. Sydney had the Opera House and the fun, funky feel of a vibrant city.  The Blue Mountains had scenery for miles and lots and lots of steps.  Hunter Valley had wine, cheese, chocolate and great company. Cairns had reefs, fish, sharks and more good company and Brisbane had spending time with family friends, getting to listen to czech, farmers markets and an awesome park where I got to feed parrots and alpacas and walk on tree tops (most of these photos are waiting for me at home on a CD, so I'll have to sneak in another Australia entry at a later date). 

The Allens and the Bubliks went out of their way to make my stay great. The Mandy, Laura and Ian dedicated a whole weekend to entertaining me. Dinners, lunches, wine tastings, letting me stay in their home, etc, etc. I don't think there was anything I could have asked that they wouldn't have gone out of their way to help me with. They even returned my beloved Nalgene when I left it in their car (that thing's covered in some awesome stickers and I'd really hate to lose it).  With the Bubliks I got to have a relaxing, mellow weekend that included a ride to and from the airport, a nature walk in a tree canopy, their pool and a whole lot of lounging. Can't go wrong with that combination. I can't tell you how nice it is to have a place to unwind and stay put for a few days without worrying about where you're going next, how to get there, where to lock up your stuff, etc. 

In short, I had a great time, but I wish it had been more time. I saw such a small area of such a huge country. 

Next time: More diving, a show at the opera house, more hiking and the outback (and whatever else gets added to the list while I'm there). 

So, Australia, until then :)
I took a flight from Sydney to Cairns and boarded the Rum Runner early the next morning to start the three and a half hour boat ride to the reef. Most people were there to snorkel, a few were working on their dive certs, and five of us were there as already certified divers. We got our mask, fins, wet suits and were shown our tanks and where to pile all of our stuff. It's been a while since I've been on a boat, let alone a boat that small moving that fast,  so most of the time I was concentrating on staring at the horizon and keeping my breakfast in my belly. I think there were only two people that were actually sick, but near the end of the ride I noticed that nobody was talking much and almost everyone was focusing on a single point far off into the distance.   

We got to our first dive site, called 360, anchored the boat and were divided into buddy groups for Dive #1. Holly and I, Mike and Adrian and Hahn and either Kayne or Cyril (the two dive masters from the boat). Our first dive was a "feel it out" kind of dive. I think Adrian was the only one that had dived recently (he was on the Rum Runner the week before). I used it as a refresher for how everything worked and to get used to being in the water again. We wriggled into our stinger suits, strapped on our BCDs, checked our tanks one last time and put on our flippers to waddle to the middle of the boat. One hand on your mask and regulator, one big step and into the water we went. We usually swam to the front of the boat to wait for everyone else and start our dives following the rope line down. Everything from my certification came back easier than I thought it would (thanks, Steve!) and I was down at the bottom in no time. I figured out my buoyancy without too much trouble and swam around trying to stay close to Holly and the rest of the group. Some of the coral and fish I had seen before,  some I didn't even know existed. Each of our dives lasted around 40 to 50 minutes, and we'd come up, dry off on the boat and have a snack before going back in. I checked out the fish and coral guide on the boat so I knew (somewhat) what I was looking at. I tried to keep a mental list of what I saw -  angelfish, clown fish, parrotfish, triggerfish, starfish, two white tipped reef sharks and lots and lots of sea cucumbers (they're the prickly things on the back of Holly's tank, and what we're all holding). I was amazed at how colorful all the fish were, and all the other things there were to look at. The coral formations were just as impressive as the fish. I think my favorite was the brain coral. We saw both hard and soft coral, coral surrounded by fish and coral covered in some kind of moss and/or small water flowers. Mike and Adrian went on their own dive for the second one and got some awesome footage of a sea turtle eating a jellyfish. It would take a huge bite out of the jellyfish, let it sink a little while it was chomping, then swim down and take another bite. I didn't see that with my own two eyes, but I did see the turtle from the boat beforehand, and the video was awesome to watch.  

We came up after our third dive, had dinner and relaxed until it was time for our night dive. We started about twenty minutes before eight and were under for around 45 minutes, getting down to 13 meters. We had large flashlights around our wrists, and other than that light and the light from everyone else's flashlight, it was completely dark. We dived at the same place we had been in out previous dive, but, honestly, I was more focused on keeping up and not getting lost than looking around. I did see some fish here and there, but mostly I was trying to figure out which of the figures around me was Holly. At one point we all settled onto the ground, covered our lights and waved our arms around to disturb the plankton, which makes it fluoresce. That was my favorite part of the night dive - seeing all the glowing spots around me. It was like being in the middle of the sky, but underwater. 

By the time the last dive for the day was over I was exhausted and ready for bed. We were anchored and the water was calm, so being below deck wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I passed out and we got woken up early to fit in two more dives before we headed back to Cairns. We did these two dives in an area called the lagoon, and our last dive was probably the hardest of all of them. We were swimming around the coral against the current for a good chunk of the dive. The guys handled it no problem, but Holly and I struggled a bit to get through the water. We ran out of air a little earlier than we had on the previous dives and surfaced a ways away from the Rum Runner. We made our way back to the boat for the last time, clambered on to the back and settled in for the over three hour ride back. That same distant look settled in on lots of people's faces, but, I think we'd all learned not to eat so much, so the way in saw a little less action. 

 There really is a whole different world under there. It's amazing. So much to see. So many colors. Life everywhere. I can't wait to get to explore it some more! 
After the Blue Mountains I headed back to the Allen's to spend the night and go wine and cheese (and dessert and beer) tasting in Hunter Valley. We were up early to start the hour and a half long drive to Australia's wine country, just outside of Sydney. The first winery, McGuigan Wines, is connected to a cheese company so we started here to get some food in our bellies  (at this point I think it was only about ten o' clock anyway, but, it was definitely five o' clock somewhere). The cheese maker was at the shop setting up the sampling, so we got to meet him and try his recommendations. It's a family business and he told us stories of waking up every four hours with his dad to turn the cheese when he was young. We tried some marinated feta, strong blue cheese, a sharp cheddar, some brie and a few others before deciding on  a tasting platter of our favorite three. While we waited, the cheese maker, who's name I now can't remember, gave us a tour of the small factory. It really only consisted of viewing the outside of the room where the cheese is made and the room where it sits to age, but he told us all about how it's made, what makes different cheeses different, how it's different from twenty years ago and how long the cheeses have to age. It can take up to five years to grow the mold around the brie cheeses!

We got our cheese platter shortly after, loaded with pickles, chutney, bread and crackers. We ate every crumb and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. The feta was my favorite. It was marinated in some sort of Italian spices (I think) and was delicious. 

After that we walked next door to McGuigan's to start our wine tasting. The building was one large, warehouse sized room with bottles of wine and wine accessories on one side and counters for tasting on the other. None of the places we went to charged to taste; I think that's a trend the US should pick up :) We started with the whites and made our way to the heavier reds and tried a port (smelled terrible but tasted delicious). I'm partial to white wine, but I like all the ones I tried, save the heaviest of the reds. I wouldn't even say I didn't like that one, but I don't think I could have finished a glass before the head ache would have set in. Laura and Ian aren't big wine drinkers, or at least they weren't before we started… :) They bought a few bottles at McGuigan's and at the other winery we stopped in.  I would have loved to buy a few bottles but they aren't that easy to carry around and you can't ship wine to Utah .

The tasting place was set next to a mini village with lots of little eccentric tourist shops. We walked through the candy and dessert shops and picked out some chocolates to try. We all chose something different and shared each one. Fat and happy we drove to the Botanical Gardens to walk around. The garden was divided into different themed sections. There were the Chinese Gardens, the Storybook Gardens, the Italian Grotto gardens and several others. They were all beautifully manicured and cared for and in between the different gardens you walked on sidewalks through well cut grass and hedges trimmed into horses and gardeners. The storybook gardens were my favorite. Alice and wonderland characters were having dinner, Hansel and Gretel were there, Humpty Dumpty was trying not to fall off the wall.  

Sounds like a full day, but we still had more dessert tasting and a beer tasting. We went to a place called Sabor Hunter and had some of the most delicious, richest desserts I've ever had. Chocolate, peanut butter and creme brûlée. It was delicious and beautiful; I've never seen such pretty desserts. It was good we were splitting everything, because with how rich each individual piece was, I couldn't have finished anything on my own. 

We made one more stop on our way back to finish off our tasting day with some beer (just so we hit everything). There were all sorts of interesting flavors and we settled on a wheat beer, a ginger beer, a dessert beer and a lager. I'm partial to the light wheat beers, and this one was good. The ginger beer was also; a super strong ginger flavor, but it was different and I liked it. Ian and I shared each glass and were done in no time. 

I'm glad I got to see the wine tasting side of Australia. I've since met a lot of Australians and I keep hearing "Oh, I've never been to Hunter Valley. It's supposed to be great and I really want to go!" It was great and everything I tried was so, so good.  I was very spoiled to have the Allens show me around. I kept telling them they're going to have to come to Utah so I can return the favor (hint, hint)! 

I'm finding that for varieties sake I really like alternating between the city and nature (more to escape the city than nature) so it was refreshing to head to the Blue Mountains after a few days in Sydney. Their called the Blue Mountains because of the blue haze you can see, especially in the sun. It sort of comes across in some of the pictures, but it was really obvious being there.  Mandy (from the overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound) drove me up Wednesday morning and showed me lots of lookouts and little trails along the way. We stopped at some botanical garden and walked through the different levels looking at all the scenery and flowers. My favorite were the pink and yellow ones in the picture above, but I can't figure out their name. I was staying in the town of Katoomba and out first stop there was Echo Point lookout to get a good view of the Three Sisters rock formation. The legend behind the name starts with three sisters who fell in love with three brothers from another tribe. When they were forbidden to marry, the three brothers declared war on the other tribe. A witch doctor turned the girls into stone when their lives where endangered in the battle, but couldn't change them back after he himself was killed.   Those three took one for the team; they're pretty impressive to look at. After that we hiked the short trail to Wentworth falls, another impressive site. We ended with a quick lunch at this delicious little quirky shop called the Yellow Deli. Soup and salad and I was off to my hostel to check out my new Blue Mountains map. 

I met a Swiss guy while I was studying my trail map and we decided to meet the next morning and hike around together. We started at the Three Sister's trail and went down the 900 steps of the Giant Stairway to get into the trees below. And then… we were bushwalking! We decided to head west and take the trail to Scenic World, which had two gondolas, a small trail system and the scenic railway, advertised as the world's steepest railway.  One gondola connected the neighboring ridges together, while the other went down into the trees, past the railway.
We walked for about an hour to where the trail connects with the railway, talking about our lives at home and what we were doing now. Michael was studying agriculture so he got a work visa and spent four months in Australia working on a farm. He was in the Blue Mountains doing a little traveling before he went back home to finish school and start working. At the junction we took the Furber Steps trail back up to the ridge line. These steps weren't as steep as the Giant Stairway, but we had the same amount of elevation to make up, so we (I, at least) got a pretty good workout in.  We walked along the ridge line and back to the main street, where our hostel was. We got back around two and I had full intentions of going out again after lunch, but my lazy side got the better of me. I ended up Skyping with friends and family and got to see baby Greta Sue fly through the air like Super Baby (Nice, Ben. I loved it. Hilarious!), so it was totally worth hanging out at the hostel.  

That night I went out for drinks with two of my roommates and had a great time getting to know them and trying the local brew. Liz was in Australia, from England, completing her residency. She's been training all over the world, from Nepal to India and Australia. Super smart, very witty and full of good stories. She reminded me how much I admire sarcasm. She told me all about her experiences working in a Nepalese hospital and gave me some pointers for the trip. She had both negative and positive experiences from the country and taught me a lot that I didn't know about the culture. Dave was a 22 year old guy from Jersey who had just finished his undergrad in Buisness and was moving to Seattle when he got back to work for Boeing. Also held his own in the conversations and story telling. Again, interesting people everywhere. Awesome night that ended in the bar giving us each free pies on our way out the door. 

I went hiking solo the next day and again started at the Giant Stairway. This time, instead of going west  I walked east to the Leura forest. I heard a lot of different birds, but the only ones I really got a good look at where some Superb Lyrebirds. They're about the size of a pheasant and have these long , multi-multicolored tail feathers. One that I saw was digging around in the dirt, looking for food (I think) and the other was just walking along, minding his own business. The forest didn't take long to reach, and the trees became more dense and moss covered. There were a few more waterfalls in the area, and I stopped at one of the picnic tables and took a quick break. What goes down must eventually come up, so after walking through the rest of the forest, I headed up the Federal Pass to get back to the trail to the Prince Henry Cliff Walk along the ridge line.  I kept walking past the lookout for the Three Sisters for about another half hour and made my way to Scenic World to ride the world's steepest railway. It actually was really steep and fast, and I held on for dear life and to keep myself from tumbling into the back of the people in front of me.  I didn't have time to walk the trail at the bottom of the railway, so I walked up and over the train and got in line at the very first car so I'd have a view on the way back up (I was almost in the very back car on the way down). I waited for about 15 minutes for the train to make it's way back and had an awesome view the whole way up (except for when we were in the tunnel). I hopped onto the gondola to cut a little time off my way back, grabbed my stuff and walked down to the station to catch the next train into the city. 

I'm glad I made it to the Blue Mountains and got to experience the "Bushwalking." The elevation gain and loss is much less than at home or in New Zealand, but you can only have so bad of a day in the mountains, right? It's still partially rain forest, so there's moss and ferns everywhere, and those same lush greens that were in New Zealand were present here also. I wish I had had time to make it out to Tazmania, a region known for it's hiking, but the Blue Mountains were a nice contrast to the city and an excuse to be outside. 





I met a girl in New Zealand who recommended I stay at the YHA (youth hostel) in an area called "The Rocks." It was a little more expensive than some of the other options, but turned out to be well worth the extra few dollars. It was right in between the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House. There was also a third story observatory where you could sit at one of the tables, lounge on one of the lawn chairs and sunbath, or just look out over the city. 

I did a little research my first night there and started off early the next day with a tour at the Sydney Opera House. The outside (and inside) of the buildings is amazing. I hadn't realized that it was several different structures all connected together. There's two main halls set side by side and seven venues total. You can see an Opera, a ballet, a symphony or a play. Sadly, I didn't see anything, but it's on my list for next time! We started on the bottom level and worked our way up and around the back of the outside with a beautiful view of the harbor and the bridge. We timed the tour well and were able to walk into each of the theaters on the tour because no rehearsals were going and there weren't any people working in them. I thought the Concert Hall, used for symphonies and orchestras (I think) was the most impressive. The seats were made from certa mattress material so people could be comfortable in them for several hours. The small round, flat disks you can see above the stage are sound barriers to let the sound bounce back down to the stage and out to the audience. The red side panelling was very dramatic and the inward slope of the walls naturally directed your attention to the stage.  We walked through to the opposite side and into a few more rooms before watching a movie reflected off the outside of the building. It was all about the Danish architect and the Opera House's construction. It was projected to take three years and ended up taking 17. Reminds me of a certain government project I used to work on… :)

Outside of the Opera House start the Botanical Gardens and I wondered through them and found a nice shady spot to sit and have some lunch. I passed the government house on my way and a rhino statue for the "Save the Rhino" campaign they have here in Australia. There are rhinos all over the city - camo and polka dot and painted with every color and design imaginable. I also saw White Ibis' (birds) all over the park. I thought they were pretty neat, with their white bodies and long black beaks, but, apparently, they're a big nuisance in Australia and the locals don't love them. They didn't hesitate to jump on vacated tables and pick at whatever was left on the table (the Ibis, not the locals), so I can see how they aren't all that loved. I still thought they were cool. After lunch and some quality time with Oliver Twist, I took a bus to Bondi beach for a little sunbathing. Note to self, and a helpful hint for all of you, make sure your hands aren't covered in sand before you squirt sun block into them. Exfoliation wasn't exactly what I was going for. Regardless, the sun was out and it was a wonderfully hot day for playing in the ocean. I laid out, read a little more and got in the water when it got too hot (which was often). After about three hours I collected my things and did the Bronte beach walk. It wasn't very long, but I started just as the sun was getting ready to set, so the views were incredible. I'd still take the mountains over the ocean, but I can absolutely see the appeal of living near the beach! I got some fish and chips from a small, hole in the wall restaurant in Bronte and took the bus back to my hostel to wash off all the sand and sun block. 

The next morning I got up early and took the ferry across the river to the Tongariro Zoo. I scanned the map after taking the gondola to the entrance and noticed that there was a seal show starting in 15 minutes. I made my way over and sat about mid way down the rows (close enough to get some pictures; far enough away to not get wet). We watched Myla the Australian Sea Lion, Michi the Californian sea lion and Tathra the New Zeland fur seal impress us all with their tricks. Myla loved to shake hands, Michi could jump out of the water and touch the yellow balls over the tank with his nose and Tathra liked to show off his whiskers by balancing things on them. Very talented seals! 

I walked from the seal show to the Tasmanian devil house to watch their feeding. They're hard to take pictures of because they move around so much. They only time they stood still was while they were eating. They kind of look like a cross between a bear cub and a rodent, at least they do to me. I learned,  that something like 80% of Australia's Tasmanian devils have been killed off by a spreadable cancer that is only found in their species, dogs and some kind of hamster. They transmit  it to one another when they're feeding and fighting and their immune systems don't recognize it at all, so it grows totally unchecked. They die usually with in a year because the tumors block their mouths and/or throats and they starve. So sad and fascinating all at the same time. I didn't know cancer was contagious and transmittable that way. It completely deletes some of their chromosomes.  So cool (yes, I'm a science nerd). I talked to the keeper for a little while more before heading out to look at all the other animals. It had started raining by this point, so I made my way to the kangaroos, emus and crocodiles to make sure I got all the local animals in. Last stop was the koala bears, where I paid a little extra to get to go into the enclosure and take a picture with two of them. Polly and Patty were both asleep in trees. Apparently they get drunk of the eucalyptus leaves when they ferment in their stomachs. Silly koalas. (I read that the eucalyptus thing isn't actually true, but I also read that it was, so I'm going with it!) I didn't get to touch them and it was hard not to, they looked so cuddly and friendly. The rain didn't let up, and I didn't have a jacket, so I walked past a few more animals and headed back to my hostel. 

My next day back in Sydney, Tim, another American traveler I met in New Zealand, and I walked across the bridge and checked out the amusement park on the other side (the one with the big clown face at the entrance). The walk across is 1.5 miles, so it didn't take too long, but there was lots of dodging and weaving with all the tourists, runners and other pedestrians. And the sun. Have I mentioned how hot it is in Sydney (all but the one day I went to the zoo)? So hot and lots of humidity. Beating down on you all day long. I don't know how you Australians do it. 

The amusement park was only a short walk from the end of the bridge had the general carnival rides - bumper cars, a ferris wheel, fun house mirrors, clowns walking around and lots of games where you shot water guns or hit things on the head with mallets to win oversized stuffed animals. Neither of us really had room for stuffed animals, so we walked to the end and back, peeking in here and there, before making our way back across the bridge to where our hostels were. 

Sydney is an fun and lively city. A little expensive, but lots to see and do, even while just wandering through the streets. It seemed huge after the "big city" of Auckland and reminded me a lot of Boston. Hard not to love it when it's tied to another city I have great memories from.  

I'm not even sure where to begin; I have so many great memories of New Zealand. Every activity I did, I loved. The Motatapu Track was probably my very favorite, but Doubtful and Milford Sound, ice climbing on Fox Glacier, hiking the Tongariro Crossing and the glow worm caves are all close seconds. And the people - from hostel employees/owners to roommates to other travelers I met on the road or out and about. So many great and inspirational stories and lives. People you genuinely feel lucky to have interacted with. It reaffirmed that we're all, no matter where you're from or what your story is, just doing our thing, taking our paths, trying to figure out life and how it all fits together. 

New Zealand was like home in many ways, the language and way of life (and food) being most obvious. The Westernized countries I've visited all have a similar feel. That's actually one of the reasons I picked New Zealand as a starting point - close enough to get my feet wet in the world of solo traveling, but far enough away that it would give me a real feel of what it would be like. There was definite comfort in being somewhere like home. But, it also wasn't home, and I was reminded of that here and there. While there's great freedom in traveling alone, there's also just you to look out for yourself. Not that there aren't good people everywhere, but it's not the same as the support system you spend years building at home. 

I'm not sure how I'm going to top it and I can't wait to go back. I guess I'm missing the point with the "topping it comment," I'm just hoping that all the other countries I visit are as magical as this one. Bring it, rest of the world, because New Zealand definitely impressed. 
Rotorua is a little town with lots of geothermal activity (hot springs, mud pots, etc). To be honest, I wasn't planning on stopping there, but I wanted to hang out in that general area for a few more days to try and catch a friend of a friend, so I made my way over. It was about time to do some laundry and other mundane tasks anyway. I started that and made my way to a used book store to kill time. I perused the sale items until I found Oliver Twist for $4.99 (I was very proud of myself for the cheap find; books are super expensive here!). Book in hand, I went back to my hostel and hung my clothes on the line before making my way to the free park, a block away, to wander and read. The park was huge and had hot pools, mud pots and even little fenced pool sections to stick your feet in. I walked around for about an hour, through all the winding paths, before finding a tree to sit under and read (Oliver Twist is great - I'd totally recommend it). 

I went back to my hostel about two hours later to get ready for the Maori cultural show I had bought a ticket to. The Maori are the indigenous polynesian people of New Zealand. They came over in canoes and have all sorts of interesting mythology, history and traditions. We got picked up from our hostel at six and had about a ten minute drive to the area. When we got there we were ushered into a large, tented dining room and sat down in our assigned seats around one of the 15 or so tables. We waited for everyone to get there and then our guide walked us through what was going to happen throughout the evening. He gave us a brief Maori history lesson and we introduced ourselves to figure out how many different countries people were from (14). After the intros, a Dutch man was reluctantly pressured into being our chief and was given the task of introducing our "tribe" to the Maori later in the night. Outside the tent was a small village and forest and we walked a path through the trees to a stream.  We were waiting only a few minutes when we heard some chanting off in the distance and saw a canoe filled with Maori men coming up the water. They all had the traditional face tattoos (although we later learned that theirs were fake) and chanted with coordinated hand and rowing movements the whole way up and back. 

Afterwards we were led to where our Hangi  (traditional Maori meal) was cooked - in a large pit in the ground, using hot coals and covers to keep the heat in. Our food had been put into wooden baskets and lowered into the pit. We had lamb, chicken, and sweet and regular potatoes. The meat goes on the bottom, closest to the coals, with the potatoes on top. It takes four hours. I was hungry before I left, so seeing and smelling the Hangi and knowing I couldn't eat it for another hour or so was a little torturous. It was covered in a sheet when we walked up to it, but you could smell it well before seeing it. Our guide and chief uncovered it and the chief tried a potato to make sure it was up to par. After affirming that it was, we were led to the hut where we actually saw the cultural show. 

There was a short traditional dance before our (very nervous) chief introduced our tribe and thanked the Maori chief for letting us participate in this experience. The Haka, a presentation of dances including war dances, traditional chants and games, followed the introduction. The war dance was pretty intimidating; wouldn't want to go up against one of those guys. They stick their tongues out to let you know they want to kill you and eat you.  We also learned about the face tattoos ("mokos" - paint in this instance) and traditions of the tribes. They would make deep cuts on the face using a chisel and fill it with caterpillar ink. They'd re-open the wounds if they started to close since the tattoos where meant to have depth, not just be on the surface. Somehow, they didn't all die of infections. The tattoos symbolized lots of different things - which tribe they belonged to, their land, family, animals and all sorts of other things. 

All of it was really interesting and the hour show went by in no time. We walked back to the dining tent and helped ourselves to the delicious hangi dinner. It was set up buffet style and they had added extras that weren't cooked underground (green salad, pasta salad, bread). I ate and talked to the chipper Australians next to me and the Americans, from Ohio, across the table. They were driving through both islands in one week. That's a lot of ground to cover. I felt rushed and I had a whole month. There were a few yummy desserts and coffee after the meal and we sat for a little while longer until we walked back outside, to the river area where the Maori had come up in their canoe, to see the area's natural glow worms. I couldn't really see the ones in the bushes between the cover of the brush and the light from the flashlights of those walking behind us. They did get easier to see, though, as we got to the mini lake that fed the small stream. We turned off our flashlights once we got there and saw the glow worms scattered all around the edges of the water. The caves were a little more impressive, but it was cool to see them in a natural environment above ground also. We took the bus back after that and I went to bed fat and happy from the haka and all the interesting things I had learned about the Maori. 

I spent the next day hiking in the Redwood forest on the old logging roads before catching an early morning bus to Auckland, my last stop in New Zealand. Hiking, trees, stops on benches with my book. NZ really is a great place to hike! 

My hostel in Auckland was right in the CBD (Central Business District) and I was able to easily walk to everything I wanted to see. I found a walking trail in my Lonely Planet and it led to to side streets with kooky little shops, several parks, by the town hall, into the Auckland Art Gallery and down to the fish markets at the warf. I walked through some of the shops, a beautiful park with lots of trees and through the government house before stopping at a little cafe just across from the art gallery to have a late breakfast. The OJ was a little tart, but it's the fist time I've had eggs benedict since I left home and it was so, so good! 
I took the tour of the art gallery to get a sense of the place before wandering around myself. There were five of us on the tour; one was an older couple from Boston (Go Red Sox!). The tour guide was great and she gave us a brief introduction to all of the areas with little stories here and there about the artist, the artwork or the period of different pieces. I walked around for about another hour and got a better look at the Maori and impressionist work especially. There was a also a really neat piece on the deck outside - an extra long bench that is supposed to encourage community and friendship. There were round, raised sections on the bench that would have been a fun mini slide had I been a kid (and it wasn't a piece of art in a museum).

Afterwards I walked around the park behind the museum,  through the university that housed the clock tower and old government house (pics above) and made my way to the water. I walked along the warf, stopped at the visitors center to make sure I knew were I was headed, and zig zagged my way to the Auckland Fish Market. The Market was two large buildings connected at the corner. One was a drop off point for the fisherman with the big scales and cranes (my (limited) fishing knowledge comes from the show "The Deadliest Catch") and the other building was the fish market and several small restaurants. I walked around and got myself some dinner - smoked salmon, a fish cake, some sweet and sour fish (not sure what kind of fish, but they were delicious) and some tomatoes. There was a big area to eat outside with lots of tables, so I got myself a beer to wash it all down and had a seat. All of it was delicious and I had enough salmon to nibble on it the next day also. Delicious ending to a great day of exploring. 
Yup… I nerded out and went to Hobbiton :) I've read the books and seen the movies so it's been fun to recognize locations in New Zealand. Hobbiton was built for the movies and maintained afterwards as a tourist attraction. They nailed that one - this place is packed from sun up to sun down.

We walked in and were immediately surrounded by Hobbit holes (there's 44 total). There was a lake in front of us and several interconnected pathways that led to Bag End at the top of the hill. Hobbiton is yet another example of the million and one shades of green in New Zealand. All of the Hobbit holes had brightly colored doors and were surrounded by flowers or fruit baskets or little, hobbit sized, wooden lawn furniture. There were even some kid sized clothes on a clothes line. All that was missing was the hobbits themselves. 

We wound our way through the path until we made it to Bag End. The green door was slightly ajar, but there wasn't really much inside other than an extra stack of umbrellas (all of the filming from inside Bag End was actually done in a studio). The view from the top of the hill overlooked what we had just walked, the party tree (where Bilbo disappears from) and the Green Dragon Inn (and watering hole) in the distance. The only fake tree in the Shire is the one right behind Bag End. It's not totally fake; there weren't any oak trees in this area, so they cut one down from a neighboring farm, section by section. It got re-assembled behind Bag End with an internal metal frame. They paid college students to hand paint fake leaves and wire them to the tree. 200,000 fake leaves. Good thing there's broke college kids everywhere. 

We walked down to the party tree before making our way to the Green Dragon Inn across the water.  If you've seen the first Hobbit movie, the Inn is where all the residents of the Shire get together and celebrate. We got a free drink and about twenty minutes inside at the end of the tour. I got the Hobbiton amber ale that's actually brewed there. Those hobbits know how to brew a good ale! I also got second lunch, since I was in Hobbiton and all - a yummy ham and cheese sandwich I sat down with some other people from the tour. One guy was a Lord of the Rings fanatic and knew everything about everything. The other guy said he didn't really like the movies, just felt like he had to see Hobbiton while he was here. The inn had several fireplaces, lots of round windows and fun little decorations on the shelves and mantles. We finished our food and drink and exited the back door. We walked through the lantern decorated courtyard and saw a few more hobbit holes on our way out. Then we were herded through the gift shop and back on the bus. 

New Zealand is really using the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit to their advantage. There's tours all over both islands. I didn't make it to Wellington, on the bottom of the north island, but apparently there's a studio tour there where you can see lots of sets and weapons, etc. Air New Zealand even used the movies as the theme in their airline safety video - lots of hairy feet, adult humor and even a hobbit version of Fabio. Pretty funny! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCbPFHu3OOc)

I kept hearing that I had to see the glow worm caves while I was on the North Island, so I made my way up to Waitomo and booked the Black Abyss tour - repelling, tubing, glow worms, waterfalls - all in a cave. I'll get to the glow worms in a bit. 

We started by suiting up at the Black Water Rafting Co. and getting the low down on our four hour excursion. We wriggled into our wet suits, jacket, boots and helmets before getting into the van for the ten minute drive down to the cave. We piled out of the van and practiced repelling on some patches of grass. I hadn't used (or even seen) that type of repel device before, but it was easy enough to get the hang of. We did two trial runs and made our way to the platform over the entrance of the cave. I volunteered to go first and walked out the the platform, linked to the safety rope on the side with my two carabiners. I connected myself to the climbing rope, lowered and twisted myself off the platform and descended into the deep, dark hole. My headlight was on so I could see the rock and limestone around me as I repelled down. The light started to dim from the entrance and I began to smell the damp earth and clay. The whole repel was 35 meters (roughly 115 feet) and as I neared the bottom the guide waiting for me started singing the theme to Mission Impossible. Pretty awesome. I made it to the bottom, unclipped and watched while the next person came down. I walked down the small set of wooden stairs behind me to have a look around. In front of me was a big boulder with, as my guide, Megan, pointed out, fossils in it. There were some shells and a few things that I didn't recognize, but I did recognize the big sand dollar on the front side.  Megan told me to turn off my light and look up and I had my first sighting of the glow worms. It's only a worm for a few weeks before it eats enough to make a cocoon and become a two winged fly. But, when it's in it's larval stage, the chemicals it produces mix with the oxygen and make a little green light. This attracts insects that get caught in sticky, web like threads that the worms hang below them (there's a pretty good pic above - they look like little beaded necklaces). Anyway, now that you've had your science lesson, when we all made it into the cave, we walked the short descent to the next section where we connected to a zip lined and flew, in the dark, to the next portion, a thick rock ledge above some flowing water. We all sat down like little school children and got some hot cocoa and a homemade peanut bar for doing such a good job :)

Our next task was jumping off the ledge and into the water on our black, rubber tubes. I managed to lift my feet in time and landed in my tube on top of the water. My whole body went under anyway and the water crept into my wet suit from all sides - neck, arms, legs, everywhere. It was cold. For a little warm up we ran against the current for about ten minutes and stopped every little bit to look at rock formations and close ups of glow worms. After that we got back into our tubes and linked arms to legs to make one long chain. We turned off all our lights and starred sky (ceiling?) ward at all of the glow worms as we floated past. This was, by far, my favorite part. No lights other than the thousands of green specs on the roof of the cave. They were in small and large patches, scattered all over the cave. It was like looking at a narrow strip of sky covered in green stars. It reminds you that life thrives everywhere, even in the depths of a cave. 

After floating for a while we were all getting cold, so we got off our tubes and took turns running in the water and having dance parties. We stood in a circle and each person had to pick a move while we all repeated it. I did a weird hopping from one foot to the other (I don't do well on the spot), but, it worked and I was warm again. We got another treat - this time something that tasted like warm lemonade and some Hershey's chocolate. I think they were buttering us up for the deep water just around the corner. It didn't last long, but long enough that my wet suit was completely wet again. Soon, though, we were out of the neck deep water and back to right around knee depth. 

We squeezed our way though a little hole and came into a cavern where Megan spotted an eel. She said there were five eels in the cave they saw on a regular basis and they had named each one. I can't remember our eel's name, but Megan wriggled her fingertips in the water and our new friend came to investigate. 

The last section was getting back out of the cave and we had to climb up two waterfalls to do it. They weren't gigantic and the guides told us where each hand and foot went sequentially, but we still had to climb up waterfalls to get out! It was too loud to hear anything over the rushing water, so Megan touched one hand and where to put it on the rock, followed by the other hand and then each foot. It was a little slick here and there, but for the most part the hand holds were good and the spots for your feet were big enough to step on comfortably. The picture in the slideshow is the second waterfall.  After that it was one curve and about 30 feet to the hole that led us back above ground. 

The adventure part was great. So fun! Floating down a cave in complete darkness except for the little green specs of light on the ceiling was, by far, the best part, though!