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Irish Eyes: The Wonder that was 'Down Under'

The Wonder that was 'Down Under'
March 7th to April 17th 2002

By Myra Keane *

At last . Auckland, North Island of New Zealand, 9th March 2002. I made it! It was great for my travelling companion Mairin and I to be Down Under after our 25,000km journey from Dublin via London and Los Angeles. After customs clearance we dashed to the complimentary tea and coffee stand and chatted to the catering staff, some of whom had Irish roots. A sniffer dog worried my bag, only because the bananas I had eaten for jet lag on the flights left their mark and security weren't taking any chances! A leisurely breakfast followed and we pinched ourselves a few times hardly believing that we were in 'the land of the long white cloud'! After boarding a bus for our centrally located hotel Mairin rested while I ambled around this 'City of the Sails' for a few hours in brilliant sunshine. Parnell Village with its colonial style shops and the harbourside were lovely discoveries. Mairin decided not to accompany me the following day on a tour of the Bay of Islands. En route there we stopped at the Waitangi Treaty House and gardens where the Maoris conceded sovereignty to Queen Victoria in 1840.

A veritable marine park the Bay of Islands with its 'Hole in the Rock' is best explored in a fast catamaran. Cruising the South Pacific was definitely my idea of a holiday! A marvellous moment was when some dolphins accompanied us on our way back to dry land. They revelled in showing off their swimming, diving and somersault skills. We revelled in watching them.

On Monday March 11th we officially started our escorted 12 day Connections 'Adventure Seeker' tour of New Zealand. After meeting guide/driver Grant and hostess/cook Marie as well as throwing a curious eye around our fellow passengers we left Auckland via the Bombay Hills, and headed to one of New Zealand's most famous attractions, the Waitomo Caves.

Here a range of optional adventures presented themselves. We could try cave tubing in The Ruakuri Caves, or abseil into unspoilt nature via the 'Lost World Tandem Abseil'. Mairin and I opted for a boat ride through the Glowworm Cave which was almost like a spiritual experience as we glided across the underground cave. A great hush fell as we gazed heavenwards to see the twinkling glowworms which were reflected in the underground water below.

After a hike through the lush, vast New Zealand countryside where we kept company with dairy cattle and sheep we proceeded to boiling Rotorua, New Zealand's thermal wonderland. Once our bags were dropped in our room many of us donned swimwear and headed to the outdoor thermal pool which to our joy opened at 8am and did not close until 12 midnight. The people of the world met here under the watchful gaze of the Milky Way, Orion's Belt and the stars of the Southern Cross and then retired for a drink in the bar.

Up early the following morning we visited the Whakarewarewa Maori Village which is open 365 days a year. We were fascinated by the geysers and sulphur pools and the Maori nose rubbing greeting. Our lunch today was a traditional Maori Hangi meal with lovely fresh food including potatoes and pumpkins.

This was followed by a concert where we saw the well known All Blacks singing and dancing ritual. We also viewed traditional woodcarving techniques and learnt of Maori customs as well as visiting their meeting house. The Maoris have long embraced Christianity as well as managing to keep their own beliefs. A visit to the Catholic Church and its cemetery in the village as well as the Protestant one was interesting.

Mairin did white water rafting after our village visit while I snuggled in the pool and walked into Rotorua in the late afternoon and sat by its beautiful lake.

First up the following morning was a stop at the raging waters of the Huka Falls and the Wairakei geo-thermal area, before reaching mesmerizing Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest freshwater lake. We took photographs near a mountain and volcano used in the filming of 'Lord of the Rings'.

Travelling past the very active Mt Ruapehu we reached the nation's capital, Wellington where a handful of us went walking in the Botanic Gardens before I met up with Robyn, a kiwi friend whom I met on holidays last October. She showed Mairin and I Wellington at night from a height, a beautiful sight with lights merrily dancing in the harbour water down below.

A guided tour of the windy city of Wellington began day four for the group. We were all delighted with the Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand situated on the waterfront. I particularly enjoyed standing in the model house where an earthquake was simulated. It was interesting also to see how Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America were all part of one huge land mass many millions of years ago. All I had to do was pull down a lever and hey presto all these countries were 'born'! I couldn't resist trying it a few times.

It wasn't long after that we boarded our inter-island ferry and crossed the Cook Strait and the scenic Marlborough Sound. On arrival at Picton we walked in the countryside, across rivers with the aid of swing bridges, and then enjoyed our succulent picnic. We re-boarded our coach for a scenic drive to Nelson, with its hop fields and apple orchards, home of the best weather in New Zealand. Clouds were gathering ominously though in the sky but the rain held off as night fell and we reached our destination.

A whole day to explore the Nelson region was not wasted by any of us.

Schoolgirls wearing long socks in the warm autumn sunshine waited for school buses as two German girls, Sylke, Jennie and I travelled to Abel Tasman National Park. We took a boat to our destination there and then walked along the stunning coastal track for four hours. The scenery defied description - blue-green seas, golden sand, rainforest vegetation and sapphire skies.

Had I reached the pinnacle of joy I wondered? Resplendent in the sunshine Abel Tasman National Park was like a taste of Paradise and seduced us with its unspoilt beauty. Meanwhile Mairin sea kayaked along the coast. That evening the daring Cork girl did a 12,000 feet skydive while I walked on the beach near our hotel and spent ages on the nearby playground's swings until I saw the sign - 'No admittance for over 12s'! After a sumptuous barbeque we all watched six great sky dive videos. I along with two others modestly pub-crawled that night. Englishman Paul and I livened up a pub boasting five customers with our karaoke skills while Sylke looked on indulgently. 'Dancing Queen' and 'Wonderwall' were perfect for a duet.

Alas we had to leave Nelson (called after Admiral Nelson) all too soon on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. We stopped at Blenheim, a major producer of quality New Zealand wines, which I had a healthy liking for.

Then to Kaikoura where Mairin and I stretched ourselves on the beach and wouldn't budge. Others swam with seals. Our late afternoon drive brought us to the very English city of Christchurch where we were just in time for some early St. Patrick's Day revelry in a nearby watering hole with live band. Yuske from Japan put his digital video camera to good use (as indeed he did for the whole trip capturing some 'interesting' moments) and gulped back his first pint of Guinness. He took to the task with such enthusiasm that he has vowed never to drink the black stuff again! On the dance floor some cricket mad English lads were break dancing and doing cartwheels to Irish music.

Having survived to see the morning after the night before I couldn't resist (after another delicious breakfast) attending an Anglican service presided over by a woman preacher in Christchurch Cathedral. The two coy Irish colleens were delighted that Grant and Marie had kindly taken the trouble to deck our tour bus with green balloons and a large green cardboard shamrock.

We travelled in the Tranz Alpine Express that afternoon for one of the world's great train journeys across the snow-capped Southern Alps. Then we wound our way down the rugged, wind and rain swept West Coast, alas reminiscent of home.

At Hokotika we saw intricate greenstone carvings. Before we reached our lodgings for the night we circumnavigated on foot the awe inspiring, soul stirring Lake Matheson with its pine fresh feel. At the end of our jaunt cows awaited us grazing contentedly in the fields as dusk settled. Staying overnight at the foot of Fox Glacier we celebrated St. Patrick's Day with drinks and a magical walk in a nearby forest in pursuit of glowworms.

Hundreds of them lit up a corner of the forest like Christmas fairy lights. While we gazed in awe I found time to scare some of my travelling companions in the darkness. A few have yet to forgive me ..

The following morning we got a chance to walk on water. A guided tour of Fox Glacier saw us donning appropriate socks, boots, and crampons designed to give us footing on the ice. Some of our fellow passengers (from all the continents except Africa) jumped in a helicopter for great views and an exciting glacial landing. We trekked for a few hours wielding walking sticks as our good-looking chef from the night before carved out steps in the ice for us with his pickaxe. Afterwards we were all awarded with a certificate. You really need a day of walking though to fully appreciate this glacier splendour. No time for this as we had to be in Queenstown by early evening.

While in Queenstown Mairin and I didn't go white water rafting, jet boating or even bungy jumping. We were happy to walk and sit by Lake Wakatipu overlooked by the dramatically beautiful Remarkable Mountains and satisfied our hunger for socialising in the hotel bar while the waters of the lake lapped gently outside.

On the morrow we headed to the tranquil shores of Lake Te Anau - the gateway to Fiordland National Park - where our cruise of much acclaimed Milford Sound was unforgettable. We cruised past towering cliffs, spectacular thunderous waterfalls and mountains silhouetted against a southern sky. A magnificent waterfall reminiscent of a happy bride's billowing wedding veil caressed us as our boat went right near it. My breath caught at the sheer power of the moment as the torrent of water gushed down.

The river Haast, mighty Thunder Creek Waterfall, Mount Hooker, Kamara Gorge and lakes Hawar and Wanaka were all stunning photo opportunity moments on the way to our lakeside lodge at Lake Ohau with its stunning views of 12,000 foot Mt Cook, New Zealand's largest mountain.

Here we had time to enjoy some of the many fine walks at Lake Ohau on the last night of our tour. We kept the dancing going by pumping cents into the jukebox. Loads of photo sessions, uproarious laughs and an Irish dancing lesson or two was the ideal swan song to a great tour before we made tracks for Christchurch via Ashburton the following morning. Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo sparkled with a green shimmer. We had a stop at the tiny picturesque Good Shepherd Church. Crossing the Canterbury Plain we finished our epic New Zealand journey in the 'Garden City' of Christchurch with its olde world charm, Speaker's Corner, leafy parks, flower gardens, willow trees and punting on the Avon River. A veritable Oxford or Cambridge in this new world - the perfect setting for our final reluctant goodbye to the group.

Two days later Mairin and I crossed the Tasman Sea en route to Alice Springs via Sydney. Alice Springs is an area of shimmering red desert and natural springs. The Aborigines who came to Australia some 40,000 years ago had an air of despondency unlike the laid back, warm and humorous Maoris. We were happy to get back to our resort after wandering around the town some hours after arrival on Easter Sunday.

Our 19 day Connections 'Beach and Bush' escorted tour of Australia kicked off the next morning (Monday, March 25th) with a visit to the Royal Flying Doctors Service and Anzac Hill war memorial to Australian and New Zealand veterans. Our drive along the Stuart Highway took in the grandeur of the Western MacDonnell Ranges. During our lunch break we were entertained by a howling piano playing dingo! Eventually we made our way to Kings Canyon, a wonder of the Outback. On stage that night Mairin and I tried out the peculiar musical instruments.

The singer honoured a request by me for 'Waltzing Matilda'.

A morning walk in Kings Canyon was a great start to our day. We marvelled at the most spectacular gorge in the Northern Territory with its massive ochre red sandstone cliffs. The North Wall and the Garden of Eden have to be seen to be appreciated. The ghost gum trees stood in splendid isolation in the flat scrubby landscape. Our next drive was to Uluru National Park home to the world's largest monolith, Ayers Rock where we watched the splendid sunset with its vivid shades of scarlet and purple from our resort.

A pre dawn start was necessary so that we could view the sensational sunrise on Ayers Rock with its amazing spectrum of colours. It was riveting to see dramatic colour contrasts as smoke grey changed to glowing orange in a few minutes. Afterwards I walked a quarter of the way up - not for the faint hearted I might add - and spent the next two hours walking around the two mile long, 1000ft high gigantic sandstone monolith that is Ayers Rock. The soul of Australia pulses here and you really feel that you are embraced by the Aborigine Dreamtime magic. Later we learnt something of the fascinating Aboriginal legends concerning this sacred site, before visiting the majestic Olgas which are 36 massive domes of conglomerate rock. Walking through the Valley of the Winds was like being in a different planet. Again we watched the much-celebrated Ayers Rock sunset with wine and tasty nibbles.

On the following day we crossed some of the oldest river systems in the world including the Hugh, Finke and Palmer Rivers on our way to the Outback hospitality of our bush camp at Ooraminna where we slept in swags under the desert sky though Mairin and I put ours on cast iron beds. The owner of this 100,000-acre cattle station and his wife provided a hearty dinner and the 'bar' stayed open well past closing hours at home! Following an equally hearty breakfast we drove back to Alice Springs visiting magical Stanley Chasm and Simpson's Gap on the way. It was time to say farewell to the Outback's Red Centre with its opal blue skies, koalas, wallabies, arid desert dotted with vegetation, camels, grubby cattle station comfort stops, and endless desert roads where a right or left turn was as rare as kangaroos in my North Kerry parish of Knocknagoshel! Flying mid morning to Cairns a lush tropical wilderness greeted us on touchdown. At our plush resort where we had our own diving pool to complement the two others and spa that were already there we relaxed and braced ourselves for another action packed couple of weeks.

Our first full day saw us each receiving an Easter eggs courtesy of friendly driver Tony and very helpful hostess/cook Tiffany on our way to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. Here we learnt about the history of the local Tjapukai tribe, saw their famous dance routine and learnt the art of boomerang throwing and fire making. It was situated next to Kuranda, a world heritage rain forest.

Undoubtedly one of our holiday highlights was when we boarded our cruising yacht, for our sailing adventure to the Great Barrier Reef. We felt the wind in our hair as we glided to the world's largest coral reef. Once anchored at the reef, despite the fact that I can't swim I still managed to slip over the side and experience one of the wonders of the world. With the help of an instructor I went snorkelling and was exhilarated after seeing some of the wonders of this mighty ocean. The fusion of fish, corals and plant life was staggering. As a swimmer Mairin was able to enjoy it more thoroughly than I.

Later I tried scuba diving. That night German girl Sirin and a few English lads and I headed to the Woolshed, a disco bar in Cairns. No problems meeting people here! The day after was ours to explore far North Queensland, and we jumped into a four-wheel drive for a 'Suncoast Safari' to the spellbinding Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Mossman Gorge and the Bloomfield Track. Driving along the famous Captain Cook Highway, passing Double Island and untouched beaches we got a glimpse of the gorgeous town of Port Douglas. Our excellent guide gave us a very informative commentary throughout the day. Stopping at a private rainforest setting with three swimming holes for a barbeque lunch some of the group donned their 'sunnies and swimmers' and took to the rejuvenating water while the rest of us explored the area armed once again with insect repellent and factor 30 sun cream - both a must for the Australian leg of my trip. As the Daintree National Park with its billabongs is part of the oldest tropical rainforest in the world we saw some of its 3000 species of plant life and animal species. Many of the species are survivors having changed little over the last 100 million years and can be found nowhere else in the world. There was even a 1200ft tree. The sunlight filtered through giant fan palms, king ferns and strangler fig trees who nodded to us in the light breeze as we walked passed. Our wilderness cruise on the Daintree River gave us a chance to spot crocodiles sun baking on the marshy riverbanks and kingfishers darting from tree to tree.

With our four nights of luxury over we had an early start the following morning to begin our trek southwards. We passed through two of the wettest towns in Oz, Innisfail and Tully. We also saw Queensland's highest peak, before reaching Townsville, North Queensland's largest city. We continued through Ayr and Bowen, home of Australia's best mangos, then onto Airlie Beach, gateway to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. Exploring one of the most beautiful areas in Queensland by a boat cruise was the way to go.

Breathtaking scenery made for an unforgettable day. Lounging on Whitehaven Beach was all that I needed to overdose on happiness! As the song goes "We're on the road again", and we were bright and early the next morning, past endless fields of sugar cane to Mackay, the sugar capital of Queensland. Our destination was Rosslyn Bay, boarding point for our ferry to Great Keppel Island.

A day could never be enough to explore one of the most stunning islands in Queensland, which boasts no less than 13 sandy beaches. The activities were endless - wind surfing, sailing, scuba diving, and beach volleyball. Apart from endless sunbathing on our private beach I frolicked with the wild waves, kayaked and played well ... cricket. That night we danced the night away and sampled more Australian wine.

All too soon it was time to depart Great Keppel Island. A rainbow saw us on our way and the memories of the previous nights great sunset against the backdrop of the Southern sky resonated within us. We passed through Rockhampton situated on the Tropic of Capricorn and known as the 'Beef Capital of Australia'. Then to Hervey Bay where we boarded our ferry for Fraser Island.

An interesting day awaited us after our first night on the island. We were taken in a four-wheel drive vehicle to explore the splendour of the world's largest sand island. We experienced the thrill of driving bumpily along endless golden beaches, and went inland for a swim in beautiful Lake McKenzie. That night we relived our dingo dodging experiences in the resort bar and sang, karaoke style. No New Zealand sheep farmers to applaud our performance this time though! Southwards again, through the old gold mining town of Gympie as we made a brief stop over in Brisbane, Queensland's capital city before arriving at the exciting Gold Coast. After a late night Mairin and I tested the surf at Surfers Paradise. Well worth getting up early for though we'd need far more practice to qualify as surf babes.

Crossing the border into New South Wales the following day, we were impressed with the scenery of Australia's most populous state. First stop on April 10th was beautiful Byron Bay with a visit to Cape Byron and its handsome lighthouse situated at the most easterly point of the Australian mainland. I finally persuaded myself to do a death defying 14,000ft skydive with the Byron Bay Skydive Centre! Mairin was there to see me off and arrive back with all my faculties intact. It was amazing finding myself being catapulted out of a small aircraft at 14,000 feet aided by my trusty New Zealand instructor Brett in a whoosh of air spinning into infinity and knowing that it was too late to turn back! It all happened so fast. The eight minutes of 'air time' seemed like five seconds when we landed on the ground. Once the parachute opened after freefall I knew that I was alright and could enjoy the splendid views of planet Australia down below. Well worth the wait and highly recommended! Thanks also to cool video maker and photographer Scott for making it unforgettable. The video, edited in just 15 minutes was shown on the bus to my fellow travellers as we all headed to the coastal town of Yamba with its picturesque beaches, famous national park and some of the best surf in Australia. It was just what I needed to bring me down to earth. And the views from our hotel were sensational! The wild sea hugged the coastline as we dined outside.

The first stop on our last day, the eve of my birthday, was Coffs Harbour where some of us went canoeing along a six-kilometre stretch of the tranquil Bellingen River. We wrapped the afternoon up with wine tasting. After arrival in South West Rocks we watched the sun set on Trial Bay Gaol and remembered the 'convicts' that built it. Later my birthday was celebrated with wine and champagne and a midnight serenade.

We had a short drive on Friday April 12th, my reluctant 30th birthday morning, to the riverside township of Kempsey, home of the Australia icon, the Akubra Hat. It was here that we joined the Pacific Highway and headed south through the beautiful Manning Valley region, past fields of beef cattle and the port city of Newcastle and finally into Sydney, Australia's largest and much feted city. We stopped to take photos posing near the Opera House and Harbour Bridge before heading to our hotel in the Haymarket district with its strong Asian influence.

Journey's end sadly but it wasn't all over yet. After shopping in the famous 'Paddy's Market' as a surprise Mairin took me to one of Sydney's exclusive restaurants for a celebratory dinner. The waiting staff sang me 'Happy Birthday' and produced a candle lit chocolate cake (never let it be said ...) The revolving floor here is designed to give the patron views of the harbour in its various moods. The following night as an early birthday treat I took Mairin to a lovely concert in the Opera House. When we came out the lights of the largest natural harbour in the world embraced us.

On Sunday, April 14th locals Suzie and Paul whom I met in Scandinavia last year asked me to accompany them on a sailing race of Sydney Harbour. Their dependable boat 'Riff Raff' served us well and we came 11th; no thanks to me, as I have no knowledge of sailing! Nevertheless we celebrated with champagne and it was great to catch up with the couple and their friends at the sailing club.

The last day of my holiday was spent with Mairin relaxing in Bondi beach putting off the inevitable parting as she was staying on. On returning to our hotel Helen and Kitty whom I met abroad last August came to see me.

Mairin and I headed to the Rocks for our last night together.

Though we made the most of the time left to us the morning dawned and I had to leave.

Tearful goodbyes and a resigned air saw us through. My last glimpse of Australia was of the hazy Blue Mountains from the airplane window.

Crossing the International Date Line and Equator we wound our way first to Singapore, Frankfurt and then wet Dublin reaching it on Wednesday April 17th, 30 hours after departure.

I had a kaleidoscope of marvellous memories to share of my trip that saw me covering almost 70,000 kilometres in six weeks. From majestic mountains, wedgewood blue skies, glaciers, shining lakes to baked desert, tropics and rainforests and meeting wonderfully friendly, hospitable natives I had come full circle...

* Note From The Author:.”I had a wonderful holiday, particularly in gorgeous New Zealand and want all the natives there to know what a great country they have. I am telling everybody whom I've met since returning to Ireland to visit the 'land of the long white cloud'. New Zealand is tremendous! I am a graduate of the postgraduate Diploma in Applied Communications journalism course at University College Galway. - Myra Keane Travel Writer

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