...and we're off!

taking a year of pretirement to travel the world

on may 23, 2013, we quit our jobs and began our year of "pretirement." these are some of our adventures around the world.

great ocean road

a warm, sunny welcome.

our last hurrah in australia was exploring the great ocean road. this scenic stretch of coastal highway certainly lives up to its name, and we were happy to hit the road again and feel the ocean breeze in our (now flowing) manes. the entire drive from melbourne to the very end can easily be done in a day, but we allowed ourselves double that and then some to explore – time well spent, as teetering along the edge of jagged land and wild sea comes with a unique sense of freedom and carefree bliss!

after a leisurely lunch in the small beach town of lorne, we headed over to our first natural wonder. set against a backdrop of lush forest, erskine falls tumbles down one of the highest drops in great otway national park. beams of sunlight filtered through bright green ferns to highlight its best angles. from there it was onto kennett river to catch a glimpse of the koalas there. we drove up a narrow winding road, craning our necks and searching for furry bundles settled high in the eucalyptus trees. for twenty minutes we didn’t see much of anything and were disappointed. but searching for koalas in the wild is like looking for tiny crabs in the sand – as soon as you spot one, you’re bound to find them everywhere. sure enough, just as i was about to give up alex pointed triumphantly out the window at a small blob high up in the trees. an adorable koala was napping in the branches! suddenly we noticed two others all curled up and sleeping soundly. when we drove back down, we were treated to an even better surprise – a large koala scampering across the road and scurrying up his favorite tree for an afternoon snack. watching his woolly little behind waddle around had me in full-blown cuteness overload. i was lucky enough to catch the whole thing on video, and it’s provided me with “heaps” of entertainment ever since.

we spent the rest of the afternoon winding our way along the coast, stopping here and there for photos and beach breaks. we eventually decided to make “camp” in johanna beach. our original plan was to rent a campervan for our little excursion, but every company required a 5-day minimum rental so we ended up with a cozy toyota corolla. while sleeping in the backseat was by no means comfortable, that night we traded comfort for some pretty fantastic scenery. over a random yet delicious dinner of chinese takeout and fish and chips, alex and i were treated to one of the dreamiest sunsets we’ve ever seen.

it was very windy by the twelve apostles.

friday was essentially a laundry list of impressive sights and spectacular views. our adventure began at cape otway lighthouse, which ended up being way too expensive at $20 per person. we opted instead for a pretty walk in the surrounding forest for the nice price of free. bonus: another koala sighting, this time a family of three! afterwards we headed to the twelve apostles, a series of magnificent limestone rocks along the shore that were gradually carved out of the headlands by the southern ocean.  on our way there the morning clouds passed and the sky brightened, giving us the best possible views of the impressive formations. we took the 86 steps down to the beach below and immediately felt dwarfed by the dramatic 230-ft cliffs and sheer stacks of rock. exploring the grotto, london arch, bay of islands, and other coastal wonders kept us in awe the rest of the afternoon. we settled down in port campbell for the night and chowed down on bowls of pasta that set us back a whopping $30 each. good thing they were healthy servings, or it would’ve made the price that much harder to swallow! the night ended with a trip back to the twelve apostles at dusk to hopefully catch a glimpse of the penguins making their way back to shore. for forty minutes we waited on the wind-blown cliffs with our binocular-clad eyeballs glued to the beach. worried we’d missed the little guys’ homecoming, we were stoked when a tiny blob of black dots suddenly emerged from the ocean and hurried across the sand. there were maybe ten or fifteen of them huddled close to stay warm, and within a few seconds they made their way into the shadows and disappeared. it was the perfect “good night” to the great ocean road.

the last day of our little road trip came quickly. we got up early on saturday to make the drive back to melbourne and catch our flight that afternoon to new zealand. we of course built in a bit of extra time to make one more pit stop in kennett river and say goodbye to our fuzzy koala friends. the return trip was beautiful and relaxing, although we later found out that despite our deliberately careful driving and heavy use of cruise control, we’d gotten slammed with two tickets thanks to australia’s ridiculous hidden speed cameras. those mishaps aside, as i boarded our plane to christchurch i couldn’t help but reflect on how amazing our three weeks here had been. i can’t wait to come back and experience more of australia’s incredible natural beauty. but air new zealand’s lord of the rings themed safety video was an awesome reminder that until then, i’d have to settle for three weeks in Middle-earth.

// trip down under to date: 6 flights, 1 country, 3 states, 1 boat, 2 road trips, 1 campervan adventure, 2580 km

my last koala encounter was my closest one yet!


Our next destination after the sunny beaches of New South Wales was Melbourne, Australia’s second city. We only allowed ourselves three days here before driving down to the Great Ocean Road, but after experiencing the city we wish we would have had more time. The main event for this leg of the trip was the Australian Open, which is something Carla had wanted to see her entire life. That portion certainly delivered—we caught what was likely the best match of the entire Open. However, we had some of our best times just wandering the city streets and getting a taste of the local culture. The visit was topped off by our wonderful Airbnb host, Aggie, who was so friendly and hospitable that it felt like we were still staying with relatives.

After spending a few days in the city, Carla and I thought that Melbourne could be Sydney’s more fashionable but less beautiful little sister. The cool and cloudy marine climate is pretty bad by Australian standards, which provides a gray backdrop to the city and forces people to find something other than the beach to occupy their time. There are countless examples of intricate 19th century architecture, but much of it has deteriorated (or is just dirty), giving the city a grungy urban feel reminiscent of parts of Montreal or San Francisco. Many of these buildings house trendy little cafés and vintage clothes shops, which are populated by hipsters that look like they could be fresh out of Williamsburg. Even the less trendy parts of town have a more urban feel than Sydney thanks to a US-style street grid rather than Sydney’s winding roads and steep hills.

One thing this Melbourne shares with Sydney is absurdly high real estate prices, so we decided to book a place in a residential area off the beaten path for tourists. Our neighborhood (Brunswick) turned out to be a perfect example of Melbourne’s urban hipster vibe. We were just a quick tram ride into the city center but far enough out that the city here consisted of mostly houses and local businesses. It had been a mostly Mediterranean immigrant melting pot for many decades and, like so many similar neighborhoods in the US, it has recently attracted a younger crowd. Walking down Sydney Road, the neighborhood’s main street, we would see old shops that had probably been in the family for generations (some of the signs were even in Greek or Italian) as well as new clothing boutiques and popular nightlife. Most of the buildings were at least a century old, adding to the neighborhood’s strong character. We felt right at home here—Brunswick reminded us of the East Village of about a decade ago.

We first arrived at Aggie’s beautifully renovated, turn-of-the-century house on a cloudy afternoon. After making sure we were comfortable, she asked, “You’re from New York, right?” After we said yes, her face lit up:  “I LOVE New Yorkers!” Aggie is a woman in her 40s who was part of an Italian family that had dispersed around the world. The explanation for this strange (and rare) statement is that some of her favorite relatives had wound up in New York and she had fallen in love with the city during her multiple visits. Apparently she was lucky enough to have had only positive encounters with our fellow NYC residents. From this point on, we were more long lost friends than tenants in Aggie’s home. We sipped wine and talked about our travels, her dressmaking business, and our respective cities into the early hours. Being that Aggie worked from home she was constantly there to guide our short visit and to make sure it all went smoothly.

When the time came for our Australian Open match, Aggie gave us detailed directions on how to get there and we were off. Carla was practically shaking with excitement and, despite not knowing much about pro tennis, I was pretty excited myself. Once we got into downtown Melbourne we followed the crowds to the tennis complex. There is a beautiful green park along the Yarra river with the city’s cluster of skyscrapers as a backdrop, which made for a very pleasant walk. The weather was perfect and we were excited to get a look at the grounds. Carla and I have been to the US Open before but, well, it’s in Queens. Going to a match like this right in the middle of the city was a little more exciting, and I’m sure being on the other side of the world in January didn’t hurt. Once we got to the grounds we were fascinated by the collection of tennis fans from around the world that had made the trip. In particular, many Asian visitors took advantage of their only chance to attend a Grand Slam without flying eight time zones away.

We had tickets to the men’s quarter-final, so we had figured on seeing some big names fight for a shot at the title. While one player on the ballot was Novak Djokovic, winner of six Majors, the other was some guy named Wawrinka, whom even Carla had hardly heard of. The attendant out front casually predicted it would be a boring match and Djokovic would sweep him easily, as he had all of his other opponents up to that point. As it turned out, Wawrinka played well. Really well. In fact, by the time of the fifth set they were neck and neck while virtually trading games one for one. Wawrinka’s serve was devastating and he kept his game in firm control. Unusually for him, Djokovic was the frustrated one on the court. The crowd was undoubtedly for the underdog, and as time went on it felt less like a tennis match and more like an NFL game. When Wawrinka got a point the crowd would go nuts for a few seconds, then quiet back down to near silence until the next serve. A man with a big Swiss flag kept shouting “Allez Wawrinka” into the silence, to which a Serbian woman in front of us would respond with loud support for Djokovic. Carla sided with the Serbian and threw in some loud comments that could probably be heard on the Tennis Channel. After the fifth and final set was ultimately tied 7 games to 7, Wawrinka pulled ahead and won the match. Exhausted from this four-hour spectacle, we were now in danger of missing the midnight train back to Brunswick, which was the last of the night. We hurried with the crowds along the river, opposite the lit-up skyline, and took in the crisp night air. It was the perfect centerpiece to a beautiful three days in Melbourne, and something I’ll always remember. By the way, Wawrinka went on to win the entire Australian Open out of nowhere.

On our third day, we wanted to soak up as much of the city as we could before driving out the next morning. First thing being first, we had a delicious NYC-style (but somehow cheaper!) brunch at the popular Green Café, where wild haircuts, tattoos and high hipster fashion were the rule. Despite this, the place was very welcoming to a couple of square Americans and we lightened their awesome baked goods and sandwich inventory no fewer than three times during our short visit. Finally ready to go, we set out from Brunswick on foot. Over the next few hours we covered several miles of inner city, passing from neighborhood to neighborhood as we watched the architecture change. Melbourne grew quickly in the mid-late 1800s due to a gold rush and its position as Australia’s major port city, so a very large chunk of the city is made up of beautiful old homes, hotels and warehouses. The city’s parks are nowhere near as pristinely landscaped as Sydney’s, but they make up for that with the sheer volume of green space that can be found in Melbourne. We eventually made our way over to the Collingwood neighborhood, where the hipster intensity went up a notch. There were plenty of little clothing boutiques and vintage fashion shops among the cafés for Carla to wander through, while I found a big microbrew hall where we could sample the local beer. We ended the day by going to Queen Victoria Market, a food festival in downtown that had almost every street food imaginable. Prices were Australia-sized and portions were small, but the event drew throngs of locals (and tourists) who picked up everything from Maylasian satay to Spanish paella. Thoroughly exhausted, we headed back to Brunswick at sundown.

Our trip to Melbourne was a fascinating view of how different two cities in the same general region of the same country can be. The comparison has been made before, but Melbourne is very much the San Francisco to Sydney’s LA. Our lucky Australian Open experience and luckier Airbnb experience made it that much better. On the morning of our last day, Aggie unexpectedly dropped us off at the airport car rental place and hung around to make sure it went through OK. It did, and we were off to the southwest and the Great Ocean Road for a mini-road trip before our bigger New Zealand road trip.

// trip down under to date: 6 flights, 1 country, 3 states, 1 boat, 1 road trip, 1 campervan adventure, 1880 km

An epic battle at the Australian Open.

south west rocks

sharks. caves. me. wait – how did that happen?!

it all started the week before in sydney when we were having dinner with JB, alana, and pia. i was trying to convince them to come up to cairns and check out the great barrier reef, but work schedules and weather were getting in the way. pia, a veteran diver and ex-instructor, also said that nothing i’d see there would be different than what i’d seen in bali…at least not where we would be going, anyway. she would’ve loved to take me on a live-aboard and explore the less-frequented parts of the reef in the coral sea, where there are giant black cod and oodles of cool underwater creatures to geek out over. unfortunately that trip would have to wait until we had more time and budget. suddenly, her eyes got wide and she looked at me all excited. “i’m going to take you to one of my favorite diving spots, and it’s going to be AWESOME!” she exclaimed in her aussie accent. then she started telling me all about south west rocks and how there are sharks and an underwater cave and it’s amazing and i really have to do it.

i laughed nervously. i mean, i’m all for adventurous, adrenaline-junkie type stuff and i’m obviously into diving, but i’d only been out on four real dives and this seemed like more advanced stuff. from the look on his face alex didn’t seem too pleased with the idea, either. he began to grill pia like a lawyer and apply his legendary logic and argument-winning tactics, which was hilarious. their exchange went something like this:

alex: “if anything happens to your equipment when you’re inside the cave, can you float to the surface and breathe air?”

pia: “no...”

alex: “if the shark decides to bite you, is there anything preventing the shark from biting you, or do you have to trust the shark NOT to bite you?”

pia: “nah, you just trust the sharks. they’re fiiiine.”

alana and me: (gulp.)

troy, the man i entrusted with my life. oh boy.

fast forward a week and we were back in sydney from our trip to tasmania and getting ready for our weekend trip to south west rocks. pia wasn’t exaggerating – fish rock cave is considered one of the top ten dive sites in australia, and "heaps" of endangered grey nurse sharks can be seen year-round there. there was no way i could pass that up! alex and i rode with pia in her VW hard-top convertible, and the weather was perfect for a 6-hour drive with the top down. soon we were settling into our comfy digs above the dive shop and cracking open a few beers. i was beyond nervous. before i knew it, it was 6:15am and time to get up. in a few short hours i’d be diving with sharks! luckily for alana and me, pia goes way back with the guys we were diving with, and their funny banter put us a bit more at ease with the situation. we got fitted for our equipment, drove down to the dock, and loaded up the boat. troy and "scuba steve" were our dive masters for the day and were very thorough with everything – not to mention hilarious.

after a 45-minute boat ride we arrived at fish rock, which on the surface looked totally unassuming and harmless aside from the choppy waters. then troy launched into the dive briefing. we were going to do two dives – the first was to simply observe the sharks, and the second was to do the cave dive. this involves swimming along a gutter to the mouth of the cave at a depth of 24m (about 80ft). then you have to turn on your flashlight, enter the pitch-black cave, and slowly make your way up the second chimney (slowly being the key word, as you don’t want to risk getting decompression sickness by ascending too fast). after awhile you reach the “aquarium” – a large, light-filled opening at the end of the cave where large schools of fish and sharks abound. as you exit the current can get pretty strong, so you have to grip the ridge tightly (gloves are a must) and climb over it to get away from the current. otherwise it could take you pretty far out. as troy said, you have to “hold the f--- on!” then you swim back towards the boat and do your safety stop before you reach the surface.

a map of the 125 meter-long cave journey. still can't believe we swam straight through an island!

so yeah, that was the plan. as a novice the whole thing sounded terrifying, and my head began to swirl with “what-if” scenarios. soon i was asking a gazillion questions which i later became infamous for among the dive instructors. eventually i ran out of questions and it was time to get in the water. i took a deep breath of real air before dipping below the surface for my first gulp of compressed air. within a couple of minutes a grey nurse shark swam right by me, and i was mesmerized!

here it's shark week every week. thankfully this one's not a biter.

we found a perch on the ridge and watched as schools of fish went by and the grey nurses followed suit. it was unbelievably fascinating. the sharks definitely look scary and have all sorts of sharp, jagged teeth, but they keep to themselves and are quite tranquil as long as you don’t threaten them. there were also several large wobbegong sharks that completely blended into the rocks – so much so that alana accidentally kicked one and had no idea! on our way to explore the other side we encountered a strong current, and somehow alana got separated from pia and me as we were holding onto the rock. when it was time to surface and she still hadn’t shown up, we began to worry. but troy assured us she had found scuba steve and was going up with him and his dive student, and thankfully it turned out to be the case. i think that experience coupled with the scary briefing changed alana’s mind about the second dive, and she decided to sit it out.

when it was time to do the cave dive, i felt a little more ready but not much. i was doing fine until we got to the bottom of the gutter. i'd never been this far down before, and panic took over. i was having a hard time breathing normally, so i signaled to troy that i was out. a mixture of relief and dejection swept over me as i watched him lead the other three divers into the cave. pia stayed back too, and soon a couple of grey nurse sharks began to circle the gutter. we kept as still as we could, our eyes following these beautiful creatures as they gracefully swam around. suddenly one started to head towards us. he got closer and closer until he was only about four or five feet away, and i blew out a bunch of bubbles to let him know we were there. at that point he took a sharp turn and swam off, and pia and i looked at each other, giddy with excitement. what an experience! if it hadn’t been just the two of us down in that gutter, the sharks may not have felt comfortable enough for a close encounter. i guess my last-minute decision wasn’t such a bad one after all.

chickening out also meant i was determined to do one more day of diving and tackle the cave, especially now that i’d gotten a handle on what the environment was like. troy also offered to lead me by the hand the whole way through, which made things much less frightening. i’m so glad i did go back and do it, because the dive was spectacular. swimming through pitch-black waters with just our flashlights…creeping through crevices and around giant boulders…being careful not to disturb the resting wobbegongs, giant resident tortoise, and larger-than-life lobsters…coming face to face with a spiky, dangerously beautiful lionfish…the magic of those few minutes exploring the cave was unlike anything i’ve experienced. and to come out of the darkness and into the most beautiful, aqua-colored environment teeming with all kinds of colorful marine life was just incredible. as we left the cave and made our way towards the ridge, the largest black stingray i’ve ever seen elegantly glided over us. i successfully made it over the ridge past the current (i held the f--- on, troy!), and soon i was back on the boat, stunned that i’d actually done it. what an unforgettable two days. thanks to pia and troy, my love of diving has grown exponentially. if you’re ever in new south wales, book a trip at south west rocks dive centre. the dive packages are very reasonable, and the guys there will show you an unforgettable time!

oh hey there, cute kangaroo clan.

while us ladies were out diving, alex and JB enjoyed sleeping in, exploring the beach at trial bay, and paddle-boarding. the highlight though was going to arakoon national park, where alex befriended an adorable family of kangaroos! to say the weekend was packed with amazing wildlife encounters would be an understatement. eventually sunday afternoon rolled around and it was time to head back to sydney. the sun continued to shine on us and keep me smiling despite my disappointment that our time with my cousins was almost over. i rode with pia on the way back, and it was fun catching up and singing bad pop songs together. along the way she pointed out long cables stretched over the highway that allow koalas to safely climb over the traffic. from that moment on i was on constantly on the lookout, hoping to catch a glimpse of a furry cutie pie crossing.

almost two weeks of our australian adventure were now behind us, and we only had one more week to go. time was flying by, and we couldn’t believe how much fun we were having! it was hard saying goodbye to new south wales and my amazing cousins, but we were looking forward to exploring melbourne, our next destination.

 // trip down under to date: 5 flights, 1 country, 2 states, 1 boat, 1 road trip, 1 campervan adventure, 1880km

stealthy grey nurse sharks swim among schools of fish.

a beautiful black stingray graces us with his presence.


when we looked out the window of monday’s early morning flight, we were treated to a warm, sunny welcome from heart-shaped tasmania. after spending the past couple of months in cities all over asia without any time behind the wheel, we couldn’t wait to get the keys to our campervan and explore the landscapes of australia’s southernmost state. it would also be our first-ever trip of the sort, and the idea of living out of a van and enjoying the open road was something we’d been looking forward to for weeks.

pretty hues of gold, turquoise, and dark green at seven mile beach.

after settling into our new home on wheels and getting our bearings (which included sitting on the wrong side of the van with the gearshift on the left!), alex stuck the key in the ignition. with one turn, our tasmanian road trip roared to life. driving a campervan on the left side of the road for the first time is awkward and difficult, and it was definitely going to take some getting used to. our first stop was seven mile beach only a half hour away. we saw it from the plane as we were landing and knew it’d be the perfect place to have breakfast. this endless stretch of sand is also perfect for playing a pick-up game of cricket, which we witnessed as soon as we set foot on the beach! within a few minutes of walking my pockets were stuffed with pretty specimens for my soon-to-be-enormous seashell collection. our morning got even better when a couple of germans on their last day of vacation came over and offered us a bunch of groceries they didn’t want to go to waste. with things as expensive as they were in australia, we happily took it all. soon we were on our way out of hobart heading northeast on the A3 to freycinet national park. JB and alana said we couldn’t leave tasmania without spending a couple days camping there, and by a stroke of luck we were able to scoop up a recently cancelled two-night reservation at the popular richardson beach campground.

for the next couple of hours we drove past golden fields, sheep pastures, and heavily wooded hills on our way to the east coast. tangled gum trees lined the road, their twisted branches reaching out and up towards the sun. just as our time in sydney had confirmed, the landscapes of australia have a whimsical sort of look to them, and this became especially apparent here. almost half the state is protected and marked as reserves, national parks, and world heritage sites, and with a substantial part of the population living in and around the capital of hobart, much of the island remains wild and untouched. at one point we pulled off by spiky beach to admire the view. stunning blue waters contrasted sharply with the long golden grass, and jagged rocks covered with little black mollusks dotted the shore. after another hour of breathtaking coastal scenery we arrived at freycinet national park and pulled into our little campsite by the beach. our long day of traveling was rewarded with a spectacular sunset and cozy first night in the campervan.

the magnificent wineglass bay.

tuesday’s gorgeous weather made for a memorable 6km round-trip hike to wineglass bay. it was a relatively easy walk to the lookout point, followed by a steep and rocky descent to the beach. as soon as we came out of the trees we stumbled upon a perfect arc of white sand and rolling turquoise waves framed by wooded granite peaks. low-lying clouds settled in to complete the picture-perfect view. the beach was breathtakingly beautiful, and yet somehow we’d never heard of it before. it makes you wonder just how many more amazing places there are in the world that you don’t even know exist. on our way back we ran into a wallaby and her adorable little joey – we couldn’t believe how close we were able to get! the afternoon ended with a drive up to the lighthouse at cape tourville for sweeping views of the beautiful coastline, the tasman sea stretching out in front of us all the way to new zealand. later we enjoyed another fantastic sunset on the beach, this time equipped with a bottle of tasmanian pinot noir and the tunes of bob dylan.

after two nights on the freycinet peninsula, our campervan adventure was bound for the bay of fires further up the coast. this area was named for the fires of the aborigines that lit up the beaches when it was discovered in the late 18th century. ironically it’s the giant, flame-hued granite boulders that the bay is most famous for. produced by a lichen, the effect looks almost doctored, as if someone threw the whole area into a photoshop file, stripped it of color, then painted parts of it bright orange. despite the cloudy weather we enjoyed the scenic drive along the southern reaches of the bay, a 13km curve of sandy white beaches and aqua waters between binalong bay and an area called the gardens. there were some pretty amazing campsites right on the sand, but it was still too early to call it a day so we changed course and pointed our wheels northwest for a couple of hours. our tour of tasmania’s beautiful beaches finished with a quick stop in bridport, where the afternoon’s low tide left the brown sugar sand exposed for what seemed like miles. at sunset we settled into our campsite for the night – a tranquil spot by a lighthouse at the end of a two-lane road in low head, a quaint town that sits on a small rocky peninsula. this turned out to be the northernmost point of our self-designed tour. in tasmania (and much of oz), you can freedom camp practically anywhere as long as you’re outside city limits, which definitely adds to the fun and spontaneity of any road trip. with beers in hand and bob dylan playing his harmonica again in the background, we watched the sky turn shades of orange, pink, blue, and black. the moonlight was so bright that later that night, we decided to sneak past the gates and walk up to the lighthouse. we were about halfway there when suddenly we saw something move in the grass and heard a couple of loud warning thumps. my liquid courage faded fast and we turned around, deciding it was just a tad too dark and the sounds too close to not take them seriously.

i can't believe places this beautiful exist in real life.

our last day in tassie came quickly, and with it some beautiful warm weather. since it was considerably cooler down by hobart, we decided to enjoy the better part of the day in the north before making our way south. we drove back to bridport to while away a couple of hours on that same stretch of beach, then headed southwest down a scenic narrow road to check out the lavender fields of bridestowe estate. rows and rows of purple multiplied down the hill as far as the eye could see, and set against a backdrop of green mountains and blue sky they looked and smelled absurdly beautiful. it was as if i’d stepped into a dream and i didn’t want it to end. unfortunately alex missed out because the entry fee was quite steep, but it was probably for the best. the fields were literally buzzing with bees and probably would’ve sent him running and gagging for his life. after a quick stop in launceston to grab some food (shockingly, a quick meal from a strip mall food court sets you back at least $12 USD), we began our journey back to hobart. the hills, farms, and vineyards were bathed in sunlight the entire time, and we really enjoyed the peaceful tasmanian countryside. the strangest part of the drive were the large opium poppy fields we passed, complete with barbed wire fences and danger signs. apparently tasmania is the largest producer in the world of opium alkaloids for the pharmaceutical market! who knew?

the sweetest chance encounter ever.

our road trip fittingly ended in the same place it started. we found a great campsite right next to seven mile beach and brought a bottle of wine to wander the shores with one last time. at one point we bumped into a couple of women walking their dogs, and it ended up changing the course of our night. maybe it was because i was disappointed we hadn’t seen any wombats in the wild, or maybe we just had karma on our side, but somehow we got to talking with mary and her friend and the conversation ended with an invitation to come over and meet the wombat and echnida she’d recently rescued. i. was. in. heaven. when the two were no longer within earshot i was squealing with excitement to alex, tears of (anticipated) cuteness streaming down my cheeks. after i eventually got it together, we walked over to mary’s house and met her mother enid. the two of them showed us the best of tasmanian hospitality and we bonded over traveling, mary’s encounters as a wildlife specialist, and enid’s love of cricket. spending time with them, their six-week-old wombat, and their one-year-old, one-eyed echnida was the highlight of our trip. that said, having breakfast on the beach at the crack of dawn definitely wasn’t a bad way to round out our stay!

even though four days is not nearly enough time, we absolutely loved our introduction to tasmania. it’s funny how we only decided to come here after a chance meeting at the half-moon party back in ko phangan, where a girl named kelsie swore up and down that her home state of tassie was a must-see if we were coming to australia. unfortunately we managed to pick the one week that she was out of town, but we thank her anyway for giving us the idea! our 980km on the road gave us a lot of time to reflect on how much we’d seen, experienced, and learned in the last seven months, and how much we still had to look forward to. our next adventure would take us back to new south wales, only this time there would be sharks involved.

 // trip down under to date: 4 flights, 1 country, 2 states, 1 boat, 1 campervan adventure, 980km

a windy but gorgeous afternoon at the beach in wineglass bay.

the hum of busy bees was loud and clear at bridestowe estate.

this little gal had the cutest sniffles in the world!


After a journey spanning two days and a night, East and West, summer and winter, we found ourselves blinking in the Australian sun on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 7. Landing in Australia for the first time is something like waking up in an alternate version of the world you know. The cities and towns look the same, the people look the same, major streets are still lined with giant McDonald’s and KFC signs, but the landscapes, plants, animals and bugs have a fantastical element like it all started in the imagination of a science fiction writer. The rolling hills of Sydney are covered in tall eucalyptus trees called gum trees and large, white cockatoos with tall crests are the region’s answer to New York City’s pigeons. Beautiful, multicolored lorikeets can be seen munching on berries in suburban backyards. Insect life also thrives here like no other place I’ve seen. Militant red ants with mandibles you can see from six feet up stalk hiking trails while a horrifying array of spiders more suited to “The Hobbit” than reality threaten you from any innocent tree branch. That is, if you don’t like spiders almost as big as a dollar bill. During our three weeks in Australia it seemed like there was a new natural wonder around every corner.

Our first stop in Australia was Sydney, where Carla has two cousins that she hadn’t seen in over a decade. Her cousin JB immediately took us in from the Sydney airport and, along with his girlfriend Alana, spent the next six days making absolutely certain that we had a good time. After dropping off our bags at his apartment we dove right into Australia’s natural beauty. There is a national park just a half hour drive from JB’s apartment and we went hiking along the craggy coastline and took in some of the most beautiful views you’ll ever find in a major city. That night we kept fighting the jet lag by meeting up with Carla’s other cousin Pia and going out for a group dinner in the curiously named suburb of Crow’s Nest.

The love of Carla's life.

The next morning JB took the day off work in order to show us around and we spent the first few hours just relaxing on his amazing outdoor deck. His townhouse backs up to a natural reserve that includes a gum tree forest, so the wildlife is especially abundant right out his window. Among the flocks of cockatoos and lorikeets, there is a family of laughing kookaburra birds that comes by his deck for the occasional snack. Magpies hungrily threaten his and Alana’s domestic lovebird and possums can be seen in the trees at night. After brunch we stepped up the wildlife viewing with a trip to Featherdale Wildlife Park. Here you can not only see many of Australia’s most unique and interesting animals but you can interact with them as well. This was a dream come true for Carla. We saw wallabies (including a joey in the pouch), kangaroos, dingoes, a few of the top ten most poisonous snakes in the world, tasmanian devils, and countless birds only found on the Australian continent. Of course a visit to the wildlife park wouldn’t be complete without petting some (surprisingly wooly-feeling) koalas and seeing them drowsily munch on eucalyptus leaves. However, the great highlight of the visit was petting a stubby, chubby one-year old wombat named Bumbles that stole Carla’s heart. “Tears of cuteness” were shed.

We spent our remaining time in Sydney exploring the city and enjoying the company of JB, Alana and Pia. For the best views of Sydney Harbor and the Opera House, JB brought us to Manly Beach where we caught the ferry into downtown. The views from the boat were stunning, particularly when we got close to the Opera House. Sydney’s natural harbor with its many inlets and steep hills on all sides provides a gorgeous backdrop for this sprawling city of 4.6 million. Carla and I spent an afternoon walking around the city center and getting a feel for how Sydney is laid out. Like Los Angeles, Sydney is a large collection of suburban-style neighborhoods with only the small downtown area best viewed on foot. A car is a must in order to properly explore the city. Unlike Los Angeles, gentrification has had its way with the inner city, leaving it somewhat bland and corporate feeling at first glance. The city is beautiful and well-maintained, with perfectly manicured urban parks that would be the envy of just about any city in the world, but it seemed to lack some of the character found in New York’s dive bars or San Francisco’s coffee shops. We did find the architecture interesting, with many houses near the center displaying nicely renovated 19th-century colonial architecture. Sydney’s grungy side can be found in a neighborhood called King’s Cross, where Australians live up to their reputation for heavy drinking, but even here smooth apartment towers loom in the background like chaperones. With sunny weather, clean streets and beautiful scenery, central Sydney is focused on being a very nice place to live for those who can afford it.

Panoramic views from the Manly Beach ferry.

Speaking of affordability, Sydney rivals Stockholm and London as the most expensive place we’ve been. The rise of the Australian dollar and a 2006-style housing bubble mean a median house in the metro area costs over $700k US. Restaurants cost a good deal more than they would in New York and heavy taxes drive the price of a pint over $10 at most bars. The government’s heavy hand does not stop there. The city’s major freeways are expensive, with tolls of over $20 just to go back and forth to the airport. Speed cameras are commonplace, meaning you don’t have to get pulled over to get fined. Regular hunting rifles are extremely difficult to own. Anything the government thinks you shouldn’t be doing becomes much more expensive—this may have been the first place I’ve seen where a pack of 20 cigarettes costs over $20 US and a six pack of cheap beer over $15. Given the country’s origins as a penal colony and the risk-taking reputation of its people, I was surprised how much larger a role the government plays here than in the United States.

After we had spent some time walking around, JB, Alana and Pia met us near the Opera House for a drink. Seeing the Opera House in pictures, I had always thought of it as kind of overrated, like the Statue of Liberty, and only iconic because it was different. Not the case. The building is indeed one of a kind, but its unique architecture inspires awe from both far away and close up. It dominates downtown with its position on a spit of land out in the harbor, and its swooping curves immediately draw the eye from anywhere along the shore. The semi-natural looking shell texture contrasts beautifully with the hard, black lines under the roof. Due to its bending shape and position away from any other buildings it is difficult to measure with the eye from close up, which adds to its mysterious allure. The building is truly a work of art.

We were lucky that we had arrived during Sydney Festival and there were a number of special attractions the week we were there. In the shadow of the Opera House, a temporary installation called Exxopolis, Architects of Air was set up. This was a giant maze of rubbery plastic where, when inside, each room was bathed in an intense color filtered through the walls and roof. The five of us went in and were surprised by the otherworldly feel of this place—it’s difficult to describe but we did get some cool pictures. Afterwards we had dinner and drinks at a bar perched above the harbor, then walked across the Sydney Harbor Bridge back to Pia’s apartment. The views from the bridge at night were spectacular, with the Opera House lit up in front of the downtown skyline and the entire city laid out before us.

Blue Mountain National Park-- just 70 miles west of Sydney.

On our fourth day, JB, Pia and Alana all took the day off in order to show us some real Australian landscapes. We got up early and drove a couple hours west of the city to Blue Mountains National Park. Carla and I were amazed that a national park this beautiful and remote was just 70 miles away from the Sydney metropolis. The road goes up and up into the mountains of New South Wales, where few houses can fit between the slopes and snow can be seen in the winter. Abruptly, the road comes to a cliff edge not unlike Arizona’s Grand Canyon, where a vast green gorge was laid out before us. There is a hiking trail along this cliff edge with breathtaking views throughout—this is how we spent our afternoon. The trail is mostly protected from the sheer drops below, but it is possible to hike down the cliff edge into the valley (sometimes via vertical metal staircases), which inspires the imagination in an uncomfortable way. The landscapes west of Sydney are reminiscent of Northern Arizona or Southern Utah but wet and green instead of dry and brown—I’ve never seen anything quite like it. That evening, exhausted from a day of hiking, JB promised to reward us with a meal of home-cooked schnitzel. We stopped in a quaint mountain town for fresh groceries and wine before going back to Sydney and deliciously undoing any exercise we had that day.

Over our last couple days, we went to the iconic Bondi Beach, the much more relaxing Freshwater Beach, an outdoor Chaka Khan concert near downtown (very random) and watched the latest Thor movie on a giant screen in a park (also random). Bondi Beach was especially interesting, mostly because of the people watching. The beach itself is certainly beautiful, but it is so crowded on a sunny day that it can be tough just to find a place to sit on the sand. You are likely to hear more non-Australian accents than Australian ones. Traveling hippies with unruly hair mix with surfer types, European teenagers on a “gap year,” and bodybuilding beach bums to create the most eclectic scene we found in Australia. For a more traditional beach experience, Carla went to Freshwater Beach with JB, Alana and Pia. There they found plenty of open space and decided to do some boogie boarding despite the freezing cold water. It took until our last day in Sydney for Carla to finally have a “proper” beach experience.

We learned a lot and saw many beautiful sights over our six days in Sydney, but because of JB, Alana and Pia it was so much more than that. Carla’s cousins took us in like long-lost siblings and spent virtually all their time introducing us to the city and the region. We got to do some very local activities like having an authentic Vietnamese dinner in the immigrant neighborhood and sharing cheese and wine before an outdoor concert. We also got to see some sights like the Blue Mountain trail that we never would have known about. We did everything short of riding in a Holden Ute (a modern day car/truck El Camino) to feel like locals while we were there. Our next stop in Australia would be the remote island of Tasmania, where we would escape the crowds and spend some time on the open road.

// trip down under to date: 3 flights, 1 country, 1 state, 1 boat

Birdie's favorite sport? Basketball.

Making friends with a koala at snacktime.