Yosemite-The Beginning of our US Journey

The Family
The Family

By now you’ve read about our adventures in the High Sierra’s including King’s Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Mammoth Lakes.  This post is about the grand daddy of them all, Yosemite, the wilderness that inspired a legacy of conservation not only in the US but abroad as well.  We started our tour de National Parks here in Yosemite.

While we were traveling abroad we made plans to spend a few days with Ravi’s family in Yosemite for a little reunion.  It was our first destination after returning from Fiji and packing up the car, which was a destination in and of itself.  Lakshmy, my sister in law, found an awesome vacation rental in Yosemite West.  The house had a very “woodsy” feeling with a huge kitchen and dining area, multiple hang out spaces, comfortable bedrooms with bunk beds for the girls, and a nice outdoor space.   The property didn’t allow dogs so we had to drop off Duke and Spike for a couple days at a boarding facility in Merced, just west of Yosemite.

Ravi and I arrived first and took over the kitchen preparing for dinner.  We picked up a bunch of produce along the way and after we got into the kitchen it looked like a market exploded on the counter tops.  Within a couple hours the rest of the family arrived and settled in, the girls Mira and Vijaya headed straight for the bunk beds!  We hadn’t seen Padma, Josh and the girls since the wedding last year and had only spent a couple days with Lakshmy, Kumar, and Aditya last fall so we were looking forward to spending time with everyone and seeing how the kiddos had been growing up since we last connected.  Ravi’s Dad travelled with us in India in January/February and we were glad he made the trip out from Pennsylvania to join in the festivities.  Everyone was pretty tired the night we arrived but we managed to stay up past midnight talking and decided near 2 am that it was time to go to bed if we wanted to get up to see the park tomorrow!

Squirt gun fight, pretty sure I lost that one.
Squirt gun fight, pretty sure I lost that one.

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Josh gearing up for enchiladas.
Josh gearing up for enchiladas.  Everyone is vegetarian, but we are vegan and there are some allergies among the group so we made about 4 different types! Vegan, gluten free, tomato free, etc.

The next day we woke up to Lakshmy making delicious dosa and chutney which powered us up for sight seeing.  We packed into our cars and headed into Yosemite Valley to explore the immense granite walls and waterfalls.  The girls liked the waterfalls, but would have liked to spend more time in the water I think than watching the water.  After a couple view points and short trails we stopped for a picnic lunch with El Capitan as our backdrop.  We could have spent all day at the river next to El Cap it was so beautiful and the weather was perfect.  But after a few very cold dips into the river we packed up and continued to explore the valley.  We made a stop at the visitor center and Josh and I picked up ice-cream and popsicles for an afternoon sugar boost.  Our last stop was the lower Yosemite Falls then we headed back to the house to relax and have another fun family dinner.  We all ended up in bed much earlier than the previous night!

Picnic time.
Picnic time.
Bridal Viel Falls
Bridal Viel Falls
Mira telling me to get deeper into the water.
Mira telling me to get deeper into the water.
Padma and Aditya at the valley overlook.
Padma and Aditya at the valley overlook.
Ravi and his Dad.
Ravi and his Dad.

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Lower Yosemite Falls with Kumar, Lakshmy, and Aditya.
Lower Yosemite Falls with Kumar, Lakshmy, and Aditya.

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Padma and her daughter Vijaya
Padma and her daughter Vijaya
El Cap
El Cap
Mira saying hello to the ducks.
Mira saying hello to the ducks.

Ravi and I headed back into the Valley the next morning to pick up a wilderness permit for a 3 night backpacking trip we were planning after the family departed(more on that later). The rest of the crew got ready to visit the Giant Sequoias.  Ravi and I easily got our backcountry permit including a permit to hike up half-dome and headed back to the house.

We headed to Mariposa Grove which is a beautiful stand of Giant Sequoias.  I had never seen Giant Sequoias before and seeing them for the first time inspires a sense of awe, gratitude, and reverence.  They have been around thousands of years weathering and bearing witness to storms, fire, war, famine, birth, death, the plague, etc.  The trees are so big at first they don’t even seem real but rather like a movie set.  In fact, these trees are what inspired the government to set aside the land and protect the park.  Normally we would walk the trails to see the trees but we decided it would be fun to take the tram ride through the grove to hear more about the history and see the entire stand.  The girls liked the hour-long ride and were great listeners as well.

Mariposa Grove, Giant Sequoias
Mariposa Grove, Giant Sequoias

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On our way back to the house we saw a mama bear with her two cubs on the side of the road.  We didn’t know it at the time but we have seen a few bears since then including more cubs.  They stayed by the side of the road eating for a few minutes then scampered off back into the woods.  When we got back to the house it was one last family dinner before Ravi and I headed upstairs to prep for our backpacking trip that was starting the next day.

Our last morning we finished packing our food into our bear barrel, said our goodbyes to the family, and headed out for our next adventure-backpacking out the valley on a loop trail for 4 days/3 nights.  We got started on our hike around noon, which made for a grueling climb out of the valley on the snow creek trail.  Our plan was to hike a beautiful loop through Snow Creek to Tenaya Lake, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, then out through Happy Isles.  The trail basically is a series of tight switchbacks climbing out of the valley, beautiful but a hard start to the trip.  As we climbed out of the valley floor the views became more expansive and the granite cliffs seemed to get bigger and bigger.  We took the hike slow, stopping to catch our breath and admire the views.  We pushed on past a spot, that in retrospect we probably should have camped at, but thought that getting a bit farther the first day would make the subsequent days easier.  Hindsight is 20/20.

View of the Valley from the switchbacks at Snow Creek Trail.
View of the Valley from the switchbacks at Snow Creek Trail.
Ravi filtering water
Ravi filtering water
Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake
Ravi and I post-hike happy to be back in the valley.
Ravi and I post-hike happy to be back in the valley.

After climbing another 1,000 ft or so we found a campsite and set up camp.  Neither of us slept well waking up often.  Ravi woke up early with an awful headache, nausea, vomiting, and a general sense of not really being coherent.  I knew these were the signs of altitude sickness and that he needed to descend.  We were camped at about 8,000 ft and the combination of dehydration and altitude was making Ravi miserable.  Despite him wanting to stay in his sleeping bag I urged him to get up and start walking back down the trail.  When he started vomiting he knew he was in trouble too and got himself up and out of the tent.  I handed him his water bladder and told him to start walking down the trail.  I packed up the rest of camp (this is around 6 am) in about 10 minutes, threw on my pack and his pack and headed down after him.

We met up at a basin below the 7,000 ft mark (where altitude sickness can start) and both breathed a sigh of relief that his headache was subsiding.  Altitude sickness can be very dangerous and deadly so I was worried and very relieved when he continued to improve as we descended.  Although we could have camped lower and continued on our trip we both decided we missed our dogs and had had enough adventure for a few days.  We hiked back out the way we came in and were back with our dogs that afternoon.  Ravi was feeling much better by this time and I know any residual illness was gone when he saw Duke and Spike.

That evening we decided to stay low key at a motel before heading on to King’s Canyon National Park.  We stopped at Chipotle for dinner and crawled into bed happy to be safe and healthy.  We will be back to Yosemite to hike but next time will camp a little lower, make sure we are super hydrated, and give ourselves more time to acclimatize.  In fact, our new plan is to complete the 210 mile John Muir Trail this fall as we loved Yosemite and the other neighboring parks so much!

-Alison

Mammoth Lakes, CA

Mammoth Lakes is an impressive little place with big mountains, lots of trails and all the amenities you need close by. It is also way up high, with the town sitting at 8000ft elevation and the lakes at 9000ft or so. No surprise that many elite athletes, including Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor, call this place home. While camping we saw several pro runners pass by, ascending the mountain road to the lake country…complete with a pacer leading them on with a mountain bike.

We like it here so much we stayed three nights instead of the planned two. Our site was on a very large plot, right on the edge of an alpine lake bordered by snow capped and towering granite walls.

This was the view less than 50 yards from our tent!
This was the view less than 50 yards from our tent!

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We ran every day (though even 20 minutes of slow jogging was enough to tire us at this altitude!), lounged around and ate tons of great vegan salads and other simple cooked meals (stir fry, beans/veggies and rice or homemade soup are staples for us). There was a great natural food store in town and we stocked up on some vegan cookies and a few other luxuries (including hemp seeds and Udo’s oil for our salads).

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We also made the jaunt over to the Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We had never heard of it before, but figured that if it was a National Monument (whatever that means) it is worth checking out. Reality is, the Devil’s Postpile itself was anti-climatic, it was pretty small and unless you are into geology, not something that makes you go “WOW”. What was cool about the Devil’s Postpile is the historical significance.

The unique geological formation was called out as a lightning rod by an brave conservationist / park ranger as such a wonder, that blowing it up to build a dam would be a tragedy….such a dam was in the works and it would have forever changed the ecosystem of the Red Meadow Valley. Ron Reagan himself rode in to the valley on horseback when he was the Governor of California to declare the area protected as a national monument, thus saving the entire valley from ruin.

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Devils’ Postpile, caused by geological activity and magma cooling in a certain manner and now visible thanks to erosion.
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The top of the Devil’s Postpile was really cool. Look at all the hexagons.
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Duke is captivated by the view.

However, the drive into Devil’s Postpile….into the Red Meadow Valley….is something that will make you go “WOW.” There are also some hikes in the valley that are worth doing, though we didn’t have the time to venture out on them. The John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trails also cut through this area…to give you an idea of how epic it is. Worth taking a picnic lunch there to enjoy after walking around a bit.

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We want to go back to Mammoth in the winter….the skiing there is supposed to be epic.

Life is good.

Ravi

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

We arrived in Kings Canyon National Park after five days in Yosemite. Yosemite is one of the most visited National Parks in the USA. What most people don’t realize, is that south of Yosemite are several of the most gorgeous places in the country, that receive a fraction of the number of visitors. This means the roads are less crowded, you can walk trails without having to dodge bikes or wait for people to let you pass by, and campsites are more serene and less often full.

Entering Kings Canyon. The road winds all the way down to the valley floor.
Entering Kings Canyon. The road winds all the way down to the valley floor.

Just south of Yosemite are Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, along with several specific groves of Sequoia trees deemed national monuments. The majority of the parks are at altitude, with most of the good campsites above 6000ft. We camped for three nights in Kings Canyon NP at 7500ft!

Our campsite in Kings Canyon NP, at 7500ft elevation. The days were warm and the nights were cool.
Our campsite in Kings Canyon NP, at 7500ft elevation. The days were warm and the nights were cool. If you ever go there, camp at Sunset Campground, in a camp spot numbered in the 30’s or 40’s. They have the best views!
Relaxing with Duke.
Relaxing with Duke.
Spike loved the sandy soil.
Spike loved the sandy soil.
View from our campsite, looking over a large valley.
View from our campsite, looking over a large valley.
Sunset was amazing from our campsite.
Sunset was amazing from our campsite.
At night, the stars came out and you could see the soft glow from the far away towns.
At night, the stars came out and you could see the soft glow from the far away towns.

The weather was hot and super dry down in Kings Canyon, and we saw very few cars on the road while we were there (though it was mid-week and early in the summer season). The canyon itself was idyllic and not to be missed. Since we are traveling with Duke and Spike, we take turns going on adventures while one of us hangs with the dogs. It’s a relaxing routine. While we would prefer to go on hikes and bike rides together, there is something nice about sitting at a scenic overlook or picnic area with the dogs, reading or just watching things go by. It is forced down-time and something we actually look forward to now.

We found a great rest area at the base of a waterfall to hang out at while we took turns riding the Kings Canyon Road all the way to the end and back. The scenery was full of native old growth trees, occasional meadows dotted with wildflowers and a strong flowing creek lining the entire canyon floor. The road quality was pretty good, but our lack of cycling fitness meant the twenty mile round-trip ride (with plenty of rolling hills in both directions)…left us whipped, and with sore backsides!

Grizzly falls rest area, a great place to hang out for the afternoon.
Grizzly falls rest area, a great place to hang out for the afternoon.
Grizzly Falls.
Grizzly Falls.

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We packed up our campsite and visited two of the largest trees in the world, the General Grant and General Sherman Giant Sequoia’s! They are separated by an eighty mile road that winds its way through old growth forest dotted with larger than life trees.

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The General Sherman tree is deemed the largest tree in the world as measured by total volume. Some trees are taller. Others are wider. But General Sherman has more overall mass of wood than any other. It is almost two thousand years old and some of its branches are thicker than you are tall!

The pattern on the pavement marks the girth of the General Sherman tree.
The pattern on the pavement marks the girth of the General Sherman tree.

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Massive! The General Sherman Tree.
Massive! The General Sherman Tree.
Anther tree near the General Sherman tree.
The base of the General Sherman tree.
This is a limb that fell from the General Sherman tree. It is taller than a person!
This is a limb that fell from the General Sherman tree. It is taller than a person!

The most amazing part of Sequoia NP is driving around and seeing the big trees dotted throughout the forest. Their cinnamon colored bark and larger than life appearance defy imagination.

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From here we wound our way south, aiming to drive up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range. This was a spur of the moment decision, that ended up being one of the highlights of our trip so far. Neither of us thought there was a lot to see in the Eastern Sierra’s (we were very very wrong!) but excessive heat in the Utah National Parks (Bryce Canyon, Arches, Zion, Canyonlands) meant that we wanted to bide our time in more temperate zones. We thought about driving up quickly to Mammoth Lakes or Tahoe, not expecting much to see along the way….just bland desert highways and bald hills. We were in for a big surprise.

More on our Eastern Sierra adventures in the next few posts.

– Ravi

Arriving back in the US, May 19th

We arrived back in Seattle May 19th, greeted by surprisingly sunny and warm weather.  We flew from Fiji via LAX and were excited to see our friends and our dogs.  The first night back we stayed with our friend Sean in Bellevue, which after staying in hostels felt like a luxury hotel! Thanks Sean.  We had a good time catching up with him about our travels over one of the food places we missed-Chipotle.   We ate well on our trip, but did miss some of our  eateries back home. Over the five days we were back we made sure to visit these places (Chipotle, Whole Foods, Pho House, Starbucks).  After recovering from jet lag and sleeping in at Sean’s apartment we picked up our car at the storage unit and headed to pick up the dogs.   Luckily the car started up with no problem after sitting unused for almost 5 months.  Love the subie.

Flying into Seattle
Flying into Seattle

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Sleeping in at Sean's apartment in Bellevue. Felt like luxury!
Sleeping in at Sean’s apartment in Bellevue. Felt like luxury!
Eating at Pho House in Kirkland, our favorite.
Eating at Pho House in Kirkland, our favorite.

Duke and Spike looked great, although they had gained a few pounds while we were away.  Duke was super excited to see us and jumping up and down while Spike meandered out with tail wagging to say hello and when he was satisfied walked back toward the play space!  Jamie, the owner of Camp Charlie, said Duke ran the place and Spike spent most of his time hanging out under a shady tree.  Evidently he really liked his stay there.  Happy to be back with our dogs we took them right to the dog park.

Happy to be walking the dogs.
Happy to be walking the dogs.

Our friends Tracey and Russell graciously let us stay with them in Seattle for a couple days so we got to catch up with them. Tracey also happened to be very pregnant and was due any day!  It was super fun to hang out with her and we stayed up chatting way too late.  The morning we left to stay on the Eastside she had her baby, Quinault. We were so happy the baby decided to come on time so we got to meet him and spend more time with the family.

Hanging out with Sylas, Tracey, Russell, and new baby!
Hanging out with Sylas, Tracey, Russell, and new baby!
Tracey with Quinalt
Tracey with Quinault
Practicing our vegan Thai once again for Tracey, Russell and family.
Practicing our vegan Thai once again for Tracey, Russell and family.
Delicious vegan pizza from Zaw in Seattle post baby hang out.
Delicious vegan pizza from Zaw in Seattle post baby hang out.

Ravi also got to spend time with a couple of his past coworkers and I did as well.  Both of us really enjoyed catching up with our coworkers and hearing about how things had changed and progressed since we left.  I got to tour the new residential facility for eating disorder treatment, Eating Recovery Center of Washington, that I had been working on prior to leaving work.  I know the team at ERC and The Moore Center had been working very hard to open so it was fun to see the completed project.

After meeting up with friends and enjoying our tour of restaurants we missed we started the process of entering our over stuffed storage unit to find our camping gear.  Despite us doing our best to put the gear we anticipated needing toward the front, we still had to do some digging and ended up not finding a couple of items we wanted to bring.  Which was probably good because we had to cut down on our packing anyway to make everything fit in our Subaru with us and the dogs.  Eventually we got our gear and packing squared away and were ready to leave Washington.  We also took care of random errands, caught up on some TV, and most exciting of all I finally officially changed my name-Alison May Raman!

Packing up the car
Packing up the car
All packed up and ready to go
All packed up and ready to go

Our first destination was Yosemite for a family gathering.  On the way we stopped in Portland for lunch with our friend at an amazing vegan restaurant called Blossoming Lotus.  If you ever are in Portland definitely stop here-even if you aren’t vegan or vegetarian you will love it.  On our way we also spent a few hours in Ashland, OR wandering around and enjoying the food from another raw/vegan cafe, NW Raw.  We took the drive to Yosemite relatively slow stopping at plenty of dog parks along the way.  It was near 100 degrees in California so we were ready to get to Yosemite to enjoy the cooler weather and spend time with family.  In total we took about 5 days in Seattle and 2 and a half to drive to Yosemite.  It feels good to be back in the States and exploring our backyard!

Smoothie and Juice at NW Raw in Ashland.
Smoothie and Juice at NW Raw in Ashland.
Vegan cinnamon roll at Blossoming Lotus, Portland
Vegan cinnamon roll at Blossoming Lotus, Portland
Driving on I-5 in California
Driving on I-5 in California

-Alison

Fiji’s Mamanuka and Yasawa Islands: Backpacker Style

Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.
Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.
Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.
Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.
Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.
Fiji by air from SavuSavu to Nadi.

We arrived in Fiji via sailboat and then spent several days chill-axing off the coat of Vanua Levu, an island northeast of the big island in the Fiji island chain. Saying goodbye to Sophie after ten fun days (well, aside from my sea sickness during the ocean crossing!) was tough but Alison and I also new that we would regret not seeing some other parts of Fiji while we were here.

We caught a tiny turboprop airplane from the smallest airport either of us had ever been to, bound for Nadi, Fiji (pronounced “Nandi”) which is a major tourist hub. Near Nadi is an upscale area called Port Denarau that many tourists spend a night in on their way in/out of the country; however the real place people head to for the bulk of a Fiji trip is the island chain off the coast called the Mamanuka and Yasawa islands.

These islands are accessible by ferry boat (or sea plane), with the majority of folks taking a high speed catamaran service that island hops throughout the resort areas every day. The islands are very spread out, with the ferry ride being almost five hours for the islands farthest away from the mainland.

What is unique about Fiji is that it caters to backpackers and budget travelers in addition to the rich and super rich. We saw some of the largest yachts in the world at the Port Denarau marina (two had helicopters on the top deck), and also the yacht named “A” belonging to a billionaire Russian Oligarch moored off one of the islands we visited in the Mamanukas (it happened to be the same one we saw in French Polynesia during our honeymoon last year, it looks like a submarine and was designed by Phillipe Starcke).

Unlike our honeymoon last year where we stayed at five star resorts in over the water bungalows, this time we were traveling to experience places and not pamper ourselves in luxury. We wanted to see a few different islands, but didn’t know where exactly to stay. We arrived at the Port Denarau marina (after stopping en route at an Indian restaurant for lunch!) and bought our accommodations at a travel agent desk after reading some brochures (and noting some tips from Jamie and Jenna on where to go as they had sailed in the area before), then boarded out catamaran a few hours later.

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The food was good, and very cheap...we ate two vegan thali's and an appetizer for about $10USD per person...note: this was in the town of Nadi...out on the resort islands, the food was not as good and was very costly.
In Nadi, the food was good, and very cheap…we ate two vegan thali’s and an appetizer for about $10USD per person…note: this was in the town of Nadi…out on the resort islands, the food was not as good and was very costly.

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We visited:

1) South Sea Island: a tiny island you could walk around in five minutes!

2) Manta Ray Island: where you could, if lucky, swim with Manta Rays. We also heard the resort was quite nice.

3) Blue Lagoon: it was made famous by the eponymous movie, and we heard it was a gorgeous resort and beach.

4) Bounty Island: we chose to stay here on our way back from Blue Lagoon to break up our travel, since it was so close to the main island and we had a long flight back Seattle in the evening.

South Sea Island: 

We stayed in a dormitory, in fact, that was the only option for lodging on this tiny spot of sand in the middle of the sea. The food was so-so, as we would soon learn that people in Fiji don’t really understand what “vegan” means….there are plenty of veggies and fruits available, but combining everything together into a healthy meal was hard to do. We had better luck with vegan food at the other islands (though it still wasn’t great). One great thing about this island was that since it had so few people staying every night, dinner was served right on the beach, by candlelight. Very cool!

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South Sea Island…smallest island ever! You could walk around it in five minutes.

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Manta Ray Island:

We swam with Manta Rays and it was awesome! Part of me, though feels bad that the animals are disrupted by humans snorkeling around them (the Rays are feeding in the channel where we go to see them). They are only present in this area for a few months a year. We saw about seven different Rays, including a Devil Ray (all black) and Manta Ray (with white on the belly.) We didn’t have an underwater camera and are still waiting for a friend we met on the island to email the pics to us. Just trust us that is was amazing. If you ever swim with Rays in the open ocean, just listed to the guides and don’t touch or in any way harass the animals. Let them swim below you.

In addition, right off the beach from our resort (literally five feet away from the water’s edge) was a pristine marine reserve and protected reef. It was vibrant in color and full of fish. Unlike many of reefs we saw in Fiji that were full of dead coral, these were fully alive and we took full advantage and snorkeled several times a day.

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Blue Lagoon:

I don’t recall the name of the island, but the resort we stayed at was called “Blue Lagoon Resort” and it was near the Blue Lagoon, made famous by numerous films. The day after we arrived, it started to rain. And I mean RAIN! I’ve never seen rain this hard, it was torrential. Even stepping outside would soak you head to toe. As a result of the rain (which lasted over 24 hours), all water and land activities were cancelled.

Instead, everyone huddled inside the bar/restaurant area and watched a cheesy remake of the Blue Lagoon on a TV they brought out (NOT the original starred Brooke Shields, but the even cheesier remake starring Mila Jovovich). We also caught up on internet (wifi was decent here) and read a little, while giving a lot of pets to the resort dog “Charlie”, who used to live on the property before the resort was even build. Charlie can pretty much go wherever he wants on the resort now!

DSC04914Getting dropped off at your island was the most fun part of the journey. The catamaran would stop, and numerous dingy/small boats would motor in to drop off passengers and pick up new ones, along with provisions for the islands .

This dog would just stand in the water and try to catch fish...I don't think it was ever successful!
This dog would just stand in the water and try to catch fish…I don’t think it was ever successful!
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At low tide, the reef was visible. The quality of the coral here was pretty poor, most of it was dead, despite that…there were a TON of fish.
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We splurged for a private room at the Blue Lagoon Resort (but you share a bath with others). Accommodations here were quite nice.
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Hanging out with “Charlie” the resort dog.
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Kava ceremony. Kava is an important part of Fijian culture, and used to be consumed only by village chiefs and shamans. It is made from a root, and numbs your tongue…and perhaps other things if you drink enough of it! I just had a taste.
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Drinking Kava.
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Drinking Kava.
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After the rains, the beach was glorious.

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Bounty Island:

This island had the dumpiest accommodations, and we stayed in a dorm. However, the staff was unbelievably friendly and they actually had better vegan options for us to eat than South Sea or even Manta Ray island. The weather was also nice here….and the beach was large….so we just hang around on the sand and enjoyed out last full day in Fiji before flying home.

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Overall, it was fun but not something we would do again (though we would definitely come back to Fiji and go other places).

Our trip to the Mamanuka and Yasawa Islands was fun and worthwhile to do as a “once in our lives activity”, but not a great value or something we would do in the same way if we return to Fiji.

Our main gripes are (1) the cost and (2) the quality of the lodging we had given the cost.

Remember, Fiji is a developing country, and the per capita wages are relatively low compared to the USA/Europe/Australia. I understand and have no problem paying a premium for visiting such a beautiful place and providing jobs/wages for the locals, and I was ready to do so. However the prices in this part of Fiji were just exorbitant (my comparison is India or Thailand as a reference). Note: I’m referring to the Mamanuka and Yasawa resorts, other parts of Fiji can be much more affordable. Even considering that people/goods need to be delivered to the islands via boat, it was still surprisingly costly.

Even the budget/backpacker resorts we stayed at cost ~$80-100 USD for lodging per person (in a large shared dorm!) and another $80-100 USD for a compulsory meal plan per person. If you eat meat and don’t have dietary restrictions, the meal plan would be a feast, however as vegans, we felt like it was a total waste of money. We didn’t eat 80% of the food available for buffets, and the custom meals they made us weren’t great (of the lot, Blue Lagoon had the best food). Also, there was no option but for us to pay the full amount for the compulsory meals.

Some of the accommodations (e.g. Dorms on Bounty Island and South Sea Island) were dumpy, despite the high cost. Blue Lagoon and Manta Rays Islands were the exception, where the accommodations were nice (though still costly).

As a result, we would not go back to these islands and these resorts.

That said, we definitely want to visit Fiji again. When we do, we will find some places off the beaten path where we can have good clean lodging at a fair price, an a la carte selection of meals (perhaps cook ourselves) and avoid paying the tourist premium applied to resorts in the Mamanukas and Yasawas.

Perhaps the biggest motivator for going back to Fiji is the people, culture and slower pace of life. Fijians are super friendly, family oriented…and laid back. We like that.

Ravi

Sydney, Australia

We visited Sydney in March.

As per my last post, I’m writing this blog pretty late. I have some downtime while Alison is out on a hike (we are at Mt. Whitney trailhead, near Lone Pine, CA in the USA). I’ll also keep it brief. We spent three days and two nights in Sydney, after a great time in Tasmania with Cassie and Guy and en route to New Zealand for a month of camper-vanning.

We wanted to get some time in the warm sunshine (Tasmania was surprisingly cool) before New Zealand where we knew the weather would be cool as well (it was fall there when we visited NZ in April). Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great when we visited. It rained two days and was a bit chilly at that.

Gray clouds over Bondi Beach. Where did the sun go???
Gray clouds over Bondi Beach. Where did the sun go???
I think even the seagull is cold!
I think even the seagull is bummed about the weather!

The final day, we had some good sun, and immediately hit the beach, which was easy to do since we stayed at Bondi, one of the world’s most famous beaches and the scene of a the reality TV show “Bondi Rescue” (an Aussie TV program about the life guards). Bondi was gorgeous, as was the beachfront and cliff front trail connecting Bondi Beach with nearby Coogee Beach. We ran this route once (well, Alison ran it twice!).

View of Bondi Beach from near the IceBreakers swim club.
View of Bondi Beach from near the IceBreakers swim club.
This is an Olympic Size (50 meter) and 25 meter swim club build right into the ocean and filled with sea water. Waves literally crash over the wall into the pool. Australia has many of these ocean swim clubs...very cool.
This is an Olympic Size (50 meter) and 25 meter swim club build right into the ocean and filled with sea water. Waves literally crash over the wall into the pool. Australia has many of these ocean swim clubs…very cool.
The waves were pretty big, only a small stretch was safe for swimming, the rest was for surfing (mostly intermediate and up skill level except for a small part of the beach).
The waves were pretty big, only a small stretch was safe for swimming, the rest was for surfing (mostly intermediate and up skill level except for a small part of the beach).
Bondi Beach in the sun! The way it was meant to be.
Bondi Beach in the sun! The way it was meant to be.
The full view of Bondi Beach.
The full view of Bondi Beach.

However, the rest of Sydney we didn’t find that remarkable. The city center was tough to see just walking around as there didn’t seem to be a real centralized part to it, it seemed more spread out into different neighborhoods.

We were also excited to see the Sydney Opera House, the famous building that looks like sails flying off a boat….but it left much to be desired. The photos I had seen were much more impressive. In person, it was drab and appeared a bit dirty. I will note, they were doing construction around the Opera House so perhaps that had a negative impact on its aura. To add, going into the opera house for a tour was surprisingly expensive (as is most everything in Australia).

Sydney Opera House.
Sydney Opera House.

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Harbor Bridge...you could pay a couple hundred bucks to walk up the top of it (yes, up the metal beams) while tethered in to a harness. We decided to view it from below!
Harbor Bridge…you could pay a couple hundred bucks to walk up the top of it (yes, up the metal beams) while tethered in to a harness. We decided to view it from below!
Harbor bridge.
Harbor bridge.

One thing we really did like about Sydney, was the amount of park space, and the massive old growth trees.

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Again, we found a “fitness quest” (our own made up name)…it seems like these are everywhere in Australian cities and it’s awesome. We spent about 20 minutes doing random exercises after finding this fitness quest area near the Harbor Bridge.

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I think we will need to go back to Sydney when the weather is warm and spend more time there to get a better feel for it. Based on our short visit, we preferred Adelaide and Melbourne.

Ravi

Melbourne, Australia

I’m writing this post from the Mt. Whitney Trailhead campground near Lone Pine, CA. This is the place where many people set off to summit the highest point in the continental USA, Mt. Whitney. Neither Alison nor I are planning to do this, instead content to venture on day hikes, spend time with our dogs, Duke and Spike, and relax in one of the most spectacular campgrounds we have ever seen.

We have a spot right on a mountain stream, in the shade of tall ponderosa pines and cinnamon colored incense cedar trees that somehow manage to thrive in the sandy soil. Stopping here was a fluke, but a welcome fluke at that. Our original plan was to drive to Mammoth Lakes, but thought taking a detour to get a better photo of Mt. Whitney would be worth it. It was. We will spend two glorious days and nights here.

The trend continuous that traveling without firm plans is working to our favor. Since we are traveling with our dogs, we take turns hiking. Yesterday I did a four hour jaunt up a mountain valley en-route to Meyson Lake. I ran out of time (the sun was setting) and didn’t make it to the lake but still got world class views of the desert valley below. While I was hiking, Alison hung out at the camp site.

Today, Alison is doing the first portion (6-7 miles round trip) of the Mt. Whitney summit trail, while I hang out and catch up on blog posts. There is no cell or wi-fi here, so I’m writing this post offline and will post it who knows when. Our sense of time is definitely warped, or maybe now our sense of time is normal and it was warped before we left our careers???

Anyway, back to Melbourne….

We arrived in Melbourne after a long multi-day drive from Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road. The weather was great, albeit hot. We dropped off our rental car and made our way through throngs of people and bad traffic to the tram car stop, bound for the St. Kilda neighborhood. We St. Kilda it was the cool neighborhood to be, so we found a hostel there. Turns out St. Kilda used to be the cool place, and the really cool place nowadays is on the other side of the city – doh!

Regardless, there was a nice area to walk around with shops and such, including an upscale vegetarian restaurant that we tried (it was decent, but not amazing). We also found a few other high quality (and less costly) vegan spots around town.

The cheapest lunch you can find in Melbourne, and it is (1) all vegetarian - with a vegan option and (2) and all-you-can-eat buffet! The setting is cramped but the food is simple and great. We ate here twice.
The cheapest lunch you can find in Melbourne, and it is (1) all vegetarian – with a vegan option and (2) and all-you-can-eat buffet! The setting is cramped but the food is simple and great. We ate here twice.
Rice, naan, aloo matar (potato and peas curry), dal and hot pickle. All vegan from OM Restauraunt.
Rice, naan, aloo matar (potato and peas curry), dal and hot pickle. All vegan from OM Restauraunt.
BeanGreen Cafe was a great find. The owner/cook can make almost anything vegan, including her savory pies! Very high quality food that doesn't cost much.
BeanGreen Cafe was a great find. The owner/cook can make almost anything vegan, including her savory pies! Very high quality food that doesn’t cost much.
Falafel and tahini with salad at BeanGreen Cafe.
Falafel and tahini with salad at BeanGreen Cafe.
Vegan savory "pie" filled with veggies at BeanGreen Cafe, a veggie place.
Vegan savory “pie” filled with veggies at BeanGreen Cafe, a veggie place.

However the traffic was horrendous and our hostel was about a mile from anywhere interesting. The hostel itself, while very highly rated, was overrun with the 25 and under crowd. Nothing wrong with this in itself, but in the evenings the lobby and lounge areas were packed with people playing beer pong, flip cup and otherwise being loud and sorta obnoxious. We have learned that when a hotel has a high rating (on sites like hostelworld.com), you need to read the comments carefully, as many ratings come from young travelers looking to party and hang out, not from people like Alison and I looking to see the sights, exercise and get a good night of sleep!

The coolest thing about Melbourne was the long beachfront right next to city center. It is well developed with parks, fitness quest areas (what we call adult playgrounds with various fitness equipment, they are numerous in Australia). Kite boarders and wind surfers were catching air right next to the city skyline.

Traffic aside, the city itself was gorgeous and well planned. There was a river flowing through the main business district and plenty of trees lining the sidewalks, with grassy park spaces and plenty of restaurants with outdoor seating.

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Our major adventure here involved bikes. Melbourne has a great city bike system with stations all over the place with bikes and helmets. The bikes don’t cost much to rent for an hour or a even a entire day. There is also a trick. We learned that once you check out a bike (via credit card, it costs just a few bucks), as long as you dock the bike every 30 minutes, you don’t have to pay any additional fees. Otherwise, you pay by the hour. We decided to see how far we could make it, hopping from bike station to bike station without paying overage fees. We made it pretty far, but despite furious pedaling, a few red lights kept us from reaching our goal (the city center) on the cheap.

City bike rentals right on the beach.
City bike rentals right on the beach.
Another fleet of City Bikes, right on the beach.
Another fleet of City Bikes, right on the beach.
Stopping to watch the windsurfers on the boardwalk.
Stopping to watch the windsurfers on the boardwalk.

It also turned out to be the F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne while we were there. You could here the whup-whup-whup of choppers filming the trial runs and the screeching of tires and whirring of engines throughout the area of the city we ventured in. We thought about going to the event, but it was expensive. The cheapest tickets were around $100, and this was for viewing practice laps and the time trials, not even the main event! More than the cost, we just preferred to see the city instead of a sporting event.

After two nights and three full days in Melbourne, we caught a flight to Tasmania, where our friends Cassie and Guy recently moved. We’ve already blogged about our adventures in Tasmania, it was a great time and we hope to be back there soon. As for Melbourne, it was a nice city, but preferred the more laid back feel of Adelaide and outdoor lifestyle and terrain of Tasmania.

Enjoy the photos below…

Ravi

Sailing from New Zealand to Fiji

Spinnaker billowing off the front of Sophie, our sailing vessel during the crossing. What an amazing sight!
Spinnaker billowing off the front of Sophie, our sailing vessel. What an amazing sight!

We arrived back in the USA a week ago, and just finished a fun family gathering at Yosemite National Park. We had some downtown last night to recover at “home” which is what we call Motel 6. When we don’t have time to camp, this is where we stay. After five months of living in hostel dorms or a camper van a Motel 6 is truly deluxe. It is cheap, the rooms are comfy (particularly the ones with the remodeled finishings), we enjoy the luxury of a cable TV and power outlets, and we know the tricks to stay safely while on the road (stay in a motel in a smaller town that is away from big city riff-raff, ask for a room near the check-in office, never leaves things in your car).

All along our plan was to stop at a tropical island (or two) on our way back to the USA from New Zealand. We thought about Hawaii, or perhaps someplace more exotic like the Marquesas or Fiji. Alison and I were both missing our dogs, so our time was limited. It would need to be a ten day trip at most. Yes, at this point 10 days really is a short amount of time. We realize that you need longer than you think to see places well.

As often has happened during our travels, our plans were to change. Jenna dropped me a note and asked if we would like to sail with their family to Fiji. Jenna, her husband Jamie and their two kids (Leo and Hazel) are on a multi-year around the world sailing journey. We had planned to meet them in New Zealand (where they were road tripping as well) but sailing to Fiji was a new idea. It would mean extending our travels by a few weeks. It took Alison and I all of five seconds to agree that this would be an epic way to close out this phase of our travels and promtply agreed to make the ocean crossing.

From Whangerei in the northern part of New Zealand, the journey was over a thousand miles and estimated to take a full week if we were lucky with weather. This stretch of ocean can be treacherous, with weather tough to predict beyond three days out. Jamie watched the weather reports like a hawk and set an April 30th departure.

We arrived in Whangerei a few days earlier and stayed on the boat while it was “on the hard,” a term referring to boats held up in a dry dock undergoing repairs. It was a weird sight to see a large boat hoisted up on land. We boarded via a ladder and everyone was eagerly awaiting Sophie’s slash into the water a few days later (Sophie is the name of the sailing vessel, a catamaran about 50ft long I think).

At the boat yard there were several other around the world sailing couples (including another family with two kids) getting work done on their boats. It seems that there is a decent community of people living this kind of lifestyle.

I won’t rehash the play-by-play of the entire journey, as Jenna and Jamie have full reports posted to their blog. Visit www.svsophie.com for details. 

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Preparing to leave New Zealand (North Island) after a quick fuel stop. We would next see land a week later!

The ocean voyage was a new experience. It was very tough for me, despite the super calm seas we had. I was seasick about 80% of the time, and all but the first and last days of the voyage I kept an emergency “bucket” nearby in case my last meal decided to make a quick exit. I didn’t eat much for about five days as a result. Thank God Dan had some extra sea sickness medicine, in the form of a patch you wear for several days. That helped a little. Dan is another friend who flew in to help with the ocean crossing, and as we learned during the trip, a master fisherman who came upon great success in landing in landing a big one.

Where we were headed to, the islands of Fiji!
Where we were headed to, the islands of Fiji!

Neither of us are sailors. I have been on a sailboat five or six times, including a couple overnight journeys around Puget Sound. Alison has sailed even less. In all cases, we were very much passengers and didn’t really do anything productive on the boat aside perhaps making some drinks and vegan food for everyone. On rare occasions when sailing work was needed we just followed Jamie, Jenna or Dan’s orders.

Who's driving?
Who’s driving?
We had more technology on board than a silicon valley start-up. Here is Alison using the satellite phone to call home before leaving NZ.
We had more technology on board than a silicon valley start-up. Here is Alison using the satellite phone to call home before leaving NZ.
How cute.
How cute.
Flying through the water with the "code-zero" sail billowing off he side of the boat and the radar screen showing nothing but deep blue sea.
Flying through the water in the evening with the “code-zero” sail billowing off he side of the boat.
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Making a phone call from the middle of the ocean.
Alison enjoying some sun. There was lots of it after we got past the halfway point.
Alison enjoying some sun. There was lots of it after we got past the halfway point.
Hazel says hi!
Hazel says hi!

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For us, the coolest part of the journey was keeping night watch. Each night Alison and I would both keep separate watches on the bridge while everyone else slept. Alison had the Midnight – 2AM shift while I had the 2AM – 4AM shift. We basically sat there and looked at the stars while keeping an eye out for boats and heeding the three cardinal rules of sailing.

Rule #1 = don’t run over anything!
Rule #2 = don’t run into anything!
Rule #3 = don’t fall overboard!

We were always wearing life jackets and tethered to the boat while on the deck or bridge during the crossing.

They also had a few tablets with movies loaded on them. I went through the first two Lord of the Rings movies during my watches, while Alison plowed through several romantic comedies.

Despite me getting sick, it was worth it and Alison and I both would do an ocean crossing like this again if the opportunity arises. Knowing what I know now, I would bring appropriate medicine to help treat my nausea and some other foods, like soup, that I would have more success in keeping down.

We saw dolphins, night after night full of stars, and plenty of flying fish. We even bore witness to Dan and Jamie fighting (and catching) and massive (8-9ft long) striped marlin, of which every edible piece was saved and packed in the onboard freezer.

There were several fishing lines hanging off the boat during the journey, with Jamie and Dan keeping watch for any sign of a bite.
There were several fishing lines hanging off the boat during the journey, with Jamie and Dan keeping watch for any sign of a bite.
The fight is on! Dan (in green) spent five hours fighting a large striped marlin, which he eventually caught. You can see photos on Jenna/Jamie's blog www.svsophie.com. I'll keep the pics on this blog vegan friendly  :) .
The fight is on! Dan (in green) spent five hours fighting a large striped marlin during the middle of our ocean crossing, which he eventually caught. The water at this point was super calm. You can see photos on Jenna/Jamie’s blog www.svsophie.com. I’ll keep the pics on this blog vegan friendly 🙂 .

Most of the time we just saw endless stretches of deep blue sea.

Endless stretches of deep blue sea.
Endless stretches of deep blue sea.

After four days and nights, the weather started to change noticeably, and we packed away our warm New Zealand clothes and got excited for the tropics. After a week, we arrived in Savusavu, Fiji a town on Vuana Levu, a large island northeast of the big island where most people fly in/out of. After clearing customs and visiting town to gather more provisons (and fresh fruit and veggies from the daily farmers market), we were joined by, Ian and Becky, who flew in for a few weeks. We anchored off the shore near some corals gardens and a 5-star resort owned by the Cousteau Family. The next three days were full of lounging in the sun, swimming and paddle boarding.

The small bay where we arrived and cleared customs in Fiji, at Savusavu..
The small bay where we arrived and cleared customs in Fiji, at Savusavu..
Waiting to clear customs.
Waiting to clear customs.

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Motoring over to a mooring further down the shoreline, from where we would spend the next several days.
Motoring over to a mooring further down the shoreline, from where we would spend the next several days.
The sun is super strong in the tropics.
The sun is super strong in the tropics.
Jenna gave me a buzz cut, the only appropriate haircut for the tropics! My mop of hair was donated to the ocean.
Jenna gave me a buzz cut, the only appropriate haircut for the tropics! My mop of hair was donated to the ocean.
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Our days typically involved jumping off the boat, snorkeling, paddle-barding and chill-axing (combo of chilling and relaxing) in the relaxation station.
Alison got some long paddle boarding sessions in every day.
Alison got some long paddle boarding sessions in every day.
Alison paddle boarding out in the larger bay where we spent three days playing in the sun.
Alison paddle boarding out in the larger bay where we spent three days playing in the sun.
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You will never see sunsets or sunrises as beautiful as those seen from a boat.

Alison and I also did some decent cooking of vegan food on the boat. Phad Thai. Chana masala. Fajitas. Tofu and bok choy stri fry. Vietnamese spring roles. Pumkpin hummus. Vegan chocolate brownies (twice!). Jenna even made a really great Vegan chili that we had for a few nights.

Provisions for the entire journey. There were also two packed fridges, a freezer and several cupboards full of dry good.
Provisions for the entire journey. There were also two packed fridges, a freezer and several cupboards full of dry good.
An afternoon snack.
An afternoon snack.
Vegan pasta.
Vegan pasta.
Cauliflower mashed potatoes, mashed kumara (squash), and garlic kale stri-fry.
Mashed kumara (squash), and tofu-veggie stri-fry with brown rice.
Alison making vegan brownies. She used coconut oil instead of butter, and just left out the eggs.
Alison making vegan brownies. She used coconut oil instead of butter, and just left out the eggs.
Vegan chili, kale and mashed cauliflower.
Vegan chili, kale and mashed cauliflower.
Alison making Vegan phad thai for everyone.
Alison making Vegan phad thai for everyone.
Leo enjoying his lunch!
Leo enjoying his lunch!
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Jamie and I toasting to a good voyage and more to come (Alison and I plan to visit Sophie and family again!). Note that the veggies outnumber the large pot of meat (lamb I think) on the table.
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Dinner was one of my favorite times of the day, we would all eat together (at least once we were done with the crossing).

We bid adieu to Sophie and our friends and boarded a small twin prop plane to Nadi, Fiji – en route to the Mamanuka and Yasawa island chain. It is from the Yasawas that I wrote the majority of this blog post, though I’m posting it from the USA (why rush?). It was a great spot to finish the first leg of our world travels.

Our next adventure will be a summer of galavanting around the USA and Canada visiting friends, family and the natural wonders of our National Parks, National Forests and of course, spending time with our dogs while on the road. That last part is the most important thing.

Thank Jenna and Jamie for the experience of a lifetime. We definitely plan to visit and sail with you again soon.

– Ravi

Adelaide to Melbourne via The Great Ocean Road

I am a much better rainy weather writer than a blogging regular, which is quite apparent from my sporadic posts. This means, however, the weather has been friendly for the most part and we’ve been spending time exploring. Cyclone Ita was petering out over New Zealand as I wrote the last post and now my inspiration comes from rainstorm in Fiji, complete with a severe rain warning from the Fiji weather service. I can’t comlain though-I am drinking coffee in an open air restaurant overlooking the Blue Lagoon on Nacula Island, Fiji. A combination of American Top 10, 90’s hits, and Island music plays through the sound system at times being drowned out by the pouring rain on the metal roof.  The sand floor bar and restaurant has been open since 7:30 am, and the sounds of German, Japanese, Aussie, Kiwi and English accents surround our table. The resort dog, Charlie completed his breakfast rounds lounging from table to table hoping for some scraps and now is curled up under his beach cabana not minding the downpour. My feet are perched on the coffee table and just beyond my toes lies a white sand beach and a relaxed turquoise that extends to the horizon. A good place to recount our travels in South Australia from Adelaide to Melbourne via The Great Ocean Road.

Neither Ravi or I had experience driving on the left side of the road so we were a bit nervous picking up the rental car but also knew we didn’t have too much city driving and soon we would be out of the more metropolitan area as we made our way some 1000 km on long stretches of highway to Melbourne. What we didn’t expect was how long the long stretches of highways actually were and we ended up with ample time to get aquainted with the left side driving. Signs reminding drivers to “Stay Left” or “In Australia we drive on the left” showed up like post it notes throughout our drive. Being in the passenger seat was more difficult to get used to because it always seemed to feel like the car was going to vere off into the ditch (for the most part the roads lacked any shoulder for wiggle room like most highways have in the states) no matter how close we were to the center line. I never really did get used to that but knew logically that we weren’t in any danger of capsizing into the shrubs, trees, cliffs, or farmland that butted right up to the edge of the road. Other than the lack of shoulders, kangaroos, wombats, and koalas crossing the road, and the wierd hook turn in Melbourne driving was straighforward and not too different than back home.

The first day of our drive we didn’t make it too far out of Adelaide as we stopped at the Cleland Animal Park and winery in McLaren Vale. We did happen to spot what appeared to be wild emus on the side of the road which was pretty cool. From what we read in tourism brouchures it seemed like finding accomodation would be pretty easy along the way. What we soon discovered though was that what the brouchures described as the “hub” for various lodging, activities, and restaurants was really anything but that. We also discovered quickly in the small towns along the way that stores and restaurants closed early. On the first night we planned to stay in a town that supposedly had lots of lodging but when we arrived we found a very expensive for what you get hotel and a hostel. Only this hostel was a hostel (nursing home) for the elderly, not the travellers hostel like we expected! We saw another place on the main road that said “hotel” so we stopped in and asked about a room, the server at the bar gave us an endearing laugh and taught us that a “hotel” generally is a bar in Australia. Some have “accomodation” which we learned was what we were actually looking for. With our new vocab we backtracked to Port Elliot and pulled into a beautiful YHA (a hostel chain in Australia and NZ) that luckily had one room open due to a cancellation. At this point we were tired, hungry, and ready to relax so we checked in and made a beeline for the Indian restaurant down the street that we hoped was still open which it was. They could accomodate our Vegan tastes and made excellent channa masala, curry, dahl, and naan. I know it may seem strange to include such details of our food but when the only other option is a pub where we would likely only be able to eat an iceberg salad and french fries, finding an Indian restaurant in such a small town is worth including.

Port Elliot YHA
Port Elliot YHA

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Our room at Port Elliot YHA
Our room at Port Elliot YHA

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Random path to the ocean through the dunes
Random path to the ocean through the dunes

Day two from Port Elliot started with a bit of a detour off our planned route through rolling farmland due to a GPS miscalculation, but we just went with it and enjoyed the drive. Our plan was to kayak and hike in the Coorong National Park. Both of us expected the National Parks in Australia to be similar to the parks in the states where there is a visitor center and well marked trails. The Coorang had a couple of well marked trails but no visitor center, no kayak rental that we could find, and otherwise was very sparsely populated. From what we observed the right way to see the Coorang is with a 4WD truck equipped with a snorkle and an outback popup. Our little Toyota seemed out of place amdist the plethora of trucks. Lesson learned. We did find a nice trail through the dunes out to the beach and had a good run. I enjoyed the drive which was more of the same dunes, farms, and rolling hills. There are a lot of birds that pass through the park so if you are a birder it is a destination as well as if you like driving on the beach. Knowing what I know now we should have booked a kayak tour as I think that would have been the best way to see the park. Should you find yourself in the Coorong hire a 4WD or book a kayak tour and bring your binoculars to watch the birds.

Coorong just across from a pelican nesting area
Coorong just across from a pelican nesting area
Do you see me in there?
Do you see me in there?
Drive along the Coorong
Drive along the Coorong
Dunes at the Coorong
Dunes at the Coorong
Post run at the Coorong
Post run at the Coorong
Like I said-see the beach at the Coorong with 4WD or a seakayak.
Like I said-see the beach at the Coorong with 4WD or a seakayak.

Learning from our difficulty finding lodging on our first night of our road trip, Ravi did some pre-planning and found a hostel in Mount Gambier past the Coorong.  We made our way inland to stay at the Mount Gambier Gaol (pronounced Jail), which was the town jail since the 1800’s and was purchased and renovated into the hostel a few years ago by a local family.  The family has obviously poured themselves into the renovation and have created a unique, well kept boutique accomodation.  The owner greeted us, gave us a history of the property, and gave us some info on what to see in the city, the primary attraction being the Blue Lake which we ran around the next day before making our way back to the coast and the famous Great Ocean Road.

Mount Gambier Gaol. This is a courtyard that once was the exercise yard.
Mount Gambier Gaol. This is a courtyard that once was the exercise yard.
Gaol. Old Chapel turned into dining area.
Gaol. Old Chapel turned into dining area.
Our room in the gaol.
Our room in the gaol.
Blue Lake.  The lake has fascinated scientists as it changes from blue to grey and back again over the course of a few days each year.  They still don't know how it does this transformation.  It is a lake in an old volcanic crater and the city gets it's water supply from the lake. The deep blue looks unreal
Blue Lake. The lake has fascinated scientists as it changes from blue to grey and back again over the course of a few days each year. They still don’t know how it does this transformation. It is a lake in an old volcanic crater and the city gets it’s water supply from the lake. The deep blue looks unreal

Our next destination was a more touristy beach town called Apollo Bay. Leaving Mount Gambier we stopped at a handful of beautiful coastal rock formations including the famous 12 Apostles. As we got closer to Apollo Bay the road began to wind through a huge Eucalyptus forest. Even with the windows rolled up we could smell the fragrant trees as we drove. Just after dusk I had to slam on the brakes as a koala wandered into the road. I am used to seeing squirels and deers, but looking out for kangaroos, koalas, and wombats on the road was new. We made it to the modern and eco-friendly Apollo Bay YHA just in time to grab some takeaway and beer before the establishments closed down for the evening. We ended up staying in Apollo Bay for two nights as we wanted to make sure we had enough time to look for Koalas in the wild nearby and not feel rushed.

The 12 Apostles. It was rainy and cold when we arrived but they still had their mojo.
The 12 Apostles. It was rainy and cold when we arrived but they still had their mojo.

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Loch Ard Gorge
Loch Ard Gorge

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There used to be 2 arches!
There used to be 2 arches!

The following day we went searching for Koalas and immediately became enamored with the little creatures we found sleeping high in the trees.  A short walk up a gravel road into the forest lead us right into their habitat.  We found one at eye level near the road and just watched it sleep for quite awhile.  Wild koalas coupled with the soothing smell of the eucalyptus forest made for a memorable day.

The one time we saw the koala move. They sleep for about 23 hours per day.
The one time we saw the koala move. They sleep for about 23 hours per day.
Wild Parrots that were all over the place
Wild Parrots that were all over the place

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Our last day of the drive we officially drove the Great Ocean Road, a stretch of beautiful and rugged coastline with plenty of gorgeous viewpoints, various colors of blue, and sandy beaches. We stopped at a couple of beach towns a long the way and watched the surfers and sunbathers. The last stop before Melbourne was the famous surfing area Bell’s beach. The Great Ocean Road was indeed beautiful but the road before was just as breathtaking if not more so. I think we have hundreds of beautiful beach photos but I will only post a few here.

The beaches never got old. We could have pulled over every few minutes to admire the coast and ocean but had to be selective as there were so many gorgeous places to stop.
The beaches never got old. We could have pulled over every few minutes to admire the coast and ocean but had to be selective as there were so many gorgeous places to stop.

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Typical driving
Typical driving
Famous surfing beach Bell's Beach outside of Torquay
Famous surfing beach Bell’s Beach outside of Torquay

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Great Ocean Road Coast
Great Ocean Road Coast
Typical beach town park
Typical beach town park

We drove into Melbourne, dropped off the car, and hopped on the tram to our hostel in St. Kilda, our base for the few days in Melbourne. Driving in Melbourne was definitely more crazy and I had the experience of doing a hook turn which I had read about in my driving in Australia google search but was hoping to avoid. Luckily I only had to perform one of these seemingly bad idea traffic manuevers! Fortunately I didn’t cause an accident and we were happy to be rid of the car when we arrived in the city. Between the koalas, delicious eucalpytus forests, countless shades of blue, beautiful scenery, and sleepy coastal towns we enjoyed the drive and were thankful to get to see a good strech of South Australia.

Touring New Zealand in a Campervan

Bula bula bula!

Ravi here and I’m writing this post from Fiji (rough life I know).

We have a spotty internet connection but figured it would be enough to pump out a blog post or two. We are still painfully behind, and need to write about the rest of our Australia adventures in addition to New Zealand and our ocean voyage to Fiji.

I’ve been thinking lately about our New Zealand experience and figured I’d start with that.

We spent the entire month of April touring around New Zealand in a campervan. I think if you visit NZ this is the best way to see things. The country is big and easily drivable, but many sites are remote enough where accommodation is sparse or just not worth paying for when there are great camp sites available that are more conveniently located. As vegans, it was also critical that we be able to cook our own food wherever we were.

An example of the type of epic campsites you can have in NZ. That is the ocean right behind us.
An example of the type of epic campsites you can have in NZ. That is the ocean right behind us.
This camp site was free, on a lake that was also a wildlife preserve.
This camp site was free, on a lake that was also a wildlife preserve. Click the photo to see a larger version. That is our van on the right side of the pic.

Our plan was to spent about two weeks in the south island and another two weeks in the north. Ultimately, we ended up spending almost three weeks in the south island and about a week in the north. We clearly cut the north island short. We had to skip some places due to inclimate weather and after a few weeks switched to a “see fewer things well instead of many things poorly” mentality.

I think two months would be the ideal amount of time to see both islands well and get in some solid multi day walking or kayaking trips. It is possible to see everything in six weeks, but only with good weather. If you have a month or less, you should really focus on one island or be deliberate about skipping some areas so you can do justice to the places you go to.

We did a lot of stuff over the month, but here were the highlights in chronological order:

  • Witnessed lingering devastation in Christchurch from the earthquake a few years ago.
  • Hiked Avalance Peak at Arthurs Pass, and met a parrot on the summit.
A Kea (alpine parrot) on the Avalance Peak summit.
A Kea (alpine parrot) on the Avalance Peak summit.
  • Spelunked the Cave Stream and strolled around Castle Hill (featured in the final battle scene from the Narnia movie).
  • Spent a night gazing at stars near Lake Tekapo, including a hike to the observatory.

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  • Hiked the Hooker Valley track to epic views of Mt. Cook and the Hooker Glacier.

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  • Played around the Moeraki Boulders.

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  • Saw baby penguins in the wild near Moeraki.

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  • Did our taxes in Dunedin. Boom!
  • Hiked Key Summit on the way to Milford Sound.

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  • Cruised Milford Sound.

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  • Strained to see Fox and Frans Josef glaciers during a rainstorm.
  • Caught the tail end of a cyclone in Nelson.
Tons of trees were downed and the Abel Tasman track was closed due to slips.
Tons of trees were downed and the Abel Tasman track was closed due to slips.
  • Hiked 25K of the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sound (via Water Taxi!).
View from a portion of the Queen Charlotte Track.
View from a portion of the Queen Charlotte Track.
  • Kayaked in Marlborough Sound.

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  • Took the nicest ferry ever from Picton to Wellington.
  • Hiked the Tongariro Crossing (19KM in one day, very mountainous, plus the Mt. Tongariro Summit).

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  • Went to amazing hot pools near Rotorua.
  • Visited The Shire at Hobbiton! It was awesome. Far better than I expected.
Recognize this place?  You are looking at Baggend!
Recognize this place? You are looking at Baggend!
  • Found vegan pizza in Auckland after I spent days dreaming about it. It wasn’t great.
All these slices are vegan. It was not great and crazy expensive ($8/slice I think).
All these slices are vegan. It was not great and crazy expensive ($6/small slice I think).
  • Saw two awesome waterfalls and massive Kaori trees in Whangerei (after biking in the rain and hiking a bit).
Whangerei falls.
Whangerei falls.

New Zealand is an amazing place. We plan to visit again, particularly the North Island, to get some more hikes in (or I should say “walks” as they are called in NZ) and see some spots we missed.

One thing is for sure, we will visit next time in the summer. The weather in NZ changes rapidly and can be harsh in the fall and winter. We had far too many days of severe rain and cold for our liking.

BTW…we rented a Lucky “Cruiza” camper from Lucky Rentals. It was decent, and tall enough that we could stand up in it (a must-have feature IMO). The only problem was the engine sucked and was super slow up hills, painfully slow. Overall it was a good van for the money and I would rent it again if I went back (we snagged a super low rate of $38 / day). Check them out if you need to rent a camper.

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Alison making coffee before heading out on a n afternoon hike at Lake Tekapo.

– Ravi