Everybody’s got their travel “thing.” Some people hop on planes in search of culinary delights (or disasters, whichever the case may be), while others want whatever death-defying experience there is to be had (skydiving and bungee jumping and ridiculously terrifying roller coasters come to mind). Some folks want to scale peaks or reach unknown depths of the ocean.
Me? It’s all about the critters! When I travel, my main goal is to hold/touch or at least visit the native fuzz balls.
I couldn’t spend four years in China and not touch a panda (click here for that story) or move to Malaysia and not go hang out with the elephants. Christmas in Thailand saw me snuggling with a monkey named Jackie (click here for that story) and I didn’t leave New Zealand without hunting out a kiwi named Kevin.
Of course, no trip to Australia would be complete without cuddling a koala. This was not as easy of a task as one might think! In many places Down Under, restrictions have been placed on koala-holding, meaning you can easily get your photo posed *next* to a koala, but it’s hands-off. But, there is no way I was finally going to make it to the land of shrimp on the barbie and not make physical contact with what must be the world’s cutest marsupial. A little research online lead me to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary outside of Brisbane, which meant our trip planning immediately took a turn to the north. No longer was Sydney going to be the home base of our southern hemisphere adventures, as there were koalas calling my name in Queensland.
Vacations may be for sleeping in and taking it easy, but when koala-holding day arrives, there is no need for an alarm. I was up with the first rays of the sun, dressed and ready to head out to the sanctuary before the crowds arrived. I wanted a non-molested marsupial!
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is on the edge of Brisbane, in what appears to be a residential neighborhood. (I would buy a house there in a heartbeat and then be the crazy lady who comes to the sanctuary several times a week, soon starting to pick up the crazy laugh of the kookaburras that live there!) We got there just after opening, traded in the tickets I had pre-purchased online (no waiting means getting to the koalas sooner!) and quickly scoured the map for the location of the koala cuddle station. Our beeline to the station meant bypassing the cobbled-together critter that is a platypus and the gum-tree dwelling kookaburra, as well as the giant field of free-roaming kangaroos and emus. While those were all on the must-see/do list for the day, they fell below the main attraction and life-long dream of holding a koala.
With just a few folks in line in front of us (how that is possible, I have no idea!), I purchased my picture packet, which was weirdly reminiscent of picking the photo packets for school pictures. Which combination do you want? How many wallets will you need to pass out to your friends? I definitely needed postcards to send home to family and friends and for just $2, a calendar for my desk at work was a yes as well. Simply put, I got all the things! If it was an option, I chose it.
Before long, it was time!
I quickly hopped into the picture area where I was promptly handed Minty, a dark gray koala bear with pink ears and a rubbery black nose. I was prepared for the adorable fuzziness and even the cuddliness, but I was not ready for the weight. Koalas are dense animals! You’d think that little guy would be mostly fur, but really their hair is quite short and the majority of their mass is body. Their heavy, eucalyptus-fed bodies. My few minutes with Minty were up much sooner than I would have liked, but it was awesome to get the chance to hang out with him.
I may not be a sky or SCUBA diver (although the latter is set to change this weekend) and I don’t need to search out roller coasters or challenge my stomach with foods from afar, but if there is a furry animal to be held and I can get there by plane, train or automobile, it will happen.
Idaho is a pretty outdoorsy place. We’ve got skiing and white water rafting and kayaking and mountain biking and hiking and camping and…and…and. If you want to spend time under the great blue sky, Idaho is the place for you. Sadly, being born and raised in Idaho didn’t do a lot for my outdoor-aptitude.
I went skiing once. It was the 6th grade ski trip, sponsored by my middle school. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to sign up: I hate the cold, I am not naturally athletic in any way and skiing wasn’t exactly on my radar. All I can figure is a friend wanted to go, so I wanted to go too. All I remember of that evening was that I wore jeans (terrible choice!) that got soaking wet when I rolled down the bunny hill and how miserable the long ride home from Bogus Basin to Caldwell in wet pants was.
I’ve been white water rafting and lake kayaking many times. Generally a non-swimmer (which will make next weekend’s SCUBA lessons an interesting experience), I braved each of these events with a tightly lashed life vest and long bouts of screaming.
I don’t hike and I am not really sure why one would chose to sleep on the ground, hobo-style, when there are perfectly good hotels with beds and bathrooms that don’t double as grasshopper breeding grounds.
All that to say, I somehow missed the genetic line where the outdoor skills were handed out.
But, when traveling, certain experiences present themselves and regardless of personal issues (fear of heights, being a non-swimmer, needing a hot shower, etc.) go out the window. Such was the case in New Zealand. As we wended our way from Auckland to Wellington before taking the ferry to the southern island, we decided to head to Waitomo to check out the much raved about glowworm caves. There were tours to walk through the caves or to take a small boat, but we both knew instantly that we needed to do the rafting tour. Wet suits? Inner tubes? Hard hats with lanterns? That sounds like an adventure I wouldn’t have anywhere else!
Excited about black water rafting (black water being cave rafting, in contrast to white water with rapids), I probably spent less time reading through the details of the excursion than I should have before signing away all liability on the dotted line. Needless to say, once I had squashed and squeezed myself into my wet suit (I don’t think there is any graceful or pretty way to get one of those on!), I was more than a bit horrified to hear the words “waterfall” and “jump” in the same sentence.
That’s right. As part of navigating the underground cave/river system, we had to jump off of not one, but TWO waterfalls.
Basically, to get from the top of the waterfall to the bottom meant backing up to the edge with your tube held tightly to your bum, counting to three and bailing off the edge. The guide, not trusting that any of us would jump out far enough, put a little extra heft behind each jump, pushing each person out and away from the wall. When my turn came to make the leap (second, because Thad was loving it and headed up first!) , he said “Ready?” to which I promptly replied “Nope.” I guess that doesn’t mean the same thing for the Kiwis as it does in the good o’ US of A, as he continued to count to three and over the edge I went.
Word of advice to newbies in the cliff jumping business: Close your mouth before you hit the water. As I smacked into the water, I inhaled a good portion of the freezing cold cave water- straight into my lungs. Needless to say, there was endless coughing and sputtering as I tried to refill them with oxygen, rather than the liquid they were currently harboring. After nearly drowning myself, I was ready to continue on the journey through the caves. (This breathing-in water incident would come back to haunt me two days later in the form of a lung infection, but that is a story for another day.)
With our headlamps off, the roof of the cave glowed like the night sky. It was spectacular. Constellations of glowworms wove together to make a glittering galaxy above us as we floating serenely along the quiet river. I have never seen anything like those caves and quickly forgot that my face and fingers were nearly numb with cold and that I had just bailed off two different waterfalls, backwards. None of that mattered as I marveled at how something as unappealing as a florescent maggot could create such a beautiful scene.
TLC may have warned us all off of chasing waterfalls, but I must say if I had stuck to the rivers and lakes that I was used to, I would have missed out on a spectacular adventure! I am gonna’ have it my way or nothing at all, which means taking the plunge into a pitch black cavern with just an old inner tube on my rear. How’s that for claiming the insane T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli?
In 2004 Thad signed up to attend a workshop for AP history teachers, as he was getting ready to tackle a new set of courses at Liberty Charter School in Nampa, Idaho. As a part of his new class load, he was going to get the opportunity to teach AP history to juniors and seniors, but part of the preparation for that was to get the proper certification from the Advanced Placement company. His class was held in North Carolina at Wake Forest. Since I was on summer break at the time, I decided to go along for a vacation while he was in class, but not wanting to be solo on my daily explorations, we invited my parents to go with us. After a week of him going to school all day and us roaming the surrounding areas, we headed out as a group for a few more days of travel. It was in those wanderings that I made a fateful $8 purchase: a National Parks passport. This small impulse buy would become the center of our US travels from them onwards.
Because of that little spiral-bound blue book, we’ve taken scenic detours to National Park sites that are well-off the beaten path. Sometimes these are planned adventures and sometimes they are because one of us spotted the tell-tale brown on a road sign that is the signal that a National Park area is nearby. Some of these places are close to main cities and attractions, but as often as not, they are down less-traveled roads and possibly through Children-of-the-Corn-esque fields.
Our recent road trip in New Zealand brought back the memories of these American countryside jaunts when Thad decided that we were going to find the place with the longest name. Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu (which translates roughly as “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who traveled about, played his nose flute to his loved one”) is registered with the Guinness Book of World Records as such, with a moniker weighing in at eighty-five letters and it sounded like just our kind of adventure. (There are variations on the name and length, some reaching over 100 letters, but this is the most commonly seen/used of them.) After pulling out a couple of maps and not getting much in the way of directions and a GPS that had never heard of the location, we set off to see what we could find, just us, a book and a plan. As this place is not much more than a hill in the middle of nowhere, it wasn’t a surprise that little could be found about how to get there, but how hard could it be? New Zealand isn’t that big, right?
Luckily, our Lonely Planet had some vague directions, based mostly on turning right at a large field with a small road sign in front of it, so we set the GPS for what we thought was the closest town and then hoped for signs from there.
There were no signs.
After getting extremely lost and turned around multiple times, we literally came to the end of the road in New Zealand. We didn’t actually think much of it when our paved road turned to dirt, as that happened several times in the previous days as we crisscrossed the north and south islands. But, at one point, the road just ended. No pavement. No dirt. Just a field with no access.
Backtracking ensued and eventually we came to a fork in the road and a gut instinct that said to take that right turn, so right we went. Twenty more kilometers down the road (paved this time!) we would have passed it had we blinked! In the middle of the countryside stands a LONG skinny sign with the name of the hill. Behind it? An unassuming bump in the landscape.
It took an entire day to find, but it was an excursion well-worth the (slight) frustration and crazy twists and turns. Not many folks would have stuck with the search, but we were rewarded with five minutes of glory and the distinction of having set foot on the place certified to have the longest name in the world! Luckily, my years as a passenger in the quest for National Parks passport stamps have taught me that such journeys are often rewarded in the end, a lesson that came in handy as we made our way through the sheep-dotted countryside in the Land of the Kiwis.
A few months ago, I did an interview with The New Diplomat’s Wife, a great blog with snippets of information from all over the world. This last week, the interview was published, so hop on over to check it out, as well as the rest of the Wife’s musings. (There are lots of pictures too!)