New Zealand and Australia by Elderhostel

... former Melrose couple on seventh in adventure series

by Donald F. Morrison

Editor's note: Don Morrison is a native of Melrose, having attended the old Roosevelt School and graduating from MHS with the class of 1949. He took the academic route, got his doctorate and has been a successful teacher at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He and Phyllis are now retired and spend much of their time seeing the world with other adventurous seniors.

Yanks in the outback.

In the fall of 2004 we participated in a splendid Elderhostel program in New Zealand and Australia. Elderhostel is a travel and educational organization based in Boston that offers tours and special-topic programs for persons over age 55. Over the past several years we’ve taken Elderhostels in Scandinavia, Michigan, South Dakota, on the Mississippi River, Hawaii, and Scotland. Usually, we’ve felt the “best one was the last one.” Last spring we decided it was time to see Australia and New Zealand, and registered for one that emphasized train travel in those countries. Unfortunately, it was cancelled for lack of enrollment, and we switched to another Elderhostel in the same time frame and locations, but with transportation by air and motor coach.

We left Los Angeles late in the evening, and for once, were able to sleep and arrive rested the next morning in Auckland, NZ on October 19. We met at the Kingsgate Hotel in the Parnell section of the city for a get-acquainted exercise: My partner in the process had been a wholesale beer distributor in Kansas, while I had been involved in a consulting project with the Anheuser-Busch Co. some 40 years ago, so we immediately found common ground. The group consisted of some 39 Elderhostelers, plus a tour director and on-site guides who changed with each locality.

As we gathered for dinner in the hotel’s dining area another Elderhostel group was also assembling. One man remarked on my Durango and Silverton Railroad sweatshirt, and we realized we’d met before at the Philadelphia meetings of the National Railway Historical Society. George lived only a few miles away from us in Media, PA. The world is indeed very small!

My wife Phyllis is a Docent, or guide/educator, at the Philadelphia Zoo, so we left after lunch by taxi for the Auckland Zoo. The remaining days in Auckland were tightly scheduled, with lectures on New Zealand economics, history, and geology in the mornings. One day we cruised the harbor on a sailing ship, followed by lunch at the Eden Garden and a visit to a maritime museum. On Thursday we walked the North Shore beach, with its volcanic impressions of ancient trees, and visited a fort overlooking the harbor. Friday afternoon was free, and taken up with attempts at connecting for email, visiting the beautiful Anglican cathedral, and checking out the new commuter rail station in the central city.

On Saturday morning we left for the volcanic area of Rotorua by coach. On the way at our morning tea stop Phyllis and I had an exciting and improbable encounter. A Tauck Tours bus pulled into the parking area, and riding in the tour director’s seat was the woman we had traveled with on our Tauck Tour of Italy in June. Once again we realized how small the world can be.

Rotorua is an interesting place, especially if you are into hydrogen sulfide aromatherapy. The Waimangu Valley and Whakarewarewa Thermal Area have numerous geysers, steam vents, hot springs, a pond with scalding water more acidic (pH 2.4) than storage battery electrolyte, and a dormant volcano whose eruption in the late 19th century put a serious crimp in that era’s tourist attractions.

Queenstown and its harbor from the Skyline Restaurant.

It is also a center of Maori life and culture. In order to attend the Maori song and dance show we had to elect a Chief to represent us at the welcoming ceremony: Some one who would present a poker face while the tribal leaders popped their eyes and extended their tongues as fierce gestures. Lou Nobbe had the birthday closest to the day’s date, and acquitted himself and our party nobly at the opening rite.

Monday morning we were free in the center of Rotorua, and we spent the time at the museum. The building had been designed as a spa around 1900 on the premise that the hot springs had therapeutic value. Within weeks the piping began to fail from corrosion by the hot acidic water. Some of the therapies sounded worse than the maladies, e.g., a centrifuge for treating constipation. We walked past the beautiful floral plantings to our coach pick-up, and were able to reach our son by phone back in the States.

Kawarau Bridge, near Queenstown, NZ, birthplace of bungee (bungy in New Zealand) jumping. We watched a few jumps, and we can affirm we weren't interested in doing one! The sudden deceleration often burst small capillaries in the eyes, leaving the jumper with reddish vision.

We flew to Christchurch, and then on to Queenstown on the Southern Island, and had marvelous views of the Southern Alps. The runway ends abruptly at a mountain range, and proposals to land larger planes at Queenstown have been fought vigorously by the pilots’ union. The next day we had a tour of the wine country, the original bridge where bungee jumping was invented, and the gold mining hamlet Arrowtown.

The following day we sailed to the Walter Peak sheep “station” at the other end of the lake on the coal-fired TSS Earnslaw. The steam engines attracted nearly as much attention as the alpine scenery. On our return we left by coach for Te Anu. During the trip we heard a fascinating account from our local guide Chas Morris of his family’s sheep station, and how the agricultural pest of wild deer herds was turned into the profitable export of venison to Europe.

At the left, Waterfall, from the Milford Mariner on Milford Sound, NZ. At the right is the Time Ball in Lyttleton, NZ: From 1876 - 1934, the ball dropped at 1 p.m. so that ships in the harbor could set their chronometers to the correct Greenwich time.

The next day we went by coach through the damp forest to Milford Sound and a cruise down the sound to the Tasman Sea. We saw an occasional whale and seal. On the morrow we bussed to Invercargill, then flew to Christchurch, a charming and very English city. We visited the Timeball Station at Lyttleton Harbor (once the daily indicator of 1 p.m. for checking ships’ chronometers). In the evening we had a choice of an opera or the final concert in an international barber shop quartet competition. We chose the latter, and enjoyed it.

Melbourne memorial to the donkey and soldier who transported ANZAC wounded back from the front during the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I.

Sunday morning meant checkout, the Botanical Gardens, and the International Antarctic Center. In the afternoon we flew to Melbourne (“Melbun” to the natives), Australia. On Monday we began with a city tour (we missed a photo op of a group of wigged barristers heading for their day in court), the view of the city from the Rialto Tower observation deck, war memorials, and the Botanic Gardens. Tuesday, November 2, was Melbourne Cup Day, a national holiday devoted to horse races, ladies in large hats and other finery, and intense revelry. Jim, a businessman from Des Moines, chose to skip our trip to the penguin parade at Phillips Island, and attend the races. The next day he proclaimed, “When it comes to drinking, the Australians are PROFESSIONALS!”

Thursday we visited the Sovereign Hill gold mine outside of Ballarat. This was a most intriguing preservation: 19th century operating steam engines for the stamping mill and pumps, a ride through the mine in a train pulled by battery-powered locomotives, and a demonstration using molten gold.

After Melbourne we flew to Alice Springs, originally an outpost on the telegraph line to Darwin, and named after the wife of the line superintendent. At various times we visited the headquarters of The School of the Air, an education-by-radio service for children at outlying sheep or cattle stations, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the nature center at Desert Park, and Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm in the Western McDonnell Ranges. We enjoyed dinner at a cattle station, and also with a folksinger at the Telegraph Station museum. Outside of Alice Springs is the U. S. Navy installation at Pine Gap, a super-secret communications and electronic surveillance facility for military intelligence in the Southern Hemisphere.

We proceeded to Uluru, or Ayers Rock by coach, with a stop at Stuart’s Well Camel Farm. Phyllis, being a zoo person, chose to ride a camel. This was fine until the person in charge ordered the beast to a swift trot. But, Phyllis and Jim remained safely in their saddles to the finish line. After lunch at the Uluru cultural center we visited the base of the rock. To the Aboriginal people the rock is a sacred place, and climbing it is discouraged. Nevertheless, some steps, a walkway, and a handhold cable are provided, but only for the first part of the trek. No cable is purposely offered later, on the grounds that if you can’t proceed without assistance at that point you won’t be able to succeed at the higher elevations – sort of a Darwinian filter for the timid.

After check-in at the Desert Gardens Hotel the high point of the evening was to be the view of sunset on Uluru. Our coach took us to the viewing parking lot, already crowded with coaches and van. Most had set up tables for serving champagne, mimosas and other drinks. We found a place, and our guide and driver broke out the drinks. Then, the unexpected happened: A real thunderstorm came in, with rain and lightning – in the desert!

The next morning we went to the Olga range and Olga Gorge, a deep and narrow break in the range through which blew a strong and steady wind that made walking on the uneven trail somewhat difficult. We then flew to Cairns (“Cans” in Aus-speak) on the east coast. The next day we went to Kuranda by bus. Having an aversion to heights, I was not enthralled at the prospect of returning from Kuranda by the Sky Rail gondola through the rain forest, and opted to take the 2 p.m. train back to Cairns. The Kuranda station is a real “period piece” of early 20th century British railroad architecture and mechanical signal appliances. The scenery from the shelf above the Barron River was spectacular: Deep rocky gorges, 15 tunnels, several high bridges. Thursday brought a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Center. Friday we snorkeled on the Barrier Reef. Some in our party were so taken with snorkeling that they booked a cruise the next day to another barrier island.

On Sunday we flew to Sydney, our last destination. In our free time that afternoon we visited the aquarium at Darling Harbor, a short walk from our hotel. Monday meant an orientation trip by coach around the city. I was able at least to wade in the tame surf at Bondi Beach. Tuesday began with lectures on Australia, its literature, and its film. In the afternoon we toured the world-renowned Sydney Opera House, and in the evening returned for a Sibelius performance by the Sydney Symphony. Wednesday we went to Wollongong by bus. A stop at a scenic lookout area before Wollongong gave a great view of the ocean, beaches, and city. Phyllis chatted with a woman at the overlook whose son is a research physicist at Princeton University – another example of our interconnectedness through education and the professions. The south end of Wollongong is devoted to steel mills, but the university and seaside areas are very attractive. Our festive farewell dinner was held at the university.

Thursday was free to explore Sydney. We took the ferry to Manly with a friend of our daughter-in-law and her four-year-old. Melinda had to work that afternoon, so Phyllis and I rode the transit line across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, then returned on foot on the pedestrian walkway. We declined to do the girder walk: It costs $155 AUS or $175 at night – steep in more ways than cost. Phyllis was tempted, but I was not. We walked to the Opera House and met another friend of our daughter-in-law from her time in Australia representing a Philadelphia bank. We enjoyed dinner at the Opera House outdoor bar, then took a bus to check out the restored Queen Victoria Building on the way back to our hotel.

Our last morning we discovered the beautiful Chinese Garden next to our Novotel hotel at the end of Darling Harbor, Sydney.

Friday afternoon brought our flight to Los Angeles. Once again we were able to enjoy a restful night. Security in Los Angeles entailed an hour’s wait in a block-long line. US Air was not serving meals on the flight to Philadelphia, but said box lunches would be on sale: These sold out long before our seats in the rear, and we subsisted on pretzels and nuts. In summary, we had an absolutely fantastic 33 days in two beautiful and unusual countries with a most congenial and interesting group of people. We’d like to return someday to visit the places we missed in New Zealand and Australia.

July, 2005

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