Happy Valentine’s Day, dear Readers! This morning we were scheduled to go do a hike at Kata Tjuta (about a 45 minute drive away from Uluru) followed by a visit to the Anangu Cultural Center at Uluru. However, we didn’t feel like doing another dawn wake up (and it was still pouring down rain at dawn), so we opted just to visit the Cultural Center later in the morning. Besides, if possible, the Kata Tjuta stone formations are more sacred than Uluru. So sacred, in fact, that non-Anangu peoples are forbidden to even learn about the sacred stories and traditions surrounding that rock formation. Fortunately, the sun (and heat) came back before we left for our visit, so we were able to place our sopping wet shoes out to dry.
The Cultural Center was really fascinating, and also featured some workshops by some of the local artists. There were some videos made by some of the community elders about the time the government decided to turn Uluru back to the local Anangu tribe, which was only about 30 years ago. Most interesting to me was learning that, in addition to being one of the oldest land masses on the planet, this area of Australia can trace its human habitation by these tribes back more than 58,000 years. When you see the facial structure of the Anangu today, it is easy to see how human evolution worked because their features are so ancient. Sadly, the Cultural Center is also considered sacred so no photos were allowed. However, it was well worth the visit!
Then it was back to the resort and a final meal before catching the flight to Cairns, which will be our gateway to diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Jim and I can barely wait!!!!!!!!
Jim and I were up before the sun this morning to do a hike around the base of Uluru, and to learn more about the aboriginal culture of the local people who call themselves the Anangu. We got some killer shots of Uluru at sunrise, walked the Kuniya Walk (involving a sacred story about the snake goddess, Kuniya) and then were able to see some of the ponds that form at Uluru’s base called the Mutitjulu Waterhole. Learning our lesson from last night, we were all garbed up in our fly hoods because with the sun came the flies! I lasted about a third of the way around the base, and then gave up to the heat and flies. Jim, however, trooped the entire way around the base (a distance of about six miles).
Following that, we rested during the heat of the day, and then reassembled for another expedition of Uluru; this time to focus on the sacred areas of the Rock, and to learn more about the myths of those places. Rain has been threatening all afternoon (and in fact rained for a short time this afternoon while we were swimming), but it is so blasted hot, Jim and I left our raincoats behind, and just carried umbrellas. Once again, cocktails and canapés awaited us at the end of this excursion. However, about halfway through the trip, the heavens just opened up.
Normally, you would think this was a bummer, but a fabulous thing happened. The top of Uluru is basically a giant flat rock with some pools in it. When it rains really hard, the pools fill up, and waterfalls start to cascade down the side of Uluru. Usually, this can take up to two hours, and may not even happen if the rain is not strong enough. However, in this case, the rain was so violent that we were able to see the beginning of the waterfalls within about 20 minutes. In fact, the rain was so hard that it looked like water was exploding from the top of Uluru.
We finally left when it started thundering and lightning right overhead, and we had a very wet hike out of the park, but it was still a magical experience. Back at the resort, we enjoyed a spectacular lightning show while we ate dinner.
We spent most of the day in transit today before arriving at Longitude 131° Resort. This resort is another property owned by the same couple who own the Southern Ocean Lodge (the Baileys), and it is similarly striking. In the case of this resort, the dwellings are all designed to resemble tents although they have solid walls and the tent ceiling is permanent and 100% attached. This is a very good thing as not only was it hot as Hades here, but in the summertime, the whole area is plagued with kajillions of small flies!
The ground everywhere is an incredible shade of red! From our room, we can see Uluru in the distance. In fact, like Southern Ocean Lodge, upon arrival, we were given our activity schedule for the next three days.
After enjoying a brief dip in our plunge pool on the deck looking at Uluru, we prepared for our first outing which was a sunset walk around the edge of Uluru with drinks and canapés. Sadly, tonight because there were some heavy clouds at sunset, we did not see the full splendor of the rock changing color in the dying rays of the sun. However, it was still spectacular (if fly-infested), and we could also see some great views of Kata Tjuta in the distance.
Following the sunset, we had a special treat in store, as our tour guide took us to a temporary light display in an open field called Field of Light Uluru. The event organizers describe it as follows: “The exhibition, aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in local Pitjantjatjara is Bruce Munro’s largest work to date. Overwhelming in size, covering more than seven football fields, it invites immersion in its fantasy garden of 50,000 spindles of light, the stems breathing and swaying through a sympathetic desert spectrum of ochre, deep violet, blue and gentle white.”
Our evening wrapped up with a special starlit dinner outside the resort, and one of the resort guides did a stargazing walk for us afterwards. Fortunately, as the wind came up with the sunset, we did not have to beat flies away. The stars were truly amazing. Because there is virtually no light pollution out here, I think it was the best stargazing we have ever seen! Back at our room, we continued the pleasure of the stars out on our deck with a glass of the dessert wine Jim had bought for us at Primo Estate.
Yesterday morning at dawn, the Navigator pulled into port in Auckland, New Zealand. This signaled the end of the first part of this journey for us, as it was time for us to disembark, and go explore some parts of Australia we have not yet seen. Our driver ran us by the hotel at which we will end our trip in about a month to drop a bag. As usual, the logistics of a trip this length can be challenging, and one of the biggest challenges Jim and I will face are the number of location changes we have planned, many of which will be on small aircraft with tiny luggage restrictions.
Then it was off to the airport to fly to Adelaide, Australia; home to the center of Australian wine production. Adelaide sits between the two largest wine producing regions in Australia; the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Vale valley. We are staying at a lovely resort, The Louise. Situated right in the middle of the vineyards in the Barossa Valley, we are about an hour and a half drive kind of northeast from Adelaide. We arrived last night at almost 10:00, but they had kept the acclaimed restaurant on site, Appellation, open for us.
This morning, we had breakfast overlooking the vineyards, and then set off on a day’s exploration of the area in the company of one of the guides for Two Hands Vineyards. Two Hands has grown into a major operation here in The Barossa in just 19 years since it started. Their major production is planted in Shiraz (Syrah for us Americans), along with some sizeable plantings in Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and some more exotic varietals. Our guide for the day was an effervescent Aussie named Mason, who was, as they say here, a lovely bloke!
Shiraz grapes growing
Mason picked us this morning at the Louise, after having left a bottle of Two Hands wine for us in our room last night. The agenda for the day is that Mason will drive us around the Two Hands vineyards, as well as some properties owned by other wine growers in the area from whom Two Hands sources some of its grapes. We ended up tasting the most notable Two Hands vintages of Shiraz, as we stopped at different blocks of the vineyard which had sourced the grapes for that particular vintage. Finally, we headed back to the tasting room (called a “Cellar Door” here in Australia), where we enjoyed a paired meal tasting.
The whole day was lovely, but blisteringly hot, so when Jim and I returned to the Louise, we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the shade around the pool. I had fun photographing the gallah birds in front of our room, and a couple of kangaroos bunked down in the shade nearby. The restaurant onsite was closed this evening, but the bar (and outside patio) still features a lighter menu. After our big lunch today, Jim and I were happy to share a locally-sourced cheese plate and watch the sun set over the vineyard. Oh, and watch the kangaroos hop through the hotel gardens!
We are finally in New Zealand! We sailed in this morning to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, made famous by Captain James Cook. Sadly, I’m fighting a cold, so Jim went off without me for an early morning cruise among the islands. This area is absolutely gorgeous, and is somewhat reminiscent of the Puget Sound area. His cruise went around the Bay and sailed past many landmarks, including the Cape Brett Lighthouse, the Hole in the Rock, and historic Russell (the original capital of New Zealand).
After Jim returned to the ship, we went ashore for a brief wander around the town of Paihia. Our ship’s tender docked at the Waitangi Pier, right next to the Waitangi Treaty House, where in 1840 New Zealand’s founding document between the British Crown and the Maori chieftains was signed. Coincidentally, tomorrow, Feb. 6th, is Treaty Day or New Zealand Day.
The ship’s shuttle then took us a short distance into Paihia. Paihia is a cute resort town, but the major activities here are big game fishing and scuba diving in the Bay. Then we returned to the ship to prepare for our departure tomorrow in Auckland. Stay tuned for Part II of this adventure, as Jim and I try to explore as much of Australia as we can fit into the next two weeks!
After a couple more days at sea, we pulled in this morning to a hot a steamy day in Pago Pago (pronounced “Pango Pango”), American Samoa. It rains an incredible amount here, so everything is lush and green, but also amazingly humid! Given that it rained tons yesterday and is supposed to rain again later today, stepping outside our cabin is like stepping into a sauna.
We don’t have a very arduous day today of excursions; just a bus trip up the coast a bit to visit some local viewpoints, a memorial to the victims of the 2009 tsunami, and a Samoan cultural show featuring a “kava” ceremony.
Notwithstanding the fact that Pago Pago is an American outpost, and fairly developed by the US military, things are decidedly laid back here. A prime example are the busses. Each “bus” is built on a car or truck chassis, and then an open-air wooden box with bench seats is built on top. Each bus is lovingly painted (and frequently named). In our honor, many of the busses have been decorated with fresh palm fronds and ginger blossoms.
American Samoa features tall volcanic cliffs and valleys, which wind up almost immediately from the coastal area, and those hills are all heavily forested with tropical rain forest vegetation. The tree canopy is lovely, and there are some trees blooming in bright colors. Many Samoans make or supplement their living by farming in villages up in the hillside areas, and the ground looks so fertile, I imagine you have only to stick something in the ground to make it grow.
Our entire group of busses set off up the coast for our first stop; a tiny islet lying just a few feet off the shore known as the “Flowerpot”. You have only to look at it to see why.
Further on, we stopped at a park for some awesome views of the coastline and the hills surrounding it. There is actually a US National Park located here (the 59th), and it takes up about half the island, and two outlying islands. It encompasses all sorts of terrain, including some awesome beaches and rainforest areas, but we couldn’t find anyone offering a guided tour (or a dive excursion, either).
We made a brief stop at the one and only golf course on the island, and then continued on to the tsunami memorial.
Finally, we went to the Samoan cultural show. Tribal life is still a very important and ever-present part of daily life here, and the local civil police authorities and courst system share jurisdiction with the tribal chiefs. The Kava ceremony we saw was a demonstration of an old custom where the special kava drink is prepared according to ritual and then shared with important guests. For those of us that didn’t want to sample the bitter brew, there were chilled coconuts to drink, followed by a dancing exhibition. Two of the more elderly men in the group were named honorary chiefs for the day, which required them to strip off their shirts and don the traditional tapa cloth skirts.
Then it was time to go back to the ship. As Jim and I headed up to the top deck to enjoy sailing out of harbor, we all clustered at the rails to watch our poor seamen try to get our gangway unstuck so it could be brought aboard. We all took turns coming up with expressions to match the looks on the captain’s face. Finally, disaster averted; we sailed out of port for New Zealand.
After four days at sea, we arrived this morning to glorious sunshine in the tropics. We are docked in the harbor at Nuka Hiva, the largest and most-populated of the Marquesas Islands, which are part of French Polynesia. If you are noticing how behind I already am in posting about our visits, let me tell you that the first two days out of Maui, we saw incredibly turbulent seas and unremitting rain. Suffice it to say that the first kept me from blogging or editing photos, or doing much except creeping around the ship!
We are anchored in the Bay of Taiohae. The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia. Probably the best known of those groups of islands is the Society Islands, where Tahiti and Bora Bora are located. Here, however, we are still very remote, and we are about 850 miles to the northwest of the next nearest Tahitian island. The capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision is the settlement of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva. The population of the Marquesas Islands was 9,346 inhabitants at the August 2017 census, and the population of Nuka Hiva itself is about 4,000 people.
Two of the more famous visitors to the island were Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Melville deserted his ship here in 1841, and was immediately captured by a tribe of natives in the Taipivai Valley (1 valley over from Taiohae). After three weeks of captivity, he escaped to Taiohae, and his experiences on the island served as his inspiration for his book, Typee. More recently, the island also came into the spotlight in 2001, when it served as the site for the reality TV show, Survivor Nuka Hiva.
Although we are in the tropics, the Marquesas are the most dry of the Tahitian islands, and the climate at vegetation at sea-level is pretty arid. However, in the interior of the island, large volcanic mountains rise up and are covered with lush rain forest-type vegetation. In fact, the islanders are experimenting with cattle- raising in these interior valleys.
As you might imagine, for such a remote place and small population, there are limited excursion opportunities available. In fact, there is only one, consisting of a drive over the high plateau in the center of the island called To’ovi’I to get to Taipivai. The only transportation available to accomplish this task is the personal 4WD vehicles of the villagers. Only one small drawback … most of the villagers only speak French in addition to Tahitian. The work-around for this was that we made several stops where everyone got out and took pictures, and the village spokesman, who did speak good English explained what we were seeing and the local history and culture. Our excursion took us up from the harbor on the only road up and over the ridge to the harbor in Taipivai Valley.
Our first stop was at the Hakapa look out, where we had some killer views of the harbor, and our ship, Navigator. The Survivor cast stayed up near here in 2001 while they were filming.
On the way back, we made a stop at the relatively new community center where we were served delicious fresh local fruits by some of the village ladies. As hot as it is, the highlight of the stop was the chilled, in-the-coconut juice.
We finished driving back over the pass and proceeded on to the main Catholic church, Notre Dame, which had some pretty interesting Biblical carvings rendered in Polynesian style. Our tour concluded back at the center of town near the tender pier. While we enjoyed our day, I would say that this is not our favorite Taitian island.