Cannibal Worms in Adrenaline Central


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Lake Te Anau

Lake Te Anau

26 Feb-1 Mar 2015. We are standing in near total darkness on a metal platform inside a cave inside a mountain. A huge volume of water is thundering and roaring below us. There is just enough lighting to see the water. We are waiting to board a small flat-bottomed boat at the edge of a hidden grotto formed by a plateau that temporarily slows the onward relentless rushing of the water.

The water begins its journey from Lake Orbel high above in the Murchison Mountains in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. At the end of the lake the water goes underground as a river, eroding the limestone as it rushes down. Over many thousands of years the water has created a cave seven kilometers long. It is a perpetually expanding twisting network of passages filled with whirlpools and waterfalls. Having walked for a while along metal walkways we are only a short way into the cave although we are long past the point where any daylight penetrates.

One by one we climb carefully into the boat. And then all the lights go out. Pitch black is not an exaggeration. Impenetrable darkness. Slowly and silently the boat moves forward and looking up we see the lights. We are in a wonderland where, in the blackness, we see stars as in the darkest night sky; only they are close, so close I feel I can almost touch them. There are hundreds of them. Hundreds. Everywhere we look. The boat glides back and forth. I sit in amazed silence. Everyone is silent. Darkness. Silence. Magic fairy lights.

All too soon it is over and we return to the docking platform and make our way out of the cave. The secret of the silent boat moving against the current is overhead pulleys. The secret of the lights? They are glowworms, and I learned a thing or two about them. Insects are washed down from above as lava. They get caught on the walls of the cave and eventually hatch. They are attracted to the only light available: the light from the glowworms, and the hungrier the worms the brighter they glow. The glowworms create toxic dangling silk threads about two or three inches long. The insects get stuck in the threads and become dinner for the worms. Apart from eating insects they are also territorial cannibals. If a young worm makes its home too near another it will be eaten in a flash.

Earlier on this glorious sunny day and we had taken a walk around the shores of Lake Te Anau,




and followed it with a cruise on the lake that included the visit to the glowworm caves.



Lake Te Anau is a short drive from Queenstown where we were staying, and which is located in an equally spectacular setting. In Queenstown we were overwhelmed by youth on a quest for extreme adventure. The hostel in Queenstown was where a couple of older people remarked, as they saw us, “Oh look, some other people over twenty!” Every kind of thrill imaginable is available in Queenstown: bungy jumping, sky diving, canyon swinging, white water rafting, jet boating, river surfing, zip-lining, cross-country quad-biking, paragliding, hang gliding, and canyoning. We called it Adrenaline Central, and stuck to walks and cruises, though I swear I will go sky-diving one day. Tandem of course. Don did it solo many years ago and swears he will never do it again.

From Queenstown we drove southeast to Dunedin. It was a pleasant drive through green rolling hills with none of the compelling insistent beauty of the mountainous country around Queenstown and Fiordland National Park. Lots of sheep though.

We’d found accommodation in Dunedin for four days at Hogwartz Hostel and knew we’d need the time there to do some forward planning. At Hogwartz the cost of Internet data was an eye-watering $50 per gigabyte so we spent one of those four days in the local library, where we could get free Wi-Fi, planned an itinerary for the South Island, and booked accommodation for the coming couple of weeks.

Dunedin seemed like a charming city, what little we saw of it. There are many lovely buildings,



and a imposing railway station, that embodies Dunedin’s wealthy heritage and is New Zealand’s most photographed building. I was compelled to add to that statistic, though not of the outside which didn’t appeal to me, but of the beautiful interior. If you’re curious about the exterior you’ll find a picture easily enough on the web, and you can also see it at the bottom of the street in the photo above. The use of contrasting dark and light limestone and the intricate decoration led to the architect, George Troup, being given the nickname “Gingerbread George”.




On the coast north of Dunedin, marooned at Koekohe Beach, are more than fifty huge fantastical boulders, some as big as three metres in diameter. They’ve been called variously hooligans gob-stoppers, aliens brains, and the bowling balls of giants. They are lumps of sediment bound together by mineral cement that took four million years to grow in a pile of mud about sixty million years ago. Eventually they were exposed by erosion and rolled down to the sea. And there they sit, ancient motionless marbles, the plaything of tourists.









The boulders were fun, and fascinating, but I was as much taken with the tangled beauty of the beach debris of shells, driftwood, and unusual brilliant pink seaweeds.



In the next post: a nature-lovers paradise at Otago Peninsula, albatross and yellow-eyed penguins, and Mt Aspiring National Park.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

This Nomadic Life – Guest Post and Interview


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We are honoured to have been invited once again to write a guest post for Retirement and Good Living. This time we chose the subject of health, and health insurance, for travellers.

Health and Medical Care While Travelling the World. Seventy is the new fifty – except for the cost of health insurance! I hope some of you find some useful tips in this article.

Just a short time before we were contacted by the people at Retirement and Good Living, we were thrilled, and completely surprised, to be approached for an interview by a Brazilian Magazine. The magazine is ViraVolta for those of you who read Portuguese.

This is the direct link to our interview.

If you’re Portuguese-challenged (as we are) here is a google translation that I edited as best I could:

What this couple learned after selling their home at age 70 to travel the world?
April 30 Carol Fernandes

The story of this couple who decided to sell their home at age 70 to travel the world is inspiring. Here is the experience from their perspective.

THAT’S RIGHT! They sold their house to fund a long journey travelling the world AND SAY THAT WAS THE BEST THING THAT THEY DID IN THEIR LIVES. The couple, Don 72 years and Alison 64, who blog at Adventures in Wonderland, are definitely an inspiration for anyone who would like to travel the world, especially for those who fail to live this experience because of fears.

After all, should people over 70 years be afraid to travel the world? I did an interview with them and it was a pleasure to get to know more about their history. Be sure to read and you will be enchanted by the sight of life of this couple.

The decision of the journey

Don decided to retire at age 68 because he was developing a series of medical problems due to stress at work. They had the dream to travel the world but had not enough money to maintain a home and travel as they wanted. Until one day they asked, “Do we want to have a house or do we want to have a life?” And so they decided to sell their house and use this investment to fund living a life travelling the world.

They started this journey around the world 3 1/2 years ago and since then have visited 24 countries: Italy, Spain, France, India (x2), Indonesia, Australia (x3), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (x2), Myanmar (Burma), USA, Mexico, Sweden (x2), Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Cyprus, Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

Age is not a limit to travel the world

For them there is a big myth with regard to age. The concepts of “adventure” and “love of life” are not just for the young, they are for everyone. “Life is what you make of it and we only have one chance to live it well,” says Alison.

They never faced age as limiting and it never influenced their decision. They still feel young and full of energy. They understand that at this age some things take longer to heal, so they are aware in deciding what activities they want to do. But even so they can enjoy it too, such as: trekking, swimming with elephants, camel rides in the desert, climbing volcanoes and more.

They do not have a date to stop. Everything will depend on their enthusiasm for traveling and their physical condition. The only certainty is that this moment has not yet arrived. For them, the opportunity to travel and see the world with new and wiser eyes is a huge gift of life. Much of this comes from their spiritual beliefs. They live in the present, in a state of confidence and trust. Worrying about the future is not productive. “We know that one day we will die, and prefer to live the most of this life. We do not want to have remorse because we wasted the opportunities that were given us” says Alison.

Medical issues

Don’s medical situation, he has a heart condition, requires some care. At first they were afraid of getting sick in developing countries, but after 3½ years they have experienced that it is never an issue when it is most needed, including in developing countries. Alison needed medical treatment for mild liver disease in India, for a head injury in Mexico, and for an allergic reaction to a wasp sting in Laos, and the treatments have always been professional, on time and at a very reasonable cost.

Usually they carry the supply of prescription drugs needed and never had any problems crossing the border with them. But argue that in many developing countries (eg, Mexico and India) most common medications are easily available even without a prescription. Anyway, they return each year to Canada and there review all health issues.

For them the most amazing thing was to discover that Don, despite his health problems, feels much more happy and healthy travelling than when he was at home and working every day.

The biggest lessons from travelling the world

“The more we travel we take more pleasure in life. There is always more to learn. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and about the people of the world, through our travels.” For them traveling the world requires a very open mind, and even at this stage of life most are internal learnings.

“We learned …

* More trust: we trust that we are being well looked after by a greater mystery and this leaves us free to explore more fully.
* We worry much less about the future: experience contributes to having confidence in this.
* A lot less worry about the money: a lot less than we used to.
* Greater connection and caring for people: the vast majority of people we’ve met in our travels have been kind, generous and open-hearted.
* Saying yes to opportunities that come our way: they probably will never go back from this new direction.
* Living with a conscious gratitude for life: valuing what is given to us much more than we used to.
* They complain less, when a complaint comes they quickly make the choice to see things from a different perspective.
* Living with less: we do not need a lot, especially when we travel through the tropical regions.
* We can live together 24/7 and still enjoy each other’s company: honest and open communication has been key.

“You can always teach old dogs new tricks!
After three and a half years on the road, after experiencing so much that was unforeseen, we see life as a series of miracles that unfold.”

One advice for those who want to travel the world at that age

“To feel safer to travel at this age it is best to plan. Do research and seek as much information as possible. Get ready before leaving and so you will feel less vulnerable. Plan and at the same time leave time to have flexibility as you travel. Believe in yourself and do it. You will never be able to imagine the rewards of living this experience. An important tip: stop looking at the news in the newspaper, they were made to terrorize people.”

Stories like that of Don and Alison fill me with joy. Show that we will always have the chance to learn more and build our self-knowledge, no matter what time of life. I always say that there is no right time to travel the world. No matter how you will live this experience, it will always be beautiful!

Will you do this? Even at 50, 60, 70 …! Have confidence.

When I grow up I want to be like them! Living in the moment and believing in the good that crosses my path.

Thank you so much Carol, at ViraVolta, for your interest in our story and for interviewing us. It was a great pleasure to connect with you and your magazine.

Photos of the day: More beautiful New Zealand scenery. The one above is overlooking Lake Wanaka from Mt Aspiring National Park, and the one below is in Abel Tasman National Park.


© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

The Giant’s House, Some Giant Sculptures, and a Giant Fiord.


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Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula

22-25 Feb 2015. The house is on a hill. The garden slopes down in front of it and rises up behind it, but we can see nothing from street level. Passing this artist as we approach,

we walk up some stairs, pay the entrance fee at a small ticket booth, and step into the garden. My jaw drops. I am immediately enchanted.

In front of me is a black tiled grand piano sitting in the middle of the garden. It is named Sweet Patooti and there is music coming from it. The lid of it is raised and the underside of the lid is a mirror. The inside is filled with flowering cactus plants that are reflected in the mirror. There’s also a couple of ceramic dancing figures in front of the cactus plants. A yellow tiled piano stool sits before the piano. . . . . . . and this is just the beginning.


Beyond the piano, on the perimeter of the garden is a band. A larger-than-life whimsical band with a bass player, a couple of dancing girls and a trumpet-playing black cat. The name of the band is Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice. The black cat’s name is Kitty. The girls dance but perhaps they are also trumpeters, though their trumpets emerge from their heads. They are about seven feet tall, and all prancing colours and tile brightness.



Beyond Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice, and beyond the grand piano is a garden unlike anything I’ve seen before.


It’s a garden, yes, with trees and shrubs, topiary and beautiful flowers but it’s a garden inhabited and ruled over by a bewildering and unfailingly optimistic array of huge brightly coloured fanciful figures. I don’t know which way to look first. It feels as if I can’t see it quickly enough, as if I can’t take it all in. I’m smiling with delight as I move rapidly from one group of inhabitants to the next, and then stop and stare, utterly astounded by what I’m looking at. It’s charming, creative, humorous, and playful. At the same time it is a most serious outpouring from a gifted and inspired artist. I am looking at, and trying to take in, a masterwork that just happens to be a large group of huge tiled figures spread throughout a hillside garden, the entire piece designed and created by one person. It is breathtaking in its scope.

As we wander ever upwards, along tiled staircases and pathways, each one unique,


we encounter giant butterflies, a playhouse called The Bonbon Palace, clowns balancing a blue flying human bug, acrobats, an octopus, an elephant, a giraffe, kiwis, a smartly dressed couple with duck heads, an equally smartly dressed fox, a woman balanced as though swimming on the head of a huge seated green duck, many unusual people,



Mr Dog and Ms Cat,

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

a whole new take on Adam and Eve with watermelon hats,


an angel playing footsie with a hierophant,


and right at the top dozens of yellow hands reaching for the sky above a sitting
area giving a view of the whole garden.


At every level there is something new to see.



The entire place is astonishing and I am completely enthralled. It is so surreal! It is so eccentric!

A long long time ago a small child looked up from the valley below at a house on a hill and declared it must be a giant’s house since it was so big. Thus, the house, built for a bank manager in 1881, became known as The Giant’s House. The current owner, Josie Martin, trained in both horticulture and art, first moved into the house twenty years ago. There was no garden so she began with a blank canvas, first laying out the garden and then after five years beginning the tile work. The tile work evolved organically when she found shards of old china while digging in the earth. She thought them too beautiful to discard and used them to mosaic the front step area, then she tiled the conservatory floor, then she began her first tiled sculptural installation, and so it went. Fifteen years later the garden of The Giant’s House is there in all its spectacular glory. I hesitate to call it finished. One never knows what Josie will do next. This is an example of her more recent work

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

I’d read about The Giant’s House, and it was on our list of things to see, but I’d
forgotten about it, so it was sheer serendipity that the hike we chose during our
excursion to Banks Peninsula took us past it.

Banks Peninsula, a short drive from Christchurch, was formed by the ancient violent eruptions of two volcanoes. The almost circular coastline of the peninsula is an intricate lacework of inlets, small bays, and fishing villages.

Boat sheds bring colour to the landscape

Boat sheds bring colour to the landscape


From the delightful village of Akaroa



we hiked up above the town stopping at The Giant’s House then passing charming cottages, dark forests of twisted trees, and farmland.





From Christchurch we drove to Queenstown. It would have made more sense to go to Dunedin first but our initial couple of days in New Zealand revealed two important things. Even though it was late February and the antipodean school holidays were long over, tourism in New Zealand was not quiet. We commented on how busy the car rental place was when we picked up the car, and said that we thought it would be quieter because the school holidays were over. The reply was “That’s what everyone thinks”. We realised we had to start forming an itinerary, and make some bookings, fast.

The other thing that affected our choice of direction was a determination to get to the famed but notoriously rainy Milford Sound on a sunny day. A quick look at the weather forecast showed us that our best chance in the upcoming two weeks would be ‘the day after tomorrow’. So after three days in Christchurch we headed to Queenstown, the gateway to Milford, stopping frequently to take in the beauty of the scenery along the way.




Fiordland National Park lies in New Zealand’s largely uninhabited southwest and the scale of the landscape is magnificent: glacial lakes, valleys, and glorious fiords carved by glacial action over thousands of years. The northernmost fiord is Milford Sound and is the most popular tourist destination in the country.

Due to limited time and chasing the weather we did what millions of others do, we took a day trip from Queenstown. We set out by bus in clouds so low we were in them, and heavy rain. The guide kept assuring us it would clear up once we were over the mountain pass and down into the Milford Sound valley but I was skeptical. It did clear enough for a couple of stops along the way. To my delight there were keas, a parrot native to New Zealand, at one of the stops,



and Mirror Lake was unexpectedly beautiful, even on a grey day.


Beyond the pouring rain and low-slung clouds the drive into Milford started to look like this:


and then, in bright sunshine, we reached the Sound itself, a setting comparable to anywhere in the world for its beauty. Despite the huge number of tourists annually, the place is serene and unspoiled.




One of the delights of our cruise up one side of the fiord to the open sea and back down the other side was seeing a colony of seals. Some were sleeping or clambering on the rocks. Others were asleep in the water!


The weather continued to be our friend. The next day we cruised Lake Te Anau on a brilliant blazing sunny day, visited glowworms deep inside a mountain cave, and the day after drove to the very Scottish town of Dunedin. All that in the next post.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Resurrection: the rebirth of Christchurch


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I sit in one of the white chairs and suddenly start sobbing. Deep heart-wrenching tears of grief and sadness. There are 185 chairs in all, each one different. There is a deep comfy arm chair, ordinary wooden dining chairs, directors chairs, office chairs, a wheelchair, a couple of wicker chairs, a bar stool, a child’s chair, and an infant’s car seat. There is every kind of chair imaginable, arranged in neat rows, and all are painted white, a rich smooth bright white. Every chair has a fresh red carnation attached to it. I have been wandering around amongst them, trying to take the scene in, and then quite suddenly I sit in one of the chairs and unexpectedly the tears begin.

Each of the chairs represents one of the 185 people who died in the earthquake that hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011. The chairs are a temporary memorial to those who lost their lives. They sit in the vacant lot that was once home to the Canterbury Television building. Of the 185 who died, 115 of them were in that building.

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read


Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read

I’m not aware that there has been a fourth anniversary ceremony the day before, hence the carnations. I think that someone, or some group of people, care enough to keep replacing the carnations. I cry for the loss of lives, I cry for the destruction of what was obviously once a beautiful city, I cry for the fragility of life and the impermanence of all that is, and I cry for the carnations, that people care enough to place carnations on the chairs.

I try to hide my tears but do not succeed. A tour group arrives. While they look around the tour guide comes to me and asks if I’d lost someone in the quake. I tell her no and try to tell her why I am so moved. She explains about the carnations, that they’d been placed there the day before for the anniversary ceremony. She also tells me to look out for giraffes, that people are placing giraffes all over the city as a symbol of standing tall in the face of tragedy, but I don’t see a single giraffe in four hours of exploring the worst hit part of the town. What I do see in many places is this:


flowers placed into the holes in the tops of garbage bins, as well as in traffic cones and orange plastic construction barriers, which, along with metal fencing, are the predominant feature of Christchurch streets these days – a small act of beauty being spread amongst all the rubble and reconstruction that is going on all over the city. Construction cranes are the major element of the skyline of Christchurch now.

We first became aware of it walking from the hostel to the supermarket in our neighbourhood close by the downtown core: a remarkable number of empty lots next to lovely colonial style houses. At first it didn’t register, but then we realized that on each of those empty lots a house had once stood. Then we noticed a house boarded up with a sign in the window: Danger – Live Wires. It was when we went into the central core that the reality of the damage to the city became absolutely clear. Ten thousand homes lost, fifteen hundred commercial buildings lost, and several million tons of rubble left behind.




Many buildings are boarded up. Many are shored up with steel girders to prevent more collapse.

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read


We walked by many buildings that seemed to be fine until we had a closer look.



The devastation was all around us, streets blocked off with metal fencing, crumbling buildings, traffic flow somehow redesigned with orange barriers and traffic cones, and vacant lots everywhere.

In the midst of all this there is a massive amount of construction going on, and some wonderfully creative and unique new buildings. New ideas spring like flowers from the wreckage and the rubble. People are pulling together to rebuild their beloved town, with projects ranging from making public sculptures and furniture with salvaged wood, to creating small gardens to begin the re-greening of the city.

Quoting directly from the sign on the pavement: This stand of native rimu trees is a public art sculpture by NZ artist Regan Gentry. It uses wood felled for a family home, lived in and loved, salvaged post earthquake and returns it to an urban forest. It speaks to the city’s rebuild and to the challenges ahead for Christchurch.

Gentry’s trees soar high above the real trees that stand beside them.


Then there is the “Greening the Rubble” project. Transitional gardens are part of our city’s new identity. Their primary purpose is to create responsive public spaces that promote wellbeing and biodiversity. This is Pod Oasis, an example of their work.


A bigger project was the “Cardboard Cathedral”. The earthquake destroyed the tower of the neo-Gothic Cathedral. Aftershocks deeply affected the stability of the whole building, and shattered the famed rose window.


By chance a member of the Cathedral staff saw an article in a magazine about Japanese emergency architect Shigeru Ban. He had designed a cardboard church to replace the one that had been destroyed in the Kobe earthquake. A little over two years after the earthquake Shigeru Ban’s cardboard Cathedral opened in Christchurch. The building is made of huge tubes of cardboard, local wood, and steel, with a polished concrete floor and a polycarbonate roof. It is designed to last for at least fifty years and is built to 130% of New Zealand’s earthquake code. An exceptional and inspirational building. Emergencies often seem to produce extraordinary creativity.





New Regent Street was the only street in Christchurch to have been planned as a whole. It was always a favourite with its Spanish Mission style architecture, its symmetry and coherent design, and its pastel colours. It was the first street in the downtown core to have infrastructure repairs done. The architectural features were painstakingly restored, and with great fanfare it re-opened almost exactly two years after the quake. Even before the earthquake New Regent Street was considered the most beautiful street in Christchurch. Today there’s no contest. The re-opening was an emotional milestone in the reclamation of the inner city.




The beautiful and fanciful Peacock Fountain


is located in the Botanical Gardens next to the Canterbury Museum. The solid Gothic Revival museum building is over 100 years old and sustained little damage. I mention it, even without a photo, because it indicates the style and feel of the old Christchurch, the pre-quake Christchurch: some of it still stands.

And in the traditional fashion of the city’s British heritage, you can still go punting on the Avon River.


The most striking, and perhaps the most famous, project to arise from the destruction of the city is Re-START. Re-START is a downtown pedestrian mall built from shipping containers. Containers are strong, stable, earthquake resistant and durable, but whoever would have thought to turn them into buildings? A remarkable idea indeed.

You can see from the photographs that the steel walls of the containers have been cut out where necessary, and replaced with glass in the case of exterior walls. Most stores consist of several containers joined together so of course the interior walls are left open. In some cases the original doors of the container have been left as an exterior wall, or as the functioning doors of the business. With the exception of the building shown immediately below, the upper containers are for display only. The whole affect is bright, cheerful, functional, and very modern. There is something very appealing and enticing about it. It’s a happy place to hang out.

Photo by Don Read

Photo by Don Read





Christchurch is no longer the beautiful city it obviously once was, but I have no doubt it will be again. I have no doubt these resilient people will rebuild their city so that, although quite different, in every way it will be as good, and in some ways it will be even better than it was before. Bravo Christchurch for a strong and creative new beginning.

And so I must mention the tsunami that hit Japan less than a month after the Christchurch earthquake, the earthquake that shattered Haiti five years ago, Cyclone Pam that all but destroyed Vanuatu in March of this year, and of course the tragic and dire situation in Nepal after the earthquake of April 25th. In Nepal the death count is over seven thousand and will probably go higher. It has been difficult in Christchurch, but so much more so in undeveloped poor countries. Christchurch became very personal for me because I saw it first hand, thus these other situations become more personal also. More tears for the fragility of life and for the heartbreak it brings. But in the end I am moved most of all by the way in which people pull together and support each other in times of tragedy, by the innumerable acts of heroism and simple kindness, and by the seemingly infinite resilience of the human spirit.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Endless Beauty: the glory of New Zealand


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20 Feb-27Mar 2015. I have many stories to tell about New Zealand. We saw some extraordinary things, met some wonderful people, had some incredible experiences, did a lot of walking, quite a bit of talking, and explored the country almost from one end to the other. All these stories I’ll share in future posts. New Zealand is with doubt one of the most beautiful countries we have been to, so first I want to introduce you to the infinite gorgeousness of Aotearoa, the Land of The Long White Cloud. In the order that we saw it, this is my photo essay of the continually changing landscape of our five-week road trip.

Day 2 Banks Peninsula


Day 4 Driving from Christchurch to Queenstown


Day 5 Milford Sound


Day 6 Lake Te Anau


Day 7 Driving from Queenstown to Dunedin


Day 9 Moaraki Boulders


Day 11 Otago Peninsula


Day 12 Driving from Dunedin to Wanaka


Day 13 Mount Aspiring National Park


Day 13 Wanaka


Day 14 Franz Josef Glacier


Day 15 Callery Gorge


Day 16 Driving from Franz Josef to Greymouth, Mount Cook in the distance


Day 17 Greymouth


Day 18 Punakaiki – Pancake Rocks


Day 19 Te Pukatea Bay, Abel Tasman National Park


Day 20 On the Ferry to the north island


Day 23 From the top of Mt Ruapehu


Day 23 Sunset in Ohakune


Day 25 Somewhere near Matamata


Day 25 Lake Taupo


Day 26 Waiotapu


Day 26 Waiotapu


Day 26 Waikato River


Day 26 Orakei Korako


Day 27 Te Puia, near Rotorua


Day 27 Somewhere between Te Puia and Taupo


Day 30 Coromandel Peninsula


Day 31 Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula


Day 32 Whangapoua Beach, Coromandel Peninsula


Day 33 Mercury Bay, Whitianga


Day 33 Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Peninsula


Next post: We began our New Zealand journey in the quake-damaged city of Christchurch. It’s one thing to read about a tragedy, and see the pictures in the news, it’s another thing to have direct experience of the reality of it, even four years later. Cheers and tears for Christchurch.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Images From The Coast


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10-17 Feb 2015. Mossy Point, on Canberra’s coast, lies between the Tomaga River to the north and Candlagen Creek to the south. It’s mainly residential and is one of many small villages in the area. On the other side of Candlagen Creek is Broulee, one of the best beaches on the coast for surfing and boogie boarding.

Walking around the headland at Mossy Point,


we see an unexpected cross-country running race,


and a gathering of seagulls down where the fishermen come in.


Earlier in the day – rain. On the rose hips,


on the bottle brush,


on the wattle bird.


Surfing at Broulee Beach.


Crossing Candlagen Creek.


A visit to the Mossy Point Muffin Shop. Good muffins. Good coffee. But best of all: the lorikeets!



Mogo Zoo, a little inland from the coast. A small privately owned zoo that has had some success in breeding endangered species. We go to photograph of course. It’s a kind of mini safari: deer, giraffe, lemurs, gibbons, gorillas, zebra, tigers, lions and meerkats.






The meerkats are endlessly entertaining. Here they are all in a row looking up. What’s up there? What is that? It’s a plane flying overhead. They are captivated until the noise has gone.


Next post: The infinite gorgeousness of New Zealand!

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Sand Worms and Mad Boogie Boarders at Canberra’s Coast


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10-17 Feb 2015. Canberra lies about 280km south and inland from Sydney. If you drive from Canberra more or less directly east for 150km along the Kings Highway you will eventually arrive at the coast at Batemans Bay. From Mollymook, north of Batemans Bay, to Merimbula in the south, a distance of about 230km, there are numerous small beach communities, and a couple of bigger towns. This is Canberra’s coast. This is where Canberrans have their summer cottages. This is where Canberra goes to the beach. In Canberra the area is referred to simply as ‘the coast’. No one ever needs to ask what coast. Everyone knows it refers to the coast south of Sydney and directly east of Canberra.

After our trip to the Great Ocean Road we headed to the coast and joined the family at Guerilla Bay, a small beach community about a half hour south of Batemans Bay. We were staying at a house that belongs to long-time friends of one of my sisters and her husband. My other brother-in-law’s sister and her husband live at another nearby beach so he and my other sister stayed with them. Confused yet? It doesn’t matter. Nearly everyone in Canberra has a house at the coast, or knows someone who has a house at the coast, or used to live in Canberra and has retired to the coast.

Batemans Bay is also where the Clyde River meets the sea and opens into the bay. The population of the whole urban area is about 15,000 so it’s a big town and one of the main centres on the coast for restaurants, cafes, shopping, supplies, walking by the water, fishing, boating, exploring mangrove and oyster flats, and cruising the river.

The bridge over the Clyde River; the symbolic gateway to the coast.


Fishing in the river under the bridge.


Playing in the river under the bridge.


Lunch down at the waterfront.


Looking for dinner down in the water.


Sunset over the bay.


There’s a fabulous restaurant with a deck over the water in Batemans Bay. We had all agreed on consumables or hand-made creations or charitable donations as gifts for Christmas. No more adding to the egregious buying of endless stuff that is the insane consumerism of that holiday. The Christmas present from one of my sisters and her husband to the other three sisters and their spouses was to take us all for dinner at that restaurant. We all had memories of having eaten there previously, and of various different times there with our long-gone parents. It’s a beautiful setting and good food. We dined outside on, among other things, succulent fresh local Clyde River oysters. Seriously delicious. The photo of the bridge, and the sunset photo were both taken from the deck.

Guerilla Bay is a village of houses clustered around a small surf beach sheltered by trees.


The name probably came from the aboriginal word guarella, meaning big rock; the big rock is an island at one end of the beach that can be easily reached at low tide.


I have memories of clambering with my father and sister up and over that rocky island and fishing on the other side of it with the waves pounding the rocks below us. I was thirteen. I caught fish! I remember gutting and scaling them on the beach afterwards. I remember one of them was a leather jacket that needed to be peeled rather than scaled. Don and I investigated climbing the island but decided against it. I think I could have done it, but neither of us is as agile as we used to be, and Don is understandably protective of his back these days.

On the other side of the sand bar that connects to the island is a calmer beach and rock shelf.

From the house we would walk across the lawn and down a rickety rocky steep narrow path through a wide band of trees to the beach. Two mornings in a row I was awake for sunrise.


Standing on the sand bar watching the pounding waves.


Exploring the rock shelf.


Don and I never did get into the water. Too darn cold for us tropical babies. The water was far from tropical temperatures, but my sisters are all mad boogie boarders,


and always emerged looking pretty happy.



This little beauty,

found nearly worldwide, is known in Australia and New Zealand as a bluebottle. Elsewhere it’s known as a Portuguese Man o’ War. A sting from the long tentacles is not life threatening, unlike the box jellyfish found in northern tropical waters, but apparently the pain is excruciating. Ten thousand people are stung in Australia each summer, mainly on the east coast. The sting leaves red welts on the skin that last for two or three days. We saw a few bluebottles washed up on the beach. Another good reason we didn’t go swimming, even though, without giving it a thought, we swam in an Amazon lake inhabited by electric eels, piranha and vampire fish.

Close by is beautiful Broulee. Admittedly we were there after the summer holidays and kids were back in school so the busiest season was over, but Broulee is still typical of hundreds of Australian beaches – great long stretches of white or golden sand with virtually nobody there. The opening photo is Broulee Beach.

We met a couple of men on Broulee Beach and learned something new. There are sand worms. Long skinny worms that live in the sand and feed on fishy stuff. When I say long I mean about eighteen inches long. They make great fish bait. Each man had a berley bag to attract the worms. Berley is old stinky fish bits. In this particular case both bags were attached to a pole, presumably for ease of movement dragging it slowly across the sand. I don’t know what indicates the presence of a sand worm but suddenly the man would plunge his hand into the wet sand, and if he could get a good enough grip on it he would pull out a worm. And then stuff it in his pocket.


More stories of ‘the coast’ in the next post – walks around the headland, muffin-eating lorikeets, and meerkats and lemurs at the zoo.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

The Shipwreck Coast – Travelling the Great Ocean Road


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On a map of the road out to the Otway Lighthouse the motel owner draws a big circle about half way along the road and tells us there are koalas there. I’m thrilled and excited, and driving out there immediately goes to the top of the list of things I want to do in the area. I was born and raised in Australia and have seen koalas many times: as a child in an enclosure at a wildlife sanctuary near Melbourne, as a teenager at another sanctuary near Canberra, at the zoo in Sydney, and at a reserve near Cairns where Don got to hold one. But I’ve never seen them in the wild, in their natural state, and I’m excited to get the chance. At the same time I’m skeptical. Koalas are small. Gum trees are big and leafy. How are we ever going to find them?

Don is driving. Slowly. I’m leaning forward peering through the windows from side to side hoping to spot a koala in the trees. How could it be possible? Should we stop somewhere and walk into the forest to try to find them? Then suddenly up ahead we see a car stopped by the side of the road and a small group of people staring upwards. Of course we stop and join them, and there they are: two koalas in the branches of a gum tree right by the road. And a little further along are two more. And not high up or hidden at all. They are unconcerned by us, and are simply doing what koalas do: moving around in the trees, eating the leaves,



or sleeping.


This one is a baby and half the size of the others, a not much bigger than a child’s teddy bear. Adults weigh in at about 12kg.


Koalas are fussy eaters. There are over 600 species of eucalyptus trees and koalas prefer the leaves of only 30 them. Wherever these particular species grow you will find koalas and one of the greatest threats to them is loss of habitat.

We continue on out to the old Otway Lighthouse, which is no longer in use except as a tourist attraction, and on the way back stop again and see four more koalas, all of them close by the road and low in the trees. Eight in one day! I never thought I’d get to see koalas in the wild, though I do know of people who live in rural areas and see them frequently. For Don and me it is an extraordinary and exotic experience. Real koalas! In the wild!


Next on the list? Wombats! Except that will require a middle-of-the-night excursion somewhere in the dryer southern part of the country.

After visiting the lighthouse we drive inland through the Great Otway National Park, regretting that the weather is not inductive to hiking – in other words it is bucketing down rain most of the time, but we do see some pretty scenery.



In March 1878 a ship left England with a crew of seventeen, a mixed cargo of linen, pianos, candles, clocks, porcelain, pipes, perfumes and umbrellas, as well as cement, railway irons, lead and copper, and thirty-seven passengers, all bound for the prosperous city of Melbourne. The Loch Ard was under the command of one Captain Gibbs, twenty-nine years old and recently married. Three months later it ran aground on a reef off Muttonbird Island off the south coast of the State of Victoria.

The fog was so thick that the lighthouse signal could not be seen, the very same Otway Lighthouse we had visited. The captain could not tell how close the ship was drifting towards the coast. When the fog lifted sails were hoisted as quickly as possible to try to steer the ship away from land, then anchors were dropped 50 fathoms deep to try to hold the ship off the rugged cliffs. All to no avail. In a rough savage sea the ship struck the reef with such force that the masts came crashing down, killing several people in the process and making the proper deployment of life rafts impossible. The ship sank within about fifteen minutes.

There were two survivors. A young apprentice, Tom Pearce, survived by clinging to the underside of an upturned life raft and was eventually washed ashore on the incoming tide at a place that is now known as Loch Ard Gorge. He heard the cries of Eva Carmichael who had been clinging to a spar for hours, and swam out to rescue her. He revived her by opening a case of brandy that had washed up on the beach, and then went for help. She lost her entire family to the sea.

Loch Ard Gorge


This is but one story of hundreds of ships sunk on the Shipwreck Coast, that section of coast from Cape Otway west to Port Fairy on the south coast of Australia. Approximately 800 ships have been shipwrecked since 1797 although less than 250 have been discovered. All those ships. All that cargo. All those people. Hundreds of them. Bound for a new life in Australia only to die when they were nearly there. Sailors feared that coast. And with good reason.

Our own visit to the Shipwreck Coast was comparatively uneventful, but then we were on land, not on the surging water.

The Great Ocean Road begins peacefully enough at Torquay, and winds its way to Anglesea, both popular holiday destinations.


From there, heading west, like all coastal roads it twists and turns,


until you reach Cape Otway. From then on the coast becomes more and more treacherous.


The first real sign of just how wild this coast is comes with the iconic Twelve Apostles. It was originally known as The Sow and Piglets, but in 1922 it was renamed for tourism purposes. So much more appealing, The Twelve Apostles, despite the fact that there have only ever been nine of them.


We didn’t understand why The Twelve Apostles gets all the good press. Heading west from there as far as Peterborough the coast is continually as harsh, craggy, rugged and beautiful. Unless you’re sailor. We were not surprised to hear of so many shipwrecks.








East of Cape Otway the coast is dotted with many small beaches. We stayed in the village of Marengo, and from there walked along the beach


to the rock shelf revealed at low tide.





Up the road in Apollo Bay, a flowering gum. It had been so long since I’d seen one in full flower I had to go right up close to it to be sure that a tree with such an abundance of brilliant, crimson flowers was actually a eucalyptus tree.



To illustrate the enormous variety within the botanical family, this also is a eucalyptus tree, known, unsurprisingly as a stringy-bark.


On returning from our excursion to the Great Ocean Road we reunited with the family and went to the beach for a week. Next post: Guerilla Bay, Batemans Bay, Mossey Point, and Broulee – some of the many fabulous beaches on the coast east of Canberra. And giraffes and meerkats at Mogo Zoo.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Drink Drive Bloody Idiot. And us mad birdos.


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29 Jan – 6 Feb 2015. Rutherglen was the first stop on our journey from Canberra to the famed Great Ocean Road along Victoria’s south coast. The town, just across the border from New South Wales, is in wine country and attracts wine lovers from around the world. We, however, are not winos, and anyway we were only there overnight.

We asked where to go for an afternoon walk and were given directions to a small lake near our motel. What a treasure! It’s a manmade lake and a perfect example of creating a wetlands refuge from nothing. A beautiful lake with abundant birdlife. We were in heaven. Who cares about wine?!



We watched Ibis coming in to roost for the evening.


When we disturbed them a little they all took off, dozens of them, and did a huge flyby in the sky above us,


and then finally settled back into their nighttime home.


We saw herons and egrets and mallards and wood ducks and kookaburras. We saw Eastern Rosellas,


Marsh Hens,


and Spoonbills.


Most fun were the Noisy Miners, a variety of honeyeater.


There were about half a dozen of them, and we watched them diving towards the water, just clipping the water enough to get wet then flying up to a tree to shake themselves out. This is what that looked like:


Each of them dipping into the water several times, then grooming in the tree, then back down, just ever so slightly touching the water to get a little wet. We watched for a long time thoroughly entertained. We’re not winos, but I think maybe we’ve become mad birdos.

The main street of Rutherglen is quite typical of many Australian country towns with its colonial architecture and iron lace.


From Canberra to Rutherglen to Geelong to Marengo on the south coast to Cockatoo to Rutherglen to Canberra. Marengo, is just up the road from Apollo Bay and the whole area is a popular holiday destination with a mild climate and beautiful beaches.



Down by Apollo Bay wharf: lobster pots and rowboats.



We’re in our motel room in Marengo. We’d arrived a couple of days before and had been out and about exploring both days, but finally we’re having a little afternoon down time at home. We’ve been aware of regular screeching ever since we arrived so we know there are plenty of parrots around. We’ve seen them too, cockatoos and galahs and king parrots, flying by, and hanging out on a fence near the motel reception building. Suddenly the volume of screeching increases to alarming levels. An army of parrots has come! We dare to venture outside, and there they are. Dozens of them are being fed sunflower seeds by the motel owner. He said they’d been feeding them daily for a couple of years. They were slow to come at first but now every day there are great flocks of them. We join in the feeding, having birds landing on us, on our heads, shoulders, arms, and literally eating out of our hands. They’re quite wild, but they know where the easy meal is. What a feeding frenzy! We’re surrounded by screeching birds. So brilliant to be so close to them, and to see so many of them.

This is a female King Parrot eating from my hand as I photograph it.


A male King Parrot,


a pair of Corellas,


and a galah


We based in Marengo for a few days to explore the wild rugged south coast further west and to see the famed Twelve Apostles. On our return we travelled across the south of Victoria to Cockatoo to visit my nephew and his partner. Yes, there really is a town called Cockatoo and it’s in the beautiful forested Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.


We didn’t see any parrots, though I’m sure there are plenty there, but we did see kookaburras. They really do sound like they’re laughing: a wild manic laugh, a kind of hoarse shrieking laugh, that starts soft and a bit stuttered, but then gradually gets stronger and stronger, a loud squawking guffawing staccato, as if they are high on some mind-altering drug and are finding the whole world a little crazy. Perhaps they are.



About twenty years ago, I was driving on one of the highways (I use the term loosely) in inland New South Wales, returning to Canberra after attending a “back to earth festival”. That’s a whole other story, but I was tickled by one of the road signs I saw:


I chuckled. So typical of Australia. No mucking about with a polite “Please don’t drink and drive”. Tell it like it is. It seems the trend has spread. In Canberra, and on this road trip, we came across many such signs.





and the astonishingly polite


Next post: From the town of Torquay west to the town of Peterborough the Great Ocean Road winds it’s tortuous way along the south coast of Victoria. The coastline for much of that distance is rugged jagged cliffs, unseen reefs, islands and islets, and raging waters. One sailor likened getting through that part of Australia’s south coast to having to thread a needle. The safe path is very narrow. There’s a reason it is known as the shipwreck coast.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

Brave New World – Hosteling in New Zealand


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From Don: Ever since we began our nomadic journey in September 2011 I have refused to stay in hostels – they were for young, exuberant, backpacker types who don’t mind scungy rooms, dirty kitchens, and bathroom floors that don’t bear thinking about. Nothing Alison said to encourage me to try hostels made any difference: that we could probably get a private room, that some hostels even have en suite rooms, that we’d meet more people, that we’d not be so isolated from other travellers, that it could be fun! Until, that is, we began looking into accommodation for our five-week trip around New Zealand. What we very soon discovered as we looked at listings on for Christchurch was that there was very little hotel accommodation available in late February 2015, due in part to some big cricket tournament that was going on at the time, and what was available was eye-wateringly expensive. So then I reluctantly began looking at hostels in Christchurch. The BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels) online booking network provides descriptions and customer ratings of their hostels. I discovered that some highly rated hostels had rooms with en suite bathrooms – now I was interested.

I booked us into a twin room at the Chester Street Backpackers in Christchurch to give it a try. The hostel proved to be in an old, charming, well-maintained house on a quiet street. It had a large, well-organized kitchen with huge fridges plus lots of cupboard space to store other food items, and a lovely outdoor seating area. We had a good-sized room on the main floor with comfortable beds and clean bedding. All this for about $70 a night for a private room, with a bathroom down the hall.

From then on we tried to stay in hostels as often as possible, with only occasional forays back into hotel land. We soon discovered that modern hostel accommodation, in New Zealand anyway, can be just as good or sometimes even better than medium-priced hotels or motels, and at about 2/3 the cost of a similar room. Plus we could cook all our own meals in a spacious well-equipped kitchen instead of having just a microwave and a kettle in our hotel room.

Several hostels we’ve stayed in have offered free breakfast, another offered a wide range of free breads each morning, and two offered both free breakfast and free evening meal (soup or stew with bread). The only down side of cooking in hostel kitchens is the mess that other people sometimes leave behind them. As the sign in the Queenstown Nomads Backpackers kitchen said “Your mum’s not here. Clean up after yourself.” Interestingly, the greater the attention that the staff pay to the general cleanliness of the hostel, the better care the guests seem to pay. In general cleanliness was not an issue. I never did encounter a bathroom floor that caused me to flee in horror.

One of the big surprises about hostel life for me was just how friendly the great majority of our fellow hostel homies turned out to be, regardless of age. Our on-the-road social life suddenly improved immensely. I also have to admit there has been an inner shift in me since I wrote and published my Second Childhood post. There’s a willingness to be more open with others, and what you get back from others is usually a reasonably good reflection of what you put out. I guess I didn’t realize what we’d been missing out on. I’ve been very impressed with the hostels of New Zealand, and now I’m willing to try hostels in other countries.

From Alison: Call me old, and old-fashioned, and out of touch, but I honestly thought young backpackers travelling the world on a budget lived on pizza, beer and ramen noodles. I’ve been amazed and impressed by the amount of actual cooking that goes on in hostel kitchens. Plates piled high with salads, or vegetables, and not just the girls either. A couple of guys together making a meal of risotto with a side of corn on cob. I said to them that I thought young backpackers lived on ramen noodles, and they laughed and said you could only do that for so long. Another guy said it was fun to learn how to cook and to try new recipes. Lots of pasta being cooked for sure but always a great variety of things to go with it. Couples talking each other through how to cook different foods, guys following recipes on their iPads. Beef Stroganoff from scratch! Real cooking. Real meals.

I stayed in hostels a lot back in my twenties and have memories of having a great time, meeting lots of fellow travellers, partying, sightseeing, a couple of brief travel romances, and one, only one, memory of actually cooking a meal in a hostel. It was a joint effort in a place way out in the suburbs of Paris. We ate spaghetti bolognese washed down with cheap red wine. I’m sure I cooked many hostel meals in those days but that’s the only one I remember. Vaguely. These days we’ve established a morning routine of making breakfast and packed lunches before we head out sight-seeing or travelling for the day, and I think it may be a long time before I forget all the meals we’ve cooked together in New Zealand.

In most hostels we’ve met people of all ages, though definitely there has been a predominance of late teens and twentysomethings, but Queenstown was different. I call Queenstown “Adrenaline Central”. I’ll write more about it in a later post. Nomads Backpackers was full to over flowing with kids looking for adventure and the biggest adrenaline rush they could find. We were walking down stairs from our room one day and some older people walked past us on the way up. One of them said “Oh look! People over twenty!” We all laughed.

Noise! Yes, noise has been an issue, and not what you’d think, not from late night partying or generally rowdy kids. Pretty much universally we’ve experienced people to be quiet and respectful. It’s the endless radio noise that makes my ears bleed. Are people afraid of silence? Almost every hostel kitchen has a radio on all the time. Usually the volume is not so bad, but in every place it has been a commercial station, so a little bit of news, a little bit of chat, a little bit of mostly bearable music. In between that, all too frequently, come the ads. It’s the loud, rapid-fire, fake, ear-shattering voice urgently commanding me to buy something, that I find distressing. It’s early morning. I’m not really awake yet, peacefully trying to start my day with a little breakfast prep and I have this voice screaming at me. Energetically fractured. Frequently I would just turn the radio off. No one ever seemed to mind, or even actually notice. The resulting peace was blissful. My whole body would suddenly relax. The completely soulless hostel in Wellington had a TV in the kitchen-dining room. I turned that off more than once too. In the hostel in Taupo one evening we’re cooking dinner, and a guy came into the kitchen, placed a small cylindrical speaker thingy on the counter, plugged it into the outlet, plugged his phone into the speaker and suddenly there was music blasting out of it at mega volume. Wow. We were a little shocked. Not so much at the music, which varied, and some of it we liked, but at his lack of consciousness, and/or his sense of entitlement. At one time his friend turned the volume down but he turned it up again after a while. It’s the only time we’ve experienced a blatant disrespect for others.

Although I’d tried for years to persuade Don to stay in hostels, I admit that one of the issues for both of us was security. With a private room we can lock our valuables in our cases, and then lock our room, which is the same security we’d have in a hotel. I foresee many more hostels in our future. What’s a little radio screeching compared to all the other advantages like having a kitchen so we can make our own meals, and meeting people! We have something approaching an actual social life. Brave new world indeed.


© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

My Family and Other Wildlife* – Canberra Part 2


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15 Dec – 29 Jan 2015
In 1962 when I was eleven my family moved from Melbourne to Canberra. In those days there was no lake in Canberra, just the Molonglo River moseying through the centre of the town and a rickety old wooden bridge crossing the river at Commonwealth Avenue. There were hockey fields on the grassy banks of the river. I don’t remember what else. I do remember when they dammed the river to make a lake, and built a smart new bridge, and another bridge at Kings Avenue. The hockey fields were drowned and I supposed replaced elsewhere. I remember the lake slowly filling, and having to wait two years for it to be safe to swim in, and I remember the development of the paved and formal foreshores in the centre of town. It was named Lake Burley Griffin after the American architect Walter Burley Griffin who won a competition for the design of Canberra in 1912.

Where the lake spread out east and west into the suburban areas beaches were formed, and big parks, areas of natural bush, a yacht club, walking and cycling tracks, and at the eastern end a natural wetland area was left untouched for birds. From the beginning no motorized boats were allowed. It was stocked with fish. There are islands, and I remember one day as a teenager renting canoes with my two besties and paddling around the wilder end of the lake where we lived and making up names for the islands, and bays and hidden secret coves. From my teenage years the lake became a major focal point of the city and still is today. Much happens around it and on it: regattas, swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, picnics and barbeques on the shore. There is a bike path the whole way around it, most of which Don and I have ridden on our various visits to the city. It has become home to countless birds ranging from pelicans to black swans to marsh hens, and there are beautiful formal gardens in the central part, one of which is the venue for Floriade, an annual spring festival of flowers.

It was therefore inevitable that there would be a couple of family outings that involved the lake. On the same day that Don and Julie and I went stalking kangaroos we found pelicans by the shore.




And on another day, a barbecue with fishing and kayaking:



My oldest best friend from high school, one of the girls I went canoeing with as a teenager, still lives in Canberra with her husband in a beautiful house in one of the suburbs that borders on rural land, part bush, part grazing land. People are free to roam there as long as they remember to close the gates behind them.

Twelve years ago lightening strikes started four small bush fires near Canberra. Partly because they were not initially properly contained, partly because of extremely hot dry weather, and partly because of 60 km per hour winds, over a period of days the fires grew and became one large uncontainable inferno that reached the city and spread into these outlying suburbs. The fire was so large and intense it created its own fire tornado 500 metres wide with winds of over 150 km per hour.

There are twenty-four houses in the street where our friends live. Only ten were left standing, including theirs. It is uncanny the way an inferno will jump over things, or send out huge fireballs that land randomly. Some houses survived for whatever mysterious reason, most didn’t. Almost everyone was evacuated in time. Four people lost their life, over 490 were injured, and over 500 houses were destroyed. Friends roused friends who were indoors watching television and had no idea of the approaching danger. The entire city gathered to house the suddenly homeless.

Today the area is serene and lush. New homes have been built, gardens have grown and except for the architectural choices of the new homes you would hardly know it had been all but destroyed a few years ago. People lost everything. But not their plot of land, and not their lives.

As for the grazing and bush land abutting the suburb, it has also grown back and became our favourite place to walk every day while we lived in that same house that survived the fires, taking care of our friends’ two dogs for nearly three weeks when we first arrived in Canberra. We didn’t take the dogs up there. In the winter they are used to being able to run free, but in the summer there are too many poisonous brown snakes, so we walked them around the suburban area, and hiked without them up in the bush, sticking to the tracks where we’d see a snake in plenty of time. Walking there almost every day we didn’t see any but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. What we did see was some glorious views of Canberra,


and the surrounding Brindabella Ranges,


multi-coloured gum leaves,


many gum trees,


and this – an insect that looks so exactly like the wild grass that it is almost impossible to see it. We would never have noticed it if it hadn’t flown in front of us and landed on the grass. I am constantly astonished by the natural world.


Wildlife abounds in this environment. Most days I saw kangaroos, and every day a great variety of parrots including galahs, cockatoos, crimson rosellas and eastern rosellas. I photographed many of them, but most of the time they were too fast or too far away. Then one day I suddenly came across this:


Two eastern rosellas, right by the track, and so busy eating grass seeds that for several minutes they didn’t even notice me.

On another day, in another part of town, a crimson rosella:


We made a short visit to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, about one hour from Canberra. Tidbinbilla covers vast acreage and many native Australian animals and birds can be seen there in their natural environment. The development of the reserve had been ongoing for many years and large numbers of animals had made their homes there. It was not a zoo, though there were some animals in enclosures including koalas, but rather a refuge where animals were not threatened by logging or other encroachment onto their territory. All was lost in that same fire of January 2003.

Now, twelve years later koalas, kangaroos and emus have returned, as well as water birds, platypus, and the ubiquitous Australian lizards.


We saw ibis, and marsh hens,


and best of all a pair of rare Australian cranes called brolgas.


The Australian National Botanic Gardens, at the foot of Black Mountain is one of our favourite places to visit. I think with various members of the family we went there three of four times during the course of our stay in Canberra. It’s fun stalking the water dragons.


There are several rock pools in the gardens and the dragons hang around them, lazing in the sun or swimming in the pools. The biggest we saw are about two feet long.

Apart from a wide and comprehensive range of Australian native plants the gardens are home to many species of birds. Entering into the gardens one day the first thing we came across was a crowd of wood ducks on the lawn, two adult couples and several chicks.



We saw an echidna one day! There it was waddling across a lawn and into a bushy area. So rare to see them out in the open like that. As kids we called them hedgehogs, or spiny anteaters, but were soon taught the correct name.


And of course the gardens are full of flowers. Whatever time of year there’s always something blooming.





Red kangaroo paw with sweet nectar for a honeyeater.


Green kangaroo paw,


and yellow


We went out for dinner a few times, and coffee many times, with family, with friends. We went to the movies a couple of times – the one about Stephen Hawking (fabulous) and The Imitation Game about Alan Turing, the mathematician who created what would become the modern computer that broke Germany’s enigma code during WWII (also fabulous). We went to an amazing light show at the National Art Gallery. And some other stuff that I can’t remember. But in the end, as I said in the previous post, Canberra for me is about family, and nature. It was all good.

Final photo: an orange canna lily. Just because.


After nearly two months Don’s back was healed enough for us to get on the move again so we set out on a little road trip to see the famed Great Ocean Road. Next post: Australia’s wild southern shore. And koalas!

*The title of this post comes with apologies to Gerald Durrell

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

My Family and Other Wildlife* – Canberra Part 1


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15 Dec 2014 – 29 Jan 2015.

Don, my sister Julie, and I are walking in Weston Park. It’s a sunny day, our first day in Canberra. Weston Park is on a peninsula in the lake, and is next to one of Canberra’s inner suburbs. It’s a large family-playground park with treed spaces, a small train, picnic and barbeque areas, a tree house to climb, and other children’s play areas. Bird life is abundant. Pelicans are often seen by the water, and parrots in the trees.

We have no plans beyond walking in the park and seeing what we can find. After photographing some pelicans at the shore of the lake we head into a treed area, and suddenly we stop. There they are. Right in front of us. A mob of about thirty kangaroos.


Julie says she’s never before seen so many in the park. We are very still, afraid they will take off. Bit by bit we slowly move closer and closer until we are no more than fifteen feet away. They sit there watching us, as we watch them.


The mob has roos of all ages from joeys still in the pouch to large adult males. They are watching us, somewhat alert, but mostly they continue grazing and grooming.

One of us steps a little too close and five or six of them bound away, but not very far or for very long.

Suddenly, a wild moment when a female takes off so quickly and with such power that the joey is flung from her pouch. It catches up with her quickly enough and seems unharmed.

Poor flying joey.


I’ve seen kangaroos many times but this is the closest I’ve ever been. We watch for about an hour, moving closer, then backing off a bit, then moving in again. A second time a few of them are spooked and hop away for about one hundred metres or more, then slowly make their way back. It is magical. We are entranced. Seeing so many of them together, an entire mob. Being so close to them for so long. Seeing them completely in their natural state. Magical.


Frequently people who don’t know much about Australia think there are kangaroos jumping down the city streets. In the big cities like Sydney and Melbourne it’s a joke, but Canberra, the country’s capital, is a small city and filled with parks and surrounded by ‘the bush’. Wildlife is never far away, and sometimes comes to town. One day I saw a large male kangaroo hopping across a major highway, through a car park and down another highway. Luckily it was a quiet Sunday and there was little traffic.

Very near the kangaroos in Weston Park we see this memorial


To quote the sign at the site:
The SIEV X Memorial
Remembers the 146 children, 142 mothers and 65 fathers who died on the refugee boat SIEV X, at the height of the Federal election campaign in October 2001.
The memorial is a shared effort by over 300 schools, churches and community groups across Australia.
Each pole remembers one person who died, the smaller poles for children and larger for adults.
Our message in making the memorial is that Australia is not a country defined by fear and greed.
Love is stronger than fear. Kindness is stronger than greed.

There is dissent among both politicians and the general populace about the many refugee boat-people who flee to Australia, frequently in boats that are not sea-worthy. Many Australians want to keep Australia to themselves. Many are like those who created the SIEV X memorial. Everybody argues. The refugees are detained for years in camps that violate basic human rights. The camps are on off-shore islands. Nobody has a solution. The current illustrious Prime Minister, who seems to lack both integrity and intelligence, and the Attorney General, feel the correct solution is that the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission should resign because they didn’t like her message.

Canberra is not like other Australian cities. It’s all planned and perfect. It’s very spread out. It’s very affluent. It’s very expensive. It’s full of tree-lined streets and public gardens and there’s a beautiful large lake in the centre. It has a thriving coffee culture and many fine very expensive restaurants and smart boutiques. Being the federal capital a significant proportion of its population are politicians or government employees or diplomats. It’s very political.

One day in a trendy Canberra café


Canberra was my hometown from the age of 11 until I graduated high school at 17 and went to Sydney ‘the big smoke’ for eighteen months. I then returned to Canberra until I was 23. At that point I began travelling the world. I was 18 when one of my three sisters married a Canadian and moved to Canada. At the age of 33 I too moved to Canada. Two sisters and their husbands and some of their children and some of their children’s children still live in Canberra. It’s still my Aussie hometown.

For the first time in many years all four sisters were together for a few weeks including Christmas and New Year, and many of my nieces and nephews and their children also returned to Canberra for a few days over the holidays. It was one continuous family party for weeks. We ate, we drank, we talked, we argued, we laughed, we shouted, we hugged, we loved, we put up Christmas decorations, we played card games and board games, we went out for morning coffee, or for dinner, or to movies, or to the art gallery, and we cooked many humungous meals. Christmas seemed to go on forever.

There was a ‘tunnel’ of Christmas lights downtown. It was a fundraiser and an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most Christmas lights in one setting. It was a very long tunnel and the lights kept changing colour.


The city was alive with party spirit and kids lined up for the merry-go-round at the end of the tunnel of lights.



One of my sisters has a bird feeder in her back garden. This is what we saw there:





Crested pigeon, which we call a punk bird because of its hair-do. ‘We’ being some members of my family, not all Australians.


Sulphur-crested cockatoos at the bird feeder,


and in nearby gum trees.



No boring old sparrows, just beautiful rainbow parrots and these aren’t even the most colourful. There are sparrows of course, and other more mundane looking birds, but Australia’s full of exotic birds, and there are great flocks of them in Canberra. And great flocks of magpies. Australian magpies have the most beautiful warbling song as moving as music, but they are plain black and white. The parrots have all the lovely colours but screech like banshees.

Aussies call eucalyptus trees gum trees. One of the first European explorers to ever reach Australia was the Englishman William Dampier who landed on the west coast in 1688. He noticed that the aborigines used the sap that oozed from the tree trunks as gum to stick barbs onto spears. It’s not actually gum, but the name stuck.

One day Don and I went to Commonwealth Park and got caught in a deluge. While we took shelter under an awning this swan, indifferent to the rain, continued grooming itself. Great weather for swans. We scrambled inside the display building and had a cup of tea.


Two beauties at the Senate Rose Garden



Three sisters and Don went on an outing to the zoo and aquarium.

Parading Emu, all beak and wild eyes. As children, for a Sunday outing, we would be taken to a wildlife sanctuary near Melbourne where you had to be very careful the emus didn’t steal your lunch. You really don’t want to mess with them.


His Royal Highness the peacock.


There were about six small penguins splashing and rollicking and rolling in the water. We watched them for about fifteen minutes. It was fascinating. We never get to see how penguins behave in the water, except in a zoo. They seemed so completely at home, and like they were having fun. It was wonderful to watch.


and the meerkats were as busy as only meerkats can be.


In the aquarium.


Spread throughout the suburbs of Canberra are many large Nature Parks that are principally natural bushland, aka ‘the bush’. Don and I love to go hiking in them. North of the lake is Black Mountain, though calling it a mountain is a stretch. We climbed it many times for the exercise and for the view through the gum trees.


Red Hill is south of the lake. We climbed that a few times too. We never saw kangaroos on Black Mountain though we’ve seen them frequently in the National Botanic Gardens at the foot of the mountain. Perhaps the grazing is better there. We almost always saw them on Red Hill. Don and I were climbing up one day along the track and then left the track and started bushwhacking. Suddenly we saw a kangaroo hopping behind a tree. A second one stayed still and stared at us. For a long time. Then the other one came out from behind the tree. If you wander around in just about any of Canberra’s Nature Parks you’re bound to run into kangaroos.


There are other sides to Canberra. The political scene. The bar and nightlife scene. The music scene. Coffee culture. Art galleries, festivals, theatre, and many beautiful buildings. But for me Canberra is always about family and the wildlife. So next post: more (different) colourful parrots, water dragons, echidnas, flowers, wood ducks, pelicans, kangaroo paw, gum trees, brolgas, lizards, and a couple of members of my family.

*The title of this post comes with apologies to Gerald Durrell

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

South Sea Island Magic: the beach, orchids, and dancing in Fiji


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It is a quiet Saturday in February. I am sitting in the sweet garden of a thoroughly charming backpacker hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand, feeling fine: soft and relaxed. Happy. Don is napping. We arrived in New Zealand late last night and have spent most of the day ‘housekeeping’, getting here.

But this post is to be about Fiji! December 12 to 15. We stayed at the Aquarius Hotel right on the beach. Some part of each of our two days there was spent on the beach, swimming, walking, lazing. For the longest time Fiji was Australia’s winter tourist playground in the tropical sun, in much the same way Hawaii is for North Americans. I don’t know whether or not it still is. I do know sometime over the past twenty years or so Australians discovered Bali and turned Kuta Beach into their backyard playground.

Fiji is worth visiting. For the beaches, and so much more. Beaches have so many moods, and this one, Wailoaloa Beach, is no exception.

In the serene, still, early morning.



At first light a surfer gets ready to go out for the day.


During the day the wind picks up and the clouds begin to gather.


When I lifted my camera to photograph these two this is the reaction I got!


And in the evening a sunset to melt the heart.


Driving away from the coast towards the mountains, we pass by the foothills of the Nausori Highlands north of Nadi. 




We come to the rich, tropical Garden of the Sleeping Giant. The garden specializes in Fiji’s native plants,



and an extraordinary collection of orchids. It was begun, in 1977, by Raymond Burr, star of Perry Mason and Ironside. Burr, a TV star playing tough guys, was into orchids (among many other things). Who knew? His legacy lives on in this beautiful garden, which includes more than two thousand varieties of Asian and hybrid orchids.






Banana palm flower.


The ubiquitous tropical Heliconia, still new,


and fully opened.


We were lucky enough to be at the hotel at the time of their weekly evening of Polynesian dancing, and fire dancing. Fijian dance, similar to Polynesian dances throughout the South Pacific, tells stories through dance and song. We watched performances by a small but enthusiastic and athletic group of men, and two very graceful women. The fire dance originated in Samoa but has spread throughout all Polynesian cultures, and beyond, and was definitely the highlight of the evening.




After two days at the beach in Fiji as part of island-hopping across the Pacific to avoid those brutal long flights and jet-lag, we flew to Sydney, and then caught a bus to Canberra, my Aussie hometown. Next two posts: my family and other wildlife.

© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.

A Second Childhood


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From Don: In his 1946 book “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote: It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. Writing this blog post had something of that feel for me.

Something that those of you reading this post don’t know about me is that I was adopted at six weeks of age, and raised by a couple whose newborn daughter had died a few months before I was born. My adoptive parents were kind and generous in their own way, but, for whatever reason, I never bonded with my adoptive mother. The combination of the abandonment by my birth mother and the absence of a strong emotional bond with my adoptive mother resulted in me having what is termed insecure attachment in my relationships with others. In other words, I don’t trust that people will remain in relationship with me unless I behave in ways that I think they want me to behave. It is likely this deep vulnerability also contributed to the subsequent development of narcissistic personality traits.

One theory about the developmental origins of a narcissistic personality suggests that a mismatch occurs in parent-child relationships, whereby a very sensitive child experiences either excessive pampering or excessive criticism, or a mixture of both. I think that I must have experienced both. I know that I developed a strong belief that I was perfect, which, I discovered much later in life, was at great odds with the reality that I was living. The need to feel perfect meant that I had to reject anything that threatened that belief. I was left with no real sense of who I was.

Narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a huge sense of entitlement, an overwhelming need for admiration, and a lack of empathy towards other people. This all stems from an underlying feeling of shame: of being flawed in ways that makes the narcissistic person feel fundamentally unacceptable to others. Narcissism can best be understood as an extreme over-reaction to largely unconscious emotional pain.

Subsequently as a child and young adult I had little or no appreciation of the natural world, let alone for people. I was so anxious and lost in my mind and it’s many stories, and so concerned with pleasing others and trying to appear perfect, that I was unable to focus on what was happening in the world around me.

Somehow over the years, with the help of therapists and the feedback from others that I received over the course of my life, I overcame the most severe of the narcissistic symptoms: the inflated self-importance, the sense of entitlement, the overwhelming need for admiration, and the lack of empathy. I still feel insecure in my attachment to others, but much less so than I used to, thanks largely to my long-term relationship with Alison. My ability to stay present to what is happening and to what I’m feeling in each moment has improved greatly over the past thirty years thanks to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and, more recently, Jeff Foster.

So having got all of that out of the way, I can now come to the good news: ever since Alison and I began travelling the world I’ve developed an increasing appreciation for nature. I particularly love the unusual and exotic animals, birds, trees and flowers of Australia, but I’ve also enjoyed the flora and fauna of other countries that we’ve visited. I especially love the colors of the exotic birds that inhabit tropical and subtropical countries, and the ungainly beauty of pelicans. But then there are all the wonderful animals we have encountered in other parts of the world: the vicuñas, flamingoes, and vizcachas of the Andes, and the dragons, sea lions, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises of the Galapagos to name a few. I am so grateful that I am now able to enjoy the natural world: to feel a sense of joy and wonder. I feel as if I’ve been granted a second childhood, and for the first time I am seeing with a child’s eyes.

I close with a quote from Margery Williams wonderful book “The Velveteen Rabbit”:

“What is REAL?” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I am very thankful for the people in my life who understand.

Photo of the day: All in a row. Pelicans in Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, Australia.


© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2015.


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