A Weekend In Kakadu National Park

The Kakadu Crew in Ubirr

Towards the end of my year living in Australia, I had the chance to visit one of the country’s greatest treasures: Kakadu National Park. I was lucky enough to have a friend who had access to a 4WD truck, which is required to see some of the bigger and more remote sights in the park. After living and working my last three months in Darwin, we decided to go out and spend our final weekend in Australia camping and exploring the park with some other adventurous backpackers.

Kakadu is huge, covering nearly 20,000 square kilometers. That’s half the size of Switzerland! At this size, getting around obviously takes some time, which is why a proper visit should take at the least a couple days. At first glance, driving through the park is fairly monotonous as we drove through a large expanse of gum tree forests, a lot of which has been burned by bush fires. There are, however, a considerable number of hidden gems and interesting places that make Kakadu one of Australia’s most popular and unique national parks: stunning gorges, hidden waterfalls, lush wetlands, and ancient aboriginal art sites. All of this combined makes it one most beloved places in Australia and it has the status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are just some of the major highlights you can find:

Ubirr & Nourlangie Art Sites
Sacred Art
The East Alligator and Nourlangie regions of the park are where you’ll find one of the park’s major attractions: ancient aboriginal rock art. Some of the paintings are believed to be 20,000 years old and typically depict creation stories, but also paintings of animals that the Aborigines hunted and paintings depicting the first encounters with white settlers.

Location: 12° 51.894’S 132° 48.611’E
Accessibility: Most sites are accessible by paved road, but may be restricted by flooding in the wet season.

Sunset From Ubirr Rock
Kakadu Wetlands
The sunsets in the Top End are legendary, with brilliant displays of color reflecting off the billabongs and wetlands. A great spot to catch the sunset is from the top of Ubirr Rock (pictured above).

Location: 12° 24.522’S 132° 57.255’E
Accessibility: All vehicles (may be restricted due to flooding in wet season)

Croc Spotting At The East Alligator River
The King of Kakadu
Ironically, there are no alligators in East Alligator River. It is instead the home to thousands of fresh and saltwater crocodiles. If you want to see some big crocs, this is the place! We took a brief break here and in just 10 minutes we spotted 7 in one little section of the river.

Location: 12° 25.577’S 132° 57.914’E
Accessibility: All vehicles (dry season)

Jim Jim Falls
Jim Jim
Perhaps the most famous waterfall in the park, this area can only be accessed during the dry season by 4WD vehicle and a 2 km walk over boulder fields and through monsoon forests. At the peak of the dry season (July-October), the falls actually dry up and cease to flow so the best time to visit is at the beginning of the dry season when the falls are still thundering down the cliff face surging with wet season rain.

Location: 13° 16.399’S 132° 50.311’E
Accessibility: 4WD only (dry season)

Maguk Pool
Maguk Falls
Also known as Barramundie Gorge, this quite swimming spot is in the southern part of the park. Getting here is recommended by 4WD but it may be possible for a car to make it here. Unlike some of the other falls in the park, this one flows year-round.

Location: 13° 19.097’S 132° 26.280’E
Accessibility: 4WD only (dry season)

Gunlom Falls
Golgum Pool
My personal favorite place in the park, this serene place is like a natural infinity pool. The plunge pool is situated on top of a cliff among a shady grove of gum trees with sweeping views overlooking the park. Getting there requires a short but steep climb to the top of the falls and on a hot day a dip in the pool is super rewarding and refreshing!

Location: 13° 25.874’S 132° 25.081’E
Accessibility: Possible with 2WD, 4WD recommended (dry season)

No trip to Australia is complete without visiting Kakadu National Park. It’s exactly how I imagined Australia to be–huge skies, big gorges, endless expanses of gum trees, great camping, big crocs and other Aussie wildlife, Aboriginal culture. It’s a special place not to be missed!

Why You Need To Go To Nepal Now

EBC Trek | Ama Dablam

As my plane touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, I really wasn’t sure what I would find in a place that recently suffered from natural disaster. The date was November 30, 2015, a little over 7 months after news spread across the world of a massive earthquake that rocked a small country nestled among the highest mountain range in the world.

From the airport I took a taxi into the city, and as we drove I looked out the window and assessed the conditions of post-quake Nepal. To my surprise, everything seemed to be business as usual as far as I could tell. The only thing that became apparent to me right away was that even during rush hour, the roads seemed much emptier and lacking the endless bumper-to-bumper traffic that is typically omnipresent throughout Asian cities. My initial assumption was that this was a result of the earthquake, but my driver explained to me that the big concern at the moment for most Nepalese people is actually India’s oil embargo on Nepal. This has gone on since September 2015 and many believe India’s actions are in response to the country’s newly drafted and controversial constitution. As a landlocked nation, Nepal is entirely dependent on it’s southern neighbor of India for fuel and other important resources. The resulting fuel shortage means more people are off the roads (which might help a little in reducing the high pollution levels in Kathmandu), but it also means that the people have less access to foods and supplies (like medicine) that normally have to be imported by trucks.

To make matters worse, since the earthquake, the western media has portrayed Nepal as an unsafe and unstable place to visit. Even in the weeks prior to my arrival, I was still seeing images of famous, beautiful temples in rubble and buildings in ruin. This has resulted in a huge setback in the tourism industry. Fewer visitors, unfortunately, means many people who work as guides, porters, hoteliers, and many other tourism-based jobs that are vital to the economy (tourism is the largest industry) are unemployed. It was shocking to see the numbers posted on this sign at the park office at the entrance to Sagamartha National Park, down on average 50% of the usual inflow.

EBC Trek | Tourist Numbers

While I did observe some damaged areas in Kathmandu, it certainly wasn’t widespread. Most of the main historic sights and infrastructure had been reopened or was being rebuilt. Unfortunately the epicenter was closest to the most densely populated part of the country, which is why there was such a high number of people affected. But at the time of the earthquake, news media made it seem as if the entire country was destroyed. In many other areas around Nepal, such as the popular Everest region, the effects of the earthquake were much less. When I did my trek in early December 2015, I noticed hardly any signs of damage aside from a few buildings, which may have suffered due to poor construction to begin with anyway. In other regions, such in the country’s far west and east, minimal to no damage was reported.

Harati Devi Temple | Kathmandu

To hear all the negative news coverage was discouraging because during my few weeks in Kathmandu and trekking in the Himalayas, I saw a very different Nepal. I saw a colorful, diverse, and vibrant nation full of stunning scenery and friendly, resilient people who are desperate for the tourists to return. The truth is, there’s nothing much to worry about at the moment for visitors. It’s still fairly safe, the country is still stunningly beautiful, and the people who are well-known for their friendliness are just as warm and hospitable as ever.

Nepal has declared itself open for tourism. They desperately need visitors to return. So if there was a better time to go, let 2016 be the year to see this amazing place.

10 Magical Places In Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a remarkable part of the world. The region is bursting with vibrant cultures, wild jungles, alluring beaches, exotic temples, natural beauty, and fascinating cuisines, making it one of the most desirable destinations for travelers. Despite the ever-growing tourist trail that people typically follow, there are still a few places here and there that still make you feel as if you’ve discovered something special. Here were some of my favorite spots during my three month trip through Southeast Asia:

1. Secret Waterfall | Bali
Secret Waterfall | Bali
The Bali highlands are littered with gorgeous waterfalls, some more well-known than others. We planned on spending a day finding some that we read about on Google, but after a chat with our scooter rental man, he advised us of a beautiful set of falls hidden somewhere deep in the mountains that not many westerners ever make it to. So off we went on our scooters through a maze of back roads that brought us up and down steep, jungle-claded hills, through rice farms, narrow paths, and towards the end a long, steep staircase into a canyon where we had to cross a small stream before finally reaching the falls. There were actually five in total, gently cascading down through luscious green foliage clinging to the rock wall. Although I’ve seen much bigger falls in the past, these were especially memorable because of the crazy journey it took to get there–and we nearly had the whole place to ourselves!

2. Ubud Rice Terraces | Bali
Ubud Rice Fields
Just outside of the Balinese cultural center of Ubud, you can find yourself wandering through vibrant green rice farms and rice terraces. There are plenty around to get lost in, including the famous terraces of Tegalalang, but one of my favorite spots was only a 20 minute walk out of town at a little restaurant called Cafe Pomegranate. Built overlooking the rice fields, coming here in the evening hours is an enchanting experience as the sun goes down and the fireflies come out. Their coconut curry is also some of the best I’ve ever had!

3. Angkor Wat | Cambodia
Hidden Temple
While Angkor Wat is perhaps the most well-known destinations in all of Asia, it’s immense size allows for opportunities to leave the crowds and explore the ancient ruins in solitude. It’s so huge that there plenty of places away from the main attractions that see scarcely any visitors. Although we did see the big sights such as Angkor Wat temple and Bayon (which are incredible), we found it amazingly simple taking a side road to other less-visited temples set back further into the jungle. There was even one decent-sized complex that we had all to ourselves! Sometimes it pays to go one way when the crowds go the other.

4. Koh Rong | Cambodia
Koh Rong
A few years ago this place was lying pretty low on the traveler’s radar and was considered a hidden gem. Today, the island gets much more visitors as the secret has gotten out, but compared to other SE Asian tropical islands it’s still relatively undeveloped. And while it rained during the majority of our visit, there was something enchanting about this island. Maybe it was serene atmosphere that came with the absence of cars and motorbikes (there are no roads on the island). Maybe it was, when the sun actually was out, the stunningly blue seas and beautiful white sand beaches. Whatever the reason may be, Koh Rong was for sure one of my favorite places in Cambodia.

5. White Sand Dunes | Vietnam
White Dunes
On the southeastern coast of Vietnam is a little fishing town called Mui Ne, and just outside of Mui Ne is a landscape that will make you believe you are in Saharan Africa rather than Southeast Asia. Huge mountains of sand rise up here, a stark contrast to the green countryside that’s typical in Vietnam. You can rent an ATV to get around on the dunes, but they’re rather noisy and get stuck in the sand easily. The best way is to just walk, feeling the warm sand between your toes and hearing only the wind blow.


6. Tam Coc & Trang An | Vietnam

Tam Coc
One of my favorite places in Vietnam, the area around Ninh Binh looks very similar to the famous Ha Long Bay just a few hours away, only it’s located inland among rice fields. The landscape here is breathtaking with beautiful karst formations that rise up from the earth resembling the backs of dragons. Taking a boat trip on the Tam Coc and Trang An rivers are the highlight of this area, taking you through some epic scenery and mesmerizing grottoes beneath the mountains. Best of all, the area is somewhat off the main grid that so many travelers in Vietnam follow. On my ride up the river in Trang An, I was the only westerner and had a great trip connecting with some of the local Vietnamese tourists in my boat, making for an enriching experience!

7. Hoi An | Vietnam
Evening In Hoi An
If you ever ask anyone where to go and what to do on a trip to Vietnam, there is a really good chance they will mention Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful little town on a river with a long history of Chinese and Japanese traders settling here. Although there really isn’t much to do here per se, Hoi An is well-known simply because of its relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. On any given night, the lantern filled streets and archaic buildings almost seem like a scene out of a Miyazaki film. It’s also a great foodie destination. Some of my favorite Vietnamese foods originate from Hoi An. It’s a place not to be missed when traveling in Vietnam!

8. Kuang Si Waterfalls | Laos
Kuang Si Waterfalls
This place is a real gem, situated about 18 miles outside of Luang Prabang in central Laos. Consisting of several tiers of turquoise-colored pools amidst a lush green tropical Laotian jungle, it might as well be paradise. Especially on a hot day, a swim in the pools is so nice and refreshing!

9. Ko Nang Yuan | Thailand
Koh Nang Yuan
Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand are three little islands interconnected to one another by a beautiful white sandbar. The island, just a short hop away from the diving mecca known as Ko Tao, is a perfect place for a day trip relaxing on the beach or snorkeling among the coral gardens in the shallow clear blue waters.

10. Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh | Thailand
Maya Bay
Made famous by the movie “The Beach”, this beautiful place is often extremely crowded and overrun by tourists by day. Fortunately you can avoid the crowds by going later in the evening or early in the morning. I came here on an overnight boat trip and as the sun went down the numbers dwindled, and we literally had the whole beach to ourselves. There is nothing like watching the stars come out while laying on the sand, which literally felt as fine as flour, with the turquoise blue sea gently lapping at your feet. We even went swimming at night to see the phosphorescent plankton–a truly magical experience!

13 Reasons Why I Love Hong Kong

1. The Food Is Incredible
Hong Kong Eats

I had a feeling Chinese food here would be much better than anything I could get back home, but I was blown away by how amazing it really is. I spent a few days eating mostly dim sum and noodles, but there are also lots of other incredible foods here that just make your taste buds dance. Never again will I be able to eat Chinese food any where else with the same appreciation.

2. Hong Kong Milk Tea
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As a big lover of bubble tea I just had to try Hong Kong’s famous milk tea. It didn’t disappoint, I had some of the best bubble tea during my time here!

3. Getting Around Is Super Efficient and Easy
Hong Kong Street Car

There are so many ways to get around Hong Kong. Taxis, trams (pictured above), buses, ferries, gondolas, cable cars, hydrofoils, pedicabs, and an extensive metro system makes getting around the city easy and cheap. There are even underground walkways in some parts of the city so you don’t have to deal with traffic, rain, or the sweltering heat. Getting around the city is a sinch!

4. It’s Both Modern and Traditional
Monastery

One one side of the street you can have a modern skyscraper and just opposite you can find a monastery decorated with traditional and colorful Chinese elements.

5. The Festivals
Cheung Chau Festival

I was lucky to be there during the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, a quirky local festival that takes place a ferry ride away from the main city on the island of Cheung Chau. Aside from traditional ceremonies and a parade through town, the highlight of the event involves competitors climbing a 60 foot tower made of buns. It’s kind of a strange event, but that’s what makes things here so unique! It’s just one of several festivals that take place throughout the year in Hong Kong.

6. The Harbor At Night
Hong Kong Lights

There is nothing like strolling along the Avenue of the Stars at night to see the city light up across beautiful Victoria Harbour.

7. It’s Easy To Find Solitude
Cheung Chau

Despite being a major city, most of Hong Kong is actually rural and quite pristine. There are miles and miles of hiking trails through mountains and lush jungles around the city. And with hundreds of islands around, there are plenty of beaches you can go to and have the place to yourself!

8. The City Is Always Moving
Streets of Hong Kong

No matter what time of day, the city never seems to sleep.

9. There Is Always Something Interesting Around the Corner
Hong Kong in Rain

You never know what you’re going to find.

10. There Is Nature Everywhere
Kowloon Park

I have never seen a more literal interpretation of the term “urban jungle” than in Hong Kong. One minute you can be strolling along the city streets, the next you can find yourself on a quite path through the forest.

11. The Markets
Hong Kong Street Market

Hong Kong is full of markets and you can find so many interesting things in them. From cheap clothes to expensive, tailored suits and dresses, useless knick knacks, natural medicinal remedies, electronic accessories, flowers, exotic fruits and veggies, and amazing street food, you can find pretty much anything in the markets. There’s even a famous goldfish market full of aquariums where you can buy what else–goldfish of course.

12. Beautiful Art Is Everywhere
Guardian of the Monastery

There is beautiful art everywhere in Hong Kong, both modern and traditional. Especially in parks, which are beautifully decorated with stone statues, shrines, and zen-like gardens.

13. This View
Hong Kong at Night

There’s nothing like the glorious view that can be found from the top of Victoria Peak, making Hong Kong one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

Finding Paradise in El Nido

El Nido - Dolarog Beach

When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!

So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.

El Nido Town
El Nido

The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!

We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.

Entering The Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon
Island Hopping - El Nido

For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.

Under The Yellow Sea
El Nido Reef

Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!

El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset

Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!

Bohol: The Island of Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers

Loboc River

Bohol may be just one of the several thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, but it’s one that should not be overlooked. While it may not compare to the stunning scenery of El Nido on Palawan, the island is rich with history, an interesting variety of landscapes and wildlife, beautiful jungles, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels.

Arriving by ferry from Cebu, I was greeted at the wharf in Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, by the usual throng of taxi and tricycle riders who tend to mob tourists looking for potential customers. My original plan was to take the bus to my accommodation, but eventually gave in to the pressure after a very determined young driver followed me all the way to the end of the pier asking if I needed a ride. When I asked where his car was parked, he pointed to a ruddy-looking motorbike that looked way too small for me and my big backpack. “Are you sure we can fit everything on there?” I nervously asked, having never ridden on a motorbike in my life, never mind with a complete stranger. “Yes, yes, it will be okay,” he nodded with an optimistic smile. I hopped on and we were off.

Loboc River SwingWe rode through the countryside past rice fields, old churches, groups of waving, smiling kids, and dodged the occasional chicken or dog that decided to stray out onto the road. The driver, Brian, was great, pointing out different points of interest and explaining their importance. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Fox and the Firefly Cottages in central Bohol. Located outside the nearby town of Loboc, the hostel was in the countryside in a pretty remote area next to a slow-moving river. Out here, the night air was filled only with the sound of frogs and crickets. It was a relaxing spot, and the owners and the locals living in the neighborhood were very nice! And being right next to the river, it was a great place to swim and cool off during the heat of the day.

Panglao Island

The next morning I caught a ride on a jeepney (an old converted WWII US Army jeep which provides the most popular form of public transportation in the PI) and made my way down to Panglao Island on Bohol’s south end. This is where some of the nicest white sand and palm fringed beaches in the province are found, granted it’s also the most touristy as the coastline is congested with hotels and resorts. Alona Beach is the most popular, but I decided to go to Dumaluan Beach with a nice German couple I met on the jeepney as we heard it was less crowded. The only way onto the beach was by going through one of the resorts, which was packed with Filipinos on holiday, but we easily escaped the crowds by simply walking a few hundred feet up the shoreline. Apparently the diving is really good off the coast here (the Philippines in general is supposed to be amazing for diving), which made me wish I had my PADI certification!

Chocolate Hills After a nice day at the beach, I left my new friends and headed back inland to the island’s most famous feature, the Chocolate Hills. The symmetrical grass-covered hills get their name when they turn a brownish color during the dryer times of the year. Many people, myself included, would say they resemble something out of a scene in a Super Mario game. It’s considered one of the best things to do in the Philippines, and while interesting to look at, there’s really not a whole lot else to do here. Still worth a look though, especially if you come at sunset!

Tarsier

Another famous curiosity is the Philippine tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates which are endemic to the Philippines and are mostly found on Bohol. These odd-looking critters are an endangered species and are very hard to find in the wild, so we went to one of the nearby sanctuaries to see if we could see some. We ended up not seeing just one, but several of the little primates hiding in the trees and bushes around the park. They really are bizarre looking, with huge eyes and extremely long hind legs and fingers. Since their eyeballs are immovable, they also have the ability to rotate their head 180 degrees! Cute, but also kind of creepy, they reminded me of gremlins.

Boholanos

Two days was not enough time to spend on Bohol. While the island may look small on the map, it takes a few hours to cross and it’s rumored there are several beautiful hidden places that many travelers often overlook, places I would have loved to have visited if I had more time!

10 Things To Add To Your New Zealand Bucket List

I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I left New Zealand! I miss it so much, I’d go back and do it all over again if I could. Aside from being incredibly beautiful, there’s just so much to see and do here. That’s what I love about it most–it may be small, but it’s so diverse and packed with many opportunities to get out of your comfort zone and do something thrilling and different. Here’s a list of amazing things you should add to your New Zealand bucket list:

1. Climb Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park
Mount Doom
Crowned as New Zealand’s best day hike, the Tongariro Crossing is a 19 km trail that passes through the central North Island’s volcanic landscape. Filming of the Mordor scenes in Lord of the Rings took place here, and right in the center is Mt. Ngauruhoe, which took stage as the treacherous Mt. Doom. While you won’t find orcs or hobbits here, the journey up to the 2291 meter summit is well worth the journey, offering incredible views over the whole park and beyond. The hike is best done Dec-April when the weather is more favorable.

2. Island Hop Around the Bay of Islands
IMG_2288
The Bay of Islands in Northland is exactly what it’s named after—a big beautiful bay filled with islands. Situated in subtropical northern New Zealand, the region has a warm and relaxed atmosphere, making for an ideal getaway destination for Aucklanders escaping the bustling city life. With 144 islands and hundreds of beaches, it’s also a great place for island hopping! There are several sailing tours out to the islands from the towns of Paihia and Russel. I would recommend The Rock, which offers both day and overnight trips. Their tours include tons of activities including fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, night swimming in phosphorescent plankton, and hiking on the islands.

3. Heli Hike on the Franz Josef Glacier
Ice Landing
Ever wanted to see a glacier up close? In New Zealand you can take a helicopter and land on one! There are two major glaciers along the west coast of the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers which descend from high in the mountains all the way down to the lush rainforests at sea-level. While the Fox Glacier can be accessed by foot with a guide, the Franz Josef is only reachable by aircraft. But it’s so much better to fly as you can see more and get to places you normally couldn’t. Flights take off from the nearby town of Franz Josef. While short, it’s an incredibly scenic journey and an exciting experience if you’ve never been on a helicopter before. After landing on the ice, you’re left behind with your guide to explore for a few hours. If you’re lucky, you might even have a chance to go inside a blue ice tunnel!

4. Kayak Abel Tasman National Park
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Many people who come to Abel Tasman only hike through it via the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. But as a national park next to the ocean, the best way to see it is by sea. The coastline here is stunning and is a great place to see some beautiful beaches and wildlife like seals and penguins. There are tons of kayak tours you can do, but I liked Kaiteriteri Kayaks as they offered a trip for people who want to see the park both by land and sea. You spend a day hiking a stretch of the coastal trail, spend the night, and then kayak back with a guide the next day.

5. Drive Through the Southern Alps
Road to Aoraki
Anyone who has ever lived in or travelled through New Zealand will tell you no visit is complete without visiting the South Island’s beautiful mountain ranges. It’s worth renting a car or campervan and taking a drive through this incredibly scenic part of the country. My personal favorite drives were in Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park and the road along Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Glenorchy and Paradise.

6. Walk the Milford Track
Milford Sound
For hikers and backpackers, the Milford Sound Track is a hiking mecca. It’s up at the top of the list with other world-famous hikes, like the Inca Trail and Camino de Santiago. This four day walk takes you through some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery along rivers, past waterfalls, through lush rainforests, over mountain passes, and finally ending at Milford Sound. To maintain and preserve the pristine environment, the Department of Conservation only permits a limited number of people to the hike the track per day. Book well advance as permits go out quickly, especially in the summer!

7. Go White Water Rafting

New Zealand is packed with rivers and there are tons of places you can go white-water rafting. But the unique thing about the Kaituna River near Rotorua is that you actually raft down several waterfalls, the biggest drop being 21 feet. This is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, and taking the plunge here is an experience you’ll never forget!

8. Discover Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove
Now somewhat of an icon after appearing in films and music videos, Cathedral Cove is a stunning beach accessed via a natural tunnel passing under a rocky coastal headland. About a 45 minute walk from the town of Hahei in the Coromandel Region, the beach is best accessed at low tide and in the morning or late afternoon when the day time crowds are not present.

9. Sandboard the Te Paki Sand Dunes
reingadunes4
These mountains of sand are located only 20 minutes away from Cape Reinga, the northernmost point country. The landscape is surreal—it looks more like the Sahara desert than anything you would expect to see in New Zealand. Here you can rent a boogie board (or if you have one bring your own!) and take a thrilling ride down the steep sand dunes. If you happen to go on a rainy day, you’re in luck as you actually go down much faster on the wet sand. And the best way to go is head first!

10. Tube Through the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

The little town of Waitomo doesn’t look like much from the surface, but below the rolling hills and farmlands lies a massive underground network of caves lit up by millions of glowworms. The best way to see them is to grab an inner tube and get wet, floating through the subterranean rivers that flow through the caves. There is a bit of thrill on the adventure as in some places you have to pass through narrow passages and jump off a waterfall, making it an incredible adventure activity to add to your list!

10 Must-See Places In The Australian Outback

Despite being a vast empty desert, there are a lot of interesting and beautiful places that can be found in the Australian Outback. Taking a road trip is the best way to see Australia, as it gives you the freedom to go to wherever you want, whenever you want. Here are just a few highlights of what we saw during our road trip from Cooktown in Queensland to Perth in Western Australia:

Devil’s Marbles – Northern Territory

Devil's Marbles

Located a few hours north of Alice Springs, this is a good spot to get out to stretch your legs and see some interesting geology. Here big red spherical-shaped granite boulders dot the landscape. Best time would be to come in the morning or evening as the soft light makes the rocks glow red. You can also spend the night here I believe.

Alice Springs – Northern Territory

A Town Like Alice

Alice Springs. The funky little town right in the middle of Australia, hundreds of miles from nowhere. I actually really liked Alice Springs, it reminded me of the Australian version of Moab, Utah for anyone who has been there. We did a free walking tour offered by the folks at the information center and it was actually pretty interesting since you learn a little bit about the town’s history. There is also a large Aboriginal population here and you can go on tours to learn more about the culture or buy original Aboriginal artwork.

The MacDonnell Ranges – Northern Territory

Macdonnel Ranges

Running west to east and right through Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Divided into two regions, both the East and West MacDonnell Ranges are worth spending some time in, although I found there was more to see and the scenery more spectacular in the West. These days these mountains would dwarf the Rockies or even the New Zealand Alps, but they are riddled with chasms and cool little swimming spots to cool off on a hot day. My favorite spot was Ormiston Gorge, which has a small swimming pond surrounded by giant walls of red and orange rock. We also spotted some dingoes here!

Uluru (Ayers Rock) – Northern Territory

Sunset at Uluru

Nearly exactly at the very center of the Australian continent lies the iconic big red rock (or “the remarkable pebble” as one Australian explorer called it). You would think that a big rock out in the middle of the desert really can’t be that special, but it is. Once you first see it, you just can’t stop looking at it. It’s massive, dominating your field of vision. The prime time to go is around sunset when all the hues of red and orange transform as the light changes. Watching the sunset at Uluru was my favorite part of the whole trip. There is also a nice 10 km hike you can do around the base of the rock.

Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas) – Northern Territory

Kata-Tjuta

About 50 kilometers away lies another massive and equally beautiful rock formation known as The Olgas (Kata-Tjuta in the local Aboriginal language). Rather than one big monolith, Kata-Tjuta comprises of several large rounded domes that rise out of the desert. There is a great hike you can do here called the Valley of the Winds walk which takes you through all the formations and little valleys between them. Be advised though, in the summer this walk can only be done in the morning hours as it’s closed during the daytime heat. And like Uluru, the sunset here is spectacular.

Both Uluru and Kata-Tjuta lie within the same national park, located about 5 hours south of Alice Springs. There is only one paved road going in and out, so it might be worth spending a few days here. From what I recall, entry to the park was $25 for a three day pass.

King’s Canyon – Northern Territory

King's Canyon

I was a little disappointed with King’s Canyon. After having been to the American southwest and even parts of the MacDonnell Ranges just a few hours away, I think having the title as “The Grand Canyon of Australia” is an overstatement. It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would but it is still a cool place to visit if you’re going to/coming from Uluru and never seen a canyon before. The Rim Walk is a must-do if you’re into hiking as it takes you through some really neat rock formations. The hike can be a little difficult for some, especially in hot weather so if hiking isn’t your thing then it’s probably just best to save fuel and skip the canyon.

Coober Pedy – South Australia

Coober Pedy

We didn’t have a lot of time to check out Coober Pedy, but if you’re driving through the area you can see Australia’s famous underground town and the opal capital of the world. Roughly 95% of the world’s opals come from Australia and a lot of it comes from here. With all the mining nearby and often being succumbed to the perilous heat of the Outback, the town has developed this sort of underground theme and some of the buildings (including a backpackers hostel) is subterranean. An interesting little place to check out if you have the time.

Great Australian Bight – South Australia

South Australia

Ah, the ocean at last! After two weeks of dirt, rocks, and termite mounds, it was refreshing to reach the Southern Ocean. Here the dusty, flat desert just simply ends—it plunges down into the vibrant blue sea. If there were any place in the world that could be the edge of the Earth, this would be it. The land just stops and it’s only ocean here all the way to Antarctica. If you’re here between May and October, you might be lucky and spot some elusive southern right whales as they do their annual migration!

Cape La Grande National Park – Western Australia

Lucky Bay

If you ever find yourself in southern Western Australia, you have to go to Cape Le Grande National Park. Some of the best beaches in the country can be found here, including Lucky Bay which is considered to have the whitest sand in all of Australia. The sand is so fine it also squeeks under your feet when you walk on it! It’s also a good place to spot kangaroos hanging out on the beach. Nearby is Hellfire Bay, another stunning white-sand beach on the fringes of a beautiful clear blue shallow bay. If you stick around for sunset, make the short climb up the summit of Frenchman Peak for the best views over the park.

The Wave Rock – Western Australia
Wave Rock

Located just a few hours outside of Perth near the town of Hyden, this unusual rock formation is a good spot to stretch your legs and explore a little after a long drive. It’s a big wall of multi-colored granite that resembles a wave about to break, hence the simple name the Wave Rock!

These are just some of the many hidden wonders and treasures hidden in the Outback. These are all easily accessible by a 2WD car, but there are many other amazing places out there that can only be reached by 4WD and high clearance vehicles.

How To Road Trip Across Australia

Nullarbor

Most visitors who travel to Australia tend to only see the eastern cities without ever setting foot into the country’s incredible vast interior. Granted there are plenty of cool things to see and do on the east coast. The sugar-white sand beaches of the Whitsundays are spectacular. Sydney is a beautiful city with a stunning skyline and harbour. The Great Barrier Reef is not to be missed. But to contrast the busy and oftentimes very touristy east coast, there is just something magical about the vast emptiness of the Australian Outback, which covers most of the country’s land mass. It’s so big that all of Europe can comfortably sit inside it. It’s a pretty big place!

Nowadays, getting around through the vast desert is actually a lot easier, with a fairly good network of paved highways connecting both populated and remote corners of the continent. There are also plenty of rugged long-distance 4WD tracks crisscrossing through it for the adventurous type. With all that empty space, big skies, open roads, and natural scenery, Australia is the quintessential place to road trip.

So last October after completing a trip up the east coast, I found myself embarking on another long-haul journey—this time across the entire continent from Cairns to Perth, a journey of about 4400 miles (7100 km). Since we really wanted to see Uluru and the other national parks in the country’s famous red center, we opted going by way of Alice Springs and then down south and over the Nullarbor plains into Western Australia. It took roughly 3 weeks to complete and was one of the most incredible experiences of my travels thus far!

So how does one exactly do a road trip like this across some of the loneliest and most formidable environments in the world? Here’s a little guide I’ve written up for any future Aussie road trippers:

 Getting A Ride
Into the Sunset

For starters, you’ll need your ride. If you plan to see Australia over a period of a couple months or longer, you can always buy your own ride and then just resell it before you leave. There are plenty of used campervans, 4WDs, and cars circulating around the country. It’s easy finding vehicles for sale in most populated places throughout the country, a quick check on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist) or community boards in hostels can confirm that.

Another cheaper alternative is to simply ride share. This is what I did and there are tons of resources out there that can help you find a ride from someone or help you find passengers to join you on your own trip if you already have your own vehicle. Take a look around on Gumtree, Coseats.au, or even the city community pages on Couchsurfing.com and you’ll find lots of lift offers or people looking for rides. There are even Facebook pages dedicated to ride sharing across Australia. You can also always ask around people in your hostel and check the community boards for offers. You just might get lucky and find someone (or a group of people) who are headed the same way you are! And the best part is if you go with more people you’ll (A) save money by splitting the cost of fuel and (B) will probably have a better time being with fellow travelers and not being alone.

Another popular way to road trip across Australia (as well as in New Zealand, USA, and several other countries) is by doing a rental car relocation. Oftentimes rental companies need volunteers to relocate cars or campervans to other branches. The pros of doing this is you get to drive a rental car for an insanely cheap price–usually a few dollars a day. However, it’s oftentimes free! Sometimes they even include things like car insurance and free gas vouchers, though this isn’t necessarily always the case. The con is that there is a time frame in which you have to arrive at your destination, so your trip is only limited to however many days they assign to you. There is an exception sometimes, however, where they allow you to keep the vehicle longer but then you pay the regular rental price after that. So if you’re short on time and are looking for a cheap way to get around independently, this may be a good option as well.

Be Prepared
Outback Skies

Once you have your ride, the next thing you need to do is to be prepared. If you’re driving through the Outback, be aware you’ll be in some of the most isolated and extreme environments on the planet, and getting stuck out there would not be fun. Summertime temps in Alice Springs easily get up to 38 C (about 100 F) and in other places it can get even hotter! In wintertime it’s the opposite, getting surprisingly cold at night (well, cold for Australian standards).

Remember to stock up. It’s essential to bring extra water and extra petrol with you as distances between stations are usually hundreds of kilometers apart. But don’t keep your gas container in your vehicle unless you want your car smelling like fuel and having all the fumes soak into your food (we learned that the hard way)! It’s also a good idea to routinely check your oil and fluid levels as well as the tire pressure to make sure everything is square and running smoothly. And don’t forget—everything costs a lot more in the Outback! Save money by stocking up as much as you can on food and drinks as it can get very expensive to buy goods in little remote stores. Something as simple as a plain loaf of bread can cost $5 to give you an idea. As for fuel, the highest gas prices I saw were around the $2.10 mark–much higher than on the coast.

Also, unless you happen to be driving a road train (Aussie lingo for a huge semi-truck) or your vehicle is equipped with a “roo bar”, expect to do your driving only during daylight hours. Driving at night can be fairly risky as that’s when kangaroos are most active and in many remote areas in Australia they are very common. And unfortunately they sometimes like to unexpectedly jump in front of your vehicle! Seeing kangaroos and even free-grazing cows hanging out in the middle of the road at night is not an unusual sight. You’d be surprised at the amount of roadkill that litters the side of the highways here. And the flies! After New Zealand I never thought I’d come across a pest worse than NZ sand flies, but the Australian bush fly is might as well come straight from hell. They don’t bite fortunately and looks similar to a common housefly, but they are oh so very persistent. As soon as the sun comes up, your face, arms, and back are usually covered in them; crawling up your nose, into your ears, into your eyes. No matter how much you swat them away they always come back. So bringing a fly net might be a good idea.

Where To Stay
Outback Camping

As you travel through the Outback you’ll come across tiny little stations called roadhouses every few hundred kilometers or so. Not only do they provide a place to refuel your car, but there’s also usually a restaurant and store that sells a limited stock of groceries you can buy. Some even provide different types of accommodation, anywhere from rooms to both powered and unpowered campsites, usually with basic facilities. The national parks do also tend to have camping grounds and accommodation available.

If you are looking for the cheapest accommodation and don’t mind roughing it your way across Australia, just do freedom camping. The Outback is a big land of nothingness, there are plenty of places to pull over and camp overnight rather peacefully. I would recommend using an app called WikiCamps Australia—it’s an excellent tool for finding free places to camp as well as official pay-for campsites and things like hostels and hotels in case there aren’t any free spots nearby (usually in and around cities freedom camping is forbidden…you normally have to be out in the remote areas to do it). It’s largely based on advice and reviews given by other travelers. Using this app saved us hundreds of dollars in accommodation, I wouldn’t go without it! And Australia is probably one of the best countries I’ve ever been for camping. Camping gear is actually fairly cheap here and can easily be bought from K-Mart or Target. And if you’re in the Outback, you’ll likely find lots of clear skies and dry weather making it perfect for stargazing at night!

 

Swimming With Whale Sharks In Oslob

Whale Shark

The Philippines is famous for its abundant wildlife living under the sea. Thousands of people come here every year for the excellent diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the best places to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. Also known as butanding in Tagalog, these gentle giants can grow up to 41 feet (12 meters) long and weigh as much as 23.5 tons. Despite their intimidating size, whale sharks are mostly slow-moving and fairly mellow creatures, drifting close to the surface through the world’s tropical oceans, filter feeding on plankton and small fish as they go.

You can find whale sharks pretty much anywhere in the Philippines, but there are two places in particular where they are especially common–Donsol and Oslob. Located on the southern end of the island of Luzon, Donsol has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a whale shark watching mecca over the past few years. The other locale is near the little town of Oslob in Cebu, where the whale sharks can be found just a few hundred feet offshore.

Whale Shark

Getting to Oslob is rather easy. There are daily domestic and international flights flying right into Cebu City. From the airport you can take a taxi to the South Bus Station (about 250 pisos) where you can then take a bus to Oslob. The journey takes around 3-4 hours and cost only 150 pisos for an air-conditioned bus. I found the bus system on Cebu to be really good with buses making several trips between Cebu City and Oslob throughout the day.

Originally I had planned on seeing the whale sharks in Donsol, but since I was coming to Cebu anyway to visit the nearby island of Bohol I figured I would save time by going to Oslob. Upon arrival in town, I was told the best time of day to see the whale sharks was in the early morning as that’s the time of day they come to feed. The cost of swimming with the whale sharks is 1100 pisos for foreigners (about $25 USD) and includes your snorkeling gear, boat, and environmental fee. Before setting out to sea, we were given a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. A few in particular I remember was that we weren’t allowed to wear sunscreen since it’s toxic to them. Another was we were supposed to give them a 3 meter berth and that we couldn’t touch them. Simple enough.

Whale Shark

We got in our boat and paddled off from the beach around 06:30 and within five minutes we were at the spot where the sharks were in water. Being only a few hundred feet off shore the water was shallow, maybe only 20 feet deep. As soon as we jumped in there was already one swimming by! Over the duration of the experience, I was surprised not only to see one or even two sharks, but a total of 5 whale sharks! Incredible. We didn’t have to go very far either as they swam right by the boat. They were varying sizes, but the largest one I saw was maybe around 30 feet long. We were given 30 minutes to swim with the sharks and I felt that was plenty of time.

Whale Shark

Until 2011, Oslob was just another little fishing town off the southeastern coast of Cebu. The sharks have been in present in the area for years as they are thought to have been attracted to the small shrimps that the fishermen use for bait to do their fishing. Initially this caused some fishermen to see the sharks as a pest as they ate their bait and scared away the fish and some used to capture and kill them. But when tourists began visiting the site to see the whale sharks, the fishermen saw the opportunity to make some money off of the tourism and the hunting stopped.

Whale Shark

While the hunting has ceased, the feeding of the whale sharks has become a controversial topic. While they’re by no means kept captive by a net, the fact that they’re hand-fed is concerning to a lot of people as the sharks lose their natural migratory habits and become more reliable on humans for food. I also didn’t like how crowded it was–there must have been a hundred people or so out on the water at once. It was pretty noisy and some people were kicking and splashing around. The only real positive thing about seeing the whale sharks in Oslob is that you’re highly likely to see them. I met people who had been to Donsol and while it’s much less crowded there it’s hit and miss. Some people got lucky and had an amazing experience, others not so lucky. But apparently its more regulated and eco-friendly in Donsol as well, something I think the people in Oslob could learn from.