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Published April 2nd 2019
Cairns to Christchurch - There's so much joy 'Down Under'
Australia and New Zealand were always on my list of countries to visit, particularly with an old school friend having been living in Sydney for the last 30 years, who was always urging me to 'pop over'. However, the prospect of a plane journey of 24 hours or more always put me and my wife off travelling to the other side of the world. But when two other friends separately booked holidays to go 'Down Under' about a year ago, I decided I could no longer put it off and set about trying to find a trip that could best get around the flying problem. So it was that after discounting the idea of a round the world cruise, I booked our Highlights of Australia & New Zealand tour with a previously unused company, appropriately called Distant Journeys, that successfully overcame the issue and meant we didn't have to spend the first few days getting over jetlag.
The trip in question, which we undertook at the end of January to coincide with a significant birthday, afforded us a two-night stopover in Singapore on the way out to Australia and New Zealand and a choice of 48-hour destinations on the way back, with Hong Kong just getting our vote above Bangkok. All in all, we embarked on a total of 12 international and domestic flights during the course of our fantastic holiday of a lifetime, but the longest was little more than nine hours. So, based on the policy of furthest distance first, we began our fabulous tour in Christchurch, on New Zealand's South Island, having already flown from our home airport of Birmingham in the UK to Dubai, then Singapore and Brisbane. After an overnight stop in Christchurch, our group of 43 intrepid travellers hit the road for the coach journey to Franz Josef through spectacular scenery dominated by the stunning Southern Alps as well as beautiful plains.
Take a boat triip on the steamer TSS Earnslaw to a working farm
Our two-night stay gave us the opportunity to visit the sadly receding Franz Josef Glacier, before another incredible scenic drive past further mountain ranges and crystal blue lakes brought us to the delightful and welcoming city of Queenstown, which became our lakeside home for three nights. As delightful as Queenstown undoubtedly is, including an aerial ride on the Skyline gondola, it also provided the perfect base for visiting the stunning natural beauty of Milford Sound on a mini cruise, as well as enjoying a separate boat ride across Lake Wakatipu on the 1912 built coal-fired steamboat, TSS Earnslaw. It was sadly time to say goodbye to the scenic wonders of New Zealand's South Island but, for huge Lord of the Rings fans like myself, there was an unforgettable treat waiting on the other side of Cook Strait which separates north from south.
The fabulous Hobbiton Movie Set used in Lord of the Rings
We flew from Queenstown to Auckland, which houses around a third of the country's entire 5 million population, but the 'jewel' awaiting me and some of my fellow travellers was the Hobbiton Movie Set used by director Peter Jackson for both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit films that followed. As well as being a great launch pad for Hobbiton, our base in Rotorua is also in the heart of New Zealand's rich Maori culture, which we experienced with a visit to the Te Puia geothermal and Maori culture centre. After a couple of nights in Rotorua it was a relatively modest drive to Auckland, known as the 'city of sails' because of its sailing culture, for our final night in New Zealand before jetting to Australia. Clearly 'Oz' was going to be a hard act to follow after the delights of New Zealand, but as soon as we landed in Melbourne we knew the country would be up for it.
Getting ready for my snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef
Three nights in Melbourne, with our hotel overlooking the famous MCG cricket ground, enabled us to take a full-day tour on the iconic 151 mile long Great Ocean Road, taking in Apollo Bay and the fabulous 12 Apostles rock formation and Loch Ard Gorge. After an all too short stay in Melbourne, it was time to fly to Cairns for the contrast that is North Queensland's tropical rainforest. Our four-night stay in Cairns included a brilliant excursion to the magical and colourful Great Barrier Reef where I had the huge pleasure of snorkelling on part of the reef itself which, happily, was teeming with brightly coloured fish. We were also able to enjoy a trip to the rainforest village of Kuranda by the combined means of a gondola and scenic railroad, leading to a close encounter with a cute and cuddly two-year-old koala called Milky. And there were plenty of highlights in Cairns itself, not least the thousands of amazing fruit bats that have made the city their home.
Unmistakeable Uluru, or Ayers Rock, rising from the desert
A further contrast was to be found when we flew into the heart of the country, to Alice Springs in the middle of the red desert. Places of interest included the excellent Royal Flying Doctor Service and the invaluable School of the Air. But my undoubted highlight was my first ever hot air balloon ride, even if it meant being woken up at 4.30am to experience the amazing sunrise over the desert. Leaving Alice after two nights it was time to drive to the incredible Ayers Rock, or Uluru, which has huge cultural importance to the Aboriginal people. After this absolute thrill, aided by a glass or two of bubbly during a separate sunset viewing, it was time to fly to our final destination in Australia, and a reunion with my friend in Sydney.
The view of Sydney Harbour Bridge from our hotel room
Our three-night stay in Sydney clearly wasn't long enough with so much to see and do in this vibrant city dominated by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which we at least managed to walk across, and the iconic Opera House. There was also an element of sadness at saying goodbye to most of our travelling companions from the past month, although we did enjoy a two day 'extension' with the other 16 who chose to stay at Hong Kong on the return leg home. Maybe this part of the world may get a return visit one day.