Rachel Down Under!

Visa Run, Christmas, and a new year!

Posted in Australia, New Zealand, Sydney by rssmith218 on January 11, 2012

Happy holidays from the land down under! Do I look festive enough for you? Yes, that is a kilt!

Several people (ie: my mother) have brought to my attention the fact that I haven’t updated this blog for quite a while, so I think it is high time to catch up on the past couple of months! My time in Australia has been extended yet again, and over the past few months I have traveled to New Zealand and back, started a new job as a research assistant, celebrated another Christmas “down under,” and, finally, welcomed in the new year, Sydney-style.

If you can’t tell from the above photo, it has been a busy couple of months, so I will break it down into points to make it easier to take in.

1. New Zealand, AGAIN!

I never thought that I would be lucky enough to return to New Zealand, the great land of sheep, glaciers, mazes, mountains, and ghost chips. However, when I was offered work as an RA, I had to leave Australia to apply for a new visa, so I jumped on the opportunity to dash over to New Zealand for a few days. And of course, while I was waiting for my visa to come through, I was glad to have a bit of time to explore some more of the New Zealand countryside. On my last trip to New Zealand, I enjoyed the sights of the South Island, so this time I chose the North Island for my latest traveling escapades.

As I embarked on my solo North Island adventure, I found myself missing my previous Kiwi traveling companions….

….and so, I vowed to have a week full of adventures in their honor!

I flew into Auckland, and, after hurriedly applying for my visa, I spent the day wandering the city and enjoying the skyline, sailboats, parks, and museums.


Ever the eternal tourist, the next day, I embarked on a tour of the North Island’s Northlands, which, as you can probably guess from the name, is the northern-most part of New Zealand. Here’s a map to help orient you.

New Zealand –> North Island –> Northlands!

On the way to the top of New Zealand, I stopped for all sorts of touristy-goodness. I even hugged a GIANT kauri tree,

and braved the ICE COLD New Zealand waters for a snorkel at Goat Island.

At least the beauty of the scenery actually did distract me from my shaking arms and legs!

Also, is that a sting ray? Yikes!

Finally, we reached our destination for the first night- Paihia in the Bay of Islands! Upon arrival, I took a quick hike to a local look-out to take in my surroundings…pretty beautiful, eh?

The next morning, I awoke early for a day trip up to the very tip-top of New Zealand to Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean! It was a rainy, cloudy drive, but we eventually made it up the coast. Even in the fog, you can see that this is a pretty amazing place….

Can you see the waters converging?

The waves were apparently pretty weak on this day, but you can see the convergence, right?

Post-convergence, what else would you want to do but go SAND-BOARDING? Yep, that tiny black dot, is actually my friend Janis!

Fun, huh?

The next stop on our journey was 90-mile beach, a beach that, despite its name, is actually only 55 miles long. It’s not every day that you get to drive a bus full speed down a beach…

It looks 90 miles long to me!

Hey Rach, can you spot Sydney from across the Tasman Sea? Normally I’m trying to spot New Zealand!

And of course every good day ends with fresh fish and chips….

…and sunset beers with new friends on the beach!

I spent my last day in the Northlands kayaking around the Bay of Islands. Again, it is so beautiful here!

Haha, and here’s some proof to show that I actually took the kayak out onto the water….

My time in the Northlands had come to an end, but I still had one more full day in Auckland. I spent the day at the nearby Rangitoto Island, a volcanic island that is only a short ferry-ride away from Auckland.

Rangitoto was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions which occurred about 600 years ago, and its volcanic past is evident from the remnant lava fields,

the shield cone,

lava tubes,

(…yes, these were a little spooky…)

and, of course, the crater!

The view from the top of the crater was incredible, as you can see here.

Hello Auckland!

I spent the rest of the day exploring Rangitoto, which basically meant stumbling upon views like this every few minutes.

Overall, I had a great time on the North Island, and after a week, I returned back to Sydney, visa in hand!

2. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

….which means its time for the annual Johnston Lab Christmas Party! This year’s party was significantly less messy than last year’s (at least for me…) and we all took part in some friendly competition at the Clovelly lawn bowls!

And what would a Christmas party be without a Santa?

A Sleazy Santa, at that?

We all took turns sitting on Santa’s knee to receive gifts from a secret-Santa gift exchange…

…although in the end, most of us received nerf guns, which have ultimately turned into a post-grad room productivity killer.

Meanwhile, as more drinks were downed and the hats became progressively sillier,

we ended up moving the party to the beach,

and ultimately to the pub!


For Christmas itself, my newly PhD-ed friend, labmate, and radio co-host, Luke, invited me to spend the holidays with his family up on the Central “Cenny” Coast of New South Wales.

Ready for some family time, Luke?

It was a wild four days, and during my time on the Cenny Coast,  I was exposed to all aspects of the “Australian experience,” or maybe, more accurately, to all aspects of the “Hedge family experience.” I took part in all family traditions, including the New Years Eve Beachcomber “Beachy” Hotel gawk-fest, Santa’s Runway, the 7am Christmas beer,

and even some Christmas Call Of Duty. Very serious stuff, here.

I watched Jordan down about a hundred Budweisers,

played some intense bat-and-ball (a true Australian sport!)

and I even finally glimpsed the infamous “Cave of Death 1” at Soldiers Beach.

On Christmas, we spent the day at Nanny Peg’s house, where we relaxed

and played a bit of footy,

that is, until Luke’s work caught up with him….

Boxing Day was spent in celebration as well, and Luke’s mom put together an amazing spread…

Merry Christmas! Have we had enough Jacob yet?

Maybe its time to put him back in his bath….

Overall, I definitely had one of the “best Christmases ever”! Thank you so much to Luke and his family!

4. Happy New Year!

I welcomed in the New Year with a lovely crowd-free swim at Bondi, dinner with friends, and watching the Sydney fireworks from atop Dover Heights. 2011 has been so good to me…I can only hope for the same in 2012! Happy New Year!



Posted in New Zealand by rssmith218 on April 12, 2011

For the first time, my adventures “down under” took me outside of Australia, and last week I made my way to New Zealand, the Land of the Great White Cloud.

Christine, Aisha, Thomas and I only had time to tour the South Island, and even though we spent 9 days exploring the island, I feel that we barely scratched the surface of what the South Island, yet alone the rest of New Zealand, has to offer. From sheep to towering mountains, from the coastal fiordland to the icy glaciers, New Zealand was one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever visited. Many of these photos were taken by Aisha and Christine- thanks girls!

Here, I will briefly recount our journey. Below is a map of our trip….

….along with a day-by-day break down of our travels.

Let’s get started!

Day 1: Sydney to Christchurch

Our flight from Sydney brought us safely (if not smoothly) into Christchruch at 1:00 am on Friday night, and after picking up our rental car, we headed to probably the sketchiest hostel in all of New Zealand. I’m not sure whether it was comforting or concerning to know that our hostel proprieter was available for help at all hours of the night from his bed in the blue van parked outside our door, but we got enough sleep to prepare for our first real day of adventuring….

Day 2: Christchurch to Franz Josef

We awoke bright and early the next morning and began our drive to the western side of the island. We limited our stay in Christchurch because of the recent earthquake and stayed safely away from the Christchurch city center, as it was most strongly affected by the quake.

To the west!

Within a half hour of leaving Christchruch, we came accross the town of Sheffield, which was hosting a local fair in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

Of course we had to stop! Here we got an excellent taste of rural New Zealand culture, as we watched a woodchopping competition,

dogs jumping over increasingly higher stacks of hay bales,

and, yes, a speed sheep-shearing competition, among others.

After spending several hours at the fair, we realized that we still had almost 400 kilometers to drive and we set off for the west, with a new resolve not to make any unnecessary stops. It was a beautiful drive…

…..although some of us may have enjoyed the scenery more than others…

We finally arrived in Franz Josef, and prepared a quick dinner to fortify us for the day ahead.

Day 3: Fox Glacier

The next morning,  we were greeted with rain and clouds, but undeterred, we headed to Fox Glacier for a day of glacier hiking! After bundling up in countless layers and sturdy rain jackets, we were finally ready to face the rain….

….and so we did! Our guide took us through the pouring rain up a rocky path that eventually led to- what else- the glacier!

From there, we strapped crampons onto our shoes and headed up onto the glacier.

Despite the rain, we were able to reach some pretty amazing features…..Like this beautiful blue ice,

…and this ice tube!

Hello Thomas!

Despite the rain and the cold, we had a wonderful hike…

….but we were definitely ready for a hot chocolate and a nap in our cozy cabin!

After we recovered from our hike, we wandered around Franz Josef, and Thomas and I made a quick excursion to some local hot pools before dinner.

Day 4: Franz Josef to Queenstown

We were sad to leave our cozy cabin the next morning….

…and on our way out of town, we stopped by Lake Matheson for a quick hike. The calm, dark waters of Lake Matheson perfectly reflect the peaks of nearby Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.

Beautiful, eh?

And of course we had to try our own hand at reflecting, although I think the mountains definitely had us beat…

From Lake Matheson, we continued south along the west coast, taking in the sights as we went. We had a quick glimpse of the ocean from the top of this cliff,

checked out the fish at a local salmon farm,

and drove through Mount Aspiring National Park, one of the most beautiful stretches of road that I have ever seen.

We also drove through Lake Wanaka…

…but we made a long stop in the town of Wanaka to explore the strange, but surprisingly fun “Puzzling World”.

And what did we do there?

Well, we hung out with some Romans in the toilets,

had our balance challenged by a tilted room,

and we played with perspective in a crazy disproportionate room.

Probably the most intense aspect of Puzzling World was the lifesize maze. The goal was to reach 4 different colored towers in a specific order.

At first, we were all enjoying the maze….

….but some of us began to take the challenge more seriously than others.

In particular, after an hour or so of running in circles, Thomas cracked from the pressure of the maze.

We left Puzzling World exhausted and slightly frazzled, and continued on to our night’s destination- Queenstown!

We grabbed a burger at the famous Fergburger,

and settled down in our hostel for the night, although not before checking out a few of Queenstown’s souvenir shops.

Day 5: Queenstown to Milford Sound

From Queenstown we made our way to Milford Sound out in the fiordland. We stopped in Te Anau, where we went on a tour of a glow worm cave. We had to take a boat out into the fiords to reach the cave, but it was a beautiful journey, as you can see below.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the cave to keep from scaring the glow worms, but this silly promotional video actually sums up our experience surprisingly well.

We were brought into the lower portion of the caves, where we walked alongside a loud and beautiful series of rapids and waterfalls. In the total darkness of the cave, we were led to a boat and we then floated around the “Glow Worm Cavern” and watched the glow worms shine their little lights.

At the end of our tour, we returned to the road and began the scenic drive to Milford Sound. The landscape became extraordinarily large over the course of our drive, and we stopped several times just to enjoy the scenery.

Day 6: Milford Sound to Queenstown

After a restful night in Milford Sound, we awoke for an early morning of sea-kayaking in the sound. We were outfitted in some truly flattering thermals,

before starting our kayak into the fiordland. The sound was so beautiful, as you can see here, and we spent a lovely morning slowly paddling around the sound.

On our way back to Queenstown, we stopped to hike Key Summit, which offered stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding area.


Day 7: Queenstown

The next day, Aisha and I took a ride on the Queenstown gondala, where we had a great view of Queenstown and the surrounding area, as you can see here.

What do you see out there, Rach?


We returned to town and Thomas, Christine, and I got ready for our Queenstown adventure sport- white-water rafting on the Shotover River! I was expecting to be thrown from the raft by the intensity of the rapids, but our raft safely maneuvered through the raging currents and it was actually the windy cliffside drive to the start of our journey that was most terrifying. We obviously weren’t able to take photos on the trip, but Christine this snapped this shot before our rafting adventure.

After our rafting trip, we made some great friends at the hostel,

and we enjoyed a night out on the town in Queenstown!

We went to a pub that served cocktails in teapots, and as you can see, we had a very enjoyable night.

Day 8: Queenstown to Lake Tekapo

With a cup of New Zealand coffee to get us started, we drove to the beautiful Lake Tekapo, stopping for a picnic lunch along the way.

Lake Tekapo was a beautiful place to stop for the night, and we spent the afternoon enjoying the lakeside views.

While Thomas and Christine enjoyed some local hot pools, and Aisha and I ventured up to the Mount John Observatory to see some stars. We watched the sun set over the mountains surrounding Lake Tekapo, and waited as the stars started to come out.

Can you tell that it was cold?

Stars out yet?

It was a clear night, and we saw the many constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, including Orion (upside down!), the large and small Magellan galaxies, the Southern cross, and my favorite, Saturn!

Aisha also learned a bit about astrophotography and was able to take photos of the night sky with her camera. The images are pretty amazing; for example, can you spot the Southern Cross in this photo?

We returned to our hostel to an excellent dinner cooked by Thomas and Christine (mostly Christine) and were lulled to sleep by the heated (!) mattresses in our hostel.

Day 9: Lake Tekapo to Christchurch

Our last day! We backtracked from Lake Tekapo in order to visit Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand/Australasia at a whopping 3,754 metres (12,316 ft). Our journey to the national park was hindered by some passing sheep…

…but once we made it through the sheep blockade, the views were beautiful!

We hiked out to Lake Tasman, a glacial lake formed from the remains of the Tasman Glacier. It was a great walk, with views of the surrounding mountains and the giant icebergs floating in the lake.

Mount Cook!

All too soon, it was time to head back to Christchurch, where we stayed the night before catching an early morning flight the next morning to go back to Sydney. I wish we had had even more time to explore New Zealand, although I guess now I have a wonderful excuse to go back. For now, though, it is on to the next adventure- the Whitsunday Islands with my lovely mom!