Te Anau Glowworm Caves

Enchanting and magical. That’s the only way I can describe what it felt like to be inside the caves.

We booked a tour with Real Journeys when we got to Te Anau, but I’d recommend booking in advance as for safety reasons only a certain amount of people can be taken into the caves at one time. In saying this, there are multiple departures per day, so chances are you won’t be disappointed.

One pleasant surprise was that we had to take a scenic 20-30 cruise across Lake Te Anau, complete with running commentary on the area, to get to the caves. Although it was windy, standing on the deck getting blown about was worth it to see the towering mountains and lush greenery surrounding us. I feel like such a snob when I say the lake did not impress me. After seeing the vibrant blue lakes and rivers like Tekapo and Shotover, this was just another lake. I fear so many lakes will never live up to the high expectations I have after seeing the others.

We choose to be the last group to go into the caves so we could listen and watch the presentation before we went into the caves. I’d definitely recommend doing this so you know what you are seeing in the caves. On second thought, if I went into the caves first I would have remained blissfully ignorant to the fact those shining lights are actually part of a maggot . Seeing photos and videos of these … maggots … with the lights on revealed them in all their slimy, wormy, mucusy, hungry, territorial and cannibalistic glory, and to be honest, it was gross.

The worms glow to attract moths and other food sources to their light. These creatures become dinner after they get caught in the worms paralysing silk fishing line with little drops of mucus which look like tiny glass raindrops. These little works then suck the intestines out of poor little moth like a milkshake, letting the moth carcass fall to the floor. I was terrified a dead moth was going to fall on my face.

But all these thoughts drifted away as soon as I entered the cave. Or crawled. The entrance is very low & the guides advised us to adopt the most fantastic phrase “hand before head.”

It’s dark almost immediately. You can feel the dampness in the air. The water gushes and crashes and echoes against the walls. It is a young cave and there are no stalactites or stalagmites, save for a tiny one about the length of a matchstick named Percy, but this doesn’t make it any less impressive. If anything, it’s even more fascinating being inside a cave that is still being formed with each liter of water that rushes through.

But the most spectacular of all? The stars of the show – the glowworms.

We get to a tiny boat and fill in. It’s pitch black. Our guide puts a finger to her lips, points to the roof and turns of her torch. Suddenly it feels like I’m outside in a field looking up at the stars. There are hundreds and hundreds of little blue lights, no bigger than a pinprick. Some glow brightly whilst others barely create a light. Some are gathered in huge clusters whilst others are alone. Dad described it as looking at large cities compared to tiny country towns at night. It’s magical. Water drips and some drops fall on my head. I can hear the nearby waterfall thundering. It’s deafening and terrifying as I have no idea where it is. It sounds like it is surrounding me. I also have no idea how our boat is moving but despite my curiosity I just let it go and go back to watching the galaxies above.

The peace and the magic ends far too quickly. I could have sat there for hours and hours. We’re off the boat and walking out of the cave and then back on the boat to Te Anau, but I’m still with those lights. I couldn’t wait to go to bed, close my eyes and pretend I am still in that cave.

Magical and enchanting. Far too short, I could have spent all 2 1/4 hours of the tour inside the cave, but spectacular and worth a visit nonetheless.

For the benefit of other visitors and the glowworms there are no photos allowed, so you’ll just have to go and visit yourself!!!

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Delicious Gluten Free Lunch in Twizel

I wanted to go to Twizel simply for the name.

Twizel is in the Mackenzie district in the Cantebury region of New Zealand’s South Island. There’s not much here, but there are a few nice cafes and a petrol station and it’s the closest town to Mt Cook.

After having walked to Hooker Valley and admired the beauty of Mt Cook, we, well when I say we I really mean my brother, were absolutely famished.

Eating should be an entertaining part of traveling, but as a coeliac, I often find it a burden. I had low expectations for this tiny town.

We went to a lovely cafe called Shawty’s. There were no gluten free options on the menu they had on display outside, so I’d resigned myself to some water & crackers. You can imagine my delight when I opened up the menu and they had gluten free pizza bases!!!

Each of us got a pizza & when the waiter bought them out he put one down in front of us until I asked, “Is this one definitely gluten free?” He hesitated and luckily said he’d go and check. Sure enough one was and all of us could tell he wasn’t lying as my base was evidently smaller, thinner and dryer. It’s always reassuring when gluten free food comes out looking like gluten free food!

It was amazing! The base was flavoursome & crunchy. The cheese was oozing, there were real tomatoes, not just paste, and the pesto was bright green and full of flavour. Without a doubt, one of the best gluten free pizzas I’ve ever had! They are difficult to find! It even came out on a wooden tray, one of my favourite things!

Shawty’s – thanks for providing a cheap and delicious gluten free option. You made my day!

If you’re in Mt Cook, Twizel is a great lunch alternative then the expensive hotel and cafe there. If you’re coeliac, get the pizza!!!

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I won a $1000 Jetstar Voucher – Hello New Zealand

Earlier this year when I should have been working on an essay, I stumbled upon a Jetstar competition. Jetstar, an Australian budget airline, were celebrating their 10th birthday and were asking people to recreate a holiday snap.

I found this at 11.30 & the competition closed at 12. I threw my essay aside, raced to my room, put my bikini top on, pulled my stuffed dolphin from under my bed, hoped in the bathtub & took a quick selfie.

A few weeks later, I got an email saying out of thousands of entries, I was one of the 10 winners and a $1000 voucher was all mine! I couldn’t believe it and burst out laughing in the middle of the cafe I was in which attracted some strange looks. I still didn’t believe it even when the voucher got sent to me!

Oh the places I could go! Hawaii, Japan, around Australia, New Zealand?!?!

Being the kind daughter I am, I thought of mum & dad who work so hard & have not had a holiday in years. My younger brother finished his final year of school last in November and realistically it is probably unlikely we will ever holiday together again. The last holiday we went on was over 10 years ago and we have never been overseas. It took a fair bit of convincing & persuasion from dad and I, but finally mum agreed and we booked return flights, or rather redeemed our voucher, to go Melbourne – Christchurch.

Alas, here we are in New Zealand!

Thank you so much Jetstar. I will be forever grateful for you allowing me to spend this precious time with my family.

It’s Time to Explore My Own Country: Uluru!

Am I a bad Australian? I’ve travelled extensively around Europe but I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own country. I have no idea why as there are so many beautiful and unique places to explore. And it’s way cheaper than flying overseas considering Australia is so far away from anywhere!

So to make amends I asked for a plane ticket to Uluru for my birthday. Jetstar were having a sale and I got a return flight for just over $200. Bargain!

I fly out tomorrow morning bright and early and I’m staying 3 nights. I’m planning to explore Uluru and the Olgas, enjoy the sunshine, read by the pool, go for walks (maybe … it’s meant to be really hot which is probably why the tickets were so cheap. I’ll report back on whether going to the desert in summer is a good idea or not …) and take a day trip to King’s Canyon.

I can’t wait!

 

Preparing For Solo Travel

When people find out I have travelled alone or am about to travel alone, they are always shocked. “But aren’t you scared?” “Is it safe?” “Don’t you get bored?” “Is it lonely?” A little bit, yes, never, sometimes.

I think of my progression to solo travel as a journey in itself. I certainly didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to book a trip to some remote, exotic place alone. I am super impressed by the people who do this! I started my adventures with people I knew and then gradually progressed down the ranks to solo.

My first trip was on exchange to France when I was 16 (2009), although ‘exchange’ is a loose term. I always wanted to go into a family for a month or 6 weeks and I’d even started planning everything but I knew deep down I was far too scared. My school offered a French Exchange which consisted of a group of 21 girls (I went to a girls school. Don’t worry the school didn’t only choose girls for this exchange and exclude the boys!) and 3 teachers going for 3 1/2 weeks: 11 days with a family and going to school in Bordeaux, 7 days of travel (La Rochelle, Amboise, Villers-Bretonneux, Amiens, Bayeux), a weekend with another family in a tiny country village in the North and 3 days in Paris. Mum and I went to the information night out of curiosity and came away thinking it was just a fancy holiday. Well surprise, surprise, the day the applications closed I came to school late as I was frantically completing the application in the car with Mum. I got accepted and 6 months later away I went.

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It wasn’t an authentic exchange but I still had a fantastic time. The 11 days at school and with the family was utterly terrifying but my French improved so much. I can only imagine how good it would have been if I stayed longer! The days travelling with the other girls was great fun! Just imagine 21 school girls running around Paris together! It was the perfect balance of history, French lessons and practice and a little bit of free time where we got to stretch our wings and experience overseas freedom (but still have the teachers just a phone call away if there was a crisis).

The next trip I took was on my gap year (2011). My grandparents were always on overseas adventures and after returning from one my Granma told me one day she would go overseas with me. I certainly didn’t forget this. When I started planning my trip I asked her to come with me. She laughed. I reminded her of her promise. “You were 12, you weren’t meant to remember that.” I hassled her for months and eventually she caved. But she had conditions – “We are not backpacking, I’m too old for that. We are doing a tour where they pick up your bags and take them to your room.” Fine by me!

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Outside Mozart’s House – Salzburg, Austria

I always expected Granma would take charge. Upon arrival at Frankfurt airport I looked at her expectantly. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve never been to Frankfurt. I have no idea how to get to the hotel.” The role of responsibility fell to me. We spent 15 unforgettable days on a Globus ‘Alpine Countries’ tour in Germany, Austria and Switzerland before I made my next ‘progression.’

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Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, Italy

We left the safety of the tour and the two of us, alone, went to Berlin and Prague for 4 days each. Next we flew to London where I met up with my close friend and Granma flew home.

After we said goodbye to Granma at the airport, we ran around Heathrow Airport and the streets of London overwhelmed with independence. Reality came crashing down when we got to our hostel … Piccadilly Backpackers. It still to this day is the worst place I have ever stayed and that’s not just because t was nothing like the 4 star hotels I’d grown accustomed to. Suddenly I was terrified. How were two 19 year old girls going to get around Europe for 6 weeks? Obviously we survived England, France and Italy and we had the best time. These are still some of the best memories of my life.

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The next year (2012) I had plans to go to NYC with some girls from school. I had a feeling they would both bail and so I had a back up plan. My gut instinct was right and as soon as I got the text message from both of them saying they didn’t want to go, I drove to the travel agent and booked a trip to the UK. It was going to be my first time entirely alone and to reassure my Mum I jumped on a tour for part of it. I really didn’t need to and wish I hadn’t as the UK has got to be one of the safest and easiest places to get around. The minute I walked through the gate at the airport I freaked out and sent a message to my friend I had travelled with which I think said something along the lines of “What am I doing? Help!” as I sat and had a sneaky teary moment in the bathroom. I had nothing to worry about.

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Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

In 2013 I went a little further off the beaten track and did Eastern Europe (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia). I had no one to come with me so I went alone again. I did book a tour for part of it as I didn’t feel comfortable doing Bulgaria and Serbia entirely alone. I felt so at ease travelling alone by now that I spent most of the time exploring away from the tour anyway and simply used it as an easy means of transport.

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I hiked up part of this mountain in Brasov, Romania

This all prepared me for the 3 1/2 months I spent living and studying in Italy last year and the solo trips I took to Turkey and Belgium on my Christmas break.

People ask why I don’t go with friends. If I had willing friends who could afford it I’d certainly go with them. Sometimes it is lonely but most of the time you meet so many like-minded people and end up forming some great friends. There have also been plenty of moments when I have been standing outside something amazing and wished I had someone to share that moment with or wished I had some help navigating language barriers or train networks. But I also love not having to negotiate or compromise with anyone. If I want to spend 3 hours in a gallery I can! I think I might struggle a little when I go to New Zealand with my family and Europe with the friends I met in Italy next year!

My advice to other solo travellers? Don’t let lack of company stop you! It’s good to go outside your comfort zone. If you are unsure start with something you feel comfortable with and progress like I did. How much you push the boundaries is up to you. It might be hard but it will also be unforgettable, life changing and teach you so much about yourself.

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Trauma and Memorial Tourism

There is something that attracts humans to disaster.

When a building is burning or someone is falling from a bridge, it is like there has been a spell cast that makes it physically impossible to avert your eyes. You see it all the time; when there’s a car crash other cars slow down so they can get a look and often the crowds outside a disaster zone have to be barricaded by police.

Does the same apply to trauma and memorial tourism?

I’d describe memorial tourism as visiting places of famous battles, disasters, wars or unfortunate events. One place that immediately comes to mind is Auschwitz in Poland or for Australians, Gallipoli in Turkey.

Personally I find it very distasteful that such places have been turned into tourist attractions. And yes, I did just use the word ‘attraction.’ I think something becomes an attraction when there are tours, lots of advertising, steep admission fees and large lines and crowds. In Turkey there are advertisements for Gallipoli and day trips to take you there from Istanbul. In Berlin in the midst of summer you can’t get anywhere near the Berlin Wall because there are so many people taking photos of it.

I’m not trying to be a travel grinch and say let’s forbid travel to these places I just want to look at what is happening. When we ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the Berlin Wall, we are ohhing and ahhing at a wall that used to separate a nation. When we snap our cameras at Auschwitz we are taking pictures of a place where innocent people were tortured, imprisoned and murdered. Would we go and take pictures of the house in the local neighbourhood where an innocent child was murdered? Or book a tour to a nightclub where a group of young boys got into a fight and subsequently all died?

Perhaps it comes down to numbers, If 20 000 people die in a place, should we put up a plaque and charge an entry fee?

Maybe it’s a patriotic thing? I’m not a real, true Australian unless I visit Gallipoli and see where my ancestors fought and died for my freedom. If this is the case, do you think in 50 years we will be visiting sites from the Iraq and Afghanistan war?

In saying all of this, I am being a hypocrite as I have visited some of these sites. These are my memories:

They make me cry:

Driving through the Somme Valley in Autumn and feeling the freezing wind bought me to tears as I imagined all the soldiers freezing to death.

They touched my heart:

I was invited to have lunch at a school in Villers Bretonneux simply because I was a young Australian learning French and they wanted to show their respects as Aussie soldiers saved their village in World War II. It was such a beautiful and kind gesture. Being taken to the Australian cemetery after lunch and seeing uncountable little white crosses left me numb and speechless for the rest of the afternoon.

They make me grateful for what I have:

Standing in the trenches in Gallipoli in the middle of winter and remembering everything I have been taught about the war in history is really an eye-opening experience. I don’t take many pictures. I don’t talk about where we are going in the afternoon or what we are having for lunch. I just stay in the present moment and appreciate my life because who knows when everything I love might come crashing down.

They make me empathetic to others struggling: 

I go to these places to understand more about what went on and to pay respects to those who have suffered. I go to learn about what I, individually, and as humans, can do to stop persecution and learn and respect one another.

I still don’t entirely agree with the tourism aspect of these places. Instead I really value how the Polish run Auschwitz for example. There is no entry fee as they don’t want to make it an ‘attraction’ and strongly encourage people to come and pay their respects and learn more about what happened.

Respect and learning. That’s what it really comes down to.

What are your thoughts on this type of tourism? Have you or would you visit these places? How do they make you feel? Do you think in 50 years we will be visiting places that are currently in crisis? 

The best and strangest place I’ve eaten – Marchfelderhof, Vienna

My dinner at Marchfelderhof was memorable and unique but also a little bizarre.

IMG_4110Marchfelderhof is an old hunting lodge located in Deutsch-Wagram, 30 minutes from Vienna. Although it is a little out of town, it is well worth the drive. I was on a Globus, Alpine Countries tour with my Granma and as dinner wasn’t included that night, our tour guide strongly recommended we join this optional tour. He didn’t give much more information than “you need to see it to believe it” and “you won’t regret it.”

On the bus trip there, our tour guide got us to shout out famous people we would like to have dinner with and shouted back “Yes,” or “No,” depending whether they had dined at Marchfelderhof or not. My suggestion, Cosimo de’Medici, got an emphatic no (understandable as he couldn’t travel through time) and I consequently got interrogated on why I wanted to have dinner with a manipulative murderer. I told you my Renaissance and Medieval history degree had a huge influence on my travels!

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Our bus pulled up opposite an old hunting lodge with an Austrian flag saying “Welcome Friends, Welcome Home,” out the front as well as waiters cheering and waving. One of them stepped onto the main road and held up a stop sign whilst another rolled a red carpet across the road. We crossed the road/strutted the red carpet in style and one of the ladies from our tour got selected to pick up the scissors from a cushion and cut the red ribbon amidst a rousing fanfare. A true VIP entrance!

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Inside, it got even better. Anything and everything you could ever imagine was displayed on the ceiling, on the floor and on the walls, making it a cross between a museum and a hoarders lair. There were collections of rolling pins, wooden prams, pointe shoes, rocking horses, framed pictures of famous people who had visited, Emperor Franz Josef’s clothes, the list goes on and on.

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We were shown to our table and greeted with complimentary schnapps in test tubes, which were equally cute and strong! The menu was traditional Austrian, but once I saw Wiener Schnitzel I stopped reading! Yum yum yum!

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Next stop was a quick, well it was intended to be quick, trip to be the bathroom. The collection of odd bits and bobs continued in here. Tubes and bottles and cans of face cream, hairspray and toothpaste lined the shelves, hair dryers and bird cages hung from the roof and inside the cubicle there were countless mirrors (just what we all want when we are in the loo!) and books. Needless to say this wasn’t a quick trip. There was just so much to try, look at and read!

IMG_4127  IMG_4133As I came out I bumped into a lady from my tour loitering outside the male bathroom. She quickly informed me that she was waiting for someone to exit so she go and see what curious items decorated the walls. I joined her. So did about 6 other ladies from our tour. As soon as the man left, we looked around to make sure no one was around and then stormed inside, giggling like little school girls. We weren’t the only ladies! Framed pictures of pin up dolls lined the walls. Suddenly our tour guide burst in behind us, also laughing. Apparently we gave the waiters quite a fright and they were wondering if everything was ok with the female bathrooms as we had all rushed into the males with such urgency!

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Dinner was lovely. I was a little concerned that my food was going to be dry considering how many people were in the restaurant, but I had nothing to fear! People come here not only for the memorabilia but for good, traditional food as well!

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After dinner things got even crazier. I was chatting to some people on my table and enjoying a Viennese coffee when someone came in and told me my Granma was in trouble. I jumped up and ran to the outdoor terrace. Trouble alright! She was dancing with a Russian man named Boris. Boris could barely speak any english but he got his message across pretty clearly: he was quite smitten by Granma. As I came running in, Granma stopped dancing to introduce me to him, but he clearly was not interested in me which he made very clear by chanting “No. No. No. Granny, Granny, Granny.” Granma informed me she had been minding her own business and exploring the restaurant when she had ‘accidentally’ crashed the Russian’s party. Within a few minutes, Boris had pulled out a wooden box that was overflowing with 50 euro notes and tried to give it to Granma as a ‘gift.’ That’s when I walked in.

IMG_4140“Boris wants you to know, he thinks your Granny is very pretty,” his translator told me.

“Granny, Granny, Granny,” Boris piped in.

“He owns a big house.”

“Big!!!” He gestured.

“With lots of chickens.”

“Chickens!!” He mimed being a chicken.

“He owns an electricity company.”

“Make me very rich. Money all for Granny. Granny be wife.”

At that point, Granma pulled her hand away and exclaimed “But I’m married,” to which all of his friends cracked up laughing and Boris proceeded to chant “Granny,” again.

Granma promised him she’d be back, but she really wanted her coffee. She’s got her priorities right! He linked arms with her and escorted her back to our table.

IMG_4145We desperately started plotting how to get back to the bus at the end of the night without Boris stealing her to become his Russian bride. All our plans failed. As we started to leave the restaurant, he came running after us, yes chanting again, but this time added in “USA, USA, USA.” This was the biggest insult possible to my true-blue Australian Granma.

“No Granny for you Boris,” she chuckled as she stormed past him onto the bus.

This didn’t defer him. To the shock of my tour guide and bus driver he climbed aboard after her and presented her with a red balloon that had love written in 20 different languages. Granma happily accepted her gift and then told him to find someone else. He responded with some suggestive movements and then waved and blew kisses as we drove away.

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Marchfelderhof is truly a little gem. Good food, good decor, good service and ummm interesting people! If only I had found myself a European husband!! Why does my married Granma get all the attention?!

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