Friday, December 9, 2016

Stephen's journey to the other side of the world - By Stephen Signor

Editor’s Note: Reporter Stephen Signor traveled to Australia and New Zealand last year. His adventures could inspire you to get out there to see the world.

It was around this time just a year ago that I embarked on a mission to lessen the contents of my bucket list. My endeavor would last five months, encompass 31 cities, 40 hostel stays, the exploration of 10 islands and hiking within countless national parks. One of those National Parks was Michaelmas Cay. As one of only two cays of the Great Barrier Reef this natural habitat and sanctuary, the most important in the Southern Hemisphere, is home to over 23 species of seabirds and when the time is right, green sea turtles.
Composed of vegetation and sand, the beach also offered the opportunity to take in the turquoise, warm waters of the Coral Sea. Snorkeling or diving offered spectacular views of the outer reef, to which I took advantage of; truly mesmerizing.
The return trip to the mainland provided an added bonus, at least for me. The untimely loss of power aboard the touring catamaran would lead to heading back, at least temporarily, under sail power. Without being able to cut through the increasing height of the seas, the deck of the boat was constantly under attack. While others sought the cover inside the spacious cabin, I remained clinging to the bow of the craft, getting completely drenched with every crashing wave. Combined with the sun, and the captain’s thumbs up approval of my enduring the onslaught, it was a welcomed, unexpected thrill!
With the Barrier Reef behind me I looked forward to my next adventure, Tasmania. Chosen because of my passion for hiking, this too would not disappoint. As one of Australia’s most famous hiking trails, The Overland Track is situated in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. Although listed as an 8-day hike it would only take me 6. It wasn’t from being rushed for time. It was the rush I felt from the experience that compelled me to continue along duckboard laden and natural paths until the sun set.
Each day offered something new visually and physically. In a single hike, I experienced trekking through forests, across meadows and into mountain passes. Because of this, the weather changed on a moment’s notice. One minute I was wearing a jacket, the next it was rain gear or no shirt at all. Of course along the way I encountered indigenous wildlife on several occasions, from wombats grazing at arm’s length when I began the trail, to black snakes that at one point blocked my passage, to a pair of shy platypuses in an inlet of Lake St. Claire, my finish line.
Back on the mainland, the journey would take me up the east coast. Each city offered an array of local activities and tourist attractions. The most unique sight however was neither. In Cairns (cans) the trees of its streets are filled with grey headed flying foxes, thousands of them. Locals were used to them hanging around but I found it quite a spectacle to watch them take off at dusk and return at dawn. This was not on my list, but fascinating to experience.
Then there was Ayers Rock or what is referred to as Uluru by locals and Aboriginals. It is truly an amazing sight. Its presence is almost mythical as it rises 1,142 feet out of the lowlands in the southern part of the Northern Territory. Located 208 miles from the nearest city of Alice Springs, this island mountain offered an up close and personal encounter. Close observation revealed natural depressions and those created from erosion. Varying in size, some were large enough to walk into, revealing ancient drawings. At night this attraction was just as spectacular. With the sunset disappearing behind me this vantage point offered the spectacle of Uluru as it changed several shades of red eventually fading into brown.
The time I would have to reflect on this experience was spent camping not far away in another remote area of the outback for the next few nights with a tour group. It was here I would relax in my sleeping bag under a blanket of constellations’ I have never seen. One in particular was the Southern Cross, only visible in the Southern Hemisphere. In the distance the cry of dingoes were barely heard over the crackling fire that offered warmth and a sense of security. It is with these visions sleep would eventually find its way into my altered state of mind.
I saw and experience so much more in the three months I spent in Australia. Visiting its museums I gained a greater knowledge of its people, especially the plight of the Aborigines’. But it was time to take my adventure to the next level. My preordained plans had included the north and south islands of New Zealand.
Touching down in Christchurch on the north island was surreal, a different kind of experience. It was more of a lesson in humanity and the confirmation that life goes on. On February 22, 2011, a 6.3 earthquake leveled most of the city. While visiting, remnants of the disaster still existed. The city continues to undergo a complete rebuilding as if starting from scratch. Businesses in the hard hit areas were conducting services and peddling their wares out of converted shipping containers.
To the south my stay in Whanganui provided access to Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage Site because it hosts Maori tribal sites and three active volcanoes. But it was the Alpine Crossing within the park and its iconic Emerald Lakes that drew me here. A 7-hour hike, it is widely regarded as one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand.  Although treacherous and physically demanding at times, the effort paid huge dividends. Eating lunch from my backpack atop of Mangatepopo Saddle between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro was rewarding by panoramic views, an active crater and old lava flows.
Next up was the south island. It was a 2-hour passage from Wellington to Picton through Cook Strait which connects the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean.  Listed as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world, it was obvious why. Sheer cliffs, rolling hills and secluded bays lined both shorelines. Passing through Queen Charlotte Sound’s scenery was also breath taking,
From Picton my travels took me to yet another hike, The Ben Lomond in Queenstown. This mountain reaches an altitude of 5,735 feet above sea level and offered spectacular views. It’s an 8-hour hike round trip but once I reached the summit the 360 degree view of lakes and ranges of the Southern Alps in the distance was mind boggling. Another great lunch location!
Last, but certainly not least, was Franz Josef Glacier on the south island’s west coast. While I did not step foot on this temperate glacier, I was afforded close and spectacular views from Alex Knob. At 4,275 feet via an 8-hour day hike, the winding path up offered different vantage points that highlighted this remarkable creation of nature.
Two months of taking in New Zealand’s iconic scenery finally came to an end. While I may be back physically, in my mind I never left.

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