Diving The Great Barrier Reef, Sydney New Years, and New Zealand


When the boys were young we had a cassette tape (remember those) of Australian kid songs. One of their favorites was “Christmas in Australia” that listed the joys of having Christmas in the middle of summer with typical Australian humor. As we set our plans to travel the world it made sense to spend Christmas in Australia and of course New Years in Sydney, ideally under Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Thirty years ago I spent 4 months as a “ringer” on an outback cattle ranch, riding horses everyday and hearding cattle on a 300,000 ranch. I finished my time in Australia by driving to Cairns and meeting my mom from whom I get much of my adventurous spirit. The two of us spent a few days on Heron Island out on the Great Barrier Reef.

Heron is a magical little 40 acre island that juts a few feet above sea level. The bird life is incredible and you can walk and dive the reef within meters of the shore.

From Australia we traveled to New Zealand where we “went mobile” living in a camper van.

Coming from Asia, we suffered some first world shocks but also enjoyed the benefits of traffic laws, ease of communication, and lack of humidity.

New Zealand and “Stan the Van”

After months of youth hostels and cheap hotels we stepped up the quality of our lodging with a move into an RV in New Zealand. We arrived in Auckland late in the evening from Melbourne and spent the night in the equivalent of a Motel 6 motor lodge near the airport before an early morning taxi to the RV rental facility.

The boys settled in to read and “guard” the luggage while Aleix and I signed a stack of forms. We decided against “blown over” insurance. Insurance to cover the cost of damage when high winds blow you off the road and the vehicle onto its side. I questioned the wisdom of our decision a week later when we were hit with howling cross winds on the South Island.  The RV handled like a sailing dingy on the Monterey Bay under a wind advisory.

An impressively efficient operation Maui RV processes hundreds of folks each morning who arrive, usually direct from the airport via a Maui shuttle, and within about an hour go forth onto the roads of New Zealand in vehicles bigger than anything they have driven, most of them “on the wrong side of the road.”

If you have driven on the “other side” you recognize the highest risk and most confusing moments occur when making a turn, whether in a congested city or a rural intersection with no traffic, and no signage. On past trips in the UK we established the “Hodges turn safety system” which consists of Bryce and Colin repeating the mantra, “left side, left side, left side” through the turn, much like the ding of a turn indicator. It sounds ridiculous, I admit, but it saved us on several occasions. Once confident I am headed to the correct lane, I say, “got it.” The boys stop and await the next opportunity to protect us from head on collisions.

The checkout procedure on the RV entails a 10-minute tour of its quirks by an 18-year-old college student employed by Maui for the summer. He demonstrated how to add water, empty the waste, operate the stove, and start the heater. He also emphasized that the handbrake is THE parking brake. Without the brake engaged the RV would roll…until something stopped it. Apparently a common problem. I took the opportunity to ask, “What is the wildest story you have about renters and their failures?”

His response: “I would not believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself. We had a couple from China rent a fairly large RV. As they drove away a colleague looking out of the plate glass window at the front of our building let out a shout. I turned in time to see the RV jump the curb on the access road and roll into the field until it came to a stop. The couple got out; the supervisor and a couple of the other guys walked out to see what had happened. With much hand waving, pointing, and nodding, the renter got across that the cruise control hadn’t worked. He engaged it then got out of the driver’s seat and stepped into the back to help his wife make tea. Shortly thereafter the RV jumped the curb.”

Wishing to not add to future stories collected by the Maui rental staff, we loaded the van, which the boys christened “Stan the van,” and headed to a nearby grocery store for supplies.

Over the subsequent two weeks, Stan would carry us over thousands of kilometers around the South Island, along the coast, via ferry to the North Island, and finally into Auckland.

With long summer days we drove into sunsets that seemed to last hours, explored beaches free of people, experienced the solitude of the open road and a refreshing sense of isolation late at night under the stars far from cell phone coverage and the sounds of mankind.