Zealandia

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A photogenic kakariki (parakeet) at Zealandia in Wellington

I visited Wellington for a long weekend and a major highlight was Zealandia, a 555-acre conservation project up in the hills. There are tons of bird species and several kilometers worth of walking tracks to explore. Though the center of the site can get quite busy, if you walk far enough you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’ve gone back in time. The sanctuary is surrounded by a fence to keep out predators. I saw the following bird species: hihi, bush pigeons, kakariki, brown teal ducks, and blackbirds, among others.

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Christchurch Botanic Gardens

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A flower in the Cunningham House

One of the touristy highlights of Christchurch is the sprawling, 50-acre Botanic Gardens next to Hagley Park, right in the center of town. My favorite part of the gardens was the Cunningham House, which has a tropical collection of plants from all over the world. There is also an “Erica Garden”! You can easily spend a couple hours wandering around and getting lost in your thoughts.

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The Everglades

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A view of the Everglades from the boardwalk at Kirby Storter Roadside Park

The Everglades is a 1.5 million acre swath of wetlands in Southern Florida. There are two main highways that cut through the preserve – the Tamiami (Tampa to Miami) and I-75 (Alligator Alley). Tamiami is generally considered the more touristic way to see the sites, as there are several stops with walking paths along the way. It’s easy to see alligators most times of year and there are tons of bird species as well. My favorite walking path was at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park as it was a bit quieter and more secluded than the other areas. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there are also extended walking trails for longer camping trips.

The little town of Ochopee is a nice stop along the way if you’re doing a road trip. You can see the smallest post office in the United States and grab lunch at Joanie’s Blue Crab, a divey local joint with lots of fried seafood on offer.

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The Coast Walk at Royal National Park

The iconic wedding cake rock on the coast walk in Royal National Park

The iconic wedding cake rock on the coast walk in Royal National Park

The very last stop on my ten month trip through Australia was, finally, Sydney and the surrounding area. I met up with an old travel friend and he insisted we go on the Coast Walk in Royal National Park, which is just south of Sydney. We didn’t have time (or energy, frankly) to do the entire 26k trek, but we did about a third of it. There are gorgeous cliffs, a huge variety of plant and animal life, and swimming holes along the way.

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Crocodile Cruise on the Mary River

A saltwater crocodile sunbathing on the bank of the Mary River

A saltwater crocodile sunbathing on the bank of the Mary River

The third and final leg of my Top End tour focused on the national parks surrounding Darwin – mainly Kakadu and Litchfield. The area is renowned for its waterfalls, swimming holes, ancient rock art and… crocodiles! Mary River is is one of the most densely croc-inhabited places in the world, a statistic that you realize is not exaggerated once you’re out on the water. In just our 90 minute boat trip we saw about a dozen of the giant creatures. We also saw glorious birds (of course) and beautiful lotus flowers, which unfortunately are considered a pest in the area since they were brought in from Asia and are not endemic.

The tour was really educational as we learned about the crocodiles’ mating habits and why they are built they way they are (hint: almost every detail helps them stay cool!).

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Katherine Gorge / Nitmiluk National Park

The view from Baruwei Lookout, part of a 5k bushwalking trail at Katherine Gorge

The view from Baruwei Lookout, part of a 5k bushwalking trail at Katherine Gorge

Driving up from Alice Springs, the red rocks and sand suddenly turn into more familiar greenery and the air stops feeling so terribly dry. It’s just past this point where you will find the bustling town of Katherine (pop. 10,000) and the beautiful Katherine Gorge – known to aboriginals as Nitmiluk. Our group was able to do the 5k Baruwei loop walk which passes through a magnificent lookout over the gorge. As usual there is loads of interesting plant and wildlife, including wild cockatoos and tons of flying foxes.

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