Christmas Road Trip: Part 1

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The Nugget Point Lighthouse

For my 10 day break from teaching in Christchurch, I took a 10 day road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. I headed south from Christchurch and spent a couple of days in the Catlins, then spent a rainy Christmas day in Bluff. This part of the country is less heavily touristed than most others and I was able to do quite a bit of sightseeing and hiking in relative tranquility. Highlights of the first few days were the Moeraki Boulders, Nugget Point, the trio of waterfalls (Purakaunui, Mclean, and Matai), and hiking in Bluff. There are amazing birds and flowers as well as spectacular ocean views from the Bluff lookout.

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Litchfield National Park

The view from above of Florence Falls - complete with rainbow - in Litchfield National Park

The view from above of Florence Falls – complete with rainbow – in Litchfield National Park

The final stop on my 10-day tour of the Top End a few weeks ago was Litchfield National Park, a popular weekend getaway for Darwin residents and home to loads of glorious waterfalls and swimming holes. Of course I took advantage of as many walking tracks as I could, one of which winds for about 5km along Florence Creek in relative peace and quiet.

Another highlight of Litchfield is seeing the incredible magnetic terminte mounds. These termites use the magnetic forces of the earth to orient their cathedrals to optimize exposure to the sun. And, of course, the above ground portions of the nests are a gigantic 2+ meters high.

At the end of this tour I settled in Darwin to begin a job for five months – I need to recoup a lot of the money I’ve spent in Australia! It certainly isn’t as cheap here as it was in Asia and South America, and I don’t even want to share how much I’ve been spending. So my blog may be quiet for the coming months, but I’ve got a big trip to WA planned in December and I’ll be sure get my camera ready.

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Edith Falls

The view of Edith Falls from Leliyn Lookout in Nitmiluk National Park

The view of Edith Falls from Leliyn Lookout in Nitmiluk National Park

North of Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park is Edith Falls, a cascading set of waterfalls and plunge pools. There is a short walking path that goes up to a lookout over the upper pool, as well as several longer walking paths which I didn’t have the opportunity to do. As usual there were plenty of beautiful flowers and interesting critters around to ogle. This was the last stop on the leg of the tour up to Darwin and the scenery was getting greener and greener.

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A Weekend in Pai

A view of the hills of Pai

A view of the hills of Pai

From Chiang Mai it’s just a 3-4 hour bus ride up to Pai, a small mountain town filled surrounded by waterfalls and hot springs. I spent a few nights there as a break from Chiang Mai and had a lovely time staying in a quiet bungalow with resident chickens. I rented a motorbike for the first time ever and drove on the left – also for the first time ever! It was a challenge, and in retrospect it may not have been entirely smart to go off by myself for the day, but I survived the experience.

I loved hiking in the Muang Pai stone forest – a site that’s not commonly mentioned among backpackers but I saw some signs on the road near the elephant camps so decided to stop. The changing colors of the leaves and the crunch of the winter ground reminded me a lot of hiking back home. That is, I was reminded of home until I stumbled upon a bunch of banana trees!

I also had a fun night celebrating Australia Day at SpicyPai hostel. There was a delicious BBQ and good company. Nobody, though, not even the Australians, could explain what Australia Day actually is.

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Laos Roundup

A tuk tuk in Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk in Luang Prabang

I spent 21 days in Laos and an average of $25 per day. I have been slowing down considerably, largely due to travel fatigue as well as budget constraints. I only saw four places in Laos: Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the Kong Lor Cave, and the 4,000 Islands. Highlights include learning about the Secret War, taking a cooking class, and simply relaxing and not worrying too much about my next steps.

I had some difficulties in Laos, most notably losing my ATM card on my very first day in the country. Entirely my fault, I simply forgot to take my card out of the machine after withdrawing money. The experience wasn’t too terrible, though, as it gave me an excuse to linger in Luang Prabang longer than I might have otherwise, visiting sights like the Tad Thong waterfalls. I also had my faith restored in Schwab (the only bank you should use if you are traveling abroad) and FedEx, miraculously receiving a new card less than two weeks after I lost it, virtually halfway around the world.

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Relaxing on the 4,000 Islands

Sunset viewed from Don Det, 4000 Islands

Sunset viewed from Don Det, 4,000 Islands

The 4,000 islands at the southern tip of Laos on the Mekong are known for sucking travelers in and holding them far longer than they’d anticipated. The easy lifestyle, good food, and gorgeous sunsets account for this, as well as the beautiful scenery and friendly locals (both Lao and expat). I spent nearly a week here, enjoying some long walks on Don Det and Don Khon as well as fishing and kayaking trips. There are some impressive waterfalls in the area, too.

The biggest attraction, though, is probably the sunsets. Every night I saw colors that are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, even rivaling Iceland’s summer sky. Grabbing a hammock in front of a bungalow on the sunset side of Don Det, lemonade in hand, was the best part of my day.

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Tad Thong Waterfalls and Ban Houay Thong

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

A woman and her grandson at Ban Houay Thong Village

One of the best days I spent in Luang Prabang was visiting the Tad Thong Waterfalls and National Park. The trip is less popular than Kuang Si, but just as enjoyable and far more tranquil.  It’s only 6km outside of the town center and is easily reached by bicycle.

The main draw here is a circular jungle trek which passes several small waterfalls and interesting trees and flowers. However, the best part of the area is the village of Ban Houay Thong, which is uphill from the jungle trek on a narrow, dirt path. There you will find friendly locals and lots of puppies. I wish I had brought some books from Big Brother Mouse to give the children, but unfortunately I was unprepared.

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