Australia Oceania

Sojourn in Sydney

My final stop on this trip was Sydney! This had been the entire goal of the trip, actually. One of my good friends recently moved down to Australia for work, so I wanted to go visit her, which led to planning PNG and Vanuatu and let me lock in the rest of my travel across Oceania.

At the tail end of a month of travel, after 15 flights and time spent in 4 other countries, I was tired. So this part of the trip was a little more relaxed – I went to the office and met up with a lot of my colleagues from the Australian office, and we went out for dinner and drinks and even a pizza making class for our team activity! I had lucked out on the timing, and so it happened while I was there.

They also told me to go to the zoo! Apparently, we could request corporate passes as a perk, so I put my name in the spreadsheet and left the office a little early and I got to go to the Sydney Zoo for free. It was right at the end of the day so I didn’t have a ton of time, but I did get to see all the Australian animals. The view from the zoo is also pretty amazing!

I took a lot of ferries while I was in Sydney. My friend lives in the Manly Beach area. It means that her main way to commute to the office is by ferry, which seems way nicer! I loved the fresh air and the views, particularly around sunset and in the evening. Her commute always started or ended with the Opera House, which was so beautiful.

I had one full free day while I was there, so we spent it mostly in the Manly area. We started with a swim in the ocean, which was pretty chilly (since early September is still winter in Australia) but definitely worth it. Then we headed out to brunch and a long walk through the area. Vicki has been trying to go to different beaches, so we picked an area she hadn’t spent time in and walked along the beach and had a few beers. It was such a pleasant day!

In the evening, we headed to a show at the Sydney Opera House! It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the whole world, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that we could go and actually see a show there. Such a cool way to experience it! We went to Miss Saigon, which I had seen once before in Salt Lake. It’s such a moving show and the effects with the evacuation of the embassy in Vietnam was just as impressive the second time around.

All in all, Sydney was awesome. It felt like such a livable place – they have really made an effort to preserve and expand the outdoor space available to residents, they have great public transit, and everyone was friendly! I would definitely go back. Hopefully, the next time I’m in Australia, I’ll do a better job at seeing new places in Australia and not just using it at a launching pad for other countries!

New Zealand Oceania

Spontaneous New Zealand Road Trip

When I boarded my flight to Seoul at the beginning of this trip, I wasn’t planning on going to New Zealand. In fact, I had other plans to travel around Australia alone during this time before flying back to Sydney and meeting up with my friend Vicki. But I got invited to join a couple people from the PNG/Vanuatu trips for a couple days of road tripping around the South Island of New Zealand, and I figured I could rebook my original plans any time but this was a more unique opportunity! So I did some rebooking on my phone from our hotel in Luganville, and made my chaotic Oceania trip even more so.

My flight issues getting out of Port Vila meant that I was not able to actually do anything in Wellington. Instead, I got off my flight at 11:30 pm, went through immigration, and headed to my hotel that I’d booked in the airport for a few hours of sleep before my flight to Christchurch the next morning. Fun fact about New Zealand, I had booked everything so last minute that I forgot I needed to fill out the ETA. I filled it out from Lucy’s house on Friday night and then it was just pending for a while. I was worried they weren’t going to let me on the plane, but I googled it and everything online said they don’t actually approve them over the weekend, but you should be able to board as long as you show you’ve applied and it’s pending. Air New Zealand didn’t check when I checked in or boarded, and it wasn’t a problem when I went through immigration. I got the approval a day or so into the trip, and when I announced that I’d gotten that email, Alvaro and Eric were so confused how I had already made it into the country!

Christchurch was quiet but pleasant. We grabbed food there at a little crêpe place, then went to the 2011 earthquake memorial. It’s one of the most well-known events to happen in Christchurch – it was one of the most violent earthquakes to ever hit an urban center (thanks Wikipedia!) and 185 people died in the tremors. The memorial was well done. It reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in DC, where it’s simple but classy and gives people a place to come and contemplate the loss of life.

From there, we headed over Arthur’s Pass and to the West Coast, where we wound our way down to Wanaka! It was a pretty long driving day, or at least it felt that way given that we had started on the North Island that morning. We had a couple stops along the West Coast as the sun set over the ocean, which was absolutely gorgeous. As it got dark, we realized that we were going to get into Wanaka quite late, so it was a bit of a scramble to try to (a) find a hotel that would let us check in that late and (b) finding a restaurant that would be open so that we could actually get dinner, as we hadn’t eaten much besides the morning’s crêpes and a few snacks that we picked up from a gas station. Luckily, we successfully found both lodging and food and had a nice night.

The next day started with the Wanaka tree! It’s a famous landmark in New Zealand and it looked…. pretty different from how I expected. All the pictures on the internet show it as a tree over a lake. Apparently, the water recedes a bit in the winter, who knew? Also, it was cloudy when we went, so you couldn’t see the mountains that are usually behind the lake. It truly was one of those “….that’s it?” moments, like when you see Stonehenge or the Alamo or Mona Lisa in real life. I guess we just went at low season, but still.

From there, we headed south, stopping in Queenstown for lunch and then continuing on to Milford Sound. They look so absurdly close together on a map as the crow flies, but Milford Sound is actually a four hour drive away because you have to drive around the mountains. It was by far the most beautiful part of the drive! If I was only going to recommend one place in New Zealand, I would recommend Milford Sound. It was definitely a trek to get out there but it was worth it. If your trip is both higher budget and more planned out than mine, I think there’s a way to do a day trip from Queenstown by helicopter, which would probably be an incredible experience.

A brief comment about the birds of New Zealand! I would have loved to see a kiwi while I was there, but they are shy and nocturnal. That said, I did see a couple super cool ones while I was there. The first is the kea, which is an alpine parrot and is super friendly and smart, but with a propensity for theft. We first saw them outside a café that said if the kea steals and eats your food, they will not refund you. The second is a weka, or Maori hen. Weirdly enough, they also like theft. Because we were basically the only people in Milford Sound when we were there, when I crouched down and stayed still, this one came right up to me!

After watching the sunset at Milford Sound, we spent the night in Te Anau. The next morning, we headed back to Queenstown for a more relaxed day! Queenstown reminded me a lot of the ski towns in Colorado and Utah. It probably seemed even more like it because they were having some sort of music festival/ski event, so the downtown was swarming with people with their skis and snowboards.

I enjoyed Queenstown! It had a really cool vibe. We mostly walked around and ate while we were there, although we did also try to drive up into the neighborhoods on the west side to get a good view of the town. The Queenstown Gardens were also really pleasant to walk and talk. Alvaro had an evening flight so we dropped him off at the airport and then Eric and I ended up bar hopping for a bit. It was a nice end to the trip, and I was glad I was able to join!

The next morning, Eric’s flight was earlier than mine, so I got to sleep in a bit and then made my way back to the airport. New Zealand had some of the best views from the plane on takeoff and landing! It had felt like the perfect amount of time to explore a bit of the South Island, and I was off to Sydney to meet up with my friend.

Australia Oceania Vanuatu

Finding Paradise in Vanuatu

After all our struggles with delays and cancellations, I genuinely didn’t believe I would get to Vanuatu until our plane had left the ground out of Brisbane. But it did, two full days later than it was supposed to, and we landed in an absolutely gorgeous country!

Look how amazing the view was as we flew into Port Vila!

Our travel delays did mean that we missed out on Tanna. It was pretty disappointing to miss, because Tanna was the part I was by far the most excited for since it’s the world’s most accessible active volcano and you can basically go to the rim of the volcano and stare into the lava. But I still had a great time in Vanuatu, and I am so grateful for the friends I made through our entire POM VI experience – it turns out nothing brings people together more than spending a thousand hours in an airport!

We landed in the morning and then had a full day in Port Vila before we were supposed to meet up with the three people who were not personally victimized by the flight delays of Air Niugini. And what a nice day it was! We got massages, drank beers by the pool, and celebrated that we had finally made it to our next destination.

This is a photo I took at a stop on the side of the road – look how clear the water is!

The next morning, we headed back to the airport in Port Vila so we could meet the rest of the group and fly out to Espiritu Santo (often just called Santo). Going on a domestic flight in Vanuatu was strange. You read about how tiny the airports in the South Pacific are, but it’s another thing to wait at one. At one point, we thought we should go wait closer to the gate, and we stood up with all our bags, only to find that we were… already at the gate. We arrived in Luganville, which is Vanuatu’s second largest city (although city is perhaps a strong word). We stayed there for our first night and had a fun dinner of bonding with the three new people who had joined us on the tour!

The next day, it was time to head north! We started with one of the famous blue holes in Santo, which are freshwater swimming spots with stunning clear and blue water. It was beautiful and a really fun visit. I don’t know if we were in the off season, or what, but it felt like there was no one else at most of the “touristy” things we did, which was definitely not a bad thing – we were the only ones at our particular blue hole for almost the entire time we were there, which was pretty cool.

From there, we toweled off and headed up to our accommodation on the north side of Santo! We were staying in bungalows on Lonnoc Beach. Just as with the blue hole we went to, we were pretty much the only people here. It was absolutely incredible to be able to just swim and walk along the beach by ourselves. It really felt like a small slice of paradise.

More pictures of our beach time! It did rain for a good chunk of our second day, but it didn’t stop us from going out on the beach and standing in the water under the rain. It was such an amazing experience.

Yes, this is me standing on a Vanuatu post office. What of it?

After our second night at Lennoc Beach, it was time to head back to Efate, the island where Port Vila is. We flew back in the morning and headed to one of the most well known tourist attractions in Vanuatu – the underwater post office! It’s one of the most unique post offices in the world. I didn’t actually send a letter there, but several of the people in the group mailed postcards and we all went snorkeling together so we could see it.

We had a little more time to wander around Port Vila! Mostly, there were a lot of markets to explore and souvenirs to shop for. Some of us had also been talking about getting a matching tattoo, so we checked our our options, but the tattoo parlor was closed after we got dinner so we figured it wasn’t meant to be. Except….. I was supposed to be flying out SO early to Sydney, and when I woke up to catch my shuttle, I had an email saying that my flight was indefinitely delayed. Which, let’s be real, means cancelled. Because I had other plans and didn’t want to stay in Vanuatu by myself, I didn’t hesitate and booked the flight that I knew most of the others were on, which was an afternoon flight to Brisbane. Once I was back in Australia, I figured it would be a lot easier to sort things out. And when I showed up to breakfast, we decided that this was the universe telling us we should go get our tattoo.

This is my first tattoo! It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to do, but never had anything specific that I wanted to get. So this was honestly a great way to do it. It was fun, it was spontaneous, and after I got it done I couldn’t stop looking at my forearm. Plus, it’s definitely an interesting souvenir from Vanuatu!

Blurry picture of my first official Australian Maccas on our brief road trip

Obviously, I hadn’t been planning on landing in Brisbane, so I had to do some adjusting for my trip. Initially, I was meant to land in Sydney, have a couple hours layover, fly to Wellington, spend the night there, and then meet up with Alvaro and Eric in Wellington for a flight out to Christchurch the next day. Luckily for me, Lucy, pictured above with the matching tattoo, lives close to Byron Bay, so she offered to take me to her house, let me crash with her for a night, and then I could take a short flight down to Sydney. If I could get Air New Zealand to just move me to the exact same flight 24 hours later, it would be a pretty easy fix. We landed in Brisbane and I stopped by the desk as soon as I cleared immigration. The woman was so confused by my ask and why I was in Brisbane and not Sydney, but she was able to help me! The only thing I had to do was book my flight down to Sydney the next day and all was not lost. I had a second unintended stopover starting at the Brisbane airport, and I managed to see a little more of Australia before Lucy dropped me off at the airport again.

The final cherry on top of the flight struggles is that I got to Ballina the next day and boarded my flight…. only to have them come on the announcements and tell us all to get back off the plane. The vehicle that was carrying the luggage literally hit the plane (???!!!??? it’s a plane? it’s not moving and it’s by far the biggest thing in your field of vision?) and damaged it, so they needed to get a flight engineer from Gold Coast to make sure that we were still good to fly. Honestly, it was super stressful in the moment, but looking back it’s also pretty hilarious to see just how many weird flight situations we got into over the course of this trip. Thankfully, after this one, it was pretty smooth flying! At the end of the day, we were able to re-board, I made it to Sydney, and I also successfully made my flight to Wellington to start the next adventure.

Australia Oceania Papua New Guinea Vanuatu

POM VI Down Under

The main thing, if you’re traveling in the South Pacific, is patience. Because the airlines are not the most reliable, and when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t a lot of options to switch to other flights or try a different airport or airline. We had already had flight trouble within Papua New Guinea, flying from Port Moresby up to the Highlands, but none of us had any idea how bad it would get trying to get out of Port Moresby and to our next destination: Vanuatu!

Look at the light in our eyes as we got to the airport! Short lived, unfortunately

The flight path we were supposed to have was Port Moresby > Brisbane > Port Vila, with a couple hours in Brisbane. We arrived bright and early at the Port Moresby airport, having flown in from Goroka the day before, and then…. we waited. And we waited. It was one of those times when they kept telling us things were delayed for an hour, and then an hour would be up, and then it would be delayed yet again. At one point, they said we were delayed because someone had to be medevac’d out of PNG, so they put that person on the plane and took the luggage out and then put their luggage into the hold, and then apparently it no longer worked to bring them on our flight and so they took them back off the plane and pulled the luggage out to sort through it and find their bags again. People were watching this with the general vibe of sports fans rooting for their favorite team, including cheers and groans at the appropriate times. It felt like we were never getting out of that airport, and we were becoming airport people like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

Hour ???? of our delay

Luckily, of people to get stuck with, it was a good group. We made a lot of jokes about our whole situation, including naming ourselves the POM VI after the Port Moresby airport code. What quickly was becoming a problem was that we were blowing through our layover in Australia, and we were not going to make our Vanuatu flight. Which, for most of us, was fine, as we could spend a night and fly out the next day. But one of the POM VI was from Chile and he wasn’t able to clear immigration in Australia without a visa. He was going to be able to get through in transit status with our initial flight plan, but it didn’t seem like there was anything we could do to get him on a series of flights that would keep his time in Australia low enough to qualify for transit status. I think he ended up flying through New Caledonia to meet us in Vanuatu, which added another leg to the trip but did at least go smoothly! Definitely a reminder that passport privilege is real.

Slightly blurry but it really captures the excitement of getting on a plane!

Eventually, we got on a plane! People cheered and clapped when the pilot passed us to board. It was such a relief just to be leaving the Port Moresby airport. We got to Brisbane pretty late. Honestly, Australian passport control is a breeze – they’ve really streamlined the process with the ETAs and electronically linking everything together, and going through the kiosks made it way faster than most countries I’ve gone to. We got to our hotel, made plans to meet up for our third airport day in a row, and passed out.

And then it was time to go back to the airport. Which is when we found out we had more bad news…… Our flight to Port Vila had been cancelled!

While I was super bummed to miss out on the first part of our plans in Vanuatu, we had a great time with our extra day in Brisbane. It’s a cool city, and had not been on my original plans in Australia!

Overall, it was a very relaxed day – we went to brunch, wandered around a bit, went to the pool, and did our laundry. Major shout out to our hotel for having laundry machines we could use for free! As usual, the best laid travel plans aren’t always the way things actually happen, but sometimes that’s the most fun part. One thing is for sure, I’ll definitely never forget the Port Moresby airport or our strange layover in Brisbane!

Oceania Papua New Guinea

Experiencing Tribal Culture in Papua New Guinea

How to describe Papua New Guinea? It seems a lot of people don’t know much about it, unless you’re really interested in birding, since it’s more or less the only place you can find birds of paradise, or linguistics, since it has over 800 living languages, making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world. The main reason for that is that PNG is largely tribal, even today. Outside of the capital, pretty much all of the land is owned and run by various tribes. There are so many cultures being represented there, and it’s a really interesting place to see how modern technology is being incorporated into their existing cultures instead of steamrolling their traditions.

They also have tribal law. When you look at the warnings on the US State Department website, they’re pretty aggressive. Essentially, they say that if anything happens to you outside of Port Moresby, the US government can’t help you. At the time of this writing, the country is at “Level 3: Reconsider Travel,” and portions of the country, including the Highlands where I was, are listed as “Level 4: Do Not Travel.” One of my coworkers, who lives in Australia, was shocked that I was going there due to what he’s seen on the news about it. Just now, as I was fact checking something for this post, I googled Port Moresby and found that 15 people died in a series of riots yesterday and the country has declared a state of emergency. Traveling to Papua New Guinea was absolutely worth it and was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been, full stop, but it is definitely something to be aware of and to prepare for if it’s somewhere that interests you.

I went with Wander Expeditions for this trip! This was their very first tour to PNG, which added to the adventure. In truth, I’ve been wanting to travel with them for ages, but often times I had planned out too far in advance to coordinate the trips that looked most interesting with them. This time, they dropped it slightly earlier than usual and I was already planning to be in region! I had a broader Australia trip planned to visit a friend, so I could adjust the timing of that to fit with this. I joined the recommended flight from Manila and worked backwards to spend the time in Seoul at the beginning of this trip, so it worked really well. I loved traveling with Wander – the Papua Expedition really was a fantastic group of people, and I had an absolute blast.

Kind of obsessed with their Parliament building, ngl
As seen while we were driving through the capital, poor tree kangaroos!

We started in Port Moresby, which is the capital city. Our flight arrived in the morning, and after sorting through money and logistics, we did a tour around the capital, including their Parliament building, the National Museum, a local fish market, and lunch before we headed back to the airport. We were supposed to fly up to Mount Hagen that afternoon for the cultural festival, but what we didn’t realize was that to flying Air Niugini means that a flight delay or cancellation is almost inevitable! After several hours of waiting around playing cards and making friends, we were sent back out of the airport, where we had to wheedle a hotel out of Air Niugini for our extra night in the capital. The next morning, we were back to the airport to try again, and luckily the morning flight left more or less on time!

Not my photo, but from someone else on the trip that had a drone! Such a cool shot.

The Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is a whirlwind of colors and tribes and activity, and it was such a chaotic introduction to the Highlands! Fun fact, the Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is not put on for tourists, but is meant for the local tribes to have a place to come together and exchange culture and ideas, and to reduce tribal tensions. It’s been going on since 1961.

We dropped our stuff off at our hotel and got there in the midst of the tribes arriving! I think their entrances were my favorite part, because they had the highest energy and often a more choreographed piece than later in the day when we were all walking around the field. To set the scene a bit, the festival took place in a large open field surrounded by a tall fence. Once you got within the boundaries of the fence, you could go anywhere you wanted – there was a market selling food and drinks, the area where the tribes spent time during the day, the area where they all entered, and a market where they sold arts and crafts. The arts and crafts were fascinating – I ended up buying a painting, but there were also necklaces made out of animal teeth and jawbones, and a lot of other materials that I don’t think I could have brought back to the United States.

This picture makes it so clear I’m in the process of sunburning
One more selfie with the artist 🙂

One of the other fun things you could do was get your face painted! I did end up doing that, and loved this design that I got. After the face painting, I stood out even more as a foreigner. I would say that it seemed like most of the locals were happy to have us there, as I don’t think they get that much tourism, and they were excited to share their culture with us. People asked me to take pictures with them, and I often wanted to take pictures with the dancers and their amazing costumes. It was fun and overwhelming and truly a once in a lifetime experience.

I love going to grocery stores abroad
Check out this security guy’s weapon!

While in Mount Hagen, we did run a couple other errands – going to a grocery store, getting alcohol, and a few people wanted to get specific souvenirs. One of the strangest things is that as a foreigner, you are basically traveling between walled compounds. From the guarded hotel to the fenced off Cultural Festival grounds to what was basically a strip mall behind a barbed wire fence, and any other time we were in the bus with the windows closed. There’s a lot of civil unrest, with tribal tensions, poverty, and people who come to the cities and urban centers to try to compete for the limited number of jobs. It was a strange experience to be shuttled between the fenced off areas, and we ate dinner in our hotel both nights we were there for safety reasons.

The next morning we left Mount Hagen and headed into the countryside. Our next three days were staying with the tribes! The countryside is gorgeous, mountainous and lush and nearly untouched. There’s so little development in the country that the only way to get from the capital to the Highlands is by plane because there are no roads from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby. That said, I was very impressed at the cell reception and roads within the Highlands, both of which were quite excellent.

This mask is unreal and absolutely terrifying

We were staying in a kind of thatched bungalow. We had one night at the first place and two nights at the second. While we were there, members of the tribes would put on shows for us, explaining the origin of the traditions and where the specific clothing or body paint came from, and then putting on a performance of it, often with singing and dancing. They explained that these are reserved for special occasions, like weddings or funerals or other festivals, depending on the specific tradition.

Behind the scenes with the Skeleton Tribe!
The monster is defeated!
My parents inform me that they did not love getting this picture from me in the middle of the night

The highlight for me was the Skeleton Tribe. For their demonstration, we all hiked down to a river. From my understanding, theirs was sort of a play about their mythology, about overcoming a monster by working together. It was so cool, their body paint was amazing, and the setting was unparalleled. We also hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain for one of the demonstrations, which had one of the most amazing views I saw in the entire country.

A few animal encounters along the way: (1) I have never seen such large spiders as the ones spinning webs between the trees, and I hope that I never do again. (2) In our second accommodation, my roommate Lucy and I had a third roommate – a weird bug with a stinger that we tried to drown or wash down the drain. The bug stubbornly did neither of those things and instead lived in our sink for the duration of the trip. (3) In our first accommodation, there was a rat in our ceiling. I had heard a squeaking noise and thought it was a bird, but we spotted it with a headlamp. I lived in fear that it would fall on me in the middle of the night.

Please trust me when I say this is the least graphic photo of the pig roast. Fascinating to watch but I’m not going to post pictures of the entire disembowling.

One of the other cool cultural things that we were invited to was a full pig roast. We could go to as much of it as we wanted, including the full butchering of the pig. Even though I don’t eat meat, I think it’s worth seeing more of the process where food comes from. In a lot of places, there are markets where you have a lot less processed versions of what you’re going to eat, but so much of what we find in American grocery stores is processed beyond recognition. Anyway, it was super interesting. The actual killing seemed pretty quick and humane, and then we watched them prepare it. The guys doing it would point out specific organs and explain what they were doing throughout the process. The pig was cooked over the fire under leaves/palm fronds and dirt, alongside potatoes and plantains that were wrapped in foil for the sides (and vegetarian portion).

The next day, we drove the rest of the way to Goroka and took a flight back to Port Moresby. We had taken the morning flight to give ourselves a buffer, since everyone had international flights leaving the next day. So we ended up having a chill afternoon at the hotel, which included some time by the pool in gale force winds and another dinner at a hotel, although a much nicer one this time. A pleasant and relaxed end to our week in PNG, and given the chaos of the next portion of my travels, I was glad we had the rest day.

Do not take this photo as endorsement of Air Niugini as an airline!

Leaving PNG is a whole other story and is going to get its own post, but the week I spent in Papua New Guinea was incredible. The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done, and while the destination is certainly not for everyone, I am SO glad that I joined this trip and got to explore the region. For anyone who is considering going, do your research first but don’t let it scare you off – the rewards far outweigh the risk.