Our advice for expats preparing for a move to Australia

It’s been over a year since we moved to Australia. Now that we’re settled in, we’ve realized that some of the items we brought to Australia were unnecessary while, at the same time, we wished we’d brought other things. Here is our short list of what we would suggest people from the United States bring when they move to Australia (or, we assume, New Zealand).

1. Should you bring your American electronics?

This is an obvious question as electronics are expensive and Australia uses a different voltage than the United States (220/230 vs. 110). We decided to bring most of our electronics. I did some research and bought voltage converters for a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. It’s worth doing some research because different types of electronics need different size converters. For example, the combination of our TV, mac mini, external speakers, and Xbox all fit on a relatively small converter while the espresso machine and juicer need a giant one.

The giant voltage converter for our espresso maker and juicer

The giant voltage converter for our espresso maker and juicer

The little converter that could (power six devices at once)

The little converter, hiding in the back corner, that could (power six devices at once)

All of our electronics work in Australia except one. Sadly, we no longer experience the joy of our electronic bidet toilet with its heated seat and refreshing spray and dryer. We’re still surviving (but seriously, everyone should have one. It is a life changing purchase). Oh, and our lamps. Our lamps did not work here, so don’t bother bringing them.

Electronics (like just about everything) are more expensive in Australia. The cost of purchasing the voltage converters and shipping everything to Australia was far less than what it would have cost us to buy new electronics. This includes the voltage converters themselves. Buying them in the US and shipping them here is much cheaper than buying them here.

Suggestion: if you have made a significant investment in nice electronics, you can make them work in Australia. It will be cheaper than buying new.

2. Communicating with family back home

All of the expats we know use Skype fairly extensively, and we’ve come to rely on it for video chatting with our cat and showing off Laura’s baby bump. The problem with Skype is that both parties have to be online and have the equipment to make it work. If your family are computer novices or if you or your family members struggle to figure out the time difference, Skype is not an ideal option.

Magickjack - how it works

Magickjack – how it works

Based on a suggestion from a friend in Lebanon, we bought a magicjack before leaving the States. A magicjack costs about USD $30 per year and provides you with a US-based phone number in the state of your choice and a dongle that hooks into the internet via your computer. When you have the magicjack plugged into your computer, you can use it to make free phone calls to any phone number in the US or Canada. You can also plug a standard phone into the dongle so that it acts almost like a ‘landline’ in your house. This works particularly well if you have a computer that you use for other purposes – we use a mac mini as a way to access internet video, as our stereo, and now as a means of communication with family.

Suggestion: Buy a magicjack! Don’t be put off by the creepy looking advertising that screams rip-off. Our family gave up Skype once they saw how easy and convenient the magicjack is. Why? It’s a regular phone number that they include in the contacts list in their phones. Magicjack doesn’t help solve the time difference issue, but we simply turn off our computer when we’re asleep; if they call and we’re not available, the call goes straight to voicemail. In other words, they never have to worry about waking us up. Lastly, we don’t have to make an appointment to call anyone. I often talk with my mom while she’s on her afternoon walk. We’ve spoken with Laura’s family while they are driving home from a festive Christmas celebration. The magicjack turns you into a cell phone call away. It’s easy, cheap, and the call quality is good 90% of the time (and the other 10% is probably due to the low quality of Australia’s internet).

3. Bring Netflix, Hulu, and American websites with you

We watch our fair share of television but haven’t had cable since 2008. There are so many other good options for finding and watching high quality television that we’ve felt for a long time that cable is not worth the cost. Australia has fewer programs available online at broadcaster websites, and most US-based broadcasters don’t allow streaming from outside the US.

The joy of having Netflix in Australia

The joy of having Netflix in Australia

During the US presidential election we were feeling somewhat disconnected from what was happening. Mostly this resulted from the fact that we could not watch The Daily Show & The Colbert Report.

One night after a hard and frustrating day at work, Laura made an ultimatum: get me John Stewart or else.

After 10 minutes of research, we were in business. We now pay USD $5 per month for a DNS service that makes all of our computers appear as if they are in…Texas. This allows us access to streaming on Netflix, Hulu, ABC.com, CBS.com, Amazon Prime streaming, etc.

Occasionally it doesn’t work as well, but on most days it is fast and seamless. We love it. The only downside is that our consumption of Australian TV has declined to almost none, making us less plugged in to what’s popular in Australia.

Suggestions: Considering signing up for a DNS service so that you can keep the online subscriptions that you use in the United States.

4. What stuff to send?

This, of course, is really up to both your length of stay and your budget. Our mantra when packing was a combination of ‘if we don’t use it often, it gets sold or donated’ and ‘we can always buy it in Australia’. In the end we mostly shipped the furniture that we could not part with (Laura’s collection of modern furniture and our handmade steel bedframe), and most of our kitchen stuff (pots and pans, utensils, but no plates/bowls/glasses). We purged a good portion of the clothing that wouldn’t fit into our extra large suitcases that accompanied us on our flights.

This, I would say, is one thing we regret. Clothing is shockingly and unnecessarily expensive in Australia. We’ve talked many times about how a two week trip to spend $2,000 on clothing in the United States would easily pay for itself.

At the time, we were also unsure whether shipping our furniture was really a smart idea. First, we’d most likely be without furniture for a few months. Second, we weren’t sure whether we would really be saving anything besides our nostalgia for particular pieces of furniture. Like clothing, furniture is more expensive in Australia. (Are you noticing a theme?) If we did it over again, I think we might ship more of our furniture simply because buying the furniture we sold was stupidly expensive. Even IKEA is more expensive here.

Suggestion: If you’re planning to spend at least two years in Australia, send as much of your furniture and clothing as you can afford or rationalize.

5. How to send your stuff?

As mentioned in a previous post, we used Upackweship.com. Our stuff arrived generally on-time and without damage and was delivered to our doorstep – all at a pretty reasonable price.

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So you want to visit us in Australia?

Now that we’ve announced mini-Mocho is coming into the world, many people have expressed interest in coming to visit us during the second half of 2013. Yes, please, we’d love for you to come. Australia is a beautiful, diverse, and gigantic country. Enough people have visited us already that we put together a little ‘So you want to visit Australia’ guide to help you plan.

First, and most importantly, Come Visit us in Melbourne!

Flickr: WanderingtheWorld

Flickr: WanderingtheWorld

Melbourne (pronounced: Melbin) isn’t Australia’s most famous city, unless you’re an urban planner. If you are an urban planner, you know that in both 2011 and 2012 The Economist Intelligence Unit  ranked Melbourne the world’s most liveable city. There is a reason for this: living in Melbourne is amazing.

The city is vibrant, fun, and worth at least two or three days of exploration.

Start your trip with two or three days in Melbourne
- Spend half a day exploring Melbourne’s laneways. Or get a guided tour on the laneways street art tour.

Flickr: Leigh/J/M

Flickr: Leigh/J/M

- Spend the rest of the day viewing Australian art at the Ian Potter Center (it’s free!) and/or the Immigration Museum (it’s $10, which in Australia is practically free!). Or take a walk along the Birrarung Marr or in the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Flickr: p.medved

Flickr: p.medved

- Grab dinner at one of Melbourne’s award winning restaurants and see what a downtown with lots of housing can be like on a warm evening.

Flickr: avlxyz

Flickr: avlxyz

- After dinner, walk down to the Treasury gardens on the edge of downtown and see the bush-tailed possums while you watch the giant flying foxes feed on insects overhead.

On day two:
- Rent a car and visit Phillip Island and its famous Penguin march.

Flickr: hangdog

Flickr: hangdog

Or,
- Catch the 19 tram from our apartment to Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s largest and most visited outdoor market. You’ll find its full of tourists, locals, delicious local cheeses and meats, and as much Australia themed crap as you could be interested in buying for friends at home.

Flickr: avlxyz

Flickr: avlxyz

- In the afternoon head to St. Kilda – Melbourne’s favorite beach neighborhood. Take a walk down the boardwalk, take a kiteboarding class off the historic St. Kilda pier and stay until dusk when the fairy penguins return to roost.

Flickr: ~David

Flickr: ~David

- On the way back to the northside, catch an Australian Rules Football match at Australia’s greatest sporting arena the Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

Leave Melbourne for up to a week to find the mythical Australia you flew half-way around the world to see!
Australia is a huge and varied country. It’s also shockingly expensive (a recent article from the BBC explored why a single lime in Australia costs $2.25). Unless you have months and thousands of dollars to explore the country, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. For most people, visiting Australia will be a once in a lifetime experience so they want to see ‘all of’ Australia. This is, sadly, impossible.

Doing some research on what you want to see is, of course, essential. Are you a diver? Explore North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef or the Whitsunday Islands. Want to see the red center? Visit Alice Springs, Uluru, or Adelaide and head north until you find Australia’s famous underground city. Interested in seeing one of the most beautiful cities in the world? Head to Sydney and explore it on the ferries and buses. Spend a few days to the west in the beautiful blue mountains. Interested in the outdoors? Cross over the Bass Strait to Tasmania where you’ll find amazing scenery, beautiful beaches, rugged coast, a thriving farm to table movement, and quaint Hobart.

One of the few things in Australia that isn’t shockingly expensive are internal flights. A number of airlines compete for low cost internal fares: Jetstar, Tiger Airways, and Virgin Australia.

Then come back to see us for another few days!
We can make sure that you see all the Australian animals you haven’t seen!

Either in the wild on our world famous Great Ocean Road day trip (amazing breakfast in Geelong, winery visit for lunch, the twelve apostles, koala heaven at the Great Otway Peninsula, and kangaroos at the Anglesea golf course);

Flickr: brunom

Flickr: brunom

Or, at the Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley (two hour drive to the foothills of the Victorian Alps, visit to the sanctuary’s open paddocks where you can walk amongst the animals, a visit to nearby vineyards, and dinner at a vibrant and busy restaurant);

Or, we’ll walk ten minutes from our apartment and meet you at the Melbourne Zoo.

And we’ll make sure that you get to spend at least a day cuddling it up with little mini-Mocho.

As of July 1, 2013 our apartment (also known as Dragonshire Inn) will no longer be available for home stays.  When planning your visit, mention the words ‘mini-Mocho discount’ to either of us and we’ll help you find discounted accommodation in our neighborhood. There’s no such thing as discounts in Australia so what we really mean is we’ll share the cost of accommodation with you (a small portion of the money we saved by not upgrading to a larger 2-bedroom apartment).

A Note on Visiting over Christmas/New Year’s
The best time for many Americans to visit Australia is between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The time off most people get helps offset the length of time it takes to get here, and it’s summer in the Southern hemisphere.  As we discovered this past Christmas/New Year’s, this isn’t the best time to visit Australia. First, an already expensive country becomes more expensive. Like August in Europe, a majority of Australians take two weeks off during this period so accommodation is tight. Combine this with a flood of visitors from the Northern hemisphere and you get ‘high season’ prices on almost everything. (I think Bryon and Nitika may have needed to re-mortgage their condo because of the cost to fly and stay two nights at Ayer’s Rock the week after New Year’s). Also, unlike in anyway that you could imagine in the United Sates, things close. When Bryon and Nitika visited us, Bryon really wanted to see Queen Vic Market. It was closed – and even when it was open almost half the stalls were closed. It was a disappointing experience at best. Not something you cross the world to visit. On New Year’s Eve, we made a booking at a local restaurant and went to get drinks beforehand. None of the bars within three blocks were open. This would be sacrilegious in the United States since New Year’s Eve would be almost every bar’s biggest night. Not in Australia.

In no way are trying to dissuade you from visiting during this period, but after our experience last year we do think it’s worth mentioning so that you can make an informed decision.

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Why we’re the happiest we’ll ever be!

While prepping for the next big thing in our lives we came across this chart (click on it to see it larger). In certain circles this is known as “The Most Terrifying Chart for New Parents” ever created.

This is how excited we are to be expectant parents! Photo: omglr.com

This is how excited we are to be expectant parents! Photo: omglr.com

Need we say more?

Just kidding! We’re very excited that a mini-Mocho will be joining the world sometime in late July!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Laura sick all the time?
Yes. Pity can be sent to her email address, expressed through phone calls, or cash. The last few weeks have been better.

How bad was it?
Last week she made the statement – “I like it better when I throw up soon after eating. When it’s a few hours later, it’s mostly acid. When it’s pretty soon after, mangoes and other fruits don’t taste that bad on the way back up”. True story.

Will we find out the sex?
Well…obviously we’ll know at some point, right? We’ll most likely choose the sooner rather than later option.

A question that wasn’t on your mind?
Yes, Justin is terrified that his identity is gone. It is. Pity, cash, and inappropriate emails are welcome.

Will the baby be born in Australia?
Yes. Some random organization documents what countries are the best places in which to be a mother. Australia is #7. The United States isn’t even in the top 20.

Will mini-Mocho be an Aussie?
Unfortunately not. Unless we live here for the next ten years, mini-Mocho won’t qualify for Australian citizenship.

Will the munchkin be an American?
Yes. S/he will believe everything is amazing. Will say please and thank you. Will treat the Super Bowl like a national holiday. Will see the world with wide eyes and live with the belief that s/he can conquer anything. S/he’ll have a healthy skepticism for government and won’t bend the knee to anyone. S/he’ll also probably have terrible geographic sense, will only speak one language well, and will likely be obese at one point in his/her lifetime.

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Feeling Rich, Devils, and Spray Paint: Things We Love About Australia

Saturday was Australia Day. Congratulations on another great year Australia!
In celebration of Australia Day, here are five of our favorite things about Australia.

Policy choices that make us feel rich
When we moved to Melbourne, we prepared to be poor. According to a recent survey, Melbourne is the world’s 8th most expensive city to live in. It took us a few months to figure out where our finances would settle. At the end of those months, we were shocked to find that our disposable income in Australia was significantly higher than in the United States. How could this be?

Super Annuation. All Australian employers are required to pay something called super annuation. It’s similar to a mandated contribution to a 401(k) in the United States that equals 9% of your salary. In the United States, Laura and I put about that much into our own 401(k) plans, but here we don’t have to since our employer does it for us. All things being equal that’s an 18% increase in our take home pay (when you add our two salaries together)!

But wait, there’s more!

Salary Packaging. A few years ago, the Australian parliament passed a law that gave workers employed in certain sectors of the economy (primarily non-profit and medical personnel) preferential tax treatment. The policy goal was to increase the number of people entering and staying in these fields. As an employee of Save the Children, I am able to take advantage of salary packaging. The first $16,000 of my annual income is not taxable. This is on top of the first $12,000 (I think) that applies to all Australians. In addition, I also get to discount all of the costs associated with eating out and staying at a hotel. We save our receipts, submit them, and this amount comes off my taxable income. So each time we eat out, we reduce both my taxable income and creep closer to a lower tax bracket.

Sounds crazy right? It is crazy. It’s a total racket. But one we love!

The sporting lifestyle
Most general interest articles about Melbourne will mention that Melburnians are ‘sports mad’. We weren’t sure what this meant before we arrived. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, Melbourne is the heart and soul of Aussie Rules Football and has the country’s most important sporting stadium – the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s also the home of the Australian Open (I’m watching the women’s final while typing this post). Since arriving we’ve been to a few Footy matches, a handful of soccer matches, and the Australian Open. These are fun and great, but what we really love is how easy Melbourne makes it for us to get out and play sports.

There are parks, bowls clubs, and tennis clubs everywhere. Everyone plays sports, even if they’re terrible. Ask a Melburnian if they want to play tennis with you and almost all of them will accept. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t played for twenty years and are terrible, they’ll still say yes. So you don’t have to feel intimidated about playing almost any sport here. It’s fantastic. Since arriving, Laura and I have both picked up new sports. Laura plays tennis at least once a week, often more. I play squash once a week. And after learning how to play lawn bowls (we refer to it as lawn curling) over the holiday, we’re eager to get out one night each week and play at our local bowls club.

Australianisms
Australians talk funny. And I’m not talking about their accents. Australian phrases are often hilarious in their simplicity and straightforwardness. I’ve come to look forward to learning new Australianisms each day. Here are a few of my favorites:
Cool Change. In the heat of the summer, Australians look forward to the moment a low pressure system arrives and drops the temperature. They call this moment the cool change. Meteorologists here will even predict when the cool change will arrive, “it’ll stay hot until about 8pm when the cool change will arrive”.
Sticks out like dogs balls. Something that will be difficult to conceal. “If we do that it’ll stick out like dogs balls and our boss will definitely figure it out”.
Peak body. Everything in Australia must have a peak body. For example, an organization like the Australian Medical Association would be known as the ‘peak body of the medical profession’.
Anything ending in -y or -ie (and the list could be neverending). Cossie (bathing costume); pressie (present or presentation); brekkie (breakfast); sunnies (sunglasses); schoonies (mid-sized glass of beer); footy (Aussies rules football).

Yarn bombed tree in front of Melbourne Cathedral

Yarn bombed tree in downtown Melbourne. Flickr: Bonito Club

Street art
Melbourne is full of street art. At first we thought there were graffiti taggers everywhere. In the United States the amount of graffiti in an area is usually proportional to the level of crime. Here street art is celebrated and encouraged and has nothing to do with the crime rate. There are street art walking tours, government grants to street artists, and neighborhood associations that support different types of street art (i.e., yarn bombing, which is particularly popular in our neighborhood).

As you know if you’re a reader of this blog, I’m not a big fan of art in museums. Art should be accessible. Australian cities excel at encouraging accessible art. We love it.

The video embedded below does a great job of demonstrating the diversity and vibrancy of Melbourne’s street art scene.

Australian animals
We knew before arriving that Laura was going to love Australian animals. I, on the other hand, figured they would be fun to see once. I was wrong. I still get excited to see koalas. Not as excited as Laura and her family, but still excited. Kangaroos are overrated, but wallabys and padamelons are pretty cool. Feeding possums in the park may be illegal, but they’re darn cute.

Little Penguin at St. Kilda Pier

Little Penguin at St. Kilda Pier. Flickr: Richard Fisher

Seeing cockatoos, ibis’, kookaburras, and parrots fly by as I run in the park is still a thrill. Catching a glimpse of the fairy penguins at the St. Kilda pier makes me speak in the high pitched tones of a five year old. And after seeing two Tasmanian Devils ‘fight’ over an Ostrich egg at the Healesville Sanctuary today, I can tell you that they are amazing little animals. Did you know they suffer from a rare transferable cancer and are in danger of going extinct? It’s pretty crazy and if they need foster parents, I’ll be the first in line.

An open mouthed Tasmanian Devil at the Healesville Sanctuary

A hungry Tassie Devil at the Healesville Sanctuary

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We Heart Tasmania

For our first wedding anniversary a few weekends ago, we spent four and a half days in Hobart, Tasmania. We loved Tasmania. It was one of the best four-day vacations we’ve ever spent, and we can’t wait to return. It had so many of the wonderful elements of the Pacific Northwest – boats and water everywhere, fresh salmon, pinot noir, temperate rainforest, and the feeling of being steps away from some very cold and wild places (e.g. Alaska and Antarctica) – combined with some of the best parts of Bay Area – beautiful coastal walks, artisanal cheeses and breads, rolling hills and the smell of eucalyptus – while, of course, being fully Australian.

Lovely Hobart (Photo: Cheng Fei, Flickr)

The reason this trip was so fantastic was because Tasmania is a truly unique and fabulous place. However, we also realized that we had actually put into practice many of the lessons we learned in Southeast Asia (listed below and posted about in August). In other words, we had finally executed a trip the right way, for us at least.

Plan ahead. If nothing else to ensure that Justin doesn’t freak out and ruin a day unnecessarily.

We split the duties of planning our Hobart trip, but Laura was our prime researcher. She took the lead in arranging our accommodation and main activity each day: exploration of the city and the Salamanca market, a boat cruise from Port Arthur, and a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Justin did some research into food, hikes in and around Hobart, and was tasked with ‘while travelling’ research.

We were careful not to over plan any particular day. Instead, we planned a single major activity for each day and then researched a couple of different options for the rest of the day that might appeal to different interests and energy levels. This wasn’t hard with the diversity of activities and things to do within a short drive of Hobart.

Make sure that there is at least one point in each day where there is a planned activity apart from ‘relaxing’. Or Justin won’t let anyone relax.

If you combine the opportunities available within Hobart with those within a 90 minute drive of Hobart, the opportunities for being active seem almost endless. The Parks & Wildlife service has even put together a fantastic website and iPad/iPhone app of 60 Great Short Walks in Tasmania. We ended up walking two of them and wished that we had known about this great source of information before we visited.

Each day, we took an afternoon hike (or bush walk, as they call it in Australia). We walked around the peak of Mount Wellington …

view from Mt Wellington

View of Hobart from the peak of Mount Wellington

among the towering tree ferns, waterfalls, pademelons and wallabies of the Mount Field National Park …

Justin in front of waterfall

Justin enjoying the rainforest

along the cliffs and rugged coastline of the Tasman Peninsula …

Tasman Peninsula

View from hike on the Tasman Peninsula

and in the hills around Hobart itself.

knocklofty reserve

Forest of Knocklofty Reserve (Photo: Matthias Siegel, Flickr).

Getting outdoors should be the priority but experiencing a day or two in a world class city is a plus.

With a population of between 200,000-250,000 people, it would be a stretch to call Hobart a world class city. Its downtown (CBD) neighborhoods are certainly quaint, filled with cute ‘gingerbread’ houses that reminded us of craftsman houses in California. This quaintness translates to a somewhat sewn up nightlife; by 6pm, most of the streets of the CBD were deserted. However, there is one aspect of Hobart life that hits above its weight for such a small city: food.

Hobart feels like the center of Australia’s farm to table culture and the quality and variety of restaurants available in Hobart reflected that. There’s even an Australian reality TV show called ‘Gourmet Farmer’ that follows a Tasmanian family in their farm to table adventures. You can find his new shop in the Salamanca market area.

We were instantly impressed with our first meal (and our first of many bottles of Tasmanian Pinot Noir throughout the trip). It is now weeks later, and we are still talking about the Raincheck Lounge’s arancini with blue cheese. We remained impressed throughout the trip, particularly with breakfast. We highly recommend both Jackman & McRoss Bakery and Machine Laundry Cafe.

Jackman & McRoss

Jackman & McRoss

Bakery case

Delicious!

Find friends in places you want to visit; prioritize those places.

Unfortunately, this lesson was not applicable for this trip. We should have tried harder to make some new friends in Hobart as we will be back!

If there is a vrbo or airbnb available, take advantage. Otherwise, stick to the recommended budget hotel options.

We are huge fans of airbnb. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it allows anyone to “monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions” (from the airbnb website). In other words, if you have an extra room or an apartment you rarely use, you can rent it out to travellers. We find that it is frequently much less expensive than a hotel, can offer some extra personal touches that you don’t find in a typical hotel, and some of the spaces available for rent are quite unique.

For this trip, we stayed in a self-contained floor of a family’s home in West Hobart. We had a good-size bedroom with a small kitchen space (including a fancy coffee maker and some snacks), a living room, free wifi, and of course a bathroom. The host also prepared a thorough guide book, including restaurant recommendations, transit information, maps, recommendations for day trips, and more. And we had access to the family’s huge selection of movies. Our favorite parts of airbnb are these personal touches. Unlike hotels, the places you stay are places where people actually live, so the bookcases are often filled with interesting books to read, movies to watch, etc. And the hosts are often eager to share great, non-touristy activities. Our host was an avid walker and pointed us to a great hike in the neighborhood.

Museums are good, but art museums should be kept to the few and far between category. Or Laura should explore them alone.

Our last full day in Hobart, we went to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). According to Justin, MONA is the best museum he has ever been to, full stop.

Honestly, MONA is hard to put into words. David Walsh, the man behind the museum, describes it as a “subversive adult Disneyland”.  It is a bit dark and can be shocking to the easily offended. But don’t let this turn you away. It is also delightful, beautiful and truly surprising.

All we can say is go. Add it to your growing list of ‘places to see before I die’. Visit their website and explore – and then think about how much you’re missing by not seeing it in person. Better yet, think about what you would do with hundreds of millions of winnings from internet gambling – would it be as cool as MONA?

MONA

The grounds of MONA

A good guide can make a memorable holiday.

For the guided portion of this trip, Laura’s parents sent us on a 3-hour eco-adventure boat cruise around the Tasman Peninsula for an anniversary present. They had taken the same cruise when they visited Tasmania this past May and loved it. We did too. What’s not to love about cruising around dramatic sea cliffs and into sea caves, watching humpback whales, seals, albatross, diving mutton birds while learning about the history, geology, and ecology of the coast?

Tasman Peninsula

Mutton birds and the cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula

Tasman peninsula

Yikes!

Laura likes body scrubs, no matter the cost to her wallet or marriage.

Though this is largely still true, no body scrubs were experienced on this trip. Also, Laura would like to remove the clause “no matter the cost to her wallet.” She has come to realize that body scrubs might be cost prohibitive outside of Southeast Asia.

Find places that are close enough to the beaten path to have some creature comforts.

Tasmania is certainly full of creature comforts and is technically on the beaten path. However, approximately 40 percent of the island is protected in World Heritage wilderness areas, in national parks or in other reserves. Packed on to an island the size of West Virginia is a landscape of glacial lakes, ocean beaches, rocky mountains, and soggy rainforests. In other words, its comforts are not far from paths that feel rarely beaten. This means that you can spend your day exploring pristine forests of towering swamp gums and your evening enjoying a five star meal. Or your morning viewing world class art and your afternoon on a mountain top. It has both stunning nature and accessible, high-quality culture. For us, this is the perfect combination.

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The Hunt for Snow in Australia: Three Days on Mt. Bogong

This past weekend we took a few days off for a final break before Spring warms up the Southern Hemisphere. What else is there to do in Australia, particularly in our state of Victoria, in late winter other than go skiing? While most foreigners don’t think of Australia as a snowy paradise, we learned this past weekend that the land area that receives solid winter snow coverage in Australia is larger than the area of Switzerland. Who knew?

Ski resorts in Australia are the most expensive (and profitable) in the world. It’s almost impossible to find a lift ticket for less than $100/day. Neither Laura nor I have much affection for resorts; we prefer the quiet and solitude of wild places in winter to the whir of lifts and crowds. After a little research, we found a guide to take us on a three-day backcountry ski tour up and around Victoria’s highest point – Mt. Bogong.

Where Mt. Bogong sits in Australia

Mt. Bogong sits in Victoria’s northeastern point.

For those of you that don’t live in Australia, Mt. Bogong is located in Victoria’s northeast in Alpine National Park and is one of the high points of the Great Dividing Range. This range stretches over 2,000 miles (3,500km) along  Australia’s eastern seaboard, much like the Appalachian Mountains on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Below are some highlights from the trip.

Hiking in – our first adventure
In all of my previous ski tours, we strapped on our skis in the parking lot and skied off in the wilderness. This isn’t possible in Australia. The snowline is high enough that, unless you’re at a resort, you’re almost always going to have to hike to it. This means that you have to not only strap all of your hiking and camping gear to your back (food, tent, sleeping bag, etc.) but also all of your winter gear (skis, snowshoes, boots, helmets, etc.) for the slog up to the snow.

Loaded backpacks by the car

Our packs ready for the climb to snowline

And it certainly was a slog.

Another unique aspect of the hike in is walking through a gum (eucalyptus) forest. Gum trees are the dominant arboreal species in Australia. Certain types of gum trees can also be quite brittle. Over the past few weeks, multiple blustery storms have blown in off the Southern Ocean, and we came across hundreds of downed trees beside and along the trail.

Laura hiking past downed gum trees

Laura hiking past downed gum trees on the hike up

The downed trees are such a common problem that anyone who consistently ventures into Australian Alpine country will carry a chainsaw in their vehicle. It’s not uncommon for trees to block the roads in and out. One of the groups we met at the hut had spent an extra hour and a half cutting through logs and using the winch on their vehicle to clear the road before they reached the trailhead.

Justin reaches the snowline

Justin was excited to be back in the land of snow

The hike up was steep, slow but steady. We paced ourselves well and reached snow after a few hours of hiking. As we ascended the weather changed quite dramatically. By the time we emerged above treeline, we faced whiteout conditions with up to 40 knot winds.

Bundled against the wind on the Bogong plateau

Laura and Justin bundled against the wind on the Bogong plateau

We certainly look happy in the photo above, but that was just us practicing expedition behavior. It wasn’t all that much fun. It was hard to see in front of you, and the wind was pretty relentless. Not to mention that it included the hardest climbing section of the whole trip. Below is a video that our guide, Matt O’Keefe, took of us descending Eskdale spur (pronounced Esdale without the ‘k’) on our return journey. Needless to say, we became pretty expert at making switchbacks on the way up.

Huts – a refuge for winter touring
I was first turned on to ski touring after a visit some years ago to Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts. There are many iterations of ski hut systems around the world from the world famous European alpine huts that have full-time chefs and prepare lunch packs for you to those in the Australian Alps, which are generally refuge huts that serve to protect skiers from the elements when the weather turns bad.

We visited two of these huts during our tour. The first was Michell hut on Eskdale spur.

Michell hut through the snow gums

Michell hut emerges from behind the snow gums

Michell is a relatively small hut with few amenities since it’s not meant to be slept in. We stopped on the way up and the way back for lunch.

Laura warming up inside Michell Hut

Laura warming up inside Michell Hut

After leaving Michell Hut we hiked over the main massif to Cleve Cole Memorial Hut. This hut was built in the 1930s as a memorial to an intrepid ski tourer who was caught in a blizzard and died on Mt. Bogong. Cleve Cole is much larger than Michell Hut and has a number of additional amenities. These include running water, woodstove with stocked wood, solar electricity, bunk beds, and composting toilet.

Cleve Cole Hut in the morning light

Cleve Cole Hut in the morning light

We had carried tents and sleeping pads with us but there was plenty of room in the bunks, allowing us to sleep in the hut both nights.

Justin & Laura in their sleeping bags in Cleve Cole Hut

Snug as a bug in a rug in our bunks in Cleve Cole Hut

We also prepared our meals, warmed up, listened to footy matches in the evening, and relaxed after our days out on the mountain.

The cozy interior of Cleve Cole Hut

The cozy interior of Cleve Cole Hut

One of my favorite things about huts like this is the camraderie that you experience with other hut users. On this particular trip, there were five other users of the hut (not including the native field mice). Three were older gentleman who had spent seven full days at the hut. This trip has become an annual tradition for them since 2001. They were hilarious, each with a vastly different personality. In addition to them, there were two younger guys who were very good skiers but on their first backcountry tour. Over the course of the three days, we shared stories, information about good runs, (inevitably) talked gear, and laughed a lot.

Parks Victoria has installed some really nice composting toilets near the hut!

The view from Cleve Cole Huts composting toilet

Cleve Cole Hut’s composting toilet

High points
If the first day of the tour was overcast, blustery, and relatively miserable, the second day of our tour was a perfect Spring ski day. You can see how bluebird clear it was in the photo above as I headed to out for my morning devotional.

Since we weren’t interested in skiing the steep lines that can be found on Mt. Bogong, we decided to take a leisurely ski tour up to the summit and to ski some nice gladed runs nearer to the hut.

The Mt. Bogong massif

The high point in this photo is the top of Mt. Bogong

After reaching the summit, we stopped for some photos and a leisurely snack. The rock cairn you can see in the photo is 14ft tall when there is no snow.

Victoria's highest woman!

Laura and Matt relaxing on the summit of Mt. Bogong

It was so clear that we were able to see all the way to the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s highest mountain range. We had fantastic view of Mt. Kosciuszko, the highest point on mainland Australia. We also learned two fun facts about Mt. Kosciuszko. 1. It’s named after a Polish national hero who is also a United States Revolutionary War hero. You can find a statue of him in Lafeyette Park in front of the White House! 2. About 20 years ago, the Australian authorities realized that the peak they thought was the highest point in Australia was actually ten meters lower than it’s neighboring peak. Not wanting to worry about rewriting history, they decided to simply swap the two names of the mountains – so the Mount Kosciuszko we know today had a different name 20 years ago.

lots of snow and mountains

Mt. Bogong with the Snowy Mountains – and mainland Australia’s highest point – off in the distance.

After bagging our summit, we headed back toward Cleve Cole Hut so Laura could work on her ever improving downhill skiing skills.

The Good Guide
In a previous post on travelling, we mentioned that we think it’s worth paying for a good guide for certain travel experiences. Since neither of us knew what to expect in the Australian backcountry, we thought it best to hire a professional. It was well worth it. Matt O’Keefe at vicalps.com is everything you could want in a guide. Safety is his top priority, he’s flexible when necessary, attentive to your needs and interests, and is a fantastic travelling companion. We couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves more and much of the credit falls to Matt’s knowledgeable and thoughtful planning. Matt runs hiking, mountain biking, snowshoesing, and ski touring trips. He also guides sea kayaking tours that are within 2 to 3 hours of Melbourne. We would highly recommend seeking him out.

Laura’s thoughts on her first ski tour
My experience on this trip was really marked by the journey up and down the mountain. It was one of the most physically exhausting experiences of my life. If you would have asked me if I would like to hike almost entirely uphill on a rocky path, dodging fallen trees, with a massive backpack, I probably would have said, “no, not my idea of fun.” And that was only the first hour and half in. Once we actually reached snow, we walked, again mostly uphill, for another two or three hours in freezing winds, barely able to see more than a few feet in front us. Again, not my usual idea of fun. But here’s the weird thing: I enjoyed it. Even when I could barely feel my cheeks and my right shoulder ached as the wind beat against my backpack, my main thought was, “wow, this is unique. This is hard. I have never done this before.” And two days later, when I could actually see what I had hiked up, my thought was “holy s$#t, I can’t believe I hiked up that.” I am not the type of person who pushes herself physically. When I feel myself get tired, I usually stop. But, on this trip, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. And, not to sound sappy or overly dramatic, I think this experience changed me a bit.

In comparison with the hike up and down, the rest of the trip was relaxing, easy and really fun. The weather was beautiful on our second day. I was able to practice my turns on gentle hills. I also gained a new appreciation for gear: climbing skins (removable pieces of nylon fabric that allow the ski to glide forward but not back) are awesome. Cleve Cole Hut had everything we needed for an enjoyable stay: a comfortable place to sleep, a warm fire, and good company.

Justin has been raving to me about ski touring for years now, and I think he was really hoping this trip would cause me to fall in love with it as he has. Unfortunately, I think this trip was much harder than he expected. But the unexpected outcome is that I would definitely do it again. I am excited to see what else I can do.

Happy Campers

Happy Campers heading home to hot showers and tired legs

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Our Metaphorical One Night Stand: Mocho does Sydney

Justin & Laura with Sydney Harbour in the background

Mocho does Sydney

Two weeks ago we hopped a cheap jetstar.com flight to Sydney for a long weekend. We had heard lovely things about Sydney. Melburnians are quick to admit that Sydney is the more beautiful city, but they also like to get a pointed jab in when admitting it. ‘Sydney is a one night stand while Melbourne is a love affair”, they like to say. Would we be enamoured with Sydney at first sight but hope that we’d part ways  in the morning without exchanging phone numbers? We decided that three days would be just the right amount of time to figure it out.

To test this theory, we planned to explore Sydney’s Harbour on day one, its vibrant inner neighbourhoods on the second, and see some culture on the third. It was a pleasant three days in which we found many similarities between Melbourne and Sydney. On the face of it, we left Sydney feeling like the pithy metaphor was apt. We certainly enjoyed our exploration of Sydney’s neighbourhoods and cultural attractions but felt that Melbourne wins on both counts. What Sydney has that Melbourne can’t compete with is heart stopping geographic beauty. A city whose outright beauty calls you like a siren song; the furtive glances you catch of her in conversation only confirming that you want to see and know more of the stories she has to tell.

The highlight of our trip was the walk we took on the shores of Sydney Harbour.
If you plan a visit to Sydney, we highly recommend it. The photo above was taken mid-way through our walk. Here’s how to follow in our footsteps.

Catch the Taronga Zoo ferry from Circular Quay.
After disembarking from the ferry, turn right and walk along the road until you see a trail. The trail will have National Park signage and other useful information. Follow the trail along the water all the way to Clifton Gardens Park – about 6 km roundtrip (or as the Aussies would call it 6km return, you’ll also need to buy ‘return’ ferry tickets). On a high point before arriving at the Park you look onto the mouth of the harbour as it opens onto the South Pacific.
Just past the Park you’ll arrive at Bacino Cafe – which serves delicious coffee and Italian-style breakfast and lunch. It’s a great way to cap off a leisurely stroll that highlights some of the most beautiful urban scenery in the world – up there with Cape Town, or a clear day in Seattle or San Francisco.
We didn’t visit the zoo but combining a visit to it with the hike would be an amazing day.

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