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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Birding On My Own
Australia &
New Zealand 2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Getting Started

Emmalee Tarry at Ayres Rock

The author at Ayres Rock now called Uluru.

Comments to webmaster

If I Can Do This, You Can Too
My name is Emmalee Tarry and this book is the story of my six month solo trip to Australia and New Zealand. I am 63 years old and retired. I am not rich or famous and while I have great admiration for those birding geniuses who know every fact about every bird and can identify a Baird's Sandpiper at 200 yards, I am not in their category. I am a very ordinary birdwatcher. I just love bird watching and have pursued it vigorous for about twenty years mostly in the New England area.

Seabirds and pelagic birding are my special passion, but even there I do not claim any special talents. All this ordinariness is what makes this book worth writing and I hope worth reading. If I can do this, you can too. My great desire to travel began with the postcards from my father, a second lieutenant in World War II stationed in England and North Africa. I still have every card he sent home.

I started this trip in June of 2002. This was 9 months after the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York an event that is commonly known as 9/11. I experienced a great outpouring of sympathy for the United States as a result of this horrible incident.

When I Retire (WIR)
When I hit the big five oh, I started to think about WIR (when I retire). Over the years my plans grew. I would sell my house, put my stuff in one of my kid's basement (they owe me), and hit the open road. Approaching 60, I even talked out loud about all these plans. Absolutely nobody believed any of it. And then I just did it.

It took several months to get all the arrangements made. I turned my condominium over to the complex manager and within a few weeks she had an offer to rent it for two years. My stuff had to go.

My books, pictures, and treasured stuff that just couldn't be thrown away went into a storage locker. The rest is gone. That was painful. Out went years of birders magazines, the worn out comfortable chair from my living room, my bed, and a lot of junk I really didn't remember owning. I went to the doctor and the dentist, arranged my financial affairs for 6 months, packed up two huge duffle bags with clothes, books, binoculars, and my telescope. Still nobody believed I was actually going to do this. I bought a round trip ticket to Auckland, New Zealand and another from Christchurch, New Zealand to Sydney Australia and back. I was off.

Good On 'Ya"
You are doing this by yourself? " I got that question often throughout the trip. Most often from other women who always ended up telling me "Good on 'ya." my favorite Aussie expression. By the way I never heard anyone refer to a barbecue as a "barbie" and shrimp are called "prawns" just in case you think Aussies really say "I'll put another shrimp on the barbie."

I went by myself because I know of no better person to travel with. Besides who else has the freedom to travel for six months. I have always been happy doing things by myself. I think when you travel by yourself, you are more open to meeting and talking to other people. I missed my family especially my granddaughter. E-mail is great for staying in touch.  I think Carolyn will be proud of Grandma some day.You just have to be careful that you don't start trusting strangers. Only once on the entire trip did I offer a ride to another person and that was to a young woman from Korea, I met at a hostel in New Zealand. I took her with me to see two species of penguin in one evening. She really got into penguins.

In Australia there were people I met and talked with in the campgrounds. Some had great stories like the young Aussie couple who quit their jobs, rented their house and hit the road living in a tent to see their own country . He wanted me to fill him in on September 11th since they had missed most of the news. I told him about watching the towers fall, the firefighters and policemen lost, the young people who never got to retire, the flags on every house and car. It comforted me to know that on the other side of the world someone was interested and sympathetic.

Sometimes I ran into people over and over. Even if I didn't remember their names, they seemed like old friends and we exchanged stories. The great thing about youth hostels and campgrounds is that people talk to each other. In hotels everyone disappears into their private cubes to watch TV.
When you travel with an organized birding group there is always a leader who finds the birds, identifies them and tells you where to look. Trip leaders joke about the client who doesn't really need binoculars because they hardly look at the bird before they grab their pencil and start writing it down. I was never that bad. I always tried to study the birds ahead of time and kept my eye open for birds along the way. I did depend on the leaders to find and identify the birds. Now I was facing a whole continent full of new birds by myself. I am sure that a serious birder could see more birds on a shorter trip to Australia with an accomplished leader like Kevin Zimmer from VENT or Bill Drummond. I learned more doing it on my own.

Trip Summary
I planned my trip to take winter pelagic trips from both New Zealand and Australia. Winter ( June-August) is the best time to see Albatrosses that breed during the summer. I flew to Auckland, New Zealand leaving Los Angeles in the evening and arrived in the morning. I spent two nights in Auckland. The second day was spent touring the bird sanctuary on Tiritiri Matangi. I took the overnight train to Wellington and the ferry to the south island where I rented a car and drove to Kaikoura. I spent 5 days in Kaikoura taking the Albatross Encounters trips on the winter ocean.

From Christchurch  I flew to Sydney, Australia and picked up a campervan on July 1. I spent the next four months in the campervan. The first winter pelagic out of Sydney was cancelled and the next one from Wollongong was not until the end of July. I spent a week in Royal National Park just south of Sydney birding and learning to drive on the left side of the road. Then I headed north to Lamington National Park at the southern border of Queensland. Winter is the best time to get the lyrebirds. I returned south to Wollongong for the July pelagic.

After two days at the Barren Grounds Bird Observatory, I headed west to the Grampians, Great Ocean Road, Little Desert, and a night at a sanctuary for small endangered marsupials. The rest of August was spent driving up the Red Center of Australia from Port Augusta to Ayres Rock, Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge, Kakadu National Park and finally Darwin.

In late August I took the Barkley Highway east to north Queensland where I spent most of September. I returned to Wollongong for the September pelagic and then headed south to Melbourne for the ferry trip to Tasmania. I returned to Melbourne to tour Phillips Island, Wilson's Promontory and on to Denilquin in New South Wales for a trip with bird guide Phil Mahrer who has put this tiny farming town on the birding map.

I went back to Wollongong for the October pelagic and then did a mop up trip in the Snowy Mountains, a visit to Canbera and back to Sydney to turn in the campervan and fly back to Christchurch.In November I toured the south island and made a two day trip to Stewart Island. In December I was on the north island of New Zealand ending in Auckland for the December 17 return flight home.

Driving in Australia and New Zealand
If you are used to driving in the United States, both countries will present some challenges and not just because they drive on the left hand side of the road. My campervan had a manual shift which I had to work with my left hand. To the end of the trip I found myself turning on the windshield wipers to signal a turn. Slow down, be more careful and yield the right of way. If I can do it, you can too.

I drove 25,000 km in Australia and around both the north and south islands in New Zealand. Most highways are two lane roads with passing lanes every 5 km or so. Traffic lanes are narrower than in the US while cars and trucks are just as big. The shoulders are very narrow and usually gravel.
There are a few four lane divided highways that give the illusion of "limited access". Watch out for a small sign warning "End Limited Access " because it means that you will suddenly come to a traffic light or a rotary .

Both countries are way behind in road signs. Navigational signs are sometimes very small and the design and color scheme change from place to place. I found that once they told you this was the road to city they were unlikely to repeat the information until you got there. Some small towns fail to identify the town limits when you enter so that if your map shows "Roseville" on the way to someplace else and you come to an unnamed cluster of houses or even a store that might be Roseville.

And then there is the Barkley Highway in Australia, 180 km of which has only one and half lanes for two way traffic. I drove it too and I will tell you about that hair raising adventure when the time comes.

In New Zealand one lane bridges are found even on busy highways. A sign tells you which direction has the right of way. Before you cross make sure that no car is already on the bridge. Just when you think you are adjusting, you come to a one lane bridge that handles two way traffic and the railroad track. I assume the train has the right of way.

Camping in Australia
Australians love camping. A significant number of Aussies seem to live permanently in their caravans moving south in the summer and north in the winter. The climate is mild enough to camp outside even in winter. I camped in the Grampians in winter and the temperature at night got down in the forties. That was less than comfortable, but chances are a hotel would not have had central heating anyway.

Every place that has hotels or motels also has a campground and many places have only a campground. The bonus for birders is that you can compile a pretty good bird list just in the campgrounds.Most campgrounds are private businesses. The campervan came with a book that listed private campgrounds and a free membership to an association which gave me a discount at campgrounds rated by and associated with "Big Four". I found these to be the best quality and also most expensive. You can expect to pay from AU$9 to $28 per night. The lower price was usually for one person only with a charge of about AU$7 extra for another person. All offer powered sites with one and sometimes two electrical outlets per site. Water is always available usually with a tap in each camp site. The amenities block contains toilets, hot showers, and sometimes bath tubs. By the way, Aussies and Kiwis do not use the terms "bathroom" or "restroom" to refer to the toilet.

A camp site may have a concrete patio, but. picnic tables are not common.Australians love their barbecues and all campground provide electric or gas barbecues. Some have complete camp kitchens with stoves, ovens, microwaves and even refrigerators. Game rooms, swimming pools, and television rooms are fairly standard. The more sophisticated provide internet terminals and have a travel desk where you can book tours and future reservations. Larger campgrounds have a restaurant.

The Ensuite Site
he more upscale campgrounds offer private ensuite sites for an extra fee of $4- $7. Here is my campervan parked at an ensuite site. The little building contains a toilet, sink, shower and hot water heater.

Towels, soap, and maid service are not provided.

If you are staying several nights you can leave your personal belonging in the ensuite. Notice the concrete patio and the mop for cleaning the floor. I elected the ensuite whenever it was available.

When will American campgrounds get on to the ensuirte site?

En Suite camping site

Campervan Rental Australia
One important note about renting a vehicle in either Australia and New Zealand is that your insurance restricts you to driving on sealed (paved) roads.  This will be a problem at times.

I rented the smallest campervan available which was advertised to accommodate 2 adults and a small child. I named it Willy after the Willy Wagtail which was my favorite bird in Australia. Willy was a new Toyota van with an elevated roof that allowed me to stand inside to cook.
Willy used regular gas (petrol in Australia). Larger campervans use diesel fuel. Notice the small parking space standard in Australian parking lots.

The back of the van contained a table that made into a double bed at night. There was a small two burner stove inside the van using LP gas. There was no oven. You were warned to keep a window open while cooking and not to use the stove to heat the van.

A small under the counter refrigerator operated on electricity when you were in a campground and off of a separate battery which recharged as you drove the van. The battery charge would run the refrigerator and the inside lights for 24 hours without driving anywhere. I spent 5 days in Lamington National Park. where there was no electricity and no place to drive so while there I turned the refrigerator off and lived on canned food or food purchased from the small grocery at O'Reilleys and eaten immediately. Yes, even Americans can live a few days without a refrigerator.

Willy at Ayres Rock

Here is Willy parked facing Ayres Rock now renamed Uluru.  Notice how small the parking spaces area.

The space over the drivers area was for storage and that is where I kept my clothes. A box on the front seat contained maps and books. The extra child's bunk over the table came in handy for storing the pillows and other bedding. Set up in a camp site was easy. All I had to do was back into the site, plug in the electrical cord, turn on the LP gas bottle. The van had 48 liter water storage container which was filled using a hose. To use the sink inside the van you had to pump the water by hand from the storage tank.

I used the sink only to wash my hands while traveling. I found it more convenient to wash my dishes in the sinks provided in the camp kitchens. The water from the sink ran out under the van into a bucket which had to be emptied in the bushes away from the site. Water from the storage tank didn't taste very good so I carried water in bottles to drink or used the taps in the campground. I kept the water tank filled to avoid having it slosh around while driving.  The alternative would have been to empty the tank completely and this would have reduced the weight of the van and saved gas. I thought it more important to have some water out in the desert and most of Australia is desert.

Fuel Costs
Refrigerators, stoves, water storage all add weight to the van and decrease the gas mileage. Make no mistake petrol is really expensive in Australia. The pump (browser) reads AU$.90- to 1.20 a liter, but it take 3.79 liters to make a US gallon. It usually cost about AU$40 per day for petrol while I was driving long distances. Before you decide you need a big campervan with amenities consider the cost of fuel.

hile driving up the Stewart Highway through the red center, I noticed a couple of young Germans emptying the entire water tank of their large campervan. Gas on the Stuart Highway costs up to AU1.25 per liter. Sticker shock led them to try to reduce the weight of their vehicle

The Great Dividing Range
The Great Dividing Range runs the length of the east coast of Australia. It is very steep on the eastern side. I probably drove up the eastern slope 10 times during my trip. I was always satisfied with the power of the campervan on these very steep winding roads. A heavier campervan might not do as well. Think Small.

Due to the drought Australia is experiencing, mud was not an issue. I was careful to avoid driving the car into soft sand.

I purchased a small electric heater/fan for about AU$34. All other campervans had an open electrical outlet where you could plug in toasters, radios, camera battery rechargers etc. Mine did not so I also purchased an outdoor extension cord for AU$44. When it was too hot or too cold, I could plug the extension cord into another electrical outlet and use either the fan or the heater inside the van. I only used the heater when I was awake. At the end of the trip I donated the heater, cord, left over food, and some other stuff to the Barron Grounds Bird Observatory.

My campervan was a brand new Toyota Hiace van. I was responsible for getting the 1000 KM service done. I drove the car 25,000 KM over the four months rental and had to take the car in for the 10,000 and 20,000 KM servicing. I was allowed to pick any suitable garage for the servicing and Rental Company paid the service charges.

The terms of the rental included a $2000 deductible on the insurance. This became an issue when a careless driver pulling a boat hit the left hand rear view mirror and destroyed it. I ended up having to repair the mirror at a cost of AU $348. I also bumped into a tree and damaged the rear end of the van and had to pay for that repair as well. I was extremely careful and probably a whole lot lucky not to have the windshield broken by a rock or any serious gravel damage to the body of the car.. You had probably better count on having to pay for some damage after driving so far on Australian roads.

Another issue with the rental was that the insurance coverage required that you drive only on "sealed" or "paved" roads. While there are many miles of paved roads in Australia some of the good birds are down gravel or dirt roads. There were times when I had to head down an unsealed road being very careful to avoid an accident or getting the car stuck. For example, visiting the Barron Ground Bird Observatory required driving about 1 km on an unpaved road . Some of the national parks have no sealed roads and had to be avoided. Apparently this is the policy with all the campervan rentals. Over the long run it was not much of a disadvantage since I didn't plan on taking off into the desert anyway. My opinion is that there are plenty of birds in Australia which you can reach on the paved roads. I twice hired a bird guide who drove their own 4 wheel drive vehicles.

New Zealand Rental Cars
Campervans and campgrounds are equally available in New Zealand. Distances are much shorter and I elected to rent a car and stay at the many Youth Hostels or Backpacker Hotels.

New Zealand consists of two large islands. It is very expensive to take a car on the ferry between the north and south island All the rental agencies are set up so that you turn in your car or either side of the strait and pick up another car on the other side. The rental agencies are either located at the ferry terminal or will pick you up and drop you off at the terminal. I rented a high mileage automatic shift compact car from Ezi- Rental Cars. The rate included insurance with NZ$500 deductible. Since I rented the car for 42 days, it was prohibitive to lower the deductible with a daily fee. I did elect to pay a flat NZ$30 for windshield insurance. It is very easy to suffer windshield damage on New Zealand roads.

EZi will pick you up at the airport for free and take you to the nearby rental office. They will drop you off at the airport when you leave. They also do pickups at Wellington and Picton ferry terminals. Phone 1300 361 322

New Zealand Youth Hostels and Backpacker Hotels
I am very convinced that they way to see New Zealand is to stay in the youth hostels or YHA's. They are very popular with students and young people, but you will also see older adults and even families there. You start by buying a membership for NZ$30. A night costs between NZ$20 - 28 per person. There are also Backpacker Hotels that are not associated with the YHA. Tourism in New Zealand was started by the youth hostel movement and they are just now building upscale hotels and motels. Every large city has a YHA and you will find one in most of the small towns that are attractive to tourists.

At the first hostel you can get a small book that lists all of the hostels in the country. The host will make reservations for you at the next hostel so you always have a guaranteed bed. Most small towns have signs directing you to the hostels or you can stop at the Tourist Information Kiosk for directions.

I always asked for a female dorm bed, but there are also double rooms and at extra cost single rooms. The female part is not always guaranteed and at one place I had to share the room with two men and another woman. It works but is a little inconvenient as you cannot change your clothes in the room. There are separate male and female bathrooms. You get a bed, two sheets, pillow case and blankets. You make up your bed on arrival and when you leave put your sheets in the laundry basket. You are not asked to do any other house work except to wash your dishes in the kitchen. You need your own towel, wash cloth, and toiletries including soap. Hostels in New Zealand do not lock you out during the day although the staff leaves from about 10 AM to 4 PM.

You can leave your stuff in your room at your own risk. I kept my wallet on my person at all times. Valuables such as binoculars, telescope, cameras I stored in the trunk of my car. I left my suitcase with clothes under my bed during the day and never experienced any theft, but then who wants to steal clothes for an older woman.

All the hostels have a fully equipped kitchen. A cardboard box from the grocery is handy for storing your food on the shelves provided by the hostel. Refrigerated food should be placed in a plastic bag with your name and departure date. Usually there is a shelf for free food discarded because someone was moving on.The best part of a YHA stay is that you will meet some wonderful people sharing the common areas. Active, interesting people travel with the YHA. Every evening you can share your days adventures with others and find out what is good to do in the area. I was always the only one birdwatching, but soon people were telling me about birds they saw.

My first YHA hostel was in Kaikoura and I stayed here 5 nights for NZ$20 per night. The windows on the right are the dining room and kitchen which have an awesome view of the bay and the mountains. You can walk to the grocery store, swimming pool, downtown restaurants, and shops. There was a limited amount of parking available here and most other hostels. Parking can be very difficult at hostels in large cities like Wellington (I parked 3 blocks away in a garage) and Auckland (turned in the car and didn't have to worry about it.). At the big city hostels you can usually park for a short time to unload.

End Chapter 1  Getting Started

Kaikoura YHA on the Bay

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