The Mayhem Consultant and I have just returned from a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand, which was officially to speak at the romance writer conferences in both countries, but really because we’re inveterate travelers. We visited Oz and NZ a number of years ago, and I’ve been wanting an excuse to go back ever since.
It was a charmed and wonderful trip, and my deepest thanks to the two romance writing groups for inviting me. But along with schmoozing and sightseeing and eating, I had occasional thoughts about the countries that were once part of the British Empire: the “pink bits” on the old world maps. Now most are member of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), which currently includes 53 nations, most former members of the empire.
I’ve been in a number of those countries: the US, since I was born here, Canada, which was pretty close to where I grew up, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and several of the Caribbean nations. I’m always fascinated by the similarities created by a large dose of British culture over many years, and also the differences created by each nation’s individual history.
And of course from the tourist point of view, it's easier to go to places where English is the national language. More or less. <G>
Using a staggering number of AmEx points, I was able to book us business class tickets for most of the trip, which made the loooooong flight from Baltimore to Brisbane much easier.
I had not been looking forward to the 8 hour layover we would have to make in Auckland before flying on to Brisbane, but that turned out to be Very Cool. We broke out of the secure area at Auckland airport, found the information desk, and a nice woman located a delightful four hour van and driver charter. We had a private tour of Auckland on a perfect sunny spring day. We even saw a penguin swimming in Auckland harbor! So what could have been a dreadful layover became a fun tour of a beautiful city.
From Brisbane we flew up to Cairns, the touring center for North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. I gather that in summer, the area is miserably hot and muggy, but in winter, it’s lovely—think Phoenix in February.
We hopped onto a ferry that took us 45 minutes out to Green Island, which is a day trip destination for people coming to sample the delights of the reef, but it also has a fine, quiet hotel with each cottage set in the midst of lush rain forest greenery.
We stayed three nights, seeing the reef in a glass bottom boat and visiting the little zoo that specialized in scary saltwater crocodiles. Some of them just sat around, still as stone, with their mouths open in case something walked in. And when they leaped straight in the air to get a piece of chicken on a rod……….!!!!! Mean dudes.
We also went parasailing, gliding high into the sky and looking down on Green Island and the boats and the shadows of the reef. Pure tourist stuff, and great fun.
We could have spent weeks just in North Queensland and that’s only one small part of Australia, but it was time to head to Brisbane for the conference. Aussies are sometimes called Ozzies, and believe me, those Ozzies know how to have a good time!
Australia has been shaped by its fast expanse of ancient land, and the fierceness of much of the sun-struck interior. It’s the most urbanized country in the world, I’m told, with most of the population concentrated in coastal cities. This year’s RWAustralia conference was held in Brisbane, a beautiful city on the eastern edge of the country.
Both conferences were much like American RWA conferences, with similar kinds of workshops. But since both Australia and New Zealand have much smaller populations than the US (about 22 million and 4 million respectively) the conferences are smaller. While there are many talented and successful authors, most of them writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon, the pool is small, so they enjoy bringing in foreigners with funny accents who may have different slants on writing and publishing. In return, both groups are wonderfully welcoming and supportive, and just plain fun.
Most Commonwealth countries have a lot more tea around, and if one is really lucky, they’ll have cream teas with scones and real Devonshire clotted cream. Yum! I found that tea breaks are built into conferences—when Anne Gracie and I gave a full day workshop on storytelling in Brisbane, the seven hour session included three meals. <g> Morning and afternoon tea had snacks—sweet in the morning, possibly savory as well in the afternoon. Lunch, interestingly, didn’t include dessert, but just wait a couple of hours for afternoon tea. <g>
After a great conference, it was off to New Zealand and three days in the country before the Kiwi conference in Auckland. Like many Commonwealth countries, vehicles are driven on the left side of the roads. (Same in Australia, but I didn’t drive there.) I drove right hand drive cars when I lived in England, but that was a long time ago, and I was rusty with the rental car I drove in New Zealand.
Note: staying on the correct side of the road isn’t the hardest part of making the shift, though mistakes can be disastrous. Much harder is knowing where the left side of the car is. There’s a tendency to clip hedges while driving. It’s no fun picking up a strange car at an airport and going out into rush hour traffic and construction (there is always construction around airports) with a strange car, but I managed to get to our destination without turning into a hood ornament on a large truck.
Since most of New Zealand is south of Australia, it gets colder in winter, with alps and snow and great skiing on the South Island. On our first trip, we traveled from Auckland to Milford Sound in the far south, but since August is winter and our sightseeing time was broken into two three day pieces, I figured that it would be easiest to stick to the north part of the north island.
New Zealand is a farmer’s paradise of greenery, with both islands looking as if they were designed by a really good Regency landscape architect. There are many tiny villages and farms, and lots of truly fabulous B&Bs. We stayed at three of them—each wonderful in a different way.
The farm stay at Bonnie Brae Farm was particularly amazing—we ate with the family, feasting on great local produce. As an old farm girl, I loved riding over the hills on a hay bale on the tractor’s lift—and was fascinated that it was possible to grow citrus trees next to fruits like peaches and apples, and for all of them to produce fruit. (When we said yes, we’d like fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast, our hostess scooped a double handful of her oranges from a bowl on the coffee table and went into the kitchen to juice them. <g>)
While Australia is an ancient land, New Zealand is geologically perhaps the newest nation on earth (though Iceland might be a contender.) The town of Rotorua on the North Island is famous for both geothermal activity and Maori culture. We enjoyed both. Our first night, we attended to a Maori cultural show and dinner (the Maori warriors were wearing traditional costume, which is to say, not very much! On quite a chilly night.) And naturally went to see the geysers and bubbling hot pots in an area right next to the town.
The next day we went to the Agrodome for a farm show. We’d done this 25 years ago, and it was such fun that we went back. I’d gotten sheep facts for my books the first time around, and now the Agrodome has added new attractions. You still get to meet the different breeds of sheep and see herd dogs work, but there’s also an organic farm tour. Since it was pouring rain, we were glad to be on a wagon covered to keep off the worst of the rain as we were pulled by a tractor again.
The Agrodome also had a first class gift shop. We were fascinated to discover knit garments made of a yarn spun from possum fur and merino wool, with maybe a little nylon or silk added. The result is a gorgeous, lightweight, incredibly cozy material. The sweaters are great fun to pet. <g>
The possum in question is different from our American variety, which look like large gray rats. The brush tail possum is an import from Australia and a major destructive nuisance in New Zealand, so I think that turning them into sweaters is a fine idea.
It was interesting to see lovely, civilized Kiwis talk about running possums down with their cars whenever they can. (The possums do a lot of damage to the forest and native birds.) When the conversation turned to possums, inevitably someone said with exasperation that the little beasts are actually a protected species in Australia. (Apparently New Zealand is paradise for possums as well as farmers.)
But all vacations must end, and deadlines loom, so after a couple more days of touring, we headed for home. I am vastly pleased with myself for finishing the draft of a fantasy novelette while flying through the night between Auckland and Los Angeles. It was the only lick of writing I did the whole time, but at least it’s something!