Rainbow Beach + Carlo Sand Blow

After Bundaberg, we drove back down the coast toward Brisbane, 4 days away from our relocation rental dropoff location. The next stop was Rainbow Beach and Carlo Sand Blow in the eponymously-named Great Sandy National Park.

Fishing in the surf at Rainbow Beach

We got lucky and found a parking spot right above Rainbow Beach (next to the Life saving club), then hopped out and looked for directions to Carlo Sandblow. We’ve learned our lesson by now – hike before ocean swims, lest you want a lot of uncomfortable chafing. In retrospect, and if you’re doing this trip, drive to Carlo Sandblow first and bring water. It’s a long walk. For those of you who want to park at Rainbow Beach or got dropped off by the bus there, here’s how you get to the sandblow from the parking lot:

Head south from the parking lot through the grassy park with the playground, following the street. When the street turns inland, follow it for a few hundred meters and you’ll encounter a stair on your left side. Go up the stairs and follow the sandy path.

The park you’ll walk through on the way to the sandblow. You could always stop a few minutes and rest in the shade.
The stairway up to the Carlo Sandblow

When your path diverges, you can take either fork to the sandblow. The left will take you there via Mikado firebreak; the right takes you out to a cul-de-sac where you can walk the paved Cooloola Drive south to the start of the Carlo Walking Track. Either way, the walk is ~30 minutes.

Walking through suburbia. If you end up walking on a paved street, don’t worry, you’re still on track to find Carlo Sandblow. Just keep heading south.

The Carlo Walking Track is a well-maintained path and we had no trouble following it, which is good because the trail is part of the much larger Cooloola Great Walk that spans ~100 km of the Australian coastline. This small portion winds through dry forest for roughly 20 minutes, filled with Australian birds and bugs.

The dry forest trail on the way to Carlo Sandblow
Ants found along the trail. They fold their abdomens above their bodies to keep cool and survive near-lethal ground temperatures.

Then breaks out onto the wavy, golden sands of Carlo Sandblow that span 15 hectares in every direction. There’s no shade from the sun and the intense heat on the dunes is unrelenting, so be prepared. But the windswept sandscapes are well worth it:

Viewing the sandblow from the trail’s end. If you fancy a long hike, the trail picks up again on the south side of the sandblow. 
The Queensland coastline, as seen from the sandblow.
The blue-green surf of Rainbow Beach meets the golden-red sands of the dune. NOTE: No beach access is available from Carlo Sandblow, and any attempts would hurt the dune so don’t try.

Oh, and if you’re going, don’t be a weenie and hike all over the dune. Every person’s step shifts the sand, and too much human activity could destroy the dune’s structure. But fret not, the Queensland Government has provided a sign that tells you where the best views (and photos) are:

The Queensland Government’s oh-so helpful sign indicating lookout points and other interesting info. 

After exploring the dry dunes for an hour, we hiked back to Rainbow Beach for a heavenly, refreshing swim. Being new to the area, we asked the local lifeguards about any hazards, but there were none beyond jellyfish. Since stingrays are a problem on a lot of California beaches, I asked the lifeguards about stingray risks and they were quick to reassure me. “That thing with Steve Irwin was a freak accident,” one guy said quickly. “Oh,” I replied. I hadn’t even thought of that, but the lifeguards probably field stingray questions several times a year because of it.

A mummified juvenile triggerfish, about the size of an egg. Dozens of these little guys were scattered along the beach’s high tide line.

We saw neither stingrays nor jellyfish during our two hours of swimming, but there was an odd array of dead juvenile triggerfish, their little bodies mummifying in the sand and sun. The poor little guys probably got caught in a strong storm or current and got swept up here. But it’s just one more thing the tide can bring in Australia.

Rainbow Beach, as seen from a windswept tunnel in the sandstone of the Carlos Sandblow.

Sands of an Erosion Dreamscape

A dead tree, engulfed by the sandblow

Somewhere along the vast Australian coastline, a giant is creeping. Grain by grain, the giant oozes further inland, engulfing trees and burying forests. Its particles whip free, tumbling through the air and over the precipice until they come to rest at the giant’s pseudopod. And we as we walk along the giant’s back, feet sinking into its visceral mass, we brace ourselves against the air that shapes this strange dreamscape with erosion.  One day, the giant will engulf a city. But for now, it is content to nibble upon the land and the occasional contents of a human pocket, buried and preserved in the endless sand.

Human tracks across the surface of the sandblow


Not a bush: the sandblow slowly engulfs a tree as it moves inland each year


Patterns of erosion over sandstone embedded in the dune


A view of a neighboring dune through a hole worn into the sandstone rock


Wind erodes the sandstone formation on the dune’s side, creating holes and tunnels


An exercise in irony: a silica packet recently devoured by the dune


Multicolored sandstone and limestone deposits jut from the giant’s backside


A line of black sandstone drawn in the dune sand, slowly weathering away


A close-up of weathering patterns in sandstone


Little spoils: manmade items (aka trash) collected from the dune


The rocky, steep back of the giant, with the Pacific Ocean in the background

An open letter to New Zealand about freedom camping

Dear New Zealand,

You’re amazing. Our two weeks spent road-tripping through the North Island were priceless and filled with wonderful hiking trails, delicious meat pies, and breathtaking views. Your parks, from the local to the national, all had a unique beauty we’ve never seen elsewhere. And your people are so friendly and helpful. In short, we loved you.

So it’s totally crazy to ask this of you, but could you please, please change your rules on freedom camping? They’re vague, vary by council region, and are incredibly hard to navigate as a visitor. Twenty hours of our trip were spent on trying to figure out where we could and couldn’t camp with our tent, and in most cases we still weren’t sure. There was also a huge disconnect in understanding the rules between Kiwis and visitors. When we noticed a district prohibited freedom camping, we often asked locals in an area where we could camp. “Uh, right here?” they’d reply with confusion, followed by something like, “Pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s not private property.” Asking about the ban on freedom camping usually led them to even more confusion. So it seemed like there were different rules for Kiwis and visitors. And that felt bad.

Our tent at a free campsite we found via app and hours of driving.

At the same time, I totally understand why you’ve cracked down on freedom camping. I read online about the environmental and health problems that freedom camping caused.  It’s great that you saw a problem and wanted to protect your beautiful countryside. But letting councils regulate freedom camping hasn’t achieved that goal. Instead, it appears to have pushed budget-constrained campers who can’t afford paid campsites into a few areas where they do more damage. While camping at one of the few free sites in the Northland Peninsula, we watched campers doing their dishes in the river with soap and water. At another site, I listened to a Kiwi tell me that “camping was THE best life” as chocolate wrappers fluttered out of his campervan door and into the grass. When I pointed them out, he laughed and said “Oh no!” but made no effort to retrieve them. And then there are the hundreds of people choosing to sleep in their cars or drive on tired to the next campsite because freedom camping is banned in a district. We did this several times; it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wake up miserable.

On the upshot, sleeping terribly in the car means you’re up early for sunrises like this.

So given the problems above, I’d like to make a humble suggestion: move to an online course-and-permitting system. One of my many specialties is negotiation, much of which comes down to understanding what motivates someone. You’re motivated to keep your country beautiful and safe, to ensure that freedom camping doesn’t do damage the environment or human health. The motivation of the would-be freedom campers is to see your country’s beauty and have fun while on a budget. Both of these could be satisfied with a course-and-permitting system where would-be campers went through an online course highlighting New Zealand’s freedom camping rules, took a short quiz, and paid a small fee for a freedom camping permit. It could help New Zealand’s citizens as well, who don’t always realize what they’re doing is damaging the environment.

Freedom camping isn’t just for those on a budget; it lets you capture picture perfect moments in New Zealand’s landscape.

And as a bonus, let’s look at whether the program would pay for itself. Let’s say that you give New Zealand citizens permits for free (they pay taxes already), but you require a $10 NZD permit for every visitor who wants to freedom camp. You had 3.2 million visitors in 2014, and let’s say on the conservative side that 20% are would-be freedom campers. That means you’ve got 640,000 visitors getting a permit at $10 per person, meaning $6.4 million NZD. Could you run a program like this for $6.4 million? As a government, you would know better than I would, and you could adjust the permit cost as needed. But beyond budgeting, the course-and-permit system would help you keep New Zealand beautiful by ensuring people know the rules of freedom camping while keeping it fun and accessible to everyone, even those of us traveling on a shoestring. I hope you’ll consider it. May your grassy hills always stay green.



There’s a lot of beauty to protect in New Zealand, and a course-and-permit system would go a long way in everyone knowing how to protect it.

Mt. Coot-tha: Brisbane’s nature park

The view of Brisbane from Mt. Coot-tha lookout

Mt. Coot-tha Reserve is to Brisbane what Griffith Park is to Los Angeles. Covering 1,500 hectares at the city’s edge, the reserve encompasses the manicured Brisbane Botanical Gardens and long networks of dusty hiking trails through natural bushland. When I last visited, I managed to cover only half of the gardens before exhausting myself, and somehow dragged myself up to the lookout point at the end. It wasn’t much different this time; the botanical gardens are just impossible to explore in one day, especially in Brisbane’s summer heat. Here’s some tips for your trip:

    • Bring water bottles: there are taps scattered around the park where you can refill, but few locations (only at the front and at the lookout) where you can buy water
  • Bring food or snacks: Like water, food is hard to come by and expensive
  • Stop by the front to pick up a map: the guides there can help you decide what you want to see and how to get there.
  • Visit the native Australian Plant Communities Sections: it’s a chance to see the diversity of Australian plant life and the forests offer a shaded walk down to the central lake, where you can watch the dragonflies dance around the water’s edge.
A dragonfly perches on a twig at the botanical gardens’ artifical reservoir
Ibises gather on a ridge in the Australian native plants section
A leafhopper on a bench eyes the camera warily before hopping away.
A flower blooms at the botanical gardens.

Brisbane: Wild City


Brisbane is our first stop in Australia and little has changed in the years since I last visited. The city is still in eternal summer, just as I left it in August of 2010. It’s still a maze of suburbs, interspersed with parks and wide streets not built for pedestrian navigation. Cars speed through the metropolis while an underdeveloped bus network serves the rest of the population (and us). There are somethings I don’t remember from my last stay: new skyscrapers have appeared in the downtown area, and there’s a pedestrian/bike only path along the river. But if there were ever a sister city to my Los Angeles, it would be Brisbane.

Then there are the things that are wildly different here in Brisbane: the flora and fauna. While there are plenty of European imports, like bobbling pigeons and frilly French marigolds, native Australian wildlife has taken to the city. Black-headed ibises strut through grassy parks where you’d normally see crows, and at night giant fruit bats and bush possums forage in park trees. It’s wild and jarring, a reminder that we’re on a continent on the other side of the world.

A car speeds down a four-lane road in a Bribane suburb
A dragonfly perches on a twig in Mt. Coot-tha Botanical Gardens
A brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) eats flowers from a tree in a local park.
I pose for scale with a Ficus tree growing in a local park.
A tiled mural along Brisbane’s riverfront
Bent copper nails sprout from a sculpture at the Brisbane Airport.
Golden dewdrops (Duranta erecta), an invasive plant from the Americas, grows along a garden fence in suburban Brisbane.
Pedestrians and cyclists traverse a car-free path on the north side of the Brisbane River.

Our 20 best New Zealand landscapes

With its swooping green hills, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks, New Zealand is effortlessly beautiful. And while anyone with a camera or phone can capture the country’s wild perfection, though photos don’t do the land justice. For you, who hopes to visit, who has visited, or who lives there now, we present our fifteen most breathtaking landscape photos from our two weeks on the North Island. And it’s just a small slice of New Zealand’s beauty:

People fishing at sunrise near Mangawhai Heads, Northland Peninsula
Foragers collect cockles on a beach, south of Auckland
Early morning at a campsite in the center of the North Island
Sheep run across a grassy hill near Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
The view from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
Clouds (shadows) and people (black dots on right) pass over dunes at the Te Paki Sand Dunes, Northland Peninsula
The endless hills of New Zealand as seen from the Forgotten World Highway
Volcanic cones rise from the landscape at Tongariro National Park
Taranaki Falls and Wairere Sream cut through the landscape of Tongariro National Park
Wairere Sream just before plunging over Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park
Patchwork vegetation grows in the shadow of a volcanic cone, Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro National Park landscape on a rainy day
Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) on a rainy day, Tongariro National Park
The cooling tower of Ohaaki Geothermal Station disappears into the clouds, central North Island
Steam rises from hot springs and rivers hidden in the forest, central North Island
Late afternoon on the tramping track in Puhoi, Northland Peninsula
Sunset and cloud formations as seen from the Mounds Walk, Tongariro National Park
Sunset on a rainy day, including a distant rainbow, at Nevin’s Lookout
Sunset and dusk in one photo as seen from Nevin’s Lookout
The last rays of sunset over New Zealand’s hills at Nevin’s Lookout

A (good) bed-end to our New Zealand travels

The cold and hot pools of the holiday park

This is our last night/day in New Zealand! After two weeks of driving around the country and sleeping in our tiny tent or in the not-so-ergonomic car, I’ve booked us a room at Opal Hot Springs Holiday Park to celebrate. We weren’t sure what to expect of a holiday park. We nearly missed the check-in cutoff of 9 pm, so the hours leading up to that were spent frantically driving just at the NZ speed limit and trying to call the place. Upon arrival, the guy working the front desk laughed and told us there was a bell to ring at night for check-in. He handed over the keys and asked if we wanted linens (they cost extra). We used our sleeping bags instead.

Our room. Of note: BEDS

The room came with a parking spot out front, so a short drive later we were at our room. And by room, I mean paradise. THERE WERE BEDS. Real, mattress-containing, soft fluffy beds. There was a roof, and a table with chairs to sit in. There was even a sink and food prep area, complete with dishes and pans. We dropped our stuff, flopped onto the beds, and just didn’t move for several minutes.

Natalie: “Can we just not move until tomorrow?”

Stoytcho: “Can we just not move until forever?”

But we needed dinner. So we mashed together the rest of our tomato/beans/eggs/soup seasoning, ate like hungry hikers, and then collapsed and slept like kings.

We also enjoyed our last Bundaberg soda to celebrate. It’s in a flavor that we’ve never even heard of in the U.S.

The next morning, we got a chance to enjoy the reason I had booked this specific holiday park: a hot springs pool. We pulled on our swimsuits and lazed about in the water’s warmth, interrupting our soak occasionally to swim some laps in the adjacent cold pool. In eight hours, we’d be on a plane bound for Australia. But for now, we were here, not thinking of our farewell to New Zealand’s shimmering sands, rolling green hills, and relaxing thermal springs.