Posts tagged ‘Australia’
At 11am on a Thursday morning we had expected Melbourne to be dead apart from the odd yummy mummy balancing a baby in one hand and a Miu Miu tote in the other. Maybe there would be a scattering of school kids smoking cigarettes and staring challengingly at any passersby whose eyes accidentally met theirs. There may even be the odd suit-clad worker ambling from one appointment to the next. What we hadn’t anticipated and what we found was a city brimming with life and colour. Narrow walkways like Degraves St buzzed with a population whose only occupation was to look beautiful while sipping skinny mocha decaf frappachinos. At this odd hour of the morning it seemed that every footstool, chair and bench was warmed by a sexy art student bum.
Picking our way past the crowds through air heavily laden with the aroma of brewing coffee and freshly baked bread we sought out a handful of Melbourne’s other distinctive quirks. In dark corners and grungy backalleys across the city painted faces were twisted into menacing grimances, scantily clad women flashed their thighs and tortured young souls declared their undying love for each other. Among towers of green and red plastic milk crates Melbourne’s artistic souls stencilled, sprayed and splashed to their hearts content leaving behind them a trail of social commentary, portraits and the occasional scrawly profanity penned by an angsty pre-teen.
Graffiti is an important part of Melbourne’s street scape, albeit a part that is less than valued by many of the older residents and counsellors. The city was lucky enough to have a total of five works penned by London’s famous graffiti artist Banksy. The city council recently painted over the last of the five, the iconic image of the rats parachuting.
Although it may not look like much at first sight, Melbourne is an intensely satisfying city to explore. A seemingly endless network of nooks and crannies, it’s not hard to find a corner of the city of your own – a crumbling redbrick wall decorated with a beautiful stencil; a covered arcade full of decadent chocolate shops with gold plated windows and stained glass buisness names; a hole-in-the-wall cafe where the spartan seating is artfully scattered across an unassuming laneway; the perfect boutique filled with clothes that seem to have been designed just for you; a casual bar where the music matches your ipod playlist perfectly. There’s no question about it – despite trying so hard, Melbourne is undeniably cool.
Speaking of cool, we were lucky enough to arrive in Melbourne and run straight in to the ample bossom of two old friends – Megan (pronounced MEE-gan) and Boden of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam fame. You may remember them from a messy messy New Year’s Eve on Cat Ba island that ended in the four of us squeezing into one bed for a half hour’s sleep before our 7am start. Well back then we shared our bed with them so we reckoned they owed us one. Being the gracious hosts that they were they cleared their schedule for three days of intense shopping, zoo visits, lesbian concerts, take-away dinners and talking over each other excitedly.
As always MEEgan was the centre of proceedings spewing gems like “I thought that when you crossed the equator the north and south pole switched places” and “So, what part of England is Ireland in?” Then there was the time that a little girl came up to us on the street with her dog saying “This is Teddy!” Not missing a single beat MEEgan spread out her hands and replied “And this is Roisin and Gary.” Harsh. We’ll see you in the southern hemisphere.
Coming to the end of our Oz trips we realised that it was time to get our priorities straight. Before we left we had to had to had to see and eat a kangaroo. In the absence of a ute and an open stretch of road (I hear they are magnetically attracted to the bonnets of utes) we opted for a trip to Melbourne Zoo where they also have lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!
After a long day of goading drunken koala bears, laughing at the ridiculousness of ‘roos and mimicing everything we saw, we trudged back to MEEgan and Boden’s place where Boden rustled us up the most scrumptious kangaroo steak ever to grace a frying pan.
When all was said and done, we were going to miss Oz a lot. The east coast is a fantastic place to visit. Pity about all the Aussies though (joking. Kind of.)
There are more pictures from Melbourne available in the gallery
When it comes down to it I reckon it was our trip to The Blue Mountains that had left us shivering on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere at 10pm. A few days of tramping about the forest humming the Indiana Jones theme tune had reminded us that our favourite thing ever to do in the whole wide world was to go adventuring and so far, as lovely as it had been, Australia had not been an adventure. And what spells adventure more than going somewhere backpackers normally bypass where public transport is a nightmare? Going there without a plan of course!
So there we were standing on the highway wearing all our clothes at once, trying to figure out what the Aussie sign for “Please pick me up!” was (Lonely Planet reckons it’s “a downward pointing finger” but which finger?!) when a low-riding red car zipped past, music blaring from its tinted windows. “As**ole!” we muttered, stamping our feet and shaking our fists for warmth as much as out of frustration. Suddenly there was a screech of tyres and the car spun around and zipped back towards us, the passenger door flying open and the head of a young man poking out. “Hop in, where are you going?” he said as we elbowed each other in the face in our rush to get into the car.
Ten minutes later we were at the right turn-off and were once again bundled onto the street with all our bags, fear creeping over us as time ticked on and the road got quieter and quieter. What were the laws in Australia regarding camping on a roundabout? Did people really die of pneumonia in their sleep? What would that feel like? Thankfully for us, there was no need to claim on our insurance because only minutes after we arrived a stationwagon with a bumper sticker saying Peace and Love pulled in and the loveliest massage therapist in the world drove us right down to Huskisson town and loaded us up with fresh bread just in case the restaurants were closed. Turns out people on the Shoalhaven Coast are generally agreed to be “good people”.
Huskisson (Huskie to her friends) turned out to be a lovely little seaside town inhabited mostly by the zimmerframe crowd who kept businesses for something to do. There wasn’t a lot to do other than potter on down to the bakery for pie and cake for breakfast, catch a matinee at the barnhouse-turned-cinema and then watch the sun set over Jervis Bay. You could go whale watching but the season hadn’t really kicked in yet (although it should be in full swing now), or you could wander down to Vincentia and do a bit of shopping. Not a bad life in all but not exactly the epic, kangaroo-filled adventure we had planned. The only thing that made Huskie different was the friendliness of its locals – people who stopped by for a chat, offered us free lifts when they saw our backpacks and on my birthday took one look at our measly tent being blown about by yet another storm and offered us free use of a warm cabin for the night.
A little more lively were the two stops we had made before Huskie – Berry and Kiama. Berry was a pinprick of a town with more pubs and restaurants than seemed necessary, a van boasting the best donuts for miles and a little wooden shop selling real vintage clothes (think platform shoes with live fish in the toe).
Kiama on the other hand, was a relative metropolis. Jam-packed with great dining options, bars, tourist information offices and campsites, the town was crawling with people who had come down to visit their parents for the weekend. The real star attractions though were the two blowholes, predictably named the Big Blowhole and the Little Blowhole. Not that the coast needed any more drama. With sweeping white sandy beaches and rugged cliffs cut out by relentless waves which beat violently against the rock day and night, Kiama’s shoreline was already a thing to be admired by spectators and feared by surfers and boaters.
Having never seen a blowhole before, Gary was about as excited by the Big Blowhole as the dozens of kids that gathered around and screamed “oooooooh!” every time the blowhole, well blew. All well and good until he started pushing them out of his way to get a better shot and stamping on their lollipops to mark his territory.
Eventually I had to drag Gary away and we went to the Little Blowhole, expecting to be underwhelmed. With less crowds, less barriers and less screaming children however, the Little Blowhole was a hell of a lot more fun, not to mention a lot louder and more powerful. The walk down was beautiful too passing some nice beaches and cliff views, although the best views are of the spectacular houses set along the coast with their balcony hot-tubs and flashy cars. One thing’s for sure, you could do a lot worse than to end up in Kiama or anywhere else on the Retirement Coast. Oops, I mean the Shoalhaven Coast.
There are more pictures from the Shoalhaven Coast available in the gallery
We were in No 14 hostel for exactly five minutes before we decided that we needed to extend our stay by at least another day and in retrospect it was the best decision we had made in weeks. In our first five minutes in No 14 we had already kicked off our opressive runners, slithered out of our hoodies and propped ourselves up along a couch in front of a lit fire – nice change from the arctic conditions outside. Since it was off-peak we had also bagged ourselves a cosy three-person room to ourselves.
After hands down the best sleep we had since leaving home we woke up ravenous, layered up and headed into charming Katoomba for breakfast. Over a delicious feast of eggs benedict and pesto mushrooms in Fresh Cafe we evesdropped on yummy mummies who, after finishing the school run, had dropped by with toddlers in tow for a coffee and a gossip. The staff greeted all the customers by name, asking after Little Fred or Big Tom and remembering everyone’s usual order. One flat white, two skinny lattes, one chocolate chip cookie hold the chips and can I warm that bottle for the baby?
The misty mountains were beckoning though so eventually we had to leave our snug little table in this surprisingly bustling spot and face the bitter cold. It was worth every frozen finger and aching toenail though when we found our way to Echo Point and without a word of warning, the vista suddenly opened up to reveal a canvas of perfectly sculpted mountains. Three gracefully crumbling sisters cutting through a lush carpet of thick green trees in the foreground fading into a hazy blue horizon of endless cliffs.
We were still standing in open-mouthed awe when chaos descended as the first tour bus disgorged its contents, spilling tourists onto every available inch of the viewing deck. Blinded by flashing cameras and jostled by huge families clambouring to get a group shot in front of the view, the telescope, the bush and the white-washed wall, we fled for the Giant Staircase and the start of our walk.
According to the brisk woman at the information office the walk was four or five hours long. Two hours later we had ambled our way along the path past hanging marshes, trickling waterfalls and the themepark that is Scenic World and looped back to The Three Sisters. We had seen the same view from different angles, framed by different foliage and blocked by different camera-toting heads and as nice a view as it was, after the inital wow moment we were a little under-awed. The Katoomba walks were easy enough to attract an audience ranging from toddlers to the elderly and were pimped out with glass-floored cable cars and trains – not exactly the image that had been running through our heads when we decided on two days hiking in the Blue Mountains.
Luckily we had another day so after an early night we were ready to take on the less-touristed, more challenging Wentworth Falls. From the very first second it was a better walk and in the four hours we spent hiking we saw only three or four people (yet it was a Sunday and we were only two hours from Sydney!). The Federal Pass started on a series of stepping stones crossing the mighty Wentworth Falls before leading to several ridiculously long, ridiculously steep flights of steps cut out of the side of a cliff. Unlike the day before, every corner we turned and every level we descended brought a new view – a different mountain towering in the background, a new waterfall splashing overhead, a whole new perspective on just how vast the Blue Mountains National Park really was.
Working our way towards the valley floor we crossed Wentworth Falls a few times and edged our way along the narrowest path that ever clung to the side of a mountain. Hanging marshes bowed the rock overhead and dripped down our necks and mossy flagstones slipped underfoot as we ducked to avoid this tendril, pointed out that colourful parrot or marvelled at how massive those trees were.
After passing through a lush valley cut out by several thundering falls, we started the short but steep climb back up the mountain, hauling ourselves up every step by the handrail and cursing all those damned pies we had eaten over the last month. This had all been so easy back in China! As we huffed and puffed up the knee-high steps we swore to shed our pie weight and get back into shape. Just as we were about to collapse in an exhausted, dehydrated, starving heap at the top of the mountain we spotted a beautiful glass-fronted, wooden restaurant – the divine Conservation Hut.
Two steak pies and two hot chocolates with extra cream please!
There are more pictures from the Blue Mountains available in the gallery
Inspired by a wander down Paddinton’s Oxford St, Gary and I decided that it was time enough that we shed our restrictive everyday identities and fulfilled our potential in Manly. A lovely little beach town in the suburbs of Sydney, some say that the highlight of Manly is the ferry ride over although I consider that to be an injustice to the wonder that is Manly. With its Victorian buildings and winding streets Manly is more like the perfect English seaside town than anywhere in Oz and the beaches are, dare I say it, prettier than Bondi.
Enough of all that sissy stuff though. We were in Manly for more important things. We were there to do Manly things like climb rocks, shoot wildlife, discover new land and…. eat chocolate-dipped strawberries? This scenic walk just got a whole lot more Manly.
There are more pictures from Manly available in the gallery
It has been so long since I last felt like this. All these feelings of excitement and intoxication that come with the first few days. Feeling warmth radiate from my belly at every thought and lust at every glance. Knowing what I want to be looking at as the sun sets every evening and spending every second in between walking on clouds. Trying to savour every wave of happiness while suppressing that tiny, persistent voice inside me that claws away, spreading anxiety like cancer. As much as I want this to last forever I know that it is destined to be short-lived. Eventually we must part.
The sweetest thing about all of this emotional turmoil is sharing it with Gary. I love knowing that he feels the same way, that he too wants to shout it from the rooftops. He too wants every man, woman and child to know that we are utterly, mind-numbingly, embarassingly head over heels in love… But not with each other. Today our hearts beat to Sydney’s drum. Or should that be Sydney’s didgeridoo?
Defining Sydney’s sound is almost as difficult as explaining why it holds so much appeal. Down by the harbour it could be the sound of boat horns blaring over pre-recorded aboriginal-meets-trance music while a few metres away in The Botanical Gardens the soundtrack is one of raucous cockatoos, screeching bats and sighing lovers. Around Hyde Park traffic hums, trams tinkle and the great bells of St Paul’s Cathedral clatter over the noise of a passing horse and cart. Weekdays at Bondi are somewhat calmer with the rythmic sound of joggers panting alongside lapping waves while Saturday sees the hazy fog of tranquility pierced by the joyful screams of children.
Then there’s Sydney’s lullaby – a symphony of cackling queens, slurring backpackers, gruff bouncers and querelous drunks. Open doors in karaoke bars filling the air with off-key ballads while mellow notes stretch out of basement jazz bars.
Maybe it is the contrasts that make Sydney such an intoxicating place to be. As my Dad says, everyone who goes to Sydney seems to like it. And why shouldn’t they? There’s something here for everyone. There’s even, shock horror, a slice of history that stretches back further than 50 years. In Sydney, unlike most of Oz, history is a part of the landscape. It offers up contrasts such as that of the dazzling white Sydney Opera House rubbing shoulders with the redbrick old convicts neighbourhood The Rocks – one the pinnicle of modern architecture, luxury and high-brow entertainment and the other the city’s first European settlement, initially designed to house a labrinth of cramped lodgings, open sewers and spewing factory chimneys (rampant disease and rowdy brawls are of course a distant memory in The Rocks today where original facades have been polished and preened and interiors ripped out to make room for chic Italian restaurants).
Even more appealling is the Queen Victoria Building whose stained glass windows shoppers peer through on their way up the escalator and whose elaborate old clocks inhouse designer stores use to time their opening and closing. Just around the corner from this Georgian redbrick gem is Darling Harbour – a sea of polished glass, clinking espresso mugs and synchronised water features.
With so much character and contrast on offer, there is plenty of Sydney to go around and more than enough nooks and crannies for every visitor to find a secret place of their own. Our Sydney, for example was the search for the perfect hot chocolate and the perfect sunset vista – two elements that came magically together when one frosty evening we discovered Guylian in the harbour and Mrs Macquaries Point.
Conversely our Sydney was also a much less classy affair. Our Sydney was a messy night out with Joe, Simon and Dave – old friends we have been pining for every week since saying our goodbyes in Vietnam. A night that started out promisingly with high-priced drinks in a high-class establishment and descended into chaos some time around 4am when Gary grabbed the microphone and song book in a tiny karaoke room and Joe mounted the couch. The next day our Sydney looked a little more hazy, a little more bloodshot and a lot more sandy as we devoured breakfast at a seaside café and napped on Bondi Beach. Sadly it became a little more tearfilled when we had to say goodbye to the boys for real this time amid promises to tackle Africa together someday in a 4×4 with a shotgun tucked under the seat.
And so after a week of getting to know each other – a week that felt so short in ways but so long in others – we had to open the top buttons of our jeans (there is, afterall, only so much of Sydney you can eat before it catches up on you) and bid our adieus to the city that reignited our passion for travel. As Governor Arnie himself would say, I’ll be back.
There are more pictures from Sydney available in the gallery
For such a small town Byron Bay has a lot of character. With lovely clean beaches, fantastic surf and more hostels and guesthouses than seems feasible (so how are they always full?), it should have already become another Cairns or Airlie Beach. It should be packed to the rafters with the Oz Experience bunch, fresh off the bus and already colonising all of the local bars. While this is inevitabley part of the scene it is only a fraction of the whole and Byron Bay has made a lot of room for other, less exclusive groups. For some it’s a hippy town. For most it’s heaven.
The real dealbreaker – and I hate to say it because I’m really not that kind of gal – is the vibe. Somehow Byron Bay has retained its small-town feel despite being overrun with international visitors. As a result any walk, however short, will inevitably be delayed by polite conversation with a friendly stranger or excited chat with an old friend. At the centre of this open-armed welcome is Art’s Factory Lodge, a hippy camping ground and home to most of Byron Bay’s temporary backpacker residents. Residing in 100 man tents pimped out with beds, chests of drawers, bongs and duvet sets, they spend their days handing out flyers and their nights welcoming the new arrivals with boxes of goon.
Four litres of goon, one didgeridoo-making session and several brand new friends later, campers fall into their sleeping bags for a long night of tossing and turning. During the night they will contend with the freezing cold (if it’s winter), an entire cacaphony of squaking birds, drunks falling over their tent ropes and enraged bush turkeys hurling themselves at the poles and doors trying valiantly to gain entry for a midnight snack and a tumble in the sack. It’s all in the name of fun though and a night in Art’s is an absolute must for any self-respecting backpacker.
Arrivals that eventually manage to pull theselves away from the campsite, peel themselves off the soft white sand or paddle their way out of the surf will find a town well-worth exploring. One definite highlight is the multitude of interesting walking tracks that snake their way around Cape Byron and reach their climax at Australia’s most easterly point. Walkers are rewarded for their efforts here with fantastic views of the ocean, glimpses of the isolated beaches on the other side of the shore and a stunning hilltop lighthouse. For those that time their visit right humpback whales, stingrays and dolphins are often viewed from the lookout at the most easterly point. We were happily admitted to that exclusive group when we spotted not one but two pods of dolphins (at least 23 of them!) just off the coast of The Pass where they rode the waves under surfboards and over rocks right up to the shoreline.
My favourite part of Byron though (because isn’t it always?), is the wealth of fantastic food that is available on every corner – from refreshing ice cream at Baskin Robbins to scrumptious pies at the local bakeries (more specifically the one on the Cape Byron side of Lawson St.) and the to-die-for Italian grub that is served up in army sized portions in Earth ‘n Sea. For so many reasons that can legally be published and many more, Byron Bay is delicious.
There are more pictures from Byron Bay available in the gallery
Brisbane is a really nice city. It’s clean, friendly, interesting, well-planned and just about the perfect size – big enough to keep you on your toes but not so big that it loses that familiar, smiley Aussie charm. Simply put, it’s the kind of place where you could easily imagine yourself finding a good job and settling down for a few years. It was in the spirit of giving the city a fair hearing then (and absolutely not because we were lazy, tight-fisted and tired) that we decided to bed down and make ourselves at home rather than rush around between galleries and zoos.
That said, I admit that a big part of our new slow-paced style had to do with our fantastic hosts Marie and Paul. As old friends of Gary’s they had offered to put us up and supply us with comfy sleeping arrangements, food, laundry, conversation and as much television as we could handle free of charge (Aussie TV is horribly American by the way – all informercials, constant ad breaks and vaguely embarrassing pharmaceutical ads, although Masterchef is pretty awesome). With a welcome as sincere and warm as theirs, it would have been rude not to just nestle in and pretend we were back in Dublin for a few duvet days.
We did manage to break out of our toasty nest every now and then though and what we found outside the apartment was just as pleasing. Across the city Brisbane has that lovely mix of shiny new architecture and grand old colonial buildings that make Australian cities so appealing. The highlight however is undoubtedly South Bank. Tucked into a curve in the river, South Bank is where Brisbanites come to play, be it an afternoon spent sunbathing by the sandy freshwater lagoon or a sneaky glass of wine over lunch in an outdoor cafe. Here museums cut dramatic shapes, the ferris wheel sparkles in the sun and the walkways are lined with scented purple flowers weaving their way across metal arches. An exhibition beside the university invites people to leave CDs that they no longer want and browse existing offerings for anything that tickles their fancy while across the river, a farmer’s market is thronged with office workers sampling local cheeses, home-cooked brownies and fresh fruit.
The real highlight of Brisbane was meeting up with old friends. Marie and Paul of course but also Christian, Kelly and Tanya (we missed Cameron) the fantastic bunch of Aussies we met all the way back in Beijing. You may remember the Aussies from such popular Finnish radio stations as K2lka6mtta Sjskb8unat (or something like that) where we co-broadcasted although they are better known for the destruction of property in Wanfujing Youth Hostel where every doodle on the wall – man, woman or child – and every foozball player on the table was far better endowed after Kelly and her magic marker had finished their work. Christian is solely responsible for 90% of our blog views although that map he has on the wall with our faces on it is just plain creepy and those tshirts he had printed. Well….
Anyway strange tendencies aside, Kelly and Christian had generously offered us a barbeque and a bed during our stay in Brisbane so naturally we leaped on it with foaming mouths and had a lovely night downing beers, trading stories, reminiscing and giggling as their dog Doug the pug panted like Gary Glitter at a Christening. Looking forward to seeing them and Tanya when they finally make their way to Ireland.
Before that though, we and our well-fed bellies would have to bid Brisbane a fond farewell and trade in our air conditioned, duvet-wrapped beds for a freezing cold tent in Byron Bay where we would have to turkey-proof our food. Oh goody!
There are more pictures from Brisbane available in the gallery
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when we decided that the world-famous Whitsundays had nothing on Fraser Island. It could have been on our first day when, after a long sweaty morning of tackling potholed dirt tracks in a 4×4 with no suspension, we finally reached Lake Wabby. At the end of a long trek through a rainforest (Fraser Island is the only place in the world where rainforest grows on sand) and across pristine, untouched sand dunes we found the lake hiding in a hollow between one towering dune and hundreds of thriving trees. Exhausted, parched and covered in a gritty layer of sand and salt, we ripped off our clothes and hurled ourselves down the dune and face-flat into the ice cold water. Streaming through the hot air with delicious anticipation tickling our skin, we knew there was nowhere else on earth quite like Fraser.
Then again, it could well have been the company that made Fraser Island so perfect. In that case, maybe the defining moment of our trip came in the middle of the night when we were sitting around with our 19 new best friends with tears streaming down our faces and into our mugs of goon (cheap Aussie wine-in-a-box). One of the two Italian stallions had just admitted to havin, eh, “relations” (in Clinton-speak) with his cousin while one of the effervescent British girls had let it slip that she had once fallen over in a nightclub and, in her headlong fall to the floor, knocked a disabled person out of their wheelchair. The Frenchmen may have made similar revelations during our game of I Have Never but no-one could make head nor tale out of the heavily accented strings of “I ‘ave nev-air uh-hu-hu-HU” that were pouring out of their mouths.
Then again our last day on Fraser was probably the nicest. Having done the rounds and seen the sights we finally had time to just laze on a beach for a few hours at the spectacular Lake Birrabeen. With its fine white sand and shimmering green water as well as its wonderfully remote location in the centre of a desert island, one of the Austrian girls deemed it prettier than Whitehaven Beach. While I wouldn’t go that far, it was definately the most striking part of Fraser (and there was some stiff competition) and it felt pretty damn good to lie in the sun chatting idly with a big group of friends once again. We had kind of started to forget what it felt like to be a part of any group to be honest and after six months of travelling and six months of having the same “Where have you been? Where are you going?” conversations with new people every day, it was nice to move a little past that on to real conversation topics like “What do you think is worse – pooing in the snow or pooing in the sand?”
The advantage of having a fresh water lake to dive into wasn’t lost on us either. For three days we had done little else than drive up and down the beach highway and look at the sea – a rusty old cruiseliner shipwrecked in the sea; Indian Head where the headland stops abruptly and the shark, sting tay, dolphin, killer jellyfish and whale-infested water begins; the Chamapgne pools where huge waves crash over the coast and fizz like gallons of champagne into the cracks in the rock pools; Eli Creek where some of the runoff water from Fraser makes its way over a riverbed, through a creek and into the sea; burned orange sandy pinnacles perched right along the beach; and of course, campsites tucked behind sand dunes only metres from the sea. But for all the time we spent judging tides, searching out marine life and looking at the sea, we weren’t allowed to get into it.
We got none of the benefits and all of the disadvantages of our seaside location – salty skin, dry frizzy hair, crusty sunglasses and sand just about everywhere. We had sand in our tents, in our shoes, in our underwear, in our dinners, in our jeeps and in our bellybuttons. As the guy from Fraser Roving had warned us we would, we had sand in places we didn’t even know we had. Add to that our lack of access to running water for washing or shaving and what lay sprawled out on the beach at Lake Birrabeen was a pile of smelly, sweaty, hairy bodies surrounded by a potent whiff of stale alcohol. No, having access to fresh water for swimming, washing (and would it be wrong to shave in a freshwater lake?) was not lost on us at all…
Scenic spots aside though, a lot of the fun of being on Fraser Island is just the daily challenges of being on Fraser Island. Things like having to dig your 4×4 out of the sand as the driver revs his/her way deeper and deeper into the floury surface before finally freeing it with that last 18-person push; burying, pegging down and hiding everything (shoes, cameras, watches, babies…) to save the dingos from stealing them even though they’ll probably hardly ever even use them; cooking dinner for seven in a tiny, overflowing pot on a gas ring; parking and leaving your jeep without being sure that it will still be visible above the sand when you return; struggling to keep the coolers, pots and stoves from crushing the passengers in the back of the vehicle on ridiculously bumpy inland roads; meeting a traffic jam on a deserted beach; and driving around in a hot pink jeep with no brakes, no radio and a sticky clutch which may at any given moment, take a notion to roll in the sand.
Yep, The Whitsundays have nothing on Fraser Island.
There are more pictures from Fraser Island available in the gallery
Mission Beach was exactly what I had imagined a small Australian town to be like – endless golden beaches, locals stopping every few feet to greet neighbours and strangers alike and elusive wildlife always threatening to make an appearance. What I hadn’t expected was just how appealing that beautiful stretch of sand and that warm welcome would be.
Three or four hours after arriving it felt like we had been in Mission Beach forever. The driver of the sole public bus knew us by sight, we knew our way around North Mission Beach pretty well and a visit to the local information centre had left us well versed on the area. We were on the lookout for cassowaries, a type of huge wild bird not dissimilar from an ostrich but with a dash more colour in its feathers. Word on the street was that the best place to spot the creatures was on the town’s many walking trails so we picked out the longest, the Kennedy Trail, packed a lunch and started walking.
Four hours later we had managed to trod on a surprising amount of fresh cassoary poo but were no closer to spotting the birds in the flesh (or feathers). Cassowaries or no cassowaries though, the walk was worth every second that we spent stumbling over stoney coves, wading through marshes and trekking the narrow path that skirts the headland when we rounded the last clump of half-broken trees and came across our first real-life abandonned beach. Hugging the edge of the national park the beach stretched on until infinity, its pure golden surface littered with brilliant orange leaves – the last signs of autumn. After all of our searching in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and East Timor, I had never expected to find our own quiet slice of sand in Australia.
Our hostel was quitessential Mission Beach too. A quiet wooden structure sitting proudly above the rainforest near Muff Creek, The Treehouse was the perfect place for us to unroll our brand new tent for the first time. It had all of the ‘rustic’ appeal that you want in a place like Mission Beach. The floor of the pool was covered in sand and mud blown in during the last storm; you had to chase all of the oversized bugs out of your hammock before you settled in for the day with a beer and a book; dishes had to be washed clean of any stowaway earwigs and cockroaches before use; and we made a game of dodging the massive toads as we crossed the deck to watch another spectacular sunset. We joked about it with the other guests but secretly relished our status as real, hardcore backpackers. It would take more than a few 15cm long bugs and a couple of overgrown toads to scare us!
In the end Mission Beach hit exactly the right note after a forgettable spell in Cairns (forgettable excepting the Great Barrier Reef of course). With its glittering lagoon and countless tour operators Cairns may be the star of the show but Mission Beach is, in its own unassuming way, every inch as attractive and heaps more inviting.
There are more pictures from Mission Beach available in the gallery
Cairns was, predictabley, a bit of a shock after Timor Leste and much of Asia – clean streets, nice cars, trimmed lawns, quiet pedestrian-only squares, a shiny shopping centre and so many swimming pools. It’s a nice town full of mostly two storey buildings with a conscious small town feel. The centre of everything is the esplanade – a beautiful manicured stretch of boardwalk flanked on one side by the sea and on the other by grass and a street full of Billabong shops, Baskin Robbins icecream stores, restaurants and beauty salons. The jewel in the crown, as in so many other Aussie towns from our limited experience, is a small pool-cum-lagoon where children splash as their parents watch them from beach towels on the grassy verge. Here is where all the action happens in Cairns (well, during the daytime anyway. Nighttime is a whole other kettle of fish.) Here the young, toned, tanned and beautiful stretch out under the sun, serruptitiously checking everyone else out and discussing plans for the night as a guy a few feet away strums away on his guitar.
But we weren’t in Cairns to sunbathe. It’s a nice town but not exactly a calling in its own right. The real star of the show is of course the Great Barrier Reef. After all our training in Thailand and Timor Leste we reckoned we were ready to bring out the big guns. The Great Barrier Reef would be amazing, it would be mind-blowing, it would be…. Well what would it be? We had heard so much about this great natural wonder without ever learning anything. Everyone who talks about diving here just assumes that you know what fish are there and what the coral looks like and just proceeds to repeat over and over again how great it is with out divulging any details. Yet the tour agent wanted us to part with AUS$250 each for three dives on the outer reef. We didn’t pay much more than that for the whole course in Thailand! But we had come this far and we could hardly go home without diving the Great Barrier Reef, when would we ever be here again? Plus the price was pretty much in line with absolutely everything else in Oz – cheap my ass. It would have to be the expensive outer reef too. Word on the street is that the inner reef is destroyed by tourists who punch and kick their way through, bringing home samples of the coral with them.
So with absolutely no idea what to expect we boarded the Silver Swift, lamenting the stormy weather which would inevitably stir up the tides and reduce underwater visibility. Once onboard we met the rest of our dive group – the effervescent Pearla and Hillary from Oregon, Napoleon the friendly and hilarious pilot from New York and Ulrika, the smiley Swede.
We weren’t under the water long before we decided that the Great Barrier Reef was worth every penny. Huge towers of freestanding reef mushroomed up from the ground offering a fantastic mix of detailed hard coral and colourful soft coral swaying in the tide. There were loads of anenomes, crowded with anenome fish – most notably a group of beautiful clown fish who were doing their little Nemo thing, swimming out of the anenome and then reversing back in repeatedly in an almost obsessive compulsive attempt to bond with their home. Nearby Dory flicked her yellow tail and zipped past in a blur of electic blue.
The best however, was yet to come. Since our first underwater outing we had been promised turtles but they had never materialised. “They’re very shy but this is the first time we haven’t seen at least one,” was the common refrain. Not on the Great Barrier Reef though. Making up for its failings in the visibility stakes, the reef produced not one but four turtles. And what’s more, they were stoned turtles so they were on their most chilled, sociable behaviour – letting us pet their shells, eating out of my hand and hanging around until we were done with our photos and became distracted by something colourful in the distance. DUDE! Apparently turtles eat a lot of this purple/red weed they find in the reef and it has a narcotic effect on them so the later in the day that you encounter them, the more wasted they are going to be.
As if that wasn’t enough we got to hold a pineapple sea cucumber (not actually found in the fruit and veg section of Tesco), we saw two sting rays and we even got up close and personal with a giant clam. And when I say giant, I mean giant – the thing was around two foot long! Bet it would taste great in garlic butter….
On our third dive as our awe at the towering coral and milling fish was starting to wear off we finally caught a glimpse of the main act. We were just pottering about, playing with some soft coral and making it close over our hands when we heard this muffled yell, like someone being suffocated with a pillow. Panicked we spun around expecting to see our guide Jun with a manta ray’s barb through his chest á la Steve Irwin.
What we saw instead was a huge grey shadow circling around us 5ft or 6ft away. It was a shark! A real life black tipped reef shark. Awe-struck we stopped dead, afraid even to breath. Suddenly none of us could remember – did black tipped reef sharks eat people? Could one eat six people? I shuffled behing Gary just in case. After having his sniff about and figuring out that we weren’t the small fish that usually made up his diet the shark swam off, leaving us all to do our best mime impressions of utter exhileration and dying for the dive to be done so we could get to the surface and cheer. A real life shark! Mad.
Note: It has to be said that we just can’t reccomend the Silver Swift enough. The food was incredible, the staff just the right mix of fun and responsibility, the gear up to scratch, the boat beautiful and the sites well-judged. They were definately by far the best outfit we have dived with and Jun and the crew made what could have been a dissappointing day ruined by lousy weather conditions, something to remember. And while we’re gushing, The Northern Greenhouse Hostel in Cairns is one of the best we have ever stayed in, if a tad expensive.
More pictures from Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are available in the gallery