We park our van and don’t have to pay as a friendly Aussie gives us the time remaining on her ticket. (Aussies are like that – they’d rather help each other out than worry about the rules – which seem to be rather bendy here anyways). After hitting the tourist info booth to line up our Great Barrier Reef excursion, we set off to check into a campervan park. I guess we picked the deluxe one this time because it has free mini golf, a pool with waterslides, tennis court and a jumping pillow (besides the usual amenities of showers and outdoor kitchen). It’s a great place for kids.
After a couple of days of hard driving, we take full advantage of the facilities and spend our first day enjoying the outdoors (a run, the jumping pillow, the pool). A short trip into town for fish and chips on the beach and then its back to the campervan park for a game of mini golf and a relaxing evening.
The next day we get up early for our reef trip. Whitehaven Express comes highly recommended and we soon find out why. Our $140 (for both) gets us transportation to/from the boat and eight hours of fun. The boat is full and we meet a couple from Toronto who are traveling the world as well, along with a bunch of Aussies who are super friendly. One of the older ladies playfully slaps Curtis when he pronounces “tomato” tomato instead of “tomahhh-to”.
Our first stop on this cloudy morning is snorkeling at the reef. Hesitant to gear down and jump into that cold water (it is winter after all), I give myself a pep talk. I’m not going to act like a grandmother and take the comfort of the glass bottom boat – I can’t come all the way to Australia without snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef – twenty degree water or not. For the first time ever, I actually wish I weighed 20 pounds more, then realize that wishing for a wetsuit is a more practical way of keeping warm. In just my flippers, mask and bikini, I jump in. Curtis has been waiting in the water for at least 5 minutes by now – he’s always the first one in when the ocean is involved.
The snorkeling here is more amazing for the variety and size of the coral rather than the fish. The fish are actually the same ones we saw when we snorkeled in Thailand. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself when I start to realize just how cold I am. A bunch of us must have felt the cold at the same time because there is a sudden surge of swimmers towards the boat. Covered in goose bumps and shivering I make my way to the upper deck where the sun has blessedly appeared and try to warm up with the other shivering girls. We chat and sun ourselves – Curtis arrives about 15 minutes later – with blue lips! I told you the water was cold!
Tea, coffee and biscuits are served as everyone dries off and changes back into warmer clothes for the boat ride to the whitest of the white sand beaches. The sand here is like flour. Really. Just amazing!
We enjoy a delicious Aussie barbie on the beach of steak, bangers (sausages), spicy burgers, salad and fruit. Six weeks in Australia and this is our first bbq. Crazy when you consider that coin operated bbq’s are found throughout Australia at all of the public beaches and parks (I so wish we had this at home!) Our bellies full, we wander the beach, soak up the sun and just enjoy.
Continuing on our journey, we head towards the perfect spot for a hike to a lookout that brings the most breathtaking view. It’s the Whitsunday Islands in all their turquoise waters and white sand glory. I don’t want to leave but tear myself away from the beauty when it’s time to head back to the boat.
Back on the boat, as we wait for the rest of our tour group, we spot a few big sea turtles swimming by. Everyone is excited and tries to take their picture when we spot a huge manta ray. That manta just glides through the water – looking very graceful – when the captain of the boat announces that he wishes we would see a shark.
Shark? No, I really don’t want to see one. Not even from the safety and comfort of our boat – definitely not. I voice my opinion before I can even think of it – the words just tumble out of my mouth, “I don’t want to see a shark.”
“Not even from the boat?” asks one of the girls. “No,” I reply, “I was afraid to use the toilet after seeing Jaws.” I forget to mention the fact that I was only eight. Oh well, I’ll never see any of these people again.
In the silence that follows, the rogue captain pulls up his sleeve to reveal the scar across his arm where he was bitten by a shark in the very same spot that we were snorkeling in mere hours before. My heart stops, the urine trickles down my thigh….no, not really! But I’m sure glad that he neglected to share this little tidbit with us earlier or I definitely would not have braved that icy water. Cold I can handle. Sharks I cannot. Jaws has ruined me – the terror has stayed with me to this day.
While our captain was spear fishing (in the very same spot that we were snorkeling in a few hours ago!), a shark took a bite from his arm and spit it out (wet suits and human flesh don’t taste so good apparently). I’m not sure if it was revenge that made the captain wish we would see another one or something amusing that would scare the tourists but whatever it was, I’m sure glad we didn’t see one!
On our boat ride back to the harbour, they served us cheese and crackers (I really could have used a drink after that shark story) and one of the Aussies that we befriended invited us for dinner. We had gotten to know her and her two daughters, who were on holidays from Brisbane. Her husband had been out fishing while they were snorkeling and she invited us to come for a fish dinner, which would have been lovely if we had been able to find where they were staying. Armed with only the name of the place (which no one we asked had heard of), the fact the building had big waves on the roof (which we couldn’t see in the dark), unable to remember the street address and with no thought to getting a phone number, we were forced to settle for very mediocre Mexican food.
Although it was a little disappointing not to end such a wonderful day with an Aussie dinner with new friends, our stay in Airlie was great. We had survived without a single shark incident to boot.
After Airlie, our next destination is Mission Beach. We can’t resist stopping at The Big Mango for a photo and some delicious mango ice cream.
We drive for five hours to meet up with Christine. Christine and I were roomies years ago and think of each other more like sisters (me being the older and wiser one only because she’s younger). She has been traveling around for 8 months by herself, hitting Asia and then Australia a few months before us. It is so great to see her! We spend the first night drinking wine and sitting around outside at her hostel chatting with her, a few Scots and a few Brits.
Mission Beach is a small town with two campervan parks right across the street from each other. One of them charges $34 a night and the other only $12.50. The cheaper one sits right on the edge of the beach where we can view the waves right out our back window.
While in Mission, we take long walks along the 14 kms of sandy beach, one walk that takes us on a short hike to a lookout point before the three Canadians tire and return to the town pub where we consume burgers and many pitchers of beer. We are Canadian after all.
On the hike, we came across some
red green ants, which Christine said tasted like lemon if you lick their butts. I thought she was joking until she picked one up and licked it (and this was before the beer!) Curtis tried it as well but I did not. Apparently they really do taste like citrus but I guess I’ll never know for sure.
A fun few days in Mission Beach spent catching up and relaxing, Christine joins us in our campervan and the three of us set off for a mini road trip up to Cairns.
Along the way, we pass the Sugar Museum and decide to stop. After days of driving through sugar cane fields, we are drawn to the museum dedicated to the sweet stuff.
Actually we pass Cairns and hit Port Douglas for lunch and a walk on their beach before going back to Cairns to spend a few nights with our Aussie friend Ryan. The drive along the coast during this stretch is magnificent.
As the Aussie portion of our trip comes to a close, we look forward to our adventures in Europe. But first, a few days in Singapore.]]>
As we drove out of Sydney, our campervan adventure plan was to head into the outback (or as close as we can get) before heading north up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. We took the Inland route and drove about 500 kms before bunking down just outside of Armidale at a rest stop.
Our first sleep and we freeze! The bedding that comes with the van consists of two sheets and two very thin sleeping bags. We sleep in our warmest clothes spoon style so that one side of my body is warm and the other is cold. When the cold wakes us, we know it’s time to turn over to heat the other side. At one point we start the van and blast the heater – which lets us sleep for a few hours. Later that day, we find out that the temperature dipped to minus 9 degrees – no wonder we were so cold!
I woke up the first morning to what can only be described as UFO noises. It sounded very similar to the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the aliens communicate with the humans through the organ sounding tones. In that moment before I was fully awake, I felt pissed off at the thought of sliding the curtains aside to be confronted with a UFO because I felt too sleepy to deal with it.
Once I was officially awake of course, I realized it was a magpie bird making those strange sounds. I referred to them as the UFO birds before learning their real name – which the Aussies affectionately call the maggies.
Before setting off on our second day of driving, we made coffee and oatmeal on our gas stove, did some jumping jacks (it’s so hard to stay fit while you’re traveling!), brushed our teeth and hit the road.
After driving for several hours we came across a winery called the Thomas New England Estate Winery and decided to pop in for a little tasting. Our little tasting turned into a two hour visit with one of the owners (daughter Leigh who runs the tasting room/wine shop – it’s a family owned winery). We sampled all of their wines from the sparkling to the port and shared a fantastic little cheese tray while learning all sorts of fascinating things about wine, Australia and the local gossip.
Their sparkling white is my new favorite but unfortunately you can only buy it in Australia. I had to restrain myself from purchasing more than one – which we enjoyed later that night in Morree.
We stayed at the Gwydir Park Caravan Park – on the recommendation of Leigh – and enjoyed soaking in their natural hot springs. It was just us with a bunch of retired traveling Aussies and every one of them were so friendly and had all surprisingly been to Vancouver and loved it. We traded travel stories until our fingertips were sufficiently wrinkled from the hot water – then made our way back to our van where we had our ice cold sparkling white with our home made (well I guess technically it was van made) version of chow mein (Mr. Noodle and veggies).
We made it to Lightning Ridge the next day which is a town known for it’s opals. People from all over the world settled here to try and make their fortune. In the video we watched after our mine tour, one of the locals said, “Today’s biggest asshole can be tomorrow’s richest resident.” No one knows just how many people live here, because they refuse to answer the census.
Our first order of business is to visit the Bottle House. Arthur and two of his mates built this house 45 years ago, because “there was nothing else to build it out of.” Arthur and his wife lived in the house for years before adding on to it and turning it into a museum. Arthur came here for the opals, but never did strike it rich. We meet him on the day he retired – from working at the bowling alley. He is a wealth of knowledge on many things and we enjoy our tour of the museum with him.
Arthur recommends the perfect spot for us to watch the sunset that evening.
While waiting for the sun to go down, we explore the area – which has all sorts of old mine shafts – and come across a now decrepit house made out of beer cans.
And then we see our first outback sunset.
We spend the night at Lorne Station – a privately owned 10,000 acres out in the middle of nowhere – which is a great campervan park with a fire pit, indoor kitchen (and tv room) and very clean showers. All this for only $12 a night! Over our dinner of tuna mac and cheese with veggies on the side and two bottles of red wine, we have a delightful conversation with Gary. An Aussie who is taking a break from work and caravanning on his own for a few weeks. After a great night’s sleep (no longer freezing to death!) we head out to get in a quick mine tour before trying to make another several hundred kms towards the coast.
By now we should know that there is no such thing as a quick visit with anyone Australian. They are always so friendly and up for a chat.
We head underground for the first portion of our tour – it smells divine down there. The smell of the earth is wonderful.
After the underground tour and a video, we watch some earth get pulled up and are allowed to fossick through it. Fossicking is what they call looking for opals – and anything we find we get to keep.
Of course the little bits of opal we find aren’t actually worth anything – but it’s still exciting to find one. A shiny bit of color gleaming out from the dry rock.
When our tour finishes, we have coffee and chat with the Aussies (naturally!) and they recommend that we go to Airlie Beach. We head off and drive for 10 hours – forced to stop and rest when the gas station in Rolloston is closed at 10:00 pm.
We hope to make the coast by the next day – this is a big country and we have vast distances to cover but we are determined to see the ocean and snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef.
We check in on a Saturday morning – that night while eating our dinner and sharing a bottle of Aussie wine – we find out that Saturday nights at the hostel are Centurion night. Which means we get to watch a bunch of twenty-something’s drink a shot of beer every minute for 100 minutes.
It’s not too long before the first contestant is puking in the bushes, but his competitive spirit has him back in the game in time for the next shot. This guy projectile vomits twice more before the other contestants make a new rule that if you throw up 3 times, you’re out. I’ve never been so thankful for my 30-something wisdom before. A few years ago, that coulda been me.
With 6 Centurions left standing at the end of 100 minutes, everyone decides it’s time to hit a nightclub and we go along, wrapped up in the spirit of hostel living.
We’ve got our own room at the Swagman with a sink, fridge, desk and small TV. The shared bathrooms down the hall and are kept nice and clean. We make our meals in the huge kitchen and eat in the noisy dining area, which also sports an X-box. We are located in Kings Cross; a short walk to the grocery store and to the waterfront where we go for our runs along the seawall, turning around once we hit the Opera House. We spend a lot of time in the Botanical Gardens, strolling, drinking coffee, people watching. We discover a new bird or plant or statue on every visit. The birds here are so loud. And we aren’t the only ones who have noticed it – we were talking to an American at the hostel who had noticed it too. The birds here don’t sing – they scream.
On one afternoon stroll we realized how many bats there are. Hundreds and hundreds of them hanging upside down, wings wrapped around their batty bodies, for their afternoon nap while a few glide effortlessly through the sky. They are creepy and amazing.
We discover a store called Dan Murphy’s. It’s sells alcohol at the lowest prices you have ever seen. Rows and rows of delicious wine (sorted by grape variety, not country). Because they are all Australian (with a few from New Zealand and France) all at amazingly low prices. Same wines at half the cost as they are in Canada – with bigger discounts when you buy 6 bottles. I have died and gone to wine heaven. We leave with 10 bottles – seriously restraining ourselves from buying more. I am giddy.
We celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary while we’re staying at the hostel. Not the most romantic place for it but we pack a picnic and stroll through the gardens, eating our lunch on a sunny patch of lawn overlooking the Opera House. Then we go for a drink at the Opera Bar – enjoying the view of the Harbour Bridge on their fabulous patio.
Wanting to go out for a romantic dinner – we search for a one online only to discover that all of Sydney’s “great romantic” restaurants are so overpriced that I know I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my meal. We opt for a funky dimly lit Thai place called The Opium Den instead. It’s not licensed but only charges a $4 corkage fee for BYO so we’ve brought our own sparkling Australian wine with us and have the most delicious dinner with unbelievable service for a very reasonable price. It’s romance on a budget.
For the next three weeks of our stay, we’ve got a furnished apartment rented in Darlinghurst. We’ve rented it from a girl who has gone to England for three weeks. It’s a great pad in a convenient location. The only thing is, she’s dirty. On day two while I’m curled up with a book and a cup of tea on the couch, Curtis emerges from the bathroom in just his jeans and pink rubber gloves exclaiming, “I’ve lived in dorms, I’ve lived in the bush, and that is the most disgusting bathroom I have ever cleaned.”
A few hours later, we’ve done some rearranging and serious cleaning and made it ours. Our nest for the next three weeks.
Some of the highlights include the Bondi to Coogee walk, attending the opera of Don Giovanni (excellent!), having fish and chips in Manly and visiting the Toronga zoo.
We’ve got one week left here before we hit the road in our camper van. Stay tuned….]]>
We wait for our luggage at carousel 4, watching other people’s luggage pass us by. As the heaps of baggage diminish, our apprehension grows. My biggest fear at every airport carousel is that my bag will be the one that doesn’t appear. But alas, there it is, the very last bag to make it’s way down the shoot and around to where we stand. Curtis’s bag is nowhere to be found.
The Singapore Airlines staff are more than helpful – turns out his bag is still in Bangkok and will arrive tomorrow. They give us $100 and a men’s toiletry kit for our temporary loss. His bag shows up the next day.
We exit the airport into the Sydney sunshine and freeze! It feels so cold here after Asia even though it’s probably about 15 degrees. We get used to it after a couple of days and the temperature rises to a nice mild 20 degrees (we’re in jacket and sweater weather now though after acclimatizing to Asia’s 33 degree heat).
We discovered a great website called Couchsurfing which is a brilliant way to travel. People host travelers, giving them a free place to stay and allowing both parties to have a cultural exchange. When said travelers are back home, they become hosts themselves.
Our first couchsurfing experience is with Jessica. She works at the airport so we wait a couple of hours for her shift to end and drive back with her to her house in North Sydney. After a little breakfast, it’s time for a long nap. We wake up at dinner time and Jess has made homemade pizza dough so we make our own pizzas and settle in for a long chat. Our weekend couchsurf with her turns into a week when she asks us to stay on because we get along so well.
She lives beside a National Park so we go bushwalking and start back onto a regular fitness routine of running every other day. Our excuse in Asia was that it was too hot – but I fear our lazy ways might be more of our true nature.
Sydney makes me homesick for the first few days. Everything about it feels so much like Vancouver – the air, the smells, the neighborhoods. It’s my first serious bout of feeling homesick but luckily it passes soon enough. My parents were supposed to come meet us for a few weeks in Australia but their plans changed so I feel the loss of not seeing them for another 8 months.
We settle in comfortably at Jess’s though and have lots of fun making dinners for each other and staying up late watching movies and chatting. We all go whale watching on Canada Day and spot 5 humpbacks, which is an incredible site. They aren’t shy and seem very playful, splashing around not far from our boat – waving at us and everything!
You can tell when the whale is about to surface because you can see a turquoise glow in the water.
It’s very exciting waiting for them to blow and rise out of the water.On our way back to the harbour we also see a pod of dolphins.
We go for dinner and find out that there is a Canada Day celebration on at one of the pubs so decide we must finish our night off there. There are lots of fellow Canadians, the DJ plays only Canadian artists for a few hours, bottles of Kokanee are on special (and get sold out) and they have a contest where people try to shoot a stuffed beaver into a hockey net.
The best quote of the night goes to Jess when she said, “I accidentally touched tongues with the guy while we were kissing the beaver and I had to apologize for my poutine breath.”
A good time was had by all….]]>