(149 days in)
Holy moly it’s December already! We’re well over half way through this epic adventure of ours now and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. The last blog post took you all the way up to our time in Sydney and although we did a lot in the remaining three weeks, we’ve also done a lot of just driving and random stops for sleep (M: turns out Australia’s pretty big – who knew). So, in this post I will try to regale you with the highlights of the rest of our time in ‘Straya.
It’s Getting Hot In Here
Between Sydney and the next major stop, Brisbane, we had almost 500 miles to cover. And although this could be done pretty sharpish if you were dedicated to it, we decided to split it up and make a couple of stops on the way. This meant hostels in Newcastle, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay. There was nothing to see in Newcastle, but we had a nice little apartment to ourselves for the night we stayed and were straight out in the morning and onto Coffs Harbour. Back to dorm living for this one unfortunately, but we ran into a British couple doing almost exactly our trip so shared some advice and jokes about the Aussie way of life. After a longer-than-planned walk through the nearby bush, hoping to see some koalas in the wild (not only did we fail but we got neck ache from looking up all day), we were on our way to Byron Bay. Byron Bay, to me, felt like the typical Aussie seaside town: small bars and cafes everywhere, baking sunshine and bronzed beachgoers mooching around – it was fair to say that I felt out of place. But it was pleasant nonetheless, and we managed to take in the view from the Cape Byron lighthouse, paddle in the sea and top up the tan that had been rapidly fading since Fiji. By this point we had noticed that the daily temperature was ramping pretty quickly and not just because we were getting closer to the equator. The a/c was now a daily occurrence in the car to stop us taking unexpected naps at the wheel.
By the time we got to Brisbane we had to start hopping from shade to shade if we were outside of the vehicle. Our accommodation was sadly another dorm; 8 beds with an ensuite, which sounds quite nice until you remember that the bathroom will be right next to where you’re trying to sleep and your roommates will having wildly varying routines. Taking advantage of the free shuttle bus into town, we had a lovely lunch and walk by the river (M: in an area called Southbank with its own oversized Ferris wheel) then decided to watch Thor:Ragnarok in the cinema. Again. We managed to get caught in a summer shower on the walk back, but luckily it was a mile to shelter and free wifi. Sadly we only had 2 nights in the city (luckily in respect to the dorm) so the following morning found us cramming back into BB and heading onto Megan’s most anticipated stop: Australia Zoo (M: definitely not the whole reason I wanted to visit Oz in the first place, honest). But not before we had breakfast on Mount Coot-Tha overlooking the city – a beautiful must-see for any traveller in the region.
I think everyone everywhere felt a pang of loss when Steve Irwin was taken from us. His TV antics and unwavering love of all things natural certainly brought a smile to my prepubescent face. Stepping into Australia Zoo felt as if he’d never left. Steve and his family are plastered onto almost every wall and their spirit has permeated every last inch of the grounds (even down to every information panel being written as if uttered in his distinctive cadence). Suffice to say that Megan was pretty happy. Now I’m going to need her to add in a list of animals that we saw during our time at the zoo (M: literally all of them, so just Google the zoo if you’re that interested!) but needless to say, most of them were scaly. We kicked off our visit with a show in the Crocoseum arena, which introduced us to a few of the favourites on wings and then showed us the power and speed of Steve’s pals – the crocs. The (M: insanely upbeat) presenters were constantly bombarding us with not only facts about these incredible creatures but also warnings about where they reside and how to act in their territory (which was mainly ‘just don’t be in it’). We were also informed that Australia was ‘lucky’ as they’re the only country in the world to have more venomous snakes than non-venomous. Yay.
After the show we continued meeting a whole host of Aussie’s best, stopping briefly for the bird show that displayed the grace and power of the biggest Eagle I’ve ever seen, the native Kingfisher Kookabura with its intimidatingly large head (and that’s coming from me) and, my favourite, the Barking Owl – that refused to bark, but I still loved him.
The next stop was not only a lot less interesting than the zoo but also a nail in the coffin for how I feel about dorm life. Two nights with no curtains, no A/C and four roommates who almost seemed like they were paid to make our time less enjoyable: two German women speaking across the room at night, one of them turning off the ceiling fan when it was just starting to get to work and another guy coming in drunk at 4am and putting his foot through a bowl of crockery. I was not pleased. This meant we spent most of our time in the bar at the front of the property (and there’s the budget spreadsheet crying), which I can live with. The next day we ventured out of the hostel to the nearby Noosa National Park and spent a good few hours reading in the sun, listening to the crash of waves and shooing away inquisitive wild turkeys (M: who managed to sneak up on Pete and scare the crap out of him every five minutes or so). Great day.
Literally Stuck In Nature
We were then one night away from our next big stop, Fraser Island. You are only allowed onto the island in a 4×4 vehicle and have to get a 20 minute ferry from a nearby beach. The island itself is one huge sandbar just off the coast – its main highway is a 100km stretch of sand that you can only drive on during low tide and we had to have a special short introduction on how to drive on sand and what to do if we got stuck. All of this happened in our rental Toyota Land Cruiser. Being a lot closer to our former travel companion, Manone, I felt a lot more at home behind the wheel than I had previously in Australia.
We had just had two nights booked on the island, and this meant our first bout of actual tent camping of the entire trip. Not only that, but it was in a rainforest and we were informed by a ranger that you are never more than 5 metres from the nearest snake on Fraser Island. The same ranger also gave me a great tip on how to win some points with Megan by waking her up at 4am (M: not a great start) to see the sunrise from a sandblow, but also told us that if we littered on the campsite he would stab one of us in the leg (M: to be fair, I think we could choose between an arm or a leg) – he was an interesting man, to say the least.
During our time on Fraser Island we took in some gorgeous sights: monumental sandblows, gleaming white sand beaches and the pristine rainwater lakes that play host to turtles, frogs and an annoying amount of insects. This was, at least on my part, completely so we could have more time driving between these sights on the overgrown and barely-tamed roads. Hopefully you’ve seen a few pictures and videos of this but it had us constantly bucking and rocking over tree roots and sand piles as well as nearly being landed on by a plane (M: twice).
If you’re not on the main beach driving up and down the island then you have to take the inland tracks and this is where the 4×4 driving really got fun. Each and every part of these tracks took us through winding forest or up steep dirt climbs, and most of them were soft sand for that added bit of adventure. Megan finally exercised her right to assume control of a vehicle (she had not felt the need whilst sat in the Punto) and I reluctantly accepted on the second day that she could do some driving. She enjoyed it as much as I did at first (M: 4×4 driving is FUN) but then the inland track was spent and she was exposed to the other side of the off-road experience. Driving on the beach is a lot scarier than the claustrophobic, root-ridden inland tracks. Not only are you doing more than double the speed most of the time but the sand is incredibly slippery, and the car constantly feels like it’s going sideways and could roll or flip at any time. All previous driving training instils the knowledge that you should very much be in control of the vehicle and not the other way around, and when you have gigantic 4×4 buses overtaking you at any time and are fighting to keep the car both straight and out of the ocean, the experience isn’t very pleasant. Megan put up with this for a while but in the end she put me back in the captain’s chair and instead laughed at my stress instead of dealing with her own. True love (M: damn skippy).
Crossing Into The Tropics
Once we were back onto solid ground we sadly had to pack our stuff back into the Punto and get out of town. This was probably the longest day of driving we had done since the beginning of America, or at least it felt like it – three hours on the island and then a further four to get up to the town of 1770.
The hostel we stayed in specialised in renting scooters that had been converted to look like Harley Davidsons, which looked great but we were a lot more interested in the four-legged hosts pottering around the grounds. Two nights in this small town and as neither of us are surfing aficionados, the jet ski rental was ridiculously overpriced and it was chucking it down with rain we mostly spent the time again catching up with admin work and capitalising on the free wifi access.
From 1770 (which, we have found out since, is so named as it was founded in 1770 – shocker), we drove on up to Rockhampton – the beef capital of Australia and a town built on the Tropic of Capricorn, meaning we were back in the tropics. Inside beef territory we were booked to stay in café bar/distillery which sounded right up our alley. The small building housed a similar setup to that we had seen in the Bayou Rum Distillery in Louisiana but on a much smaller scale. The business itself seemed like it was just one good order away from ramping up production and matching that of Bayou Rum almost completely. We were given a quick tour by Max, an Irish ex-pat who seemed more than happy to be at the helm of the distilling apparatus and who encouraged us to take a free taster at the bar. It was actually some of the best gin I have ever tasted (remembering that I am far from a gin drinker) and had the bottles ben a little smaller, we would have purchased one to accompany the rum from the Bayou (M: ha, as if there’s any of that left).
We were then onto Mackay, and staying in the most typical motel that we had seen since leaving the US of A. The temperature was bordering on unbearable now and our delicate British skin was complaining all the way. As Rockhampton dubs itself the beef capital, Mackay is the sugar capital of Australia, beset on all sides by vast sugar cane farms and criss-crossed constantly by small train tracks for the mini freights transporting the raw stuff to the factories. We quickly discovered this as we used our only day in the city by leaving it in search of platypus (platypuses? Platypi?) (M: platypuses). Deep within Eungella National Park there lies a small café, nestled upon a peaceful river. To get there we had to drive up some pretty steep roads, which I thought were going to be the final moments of the tiny Punto as we crawled up them in first gear. En route to the café we stopped off to take in the view out of the ‘Sky Window’ – a short nature walk that gives an incredible look down into the valley that we had just driven up from. And shortly after, with a coffee consumed and cameras at the ready, we got to the platypus viewing platform.
Here we waited, eager to catch a glimpse of this elusive marvel of evolution. It’s a mammal that lays eggs (one of just 3 species), uses electromagnetic abilities to locate things (like a shark), has webbed paws that hide a venomous barb on the back for protection and has a bill, like the humble duck. Weirdo. They’re most active during dawn and dusk and we were a little early, so we sat in the dirt on the bank of the river and watched for every ripple and bubble from under its surface. Platypuses like to roam down at the bottom of the water if they’re out of their burrows and this water was annoyingly full of tree roots, providing ample shelter for them. We searched for about two hours in total, changing location once or twice, but all we saw were a lot of turtles and insects. Much to Megan’s chagrin we finally decided to move on and start believing that Australia had made up the story of the platypus to encourage tourism. A small pick me up was the fact that we finally saw our first wild snake of the Australia stretch as one darted out from in front of me and took to the water to find safety.
That was pretty much all we could find of interest in Mackay and the next day saw us continue our onward journey to Townsville, the gateway to Magnetic Island. We caught up on some laundry and got an early night as we would have to be up early to catch the ferry over to the island.
A short 30-minute trip on a very similar boat to that which we had travelled on in Fiji, and we were on Magnetic Island. Rife with wildlife and gorgeous beaches, we checked into a hostel that shared grounds with the local animal sanctuary. We had a pretty neat little bungalow to ourselves, complete with a/c, mini fridge and, my favourite, curtain-less windows. But it was perfect for us anyway.
We had a short walk down to the beach area just 5 minutes away and, once agreeing that the sand was way too hot for any normal human being, had a pint in the local and headed back as more planning and budgeting awaited us.
The following morning we eagerly signed up for the tour of the adjoining nature park. Despite being small it was home to a good few crocodiles, turtles, varying species of lizard, the smallest wallaby in Australia, a wombat and, of course, koalas. Oh, and an 8-foot python. All of which were given a detailed introduction and description and some of whom were handed around the class for a closer (and much wrigglier) hello. This included the python and I’m proud to say that I didn’t shy away from having the creature placed upon my shoulders. It promptly took a liking to my neck and wrapped itself as a fashionable scarf under my chin, which did slightly worry me but it was seconds until the next person stepped forward to take their turn.
Megan had paid slightly extra then I had for an up close and personal photo of her cuddling a koala. Australia have quite strict laws about how and for how long you’re allowed to hold koalas, so it felt a bit impersonal – the animal was placed on her shoulder, a pose dictated, two photos taken and that was it, cuddle over. But she was happy nonetheless, as anyone who knows my travelling partner would have guessed, any contact with any animals brightens any of her days. I especially enjoyed ‘Shadow’, a black macaw that was perched by the entrance to the park and had some strong feelings about anyone who walked in (not that I understand bird). But he had been taught to ‘step up’ which meant that if anything was placed in front of and slightly above his feet, he would hop onto to it. We all had a turn feeling like a pirate and getting shrieked at from an even closer distance than before.
And sadly, before too long, the tour was over. The rangers of the park were excellent and full of knowledge, popping in and out of the hostel next door to pick up tour guides and dole out advice.
That night we had to prepare our gear for an early departure, having to make the 9am ferry back to the mainland and taking a 20-minute bus journey first. We also noticed some of the biggest bats I have ever seen. At first, I thought the quiet silhouettes were owls in the night sky, but some swooped worryingly close and you could hear the leathery flap of their wings (not to mention the complete difference in shape from an owl). It was a nice end to our time on the island.
Finished On A High
After the ferry back, we picked up our car and made our last drive up into the city of Cairns. The humidity was now also adding to the baking sun to make us sweat. We took full advantage of the last day we had with the car and added a few hours driving around the Atherton Tablelands. This included seeing two absolutely humongous fig trees, one of which had a 71-metre girth and the other had fallen mid-growth and now resembled a theatre curtain. I now find myself a lot more enamoured with nature, since the national parks in the US, the snorkelling in Fiji and the rainforests we had encountered, and Megan will agree that I seem a lot more relaxed about it (unless it buzzes and goes for my face. Then it’s game on). Alongside these ancient giants (the first had been growing since before white people landed in Australia) we also had a brief detour through a waterfall trail; Elinjaa Falls, Zillie Falls and Millaa Millaa falls, the last of which being the infamous scenic background for Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl music video.
With the scenery well and truly appreciated, we headed into the city itself, dismayed to find that the room we had booked for three nights did not have air-conditioning. This meant that after a night of pretty horrendous sleep in temperatures no sane person should enjoy, we resolved to spend most of the next day in an air-conditioned shopping mall. We had to return the car to the Jucy rental depot anyway and then do some last-minute souvenir shopping. The woman at the rental desk seemed to agree with us that we had not caused any damage to the vehicle, and I waved a more than welcome goodbye to the vehicle that I was surprised to see had made it all this way. We still had another month of driving to do in New Zealand and I was looking forward to getting any other car.
A short walk around the corner and we popped into blessed cool air and a food court, just in time for lunch. There are a lot less chain restaurants in Oz than in the US (shockingly) but there was one we had not had a chance to try yet. Hungry Jacks. I can now tell you that it is essentially Burger King, so we needn’t have bothered. Fed and watered we then headed into the cinema attached to the building that was showing the newly released Justice League (something else we needn’t have bothered with).
Disappointment painting our faces we made our way around the shops, picking up some thongs (flip-flops), t-shirts, postcards and some magical jeans that someone who shall remain nameless had requested we purchased as apparently not a single pair within 10,000 miles of her were as good. This meant it was soon time to sleep as we yet again had an early rise. Our last full day in Australia and it was to be spent at sea ticking off a bucket list item: snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.
I will yet again need Megan’s assistance with a full run down of the species we encountered and things we saw on this great day but I will do the best I can. The day itself was spent on a large catamaran ship that took us to two different parts of the reef, Norman and North Hastings reefs. There was maybe a hundred of us tourists on the boat and it was made up of a mixture of people who had either booked just snorkelling or added scuba diving, a scenic helicopter ride or a semi-submersible nature tour. From an almost too realistic display of what to do in the event sea-sickness, to a humorous display of safety hand signals once in the water, the staff were attentive, funny and full of information, making the day that bit better. We were introduced to the ‘fish lady’ Fiona, the resident marine biologist who had a couple of sheets outlining all the species we were likely to see, and we took photos for later comparison.
We had yet to make our minds up whether or not we wanted to do the semi-sub tour, leaving the decision late as you didn’t have to book in advance. On the plus side, it went to places were the snorkelers weren’t allowed, but on the downside, you’re not experiencing it first hand and could get a similar feeling in an aquarium. It didn’t take long once we were swimming around at our first destination to make up our minds – there was nothing that could compare to gliding through the warm waters, inches away from a mind-blowing array of finned swimming things. In the end this turned out to be a great choice as we saw not one but two reef sharks at the second location (yes, they could have been the same shark, we didn’t have time to get his/her name). I almost completely missed the experience both times, only just noticing Megan frantically waving her hands at me as she never took her eyes off the prize. As soon as I noticed it we took off in pursuit, and I would later find out the Megan had no idea if I was following her or not but had made an executive decision as to which was more important. We were on its tail for a minute, Megan filming the entire way with our underwater camera, as it approached the rest of the group of snorkelers. This took it out of the 2-metre deep section we were swimming in and into more open waters, shaking us from its tail. Absolutely flabbergasted at this spectacle, Megan took a good few minutes to calm down. We bobbed on the surface exchanging smiles, laughter and “WE SAW A SHARK”, a fitting finish to our time in not only these waters, but Australia as a whole.
And that is that for this leg of the journey. We spent the next day taking two flights, one from Cairns back down to Brisbane and then from Brisbane onto Christchurch in New Zealand. We sadly had a wait in Brisbane airport that was longer than both of these flights combined but on the whole it wasn’t a bad day (thank god for free wifi); the flights were more than pleasant, with the second leg even serving us dinner AND having some great selections on the video screens. I had enjoyed my time in Oz. I feel that were slightly spoiled by the USA’s national parks and by Fiji’s beaches but I am ecstatic that I have finally had the chance to visit this far off land.