For reasons I can’t explain, Australia has always been at the very top of my “must visit” list. Maybe because it’s so far away from…well…everywhere? Possibly its reputation for being filled with gorgeous surfer dudes? Perhaps due to my deep and abiding love for Rescuers Down Under? That classic Men At Work Song? A manifestation of my latent childhood crush on Crocodile Dundee? Whatever the reason, I never had sufficient time to make the trip here before, as I couldn’t imagine coming for less than a month. Turns out, that is still not NEARLY enough time to even scratch the surface of this magical land down under, but I’ve been determined to do my level best to see and do as much as possible with the time I have.
Way back when I booked the major flight legs of my trip, I had the final segment taking me from Singapore to Sydney, figuring I’d work out a plan later. Many months later, when the last part of the trip was finally imminent (which I still can’t believe, how did it all go by so fast?!) I figured my best bet was to start at the top and work my way down the East Coast, ultimately ending up in Melbourne, from where I would fly to New Zealand, the final stop of my round-the-world tour. (Seriously, how am I already nearly to the final stop??). Having made a plan, I booked a ticket connecting with my Sydney arrival that would take me up to Cairns, where I would begin my Aussie adventure.
Things in Australia got of to a fairly good start, though I had about 6 hours to kill in Sydney airport before my connection. My research had shown that my residual Delta elite status should get me into the Virgin Australia lounge, but when I got to the desk, the women there didn’t seem to know what I was talking about and sent me packing. Undaunted (well, maybe a bit daunted), I decided to dust off my Twitter account and use it for the only purpose I’ve ever really understood it to serve: complaining. Within seconds of tweeting at Virgin, I had a response. 10 more minutes of exchanged tweets and I was making my triumphant return to the lounge! Vindicated! The lounge was pretty nice, a wide selection of food and beverages, free wifi and comfy seats I could curl up in and catch some sleep after my red-eye (in the middle seat, blegh) from Singapore. Towards the end of my layover, I started noticing all sorts of people wearing sports gear in coordinated colors, many of them very fit young gentlemen. Naturally, I started trying to surreptitiously take photos of them to post on instagram.
A bit of internet sleuthing and I discovered that they were the Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL team. Aussie-rules football is an utterly incomprehensible sport, but whatever they are doing out on that field, it is keeping their bods in EXCELLENT shape. I spent a lovely last few hours of my layover spying on the footy boys and set off to board my next flight with a smile on my face. I already love Australia!!! I had a short connection in Brisbane, just enough time to enjoy a free wine-tasting at a stand set up in the terminal. Did I mention that I love Australia?
Cairns is a lovely little town, and quite warm, despite the fact that July is the dead of winter down under. My primary objective in Cairns was to dive the Great Barrrier Reef, so I went exploring the town to do some comparison shopping. Walking past a travel sales office, I was sucked into the vortex of an exuberant German kid named Maurice (the entire time we were talking, all I could think was “Crazy old Maurice, hmm? Crazy old Maurice, hmmm.”) His enthusiasm was irresistible and he ended up selling me several tours and packages and I never managed to do any comparison shopping at all. I think he has a bright future in sales.
First things first, the very next day I was up bright and early for my reef dive. I knew that everything in Australia was going to be drastically more expensive than anywhere I’d traveled before, but the sticker shock for diving here was still pretty brutal after the prices I’d gotten used to in Asia. But how many times do you get the chance to dive the GBR? I had to do it.
As I’ve mentioned before, over my months of travel, I have had magically few problems with any kind of motion sickness, be it buses or boats, and so I’d convinced myself that perhaps I was cured for good? When the boat first embarked, the crew advised that anyone who thought there may be a chance they’d get seasick should take ginger pills, on sale for $1 onboard. I thought I’d be ok, but took the pills anyway, just to be on the safe side. I might have been ok had the ride been shorter, but I hadn’t realized that it takes nearly 3 hours just to get out to the dive sites. The seas weren’t particularly choppy, but nor were they particularly calm either. Long story short — I’m not cured and ginger pills really burn on the way back up.
I wasn’t about to let a little seasickness stop me though, and once I got underwater, I felt fine and dandy. The underwater landscape out there is pretty extraordinary, tons of beautiful coral and a lot of sea life. The water was a little chilly, but you stop noticing that after a while. An interesting — and irritating — quirk of diving in Australia is that they don’t provide a divemaster or guide to lead you underwater. Unless you want to pay for it, of course. I’d already paid so much for the diving, it pissed me off that they were trying to squeeze more money out of us, but I grudgingly ponied up the $15 for the guide on the first dive. She didn’t really add much value at all, so for my other two dives, I just buddied up with another diver who seemed pretty competent and we went exploring on our own. I loved my time under the water and it was definitely worth it to do once, but I think in the future, I’ll try to do the bulk of my diving in cheaper places (and with shorter boat rides). I survived the trip back to shore and very gratefully stepped back onto dry land.
My other splurge in Cairns was for a day trip further north into Queensland, an area known as the wet tropics. We drove a few hours up from Cairns into the rainforest. Our guide, Peter, was really interesting, and a treasure trove of information about the history of the area and the local plants and animals. Our first stop was the Mossman Gorge where we had a presentation from a local aboriginal about some of the history and culture of the area, took part in a “blessing ceremony” and had the obligatory diggery-do lesson.
Afterward, we had some time to walk up into the gorge and explore the forest. There was the option to swim in the river, but it was a cold and misty morning, definitely too chilly for swimming. From there, we went up to the Daintree River for a little crocodile hunting (eyeball/photo hunting, not actual hunting, of course). Our river guide was a bit pessimistic about our chances, apparently the crocs don’t like to come out of the water unless it’s a bright sunny day. We got lucky, though, and ended up seeing quite a few crocs, two big ones and a few little babies. Our northernmost point was Cape Tribulation, so named by Captain Cook when he couldn’t manage to get his ship out beyond the Great Barrier Reef. We stopped to check out the lovely beach for a bit and have an utterly forgettable lunch. After lunch we went for a rainforest walk, where right at the very end, we got super lucky and had a close encounter with a cassowary! These giant birds are endangered and apparently a sighting in the wild doesn’t happen very often, so it was pretty exciting.
That night, I signed up for my hostel’s big Aussie BBQ and got to sample all the local game: kangaroo, emu, crocodile and barramundi. Of them all, I definitely liked the crocodile the best, it’s kind of like fish, but kind of like pork, but also kind of like chicken?
I really liked Cairns and could have stayed for ages, but I needed to get moving if I was going to see any more of this massive country! After a bit of research, I decided my best bet was a hop on-hop off Greyhound ticket. As long as I traveled consistently in one direction, I could make as many stops as I wanted, for as long as I wanted. You don’t have to sign up for the next trip very far in advance, so it gave me a a lot of flexibility in deciding how long to stay in any given place. I bought a pass that I could use from Cairns all the way down to Melbourne for the bargain price of AUS$509 (USD$384 at the then-prevailing exchange rate). My first trip was Cairns to Townsville where I spent the night before heading out to spend two nights on Magnetic Island (another package I got talked in to by Crazy Old Maurice, hmm).
I didn’t see much of Townsville at all, though I’ve heard I didn’t miss too much. I had a very decent pub dinner and watched the first half of the State of Origin rugby final, a showdown tournament between Queensland and New South Wales that gets the locals all fired up. I don’t pretend to understand rugby, but there is something mesmerizing about those big brutes walloping each other up and down the field. They all have necks and thighs like tree trunks, it’s really something. Anyway, I digress. It was clear after first half that Queensland was wiping the floor with NSW, even to the uninitiated like me, so I bailed out. In the morning, I hopped on the ferry out to the island and my accommodation at Base Backpackers. As hostels go, this is a pretty nice one, composed largely of A-frame bungalows, many of them oceanfront. There are hammocks and beanbag chairs all over the grounds, along with an on-site bar and restaurant. You don’t need to leave for anything! And so, I didn’t. There are a few hikes and things around, but an overwhelming sense of inertia kept me glued to the beach and the hammocks for my entire stay.
Next it was on to Airlie Beach, where I had 3 days to kill before my last Maurice-encouraged purchase, a 2-night sailing trip through the Whitsunday Islands aboard the OzSail Avatar. Airlie is a cute little town, though not a heck of a lot going on that I could find. It’s the major launching point for the Whitsundays, so most of the people there are either waiting for or coming back from a sailing trip. I spent my three days taking long walks along the waterfront, catching rays where I could (my incredible Southeast Asia tan is disappearing alarmingly quickly, to my great sadness), and reading book after book in one of the hammocks scattered around the property at my hostel. Perhaps that’s why I like Australia so much, it is clearly a nation where the importance of hammocks is not underestimated. My kind of people.
In short order, the day of the voyage arrived! I assembled at the marina with my shipmates and after getting outfitted with wetsuits for snorkeling (cursed Australian winter!), we headed down the docks to where our vessel awaited. The Avatar is an 18 m trimaran racing sailboat. I have no idea what that means, but it is a very pretty boat with a large sail in the middle and trampoline-like lounge areas on either side. Luckily, I had a few scopolamine patches left over from the Antarctica cruise. After my bad experience aboard the dive boat, I wanted to take no chances with seasickness, especially on a two day live-aboard. The sleeping arrangements onboard left quite a bit to be desired, with the majority of the bunks merely open cubbies along the sides of the main below-deck area. Since I was a solo, I was paired up to share a tiny “double” bunk with a random German girl who (as far as I can recall) didn’t speak a word to me the whole voyage. How much fun one has on these sorts of trips can be directly linked to the other people on board. This wasn’t the worst bunch of people I’ve ever been lumped together with, but sadly, it was far from the best. Our cruise director was a strange bloke by the name of Sammy, a blond-dreadlocked man given to wearing a top hat by day and a hooded leopard-print zip-up onesie by night. Young Luca manned the galley and was responsible for all our meals, and the skipper rounded out the 3-man crew. I think his name was Brian. Or possibly Dave. The passengers were a mixed crowd. Along with my aforementioned bunkmate, there were 3 or 4 other German girls who all only spoke to each other, as far as I could tell. There were a handful of British girls, a couple of French and assorted others that I never did quite place. There was a trio of Kiwi girls who also didn’t really talk to anyone else, save for skipper Brian/Dave, who they spent most of the voyage flirting with while getting stupid drunk on goon.* Aside from our crew, there were a grand total of four (4) men aboard: a Brit (with his girlfriend), a German (with his girlfriend), and Felix and Tobi, also German. I ended up spending most of my time chatting with a pair of Canadian girls, but honestly, it was more out of lack of option than any real affinity. And so, with this merry band of sailors, we set forth into the wild blue.
*Due to the high taxes imposed on alcohol in Australia, many of the budget backpacker set are reduced to drinking goon, or what Americans generally think of as boxed wine (though somehow goon is of even poorer quality). Inside the box, the wine is actually contained in a silvery plastic-ish bag fitted with a pouring spout. The Avatar is a BYOB vessel, and the vast majority of my fellow sea-farers elected to bring their allotment in goon. They were required to remove the bags from the boxes prior to boarding, and so the whole passenger cooler in the galley was filled with silvery goon bags, each labeled in with the owner’s name in sharpie. Class all the way.
We spent most of the first day at sail, arriving at our first snorkeling spot in the mid-afternoon. Sammy told us the names of all the various snorkeling spots we visited during the trip, but much like the names of the majority of my fellow passengers, I have forgotten. The snorkeling was OK, but I think I got well spoiled by diving in Asia, both because diving >>>>> snorkeling, and also because the water in the other places was so much warmer. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re freezing, and because snorkeling keeps you on the surface, you never manage to really become acclimated to the temps. They also didn’t give us fins, which is just annoying. I don’t want to sound like a complainer, I know that snorkeling in the Whitsundays is an incredible thing that few people get to experience, but forgive me if my main takeaway was: I’ve had better.
After snorkeling, we moved on to where we would drop anchor for the night in a bay near Whitsunday Island, home to to the famous Whitehaven Beach. The beach is a huge tourist attraction, so the plan was to rest early and wake up at dawn in order to get over there before the hordes and hopefully get some good pictures. That night, Sammy donned his onesie and led us in a few “getting to know you games” which were a fun and silly diversion, but didn’t really turn us into one big happy sailing family. Turning in for the night, we discovered that our shared bunk had been allotted a single sheet as covers. Fräulein Bunkmate seemed as happy about this development as she had been about our initial assignment to share with a stranger, and so I magnanimously allowed her to have the sheet all to herself and I used the silk sleep-sack I’d bought in Vietnam and wisely thought to bring onboard. Either way, it was still a chilly and uncomfortable night below deck, so it was fairly easy to rouse at 6 am for a cold breakfast before heading to the island. Sammy ferried us from boat to land in the dinghy and we hiked across the island to get to Whitehaven.
Real Talk: Whitehaven is incredible. You’ve never seen anything like it and I hardly have the words to describe the sight. The “sand” there is not sand at all, but pure silica (which comes up from an undersea rift or something? dunno). Anyway, it’s blindingly white and soft as baby powder. Also freezing cold on a chilly winter’s morning, so much so that you could almost believe you were walking in snow. The appearance of the beach and silica flats changes with the tides: they say that no two viewings are ever the same. In any event, coming out from the forest trail and seeing it all open up in front of you is really spectacular, my photos definitely don’t do it justice. We had a few free hours to explore and wander the beach, there are all sorts of tide pools and things to poke around it, at one point I had three or four manta rays swimming around me as I tried to stand very still. After lunch back on the boat, it was off for more snorkeling and this time I saw THREE turtles! I followed each one around as long as it would let me, but they all eventually drift away down into the deeps. We had a bit of a sail to our next (and final) snorkeling spot, so I was able to get some sun on the deck and warm up from the chilly water. By the time we got to the last spot, I was warm and dry and had no interest in getting back into my cold, damp wetsuit and going back in the water. It was getting late in the afternoon and there’d be no chance to warm up in the sun again after this dip, and no hot showers on the boat either. I was happy with having seen my turtles, and another girl and I decided we would pass on the final snorkeling session. Hearing this, Luca and Brian/Dave got downright rude and gave us a very hard time about our decision. It was pretty uncomfortable, but eventually they backed off and left us alone to enjoy the deck while the others were in the water.
We spent the last night aboard ship anchored in a bay, had an excellent roast dinner (Luca may be rude, but the boy can cook) and enjoyed an incredible sunset. After dark, Sammy launched into a variety of drinking games and the night passed without any real incidents of note. Another chilly night in the bunks, a morning sail back to Airlie and the trip was over. I didn’t exchange contact details with any of my shipmates and in all likelihood, will never see any of them again. You always roll the dice when signing up for this sort of thing on your own, I suppose it’s inevitable that from time to time you’ll end up with a dud lot. I still enjoyed myself though and a future sail during the warmer months (and hopefully amongst warmer souls) is another thing to add to my wish list.
Next up: Whale-watching in Hervey Bay, a far better tour group on Fraser Island and much more!
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