Surf & Turf

This is it! It may have taken me over five months, but I have officially travelled up the east coast of Australia, all the way from Melbourne to Cairns. And the Cairns area holds some of the most amazing things you can do around Australia. What first comes to mind is the Great Barrier Reef, of course, and we will get to that. First, I visited the Atherton Tablelands on one of the very few tours I actually booked on this trip. Captain Matty’s Barefoot Tours is surprisingly (in theory) rated as the #1 Thing to Do in the Cairns area on Tripadvisor, and it has nothing to do with the ocean. This full one-day trip (and I mean full day, it’s around a 12 hours from pickup to drop-off) takes you from Cairns off into the Tablelands for a day of exploring, swimming, and general merriment. It’s sort of just rocks and trees and waterfalls, but culminates into what feels like a lot more.

TablelandsWaterfall, Exhibit B Waterfall, Exhibit A

A couple of days of rest, miniature adventures with couchsurfing host, and wandering Cairns central was followed with the big guns: a two day diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef. I was heading out with Rum Runner, a relatively small sailboat that holds a maximum of sixteen guests (we had eleven) and four crew members. The small group size was a bonus, as was the excellent crew. The ride to the outer reef was rather choppy, and despite early assurances from everyone that they did not get seasick, seven people ended up feeding the fish (myself luckily not included). After a couple of hours of this, we finally made it to calmer waters above the reef, and moored for our first dive.

Beauty

There were only six certified divers on the boat, myself included. The rest were snorkeling, doing their Open Water course, or doing introductory dives. I was a bit nervous, as I was by far the freshest diver of the group. When diving, you are always paired with a “buddy” for safety purposes, who you are meant to stick with for the duration of the dive. My buddy was a Brit who had her advanced diving course, and close to 70 dives. Hoping my ears would hold up and not hold the group up too much, we geared up, took the big step off of the boat, and slowly descended below the surface of the water.

There aren’t really words to describe what it feels like to dive on this reef. I did five dives in the two days, foregoing one to give my ears a bit of a break. At one point, while stopping to admire a beautiful section of coral and the furious activity of the fish who lived there, I realized that what was in front of me, that what I was seeing at that moment, was so much more than what it looked like. You can see this reef from space. The astronomical scale of this is impossible to grasp, especially when each square meter of reef is captivating enough to stare at for hours. The longer you look, the more you see, and I found I was just as fascinated with the coral and the plants as I was with the marine animals. One of my favourite spots that we visited was called The Pinnacles and, as its name implies, has towers of coral upwards of 25 meters high. As you swim slowly, nearly effortlessly, over, around, and through these formations of life, it definitely causes pause. This is such an incredible part of the world and to have been there in such a direct way was truly astounding. Once comfortable in the water, diving is truly one of the most calming things I have done. It reminds me of an amped up yoga practice, in a way. After returning to the surface, a bit of the adrenalin kicks in, and you get the thrill of what you have just done. A snack, a rest on the boat in the sun, repeat.

Dive & Sunset

On a Boat

Advertisements

Brisbane (In Not Enough Days)

I guessed that most people’s dismissal of Brisbane as a worthy spot to spend more than a couple of days was a rather hasty judgment. Because I couch surf, I get to see a slightly different side of any given city than your average backpacker, so I tend to like to give myself more time. Five days in Brisbane sounded good, so there we go. But alas! There was an issue with the going (flooded into Rainbow Beach for what ended up being two extra days), and I didn’t want to tamper too much with The Plan this early on, so my five days were cut down to three in Queensland’s capital. I was right that it wasn’t enough.

Brisbane CBD

Southbank

My slightly-too-short red couch was located in a sweet flat right on the river in West End – a funky suburb filled with ethnic food, used bookstores, and harmless hipsters. I spent a good couple of days trotting around Brisbane, and what seemed like even longer shredding up dance floors in some of the many, many bars that litter the city.

Brisbane is a cool city. With relatively few obvious tourist attractions compared to its more southerly neighbours, Melbourne and Sydney, Brisbane fails to delight many a tourist. Perhaps I was just keen to be in a city again – any city – but I did very much enjoy ambling around. A highlight of Brisbane is the Powerhouse, a renovated power plant that has been converted into an arts centre. You get your artsy wine bar hanging out next to theatre space all accessed by hallways covered graffiti featuring an Australian photography exhibition. An intriguing art display had people write messages on bits of paper, put them in tiny bottles, and pin them to a place on a world map. Heart-string-twanging if not entirely original.

The Powerhouse

Powerhouse II

Pin It

I also spent the better part of one afternoon wandering through art galleries, which never fails to put me in a better mood than I was just prior, especially when said art galleries feature an impressive display from Papua New Guinea. Must visit this country.

Papua New GuineaOne of the other things that makes Brisbane exponentially better than it would be is the existence of the Brisbane City Cats. These catamaran-style pedestrian ferries cruise at a good clip up and down the river that cuts through the city. Public transit on boat is far better than other forms of public transit. I shall remember this when searching for jobs and houses in Sydney. Ferry to work is better than bus to work.

City Cat

One of my couch hosts happened to be a whiz in the kitchen and among the many delicious meals he whipped up was one consisting of mostly snacks – chorizo, halloumi, asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, Turkish bread, dips, etc. This is one of my absolute favourite ways to enjoy a meal. Chris was from Perth and through a series of events (such as anyone’s life) ended up in Brisbane. Along the way he had managed to spend a good chunk of time travelling around Oz in a campervan. Incidentally, he reminded me a lot of Brad, an Aussie I couch surfed with who lives in a campervan in and around Byron Bay. Brad’s campervan is also where I tried halloumi for the first time. Delicious things cooked out of a campervan taste much better than they would out of a regular kitchen. Remember that.

Important Lessons

The escape from Sydney to the Blue Mountains was a welcome break. Though, being from Canada, I do feel it is a bit of a stretch to call these “mountains.” They are beautiful, regardless. Thickly forested, the hills and valleys stretch for miles. I traversed well-developed hiking trails and heard about well-hidden climbing spots from my new, more ambitious, British friend. In keeping with the trend thus far, I got a slow start into the mountains. The night before I was to leave, I had a lovely night out with a crew from the hostel I was staying at. We turned up where you would imagine large groups from hostels generally turn up, but the numerous dance floors and excellent group of Welsh girls I had stumbled upon at the hostel made it quite a fun night. It also made waking up bright and early a little more difficult than anticipated, so by the time I finished up the two-hour train journey to the mountains, it was around 1 p.m. I dropped my gear off and headed to the hills for what turned into a slightly overly ambitious hike. Going down was fine. It always is. I am not entirely sure why, even when you are fully aware that what goes down must come back up, it is hard to realistically envision how hard it will be. Perhaps because hiking in Canada generally involves going up first and then coming back down — this makes more sense. At the bottom was a cable car that would take you back up the mountain, but was priced at an exorbitant $11.00 / ride. I resigned myself to the fact that I would be walking back up the several hundred steps that I had just traversed down, and then realized that I was cutting it quite short to catch the last bus home. This basically resulted in me half-running for about an hour uphill (in what soon became pouring rain) to avoid having to walk another several kilometers back to the hostel. Ah, nature. I think I was in bed around 10 p.m. that night. Another couple of days of approximately one-third exertion and two-thirds relaxation and I was headed back to Sydney.

Thank-you, Steve Jobs. And all other visionaries that made it possible for me to hold, in my palm, all that I need to successfully travel around this country. I had purchased a train ticket to Lewisham, where I had set up a couch to stay on for the night. About an hour into my train journey, I got a message from said host saying that my arrival time actually wouldn’t work, and she wouldn’t be able to host me for the evening. What ensued was a fast and furious smartphone hunt for a place to lay my hat for the night. Apparently hostels in Sydney get quite booked up on the weekends, as this Friday night was showing me only three options, nothing below about $40. Luckily, a last-minute reply to my days-old couch surfing request offered me a fantastic place to stay for the evening, very close to Darling Harbour. I did have to buy a new train ticket once I got to Central Station, though this was a small price to pay. What was meant to be a one-night stay actually turned into several, and my host did an excellent job of showing me and a handful of other couchsurfers a fabulous time in Sydney. Fun activities included slackline walking in the park (exceptionally difficult), visiting a prohibition-style whiskey bar (much less difficult), and learning how to skateboard (much more fun than expected, despite running straight into an Aussie woman near the Opera House). I’ve learnt many things from my time in Oz so far, but perhaps the most important lesson is this: If you learn how to go, make sure you learn how to stop.

On Sunday, November 11th, I set out to find a Remembrance Day Service. Remembrance Day is not a public holiday in Australia, though Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is. The Remembrance Day service was quite a lot smaller than I would have expected, but I would guess services on Anzac Day draw a much larger crowd. Regardless, it was very good to attend, as continuing conflicts sadly keep both military and civilian losses fresh on our minds.

The Sights

The house I was surfing at is in Bondi, and is less than a 10-minute walk from the beach. Bondi Beach is a bit of a tourist trap, and is also where the beautiful people from the area come to be fit. I felt like I should participate in the local culture before I left the area, so on my last morning I got up and headed to the beach bright and early to do some yoga and running around. Luckily, my bright and early is about 10 a.m., so I missed the overly ambitious crowds who do their activities before work. Now, I’m not really one for working out. And many of your have heard my stance on running and how, as an isolated activity, it is just not fun. Every time in the past that I’ve convinced myself to go on a run, I’ve just been miserable. Apparently it is better on a beach. My version of “running” was a jog down the beach in one direction, stop for yoga, and sprint/walk back down. I’m sure people run up and down many more times than this. Running barefoot on a beach, evading rogue waves, and basking in sunlight is actually kind of fun. It also feels astronomically better on the feet, knees, and soul than running on hard pavement. This just reaffirms my theory that life is better with no shoes. F**k shoes! (Thank you, Dane Cook, for that timeless advice.)

Other things that make life better include bakery, cheap wine, and palm trees. Australia appears to supply all of these in great quantities. Australia also appears to supply hay fever, which makes life slightly less fun. I’ve never suffered allergies at home, but apparently I am allergic to spring in this country. Lovely.

Side note: My laziness in writing may lead to some incontinuity in posts as I tend to half finish one and then come back to it days later once more has happened and tack things onto the end. Please bear with, it should get better.

Due to a slightly less active couchsurfing community in Sydney than in Melbourne (strike one, Syd), and also my own slacking on sending out requests, I found myself in a situation where I didn’t have a place to stay and had to book a hostel for a couple of nights. Most of my hostel experience has been in southern Europe so the 30 AUD / night price tag for a kip in a 12-bed dorm was a bit hard to swallow. I stayed in Kings Cross, a quite central neighbourhood of Sydney, with easy access to all of your tourist stops. The hostel atmosphere was a nice change, as you get to meet a bunch of other travelers (lots of Germans, incredibly high proportion of people on Working Holiday Visas, several long term hostellers – don’t know how they do it).

Finally, on my third day in Sydney, I was off to be a proper tourist. The Sydney Opera House is a surreal thing to see. It’s an image you’ve seen hundreds of times. I had a strange mixture of familiarity and awe standing beside the iconic structure. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was, I was surprised to find, almost equally as captivating (after flicking through my photos from the last couple of days, I’ve realized this isn’t quite translated – as if it ever is.) It is, quite simply, huge. Standing by the Opera House, you have incredible views of the bridge; walking across the bridge, you have incredible views of the Opera House. Taking a ferry to Manly Beach, a northern suburb of Sydney, and you get both. Seeing Sydney by water is something you don’t want to miss. Though there are plenty of speed boat tours and cruises and whatnot, the ferry seemed to be an excellent option to me, and it costs around $14 return.

Though beautiful, Sydney is still a city, and I’ve realized I was right in my estimation that I don’t want to spend too long in one. My next jaunt will be to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains for some nature and hiking. I intend to come back to Sydney after two nights, hopefully with some couches secured, and stay for another week or so before continuing to chase my beach dream.

Onward!

Melbourne ended on a high note. On my second last night, the house, friends, and I went out for a couple of drinks, and then to a club for half an hour or so. Well, that was the plan. After crawling my sorry ass to bed around 6 a.m. after a night of ridiculous dancing, drinking, and general merriment, we spent the better part of the next day watching movies and ordering take out. Yes, I was a horrible tourist and had absolutely no desire to squeeze any sightseeing into my last few hours in Melbourne. I had finally been able to track down a ride to Sydney that seemed like a good idea; a lovely gal with a Mitsubishi Lancer was making the trek north bright and early Saturday morning. Paying half of the gas seemed like more than enough of a good deal to me, so off we went.

Sydney quite quickly captivated me. There is something about this place that, even while getting lost on the drive in, intrigues you. My travel companion for the drive may not agree, as frustrated is the first word that came to mind for her reaction to our slight detour. Already, Sydney had Melbourne beat for beauty and weather, at least in my experience. The fact that the city is more of a labyrinth than a grid appeals to me massively as well, since I have spent far too long in square North American cities.

The night I arrived, my couchsurfing hosts were throwing a Halloween party. Though I was excited to finally get to celebrate (it’s not as big of a deal Down Under), exhaustion from a 5 a.m. start eventually caught up with me and I was looking forward to everyone clearing out so I could have my couch. I managed to make it to bed before the 24 hour mark, finally getting some shut-eye at about 4:30 a.m.

It was great fun to get to know my hosts and meet their friends, but after meeting and chatting with approximately 30 people in the last few days, I remembered what a friend of mine said after returning home from a year of travelling and living abroad. Though odd to be back, part of him was happy to just be around people who he didn’t have to tell his story to. I hadn’t fully appreciated that until that night. It was refreshing to have conversations with people that went outside the “where-are-you-from-what-are-you-doing-here” box. Perhaps my favorite moment was a girl from Ireland explaining the over-the-top exaggerations used for everything at home, such as describing a day that has weather that is very calm and boring, with really no outstanding features as “fierce mild.”

On my first full day in Sydney, I visited the Sculptures by the Sea. This annual exhibition is set up along the coastal walk in Bondi for a few weeks, and I was lucky to catch the last day. The downside of visiting on the last day, which also happened to be a beautiful and sunny Sunday, is that every person, their dog, and their stroller had come out as well. This effectively made walking along the narrow coastal pathway about as efficient as fighting gridlock traffic in New York on a Wednesday at 5 o’clock. Though I generally dislike being stuck amongst hordes of tourists, I had nothing at all to complain about while strolling (standing, at points) along the sea. After all, there was absolutely nowhere I needed to be.

Patches of Green

I’ve discovered a great house to couchsurf at, and that my backpack is too full. I don’t know how it happened, as it somehow all fit comfortably on the way here, but my first mission across the city was a little less than comfortable. I’m not sure what I can get rid of, but I’ll be going through and trying to ditch any heavy items deemed unnecessary before I move again.

As for the house, my generous hosts have offered to let me crash for as long as needed, since my ride-share to Sydney fell through. The house and housemates are fantastic, in a really good neighbourhood of Melbourne, and the house happens to include a hot tub. I’m searching on Gumtree for a new lift to Sydney that doesn’t appear too terribly … sketchy. The other feasible option is to relocate a campervan, but this could be less than thrilling solo. There’s also the chance of crashing headlong into oncoming traffic while driving down the wrong side of the road.

Regardless of departure date, I’m still enjoying discovering different corners of Melbourne. The two days of 30 degree weather helped, but even on chilly, cloudy days it’s a great city. Yesterday I explored St. Kilda. There is a popular beach in the neighbourhood and a few streets of great eats and shopping. I happened to stumble upon the St. Kilda community garden which, despite the permeating smell of composting food, was excessively charming. The organic garden with over 140 plots is open to the public to cultivate their own personal patches of greenery. The windy paths and touches of artwork throughout add to its charm.

The move to couchsurfing has managed to temporarily quell my restlessness, but I am feeling ready to move on soon. Hopefully Sydney will be in my near future!