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Archive for January, 2008

Anyone who has been keeping up with the blog will understand how our East Coast trip has been labelled the “worst ever.” Somehow, we managed to do everything wrong. We had fun, that’s undeniable, but it felt more like smiling through adversity than pleasure for pleasure’s sake. More than once, Sarah turned to me and said, “Are we being tested?” If we have been, we must have passed, since the rewards of the past few days have wiped any misery from our minds and put the adventure back into high gear.

Ocean’s Eleven.
Or: How Sarah and Amy wiped out the Crown Casino (relatively)

Neither Sarah nor I count ourselves as major gamblers. In fact, Sarah has never been to a casino before and my experience is limited to cruise ships and a very poor run at Casino Niagara (not even the beautiful Fallsview casino, but the other one.) Nevertheless, we decided to treat ourselves with one night out at the awe-inspiring Crown Casino in downtown Melbourne. We ate dinner in one of the bistro-style restaurants there and were feeling lucky. We entertained the idea of winning enough money to buy us last minute tickets to the Australian Open Men’s Final (about $250/each) and headed straight to the slots. Five minutes later and twenty dollars poorer, we abandoned slots as a slippery slope into debt. Instead, we decided to try our hand at blackjack. After watching a couple of rounds, we each put in twenty dollars and made the attempt. We just managed to crack even and decided to call it a night. But is it ever easy to call it a night in a Casino? With one last vain hope, we sat down at a different table. Now our luck really changed! When we finally decided to finish “for real,” we were up $200 and feeling good. It wasn’t enough for tickets, but it would cover our grounds passes, dinner and a taxi home. We were happy.

Ocean’s Twelve
Or: How Sarah and Amy got box seats at a Grand Slam men’s final

As a huge tennis fan, I’ve been following the Australian Open with something bordering on religiousity. I’ve found TV’s or bars at every hostel in order to keep up with the scores, especially concerning my favourite player, Roger Federer. Naturally, I was really disappointed by his loss to Djokovic in the semi-finals, but I was excited to be in the same city as a Grand Slam final. On the evening of the men’s final, we decided to go down and watch it from the big screen TV on the grounds and support underdog Jo Tsonga. Armed with facepaint and matching Australian Open t-shirts, Sarah and I descended on Melbourne Park.

Only a couple of minutes into our stroll to find the big screen TV, but two men approach us asking about our facepaint. Sarah and I bought the facepaint for $2 at a dollar store, so we offer to paint their faces (on the condition that it be French flags) instead of them waiting in line at the official face paint booth. After chatting for a bit about how we are poor tennis-loving backpackers with only lowly grounds passes, they offer to try and sneak us into their superbox. An offer we can’t refuse! With a little help from their wives and families up in the box already, they manage to procure a couple of passes for us to use in the elevators passed the tight security. Once up there, we don’t dare to venture down again – but there was really no need! We had unlimited food and drink and the best seats in the house. We got to watch the mixed doubles final and the men’s final and both games were incredible. An experience we will never forget.

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Beaching in Byron

Brisbane was a relaxing recuperation time for Sarah and I, and now we are back and raring to continue the adventure. Our next Greyhound trip takes us to Byron Bay, home of surfers, hippies and many, many backpackers.

Gold Coast

Driving through the Gold Coast is a somewhat surreal experience. It’s a part of Australia that feels exactly like the U.S.A., especially Florida. Out of one window I spy “Wet ‘n’ Wild” and then a few seconds later “MovieWorld,” followed in quick succession by “DreamWorld” and the ever-popular “SeaWorld.” They don’t say the Gold Coast is the “world of worlds” for nothing. Otherwise I could be in Miami. There are condos everywhere. And on the rivers and lakes leading down to the Pacific, huge, modern homes cling to the water’s edge. The obligatory yacht is parked in the docks in front of the houses. It’s a millionaire’s world out there; I am glad we’re not stopping.

Byron Bay

Byron itself is a strange mix of people. The beach is crowded with surfers and today the swells are bringing out the pros. There are some beginners in the midst of a surf lesson, and it brings back memories of Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa and my very first surfing attempt. But the best surfer on the beach is a little boy, probably no more than 10 years old, who catches the waves like a future “sponsored-by-Billabong.” The other large local contingent is made up of old women with long grey hair, sparkling headbands and floaty dresses, remnants of a bygone era. Of course, the hippy spirit is still alive and well in Byron, with many crystals and “happy herbs” shops dotted along the main strip. Apart from the locals, backpackers are the life and soul of byron bay. Our hostel is located right on the beach, and the people who pick us up from the Greyhound station are Canadian – Torontonians even, who used to live in the Beaches! From the Beaches in T.dot to the glorious beach of Byron Bay, it’s not a bad move.

We’ve only got a day here, but I think we’re going to enjoy it.

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All down “Steve Irwin Way,” Steve’s permanently surprised face greets us as we head to Australia Zoo. The zoo is his legacy, and its reputation precedes it – Lonely Planet hypes it as a “world top ten,” and that’s not just for zoos, but for destinations. It has a lot to live up to, but it succeeds – and in many ways it surpasses our expectations.

Must love Crocs

What is the main attraction for a zoo owned by the Crocodile Hunter family? Alligators of course! Jokes aside, crocodiles are everywhere. Huge, pristine enclosures hold one or two crocodiles each; it is a startling change from the croc enclosures in Botswana and Tanzania where hundreds of crocs swarmed en masse in dirty water. The crocodile show is exciting and different. No matter how long these massive reptiles have been in captivity, none of them seem remotely tame, and the trainers are clearly nervous and treat these animals with respect. Even though “Graham” the croc is being gentle today, the few strikes he makes at the trainer (who is bravely dangling what looks like a rasher of bacon in front of Graham’s jaws) clearly showcase their enormous power. Three hundred pounds of pressure is contained within those torpedo-like bodies.

Mixed with the displays of power is a discussion on how to deal with crocodiles in the bush. It’s scary to think about how some of the world’s most dangerous animals are a part of daily life for some families, especially in the Northern Territories and outback Queensland. In fact, as I wander through the “Venomous Snakes” enclosure, I overhear a conversation between a man and his son. They are looking at the taipan, one of the most venomous snakes in Australia. The man turns to his son and says, “Now see what I told you? Next time you see one of those on the farm, you stay away.” Scary.

Bindi the Jungle Girl says: “Save our Planet!”

The other main focus of the Australia Zoo is conservation. Throughout the day, Bindi, Robert and Terri Irwin deliver TV messages about the importance of preserving the planet. As visitors to the Australia Zoo, we have all been entered into the league of “Wildlife Warriors.” Some of the videos play like the Irwin family home movie time, but you can’t help but be caught smiling at their slightly off-kilter, over-the-top Ozzie antics. And their intent is better than good. Allow people to interact with animals, fall in love with them and then want to help them. It works with us. We are in line for the koala photos, the bird of prey shows, the elephant feedings and the tiger temple. We are spending our hard saved backpacker dollars, and anything that makes a traveller part with their dough must be worth it. The Australia Zoo is.

My favourite animal? Why, the little echidnas of course! Half-hedgehog, half-duck, they are the weirdest, wackiest animal in Oz. And pretty darn cute as well.

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Finally in Brisbane

Brisbane has seemed this impossible goal, but finally we have made it. It has probably been the most harrowing few days of my life so far. We were stranded in Airlie Beach for one night and fortunately were able to make a break for it by tagging along with Rob and Kara, the Canadians we met on the Anaconda III. We ended up in Rockhampton, a small town about halfway between Airlie and Brisbane. After many fruitless calls to Greyhound, we soon realized we weren’t going to be getting to Brisbane any time soon – all the buses were completely full from the backlog at Airlie Beach.

Instead we decided to rent a car to take us the rest of the way. Unfortunately I ended up in a car accident after one of the back tires skidded off the road. Sara and I both walked away with scratches and bruises but no major injuries. We were lucky.

I am so grateful to my friends Chris and Hilary for coming to pick us up from Brisbane. I don’t know what we would do without such amazing support over here. So a huge THANK YOU to them, and a huge sigh of relief that we are finally in Brisbane… safe and sound.

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It’s the kind of weather you would expect forging a path bravely across the Atlantic Ocean: lashing rain, massive waves and high winds strong enough to whip waterspouts into the sky. The rain masses into torrents of water that cascade down the portholes and into the cabins through leaky vents. Our cabin, a four-person “inner” cabin with no outside windows, leaks the worst. In fact, the drip centres on my bunk, where my head is supposed to lie, so instead I flip around and curl up into a ball so I don’t end up with wet feet. Everytime I turn, I cringe as the plastic-covered mattress crinkles. This isn’t the Atlantic. It’s the Whitsundays, and our soft sailing sojourn has turned into a rock and roll (literally) adventure.

Night One, Day One

Anaconda IIIThe Anaconda III sits in the harbour, a massive blue and white mega-yacht waiting to be boarded. She’s easily one of the bigger yachts there and holds 31 passengers, plus crew. After a short safety brief, everyone is handed their own bonafide stinger suit for all the nasties in the water. Then some bubbly is handed out to all, intros are made and we’re shown into our “cozy” (read: cramped) bunks. Water is on a strict ration: one one-minute shower per day.

Before we shuffle off to bed, Tim – our skipper – asks for the Canadians on board to identify themselves. Three hands go up; myself and a couple from Kamloops, B.C., Rob and Kara.

Tim shakes his head sadly. “It’s a scientifically proven fact that 80% of the time a Canadian is on board my ship, it is going to rain.”

The other passengers fix us with an evil stare and wouldn’t you know it, a drop of water lands on the top of my head. Kara, Rob and I scurry away before we can be lynched.

Whitehaven Beach is normally the picture-perfect oasis of everyone’s dreams. The crew drop us off, with two hours to kill. We swim (in the rain), play beach cricket (in the rain) and sunbathe (yes, there was a fleeting moment of sun!) It rains some more and we pray for the crew to return in their tender, but they seem determined to give us the full two-hour beach experience we paid for. Back on the boat (finally), we realize why we wear stinger suits: huge jellyfish float idly by, unaware of the dread they cause in many hearts.

My first dive is later on that afternoon at Luncheon Bay, off Hook Island. It is a fringing reef dive, which means the reef hugs the outline of the island; an easy site, difficult to get lost but with a huge range of corals and fish. The snorkelling is equally as good, with the water being so clear and the coral so close to the surface. Sarah and I muck around with an underwater camera; I can only imagine the beauty of the reef with the sun shining.

The food on board, cooked by Kelly, is nothing short of superb. There’s plenty of it, too, but the heat inside the galley is intense. Tim orders the awning up to shelter us from the rain, so we can sit outside. It isn’t long, though, until we hunker back down, exhausted from diving and snorkelling.

Night Two, Day Two

At five in the morning, Anaconda III sets sail again out toward the outer Great Barrier Reef. I wouldn’t have known it had it not been for the sudden but constant thunder of our bathroom door against the toilet. Bang against the door frame, the boat lurches, bang against the toilet. There is no way to secure it, although we are valiant in our efforts. As soon as Sarah gets up out of bed though, she is forced to run up on deck. She is not alone. Others join her in her queasinses, though fortunately I avoid it.

We anchor at Bait Reef, which looks as though it is in the middle of nowhere. Scuba diving here is scarier than anywhere else – at least at other dive sites, I could always see land. I brace myself for what is supposed to be one of the best dives in the Whitsundays. I’m not disappointed. We spy black-tipped reef sharks feeding on the bottom. We watch one for a good while before it up and swims away, tired of spectators. No sooner had we turned our heads than an Eagle ray swooped around the mountain of coral, its face unlike any I have ever seen before, on land or in sea.

It’s always the big fish that get a mention, but when I’m down there, it’s the small things that capture my imagination the most. There are the feather worms that look like the dust busters of the ocean. Or the scores of minnows that swarm around you as you swim, their silvery bodies catching the light like sparkling, falling confetti. This dive, my tenth, is the best so far, for this mix of big and small.

Leaving Bait Reef is when the massive storm hits. A few brave souls (Sarah, but not myself) face the storm on deck. Sarah rushes in to tell me she almost went overboard. This, combined with the fact that she was stung by a jellyfish, makes me reconsider her ‘cursed’ status. But her contagious smile has never left her face since boarding the boat, and it is fun. If this isn’t sailing, what is?

Night Three, Day Three

Tim fixes our bathroom door with some string and a nail. It does the trick and we sleep soundly. The morning breaks much clearer than the night before. We snorkel again and feed the fish with mouldy bread. The fish here are clueless of the imminent danger humans bring and swim right up to our masks. Who said they are more afraid of us than we are of them?

We spend the morning at Blue Pearl Bay but move on quickly to get back to Airlie Beach. In a final salute to us, it is raining again. But although the tan didn’t deepen, the beach wasn’t picturesque and the reef didn’t sparkle, the rain bound everyone together so that a whole ship of strangers sailed back into harbour as friends. And thus ends the saga of the Wetsundays.

(p.s. It has been raining so hard that we are now stranded in Airlie Beach due to flooding, all roads both north and south have been closed until at least Wednesday. )

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Rain

Sarah and I aren’t cursed. It just so happens that wherever we decide to go, it decides to rain. In fact, the prediction for our greyhound trip up the east coast was for flash flooding and cyclones. In order to avoid these unseasonal storms from Sydney to Byron Bay, we decided to hop a plane to Cairns – a place where it is still raining but at least it is the wet season and therefore expected. As I have been told numerous times since landing in Cairns: “You can’t have a rainforest without rain.”

Arriving in Cairns after Sydney is like entering a new country. I’m sure that had we eased ourselves into the tropics by following the east coast, we wouldn’t have been struck so hard by the differences between the two places. Cairns is nestled by mountains covered by some of the oldest rainforest in the world. The temperatures soar into the 30s and the rain is like bathwater. Even if there is no rain, the humidity soaks you through anyway. Dripping sweat and backpacks do not mix, but it definitely makes one appreciate a nice cold shower.

Rainforest

DaintreeThe Daintree National Park is officially the oldest rainforest in the world. A World Heritage site, it fulfills the wildest of anyone’s “Jurassic Park” dreams. Huge ferns create shade on the muddy pathways. Forest dragons skitter into the brush on their hindlegs. And because of the pouring rain, creeks transform into raging rivers, rushing jellyfish, crocodiles and poor tourists’ flipflops into the ocean.

The best view of this awe-inspiring rainforest comes from the inside of a boat on a Daintree River cruise. I have complained so far that Australia isn’t as amazing as Africa because it is difficult to feel “away from it all” when you spend most of your days inside a shopping plaza and surrounded by other tourists. But this is incredible. Suddenly, it isn’t 2008 at all but millions of years ago, and we are the privileged few who get to go back in time and witness a place where humans are not even a twinkle in evolution’s eye. There aren’t many places in the world you can do that, I think. It is definitely the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites collide in one place: the Daintree Rainforest National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Reef

We spent the night in PK’s Jungle Village, Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation gets its name from Captain Cook, whose boat hit the Great Barrier Reef and began to sink with him in it. Hence “Tribulation”. It has certainly earned its frightening moniker throughout the years. Only a few kilometres away is Snapper Island, and it was there, at the mouth of the Daintree River, where famed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray. Cape Tribulation is also where the gear of the lost “Open Water” scuba divers washed ashore. Their boat left from Port Douglas, not too far from where we were staying. The fact that I was about to dive in the same spot where the divers went missing filled me with only a little trepidation. This being stinger season and all, could I have chosen a more dangerous place and time?

Our ship was called the Rum Runner III and it took us out to the magnificent Undine reef, one of the northernmost points on the Great Barrier Reef. In a spot called the “fishtank,” my dive partner Rasmus and I headed out into this most famous of diving spots. The coral is magnificent. Huge fans swaying the current, moved by a watery geisha’s hand. There were pufferfish and stingrays and jellyfish and, of course, Nemo himself frolicking amongst the anemonaes. Alicia, our dive master, was quite interactive with the marine life and brought us a seaslug to snuggle (slimy and very sticky), a giant clam to hold and a Maori wrasse to tickle. She even bounced a jellyfish on the palm of her hand, but I wasn’t having any of that. I still feel too much like a stranger underwater to want to test my luck.

12 hours on a Greyhound bus later and we are sitting in Airlie Beach, about 600km south of Cairns. Tomorrow we embark on a 3-night, 3-day sailing adventure aboard the Anaconda III and I will get to go diving again in the Whitsunday Islands. So whoever amongst you that call Sarah and I cursed because of the weather, I will take cursed any day if it brings me to places like these!

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Now that the intensity of holiday week is over, Sarah and I have opted for a few days of peace and tranquility unmarred by the headaches of hangovers and bad photographs. Not to say that this hasn’t been one of the most fun weeks of my life, but it is nice to get out of the hectic city.

Chinese Gardens

We spent the better half of the morning on New Year’s Day pacing through the Chinese Gardens at Darling Harbour. A hidden oasis in the city, the Chinese gardens were designed by architects from Sydney’s “sister” province in China, Guangdong. I could have spent forever walking over the stone bridges and staring down at the carp playing in the stream’s current. There were beautiful pagodas and archways around every corner. I ended the visit with jasmine tea and dim sum in the teahouse. It was a perfect way to contemplate the year to come and a very “zen” start after the night before’s crazy antics.

Blue Mountains

Today we left the city altogether and headed for the Blue Mountains, about a couple of hours away by train. Altogether misjudging what altitude does to temperature, we arrived in shorts and t-shirts to utterly freeze in the mist covered mountain range. Ignoring the goosebumps covering our legs, we hopped on board the Trolley tour from Katoomba station straight to “Scenic World.” Katoomba is a strange mix of quaint b&bs and seedy looking restaurants, clearly suffering from an ill-conceived makeover from mining town to tourist hub. Scenic World itself reminded me of the Penguin Parade in Melbourne: theme park-esque in its dedication to being tourist-friendly. Everything is brightly signed, clean and exaggerated. In a way it is a shame that it is so over-the-top, since the Blue Mountains themselves are so beautiful. We can easily see that ourselves; we don’t need to be told so by laminated brochures.

Indulging in all that the Blue Mountains have to offer, Sarah and I rode the steepest incline railway down into the valley and then the cable car back out. They are not exaggerating on the steepness of the railway. With a little jammy begging (and maybe some winking? I’m not sure…) Sarah and I managed to score the very front seat. It was literally a “hold onto your hats” moment as we crept over the edge, faster and faster. Now I may have bungeed… jumped out of a plane… swung through a gorge… but it still didn’t stop my throat from catching just a little.

Tomorrow we descend upon the East Coast with vigour. We’re zipping through – our gorilla tourism at its best – hopping from place to place in a month. The weather forecasts are pretty grim for the east coast, to say the least. If it ends up being awful, we’re heading back down to Melbourne for some Australian Open action — I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that seeing Federer in action may just make my trip.

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