Australia

Under the Worldwide Sea

 

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A Road Trip Reunion for the Great Ocean Road

I had to fit in one last road trip before I left Australasia. Everyone said to go see the Great Ocean Road (GOR) if I had time (advice I will echo to future travelers). Not only did I have time, but I was lucky enough to have a friend with a car and a free Monday who was willing to take me on a day trip. Josi and I were going out on the road again.

As per usual with our road trip history in NZ, the weather was pretty bad. But we went for it anyway; this was the one day we had together for the trip so we were going rain or shine. I’m happy we did.

The drive is beautiful, although I’m sure more so in sunny weather. About halfway down we took a turn off onto the road where we were most likely to see koalas. Luckily there were no cars behind us as we crept down the road scanning the treetops. Then Josi hit the breaks: “koala!” We jumped out of the car and sure enough she had spotted one way up high. As I took pictures it clearly looked down at us. I jumped for joy – I finally saw an Aussie animal in the wild! And a koala, which are notoriously hard to spot.

When we could tear ourselves away we continued at our snails pace and this time it was my turn to yell out “koala!” This one was not happy we were making noises in its direction and it openly complained about t. Koalas make the strangest sound! It’s rare to hear it as a tourist so I felt really lucky. We were also lucky because this one wasn’t alone; another was up in the same tree and a mom and baby were across the street.

We moved on again, already happy with our 5 koalas, when we saw a few cars pulled over up ahead – 2 more koalas, another mom and baby. And this time there were kangaroos too! About half a dozen in a field just hanging out. More animals! I was skipping around like a giddy child. Another couple hundred meters and we had to stop again – 4 more koalas, and active ones. We saw one jump and climb up a tree (and stop for a pee break as I was filming him), and a couple had some lunch. They were all so close to the road. People were all around taking tons of pictures; I was right there with them. The next koala we saw we didn’t even stop for. We were up to 12 now. Even Josi was shocked, she’d never seen so many in a day. Later Gus, her fiancee, told us it was mating season, which explained why they were around and awake.

On our way back out the same road I saw a black kangaroo jumping around. At this point I was happy with the drive just for the animals; I finally saw them and not in a zoo. Seeing animals in the wild is always better.

We drove on, stopping for a quick fish and chips lunch (had to get one of those before I left), and made it to the first of the 12 Apostles just as the weather hit peak shittiness. We still got out and climbed down to the road. The tan cliff face and lone Apostle were imposing sites. This was my favorite vista of the drive. We were alone on the beach surrounded by the sheer awesomeness of Australia’s coastline. It was stunning even in the overcast misty rain.

It wasn’t much further to the main 12 Apostles visitor center, our final destination, which we shared with hoards of tourists. This was supposed to be the peak moment of the GOR but the strong wind, cold rain, and masses of people really took away from the experience. It was still impressive, I get why everyone goes here and still recommend stopping by, but we didn’t linger. We were also very disappointed with the visitor center: it was just a kiosk, no information on the Apostles at all. I googled them on our way out for at least a little history.

We turned around and drove back up to Josi’s. As we reached the end of the GOR we saw a huge rainbow; we were actually able to see where it ended in the ocean. To our chagrin it was too far out into the water to look for the gold, but to me it signaled a happy end to a great day trip.

It was so fun being back on the road with Josi for a day, a throwback to how we got to know each other in NZ. And beyond that, Josi and Gus welcomed me into their home, and I am so thankful to them both for their hospitality and their friendship. The night before the GOR drive I took the train out to Geelong to stay at their house so we could get up early the next day. Josi picked me up at the train station and we greeted each other with a huge hug. When we got to the house I was so excited to meet her fiancee Gus, who I’d heard so much about, and of course he was fantastic too. We all had dinner together and Josi and I finished off a bottle of wine catching up. It felt like I was staying with old friends who I just hadn’t seen in a while. On our way home the next night we picked up kangaroo burgers and made dinner together. Gus is an excellent gardener so I was treated to fresh veggies and salad picked right from the backyard to go with the burgers. It was a delicious meal.

I was sad to say bye to Josi and Gus that night; I really felt so welcome in their home. It’s a testament to how great they are and I’ll always remember them as some of the most kind-hearted friends I met on this trip. I would say I’m sad I don’t know if or when I’ll see them again but I don’t have to worry about that. Josi and Gus I haven’t forgotten – Burning Man 2016. See you there.

Melbourne Felt Comfortable and Apparently that was the Problem

Everywhere I went I met people who told me how much I was going to like Melbourne. Whether they were from there, at some point lived there, or had just visited, the overwhelming opinion was that it was one of the best cities in the world, and as a former San Francisco resident its hipsteresque street art and coffee-obsessed culture, abundance of trams (the cable car’s cousin), and ocean-side but a bit too cold to really enjoy it location would feel a little like home.

There was some merit to this opinion. Melbourne is a manageable city with a lot of appeal. But it was that “a little like home” that everyone said I would like that ended up being the problem. Let me back up…

My days in Melbourne felt different than simply visiting a city; I was hanging out with friends in a city. Four days spent with four friends I’d met across my travels: Steve, an Irishman I’d wandered around Iguazu with for a day back in June; Josie, my German road trip companion from New Zealand; Kelly, an Aussie native I’d met at my Puerto Iguazu hostel also back in June; and Alex, an American I’d met just a few days earlier in Byron Bay. Each friend is intertwined with different parts of the city in my memory. It’s amazing how I knew Steve for a day, Kelly for 2, Alex for 2, and Josi for 12 – and none of them before this trip – and it felt so normal just hanging out with them in Melbourne. It was a nice way to experience the city. A little more normal.

So, back to Melbourne. It has a lot of things I really like. For starters, it has expansive parks for all sorts of recreation (Steve and I biked through them). It’s close to water, both the river and ocean, and as a bonus this ocean has little penguins at the St. Kilda pier that I got to see at dusk one night. It has day markets like the St. Kilda Sunday Market on the Esplanade (where I got my new rings and some gifts) and night markets like the Queen Victoria Night Market on Wednesdays (explored with Alex) – the place I had a sampling of emu, crocodile and alligator (alligator wins) – and the temporary Noodle Market, which I wandered through but didn’t eat at, although it smelled fantastic. These reminded me of SF’s Off the Grid and Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg. It has neighborhoods to stroll around and enjoy a snack or beverage. My choices were a flat white and caramel slice in Fitzroy (the neighborhood I would live in if I moved to Melbourne) and a chicken focaccia and a glass of wine in a laneway in the CBD. Both highly enjoyable experiences. It has extensive public transportation; the trams felt like SF’s MUNI system all rolled into one, like the above-ground part of the T ran on all the bus routes all over the city. It has some history and lots of culture, as I found out on the Free Walking Tour with Kelly (do it! really good one). The street art is abundant and great, and I got to pretend to be a student in the National Gallery of Victoria by eavesdropping on a class lesson in a gallery. And from what I saw, it has a great gastronomic scene. From Mexican-Korean fusion carnitas sandwiches enjoyed riverside (with Steve) to healthy quinoa and kale salad and zucchini fritters enjoyed literally on the river at Ponyfish Island (with Kelly) to a fantastic view over the city at The Rooftop Bar (with Alex), I got to have a little taste of my old home dining life.

What I’m getting to is that Melbourne is a great city. I could have easily spent more time there reverting back to normal city life. But that was my problem – Melbourne felt too normal. It could easily be in the US, they would just have to change the Macca’s sign back to McDonald’s. I was already feeling anxious about the similarity of Australia to the US so ending with a city that felt so much like home was the period at the end of the sentence. It was time to leave Australia. I needed to get back out to the different that I experienced in South America. I needed Asia.

So when the time came to board my flight, I admit, I wasn’t sad. Nothing against Melbourne, I enjoyed the city, but the timing was wrong. I was just ready to move on to my next adventure.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay was up there with Fraser Island for the most recommended place to visit. When I was reaching exhaustion with the East Coast I kept thinking, “I just want to get to Byron Bay.” So you can imagine my relief when I made it to Byron and it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

I checked into the Arts Factory, the number one recommended hostel for its alternative set-up: campsites, teepees, and dorms were scattered around the woods with a pond, a beach volleyball court, a pool, a ping pong table, and picnic areas. Inside was a cafe, eclectic couches and chairs, and a pool table. There were didgeridoo and yoga classes and a brewery across the parking lot, which was my first stop when I got in Wednesday night for open mic night.

I could see how people get stuck in Byron at the Arts Factory, embracing the hippie lifestyle that it embodied. However for a short term solo traveler it may not have been the best option. It was very cool, but its guests were mostly already in groups of friends and I found it hard to meet new people. Granted this was also affected by my friend situation: with Pascal, Chris and Elsenoor all in town at the same time I opted to hang out with them instead of dedicating time to meeting people at Arts Factory. I don’t regret this for an instant; I had a fantastic time with them.

Byron was dominated by beach time, as it should be. The soft sand beach stretches as far as the eye can see and the inviting blue water is shallow enough to walk far out into. My first morning I read on the beach for hours before Pascal and Chris got there, then I spent the afternoon boogie boarding and hanging out with them. I spotted Elsenoor not far away and invited her to join us. Our last day was spent this way too, nursing our hangovers in the sun and the much better boogie boarding waves. I haven’t boogie boarded since I was a kid and had forgotten how fun it can be to ride a wave into shore.

In between beach days the four of us made the trip out to Nimbin. This Aussie town is well known for being the place to buy weed and edibles, namely cookies. We decided when in Rome and went for a day trip. Without going into much detail, I’ll just say we were a little disappointed in this adventure. There is really nothing to do in Nimbin, it is a small block with a few cafes and shops, and its main export is nothing to rave about either. It also felt way more sketchy than its reputation. Maybe I’m just too used to the easiness of California.

We finally got in some good nights out in Byron Bay. Thursday night was a bit more casual, with our main form of entertainment being making bets on where other people in the bar were from. This is how I ended up doing push-ups on the floor of the bar, something I wouldn’t live down over the next few days, but I’m not one to back out of a bet. Friday night was our last night together so we went out for dinner, a real treat for a bunch of backpackers, and it was lovely. Good food, good company, and a bottle of wine shared between new friends. We met some other people out and, after a brief detour to check out a Silent Disco (which was unfortunately all schoolies), ended up again at the backpacker bar Cheeky Monkey. When it was time to go home we didn’t want the night to end; we wandered around by the beach for a while refusing to accept defeat, but eventually we had to give in.

I had an evening flight to Melbourne that Saturday night so I said my goodbyes after our beach day. But in the trend I have going they weren’t really goodbyes – Chris and Pascal, you’re not rid of me yet, I’ll see you in Thailand for Christmas.

I left Byron Bay happy with my three days there but excited to finally get to Melbourne. I could easily have spent weeks relaxing in the hippie-turned-bustling beach town, reading on the beach, learning to surf, maybe even revisiting the Nimbin experiment, and sharing beers with my Oz travel friends. It is definitely towards the top of the list of favorite locations from my time in Australia. But as things go, I only had a few days left in this country, and I had saved the supposed best for last. To Melbourne I went.

24 Hours in Brisbane

I decided to do a quick stop in Brisbane on my way to Byron Bay. I had to go through it anyway so why not check it out? People heard I had just 24 hours and thought I was a little crazy, but I had done a dozen stops like this in South America, so I went for it. And I’m happy I did.

Brisbane is much better than I expected it to be. I’d heard that it wasn’t worth going to unless you knew someone there and maybe that’s true for a weekend or longer stay, but I had a very pleasant day in Brizzy.

I arrived at 3:10 pm and had a casual evening. I took advantage of the massive roof deck of my hostel to write some blog posts at a table overlooking the city and ate my couscous and avocado dinner (a true backpacker meal of leftovers from Noosa) outside. Brian, a quirky Swiss guy from my room, suggested we check out the free ferry City Hopper to see the city lit up from the water. Great idea.

The ferry is a nice nighttime activity. It was pleasant to putter around on a boat on such a warm night and see the glowing bridges and buildings of Brizzy. It was on this boat ride that we learned that the river really does have sharks in it! When we returned to the hostel I took advantage of another one of its perks: the movie theater. Pirates of the Caribbean? Don’t mind if I do.

The next morning I set out early to do Lonely Planet’s CBD walk (taken from a fellow traveler in Noosa). This walk was a great introduction to the city; it took me through main plazas, urban districts, important civic buildings, bridge views, riverside boardwalks, the Botanical Gardens, and the South Bank, which is a fantastic public amenities space. There’s a rainforest walk with a Nepalese Pagoda, plenty of places to lounge in grassy fields, walking/running/cycling paths, cafes and restaurants, a cultural center, and the Street Beach, Brisbane’s lagoon. What is with Australia and their love of public swimming pool lagoons? I had now seen this 3 times: Cairns, Airlie Beach, and Brisbane. They’re all so well maintained too, looking clean and inviting. I wonder if that would ever happen in the States.

I spent a decent amount of time in the Gallery of Modern Art. This museum is a perfectly manageable size and had some interesting exhibits. I discovered 2 new artists I really liked: Tracey Moffatt and Hiraki Sawa. It is definitely worth a visit, not just for Art History people. (And it’s free!) On my way back I encountered a food market in front of the Treasury where I wanted to buy everything, but I held off because I’d been told of a cool stop in an alley nearby.

I almost missed The Brew – on Albert between Queen Street Mall and King George Square – because it really does just look like an alleyway, but it’s good thing I found it. This is an awesome chill place I could spend hours in, the type of place where you can hang out alone or with friends, starting with a coffee and moving on to food and beer as the day moves on. I let myself get a mocha (so good) and took some leisure time. A reward for a good 24 hour visit to Brizzy.

At 4:00 I boarded my bus to Byron Bay happy with this last-minute stop. I needed a city in between all this beach time. I didn’t realize I’d missed cities until I took more pictures on the hour and a half boat ride than I did on all of Fraser Island. Add Brisbane to the list of places that made me think more about my future, this time leaning heavily in favor of city life. And when I spent a lot of time trying to get a good picture of a funky skyscraper and a trussed bridge, and sitting in a gallery to listen to an architect talk about his work, I was again reminded of my love for architecture. Could this year bring me right back to where I was before I left, just a year older and more traveled? TBD, but after Brizzy, it’s possible. Then again after this year anything is possible.

I Was Supposed to Kayak in Noosa but Oh Well

The last stop on my pre-booked adventure tour was a 2 day 3 night kayaking and camping trip in the Noosa Everglades. I knew nothing about Noosa before I visited Happy Travels in Cairns, but they offered to throw it in for free and I like kayaking so why not. But I was never really excited about it, and after the Whitsundays and Fraser Island tours, and seeing the same familiar faces in Airlie Beach, Rainbow Beach, and the Greyhound bus, I was feeling a little exhausted and over these prescribed tours. I felt like I was being herded along with the rest of the foreigners, only seeing the parts of Australia that the travel agencies wanted me to see exactly how they wanted me to see them. This wasn’t the type of travel I had done in South America and it wasn’t what I had wanted to do here or for the rest of my trip.

So when I called the Noosa Everglades company before getting on my bus to confirm the shuttle would pick me up and they told me that I was too late to confirm, the shuttle was running only at 1:00 that day and I wouldn’t get in till after 3, so my only option was to take a local bus and a AUD 30 cab ride out to them, I had no qualms about changing my plans. I took this as a sign from the travel fates that I shouldn’t force the kayaking trip just because a travel agency told me to. I wasn’t into it, the fates didn’t want to make me go, so I dropped it.

Within a matter of minutes I booked two nights at the Nomads in Noosa, where it seemed like most of my Fraser Island tour was also headed, and decided to spend the third night in Brisbane on my way to Byron Bay, a city I was previously going to skip entirely.

Noosa was hot and full of the same gap year kids that were starting to irk me. I found great company in Guusje, Esra, Elsenoor, and Tom, a group of Dutch travelers with who I hiked the coastal trail, made delicious and cheap dinners with lots of veggies, and experienced at least a small taste of Noosa nightlife before feeling too old and going to bed.

Noosa itself isn’t that much. It’s a quaint town with a wonderful coastal walk leading from Noosa Beach to Sunshine Beach. This was the highlight and really the only thing to do unless you wanted to shell out the money to surf or kayak (a 1 day Everglades trip was AUD 85-185). Otherwise it was young backpackers participating in wet t-shirt contests and hanging out at the Nomads pool. In short, it wasn’t for me.

But I was happy with my change of plans. I chilled in Noosa, saved money with grocery store meals with Guusje and Esra, and got myself excited about breaking away from this crowd by choosing to go to Brisbane. It was the right decision.

Driving Around Fraser Island with a Danish Boy Band

Next stop on the adventure tour was a 3 day 2 night tag along tour on Fraser Island.

I had heard nothing but awesome things about Fraser Island; it was must-do. The best way to experience this place, the largest sand island in the world, was to drive around in a 4WD; there are no paved roads, just sand. Without my license renting a car was not an option, but with my International Drivers Permit I could still drive in a tag along tour (thank god). Plus the tour provided the car, food, campsite, and other people to share it with.

The way the tour works is that there is a lead car for each group, with three cars following behind. We were able to drive our own cars, adhering to the route and speed of the lead car. The overall group was organized through Frasers on Rainbow and Dingos hostels at Rainbow Beach, our launching point for the tour, and consisted of 4 groups of 4 cars, with 8 people per car. We all saw the same places but it was up to our guides when we would go to them. Food was provided but we had to cook it ourselves, and accommodation was camping.

We attended a briefing at Frasers on Rainbow where we were divided up into our cars. I was sadly not in a car with Marie, Chris and Pascal, although not surprisingly since I didn’t know them when we all signed up for this tour. They ended up in a car full of just Germans. At the briefing there was only 3 of us from my car: Chloe, a 27-year-old English girl; Celene, an 18-year-old German girl; and me. The other 5 had not arrived yet, we would meet them in the morning. Judging by their names they were 5 Scandinavian boys, who we assumed were traveling together.

The next morning we met Christian, Gustav, Matthias, Sebastian, and Lasse, the 5 Danish 20-year-olds that we would spend the next 3 days with. Our Danish boy band. Not really, but they looked like they could be, especially since Christian was a Nick Carter doppelganger. At first I wasn’t sure what to think about these boys. Would they be rowdy, stupid, young boys who wanted to do all the driving, none of the cooking, and stay up all night drinking? I was pleasantly surprised. They were friendly, polite, spoke English most of the time we were in the car or at meals so we could understand them, happy to help with the food and the dishes, and wanted us to drive as much as they did. Sure they were still boys who couldn’t go more than a few seconds without getting the football out and tossing it around, even if we were just waiting a few minutes for the ferry. But I left Fraser with a great impression of the Danish.

The first morning was mostly occupied with packing the cars and getting out to the island. We stopped for lunch on the beach before our first destination. When it was time to go the guys suggested a girl drive (2 guys had already driven in), so I jumped behind the wheel, turned the key, and nothing. The car wouldn’t start. The rest of the cars were waiting impatiently as our car refused to even make a sound. The guide checked under the hood, tried to jump it, and still nothing. He would have to take a look at it while we were at our next stop, so he took everyone to the lake and we played soccer on the beach while we waited for him to come back to get us. Not a bad way to kill some waiting time.

We ignored the potential to not have a working car while we swam in freshwater Lake Wabby. It was an oasis in the hot sand island and we were happy to cool off in the calm not-salty water. The only unpleasant part was the little fish that insisted on nibbling at our feet. When the time came to go back we wondered if we would have a car. Our guide managed to fix it, but it would continue to be a guessing game whether or not our car would start for the rest of the trip. He blamed an influx of saltwater for making it die. Apparently you shouldn’t speed up going through saltwater, something Lasse had done on the drive in. You think they would have mentioned that in the 2 hour briefing the day before. I got my chance to drive but it was all smooth sand, basically I drove on a road, and we switched before the fun part of driving the bumpy road into camp.

As soon as we got to camp we started prepping for dinner. Everyone was hungry. Dinner this night was actually really good, chicken and veggie stir fry with rice. Of course the guys ate all of it. At least they seemed full for a bit. We bonded over drinks and drinking games before joining the other groups around a campfire. There was music going in the background and everyone was getting to know each other, but since it was the first night most people still took it easy, anticipating a bigger night tomorrow.

Day 2 we saw the most sites. We started with The Pinnacles, where the girls got to talk about whatever happened last night, before going to the Wreck of the Maheno, a huge eroding shipwreck that is one of the most photographed sites on the island. Next up was Eli Creek, a river so pure you can drink from it. Refreshing. We dipped in the river and walked back along it to the beach where we were left to hang out for a few hours. After lunch it was time to drive up to Indian Head for a view of the beach, stopping at Red Canyon so the boys could gossip too, before an afternoon lounging by the Champagne Pools, our only saltwater dip in this trip. You can’t go in the ocean at Fraser – if the jellyfish don’t kill you the sharks will.

Everyone had big expectations for night 2. Our first letdown was dinner; a measly portion of beef and potatoes left everyone still a little hungry. We tried to mask this with drinks, first playing games at camp before joining a small party on the beach. One guide, the awesome one, drove his car out to the sand to provide a soundtrack for people to party to underneath the stars. When we got back to camp we attempted to go to “the disco,” which was just a roof over a raised floor with some flashing lights. The soundsystem was broken. Disco fail. Back at camp people were around the campfire again but there was an air of disappointed uneventfulness. A few of us stayed up talking about how we expected more out of the night, somehow making it to 2:30 before succumbing to sleep.

The last day the guys told me to drive, since I had been unlucky with my smooth stretch the first day. The drive out of camp was bumpy fun but then it was all smooth again. When it came time to switch drivers no one wanted to take over, blame the hangovers, so I happily continued. They said I still needed to drive something more challenging. Then I got to drive the best stretch into Lake McKenzie.

The road into Lake McKenzie is notoriously where cars get stuck. The advice I got was to give it all I could but proceed with caution; seemingly conflicting ideas. I was confident though. With 10 years of driving experience in all kinds of conditions to support me (way more than the rest of the drivers in the car), I had no problem navigating the crazy bumps, dips and hills of the sand road. And it was so much fun. Satisfied with the drive in, we relaxed and played in the beautiful lake and Christian drove us back out, a little less gracefully. I was in the back seat this time and was thrown around so much that I actually had bruises from the seatbelt preventing me from hitting the roof of the car. But we made it out being the only car that didn’t get stuck.

A fun part of having the guys in our car was watching everyone else get stuck and having to send out the Danes – they could push everyone out of whatever scenario they were stuck in. Even though our car never really got stuck (just once when Celene was in the wrong gear, but it was brief) we had the muscle in the car to never have to worry about getting out.

After the lake we had lunch and played around on the beach before going home. Fraser is a beautiful place and there’s something really awesome about not having paved roads or towns. It was just a bunch of us driving around for a few days to different pretty places, playing on beaches and hanging out around our campsite. There’s no denying that it’s a great trip, and I had a fantastic time hanging out with the Danish boy band, Celene, and my Habibi German friends.

There were just a few problems that tainted the experience. 1) Our guide kinda sucked. He didn’t tell us much more than the base requirements, took pictures unenthusiastically that I haven’t even seen, and wasn’t very informative about our plans. The last morning he just showed up at camp and declared we were leaving in 20 minutes. Some warning would’ve been nice. Another guide in our group openly mocked him on the radio to his cars; this is the guide who started the beach party and told his group when there were dingos by the camp fence so they could see them. I didn’t see a single dingo. Disappointing.

2) There wasn’t enough food. If the car was just Celene, Chloe and I we would have been fine, but they did not account for the 5 growing boys. Every meal was a rationing negotiation: we have so much lunch meat so we can only eat this much today so we have some for tomorrow; tonight’s meal is all these veggies but tomorrow is just these potatoes. And then there were the useless things like a disgusting fruitcake no one wanted and some mediocre cereal bars. These probably cost a lot more than getting another bag of potatoes or another loaf of bread, things that would have been way more useful. Our last day we luckily stopped near a cafe so after our measly lunch of wraps the guys went and got burgers, the first time they were full in days.

3) Everyone is so young. The East Coast of Australia is full of gap year kids around 18-20 years old, so as a 27-year-old traveler who already experienced the workforce for 5 years I was the adult of the group. We had conversations on Fraser about how no one thought of me as being old, most people guess I’m in the 24-26 range until I start talking about my work experience, but there were still times I felt the age difference. This ended up being a strain on my time in Oz that I couldn’t shake.

Other than that though, Fraser is still a terrific place. Despite being the only place where I really thought “this would be better if I did it with my friends,” there’s no way to deny that driving around a sand island from one lake to another is a great way to spend a few days.

Life Doesn’t Get Much Better than Habibi in the Whitsundays

When I left Cairns on an overnight bus for Airlie Beach I was excited. It was time to start my adventures. First stop: a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands.

I boarded Habibi with 19 other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Canada, and France, as well as our Aussie skipper and 3 crew members. Together we sailed off into the expansive blue ocean. Or more accurately, we motored off. The wind wasn’t in our favor so the skipper mainly used the motor to get around. We were convinced that the few times the sail went up was more for show than practical application. I didn’t care either way though, we were still out at sea living on a boat and it was amazing.

The boat was an older model with wood benches above and even more wood bunks below. As we set off we were told our sleeping arrangements. Claire and I apparently won the lottery; we were given “the orgy bed” – it was almost the entire back of the boat and could have easily fit more than just the two of us, but we were happy to be able to starfish and not even come close to each other. Our boatmates that were assigned the small bunks were not as happy as we were.

I got lucky with a good group. There’s always an element of risk when you book a tour like this, especially as a solo traveler. As I walked to the boat I wondered what kind of group I would be with: partiers? couples? awkward people? What I got was a friendly group who was happy to hang out on a boat in nature. By the end of our few days together I wished we could keep the group together for the rest of my time in Oz, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The Whitsundays are paradise. Deep blue sea dotted with uninhabited, green tree-covered islands lined with thin white stretches of sand. In one case we stopped at an island that was only a thin white stretch of sand. It was quiet, relaxed, sunny, warm, beautiful.

Our days on Habibi went as follows: Day 1 was spent just getting out to where we would spend the night. We played a get to know each other game but didn’t stay up too late since we knew we had a full day ahead of us.

Day 2 we were woken up around 6 am for breakfast and then shuttled off to the island that was home to Whitehaven Beach, famous for being the most pristine beach in the Whitsundays. We were first to the island and from a viewpoint above the beach we saw it empty, devoid of the throngs of tourists that would soon catch up with us. We had 3 hours to play on the beach. We walked in the shallow water with sting rays all around us, took pyramid and jumping pictures in our attractive stinger suits, played soccer, and lounged on the sand. Some people practiced yoga and I took my now-traditional cartwheeling picture.

We returned to the boat for lunch – Habibi has really great food – before our snorkeling afternoon. Stop 1 was all about fish. From a school of striped fish right at the boat to George the gigantic parrot fish, we were never alone. Stop 2 was all about turtles. We had seen some turtles bobbing their heads up around our boat where we stopped the night before, but at the second snorkeling location we actually got a chance to swim with three of them. There’s not a single person who wasn’t smiling after this encounter. On our way to where we would drop anchor for the night we learned how to summon eagles from an island we were passing: whistle very loudly and wave some meat. Twice we were able to successfully throw a piece of meat in the air and watch an eagle swoop to catch it. This is entertainment in the Whitsundays.

We watched the sunset, sending it below the horizon with a cheer, and in the darkness we played a game and watched for shooting stars before another early bed time. I slept on deck with a handful of others. My bed was a bench covered with a yoga mat that cocooned me like a wooden hammock. Surprisingly I slept pretty well.

Day 3 we had one final snorkeling stop before motoring back to shore. This ended up being my favorite location. The reef was colorful, varied, with tons of different coral and fish to keep me entertained for the entire hour or so we were in the water. I even saw Nemo! Or at least the blacker cousin of Nemo. If it wasn’t for the jellyfish we had to swim through to get out and back it would’ve been a perfect location. We just hoped they weren’t the kind of jellyfish that could kill us (they do exist in the Whitsundays).

As we made our way back to Airlie Beach everyone was quiet, gazing out at the water or napping in the sun. I sat with my feet dangling off the side of the boat and watched the islands pass by, soaking in the happiness of the past few days on Habibi.

The Whitsunday boat was a last-minute decision when I got to Cairns and turned out to be a highlight of my time in Oz. It was a relaxing few days with great scenery, nature and people.

It’s worth mentioning that this is where I met Pascal, Chris and Marie, three Germans who were doing pretty much the same trip as me. We had actually all been at Asylum in Cairns at the same time but didn’t know it; we met on Habibi, where we figured out we’d be on the same Fraser Island tour, and that our timing would align in Byron Bay and Thailand for Christmas too (minus Marie who had to go home after Fraser). When we returned to Airlie I spent the day with them before our overnight buses to Rainbow Beach, where we would reconnect in our hostel before Fraser Island. Their names will come up again in future posts. I was no longer alone in Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef: The Best Worst Decision I’ve Made So Far

From day 1 I knew I wanted to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. On Wednesday Nov. 5th that day had finally come. And then I fucked it up.

Let me rewind for a minute. I booked my boat and 2 introductory scuba dives through Poseidon, a company that had been recommended to me by my kayaking buddy Martin; it had good reviews and reasonable prices in comparison to some other places (this is not a cheap adventure) so I went with it. Error 1: if I’d booked it through my hostel they could’ve given me a discounted price and I would’ve gotten a free night accommodation. Things I didn’t know. But I’d been anxious to book this tour since it was the only thing I knew I wanted to do for sure. Oh well.

The day before they called to tell me that the Poseidon boat had to be serviced, so was I ok with being put on Silversonic, an identical trip that was actually a little bit better; newer boat, more time in the water, better food included. I’d looked at this one too but the dives were more expensive; they said they weren’t going to charge me more so I said ok.

I was picked at 6:30 am from Asylum; for an extra AUD 24 the package came with a ride from my hostel to the pier in Port Douglas and back. Maybe this early departure is why I wasn’t thinking clearly when I boarded the boat and filled out the medical information form for scuba diving.

“Do you ever get dizziness, loss of vision, blackouts, or faint?” Yes, this happened just two weeks ago. In truth, this happens to me all the time – I frequently lose vision for a few seconds when I stand up, but I don’t usually faint (minus the one time when I woke up on the tiled bathroom floor of my childhood home happy that I hadn’t seriously injured myself). I always figured it had something to do with dehydration or my awful circulation, even though I’m not always dehydrated when it happens, but now that I know it’s not as common as I thought maybe I should get it checked out… I recover quickly though so I never thought it was a big deal.

Australia thought it was a big deal. Why did I check this box? I don’t know. I had a momentary lapse of judgement and told the honest truth. They didn’t let me dive. I tried to protest, saying it really wasn’t a problem, I’ve scuba dived before, and I shouldn’t have even checked the box. It was too late. My dream of scuba diving the GBR was gone and I was stuck with just snorkeling for the day. At least they promised me a refund for the dives.

I sulked upstairs and took a seat at the back of the boat, watching the ocean race by underneath us as I listened to my iPod. What the hell was I thinking? How could I let my dream go like this? I stewed for about 10 minutes, letting myself be angry at myself, and then I let it go. I was going to be refunded over $100 that I could use for other parts of my trip. That’s a lot in backpacker money. And I still had the chance to snorkel at three different locations. I’d heard snorkeling was actually better here than diving, so maybe it would be ok.

It was completely ok. Not just ok, but it was actually an absent-minded blessing. At our first location of the day I eagerly jumped into the water, determined to make the most of my snorkel time, and within seconds was inches from the reef and its inhabitants. We had an hour and a half at this location and I spent almost all of it in the water paddling around the reef. I also used this opportunity to teach myself to dive without inhaling snorkel tube mouthfuls of water. As I did this, I caught sight of the introductory divers. They were nowhere near the reef; they were over by the boat holding onto a rope, practicing breathing and clearing their masks.

I realized something: the reef is not a place to introductory dive. The point of the day was to see the GBR, and the introductory divers had just a fraction of the time that the snorkelers had to do this. Between going through the learning process of how to use the equipment and only having 20-30 minutes of air in their tanks, their time to see the reef was minimal. I, on the other hand, had well over an hour in all three locations to see the coral, fish and one shark. The reef was my playground while the scuba divers were in class. (If you are certified though it’s probably worth it; you don’t have to go through the lessons and get to actually swim around the reef at a lower depth. Although really most of what you want to see is so close to the surface that I’m not sure it’s even better as a certified diver.)

So how was the reef? Expansive, interesting, full of a variety of coral and its residents – fish, giant clams, sea cucumbers, anemones, starfish, at least one shark, and apparently turtles, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. The three locations that we explored all offered something different, the third being my favorite due to it being the most colorful underwater landscape of the day. All in all though, I admit, I was a bit disappointed.

The GBR is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous, and it didn’t quite have that effect. It was beautiful and I’m so happy to have seen it, but this section of outer reef honestly wasn’t my favorite diving site (something I would discover in the Whitsundays). And the fish weren’t nearly as numerous and vibrant as I expected them to be either.

So in the end, with the impression I got from the GBR and the realization that learning to dive is better done not at a Natural Wonder of the World, my lapse in judgement to say I get blackouts ended up saving my day.

And it didn’t hurt my budget either. Remember how I said I’d booked through Poseidon, which had cheaper dives, but was actually sent out with Silversonic? Well they refunded me for the Silversonic prices, so I actually ended up with a cheaper day than they even offer just to snorkel. I’d count that as a win for me.