The Red Centre: Climbing big red rocks, sleeping under the stars, and saying goodbye to Australia

This week has been a different one to all my other experiences in Oz and all the other climates so far – after all, the desert, especially right in the middle where I was, is vastly different from the coast. The Red Centre, part of the huge Northern Territory, is semi-arid desert – so it does rain occasionally, but not much. The air is super dry, so that I never needed to use a hand dryer or towel after washing my hands – they would dry in a few seconds on their own. It gets blisteringly hot during the day and cooler, sometimes quite chilly, at night. The ground is all red dust, but amazingly has some bushes and trees growing in it – and this is because the underground water table is shallow enough that roots can reach it.

I did a three-day, two-night tour with a van of 23 other people and a guide, and we saw the three major attractions in the area: Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon. In between a lot of hiking and driving, we camped and made our own meals. It was a tiring few days, but I saw a lot of beautiful spots.

On Sunday, I woke up at 5am to catch the van at 6am – there were five of us riding down to Uluru with our guide from the town of Alice Springs, the bigger town that I flew into. Not long into the drive, we stopped at a camel farm and rode camels! I was worried they would be unhappy and not want to be ridden (like an experience I had in Greece riding a donkey that kept getting whipped and kicked when it was exhausted), but actually, they didn’t seem to mind it. Maybe because it was first thing in the morning, but the camel wrangler (who was from California and had been working there a couple months) said that the one I rode liked working the most. His name was Markie, and he would bite at you if you tried to pet him, but he was very affectionate with his camel guy. So adorable. It wasn’t a very long ride, but we did trot at one point, which was fun. Ever pictured a camel trotting?! They basically seem like horses with humps. There was also a pet dingo at the farm, which I loved – he was super sweet and tame, with soft fur and liked getting belly rubs, so of course I obliged. There were also a bunch of emus there.

 

We then drove the whole rest of the morning before we got to the Uluru airport to pick up the other people on the tour. We had lunch, and that evening, we went for a walk around Uluru. Now, if you’ve never heard of Uluru, it’s basically a really really big red rock in the middle of a mostly flat desert. It’s kind of an icon of Australia – you may have seen pictures of it, though it’s not as famous as the Sydney Opera House or the kangaroo. And I’ve heard a lot of people say Uluru was really cool and amazing to see, but it is one of those things you can’t be sure about until you actually see it in person. But yeah, I was impressed. It’s the most beautiful reddish color, just overwhelmingly big from far away (1,142 ft tall and 5.8 miles around), but once you get closer, you can see all these rippling, smooth curves and textures, and it changes as you go around it. Definitely a sight to see. But, it was pretty hot in the sun that afternoon, and the view doesn’t change very quickly as you’re walking around it, so it wasn’t all thrills. Also, there were a ton of flies that in the dry heat are drawn to any moisture they can find, and that includes your eyes, nose, mouth, and any sweat they can find on your self. A hostel roommate in Perth had warned me about this, so I bought a fly net that goes over your face and wore that for the hike. I looked ridiculous, of course (and for this reason many people didn’t wear one) but I would rather look ridiculous than have flies up my nose any day.

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One of the cool things about Uluru is that it’s sacred to the local indigenous people, the Anangu. They ask that you don’t take pictures in certain spots near the rock and that you don’t climb it. Of course people will still take pictures wherever (our group was careful about this, though), but the most upsetting thing to me is that people still climb the rock, disrespecting the Anangu’s wishes. This is still allowed because the Australian National Parks Service leased it from their people in the 80s for 99 years, and part of the agreement was that people would still be allowed to climb it. So we saw a railing on one slope of the rock, and dozens of people walking up it. But it just seems wrong and disrespectful! I’m sure they leased it because they need the money. There are signs everywhere asking people to not climb it. I guess some people just don’t care – sad!

That evening, we watched the sunset at Uluru, along with champagne, crackers, and dips. I don’t really like champagne due to the carbonation, but it was free and I was kind of peer pressured into it, so I just got half a glass and waited until it went a little flat and gulped it down. Celebration!! The sunset itself was beautiful, but we were at that particular spot because it lit up the big rock in an extra brilliant red. Really a great evening.

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That night, I slept outside for the first time in something called a swag. In the States, I think they’re called bed rolls, but they don’t seem very common because Americans are freaked out by bugs, so I’d never even heard of this way of camping without a tent. Aussies and Kiwis use swags all the time, unfazed by creepy crawlies apparently. They are basically a protective bag that you put your sleeping bag into and sleep inside, and you can put a flap over your face, too. You zip it up and nothing can get in, it’s very warm, and you stay dry if it rains. There’s a bit of a cushioned mat to sleep on, too – but you’re still sleeping pretty directly on the ground, so it’s not the most comfortable thing ever. The moon was out and pretty bright, so we could only see the brightest stars, but it was still pretty cool. I heard groups of dingoes howling at each other from distances, sounding like wolves, and bats making little beep-clicking noises overhead, echo-locating their way across the night sky. I did sleep most of the night, but because of the uncomfortableness and weird noises and general unusual sleeping situation, though, I woke up a lot.

The next morning, we got up at 5am (again) to see the sunrise at Uluru. This time, it was from a distance, but you could see far across the flat desert to the familiar rock silhouette. There were a few clouds in the sky, creating beautiful, colorful patterns that kept changing as the sun got closer to the horizon and then peeked over it. It was actually very chilly in the morning, I would guess maybe 50-55 F, and I had no warmer clothes than shorts and a t-shirt, but I didn’t think about it when I was gazing at the sunset.

 

We then hiked Kata Djuta nearby, a series of big red rocks with a place called Valley of the Winds in the middle. So beautiful! This was a hike that varied a lot more than Uluru – lots of different shapes of the rocks, and when you got to the top of this big hill in the valley, it was a breathtaking view. Unlike Uluru, we weren’t asked to not climb anything or not take photos, so we climbed and photographed to our heart’s content, and it was beautiful. We then stopped a final time at Uluru and walked on the other side of the rock, where we hadn’t been the previous day, to see the watering hole. It’s pretty surprising that there’s a permanent pool of water there in the desert, but it’s not very big, and it’s sustained by the bit of rain they get that flows from the rock down, as well as the water tables underneath the ground.

That afternoon, we drove down to our second campsite, near Kings Canyon. On the way, I saw a few wild horses trotting along. This was a surreal sight, because they just looked like your average horses, but they were in the desert! And then when we got to our campsite, there were four wild horses grazing casually nearby. It shocked our guide; he said he’d only ever seen one wild horse before, and now he’d just seen a whole bunch. That night, our campfire was pretty, and we roasted marshmallows. Now, this was my second experience roasting marshmallows in Oz, the first one being in Tasmania, and I enjoy watching adults do this for the first time (since everyone else was from Europe or Asia). We had to use actual sticks, no luxurious roasting sticks, and everyone kept getting these short sticks and nearly getting burned trying to roast their marshmallow. I helped them find long sticks and tried to get them to not burn the marshmallows. And I enthusiastically explained how Americans do it better, because we have bigger, yummier marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers, see, they’re s’mores… It’s a hard concept to explain, but I’m pretty sure I got some converts who want to try s’mores when they’re in the states. Apparently you can only find graham crackers there; they don’t exist in Europe or Australia. Weird. At least I managed to get a s’mores substitute in Tasmania using digestive biscuits (a type of British cookie!)

On the final day, we got up at 5am again, surprise, surprise! So that makes three days and two nights of watching the sun rise and set. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. This time, when I was going to roll up my swag (seriously the best name for a bed roll), there was a large, furry, dark gray spider bigger than the palm of your hand crawling across it. Our guide Dale was nearby, so I calmly pointed to it and said, “I think there’s a spider on my swag.” And he got it off for me. I didn’t scream, or jump, or anything. It wasn’t crawling directly on me, but it nearly did – I think it was just so early, I just didn’t have the energy to react at that point. Dale kept commenting that day on how amazing it was that I didn’t scream. He thought it was a wolf spider, which isn’t dangerous to humans, thankfully, though of course they bite (as most things do in Oz). The group was horrified and mesmerized by my story. I’m not sure if it’s good or not that I was the only one who had a large spider encounter.

That morning, went straight to Kings Canyon for our hike, to get most of it completed before we started baking in the dry heat of the midday sun. This was my favorite hike of the trip, and probably one of my favorite hikes ever. Not many flies here, so I didn’t have to wear the dorky fly net, not too hot in the early morning, and a golden light was cast on all the beauty of the canyon. We hiked up “Heart Attack Hill” first, a steep climb to the top of the canyon, but we got stuck behind a big group of kids and weren’t going as fast, so it actually wasn’t too bad. For my fitness level (which at this point is decent since I’ve been doing a fair amount of hiking and other activities the last couple months), it was perfect – a bit challenging at times, but I never really got tired during the 3.5 hour hike. We stopped often to take pictures and absorb the amazing views, which changed around every corner. Textured red rocks, flat, cracked rocks, dramatic cliffs where the canyon dropped off, a little Garden of Eden oasis with ferns and ponds at the bottom of the canyon, the Lost City, which looks like alien huts as far as the eye can see at the top… Just beautiful. A perfect hike. Maybe I should get up early more often! In three days, before 8am each day I managed to ride a camel and pet a dingo, hike a series of big red rocks, and hike to the top of a canyon. Not bad. But getting out of bed is always the hardest part! Oh, and I saw a wild dingo, which was exciting! I’ve now seen most of the famous Aussie animals. Although dingoes aren’t native, of course…

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That afternoon, a few of us bid our farewells to the group and rode back up to Alice Springs. There were some cool people on the trip that I’ll probably stay in touch with. I stayed another day in the town, but there’s not a ton to do there so I mostly just chilled and recovered from the outback. And so ends that trip! Today, I arrived once again in the funky, interesting city of Melbourne for a final few days before I catch my flight out.

I say goodbye to Australia in less than three days. It’s been such a crazy and amazing two months (as I arrived in Sydney two months ago today) that it seems like it’s been longer than that, I’ve done so much, but the time has gone quickly at the same time. This was by far the biggest, longest trip I’ve ever taken, and it wasn’t even planned more than a couple weeks ahead at a time.

  • Spent time in five out of the country’s six states and one of the territories, four of the capital cities, lots of other towns and villages, six distinct climates, and seven different rainforests
  • Taken planes, trains, buses, trams, cars, boats, and walked many thousands of kilometers
  • Slept in 18 different places (seriously, I just counted!): hostels, cabins, an apartment, a boat, and outside under the stars
  • Gazed at countless mountains, lakes, bays, bridges and works of art
  • Got excited to see wild kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, pademelons, butterflies, lizards, a snake, spiders, loads of different birds of all kinds, tropical fish, sharks, platypi, dolphins, sea and fresh water turtles, emus, a frog, baby crocodiles, toads, crabs, giant clams, stingrays, a dingo, horses, possums, and quokkas!
  • Was less excited to see as many jellyfish as I did
  • Snorkeled, scuba dove, sailed, surfed, sandboarded, and slept in a swag for the first time (which are all S verbs for some reason)
  • Met a lot of different people from around the world, especially Europe but also Asia, Africa, and North America – mostly travelers like me, and made a few new friends I know I will meet up with and travel with again someday

Overall, it’s been amazing. I’ve learned that solo travel can be a really social thing, and that sometimes it’s fun to hang out with strangers, and that you can save a lot of money by sacrificing a bit of privacy, but you may gain a bunch of other positive things in that process. I realised that Australia is a direct cross between the UK and US, and that culturally I feel completely comfortable here so that I mostly don’t feel like I’m in a foreign country. I have had a fair amount of awful moments, “ok I’m ready to leave soon” moments when things go wrong (phone screen smashed, my cat having issues back in Indiana, bed bugs, exhaustion and sunburn from surfing, getting stuck with annoying people, heat, difficulty sleeping, etc), but those haven’t lasted long, or I figure out how to adapt or fix the situation, and soon I’m moving on and experiencing some other amazing place.

Next, I’ll be headed to Hawaii for some birthday celebrating before heading to Portland for job and apartment searching. I’m trying not to stress too much until then and enjoy most of my time left on this great adventure!

Perth: sandboarding, quokkas, and discovering my favorite city yet!

The first day I was here, I immediately fell in love with the city of Perth, Western Australia. It surprised me, because I haven’t heard a lot of gushing about the city. Part of it is that most people who travel the east coast don’t make it over here. And the other part is that if they do come here, they may not spend a lot of time here, because it’s just a stop on the way to somewhere else. But after spending a week here, I better understand why I love it so much: a beautiful Mediterranean climate (average humidity, perfect temperature this time of year, mostly sunny days), lots of well-groomed parks, delicious markets, public art, fantastic selection of international cuisine, friendly people, and a lot of people who are doing well financially, so the city is growing and their taxes are making everything look new and nice. And I took a couple of day trips to see the amazing scenery outside the city, too! The perfect autumn temperatures (20-25 C, 70s F) have really helped. The heat and humidity of tropical Queensland, where I’d spent the last few weeks, is just not my favorite climate.

My first day in Perth, Saturday, I chatted in the morning with my hostel roommate, a friendly German girl (because of course she was German as so many travelers here are), and she gave me a ticket she had for a hop-on-hop-off bus pass: it included two days, and she had already done the tour the day before. I was happy to use it! I wasn’t planning on doing this bus tour to save money, but they’re often a great way to get a quick overview of some of a city’s highlights. So I spent the afternoon listening to the bus commentary about Perth, including a brief stop at King’s Park and Botanical Gardens. Walking around this big, gorgeous park overlooking the beautiful skyline and Swan River, that’s the moment I fell in love. And it was even raining on and off all day! But it stopped raining long enough for me to enjoy a walk in that lovely park. I vowed to go back and spend more time there (which I did a few days later). That evening, I got my groceries to eat most meals at my hostel for the week, a major cost-saving tactic that’s worked out really well.

 

Sunday was another amazing day. Upon recommendation from my hostel roommate, I took easy train ride to Fremantle, an older suburb right on the ocean. I wanted to make sure to go on the weekend because there was a weekend market, which I absolutely loved! Lots of crafty type things to look at made by locals, but the best part was the food. Lots of veg options. I settled on a vegetarian paella, because I’ve had a hard time finding veg paella for years, as it’s traditionally made with meat and seafood, and peach iced tea made with Aussie bush plants and garnished with fresh fruit. Yum!

 

While stuffing my face, a girl named Shelby joined me at my table, and I struck up a conversation with her (somehow this sort of thing has just been happening lately, even though generally I am not a small-talk-chat kind of person, but I have my moments). She turned out to be from a small town not very far from Portland, Oregon, and a fellow vegetarian, and it was easy to talk to her about traveling and food and random things. For instance, she recommended Couchsurfing (an online community where people open their homes to travelers for free), which is something I’ve long thought about trying but not met anyone who’d done it. We both like the same heavenly ice cream place in Portland, Salt & Straw. And so I ended up spending the afternoon with her – we wandered around town for a while, I caught my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean (I’ve now seen all three major oceans!!), and then we met up with a cool Aussie guy she’d recently made friends with. We had drinks and played cribbage at the pub, which I loved because I’ve not gotten anyone to play cribbage with me in years! So really a great afternoon. I’ve been amazed at how easy it’s been for my introvert solo traveler self to make new friends, though I’ve learned that they will be mostly temporary, it’s still fun to hang out with cool people for a while.

Monday made three awesome days in a row. I joined a day tour to the Pinnacles, a bunch of rocks a couple hours up the coast from the city. On the way there, we stopped at Yenchep National Park, where we saw tons of kangaroos, some koalas (which are not native to this area, they brought them here and stuck them in some trees, haha), and lots of birds, and ate some delicious cheese and local bush tucker (food from the bush) jams. I sat in the front of the big van (which I think holds up to 20 people, though there were only 13 that day). The front seat generally affords the best views, but on this day it rained most of the day, and the landscape wasn’t the most beautiful with the low clouds. But, I did chat away the 4-5 hours of driving with the tour guide, Richard, the owner of the small tour company, who was a very cool dude. He actually asked me to sit up front, as I was the last one on and no one else wanted to sit up there, so he’d have someone to chat with. And he basically asked me all about my life, to the point where he knows all about my brother’s eagle scout badges and how I dislike cows. And I got his recommendations on things to do in Perth, including getting the very earliest ferry to Rottnest Island before many people get there.

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The Pinnacles, a ton of rock formations in bright yellow sand, and rain

Because it was raining at the Pinnacles (I’m sure they’re more pretty when you’re not being poured on with lots of wind as well), my favorite part of the day ended up being sandboarding. It thankfully stopped raining a few minutes after we arrived at the sand dunes, and even though the sand was wet, he had excellent custom-made boards that still worked perfectly. My very first time sandboarding ever, I waxed the board and went super fast on the way down the dune, and it was such a rush! I squealed and ran back up and rode down several more times, and managed to get second place in a race we all had. So, sandboarding is a thing I want to do more. Also, before we headed home, Richard treated us all to a drink at the pub to make up for how crappy the rain was! That is for sure going above and beyond a typical tour guide. I decided he’s my favorite guide I’ve had this whole trip. There may be a theme of affection in Perth. All in all, a fantastic day. I think I even prefer all the rain to the blistering, sunny heat (40+ C, 100+ F) that would often be at the Pinnacles in the summer.

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Sandboarding!

Tuesday, I went on a free walking tour around the central part of the city, then did a bunch of walking on my own along the river and through King’s Park and its treetop walk. I enjoyed all this in pleasantly overcast weather until a steady downpour began. Ah well, still another day in the great city of Perth.

Wednesday was another absolute highlight of my week, though. I went to Rottnest Island! I was so excited, I didn’t have any trouble getting up at the crazy hour of 5am and leaving by 6. I caught the train to Fremantle to catch the first ferry at 7:30am, at Richard’s recommendation. And I was on a rented bike on the island shortly after 8am for a glorious day of riding with a lot of leisurely stops. My main reason for wanting to go to Rottnest was to meet quokkas, which are only found here, and which I think are the cutest marsupial (take that, koalas). When I did a big international scavenger hunt last summer, our team name was even the Quirky Quokkas. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t see any, because my friend Maja had visited during a crazy heat wave and only saw one on the whole island. So I was pleasantly surprised when, within ten minutes of setting off, I met my first one, and it hopped right up to me! They are the cutest, friendliest, gentlest little wild animals ever. Over the course of the day, I probably met at least twenty. Every time one caught sight of me, it would hop right up like a kangaroo, sometimes quickly and excitedly, and sometimes there would be a whole group, maybe a family, of 5-6 of them. I know they came over looking for food, because a lot of people feed them, but you’re not supposed to: they only eat leaves, mainly of the low, needled melaleuca tree, so human food is hard on their stomach and usually will make them sick. So, I didn’t feed them. Or pick them up, that would probably stress them out (I’ve seen pictures of people who picked them up, which bugs me – they’re wild and probably aren’t a fan). But they were so unafraid, they didn’t mind me petting them, just a brief stroke on a couple of extra friendly quokkas (and I was careful to wash my hands soon after), and a few of them even licked me a little, probably liking the salty taste of human skin, like a cat. It was just sweet and adorable.

In addition to the quokkas, I discovered what most people go to Rottnest for: the gorgeous beaches, bays, and rocky cliffs. Amazing scenery! At first, the sky was overcast, but soon it cleared up, and the bright blue sky was reflected in the clear, shallow coastal water. I would ride along, see a sign for another bay, stop, and enjoy it for a bit, wading in the chilled water, hanging out on a rock for a bit and enjoying the view. In several spots, I had the bay completely to myself, and I sometimes thought about going for a skinny dip (something on my bucket list, and something that Richard suggested as a possibility as well, as there wouldn’t be many people around), but there were a few people and they could show up at any minute. And the water was cold. There were more people than usual due to the fact that it’s the middle of school holidays right now – basically Perth’s autumn break – so there were a lot of local families staying in cottages on the island and doing snorkeling and other outings. My city guide the previous day, a volunteer, had even warned against going to Rottnest this week because it was so busy. But I think Perth people have a different view of what’s busy… I just came from the east coast, which is swarming with crowds of tourists even though it’s traditionally a shoulder season. So, compared to what I’m used to, Rottnest was super quiet. And I loved it!

Rottnest Island (named by Dutch explorers after the quokkas, who thought they looked like big rats) doesn’t allow outside vehicles, so it’s mostly bike riders, a few walkers or joggers, and the occasional tour/shuttle bus or ranger truck. But for the most part, it was a quiet ride all the way around the island, about 30-35 kms in all (21-22 miles or so). I also saw a lot of lizards and birds, but they were more shy than the quokkas. And a colony of New Zealand Fur seals, floating adorably on their backs near one spot next to the cliffs. Toward the end of my 6 hours of riding, I got a bit hot and tired (there are a lot of hills!) but before that, I really enjoyed the reward of diving down a hill after the climb up, speeding along the empty, scenic roads with the wind in my hair. I did a lot of smiling. Best bike ride of my life! I spent the last couple of hours on the island in the settlement, a village that included ice cream and cheerful visitors in swimsuits. And then enjoyed a beautiful ferry ride as the sun set, all the way back to Perth.

Yesterday and today, I’ve done a lot of walking around the city, one of my favorite things to do. I strolled around most of the central parks and gardens, browsed bookshops (tempted to buy 12 travel books, as usual), checked out the public art, took advantage of the free bus system a couple times, and visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Tonight, I went to a nearby street food market with a Belgian named Lucie, a hostel roommate. They have this amazing market every week with dozens of different stalls, wildly varying food from all around the world! I treated myself to bean and cheese papusas with a tomato, chili, cabbage sauce, and a locally made jam doughnut flavored ice cream bar. SO DELICIOUS, my mouth is watering again just thinking about the papusas especially.

Tomorrow, I’ll be flying to Alice Springs, Northern Territory, right in the middle of the country, in the Outback. That will be a different experience, for sure – hopefully a good one!

Noosa, Fraser Island, and the Whitsundays

Last week was nuts! Steph and I traveled by bus from Brisbane all the way up to Airlie Beach between Sunday and Friday, with a few stops in between, and then did a two-day sailing tour of the Whitsunday Islands. That’s around 800 miles and 18 hours on the bus. But it was worth it!

We got hop-on-hop-off passes through Greyhound and ended up being pretty happy with that decision. The buses are comfortable, especially when they aren’t full and we don’t have to have anyone sitting directly next to us. They promise free wifi, but most of the time it doesn’t work. But they do usually have USB chargers, so I’m happy to sit and listen to the many hours of podcasts and music I have downloaded to my phone for this trip. And adding to that the endlessly beautiful green, hilly scenery that is the Aussie east coast, the hours fly by.

 

First, we stopped in the lovely beachy town of Noosa. We ended up getting an apartment a bit outside of central Noosa, and though it didn’t have air conditioning, we enjoyed it because we had a living room and plenty of space to spread out in for a few days. Though, I was gone for two of those days on a tour of Fraser Island!

Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, is a bit north of Noosa. Steph did a one-day tour with a different company. I ended up wishing I had done just a 1-day tour, because Steph saw most of the things I did AND saw Lake McKenzie, the most famous lake on the island (I saw a different lake, still really beautiful, but I felt like I’d missed out on something because the water is clearer at Lake McKenzie). Staying the night on the island wasn’t particularly special (I shared a basic room with three other people and the food was meh), the bus was not in good condition, and the guide I had was the least enthusiastic, most unhappy tour guide I think I’ve ever had. BUT I loved Fraser Island itself – so beautiful. I had never ridden along a beach before, and we spent hours driving on Seventy-Five-Mile beach in our big four-wheel-drive bus, which was really cool. We also walked through a clear, sandy freshwater creek, Eli Creek, saw an old shipwreck on the beach, the beautiful lookout of Indian Head, and did a rainforest hike next to a silent sandy creek. The sand on the island is so incredibly soft! In the lake we went to, the water was the perfect Goldilocks temperature, the sand was soft, the water clear and calm, and it felt like paradise. If I were on a better tour, I would’ve loved it even more, but as it is I’m separating the island itself from the tour I was on, which left me just drained and unhappy by the end. But it’s a really unique and beautiful island!

After that, Steph and I had another night in Noosa, where we just hung out and relaxed on the beach and in cafes before getting our bus up to the tiny town of 1770/Agnes Water, whose main purpose for us was as a resting point on our way up to the Whitsunday Islands. 1770 is a weird name for the town, but apparently that’s when Captain Cook (an English explorer that’s basically like Oz’s Christopher Columbus) first set foot in the state of what is now Queensland. I think it’s a cute town, and we really enjoyed the beautiful beach and cafe next to it, but there wasn’t much we wanted to do, and we were disappointed by the hostel we stayed in. There were a few reasons for this (the included breakfast was toast only, the wifi didn’t work in the rooms, the general grunge and disorganization), but the main one for me is that they reassured us that there would be a “tour” to the nearby kangaroo sanctuary. I looked up the sanctuary and got pretty excited about it, but when we were all ready to go, the tour was cancelled because we were the only two that booked it. Bummer, especially when we had nothing else to do! We ended up catching a ride to 1770, thinking we would swim in the calm water there, and then ended up being too nervous to because of the THOUSANDS of tiny soldier crabs all over. So we waited and hoped there would be a sunset “tour” (also promised by the hostel owner), and thankfully two other people wanted to go, so we got a ride to what turned out to be one of the prettiest sunsets I’d ever seen. A redeeming quality for 1770!

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Sunset at 1770

On Friday, we took a 9+ hour bus ride to Airlie Beach, so that the following morning, we’d be ready for our two-day sailing trip. Unfortunately, the bed I slept in was infested with bed bugs, so I woke up with my legs covered in bites and a few on my arms as well. I’ve been dealing with the itching from those bites the last few days, but they’re now starting to heal. This isn’t to say anything bad about hostels in general, because I’d been in Oz for over a month and stayed in a bunch of different hostels and this was my first time encountering bed bugs. I stayed in a super nice hotel once in the states with a case of bed bugs, so it can happen anywhere. Bugs really like me, so some people could sleep in the same bed and be totally fine. But there are worse things that could happen, and this is one of the potential hazards of travel. I’m just now extra paranoid about bed bugs and will be checking beds for signs of them before sleeping in the bed from now on.

But, after that unpleasant night, we got to go sailing, a first for me! Of the many things I’ve done over the last five weeks, this one blew me away the most. It was a small sailboat with 14 passengers and 2 crew members. I was worried I’d get seasick, because I have the tendency to if I’m not always outside looking at the boat’s surroundings, but I prepared by taking a motion sickness tablet the night before at a super friendly Aussie pharmacist’s recommendation. I stayed outside on the top of the boat most of the time, and I wore sea bands at night to sleep, just in case (I’m not entirely sure if those helped or not). And I didn’t get seasick the whole time! I think the medicine must’ve really helped. So I actually enjoyed the sailing part of the trip, which was several hours a day basically sitting on the boat doing absolutely nothing but staring at the beautiful, green, hilly islands we passed, the strikingly bright cerulean color of the ocean, and trying to minimize the sunburn. I had never been on a sailboat before, so it was cool to watch the crew put up and take down the tall sails and do all the other sailing things they do with ropes, anchors, ladders, and whatnot.

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Sail away, sail away, sail away

In between the sailing parts, we stopped at Whitsunday Island and did a hike through the forest up to a breathtaking outlook, where we could see the swirling, blindingly white sands and bright blues of Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. In the bay, we saw a couple of sea turtles pop their heads out of the water. Along the way on the hike, I saw a goanna, a type of Aussie lizard, which excited me mostly because I had rewatched Rescuers Down Under as “research” right before this trip, and I think Joanna the Goanna is the real star of the movie. We also went down to Whitehaven Beach itself, and Steph and I decided we were inside an actual postcard. Or possibly inside the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, because that’s where part of it was filmed. We saw a few lemon sharks (totally small and not scary) and stingrays, and a bunch of fish! And when we walked through the sand, it made the funniest squeaking noise, because the sand there is actually over 90% silica, which is basically tiny pieces of glass! You guys, I walked on glass.

On Sunday, we did some snorkeling! This was my first time, and I really loved it. They had us wear “stinger suits”, which are like thin wetsuits to protect from potentially deadly jellyfish found off the coast of Queensland, of which there are two types: the box jellyfish (bigger and can kill a human within 5 minutes) and the irukandji jellyfish (super tiny, almost invisible in the water, and can kill you within a couple hours). I am TERRIFIED of jellyfish (see my post re:Sydney where I freaked out from what turned out to be harmless jellies) but once I started snorkeling and could see around me in the water, I was calm and not too worried about them. We snorkeled in two different spots, and both offered views of a ton of different, colorful, tropical fish, which was amazing! I felt like I was in either an aquarium or the movie Finding Nemo. We were just south of the Great Barrier Reef, so the reefs there are very similar. Unfortunately most of the coral where we were snorkeling was bleached white from climate change, but there was some new, colorful coral growing here and there, which was cool to see – and even the white coral was neat! Unfortunately, toward the end of the second snorkeling spot, I saw the top of a jellyfish, which was probably a box jellyfish, just a couple feet away from me, and COMPLETELY freaked out and swam away as fast as I could. The thing that scared me most was that though most of my body was covered with the stinger suit, my feet were not (I think because most people wear flippers), and you can still get stung through the suits, just to a lesser extent than direct contact. I was unharmed, but couldn’t completely calm down the rest of the session, and kept trying to keep my feet up out of the water as much as possible. So yeah, no need to worry about sharks unless you’re bleeding, but you should be scared of jellyfish.

Overall, it was a pretty amazing and eventful week. Sunday night, Steph and I said goodbye and went our separate ways again, because she doesn’t have as much time in Australia as me (she has a job to get back to, and stuff) so she went straight up to Cairns on a night bus, while I spent another night in Airlie Beach and took a bus up to Townsville for a few days, where I am now!

Arriving in Melbourne and being at a crossroads

I’ve been in Melbourne for just over 24 hours now. I’ve spent much of the last few days scouring the internet for cheap rooms available within the next 2 weeks that have a desk and a quiet place where I can work during the day from home. I told the work peeps that I would aim for starting in 2 weeks (and this is actually pushed back 2 weeks, I had rushed it way too much initially), so that is my timeline. And it is proving to be very difficult and I still feel rushed. Most places I’ve looked at aren’t free for several weeks or more, or don’t have space to work in, or are too far out in the boonies. Looking for a place is always so stressful!

Meanwhile, I’m staying in a hostel room with 4 beds (2 bunk beds). It’s not a bad hostel except that there’s no air conditioning. And while Melbourne isn’t as hot as Sydney, it’s still in the mid-20s C / 80s F and very, very humid. Thankfully, I am actually on a bottom bunk and have managed to co-opt the room’s fan. As usual, no one else seems to mind the heat as much as I do. But that’s just in the room – the weather is actually perfect to me when walking around outside.

Today was a surprisingly eventful day! I was planning on just running around looking at apartments, but ended up cancelling the first appointment (I don’t think it had room for a desk really anyway), then taking an hour-long train ride to the second one, in a suburb that turned out to be pretty creepy by the time I walked to the apartment I was to see. I was early, so I waited on a bench at a bus stop, and I’ve never had so many people staring at me in such a short time. One guy drove by me, smiled, stopped his car nearby, kept waving at me to come over, and then just stayed there until I finally left. Another guy drove by me twice, kept trying to talk to me, and then literally drove around the block and got out of his car and tried to hit on me by walking with me. He did leave me alone after I said I wasn’t interested, but by this time, I was thoroughly creeped out and had abandoned my appointment. Even if it’s not an actually dangerous neighborhood, I wouldn’t want to live there. Don’t worry, everyone, most of Melbourne is not like that, and I feel about as safe here in the central area as I would in London.

So then I went to this hip area, Brunswick East (right next to Fitzroy, which is even more hip). Along the way, I passed the Parliament building, the central government of Victoria (the state Melbourne is in) and it had a sign out front: “OPEN DAY” and a bunch of people were lined up to go in. I thought, there probably aren’t a lot of open days because this seems special, so I went in. I browsed through the various rooms, including a library, the rooms where the members vote, the members dining room (where I naturally had to stop and have scones and tea), and the gardens. It’s all very beautiful, grand, and ornate, as many old government buildings I’ve visited are.

After my tangent, I finally made it to my appointment, and a friendly Aussie guy showed me the room he has in his place. It seemed great except that he’s currently unemployed and plays music a lot (so it may be hard to work during the day, and I do like my quiet anyway) and the room also isn’t available for another 3 weeks. That’s both a long time to stay in a hostel, and past my goal date for starting work. But still, he seems cool, and we ended up eating at a vegetarian restaurant (which he suggested before he knew I was vego) and along the way, encountering a very cool market in his neighborhood that he didn’t even know existed. Basically, I have already made a new Aussie friend on my first day, somehow, and enjoyed two of my favorite things: markets and veg food.

This evening, I walked over to the South Bank area, a strip along the river with a lot of restaurants, bars, and quality buskers playing live music. Very fun to just walk around, and I got a cheese toastie with leeks and bechemel from a section of Melbourne’s Food and Wine Festival called “Legendairy”, and I ate it next to the peaceful river as the sun was going down.

So overall, a good day, and I’m liking this city as I had expected I would. But behind all this, a mental struggle is going on, because I feel like I’m at a crossroads and I’m thinking about changing my plans. DUN DUN DUN…

As you may know, I left my cat with a friend I trust to take care of her, and if I thought she wouldn’t be okay, I doubt I would’ve come to Australia at all. Well, a couple of weeks into my trip, my friend let me know that she wasn’t adjusting well at all. She is very stressed out to the point where she has being going to the bathroom on random things, which she has never done in her life – she is a very well behaved cat. She even got an upper respiratory infection (she’s never been sick either since I had her) which the vet said was most likely due to stress.

Why is this different than when I went to London? Well, at that point, I left her with my boyfriend at the time – same apartment, she was already comfortable with him and his cat – nothing changed except me being gone. Which she did have to get used to, but it wasn’t a major stress for her and she was fine. This time, even though the boyfriend is now the friend I’m leaving her with, she wasn’t living in that apartment anymore, and there is a new cat living there now, so it’s like her whole life changed, I’m not even there, and she has no idea why and is having a hard time coping, especially when it comes to getting along with this new cat, who is very aggressive towards her.

Me with Jasmine the day before I had to say goodbye:

My friend keeps reassuring me that she’ll be fine and he will work on ways to figure it out, and I know he will try, but I’ve been worrying about her a lot on and off for the last 2 weeks. It’s got me thinking about coming back. She’s like family – basically I have a kid that it’s my fault she’s suffering. And I can put it out of my mind and enjoy my time here, but it breaks my heart whenever I think about it.

So that’s what originally got me thinking about changing my plans, and now I’ve been rethinking all the reasons why I came in the first place. Mainly, it was because I love to travel and I wanted to really experience somewhere new and unique. I’ve met a lot of people who are backpacking all around Australia, and I feel like I only just got here and I’m going to stay in one place for a long time. Unlike when I lived in London, it’s not a quick and cheap thing to hop over to other places because Australia is so huge. Why couldn’t I just travel around until I more or less run out of money, and then decide what to do next, whether I want to stay and work or head back to the states and reunite with my kitty cat? I’ve been pondering this and going back and forth on it, especially since I got to Melbourne. I made a pro and con list, but it did not help (they never help me because with tough decisions, the pros and cons are usually even). I’m not really excited about my work prospect of working from home in a small apartment all day and not seeing anyone except maybe roommates, and not getting paid super well for here. But at the same time, I have been working towards living and working here for a long time – would it be a disappointment to go back after 2-3 months?

For now, I’m going to take a break from the stressful room-searching and explore the city for a couple of days, and see what happens, if the universe pushes me in one direction or another.

To conclude this post, here is a photo from my amazing trip to Manly (a suburb of Sydney) on Friday with Maja. We decided it was basically paradise, like everyone’s dream of where they will go when they win the lottery.

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Manly Beach

Sydney, Surfing, and Sun

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Bondi Beach, an essential Sydney spot, on an unusually cloudy but still warm day

I’ve now been in Australia for nearly 2 weeks and said goodbye to my kitty cat Jasmine exactly a month ago today. But it feels like I’ve been here for much longer, because I’ve done so much and feel like a world away sometimes.

Last week, I spent most of the week with a group of Europeans doing activities in Sydney through a work and travel company.

Wednesday, I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is fantastic (and free!) Then with the group went paddle boarding in a shallow bay, which was difficult since it was windy and the water had a bunch of waves that day, but I did manage to stand up once. But after a bit of paddling around, I found myself completely surrounded by jellyfish, assumed they would sting and possibly kill me, and COMPLETELY panicked and paddled quickly to shore. When I told the others what happened later, they thought it was funny, because those jellyfish were completely harmless. I’d never seen a jellyfish in the wild before – I didn’t even know there was a kind that didn’t sting! So now I know. Apparently, if there are stinging or deadly jellyfish in the water, they will put signs up and probably not direct tourists to those areas. Sydney doesn’t have stinging jellyfish or anything deadly in the water, except maybe some sharks (but people rarely get attacked by those).

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At the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Thursday, we went on a day trip to the Blue Mountains. They were beautiful, but of course this was the hottest day of the week (it got up to 40 C / 104 F), so we were roasting, hiking steep trails through the rainforest that is the Blue Mountains. But it was beautiful! We also stopped at a small zoo with local Australian animals, some of which looked sick, and the whole place just worried me and gave me a bad feeling, but it was included in the trip, so we went around and saw the cute koalas and other Aussie animals. That evening, I had dinner and caught up with my friend Alba, whom I met when I lived in London but is Australian and moved back to Sydney. We ate okonomiyaki and a Chinese noodle cabbage dish at a vegetarian restaurant – so delicious!

Hiking in the blue mountains today! #australia #travel

A photo posted by @bsweetnsour on

 

Friday, we walked from the famous Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach, which was one of my favorite things of the week, with beautiful coastal views. It was also cloudy that day – warm, but not unbearably hot. I had bought a hat to avoid sunburn on this walk, but only wore it about half the time because it was so windy and seemed unnecessary. You can still definitely get sunburnt in cloudy weather, but I put lots of SPF 50 sunscreen on and managed not to get burned still. I keep thinking about leaving the hat, because it takes up a lot of luggage space I don’t have and I know I won’t wear it much.

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Karen, me, and Maja on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk

Saturday was a relatively free day for the group, so my new Swedish friend Maja, Dutch friend Karen, and I went to the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. I like this zoo a lot better! All the animals seemed happy and active and seemed to be in environments closer to their wild ones. We even got to pet a python and a baby kangaroo, and the echidna became my newest favorite Australian animal! That night, we went back to Darling Harbour, watched fireworks, and participated in a Greek festival we came across with fried feta balls, a Greek DJ, and fun dancing.

 

Sunday we took a walk around the city. I thought it was strange that we did this on the last day of this week of activities, since we’d already walked around the city a lot! But we did see some new areas I hadn’t been to before. My favorite part was The Rocks, a cute neighborhood near the Opera House with shops and restaurants. I’d been there briefly a few days before, but this time they had the weekend arts and crafts market going on. There were some of these in London (this one reminded me of the Old Spitalfields Market) and they were my favorite kind of market. I loved it so much that I broke off from the city walk and spent a while exploring it. One woman was selling beautiful hand-illustrated playing cards, and being a collector of playing cards, I couldn’t help but buy a deck from her, taking up a bit more of my precious bag space! The seller and I talked about different card games she loved, and she recommended prediction whist. I played whist some in high school (heck yes, Jane Austen May Term class) but now I want to look up and try this version.

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The work and travel Sydney group on our city walk, at a sculpture in the Barangaroo area

On Monday, Maja and I parted from Karen and much of the rest of our group for the week and headed off to Surf Camp Australia in a big bus with a total of 100 people. This Surf Camp is about 2 hours south of Sydney next to the town of Gerroa at Seven Mile Beach. It’s a really beautiful beach and location in general! Most of the waves are manageable and relatively consistent, so I can see why it’s such a great “learn to surf” beach. And I did learn to surf at a beginner level, at least! With the help of a great instructor, I was able to stand up on my board briefly without help by the end of the second lesson, and with help, I could stand up for several seconds. There were moments when it was a lot of fun. At one point, the instructor told me to never look down, always look straight ahead, and that worked and I was able to stay on the board longer. And for a while after that, I stared at the waves, getting all philosophical about life: “Always look ahead, never look back…”

However, as one of the other campers said, a more accurate name for Surf Camp is Surf Boot Camp. By the end of the second day (which was 3 lessons, 2.5-3 hours each) I was completely exhausted, sore, sunburnt, and sometimes just bored. With a lot of applications of sunscreen, I had managed to not get sunburnt at all in the first 8 days I was in Australia, despite my incredibly fair complexion and being outside in the sun a lot. However, no matter how much SPF 50, ultra sport, waterproof sunscreen I put on 30 mins to an hour before getting in the water to surf, the waves were constant and I got burnt on my face and hands, where my wetsuit didn’t cover. So frustrating. The exhaustion and soreness came from all the time spent battling the waves and usually a side current to get out far enough to catch a good wave, which only comes once out of every maybe 5-10 waves and is really only a guess even for the best of surfers as to how good it will be. Then you ride the wave for a few seconds, if you’re successful enough to stand up (sometimes I could nearly stand but not quite have time before I hit the shore, or, often, I’d fall upon trying to stand). I felt like I’d tried the whole surfing thing, gotten the basics, and it seemed really pointless to continue to do this all day every day (we were in the water 5-6 hours a day, plus time pulling on/peeling off wetsuits (wetties in Aussie), walking to/from the beach, etc). I should’ve only signed up for the 3 day camp in the first place, which was my instinct, but the 5 day with room and board included seemed like the most cost efficient. I think I really would’ve enjoyed and had a positive view of the whole thing if I was only there for 2 or 3 days.

Another thing that was worrisome was the potential for injuries. I think it would surprise a lot of people (I know it did me) that surfing really is an extreme sport. Out of the 4 surfing groups they split the camp into, 2 girls broke their ankles on the second day, and they were both in my surf group. Out of commission for a while, so not fun! They were both doing great with the surfing, too, but it’s easy to land wrong on uneven sand. You can also get hit in the head or some other body part by a wave pushing the surfboard into you, or even have a finger pulled off if you accidentally put your finger in the loop that holds your leg leash to your board and a big wave comes by. Or whatever other number of injuries you can get with the combination of strong waves, surf boards, uneven ocean floor, and being surrounded by other surfers. Maja and I were both very thankful we came out relatively unscathed.

Plus, aside from the surfing, we weren’t a fan of how cramped the cabins were. They stuffed 7 people into each small room: no air conditioning, tripping over each other’s bags. Okay, I’d been to camps before, but we had more space than that, and we didn’t have to wash our own dishes and got better food. We were stuck with the people who ended up in our cabin in close quarters for the whole week.

So Maja and I discussed and decided to ask to leave with the handful of people in the 3 day camp. They let us do so with no problem, but didn’t refund the extra $100 for the last two days. We decided this was still worth it: we’d go back to Sydney which almost felt like home by now, and do something new and different, where we wouldn’t feel like we were fighting the waves, in pain, and being bothered by the socially inept guy in our room the last two days. Once we had this plan, we spent much of the rest of our time at the peaceful pool, with no waves. I went to the beach and just walked on it and really enjoyed it instead of surfing.

 

I don’t want to sound really negative, just say that basically, hindsight is 20/20. Don’t commit to something for an entire week unless you know you will LOVE IT and want to do it all day every day! I’ve had the experience, but I’m more of a pool swimmer and cyclist. I am good with spending a couple of hours at a beach and then going and doing something else. Paddle boarding would probably be fun with no wind. Kayaking is fun. Surfing just doesn’t seem worth the work. But I can cross “try surfing in Australia” off my bucket list!

So that brings me to today. I’m back in the hostel in Sydney that I like, and I’ve had a low key day, ate a gelato donut sandwich, and hung out with Maja and had some Malaysian food and Asian milk tea. My sunburn is healing (though my face and hands are disconcertingly darker than the rest of my body due to the wetsuit). I’m less sore than I was yesterday. My throat is super sore, but that may be because of the new found allergies I’ve been battling for the last couple of months. But I’m recovering, and tomorrow we’re planning on going to Manly, a nearby suburb that seems like a cool place. Saturday I’m flying to Melbourne to look for a place to live for a few months. I’m kind of nervous about that (and I will be poor due to the cost of living and high tax rate for non residents), but we’ll see how it goes!

I’ve started posting at least one photo each day on Instagram and am planning on keeping this up for as long as I’m in Australia. That may be a real challenge, since I will likely have a lot of days when I’m in Melbourne that I don’t do anything new and interesting! But you can follow me on Instagram @bsweetnsour if you want to see how my challenge is going and maybe see some cool photos from here.