August 30, 2012

Jellies & Humpbacks & Dingos, Oh My!

Our flight up to Brisbane was spectacular. We flew right over the Sydney Harbor and straight up the coast. It confirmed my suspicion that this continent is basically one long beach.

Brisbane feels much smaller than Melbourne and Sydney. There’s also proportionately less to do, but they have free ferries which will float you along the city’s downtown river. Another neat thing is that Brisbane’s oldest suburb is set up on cliffs, which are open to the public for rock climbing.

The most obvious difference between Brisbane and the large southern cities was the weather. It’s warmer and more humid. There are leaves on the trees, which indicated to us that they don’t really have a winter…kind of like San Diego.

We met our Aussie friend Mike 4 years ago in Yosemite while he was traveling through Canada and the U.S. About a year ago we let him know we’d be coming to visit, and we’ve been looking forward to it ever since. He lives just an hour south of Brisbane along the Gold Coast. We still don’t even know the name of his town…he just always refers to the coast.

Mike is a **single** orthopedic surgeon who lives right along the ocean and whose beach cottage is more like a sporting goods store. He spent the weekend showing us his 40 kilometer stretch of golden, sandy, people-free playground. We drove an hour south to Byron Bay, where we stood at the most eastern mainland point of Australia and partook in some surfing and camping.

Closer to Mike’s house (like right out his front door), we attempted stand-up paddle boarding. This is much harder than it looks…especially in waves…and with blue jellyfish sporadically floating just below surface. Don’t let this picture fool you…Mike was able to capture the split second that Steve and I both stood up on our boards at the same time.

After saying goodbye to our buddy, we continued our journey north along the coast. From the day we put Australia in our itinerary, we’ve been at a loss about the best form of transportation. There’s a lot of distance to cover between the big stopovers. We’ve asked heaps of people for advice and we always get a different answer…planes, trains, buses, and some have even suggested to buy a car and then sell it before we leave! In the end we decided to cover the southern half of the country by plane and the northern half by bus. Even though this company has a certain connotation in the U.S., we’re goin’ Greyhound style!

On our first leg from Brisbane to Hervey Bay, you would have thought we had paid to be on a tour bus. Our Greyhound driver loved to sit behind his microphone and inform us about all the top spots we were passing.…like the Gympie Pie Shop, which won last year’s national meat pie competition. He recounted Aboriginal legends and told of the morning that the Australian people had “lost Steve Irwin”. All-in-all, it was the most entertaining 5.5-hour bus ride I’ve ever been on.

Hervey Bay is a boring town with an odd combination of retirees and backpackers. What it does have going for it are the humpback whales that vacation here every year between their breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef and their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Hervey Bay is considered the whale-watching capital of the world (according to the people of Hervey Bay), so we hopped aboard.

At this point in their migration, the whales are not on a mission; they’re just relaxing in the warm waters. So when a boat comes by, they get curious and playful. It’s the interaction between the whales and the boats that makes Hervey Bay so unique.

Our boat had some sort of sonar fish-finding technology that allowed us to track the whales. Once we got close enough, the captain would shut down the motors and we would just float until the whales got curious enough to come over for a look. The water here is so clear and blue that you can easily track them underwater. We sat in one spot for over an hour while two humpbacks put on a show. 

They swim so close around and underneath the boat that you’re within feet of touching them, and they like to peak their humongous heads out of the water and look at you. 

Humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere have black bodies with white bellies. They also have barnacles on their skin and nodules on their heads, which they use as a sort of GPS device.

Just off the mainland from Hervey Bay is Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. Instead of a landmass, they call it a “sandmass”. It’s one of only two sandmasses in the world where rainforests grow completely on sand. It’s a popular place to go 4x4ing, so we rented the most overpriced car rental of all time, and ferried to the island. For the same money that we could have rented a penthouse in Las Vegas for the night, we got JoJo…our 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser.

 4x4ing on Fraser Island is famous because of the long stretch of sand highway called 75-Mile Beach. It reminded me of driving on Daytona Beach, except that it’s all nature and not a single building. We also had to remember to drive on the left-hand side of “the road”, which is even harder to remember given that there are no lanes.

Driving for hours down a beach is just about what you would imagine…you look at pretty much the same thing the whole time. But then again, how many times in life do you get the opportunity to speed down a beach with the ocean lapping at your wheels? It’s a freeing feeling, and Fraser does provide a couple of nice stopovers along the way  like the Maheno shipwreck.

Driving on Fraser is completely dominated by the tide schedule. There’s essentially no driving two hours before or after high tide, so timing is critical. There are lots of creeks and rocks to pass through. Nevermind that I don’t really know how to drive a stick shift. I successfully navigated JoJo through my first creek crossing.

We had been warned not to swim in the waters off of Fraser further than waist deep because of the sharks. Waist deep?!? That’s probably only like ten feet off-shore! The sharks are really coming that close? We went about ankle-deep and called it good enough. Lucky for us there were no shark sightings, but we did spot some dingos. There are about 200-300 dingos who have their run of Fraser Island. They look like harmless dogs, but they are hungry and known to be vicious. We had one lurking around our campsite at night, but we did not get eaten.

Fraser also has over 40 freshwater lakes, which make up half of the world’s perched dune lakes – meaning that they sit above the water table and are only fed by rainwater. At Lake Wabby, you can run or slide right down the dune and straight into the lake.

There are also some cool hikes where the rainforest switches from tropical to deciduous to coniferous in a matter of steps. More often than not, they’re all mixed up together.

Hands down, our best memory of Fraser Island will be the camping. We got set up in a spot called One Tree Rock right along 75-Mile Beach. For as far as our eyes could see left and right, there was not a soul in sight. It was just us, JoJo, sand, sunset, stars, and sunrise.

I just really can’t describe how beautiful it was. You know those rare moments in life when you feel like you’re living in a movie because everything around you is just absolutely perfect? This was it. It was camping heaven. 

August 23, 2012

Ode To The Opera House…And Other Stuff Too

Sydney is cool. In fact it’s one of the only cities we’ve been to where we’d actually consider living. It’s bustling, clean, and cosmopolitan. There are lots of athletic people running around. It’s full of parks and surrounded by water. Unlike Melbourne and Brisbane where muddy rivers twist their way through the downtown, Sydney boasts a sparkling blue harbor. It also has beautiful vistas everywhere you turn.

A common occurrence in Europe went something like this…“Oh, yes, there is a wonderful lookout where you can get a great view of [insert main attraction here]. You just need to walk 2 kilometers and then hike up a mountain for about 30 minutes”. We would trustingly follow these instructions and traipse all the way up to said viewpoint, only to find it overgrown with trees. Not so in Sydney. They know exactly what keeps the tourists rushing in…

The Opera House is, quite simply, stunning. It delivers a pinch-me moment the first time you lay eyes on it. Throughout our time in Sydney, we saw the Opera House from just about every vantage point at every time of day. It’s what makes the Sydney skyline one of the best in the world. It deserves lots of photographic love. Australians abbreviate everything, so I call this series OOH…Ode to the Opera House.

When we got up close to the Opera House, our immediate observation was that it’s outdated and very 70’s. The iconic sails are basically made of kitchen tiles. 

Let’s forget I even brought this up. Let’s refocus our attention on its beauty (from far away).

Of course Sydney has lots of other interesting stuff, too. This is where the British Empire sent boatloads of convicts in the late 1700s to populate their new colony. In doing so they pretty much wiped out the Aboriginal population, but lucky for us, this guy keeps the dream alive.

Even though you’re in a very urban city, Sydney holds up Australia’s reputation for unusual bird sightings. There were also humongous bats that looked more like the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. And on our first night in town, we caught a pack of dolphins cruising the harbor.

In keeping with everywhere else we’ve seen in Australia, Sydney has impeccable trail systems. We really can’t figure how their government has enough money for the upkeep, but we’re not complaining. There are wonderful walking trails from Spit Bridge to Manly Beach as well as around famous Bondi Beach.

Just 2 hours outside of the Opera House Sydney are the Blue Mountains. It’s said that the name comes from the blue haze that’s caused by the region’s countless eucalyptus trees. Supposedly the trees load the air with blue-tinged droplets of eucalyptus oil. We can’t say we could smell the eucalyptus, but the mountains sure did look blue!

On our 200th day of traveling, we celebrated by hiking The National Pass. This trail is rated one of the top 10 hikes in Australia, and it certainly was unique. In 1908 the nearby towns held a competition to see who could build the most spectacular trail to bring in tourists. These guys won.

On the drive back from the Blue Mountains, we stopped by Sydney’s Olympic Park. I remember watching those Games on TV in 2000, and let me tell you, we all got shammed. We thought they were being held in Sydney, but they were actually being held in a little precinct called Silverwater. Sure it’s probably technically a part of Sydney Proper, but it took us 30 minutes on the highway to drive from the Olympic Park into downtown Sydney. It feels so disjointed. A belated congratulations to all of the athletes of the 2000 Silverwater Olympic Games.

Food in Sydney is outrageously expensive. It’s the most expensive food we’ve seen in the world…even more so than New York City. $20 for a hamburger, $24 for a salad, and $10 for a bottle of beer is the low end norm. It’s possible to find some specials Monday-Wednesday nights, but you’ve got to get lucky to stumble upon them.

Let me also take a moment to rant about Australian hostels, for which Sydney is the mecca. The hostel scene in Australia is bizarre. Like nowhere we’ve seen before, Australia is FULL of international young people with work visas. They stay in a city and work odd jobs for 3-6 months, then they travel for a bit before settling down in another city to find more work. Instead of renting an apartment like most normal people would do, they just hole up at a hostel. We’ve met people who have been living at the same hostel for 7 months. Uggghhhhh.

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this scenario. It completely ruins hostels for normal travelers like us. By the time we show up, all of the good beds are taken. Space heaters and nightstands are perfectly positioned in front of their beds. Their shower crap is set out all over the bathroom as if it were their house.

The other day I had a depressing moment when I looked down at the bottles overtaking my dorm’s shower. There it was staring back at me…a bottle of Axe body wash with the scent, “Hangover Cure”. My immediate thought was, “I can’t believe I’m sharing a bathroom with someone who this would be marketed to”.

We are sad to say farewell to Sydney, but we could not be more excited to leave its depressing hostel scene. The door will probably hit us on the way out. But hey, let’s take one last look at the Opera House.