“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”
– Moslih Eddin Saadi
We landed on Super Bowl Sunday, which is actually Super Bowl Monday on the other side of the world. Jeff, being the dedicated American Football fan that he is, was bound and determined to find a bar that was showing the game. We ended up at The Jack, drinking beers and watching the game, alone at 11:00am. Not many American Football fans in Australia, and although we made the most of it, this was one of those moments that we missed home.
Our main reason for visiting Cairns was because it is the best spot from which to see The Great Barrier Reef. We booked our reef trip with Down Under Cruise and Dive, and boarded a brand new yacht at 8:00am, for the experience of a lifetime. We both had the opportunity to snorkel at two different reef locations and Jeff experienced his first scuba dive. We had both snorkelled many times before all over Central America, but nothing even came close to comparing to the beauty and splendour that is The Great Barrier Reef. We considered renting an underwater camera in order to capture the experience on film, but after one look we decided that the only way to relive the day would be to watch Planet Earth. At first it was the fast and colourful fish that caught our attention, but we then learned to look beyond and witness all of the life and movement happening within the corals and on the ocean floor. Even more amazing than the sight of it all is to stay silent and listen to the crackling sound of the coral breathing in the water. We began to learn how to spot all the hidden gems and spent hours floating there, on top of the Coral Sea, in awe of the wonder that was before us.
In Queensland we travelled by train, as Queensland Rail offers a fantastic rail pass called the Queensland Coastal Pass. Our first train ride was 10 hours and took us from Cairns to Airlie Beach, a small town that is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. The Whitsundays are a group of continental islands and we had been told by many that the best way to see them was by boat. We chose to sail on Providence V, a beautiful tall ship, and we were thrilled with the day. Along with 15 other travellers, we spent the morning weaving through the beautiful islands and stopped at the largest of the islands, Whitsunday Island itself, midday. We hiked to Hill Inlet Lookout, which offers an absolutely breathtaking view of Whitehaven Beach. It’s no wonder that Whitehaven has been ranked as the second most beautiful beach in the world, as it is located within a bay, where the changing tides alter the structure of the shallow beach everyday, and the white sandbars create swirls through the turquoise shallow waters. The deckhand on Providence, Ellen, told us that the beach looks different every single time she visits it. While walking in the shallow waters of Whitehaven, we spotted some small lemon sharks and stingrays, who were much more afraid of us than I was of them. We then boarded the ship again for lunch on board and a quick ride to a snorkel spot, which was fun, but pale in comparison to The Great Barrier Reef. We sailed back to Abell Point Marina, in Airlie Beach, just as the sun was setting over the water. It was an unforgettable day.
We continued to venture down the coast and took an overnight train to the quaint town of Hervey Bay. Most backpackers don’t stay here, but use the town as an outpost for adventures on Fraser Island. The island is the largest sand dune island in the world, and 4×4 vehicle rentals are required to be able to get around. When I had originally done my research, many months prior, I had found that booking our own campsite was significantly less expensive than booking with a tour group. Knowing that we would have to rent a 4×4 vehicle, I assumed that the cost would be the same as any car rental in Australia. So, many months ago, I went ahead and booked a campsite and figured we could rent the 4×4 upon arrival in Hervey Bay. I then hopped online the day prior to our arrival in the small coastal town in order to look up pricing and make a 4×4 reservation. Much to my dismay, I learned that the 4×4 rental was going to cost us over $700CAD for just three days. Needless to say, this expensive did not fit into our tight budget so we ate the cost of the camp site and found a fantastic place to stay, through Homestay, in Hervey Bay for a few days instead.
We spent the majority of our three days in Hervey Bay relaxing, drinking goon (Aussie box wine) and playing Yahtzee on the large covered lanai of our homey rental. However we also enjoyed walking along the Esplanade, lounging on Shelly Beach and, best of all, fishing off the Urangan Pier, which stretches 868m into the ocean. While fishing on the pier on a sunny Sunday afternoon we sparked conversation with many Hervey Bay residents and even got a free fishing lesson from the best ten year old fishermen we had ever seen. Three days in Hervey Bay was the perfect break from the busy pace we had been keeping up until that point, not the mention the fact that it was nice to get off the backpackers trail for a bit and live like, and with, locals.
The train ride from Hervey Bay to Brisbane had us cross the border into the state of New South Wales. We arrived in the evening and only had one night there before we continued south, on the NSW TrainLink, to the hippie haven of Byron Bay. There we stayed at Glen Villa Caravan Park where we had our very own trailer with all the bells and whistles. The many boutique shops and surfer stores, on the small town’s main drag, are fun for an afternoon of window shopping, but out of a backpackers budget. We spent both of our two days in Byron Bay playing in the huge crashing waves and strolling along the bay, looking for washed up jellies in the sand and admiring the view. Both nights we joined the 20-something crowd at Cheeky Monkeys, where they have 50% off all main course meals for backpackers and offer a wild party every night of the week. Needless to say, we had returned to the backpackers trail once again.
Sydney was the first big city that we had spent any time in since Bangkok, Thailand, and we both experienced a bit of culture shock being in amongst the suits and skyscrapers once again. That being said, we were really looking forward to spending the weekend with a good friend from home, Alyssa, and her Aussie boyfriend, Nathan. It’s always better to experience a city, town or country with a local by your side, showing you all the hidden gems and off-the-beaten-track spots. Our first night in Sydney, Alyssa took us to a tapas restaurant in the borough of Surrey Hills called Lil’ Darlin’ where we shared a few plates and a few bottles of wine. We spent the rest of the night laughing and bar hopping in the Surrey Hills area.
The next day Alyssa and Nathan both had to work but left us with a list of hot spots to hit up in the city. It was ideal that we were there over a weekend, so we started our day market shopping, beginning with Paddy’s Markets, which has a large fresh food section, along with various booths selling sunglasses, t-shirts and tourist souvenirs. Following Paddy’s Market we ventured to Glebe Markets, which is held on the Glebe Public School grounds. This market was much more up our alley, selling vintage clothing and many unique finds. After an hour wandering the aisles of the school yard our noses led us to the food vendors for lunch, accompanied by live music. Glebe Markets is not listed in any guide books, but was suggested to us by Alyssa. It was packed with locals and void of tourists and a spot we would have never found without the suggestion of a Sydney resident.
After we had our fill of market shopping we made our way into the city centre where we went to the Queen Victoria Building, known as the QVB. The lavish structure was built in the late 1800’s and its original purpose was a marketplace for tailors, hairdressers, florists and more. It is currently a very upscale shopping mall and the most exquisite of which I had ever seen, complete with stained glass windows, spiral staircases and crystal chandeliers.
Once we had our fill of the QVB we made our way to Sydney Harbour. Hours could be spent wandering the waterfront, admiring the view of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge from all the different vantage points. We found a spot on the grass and sat, grateful for being exactly where we were in that moment. Seeing such an iconic structure, as the Sydney Opera House, in person was incredible. Sometimes we just have to stop and take it all in. We took the fairy back to Darling Harbour that evening and enjoyed the views of the city skyline from the water.
That night Alyssa and Nathan took us to Newtown for drinks and lots of dancing, followed by Aussie kebabs before bed. The following day, our last day in Sydney, the four of us went to the borough of Bondi for brunch and to enjoy the view on Bondi Beach. Just as the grey clouds began to roll over us, we made our way to Alyssa and Nathan’s humble abode in Caringbah. We had the good fortune of meeting Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law, and Nathan prepared a delicious Mexican feast that the six of us shared. Living like, and among, locals was the best way to spend our last day and night in Sydney, not to mention getting to spend the weekend with a hometown babe.
Our final Australian destination was Melbourne, in the state of Victoria. We landed in the evening and went straight to bed as we were exhausted after our busy weekend in Sydney. For our last day in Aussie we rented a car to do the famed Great Ocean Road drive. Around every corner was a breathtaking new vista and before we knew it five hours of driving had passed without the blink of an eye. We had made it to our final destination, The Twelve Apostles Marine National Park, mid-afternoon. The site was named as such because there was once twelve tall limestone columns that stood on the shore of Port Campbell, where eight currently remain. Four of the columns have given way to the constant crashes of the sea and their rubble has been washed away with the tide. After three months of travelling, and many trips prior to this one, Jeff and I find that it takes a lot to blow us away, but The Twelve Apostles did this for us. It left us speechless and made it hard to leave, but we had to hit the road for the five hour drive back to Melbourne before our flight out of Australia that night.
At the end of our two weeks on the east coast of Australia we reflected upon highlights of the adventure and realized something that all the highlights had in common, they were all off the typical backpackers trail. Don’t get me wrong, Cairns, Airlie Beach and Byron Bay were all great places, and it’s clear as to why backpackers flock to each of these spots, but none of them gave us insight into Aussie culture and lifestyle. The spots that offered us the opportunity to take in the chill coastal vibe, practice the lingo and spend time with locals, were Hervey Bay and Sydney. In both spots we stepped away from being backpackers and lived a day in the life of an Aussie and those are the experiences and memories that will last for years to come.
Next stop…New Zealand…