Here it is then, the undoubtedly long awaited next instalment of Danny's Travels, no less than one whole month since the last one. I have absolutely no legitimate excuse for my failure to update for the entire duration of my time in Australia, but rest assured I did go there and did have an amazing time, as you are about to find out.
After one last Muay Thai and booze fuelled evening in Bangkok, I left the crazy land of Asia and headed for some semblance of Western civilisation down under. With other friends headed off to places such as India and China, I did feel a little like I was copping out by heading somewhere so easily travelled, so arrived in Sydney a little apprehensive about how I would feel having left Asia and the adventures that being there had brought me. That, along with a complete lack of sleep and the inevitable jet lag, contributed to a thoroughly miserable arrival in the wet and cold of a winter's morning in Sydney.
One thing that I had had in my head for a while was the idea of doing my Sydney - Cairns trip in a camper van. I don't know how or when this idea became implanted in my head but by the time I arrived in Sydney I was certain that this is what I wanted to do. With this in mind, I set about the task of finding some unwilling victims to join me on this little, 2000km+ road trip for the next 3-4 weeks. As I did this I sampled the delights that Sydney had to offer, from the pretty spectacular harbour to the lovely (this is by far the best word to describe it) suburb of Manly and the famous Bondi Beach. All were very nice places that would have undoubtedly been much nicer had I not been there in the depths of winter, and certainly potential retirement destinations in about 50 or so years time. One highlight was a day trip out to the Blue Mountains, Australia's answer to the Grand Canyon, which remained beautiful even in the face of the afore-mentioned winter chill.
My search for travel companions eventually bore fruit, and after completing all the formalities involved in hiring a camper van for three weeks, I set off from Sydney in the company of two French girls, Pauline and Maud, with only our final destination of Cairns decided upon. Our first few days we spent negotiating the parts of New South Wales still afflicted by the Australian winter; coastal towns such as Newcastle and Port Macquarie, all nice and reminiscent of parts of Cornwall, but with absolutely nothing to do outside of the summer months. We spent our first few nights getting acquainted with our 4-wheeled accommodation in national parks, of which the majority of the eastern coast of Australia seems to consist of. Arriving in pitch black and then waking up to take in your surroundings for the first time is a great way to travel, especially when those surroundings are as beautiful as places such as Myall Lakes National Park, where we spent our first night.
Our first major stop up the east coast was Byron Bay, a fantastic little beach town famous as being a bit of a hippie hangout back in the day. The hippie vibe still very much remains, and having treated ourselves to the luxury of an actual campsite for a couple of nights (I will never again underestimate the beauty of a hot shower), we spent a few days and nights exploring the place and what it had to offer. The morning after one particularly heavy night out we ventured out into the water for a surf lesson, which actually turns out to be a very good hangover cure. Having been shown the basics we were subsequently let loose on what were in fairness some very modest waves, over which even I managed an impressive 40m surf, standing up and everything. Unfortunately I've not had chance to practice since this initial lesson- part of me wants to let this 40m triumph remain untarnished in my memory, so it may be that my pride dictates this lesson was both my first and last. On the other hand it was great fun so I will be looking to try it again if and when the opportunity presents itself.
Having finished our first surf experience and battled the delayed onset of the hangover from the previous night, the four of us (the original three had now been joined by another Frenchie, this time a guy called Cedric who wanted to travel for a few days with us. We never managed to get rid of him), set off up the coast for Surfer's Paradise. Despite spending a couple of nights there it was certainly one of my least favourite places in Australia, hideously touristy and over developed beside what was otherwise a nice beach.
Our next, albeit brief, stop was the city of Brisbane. Due to a lack of parking in the city and some negative reviews from other travellers, we had resolved not to make our stay here an extended one, and instead took merely the afternoon to take it in. It was nice enough, a more relaxed and laid back city then Sydney with a cool artificial beach by the river and some nice gardens. There was not an awful lot to do, and so we headed up to Noosa National Park, where we would be spending the night. Noosa is a truly stunning spot, surrounded by beaches, cliffs, lakes and miles of national park area. We parked up for free somewhere nearby and took a day to explore, from the cliff side walks (dolphin spotting), picnics and swimming in freezing waters on the beach. Having reluctantly left the beauty of Noosa, our next stop took us via Rainbow Beach to Hervey Bay, the main launching point for Fraser Island.
Fraser Island is yet another world heritage site, famous as being the largest sand island in the world. It is a must do on the backpacker circuit, and certainly one of the highlights. Having spent one more night on the mainland, we awoke early and, following several briefings on what we could and couldn't do in our pink 4x4, set off to catch the ferry across the island.It is fair to say that there can be few places in the world quite like Fraser - the beaches double up as roads, which double up as runways for planes. Normal road rules apply, but it remains unquestionably surreal to be driving in a car containing nine people at 80km/h only to look out the window and remember that you are in fact driving down a beach. We spent our first day driving up and down to check out the place, getting to know the car as well as each other before setting up camp at a site just beside the beach. After a walk and look around a nearby lake, we headed back to camp for the evening for the inevitable debauchery to begin. Ask any backpacker in Oz what has been the greatest source of pain for their trip and they will answer with one word - goon. Goon is essentially wine in a box that we do have at home but which, for some reason, everyone drinks here. This evening was no different, and we spent the night drinking red wine from bags and singing Shania Twain.
The next day was greeted universally with sore heads, before the weary packing away of tents and the piling back into the trusty pink 4x4. Stops today included the Maheno shipwreck and Indian Head, a big cliff which is easily climbed for spectacular views up and down the rest of the island. We spent lunch laughing at people getting their vehicles stuck in ridiculous amounts of soft sand, which in retrospect is asking for it in terms of karma.
Having visited a beautiful little creek for our last stop of the day, we set about trying to find our campsite for the night. One of the big must nots we were told when hiring the truck, and something that would cost the group $1000 in bond, was driving in saltwater. Any evidence of saltwater on the vehicle would result in automatic loss of bond, costing approximately $120 each. Travellers are notoriously skint so no one was overly keen on the prospect of forfeiting such a sum of money, so we had successfully avoided all saltwater like the plague for the two days we had been in the truck. Unfortunately, the tide times we had been given for day 2 were proving to be a little off. So much so that, in looking for our campsite, we found ourselves a matter of inches away from the sea on one side and the rocks of the island on the other. What followed was a wild goose chase up and down the beach as we desperately tried to retain our bond by avoiding the saltwater and also avoiding getting stuck in the sand, something which other vans were not having so much luck with. Having got stuck, lost, watched other vans nearly roll full of people and indeed driven through some salt water, we eventually managed to drag our own truck and two others into the nearest campsite we could find. There was much celebration, both at surviving what had been at times some death defying driving, and at finding our place to stay for the night.
Another infamous element of a stay on Fraser Island is the dingoes, wild dogs that will eat/chew/steal anything and everything you leave lying around. Our chief experience with the local residents came on the second night as they began roaming amongst the tents, and on the last morning, as Cedric was sent running down the beach in pursuit of a dingo who had swiped his jacket when his back had been turned. Unfortunately I didn't witness this particular chase, but I am assured and can imagine that it was hilarious in every way.
We ended our Fraser Island trip with a morning at Lake Mckenzie, a lake with unbelievably clear water which nearly killed me instantly through cold when I opted for a swim. We headed back to the ferry, returned our van (somehow retaining the entirety of our bond), and spent one more night at Hervey Bay before setting off on a mammoth 11 hour drive up to Airlie Beach, and the home of the Whitsunday Islands.
After spending a day relaxing, drinking and naming obscure and long forgotten footballers for hours upon end (Eirik Bakke, anyone?), we set off on the obligatory sailing trip around the Whitsundays. Over the course of two days and two nights, we were taken round the islands by our skipper Steve, and were treated to such sights as the beautiful Whiteheaven beach, turtles swimming around our boat and some good snorkelling stops. Of course, both nights were fuelled by goon and drinking games, and we arrived back at the mainland suitably tanned and relaxed.
After a few more days driving and taking in places such as Townsville (s***hole) and a few national parks and waterfalls (very nice), we finally arrived in our final destination of Cairns. We had enjoyed an unbelievable road trip up the coast, had made it with both us and our van unscathed (just), and had many great experiences en route.
My main reason for coming to Cairns, and indeed one of the main reasons for coming to Australia, was my intention to dive the Great Barrier Reef. I had decided to treat myself to a 3 day, 12 dive extravaganza on a luxury boat for this, and so one day after arriving in Cairns departed for three days of unadulterated diving joy. I had been told to expect lots of dead coral and indeed there was, but the quanity and variety of marine life at the many different locations was unbelieveable. My own personal highlights were spending around 5 minutes with a massive turtle as he ate his lunch, pausing to look at me everyone 30 seconds or so before going back to what he was doing, getting face to face with a small white tip shark (almost literally, I hid around a corner from the poor guy and scared the s*** out of him when he came round and bumped into me), and hanging off a rope at the back of the boat on a night dive as reef sharks up to 4 metres long swam scarily close to us. It was three fantastic and exhausting days of diving that I will never forget, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of my whole trip.
Having a spent a few lazy days and messy nights back in Cairns, I said goodbye to the people I had spent the last month with and hopped on a place to my current destination, Auckland, where it is cold, rainy and remarkably English. I have pretty much organised my whole NZ trip already, and at some point over the next 3 weeks will be doing a skydive and a bungee jump (sorry Mum, at least I didn't tell you the exact dates). Tomorrow I head north for a quick jolly up at the Bay of Islands where, if the conditions are right, i may get the chance to swim with dolphins, which would be not a bad way to spend some time. After that I head south for a whistle stop tour of the whole country, trying to take in as much as I can before heading to California and the last stop on my trip. I will try to ensure it is not another month before I update this blog.