I've not written in here for a while as I'm plain lazy, but with a spare day in Alice Springs until my greyhound bus turns up and a sweltering 38 degrees outside then I've finally been driven to use the internet.
So to recap the past nine weeks in Oz.........................
I flew in from Thailand back in mid October and remember that we seemed to get to the northern border with Australia fairly quickly and I thought 'great nearly there' but then it still took hours as we flew across the centre. I expectantly looked out of the plane windows expecting to see Ayres Rock any minute but just saw miles and miles of orange expanse.
I went to stay with a family friend Ian, who has been living in Melbourne for the past couple of years. It seems like ages ago now but I remember my first impressions were that at least along the coast it was not as hot and dry as I had thought it would be here. In fact, in Melbourne it could be pretty cold at times and I had to go out and buy some warm clothes as I had slightly over-optimistically sent all mine home already.
Everyone seemed to be incredibly friendly and everywhere I went I was greeted with the usual 'how are ya?', to which being a polite English person I would reply 'fine thanks, how are you?' However, the people then looked surprised with a 'who me?' and then led to long conversations with bus drivers, shop assistants and other people in the service industries. After a day or two I began to notice that the Australians would respond to this question with either 'how are ya' back or just 'a single to central' etc. and I realised that this was just a way of saying hello and not actually a question. However, I still havn't managed to ignore the question so have just made a lot of usually ignored workers feel valued as I travel around their country.
It was great to see Ian and he kindly let me have his flat for a week, so it was really nice to have the chance to lie on a sofa and watch rubbish TV programmes - something you miss when you don't have it. They have a lot of odd TV here with ads for fairly pointless exercise machines eg. that you put one leg on and do squats from, when it is just the equivalent of using a step. Also, they seem keen on British TV and I found myself watching the Vicar of Dibley and other such crap that I don't even watch at home.
I spent a few days hanging around the very nice St Kilda area that Ian lives in and it is a trendy but still pretty relaxed old seaside neighbourhood with lots of fab cake shops that I sampled. Melbourne itself is a very nice city and seems to be laid back and never that hectic or busy even in rush hour.
Ian, his girlfriend Brooke and myself all went out on my first night there for food and drinks and ended up in a music bar until pretty late. This meant that he was hungover the next day and forgot his phone to tell me that we would be going to the Melbourne Spring Carnival horse racing the following day. As the most dressy clothes I had was jeans, I then had to purchase something a bit more appropriate for the races.
This meant I had to hang around outside the clothes shops on the morning of the races and ask an assistant to help me as I was desperate. She shook her head and said there was 'one every year' before piling me high with dresses. I spent a lot more than I would have liked to but I did look fabulous if I may say so myself and so I hope that at least one of my friends or family will do the decent thing and get married next summer as I really need to get some use out of this dress. I don't think it's too much to ask.
That next night we all went to a party and by the end I'd been invited out with a number of people and even to a party the following weekend if I'd been around. So, the Australians were living up to their friendly reputation still. Although Brook's flatmate trying to glass a Pinyada Donkey was slightly worrying although an interesting interpretation of Mexican culture.
Anyway, the racing was really good fun and we luckily had great weather for the day. I had a scientific method of choosing my horses which was a) an italian name and b) a name I liked. You should all try it, as it gave me the most winners out of the three of us, although I think Ian's larger bet gave more winnings. I had not realised just how big horse racing is here and in particular the Melbourne Cup. I went to the biggest lead-up race to this called the Caulfield Cup and it was packed with people all out in their best clothes. However, it was more of a party than a serious race and everyone got pretty sloshed with girls staggering around and wobbling on their stilletoes with a bottle of sparkling wine in their hand.
It was a bit controversial as the favourite for the main race suddenly just fell over inside the gate and squashed his jockeys leg. This caused the horse next to it to try and bolt and it slashed his throat against an illegally placed TV camera. I had bet on the injured horse and was horrified to see it gallop past the stand with blood gushing from his throat - fortunately it is now better after stitches, but was a pretty awful sight. A weasely looking wrinkly old man later mysteriously told me at the bar that it was the 'curse of the No.1 lane and no horse ever wins from it'. I must admit I think it was a fix myself.
Anyway, it was still a lovely day and we had lots of fun, drank and ate lots too.
I had arranged to go and visit a friend called Elise who I had met trekking in Nepal and who lived in a town outside Melbourne called Bendigo. So, the next day I caught a train out towards the centre to see her. Elise showed me around her local area, which included some little old goldrush towns that had been left almost as they always were, with swinging doors on buildings that maybe were once saloons but were now hotels and cafes. It was very quaint and had nice antique shops to go and browse in where I saw lots of things that would be in antique shops at home with familiar names. We also looked around the local art galleries with aboriginal art pieces.
I met up with another friend Lee, who I had met on a bus whilst I was in northern India and we'd travelled together for a while. It was her birthday and we went out to some bars and pubs in Melbourne and had a local speciality called a parma, which is basically an enormous breaded chicken with tomato sauce and loads of cheese and then if that was not enough fat, it is served with an enormous portion of chips too. At this stage the food portions were really overwhelming me, but after two months here it worries me that I can eat the whole lot and order a desert too. NB: new years resolution to get fit and loose some of the spare tyres I have acquired.
The rest of the time in Melbourne was spent catching the tram up to the nice places in the centre like the art galleries, exploring the laneways filled with graffitti and sitting in nice cafes in the trendy Fitzroy area. However, the weather was really not great and it seemed to make sense to head north to the sun and then come back down when it had warmed up a bit.
Therefore, I caught a plane up to Cairns and was able to meet up with Terrie, one of the Irish girls I had been travelling in south east Asia with. On first impressions Cairns was not exactly the most pleasant town and was fairly bland with a slightly weird edge to it, however as time went on Terrie and I had a theory that the town was in fact inhabited by vampires and the strangeness was resulting from this.
Seriously, there are some very strange people there including people who looked completely grey, intense bearded backpacker murderer types who approach you in the bars and the strangest experience was the night that ended in a kareoke bar with locals singing Meatloaf songs that seemed to go on for at least two hours. We met some local guys there who were good fun but I was slightly worried we were going to get beaten up when they decided to pretend that Terrie was a famous singer called Lilly Allen who a) is english and not irish and b) she looks nothing like anyway. I'm still not entirely sure if the other men were really that gullible or if they were playing along too, but I thought that saying she had body guards who 'may not look like much but can do all the Ninja stuff' was really pushing it.
Anyway, there's some pretty nice things to do around Cairns and the main reason for going there really is to go to the Great Barrier Reef, which is truly amazing and one of the best things I have done on my travels. Terrie and I took a day trip out on a catamaran and she snorkelled whilst I dived. It was very relaxing cruising across the water out to the reef and then the water is clear and warm when you jump in.
Although I was shocked when I realised that I was just being sent off to dive with another girl who was as inexperienced as me and had not even dived in two years to boot. However, we had no choice and were just told to follow the reef and then turn around and come back. The corals were amazing and I quickly forgot my fears once I was down there. We saw lots of bright coloured parrot fish, the little Nemo anemone clown fish, huge purple star fish and odd looking sea slugs along the bottom. We got a bit confused with our direction on a couple of occasions as there were some breaks in the reef but eventually found our way back.
However, suddenly Debra grabbed my arm and looked petrified as two large barracudas came alongside us. The larger one, which was longer than my arm then began to move around us and try to touch us. It was obviously being attracted to the bright colour of our bikini bottoms and it was trying to get closer. Debra was really panicking and I signalled to swim and we tried to swim away from them. However, one came up underneath Debra and touched her and the next minute she had shot up to the surface leaving me alone with them. The big one then turned its' attention to me and began to duck and dive around me.
I tried holding out my equipment in case it was that but then realised it was definately the bikini and it was being really persistant. At this stage I did not know if it was a small shark and was going to bite me, but in any event barracudas are apparently known for being quite nasty and can also take a bite out of you too. Therefore, i kicked up to the surface to find Debra having a full blown panic attack with all her equipment off and choking and crying. I had to shout at her repeatedly to get her jacket inflated as she was drowning and flailing around. I then looked around underwater and could see the barracudas coming back for more and so we had to swim back fast to the boat. During this time the fish was still trying to get to me and I was repeatedly kicking it with my fins to get it to go away. As I got nearer to the boat it finally dropped back and we were both relieved to get out.
Debra had a scratch on her leg where it had touched her and we were both pretty freaked out. The staff were fairly unsupportive as they obviously didn't want it to ruin things for the other passengers and I was more annoyed by this than anything else. I decided I would not dive with them again as I thought they were pretty poor and just snorkelled after that, which at that particular site was just as good because it was so shallow.
The rest of the time in Cairns was spent chilling out at the lagoon in town where they had a live band playing at the weekend and then also visiting some of the beaches nearby. There was a strange coral spawning that was happening during one day where the spawn all drifted up to the sand and was muddy green and really smelly, so not really pleasant for swimming. However, we did manage to swim on another day.
After Terrie left I also went up to the Daintree Rainforest area with a tour and got to see various creatures. We saw the strange looking cassawary bird, which is similar to an ostrich but with a hard cone on its' head and is apparently really aggressive. There was a baby joey kangaroo who had lost its mother and was being raised in a pillow case, which it would dive into head first when it wanted to rest. We also took a river cruise and saw crocodiles in the river looking back at us with their raised eyes. I had not realised that there are saltwater crocodiles and there were three beaches nearby with croc warnings as they had been sighted there in the past few days. This included one right next to where I had been swimming, so it's not just the sharks and box jellyfish you have to watch out for here. Something else to get paranoid about!
Next I joined a live aboard two day diving trip that was absolutely fantastic. There were only six of us on the trip and only three were qualified divers, but the trip included five dives and is the best diving I have ever done. The boat was pretty bouncy and all the other passengers except myself got seasick. The only time I felt odd was trying to serve myself food with it being near my face one minute and then far away the next. However, it was a small sacrifice for the amazing diving which was out of this world.
We had some guided dives and that was where we saw the most as the divemasters could pick out so many fish including lionfish, puffer fish, sting rays, a cat shark and the most beautiful coral which looked like a jungle of different shapes and colours and enormous towers. On one of the unguided dives we came across a huge green turtle on the sea bed munching on a big coral. He didn't seem to mind us being there so we sat and watched him for about ten minutes and he would just occasionally lift his head and look at each of us with his droopy eyes before resuming his lunch. It was wonderful to see him and I could have happily watched him all day. On the unguided dives the three of us had little clue about our direction and often had to come up to get our bearings. I realised that I would like to do the advanced divers course and so maybe on another holiday will plan this. One dive that I did not really enjoy was the night dive as it was just so creepy only being able to see what was in your torch beam and then sheer blackness hiding prehistoric sea monsters that come out at night to eat tourists (or at least in my imagination it was).
After one of the dives I had a large welt on the inside of my wrist and was not sure what it was. It took about a day to go down, but I thought I had maybe just scratched myself. Later, I showed the jagged scar that I have been left with and apparently it was the result of a jellyfish. Good job I didn't know this at the time or I would have really been panicking.
I left Cairns and used the hop on hop off Greyhound bus to travel all the way down to Melbourne. My next stop was Townsville, to take the ferry across to a little island called Magnetic Island that I had heard was a nice place to visit and also good for koala spotting. Unfortunately my hostel was a really hard core party one and when I arrived I struggled to find a place on the reception floor to put my rucksack that did not have a vomit splatter on. After that it was hard to really like the place, but the island was really pretty and had some nice beaches and a little trek where I did manage to see my first koalas asleep in the trees. They were so cute and it was like a game trying to spot them. Often passersby gave me tips on where one was, some of which I found and others I didn't.
I then went onto a package tour that gave me a sailing trip around the stunning Whitsunday islands and a drive your own vehicle trip around Fraser Island. I arrived in Airlie Beach the day of a huge concert and had to upgrade out of the full hostels into a beautiful little hotel overlooking the harbour. My room had a big balconey with views across all the yachts and out to sea and was so nice just sitting admiring the view that I whiled away hours doing so.
I then caught my yacht the Apollo for a three day sailing trip. I had thought it would be a proper active sailing trip, but was more of a party boat complete with toga party on one night and a dive instructor who I swear had taken drugs the day we dived with him. He could barely string a sentence together and was unbelievably vague. The equipment was also really faulty with leaking air hoses that caused you to take in water when breathing in.
Fortunately I dived with a couple of guys who knew what they were doing and I felt safe that they would look out for me. We saw an enormous shoal of the funny looking bump headed parrot fish that look gigantic from the side but then are really thin and have goofy teeth. I also saw a brightly coloured Maori wrasse, which I had not seen before. The stoned guide took us through some caves, which was quite eerie and worried me as I knew my equipment was dodgy.
There were some nice people on the boat, but I was becoming increasingly aware of my age difference to that of the majority of other backpackers here who are in the main European gap year students who come out here to work and get as drunk as they possibly can. Given that I'm slightly past the novelty of being allowed to drink, this was not my main aim of my trip to Oz and it was harder to meet people on the same wavelength.
In spite of this, the islands were stunning and I loved gliding over the water with the sails billowing above. It is incredibly relaxing and I think this is another hobby that I would like to pursue in the future. We snorkelled in lots of spots and were lucky to see some more turtles including one which I swam alongside for ages and saw him as he came up for a gasp of air. I think turtles are great. The company all made us wear Star Trek looking stinger suits as we had arrived during the start of the jellyfish season and I discovered afterwards that someone had been badly injured on this boat the previous week.
I then went to Rainbow Beach and met up with a group who I spent three days on Fraser Island with. Three of them had also been on the Whitsundays with me and the rest were new people. There was a couple from England, Jim and Helen who were really nice and they shared the driving with me as we were the only people old enough to drive the car. I also realised at this point that I had been driving for as long as some of the others had been alive! However, to be fair it was a nice group and we gelled pretty well.
We had a big 4 -wheel drive jeep that we drove over on the ferry to the island and then drove along the 'roads' which were either the beach or the bumpy inland tracks. I loved driving along the beach as it went on forever (75 miles in fact) and was golden sand and crashing waves. You just had to watch out for the gulleys caused by inland water going out to the sea and sometimes these were hard to judge and you would hit them with a bit of a jolt. We camped at a site and had a barbeque in the evening with the food we had bought earlier. We saw a big snake slither across the grass and wrap intself around the pipes under the sink. As I quaked in fear at the sight, a six year old child comforted me by saying 'don't worry it's only a non venemous carpet python' before stroking it and telling me she wanted to be Steve Irwin when she grew up.
I also saw my first ugly big Cain toad, that the locals hate as their poison kills other wildlife. I was not that impressed with my companions who decided to hit it over the head with a brick and then when after three times it was still not dead, it was thrown on the fire still moving - yuk. I felt like I was in Lord of the Flies.
The next day we drove inland to the stunning lake Wabby, which is green but incredibly clean and you can actually drink the water from it. There was a huge sand dune that bordered it and we all jumped off the dune into the cool water. This turned into a game for the boys who rolled down the whole dune and plopped into the water feeling a bit dizzy.
We also had a lot of fun playing cricket with our poo shovel bat and as well as catch in the water before realising we needed to get moving to our next site. We then camped in an inland site and had a few drinks into the night. The next morning I woke and thought I must have a scabby insect bite behind my ear, however as I ate my breakfast it became increasingly painful and I asked someone to look at it. They took a sharp intake of breath and did the usual panic inducing 'oh my God, you've got an insect on you'.
Fortunately Jim and Helen the english couple were both nurses and did not panic and I got Jim to pull the tic off me. It was quite big and blackish grey and had been on me a while. I later discovered this was a paralysis tic, but did not know about such things at the time. However, I still felt very invaded and was a bit freaked out about it. I think some of it may still be in me now as I had to go to the doctors later on as it was a bit infected. Nice!
Anyway, I didn't let that stop me enjoy the really beautiful Lake Mackenzie in the centre of the island where the sand was pure white and the water perfect clear blue. It really looked like a paradise island and we whiled away a few hours playing in the water and sitting on the beach.
We had a bit of a panic on the way back as there was a strong smell of burning where the 4-wheel drive had not fully disconnected from the wheels. However, we were relieved that unlike many of the other groups we had not damaged our jeep and did not have to pay any extra fines. One other vehicle rolled over and cost their group eight thousand pounds just after we left. However, our safe driving had kept us all ok and we finished our tour how we started with a barbeque and some drinks. It was a really nice trip.
I then headed down to Noosa with Jim and Helen and we spent a couple of days there. Noosa is a very nice holiday town with some good shops and restaraunts and is where some of the richer Australians come for their hols. The beaches were really pretty around there and nice to relax on.
I then went to Brisbane and was pleased to be back in a city again and explored the sights such as the river, hills, musuems, shops and cafes. Brisbane is not the most exciting city but it was nice to catch up with Rob, a guy I had met in Cambodia and he took me out and showed me some of the sights I would otherwise not have seen.
I travelled further down the coast to a little town called Lennox Head. It is next to Byron Bay which is a much busier town, but I had been warned by Rob that the Aussie school leavers would all be descending on these areas in an annual event called Schoolies Week (although it goes on for about a month). They all go to surf areas and get as drunk as they can and usually get into fights and pass out on the pavements, beaches etc. This brings some older pervy guys to find the girls who are known funnily as Toolies.
In any event it is not a good idea to be around, so I chose to stay in a lower key surf area and it was great as it was so chilled out, had nice people and I could still go up to Byron where I saw Jim and Helen again. Whilst we were on the beach there was a shark alert and the whole beach was cleared as two sharks were in the water. The lifeguards had to take a boat up and down the shore line for about half an hour until the go ahead was given for swimming. I am extremely scared of sharks anyway and knew there had been two attacks in the previous days where two sharks had knocked a woman off a kayak and then bitten her arm and one guy had his leg bitten as well. I had been planning on doing some surfing but every day there were more stories about the sharks and I chickened out and just swam close to the shore.
I left Lennox Head to get down to Sydney to go and stay with my friend Del and her family in Coogee Bay. It was great to see Del after all this time and we had so much to catch up on. I think we spent at least four days just sitting in cafes along the Coogee Road talking and eating and talking and eating. It was so nice to hang out with an old friend. I also caught up with Lex, a girl that i had met in South Africa and we went out for dinner and I got to hear all her news too. I also spent a couple of days with Tracey and Darren who are two people I had met trekking in Nepal and we went to the beach together and they showed me around their areas too. Darren gave me a guided tour around Sydney and with his navy secret knowledge was able to point out such top secret places as nudist beaches that the navy guys look at when they are out 'practising' around the harbour. We went over to Manley too and had drinks and food out on the harbour there before I took the ferry back so I could see the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge all lit up.
I really loved Sydney and it has been my favourite city here as it is lively with lots of nice places to eat and drink, has loads of great beaches and yet does not feel overly hectic and busy.
After Sydney I went to Canberra to see a friend Kathy, who I had met in Africa and had been my tent buddy for a while. It was great to catch up with her and she showed me around the local hills and we went out walking in the bush. I saw my first kangaroos, which was pretty exciting and we got very close to them. They were very cute and especially a baby one who jumped into his mother's pouch which made her look enormous. Canberra is a planned city so can look a bit dull in parts but there were some nice old buildings and I got to see some good art in the galleries and also visited the old and new Parliament buildings.
From Canberra, it was then back to Melbourne for a whistle stop visit to Ian again before hiring a car for two days to drive along the beautiful Great Ocean Road between here and Adelaide. It really was stunning with lots of winding roads along the cliff edges and many pretty little towns and villages with names like Port Fairy, Lorne and Torquay. I watched the surfers at the world famous Bells Beach where the film Point Break was filmed and there were some really good surfers out on that day.
There are lots of lighthouses and viewpoints to stop off at along the way and countless little tea houses advertising Devonshire cream tea. I managed to reach the stunning Twelve Apostles rock formations along the coast line as it approached sunset and they looked beautiful. I stayed nearby in Port Campbell, which was a little old fishing town. The next day there was more pretty scenery along the coast and also some more interesting rocks with names like London Bridge and the Grotto. Lots of them had stories behind them where ships had been wrecked in the past and many areas were supposed to be haunted. I had slightly underestimated the distances involved on this day and also got a little lost, took a long route towards Adelaide and subsequently arrived at 9pm instead of 4pm.
I stayed with another friend Shelley who I had met trekking in Nepal and had to help her out a bit as she had recently broken her leg in a water skiing accident, so she was hobbling around on crutches. The weather in Adelaide was very strange as it was 36 degrees but really windy, so it felt like having a hair dryer blowing in your face and made you feel very drained. I walked around the museums and galleries in the centre and also along the river, but thought it may been cooler at the beach so beated a retreat over there. However, as I sat on the beach in the blazing sunshine there was a roar of thunder and it suddenly began to pour even though there were no obvious rain clouds in the sky. It was really odd.
Shelley works for a wine export company and the following day she took me out to one of the wine areas in a nearby valley and we had a nice lunch in one of the vineyards with spectacular views across the hills, followed by a bit of wine tasting. As I was so full I could not drink too much and so just tried their most expensive wine instead.
I got to meet Shelley's family too as they all stopped by at one time or another and her sister and boyfriend gave me lots of good tips on things to do in the red centre.
Indeed, this was where I went next as I flew to Ayres Rock/Uluru and had a few days to explore the sights. I was lucky on the flight in as where I sat gave me great views over the rock and even from the air it looked enormous just jutting up out of the red desert.
I stayed in a hostel within the Ayres Rock resort and signed up to a few tours to make the most of what there was to see there. On my first night I went up to a view point to watch the sun set over the rock and could see the colour changes on the rock surface from bright red to purple and then brown. I was glad I made the effort to go for this as the next day the early start to the sunrise tour was a bit of a non event. We all had to catch a bus around 4am and then go to the rock, only to discover that about a million Japanese people had already got there with little chairs and had all the prime viewing spots sewn up. Therefore, I had to try and take my pics without getting little black spiky hairdos along the bottom.
I was feeling fairly unimpressed with it all, but had planned to climb up so went to the bottom. However, the climb was closed - apparently this is closed for too much sun, wind, rain, light, dark .............days ending with a Y. The aborginal owners don't like people climbing it and I guess this is a way of not prohibiting it outright, but just reducing numbers. Anyway, the walk around the base of the rock was really nice too and I enjoyed looking at the various caves, billabongs, rock art and strange formations.
I met a nice english guy who I hung out with for the rest of the day and went to another one of the other sights called Kata Tjuta. This means Many Heads as has a series of oval rock formations jutting up in a row. I thought it looked rather like a loaf of bread leaning over with a large gully through the centre that we walked to the end of. You feel like an ant looking up at the sides looming over you.
Later we had a barbeque at our hostel and I tried kangaroo kebabs, which were actually very tasty. We joked about giving ourselves food poisoning, but I must have laughed too soon as I really felt terrible the following day. This was not helped with a 3am start for a long trip out to Kings Canyon.
We drove for miles through the red desert with only the odd kangaroo jumping out to give some interest. Finally we arrived at the Canyon just as it began to throw it down with rain and I had a three hour hike around the rim. Fortunately the rain was mostly light and so probably just kept us cool. We walked up and down the rocks, through areas with names like the Garden of Eden and the Lost City. It was quite desolate in parts, but then had little oases with trees and deep pools. The guides made lots of quips including showing us the 'invisible koalas' who were the only koalas in the canyon. The Japanese and Koreans on the tour were suitably impressed and took lots of pictures of the tree.
I then headed on to Alice Springs for a few days to recover from my self induced bad stomach. I decided that I needed some luxury so booked into a hotel rather than a hostel to recover. I had one day to recover and another to do some sight seeing.
Alice Springs is a fairly odd town and the atmosphere there was a bit strained. The aborigines who live here appear to be homeless and sleep on the pavements and there seems little interaction between them and the rest of the population. However, next to this are some nice cafes, hotels, restaurants and aboriginal art shops. I went to see the flying doctor headquarters where there were a couple of calls out to emergencies. I also went to a reptile sanctuary where I got to hold some of the guests such as an olive python called Honey who draped herself around my neck and then got a bit more snug than felt comfortable, a blue tongued lizard and a my favourite was the yellow bearded gecko.
The weather was so hot and most days it was an arid 38 degrees. However, this did not stop the locals from getting in the Christmas spirit when I would sit in a cafe with sweat running down my back whilst listening to Let it Snow. It just didn't seem right.