Cairns, Australia, February 01
Australia (Part 4)
To facilitate our further travels through Australia, we booked a few activities in advance using a backpacker's travel agency across the street from our hostel in Sydney. We also bought McCafferty-Greyhound Australian Roamer bus passes which would allow us unlimited travel between Sydney and Cairns along the Boomerang Coast of Australia for three months (more than we would need, but cheaper than buying separate bus tickets for each segment). After spending our final day in Sydney attending a play at the Opera House and wandering through the botanical gardens in Hyde Park, we bid farewell to Wade and Anthony at Eva's Backpackers and took an overnight bus from Sydney's Central Station to the town of Byron Bay. For a twelve hour bus ride, it was surprisingly tolerable, but in retrospect (after other less comfortable overnight rides) it was probably just because we were so tired.
Byron Bay turned out to be pretty much a crowded and touristy beach party town with a heavy New Age kind of flavor. It took a bit of calling around to book a room and we ended up in a dorm at the large Nomads Main Beach Backpackers. We spent the day on the small beach and were entertained by a periodic procession of orange robe clad Hare Krishna's singing and dancing through the adjacent esplanade. That night we took in a movie at an open air lawn theatre which supplied old sofa cushions and free insect repellent.
The guidebook pointed out an interesting tidbit about Byron Bay worth mentioning. In the 1960's a whaling station in the area dumped lots of whale guts into the water, making the bay a big shark feeding ground. Obviously, there were no tourists and the beachfront property was basically worthless. In the years since whaling has become illegal, the sharks have moved on, and these days that same beachfront property is now worth millions. I'm sure Captain Ahab is kicking himself.
In search of a more peaceful beach setting, we caught an early bus north into the state of Queensland and the city of Brisbane. From the Roma Street station we took a local train to the town of Cleveland, then another short bus ride to the Stradbroke Ferry for a trip across Moreton Bay to our final destination, North Stradbroke Island, or "Straddie" as the locals call it. The ferry let us off in the small town of Dunwich on the south end of the island. We took a local shuttle bus 22 km to Point Lookout on the north end and checked into our home for a few days, the Stradbroke Island Hostel. The hostel itself was a bit disappointing, not quite the cozy beach accomodation we envisioned. We should really know by now not to have expectations about such things! Our room was a small afterthought located within a larger dormitory room which also contained the kitchen area. One side of our room was one big window facing the picnic-tabled back patio of the place, such that all backpacker socializing occurred within ten feet of our bed. Not being one to be kept from any well deserved sleep, I was more or less unfazed, but Sue found this arrangement less than ideal. Our time at the hostel was made more enjoyable by our new friend Marcus, a native Aussie from Sydney but temporarily calling Brisbane home. Being knowledgeable on many subjects, Marcus provided hours of interesting conversation. He recommended some Aussie books and films which we would try to find before leaving the country.
We spent a couple of days lying on the nearly deserted Frenchman's Beach and hiking around Point Lookout. Notable on Frenchman's Beach were the rough surf and strong current which made my boogie boarding attempts futile and the huge jellyfish littering the high tide line. On one hike called the Gorge Walk we saw a pod of dolphins swimming just off the Point. We climbed down off the trail into the actual gorge - basically a little inlet surrounded by high rock walls where the ocean water becomes trapped by a sandbar creating a swimming hole. It was weird to be in the water and have a huge wave crashing towards us from the ocean only to see it broken up by the intervening sandbar, resulting in a pleasant and gentle surge of water. At the end of the hike we emerged onto Main Beach on the east side of the island only to find that people were not being allowed into the water due to dangerous surf conditions.
On Sunday we attended services at the Lighthouse Community Church in Dunwich. Pastor Rob Taylor was nice enough to give us a ride from the hostel. We also met his wife Andrea and after service were discussing with her our plans to make a daytrip to other islands in the Moreton Bay area. She told us that Straddie is really the best island to visit, the others do not have as much to offer. She then introduced us to Jonathan and Nicole Watts, a couple from Dunwich. They invited us for lunch and offered to take us for a drive to see the rest of the island, an offer which we gladly accepted! Together with their children, Jasmine and Christopher, we drove out to Blue Lake for a swim, some plummeting into the water from a rope swing, and a lesson in leech removal and squashing. (The leech had chosen Jonathan as it's new friend, not Sue or I...) We then took a drive along the beach to an impassable point where a horse racing track used to be, but past storms have renovated the beach and the track is now very much underwater. First making a quick stop at the hostel to get some dry clothes, we toured the small fishing village of Amity Point. After returning to their house in Dunwich in the late afternoon, Sue and I walked around the block to the Taylor's, where we had been invited for dinner. Rob and Andrea were hosting a group from Youth With A Mission (YWAM - the same organization sponsoring the Marine Reach group we had met in New Zealand). The group consisted of young people from all over the world who had just finished a discipleship training program and were now travelling in Australia for a few months. We had a great time talking, praying and sharing a meal with them. We returned to the hostel that night recharged by the Watt's and Taylor's genuine concern and wonderful hospitality. All in all, it was one of the best days of our trip so far.
We decided our next stop up the coast would be at the beach in Noosa, so on Monday morning we stuffed our packs once again and returned via ferry to the mainland to catch the train to the bus terminal in Brisbane. As the bus from the ferry pulled up to the tiny train station in Cleveland, we could see that the connecting train was already waiting at the platform. We hurried into the station to find a short queue at the ticket window. Sue went ahead onto the platform to wait while I stood in line. The minutes dragged by as the painfully slow ticket clerk dealt with the improbably complicated issues of those ahead of me. Finally, I snatched our tickets from under the glass window and burst out onto the platform to find the train nowhere in sight. I walked down to the end of the platform expecting to see Sue sitting on one of the benches, but she was not to be found. I soon realized that a ticketless Sue was on her way to Brisbane and all I could do was wait an hour for the next train. Not a big deal, but that would probably get me to Brisbane too late for us to make the bus to Noosa.
I boarded the next train and as we approached Roma Street station in Brisbane I switched on my walkie-talkie just in case Sue had the same idea. Before long, her voice crackled through and said she was waiting on the platform and to hurry up. She had explained the situation to the bus driver and talked him into waiting for me. As I stepped onto the platform, Sue grabbed me and forced me to run an unreasonable distance with my full pack on. Out of breath and not a little sweaty, I climbed onto the bus and sank into my seat feeling relieved yet frustrated at the ineptitude of the Brisbane transit system. Sue, of course, had barely expended an extra heartbeat and settled in with a smile, feeling good about her morning's accomplishments.
A merciful three hours later, we rolled into the Noosa Heads bus interchange and stepped out into the blindingly glorious sunshine. We found a taxi stand and headed away from the quaint downtown area to our accomodation at the Costa Bella hostel at Sunrise Beach. Noosa is actually made up of three small towns, Noose Heads, Noosa Junction, and Noosaville, huddled around Laguna Bay and the Noosa River, but we opted to remove ourselves from the action a bit and stay near the ocean. We were very pleasantly surprised to find that the Costa Bella is much more than the communal hostel-type place we were used to staying in. It was actually a one-year-old condominium building facing the beautiful white sand beach. Each unit is complete with full kitchen, living area with television (television!), VCR (VCR!), spacious ensuite bedrooms, and a large balcony facing the right direction. And all this for about $30 US per night! The only "catch" is that each unit contains two double bedrooms, so we had to share the condo with other travellers. This turned out to be a good thing as we had some great flatmates - Aengus and Noemi from Ireland and Spain, respectively, and then Michael from Israel a couple days later. Not being ones to pass up on a good deal, we stayed for five days.
We spent the week fairly leisurely. Sue did some shopping in town while I updated the website and of course we spent a lot of time on the beach in the afternoons when the sun was more bearable. There were, however, a lot of jellyfish in the water (but not the deadly box jellyfish, just some non-deadly but very annoying cousins). We were also able to find a video rental place that actually had all of the movies that we wanted to see, including those recommended by Marcus ("On Our Selection" and "Shadowlands"). On Wednesday, my 31st birthday, Sue picked up a steak from a butcher in town and gave the kitchen a good workout.
The following day we hiked north to the end of Sunrise Beach and then up a steep trail into Noosa National Park, a 454-hectare headland which separates Alexandria Bay on the Pacific Ocean side from Laguna Bay. We followed a path along the top of the headland to take in the views and spent some time on the beautiful Alexandria Beach. On the path down to the beach and on the beach itself, we were subjected to some less than artistic displays of flesh past it's prime and we quickly discerned that we had entered the clothing optional area. Moving on, we paused at the tip of the headland to observe the rocky Hell's Gates and then finished up our hike by emerging from the brush into the swanky shopping district of Noosa Heads.
On Saturday we said goodbye to Noosa and took a morning bus a bit farther up the coast to Hervey Bay. We were met by a shuttle from our hostel, the Koala Beach Resort, with whom we had previously booked the major activity of the area - a 4WD camping safari on Fraser Island. Fraser is the world's largest sand island and stretches for 123 miles along the coast of Queensland. The island is covered with dense rainforest, over 200 lakes, and a unique collection of wildlife. We would be thrown into an old Toyota Landcruiser with seven other backpackers, camping gear, a couple of coolers full of food, and a map and left to explore the island for three days. Our trip to the island did not start until Monday, however, so we had a couple of days to explore the Hervey Bay area.
The next day we went to church in Pialba, one of the small communities which make up the Hervey Bay area. We met Ian and Julie Leslie who invited us over for lunch. We spent an enjoyable afternoon with them and Ian gave us a ride back to the hostel for an organizational meeting for the camping trip. At the meeting we met our safari-mates, heard about the safe times for driving on the beach and where to go, received multiple do-not-feed-the-dingoes warnings, and filled out a bunch of forms absolving the tour company of any and all responsibility. Besides Sue and I, our group consisted of Kathleen and Helen from Ireland, Annette and Rikke from Denmark, and Richard, James, and Kier from England. We spent a bit of time becoming acquainted, volunteered Kathleen and Richard for grocery shopping duty, and then made it an early evening as we had to be up at 4:00 the next morning to pack our trucks.
Before the sun was fully up, we had our packs, two tents, coolers, stove, crates of pots and dishes, and other assorted camping implements stuffed into the back of the Landcruiser, leaving uncomfortably little room for the six people who had to ride back there. The other three would fill in the front seat. Luckily, only two of our group, myself and Richard, were either able or willing to drive the truck. Therefore, I was able to sit up front (driving) about half the trip with Sue alongside.
Over the next three days we lurched, slipped, and spun our wheels around Fraser Island, taking in as much as we could. The weather was beautiful, but very hot. The first day we visited Lake McKenzie. The surrounding rainforest has sucked the nutrients right out of the sand there, bleaching it pure white, and making the clean, refreshing water look perfectly crystal clear.
After lunch, we headed out toward the eastern shore, stopping briefly at Lake Wabby for a swim. Lake Wabby sits at the bottom of a large ridge of sand and shortly after arriving we observed that the popular activity is to sprint down the steep sandy bank of the ridge, launching yourself into the water at the bottom. Keen to have a go, Kathleen and I dutifully stomped back up to the top of the sandy ridge. A few seconds later we were careening down toward the water, greatly aided by the force of gravity. In the next moment, as I felt my stride falter, I sensed Kathleen pass me by on the right side. In seemingly slow motion I watched the sand below quickly approaching my face, with the water's edge just beyond. I closed my eyes, put my hands out and hoped for the best.
Spitting out a mouthful of hot sand, I lifted my face just enough to see that I had only missed the mark by a couple of feet. I dragged myself the remaining distance into the cool water, hoping that not many people had been watching. Well, they had been, and once again Sue managed to capture one of my finest moments on video.
Soon after we were back in the truck and churning for the cool ocean breeze. Arriving on the beach with a cheer, we drove north on the hard sand near the water. The beaches on Fraser Island are very nice, in fact the nicest we had seen so far in Australia. Very wide, pretty white sand, and no rubbish. Unfortunately, swimming in the ocean is not recommended as the area is a known breeding ground for tiger sharks. The beach also was littered with amazingly huge jellyfish which would splatter into a million tiny jellyfish pieces as I half-heartedly tried to avoid running them over. In the late afternoon we found a clearing just off the edge of the beach and made a reasonably coordinated effort in raising the tents and cooking dinner.
The next morning we went for a dip in Eli Creek where the really cold spring water current carries you through a bit of rainforest down to a pool on the beach. It was so cold and refreshing in fact that I happily made the trip twice. Then it was on to the wreck of the Maheno, the hulking metal skeleton of a cruise ship which ran aground and then washed up on the beach many years ago. We spent the afternoon sweating our way further north to a rocky tidal area called the Champagne Pools and then cutting inland around the Indian Head promontory, finally establishing our camp for the night at Orchid Beach. After another fine campfire cooking effort in which not too much stuff was burned, Sue and I wandered off to the beach for a stroll under the stars. We walked a short way out onto the expansive beach and noticed some shadowy four-legged shapes similarly enjoying the night air. Before long we convinced ourselves that the ravenous dingoes were stalking us and beat a hasty retreat back to the campsite. (Later that night one of them boldly trotted right into the middle of our camp for a quick look at the cooler while we were sitting around the fire just ten feet away!)
Early the next morning a few of us drove to the end of Orchid Beach and then hiked up a hill to watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. We then broke camp and headed back to Indian Head where we climbed to the top and observed manta rays and tiger sharks swimming in the water below. The remainder of the morning was spent making our way back to Lake McKenzie where we enjoyed a couple hours of cool water and bright sunshine until it was time to get back on the ferry.
Once on the mainland, we drove back to the hostel and returned our camping gear. Our new Danish friends Annette and Rikke graciously let us use their room for a sorely needed shower. We had a bite to eat and a quick drink with our safari-mates, then it was off to the bus terminal for an overnight ride to Airlie Beach.
We arrived in Airlie too early in the morning to check-in to our room at the Club 13 hostel, so we availed ourselves of the free breakfast while waiting. (Eating mueslix every morning really makes you appreciate bacon and eggs!) Then we waited some more. Turned out the people who were supposed to have checked out of the room we had booked were nowhere to be found. We waited some more, then stashed our packs and wandered around town for the day. Airlie Beach doesn't really have much in the way of usable beach during the summer due to deadly box jellyfish in the water, so they built a large freshwater lagoon just next to the beach. That suited us just fine.
Later in the afternoon we returned to the hostel and found that there had been a simple mix-up and our room was ready. We were pleasantly surprised to find our spacious air-conditioned double had an ensuite spa and was very nicely furnished for a hostel room. Turned out that it had been an upscale condominium in the 1980s until a pilot strike caused a year-and-a-half long tourist drought, forcing most hotels into the budget accomodation market.
A couple of days later, we rose early for the highlight of our Airlie Beach visit - a one day cruise to the Whitsunday Islands aboard the sailing vessel Maxi Ragamuffin. The Whitsundays are a group of 74 wonderfully scenic islands just off the coast. Depending on which day of the week you book for, the Ragamuffin sails to a different destination among the islands. Our day would be spent sailing to Hook Island and snorkelling the reef in Blue Pearl Bay.
Once underway to Hook Island we both had a chance to help crew the boat by raising and lowering the sail. This seemed a novel idea until our arms were on fire from turning the crank. Then it seemed more like a way for the real crew to get cheap labor. After we were plowing through the water under full sail and Sue had popped enough precautionary seasickness pills, we settled in for the ride. Kath, the boat's divemaster approached us and asked if we'd like to try an introductory scuba dive on the reef. She assured us it was completely safe even though we had no experience. As we would be taking a scuba certification class in a few days in Cairns, we thought the intro dive would be a good idea.
After the boat anchored in Blue Pearl Bay, we grabbed masks, fins, and snorkels and jumped into the water. We swam around the boat and closer to the shore until we were over the reef. I could not believe all of the different colors and shapes of the coral below us, not to mention all the fish! I kept popping up to excitedly ask Sue if she saw this fish or that fish, but she was not quite as game. Apparently, treading water twenty feet above a possibly shark infested reef some 200 feet from shore was going to take a bit of getting used to. Gradually, she became comfortable enough to stick her mask in the water to look around and by the time we donned our wetsuits and air tanks an hour later, she was a snorkelling pro.
Kath had us practice breathing compressed air through our regulators for a few minutes in the shallow water, then took each of us by the arm and we were off. Breathing through your mouth underwater is actually pretty easy, especially if you have some amazing reef scenery to keep your mind occupied. We descended to about ten meters, which required equalizing the pressure in our ears by holding our noses and blowing out. This took a bit longer for me to master. The dive lasted for about twenty minutes and notable marine life (besides the plethora of soft and hard corals) included an enormous Maori wrasse, a moray eel, and some giant clams.
After returning to the hostel later in the day, we showered, ate some more very average Australian pizza, then spent the evening watching movies on television in one of the common rooms. After midnight we hauled our packs down to the bus terminal in the rain to catch the one o'clock bus for yet another overnight ride to our next stop, Cairns.
Stepping off the bus in Cairns was like putting on a wool sweater soaked in hot water. We're talking serious humidity. We were therefore overjoyed to find our room at the Big Backyard Hostel was air-conditioned. That alone made up for the dank, cell-like quality of the room, complete with an aroma of mildew and antifreeze.
We settled in by doing a bit of grocery shopping and air-conditioned grazing at the grotesque Cairns Super-Ultra-Mega-Mall (or something like that). Not quite having perspired enough walking back to the hostel, I cooked some barbeque chicken on the hostel's outdoor grill. That night we discovered that having the cell directly underneath the much visited second floor kitchen does not make for the best sleeping conditions.
On Monday morning we were up early to start our scuba diving certification class. The class was a four day package. The first two days would be spent in a pool at the Down Under Dive facility and the last two days would be spent on a boat out on the Great Barrier Reef. There we would be tested for certification and then have the opportunity to do several dives on our own.
We were picked up at the hostel by Rex, our instructor for the first two days. Along with the others in the class, he took us to a local clinic for a brief dive medical, then it was off to the classroom. Over the next couple of days we learned all about the use of the diving equipment and various techniques and safety procedures. We also learned that the segment on the boat could be extended to three days with the added experience of a night dive, so we signed on.
On Wednesday morning, we were taken down to the pier to board a large powerboat called the SeaJet or something which would ferry us to the dive ship, the Altantic Clipper. The Clipper stays out on the reef, moving to a different area every day. As there were many daytrippers aboard, we stopped on one section of the reef to do some snorkeling en route to the Clipper.
As we were swimming around observing the colorful reef, I would occasionally hold my breath and dive down a couple of meters for a closer look. After a while I started to feel a burning sensation on my left arm and upon examination noticed a red, bubbly rash along my upper arm. Now, keep in mind that we had just been through two days of rigorous dive training, a large portion of which dealt with nitrogen bubbles in the blood and decompression sickness (the "bends"). So, thinking that maybe on one of my forays underwater I had held my breath and ascended too quickly, thereby causing bubbles to form in my blood, I headed quickly back to the boat to get the opinion of a crew member. I rushed into the main cabin and found Janine the steward. I anxiously explained what I thought may have happened and showed her my arm. She glanced at it and in a very Australian way said "Nah, mate, just a stinger."
"Not a deadly box jellyfish kind of stinger?" said I, apprehensively.
"Nah, just a bluebottle. You'll be right as rain."
She produced some first aid ointment from under the counter and sprayed my arm. The pain and stinging subsided shortly thereafter. Sue found the whole episode to be highly comical, considering that I thought I may have gotten the bends from diving in three meters of water and not even breathing any compressed air. To which I say, as in hang gliding, better safe than sorry.
Upon arrival to the Atlantic Clipper we met our next instructor, Denise. By late afternoon we were 20 meters underwater, being tested on our dive skills. The following morning we completed our certifying dive and were free to explore the reef on our own. The first two days we spent on Norman Reef (the Clipper did not move the first day pending arrival of a needed water pump), and the last day on Saxon Reef. We saw an innumerable amount and variety of fish, sea turtles, sharks, rays, man-sized clams, and soft and hard corals of every color and description.
The night dive was particularly nerve-wracking. One of the highlights would be seeing ("completely harmless") grey and white-tipped reef sharks, as well as all of the marine life that is nocturnal. As the sun was setting, we could see a few five or six-foot reef sharks swimming amongst the everpresent school of fish alongside the boat. After a briefing by the divemaster, each of us received an underwater flashlight, and we were off. By the light of the Clipper's running lights and a full moon, Sue and I jumped off the diving platform, the first ones into the water. We descended along the mooring line into the pitch-black darkness, our lights only able to illuminate a small area a few meters in front of us. As we reached depth at 12 meters, we saw the largish black forms of two sharks swimming along the bottom in front of us and as our lights passed over them, they swam quickly in the opposite direction (whew!). We wandered along some large coral bommies, myself leading the way and a wide-eyed Sue following closely behind. Running the light over the coral revealed hundreds of tiny orange glowing eyes connected to the eyestalks of shrimps (called prawns here). I also saw a crab the size of a basketball with claws to match.
I was so engrossed in the weird little nocturnal creatures that I did not realize until too late that I had lead us through a narrow coral canyon to a dead end. As I looked up I realized that the coral was also above me and I was in a small cave of sorts. I attempted to spin around and motioned for Sue to back up, but she already saw what I had done. As I turned, my airtank hit the roof of the cave and scared the !@%* out of me. I instinctively started thrashing my fins, kicking up a cloud of sand in the process. For a split second I was stuck and the past four days of emergency safety procedures flashed through my head, but then my tank pulled free of the coral and we headed back to an open area. We spent the rest of the dive staying clear of tight spots.
One diving skill we have not mastered yet is underwater navigation, as we discovered by surfacing from our night dive about 200 meters from the boat, and on the opposite side from the platform at that. We also encountered this deficiency on an earlier dive as I was quickly swimming out into the open ocean until Sue caught me and explained in sign language that the reef was in the opposite direction.
After three days and ten dives, we returned to Cairns on Friday evening to experience mild land sickness for the first time. We strapped ourselves into our bed in a new cell (not under the kitchen) at the Big Backyard and slept for twelve hours, happily dissipating nitrogen from our systems.
The Gorge, North Stradbroke Island
Swimming in the Gorge, North Stradbroke Island
Blue Lake, North Stradbroke Island
Sue and Nicole, Jasmine, Jonathan, and Christopher Watts (Dunwich, North Stradbroke Island)
Home of Rob and Andrea Taylor (Dunwich, North Stradbroke Island) From left to right: Jorund,Mattias,Therese,Maria,Dave,Andrea,Rob,Bryce,Susie,Steve,Laraine
Alexandria Bay Beach, Noosa National Park
Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island
Sue on the beach at Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island
Goanna, Fraser Island
Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Fraser Island
Lake Wabby (and the infamous sand bank), Fraser Island
Approaching Lake Wabby, Fraser Island
Fraser Island "Desert"
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (1)
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (2)
Jellyfish, Fraser Island
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (3)
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (4)
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (5)
Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island (6)
Indian Head, Fraser Island
Wild horses on Orchid Beach, Fraser Island
Sunrise over Orchid Beach, Fraser Island (1)
Sunrise over Orchid Beach, Fraser Island (2)
Dingoes on Orchid Beach, Fraser Island
Trail to the beach at Indian Head, Fraser Island
Fraser Island Safari Crew: James, Kier, Kathleen, Helen, Sue, Dave, Rikke, Annette, and Richard
George the joey, Airlie Beach
Piloting the Maxi Ragamuffin, Airlie Beach
Preparing to sail the Maxi Ragamuffin, Airlie Beach