NEW ZEALAND: NORTH ISLAND

NEW ZEALAND: NORTH ISLAND

Auckland – Hot Water Beach – Waitomo – Hobbiton – Rotorua – New Plymouth – Taupo – River Valley – Wellington

Arriving in New Zealand, we really didn’t have any expectations – high or low. We knew that the comparison with Australia was laboured and derided by Aussies and Kiwis alike, but we didn’t realise quite how different the two countries were until we had spent a little while in the coastal city of Auckland.

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In this country we instantly felt at home. The weather was a little more British, the landscape verdant and gently rolling, and the people – well you can’t really put your finger on it, but the people just weren’t like the Aussies. The best comparison I can make is with the folk of the USA and Canada. For the most part the Aussies were more like their American counterparts – big friendly handshakes, transparent good intentions, barbecuing with fervour on the beach as though their lives depended on it. The Kiwis in general a little more reserved, far more laid back (almost horizontal), very friendly but not in-your-face friendly. They’ll do their thing and don’t mind if you’re coming or not.

The relationship of British settler descendents with the indigenous Maori seems a fair bit more comfortable than between white Aussies and Aboriginals, and although some blood was spilled back when the British arrived in 1769, they did not commit such heinous atrocities against the Maoris as they did the Aboriginals, and the acquisition of land was more by bargaining than pillage. Maori people naturally and rightly form a central part of Kiwi culture, and it was genuinely lovely to see members of all races integrated into society. The relationship just didn’t feel like an awkward lump in the throat like it did in Australia, although our Auckland tour guide did say that now only something like 4% of bigger cities like Auckland is Maori.

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By the quay

Auckland is a great city – yet everywhere we went in NZ afterwards, our fellow travellers described it as a ‘dump’ or ‘just another city’. I really didn’t understand this, as we had got so much out of our time there. Auckland is a big mainly residential city yes, yet it has so much to offer. There is a fair bit of history (for such a recent country), there are incredible islands to discover just off the coast, there are three defunct volcanoes to climb in the middle of the city for unbeatable 360 degree panoramas, there are shops galore on Queen Street, and plenty of culture around in the gallery, and the quayside buildings. Auckland would be an awesome place to live – it has a beautiful university for one, lots of really lovely parks, and one in three families owns a boat! I can only imagine those who derided the city had a bad experience staying there for some reason. We spent two days here before starting Kiwi Experience tour, and a further two afterwards.

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Views from Mount Eden

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Ombu tree
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Quayside exhibition. Statue of Captain James Cook
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Can you spot the mistake on this engraving?

KIWI EXPERIENCE TOUR

Feeling a little nervous we waited for our bus (The Big Green F*** Truck as it was known to some) outside a Base hostel at 7.30am on a Sunday. We were greeted by our driver who made a big deal of making us feel welcome. He was incessantly jolly. Except when he was annoyed, when he definitely wasn’t. Looking around, our fears were confirmed: we were the oldest on the bus. It was fairly busy, and after everyone had boarded (mostly first timers – I won’t bother explaining how Kiwi works) and as we drove to our first destination – Cathedral Cove, Dan and I muttered snide comments about the probable immaturity of the young people around us.

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Cathedral Cove

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On our first supermarket stop (Pak ‘n’ Save; a revelation for us after the astronomically priced supermarkets of Oz), two girls who had already made a name for themselves for being a little chaotic, and who were late for the very first pick up were still wandering around the shop with a full trolley five minutes before we were meant to depart. I smugly pointed this out to Dan, tucking our bag of goodies away above our seats. Little did I know that these two would very soon (in fact that very night) become firm friends of ours, and prove my condescending presumptions about their arrogance wrong.  Apart from the late thing. They would ALWAYS be late.

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Here follow all the stops we made on the Kiwi Experience tour in the North Island:

Hot Water Beach

Can you guess what is so special about Hot Water Beach? That’s right; if you dig a few inches into the sand you encounter hot water. You might think that digging out a sort of seating area to sit in and chat with your new friends is a nice idea, especially if your bus driver suggests it, but it isn’t for a few reasons:

  • There are only two opportunities a day to do this – when the tide is out. If you don’t reach the beach by the first time it is out (which you don’t), then you have to come down to the beach around 12am in the pitch black.
  • It is probably pissing down with freezing rain at said time.
  • Digging in wet sand and maintaining a trench-like shape is very difficult, as you will know if you have tried to create a moat around a sandcastle right next to incoming waves which you hope will fill it up. It is back-breaking, repetitive, unsatisfying work.
  • You have to find a point exactly where the cool ocean will mix with the scalding 50 degree water perfectly so you don’t burn your botty as soon as you sit down. This is nigh-on impossible.
  • If you do achieve said perfection, someone will notice and ask to join up their inferior pool with yours by way of a channel, and ruin the carefully cultivated temperature of yours.
  • Once sat in the ‘pool’ you will get your arse covered in sand, and have to walk the ten minutes back to the holiday park in the pitch black freezing rain with a wet sandy arse.
  • If you are a silly German teenager who brings his very expensive watch to the beach then you will learn an important life lesson about listening to your parents.
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‘Hot’ Water beach

Waitomo

After HWB, we stayed in a place where there were some beautiful caves. I won’t go on too much about it, other than the driver told us not to do the cheapest tour of the caves, which was by boat, as he ‘wouldn’t even take my granny on it’. So we went on the walking tour, which was okay, a little cramped and difficult to hear the guide who was at the front of the single file line, but when we returned and realised that the girls who had ignored the drivers advice and paid half of what we did for HMS Grandma had had a wonderful time with great views of the glow worms and perfect sound quality from their guide, we were a little annoyed with the force with which the driver had given his opinion and guided us to pay more.

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Looking down the lit-up spiral slope entrance to the caves
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When the mites go up, the tights come down… something like that
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Early morning view from the Hot Water Beach area

Hobbiton

On the way to Rotorua, we were to stop at Hobbiton. We weren’t really keen, especially at $90, so didn’t sign up. However, the driver explained that if two more people were to sign up then everybody would get the tour at a rate of $70, so Dan and I were persuaded. The reason for the discount? When you arrive they normally drive you the five minutes from the shop and cafe down to Hobbiton itself in one of the Hobbiton coaches. But if your tour bus has more than 20 or so people who are going to do Hobbiton then your bus can go down with the driver. So in effect that’s a $400 five minute bus ride for everyone else.

Hobbiton was cool. It was actually pretty amazing to be standing on the set with the props and Hobbit holes which were all hand crafted out of wood, and looked for all the world as if a real Hobbit lived there. We had a brilliantly funny tour guide who managed to sidestep the fairly military timetable by encouraging us to take our time at our favourite parts and catch up with the group when we wanted. There were lots of incredible facts about the set, actors and films themselves which I won’t bother you with, but this was by far the best: Bag End in the book is overlooked by an old oak tree. This meant that when they came to film, they had to  bring in a real oak tree, chopped down then nailed back together. Peter Jackson then comissioned 300,000 plastic ‘leaves’ to be made in Taiwan, which were individually attached to the trunk by hand. It is only if you look really really hard from the closest vantage point just by Bilbo’s Hobbit hole you can tell they aren’t real. And this ‘tree’ was on film for less than one minute…

 

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After the tour we got a drink of beer or cider in the Green Dragon Inn, which was fairly rushed. All in all definitely not worth $90, and probably not even $70, as it only lasted an hour or so, but we were pleased we decided to do it.

 

Rotorua

Next stop on the North Island was Rotorua. The driver warned us that we would notice the smell of the many natural hotsprings which steamed away all over the city out of cracks, manholes – any part of the ground where there was some sort of fissure as soon as we left the coach. But I don’t think any of us were expecting the sheer force of the eggy bouquet which attacked our nostrils. Later we would be chatting to an ex-pat who had been to Rotorua and wondered at the citizens’ ability to live there due to the constant stench. You know when people are from Rotorua she said. Needless to say, we didn’t stay ther more than the obligatory one night. That particular evening though, we did have the pleasure of experiencing a Maori village, including performances, food and drink.

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A typical Kiwi bus journey, where Dan had motion sickness
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Dan’s introduction as leader of our tribe
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Learning the Haka

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A walk we did near Rotorua

New Plymouth

In fact, we were not continuing with the Kiwi Experience bus for the next few days, but taking a detour with a hire car to New Plymouth to visit another cousin of mine and his lovely family. We had met his wife and first son, but they had subsequently had twins who were now a few months old. New Plymouth is another very liveable city. Not huge, but with everything you need, and New Zealand’s bog-standard stunning scenery on the doorstep. During our stay we visited the gardens and zoo in the centre of the city which my cousin had described as ‘just a park’, but which we found to be a beautiful place with views of Mount Taranaki, a Japanese-style lake complete with red painted bridge, maple trees and a lovely cafe with eccentric bubble man to boot.  The break from the Kiwi bus was just what we needed, and it was fantastic to catch up with family who we hadn’t seen for a couple of years.

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Driving to New Plymouth in the Nissan hire car, the pouring rain
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The Artists That Still Matter…
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Great views from Mount Taranaki…
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Pukekura Park, central New Plymouth
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Dan meeting the rellies

 

Taupo

We had to get up to drive back the 300km from NP at 4.30am in order to catch the 9.30am bus from Taupo. Back to the bus, but this time with another driver. Scottie, or Nancy Boy as he liked to be called. I still cannot get over some NZ humour – its about 20 years behind the UK (or perhaps London specifically) in terms of how crude and offensive it is. Demeaning jokes about race, gender, sexuality are all fair game here, with mentions of dead babies and the strongest swear words possible thrown in for free. They see our flinching at these as us being overly PC, whereas we anticipate the day they look back and can’t believe they ever made jokes like this, the same way we look at comics from the seventies and eighties. Anyway, back to Taupo. The name is Maori and is pronounced ‘toe-paw’, but mostly people ignore this and revert lazily to the more English phonetic ‘tao-poh’ like we ended up doing. The town is on the edge of a beautiful lake, which we sailed around the first night on a booze cruise, having caught up with the original gang from the Auckland Kiwi bus. The evening was one of the best on the North Island that we had, with BYO alcohol and stunning views of the sunset over the lake. We moored by some magnificent Maori carvings which looked ancient, but were actually completed in the 1980s. Some folk, including Dan, were mad enough to jump in and swim, as NZ was still holding onto the final remnants of summer, and the lake wasn’t bitterly cold. Taupo is the base point for the Tongariro crossing, the ‘best walk in New Zealand’. But as we had had so little sleep the night before, and it required a 5am start we decided to give it a miss. I still regret this, but at 19.4km, I know there is no way I could’ve mustered the energy to do it, let alone enjoy it.

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The incredible Haka Falls, Taupo. New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction. The volume of water flowing over the falls is enough to fill one Olympic sized swimming pool in 11 seconds!
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The beautiful Waikato river
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At the hotsprings
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“The World’s Coolest McDonald’s”… according to McDonald’s
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Dan found the cake of his dreams
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The evening booze cruise

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Maori carvings… from the 1980s
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Not too cold

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River Valley

River Valley was possibly my favourite location in the North Island. Driving down to this very remote area I couldn’t believe we were in such a beautiful place. It was very Wales-like, but with even fewer houses. The lodge we would stay in was unique in that we had the option to sleep in 18 bed dorm. I think Scottie called it something like the orgy room, as the ‘beds’ are in fact one long platform where you all sleep side by side. Something akin to school gymnasiums after natural disasters, but where the people were choosing and paying to sleep there for fun. As it was the far cheaper option than the smaller dorm we opted for this. The lodge also boasted a bar (most NZ hostels do not allow alcohol), and don’t make you pay until the morning (“Where are you gonna run to?”). The scenery by the lodge is captivating, with steeply ascending wooded gradients either side of a shallow river which runs by the lodge, crossable only by swimming or a two-man pulley. But the main reason we came to the valley was for the white water rafting. Another first for us, and although I was pretty nervous about travelling down rapids in what amounts to a dinghy when I have a huge fear of drowning, it was one of the most fun experiences we had on the trip. The lead instructor even said that there had been one death at the lodge in the 20 years or so it had been open, which made our friend Alice, who was even more nervous than I was, nearly cry. It was expensive yes, but worth it.

It was our instructor’s last day, and he made the most of it. I hadn’t realised quite how hard work it would be, but we all worked as a team and nobody in our boat fell out (accidentally). The best thing our guide did in fact, was tell us to jump out of the boat and go for a swim at the earliest opportunity. After the initial shock this acclimatised us to the temperature of the water, and made us much less fearful of falling out, as we proved we could (eventually) climb back in. Surprisingly few Kiwi Expereincers joined the white water rafting, citing it as too pricey, but I reckon a few regretted this decision when they saw how much fun we had had upon our return.

 

Wellington

The ‘Coolest Little Capital in the World’ (Lonely Planet) was unfortunately shrouded in cloud upon our arrival. I have to say we didn’t get the most out of it. It really was extremely depressing weather, which affected our feelings about the place. I often ponder this exact thing about tourists to the UK. If you visit London in a beautifully warm and sunny week in spring, you will go home filled with fantastic memories and photos of a sparkling city caught from the pods of the London eye. But chance upon it when (as usual) the sky is an impenetrable steely grey, and frozen rain batters you every thirty minutes, then you might take quite a personal dislike to our fair capital. I always feel bad for tourists who experience the latter. So I won’t bang on about Wellington, expect for the fact it had a great little night market where I ate Ethiopian and Japanese food (not a fusion; that would be weird), and that Te Papa Museum is incredible and well-worth a visit. Unfortunatley the hostel negatively affected our experience somewhat too. It was a Base, which doesn’t have a good rep anyway, but the first night we had a ‘free dinner’. Great! What was the veggie option? A plate of air with a side of tap water apparently, as they didn’t even serve salad or bread with the meat lasagne. Okay, fair enough, I think. I’ve been here a couple of weeks now, and am now aware that the Kiwi attitude to vegetarians is ‘Errrr…..’, even in big cities. So I ask if I can eat the pizza I have bought for dinner with everyone else who is having the free meal. No, sorry that’s not allowed. I have to say I did pull the discrimination against vegetarians card at the desk, and they admitted it’s a common complaint. Well sort it out then!

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Wet old Wellington
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Reading on the Kiwi Bus

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Incredible Gallipoli ANZAC exhibition at Te Papa

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On to the south where I hope they cater for us a bit better ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GREAT OCEAN ROAD & MELBOURNE. FAREWELL AUSTRALIA

GREAT OCEAN ROAD & MELBOURNE. FAREWELL AUSTRALIA

If you go to Victoria, you must do the Great Ocean Road is what they say. So that’s what we did, whilst we still had the van. We had driven for two days straight from Sydney to Victoria with nothing other than boring highway to look at, sleeping behind a grotty petrol station, so we were excited about the prospect of something a bit more touristy.

We set apart three full days until we had to return the campervan in Melbourne to complete the drive there and back. Beginning in the surfer town of Torquay, and meandering through several other ‘British’ places (Anglesea, Wye River and even Streatham), until it reaches the twee-sounding Port Fairy 285km west, the Great Ocean Road is renowned as one of the world’s most scenic drives.

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We’d even been told that this is where we would finally see some wildlife, which had managed to evade us for the entirety of our 2000 miles of our journey so far; we’d not even seen one measly kangaroo, apart from a couple sadly squished at the side of the road.

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Torquay is a surf town, but it wasn’t anywhere near as pretty as its Devon namesake. It had all the big surf shops, and is in fact the home of iconic Aussie brand Rip Curl. However, we were just there for the night and didn’t really need any extra rash vests or distressed denim shorts. We pitched up at the terrifyingly named Danger Point, a car park on a headland. We knew we weren’t meant to park there, but with around 5 other campers there, we convinced ourselves that there was safety in numbers. Rising at around 6, we drove right up to the highest point of the car park and witnessed a beautiful sunrise across the Southern Ocean. It was then a warden moved us on, but at least we’d caught the sunrise and had a decent night’s sleep.

Our first stop along the Great Ocean Road was the GOR Chocolaterie. We were going to avoid it, as most attractions in Aus are expensive, and the country isn’t exactly renowned for its chocolate products in the UK. However, we thought we’d do a recce by means of a swift tour of the car park. The chocolaterie was in fact simply a small chocolate factory with a large shop and cafe attached. It wasn’t quite Wonka standard, but the three gargantuan piles of sample chocolate buttons complete with weighty silver spoons for you to help yourself with waiting for us at the entrance made us realise it had certainly been worth stopping. In the shop, browsing the metre-long chocolate bars and giant Easter animals kept us entertained for a while, whilst watching the Oompa-Loompah equivalents slaving away over their cocoa creations behind a glass screen. The cafe’s liquid chocolate which came with the desserts was so good that in the spirit of a dumpster diving hippy, Dan actually relieved an uncleared table of one pot which hadn’t been touched by its purchaser – an absolute crime in our eyes (them leaving it, not his nabbing it).

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Could you eat this in one sitting? Think I could…

On we went, all the time in awe of the dramatic red-cliffed coastline visible on our left. We stopped frequently – Bells Beach and Point Addis, Split Point Lighthouse (the one from Round The Twist!), and Lorne were all places we visited the first day.  We spent the night at a free campsite, and saw our first koalas there, who were fairly non-plussed at our open-mouthed adoration, and simply continued to hug their respective branches almost sloth-like.

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The Great Ocean Road also brought us sightings of kangaroos and an echidna, which we couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen yet, yet all these animals were so familiar from telly and books that we felt we had seen hundreds in our time. In Apollo Bay we sampled Vegemite ice-cream (a bit like salted caramel, but with a nasty after-taste), but boringly plumped for vanilla and chocolate flavours.

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The final destination of ours before we turned back towards Melbourne was the Twelve Apostles – sea stacks to you and me. Despite the name remaining, there are actually only eight stacks left. We were lucky to get there before dark on a Saturday evening, and expected it to be devoid of tourists. Yet this was the most touristy place we experienced in Australia. Hundreds and hundreds of mainly Chinese tourists packed the walkways to the apostles, selfie sticks clashing in the air. At the final platform, with the best view of the stacks, the situation was laughable. Nobody could move for the people around them, and everyone’s selfie had at least three other strangers in it. We abandoned all hope of a good photo, and ended up just taking a couple of pictures of the tourists themselves.

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Trying to capture the apostles. Like everyone else.

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Back we went to Melbourne then the next day, and said a fond farewell to the campervan we had had a love-hate relationship with over the previous five weeks.

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Melbourne accommodation is pricey, and arriving in a squalid hostel in St Kilda (the backpacker-y hipster bit of the city, right by the ocean), was quite a shock, after having our own space, kitchen and double bed for a while. I’m not sure if it was my naivety or that the hostel really was that scummy, but I was truly shocked by the state room we were expected to sleep in. The Liverpudlian girls already there, who spent every waking hour lying on their beds on Facebook, were unfriendly to the point of being actively rude, and there were people’s belongings (odd socks, dirty bras, broken eye pencils) in every nook and cranny. We fitted ourselves in as small as space as possible and told ourselves ‘it’s only three nights’.

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Haute cuisine hostel-style
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‘The Ritz’ it certainly wasn’t

Melbourne itself is a fantastic city. The first full day we were there we were taken out to the beautiful Yarra Valley by my lovely cousin who lives in Melbourne, to do some wine tasting. The day was really fun, and as my cousin was kind enough to drive we didn’t have to worry about sampling as many wines as we liked! We visited several wineries, all of which have a small charge for the tasting, which you get back if you buy a bottle. The weather turned a little stormy (it was much cooler in Victoria than the east coast), and so we headed back in apocalyptic rain. Back at his house we met his wife and two adorable kids who we had never had a chance to meet before, and had a lovely evening eating pizza and drinking yet more wine.

After a long six weeks on the road, we didn’t have much energy left for the last couple of days we were in Melbourne, (yes, get the tiny violin out) but we mustered up the strength to do a free walking tour of the city the next day; something we have resolved to do wherever we can since the Sydney one. We then spent some time on Acland Street in St Kilda – the main strip full of bars, bakeries and book shops.  We also visited the botanic gardens – as mentioned before seem to be a legal requirement of every settlement in Australia.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

Australia was a land of many many firsts for me and for Dan. The first time being so far away from home. The first time I have spent longer than three weeks in a country other than the UK. The first time renting a campervan. The first time barbecuing on free outdoor gas cookers , and the first time seeing people pitching tents on the roof a car (apparently quite normal here).  Leaving Australia behind to head to Auckalnd didn’t feel sad –it felt exactly right, as if we had spent the perfect amount of time there, this time. Of course Australia is so vast and so diverse in flora, fauna and people, that you could never hope to conquer this continent-sized country in six weeks, and we didn’t for a second think we had. But we had made a dent. Will we ever go back to Australia? Honestly, probably not. Even though there is so much to see, it’s a big old journey there from the UK, and the rest of the world is calling. However, that isn’t to say it isn’t a fascinating country, very liveable, very modern, mostly very safe-feeling. You get the feeling the government prioritises investment in the day-to-day comfort of its citizens and visitors in the services and facilities it provides. I know that may sound trite, and is possibly contentious to some Aussies, but as a tourist we felt pretty well looked–after, even if we lived in fear of the law every time we slept on the side of the road. We could definitely see the attraction of moving to Australia – the quality of life and the weather are all massive pulls for Europeans. But not quite strong enough pulls for us.

SYDNEY & THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA

SYDNEY & THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA

Sydney… how excellently exciting! A big city, and one we’d heard lots about – the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the coffee shops… But all that would have to wait until we had completed our visit to the city’s closest national park – the Blue Mountains.

We had been told it was a must-visit, especially as it was autumn and the colours were to be stunning. I was still getting used to the fact that autumn falls in March in Australia, but apparently it was running a little behind schedule as the trees were all pretty much still a vibrant green.

The Blue Mountains get their name from the blueish haze which settles over the magnificent vistas, caused by dust and eucalyptus oil suspended in the air catching the sun’s rays in a particular way (I don’t know… ask a physicist). However, I would say that the name ‘mountains’, although technically accurate is a little misleading in terms of what you expect from this area, although it is by no means any less majestic than it suggests.

Wherever we went in the national park, we were effectively on top of a flat-topped mountain, meaning you don’t see any craggy alpine peaks rising out of the ground. Rather you are standing on a plateau covered in dense, lush rainforest, staring down into colossal craters of more rainforest. Imagine the Grand Canyon with trees.

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Dan and the Three Sisters

There were plenty of walks to choose from in the Blue Mountains, many of them featuring waterfalls and interesting rock formations. We had stayed the first night in the Bulls Camp Reserve (basically a car park off a motorway), and began our trip in the mountains in the central town of Katoomba. Once we had found parking (tricky, and expensive), we made our way to the information centre, which was situated at a huge viewing platform at the end of a road. There were coach-loads of mainly Chinese tourists, selfie-ing by the Three Sisters rock formation which was visible to the left of the platform. It was the busiest national park we had been to by far.

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Viewing point at Katoomba

Having arrived at the campsite quite late the night before, we felt like having more of a chilled day, and decided to leave the walks until the next morning and explore the area’s towns. We drove to the lovely little town of Blackheath (named after the place in SE London, but I forget why as it’s nothing like it), a little further along the highway, and checked out the shops, cafes and rhododendron garden there. Sadly, if you’ve ever been to the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, you’ll know autumn is not the time for rhododendrons, and there were none in bloom. The houses lining the roads to the gardens in Blackheath were absolutely gorgeous, and I presume, very expensive.

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Not a very representational photo of one of the lovely houses in Blackheath
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Me with a cute cat which followed us around for a while
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Waving to a train at Blackheath

Using the Travellers Autobarn app we had, we found there was a campsite quite close by on the Megalong Valley road. Yes, it is a mega-long valley. This site was far nicer than the roadside job of the night before, situated in the woods with a little stream. I still have not, however, quite got used to long-drop toilets yet though.

For dinner Dan made packet instant noodles. I mention this because I am somewhat experienced in the field of instant noodles, and I feel this needs highlighting. Instant noodles in Australia, (and I presume Indonesia, as they were nasi goreng flavour) are far, far superior to ones available in the UK. Yes, they may come with an Australian price tag ( $1 each vs 15p in Lidl), but they also come with four, yes FOUR different seasonings in each package. The powdered MSG we all know and love, plus soy sauce, chilli sauce and a garnish of fried onions. With Dan’s addition of fried mushrooms and peppers, this was a dish to rival Wagamama.

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The beginning of our nasi goreng noodles, but sadly no final product photo – I guess we were too excited about eating it!

The following day, full of energy from the Michelin star noodles, we began our day of walks in Blackheath, starting with the Govetts Leap lookout. It was a lot quieter than Katoomba, and we walked through quite dry eucalyptus forest, emerging onto a beautiful lookout.

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We then drove on to the Evans lookout, also in Blackheath. More beautiful views of tree-covered canyons. There are a lot of lookouts in the Blue Mountains.

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None of the walks are particularly challenging in the park, as they are all on mainly flat paths, and the numerous information signs tend to massively overestimate how long they take (one said 20 minutes, and it only took 5). So, feeling that we had not yet earned our lunch we completed two more walks around the nearby town of Leura with views of cascades, and staggeringly tall cliffs.

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We drove back to Katoomba to eat (an excellent falafel wrap if you’re interested), then finally went on to complete our day’s trekking (if you could call it that) with the beautiful Wentworth falls.

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Lunch in Katoomba. Not sure why I’m wearing Daniel’s socks, or looking so confused by my falafel wrap.
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Wentworth Falls, where you could walk across the top – and I did.
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The falls tumbling over the cliff

Having ticked off the Blue Mountains, we were very excited to hit Sydney. Parking was going to be an odd one, as there are no camping grounds in the city itself, so we ended up on a side road a few train stops outside of the centre. We had to shower in the local leisure centre at $7 a pop (although we did swim too of course).

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Another WiFi stop…

Aussies consider Sydney to be a big city, but coming from London it really doesn’t feel it. Having been recommended the free walking tour, we ironically had to catch a fairly pricey Uber into town to reach it in time, as we had taken so long parking. We’d never done a free walking tour before, and had fairly low expectations, but we found it to be absolutely BRILLIANT. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

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At one of Sydney’s stations

Meeting at the town hall, we spent the next three hours with our incredibly knowledgeable guide Ramsey (yes, like the street) who happened to be a primary teacher too. He took us to all the sites of significance around central Sydney, and explained the history of each place from Aboriginal times, to Captain Cook’s arrival to the present day, and he showed us some original street art installations.

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Apparently this guy, who sits in the Central Business District gives the drunken bankers a bit of a scare at night.
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A government-funded street art installation about the native birds of Australia. As you walk beneath each cage you hear a song from a different bird and can read a little info about it.
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“Henry, will you put down the iPad and listen!”

As well as this he gave us some very good tips on bars and eateries – even pointing out that the food court in the Central Business District slashes its lunchbox prices after 3pm in order to get rid of them – a great tip for hungry, broke backpackers like me and Dan (no, it shouldn’t be Dan and I). Ramsey was a ‘Sydneysider’ himself, and clearly passionate about the city; we were so impressed with the tour we actually decided to do the evening tour of The Rocks area too.

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A $5 meal – a first when eating out in Oz!
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Dan trying to prove how much fun he was having in front of the Harbour Bridge
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Apparently the building we are blocking the view of is quite famous.

I felt quite ignorant when I realised what an important historical city Sydney is, in such a modern country (by western standards). I didn’t even know that The Rocks was where Captain Cook settled first (violently ejecting the Aboriginal folk who had established a homeland by the rich natural harbour there in the process). I made a resolution to visit all the museums and libraries Ramsey recommended, but the evening Rocks tour was a great place to start learning a bit more.

With a different guide, the tour took us around the oldest part of the city where the convicts originally were settled and put to work. There were fascinating tales of treachery and mutiny in the days when the only currency was rum, and prisoners were given building jobs as a city had to be created! It finished with a beautiful sunset walk to Observatory Hill, overlooking the Harbour Bridge. We were surprised at the age of some of the buildings in the area – the cottages in The Rocks looked straight out of the factory worker streets in York, which was a bizarre juxtaposition with the Marriot Hotel skyscraper towering over them.

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Not a recreation – actual houses
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Incredible view from Observatory Hill

After the tour, we went for a drink with a New Yorker we had met at one of the pubs we had seen in the Rocks, called The Hero of Waterloo  (Sydney’s oldest pub – although that is contested by several other pubs, and relatively young by British standards – 174 years young.) The legend goes that in the Victorian times, no young Sydneysiders wanted to join the navy, so the landlord at the Hero of Waterloo would encourage boys of 18 or 19 to get totally sloshed, then when they passed out from the drink, tossed them in the cellar, which had a secret passage to the harbour. They would wake up the next day on a boat with no means of return. This is from the pub’s website:

“There is an enduring legend that a secret tunnel running from the cellar of the hotel to the harbour was used for rum smuggling and the involuntary recruitment of sailors. An unknowing young man might find himself drunk at the bar, dropped through a trapdoor into the cellar and dragged through the tunnel, only to awake to the morning shanghaied aboard a clipper.

Reminders of the Hero’s notorious past are everywhere. The downstairs cellars still have shackles on the walls and the entrance to the smuggler’s tunnel can still be seen.”

Dan, our new friend Alex and I grew hungry quite late, and remembered that on the tour a nearby pancake house had been recommended that was open 24/7, so we headed there for a late dinner.

We spent three more full days in Sydney – more than we were intending, but there was so much to do and see in the city – the ANZAC memorial, the botanic gardens (I think it is law that every city in Oz has to have one), the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the NSW gallery, the State Library, the Royal Mint, Luna Park, The Rocks museum, and of course the bridge ($300 to walk over the top, or free to walk at regular level – can you guess which we did?).

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The beautiful botanic gardens
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Luna Park – there’s one in Melbourne too
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Stunning A-level art on display at the NSW gallery. The number next to each pencil drawing is how many are left in the wild. I was impressed a huge gallery like this dedicated a whole exhibition to such young artists.
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We were struck as to how much this suburban railway station looked like Clapham Junction

Having heard that Sydney was full of interesting suburbs at the forefront of food trends, one evening we took the train to a the high street of Newtown where we ate incredible vegan pizza at Gigi’s pizzeria and vegan ice cream at Gelato Blue (coconut milk if you want to know).

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On our final evening, we actually attended an opera at the Sydney Opera House. Our first tour guide had told us the incredible story of the Danish architect who won a global competition and designed the entire thing, but never got paid or even acknowledged for his work, and died a few years ago, having never returned to see his glorious creation in the flesh. You can walk all the way around the building for free, but the interior tour was something like $100 for an hour, so we thought to see Tosca in the main auditorium would kill two birds with one less expensive stone.

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The Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, even close up. The uniform white colour you see covering the ‘sails’? It’s actually over a million small tiles. From outside, the Opera House is eye-pleasing from every angle. The inside, although not 100% true to the shunned architect’s original plans still holds its own in sixties design, with daring, glossy wooden structures holding the building together beautifully.

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The opera was great too, especially as it had subtitles, so we could understand what on earth was going on!

We left Sydney the following day, feeling as though we had seen the bulk of it -my head was so stuffed with fascinating facts about the city from the tours we did and the places we visited it almost hurt. However, I would never say never when it comes to visiting again one day, as it was one of the most interesting and lively cities I’ve experienced.

On our way out of Sydney we stopped at Bondi beach. It wasn’t what we expected. In fact it reminded us of a tired British seaside town.

GOLD COAST – BYRON BAY – NIMBIN, AUSTRALIA

GOLD COAST – BYRON BAY – NIMBIN, AUSTRALIA

We were looking forward to crossing over from Queensland to New South Wales, and furthering our journey down to the Gold Coast. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? The Gold Coast is where many Aussies choose to holiday, and as the average leave in Oz is only four weeks, we reckoned there must be something good about it.

With holidaymakers come cars though, and crawling through traffic was our first experience of the Gold Coast. Having had the road and practically all the towns in Queensland to ourselves so far, this was a bit of a surprise. The first city on the coast you hit is the famous Surfer’s Paradise, a place which is undeniably impressive with skyscrapers lining the endless blonde beach. The town felt very different to anywhere else we had been. It was a 1980s purpose-built holiday city full of plastic-types eating McDonalds. I mean, in what other era would a city be allowed to be given that moniker? I would go as far as to say I really disliked Surfer’s Paradise, but I am glad we gave it the 20 minutes we did before moving on.

Sufers Paradise

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Getting the washing done at a small town on the Gold Coast

Byron Bay, some 60 miles further down the coast was (predictably) much more our cup of vegan chai latte. Byron is very pretty, quite small and a real surfers paradise, unlike the city of the same name. Full of beautiful folk, Byron Bay clearly has some kind of attractiveness test you must pass before living there.

Beautiful Byron Bay

We parked up by the beach and wandered around the boutiques and surf shops. We had been planning to head south and stay in a free camping spot but we liked the town so much that we decided to stay. Being such a touristy place and we ended up paying $40 for a night at busy campsite without power. It being a balmy evening, we decided to head down to the beach again, and watched a thunderstorm over the sea, with the infamous Byron Bay lighthouse illuminating up the sea in atmospheric revolving beams between the lightning.

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Byron Bay

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After a day in Byron we drove on, aiming to get to a place called Nimbin before bedtime. We drove through beautiful Welsh-looking countryside with spectacular views over rolling wooded hills to the small town. All was totally quiet at 7pm, apart from a couple of guys who offered or asked us for weed. It was so quiet we didn’t feel at all worried about parking in one of the village car parks.

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A sign we saw on the way to Nimbin

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Nimbin felt a bit like a less in-your-face Camden Town, but on a hill in the middle of nowhere. It is a hippy town, but it didn’t feel too touristy (we realised that it probably was more so than we thought, however, when further down the coast we came across travel agents advertising day tours there). We wandered around the town, which was essentially one road lined with galleries (complete with dubious art, and which conveniently doubled as pot outlets), and multiple happy herb shops, with wares such as precious stones with healing properties, hemp string, bags, books on the mysteries of the universe and why WiFi is killing our children, endless tie-dyed sarongs and cotton head wraps, silver jewellery, powders and potions with no active ingredients but promises of effects such as not being able to stop dancing, zodiac posters, charms to warn off bad spirits, glitter in a bottle named fairy dust, dream catchers, alternative medicines, organic produce and much more.

 

Nimbin

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Thinking of buying this for my friend Donald

We walked just outside of the town to visit the candle factory. The factory itself looked like it hadn’t been updated or in fact cleaned since the 1920s, with creepy stalactites of wax every which where. The team was very welcoming, and we were allowed to walk around watching the staff at work. It was pretty incredible watching a girl individually filling tea lights with molten wax – the type that cost £1.80 for a hundred pack in Ikea. She explained that the better quality wick meant they burned more evenly, and didn’t drown themselves in wax, but I couldn’t see that competing with the Swedish giant.

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Everyone who lived in Nimbin there seemed to be part of the hippy cult they had built there, looking typically. It seemed to us as novice tourists that the very philosophy of the culture rests upon inclusivity and an easy-going lifestyle. Yet some of Nimbin’s residents seemed quite cliquey, regarding tourists who dared to sit in their local cafes with a suspicious eye, therefore undermining this whole rationale… Too much wacky baccy perhaps. Generally though, the people were very welcoming.

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Dan cooking dinner in Nimbin

As a local man had asked some Danish boys who were camping in the parking lot next to us to move along we thought it best to switch to the main car park the second night’s stay. We drove over and encountered two dreadlocked Aussie girls who had a campervan there if it was a good spot to stay, but their answer was so otherworldly and bizarre that we were none the wiser, and ended up continuing our journey south.

BUNDABERG TO BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

BUNDABERG TO BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA

There are many small towns you drive through when doing a trip as long as ours. To begin with you savour each and every one, noting their name, and characteristics. But after a little while, they all begin to blend into one another; just one more flat, modern town, where a two-storey building is an attraction. We thought Bundaberg would be one of those – just a place to stop for groceries and perhaps pop into the rum distillery for a look around (which Dan did, and left us $30 lighter).

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At the Bundaberg distillery

But Bundaberg, or more accurately the nearby area of Mon Repos, is actually a place we will remember forever as somewhere we got to meet tiny, gawping baby turtles and guide them to the ocean.

We had heard about this place back in Airlie Beach from a tourist going north, and I knew instantly that we had to visit. The turtle experience was only $12 each, far less than any other paid-for attraction we had been to. It turned out this was because the founder had wanted it to be educational, and so decreed that the price should never be prohibitive for normal folks with kids. Apparently in California, a similar experience can cost hundreds of dollars.

Because of the length of the distillery tour, we were a little tardy in heading down to the beachside centre to book tickets, and alas it had closed for the afternoon. We spotted a couple of staff members, who told us to turn up at 7pm and queue in case there was space. Luckily, after cooking and eating our dinner in the car park, and queuing for a few minutes, we were able to get into the third group. I was surprised at how many people turned up on this Thursday evening; at a guess I would think about 200. I suppose it just shows how excited people get about baby animals.

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Dinner in the Mon Repos car park

We all assembled in a sort of half-inside, half-outside amphitheatre, and the very serious ranger told everyone that we were to wait whilst his team were out on the pitch-black beach, looking for nests which were ready to blow. As soon as one was found, Group One would be heading down, then if another was found, Group Two, and finally Group Three. He also explained that this could take some time, and we could be in the centre for a few hours waiting, as ‘nature does not run to a schedule.’ He even warned we might be unlucky, although this was unlikely. Everyone nodded solemnly, but I could see that this a few parents struggled to hide their frustration at this, as they tried to herd their restless children.

In the end, we were glad to be in the third and final group; the smallest by far. It had paid to be late. Before being called we got to watch an interesting documentary of how the Mon Repos centre came to be about, and all about the lives of the loggerhead turtles who nested there. Only one in a thousand baby turtles actually survive to maturity, due to the abundance of predators, as well as (of course) human pollution of the seas. We really are an awful blight on this planet. The turtles make their way all the way across the Pacific Ocean (the rangers track them with electronic trackers cemented onto their shells) to South America, and back again to the same beach to lay their eggs. They really are incredible creatures.

When at last our group was called, we ventured down to the beach in the dark (not even phone lights allowed), and gathered around a semicircular line drawn in the sand. The ranger dug a little into the nest to encourage the turtles to come out. And then, the most magical sight – hundreds of little hatchlings emerging, making their way towards us. They were gathered and put in a little pen which had been made by the ranger, and we each got to hold them and have a photo taken.

Dan meeting the turtles

They then drew two parallel lines forming a sort of turtle highway from nest to ocean so the baby turtles could race down between us to the distant glow of the sea. One guy actually nearly stood on one, and from the gasp that went up from the crowd you would think he had hit a child in his Landrover.

Meeting the turtles

During the course of the evening we were able to help guide the loggerheads, rescue them from crabs and gulls, and give them just a bit of a better chance of getting to the sea (where they will no doubt be gobbled up by a predator). Mon Repos was the best thing we have done so far in Australia, and is something you really can’t miss, for only $12!

Heading south in our trusty campervan, we arrived in one of the towns which is the kick-off point for Fraser Island – the ‘world’s largest sand island’. In Australia, everything is presented to the uninformed tourist as the ‘World’s Biggest, Best, Highest, Longest’ etc. etc. Australia definitely does not have an inferiority complex.

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Hervey Bay Pier – 1km long

Hervey Bay was a sweet seaside town, and we stayed in a campervan park by the seafront (absolutely no chance of roughing it in such a busy spot), which was overpriced and predictably preachy, making us feel like naughty school children before we had even parked up (‘ABSOLUTELY NO NOISE AFTER 10pm’… ‘PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELVES’). We met an interesting couple who were camped next to us. Both from Devon, she was up at 7am to do her resistance training before her acai berry breakfast smoothie, whilst he lay in bed munching Doritos for most of the morning.

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View from the pier

Our trip to Fraser Island was booked through a tour company. As we had already been to the Whitsundays, we didn’t want to spend too much on Fraser, and therefore only booked the day trip. What we didn’t realise was quite how long the journey would be to the actual island. After being collected at 7.20am, we had a half hour drive to the ferry port, then an hour on the sweltering boat itself. If you know Dan, you’ll probably know how travel sick he gets, and so being faced with gigantic 4×4 wheel coaches when we alighted the ferry was the final nail in this tour’s coffin for him. It was at that point he gave up the prospect of enjoying it at all.

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4×4 coach – a novelty for us!

This isn’t a review site, so I’ll keep the opinions to a minimum, but suffice to say we didn’t enjoy it as much as the Whitsundays tour. Fraser really is a large slab of sand in the middle of the ocean, covered in sub-tropical rainforest (‘the furthest south in the world!’), with a few exotic birds and dingoes being the only land mammal, which you are warned time and time again not to feed, and we wouldn’t have done so if we’d seen one. Being on the bus on the uneven sand tracks actually felt like being driven in a vehicle with its four wheels sourced from a pram, a tractor, a penny farthing and a micro scooter respectively. The relentless, risible commentary of the extremely patronising and camp tour-guide, who repeated every piece of information and instruction seven times did not help (“Meet here at 2:50pm, that’s ten to three, that’s 14:50, that’s two-five-zero. 2:50pm everyone!”).  Again, school trip-like, we were ferried around to the different sites the island had to offer, but due to the travelling times there and back we had very limited time at each place. The first stop was the incredible Lake McKenzie, with crystal clear waters and white sand. Unfortunately we were only granted about 25 minutes swimming. Of course when we got back 12 seconds late, we were met with glares from the driver and the rest of the coach, as we were now ‘behind schedule’.

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Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island

The other places we went were beautiful too – the 75 mile beach, the shipwreck, the crystal clear creek which you could swim in. However, we wished we had booked our own 4×4 car and camped, as everywhere we went was incredibly crowded for a basically uninhabited island, and we heard from others later on that doing it off your own back meant missing the crowds. It would also mean avoiding beef with passive aggressive Americans who insisted upon stealing your front seat due to their ‘car sickness’. Stroking your boyfriend’s head as he tries very hard not to puke, whilst hearing said Yanks up in front shriek with laughter at their bus-selfies was not a highlight of the day.

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Fraser Island shipwreck#

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Fraser Island 1

Having spent a lot of time in small towns or countryside, it was frankly weird to arrive in a city full of sparkling skyscrapers and multi-lane highways. We hadn’t been on a dual carriageway since Cairns, some 1050 miles north. Brisbane’s blue skies and clean, clipped grass promised to deliver some kind of Australian dream.

Brisbane

It was quite a novelty to have a choice of restaurants, so as soon as we arrived we sat down to eat at a Greek taverna.

IMG_2275It was BYO, and as we had a bottle of wine in the camper fridge, we decided to bring it out. This may have been a mistake, as in the Brisbane sun, the wine made us pretty fuzzy, and we spent a good hour snoozing on the grass by the Brisbane River. The riverside itself was very much like a smaller, quieter version of London’s South Bank, due to its mix of greenery, brutalist art galleries and its very own Ferris wheel.

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Hello Brisbane

Our tipsiness also meant we forgot to check the parking restrictions, and consequently worried about it all day, knowing the Australian authorities’ pedantry for vehicular law. We wandered the streets of Brisbane all day (what else is there to do in a city new to you?), and found that it was much like every other city we’ve ever been to. Full of the same types of shops, bars and restaurants. However, a few minutes’ walk further out of the centre the quirky suburbs came to life.  An interesting point of the day was finding a death-metal coffee shop, where the septum pierced staff practically spat in the hand you paid with, tossed the coffee across at you and sat perfecting her Paddington Hard Stare whilst you drank it. I have to say, the espresso was the nicest I’ve ever had, so perhaps it was worth feeling worthless whilst consuming it.

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Brisbane felt like ‘another city’, but a lovely, unimposing one with a laid-back vibe. Being Australia’s third city, it has carved itself out a special place in the hearts of many Aussies and the thousands of young immigrants who have moved to the city and made it the cool place it is today.

ROCKHAMPTON & AGNES WATER, AUSTRALIA

ROCKHAMPTON & AGNES WATER, AUSTRALIA

One thing you find out pretty quickly when driving the whole east coast of Australia is that you will not be able to visit everywhere you want to, even in a five week tour. We were beginning to get a little sick of stopping in places just for one night, and our prolonged time in Airlie Beach had been so relaxing that we decided to be economical with our stops.

At Rockhampton we arrived late and camped illegally again, terrified we would be found, but the desperation not to spend $30 on a site for just a few hours fuelled our criminal activity.

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Near to our illegal camping spot at Rockhampton

 

We wouldn’t have stopped there if it wasn’t for someone we had met telling us that there was a free zoo there. Anything free is a must-do in Australia, especially coming from London where entrance to ZSL is around £30. The zoo and attached botanic gardens were beautiful, although we didn’t see many Aussie creatures. The heat was too much for many of the marsupials, who were snoozing out of sight.

An emu at Rockhampton Zoo
An emu at Rockhampton Zoo

 

From there we travelled down to a place called Agnes Water, where we had been told there was the cheapest surf school in Australia, around £10 for a three hour group session. Upon arrival we booked this immediately to avoid missing out on a space.

Agnes Water was a pretty laid back place, even for east coast Australia. We ended up staying in a place called Cool Bananas hostel. Yep. After being decorated with the mandatory Cool Bananas wristband, we parked our little van up round the back, feeling relieved that we didn’t have to live in constant fear of being turfed out witha $300 fine in the middle of the night – unless we did something really bad.

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A place we saw on the way to Agnes Water. In Australia apparently it is common to get your car and your dog washed in the same place…

Arriving at 10am outside the surf shop the next day for our (well, my) first foray into the world of rips, spray and waves, we joined the crowd of about 30 other English and German yoof and were shortly greeted by the founder of Reef 2 Beach surfschool. Mid fifties, this guy’s walnut skin, permanently attached black-out glasses, silver earrings, straggly beard and string vest clinging to his beer belly told stories of a life lived on the beach. Every sentence was punctuated by ‘aright guys?’. Every. Single. Sentence. I wondered if he knew he was doing it. I was interested to learn that my name, along with all the other girls there would be changed to ‘Babe’, and the guys were all renamed ‘Bro’ for the duration of the lesson.  Rules were explained like a school trip he’d headed 19,000 times before, and warnings dished out to make us feel like we’d already done wrong. We have found that often outdoorsy activities are run by slightly aloof, know-it-all guides, with a bit of a ‘seen-it-all’, ‘can’t-be-arsed’ attitude. They know their world, their town and their job inside out, and are rather indifferent to the tourists they meet on a daily basis. I always wonder if these types would be so smug at 7:30 on a steel-grey January morning in Streatham trying to board a heaving Southern service to London Victoria; i.e. coping with real life.

Spider v2 extreme

No pictures of the surf school sadly (as even a Go Pro would probably not survive an inaugural surfing expedition), but I will try and paint an accurate picture here. We were ordered down to the beach carrying surfboards between two of us and ordered to line them up on the sand, with their fins facing up upon pain of death. We then had a little lesson on dry land, which was quite difficult when the sand was lava-hot. I thought them teaching us to stand properly on the board was quite funny, as surely nobody stands up in their first lesson! Then, like being marched to our deaths we waded cautiously into the sea one by one carrying the boards by our sides, which is easier said than done. Even though we had the baby lightweight fibreglass boards, if you weren’t holding the damn thing in the correct orientation, one wave could bat it into the person behind you, potentially decapitating them.  A lot of the time we spent queuing for the three instructors was passed apologising for bruising each other.

I couldn’t believe it when, of the first three first-timer Babes and Bros to have a go, two actually stood up and sailed gracefully into the shallows, jumping neatly off by the shoreline. Great, this won’t be so difficult! Finally reaching the front of the queue, the instructor pushed me off as a wave came up behind me (‘Go for it Babe!’), and I was filled with confidence. When he shouted ‘Up now Babe!’, I tried to remember and put in place the steps we had gone through on the beach.  Hands back to level with chest, elbows bent, push up to belly, jump up and land in the middle of the board on both feet with the right slightly ahead and pointing forward, and the left facing slightly out, bend both knees and balance with arms out, all whilst looking at a point in the distance. Do you think it went well for me?

I ended up with sand in almost every orifice, and water in the ones it missed. Choking and spluttering I thought this was it; they would have to call an ambulance. Surely there was some sort of mistake, and something was drastically wrong with my board or, perhaps, the sea. Dragging myself up, choking on briney water, all whilst trying to tug on the cord attached to my foot to prevent the board from escaping and decapitating a child, I heard an exhilarated ‘Wooohooo!’ and saw the two guys who had set off with me gliding past, fist pumping… standing of course.

Fast-forward an hour and a half, and I STILL hadn’t stood up, and now comprised around 40% seawater. Yet I was not disheartened, even though the others (including Dan) were now making standing look easy, and beginning to actually ride waves in style. One of the younger instructors (to whom I was assigned the monika ‘Darlin’’) told me not to ‘over-think it’. So upon his advice I didn’t think about it at all, and forgot to try and stand up. You’ll be glad to hear that eventually I did manage one little, wobbly crouch-stand, for around 3.5 seconds, before falling off spectacularly and bruising my arse again, on my penultimate turn. Victory was so sweet.

I maintain that I am not good at surfing for two reasons: 1) I think too hard about things, and 2) I have the coordination of a newborn foal whose legs are twice as long as normal. Needless to say, I probably won’t be surfing again, but for £10, I’m glad I found out relatively cheaply that we are not suited.

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At our hostel, Cool Bananas
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Dan dozing at Cool Bananas
Australian products...
Australian product names….

The rest of our time in Agnes Water was spent trying to ease our aching, bruised bodies into compliance. One of the evenings we went with a girl from the hostel to the beach at sunset to do some ‘new moon manifestations’. I think she was the first of many hippies we may meet on this trip.  She told us that she believes the moon influences our moods, as the moon controls the tides, i.e. most of the water on earth, and us being 80% water then we must be subject to some superhuman energy. I have of course heard all of this before , but it was fun to go along with believing it whilst sat watching the sun going down with a cold beer or two. It was a way of reflecting on the previous month, and making a resolution for the next. Mine was to be brave and try new things, as well as enjoy the moment rather than wishing it away to the next exciting adventure. We’ll see how that pans out.

Surfer at Agnes Water

 

 

 

 

MISSION BEACH TO THE WHITSUNDAYS, AUSTRALIA

MISSION BEACH TO THE WHITSUNDAYS, AUSTRALIA

Driving south through northern Queensland  in our little air-conditioned Japanese people carrier-turned-campervan  we observed that between the rainforest, the landscape was very British, with rolling green hills and fields of crops blowing gently in the breeze.

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However, stepping out of the van one realised that the green was not the shorn blades of grass we were used to but some wider-leafed, waxier tropical version, the crops almost all sugar cane and coffee, and the elegant trees a species unknown to us with pale, plain bark and huge fern-like leaves. Not to mention the wall of damp heat which hit you as you vacated the vehicle. This was definitely not Albion.

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Dan doing what he does best – using the free WiFi in MacDonalds whilst sipping a coffee.

We told Mr SatNav to take us to Mission Beach, the next backpacker’s haven. Upon arriving we noted that the place was completely dead, as every other tourist destination we had visited had been. The miles of golden sand were deserted when we arrived early afternoon. Engaging our impeccable planning nous, we decided to head to the tourist centre to find out what the heck we could do in such a quiet town. Luckily for us, the centre was being manned (and womanned) by a very kind and knowledgeable senior couple (who looked very fit!), who told us exactly what we could do, and where we could get away with a bit of bylaw-breaking free roadside camping. For a country which survives on tourism based on campervans, Australia is pretty hostile towards free campers, with signs everywhere saying ‘NO CAMPING, HEAVY FINES APPLY’, making many of our nights’ stays a little on edge to say the least.  Said lovely couple also directed us to a place little-known to tourists called ‘Alligator’s Nest.’ At this point I have to highlight, that although Oz is full of alligators, Alligator’s Nest is just a name, and none of these many-toothed reptiles actually reside here. In actual fact it was the the local boy scout group which met at the site who called themselves The Alligators, giving it its name.

Alligator’s nest was one of those places we then went on to recommend to absolutely everyone travelling north (see note in previous post on ‘must-see places’). Two freshwater streams which ran directly from the top of the rainforest covered mountain met here, creating a cool, dappled pool lined with sand and inhabited by shy silvery fish and not much else. The locals we met there (there was not a tourist in sight!) proudly enthused about its drinkable qualities. One bronzed, hairy-chested middle-aged guy we met there mused that being from London we must spend too much time in front of a screen, and ‘not experiencing the real world!’. Any rebuttal dreamed up on the spot felt trite – he was actually right. This scene nature had accidentally created was so perfect I felt like I was in a Timotei advert, and we did indeed try to recreate the famous hair flicking scene (although I think that was Herbal Essences). Unfortunately all our photos were taken on a disposable film camera, so we have no images to put up here, apologies.

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Here is a photo I have stolen from Wikipedia which does not do Alligator’s Nest justice at all.

Further down the coast we stopped at the small residential town of Bowen, which had been recommended to us by our taxi driver back in Cairns. Continuing the theme, we felt like the only backpackers in Bowen. The town itself is flat, in fact fairly boring. But the beaches there are really something incredible. The friendly Yorkshire chap who greeted us at the tourist information centre assured us that Horseshoe Bay was named as number 15 out of all Australia’s beaches, which Dan did not find that impressive until I reminded him there were over 36,000km of coastline in Australia. As it was so hot, we decided to head over and enjoy lazing in the shade there.  We again decided to risk free camping, but picked the wrong spot, and were moved on at 3am by a man whose job it was specifically to find free campers and fine them. Luckily for us he decided to let us go, which meant a long drive to the middle of nowhere to sleep for the rest of the night. Again we didn’t really take any photos for some reason. Don’t worry, the next bit makes up for it.

A typical campervan meal!
A typical campervan meal

The next big destination for backpackers was Airlie Beach. This is the jumping off point for all of the tours to the famous Whitsunday islands. Having had our sleep interrupted, and not having showered for a good few days, we took the decision to pay $35 for a site in a holiday park here, which is how we ended up at Seabreeze, with a load of other campers. The site itself was good, and we finally had some power so we could use the laptop, and all the WiFi we could consume. Clearly we were coping with being off the grid extremely well. We ended up staying in Airlie a few nights, and (almost embarrassingly for people meant to be experiencing the world) spent most of our time reading by the pool, keeping out of the tropical sun.

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The pool at our campsite

Airlie Beach

We met an old guy next door to us, who practically lived at the holiday park for the summer. He was an ex-mango farmer, who liked to feed the kookaburras at the site and had his own pot garden (a garden made up of plant containers to be crystal clear.) He was a really amiable chap who liked to chat and we made friends with him, asking after his garden and the birds when we came and went. It was during one of these exchanges he mentioned in frustration that there were ‘so many queers’ visiting Queensland now, and that the indigenous folk ‘have had everything handed to them on a plate’. This felt so bizarrely at odds with any kind of experience we would have with anyone back home, even with people from older generations. From this point we noticed a few more similar comments mainly being made by older white Aussies living outside the big cities, particularly about Aboriginal people. We’ve come to realise the reality that there is a huge gulf between our (sheltered, but worldly) Londoner views and those of some Australian folk. I was quite shocked to hear that gay marriage is not legal in Australia yet, which feels a long way behind the rest of the developed world.

An actual kookaburra on our van!
Spot the kookaburra on our van
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Airlie Beach

The pleasant walk into Airlie Beach proper took around forty minutes, and skirted the harbour and several expensive brasseries, as well as multi-million pound properties which overlooked the incredible seascape.

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Once you had passed this however, you arrived in the centre of backpacker heaven – the first town of its type we had visited. Youth travel agencies dominated the high street, along with bars and clubs pumping out crowd-pleasing dance tunes at 5pm, inviting in the punters with alcopop deals. As we trailed behind yet another 19 –year-old backpacker who was meandering amongst the tacky gift shops and pizza bars Dan whispered ‘Is it a rule that if you are a girl you must have long dirty-blonde hair to come here?’ As we are practically OAPs in the backpacker world, and we didn’t have money to burn having spent it all on the campsite, deciding to give partying a miss, and headed back for an early night to prepare for the next day’s visit to the chiefly uninhabited Whitsundays, which was the reason we were in Airlie Beach anyway of course.

Dan found his perfect headwear in Airlie Beach
Dan annoyed that I wouldn’t allow this purchase

The tour we took far outdid the coral reef tour we had done in Cairns, the main reason being that we were put on a speedboat, rather than a rolling old vessel, which meant Dan didn’t feel ill the entire day. Any worries about this particular partly-inflatable boat were put to rest after the skipper reassured us it was originally designed as a lifeboat before being put into use as a tourist craft.

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‘Allo!

The snorkelling we did in the reefs around the Whitsundays far surpassed that by Cairns (although we have met people who had the opposite experience). After the snorkelling we were taken to one of the islands (which I have forgotten the name of) to go on a walk to a lookout over the famous white sands of the Whitehaven beach.

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The white sands of the islands
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Looks a bit dull, but the camera couldn’t capture the bright colours underwater
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Nemo not as camera-ready as Pixar would have you believe

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Toddy our tour guide told us that there is no freshwater source on any of the many islands except one, and that the indigenous people living on the islands would sail and row back to mainland Australia where they would collect fresh drinking water every few days. Standing there amongst the selfie-stick jungle in the 30 degree heat I couldn’t imagine anything worse, even in this veritable paradise.

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All that white sand and tropical sun was incoveniently blinding

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Viewing points are interesting places. Obviously the view is usually incredible, and there to be gawked-upon and appreciated. But tourist-watching is far, far more entertaining. The lengths people go to to get a good selfie. The battling for space at the well-worn points where one can achieve the perfect vista. The automatic, unthinking raising of the horizontal phone screen as soon as the viewer lays eyes upon the spectacle. This ‘not living in the moment but living through your phone screen’ is the latest thing to be derided, ironically, on social media. And observing all of this can make one feel incredibly smug and holier-than-thou, except for one thing. I am also guilty of all the things above.

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More tourists at another viewpoint

After selfiegeddon, we hopped across the channel between the islands to Whitehaven beach where we burned our feet on the silica sand (good for cleaning teeth and silver jewellery according to our tour guide, who then proceeded to demonstrate with his own pearly-whites. He didn’t mention how it would work on silver teeth), ate our lunch and snorkelled a little more in the clear, shallow waters by the boat.

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Dan is the first to admit goggles are not his best look

The ride back was my favourite part of the entire day, which is perhaps unusual for someone who has just visited ‘paradise on earth’. Tim the skipper rode some extremely choppy waves in a manner akin to Jeremy Clarkson test driving a supercar. It was the most fun we’d had in a long time.

Dan on the speedboat to Whitsundays
Clutching on to the side

Although nobody fell off, Toddy told us about a girl who was once sitting on the edge of the boat, had her bikini top fly off. The act of covering her modesty meant letting go of the rope handles with both hands, meaning she flew backwards off the boat itself. The boat of course went back to collect her, luckily unhurt, but now sans bikini bottom from the impact of hitting the water at high speed. Apparently they had to make all the other tourists look away as she made her undignified way back into the vessel totally nude. I. Would. Rather. Drown.

Airlie beach ticked off we headed further down the coast, full of happy memories (yes, cliché) and ready to laze by some more pools in between exciting tours.