Cairns: A Journey to the Great Barrier Reef

Another item on my Australian bucket list was to see the Great Barrier Reef. Initially, I was going to go earlier in my stay in Australia because I wanted to go during the best weather season. However ticket prices were quite high and a bit more than I had budgeted for. My friend Karissa also desperately wanted to go so we decided to wait for a later date when tickets were less expensive.  We had heard that that the weather is usually nice most of the year so we would not have to worry about that when we decided to book our tickets.

One of the easiest and most popular places to see the reef is Cairns. It is located way up north in Queensland and the town itself is nothing spectacular but it has many deals to get out the reef that are fairly affordable (at least for Australia). They also have Green Island, which is a small little island right on the edge of the inner reef where they have daytrips. This is what we had planned to do because we wanted to stay an entire day on basically a private island (only the tour groups and staff inhabit the island).   Eventually I want to be a licensed scuba diver and I intend to go back and dive in the outer reef where it is the most beautiful.

To say that the weather was not the most pleasant would be a serious understatement.  The receptionist at our hostel said that usually the weather is like paradise. Naturally we were there the 4 days that it was a monsoon. We did not let the foul weather stop us. We looked up the forecast and booked a tour to the Great Barrier Reef on the day that it wouldn’t rain but was supposed to be overcast. We decided that we would not let it bother us, and honestly even though the weather could have been more ideal the experience was still very worthwhile.

First day in the downpour.

Needless to say the other days that we did not have solid plans were not the most exciting. We spent a lot of time chilling at the hostel, chatting and reading which actually was quite enjoyable. It was a nice time to get away from the stress of schoolwork even if it was just for a weekend.  One of the special things that I did get to do was hold a koala, twice actually.  Another item on my Aussie bucket list was to hold a koala.  Ignorantly I assumed that you could do this anywhere in Australia, but you are only allows contact with koalas in certain states. It is illegal to hold koalas in Victoria and New South Wales both states I had already been too, the former being my home.  Therefore after we booked our ticket to Cairns in Queensland, we knew that we had to find somewhere to hold koalas.  There was a separate animal park that allowed you contact with koalas but due to the foul weather we wanted to find someplace closer and more convenient. The casino complex in Cairns, which also housed a swanky hotel on the top, had a dome zoo. They allowed animal lovers such as us to hold and take a photograph with a koala.  Thus, the first day we headed there and held Tim Tam, a young female koala. There was also Harvey a much older male koala that you could hold, but they rotated on and off duty every other day.  We decided that we also wanted to hold Harvey, so we went back the next day as well.

Here’s Harvey!!!

Other than hanging out in the hostel in true backpacker fashion, holding koalas, we also walked around the town a bit, went to one of the local restaurants called the Wool Shed  (popular with tourists as they offer several deals), an then sat down by the pier. You would think that being on the ocean, Cairns would be a hotspot for beach vacationers. However, Cairns itself does not have its own proper swimming beach, but there are many resorts such as Palm Cove nearby that have beautiful tropical beaches.  They do have an esplanade and public lagoon, which is quite pretty and nice weather permitting.

Town Center.

On Saturday, the day I had been excitedly awaiting for months arrived. We got up early with our bags full of extra clothes, snacks and a beach towel. We boarded the boat and were in for a rather rough 45 minutes to Green Island.  While it was not raining, the water was quite choppy and it was rather windy. Once we got to the pier Karissa and I hung around because we had also booked a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. Even with the rough water, which made the water a green color instead of the usual crystal blue because it pulled up grass and sand from the bottom, we were able to see hundreds of massive fish and many different kinds of coral. I was beside myself that I was actually viewing such a fascinating living organism. After the glass bottom boat, we went to a shop to pick up our snorkeling gear and we rented wetsuits due to the cold weather.  It was a little difficult to see things because of the rough waters, but we did see some of the reef.  After we spent some time frolicking in the Coral Sea, and spotting some fish and coral, we headed in and explored the island. For the afternoon we spent it lounging on the beach, taking in the sights, and walking through the small rainforest in the center of the island.  Even though we had already changed out of our swimsuits, I realized that this would be my last beach in Australia so I just had to have one more swim. It was a bit chilly, but I jumped in the sea with some of my clothes on and Karissa joined me. People walking by on the beach kept asking us if the water was cold as I am sure they thought it was a bit strange that we had jumped in without wetsuits and in our clothes. Ah well- the life of the free spirit!!! We didn’t want to leave, but we needed to catch the boat back to Cairns so that we could pack for our fight the next day.

Karissa and I snorkeling!

A Turtle!!

Overall, despite the rainy weather I had a lovely time in Cairns. It was a great getaway and I cannot wait to back in the peak of summer hopefully with a diver’s certificate so I can travel up and down the coast exploring the Reef.

Cheers!!

Off the Grid: Camping in Victoria

I am going to finally update my blog on some of my most recent trips that I have taken. Hallelujah!!  This is going to be a long one filled with lots of pictures so get prepared to be wowed by Australia’s fantastic beauty.

For my spring break, I mean my autumn break (damn the southern hemisphere messing with my seasons) I went on a road trip with a few other international students. We were a rag tag bunch that is for sure. At one point on our adventure, a woman asked us how we all knew each other because she felt that it was odd that a Danish, Malaysian, and 2 Americans one of whom is Vietnamese all knew each other and were friends. Don’t under estimate the positive effects of globalization.

The road trip was my idea of course; my ingenuity saved the day (Wow, conceited much). Unlike in Europe, where I was able to travel freely with little consideration of cost, I have been on a strict budget in Melbourne.  As everyone around me was packing for their week longs trips up the east coast or to Ayers Rock, I grew restless.   The Thursday before break, as usual instead of doing homework I was looking up places in Victoria that I wanted to go. I asked my roommate if she wanted to go, and then we contacted two of my other friends and my restless yearning turned into a reality.

Ever since I received my acceptance letter from Deakin Uni, I knew that I wanted to explore Victoria and go camping to really experience Australia’s natural beauty. I wanted to get outside of the hostels, big cities, and sleep under the stars preferably on a beach.  Luckily, my companions shared my sense of adventure and wanted to rough it in a tent, with no bathrooms (ok, we used McDonalds’ bathrooms along the way, but it sounds more adventurous without them) and live off of PB & J or in my case peanut butter, rice cakes and apples.

The places we decided to visit were Lakes Entrance, Wilson’s Promontory, and Phillip Island camping along the way and driving on the picturesque Princes Highway. We wanted to go old school and figure out the directions only with a map, no GPS or written directions. Luckily, even though we were driving on the wrong side of the road, we managed quite successfully.

Crammed in a two-door car with way too much stuff, you could barely see my friend Ann and I in the backseat wrapped like mummies in blankets. Sleeping bags are apparently a hot commodity because their prices are steeply inflated and there was no way I was spending fifty precious AUD on a sleeping bag I would use once. Needless to say we settled for dragging our pillows, comforters and extra blankets with us. We bought a child foam alphabet to lie on the inside of the tent (another one of my brilliant plans, yoga mats were 4 times as much) for extra padding and to prevent us from getting wet from the morning dew.

First, we headed 320 kilometers east of Melbourne to Lakes Entrance. It is a fishing port where the Gippsland Lakes and the Bass Strait meet. It is a popular place for campers and has some gorgeous views from the various lookout points as you approach the “entrance” where the lakes, ocean and river meet.  We wanted to camp near the ocean so we drove further north and headed through a forest until we reached an isolated camp spot right on the beach.  Two of the four us had never slept in a tent nor assembled one before so it became the two Americans’ jobs to be the team leaders. We assembled it fairly quickly before dark and walked along the beach feeling pretty content.  There was also an older couple there and they had a roaring fire going as well as a fancy caravan. They jovially invited us to sit around the fire and we chatted for hours and drank coffee with our new friends. I was awestruck at the sky. It was the most beautiful sky I have seen in my life (I really should use a thesaurus to look up other words for beautiful because by the end of this post I will have taken word overuse to a new level).  You could actually see the Milky Way and all the constellations.  It was a cloudless sky and the moon reflected on the water. I literally felt like I was at the edge of the world (despite the fact that the globe has no real edges since it’s a sphere). I spent most of the night looking up because I could not comprehend that I was gazing on something so beautiful. It was a lovely moment and I have come to the conclusion that Australia has some of the most gorgeous views of the sky in the world.

One of the biggest surprises about that night was how cold that it got. I knew that when you are by the ocean the temperatures are naturally much colder because of the wind. However, I was not expecting it to be this cold. Luckily, I brought a hat, infinity scarf, gloves, and my warm winter fleece. Note to the wise: Do not be fooled that Australia is always warm. Melbourne is literally the coldest place in Australia and even though by no means does it get close to the Midwest’s cold temperatures, it does get quite chilly.

Living in Melbourne, you forget how most of Australia is rural. There are only small towns with one gas station, a grocery store and if you are lucky they will have a McDonalds where you can access free Wi-Fi.  Soon, we started taking bets on whether or not the towns would have Mackers or not.  It is a very quaint drive and the wildlife is fantastic. We stopped all the time to snap photographs of kangaroos hopping in the grasslands and wombats on the side of the road.

They have gas stations like this circa 1970.

Next, we headed southwest towards Wilsons Promontory, which is a national park on the most southern tip of mainland Australia. It was once an important place for the aborigines and it dates back nearly 6,500 years. To this day it is highly significant to the Gunai/Kurnai and the  Boonerwrung clans who call it Yiruk and Warnoon respectively. It is the largest coastal area in Victoria and features sheltered coves, sandy beaches, granite cliffs, coastal dunes and swamps, and granite islands scattered off the shores. Its natural beauty remains unmatched, as it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  We found the most perfect beach that was nestled in a cove. The clouds looked like unreal, like little marshmallows suspended in the sky. We lounged on the sand, searched for shells, threw a footy around, took classic jumping pictures and breathed in the salty air.  We didn’t get to camp on the beach this time (such an Australian problem), but our tent was nestled in between a grove of eucalyptus trees. We went for a hike and found a field full of kangaroos; we then decided to go past this barrier marked ‘park staff’ to follow the kangaroos, there we found emus, wombats, wallabies, and of course more kangaroos.

Just chilling with a wombat.

Kangaroos have really become my favorite animal and luckily for me once you get outside city limits they are everywhere.  I am not afraid of animals mostly due to the fact that my family owns a farm and I spent nearly every weekend at my grandmother’s with potbelly pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, parrots, cats, and the occasional cow. My own home is quite the menagerie with 5 dogs, an Amazon parrot, turtle, and rabbit. I am the type of girl who gets in trouble for sneaking her pet rabbit in her dorm room and who rescues a wild duck that turns out to be a goose and raises him until the Human Society can find a flock for him to join. For some reason, my friends happen to be afraid of animals, an idea that is hard me to comprehend. Needless to say, as I was inching closer and closer to the kangaroos, my friends were nervously biting their fingernails and warning me not to get any closer. While I am not foolish enough to get too close because after all they still are wild animals and can act sporadically especially if they have a joey in their pouch, I did manage to get some great photos close up.

It started to drizzle so we started heading back but not before we saw a rainbow. At this point I was in disbelief at how perfect this day was. There are just some moments when I feel like I am in a movie and not real life. This was definitely one of those. We watched the rainbow fade away as the kangaroos hopped across the field.  Despite the rain that night, we stayed miraculously dry in our cheap K-mart tent. I personally think it was due to the foam alphabet, but then again that’s just me.

I feel like I should sing along with Judy Garland.

Lastly, we headed to Phillip Island just southeast of Melbourne. Even though the island is tiny, there are a plethora of activities to do. Most famously, the island is known for the Penguin Parade where Little Penguins (this is their official name not just me being facetious) come ashore at dusk and head to their burrows after days at sea gorging on fish.  They don’t allow you to take photographs because the penguins are very skittish and they do not want to scare them away, otherwise I would have created a post dedicated to them. They were precious. While we did this at dusk and evening, the day was filled with going to a chocolate factory and drinking/eating the famous chocolate shot (it was so thick that I needed to use a spoon), visiting Churchill Island Heritage Farm and making friends with a horse, chilling with koalas at the Koala Conservation Center, and walking around the Nobbies’ boardwalks on the rugged coastline.

Welcome to Phillip Island!

Chocolate Shot

Cheers

The Nobbies

Nobbies

There was also still one more thing that I wanted to do on Phillip Island and that was go to the Phillip Island Wildlife Park. Because kangaroos are my new favorite animals, I wanted to do more than just see them, I wanted to pet them and feed them. I found a place on Phillips Island that lets you do just that.  Not only that but wallabies and kangaroos roam around the zoo in a free-range environment. Your admission price includes a bag of food (we also purchased an extra bag each) so that you can feed the animals to your heart’s content. I spent over 2 and half hours roaming around the grounds feeding kangaroos, emus and wallabies and seeing wombats, exotic birds, Tasmanian devils, koalas, and dingos.  It was amazing and honestly one of the highlights of my trip. The kangaroos were so gentle and use their hands/front feet to hold your hand steady as they nibble the food off or your palm. If they are feeling particularly greedy they will even lick the crumbs off your hand too which tickles and makes you giggle. They are such sweet and funny animals unlike the emus that are aggressive suckers when motivated by food. The kangaroos and emus were kept in the same open enclosure. The emus were smart and I swear understood that when a bag crinkled or rustled it meant food. They then proceeded to run across field towards you. While we all knew that they wouldn’t hurt us, having a pack of 6-foot birds come at you is a little intimidating even for my animal loving self. Sometimes if they felt you were not quick enough in feeding them they would peck you, not hard enough to hurt but it was still frightening.  Nonetheless the wildlife park was fantastic. My friend joked that she would have to drag me out of there and she was right. If we didn’t need to go home to return the rental car, I could have easily spent the whole days with the kangaroos.

Best travel trip: If you are on a tight budget, but still want to experience Australian nature, buy a tent, rent a car and go on a camping road trip. Plus, you can cross camping on a beach in Australia off your bucket list.  If it wasn’t on there, you should add it because it is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Overall, the road trip was fantastic.  It was a low budget way to see a lot of gorgeous Australian land. We didn’t even leave the state of Victoria but there was so much to see.  I will update soon (after I get this damn politics paper finished) on another road trip in Victoria in the opposite direction this time and about my trip to Sydney.

Cheers!