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Backpacking Australasia

In mid-November, 2002, I was offered a contract SAT Instructor position in Sydney, Australia. Since my contract at Club Med in Turks and Caicos was coming to a close, and unemployment was the only excitement looming on my horizon, I decided it was the perfect time for an overseas adventure.  I stealthily negotiated a two-month plane ticket – the first two weeks would be spent preparing for and teaching the SATI and SATII courses, and the remaining 6 weeks would be a backpacking free-for-all.

Sydney and the Central Coast

I spent my first week “Down Under” in a small beach town north of Sydney called Terrigal, where I was a guest in my employer’s home. From there, I commuted 2 hours each day to Sydney to tutor one student privately and to spend some time preparing for the seminars.  The train service was phenomenal. All trains are two-stories, clean, quiet, and, most importantly, on time. Ticket prices were steep, but mutli-trip passes were available and more economical. Once in Sydney the exchange from suburban trains to city trains (subways) was effortless. I was extremely impressed with the public transportation on the whole.

Though I was working most of the time, I did manage to see a few sights in my free time those first weeks. My hosts took me to a wildlife park in Terrigal. I saw all the famous Australian animals and even got to pet a kangaroo. They are surprisingly friendly and sociable – they were hopping around among the tourists and relaxing in designated areas. The koalas were another story. They were a bit stand-offish, but very cute. Actually, I am not sure if they were standoffish as much as they were bored and in a state of hyper-relaxation. The eucalyptus leaves that they eat leave them in a semi-catatonic state. They would be the poster children for a Grateful Dead revival concert.  At the wildlife park, I also saw Tasmanian devils, emus, kookaburras, crocodiles, duck billed platypuses, wombats, and many other strange creatures of the Austraian wild.

Our next stop was Old Sydney Town, a questionable attraction that is essentially a large space made to look like Sydney when it was first settled – there were an old jailhouse, a tavern, horses and buggys, cannons, etc. The people who work there are all dressed like old-timey colonial Australian people and are milling about aimlessly, much as the original settlers must have done without an XBox or Digital Cable. The job ranks right up there with “Data Analyst for Presidential Campaign” and “Club Med Receptionist” (two of my former jobs – the kind of gigs that sound fun but just aren’t). Old Sydney Town was pretty shoddy, which must be why it is closing down in January — after many years of disappointing visitors from around the globe. At least that’s my theory…

My next excursion was to Bondi Beach — the ever famous surfing beach of Sydney. There were so many people on the beach, I couldn’t even see the sand. It was like everyone in Australia was crowded on this one beach – as if the rest of the country’s coastline was closed for the day. The weather was fabulous – so fabulous, in fact, that I fried myself to a crisp. Apparently, there is a gaping hole in the Ozone Layer right over Bondi Beach and all of the other beaches ended up visiting. Add nonexistent Ozone Layer that to shark attacks, fatally toxic and aggressive jellyfish, and unpredictable riptides, and the beach becomes more dangerous than south central Los Angeles during a riot. Australia also has several varieties of poisonous spiders in multitudes just hanging out waiting to hospitalize people. Add fourteen different kinds of poisonous snakes – and not just in the outback – in the suburbs, too. These creatures are equal-opportunity attackers. I was taking my life into my hands when I stepped off the airplane!

And yet I persevered… I saw the Sydney Museum of Modern Art (where I enjoyed a free didgeridoo demonstration), the Barracks Museum, the Sydney Art gallery, Hyde Park, Kings Cross (the red-light district), the Chinese Friendship Garden, Darling Harbour, Circular Quay (home to the Harbour Bridge and Opera House), and the Sydney Aquarium – one of my favorite stops. The aquarium has these enormous tanks that you walk through – so you have water on all sides and above you and giant sharks and sting rays floating all around. They have seals and penguins – and they even have a one-armed penguin. The highlight of Sydney was the day I ate a meat pie (and felt nauseated for hours afterward!)

My Itinerary
Australia isn’t the size of Kansas, like I originally thought, but more like the size of the U.S. — which made creating an itinerary a bit challenging. Not to mention that the country isn’t all “outback” – there are actually mountains, beaches, and rainforests, as well.  I wanted to travel up the east coast, but I wasn’t sure if there would be enough time – it is the equivalent of traveling from Miami to New York City, and trying to stop at 1,000 places in between. When I first arrived, I had high hopes of finding a fellow traveler with the same time frame, the same likes and dislikes, and, most significantly, a car to drive up the coast in. I discovered very quickly that most travelers in Australia were staying a great deal longer than I – like 9 months to a year as opposed to my 5 weeks (I had decided to dedicate 1 week to New Zealand – but I am getting ahead of myself…) So I stopped in at the hostel travel center to see what sorts of adventures I could sign up for.  I was bombarded with choices – I could go up the east coast by bus, fly to the center to see Ayers Rock, caravan across to Perth, and on and on. I was overwhelmed. The only thing I could commit to was a one-day bus trip to the Blue Mountains. The rest of the itinerary would just have to wait.

The Blue Mountains
The morning I left for the Blue Mountains, there were severe bush fires raging north of Sydney. The skies were a yellowish haze and the air smelled like smoke.  I was pretty panicked and was ready to evacuate the city. I was concerned that the hostel would be burned to the ground by the time I got back – if I got back!  The bus driver of my tour reassured me that the Aussie outback actually needs fire to survive. The problems is that with the current drought, fires are occurring too often in the same places and causing destruction all over the place – cities, suburbs, the bush, you name it… it is pretty scary. But not as scary as the hole in the Ozone Layer. Yes, I was fried again from my trip to Manly Beach — this time I was carrying sunscreen in my beach bag — I just neglected to actually apply it to my skin. Apparently, having a tube of sunscreen in your possession doesn’t ward off UV rays  like garlic wards off a vampire. And so, like every other backpacker, I was pleasantly pink and peeling as I headed west into the mountains
The tour was guided by a lively man named Jim. I sat in the passenger seat of the 15 passenger van, so I was privy to all the information Jim wanted to share and even some that he didn’t. The Blue Mountains are the mountain range directly west of Sydney that so many early explorers tried to cross but gave up or died soon after they began their journeys. I was imagining foothills, but these really were big  mountains like the Rockies except that they are actually plateaus — so you drive up to the top of them then explore downwards…. which means that the walking down part is scenic and lovely and the walk back up is a real pain in the derrière. The whole time you walk down you are thinking, “boy these waterfalls are gorgeous, but, for the love of god, I have to walk back up this path in about an hour and I am not looking forward to being hospitalized.”  We are talking steep paths, 100 degree heat (no, I am not exaggerating), and flies — yes, really persistent flies. But the best part of the day and what made it worth every excruciating uphill step was the Incline Railway at Katoomba  Our group walked down 1000 steps (steps being a generous term for a muddy path with stones and such) and then took an incline railway (world record 52 degrees steep) back up. You hop in this “traincar” that used to be a mining railcar to take coal up to the top of these mountain – and it is the same as it was when it was built, I guarantee – and the car starts moving up hill at breakneck speed — meanwhile you are facing down hill and it feels like vertical and you or any item you have in your possession literally could fall out of this car because there are no safety features that are keeping you in. And then you think about what would happen if the cable broke and the car went careening back to the bottom (which is only halfway down this plateau) and fly off the end of the track like a skier on a ski jump. Talk about frightening. Sharks and riptides are child’s play compared to this ride. We made it without any casualties and it was a total adrenaline rush! 
The Oz Experience
The friendly and gratuitously flirtations Sizar at the hostel travel center managed to convince me to buy a package called the East Coast Mega Deal. This whopping dent in my bank account included one-way transportation up the east coast with the Oz Experience bus company and 14 free nights accommodation along the way. Also included were a 3day/2night Frazier Island Safari and a 3day/2night sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. I was pleased as punch until realized later on that the buses don’t run every day, the trips I prepaid don’t leave every day, and some of the buses were already booked up. Since I only had 5 weeks, my “hop on/hop off” bus tour very quickly became a “make you reservation 2 weeks in advance or get stuck in a tiny middle of nowhere town” bus tour.  Fortunately, I made all of my bookings for my whole trip in the first three days and had no scheduling problems. Others were not as lucky.

Sydney to Surfers Paradise
I didn’t know too much before I “hopped on” the bus, except that the Oz Experience is a younger crowd and the route takes you off the beaten path as you travel up the coast from Sydney to Cairns. I learned quickly just how off the beaten path. After a short wine tasting stop (oh-la-la!), our first night was spent at the DAG Inn, a sheep and cattle station in a little place called Nundle.  This ranch reminded me of the show “Hey Dude” on Nickelodeon that I watched religiously as a grade-schooler.  At the DAG, I sheared a sheep. It was very cool. The next day we traveled to Tamworth, the country music capital of Australia, and it just happened to be the week of their annual country music festival. I felt like I was back home in Nashville, except instead of singing traditional country hits like “Stand By Your Man”, they sing “Stand By Your Man, Luv”.  We stayed overnight in a “one horse” town called Bingara where I went horseback riding (OK, so perhaps there was more than one horse, but you wouldn’t have guessed by the size of the town!) We also went swimming with some horses – you can grab their tails and they will drag you around the water like a motor boat drags a water skier. Except my bikini bottoms fell off and somehow I jammed my middle finger which swelled to three times its normal size and quickly became purple and bruised — compound that with the literal pain in my ass from the horseback riding, believe me, I was hurtin’ by the end of the day…
And I was still hurtin’, so much that I skipped the bike ride to the
light house in Byron Bay (the easternmost point of mainland Australia)  and opted for the walk …. and what a nice walk it was! I was taking pictures like they were going out of style… dolphins, waves, beaches, kiteboarders. The town itself was quite trendy with a subtle hippie influence. I spent about three days exploring the town and the beaches.
Overall the Oz Experience Bus was pretty cool. The drivers were young, chatty, and handsome (an added bonus), and my fellow backpackers were friendly. Suffice to say, I was the most popular kid on the bus for my first three days (I have that lingering Club Med mentality that has me chatting people up all over the place.) I was leading bus games, dragging people onto the dance floor at the hostels – basically doing the bus driver’s job for him. But nothing earned me more respect than flashing a trucker to earn two points for my team during our bus game  “Treasure Hunt.” The only negative of this tour was that they were constantly pushing you to buy this and that (skydiving, surf packages, etc.) and it was wearing thin very quickly.

Surfers Paradise to Hervey Bay
Surfers Paradise, my next stop, was a proper dump — think Miami, but a little less glitzy and a little more chaotic. Surfers? Apparently they come out around 6 am and are gone by 8 am – since I like to sleep in, I was never able to confirm or deny this.  I was anticipating hot, tanned, studly young men wandering the streets in board shorts and flip-flops.  Nada. Nothing of the sort.  I am not sure whose paradise this is, but I am guessing maybe old folks who can’t afford to go to south Florida…

After walking around all afternoon in a shocked and disappointed daze, I did manage to get myself together by the morning and hop a bus to the Wet n’ Wild water park with a girl from my bus. The water park was pretty entertaining. The rides themselves were mediocre, but I was most fascinated by the locker system set up to hold your valuables. The park gives you a waterproof bracelet with a bar code on it. You set a pin code and you can open and close your little locker as frequently as you want all day long. Granted, I haven’t been to a water park in about 15 years, and maybe this system is commonplace,  but I was extremely impressed. Overall, Australia is a very sophisticated place.

The Oz Experience bus stopped at the Australia Zoo, home to the ever famous Crocodile Hunter Steve Erwin. With an AUD $18 entry fee, I decided that I would only go in if the park people could guarantee Steve would be there giving one of his spectacular demonstrations –“Wow! Isn’t she a beaute! Look at the size of those teeth! I’m gonna cover may hand with strawberry jam and see if she’ll bite me! Yes! She will! And it hurts! I should get to a hospital… But first I will cover my leg with vegemite and see if she’s still biting…!” You get the picture.  Steve was in the park, but there was no guarantee he would be out and about so I didn’t go in. He didn’t give a demonstration, but, according to my fellow backpackers, there are many mini-Steves working in the zoo and they do a pretty good job when he’s not around.

Next stop was a small town called Mooloolaba (seriously) which was a bit of a dive. Then I went on to a town called Noosa — koala spotting country. This town was like the Beverly Hills retirement village of the Aussie east coast. There were very posh restaurants and houses providing a nice atmosphere. I took a short kayak trip with a girl I met at the hostel, and then we went koala hunting in the Noosa national park. Kindly enough, there is a short list at the ranger station of where koalas have been spotted that day – and since koalas don’t really move very much in a day (or week or month), you can usually find them as directed. We started down the trail and, sure enough, we saw all three koalas that had been reported. Yes, all three. Like you, I expected to see thousands, like locusts, just sitting in the trees. But it seems that to spot three in one day is quite a feat. Where they all hide out is a mystery – because believe me, we looked. My neck was hurting from looking up at the treetops for about 4 hours. And all three we saw had their butts facing us. So, not only do you only see three, you only see koala butts because they sleep most of the time and they are all tucked up in a little koala ball. It is very exciting –the stuff National Geographic specials are made of. 

Well, not satisfied with 3 koala butt sightings (2.5 really – one was very small – the koala and his butt, both) we strayed from the trail (which probably could have gotten us a citation from the ranger — or worse, a fatal snake or spider bite) — and tried to get around a tree to see an actual koala front. As luck would have it, we made so much noise that we actually woke the koala up and it sat up and looked around a bit. Yes, folks, I got photos of a koala front. It was very exciting. Until the koala went back to sleep. The whole event lasted about 5 seconds. So, two questions: where are all the koalas and why are they always alone in the trees? This musing brought about a few more questions that we tried to answer ourselves — like what do koalas do when humans aren’t around? My friend and I decided they play sports and watch television, just like we do. We also think they like ice cream, since lots of ice cream stores have logos with koalas eating ice cream – that couldn’t possible be coincidence. We also wondered if a koala is “upper class” if he has a beachfront tree for sleeping, versus a non beachfront property. We decided you must pay more for a view, though it isn’t really worth it since they sleep most of the time. Needless to say, we distracted ourselves for 8km with koala musings. All in all, a good time. Nature rocks.

Frazier Island
Speaking of nature, apparently there is a huge drought going on in Australia. There were signs everywhere about conserving water by taking short showers and washing your car with vegemite instead of soap and water (just kidding. That would be a real mess). Well, you could have fooled me and the rest of the unfortunate souls who braved Frasier Island the same week that I did. I embarked on a 9 person, 4×4, self-drive, 3day/2night camping tour on the world’s largest sand island, and no sooner had we taken the ferry across than it began to rain. And it didn’t stop for 6 days. It was hell. Absolute hell. The driving part was fun – stripped down Land Cruisers, manual transmissions, steering wheel on the right side. I almost killed my group when I left the parking lot of the hostel and turned right into oncoming traffic. But believe me, we all wished we were dead at some point in the trip. Apparently Frazier Island is a very beautiful place with lakes and rivers and multicolored sand dunes. At least that’s what it looked like on the postcard I bought after I returned. Imagine trying to pitch a tent in the pouring rain while staving off wild dingoes. Imagine trying to push your 4 wheel drive out of the deep wet sand in a torrential downpour. Everything we ate tasted like sand – we think the water had sand in it, but we know the food did as well since every item we packed and the car could have been easily camouflaged in the Sahara by day two. No one had any waterproof gear since it was never mentioned that we would be camping in the middle of a cyclone. Yes a cyclone. It even had one of those clever names like Cyclone Mick or Cyclone Nigel or something. We also saw the scariest creature I have ever come across right outside our tent — it was the size of a cucumber (not exaggerating). It had the body of a lobster and it had millions of squirming legs. It was some kind of cross breading experiment gone terribly wrong (or terribly right, depending on what was intended.) I almost pooped in my pants I was so scared. And yes, we were all screaming – even the guys. The sentiment of the group was summed up one day in the car when we were about to get stuck in the sand in a massive downpour and one of the girls said “I have some pills in my bag. Why don’t we each take a few and just end this.” Enough said.

On the bright side, nothing I will ever do from now on will be nearly as bad as that. Chinese water torture, jail time on Riker’s Island, cleaning port-o-toilets, forced slave labor in Antarctica… all of that will just be a walk in the park.

The Great Flood of 2003
The next stop on the Oz Experience was supposed to be a place called Dingo – some sort of cattle station where you play tug-o-war and square dance — but the roads were flooded for two days — so, lucky us, the entire bus slept on the floor of a pub called the Raglan Tavern on pool rafts in a sleepy, but wet, town called Raglan (of course). The highlight of the evening was when Terry, the proprietor, got up to dance on the bar and dropped his pants for the crowd.  This was after the cracker eating/beer chugging contest (which I almost won!) and after I lost about $10 in the slot machines (I may have acquired a small addiction to these so called Pokie Machines, but I had a help hotline number to call in case things really got out of hand.)

Then on to Bundaberg, home of the ever famous Bundaberg rum (which I had never heard of since it isn’t really exported — except to Harrods in London and one pub in somewhere in Canada. But, according to the tour guide, the rum is very famous. I took her word for it, and, figuring it isn’t something one can purchase anywhere else, I purchased some intending to ship it to someone very special at home.  I ended up having a nightmarish post office experience that involved filling out millions of forms, showing 7 forms of ID, taking a lie detector test, and swearing to turn over my first born to the Australian government. When it was all over, I spent a small fortune (which, when you are unemployed is a large fortune) to ship it all back to the U.S. — I actually spent twice as much to ship everything I bought as I did on the actual items. And then, to top it all off, I had a marathon run back and almost missed the bus (think St. Elmos Fire) and almost had a coronary.

The Whitsundays
I arrived in Airlie Beach (where there is, incidentally, no beach… and there was also no sun, but at least no rain.) The weather cleared up (temporarily) for my 3 day/2 night sailing trip in the Whitsundays, a small group of islands between the mainland and the Great Barrier Reef. Always thinking ahead, I booked a boat that was less “rocky” to minimize the seasickness possibilities. I upgraded from the regular boat to a catamaran. This meant that I also didn’t have to spend 2 nights sleeping on a boat. We slept in hostel-like accommodations at a resort on South Molle Island (thank god!). As it turns out, sleeping on a boat is hot and cramped and rocky. Ironically, though, the highest priced trip has you sleeping on a boat and helping with all the sailing (wenching, making knots, sewing sails together, making radios out of coconuts?) on some sort of Maxi yacht that was raced in the America’s Cup… go figure…

Day one was good. I met a nice girl and boy from england. She was named
Jenine and he was named Ian although his coworkers at home (one of them
being Janine) call him “rocket” since he is lazy and needs a fire lit under him to get him to work. I think I could be called “rocket”, too, and probably most of you as well, come to think of it! Ian has an unhealthy crush on the actress Reese Witherspoon. When I told him she went to my high school, he went nutbar (one of my favorite expressions from home) and demanded I send yearbook photos when I got back to Nashville. He was beyond excited. Needless to say, these two kept me entertained on my journey.

Day two was not as good as day one. It seems, like sunscreen, seasickness tablets do not work when they are sitting inside one’s backpack at the hostel. And anyone who knows me knows that I am not one to be “out-nauseated” on a boat or a roller coaster. It wasn’t pretty. I spent most of the morning at the back of the boat staring at an orange life preserver wanting to die. Fortunately, there was a German woman on the boat who did manage to take seasickness pills onto the boat (she was one step ahead of me!), and she gave me a few. The info on the package was written in German, but at that point, they could have been cyanide pills and I still would have taken them.

Fortunately, all was good after that. I managed to find my sea legs and enjoy the scenery. We snorkeled in our stinger suits — we looked like drenched Oompa-Loompas — no one looks good in full length lycra. We saw some fish, some creepy ocean things, and, all in all it was a good time. It did rain again on day three, but what’s new in tropical Queensland?

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