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Australia

If the crocs don't get you, the stingers will

Adventures in Cairns

sunny 33 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

"Come on, I haven't got all day!"  The last two backpackers look startled and the rest of us are struggling not to laugh. We are in the shuttle bus that will take us from Cairns' airport to our respective hostels. It's almost midnight and it's obvious that our driver has had a shitty, long day that he just wants to come to an end. Any passenger who doesn't throw his or her bags in to the trolley behind the bus and jumps into the bus get just adds to his frustration and he does nothing to conceal it. We and the other passengers just can't believe that he's for real and giggle quietly. He calls out half to himself and half to us on the bus "well the ones who are left can just get a taxi!" We don't really say anything, thinking that whoever is left probably pre booked their shuttle just like us and most likely are just waiting for their luggage to come through.  It doesn't, however, seem to be the time to mention this to him.

The shuttle starts to drive and the driver spots two more people walking across the parking. He squelches to a halt and calls to them through the window "Where are YOU going?". The man and woman look startled but manage to compose themselves enough to say the name of their hostel. They are in luck - this is their shuttle too. Our driver sighs and yells again - you guessed it - "come on, I haven't got all day!!!". These guys aren't even allowed to put their luggage in the back, not to mention taking  a seat. As soon as the door is shut behind them, the driver takes off, resulting in the two backpackers lying on the floor, fighting with their massive bags, wondering where the hell they have ended up and if everyone in Cairns is like this. The rest of us are struggling even harder to hide our giggles. 

An Irish guy starts chatting to the driver asking about his day. It comes as no surprise to us that it has been "shit". The driver somehow recognises that the Irish guy is making small talk and engages in conversation but without letting go of his angry tone. When he asks the guy where in Ireland he's from it sounds more like he's yelling an insult. The Irish guy handles it in the trademark good natured/cheeky Irish way. 

The journey through town begins. Our driver is obviously eager to get home and is racing through roundabouts at high speed and we are holding on for our life.  One after the other, backpackers are dropped off outside their hostels. We estimate the time spent at each stop to be something like 3.5 seconds. At the end there is only a Sri Lankan guy and us left. He looks at us nervously and says that he hopes he won't the last one left. He's in luck. His last words as he disembarks is "Good luck". We mouth a thank you. We might need it.

However, maybe it's the call of home or the fact that he sees our efforts to get the hell out of his bus when we finally have arrived at our hostel. He says "Very nice hostel this, you'll enjou it. Have a nice holiday". And off he drives. We look at each other, still can't believe what a strange start we've had to our stay in Cairns and head in to find our room and go to bed. It's time for our last adventures in Australia to begin.

Cairns is the capital of North Queensland and it's main claim to fame these days is the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, both UNESCO world heritage sites. There is a tremendous amount of things to do on land and in water. Cairns itself is quite a nice small city sitting on the ocean and surrounded by lush green hills.  It has a disproportionate number of bars and restaurants to cater for the tourists who flock here from all over, especially Japan.  You can't swim in the ocean in northern Queensland unless you want to risk being stung to death by box jellyfish, or being hunted by saltwater crocodiles, but the town has a pretty cool artificial "lagoon" where people can hang out, swim and tan. We spent a bit of time down there.

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The marina in Cairns and the bizarre sight of hundreds of bats flocking through the town just before dusk on our last day

We knew we wanted to visit both Daintree and to do some diving on the reef and had a chat with our hostel the next day after our arrival. Our hostel obviously makes a lot of their money from commissions from booking tours but we didn't feel the need to be cynical about it as they clearly knew their stuff and presented us with lots of alternatives, pointing us to the benefits and drawbacks with each option.

Having been on a few tours we decided to discover the Daintree rainforest ourselves and booked a car. Due to the recent rain it wasn't guaranteed that we would be able to go on the coastal roads as parts of the road had been washed away in the flooding. We could get an update at 7 in the morning of our drive, i.e. the following day. Fingers crossed.  

The next morning we got the good news from reception "the road is open!". We were obviously delighted and headed to "Thrifty's" to collect our Ford Focus rental motor.

The coastline north of Cairns on the way up to Daintree is beautiful. We were eager to get up to Cape Tribulation (or "Cape Trib" as they say up here) but did stay at the Rex lookout for some photos n the way up.

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Eager to get started!

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Nice view from Rex lookout

After a couple of hours we arrived at the cable ferry that would take us over the Daintree River, into the rainforest.  Felt strangely old school!

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Grant waiting for the ferry

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Crossing the Daintree River

On the other side it was time for the winding roads of Daintree. Clearly only tourists really come up here because the highway stops and it just becomes a twisting B road through the rainforest. On both sides there was thick rainforest and we stopped a couple of times for a closer view on the way up to "Cape Trib".

What makes Daintree rainforest extra special is the fact that it is one of the world's oldest rain forests. The species here are unique. 30 of the world's 90 types of mangroves grow here. Just to mention a few things. We didn't get to see any tree kangaroos or animals, apart from giant spiders, but still found it very cool.

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No tree kangaroos here but plenty of things that bite...

Our last stop before turning south again was Cape Tribulation. Again, the name was given by James Cook when he noted the navigational dangers in that area. We took some photos and went for a stroll. This was as as far north we would get in Australia on this trip.  Beyond Cape Trib is miles and miles of dirt road up into Cape York.

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We did NOT fancy going for a swim at Cape Trib!

On our way back to the ferry we stopped for some locally produced ice cream. We couldn't linger, however, as we were rushing to make the 14.00 crocodile cruise on the Daintree River. We took off and raced to the ferry, and once we were over, continued our frantic drive to Bruce Belcher's crocodile cruise. Just in time, we got on board for an hour of crocodile spotting.

Bruce is apparently something of a northern Queensland legend and it was easy to see why. He has been running these croc tours for 20 years and his knowledge of crocodiles and the other wildlife in the area didn't disappoint us and neither did the number of crocodiles we saw!  However, Crocodile Dundee Bruce is not; he loves the crocodiles but keeps a safe distance away from them at all times.

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Can't go wrong on a cruise with Bruce

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Baby croc, born just a few weeks ago

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Crocodile, around two years old

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Female

As it is breeding season we were not guaranteed to see much so we were really pleased to see quite a few crocs. There are apparently around 70 crocodiles in the Daintree River - not as many as you might imagine. It must be strange living so close to them and not to be able to go for any swims in the river.  On the other hand, locals seem to be pretty relaxed about the whole thing and some of them, like Bruce and his wife, are making their living from  it.

We learned some interesting things about crocs.  Females lay over 20 eggs each year and of these perhaps half will hatch. However, young crocs are very vulnerable to birds, fish and other crocodiles. From the age of 1 year their mothers leave them to fend for themselves. Up until at least 2 years old they are small enough that they a vulnerable to fish/bird attack, and they are not fully grown until well into their teens.  That means that of the multiple eggs laid, it will be a good result if one crocodile infant makes it to adulthood. Amazing to realise these tough killing machines are so vulnerable for so long.  However, we shouldn't feel too much sympathy for the crocs: when we asked Bruce if he thought the risk from crocs was maybe exaggerated, he made very clear he would never ever swim in the Daintree river. 

Before going back to Cairns, we had one more important stop - Mossman Gorge. A beautiful watering hole with amazingly clear water (and guaranteed to be crocodile free because of the cold water!). 

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Going for a swim in Mossman Gorge

After a day of kicking back, on the Friday it was time for what we were hoping would be one of the highlights of our Aussie adventure - the Great Barrier Reef. Here we had decided to spend more Aussie dollars in order to go to a better site (out on the outer reef), with a better and faster boat and with good snacks and lunch served on board. We weren't disappointed. The boat was ace. 

Once on board, the crew warned passengers that it would be pretty choppy with winds around 30 knots and that they highly recommended getting seasickness pills. Neither of us had ever taken that before but we quickly agreed that this probably was a good time. Having spent quite a few dollars on this excursion, a few dollars more wouldn't make a difference. It was probably the best 3.5 dollars we ever spent. It was very choppy on the way out and the paper bags handed out by crew were going like hot cakes.  The crew obviously had lots of experience of dealing with seasick people and brought them all outside, placing them with a paper bag in their hands. Honestly, we have never seen anything like it (those who have seen "Stand by me" and the lard ass story  might get an idea). Of the maybe 80 passengers on the boat, at least 20 vomited. People's faces really go green when they are sick. 

We both managed to keep our breakfast down but kept our eyes on the horizon, not taking any chances.

Being out on the reef, the risk of stingers (or box jellyfish) is very small. However, we were nonetheless required to wear stinger suits just in case (regular wet suits no required when the water is 28 degrees). We quickly liked our new outfits..l

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In the stinger suits - ready for the reef

We were relived to see that we were diving in quite small groups, with most of the people on board going for the snorkelling. We had two great dives in two sites, both on Flynn Reef. We saw green turtles, white tip reef sharks, sting rays, Napolean Rass  and of course Nemo (clown fish) to name a few. It really was like diving in an aquarium with so much amazing fish around. On the last site we snorkelled, being required to leave at least 24 hours between diving and our flight the following day. It gave us the chance to explore the shallow reef just a metre or so under the surface, which also was pretty impressive.  

We could really see  that the "Great" in its name comes from more than the sheer size of it (over 2000 kms long). It was just awesome and so full of life in all shapes and colours. And yeah the lunch on the boat was great too. The next day on our flight to Tokyo we were treated to awesome views of the reef from the plane- amazing to see the scale of the reef system and realise that we only saw one tiny piece of one section of this reef.

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Views of the Great Barrier Reef from our plane - you can see that in fact it is made up of thousands of individual reefs that form a band running for 2000 km down Australia's east coast

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:31 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

A couple of days in "Brissie" and the joy of flying in Oz

sunny 26 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After a great few days in Byron Bay, we headed north to Brisbane.  We ended up having a couple of days in the city either side of a three day tour we took to Fraser Island and the Queensland hinterland.

Brisbane is to Sydney what Malmö is to Stockholm or what Aberdeen is to Edinburgh.  You might think the nation's third city would not be worth the bother, but in fact it's really very nice: we like Brisbane. It's a lot smaller than Sydney and feels quite provincial in comparison, even though it has over 2 million inhabitants. However, this definitely has its benefits: the city has a laid back feel to it, it's easy to get around and it's noticeably cheaper than Sydney.

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The Brisbane skyline from the river

We noticed that people in Brisbane seem to start their working day very early - the streets are busy with commuters at 7am - but they finish early too.  Bus stops are teeming with suited city workers going home by 5pm - that's mid-afternoon in Brussels!  Queensland is an hour behind NSW so they probably adapt to Sydney working times, a bit like Californians in the US.  

The city is built around the Brisbane river, with impressive skyscrapers along the northern shore and the artsy/restaurant south bank area on the other side.  Even though the centre of town is built up, the city remains light and pleasant to stroll around.

Our first day in the city was a total wash out - the tropical rain fell the whole day and put a dampener on sight seeing. Nonetheless we made it to the botanical gardens before diving for cover into a coffee shop on south bank. Not that it did any good: it was still raining just as hard when we left 45 minutes later.

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On our first day in Brisbane we found out why flooding is a problem around here

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Escaping the rain in cafe on South Bank - didn't help much, it was raining just as badly when we left

Our second day in the city after our Fraser Island trip could not have been nicer - blue skies and 25 degree heat meant we saw the city in a whole different light. We took one of the City Cat ferries up the river and admired the beautiful mansions and apartments that sit alongside - it seems you need at least a couple of million AUD to contemplate getting your hands on a house here, and that hasn't changed even since the devasatating flooding of last year.  

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One of many City Cats

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Taking in the city from the City Cat

Hopping out on South Bank we enjoyed fish and chips in the sun then hit the Queensland Museum - entry was free and the displays ranged from all sorts of Queensland wildlife to dinosaur fossils and skeletons found in the region, Queensland heroes of world war one, Torres Strait islanders Traditions, relics of ancient Egypt, and a very moving display about the recent Queensland flooding -  in short, one of the most eclectic collections of stuff we've ever seen in a museum. It was a really excellent museum and in Australia anything you can get for free is a bonus!

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However, we didn't see these guys featured anywhere in the Queensland Museum, surely they must be the pride of Brisbane?

The people we met in Brisbane were also really friendly. The guy who owned the hostel we stayed in stood and chatted to us for ages about Brisbane and Cairns, our next destination, telling us to watch out for the over-sized insects in the far north (can't wait!). On the City Cat we got chatting to a woman who was originally from Belfast but lived in Brisbane most of her life, who accused Helena of having a southern Irish accent. She said even after living in the city for 15 years she couldn't think of a better way to spend her day off than taking a trip on the City Cat into town. We could see why. Meanwhile the crew on our City Cat were busy hurling abuse and friendly banter at the "rival" crews on other City Cats on the river. In short, people here seemed to be enjoying themselves, and that's surely the sign this is a good place to be.

So for all the downtrodden third biggest cities of the world, let Brisbane be a source of inspiration to you - a beautiful and laid back city where people live well: what more could you want?!

One last comment on budget airlines in Australia - they definitely could teach their European colleagues one or two things. When we checked in our luggage at Brisbane airport, the friendly guy from Jetstar airlines: 1) let us get away with a couple of kilos over the baggage limit, 2) noting that we were tall, asked if we wanted the emergency exit seats instead in order to get the extra leg room.  He thought it was only fair to give them to tall passengers, and at no extra charge. We gladly accepted of course and he wished us a great stay in Cairns. Just so bloody nice. (Also, it's perfectly ok to bring water bottles etc. in your hand luggage when you're flying in Australia. The Aussies are definitely on to something).

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You look like you could do with some extra leg room, mate. I've kept an emergency exit seat for you, on the house!

Posted by Grantandhelena 03:17 Archived in Australia Comments (3)

Where the dingos roam free

Fraser Island and the Queensland hinterland

semi-overcast 28 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

With limited time to see Oz, we had to make difficult decisions. We could never see all the amazing places along the east coast so we had to prioritise.  Luckily we both managed to agree that Fraser Island should be top of the list.  This place is legendary as a must-see stop along the east coast, mainly because it is the world's largest sand island, home to unique wildlife, a 75 km long beach and also beautiful inland lakes.  For a number of years now it has been a UNESCO world heritage site as well.

The options for seeing the island are abundant, with piles of budget tour operators offering "tag along" 4x4 convoy camping tours. As always, choosing the right tour was critical. We wanted at all costs to avoid the gap year party crowd, of which there are far too many here, but we did not want to pay top dollar to do it. In fact, as always, we wanted to pay minimum dollar!  

Our choice was made all the more difficult by our "travel advisor", Steve - an Englishman running a travel agency in Byron Bay who seemed to have little clue about the substance of any of the tours he was selling but was happy to give his best sales pitch on anything. The resemblance between Steve and David Brent (fictional BBC boss from hell) was uncanny. Steve told us he was 39 (the same age as Brent) and had been on the east coast for 20 years. He explained that the owners of various tour companies were close personal friends of his, gave us knowing winks as he spoke to them on the phone, and wound up his calls to them with phrases such as "sweet mate" and "good as gold".  On putting the phone down, Steve clicked his fingers and pointed at his screen to indicate all was well. We struggled to keep a straight face.

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Would you book a tour through this man? We did.

Amazingly, Steve actually came up with the goods for our Byron Bay tour. We put this down to sheer luck as he clearly had no clue about what he was booking us on to. We had no clue either, except that the tour was a bit more expensive than the infamous tag along camping tours and we hoped this would keep the riff-raff away.  On blind faith, we signed on the dotted line for Bushwacker Ecotours.

We were collected in an overlander bus from Brisbane on the Friday morning and driven by our tour guide and driver, Nathan Driver (no jokes - that really is his name), north to the Glasshouse mountains.  

The signs were good from the start - our fellow tourists were respectable people for the most part and a nice bunch.  We had an Austrian IBM consultant living in Sydney with his parents, a Slovenian/Argentinian girl, a Quebecoise student and an excitable but very nice French couple. We also had three American girls from Boston who were studying for a few months in the Gold Coast. We are really struggling to find anything interesting about these dull, ignorant girls. Maybe they made the rest of the group seem even nicer!

Our tour guide, Nathan, was a very good guy from Tasmania who had run Walkabout pubs in the UK for the last 7 years of his life. His knowledge of the plants and animals of the places we visited was brilliant and we enjoyed hanging out with him.

The Glasshouse mountains (named by James Cook) would have been impressive but for the thick mist that surrounded them the whole time, so there's not much to say about that.  Before Europeans arrived, this whole area was covered in rainforest, but since then about 90 per cent has been pulled down.  Logging and mining have left only tiny pockets of the original rainforest, two of which we visited.  Nathan guided us through a rainforest walk at Mary Cairncross Reserve where we got to see of some wallabies and some crazy local trees, including the Gimpy Gimpy tree. Gimpy in the local aboriginal language means "pain". Repetition of a word in aboriginal languages indicates a lot of that noun.  So the Gimpy Gimpy tree is the "world of pain" tree. How come? The underside of its leaves and all of its bark are covered in tiny glass needles that break off in the skin if you touch it, delivering a nasty poison. Even the trees are out to kill you in Australia!!

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Not much to see here

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Well, we did see a wallaby

Nathan also took us to a rainforest waterfall, Kondallilla, where we dodged leaches with mixed success (cue hysterical over-reaction from one of the American girls when one lodged itself on her foot) before lunch in the picturesque town of Montville.  Here we stumbled upon a Scottish/Irish shop and Grant enjoyed a patriotic moment.

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Beautiful Montville in the Queensland hinterland, and a reminder of home

We headed north to Rainbow Beach in the afternoon, our base for the night.  We stayed in a pretty ropey backpackers hostel full of the gap year types we wanted to avoid, but enjoyed the views along the coast from the town.

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Views from Rainbow Beach

That night we enjoyed a really good barbecue and a few beers with our tour group beside the ocean under pretty spectacular stars. 

The next day we were up bright and early to head to Fraser Island, but not before going along to the local dolphin petting area. Here we were basiclly guaranteed to see dolphins. Nathan could only recall one time when they hadn't shown up and remembered how painful it had been.

The crowds gather early to see the arrival of three wild dolphins each morning, lured in by the prospect of an easy breakfast - fish fed to them by paying tourists. 

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While we were waiting for dolphins, we were watching the other guys waiting for the dolphins

We  waited in the baking sun for their arrival, and we waited some more. We had our breakfast - bacon and egg rolls, wonderful! - and waited some more. Of course, they never turned up, and at 10 am we headed off for Fraser Island. Things could only get better.

And they did get better. We crossed the shark-infested channel on a small ferry and found ourselves bumping along Fraser's sandy tracks in our overlander. 

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Watching people dancing in the water full of sharks. Rather them than us.

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On the ferry, ready for the great adventure on Fraser Island

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Grant greatly enjoying the river full of tannins, not sewage, on arrival on Fraser Island

We stopped for a short rainforest walk, where Nathan pointed out various plants and animals. The Australian kookaburra is particularly impressive: as you may know Australia has long suffered from the impact of various introduced species which once having arrived in Australia have flourished, damaging the Australian biodiversity.  

There are numerous examples of such species, for example the rabbit, cat, red fox etc. Perhaps the worst example is the cane toad. It was first introduced in 1935 in the hope that it would eat the cane beetle which was damaging the sugar cane. However, the cane toad turned out to be completely uninterested by the cane beetle and instead ate everything the endemic frogs normally ate and thereby greatly damaging them. What is more, the toad is extremely poisonous so any animal trying to eat it dies. Without any natural predators, the number of cane toads quickly increased. Today, the government estimate that there are more than 200 million cane toads in Australia (we have seen a few, they are huge) and they are seen as an extreme threat to the biodiversity.

So, what does that have to do with the kookaburra you might rightly ask (if you are still reading this...). Well, a few years ago the kookaburra figured out that if it turned the cane toad upside down before eating it, hence avoiding its poison  glands which are on the head, it could get a good meal without getting killed in the process. All the kookaburras have learned and implemented this process in the space of only 60 years. Pretty impressive bird!

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Clever kookaburra

Later that afternoon it was time for our first swim on Fraser Island. Given that the sea is full of sharks, and jelly fish, swimming there is not an option. However, with numerous lovely lakes on the island, that's not a problem. Lake Birrabeen had crystal clear water and we stayed in the water for a good while.

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The Hånell-McKelveys loving the water

In the evening we checked in at our hotel which was MUCH nicer than the previous night's. After dinner, Nathan took us for a night walk on beach. Grant had his wild life eyes on and had, before the walk had even started, spotted a python just outside our hotel (they are not poisonous but unpleasant to see nonetheless and it was deeply ironic that snake phobic Grant was the one to discover it). Later on he spotted a dingo, or rather the eyes of a dingo, on the beach. We could see it watching us for a while and then taking off. We quietly wondered whether this would be it or if we would be lucky enough to see dingos in daylight the following day. We could only hope...

After breakfast the following day we headed towards Indian Head. Indian Head is the hill which has blocked the sand coming up from New South Wales from going all the way up to Indonesia and hence the reason for the existence of Fraser Island. 

On the way there though we saw something very exciting -  dingos! And lots of them! Nathan was clearly relieved after the previous day's dolphin no show. He told us that it is unheard of to see so many dingos (seven) as they are solitary hunters. We couldn't say of course but were nontheless very happy to see them.

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Dingo bingo

The dingos in Fraser Island are generally seen as the most pure breed in Australia. Dingos are regularly taken from the island and introduced in other areas of Australia, both as a way of keeping down the numbers on the island and making the mainland dingo as pure breed as possible.

After the dingo bingo, we drove to Indian Head and got a nice view of the island. The name Indian Head was, as always seems to be the case on the East Coast of Australia, given by James Cook who apparently saw some aboriginals when his ship sailed pass and concluded that they were Indians. Can't always be right. Oh, he also thought that Fraser Island was part of the mainland of Oz - d'uh?!

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View of Fraser Island from Indian Head

The rest of day was basically spent looking at stuff.

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The Bushwacker and the the Bushwacker bus

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Shipwreck on the beach

The highlight was saved until last - another swim in another beautiful lake. As always we were the first ones in and the last to leave.

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On the way to Lake Wabby. The sand has pushed the lake further and further in, which makes for beautiful scenery

After that swim it was time to head back to Brisbane. Australia is a land so vast that tours are an inevitable feature of travelling here.  We were so pleased when we got back having been so lucky with the tour, the guide, the group and even the weather. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 23:03 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Byron Bay

Surf's up!

sunny 25 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Byron Bay is a small, relaxed and charming town on the northern coast of New South Wales. It's very popular with surfers since at least one of the seven beaches surrounding it will always have a break. Byron Bay has long resisted the high rises and massive hotel complexes that you find further up north along the coast and consequently, it has kept its charm and natural beauty.

We quickly liked Byron Bay and realised that this was a good place to kick back and relax, and also to fulfil our dream of becoming surf dudes.  Our hostel was right next to Belongi Beach on the west side of town and was a pleasant place to hang out during the day. On our first day we didn't do much more than cycling to the lighthouse at Cape Byron, one of the biggest in Australia. We'd noticed the lighthouse during a walk on the beach the night before with its beam cut through the mist on the beach, horror film- style. It definitely looked less sinister in day light!

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The light from the Byron Bay lighthouse doesn't escape anyone. Couldn't help thinking about the eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings

The view from the lighthouse was beautiful (even in the rain) and you could really see why Cape Byron was the ideal place for it to be located.  Before it was built there were a lot of ships wrecked along this stretch of coast.

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The lighthouse

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Grant's getting into the Byron Bay surfing spirit- outside the lighthouse

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Helena taking off

As mentioned, Byron Bay has some of the best surfing in Australia. Some of its beaches are even said to be among the best in the world - the kind of beaches where surfers jump off cliffs in order to catch the waves. It wasn't necessarily that we had in mind when we signed up for a lesson... 

We were picked up the next day by our instructor Rhys in the Mojo Surf Minibus.  After having collected the whole group, nine in total, we set off to 7 mile beach listening to some trendy music on the minibus sound system and generally being cool. We were told that because of the off shore wind, the sea was a bit choppy which could make the surfing slightly more challenging (as if it wasn't already challenging enough). Signing the disclaimer was slightly daunting as the surf company spelled out the risk of shark attacks, jelly fish stings, drowning etc.  After having read through the extensive risks, we proceeded to sign our lives away.

The action started however, before we even were in the water. On his way to the bathroom, Grant suddenly saw this on the grass inches from his foot

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What Grant saw inches from his foot - they didn't mention this in the surfing disclaimer (thanks google images for the photo, Grant was too busy running to get a shot of the one he saw)

Without even thinking Grant ran in the opposite direction while letting out some kind of yelp.  When Grant described to Rhys the snake he had almost stood on, the instructor laughed and said that it was an Australian brown - the world's second most poisonous snake. "You'd have had about ten minutes if that thing had bitten you, mate!"  

Grant clearly must have walked straight into its turf as we all saw it in roughly the same place after the lesson. It was a big snake. Grant bitterly remarked that all this chat about "snakes are more afraid of you than you of them" and "they'll get out of the way as soon as they hear you", which is told people with a fear of snakes (like Grant) had in a tenth of a second turned out to be complete nonsense. The snake couldn't have cared less about Grant approaching and hadn't moved an inch to avoid his oncoming foot.

After seeing what lurked on land, we were more than happy to take our chances in the ocean.  The surfing turned out to be a lot fun. We started the lesson on the beach with Rhys talking us through the security aspects, focusing on the waves and the dangerous rip and what to do if we were caught by one. He asked us if we were afraid of sharks and several of us nodded nervously. He reassured us that there was nothing to worry about, he hadn't lost anyone in several months... We also got to practice getting up on the board - something that turned out to be much easier on land than in water...
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Helena practising getting up on the board,  pretty straightforward when you're on the beach - how difficult could it be in the water?

Time to enter the choppy Pacific. Just getting out with the board turned out to be a challenge as it would get caught in the waves and push you back unless you lifted it above the waves. But somehow we got out and it was now time to wait for the wave, slide on the board, start paddling when your wave got close enough and then - with the wave swelling all around the board - stand up. The last step proved, unsurprisingly, to be the main challenge. There are so many ways to fall off a board...

The great thing is that we both managed to stand on our boards and "surf". However, of the two of us, Helena was definitely the star surfer.  In between the glorious seconds on top of the board we managed to get the boards in our heads a number of times and the getting up on the board movement resulted in numerous bruises on legs and hips (at least Helena did) and getting a slight burn from a jellyfish (again Helena. This did not bring about a Chandler and Monica moment by the way). 

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Helena standing on the board!

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Cool dude - Grant proved to be better at standing on the beach than on the board

The four hours went very quickly, a sign of how much we enjoyed it despite all of the above! In the end only one girl in the group had to go to the hospital when her toenail got caught on the board and almost got completely ripped off (we saw her again afterwards, at the hospital they just stapled the nail back on again).

The following day we woke up with strained muscles and bruises all over - surfing is much harder work than it looks! In search of some recovery time/pain relief, we took a bus to Nimbin, the hippie/marijuana capital of Australia.  Cannabis is illegal in New South Wales but the local police turn a blind eye to what goes on for most of the time, even if there are occasional raides. 

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Welcome to Nimbin dude!

Nimbin is a centre for alternative therapies, hemp products, scented candles and bongo drumming. Well we're just guessing when it comes to the bongo but it is a fact that bongo drumming accompanied our whole visit, along with numerous people offering us cookies. In addition to visiting the local museum and the hemp embassy, we also visited the local candle factory - an unexpected highlight!

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The candle factory was cool - this guy has a great job, just making beautiful candles all day with an iron. This is the spirit of Nimbin, man.

After four pleasant days in in Byron Bay it was time to pack our bags again and head north - more about that later!

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:59 Archived in Australia Comments (3)

Journey to the red centre of Australia

Alice Springs and Uluru tour

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Wanting to see the outback and the true heart of Australia, we hopped on a Qantas flight from Sydney to Alice Springs on the 14th March after four brilliant days in the city. 

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The three hour flight offered some amazing views first over the spectacular gorges of the Blue Mountains north west of Sydney, and then over the sprawling farming land that continues inland from Sydney for about an hour. The contrast of the interior was stark - the farming land suddenly turned to barren, grey land on which there was no sign of roads or any kind of civilisation.  The only features were deep trenches streaked across the land that seemed to have been scraped out of the rocky earth by giant hands, and the odd pool of grey, sulphuric-looking water.  It looked like about the last place on earth you would want to find yourself. We must have flown for about an hour and a half over this landscape before the landscape finally changed to the red soil one associates with Australia and we landed in Alice.

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The views of the outback from the comfort of our Qantas plane

We arrived to heat in the high 30's Celsius and checked into our hostel, run by friendly South African, Wayne. Wayne is another great hostel owner that we've met during our travels. He learns all his guests' name and makes sure that you've got everything you need. He was always working on his garden, making sure that the newly planted tree didn't get too much sun by setting up an umbrella over it and constantly watering and nurturing all the plants. You had to admire the effort in the middle of the desert!

We then had a bit of time in the afternoon to check out the town. Alice Springs is an oasis in the middle of some of the harshest territory on the planet. While it's not exactly charming, it is fascinating. It's a town of about four streets, where most of the shops are tourist centres or aboriginal art galleries, with the rest being pubs.  

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In the blistering heat, we made it to the Flying Doctors Centre to learn about the medical service in central Australia before retiring to the shade of our hostel to prepare for our tour the next day. 

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  The flying doctors visitors centre - very interesting yet incredibly not a single reference to the hit 1980s TV series

A striking thing in Alice is the presence of Aboriginal people. We had not seen a single aboriginee in Sydney, but Alice and the Northern Territory, is an Aboriginal centre. However, the impression was not good: groups of aboriginal people congregated in the shade  of local parks and street corners chatting amongst themselves, apparently not working, and living a parallel existence to the white Australian population. It is true that there are many galleries selling aboriginal art in town but these are invariably run by white Australians. This is not a comment on Australia's politics - we know far too little to give an opinion about that - but the scale of the gulf in lifestyle and attitudes between white and aboriginal Australians is very evident in Alice Springs.  The aborigines we saw seemed to be stuck in a very difficult rut - no longer in their traditional way of life but very obviously not integrated into the urban life that has been built around them.  Incredibly, we saw African and Indian immigrants working in the supermarkets of Alice and driving taxis but we saw very few Aboriginal people  doing any kind of work in the town.

On the morning of Thursday 15 March, we were collected from our hostel at 6 am for our three day outback tour to Uluru and the surrounding area. We had taken a budget backpackers option and it felt a bit like we were climbing into the school bus as we took in the youthful faces of our fellow travellers in our tour mini bus. We were definitely at the upper end of the age range! On the six hour drive south to Uluru, our guide and driver Wookie got us all introduced - it was a diverse group ranging from 19 year old German backpackers to a Chinese fashion journalist, an English theme park manager and a Hungarian banker living in Sydney. 

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Our guide, Wookie, a proper Australian bloke

We kicked off with Uluru that afternoon. We had been in two minds as to whether we would climb it before coming out here. Until the 80s, visitors could camp at the foot of the rock and climbing was the thing to do. That has changed significantly in recent years and now only around 20-30 percent of visitors climb the rock.  As it happened, it was closed anyway due to the risk of bad weather, but a trip to the Uluru cultural centre convinced us that it was better to respect the wishes of the local tribe and to not climb the rock. The Uluru national park is tribal property and the extent of the access granted is generous, so it seemed logical to respect the requested limits. We did the 9 km base walk right around the circumference of the rock instead of climbing.

What can you say about Uluru, a site you feel you have seen a hundred times in pictures before you see it "in the flesh"? Well, what is amazing is that it looks completely flat from a distance but actually every face of the rock is different: the surface is almost scaly, with holes in the surface that look like they have been scooped out to form bizarre shapes. There are black lines of algae running down channels where water flows when it rains, which it does surprisingly often. There are also caves in the rock that look like the inside of waves that contain ancient rock art. 

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Views of Uluru from the base walk and some of the cave art

Various corners of the rock are off limits for photography because they are sacred ceremony sites, used either for men's or women's rituals in aboriginal society. No woman may see the men's sacred sites, and vice versa, even in a photo. Knowledge has to be earned in aboriginal society, and the are severe punishments for those who obtain knowledge without permission.

The aborigines have stories about how all of the principal holes and caves on the rock were formed- each of these is evidence of the validity of tjukurpa (the often used term "dreamtime" is perceived as derogatory ), their belief system. Amusingly enough, as we respectfully pocketed our cameras while passing a sacred male elder's site on the rock, we were passed by a group of aboriginal children with their dog who proceeded to clamber all over the site. Ours is not to question!

If you want to understand the significance of Uluru to aboriginal people, the evidence is this: of the hundreds of aboriginal languages spoken all over Australia (mostly not mutually comprehensible), there is one single word they all share in common - Uluru. That is an astounding thing in a country as vast as Australia and among people as dispersed as the aboriginal tribes here.

You can probably guess from the above that our tour guide turned out to be very knowledgable about the aboriginal culture and geology of the area and we learned a lot as we went along. However, Wookie couldn't change the weather and when we went to our viewing spot for sunset over the rock, we were greeted by nothing but clouds - no sun in sight and so no postcard perfect snaps for us. It was unique in all the wrong ways! The highlight of the event for us poor backpackers was the free-for-all on the left over canapés from the pensioners travel group that also turned up for the sunset. Brought back all kinds of memories from the sea lion feeding time in Valparaiso.

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"Has the sun set yet?" You can't have good luck all the time when travelling.

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Competition for places to watch sunset at Uluru is fierce - this tour bus of pensioners from Essex tried to muscle in on our viewing spot. The backpackers enjoyed clearing up their leftover canapés once they had left for their hotel

After some dinner and beers with "sunset", we headed to our camp site to set up our swags for the night. For those who don't know what an Ozzy swag is, it's a kind of cocoon containing a foam mattress that you zip yourself and your sleeping bag into for camping out in the bush. The piece de resistance on this contraption is the so-called "monster flap" - a piece of material that folds over your head to encase you in your swag and keep the bugs out. Given what you see crawling around on the ground out here, it's good to have a monster flap!  Because it rained both nights we were out in the bush, we ended up sleeping in our swags under an outdoor shelter so no romantic star gazing possible...

Next day's sunrise over Uluru was as spectacularly uneventful as the sunset unfortunately. As we all strained our eyes through the clouds, hoping for a glimpse of sunlight, Wookie announced that sunrise had happened two minutes ago and dragged us all onto the bus. 

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"Has the sun risen yet?" Another day, another layer of thick clouds...

Cloud cover was a bit of a blessing though for the activity of the day - hiking in spectacular Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) near Uluru.  Kata Tjuta means "many heads" and is a collection of stunning red rocks which was formed in a similar way to Uluru. The highlight of the hike was spotting some kangaroos hopping among the peaks (which apparently only happens when it has been raining as they come to drink from the watering holes - envy thing happens for a reason!).

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Hiking in Kata Tjuta

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Our first sighting of kangaroos, in the desert of all places

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What on earth are they up to?

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Oh, er... We left them to it.

On the way to our campground for the second night, we stopped to view Mount Connor - yet another monolith measuring 30km around its base and rising to a perfectly flat peak. Because of its likeness and proximity to Uluru, it's known as "fool-a-roo" and local guides take bets on how many tourists will mistake it for the real thing. 

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That's not Uluru, you fool.

Our second night's swagging was spent at King's Creek where we set up a campfire, enjoyed some beers and bush tucker (well, er, chile con carne) and toasted marshmallows for dessert. The campsite had toilets and hot showers, as we had enjoyed at Uluru the night before - more luxury than we had been expecting!

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Camp fire banter with the kids.

Our final day started well before sunrise with breakfast and packing up camp then arriving at King's canyon in time for the sun coming up over the beautiful red stone of the canyon. We enjoyed a really scenic guided hike through the canyon, the highlight being a dip in the rock pool at the "Garden of Eden". Fortunately no crocodiles spotted in the pool and the water was easily ten degrees warmer than the last rock pool we had swum in in Patagonia. 

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Hiking through King's Canyon and the reward of a swim to cool off. Thankfully no Crocodile Dundee moments

On the long ride back to Alice Springs Helena came up with the plan of a music quiz for the bus, which she made up on the spot using Wookie's iPod. The entire bus was awed by Helena's wide ranging music trivia: "name the son of the artist's ex-wife", "name the film this song appeared in", "where is the artist buried" etc. There was a definite Swedish bias, as Roxette and Ace of Base featured heavily - how sad to think that these classics were released before some of our tour companions were even born!! The right hand side of the bus narrowly beat those on the left and it helped an hour or so of the monotonous bush scenery pass by.

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"Is it Roxette ... ?" Helena's music quiz proved a hit on the tour bus

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A thorny devil that our tour guide spotted from the bus and showed around - not as vicious as he looks! These guys have a fat deposit on their back that is a decoy for birds that want to swoop down and eat them. What is even more impressive, they drink water with their feet!

Our final stop of the tour was at the local camel farm just outside Alice. It is a little known fact: (a) that camels roam the Australian outback, having been imported from Afghanistan in the early 1900s to help with labouring (building the telegraph line), and then set free when replaced by cars and lorries (in fact, Australia now exports its pure breed camels back to the middle east!); and (b) that Alice Springs is a centre of camel racing. The guy who's camel farm we stopped at is a champion camel racer and allows you to ride a camel for a small fee. Otherwise, you can enjoy stroking his pet dingo, feed the very cute pet kangaroos and try to avoid the vicious pet emu (all of these are animals rescued from injury in the wild). Or you can just buy an iced lolly in the shop. That's what we did.

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Australian camels are so pure in their breeding that they are now exported to the Middle East!

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Helena and friendly dingo

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A stroppy Ozzy emu

Our final evening in Alice Springs was spent at the local Rock Bar with our tour guide and group enjoying a final meal together and a few beers, which coincided with St Patricks day. They were celebrating the occasion hard in Alice Springs, notably by shaving a few of the locals' heads in the pub for charity. 

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Alice Springs - home of camel racing and charity head shaving or in this girl's case, colouring

We were glad not to be hanging around any longer than necessary in Alice Springs - once you've done a tour to Uluru there is not a whole lot else to do, so we hopped on a flight to Brisbane on Sunday morning. Coming to the centre of Oz was a big trip in itself but definitely worthwhile not only to see the amazing sights of the interior but also to learn about the aboriginal culture. Next stop, Byron Bay on the east coast - a world away!

Posted by Grantandhelena 16:36 Archived in Australia Comments (6)

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