Saturday, December 30, 2006

Alice Springs

I'd like to have something nice to say about Alice Springs, I really would. I came to this town wanting to like it. It was one of those places in the world that I had heard about since I was a kid. When I was a kid it sounded like one of the most remote places on the planet. An old town in the middle of Australia with nothing for hundreds of miles except Uluru. A town that was just on the road to somewhere else but which had itself had become a destination. I then read Bill Brysons Down Under where he talks about the city having lost all its old charm and having been turned into a tourist trap filled with American restaurant chains and hotels.

Even if it had been Bill Brysons Alice Springs I may have accepted it. If it had been Cairns II or even Surfers Paradise in the Desert I would have found something nice about the town itself. Instead it was unique in my Australian experience and thankfully so. It lacked anything resembling character, in fact it would appear that someone had systematically gone through the town and eradicated anything that could hold a tourists interest for more than a few minutes. Just be thankful Uluru is 300 Kms away or they would probably have blown it up and used the rubble in the foundations of a car park.

Ok thinking back I am being a little harsh, not much, just a little. There is a Flying Doctors station that I visited and did a tour. That was interesting and passed an hour or so if you count the time I spent drinking a coffee in the little café attached to the base. A couple of old buildings do seem to have survived the harsh glare of development but that's because they are hidden away and kept out of the view of tourists who can be put to better use spending money in one of the numerous souvenir shops. Another rare plus is the bar in Annies hostel which serves quite a nice camel lassagne. When I am reduced to remembering a plate of lassagne as something good from a town you know the town itself is in trouble.

Unfortunately I was staying in another hostel away from Annies and it was the worst kept hostel I stayed in during my travels, but I wont name it here. The room I was in was ok but that seems to have been the exception as several of my friends complained about dirty rooms, broken air-cons and door locks that didn't open. The shared toilets, sinks and showers were filthy and covered in excrement when I arrived and were not cleaned in the two nights I was there. The pool area looked like the janitor had died in a corner somewhere and the bar was deserted as the bouncers wouldn't let anyone in. Still the other backpackers were friendly and I was only there for two nights.

The best thing I can say about Alice Springs is that the bus I took to Uluru continued on to Adelaide and I didn't have to return to it.

Cairns to Alice Springs

(This is a long post, I'm writing it at home as I use my travel journal to catch up with my Australia blog posts, more will follow).

After 6 days in Cairns it was time to start my journey back to Sydney. Of course while other people did sensible things like fly, I had decided it would be cool to do the whole journey over land by bus. I mean Australia is just one country, how big can it be... ;-).

The first stage of the journey was to get from Cairns to Alice Springs. I think my first idea that this was not going to be a run of the mill trip down the motorway was when I saw the bus. At first glance it looked like a standard bus, but closer inspection revealed it to be 4 wheel drive and have front body work that looked like less like bull bars and more like elephant bars. Still it was a pretty comfortable bus as they had taken out some rows of seats to give everyone more space. Plus there was a DVD player and TV screens so we would have something to watch when the landscape became boring.

The first day leaving Cairns we stopped at several tourist attractions like Milla Milla Falls and Millstreet Falls. We were still in the tropics so there was actually water in these water falls. For lunch we stopped at a little rest stop whose claim to fame was that it has Australia's Smallest Pub. Of course I suspect that every few hundred miles in Australia you can find a pub claiming to be Australia's Smallest Pub. This one was impressively small however and had there been 3 people in it at the same time two of them would have to be getting very up close and personal while the other leaned over the bar to order a pint.

After this point we hit the dirt roads. Long straight roads through the outback which are just gravel tracks down which jeeps, road trains and buses travel. But don't think we were on side roads, at one point one of these dirt tracks is called the Plenty Highway. Even in 4WD vehicles these are still tricky roads as they can tear a tire to bits in seconds as we learned the hard way. Driving along the passengers on the bus could hear a strange tapping noise, but since this was day one of the trip none of us were concerned enough to put our hand up and inform the driver.

It was only when we hit a metal cattle grid that the driver himself realised we had a problem. One of the tires had burst or just gone flat earlier and had been shredded as we drove along the dusty rocky road. The next two hours were spent trying to get the old tire off the bus and put on one of our two spares. One of the passengers, Sharky, obviously trying to be helpful and impress the ladies decided to take control help the driver undo the wheel nuts. We would have been there even longer if it was not for the driver of a road train that showed up after half an hour informed the guys that they were actually twisting the nuts the wrong way and had just tightened them all. Still no serious harm was done and we eventually got back on the road to Porcupine Gorge and from there on to our hostel for the night in a place whose name sounded like Hugbemden.

Day 2 started early, as all days on tour in Australia seem to. We had breakfast and then headed down the dirt roads again. There was an early stop in the town of Milton where Waltzing Matilda was written. They are really proud of this and have statues and displays all along the one street in town repeating the song. Unfortunately since it was around 8am on a Sunday there was little open, apart from one little shop which I presume knows the bus schedule and opens just for the thirsty tourists. For lunch we had a BBQ on a cliff top overlooking the desert and three rocks called Mary Maude and Kate. A search under the cliffs for Aborigine art revealed a few small drawings and several spooked kangaroos who hopped away as we approached passing quite close in the confined spaces.

We then went to a sheep station to use the toilets and fill up the water tanks on the bus. The property is 40,000 acres and is run by a man called Charlie and his family. This year is tough for them since they have only had 60% of their usual rainfall (12 inches) and it has been light rain so it doesn't really help break the drought. Still Charlie gave us water from his rain water tanks so we wouldn't yet have to drink water from the Great Artesian Basin, as we would later, the water in the basin is 2 million years old, was safe to drink but tasted awful. We then moved onto the town of Midleton and the cattle station of Wirrilgerna for the night Some of us slept on camp beds outside under the stars which were amazingly clear since there were no man made lights for miles around.

Day 3 we were up to watch the sun rise and then we headed into the Simpson Desert. This is a really barren place. It's been a desert for so long the sand has blown away and now its just a rocky plain with scrubby grass and a few small trees somehow managing to survive in that way that Australian plants seem to survive where nothing else could. Finally after 2 full days of travel we crossed into the Northern Territory. It's strange to think you can drive solidly for 2 days and still be in the same state, this country is HUGE. Another weird thing is the Northern Territory has a 1/2 hour time difference from Queensland. Typically the Australians just figured a full hour was too much so they just change the time by 30 minutes.

One of the highlights of this day was seeing a 5 meter high termite mound. After 3 days on a bus it could have been a 5 meter high dung mound and we would still all have gotten off the bus, walked around and took photographs. Still something about this mound seemed very alien. We stopped at an Aboriginal dry settlement where no alcohol is allowed. We basically just stopped to refuel the bus and pay a quick visit to the shop. Next I passed the tropic of Capricorn again, this time heading South and finally got to Alice Springs.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Back Home

I'm back home in Ireland, tired, a little jet lagged and more than a little relieved that I was flying through Frankfurt than Heathrow.

My travels aren't quite over however as I have to now head down to my home town for Christmas. No broadband, hell dial up barely works, so normal service on my blog will resume when I return to Dublin for New Years.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Hello from Sydney, Again

Well I'm finally back in Sydney. As I explained in my last post it's been a busy enough few weeks and I haven't had time to blog. I think that's a good thing cause, lets face it, I spent too much time on the internet before I started this trip. Now don't worry, I'm not stopping blogging and as for this holiday I will write blog posts that describe where I've been and what I've seen (I also have a personal journal that I can use when writing my blog) but with such a limited amount of time I'd rather spend the day experiencing the holiday than in an internet cafe :-). However I will summarize what I've been up to for the last few weeks.

After I left Cairns I traveled by bus to Alice Springs. This was a big, full size, four wheel drive bus that travelled through the outback and the Simpson Desert. This was my first experience of the "real" Australia, or at least the Australia I had in my mind when I left Ireland. Scrubby bush, rocky deserts, a shortage of water, lots of sun. The east coast was fun but this was more of an adventure, as burst tires and on the fly bus repairs testified.

After 3 days we got to Alice Springs. I only had one day in Alice and to be honest I was bloody glad I only had one. Sure there were some nice people off the bus that I spent time with, but Alice Springs itself was a total disappointment. Someone seems to have systematically gone through the town and removed anything with character, replacing it with another shop catering for the needs of travellers and backpackers. To me it seemed like a sad town that was past it's prime and had lost whatever had once made it special. It does host a Royal Flying Doctors Service which I did a tour of, that was the highlight. It also hosts the worst maintained hostel I've seen in Australia. The toilets were not cleaned for the two nights of my stay and they were already covered in s**t before I got there and the pool looked like it may well have been refilled with the slops from the bar.

After two nights I was delighted to get on the first Adventure Tours bus tour down to Adelaide. This was probably the best bus I was on in the whole 3 months. 6 days and a great crowd. The bus was full, 24 people, which was initially worried me but with in a couple of hours we were playing cards down the center aisle and generally settling into 6 days together. This trip took me through Uluru, Kings Canyon, Coober Peedy and lots of other great places. The real Red Center of Australia. It was bloody hot, 45C in the shade and 62C in the sun. A bottle of water frozen solid at the start of the day was liquid within an hour and like warm tea within 2. Sleeping in swags in the open air. Swimming in pools as dust devils hit the area and sent chairs and bottles flying. Drinking and sleeping in buildings under ground. But it was great fun. I've pretty much made a point of not mentioning names on my blog, what goes on the Oz Bus stays on the Oz Bus and I am bound to forget to mention someone and be in trouble, but I was asked specially to give a big shout out to everyone on my blog so here goes. Big hello to the swag Germans, Cathi, Linda and Ina. Dutchie, Duchess, Frenchie and Dingo whose pool playing skills passed several hours. Heather (Roxy girl) and all the Catherines. Richard for being my eyes after I was "struck blind" for a couple of hours when a trainee driver joined the bus and was faced with a bus that had a "blind" passenger, a "deaf" one and several who couple who "couldn't speak English". Though I suspect he twigged to the joke when the real driver doubled over laughing. And Helen from England, who really likes the number 4 on the Irish team, so if anyone has his email pass it to to her. I'm sure I've forgotten people so please forgive me, I've been trying to remember who was on what buses. I was really sad to move on and leave all of you behind.

I only got to spend 2 days in Adelaide and fortunately got out of town just before the Ashes arrived. 5 of us continued on the 3 day trip to Melbourne joined by 19 others. This was a pretty sedate bus for me. I was in pretty serious pain as I limped around the sights of the Great Ocean Road. I picked up blisters walking too fast around Uluru and they got a bit infected. A couple of soaks in detol did the trick but I was really looking forward to sitting on my ass for a while in Melbourne.

Melbourne was a city I had been looking forward to all trip as lots of people were telling me that it was a much nicer city than Sydney. It was not a disappointment, but I still think my favourite is Sydney. The good thing was that after 2 days of cricket fans several of the group we had left in Adelaide took an unplanned overnight bus to Melbourne and a car and we all got to meet up again. St Kilda is a really beautiful part of town and I spent two days out there. Victoria Markets, museums and a nice city center passed the rest of the time.

After a week in Melbourne I got on the next bus, my last, to Sydney. I really didn't want to take this bus since no one I knew was travelling on the same bus and the day I left was the birthday of one of the others and I had wanted to be there. Two weeks on a bus can make for good friends. Still perhaps it was the fact that I was not looking forward to it that made this bus special but it was. For starters it was the first bus in two months that was not full. With only 15 of us on the bus and some people travelling together I managed to get a row of seats to myself. The joy of stretching out across the bus and sleeping for a couple of hours after an early start! Many of the others on the bus thought I was German for the first day. Fair hair, glasses and I had apparently picked up a German accent during my time with all the Germans and Dutch on the Alice Springs to Melbourne journey. I'm told it's mostly gone, but every now and then I still say something that sounds German. This bus was a little more divided than others with 7 or so of us hanging out together 4 in another group and 4 kind of travelling in between. Still the 7 I was with were up for a laugh. No names, as is my standard, (and I think some of you don't want names and deeds mentioned on the internet ;-)) but you all know who you are :-)

Sydney is where I am now. Its was my starting point in Australia and my finish point. It's a lot busier now than it was back in October but it is Christmas shopping season. As is pretty standard on my visits to Sydney the weather hasn't been great but I still love this city. The seven of us from the bus are still together, all our hostels were close together and mobiles are great. I also really enjoyed being here with people who had not been here before (here I'll once again break my no names rule but she deserves a mention) and especially Adriana from Italy who when I pointed out the Harbour Bridge to her she responded with "The what? I've never heard of it! Why is it famous? What happened there?". I have to admit she had a point and I was lost for a reason why it was a great bridge beyond "look at it".

Ok, so that pretty much summarizes the last month or so, I've lost track of exactly how long. My time in Oz finishes on Sunday. I fly to Singapore for three nights and then I get home to Ireland on the 22nd. No more hostels and dorms once I leave Sydney. I've booked a hotel in Singapore, ah the simple luxuries in life like a bed that isn't a bunk or being able to turn on the light when getting back late.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hello from Melbourne

After two weeks of travel I have finally arrived in Melbourne. Sorry for being so quiet over that time, internet cafes were a little sparse, expensive and lets face it, when I only had one day or more often one night in a town it just wouldn't be right to spend that time on a computer.

I promise I'll post updates about where I've been over the next couple of days, I have a week in Melbourne so plenty of time to see the sights and do some blogging. First of all I need to read my journal and try to remember what happened where and when, after 2 weeks on a bus towns begin to blur a little. :-)
Update: 6-Dec-2006: Ok, so despite having 6 days in Melbourne I didnt actually get time to update my blog. Between sightseeing and meeting friends I only got one post started but it is far from finished. I leave for Sydney tomorrow morning and get there on the 10th so I will do some posting when I get there, promise.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


After getting back from Cape Tribulation I had 6 days in Cairns. This was not something I wanted to do but I got back from Cape Tribulation on a Sunday and the bus I was booked on to Alice Springs only leaves on Saturdays so I was kind of stuck. That said at the time I booked the trip I though I was going to be stuck somewhere in North Queensland or the Northern Territories then Cairns was probably the best place.

Cairns is a nice enough big town. I know its a city but it has more of a country town feel than a big city. This is nothing like Sydney or Brisbane. Cairns seems to have been built up mostly based mostly on tourism with people coming up from the south or others flying in to the airport to start their journey in Australia. Cairns as a destination felt pretty special, not because it was someplace special or a world wide destination like Sydney or Uluru, but because for 5 weeks I had been travelling "to Cairns". It felt like a bit of an achievement to reach it, even though the journey was broken up with stays in lots of other places, as anyone who has read the rest of this blog for the last 6 weeks will know. Cairns has a mix of new and old buildings. There is a lot of new development but it has kept some of the old buildings for character. I really liked the old structures as they were generally 2 stories and very wide which gave them a low profile. I imagined that they were crouching down to get away from the sun and heat.

One of the main things for backpackers to do in Cairns is either take a trip up to Cape Tribulation or, for the real adventurers, go all the way up to Cape York. Cape Trib is a 3 day trip, which I did. Cape York, I found out from a girl on the bus to Alice who did that trip, is a 6 day trip by bus. Now I would have liked to do both but it would have meant spending another week around Cairns and really cut short my visits to other places on the way back to Sydney.

When not travelling or getting up at 5am to catch a bus, most backpackers could be found at night in Cairns' many pubs and clubs, most seem to pass through PJ O'Briens and The Woolshed at least once a night. For some reason pub hopping seemed to be a popular thing in Cairns so any night out meant visits to 2 or 3 pubs and probably started and finished in The Woolshed, so its actually pretty easy to meet up with people, just check the regular haunts and if they aren't there now, they will be later.

During the day there was only a few things to do in Cairns. There is the lagoon where many people spend the day sun baking. This is a man made, free, open air swimming pool beside the sea. You cant swim in the sea because the stingers will get you and the water is a funny brown colour anyway. There are lots of shops and malls as well so it was a good place to grab some souvenirs, which I sent home in a package. I also visited the museum which has a nice small town feel and is focused on very local issues. The old gent behind the counter seemed very surprised to have a visitor, and even more surprised that I was a backpacker, he was very helpful, pointing out things of interest and offering to rewind a video display so I could watch from the beginning. The museum also had an interesting display of very old photographs taken in traditional aborigine communities with spears, swords and shields on display. Warfare was not something I had really thought of when it came to aborigine history but it is clear the weapons were not meant for hunting. They may have been ceremonial but it was a new twist.

I also met my first group of aborigines on a pub crawl in Cairns. There was a hen party with us. While most were what I guess would be called half-caste there were some pure aborigines in the group as well. When word got around that there was an aborigine hen party coming the rest of the us were concerned. None of the backpackers seemed to know what to expect having only heard bits and pieces about aborigines from tour drivers and those organising the trip seemed concerned. I drew the conclusion that they were worried in the way a pub crawl operator in Ireland would be concerned if told 30 travellers had booked on. In the end there was nothing to worry about. As hen parties go it seemed very tame. Sure there was laughing and joking and general good spirited behaviour but there was no trouble, no fights and no arguments. In fact if you go to Temple Bar in Dublin on a Saturday night you will meet several hen parties that cause more concern than this group.

After 6 days I was glad to get out of Cairns. I'd pretty much run out of things to do, and had exhausted the backpacker menu options in PJ's. Still if, for some reason, I ever visit Australia again I'll have to see Darwin and Perth, which I will miss this trip, I would probably start in Cairns for a few days and then head across the North to Darwin.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Next Leg

I start the next leg of my journey tomorrow morning, at 5:55am. Getting the Oz Adventure bus down to Alice Springs. This one is a little rougher than the East coast because we will be staying in tents. It should be fun but it means I will probably be out of contact for a few days since my mobile phone wont get signal apart from when we pass through towns. Talk to you all soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Cape Tribulation

Last weekend I went up to Cape Tribulation for a few days. Cape Trib is the most northerly part of my journey around Australia. The tourism officials like to boast that it's "where the rainforest meets the reef", which it is. The Daintree Rainforest is on one side of the beach while the Great Barrier Reef is just a little bit off shore and if you stand on a lookout you can see both at the same time.

I went there with a company called Jungle Tours and they basically just bring you up to Cape Tribulation on day one and home again on your last day. Any trips you do while in Cape Trib are up to you and with different companies. That said the journey up to Cape Trib is about 2 1/2 hours driving but the bus takes all day because the bus does stop at several places including a zoo, Mossman gorge, a beach, a lookout from which the guide pointed out the reef on which Steve Irwin was killed (the bus always stopped there for the overall view not just the morbid reef).

I booked this trip when I was in Brisbane and at the time I wanted to go to the most northerly hostel even though it was quieter and most backpackers went to one called PKs which is in the center of what passes for a village. The hostel I was in is called The Cape Trib Beachhouse. On the way to Cape Tribulation I kind of regretted my choice since I knew several people staying in PKs. That said after seeing both I am glad I was in the Beachhouse. PKs is in the Rainforest but compared to the Beachhouse it's the center of town.

The Beachhouse is a 40 minute walk north from PKs. Walk along the tarmac road through town until it becomes a dirt and gravel road and then keep walking for another 30 minutes. It really was in the rainforest and each hut was surrounded on 3 sides by trees, so close you could almost touch them if you opened a window. In front of each hut was a path which cut through the rainforest and at one stage was blocked by a large snake which decided to relax across the path soaking up the heat. No one dared step over it, but eventually it got tired of the attention and moved into the bush.

At the same time don't misunderstand me, this was not exactly roughing it. Each hut had aircon and was pretty comfortable. There was a bar and a bistro but we didn't stay up late since it was pretty quiet. There was also internet access, of a fashion, which did seem a little unreliable and seemed to be down more than it was up.

However I didn't come to Cape Tribulation for the accommodation. One of the reasons I was there was to go horse riding through the rainforest and onto the beach. The company, Cape Trib Horse Rides, that does this had been recommended to me back in Ireland so I thought I'd give it a go. It was a fun activity if a little easy for anyone who could horse ride since the horses were used to the tracks and routines and did everything automatically. You could spend the whole trek with the reins hooked onto the saddle. This was a little disappointing but the trip was still well worth it as we walked, trotted and cantered around the forest and the open tracks. It may seem strange to trot and canter without real control of the reins but again the horses started and stopped as soon as the lead horse did so it was safe and fun.

The next day I went out on the boat called the Rum Runner. Well actually the Rum Runner IX. What happened to the first 8 is not exactly clear, I assume they are either retired somewhere or still running trips on other days or from other beaches. This is a dive boat but I didn't do an dive just snorkeling. I do think the snorkelers got to see more since the divers were out in deeper water with less coral while the snorkelers were right on top of the reef. We went to two reefs, one before lunch, one after and the second reef was truly amazing with crystal clear water and a huge amount of coral. Strangely there were fewer fish than on the Whitsundays but there were still lots of colourful exotic fish to be seen.

When I wasn't on an organised trip I went for a couple of walks and hired a bike to go up to lookouts and along the beach, though the heat and humidity were high so I limited the amount of walking around I did. After the day on the Rum Runner I headed back to Cairns where I am now and will be here until Saturday morning when I head down to Alice Springs.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mission Beach and Snake Bites

For my last stop before traveling on to Cairns and finishing the first leg of my Australia trip I spent 4 nights in a little place called Mission Beach. Mission Beach is a small little town on the coast. In many ways it is similar to Magnetic Island in that it is small, things are spaced out with 15 or 20 minute walks everywhere and there isn't a lot to do if you haven't booked a tour or an activity.

However Mission Beach, for me, was the total opposite of Magnetic Island. It was really enjoyable to spend the day sitting by the pool in Scottys hostel and then at night just sit at tables outside with a few drinks, playing cards or just talking. In an earlier post I mentioned how the people in a hostel can make or break a place. The crew in the hostel were really cool. It was a mix of people I have spent 5 weeks meeting as we all travel up the East coast and people fresh out of Cairns and on their first stop off on the journey down. That made for a nice friendly atmosphere and everyone just relaxed and got on. Also, finding out most of the people there thought I was 24 made me particularly happy (I'm 31 :-))

However I didn't plan my stop in Mission Beach just for some time to relax. This was where I had decided I would do my skydive. Mission has rainforest all the way down to white sandy beaches, on which you land, and an amazing view of the Great Barrier Reef from 14000 feet. This was the place everyone recommended as the best place on the East coast for skydiving. I have to say I didn't quite know what to expect though I was more worried that I would freeze and refuse to get out of the plane than that anything would go wrong during the jump itself. In the end I didn't have to worry about getting out of the plane as it was a tandem jump and I really didn't get much of a say in when we left the plane. My jump master was Ivan and I had signed up for a DVD which included a second jumper called Dan filming me during free fall. It was amazing fun. Once we jumped out I had a 60 second free fall during which I shouted myself hoarse. Dan came in and out with the camera and I was amazed at how easy it is for skydivers to link up while in free fall. After the 60 seconds Dan waved to me and I was puzzled for a second until Ivan pulled the cord, the parachute deployed and I found myself getting dragged to what seemed a sudden halt. The view from the parachute was amazing, the sea, the reef, the rainforest. I could see dolphins and sea turtles as we approached the beach. It was great. I was on an adrenaline high for about 2 hours when I got back to the hostel, much to the amusement of the others as I was basically bouncing off the walls.

I spent the rest of the 4 days just relaxing, grabbing the bus into the small town area and markets, or jumping into the pool to cool off. Others went for whitewater rafting, apparently some of the best whitewater in Australia is just a short drive from Mission. I didn't particularly want to do this so I decided to skip it though those who did go said it was great fun. There are also trips organised to Dunk Island but I don't know anyone who went there.

An interesting thing about Mission Beach and the surrounding area is that in March of this year they got hit very hard by Cyclone Larry which was as powerful as Hurricane Katrina but got none of the same media coverage. Larry flattened parts of the rainforest and while it is still an amazing sight from the air apparently it has not returned to its same beauty. Driving along the roads the damage is still clear to be seen with huge numbers of trees uprooted and lying where they fell as well as damaged signposts and buildings. For the most part the damage now is repaired or hidden but you can still glimpse traces of how powerful nature can be. There was serious concern at the time about the damage that could have been done to the cassowary population of the rainforest. Cassowary's are the third largest bird in the world, look a bit like emus with blue heads, and are apparently the most dangerous bird in the world as they are aggressive can eviscerate people with hooks on their feet. Basically imagine a dinosaur with feathers. Pretty to look at with their bright blue heads but deadly dangerous. They are native to the area and a pair walked right past the hostel I was staying in and down a path towards the shops. This sent people scurrying to a safe distance and to get cameras.

After Mission Beach I hopped on the Oz Experience Bus and headed to Cairns. Cairns is the last destination on the Oz Experience East Coast Bruce pass. The drive to Cairns is just 2 hours from Mission but it took us all day as we stopped at a crocodile farm where we could get really close to crocodiles being fed and for those who wanted to, get bitten by a snake. Bit strange but they let people get bitten by a carpet python which is non toxic but can still draw blood. I decided to not stick my arm into a snake cage, but several others went for it. After the croc farm we went to Millaa Milla Falls and Lake Eacham where we stopped for a few hours for lunch and swimming.

I'm in Cairns now and I head to Cape Tribulation tomorrow morning. That will pretty much end my East coast travels. On the 18th I leave Cairns and head overland to Alice Springs and eventually back around to Sydney on December 10th.

Photos, Lots of Photos

Since I decided to create backup DVDs and send copies of all my photos home I have abandoned the idea of using flickr as a true backup for my photos. That means I can now upload them at a smaller size. That speeds the process up a lot so I'm just going to throw up as many photographs as possible.

I'm still using flickr as a backup of low quality copies (a friend of mine lost all her photos from Australia so I'm paranoid) so sorry if it's a bit of a jumble and if many of them are crap. I hope there are some good ones in there but until Christmas I'm not going to get time to sort them out.

The best way to view the photos is by viewing the Set for a particular location.

Uploaded now are all the following
  • Australia Zoo

  • Rainbow Beach

  • Fraser Island

  • Whitsunday Islands

  • Magnetic Island

  • Mission Beach

  • Croc Farm and Lake Eacham
  • Reorg of Australia set to create Barrington set and remove photos in other sets

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Where are all the Photos?

As some people may have noticed I've stopped uploading photographs to flickr. Hopefully this is only temporary and I hope to get going again once I get to Cairns. The problem is that since leaving Brisbane the internet connections have gotten progressively slower and it now takes several minutes to upload a single photograph. As you can imagine this gets a bit tedious and expensive. Also I have over 3GB of photographs now so the idea of using flickr as a backup just wont work. Instead I'm going to burn them to DVD and send home a package of stuff from Cairns. I'll just select the best photographs and upload those anyway, no point in uploading everything if I have backups elsewhere.

Magnetic Island and the Missing Full Moon

After a few nights in Airlie Beach I moved on to Magnetic Island, known to people as Maggie. Magnetic Island is a World Heritage site that doesn't even bother advertising the fact, apart from a little sign at the ferry terminal. As the Oz Experience driver said when I asked her about this "They are a little free with the World Heritage title these days".

Magnetic is a pretty enough little island. The name comes from Captain Cook, as do many of the names along the east coast, who thought the island was interfering with his compass as he sailed past. No one has found that strange phenomenon since and the island is not magnetic.

Made mostly of granite the island was a major coastal fortress protecting the shipping access to Townsville during the World War II. I did the Fort Walk up to the remains of these fortifications which are now in a national park. The views from the top are pretty impressive and with an abundance of granite rocks for improvised defensive positions as well as the camouflaged official positions you can see how this little island could have become one of the famous battle grounds of the war had the Japanese ever managed to invade Australia. The national park is also full of wild koalas which can be seen just sitting trees while you walk along the paths. Of course being Australia it is also full of snakes, especially death adders and signs along the paths warn people to watch their step. As well as bush walking I went for a sea kayak.

The island itself is also pretty spaced out. There are around 2000 residents and they seem to be evenly scattered over the non park part of the island. There are little clusters of shops 10 to 15 minutes walk apart which makes it a little awkward for backpackers. A local bus service does exist but the buses are infrequent and some backpackers just hire little cars called mokes which look like toughened up golf buggies.

I don't know why I didn't like the place, but I didn't. Not that I disliked it, I just didn't like it. The hostel I was staying in was called Base and while it was beautifully situated right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees and with pretty good dorms and lockers in the dorms it just didn't catch my interest. Others will love Magnetic, I just didn't care at all about it. But it wasn't just me who didn't take to the place, most of the north bound backpackers I spoke to were unimpressed as well. I think we had seen places like Byron Bay, Fraser Island and Airlie Beach and just found Magnetic Island lacked anything special that we hadn't seen elsewhere. For the South bounders this was one of their first stops and they seemed to love it. So I guess its all matter of perspective. Personally I'd rather have spent 2 more nights in Airlie and then I would have headed to Magnetic Island for the Full Moon party. But then those that did that were even more disappointed than I was.

Once a month Base host a Full Moon party, obviously an attempt to create a party similar to that in Koh Phangan. I have not been to the one in Koh Phangan but those that had say it is one of the great parties of the world and the hype it gets made many of us look forward to the Full Moon party on Magnetic which while we expected it to be smaller we assumed, based on all the signs around travel agent windows in Airlie, that it would be a pretty cool night with thousands of people arriving from all around Queensland.

In the end the party lacked a few things. Firstly there was no beach. The real Full Moon party is on a beach on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. On Magnetic Island security guards prevented people from gaining access to the beach. This meant everyone was confined to the grounds of the hostel itself. Secondly it lacked thousands of people, there was supposed to be 2000 people but I think a more accurate estimate would have been 800 to 1000. If 2000 people had been squashed into the venue then no one would have been able to move, maybe that is why they closed off the beach. Thirdly no cheap alcohol. The hostel had a strictly enforced no bring your own policy with alcohol being confiscated from rooms and guards checking bottles and cans as people returned from their rooms. (I saw a guard checking peoples cans and friends of mine had their wine confiscated when they were in their rooms). The only alcohol that could be consumed had to be bought from the bar which made the night a little expensive for many backpackers but people still bought plenty of drink. Of course the hostel is entitled to make money but sometimes you can push backpackers a little too much. Finally and most importantly for a Full Moon party we were missing a Full Moon. The moon was still a couple of days from being full. The party seems to have just been organised for the closest Friday night. That did provide a few moments of drunken humour for those in attendance as they stared at the sky and realised it wasn't a full moon at all.

Am I glad I went to Magnetic? Well I guess I'd have been curious about the place if I hadn't gone so I'm glad I visited the place, but I do wish I had spent a couple more nights in Airlie Beach instead and just gone to Magnetic for one or at most two nights.

Airlie Beach

Originally I wasn't going to write about Airlie Beach at all. Airlie was one of those jumping off towns to get to the real destination of a leg of my journey. Like Hervey Bay which is where most backpackers stay before going to Fraser Island or Townsville where people stop to get the ferry to Magnetic Island, Airlie Beach is where people stop before going to the Whitsunday Islands. The Oz Experience drivers referred to it as Airlie No Beach since it doesn't have much of a beach and generally gave a bad impression of it. Therefore Airlie didn't feature at all on my list of destinations.

That changed however when I had to spend a few nights there after my Whitsunday trip waiting for the next Oz Experience bus out of town. Airlie is actually a cool little town. There was not much to do during the day except wander around the few shops, lounge by the lagoon, or just chill in the hostel, but at night Airlie turns into a party town for backpackers with several bars and clubs. Beaches was the starting point for most nights out with good, relatively cheap, food, live music and a party atmosphere. After Beaches there are a selection of other bars like Paddy Shenanigans, Mama Africas, Moroccos and several others I cant remember now.

I have also come to the conclusion that what really makes or breaks a town for a backpacker is the hostel they stay in. Many backpackers come away from a town cursing the place, saying it is a total dive and telling people not to stay there but most of their complaints circle around the hostel they stayed in or the people they shared dorms with. If you have a bad experience in a hostel, say it's dirty and bug infested, or the people there are drunk and stoned all night, running around and keeping everyone else awake when you want to sleep then that's what you remember about the town.

In Airlie I stayed in Koalas hostel and while it wasn't the best looking hostel I've been in it was still pretty good but it was the atmosphere and people in the rooms where I was staying that made the experience. Each dorm was a like a self contained, semi-detached lodge, and with not much to do in town people just sat in chairs outside the dorms and chatted. This may seem boring but it was nice to just chill and watch the world go by with other friendly people who were perfectly happy to just chill as well. Of course if you stayed in those same rooms the night after I left there was likely to be a totally different bunch of people there and they could have been complete assholes. That's the backpacker lottery. At the time I was looking forward to moving on to the next destination, Magnetic Island but after a couple of hours on Maggie I was cursing the fact that I hadn't extended my stay at Airlie.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Checking in

I moved on from Magnetic Island today where I had spent the last few days. I'll post about that and Airlie Beach tomorrow, assuming I still around tomorrow ;-)

At 7:30am I'm heading out to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane and try to land on a beach between a crocodile and snake infested rain forest on one side and a shark, stinger and crocodile infested sea on the other side (yes crocs go into the sea and can be found around beaches in Queensland, who would have guessed). Should be great fun :-) Its a tandem sky dive from 14,000 feet and I signed up to get the DVD and all the extras. I'll have to put together a parcel of stuff to send home when I'm in Cairns.

I also finalised the last couple of legs of my trip this evening. I had already planned as far as Alice Springs but now I have the rest of the route back to Sydney planned and booked. I finally bit the bullet and decided to skip New Zealand. There are just too many things to see and do in Australia. I've decided that I can always take 3 weeks to a month off in a couple of years and see New Zealand properly instead of rushing around Australia and then rushing around New Zealand.
Update: 5-11 I'm back and it was GREAT fun. I now know why people get hooked on skydiving. It was an amazing experience.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Whitsunday Islands

One of the things I was least looking forward to on the trip to Australia was sailing on the Whitsunday Islands. I was seriously contemplating skipping it. Boats and me don't mix. I've fallen out of enough forms of water transport to know that my sea legs are a little shaky, plus I tend to get sea sick on those that I managed to stay in. Still, friends of mine insisted that the Whitsunday Islands were the highlight of their trip to Australia and everyone else on the Oz Experience was booked on one boat or another so I decided I'd give it a go.

I wanted to go on one of the old slow wooden tall ships and I certainly didn't want on one of the party boats so that really left two boats. The nicest looking of them was a boat called Alexander Stewart so that was the one I booked onto. After another early start (I now get up earlier in Australia than I do in Ireland) at 6:30am I was checked out of the hostel, luggage stored, breakfast eaten and down at the marina by 8am. The Alexander Stewart was moored just beside us and looked very small to hold 18 passenger and 3 crew for 3 days. Still once we got on board we got our cabins and were shown around I figured that despite looking small it was actually plenty big for me. The cabins were a little small for some people and there were two people in each, either in a double for the couples/close friends or a twin with tiny bunk beds. I was travelling alone so got into a twin and my own bunk. There wasn't much room and certainly no storage space but I don't mind confined spaces as much as some others on the boat so I was happy enough.

The boat was nice and relaxed and while there were several couples on the boat there were single people as well and everyone chatted to everyone else. There were 3 crew members, Craig the skipper, who seemed relaxed and nothing seemed to fluster him. Jimmy the deck hand/snorkel instructor/guide/and the closest thing I've seen to a sea monkey with his ability to leap around the boat with a confidence and balance that amazed the passengers. Caz was the cook and had the unenviable task of providing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for 21 people in a tiny galley, but she managed it very well and kept everyone happy.

As we sailed to our first destination we saw some whales breaching just off our starboard side. They didn't jump out of the water, but as a free bonus whale watching trip it was pretty cool. Our first stop was at Whitehaven Beach where we went on a bush walk to a lookout over the nearly deserted beach. On the way we passed a green tree ant nest and Jimmy stopped to pick up the ants by their heads and let us all lick their behinds. Green tree ants have a very strong lime taste which surprised everyone who tasted them. Several minutes later I was still tasting lime. Whitehaven Beach itself is a picture postcard with turquoise water, white sand and rain forests right down to the edge of the beach. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and Jimmy told us it is the most photographed beach in the world. I could see why but I suspected that Bondi Beach in Sydney may have a pretty good claim to the title as well, it's no where near as pretty but much more famous. After spending a few hours on the beach itself, which was almost deserted apart from us and maybe 10 other people, we headed back to the boat where we had dinner, watched the stars and had a couple of glasses of wine. I had rather stupidly had followed the advice of the Oz Experience driver and bought 2 boxes of wine which totaled 9 litres. At my current rate of consumption I figure the last litre will be consumed somewhere after Cairns. The boat was moored in an inlet which was so calm you couldn't feel the waves.

The next morning Jimmy called us all out of bed at 7am and we headed over to an island to see some Aborigine cave paintings. They look like nets, no one really knows what they mean but some people think they are burial nets and that the Aborigines buried their dead by lowering them in nets into nearby caves. After that we spent the rest of the day snorkeling travelling to two different beaches from which we could see coral reefs and thousands of fish. It is currently box jelly fish season so we all had to wear stinger suits when in the water. They are a bit like thin wet suits, made of lycra, covering the arms legs and torso. No one wants to get stung by a jelly fish so there were no complaints about wearing lycra body suits. Among the fish highlights were a giant clam, some large mauri wrasse fish and a stingray. There was of course thousands of other fish and lots of coral. That night we moored in more open water beside a sand spur so the night was a more choppy but it was still easy to sleep.

The next day was the third and final one so we started at 7am with a snorkel before breakfast off the sand spur, which provided some of the clearest water and the best coral. We had been warned to not slap the coral with our fins as it could do a lot of damage to the coral. In some places it looked so shallow that I had to turn around and swim away from it because swimming over it would have been too risky. After breakfast we headed to another beach for more snorkeling but the visibility there was poor so we all went back to the boat early. The rest of the day was spent sailing back to Airlie beach and sunbathing. At one stage a pod of dolphins showed up and swam with the boat for about 5 minutes, jumping out of the water just under the bow of the ship. This was the highlight of the trip for some people. I also got a chance to drive the boat for a few minutes in open water. It may have seemed very brave on the part of the crew, but there wasn't much around that I could hit and so long as I kept the bow pointing in the right direction nothing bad could happen. Still it was fun.

We got back to Airlie Beach at about 3pm and I am pleased to say I made the whole trip without once getting or even feeling sea sick. Granted I had loaded up on sea sickness tablets before leaving so I was pretty safe. That night some of the passengers and the skipper Craig went out for food and drinks. The night ended in a club called Paddy Shennanigans sometime after 1pm.

I have to say that despite my earlier worries about the trip sailing on the Whitsunday islands has been the highlight of the trip so far. It is really beautiful and relaxing and calm and I cant imagine many things better than it.

Kroombit Cattle Station and Barefoot Bowling

The two big side excursions on the Sydney to Cairns trip are Fraser Island and the Whitsunday Islands. Most people book these as a combined package and since the two destinations are beside each other people come off Fraser get on their buses in Hervey Bay, head to Airlie Beach and sail out to the Whitsundays, at least that's what the people travelling by Greyhound bus did. Unfortunately for them "beside each other" in Australian terms means a 14 hour bus journey. Greyhound do it as an overnight trip but Oz Experience take a different tack and split the journey up with a overnight stop after 6 hours at a cattle station called Kroombit.

I had been looking forward to my trip to Kroombit as I would get a chance to do a bit of horse riding and other activities. As with everything in the backpacker experience all activities are extra and in many cases a little too extra. Kroombits horse riding was called (ready for it?, don't laugh) "a goat muster" and cost $40. Yup, we got onto horses and rode out into a huge hilly scrubby bush paddock to round up a hundred or so goats. Despite how it sounds it was actually good fun and we got a couple of hours horse riding out of it so I think it was good value. It was a 10 minute ride in a line to get to the goat paddock but then we were left to do our own thing while collecting goats. If you wanted an easy time you could stay close to the instructors, if you wanted more fun you could ride away up the hill to hunt down a few straggler goats.

Once we got the goats into the pen at the end of the paddock the rest of the Oz Experience passengers joined us where we had a goat rodeo. This was a little more silly as we divided into teams of 3 and had to enter the pen, find a nanny goat that was wet and milk it. Once enough milk was collected one member of the team had to drink the milk. This was against the clock and my team managed to win with a time of 28 seconds, since we were the only team who picked out their goat in advance based on the fact that it had a kid with it and when we entered the pen grabbed it straight away. After that there was clay pigeon shooting and I continued my winning streak by shooting 5 out of 5, too many shoot-em-up computer games I think. Next there was a short dusk horse ride as we returned the horses to their stables.

Dinner was provided and was some of the nicest beef I have ever had. After dinner we hit the wine and beer and the mechanical bull was turned on. Unfortunately my winning streak came to a quick end here as I flew straight off the bull when it was turned on and landed on my head, thankfully with a helmet on. Drinking games and lots of alcohol later we made it back to our cabins for a couple of hours sleep before an early start for the next leg of the journey.

The second day of the trip is the longest leg of the Oz Experience trip clocking in at 8 hours. However we stopped every couple of hours for lunch and toilet breaks as well as to see the line of the Tropic of Capricorn, where was a big sculpture and an information center, and to go barefoot bowling. In a town called Sarina we stopped at a lawn bowling club to play bowling, barefoot, surrounded by old people in their white trousers, shirts and hats. Very strange. I sometime wonder how the Oz Experience pick their activities. Still it got us off the bus for a while and we even made it into Airlie Beach half an hour early (no pun intended).

Fraser Island

One of the things I was told was a must see on any trip to Australia was Fraser Island. Fraser is the worlds largest sand island at 175kms long, up to 25kms wide and it is a World Heritage site. Despite being a sand island there is actually quite a diverse range of plant and animal life on the island as well as enough fresh water reserves to solve the drought in Queensland for a few years though draining the water would destroy the island.

The most popular way to "see" the island is to rent a 4WD self-drive van with 10 other people, load up with beer and wine, a tent, some food and head to the island for 3 day long party. Personally I didn't really want to spend 3 days pissed, driving around a world heritage site and sleeping in sand. My way of looking at it is I'd be more than a little annoyed if a bunch of Australians showed at Newgrange and proceeded to play a cricket game on the tomb roof while tossing beer cans down the burial shaft so why should I do the same on one of their world heritage sites. Therefore I opted for the slightly more expensive guided Cool Dingo tour. I say slightly more expensive because all food and transport costs were included and we were staying in lodges at a resort so the difference was actually smaller than it looked on paper. Some people said the guided tours are for older people but the Cool Dingo tour was full of backpackers with the exception of one Irish couple who were a little older.

The morning of the trip to Fraser was, to be honest, a miserable one. It was cold, wet and generally a standard Irish winters morning. The ferry trip to the island lasted 35 minutes and by the time we got there it was, if anything, raining even heavier. So much for the drought. Still since we were going to be sleeping indoors and driven around by a guide this actually brought a little light humour to the proceeding as people thought of the campers with smug pity.

Our guide called Mitch met us at the jetty and put us on the bus. This was a 4WD truck with the trailer converted into a cabin. It looked a little big and unwieldy for the task ahead of it but in the hands of Mitch it proved to be far more suited to the terrain than the 4WD vans we spent the next 3 days seeing bogged in the sand and surrounded by backpackers wielding shovels.

The first place we went to was a fresh water lake called Basin Lake. The itinerary for the next 3 days included chances to swim in 4 lakes and I was determined to swim in all of them so despite being a little chilly, though it had now stopped raining, I went for a swim. The water was lovely and warm so getting out was actually more of a chore than getting in. After the swim Mitch sent us on a walk through the rain forest to a place called Central Station where we had a buffet lunch, effectively all you can eat since there was loads of left overs. Mitch now explained that much of the island had been logged at least 5 times in its European history and Central Station had been where the loggers lived. The loggers replanted the island as they went and they left in place many trees that were unsuitable for their needs so the island still maintains a lot of old trees and thick rainforest. We then headed to Lake McKenzie for another swim. This is a beautiful fresh water lake and is one of the highlights of Fraser. After this there was tea and muffins, food it turned out would be a feature of the Cool Dingo tour. After this we headed to the Kingfisher resort where we got our lodges and dorms. Since they were not very busy I had a 4 person dorm all to myself which after 3 weeks of living in dorms with other people was like having a hotel room. One of the others actually had a whole lodge to himself.

The next day we were up at 6:30am and after breakfast headed to Indian Head and Champagne Pools. The views from Indian Head were great but with high winds the position was a little precarious. Champagne Pools were a little disappointing with waves crashing over the rocks making them too much trouble to swim in. We then went to see the wreck of the Maheno which was a cruise liner that got beached on Fraser in the 1930s and after being stripped of anything movable by the locals was abandoned to the elements. Now only the top deck is visible but it still makes for an interesting sight and hopefully some cool photographs, though at one stage I nearly got swept off my feet by a wave that washed around my waist as I tried to photograph the wreck with my digital camera in my hands. Fortunately no damage was done. At some stage during the day driving along the beach I saw my one and only Fraser Island wild dingo strolling calmly down the beach as cars zipped by. The campers had much closer dingo experiences as the dogs come sniffing around camp sites at night looking for scraps or it would appear the odd drunk backpacker that no one will miss. The beach also serves as an airstrip of sorts so at one stage as we drove down the beach at speed Mitch told us to look out the rear window where a cesna was landing right behind us.

Day 3 brought 2 more lakes. Lake Wabby, a lake surrounded by sand dunes that make it appear like an oasis in the desert when you walk for 20 minutes through the sun and sand to get there. While swimming in the lake several large catfish came over to inspect us but they were always careful to stay just out of reach. The second lake was Lake Birrabeen where we played frisbee in the water. For lunch we went to Eurong resort where we met up with the pilots of somr tour cesnas and for $60 they brought people on a flight around the island. Of course I had to give it a go and it was great fun. It is only from the air that you can truly appreciate how long the island is and how much rainforest there is, plus there are around 100 fresh water lakes scattered around so the views are amazing.

The trip ended at 4pm when we returned to the resort and boarded the ferry back to Hervey Bay. Everyone was tired but I think we all had a good time and most of us were glad we did the guided tour instead of the self-drive. From next year on the self-drive option is being limited to convoys of 3 cars with an experienced guide in the lead car so I imagine backpackers that view Fraser Island as just a big party and piss-up will start to skip the island. That will be a shame for them, but for those who want to do the guided tour it will make the island even better.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Still Alive

I'm still here and still blogging but it's been a busy few days so apologies for the quiet period. I even got one txt message asking me if I was alright :-).

I spent three days on Fraser Island and then 2 days travelling to Airlie Beach where I am tonight. Early tomorrow morning I head out to the Whitsunday Islands so again I'll be out of contact for 3 days. I promise I'll update my blog properly on Monday as I will have 2 days to chill and catch my breath in Airlie.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Noosa and Australia Zoo

I've just arrived in Hervey Bay after two nights in a little town called Noosa. Noosa is basically a really upmarket version of Byron Bay with nicely maintained and landscaped streets, lots of high price boutiques and a selection of bars and restaurants. Our tour guide compared it to Florida Keys. It's a really nice laid back town, I was glad I stopped there. On the way to Noosa we passed by the Glasshouse mountains a set of 14 volcanic mountains that have been extinct for 20 million years but I imagine in their prime would have made the whole area look like Mordor (from The Lord of the Rings) on steroids.

We stayed in a hostel called Koalas which had its own bar. This bar is in itself one reason to stop in Noosa. It was commonly agreed to be one of the weirdest bars any of us had been in. For starters despite being in a backpackers hostel many locals came in, obviously hoping to pull a backpacker. In one corner there was a bunch of old geezers playing pool and arguing over the way balls should be laid out in the triangle. In another corner were the school kids, obviously 14 and obviously just learning to drink alcohol. In front of us was the cast from Battle Royale. A group of Japanese "backpackers" who stood around in a circle and looked scared when one of the locals approached. One of them thought he was Puff Daddy or something and was wearing a baseball jersey down to his knees, a baseball cap 4 sizes too large and enough fake gold to give him a permanent stoop. We sat back and enjoyed the bar entertainment, which included bar games and a weird local guy who dances on his own in the center of the stage to Madonnas Vogue and has done so every night for the last 5 years. We finally left when the local Mutton Dressed as Lamb Old Ladies Society arrived and settled on us as being their toy boys for the evening. Exit stage left and run for the hills.

The main reason to go to Noosa, apart from the local colour, it to get to Australia Zoo. A free courtesy bus runs each morning at 8:30am, and while we had no booking and were told by everyone that we would have to get a couple of public buses and trains just to get close to the zoo, we chanced our arm and showed up for the free bus. Fortunately they do leave spaces on the bus so we got seats. Australia Zoo is your standard zoo, except full of Australian animals, which you can see in places like Sydney. What made Australia Zoo special was Steve Irwin and the crocodile shows. While Steve was tragically killed last month the zoo still continues and it puts on shows with crocodiles. No crocodile wrestling or anything truly dangerous, just feeding and jumping. There is also a wall of tributes to Steve with loads of khaki shirts signed by people. It is interesting to walk down the wall reading what people have had to say. The zoo is expanding and will be approximately twice as big within the next year, it is well worth the visit now, so then it should be quite a good day out.

This morning I left Noosa and am now in Hervey Bay, this is where I go out to Fraser Island tomorrow morning. On the way here we passed through an old little town called Maryborough. It's claim to fame is that it is the home to Mary Poppins. Yeah, we didn't believe it either til we saw the statue and learned that the author of Mary Poppins was born there. I guess every town needs some thing to hold on to.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Surf Camp Photos done

The last (well almost last) of the surf camp photos are now online. I've been asked to put some of myself on so I've got to find the CD and find the least embarassing ones :-).

Brisbane and Drought

Brisbane is my latest home. After what seems like weeks of travelling arriving in Brisbane was a big change. It's also a good opportunity to dump some junk out of my backpack and replace it with stuff that I actually need.

Brisbane is Australia's third largest city and if it wasn't on the road from Sydney to Cairns I doubt many backpackers would stop here. I'm staying in a place called the Palace Backpackers Central. It's a nice old building surrounded by new office blocks and shopping centers. The whole place feels very business like. I walked around some of the suburbs as well and got the same feeling. People live here but go elsewhere to party, I suppose being inland means it cant compete with places like Surfers, Byron, and Noosa.

That said it does have a few nice restaurants, I treated myself to a proper restaurant meal last night and while strictly outside my budget I figured it could be the last chance I got until I get to Melbourne sometime around the end of November. While there I spent time watching cricket on the big screen. Cricket is an amazing sport because you can watch it for almost an hour, with little or no knowledge of the sport and the sound turned down so there was no commentary and still know whats going on. Of course after an hour, very little has actually happened so I suppose the commentary could have been on full volume but the commentator was taking a nap.

Brisbane is also in the middle of the worst drought in 100 years, and lest you forget there are signs everywhere asking people to be water wise or explaining why fountains are now covered in grass or other plants. There is also a lot of talk about the plight of farmers. One farmer in the news yesterday, a guy called Gibson, is down to 8 marino sheep on his farm. Irish farmers don't know how well they have it. Next time they bitch about reduced income or forms to fill in from Europe I say they should be made do a 6 month swap with these guys.

I booked my Fraser Island and Whit Sunday trips as well. In the end I opted for the 4WD bus instead of the self drive. From next year self drive is banned on Fraser, the backpackers are apparently wrecking a World Heritage site so not wanting to add to the damage was part of my reasoning. Another was I didn't really fancy spending a few nights in a tent covered in sand. I'm sure it's great fun but it took me so long to make up my mind in the end I just tossed a coin and the guided tour won.

For the Whit Sundays I had decided from day one I wanted on one of the tall ships. I just like the idea of being on an old cutter style boat with tall masts, a wooden deck and an air of timelessness. I've also fallen out of the majority of water born transportation that I've gotten into so there was no way anyone was getting me on one of the Americas Cup style boats that lean over on their sides. ;-) The other choices were catamarans which while cool to look at just don't interest me.

Tomorrow morning 7am I move on to Noosa, I should be there by about 9:30am so that should give me a few days to look around and hopefully grab a bus to the Australia Zoo, the one that was run by Steve Irwin. It seems to be the number 1 destination for backpackers this month. Everyone says they are going to it.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Surfers Paradise

I'm in Surfers Paradise at the moment. Surfers is the complete opposite of Byron Bay. Where Byron has a relaxed small town feel, with low rise buildings and a keen environmental awareness Surfers is like a chunk of Hollywood dropped onto the beach. At least that's what the locals like to say. Personally I think it's more of a touch of Vegas than Hollywood. Skyscrapers built right beside the beach, clubs and bars open until 6am, all the big American restaurant chains, fashion stores, amusement arcades and meter maids in gold bikinis.

The meter maids are, apparently, Surfers version of parking meters, or traffic wardens or something like that, I'm not sure how it works. They are on the streets and people parking their cars seem to pay them for parking. I like the idea of putting traffic wardens in gold bikinis, though only when they look good in them. It is somehow amazingly Australian. Only in Australia could they get away with it and you have to admit no one is going to argue with beautiful woman in a bikini when she gives them a parking ticket. I'm not sure if they do clampers, the scourge of the Dublin motorists, but if they do I like to think they travel around in party buses and arrive like Duff Man from the Simpson's.

The clubs in Surfers are pretty good as well. On Saturday night we went out on the organised Backpacker Club Crawl. 3 clubs, an hour and a half in each and 1 free drink on entry. It cost $25 and was a great night, Shooters Bar was the best of the three, with visits to Melbas and Rose & Crown clubs as well. Each hostel seems to have it's own club crawl rep and their combined job was to get as many of us into the final club as possible. I think they had a failure rate of 50% as people got lost or just stayed where they were.

Unfortunately Surfers is not the place to want a quiet night. This is a party city so if you want to relax stay the extra couple of nights in Byron. The hostel I am in (which I got from the Lonely Planet, not Oz Experience) seems to be a bit of a party zone, which while fun for a while does get somewhat annoying around 1am on the second night of no sleep. If the other hostels are like the one I am in I would suggest that anyone visiting Surfers, and you should visit Surfers, should see if they can afford to get a room in one of the many hotels, at least then you are pretty much guaranteed a nights sleep.

During the day there is plenty to do as well. There are theme parks like Sea World and Wet & Wild, if you like amusement parks then allocate a few days to Surfers. In town there are attractions like Ripleys Believe it or Not, Dracula's House and Q1 viewing platform. The only one I went to was Q1 which is the highest residential building in the world and the 20th highest over all. 77/78 stories above Surfers, the viewing platform gives a great view of the Gold Coast. $17.50 entry is a little steep on a backpackers budget but I wanted the photographs and I think they turned out of considering I was behind glass.

The other big thing in Surfers at the moment is a round of Indy Car racing. Surfers seems to be a street circuit for the race and there are loads of diversions and areas cordoned off. There is not much to see yet and there wont be while I'm here. Many of the backpackers are complaining that prices are getting jacked up because there are 300,000 visitors in town and everything from here to Brisbane is booked up. I haven't really noticed it, but then again I haven't been here long enough.

One other thing though, don't get misled by the name, Surfers Paradise is no longer a Surfers Paradise, its a clubbers paradise, a party paradise. Byron Bay seems to be the place to stay if you want a real surfers paradise. I met loads of surfers in Byron and they were all staying away from Surfers.

Later today I am moving on to Brisbane, hopefully then I'll get to upload some photos (Internet access in Surfers doesn't seem to be great) and maybe catch up on some sleep, though I doubt it.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Byron Bay

I have spent days in a place called Byron Bay. Byron Bay is the most easterly place in continental Australia and is a bit of a party town with sun and beaches during the day, nightclubs and beer during the night. I have to say after 5 days I think I'm ready to move on. I imagine most people would love Byron but to be honest after a few days of sitting on the beach, dolphin watching and walks around I was pretty much ready to move on.

Don't get be wrong, I would come back here again but really I can only go the meat grinder that is Cheeky Monkeys so many times before my body would shut itself down in protest at the late nights and cheap beer. Cheekys seems to be party central for backpackers on the Oz Experience. With $2 meals, drinks promotions, dancing on tables and competitions to win surf lessons or trips to Fraser Island Cheekys has set itself up to be a honey pot for backpackers.

The boxes of wine have also made an appearance. $19 for 4 litres of wine means most evenings there are drinking games in the hostels with boxes of wine being passed around like bags of nachos. It is a fun way to meet people and if you are any good at the games you can stop yourself getting too drunk.

Of course there are other things to do in Byron Bay, like surfing, whale and dolphin watching, climbs to the lighthouse, skydiving and lots of other holiday activities. The problem is after a night in Cheekys there is no way you are in a fit state the next morning to strap yourself to a parachute and jump out of a plane.

I was also feeling a bit homesick the last two days. This is the end of my second week in Australia and pretty much at this moment I should be getting depressed and planning my trip home. Instead I still have another 10 or so weeks before I get home, that's both cool and a little daunting. Today I feel better, I think moving on from Byron is helping my mood (and my body).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Surf Camp Photos

For those waiting for them, the photos from surf camp are currently being uploaded. I'll get at least half of them up today. Check the flickr link on the right. I tagged them "Surf Camp" to make them easier to search for in flickr.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Spot X and Surf Camp

On Sunday we left Barrington Tops and headed to Spot X and the surf camp run by Mojo Surf. I've never been surfing before but that wasn't going to stop me giving it a go.

Before we got to surf camp we stopped in a little surf museum run by surf legend Scott Dillon. Scott was there and greeted us. While the museum itself was only of interest to those who knew one end of a surf board from another, which I don't, Scott looked like a fascinating character. I believe someone said he was 78 and had just had a hip replaced but he looked like he would be heading out for a surf at any time. Beer in hand Scott gave us a short little talk about surfing and then moved onto his next favourite subject, the ladies. Scott would appear to be the Australian version of Hugh Hefner and I have to suspect that his recently replaced hip may have been injured in the bedroom instead of on the surf board. Some of the girls in the group were happy to pose with him for some photographs and Scott was more than happy to let them.

Before leaving Scott warned us that today was not a good day to learn surfing and conditions at surf camp would be pretty bad, years of surfing seem to have given this man an insight into surf weather that means he doesn't even have to see the ocean to know what the waves are like.

We arrived in Spot X and dumped our bags in the dorms. Then it was out and into the wet suits. A quick lesson and explanation of the basics of surfing, the boards were issued, and we were off down the beach where Allie, our surf instructor, tried to teach us the basics of paddling the board and standing up. There is really no way to teach surfing on land so after 20 minutes it was time to take the plunge, literally. Boards at our sides like pros of many years experience we strode confidently towards the surf. 20 seconds later we were desperately trying to hold onto our boards as the waves pounded into us and surf boards did that they do and took off on the waves. Scott was right, the conditions sucked for learning.

We would struggle out to waste deep water, wait for a calm moment and hop onto our boards before the next wave hit us. Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! Feel the wave catch the board, 4 more paddles. Foot up. Push up off the board, then up onto to your feet and SPLASH, head first into the waves. Surfing requires a level of balance and courage that you never quite understand until you try it yourself.

Still after an hour of this most of us were standing, at least for a few seconds. Unfortunately just as I was beginning to see the light I took a tumble from the board in shallow water and landed hard on my ass twisting my back. Steady informed me that back injuries are quite common in surfing so with only 20 minutes left in the lesson anyway I called it a day and hoped my back would be OK in the morning. Someone then spotted whales off shore jumping out of the water. Even the instructors stopped to stare, Allie telling us that she had never seen whales jumping like that off this beach. I'm told it was a great sight but I had left my glasses and contacts up at the dorms so all I could see were black shapes on the horizon.

That night we sat around drinking, had a quiz and food and at 10pm headed down to the beach to continue drinking. Unfortunately the wind had picked up and the beach was too cold and sand was everywhere so most people headed to bed once again at around 11pm. Myself and a couple of others sat up for another hour or so drinking and discussing the trip so far. It's amazing how friendly people can become after just two days.

The next morning when the others headed for surfing I was still nursing a stiff back so I opted to take the chance to grab some photographs down on the beach with the others surfing (I know some people are waiting for the surf photos, I think they will be up tomorrow at the current rate of upload). The conditions were easier that day and now most people could stand for several seconds at a time. Surf awards have to go to Motti, Jean, and Hilda who were by now surfing like pros.

That afternoon we headed up to Byron Bay, the official destination of the previous two days of travel. We now had our first departure from the bus. One girl, Zona from England, had somehow managed to mess up her booking and get stuck in Surf Camp for two more days as another girl was scheduled to join the bus there. Some felt sorry for her as she watched her new friends drive away, some felt envious as they would have loved to be stuck in Surf Camp. She caught up with us yesterday in Byron and she seems to have survived the experience so no harm done.

Surfing is never going to be one of my hobbies and I certainly wont be buying a board but I do think I will try it again. I don't know if I'll do it in Ireland, too cold, but maybe I'll give it a shot somewhere else in Australia before I head home.

Oz Experience and Barrington Steps

On Saturday (was it Saturday? I can barely remember the days by now) I joined the Oz Experience Bus to travel from Sydney to Cairns. Oz Experience is a hop on hop off bus that takes a minimum of 10 days to travel up the coast but which recommends you stop in cities and towns along the way for a few days and make the journey last about 4 weeks.

I was a bit worried before hand since I am, well to be honest, a little older than the average Oz Experience traveller. Not too old but enough that I was worried I would the weird old guy in the corner. That was total rubbish. Oz Experience is great, so long as you are willing to have fun, join in the activities, chat to complete strangers, and drink beer then you will fit right in. There were 24 passengers on our bus and 16 nationalities. There were also two guides, the driver called Forest and the newly trained guide called Steady (they use nicknames) both were Australian so that made 17 nationalities. Forest said that never happens and pretty much sets the record. It was cool though since most people were travelling alone and had to chat to other people or go crazy. Thankfully English was the language of choice, I'd love to be able to speak German or French, or any foreign language but I've always failed miserably at the attempt.

The bus stopped frequently so none of the drives were more than a couple of hours and it was air conditioned which made the journey fairly comfortable. The first place we stopped for an official visit (discounting lunch) was a rain forest in a place called Barrington Tops. Forest and Steady walked us through the forest pointing out different plants that could either save our lives or leave us writhing in agony. The stinging tree was my particular favourite as it grew all over the forest and beside the path and would leave you with a super enhanced nettle sting that would hurt for 6 months. No one wanted to actually test this claim so we'll take it as being true.

After Barrington Tops we moved on to a farm called Barrington Steps where we spent the first night. We were staying in an old style Australian house that was probably built for the purpose of housing backpackers but looked nice and quaint. That night there were several activities available but most of us opted for the all you can eat pizza and bottles of wine we had bought in the last town some 40 Kms away. A hardy bunch went for the night kayak trip. I can kayak having actually done lessons and passed an exam, but after a bad disagreement with a weir and a stopper which swallowed me for while, I had no desire to relive that experience in the dark going over rapids. Those who did the trip said it was really cool looking up at the stars, with silence all around except for the odd splash of a paddle, or in one case a platypus which followed the boats for a few minutes.

I took the opportunity to head up a hill find a fence post to rest my camera on and take photographs of the sunset which was spectacular. I've loads of them which I will upload in the next few days.

Everyone headed to bed around 11pm, tired and weary and probably still a little jet lagged. The next morning I got up and went for another walk with my camera to catch some photos of the wild kangaroos that seemed to suddenly infest the place. Apparently there are 40 that live on the farm, but they seemed to be all over the place. They are wary animals and would not let us get within 50 feet of them, hopping off the moment the felt we were too close.

We were all on the bus around 8am and heading on to our next destination Spot X and surf camp.

Darling Harbour

Wow it's been a hectic few days, sorry for not posting, I'm going to try and catch up with things now, but the last 4 of five days were so packed I'm sure I'll forget something.

My last day in Sydney was spent in Darling Harbour where I visited the marine museum. There are a few old ships you can visit, but I really wanted to visit HMAS Vampire and HMAS Onslow, a destroyer and a submarine. I'd visited both before but this time I did the guided tour of Vampire and lets face it how many opportunities do you get to go on board a military submarine and have a look around.

Darling Harbour itself is a lovely area of Sydney. Lots of bars and restaurants with museums, an aquarium and a park. I sat by the harbour having a steak sandwich and a beer realising that Sydney really could teach Dublin a thing or two about how to create a city where people live instead of just exist.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Last Day in Sydney

Today is my last day in Sydney before heading off on the Oz Experience bus, at 6:10 am tomorrow. Good thing I'm still waking up at 4am in the morning. Sydney is a great city but I have to say I'm looking forward to getting out to places I haven't been before, I was in Sydney in 2001.

Yesterday I went to Bondi beach and watched the surfers attempting to catch waves. It's interesting that the majority of the surfing experience seems to be sitting on your board waiting for a wave. It must also be frustrating when you sit there for 20 minutes for the perfect wave to come in your direction and your board is not at the right angle. Most large waves would see 5 or six surfers paddling furiously trying to "catch a wave" but only one would make it.

I understand from Oz Experience that the first two days of the trip to Byron Bay involves learning to surf. If my past experience with water born transportation is anything to go by it may require somewhat longer to get me to just stay on the board never mind stand up.

Oxfam Ireland Launch Online Fairtrade Shop

Oxfam Ireland have launched an online shop where shoppers can purchase a range of products that are Fair Trade certified. Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know that I have taken part in the Starbucks Challenge making sure they provide Fair Trade coffee in their shops.

The Oxfam shop provides much more than just coffee and tea. They have quite a large selection of products from jewellery and toys to fashion and Christmas hampers. It is an interesting selection for anyone wanting to do some ethical shopping this Christmas or indeed any time.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ryanair to buy Aer Lingus

I've been out of the country for less than a week and the universe is being turned on it's head. Ryanair is trying to buy Aer Lingus? What the hell? Am I going to have to fight my way onto the plane to get a seat for the last leg of my flight home? The Ryanair experience for long haul, shudder.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Ok, my great idea of saving copies of my photos up on flickr from internet cafes as I travel may have hit a slight snag. It's so slow! I'm going to have to think about this a bit more.

Hello from Sydney

Well I arrived, more or less in one piece. I left at 4pm on Sunday and landed at 5am Tuesday so as you can imagine I was wrecked. The flight was uneventful and I had a window seat so I was able to get a fair amount of sleep but that doesn't fully make up for the lack of a bed. Still arriving in Sydney was a joy and I was checked into the hotel two hours later. Public transport in Sydney is heaven.

Of course I couldn't go to bed at 7am as that would ruin any chance I had of avoiding jet lag. Shower, change and out the door to visit the Opera House, Circular Quay, the Botanic Gardens and a walk around the commercial district with its sky scrapers. I walked miles but it was worth it.

The Opera House is lovely and I did the tour. While the tour is supposed to last an hour the guide ran out of things to say after 40 minutes and that included 10 minutes of listening to a rock band (Four Feathers perhaps) warm up in the concert hall. This pissed off 4 Irish girls who were also on the tour, but I figured that all I wanted was to go inside so I was happy enough. Up close the Opera House is a strange colour not really white, kinda yellowish grey, like someone spent too much time smoking outside it but that's deliberate. I guess a brilliant white Opera House in a city as sunny as Sydney would cause shipping accidents and cataracts.

The Botanic Gardens are nice to walk around. I was there at lunch time and the place was full of joggers. Individual ones, pairs and what can only be described as flocks of joggers. Sydney seems to be jogging mad. Personally I preferred the more sedate walking pace that allowed me to admire the view. The gardens themselves provide a nice shaded respite from the sun, especially important for me since I had forgotten my sun cream when I left the hotel during the cloudy and misty morning. They are really nice when you consider how close they are to the commercial districts of Sydney. If they were in Dublin the government would dig them up to build railway stations, car parks or just flog them cheap to developers to build apartments.

Today I went to The Rocks, Sydneys oldest district and spent a couple of hours walking around, partly looking for a wifi network that my PDA could detect but couldn't connect to so I could upload some photographs. The Rocks kind of remind me of Irish towns like Dingle. Full of a craft shops and restaurants. Nice to browse but I wouldn't buy anything since I would just have to carry it around for the next 3 months. It may be the source of some Christmas presents on my return in December.

From the Rocks I walked over the Harbour Bridge, stopping to climb the pylon. This costs $9 and is probably the cheapest tourist attraction in Sydney. The view is pretty impressive and lots of photo opportunities (not that I need "opportunities", just take a look at my flickr, I'm currently trying to upload 153 photographs from an internet cafe, 6 at a time). Across the Harbour Bridge on the north side lies Milsons Point, a complete contrast from the commercial south. This is a fairly quiet residential area that you just know must have property prices in the high millions for the view alone. Despite their prime location many of the houses are small and have a certain quaint look, as well as a randomness that makes them look like they were all built at different times by different people.

Then this afternoon I set about booking myself onto a bus up the coast. I'll be leaving Sydney on Saturday and heading towards Byron Bay, possibly stopping to learn surfing cause that's included in the package (shudder). Tomorrow I plan on heading to the beaches. The weather forecast is good, and the last time I went to Bondi in 2001 it pissed rain, fingers crossed for a better day tomorrow.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Off to Australia Tomorrow

I'm heading off to Australia tomorrow. It's been a really really hectic two days. Finishing up in work on Friday, getting my tasks finished and trying to hand over to others. Then off to the pub at 6pm for a few pints. This morning I was in pretty bad shape, it was a good thing that I didn't have to travel today. I had to get the last couple of items, check the stuff I had packed in my backpack, tidy up at home and then go out tonight with some friends. No alcohol though, I would like to survive the flight.

Got a phone call from a friend of mine as well today. Himself and his fiance are heading to Australia in November so we are hoping to match up schedules and cross paths at some stage, though from what he said to me today they are going to be moving pretty fast to see as much as possible. It will be nice to have a pint with a friend from home half way through the journey and compare notes about Australia.

All I can so now is wait for the trip to start. Chances are I'll be quiet for a few days after this post, I'll be on planes and in airports for the next two days.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Government partners sleeping on it

So, Bertie seems to have survived the night despite earlier rumours. RTE Prime Time is saying he's in serious trouble and the rumour now it that McDowell will resign tomorrow. Would that make him the shortest serving Tanaiste? Bertie today became the longest serving Taoiseach.

I went past Government Buildings and Leinster house tonight and the lack of a journalists showed that nothing major was stirring.

Irish Government to Fall Tonight? is reporting that the Irish Government is about to fall in the wake of Bertie Aherns loan scandal and Manchester scandals. The rumour is a cabinet meeting has been called, Ahern is on his way back to Dublin from Athlone and McDowell will walk out of government bringing the PDs with him tonight.

[via Irish Election]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

EU to introduce cabin luggage rules

Just when the flight restrictions were being relaxed around the world, the European Commission have proposed new laws to restrict hand-luggage on flights from the European Union. Bag sizes will be standardised and liquids will be limited.

Personally I think the rules are a little strict, especially since they have not actually convicted anyone of the alleged plot. Nor for that matter produced any of this liquid explosive that can be detonated with an MP3 player.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The future Boss?

Simon has a post on Irish Election detailing the list of Bertie Ahern mates who gave him a hand out with a few thousand quid on a "sure pay it back when ever you like" basis. I don't know if it'll see an end to Bertie but the bloggers are on the case so lets see who gets to any dirt first, them or the professional media.

I'm not sure if I think it's a good idea to get rid of Bertie. I mean who would replace him?
  • Dermot Ahern? Minister for Foreign Affairs. Probably a finance ministry short of a chance.
  • Séamus Brennan? Minister for Social and Family Affairs. If you kill a Don you cant become a Don and he'll be first in line to plunge the knife in Berties back.
  • Mary Coughlan? Minister for Agriculture and Food. I don't mean to be sexist, but Fianna Fail is, just look at the list of TDs. Too inexperienced anyway.
  • Brian Cowan? Minister for Finance. Probably has the best chance of everyone but will make Gordon Browne in the UK look like James Bond.
  • Martin Cullen? Minister for Transport. Will issue a press release announcing he has already been appointed leader. Everyone will ignore him.
  • Noel Dempsey? Minister for Communications, Marine and natural Resources. Could apply for the job, but the email will get lost.
  • Mary Hanafin? Minister for Education and Science. See Mary Coughlan. Seriously, I keep getting the two of them mixed up.
  • Micheál Martin? Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. One for the future, but not yet.
  • Eamon Ó Cuív? Minister for Community, Rural, and Gaeltacht Affairs. Dev is dead, lets leave him there.
  • Willie O'Dea? Minister for Defence. Even he would laugh at the idea.
  • John O'Donoghue? Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. Best he can hope for is a place in the quaterfinals.
  • Dick Roche? Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government. On a road to no where called the M3.