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.