by Peg Whelley
A story about Peg and Rick's 1991 Australian Vacation.
Rick remembers a few things differently.
This story is not complete.
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When I was in the third grade, I went to Girl Scout camp. There I met Kath, who had emigrated from Australia with her family shortly before. I asked her for information about the pineapple plantation where she had lived every chance I got. She told me how a python had shed its skin in their living room, and their house was on stilts too. Well, did this sound like a fascinating place! That's when I decided I must see Australia.
I grew up and married Rick who had toured Australia for a few months in the late '70s. He was interested in going back to Australia too. I had already been looking at ticket prices for some time when I heard a half-price fare advertised on the radio. That night, my husband and I discussed the possibility of going. Half-price of what? Australian fares can go up to $2,500 round-trip apiece just for coach. The next day I went to my travel agent's office and even before I had a chance to say anything his first words to me were "$705 round trip." We decided to go and that night we booked a flight into Sydney. However, we could only book for a five-week spread of time between the time we left and came back. It took almost a week to narrow this down to the four weeks that my husband's employers would allow, and we were calling at least once a day. This would allow us three weeks in Australia with a few days' travel time, a few days' layover in Hawaii on the way back and a weekend recovery period back home.
A few weeks later we had planned just a little of what we wanted to do. Since we expected the trip to be expensive we decided to take our backpacks, tent and camping gear for financial reasons. Since we would be there in Australia's late winter, our overall plan was to fly north to Cairns and take the next three weeks to work our way back to Sydney, which was in the colder south. This allowed the weather down there to warm up a little before we got back. We booked a one-way flight into Cairns, for $200 each. We had found that this was the cheapest way to get there. We also booked our hotel room in Sydney for our first two nights. We figured that we may not be in good shape when we landed and this would give us a chance to recover from a serious jet lag. This really was all the hardset plans we had. We didn't even book a room in Sydney for the night before our departure.
We had planned to visit some spots Rick had already seen. He wanted to share them with me. So we roughly planned to visit Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney. Rick had never been to the Great Barrier Reef even though he had been in Cairns. We planned to go there, too. We also thought Carnavon Gorge would be interesting too, so that there would be places new to both of us. We only had a rough sketch of what we were going to do. Often you get much better deals if you are extremely flexible and don't visit any place in peak season.
For a few days before we took off, we had been trying to stay up late and sleep late to adjust to their time zones, twelve hours ahead of ours. On the eleven o'clock news the night before we were to fly out, we found out that the eye of Hurricane Bob was going to be directly over Boston at just the time our plane was scheduled to take off. At eight the next morning when we called the airline, we found out that there was a chance that we could catch an earlier flight. We figured that it was worth the risk. We arrived at the airport at 11:00 AM, about six hours early. There wasn't a whole lot of people there. We got on a plane at 11:45 bound for Detroit with hope for a connection to Los Angeles. The plane left Boston half an hour earlier than it was due to take off, in 40 knot winds and a driving rain.
All I kept thinking throughout this experience is that this is a really a crazy thing to do, to take off during a hurricane. However, it was the gentlest takeoff I ever had going out of Boston, Normally as I go down the runway I pray that I'll get off the ground before the runway ends. This time we only went down a quarter of it before we were airborne. There was none of the banking that is normally done flying out of Boston. The takeoff was hardly even bumpy. In about five minutes I was calmly looking down at the clouds over Massachusetts.
Though we were flying standby, we got our connection at Detroit for L.A. This was a good route; we got a good show on this flight since we went over both Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. When we landed we were in L.A. four hours earlier than originally scheduled. I had never been west of Colorado and wanted to see a bit of L.A. so we wandered around the vicinity of the airport. My husband, Rick, had been there before, so it was kind of nice when he pointed to an avenue and said, It looks like this for miles," and I felt that I didn't miss anything. When we checked back in, we found that the airlines had automatically canceled our ongoing seats. They assumed that we were still in Boston. The ground service crew proved how good they were by at least getting me and Rick seats next to each other. Unfortunately it was right in front of the movie screen, making sleep near impossible, at least while the movie was on, but who can sleep in an airplane anyway? The food I had going to Hawaii was the worst that I ever had. I know airplane food is not great generally, but this stuff was evil. I think airlines should comply with the pure food and drug laws.
The flight to Australia seemed to go on forever, even though refueling in Hawaii breaks it up a bit. I had turned cranky and just wanted this flight to end. It had been over 24 hours long. I looked out the window and I was what looked like tiny little islands. We were going over New Caledonia. We weren't far from Sydney now and in about an hour or two, Australia came into view. It was quite thrilling. It seemed so big. The land was such a warm reddish brown bordered by the most incredibly sapphire blue ocean I've ever seen. I'd been on the plane a long, long time and badly wanted to go outside and breath real air. Besides, I'd made it.
We flew down the coast for about five minutes. Slowly some green mixed in with the reddish brown. Sydney came into view. Sydney has one of the world's best harbors, with great fingers of water extending out of a bay about the same size as Boston Harbor, but a bit longer. In every cover there were clusters of sailboats. It's no wonder they are famous sailors.
The first thing I'd noticed after landing was that the usual airplanes of Northwest, U. S. Air, American, etc., weren't there. What I saw instead was Air Nugini, Air New Zealand, and Melanesian Air. It was so Australian, so very South Pacific.
The big surprise was that our luggage arrived with us. We didn't hold any great hopes that it would be there, considering what we did. Going through customs was pretty easy. We knew that Australia has some pretty strict regulations as to what foodstuffs you can bring in, so we didn't bring in anything. It was the easiest way to avoid a hassle.
From the airport, we took one of the small ten passenger mini-buses that was in every airport in Australia we were in. The mini-bus to our hotel door was $6 Australian per person. The four lane parkway going out of the airport was lined with arcadia trees and they were in bloom with delicate yellow flowers. The road ended in a mile or so. we then went down boulevards through Sydney. The city was beautiful, full of neat post-WW II bungalows primarily of brick, landscaped gorgeously with subtropical plants. Our hotel had overbooked its regular rooms and they upgraded us to an apartment suite for no extra charge. It was so nice. There was a small grocery store about a block away so we were able to cook our own meals.
After exchanging our currency for some Australian money and picking up some groceries, we should have been exhausted. But I was too excited to sleep, and so we set off to see some of the city. We were close to King's Cross, where most of the hotels are. It is fairly centrally located, but King's Cross is a pretty colorful section of town. It seems that the peep shows compete with good restaurants and some great pastry shops. Sydney has a wonderful mass transit system with buses, trains, subways and even ferries and monorails. The bus system charges you for how far you go. Usually between $1 and $3. We just asked the driver how much it would cost to go to our destination and sometimes we were waved on the bus without paying a cent. We walked to the botanical gardens which are located to one side of downtown. Here I saw my first eucalyptus trees, the good smelling mainstay of Australian forests. There was an immense tree full of flying foxes, a type of rather large bat but one with a sweet expression in its face.
Its really nice that Sydneysiders have so much access to their harbor. We had walked for a few miles and hadn't seen one building blocking our view of the harbor. we saw people on their lunch hour jogging and eating and lounging all over the place.
The opera house was connected to this park, so we walked around the cove's shore to there. I'd been hearing about the opera house since it was built. It was a very impressive place. A new technique was used to build it and the construction of it proved very difficult. It was so over budget that the Australian's had to hold a lottery to get the funds to complete it. It looks great and the guided tour was only $6.00. Because of Australia's reputation as a wide open beer guzzling place, I'm always amazed exactly how much culture comes out of there.
The opera house has three major rooms that we saw. One for the symphony, one for opera and one for everything else, usually plays. Great care was placed on acoustics. They even had cloth seats for the symphony and leather for the opera because they were complementary for sound. There are two foyers facing the harbor that gave a spectacular view of the harbor and many rooms we didn't see, like practice rooms. The $6.00 tour was well worth it, since it gives you an idea of how the performing arts complex runs.
From the opera house we walked around the next cove to the Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney, which has been revamped. This area as I understand it, was a little rundown in the past. It's now an artsy-boutiquey area with plenty of pubs and restaurants. In one gallery selling Aboriginal Art we got talking to the clerk. Aboriginal Art is very popular, surprising for something that can be so abstract. Just down the street we met an artist, Michael Snapes. He had been given a grant to work outside and also given materials. He got to keep what he produced. He was just about completed with his piece when we met up with him. We had quite a discussion about whether or not the piece was finished. It was kind of funny. I had a lot of training in fine arts, yet my husband had more to say and was taken quite seriously. Michael thought that piece was finished but asked Rick if he thought he needed to cut out anything else. Rick said that one area needed just a little more. The work agreed since Michael found out that there was a plugged up hole there that he just had to bang out. It was still like that when we came back in a few weeks. The sun had set by now and all the sleep we had not caught before now caught up to us. I sure appreciated a nice bed.
The next day we decided to go to the zoo and to Manly, a beach area and resort town Northeast of Sydney, if we had the time. We took a wonderful ferry ride to the Taronga Zoo. Its one of the most beautiful in the world, located on the side of a hill overlooking Sydney and the harbor. At the dock, at the bottom of the zoo, a bus takes you up to the top of the hill to the main entrance. You catch the exhibits and the harbor views as you wandered down the hill back to the dock.
I wanted to be able to identify all those animals we were going to see elsewhere on our trip. It seemed to be easier to see them in cages rather then in the wild where they are likely to be either hiding or quickly moving away from you. Unfortunately, I found out that many marsupials, the mainstay of Australian animals, are active when you are not like early dawn and early evening hours or even the whole of the night.
The zoo has the usual assortment of animals, except that it's a little light on animals of every other continent except Australia. So many animals, like rabbits, made ecological havoc with the Australian countryside that they banned all importation of foreign animals for years. The zoo has a small array of volunteers that were very helpful. They were mainly retirees. The zoo posted the feeding times of some of the cages. We got to talk to one of the zoo keepers by watching the time. It was also a good way to see some rather shy animals. I was also introduced to Australia's vast supply of gaudy birds. I just didn't expect this. There was many different kinds of lorikeets, parrots and other birds. I got my picture taken next to a koala bear. It was pretty much look, but don't touch 'em. He was mostly interested in the fresh eucalyptus leaves that they had given him.
There are a few good restaurants in the zoo. Not quite over jet lag, we stopped and I had one of the best cold beers I ever had. One nice thing about Australia, they had an attitude of never being far from a pub.
We did a lot of walking that day. We were tired, so we picked up some prawns and went back to our hotel room for dinner. Although we never did get to Manly, we did get to sleep early.
The next morning, we got up early to catch our 9 AM plane to Cairns. This was the last scheduled part of our trip. We had read a few guide books and Rick had been there fourteen years before. We did the final pouring over the guidebooks when we were in the air.
Australian Airlines had excellent food. It was a pleasant way to decide what to do in our next few days. Again, we took the minibus into town. The first thing we did in town was to book the high speed catamaran to the Fitzroy Island campground for the next morning since we had no idea how in demand it was. Then, putting on our packs, we went looking for inexpensive overnight accommodations. This is easy in Cairns. It must be the backpacker's capital of Australia. We found a charming place for $25.00 per night. It was a housekeeping hotel with the use of a kitchen shared with six other rooms. A bath and living room are shared with three other rooms. We had a large corner room complete with large picture windows with smaller louvered windows at the sides to catch the breeze. The rattan furniture, ceiling fan and sisal rug made it look like Humphrey Bogart must have stayed there once too. I was surprised that there were no screens on the windows but, being the dry season, there weren't enough mosquitoes or flies for screens to be important. We went out exploring the rest of the day.
I still wasn't quite used to the traffic going the "wrong" way. Rick once caught me slowly inching my way across an intersection, at each step looking for those pesky cars that would sneak up on me and honk, of course I looking the wrong way all the time. While trying not to laugh Rick was watching out for me in the correct direction.
Cairns is kind of a tourist trade center of far north Queensland. It seems as if almost everyone of the 40,000 people of Cairns is employed that way. Cairns was one of the largest tourist towns I had even been in. The two biggest natural attractions are the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest. The rain forest (it's not called a jungle any more) surrounds Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef is just off shore.
There are lots of other attractions close by, including the Atherton Tablelands but there is not much to attract one to Cairns itself. Basically, all tours are run through Cairns. The shore is mostly a mudflat with egrets and ibises picking at the flats hoping for some delectable crustaceans. The ibises also poke around on the grass on the esplanade like sparrows do here. The sandy beaches are to the north, just a short bus ride away.
Another thing I found surprising is that Cairns doesn't have a string of huge hotels along its shore, although there are a few. It makes the view of the mountains nice. Most accommodations are large motels or backpacker inns. I'm not going to bet on Cairns staying that way. Almost anything you want to do can be booked from your hotel and may be advertised in the office too. If you book from your hotel, often a bus will pick you up and drop you off there for free.
Cairns has an international look to it, kind of like Southern California meets Tahiti. It's surrounded by extinct volcanic peaks, giving it a very South Seas look. A lot of homes have tin roofs, and to avoid termite damage, are build on stilts. Often a set of lawn chairs and a table can be seen under the house. It gives the homeowner a nice place to barbecue when it rains or a shady place to sit in the hotter months.
There are some recognizable fast food and car rental places, like McDonalds' and Hertz, but when you throw in the opal and reef tour places, it looks not quite like home but familiar enough to be comforting. Kind of like the whole place was designed by space aliens who were picking up our TV channels and didn't get it quite right.
There are a lot of Aborigines on the York Peninsulas and there were what seemed like a million Japanese tourists. There were so many Japanese tourists that many of the shops had a Japanese speaking clerk and some signs were even totally written in Japanese. The downtown was quite large, nearly all of it one story shops in a space of about four blocks wide and one mile long. It had a sleepy laid back look to it. There was plenty to do.
Food of almost any kind could be had at fairly reasonable prices. We had dinner and a beer for two in a pub for $11.50, no tipping either. Most Australians are decently paid and the service is good or better than in the USA. There was also the kind of night life you'd expect in a resort area. But we turned in instead.
The next day we took the catamaran to Fitzroy Island, a continental island about 40 minutes away and a popular day trip from Cairns. This island looked more like the mountainous mainland than a tropical reef but was a lot cheaper to stay at. We had booked two nights at a campground run by the local shire (county) in association with the small resort on the island. The tent sites are a short walk away from the resort and very nearly on the beach. The fee of $7.00 a tent sit gave us full use of the resort's facilities, including pool, hot showers, a bar, restaurant, and an al fresco lunch buffet.
Maybe the tent site was not what we were use to, since the sites are close together, but the view was not what we were used to either. It was spectacular. We were facing the mainland and the mountains seemed to be growing out of the water. A fringing reef was right off the beach. You had to wade in with something on your feet so as not to get cut by the coral. The reef started in water about waist deep. There, you were in another world. There seemed to be an unlimited supply of fish and it seemed that you never saw the same type twice. There were lots of kinds of corals, both hard, the reef building brain and soft corals, which swing in the currents like palms in a breeze. And because of the hatchery on the island there were some truly large giant clams. There were some ropes floating next to some, making it easy to inspect them closer. After snorkeling about an hour we were pretty cold, so those hot showers were welcome. It was, after all, winter.
The beach was fantastic. Over breakfast the next morning, we saw a small shark chasing a school of fish. This was followed by a group of egrets hoping for a meal from what was left. The beach was pulverized coral and so was off-white. It was such a pleasure to walk down a beach and see only shells and broken coral. Australians seem to be tidier then we are, with a lack of litter everywhere, or maybe there are just not enough of them to make as big a mess as we do. The Australians have declared the whole barrier reef a national park, one of the smartest moves a country ever made. I hope they take good care of it. Because it's truly one of the great wonders of the world.
The next day we took a catamaran to Moore Reef, one of the outer reefs. The sea was very choppy and I got quite seasick on the way out. We pulled up to a floating dock moored to the reef. We snorkeled to our heart's content. Since it was cloudy we actually got to see some of the coral feeding. Also, there were different kinds of corals, like royal blue staghorns, and millions of fish. My husband bought a disposable underwater camera and we took a lot of pictures. We got back to a lovely sunset, washed down by the great beer.
The next morning we hiked to the lighthouse on the north end of the island, and from there to the peak of the island. We found ruins of some WW II defenses on the way up, even the lighthouse was built during the war. I could just imagine how frightening it must have been for the Australians there. The Japanese were only a few hundred miles away in their Coral Sea. At the top of the mountain you could see the outer reef with its lighter colors quite clearly. We took the short way back, which was close to straight down and got to our tent by 10:30. After some snorkeling to cool off, we hiked down to the south end of the island to another beach. It was totally deserted. I think I enjoyed that part of Australia the best. Being able to have a wonderful beach to yourself with just a little bit of effort.
One thing the guidebooks don't tell you is that there are sand fleas all over Queensland. You never see them. They don't attack everyone, but if you seem to be to their liking their bite will itch terribly for weeks. Australians have good bug repellents for these critters along with stuff to stop the itch. There was also a three-foot long goanana (a lizard) that came with the campground. These guys are mostly interested in your food so you have to be careful how you store it. He was pretty shy. We only saw him occasionally.
That evening we went back to Cairns. We hadn't seen much sun, which was unusual for Cairns in the dry season. It hadn't rained either. It was just as well, since both me and my husband are fair-skinned, and we were getting burned through the thin clouds if we didn't put our sunblock on. The next day was pretty much a rest day in which we did laundry, cashed checks and booked the trains south and to Kuranda. We did some shopping for souvenir T-shirts and went to the botanical gardens. They were lavishly laid out and very interesting to someone like me who had never seen a teak tree before. Unfortunately, what had looked like a short six-block walk turned out to be a one-and-a-half hour hike, and we didn't get to see as much of the gardens as we wanted to. For dinner I had purchased some "bugs." I don't even know the real name of these, but they are a local delicacy. They look a lot like lobsters that escaped from Pleistocene seas, but without claws. They taste much like lobster, only sweeter.
The next day we took the train up into the mountains to Kuranda. Last year was the 100th anniversary of building the Cairns to Kuranda rail. It was build for the relief of workers who were mining lead in the mountains. They were having major problems getting food and supplies in. The tracks were laid on the side of mountains, giving us some spectacular scenery, probably why the railway still exists today. You get a commentary on the way up and down on what you're seeing and how the rail line was built. The first ten minutes was rather poorly thought out, since the guide could hardly be heard over the squeaking of the rails.
The train itself is a very charming antique paneled in mahogany pulled by a more modern diesel. I loved the ride. There were twists, turns, tunnels, and spectacular waterfalls. Kuranda itself is a very picturesque small tropical town. We caught a presentation of aboriginal dance and music, mixed in with a bit of their culture, called the Tjapukai Dance Theater. It was so good it was almost magic. We bought a tape of music done by the group we were so impressed. Later, while driving through the outback, this tape was played many times and helped us get a feel for the country.
That day was a market day. The market was somewhat disappointing being a bit like a low-end craft fair with about any type of cheap jewelry and souvenir T shirt you'd ever find in Cairns or maybe even Sydney. Only one person was selling opals and another was selling triplets, a type of cheap opal. There were only two stalls selling aboriginal art, mostly digereedoos. The second group was packing up as we got there, just after noon. I had imagined that there was a very good gallery in town that handled aboriginal art. I regret that I did not buy any art in Kuranda. There was more of it at better prices in more shops here than anyplace else. We couldn't figure out how to stash it in our backpacks and figured we'd be seeing more of this later on, but that wasn't the case.
There was an Indonesian food stall that was selling green coconuts with the tops lobbed off. They were sold with a straw to drink the coconut milk. It was supposed to be delicious, and the jelly-like meat was supposed to be good too. I wasn't impressed but my husband liked it. We took an hour's hike through the rain forest and then it was time to take the last train of the day out.
That evening was our last in Cairns, so we ate out at a rather good Italian restaurant for $10.00 a person, including wine. Then we took a walk along the esplanade at sunset. It is known for its shore birds which feed on the mud flats along the side of the esplanade. The ibises were all over the grass with magpies. The egrets tended to stay in the mud with the crulers. The clouds finally broke so we saw the full moon rise over the harbor and light it up romantically.
We had spent nearly a week in the Cairns area and even though we hadn't seen everything it was time to head south. We boarded the train at 7:30 AM. We had purchased a ticket to Mackay, but had only booked as far as Townsville. On the train, after reading the guide books, we figured that we'd better get going, and changed our booking to Proserpine, the stop for the Whitsunday Islands just north of Mackay. This would get us in fairly late but early enough to get a room or campsite. The train moved slowly, it was nearly a 24-hour trip to Brisbane. I kept waiting for it to speed up. My husband figured out that the train moved at an average speed of 30 mph, or about as fast as our commuter rail. Still, it was much more relaxing than driving a car. All the way down the coast you could see endless fields of sugar cane. Tucked between these there are a few national parks and some forests and wetlands. Some of the swamps were covered with gorgeous pink lotuses. Eventually the rain forests finally got thinner and finally turned into open woodland as the climate got drier. Over twelve hours later we got off in Proserpine where we took a bus to Airlie Beach.
The next morning we were introduced to kookaburras waking us up at dawn. The is rather disconcerting since I remember them used on every soundtrack used by the African jungle movies or swamp thing movies. You have a few seconds of not knowing exactly where you are before you realize that everything is OK and that you are on your dream vacation in Australia, but we never quite got used to those birds. There also was a small opossum in the bushes outside our patio. The Australian version is more cuddly than ours.
When we paid for our room in the morning, we booked the ferry to Hook Island for the next day and also reserved our campsite there, which was run by the resort. We had shared our room with a lovely Canadian and American couple. His parents had bought a boat in Sydney in lieu of a retirement and they had been cruising the Australian coast for a year. They had joined them for a few months but were waiting in Airlie Beach for some mail.
I wanted to go sailing, so we left for the town beach. Since the wind picked up to about ten knots, the windsurfer-catamaran renter decided to pack it in for the day, but I didn't know that. I spent the next couple of hours trying to find either him or someone to rent a boat from. The best I could do was rent a Hood 22 for $150 a day, a lot more than I had bargained for, so this became a rest day where we strolled around downtown and lazed on the beach. The worst part of it was there seemed to be a lot of sailboats on the water and they seemed to be having a lot of fun and we were watching from the shore.
Early next morning we rode a bus from our hotel to Shute Harbor, where most of the ferries and catamarans leave for the trips around the Whitsunday Islands. Just like in Cairns, it paid to book from the hotel as the ride was free. We then took the ferry for Hook Island. The ferry crew was made up of gorgeous men with great tans and legs to match. I wonder if any Australians wear long pants? Or have bad legs?
Cruising around the Whitsundays feels a bit like cruising the coast of Maine. The islands look similar, there just isn't all those pine trees, and the climate is decent. There isn't the cold morning fog, the water is swimmable and then there's the bonus of looking at gorgeous coral reefs. (Well, I said a BIT like Maine.)
Hook Island looked deserted except for the resort, which was spread along the beach. The rest of the island was covered with a fairly thick rain forest. The beach was rather wide, but that was for the moment. The tides in the Whitsundays area were rather high. This led to rather swift currents, especially in the channels between the islands. Fortunately corals like those channels. The beach dropped off rather fast once you got in the water. The fringing reef was full of soft corals and extremely beautiful. There was an underwater observatory around the point from where we were staying, and a submarine coral viewer, but we were seeing so much snorkeling we never bothered.
Even though I was warned by the staff, I was so fascinated with the reef life that I separated from my husband and swam out a little too far into the channel and got caught by the current. My husband spotted me quickly drifting away and after catching up, alerted me. We headed to the rocky shallows that rimmed the beach because the current wasn't as fast here, allowing us to swim back to the beach. However, we had to be extremely careful as there were rocks here and they were thickly covered with sharp oyster shells. We weren't careful enough. We both got deep (but minor) cuts that hurt for the rest of the day. They seemed to take forever to heal, although coral cuts are preported to be much worse. If we hadn't made it to shore the resort had a launch to rescue people who got caught worse than I did.
Hook Island was a camper's paradise. The sites were close together in a row along the beach with a low retaining wall separating the sites from the beach. On the beach were molded plastic chaise lounges for you to sunbathe in comfort. At the end of the tent sites was the resort, first the toilets and hot showers. Next there was the dive/souvenir shop and then the restaurant, which was self-service. This opened onto a deck with tables and umbrellas for al fresco dining. There were a few tables and chairs for eating indoors. The bar was next door and then the camper's kitchen. Then there were the resort guest cabins and more tent sites. At the end of these was a path to a cliff that overlooked the resort and the channel between Hook Island and Whitsunday Island.
In the camper's kitchen there was a large refrigerator for all your food. If you didn't put it in here then the goananas were likely to chew through your tent to get to it. There was also a hot water heater that was always full for your tea, a sink and enough counter space for four campers to be preparing food all at once. There was even a gas barbecue. The barbecue may replace the kangaroos as the national symbol soon - they may actually be more common. When you were ready to sit down to your meal you had your choice of a thatched South Pacific-looking dining area or at one of those umbrella tables or on the deck in between. Rick still is amazed that the resort went so far to help the campers even though they stood to lose a lot of restaurant business. All this cost $7.50 per person per day.
Our guide books said that the reefs on the north side of the island had the most spectacular coral for diving and snorkeling but the resort was on the south end and, surprisingly, there weren't any trails across the island. The rain forest was too thick to bushwhack through and the resort didn't have any boats available, nor was there a water taxi service. To get there from where we were, we decided to hike along the shore. We took off the next morning to reach the northern coves. we were warned that it was too far and tricky but we had solid backpacking experience and the beach didn't look that bad. We were going to see for ourselves if it could be done. There was a short trail over the back of the island, which led to a beach. From there we walked to the next one down, and being experienced hikers we soon agreed with the staff. The Whitsundays have gorgeous white sandy beaches in the coves and bays, but they have cliffs and rough, rocky beaches elsewhere along the shore. I suppose the north shore can be reached by the following the shore, but it would probably take a full day to do it, one way.
The shore was an uplifted old reef which had been eroded by waves. The rocks were extremely rough, and if we fell, we'd really be cut up. The ocean had carved the rocks into all kinds of formations, so I'd enjoyed the walk quite a bit. We checked the rocks carefully as we hiked, and also watched the tide coming in. If we were too late going back we'd be climbing a lot of cliffs and that looked like tough going.
We made it to the next beach around noon and went snorkeling. The reef offshore was mostly dead and there were some jellyfish in the water too. Although they weren't the dangerous Box jellyfish, they did sting. We swam to the other side of the cover and escaped from them. Rick found a moray eel, and there were a few fish. Although the diving wasn't too good, we did have the beach all to ourselves and that was a wonderful feeling.
Roast beef was on the menu for dinner for $6.00 each, so we didn't bother to cook. Australians seem to enjoy making life so easy for you. Later that evening some yachters that came ashore for dinner pointed out some of the southern constellations to us. Sailboaters are a good bet to ask about the stars, because even with modern electronics, most sailors know a bit about celestial navigation and that includes knowing your constellations. The Southern Cross was just like on the Australian flag. To find it all you had to do was look down the Milky Way, and there it was, at the bottom. The Milky Way was much bigger and brighter than we see it here. There was no light pollution and besides, that part of the Milky Way is the center of the galaxy, where that is a lot more stars. Left of this and low in the sky was supposed to be the Magellic Clouds but the mists rising off the islands obscured the view. The chaise lounges were sure nice for stargazing. Rick liked to snooze a little at the beach before he finally turned in.
Even though Rick figured that we could stay six months with the money from our travelers' checks, we left the next day on the early ferry and were back in Airlie Beach by noon. We had hoped to rent a car and get a good distance to our next destination, Carnarvon Gorge, a good eight hour drive into the outback.
Renting a car in Airlie Beach was not easy. We would have had an easier time if we had made a reservation before going to Hook Island. There was only one place in town that would let us rent a car one-way, and that was only to Brisbane. It seemed that they were trying to hold onto their cars since they have a tendency to go south at this time of year. Of all the car rental agencies, and all the major ones were here, only Hertz would rent to us, and only a full-sized car. For the distance we were going they wouldn't rent a compact, I really don't blame them, we hadn't given them any advanced warning. This was one of the times our lack of preperation worked against us. However, we pulled out our American AAA cards and got a 20% discount, as the American and Australian versions of the club have reciprocal privileges.
We reached Mackay an hour before sunset. It is a good-sized small city. We got a refund on the unused portion of our train tickets and I called up the ranger at Carnavon Gorge who told me that the park was full but we could hike to a site. We got to the AAA office just as it was closing. We got some maps from AAA and saw a national park about 80 miles west and headed for it. We stopped at a supermarket on the way out of town.
The sun set as we drove through the Great Dividing Range. It sounds so grand but I don't think we saw anything much taller than Mt. Greylock. After that I got my first taste of the outback. We were headed for what looked like a small town on the map. It turned out to be a "station," an Aussie word for a ranch. We didn't realize that until we hit the second "town," which was a station that was marked by a large mailbox. There wasn't any directional signs to the park, and there was no listing of it in our guidebook so we decided to go to the next real town. We never did find out anything about the place. We followed a camper/trailer sign and came to a semi-permanent trailer park. For $3.00 they took tenters like us. By now it was past our bedtime. We never fully switched over to Australian time and had a tendency to wake up at dawn and go to bed at dusk, about 7 PM.
The next morning we were woken by the kookaburras. Thank God that our kingfishers (a close relative) don't sound like that. Rick had read a bit about the town of Emerald which was on the way to the Carnavon Gorge. Nearby were the towns of Ruby and Sapphire. These towns were named after the gems found in the area. Sapphires were most common but occasional rubies and emeralds were found too. The Queensland government sells prospecting permits and for the inexperienced, it also sells a kit with maps and hints for a little more. Since we had a few hours to spare in the afternoon we decided to prospect. The woman at the office directed us to the Big xxx, one the sites owned by the government where there was a good chance of finding some sapphires. She also said that the people were friendly at Big xxx. This was comforting news to us. We read a lot of stuff about wild west mining towns.
We had to drive nearly an hour to get to Ruby, a village with no pub. For Australia that is pretty small. There was, however, a general store and also a bathroom where for $1.50 you could get a hot shower. You could also buy water here. This was a thriving business. I knew now that I was officially in the outback. From there, we drove over a rough dirt road for about another ten minutes and there was a sign saying "Big xxx." It was a low hill dotted with small camper trailers and some teepees too. You could dig anywhere except the claims noted on the map and ones marked with white posts on the ground.
So we dug here and there until Pierce caught up to us. Actually, he was checking us out. I think he was delighted to find that we were Americans. We were a bit off the tourist track to say the least. Somehow we found ourselves saying that we would stay the night in order to accept his and his wife's invitation to breakfast. I think Rick accepted so he wouldn't have to eat granola for breakfast again. That day Pierce fed a flock of rainbow lorikeets out of his hand and explained that they were half tame. Rick took as many pictures of this as he could because Pierce was covered with birds.
Early that evening, the people to the other side of us asked if we wanted to share their campfire. So we took them up on their offer. They, like everyone who we met there were a semi-retired couple from the south. They would come up north for the winter (Ruby was right on the Tropic of Capricorn). They would park their caravan (as Australians call their trailers) on the digs and hope to find enough gems to pay their way and maybe then some. Occasionally someone would strike it very rich. Pierce said that he usually found a "pipe" once a season. That's a deposit of sapphires in a string where they had been deposited in a now buried stream bed. He had all kinds of information on that place and how to go finding sapphires. I just wish we had more time or had better luck. I would have loved to put his information to some use.
One really neat thing happened that night. We saw some poteroos. They were living off the good graces of the fossickers on the hill. We were camped in between two places where they were regularly fed so we threw out some bread too as the miners suggested we go. They're pretty rare too. They stayed for about half an hour. We also saw the Magellic Clouds just where the yachters at Hook Island told us they'd be.
The next morning at breakfast, Pierce found out that I could cut gemstones so he gave me a few black ones he had found that weren't worth much. I was thrilled.
As Rick packed up, a prospector came by asking him if he wanted to buy any cut and polished sapphires. Rick and I went to visit him before leaving even though I really wanted to get going. The prospector was also packing up to go home and needed some gas money. I remember he asked if all Americans were rich. I told him the truth. He had been living in a large teepee with a stump for a kitchen table. He started pulling out these small cases that were filled with blue, green and yellow sapphires. This guy didn't have enough gas money to get home, yet he showed me at least $2,000 worth of stones and he didn't show any of his big ones. I bought one of the smaller ones for $80.00
After this overnight diversion we left for Carnarvon Gorge. The ranger that I had called previously had said that the campgrounds were full and would remain full for a few weeks but that they had some campsites that we could hike to. We were trying hard to get there before 1:00 PM so we could hike in before it got dark. The ranger had also said to bring four extra days worth of food in case it rained. It could take that long for the roads to become passable afterward. The trip to the park was really an adventure. About an hour before we got to the park the pavement kicked out in the middle of nowhere. Maybe this is where they ran out of money. The road to the park went through the middle of privatly owned cattle stations. It turned out to be a rather nice, wide dirt road. Every five miles or so, you'd have to slow down to 20 mph for a grate. These served the purpose of keeping the cattle in. There was a small airfield just before the point we had to drive the car through a ford, which was on Carnavon Creek.
Although we did get to Carnavon Gorge early enough to head out backpacking, the ranger decided that since we only had a tent we could try to find a spot in a general tenting area instead of occupying an improved site. We decided that by heading up the trail the next day we would have more time to enjoy the sights so we set up camp in the tenting area. As Rick pitched the tent for the night he was watched by a small kangaroo, who was at times only inches away. We spent the rest of the day tromping around the bottom of the gorge and looking for platypuses.
In the morning Rick got up with the kookaburras and did some more platypus watching. After breakfast we packed our backpacks and hiked up the gorge. It was easy going because the floor of the canyon was sandy and had a very gradual slope. And while Carnavon Creek had to be forded many times, this was also easy because of low water and well-placed stepping stones. On both sides of the gourge were towering white sandstone cliffs, and plants that looked like they were forgotten by evolution. We took some trips up side canyons that were spectacularly pretty.
We camped for the night at Big Bend in an approved camping area that was about a half mile from a wall covered with 5,000-year-old aboriginal paintings. It looked like everyone who went by in those 5000 years took some spray paint and left a shadow where their hand had been, very much like stone-age graffiti. The aborigines had just blown pigment that they made from rocks found in the stream bed through a tube. There was also some emu footprints carved in the soft sandstone and an occassional figure here and there. It amazed me that this delicate artwork could last so long, even though this spot had once been much more cavelike since the overhang had fallen recently. But then Carnarvon Gorge doesn't have the weather we do in New England.
The next day we climbed the wall of the gorge where it wasn't so steep and then continued on to Battleship Spur. We were told that we should be in excellent shape but I didn't find the climb too difficult. We were awarded a slightly hazy view of the gorge and the great dividing range. At the top of the gorge, the trees turned into "open woods," in which trees are spaced about twelve to twenty feet apart. They didn't provide much shade. When we looked over the ranges, the trees appeared a blue-green. The trip back to the mouth of the canyon was fast although we slowed down around dusk. Whenever we reached a ford we would look for platypus. At many we saw them swim and dive for food. When we made it back to the campground we found out that there was a forest fire to the west, and we had been the last folks permitted up to Battleship Spur. Other campers said that we could see the fire from a nearby cliff, but we were in no mood for any more hiking.
Once again in the morning Rick went platypus watching. This time he did it near the campground. There were a dozen or so others spread out along the creek doing the same thing. Rick had had a lot of practice spotting them by now and was pointing out the little critters to the natives. He said that he was beginning to feel like Mark Trail. Few Australians ever get to see platypus. They are not as common as they used to be and in the wild they can be hard to spot. They are small and dark and spend their time looking for food at the bottoms of streams at dawn and dusk. Not only does this give bad lighting, it is not the usual time people are ready to look for wildlife. There are a few platypus in zoos (in night houses where artificial lighting produce twilight hours for the animals at more convenient times for people). But, even there, viewing hours are restricted since platypus only spend a few hours a day outside their burrows anyway.
That morning we realized that we only had five more days in Australia and it was a three-day drive to Sydney. We drove all that day to get to the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane. We stopped for the night at a little place called Gympie. It had been first settled in a 1867 goldrush and you could still pan for gold here. It was so strange that a town that looked so much like an east coast beach town had had a gold rush. We stayed in a motel that night for $43.00. We had spent the last seven nights sleeping in the tent and needed a little luxury.
The next day, we set off for Brisbane. On the way Rick wanted to stop and see the Big Pineapple near Nambour. He had seen many pictures of this on postcards and in picture books on Australia. He missed it last time he was here. There seemed to have been more places like the Big Pineapple of Queensland when I was a kid. Located in Sunshine Plantation near the town of Nambour, it's a tourist trap with something (not much) more. The Big Pineapple is made of translucent fiberglass and is three stories tall, not counting the top leaves. Inside of it there are informative displays telling you all you ever wanted to know about growing pineapples. There is also a display farm with fields of pineapples that they sell there at better than the going rate. A little railroad train that is actually a re-equipped sugar cane train takes passengers rather quickly through a tour of the fields, banana tree grove and sub-tropical orchard. The trip was so fast and plesant that we considered going around again for another $5. In another section of the plantation was "Macadamia Nut World." And there was still another section showing hydroponic gardening. We skipped those parts.
Being a tropical tourist trap, Sunshine Plantation was excellent for serious souvenir shopping. They had a "shop" that was like a department store with sections for books, clothing, gems, fruit and more. There was also a cafeteria style restaurant. The store had everything related to Australian souvenirs except some of the high-end stuff, and they had some good opals too. They had bumper stickers saying, "I Love Oz" and the whole poem of the "Man from Snowy River" on a dish towel. They had everything from the truly tacky to the truly nice, in a store the size of a K-Mart. For us, it was wonderful because it was a one-stop souvenir supermarket! We were running out of time and we were able to get most of our inexpensive gifts and souvenirs here. It probably saved us a whole afternoon because we had planned to do this in Sydney, and I'm, sure that we would have walked all over town. Although the smells from the restaurant tempted us we didn't stay to eat. Not wishing to dawdle and spend more money and time here, we continued toward Brisbane.
On the way, we went past the Glasshouse Mountains. The pictures of them we saw in the guide books reminded me of a famous area of China, one that has been used for centuries as a favorite of landscape painters. While we took a side trip up to a lookout on one of the mountains they proved somewhat of a disappointment to me, being more like a small and scattered collection of pretty volcanic plugs overlooking the ocean. They'd gotten good press for tourism, probably because they were so close to Brisbane, and the aborigines had wonderful legends about the mountains.
The areas a few hours both north and south of Brisbane are big tourist areas in Australia. The Sunshine Coast, to the north of Brisbane, is calmer and less developed. To the south of the city is the Gold Coast which looks like Miami Beach without the City of Miami, a long thin city of high-rise resort hotels and everything that goes with them.
Driving south into Brisbane (on a real super highway!) we saw a great looking water park, an MGM theme part and other tourist attractions but we figured that we could see that stuff in the US. Frustration driving in Brisbane ... we knew that Brisbane had an ordinance against tent camping so we looked for an inexpensive hotel. We eventually found a semi-permanent campground trailer park outside Brisbane. It had both a store and a laundromat and although somewhat dismal looking, it was really practical.
The next morning we went to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, getting there even before it opened because we had a long way to travel that day. Rick had been here before and thought that I would enjoy it. Lone Pine is part walking zoo, but it is most famous for their koalas. They have a hundred koalas and much research on these marsupials is done here. They are trying to figure out why koalas are in decline in most of their range, despite them being a very popular symbol. The koalas in cages were climbing in cut down sections of trees that so were about eye level. I got to hold a koala here. It was wonderful. Some of the koalas have been trained to be held, and in fact, like to be cuddled even on their days off. We found this out as we were watching the zoo staff maintaining their cages. The koalas tried to climb up the zookeepers' pant legs. Koalas eat and sleep, with sleep predominanting.
There were also other exhibits of Australian animals here. They had a pack of dingoes and two of them were playing with each other, running the length of their cages. They look and act amazingly like domesticated dogs. The wombat, "Froggy," an ex-pet, was out and about. He had gotten out of control in his previous life as a pet and liked to bite people too much. Then he was donated to Lone Pine. He'd done the very wombat thing of digging up and eating every root and every plant in his very large pen. Wombats are fairly large and look like a two-foot guinea pig. They walk a little like a bulldog but are fat and cuddly like a koala. I was really glad to see one active. They're found mainly in the south. Shortly after he was fed he went to sleep for the rest of the day.
I really wished we had left a little more time to get back because now we were really pressed for time. We had to be in Sydney by 2 PM the next day to return the car. If we had returned the car in Brisbane and flown out, we would have had another day and a half in the Sydney area. A train ride from Brisbane would have been nice but the train schedule wasn't matching ours at all, there not being the kind of service we wanted between Sydney and Brisbane. We knew beforehand that the 600 miles between the two cities would take us twelve hours. Although not totally pleasant for impatient Americans used to great roads, it was an experience. We did get to see what a good portion of the coast of New South Wales looked like, at least from the Australian Route 1.
From Lone Pine, we got a little lost and then we got directions to a newly-build highway out Brisbane to the Gold Coast. It was a one-lane divided highway, much like Spaulding Turnpike in New Hampshire, complete with _____. Route 1 which goes south down the Gold Coast all the way to Sydney sporadically switched from boulevards to a four-laner all the way to the New South Wales border. This took us about two hours. At the border, the population thinned out and the road became an improved two-lane highway. This road snaked around or through the Great Dividing range all the way to Sydney so it was scenic. There was a lot of roadwork being done to upgrade this highway, too. We'd hit a slow moving roadtrain about every ten miles or so, and follow the oversized tractor-trailer for a few miles until we'd either pass them or a newly-constructed passing lane opened up for us. We couldn't make great time. There was also many lovely parks and beaches that we passed. I would have loved to be able to stop and look around. At about 10 PM we stopped and rented a camper-trailer for the night. This is done a lot in Australia, and I wish we had done it earlier. It was really pleasant. We had more privacy than camping and almost all the conveniences of a hotel. It saved us the time of pitching a tent, and was only $25.00 a night. We had to share the bathrooms, and there wasn't heat. Since we were now less than four hours from Sydney, it was pretty cool at night. We were glad we had our three-season sleeping bags.
The kookaburras woke us up at dawn for the last time. We left by nine and at about 11:00 AM we hit a super highway. By noon we were at the outer suburbs of Sydney and the super highway stopped. To get to King's Cross, we were switched from boulevards to city streets back to a four-lane highway. Finally, we went over the Sydney Harbor Bridge and then returned the car in Paddington, a short one-half mile distance from Kingstown.
We had read that the hostels in Sydney had been having trouble with the local derelicts checking into them. Hostels have low prices, and I can see where they would look like cheap housing. We didn't want to take any risks on our last night in Australia, even if we hadn't seen any homeless people. We took a room in a lovely hotel at King's Cross, the Clairmount. It was the best $60.00 room I had even been in. Besides, the electric teapot and _____ to go with it (which is very common in Australia) it had a fridge stocked with drinks. There was a comfortable dinette set, and a cozy bath. It had a wonderful view too.
We could splurge a little. We had done very well money-wise. We'd spent well under $2,000 each for the whole trip. The rest of the afternoon we walked around Sydney, and did some last minute souvenir shopping. Rick looked for some hats but none looked right on him. I purchased a nice Australian style raincoat for $125 and used it in a downpour around sunset. It was the first rain that Sydney (and us) had gotten in four weeks.
We ate at the restaurant in the hotel that night. We had a wonderful gourmet meal, complete with drinks, for under $30.00 for both of us. We had the use of the hotel health spa, but we were too tired after dinner to even sit in the Jacuzzi. We made reservations for the mini-bus to take us to the airport the next morning and turned in.
The next morning we left early for the airport to catch our flight home. As usual, I wished we could have stayed longer. This had been a dream vacation, a lot more wonderful than I had ever expected. I found out that I loved Australia and the laid-back Australians. In three weeks we had just scratched the surface. Rick already knew that.
We got to the airport and got in line to check in. I had written a note to myself earlier and had attached it to my plane ticket to ask about a first class upgrade. I went over to the first class window while Rick held our place in line. I inquired if it was possible to upgrade our tickets and how much it would cost. Well, were we lucky! Since coach was overbooked, we got upgraded to executive class with no charge! It took some of the sting out of leaving. When I went back to the line to get the tickets from Rick, two other couples behind and next to us sent a spouse with me to get an upgrade too. Later, on the plane, these people toasted me with the complementary drinks we were given. One couple was returning from their honeymoon and were extremely happy about the upgrade.
The view on the flight leaving Australia was as spectacular as it was coming in. I just hope I get to see it again someday. All I can say about executive class is if its at all possible, I'm going to stay out of steerage especially since going across the Pacific is pretty unpleasant for me anyway. I can't snooze unless I'm lying down. The food was wonderful. I mean this stuff was as good as we got in the restaurant the night before. The wine was too. We got close to drunk. We could stretch out and we had much better service, too. The steward/stewardess to flyer seemed to be about 2-1. We landed in Hawaii about 10 PM. Since we had some frequent flyer business to do, we left the terminal a lot later than most people. Our mistake was not getting a cab to go to Waikiki, but waiting for a mini-bus. The dispatcher wasn't totally upfront about when the next run was, and we ended up at our hotel at 12:30. When we got to our room, it was occupied. We had to get another. I was really pooped by now . Even though we were theoretically on Australian time, it really felt like 12:30. I was tired from all the vacation.
Rick said that Hawaii was his. We had a three-day layover and he could do what he wanted. It was kind of frustrating for me, because I knew this was an extremely desirable vacation destination and, as usual, I wanted to see everything. Thank God for Oahu's bus system. You can see almost anything for 60 cents, including a loop around the whole island. So our chambermaid told us of a good dimsum place and off we went to downtown Honolulu. After Sydney, Hawaii was almost unpleasantly warm and muggy. And it rained. Dimsum was the best I ever had. We walked back, taking in some of the sights of old Hawaii. It reminded me in a way about the Michener book "HAWAII." You could almost imagine the missionaries walking around. We took a sunset sail in a catamaran and saw one of the sunsets Hawaii is famous for. I had been bored, so Rick broke his vow and I convinced him to go to the Polynesian Cultural Center. We got a little lost and ended up going around the wrong way, ending up at the North End at about 4 PM. Rick didn't like it as much as I did, because he had been on all of the island and Polynesian islands groups and had seen most of it. Of all the tourist attractions I have ever been to, this one rates up there with the best of them. We decided to take in the show in the evening and the buffet. The food was average buffet quality but the show was absolutely great. Especially the Samoan fire dances and the Tahitian hula dancers. He said it was too loud even though we were as one of the last rows. It was the first nightlife we'd had all vacation - on our last evening of vacation.
The bus ride home was much quicker. It took us 45 minutes to get back to Honolulu. It seemed that Oahu was bigger than Rhode Island. I was amazed. The next day we took in the Kodak show somewhat of a local institution. Then we went to Hilo Hatties's for our Aloha shirts. The best designs were unfortunately on polyester. We managed to get a matched set in cotton even though Rick refused to wear them at the same time in Hawaii. He kept saying "You'll see...."
We spent the afternoon on the beach. It had been nice for the -------------------------------
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