Finally made it to Oz - Part 1
Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
10Trip End Ongoing
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We landed in Sydney, Australia on December 22nd from Tokyo excited to explore the land of "Oz", a country we heard so many great things about from travelers along the way, and in fact, a lifetime dream of mine. Since I can remember my best buddy Mark and I always dreamed of exploring Australia together. Well now was my time, unfortunately without Mark but hey it's for a wonderfully worthy reason - by the time Beth and I arrived in Australia, Mark and his wife Angelyn were more than 7 months pregnant with beautiful baby Luke (who is now more than 2 months old). A fine accomplishment and certainly enough reason to take a rain-check on this adventure.
In search for the true Australian experience I had spent a good amount of time on the Couchsurfing web site looking for the perfect hosts for the holidays. As it turned out we decided on connecting with two different couches, one for Christmas and another for New Years. The first couch was an hour outside of Sydney in the Richmond area, which was really more out in the Australian bush than I intended but the profile of the Classen family and the comments posted by other travelers promised a unique experience and boy did we get it. After arriving in Australia, we scored our Sydney train passes, cruised to the Brazilian consulate in Sydney city center to apply for our visas, and we headed out to the Classen family compound to begin our adventure.
We knew we were in for an interesting Christmas holiday the minute Lovell pulled up to the train station. Shoeless, shirtless, smiles ear to ear and super high energy sums it up. We piled into his little car and headed out to his place. From the first moment it was like a fairytale, 5 days of story after story of funny crazy things he's done or experienced, some of which I can't go into details and others I don't have time to tell you about because we have our own stories that take the cake. It started on the drive out to his place when I asked if there were any kangaroos in the area, a couple of minutes later we were following one (harmlessly) through a field in his little Holden front wheel drive.
We arrived at their property which is a large piece of land situated adjacent a river and between 2 national parks (not quite the outback but technically it is out in the bush). We were greeted by whole a team of backpackers lounging in the space between Lovell's house and his separated bathroom. There were about 25 (mostly all German) couchsurfing backpackers hanging out around the property. Although Lovell and his brother Roan were born and raised in Oz, the Classen family has a German background.
The Classen family consists of Manfred, the father, in his late 70's/early 80's. A delightful man, always smiling, helping out the reams of backpackers in a joking, easy going way. Spending his days cruising around chatting in a poetic mix of German and English. Manfred lives in a 120ish-year-old small shack that leans worse than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Eddy, his wife who was great with us but generally spends her time tucked away in her small trailer watching a big screen TV and complaining about the noise the backpackers are making next door at Lovell's. Lovell is the youngest son, drives a cab by day and parties/entertains the backpackers by night. He has his own house, the one building on the property that I can actually call a house.
So as it turned out we had a great time at the Classen's. We pitched in on setting up the new community outdoor lounge/kitchen area, Beth did some decorative work while I setup the sink and ran the water line from the holding tank back in the woods. The job did not go without adventure though. One of the highlights to mention is the pelting golf-ball-sized hail storm that blew through during a 40 degrees C (100 degrees F) day. It was a welcomed cool-down at first, but at the time I was out on top of the water tank and the freezing rain actually had me just about frozen by the time it stopped. Soaked in ice cold water, I had just got the water siphoned and tapped, and was picking up the tools when a jumping ant bit me. Cripes they have a painful bite when they stick their little antlers in your skin, the worst was I quickly shook my hand so I never saw what was on me and I was pretty freaked not knowing what actually just bit me... was it a snake? a spider? maybe a funnel web or a red back?.... ahhh. I went running back to camp in fear I might pass out in the woods by the water tank. After explaining what happened to another backpacker I learned what a jumping ant was and that they were everywhere in the area so I calmed down. Besides there was no numbness yet so I was feeling better by the moment. Returning to finish picking up the tools I could see the little suckers all over the ground so I chalked it up to another Australian experience and proceeded with a little more caution this time.
Christmas eve was quite an event, Lovell and a crew of intoxicated Germans left at 3 AM on a mission to score a Christmas tree from the local golf course, (an annual event as I'm told). They threw it on top of his little Holden (Aussie brand) sedan, holding it by hand on route back to the house. The tree was erected by daybreak in the middle of the new lounge area then decorated with a mismatch of decorative items.
Christmas day started with a few phone calls to our families. Eddy and Manfred were so kind as to take the time out of their day to run us into town so we could find a WiFi connection to Skype from. We sat in front of a closed McDonald's on Christmas morning in the rain wishing our immediate family a Merry Christmas. As a lure to bring in more consumers, all McDonald's in Oz have free WiFi. Beth begrudgingly spent more time in McDonald's during our 6 1/2 weeks in Australia than she ever has or ever will in her entire life; for her it was like the kiss of death every time we pulled up. Thankfully McDonald's also has something new we haven't seen elsewhere- McCafe.... a complete knock-off of Starbucks. There's a separate counter with a full list of hot and cold lattes, mocha's, and teas at 5+ bucks a pop. (Yes, Australia is VERY expensive! The exchange rate was a budget killer.) Anyway we felt the need to buy at least something if we were going to sit there for hours using the WiFi so a caffeine was better than a heart attack burger...
After we got back to the Classen's we jumped on a couple of bikes and headed out on a ride/trek in the 2 national parks on either side of the house. Once on foot we took the advice of our hosts and made a couple of walking sticks to have in hand in case we ran across any venomous snakes or spiders. There are plenty of brown back snakes in those parts which can be lethal if they feel threatened. We had a great walk in the woods, seeing plenty of birds, spiders, and small critters... and one kangaroo.
Well like all things our adventure with the Classen's had to come to an end so we packed up and headed to Sydney. We arrived at the wonderful home of our next couchsurfing hosts, Joe and Lucy, in Manly Australia, a suburb of Sydney across Sydney harbor. We were warmly welcomed by Joe, Lucy, Joe's mom, and I bet you'll never guess.... a couple of German backers, B and K. Even though Joe and Lucy already had a full house they decided to host us because they had read on our couchsurfing profile about our interest in volunteering. Joe has a passion for volunteering and spent significant periods of his life volunteering in his home country of Albania. In our couch request we highlighted our efforts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia and as a result Joe went out and purchased an air mattress and cleared the floor in his study for us, what more could anyone ask for... When we arrived Joe had a spread of his amazing gourmet cooking ready (Trout and Monk fish I believe), absolutely awesome, we felt like family right from the moment we arrived.
We spent the next few days in and around Sydney city. The first day we walked around south city center and Daring Harbor, I have to say Sydney makes the top 5 list for cities in my book. The city is super clean, safe, and transit systems are excellent. It's a mix of beautifully maintained historic buildings co-mingled with some of the best modern architecture I've ever seen.
The next day we went to Sydney's Taronga Zoo, wow what a great place, spacious, well maintained and situated on a hill with an awesome view overlooking Sydney Harbor.
Another day we headed over to Bondi beach, east of Sydney city center on the south side of the harbor. Really our first of many incredible beaches in Australia, and by far the most packed. This is a beautiful beach, loaded with people from end to end. This was were we first realized that topless in Australia is almost as popular as we heard thongs were in Brazil, geese. The water was delightfully cool which took a minute or so to adjust to, a real break from the blistering heat of the day. Unfortunately the trek from Manly to Bondi is really long (even without the incorrect directions we were given on the bus that cost us an hour) so coupling that with the horribly great sleeping-in habit we had recently developed we only had a couple of hours of daylight there. That night we had an evening at the movies to see Avatar, although the IMAX was sold out for days we were able to get tickets for a 3D viewing in Manly. Wow what a great flick,
Did I mention Joe and Lucy were wonderful hosts? They really have a keen eye to make sure we had the best advice maximize our time in Sydney and took us around Manly to show us the scene. We hit the town center and Manly beach several times (walking distance)
Couchsurfers B and K decided to treat everyone to a traditional German dinner one night. They prepared in style suiting up in traditional German lederhosen for the job. An excellent spread of garlic mashed potatoes, salad, and the main course, "Kaiserschmarn" or "emperors joke" in English, Delish!
Then came the New Years Eve party and Sydney Harbor fireworks , wow what an event. Joe had everything planned out, timing, car drop off to minimize walking afterwords and carrying our stuff too far, sweet spot on the beach scoped out, you name it.... until we woke up New Years Eve and it was pouring rain throwing a wrench into everything. As it turned out the rain subsided but we did head there much later than planned only to find there were more folks than we anticipated who stuck out the rain so our number one spot was taken. We settled for spot 2, a beautiful sandy beach across the harbor from Sydney and with perfect view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
The first couple of days of the New Year we spent figuring out how we were going to tackle the rest of the country in a month. It was obvious that if we were to have the freedom we wanted to stop anywhere along the beaten (or unbeaten) path we needed to hire (Aussie term for rental) a car. We learned in our research that there is somewhat of migration out of Sydney after New Years heading in all directions so hiring a car in Sydney and heading north was going to cost top dollar. However if we can get to the north by some other means then it's relatively cheap to bring a car south back to Sydney where there is a shortage of cars. So now we had to figure out how to get 3000 KMs north quickly. There is a famous web site in Australia called Gumtree.com (a lot like craigslist or kijiji) where people can post for ride shares, either those who need one or those who are offering a ride whether it be to share expenses or just for company. We found a ride with a girl from the UK named Alex. Alex was a really great gal and an avid traveler having spent nearly a year circling the continent in her yellow VW van. She was on her way to Byron Bay (a backpackers mecca on the beach located two hours south of Brisbane) where she had some work lined up to replenish the bank account so she could continue exploring Oz. We jumped onto the bed in the back of her van in downtown Sydney and set off. The ride was a hoot, telling stories and sharing music. We made it about 1/2 way there and pulled off for a break in Port Mcquarie, a quaint little town with a surf beach encapsulated by a sizable hill that presented great views of the beach below.
Byron Bay is a cool little surf town and a magnet for backpackers. It's set just south of the gold coast adjacent a long stretch of beach where the surf rolls off the pacific. There's a long stretch of shops and restaurants along the main strip and a small park where we decided to eat a little breakfast after Alex dropped us off. To our surprise a man pulled up with a bag full of Poi (pair of chains with a ball on one end) and Batons offering free lessons.... Beth was totally stoked for poi lessons since she had pretty much mastered all the poi moves she learned in Cali. While she was practicing, I connected with Carmen, a friend we met at Burning Man just a few months earlier who lives in Brisbane. She decided at short notice to jump in the car and meet us in Byron for the day and give us a ride into Brisbane where we had a room reserved at Bunk Backpackers hostel down town.
Back to our journey north.... I had lined up a great deal on a car in Cairns but that was dependent on us hiring for a month, and now it was a week later so I called Travelers Auto Barn again to make sure the deal was still on, that's when they offered us an even better deal. They had a camper van at a repair shop in Mackay (Pronounced Mackai) that needed to be taken back up to Cairns. Typically they would have to hire a driver to move this relocation vehicle, but instead offered to give us four days to drive it up there for them for free, AND they would even pay the gas. For us it was the ticket we needed to get to Cairns to score our rental.... plus it meant four days free transport and lodging for us in ridiculously expensive Australia. On top of it all they gave us an even better deal on the rental (from Cairns back down to Sydney) for a shorter period of time, and threw in a ton of perks like free camping gear- NICE. We got a short cheap flight up to Mackay the following day and picked up our dream ride.
The following day we were up bright and early to start what would be our routine for the rest of our time in Oz. Check out what's cool to do on the road ahead, Ipod/mini boom box between us, google map directions setup on the iphone, me driving (well most of the time), Beth co-pilot (reminding me to drive on the LEFT side of the road), and off we went in search of our next adventure.
Having heard wonderful things about the Whitsunday Islands from Karen (another backpacker we met at the Ashram in Bali, Indonesia the second week of our travels) we decided to check it out. Karen told us about this really awesome couchsurfer who lives on his boat on the Whitsundays and takes couchsurfers out sailing. We were determined to find this character and if nothing else meet him, I mean who wouldn't want to meet a person with that kind of generosity..... and if it happened his couch was available for a sail who would we be to say no.... so we found him using the iphone, his name is John, and submitted a couch request to him. Bam, within minutes he responded saying he would love to meet us at some point but that his boat was docked for the moment due to bad weather. Long story short we ended up taking a rain check in hopes that the weather would be better on our way back down the coast and decided to mozy on north.
We stopped in a small town along the road to get some expert advice from an information center. The lady was really excellent, she was enthusiastic about what we were doing and sent us off with a handful of maps and directions to the best scenic areas on the way to Cairns.....and beyond. We set off for a place called Atherton, off the main road and inland some few hundred kilometers. The goal was not to see Atherton, although it is a cute little town, but to drive though the waterfall latent highlands. I have to pause here and say that the East coast of Australia, particularly the north east is absolutely stunning! The terrain is a glowing green mix of hills and mountains with plush valleys. Huge plots of land are occupied by farms and many hilltops are occupied by beautiful estates. For the next 3 weeks we would explore this area, first heading north then enjoying it all over again heading south. I don't know if I've ever felt that free and exited to explore a place, our only enemies were time and money...... ahh if only there were endless supplies. During the drive to Atherton we encountered sun showers so everything was wet and glistening under the intermittent sunny periods. We decided to stop to see the waterfalls circuit which is a series of 3 waterfalls along a 15 KM loop of road in the countryside. Unfortunately we go caught in a pretty solid shower at Mungalli falls, the first of the 3, it was like dodging traffic the whole time we were there. All 3 falls were pretty neat, the others called Ellinja and Zillie Falls.
By the time we reached Atherton it was later afternoon and considering we were just a couple of hours from Cairns and we still had 2 days to get the camper back we decided to blow past Cairns a few hundred KMs to Cape Tribulation, one of the only paces on earth where the tropical rainforest meets the ocean. The Daintree Rainforest, originally inhabited by the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people, is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.
Calling ahead we booked a night trek in the rainforest in hopes of seeing first hand what nocturnal wildlife a rainforest has to offer, but we were racing against the clock to make it. The guide company Mason's Tours asked us to call when we reached the ferry for the Daintree river crossing, to confirm we would make it on time. Problem was my cell phone had no service once we reached the river, which makes for a good time to point out some travel advice... Always take a little time to explore coverage area and ask locals for a little advice before buying a SIMM card in a foreign country. It's frustrating when there's no service at home, and hence most people carefully select their providers based on where they plan to use the phone, well it's equally important to do this in a foreign country especially when you plan to travel to the far corners and have the phone not only for convenience but for emergency purposes too. Needless to say I did not follow this advice in Oz and scored the most affordable card I found resulting in multiple spats of frustration along our travels. So as it turned out we made it across the ferry and pulled into Daintree village just south of Cape Tribulation in the nick of time for our tour but now came the task of actually finding the place. In the near dark we frustratingly drove up and down the road but could not find the actual tour facility. Time ticking and with no cell phone we eventually gave up and headed up to Cape Trib to find a place to crash for the night.
The town of Cape Tribulation is situated along a single road (aptly named Cape Tribulation Road) that passes through the rainforest which is just a few hundred yards from the ocean. At the end of town we found a hostel/camp site that boasted the local pub, a restaurant, a pool, as well as your standard living facilities. We booked a rainforest trek for the next morning and inquired about a camp site but decided we needed nothing they had to offer except a place to park for the night so we saved our $30 and pulled into the beach access parking lot next door. Another travel tip for Oz is that you can legally park in any public spot and sleep- you can't officially "camp", but you can "sleep". As long as you don't have anything outside the camper, chairs, BBQ, cloths hanging, etc. they can't say that you're camping. Australian authorities are super focused on safety and specifically hazard of driving while sleepy, in fact you can't drive 20 KMs anywhere along the east coast without encountering a sign saying something like "Survive the drive! Stop, Revive, Survive". They also had the excellent idea of free caffeine centers at many of their rest stops, and since it cost over $5 for a small cup of caffeine in Australia we were down with that plan any time we came across one. It also made for excellent opportunities to chat with locals and a great place to get advice. Caffeinated or not, there are rest stops everywhere along highway which made for excellent free camp areas for us, NICE.
The next morning we rolled the van back next door to the hostel parking lot before setting off for our trek. Taking a quick potty stop first, I'm standing a the urinal doing my thing and in proper form I look up while doing my thing and there sits my first example of ancient rainforest habitat. A grasshopper the size of a sparrow, bright green with legs like a frog. The thing was spectacular, I only wish I had my camera but alas you can't take it everywhere...
We arrived at the trail head in the blistering heat and learned that this was also the trail head that we had been looking for the night before.... and that last night's trek was a no-go anyway since there were not enough people signed up. Our day trek with Mason's Tours took about 2 hours, and we discovered it was not really a hardcore trek but more of an excellent educational tour with a well-schooled guide who was actually the owner of the company and the spectacular 170 hectare property we were on.
Our time was up in Cape Trib so we made our way back to the car, pointed the nose south started the journey back to Sydney some 3000+ KMs away.
To be continued.....