Saturday, 27 November 2010

Fraser Island and up to Airlie Beach

Hi everyone! We're still on the road in Queensland, making our way up to Cairns in our campervan. The past few days have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride and we've got lots to update you on!

One trip we were both very keen to do here in Oz was a Fraser Island tour. FI is the world's largest sand island and is a short ferry ride from Hervey (pronounced HARVEY) Bay in QL. Last Sunday night we arrived at the YHA Colonial Village Hostel, which incidentally was excellent, ready to get up early the next day for our Fraser tour. After some safety briefings about driving a 4x4 (more on that later) and on dingoes (!) we met our tour groups. Because Fraser is all sand, you can only drive an off-road vehicle there. Our tour was a 'ride-along'. We had four trucks: one driven by Chris, our guide, and containing all our supplies. The other three were made up of 8 passengers like us! We were 'Car 2': Ania, myself, Dan, Neil, Steve, Dan, Emma and Sarah. We felt really lucky to have such a great group! We all bonded really well, lucky given that we had to spend 3 days and 2 nights in a confined space together!

If you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll know the weather has been awful here in Queensland, with rain on most days. I'm pleased to say that largely, we lucked out with the weather on our tour. The group who went before us were washed out and spent three days getting soaked on the world's biggest sand island! That's not what we signed up for!

So on Monday we left in convoy for our Fraser ferry. The first day we visited Lake Birrabeen which was gorgeous. Our group of 24 played volleyball in the water, swam and sunbathed, it was bliss! Then we drove some more and set up camp. All the food was provided so we ate a huge meal of sausages, burgers and salad and had a few drinks before getting into our two-man tents. it was a rough night's sleep on the hard ground without a pillow!

On Tuesday we rose early to yet more delicious food being cooked for us by Chris. Then we saw another lake, Wabby, the Maheno Shipwreck, some aeroplanes taking off on the beach, a lookout point called Indian Head and a place called the Champagne Pools. Lake Wabby was surrounded by tea trees, so the water was a deep green colour. We walked over sand dunes to get to it.

Ania (in the water) at Lake Wabby, Fraser Island:

We also did a long stretch of beach driving. I loved it! We returned to the same camp that night and had a repeat of the previous night. More great food and a few drinks. We played a drinking game based around the Police hit, Roxanne, and I shocked our guide by singing along to Raspberry Berret by Prince (Aussie men don't sing, they consider it a waste of drinking time). Our guide, Chris is probably worth a mention here actually! He insisted on calling all the girls 'Baby' ALL THE TIME, which they all loved, naturally. He was a character to say the least!

On our last day on Fraser we went to Lake Mackenzie, which again was beautiful. Mackenzie and Birrabeen are both freshwater lakes, with white sand and crystal-clear water. They're fed exclusively by rainfall and having a swim is like having a lovely bath! Ania, Steve and Dan P swam to the other side of the lake (it was far) while most of us messed around in the water. We then drove to the ferry dock and ate some lunch before we headed back. The heavens open and we all got soaked! I think we were all pleased that if it was going to rain, it happened just as we were leaving. It was a great trip and Ania and I would recommend Unique Fraser very highly. It was also really nice to hang out with such a great bunch.

The gang at Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island.

Ania and Rob lend a hand cooking at our camp on Fraser.

Ania in the Champagne Pools, FI.

Standing in a creek, FI.

Us two at Indian Head, FI.

The Maheno Ship Wreck, FI.

Ania doing a spot of beach driving on Fraser:

At the end of our trip, with our van. From left to right: Steve, Dan P, Dan D, Sarah, Ania, Chris (Baby!), Emma, Stu and Neil.

After getting back from Fraser we spent one more day in the hostel. We got up on Thursday and backtracked slightly south in the car to Tin Can Bay, where you can feed dolphins. Unfortunately our timing was off and it only happens very early in the morning, so we moved on to Rainbow Beach. We found some incredible sand dunes and some inland waterfalls (very tiny ones) which were beautiful. We spent Thursday evening back in the hostel in Hervey Bay with Emma and Sarah from our Fraser trip.

The sand dunes next to the sea at Rainbow Beach. This is called the Carlo Sand Blow.

Friday and Saturday we've mainly spent doing some serious driving north. On Friday we visited Agnes Water, a town right next to The Town of 1770, where Captain Cook arrived in... wait for it... 1770! We hired body boards (is it hiring if the old stoner guy in the shack says you don't have to pay?!) and spent an hour catching waves in Agnes Water, before moving on to spend the night in Rockhampton. We got there late and left early, so couldn't claim to know much about the town, but it seemed fine.

On Saturday we kept going north and saw a whole lot of nothing, well that is with the exception of beautiful landscapes! We both shared the driving and I think I'm safe in saying our favourite stop was the home-made ice cream place on the Bruce Highway, Flaggy Rock. We shared three scoops: mango, lychee & ginger and banana & cinnamon (the last one was the best!).

So now we're in Airlie Beach, the launching pad to get to the Whitsunday Islands. We're booked on a boat tomorrow and will spend one night sleeping out on the water. I expect Ania will tell you all about it in our next blog post! Phew!

Last night we were visited by a possum, who sat in Ania's chair at our fold-out dinner table, as if he was ready to order! We named him Cheeky!

A bit later, our neighbours in the campsite called us over and we realised Cheeky has a friend. We named his mate Chappy! Here they both are, poised to eat from our neighbours' Jucy camper!

Kayaking pictures!

We've just managed to get hold of the photos from our sea kayaking trip in Byron Bay, so here are a few of them...

Out at sea:
I managed to stand up rather well to scan the horizon for dolphins:

Surfing a big wave back to shore!:

Very pleased with ourselves (we didn't fall out even once)!:

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Byron Bay, Brisbane, and the Sunshine Coast (not so sunny, actually)...

Byron Bay was really fun. It's a total hippy hangout, so it reminded me of home a little bit (sob...), and of Pushkar. Lots of dreadlocks and barefoot backpackers everywhere, and a nice atmosphere. We camped in a lovely site just out of town with an amazing stretch of beach, and had some awesome beach time. There were some tiny children surfing there with their dad, and they were amazing at it. Reminded me of seeing Mina climbing when she was tiny, as if gravity just didn't happen to her!

The next day we had planned to go kayaking, but the trip was delayed because of choppy seas. Never mind, we said optimistically, let's hire boards and go surfing. So we grabbed some boards, wiggled into our wetsuits and approached the sea, only to discover that a strong wind had blown hundreds of stinging 'bluebottles' into the beach (Portuguese Men of War)! Bummer. So we beat a hasty retreat.

Kayaking was back on the next day, so we headed out early and after a quick introduction we jumped in the sea and kayaked through the surf and out into the open ocean (getting soaked but having lots of fun). We went right out to sea to spot dolphins, and after a couple of hours of happily paddling about we rowed achingly back and caught a wave back to the beach. I'm pleased to say that, unlike many in our group, neither Stu nor I stacked it, rolled the kayak over or fell in! I even stood up for a while in the kayak to survey the horizon for dolphins. Hurrah! (Photos to follow.)

From Byron we drove to Lamington National Park in the mountains to camp overnight, which meant crossing the border into Queensland! The drive up took us up winding mountain roads past some incredible scenery, with vineyards and bright purple jacarandas in the valleys below - gorgeous. We found a campsite where there were loads of tiny wallabies jumping around us and beautiful bright red parakeets everywhere, as well as the more common brush turkeys which tend to hang around lots of the sites. We spent a lovely afternoon walking through the subtropical rainforest in the park, which included a tree-top boardwalk. At one point we climbed up two steep ladders to a tiny platform 30ft up in the canopy (it creaked quite alarmingly so we didn't stay up there too long). We also saw a strangler fig tree, which starts as a vine that wraps itself around a host tree growing stronger and stronger until the host tree dies and the strangler fig is left with a hollow space in the middle. We climbed inside this one, and being me I rather foolishly clambered up the inside, slipped, and got my foot trapped! Stu rescued me though, so no problem.

Jacarandas in the national park:

The treetop climb:

The strangler fig:

On our way back down the mountain we did a quick stop at an alpaca farm to meet this lovely fella and his contemporaries. You can see from his ear tag that his name is Roy:

From there we went to Brisbane, which we both loved! It's a really nice city, even though the weather has been a bit crummy. On our first evening there we went to the Castlemaine XXXX brewery for a tour (which included several yummy beers).

Here's me with the first beer I've ever poured from a proper pump:

The following day we did an immense walking tour of the city, which took us from all over starting from the South Bank Parklands area, which has an articficial lagoon and beach right in the centre of the city, on the river side!:

The South Bank in Brisbane has lots in common with the South Bank in London. It has a big wheel like the London Eye, which we had a ride on, and a big Performing Arts centre. We also went to a big Museum, the Modern Art Gallery, the Botanical Gardens and a historical tour round the second oldest building in Brisbane to learn about the city's convict past. Apparently, Brisbane was founded because the European settlers wanted a place to send the convicts who had re-offended once they were already in Australia. It sounded like a harsh place back then, but it's gorgeous now.

There were some really incongrous buildings in the city centre, like this church, which we thought looked like a gingerbread house:

The wheel at night:There are huge black-headed ibis everywhere in the cities here - they're considered a pest!:

After a circuit of the city, we took the CityCat (a catamaran ferry service) back across the river to the South Bank, where we met up with Stu's mum's friend Jan and her husband Lindsay. We had a lovely evening chatting with them and listening to live jazz inthe performing arts centre.

There was more horrid rain yesterday, so on leaving Brisbane for the Sunshine Coast (!) we took ourselves to Underwater World in Mooloolaba, where we saw lots of exciting underwater creatures, including massive sharks. Then we went to a ginger factory, where we learned how ginger is farmed and processed, and then had a yummy tasting session trying lots of ginger-based foods. Delicious. I pretty much wanted to eat everything in their shop, but I restrained myself.

The ginger factory. (You're not supposed to eat this guy...):

Phew! We're now in Noosa - the weather still isn't great in the Sunshine State, but we're hoping it improves. There are lots of great beaches here, so fingers crossed for some sunshine to complete the package...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Road Trip Part 2: Myall Lakes National Park to Byron Bay

Hi guys, you'll notice from the title that this is 'Part 2', so if you haven't already, be sure to read Ania's post below first! As the good woman says below, we're on our month-long road trip now, so we'll be updating when we can.

So on Day 4 of our road trip we left the ‘primitive’ camping ground in the Myall Lakes and started driving towards Port Macquarie. We'd only been on the road for a few minutes when Ania spotted a sign for 'Dark Point', an Aboriginal place of importance which is home to more sand dunes! These things are really spectacular and it's so odd to see what looks like the Sahara Desert next to the sea.

Fun on the dunes:

After a short ferry ride (we're talking 60 seconds or less here) at Bombah Point, we sped along to Port Macquarie. Just outside the town we visited the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park. The koalas were cool, as were the spider monkeys, but our real favourites here were the kangaroos, by miles! On the way in we both bought a plastic cup of roo-food (dried corn, mainly). You then walk into their huge enclosure and feed them from your hand!

Adorable roos:

After leaving Billabong we got to our camp site at Port Macquarie: the Sundown Breakwall Tourist Park. It was right on the water and it was windy! It's probably worth writing a few lines on camping in our Jucy van at this point. The van's a Toyota Tarago, about the size of a Ford Galaxy, a people-carrier type thing. All the back seats have been taken out, leaving you with a 'cab' for two to sit in when you drive; and a back bit that's got seats in the day, converting to your bed at night. We also have a fridge (two settings: off and deep freeze), a butane stove (allow 50 minutes to boil water for a cup of tea) and a DVD player! I grumble in jest though, because it's a lot of fun! We're having a great time cooking our own meals again, after six weeks of restaurants in India! It's great driving along in our little van and waving at the other Jucy campers we've seen on the road.

Our home for the next month:

So back to camp sites. In our first week we've mainly stayed in unpowered sites, where you pay for a spot without electricity. You get a camp kitchen, bathrooms and showers too, and there are always other campers around. Only two nights out of seven have been different. One was the night of staying in the 'primitive' camp site mentioned in Ania's post below, the other I'll mention below.

We spent two nights in Port Macquarie, with one full day sandwiched in between. I have to say the town underwhelmed us both a bit. Our full day there was a Sunday and it seems most things close from 3pm onwards, so we did boring but necessary jobs like shopping and laundry.

That brings us to yesterday! We got up early and were on the road by 7:30am. We drove to Coffs Harbour and visited the information centre, before backtracking south to go to the town's Butterfly House. This was Ania's call and I admit I was sceptical as we went there, but I was wrong: it was great! There were some beautiful and huge butterflies in there. They like bright colours, so landed on Ania, who was wearing a rose-patterned skirt and red top. They also like salt, so I spent a good five minutes treading carefully while two rode my sandals, which have been in the sea a bit!

Then we went to Arrawarra for a surfing lesson with the guys at Spot X. No pictures unfortunately as we were busy concentrating on falling off our boards, but it was great fun. Our instructor looked like a smaller version of the American wrestler Hulk Hogan and was also a walking surfing stereotype. He did the cool surfer finger thing that skateboarders and skydivers also do (there must be a name for that: answers in the comments section below please people!) and said 'sweeeeet' every few seconds. This is a good thing. He was also a good teacher and a really fun guy! I managed to stand up on my surf board maybe three or four times in two hours, for about a second or two. By the end I felt I was getting my head around all the theory, but my body was aching and I could barely lift myself! We'll have to try again! Ania was excellent and stood up several times for much longer than I could. She's surfed before in Cornwall and said some of it came back to her!

From Arrawarra we pushed on and made for the Broadwater National Park. Last night we 'free camped'. This involves pulling up in a quiet spot and hoping that a Park Ranger doesn't knock on your door and move you on, or charge you a small fee for staying in a National Park. I'm happy to report that we got away with it! Mwohahahaha!

Now we’re in Byron Bay. We arrived this morning and have come straight to this cafĂ© to use the internet, so we better go explore. We’ll report back soon!

Road Trip Part 1: Sydney to Myall Lakes National Park

Hello from Byron Bay, and sorry for the long silence from us! We are currently on a month-long camping trip, so internet access isn't that regular. We're traveling in a Jucy campervan, which isn't so much a campervan as a large car converted to sleep two people in the back. Having said that, it's quite cosy: we have a little stove, a fridge, a sink and even a DVD player. I've really enjoyed driving again - I've barely driven at all since I sold my car back in 2005 - and thankfully I can still do it! We're mainly driving north up the Pacific Highway, so we are seeing lots of the gorgeous Aussie landscape as we go - lots of waterways, beaches and national parks.

Leaving Sydney over the iconic Harbour Bridge:

After a quick stop in Newcastle for a swim and picnic lunch on the beach, we pushed on to the Hunter Valley wine region, and swiftly booked ourselves on a wine tasting tour for the next day! Then we sensibly used the afternoon to go beer tasting at a local microbrewery. A really lovely brewer called Anthony gave us a tour of the brewery and explained the process of making beer, and what is added/changed to create the different beers we tried. They had some really specialist ones there, in particular 'Liquid Bacon', which is made by smoking the malt before brewing - it really tastes like smoky bacon! Our favourites were their Banana Beer and a German style Bock (dark beer).

Stu behind the bar, with glasses of malt and hops in the foreground:

The wine tour the next day was brilliant fun. We met some really lovely people and it was totally unpretentious. We started with a quick explanation of how to go about tasting wines/what to look for/etc, and then proceeded to get progressively sozzled as we went to about six cellar doors, tasting between six and fifteen wines at each one (just a few sips of each, but it adds up)! To break up the wine-tasting, we also stopped at a cheesemakers to taste some cheeses, a chocolate shop to taste some chocs, a place where we could taste olives, olive oils, vinegars, chutneys and jams, and a liqueur specialist where we tasted some interesting liqueurs including 'Dragon's Breath' (a shot of butterscotch liqueur infused with chilli and rosemary). The Hunter Valley is beautiful, and we merrily went from vineyard to vineyard admiring the rolling hills and fantastic views. An awesome day.

Grapevines in the Hunter Valley (the rosebushes at the end of the row act as an indicator of the health of the vine, like a canary in a mine):

The following day we went to Nelson's Bay in Port Stephens, where we went on a dolphin-watching boat trip. We saw loads of dolphins, all swimming in pods around the boat, some with babies. After a bit of watching from the boat, we jumped in the boom net at the back of the boat to get nearer to the dolphins, and to have a fun ride being dragged behind the boat in it!

Dolphins in the bay:
The boom net we sat in:

We then went to the next town along to see Stockton Bight, which I believe are the longest moving sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. They were huge - like looking out over the Sahara or something - and they ran alongside the sea.

Sand dunes:
Having stayed the last couple of nights at a 'tourist park' with mod cons, we decided we wanted to see a bit more of the national parks, save some cash and rough it in a proper camping spot. So we headed to the Myall Lakes national park as the evening drew on, and stumbled upon a gorgeous 'primitive' camping ground on the river, where we cooked up a yummy dinner on our little stove and shared a bottle of Hunter Valley wine. The following morning was beautiful with the sun coming up over the river, and a pair of pelicans landed just in front of where we were camping. Lovely!

Well that's it from me; Stu is going to take over the tale from here to get you up to speed with where we are now!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Our First Aussie Barbie!

We're staying with Ania's cousin, Lucy and her boyfriend, Peter at the moment. On Saturday Peter went out shopping and returned with an enormous barbecue (it's probably tiny by Aussie standards!)!

Here's us building the thing and then using it, as God intended:

Ready to go and fully-loaded! And the chef has a beer too, all is well.

Peter also bought some Australia-shaped food moulds (I'm being corrected, his parents bought them for him - really?!) so this morning we had Australia-pancakes. Note the Nutella-flavoured Tasmania off the south coast!

But we haven’t just been eating, no! We’ve also been on some trips to Coogee seafront and today we went on a long walk from Coogee (where Luce and Pete live) to the very-famous Bondi beach. It was a beautiful walk and the route was punctuated by an art collection called Sculpture by the Sea which was very cool. No pictures yet I’m afraid as we forgot to charge our camera (d'oh!). Lucy did take some piccies though so maybe we can upload some at a later date!

Us two at Coogee in the evening:

And here's Lucy and Peter too:

The four of us at Coogee at the start of our coastal walk to Bondi. Much nicer weather this time!

Bye Bye Taronga

Friday, 5 November 2010

Hello Australia!

We have arrived and we are alive! Sorry for the delay in posting everyone, but we've just been having too much fun in Australia, even if we are having decidedly English weather! We're now feeling a bit more over the jet lag, which really hits you!

We spent a few days with my uncle Tony, aunt Glenys and cousin Trystan in Normanhurst, just north of Sydney; and now we're staying in Coogee in the Eastern suburbs with Ania's cousin Lucy and her boyfriend Peter. We've been enjoying some of what Sydney has to offer, but haven't really scratched the surface... yet!

In the Botanic Gardens with a lovely view of those two icons in the background!

The view from our ferry as we headed to Taronga Zoo:

A couple of days ago we went to Taronga zoo, an incredible place where you can see animals that we're used to seeing in zoos back home, like big cats and elephants, etc. - but also kangaroos, koalas and wallabies! I went there five years ago with my family, but it was new to Ania and we both had a great day there. There were a few new things including the Skycar, a cable car that takes you to the top of the zoo, giving you spectacular views of Sydney Harbour and all of the animals below you. Here are some photos from our visit - we mainly seem to have zoo pictures from Australia so far, but they are good!

Koalas and kangaroos in Taronga:

Getting mobbed for our lunch by rainbow lorakeets in Taronga:

Taronga's newest addition, a baby girl elephant calf. She was born at around the time we landed in the country, so we felt very lucky to see her!

See how the Stu Bear compares to the world's tallest and shortest bears:

The bird show at Taronga. Taronga is an Aboriginal word meaning 'beautiful view'. I think you can see why! That's an eagle soaring over the Harbour. Nice.

We've also been into the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, which again is just minutes away from the Harbour. We also met up with my second cousin (we're a little sketchy on this one - she's my mum's cousin!), Helen and her husband Bill. It was really good to see them and so typical that you meet up with a relative you haven't seen for years on the other side of the world!

Last night Peter came and picked us up from Normanhurst on his way back from work and drove us back to Coogee, before the four of us went out for a nice meal and a couple of drinks in a bar. As I mentioned above it's been raining here, but we're British damn it, so we're going to not let it stop us having fun! We might go for a walk and/or have a BBQ later!

On Monday Ania and I pick up our camper van and drive to Cairns in Queensland (the North/East of Australia). Tony, Glenys and Trystan have set us up beautifully for our road trip, lending us DVDs and a guitar (!); and kindly giving us bottles of wine, pasta and some tea bags. Thanks guys. At least we won't starve for the first few days!

Ania with Eddie, Trystan's dog:

We're loving it here in Oz. The people are so friendly and it's great to have our anonymity back after being in India for six weeks. The views from the Harbour still take my breath away and I think most of the photos we've taken are of the killer-combination that is the Bridge and the Opera House (and the zoo of course!). It seems crazy to think we're leaving here in a day or two, but then we are back for a few weeks over Christmas and New Year!