In the second half of my adventures in the great and powerful Oz, I say goodbye to the desert of the Northern Territory and head to Queensland for the sea to the east coast home to its world famous beaches, crazy surfers and of course the Great Barrier Reef. The road trip continues as I ride the Greyhound bus down from Cairns to Sydney, continuing to meet new friends, conquer a major fear and even cuddle the natives.
Under the Sea
My first stop was in Cairns an eastern city that’s well known for being an access point to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the world, visible from space, an incredible 2900 km stretch of reefs home to all of the magical creatures of the sea. I got to hang out in Cairns with two of my Uluru tour group friends, Yannik from Switzerland and Anja my German pal who would become a good friend and travel buddy for much of the rest of our trip. Anja and I decided to sign up for the boat tour to the GBR, she was going to snorkel and I decided to try scuba diving for the first time.
I’ve always been curious about diving and have many friends who have been espousing how majestic and peaceful it is to dive, but despite my absolute love of the sea, I’ve always been terrified about the idea of diving. Part of my fears about diving are due to my moderate claustrophobia. I’ve never enjoyed crowds but as I get older, being in confined spaces is even less appealing. And maybe it’s the combination of Shark Week, the Jaws movies and a vague but terrifying idea of the bends (aka decompression sickness, you know when your body/organs can’t handle the pressure of being deep sea), but I’ve been too scared to try diving. But this has been the year doing stuff that scares that shit out of me aka my Year of Joy. And much of those scary activities include doing things that feel far beyond my physical capabilities. As if the psychological and emotional fear of diving deep into a sea full of things that can kill you (Oz’s marketing tagline), I had to first squeeze my body into a skin suit (to prevent deadly jellyfish stings, not kidding) and then a wet suit on top of that. It’s impossible to feel sexy and confident in two layers of sausage casing.
They give you a very quick briefing on the basics of diving and after you put on your suits and about 30lbs of gear and weights, I felt completely ill prepared and I could feel the terror rising in my constricted body. Since we are not certified divers, they give you a drill test as you hold onto a rope that’s tied across the boat. It’s a pretty simple test that makes sure you know the basic hand signals, you can use the equipment to breathe under water, and to clear your ears, which is one of the most critical aspects to diving especially to avoid the dreaded bends or you know an exploding lung. When I went down the first time, holding onto the rope, I could feel my heart beating so fast and so hard, I was breathing so quickly that I was worried I would use all of the air in my tank in about 5 minutes. I FREAKED OUT. I pointed upwards within the first 2 minutes and when we surfaced, the instructor asked, “what’s going on” to which I responded “I’m freaking out!” He then simply said, “stop freaking out” and that seemed like a totally rational response and I gave it another go. And before I knew it, he and I along with another new diver went deeper into the sea and like Ariel the Little Mermaid, I was under the sea.
The GBR is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I felt like a guest in this new universe of both familiar and unfamiliar life. There are colors, shapes, creatures that look like aliens, predators, prey and a bustling population down there. It was exhilarating and a little scary, but I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to do this again and I wanted to be able to do it without being afraid.
Don’t Get Kidnapped Trying to Cuddle a Koala
After Cairns I went to Townsville to get to Magnetic Island solely for the purpose of cuddling a koala. I’d been in Australia long enough to hear all of the bad stuff about them, yes they can be grouchy, yes apparently they have chlamydia, but I didn’t care. I still wanted to hold these fuzzy and adorable creatures. To get to Magnetic, you have to take a ferry from Townsville, so I had about an hour after the bus before it took off and decided to wander the town a bit. While walking through the downtown area, I heard someone ask, “hey are you a local? Do you know where I can buy cigarettes?” I looked at the person asking the question and noticed it was a handsome young man who looked pretty hungover and I had to laugh because I couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if I tried wearing my Korean tourist wide brimmed hat and small backpack. That young fella’s name is Harleigh and he recently moved to Townsville and he and I formed a fast friendship.
When I got Magnetic, it was about 4:30pm and as I only had two nights planned to be there, I wanted to try and catch the sunset on my first night. No matter where I’m traveling, I can’t get enough of sunsets. There’s something hypnotic and spiritually calming about watching the sun lay rest to the day in the most visually spectacular way and the magical sequence is so brief and easy to miss. I asked my Airbnb host about a great spot to watch sunset and she gave me vague and confusing instructions about how to get there from her place. That and my notoriously bad sense of navigation led me to a deserted dirt road far from anything that resembled a neighborhood. It was then that a car stopped next to to me and a man asked incredulously “ummmm… what are you doing all the way out here?” I replied with an honest but seemingly ridiculous “looking for the sunset?” The man then said the best spot to see it was on the west end of the island, where he was heading home and offered me a ride. Now, not even a week prior to this incident I was explaining to a co-traveler that I have never nor would I ever hitchhike because it’s dangerous and reckless. Flash forward a week and I ignore my own sage advice and every instinct and get into this stranger’s car. The man was probably in his late 50’s and I noticed immediately that there were about 10 opened beer cans in his car. He started speeding off down the deserted road in the direction of the sunset and I regretted my decision immediately and even more so when he stared me up and down like how I imagine a crocodile looks at clueless chicken wandering to the shore. He then kept repeating the following “you don’t have to be scared” which honestly has the exact opposite effect. In that moment, I assessed and planned my escape from the moving vehicle, which included opening the car door, rolling out and running into the almost dark swamp. I also recalled that I read somewhere that if you’re ever kidnapped you want to reveal personal information that may make your kidnapper relate you in a way that’s more humane so I began rambling about my life, my dreams, my mom and sister and my nonexistent boyfriend who was napping and waiting for me. I was never so excited to reach a nearly empty and remote beach when he stopped and said that this was it but I missed this sunset. The car barely came to a full stop when I leapt out and thanked him profusely and when he asked how I would get back to the other side, I replied confidently that I would get a taxi.
As it grew dark in this beach and the taxi dispatcher informed me that they could not pick me up from this unknown dirt road with no name, I wondered if I would have to sleep on the beach in the dark in my first night in Magnetic Island. I happened to see a family with young children on the beach doing some night fishing and thank god they generously offered to drive me back with them when they left. When they asked me how the hell I got to this spot in the first place and I told them the story of my almost kidnapping but that I thought it was going to be OK because Aussies I’ve met have been so nice and so friendly they laughed in unison and told me that was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard and I should never do it again. And then they regaled me with scary stories of backpackers who’d been murdered or missing from hitching rides in Oz. As I said, there are so many things that can kill you in Australia but thanks to this wonderful family, my story had a happy ending and I did get to cuddle a koala named Claudia the next day.
Sailing, Dingos and Whales Oh My!
My friend Anja and I also did a two day sailing trip to the Whitsundays on a boat called the Matador. The Whitsundays are a group of islands including Whitehaven Beach that has the whitest, softest sand and perfect turquoise water in the world. While Anja who is incredibly athletic and the first to raise her hand when the crew asks for volunteers to work the sails, my primary job was the do minimal labor and maximum relaxation. We met some fun people on the tour from all over the world and the crew of three super tanned and funny Aussies made for a memorable time on the Matador.
One of my other fun trips was to Fraser Island another famous beach/island where ironically you cannot actually go into the sea because there are so many sharks it’s actually too dangerous. So our entire water experience was in the fresh water lakes on the island, which was pretty chilly during this time of the year, but nonetheless still beautiful. One of the highlights of the trip included our multiple humpback whale sightings. I made friends with a young crew of people including Karine from Canada, Simon from Germany, Marc and Caroline of Switzerland and Team Scotland and together we flew in tiny planes over the island, swam in freezing fresh water, avoided dingos, bounced in the bus and played an intense but fun game of Jenga.
It’s an interesting experience to be the oldest person on some of these tours. While the Uluru tour was more diverse in age and I was in the middle of the age range, in the next couple of tours I was definitely the oldest. I think some people would feel totally self conscious and uncomfortable being so much older than the 20-30 year old group, but it didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because I’m doing so many things for the first time making me feel younger and more alive than ever, or maybe it’s just that I am so grateful just to be there and I’ve been able to connect with people of all ages. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet younger people who aren’t just traveling to get wasted and act like kids, I’ve met really interesting, funny, smart and curious people and those are traits that are appealing at any age.
G’day and G’bye Oz
After some time in Byron Bay and Brisbane, I finally made it back to where it all began in Sydney. I got to spend more time with my friends Jonathan, James, Erika, Liz, Anja and my Scottish girls Lauren, Susie and Bonita. I spent two months in Australia, longer than I’ve spent anywhere else in the world. I saw more places, made more new friends, drank more booze, ate more meat, cuddled more animals and laughed a lot along the way. When I was leaving the US a year ago, my sister Sylvia who was so supportive of my trip told me that her greatest fear was that I was going to fall in love with an Aussie man and stay there far away from home. My response was “ummm…. that’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever heard. That sounds awesome but I don’t want to live in Australia.” So I didn’t fall in love with an Aussie, but I did fall in love with the place and friends but as Dorothy said clicking her ruby slippers, “there’s no place like home”.