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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Australia

G’Day! What an amazing month it’s been in Australia. In about five weeks, we’ve traveled the entire east coast of the country–roughly the distance from Florida to Wisconsin–and flown to the boiling-hot top end. We’ve gone from cool and windy weather to intensely hot and humid. Along the way, we’ve come face-to-face with enough exotic wildlife to fill a small zoo: from commonplace kangaroos and cockatoos to koalas, emus, and crocodiles. We’ve spotted sea turtles, dolphins, whales, clownfish, stingrays, and many varieties of fish. We saw world famous icons that define Australia–the Sydney Opera House, Twelve Apostles, Great Barrier Reef, and Whitehaven Beach–and relaxed on some beautiful beaches. We scuba dove, hiked up a mountain, floated down a crocodile-infested river, and held on for dear life on the side of a speeding ocean raft crashing against big waves.

With our flight to Indonesia, a big phase of our trip has come to an end. In the coming months, we’ll be in places that don’t speak English, where bartering for everything is the norm, and where Western standards of punctuality, transportation, and hygiene don’t always apply. The days of relatively easy travel are over for a while, but we’re also excited to experience different, vibrant cultures, landscapes, attractions, and people. It’s been a great couple months in New Zealand and Oz, and we’re excited for what’s to come!

In the meantime, let’s look back at Australia….

Top three experiences?

Nikki: We’ve had such an awesome time here, it’s really hard to narrow it down to just three. I guess I’ll say:

  1. Diving the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, we’ll probably dive in places with better visibility or whatever, but there’s something incredible about being in the GBR. It feels like you’re visiting the biggest underwater metropolis in the world.
  2. The Great Ocean Road. Spectacular scenery with koalas and kangaroos!
  3. Walking through Sydney, especially when we went around taking pictures at night.

Brad:

  1. Diving the Great Barrier Reef. Absolutely stunning!
  2. Whitsunday Islands. Whitehaven Beach and a fast cruise over some big waves made it a great day.
  3. Great Ocean Road. We saw a lot of wildlife (koalas, kangaroos, emus, and colorful birds) without even trying very hard.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Very long Greyhound bus rides.
  2. All the icky bugs, especially the huge spiders.
  3. The hostels. I don???t know if New Zealand has the world???s best hostels or what, but they???re much nicer than the ones in Australia.

Brad:

  1. Noosa. It poured on our day there, so we didn’t get to see much of the beach or area, though I heard it’s a great place. I just wish the weather would have cooperated with us better.
  2. Darwin. It’s extremely hot, wet, and there really isn’t much to see in the city itself.
  3. Australian hostels in general. Compared to their New Zealand counterparts, they’re more run down and dirty (seriously, nobody cleans their dishes in Australian hostels!). Plus many people stay in them for extended periods of time here, usually for work, and they sprawl their possessions all over the share rooms.

Best meal?

Nikki: The Thai noodle and seafood dish I had in Melbourne. It had shrimp, mussels, fish, scallops and crab along with the noodles and veggies.

Brad: The chicken curry dinner at Carrie’s house while we stayed with them in Brisbane. Absolutely delicious!

Worst meal?

Nikki: Our attempt at chicken and rice in Airlie Beach. To be fair, it’s hard to cook when you don’t have adequate kitchen supplies.

Brad: A lunch break on the Greyhound somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney. It was a tiny rest stop that had no good food, no selection, and was really slow. Overall disappointing.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: I would have to say Ben, our GBR dive master. Really, really funny guy.

Brad: Julien in Sydney. He joined us on a day trip to Manley so he could practice his English. We ended up having a great day!

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Losing one of my contacts at the beginning of our Whitsunday Island tour. I didn???t have my glasses with me, so we fashioned an eye patch with my sunglasses and black electrical tape. Really bad time to not see out of one eye!

Brad: Free wine Friday night at our hostel in Sydney. That night definitely didn’t end well….

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: With Carrie and her family in Brisbane. Great people, conversation and food in an actual house: what more could you want?

Brad: Carrie’s house in Brisbane. Staying in a house is far more comfortable than hostel life, and they were incredibly wonderful hosts.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The YHA in Darwin. Kind of a sketchy, run-down place. Although the whole city seems sketchy and run-down, so maybe that’s normal?

Brad: The two overnight Greyhound bus rides. I only got a few hours of sleep on them, and on one overnight our stop was at 4:00 in the morning, which meant we had to wander around an empty town and hang out in the hostel’s common room until a room became available.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Going out to eat in the yummy Thai restaurant in Melbourne. When we were in a pharmacy, I asked the lady working there if there were any good restaurants around. She recommended one down the street and when we saw the line nearly coming out the door, we knew it was going to be a good meal.

Brad: The rainforest around Mission Beach. We hiked up a hill overlooking the beaches and Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, we saw the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen in my life. Back at our “treehouse” hostel, we were surrounded by tree frogs, colorful birds, and gigantic bugs.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: A guy from Finland telling us about how they eat reindeer heart in his homeland. I think you had to be there, but it was a very bizarre conversation and instantly became one of our running jokes.

Brad: The two guys dancing by themselves right in front of the blues band at the bar in Byron Bay. They didn’t seem to even notice everyone looking at them!

Statistics for Australia

  • Days in the country: 38
  • Places we stayed: 21
  • Rainy days: 7
  • Blog posts: 8
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 5*
  • Photos taken: 1501
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 378, 25% of all photos taken
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 68.75
  • Distance driven: 1473 kilometers, or 913 miles
  • Foster beers we drank: 0

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 2
  • Days on the road: 73
  • Places we stayed: 43
  • Rainy days: 15
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 7
  • Photos taken: 3751
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 662, 18% of all photos taken
  • Distance driven: 6504 kilometers, or 4033 miles

* Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens, Sydney Opera House, Blue Mountains, Wet Tropics of Queensland, Great Barrier Reef

Litchfield National Park and Jumping Crocs!

We’re currently in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, and there’s not much to it. It just seems like a small, run-down city to me. Darwin is probably most well known for being bombed by the Japanese in 1942. We’ve seen many war memorials and plaques, but it’s so hot here, we’ve spent most of our days in the shade or air conditioning. The real sights in this area are outside of town.

Cathedral termite moundWe rented a car and drove out to Litchfield National Park, which was pretty cool. It’s not quite in the Outback, so there are still many trees and plants, but the dirt is red. First we saw giant termite mounds. I know it sounds gross, but it was actually really interesting. There are two different types of termite mounds: Magnetic Termite Mounds, which are oriented north-south to protect them from the floods and heat, and Cathedral Termite Mounds, which are really incredible feats of architecture if you think about it. We figured out that if termites were the size of people, the Cathedral Termite Mounds would be five times taller than the tallest building in the world. Incredible.

After that we took a break from the heat and went swimming under the waterfalls in Florence Falls. This was all fine and dandy until something bit my foot. Twice. I had to get out of the water, even though Brad was making fun of me for scuba diving with thousands of fish, but freaking out in a shallow pool with a handful of fish. (For the record, hanging out and observing fish in crystal clear water is very different than being attacked by an unknown assailant in cloudy water.)

We spent the night in the Litchfield Safari Camp. They had a carpeted tent for us to stay in. It’s the beginning of rainy season here, so it stormed for a while in the afternoon. After the storm, we grilled up sausages and watched wallabies hop around in the nice, cool weather.

The next day, when we were driving out of the park, we witnessed a sad scene. Brad was driving the speed limit on a two lane highway when all the sudden one of these huge, 4×4 Outback trucks comes roaring around to pass us. Right after the truck passes us, we see a wallaby hop out in the road. Now these trucks, besides resembling mini-monster trucks, all have steel grill bars, mainly to protect them from kangaroos. So the truck smacks into the wallaby and it falls right in front of us. Brad had to slam on the brakes and swerve away to avoid hitting the poor thing. There wasn’t anything we could do, but I still felt bad that the poor wallaby died just because some jerk was in a hurry to get to some small town in the middle of nowhere.

Jumping CrocodilesLater that day, we went on the Jumping Crocodile Cruise in the Adelaide River, where they feed saltwater crocodiles from a boat. We were both surprised by the lack of safety regulations. Some of these crocodiles were massive, about five meters long, and there were no rules like “stay seated at all times.” With everyone going from one side of the boat to the other, I kept thinking about what would happen if we capsized. Obviously that didn’t happen and we enjoyed watching the crocs leap up out of the water and eat pork chops off a pole.

Anyway, our time here in Australia is almost over. It’s been great, but we’re very excited for the next leg of our trip, Indonesia!

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

As some of you may know, I don’t always enjoy scuba diving. I tend to have problems equalizing my ears and I get sick of dealing with all the equipment: slowly pulling and yanking up a wetsuit, finding fins that fit nicely, figuring out the right weight and correctly arranging the weight blocks on a belt, struggling to keep your balance and walk with all the heavy gear on… It can all be a really big pain. I had almost decided to give up on diving all together, since none of the places I had seen really made up for all the hassle. But that was before I went to the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier ReefAnd I’m so glad I decided to go on this three day, two night scuba trip, because it was incredible! Once you’re in the clear, warm water, gliding effortlessly among the colorful coral and thousands of stunning fish, you forget about how annoying the process of getting down there was. Instead you notice the beautiful details, like clownfish darting back into their coral homes and tiny crabs crawling along the bottom. We saw an alien-looking cuttlefish change colors right before our eyes. Brad saw a little sea turtle and I saw a huge fish eat a smaller one. We also saw stingrays, blue and purple giant clams, Moorish Idols, a huge Moray Eel, boxfish, ultraviolet-striped wrasses, barracuda, parrotfish, a hermit crab in a mansion of a shell, fish getting their morning baths by blue streak cleaner wrasse and a huge titan triggerfish trying to smash apart a shell. During our very last dive, we floated there and watched a sea turtle slowly swim towards the surface while an entire school of fish swam in perfect unison behind it. Absolutely amazing.

Our divemaster was Ben, a young German guy with shaggy brown hair and a spider web tattoo on his elbow. With his accent, it was like getting dive briefings and 5:00 AM wake-up calls from Arnold Schwartzengar. But he was very knowledgeable and absolutely hilarious. He had a solid deadpan delivery for all of the ridiculous things he said.

His best joke was right before our night dive. It was my first night dive and the crew did a great job pumping us up for it. They turned all the lights off and did the briefing with only flashlights. Then Ben handed out glowsticks and told us they were a special, heat-activated type, so to get them to turn on, we had to suck on them. So twenty of us are sitting there, sucking on these glowsticks for about five minutes before Ben finally says, “OK, I just wanted to see how far that trust thing went between us. Of course you snap the glowsticks to activate them!” Probably the best prank ever.

Great Barrier ReefDiving at night is a bit like playing ghost in the graveyard. During the day, you see all the cute, pretty creatures from Finding Nemo. At night, you see all the dark, twisty things that eat them. Pair that with the fact that sound is magnified underwater, but you can’t see anything in the dark, and you have a pretty creepy experience. Brad and I didn’t actually see a whole lot in the two night dives, though. We did see a sleeping lion fish, which was very cool. (Brad didn’t take the camera for the night dives, so we don’t have a picture of it.) And we could see sharks in the water before we got in, but by the time we got down there, they were gone.

We did have a few equipment mishaps as well. In the first dive, Brad’s BCD inflator hose fell off. He was going to ditch his weights and abort the dive, but a divemaster was with us and told him he could stay, so Brad was stuck crawling along the bottom or getting dragged by someone else. My O-Ring was worn out and started leaking on a different dive. Then during the second night dive, my flashlight battery started dying. At least the crew was very helpful and able to fix all our issues. And to top it off, at the very end, one of the other girls got bent. I don’t think it was too serious, but they did have her on oxygen and an ambulance picked her up right when we reached the port, just to be on the safe side.

I realize all of that makes it sound like the trip was a mess, but it actually went quite smoothly. I was really happy with how I’m progressing as a diver. I’ve got my buoyancy under control and I didn’t have any problems with my ears. Brad of course already loved diving, now I’m afraid he’s going to be obsessed with it. That’s okay, though, because I can’t wait for the next time we visit the underwater world.

The Whitsunday Islands

Today we went on a boat tour of the Whitsunday Islands. We went with a company called Ocean Rafting, which had really cheesy marketing photos, but a good reputation. Even though they use regular boats, they decorate them to look like rafts. I don’t really get it, but the tour was very good.

First we went snorkeling off of Border Island. The viz wasn’t really great (maybe about ten feet), but there was some nice coral and neon-colored fish. There were also tons of jellyfish! Luckily they were a harmless variety because we didn’t want to pay extra to wear stinger suits. We didn’t rent an underwater camera, either, because we’re diving in the Great Barrier Reef later this week and I think we’ll see more out there.

Whitehaven BeachAfter about an hour, we went over to Whitsunday Island and walked up to the Hill Inlet Lookout. The view was incredible! They say that Whitehaven Beach is the most photographed beach in the world. I’m not sure if that’s true, but after seeing it myself, it wouldn’t surprise me too much. The water was bright blue and the sand is so white, it almost hurts your eyes to look at it in the sunlight. It’s that bright because it’s 98% silica. From the lookout we could also see tons of stingrays swimming around.

Once we were done taking pictures, we went down to Whitehaven Beach to fight off the seagulls and have a picnic in the shade. After lunch we relaxed, swam, and went for a walk. The best part was the sand itself. As soon as we jumped off the boat, Brad and I both said something about how soft the sand is. It almost feels like powder. It really is a gorgeous beach. The only drawback is that Whitehaven is definitely not a deserted beach. I’d say there were over 150 other people there. They allow a small number of people to camp there each night, which is probably the only way to see it empty.

On the ride back, Brad sat on one of the edge seats up on the “raft” itself, where he had to hold on to a rope to stay in. The swells were huge and the boat was practically bouncing up off the water. I was afraid he was going to fall out, but he had a great time getting splashed and tossed around.

Anyway, definitely check out the pictures Brad took today, because they are awesome!

Beach Bums on Australia’s East Coast

Byron BayWe’ve officially started the ocean portion of our trip and it will probably continue for a long time. As we go further north, the weather is getting hotter and the beaches are getting even more beautiful. Since we left Sydney, we’ve taken the Greyhound bus north, making stops in the towns of New Castle, Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay. New Castle and Coffs Harbour were both nice, but nothing spectacular. The highlight was seeing humpback whales. They’re migrating south now and we saw them while we were hiking up a hill in Coffs Harbour. I had never seen a whale before. We first noticed them breathing, shooting air and water up. Then we saw a few of them jumping up and splashing. I’m not quite sure why they do that, but it was pretty cool to see. We were far away from them, of course, but I think we had a better view than the whale watching tour boats. From where we were sitting, we could see both the whales surfacing and the boats racing across the ocean to them. It was kind of funny.

Byron Bay was incredible and we had a great time there. First we walked up to the lighthouse, which had really nice views and an interesting history, then we swam in the ocean and slept on the beach.  I’m not sure how long we slept for, but the tide must have been rising quickly, because by the time we woke up the waves were all the way up to our feet! That night our hostel (which was really nice, it had a pool and hammocks and everything, it seemed like a resort for us) was having pizza night, so we ate pizza for dinner and after that we went to a bar to watch the Rugby World Cup Final.  New Zealand won, which is good, we were rooting for them.  Then there was a blues band playing at the bar, so we stayed and listened to them.  When the band finished, we walked down to the beach, which was totally dark except for the rotating light from the lighthouse and tons of stars in the sky. We just sat there, listening to the waves and watching the lighthouse. It was very beautiful and peaceful.

After that we went to Brisbane for a couple of days. Brisbane’s population is about 1.5 million and it seemed even more gigantic compared to the tiny beach towns we had been in. The city was nice, but the best part was our first home stay. Before we left for our trip, my mom put me in touch with Carrie, a childhood friend of hers living in Brisbane, who invited us to stay with her family. Sleeping in a house and eating delicious, home-cooked meals again was incredible! Carrie, Mark, Alex and Oliver were all very welcoming and friendly, too, and they gave us good advice for our remaining time in Australia. I’m so happy we were able to stay there!

The birthday boy!For Brad’s birthday we went out to North Stradbroke Island, which we heard about through Carrie. Getting there was a bit of an ordeal-we had to take a train out of town, take a bus to the ferry station, take a ferry across to the island and then take a bus to our hostel-but it was really beautiful. We walked along the beaches, took a lot of pictures and ate gelato. Our plan was to watch the sun set at the beach, but all the sudden the weather got kind of nasty. For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant that was having an all-you-can-eat pasta and pizza buffet, perfect for Brad.

After that, we went up to Noosa, where the rain kind of ruined our beach day. We took an overnight bus up to Airlie Beach and we’re planning on going out to the Whitsunday Islands on Tuesday. I wanted to go tomorrow, but the tour is all booked up. We might miss the Melbourne Cup, the big horse race here, but I think seeing Whitehaven Beach will be worth it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain that day!