4 Dec - Urban Sprawl
It didn't take long for us to regret leaving the the deserted curving roads of Tolkien's Middle Earth (AKA New Zealand for LOTR deprived), as we drove out of the Brisbane airport into a sudden afternoon downpour. The rains slowed the rush hour traffic to a crawl, and it took us several hours in 4 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic to work our way south to an area called the Gold Coast. With a little luck, we found a bank, hotel, and supper before crashing for the night. And flying overhead in the dark as we stepped out of the car, was the hugest bat we had ever seen....the size of a hawk.
5 Dec - The High Rise Coast
The classic American picture of Australia is of the Outback, that huge, rugged, wild desert that fills most of this country. Sorry to dissapoint you guys...we didn't come here to...go there. Australia is a really big country, and our plan for our time here...well, we really don't have a plan. Which is why we counted ourselves lucky when we woke up a block from the beach, and went for a walk on the wide sand strip, as families arrived for a day in the sun. To the north of us we could see the high rises of the Gold coast, so we figured, why not?, and soon found ourselves driving through scenes that would follow us for most of our time here in Aussie land, namely crowded highways, high rises, strip malls, overpriced hotels, and endless red lights. Under hot, humid skies, it looked a lot like Florida, and in such a crush of humanity, we wanted nothing more than to escape back to more wild and natural places. Australia has only been a country since 1901, but it seems they have been working non-stop since then to conquer at least the wildness of at least the coast. But, the beaches were wide and beautiful, and we drove into the heart of the high rises, to a place called Surfer's Paradise. I've always wanted to try surfing, and it seems there is no better place than this East Coast. And so I quickly found myself in a wetsuit carrying a 9 foot soft surfboard, practicing my stance in the sand under the watchful eye of my instructor. In less than an hour I was catching waves and getting rolled, barrelled, and pretty much falling off my surfboard in just about every way possible. And finally, as the lesson concluded and I grew tired from constantly forced my way back out into the surf, I even stood up on the board for a second or two. It was a blast, and I was hooked.
6 Dec - Surfing
So the next morning, I wanted to do nothing more than rent a surfboard and practice my moves. We were in the town of Coolangatta, on the border of the states of Queensland and New South Wales. Well, it turns out that one state has Daylight Savings Time and the other doesn't, and the line goes right through the town, so while it was 10 am at our hotel, two blocks to the East at the beach, it was still 9 am. Which doesn't matter much, except that we would end up spending most of our time in Queenland, with no DST, and as a result, the sun set for the day before 7 pm, yet would rise it seemed before 4 in the morning. It's kind of weird...who ever heard of long summer...mornings? Anyway, we gained an hour when we got to the beach and rented a surfboard, where I proceeded to fight the waves until they practically beat me up, in the process actually standing up once in a while. BTW, these are baby waves I'm practicing on, barely a foot or two high, hence the really long surfboard. When I was too tired to surf any longer, we lost an hour driving back across the time border, and drove back into the hills hoping to escape the crowds and traffic. It worked just fine, but as we stepped out of our air-conditioned car, we realized that it was HOT, that windless, humid, inland heat of the subtropics.
7 Dec - Sweating or sleeping?
Somehow, we managed to survive the night in our tent, by leaving the top off and sleeping right on our mats with no sleeping bags, but it was hot. Wild turkeys wandered through our campsite, and the sluggish stream barely cooled off our feet before bed. We were still so hot in the middle of the night that getting rained on while sleeping almost sounded appealing. When it did start raining, we half-heartedly flipped the rain cover on and went back to sleep. Finally we gave up and packed up the wet tent in slightly cooler morning air, giving us hope that our planned hike wouldn't be too bad.
There are no real mountains here (at least in the half of a continent shown on our map), and the hills of the Great Barrier Range that remain are old and rounded, mostly less than 1000 feet high. Our goal was Mt. Warning, the first place that the sun hits on the continent when it rises in the morning, mainly because it looks like a finger jutting up amid sleeping forests. Mt. Warning is the center of a lava core of a very old volcanic crater...don't think Mt. St. Helens, think the Appalachians or the Banks Peninsula in NZ. We were the first car in the parking lot, since we had camped so close and gotten up real early. And we couldn't believe our ears...literally! We packed up our daypack with food and water, to the sound of what seemed like a million cicadas (locusts) all screaming at once (or rubbing their legs together or something). It was the kind of constant noise that you'd only really hear at a rock concert, or next to a jackhammer, where even if you scream, you can barely hear yourself, and instinctively you want to put your fingers in your ears. A helpful sign told us that we were in subtropical rainforest, and I did put my fingers in my ears several times, just to convince myself that I wasn't going deaf.
Our hike up to the peak looked kind of like another triangle...a stairclimber 5 kilometers all the way up, and then a slide back down to the bottom...if only it were that easy. The rainforest scenery was awesome, and the noise from the cicadas eased as we climbed higher through vegetation layers. Along the way we were introduced to blood-sucking leeches (are there any other kind?) as Rob found a trickle of blood running down his leg, and their bane...common table salt. Don't worry, it was a small leech, unlike the ones we hope not to see in Malaysia, but it did make us compulsively check our legs ever few steps to make sure nothing had latched on! A sign along the way told us that vines in the southern hemisphere spiral up trees counterclockwise, unlike their clockwise brothers in the north. So unlike the water in the toilet bowl, this actually was backwards...something to do the sun's arc across the sky. The final section of the climb seemed almost straight up, with a large bolted chain to help getting up (and not falling back down). The view from the top was worth the walk...360 degree views of the coastal high rises, and the crater rim hills.
7- 8 Dec - Take a break...
Once down again, all roads eventually lead back to the coast, and tired and unable to conceive of sleeping in the hot tent again, we crashed for a couple of nights in Calundra, this time North of the Brisbane madness, in a hotel across from a strip mall. The Christmas shopping season is in full swing here, and Santa has been known to wear board shorts and a hawaiian shirt and go surfing. The few times we saw him, though, he was sweating in his normal get-up in a mall somewhere, usually with a huge fan pointing right at him! There is every store imaginable here, including Kmart, Target, and a Big W, whose "We Sell For Less" logo and suspiciously familiar store layout made us conclude that, yes, Wal-Mart has made it to Australia.
9 Dec - Drive to stay cool
Once rested again and forced to leave our air-conditioned hotel room, the only thing that sounded exciting was driving in our air-conditioned car. So we did, heading north along the coast on two-lane roads, behind Aussies consistently driving 10 miles an hour slower than the 100 km speed limit, and me consistently passing them and driving 110 or more. I'm sure I will have a bunch of hidden camera speeding tickets waiting for me someday. Either way, it was slow going, and when the sun set (at 7, remember), we had just reached the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. In the port town of Gladstone, we survived a (slightly cooler) hot night in the tent. The scenery the whole day was unchanging, just miles and miles of Eucalyptus trees. We kept hoping to see Kualas hanging out in their favorite trees, but no such luck, as they only come out at night. Life here in Australia is pretty harsh, and it seems they have adapted to the heat by having very small brains, as brainpower takes lots of energy. Seriously, they are the only animal whose back cavity is actually bigger than their brain...I guess it doesn't take a lot of wits to hang out in trees. It seems Kangaroos also come out only at night, and for that reason many Aussies don't drive at all at night...hopping might also save a lot of energy getting around, but it doesn't make getting off the road quickly very possible. So, we didn't see a Kangaroo either, except a dead one beside the road, but we are happy that we don't have to write home and say "Mum, the only kangaroo I saw was the one I hit with my car!"
10 - 11 Dec - Jellyfish
The beach we saw in the morning looked inviting, until we saw the warning about giant stinging jellyfish. "...continue giving CPR until help arrives...don't worry, most victims recover..." Add to that the prohibition on swimming in lakes and rivers due to crocodiles, and Australia is starting to sound downright inviting, isn't it? Anyway, the Barrier Reef on this southern end was still quite a ways out to sea, and we knew that Thailand had diving as well, so we didn't try a trip out to the cays. Plus, to surfers, the 2000 km reef is nothing but a heartbreak (all those waves wasted out at sea), so we actually drove south just a little bit, to the town of Agnes Waters, the northernmost surfing beach Australia. There (what else) I rented a surfboard, and found to my delight that the sea water was bathwater warm, somewhere around 85 degrees. And in this one-horse (kangaroo?) town, we happily gave in to the allure of white sand beaches and stayed for a couple of nights.
12- 13 Dec - Out on the water
When we physically couldn't surf anymore, it was time to start heading back down the coast. The weather continued to be spectacular (if hot), and we ended up in Hervey Bay, which is a very busy tourist town in whale-watching season. The whales weren't around at the moment :( , but off of the mainlandwas the biggest sand island in the world :). Great Sandy NP is over 70 miles long, and most of it is accessible only by walking and 4 x 4 vehicles. Of course, there are tons of trees and rivers and freshwater lakes as well as a lot of sand, and even a small village or two. Since our rental car wasn't up to the task of driving out there, we opted for a day tour to a resort, just to see the Island (and because it was an off-season special). The boat ride out there was peaceful for us, but very wet for the folks on the other side of the boat getting soaked by wind-spray! At the resort, they fed us lunch, then a park ranger gave us a tour of the some of the indiginous plants of the island. By the end, we were hot and sweaty and glad to hang out by the pool.
14 -15 Dec - Packing up and moving on
In our final days here, we are making our way slowly back to Brisbane, starting to pack up our camping gear to ship home, and lightening our backpacks to carry weight. As Rob keeps reminding us, this first month of our journey, with a rental car, in English-speaking countries, and the freedom to go anywhere, has just been a warm-up for the adventure that will start in just a few days in Southeast Asia. For the first time, we will have just a small backpack, and all of our traveling will be by bus, taxi, train, legs...
Since our plane doesn't leave for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (via Bangkok, Thailand) until 11:59 tonight, we are heading to the airport to drop off our rental car, and then going to spend the day in the city. Next stop....Southeast Asia!
Downtown Brisbane seemed just like another city until we walked across the river and found a lovely park with a swimming area. It wasn't a normal pool, rather a long shallow man-made lake, with soft sand for a beach brought from the ocean. It was beautifully landscaped with all types of trees, bridges and fountains, and people and kids were playing and swimming under the watchful eye of the lifeguards. The best part of all was that it was free and open to everyone, with a great view of the city skyline. We sat on a stone bridge and soaked up the warmth of it as the sun fell. The stars came out (and people kept swimming), and huge bats came flying overhead, all of them streaming out of the city and out past us, hundreds of them. Several landed in the tree next to us, hanging upside down. Now someone had explained to us that these bads didn't have radar, they were more like a flying fox than a bat. Either way, they looked like bats, hung like bats, and flew like bats, except that they were the size of a sea-gull.
The Kiwi accent is something I love, although understanding them can be a challenge. They tend to multilate their vowels until even the Aussies make fun of them. I'll give you an example from the airport on our first day that had me laughing the whole time there.
I think what she tried to say was: "Pick up you ticket at the check-in desk" and what we heard was "Puck oop yur tuckit eat the chickun disk" Yup, sounded just like that...
Now the Aussie accent is no less entertaining, but this time it's because of the strange words they use. Here's an example for ya:
"G'day, mate, and welcome to the Outback! If yere a mite famished, there's tucker and grog in the boot. Use my tinny to go fishing if you want, but watch out for any freshies that might think you taste like chook. I'm going to use the dunny out in the bush, hope the mozzies aren't out yet. Don't be a larrikin and steal my stubby, you've got your own tinny right there in your tinny holder."
Translation: "Hello, and welcome to the desert! If you are hungry, there is food and drink in the trunk (of my car). Use my boat to go fishing if you want, but watch out for crocodiles that might think you taste like chicken. I'm going to use the port-o-potty out in the forest, I hope the mosquitoes aren't out yet. Don't be mischievious and steal my beer bottle, you've got your own can right there in your cozy."