A Travellerspoint blog

Diving the Great Barrier Reef!

Whatever our (fairly neutral) feelings about Australia as a whole, it must be said that we ended our 8-week trip on a high. The Great Barrier Reef is more than deserving of its place as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and for me it was the site of several diving firsts; my first reef dive, first dive without a guide and first shark sighting.

Although initially worried by the large number of people on the boat, it soon came to light that most were aboard just for snorkelling, and in fact only about ten people were fellow divers. I must admit I've never been more grateful for my dive license; as the snorkellers splashed about on the surface fighting for space, John and I jumped into the water with a guide and one other girl and sank into the quiet tranquility of the reef.

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Our first dive at Hasting's Reef was led by a divemaster, who led us around the reef pointing out coral and marine life as we went. We passed a reef plant covered with closed buds that opened when you ran a hand over them, and soon spotted some clown fish (aka 'nemo fish'). Our divemaster also handed us some lumps of rubbery matter with a spongy, slimy feel, that turned out to be sea slugs.

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After a buffet lunch we moved to our second location, Saxon's Reef. and decided to attempt our second dive without guidance. After a quick briefing on navigating around the reef, we jumped in and began our solo adventure. We quickly encountered a large fish hiding under the boat, but soon left it in the company of snorkellers and descended deeper into the ocean. We were intrigued by a venus-fly-trap-style plant that almost closed on my fingers as I waved a hand near it.

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However, our most exciting discovery was yet to come. We had been told that sharks were present in the area, but we hardly dared hope to find one until we rounded a cluster of coral and spotted one just below us on the sea bed! John is notoriously terrified of sharks, and initially seemed to fight the urge to swim for the surface, but as we swam closer it was clear the reef shark had no interest in us. At around 1.5m it was fairly small in size, but we rose to the surface at the end of our dive with exhilaration still coursing through our veins. Fantastic!

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Posted by kate1401 15:57 Archived in Australia Tagged diving shark great_barrier_reef coral Comments (0)

Queensland: Ending the East Coast With a Bang...

After the tranquility of Byron Bay, we ventured north into the brash glitz of Queensland, our first major stop being Brisbane. Brisbane is probably the least sensational of Australia's eastern cities; Melbourne has the architecture, Sydney has the Opera House and Cairns has the Reef, while Brisbane seems to fall short somewhat. Its sprinkling of attractive buildings is for the most part smothered by a forest of skyscrapers and, being slightly inland, lacks that which is the centre of most Australian towns; the beach. We were, however, slightly impressed by what Brisbane has built to compensate. Street Beach is a man-made swimming pool surrounded by sand that, judging by the crowds, the locals have embraced as an alternative to the real beach, and offers spectacular views of the city skyline across the river.

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From Brisbane we continued on to Noosa for a two-day canoeing trip along its rivers and lakes, with accommodation at a bush camp in the forest. On our first day we teamed up in groups of three, were given our route, and set off on a gruelling 14km return trip against the current. We made a slow and wobbly start, but were soon skimming down the river under the direction of our third team member, a Swedish guy who led our outing as if it was a military manoeuvre. We stopped at a creek for a swim in water that made your skin seem red, had lunch at a beach further down the river, then headed back, our arms aching and our fingers blistering, but with a great sense of achievement.

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Our second day saw us rewarded for the first with an easier route; 2km each way with the current in our favour. We spent the day at a beach before returning to camp and going for a swim in a nearby quarry flooded with water that looked bright blue.

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The next morning, after saying goodbye to some new friends, we returned to central Noosa for a day of walking in the National Park and enjoyed some stunning views over the ocean before heading north once again for our trip to the famous Fraser Island. Despite having to get up at 6am to catch the ferry to the island, Fraser was my undisputed highlight of our time in Australia. Fraser Island is the biggest sand island in the world, suitable only for 4WD vehicles, and as the tour was 'self-drive' we were offered the chance to drive the vehicles ourselves, with only the leading car in the control of a guide.

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Over the three days we spent on the island we visited Lake Mckenzie, Lake Wabby and the Champagne Pools; swimming opportunities that doubled as our only chances to wash, as our camp was not equipped with showers. We also enjoyed floating down the strong current of Eli Creek, and saw the Maheno, an old shipwreck that is slowly sinking below the sand.

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Our nights were spent at camp getting drunk, scaring off dingos and peeing on the beach in the dark, and we had the time of our lives. We met some awesome people and made lasting friends who were to become our regular companions for the rest of our journey.

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Our next stop was Airlie Beach to experience the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. Although our budget had not allowed us to do a three-day live aboard tour that most backpackers opt for, we were able to visit the highlights on a one-day tour. We were taken first to Whitsunday Island where we walked up to a lookout point over Whitehaven Beach, then went to the beach itself for lunch and swimming in the clear water. We then continued our day in the waters around Hook Island, where we went snorkelling and saw some huge fish and even a turtle!

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The snorkelling was a great warm-up act for the main event; our scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns. A post and heaps of photos coming soon...

Posted by kate1401 16:29 Archived in Australia Tagged snorkelling fraser_island queensland brisbane noosa whitsundays airlie_beach Comments (1)

Summarising New South Wales

So, it's been quite a long time since my last post. I guess when you're living in a van finding wi-fi comes second to finding a shower. Anyway, we've spent the last fortnight making our way through New South Wales and have been to more places than I can count, some more memorable than others. So instead of boring you with all the details, this is going to be a 'Match-of-the-Day' post; just the highlights.

First on the list is, of course, Sydney. We continued our quest to not pay for camping by sleeping on streets in Bondi Beach, and aside from getting woken up by the council telling us to move on our last day, it wasn't a bad choice. The beach is beautiful, there are parks everywhere and the sun never seems to stop shining.

We spent our first night at the ANZ Stadium for one of my personal highlights; South Sydney Roosters vs. Melbourne Storm playing some good ol' rugby league. Since Storm beat the Rhinos in the World Club Challenge I was supporting Sydney, but they lost out to a more powerful Melbourne.

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The following day we hit Sydney's must-see tourist spots; the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. The Opera House is truly stunning in its design, although is much smaller that it looks in pictures! Suitably impressed, we made our way to the Botanical Gardens, where we joined the locals picnicking on the grass.

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Another impressive area was Darling Harbour, which lacks character but not distractions. If you're looking for shops, a cinema, food or even a fairground, it's all there. After a quick wander through Chinatown, we caught the bus back to Bondi and for tea had the best fish and chips outside of England! We then left Sydney and drove to the Blue Mountains, where we made the lovely walk to the Three Sisters at Echo Point. The only downside of the Blue Mountains is that it has been obviously exploited for its tourist earning potential; we preferred Wilsons Promontory.

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We finished off our time in the Sydney region with a day sampling the wineries in Hunter Valley. The countryside is beautiful, and there are so many wineries we were spoilt for choice. Plus with free tastings on offer wherever you go, who could resist?

After visiting a few more small towns along the coast and dropping in at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, we finished our time in New South Wales with a couple of days in Byron Bay. Byron is a hippy haven filled with backpackers, beaches and individual clothing stores, and I loved it. We walked up to Byron's lighthouse, famous as the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, and from the top were lucky enough to see dolphins riding the waves below.

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Our last stop was a short detour inland to Nimbin, a small town with a big reputation. If Byron's residents are hippies, this is where the militants hang out; the main attractions include a 'Hemp Embassy', focusing on the legalisation of cannabis, and Nimbin Museum, which has a painted VW bus in the entrance.

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And so ended our time in New South Wales; the next day saw us crossing the border and driving into the forest of skyscrapers that is the Gold Coast. 'Til next time...

Posted by kate1401 11:52 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney new_south_wales byron_bay blue_mountains hunter_valley Comments (0)

Adventures in Victoria, and a minor purchase...

Melbourne was where jet-lag hit for the first time; after a 7-hour flight that did not allow enough time for sleep, a time difference that left us at odds and a hostel that refused to let us check in for 4 hours we were ready to drop. But Melbourne was also one of the first places in a while that felt like home. It has a certain charm; maybe its the trams, maybe its the breezy weather, maybe its the mix of old and new buildings that mingle across the skyline, but something endeared it to me. Our first day in the city happened to be Good Friday, which in Australia apparently means that everything closes down for the day, so we took the opportunity to go on a walk around the city, taking photos and generally getting our bearings. Federation Square, the meeting hub of the CBD, hovers on the line between edgy and gaudy, but despite being judged the world's fifth ugliest building by Virtual Tourist there's no denying it's impressive.

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Another day saw us venturing over the river to the more tastefully designed area of Southbank, dominated by the Southgate shopping and dining complex and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), where we spent an afternoon browsing the extensive art collection and admiring the impressive stained glass ceiling.

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Another highlight was the beautiful Perdana Botanical Gardens, Melbourne's answer to Central Park, where scatterings of small lakes and stone bandstands provide a welcome escape from the noise of the city. We also took a walking tour around the bohemian district of Fitzroy, where amateur graffiti is effortlessly upstaged by colourful and creative street art.

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However, we had another mission while in Melbourne. We had been toying for some time with the idea of throwing off the constraints of public transport and driving ourselves across Australia, and this combined with the high costs of hostels in Melbourne led us to look for transport and a home. After a few days of searching we found a reasonably-priced campervan being sold by a pair of fellow backpackers, and the next day we took the tram to St. Kilda to meet the girls outside the spooky entrance of Luna Park. On looking around the van, we found that it was equipped with a mattress, bedding, two stoves, kitchen equipment, a road map and a GPS; everything we needed to embark on the roadtrip of a lifetime. A few days later we handed over the money, they handed over the keys and we were off!

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Due to car registration being a very complicated business in Victoria, our adventures began with an annoying but necessary detour across the state border to Mount Gambier in South Australia, where we registered ourselves as the new owners in a matter of minutes! This done and finding ourselves on the wrong side of Melbourne, it seemed the obvious choice to abandon the highway and opt for the Great Ocean Road. Starting at Warrnambool, we whiled away our first day with regular stops at the amazing limestone formations that decorate the coast; the Bay of Islands, the Arch, the Grotto and London Bridge. After an overnight stop in Port Campbell, we completed the set with visits to Loch Ard George and the Twelve Apostles, the most famous of the formations. Of course erosion continued after the naming of the site, and there are now only six apostles remaining.

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From there we travelled on to Apollo Bay and Lorne, two beautiful beachside towns filled with surfers, before bypassing Torquay and heading back past Melbourne for Wilsons Promontory National Park. The park is simply stunning, and we enjoyed two days of walking, paddling in the (freezing) waves and al fresco camping.

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And with that we hit the road again, and after a few stops at the Lakes and Mallacoota found ourselves crossing the border into New South Wales for the next step of our adventure.

Posted by kate1401 10:47 Archived in Australia Tagged melbourne victoria great_ocean_road lorne apollo_bay wilsons_promontory Comments (1)

The Journey South

So where were we? Ah yes, the bus journey from hell. Technically, it started with a night boat, which we were encouraged to take because "it has beds and you'll be able to sleep". It turned out the word 'bed' was a bit of an exaggeration.

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There was very little sleep to be had. We then boarded a small shuttle bus, that was filled with other passengers and all of our luggage, which, since the boot was too small, was stuffed into the aisle between our seats. As we set off with our knees pressed against the back of the seat in front, we refused to believe that this tiny bus was going to take us the 6-hour journey to Penang. We were right; but only half-right; it stopped in Hat Yai where we were transferred onto an equally tiny bus to complete our journey. As we rattled into Georgetown, every bum in the road jolted us almost out of our seats, and even though we were dropped off on a random street with no map and no Malaysian currency, I've never been so relieved to finish a journey in my life. Luckily our hostel had the best shower in Asia to brighten me up.

Penang was a real mixing pot of cultures; like most of Malaysia it’s a combination chiefly of Thailand, India and China, but influences from the Middle East and Britain can also be seen. The best indicators of the city’s multiculturalism are found in its architecture and its religion; on our first day we walked a Heritage Trail around Georgetown, Penang’s main city, and found many British-style buildings, constructed during Penang’s time as a colony, such as the Town and City Halls. On our walk we also discovered a wide range of places of worship; churches, mosques, Taoist and Buddhist temples mingle in the narrow streets as if religion had never caused a war in all of history.

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One of the most interesting features of Georgetown is the clan jetties, where various Chinese clans have built small towns on the wooden jetties that stretch out into the river. Mazes of streets have actually been constructed, and contain houses, shops and even the odd café. Entire communities live on these jetties, but they do feel a little fragile; indeed, one of the clans was asking for donations to replace the wooden supports that were rotting in the sea water. We ventured onto the boards with a little more trepidation after that.

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After a few days we moved on to Kuala Lumpur. The capital has clearly had money poured into it, and it’s now a daunting maze of glass skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Therefore it seems only fitting that the city’s main attraction, The Petronas Towers, combines both of these features; the impressive towers play host to an up-scale shopping mall at its base, housing the likes of Louis Vuitton, Armani and Chanel.

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Although we did find areas of peacefulness and beauty at the National Mosque and the Perdana Botanical Gardens, for us Kuala Lumpur exuded a cold and impersonal air that we had rarely encountered in Asia, and we soon escaped to Melaka, a small town further down the west coast. The town is fairly small, but has a vibrant Chinatown and a ruined old church with beautiful views over the city. Our hostel was one of the best we’ve stayed in; the owner was so friendly and organised nightly trips to various street markets around the town, where we could sample authentic Malaysian food and get to know other residents. It was with a slight pang of sadness that we departed the hostel and headed for Tioman Island on the east coast.

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Tioman was perfect. Quiet, rustic, undeveloped; it was everything we hoped the Thai islands would be. We were without internet for the duration of our stay, which in this day and age is fairly close to being off the map. The beaches were small but sandy, and the water was so clear you could swim out until you were treading water and you could still see the sea bed. We went diving and had our best experience yet; the visibility was incredible and we even saw our first turtle! Its only in water of this clarity that you can truly get a sense of how vast the ocean is, and how little of it we are able to explore.

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After three days of blissful relaxation, it was time for the final leg of our Southeast Asia journey, to the decadent city of Singapore. Like Kuala Lumpur it was a shopper's heaven, but it was also so much more. The city had a vibrancy that was missing in KL, and the architecture was simply stunning; we found ourselves marveling at offices and shopping centres.

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The bay area is particularly spectacular; a 'garden' of huge trees that light up at night have been constructed, with a real garden circling their base and a view of Singapore's wheel in the distance. Although we didn't get to see them at night, they were impressive enough during the day.

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We enjoyed a final cheap-but-delicious meal of chinese chicken curry and rice at a popular place near our hostel, and with that we left for the airport on a high. Goodbye Asia, and hello Australia!

Posted by kate1401 13:24 Archived in Malaysia Tagged kuala_lumpur singapore penang scuba_diving melaka tioman_island Comments (0)

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