Saturday, April 30, 2011

Magical New Zealand

On Tuesday Laura, Caleb, and Ashley booked canyoning, but when we called to confirm the activity we were told that only two people were booked, for some reason, and that the trip was full.  I hadn’t really wanted to canyon (because I knew it would be very cold, and I knew I could find other things to do) so I didn’t book the trip.  Laura and I decided in the morning to do the zipline ecotour that starts at the top of the Skyrail mountain and zips down.  We piddled around in the morning, and took our time getting up and ready and checking out of our hostel.  We headed up the Skyrail gondola around 10:30.  Because we had arrived so late at night, we had missed a lot of the scenic views of Queenstown.  We were certainly impressed as we ascended on the gondola of the views around us- the town is beautiful, the mountains surrounding it are beautiful, and Lake Wakitupu that it sits next to is beautiful.  I couldn’t take enough pictures! 
When we got to the top of the mountain we checked out the viewing area (there was also a restaurant up top with fabulous views that we wish we could’ve eaten at!) and the gift shop, where I bought furry ear muffs, as it was pretty chilly.  We headed over to the ziplining check in point and geared up for our trip down.  We had two guides, a guy from England and girl from Canada, and two older couples from the north island of New Zealand were also in our group. The ziplining was great- some of the rides were very scenic, and they taught us to go backwards and upside down.  We zipped 6 long rides; the last ride was the steepest in the world, and quite thrilling.  Our morning adventure ended too soon!
One cool thing about our zipline company was how environmentally friendly they are.  They preached to us about sustainability and doing things to improve the environment.  They also introduced us to the area around Queenstown, and told us really interesting things about the city.  The forest we were in had originally been a Red Beech Tree forest, but about 70 years ago someone had dropped Douglas Fir tree seeds (from N. America) aerially, and because Douglas firs drop their branches and make the soil acidic, no more Beech trees can grow.  The company has replanted over 1600 native Beech trees in an effort to rebuild the environment, but more can always be done.
They also told us the stories of the area. The giant flightless Moa bird (10ft tall), the biggest flightless bird to ever walk the planet, roamed the area over 800 years ago.  Because the birds had never feared large predators, they quickly became extinct when the Maori people arrived because they were so easy to hunt. Their predator, the Haast eagle (3m wingspan!), had to find other large meals to replace the Moa bird, so he began to eat the Maori children. As legend goes, the Haast eagles became fewer in number over the years, and in the 1800s the explorer that began settling the area hunted the last Haast eagle.  The story is quite sad, but it was really interesting to learn about the huge animals that were in the area not so long ago. 
When we got back into town we were quite hungry, but wanted something light. We made our way into a little soup and dessert shop, and both quickly agreed upon the ‘Chocolate Lover’s Belgium Waffles,’ which we easily split and loved every minute!
In the afternoon we wandered around town for a little while; Queenstown is an awesome city. It is absolutely beautiful, too, because it is surrounded by the huge lake and remarkable mountains.  It is small and quaint enough to feel home-y, but very worldly and interesting.   The nightlife is also very vibrant in the city, as it is made up of many young people from many different places.  I have never been to Colorado, but it is what I would imagine the little ski resort towns there to be like. It’s a little more expensive to eat there and shop there than in the others places we have been so far, but overall it is usually worth what is paid.  The city has a lot of character, just like the people.  New Zealanders have slightly different accents than Australians, and tend to say ‘ay’ and ‘as’ after many phrases.  ‘Good hike, ay?,’ ‘Sweet, as!,’ ‘Cool as!’ Sometimes, I want to respond with ‘cool as what?’ (haha) but I figure it is just an expression.
In the afternoon we were set to drive to Milford Sound, a 4.5 hour drive (or so).  I had read that the drive to Milford was a big part of the experience, and that it was something not to miss.  One guy we met told us that on the drive you see the Grand Canyon, Alaska, and the plains all in one.  Unfortunately, on our drive there it got dark around 5:30 or 6:00, so we didn’t’ get to see as much as we would’ve liked.  We planned on getting out of the sound early the next day, though, to see the things we missed.
We were booked to stay in the only lodge in Milford Sound; the hostel was full of families and young people and children (the first one I had seen with a lot of children staying).  We had a little four person room, with bunk beds, and it was small, but ok.  It was so cold outside, though, that I refused to take a shower because you had to go outside in the cold.   For dinner I boiled some pasta and added some jar sauce in the hostel kitchen, and we ate together as a little family among the other people cooking. We had an early morning the next day, as Laura and I wanted to go on a cruise of the sound, so we headed to bed pretty early.
In the morning we drove down to the Milford sound visitor center and boat harbor near the water, and where all of the cruises left from.   Caleb and Ashley decided to stay back and take photos and hang out on the shore, and Laura and I booked a cruise out to the Tasman Sea with ‘Cruize Milford.’  The boat had two levels, and decks on the back and front, and we got muffin breakfast. The cruise was awesome; we learned and saw quite a few things:
·      The length of the sound is 16km, and the average depth is 330m (over 1000 ft!!).  The widest point is 2km, and tallest point is 1692m (Mitre Point, one of the tallest mountains in the world to rise directly from the sea floor).
·      The sound was missed two times by explorer Captain James Cook because it is so completely hidden from the view from the open ocean. It was eventually discovered in 1823 by a sealer, John Grono, who named it Milford Haven after his birthplace in Wales.
·      The crystalline rocks of Milford Sound and Fiordland were formed some 600 million years ago, and were once part of a ‘shield’ mountain range located on the eastern side of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland.  Over the past 100 million years tectonic plate movement, and the 12 major glacier phases have eroded them.  Rivers of ice up to 2000 meters thick formed between mountains and in valleys, and carved the mountain ranges even steeper and deeper.  As the glaciers melted, ‘fiords’ were formed as the sea flooded in, and sheer cliffs, hanging valleys and many waterfalls were left. 
·      The top 5 meters of water in the fiord is freshwater; the deeper water is saltwater.
·      Dark adapted animals live in the depths of the sound; marine animals that are found in very deep sea water on the continental shelf are often found at relatively shallow depths in the fiord. Black coral is endemic to Fiordland, and grows very slowly in colonies that resemble trees.  Some trees are estimated to be over 300 years old.
·      Dolphins, seals and penguins are also found in the fiord.  Because penguins are only found during nesting season in the spring, we didn’t see any of those.  However, we did see the New Zealand Fur Seals and some dolphin.  The dolphins were very lively, and the captain guessed that they were mating.
After the cruise we didn’t hesitate to get back on the road; we were ready to see the things we missed on the drive and get back to Queenstown.  On the way back to Queenstown we got to stop at quite a few cool spots.  We took a little walk around Boyd Creek, where we got to see small waterfalls and enjoy the rainforest.  Everything is completely covered in moss, and is green, and it seems so much like a movie.  It really is magical; it feels like walking around in a fairy tale.
            When we got back to Queenstown we showered and got ready to go out on a bar crawl around Queenstown.  The crawl took us to some big, popular bars around Queenstown, including the famous Minus 5 ice bar. We were pretty excited, because the admission into the ice bar alone was expensive ($30) so the bar crawl was actually a good deal ($33).  It was a lot of fun; there were people on the tour from the North Island of New Zealand, some from New York, and some from all over Europe. It was really fun to walk around the city with a guide, and to see bars that we wouldn’t have found without the guide. I went home early because I was worn out, and slept so well! It was a wonderful last night in Queenstown J.
            On Thursday morning we bopped around Queenstown a little, and grabbed Maccas (McDonalds). We had gotten a parking ticket a couple days before when we were there because we parked in a place that we weren’t supposed to (we didn’t know that a broken yellow line meant no parking), so we had to pay our ticket before we could leave.  We set out towards Kawarau Bridge, home of the first bungy jump ever, invented by New Zealander AJ Hackett.  Caleb was booked for a noon jump; he didn’t seem scared at all, and jumped like a pro! He loved it so much he signed up for a second jump, because it was pretty cheap and it offered a deal on pictures and videos.  While we were there we watched many different types of people jump; two girls, maybe 14 years old, jumped bravely as their mother and father watched from the sidelines.  The oldest person ever to jump there was 94, and the youngest was 10.  It was cool to visit the ‘original’ bungy jump (over 500,000 people have jumped there), and to learn the story of bungy jumping.  The guys who invented it got the idea from a ritual performed on the island of Vanuatu, where the men and women jump off of tall towers. They invented a safe device and simply starting jumping off bridges. At one point, AJ Hackett actually snuck up to the top of the Eiffel Tower to jump down, and was arrested by the Paris police.  I would’ve liked to have jumped, but chose not to out of respect for my parents wishes!
            Caleb finished jumping around 2pm, and we headed north towards Mount Cook National Park, and ultimately Christchurch.  The drive back wasn’t as eventful as I would’ve liked, but it was ok because all of our cameras had died (literally, none of us had working cameras), and had it been beautiful we would have been disappointed we couldn’t get pictures.  On the way we grabbed dinner, and eventually arrived at Christchurch airport, where we were planning on sleeping, around 10pm.  Laura, Ashley and Caleb took the rental car back, and then had to walk to the airport. I waited with all of our luggage in the brand new international terminal, but eventually I was kicked out, as they didn’t want backpackers trying to sleep in the new terminal.  No lie, atleast 7 employees of the airport tried to ask me to move; eventually a cop came over and told me that I was the first person ever he had to kick out of the new terminal.
            I moved our cart with all of our stuff to the international arrivals terminal, and found us a bench to lay on.  However, because we got there late, all of the good places were taken, and the bench was close to the automatic doors, and the outside was very cold.  It was very cold where we were, so as the night passed I moved around the terminal. I think I moved around, and slept in all of the areas. By 4am I was totally over attempting to sleep in the arrivals terminal, and found my way to our desk to check in for the flight.  I was worn out (and ready for alone time and a call home), and happy to get on the plane and head home.  However, I was quickly reminded that unlike home, landing at the airport is never the end of the journey.  We had both a long train ride, and then a long walk home.  As soon as I got back to Weerona, I was ready for a nap, but instead had to get ready to travel with CIEE to the Blue Mountains.  Cheers!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cooling off in New Zealand!

On Saturday night we arrived into Christchurch airport very late, around midnight.  There were quite a few Americans on our flight from Sydney- I even met 5 guys from South Carolina (the first people I have met at all from SC) who are studying at the University of Sydney.  On the plane, I sat next to a drunk, professional boxer from New Hampshire- I’m not sure how successful he is, as we were sitting in coach. Getting through customs was a breeze, and getting our luggage was easy too.  Walking through the arrivals terminal, however, was an interesting sight.  Atleast 100 people, mostly young people, were curled up on the floor under blankets or sleeping bags, some partnered up, and some in huge groups.  I talked to a lady in the terminal who works at the airport, and she said that since the earthquake backpackers have slept in the airport, as so many hostels were destroyed downtown. The night before, she said they counted 180 people sleeping in the terminal.  There is literally no place for everyone to stay who is trying to get into the South Island of New Zealand.
I worked out a deal with a taxi driver who took us to Old Country Cottage Hostel.  The hostel was really nice. We got two rooms with two twin beds each, and Laura and I had a little cottage to sleep in.  It was very cozy; the kitchens had fresh baked bread, there were little courtyards between each “house,” and the staff helped us find a rental car very quickly.  Our rental car company wasn’t planning to pick us up until noon, so we walked around town a little bit, and attempted to go to a grocery store, New World.  The streets were pretty empty where we were (not downtown or anything), and as we passed store windows we could look inside and see destruction.  The most heartbreaking for me was looking into a petstore.  It’s owners posted a note on the door that they were running the business at home; the inside was cluttered with broken glass shards, cages, and mess everywhere. I imagine they were attempted to avoid it as long as possible.   The grocery store ended up being closed, but Laura and I bought a SIM card at a little convenience shops, and we all grabbed sandwiches for lunch at a bakery.  Sandwiches were about $3.50- it was so nice not to pay a lot for lunch, considering Australia is so expensive. Things in New Zealand seem much cheaper and better value, even with the favored US dollar (which makes it even BETTER!).
Other than the earthquake bit, I really like Christchurch.  The city is beginning to turn reds, yellows and oranges with the onset of autumn, so it is really charming.  Also, not everything was destroyed; many places still look like my imagined view of Christchurch- cottage-y and quaint.  It was disappointing not to be able to go to church in Cathedral Square or even into the city at all, though, as that part is still completely closed off because of all the damage.
At the rental car company we only registered Ashley and Laura as drivers because they are the only 21-year olds.  My birthday is in less than a month, so I am a little frustrated I am not allowed to drive, but whatever…  Anyway, we set off out of Christchurch onto Arthur’s Pass Highway, or the Great Alpine Highway.  The highway is really famous and a very popular drive right across the south island of New Zealand.  It passes everything scenic.  I did a lot of research on our drives before we came, so I had some places in mind for us to stop on our way.
Our first stop (we didn’t make it very far) were the Castle Hill Rocks.  The rocks angle out of the mountains and are very large.  Some of them are climbable, so the place is really a rock climbers dream.  Caleb and Ashley attempted to climb to the top, but I found a nice rock to enjoy the views. The landscape at this point in the drive was just starting to change from what we saw outside the city, tall wall-like bushes, small sheep pastures, and green, to prairie-like flatland and grassy mountains.  The mountains were very different, though; some had rocks on the top, others had just grass on the top, and even others had shrubs dotting the top.  I couldn’t have counted the number of sheep had I tried, and literally as we walked around the huge rocks (where we could see no sheep) we heard baa-ing off in the distance.  It was pretty spectacular, and it was hard to talk Caleb into leaving, as it was any boys’ play place.
Almost right after leaving the Castle Hill Rocks we ran into the Cave Stream cave.  I had been reading about the cave, and how easy it was so cave it.  We prepared ourselves to venture into the cave by grabbing Ashley’s flashlight, and I put on my hiking shows, and we walked down to the cave entrance.  On our way we saw a family of four wandering out of the cave, with water to their waists, and rubber boots on.  They said it was a good day for caving, and that we should definitely go in.  I would love to know how the cave was formed; it was round on the entrance/outside, and the water steadily got deeper.  We wandered into the cave, and the water went to our waists.  Wading in deeper was challenging because it was so cold; the air wasn’t too cold, but the water was almost unbearable for long periods.  We probably made it 400 meters into the cave before we decided that one flashlight was not enough, and that we had gone deep enough, and that it was very dark and very cold.  We turned around and headed back out of the cave, and were happy to reach the entrance once again.  Considering we were the only people around who were in the cave, and really the only people around the cave, we felt pretty ballsy to have gone as far in as we did, and enjoyed our bit of adrenaline for cave diving the rest of the day.
On the way down to Franz-Josef, we stopped at a little conveinience store in a small town.  HUGE ice cream cones were only NZ$2.00!!  Coming from Australia, we were a bit sticker shocked at how CHEAP it is to eat here, once again. We grabbed some pasta to make for dinner during the trip, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and granola bars for snacks.  We figured we would need snacks and a meal on the road, and open-faced peanut butter sandwiches usually curb any craving! Yummy.
We missed a lot of things on the drive down New Zealand’s west coast because we spent so much time stopping during our drive on the Arthur’s Pass road.  It was dark by the time we turned south down the coast, and eventually we arrived at our hostel in Franz-Josef around 10pm.  Before we checked in, we decided to try our luck at finding glowworms in a local cave.  We found the Terrace Walk on the outskirts of town, and set off in search of the worm cave.  I had been told the walk was about 15 minutes into the rainforest from the road.  It was VERY dark, and we only had one flashlight.  From everything I know, there is nothing to hurt us in the forests of New Zealand,  but we imagined the worst, and eventually we all decided about 5 minutes into the walk that it was a bad idea.  As we were turning around, Laura spotted glowworms just off of the trail.  We got to get a peak of the teensy tiny little worms anchored on the roots of an overturned tree.  I was glad we got to see the glowworms, and I was also glad we weren’t wandering deep into the rainforest so late in the night.  We had had many big adventures during the day; my bravery had almost run out! J
The Glow-worm cottages were so nice, one of the nicest hostels I have stayed in so far!  We were given a 4 person bunk bed ensuite, so we had our own bathroom (WOW!), our own ‘kitchen sink,’ and our own toaster and fridge, for only $26 p/p.  I felt very spoiled to be staying in such a nice place!

Originally, when we tried to book a half-day of glacier hiking on Fox Glacier for Monday morning we were told the trip was full; after lots of persuasion and use of my southern charm (or attempt at it) we were added to the list, and told to arrive at 8:00 for check-in.  I brought my alarm clock on the trip, so I was the person responsible for waking everyone up in time for us to make the 30 minute drive to Fox Glacier in the morning.  However, when Monday morning came, my alarm never went off. I woke up at 8:00 (naturally) and realized I had set it for a PM time.  We hustled everyone up and out of bed, and quickly checked out of our hostel.  When we called the place, we were told that the trip would not wait for us (and that our spots had been given away), and that we would either have to forgo glacier hiking all together or sign up for the day long trip.  The dilemma over the day long, trip, however, was that if we left so late in the day for Queenstown we would miss many highlights on the drive because it would quickly get dark.
One problem about traveling in a group is usually that it is hard to get people to agree. In our case, however, we all realized that we would have to give one or the other up: glacier hiking or scenic drive.  We all easily decided to do the full day of glacier hiking. 
We had worn many layers of clothing, and our guides suited us up into big, tough boots, waterproof jackets and trousers, and hats and mittens.  I got a backpack from the company as well.  After a short bus ride, and a tough hike to the base of the ice, we put on our crampons.  I had never even heard of crampons before, so I was interested to see how they worked.   They were simply metal spikes that you can attach to the bottom of your shoes to grip the ice with straps.  Because we were doing the full day hike, our crampons were really intense looking and very sturdy. We were also given ‘alpine sticks’ to help us balance on the ice during our hike. Our guide, Scott, grew up on a New Zealand sheep farm just outside of the townships of Fox glacier and Frantz-Josef.  He was pretty young and adventurous, but also very knowledgeable about the area.
 Once we were ready to get on the ice, we went up stairs made between the walls of a deep crevice. We hiked straight up the glacier on a path forged for us by Scott; he would chop little steps or level places for us to step every now and then with his ice pick.  Even though the guides go every day, it seemed like he does something a little different every day, as he had to forge the path as we went.  As we were stepping across a small crevice I fell on the ice; I can witness that it was truly hard ice, and it really hurt.  One thing I was reminded of was that even when you don’t fall ‘hard,’ falling on ice is always falling hard, and almost always hurts. 
The hike was challenging, and I felt invigorated and worn out all at the same time.  Our guide took us to holes we could climb in, and caves we could check out.  There was  a lot to see on the ice.  We ate lunch at a rocky area on the top of the glacier. One benefit of the full day hike was that we got to go up to the faster moving area, where more holes and caves and ice arches form.  The Fox Glacier is one of the only glaciers in the world that is still getting bigger.  The glacier is formed by snowfall in the basin of the glacier.   Overtime, the snow solidifies into ice (5-6 years), and as more snow is pushed down and into the basin, the ice is pushed down the valley.  As the ice pushes down the valley, moving, it forges the valley.  Our guide said that on average the glacier is moving 1 meter per day- WOW!  As the story goes, a guy lost his engraved, fancy lighter in the 1970s in the top basin of the glacier.  In the late 90s the lighter was found at the bottom of the glacier, and the lighters’ speed was calculated over that period of time- it traveled over 13 km!
On our way back down the glacier we stopped at an awesome naturally formed ice cave.  We walked down into it and enjoyed looking up into the hole that formed from the melting water dripping down.  There were two little chambers to the cave that were big enough to slip into.  It was pretty fascinating. We took a different path down the glacier, but by this time I was pretty worn out and tired, and ready to warm up. 
As soon as we got down glacier hiking we jumped on the road to Queenstown.  It got dark before we turned inland, but we got to watch the sunset from the western coast of New Zealand! It was absolutely magnificent, but because it was similar to many other sunsets I have seen, pretty comforting.  Even in this side of the world, some things don’t change. The drive to Queenstown was about 4 hours; it was sad that we missed so many great views because we had to drive in the dark, but because of our time constraints I understand that something had to be given up. 
We arrived into Queenstown right around 9pm, and checked into our hostel on Shotover Street, Base Backpackers.  The hostel was really big and nice, and in our 4-person room we each received towels (WOW, a luxury in hostels) and teabags and sugar for NZ$29 p/p.  For dinner, I decided I deserved a big delicious meal, as I hadn’t eaten much at all on the trip so far, and I worked really hard glacier hiking.  A famous burger place, Fergburger’s Queenstown, was located right across from Base, so we were all happy to zip on over and grab delicious, huge burgers to satisfy our hunger.  They were some of the best burgers I have tasted since leaving the states, and I can’t think of anything I would have rather had.  By the time dinner was finished and we had gotten back to our room, it was past 11, so we decided to hit the sack, and get a good nights rest…

Monday, April 18, 2011

Airlie Beach- more to come!

            Airlie Beach is awesome.  I have had an amazing trip so far, but I think that Airlie Beach is my favorite place that I have been.  I love the Whitsundays, love the ocean and lagoon here, and love the nice people.  The town is a bit smaller than Cairns, and the downtown is quite short, but it is such a variety of places and cool atmosphere that I want to come back.  It is a backpacker type town, it seems like, and if you walk around and look you can find all of these offers for free food accommodation in exchange for work, or opportunities for free sail in exchange for help on boats.  I think if my Dad visited here he would never want to leave, because of all the time he could spend on the water!

            When we arrived Thursday night after our Greyhound bus trip, we were ready to plan something for our free day the next day and go out on the town.  We checked into our hostel, Beaches, and discovered it was nicer than our hostel in Cairns.  We actually had a TV in the room, and a balcony overlooking a nightclub. We got pizza from Dominos because it was fast and we were hungry, and ended up staying in.
            On Friday morning we got up and walked around town.  There are many different little tourist shops around here, and they all sell something sort of different, unlike the shops in Cairns.  We wandered up and down the streets, looking for new flip flops (the only ones I had were leaving blisters on my feet L) and lunch.  After lunch, we planned on going fishing on the Reel Deel reef fishing charter boat.  The captain picked us up around downtown about 12:15, and we were out on the water by 1:00.  Eight people total were fishing on the boat.  The captain drove us 45-minutes out to Hook Island to fish over reefs.  It was so nice to get out on the water- we didn’t even feel sea-sick!  We moved spots maybe around 5 ot 6 times, and fished until about 4:45. Kaitlyn and Laura had never really been fishing before (or since they were small children), so it was fun watching them learn to bait their own hooks and seeing the excitement when they reeled one in, even if it was small. We didn’t catch many fish big enough to keep, but we did catch enough reef ‘pearch’ to eat for dinner.

            After dinner we rolled all of our luggage up the street a few blocks and checked into our sailing package (after a small fiasco over which hostel we were staying in), and learned that we needed to turn around and roll it all the way back to Beaches. A little frustrated, and a little worn out from fishing (and stinky), we returned to beaches and took some much needed relaxation time.  For dinner, we decided to splurge a little and have a nice seafood meal.  We took our fresh catch (2 whole fish we carried around) to the chef at an awesome restaurant called Fish D’vine (as part of our little charter deal). Ashley and I also ordered a fried giant prawn, calamari, and salads.  The fresh catch fish was fried in a beer batter, and we were surprised at how much fish we ended up getting on the plate!  It was such a yummy meal, and nice to finally enjoy some fresh seafood on our tropical vacation.  The restaurant was the coolest place I have eaten on this vacation.  It was very busy, and we had a hard time getting a table. The chef seemed like he was also the owner, and spoke to us personally several times.  The restaurant also has a built-in rum bar, with rums from all over the world (we didn’t try any). I loved eating out there!

            On Saturday I woke up bright and early because I wanted to check out the famous Saturday morning Airlie market by the beach. I got my stuff packed for our sail quickly and walked down past the lagoon area to the markets. Many different local artisans were selling their crafts, old men and women were selling their old things, and farmers were selling fresh produce. There were also quite a few people selling jewelry and stuff like that.  Nothing was really expensive; I bought a pair of earrings and a butterfly magnet to turn into a Christmas ornament.  I didn’t get much time at the market, however, and I strategically did not take that much cash, so that I couldn’t buy very much (haha).
            After walking around the market I walked up a coastline walkway to the Able Point marina, where we were to meet our crew and get aboard our sailboat.  The first crew member we met was a very pretty young blonde from California, who just started working for Prosail a week ago. After graduating from college and being unable to find a good job, she decided to come work in Australia and save lots of money to return home (because minimum wage here is $20/hr).  Like this girl working on our sailboat, Airlie Beach attracts a lot of people with interesting stories and different backgrounds and is a good place to come and get a job for awhile, because the tourism industry is so solid and pays so well.  I would even think about returning later on to save money for grad school.
            Anyway, 21 passengers boarded Hammer, our maxi- sailboat.  Hammer is a retired racing sailboat that won a few races like the Sydney-Hobart. It had a very nice cabin underneath, and Laura and I were assigned a double cot on the top bunk.  Of the other passengers: 8 were German (and a little rude), 3 were English, 2 were from Switzerland (and very dull and miserable looking the whole time), and the others I am not sure about.  It was a very mixed group, and at one point the skipper asked one couple where they had been sleeping, as they had bed bug bites all over their bodies; their answer- a campervan. Ugh, this really freaked me out, so I avoided them for the rest of the time, as I am not looking to get bed bugs. Period.

            Anyway, we sailed around the islands at a cruising speed, and our first stop was the Langford Reef, where the girls would snorkel and I would do my first dive.  I signed up for a dive while in the check-in shop, as the introductory dives were on special for only $50, and I figured while in the Great Barrier Reef I should investigate whether I would like it or not.  We were taken over to a dive boat on a tender, and taught some safety rules, like about our regulators, equilibrating, and ascending and descending.  Next, I was strapped into gear, and taken to the dive spot.  Before descending, I learned to clear my mask and regulator.  Breathing underwater for the first time was absolutely crazy, and thrilling, and exciting. I cannot describe how excited it made me for the actual dive! 
            We descended pretty slowly, and eventually made it down 10m.  I could not keep up with the group because I just wanted to look at everything!  It was really beautiful underneath the water, and crazy exciting that the water surface was so far above my head!  Diving was one of my favorite things I have done. I had some trouble not focusing on my breathing while I was down there, as it seems to be the only thing you can hear.  The colors down deeper were brilliant, and the coral was healthy and fish were abundant.  We spent about 30 minutes down under, but I was enjoying myself so much that it felt like no time at all.  By the time the instructor was signaling me to go up, I had chased all kinds of fish, and gotten up close to all sorts of coral… The experience was awesome.  When I came up, the other people diving told me they were slightly disappointed, as other dives some of them had been on were better; one guy said he had seen more before snorkeling.  But I didn’t care what they said- I saw A LOT of things I had never seen on our dive, and loved every minute. The dive makes me want to get certified, especially while I am young, healthy and able.
            After the dive we set off to sail towards Whitsunday Island, the biggest of the Whitsunday Islands and the first one discovered by Captain James Cook.  The skipper told us that the island is the size of Barbados, but has never been developed because of the strong environmental protection over it.  One thing that that is very noticeable about the Whitsundays is how fiercely they are protected; I did not see a single piece of litter in the water or on the shores.
           In the evening we moored at Tongue Bay, right on the other side of Whitehaven Beach.  There were probably 6 or 7 other boats moored there. We watched the sunset and had dinner underneath the stars.  Our mixed group onboard enjoyed socializing and hanging out pretty late into the night, but I went to bed around 10pm.  I was assigned to a cot on the top, and didn't sleep very well because the boat rocked back and forth all night long. Also, I could not get the random foreign couple with the bed bug bites off my mind.
           In the morning we awoke early to breakfast on the water, and around 8:30 were tendered over to the nature path that would take us to Whitehaven Beach.  The path went up to a small hill/mountain thing where we could look on on the beach.  Unfortunately, it was high tide, so our pictures did not turn out like the ones on all the postcards, and it didn't look like the beach I had imagined on all the postcards.  I would recommend anyone planning a trip here to plan a trip when the tide will be low, as you will get a better shot...
           We frolicked around the beach for a little while, and had a little photo shoot. The sand at Whitehaven was absolutely unbelievably soft, almost like flour. The tide was coming in even more while we were there, too.  There were a lot of people on the beach, especially the longer and later we stayed.  We left Whitehaven around 11am, and started sailing back towards Airlie Beach.  Before we got back we stopped and snorkeled at one more spot; the water was clear and there were many different types of fish to see! It was getting chilly out, so I considered not going on the snorkel, but I am so glad I did... It is probably the last time I will get to snorkel for awhile.
             The boat arrived back at the dock around 4pm.  We wanted to get some of the salty-ness off our bodies, so we dipped in the Airlie lagoon built down by the shore.  We got a good laugh; there were atleast 7 or 8 couples in the big lagoon kissing passionately all around us.  We kind of figured they weren't locals, haha.  For the evening, a return party was planned for everyone on board at the bar in the hostel we were staying in, Beaches.  There was a table reserved for everyone on our boat, and most of the fun people came!  We had a lot of fun socializing again, and partied with our new European friends late into the night.  I am usually a sleepyhead, so I went to bed around midnight, but everyone else went to other bars and finished their nights in the morning.
             In the morning, I did a bit of shopping, like looking for a Christmas ornament.  I started collecting Christmas ornaments from places that I have traveled to when I went with my family and boyfriend on a cruise around the Caribbean.  I figured the ornaments would be a nice way to remember my travels, especially when I am old and have kids or grandkids that want to hear the stories behind the ornaments. From Airlie I got a little metal koala with a santa hat on- he is pretty cute.
           The airport at Airlie is really, really small, and is somewhat out of town, in Prosperpine.  We arrived early, but realized that was probably silly, considering how small the airport is, and how minimal security is compared with other places.  I was ready to board the plane and get back to Wollongong and Weerona, though, even if school was waiting.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cairns Continued!

            It is finally Thursday, and I really can’t believe it is already time to leave Cairns.  I am currently on a Greyhound Bus with Laura, Ashley and Kaitlyn headed to Airlie Beach near the Whitsunday Islands, so I have a lot of time (13 hours, with breaks!) to blog about our amazing days Tuesday and Wednesday.  This drive is pretty cool too- I attempted to nap when we first got on, but now that I am up am enjoying the scenery.  Northern Queensland is insanely tropical, and really feels like a different world. We are passing acres and acres of sugarcane fields, banana farms, and tall palm trees like I have never seen before.  One thing I notice about this area is destruction.  While we were in Cairns we learned that this season 2 very powerful cyclones hit this part of the coast south of Cairns and did a lot of damage.  Many roofs were ripped off, trees fell down, and rubbish was tossed around.

            Tuesday was our earliest day in Cairns- we had to be up and ready at 4:10am for a bus pickup by our tour company Raging Thunder to head into the tablelands for a hot balloon ride.  It was hard to wake up, because snorkeling and rafting had seriously worn us out, but I was really excited for hot ballooning.  The drive from Cairns was about an hour, and when we finally got there it was still dark!  We watched the company warm the balloons up with fire in the dark, and in the sunrise.  It was a beautiful sight seeing the balloons getting ready, still on the ground. 

            We were in the second group to go up, so we had a wait a few minutes and watch the balloons that had already left.  One of the coolest things about being on the ground is that you have to chase the balloon because the balloon pilots can only control the altitude of the balloon, no steering- we felt like Stormchasers driving around the country hoping the balloon would land in certain places.
            When the first balloon trip finally landed (and we got there), our group was ready to go up.  The baskets are pretty large, and the weight has to be evenly distributed across the basket for it to hang evenly.  We had to climb in, literally, because the baskets are just like picnic baskets; there are no doors or openings on the sides.  The pilot, who has been flying hot air balloons for 10 years, stands in the middle with all the gas canisters and the fire-y machine.  There are four compartments in the basket, and 3-4 people stand in each. 

            The lift off of the ground was very slow and steady.  We stayed in the air for atleast 20 minutes. It was surprisingly solid feeling, and not shaky at all.  While we were up the pilot was able to rotate the basket, so we were able to see all angles of the tablelands, and got some amazing pictures.  We could see many private farms underneath us with heaps of mango, pineapple, and sugarcane plants.  When the pilot began to plan our descent he told us where he was aiming for a dirt road beyond a big field of really high grass. Also, he taught us the ‘landing position,’ as landings are oftentimes rough in hot air balloons and we would need to brace ourselves, literally, for the possibility of many bumps or a turnover.  We went down pretty slowly, and he hit his target almost perfectly considering he had no steering.  We did have to get in the landing position, however, because the basket did turn over onto its side.  The grass in the field, a mint I believe because of the smell, was taller than the sides of the basket.  The balloon landing flattened out a lot of it, but we still had to tread through grass taller than us to get to the road. 

            When everyone was out of the basket, we were all asked to help the crew pack up the balloon.  Everyone mashed the big balloon to get air out of it, and then the staff laid it out all along the road.  Us girls were then given a HUGE bag to hold, and the staff packed the balloon away into the bag.  The balloon and basket were stacked on a big trailer and hauled away, and we jumped in our buses to head to breakfast.  We almost felt like we were on a working holiday! Haha

            At this time, around 8:00, we could not believe how long we had been up, and how much we had done during the day.  After breakfast at a small heritage museum the bus drove us about an hour to Kuranda, a small rainforest village with some shopping and the Skyrail ride for our afternoon. In Kuranda we shopped around at the heritage market.  The prices for souvenirs were significantly cheaper than many others places I have been; I bought a lot of really unique shell jewelry and a kangaroo fur purse.  I also bought an Akubra style, Steve Irwin-like kangaroo leather hat.  I am lucky that I can pull hats off- I really love wearing interesting hats, so I was excited to find such an authentic Australian hat for a deal!  Also, while we were at the markets we met a very nice Aboriginal man who taught us how to play the didgeridoo, the traditional aboriginal musical instrument.  I was not very good at it.  I had a delicious fried snapper and chips lunch, too. 

            Around 1:15 we headed over to the Skyrail experience.  The Skyrail was built in the late 1990’s as an experience through the World Heritage listed Northern Queensland Tropical Rainforest.  The actual gondola ride is about 40 minutes, but including the walks at stops along the way the experience took us about 1.5 hours.   The first stop was at a lookout point for a beautiful rainfall. The second stop was at the peak of Red Fern mountain.  At the second stop a ranger offered to give us a guided tour of the walkway around the area.  He told us about survival tactics in rainforests, different animals that live in the rainforest, and a lot about the rainforest plants.  The rainforests in Northern Queensland are the oldest rainforests in the world, and even though they don’t take up a large part of the Australian continent, are considered very important ecosystems.  One animal he told us about is the cassowarie.  Cassowaries are big birds that are almost like giant roosters; they even have spurs on their feet. It is believed that certain seeds in the rainforest are only germinated after passing through the digestive system of the cassowarie, so the birds are heavily protected because loss of them would mean loss of many flora species.

            At the end of the Skyrail we were bussed back to our hostel; I know I was happy to have such a relaxed day, as the last couple of days had been pretty tiring. 
            Anyway, for an update about my Greyhound ride: it hasn’t been so bad.  The bus is not packed, so we all have two seats to ourselves, and the ride has been pretty interesting.  We have stopped at several different places for breaks when we are required to get off the bus, and each has had a place to grab a snack or use the bathrooms.  One place we stopped had a nice café, and would you believe this: a sign in a Cardwell café advertised the local fish Spanish Mackerel, and fish my dad and I catch all the time right off of Murrells Inlet.  Cool, huh?  Right now, we are almost to the Airlie Beach, and the landscape has changed dramatically. I can still see huge mountains off in the distance, but the land around me now is flat and kind of desolate looking.  It almost looks like a plain; short grasses on the ground, with very dry and funny looking trees sticking up everywhere. A far cry from Cairns! The sun just set, though, and that was pretty beautiful. 

            Yesterday was our big Great Barrier reef day!  We were booked with one of the leading Great Barrier tour companies in Cairns, Reef Magic, and arrived to check onto the boat around 7:15 AM.  It was a beautiful day to be boating.  There were lots of staff onboard who were willing to answer any questions we had, and there were many extra activities we could plan.  I tried to do an introductory beginners drive, but when the group leader saw that I was mildly asthmatic he told me that I would not be allowed to go down.  Nevertheless, I was excited to arrive at the hub ‘Marine World,’ a huge covered dock structure almost 40 miles out in the middle of the reef, situated on Moore Reef (1.5 hour ride on our boat).  The scenery on the way out was pretty similar to our boat ride out to Fitzroy Island.  The wind was blowing a little harder, though, so the boat rocked a lot more.  A lot of people onboard got some motion sickness.  I sat on the top, in the sun, and kept my eyes closed, and normally I get motion sickness on boats, but I was so proud of myself when I didn’t at all!

            When we finally got to marine world I immediately claimed a lounge chair in the sun and then ran and got my fins (I had my own mask and snorkel).  I was the first one in, and so happy to finally be snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef!  The coral was awesome.  The tide was low when we first got there, so when snorkeling in many places the coral was literally an arms’ length away.  The fish were awesome!  All different kinds of fish swam around the coral- the variety was absolutely endless.  I loved to find a fish and then chase it around the reef, seeing where it would go and what it would do.  One interesting fish we learned about was pink, green, and turquoise.  I don’t remember his name, but he eats the living and dead coral.  He grinds up the coral with a second jaw, and then poops out the silt and sand (which I got to see!).  He is responsible for at least 50% of the sand around the Great Barrier Reef, which means he is really doing work!  There was also a huge fish swimming around named Wally, who was trained by the photographer and staff and mingle around in the area.  He was probably almost my length, and he didn’t mind if I free dived down and touched his side and swam with him.  There were also little tunas darting round, especially during fish feeding time. 
            During our breaks between snorkeling we jumped on the free submersible tour around marine world.  This awesome boat was sort of like a glass bottom boat, except for the glass was on either side.  I got most of my underwater pictures here because we did not end up renting an underwater camera, and they turned out ok. 

            After a full morning, I was ready for lunch.  The company served lunch of a huge variety; I had a bit of sushi, lasagna, a sandwich, fruit, and salad.  It was all mostly good, and filling, and after a bit of resting and digesting, I jumped back in the water for a fish feeding right in from of the snorkeling area.  I did a lot of snorkeling, but I think it can be a little scary in the dark parts, or without a buddy.  I am not sure I would be brave enough to scuba dive, because I freak myself out when I get too close to a gorge or too far away from another person.  Anyway, towards the end of the day a group of us held hands and challenged ourselves to scuba all the way out to the end of the ropes.  It was thrilling to fight the current out there, and even more thrilling to tell one another to look for sharks  (haha), and it was so nice to be out there with friends.  It was another Australian ‘postcard’ experience that made the day. 
            I did a little free diving while snorkeling, and when I equilibrated sort of hurt my ear. It ached and squeaked and everything else, and I was ready to go back in after that.  I laid out on my lounge chair, though, and attempted to truly get the full bronzing affect of the Australian sun… I did, too!  The boat ride home was nice, and I can seriously say that today not only am I a bronzed goddess, but I am a sore bronzed goddess from all the snorkeling and swimming I did.
After snorkeling our group popped into Woolworths and grabbed a pack of 10 hamburgers, buns, and cheese to grill on the barbie on the esplanade at Cairns.  I also bought myself a $4 steak (surprisingly high quality and delicious).  We fit right in with the Australians grilling out at the park- there were so many people there we almost didn’t get a barbie.  My ear was still bothering me, so I was happy that the other girls in our group were enthusiastic to barbecue. The cheeseburgers turned out great, and my steak was delicious too ( I cooked it perfectly medium rare!!). While we were hanging out, we met a group of travelers from Canada and Europe.  It reminded me how social traveling can be, especially when traveling around youth hostels. 

When we got back to our hostel, I passed right out by 8:30 pm.  We had all wanted to go out, but we were just too tired.