G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia. The land of the Great Barrier Reef, shrimp on the bahbie, koalas, English you can’t understand, outrageously expensive laundry, and hundreds of plants and animals that might kill you on your holiday. Want to go for a leisurely swim off the golden sand shoreline in the warm clear water? Sure can’t. Crocodiles and stingers (box jellyfish) own the northern coastal waters during the Australian summer. Want to road trip across the country? Nope. Much of it is on fire. That being said, all of the creatures and natural disasters can be safely managed with a little preparation and common sense. Australia is a unique destination with diverse landscapes, wild life, and culture.
Fun fact: Time change is a real thing that should be considered in itineraries. My lack of acknowledgment of time zones rewarded us with a “bonus” city visit. We started our Aussie adventure with a surprise nine-hour layover in Brisbane. We were both tired from the 345am wakeup and had already eaten 3 breakfasts before we arrived in Brisbane at 10am. Once we rechecked our bags, we were free to roam for about 6 hours. We went to the river near the city center and reserved a 1.5 hour cruise. As we waited for our cruise to begin, we strolled the riverfront boardwalk and met our first Aussie critter, the Eastern Water Dragon. Nothing to be afraid of here. They mainly bask in the sun and get fat from people feeding them junk food. The river cruise was enjoyable. It was slow paced and filled with informative announcements.
Cairns (Pronounced “Cans”)
After the cruise, we headed back to the airport for our flight to Cairns (pronounced “cans”), after which we drove straight to Port Douglas. An hour north of Cairns, it’s a small coastal town with modern character (sadly no yarn or salsa, though). Around dusk on our second day, we visited a park and heard an enormous amount of squawking coming from a large tree. We looked up with caution (many birds with very active digestive systems) and noticed hundreds of rainbow lorikeets. In a separate tree, we saw a Laughing Kookaburra. No, he didn’t laugh at us. That’s probably because he didn’t understand my puns.
The Great Barrier Reef
Our main reason for going to Cairns was to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. It is a classic bucket list item that lived up to high expectations. Before we could get in the water, however, we had to put on stinger suits as protection against the world’s deadliest jellyfish. The Box Jellyfish is a nearly invisible cube of goo with poisonous tentacles. The odds of encountering one on the outer reef are small, but this is the “preparation and common sense” that I mentioned earlier. The lycra suit covered our entire body, complete with built in hood and mitts.
The reef was packed with a plethora of sea life including turtles, clown fish (only two in the area), angel fish, giant clams, and many animals we could not identify. At one point in the dive, Jyn got my attention and pointed at the reef. I looked and saw two parrot fish. That’s nice, but I wondered why she was making such a big deal about those two fish when we had already seen dozens of them. Perhaps she wanted pictures. I dove down and took pictures of them. After returning to the boat to move to our next location, Jyn asked if I knew what the giant fish was. I looked at her quizzically and asked what she meant. The biggest fish I saw was about a foot in length. She said “no, the huge one I pointed out to you.” Holy smokes! It blended in with the reef and I didn’t see it even though I was within 3-5 feet of it. The fish was likely similar to the goliath grouper and around 4 feet long. We meticulously investigated the pictures I took at that moment, but could not positively identify the giant. Alas. Another fish story. I can’t wait to visit Loch Ness with Jyn in the future 😉
Laundry is Expensive (for tourists)
After investigating the largest undersea apartment complex, we needed to do the laundry. It was mainly my laundry, but I am inclusive and use collective nouns :). In New Zealand, I was surprised because a single load of laundry (wash + dry) cost NZ$8. Much to our dismay, the local laundromat in Australia charged AU$16. Really?! Do the machines wash clothes in glacial runoff from the Tibetan side of Mt. Everest flown in by a single albatross? The cheapest place that we found cost $10.50 Australian Dollars (about US$7) for a single load.
Rainforest, Beaches, and Koala
The next day we drove north to Daintree Rainforest, the oldest and most poisonous rainforest in the world (no, we didn’t know that ahead of time). We arrived early and were told we should not get out of the car to wander on our own because of the potential hazards. When our designated start time time arrived, we set off on a 4.5-hour guided walk through the forest on a barely discernible path. Our guide pointed out stick insects, spiders that disguise themselves as bird poop, plants that give off the highest concentration of cyanide gas, a stinging plant that will cause you pain for three months if you bump it, plants that germinate via bowl weevils, and the butcher bird that would seek human help with killing a larger predator, among other things. What a world.
Following the forest of death, we drove down to the beaches and koalas in Townsville. For a more authentic experience, we wanted to find a koala in the wild doing koala things. Jyn directed our journey to the Forts walk on Magnetic Island. We walked for about an hour in the blazing sun and searing heat in search of the furry eucalyptus-eating marsupial. We asked people along the way and nobody had seen any koalas. We reached the end of the path, but we didn’t find any there either. As we headed back down the trail, we noticed a group of people clustered around a tree. We saw one! The real life teddy bear was sleeping at head height in the fork of the tree trunk. KoKo, as we called him or her, was napping and unperturbed by the group of people snapping pictures like paparazzi. We observed the koala for about an hour before moving on to see the rest of the island’s beaches and birds.
Following koalapalooza, we flew from Cairns to Hobart, Tasmania. “Tazzie” is my favorite place of this trip, so far. The city is charming with weekend markets, an abundance of endemic wildlife, punny signs, picturesque beaches, and many outdoorsy things to do. We saw our first official kangaroo from the balcony of our AirBnb. It was munching on fruit with its comically short arms. Our bird repertoire expanded after seeing the Wattle Bird and ravens that sound like dying sheep (hilariously accurate). We found a yarn shoppe and Jyn purchased a skein of super soft Tasmanian Merino Yarn. Unfortunately, Tasmania wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. We accidentally parked in a handicapped space and received a AU$168 ticket. It turns out that we cannot read the cryptic street signs very well while jet lagged. Whatever. We found $50 on the sidewalk in Sydney later so it seems the universe had pity on us.
The main attraction for us to visit in Tasmania was the Unzoo, a place that endeared itself to us even more when we discovered that they do not keep in captivity most of the animals there. Many are free to roam in and out of the sanctuary as they please. We went to a bird show and the staff didn’t know if any birds would show up. They rang a bell and local birds flew into the area. Food and an attractive environment seem to keep the wildlife returning to the facility. Plus, the Unzoo is actively using their funds to work toward eradicating a deadly and contagious facial cancer that is infecting the Tasmanian Devil population. Thus far, they have released hundreds of cancer-free devils. When we visited the Tasmanian Devil area, we saw our first Devil. It was about the size of a French Bulldog, brown, and walked like pooping was imminent. Fun fact: The Tasmanian Devil has the highest Bite Force Quotient of any animal (BFQ, bite force relative to bodyweight). They are generally not aggressive to humans and are mainly nocturnal scavengers. They eat every bit of what they find including all of the fur, bones, and teeth. Geez! Have I found my spirit animal?! We spent the rest of the day wandering the paths looking for birds and feeding the lounging kangaroos. Fun fact: The Tasmanian Tiger that was thought to have gone extinct around 1953 may still be living in the forests.
Maria Island Wombats
Continuing with the furry animal theme, we boarded a ferry to Maria Island. Maria Island is the rustic home to wild Forester kangaroos, Cape Barren geese (second rarest goose in the world), echidnas, an abandoned prison, deteriorated farms, and the critter that we most wanted to see, the wombat. Fun fact: wombats poop in cubes! We disembarked the ferry and followed the dirt path towards the painted cliffs. Within about 15 minutes, we saw our first fluffy wombat. It was on the edge of a grassy field, face down, grooming the landscape. People have referred to them as “loaves of bread,” and we could see the resemblance. It did not seem at all bothered by humans. It was the first of many wombats that we saw on the island, and we could be within arm’s reach of any wombat, and it would barely acknowledge our existence. We continued to the painted cliffs, examined the tide pools, walked through the forest and the main settlement, and passed the fossilized cliffs. Mobs of kangaroos hopped by us as we strolled the island perimeter (yes, “mob” is the collective noun for a group of kangaroos, just like a “murder” of crows, “glaring” of kittens, “tower” of giraffes, or a “loveliness” of ladybugs).
Our time in Tasmania was up. Upon landing at our next stop–Sydney–we took a rental car down to Jervis Bay, which is supposed to have the whitest sand in the world. We went to Murrays Beach and a few others before arriving at Hyams Bay. Even though the sand was not the whitest in the world, the beach was great. The sand was white and was fine enough to squeak as I shuffled my feet. In one area of the beach, a group of rocks blocked the waves and formed a calm pool that was ideal for wading and soaking.
Since we had the rental car for only one day, we needed to head back to Sydney. During the drive, the air was thick with gray haze. Apparently, a new fire was burning that added even more smoke to the air. A thin layer of ash covered most external surfaces. When it rained, the rain droplets were transformed into tiny mud balls. The light rain cleared the air a little and reduced the temperature from ~106°F down to the 80s. After a 45-minute unintentional scenic tour of the city due to a wrong turn, we returned the rental car and finally made it to our lodging.
We stayed in a beautiful rooftop AirBnb overlooking Elizabeth Bay and within walking distance of the Opera House. We walked to see the iconic performance center, wandered the city, protected our food from the ravenous gulls, strolled through the Queen Victoria Building, and returned to the Opera House for the nightly light show. On the walk back, it was fairly dark and we learned that Sydney is also home to giant gray fox bats. We cut through a grassy area and must have disturbed one of them because the creature with a three-foot wingspan swished right by us before it made a loop in the sky returning to the tree. The next night, we looked up from the rooftop balcony and saw dozens of big bats patrolling the harbor.
On our last day, we walked along the spectacular coastal trail from Bondi Beach to just past Bronte Beach. I have seen many pretty coastlines but was still impressed. Later that night, we went dancing at the Bondi Pavilion, but the venue did not have air conditioning. It was way too hot. I sweated through three shirts that I had to pack up seven hours later. We had fun anyways.
Australia, you were fun. It’s time to spend the next 30 hours getting to Thailand via Auckland (Yep. That’s entirely the wrong direction).