I landed in Australia in Sydney, two weeks before Christmas, and spent a few weeks there, enjoying standing still for a while and making the most of the celebrations. While I was there I checked out the many gorgeous beaches via some stunning coastal walks: Manly, Coogee, Rose Bay, Clovelly Bay and the infamous Bondi Beach (which was where I spent Christmas Day of course, with a portion of fish and chips and a few beverages!) as well as Watson’s Bay, Camp Cove and the officially sanctioned nudist beach at Lady Bay.
I made an attempt to bridge back to reality by going out to the glamorous Darling Harbour (a poor attempt as a lowly backpacker!) taking time out from the city in the teahouse at the Chinese Garden of Friendship. Sydney, together with Auckland, was my favourite city across the whole trip and so I made sure to check out all the sights: I went to the Sydney Opera House, Australian Museum, the Sydney Observatory and the markets and craft fairs in the old town. I did some lovely day boat trips and walked over Sydney Harbour Bridge (the one thing I regret is not doing the bridge climb, but I had to prioritize my spending!) I also got to see quite an impressive array of bird life for a city: kookaburras, myna birds, cockatoos and ibis, as well as lots of fruit bats, all in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
New Years Eve was spent at Mrs Macquaries Point in the park as this gave a perfect view of the fireworks over the bridge and opera house, and was packed with people, drinking in the sunshine all day until the fireworks, which did not disappoint! I’d scoped it out in advance on a walk from Circular Quay to Hyde Park although I hadn’t anticipated the huge volumes of people!
Once I had recovered from New Year, I bought a Greyhound bus hop-on hop-off ticket and made my way up the East Coast of Australia. My first stop was Port Macquarie where I checked out The Koala Preservation Society’s koala hospital where there were lots of patients due to the recent bushfires. This was a stop in Coffs Harbour, both towns were really nice, small and quiet, and not especially touristy which made a nice change from the hectic city, especially out at Muttonbird Island, the nature reserve at Coffs Harbour which is home to a huge muttonbird nesting site. I saw lots of pelicans on the beaches too and did some good bushwalks along the creeks and boardwalks through the mangroves.
Byron Bay was as great as I had imagined, so chilled out (although this may have something to do with what people were smoking!) and full of hippy shops, cafes and juice bars. I hired a bike and went up to Cape Byron State Conservation Area to walk around the lighthouse and sat on one of the beaches watching wild dolphins out in the bay.
I spent a few days relaxing on the beach before leaving New South Wales and moving into Queensland, stopping first at Surfers Paradise, which as a backpacker I wasn’t as impressed with as it was all very artificial, with miles of skyscrapers lining an endless stretch of golden sand, although I did do the obligatory organised bubbly club crawl with all the hostels and other scummy backpackers!
While staying in Brisbane, I visited Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the world’s first and largest koala sanctuary, and got to cuddle a very cute little guy there. I also took the train to Australia Zoo in the Glasshouse Mountains, home of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter (he was still with us at the time I visited) where I got a huge python put around my neck, hand fed kangaroos, and of course watched the famous crocodile feeding shows.
I fell in love with Noosa, it had some gorgeous beaches and felt rather more sophisticated than the other places I had been. I did a long bushwalk following Noosa Heads coastal track which took me over cliffs, past popular surf spots The Boiling Pot and Hell’s Gate to stunning beaches, while spotting wild koalas, bush turkeys and lots of big lizards.
Rainbow Beach, the next stop, was really pretty, it only had about five shops, a load of cafes and of course the surf club! I hiked up the impressive Carlo Sandblow to check out the coloured sands and rainbow cliffs and to sit and watch the hangliders.
The next morning I met the town’s most famous residents – wild dolphins that come in to Tin Can Bay to be fed everyday, I hand fed it while standing in really shallow water and it kept coming up to me and bumping into my legs – it was such an incredible experience.
Hervey Bay was nothing special apart from the huge amounts of bats as unfortunately it wasn’t whale watching season, but it was my gateway to Fraser Island. I did a three-day organised camping trip on the island with Fraser Escape which was absolutely fantastic. It was all arranged by the hostel, we were a random group of 11 people of mixed ages and nationalities, and were given a 4×4, camping and cooking equipment, maps and tide times, and a shovel (that was the bathroom!). We stopped at the idyllic Lake Mackenzie, which was like paradise with fine powder white sands and clear fresh water that you could almost drink! We saw the Maheno Shipwreck on the beach, and I got my turn to drive the 4×4 around the most difficult part of the island, through the soft sand up to Indian Head, we roared past lots of people stuck digging themselves out of the sand who cheered us on, and I made it all the way to the top without getting stuck! We camped by the forest next to some sand dunes, then climbed over the sandblow to sit and watch the sun set. I was up for sunrise too at the top of the cliff. The water was so clear you could see turtles, huge manta rays, dolphins surfing and huge tiger sharks speeding through the water (there’s a tiger shark breeding colony in the water there). We also went to Eli Creek (in the absence of showers!) which was refreshingly freezing and a lovely place to float along. We spent the last night camping on the beach, watching the dingoes circling the camp all night, one came right up to me while we were eating, but the rest of the group shuffled over behind me and it eventually walked off – did make me a little nervous though! Our final stop on the island was Lake Wabby which had sand dunes on one side and forest on the other, another lovely place for a swim, although we had freshwater turtles popping up next to us and huge catfish nibbling our toes!
After celebrating our return in Hervey Bay, I then headed to Rockhampton, my timing was terrible as it was Australia Day weekend and everyone had gone away somewhere more interesting, which was exactly what I should have done as everything in town was shut!
I moved swiftly on to Airlie Beach and managed to get the final day of Australia Day weekend celebrations there with a BBQ and DJ pool party. I really liked Airlie Beach, the whole town had a great atmosphere and a really nice artificial lagoon.
I then booked on to a three-day sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands with Rogue II, it was a small boat and we had a pretty big group squeezed on but we had a great time. The islands were beautiful, rainforest to the coast, amazing white sand and clear green water. We did so much snorkelling which I have always loved doing, although I was a bit unnerved at coming face to face with Elvis (a Maori Wrass which was bigger than me)! All the fish were pretty huge and the coral was so pretty, the only problem was that it was stinger season so we had to wear stinger suits. One night we took the speedboat to one of the deserted islands, it was quite surreal being on a desert island, standing barefoot on the beach and doing karaoke through a little karaoke machine!! I witnessed some of the best sunsets and sunrises over the islands from the boat, and on the last night I just took a blanket and slept on the deck – I have never seen such beautiful stars and to fall asleep rocking under them and wake up to a pink sunrise was magical.
We partied in Airlie Beach again when we got back, then I headed up to Mission Beach, where I stayed in the really cool, chilled out Treehouse Hostel made of wood and on stilts in the middle of a World Heritage tropical rainforest, where I had to share the showers with tropical green tree frogs and geckos! The beaches were like those on the posters, gold sands fringed by palms, but there was no chance of swimming in the sea as it was still stinger season and that coastline has saltwater crocodiles (of the human-eating kind!!)
The final stop on the East coast was Cairns, where I based myself in order to do lots of smaller trips, the first was the one I had been looking forward to the most – a liveaboard trip on the Great Barrier Reef. I had wanted to learn to dive there but I was advised that with my asthma and as I was a smoker at the time, I should stick to snorkelling. I really wish I had learned to dive there, but the snorkelling was pretty amazing too. I was the only one snorkelling on the whole boat but the water was so clear that even though it was very deep I could see all the divers doing their exams on the seabed beneath me, and it meant I got to swim with a beautiful big turtle all on my own.
After a few days at sea, we returned to the mainland and I arranged a few day trips, the first being a trip to Tully Gorge for some white water rafting on Tully River with Raging Thunder. It was a Grade 4 river and it was raining while we were there, but we were grateful of the rain, if not just to keep the March flies off (they gave a nasty bite!) and it was great as we got to see the wild misty exciting side of the river as well as the calm beautiful still parts in the sunshine.
Cairns was a real backpackers party town, all of the hostels gave vouchers for free dinners in the bars, and the bars always had drinks specials and competitions – and we even got up for an early start to watch the England Australia football game!
Then I headed up the mountains to rainforest village of Kuranda via the scenic railway, it was a touristy place but had a lot of nice arts and crafts outlets and lovely little cafes with verandas overlooking the mountains, and the scenic railway was great, it stopped at several waterfalls and gorges for photo opportunities and had a full commentary.
Then I headed to Cape Tribulation, stopping at Mossman Gorge for a swim in Mossman Creek. Cape Tribulation had some stunning boardwalks and lovely swimming holes (had to check the ones that were croc-free!) as well as beautiful beaches (but definitely no swimming there!) I also went to the little local Bat House, run by the Australian Tropical Research Foundation, and had a cuddle with a baby flying fox called Spencer! We also went crocodile spotting on a river cruise up the Daintree Estuary which was a success, spotting several huge specimens lying in the shade.
Back in Cairns I arranged a trip to the Atherton Tablelands with Uncle Brian’s tours that another traveller had recommended – and I would highly recommend it to anyone. He had us laughing all the way round on the bus, we went to Babinda Boulders and had a walk through the rainforest and played on the rope swing over the river, then we went to Wooroonooran National Park and went swimming and rocksliding at Josephine Falls. We went to Millaa Millaa Falls where the Timotei advert was filmed and swam through the huge waterfalls, then onto Lake Eacham (a large volcanic crater lake) for another swimming spot with the turtles and fish, before going over to the Johnstone River for sunset to try to spot the rare platypus in the wild – we did see a couple but it took a lot of patience sitting quietly in the dark on the riverbank for a quick glance!