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This Is Singapore?

Singapore Drug Trafficking NoticeSo Western. Too easy. Not authentic Asia. These are descriptions that the masses of travelers drilled in our minds about the island city-state of Singapore. Needless to say, we expected our transition into Asia for 4+ months would be eased by Singapore’s rumored simplicity. Even before landing at the ultra modern Changi International Airport, it was apparent that the Republic of Singapore is not as bland as some would have you believe. The Singapore Strait was choked with container ships waiting for access to the world’s second busiest port. It was a surreal view from an economy seat of an Airbus jet. Name a Western metropolis where upon descending for landing you are welcomed by a Normandy looking invasion of ships.

Boats in Singapore Strait Singapore Airport Singapore SMRT

The airport was unlike anything we have seen, complete with a swimming pool and movie theatres to pass time during layovers. We brisked through Customs, but not before being reminded of the swift death sentence if we were apprehended for smuggling drugs. Then it was onto the sleek SMRT rail system that ushers passengers from 58 countries to the city center. We arrived at our station in record time, thinking, yeah, Singapore is almost as advertised. After one hour of searching the hectic Geyland area for our lodging, we humbly disagreed with previous assessments of Singapore. Alas, we found Hotel 81 amongst the numerous brothels, video game cafes, and bars spilling onto the street. I was even welcomed to the red light district by an elderly women who kindly inquired, “Touch me?”. I shall pass, but thank you.

Singapore Arc?We tackled the next day with a fury. Haji Lane, a small Muslim zone, was our first destination. Beside mosques and among veiled women, we perused clothing boutiques, even finding Ash’s friend Amy a pair of sailor socks. From there we leisurely walked through a fantastic park, across bridges, and admired architecturally unique shopping malls. This must be the area that visitors talk about so much, where motos (scooters) abide by traffic signals, grub is easy to order, and skyscrapers put a kink in your neck. Being obsessed with real estate, Ashley grew tired of my constant appreciation of creative retail structures and incomprehensible towers. Despite the 100+ degree heat, we both agreed that the arc like edifice being built atop three hulking glass office buildings was worth a long gaze.

Singapore Skyline Small Buildings Amongst Steel & Glass

Seeking shelter from the sweltering heat, we found respite at one the many restaurants along the Singapore River. Across the bustling river was a classic 19th Century British influenced structure that provided a stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers behind us. If only Stamford Raffles and the British East Indian Company, whose open immigration policy of Singapore spurred immense growth, could see the place now. Consuming Indian-Malay cuisine, we chowed down under fans and drank a pitcher of delicious Tiger beer. Suitably cool again, we hit the pavement once more to explore the city including the understated Sir Raffles monument.

View of Singapore River Tiger Beer Lunch On River

Chinese Red Paper LanternThe sun was drooping as we boarded the SMRT for Chinatown. Once again, we experienced the unexpected. The sense of calmness in the hyper tourist and business district was chucked out the window in this chaotic mess of people. Noisy parades, sun dried ducks, and tasteless ice cream were all experienced. Perhaps the best moment was inhaling street food while people watching under the ubiquitous red paper lanterns strung between colonial buildings. The view from a pedestrian bridge exhibited the contrast between the Chinatown street market and Singapore’s impressive skyline. Our splendid time in Chinatown sparked a fire in us for the months ahead in Asia. A quick stop amongst hundreds of gawking men in Little India prepped us for a visit to the Subcontinent.

Duck Chinatown Little India... Men... Lots of Men

Having seen much of Singapore’s less talked about underbelly, Ashley’s shopping itch was scratched along Orchard Road. However, shopping without a credit card cramped her style. Louis Vuitton? Keep dreaming Ash! Regardless, Ash had a ball along this opulent stretch of designer stores reminiscent of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. After yet another long walk through the city, we arrived at Singapore’s most famous hotel. Opened in 1887 and named after Singapore’s founder, the Raffles Hotel has endured receivership during the Great Depression and survived WWII Japanese occupation. Trying our very best to look non-backpacker, we saddled up in the Long Bar to enjoy the omnipresent Singapore Sling. Our jaws hit the floor when the $20 price tag revealed itself. One cocktail, two straws please!

Orchard Road Raffles Hotel $20 Singapore Sling

While we experienced the Western influence of Singapore, by no means does that define it. Between the red light district, ethnic dominions, and culinary fusions, we did not experience the expected blandness of Singapore.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Making a hand drawn map of your accommodation’s approximate location can prevent massive headaches. Particularly when arriving at night in a foreign country. Including major landmarks on your rough map allows locals to provide helpful directions when in doubt.
2) Resting your eyes in predictable areas of a city has it positives and negatives. Ash and I had a ball just walking around Singapore’s Geyland area though at times wished obtaining something as simple as a bottle of water was not a monumental task.

Australian Outback – Northern Territory (Part II of II)

Jumping crocodiles, kangaroo burgers, wallaby skeletons littering the road, and strange termite tombstones. The fauna found in the Outback was immense, but that wasn’t all that surrounded us.

Tabletop Swamp Tolmer Falls View From Tolmer Falls

Florence Falls StreamWith all the water being generated during the monsoon season, we figured the falls rumored to inhabit Litchfield National Park should be pumping. But before searching for gravity induced falling water, we drove as far into the sleepy Tabletop Swamp as our little hatchback could go. Then we stretched our legs on the dirt path leading to the base of Florence Falls. Once down at the falls, Ash waded across a swift moving creek to a money shot of the falling white water. I opted for a closer look and swam against the tough current until I was positioned directly under the largest waterfall. Next was Tolmer Falls. Though getting close to these waterfalls is nearly impossible, the view from above the tree tops was sensational, the Outback seemingly stretching into eternity. Last, but certainly not least, was Litchfield’s most popular tourist site, Wangi Falls. The water was so high that swimming was prohibited, crocodile warnings blanketed sign posts, and the viewing platform was nearly submerged. Ash could be loosely described as terrified while on the steel grate with potential crocodile nesting spots nearby. The twin falls were impressive and created a thunderous noise as we trekked closer.

Wangi Falls, Ash On Edge Shower

Buley RockholeBuley Rockhole was a welcomed respite from the sticky heat before the deluge began. A rushing creek through Litchfield National Park, it ebbs and flows through the green forest and in certain places, pools gather in excess of 10 feet deep. I reminisced about my days playing in the creek near my childhood home, though the Buley Rockhole was admittedly a bit more fun. Further along the winding stream, we watched aborigine boys climb a tall tree then leap into the pooled abyss. Simply wanting to take a gander from atop the same tree, the boys administered some good ‘ole twelve year-old ribbing once I reached my perch. Suitably peer pressured, Ashley held her breath as I unceremoniously let gravity do its work. Zita and Gerald, with their iconic high cheek bones, threw me several thumbs up for my courageous leap of faith.

Leap of Faith Greg with Outback Boys (Zita, Gerald, X)

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Swimming in freshwater creeks is great fun, but watch out for leeches (hard to do). We met a father with a bleeding sore from a bloodthirsty leech from Buley Rockhole.

3… 2… 1… Action: Aussie Outback

Litchfield National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory is simply busting at the seams with amazing waterfalls, termite formations, and swimming holes.

Below is a short video of Tolmer Falls with the rain pouring that ends in a shot of the Outback’s wide open spaces:

Next is a glimpse of the hard to describe Magnetic Termite Mounds.  Are they incredible, spooky, fascinating, strange?

Finally, witness Greg fight the formidable current below Florence Falls:

- Ash and Greg

Learn from our Footsteps:

1) Near Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory are two national parks: Litchfield and Kakadu. While similar, much of Kakadu’s rugged terrain requires 4×4 access. In fact, in the monsoon season most of its sights are inaccessible. Litchfield on the other hand offers the same experience year-round and without the expense of hiring a 4×4 or paying for a group tour.

Australian Outback – Northern Territory (Part I of II)

Outback License PlateEach day in the Australian outpost drove our finances towards insanity. We needed an exit, quickly. The cheapest route proved to be the Cairns – Darwin – Singapore circuit. The big cities had been lived and the white sand beaches combed. We desired great wide expanses and a layover in the Northern Territory’s sparse population proved to be just the ticket. After negotiating for the cheapest rental car possible with unlimited mileage, our packs were deposited in the rear seats and into the Australian Outback we went leaving Darwin far behind.

Stumpy the Jumping Saltwater Crocodile Boat Captain and Crocodile Hunter Savage

Our first destination were the jumping crocodiles on the tidal Adelaide River to become intimate with some fearsome saltwater beasts. Our boat captain and resident crocodile hunter, Jimmy, pointed the tin boat up river in search of some hungry reptiles. With intermittent rain falling, our first croc was spotted lurking near the grassy shore. True to its predatory nature, seventeen foot Stumpy (missing one front arm) swam silently towards a string fed pork dinner. Ash’s fingernails dug deeper into my forearm as the bumpy head passed within feet of our rigid bodies. Like a jack-in-a-box, Stumpy lurched upwards and snatched the tasty treat in a symphony of sharp teeth housed within its formidable jaw. Just as silently as he appeared, the saltwater crocodile crept back to shore with just the snout and ridges of the back breaking the water’s surface. Jimmy (named after our guide), Fang, and Sue each had a bite of pork. Though we felt reasonably safe from our vantage point in the boat, these massive descendants of dinosaurs kept our comfort level to a minimum. The most startling moment came when a male and female simultaneously approached the vessel and the Mexican Standoff began. Without warning, the male crocodile spun around creating a large splash and screams from the onlookers. Alas, the lovely female reptile won the meal. Ashley was sufficiently frightened of crocodiles which meant our next 36 hours would keep her alert, in the Aussie Outback.

Fogg Dam Termite Tombstones Magnetic Termite Mound

With ravenous reptilians on our mind, we paid homage to the Crocodile Safety signs at Fogg Dam where the monsoon rains overtook the asphalt road. Then into Litchfield National Park where the few accommodations on offer were visited. Some were nothing more than a 6′ x 10′ plywood room with a flimsy door. I was game, Ashley was petrified. But our persistence paid off and we found a trailer that fit our most simple tastes. Having our housing squared away, it was off to explore the Australian Outback. The first pit stop was the Magnetic Termite Mounds, which dotted the wooded landscape. In one particular spot, they were massed together like eight foot tombstones in a crowded graveyard that created an eerie mood. Each was situated with a North – South orientation to limit exposure to the harmful Sun. After seeing firsthand how these termites were able to construct impressive towers, it is no wonder how the hungry buggers can literally eat away a home’s timber frame.

Wild Dingo Wallabe

Wallabe SkeletonHalf the fun of exploring the Outback on our own terms was watching the fauna. At Buley Rockhole, I swam with a large lizard that proceeded to pace back and forth along the creek’s shoreline. Like deer are to Americans, kangaroos and wallabies are to Aussies. For that reason, special care was necessary when driving as these marsupials hop unannounced across the road, many times in small groups. One such wallaby didn’t fare so well as evidenced by its roadside skeleton. I desperately wanted to take a small bone as a memento, but Ashley forbid me from touching the skeleton, let alone bringing the possibly diseased fragment into the car. Ash’s keen eyes even spotted a wild dingo perched on a hill that was intently watching our movements.

Kangaroo Meat WWII Livingstone Airstrip Wide Open Spaces

If the kangaroo is the Aussie version of the American deer, it is meant to be eaten, right? The maid / receptionist / cook at our lodging offered to cook up a kangaroo burger. When in Rome. Ashley was left unimpressed, but I scarfed it up and thought it tasted fine, if not a bit gamey. The ‘roos habitat is spread amongst the Northern Territory where several WWII airstrips caught our attention along the highway, including the Livingston landing strip. It took some imagination, but one could envision the intense action this area experienced 65+ years ago. The wide open Outback and vast sky were liberating after three weeks along Australia’s bustling East Coast. What a varied landscape Australia has on exhibit!

Part II of II will highlight the rushing streams and waterfalls found in Australia’s Outback.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Avoid the name brand car rental agencies when possible. Hertz wanted a king’s ransom ($335+) for a two day rental plus mileage. A budget rental company cost peanuts ($100) in comparison including unlimited mileage. Opt for cheaper manual transmission models if possible.

3… 2… 1… Action: Jumping Crocodiles of the Outback

During our visit to Australia’s Northern Territory, several saltwater crocodiles exhibited their ability to snag pork from a string on the Adelaide River. 

Check out Stumpy’s (missing one front arm) girth and muscle as he consumes a tasty meal of pig:

America’s southern neighbor may have invented it, but the Australian saltwater crocodiles perfected it. Here, a male and female are after the same thing and only one can get the pork. Watch the Mexican Standoff below:

How do they do it? See for yourself how these massive reptiles propel themselves out of the water:

 

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Before flying to another country, you should check out more than just the visa requirements. Nowadays, an onward plane, bus, or train ticket from the arriving country is required. Because we lacked arranged onward transportation, we were prevented from checking into our JetStar flight from Darwin to Singapore. Luckily, we had ample time and were able to book a train from Singapore to Malaysia as proof.

3… 2… 1… Action: Great Barrier Reef & Whitsunday Islands

It is 5:15am and the sun has not yet broken the horizon over the Coral Sea, yet the sky exhibits wondrous colors as we sail for the Great Barrier Reef. Watch the relaxing video below:

Sailing back to Able Point Marina, the aqua water is nothing short of mesmerizing. Two sailing tenders trail Anaconda III as the Whitsunday Islands lurk around us. View the tranquil sea in almost HD below:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Australia has been by far the most expensive location to date. $7 for a draft beer? Your pocketbook takes its biggest hit on accommodation. However, here is our unscientific way of limiting the damage. a. Visit www.wotif.com (offers varying levels of hotels at hostel prices) and select three viable options based on prices/reviews b. Compare prices/booking fees to www.agoda.com, www.hostelworld.com, or the actual venue’s website c. Select best accommodation choice and book via cheapest medium (usually www.wotif.com). When torn between two choices, www.tripadvisor.com is our tie breaker. The process eats up some free time, but comfortable accommodation in terrific locations at reasonable prices was certainly worth it.

Great Barrier Reef (Part II of II)

Southern CrossA former racing boat, Anaconda III was built with speed in mind. Engineering evolved and state-of-the-art schooners quickly outpaced the 102 footer. Like many maxi yachts past their prime, racing equipment was stripped and she was subsequently outfitted for pleasure cruises. Carrying 32 passengers, the cabins either mimic shared hostel quarters or small private rooms (some with malfunctioning air conditioning). Her large size provides an advantage over other boats in the Whitsunday Islands meaning it can handle choppy weather that may prevent smaller vessels from reaching the Great Barrier Reef. This fact made everyone scratch their heads when the first skipper, Captain Steve, informed us we would not be able to swing the trip to the reef. Rushing around was not a worry since we had three nights and three days on the Coral Sea. Sounds like we did tons of research to discover Anaconda III versus lesser competitors, huh? Well, not exactly. As referenced in the Great Barrier Reef Part I of II, we chanced upon this opportunity. Sometimes the round-the-world travel gods smile down upon us!

Anaconda III Backside Anaconda III

Lounging on spacious decks while sailing was pure bliss with the Whitsunday’s 74 islands or the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef area demanding our attention. Our preferred viewing locale was near the Captain’s wheelhouse on the bow deck from where we could see 360 degrees, listen to the sails harness the wind, and inhale the salty ocean smell. When we were not scuba diving or snorkeling, I kept my stinger suit on (required due to highly poisonous jellyfish) and did flips off the port side while Ash’s mind was engulfed in her latest sultry book. Each evening began with a breathtaking sunset while bobbing in the Coral Sea. And the company was superb.

Back Deck Spot Girl Spot

On the day of departure, Ash and I were walking along Airlie Beach to the dock when we met a lovely British couple, Ben and Helen. They too were on a trip around the world and we shared a lot in common. Also on board were Jon and Jenny, yet another British couple traveling the world. We met Amy as well whom was traveling the globe solo. One guess of her nationality. We had a ball spending leisure time swapping adventure stories and accounts of hostel horrors. Passports stolen while riding a Bangkok tuk-tuk on RTW Trip Day #4 or mice giving birth on someones head in a less than appealing guesthouse were among the tales. One of the toughest parts of backpacking the world is the constant coming and going, hellos and goodbyes, and moving from bed to bed. So it was a pleasure to spend three days with people whom instantly became our friends and confidants. After our exhilarating night dive on the Great Barrier Reef, the English gals taught everyone the game of Spot. Similar to the American rhythm and singing game Zoomie Zoomie, when you fouled up the consequences were dire. That is, the offender’s face would be stamped with colored zinc. Not too long into the confusing game, we resembled exotic tribe folk with yours truly exhibiting the worst rash of neon dots.

Greg's 4 our 10 Flip Our Favorite Vantage Point Sunset Through Life Preserver

Three days came and went and the turbulent weather of the first day became a distant memory. We soaked up the Whitsunday Islands during a leisurely sail back to Airlie Beach from the Great Barrier Reef. Stopping for a snorkel at Blue Pear Bay, AKA Fish City, we fed schools of tropical fish that expected an easy meal. A pod of dolphins even wished us farewell as they shadowed Anaconda III close into harbour. Still feeling the effects of the shifting sea back on dry land, we headed for our hostel’s hot shower and some sleep. Later that evening we met up with our English friends for some pizza and beers. It was abundantly clear that all of us were worn out from life on the high seas. But what a time we had!

Tenders Starboard Side Coming Into Port

The Great Barrier Reef was among our Top 10 ‘must sees’ on our round the world adventure. It did not disappoint. A little bit of luck in booking the proper vessel and befriending some interesting nomads made the unforgettable experience that much better.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. There are two bus companies to choose from along Australia’s East Coast: Greyhound and Premier. Both offer similar comfort and reliability, but Premier is generally cheaper. We utilized both and made our choice based on scheduled departures and arrivals.  Both offer hop-on and hop-off deals or mileage packages that can save some money.
  2. The best travel tips and recommendations don’t come from guidebooks. They come from fellow travelers. We have been on the road for eight months and have not purchased a single guidebook. We ask backpackers questions and reciprocate with suggestions of our own. Travel blogs and other Internet resources like TripAdvisor.com are frequently updated and offer valuable personal accounts.

Great Barrier Reef (Part I of II)

Captain Ron made the Great Barrier Reef famous when Ron Rico said, “We hit a reef. Huge SOB. Ran the whole coast” after sinking his boss’ ship prior to his illustrious days in the Caribbean. Ever since, the world’s largest reef stretching over 1,600 miles along Australia’s East Coast is one of Earth’s most recognizable natural features. Perhaps I am giving too much credit to Kurt Russell who magnificently portrays a witty skipper with one eye, but his underrated performance is the primary reason I wanted to check out this natural wonder of the world. Ashley’s interest was piqued by more obvious reasons such as the ability to see it from the International Space Station and its status as the world’s biggest structure produced by living organisms.

Storm BrewingWiping cobwebs from our eyes after yet another overnight bus ride, we meandered into Airlie Beach in the intermittent rain. Rather than heading straight to our hostel outside town, we opted to check out liveaboard boat trips to the Great Barrier Reef. The first tour agency lit a fire beneath us offering a deal on the 102 foot Anaconda III departing that evening. Having compared trips and prices with two other agencies, we recognized an opportunity and ate the cost of our hostel for the night. We were to set sail among the Whitsunday Island’s that night! Mother Nature did all she could to dampen our spirits, but the lightning show only added to the excitement.

Lookout Over Whitehaven BeachSeeking overnight refuge from the wind in Hook Passage, we awoke hoping the weather had shifted. No luck. Regardless, we were going to make the best of it. After all, Anaconda III’s tender was ferrying us to Whitehaven Beach, a place some folks claim to be the prettiest beach anywhere. Imagine a shore so pure and white created from Great Barrier Reef coral that the sand was used in the construction of NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Despite the rain, we joined Ben and Helen (British couple) for a barefoot hike to a lookout point where thick rain clouds surrounded the vista. Back on the sand, Helen and I created the Whitsunday’s toughest obstacle course including a driftwood log flip, agaility course, ten spins with a palm limb, and finally a coconut toss. Just as our team of competitive men was wrapping up our convincing victory over the hapless ladies, a crew member dropped off a cricket paddle and tennis ball. Amy instructed everyone on the rules of beach and this surprisingly fun game kept us thoroughly entertained until it was time to raise the sails for Border Island. Of course, just as we left Whitehaven Beach, the sun broke through, this time for good.

Building the Log Flip Beach Cricket Whitehaven Beach

En route, Captain Steve informed us that a journey to the Great Barrier Reef was unlikely the next day due to inclement weather in the open seas. Disappointment was evident on everyone’s forlorn face. During lunch however, rumors began to spread amongst the paying customers that Captain Steve was just filling in and he usually pays the bills as a ferry captain in Sydney Harbour, an altogether different assignment. Even the crew quietly started to question his ability to navigate in open seas, which shifted our disappointment to anger. Why did we pay all this money to get a bogus skipper? But we were hamstrung, utterly powerless. Helpless and desperate, we needed some serious assistance. Enter the Australian Coast Guard. Turns out our Sydney Harbour Captain lacked the proper license to operate a sail boat and had to be replaced. Hooray! I can’t say we shed a tear when he disembarked Anaconda III. His replacement was the regular skipper, Captain Spike. Like children gathering in front of the Christmas Tree waiting impatiently to unwrap their first gift, we cheered the veteran mariner’s announcement that in fact we would sail to the Great Barrier Reef!

Anaconda III Mast Aussie Coast Guard Sunset Over Boarder Island

The trolling motor fired up around 4:30am and I sprang from our bed, hitting my head on the small cabin ceiling. The main sail stiff and its tassels blowing horizontally, Anaconda III pierced the ocean surface as it raced for Bait Reef. After setting the vessel on auto pilot, it was just myself and Captain Spike for the next two hours. He reaffirmed my idea that a grizzled sailor is full of unique insights on life and spoke almost poetically. Sunrise was unlike any other previously seen. The waves danced from trough to crest, the horizon came to life with a multitude of colors, and the vastness made me feel immensely small. As the ball of fire rose further over the dark ocean, a golden hue dominated the panorama. Then, the deep blue sea was relieved by a submerged rainbow of colors. We had arrived… the Great Barrier Reef!

Anaconda III At Sunrise Sunrise Over the Coral Sea Golden

A light breakfast was housed and before we knew it we were face down in just a sliver of the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling was pure exhilaration: fish of varying sizes, coral ablaze in color, and reef sharks (Ash did not like these). Anxious for an intimate experience, we exercised our free scuba dive (part of our upfront negotiation) coupon and spent forty minutes exploring the three bommies of Bait Reef. The underwater formation of The Key Hole and Cathedral was peculiar as huge islands of coral gave way to sand bottoms only to be confronted with another mountain of underwater organic life. The tight swimming tunnels with shafts of daylight slicing through were incredible. After lunch, the tender took us across the massive Long Reef to its vertical wall. It was our first drift snorkeling experience and one we soon won’t forget. With our heads above water, it seemed we were barely moving, but with our masks submerged the reef raced past. When positioned correctly, over our right shoulder was an abyss of blue and on the left majestic coral. The current’s strength was a bit alarming, so after twenty minutes we signaled the dingy for a rescue of sorts.

Ready for Our NIGHT Dive! Boarding the Tender Off Into the Blackness

Sunset brought with it an once in a lifetime opportunity: our first night scuba dive. Ash was on the fence for this experience considering her complete fright of sharks. After consolations with the boat crew, she reluctantly requested her glowstick and underwater torch. Miles away from shore, it was pitch black as the tender motored over the calm water. On cue, we fired up our torches and rolled off the rubber dingy backwards into our black surroundings. We are no scuba experts considering we have done less than ten dives. So being submerged forty feet enveloped by the Great Barrier Reef was exhilarating. With only light being emitted from our flashlights and the glowsticks attached to our oxygen cylinders for guidance purposes, a spectacular underwater world was illuminated. Batfish cramped our shoulders and gobbled up smaller fish that happened to be frozen by our flashlight’s beam. It was strange playing God knowing that if you trained your light on an unsuspecting fish, it was dinner. Certainly the highlight of my Great Barrier Reef adventure was when a giant green turtle came swimming right at me. At the very last instant, it swam directly over me and I stroked its belly from the neck to tail. I couldn’t believe it. Towards the surface we shuttered the torches and waved our hands and fins furiously to expose the glowing phosphorescence. To be certain, Ashley had made the right decision

Though snubbed by the Academy Awards, we would like to thank Captain Ron Rico for turning the world on to the Great Barrier Reef.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Pre-booking expensive excursions can save money, sometimes. In other cases, being a late entrant on a trip can prove to be a windfall of sorts. Anaconda III had one twin berth open eight hours prior to its voyage. The operator wanted it to sail at capacity and we negotiated a rate that yielded $300 in savings.
  2. There are two primary spots in Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef: Cairns and Airlie Beach. The former is closer to a section of the reef and while you can make it an easy day trip, this proximity has led to hundreds of divers per day causing bleaching of the corals and loss of aquatic life. Airlie Beach is located further away making day trips quite difficult. If time and budget permit, opt for the pristine experience of the reef from an overnight dive boat.

World’s Largest Sand Island – Fraser Island

Ferry Docking on Fraser IslandConsistently moving north along Australia’s East Coast, we dropped our bags in Torquay and slept with anticipation before setting out for Fraser Island. It was a pre-dawn wake up call and we caught some more shuteye en route to the ferry dock. Motoring over Hervey Bay we approached what appeared to be an ordinary island with elementary green trees. However, the World Heritage site is among Australia’s most vaunted tourist sites for good reason.

4x4 Bus Driving on Cathedral Beach Silent Sand Creek

Boarding a formidable 4×4 bus, we rambled along sand tracks with deep ruts due to lack of rainfall. Our first stop was the former logging camp at Central Station. Though logging of kauri pines and blackbutt trees ended just twenty years prior, the island’s nutrient rich sand has done an admirable job in the reforestation effort. The bushwalking tracks found here exemplify the various types of flora found in the unique ecosystem and even a silent creek. Because the creek bed consists only of sand and is free of rocks, no sound is audible. Next we hit Cathedral Beach and drove through the surf, dodging smaller off-road vehicles.

Eli Creek Moheno Wreck and Equally Old Greg Ash and Moheno Wreck

Approaching a river pouring into the South Pacific Ocean, the large 4×4 bus came to sliding stop in the sand. We dawned our swim trunks and meandered up Eli’s Creek to a sign clearly indicating we were forbidden to penetrate any further. Thus we accompanied the 80,000,000 liters of water flowing to its daily saltwater death by floating on our backs. Here, Fraser Island’s uniqueness struck us. We were amazed how the world’s largest sand island can support a dense forest, produce such an immense amount of spring water, and have hundreds of species calling it home. Further along Cathedral Beach we came to a hulking pile of rusted steel jutting from the shore. Draped in history, the S.S. Moheno ran aground during a 1935 cyclone and has more than three stories buried beneath the sand. First a luxury passenger ship, then a World War I floating hospital, and finally a favorite target during Royal Air Force practice sorties. It is not everyday you see a seventy-five year old shipwreck stuck in such a state of limbo.

Sea EagleThe weather was not cooperating at this point with heavy drops falling sporadically. This did not bother a sea eagle who we spied carrying a fishy treat. Our last stop along Cathedral Beach was the Colored Sands where supposedly seventy-two different hues may be seen. We shall take the tour guide’s word for it. As we headed south for lunch, the steady wind blew the clouds away and revealed a stunning blue sky. The whole island looked decidedly different under the glare of sun though the tiger shark infested waters continued to look unappealing. Then a skinny dingo made his appearance! Eastern Australia’s only “pure” dingoes are a rare sight on Fraser Island so I followed him from a safe distance like his lost puppy.

Dingo Colored Sands Cathedral Beach

Saving the best for last and the weather on schedule, Lake McKenzie was more than we expected. Perched on top of compact sand three hundred feet above sea level, the nearly pure silica sand can be used to polish jewelry and exfoliate skin. Our Saint Christopher necklaces were in need of a deep cleaning. Once again, we were amazed by Fraser Island. Here we were on a sand island surrounded by saltwater yet our gaze was set upon a freshwater lake. The white sand gave way to a clear teal water then a deep blue. Snorkel and mask fastened to my sweaty head, I dove straight in to investigate our strange surroundings. Lake McKenzie’s sand bottom isn’t all that interesting, but I did see a young turtle making headway through the crystal H2O. Relieving the pressure from my ears as I dove deeper, the small tortoise was safely in my hands and headed for the surface. Clearly terrified by the gathering crowd surrounding him, the little devil refused to poke his head out. After releasing my treasure, Ash and I simply took in our tremendous surroundings. Certainly, Lake McKenzie ranks high among our favorite beaches in the world. And on a lake for crying out loud!

Lake McKenzie Beautiful Water Greg Catches a Baby Turtle

Check out the short video below showcasing Lake McKenzie:

Initially, we were reluctant to visit Fraser Island due to its “touristy” nature. But sometimes the destination lives up to the hype.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) One can rent a 4×4 and camp overnight on Fraser Island. But be careful as the uneven paths and shifting sand cause vehicle accidents every year, some even fatal. Our hostel in Torquay had photographs of several graphic accidents to hammer home this point.

2) Booking excursions at your hostel can be hit or miss. Sometimes the hostel trips are market priced and offer the best options. Other times they are overpriced and miss the best sites. Most backpacker areas have several tour operators so check prices and options before booking. If the hostel offering seems acceptable, opt for the convenience.

Gold Coast

Byron Bay Waves Crashing HaradTen hours crammed amongst fifty-nine backpackers and one senior citizen in a red Greyhound Australia bus. Sleep was precious overnight due to frequent pit stops, cramping legs, and over-served riders. At last, the hydraulic brakes gasped outside a quaint Byron Bay cafe. We had arrived at Australia’s famed Gold Coast. Finding lodging in this small yet busy beach town made our bed on six wheels look like a walk in the park. Alas, the only room available was $64 per person. Not a chance on our budget. After five hours of wandering the backpacker town, finding rest on the beach, or watching dolphins dance alongside kayakers, Ashley and I found our behinds plastered to pleather in an overcrowded minibus headed for Surfers Paradise, ninety minutes north.

Surfer Dude, SortaA cross between Miami and Panama City, modern skyscrapers housing Fortune 500 companies and four-bedroom penthouses abut raging dance clubs. Adjacent to the Pacific Ocean’s blue abyss lie saltwater canals carved into meandering roadways. The vacationers rest their eyes in the beachfront towers while the low budget travelers call the hostels hugging the channels home. After such a whirlwind night and day of travel, we killed two cockroaches and settled in a bed for the night. While in Surfers Paradise one must surf, right? With our wallet $10 lighter, I rented a board complete with a racing stripe. I begged Ash to give it a go, but she respectfully declined, opting to play photographer to the novice surfer dude instead. Paddling with all my might, the waves did their best to prevent my advancement beyond the break. The first two bouts with the crashing waves left me doing underwater somersaults and clamoring for my board. However, once I got the hang of it (last time I surfed was three months prior in Brazil), it was pure bliss. There is something about catching a wave that puts a jolt through your body. One twenty minute break to ease my tired arms and wash saltwater from my parched mouth and I was back in the sea catching yet another wet rollercoaster.

Picking A Wave Paddling Hard Surfing!

North of Surfers Paradise is Brisbane, Australia. Straddling the aptly named Brisbane River, this town could seamlessly fit in among America’s Rustbelt. Bouncing from shore to shore, slow catamarans ferry citizens and tourists across the brownish river. One attribute unique to Australian cities are the lagoons that are located in prime urban locations. Much of Australia’s coast is teeming with dangerous stingers (jellyfish) making it recommended to avoid finding relief from the heat in the bewitching saltwater. Brisbane is no different. Indeed, the lagoons are popular places regardless of the day of the week. Our walk through the city early one morning to watch the hapless Cincinnati Bungles lose in the NFL playoffs proved just how favored the place can be. It was filling up rapidly by the time we finished a cup of coffee.

Brisbane Lagoon A Forced Smile for the Bungles Brisbane Skyline

Ash with KangaroosBy far our favorite spot in Brisbane is the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Don’t be fooled by its name, it houses many more animals than lazy eucalyptus chewing tree dwellers. A giant field of grass is home to numerous wallabies, kangaroos, and emus. We couldn’t believe how welcoming marsupials would be! Ash walked among a group of twenty-five kangaroos, even lifting their heavy tales and petting their pointy heads. I was fortunate to spend some time with a nursing adolescent right from his mother’s pouch. Just when we were making kangaroo friends, they hopped away and disappeared over the hill. So we trained our attention on another peculiar Aussie animal. Perhaps frightened by pop culture suggestions that they are dangerous, Ash was weary to approach the ostrich relative and I was not so sure myself, though I did get reasonably close.

10 Sheila Clutches to Ash Face in the Pouch

Ashley had been looking forward to holding a koala since we landed “down under.” She had the look of a proud mother despite Sheila’s claws digging in hard. She loved her furry companion and the feeling appeared mutual. However, the sanctuary limits the amount of time each koala is handled, so when Ash was finished, her koala was given the rest of the day to sit among the branches and nap. We then toured the various koala enclosures including the Kindergarten and Retirement Home. The defining difference between Lone Pine and an ordinary zoo is the close encounters the guests may experience. We were thrilled to be hanging out with Australia’s iconic kangaroos and handling a koala.

 - Greg and Ash

 Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Public buses run to the entrance of Line Pine Koala Sanctuary. Do not be misled by people telling you to hire a cab or join a tour group. Boats also provide transport, though the cost is significantly higher compared to the public autobus.
  2. Sleeping on the beach can be quite comfortable by creating a sand bed in under five minutes. Dig a hole wide enough for your hips while piling the removed sand where your head will lie. Place your beach blanket over the newly fashioned lounge chair and get situated for some shuteye.
  3. The ocean is full of treasure including money it turns out. I found an Australian $10 bill (big deal for backpackers) floating amid the surf in Byron Bay. So keep your eyes peeled when lounging in the sea.

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