It was almost Christmas and every hotel was booked up. Fortunately for us, Darren's relatives live in Surfer's Paradise on the Gold Coast. I got to meet them for the first time and Darren got to see them for the first time in 15 years. It was so nice to spend Christmas with family rather than with a bunch of strangers in a guest house.
Although Darren's aunts originally came from Ireland, they settled into Australia pretty quickly and easily. They immigrated to Oz in the '70s and got jobs the very next day working as seamstresses for a man who was selling surf apparel on the beach. That company is known today as Billabong and now has 677 stores worldwide and made 1.79 billion dollars in revenue last year.
We thought Australia would be an easy country to travel around since it was English speaking and modern. What we found was that it was like a really expensive version of the United States except with funny accents. With all of the McDonald's and shopping malls, it didn't feel like we were in a foreign country at all. Darren's recollection of Australia 15 years ago was much different than it is today. He said it had become much more commercialized and incredibly expensive. Back then, he was able to travel around Australia for months without spending a thing. Plus, it's a huge country and all of the major attractions such as Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef are days apart from each other. We didn't want to make the same mistakes we had made in some of the other countries we visited with trying to see everything so we realized we'd have to choose one or the other. Both would take 3 days by bus and another 3 days back. We chose to drive from Surfers Paradise to Townsville to see the Reef and fly back down to Sydney so that we could meet our friends, Anthony and Leanna, for New Year's Eve. After many phone calls, we found a company that actually still had spots available for a reef trip on the 30th. We'd have to leave on the 27th and drive with few stops. We looked into camper vans but everything was sold out. After hours of searching for rental cars, we finally found what seemed to be the last car available in the country but at a very high price. I didn't want to be in Australia and not get to see one of the great wonders of the world so we booked the car. Then when we tried to find accommodation in Sydney for New Year's Eve, everything was sold out or required a 7-10 night minimum. Even the hostels were charging $150 a night! Leanna told us that Sydney University rents dorm rooms to non-students but when we looked into it we found they were charging $140 a night with a minimum stay as well. We could only find accommodation outside of Sydney for the 1st so we'd miss New Year's Eve but at least we'd still get to see Anthony and Leanna while in Australia.
On Christmas day Darren and I had our picture taken with Santa. In Australia, Santa rides in a boat instead of a sleigh and he's guided by kangaroo riding surfboards instead of flying reindeer! There was a cyclone up north over Christmas so the surf was really dangerous in Surfers Paradise. Just a handful of some very experienced surfers were in the water so we didn't attempt to go surfing but we did get to try stand up paddleboarding. Darren's cousin took us on Boxing Day (we don't celebrate Boxing Day in America so this was my first!). I was instantly hooked and am now obsessed with this sport.
We set out for Townsville on the 27th and drove until it got dark. We spent all of our money on the car and had none left for hotels. Plus we didn't have much time to stop if we wanted to make it there in time for the reef trip. Australia is very accommodating to drivers and has rest stops everywhere. Some even have bathrooms and picnic tables. And they're free. My favorite thing was the "free driver reviver." It encourages drivers to pull over and rest if they're tired by giving out free cups of coffee and cookies. What a brilliant idea!
We pulled in at a rest stop but we had no tent or sleeping bags so we had to sleep in the back of our hatchback economy car. It was really hot so we opened the windows a bit but then all of the mosquitoes came in and were feasting on us. Needless to say, it was not the best night's sleep. For some reason, Darren is tastier to mosquitoes than I am and he was covered with bites.
Early the following morning we were back on the road driving through the Australian outback. We came across a small-town post office with just one little counter manned by two sweet ladies. We shipped home some of our winter gear we didn't need anymore, some souvenirs and gifts we had picked up along the way, and Darren's raincoat. He said he hadn't used the raincoat since we were in Nepal and since the Gold Coast boasts 300 days of sunshine per year, he didn't need it anymore. Not three hours later we found ourselves driving right into the cyclone we had been hearing about. Darren was exasperated over shipping the raincoat home and I had to pull over because I couldn't even see the road. I am known for attracting earthquakes but this was my first ever tropical cyclone. We waited on the side of the road until the rain slowed up a bit and then Darren took the wheel. It was coming down so hard the car was shaking back and forth. We pulled over at a gas station and waited nearly two hours but it hardly slowed down. We tried driving some more and made it to Airlie Beach. To my dismay, I discovered that there is no beach in Airlie Beach. It's a charming and lively port town on the waterfront but its name is deceiving. We could find no campsites and the cyclone was getting dangerous. Despite signs prohibiting camping overnight, we had no choice but to pull in on a quiet side street and sleep in the back of the car again. There were no mosquitoes but this time we got soaked.
We made it to Townsville by that afternoon. We stopped at the dive shop where we had booked our Great Barrier Reef trip for the next day. They told us to check back with them in a couple of hours. They said the trip might be canceled due to the weather and rough seas. We had driven for two days, went straight through a cyclone in an overpriced rental car which we slept in for two nights, all to see the reef and now there was a possibility it would be canceled. We tried to remain calm and optimistic and looked for a place to stay.
Townsville was a ghost town. In Australia, all of the businesses pretty much shut down for two weeks during Christmas time and New Year's. If the trip was canceled we didn't know what we'd do.
We found a hostel that was incredibly overpriced considering it looked exactly like a prison complete with cinder block walls and views through the bars from one cell block to another. But it was better than sleeping in the car. We had grown a great appreciation for simple comforts like pillows and brushing our teeth with tap water-things most people in developed countries take for granted.
We went back to the dive shop a couple hours later and learned that all trips to the Great Barrier Reef were canceled until January 2nd. Our flight to Sydney was leaving on January 1st. If I had to pick the most disappointing part of our trip, the canceled trip to the Great Barrier Reef would be it. We had driven all that way and spent all that money for nothing. We were devastated but it was a minor upset compared to all of the things that could possibly go wrong while traveling around the world so we decided to try and make the most of our time in Townsville.
The information center in town told us that if we couldn't see the Reef we could go to the local aquarium, Reef HQ. They said it was the next best thing. So we paid $21 each to visit the aquarium and felt it was a big waste of time and money. It didn't even come close to an actual visit to the reef and in my opinion, the Phuket Aquarium (see Thailand post) was far better. All it did was make us more depressed about our canceled trip. I will say that while the coral tank was completely lacking in labels or interpretation, they seemed to dump all of their money in a nice exhibit upstairs with interactive technology and flat-screen video signage. If the fish in the displays get switched to different locations or die, then all they have to do is change the information on the monitor rather than printing and installing a new sign. This is really smart and could definitely make their coral and other exhibits on the first floor more informative and interesting.
Rather than visiting the aquarium, I'd recommend going across the hall to the free Cultural Center. The museum's focus was all about the history, struggles, and traditions of the Aborigines. I found it both interesting and alarming at how similar their stories are to those of the Native Americans and the Maoris in New Zealand. What struck me the most was how mixed or "half-caste" Aboriginal children were taken away from their parents to be raised in institutions. In addition to the cultural museum, there was an art gallery featuring some very nice works of art by Aboriginal artists.
Afterward, we had a picnic lunch at Kissing Point. It's located at the very end of The Strand (This is the road that runs parallel to the beach in Townsville). At Kissing Point there is a giant saltwater rock pool that they built in the ocean. It protects people from stingers, jellyfish, and sharks. It was much more creative and attractive than a traditional shark net.
Then we drove up to Castle Hill which is just a few meters shy of being classified as a mountain. At the top, there are views of the beach, Magnetic Island and all of Townsville.
We also visited the Queens Gardens. Townsville has three separate gardens which together form Townsville Botanic Gardens. In addition to Queens Gardens are Anderson Gardens in Mundingburra and the Palmetum in Annandale. Initiated in 1870, Queens Gardens is the oldest Botanic Garden in Townsville and is heritage listed.
Afterward, we tried to find an Internet cafe so we could check our email and make our plans for Sydney. We couldn't find an Internet cafe all week so we had to come up with creative ways to get free WiFi.
Travel tip: If you sit in the parking lot of McDonald's you can pick up their WiFi signal. No password is needed. No purchase necessary. We never once resorted to eating at McDonald's during our travels but they are very handy when you need to use the restroom or check your email.
On New Year's Eve, we took a ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island. It was a scenic boat ride that took about 35 minutes. It cost $175 for the car ferry so we left the car and rode as passengers for 56 AUD for two. Of course, all of the rooms on the island were booked up for New Year's so we'd have to get the last ferry back to Townsville or sleep on the beach. An all-day bus pass cost 7.50 AUD and we were able to ride from one end of the island to the other and stop at all of the beaches in between. Magnetic Island has more than 22 secluded beaches and bays and a national park. With 320 days of sunshine per year, it is the sunniest spot on the Queensland Coast. The island earned its name because of the apparent "magnetic" effect it had on the compass of Captain Cook's ship as he passed the island when sailing up the east coast of Australia in 1770.
On New Years Day we flew back to Sydney. I say "back" because we had a four-hour layover in Sydney when we flew from Thailand to the Gold Coast. In hindsight, this was poor planning. Or lack of planning which has been our style throughout most of our trip. Sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn't. Especially when things need to be booked in advance during major holidays! So we were back in Sydney again. We spent several hours taking the wrong trains before we found our hotel so our first day there was pretty much over.
The next day we met Anthony and Leanna at Circular Quay. Having no phone, this required careful coordination and a lot of emailing from McDonald's. They asked us how we didn't lose each other while traveling with no phone. We demonstrated for them a travel tip given to us by our friends Jan and Woody.
Travel Tip #2: Create your own personal bird call. When you can't find your partner or spouse, call out something like, "WHOOP WHOOOP!!" All they have to do is follow the sound and you will be reunited again.
It was great to see familiar faces again. We had missed seeing our friends in India and I was worried that the same thing would happen again. Anthony is from England and was my coworker and roommate when I was in New Zealand last year (see New Zealand blogs). Leanna is Australian and I met her when she came from London to help out in our office in New York last summer. They were in Australia visiting Leanna's family for Christmas. Now here we all were an American, an Englishman, an Irishman, and an Australian. All we needed was a punchline.
Manly and walked around the beaches and shops. We also explored some amazing cliff walks before heading back on the ferry and getting drinks by the opera house at sunset. Afterward, we walked around The Rocks and found a pub. Anthony liked this area the best. I think this was because it's Sydney's historic old town with charming cobblestone laneways and historic buildings that reminded him of England. The rocky sandstone ledge known as "The Rocks" is where members of the First Fleet stepped ashore on January 26, 1788, and the British settlement of Australia was first established.
The next day we met Anthony and Leanna at Circular Quay again and then we all went to the Royal Botanic Gardens for a picnic. The Botanic Gardens are free and located on Sydney Harbor and have great views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. One place of interest in the park is Mrs. Macquarie's Chair. It's an exposed sandstone rock cut into the shape of a bench, on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour, hand-carved by convicts from sandstone in 1810 for Governor Macquarie's wife Elizabeth. The peninsula itself is named Mrs. Macquarie's Point and is located at the end of Mrs. Macquaries Road.
Our stroll through the gardens led us to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The exhibits were a mix of contemporary, classical, and Aboriginal art. At that time there was a special exhibit on Picasso. It was not his work that was on display but rather photographs of him and his family and videos of Picasso himself at work in his studio.
The next day we bought two round-trip bus tickets to Circular Quay for 14 Australian dollars. Then we paid 22 AUD for two ferry tickets to the Taronga Zoo. When we got there we learned that admission was $44.50 each! Even with the two 15% off coupons we had, it still cost $75 for admission to the zoo. I can't imagine how Australian families can manage to afford to do fun things with their kids with prices like that. It's not like it was an overly impressive zoo either but with what they were charging you would think it would be like Disney Land. There wasn't anything realistic about the animal habitats. They were basic enclosures that said nothing about the animals' natural environment. Although, we did get lucky with our timing because it was the animals themselves that made the experience enjoyable. We saw what looked like a gang fight between some angry chimpanzees. They were screeching, beating their chests, and chasing each other for more than twenty minutes. It was really exciting. We also were there just in time for the giraffes to be fed and got to see the baby elephants taking their baths.
We had planned to stay in Australia for 3 weeks or more. Even though we stayed with relatives for almost a week, the expense of just about everything had put us way over budget. So we had to cut our trip short at 2 1/2 weeks. That night, we booked flights to New Zealand for January 7th.
The day we left Australia we found ourselves in airport limbo yet again. We had to check out of the apartment at 10 am but our shuttle to the airport wasn't until 3 pm. We had to carry our packs around with us for 5 hours because the serviced apartment was not like a hotel where there would be luggage storage. A good use of our time would have been to book outbound tickets leaving New Zealand but instead, we found a park and watched a cricket match. When we were checking in at the airport at 4 pm they asked to see our outbound tickets. We had none. We had wanted to stay in New Zealand for three weeks or more and had no definitive schedule or plans. Apparently, the New Zealand Government requires proof of a plane ticket out of their country in order for you to be allowed in. I had been to New Zealand less than a year ago and they never asked to see my outbound ticket but apparently, things had changed. We had to run to the nearest Internet kiosk carrying 25-pound backpacks through a crowded airport. They wanted $10 for just 20 minutes of Internet. I refused on principle so we ran carrying our packs like we were in that TV show "The Amazing Race" to find the free Internet kiosks at the food court. All three kiosks were being used by Facebook addicts but just as I was about to tackle someone for their computer, they got up and we booked the fastest flights in history. Darren was able to connect to the food court WiFi and download the tickets onto his iPod. The woman at the check-in counter said she needed to see a paper ticket but it's 2012 and we live in a paperless society. Get with the program.
When we ran back to check in again, we got a different agent who reluctantly accepted our electronic ticket and checked us in for our flight.
Travel Tip #3: If you are traveling to New Zealand, you must have a paper ticket showing your outbound trip or you will be running like a lunatic through an airport trying to buy a plane ticket.