Weekend in the Whitsundays

Upon arriving in Australia I had made it a priority to ask Aussies that I came across for places they would recommend for a weekend trip. From my own research I had considered Melbourne, Uluru, and Tasmania, and while the Aussies agreed that those would be fantastic spots, the suggestion I heard time and time again was the Whitsunday Islands. To be completely honest, I had never even heard of the Whitsundays. I was skeptical, to say the least. So much so, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t have gone had it not been for a friend of mine. I knew from budgeting for trips that I could probably afford to take one of these weekend trips and I had pretty much decided on Melbourne. He then pointed out that I had made the decision about a couple of bigger trips we would be making and that the Whitsundays was what he wanted to see the most. I conceded and we booked our flights.

We left Sydney in grey skies and 50 degree weather; we landed to clear blue skies, 80 degrees, and a slight breeze, which continued for the entire weekend. The van ride from the airport to Airlie Beach, where we were staying, took about forty minutes or so, and as we drove, I was surprised how similar to the Midwest this part of Australia seemed. We passed a lot of farmland — fields of sugar cane rather than corn, and we drove through a small town or two with not much more than a gas station and general store. Then, upon turning up a hill and around a corner, the driver said “Everyone, welcome to paradise.” As I alluded to earlier, Aussies are proud of the Whitsundays and Whitehaven beach… as they should be! I quickly decided that while Melbourne would have been an incredible experience, I certainly could not consider this trip to be a ‘bad decision.’

One of the first sights we got of the Whitsundays water

Airlie Beach simply exuded a laid back energy

Airlie Beach, like Cairns, and to be frank, a large portion of Australia, is catered towards two types of people: wealthy vacationers, and backpackers. Housing options at Airlie were essentially a choice of about four or five hostels, or renting a nice cottage overlooking a harbor. It’s been incredible as I have started to feel a bit more at home with the ‘backpacker culture’ that I have come across in Australia simply due to the exposure that I have had with this group. Although I’m not sure I can picture myself living as a full time backpacker like many of the people I have met are, I can’t help but admire the lives that they lead and feel cool about the fact that I am experiencing a small part of that life for myself. That also increased my excitement for New Zealand where I’ll be backing for about two weeks and living with other backpackers for the entirety of that trip!

The day after flying in was the day trip onto the Whitsunday Islands and Whitehaven beach. The Whitsundays are an archipelago of 74 islands, yet only eight of these are actually inhabited since the rest have been deemed a part of a national park. As a result, island after island we passed were entirely covered in forest, brush, and amazing rock outcroppings. The Whitsundays are also at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef so naturally the water is filled with wildlife as well. As we were on our way to our snorkeling stop, we passed a massive sea turtle as it breached, and although we didn’t see any, the captain also told us that whales are quite common to find around the islands during this time of the year. We first did a bit of snorkeling over a small reef which was as beautiful as always. Plenty of fish were swimming under us and an Aussie even got my attention and showed me that after swimming down beneath a bit of reef we could see a black tipped reef shark! The shark was about six feet in length and our guides told us that’s about as large as they tend to get.

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Above is a link to see a bit of the coral and fish

Below is a short video where you can see part of the shark. Unfortunately he was a little shy to show his face

After we finished our snorkeling, the boat took us to a different island where we could take a short hike up to see the Hill Inlet. The Hill Inlet is now the second most photographed piece of Australia, just behind Uluru/Ayers Rock. To try to describe the Hill Inlet is really impossible so I will just include pictures so that you can see the indescribable beauty of the Whitsundays. The reason why the water is so blue and the sand is so white is because the sand is very special. While most sand around the world is made of quartz, the Whitsundays sand is made of 98% silica, and while scientists aren’t certain, they believe it originated from an underwater volcano that erupted long ago. The silica in the water then changes how light reflects off of it creating the indescribable views that you will see from the pictures. The guides also told us that we were very lucky as the view we got was about as good as it gets. Due to the water levels changing and sand shifting, the view from Hill Inlet actually changes every forty-five minutes.

Here is the Hill Inlet lookout

After getting our pictures at Hill Inlet we took the boat to Whitsunday Island where we got off to enjoy Whitehaven beach. Once again, this experience was almost indescribable as the sand felt entirely different from any sand I’ve felt before. Since it is made of silica the sand does not get hot from the sun, is incredibly soft, and can be used to exfoliate skin. No more sand is being produced, however, making the Whitehaven beach sand incredibly valuable. To protect the sand there is a no-questions-asked fine of $7,123 USD if you are caught taking sand from the Whitsundays. Needless to say, I didn’t think a small souvenir would be worth that cost so I left the sand where it belongs.

On Whitehaven beach is where my tour group also ate our lunch and I was surprised to find lizards all around our dining area. These were not small lizards either, rather, they were lace monitors which are the second largest lizards in Australia and among the largest in the world. The ones that surrounded us were around four to five feet long, and they do have razor sharp claws, teeth, and are venomous, although our guides assured us that they wouldn’t actually bother us as long as we tried to ignore them. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ignore a four foot lizard licking your foot while you eat food they are wanting but it isn’t easy. After a getting licked a couple of times while I was sitting down I extended my leg to raise it into the air. The monitor then darted underneath the bench I was sitting on and smacked my leg with its tail. I was a bit shocked by what had just happened while the guide laughed at me and said “she’s got a bit of an attitude, doesn’t she?”

Our guide was a hilarious middle-aged guy who with some aboriginal background, and while we ate he kept reminding the lizards of that fact. He would tell the lizards “If you bite me, I’ll bite you and I can legally do it too!” Not everyone was phased by the lizards though; in fact, the same Aussie guy who showed me the shark walked up from behind one lizard and gave it a quick pet. The lizard did not like that one bit and as a shiver ran down its whole body and its head whipped around towards the Aussie guy, I was feeling quite sure that our trip was about to be cut short. Fortunately the guy backed up a few steps and walked away leaving my friend and I sitting two feet away from an angry monitor, but we all made it back to shore unscathed.

Here’s one of the lace monitors

In the end, the Whitsundays turned out to be a paradise unlike anything I have experienced before. From the water to the sand to the wildlife, the Whitsundays felt surreal throughout the entire trip. I may not be able to afford to see Melbourne, but I certainly cannot pretend that I made the wrong choice by going to the Whitsundays. As I left Airlie Beach and flew back into Sydney I caught myself sighing as our plane touched down. Airlie’s temperature was so perfect that returning to the grey skies and rain of Sydney led me to think to myself “Well, back to dreary ole Sydney, I guess!” I then had to laugh at myself since never in my life would I have considered myself having that thought. It’s amazing how quickly new places can begin to feel typical and not quite as extraordinary as they once were. Then, as my train passed the Opera House I felt that magic return once again — I’m in Sydney.

 

Blue Mountains and Australian Forests

Sydney is in a unique position geographically because it is surrounded by the ocean on one side, and national parks and mountains on the other. One of my friends, who is an Aussie native, lives in the Blue Mountains and this past weekend we decided to take a quick day trip out to the lower mountains. We headed to a place called Jellybean pools and we walked around swimming holes and we even walked down to a cave where an aboriginal tribe had painted their hands onto the side of the cave. It was amazing to see paintings which are so old and tell such a unique story with even the largest of hands being far smaller than my own.

Here is the hand paintings made by aboriginals from 1600-500 years ago

After walking around the Jellybean pools, my friends and I went to the park ranger’s station to ask about where we could go in order to see a big lookout onto the Blue Mountains. The ranger asked my Aussie friend where he’s from and he told her that he grew up in the Blue Mountains. She then said to him “well then you should know that there aren’t any big lookouts down here, you need to go to the upper mountains to see that!” My friend, who was quite embarrassed said that we were at least hoping to see a good lookout point. The ranger then told us that there were a number of trails and we could try our luck with any of them.

After a quick discussion my friends and I settled on taking a short drive around part of the park to a spot that we believed may lead to some great views. Along the way we passed a couple of kangaroos hopping around which always makes my day just a bit better. We finally arrived at the start of the trail and started walking only to quickly arrive at an incredible overlook and we shared a laugh that the park ranger didn’t consider this to be a “big” overlook. I’ve come to the conclusion that Australia, although it is not the most green country I have visited, has some of the most incredible rock formations I have ever seen. As we looked from atop the valley we watched a winding river cut through a forest as it goes through the mountain.

It seemed like a pretty big lookout to us

Too often when people think of Australia they think of the dangerous creatures that exist, the snakes and spiders amongst other things. Those dangers do exist and it is something that I have been quite aware of especially as the weather becomes warmer the longer that I live here. It is a different experience walking through the forests of Australia than it is walking through the forests of Michigan because there are next to no similarities. In Michigan, I am familiar with most types of trees. I know what berries are edible and which ones are not, and I know that in most of the lower peninsula, the biggest concerns that come with hiking include poison ivy and mosquitoes. I don’t have that same comfort level here which is a strange experience for me. It isn’t that I am in a constant state of fear walking through the forests, but rather a state of uncertainty. If I hear a rustling in the woods in Michigan, I like to stop and look for a frog, gardener snake, squirrel or whatever may have made the noise. In Australia I keep walking, knowing that the sound is most likely a lizard but not being entirely sure.

What strikes me is how different my experience is from that of native Aussies. As I talk to various Australians they are quite comfortable talking about the fact that there does exist a decent number of snakes and they aren’t difficult to find. For Aussies, however, that is simply a part of life. The snakes and spiders do their thing and the people do their own. Perhaps the closest comparison I could make would be the experience of driving in snow for an Australian in Sydney to that same experience for someone in Michigan. Many people from Sydney may have seen snow or been around it during their travels, but driving in snow would likely lead to a level of stress and uncertainty that Michiganders hardly think about. That’s been one of the most educational components of studying abroad for me so far, understanding how much our experience of where we live normalizes components of our lives that would be radical to another individual. I believe that’s one of those lessons that while you may know logically, it is often difficult to fully grasp.

 

   

 

 

 

 

Bondi Beach

Recently I started spending some time at the beach which showed me an entirely new side to Sydney. With Sydney being so close to the water, it should come as no surprise that they have plenty of beaches, the most famous of which is Bondi. Bondi beach and even just Bondi in general just feels different from the rest of Sydney. Similar to the Opera House or Darling Harbour, Bondi is clearly a tourist destination but it has a personality distinct from the CBD. Bondi is more relaxed and slowed down. The people are almost all tan and in great shape. If you walk in from the beach you are greeted by an array of restaurants and bars, along with the sound of live music as musicians busk between cafes.

Naturally I had to explore the rocks around Bondi a little bit

I had the opportunity my first visit to Bondi to attempt surfing in a group with an instructor. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the waves were coming in perfectly and because it is still winter the beach wasn’t all that crowded. Coming from Michigan, Bondi beach surprised me a lot at first because it was just so much smaller than I had imagined! It certainly couldn’t have been much bigger than Holland State Park and this was to serve as the main beach for all of Sydney! And unlike the beaches of Lake Michigan, the sand doesn’t extend down the shoreline connecting one beach to another, rather, on either side of Bondi there are large rock outcroppings between each beach. Admittedly, the sand is extremely soft, and perhaps even softer than the beaches on Lake Michigan to those in Florida the sand on Bondi. And for those of you wondering how my surfing went…I was absolutely terrible. It was incredibly fun nevertheless and I will be coming back to try again.

Another question and concern I heard a lot prior to leaving was people nervous about the sharks while surfing. This actually isn’t much of a concern for beaches like Bondi because the beach is at the bottom of a small inlet and shark nets are set up across the rock outcroppings I mentioned to ensure that sharks don’t get through. This isn’t to say that shark attacks never happen, but they certainly aren’t too much of a concern for the Aussies. There also are apps that can be downloaded to one’s phone where you can see where sharks are at a given time because many of them have been tagged over the years.

This is inside a tiny burger place called Bonditony’s Burger Joint. I had easily one of the best burgers I’ve ever had
All around the beach there is a lot of colorful graffiti like this

Some of the other fun things to do in Bondi, other than checking out the various surf shops or eating at some amazing restaurants is to swim in the Bondi Iceberg pools or to enjoy the coastal walk. I had a chance to visit the Iceberg pools recently, and they lived up to their name! A group of friends and I opted to try to swim there, which is a swimming club with an above group swimming pool that is right on the rocks over the ocean, and it is so close that on windy days, waves can go into the pools. My friends and I had wanted to swim there instead of the ocean because it was just so cold, little did we realize that the Iceberg pools aren’t heated and are still saltwater! So, we hopped in, hopped out and dried off and called it a day but the location of the pools makes it a popular attraction as well. The coastal walk actually goes just above the Iceberg Swimming Club and connects Bondi to Coogee beach, Sydney’s second most popular beach. The walk is about six kilometers and along the way you go past various smaller beaches and see more rocks outcroppings over the ocean which is beautiful as well. I can’t wait for the weather to get warm enough so I can spend more time over in Bondi.

The Iceberg pools

Arrival in Sydney

The first taste of Sydney that I received was as the plane was touching down from Dallas, the pilot who came on the overhead speaker greeted us with “Welcome to Sydney, Australia, the most beautiful city on earth, although I may be a little biased.” Unfortunately, I needed to get on my flight to Cairns before I could actually see Sydney which felt like a tremendous tease. Now; however, I have been living in Sydney for a week, and I have been impressed. I should mention that Sydney isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, a lot of the preconceived notions about what living in Sydney would be like have actually been turned on their head quite quickly. Firstly, because Australia is in the southern hemisphere it is currently the middle of winter which means that the weather isn’t always all that warm, and daylight hours are short. I was expecting the less than warm weather and had packed accordingly. It’s worth mentioning that during the day the temperatures are still plenty comfortable, typically in the sun it gets to the mid-60s or so but in the mornings and evenings the temperature gets down to about 40 degrees which is plenty cold but like I mentioned earlier I was prepared for cooler temps. What I was NOT prepared for has been the short daylight hours! The sun begins to set around 3 o’clock and it is dark out by 6 o’clock, which has been just absolutely brutal. I just keep reminding myself that the daylight hours will only increase while I’m here and that thought alone has helped me push through.

Macquarie University, where I am studying this semester is about a half hour outside of Sydney’s central business district or CBD and is the home of Sydney’s second largest business district in the city. Within the first week I have already gone downtown three times and I made several other observations that I was not expecting prior to landing in Sydney. Sydney is not nearly as flat as other major cities that I have visited. While portions of the CBD are fairly flat, Macquarie, and many other parts of Sydney are extremely hilly. The other aspect of Sydney that I noticed which I had not expected is that Sydney, and I believe much of Australia, has a much larger Asian influence than I had expected. Once again if I were to take the time to logically think about it, this makes sense. Australia is far closer to Asia than it is to Europe and despite the initial colonization by Great Britain, in today’s globalized world it would only be natural that Australia would be influenced by the countries that are closest. This has led to an impressive Chinatown in downtown Sydney, as well as some of the greatest Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian food (amongst others) that can be found outside of those countries. Needless to say, I am quite excited to test that claim.

This pig statue is just outside of the Royal Botanical Garden and rubbing it’s snout is supposed to give you good luck.
I accidently got lost but that gave me the opportunity to walk through Darling Harbour where a street artist was working on this piece in chalk!

One of the great aspects of living in Macquarie rather than actually downtown in the CBD is that I am living around much more nature and national parks. In fact I have one national park that is just about a five minute walk from where I live! I have been able to explore some of these areas and other areas outside of downtown Sydney but more of that will be included in later posts. Nevertheless, having so much nature so close is helpful in that it allows me some space from the fast pace of city life. It’s worth noting that Sydney is not as hectic and fast moving as cities like New York. In fact one night a couple of friends and I were trying to find our way back home because we hadn’t realized that most trains stopped running after midnight and so at around 1 o’clock we were walking around the city trying to find the bus stop and at that point the city had become significantly quieter. I noticed few cars on the street and few people walking around, whereas New York it seems that cars and people are a constant presence regardless of the time of day.

This was on the top of a rock outcropping (there are LOTS of those here) in Lane Cove national park which is only a five minute walk from my apartment.

Walking around downtown I naturally was immediately drawn to the two major buildings that Sydney is known for: the Opera house and the Harbour Bridge. After seeing it up close, I have decided that the Sydney Opera house is my favorite building in the world. From any angle you look at the Opera house the building looks fantastic and at any time of the day. I also learned that construction on the house was expected to take four years but actually took fourteen years to complete. The building also cost over fourteen times the originally projected amount. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine who is a part of Hope’s dance troupe and was on tour in Australia at the time, and we ate on the terrace of the museum of contemporary art to watch the sun go down over the bridge with the Opera house in the background. On another day a different friend and I walked through the Royal Botanical Gardens and climbed atop a rock outcropping to once again watch the sunset. In both instances the view was spectacular and I couldn’t help but be awed by the beauty of this city. Before we went our separate ways, my friend from Hope said to me “I sure hope you never get sick of sights like this.” I’m pretty confident that I never will.

This was from on top of some rocks just beyond the Royal Botantical Gardens.

This was the meal on top of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I tried kangaroo for the first time! I felt a little bad for eating it but it was delicious.

 

Arrive Down Under

One week has past since I have arrived in Cairns, Australia and it has been busier than I possibly could have imagined. Cairns is known as the “Adventure Capital of Australia,” and the city lives up to its reputation. The city itself is a northern coastal town surrounded by beaches, marinas, and water on one side and mountains on the other. The city has a similar feel to Florida beach towns in many ways with open air restaurants and bars right on the water, as well as a multitude of tourists. As I took evening walks downtown I passed groups of people speaking languages from across the globe, many of which I could not recognize. Unlike Florida, however, the people and tourists of Cairns do not go to the beach when they want to cool off, rather, they have a city lagoon which is similar to a massive public pool in which the residents of the city can swim. The reason for avoiding the beaches of Cairns is that they are filled with saltwater crocodiles, jellyfish of many varieties, including box jellys, stonefish, and sharks, just to name a few. Fortunately, Cairns has plenty to offer without going to the beach.
On my second day in Cairns we went out onto the Great Barrier Reef to go snorkeling and scuba diving. Never in my life have I been filled with so much awe and sadness at the same time. The reef was a thing of beauty with fish and coral of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Angelfish, parrot fish, regal blue tang fish looked like the glittering lights of a Christmas tree as they swam by me. Unfortunately, the reef also is no longer what it used to be as a result of environmental destruction. Reef bleaching has sucked out so much of the vibrant colors of the reef, and although there certainly were areas of breathtaking beauty, significant portions of the reef looked more skeletal with white coral being contrasted with a bright spot of nearby color. The marine biologist aboard our ship told us that it is projected that within the next five years there will be more plastic in the world’s’ oceans than there are fish, and that coral grows at the rate of centimeters per year so destruction to any portion of it could be the destruction of decades of natural growth. Even seemingly small things like sunscreen could damage the reef and we were instructed to apply sunscreen at least a half an hour before entering the water. It was humbling to realize that a living structure the size of Japan could be simultaneously so fragile, and it gave me a greater understanding of environmentalism.

Here are a couple of pictures from my scuba/snorkeling experience

Here you can see how low the tide got as the reef is actually beginning to come out of the water
This is a picture just outside of the hotel I was staying at while in Cairns

On day three, I had the opportunity to go canyoning in Crystal Cascades with a group of others and our tour guides which was wild! Admittedly, I felt a bit dorky at first as we pulled up into the park wearing wet suits, helmets, and harnesses, meanwhile we walk past little kids and their parents simply wearing bathing suits. Crystal Cascades is a waterfall and river system which provides the drinking water for the city of Cairns. At certain points in the river that becomes wider, deeper, with a weaker current and the locals use those places like an all natural swimming pool. After we passed all of the families, we arrived at a massive gate with barbed wire wrapping across the top. The guides led us through and we started a hike up an incredibly steep hill. Once we made it to the top of the hill we began canyoning down which consisted of abseiling, cliff jumping, swimming, and zip lining down the river/waterfall system to the bottom. The entire experience was simply amazing as we scaled down waterfalls in a gorge surrounded by the Australian rain forest. Needless to say, I was quite happy for the safety equipment that made me feel so foolish earlier, particularly helmet as I slipped going down one of the main waterfalls and slammed into the side of the cliff.

Here is a picture of the group after finishing the canyoning


Finally, on day four I went into Daintree Rainforest with an aboriginal tour guide as he taught us both about his culture and about his land. Before we started our hike, we were asked to join in a smoking ceremony where the guides made a small fire underneath a cover so that the smoke would billow out onto which we were told would protect us from any danger as we entered the forest. My guide, Skip, once again mentioned how the Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest rainforest and that it is the only rainforest that has never had any primates other than humans. As a result, the fruits in Daintree are far more toxic than the fruits found in other rainforests around the world. Skip also taught us about stinging plants in Australia and how they have tiny hairs on the leaves which is embed into your skin and sends four different toxins into your muscles (one of which scientists have yet to discover what it is!) when they are touched and the needles can stay embedded in your skin from anywhere between two weeks to two years! I made sure to take careful notes regarding what that plant looked like in order to avoid it in the future. Skip also told us about how the aboriginal people would use barbed vines as hooks and fishing line when they went fishing. He also told us about how the aboriginal people would use glowing mushrooms to allow them to see when hunting at night, which I thought sounded like something straight out of the movie Avatar. Skip then took us to a river which ran through the rainforest and he told us that this river was the water supply for the city and it was entirely safe to drink which naturally led to all of us students filling up our water bottles with the river water and I must say it was fantastic. After finishing our hike through the rainforest we went to a wildlife reserve where I was able to get up close and personal with a lot of animals native to Australia. I had the opportunity to feed wallabies and kangaroos, as well as pet a koala and see other animals like emus and cassowaries.
At the end of the week, all of the students who were apart of my program said our goodbyes and made our way to our respective universities across Australia. This first week has been busy, and action-packed, and it has felt like something out of a dream. As my plane took off to Sydney and I watched the mountains and rainforest shrink in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to study abroad. At times it has been difficult for me to comprehend the reality of the whole situation because I am quite literally on the opposite side of the planet right now and having experiences that I have only previously dreamed of which have each been incredible! Now off to Sydney to see what Australia’s biggest city and the home of my new university has to offer!

The bus ride into the Daintree forest was pretty scenic too

This is the river which acts as the water supply for Cairns

This is Humphry, the Koala I got to meet
Feeding the kangaroos and wallabies was so cool