Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Top End

For this entry I have special treat. Instead of the usual formula I've embedded a podcast in which I'm talking all about our trip to the Top End (Darwin and surrounds).  I had the good fortune of being featured on my favorite travel podcast recently, which is something of a dream of mine since I've been listening to the show for several years and credit it partially for inspiring me to get out and travel myself. I was a bit nervous recording the show and ramble on the bit, but it should make for a good listen if you have the time. So before I make the same mistake again, enjoy this episode of the Amateur Traveler :)

Amateur Traveler Episode 444 - Travel to Northern Australia

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Many Faces of the Outback

With our trip up the east coast of Australia having come to an end it was time to turn inland towards the setting sun and venture into the legendary Australian outback. A land of mythology, a land of thunderous road trains and giant termite mounds, of vast skies and open landscapes where every sunset seems to have exploded from a painter’s canvas before giving way to a symphony of stars whose song forces you to contemplate the nature of infinity. Yes, we were coming into what I feel is the heart and soul Australia, a place that is more of an experience than a destination.

We were in for a long haul, with nearly 3000 km of highway lying between us and our destination. We were headed to Darwin via the Overlander’s Way, which was to take some 33 hours over the course of three days.  We loaded up on food, fuel and water set off.  One of the most enjoyable things about traveling over land versus by air is that you get a sense of the lay of the land and you can watch it transform over time. In no time flat we’d traversed the narrow coastal range and had reached a flat and dry, lightly wooded savannah grassland which slowly gave way to an even flatter treeless prairie.  We were in cattle country, and the first day of our journey was spent crossing the north eastern portion of the Lake Eyre drainage basin which covers one sixth of Australia, one of the largest in the world. 

In the morning of the second day we came to Mount Isa, an isolated mining town on the western edge of the Lake Eyre drainage basin and the last major settlement before we were to reach Katherine just south of Darwin. We took the opportunity to resupply before heading over the pass between the rocky hills west of the city. If the first day was sparse, the second day was no man’s land, with even fewer rest stops and gas stations. It was commonplace to see warning signs posted on the highway just after leaving a settlement warning that there will be no gas for the next 300 km.  Not long after the pass we crossed into the Northern Territory and the grasslands gave way to alternating desert scrub and lifeless red earth. We’d been warned not to drive between dusk and dawn due to the overabundance of kangaroos who, seeking to avoid the oppressive heat of the day, become active at that time. It was a this point that we began to see quite a lot of supporting evidence laying around.  I'm talking about roadkill, and because of our time in the outback, to this day I can say with certainty that we've seen far more dead kangaroos than living living ones. Unfortunately enough I made my contribution, though fortunately it wasn't a kangaroo which certainly would've totaled our car. No, instead it was a snake, a creature which isn't likely to elicit the same sympathy from the majority of those of you who read this.  It was a large black snake that spanned nearly both lanes of highway and by the time that I realized it wasn't a mirage it was too late and I plowed over it.  I glanced horrified in my rearview mirror to see it flipping end over end before coming to stop, still and lifeless.  I was distraught for the rest of the day.

The absolute silence of night in the Australian Outback is permeated only by the rolling thunder of a passing roadtrain, which proves somehow a peaceful lullaby drawing you in to a slumber.

We'd been driving from sunrise to sunset for two straight days and on the final day of our journey restlessness was starting to get the better both of us. We’d reached the junction with the Stuart Highway and turned north for our homestretch to Darwin.  We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the landscape begin to change again, leaving behind the lifeless desert in exchange for a green and densely wooded to tropical savannah which would continue all the way to Darwin.  It was at this point we began to see something strange, pillars of hardened earth dressed in T-shirts and caps, dresses and bonnets. We later found out that the pillars were actually termite mounds, but why dressed up like people? Who knows. Anything to break the monotony of the drive I guess.  We also began to see massive birds of prey, wedge tailed eagles, feasting on the carcasses of the kangaroos. You just gotta love the Outback, in all its wild glory :)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Great Barrier Reef

We showed up early the next morning at the Port Douglas Marina to check in for our boat and soon shoved off on another lengthy boat journey to one of the most pristine sections of the Great Barrier Reef - the Agincourt Reef.  To get the most of out this pristine area of the reef Kayleigh and I elected to give Scuba Diving a shot.  Given that neither of us is certified, we were briefed on various safety protocol on the ride out and got suited up as we approached the reef and then…Whoa! Somehow the water was even clearer than at Lady Musgrave!  Fitted with the heavy tank and weights, when the time came for us to jump in we were both laughing in a fit of nervous excitement.  There were four of us in the group to one guide and we took it slow, getting used to the feel of breathing, descending and clearing our masks.  Unfortunately we were advised against taking our camera down on the first dive to make sure we were paying attention to safety - fair enough given how uncomfortable it all was for the first 15 minutes or so.  Just when we started getting the hang of it and paying more attention to the reef than our gear it was time to surface.

Back on the boat lunch was served and we waited while the second group completed their dives before we headed off to the 2nd site of the day.  At this site we elected instead to snorkel and boy am I glad that we did! Easily the best snorkeling in my life! The color and variety of the corals and abundance of fish on display was incomparable with anything we’d seen so far on the reef!  From starfish and sea cucumbers to giant clams and sea slugs, it was a veritable treasure trove of underwater life.  One lucky lady in our group even had the fortune to see a reef shark lumbering along the bottom of the sea floor.  

Once again back on the boat and moving to our final site for the day, Kayleigh and I were juggling whether or not to give scuba diving one more shot.  How could we top the snorkeling we’d just done? Luckily we decided to give it one more go and this time it was just the two of us and our guide.  We were allowed to take the GoPro along this time and got down into the water a lot more quickly.  Almost right away after nearing the ocean floor our guide spotted a giant manta ray and hurried us along catch a glimpse of it.  As we neared, the sand stirred and we managed to catch a glimpse of it fleeing the scene.  Shortly after as we were swimming along a coral wall I gained a true appreciation of intimacy that scuba diving allows over snorkeling.  Being down there so close opened a new world of experience that went beyond just the reef itself.  The sensation of floating, of staring up at the water’s surface while it shimmered like an underwater sky, all the while being surrounded by colors and life was a surreal and serene experience.  We managed to glimpse another graceful sea turtle as well as a puffed up lion fish before happening across a pair of clown fish frolicking through some soft coral, gently swaying in the “sea breeze”. 

Overall it was the highlight of our Great Barrier Reef experience, and definitely made scuba-diving-believers out of Kayleigh and I.  There may be a scuba diving certification in our future…


Kayleigh manages to look good even underwater :p
Heaven must surely bear some resemblance

Petting a giant clam!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

New Zealand Home Videos!

For those of you who didn't get a hard copy - enjoy!

The End of the Line

Now heading north from Townsville, we were coming into the climax of our trip up Australia’s east coast.  The last major settlement along the coast was Cairns, the most famous jumping off point for one of the Natural Wonder’s of the World - The Great Barrier Reef.  Almost immediately after hitting the highway, the open dry savanna land around Townsville filled with lush greenery pushed all the way up against the sea.  The Daintree Rainforest - one of the oldest in the world - had begun.  About halfway along the 4 hour drive to Cairns we came up and over a large pass and there spread out before us was a fantastic panorama of the massive Hinchinbrook Island.  As much as I would have liked to do it, I had to pass on the Thorsborne Trail due to time.  Perhaps another trip.  By the time we arrived in Cairns and got dinner and accommodation sorted out it was nearly nightfall.  Not that it mattered much as to be honest there really isn’t much going on in Cairns which was a bit of a disappointment.  
Hinchinbrook Island
The next day we booked our tour to tour out to the Great Barrier Reef and at the suggestion of a very helpful woman at the information center we decided on a tour leaving from Port Douglas (another hour north) to the Agincourt portion of the reef.  From there we headed up to check out the beaches north of Cairns and took a stop at Palm Cove.  The town is definitely a quaint little beachside hamlet and caters well to the tourists that make up its lifeblood.  The beach itself, much like nearly ever beach we’d encountered north of the Gold Coast (sans the Whitsundays area) left something to be desired and we didn’t spend much time there before moving on.  The road from Palm Cove to Port Douglas was beautiful and hugged the coast the entire way.  It made me reminisce of driving Highway 1 in California and more than once we were enticed to stop and snap a few photos.  Port Douglas turned out to be a bigger and busier version of Palm Cove - quaint, pleasant and filled with restaurants and tourists.  A place we may have been able to enjoy were we not budget conscious backpackers :p.  A drive to the top Flagstaff Hill provided a more enjoyable experience of Four Mile Beach than the beach itself.
Palm Cove
Highway between Palm Cove and Port Douglas

Four Mile Beach from Flagstaff Hill while we were there
Four Mile Beach from Flagstaff Hill photo taken from Google - maybe we were there at the wrong time?
Since we had some time to kill before our tour to the reef we decided to head north until we hit the end of the line - Cape Tribulation.  Cape Tribulation is the popularly known as the place where the sealed East Coast Highway ends, as well as the place where the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef meet.  To get there you have to travel another 2 hours north of Port Douglas and cross the Daintree River on the car ferry.  The area north of the river is largely undeveloped rainforest with a small community living in the area.  It’s also one of the last habitats in Australia for the elusive cassowary as well as the home to an incredibly diverse array of creatures and critters. Oh and did I mention a high density of saltwater crocodiles?

As soon as we approached the ferry terminal to cross the river we were handed a crocodile warning telling us not to swim or go near the water’s edge on pain of possible death.  Fun! We stayed overnight in the rainforest on the far side of the river and I took my time walking along some trails hoping to catch a glimpse of a cassowary or a croc while enjoying the ambience of the exotic plants and trees around.  Kayleigh for the most part decided to forgo any unnecessary movement in this hot and steamy wonderland.  I don’t blame her.   

Daintree Rainforest 
Daintree Rainforest mangroves
Alien flower - cover your face! 

Cape Tribulation - Standing here I was closer to Papua New Guinea than any of Australia's capital cities
If Cape Tribulation sounded like a great place to swim think again...


Magnetic Island

Just before leaving Bowen our car started to make some weird noises and we called for a mechanic.  Turns out the noise was our cracked radiator hissing in despair.  To make things better, we couldn’t bring the car in for repairs until we spoke with the central rental office which had closed less than an hour before for the day, so we filled the car up with water best we could and made our way to the nearest holiday park.  The next day the garage and rental office had to co-ordinate the location and transportation of a replacement radiator which wasn’t to arrive until the following day, but something fantastic did come out of it for us…they put us up in a nearby motel! Yup, all the creature comforts we’d been missing on the road were suddenly at our disposal, Wi-Fi included!.  I had no idea how much I’d missed a kitchen sink until then! We set sail about midday the next day, clean from a hot water shower and computer loaded with podcasts.  I guess life is all about balance :)

From Bowen we plunged even deeper into Far North Queensland, arriving a few hours later in its regional capital of Townsville.  Townsville itself isn’t much of an interesting city - it’s most notable characteristic is the large red sandstone hill rising precipitously just beyond the city center called Castle Hill.  Like most of the cities in the far north it doesn’t have a natural beach of its own.  It’s built on the back of the mining and military money flowing into the area, and aside from the newly redeveloped waterfront area (known as the Strand) there isn’t much to the place.  Most tourists are only here for one thing - to get out to Magnetic Island just 8 km off shore.  We fit the description and we happily obliged.

Castle Hill from the Ferry
We got off to a bit of a late start, but luckily the ferry ride is just 20 minutes from Townsville and we arrived in no time.  Magnetic Island is quite the idyllic little island getaway - slow-paced and friendly and all that exotic Australia flora and fauna we know and love.  Geographically the island is a bit different from the other islands along the Australian coast, as it’s mainland origin is made pretty clear by the granite formations along the various bays and coast.  It had me thinking I was on the shores of Lake Tahoe as the blue waters shimmered and gently lapped onto the beach from which granite boulder and pine covered headlands stretched out into ocean, embracing a little piece of it to make Alma Bay.  We had a fine spaghetti lunch with some delicious pumpkin sauce in the nearby village before we took the bus to the far eastern end of the island.

Alma Bay

Alma Bay
From the island’s main settlement at Horseshoe Bay we took a hike over a low saddle and down into the remote and wonderful Radical Bay.  Coming down onto the beach felt like something out of a movie, with brilliant blue skies, swaying palms and exotic parrots singing overhead.  There were perhaps less than five people total on this big, quiet, rainforest backed beach and as we laid our towels on the sand under the shade of a nearby tree the sense of relaxation enveloped us and we spent most of the remainder of the day there.  

Approaching paradise

Radical Bay

Radical Bay
 Of course we weren’t able to make our return to the mainland without spotting some wildlife.  As we waited for the bus to take us back to the ferry terminal we caught our first glimpse of rock wallabies in the wild - two hopping across the street and into someone’s yard and another two in an empty lot across from the bus stop grazing at the edge of the forest.  Just another magical day on a magical trip.

Grazing Wallabies

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Best Beach in the World?

After our superb experience at Lady Musgrave we were thirsty for more time on the Great Barrier Reef.  We moved further north crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and made our way to Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.  The Whitsundays are an island chain belonging to the Great Barrier Marine Reserve, but these islands couldn’t be more different from Lady Musgrave.  They’re what’s known as mainland islands - that is to say that they are connected to the continent of Australia underwater.  During the last ice age they were a high forested mountain range connected to the now Conway National Park on the mainland.  When the sea levels rose the low valleys were flooded leaving just the tips of the mountains exposed above the water, creating a perfect island paradise for us to enjoy.  In addition, we’d reached an a latitude far enough north that the outer GBR had begun to temper the fierce swells of the open ocean, making passage to and between the islands a sanctuary against sea sickness and a popular place to set sail.

A few of the Whitsunday Islands from the mainland
The first half of our day trip was spent snorkeling in the northern bays of Hook Island.  The first stop was Maureen's Cove where the experience was similar to that of Lady Musgrave minus the turtles.  There was tons of beautiful coral and loads of fish life, but it was at the second site that we got our unique and exciting experience.  In Manta Ray Bay, the sea life was a little…larger.  OK, a lot larger.  When we pulled into the bay the skipper through some bait into the water and we all watched as a school of giant bat fish shot up to the surface in a blur to grab some grub.  With the second toss of the bait, an even more giant man-sized Maori Wrasse fish arrived to grab his share.  Soon we were all off into the water splashing about with plenty of shouts as the fish deftly darted between us to grab the pellets being thrown into the water by the skipper.  The fish certainly weren’t bashful, often times coming well within arms reach as you watched halfway between elation and discomfort (we’re talking fish the size of your torso or bigger).

Kayleigh Fish
Bat Fish
The only photo I was able to grab of the Maori Wrasse

Bat Fish going for some bait 

With the excitement behind us we made our way to the namesake of the islands, Whitsunday Island.  Whitsunday Island is the largest island in the chain and is almost entirely national park.  The east coast of the island is home to Whitehaven Beach which is reputed by many to be one of the ten best beaches on Earth.  It was here that we were to spend the remainder of our day, on pristine white sand and gently lapping waves.  Just before lunch we made our way up the short walk to the Hill Inlet Lookout where we were greeted with a view so beautiful it didn’t seem that it could be real.  I’m still not sure I even believe it.  See for yourself.

Disembarking into bliss
Whitehaven Beach 
Hill Inlet from the lookout - Yes, it actually does look like that
It isn’t often that anything lives up to the hype built up around it, especially when it’s claiming something as extraordinary as “one of the top ten beaches on Earth”, but in this case I’d say that it does.  It’s easily one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen, ranking up there with Hanalei Bay on Kauai.  Beauty? In spades.  Clean? Pristine.  Sand? As close to velvet as ground rock can get, and with an ocean perfect for swimming.  To make the package even better, you can camp on the beach for only $5pp per night!  Needless to say, I’d come back in a heartbeat.

Just for some added value I’ll tell you about a few off the beaten track gems in the region.  Cedar Creek Falls is a beautiful waterfall well worth the time it takes to get there.  If you’re into cliff diving, its a great spot for it with easy access to the top of the ~12m (36ft) falls and a deep plunge pool below.  After apprehensively watching a few people take the plunge I finally decided I had to do it.  Even if cliff diving isn’t your thing, the plunge pool is a wonderful place for a swim in the hot tropical weather. 

Cedar Creek Falls
Lastly, the township of Bowen is about an hour north of Airlie Beach and boasts some beautiful beaches worth a visit.  Unlike done-up Airlie Beach which has no beaches of its own and seems overrun with young gap year backpackers, Bowen is an unassuming place where you can relax at a beach alongside real Australians. Specifically, the Edgecumbe Heights Recreation Reserve is where the noteworthy beaches are hiding.  We spent the better part of a day enjoying Horseshoe Bay.  A nice cafe backs up against the beach and some nice walking trails head up onto the headland for some sweeping lookouts.  What else could you possibly need?

Horseshoe Bay 
The coastline near Bowen