Well, we successfully made it to Sydney, driving south from Cairns nearly 4000 km, all on the wrong side of the road (sorry Brit-types!). Driving from the passenger seat takes some serious getting used to, and we’re both inclined to use our left hands to put on the turning signal – this results in a clean windshield, but doesn’t do much for the driver behind you! I’ve never been one to claim to be a “car-lover” and I’m not about to go out a buy a new Corolla, but driving in Oz has certainly given me a new appreciation for traveling by car.
Now, this appreciation was further enhanced by the experience we had touring the infamous Fraser Island. Fraser is the largest sand island in the world – and literally, it is one massive sand dune, dotted with a few crystal clear freshwater lakes and streams, and tracts of bush and rainforest. For 3 days, we, and 9 other travelers, piled into a rented Land Cruiser 4x4 and drove along endless stretches of beach (the “highway”) and plowed through inland tracks of rutted dirt and thick sand. We made plenty of stops for swimming and lounging on the beach, soaking up the beautiful December summer weather. Our group got along well, and we enjoyed the experience of pulling in among the dunes and setting up camp in this unique wilderness.
Although it’s a very popular tourist destination, you can still get the feeling of being in the wild - a guest in the land of the dingos. Jeannine and I benefited from the fact that we were 2 of only 4 drivers in the group (not everybody could meet the rental requirements), so we both had our fair share of 4 wheel driving. There’s a great feeling of power you get at the wheel of a 4WD, hammering through terrain that is foreign to most drivers of the standard compact vehicle (a la Mazda Protégé). Too bad we had to get back in our little Toyota when we hit the mainland!
Small and gutless as it may be, our Corolla got us safely to our next stop at Eungella National Park, with the main purpose of our visit being to see the native platypus. We set up camp along a river and perched along the shores in hope of seeing these shy creatures. With patience, and employing the full capacity of our zoom lens, we managed to snap some great photos of one of the duck-billed creatures that was nesting in the riverbed near our campsite. In the evening and early morning, he circled in the waters of the stream, surfacing for air, and diving to hunt for food, his route marked by a trail of air bubbles.
Our route further south took us into the prime beachlands of the state of Queensland. We lounged at trendy Noosa for a couple of days, and went koala spotting in the nearby National Park (we saw two). From there, we camped along the infamous Gold Coast, and visited Surfer’s Paradise, despite the warnings of our Aussie friends. For those of you not familiar, the madness of “Surfers” is an area of coastal settlement resembling the tackiness of Niagara Falls, mixed with high-rise hotels, Yankee-style amusement parks, and all fronted by beautiful beach. It’s way overdone, but was a fun stop nonetheless.
The traveller’s beachside mecca, Byron Bay was the next stop on our agenda. It became quite clear to us that this was a very popular place to spend the Christmas holidays, when we attempted to find a hostel room for one night. After much searching, we found a decent place, complete with bunk beds! It was another great location for relaxing on the sand, and playing in the waves. Body boarding was great fun, but this being Australia, I had to test myself at surfing. Jeannine stuck to the bodyboard, and as the chaffing on my chest can attest, she was the smarter of the two of us for that choice. Amongst the throngs of beginners at Byron, I fit right in: a great deal of physical exertion, lots of salt water consumed, and very meager results in the actual surfing category. Although not my first time at the sport, I did have a few minor victories at riding some waves, in between some classic wipeouts. I can’t say I won’t try again, but I’m quite certain that I’ll better suited for sports that involve water that is frozen.
For two other days, we set up camp in a caravan park just off of 7 km long Tallow Beach. The area we stayed in just south of Byron Bay was called Broken Head and was an incredible location. The massive stretch of golden sand was a short stroll from our tented home, and a trail linked our beach with a series of other smaller, more remote beaches within the adjacent nature reserve. On the night of December 23, a local church group led a Christmas caroling session in the park. It’s a bit strange to be singing “Frosty the Snowman” in the heat of summer.
On the advice of some fellow travelers, we made our way to the ocean side town of Forster, 3 hours north of Sydney. We decided to avoid the madness of the big city on Christmas – not to mention the headache of finding accommodation. Along the way south, we stopped for a lunch break and returned to our car to find a large, 8 legged visitor on the windshield. Now, if the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin were there, he’d have picked up the spider and given him a kiss. We of course, were terrified that this specimen was one of the countless venomous species in Australia and made great attempts to “shoo” him off of the car (with a long stick). I wasn’t successful, and Spidey crept into the underbody of the car and out of sight. Thinking that he'd likely crept off, our hairy friend must have stowed away for the 200 km journey, because I found myself using a broom to sweep him off the hood of the car when we did reach our destination in Forster.
Forster was a beautiful town with a great stretch of beach and we found a quaint cottage-like place to stay. It was definitely an Aussie holiday spot (no internet cafes anywhere), so we resolved to have a quiet (and unique) Christmas in our temporary home. It was most strange to walk outside on December 25 in a pair of surf shorts. Our afternoon spent on the beach was a unique experience for us, but seemed to be the norm here, as countless families crowded the beautiful beach for their Christmas Day gatherings. Although there are plenty of wild turkeys here, it didn’t seem to be the meal of choice when visiting the supermarket, so we opted for a bit of surf and turf for Xmas dinner…cooked the only way it could be in Australia – on the barbie!
After a few days in Forster, we made our way inland for a few days exploring the wine region of the Hunter Valley, and then onto the Blue Mountains. Like the Canadian version, these hills may not qualify as true mountains to some, but the beautiful rock formations and surrounding valleys are great sights to see. Unfortunately, bushfires have caused the closing of many trails, so our original plans for a backpacking outing were curtailed.
Two days before New Year’s Eve, we were still uncertain as to our plans to ring in 2003, as our idea to camp on the coast was squashed by a national park cancellation of permits due to more bushfires. Knowing that Sydney was virtually booked out for the holidays, Jeannine made a flurry of desperation phone calls to a hostels before finding a room in a place in the heart of the city. We’ve spent about a week in that same place, enjoying great hospitality in a prime location. There is so much to see here, and we’ve only scratched the surface, but it’s easy to see why people rave about Sydney.
Of course, our love for Sydney is influenced by the fact that we were here to experience the atmosphere of New Year’s Eve in the harbour. Everyone is familiar with the famous opera house and looming behind it, the trademark bridge. During the day, the Sydney Harbour is a hub of activity and a sight to behold, but it is even more eye-catching when it’s lit up by the explosives of fireworks. Despite the fact that thousands of people were claiming their grassy seats for the “show” nearly 8 hours before midnight, Jeannine and I found a place on the water in clear view of the magical light show. If you didn’t catch the highlights on the world news, it was an amazing sight to see and something neither one of us will forget.