Whistlestop Tours: Brisbane and Noosa

After Tuesday’s ten hours of riding, building fences and avoiding snakes, Wednesday was a dedicated beach day. The Byron beach is stunning; miles of cool, white sand, with turquoise blue waters, and the faint silhouette of blue mountain ranges in the distance. I was meant to be moving onto Surfers Paradise today, but leaving Byron didn’t feel like an option, and most of what I’d heard about Surfers wasn’t complimentary.

Instead, I spent the day reading on the beach. My Kindle has been an absolute life saver out here: at home, I’m not the biggest fan of e-books and e-readers, I much prefer to have a paper copy in my hands. However, buying books out here would mean either throwing them afterwards, or leaving them at hostels – neither of which was very appealing (I don’t throw/give books away, ever). At the speed I read, it would also mean I’d have very little money for anything else. Books are insanely expensive out here: you pay about a minimum of $20. So, I’m forced to use everyone’s least favourite corporation, Amazon. I’m pretty sure taking this time off and going travelling was subconsciously a way for me to catch up on the three-billion books I have on my to-read list.

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Anyway, back to Byron. That night we headed out to Cheeky Monkey’s, Byron’s version of Arena (Exeter), Spin Bar (Wokingham), and Q-Bar (Reading). Awful music, some questionable attendees and pricey drinks mean there’s only one way to go there, and that’s very, very drunk. Instead of having a normal dance floor, you dance on metal picnic benches, which I’m not sure I could have navigated sober, but turned out to be incredibly easy after half a box of goon (Australia’s boxed wine. The most disgusting tasting drink in the universe, but the only thing I can afford).

So, I wake up in the morning feeling really quite awful, and proceed to do a number of things that are never, ever a good idea after a night of drinking:

1. Get my nose pierced
This was something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and after being recommended a certain place in Byron by a few people, figured I may as well get it done. Didn’t figure that getting it done while having very thin blood due to drinking would be an awful idea. The guy who did it was great, and spoke to me in the same voice I use to calm the horses down. Haha.

2. Go for a walk
Usually, exercise in general (namely riding and electric fencing) is the one thing I can rely on to get rid of a hangover. However, it’s always done at a leisurely pace, with many food, drink and nap breaks, and rarely in 28-degree heat. Byron Bay has a beautiful lighthouse that sits at the most eastern point of mainland Australia. I’d been meaning to go up to it, so when a group of people from the hostel said they were going, I joined in. It was a stunning walk, with incredible views of crystal clear waters and playing dolphins, but when you have a new hole in your nose, haven’t eaten in almost two days and a hangover that’s slowly creeping up on you, doing anything in temperatures over 25-degrees is a bad idea. Not only was it swelteringly hot, but there was a climb of about 1,000 steep steps to get up there.

3. Decide to re-pack and re-organise your bag
At home, I rarely throw any clothes away. I’m sure that somewhere, buried deep within my cupboards, are clothes I didn’t wear when I was seven, let alone now. Out here, however, it’s a very different story. I adopted Sophie’s ‘one in one out’ policy, so for everything new I buy, something gets chucked out. It turns out that when I’m hungover and tired, I’m unnecessarily ruthless. I now have barely any clothes left, and to make matters worse, got half-way through repacking, got bored, and fell asleep in a nice nest of approximately two pairs of shorts and four t-shirts.

A five-ish hour bus journey awaited me at 6.50am on Friday morning, to take me up to Brisbane for the next day and night. I’ve been travelling on a hop-on, hop-off bus pass with Greyhound, that lets me get on anywhere between Sydney and Cairns, as long as I go in one direction, and it’s turned out to be brilliant. It’s cheap (especially if you have an IH/YHA card), and stops off at the best places on the east coast. However, Greyhound seem to have a very odd theory: for their long, boring night-bus journeys, they supply you with an old coach, fitted with itchy fabric seats that don’t recline. For short, day-time journeys, however, you ride on plush leather seats that go almost horizontal, you’re given charging spots, and on some buses, you’ll even have the option to pay for WiFi. Not sure how they decided to do it that way round, but there you go.

Due to spending more time in Byron, I’d decided to skip Surfers Paradise, and as we drove past, I was glad I made that decision. Surfers is almost identical to Spain, with its large skyscrapers and apartment blocks on the beach, and while I can see the pull for schoolies week, I’ve never been more relieved to have gone with my gut instinct. The journey from Byron to Brisbane was along the Pacific Highway, meaning we stuck to the coast for most of it The landscape was like something on a postcard, and five hours flew past.

I’d already decided to leave Surfers out in favour of extra time in Byron – and was so glad I went with my gut instinct on this. As we drove past the looming skyscrapers and white sandy beach, all I could think of was Spain – you could have been driving down any coastal road in the country. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain, but it’s two hours from home; it’s easy enough to get to, whereas there’s nowhere in the world quite like Byron.

There was one thing and one thing only that I wanted to do in Brisbane, and that was get to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and cuddle a koala. It was ANZAC Day when I arrived, so navigating buses was harder than usual (in fact, finding the thing was the trickiest: bus stops in Brisbane are underground). Lone Pine is the oldest and one of the biggest koala sanctuaries in the country, and had deals on for backpackers: entry was $28 and a photo with a koala was $16. Brisbane is also home to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, but ticket prices started at $58, and in all honesty, I find the entire thing a bit macabre.

Koalas are cute, there’s no denying that, but nothing can prepare you for how they wrap their furry arms around your neck, sit their squat, heavy bottom in your hands, and smell of a jungle of eucalyptus trees. Had I been swooning less, the koala and I would have made a run for it. On top of cuddling a koala, you can feed kangaroos, wallabies and emus in an open field, watch bird shows, and feed rosellas.

After a night out in Brisbane (with the world’s tastiest pizza and the world’s worst clubs), it was time to move onto Noosa for a day. My parents took me to the coastal town just after I was born, so 23 years later, I arrived for the second time, but slightly taller and slightly more tanned. I have to say, I wasn’t bowled over by the place. The hostel was a let down and while the beach was nice enough, it was no Byron. Most people do the Everglades from Noosa, but on my tight schedule, I only had time for a day on the beach (tough life, tell me about it).

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Parrots and panic attacks

As most people who know me can tell you, I’ve always preferred animals to people, so it was taken for granted that my travels were going to include a lot of nature. Australia’s wildlife is so far removed from home; seeing cockatoos, rosellas and galahs flying around the back-garden is ever so slightly different to the normal flocks of blackbirds, pigeons and magpies at home.

My last week in the Mornington Peninsula was chock-full of plants, birds, animals and trees, starting with a visit to Australia Gardens, the botanic gardens in Cranbourne. I’m not the biggest fan of looking at hedges and flowers, but these were landscaped in such a beautiful way that it felt less like trawling through a garden centre, and more like exploring different parts of the Australian bush. From red sand deserts to waterfalls and wetlands, Australia Gardens incorporated segments of the country into a bitesize section.

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Next up was Healesville Animal Sanctuary. I can never decide how I feel about zoos: is it ever acceptable to keep a wild animal locked up, in a country it isn’t native to? Main example being Calgary Zoo – animals like lions and zebras were living in minus temperatures (and housed next to each other; the male lions were agitatedly pacing up and down the wire fence, staring at the lone zebra opposite them). However, Healesville is different. It only keeps animals native to Australia, and in enclosures suited to their size. It has a huge emphasis on conservation, and much of the park is geared towards education: even the birds of prey and parrots in the Spirit of the Sky demonstration (which is definitely worth watching), come with a message of ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ (which is about asking people to buy recycled loo roll, to save on the millions of trees destroyed every year).

What impressed me the most was the Tasmanian Devil work. While many zoos boast brilliant conservation schemes, I’ve yet to hear about any that work – or that release back into the wild (although this is partly due to the fact I don’t do much research on zoos). At Healesville, they’re working to repopulate Tasmania with the near-extinct animal, and are doing well at combating the contagious facial cancer that destroyed so many of the species. The animal, despite its name and reputation, is obscenely cute. We met a young female who was hand-raised, and due to this, followed the handler around like some weird cat-dog hybrid. She won’t be released, but her future children will.

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After a brief visit with a pet dingo (the next reason on my ‘why I should move to Australia’ list), I went for a swim with seals and dolphins. Here’s a bit of background information you should know: I can’t swim very well; doggy paddle is the only stroke I’ve mastered, and I’m as happy in water as a cat in the bath. Despite this, it sounded like a good idea, and we set off into Port Philip Bay.

Decked out in a wetsuit, flippers and a snorkel, I sat on the gently bobbing boat and wondered how hard all of this could actually be: the sea was calm, all you have to do is kick, and the distance between the boat and the first dive spot (a hut structure swarming with seals) was minimal. The instructors offered us foam noodles and buoyancy aids, but feeling rather positive about the whole thing, I slid off the boat with nothing.

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As soon as I hit the water, I realised this was possibly the stupidest decision I’d ever made, and I was most likely going to drown as a. the water was actually very wavey and the two colliding tides very strong, b. there was nothing to grab on to, c. I cannot swim, and d. the instructor and the seal hut was about two-million miles away. Luckily survival mode kicked in, and I managed to doggy paddle for my life in the direction of inflatable help, and only disappeared beneath the surface a few times. At one point, I almost grabbed hold of a seal for help, but realised there have been no animal-rescue films involving seals. Had it been a dolphin, orca or dog, things may have been different.

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So, despite a rocky start, once I found myself a foam noodle and paired up with a couple from England, I felt a lot calmer, and could enjoy the sights of the seals. They were completely unafraid of us, and spent half an hour looping around us, swimming beneath us, and playing with our flippers, their graceful, sleek bodies cutting through the waves.
Once we finished with the seals, it was off for more dolphin spotting (unsuccessful), and another swim in a marine park. As the water was much calmer, swimming was easier and almost fun. Snorkelling took a while to get used to, but the novelty of seeing underwater outweighed the fact I forgot how to breathe. I may have survived, but sadly my camera didn’t – so if anyone knows where the best (and cheapest) place to get a decent digital camera in Melbourne is, please let me know!

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Water is so far out of my comfort zone: I love to sail, but being in it – well, it terrifies me. However, I did the swim, I survived and am now contemplating a scuba dive with sharks.