Fraser Island: Four-Wheel Driving, Harley, and Learning to Swim

Did anyone watch that pseudo-reality show aired on T4 about ten years ago, ‘Shipwrecked’? Well, being on a Dingo’s tour of Fraser Island was like a much funnier, less dramatic, and more adventurous version of that. This post is either going to ramble into a novel-length entry, jumping from the hilarious people I met, the breathtaking beauty of the island, and pointless facts or I’ll fail entirely at documenting what was one of my favourite three days in Australia, and just leave you with photographic evidence.

I never planned to do Fraser Island when I started my journey up the east coast, but I can safely say it was the best decision I made, and best amount of money I spent (apart from the $30 on cuddling that koala).

Becky from Byron managed to end up on the same tour as me, so armed with goon, hired sleeping bags and bikinis, we got comfortable in the lead car. The tour is organised into four-wheel drives of eight people each, with drivers swapping between the group, so everyone who wants to drive, can. We were put in the lead car, meaning a professional driver-slash-tour guide would be in with us. Though slightly disappointed at first, we realised that a. we wouldn’t have to battle out who is the least drunk and therefore has to drive in the morning, and b. our driver would be least likely to hit a dingo/roll in the sea/crash the car.

Before we left the hostel, we were made to watch a dubious video about the dangers of Fraser Island (a government created document – and you could tell), and from this, the only piece of information anyone on the entire tour took away was that if you see a dingo, you cover your nipples. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work, and actually you kick sand in their faces, and/or talk to them. Dingoes on Fraser were a growing issue: people were feeding them and letting them get friendly (basically assuming they’re dogs), which in turn was making them too confident around humans. Attacks increased, and dingoes were killed as a result. Now, if rangers on the island see dingoes interacting with humans, they’re hunted down and shot – so staying away from them had as much to do with our safety as it did theirs.

Our first stop was meant to be Lake McKenzie, but after one car driving with its handbrake on, flooding the clutch and running out of fuel, Geoff (our driver/tour guide/general rounder-upper) rerouted and we went to Lake Wabby instead. Armed with the directions of “follow the path, pass a desert and roll down a sand dune”, we set off for a 2k hike through rainforest, brief stint by an actual desert (not just the strip of sand we’d been expecting), bu refrained on rolling down the giant sand dune. Lake Wabby was stunning, and we spent an hour swimming (or not, in my case), and avoiding the giant catfish.

Once we left Wabby, we ventured over to our campsite. Every camp on Fraser has a 9pm curfew, but the hostels we were with had secured space on Aboriginal land, who gave us permission to have electricity and noise until midnight. The site, K’Gari, had two rules: no whistling at night, and no spitting into fire. Aborigines believe this invites the spirits of their ancestors to join the living, and no one wants that, really. With floodlights, a sheltered cooking and eating area, covered sections filled with tents and its own night-club (i.e. a wooden shack with an iPod jack and flashing lights), it seemed like luxury compared to what I thought we were getting. The toilets were great festival prep, as was washing in lakes rather than showers.

As Australia’s now in winter, the light left us at about 5pm, so naturally the goon came out. That night there was whistling (once), some hilarious drinking games and a night-time venture to the beach, armed with giant sticks (basically a tree in one case) to fend off dingos. The stars on Fraser were insane: you can see everything from the Milky Way to a couple of planets (maybe). I saw a couple of shooting stars as well.

Before we started drinking, Geoff had assured us of “an easy morning” – to take our time, have a lie-in. So we tried, but this is very hard to do, when at 7.15am someone has opened up a car and began to play Christian rock through the sound-system. I can’t remember the last time I swore so much before 8am, and as everyone was feeling rather slow, breakfast took about two hours. Geoff was going a bit spare at this point, but therein lies the lesson: don’t give us the chance to have an easy morning, and expect lightening fast responses at the same time.

He’d also promised us the best place for hangovers – and there, he did not let us down. We arrived at a lazy river, with the instructions to 1. get past the minute-mark, 2. lie on our backs, and 3. look at the sky. It turned out that you could float all the way down this creek to the start of the estuary, and I can truly say I’ve never had a hangover vanish as quickly, or been that relaxed. After confessing that I can’t actually swim (bar an impressive doggy-paddle), various friends started attempting to teach me how to vaguely stay afloat without looking quite as special.

After Geoff dragged us away from the creek, we visited a shipwreck on the beach, and headed back to camp for lunch. As we were in the lead car, we weren’t allowed to drive, due to it being a lot bigger, and some other technical reasons that I didn’t really listen to. To give us the same chance as everyone else, we could hop in with other groups, so I left Becky, and joined a car full of friends. It’s possibly not a great idea to get in a car and have to sit perched on the edge in order to reach the peddles, and even less confidence-filling to ask where the brakes are.

Nevertheless, I found the brakes, figured out how to drive on sand (ish, anyway. Terrifying. “Let go of the steering wheel and rev the shit out of it” sounded like how-to-kill-a-car-full-of-people advice, not driving advice – but it worked), and got us to the next destination in one piece. As we parked up, Geoff gestured to the top of a cliff face, announcing that we were going up there. Clearly he mistook us all for human-mountain-goat hybrids, as the only way up was going via the rocky side. I must have spent enough time with Sophie to have had her weirdly sure-footed mountain-climbing skills rub off on me, and luckily I got up – and down – with little trouble. Considering I’m usually the one tripping over particles of dust, I was pretty proud.

We were at Indian Heads – the second most easterly point of Australia, and the best place to look out over the island. The views were great, sitting on the cliff edge was scary, but the highlight was Harley.

So, some background information. Harley has been living on Fraser Island for three months. Three months without any contact with the outside world, bar the tour guides and tourists, only having been kicked off Fraser once to be tested (I won’t spell out what he was being tested for). Harley comes from a place in western Canada that’s home to some of the hippiest-hippies in the world, and he speaks like the creepy “take my strong hand” guy in one of the ‘Scary Movie’ films. Harley is without doubt one of a kind – something we put down to smoking too much weed (although he only does this after dinner). We heard many, many stories about Harley (all of which I won’t repeat on here), but yeah, if you go to Fraser, make sure you meet him (but don’t get too close).

The second night followed much the same pattern as the first: although Becky and I took the scripted menu into our own hands that night, and deviated from potato-salad and steak, to chips and steak (fried in everyone’s favourite cooking wine. Delish).

On our third day, we finally saw Lake McKenzie (and were infinitely grateful to Geoff for taking us on the jungle hike when we weren’t hungover). Nothing can prepare you for McKenzie, not the pictures, not the blogs, not what people say. There are more shades of blue than I thought possible: the lightest, almost white edge of the lake on the white shore, to the inky blackness of the lake’s centre. It’s some of the purest water in the world, and the sand is well known for its antiseptic qualities (and ability to whiten your teeth).

Becky took it upon herself to teach me a halfway decent swimming stroke, and by the end of my mini-lesson (soon to be repeated by Shelley at Airlie Beach), I almost looked graceful in the water. Almost. McKenzie was the perfect place to end a perfect three days with some hilarious, brilliant people.

 

 

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The Best Place in the Universe: Byron Bay

There is possibly nowhere in the world quite like Byron Bay. From ponies protesting about oil mining, to stoned couples giggling on the beach, it’s entirely removed from normality. The small town has an abundance of surf shops, tie-dye havens and bars, and is so chilled out, I’m surprised anything gets done. From the moment I stepped off the bus, every last shred of worry, self-doubt and general insecurities evaporated; this is a place that doesn’t have time for negativity.

I’m in Byron over its annual Blues & Roots festival, which would have been great to go to, but at $180 for a day ticket, would also have blown my budget out for this week. Due to this, the entire town is non-stop, crowds of people meandering their way around the high-street and beach.

The people are what make this town so brilliant: from a Canadian explaining her normal nights out (“do a line, do a line, have sex with the guy whose house it is, do a line, do a line, have a dance, do a line, lose your friends, do a line, have sex in the kitchen, do a line, do a line”), to convincing an Australian who fancied himself as a bit of a Heath Ledger type (sadly just in his own head), to strut across a picnic bench, recreating everyone’s favourite scene from ’10 Things I Hate About You’. After a night involving a box of goon, sitting on the beach in the dark, watching Spurs play at ridiculous o’clock, and managing to get lost in Australia’s smallest town, my first night in Byron was the best introduction to a new place.

The next day, my roommate, Becky, and I headed out to Nimbin. Nimbin is about an hour and a half from Byron, but hasn’t progressed out of the 60s and 70s. Its a hippy commune, and tie-dye, organic food, hemp and anti-Government mantras rule the town. It has a very blatant stance on weed, and seeing as it was 4/20 when we visited, we caught it at its best. The town has a small police station, but I can’t believe it gets used much: you get offered weed or cookies every few metres.

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When horse-riding on the beach is in every top-ten-things-to-do-in-Byron list, it makes perfect sense to book in for one, and have one last ride before coming home. A local company called Seahorses was topping all of the reviews and Google searches, so after a quick phone call, and being roped in to get the horses ready, I was set. A 7.30 wake up call was a slight shock to the system, but I’d been missing early mornings with the horses, and seeing as the sun was out and the temperature rising, late mornings in bed seem like a waste these days.

So, I turn up at the Seahorses ranch, catch four ponies, get all the gear together, load them onto the box, and head for Brunswick Heads, a beach further down the coast than Byron’s main beach. We were due to meet two other girls at the beach, so we got ourselves and the horses ready, and waited. And then waited some more. And a bit more after that, until Jo, who runs Seahorses, phoned the girl up. Turns out she’d forgotten, and therefore wasn’t coming. We then had the predicament of two riders and four horses – and no one to drive the lorry and the two spare horses back. Instead, it turned into a ride and lead session; not quite the gallop-along-a-beach experience I’d hoped for – made all the more sour by miles of deserted, white sand.

Either way, my pony, Curly, was a sweetheart, and after convincing him it was ok to canter away from the group, we did a lot of playing around. By the end of the ride he was leg yielding across the sand (made easier by trying to get away from the incoming tide), and working nicely on the bit – so much so that Jo said I was more than welcome to school and compete him, if only I lived here (which she then attempted to sort out by offering me a job as a ride leader in her soon to be developed campsite, in the Byron Hinterlands).

On returning to the ranch, Jo asked if I wanted to help round the remaining horses up and move them to a different paddock, and seeing as I had nothing better to do than lying on the beach all day, it was a pretty sweet option. So, I get handed a new pony, and take off at break-neck speeds with the ranch’s resident cowboy (who was in fact the owner of the anti-fracking pony I met on my first day here). Once the horses were sent on their way, we had a gallop through the cross-country course, and despite losing my stirrups several times (not a great idea riding in pumps), and having to make quick diversions away from A-grade jumps, it made me that much more excited about going home, and getting to do this every day.

I have rarely, if ever, been on a yard where the words ‘electric fencing’ have gone unmentioned for more than a few hours, so it was no surprise that that was the next job I was sent off to do. Suddenly, fencing at home is appealing: there are no 50-acre paddocks, or areas of grass that are “a bit snakey”. The day finished with a bareback ride on Curly, and promises to keep in touch, whenever I’m back in the country.

Sydney: Ticking off the Tourist Stops

Seeing as my time in Sydney was so limited, I didn’t have the chance to get to know it like Melbourne – and I wasn’t overly bothered about doing so either. Sydney is a gorgeous city; the views, city skyline, awesome beaches, and of course the Opera House are stunning, but for me, that was where it ended.

As soon as the rain cleared up and the sun came out, I headed straight for the sights: the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. While you can climb the bridge itself, I didn’t fancy passing out from vertigo and scaring myself to death, so I walked along the pathway instead. Exploring The Rocks was next: the old buildings and classic architecture was a nice break from sleek, steel skyscrapers. As I walked around the Opera House, crowds of well-dressed, suited people started to descend on the area, and I left. Turns out that Kate, Will and the baby were visiting – you really can’t escape the royal family.

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The first half of my week in the city was rainy, grey and cold, so I spent the morning exploring the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the various exhibitions it was featuring. I love art galleries, but mainly for people watching: what paintings or installations people are drawn to; how long they spend with certain pieces compared to others; what ones they avoid entirely; how they engage with the piece in front of them. Seeing as it was the Easter holidays, there were plenty of people around, and a lot of thought provoking pieces of art. It’s free to look around, and you can easily spend hours inside; the building moves you around of its own accord.

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After we had finished at the gallery, a friend of my mum’s took me to a spot you wouldn’t normally associate with Sydney: there were no white sandy beaches, surfers, girls in bikinis or spectacular horizons, but a ferocious cliff edge, and high wire fences. The Gap, a cluster of rocky cliff edges, is notorious for its synonymy with suicidal jumpers, and it’s easy to see why. I visited on a grey, stormy day, the weather suiting the mood of the park perfectly. It was austere and unforgiving, and unsurprisingly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite places.

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As we drove back into the city, the sun began to set behind the Harbour Bridge, streaks of vivid orange breaking through the white-washed sky. Though it wasn’t the scene you get on the front of postcards, it was breathtaking all the same: a constant reminder of how beautiful Sydney is.

Next up on my whistlestop tour of Sydney, was Manly and Taronga Zoo. I caught the ferry over to Manly, a quick 30-minute journey across the bay. No matter what form of transport you’re used to using, catching the ferry is a definite must: the views you get of the city as you move further away are incredible. Being back on the beach was exactly what I needed: Sydney is a lot more ‘cityish’ than Melbourne: it has London’s unfriendliness, and it was a shock to the system seeing people walk around wearing make-up and smart clothes again. Manly’s a brilliant town: a beautiful beach – and enough of them to keep you occupied for a while – a cluster of surf shops and ice cream cafes, and a selection of buzzy bars, already full in the early afternoon.

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Everyone I’ve met has raved about Taronga Zoo, so it was top of my list of things to do in Sydney. Admission was pricey at $44, but it was worth paying just for the views of the city alone. Taronga’s built around a hill, so looking over the city and across the water is like looking at a postcard – especially with tall ships sailing around the Opera House. It’s an immaculate zoo, with beautiful grounds and well-taken care of animals. The highlight of the day was the bird show: eagles, owls, galahs and cockatoos soared around the mini amphitheatre, demonstrating their hunting abilities – or their personalities (I would very much like to train a cockatoo to take gold coins off people).

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No visit to Sydney would be complete with going to Bondi (and my brother was fanboying over Bondi Beach Rescue or whatever the show is). It’s easy enough to get there from the CBD: either take a bus, a train and a bus, or a train and walk. I chose to get the train to Bondi Junction, then walk from there as the weather was so lovely – although on the steep walk back, I was slightly regretting it. As it was Good Friday, the beach (and buses) were packed. A long, sloped lawn with plenty of shade sits in front of the beach itself, ideal for those who don’t fancy sitting in the sun or on the sand all day. I’m sure I could have made my first TV debut and gone for a swim (and therefore nearly drowned/been rescued by lifeguards/made it onto the show), but the size of the waves made the possibility of actually drowning a bit too likely.

Watching the surf, and the surfers (though sadly no lifeguards, sorry bro), made me realise how much I’m going to miss this: for the last almost three months I’ve never been more than 30 minutes from a beach. Going home will be strange.

Sydney was different: I don’t think I gave myself enough time to properly explore the city, and I never felt that instant connection with it like I did with Melbourne. Everything was too normal: women were wearing make-up, people wore normal clothes, and it was about as unfriendly as London can be. Next up is Byron Bay, and judging from what I’ve heard, I may never leave.

Sydney’s Backgarden: The Blue Mountains

Drive for just under two hours from Sydney’s CBD, and you’ll assume you’ve been travelling months on end as you arrive at the start of the Blue Mountains. Despite being so close to the city, with various train and bus lines running to the area, I decided to book onto a tour instead. For $79, OzTrails would pick you up first thing in the morning, give you breakfast of sorts, and take you to a selection of sites around the mountains, before putting you onto a boat in the evening, for a ride through Sydney harbour. If I wasn’t on my own, I’d love to explore the region in more depth, but many of the best vantage points are a decent drive away from each other, and I don’t have the confidence (or money) to hire a 4×4 and go alone.

So, at 8.20 the next morning, we got on a very battered, well used mini-bus and headed out of the city. Our guide, Nick, was brilliant. Growing up in the area, and being of Aboriginal descent meant he gave us much more than the typical tourist spiels – but more on that later.

Nick briefed us on the area on the drive over, explaining that only 8% of the 11,000 kilometre forest has been explored (to give you an idea of size, the Blue Mountains are just over half the size of Belgium), and considering it’s home to five out of 10 of the world’s most dangerous snakes, and the world’s most dangerous spider, I’m not surprised. However, thanks to Australia’s world-class venom and antidote knowledge, no one has died of a spider or snake bite in five years.

In fact, Australia’s most dangerous animal doesn’t have scales, and doesn’t have eight legs. In the country’s 240 year history, this animal has killed over 10,600 people. At this point, I was beginning to think there was some terrible dark side to the koala or kangaroo, until Nick revealed it’s the horse. Ah. Killer of ten-thousand people they may be, but I’d much rather take my chances with Rodney than a funnel web spider.

We arrived at our first stop, Wentworth Falls, and piled out of the bus into glorious blue skies and warming temperatures. Considering that the mountains have had nothing but rain for over three weeks, everything was vivid green – and I finally got to see sunshine after almost two weeks of grey skies.

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The UNESCO world heritage site has over 120km of visibility; the reason behind the mountains appearing blue. Over large distances, our eyes struggle to distinguish between green and blue, so any green mountain ranges seen from far away will look blue – and due to just how green this area is, the blue is even more vivid.

Our next stop was ScenicWorld: home of the steepest railway line in the world. It cost $35 to get into the park, but the price included a trip on the railway down to the bottom of the ranges, a ride on the world’s steepest cable car back up to the top, and a trip over the valley. Considering these were the best ways to see the Three Sisters and Katoomba Falls, it seemed well worth it.

When we got to the railway, Nick asked for four people to sit at the front. Not really thinking about the whole ‘world’s steepest railway’ part, I momentarily forgot about my fear of heights and headed down. It wasn’t until we were strapped into the train that I realised just how steep it was: there was no track, just a hole in the mountain that we’d drop through. The Star Wars theme tuned started up, and the train began its vertical descent.

After an agonisingly slow ride to the bottom, we all leapt out, very happy to be on solid ground. The views were incredible: the Three Sisters were stunning, and looking out over the blue ranges was breath-taking.

Nick soon enough told us the Aboriginal story behind the rock formation’s name. There are many different versions, but they all follow the same story line: an Aboriginal father has to protect his three daughters from something (the ‘something’ varying from a bunyip to a group of rapists), and turns them into stone, then something happens to him that prevents him from turning them back. However, Nick followed up his incredibly unenthusiastic rendition of the story with a very enthusiastic “bullshit!”.

This area is a sacred space to any Aboriginal tribe, and no matter where you go in the country, and what tribe you speak to, they will always refer to the formation as the Seven Sisters. Nick burst into this story with much more vigour. The Aborigines have seven important stars: from these, they can find their way home, and navigate around the bush with ease. To help convey the importance of these stars, they made this landmark a physical representation of them, and created a story around them in order to teach their children the significance of the stars.

The story goes that a clan had seven beautiful sisters, all of whom were at marrying age. Their father arranged a marriage between the eldest daughter and a warrior from north Queensland, who was told he could have this woman, if he made the journey down from the top of Australia, to the Mountains. So, this warrior continues on his journey, travelling thousands of kilometres over many months. As is the way with warriors, he ends up killing many men while travelling. On his arrival at the clan, the father realises who he is – and announces that many of the men he killed were related to him and their tribe. Due to this, he is no longer allowed to marry the eldest daughter. He, having travelled all this way, is not happy about it, and threatens to kill the father and take all seven women. In order to save his daughters, the father changes them into stone – and in a fit of anger, the warrior kills him, rendering the girls as stone formations forever. This story has been told by Aboriginal tribes for thousands and thousands of years – while the story of the ‘Three Sisters’ was made up by white people, for white people.

While I’m not the biggest fan of organised tours – I much prefer being able to walk around and explore at my own pace – Nick’s commentary, love of the land around him, and Aboriginal ancestry made the day incredible. He gave us bush food to eat (lemony flavoured nuts that Aborigines use to keep hydrated while travelling) – and the honest truth (“go have lunch in that cafe, I get free lunch if you do”).

We finished the day on with a cruise down the Parramatta, and into Sydney harbour. It was my first time seeing the Opera House, and no matter how many times you see it on TV and in pictures, nothing can prepare you for what it’s like in person. The building is breath-taking, and gave me goosebumps just looking at it.

 

The East Coast: Stop 1, Sydney

It’s no secret that leaving Melbourne was hard: not only was I saying goodbye to a city I fell head over heels in love with, but also to an assortment of brilliant people who helped make me feel at home instantly. As tempting as it was to spend the remainder of my time in Melbourne, I was beginning to feel like I’d never leave if I stayed much longer, so it was time to get back on a night-bus and get to Sydney.

Even though flying is quicker and easier, prices started at well over $100, without checking baggage, so I opted for the Firefly bus – a steal at $60. The 12 hours to Sydney passed quickly: the seats reclined to almost horizontal, a film was played to while away the hours until 11pm, and the air conditioning was cool, but not Arctic. Soon enough, we arrived in Sydney, and I ventured out to find my hostel.

Before I arrived, I’d decided that I’d rough it in the cheapest hostel I could find, then splash out for a night at the YHA on the Rocks. I’d emailed my hostel a week before I turned up, asking if it was possible to check in – after 12 hours on a bus, all you want is a shower and a cup of tea, without having to wait until the standard check in time of 2pm. However, when I turned up, the door was locked, with a note saying call reception. My two dead phones now seemed like much more of an inconvenience than they did on the bus when I wanted to listen to music. Being over tired and unhappy about leaving Melbourne, I sat down outside one of Darlinghurst Road’s many, many strip clubs, and waited for someone for leave the hostel.

Sadly, at 7.30 in the morning, not many travellers venture outside, and I was beginning to resign myself to the fact I’d be sat outside for half the day, when two girls left the building. The hostel owner rocked up just after 9am, told me I couldn’t check in until 2pm, but obviously I looked sad, tired and pathetic enough to be pointed in the direction of the showers. When I came back to ask about luggage storage, I must have looked even sadder, tireder and more pathetic than before, and he gave me a free upgrade to a 4-bed dorm, and let me check in early.

Being over tired and therefore slightly emotional, I did what I always do when I’m down, and went to find a museum. Luckily for me, Sydney is home to the Australian Museum, and for $15, entry was reasonable. I spent the afternoon wandering around the various exhibitions, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which was incredible.

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The rain had cleared up slightly by the time I left the museum, so I spent the afternoon exploring some of the city, and attempting to get my bearings. The transport system in Melbourne (minus the trams) was easy, but arrival in Sydney meant getting to know a whole new train service. Out of the amazing things I’ve seen while travelling, Sydney’s double-decker trains probably are topping my list. My hostel is opposite Kings Cross station, so getting around is easy enough: one way into the city centre, and the other to Bondi.

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On returning to the hostel and attempting to keep myself awake until at least 9pm (the night bus may have been better than the Canadian ones, but I still barely got 2 hours of sleep), I met my roommates: one Korean guy (who was the only one to notice I was having a sneaky cry and offered me beer), one guy from the north of England (surprise surprise… though is there any people left up there? They all seem to be here), and a girl from LA who has an aversion to wearing clothes (I’ve seen her naked four times now and still don’t know her name. Was later filled in that she’s a stripper from next door, and I’m 100% in awe of how she manages to wear the collection of shoes she has piled up in our room).

After a much needed phone call from home (yes, an actual phone call – thank you Telstra for giving me $200 of credit), and a bed with a decent pillow, I felt slightly less sorry for myself, and ready to crack on with Sydney. We may not have gotten off on the best foot, but with trips to the Blue Mountains, Manly, Taronga Zoo and Bondi coming up, who can mope for long?

Melbourne, goodbye for now

During my last week in Melbourne, I was determined to fit in as much as I could, so my roommate and I went on the speediest tour of the city’s cultural points. We visited the Old Treasury, where blocks of gold were stored during the gold rush, and got the closest we’ll probably ever get to $26m.

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Next up was Parliament House. Both the Old Treasury and Parliament offer guided or self-guided tours for free, making it perfect for any travellers on a budget looking to explore the city’s history. We did the self-guided tour at the Old Treasury, and wandered around the spooky brick holes underground. Understandably, you aren’t allowed to walk around Parliament House unguided, but the tours run every half an hour, and are incredibly detailed. Ours was 45 minutes long, and we were taken into the chambers, the library as well as down numerous corridors and open spaces.

Stepping into Victoria’s Parliament was just like walking around Westminster; they even have the embarrassingly few number of women MPs and speakers as we do back home.

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Being poor and eager to get out of the rain, we were all too happy at the amount of free things you can do in the city, so we ventured over to the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s free, and has an amazing variety of exhibitions: from Aboriginal art to modern art installations, it comprised everything that makes Melbourne what it is today.

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As my last week drew to an end, Melbourne slowly started to resemble home more and more. The temperature dropped, barely making 16/17-degrees every day, there was constant drizzle in the air, and the grey clouds were permanent fixtures. One night we went out down one of St Kilda’s busier streets, and the club we were in was full of northern English men, bringing to Australia exactly what I’d hoped to be escaping from. On that note, it was time to leave, and start my journey up the east coast. Melbourne is the most incredible place – the people, the buildings, the spirit, the atmosphere – and I’d be incredibly surprised if I’m not back within a year.

It was the perfect place to start my time in Australia, and start my time travelling alone, and I’ve been so overwhelmed by the kindness and love I’ve been shown while in the city.

The beginning of the end

Following my stay in Mildura, I rushed back to the city with open arms, thoroughly enjoying the crowds of people, flocks of pigeons and general city-ness that comes with walking through a main train station at rush hour. I’d chosen to leave the CBD hostels in favour of a smaller place off Chapel Street in Windsor. On arriving at Back of Chapel and being offered alcohol before stepping through the door, I knew I’d made the right decision.

I’d previously been staying on Flinders Lane, in Greenhouse Backpackers, and while it was clean and central, it had the atmosphere of Tescos and the key-cards required the precision of a surgeon to buzz in correctly. Having explored St Kilda and the surrounding streets while in Sandringham, I knew this was the place I had to be in: Chapel Street is perhaps the best street I’ve ever walked down in my life. The smells, colours, people and shopfronts are utterly overwhelming, and it takes a lot of willpower to not blow my entire budget on sampling food, cocktails and coffee from every cafe and bar I walked past.

So, feeling much more settled and almost at home, it was time to make the most of being in Melbourne for the last time (this month, anyway). First up was another trip down to central St Kilda, namely Aclan Street, the pier and the beach. Everything about this place makes me want to cancel my flight home and live here permanently: from the art-deco shop fronts, to the leftover gothic architecture, no two buildings are the same. The lack of chain stores and name brands is refreshing, while the rows of bakeries and patisseries are too tempting for their own good.

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My roommate and I struck gold with the day we chose: it was hot and sunny, and a school of sailboats were hovering over the horizon. The warm, crystal clear (crocodile free) bay water is something I’ll miss the most once I leave the state. We headed over to the St Kilda pier next: it doesn’t look like much, but the colonies of water rats and fairy penguins make it a top destination for most people visiting the city. Sadly, the penguins were playing elsewhere when we went, but had they been there I just might have been arrested for stealing wild animals.

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After having tried to get to the Melbourne Botanic Gardens about four times, I finally made it with the help of a few friends at the hostel. Before we made our way into the Gardens, we visited the Memorial Shrine: a combination of monuments built to commemorate the lost soldiers in the World Wars, and every war the army has been involved in since. The World War One memorial was majestic, towering over the surrounding forecourt and Gardens. Inside is a sunken plaque, reading ‘Greater Love Hath No Man’, and at 11am on Remembrance Day, a gap in the ceiling is opened, allowing a beam of sunlight to travel across the stone, resting on the word ‘love’ after 11 minutes. It was a poignant place, built for widows and families to grieve for their loved ones, especially when bodies could not be returned, or even found graves for.

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The Gardens themselves are stunning: we visited as a family years ago, and there are many, many awful pictures of my brother and me posing with giant trees, and despite barely remembering much from our last trip, I could still recognise the trees from our photos (though I suppose they don’t change much in ten years). Despite being 23, 25 and 19, the hidden pathways and bamboo tunnels proved too hard to resist, and instead of following our strictly planned route, we ran in and out of paths in the forested areas.

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Melbourne is full of so many things to do for free – or incredibly cheap – that it’s every budget traveller’s paradise.

Houseboats and the Hawks

Apparently I’m unable to write titles that either a) don’t include alliteration, or b) don’t include bird breeds. Ah well.

So, in the penultimate week of my stay in Victoria, I decided to brave the rural part of the state, and leave the safety of the city behind. On telling people that I was visiting Mildura, without the intention of grape picking or getting a harvest job, I was met with many strange looks, and the phrase ‘well in Australia, you’re a city person or a country person’. I shrugged this off – you can be both! I am both! I love the city (20 minutes in one direction from my house) and I love the countryside (ten minutes in the other direction). No no, I was told, you’re one or the other here.

An eight-hour train and bus journey takes you to the far reaches of Victoria: board the V-Line train from Southern Cross station, change at Swan Hill or Bendigo, and continue on a coach. The journey cost $45 one-way, which is a bargain when you consider that a two-hour train journey at home can cost up to £30. The V-Line trains are pleasant: air conditioning, free water, and a buffet cab, as well as spacious and comfy seats.

Travelling through Victoria, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. The majority of the stops had fallen into utter disrepair. Towns were boarded up and the streets were empty. Colour had disappeared from the landscape, and you were only left with yellows and browns, arid and stark against the bright blue skies.

Mildura was greener, thankfully, but after the vibrant city and throngs of people, it was hard getting used to the desolate streets and silence. The agricultural town depends solely on the Murray River: it uses the water to irrigate all of its crops, as well as its rice fields (obviously an environmentally and economically viable plant to grow in the borders of the outback…). A cold winter’s day can reach the Arctic lows of 18-degrees, and the town usually tops the state’s temperature charts in the summer: I was looking forwards to sun and blue skies, but for my time in the town, it was grey, drizzly and cold (so, 22-degrees. England’s going to be fun…).

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What the town lacks in atmosphere and noise, the Murray makes up for in beauty: its olive coloured waters aren’t the murky green of many English rivers, but fresh, matching the borders of eucalyptus trees along the banks. It meanders its way through three states, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, in its own lazy fashion: much like the Australian way of life, it goes in its own way and its own pace. As the bird flies, it near enough goes three kilometres sideways for every one kilometre it moves forward. Flocks of cockatoos and pelicans make themselves at home on the banks, mixing in with the usual assortment of ducks and magpies.

The Murray, and Mildura in particular, is known for its water traffic – houseboats and paddle steamers that gently make their way along the river’s course. When you look at the river, and its last wood-burning paddle steamer, The Melbourne, you can see black and white films unfold before your eyes, of women in Victorian dresses and parasols, and men with cigars and boaters. You can’t visit Mildura without going on the river (and thereby entering – floating on? – NSW), so we spent the day on a private houseboat, passing the looping bends and multi-million dollar properties.

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Driving a houseboat is very slow, and much harder than it looked, but armed with my Captain’s hat and four year’s of sailing experience, I managed to steer it for a good few kilometres, without killing any kayakers, or grounding the boat in the shallows. Once off the boat, we visited the meeting point of the Murray and the Darling, a spot that is the epitome of serenity.

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I’m not the world’s best sleeper, and even less so in strange places (I think on average I’ve been running on three hour’s sleep a night since leaving the UK), so the odd noises coming from the other side of the patio door to where I was staying were slightly disconcerting. However,  two dogs lived at the property with free range to go outside at night, so that was that. By the third night, however, when the dogs had been dropped off at a boarding kennels, the footsteps continued. Having been told earlier that there’s a fair whack of crystal meth produced (and consumed) in the area, I realised it was probably definitely a drug addict skittering around on the decking, about to attack me, and spent the night lying very still, coming up with escape plans, and vowing to take self-defence classes on my return to England.

After my stay in Mildura, I quickly realised that I am very much a city person. Give me the people watching, the traffic, the crowds, the laneways, cafes, boutiques, book shops and nights out that Melbourne offers.

Since beginning my travels, I’ve started to get into the whole team sports thing more and more (i.e. I enjoyed watching ice hockey in Canada), so when an opportunity arose to go and see a game of AFL, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. The team I wanted to see play, Hawthorn Hawks, have been my honorary footy team since before I can remember (I’m sure we still have a very ratty bobble hat that’s sat in our coat cupboard for about three-hundred years), and is the team of choice for most of my friends and family over here, as well as dad. The match was being held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity of 100,000 – 110,000), and were scheduled to play Fremantle – the team they beat in the 2013 Grand Final.

After trying to find directions to the MCG (with Google Maps being incredibly helpful and having no public transport information for Australia – use the PTV journey planner), I gave up, and simply followed the flood of gold and brown. Even with my complete lack of direction, getting to the G is pretty easy: hop off at Richmond, and head to the giant stadium that cannot, in any way, be missed. Entry was $25, which for a three-hour Friday night game, I thought was cheap (although I’d have no clue how much you’d pay to see an Arsenal/Man City game at home).

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Having no prior knowledge of the sport, bar that it’s a bit violent, I didn’t expect to follow it at all, but luckily, it’s a fairly easy game to get the hang of (at least from a very basic spectating point of view). As far as I gathered, getting the ball between the two middle sticks (goals?) is six points, and one point for getting it between the two outside sticks (real name for these being…?). When the ball travels over a certain distance, the team passing it gets to have a free throw/kick/pass. This may however all be made up. In terms of tackles and take downs, it seemed like anything goes (slightly confused over the guys being tackled when they didn’t have a ball).

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The atmosphere was great: Hawks dominated Fremantle, and seeing as it was their home ground, the stadium was electric. Unlike the vicious (and often offensive) chants that accompany soccer games, there was only the Hawks chant – no swear words, no racism, no homophobia. It felt safe, and judging from the amount of young kids walking around on their own, and the amount of families, it’s a good place to be. There were also loads of women – I’ve never seen that many at soccer games, but when there are AFL players running around in teeny tiny shorts, I’m not surprised there were so many (joking, kind of).

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.

Falling in love with Melbourne

When a city combines literature, street art, beautiful parks, hidden boutique cafes, and a world of laneways and culture to explore, it’s unsurprising that your travel plans change. Melbourne is perhaps my favourite city so far: it has a clean, glossy surface, with their classic buildings and high powered events like the Grand Prix and Melbourne Cup, with an undercurrent of fast moving art, music events and a whole new sub-culture within itself.

It’s the sort of city you can wander through for days on end, and never quite stumble across the same cafe you did the day before, or walk in on a pop-up event that you never saw advertised. Being born in Melbourne, and having a spider-web of family and friends snaking their way around the city and into the outlying suburbs and towns, it was always going to be more of a personal visit than a touristy one: it was the chance to see where I was born, and where my parents spent a great deal of time. However, after arriving and stepping out around the city, I felt instantly as though I was home.

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Melbourne is one of few places around the world to hold a UNESCO City of Literature title, and the Victoria State Library is guaranteed to take your breath away. It’s an imposing building, towering over the surrounding streets, and everything about it screams books and the love of reading – rather than the stuffy, look-but-don’t-touch feel of many public libraries. Bean bags and ice cream vans litter the sloped grass lawn in front of the building, and every available space was occupied by groups of people chatting, or people sat alone, heads in their books. The State Library is home to the Wheeler Centre, a space set up by the couple who started The Lonely Planet guidebook series. Being Melbournian, they wanted to invest money in the city’s passion for books and reading, and the Centre is home to many courses, talks and discussion panels from national and international authors, and on topics affecting people in socio-political sense, as well as an academic-literary one. Seeing these amazing facilities, and pure love for literature is making the decision to go back and complete a masters’ degree a lot tougher.

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Surprisingly, visiting the library was top of my list, and after that was completed, it was onto the laneways. Melbourne has plenty of things to do if you stick to the main streets: there are huge department stores, shops selling anything you could possibly ever want, as well as an abundance of cafes, restaurants and street food. However, to truly understand what Melbourne’s about, and why it’s so addictive, you need to delve deeper. The laneways – narrow alleys branching off the main streets – may look empty and uninviting, but on closer inspection, hold the heart of the city. Whether you’re after street art, the best coffee in town, independent fashion designers, or one-off cafes, you’ll find it down these streets.

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Manchester Lane, next door to the hostel I was staying at, was one of Melbourne’s worse laneways at one point, with high crime levels and abundance of heroin. However, the council gave the street a clean slate, and refurbished it, turning it into one of the more interesting lanes to walk down. Now it’s full of independent designers, namely fashion students at university, who can rent the space for next to nothing, and sell their creations. This is only one example of the forward thinking of the council; from inviting street artists to paint down selected laneways, to auditioning buskers, it’s nice to see the authorities helping to develop the heart of a city, rather than stifle it in favour of the mainstream.