Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I have not fallen off the face of the earth

I've only been swept up in the backpacking lifestyle.

So, dear reader, I will summarize the past few months for you and in posts to follow give you details of the things you'd care to know more about! (Details of snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, sailing around the Whitsundays, hanging out in the rainforest and living in the world's most livable city).

After completing my Greyhound trip of Australia's backpacker must-do journey--the east coast--I flew down to Melbourne to settle for a little while.

Working as a charity fundraiser for Child Fund, I met some new friends and explored the "everybody-here-is-cool" suburb of Prahran but fancied a change.

A strange but intriguing job opportunity to sell solar power door to door to residents in Queensland landed in my lap, so it was back to Brisbane and the tropical heat of Australia's "Smart State."

For eight weeks, I worked in a team with six other backpackers, mainly in small towns. As with all strange job opportunities, there were plenty of ups and downs but I made it safely back to Melbourne to spend Christmas with a great group of friends.

These days I'm working in a restaurant in the city, practicing music with another traveller (from Japan) and finally made it back into the bloggosphere!

Stay tuned, people, we have months of catching up to do. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Channeling my inner Tom Hanks (Castaway version)

Rising with the sun, solo sea kayaking with dolphins, eating oysters straight from the rocks.

Does life get any better?

For a castaway on an island, I don't think it can.

Bruce, a pilot for 1770 Castaways, flew us from the mainland to Middle Island. The small Cessna aircraft took off from a private airfield in 1770 and made a beach landing just near our campsite.

The opportunity for beach landings is rare worldwide and Bruce is one of few people actually certified to teach people to land planes on the beach.

He left us on Middle Island with our gear and dinner meal ingredients. We were then free to go on bush walks, lie on the beach or talk to volleyballs named Wilson.

I opted to sea kayak and pick oysters from the rocks near the beach. The oyster task was much, much more difficult than I expected.

We navigated the rocks in search of oysters that looked "easy to open" and I managed to open two with my Coast multi-tool.

Cracking open oysters was pretty tricky but it was definitely worth the salty treat inside!

We were distracted briefly when a fellow camper picked up a sea cucumber. These part eel, part worm-looking creatures loved to hang out in shallow pools of water near the rocks.

At first, they just look like smooth black rocks in the sand because they move so slow. But when disturbed, the shrink away; if picked up, they spray liquid as a defensive mechanism.

As the sun went down, we built a fire and cooked dinner.

The next morning I woke up early to go sea kayaking again, this time I saw about 10 dolphins moving past the island.

I also saw a big whale further out than the dolphins.

Kayaking was a fun workout and a great way to enjoy Middle Island.

After cleaning up camp, we waited for Bruce to come back and pick us up. The flight back to 1770 was beautiful with views of ships waiting to go into Gladstone's port, sailing boats floating across the ocean and Middle Island's lighthouse poking out of the bush.

Back in 1770, we spent one more night at the hostel and then caught the overnight bus to Airlie Beach the following day.

Best memories: kayaking near the dolphins and the breathtaking views from Bruce's plane.

Only downside to the trip: forgetting to reapply sunscreen...ouch!

View from the plane after taking off from 1770.

Sent from my iPod

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Swimming, trekking around Fraser Island

Even sideways rain and gusty winds can't take away from the beauty of Fraser Island.

For the first two days of our three day tour there was an almost constant drizzle of rain and sometimes all out downpour.

A barge hauled us and our Trailblazer Tours bus, from Inskip Point at Rainbow Beach to the island. The barge ride to the Fraser Island's east coast was short but rocky.

Once on semi-dry land, we headed up the coast on 75-mile beach. The stretch of sand is a great welcome to Fraser Island.

On the left, jagged rocks and unruly trees stick out of the rainforest and on the right, the Pacific Ocean looks endless and almost violent with its huge waves crashing on the beach.

Absolute paradise

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world and has the world's largest and oldest vegetated sand dunes.

The Aborigines of Fraser Island, the Butchalla people, called the island Kajari meaning paradise.

The European name for the island came after Captain James Fraser, his wife and crew shipwrecked on the island.

After decades of tension and fighting over land between Australians and Aborigines, the island was eventually occupied by a large Australian logging company. The most abundant resource on the island, sand, was also valuable to the Aussies. Sand mining for minerals, including one used by NASA for titanium for space shuttles, was a great money-maker.

In the 1970s, however, controversy over exploitation of the land and the native people led to Australia recognizing the island as a national park. It is also now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The history of the island is interesting but of course, we didn't travel all that way for a textbook education!

Lake Wabby and the curious dingo

Making our way down 75 Mile Beach, our tour guide, Brett pointed out heaps of birdlife. He also terrified us of the water when he mentioned that Fraser's coast is a popular hang out for sharks.

Driving along 75 Mile Beach, Brett stopped to clean off this sea snake's face which was covered with sea gunk. Sea snakes are extremely poisonous--oh that dare devil Brett!

Once at the beach house, we settled in, ate lunch and set out again in the Trailblazer bus.

Unless you want to be shark bait, swimming in Fraser's inland lakes is a visitor's only choice.

Lake Wabby was the first lake we visited. After a 2.5 kilometer walk through the bush, we ended up at the top of an enormous sand blow.

The Hammerstone Sandblow overlooks Lake Wabby but feels like a dry, isolated desert.

I took a dip in the lake but it was a little cold to stay in. Instead we relaxed on the lake beach and watched catfish in the water.

One curious dingo sat above us on the sandblow, looking hungry. The dingoes on Fraser are reportedly the purest breed of dingoes on Australia's east coast but unfortunately, because of tourism, aren't as weary of humans anymore.

Although beautiful, dingos can be very dangerous. This one was scavenging for food on the beach. The are scavengers, not hunters, but will bite humans if provoked.

Once the dingo trekked down the sandblow and growled at us but luckily Brett was there to scare him off.

If you're not muddy, you're not having fun

On the west coast of the island, we waded (literally) through Deep Creek.

The beach was basically all mud and at one point I was standing in mud above my knees!

Trekking through thick mud is a bit of a workout but definitely a lot of fun!

We stopped at many more lakes and walked through rainforests near the center of the island.

Brett explained how the Butchalla people used soft bark for sleeping mats and tree leaves for insulation.

Silent Creek, named for its sandy bottom which muffles the sound of moving water, is a sacred place for the Butchalla women. The creek has been constantly flowing for at least 2,500 years and is the place Butchalla women would go to give birth.

Saving the best for last

The best part of the trip was saved for the last day though.

We climbed to the top of Indian Head, the highest point on Fraser Island at 90 meters tall. From there we could see over the water, to the inland sandblows and along the beaches.

When Captain Cook passed by Fraser Island on his exploration of Australia, the Butchalla people stood on the cliffs of Indian Head waving him away from the coast because of the dangerous rocks.

After our descent from Indian Head, Brett drove us back down the beach to the Maheno shipwreck.

Built in 1903, the Maheno was originally used as a luxury passenger ship and then as a World War Two hospital ship.

Once out of commission, Australia sold the ship for scrap metal to Japan. In tow, a cyclone struck the island and broke the tow ropes, leaving the Maheno to wreck upon Fraser's east coast.

Legend has it that looters cleaned out the ship and one man stole an entire trunk of silver. He buried it somewhere on the island but forgot where--booty hunters grab your metal detectors!

Overall, Fraser was beautiful and definitely a chance to get in touch with my adventurous side!

Sent from my iPod

Monday, September 12, 2011

Time in Noosa great for planning, market shopping

If you're riding up the Sunshine Motorway, you're probably heading somewhere nice.

Our destination: Noosa, a friendly little beach town.

We checked into our room at the
Halse Lodge YHA, strolled into town and tucked our toes in the sand on the beach that afternoon.

Back at the hostel we lounged on comfy couches, cooked dinner and spent the evening reading and chatting on the porch.

I don't remember the last time I simultaneously had enough spare time and energy to read for fun!

The next day, our main objective was to find and book ourselves on a tour to Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island.

Like most places on the main tourist track, the brochures for trips out to Fraser Island are countless. After awhile, all the pamphlets start to look the same.

But with the help of Gale at the one of the Noosa visitor centers, we finally decided on a three-day, two-night trip with Trailblazers.

(My next post will focus on the Fraser Island trip and highlights from the three days.)

Next in Noosa, we walked along the Noosa National Park trail from Main Beach to Little Cove.

At one spot, we sat on rocks just off the trail, looking over the ocean. While surfers and paddle boarders dotted the water below, we had front row seats to an early evening dolphin show.

Not far from the shore, three or four dolphins enjoyed each others company, occasionally jumping out of the water.

The beach was just a short walk back to the hostel and we made it back just in time for Happy Hour!

The downstairs portion of the hostel served as reception, lounge and a bar and cafe.

We had a drink, made dinner and spent some time organizing our bags for the trip to Fraser.

While at Fraser, we debated on whether to return to Noosa or move further north to Rainbow Beach. By chance, the manager of a backpacker travel company in Noosa was also on our tour.

After talking with her about what Tribal Travel can offer backpackers, we decided to go back to Noosa and organize activities up the east coast.

With Tribal Travel's help, we set up a two-day camping trip on Middle Island from 1770 (the only town I've ever heard of that consists of only numerals...).

We've also booked a three-day sailing trip around the Whitsundays Islands from Airlie Beach and three trips from Cairns.

Besides planning ahead a bit, we picked up two days of work in Noosa and spent some time relaxing in our hostel with new-found friends.

On our final day in town, we headed to the Eumundi Markets, one of the biggest of its kind in Queensland.

The market was bursting with color, relaxing music and fantastic smells!

I started the morning off with a beautiful coffee.

Drinks in hand, we strolled past stalls of all hand-crafted items or home-grown foods. The food court also offered plenty of tempting dishes.

Although it was only 9 a.m., the German bratwurst stand reeled us in. After sampling their original bratwurst, a woodsmoked mild brat and a spicy brat, we opted for adventure and chose the spicy bratwurst smothered with sauerkraut and mustard.

Fresh tomatoes caught our eye at one table. There, we tried fresh Aussie black pepper and Himalayan salt from a mine in the Himalayan Mountains sprinkled on the juicy tomatoes.

We also enjoyed the musical stylings of Harii.

I could have meandered through the market all day but we had a bus to catch back in Noosa Junction.

Next stop: the town of 1770, named by Captain James Cook when he discovered the area in the year of...drumroll please...1770.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost in translation: entry 5

I was minding my own business reading The Noosa Journal on the porch of our hostel when "Rex" approached. "Daddy Rex" the security guard to be exact.

After a bit of a chat, "Rex" (whose real name is Anthony) suggested a few good places to hang out at in town.

I explained how generally lazy I can be at night and that I was quite happy to spend my first night in Noosa on the porch, reading and contemplating my plan for tomorrow.

To this he responded, "You need to harden up!"

Context clues assisted me. He was obviously telling me to "live a little", "toughen up."

Then, he threw in, "You need a teaspoon of concrete."

"That sounded a bit shady," I thought. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Concrete? What's that? Some sort of alcoholic concoction," I asked.

But, nope, I was wrong. And thankfully so.

Suggesting someone take a teaspoon of concrete literally means telling someone to toughen up.

So, there you have it. I was happy to learn a new phrase and happy to know are hostel is kept safe by Mr. Friendly Rex.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Second trip to Brisbane reveals new side of city

Returning to Brisbane for a second time, we thought staying in a different part of the city would be the best way to take in new sights.

Instead of staying near the major transit centre, we opted for a more cultural part of the city.

We found a great hostel in Fortitude Valley, close to Chinatown.

Prince Consort Backpackers (not sure why it's named that) is above The Elephant and The Wheelbarrow pub on the main drag of the Valley.

The hostel was actually a really beautiful building with a "old pub" look and feel.

They offer a great two-night deal: one meal and drink from the pub, two nights accommodation, two hours of Internet and entry to the XXXX Brewery in the city.

After all the XXXX beer we poured at Hotel Corones and all the cartons of the liquid gold I lugged around the bottleshop in Charleville, I thought it was fitting we visit the birthplace of it all.

As a general tourist attraction, I wouldn't rate the brewery tour very high. The actual walkthrough is very generalized and a bit scientific for me.

But for a visitor with genuine interest in XXXX beer (including the sampling at the end of the tour), the brewery experience is worth the time and money.

At the end of the tour, you can try your hand at pouring a beer. All that practice from the hotel came in real handy!

The tour guide threw out a few interesting facts about the capabilities of the brewery and the environmentally-friendly aspects of the facility, but 60 percent of what he told us sounded like an engineering lecture.

Here's what stuck:

•The brewery can hold 20 million litres of beer at one time.

•More than two litres of water is used for every litre of beer produced. (This ratio used to be 10:1 so improvements have definitely be made).

•The brewery, owned by Castlemaine Perkins, partners with Kraft foods and local farmers to recycle by-products of brewing. Kraft uses leftover yeast for Vegemite and spent grain goes to farms to feed cattle.

•Kegs filled at the brewery and shipped to bars weigh 64 kg. That's 141 pounds! If you're wondering, YES, I did change kegs by myself at Hotel Corones' bar!

All the walking on the tour did make us a bit thirsty so it was handy they had a taproom nearby.

The highlight of the sampling for me was their full strength beer, XXXX Bitter, from a wooden keg. I also really enjoyed a James Squire Porter which was on tap.

Following the beer excursion, we headed back to the hostel to prep for dinner.

Prep for me included a nap :)

We exchanged our meal vouchers in the pub below our room for a really delicious dinner accompanied by live music in the beer garden.

We called it an early night on Friday as we had to be up early to organize our Greyhound trip to Noosa.

High marks for this trip to Brisbane: donning our bathing suits for the first time in the Southbank lagoon (although we were a bit freezing), being pleasantly surprised with the quality of our hostel and feeling a little bit smarter (and warmer) after the brewery tour.

Low marks: disappointing food from Chinatown and lack of wireless Internet at the hostel.

Chinatown was nearly right across the street from our hostel but the atmosphere and food left more to be desired.

Sent from my iPod

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Leaving Charleville on sentimental note

Barely wide enough for two cars and threatened by trees tugging at the asphalt's edge, the road leading out to Charleville's cemetery is neatly paved but feels lonely and un-traveled.

The cemetery claims a patch of dirt near the edge of town, ironically close to the hospital.

A small shed holds the maintenance crew's tools while kangaroos guard the boundaries of the resting place.

The first plot is situated just steps from the parking lot. Three rows in, a tombstone marks the grave of Harry Corones, affectionately known as Poppa.

He died at 90-years-old. Poppa's legacy: a huge hotel and pub in Outback Australia.

In it's hey-day, Hotel Corones serviced a town of over 10,000 thirsty townspeople and competed with 12 local pubs.

Today, the town's population is 3,500 and Hotel Corones is one of only four bars in town.

On Charleville's main street, Corones' hotel stands above the town's other structures and at times the bar is filled to capacity.

But, on most days--like his resting place--Corones' hotel stubbornly faces the Outback sun, appearing indifferent to time passing.

Harry Corones with Nancy Bird in Charleville. Corones was an original shareholder of QANTAS, a major Australian-owned airline.

My time at Hotel Corones

I journeyed to Hotel Corones in June because I needed a job.

Determined to make it work, I stuck it out for more than two months even when it the fun had stopped and frustration set in.

On our last day off, we joined a "Stories and Scones" tour of the hotel.

Karl, our tour guide, walked us through the history of the property and shared tidbits about the Corones family.

Harry or "Poppa" was a money-conscious, stubborn man. But based on what I can tell from Karl's stories, "Poppa" was frugal--not greedy.

He arrived in Australia basically penniless. Through the help of fellow Greek immigrants in Sydney, "Poppa" moved to Charleville in hopes of becoming a successful businessman.

Corones owned three cafes and leased a pub in the town before he built Hotel Corones.

The endeavor took him five years but once complete, the hotel was the biggest in Australia.

For two hours every day at 2 p.m., Karl relives the grandeur of Corones' hotel and finds humor in stories of "Poppa's" penny-pinching ways.

Like the story of the legendary aviator Amy Johnson's visit to the hotel.

After showing the special guest to her room, "Poppa" told the pilot if there was anything he could do for her to just let him know.

Believing in the sincerity of "Poppa's" words, Amy asked the hotelier if his pub had French champagne.

His reply was that in fact his pub had the finest French champagne available!

It was then Amy revealed that she had always wanted to take a bath in champagne.

Not one to be caught without a plan (or without making a buck), Corones asked his guest to just wait a short while and he would return with the champagne.

"Poppa" raced to his office to call his wealthy friends with an investment proposition.

He wrangled up enough friends to buy 20 bottles of champagne on the promise they would each receive a bottle of the used champagne.

Corones figured the champagne would go up in value as Amy's fame grew. That appealed to his wealthy friends looking for a unique investment opportunity.

Satisfied that he could give his guest a champagne bath without losing a dime, Corones filled the tub with all 20 bottles of sparkling champagne.

Then, he removed all soaps and other toiletries from the bathroom so that Amy couldn't contaminate the champagne.

And so the legend goes: once the pilot finished her bath, she got dressed again and stood on the hotel balcony to speak to adoring fans below.

Corones shrewdly let himself back into the room and carefully re-filled the 20 champagne bottles.

As he secured the cap on bottle number 20, he was bewildered to see enough liquid in the tub to fill at least one more bottle.

Assuming the worst, he rushed to the balcony and yelled out, "Amy, Amy! I thought you were a lady!"

Of course, this garnered a nervous laugh from everyone on our tour. So, tour guide Karl concluded his story, tongue in cheek by saying, "Harry's champagne must have been cold and Amy simply turned on the tap to add warm water."

It was that story and more like it, that brought the hotel alive in a way I hadn't pictured it before.

We also learned that none of Corones' relatives lived in Charleville anymore.

Feeling a bit sentimental and sad that it's unlikely anyone visits Corones' grave now, we decided to drive to the cemetery after the tour.

Harry Corones' hotel was important for so many people in Charleville during its early days. And, it became important for us at the beginning of our trip.

But with our bank accounts replenished and plenty of stories to tell, we were itching to leave the Outback and head to the beach.

We caught the Wednesday evening train from Charleville to Briabane and arrived in the city Thursday afternoon.

Check back for more about our short stint in Brisbane.

We are now on our way up the east coast stopping first in Noosa.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Trading Outback scene for beach life (and I can't wait!)

From embracing Aussie billiards rules to learning Queensland bar etiquette, my time in Charleville has been a great cultural experience.

With two weeks left in this small Outback town, I am ready to move on and see other parts of Australia but I'll remember our time here fondly.

Charleville is the kind of place where people leave their money sitting on the bar and trust bar staff to take it and make the correct change.

The motto here seems to be, "why do today what you can do next year."

Charleville Taxis can take you anywhere in town for $10.

Here, if someone has a milestone birthday such as an 18th, 21st or 40th, basically everyone in town is invited.

If you ask around in Charleville, you can find someone making the trek to Roma or Brisbane and ask them to bring you back a Big Mac or bucket of chicken from KFC.

In fact, today Jen and I enjoyed a KFC snack courtesy of a co-worker who went to Brisbane this week. Now that we've been reminded of how much we like it, we are planning a fast food feast when we return to the city!

Although Charleville attracts a great deal of tourists, the town is still "sleepy" by most standards.

An Outback sunset is like no other and the pace of life out here is just slow enough to stop and enjoy it at the end of the day.

But, a slow pace can also drive you crazy!

So, we are catching the train for the long ride back to Brisbane on September 7. From there, we'll head up the east coast stopping in places such as Hervey Bay, Fraser Island and Airlie Beach.

We have big plans for exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands and the Daintree Rainforest so stay tuned!

Sent from my iPod

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Filling the void of what I miss from home

Two months of our trip have passed and I can report I do not have homesickness.

Of course, however, there are things and people from home that I miss.

Near the top of the list of things that I miss: Mexican food.

Not Taco Bell but real Mexican food!

Hispanic influence in most parts of Australia appears to be absent. Asian-fusion and Greek cuisine can easily be found here but I really miss enchiladas, chimichangas and fresh salsa.

There are two technological-guilty-pleasures I miss regularly as well. One: dependable and convenient wireless Internet. And two: a cell phone plan with unlimited texting and calling.

I say "guilty pleasures" because part of this year-long journey's purpose was to unplug from the everyday riff-raff and to rejuvenate myself. The constant connectedness of Facebook, e-mail and texting can sometimes get interrupt to rejuvenation and relaxation.

But, when trying to keep in touch with family and friends, it's frustrating to not have Internet at your fingertips.

And, constantly having to add credit to a pre-paid phone here can be costly and annoying.

Lastly, the nerdy journalist in me misses American media.

Although the world is flat and news can be at our fingertips no matter where we are, keeping up with trends and news at home requires actual effort while traveling.

When I'm at home, I can play the TV in the background or chat with friends to catch up on current events at home. Australian media outlets cover world events but, fittingly, the bulk of coverage focuses on Aussie news.

To really keep up with news from home requires carving out time to visit American news media websites--which is easier said than done (see above reference to Internet).

That being said, I've found things here to fill the void of what I miss from home.

Although completely different than Mexican food, Outback cuisine holds a special place in my heart.

Meat and veggies everyday--great for my taste-buds, not great for my waistline! Gravy comes on everything here! And let's not forget the occasional beer for dessert. :)

And, consuming Aussie news is a great way to gain an outside perspective on U.S. issues. Plus, the Australian media's take on objectivity is a bit different than the traditional idea of journalistic objectivity in America. Perhaps that will be another blog post for another day, though...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Up, up and away (almost) in Charleville

The list of things that can lure me out of bed in the morning before the time I absolutely have to be up is a short one including the recent royal wedding, bacon and a nice cup of coffee.

And newly added to that list: the prospect of a hot air balloon ride.

A few members of the Australian Air Force and Army were in Charleville Thursday for a community awareness event that included free hot air balloon rides.

The military guys involved stayed at the hotel the night before and invited me and Jen to tag along the next morning.

So, even though I cherish my sleep-in-mornings, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Friday morning, very much looking forward to the experience.

We parked in front of the high school and--after asking a student for directions--we made our way to the footy field.

The kangaroo-adorned baby blue balloon was being pumped with air as we approached. One of the Air Force guys informed me that they would take it up for a test run first.

It was a big effort just to get the basket off the ground, and the balloon had trouble in the air because of the wind.

What feels like a mild breeze on the ground is enough to make a hot air balloon ride too dangerous, given the surface area of a large balloon.

So, no one was able to fly that morning. But, the Army and Air Force team still shared with students the history of aviation and the role of the Australian military today.

And, they let us fire the super cool and super hot burners!

Climbing into the hot air balloon felt like climbing into a huge picnic basket (Yogi Bear would be in Heaven)!

We snapped a few photos but then had to make our way back to Corones for work.

Below: Pyromaniac in the making. I tried my hand at igniting the balloon's flame.

Below: The balloon during the test run.

Below: A public affairs officer for the Air Force takes a photo of Charleville High School students inside the balloon before it was fully inflated.

Sent from my iPod