At long last, we’ve made it to the finale of The Giant Catch Up trilogy. With a miniscule 2,500 kilometers left to cover, it should be easy, right? From rainy Cairns where our East coast adventure began, all the way down to bustling Sydney, Part 3 includes some of the most popular Australian destinations that entice people from all over the world to visit, work and live amongst its beautiful beaches and laid back locals. I am now one of them, having settled in Melbourne for a little over a month, but we’ll get to that eventually (I swear). Until then, here are my highlights from two crazy weeks where we saw more of Australia than most Australians and slept less than I did as a nurse on the night shift… I’ll warn you, It’s not a short one, but there are plenty of pictures!
Cairns (sigh). It rained, it rained, and it rained some more. Our plans to snorkel and scuba dive were shot on arrival due to poor ocean visibility and dangerous conditions, which was quite the gut punch considering Cairns borders the Great Barrier Reef. It did however spur me on to have a “sod it” moment and book bungee jumping instead. There I stood on the horrendously high platform whilst a man bound my feet in record speed, all the while thinking please slow the f*** down / I can’t possibly do this / I am surely going to die. Luckily, James provided some much needed reassurance before my jump and when the time came, I rejected all my hesitations and did just that. Until I felt the resistance in the bungee chord, I was still convinced I’d come to the end of the road, but came away understanding what all the fuss was about. It’s a pretty awesome feeling, ignoring all of your instincts and throwing yourself off a 50m platform. I even came away with a free t-shirt; a double win for an out of pocket traveller who had been wearing the same clothes for three months. There in Cairns, the remaining members of our outback group joined others just starting their journey, and so began the challenge to merge the two. It unfortunately never quite did happen despite everyone’s best efforts, but instead solidified the bonds we had already made. The original nine of us were a charming but dysfunctional family who stuck it out from start to finish.
My bungee jump at A J Hackett, Cairns
It’s fair to say we were happy to move on from Cairns given the weather, and with New Year 2019 on the horizon we journeyed further south and set sail for the Whitsunday Islands. By this I mean we spent 3 days on a real sailing boat once used for competitive racing, glamorously complete with basic beds, a toilet and a distinct lack of showers. My hair had never been so full of sand and my skin so saturated with sun cream, but we were all in the same boat (pun intended) and the things we saw during those 3 days and 2 nights are among the most incredible I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. On New Year’s Eve we did what most of the adult population do – we drank, we celebrated and we played games. We just happened to be watching the sun set in one of the most beautiful parts of the world on a boat manned by the world’s most handsome crew. Day 2 was certainly a struggle, as I greeted the hot sun with a delightful combination of hangover mixed with a hint of sea sickness. After sticking my head down the toilet following a failed mission to retrieve some breakfast from the cabin, we sailed on to Whitehaven Beach. I am not exaggerating when I compare the sand on that beach to baby powder, or say the ocean is more blue than you even think blue can be. As we walked through the trees that mask the paradise sitting behind the greenery, almost all of us let out a gasp of some description. Jenny spent her time there chasing down stingrays and baby sharks for a sneaky picture (queue the baby shark song entering your head for the rest of eternity) whilst the other girls soaked up the sun. Levi laid in the ocean and told me this was his first trip to a beach, having come from the deep dark depths of Canada where he said it was presently -40 degrees celcius. It’s safe to say it was the best New Year’s day most of us will have in our lifetimes. The sailing trip was made complete by snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, very much making up for what we had missed out on in Cairns. If there’s one part of Australia I’d say is a must, it’s this one.
New Year’s Eve
Snorkelling with Jenny & Abby
Smelly, sandy but happy, we regrouped on the coach and headed to a farm stay for the night, stopping at an exotic fruit winery along the way in the comically named town of Gin Gin. Armed with a bottle of lychee wine, we arrived at the farm and therein pursued a race to the showers. Ice cold and time pressured with a line of girls standing behind the curtain, it still felt satisfyingly like I was washing away a second layer of skin. We were then taken on a tour of the grounds where we fed cows as big as houses and tried not to think about how we would probably be tucking into them later during a homemade roast dinner.
Sausage (the cow)
Onto Noosa. A very popular destination for Aussies seeking a relaxing getaway, Noosa is a beach side town with quaint, quirky shops and acts as the gateway to the famous Fraser Island. We weren’t quite able to join the glitz and glam of the wealthy visitors staying inside the town, so instead were put up on a glorified campsite with kangeroos for neighbours. With the risk of running into one on our doorstep a very real possibility, we would tag team our midnight trips to the bathroom complete with mobile phone torch lights in our hands. We even spent one fine evening roasting marshmallows on sticks over a campfire and drinking lychee wine from sophisticated plastic cups. Our mode of transport out to Fraser was two army four by fours, which proceeded to drive us out onto the gorgeous sand and all the way across the island. Off we trecked through the bush barefoot (leaving me convinced at one point I had stepped on a poisonous animal) and after a swim in crystal clear Lake McKenzie, it wasn’t long before it was time to get back on the road and head for Surfer’s Paradise via Brisbane. But first, we paid a visit to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where many of the group’s Aussie dreams came true in the form of a Koala. Granted, I held said koala for all of ten seconds, but I can tell you they are surprisingly heavy and just as cute up close.
Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island
My furry friend
We weren’t in Brissy (as the Aussies call Brisbane) for all that long, four hours tops, but it was enough to explore and get my bellyfull of exceptional Japanese food. It was the first big city we hit on our way down the coast, so some of us filled the time shopping, some swimming in the lagoon, and one member of the group even got a tattoo. Surfer’s Paradise – otherwise known as the gold coast – awaited us, and so did the nicest hotel we had stayed in thus far. With huge rooms that held enough space to swing a cat in, finally we could unpack the exceedingly creased contents of our bags and had time to ourselves to explore the area. The clue to the city is in the name. The Gold Coast is extremely wealthy, with the average property price almost $700,000, and is famed for its glorious sandy beaches, ideal surfing spots and elaborate canal system. Whilst some had to be up at 4am to go skydiving, the rest of us dressed up and sampled the night life. One thing’s for sure, the drinks aren’t cheap, and I missed my £3 pint at the local back in Sheffield.
Surfer’s Paradise from the observation deck
A stand out location for me was Byron Bay, Australia’s hippy hotspot. The chilled out vibe there emanates from the people and seeps into the town. Everywhere you look there are incredible places to sip your coffee, dine alfresco and ogle at crazy street performers dancing around with hula-hoops attached to every limb. Our hostel was buzzing with interesting people, blasting out music and complete with ping pong tables. Whilst James rented a surf board and tried to ignore my taunts about how he would more than likely end up face down in the sand, I enjoyed a beer on the beach in my bikini with the girls and thought about what people back home would be doing on their cold January days. Had they already begrudgingly dug up their hats and scarves? How cold was it? I reminisced about how exactly a year previously I was struggling to find my way to the hospital to work a night shift through the snow, faced with the even bigger worry of how I would get home the following morning. But instead, there I was in Byron, sipping a bevvy and soaking up the rays. I ticked off another first that night by going to a silent disco with the group, my favourite part being removing the headphones and experiencing the terribly out of tune, diva worthy singing coming from an array of mouths across the dance floor.
Our last point of call before before finally reaching Sydney was surf camp. I wish I could claim to be a seasoned pro having taken lessons in Bali only three weeks before, but disappointingly, I most definitely still suck at surfing. The same sequence of events played out as before: I loved it, I invested all my efforts for the first 20 minutes, failed repetitively, swallowed the entire ocean and then prayed for the lesson to be over. A few members of the group nailed it on every wave, but I contest that I am merely a retired athlete, with ailments comparable to that of a sixty year old and someone who never quite developed my sea legs.
Sipping a beer at Byron
So, I know it took me a long time to get here, but if you think that was lengthy I wish you could have joined us on the coach for the entire 2,500 kilometers. As we edged over Sydney Harbour Bridge and the beauty of the city revealed itself, it felt like we had made it. From Darwin where our outback adventure began, all the way down to Uluru, up to Cairns and down to Sydney, we had witnessed the weird and the wonderful, deathly creatures vs the cute and furry, vast nothingness and absolute paradise. Soon the group would go their separate ways and I would be left to my own devices once again, but this time with the added challenge of finding work and a more permanent place to live. Scary, but spoiler alert: I did it, and I’m still standing in the magnificent country of Australia.
My next entry will be all about Sydney. But first, I’ll leave you with our triumphant group picture – the nine of us who made it from the very start to the very finish.
My travel family