Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year

We spent New Year in Sydney. When booking our accommodation, we were somewhat annoyed that most hotels and hostels had jacked their prices up incredibly. We eventually found somewhere called The Menzies Hotel and booked that, since it seemed cheaper than most places.

When we arrived at The Menzies, we were rather pleasantly surprised to find that it is a 4 star hotel. It seems that The Menzies was one of the few places that hadn't jacked its prices up and we were getting our money's worth for the £200 per night that we were spending. There were all kinds of wonderful things in the hotel that we didn't make the most of such as several bars, several restaurants, a gym and a swimming pool. Of course, we didn't have time for that sort of thing; we had a city to explore.

Although we visited Manly earlier on our travels, I hadn't really been to the city until now. Sydney is an awesome city. It's completely different to Melbourne; it feels like London or New York.

We met up with Lindsay and Lisette again for New Year's Eve. We went to party at some the flat of some their friends Brett and Michelle. It turns out that their flat has some awesome views of the city; we could see all of the skyscrapers of the Central Business District, nestling within which was our hotel (somewhere):


The Harbour Bridge could be seen in the distance:


When the fireworks started, we had a great view of them. In fact, there were so many fireworks that smoke obscured most of the views that we previously had. Nevertheless, the spectacle was awesome.


All in all, we had a wonderful time and were very grateful for the awesome hospitality of our hosts.

Jenolan Caves

In the middle of our day trip to the Blue Mountains, we visited the Jenolan Caves. I couldn't help comparing them to the awesome Dan yr Ogof cave in South Wales. the Jenolan Caves are the oldest known caves in the world, having been formed about a gazillion years ago.

Even the entrance to the cave looked impressive.


A short way in, we entered the "cathedral," which was a larger cavern It seems like every system of caves worth its salt has to have a cathedral but, in this case, the name was fitting because it used to be used as a place of worship.



Throughout the cave, there were beautiful rock formations.



A short distance after the cathedral, we came upon a sharp descent. When the cave was first discovered, it was necessary to climb down the nearly vertical drop using a rope. Thankfully, some steps have now been built to bypass it.


A little later on, we passed a deep chasm with water at the bottom. This, it was explained to us, is the river that slowly dug out the caves over the years. It has been named the River Styx, after the river between Earth and the underworld in Greek mythology. We were warned not to drop anything in the river, as it was far too cold to go in and get anything out. By "far too cold," our guide meant about 6 degrees or so. This didn't seem very cold to us but we still didn't drop anything in.


Later, we passed some animal bones. I'm not sure if these particular bones were deliberately placed where we found them but we were told that the original explorers of the caves found the remains of dead animals as they explored.


We also saw some older animal remains. This next picture does not show a fossil but, rather, the calcified remains of an animal. I'm not sure quite how this differs from a fossil but there you go.



Our tour of Lucas Cave was over all too quickly but we couldn't stay as we had to get back to Sydney in a hurry; it was nearly time to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Blue Mountains

On New Year's Eve, we decided to go on a guided tour of the Blue Mountains and the Jenolan caves. I'll write about the caves in a different post.

We were picked up from our hotel by our tour guide John, who turned out to be from Devon. He drove us to the dodgily-titled Scenic World park for a fairly whistle-stop tour. This park is built around the site of an old mine, the entrance to which could still be seen.

As soon as we arrived, we bought tickets for the funicular railway which would take us down the hill and into the park. This turned out to be highly scary, as the train made a rapid and almost vertical descent while the Indiana Jones theme tune blared out on speakers.

We were promised that the Three Sisters would be visible when we reached the bottom. Sadly, this was not to be the case due to the thick fog and low cloud that day:



Having failed to see much of a view, we contented ourselves with a quick walk round the temperate rainforest in the park, reading the informative and educational plaques that told us about various examples of plant life and relics of mining activity that we passed.

One such plaque pointed out a dead tree that had been hit by lightning and which only continued to stand upright because it rested on another tree.


There were plenty of highly interesting geological rocks:




We took the cable car back up the mountain. This was significantly less scary than the train but the views were sadly no better.


We were slightly disappointed that the view of the Three Sisters had been obscured. Luckily, our tour went past them again later in the afternoon, on the way back from the caves, and the fog had cleared.


Hooray!


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Kuranda

The day after boxing day, we visited the town of Kuranda, in the mountainous rainforest near Cairns.

Our journey to Kuranda was via the Kuranda Scenic Railway. We were told that the railway was originally built in response to a gold rush in the area. Nowadays, its primary purpose seems to be to ferry tourists to Kuranda and it's easy to see why, given the great views that we saw on the way up.


Half way up, we stopped at a station where we got some great views of the Barron Falls.


The construction of the railway line took a massive amount of time and effort. Massive amounts of rock had to be removed from the mountainside. In this picture, you can see some of the solid rock from the mountainside that was left behind as a monument. The side of the mountain is actually to the left of the train in the picture; the monolith that you see is all that remains after a cutting for the railway line was cut from the rock.


The town itself wasn't much, really. There were a ridiculous number of shops selling souvenirs and quite a few cafes and restaurants. We ended up eating in a great place called German Tucker, where we dined on German sausages, saurkraut and German beer. The sausages and beer were great, although the saurkraut wasn't to my liking. While there, we noticed that most of the other customers were Japanese. I guess Japanese people really like German food. A few days later, we went to a Japanese restaurant in Sydney and there was a German guy there so I guess the love is mutual.

We went down the mountain on the Skyrail cable car. This was, in many ways, even more spectacular than the train. From the cable car, we could see the valley that our train had climbed up earlier in the day.


We stopped in a few places on the way down. From our first stop, we were able to view the Barron Falls from the other side.




We went for a quick walk in the rainforest.


On the final part of the descent, we could see the city of Cairns in the distance:


Unfortunately, the rapid descent played havoc with my ear (the other one!), leaving me in a lot of pain and forcing us to cancel the snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef the next day. Still, Kuranda was lots of fun and the views that we saw were truly great.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Port Douglas

Merry (belated) Christmas, everyone! We spent Christmas in Port Douglas, in the luxurious surroundings of the local YHA. The drive up the coast from Cairns was pretty spectacular; there were far better views than the Great Ocean Road.
We visited the beach on the way up but were dissuaded from going near the water by the dangerous local wildlife.
When we got to Port Douglas, we were pleased to find the local stinger net, which keeps the jellyfish out and within which it's safe to swim.
While visiting the beach, we did meet some of the local wildlife. Sadly, it turned out to be dead; some kind of ray had been washed up on the beach.
Christmas day was great fun. Hannah and I used our complementary Singapore Airlines socks as makeshift Christmas stockings. My stocking contained a banana, a bottle of Aussie beer and some chocolates. Only a satsuma could have made it better but, sadly, they don't seem to have satsumas in Australia right now.
We spent part of the day on the beach. This was an almost surreal experience for us northern-hemisphere natives. I realised that I don't think I've ever actually spoken to a stranger on Christmas day before, since Christmas has always been a day for sheltering in the house with the family. Hanging out on a busy beach on Christmas day was completely new to us.
The only downside to the day was the state of the hostel kitchen. We had been planning to cook Christmas dinner for ourselves but the state of the kitchen made us decide otherwise. In all of the other hostels that we had visited, people were pretty good at washing up after themselves and leaving the worksurfaces clean. Alas some of the other guests at this place had left the kitchen in a mess. There were unwashed dishes by the sink and scraps of food on the worksurfaces. Unfortunately, this being the tropics, this attracted thousands of ants. I also noticed a frog on the draining board at one point. We managed to clean up enough to cook lunch (sausage butties!) but didn't fancy cooking our evening meal.
Later that evening, we met Hannah's friend Su and her daughter who, by the most unlikely of coincidences, were also in Port Douglas for Christmas. We dined at the local Chinese restaurant before heading into the centre of Port Douglas for pudding  at a restaurant by the name of Mango Jam. Mango Jam serve the best non-savoury pizzas; banana and mango pizza turned out to be very tasty.
All in all, an excellent Christmas that not even a disgusting kitchen could ruin.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bugs 3

We visited Mission Beach for a night on our way to Port Douglas. On the way to Mission Beach, we passed through the town of Bowen and were surprised to see an enormous mango statue:


When we arrived at our hostel in Mission Beach, we were a bit concerned, given the large number of bugs around the place. In fact, we needn't have worried, because they were mostly either harmless or dead. Check out the colouration on this little bloke that was sitting on the wall in the gents:
  
Mission Beach seemed to be pretty cool, in a way that could be described by superlatives such as "party central" and suchlike. The hostel was advertising lots of cool activities like sky diving and bungee jumping. I think that it's a shame that we couldn't stay for longer, although I don't think that Hannah does.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whitsundays

So, following our encounter with the hoard of cockroaches in Agnes Water, we set off on our long journey north to the town of Airlie Beach. Our accommodation at Airlie Beach was Bush Village Backpackers, was great. The place was mercifully free of insect infestations. Possibly the coolest thing was the resident parrots:


The lady running the hostel wasn't so keen on the parrots. She told us that her neighbour feeds them at 5am every morning so the squawking starts then and doesn't stop all day.

The main reason for our stay was to visit the nearby Whitsunday islands, so named because they were discovered by Cook on Whitsunday, 1770. We booked a boat trip with the appropriately named Whitehaven Express, a small company who were only too happy to take us round the islands in exchange for a large wodge of cash. Our first stop was Tongue Inlet on Whitsunday island. Making our way onshore, we saw some interesting looking rock formations on the beach.


We then walked up a path through the forest on our way to the lookout point. On our way, we had quite a shock when we met our first Big Scary Spider of the trip:


As you can see, there is also a colourful insect in the picture. At first, we thought that the insect was in trouble, what with spiders having a reputation for eating insects and all. However, it was the insect that got the better of the spider. It grabbed hold of the spider and started dragging it away, off the path and through the forest. I'm sure that we witnessed some vital part of the forest food chain.


We then made our way to the lookout point, which had some spectacular views, one of which we posed in front of.


From this lookout point, we could see Whitehaven beach, which was to be our next destination:


Our guide, Shannon, explained that Whitehaven beach is the second best beach in the whole world, due to the excellent quality of the sand. It appears that there is a fault line between Haslewood Island and Whitsunday Island, where two tectonic plates rub together, emitting very fine and pure silica particles which form the sand on the beach.

After we returned to the boat we donned stinger suits, which we needed in order to safely enter the water at this time of year. Once the boat anchored off Whitehaven Beach, we were able to dive into the water and swim ashore, which was great fun. We spent a few hours on the beach and our guides cooked us lunch on the barbie. While eating lunch, we were joined by some very friendly lizards, which I think are goanas:


The next stop was a coral reef off Hook Island where we donned mask, fins and snorkel and swam over some fabulous coral. I regret not having bought an underwater camera by this point because the views underwater were truly stunning, with coral swaying in the breeze and shoals of brightly coloured fish swimming past.

All in all, this was probably the best day of the whole trip.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bugs of Agnes Water

On Friday, we said goodbye to Sophie and Dan and thanked them for looking after us so well. After cleaning the fruit bat droppings off our car (possibly the most revolting task of the holiday so far), we set off for our interim destination, Agnes Water. This is near the town of Seventeen Seventy, so named because it was the site of Cook's second landing during his historic voyage in 1770.

The only eventful part of the journey came when the police diverted all of the traffic off the road in order to avoid a car accident. We were sent onto an unsealed road running parallel to the main highway. Naturally, this was very exciting:

We arrived at our hostel in the early evening. After checking in, we headed over to Seventeen Seventy and walked along the harbour.

We ate in a Thai Restaurant called Yok Attack in Agnes Water (possibly my favourite meal of the holiday so far), before returning to the hostel and settling down for the night. We noticed a few insects in the room but thought nothing of it.

I was awoken at 6:45 the next morning by Hannah, who had noticed that the insects we had seen the night before were now crawling all over us. This was rather distressing, to say the least, and we spent the next few minutes freaking out and trying get rid of them. Here is a entomological picture of one of them:
 
We think that they are baby cockroaches. If anyone knows better than us then please let me know.

Worse was to come; Hannah had left her bag open on the floor and it was also crawling with the little "blighters" so we proceeded to spend an hour or so hunting them down. In the process, we discovered that her bag had several pockets of which we were previously unaware, some of which the insects had already found.

Hannah has also written about bugs of Agnes Water in her blog here.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the supermarket and bought some insect spray. I have a feeling that we will be using it a lot as we head north (as it happens, we didn't end up using the insect spray much; I think that we were just unlucky on that one night).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Morten Island

Since I have fallen a bit behind with this blogging lark, Hannah has already beaten me to it and written about our trip to Moreton island. You can read about it here.

On Thursday, we went across the bay on a guided tour around Moreton Island. This didn't get off to a great start when our guide was told the wrong pickup point and we ended up having to walk on to the ferry ourselves; luckily the pickup point wasn't far from the ferry or we would been in trouble. The tour got better from there on in.

Moreton Island is unusual in that the whole island is made of sand, with a thin layer of vegetation on top, holding it together. In fact, it is the third largest sand island in the world, its neighbour Stradbroke Island being the second largest and nearby Fraiser Island being the largest. The island is 95% national park and, given the somewhat shaky foundations upon which it is built, it has to be treated with care. Luckily, this doesn't prevent thousands of backpackers descending on it every year and having an awesome time.

Our tourguide, Grant, turned out to be an excellent 4WD driver. This was a lucky thing. I had been expecting some kind of dock when we reached the island. Nope. The ferry sailed up to the beach and we drove off, onto the beach. We then proceeded to drive along the beach for a few hundred yards. What with it being high tide at the time, this meant that our 4WD minibus was at a frightening angle, with one wheel in the water half the time.

Things didn't get any less scary once we turned onto a sandy track leading into the interior of the island. Grant told us that the tracks were tarmacked during the war, when Moreton Island was an important part of the plans for the defence of Brisbane and was home to thousands of troops. Sadly, the tarmac has now all fallen away. Our seatbelts proved to be essential; we were thrown around violently as the bus careered along the bumpy sand. Luckily, no one was sick and we soon arrived at the location for our first activity: sand boarding.

Sand boarding involves lying on a wooden board, the underside of which is waxed, and careering, head first, down a sand dune. This was our dune:


It was certainly an adrenaline rush, not least because I somehow ended up with the fastest board and, as a result, a ton of sand hitting me in the face on the way down. The board got up to an impressive speed on the way down, with me trying me best to hold on and not lose anything else; I managed to lose my flip flops almost immediately when I set off. Reaching the bottom wasn't fun because the board left the smooth sand of the sand dune and reached the bumpy sand at the bottom.

The worst part came when you got to the bottom and realised that you had to trudge back up the dune:


After a few goes sand boarding, we were covered in sand and had had enough. Luckily, it was time to head back to the beach.


It was at around this point that Sophie reminded me of the time that we went to Guernsey and all ended up with sunburn in comical shapes in all of the places that we forgot to apply sunblock. I think I tempted fate by informing her that it definitely wouldn't happen this time. More on that later.

A little way off the shore were a whole load of wrecked ships. We were somewhat disappointed to learn that these were wrecked intentionally in order to give tourists something to swim out to. They were still pretty cool, though.


Luckily, I had recovered from my ear infection by this point, so I was able to join the snorkeling fun. We each donned mask fins and snorkel and swam out to the wrecks. It was interesting to note that the underwater portion of each was completely covered in barnacles, to the point where the original metal structure of each of the ships was totally hidden. I was very disappointed that we were all given floatation jackets to wear while in the water, making it impossible to swim down and investigate any of the interesting structures and fish beneath the surface. Still, I suppose it is better to be safe than to be sorry. Here is a picture of the snorkeling gear. Very manly, I'm sure you will agree.


After we got in from snorkeling, we had time to do a bit more sunbathing and then we headed back to the ferry and returned to Brisbane. Fortunately, Sophie and Dan stayed awake and were able to direct us home. Slightly less fortunately, Hannah and I both ended up with the comical sunburn. I had completely forgotten to apply sunblock to my upper arms, for example, with the pattern of sunburn showing precisely the bits that I had missed. I guess it's a lesson for next time and Moreton Island was definitely worth it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mount Tambourine

On Wednesday, Dan and Sophie took us on a trip up Mount Tambourine, a short drive south of Brisbane. Our trip up the mountain took in Queensland's finest producers of booze and cheese.

First stop was the the Tamborine Mountain Distillery. We had a tasting session where we tried sips of various flavoured spirits. Hannah liked the chocolate mint liquer that she ended up buying a bottle.

The next stop we the Witches Falls winery, where we had another tasting session. I had never associated Queensland with wine but some of it was lovely. I tried a lovely Shiraz (or Syrah, as it would apparently be known in France) and bought a bottle.

By this point, I was feeling a little tipsy so I handed the car keys to Hannah for the journey to our next destination: the cheese factory and brewery.

First, we tried a few lovely cheeses and bought a few for our lunch later on. Then, we high tailed it over to the bar where we tried some beers that had been brewed on the premises. They had an impresive range of european style beers, including k├Âlsch, wheat beer and trappist beer.

The brewery looked very impressive:


For some reason, they had a Lotus sports car parked in there:


We had lots of fun sampling the beer


Finally, we made our way to the top of the mountain for lunch.


The views from the top of the mountain were very good:


Sophie and Dan fell asleep on the way home, causing Hannah and me to panic somewhat, since we didn't know the way home. We just about managed to keep going the right way until they woke up again and we managed to make it home without incident.