Saturday, January 26, 2008

OZ 08

Thank you all for your patience and also for your gentle nudges for me to finally tell you about Australia! I've now been back from Oz (Australia) for three weeks, and I've finally unpacked my bags, cleaned my room, and uploaded my pictures to Flickr. (Hint: See the Flickr link to the right. The easiest way to view my photos is by clicking on the albums to the right of the Flickr page and viewing as a slideshow--they're broken up into albums for each leg of the journey.) So now, dear friends, it is time to tell my stories. So now, without further ado, I give you...OZ 08!

Phase 1: Melbourne (late Christmas Eve - Dec. 28)


The concept of OZ 08 was developed exactly a year before my arrival in Australia, on Christmas Day 2006. On that day, I received a phone call from my long-lost friend James in Australia--a friend I'd met while visiting Jess for 2½ weeks in June 2005 but hadn't really kept in touch with until a call on Christmas Day 2006. (N.b.: To prove how noteworthy this phone call was and also how amazingly meticulous my Flickr archiving skills are, you may view the photographic proof of said call at this link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hontsr/334916211/in/set-72157594442288676/.) As I caught up with him, it came up in conversation that I would love to go back to Australia some day, as I didn't really see much of it when I was there in 2005. He concurred--as an Australian, he hadn't seen much of Australia either! It was then that the idea of OZ 08 was born...we'd take a trip around Australia together and see all of those wonderful places we'd never seen before! And, due to some sort of fluke in the space-time continuum or a glitch in the Matrix or something, this theoretical "we-should-maybe-do-this-someday"-idea-that-is-never-actually-realized-in-real-life became reality.

I left Vienna at dawn on Dec. 23 and arrived, after 30 sleepless hours of travel, in Melbourne shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, the Aussies celebrate Christmas on the 25th like Americans (as opposed to the Austrians), so technically I hadn't missed anything. Except the Christmas Eve service. However, we showed up at the church in style, fashionably late and right after the service ended, but just in time to join in the tradition of a late night post-service Christmas Eve meal. Since the traditional 2 am souvlaki place was closed, we got Chinese noodles--a close second. By the time I went to bed at whatever obscene early morning hour, I was ready to sleep a good night's sleep and thus forfeit any jetlag, as is my custom.

When I awoke on Christmas morning, I was alive and fit and soooo ready for breakfast. I warily put on my capri pants and short sleeved shirt and thought to myself what a strange phenomenon this Christmas in the southern hemisphere was turning out to be. It was sunny, it was bright, and as Christmas orphans in a foreign summery land, Jess and I decided to have a Christmas brekkie (breakfast) in the park. Nevermind that by the time we bought breakfast food at the gas station and got to the park it was already 2 pm--it was breakfast nonetheless. We spent the afternoon lolling around on the grass and experiencing was was to be my first brush with the evil, evil Australian sun. (This variety of Turbo Sun was to become my rival the further north we travelled.)

Later that evening, Jess put her blossoming culinary skills to work and prepared her famous roast chicken. Several people had described this roast chicken to me in terms usually reserved for obsessions or for lovers. By the time our dinner crowd of 7 trickled in, the birds were looking mighty fine. It was an impressive feast of chicken and various creative forms of salad, made even more impressive to me by the fact that Jess had chosen and prepared it all herself. Selfishly, I couldn't help thinking, "Where was this love of cooking when we were roommates, huh?!" but I of course kept that to myself and promised never to tell her directly...I'd say the blog suffices for that. Also noteworthy of that Christmas evening was the Christmas present I received from James, a book entitled "Australia's Most Dangerous: Spiders, Snakes and Marine Creatures." This was to become my reading for the next couple weeks, until I'd read cover-to-cover that Australia's most dangerous everything was going to be in all the areas we would be travelling to. I like to think I kept myself to a healthy level of paranoia, but James might have his own opinion on the subject...

The next day, on Boxing Day (which, amusingly, was orginally a day for the rich British folks to re-gift the stuff they didn't want to the poor, a day that has now become a national holiday), several of us travelled about an hour south of Melbourne to a peninsula, like many places in Australia, with a totally unpronouncable name. On this Peninsula of The Impossible Name we took a trail ride through the coastal bush and down to the beach. Amazingly enough, we were in the middle of nowhere Australia, and our trail guide turned out to be Austrian! She was just as astounded as I was to meet someone living in Austria, which led to all of our conversation being in German and my accidental confession that, yes, I had taken riding lessons in the past. When, in fact, I have never taken riding lessons in the past. But it was one of those embarrassing conversational blunders where I responded without thinking and only afterwards did the real meaning of her words sink in. This convesational blunder was indeed an unfortunate one, as the warning following it had to do with my horse's propensity to race and thus break into a gallop when we canter. As the experienced rider that I apparently was, I was to rein him in and make sure that he didn't race the other horses. I was successful, but also contributing largely to this feeling of success was that: a) I remained on the horse, and my bum remained in the general vicinity of the saddle; b) I didn't lose the sunglasses I was borrowing from Jess; and c) my feet didn't slip out of the stirrups when I was frantically holding the sunglasses to my face with one hand, pulling back on the reins with the other hand and simultaneously trying to keep my balance on the horse in this awkward position. This dash of adventure complimented the scenery very well, and all in all it was quite an experience.

Phase 2: Sydney (Dec 28 - Jan. 1)


Our first stop in Sydney was Bondi Beach, a beautiful beach with another typically tricky Aussie pronunciation. To the American eye, the name of the beach looks something like "Bondee." Yet to the American ear, it sounds something like "Bondoh." When in reality it is pronounced "Bond-eye." I think this was the first of many, many times I asked James, "Sorry?....Come again?....Pardon?....Can you repeat that?....Can you repeat that slowly?....I still don't understand what you're saying...."

The stay in Sydney signalled the beginning of much wonderful food. Most of the food we ate was Asian food--Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, you name it. Coming from a country where Asian food is hard to find, and good Asian food is even harder to find, I used the opportunity to take full advantage of my environs. All of this food was within walking distance, and in fact most of our travel within Sydney was done on foot. It's actually somewhat difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what we did in Sydney, even though we were there for 4 days, but I do know that we walked around quite a bit and got to see a lot of downtown, and in particular of places like Darling Harbour.

Sydney has several markets, and Paddy Market is certainly the largest. As we were walking through Paddy's Market, we passed a booth advertising fake tatoos. Airbrushed on in mere minutes and water-resistant for up to a week, they are becoming very popular accessories to a day out on the beach. Still in full-on OZ 08 enthusiasm, James was struck with an idea: What if we got OZ 08 tatoos?! This registered on stroke-of-genious level, and we spent quite some time deciding what to get an where. Finally, we decided on matching OZ 08 tatoos on opposite arms (so that, standing side by side, they would line up): James' tatoo was to have a scary shark with "OZ 08" below it, and mine was to have a funny shark with the words "OZ 08" below. The juxtaposition of agressive shark with silly shark was just another brilliant facet of this enticing plan. We had speculated about making tee shirts, but this was just so much better!!

One thing I'd never considered until I was in Sydney is why a hot air balloon is called a hot air balloon. It's because it's HOT. Of course, making a giant balloon capable of lifting 13 people in a basket float into the air has to be powered by the legal equivalent of a flame thrower. Somehow I'd never equated the two. So when we took a hot air balloon ride above Sydney one morning, we were advised to leave our jackets behind; even in the 6 am cool and the altitude gained, they would be unnecessary. Lift-off made me think of being in the Wonka-Vator as it soared out of the chocolate factory. However, to my knowledge, the Wonka-Vator didn't make every dog within a 2 mile radius howl and bark at the mysterious flying object in the sky--or at least the sound was dubbed out of that part! It was a truly unusual phenomenon that our balloon should make entire neighborhood of dogs bark, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for those poor suburban Aussies who never invited that hot air balloon into their skies anyway. After an aborted landing attempt at a local airstrip, we finally touched down on a driving range some ways outside of town. We passengers then helped pack up the hot air balloon for transport back to the hangar, which--for all practical purposes--was equivalent to the eternal torture of rolling up and packing in the world's largest sleeping bag in one of Dante's levels of Hell.

We should have been excited to spend New Year's Eve in Sydney--after all, the fireworks above the Harbour Bridge are always the first ones shown on the "New Year's Eve Across the World" section of Dick Clark's countdown. But by that point we were really ready to be out of the city and up to the tropics. Our plan was to stash our bags in a locker and then--since it was New Year's Eve and all--stay out the whole night, as that eliminated the need for accomodations. Our flight to Cairns left at 7 am on Jan. 1, so it didn't seem like it'd be a problem. Fortunately for Facebook, I was in touch with an old colleague of mine from artnet who was now getting her Master's in Sydney. Since we didn't have any particular plans, she was gracious enough to invite us up to the North Shore with her and her friends to watch the firework from a park. From our location we could see 4 different sets of simultaneous fireworks across the water--both beautiful and an opportunity to use the handy dandy fireworks setting on my camera. We headed back into the city at about 2 am and spent the next couple hours circumnavigating the Sydney Opera House (the long way, of course) in the hopes of finding a way in through the security and cleanup crews and up to the building. Feeling somewhat like spies, we were able to find an unpatrolled way over and finally saw the Opera House up close, albeit at 3:30 in the morning. It seems we weren't the only ones wandering the streets all night--the streets were quite full of people, even until 5 am when we retrieved our bags and headed to the airport. Driven by the saying, "You can sleep when you're dead!" we somehow made it to the airport and to Cairns before crashing at a very dodgy, but affordable, hostel.

Phase 3: Cairns (Jan. 1 - Jan. 6)



Cairns also has one of those dangerously simple yet deceiving names. During the planning stages of OZ 08, my references to "Kay-rns" were met with bemused laughter on the part of James. In true Aussie style, he was having much too much fun with it to actually tell me how to say the name of the city properly, and even all of my Aussie friends had been forwarned not to speak the name of the city "up north." We talked around the subject for weeks, even up until the day we borded the plane for "up north." And it wasn't until I heard the natives say our destination 2 or 3 times that I learned that the city we were visiting next was "Cans"--as in, "cans" of baked beans. But it soon became apparent that the proper pronunciation of this place was of very little importance in the big picture. In the grand scheme of things, I thought of this last leg of our journey less as "Cans" and something more like "Paradise."

After our night of sleepless wandering through the center of Sydney, we were bushed. Never before has a lumpy hostel mattress with questionable stains felt or looked so appealing. Despite the shock of suddenly arriving in the balmy tropics, we slept quite soundly in our stuffy little room. Finally venturing into the city in the late afternoon, we wandered around from tourist office to tourist office until we found a hidden gem in Didier, our star reservation booker. Didier, originally from France but since the last decade or so from Cairns, listened to our vague ideas of what we'd like to do in the area--mainly diving and rainforesting--and gave his suggestions on what we may want to try. He wasn't trying to sell us on anything, and he seemed more interested in talking with us than actually making a commission. We asked about certain trips or tours, and he would tell us which ones were more for the locals and which more for the tourists. After we left Didier, we got about 2 blocks before we realized that it was fruitless to try and top that in any other travel office, so we went back and booked up the next four days of boating, diving, tours, and islands. Certainly not expecting the sudden windfall we gave him, he even gave us the underwater camera I was about to buy as a gratis perk. Walking through the night market later that evening, in good spirits about the day ahead, we stopped along a row of Asian massage enterprises and got what was to become the first of four 40-minute full-body massages for $15; every night we were in Cairns we went back to the night market and tried a different massage establishment until we had found the best--the green one. And for $15 a pop, we felt less like indulgent travellers and more like verrry relaxed beach bums.

My biggest goal for Cairns was to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Shortly before leaving for Australia, I ran into an Austrian friend on the tram who told me how, when she was in Australia, she'd spent several nights on a boat diving out on the reef. Didier saw to it that we were able to book a similar endeavor, a 2 day 1 night package 65 km out on the Great Barrier Reef. Since I didn't have diving certification, I was required to always go down with an instructor. This of course was no biggie, as my only previous diving experience was my one diving with the sharks and the sting rays in the Melbourne Aquarium in 2005. This time I was out in the Ocean--no containing walls and no handlers to feed the dangerous marine animals on a regular basis--so I was more than happy for my escort. I made a total of 6 dives over the next two days, and after figuring out the best way to equalize the pressure in my ears (after a rather painful experience on my first trip down and my first time using the "I'm not ok and there's a problem"' hand signal) and figuring out how NOT to float to the surface again (anyone remember the part in "The Sword in the Stone" when Wart is turned into a fish and the frog keeps kicking him down as he bobs to the surface? Yeah...), I began to feel quite at home under da sea. The first thing that struck me was just how AMAZING it was in real life--I honestly thought to myself, "It looks just like it does in 'Finding Nemo!'" The colors are brilliant. The variety and diversity of marine life are staggering. And no matter how many anemones or corals or reef fish you've seen, the Reef is always going to be different, with different nooks and different crannies and different creatures patroling their turf. It made me wish (and not for the first time in my life, as my parents can tell you) that I was born the Little Mermaid and never had to come up for air again. By my 3rd dive, the instructors were saying how they'd heard what a natural I was and that they only had to go down with me as a formality because I didn't have my certification--and they all recommended I get my Open Water Certification. By the time we left the Reef, I'd taken that suggestion to heart, and I was seriously considering the merits of moving to Australia and becoming a dive instructor. Seriously. And having looked into the requirements of joining the crew of the boat we were on, don't be surprised when you hear of my next career change...


James' big wish was to see the rainforest. And with the Daintree Rainforest just next door, it was just a quick hour to the world's oldest continuous rainforest. We took a tour that would take us up the coast and through the Daintree up to Cape Tribulation, with a crocodile cruise on the Daintree river along the way. Our tour guide was there as his first day on the job, but he far surpassed anything I ever could have expected. Paul, our infinite fountain of Australian knowledge, was able to answer any question we posed to him. Having lived in the rainforest for 2 years in a symbiotic relationship with a rafter-dwelling python lovingly deemed Monty, he was the curator of an aboriginal cultural site before he took up his current gig as a tour guide. So impressive was his knowledge that, when I came back from the outhouse with pictures of a spider the size of my hand that I was convinced I'd seen in my "Australia's Most Dangerous" book, Paul was able to tell me not only what type of spider that was (not poisonous), but that it had the strongest web of any spider and was even the first spider to be sent up in space. And that's the abridged version. He took us through the rainforest, where he shared with us the most fascinating details of the rainforest and its complicated vegetation. We took a crocodile cruise on the Daintree river before lunch, and even spotted 2 crocs carefully submerged and lying in wait. Although it was called the "crocodile cruise," my favorite part was seeing the colony of flying foxes, or fruit bats, hanging upsidedown in the trees along the river. They were the size of small cats, or maybe bunny rabbits, and although it was daytime, they were fidgeting and screeching up in the branches. Although they were incredibly ugly, they were cute in a pugs-are-also-cute sort of way. After a barbecued barramundi lunch and a dip in an ice-cold watering hole, we travelled further up to Cape Tribulation, the location that receives the second most rainfall in all Australia. On the way back to Cairns we got the opportunity to experience this rainfall firsthand--made better by the homemade passion fruit ice cream we stopped to get along the way.

Our final day in Cairns was to be our relaxing beach day. And to go to a relaxing beach, we took a trip out to Fitzroy Island, where the rainforest meets the reef. The island itself is far less touristy than the other local islands, and 96% of it is covered in national park. The island is, literally, a giant rainforest. And the Great Barrier Reef does, literally, come all the way up to the beach--incredible. This is the kind of place that is shown on inspirational posters. This is the kind of place that you know will make all your friends jealous through a single photograph. This is the kind of place, in short, that embodies the idea of tropical paradise. When we arrived on the island, we first picked up our stinger suits (a head-to-toe suit somewhat like a wetsuit that only leaves the mouth exposed) and flippers, a must for snorkelling during jeallyfish season. And since Australia is home to several very grisly varieties of jellyfish, I was more than happy to leave a very tiny target of exposed skin for these marine stingers. We hiked through the rainforest--a naturally hot and humid endeavor--down to Nudey Beach, the only beach on the island with sand. All of the other beaches are coral beaches, lined by bits of dead coral that have washed up on shore. Although this may sound cool and pretty, it's actually rather painful to walk on! We spent the day snorkeling around the island, finding new and exciting bits of reef. Unfortunately the water wasn't as clear as it usually is, but it was a spectacular view nonetheless. Completing our day trip with a ride on the glass bottom boat, we then rode the 4 km back to the mainland where we celebrated our last day with a big seafood dinner.


Phase 4: Departure (Jan. 6 - Jan. 7)

We flew back to Melbourne on Jan. 6. As I was flying out the next day--on my birthday--we decided to celebrate in Melbourne my last night in Oz. Jess made me an amazingly mouthwatering cake, which we ate as an evening appetizer. Then, having rounded up a group of 10 Aussie friends and acquaintences, we went out for Japanese food to celebrate. Having the unfortunate luck of travelling on my birthday, it was a wonderful way for me to feel the love, especially in a land so far, far away. And having to say my goodbyes at the end of the night, I thought of how soon I'd see them all again if I did come back soon as a dive instructor...


The flight back to Vienna was a sleepless 40-hour nightmare, complete with delays and missed flights. I arrived back in Graz at 11 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 8, and I had to get up at 5 am the next morning for my first day at the new school in Birkfeld! ...Talk about hitting the ground running! Now I'm in the final stages of settling into my new school, and I'll have more to report on that later. But for now, I will summarize my trip with the following sentiment...

OZ 08, baby! Yeah!!

3 comments:

Bruce said...

Let me be the first to comment -nettes Abenteuer! I enjoyed the details and fun writing as always. Plus as always, I enjoyed my conversation with you today... keep up the good work teaching. Love, DAD

Teresa said...

Rebecca,

Wonderful!

T

miss clara said...

OK, now I understand your earlier comment about seriously considering becoming a diving instructor in Australia... I say, go for it!