Merry Sydney Christmas!

Wake up! Wake up!

Arriving on Christmas Eve into Sydney is quite the experience. Our hostel stands tall on the corner of Pitt and George Street, and right away you can’t help but think it is going to be an “up” lifting experience. Yes, puns aside, Wake up! is an imposing hostel. Everything is “up,” from the phones (cash up!) to the internet (hook up!) to the laundry (wash up!) to their inticing slogan (wake up! with someone new). We booked into an eight-bed dorm for nine nights and headed up to our penthouse suite on the top floor. Everyone was decked out in full head-to-toe christmas party gear. Santa and his elves were aplenty. Sarah and I decided to miss out on the Jaeger bomb world record (Jaeger bombs are jaegermeister and red bull shots) and head down for some more wholesome fun at the Darling Harbour. There we listened to carols around a beautiful blue Christmas tree, licked at some chocolate sundaes, wore silly hats and generally got into the spirit of the season.

Beach Bust

Christmas day broke… cloudy. In fact, it is the coldest Christmas in 30 years in Sydney. That didn’t stop Sarah and I from heading down to Bondi Beach. Wake up! sold us tickets to a special Christmas lunch at Bondi. Unfortunately, we got there to a very disappointing nothing. Yep, it was a complete bust. They tried to make it up to us by giving out tickets to another event not too far away, but at that point we just wanted our money back. Which we didn’t get.

Not wanting to make a complete waste of Christmas, we found a few of our non-Wakeup friends at Bondi, found a sheltered picnic table, ate McDonalds (for Christmas lunch) and had a couple of beers. Despite the blustery wind and clouds, it was a great day. We made our way down to Coogee beach later, and then back to the Darling Harbour for a lovely Italian dinner.

As far as Christmases go, it was one I will never forget. It wasn’t all that we had hoped for; we didn’t get to top up our tans or eat shrimp on the barbie. But it was spent with the best of friends and there were lots of laughs.

Merry Christmas everybody!


Great Great Ocean Road

The morning forecasts were for thunderstorms and rain, and so following for the rest of the week. Not wanting to waste away our days in Victoria, we set out to travel the Great Ocean Road – despite the gloomy weather predictions.

As it turned out, we arrived in Torquay to sunshine and high temperatures. Torquay is the first major town stop on the GOR after Geelong. It is also a surfer’s mecca and home to Bell’s Beach, made famous by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in the cult classic “Point Break.” We stopped to shop (if you can believe it!) at the surf shop outlets. Actually, if you know me you probably won’t believe it – but I’ve been having better-than-average retail success over the past week. ‘Tis the season!

We continued to be lucky as the bad weather systems moved inland; Melbourne hit it hard, we find out later. The obligatory “Great Ocean Road” sign stop is made and Sarah and I both risked our necks to run into the road and stand underneath it. Clever idea!

Great Otway National Park lines the road, with enormous eucalyptus trees on either side. Mist clung to the tops of the trees like a shroud. Leahanne’s little black car swung around the windy roads as we belted out to PCD and cheesy English pop. And occasionally we would stop mid-lyric as the coastline itself came in sight, fingers outstretched into the ocean.

The Twelve Apostles are magnificent. Fewer of them stand now than since I was last in Australia six years ago, according to the guide books. It’s hard to think of those massive great rocks as fragile, but they are. It reminds me of all the wonders that once were and that I’ve never seen; and that those I am seeing now might never be seen again. It’s times like this I know I am doing the right thing, even if it is difficult sometimes.

Beyond the Twelve Apostles is the Loch Ard Gorge and Blowhole. The tide was far too calm for the blowhole but the gorge was lovely and serene; perfect for swimming.

In total, we drove for almost 12 hours. Trust me when I say that Leahanne deserves all the thanks in the world for being our personal Victoria tour guide. People pay hundreds of dollars for her kind of service and as much as we hope to repay her, we will never be able to match what she has done for us. To think that we met in Africa only three months ago is another part of travelling that I love. Being open to people, forming lasting relationships and taking advantage of people’s offers of hospitality – that’s what it is all about. And they all know they are welcome back at mine anytime, so it all works out in the end.


Melbourne Fever

X-mas Fever 

Christmas takes on a feverish-like intensity in Australia. Even though the 30degree temperatures and bright sunshine contradict the snowy images emblazoned on the Christmas cards, every thing else is festive season in full force. The streets are lined with decorations and many of Melbourne’s houses are lit up by lights. The shopping is just incredible. Australians spend over 30% more on Christmas than Americans! Sarah and I are attempting to curb our spending as much as possible, although it is difficult not to want to replace every single item in our backpacks. Africa did not treat our clothing nicely. The traditional Christmas dinner over here is shrimp on the barbie. We may have a little taste of that when we get to Sydney, but for now our Christmas plans are completely up in the air. It doesn’t feel like Christmas over here, although sitting in my first Starbucks in over three months, drinking a gingerbread latte and listening to “White Christmas” on the radio made me feel a little more at home.

Neighbours Fever

Monday night is “Neighbours Night” in St. Kilda’s. I remember Neighbours fondly from my childhood; an afterschool ritual often combined with “Home and Away”. I haven’t seen an epsiode since leaving England, but Neighbours is still must-watch television for anyone from the UK. Even Australians don’t possess the same mad love of Neighbours as the brits, and hence everyone at Neighbours Night (with a few notable exceptions, including myself) was British.

Neighbours SetWe opted not to do the Neighbours tour, since our lovely friend Leahanne (who is very graciously putting us up for the week) knows where all the key locations are in Neighbours-land. Ramsay Street is the main draw, and we showed up on Monday. Unfortunately they were filming at the time, so we were unable to stand in front of the houses. But we came back on Wednesday and fulfilled all of Sarah’s “Neighbours” dreams.

Neighbours night itself was an amazing night. They announced upon our arrival that Neighbours is moving from BBC to Channel 5 in England (to the chorus of many boos). But funnily enough, Channel Five were filming a documentary on Neighbours and its rabid English fans on that very night. That means we get to be on TV! Anyone in England reading this, be sure to look out for the documentary in early February. Sarah was filmed up on stage dancing in a black tube top and jean skirt, while we both stood centre stage as the Neighbours stars came out. If you see our faces, be sure to let us know! Also, we are in a TV spot for Channel Five saying “Same Ramsay Street, Same Time.”

Penguin Fever

Penguin parade

Sarah and I have a special spot in our hearts for Penguins. We made a special trip out to see them in Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town and we made a special trip in Melbourne! The penguins here are out at Phillip Island, about 2 hours from Melbourne proper. At around sunset every night (about 9pm yesterday), the smallest penguin species in the world – the aptly named “little penguins” – arrive in droves at the shore. This “penguin parade” has become a highly commercialized and tourist-friendly spot in Australia and was so well put together that it reminded me and Sarah of Sea World! We sat down on concrete bleachers on the beach amidst hordes of Japanese and British tourists. It was absolutely packed. And then the penguins began to arrive. One of the most surreal natural events I have ever witnessed, these tiny penguins materialized out of the water by the hundreds. Reluctantly they would sit in the water’s edge, occasionally getting pushed over by waves. One would sneak out onto the beach, take a look around, then run back in. Twenty of them would get out onto the sand, look up at the sky, look over at the grass knolls where their homes were, look inquisitively over at us humans, then run back into the water. Then finally, a group of about twenty-thirty of them would make the push across the sand, waddling like wind-up puppets over the grass. This happened for an hour, with over 900 penguins crossing the beach in total. Up on the boardwalks through the grassy cliffs, we could watch the penguins as they continued toward their homes. It was absolutely magic. Unfortunately, absolutely no photographs were allowed to be taken during the parade itself, as the flashes would terrify the penguins.  

Melbourne is a city that loves to party. The fashion is uber-trendy, and all its occupants are highly image conscious. It has the habit of making dirty backpackers like us feel a little uncomfortable – and certainly makes our wallets feel tight – but it’s a beautiful and lively place to visit. Check out my friend Jessica’s blog too; she is going to be living outside of Melbourne for the next year and has visited many cool places around Australia.


There are no monkeys at Monkey Mia

Amy and Sarah in fly hatsAustralia is huge. Yeah I know, obvious, right? But it’s not until we’re barrelling down the highways, swerving against kangaroos and blue-tongued skinks in a WesternXposure minibus, that I truly realize it. The number of flies slapping against the windscreen is unreal. Outside is worse. Desperate times call for desperate measures and both Sarah and I fork out for army green outbacker hats, complete with full frontal fly netting. We are just that cool.

The bus that is taking us from Perth to Monkey Mia is a mix of nationalities – Scots, Japanese, Spanish, Swiss.  For the first couple of days we travel with another bus that is going further north, to Exmouth. Having the two buses side by side makes me realize how much your enjoyment of a trip is up to chance. There are good groups of people – like those on our bus. Then there are those who seem in a permanent state of drunk or grump or both. Would it kill the girls on the other bus to crack a smile? Since they never dare to try it, it is easy to think so. Our bus is lucky. Well, except for the poor unfortunates who have to put up with the “When we were in Africa…” girls.Amy and the WesternXposure bus

The big ticket stop on the tour is Monkey Mia and its wild dolphins. Not that we don’t see other things along the way: the Pinnacles desert with its eerie cemetery of innumerable limestone headstones; the reptile infested Murchison Gorge; our great great great ad infinitum grandparents, the 3.5 billion year old stromatolites; Hutt River Province, Prince Leonard’s own country (I have a new stamp in my passport); or have our first taste of kangaroo. But no one is kidding themselves; we are here to see Flipper.

After days of driving through horrendous storms in places that haven’t seen rain in years, the day breaks on the Peron peninsula clear, sunny and bright. The water sparkles as if its been polished for our arrival, a mix of aquamarine shallows and emerald deeps. There are dark figures frolicking by the pier. Even at 7am, they have attracted a line of admirers. Sarah lets out a small squeal of recognition as the apparitions solidify into dorsal fins and bottle-noses. We both drop our bags in the sand and run to join the crowd.

They are so close you could almost reach out and touch them, although we are under strict orders not to. This is especially paramount with the sighting of a one-month old calf playing in the water beside his (or her) mother. Watching the babe is a rare treat, and the slightest disturbance could send the calf and its mother fleeing.

Baby Dolphin and its motherCalfs have about a 50% chance of survival in these waters, the ranger tells us. Tiger sharks are abundant; Shark Bay is no misnomer. I look down at my toes, into water that is neither aquamarine nor emerald  but crystal clear and wonder how there could be any danger. They say that whenever you swim in Australian waters, you’re always within 100 metres of a shark. But tiger sharks are so well fed on the West Coast, humans don’t need to worry about falling accidental prey. Seeing the baby dolphin attempt a leap over its mother, I hope s/he doesn’t have to worry much either.


Close Encounters of the Quokka Kind

Wildlife. I was so privileged with wildlife sightings in Africa that I keep thinking I am going to see a giraffe on the side of the road as we drive through the Australian bush. Actually, according to Lonely Planet, I am more likely to see Australian wildlife on the road than off it. Roadkill is an even worse problem here than back at home.

QuokkaSo perhaps it is fitting that my first sighting of a ‘quokka’ – an extremely rare marsupial only found on Rottnest Island and one or two other locations in Western Australia – was a dead one on the side of the road. By this point, Jason, Sarah and I had been biking around Rottnest Island for a couple of hours and I was beginning to despair. Would we see one of these rare creatures, or would they prove as elusive as cheetahs in the Serengeti? And what misfortune for this little quokka that he was hit by a car, considering that the only vehicles allowed on Rottnest are bikes and the tourist bus that circles the island every hour or so. Somehow, we found our way all around the island without seeing a quokka. We still had two hours to kill until our ferry back to Perth, so Jason and I (Sarah’s knee was hurting her by this point) decided to head out once again along a route we had missed the first time. And this time proved lucky – we found quokkas by the dozen! They were friendly, or perhaps stupid, and approached the bikes without any fear at all. They posed for photos and we moved on, my Australian wildlife hunger sated – for now.

“Toeing” the Line

One of the biggest draws in Freemantle (a kind of suburb of Perth) is the Freemantle prison. In operation right up until 1991, they now offer several different tours of the creepy and the macabre. Certainly this is a prison right out of the movies – complete with a hangman’s noose, whipping post and thick white lines painted on the floor. The white lines indicated where the prisoners were supposed to line up, and this is exactly what we were told to do when we first started the “torchlight” tour: toes to the line!

The torchlight tour took place after dark, and we were all given little pocket torches to carry around with us. Surprises were around every corner – the screams coming from Sarah were hilarious – and Jason was punished for bad behaviour on the whipping post. He had to do a spot of acting and Sarah was asked to put the cat-o-nine-tails to good use!

Wave Rock

Another big attraction around Perth is Wave Rock. A good four hour drive away, Sarah and Jason took to the wheels of a tiny bright red Hyundai Getz and I took over some of the navigation.  The drive took us past golden wheatfields and wine groves, through sleepy towns and farmland.  We silently prayed we would have enough gas, and momentarily panicked when the first two gas stations we arrived at were closed. But all was well. Surfing Wave Rock

Wave rock is an ancient rock formation and an important Aboriginal site. The curious shape is formed by water erosion, although now there is a dam preventing further carving.  I couldn’t resist the obligatory “surfing” photograph. For a moment, we had the entire rock just to ourselves. Sometimes it is worth every penny not to go on a tour, if only for that fleeting instant when you could feel like you have discovered something for yourself.