Published on December 7th, 20128
Making a Dent in Oz
Let’s get one thing straight people – skipping ’round Australia is hardly a stroll in the park. A smidge bigger than all of the continental U.S. (not including Alaska)*, trying to “do” Oz in but a few weeks is a fantasy at best.
Granted, 98% of Australia’s land mass (verily all but the fringes along the eastern and southeastern edges) is… utterly deserted.
Still, I only had but 20-some days to explore the entire continent – I mean, try traversing the U.S. coast from say… New York to D.C. to Florida, to Texas, to California, to Seattle – oh and, toss in a quick trip to the Grand Canyon while you’re at it – all in but 21 days. Needless to say, not gonna happen. So the best I could do with Oz on this trip, was make a bitty dent and hit a smattering of highlights.
In a nutshell: 26 nights total w/ but 22 in Oz itself, 3 nights en route (two HCMC + one 30,000 ft. aloft from Singapore to Sydney) and a single night in Singapore on the return.
Oz included: 6 nights (broken up) in Sydney, and 14 toddlin’ no less than 1,200+ miles up the coast to Hervey Bay (via hop on/off Greyhound bus), plus the crème de la crème: 2 nights under the ancient eyes of the majestic Uluru in Australia’s Outback (a.k.a. the truly freekin’ middle of NOWHERE!)
The Details and Rubles: Firstly, an 8 hour bus from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City (less than 10 bucks) on 28 October. Dinner w/ my good chum Hang, and overnight at my favorite little Saigon hotel (Tyna, $12).
Then a Tiger Air flight ($160 rt.) from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore the next morning, arriving at Changi Airport (a destination in and of itself!) in the afternoon, with an outbound connection to Sydney departing at 2 am (ugh!)
Still, Changi is so chock-full of freebies to do whilst in transit, the hours flew by as I A. found a geocache in the airport’s “Butterfly Garden”, B. took a (free!) 2 hour “Singapore at Night” bus tour, C. snapped pics of the wondrous “Kinetic Rain” sculpture in Terminal 1, and D. E. and F. dozed comfortably in the nifty “Snooze Lounge”.
In the wee hours of the morning, I boarded my Scoot flight (the new budget arm of Singapore Airlines – not to mention the under $300 rt. impetus for this entire fling to Oz) and settled back down for a 7-ish hours sleep.
Given the breathtaking spendiness of Australia (especially whence dropping in after a year in cheapo Asia), I opted to save a few pennies by couchsurfing. And oh my – the CS folks I met in Oz turned out to be the most wonderful part of my entire trip!
The plan was to arrive in Sydney, overnight in a hostel to get my bearings, then couchsurf for 2 nights before jumping on a hop on/off Greyhound bus ($220) and make my way slowly up the coast to Port Macquarie, Byron Bay, Noosa, and Hervey Bay. Then fly back to Sydney (JetAir $150) to catch my Virgin Air (no less than 500 smackers rt. for the 3 hr. flight) to Uluru/Ayers Rock. And finally a couple more nights in Sydney before heading back to Singapore (where I couchsurfed a night w/ a most extraordinary lass) and then back to HCMC on 22 November (Thanksgiving in the U.S.) and bus the next day back to Dalat.
Note: Transportation ALONE for this little adventure teeters at more than $1,400! So much for saving a bundle on the < $300 Scoot Air sale that spawned it all, but oh well.
In any case… Far too many details to peck the entire odyssey chronologically, so better I just share a few of the high/low-lights:
First of all, after more than a year of sticking out like a sore thumb (reference to “thumbs” here sheer coincidence) in Southeast Asia, I must say – walking the streets of Sydney I was suddenly struck by a most sweet revelation: Why I look JUST LIKE these folks! So nice to not be the resident gargantuan foreign goon, but rather – completely ignored by locals in the street (well o.k., as long as I didn’t open my mouth). So great to blend in, save for my accent (which screamed “American” before I’d even uttered a second word).
Speaking of accents… For the life of me I often couldn’t understand plain ENGLISH in Oz, whence peppered with the strong Aussie accent. Though I tried my derndest to understand the Oz jargon mixed with an accent that totally eluded me, I often had to ask folks to please “spell it” so as to be sure (for example) I was suppose to get off at the train stop “ChatsWOOD”, not “ChatsWORTH”. Indeed, when hopping on trains in a strange foreign city, getting the ending of the destination wrong could well lead to disaster.
Furthermore, I must say – though I tried my level best to catch each and every word on the first go, and always asked exceedingly politely for a repeat and/or a spelling – in general, many of the Aussies seemed quite brusque and impatient, and I often felt far more a “foreigner” in Oz – than I do in VIETNAM!
That said, one of the sweetest examples of Aussie hospitality, came both early and serendipitously on my 2nd day in Sydney. I was making my (somewhat convoluted) way to my first couchsurfer’s place in North Sydney (via first noodling out the right train platform at the Central station, and likewise – cross fingers – the correct train, then get off at “Chatswood” (see accent dilemmas, above) and “walk a few blocks…” to a bus stop, then hop on the – hopefully correct – bus), when…
When I finally found my way to the right bus stop (about 7pm) I politely asked one of the Aussie’s waiting, if I needed exact change for the bus, and if so, how much might the fare be? The lass replied, “Oh – it’s after 6pm, so you need to buy a ticket in advance for this bus.” “Oh dear” says I, “Where might I get a ticket, please?” “Just down the street there at the convenience store.” says she. So off I skip to purchase the bus ticket (hoping I don’t miss the bus in the meantime). But before I’d taken two steps, a most kindly (likewise lass “of a certain age”) stops me and hands me a “pensioner” bus ticket (worth AU$3.20) – “Here” says she, “Welcome to Australia!” Now I ask ya – how nice ‘n Oz-friendly is that?
I HEART Sydney! Seriously. A most vibrant city, with an eclectic mix of old and new architecture, tons of shady parks and sidewalk cafes, and of course… a coastline and harbor to-die-for. Indeed, though I hesitate to raise ANY place on the Planet up to the lofty height of the pedestal that holds my beloved Seattle – I must say, as a city, Sydney comes mighty close.
And while we’re on the subject of Sydney – two points:
1. “Bounce” hostel – $40/nt. for a 4-bed dorm with shared bath – yes, a tad spendy for a shared dorm, but it was among the cheapest, and a great value in Sydney (where a simple cheese sandwich costs more than most HOTELS in Saigon!)
In a word: EXCELLENT! Bounce is ever so conveniently located (right across the street from the Central train station, and within walking distance of most all the Sydney sights), ultra clean and amazingly quiet. The staff too, most friendly and helpful.
2. Volunteer gig monitoring whales – Surprisingly, given the near GRAND I spent on Uluru, not to mention $300+ for a single DAY trip to Lady Elliott Island (more on these to come) – one of the BEST and most memorable experiences I had in Australia was a pure freebie. A fabulously sunny afternoon monitoring the migration of whales off the coast of Sydney – as a volunteer (ConservationVolunteers.com.au). A most fascinating afternoon, peering through binoculars perched on the most stunning wind-swept cliffs overlooking the Pacific – catching glimpses of gray whales (and their babies) breaching, spouting, and making their merry way steadily south. So fun, and I learned a lot. Plus I honestly felt I’d contributed a smidge to the scientific research on these magnificent creatures of the sea.
Australia’s climate is AWESOME! Leastwise in the spring (November – remember, Oz is “DownUnder” so season’s are opposite) when I was there. Sunny with balmy breezes were the norm most everywhere – even the Outback wasn’t deathly hot. It did sprinkle a tad (ironically enough, only whilst I was in Noosa, on the “Sunshine Coast”), but overall I couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit Australia.
Reuniting with dear Flora of course was just the BEST! It was she who first couchsurfed with ME in SEATTLE – no fewer than FOUR years ago! She is such a delight, and we kept in touch all these years. So of course I was THRILLED to be able to turn the “couch” (tables?) and stay with her in the most beautiful seaside town of Port Macquarie. We had such fun – she took me to a most remarkable “Koala Hospital” so that I could see my first cuddly koala. Leisurely breakfasts on the patio overlooking the Pacific (in the top floor PENTHOUSE where she was housesitting!), “tea-tasting” at a most charming tea shop in Port Macquarie, a delightful local play, and THE most delectable “New Zealand” lamb dinner (Flora’s a Kiwi by birth, but has long lived in Oz.)
Then there’s Giovanni, a most delightful man from Byron Bay, with a garden that looks like a scene from Bali. A fantastic cook (amazing crispy “Cracklin’ Crusted” pork, et al) and the nicest, most interesting friends (Peter and David). Giovanni kindly took me into Byron town to buy a GPSr (long story, but suffice the GPS on my iPhone was wacko, so I bit-bullet and bought a little Magellan). Then we flailed around for a half hour but never found the “Coronation” cache (GC3V61N for all my geochums out there), which… it now seems was M.I.A. after all. Giovanni also drove me to the dive shop the next day so I could do a (somewhat daunting, deeeeep water/strong current, but hey – this old lady donned a wetsuit and jumped on IN!) snorkeling excursion at Julian Rocks.
And Jill and Alex – a most friendly family in Mulumbimby (their son is a fellow geocacher!) that instantly made me feel like a member of the family. And when I happened to mention that I’d “love to see a kangaroo”, we forthwith all piled into the car (along with their 4 yr. old grandson) and headed for the only “sure thing” kangaroo-wise: the nearby “Macadamia Circus” (a.k.a. uh, the local kid’s PETTING ZOO!) A bit pathetic I know, but their grandson loved it, and – on the chance that I’d not happen to see one in the wild in my days to come at Uluru, etc. – at LEAST I could safely say I’d seen a KANGAROO in Australia!
Which nicely segues into…
Couchsurfing with Jennie and John (Flora’s daughter and SIL) in Hervey Bay. Yet another wonderful stay, in their beautiful apartment with swimming pool (not to mention my own room with private patio and bath!), just steps from the beach! Jennie was super busy with work and directing a play, but dear John spent many hours showing me around, taking me out at dusk to stalk (WILD!) kangaroos (we found an entire field FULL OF THEM!), taking me fishing, to the “club” for lunch (and playing the “slots” – I won more than $50!). We even got up at the crack of dawn one morning to see the near-total SOLAR ECLIPSE! And as if all that weren’t enough – John even let me take him out GEOCACHING – and he found his first cache!
And finally – there’s dear Ching Hua in Singapore. I SWEAR I must be the LUCKIEST lass on the Planet – to have somehow made the acquaintance of this most remarkable woman. We had little more than 4 or 5 waking hours together (most of it spent chowing down at a nearby “hawkers” market – munching Singapore’s legendary “Chili Crab” along with OMG! delicious sting-ray), but I INSTANTLY loved her verve, her brilliance, and her spirit. She’s a native of Singapore, but has lived most her life in… New York! Works for IBM and was in the middle of packing for a week’s solo adventure in INDIA! Needless to say, we seriously “clicked” and I feel that I now have a true, new friend on the tiny isle of Singapore. Just goes to show that “strangers” surely ARE but “friends we’ve yet to meet”.
Seriously. (As abundantly evidenced here) Couchsurfing is just the BEST, and I honestly can’t recommend it more highly. Yes, I saved a bundle of dough on accommodations, but faaaar more importantly, I met a most wonderful bunch of new friends, and learned lots more about Australia and its customs, culture, etc. than I’d ever have at any hotel.
O.k. now, best I wrap this up with but a couple more thumbs-up/down (along with the usual sample of stray pics) – and save the frosting on the Oz-cake (the magnificent ULURU!) for a separate post.
Lady Elliott Island. O.k. so the one thing missing from my brief scoot around the vast continent of Oz was personally witnessing the legendary awesomeness of “The Great Barrier Reef”. Stretching southward some 1,500+ miles from the tippy-top of Oz, unfortunately the GBR rather dwindles out just north of Hervey Bay (the furthest north I could reasonably get in my two-week, 1,200 mile skip up the loooooong Australian coast from Sydney). So I’d all but given up on snorkeling among the GBR’s alleged marine wonders on this trip – or likely ever. ;(
Still, I’d read that there was a wee island (Lady Elliott) at the southernmost end of the GBR that was reachable by air from Hervey Bay. So… long story short, I threw all fiscal prudence to the wind and… booked a single day trip out to Lady Elliott Island to see just what all the GBR fuss was about. I mean, what’s a lass to do? There I am (likely the only time in my life) but a 20 minute plane ride away from snorkeling the great, the GREAT, the G.R.E.A.T.E.S.T. mind you – barrier reef on the PLANET! I’ll tell ya what a girl’s to do…
Proffer the Plastic: 320 bucks for a DAY TRIP!
The island was EXQUISITE. Unbelievably pristine and idyllic (not to mention tiny – the runway ran the full diameter of it, yet the plane barely had 50 ft. left when we rolled in to a stop upon landing!)
And yes, the corals of the GBR were MAGNIFICENT. H-U-G-E! Deeeeeep canyons of coral to swim through. Larger than anywhere else I’ve snorkeled or SCUBA dived.
And oh my YESSSSSSS…
I SWAM WITH A SEA TURTLE! Right there, I could TOUCH the SHELL! It was truly amazing!
But the fish? Schools of color to dazzle the eye and blow the mind? Sharks? Stingrays? Ummm, not so much. Maybe it’s ‘cuz I’ve spent so much time snorkeling Belize’s reef (but a fraction in length to the GBR, but apparently the longest LIVING reef in the world). Indeed, I’ve even SCUBA dived the “Blue Hole” in Belize – 160 foot down, thankyouverymuch. And I must say – comparatively, I’ve seen MANY more fish, more diverse, more colorful – in Belize, than I witnessed on that spendy day trip to the “Great” Barrier Reef.
YMMV, but I’m just sayin’…
Still, that turtle was A.MAZE.ING. And (almost) worth the 3 c-notes I spent to swim for 15 minutes with it.
O.k. enough here already (surely some kind of tome-post record, no?) Uluru (which truly was aSTOUNDing!!!) shall have to wait for a future post. My poor fingers are pretty much whipped here, so I’ll just plop a few more pics and call this good.