Tuesday, March 22, 2016

East Coast Australia: Surfer's Paradise to Sydney

On the Gold Coast, our next stop driving down the East Coast was Surfer's Paradise. As implied by the name, this is a haven for surfers, as is much of the area, with big waves and without much worry of stingers, which aren't so common there.
We stayed for 2 nights, and my hotel room was bigger than my real apartment, a one bedroom with a hallway, a living room, a balcony, kitchenette, it was massive. So large that I was actually slightly nervous sleeping there alone. 
The night that we got in, we all fended for ourselves for dinner, and then met up for VIP entry into one of the clubs along the strip, Sin City, where all the bartenders and servers dress in lingerie, an extra treat for the guys. I like dancing, so that's what I did, as much as I could in a really crowded club where if you could make it onto the dance floor, it could be tricky to actually find the space to move.  After a few hours at the club, a couple of us headed down the street to a more low key bar playing music I actually liked (as opposed to Bieber, whose songs stalked me throughout this trip, I couldn't get away, and yes, it's much to late to say sorry). A little while later, we got some pizza, and decided to get a ride back to the hotel in one of the pedicabs we kept seeing all over.  With three tipsy girls in the back, the guy got his workout for the night and earned his fare.
The next day, most of the group decided to head down to the beach.  It was still very fine very white sand there, and as I mentioned, we could go swimming without fear of jellyfish.  So out into the waves we all went and got tossed around a good bit. 
After a while drying off in the sun, I decided to check out the town in the light of day. It's a small downtown, lots of shops, and I was especially happy to find a Ben & Jerry's to cool off a bit on my walk back to the hotel.  With my huge hotel room, I opted for a quiet night in with the TV, watching from the balcony as the rain fell while the sun set.
The following day on our drive down the coast, we stopped at Currumbin Sanctuary, where you are allowed to hold a koala and get a picture taken with it.  Some states won't allow you to hold or touch koalas, but in Queensland it's still ok, lucky for us. They are heavier than I expected, and kinda stinky, but still very cute. Sadly, their population is decreasing because of drought (not being able to find water safely) and an epidemic of chlamydia (seriously, koala STDs are a big problem). 
We also were able to feed some kangaroos, see crocodiles (they have an electric fence around the area with the fresh water ones, because they really will kill you if they can, and not just for food), tree kangaroos (which are small and reddish and like to climb),and I finally saw a dingo, lying in its doghouse totally docile.  
As I wandered around and checked out some of the birds, I saw a family of geese in the open crossing the path in front of me where a stream ran under. There were four adults and some cute babies, I took a picture and waited for them to get safely to the other side before continuing on. Apparently some of them didn't think I'd given the babies quite enough space, because two of the adults flew at me, wings spread, feet and beaks out, squawking like crazy; the first just shooed me further away, but the second I thought was going to land in my head, I screamed and ran away as it came at me. I'm sure it would have been hilarious to watch, but somehow right then no one was nearby to see! In a country full of exotic and deadly animals, I was attacked by geese. 
When we left the sanctuary, we crossed from Queensland into New South Wales, and also changed time zones. Not all states use Daylight Savings Time, so depending on the time of year, the time in adjacent sates can be the same or different. That night we spent in Byron Bay in a hostel.  We drove up to see the lighthouse and the furthest east point of the continent, and then down into the small town, another surfing community with a very hippy culture. 
We all bought our own food and had a little picnic dinner on the grass expanse above the beach while some local musicians played guitar and sang. There was a plan to go out to a club that night, but I had been under the weather, and had to get up early the next morning, so I was on the fence. When I got back to the hostel, my key didn't work, so I went to the front desk, and they said I was supposed to check out that day. I explained that I'd just gotten there and the group I was with. Apparently they had my room number wrong in the computer, so they had moved me out of the room and given it to someone else. I had a serious moment of panic not knowing where my stuff was when they let me check the room and their baggage closet to find nothing. But they had it all behind the desk (leaving me to wonder why send me off to look for it?), and they put me into another room. While traveling for so long, having everything I own disappear, even briefly, plus knowing it isn't safe in my locked room and that someone went through my things (I was somewhat unpacked when they moved me), it all shook me up, so I decided I was done for the night, not leaving my things alone again. 
The next day a few of us with our Scuba certifications had arranged a dive out at Julian Rocks, just a mile or so off shore. Early in the morning, I checked out and put my bags in storage before I left. It was a rainy morning, but underwater, it was incredible. Right away, lots of leopard sharks were swimming around the reef right under where we anchored. And then a sea turtle, a manta ray, and tons of other colorful fish swam all around us. It was amazing how much there was to see in a small area. 
I somehow went through my air faster than the rest of my group though, so I had to surface before them. It was rainy the rest of the morning as we all got some lunch and then boarded the bus.
A surf camp in Coff's Harbour was our next stop.  It was a really small place on the the beach, just a couple of main buildings for eating and gathering, and our rooms were converted shipping containers. We got there and immediately got ready for our surf lessons. Having lived in LA for a few years and never gotten a surfing lesson, I was really happy to check this off my list.  Carrying the boards down the beach was the hardest part, long heavy things, my arms were going to fall off. But once we reached the right spot, we did a little practice on the sand first on outlines of our boards. We learned the pop up, and also some slower easier methods of getting to our feet.  And then into the waves! On the first one I tried, I actually made it to my feet, it was pretty cool.  Fighting out through the waves to a good spot was more difficult for me, I kept getting smacked in the head by breaking water. Surfers always seem very zen and chill, but I was swearing constantly as the waves crashed on me. But once I was able to turn and paddle and catch a wave, I made it to my feet several times, and rode out to the shore twice.  Lots of fun.
Then it was time to carry the boards back, and I really didn't think I was going to make it, my arms were giving out (there's been very little real exercise in my travels). Rain started to pour down, and I was the last one to make it back to the shelter. My head hurt and my muscles felt shaky, all I wanted to do was lie down.  But first a hot shower because I was coated in fine grain sand.  I ended up resting through dinner, but made it back out to the main building to buy the pictures they took during the lesson and some Gatorade to revive myself. We all played some cards in the evening, and I made it another early night, still fighting off a cold.
Early in the morning we got back on the bus for the long ride down to Sydney, our final stop. I know a lot of people may question my judgment, and I know it seems cliche, but this city is the place I went where I could best picture myself living. As the first colony, there is a lot of history in Sydney. There are also a lot of green spaces, including Hyde Park, right near our hotel. Sydney is of course famous for its harbor, spanned by the bridge, with the opera house on its banks.  

Not long after arriving, we prepared to go on an evening bridge climb, walking up and across the top of the bridge as the city lights lit up the night sky. We were put into jump suits, given head lamps, headsets (to hear the guide up front), and harnessed to a guide rail along the side of the walkway.  Before going, we were also breathalyzed, as they don't let you go up if you have any alcohol in your system. The view from the top was really stunning, but I wasn't allowed to bring a camera up. Though I usually don't, I paid for my photo package from the bridge walk.

The guide told us some people have gotten married at the apex, and they have a New Years Eve celebration up there. He also told us about a man proposing to his girlfriend at the top, and being turned down. They had to walk all the way back down hooked up next to each other with the rest of the group pretending they hadn't all just witnessed the sad humiliation. 
After making it back down, we visited a nearby Irish pub, and then met up with more of the group at this bar closer to the hotel that had a speakeasy feel, down an alley through an unmarked door, dimly lit with fancy themed cocktails. But the decor inside was more like Texas (if you only know Texas from the movies). Here were various animal heads mounted on the walls, including a huge moose. Last call at a lot of the bars is earlier than in the US, so it wasn't too late of a night.
The next day most of us got up and took a ferry from Circular Quay out to Manly Beach, to the north.  It was much less crowded than the infamous Bondi Beach, but a nice place to lay out and enjoy a sunny day.  At least for a few hours.  
After that, I took the ferry back to the city, and took a walk around.  In front of the hospital there is a bronze statue of a boar named Il Porcellino believed to bring good luck to those who rub it's snout (which is the only shiny part of him). 
From there, I walked through Hyde Park, past the fountain with statues of Apollo and Artemis, and Theseus with the Minotaur, and through the Anzac memorial. 
After a quick turn around at the hotel, I headed down to China Town for some excellent food (there is a high Chinese population, given the proximity to Asia) and some cheap souvenir shopping (but if you're reading this, anything I may have gotten you is authentic and expensive).
That night we had a group dinner down in Darling Harbour at The Strand, where we grilled our own steaks (mine turned out delicious).
From there we headed out to Three Wise Monkeys for the last official night of the tour.  There are three floors, so we took one over and all had a really fun time, a little dancing, a little drinking, and lots of group photos. 
The next morning was semi-early (which no one was too happy about after our long night out) to drive out to see the Blue Mountains to the west. They derive their name from the haze released into the air by the eucalyptus trees throughout the area, which gives the air around the mountains a bluish tint. 
We first hiked one of the many trails out to Wentworth Falls, and then went over to view the famous Three Sisters rocks (named for an Aboriginal legend of three sisters turned to stone). 
A thunderstorm came through as we were driving back to the city, but didn't rain on our picnic dinner out by Mrs MacQuarie's Chair on the harbour. The idea is that the wife of the last autocratic governor was so bored in the new colony that she sat watching the ships coming in from sea. 
It was a cloudy evening though, so not the most impressive sunset, but still a pretty view of the bridge and opera house. While the tour was officially over after the Blue Mountains, most people were staying until the following day. 
After our dinner, a bunch of us walked back through the gardens and discovered a Spectrum festival going on, with live music, food, and Latin dancing. The actual concert was a ticketed event, but the rest was open to the public, much like a similar Fringe festival I visited out in Perth. It's always fun in cities to happen upon these kinds of events. 
My flight out the next day was in the evening, so I checked out of the hotel, left my bags in storage, and spent most of the last day further exploring the city.  I walked through the Botanical Gardens, got a close up view of the opera house, visited the New South Wales state library, went to the Customs House to see their giant model of the city housed under a lucite floor (the kids totally fascinated, crawling along the floor pretending to be driving down the tiny streets was the best part), walked down George Street in the retail district, back through Hyde Park and to my hotel to reclaim my bags and board a shuttle to the airport. 
From this angle, the buildings remind me of crusader helmets. 
Notice above the small statue of a cat on the ledge behind Captain Flinders, his pet who accompanied him on all of his voyages. 

My next stop was Bali, which I will write about next time, as well as one more day in Sydney before leaving the Eastern Hemisphere. Thanks for reading!

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