Fremantle Sunset

Fremantle Sunset

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cairns and Sailing the Wonderful Whitsundays!

While the studying aspect of studying abroad is over, I still had a month and a half to travel all over Australia after classes, hitting up amazing places like Cairns, Airlee Beach, Brisbane, Byron Bay, Sydney, Tasmania, Melbourne, Fiji, and New Zealand. Here is the first segment from my post-study travels!

First stop, Cairns! I flew in overnight with and got into the airport at 4 AM (yaaaaaaaaawn). Andrea and I snoozed on a bench until the shuttle picked us up at 9 am, dropped off our bags, and went out to explore the city. We checked out the local markets, bought some sushi and fresh fruit, trying to stick to the covered shops as Cairns was experiencing a torrential downpour throughout most of the day. I limped around most of the city; thankfully my knee was feeling much better from my footy incident so my day of trekking wasn’t too painful. We stopped into a travel shop to poke around and ended up booking 2 AMAZING tours which I will describe later with a super friendly girl who scored us a screamin’ deal. That night we were staying in Gilligans, a hip, young, and CHEAP hostel, but it was a bit too crazy and “party bro” for us considering the circumstances (still exhausted from our overnight flight and day full of walking). I noticed that the male to female ratio was at least 2:1, which would certainly provide some hilarity later in the evening when everyone was out and about and the feisty males engaged in a primitive duel to gain the attention and affection of the limited females. That evening we went around to the night markets, as well as strolled by the beach and witnessed some of the nightlife. As we had to wake up at 6 the next morning for our jungle tour, we opted out of partaking in the alcoholic festivities, deciding instead to finalize our my flights, itineraries, and tours, which was a huge weight off of the ‘ol shoulders.

The next morning, we awoke bright and early, grabbed some oatmeal, rushed our bags over to the more low-key, homely, and less crowded Nomad hostel, and ran back just in time to hop on a bus for the full day tour. The tour was filled with off and on showers, which seemed to spring out of nowhere like a faucet. One minute it would be sunny and warm, the next the clouds would turn black and it was like being sprayed with a hose. Thankfully, it didn’t affect too many of the tour plans.
We first took a little 1.5 hour drive out of cairns, filled with colorful commentary from our wonderful, energetic, vibrant guide, which although quite interesting and informative, was also like a lullaby that quickly lulled me into a wondrous slumber. I awoke just in time to face our first adventure: a crocodile river safari. Although we managed to catch a glimpse of several crocs and a large snake resting lazily in the Mangrove branches, the highlight of this little adventure was most certainly not the animals. In fact, the flora aspect of the rafting experience trumped the fauna by about a bazillion. While seeing the wild creatures was interesting, but a bit disappointing (apparently we had just missed 2 enormous crocs ferociously battling each other over a dead pig carcass… fun!), the scenery and jungle landscape from the boat was superb. Australia’s landscape amazed me once more, and to think of the differences between the sandy dunes of Lancelin, the endless maroon of the outback, and the sprawling green mountains of the rainforests is mind-boggling.
We exited the boat and went on a small drive to end up at an intimate look at the wildlife as we engaged in an immensely beautiful jungle hike. This was definitely one of the highlights, because I have developed a hugely increased appreciation for hikes (aren’t you excited mom????), and I really loved casually strolling through the rain forest and stopping to examine the seemingly unbelievable creatures that inhabited it. One of the coolest things I noticed was the deafening sound of wildlife, which although sometimes didn’t even register with me while I was immersed in the jungle, became apparent once the silence surrounded me after we left.

Side-note: KEVIN (the giant, dinasour-esque bird from the phenomenal Disney movie Up) actually exists!!!! And apparently is actually quite common around Cape Tribulation. The picture depicts the Cassowary (crazy Kevin-like beast), a frequent roadside traveller, as smushed roadkill.

Our next stop was Cape Tribulation, which despite it’s troubled name is actually a beautiful, exceptional place. It received it’s unfortunate name when Leiutenant Cook was sailing around the area at nightfall and mistakenly ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef; he unload several tons of supplies off the boat in order to wrench it away from the coral, at which point the boat needed extensive repairs. Whoops. Despite the wretched name, Cape Tribulation is a gorgeous location and also a distinctly unique area as well, as it is the only place in the world where a great jungle-esque rainforest literally collides with the Great Barrier Reef. After stopping for lunch, we finished the day off with some treks around the beautiful Daintree Rainforest, took a little dip in sparkling river waters of the Mosman Gorge, and hiked around the rapids and waterfalls of the surrounding area. While swimming in the chilly, clear currents of the gorge, I swam at a decent pace upsteam and simply stayed in the exact same spot as the current pushed against me. It was great to dive back into fresh water and as I sat on a boulder in the middle of the small natural pool and surveyed my breathtaking surroundings I was completely at peace and content. It was a magical experience and feeling. As I was getting dragged out of the water by our guide who urged us to hop back on the bus, I noticed a small group of people all huddled around a large black snake, just one of the many incredible encounters with nature we experienced on the trip. Our final stop was at Port Douglas, which was a neat little town with markets and shops, which I bypassed in order to trek down to the shoreline and take in the mountainous landscape surrounding the ocean.

Side-note #2: We weren’t allowed to swim in any of the beaches we visited because box jellyfish (one of the most venomous creatures in the world) were everywhere and are potentially fatal.

Although my trip to the Great Barrier Reef was quite Great Barrier Brief, looking back on it now, I think it all worked out for the best. Cairns was an excellent launching place for the remainder of my travels, but was too crowded and touristy for my taste (not to sound like a snob…). The day tour was pretty cool, and it was great to see the rainforest and hidden treasures of Cairns, I felt I spent enough time there to see what I needed to see. Furthermore, the absolutely PHENOMENAL snorkelling and sailing through the 74 islands of the Whitsundays was more than enough water time for me on my travels.

After eating another hearty breakfast of watery oatmeal and bananas, l lugged my oversized baggage to the train station, where I walked through platform 9 and ¾ (I wish) to catch my ride to Airlee Beach. The train featured another day of rain. Cairns should drop the c and just change it’s name to “Rains.” Because it rains. A lot. A lot lot lot. But it wasn’t all bad, the rain itself was a light, warm, tropical mist at times and when it turned into a torrential downpour, it reminded me of the beautiful Portland, Oregon. Also, the added clouds that came with the weather added a mystical element to the gorgeous mountainous scenery on our tour and the train (it was difficult to capture our ever-changing scenic route on camera so you’ll simply have to trust me that it was amazing). Plus, I can’t complain too much seeing as to how it is the wet season near Cairns, thus this kind of weather is to be expected.

I arrived in Airlee Beach late that night, excited for my adventure the next day. In Cairns Andrea and I had decided to splurge and book a 3 day sailing adventure throughout the spectacular islands of the Whitsundays, easily one of the best decisions I think we made. However, that night masses of “schoolies” or high schoolers freshly done with their semester, swarmed the streets of Airlee in a drunken mob. While friendly for the most part, the countless juveniles were a noisy lot and certainly were in Airlee for all the party central scene that was going on. Also, unbeknownst to us, Airlee holds a large festival the 21st through the 24th of November, so the city was completely packed. So packed in fact, that if we hadn’t called and booked in advance there would legitimately have been NOWHERE to stay. Thank goodness that didn’t occur and I had a bed, albeit in a loud, crowded location.

The next morning the sailing adventure began, honestly one of the most spectacular highlights of Australia and of my life. It was such a rare, beautiful, special experience and I hope to remember the wonders of my sailing journey for a long, long time. After getting acquainted with the ship, my crewmates, and the safety procedures of the boat, we set sail and headed out among the breathtaking 74 Whitsunday Island. My jaw was already in full droppage mode, but once I slipped into the calm, clear, balmy waters for a snorkel, my level of amazement went through the roof. The first thing that caught my eye as I slipped into the lukewarm water was a baby stingray swimming along the ocean floor. I took the incredible sight as a positive sign of things to come, and it was only the beginning of my amazing snorkeling finds. While swimming amidst the incredible schools of rainbow colored fish I kept hearing a constant noise; it sounded as if someone was swinging a dull hammer into the coral consistently every 5 seconds. Shaking off my complete awe at the unbelievable amounts of multicolored fish and coral surrounding me, I followed the noise until a huge mountain of coral loomed into view. The noise was quite unmistakable now, and as I circled the bright mound of reef I had to stifle a yell as an absolutely MOUNSTROUS blue parrotfish swam right in front of me. This fish was easily the size of an average human being and twice as thick (even bigger than the reef sharks I swam with earlier in the semester!). I gazed in wonder as the gigantic beast hurled itself at the reef, actually biting off a substantial chunk of the coral, making a large crunching sound. I continued to marvel at this unbelievable fish until it was joined by some of it’s friends; at least 7 or 8 of these colossal creatures swam over to the reef I was staring at and all began munching on the coral. The gigantic mass of fish sounded like underwater fireworks, and due to their enormous size were not in the least bit intimidated by my presence as they swam easily within reach. Although the animals weren’t vicious or aggressive, had they been tempted they could have easily bitten off one of my fingers. It was pretty stinkin’ unbelievable to be so near so many tremendously immense beings all at once, and to watch them in their natural habitat was pretty awe-inspiring. Another highlight was the coral itself, as there were giant mountains and fields of giant noodles waving in the water. If I continued to describe each surreal snorkel experience (of which there were dozens), this blog would surely stretch on endlessly. I’ll spare you and move on to other details of the once-in-a-lifetime voyage.

Following the amazing time in the gorgeous water, we hopped into the boat to journey onwards. On the treacherous journey, we came across some of the most massive waves I have ever witnessed, and the boat was tossed about helplessly. Some unfortunate individuals did not respond well to the storm and spent the evening chucking over the side of the boat. While I certainly was not feeling all that wonderful, I was thankfully able to hang on to my lunch and avoid any vomiting.
I found it pretty hysterical that while most of us were soaking wet, shivering, and toppling over like ragdolls with every massively powerful wave that crashed into the boat, and some of the passengers emptied out their stomachs noisily, the calm and collected crew carried on cooking our amazing feast for the evening, a balancing act which seemed impossible.

As falafel, tuna, fruit, and oatmeal continued to be the only sources of nutrition throughout my tavels, the included 5 star meals were yet another incredible benefit of the tour and a very much welcomed change of pace. I could also spend many pages depicting every mouth-watering morsel of grub I inhaled throughout the trip, but once again I’ll keep it brief and assure you that the food was EASILY the best I have had during my post-study travels. However, I can’t completely resist simply mentioning some of the tasty treats I indulged in, including juicy steak, grilled chicken kebabs, rocky road chocolate squares, and cheesy pasta bake. Each night, following a delicious feast, we would gather around for a slideshow that included interesting facts about the areas, funny pictures from the day’s adventures, and pictures and descriptions of all the animals we had seen throughout the day. It was a great way to share a few laughs, meet some of our fellow sailers, and learn more about the amazing sights we had seen.

One of the many mini expeditions involved packing everyone onto the tiny dinghy (lovingly referred to as Little Wings) and put-putting toward one of the main islands. We hiked through the jungle up to one of the peaks that overlooked Whitehaven Beach, one of the top ten beaches in the world. After admiring the spectacular view, we walked down to the gorgeous white powdery beach to spend the morning enjoying its magical splendors. Since we had arrived so early, we had the beach entirely to ourselves and it was nice that it was so deserted. Later that evening we learned that the sand of Whitehaven Beach contains 99% Silica (I think… can’t remember exactly what our guides told us. Regardless, it was impressive!), meaning is a fine, glasslike powder. NASA used the sand from Whitehaven Beach to help make giant telescopes. On our return trip back to Wings II, we came across a giant sea turtle right by the boat, a sight which will never cease to make my heart flutter. I don’t know why, but I have a huge soft spot for the giant, adorable creatures.

That night, following another phenomenal day of sailing, snorkeling, and tremendous fun, as we were enjoying the peaceful night sky from the gently rocking boat, experiencing a potent bout of food fade from another mouthwatering meal, the crew flipped on a set of bright blue lights on the back of the boat that illuminated the water. Apparently, this attracts fish and they hoped to catch a glimpse of a blue wrasse. I had no idea what I was in for. Within minutes, swarms of small fish could be easily seen darting in an erratic fashion for seemingly no reason. Out of the blue (no pun intended), a gigantic shadow slowly made it’s way into the lights, and all of a sudden a slash of water erupted from the water, leaving nothing but a trail of blood in the middle of the lit up area. The giant wrasse (look it up, the thing is a beast) circled back for another attack, and was shortly joined by several of his enormous mates. Before the nights end, there were numerous gigantic wrasse (I think we counted 4) hunting and preying on large schools of fish, quite an impressive display. On the last day I was the only snorkeler as it was bright and early (7 am), so I drove out on Little Wings to the dive site with Captain Stew. Since it was just us to he brought along some bread to give me a little treat. I slipped into the clear water, and Stew began pelting me with rolled up balls of bread dough, which caused about 5 Kabillion colorful fish to swarm all over me, which was spectacular. This carried on for several minutes, leaving me in a europhic daze (I was soooooo happy), until I spotted one of the biggest fish I had ever seen. Stew handed me a slice of bread and I hand-fed the giant blue wrasse, the same bloodthirsty monster that had been hanging around the blue lights of the boat the previous evening. When that bad boy was inches from my hand, coming in at an alarming pace, my heart nearly leaped out of my wetsuit. I was lovin it though, freaking amazing.
As we set sail one last time towards the mainland, a school of dolphins playing and jumping off in the distance sent us off in an amazing fashion, one final phenomenal memory from a truly fantastic voyage.

As I finish up writing this, I am actually lounging in a hammock in Fiji and soaking up a few final rays of Fijian sun before heading out (I can’t wait to travel to New Zealand with MY FAMILY in a couple days!) but I have just been a tad behind on updating this darned blog about my travels, so the magical events from this post actually occurred a month ago… whoops. It’s amazing to think about how much has happened since then, hopefully I can update this again soon if I can find time between Settlers and Bridge with the Fam!
Much love,

P.S. My apologies for the lack of pictures, but the internet here is too slow and they wouldn't upload :(

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