The Coastest with the Mostest: Part III

G: While at the Satyananda ashram, our friend Katy told us about a mediation retreat in the Blue Mountains at the Brahma Kumaris Centre entitled “Nurturing Nature”. The cost was donation-based so that everyone could have an opportunity to experience the retreat atmosphere without breaking the bank. Right up our ally!  😉 We arrived Friday night to a serene setting in the woods welcomed by a tiny old lady with a perpetually beaming smile named Sally.

The program consisted of various workshops designed to recognize our connection with nature in everyday life. In one exercise, we went outside to find something in nature that represented how we were feeling at the present moment. Another had us blindfolded while a partner guided us to various sounds, smells, and textures within nature, all without talking. It’s amazing how when you take one of your senses out, the others become more sensitive and amplified. It certainly gives our imaginations a chance to be more creative and our sense of trust to surrender completely. One of my favorites was an exercise looking at the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) and finding which one or two represents you the most. What was particularly interesting here was that Blake and I portray opposite earth/air and fire/water, which allows us to keep each other well-balanced—how convenient. 😉 We also had an intro to the Brahma Kumaris way of meditation, which is practiced with the eyes open, focusing on any object or the center of your forehead. You are to imagine a point of light as a way to calm the mind for a few minutes in any setting.

B: On Sunday afternoon, we left the retreat center well-rested with our new-found inner peace. We spent a couple of days exploring the beautiful surroundings in the Blue Mountains National Park, starting with the Three Sisters Lookout at Echo Point, one of the most famous natural structures in Australia. Then we continued on to Govett’s Leap, a grandiose lookout over a huge canyon extending for miles. We settled in for the night at free camp in Blackheath Glen.

The next day we delved further into the park with the Neates Glen/Grand Canyon circuit walk (5kms). In the afternoon we checked off other quick sights, such as Evan’s Lookout, Perry’s Lookdown, Anvil Rock, the Wind-Eroded Cave, and Pulpit Rock. Typically, there’s something advertised that doesn’t exactly live up to its billing, but everything we visited was well worth the detour.

G: The beautiful setting and natural high from the retreat had us ready to go for another hike the next day, so we tackled the Wentworth Falls National Pass Hike. We actually took a wrong turn and ended up doing the longer version of the walk, but the scenery was beautiful and we didn’t mind the exercise. Plus, who doesn’t like the fresh mountain air and cascading waterfalls?!

After getting our fix of the mountains, we were ready to hit the beaches once more. We camped at the Berry Showgrounds where we met a female solo traveler from NY named Ale. She was hitchhiking down the coast so we thought we’d help out and give her a ride further south. Plus, she had a ukulele! We ended up spending three days together, stopping to soak up the rays at the gorgeous Jervis Bay, Murrays Beach, and Bermagui. This is where Australian beaches have made a name for themselves!

Despite the occasional blue bottle jellyfish, the most poisonous jellyfish that can leave one in pain for days, the scenery was postcard-perfect. Beautiful blue water kissed powdery white-sand beaches with only a few other souls in sight. Sometimes it was hard to leave. Ok…most of the time it was hard to leave. But we were on a schedule to make it back to Melbourne for the holidays, so we pressed onwards.

B: We dropped Ale off at Lakes Entrance so she could catch a bus to Melbourne because Gabriella and I had plans for one last stop at Wilson’s Promontory National Park that didn’t quite fit into her schedule. When we arrived at the Prom, the sky was a threatening grey and winds howled up to 50 km/hr with intermittent rain. Back in Victoria! We watched as people struggled to construct their tent, realized the weather wasn’t changing anytime soon, and then deconstructed their tent to go home and sleep inside next to a fire with a bottle of wine. I couldn’t blame them; we had similar thoughts. We decided to sleep in the car, but the gusts still rattled us all night. The next day was still overcast, but without the harsh wind. It actually made for eerily comfortable conditions for exploring the Park. We started with the Lilly Pilly Gully circuit track through fresh forest scenery. Then we climbed up to the Tidal Overlook for 360˚ views across the bay. The rocky outcrops engulfed in dense coastal forests looked like something out of prehistoric times. Wilson’s Promontory has a unique flavor that we hadn’t seen in Australia so far, further emphasized by the overcast weather.

The weather got even better the next day with clearing skies and a bit of sunshine. We were amazed by the Darby River/Tongue Point hike that gave incredible views of the Park and coastline. It ended with giant boulders that we scampered across to soak in the scenery and rest for a moment in silence, appreciating the present. Needless to say, we were happy to have made the stop at The Prom and recommend it to anyone passing through Victoria.

G: At last, we rolled back into Melbourne two days before Christmas after living in the car for 14 weeks. We wanted to be back for the holidays so we could spend it with our friends. (Plus, campsites go bonkers around the holidays because it’s the beginning of summer!) We spent a lovely summer Christmas Day with some of Blake’s old co-workers at Jules and Kirsty’s place (ironically, our old apartment). We moved into an apartment in Parkville the next day where we would sublet for the next four weeks. We had Jules and Kirsty over for a quiet New Year’s celebration, and then got to work selling our beloved workhorse Maggie. It took about three weeks to clean her up and find a buyer, including jumping through hoops to get the Road Worthy Certificate (mandatory in Victoria), but when we did she sold for more than we bought her for! And who says cars are a bad investment?!  😉

The weeks flew by as we stayed busy taking care of business and planning future travel adventures. We moved out of the Parkville apartment at the end of January and into a lovely house in Yarraville with a woman named Nicole, her adorable dog Calin, and three charismatic chickens. We’d never even been to Yarraville, but it gave us an opportunity to explore a new area of Melbourne. She has a great backyard with a BBQ where we celebrated Australia Day with our friends.

B: I also insisted that we splurge on “the original” Australian music festival Big Day Out, where we saw amazing performances by Portugal.The Man, Tame Impala, The Lumineers, Primus, Arcade Fire, and (the legendary) Pearl Jam! Les Claypool is one of my all-time favorite bassists, and G enjoyed the funky music, too. Eddie Vedder was also quite the showman, sipping a bottle of red wine and conversing intimately with the audience, while Mike McCreedy shredded on guitar all night long. You can’t go wrong with a band that’s been together over 25 years!

Over the last six weeks we fell in love with Melbourne all over again, especially with nicer weather! But we couldn’t get too attached as backpackers. Though we can’t call Melbourne “home” permanently, it will always have a piece of our heart. We will certainly miss this amazing city!

The Coastest with the Mostest: Part II

G: The next bit of travel had us hopping down the coast, visiting quirky coastal towns, soaking up the sun on the beach, and escaping into the hills of the hinterland. The first obligatory stop was at Thursday Plantation, a tea tree oil factory, where we learned all about the history of and multiple uses for tea tree oil, a truly magic medicine that is indigenous to Australia! Then lunch in Yamba with a beautiful coastal walk. The next morning we passed through Coffs Harbour to glimpse the famous big banana and indulged in a banana split at 9am—healthy! Further south brought us to the tiny town of Bellingen, where after looking and learning about opals for months, I finally saw the most beautiful one ever and bought it!! Bellingen is nearby Dorrigo National Park, where we walked an amazing rainforest trail and got to see the Lyre bird doing his mating call – a rarity! Back towards the coast, we hit Nambucca Heads for the stunning Captain Cook Lookout and the V-wall walk along the harbor where large stones are covered in paintings and poems of wisdom and dedication. On our drive out, we saw a sign advertising $8 for a dozen fresh oysters that seemed too good to be true. The catch was they were unopened. Blake saw this as an opportunity to learn a new skill—oyster chucking!

B: Only cut my hand once, but totally worth it… 😉

G: The next highlight was the Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie where we learned more about these sweet bears (although they’re not actually bears) and the efforts of over 200 volunteers working to save these cute cuddly creatures. A couple of myths debunked: Koala’s do not get high off the Eucalyptus leaves, they just seem dazed and sleepy because there is little substance in the leaves other than water, which leaves them with little energy; Koala’s do have nerve endings in their bum, but there is also a large plate near the tailbone (like a sternum) which allows to sit in trees for hours on end without getting sore; Koalas are not bears, they’re marsupials. From there, we continued south for beach walks at Seal Rock, Tea Gardens, Hawk’s Nest, and finally welcomed the Christmas season on December 1 with a parade of Santa’s on paddleboards in Newcastle. What a sight!

B: Based on a recommendation from our travel buddies Valerie and Travis, we applied to stay the Satyananda Yoga Ashram near the Hawkesbury River (about 90 mins northwest of Sydney) as WWOOFers. After bouncing around so much from place to place, it was a relief to park the car, unpack our bag, and sleep indoors for a week! The ashram is in a gorgeous valley of gum trees with no phone reception and no worries. Orange robed Yogis and Gurus glide gently across the grounds giving a warm smile with each new eye contact.

The Satyananda way of life is based on karma yoga: selfless service as a means to purify the soul. We stayed free for a week in exchange for five and a half days of work. Our days began with a gentle yoga class at 5:30am, waking up mind, body and spirit, followed by a warm breakfast at 7am. At 8am everyone gathered for our first karma yoga tasks, typically cleaning bathrooms for us newbies—fun! At 9:30am we had scheduled tasks around the ashram (kitchen, grounds and maintenance, house-keeping, farm work, etc.) with a Yogi guiding us. Work didn’t last long though as morning tea/snack was 11-11:30am. Then back to our task until lunch at 1pm. The afternoon provided a different scheduled task from 2-5:30pm, but of course there was a break for Yoga Nidra (guided relaxing mediation) and afternoon tea/snack from 3-4pm. 😉 Dinner was at 6pm, we all helped to clean up after, and then an evening program at 7pm (yoga, meditation, or kirtan). By 8:30pm, we were ready to hit the sack!

G: It seems like a long and busy day on paper, but with all the breaks for meals and meditation it really wasn’t strenuous. The days were full of good talks, great food, and quiet contemplation under the gum trees. Since we were “een da boosh” now, the cicada’s had a strong presence and sang to us all day long. The evenings were fun with kirtan and chanted mantras where we grabbed instruments and had a jam session. My favorite was the Saturday night kirtan where individuals can write in to ask for a blessing for loved ones who have passed or for those in need of positive thoughts. This dedication is performed weekly at 5pm at Satyananda ashrams around the world as a time to offer blessings and healing to the world at large – a beautiful ritual.

B: Spending a week at the ashram taught us to maintain presence and awareness throughout our daily lives. Even though we were working or cleaning most of the day, there was no pressure to complete a task quickly or meet certain standards. As long as we followed instructions and performed the assignment in a timely manner, everyone was happy. The breaks throughout the day gave us time to reflect on where we are and how grateful we are to be happy, healthy, and surrounded by supportive people, something we hope to carry with us throughout everyday life. Karma yoga is intended to purify the soul for advanced reincarnation by contributing selfless work to the greater community. Whether or not one believes in such a thing is insignificant; it simply feels good to help others and provide a nourishing environment through meaningful work in a positive atmosphere.

G: At the ashram, we met a nice woman named Katy and told her our plans for exploring Sydney. She asked where we were staying, but we hadn’t worked that out yet. With a gracious, giving heart she offered us her apartment since she would still be at the ashram for another week. Wow, did we get lucky?! She has a beautiful place in Mosman that we called home while visiting the big and bustling city. Personally, I didn’t think I would like Sydney, because of how much I love Melbourne, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised! First off, how is a city not gorgeous set against a harbor where ferry rides are a constant mode of transport? It’s just a lovely way to be outdoors and get to where you need to go!

We had a full itinerary ahead of us for the next four days. We started from Circular Quay and met up with another friend from the ashram, Blandine. She gave us an amazing view of Hyde Park from her Aunt’s high-rise apartment. Then we wandered around the botanical gardens and explored the CBD. We had a quick jaunt through the Art Gallery of New South Wales followed by coffee brewed to perfection at Toby’s Estate (a coffee-making school). We strolled around The Rocks, the original Sydney settlement, and finished with dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant.

B: The next day had us exploring outside of the city with a scenic ferry to Manly. We did a coastal walk to the various beaches and eventually relaxed at one. In the evening we met up with our friend KC, who we met in Sri Lanka. He gave us a great tour of the city, driving us through town and out to the Eastern Suburbs for a spectacular view of the city. Then he brought us to Mrs. Macquarie’s Seat with a perfect view of the Harbor Bridge and Opera House, and on this particular night, faint sounds of Jack Johnson’s first-night concert in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House from across the water. (My backup vocals made up for the poor sound quality ;))

Of course, we couldn’t be in the same city as Jack without going to see him live! We had tickets for the second night (of three). During the day we explored around Mosman and Balmoral. Then, since we originally thought the concert would be in the Opera House instead of outside, we took a tour of world-famous landmark. The architecture is stunning and the history is fascinating. The architect’s design was actually rescued from a pile of “rejects” during the final cut of an international design competition. The original plan in 1957 was estimated to cost $7 million and finish in 1963, but ended up taking 17 years and costing $102 million! Now it stands as one of the most famous buildings in the world and icon for the country. Oh, and not to worry, the city made its investment back in about three years… I really wish we could’ve seen a performance inside, especially with my Acoustics background, but a tour will have to do for now. The Jack Johnson concert in the evening was great though! He played in perfect weather as the sun set against a gorgeous backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. We even went back the next night to sit outside and listen to his set with our friend KC. I can’t get enough of that guy!!

On our last day, we ventured to the Eastern suburbs to soak up the sun and walk the coast. The trail from Coogee to Bondi is well-known for its beach-hopping beauty and boy did it deliver! One after another, the beaches just kept getting better. No wonder it’s so expensive to live here. If you’re ever in Sydney, this walk is a must-see!

After all the city and beach time, we did our usual thing and escaped into the mountains—the Blue Mountains, to be exact…