Mingalaba Myanmar!

B: Myanmar is a place we had heard about from other travelers as being unique, untouched, and in the midst of a cultural explosion so sensitive it must be seen before it’s too late. Complicated Burmese politics call for a brief history of the country in order to fully understand the land we had decided to visit after Bali. Although crudely paraphrased from online sources, here we go: Burma gained independence from Britain in 1947. A new union of various tribal states sought to form a collective government for autonomous rule, but the utopia was never carried out to fruition due to internal squabbles. In 1962, military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’état, ousting the democratically elected government and installing himself as leader. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently silenced and General Saw Maung seized power in another coup, installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and renamed the country Myanmar. Elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party (National League for Democracy (NLD)) winning a landslide victory (over 80% of the vote), but SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she endured on-and-off for 20 years.

The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government, which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but evolved into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in Pakokku. Yangon became the center of these protests, especially around Sule Pagoda. The government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shutting down Internet communications with the rest of the world, leading the USA, Canada, Australia, and the EU to impose additional sanctions. Despite international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after the protests. She was eventually released November 13, 2010 and is currently participating in politics with the prospects for democracy looking hopeful. Since then, tourism restrictions have been relaxed and more Westerners are deciding to visit this ever-evolving society.

Today’s Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has slumped into a depressed state due to widespread corruption. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010, increased tourism and the promise of elections in 2015 offer hope for a new direction and brighter future for all Burmese.

Although Myanmar has become more accessible for foreigners in the past few years, it still isn’t easy. Guidebooks are perpetually outdated and prices are rising by 25% each year. Our visa had to be arranged prior to arriving, which we did in Australia and were given an estimated time of four weeks. The only flights into the country are from either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We opted to spend a couple days hanging out, shopping, and eating Pad Thai with my friend Dustin in Bangkok while transiting from Bali to Myanmar. It’s always great to see old friends while travelling—thanks for the hospitality buddy!

Dustin and Blake

G: We landed at the Mandalay International airport in midday and the prickly heat was full blast. At first glance, the concrete building we stood in was looking rather drab and was in definite need of a face lift. Passports stamped, we proceeded to get some cash in hand, as it was recommended with the unknown status and availability of ATMs. (In fact, ATMs are now quite prevalent in major cities, but non-existent just one year ago.) We changed over $1,000 for the next 3 weeks, but their largest bill is the equivalent of $5, so we walked out with quite the stack! We just happened to miss the free Air Asia shuttle into the city and immediately a crowd of young Burmese men with white paste on their face and arms (which we later learned was sunblock) stuck to us like magnets offering taxis. Patience. There was no one else coming out of the airport until the next plane landed, so we finally caved and paid $10 for a private taxi into the city. Immediately, we noticed the driver sitting on the right side of the car, but also driving on the right side of the road! —Another oddity of unstable leadership and a hodgepodge of resources. Why isn’t there just one universal rule for driving?! The picture out the window was one of over-grown, dry and vacant fields with white and gold pagodas scattered in the distance. Once we got closer to the city, the noise of the traffic, the smell of burning garbage and petrol, and the sight of substantial poverty were overwhelming the senses. It felt like a Buddhist India.

We eased into the culture by staying at a fairly new and very comfortable hotel, which also included a tasty western breakfast, for $30 a night. That evening, we jumped on a motorbike taxi and drove to Mandalay Hill for some sightseeing. First, we headed to Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery to see some carvings of Buddha and his disciples that dated back to 1865. Next was Kuthodaw Paya to see world’s largest book of Buddhist teachings, which were carved on slabs of marble set inside what seemed to be an infinite row of white pagodas. Stray dogs and cats lay fast asleep on the steps as we walked around; they must be so enlightened by now. 🙂 As dusk approached, we stubbornly denied an overpriced taxi up to Mandalay Hill and instead hiked up hundreds of steps to watch the anticlimactic sun as it disappeared into the smog before touching the horizon.

That evening, as we attempted to find a taxi back to our hotel, we met Jojo, a 21-year-old local with great English, and negotiated a tour the following day with his friend as our driver. Our grand tour of Mandalay began with an introduction to making gold leaf, a drive down a dusty street of locals carving jade sculptures, and an impressive woodcarving workshop. Then we visited Maha Muni Paya to slap some gold leaf on the famously amorphous Buddha figure.

Before lunch, we visited a Buddhist Monastery to see how the monks live and receive their alms. Women in tattered clothing sat with their naked children and begged for anything. The monks, without hesitation, shared from their bowl. In the afternoon, we took a horse cart ride around Innwa to see villages and more pagodas, then walked up Sagaing Hill for views of the city and the Irrawaddy River. Afterwards, we visited the famous U Bien Bridge for sunset. As we walked the world’s longest teak wood bridge (1.2 km) we noticed other tourists talking to monks. I turned to Blake and asked, ‘Why haven’t we talked to a monk yet?’ Within minutes we met eyes with an older monk and he beckoned us over. How’s that for manifesting?! 😉

B: This man was very well-spoken and genuinely interested in a conversation without a motive (quite rare in Asia). He was rather candid with his thoughts on the recent political turmoil and future prospects of a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, something I read to shy away from in conversations. Oddly enough, he’s only been a monk for the last eight years. He has a wife and kids at home and used to sell cars for a living! So much for the “pure and enlightened” path. It’s was pretty stunning to learn that one can go in and out of the monastery throughout life and decide to become a devoted monk at any point. Our conversation lasted about 20 minutes, and then it was time to grab a seat and a beer with a view of the sunset dropping behind the bridge.

The next day we walked Mandalay’s inner city, a dusty place with children happily playing in a pile of garbage, locals staring at our pale skin, and baskets of tobacco leaf waiting to be rolled into pouches for men to chew and spit streams of red betel nut juice. On the corner near our place men played an obscure game involving bottle caps and sea shells, vehicles roared past with exposed engines and no filters, deeply resonant bells rang in the distance, and even among the filth and destitution, gold leaf pagodas shined like Hershey kisses in the sun. I stopped off at a local bar for the afternoon special of a glass of draught beer for 500 kyat (50¢)—buy 3, get 1 free, plus snacks! Then we indulged in a heaping portion of local Burmese food across the street for $1. Both of us! For $1! What a strange and interesting place…

*note: Mingalaba means “hello” in Burmese

Going going Back back to Bali Bali

G: After an amazing year in Australia, our one-year Working Holiday Visa was expiring. Although we missed our families, we didn’t want to go home just yet—Soooo…back to Asia! My sister Patrycja, her husband Eric, and their daughter Kayah planned to spend February in Bali, so it was an obvious decision to join them for 10 days. Bali is an easy place to go back to and once we arrived it felt like slipping into an old pair of shoes.

After a long line up at customs, it was back to negotiating prices in tropical paradise. We paid too much for a cab and made our way to Sanur, about 45 minutes from Denpasar airport. Sister wasn’t there yet, so we got cozy in our fancy hotel and decided to take a quick stroll around the block. I almost forgot about the perpetual nagging of “Hallo madame! Yes, looking! You buy, you buy? Taxi? Maybe tomorrow?” Welcome to Asia! Streets are lined with shops offering a buffet of goods for sale, while beautiful Balinese offerings bless the roadside every few steps. As touristy as it is, I was happy to be back. There is something beguiling about the Balinese air…

We had our grand reunion back at the hotel, caught on video thanks to Brother E. Words can’t really express the sheer joy of seeing and hugging your family again—there is nothing like it! Within hours of being back in Bali, we sipped fresh coconuts, enjoyed a $6 massage, and caught up over a candle-lit dinner on the beach. What a great start to our holiday together!

B: The next day we took a bumpy 30-minute ferry to Nusa Lembongan, a little island south-east of Bali, for a week of relaxation. We were greeted by our smiling host, as well as our bungalow-dog Mickey, and settled in at Suka Beach. The traditional beach huts are made of local Teak wood and coconut husks. The main entrance is the bathroom (weird) located behind the bungalow without a roof (great ventilation 😉 ), while the loft space upstairs consists of an intricately carved bed and dresser with a nice little balcony offering views of the beach and seaweed farms. Underneath the loft is a platform with a mattress and hammock, perfect for hanging out and gazing at the orange and pink sunset disappearing into the distant horizon with Bintang beer in hand.

The seaweed farms were organized in grids of large rectangles, which looked like shadows sitting in the turquoise water. Farmers tended their crops in the early morning before sunrise and worked into the night planting more seedlings. It was impressive to watch as the men filled their small canoes with stacked seaweed and the women carried full baskets on their head to shore. The seaweed was then sun-dried on large tarps, some of it covered in plastic so as to change it to an orange or pale color. When finished, it is made into a powder and exported in its dried form.

G: The next day, and really every day after that, we made sure to fit in a massage or two. 🙂 Sister, Brother E, and Blake braved our local masseuse Wade’s so-called reflexology massage, which to my understanding translated to a deeply therapeutic meridian-intensive massage.

B: It hurt!!! (in a good way…)

G: Sister said she was cursing for the entire duration of the massage, so I decided I would opt for the more relaxing I-could-fall-asleep kind of massages. Our evenings were spent admiring the divine sunsets and then following Mickey the dog to a local restaurant to indulge in delicious Indo food (of which he got the scraps). One evening we tried to watch the Sochi Olympics to see Eric’s niece (Keltie Hansen) ski the women’s half-pipe. The internet was shoddy, but with some persistence (and help from sister Kamila back in Canada) we got to watch her first run at the amazing event. Great job Keltie—we’re so proud of you!

One morning we jumped on some motor bikes to explore the island at our own pace. Weaving through villages, we waved to the children jumping with excitement to see Westerners.  At a mangrove, we stopped for fresh coconut water and visited some baby spider monkeys on leashes, but Sister got too friendly and got bit! Later, we took a walk on the corrugated cliffs overlooking the deep blue waters with a view of Bali in the distance, visited Dream Beach, and drove past a ceremony with a large crowd walking down the road, thick smoky air, and loud traditional music, which we later learned was a funeral.

B: While in this lovely tropical paradise, I took the opportunity to complete my PADI Open Water Diving Certification at the dive shop next door. We had seen lots of places along our travels to become a certified diver (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia) and the cost of doing it in Asia is less than half of what it would be in the Western world, but I never spent the time or money to do it. Eric has been diving for nearly 20 years and we wanted to do some dives together, so I made the investment and hit the books. Since it wasn’t the busy season, I had a personal instructor (Made) and could speed up the lessons to finish in three days instead of four. The OWC consists of watching four hours of instructional videos with quizzes along the way, four sets of pool exercises, treading water for 10 minutes, swimming 200 meters non-stop, proving proficiency on four open water dives, and passing a 50-question exam.

The first day I just watched a few videos in the morning, and then jumped on the motorbike. The second day was exhausting with pool exercises, two dives, and more videos. The first two dives were mainly for skills, and although the sea life was interesting, it wasn’t amazing. The third day I did more pool exercises and planned to go out with Eric for dives 3 and 4 to complete the OWC. The third dive was incredible with manta rays up to 7 feet in length! There were dozens of them effortlessly gliding through the water! The girls came out for a snorkeling trip and got to swim with them, too. Unfortunately, after the dive my left ear became plugged and I suffered from a reverse block, which meant I couldn’t do my final dive that day and complete my certification. I was in the early stages of a head cold, but didn’t want to admit it (first mistake), which caused the block.

The next day I felt better, but still a little funny, and went diving anyways (second mistake). Eric had so much fun the day before he came out for two more dives with me. The first was an awesome drift dive, which meant the boat dropped us off at the top of the current, we drifted along the reef for 30 minutes, and then it picked us up. We saw tons of sea life and beautifully colored coral. My ear had difficulty equalizing on the way down, but felt ok back at the surface. I was so excited about completing my four required dives and being in the water with Eric, I went out for another one (third mistake). Again, the underwater world amazed us with lion fish, scorpion fish, barracuda, and moray eel. When I came up this time though, my ear was really plugged. I thought it was normal and would work its way out overnight, but it stayed plugged for days. I finally went to the doctor and was told that my ear drum was bulging and red from a middle ear infection caused by diving with a head cold. This was especially worrisome because we had to fly in just a few days. Fortunately, the medication kicked in and I got the thumbs-up from the doc the day before we had to fly that my ear drum wouldn’t burst on a plane. More importantly, I’m now a PADI Certified Open Water Diver!

G: While Blake was mastering the underwater world, I tried my hand at surfing the break with Sister and Kayah. We met a lovely Swiss man that offered to be our instructor and away we went.  It wasn’t long before we all took a few spills and Kayah was the only brave one to continue. Afterwards, my back and shoulders were aching terribly from so much paddling and carrying the board a long way back to shore. Still, another one off the bucket list!

After saying a sad farewell to family, we continued inland to relax in Ubud. We did a bit of shopping, but mostly tried to heal ourselves from my stiff back and Blake’s ear infection. Ubud is easy enough to relax for a few days with cheap prices and Western comforts. We would have loved to stay in Indonesia for longer, but new countries were calling our name…

Tasmaniacs

B: Since we sold the car easily and made our money back, we decided to take one last trip down to the rugged terrain of Tasmania. We originally thought to take Maggie across on the ferry, and then come back to Melbourne to sell her, but it actually turned out to be cheaper to fly and rent a vehicle. We hired a campervan for 11 days (since we secretly had van-envy while driving around in our station wagon) complete with sink, fridge, bed, and stove.

The adventure started in Launceston where we visited the beautiful Cataract Gorge and strolled around the quaint city center. The next day was filled with short drives and quick stops to gourmet food producers. We indulged in raspberries and strawberries of all form (jam, sauce, muffin, wine), freshly-made cheese from a dairy farm, sustainably-farmed salmon and ginseng, and honey straight from the hive.

In the afternoon, we stopped by Trowunna Wildlife Park for the 3pm feeding of the Tasmanian Devils. We couldn’t come to Tassie without seeing the Devil and this place delivered! There were dozens of Devils scattered across different enclosures. They’re a bit bigger than I imagined and their bite sure can pack a punch. They apply the same pressure per square inch as a saltwater crocodile! The trainer brought over fresh meat and held onto the leg of it so we could see more Devils come out to feed, otherwise the first one would just grab it and drag it back into his hole. They’re quite solitary animals and it’s virtually impossible to see one in the wild because they’re so elusive. At this park, they also had wombats, kangaroos, and echidnas (another animal we’d yet to see). One wombat was feeling particularly social and we got to hold it. The stocky creature is closely related to a koala and feels like holding a real-life teddy bear! There were also bird enclosures for those healing from injuries. I couldn’t get enough of watching the funny little Devil though!

G: Our next stop was to Cradle Mountain, one of the most famous hikes in Tasmania because of its sharp, craggy peaks. The weather was perfect (a rarity in Tassie) as we hiked up to Marion’s Lookout over Dove Lake. This is also where the famous Overland Track begins, which takes 6 days to complete. Afterwards, we drove up to Ulverstone on the central north coast for the night.

The next day, we enjoyed the rocky coastal scenery along the northern edge of Tassie while driving through the towns of Penguin, Burnie, and Wynyard. Blake spoiled himself with a whiskey tasting in Burnie at Hellyers Road since I was driving.

B: The slightly-peated blend has a deliciously smoky finish! 😉

G: The distances were so short that we decided to press onwards to Arthur River on the west coast. There’s a point called the “Edge of the World” where wind whips through across the cold expanse of ocean moving north from Antarctica. While gazing westward, one becomes intrigued with the thought that there is nothing but ocean from here to South America. We camped on the west coast after watching brave wind-surfers in the frigid water.

B: Moving back east, we stopped in Stanley to tackle The Nut. This huge boulder-like plateau rises above the sea on a peninsula that offers wonderful 360˚ views on a clear day. The rest of the day was spent driving southeast across the island, but fortunately through beautiful scenery and World Heritage listed forests. We rolled into Lake St. Clair with just enough time to do a short walk up the lake to platypus point, but unfortunately didn’t spot any platypuses (platypi?).

The next morning we rolled over to Mt. Field National Park to check out Russell Falls and few other waterfalls on a beautiful day-hike. Being only a couple hours to Hobart, we headed over to the capital city and drove up to Mt. Wellington in the late afternoon. The view from the top was stunning as the weather was clear and sunny. We thought about doing another walk around to the Organ Pipes, but it was getting late and we were feeling tired.

G: The main attraction in Hobart is the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), which showcases a collection of antiquities, modern and contemporary art of Tasmania’s millionaire David Walsh. Rows of grape vines lined the drive way in, and a short walk to the top opened up to cafe, as well as the local Moorilla Winery and Moo Brew Brewery on site. As you walk up to the entrance, sculptures and installations invite you to walk around and take in the surrounding landscape of the peninsula. Inside, the building itself is like an interactive installation with an endless winding staircase three flights down to a cave-like labyrinth, amidst dim lighting. It was easy to feel lost or to wonder what was waiting for you around the corner. Nevertheless, it was spectacular. At the bottom, the very classy Void Bar sits against a gorgeous slab of earthen wall. In the hallway, guests sit on art deco inspired furniture while sipping spirits – absinthe was suggested as a way to start the tour. 😉 Welcome to MONA!

There were no labels on the wall like in typical museum. Instead, we had iPods with GPS to detect which art piece you were near, which you could then click on to find out more about the artist or artwork, including videos and/or audio interviews. The exhibitions were brilliant, from Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional, a machine which turns food into excrement, Zhang Huan’s “Berlin Buddha” consisting of 8 tons of incense ash collected from temples around Shanghai, as well as Balint Zasko’s small scale figurative water-color and ink paintings, which depict mythological and/or dream-like states of figures interacting with nature and technology. It was like a playground, weaving through sub-floors filled with television sets, or walking into a 40-foot upside-down boat set up to watch a film on two spheres. I LOVE ART! I love having the opportunity to question life and its meaning through creative means and esoteric experience!

In the afternoon, we drove into Hobart to explore the very European Salamanca Place full of art markets and cafes, as well as Battery Point, one of the first neighborhoods in Hobart.

B: When we left the next day, we headed south down the Port Arthur peninsula through Dunalley. The typical tourist stops were made at the Blowhole, Devil’s Kitchen, and Fossil Bay, but the highlight was the walk to Waterfall Bay. I’m not sure why it’s called this, since there aren’t any waterfalls along the way, but it sure was beautiful. We also passed through the hilarious Doo Town, where everyone had some “doo” iteration sign on their lawn.

Moving back north brought us to Freycinet National Park and Wineglass Bay. We had read that the eastern beaches are gorgeous and boy did they deliver! Perfect white sand lay between stoic rocky outcrops and beaming blue water. We camped for the night at Friendly Beach, which was aptly named for us. As we struggled to find a spot on the campgrounds, a friendly French couple offered to move their van over a bit so we could fit two. The next morning, as we walked along the rocks on the beach, we saw the French man fishing near the water. We chatted with him briefly and discovered he’d already caught three fish and was excited about how great the catch was here. As we were talking, he caught a fourth and offered it to us! He quickly reeled in the line, pulled the fish from the hook, snapped its neck in one quick motion, drained the blood, and handed it over to us. Freshly caught Tasmanian salmon! That night I learned how to clean and fillet a fish for our delicious Valentine’s Day dinner!

G: We spent the rest of the day driving through the hills and up to St. Marys, where, despite overcast and rainy weather on the coast, it was warm and sunny. We indulged in wholesome treats from the Purple Possum Wholefoods and Café while relaxing in their backyard garden.

Further up the east coast, we came to Binalong Bay. The beach was, again, gorgeous and we couldn’t get enough. A short drive up from there is the Bay of Fires, a scenic coastal drive with flaming red rocks. The red color is from a particular type of algae and is a stunning contrast to the white beaches and blue water. Despite this color though, that’s not why it’s called Bay of Fires. Apparently, early Europeans used to see many Aboriginal fires along the coast here, and that’s where it got its name.

B: Our last little hike took us to Columba Falls, the highest waterfall in the state. On the way back to Launceston we made a slight detour to Legerwood to see the wood carvings in the Memorial Park. I’ve never seen anything like it. Apparently, in 1918, nine trees were planted as a memorial to those who were killed in WWI from Legerwood. In 2001, the trees were declared to be dangerous due to their size. The locals were distraught to think that Memorial Ave would be destroyed, so instead they raised money to hire a chainsaw carver to create each stump into a likeness for whom each tree was planted. In 2006, the carvings were completed and a ceremony was held to unveil them. Truly remarkable!

All in all, Tasmania is a beautiful island. We packed in lots of activities and saw lots of amazing natural wonders. Living in a campervan was also lots of fun. It’s your entire house on wheels! You can never forget to bring anything because it’s always with you. Groceries get unloaded into the pantry from the parking lot of the store. If you’re hungry for lunch…pull over! Even though space was tight, the sink was small, and our kitchen/living room/bedroom/dining room was only about 40 sq ft, we loved every minute of it! It definitely gave us a taste of what we’d like to do when we retire. That is…if we ever get jobs! 😉

Tasmania 428

B and G on top of Mt. Wellington

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…

The Coastest with the Mostest: Part I

G: It took three long days of driving through desolate outback towns across South Australia and New South Wales, from the Barossa to Byron Bay, until we finally reached the densely populated east coast. In fact, 85% of the population lives on the coast. We were excited to get back to the ocean and marvel at the famous Aussie white sand beaches again. For our first stop, we organized some WWOOFing in Mullumbimby, just outside the famous surf town of Byron Bay. We worked a couple of hours per day in exchange for accommodation in a caravan. Our host, Grant, repairs caravans in his spare time, one of which we assisted him in fixing during our stay. He also records bands, takes photographs, is a reggae DJ, and hosts international travellers. It was glorious to stretch out in the caravan and not worry about finding a campsite or pitching a tent for six nights.

We spent our free time exploring the area and getting our fix of backpacker-mecca Byron Bay. The Surf Festival was held while we were there, bringing in a swell of locals. The town was full of cute shops with beautiful items for sale and the beach was gorgeous, which explains its booming popularity. Lately though (in the past decade), Byron has become more commercialized and has strayed from its hippie roots with designer stores moving in and prices moving up. It’s still a major hub for progressive minds, alternative living, and holistic health, but the surrounding towns maintain a more quaint authenticity of hippie life.

The northeastern corner of New South Wales is lush with rolling hills, a temperate climate, and beaches surfers dream about. During our visit we got lucky and spotted a few migrating whales, walked up to the Byron Bay light house to visit the most easterly point of Australia, and most importantly celebrated my golden birthday (29 on the 29th)! We had an amazing day, starting with an ‘I am abundant’ smoothie at Naked Treaties (a raw food café), and then purchased some jewelry from Divine Goddess. Later, we got incredible massages from a very spiritual man in Lennox Heads, and afterwards, thanks to my best friend Carrie, had a delectable meal at a classy Japanese restaurant! Spoiled rotten, I know…but there’s only one golden birthday! 🙂

After getting our Byron-fix, we ventured to the Crystal Castle & Shambala Gardens, an enchanting natural playground. This was an incredibly special place with ample spiritual energy wafting around every corner. I found home hugging every human-sized crystal and gem, mediating though the labyrinth, visiting the Peace Stupa, sitting in awe beneath the giant Buddha in the lotus pond, and breathing deep through the rainforest walk. They offer courses, aura readings, a café on site, as well as a very complete store of gemstones and jewelry to take home. Heavenly!

B: Once I successfully pried Gabriella away from the gemstones, we continued down the hippie trail to Nimbin, home of the 1973 Aquarius Festival and subsequent hangover for the last 40 years. To its credit, Nimbin has maintained the ideals of those who gathered decades ago and functions as a magnet for those seeking to escape the conventional social structure and live a simple life, off the grid, nourishing body, mind, and spirit (and maybe smoking a little pot…ok, a lot of pot…I got offered drugs three times within the first hour…maybe it’s time I shave and get a haircut…NAH!).

The town is comprised of one main street with rainbow colored sign boards sprucing up the façade of hemp stores, natural apothecaries, and organic grocers. The highlight for me was the Nimbin museum, a hodgepodge of exhibits created in an old house which narrates the history of the area and features memorabilia from the Aquarius Festival. Nimbin was certainly worth a visit and a time warp back to the ‘70s. I wish everyone could live more in harmony with nature and stand up to corporate greed, as they do. The current battle is against coal seam gas. Locals want to prevent natural gas companies from hydrofracking on their land and encourage residents to “Lock the Gate” to protest against such a harmful practice.

From Nimbin we met up with our friends Valerie and Travis in Burleigh Heads. We got there just in time for the Sunday night drum circle, when the park fills with a vibrant energy of locals sharing a drink and a jam. Burleigh Heads is a quaint and trendy beach town, full of activity. The ocean is scattered with surfers, cyclists ride through the streets, and the sidewalks are busy with joggers at all hours of the day. Agreeably, the energy is inspiring, but also a little awkward when we awake from the car and try to roll out inconspicuously onto the sidewalk to join the club. This obsession with appearances is due mostly to Burleigh’s proximity to the Gold Coast, a manufactured district of high rise buildings and flaunting wealth that is the antithesis of sustainability and practicality. We stayed a fair distance away and merely admired the sudden skyline at dusk.

We went to Burleigh to meet up with Valerie and Travis and experience their ‘home’ for the last few months. I worked with Valerie in Melbourne and she and Travis are on a similar trip around the world. Valerie showed us the comforts (and frugality) of living out of a car in Burleigh, with free BBQ stations, a sink to wash dishes, and hot water dispensers on tap! There are also public bathrooms and free showers nearby! They taught us where to park the car to sleep so we wouldn’t be bothered, but honestly, there were so many other campervans and not-so-inconspicuous station wagons around that we never had any trouble. We spent about a week hanging out with our friends, walking around the headlands, and enjoying a nightly beachside BBQ before going north back into Queensland.

G: It was onto the expensive and posh beach-town of Noosa. I’ve never in my life experienced so many roundabouts! Not only was I dizzy, but our GPS couldn’t keep it straight. I guess it was because we were driving in circles. 😉

B: Oh brother…have we been hanging out too much?

G: We stayed at a Scout camp just outside the town, getting up close and personal with the local kookaburras, known for its laughing song at dusk and dawn. Not only that, but in one perfectly calculated swoop, it will snatch food right off your plate! We were told the Boy Scouts like to hold a piece of cheese and wait for the kookaburra to snatch it from their hand. Unfortunately, this meant we guarded our food at each meal.

Noosa has beautiful white-sand beaches protected by dense headlands. One day we visited the Noosa National Park to enjoy some forest and coastal walking trails, as well as leisurely strolls past designer shops on the tourist strip. Noosa is particularly beautiful in that it is built around estuaries lined with modern homes, allowing owners to park their yacht at the doorstep. Must be nice!

B: But it wasn’t all beautiful beach destinations for us. We mixed it up by going inland to the National Parks where we could camp and hike for a few days, allowing us to maintain an appreciation for the days we acted like beach bums. It’s important to change it up every now and then, otherwise we really do start to have too much of a good thing. 😉 We visited the Border Ranges, Beerwah, and Lamington National Parks. Each had their redeeming qualities and great hikes taking us to spectacular lookouts. The wildlife never got boring either as we spotted wallabies, goannas, and all kinds of colorful birds. My favorite was Border Ranges, where we went on a hike that took us through a diverse rainforest, past amazingly unique trees, and gave us a stellar view at the end.

G: Spending all this time around northern New South Wales and southern Queensland had another purpose, too. We were killing time in order to meet up with our Melbourne friends Katrina and Macca in Brisbane, their hometown. It was so great to see them again, and if they weren’t generous enough from the start, Katrina’s parents offered to have us stay with them for a couple nights. Sure beats sleeping in the car! While they took care of business during the day, we explored the city, venturing to the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art), Brisbane Museum, the Botanical Gardens, the famous Festival Hall, and got our fix of delicious sushi (one of Brizzy’s delights). There was even a beach in the middle of the city! It was delightful to spend a few days in a real home with old friends. After Brisbane, we spun around a few times and decided to head south…TO SYDNEY!

Southbound & ‘Round

B: Continuing south from Uluru on the Stuart Highway took us over the border into our fourth, and aptly named state: South Australia. The desert didn’t end though and the landscape remained flat and dry all the way to Coober Pedy—opal mining capital of Australia. I assure you, there are few places in the world like Coober Pedy, where the temperature is considered mild at 40C/104F, hotels, homes, and stores are built into underground caves known as “dugouts” to escape the heat, and the entire town lacks trees. The name “Coober Pedy” actually comes from the Aboriginal term kupa-piti, which means “white man’s hole”. We were already delirious from lack of sleep (which comes with living out of a car), apparently unaware of the time change (daylight savings), but it was time to fight the mild temperature (40C) as we hopped around shops for a crash course on buying an opal!

About 97% of the world’s opals come from Australia and around 80% of Australia’s opals come from South Australia, mostly Coober Pedy. The pock-marked landscape began about 20kms outside of town and sort of resembled Mars. Cone-shaped piles of light-colored dust and dirt stretched from the highway to the horizon. Enormous ant mounds! There’s a fortune to be made in the ground and each new hole brings excitement about making the next big find. It must be addictive, like Vegas but with better odds… Each little shack-like shop we visited had something special to offer with opals in all varieties for sale. The most valuable raw stone we saw wasn’t for sale, but valued at around $14,000! Store owners almost seemed surprised to have visitors and many of them only turned on their lights and display cases when we walked through the door. We also wandered into a shop with the most amazing didgeridoos and Aboriginal artwork we’ve ever seen, but unfortunately couldn’t take pictures. One shop even had a kangaroo rescue center out back and offered nightly feedings for a donation where we got to play with an orphaned baby joey! Although Coober Pedy isn’t exactly a top tourist destination, it certainly was a memorable experience.

On the verge of heat stroke and delirium, we continued south across the flattened landscape to an empty rest area for the night, enjoying a spectacular evening with sun melting into the deserted horizon. Few words can explain just how vast, empty and even haunting is the experience of central Australia. On the outback roads, you just keep driving as the sun moves over head and only stop to eat, refuel, and sleep. Fortunately, as we drove south the landscape changed from red to green and grew thick with trees as crisp air and rainy spring weather welcomed us in Port Augusta (a fresh reminder that it does not get warmer as we move south!). It was a quick stop off to find out more information for the Flinders Ranges, which is where we were headed next.

G: A windy and picturesque drive brought us to the Flinders Ranges, South Australia’s most popular National Park. We were lucky enough to witness the blooming purple wildflowers, a clear indication of spring that only lasts for 2-3 weeks. It really was a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by a lush green landscape with rolling hills and cooler temperatures. We had officially survived the outback!

After getting settled in at the campground we explored Aboriginal rock art at the Sacred Caves, peeked over Wingarra Lookout, and strolled along the Hill’s Homestead Walk to view the parks most famous attraction Wilpena Pound, encountering a pack of emus along the way. The next day we were more ambitious and climbed St. Mary’s Peak (1171m), which offered stunning views in all directions. We had lunch with the lizards at the top and then drove to Stokes and Huck’s Lookout before calling it a night in our tent. Before leaving the park, we made time for another short circuit walk to Arkaroo to see some amazing cave drawings and beautiful views over the protected landscape. The mountains are such a great refresher and it was good to get up out of the car and walk our legs to soreness without blistering heat.

The capital of S.A. and one of the most underrated Australian cities is Adelaide. We stopped for a few nights to reconnect with our metropolitan side, sleep in a bed, and avoid cooking dinner for a few nights – I was excited! We took our time exploring this modest city full of green parks and museums. I even took the liberty of doing an all-woman’s yoga class at The Heart of Yoga Studio while Blake explored the extensive South Australian Museum. Needless to say, it was nice to bask in some divine femininity.

On our last day, we drove to Glenelg Beach to explore a bit of the coast, which reminded us a lot of St. Kilda in Melbourne. We also went on a tour at the famous Haigh’s Chocolate Factory to learn about the history of the Haigh family and chocolate making (and obviously for some free samples). J They make it extremely difficult to leave the factory without buying anything after all those samples! Hence, with ginger chocolate and rocky road in hand, we bid Adelaide farewell and escaped east toward the hills.

B: Let’s be honest…the real reason we drove all the way to South Australia was for the wine – Barossa Valley to be exact. If you look closely, you’ll notice a large selection of South Australian wine to choose from back home, but it tastes so much better from the source! There were so many delicious wineries and beautiful vineyards to choose from so we started at random with a smaller one called Rockford. We strolled into the charismatic cellar and had a pleasant chat with the server, who informed us that this particular winery only sold within Australia, U.K. and Calgary, Alberta. Of all places, Calgary! All of the tastings were free, so we splurged on a special bottle of Tawny before sobering up with some lunch. I got to enjoy the very posh Keller Meister winery while G was my designated driver for the rest of the day. We ended our day at the Jacob’s Creek winery for a very thorough tour and tasting. We even got to sample wine that goes for $150 per bottle! I couldn’t really tell the difference though… Why would anyone want to train their taste buds to only enjoy wine that costs that much? I’ll stick with the cheap stuff! 😉

The next morning we strolled through the Barossa Farmer’s Market, Mengler Hill Lookout, and Sculpture Park. We then enjoyed a sun-kissed drive through palm-lined streets to one of the oldest and most successful vineyards, Seppeltsfield Winery (they had a family Mausoleum on the property!) that felt like we were in California. To end off the wine tour, we stopped at Wolf Blass and enjoyed yet another sampling from a $200 bottle! – not that we could tell the difference…

G: As we initially drove into South Australia there were large signs warning us not to enter into the state with fruit, veggies, nut or seeds, which are precautions to protect the wine region. We quickly stuffed our faces with as many carrots and tangerines as we could stand, then dumped the rest. Of course, no one ever checked our car… Then, as we left the vineyards behind and started our drive for the east coast via the Riverland, orange groves, avocado, and olive trees lined the highway. Road side stalls offered these fresh goodies, and frankly, my name was written all over them, so we pulled over and stocked up. The woman in the stall said we’d be fine and it was perfectly safe because we were outside of the protected zone. But then the signs returned, one after another with intimidating slogans warning of inspections and persecution. We panicked, and feared a hefty fine. We even pulled off the highway and debated dumping the whole lot in the bushes. Some happy bush animal could feast for days! Is $20 worth of fruit worth risking a $300 fine? Flashbacks from the Auckland airport filled our brain. We took the risk and kept driving. It’s just fruit, right?! But all was in divine order and since it was Saturday the officers were off for the weekend and the checkpoint was closed. We had those olives and oranges for weeks!

Let’s Take This Outback

G: It’s quite fair to say that Australia has a lot of sights that can be found elsewhere in this big, beautiful world: ocean and beaches, mountains and rainforests, bustling international cities; but the one thing that sets it apart is the dry and dusty red center of the outback. A place so vast and empty you sometimes need to register your plans with the government, with areas that have still yet to be traversed by Westerners. A place with some of the most poisonous creatures, and roughest people, you’ll ever meet. A place with hot, dusty days and cool, quiet nights under a blanket of innumerable stars stretching all the way to the horizon. And a place we definitely wanted to experience!

Once we left the east coast, we buckled up for the 3,000km journey to the center of Australia with Uluru as our goal. One of our stops before it got too barren was a place called The Boulders, another incredibly gorgeous display of nature with a touch of spiritual energy whizzing about. Something that made this place even more special was our encounter with an Aboriginal, named Eric. He taught us about the important relationship the indigenous tribes have with the land and the correlation to their spirit animals. Before Europeans arrived, there were over 250 different territories inhabited by specific tribes. Each one had their own history, traditions, and language, and passed down their stories through art. Some of this can be seen today through rock art, traditional dance performances, and dot paintings on canvas.

B: It was only a couple hours south to Townsville where we stocked up our final supplies. From there we went west on the Flinders Hwy through outback Queensland. Almost immediately the scenery changed from rolling green hills near in the cool sea breeze to dry prickly spinifex bushes atop brown and red earth. Every so often we’d see an abandoned car off the highway, usually vandalized in some way, possibly flipped over. We were told they might be from travelers who broke down and it was too expensive to tow and fix, but others said it was the Aboriginals who no longer had a need for a vehicle and ceremoniously gave it back to the earth. Either way, it was odd and quite frequent. Small towns dotted the highway every 100kms or so with their own “claim to fame”. Most were related to a dinosaur discovery in the area, and we later learned that we were one the dino-trail through Queensland. It might be interesting to some visitors, but most of the big finds have been relocated to museums in the US or England. Still, the signs were witty and full of puns. We were also greeted with a swarm of flies every time we stepped out of the car. They’re persistent little buggers that try to fly up your nose, ears, eyes, and mouth, if allowed. I swear they’re solar-powered though because once the sun sets, they disappear! Fortunately, we got a fly net ahead of time.

Our first night landed us in the tiny town (if you can even call it that) of Nelia. We stayed with a nice man and his pet goat Sebastian, both quite the characters. He’s got a piece of land that he tries to cultivate with chickens, turkeys, and geese, but things weren’t very organized and the land was incredibly dry. We just liked the goat. 😉

From there we continued west through the odd mining town of Mt. Isa. Mining is the only thing that town stands for and it’s really not worth much more than a quick stop. There’s a huge mine in the center of the town! It’s disgusting. Back on the highway, we continued through desolation heading west. This became a consistent theme of the outback – hours upon hours of uninhabited driving under the magnifying glass of the sun. The sky blanketed blue in all directions and the sun crept slowly around the windows of the car, back to front typically favoring the right side (north), every few hours requiring a shift in body position or placement of clothing to cover from the burning rays. Despite the emptiness, it was intriguing. Because of the emptiness, it was mesmerizing. We listened to music, podcasts, and books. We finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. Although our destination was Uluru, the journey is what made the experience exponentially more worthwhile. It’s incredible how far you can drive across Australia without seeing anything of particular importance. And yet, the desert is teeming with life. Each roadside info stand talked of lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds that thrive in these harsh extremes. When there is just the least bit of rain, the whole landscape bursts to life and meadows appear virtually overnight. Unfortunately, they also disappear just as quickly when it becomes dry again.

Another full day of driving (8hrs) brought us to the Three Ways. The highway heading west literally dead ends halfway through the country and you can either go north to Darwin (12hrs) or south to Alice Springs (6hrs). We said, “Screw you, Darwin, and your perfectly sensible theories of evolutionary progress! We’re going to hang with Alice in her Springs!” 😉 But before we got there, we camped at the Devil’s Marbles. It’s an unbelievable natural phenomenon where the earth has eroded layer after layer over millions of years leaving behind giant clumps of condensed granite that have then been worn down from wind and rain, smoothing out the edges and creating the appearance of scattered marbles big enough to belong to the devil! (ya know…if you believe in that sorta stuff)

It was still another 4hrs until we got to Alice Springs the following day, but as we got closer the scenery came to life. Hills started rolling and rocky outcrops began rising from the desolate plains. Suddenly, there was a thriving oasis of a city in the middle of this barren landscape, complete with car dealerships, fast food joints, and high-rise hotels. The next major city (Darwin or Adelaide) is 1500kms away! Alice Springs was initially established as a telegraph station between Darwin and Adelaide, right on the Tropic of Capricorn. There would be one train that came in per week and it was the highlight for all of the residents. It brought much needed supplies, food stocks, and visitors. And this was until as recently as the 1960’s! Now, Alice Springs is the gateway to the Red Centre with several hundred thousand tourists per year coming in by road or plane. There isn’t much to do in Alice per se, but there’s a lot of natural beauty in the surrounding areas.

G: But the beauty of Alice is the hub of Aboriginal art galleries and exhibitions! It seemed that every second store down Todd Mall offered racks of hand-painted Aboriginal art including a laminated certificate of authenticity: the artist’s name, their tribe, a picture of them holding up the piece, and sometimes the meaning behind the symbols. I appreciated the transparency and acknowledgement that the artist was getting their deserved recognition and fair financial compensation. Some local artists work in studios provided for them, while others spend time painting at home in order to teach younger generations their family stories and techniques, and then bring it in to sell. After many stores and viewings, we settled on a very unique piece which I can’t wait to hang up when we find our nest back home!

B: But of course, after we shopped all day and spent a good deal on a quality piece of work, an Aboriginal woman approached us in the parking lot where we stopped to have lunch. She had paintings she wanted to sell and was currently working on a few in the park. We had a polite look at her stuff and I saw one that was decent, so I asked, “How much?” “20 dollars,” she replied. It wasn’t nearly the caliber of the one we had just purchased, but I bought it anyways to support her work.

Outside of Alice Springs, we spent a day exploring the West MacDonnell Range. We did some beautiful hikes in the red rock country, some with Aboriginal rock art. We also visited Standley Chasm, which was eerie to walk through because of the narrow opening between large rock faces. The area is famous for attracting local artists to capture the light, color and texture of the chasm.

Next, we ventured to Kings Canyon, about 4hrs drive from Alice. King’s Canyon is a 6km circuit, with the first 100m being a straight incline until it summits, and then it’s an easy trek along the beautiful red rock formations. It almost felt like we were walking amongst ancient ruins. The formations were pretty unique and displayed what the earth can do when left undisturbed for millennia.

G: But the main reason for trekking all of this distance into the outback was to see the giant monolith and sacred Aboriginal site known as Uluru. It seemed like we were never going to get there after four days and over 2,500kms of desolate driving, but about 50kms away, a small spot appeared on the horizon appeared. Uluru is essentially a massive rock that has formed in the middle of nowhere. It’s 3.6km wide and takes 10.6kms just to walk around the base! Geologists believe that it sits almost like an iceberg, in that about two-thirds of it is still underground.

We decided to free-camp about 40km away and woke up early to catch the sunrise the following morning. The park only offers a three-day pass for $25. Extreme weather conditions were in check, and it was easily 40C in the sun (104F), which made the walking trails only possible in the early morning. After the sunrise, we started the 10.6km base walk. The park recommends finishing all walks by 11am, but we could already feel the wall of heat by 9am. It was just too hot…but this is the outback after all!

Before our walk, we saw the spot where climbers go to summit the sacred site. Sadly, tourism to Uluru thrives on the idea of climbing to the top, despite the Aboriginals request not to. There were signs plain in sight, but people couldn’t care less. One lady we spoke to shrugged it off saying “I’ve wanted to come here since I was a little girl and hike this thing.” Interestingly enough though at the Visitor’s Center there was a book entitled I Didn’t Climb the Rock where visitors could explain why they didn’t climb. I don’t know why you’d want to climb, considering that 40 people have died trying. Likewise, there was another book of letters from people who felt guilty taking rocks and sent them back to be free of bad karma. A 17 year-old girl wrote in to say how she felt her life has had a dark cloud over it and she attributes it to taking a rock from around Uluru for memorabilia. Even around the base walk, there are signs that ask visitors not to photograph areas as it sacred to the dreamtime stories of the men and women of the area. The spiritual presence hangs heavy and all I can think about it how lucky we are to be able to experience this remarkable place.

B: We stayed at Ayers Rock Resort for a night, which hosts over 300,000 visitors per year with six different lodging options (and the only accommodations around). We finished our sightseeing early and found relief from the heat in the pool and the shops in the Town Square. I even participated in a didgeridoo workshop and learned more about the Aboriginal instrument that is traditionally only played by males. At sunset, we returned to Uluru for a dinner out of our portable home as the massive monolith was glowing orange and red in the sinking sunlight.

The next morning, we awoke before the sun and drove another 50km to catch the sunrise at Kata-Tjuta Dune Viewing (aka The Olgas) which coincidentally was a great viewing spot of Uluru in the distance. Kata-Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in local language, which makes sense as the the site is made up 36 domes. Once the sun was up, we headed further into the park for the 7.4km Valley of the Winds walk. The signposts where not as clear the first part of the trail so we got a little lost, but it was all worth it when we saw some kangaroos nearby. Back on track, the trek was beautiful as it climbed through valleys with views of massive boulders and sedimentary domes. Water stations appeared every so often to remind visitors to stay hydrated in the ghastly heat.

After the trek, we enjoyed a little more of the Ayers Rock Resort and then made it back to the free camp outside of the park where we stayed before. That evening, we mingled with an Aussie named Carl on a 6-month road trip with his wife Diane, both newly retired.  Over a campfire and under a glimmering blanket of stars stretching all directions, Carl recited his jovial bush poetry and stories of being a tour guide on Fraser Island. To top off the Aussie evening, we got a visit from a hungry-looking dingo sniffing around for scraps in the cool night air.

The outback is a big and beautiful stretch of country if you come prepared for the abundance of sun and lack of water. The heat is intense, the towns are remote, and the critters are deadly, but once you settle in with a fly net and a drink, it’s the true Aussie experience. I can’t imagine visiting Uluru any other way.

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Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef

B: After all the planning and anticipation for our great Australian roadtrip, it was finally time to put rubber to the road! We went north from Cairns on the windy road up to Kuranda. The small village is located in the middle of a World Heritage Rainforest, 1,000 feet above Cairns. It had a ‘hippy invasion’ in the 1960’s, which transformed it into a base for vibrant arts and crafts. Today’s village boasts world famous markets, street art, and scenic walks for all ages (or the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for those less active). We walked through the rainforest at the Jumrum Creek Conservation Park and marveled at Baron Falls, even though it’s the dry season and it’s usually gushing with water.

G: From Kuranda, the drive along the highway was already new and interesting territory. Banana and coffee plantations crept around every curve. Scattered away from the highway were earthen mounds of various sizes that looked like rocks, but were actually termite nests. Some were so big and tall it was both impressive and disgusting to think of how many termites might be living in there! And although I expected it, it was still sad to see the frequent sight of kangaroos as road kill, already being infested by crows. The first night we camped at Davies Creek, a quiet little hideaway 6km off the main highway with great scenery. In the morning, we stocked up on our fresh spring water and took a quick dip to cool the rising temperatures of this hot country.

Next, we visited one of those local coffee plantations for a caffeine hit and then drove through Mareeba to Granite Gorge. Granite Gorge is a boulder park, swimming hole, and residence of the local rock wallaby. Complete with dinosaur footprints and rock canyons, we weaved through the mammoth boulders like a playground meeting the sweet and innocent wallabies along the way. Each time they hopped up, they would look at us presumptuously to feed them, since the owner of the site provides a small bag of dry food. When we finally fed them, they all gathered in colossal numbers!

B: The following day we moved faster, checking off sites of interest one by one as they were near to the circular highway route. The Curtain Fig Tree is a sight unlike any other, so I’ll just let the picture do the talking. Lake Eacham is an old glacier lake that I didn’t find particularly impressive, but the locals seem to like it. Millaa Millaa Falls is one of (if not the) most photographed waterfall in Australia. Apparently it was the sight of an Herbal Essences commercial, as the tour guides were posing long-haired women in front of the falls to snap a photo of the iconic hair flip. I probably could’ve tried it with my locks… 😉 It was scenic, but I preferred Josephine Falls with the rock waterslide. Then it was on to the Mungali Creek Biodynamic Farm where we indulged in the most delicious plum cheesecake. Finally, while searching for a free campsite we stumbled upon Paronella Park.

We were greeted in the parking lot by Mark, founder and co-owner of this unique piece of land. His enthusiasm for the place was off the charts, even though he’s been entertaining guests every day for over 20 years. He couldn’t quite give an accurate description, other than: Spanish-style castle, glowing waterfalls, canyon of kauri groves, #1 attraction in Queensland, forest-meets-Gaudi-meets-Dali-architecture, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it! Admission included free camping, but at $40 each we weren’t that gung-ho. He offered a 2-for-1 deal at the concession rate of $37, so it was more reasonable and worth the risk of this magical place. (He later told me, “You guys are about my kids’ age, so I have to look out for you.” I told him, “Thanks. That’s funny because my dad’s name is Mark.” He replied, “Good name!” 😉 )

We took a night tour that evening, guided by none other than Mark himself. His enthusiasm was non-stop, even at 8pm! A brief history: Paronella Park was created in the 1930s by Spanish-born Jose Paronella after amassing a fortune from property dealings in the area. On 13 acres of land, he built his dream house (more of a compound) by hand with most of the designs residing only in his head. By 1933 it had Queensland’s first hydroelectric plant and opened to the public in 1935. The Paronella’s hosted locals for Saturday movie nights, tennis matches, and built a pavilion with balconies, refreshment rooms, and changing cubicle for swimmers. There was even a museum! Unfortunately, unexpected weather events and the decline of Jose’s health found the property quickly deteriorating. Decades passed and family members failed to maintain the place through forest growth and harsh cyclones. In 1993, Mark and Judy Evans rediscovered the park and revived Jose’s dream by refurbishing all aspects as close as possible to their original state. Despite the recent cyclones, the park is in great condition and attracts heaps of tourists year-round. It’s eco-certified and heritage listed. The Evans’ continue to restore this beautiful property and preserve Paronella Park so that future generations can continue to glimpse into the past at Jose Paronella’s dream. Oh…and Gabriella was too scared to camp because of the resident 4.25m long python (see snake skin pic) that roams the property, so we slept in the car. 😉

G: After a circuit of the Tablelands, we stopped for a night in Cairns at a free campsite and met a friendly German trio with a unique campervan. We shared stories over wine for the night, and then parted ways as many travelers do. From there, we went north to Daintree Rainforest stopping at a few beaches along the way, including a free camp at Wangetti and quick tour around Port Douglas. The real attraction though came at Mossman Gorge. The drive in was pretty special, but then we ventured into a beautiful rainforest with walking trails, giant boulders, and a swimming hole. A portion has also been maintained as a private residence for Aboriginals from the area. Along the trail we ran into our German friends with the famous campervan!

B: Once we crossed the river into Daintree, phone signal cut out and the jungle began. The road curved in and out of dense forest with lookout points and boardwalks every few kms. Crocodile and jellyfish signs warned us to be on the lookout near rivers and beaches, with emergency vinegar handy as well. Yikes! That evening we stayed at Lync-Haven Retreat, which is also an animal sanctuary housing snakes and baby crocodiles in cages, a more-intimidating full-grown crocodile named Doris, and a few different kangaroos and wallabies. The next morning we were invited to watch a feeding and get to know the locals a little better.

Afterwards, we took the road as far north as we could to Cape Tribulation. It’s the furthest north along the east coast of Australia that anyone can go without a 4WD. The view was stunning; where the rainforest meets the reef! From there we cruised south, hopping from one beautiful beach or boardwalk to the next, checking off the sites of the tourist trail and indulging in biodynamic ice cream (once we chose a flavor!). One of the best stops was Cow Bay, where coincidentally we stumbled upon our German friends again! We explored the Jindalba boardwalk with them before parting ways for good this time.

G: My favorite part of the Daintree was when we detoured off the tourist map to an area recommended to us by our roommate in the Cairns hostel. It’s called the Blue Holes and there are no signs directing people to get there. We had ambiguous directions and figured we’d ask a local for something more direct. When we asked a shop keeper, he hesitated for a second, drew a blue dot on our map, and told us, “You didn’t hear it from me.” The Blue Holes are a sacred female Aboriginal site used for birthing. When the light hits the water properly, it glows a luminescent blue. There were a few other people there when we arrived, but the air was still and the energy was palpable. As with so many of the other amazing sacred sites we came across, this required a moment for meditation—to express gratitude to this infinite universe. Pure Bliss.

Cairns and The Reef

B: A three-hour flight north from Melbourne took us from a wet and windy winter to the hot and humid temps of the wet tropics in Cairns. Even though we arrived after sunset, the air was thick and it felt like I was back in Florida. We set up camp in a hostel in the middle of town, right on the Esplanade across from the popular lagoon where everyone stops for a swim. Cairns doesn’t have any beaches because of the crocs; a new danger to us in Queensland, and one of many we’d soon learn about.

Cairns itself is a small city, but quite commercial. It’s filled with tacky souvenir shops, boisterous hostels, and travel booking agencies for the many excursions in the area.  Vacationing families splurge on nightly dinners near the neon-lit Esplanade while the young international crowd gets primped for a night of debauchery. The vibe reminded us a lot of Waikiki in Honolulu, as did the scenery of rolling green mountains flowing into the sea. The city council also offers free fitness classes in the park, different each night, and there are exercise machines in the park along the boardwalk, which we took advantage of one night with a bouldering class. One oddity was the overwhelming presence of flying fox bats dangling from the trees during the day and swooping and screeching through the streets at dusk (covering cars and streets with green guano along the way!).

All of our energy was focused on finding a car those first few days. We checked out a couple of backpacker station wagons, but either the mileage or the price was too high (or both!). Fortunately, on our third day we met a nice local man (Michael) selling a 1997 Mitsubishi Magna with only 147,000 kms. It had the Road Worthy Certificate (required in Queensland) and the price was right. It hasn’t been used as a backpacker car, so we had to buy the customary camping gear usually included with many used cars, but it’s worth it for a car in good condition with low kms. We jumped on this quality ride and became new homeowners within five days of landing in Cairns. Meet Maggie! Unfortunately, we parked her under bat-infested tree the first night and discovered her shiny silver had turned a mucus green… :-/

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Maggie!

G: The day after we secured the car, we celebrated with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We boarded at 8am and cruised for 90 minutes before reaching the first stop, Saxon Reef. The water was frigid and visibility was decent. While Blake geared up for a dive, I grabbed a noodle and went for a snorkel with my underwater camera. Much to my dismay, I failed to put sunscreen on my back and got scorched; a price I’d pay for the next week. 😦 Fortunately though, the sights beneath the surface were like swimming in an aquarium; electric-colored fish of all sizes, intricate and diverse coral, and clams almost a meter in length!

B: The dive was pretty amazing as well. I got to see larger coral structures and different kinds of fish at the greater depth. I was a little disappointed that we had to swim with linked arms though since I’m not certified, something that wasn’t necessary when I dove in Indonesia. We also only got to a depth of about 8m, but in Indonesia we went to 15m. Still, it was awesome to experience the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef in 3D.

G: Once Blake resurfaced, we had a buffet lunch on board before sailing to the next destination, Hastings Reef. As soon as we anchored, there were large fish, about a meter in length, clustering around the back of the boat in crystal clear water. We wanted to dive right in with mask and snorkel, but we had to stay dry and board a smaller boat that took us to a launch pad for a Helicopter ride.

B: Bummer, right?!

G: Indeed we splurged, but how often will we be at the Great Barrier Reef?! As we climbed higher over the sea, the large reef up close became small shapes of golden land, smooth in the middle and textured on the outer edges as it kissed the turquoise water. The scattered array of organic structures expanded for miles beneath our window.