The Magic of Millaa Millaa

The Magic of Millaa Millaa

Apologies for the long delay in reaching this, my final post about travelling – there have been a lot of changes since I came back, which I’ll go into at a later date.


My trusty Bruce Cobber pass held one last complementary extra: a tour of the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns, with Barefoot Tours. The Tablelands are a huge plateau, 1km above the city and formed by volcanic activity: they’re partly covered by the Daintree rainforest, but are most famous for their waterfalls.

Brett of Barefoot (he claims not to have worn shoes for 16 years) picked up me and the rest of the group before 8am for the long drive up to the Tablelands, in Shikaka: the (now retired) bright orange van. Bedecked with flower wreaths, Shikaka is as hippy as they come.

Being thrown together with a group for just a day can be an awkward experience, but Brett has a magic formula for breaking the ice: Queen, intimate enquiries and weird animal sex facts. Between bouts of Bohemian Rhapsody, we took turns answering Brett’s barrage of questions: “Folder or scruncher?” (worryingly a 50/50 split), “Single or coupled up?” and “What animal would you most like to be, and why?”

Our first stop was a 75m deep extinct volcano caldera called Lake Eacham – a single crocodile lives here, but it’s a small freshy, so nothing to worry about. Morning tea was served while sunbathing – Barefoot puts on a great spread of fruit and cakes. The backpackers, says Brett, are always easy to spot as they’re the ones throwing themselves on the food and smearing their faces with Tim Tams.

With a stop in Malanda to buy lunch (the curry pie was bloody bonzer), we went on to Dinner Falls and the Mount Hypipamee Crater. The latter, formed by a volcanic gas explosion, is more than 85m deep, with a water level starting almost 60m down from the observation point: throwing a rock down there sounds like a cannon blast. The nearby Dinner Falls are a world of opposites: on one side you can get a relaxing massage by sitting under the flow; on the other, you need to fight against the current to press into a tiny cave behind a curtain of water.

There are two more big tourist spots in the Tablelands. The first is Millaa Millaa (lit. ‘Lots of vines’) Falls, where the Herbal Essences advert was filmed – naturally we all gave our own hair flick a go, and mine was long enough by this point that it worked pretty well! Finally, we stopped at Jubilee Falls, which is a natural water slide – great fun!

If you’re stopping in Cairns for just one day, make sure you go to the Tablelands – and book with Barefoot.


I had two more full days in Cairns, one of which was spent sunbathing at the Lagoon: an artificial swimming spot, because the stingers and saltwater crocs in the estuary aren’t friendly.

On my final day, I took my free (remember Byron Bay?) trip out to Green Island, part of the inner Barrier Reef. Unfortunately it’s more island than reef, so I didn’t get the amazing views of the coral that you see in Finding Nemo, and what is there is very bleached. However, it’s the only coral cay (a sandy island on a coral platform) in the world with a rainforest, and the marine life is impressively varied: a stingray swam right under me, and I snorkelled with a shark for good five minutes. There are sea turtles all around the island, too. I’ve swum in more impressive places, but for a free trip I couldn’t fault it.


My final day of travelling was the 27th November, and everything went off without a hitch – which doesn’t make for a particularly exciting entry. I caught a seven-hour flight to Hong Kong at 3pm, landing at 8pm local time; I had five hours to kill in the airport, then took off at 1am.

I arrived back in the UK at 5:50am on the 28th November. I didn’t sleep at all on the way back to Oxford, as I’d had an hour to wait before the coach and the most convenient place was Costa. This new coffee habit might become a problem…

My family met me at the Oxford coach station, and shortly after breakfast I fell into bed – about 36 hours since my head last touched a pillow.

I was away for three months; it felt like longer, and I’d have happily stayed for more than twice that time. No matter where I was in the world, the people were friendly, the food was good (if not cheap) and the bikinis were small weather was excellent. So why did I come back? Because a few days after I landed, Max and I turned 30 – and this decade’s already brought a couple of big changes. Watch this space…

I’ll leave you with Barefoot Brett’s Golden Rules of Backpacking, which are totally legitimate and definitely not racist:

  1. Don’t share a room with the Irish;
  2. Always use the top bunk (added after a nasty episode involving a drunk bunkmate); and
  3. If someone in the room is having sex, it is your duty to get up and cheer them on.

快乐旅行 / 행복한 여행!

Get going – it’ll be ripper!

Magnetic Attraction

Magnetic Attraction

Magnetic Island is firmly in the Australian tropics, reached via ferry ($33 return, plus $2 for an all-day unlimited buss pass – definitely recommended, as the same thing costs $7 on the island) from Townsville – about 220 miles (350km) south of Cairns. It’s a great destination for tourists and backpackers, and provided an R&R stop on my way north.

Townsville has little to recommend it, and I wouldn’t advise stopping here for longer than it takes to transfer across to Maggie Island. There are a few tourist-friendly attractions, like an aquarium, but there’s a lot more to see and do a short boat trip away.

My Bruce Cobber Greyhound pass gave me a free night’s stay at Base hostel, about a 30 minute bus ride from the ferry terminal. Buses are synched to the ferry schedule, so there’ll always be one waiting when you disembark. I was short on funds by this time, but those who have some spare cash can hire a ‘Barbie car’ ($60). These bright pink (or white with pink highlights – either way, you’re clearly not driving a Mustang) vehicles can be seen zipping around everywhere on the island.

Barbie carDespite lacking a functioning can opener (I had to get creative with a knife and a big rock), Base was one of the best places I stayed in Oz. The location on the seafront is fantastic, and guests can stay in thatched, six-person beach huts.

The target market is definitely young travellers; the open-sided bar has events every night, including Australia’s only Full Moon Party. I spent my one night there playing Bar Wars with Joen, from my Whitsundays boat (several of us turned up at the same place), and friends. This was, effectively, an excuse to get as many people as possible as naked as possible, via games (including musical chairs). Shout-out to the guys who refused to chicken out at losing their boxers, and made creative use of a bucket and spade.

As well as drinking (let’s face it, that’s popular everywhere), most of the visitors to Maggie go and see the rock wallabies. A colony of these tiny marsupials lives on a rocky point near Arcadia. They’re tame enough that they’ll come and eat from your hand, and they love banana peel and carrots. I went up there with two Finnish girls staying in the same hut, and got some seed mix from an old man in a wheelchair who’s there every day. He’ll hand feed to anyone who asks, and knows everything about the wallabies!

For the active traveller, I’d recommend the Forts walk, which goes around the ruins of World War bunkers on the rocky hills in the middle of the island. Normally this would take a couple of hours, but I had to power through to make the 3pm ferry, and did it in one. I haven’t sweated so much since climbing Moon Hill in Yangshuo! If you have the time, though, there are a lot of signs to read and sights to see. Be mindful of snakes while walking, though – I nearly trod on one; luckily just a (relatively) harmless tree snake.

Back across the sea in Townsville I caught my final Greyhound of the trip, which took me north to Cairns and the last stop of my travels.

Goodbye, Maggie

Waking Up in the Whitsundays

Waking Up in the Whitsundays

Fraser Island is only the beginning of Australia’s tropics. My next stop was at the Whitsundays national park: a collection of islands known as the Heart of the Reef.

The islands, in the middle of the Barrier Reef, enjoy (fairly) calm seas all year. In a massive contrast to whale watching in Sydney, we only hit bad weather once; and, being warm(ish) tropical rain, I used it as the precursor to a shower.

Airlie Beach, where most Whitsunday cruises begin, is a small town, but much livelier than Hervey Bay: boat tours come and go every day, so there are always parties on (although the clubs in town aren’t great – stick to the bars).

The boat that you travel on will determine the type of trip that you have. Some, like the Tongarra (mine) and Avatar, are aimed at the younger crowd. Others, like the Apollo, are used by those wanting a relaxed time. Do your research and choose the right vessel!

Even on the party boats, you need to follow the rules for drinking on board, These are mostly variants on the theme of, “Don’t fall over the side because we won’t rescue you.” Drinking games (the Tongarra Circle of Love; Paranoia; and the ever-popular I’ve Never) are common, but really, really don’t piss off the skipper: they can and will lock you in the engine room for disturbing other passengers.

Only a few of us stayed up past midnight on the first night, and we were woken at 5am when the sun rose over the ocean.

Like most of the Whitsundays boats, the Tongarra has limited cabin space; we all slept out on deck. It’s not entirely open to the elements; a tent can be unfurled from the sail and stretched out to keep the rain off. The sides were left up, though, and strong sunlight woke us up just hours after we all dropped off. And then our decky JJ turned on the radio. He didn’t win any friends that morning.

After a breakfast of fruit, cereal and bread, we disembarked onto Shit Beach (that wonderful Aussie literalism again). Although “the shittest beach in the Whitsundays” lived up to its name, it was worth it: it’s the only route to Whitehaven Beach, the islands’ most famous stretch of sand.

Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island has incredibly pure white sand, but Whitehaven even beats that: here it is 98% pure silica, although because of driftwood and other debris carried in by the ocean, it’s not as soft as the sand at McKenzie. However, it reflects so much heat that it’s cool underfoot, even at midday under the tropical sun. It made a nice change from having to run across the beach in Byron Bay!

We spent a few hours on Whitehaven, then boarded the Tongarra and headed to Manta Ray Bay. If you don’t like fish, stay out of the water here! Coral trout, batfish and parrot fish are common, and a massive Maori Wrasse called George makes his home in the Bay. Manta rays (of course) can be seen from May to September.

We anchored in Caves Cove that night and began our last day with a snorkel. The Cove was the sight of a massacre when the first European settlers arrived – although unlike Fraser’s Indian Head, it was done by the indigenous people, not to them. They widely made themselves scarce before any possible repercussions. Having a spiritual attachment to your land is all very well, but a magic death stick is a magic death stick.

We sunbathed on the long sail back to Airlie, and a few of us attempted Tongarra’s infamous one-minute showers (only a limited amount of water can be carried onboard, and once it’s out the boats have to return to land by law). That rainstorm came in handy!

The night was taken up with afterparties. David, from Fraser Island, had been on the Avatar while I was on the Tongarra and both boats came back in on the same day, so I crashed his party before mine began. I could only stay at the Tongarra party for a short time, though, as I was boarding another 12-hour bus to the north. Next stop: Magnetic Island!


Be Dingo Safe

Be Dingo Safe

I began this blog with a quote from Shakespeare: “To unpathed waters, undreamed shores”. It could have been written about the magical, peaceful and still-slightly-wild Fraser Island.

Fraser, the world’s largest sand island, is one of the most popular stops along the east coast. In many ways it’s a real tropical paradise – if ‘paradise’ means not swimming in the sea, no phone reception and biting flies the size of your big toe.

I took my tour ($550 if booking direct; I got a discount as a Greyhound customer) through the Palace Hostel in Hervey Bay, but stayed in Flashpackers ($27/night) and with a family friend (on reflection, I should have stayed in Palace as the majority of my Fraser group was there). This was really too much time in Hervey Bay – it’s a small town and there’s not a lot to do. If you do decide to stay for an extended period, make sure it’s after Fraser, when you’ll have a group of new friends!

My group of 31 people was mostly from Germany, several of whom were travelling together. This meant that it took longer for all of us – especially the non-German speakers – to open up and get to know each other than normal, but by the end of the trip we were all exchanging Facebook names and sharing photos. Meeting new friends is one of the best bits about travelling; even after your friends back home are sick of you reminiscing about the awesome time you had, you’ll still have people to share those memories with.

The Palace tour is a camping trip, based out of a permanent campsite with a covered kitchen/dining area, BBQ and even – luxury – a trailer with USB chargers and a gas hob for tea. We were right on the beach, which meant that we could watch the moon and sun rise over the Pacific; both incredible sights. We had to be careful when leaving the electric fences of the campsite, though: Fraser is home to many wild dingoes, which have been known to attack lone people. Because of this, we had to carry sticks every time we left at night. Be dingo safe!

The tour is known as a tag-along; the group drives a convoy of 4x4s, following a leader car. Only nine people wanted or were able (you must be 21 or over) to drive out of our whole group, so I got a lot of time behind the wheel.

If you’re not comfortable with driving a manual, right-hand drive car, Fraser Island is a very bad place to start! Tarmac is an alien concept and the tracks can rutted, steep and full of soft sand. It is very easy to get bogged down – but, on the other hand, you can have great fun if you know what you’re doing. That’s a big ‘if’ – the week after we left, someone rolled their car and had to pay $4,000 to their tour company.

Tag-along cars have a reputation for getting stuck: if you just want to see Fraser, one of the four-wheel drive bus tours might be a better option. However, if you consider this to be all part of the experience, get thee to a Land Cruiser!

We had several cars dig themselves into the sand during the trip, but only one major delay: while crossing the mouth of Eli Creek at high tide on the second day. The creeks on the beach can be really dangerous to traverse, as the sand washes out from under the wheels quickly and water can flood the engine. And yet was this potentially-fatal environment the one that caused a 40-minute delay? Of course not; that problem was located between the steering wheel and driver’s seat.

All four cars made it across, but once we reached the other side one of them simply stopped moving. A driver had accidentally switched the petrol source from the main tank to the reserve (sump) tank, which had been drained, and the car needed priming again. We had to abandon it and call in a replacement while it was repaired. Luckily we were on 75 Mile Beach, and could get up to 70kph on the firm, flat sand to make up time.

75 Mile Beach is Fraser’s main highway; driving it is the fastest route between some of the island’s most beautiful spots. On our first day we visited Lake Wabby, near our campsite, while on the second we went north to the wreck of the Maheno, the Champagne Pools, Indian Head and Eli Creek.

Wabby is a 14m-deep freshwater lake, which requires a 40-minute trek across the sand dunes to reach. It’s worth every step, though; the water is emerald green and full of garra rufa fish, which eat dead skin. We spent an enjoyable and relaxing couple of hours here, being tickled by the fish as we threw a ball around. In 40 or 50 years, the dune that borders Wabby will bury the lake, as the wind blows sand into the island’s interior. Get there while you can!

North of Lake Wabby – after passing the 80-year old Maheno shipwreck (which is good to see but not worth more than a few minutes out of your day) – you will find Indian Head and the Champagne Pools. The beaches at this end of the island are much more beautiful than the south, as tides and wind carry seaweed and excess sand away from the area, leaving the water very clear. No swimming in the ocean, though: sharks and jellyfish are common near the coast.

If you absolutely must immerse yourself in salt water, the Champagne Pools – a natural fish trap used by the native indigenous people – are still, warm and deep enough to dive into. If you’re feeling fit, you can also climb the rocks of Indian Head to spot marine life in the ocean: we saw a pair of turtles, but sharks, rays, whales and more have all been seen here.

Further south is Eli Creek – thankfully at a lower level when we returned. This is a natural lazy river, with more than 4 million litres of fresh water flowing into the ocean every hour. The water is so clean that you can drink it straight from the water course, and many of us took the opportunity; it’s certainly not something that I’d want to try back home!

The centre of the island has its own share of beauty spots, which we visited on the first and third days. These include an old logging camp (Central Station) and a stream so pure and quiet that it is known as Invisible Creek. Perhaps Fraser’s most famous spot, though, is Lake McKenzie.

Unlike many of the island’s other fresh water sources, McKenzie is not supplied by the massive well of water (up to five times as large as Sydney harbour!) underneath Fraser: instead, it is pure rainwater. The water is very blue and the sand very white. and so fine that it can be used to wash your hair. No-one is allowed to use soaps or shampoo in Fraser’s lakes or rivers, so scrubbing ourselves down with sand was the closest any of us had come to a shower in three days! We had a great time dumping sand on each others’ heads, dunking friends and playing ball games. We were all very sorry to leave; if there was anything I’d change about the tour, it would be to have more time at Lake McKenzie, where any remaining barriers between the group were broken down.

From McKenzie, we caught the ferry back to the mainland (20 minutes) at River Head and waved goodbye to each other back at the hostel – but only for a few hours, as we all meet up again that night for dinner, which later became drinking on the beach as the tide went out and the moon rose. As well as being as romantic as anything, it was a perfect end to a perfect three days on what really was a tropical paradise – lack of WiFi notwithstanding.

Fraser wasn’t the end of the good times – in fact, it was just the beginning. My next stop was Airlie Beach for a cruise in the Whitsundays national park, in the heart of the Barrier Reef.

Brisbane – Not a City by the Sea

Brisbane – Not a City by the Sea

Brisbane was a short stopping point on my way up the coast towards the main tourist activities of Fraser Island and the Whitsundays. Family friends, Paul and Kirsten, were kind enough to let me stay with them in their new home for the four days that I was there. I was also graciously tolerated by their dachsund, Sadie.

Brisbane is at the southern tip of Queensland, which stretches almost 7,000km along Australia’s coast. For this reason – unlike the rest of the country – the state doesn’t follow daylight savings time. It did feel odd to drive over a timezone barrier on the way from Byron, which is in northern New South Wales.

I didn’t spend much time in Brisbane itself, which is really just a city – although it does have a wide selection of markets. I spent one whole day wandering street food markets in the CBD. The lingering memory of that day, though, will be that it was the one in which the world progressed even further up Shit Creek.


Before we glimpsed the start of World War III, though, I met up with Cat again to visit the Australia Zoo: commonly held to be the best zoo in the country (entrance + return ticket on the Greyhound: $95). It is dedicated to animal conservation, established by Steve Irwin’s parents and still owned by his family. Animal interaction is encouraged: Cat was practically jumping out of her seat on the way there in excitement at being able to hold a koala.

As well as the little grey fuzzballs, Aussie animals like kangaroos, cassowaries, dingoes, wombats, snakes and – of course – crocodiles are housed in the zoo. Tigers, otters, lizards, birds and even some African animals like rhinos and giraffes also have enclosures. Not all of the animals are on display; many have their own private areas which cannot be viewed by the public.

Although the zoo is focused on animal conservation, there are some shows throughout the day. I’m not sure how putting animals on display for our entertainment like this is justified, although it could be argued that they bring in more money for conservation efforts. I wasn’t enough of a hard-nosed animal activist to miss a few of the events, though.

The main show is in the ‘Crocoseum’: a big, open-air stadium where the trainers allow birds to fly free, including a condor (one of only six in Australia) and a parrot that would take a $5 note from an audience member and return it to the keeper; she loved that bird. Crocodiles were, of course, the main attraction, and thanks to the extremely clear water in the main pool we were able to see exactly how they hunt.

Cat and I also attended enrichment sessions with some of the zoo’s tigers and otters – separately, of course! According to the keepers one of the otters, aptly named Mayhem, used to gather debris from around his enclosure and build himself a ladder every night, then roam around the zoo. The ladder was taken apart and hidden when they arrived in the morning! They only caught him after installing CCTV cameras.

Other activities in Brisbane included visiting the artificial beach at Southbank (Brisbane is not a coastal city, no matter what the natives insist) and heading up Mount Coot-tha, which gives great views over the city. The Botanical Gardens are on the way down the mountain, and also worth a visit: they are big, peaceful and free!

My next stop was Hervey Bay, the closest town to Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island, and my favourite place along the coast after Byron.

Surf’s Up

Surf’s Up

The Gold Coast is famous for three things: record-breaking surf; beautiful people; and seeing a shark attack every three days, maybe once a week at slow times. Obviously nonsense: only two of those are true.

Officially, the Gold Coast is a small region, but most travellers use the term to refer to the long stretch between Sydney and Brisbane, which encompasses (amongst others) the towns of Byron Bay, Surfer’s Paradise and – of course – Gold Coast. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world can be found here, and sealife like dolphins, sharks and clichéd surfers can be seen from every beach.

After leaving Sydney, I had a brief stop in Port Macquarie. The town itself hasn’t got much to recommend it unless you enjoy long walks in high temperatures, although there is a koala hospital if you haven’t managed to see any yet. The highlight of my stop was the hostel itself. I stayed in Port Macquarie Backpackers, where I felt more like a family member than a guest.

The above is not to say that you have no private time at PMB, but if you do want company – whether it’s a travel buddy, a friend to cook with or just someone to hang out on the beanbags and play video games – you can find it. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I ran into two German girls (Selina and Miri) whom I’d last seen in Katoomba, and we became travel partners up to Brisbane. Gaining and waving goodbye to friends like this is common in the backpacking community; you either go with the flow or you change your plans and stay together.

Side note: the number of Germans backpacking the east coast of Australia means a great supply of schnitzel and German beers. With those staples fulfilled, the only thing that Selina had to complain about was the bread; pre-sliced stuff, apparently, being the work of the Devil, or possibly Americans. I’d have thought it would have appealed to her efficient German nature, but there you go. Selina and Miri were the first of many great German travellers  I met on the trip – most of them on Fraser Island. But we’ll get to that… 

I spent Halloween in Macquarie. Most of the hostel went out to the pool to drink and watch bats flying overhead. We had people dressed as creepy dolls, a bone-wielding scarecrow and…a bin. Absolutely terrifying. Matt, who worked in the hostel, had made punch using enough jelly to make it part-solid: to simulate drinking congealed blood, apparently. I’m going to blame that for some of us stripping down to our underwear and jumping into the pool later that night. 

From Macquarie, I caught a bus in the early morning to Byron Bay: a favourite hangout of the surfing crowd and and a town whose sales of swimwear, wooden beads, incense and crystals could probably fund a coup in a small African country.

One of the most welcome things about Byron after Sydney is that its major attraction – the beach – is entirely free. I spent several days doing nothing but relaxing by the water, and occasionally wandering into town for food.

The days where travellers had to make do with noodles and porridge for every meal are long behind us; Byron has a thriving foody culture. A burger joint, Bayger, is especially recommended (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado burger with sweet potato fries: $14), as is Dip (for brunch) and In The Pink/Gelati (for ice cream). The latter runs a competition challenging customers to guess the weight of their ice cream to the gram – if they guess right, it’s free! We quite seriously discussed whether buying a pair of pocket scales would be justified to take advantage of this offer: like a spy flirting with type two diabetes.

Naturally, being the home of Australia’s surfing culture, I had lessons booked, which were ‘free’ with my Greyhound ticket, along with a night on Magnetic Island and a day tour to the Atherton Tablelands in Cairns (Bruce Cobber pass: £385). It’s really not worth paying extra for the upgrade passes like the Bonza (adding three nights on Fraser Island) or Cruiser (Fraser/Whitsundays), as you’ll always find cheaper deals on these tours in hostels.

I took lessons with Cat, an English girl who had arrived on the same Greyhound and was staying in the same hostel (Backpackers Inn: $30 a night). Rachel, from Northern Ireland, joined us, but as our beachside photographer rather than being in the water. 

Cat had apparently inherited her namesake’s sense of balance and was practically doing yoga on the surfboard within half an hour, while I ended up catching a wave by mistake and bodyboarding in while looking fed up. Despite spending more time in the water than on it, though, I successfully stood and surfed to shore by the end of the day.

As the family back home (you know who you are) were constantly reminding me, Byron Bay is known for being something of a shark hotspot. I felt totally safe, though: jet skis are constantly patrolling for signs of sharks, and our instructor was also on the lookout. It wasn’t until one of my hostel roommates actually saw a shark while surfing that I remembered the dangers. I left that story out of my reports back to the family, for some reason.

After surfing, we went to the Indie Travel store on Byron’s Main Street to book tours further up the coast. I took a Fraser ‘tag-along’ tour (you drive yourself, following a guide) and a cruise through the Whitsundays National Park, right in the middle of the Barrier Reef. These are the east coast’s major hotspots; the blunt consensus was, “If you’re not doing Fraser and the Whitsundays, what the fuck are you doing in Australia?” With PR like that, who could say no? 

Some fast talking and a lot of smiling meant that I secured a day trip to the Reef from Cairns for free. The total cost was about $900, which was more than I wanted to pay but justified because I secured the free reef tour. I’d advise anyone else to shop around and especially visit the hostels – even ones they’re not staying in. 

Towards the end of my time in Byron, I met up with four friends from Macquarie: Tristan (of bin-wearing fame), Tom, Selina and Miri, for a super-Australian night of barbeque and goon (boxed wine: the backpackers’ drink of choice) in my hostel. Afterwards, we went to The Northern, a good live music venue, to watch a reggae-rock band called the Sea Gypsies. We finished the night in Lala Land: not really my scene but fun with friends.

Byron’s nightlife is heaving, and there are plenty of places to choose from. One of the most popular, with live music every night, is Beach (free entry but expensive drinks). For a more traditional club night, head to the other end of the main street (near the Greyhound bus stop) to Cheeky Monkeys ($10 entrance fee). This place certainly wouldn’t pass H&S checks in the UK, as everyone stands on tables and benches to dance. Not very stable, even without the beer!

Our nights out proved to me that Byron is the most laid-back place I’ve ever been. Spilling a drink, which would cause a fight in the boozy British culture, is thrown off with a Shaka sign. This probably has something to do with the closeness of Nimbin, the nation’s weed capital. The most heated argument I saw in my week in the Bay was between two buskers – and they were French.

So, Byron Bay: beautiful scenery; beautiful, relaxed people; and relentlessly standing fast against the tide of invasive capitalism. Of course, this does mean you run into the occasional dreadlocked drum circle on the street, but hey – nowhere is perfect.

Sydney on a Shoestring

Sydney on a Shoestring

It’s been a few weeks since my last update, mostly because I’ve been having such a great time that blogging has been at the back of my mind. That should serve as a forerunner for the following posts…

From Melbourne, I caught a 12-hour coach through to Sydney, where I stayed with Iain and Alice. You might remember them from such adventures as getting drunk and singing Madonna in Yangshuo and racing around the walls of Xi’an. The bus arrived an hour early, and so I was left sitting at the bus stop in Sydney until they woke up! Once they did and I got inside, I fell into their spare bed and fell asleep, possibly while making little “Vroom vroom” noises. It was a long coach trip.

Sydney has a lot to recommend it – probably. By this point I was beginning to think about saving money for the big expenses up the coast, like the Barrier Reef, and so was trying to budget hard. This wasn’t as challenging as you might think, as like any city there are plenty of free/cheap activities that kept me entertained for three or four days.

Unfortunately I was there for a week and a half, so there was a bit of repetition!
One of the first things that I did was visit the Blue Mountains in Katoomba, which despite being two hours away on the train, cost less than $3 to reach.

The scenery here is stunning. The land falls sharply away from the town; you can even look over the edge of the path and see birds flying below you – which is not for the faint-hearted. Far below is a wide valley floor, covered by forest, which stretches for miles away from the Echo Point lookout near Katoomba. 

Katoomba: where sleep walkers have been Darwinned out of existence.

Ramblers will love the Blue Mountains; it is easy to find solitary trails with views across the valley, and I spent three hours hiking here. As well as the views, the Katoomba Cascade is definitely worth a visit, as is the cable car across the valley. 

Back in Sydney I visited the Opera House (perhaps the only building that has won an award while looking like a box of Kleenex), Circular Quay and Bondi Beach.

I did Sydney’s beach walk, which goes from from Bondi in the north to Coogee in the south. It takes a couple of hours and passes four other ‘beaches’. I use inverted commas because I’m not convinced that the spit of sand at the end of Gordon’s Bay counts. 

The day that I did the walk was the second of the annual Sculpture by the Sea festival. Artists place installations between Bronte and Bondi beaches: there are several hundred, ranging from a carpet pattern painted on bare rock to intricate wire pieces that spin with the wind and a reconstruction of a coral reef using crochet. Definitely worth a visit.

Sydney is closely tied to the ocean (as I found when I visited the Maritime Museum with Alice and Iain): the harbour is another tourist attraction, with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, both near or over the sea, as instantly-recognisable landmarks. Considering that, I couldn’t miss the chance to do something nautical in a boat while I was in the city, which is how I found myself heading out on a whale watching cruise ($35 on Groupon). 

Pods of whales, usually humpbacks, often pass the east coast of Australia. In September and October, many of these are mothers and calves heading from their northern breeding grounds to the south. That’s what we were on the lookout for.

We found our first whale after about 15 minutes on the open ocean, but didn’t stay with it long. We broke away after it went down for a long dive, and found a mother and juvenile (like a teenager) shortly after. We stayed with these two for the rest of our time, and were treated to a real show. Young whales are usually the ones that like to show off, and the juvenile breached the surface, slapped down with its tail flukes and blew water from its spout. The mother got caught up in the excitement and copied it, which made for a great sight.

The only downside to the day was the choppiness of the ocean, which didn’t sit well with some of the passengers. In fact, it didn’t sit at all with a few of them, with one woman throwing up from the top deck and spattering the lower passengers. Good thing we were all in waterproofs.

Other places to visit in Sydney proper include the Botanical Gardens, the Writers’ Walk on Circular Quay and the 24/7 restaurant, Pancakes on the Rocks! Two of these will make you feel pretentiously snobby and the other uncomfortably full. All are within a few minutes of each other

My last two nights in the city were spent with Claire and Tom, family friends who live north of Manly. They helped me feel at home right away, although I think that was in the nature of a bribe; the last day was spent readying the house for Tom’s birthday party. Didn’t think I’d be cleaning windows on holiday! Claire, who deserves a medal for her organisation, made sure that the party was well supplied with alcohol and spit-roast meat and the little nibbles that everyone gravitates to as soon as they arrive.

The next day I was up at 5am – just two hours after most people left the party – to get a bus to my first stop on the Gold Coast, Port Macquarie.

Melbourne: A City of Art

Melbourne: A City of Art

After leaving Max in Seoul airport, I had a flight back to Hong Kong, a 12-hour layover and another flight to Melbourne to look forward to. All on a restful four hours of sleep… 

The sleeplessness compounded the intensely surreal experience, in Hong Kong airport, of meeting a Chinese woman wearing a knitted Angry Birds hat. This interesting individual alternated between trying to recruit me as an English teacher for her school (I’m still not convinced that this wasn’t a box in an alleyway) and explaining her designs for new clothes based on Chinese dynastic fashions. This might have been the oddest thing that happened in the past month and a half, and that’s saying something.

I spent six days in Melbourne: the first stop on a trip that will take in the majority of Australia’s east coast. Being an adventurous sort, I’m following the same route as every backpacker who has ever read Lonely Planet: starting in Melbourne and ending in Cairns, covering more than 2,500 miles. On the way I’ll pass some of the world’s top surfing spots, visit the Great Barrier Reef and might even see some big fruit.

In many ways, Melbourne reminded me of Bristol, despite the central business district (CBD) being laid out in a grid of American blocks. In fact, this conversely lends itself to the European feel of the city, as the narrow alleys between the main streets are bursting with cafe culture.

Small boutique shops and elegant patisseries sit shoulder-to-shoulder, as tourists wend their way past dining tables overflowing from doorways. Usually these tables are full of people sipping at elaborately-constructed coffees, which Melbourne is famous for: full barrista training is a requirement to work in any of the city’s coffee shops. Yes, it’s as bohemian/pretentious as it sounds. 

While many of the alleys play host to people eating and drinking, it is the clear laneways that are the most popular with tourists. Melbourne’s street art scene is lively, and the face of these streets changes every few weeks. The artists follow an unwritten rule: don’t cover what you can’t beat. Some pieces will hang on for weeks or months, while others will begin to be covered in days.

Another great part of being in Melbourne was getting to see Chloe again, and meet her boyfriend Lewis (as opposed to waving at him from across the street: the previous limit of our interactions). They live in the city’s CBD and we were able to see each other over the weekend: I extended my stay specifically so we could have two full days together. It was brilliant to catch up with them, and they’re settling in really well to their lives in Australia. Chloe is even developing an Aussie accent.

In a happy coincidence, the Australian Movie and Comic Expo (AMC) was on while I was in Melbourne, and I went with Chloe and Lewis. Chloe was even more excited to be there than I was (she hides the nerd well, but any sister of Gemma’s is going to have some tendencies), and spent almost an hour searching for a Buffy figurine; no luck, though we did find a replica of a stake used in the show. Very cool (for a given value of ‘cool’). The entire day was brilliant, and even better for being spontaneous.

Spot the Popcap fan

Something that everyone had recommended that I do while in Melbourne was the Great Ocean Road tour. The GOR stretches from Torquay, just south of the city, to Allansford, 150 miles to the West. It is known as the world’s largest war memorial, built by returned servicemen from WWI.

The tour stopped at sights like Apollo Beach, Cape Otway (Australia’s oldest lighthouse, where we saw wild koalas) and the Twelve Apostles: these last are spurs of lime- and sandstone sticking up from the ocean, although because of the soft rock they are made from only eight are left. It was a beautiful tour, but would have been better if the weather had been more Australian and less English! As our guide said, “That’s Victoria: four seasons in one day,” although Amanda, who I met on the tour, noted, “Where was summer?”

Amanda, Kim, Svenja and I – all of whom had met on the GOR tour – went on a free walking tour of the city on my last day there, along with another familiar face: Jo, the former Dragon Tripper whom I had met in Hong Kong, a month and a half before. We’d run into each other on her only day in Melbourne! I suppose that this becomes more common as you meet people while travelling (most backpackers frequent the same places, after all), but was still a weird coincidence.

Most of what we heard and saw on the walking tour is above, but one of my favourite tidbits is as follows, and a good point to close on (Pratchett fans take note):

When the first settlers arrived in what would become Melbourne (then, briefly, known as Batmania – yes, it would have been much cooler if the name had stuck), they pointed at the local river and asked the indigenous people what it was; they were told it was “Yarra Yarra”; today the river is still officially known as the Yarra. In the language of the Aboriginal people, though, repeating a word is a way to talk about “lots”. Those English settlers literally called the river, “A lot of water”. That’s what comes of taking stuff literally…you fool. 

Seoul: Where Nerds Aren’t Niche

Seoul: Where Nerds Aren’t Niche

Max arrived in Hong Kong on the 1st of October: the 31st day of my trip, and the date of yet another Chinese holiday. This one celebrates the founding of the Peoples’ Republic, and fireworks lit up the harbour. Unfortunately, as I was collecting Max from the airport, we hardly saw any of them!

(As a side note, Hong Kong is really unhappy to be under Chinese rule, and makes sure that everyone knows it. A parade, which passed our hostel in the day, accused the Communist Party of brainwashing, as well as blaming it for the deaths of 88 million people. Brave move!)

Together, we explored the city over the next several days, visiting Victoria Peak (again), the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, various markets and going out in Lan Kwai Fong – the nightlife area of HK Island – where Max was propositioned by a hooker the wrong side of 50.

The alcohol section in the Lan Kwai 7-11 takes up half the store.

We also met up with Al Leach, an old friend who now lives in Hong Kong. As a local, he was able to tell us the best things to see and do, which included a restaurant in Soho called Ho Lee Fook (words are fun!) and the highest bar in the world, Ozone, on the 118th floor of the ICC building. 

When we reached South Korea, we stayed with a family friend who teaches English called Thai, although she wasn’t there for the first few days as she was backpacking in South-East Asia. Upside: we had the apartment to ourselves. Downside: Thai had forgotten to leave the WiFi password, which made planning difficult! We had to go into Gangnam and leech off of public WiFi (this is ubiquitous in Seoul) to do anything for the first two days.

South Korea is, as I mentioned in my last post, a sort of Mecca for geeks. Not only is Seoul the most connected city in the world (multiple free WiFi access points and blazingly fast internet), but computer gaming is widely recognised as the official national sport.

Every town in Korea has at least one or two ‘PC bangs’. These spaces, generally open round the clock, operate with high-tech rigs and all of the most popular games. Access is cheap: we spent five hours in a local PC bang for the equivalent of £4.30. While gamers can, of course, play from home, the PC bangs are a social space as well where you can strategise and celebrate with your friends, face-to-face.

PC bangs were not our only taste of Korean nerd culture. We also managed to secure tickets to a live event in Seoul’s newest eSports (electronic sports) stadium. Here gamers can gather and cheer for their favourite teams and players as they battle onstage.

The stadium was fascinating to visit: not only because of the high quality and professionalism of the production (tiered seating, soundproof booths for the players and both Korean and English commentators), but because we could see the type of person that an event like this attracts. Something that surprised both Max and I was the very even gender split – although, on reflection, it shouldn’t have. Gaming here is seen as a real sport, and the players just as valued as footballers or tennis stars. Perhaps more! It was certainly the first time I’d seen a gamer with groupies.

The nerd itch wasn’t all that we satisfied, though. South Korea holds its share of sightseeing points, and we visited many of them. These included the Bonguensa Temple in Gangnam, the Olympic Park and the National Museum of Korea.

Korea is preparing to host the 2018 Winter Olympics

On our last full day in Seoul we visited a jimjilbang: a Korean public bath house. These, like the PC bangs, are usually open for 24 hours and are a cheap place to sleep off the effects of a night out, as Seoul’s subway stops running at midnight! The one we visited, the Dragon Hill Spa, is one of the biggest, covering six floors and holding a swimming pool, food court, four floors of baths and its own PC bang.

Why four floors of baths? Because Korean bathing houses are gender-segregated, so two floors are for men and two for women. And why are they separated by gender? Because Korean tradition decrees that everyone bathes naked. If you wear a swimming costume, it is assumed that you’re trying to hide something (like a disease). The experience was a little bit weird, but once we’d trained ourselves to keep eyes at head height, it was actually very relaxing. We stuck to the baths and saunas, but extra treatments like massages, body scrubs (Koreans take their skincare regimes very seriously) and even hair cuts are available for an extra fee.

I also have to give a shout out to Korean fried chicken. As Max said, “It’s the best chicken you’ll ever eat that uses that particular acronym.” There’s a reason that there are no KFC chains in South Korea! 

On our last morning, Max and I got up at 5:15, after four hours of sleep, and said goodbye at Incheon airport. I’m writing this post from Hong Kong – again – during a 12-hour layover before flying to Melbourne. Expect my next post to be full of sun, sea and sand – I hope. 

Update: it won’t be. Bloody Melbourne. 

TDT – This One is For The Tea Lovers

TDT – This One is For The Tea Lovers

After leaving Shanghai, a nine-hour bullet train (that’s nine hours at 200 km/hour – have I mentioned that China’s a big place?) took us to Nanjing: the small area of Fujian province, not the former capital city. The only difference in the names is in the pronunciation, so it’s very difficult to find any information about the rural area online!

A very disturbing minibus ride (overtaking at 60mph around a corner and uphill) took us up to the tea-growing hills of Fujian-Tulou. The best tea and coffee in China is grown here, and the hillsides are covered in bushes. The drinks in England don’t compare: they’re made using the dregs of what is left after the best crop’s been taken. Our guide, Servet, referred to it as “dust”.

Another thing that Fujian is famous for is roundhouses; large three-to-four floor buildings, which hold an entire extended Chinese family; the biggest can house more than 500 people. They are formed of a outer ring of rooms and a wide open space in the middle, which is used as a gathering place; a location for an inner ring of rooms; or even a farming spot in the bigger examples. There are more than 20,000 roundhouses across Fujian, and we stayed in one on our first night.

Although very beautiful, the roundhouse was also extremely rural – and the spiders in this place are absolutely massive. The group collectively elected to abandon the two downstairs showers, after finding arachnids that looked more like something you’d expect to find on the head of a balding man, who hasn’t yet given up the losing battle against hair loss, than in a sink.

On our second night, Nick and I discovered the offspring of Shelob and Usain Bolt in our room, and we turned the place upside down in an attempt to catch it. The shoes we were waving weren’t effective: we needed an elven blade – or, failing that, a flamethrower.

We visited several other roundhouses in Fujian over the next several days, including the second-oldest in the region, which is 700 years old. Here we tasted six different types of locally-grown tea: green (much tastier than the weak tea bags we get), ‘red’ (what we would call black), orange (for its colour; it was actually very smokey), ginseng, a flowery type and burdock tea, which supposedly has anti-ageing properties.

On the second day we went cycling, visiting several villages. At one of these we climbed a steep hill for stunning views over the village, local temple and surrounding countryside. It helped that the weather was the best that we’d had all trip, despite a typhoon warning for later that day.

After cycling we went to a natural lagoon, with deep blue water and rocks to lounge on in the sun. All the lads and one of the girls (well done Nat!) climbed the waterfall feeding the lagoon to dive in. The pool was very deep: none of us could reach the bottom, even when cannonballing. Although the water wasn’t hot, it was much warmer than the pool in Moganshan; we were all shaking when we climbed out of that one. 

The typhoon, which came in from Taiwan, hit Fujian the next day. We spent most of it in a coffee shop (excellent coffee – smoother and creamier than anything in the UK), and had to change our plans for the evening as all of the trains in the province were cancelled. We were meant to be catching a sleeper train to Macau, but with nothing running we had to cut the island from our trip entirely. This meant more time in Hong Kong (with a bullet train to Shenzen the next day), so we didn’t complain too hard. The Dragon Trip looked after us well, putting on another night of accommodation, a dinner in Hong Kong and refunding some money. 

Our last night together was spent drinking on the roof of the hostel, telling each other stupid lies and crazy truths; also known as playing “I’ve Never”. Can you guess which of us used to be a sex toy tester; who has given their partner a golden shower; and which guy has had a strap-on used on him? If you guessed ‘Nick’ for all three…well, that would be telling.

There were some tears, and multiple manly high fives, as we waved goodbye to Nick and Ella, who left for the airport at 2:30am. Over the coming days, the rest of us will filter out of Hong Kong to our next destinations, from Fiji to Thailand. As for me, I’m sitting and waiting for Max to arrive as I type; together we will travel to the world’s most connected country and geek Mecca: South Korea.

Sneak preview

So, what did I learn from China? First, that it is a stunning place, with massive variations in landscape, culture and cuisine (consider the Sichuan hotpot to be like chips and gravy in the UK: only eaten by a select group of people with funny accents, who the rest of the country look at with bemused tolerance). Second, that white people are a constant source of fascination for just about everybody. Third, that ‘hygiene’ has a completely different meaning, and doesn’t prevent the chef from smoking while he’s preparing food. Fourth, that you shouldn’t visit if you have a fear of phlegm; and fifth, that none of the last three points matter if you have a group of brilliant, hilarious friends to face them with.