Friday, May 20, 2011


It's been a while since the trip, but school picked up a bit so I'm just now getting to blog about our spring break in Cairns.

The break came at a perfect time because the true Melbourne winter weather was just beginning, and by that I mean lots and lots of rain. Between the cooling temperatures and the mounting work, we were all itching for some relaxed beach time in the sun. I went with a group of seven other people, two other girls and five boys, and we had booked to stay at a hostel called dream time travelers rest. The big trip that most of the Loyola kids do here in Australia is called One Fish Two Fish, and it's a nine day tour of Brisbane, the Whitsunday Islands, and Cairns, so we knew we would be meeting up with some people while we were there, but until then we enjoyed the prospect of a smaller and more relaxed group.

The first adventure came in the process of getting to the airport, using only public transportation of course. After a bus, a breathless sprint (with luggage) to catch a train, and then a second bus to the airport, we were already exhausted before the flight began and not looking forward to the process that we anticipated at the airport. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to learn that domestic flights through tiger airlines are pretty laid back, not only about restrictions (I didn't have to throw out liquids, take off my shoes, or subject myself to invasive pat downs), but apparently about their departure time as well. We delayed for an hour in the terminal before we were allowed to board, walking ourselves out to the tarmac, and climbing a rolling ladder right onto the plane.

By the time we arrived, three uncomfortable hours later, it was two a.m. and we were ready to fall into bed. I was tired, I was cranky, and I just wanted to get some sleep, so we didn't bother to check the rooms before we divided into two groups of four and dropped our luggage down. As we wandered through the hostel searching for our room, I peered through the dark, curious about the tropical palm fronds and brilliant flowers that climbed the warm orange walls. When we arrived at our room, we found a single bare bulb turned on with a pull cord, a bunk bed (much to my dismay as the unlucky top bunk victim), and warped wooden windows that didn't latch shut or lock out any critters at all. I will take this time to confess that I was not pleased, especially when I saw that the boys had a bright, neat, modern room complete with air conditioning and an adjoining bathroom. Just my luck.

When we woke up the next day, eager to explore the town, however, I was more civil and forced to grudgingly admit that our room was beautiful, and so was the rest of the hostel. It was like sleeping in a cabana, the breeze dancing through our bright pink room with turquoise framed stained glass windows and green striped comforters. The palm trees poked through and the warm morning sunlight flooded in with them. The rest of the hostel was just as fun and relaxing, with pops of color all over and fresh tropical greenery.

The town, which we learned well after a few days of exploration, was easy to navigate and chock full of tempting gelato stands, surf shops, cafes, and pub meal deals. Our favorite cafe was called Ever After, a quaint hole in the wall coffee shop lined with books and featuring great lunch meal deals (complete with a milkshake!) At the end of the main street is the esplanade with a huge public pool and synthetic beach (the real beaches were a thirty minute bus ride away), which opened up to a lagoon and the surrounding mountains, thrust in misty majesty against the fiercely blue sky.

When we made the venture to the beaches we chose palm cove and were met right away with a sign warning of the deadly animals that float around the water. A short walk onto the beach revealed a small section, netted off for visitors to swim in because it was the only safe place. The water was a brackish brown from the recent storms they had been having, but the entire curve of the beach was lined with dancing palms, and mountains and sweeping rock formations peppered the distance. The boys quickly found a coconut and cracked it open, all of us enjoying some fresh shavings of it as we sat on the breezy sand and soaked up some sun.

A few days in to the trip, the group decided to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and knowing my limitations with sea sickness, I declined to join. I had planned to skydive (although weather did not permit on our chosen day, and we were unable to re-schedule), and I didn't mind exploring the town by myself. I read by the pool, browsed the souvenir shops, and went back to the hostel to read. It was the most relaxed I have been since I came to Australia. I had been really disappointed about missing sky diving, especially since we had signed all the forms and done all the training before it was cancelled, but I couldn't bring myself to be upset about much of anything with the sun shining and the warm tropical breeze nudging the brilliant leafy plants into life.

For mealtimes we tried to take advantage of the meal vouchers that our hostel provided us with to the Woolshed, but on Wednesday we were treated with the Australian barbecue at Dreamtime. They grilled steak, sausages, kangaroo and crocodile amidst the more typical fare of picnic salads. We all gamely tried everything, and I have to say that I will never be much of a kangaroo girl myself. The real fun came at the end when they began drew names out of a bucket, and I became the oh so lucky participant in a didgeridoo competition. One of the boys from Loyola was picked too and we tried to play the Indigenous instrument without laughing too much. The owner of the hostel instructed us on the various methods, and I have to acknowledge that wind instruments are not my calling. Mark and I lost to a spectacular performance by a boy from England, but I was just glad to be free to return to our dinner table. Once my friends were done laughing at the spectacle, we all went out to meet up with the one fish two fish tour of other loyola kids for our last night in Cairns.

The trip was amazing and all too soon we were forced to pack up and brave our 2 a.m. flight back to Melbourne. Spring break trips aren't something I had ever considered at home, but that little burst of sunshine and sand was certainly helpful in getting through the next few weeks of final assignments and settling affairs to come home and get back to real life in the States.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Outback

Another trip, another thirteen hour bus ride.
This trip featured an itinerary, but the list of places and activities didn't mean a whole lot to us. How does one pack for a sheep shearing demonstration? Or a tour of the outback? A night at the local karaoke bar? What was "The Royal Flying Doctor" demonstration

It took a day of driving through increasingly spare landscapes to reach the small town of Broken Hill where we would be lodging for the next three nights. If I had ever thought to call the town where I lived a small town before, I was sorely mistaken. This is truly what it's like to live in the middle of nowhere. We cruised through the four main streets, with tall western front buildings and an ominous jagged heap of mining grounds scraping the sky behind. Picture an old abandoned ghost town, similar to the setting of a Scooby Doo movie, and that's about the closest description I can give of the sights that we saw as we pulled up to the West Darling Hotel. Once inside we were assigned our rooms and told a ghost story that confirmed my comparison. I should definitely expect Velma to lead the Mystery Gang on this case. One of the rooms was haunted by a "transvestite ghost", and another was the final resting place of someone who died of unnamed natural causes. Reassuring. I laid down for an uneasy night's rest bundled in my sweats until we woke up for an early day of sight seeing in this glorious place.

The sight seeing ended up being an hour long bus tour of this mile long town. We passed the same streets about four times each. The tour guide droned on, seeming not to notice that we were all dozing off. I think I heard more stories about his grandchildren than I did about Broken Hill.

When we stopped at the Royal Flying Doctor's however, we were immediately shocked out of our stupors with pretty graphic footage of the medical service that flies out to the remote locations in Australia to provide healthcare to those unable to reach doctor's and hospitals. It was moving and amazing to realize that some people lived so separated from cities and towns, that there were people with lifestyles so independent and removed.

After that we went to the local library for a lecture on a famous cricket player, which didn't quite move me but the next destination did. We were bused over to the mining memorial, a sobering walk through a cross shaped site with caving walls and a glass sheet of names, dates, and causes of deaths - more horrific and frequent than I could have imagined.Strangely, there was a giant bench at the end of the memorial,a bit inappropriately out of place, but we definitely appreciated that it lightened the mood a bit.

We finished the day's activities with a walk up to the sculpture gardens where Aboriginal stone structures were thrust up against the setting sun on a ridge that rolled down to a sweeping open landscape for miles on either side. We had some drinks and snacks as we followed the stone pathways around, taking in the etchings in the massive rocks, shaped and positioned into meaning that has survived insurmountable durations of time and change.

When we returned back to the hotel we ate a hurried dinner and headed to the local musicians club, the karaoke bar around the corner. I hate to admit that I did not enter into the contest, but so many Loyola students did that as a group they took home third prize, and had to split the $50 winnings amongst all twenty of them.

The next day was an early start with a tour of the mines. We donned our lighted helmets and crawled down the spiraling steps dug into the ground, holding onto the looming walls that seemed to press around us. I hit my head more times than I can count, and I'm one of the lucky short ones. We learned about the numerous causes of death in the mines, the terrible hours, and the atrocious labor intensive tasks that were confined in the dark dusty pit of the mines.

On to the Camels! We arrived at the camel farm and partnered up for some camel rides through the nearby fields. I've ridden horses before, but it was nothing like this. The camels kneeled so that we could climb on to the saddles strapped over their humps. Even so, it was still difficult for me to hoist myself up. I wasn't at all prepared for when the camel stood, and I let out a startled squeal as it bucked us jerkily, struggling to get his gangly legs beneath him. The walk was just as bumpy, we waddled with every step he took and I couldn't stop laughing. It was the strangest sensation, the camel strutting across the uneven ground, stooping to snatch some grass to chomp on while we were holding on for dear life and hoping not to be thrown off with every dip in the road. I am not ashamed to admit that this was one of the favorite parts of my trip.

Then we drove down the road to the sheep shearing farm. The man who performed the demonstration clearly loved his job, passionately explaining the lifestyle, the working hours, the assurance that it didn't harm the sheep. He sheared three different ones in front of us, proudly chucking each one back into the pens afterward. They looked like hastily peeled potatoes, naked white with uneven swathes.

We moved on to a "walk" through the surrounding landscape. The sandy ground sucking our feet in as we strolled past jutting rock walls on either side, bringing on several lion king references. We walked by rocky streams, unseasonably filled after the abnormally high amounts of rainfall Australia has seen lately. Then the real walk began. No one really knew what we were in for as we turned the steeply sloping, scrubby hills beside us. We climbed. and we climbed. and we climbed. Up crumbling rocks, through harsh prickling brambles, and on. People slowly began to fall behind, unprepared for the hike. My backpack straps rubbed my shoulders and I wished that I hadn't worn pants. When we finally came to rest at the top, I lost my breath all over again. The view was stunning, with the sun hanging low on the horizon by that time, sending streaks dancing across the depths and peaks of the ridges all around us. We sat on the rocks and watched the sun slowly setting across the endless miles of rocks, dirt, and dry prickly grass.

The descent amongst the quickly darkening sky was a race against the setting sun, and we practically rolled down the hills, kicking up rocks and stepping right onto the sharp spears of grass that embedded in our feet. Tired, sweaty, and removing thorns from our feet, we settled into the home cooked, hearty country dinner that they provided us with more gusto than I can describe. As we finally finished recovering, stomach's full and feet rested, they told us to grab our flashlights and not to look up. We walked quietly into what had become a very dark night, the blackness surrounding us as the bugs and bushes buzzed with nocturnal activity. We finally veered off the dirt road into the grass, and were instructed to click off the lights. "Now look up" our guide instructed us. There was a collective gasp as we turned our faces upward and our eyes caught the shimmering stars that dripped from their glittering coating across the deep, dark, blue sky. It was unlike anything I had seen before, each little speck of light glittering with a brightness I didn't know they owned. I spun around, trying to take it all in, to catch the multitude of dazzling dust and not let any dance away unseen. We saw the Southern cross, a constellation only visible from the southern hemisphere. When we were finally able to pry ourselves away down from the depths of the universe, we made our way back to the farm house where a bonfire was waiting for us, marshmallows and all. It had been a long day and after a sleepy bus ride back to the West Darling Hotel, I slept right through those creaky ghost fears that had haunted us all the night before with stars still in my eyes.

The next day was a little more laid back as we toured a national park and settled in to a real hotel, with television and sheets that actually seemed to be cleaned on a regular basis. We headed to an all you can eat pizza and pasta dinner before stopping in to the local brewery where we were shown the distinct flavors of their Mildura beers. We were informed of a "mystery" activity that would take place before our drive home the next day and we called it a night early to grab some ice cream and watch a movie in our room.

The "mystery" turned out to be a tour of the local winery, where we learned about the history of the wine, the different processes that go into making different kinds, and were taken through the rooms to see the equipment. We moved right on to the thirteen hour ride home, happy to return to the comforts of suburbia where shops and buses and noisy college kids filled the area, interrupting the silence and space we had been thrust into for the past five days.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Phillip Island

Not too long after the Great Ocean Road, a few of the girls did a day trip to Phillip Island on a 12 hour day tour called "Penguin Parade." Yes, it was as amazing as it sounds.

We began by catching a bus out of the city around 11, and our first stop was a tour of the winery out there. It was a small vineyard so there wasn't much to look at, but we moved on quickly to the real excitement of the morning: Panny's Chocolate Factory. Let's just say, handing out chocolate truffle as you walk through the door is an excellent marketing strategy. The chocolate was delicious and the chocolate smells that pervaded throughout the entire tour were heavenly. We walked through displays that showed where the chocolate comes from and the equipment that is used to process it and turn it into those lovely and delicious treats they kept giving us to try. Then we saw chocolate statues, a chocolate waterfall, chocolate games, a chocolate robot, a miniature chocolate town with trains chugging through - it was as close to a Wonka factory as I'm ever going to get.

When we finally pried ourselves out of there, we moved along to the Koala conservation center, where we got to see the little drop bears up close and personal. It was ridiculous to see their furry bottoms wedged way up in the spindliest branches of the trees. They snoozed right on as the wind shook them and waved them all through the air. We even got to see a baby and it's momma as they slept side by side in the trees. As we were leaving a little Wallaby hopped right across our path and scampered around beside us.

Our animal adventures weren't done yet, however, because our next stop was the Penguin Parade. We ate lunch at the Nobbies, a beautiful conservation and look out point over the water where penguins were hiding out underneath of the boardwalks. As we drove out to the part of the shore where the penguins comes out of the water for their nightly nesting, we passed a field full of kangaroos, scampering away because they were frightened by the sound of the bus. Once we made it to the actual event, the big name special that we had been waiting for, we lined up on the dark bleachers and shivered in the cold ocean breeze waiting for the main attraction. At first we weren't sure if it was a penguin or not, but slowly more and more began to waddle out of the water. Each time they would stop and check to make sure that they were not making that perilous crossing from the ocean to the dunes alone, waiting for a large enough group to teeter on over to the cover of the bushes together. Soon the cluster of slick dark bodies was enormous, and we dashed off of the seats to the walkways, where they walked by less than a foot away on their way to their individual homes. They called out to one another, letting them know they were coming or trying to guide them back. We even saw the fluffiest little baby penguins waiting shyly with their backs turned for their mother to come home.

After that, the cold night air made us rush for the bus, ready to go home. We were exhausted but fully satisfied with our day filled with girly adventures.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Great Ocean Road

Sooo my updates have been pretty backed up due to trips/training for the half marathon/school work/putting off school work until it became an unmanageable mountain. As a result, I have a marathon of trip updating to do so get ready for the posts and pictures.

To begin at the beginning: The Great Ocean Road.

(In case you can't read, it says "And speak english" in, fine print we'll call it, between the real writing on the sign. See, America and Australia aren't that different after all, even if they do drive on the wrong side of the road).

We weren't sure what to expect with this trip because no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't get an itinerary, or anyone really, to explain what we were in for. At the last minute a sketch of the activities circulated and we scrambled to pack for the mysterious venture - one with a much shorter bus ride than the last, so despite the unknowns, it was already looking up.
We had a bit of a bumpy start at our 8 am departure with two missing girls, one of whom didn't make it on the trip, some difficulty maneuvering the bus out of the parking lot, and a squeaky PA system that the tour guide Campbell kept trying to make jokes over. The trip wasn't long, however, and we arrived at the surf museum a little early, which gave us time to buy coffee and cookies and browse the surf shops before heading in.

The museum was filled with pictures, boards, and various displays that embodied the 70s surf culture where it all began.

We headed into the theatre room and got a little taste of home with the movie "Surfing the 50 States," hung out with the silver surfer, and practiced our boarding on a demo surfboard to prep for our own surf adventure, which we headed to right after the museum.

I was more than a little dubious about the surfing lessons, after too many humbling encounters with giant waves in my past. I am a small person. The ocean is big and scary. I usually get owned. Add in a giant foam board (which was too big for me to carry under my tiny t-rex arms by the way) and I wasn't sure what would result. We learned to paddle, where to stand on the board, and how to "pop up." It didn't take us long to get out in the water and they shoved us right on our boards in front of the waves, with no time to worry or think, just the rush of being propelled towards shore, teetering on top of our rocketing boards. Although it was one of the most physical activities I have done in a long time, and one of the most embarrassing (I wiped out so much that I didn't think I would ever be able to shake all of the water out of my ears), it was also one of the most satisfying. I had so much fun that as we walked away, I couldn't help but look at all of the locals surfing nearby with jealousy: I wanted to live close enough to do this as my hobby. I wanted to go back the next day, and the day after that.

Sadly our hour of surfing ended and we dried off and grabbed some tea and cookies before hopping back on the bus and continuing on our drive along the winding curves of the great ocean road coastline. The road sits on walls of jagged rock, dropping off into breathtaking blues and white caps, the ocean stretching off into the horizon as we cruised by listening to the perfect play list for long drives in the sunshine. We stopped in a bit to take a picture by the iconic "Great Ocean Road Sign" that marks the official start of the tourist attraction that connects various campsites and small shore towns. We stopped to look for Koalas on the side of the road and finally made it to our hostel where we had a barbecue and settled in for the evening.

The next day began bright and early with a walk through the rainforest, then we continued our sight seeing, catching a glimpse of such iconic sites as the Apostles, and the London Bridge. The giant rock formations, stacked high and towering above the crashing waves, loomed up more impressively than any picture could capture. We even stopped into a grotto, where some of the boys were crazy enough to swim in the freezing water. The weather was beautiful and the scenery was stunning - with this, the laid back vibes of the cruising from attraction to attraction, and the windows down and leisurely music flowing, it was right up my alley.

the rainforest!

the apostles

the grotto

London Bridge

It doesn't seem like the most extravagant trip, and it wasn't the most jam packed of the ones that we have been on so far. However, there was something about the amazing scenery, the beach towns, and that laid back Australian attitude that reminded me of what I came here to see. It clicked, and it was by far my favorite trip that we went on.