June 30-July 2: Last Explorations

I spent my last few days on Sydney's streets trying to absorb as much of Australia's sights, experiences, and sunlight as possible at the last minute. On the 30th, I biked around the city to some markets in the morning on something of a souvenir scavenger hunt. This led me to a ferry through the bay to Manly, a gorgeous beach town North of Sydney. The ferry ride up was worth the $14 round trip just as a tour boat! It took 30 minutes to cruise past the various bays and ports, including some of the city's best views of the opera house and harbor bridge. Manly itself is on a little strip of land with beaches on both sides only a few blocks from each other. I had great success at its markets and equal amounts avoiding the masses of tourists, nearly crushing only one oblivious toddler (thank you, good brakes)! Manly was certainly worth the day trip and I headed back on the 5:45 ferry.

When I got back, I decided to join up with my new cycling friend Peter, who I'd stayed with the night before and was organizing a ride for the night. I rode to central station took a train out to Campsie to meet the group of 20-25. All were really friendly and we enjoyed a nice night ride following a river into the city from the suburbs, stopping for a picnic about halfway. I was "auctioned off" to my next wonderful host, a woman named Suzanne who turned out to have a great apartment (minus the elevator) east of the city center in Edgecliff. I had great views of the harbor from her 10th floor sofa sleeper and a great night's sleep. This was one of my longest days out on the bike, practically from 8 am to 11 pm, whoa. Feels good!

In the morning (July 1), Suzanne was meeting up with yet ANOTHER cycling group and invited me along, so, of course, I went with. It turned out to be a great decision! Only a small group of 4, we met up in Bondi Junction and followed the lead of an older man who knew every street and shortcut in town. I saw everything from gorgeous sunny beaches at Coogee and Marubra to old, crowded cemeteries, even stopping for tea at a great little cafe at a cemetery! Our three-hour tour was a great way for me to see some of the city's lesser-known sites and meet experienced and informed locals. We got back to Suzanne's place near lunchtime and I packed up,  then got stuck in the elevator for a half hour before hitting the road again. I biked around the botanic gardens and circular quay areas once more, crossing the harbor bridge and back as well, mostly for photographic reasons. I made my way to Balmain, two more bridges away, to a friend's where I'd stayed at the beginning of the whole journey. After more hospitality, takeaway Thai food, and a couple beers, I passed out with the lights on after an exhausting last couple of days. I am glad I gave myself the few extra days at the end as I feel I really squeezed the most out of it!

In the morning, I was fed a great breakfast and packed up my bike and belongings. I took an outrageously priced cab to the airport ($75?! 20km??! I should've walked!) and got all checked in for my 2:45 flight. I'm on the way to San Francisco as I'm writing this. It's 7 pm and I just experienced another first - the pilot cut off all alcoholic beverages for the next two hours because "it's not a flying bar". Clearly, someone has abused the privilege - I swear it wasn't me. Additionally, I think I've got my most difficult challenge of the entire journey (biking included): I have a whole variety 6-pack of Tim Tams, my favorite Australian chocolates, 3 feet above my head for 20-some hours of travel. STAY STRONG, MIKE! THEY ARE NICELY PACKAGED! THEY ARE SOUVENIRS!

June 23-28: "Vacation" - Cairns

Disclaimer: this is a lengthy and untimely post covering several days of adventure.

Day 1 (23rd): Riding Around, Trinity Beach, Gardens
Earlier this week, I finally reached Cairns, the world's most popular hub to the Great Barrier Reef. I'd planned flying here after hints that just about all that lies between Brisbane and Cairns is red dirt, mining towns, and truck routes. After flying in late on the 22nd and meeting Will at his hotel (thanks again for another great floor), I began my exploration the next day. I rode around aimlessly to get a feel for the city and to enjoy the tropical climate. I soon found out what would come to bother me most about Cairns: there aren't any beaches. While it is the main hub to the Great Barrier Reef, the city is built next to torn-out mangroves, leaving a 100 ft long stretch of mud where I had expected sand (note- I am open to making bets on how long it takes them to replace the mud with sand and stack a bunch of high-rise resorts on the waterfront). Long story short, I wasn't about to lay down in the mud and try to catch a tan, nor could I dive right into vast coral expanses, so I headed to Trinity Beach, about 12 miles North of the city. The ride out itself was really pleasant and scenic, following the coast on bike paths before transferring to highways lined with mountains. I arrived around 2 pm (it was further than I was told) to a murky inlet with crocodile warning signs every hundred feet. I decided I'd be content to just lay down for a warm, sandy nap in the sun. I got back on the bike a couple of hours later and stopped at the city's botanical gardens on a whim when I passed the sign. Unfortunately, I only had a half hour to check it out before the park closed, but I made a loop around the inner exhibits, including some about carnivorous plants and orchids, and promised myself I'd come back later in the week (cliffhanger: did he go back? Did he see anything worthwhile??). I met up with Will and some others for dinner and wandered along the esplanade, Cairns's seaside waking path and main drag, before settling into another cozy floor-bed in a REAL hotel.

Day 2 (24): Planning, Hanging
The next day was not extremely action-packed but I accomplished some necessary stuff. I spent the day compiling a stack of pamphlets from several visitors' centers (easily Cairns's most dominate enterprise - at least two on each side of every block) and deciding what the next few days would bring. Almost EVERYTHING in Cairns requires a guided tour of some sort, another bummer relating back to the reef's inaccessibility. Eager to finally get into the water, I picked one out for an island day trip for the next day. More dinner and friendship and beers and esplanade-ventures were had, another night in Will's hotel.

It's not important that you understand this, but know that the concept of a "battery factory" was previously an inside joke with my friends and this was probably the best part of my day

Day 3 (25): Fitzroy
My trip to Fitzroy Island left at about 9 from Cairns's reef fleet terminal. The place was somewhat reminiscent of the gates at Disney World just before it opens: eager, big-eyed tourists lined up across several counters waiting to check in. Tons of tour boats depart from the terminal each day with at least 10 different companies. After a 45 minute catamaran ride and a short debriefing, we were dumped on the island to spend the day however we pleased as long as we made it back to the dock by 4:30. I grabbed my snorkel gear and got to it despite overcast skies and cold water. The first time in, I saw a decent sampling of tropical fish and a few cool rock and reef formations. Nothing mind-blowing; I suppose it wasn't the true "outer reef" but it was really neat anyway (keep reading for outer reef explorations). After about 45 minutes, I started to turn back in to warm up. As I got close to the shore, though, I saw a sea turtle, shell about 18 inches across, in water only about 6 feet deep! I followed it around for 10 minutes as it sailed through the water and nibbled at the bottom. After the turtle led me further out, I'd seen enough nibbling and turned back. However, as I got close to the shore again - another turtle, this time about two and a half feet across! I followed it for maybe 15 minutes, eventually also meeting up with the other turtle I'd seen earlier. Very neat watching them float around together without really caring about my presence. I headed in to warm up and explore the island's walking paths. There were a couple of steep ascents, but nothing my bike-tour-conditioned legs couldn't handle. The trail took me up to a lighthouse, unfortunately closed, but with really nice views of the ocean and surrounding islands, not to mention the strongest winds that had hit me in awhile. At this point the weather started to clear up, so I opted against climbing the extra half hour to the summit and practically ran back down to sunny beaches and my snorkel gear. (Side note for travelers as you envision me running across a beach towards snorkel gear: nobody looks cool in diving fins, snorkel masks are among the most unflattering items you will ever put on your head, and even the word "snorkel" sounds dorky. At least I got to see some RAD WILDLIFE.) Ok, back on track. Now with the sun fully out, bringing out the coral's colors and improving visibility, I tried the island's other recommended snorkel spot. The underwater sea-scape differed a bit - slightly better, more cliff-like structures and crevices to dive through. The overall variety of fish was the same, but there were rumors of two huge stingrays laying at the sandy bottom with their barbs up. Unfortunately (maybe fortunately?) I wasn't able to find them. Still, I got some great photos with my disposable underwater camera and had a nice little exploration before showering and boarding the return boat for a well-deserved scenic ride (and nap) back. That night, Will and I had to find a hostel as his awesome hotel package deal was up. We came up with Nomads Esplanade, the cheapest and closest hostel to the reef fleet terminal for an early morning and a big day out. Before arriving, we hit the grocery store and I grilled kangaroo burgers and corn for the two of us on the esplanade's barbeques - surprisingly, my favorite meal I had in Cairns!

Early morning view from the hotel balcony

Fitzroy Island

Kangaroo burgers and corn!

Day 4 (26): Reef
This was Will's last full day and my most anticipated event of the entire trip! We had booked an all-day scuba trip to the outer reef with a company called "Down Under Dive" (major points for the double entendre) while in Melbourne. It left around 8 am, took an hour to get to the outer reef, moved to a different reef 20 minutes away around 1 pm, and headed back to shore by 4:30. My package included two scuba dives around a half hour each, free Aussie bbq lunch, and unlimited snorkeling in between. Will and I also shared an underwater camera rental, so I have a ton of photos and videos from that. The dives were incredible but a bit more challenging than expected. My right ear was having problems equalizing the pressure as I descended and I may have done something to it. I suspect a ruptured eardrum, which should repair itself, but I'll check on it at home if it's not better by then. Anyway, the coral was vibrant and buzzing with tons of different types of fish! I got the hang of scuba diving after trying my hand at it on two different reefs. The first was an intro dive, linking arms with the instructor and three other divers. After that, we were cleared to swim around on our own, staying within a few sharks' reach of the guide. Too bad we didn't actually see any sharks! I saw lots of schools of tropical fish instead, including some clownfish hiding inside anemones. The whole experience was really busy but exciting, trying to remember to enforce newly learned diving skills while spinning and cruising around in an attempt to keep up with the endless fish and sights that the reef kept throwing at me.

Diving while snorkeling

Inside a clam

See a sea turtle

My favorites

Day 5 (27): Germans
The 27th will be known as "day of the Germans." There are TONS of Germans here, enough that I'd be confident to say I've met more Germans than Australians in the past two weeks. The previous evening, I'd heard a girl in my dorm room speaking in German on the phone and sign off with "tschuss", a common Southern-German goodbye. I asked, of course in German, where she was from and it turned out she was from Munich, where I'd spent some of the best 6 weeks of my life studying two summers ago! Hey! We talked that morning and she invited me along to the zoo with her two Swiss friends. The four of us caught the bus and spent the day petting snakes and koalas, feeding kangaroos, and perusing the rest of the exhibits. I left very impressed after a full day of zoo-going. We'd seen crocodiles leaping up to grab their lunches, a bird show, talks about snakes and wombats, and it seemed that each time I turned around, a zookeeper was holding a different animal to be pet or displayed.

At night, I found a cheap hostel online that was out of the way of Cairns's main busy area. When I arrived, the gate was locked and another backpacker was standing outside looking a little forlorn. I asked if she was also trying to get in and, wouldn't you know it, I had found another Fraulein. Sabine, 26, came over from Berlin 18 months ago and had been predominantly working in a winery. After locating someone who worked in the hostel, we grabbed a quick dinner and shared life/travel stories on the esplanade for a few hours before turning in. Great company! It was fantastic to practice my German again and, despite it being two years since I was in Munich, I still received many compliments and embarrassed myself only minimally.

Day 6 (28): Botanical Gardens, Flight
I had a nice last day in Cairns. I began the morning by eating as much of my grocery stock as possible, including 5 kiwi fruits! They're so delicious and cheap here that it's hard to pass them up at the grocery store. I then booked an airport shuttle from my hostel for 3:30 and planned out the rest of my day. Coincidentally, I'd finish the Cairns trip with one of the first things I'd done there - exploring the city's botanical gardens. Sabine, my new German hostel roommate, agreed to join and we made an afternoon out of it. After a rainy two-ish-mile walk, we got to do the rainforest boardwalk that I'd been eyeing since I first entered on my first full day in Cairns (and had to leave as it closed shortly after). Some of it was reminiscent of Jurassic Park, with fern- and vine-covered forest, but as we progressed into the garden sections, the dense, dark green vegetation turned over to exotic flowers and other plants. We made our way back by bus, I boxed up my bike, and we went our separate ways. My LAST domestic flight in Australia - what a relief to (almost) be done flying around, disassembling and reassembling my bike so often. It was then off to Sydney for my last couple days of exploration!