I love a sunburnt country: Saying goodbye to Sydney

Highly original title courtesy of this poem, which you should be reading right now.

My last weekend in Sydney was rather anticlimatic, actually.

I spent Friday night in the common room of my college, watching TV and chatting with friends.

Saturday, several of us went to the city to walk across the Harbour Bridge, because one of my American friends hadn’t done it yet. The trains were out of service due to trackwork, so we took a bus to Wynyard, then walked back across the bridge. We stopped for gelato at Milson’s Point, which was a very good decision. We then began the journey back to college, as it was quite cold and starting to rain. We caught one of the trackwork buses, which took FOREVER–at least 90 minutes, compared to the usual 45. We amused ourselves by drawing pictures on the foggy windows with our fingers, but lesson learned: never take a trackwork bus.

Once we got back to college, we gathered around the gas heater in the dining hall to warm up (yes, really), then enjoyed a delicious–especially by college standards–dinner and dessert. After dinner, most of my friends had homework or other commitments, and it was freezing cold and pouring outside, so I regretfully decided to stay in for the night. I bummed around the common room, talked to people, and tried to forget it was my last night in Australia. Eventually, I went to sleep.

The next morning I woke up and–guess what–still raining. I got soaked on the walk to the bus station, but the rain stopped by the time I got to the city and caught the airport train.

One of my other Sydney friends, who left a week before me, said it took a while for her to fully realise she was leaving. That was definitely not the case for me.

The view from Circular Quay station 26 February 2011.

As soon as the train left Circular Quay–the last place I’d see Sydney Harbour–I burst into tears. The harbour is my absolute  favourite part of the city, so leaving with no idea when I would see it again broke my heart.

The sobfest continued as the train passed through St. James, Museum, Central, Green Square, Mascot, and Domestic Airport. When I arrived at International Airport, I decided I should probably pull myself together. I checked my luggage, acquired a boarding pass, cleared customs and security, and made my wait to gate 9.

The city skyline from the international airport terminal.

Vera Bradley bags and North Face jackets: Yep, definitely at the USA-bound gate.

The flight was long, of course, clocking in at about 12 hours. To pass the time, I took advantage of Qantas’ excellent movie selection and also slept a little bit.

When I arrived at LAX–four hours before I left Sydney–I was greeted by Alex and James, two of my best friends at Mizzou. We spent the day cruising around L.A. It was fun to try In-N-Out Burger, see the other side of the Pacific, and enjoy one last adventure before heading home for real.

The next day, Alex took me to the airport and I got on a plane to St. Louis. As much as I loved SoCal, and as much as I loved Sydney, it felt great to be finally going home for real. Every time someone said “Flight 768 to St. Louis,” I smiled. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

The flight was only about four hours long, but it felt much longer.

The sunset on the plane from LAX to STL.

The moon over Lambert Airport.

When I arrived at Lambert, I was greeted by my mom, dad, and sister. We definitely did one of those cheesy movie run-into-each-other’s-arms things. Then, because it was 10 p.m. and I’d only eaten one meal that day, we went to Ted Drewes for dinner.

Ted Drewes banana split = happiness.

I arrived home on Monday night. It’s now Thursday, and I still feel like I want to sleep forever.

I haven’t even gotten over the jet lag yet, but I’m already having Australia withdrawals. My family, in turn, is probably already sick of hearing about them.

At some point this week, I also realised I left a piece of my heart in Sydney–and I’m pretty sure no matter what I do to get it back, it will stubbornly refuse to budge.

This is probably the part where I should do some cheesy sentimental wrap-up about how amazing my time abroad was, how much fun I had, and how much I grew and changed as a result. Blah blah blah. But in the interest of not writing a study abroad brochure, I’ll just say all those things are true, and leave it at that.

I will, however, include a cheesy song: one that’s been running through my head all semester, and almost exactly captures my feelings toward the people I met, things I saw, and experiences I had in Sydney.

That’s it for this blog. Thanks to everyone who supported me with their advice, encouragement, and finances (that’s you, mom and dad) throughout the semester. If I know you, I look forward to a joyful reunion sometime this summer. If I don’t, make yourself known–I’d love to meet you!

One last thing, and this goes for all of y’all: if you’re thinking about embarking an adventure of your own, DO IT.

No excuses. None of this “I don’t have time/I can’t afford it/I’m too scared/I have responsibilities” nonsense. I couldn’t afford to go to Australia either. I was nervous too. I have responsibilities as well (Even college kids know what those things are, so hold the snarky comments, grown ups). But I went anyway, and it was the greatest experience of my life. Of. my. LIFE.

So whether you’re looking to move halfway around the world or just head out of state for a weekend, do it. You’ll be glad you did. And whatever you choose to do, I look forward to hearing all about it.

Okay, off you go. Stop reading about my adventures, and start making some of your own.

Until next time,


Some friends in front of the Sydney Opera House during the Vivid lights festival 28 May 2011.


Best Break Ever Part 9: Like a rolling stone

This year, I went to Easter Vigil Mass in one country and Easter Sunday Mass in another.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s pretty awesome.

As you may recall, I went to Easter Vigil at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland. I then spent the night at the Auckland airport, wherein I found a surprisingly comfortable bench and actually got a few decent hours of sleep.

I woke up at 4 a.m. to check in for my flight. For the first time on the trip, I ran into a little problem: my carry-on bag was about twice the maximum permitted weight. I’d known this all along, but no one else had bothered to weigh it until now. Therefore, I had no choice to check the bag. Luckily, I was flying Qantas, so one checked bag was included in my fare. (If this would have happened on either of my earlier flights, JetStar and Virgin Blue would’ve charged me about a million dollars.) I handed over the bag and prayed it didn’t get lost–though even if it did, I was going back to Sydney and all my clothes anyway.

After that little issue was resolved, I bought a cup of tea and a sandwich and tried to pretend the 4:00 on my phone was actually referring to 4:00 in the afternoon. This worked surprisingly well until I looked out the airport window. Oh. Right.

I considered sleeping on the plane. But then I remembered I was flying Qantas, which meant I got all the free movies, TV, and games I wanted. I broke the Solitaire record for my seat, then watched “Secretariat” instead of sleeping. An hour or so into the four-hour flight, a lovely hot breakfast was served, free of charge. I sure didn’t see Virgin Blue and JetStar doing that on my other flights. The meal came with a Cadbury cream egg for dessert. Happy Easter to me.

Basically, I spent the entire flight reflecting on how wonderful Qantas is. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than the other carriers, but I think it’s almost worth it. (Especially when you can pay part of the fare with frequent flier points as I did.) Seriously. Free meal, free movies, free Cadbury egg, free checked baggage, free pillow and blanket. It’s like flying back into the 1950s or something.

I arrived in Sydney at 8 a.m. and picked up my (thankfully, not lost) bag from the exact same carousel that I picked up my luggage from when I landed at the airport on February 11. Is it weird that I remember that?

Then I caught a train from the airport to the city, hoofed it to St. Mary’s Cathedral, and was only a few minutes late to join Ariana for Easter Sunday Mass.

I stowed my luggage in a corner, found my seat, and realised an hour ago I was sitting on a plane. In other words, I went through customs and quarantine, picked up my luggage, got some Australian currency from the ATM, bought a train ticket, caught a train, and walked to St. Mary’s Cathedral–all within an hour. I’m still not sure how that happened.

In fact, that’s how I feel about my entire break. It was at times improbable, but always incredible. I took four planes and one train and got a few stamps on my passport. I saw the sun rise four times. I met people from all over the world. I lived out of a suitcase, sharing rooms with complete strangers for two weeks.

What’s even more amazing is I met people who were doing this for seven, eight months. Just taking their backpacks and going wherever the road may lead. I don’t think I could do that. I’d miss having a home to go back to. All the amazing things I saw and did would start to run together, and none of them would be as spectacular anymore.

For me, two weeks was plenty. Of course, there’s still much more of Australia and New Zealand I want to see. I didn’t make it to the Outback, I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about Tasmania, and it takes a lot more than five days to properly experience New Zealand.

Nonetheless, these two weeks were quite a beautiful journey–and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Best break ever, indeed.

Ariana and I outside St. Mary's Cathedral on Easter.

Best Break Ever Part 8: New Zealand real quick.

Okay, here’s the deal. As much as I’d love to tell you every detail of my five days in New Zealand, I only have three weeks left in Australia and I’m waaaay behind on blogging. So I’m just going to give you a quick highlight reel of the awesome stuff I saw and did. If you want to know more, well, as I said, I’ll be home in three weeks.

For now, I’ll only say the country is just as brilliant and green and wild and beautiful and enchanting as you’ve always imagined.

Hot Water Beach

Wherein I dipped my feet in hot water pools created by digging holes in the sandy beach, then went for a walk with a couple of Danish women from my tour group.

Gemstone Bay

I’m just going to leave these photos here for you, k?

Somewhere along the road

Pretty scenery this way. And everywhere else, too.

Buffalo Beach, Mercury Bay

Wherein I had the best fish and chips possibly ever, watched the sun set on a beautiful beach, slept in a hostel by the ocean, and watched the sun rise again the next morning.

Twin Kauri Scenic Reserve

Wherein I hugged a giant Kauri tree.

Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway

Wherein I explored an abandoned gold mine and crossed a really, really wobbly bridge.


Wherein I pretended I’d seen more than zero “Lord of the Rings” movies and just generally had fun saying “Matamata” a lot.


Wherein parks are built around bubbling mud pools and steam vents come out of people’s back yards. The entire town smells like rotten eggs and I’d never seen anything quite like it.

Rotorua is home to lots Maori people, and I had a wonderful cultural experience/dinner there.

In Rotorua, I also went zorbing. My tour guide described it best when he said, “Zorbing is like your first time. It’s wet, warm, and over in 30 seconds, but you’d do it again in a heartbeat.”


Wherein I went on a cave tour and saw a magical array of glowworms, but didn’t take photos because really there’s no point.

Lake Taupo

Wherein I watched the sun set and that’s about it, because I didn’t have time to go kayaking or skydiving.

Best Break Ever Part 7: Glad I’m not living in Auckland

My last post left off with me preparing to catch an 11 pm flight from Cairns to Auckland, New Zealand.

When I arrived at the Cairns airport, my flight was the only one open for check-in in the international terminal. (The place isn’t exactly LAX.) Checking in took a little longer than I anticipated, because the person working the counter apparently wanted to ensure before I left for New Zealand that I wasn’t going to be deported once I got there. Before she gave me my boarding pass, she asked if I had plans for leaving New Zealand. Luckily, I had my itinerary in my bag for my flight back to Sydney a week later. When she saw that I had an American passport but was flying back to Australia, she asked me if I had a valid Australian visa. Luckily I had my visa confirmation with me as well, but really, how did she think I got into Australia in the first place? She was friendly enough, but I just wanted to get to my gate so I could sit down and think about taking a nap.

Eventually, I got my boarding pass and proceeded through security. People complain about the TSA, but Australian airport security is pretty much the same ordeal. You have to take your laptop out of your bag, and the liquids rule still applies, except here’s it’s 100 millilitres instead of 3 ounces. The main difference is in Australia, you get to keep your shoes on. They also don’t do pat-downs, as far as I know. Oh, and no one asks you for your passport. Okay, maybe it is easier in Australia.

Once I passed security, I was directed to the customs area, where I had to fill out a “departing passenger card.” The card asked for some random information about my stay and made me swear I wasn’t exporting any contraband from Australia. (This is where I’m glad I left that coral on the beach in Palm Cove.) It wasn’t a difficult process, but I don’t remember filling out anything like that when I left America. I presented the completed card to a customs officer, who put a “departing Australia” stamp on my passport.

It was sometime during this process that I realised New Zealand is, in fact, a different country. Intellectually, I knew that, but the whole customs process reminded me that I was in fact leaving the country I’d spent the last three months in. Not nearly as dramatic as leaving (for the first time) the country I’d spent the last 21 years in, but still notable.

When my flight was ready for boarding, they didn’t even bother to make a real announcement. It was the only flight leaving from that part of the terminal, so the crew pretty much just looked at all the tired people sitting near the gate and said, “Okay, y’all can get on the plane now.”

Once I got to my seat, I was delighted to find I had the entire row to myself. I guess not many people were clamouring to take a red-eye flight from Cairns to Auckland on a random Saturday. I was able to get a little rest by lying down across the three seats, but still airplanes are airplanes and I can’t sleep on airplanes.

The plane landed in Auckland at around 5:00 a.m., just in time for me to see my second sunrise of the trip. (Four-hour flight plus two-hour time difference, for those of you keeping track at home.) I proceeded through customs in a sleepless stupor, passed the giant “Kia Ora – Welcome to New Zealand” sign on the airport wall, and found a shuttle bus to take me to my hostel.

Because it was 6 a.m. when I arrived at the YHA International, I couldn’t really check in yet. The desk attendant looked about as awake as I was, but he gave me some change for the washing machines and the key to the luggage storage room. My first task was to do my laundry, since I’d only brought enough clothes for a week and they were all pretty much dirty by the time I left Melbourne. Once that task was complete, I stumbled out into the street in search of a cup of coffee. Along the way, I was surprised to find a record shop near my hostel open so early on a Sunday morning. The store reminded me of Vintage Vinyl, except it was much bigger (!) and sold music books and c*** colouring books and things as well as records and CDs.

As I wandered around downtown Auckland, I felt like I was at home–but not in a good way. The city reminded me of St. Louis. There are some nice parts, but it’s not. quite. there. The interesting things, like the record store, coffee shops, and museums, were scattered amongst vacant buildings and deserted sidewalks.

I don't know who Deloitte is, but I do know we have a building with the exact same sign in St. Louis. Point proven.

The Auckland Domain was okay, but the walk from the CBD was full of construction and concrete and not all that pleasant. In my wanderings, I came across the Auckland Institute of Technology. I remembered very briefly considering studying in Auckland this semester, and was quite glad I didn’t give that thought any serious attention.

My initial distaste for Auckland may have been caused partially by my tiredness resulting from a sleepless overnight flight. (Not that that stopped me from loving Sydney the minute I got here.) Despite the exhaustion, I decided to try to make something productive out of my day. First I went to Palm Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was very nice. I even managed to stay awake through the 1.5-hour service.

The inside of the church. It was pretty in a clean, simple way.

Leaving the church after Mass.

The front of the church. It was pretty tiny by cathedral standards.

Then I went to the Auckland Museum, which was pretty cool. The Museum is located in the Auckland Domain, a big grassy area in the middle of the city. (Like Forest Park. Except smaller. And uglier. But the St. Louis analogies continue.) Next to the museum is the Winter Gardens, which consist of a few greenhouses full of pretty flowers and stuff.

Water lilies.

Some flowers. (Obvious caption is obvious.)

After visiting the Domain, I decided I’d had enough adventure for the day, so I got a sandwich for dinner and went back to check into my hostel and sleep. It was 6 p.m., but that was highly irrelevant.

The next day, I left Auckland on a Kiwi Experience tour. Our first stop was a lookout over the city. It was cold and rainy but the city looked slightly less lousy from the top of a very dormant volcano.

Rainbow provided for your enjoyment.

I spent a wonderful five days exploring the North Island. But at the end of the tour, I ended up–guess where–back in Auckland.

When I arrived in the city on Friday afternoon, I had the benefit of a full night’s sleep. On the other hand, it was Good Friday, which is a public holiday in New Zealand, so EVERYTHING was closed. Plus, it was raining. Feeling epically lame, I spent some time on the internet at my hostel, then ventured out for a falafel kebab, some chips, and a bottle of L&P from a shop down the street. The kebab shop was pretty crowded, because it was one of the few places open on Good Friday. Kiwis take their public holidays very seriously. I also got a chocolate chip cookie from an “American-style” cookie store. It’s funny–I don’t think of chocolate chip cookies as particularly American, and it wasn’t until this store pointed it out that I realised I hadn’t really seen them anywhere else in Australasia.

On Saturday, I decided to give Auckland one last chance, so I ventured down to the harbour. There, the St. Louis comparisions ended and the Sydney ones began. Let’s face it: Auckland just wants to be Sydney. Their Harbour Bridge looks like a smashed-down version of Sydney’s, and they have a Bridge Climb too. (To be fair, you can’t bungee jump off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But this is New Zealand–you can bungee jump off everything.)

Harbour Bridge fail.

I took a ferry to Davenport because, as I’ve mentioned before, ferries are awesome. Davenport is the historical area of Auckland, and there were lots of pretty buildings and parks there. I climbed to the top of the dormant volcano we drove up at the beginning of the week. I walked around with the tourists for a while, then slid down the steep grassy side and back to the bottom. That was pretty fun, even if the only other people doing it were under the age of 6.

After killing some time in Davenport, I went back to the Auckland CBD and has a delicious Chipotle-style burrito at a Mexican restaurant. Then I walked around the harbour for a while and became further convinced that Auckland is trying to be Sydney. Unfortunately for the city, it is failing. Miserably. If I had gone there first, I probably would’ve thought the trendy restaurants and fancy boats on Auckland’s harbour were pretty sweet. But because I’d lived in Sydney for three months, I was not impressed.

The harbour from the ferry.

The city from Davenport.

The city from the top of the volcano (in sunlight this time).

Then I went to church, because that’s what I do when I’m alone in a city with time to kill and no money to spend. (Actually, it was Easter Vigil, so I probably would have gone anyway.) It was a beautiful service, and it lasted until 10:30 p.m. After Mass, I said goodbye to Auckland (not entirely happily–even if it was a lousy city, few things are more enticing than a city on a Saturday night) and took a shuttle to the airport. There, I found a comfy bench and slept until it was time to check in for my 6 a.m. flight out of the New Zealand knockoff version and back to the real Sydney.

Best Break Ever Part 6: Just another day in paradise

Remember how I said two of my favourite days in Australia so far took place in Cairns? Well, you already read about the first one. This post is about the second one.

As I mentioned before, I had the privilege of spending some time in Cairns with Ariana. She spent the first two days on an overnight reef tour, but on the third day, we finally got a chance to explore together. We flipped through brochures for trains through the rainforest, ferries to deserted islands, etc. However, both of us were low on cash, and spending the day relaxing on the beach was beginning to sound better and better. With the help of the very friendly receptionist at our hostel, we found a bus that would take us to Palm Cove, a beach about an hour north of Cairns, for the very budget-friendly price of $10 per round trip ticket. We packed our sunscreen and swimsuits and prepared ourselves for some serious relaxation.

The bus ride took us into quiet neighbourhoods, along the sandy coastline, and through gently billowing fields of sugar cane. When we arrived at Palm Cove, we noticed the beach’s swimming area was enclosed by a frame of netting.

Safe beach is safe.

On most beaches in Australia, red and yellow flags indicate swimming areas that are theoretically free of dangerous things like rip currents and sharks. In this part of the country, more drastic measures are necessary because the water is apparently infested by jellyfish and crocodiles and who knows what else. That’s Australian beaches for you–they look gorgeous, but one wrong move and you’re the top headline on the Sydney Morning Herald.

Swimming in the netted area was like floating in a salty pool. It was warm, the sandy bottom was remarkably smooth, and the waves were as gentle as a lake’s. The sea salt lightly coated my lips instead of rushing into my mouth like it inevitably does at most ocean beaches. We floated in the water for a while, and I swam a few laps just because I could.

Looking down the beach.

We took a wander down the beach. The sandy was gradually replaced by dark, wet rocks. Some were made smooth by the waves. Others were bowl-shaped, collecting water in their shallow depressions.  A few crabs scuttled out from underneath them as we walked by. That was pretty cool. We walked until the rocky, sandy beach tapered off into a pointy cliff consisting of large, porous rocks.

On the way back, we saw a watercraft rental stand and abstractly considered the possibility of renting a kayak and doing something productive. Then we got ice cream cones for lunch.

We ate them while walking around the neighbourhood, which basically consists of one quiet two-lane street running parallel to the beach. We passed people in fancy beach clothes. I think some people were getting married somewhere. Palm Cove is an upscale resort town, full of quietly luxurious hotels and unpretentious beachfront restaurants. I got the impression it’s a place where Aussies go on holiday. It was nice. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to afford to actually stay there.

After our little walk, we actually did rent the kayak. It took us about 30 minutes to paddle out to an island near the beach. The water was incredibly calm, so the ocean paddle was easy, and the views were gorgeous.

Ariana took a short break from paddling to photograph the back of my head.

There was a private resort on the island (speaking of places I’d love to stay), so we were only allowed to go up to the high tide line. Still, that was enough for us.

The island was perfectly silent except for the calls of various birds in the trees. There were no other people in sight. The beach was covered in seashells and coral pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colours. My feet didn’t appreciate it, but I couldn’t stop staring down at the ground–well, except when I looked up to stare at the ocean view. Ariana and I collected a few pieces of coral, but when we got back to the kayak rental stand, we were informed that it’s illegal to take stuff from beaches in Australia. Oh. I guess that would explain why this beach had so many pieces of coral and shells on it. I didn’t want to be “that person,” so I took a photo of my treasures and released them back into the ocean.

Multiply this by about 1,000,000, and you can imagine what the island beach looked like.

We forced ourselves to leave the island eventually, since we were paying for the kayak rental by the half hour. The wind had picked up and the trip back was a little rough, but we made it.

Ariana with our kayak on the Palm Cove beach.

After returning the kayak, we spent a few more hours relaxing in the water before catching a bus back to Cairns as the sun was setting. I arrived back at the hostel sun-drenched and covered in sand, said goodbye to Ariana, and boarded a shuttle to the Cairns airport for my 11 p.m. flight to Auckland.

As the shuttle pulled away, I realised I’d left a piece of my heart in the ocean side of Queensland. What a beautiful day.

Best Break Ever Part 5: The best day of my life (so far)

Okay, that title may be somewhat of an exaggeration. The day I got my drivers’ license, the day I first tasted Shakespeare’s pizza, and the last day of #J4804 were all pretty good days as well.

But the day I went to the Great Barrier Reef has to be one of the best days of my life.

I had been looking forward to this day since…well, since I submitted my application to study abroad in Australia. I was excited to go to the Sydney Opera House, I wanted to check out Melbourne, and I thought it might be nice to see the Outback. But I knew I HAD to go to the Great Barrier Reef.

I don’t know why it appealed to me so much. I suppose in my mind, it looked like a fantasy world. Sunlight beaming through crystal clear water, illuminating strange fish swimming amongst colourful coral formations. I’d seen “Finding Nemo,” and now I wanted to see it for real.

I’d be lying if I said my reef experience was exactly like I expected it to be. For one thing, the reef is a lot further from land than most people think. Cairns is “the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef,” but it still takes a good two hours to reach the Outer Reef by boat from the coastline. There are about a million different tours that go there, offering experiences from snorkelling off a huge yacht to spending the night on the reef to diving from a sailboat. I somewhat randomly chose Passions of Paradise, which kind of sounds like a lingerie store but actually turned out to be a very good tour.

On the ride out to the reef, I spent most of the time lying in the sun, enjoying the breeze and the warmth and the mountains in the distance.  The crew served tea and muffins, explained how the snorkelling and diving tours were going to work, and tried to convince us to rent everything from stinger suits to underwater cameras. I forked over the $7 to rent a stinger suit, which protects from coral cuts and jellyfish stings. It looks like a wetsuit, but when I put it on, I got colder, not warmer.

I didn’t rent an underwater camera. We only had about an hour to snorkel, and I didn’t want to spend it swimming around attempting to take the same slightly out-of-focus shots that every tourist takes. It’s not like those pixels were going to adequately capture my Reef experience anyway.

I felt obligated to take a couple of pictures from the boat, but even the best photographers–and I’m far from one of the best photographers–cannot capture the feeling of sunshine, the immensity of the ocean, or the hum of a boat crusing over the waves.

Looking back at land.

Even the water above the reef is colourful.

Once we got to the Reef, the boat anchored near Michaelmus Cay, a small island covered almost entirely by a wild bird preserve. The water there was remarkably calm. Later in the day, we explored another part of the reef, out in the opean ocean.

As soon as the boat stopped at the first site, I jumped in the water relatively fearlessly for someone who’d never been snorkelling before. Initially, it was hard to get used to the idea of sticking my face straight into the ocean. But once I did it, my brain realised I wasn’t going to drown, and it was quite…peaceful, I’d say. When snorkelling you breathe through your mouth, so there’s really no way to not sound like Darth Vader. But besides hearing myself breathe, it was amazingly quiet under the water.  For the first few metres of my swim, I saw nothing but the ocean’s sandy bottom.

Then, suddenly, there it was. Right below me. My first glimpse of the reef took my breath away. As if learning to breathe while snorkelling wasn’t hard enough already.

The first thing I noticed was the coral, and how colourful it, well, wasn’t. There were a few bright patches of purples and pinks, but most of it was coloured in various shades of tan. I’d heard about coral bleaching and how it’s destroying the reef, but I had never really made the connection until that moment.

So my first thought when I saw the reef was a breathtaking “wow.” My second thought?

“Wow. Humans suck.”

The fact that I consider myself a human didn’t help any. It’s interesting, in a way. We Americans constantly hear about rainforests threatened by deforestation, tundras destroyed by oil exploration, and, well, coral reefs bleached as a result of global warming. But those things happen in faraway places. Out of sight, out of mind. We brush them away with an “Aww, that’s a shame,” and go on with our lives. Or at least I did.

Until, suddenly, the reef was no longer this faraway mystical place. It was right underneath me, and I could see the damage firsthand. In that moment, all those dire Greenpeace warnings suddenly became very real and very relevant.

I’d be lying if I said I changed my entire viewpoint on life and became an environmental crusader at that moment. I didn’t. After all, if I really wanted to protect the reef, I’d keep my nosy self away from it in the first place. (Coral bleaching specifically is caused by global warming, but the millions of tourists who visit the Reef each year aren’t doing it any favours either.)

Despite the bleaching, the reef was still absolutely beautiful. If humans have impacted the rest of the animal life in any way–and I’m sure they have–it wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I’m one of those people who NEVER sees animals in the wild. For example, I haven’t yet seen a kangaroo in its natural habitat. I think I’m just too impatient.

At the reef, I floated just a few feet above fish of all shapes and sizes. There were small, brightly coloured fish swimming in groups. These were my favourites. When I saw them, I really did feel like I was in a real-life “Finding Nemo.” There were some very strangely shaped fish just cruising around the coral. There were some gigantic, flat fish swimming in groups of two or three. All these species have names, and I guess could have identified them if I wanted to. But I’m not a biology major, and I was content with admiring their brilliant colours and unique shapes as I glided above them.

And once, while I was swimming along minding my own business, I passed over a stingray, coasting across the sandy bottom. Oddly, I thought of the time a few summers ago when I pet a stingray at the St. Louis Zoo. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool. But now, here I was swimming with them, in the Great Barrier Reef. Now that, that is REALLY cool.

This is what I loved about the Reef. We’ve all seen these fish in zoos and aquariums and Pixar movies. We stare at them through glass and read about their natural habitat, thousands of miles away. But here I was in real Australia, experiencing the real thing. I could practically taste my dreams coming true. The Reef was more personal, more unbelievable, more life-altering than even I expected.

And if that doesn’t fit the criteria of “best day of my life,” I don’t know what does.

Best Break Ever Part Four: Cairns

I’m just going to come out and say it: my three days in Cairns were my favourite part of break.

I loved every moment I spent there. Why? Well, for one thing, the weather was gorgeous. Melbourne was kind of miserable: never about 65 degrees, and usually cloudy. I boarded my plane shivering in my sweater. When I arrived in Cairns, I was hit with a blast of 85-degree tropical (yes, that means humid) air. That sweater quickly became superfluous. It immediately occurred to me there’s a reason Queensland is called “the sunshine state.”

The airport’s surroundings were beautiful, too. Cairns International is relatively small (not as small as, say, Columbia, but not as big as St. Louis), and it’s surrounded by mountains. I’m used to looking outside at airports and seeing grass and more grass. But here, there were palm trees around the parking lot and mountains fading into the distance. I like this place already.

When I got to the city itself (via a 20-minute ride on a two-lane road through fields of sugar cane), my happiness intensified. Cairns earns a fairly big dot on the Australian map, but it only has a population of about 150,000 and feels much smaller than that. Lots of people visit the city, but most use it as a jumping-off point (as I did) to attractions like the rainforest and Great Barrier Reef. After spending three months in large cities, it was refreshing to be back in a town with no tall buildings, one shopping mall, and–unfortunately–not much public transportation.

The shuttle dropped me off at my hostel, a charming place on the outskirts of downtown. I loved this hostel: it was adorable, the staff was incredibly friendly, each night’s stay came with a free dinner, and it was only $17 per night. The only disadvantage was the relatively long walk from everything else in Cairns, but I got used to that eventually. The building was rustic, brightly coloured, surrounded by palm trees, and had animals instead of room numbers painted on the doors. I was in Two Kangaroos. I threw my luggage in the sweltering room, chatted for a minute with my German roommate, then immediately changed into shorts and went to find some salt water. Unfortunately, my hostel was a 25-minute walk from the waterfront, so it took me awhile to find the ocean. The walk was nice, though. As you get closer to the ocean, the town’s status as a tourism base becomes more and more apparent. Hostels, McDonald’s, and tire stores are replaced by fancy hotels, ice cream shops, souvenir stories, and fancy waterfront dining. It’s everything you want a tropical destination to be.

When I finally reached the ocean, I realised something odd about Cairns city: it doesn’t really have a beach. There are a few small sandy spots where you can dip your feet in the water, but the only swimming area is a manmade salt-water pool along the Esplanade. It looked very inviting, though I was a little perplexed about why we needed a fake ocean when the real one was right there. I wanted to swim in it at some point while I was there, but never got the opportunity.

After impulse purchasing some gelato at a waterfront cafe, I walked along the ocean on the Esplanade, just enjoying the view. I had a hard time remembering this tropical paradise was part of Australia. This country really does have everything.

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, as well as an excellent place to do anything involving the ocean, so there is an unusually large number of boats in the harbour.

Apparently Scottsdale is a sister city to Cairns. Whatever that means.

The sunset was absolutely gorgeous.

I then walked allll the way back to my hostel to meet the second reason I loved Cairns: Ariana! She arrived in the city shortly after I did, and we were joyfully reunited in the hostel lobby. We walked downtown to take advantage of our free meal vouchers at a cool local pub called The Woolshed. There we also met another friend, Alicia, who had been staying in Sydney. Ariana had been at hiking and camping at Uluru–the one Australian icon I won’t make it to this time. The three of us had fun sharing stories about our various experiences, then went to sleep to prepare for the next day’s adventures.

As much as I loved Cairns, it wasn’t the city itself that was so amazing. It was the things I did nearby: on, in, and under the ocean. Two of my favourite days in Australia so far happened while I was staying in Cairns.

In the next two posts, you’ll hear about them. Stay tuned.