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.
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.
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.
Wherein I watched the sun set and that’s about it, because I didn’t have time to go kayaking or skydiving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I went to jail over break.
Or at least that’s what I tell people, so I can enjoy their reactions.
Then I tell them the truth: I went to a tourist attraction formerly known as a jail.
But it still sounds cool, right? Right???
Visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol was one of my favourite parts of the trip. It’s definitely a tourist attraction, but it’s a dang good (i.e. not tacky) one. The gaol–if I may use the Australian spelling–has a long and storied history. I won’t bore you with details, but you can read about here. Most significantly, it’s the place where famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was hanged.
Much of the original gaol complex has been repurposed or demolished since it was first built in 1842, but one of the main wings still stands and has been either very well-preserved or meticulously restored (probably the latter) to resemble its original appearance.
Most of the cells had exhibits and information in them, but a few were empty except for a thin mattress and flat pillow on the floor. I went in one of the empty ones, closed the heavy metal door, and settled into a corner of the floor. Nothing like shutting yourself into an old, dark, dirty jail cell to bring on a serious case of goosebumps. It only took about thirty seconds of that to make me very glad this is not the 1840s and I am not an Australian criminal.
Upstairs on the second floor of the corridor, things got even creepier. There was a big exhibit on Ned Kelly and a gallows in the exact spot where he was hanged. Only parts of the gallows were authentic, but it was certainly close enough to send chills down my spine.
Adjacent to the gaol, and included in the admission price, is the City Watch House, where criminals were held between their arrest and trial. For this part of the tour, we were all given cards with the name and suspected crime of an actual prisoner. I was a twenty-something woman arrested for arsen. Once we had adopted our convict identities, a frighteningly convincing charge sergeant led us into the holding area, seperated us by gender, and informed us we were all under arrest. She sternly told us not to touch anything, including the walls. We were forced to take off our jewelry, put down our purses, and shake our hair to ensure nothing was hidden in it. The seargent checked the webs of our fingers, the soles of our shoes, and underneath our toungues to ensure we had no illicit substances. Thankfully, this seargent decided to forego the cavity search.
We were then shown around the facilities under the watchful eye of the sergeant. We explored the holding cells, including the padded cell for people who were in danger of hurting themselves or others. Then the sergeant showed us to our rooms for the night: all the women in one, all the men in another. The rooms were cold and concrete, furnished only by hard benches lining the walls. The guard locked the door, shut off the lights, and told us to go to sleep. Thankfully, she came back and set us free a few moments later.
Then we moved on to the holding cells where “drunk and disorderly” people were kept until they got themselves sober. Apparently most of the people who came through this facility were arrested for drunkeness, and released with a warning after they had sobered up. As for the rest of us, we would be detained in the facility for a few hours or days until our trials could be arranged. We had a small, concrete-walled exercise yard, shielded from the rain by a dirty tarp. Once again, I was incredibly grateful I wasn’t arrested in Melbourne in the 1840s.
Or in 1994.
Yes, that’s right. Near the end of our tour, the guard told us something I found incredible–these facilities (just the watch house, not the gaol) were used to detain criminals until 1994. I can’t even imagine how dirty, miserable, and overcrowded that place must’ve been.
Actually, maybe I can. Because the criminals held in this area were still in their street clothes, they had plenty of resources at their disposal for leaving their mark. The walls of the women’s exercise yard were etched with graffiti: names, dates, vows of love, nonsensical rants, and of course plenty of curse words aimed at the police, the government, and the world in general.
Seeing this graffiti, much of which had been created in my lifetime, made an already realistic experience even more gut-wrenching.
Let me just say I’m glad I paid attention in Comm Law, because I hope the Old Melbourne Gaol tour will be the last–and only–time I’m ever sent to jail. What an an arresting experience.
My story of Melbourne starts with the trams, because the trams are EVERYWHERE. Melbourne apparently has the oldest tram system in the world, and it’s still a very vibrant part of the city.
On one hand, the trams are a good way to get around. They combine the convenience of buses (you can catch them right on the street) and the efficiency of trains (they run on tracks and follow fairly predictable routes). No matter where you want to go in Melbourne, you can probably catch a tram and get there easily.
On the other hand, though, they’re kind of annoying. Because the trams run down the middle of the road, a basic two-lane street is automatically converted into at least a four-lane. Four lanes become six, etc. As a result, it takes seemingly forever just to walk across the road.
Conveniently for pedestrians, trams follow the same laws as regular vehicles. Well, except when they don’t. So even when the “walk” sign is lit, you still have to watch out to make sure a tram isn’t barrelling down the middle of the road towards you.
Riding the tram itself is an interesting experience. Most of the stops are in the middle of the street, and usually (I have no idea why) in the middle of the block. Thus, you have to cross a lane or two of traffic to get to the stop. No big deal, because most of the city stops have nice raised platforms with sidewalks and shelters and benches, like a bus stop. But some stops aren’t so accomodating–they basically just dump you in the middle of the road, with only a fence seperating you from vehicular traffic and nothing but your common sense keeping you out of the path of another oncoming tram.
The ticketing system for the trams is also interesting. Each tram has a ticket machine, and the cars are theoretically patrolled by transit officers, but there is absolutely nothing preventing a passenger from travelling without a ticket. Passengers don’t board in plain sight of the driver like on a bus. There’s no physical barrier that requires a ticket to cross like on a train. So unless and until you get caught by a transit officer, it seems like it would be pretty easy to take a free ride. I didn’t see a single transit officer the entire time I was there, but of course I bought a ticket every day anyway. (It’s called Catholic guilt. And when a pass for 24 hours of unlimited travel is only $7, why not just fork over the money?)
The trams, however, aren’t the only environmentally friendly transit option in Melbourne. Biking seems to be quite popular there, providing one more moving vehicle for hapless pedestrians to watch out for. The city even has bike rental kiosks that allow passengers to borrow bikes for short trips. They’re stationed every few blocks, charge an hourly fee, and I even saw a few people actually using them.
Once I got used to all the trams and bikes, I noticed something else about Melbourne streets: they don’t have a lot of cars. There is traffic, obviously. But the streets aren’t nearly as crowded with standard vehicles as a normal city’s are. I guess with so many other options, having a car just isn’t practical.