Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hold onto your lettuce!

After an unforgettable three days with The Rock Tour, it was time for our final week down under. For this, we were heading further up the east coast to Mackay. As we exited the airport and hopped into a taxi we had no idea where our bed was for the night. Normally Jo and I like to have something booked to tide us over but time was against us. Our first choice was to stay in a hostel in the heart of Mackay called Gecko's. Sadly they were fully booked but they recommended a motel called Cool Palms. After a quick phone call we had somewhere sorted. The lady on the other end offered to pick us up as it was too far to carry all our luggage. Once there we were reminded of the motel we stayed in near Ballarat in '08 where we panned for gold. However, this time we weren't greeted with a loaf of bread and a pint of milk...! We dropped off our bags and headed out. We jumped onto the free tour bus that takes you to all the important places in Mackay. We decided to get off at the marina and have a wander around.
The next stop was the main town. There isn't that much to see in Mackay but it does have a good choice of restaurants. With it being my birthday, we thought it would be nice to treat ourselves to a meal in the evening. After much deliberating we ended up booking a table at a Mexican called Montezuma's. We finished looking around the shops and headed back for a much needed shower. The room had air conditioning which was nice, even if it did sound like it was about to take off! Once ready we both laughed as it looked as if we had been there for a week. All of our luggage was spread about the room giving it the 'make yourselves at home' look - one thing you can't do when backpacking! Jo booked a taxi to the restaurant as we remembered it was quite a walk. The meal was gorgeous. I had enchiladas and Jo had tortilla chips with her favourite side, guacamole  (for a change). We then shared a chocolate sundae to tide us over, yummy!
With such a filling meal weighing us down, we continued our plan to 'stroll' back to the motel and help burn some of it off...two hours and a scenic tour later we were back, oops! I still don't know to this day how far we actually walked. What I do know is that once you pass Macca's three times and nearly wade through a random marsh it's time to get a taxi. But with the two of us being tight as snare drums we needed to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the light is a random off licence pointing us around the corner!! Anyway, it was a nice way to finish off the evening and it made it a birthday to remember.
The following day was another chill out day. We wandered to the tourist information to book some bits for the next few days. One of the guys Jo worked with in Brisbane recommended a company called Fantasea. They offer different tours around the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. We ended up choosing a package consisting of three trips rolled into two days. The lady was very helpful and also sorted out our Greyhound bus to Airlie Beach which is the gateway to the Whitsundays.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the remaining parts of Mackay.
Mackay is currently undergoing work near the river. We did manage to find the start of the boardwalk amongst all the scaffolding and machinery. It weaved around the river and took us away from the town. Halfway through the walk Jo read a sign warning walkers about crazy magpies. Jo's friend Lloyd was attacked by a murder of magpies (maybe that's where they get their collective name from). He said they swooped down while he was out riding his bike. He had to abandon his bike and take cover. Sounds crazy but we weren't going to be victims of this fiasco. We both grabbed ourselves a stick each just as a deterrent. Luckily we didn't get attacked, but we did enjoy the walk which eventually looped back to our motel. A pizza and a film finished the day off nicely.
As we jumped on the Greyhound the following day we looked forward to seeing more of the north than we did last time. A hostel named Magnums was going to be our place for the night, as it was a recommendation from a friend on The Rock Tour. Before we booked the room we were aware it had an en suite which sounded flash. It was far from flash. There were ten beds and only one shower - we weren't looking forward to the following morning! We decided to get some fresh air and see what Airlie had to offer. We came to the conclusion it was like a smaller version of Surfers Paradise but without the high-risers.
That night in the dorm was very hot. Even though it states that all rooms are air conditioned our particular room was like a sweat box. We had to keep nipping out just to cool off! It was a hard night's sleep made worse the next morning by having to wait for eight people to shower before we even got a look in. Jo decided that night showers were the way forward! The rest of that day was spent killing time along the one and only road that is Airlie. With our tour being over the next two days, we decided to have one last chill out day...
6am was wake up time the following morning. The bus was to pick us up from just outside the hostel at 7am. Today was the day to visit two main attractions in the Whitsundays - Hamilton Island and Whitehaven Beach. Our tour company, Fantasea, are located about 20 minutes out of Airlie at Shute Harbour. As we got off the bus we could see our boat in the distance.
As we entered the vessell we grabbed ourselves some complimentary toast for breakfast. Food was part of the package giving us one less thing to worry about. The first stop was Hamilton Island. Out of all the islands it is the second biggest inhabited one. The first one being Whitsunday Island, which was also on the agenda that day. The journey only took 30 minutes which would have been OK if it wasn't for the ups 'n' downs - Jo went a bit white! After stepping off at Hamilton we could see why it was so popular. Everything was in pristine condition with the whole island looking like a massive holiday resort. It may not appeal to some people, but we felt like celebs for the day.
The best way to get around the island is in a golf buggy. It cost about $50 for a couple of hours. We liked the sound of it but thought we would just stick to walking.
The majority of buggies were zooming up the hill to go to the lookout or to Catseye Beach. We went to the latter. To access the beach you had to walk through the entrance to the main resort. Just as we arrived there were a number of people stood around which looked like a film crew. We had in fact walked into the middle of a film set. There wasn't much happening but we managed to squeeze past during a break!
Catseye beach was glorious. There were less than 10 people on the beach making it seem more exotic and special. There were a few people snorkelling in the sea and some guests just chilling out on sun loungers. Jo and I took in the great view before we heeded towards the lookout.
As we reached the lookout, which is called One Tree Hill (just for Jen), we were greeted with a fantastic view out to sea. We were so fortunate with the weather as it made Hamilton Island look very tropical. We could see more islands in the distance which we worked out were Long Island and Daydream Island. You would need a lot of time if you wanted to see all 74 of them...!
Hamilton Island truly is a gorgeous destination. There is plenty to do for couples and even kids. Just from looking around we gathered that most of the accommodation was probably holiday homes belonging to rich Aussies who escape here once in a while. They too have golf buggies. But with breathtaking scenery and friendly locals who can blame them?!
Before boarding the boat I quickly squeezed into my hula dress for a quick pic!
The next stop was Whitehaven Beach. Due to a few heavy winds it was going to take over an hour to get there. Jo didn't look too happy after the journey in. Before we left shore a big buffet was put on downstairs for everyone. It was pretty impressive and filled both our empty tummies. After we finished Jo and I sat upstairs for some fresh air. While we were sitting some guy came up the stairs with a plate full of food. A big gust later and he lost half his salad. Gutted!
The journey to Whitehaven Beach may have taken longer than scheduled but it was worth it. Just as we stepped off the boat we could see the white sand stretching for miles up the beach. Alongside it was the clearest water I have ever seen which proved popular with everyone.
The sand is 98% pure silica, which is so pure it can be used to make glass! The beach is located on Whitsunday Island which is the biggest of all the islands making Hamilton Island the second. Lots of different tour companies offer trips there by boat or even plane. There was one plane which we watched take off from the water like something from James Bond! During our time, I made the most of the luscious water and had a rewarding swim.
Along the beach numerous activities were taking place including volleyball and cricket. Jo and I enjoyed a nice walk whilst taking it all in and grabbing some last pics.
Both islands proved to be a lovely day out. Our favourite was Hamilton Island and we said how we would love to go back there one time and book a room at the resort! 
The next day was all about the Great Barrier Reef. Again, we were picked up from our hostel at 7am and dropped off at Shute Harbour. We both noticed how windy it was compared to the day before but didn't think much more about it. About 10 minutes later one of the crew approached us to say that it was too windy and the tour was no more. As you can guess, Jo and I were pretty gutted. They offered to take people to Hamilton Island free of charge but we decided to get our refund and head back to Airlie Beach. We both grabbed a coffee and discussed what we should do with the day as it would seem a waste to just do nothing. After popping into a travel agent we decided to see another one of the Whitsunday Islands - Daydream Island. It seemed the best choice and it gave us a chance to get the most out of being at Airlie Beach. The ferry was leaving from the harbour at midday and would take 30 minutes. With the wind being quite strong the ride over was quite choppy making the island look dramatic.
It is a really small island but, like Hamilton, there are golf buggies to help you get a round. Again, we agreed to walk especially as we did the forest walk which was anti buggies! The walk lasted 20 minutes and looped around to a coral beach called Lovers Cove, cute. 
There were only a few people there which made it more welcoming for us. It looked like snorkelling was the thing to do there. I hired two kits from the beach and we were ready to go. Previous to us coming up to Airlie Beach I bought a case for my camera to help take photos underwater. The water was lovely and clear and the case proved to be a very good buy...!

We spent about an hour in the water snorkelling and testing out the camera. It has got us excited about eventually snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef...third time lucky!
We spent the rest of that day just relaxing by the pool and getting out last photos. The mermaid statues on Mermaid Beach are there to tell the story of when they lured Captain Cook's ships when he was heading north through the Whitsundays.
The two days after that were spent travelling back to Brisbane before heading back to sunny England. All we have now is to look forward to the 40 hour journey home...!

So there you have it - Our year down under. We both have enjoyed every single second over here and it has been a pleasure to share it with friends and family at home. It is one big tick off the bucket list and we now have to get back into our normal lives and plan for our wedding next year...! 


Monday, 4 October 2010

More than just a rock

After flying over nothing for hours, we eventually spotted civilisation amongst the red dirt. Being situated 1530km from Adelaide, its nearest major city, and pretty much smack bang in the middle of Australia, it's easy to see why few travellers make the epic pilgrimage to see Uluru (formally known as Ayers Rock). However, seeing as we failed to make it to the Northern Territory in 2008, we decided it was a journey we had to make this time.

As soon as Dan and I stepped off the plane we could feel the difference in the climate. Although it was significantly hotter than Melbourne, it was a pleasant, dry heat - not what we had been expecting (we'd been warned of 40 degrees+ temperatures and hundreds of mozzies). In fact, once we started talking to a few people who were in the know we realised we'd actually been incredibly fortunate with the weather. Apparently Alice Springs had experienced horrific storms the previous week, resulting in the normally dry Todd River actually flowing (to be fair it was more of a trickle, but the Alice Springians were pretty excited).
We were staying at a tiny, quirky little hostel called Alice's Secret. The weather stone that greeted us made us chuckle!
After checking in we had just one day to explore the town, so we wasted no time and headed over the bridge into the centre. I might as well be honest, it was a bit of a culture shock after living in the city. Alice is still highly populated by Australian Aborigines, who live on the surrounding land and often come into the town to use the amenities. There still seems to be a great deal of hostility between Westerners and the Aborigines, making walking around the town a bit daunting if you're not used to it.
According to our trusted Lonely Planet, Anzac Hill is the best place to get a great view of Alice. They were right - at the top you can see for literally hundreds of miles. It's insane to look in every direction and see nothing but dust and the odd tree. Once at the summit we could see just how small Alice Springs really is (it has an estimated population of just 26000).
We then decided to do the river walk, following the Todd River back to the hostel. Even after all the rain, the majority of the river bed was still visible. The fact that most of the roads cross the river (and not via a bridge!) shows that water is a rare occurrence!
That evening Wayne, the hostel owner, recommended that we climb the hill behind the botanical gardens to get a great view of the sunset. So, at about 5pm we set off towards the gardens. We pottered around for a while, before tackling the climb. It didn't take us long to reach the top. Wayne had said that the gardens would be closed after sunset, so we would have to find an alternative route down. We spent a little while looking around, but there didn't seem to be an obvious path. We decided to chance it and go back down the way we'd come up, hoping that we'd be able to jump the fence at the bottom!
Whilst waiting for the sun to go down we spotted a cute little wallaby. He didn't seem remotely scared of us, and Dan was able to get pretty close as he was nibbling on a tree.
The sunset didn't disappoint. The colours were fantastic behind the red mountains in the distance. Dan went into overdrive with the camera, trying to get some arty shots. I think he succeeded!
Luckily when we climbed down there was still a ranger in the gardens so we were able to sneak out through the open gate.
The following day we were picked up bright and early from our accommodation, as we were off on a three day tour to see Uluru. Most people tend to think of Alice Springs and Uluru as being pretty near to each other. In fact, it is a good five hour drive to get into the 'real' outback, where Uluru is situated.
On our first pit stop, once the sun had come up, we were able to get a good look at the swags that were to be our beds for the next two nights. It was hard to believe that the small bundle of cloth was all that would protect us from potential snakes, spiders and dingoes!! Scary stuff.
There was no 'breaking in gently' on this tour. After another couple of hours we were all bundled out at Kings Canyon and told we would be climbing Heart Attack Hill (this is its actual name) before carrying onto the 6km hike around the rim of the gorge.
Throughout the walk we stopped at various points where our tour guide, Skip, talked about the landscape, aborigines and wildlife. It was all very interesting. Dan was particularly intrigued by the Ghost Gum Tree and its ability to amputate its own branches as and when needed!
After a long walk in the heat we were rewarded with a lunch stop at the Garden of Eden, a permanent waterhole surrounded by plants. Normally the tour consists of a swim here but, despite the fact the sun was out, the water was still freezing. However, in the 40 degree heat of the summer, I can understand why tourists have been seen running down the steps and jumping in fully-clothed!
Before setting up camp we had to stop en route to collect firewood. Everyone got stuck right is, ripping down dead trees. One girl who was dressed all in white (who wears white in the outback??) literally looked like a chimney sweep by the end!!
Along with the other 'vego' (veggie!!) I was drafted in as a cook for the evening and got stuck in chopping veg for the bean chilli. It smelt delicious and everyone tucked in as soon as it was ready - all that walking had made us hungry.
We had a lovely evening around the camp fire. After spending the day together we had all started to bond and had a good laugh trying to play the didgeridoo. After dinner Dan was recruited to help with the washing up.
By about 10pm we were all shattered and, after a ridiculously detailed demonstration from Skip on how to get into a swag ('you mean we don't climb in head first??'), we bunked down for our first night under the stars.
I slept surprisingly well considering the circumstances and didn't really want to get out of my swag when Skip came round at 5am to say breakfast was served. On the tiny camp stove he had made porridge and heated up a big pot of water for us all to have a cup of coffee (we needed it!) However, with only 'bush toilets' I was a bit reluctant to have too many cups!!
Once we had watched the sunrise over our camp and packed away our 'beds' it was straight back on the bus, as we had another action packed day ahead of us. A short drive brought us the Kata Tjuta or The Olgas, as the large rock formation is sometimes known. The name means 'many heads' and the sacred site is a key element in many aboriginal legends.
The first part of our walk took us through The Valley of the Winds. This part was particularly dramatic, due to the sheer scale of the rocks around us. I had to keep looking up, as I was so blown away (no pun intended!) by the landscape.
Along the walk Skip got us to sit down whilst he showed us all the different types of ochre that can be found in the area. On his make-shift pallette he mixed up eight shades and demonstrated them on one of the tour party's arm. With all these paints at their fingertips it's easy to see why the aborigines are so into their art.
Halfway round the walk we were given the option to take the long way back, which we chose, which gave us the opportunity to see the rock formation from the other side. We walked round with fellow brits Joe and Lyn, having a good gossip about things we miss from home.
Lunch consisted of a weird mix of pretty much everything from the bus, thrown together under the wide umbrella of 'fajitas'. We were all starving though, after the long walk, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
All full up and raring to go again, we jumped on the bus in the direction of the old girl herself - Uluru. Standing 348m high and measuring 9.4km in circumference, it's hard not to be impressed by Australia's most recognisable natural icon. Like when I first saw the Eiffel Tower or the Opera House it didn't look real, more like a cardboard cut-out on the horizon. It's hard to describe the magnitude of the significance (both physically and spiritually) of this giant rock. The aboriginal people fought hard for this sacred area and in 1985 the government returned ownership to them. To this day a great deal of controversy surrounds the rock, and climbing it is severely frowned upon and in many areas you are banned from taking photographs.
Even before Skip gave us a great long talk about how we really shouldn't climb it, I had already made up my mind not to. However, this decision was not based on any moral guilt. I took one look at the rickety old chain going off at practically a 90 degree angle and decided I'd probably break my neck if I so much as tried to reach it, let alone hang onto it to pull myself up the side of Uluru!
At around 5pm we headed to the sunset viewing area to make sure we got a good spot for when Uluru had her moment of glory. As luck would have it there was still a big picnic bench free, so we took up camp for the next hour or so.
Honestly, you would think we were about to watch an eclipse. The number of people (around 400!!) that turn up every day to watch the changing colours over the rock is absolutely staggering. One of the resorts offers a champagne supper for its guests. It seemed utterly ridiculous watching the waiters setting tables and chairs in the middle of the desert. I wonder what the aborigines make of all this. I can't imagine it sits well at all.
However, along with all the other spectators we 'oohed and aahed' as the rock went from pink to yellow to orange and finally to red. Skip said that he never gets bored of watching this, as every night the colours are different, depending on the weather.
Whilst we were marvelling at the beautiful sunset, Skip was cooking up a delicious noodle dish for our supper. After the chaos had died down and most of the tourists had got back onto their coaches to head back to their snug hotels, we tucked into our grub under the stars before heading to the official Uluru campsite (with toilets and showers!) for our second night.
By now the whole group was getting on really well. A few people had gone to the shop to buy marshmallows, so we all had fun toasting them over the bonfire.
Dan and I were sat with the other poms, a Dutch girl and a French guy. Dan suggested we play the shopping game. It's basically a memory test where you go round in a circle, gradually adding things to an imaginary shopping list until someone can't remember all the items. This proved to be hilarious, as the Dutch girl didn't quite get the concept, buying things like 'a giraffe kidnapper' and, my personal favourite, 'trainers on fire'! What?!! It didn't matter though, as we all had great fun and all the giggling kept us nice and warm as the fire started to die out.
After seeing a mouse run round the camp and people telling stories about how many dingoes live in the area, unsurprisingly I didn't sleep quite so well the second night and was pretty bleary-eyed when the wake-up call came at 5am.
There was no time for a shower, as we were heading straight off to be at the viewing area in time for sunrise. Once we were in place Skip got to work on breakfast. The porridge and coffee tasted even better than the morning before. Once again, Dan was able to get some 'epics'.
Revived, we were driven to Uluru, as it was time for the base walk - a gentle 9km around the foot of the rock. Compared to the strenuous hikes on the previous two days, this stroll in the sunshine was very enjoyable. Again, we walked with the fellow poms. I spent most of the time gossiping with a girl called Kirsty who, like us, has been over here for a year. Needless to say we had lots in common and plenty to chat about. We got on so well that, every now and again, we had to keep looking up to remind ourselves where we were! The two hour walk went by in a flash!
At the end of the walk we were greeted with a tray of cakes and ice cream. Well, I say 'ice cream' but under the sun, to be fair, it was more just cream. However, it still went down nicely.
On the long drive back to Alice Springs we stopped off at a camel farm. Although camels are obviously not native to Australia, they have been in the area since the 1840s and many farms offer camel rides for tourists. Dan and I decided to opt out, as we thought it didn't really fit in with the rest of the trip (we'll save it for if we ever go to Egypt!). A few of the party joined in though and seemed to have a good time.
Back in Alice Springs, we were all dropped off at our accommodation. We were told we had two hours to have a much needed shower and to meet back at the Rock Bar later that evening. Most people were unrecognisable in their glad rags and make-up! We had a table reserved and had a fantastic evening chatting about the past three days. Lots of email addresses were exchanged and we are hoping to keep in contact with our pommie chums once we get back to the UK. All in all it was a wonderful adventure and I would recommend The Rock Tour company to anyone wishing to visit Uluru but who doesn't want to blow half their budget getting there!