Monday, August 11, 2014

Ya Know, Just Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

Yet another amazing day in Australia - possibly the best one yet. Katherine and I got up early this morning and hopped on a shuttle from the hostel to the wharf in Cairns where we got on the Silverswift boat to go diving in the Great Barrier Reef!!!
The Great Barrier Reef

Me and Nigel
The photographer kissing Nigel
The weather was absolutely beautiful today (sunny and 27 degrees Celsius)but the sea was a little rough and lots of people were getting seasick on the boat though, fortunately, I wasn't one of them. It took us about an hour and 20 minutes to get to our first dive site and on the way there, the crew briefed us over morning tea. Once we arrived at the first site, we suited up in sting suits (full-body lycra suits) and wet suits and then got all our scuba gear on and we were ready to dive! Since I was doing the introductory dive, we first had to practice a few skills before we could actually dive. It was my first time diving and I didn't know what to expect but it was so cool! The hardest part for me was getting used to breathing through the mouthpiece, known as the regulator, since it feels really different from normal breathing. The pressure also makes you need to pop your ears almost constantly as you descend and it can hurt if you don't pop them. After I got used to it, though, it was so great and actually really relaxing. The coral and fish were incredible and we got to hold sea cucumbers and met the huge local Napoleon fish, named Nigel, who always comes to see the divers from the boat. It felt like we had just started when our guide signaled for us to come to the surface and we all had to get back on the boat.

Sea turtle!!!
We then toweled off and went inside for lunch as the boat took off for our next dive site. Certified divers had the option of diving at each of the three dive sites but I could only dive twice so after lunch I went snorkeling. The second dive site was even better than the first, with huge coral towers that were so colorful and intricate it didn't seem real. There were also so many amazing fish - some were rainbow, some were leopard-spotted, some were zebra-striped - I could hardly believe they were real. My favorite part of the       whole dive, though, was seeing a Green Sea Turtle right below where I was snorkeling!!! I wish I had been diving so I could've swum right down next to her.

Our last dive site was only about 10 minutes from the second one so we put all our gear on on the way and were ready to hop in when we got there. This time it was just me, the guide, and one other person and we got to swim freely and explore a little more. The guide showed us some giant clams, which are actually surprisingly gorgeous inside and if you watch them you can see them opening and closing their shell as they eat! He also showed some coral that changes color when you touch it. I can't believe how many amazing creatures there are living underwater that you wouldn't ever see without going in the water!

We got back from diving around 5:00 and walked back to the hostel (with a quick ice cream stop along the way) and I think tonight will be another night in since we're both tired from our day on the water. Maybe we'll finish the movie we started last night. :) Tomorrow we're off for our last two days of adventures before Katherine heads back to the states and I head to Perth for a job.

Take care,

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Kangaroos, Wallabies, and Koalas - Oh My!

It's been a busy, but great, few days and I'm enjoying an evening of relaxing in our hostel. On Friday, Katherine and I took the bus to see the famous Bondi Beach. I hate to say it, but I was actually a little disappointed. It is a beautiful beach with perfect soft sand and stunning blue water and I'm sure it would be a great place for surfing but it only covers a short stretch of shoreline and there's not much to do there unless you want to surf or swim. Since it was a little cold and rainy, we didn't feel like swimming or surfing so after walking around and taking pictures for a bit, we hopped back on the bus to the city.
Bondi Beach
Once back in the city, we walked down the main street - George Street - and caught the free bus to Circular Quay where the Opera House and Harbor Bridge are. We caught the ferry there to cross Sydney Harbor and go see the Taronga Zoo. The zoo was pretty cool, but we were a little disappointed because we were hoping to hold a koala and didn't get the chance and we also didn't get to see a platypus, which I really wanted to see. I did like seeing all the other animals, though, especially the big cats, although I always feel a bit bad for animals in zoos. They did look well-taken care of, though, and seemed as happy as possible for being in captivity.
Sleepy koala at the zoo
Swamp wallaby!

Kitties :)
 It wasn't too late when we got back from the zoo so we walked back to the hostel and got our laptops from the hostel and then went to the train station to get free WiFi. Free WiFi is a rare thing in New Zealand and Australia and most hostels and many cafés don't offer it so we'll take what we can get. After getting our WiFi fix, we walked back down to the Quay to get dinner at a restaurant we'd seen earlier in the day that looked good and wasn't too expensive. After we ate, we took the train back to our hostel, rather than make the 45-minute walk across the city for the third time that day.

Yesterday (Saturday) we had an early morning and were up by 6:00 to get a shuttle from our hostel to the airport to catch our plane to Cairns. Cairns is north of Sydney in Queensland and it is a popular destination for diving and other tourist activities since it lies on the Great Barrier Reef and is in an absolutely beautiful mountain-meets-shore location. Our flight was supposed to leave at 9:10 but was delayed over three hours due to some intense fog. When we finally did board it was almost 1:00pm but, luckily, the rest of the flight went smoothly and we arrived to beautiful, warm, sunny Cairns around 4:00pm. We found a shuttle and went to our hostel - the Travellers Oasis - and got settled in and then explored the beach town that is Cairns.

Today was another busy day that was spent exploring the Kuranda Rainforest. We took a bus at 8:30 in the morning to go see the World Heritage Rainforest that surrounds Cairns in all directions. The village we went to, known as Kuranda, is only about a 40-minute drive from Cairns but I think it gave us a good taste of the rainforest. It is so beautiful and lush and filled with singing birds. We started off by hiking to see Barron's Falls outside of the main village. It was a huge, stunning waterfall in the middle of the rainforest and definitely worth the walk. Unfortunately, once we got there, it started to rain and we weren't at all prepared to get wet. Katherine and I really didn't walk back in the rain and luckily for us, we ended up talking to a nice family from Texas and they offered us a ride back to town in the back of their car! 
Exploring the rainforest
Barron Falls

Back in the village, we explored the shops and then went to Koala Gardens to see some of Australia's most characteristic fauna and cuddle a koala! We first went to feed the wallabies and kangaroos but it was a little rainy so they weren't very interested in coming out to get the food from us. After trying to feed them for a little while without much success, we went to the "koala station" where we handed in our tickets for a cuddle session and then got a huge koala placed in our arms by the zookeeper. The koala was heavier than I expected and he gripped on with his little hands and feet but he stayed exactly as the zookeeper placed him and sat completely still in my arms. The poor guy was probably sleepy since koalas are nocturnal and his sleep gets interrupted all day so people can hold him. After a few quick pictures, the koala was put back in his home and we went to walk around the village some more. 

Koala cuddles 
My new friend
It continued to rain on and off but we did take advantage of a sunny spell and walked back to the Koala Gardens to see if we could have more luck with the wallabies and kangaroos. With the rain stopped and the sun out they were much more active. The kangaroos were still pretty aloof but the wallabies were much more curious and friendly. The Swamp Wallabies would even let us pet them and would sniff us and hang around us! The smaller wallabies, the Red-legged Pademelon, was much more shy but we did get a chance to pet them a couple times and they are so soft!
Wallaby kisses!
We caught the bus back to Cairns and wandered around town for a bit before grabbing supper and then strolling along the beach for a while and taking in the sights. Cairns is a really beautiful place naturally but it also has a really great atmosphere that feels very friendly and welcoming and makes me feel like I could live here. We stopped for ice cream at Movenpick and then made our way back to our hostel for a quiet night in to rest up for a big day tomorrow...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sydney Adventures

Katherine arrived in Sydney early Wednesday afternoon and after she arrived we went to explore a little more of the city. We did quite a bit of walking and went all the way down to the harbor and saw the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Botanical Gardens. 

Around 4:00 we made our way to the Sydney Harbor Bridge for our tour across the bridge. We were given special suits and some gear, including a kind of harness and we were led along the paths that are used for bridge maintenance and up to the upper arch of the bridge. We were really lucky with the weather – it was warm and sunny with barely a breeze – and we got to be on the bridge for sunset and after dark to see the city all lit up. After the bridge walk, we stopped for a dinner of pizza before walking back to our hostel for the night.
On top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge!

Thursday was a great day. Katherine and I got up fairly early this morning and went to a local café for bagels and coffee before hopping on the train to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains! The train ride was two hours long but it went fast and it was great to see a little of the Australian countryside. It’s much drier than New Zealand and the vegetation is really different.
The town of Katoomba is small but it has a few cute shops and cafes. We walked all the way down the main street to the Blue Mountains National Park. The Blue Mountains are often referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Australia” and for obvious reasons. The mountains are layers and layers of ancient sandstone and limestone and in some places it really resembles the Grand Canyon.  We did a few hikes in the park. The first was the Katoomba Falls hike and we walked a long way down the mountains to an amazing waterfall. We then had to walk all the way back up lots and lots of steps and near the top we went to see the famous Three Sisters which are three tower rock formations.

Looking out into the Blue Mountains
Katoomba Falls
The Three Sisters
After our full day of hiking, we were both tired and ready to go back to town. We explored a few shops on the way back to the train station and then caught the 5:30 train back to the Central station. We were more than ready for supper when we got there after the two hour train ride and we decided to go to a place called Just Falafel which has all kinds of delicious varieties of falafel wraps. Falafels aren’t really a New Zealand or Australian food but they’ve become one of my new favorite foods while travelling here. After dinner, we made a quick stop for McFlurries before heading back to the hostel to get ready for bed and relax before another full day.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Goodbye New Zealand

This past week has flown by and I can't believe my time in New Zealand is really over. This week has been filled with finishing up classwork, a few more great trips, and lots of celebrating and reflecting on our five weeks together.  Our last big day was Saturday at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve which was basically a small zoo/petting zoo with a mix of natives and exotics. We did finally get to see Kiwi there, though! We  also got to see Tuatara which are large lizards that can live up to 300 years old, although the one we saw was only 23. We also participated in another Maori powhiri (welcoming ceremony) and got to learn some Maori dances and enjoy a traditional Maori meal (known as a hangi) cooked underground. Sunday we all finished our journals and handed them in and then had our goodbye party complete with a great slideshow from the trip. The end was bittersweet as I was sad to see everyone go but I am so ready to go on to a new adventure.

The tuatara - a living fossil

The Maori women performing a poi dance
Our last family photo

My flight left Christchurch at 6:00 this morning so I spent last night in the airport and it was a long night but it could've been worse. It turns Christchurch Airport has an Air Lounge for people who have early morning flights and it has beanbags and a few other amenities which makes it much more comfortable than the other option of hard plastic chairs. After a three-hour flight, I arrived in Sydney at 7:15am (it's two hours behind New Zealand). I took a shuttle to Bounce Backpackers where I am staying for the night and dropped my stuff off but it was too early to check in so I went out to explore the city a bit.

It is already very different from New Zealand but I'm relishing it because I was so ready for a change. Sydney is much more what I think of as a city, although I can't really put a finger on why. It just feels more alive, I guess. I'm not a city person by any means but I am enjoying the feel of this city and I feel like I could walk for a long time without running out of "nice" and I couldn't say the same about cities in New Zealand. And to make myself sound really American, I just had Starbucks for the first time in eight months and I am feeling quite at home here in Starbucks as I sit here and write this. :)

As much as this city is nice, however, I can't wait to get out of it and see what Australia is really like. Katherine comes tomorrow and then the real adventures will begin! I can't wait to see what is to come! I''ll try to keep you posted and post some Sydney pictures soon.