** As published on Africa Geographic's blog **
“Be sure to choose your 4x4 carefully; you have no idea of what you’re getting yourself into.” That was the welcome we received from our guide as we arrived in Mekele, Ethiopia for our short 4-day – yet physically and mentally demanding – trip into what we will forever call “The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth.”
The Afar Depression is located in the Afar Region of northern Ethiopia. It is a geological depression that resulted from the presence of 3 tectonic plates, which – against the odds – appear around a lake, making it 1 of only 2 places on Earth that a mid-ocean ridge can be studied on land. The region is home to both one of the hottest (+50°C) and lowest (-130 m) places on the planet, some 1,000+ square km of salt deserts, extraterrestrial sulfur fields, active volcanoes, and Lucy, the famous 3.2 million year-old hominin. The northern portion of the Afar Depression is commonly referred to as the Danakil Depression and was our intended destination.
Have you ever noticed how God always agrees with you? Not as often with your neighbor, your congressman, your family or even the pope. But he (or she, or it,) definitely agrees with you. Other people just aren't enlightened enough to realize that. Yet.
Funny how that works.
Was the Christian God cool with slavery? Slave owners sure thought so -- and had plenty of Biblical canon to support it. Abolitionists disagreed. Did God want women to vote? Not according to anti-suffragists. Suffragists were convinced otherwise. If society continues this descent into level-headed compassion, fifty years from now people will be claiming that God is pro-fur and factory farming. When one cannot defend a belief in the current context, moving the framework back a few thousand years and putting the blame on God is a pretty good fallback strategy.
I know, I know. There's only one God and he is not at all ambiguous: he agrees with you. It's all right there in the Bible or whatever holy book you believe in, as you have decided to interpret it. It's perfectly clear, right?
Except to all the people it isn't. Assume that you are a member of (depending on your definition) the largest religious denomination in the world, the Latin Catholic Church. Around 1.15 of the world's 7 billion people share your belief system, if we assume (very wrongly) that local churches are uniform throughout the system. The rest of the world thinks that you're crazy -- or at least misguided on some pretty key points.
It’s with a bittersweet excitement that I write this one. Tomorrow I’ll board a flight for Nairobi; luckily, it’ll be the last time I have to pack up my life in a box for at least a year. A bit of gratitude is due for making this such an incredible experience:
To the Buffalo staff, thanks for the opportunity to join the family. To Dave, for the copious amounts of sushi we consumed and Wolong Chinese. To David, for showing me Canadians can actually be cool, and for Fringilla Butchery. To Linet, for the connections in Kenya and in advance for going out in Nairobi. To the Eubanks brothers, for showing me you never have to grow up. To Harry, for Branston Pickle, and for the companionship.
To Beth, for showing me that Peace Corps volunteers aren't all the same. To Lauren, for showing me to always watch your belongings at the bar. (Too soon?) To Arina, for Bananagrams (times two). To Michelle, for not hating all Americans…? To Sylvia, Kabita, and my Zambian family, for the hospitality over the past few months. To Danny, for calling me the wrong name for 4 months, and teaching me I am most definitely not ready for kids. To Matthew, Kenzie, and Jacob, for showing me that someday I will be. To my real family, for the love, support, and encouragement to do what makes me happy. To Zambia, for teaching me patience beyond my wildest dreams. And for your most amazing countryside. You've been a fantastic introduction to Last Great Frontier. And to the dog next door, if I were into animal cruelty, you’d be first.
I’m incredibly grateful to Zambia and everyone within for this experience, but am greatly looking forward to tomorrow and the 12 months ahead of me.
2014 is going to be one hell of a year.
A week and a half late is better than never. I blame my lack of lack of life on the delay.
Last January I made one simple goal --- to live every day of the year with no regret. There was no “get in shape,” no “swear less,” and no “reduce stress.” Just live life with no regrets, which turns out is much easier said than done, but makes everything a hell of a lot more interesting. I would need more hands to count the stupid shit I did in 2013, but 30 fold more to count the things that would have been impossible if trapped inside some cubicle.
I visited 10 countries; worked on a boat; farmed rice (drank too much rice whiskey); visited America; rode a train through rural Tanzania; learned to scuba dive; motor biked across SE Asia; paid homage to the world’s (current) longest reigning king; gave bikes to school children; swam with manta rays; attended a funeral in Thailand, a wedding in Vietnam; was a best mate’s groomsman; bet in an underground boxing club; bungee jumped more than a football field; saw 2 natural wonders of the world, one 1,000 feet above in a glider, and one swimming through it; went sky diving with my dad; obliterated my bank account…; ran a marathon (kind of); played with monkeys and snakes; and moved to a new country, to name a few.
Of course I also was lucky enough to have my parents and friends visit me abroad, became closer to my brother than imaginable, made some great new friends, learned heaps equally about myself and others, and arguably more regarding business than was learnt whilst professionally consulting.
But everything wasn’t cheery: the grandparents are aging fast, an old friend committed suicide, one family member was diagnosed with lymphoma, another located a tumour, and friendships have most certainly been lost. Communication with folks back home could definitely have been improved; although, conversations become more and more difficult as time progresses, and I’ve got to admit: I think we all forget that conversing works both ways.
In pictures: Learnings from the first 60 days in Zambia (and the that whole last year spent travelling)
*** Author's Edit 1-January-2015 -- pictures removed due to new blog website
With everything that’s happened, it’s hard to believe it’s been 60 days since I left the now very wet world of Vietnam for this hot and dusty Zambia. From bike distributions to safaris, from South Africa to Zimbabwe (which turns out isn't really far), from hostels to a temporary home, and from racquetball to nightclubs – it’s been a fast paced and jam-packed 2 months. Since I left America, I've picked up on a couple of things, and I've written them below. Read at your own discretion...
1) People are people are people, and those people are good.
Having "lived" in 5 countries across 4 continents --- not vacationing, not backpacking, not dressing out of a suitcase, but paying rent on a flat --- this one point is certainly consistent. I've lived nearby (not to be confused with “as” or “with”) the multi-millionaires in Australia, and then months later in electricity-less shacks with the (to be confused with) poverty stricken side of Thailand. Despite all of our cultural differences, we all have the same core. Basic human goodness spans and breaks down any cultural barriers that we've put up amongst ourselves. Too bad the greater population doesn't always see that.
2) The truly broke never complain.
Don't let the lack of income, house, electricity, or occasionally food fool you for these people hating their lives. It's not that they're jumping for joy at their hand, but over many conversations, not once did I hear a complaint about the 10km walk to water, the roof leaking, the pit that serves as a toilet, or the siblings sharing the cot to sleep on. These people were just happy to be alive. A friend was right when she told me to "never mistake poverty for a lack of quality."
3) Seeing how business is run across the globe is the best education I’ve ever received.
And unfortunately, the most expensive. Nothing I learned in my few years of consulting compare to the real-life experiences learnt from trying to grow a business only a few years old. The next step is trying from the ground up...anybody want to start a business?
Working in Zimbabwe this week, I went and withdrew some money from the ATM (yes, they have ATMs here). Which bill do you think had stored deep in my bag from America and which do you think came from the ATM?
This is completely typical of Zimbabwe. This and power failures...to the point that it's more surprising when they do have power.
So I started to do a bit of research, and what I found is pretty incredible. For those who don't know, the Z$ was the official currency of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2009. Today, it's officially the US dollar, but as you can probably guess by the picture above, they don't print it here, so the money makes it's rounds; rounds that aren't complete until they pass through a half dozen bras bras.
So from a simple Z$10 note having 39 siblings, from 3 separate removal of zeros (25 zeros total), here's a brief history of the Zimdollar...
I highly recommend you take 3 minutes out of your day to watch this video. Having met and visited with some of the people in it, I can honestly attest to how much a bicycle can improve one's life.
October ended on a high -- 1,603 bicycles were distributed to students, teachers and community supporters in the Chibombo district just north of Lusaka through WBR's Bicycle Empowerment Education Project (BEEP). Ceremonies were held at Chititi Primary School, where hundreds of community members were present to welcome, witness, and celebrate.
The following is a speech given by the district education board secretary in Chibombo. My comments follow:
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very glad to be part of this great day, I'm calling it a great day because it is a day when our children and our community have received a great gift, a gift that will help get to school and thereby help broaden their horizon.
Government is doing its best in providing access to quality education throughout the country, but government efforts alone are not enough. That is why the efforts of partners such as World Bicycle Relief (& WV) who have come on board to supplement government efforts are very important.
Heartfelt gratitude go to World Bicycle Relief (& WV), for this gesture of supporting 13 schools in our district with bicycles.
Bicycles are used by millions of Africans to transport everything from children to chickens but the vast majority are cheap, flimsy, and generally unreliable imports.
An American charity World Bicycle Relief (WBR) hopes to change all that - by assembling reliable bikes locally.
Its ultimate aim is to create bikes completely manufactured in Africa - from the frames to the spokes.
Appropriately named the Buffalo, this sturdy bicycle is a new product with a retro look.
Its design is based on the British touring bikes of the 1950s - but with the latest technology, including a tough metal rack at the back for carrying up to 100kg.
There are now more than 70,000 of them in Africa, many of them donated to charities and non-governmental organisations. [Edit: as of Sept 2013, there have been 160,000+ bicycles distributed in the field.]
WBR is an offshoot of the American SRAM Corporation, which supplied parts for Lance Armstrong's high performance racing machines used by the US former cyclist in the Tour de France.
It started life in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami when it donated 24,000 bicycles to Sri Lanka.
Thoughts were flying through my mind as I boarded the Kenya Air flight not even a week ago:
“Is my layover in Nairobi safe given recent events? Will I have to work in the ‘office’ I swore to never step foot in again? Hope people are friendly; I really need some friends. First, I need a place to live. Is rent expensive? Because I am broke. Please let there be air conditioning. Has Wi-Fi hit Africa yet? Have computers? Shit, I hope there’s electricity. Will I get to meet Ako
Where would we be without Al Gore inventing the Internet? I'd probably be a few pounds lighter, a bit more educated, and perhaps even have a girlfriend. And what about Google? We'd probably still be paying for email and asking things like "a/s/l" to strangers in Yahoo! chat rooms.
I used these 2 new age inventions to learn some things about the country where I'll land in just a few hours. So in the spirit of education, here's a comparison between America and what I think I'll be calling the great country of Zambia (I'm not pulling a Snowden, just a mere, factual comparison).
Over the past 6 weeks or so, I've been living in Hoi An, Vietnam, roughly halfway between Saigon and Hanoi. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Hoi An has joined the elite rank of Chichen Itza, Uluru, the entire city of Rome, the Statue of Liberty, and Independence Hall, just to name a few. It's no wonder why it's now home to about 120,000 people from around the globe.
But I'm no history major.
And neither are these people. Life is so simple here. There's no push for big careers, no deadlines, no "ASAP," no closing hours, no fixed prices --- no rules, really. And no religion. Thank God. You just do what you can do to get by and everyone looks after each other. There is a lot of Wi-Fi though, albeit tremendously slow, but it's everywhere.
Last June when I left my job in America, I left with intentions to work on a boat or "something like that."
Clearly that goal eluded me (or I it) in Australia, but now, well over a year later, I've finally had that experience. If you've never had a job that requires you to be outdoors and/or on the water all hours of the day, I encourage you to stop reading this email, draft your resignation letter, immediately turn it in, and start searching.
What an incredible experience. Blue Coral Diving is the top recreational snorkeling and scuba diving tour company in Hoi An that operates daily a 40 passenger boat for tourists and locals alike.
Turns out that being able to breathe 100 feet under water is pretty damn awesome. Diving and getting advanced certifications for free were also awesome... But the money's run out, so it's time to move on, re-fill the accounts, and then do it all over again.
In a few days, I'm heading over to Lusaka, Zambia to do some freelance consulting for the World Bicycle Relief.
This 6-month contract will be a good opportunity to "do some good," exercise my brain, make some cash, and see Africa for the first time. The thought of company safaris was also a big factor in the choice.
You know as much as I do about Zambia, Lusaka, my living situation, my job role, safety level, economic condition, and just about anything else that one should know before making a major move. But I'm sure it'll be just fine.
To Vietnam, I appreciate your Bánh Mì ladies (capitalized as one wise soul taught me to do), your free ketchup, your 25 cent beers, your $7/day accommodation, your motorbikes, and your delicious food. You've come a long way from our first day together where people were defecating in the streets.
To Zambia, step up your game. You have a lot of work ahead of you to beat this magnificent country. A good start would be free public (and Western) toilets.
Here are some pictures, and some more of the diving sites.
August 7-?, 2013
Day 7 forward: Hoi An --- 296 km
Day 6: Quy Nhon --- 222 km
Days 4-5: Nha Trang --- 186 km
August 5-6, 2013
Days 2-3: Da Lat --- 255 km + 138 km
August 3-4, 2013
Packing System, by Andrew Lum
--> Bag 1 - Dirty
--> Bag 2 - Questionable but pretty sure no one would notice if it smells
--> Bag 3 - Clean-ish
Day 1: Mui Ne --- 321 km
August 2, 2013
Day 0: Saigon
August 1, 2013
I took 2 weeks off and backpacked Peru. For 5 days, 4 nights, I hiked 45 miles from Cuzco to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay trail. The picture above is the mountain range adjacent to Machu Picchu.
It's been nearly a month since the Thailand government gave me 30 days to roam free within their borders, so I reckon it's about time for me to get out of here before they start fining me for overstaying my welcome. After leaving Bangkok, it was my hope that both Chiang Mai and the surrounding area were heaps different from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The plan was to work on a farm for the 30 days and then get a “real job” elsewhere making money to help refuel the accounts. And continue to grow the beard, of course.
How things change.
After 13 sleeps on the farm, the volunteer pool had quadrupled by the help of a solo Dutch traveler and 2 Belgium friends on holiday. The routine was simple: wake, eat, farm, explore. It was fun. It was educational. It was hot. But most of all it was rather humbling.
One needs to see both sides of the coin to be “humbled,” right, whatever that word means. I was brought up in a home where we didn't struggle for our needs. We weren't by any means loaded, but if we needed something, it was as simple as running down the store to get it. And for the luxury items --- a new baseball bat, new clothes each year, a family vacation --- they were afforded by hard work and an intense practice of frugality. I can assume that most of you reading this fall into that category.
In a twist of irony, however, the most humbling part wasn't even the farm. The owner had spent 47 years of his life in either Italy or England --- 2 very developed countries despite recent events. And no, we didn't have things like showers or satellite, but if we needed something, same story as the past 26 years, it could be obtained relatively easily because We. Have. Money.
Dispersed in the mountains surrounding the village, communities of Karen people lived. Each day after work, I went to one of the villages to try and get a better idea of how they live. Uneven and weather beaten wooden planks arranged together formed their 1 room homes --- not 1 bedroom, but 1 room --- all with dirt floors. Clothes are hand-washed and air dried, food cooked over fires, and baths taken in the river. These people have far less than I had when I had no income, no job, and no money, and the frightening part of it is that Thailand is not that poor of a country. I mean, look next door to Bangladesh for example. I can’t even imagine…truth be told, I’ve only seen a glimpse of the coin’s other side.
But these were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I mean, we’re notorious for helping industrialize undeveloped countries for the “better good.” I’m not knocking helping out your fellow man, but it makes me wonder…have we got it backwards? Maybe we should take a lesson from their book of life. Is all the shit we have really necessary?
For the farming, we didn't kill too many plants – in fact I think we did a pretty damn good job – but for reasons unbeknownst to us, we were abruptly kicked out on day 14.
So with questions unanswered, back to Chiang Mai city we went.
The 2 Belgians planned to shoot up north; the Dutchman was looking to go on a visa-run; and I began researching the Mae Hong Son loop. It’s a paved circuit that outlines the northwest corner of Thailand just along the Burmese border. Reviews taught me that "experienced riders need only apply" because there are "lots of zig-zag curves" along this "dangerous road with hairpin turns and lots of blind curves."
The next morning Mark and I went to rent motorbikes. (He opted to push his visa-run back 1 week.) At $6/day, who could say no to discovering more true Thai backlands?
Later that Monday morning we left on the not-so-crowded street under the historic Chiang Mai Gate and headed east, driving the loop counter-clockwise, saving the most dangerous roads for last. The plan was to spend more time in the small villages rather than the "touristy towns."
Rooms never cost more than $3 or $4 per day and meals about a third of that. There was no "tourist tax." There were homemade meals and family dinners. There were no tour agencies. Rather, locals were happy to take us in their cars on complimentary day-trips. We couldn’t talk to them but pointing and smiling are international languages. Rice fields, rivers, mountains, national parks, caves and waterfalls were more than abundant. And no one spoke English.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but 1 week, 900 kilometers, 1 flat tire, and 1 crash later (I'm OK, just out 2,000 baht), we arrived back in Chiang Mai. The Mae Hong Son loop was a fantastic way to end this tour of Thailand; I can only hope the rest of my time in SE Asia will be as fun as the northwest has been.
So tonight I'll bus down to Bangkok from where I'll fly into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I hear they REALLY like Americans, so this should be an adventure. On September 1, Da Nang, Vietnam will likely be the place I ultimately succumb, as I've registered to run in their inaugural marathon, a beautiful 42.2 km in the form of 1 big 13.1 mile loop that will unfortunately need to be repeated. It should be fun, but truth be told, I signed up more for the beach party at the end...
The Beard, 11 months, was shaved at 6:00 PM ICT yesterday, in northern Thailand, outside of Chiang Mai. It sprung to life just short of a year ago, in August 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
It is survived only by pictures and memories; its father preceded it in its death at 1 month after an unpleasant run-in with an ex-employer.
The Beard was a long time resident of Australia, where it moved to as a youngster and lived out the middle 9 months of its life. After leaving its childhood home just earlier this month, it found itself in a climate far too hot for it to sustain life. Knowing that a beard-friendly future employer was only 8 weeks away, it was ready to reproduce as to be in a “manageable state” upon arrival.
It radiated wisdom and sexual virility. It never slept, never complained, was always there when you needed it. It saved your crumbs; it allowed you to relish your beerafter finishing the can. It acted as a natural compass. It could sense changes in the weather. It naturally repelled insects, sun, and sarcasm.
It created fear in men, lust in women, and jealously among all pubescent faces.
It put one-size-fits-all's to shame.
It loved blowing in the wind on an afternoon cycle. It enjoyed bonding with others over a cold drink. It especially treasured being scratched by any hand lucky enough to touch it. Don't wash those hands.
It was the single most greatest friend a man could have.
Let us all have a moment of silence out of respect.
RIP BEARD. We will always love you.
There was a funeral in the village today. Both the death and funeral date were announced a few days ago over the village loudspeaker.
In Western countries – at least where I grew up in the Bible Belt – funerals tend to be a place for mourning and grieving. One day to “say your goodbyes” and commonly spend copious amounts of money on a wooden box that eventually will rot and pay fees for people to arrange flowers and music for someone who is already dead.
Funerals here last a couple of days, from what I can gather somewhere between 2 and 7. If you knew the deceased at some point in time, you generally go to the funeral. In a village of only a few hundred, it’s a community affair.
The village has communal tables, chairs, etc. that are used for events such as this. Men friends of the deceased will collect and assemble these either in the family’s yard, or, if they don’t have one large enough, in the street. (I learned this the hard way after cruising the motorbike up on the program after turning onto an unknowingly closed-off street – if only I could understand either those morning announcements or street signs…) As in most countries, the women cook an array of food enough to feed a village (pun intended).
The morning of the cremation, the men go into the forest and cut any dead wood. This is used for the burning of the body, and is quite frankly the part I found most interesting. (That, and the fact that the joke’s on the tourists given the crematory is shockingly close to where they come to wash the elephants in the river.) Everything out here is by the land and is given back to the land. Nothing is wasted, everything returned.
I know that this post would probably have been more both interesting and factual had I gone to the funeral and more so if I had taken a few pictures. But being the obvious black sheep in the crowd, I opted to not even ask. I’m sure someone has; just use that Google machine.
Anyway, I've made it pretty clear in my will – calling out certain people – that I’m to be burnt wherever I kick the bucket. Do not fly me back home; do not waste money on a casket. And even though it’s not in there (yet), I won’t be too disappointed if you all take off work for a week and have a little celebration… After all, I’m not going anywhere…
If you’re still with me, here are some pictures of some elephants; they live down the street.
The Chiang Mai changwat is subdivided into 25 amphoes. These are further subdivided into 204 tambons and again into 1,915 mubans.
Baan Mae Mut is the village I’ve been calling home for the past week. It’s nestled into the valley about 60km southwest Chiang Mai city, 300 west of Laos, and half that south of Burma. Its 160 homes make up a small portion its mother sub-district, Mae Win. The farm is shaded by Don Inthanon in the evenings, which at a 2,500m is Thailand's highest mountain.
To get here from Chiang Mai city, I had to hop in a cab, which took me about 40km outside of the city. By cab, I mean a 2-seat pick-up truck painted yellow with some benches screwed into the bed. It had a roof, but when they built it, they were either short on material or intended for only locals to be passengers. It’s not a stereotype, it’s true.
So about an hour later, I get out, crack my neck, and meet, my Italian host at this very Thai farm. As we drive the remaining 20 minutes to the farm, I learn 2 things:
1) No one uses this road unless they are going home. There is no outlet. It's not your typical city dead in, it's a 10 mile dead end through the Thai valleys.
2) My being here increases the English speaking population by exactly 33%. Not only that, but I am, in fact, the only native English speaker in the entire village. An oddity they have very little use for besides using me as a source of comedy among themselves (can’t really blame them). The most frequent rough translation I get is “Thai women no like beard.” Turns out, this is true, too.
Marco owns about 25 rai of land, making him by far the largest land owner in the village. Scattered across these 10 acres are rice fields, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, ponds, and houses. The rice fields are pretty basic but majestic in their own right. The list of food that is grown on the property is staggering: papayas, mangoes, bananas, Jamaican cherries, mulberries, star fruit, tamarinds, coconuts, peanuts, pineapples, limes, lemons, passion fruit, guava, corn, avocados, okra, asparagus, squash, zucchini, pumpkin, two types of eggplant, jackfruit, green beans, and just about every type of pepper imaginable. That of course doesn't include the scores of herbs and edible plant being grown as well. There are literally thousands of plants and trees. All of this without any factory produced herbicide, insecticide, pesticide, or any other -cide.
That’s nothing short of incredible considering 2 years ago this place was nothing but a desolate, empty field!
For the non-living, very little is made with outside resources, rather from wood, bamboo, and mud. The shed, rice house, chicken coop, waste baskets, etc. are made from bamboo. The tables and chairs from scrap wood around the property. And the houses from mud.
Two thirds of the houses are adobe brick, and the eldest is a homemade collection of wooden planks. The original adobe house serves as a home for Marco, Nok, and their 8-month old Selena, and the other is to be a guest house for visitors wishing to learn more about permaculture. The wooden house is about a 400m walk from the main house, and, with its 2 rooms and balcony, is where I sleep, currently on the floor under nothing but a mosquito tent and starlight.
There is a washroom, but nothing like your western bathroom. It’s essentially 3 tile walls, the fourth a bamboo door. Inside sits 1 toilet, 1 fifteen gallon tub, and 1 fifty-five gallon tub. Each tub has its own water scoop. Two scoops from the 15-gallon tub poured into the toilet will create its flush; the scoop in the 55-gallon tub is to help you wash. There is no shower. There is no sitting tub.
There's also no set schedule, no chores, no rules. Being the first outside (non-local) help he’s had, Marco’s main goal for me whenever I leave is to have had fun, know more than I arrived, and leave a friend. And though I know little to none when it comes to permaculture, I try to help out where I can.
The typical day thus far consists of waking to the Thai hymn and occasionally getting in a jog. We shoot to pack in as much work as possible prior to 1pm, as from there until about 5pm it’s brutally hot. The sun literally burns the skin to the point where the local Thai workers wear long sleeves, long pants, hats, neck protectors, and cloth face masks to shield themselves. But more to come on those incredible people later…
“Work” can mean a variety of things: weeding the gardens, harvesting the corn stalks, planting trees, spreading compost, etc. Read: generally a lot of things that I've never done nor considered doing before coming here. Then the rest of the day is spent reading, exploring, motor biking, swimming, etc. Kind of whatever you please.
The small village of Baan Mae Mut is probably the most tranquil place I've ever "lived." Tranquil not in the sense of a private beach resort, but a humble and unpretentious, almost detached from society, kind of way. The past week has been great, and I'm looking forward to the next.
Here are some pictures from around the farm:
Saying that the Thai people have "a lot of" respect for their king is far from the truth. Take Obama's approval rating and double it, and you're getting closer. [The NSA is now tracking my blog :) ]
Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is the current reigning king of Thailand. And he's not new at his job. Having held the office for the past24,506 days (that's over 67 years), he is the world's longest-serving current head of state, not to mention the longest in Thai history.
I recently saw Monster's U (awesome) and they had a short animated film before the main feature about 2 umbrellas falling in love (pretty good). In Thailand, before the main feature, they show a short film about the king --- and everyone stands out of respect.
And respect they do. This past January, a magazine editor was charged with lèse majesté and sentenced to 11 years for defaming the king. Talk about a way not to spend your 50s. A Swiss man entered into an early retirement after he drunkenly spray-painted posters of the king just down the street from here, in Chiang Mai, because he couldn't buy booze.
The Thai hymn is played every morning via a loudspeaker in Mae Wang at 8am and again in the evening at 6pm.
And just in case anyone from the Thai government is reading, I stand every morning; here's one very good reason.
Oh, and here are some pictures from Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok before I boarded the 12 (read: 14) hour train to Chiang Mai.
I touched down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airportvia Tiger Airways, a budget friendly city bus of an airline, and Virgin, with their much more attractive fleet, one of which was the least intriguing party to help me celebrate America’s 237th birthday. But together we bonded over some 5,500 miles, spanning 29 hours, 4 cities and 3 countries. Everyone and everything arrived safely, less Tiger’s landing gear after the pilot decided to go all WWE on the landing strip.
Customs deemed me not a terrorist, so I grabbed my bags and head towards the train. The Skytrain is located inside of the airport, so as I de-boarded 20 minutes later, it’s was my first time setting foot on Thai soil. Immediately a heavy, pungent, and wet air slapped my face. It was hot.
And so it was for my entire stay in Bangkok. But in those short 3 days, I weathered the heat and rain to see as much as I could. Which in hindsight probably wasn’t too much; in Bangkok’s 230 years as Thailand’s capital city, it has sprawled out over some 600 square miles – that’s twice NYC – and populated itself with 8 million people. The place is huge.
But regardless of size, I reckon the best way to see a city is to ditch your travel guide, put on your running shoes, and go exploring.
Friday saw an 8-hour run/walk-about of the city. Saturday morning, I swapped shoes for wheels and laces for chains and did a 5-hour cycle through Bangkok’s back roads and outer suburbs. Not knowing Bangkok’s highest peak, a few of us settled for the 61 stories of Moon Bar for an absolutely stunning panorama of the city on Saturday night. To wrap it off, for some “real Thai exposure,” on Sunday morning we taxied 30 minutes outside of the city to the Khlong Toey markets, where the locals shop for everything from corn to brain.
And thus my 3 days in Bangkok were over. And though the food was tasty, the language pleasantly peculiar, the cost incredibly cheap, and the architecture historic, I’m pretty set on not going back. It was just another big, congested, dirty city. I’m not saying Bangkok is awful, but in speaking with the other backpackers, many of whom had been in Thailand for months, there are heaps of incredible and exotic places this country has to offer, all just outside of Bangkok.
I’m hoping to find that in Chiang Mai.
Friday morning. Around 10am. Bangkok, Thailand. Number of elephants seen: 0.
After multiple failed attempts at catching a city bus, I jump in a taxi, point to an intersection on a map and show the driver the address of my guest house. I can only assume that if you are a taxi driver by profession, are given both a map and an address, that those 3 things will suffice as adequate information to get your passenger to his destination…
The driver assures me that he knows exactly where I need to go. So I sit back and learn a few things as he drives: 1) There are no road rules in Bangkok. 2) There are a lot of motorbikes. 3) My Thai vocabulary is non-existent. 4) My driver knows very limited English. 5) My driver asks heaps of questions.
He not only asks, but feels the need to turn completely around and look me in the eye until I give a response that he deems appropriate. It was as if I had Lloyd Christmas as my driver. Trying to keep the “eyes on road” ratio greater than 1, I begin to answer “yes” to mostly everything.
So about 15 minutes in, Lloyd pulls literally off of the road, turns around, and indicates we are at the destination by pointing outside then at me while giving a 1-5-0 with his fingers – because the whole sidewalk thing didn't give it away – to let me know how much I owe. He is all smiles and very proud of himself. We did after all just break some serious language barriers.
Exhausted to keep up with his questions, I hadn't been paying too much attention to where we had been going, but after I start to pull out cash, I look around and deduce we are not in the correct place. I voice this…
Through hand symbols, I learned that apparently at some point in the conversation I agreed with Lloyd that it would be better to be taken not where I indicated on the map, but to somewhere where I can drink beer, get a massage, and see boobs. Those were the 3 words in English he knew and apparently since I smiled and shook my head “yes” when I heard him say them, he decided I'd rather forego dropping off my bags for a quick round with a tallboy and a stripper. And so, my first act in Bangkok was hiring Jim Carrey to drive to me to a brothel.
Lesson 1: Don't play Yes Man in a country where you do not speak the language.
We pull off of the sidewalk, this time speaking infrequently as to avoid confusion. He ended up getting within 5 blocks of the intersection, and for the 30 minute drive, the fare on the meter was 120 baht, or a bit short of $4. This, I can live with. Except the driver refuses to take anything less than 300B. We get in a small confrontation, me offering a generous 200, and him screaming something I cannot understand, all the while asking for 3-0-0.
Lesson 2: Always confirm you're on the meter before getting into the cab.
The bottom falls out as I walk inside the KS House, so I check-in and head upstairs to the restaurant for a quick bite: Chinese noodles with pork and bottled water for a cheeky $1.50. By the end of my meal, as I was writing this, the thunder and lightning had run off, and the sun decided it would show its face. I walked down to my room to pee and got my 3rd lesson of the morning.
Lesson 3: Don't put used condoms and napkins into the toilet bowl.
Is it that big of an issue that it warrants a sign in the bathroom? Is this common in every room, or did I just get the sex room? Where am I? I rethought my choice in hostels, finished my business, and quickly left the room. Bangkok: you can only get better from here.
PS - I only paid the meter.
This past Monday marked the 50th week since I began my "gap year." After numerous discarded drafts, I reckon now is a pretty good time to actually sit down and email an update.
So here she goes :
It was tougher than I thought it'd be when I packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and boarded the plane nearly a year ago. I'd be lying if I said that singing Home by Phillip Phillips while in the shower isn't a guilty pleasure. Throughout the first 8 weeks, not a day went by where I didn't contemplate shutting the doors and hopping on a plane back to the good ole US of A. Sundays seemed to be especially difficult. Those were the days where I wasn't working and most of my mates went to family lunches and dinners, so finally I started accepting invites to tag along. What a great decision. It's amazing to see how other families interact with each other, from the loving to the joking to the fighting. The free food isn't too shabby either.
And as time progressed, with any major move, I met some incredible people, and those people turned into incredible friends. And those friends traveled with me to incredible places; taught me things; challenged my thoughts; shared food, laughs, and tears; engaged in unbelievable conversations, some good, some bad; and honestly did just about everything in between.
Backpacking and being a new-age nomad is all good and well, but actually living in Sydney allowed me to experience a city and build relationships unlike any other travel experience I've had before. If you fall in that bucket, thank you so much for the past year. You guys are awesome.
That being said, realizing that I only had 3 months left on my visa hit me like a bag of bricks. Australia kicks Americans out after 12 months, unless you apply for residency. "Suddenly" I was deciding between either "permanently" relocating literally around the world or re-packing my bags and heading off to the next location. But those first 2 months...is that something I want to do all over again? I do love traveling, but there's that little guy in the back of my head saying "Dude, you should probably consider settling down and trying to find a significant other one of these days."
So as you might have guessed, I opted to re-pack, but only 1 small bag this time. I'm down to 3 tops, 3 bottoms, 1 pair of shoes, 1 jacket, 1 hat and sunnies, 1 camera and 1 laptop. It's amazing how much stuff you think you need but will never touch.
So...Mom don't freak, but I met this guy online who needed some help with his online presence for his garden in the middle of nowhere Thailand (why, I have no idea). I mean we are talking rural. Nonetheless, I emailed him and told him if he taught me how to cook Thai food, I'd teach him about computers and what not. He agreed.
On Thursday, I fly to Perth, which I'll visit for about 10 hours, then fly to Bangkok by way of Singapore. What to do in Bangkok, no idea, but I know it'll be a hell of a lot warmer and probably a little more wet, too. After what I'm thinking won't be more than a week, Thailand's trusty trains will carry me north to the bustling town of Chiang Mai.
Once there, my new Dutch friend Marco, his Thai wife, and their child will pick me up and take me to my new home. Rice season, or whatever you call it, starts in about 3 weeks, so I'm going to help plant and harvest the crop all the while giving some tech tutorials. Maybe I'll get one of those cool hats.
So, as I write this, I'm unemployed, homeless, single, broke, vaccinated and immune to about 500 Thai diseases, and remarkably happy.
I've got some officially unofficial plans for after my brief stint in Chiang Mai, but I'll hold those off for a later update.
I love you guys, and I miss you heaps.
Day 1: The parents arrive. Well, kind of.
My folks flew over to Australia for two weeks to visit the bro and me. It says a lot for my mom to get in an enclosed capsule for 14 hours without the aid of some sleep aid. I had 4 bourbons and a few sleeping pills, and the next thing I know we were landing in Sydney. No idea how they made it, but they did, kind of.
Trouble in Paradise
The Qantas LAX-SYD flight was scheduled to take off at 11:50pm and arrive 7:40am. Add in customs and baggage claim, and I'm thinking we hit the road around 9:30am. Around 10am, I manage to get a call through to my mom's cell to learn the plane was "short on fuel" and stopped in Brisbane rather than Sydney, a cheeky 1000km north.
To make this story very short, we'll fast forward through a missed few flights, 5 security checks, 3 airport transfers, lost luggage, and 1 boot cleaning to have them arrive in Sydney around 5pm.
Unfortunately, during June, it gets pretty dark around 6pm in Sydney, so most of the daylight was gone.
They stayed at the Sydney Glebe YHA which was alright, nothing amazing, but very clean. A private dorm ran about A$30pp/pn, and comes with a sink, hanging closet, sheets, towels, and a shared bath (with some serious water pressure I might add). A good bang for the buck.
Being in Glebe, after dark we walked along Rozelle Bay to see views of the ANZAC Bridge overlooking the CBD, followed by dinner at Bogart Pizza, a local favorite, down the street from the YHA. We got the Love Me Tender, with ham, cabanossi, roasted chicken, BBQ sauce. A family feed for $22.
Exhausted from the travels, we called it an early night.
Just a note, if Qantas had not screwed up the incoming flight, we would have done the Bondi to Coogee Beach walk. Having run it multiple times --- it's a 6km (3.6 mile) walk along the cliff shores of Sydney's eastern suburbs, accessible on either end by bus --- I highly recommend doing it while you're in Sydney. Here are some pictures from a previous time I walked it:
Day 2: Taronga Zoo and Royal Botanical Gardens
Sunny Skies in Sydney's Winter Allow for a Day Out
After a good night's sleep, we woke early AM and went to Taronga Zoo for the day. If you do not have a MyMulti transport ticket, buy the combo ferry + zoo ticket for ~A$50; it comes with to/from ferry transportation from Circular Quay wharf and gets you to the top of the zoo via the Sky Safari (otherwise you'd have to pay the bus fare). And be sure to have a camera ready for the ferry ride --- personally, I think it's one of the best views of the Sydney CBD.
Do yourself a favor when you are there and see the seal show. It's pretty awesome.
We opted not to hold and have our picture taken with any animals (i.e., koala). That's what Photoshop is for, right? But if you're into that, prepare to spend ~A$25.
The zoo is actually quite impressive, taking us about 4 hours to make our way through the entire thing. Being Darsey's, after dropping $50pp to get in, we'd be damned if we didn't see every single animal. Dad also reads every single board, posting, or any other sliver of information about the animals. Admittedly, I did the same thing the first time I went...apple's not too far off, there.
After the zoo, we walked through the Royal Botanical Gardens (walking distance from the ferry's Circular Quay drop-off wharf). It's great for a book, bottle of wine, a frisbee or a couple of beers. Or as we learned, in Sydney, the herb of your choice. The RBG offer a great view of both the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge regardless of the time of day. It's one of those places that makes it difficult to take a bad picture.
Bondi Beach Night Walk
Stu headed back to home/Glebe/Betty/car for the evening, while mom, dad, and I headed east to see Bondi Beach. Getting dark on a Friday and having to get on the train at King's Cross Station, I'm begging the train gods to not let the 18 year-old hoochies and clubbers to not be out yet. Passing through Sydney's red-light district has never been on my Top 10 List Of Things To Do With The Parents.
Too early. We were safe.
Two stops later we arrive at Bondi Junction just outside of Bondi Beach, Sydney's "tourist beach." I'm not really sure why when compared to the others, maybe because there are more shops and accommodation nearby. If you're planning a more low-key party or picnic, I'd go to Bronte Beach or Coogee Beach. But overall I quite like Bondi. It's far enough away that you don't have the hustle-bustle of the city, but close enough that you can get there in 15-20 minutes if you have to...about 7km from the city.
It's pretty nice at night, albeit a bit chilly in June. In it's most simplistic form, it's one road alongside the beach, only separated by a car lot, some grass, the sand, and a skate park on one end. The land-locked side of the road is scattered with restaurants, surf shops, tattoo parlors, and bars. That's about it. We walked along the beach and up the stairs to the sea-side pool which is fun to see at night.
If you're wondering why I moved here for a few weeks...Beach Babes. Actually, there's your reason why it's the touristy beach...
Vietnamese Dinner in Newtown
Pho 236. That is where you should eat dinner if you are in Sydney and are looking for some cheap, quality Vietnamese food. When you search Asian food and Urban Spoon responds with only one "$" and has the magical letters B, Y, O, and B, you probably have something worth visiting.
I would most closely liken Newtown to Little 5 Points in Atlanta. You have a bit of everything: food, shopping, movies, parks. And a little bit of everybody: hipster, emo, gay, straight, tattoos, polos, bikes, scooters, local, and foreign. Newtown is settled on either side of King Street and Enmore Road, together a 4.5km strip that boasts some 600+ shopfronts.
Nestled up in a white-walled room, shielded from the busy street by only a glass sliding door and an crooked "Open" sign, Pho 236, I think, is Newtown's most authentic Vietnamese joint. A literal hole-in-the-wall, the small room has 8 tables, first come, first serve, cheap eats, and a staff who collectively speak 4-5 words in English. It's more of a point to the picture type of restaurant. And there's no corking fee for your BYOB. I mean, maybe there is. I never know how much my meal is, I just give them a $10 and if they ask for more I hold out my wallet and they take when they need.
Both Newtown and Pho 236 are highly recommended if you're in the area. Newtown Station is a short trip from Central Station, or nearly any other station in the CBD, and there are heaps of buses that go up and down King Street as well. In fact, it's actually faster to walk to bike the street at night. And the address is easy to remember --- just look for 236 King Street.
Day 3: Flying north to warmer weather
Off to Far Northern Queensland
Sydney is great, but the fun is outside of the city. We flew to Cairns (CNS) early Saturday morning. It's worth waking up early and catching the 6am out --- you can always sleep on the plane, after all the flight is a couple of hours. Tiger Airways got us here all in one piece for abotu ~A$100 one-way per person.
Not being able to check in until 2pm, we grabbed a rental car and shot off to Mossman Gorge and Port Douglas. (Note: Cairns itself is more of a central location of excursions, scenic drives, and hikes. If you're paying people to do these for you, they'll pick you up. Personally, I think it's worth the A$40/day to have a rental car at your disposal.)
Mossman Gorge is a ~70 minute drive north of the Cairns airport. It's a site supported by the Cairns City Council and the Aboriginal Community. Parking is free, and you can choose to either walk down to the water (~2km) or take a bus (~A$6 round-trip). The swimming hole has a couple of big boulders and some small jumps. Most people don't know, but if you swim to the other side of the river from the pathway's entry and go to the rapid, you can jump across the boulders and go down the rapid on your back. If not, swim upstream a bit and jump on the "cliff" on the left hand side of the river.
Port Douglas is ~20 minutes southeast of Mossman Gorge. We got there relatively late in the day, but it didn't seem that there was heaps to do. The university student doing her homework at the craft store had a hard time giving us a list of "exciting attractions," but it was still a good view of the water while we headed back down to Cairns. Port Douglas is a really small town with one main strip, a long beach, a lookout, a lighthouse, and some bars/restaurants. I'm sure there's more, but we didn't find it... It's about another ~60 minutes back to Cairns.
The drive to Mossman Gorge / Port Douglas from Cairns and back will produce some amazing views. On a clear day, catch one leg in the sun, and the other at night. Great pictures in the sun, and a slow and steady moonlit ride under the stars on the way back.
Back in Cairns we eat, explore, and rest
Back in Cairns, we checked into the Queens Court Hotel for somewhere around $160/night after tax and fees for a conjoined room, one with a double and the other two twins. Trying to find a place that was clean and central yet not obnoxiously expensive, I think we did a good job. But the A$10 internet is pretty damn slow, and can only be used by one person in the room...and hot-spotting is disabled. The included breakfast is more or less toast, oatmeal, cereal, OJ and milk, so don't expect bacon and made-to-order omelettes (though you can get them for a fee).
After settling in, we walked to Splash Seafood for dinner. The 3 dinner selections we made were macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi, honey chilli glazed fish, and vegetable risotto. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure there was no food left of the table. We skirted out at A$75 done and dusted, but had no drinks or apps.
We turned in after dark for a bottle of wine at the hotel and a good night's rest. Tomorrow would turn out to be a long, cold, but very fun day.
Day 4: The cold, cold waters of the Atherton Tablelands
We got pretty lucky this morning. In hindsight, we should have booked our Cairns excursions yesterday, just because we only have 2 more days in Cairns --- well, we have no reservations elsewhere, but that's the plan. But after doing some research, we were able to make Monday and Tuesday's plans without troubles; more to come on the excursions over the next two days.
We used this day and the luxury of unlimited kilometers on the trusty Kia rental to tour the Atherton Tablelands. If you have a day to kill, I highly recommend you hire a car and follow suit. The car will run you about A$40 for the day, and there's no admission to any of the sites we went to, so it makes for a very cheap and fun trip. The scenery is fantastic, too.
Unlike the heavy rain forest tropics of northern Queensland, the Atherton Tablelands are a bit higher in altitude and are more rolling pastures mixed with fresh water rivers and waterfalls. Spanning 32,000 square kilometers, it's a full-day excursion just to circle the perimeter. We left around 10am from the hotel and got back near 7:30pm.
Stop 1: The Boulders (65km)
Well, these were definitely off the beaten path from the highway. About an hour south of Cairns, The Boulders / Devil's Pool rank in at #1 of 2 attractions listed on TripAdvisor. Clearly, an absolute must-see. But don't blink or you will pass Babinda all together.
Knowing they're some big rocks in a fast flowing stream in the middle of the world's oldest rain forest, they're exactly what you'd imagine, but probably a bit larger. Surrounded by said lush rain forest, the 3 lookouts are a short walk along a guided path from the car park.
From Wikipedia, "the legend arises from the story of a woman who married a respected tribal elder but ran away with a beautiful young man visiting for the event. When they were captured she threw herself into the waters to escape, calling for her lover to follow her. The legend goes that her spirit guards the boulders and that her calls for her lover can still be heard."
We did not hear her, but I can guarantee you that if you threw yourself into these boulders, you wouldn't be calling for anyone to follow you, lover or not. Knowing this, it still took a lot of self-control to not pass the "Danger: Do Not Pass" signs to get a good picture. The health of mom was a bit more important as I think she was about to have a panic attack as I climbed over the railing, so we went to Josephine Falls to swim instead.
Stop 2: Josephine Falls (20km)
Josephine Falls are a quick drive from Babinda. It's not a collection of waterfalls as the name would suggest just one that flows down past 3 lookouts, down a rock slide, and into a swimming hole.
The car park is pretty small, but there are some bathrooms and 2 covered picnic tables along it's perimeter...I guess, if you need to relieve yourself after you eat in the rain or something.
It's no more than a 5 minute walk to the water from parking to the water's edge. I had been to these falls a few months prior when my friend came to visit from the USA, but this time around the 3rd and highest lookout was open (it was previously under construction). If you visit, start at the top and work your way down. You can safely climb onto the rocks from the top lookout and get a picture right in front of the big fall. I find the second lookout best for snapping a panorama of the entire deal. The 3rd and lowest, is my favorite. This is where the swimming hole lies. Strip the shirt and shoes and jump in --- but be warned, I really recommend to not test the water temperature first. Just dive in. Three out of four decide to not get in if it's winter. Summer, you're all good.
The swimming hole itself is of pretty good size, but the main attraction here is the rock slide. It's nothing major, but still pretty fun. If the water is rushing, you can walk all the way across and slide down as you please --- we did feet first, head first, stomach down, back down. It was still morning, so it was a good natural Red Bull to wake dad and me up.
Stop 3: Lunch (80km)
The next stop on the trip was food. Anytime you're day-tripping via car, I can't suggest enough to go to Coles, Wooly's, or any other grocery store and buy some bread and meat. And maybe a bag of Wooly's brand soy chips. There's your food for the day. Problem solved.
Having not done this, we passed the Millaa Millaa waterfall circuit and drove ~5km to the town for food. When I say town, I mean a cross road. Milla Milla is a town with a population of 295. Not 295,000. No, two hundred and ninety five people. But it's on the up and up. In 2006, it was only 289. That's a 0.7% annual growth rate (thanks for that math, Deloitte).
Fortunately, we had 2 options for food in this bustling metropolis. Unfortunately, neither were on Urban Spoon.
Option 1: The Pub. Crazy enough, I've actually eaten here before. They have a meat pie and chips plate that's pretty good. The $2 MGD bottles were a big surprise here. I can't (wouldn't) drink Miller in Sydney, but find a city in the middle of nowhere Queensland, and it's their special! Thanks for the bottling plant, Albany.
Option 2: The gas station slash magazine store slash general store slash kitchen.
We chose Option 1, but upon getting to the door, learned it was closed. Embarrassingly, I looked over to Option 2 only to see the owner sitting on its front porch staring at me. Head low, I walked over and ordered food for four.
It was interesting, that little shop. You could get anything from detergent to kids games to canned goods. Then they had magazines. Oh, the magazines. How many people actually pass through this place need a magazine? How many people actually pass through this place? I bet there were 100 for sale. The best part was the fishing and off-roading magazines were sealed in plastic so you couldn't look at them, but the dirty nudie magazines were there to share.
If you are traveling through rural Queensland and need canned broccoli, deep-fried pineapple, oil for your car, and a Playboy, but don't want to make multiple stops, this is your place.
But seriously, get the deep-friend pineapple.
Stop 4: Millaa Millaa Falls (part of Millaa Millaa waterfall circuit)
Millaa Millaa is an Aboriginal word meaning "plenty of water." The Aboriginals nailed this one on the head (literally).
I highly recommend you go to Millaa Millaa Falls. It's a 60 foot drop that must be 15-20 feet wide. You can park just beside it and then walk maybe 50 stairs to it's base. There's a huge swimming hole that protrudes from the base of the waterfall.
The best part about Millaa Millaa is that you can swim up to, around, behind, and if your stupid as me, under the waterfall. The outside temperature is now about 15 C (60 F), nothing too crazy. I can only imagine the water is not that cold. So naturally, when facing a 60 foot fall, I instantly walk then dive in (mind the shallow end where you enter).
Apparently, I need to get a new imagination. Damn, is the water cold. In fact, it's not anything but cold. It's not wet. It's not dark. It's just cold.
I seek shelter on the side opposite the viewing dock, just left of the waterfall's base. And the rocks are slippery as the water is cold. On all fours, I make way behind the waterfall. Then I look up.
Waterfalls look pretty cool from the front, but they're a different animal from behind. It was absolutely amazing. I wish I had some Google Goggles (I'll take that patent) or something (...like a waterproof camera) to take a picture. If you make it to Millaa Millaa in the winter, brave the water and swim behind the waterfall. Per usual, if it's the summer, you have nothing to worry about (except fresh water crocodiles).
Swimming under the waterfall was a pretty fun experience, but on the way back my arms tightened up quite a bit so I went into the breast stroke rather than freestyle. When I got out, Stuart decided he wanted to go, so off we went again, and here's where I learned my lesson about swimming under large drop-offs of water.
Pick your path wisely. If you get behind it and you can see that there's a natural gap where the water splits and it's not that strong, take that. You'll have a great experience. Instead, I chose probably the single strongest spot under the fall to swim under. It pushed me not only well down into the water, but the current caught me and pushed out as well. I'm a pretty good swimmer, so I'm not too worried, but my arms instantly tightened up again being the second time.
Neither Stuart or I had the mental capacity to drive after this. It was actually pretty tough to make sentences for the next half-hour or so. So Dad took the wheel off to Zilla Falls. In hindsight, it's probably a good thing that I was a little out of it as he was driving. Needless to say, Stuart and I manned up and drove the rest of the trip.
Stop 5: Zillie Falls (waterfall circuit)
It was at this point in the trip that I learned there is no such thing as just 1 singular waterfall. Zillie Fall(s) was pretty big, but nothing too crazy. It was only a 5 minute drive, so we didn't lose too much of anything, but the lookout is far to the left of the waterfall, making it a bit difficult to too in full.
Stop 6: Ellinjaa Falls (waterfall circuit)
Ellingaa Falls completed our tour of the Millaa Millaa township and it's visitor attractions. The one thing we missed was the Millaa Millaa lookout (also called Gentle Annie lookout). If it's a nice clear drive, go and see this. I did a few months back; at the time of this writing, it's the panorama picture of me sitting on a wooden fence on the main page of this website. An incredible view of the rolling Atherton grasslands and farms.
Stop 7: Mount Hypipamee Crater + Dinner Falls (25km)
Tired and towards dusk, we made one last 15 minute drive to "The Crater." It's massive and definitely worth the drive. This crater is a volcanic pipe, formed by a gaseous explosion back in the day. It's 61m wide by 82m deep. For you fellow math nerds, that's nearly 1,000,000 square meters in volume, excluding the water, however deep it goes. I've been told that the water depth is currently unknown, that the last expedition to map it out was unsuccessful. It was, however, discovered literally by accident. The explorers almost fell into it. Talk about a bitch of a day.
We parked the car and while the others used the onsite composite toilets, I walked around a found a nice, heavy rock. We then walked down the trail to see this bad boy. It really does just come out of nowhere. After a couple of "oohs" and "ahhs," Stuart got out the camera and after a short crow-hop, I launched the rock down into the gorge. After a few seconds, we heard a massive "boom" reverberating off the canyon walls up into the rain forest air. It was pretty awesome.
I ran off to Dinner Falls via connecting trails in search for another rock, but couldn't find one that was transportable. It was getting pretty dark by this point, so we met at the car and shot back off to Cairns.
End: Cairns (100km)
We drove back in the dark via Gillies Hwy/State Route 52. This took quite a bit longer than expected due to some road closures and mostly having to slowly wind through Barron Gorge National Park between Lake Barrine and Little Mulgrave. If a repeat were to happen, I'll take the extra 20km and drive via Kennedy Hwy/National Route 1 and drive through Mareebra to avoid the sharp turns.
If you do this tour, I'd suggest avoiding the twists and turns of Barron Gorge National Park at all costs.
Day 5: Snorkeling and Hospitals
Monday saw the Darsey's split into 2 groups. Mom, dad, and Stuart went to the snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and I went to Fraser Island. It's not that I didn't want to snorkel the GBR, it's just that I didn't want to do it again, and would rather have appropriated the A$200 elsewhere for another adventure.
Snorkeling the Reef
I can't speak too much on their snorkeling adventure, but they did go on the same boat I did a few months back, the Silver Swift. As with many things in Cairns, there's one big company that owns a lot of smaller companies that each offer a slightly different version of the same thing. I liken it to the business who varies its landing pages in search results: the first result you can buy the shoe for $100+shipping; the second, you can buy it for $110+free shipping; the third, it's normally $150 but there is a 33%-off deal going on "right now" if you buy online; but each shoe is the same shoe from the same warehouse from the same parent company, and the buyer thinks he's getting a "good deal" by shopping around. It's the same thing in Cairns, but with travel expeditions.
Thus, the Quicksilver Group owns Silver Swift and they offer a couple of other boats in their fleet that go to different places and are priced slightly different.
Bottom line, if you want to snorkel in Cairns and have A$200 to spend on your trip, do it with Silver Swift --- you will not be disappointed. We paid $588 including GST (tax) for 3 people and that included the ~$10pp reef tax.
You'll board the ship from the Reef Fleet Terminal at the marina (there's only 1 in Cairns CBD) around 8am and return around 5pm. You will visit 3 dive sites, 2 of which are on the outer reef (better for snorkeling than the inner), and be fed morning/afternoon tea/biscuits along with a buffet all-you-can-eat lunch. All snorkeling equipment is provided, even stinger suits; you do not want to rub against the coral or get stung by a jelly, or get sun burnt for that matter. They even had Vaseline for my mustache. They give an informative briefing before every dive sight going over the fish and coral that you'll see, so you'll know what to expect. All around, a class-A staff and day-trip.
If you do snorkel, be sure to either have an underwater camera or hire one for the day. We hired ours from Calypso Reef Imagery Centre. There's 2-3 retail outlets in Cairns where you can hire your camera, but we grabbed ours right after checking in around 7:40am. Luckily, they had 1 last camera in stock. It came with a high quality camera, a 4gb memory card + backup card, 100 professional photos, a backup battery, and a laminated fish card (tough to swim with but nice to look at before/after the dive). We paid $59 for the day, but had we booked it the day before, we would have received a $10 discount --- sometimes it pays to be prepared.
Hiking on Fitzroy
As the went off to snorkel, I departed from the same marina a bit later and took a boat to Fitzroy Island for the day. If you choose to do this, mind that there are only 3 departure times to/from Reef Fleet Terminal. If you miss the last boat, you are stuck on the island for the night. It's 30km southeast of the mainland, a reportedly a 45 minute trip over, though according to my watch, it took somewhere between 60 and 70 minutes, not that I was in a huge rush or anything.
Fitzroy Island is quite small, weighing in at 4 square kilometers. Only 3% of the island is not part of the National Park, but all of it is accessible through walking trails.
Per usual (and I recommend this upon arrival to a new city), I found where the summit was and headed straight there. When you get off the boat, take an immediate left and you'll come across the campground. To the far right of the tents, there is a small trail that will take you there. The summit itself is only about 882 feet above sea level, so the trek was pretty quick. The crew advised ~45 minutes to summit, but it took me about 20-25 minutes to reach the top and snag some pictures along the way. When you're up there, there are some massive, massive rocks right past the "Summit" and "Danger: Do Not Pass" signs, you know the ones that have the crazy pictures of stick men falling off and getting bashed in the head. Naturally, I looked around and having not seen or heard anyone for the past half hour, hopped over the fence to "get a better picture." (Side note, I've added it to my bucket list to draw one a stick man that get made into a sign.) When you get to the "real summit" on top of the rocks, you're opened up to the entire other side of the island and the sea and islands beyond it. And it is windy. Honestly, I was a little shaky up there. So I snapped a few pictures on my handy phone (still surprised it has a camera function) and jumped over a few branches to a larger and higher but much flatter and safer looking rock. This is one of those spots that you could sit and read all day long, until the ranger comes along and arrests you or something. The view was truly incredible; not for the height, obviously, but for the crystal blue waters that stretched as far as you could see, scattered with islands as if thrown at random and left where they hit for millions of years.
After a few moments, I hopped off the rock, back over the orange fence, to where the stick men and I could make eye contact again. It's at this point I noticed the trail wasn't a trail at all, but a circuit, and that the trail continued on the other side of said boulders to where one would safely view the entire other half of the island (you win this one, Fitzroy). So I literally hopped down this side of the island's summit circuit, as most of it was a rocky staircase. This side of the island held the coveted lighthouse, a must-see attraction, which turned out hasn't been occupied or used since roughly before the Internet existed. And when probably only ~150m above sea level, you're forced to either retrace your steps 650m back up to the top and descend via jungle, or take a jeep track back to the start. Preferring the unknown, I took the jeep track; it's basically one massive downhill, one that's actually difficult to just walk, so I ended up sprinting the entire thing. In hindsight, I would have lugged myself back up and over the summit.
But alas, there's more to do on Fitzroy Island. After a quick bite from my backpack, I took the trail to the Secret Garden and Nudey Beach. I guess I went to the Secret Garden first to make me not feel so weird about going to Nudey Beach solo. "Oh, I'm just hitting on the major walking tracks here, you know. Wait, what? It's a nude beach? Oh, wow, weird. I didn't know that." Yeah right. Anyway, Nudey Beach was pretty spectacular, but not for the reason you're thinking. It's actually not a nude beach (Fitzroy 2, Darsey nil), but the water was the clearest I'd ever seen. So I hopped down the rocks and the path leads you to the middle-right of the beach. We're talking somewhere between BJ Upton and Jason Heyward.
I look to the left and there's a group of people, probably between 18 and 20 years old, playing around. I'm inclined to shoot over that way, but should a 26 year old, single, straight male be hanging out with an 18 year old girls on Nudey Beach? I'll let you, the reader, decide what happened.
Regardless, at some point in the afternoon, I went to the right-hand side of the beach where I see some big rocks and some more of those "Danger: Do Not Pass" signs. Whoever started the business of selling those signs is doing quite well, I tell ya. So I take off my shoes and hop over a couple of rocks. I have a beer in my bag and I think that this will be a good spot to crack it open and read my book. So I hop around, hop around, then crash! I slip and fall between 2 large rocks, lodging myself between the two, by use of my backpack on the rock behind and my hands/feet on that in front.
You remember that time when you were a kid and as soon as you touched the hot stove, you knew it was really hot? This now happened 22 years later. I instantly learn the rock in front of me, which I so cleverly used my hands and feet to lodge myself against, is completely covered with some type of coral. Imagine those spiked dog collars; now imagine the spikes attached to a rock that's bigger than you, but instead of being pointy at one spot, evolution has created a natural defense mechanism entitled "sharp as hell everywhere." It felt as if I was impaling myself. Blood everywhere, I pull myself to the top of the rock. I now learn that I'm a bleeder. Thin blood, I guess; damn you, alcohol. So now I'm sitting on top of a rock, blood in the water, and me thinking that surely the sharks are on their way. So I quickly jump very far from the rocks into the water and swim back to shore.
All I can think is "thank goodness this did not happen in front of my new friends on the other side of the island...... Chicks dig scars, chicks dig scars..."
It's wasn't but 15 minutes back to the first aid station at the dock. Fitzroy Island is now shutting me out, 3 to 0.
I was planning on using some of the island's equipment to go kayaking, but decided a beer and a sleep were smarter. So I grabbed a cold and non-shaken up beer from the island bar, then went to the beach, made a sandwich (like I said earlier, always go to Coles to buy bread and meat), opened my book, and fell asleep.
About 2 hours later, I awoke to a ship's horn going crazy. I look over, groggy, only to see the 5pm ferry departing the island. I don't know much, but I do know that the 5pm is the last ferry to Cairns for the evening and that I cannot afford accommodation on the island. Fitzroy is now pitching a no hitter, and the score reaches 4-nil.
I quickly shove all of my things into my pack and sprint towards the dock, wailing my hands and yelling at the inanimate boat. The main beach, mind you, is covered in white, broken coral. So I'm sprinting, half asleep, with feet cut to shreds, on top of dead coral, for about 400 meters. I manage to get the deckhand's attention and he yells "Are you trying to get on the ship?" pointing towards the outgoing ship, now completely untied and on its way to Cairns. "No, mate, just getting some evening exercise." Here's your sign. Bless the captain of the Fast Cat vessel, because he turned the ship around to get me. I now get one of those slow claps from everyone as I board through the "crew only" entry on the ship's bow. Which suddenly stops as they see me tracking in red footprints. Needless to say, I went straight to the bar, ordered a Pure Blonde, and found a dark corner to sit in for the "45 minutes" back to Cairns.
Good game, Fitzroy. I will not be back for more. Next time, I'll just go snorkeling. The boxed jellyfish and sharks don't seem too bad anymore.
After it's said and done, it's really not that bad. Those stick men can kiss my bruised ass. When we arrived at the marina, I shot Stuart a quick text that read "I need you to meet me at the medical center. Pretty bloody. Probably need stitches. 7:30pm. PS Don't tell Mom." The 24 Hour Medical Centre in Cairns got me fixed up, but as I publish this nearly 10 days later, the bottom of my feet are still completely cut up.
New Orleans Dinner
Dinner was much more fun than my day out. After convincing a worried mother that the gauze was no big deal, the 4 of us, grabbed dinner at a joint down the street we saw a few nights prior.
If you're in Cairns, go to the Voodooz Cajun Kitchen! Damn, this place is great, and I didn't even order an entree. The restaurant had a fun vibe to it, and on Saturday nights, they have live music compliments of the Swingin Alley Catz band. It's run by a local Australian who loved his time in the Big Easy so much that he brought it back with him. From the voodoo skull salt and pepper shakers to homemade cajun spice mixes, it's all around an incredible restaurant.
Dad and Stuart ordered the jambalaya sub, Stuart prawn and dad chicken ($16 each). I'm not a big guy, but each sub was roughly the size of my forearm doubled over, covered in prawn and chicken jambalaya. Our new friend, the owner, said he puts some 15 or 20 spices into each one and lets it sit all day. Mom ordered cornbread ($9) and roasted seasonal veggies ($6). The cornbread wasn't a rising cornbread, but a flat one, and second to my grandmother's, the best I have ever had in my entire life, a feat being raised in the South. He cooked it in a cast iron skillet and it had this effect of basically melting inside your mouth. Typing this out, I wish I had some now. Even the veggies seemed out of this world. And the owner was the nicest person we met in Cairns, which in itself was a feat --- everyone up there is so friendly. He was just bubbly and full of life; a man who does what he loves and exudes it to his customers. I think he made the food taste even better that it was, if possible.
Needless to say, there was no food left at the table.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, is going to be one big adrenaline rush.
Day 6: Adrenaline Central
I don't know how, but we talked the old man into jumping out of a perfectly good plane at 4,300 meters (about 14,000 feet). Just like the snorkeling, skydiving and bungy jumping are done by 1 company each in Cairns and there are about 1 billion packages to choose from. We chose the 14,000 feet skydive + 50m bungy combo pack, which ran A$460pp. It was $350 to only skydive and $180 to only bungy jump, so we "saved" about $70pp. Knowing we wanted to do both, we counted this as a win.
Skydive Australia picked us up at our hotel (cheers) at 7:20am in regards to a 7am scheduled pick-up time. This was expected --- they tell everyone 7am and then go about their route and finish around 7:30am. I've done a good number of these types of excursions all around the world, and they all have two things in common --- 1) they are expensive, and 2) they guides and awesome. Our driver, albeit only a 20 minute drive, was from Manchester, and was indeed awesome. He greeted us with a big smile, a weather report, and some positive affirmation that the day was going to be "wicked good." The radio wasn't on, and the people in the 12-passenger van were chatting to one another. I think a good start is essential to a good excursion...
We arrived at their terminal right as scheduled, about 7:50 or 8am. To skydive in Australia, you have to be a member of the Australian Parachute Federation. It's a free signup, and you'll save yourself some paperwork when you get off the van. (Skydive Australia sent me a confirmation email after I purchased the trip that had a link with all of this information in it.) They sent us up in 2 groups, based on weight and groups like dad, Stu, and me.
We were in the second group, which meant we had to wait an hour before we got to go up. So they put on Jackass 3 for us to watch, which had us all in stitches (no pun intended on my part). It also meant that when we got back, we got to leave immediately, whereas the first group had to wait for us to return.
My tandem master had done a cheeky 10,000 jumps prior to me, so either he's really, really good or he's due a death soon. I think I'd be happier with more like 3,500 jumps or something. The law of averages only goes so far... He actually was selected to skydive into the Cairns Lagoon, which has to be crazy hard given how small it would be as a target. I guess I felt pretty safe. He also holds his pilot's license. Quoting him: "I live a very fun but very humble life. I don't have much, but I have all I need." I forgot his name, so we'll call him Eric. He was great. It's people like him and the guy and the Voodooz Kitchen that remind me why I left Deloitte.
So we suit up, putting on some over-sized jump pants, and jump into the plane. The plane is a hollow shell with one and a half foam benches that we sit on, each straddling the one in front. It's like we had a massage or backscratching line going on. We are facing the back of the plane (this took me a solid 5 minutes to discover), and to our right is a rolling door, like that you'd find on a car garage at your house, except it was see-through, rather than the same material as the rest of the plane.
It was about a 20 minute flight out to the drop zone, and man, was it beautiful. I had no idea that rivers snaked through Cairns like they do. You could see our hotel, the lagoon, and heaps upon heaps of sugar cane fields. Driving the past few days, the sugar cane rose well above our car, but from a few thousand feet up, it look so small, so miniature. Almost as if it were tea trees. At one point I even asked Eric what it was, not believing it was actually the tall sugar cane I'd become so accustomed to. Eric was well versed in the geography of the area; he pointed out crocodile farms, islands, and showed us where different cities were in comparison to our location. He even described to me all his fancy flight gear when I asked him about it (I'm a nerd at heart after all).
I had 2 requests in regards to the jump. The first was not to be the first out. When we jumped in Interlaken, Switzerland at 14,000 feet, I was the first out, and everyone described to me what it was like to watch someone leave the plane. I wanted, needed almost, to see it. Luckily, another passenger was last to board, first to leave. It was pretty awesome this time around watching someone jump out of the plane. They just...disappeared. Just like that. Know you see me, now you don't.
Stuart went next, then Dad, then me. And that's when my second request was fulfilled: I want to do a couple of back flips out of the plane.
Eric did not disappoint. I can distinctly remember the image of the plane above me while I was probably somewhere around 13,500 feet. You actually free fall at 120mph for 60 seconds until you pull your chute and soar for 4 minutes while you descend the last 5,000 feet. Eric let me take hold of the controls and we swerved left and right to my liking, and then he said watch this, and I can't be sure, but I'm pretty sure we went parallel to the ground for about 10 rotations, then within a second rotating the opposite way. The blood was in my head for the next few hours, eyes completely bloodshot.
We landed safely in a cleared sugar cane field, Stuart and Dad already with feet on the ground. It was an awesome experience, something I'd trade for nothing, and something I hope I can do when I'm nearing 60 with my sons, I suppose, even on my tab. Cheers, Dad, for the experience (and your wallet, because I sure as hell couldn't have afforded that on my own).
We loaded back into the van and drove back to the airport hangar to get our belongings. It was about a 20 minute drive. We chatted with the other tandem masters, all of them so simple, yet so happy. They just love life. Skydiving again reminded me to do something everyday that reminds me that I'm lucky to be alive. For me right now in my life, maybe it's an adrenaline rush; for you, maybe it's taking your girlfriend on a date and telling her you love her. But don't just go to work and waste the day. Life's too short.
When we got back to the hangar, we grabbed our things, but the van didn't leave for another, let's call it 30-45 minutes. The only thing we would have done differently for the morning (and it turned out to be entire day) is to drive ourselves to the skydiving (and bungy) offices. We had the rental, we should have used it.
As with skydiving, I expected the bungy expedition to start with the biggest hype ever. It was a combo package, and I can only assume AJ Hackett Bungyand Skydive Australia have each other’s interest in mind, or something close to it.
My hope couldn't have been further from reality. The driver was pathetic. He was unenthusiastic, didn't talk to anyone, and blasted the radio to the point that we couldn't even attempt to talk to one another. They only scheduled to pick up 2 of us, even though I had a receipt for 3, and when I showed him, he studied his manifest as if for a test, and finally, after much of what looked to be a lot of work, said, “Well, we normally wouldn't take you, but I think I can squeeze you in today.” We get inside. There are 2 people in a 12 passenger van. No one else enters the entire trip. Are you kidding me? Squeeze me in? Get over yourself. It really put a damper on the start to the afternoon.
Regardless, having already paid for this, we continue to keep positive and shrug it off. Upon arrival to the bungy site, with my ears ringing, I ask the driver “what exactly are we jumping over?” and he responds, flatly, “water.” What the hell? “Oh, ok, thank you, I did not know how bungy jumping generally works; thank you for clearing that up.” This guy must be having a bad day.
We walk the quarter mile (uphill) the check-in and Bad Attitude Magee disappears. The people at the desk are pretty nice. The entire “office” is open air. You walk up a pathway and enter the reception area; to your left is a wall of merchandise; straight ahead is a bar separated from you by a pool table; and to your right is the cashier and check-in table. Out in the distance, between the bar and check-in table, you can see the pool of “water” that we’ll be jumping over. The correct answer was “a man-made pond in the middle of the rain forest” by the way, rather than X lake or Y river. Across and above this body of water you can see the 221 stairs that we will soon be climbing to jump off of, reaching 50m (164 feet) in the air.
Having skydived earlier in the day, I wasn't too worried about bungy jumping. But the thought of having to throw yourself off is a little more intimidating than just being strapped to someone. But they had bubbles coming up breaking the surface tension of the water; bullet proof, I told myself --- they had engineered this thing so even if the strap snapped you’d survive…ish.
We waited for our names to be called, and I was called to be first. I asked the worker (who turned out to be AJ Hackett himself) what the best one was for a first-time bungy jumper, and he told me to turn around, back facing the ledge. I took a few steps out to where only my toes where on the ledge. He grabbed hold of my harness and told me to lean out. He then begins a conversation with me which I thought was pretty odd. “So this is your first time?” “Yep.” “You scared?” “I’m…curious?” “You sure you really want to do this?” “Yeah, I mean it’s something……….aaaaah!” The bastard let go of me mid-sentence. I found out later that he thinks the element of surprise is the best way to go. I had previously asked him to dunk me, and I went about mid-torso underwater; by the time you realize your underwater and need to hold your breath, you’re already out. The entire experience lasted no more than 60 seconds but was a ton of fun.
Stuart went next, followed by Dad. Both did forward facing swan dives. Unlike skydiving, they unhook you at the bottom and you can watch everyone jump down, so it was entertaining to watch them jump. Stuart yelled incoherently like I did, and Dad yelled “I’m debt free.” Go figure.
We had 4X Lagers to celebrate, mainly because they were the beer on special, and certainly not for the taste. One of the employees called us over to look at pictures and videos; I found this interested because before the jump we told them we were not interested in either. They managed to get 4 pictures of each of us, which they were willing to "give away" at $49 per person. The videos were 90 seconds each and were pretty funny, and just "an absolute steal" at another $49 per video. Dad was insistent on getting the videos, so we talked her into the 3 videos + 2 pictures of each of us for $40 per person total. I guess the starting prices are just bogus. Moral is, if you want to get some memorabilia from AJ Hackett, always ask for a discount before you even seem interested. (They did, however, give us a 20% coupon for any AJ Hackett site in the world, and seeing how I may be in Russia next year, I may take them up on their new 200m jump --- 656 ft!)
After we bought our pictures and videos, we went to wait for the bus back. An hour later, we were still waiting. I lost track after that, but it took forever. We would have just grabbed the car between skydiving and bungy jumping, but Mom had the keys and we had no way to contact her. Again, lesson learned, always drive yourself to these things if you have the means.
An Evening at Jackaroo
We eventually made it back to the hotel; we had checked out in the morning, so it was only a matter of meeting Mom and driving south. We drove 2 hours in the dark to Mission Beach, an isolated beach between Cairns and our next stop, Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.
When I checked Hostel World after bungy jumping, there was only 1 place that could accommodate 4 people for the night: theJackaroo Hostel Mission Beach. I don’t think the parents were too interested in a hostel, but having been homeless and slept on the streets in 2 countries now, I’ll take what I can get. There’s a Jackaroo, in Kings Cross; I’ve never been, but I used to live in Kings Cross, so I could only imagine… But what the hell, we went for it.
It was pretty tough to find. So secluded we almost missed it. Driving in the blackness of night (there are no lights on the road in rural northern Queensland), we barely saw the tripod sign saying “Jackaroo -->” indicating that we should turn right onto a dirt road. Even upon reaching the gravel car park, we could barely even see the entrance. This place would put Vietnam covert camps to the test in terms of off the beaten path secrecy.
We end up checking in, and after you get through the main entrance way, the place open up. It was awesome. There are 2 stories, both completely open-air, no walls. The first has reception, a ping pong table, an outdoor pool, and some rooms. The second has a kitchen, common room, couches, chairs, patio, balcony, and some more rooms. The rooms were fairly minimalist, a small bookshelf and a bed, white walls, no artwork, just about all you need for a private room to sleep in. For a cheeky last minute A$26pppn, we couldn't really complain.
There weren't too many people there that night, but I could tell that once the hostel was full (max 50 people), it would be a very family-style hostel. Everyone would know each other. They were situated in a small town with an awesome owner (Stu met and chatted with him for a while), most people working on farms nearby, so staying long-term.
In the morning, they had complimentary tea, coffee, and cereal. If I had to live in rural north Queensland, I’d do so in Mission Beach at the Jackaroo Hostel.
Day 7: Australia doesn't know how to set speed limits
After grabbing a bite to eat, we packed up, checked out, and drove the 10km to the beachfront for a few hours. There’s not too much to do at Mission Beach; there’s skydiving, kayaking, boutique shopping, and, well, that’s about all. I ended up reading and subsequently napping on the beach in the shade. Stu relaxed in a small garden between the shops and the beachfront. Mom and Dad sat on the beach in the sun.
After a few hours, in an attempt to not repeat another night drive, we threw our towels into the trusty Kia and shot the remaining 5 hours to Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.
Up until this point, Stuart had been our chauffeur (cheers). He had become a little angry earlier in the trip at some of the road construction and speed limit signs, but none of us really understood what he was talking about, and thought he was overreacting. On this 5 hour hike, I took the wheel, and found first hand that Australia does not know how to set speed limits.
Roadwork, I'm OK with. If it needs to be done, it needs to be done. But the speed limit the entire trip was constantly changing. On one strip of road between 2 construction sites, a strip that had no intersecting streets, the speed limit when from roadwork (40kmph) to 100 to 60 to 80 to 40 to 100 to 60 to 40 to roadwork (60kmph). Makes no sense.
After sitting in road construction for ages, the sun dropped and the moon shone its full sphere, and we were night driving once again.
We arrived to Water’s Edge around 9pm. Around 6 or 7pm, as they were shutting up reception, they texted me twice letting me know they had prepped the room for our arrival and that the keys were inside of the unlocked room. I thought that was a nice touch.
When we finally made it to the resort, Stuart took the first load of luggage up, and when I entered the room, he was standing there, pivoted towards me, and said "Do Mom and Dad know you book this?" It was a little "non-Darsey-esque" but after spending a night in a hostel, I thought we couldn't go wrong with separate rooms and in-room showers. It turned out to be a pretty good spot, and for 4 people, not outrageously priced. We paid A$850 for 4 nights for 4 people, about $50pppn. For a full-fledged hotel resort in a tourist town, that’s pretty good. Unless you’re looking to stay in a hostel, prepare to spend what we did. Publishing this a few days after the fact, I can say that it was worth the money and that we had zero issues with the hotel or its staff. Only positive reviews here (except the jacuzzi could have been a bit warmer).
Day 8: Rock fish have never tasted so good
Our Fishing Fail
On the way down to Airlie Beach, I booked a half-day fishing excursion for mom, dad, and myself; Stuart had some friends in Mackay from his days on the farm that he wanted to visit. We booked with Whitsunday Fishing Tours, despite their super high tech website... We arrived at Abel Point Marina for a 7:30am departure and returned right at 12pm. The normal fishing tour is $99 but we opted for a boat of 8 people on the outer islands, which are apparently a bit better for fishing, and spent $129pp.
The weather was turning poor, but it held out the majority of the day for us. Mom caught 2 fish, me a whopping 1, the types of all 3 evading my memory, and Dad caught heaps of rocks. Overall the boat had pretty poor results, but Nick and Mick (the skipper and deckhand) kept the atmosphere positive. We caught a king mackerel on the trolling line, and split it after we docked for a bit of sashimi and dinner fillets, with the cleaning and filleting compliments of Nick.
If we were to go out again, I’d probably ask that we do a bit more trolling rather than drop fishing, but on a boat of that size, it would have been a bit difficult with 8 people aboard. Overall, despite the lack of fish, we had a really good time. I'd recommend fishing with Nick and Mick if you're in the area!
Fresh fish dinner
The 3 fishermen grabbed a $13 pub lunch --- rump steak, turkey burger, yellow curry --- on Shute Harbor Road in Airlie Beach after we got done fishing. I don't remember what the place was called, but it had a massive outside patio with both snooker and basic patio tables.
After lunch, fairly exhausted from waking up and being in the sun for a few hours, we retired until Stuart came home in the mid-afternoon. We had already decided 2 things:
1) Stuart was going to do the majority of the cooking as he’s pretty good at it, and
2) The person who catches the biggest fish does nothing in regards to dinner; the middle helps cook; the smallest does the dishes.
That left me to rest, Mom to help cook, and Dad to do dishes. Score. Stuart cooked the king mackerel + some chicken he bought at the store, and roasted potatoes, carrots, capsicum (bell peppers), and zucchini in a big dish for our side.
The meal was pretty kick-ass.
Day 9: Fail Friday: trading Eungella for the Airlie Beach Track
For those of you keeping up with this, mind you we've hit the 9 day mark of traveling with a family and haven't killed each other yet. I'm pretty sure that's a record.
Thursday afternoon after catching some rocks, while we were retired at the hotel, we booked an excursion to Whitehaven Beach + Hamilton Island from Airlie Beach. When we woke up, the weather for Friday looked to be pathetic --- some 70% chance of rain and cold, cold, cold. Rather than staying in Airlie Beach, we decided to day-trip out to Eungella National Park, about 80km southwest of the beach on the A1/Bruce Highway.
The first time we passed the park was an accident; we must have missed the turn right turn off the A1. Stuart had driven this was the day before to see his friends in Mackay and swore that he saw a sign for a turn-off. We tried multiple times to map it, but we were in the middle of nowhere, not an ideal spot for cell reception. Finally, after much stress and an OK signal, we got directions that said to go back exactly where we came from. Well, we decided to give it a go until we passed through a township that we knew was north of where we wanted to go. Each of these mistakes were about 20-30 minutes of driving, mind you.
We had now passed by Eungella once again, this time to our left. We could see exactly where we wanted to go, but there was no road off the main highway to take us there. You can probably imagine my frustration boiling over at the point. I looked up the directions, and after I saw what laid ahead of us, we decided to call it quits, and take the fact that Mom had seen a live wallaby hopping through the fields as a victory, and head back to Airlie Beach.
If you look at a map, you’ll see my geography is spot on. Unfortunately, my cartography is not. It turns out that you cannot get to Eungella from the A1/Bruce Highway. You actually have to turn off the Bruce Highway 91km south of Proserpine (which is about 25km south of Airlie Beach) and drive 9km to Marian, then continue another cheeky 62km to the park entrance.
If you do make it to Eungella, it'll be worth your while. But it's a hike from Airlie Beach. The first time I went, I was already in Mackay, and it took me about 90 minutes to get there. Make your way to the Finch Hatton Gorge. You can see some platypus swimming around, get in a few good but not too strenuous hikes, and go swimming and cliff jumping in the fresh water streams. Here are some pictures from Eungella from a previous trip:
Airlie Creek Track
Just down the street from our hotel, nestled away in the back of the town, is a short 850m track that runs along a creek. It's pretty straight forward, uphill out, downhill in. They council has done a good job putting up some small signs indicating the plant or tree that you're looking at along the entire walk. It took us about 30-45 minutes to casually walk this and snap some pictures along the way. At the end, you can hop up on the big rock and continue the walk by yourself, but mind the slippery rocks.
NBA in Australia
Back in Airlie Beach, we tried going to the lagoon, but the rain was just too much. I camped out in the room while the others went to the library to get some free WiFi. On the way home, they stopped and grabbed some ‘roo steak and potatoes, and Stuart cooked kangaroo and potatoes for dinner. Stu and I tried to cook kangaroo a few months back, but overcooked the hell out of it, and it tasted like a bouncy ball as we ate it. ...Because I'm pretty sure I know what a bouncy ball would taste like. This time, he seared each side, then lowered the heat and cooked each side for another 3-4 minutes. Then he threw it into a glass dish and covered it, letting the trapped heat slowly cook the interior of the steak.
It was much, much better this time than the last.
After dinner, Stuart and I went to Magnum’s to catch the Heat vs. Spurs game. Don't worry, you need not be big to enter... I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure Magnum's is the only bar in Airlie Beach. Oh, and if you're traveling, it has FREE WiFi. The day we left, they were having a onesie party, so it's obviously somewhere that you want to visit. Not to mention no cover and $10 jugs of Dry Dock beer. $10 jugs. $10 jugs. $10 jugs. That's unheard of in Australia.
We got there around 7:15pm, and upon arrival we learned that not only does no one in Australia watch the NBA, but the game wasn't scheduled to be replayed until 8:30pm. (We also learned what NBA stands for in Australia.) We were able to talk the bartender into giving us the TV that had permanent snow over every channel in the back corner of the bar, and then set out to kill then next 75 minutes until tip off. This wasn't my first rodeo, so Stu and I sat down for 75 minutes of good ole fashioned pre-gaming.
A long and radically publicly inappropriate story later, we make it home. You fill in the blanks.
Day 10: Enter: The most beautiful beach I've ever been to
Hung over and heart broke, Saturday morning came way too fast.
We booked our cruise to Whitehaven Beach and Hamilton Island throughCruise Whitsundays. Here is a link to the exact cruise. I priced out a couple of options before we bought this, but it looks like you can't just get to Whitehaven by yourself, and a one-way to Hamilton was A$55. So if we were to visit Hamilton for the entire day (not recommended), it would be A$110pp, and this cruise was A$155pp and came with a lunch (mine was A$30 alone, so all in all, a good deal).
The cruise shuttle is scheduled to pick us up from the resort at 6:15am, as if the island we’re going to visit is going somewhere or something. Come on. Energy drink in hand, we hop on the shuttle.
When we booked this, we had the choice of visiting Hamilton Island then Whitehaven Beach, or vice versa. We called the cruise agency and had the resort receptionist research for us, and based on wind, tide, and other weather conditions, we opted for Whitehaven Beach in the morning followed by Hamilton Island in the afternoon.
The shuttle dropped us off at Abel Point Marina, where we checked in and promptly boarded the vessel around 7am. We stop by both Daydream Island and Hamilton Island on the way to Whitehaven Beach, arriving around 9:05am to my memory. Whitehaven Beach is arguably the most photographed natural site in all of Australia. The water is crystal clear for ages, and the beach a soft and silky white, the sand a silicon base from the surrounding ancient volcanoes, keeping its temperature a nice and steady regardless of the season (seriously, it does not absorb heat or cold). It’s one of the only of its kind in the world. You can actually take dingy jewelry and rub it between your hands with a scoop of sand, and the sand will clean it for you.
The entire island is a National Park, so there’s no major man made establishments on land --- no shops, no resorts, just nature. We had from 9-11am to explore the island at own leisure. You could use the complimentary cricket set or snorkeling gear on the beach, but being Americans who had already snorkeled, we opted for the free walking trails. There is an 800m walking trail that starts near where you depart the ship that’s definitely worth your while. It leads you a collection of large, flat rocks that you can walk out across, looking out across nothing but water and mountains. If you follow the trail to the other side, it loops around for another 600m, exiting through the woods down beach from where you started. Take 30 minutes to 1 hour out of the 2 hours you get on the island and treat yourself to a short hike in the woods.
The second half of the cruise was from Whitehaven Beach to Hamilton Island. We left Whitehaven Beach around 11-11:15 and arrive to Hammo around 1pm, making a stop at Daydream along the way. The captain did a great job of point out the islands along the way, giving a bit of history for each.
Turns out there's a miniature town spread across this 5 square kilometer island, which appears to have been tossed out in the middle of nothing but crystal blue waters, complete with restaurants, general stores, a gym, hotels, nature walks, a driving range, a go-kart track, an airport, and the title of the filming location of Fool's Gold, a .Matthew McConaughey classic. "Uh, mister director, I think this would be a good time for me to take my shirt off."
Getting of the boat a little past 1pm, we were starving. Unfortunately, as mom was walking up the stairs to get to the top deck of the cruise boat on the there, she twisted her foot and could barely walk, so we had to improvise on the island. Hammo actually boasts some 1,300 golf carts rather than your ordinary vehicle. It's like one big country club. Mom, dad, and Stu went to the Marina Tavern for lunch while I shot off to hire a buggy for the afternoon.
You can use the island's free shuttle, but I enjoyed the freedom a golf cart gave us. You can hire one through Golf Buggy Adventures for $45/hour, or spend another $15 and get it for 3. I added the additional $5 insurance which basically gave me freedom to off road with the damn thing.
Back at the Marina Tavern, we ordered lunch. I highly recommend the lamb cutlets with Greek salad. The lamb literally melted in my mouth. If you like cheese, get the chicken penne with bacon and mushroom carbonara. That stuff was awesome.
After lunch, we toured the island, took some pictures, then went down to the marina and to read. If you remember, directly across from where the boat docks is a steep hill that turns to right as is ascends. Take that, and when you get to the crest, take a right (follow the signs for the airport). You'll come across a ledge blocked off my horizontal wooden tree trunks that overlooks the marina. Towards the evening, make it over that way and watch the sunset over the marina. And if that doesn't tickle your fancy, there is a gazebo towards the island summit that has sunset viewings daily!
I can't recommend too many hours on Hamilton Island. We chose Hammo over Daydream because it looked a little more "grown up" whereas Daydream seemed like it would be swarming with strollers; when the average age excluding parents is only 1 digit, I try to stay away.
At 5:10pm, we boarded the ship and headed back to Abel Point Marina. The trip back took about 50 minutes. Cruise Whitsundays had a shuttle bus waiting for us, and within 15 minutes, we were back in the hotel for the evening. With a 2 hour drive in front of us early the next morning, it was books, beer, and bed.
Day 11: Flying from paradise to a wet and cold Sydney
Sydney in summer: a gorgeous, sunny, warm, bustling town nestled alongside the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean.
Sydney in winter: run fast and don't look back. Wet, cold, windy, dark. Depressing.
So we wake up Sunday morning, pack the Kia, and drive the 2 hours to Mackay Airport. It's a straight shot along the A1/Bruce Highway, and luckily we were up early enough to avoid 100% of the roadwork. That, and it was Sunday.
If you make this flight, sit on the left hand side of the plane (left when looking at the cockpit). This will put you in best odds for seeing the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and Sydney CBD from the air.
We got a free shower from the clouds upon arrival in Sydney, but nonetheless, weathered through it and checked into the Travelodge on Wentworth Avenue. Seeing that the rain had no intention of letting up, we decided to throw on the parkas and deal with it. Harry's Cafe de Wheels just opened up a location near our hotel, so we walked down through Central Station to grab a bite. This place is incredible: it's been around since 1945 and serves pies and dogs and still has that 1940-1950's feel. You can grab a pie and a drink for under $10. It's a Sydney staple, so be sure to stop by one of their locations while you're in the city!
After a late pie lunch, we shot over to Paddy's Market in Chinatown. Paddy's is kind of like a flea market...it has just about everything you'd need, some of it real, some of it knock offs, probably more of the latter. If you're in need of a cheap souvenir, stop by Paddy's. There's also a meat, seafood, and fruit/vegetable market attached next door. And on Sunday (which it was), it's a circus of a show. They are closed on Monday and Tuesday, so each of the vendors are trying to get rid of all of their stuff, and you can get a great bargain. I don't pay more than a dollar for anything, most of which I get in baskets (basket of bananas, basket of oranges, dozen eggs, etc.). You can get food for the week for under $20 if you play your cards right!
Day 12: Sydney by (broken) foot and Sydney's best restaurant
Sydney Day Tour
On Sunday, with Mom's unknowingly broken foot, and the crap weather, we did a tour of Sydney instead of going to the Blue Mountains to see the Three Sisters as planned.
We started the day by training over to Milson's Point; this will take you just north over the bridge via train. You can walk around Luna Park or along the sidewalks and walking trails that hug the water. From Milson's Point (northside), we walked the 2km to Miller's Point (southside), the majority of which was across the bridge that boasts the world's 6th longest main arch span (503m).
The bridge does offer a Bridge Climb to see a panoramic view of the city, but from $200 to 300pp, and not being able to take as much as a camera, I would suggest against it. You can climb the 200 steps to the top of the pylons for a more affordable $10-15pp if memory serves me right. Speaking of the pylons, an interesting fact: they have no structural integrity. They were actually added after the fact to quell public concern that the bridge hadn't enough support!
At Miller's Point, we toured the Sydney Observatory. They have paid sessions each night, but the free rooms were very interesting and the volunteers who work there were quite informative and knowledgeable.
Chinese Noodle House
After the Observatory, we walked through Darling Harbour, played in its water park (well I did), and grabbed a few souvenirs for the parents.
For our last supper (ironic to have in a country with the religious beliefs that of Australia), we went to the Chinese Noodle House in Chinatown. I love Chinatown, and I love this place. It's first come first serve, community seating, BYOB, cheap, and delicious. It is hands down my favorite restaurant in Sydney. If you go, get the braised eggplant and any dumpling on the menu. I've had them all fixed every way they serve them, and they're all tasty.
After dinner we walked through Chinatown (this time bypassing the creme puff stand) to N2 Extreme Gelato. This is my favorite ice creamery / gelato spot in Sydney. They pre-mix the flavors as liquids and use dry ice to congeal it upon your order. And there are hundreds of flavors, but only 5-6 per day. One scoop is $6 and 2 scoops is priced at "You don't need it." And you don't. You get your money's worth of richness in 1 scoop/cup.
With choices like Penile Colada, Once You Go Black, Santa's Big Pudding, Salt 'n Pepper + Calamari, 2 Girls 1 Cup, Pop My Cherry, Golden Showers, Unihorn the Horny Unicorn, St. Patrick's Cream, Salty Jesus Juice, and Y = MX + C, you may not know what the hell you're ordering, but it's guaranteed to be good...
Fun fact: I've always timed my trips, no idea why. But as of now, I left Atlanta 32 hours, 27 minutes, and 53 seconds ago. That's apparently the time it takes to get from ATL to LAX, via 3 completed flights, 7 missed flights, a connection in Vegas (...damn) and 1 lost piece of luggage, which turns out to be not ideal when you only have 1 piece of luggage to your name. But they have 12 1/2 hours to find it before my 13 hour flight to Sydney... I joke, but for the price of this standby ticket, I'd easily do it all over again.
It's been a great few weeks visiting friends and family --- who have mostly become one in the same --- in America, but I'm ready to hit the road again to get back to Australia to see my f&f there. Between the wedding, lunches and dinners, sleepovers, Braves games, and everything else, it was great catching up with the dozens of people I was able to see, whether it be intentionally or by luck.
There were 2 toasts made that I'll warrant as being decent enough to write:
First, I told Wes at his wedding, if you were to look at our past 5 years, we haven't seen each other that much. Sure, we grew up together; but he went to Georgia, and I to Tech; he works 80 hours a week making movies, and I traveled with consulting; he moved to Atlanta, and I to Australia. A couple of trips here and there for football or a general visit, but for the most part, life has changed so much since we saw each other every single day back in high school nearly a decade ago --- after all, the purpose for the entire trip was the wedding. But the beauty in friendship is that it does not matter if you saw each other last week or last year, you pick up like it was yesterday. I love that and consider myself lucky to have such good friends where that happens. It's like we never missed a beat.
The second was said at Plishka's "surprise" birthday party. Here's the gist: I've made some great friends all around the world. Hell, I could circle the globe and not pay for a bed if I needed to. But having lived in 3 continents, I'm still amazed how absolutely incredible my friends in Atlanta are. I fear the day when we're all "too busy" to get together each week to eat, hang out, and generally crack jokes at one another. And to be fair, after learning about what everyone has accomplished in the past year, whether it be a new career, a new partner, or even a new kid, that day could be coming upon us quickly. (Not that I disagree with careers, partners, or kids.) But as we were talking that night, I sure as hell don't want to be 40, sitting at my child's baseball game, look around, and think "how the fuck did I get here?" and "where did the last 15 years just go?" pop into my head.
So, a simple ask. Make the extra effort to get together once every week or two for a dinner. Have a movie night. Go to a Braves game. Travel. We are all living in the prime of our life right now --- let's not let it pass us by.
Probably one of the few places you can go and eat with deer heads, framed hunting pictures, and maps of lakes on the wall; with 2 liter jugs of sweetened sweet tea put on your table alongside the self-service paper towels; where everything comes on plastic plates and in Styrofoam cups; where you sit family-style; where the family across the room walks around and offers the entire restaurant some of their birthday cake; where everything on the menu is battered and deep-fried; where it takes you 10 minutes to get to your seat because you have to say hello to everyone you know; where it would be easier to just yell "hello y'all!" when you walk in because you know everyone there; and where they've had the same paper menus for 15 years.
There's no way I could live there at 26 years of age --- I'd go mental. But having lived there for 18 years, and been away for another 8, I can say that Albany ingrains in her own some of the best etiquette and great friendships. It's a place where "no ma'am, no sir" ends every sentence; a place where family reigns supreme no matter your circumstance; a place where everyone waves and says hello to each other, and they actually mean it when they said "how ya doing?."
I guess what the Lost Trailers said so many years ago is true: "I guess the reasons that I left here are the reasons I come back / Sometimes you've got to leave to find out what you have."
It's fair to assume that Albany is not the only place like this. But it's my place, and I'll be damned if I don't love it deep down. Sometimes we all just need a reminder of where we're from and how we were raised. Or at least I do.
And I'm not saying I'm perfect --- even half-way for that matter --- but visiting is a good reminder of what I should try to do a bit better each day. What we all should try to do. But I guess I'll just start with me.