The scenery on the Great Ocean Road in Australia reminded me of the blown Murano glass scupltures in Venice , Italy. This post was really inspired entirely by the photo below. Like a glass-blower, nature purposefully highlighted the scene with a sizable dose of reddish-orange limestone (two colors opposite on the color-wheel and therefore complimentary :). My tour guide on the Great Ocean Road shared all kinds of facts and stories, with a handful of local lore thrown in for good measure, but it was this drive’s likeness to the another beautiful road that makes me smile inside; the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in California also possesses a constant gag-me-there-is-just-no-end-to-the-pretty-landscape feeling and the Great Ocean Road was actually specifically built to model the PCH.
On a sadder note, this photo of the 12 Apostles is one of those “enjoy now, it won’t be there later” shots. Originally there were nine limestone formations ( nicknamed the 12 Apostles) and in the intervening years they are crumbling into the sea. These austere sentinels stand guard over the southern Australian coastline and when I visted there eight were still standing. Now, two years later, just seven. :(
Quick Travel Tips: Great Ocean Road and the Pacific Coast Highway
Where: Daytrips for the GOR leave at least every other day from Melbourne, . The PCH is best done in a rental car with friends and a picnic basket. How long: All of the highlights can be driven on both of these in about 7-10 hours…but that doesn’t make for a hugely enjoyable day if they’re done in one shot like that! Personal Recommendations: On the PCH drive, stop off at the Winchester Mystery House – it’s a “roadtrip into the paranormal” and a bizarrely intriguing side-trip. On the GOR, sitting inside the Loch Ard Gorge with the swelling sound of the ocean ebbing sticks with me to this day, make sure you make it that far on the road!
Here’s a fun fact you may have never known – when you push a car out of deep sand, you can actually fall on your face once the car starts moving.
I’m all for women power – ra ra, equality, ra ra – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that there are times men come in handy. Instance number one when it’s nice to have a man around?
When you’re on Fraser Island (on Australia’s East Coast) and your huge 4WD vehicle is mired deep into incredibly soft sand. In this particular case, the two men in our group were the only ones who actually knew how to drive the stick shift 4WD really well and that meant we pushed while the men drove.
All a part of the fun camping out on Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. I spent three days and two nights as a part of a backpacker tour of the island. – we cruised down the sandy beach to the various points on the island in our rented 4WD and the tour company provided a cooler with all of the food, tents, and extras that we would need.
Being a sand island though, there’s…umm…sand. The tightly packed beach sand makes driving pretty easy. When we headed inland though, we continually got stuck in the soft sand; if it wasn’t our 4WD wasn’t stuck then someone else’s was and there was only one small road…passing was not an option.
So the nine women (and the men at this point) would jump out and we run ahead, push the other trucks out the sand, and then continue down the road until we got stuck. Then it all happened over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
That about sums up Fraser Island – you drive around the island taking in the handful of superb natural wonders, camp in the sand, relax away from all civilization, and sleep to the roaring sound of the ocean and those snorers in the group.
As for sites, Lake McKenzie is the top reason to visit in my opinion – the other lakes are ok, the hikes can be unbearably hot and un-shaded, but Lake McKenzie is a fantastically beautiful perched lake with nearly 100 percent pure silica sand. It’s so pure that you can (and we did) massage the sand into oyur skin as an exfoliant.
Do I look younger…or just ridiculous?
Also interesting- the shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno –during low tide the rusty hull perches on the beach forlornly; once the tide comes in though the shipwreck just sits eerily vacant on the beach.
Oh, and two words of warning:
The dingoes are visible all over the island; we were specifically told that women should not “pop a squat” in the bushes at night because the dingoes might attack if they think you are a child. Heed the warning or you too might find yourself hollering for help with your pants around your ankles, gesturing wildly while you bare all for the dingo. I seriously doubt he was going to attack, but he was a peeping Tom.
Although there are no cops on the island, don’t drink and drive and just be careful. Just this past April 2009 two backpackers will killed when an underage driver flipped the vehicle.
Fraser was neat and unique, looking back though at all of the options for Queensland activities, if I had it to do over again I would likely opt for Magnetic Island to see the animals instead.
So there I am, a year ago today, sweaty, sand is in every single possible crevice of my body, the cake I bought completely melting all over the makeshift table, and yet the moment is precisely right as twenty-four backpackers serenade me with the Happy Birthday song in six different languages.
We were all on a three day camping/driving/sandy adventure of Fraser Island, Australia (more on that tomorrow) and as my luck would have it I was hitting the quarter of a century mark. Birthdays on the road are a rite of passage of sorts; it’s like a travel Christmas, you have to adjust to some changes, alter your expectations, and embrace the unique circumstances and rituals that accompany.
So, instead of a birthday dinner with the family and hanging out with friends, I found myself surrounded with heaps of foreigners (or am I the foreigner?) willing to raise a drink in toast to my birthday and sing me the special birthday songs from their country.
A fair trade all in all methinks!
With birthday festivities in mind we piled up the goon and beer, turned up the radio on the 4-weel drive and crammed onto the tarp (a failed attempt to avoid the sand) and all sat around a campfire picking at my melted chocolate cake mush while each group sang to me their traditional songs…at the top of their lungs.
And some even danced (hey, alcohol was involved, what can you expect!).
I loved my last birthday. Thanks to diversity on the road I wracked up six languages for the Happy Birthday song: Hebrew, Swedish, Swiss, Dutch (two different Dutch songs actually!), German, and English (obviously right).
I had a little video of the Israeli birthday song…but for the absolute life of me I just can’t find it. :-( Drats! Wish I had better organized my videos! Just know that there was fun to be had and the Hebrew one was one of the most fun of the lot :-)
No clue what I’m doing today; good friends and family most likely– equally great but in a totally different way!
So, tell me, how do you spend your birthdays on the road? Any fun stories, mishaps, or random occurrences?
Murmur the world “Christmas” and you likely imagine a toasty log cabin with a flickering fire. You’re sipping a steaming cup of hot chocolate while the snow blankets the cabin in an earthly quiet. Perhaps there’s even a twinkling Christmas tree tucked into the corner and carols tinkling from the radio.
That’s the Hollywood Christmas and one that I’ve long imagined everyone else experiences every December. But as a native Floridian, that’s not life as we know it. By late December, some years the weather still cranks out breezes in the mid 80.
And so it wasn’t so strange for me to spend Christmas in the Land Down Under, where the balmy breeze reminded me of the only Christmases I have ever known. I ended my round the world trip just last month, but the memories of that year will never leave me. This time a year ago I was fresh-faced optimistic about my trip, and I was happy to sun myself on a boat in the middle of the ocean, all in the name of a good time.
That said, it is a bit weird to leave your home culture during the holidays. Christmas traditions in Australia are less commercialized than Christmas back home. On the one hand, that’s lovely. On the other hand, without the decorations and Christmas carols blaring from the radio, it felt more like a casual summer festivity than the huge tradition we’ve embraced in the U.S.
In the lead up to Christmas, I realized that I would like company during the holidays. When I planned my round the world trip, I considered that I would face the holiday solo. At first, one of my best friends had planned to fly over and join me for a month of diving and holidays and birthday (my birthday!) fun. She bailed on me the first week of December, however.
I’d be lying if I wasn’t heartbroken.
But, I regrouped. Holidays and special occasions are a rough time to be alone out there in the world. This proves true for anyone who travels, but also those people who might have just moved to a new city and don’t yet have friends. Or those without family nearby.
And I learned an important lesson about the holidays, which echoes so much of traveling. Instead of focusing on how Christmas was different from those of years past, I learned and experienced traditions from dozens of other cultures. Unlike the many Christmases of my childhood that all blend together, my memories from my Australian backpacker Christmas are unique to that year alone.
Instead of waking up at dawn to cook a feast with my grandma, I woke at sunrise and pulled on a stinger suit so I could snorkel in the first light of day. My boat turned out to have a party vibe (not sure there’s anything else possible in Australia as the backpackers love to party), and I spent the holiday with a dozen backpackers from all over this planet of ours.
It’s a tradition here make sand snowmen in your swimsuit. Sadly, the pure silica on the beaches in the Whitsundays didn’t lend itself to sandmen decked out in wide-brimmed sunhats and sunglasses. If it was possible, I totally would have joined with the Aussie tradition and made up an epic sandman. I suppose, however, that I shouldn’t boo-hoo about the purest, whitest sand in the world, it wasn’t that much of a hardship! :-)
When I decided to tackle that year of solo travel, at the outset I knew that I’d face obstacles in unlikely places. I don’t love the holidays like some people. My family bickers and my mum is always sad about my brother’s passing. But it’s also the only thing I’ve ever known for the holidays. I attended an “orphan’s Christmas” my first year in Los Angeles and it was fun and weird, but ultimately it was comfortable because I was in my home culture.
When I left, I wasn’t sure what it feel like to be half a world away from my family. Christmas day was nearly over for me by the time they were sitting down to family dinner. And so, I learned that I like to be home for the holidays. I also like all the weird and wacky travel gifts my family comes up with over the years. It was delightful to experience Christmas on the water with other backpackers, but it there is something to be said for embracing your traditions and showing up. My family missed me last year. My nieces and nephews had grown so big. This year, as I reflect back from the comfort of my childhood home, I am happy to be home for the holidays.
Quick Tips: Six Ideas for Spending the Holidays as Solo Traveler
If you’re on the road and facing a holiday alone — Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving — here are a handful of ideas for forming new holiday memories that help beat the loneliness of being alone while your family back home is gathering.
Book a group tour. This was clearly my choice, and it has panned out well over the years. I’ve done this several times on a handful of holidays during my more than eight years of travel. There are so many fun activities all over the world, so you could even treat yourself by booking something that you might not usually splurge on doing. My tours are often multi-day, but at least book a day tour to keep yourself busy and engaged. If you’re in a part of the world with Urban Adventures tours, they often offer food tours or beer crawls, or historical tours — a range of cool, niche ones that will keep your mind busy and engaged with your new friends on the tour.
Stay at a busy hostel. Hostels the world over are filled with other travelers in your same situation. I’ve never been in a hotel that doesn’t organize a party for Christmas. If you’re celebrating a purely American holiday, then you might need to get creative and ask around the hotel to see if any others want to make a potluck Thanksgiving or some such.
Contact local expats. Find a Facebook group or an expat blogger and reach out to them! They will have a bead on any celebrations in town, and they just might be organizing their own open event.
Plan a spa day or “treat yourself” day. Consider a day of pampering or fun. In some parts of the world, Christmas Day is business-as-usual, and you can find book yourself into a spa day. I’ve gone this route in Southeast Asia before, and it’s always lovely to treat myself. You could also partake in your favorite activities. Even back home, I will sometimes head to the movie theatre on Christmas as it feels like a fun indulgence to see the latest blockbuster.
Discover the local traditions. If you’re in a part of the world that celebrates the holiday, dive into their festivities. Even similar cultures often have wildly different traditions. Use your trip as an extension of your travels and get curious about the local holiday customs and traditions.
Do something cool, unique, or from your bucket list. My niece traveled with me during the holidays one year and I wanted to make it a memorable one. We were in Thailand, which celebrates the holiday a bit, but I knew she would miss home. Instead of trying to duplicate home traditions, I signed us up for a Christmas Day 10K run. We joined several local expats and created a fun, full day out of it. After the run, we all ate a massive pancake breakfast and generally enjoyed the uniqueness of our day.
My tour bus was fine, but our company had two tours running that weekend and we couldn’t leave the other bus stranded. All 42 of us waited out the rain in a small shelter as the one working bus sped down the road, back to town, to (hopefully) pick up an alternative bus.
When Jess returned the sun was setting and we were hours away from our planned camp.
Naturally though we took option two – I mean, we really wanted to see King’s Canyon!
Day Three: Forging Another River and Kings Canyon
And also naturally, of course, just 20 minutes from our campground we encounter a deep river flooded across the road.
The poles measure depth and according to Jess, it was too deep to cross. Well, too deep to cross with people in the bus…
Yes, we all hiked up our pants, doffed our socks and shoes, and waded across the stream while Jess put a plastic bag around something on the bus so that it wouldn’t flood (muffler maybe? I don’t profess to have a clue when it comes to that!).
We made it! And still in good spirits too. Because by this time we had all adapted the “us against the elements” mentality, and clearly we were winning.
In fact, by night time the rain cleared enough to sleep in swags under the stars and it was just about as spectacular as you could imagine. After so much rain, the sky was crystal clear and there wasn’t an ounce of light pollution for hundreds of miles to lessen the impact of thousands of bright, twinkling stars.
Our reward for two days of flooding and endless rain was a spotlessly clear and bakingly hot morning hike through Kings Canyon with a relieved dip in the bottom watering hole for good measure.
The Verdict on an Australian Outback Tour
What a trip right?! When Outback Safaris promised an adventure, they weren’t kidding. As for the company, I really liked them – they’re a classic budget backpacker option and just a tad more than the cheapest option (which I had heard horrible things about). And would I do it again? Yes, and I’d do it with Outback Safaris again too it’s not their fault it rained! So, in short, I recommend the company and the experience…while I’m not sure what a typical trip with them is like, they handled all of the craziness really well :-)
Rain alternated between a deluge and a misty-drizzle the entire first day on our Outback tour – and incredible luck meant we not only witnessed the waterfalls on Uluru (Ayres Rock), but also, a briefly visible rainbow as the last light of the day lit the rock a glowing orange.
On the flip side though, the rain also meant that we missed hiking Kata Juta, we were often stuck inside the bus for incredibly long periods of time, our guide had to beg for tents instead of swags (open-to-the elements canvas sleeping bags) for our camping needs and we were all getting a bit of cabin fever by the end of only the first day.
All of this sounds like a right bit of whining, right? I mean, nothing had gone according to plan. We were soggy from the rain and cold because we hadn’t anticipated it would be raining day and night. But that’s where it comes down to personal choice.
You choose the experience you want to have.
If I wanted to have a terrible tour of Australia’s Outback, then all I needed to do is make that choice. Because that’s all it is; the way that you choose to react to circumstance directly influences your level of enjoyment. Every single one of the 21 people on our tour bus had to make a choice: do we spend three days hating our luck and making life miserable, or do we really and truly, even when it’s incredibly difficult, try to find some ways to lighten up and make it fun.
By and large we made valiant efforts to not let the group mentality shift toward the negative. And that’s not to say that we didn’t have a couple of complainers, because out of 21 people, let me assure you that we did. But the group mentality stayed positive…even when we emerged, dripping wet and soaked to the bone from a two hour walk/swim around the base of Uluru.
Day Two: A flooded trip around Uluru’s Base Walk
That’s right, day two of the tour traditionally involves a glorious sunrise over Uluru and then Uluru’s two hour long base walk, followed by climbing the rock for those tourists who have absolutely no respect for the Aboriginal culture and their request not to do it (and yes, that’s my very blatant opinion that you shouldn’t do it. People do, lots of people, but the Aboriginals ask you not too – and it’s their rock, and it means a whole lot more to them and their culture than it does to me, so I would have respected the request even if it weren’t raining and impossible to climb…and I’m done with the rant now).
So Jess dropped us off at the at one side of Uluru and with a quick wave and sped down the road to our rendezvous point on the other side of the rock…leaving us with only one effective way to the other side: navigate the two hour base walk.
At first the ground was merely a thick, pasty mud with pockets of water that were easily avoidable.
Then, we fully gave up hope of keeping our boots dry as the water rose to ankle deep.
At this point several in the group protested hotly and, with a bad attitude plastered all over their faces, turned around to try to hitch back to the bus. For those of us who soldiered on…next came the waist deep stream crossings.
I’ll not lie and say that the dozen of us who waded around the base of Uluru maintained a positive attitude the whole time, but we did make it a game. And by the time the water was nearing waist deep, can you really do much else than laugh and see the hilarity in the situation?
My conclusion? One lesson learned, and one more solidified: Don’t walk Uluru’s base walk in the rain and you choose your own experience.
Have you ever faced an unlucky situation and made the choice about what kind of experience you were going to have?
We’re flashing back to Australia today – to Uluru most specifically. Fret not my friends, the stories of Ireland are not over, but there were a handful of neat experiences in Australia that I never got a chance to cover.
I’ll preface this entire post by saying that although I was on an organized tour and saw all of the major sites…the fact that it was raining made this one of the biggest (and wettest) of my Australia adventures. It’s not incredibly typical for it to rain for days on end in the outback – in fact it’s blatantly untypical.
So what does it take to start the rain storms in the outback? Me booking onto the “budget” three-day outback tour where you get the awesome pleasure of sleeping in swags (canvas sleeping bags) under the stars. It hadn’t rained in the outback for more than six months…so naturally bucket loads were in store for me.
What’s the appeal of the Australian outback?
The red center of Australia is incredibly flat but there are several huge natural sandstone rocks jutting out of the massive expanse of ruby-red dirt: Uluru and Kata Juta. Uluru (Ayres Rock to tourists) is the giant red rock most often associated with Australia; it’s sacred to the Aboriginals and there are dozens of myths and stories about the rock’s significance.
And I was jazzed to learn about them all…even through the endless, endless, endless, rain – which could have been a bummer if it wasn’t such a ridiculous trip.
Day One: Introductions, Sing-a-longs, and the race for Waterfalls
As soon as the raindrops started hitting the windshield of the tour bus, our slightly spastic driver/guide, Jess, decided that caution is a relative term. Instead of slowing down and continuing with vigilant diligence toward Uluru, she excitedly gunned the engine babbling about our “great luck” at maybe-possibly-hopefully seeing waterfalls on Uluru.
The 21 of us crammed in the back of the tour bus all murmured excitedly – what luck, right?! Australia’s been in a dry-spell and now it breaks just in time for us to see waterfalls on the rock! Jess blasts “It’s Raining on the Rock” by John Williamson through the speakers of the car and we seem to be seriously trying to complete the last 30 miles in ten minutes flat.
By this point I was not the only one looking for a little bit of excitement after four plus hours of sing-a-longs and introductory games and the “oh-look there’s a camel” game. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty neat to hear the “Journey-esque” songs from other countries, but there’s only oh-so much you can handle of 20 others (with varying skill levels) singing along at top volume.
Between the songs and the games of hangman on the window (thank god for dry-erase markers…how come my parents never took these on car trips?!) we were very willing to instead focus attention on the huge rock looming darkly in the distance.
Our luck was holding because we pulled up to the rock while the rain clouds were still dumping water down the rock, causing natural waterfalls to spring up all over and cascade down the now-grayish tinged “red rock.” With Jess’ excitement fueling us we donned our rain coats and happily escaped the bus, snapping pictures of Uluru’s unique waterfalls – something Jess had only seen once before in the three years she had run tours!
With some rain still pouring down we plopped back into our seats to drive to the sunset spot.
That’s when, for THREE brief minutes, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds while a rainbow lit up the rock. Instead of pushing through to the sunset spot we poured out of the van and I caught the only sunny picture I would ever take of Uluru…but there’s a rainbow creeping out, so it was pretty amazing actually :-)
This may be how most people see the rock, but for me those three minutes of sunshine and rainbow are perhaps more special because of the deluge that would strand our bus over the next two days.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Uluru Outback adventure in the rain…day two sees us wading waist deep in the water and trying valiently to keep a smile on our faces!
And this is a little YouTube video of the song “It’s Raining on the Rock” – our theme song for the trip:
As my round the world trip picked up speed and headed into parts of the world with erratic internet access, I started to lose the thread of the story, jumping ahead to share updates of my current travels. But that left some truly wonderful experiences unshared! So we head back in time today to the east coast of Australia for a flashback to my questionably successful attempts learning how to surf.
Other travelers warned me that, as a complete newbie, I only needed two days of exhausting lessons before I would beg for a break, my muscles not up to the strenuous task. Heeding their advice, I signed up for a two-day class with Mojo Surf to give me a taste of surfing without the body-aching pain I would feel from the seven-day courses they also offered.
Byron Bay is a hippy coastal town soaked in the alternative lifestyle. An eccentric nudist community, Nimbin, is just a short ride outside of town and every third backpacker you meet sports a wetsuit sunburn and sun-bleached dreads. The vibe is fun, laid-back, and it turned out to be the perfect backdrop to my painstaking hours of surf lessons. The Mojo Surf van pulled up in front of my hostel and within minutes the ten of us were cruising a coastal road parallel to the rolling ocean waters.
Although I had packed a short-sleeved rash-guard, our instructors also passed out full-sleeved rashies that would protect our arms from both sun and potential sand-burns on our skin. The sun in Australia is even stronger than my hometown, so I also slathered myself in sunscreen while our instructor unloaded the van. Dan was a cliché surfer dude — long, sun-bleached hair, darkly tanned skin, and a groovy, far-out personality designed to perfectly accompany the look. He had such a positive outlook on life and he seemed to love his job, so he made the day that much brighter. Plus, he truly lives for the surf, he oozed enthusiasm from every pore, so I couldn’t have had a better teacher for the two-day course.
My first lesson of the day was unexpected: long boards are heavy! There was no way I could carry it under my arm like the guys in our group, so the women and I hoisted the boards onto our heads before trotting to the beach. Mine plunked into the sand ungracefully, but no one paid me any mind. We made a semi-circle with the boards as the group assembled on shore for a safety talk. Instructor Dan explained the tidal patterns for the day, how wind would effect us, how to handle rip currents, and safety precautions to keep our boards from hurting each other once we were in the water.
Then we did a dry-run and practiced the moves on the sand — long, deep scooping motions with the arms and then you jump up as quick as lightening. Before I could felt truly ready, Instructor Dave shooed us down the beach, assuring us that the best way to learn was actually on the waves. My first thought: “Holy crap I’m not ready yet!” But that doesn’t cut it in surf school and our three instructors fanned out into the water to help us practice our technique.
Surfing is hard work! I bit it over and over again, eating water, sand, shells and even some stringy seaweed. And just when I would start to feel accomplished because I would get half-way up before tipping over, I looked back to see the instructor holding onto the back of the board for me!
My main issue was jumping up from the paddle position into knees-bent surf position quickly and with my weight centered. By the end the first day, board burn scored both of my knees but I could successfully make it up onto the board as long as the instructor was also holding it upright. Which was still quite the accomplishment since learning the rhythm of standing is one of the trickiest parts.
Our second day was both better and worse. The training wheels had come off and our instructors were less eager to hold the back of our boards for us. Crap. That meant I had to not only pick my own waves, but paddle and then jump up all by myself!
It did not go well throughout the morning.
By lunch time, I was freaked out from a scary fall where I picked a wave that was far too large, I fell off tumbled into the water. By this point, I had fallen before but this wave was huge and it tossed me like in a rag-doll in a washing machine for what felt like minutes (really only seconds).
The seconds dragged on though, and bent and braced my arms over my head to protect my neck if I hit the bottom, just as they had taught us the day before. The whole time though, I just prayed that my board wouldn’t hit me in the face while the wave tumbled me.
I surfaced coughing up liters of water and dragging the board cord tied to my ankle and slugging my way onto the beach to take a break. My teacher’s response: “Woah, narley fall dude … but wait, what are you doing up here, get back in the water — there’s still ten minutes before lunch!”
He wouldn’t let me psych myself out from the fall, so I signed and returned to the water, giving it a half-hearted attempt before our lunch break. After lunch, I am proud to say that I made it upright on the board! And on my own, too. I won’t go so far as to lie and say that I can get up on the board consistently, but I was at least standing up each time, although not yet coasting very far once I was up. Baby steps.
It was hugely exhilarating to stand up on the board as it coasted toward the shoreline. There’s a power you feel when you conquer something difficult, and I’m hooked. While I will never be the best surfer in the world, it is a whole lot of fun, bloody knees, sore muscles and all — and I do kind of wish I had another day or two of camp. Those backpackers were wrong, I could have surely managed more days since I was feeling motivated and freshly accomplished by the end of the second day.
You can bet that the next surfing opportunity I get, I am there for more lessons without a second thought! My Australia photo gallery has many more pictures of me eating it into the waves. :)
Quick Tips: Learning to Surf in Byron’s Bay
Where: I used Mojo Surf after endlessly researching my options. I needed a budget option with good reviews, and they fit the bill nicely.
Sleep: I stayed at the Arts Factory Lodge in the dorms and it was a good spot from which to explore the city — basic but clean and has a great traveler vibe. If I return as a couple, I would likely stay in the Bayshore Bungalows, which are mid-range prices and more private than the hostels.
Read: I have a free Australia Travel Guide here, collecting all of the tips from my two months in country, with links and lists of the companies I loved during my trip. I also used the Australia Lonely Planet religiously during my backpacking trip and it is, by far, the most comprehensive guide to the country.