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The Land Down Under

Australia…where to being? I should probably start with a disclaimer: I loved Oz, but I was there for only one week in one city, whereas I living in New Zealand and traveling around for almost five months.  There’s an inherent bias there that means if I’m forced to pick a favorite, New Zealand wins by default.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Australia; it was a vacation, though, whereas New Zealand started to feel like home.

Anyway, after spending one day in Auckland, we flew up to Australia.  Getting there is an ordeal in itself; however, the two three-hour flights were filled with food and movies so the time passed relatively quickly.  The same couldn’t be said for for our one-hour drive from Cairns to Port Douglas.  I’m pretty sure our shuttle driver had never driven a stick shift before and I was more terrified during that ride than I was at any point during the bungy jump experience.

We arrived at our lodgings at around eight at night and immediately set off in search of food.  We settled on buying sandwich materials from the grocery store since none of us was feeling (or looking or smelling) good enough to go out.  During our evening exploration of Port Douglasm I was in a constant state of awe as to the beauty.  Every cliche island sight, sound, and smell you can imagine was present within a very small area in this town.  It felt like the perfect marriage between Hawaii and Florida (not as old of a population as Florida, nor as flat, but with that friendly feel and cute, quirky charm).  Now, part of my idolizing of Port Douglas may largely be attributed to the change in temperature and scenery.  After going through winter in Chicago and New Zealand, the heat, humidity, beaches, and palm trees were unreal.  I could not be more excited for the tropics.

Our first few days were low-key and relaxing.  After having spent the past two weeks traveling all over New Zealand with very minimal downtime, it was a welcome relief to stay in one place and have a break from living in suitcases.  We explored the many adorable shops and restaurants of Port Douglas in addition to spending a substantial chunk of each day on Four Mile Beach, which was about a four minute walk from our resort (though we somehow managed to get turned around on the first day so that the four minute walk instead took around forty-five minutes. We followed my brother’s directional instincts after that incident). During our days at the beach, we hopefully canceled out all the dining out we were doing by walking along the beach.  My family and I also worked on our tans quite a bit (though, in my case, I was just trying to become the color of a normal person instead of a corpse).  It was wonderful.

After several days of tranquility, we were thrown back into adventure mode with our long-awaited snorkeling trip out to the Great Barrier Reef.  This was an experience I’d been looking forward to for most of my life; up until around the age of thirteen, I was dead-set on becoming a marine biologist, so snorkeling in the only reef you can see from space had always been pretty high on my bucket list.

Unfortunately, this was one aspect of the trip that didn’t quite live up to my expectations, largely as a result of factors beyond anyone’s control.  The day we were scheduled to go was very windy, making the  water rough and choppy and stirring up the sand.  It also was the lowest tide of the year, so the reef was significantly above the water where we were snorkeling.  This made navigating around it a bit difficult; there were several moments where I stopped just instants before I would have crashed into the reef.  It also smelled awful because coral creates its own sunscreen when the tide is low to protect itself from drying out in the sun.  Apparently, scientists are currently working on understanding how coral does that, and want to create a pill that humans could take once a month and be protected from sunburn for a month.  How cool would that be?

Despite the negatives, it was still an amazing day and I am so glad we were able to go (though I will need to go back in the future to properly dive the reef).  The colors of the coral were much brighter than that which I’d seen in the Florida keys and we saw a fair number of fish, though I think the rough water was making them hide out a bit more than they ordinarily would.  There was one fish that was keeping pace with the glass bottom boat as we rode along which was pretty entertaining.  We also were lucky to come close enough to touch a sea turtle.  I gave him a mini photo shoot with the underwater camera.  Hopefully at least one of those photos turns out when we finally develop the film.  In the future, I’d get a good waterproof case for my digital camera because I’m concerned that the lack of a flash on those $20 disposable ones means they won’t really turn out.

Our final day in Australia was easily the best.  I succeeded in bullying the rest of my family into taking a tour through the Daintree Rainforest, as it would have been shame to not check it out. If you’re anything like my siblings, you won’t see anything particularly interesting about it on paper, but in actuality, it’s not an activity that absolutely cannot be missed if you ever make it to that part of the world.  It’s the oldest rainforest in the world and Cape Tribulation is the only location on the planet where two World Heritage sites (the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest) meet.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and we have that rainforest to thank for many medical breakthroughs that have been made over the years.

That being said, it’s difficult to say if what made the day so great was the forest itself or the company.  There were two couples in addition to the guide with us and we all enjoyed each other’s company greatly and spend the day sharing various anecdotes and stories.  We decided that between our Aussie guide, Chris, and our Kiwi guide, Graham (from back in Queenstown), you’d have a greater wealth of knowledge and experience than multiple sets of encyclopedias could offer you.

Anyway, it was a fabulous conclusion to an amazing week.  I’m sure we could have spent a significantly longer time there, though we did succeed in hitting all the big “must-sees” in Port Douglas.  I definitely need to go back to Australia and see what the rest of the country has to offer, though I would go back to Port Douglas as well because it’s drop-dead gorgeous.  I don’t feel like there is any way that you could dislike Cairns and Port Douglas unless you don’t like the beach or warm weather.  I’d heard there was some good hikes around the area as well, but we weren’t really equipped for it and after New Zealand, we felt entitled to some laziness.  Australia also has a lot of animals and plants that can kill you if you’re not careful, and we weren’t educated enough to trust ourselves to recognize that.

Which brings us to one funny story.  Apparently, Australians have a story about “drop bears” falling out of trees that they use to scare children and naive tourists.  None of us were quite gullible enough to buy into that, but the one other American guy had a funny comeback.  After the Australian couple and our guide explained the story, this guy said, “So, you just told us about an hour ago that eight out of the ten deadliest creatures in the world reside in this country.  Why on earth do you need to scare anyone with a fake monster?!?”.  It was such a great day.

Now, for key differences between Australia and New Zealand: first of all, Australian currency makes no sense.  The fifty-cent coins are huge and the two-dollar ones are smaller than a penny.  New Zealand money is really easy to learn and intuitive in comparison.  Kiwis also seem to be a bit friendlier than Aussies, though that’s not to say that they’re unfriendly by any means (especially in comparison to how those from other countries sometimes view Americans…).  Also, Kiwis will tell you that Australia is really expensive, but I think that’s only because their dollar is weaker than an Australian dollar.  For Americans, it’s roughly equal and most items are priced significantly lower than in New Zealand.  I really loved both places, but New Zealand holds a special place in my heart.




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