Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas in Brisbane & Byron Bay

Greetings from sunny Byron Bay!

It has been a long 5 weeks since I have posted anything here, so apologies for the long gap between blogs. But since leaving my job, leaving Brisbane and leaving the crappy weather behind, I am finally able to sit down for a good hour to update you all on the latest comings and goings of my six month haul around Oz. I have a mere 5 weeks left here before flying home on 1st of Feb, so there is lots to do and see before I return to chilly England.

I left my job at the call centre a couple of weeks ago, having worked for about 2 months out of the 11 weeks I spent in Brisbane. Although repetitive, it was a great challenge for me, especially as it is a financial services firm - and anyone that knows me will know I am essentially incapable of managing money! So despite the fact that I had to google 'equity' on the morning of my interview, I am now highly knowledgeable about the Australian tax benefits for working home owners - none of which will ever apply to me given that negative gearing doesn't exist in the same way back home... but I digress. It was a very handy job for a backpacker, and I will dearly miss all the strange and wonderful people I met during my time there.

After leaving my work, I spent a couple of weeks essentially killing time with my flatmate Lou, who quit her bar job around the same time. Brisbane is a charming city in many respects but after 11 weeks, you will have essentially exhausted every possible outlet of fun. And when one is on a tight budget, one does not have the luxury of eating out, shopping incessantly and all of the other delights associated with holidays. And there was also the rain. I gather from people back home that the floods in Queensland have been on the news, and I can definitely confirm that there has been no end of rain in Brisbane in the last few weeks/months. It isn't even quaint English drizzle - it is a full on deluge daily, with flash flooding all over the city and small streams running down the pavements. It is such a relief to see some sunshine again now that we are in Byron.

The main event of the past five weeks was of course Christmas - which is an extremely weird thing to celebrate when it is over 30 degrees outside. All the way through December neither Lou or I felt remotely Christmassy. Christmas is about big jumpers, open fires and home made soup - not bikini shopping, sunburn and flipflops. It is also a time of year most associated with family, and I was worried that spending it away from Fryers in general would cause unbearable homesickness, replete with excessive drinking and wailing into the night. Fortunately that was not the case. Lou and I had a lovely Christmas, complete with roast dinner and santa hats. We opened pressies (largely shipped over by Mummy Fryer) and drank vodka all day long, which was of course brilliant. Unfortunately, Christmas was not without drama.

To cut a very long and dramatic story short, I have been robbed. Yes, gentle reader, I have actually been robbed. The man who cut off our internet on Christmas Eve (despite us paying for it, and deliberately so we couldn't skype our families the following day) was due to give us our deposits back (about $400 each - which is about 200quid) the day before we left Brisbane. However he coincidently went MIA the day before, and we were unable to get our money back. Despite explaining the sorry tale to the police, we were unable to file a report as due to the technicalities of it being a deposit - and the drama continues. No solution has yet been found but I will keep you posted should anything happen. It is highly dramatic though, and has kept Lou and I suitably stressed since leaving Brissie.

Speaking of which, we packed up our bags (how have I acquired so much stuff?) and trundled down the 4 flights of stairs to our front door with FOUR bags each. Despite initially adamant that we would indeed walk all the way to Roma St Station (a 20 minute walk on a good day), by the time the handles of my handbag all simulataneously snapped we called it a day and got a taxi. (NB an average handbag which you got for $10 will not hold the weight of three books, a laptop, a purse, two pairs of sunnies and all the other crap I had squashed in there).

We got the 8am Greyhound to Byron and arrived here at lunchtime yesterday. Byron Bay is famous the world over for its beaches, its waves and its hippie dippie culture (trust me, you can get stoned just standing in the street here). It is a hippie haven where barefoot bohemenians come to relax and escape the cities, and where backpackers gather en masse for the sun, sea and surfing. It is also adjacent to Nimbin, a small town inland of Byron which is famed for its total tolderance of pot smoking and pot themed nibbles. But you don't need to go as far as that to get high - merely walking through the hostel will do that for that. Byron is also home to its famous lighthouse, which marks the most easterly point in all of Oz. It is a beautiful town with fierecely protective locals (hence, there is not a McDonalds in sight) and is home to what appears to be a daily tye-dye convention. If you like your brownies spacey and your beer organic, Byron is the place to come.

The next stop for me is Coffs Harbour, where I will be visiting a friend from England, then it is on to Syndey to catch up with Lou. Then flying over to Melbourne before driving the Great Ocean Road (Google it - it's stunning!) and then it's back to Adelaide for a week before I head home!! Officially leaving on 1st Feb and arriving back at dawn on the 2nd. I dearly love you Australia, but England has my heart (for now). Plus my iphone just crapped out and deleted EVERYTHING and I have to wait 5 weeks to get back any of my music, so there is no question! I am coming home!! :)

Until next time... xoxo

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Koala Cuddling!

G'day from sunny Brisbane one and all!

As most of you will be aware I am currently residing in sunny Queensland on a temporary basis until I have enough moolah to move on. If you read the last blog you will know I accepted a job in a call centre at the start of November, and it may amaze you to discover I am in fact still working there (as I have neither lost the will to live, nor been sacked). Far from the cruel hours of fundraising and well away from the frightening prospect of door to door, I sit at a desk for a mere six hours a day and chat tax talk for money. It is pretty peachy considering telemarketing is fairly soulless, and since we get free pizza and beer every Friday, I am a happy bunny. Besides no other job offers me the delights and disasters that ringing Aussies for a living entails. When I am not being hung up on or sworn at, I have been enchanted and amused by random people all over the country who have taken the time to actually talk to me. And lets not forget the very solemn conversation I had about Doomsday in 2012 with an old Italian gentleman this morning. Who would have thought telemarketing could lead to such an interesting observation of the human condition.

But I digress. I have not come to chat away about the frolicks and frivolities of call centre life. I have come to talk about Australia and all its coasts and creatures. I have been lucky enough to spend my weekends exploring more of Queensland, and I managed to get back up to the Sunshine Coast a couple of weeks ago to visit some family friends. A little further south than Noosa lies Mooloolaba (best name in the world?) and Maroochydore, and a little inland is the town of Buderim (pronounced 'bud-rim' as opposed to bewwwderrrim - apparently this pronounciation makes you look like an arse). I spent a lovely couple of days eating gelato on the beach, being shown around the area and gorging on my first home cooked roast dinner since August with my delightful hosts, Sandy and Greg. And like all good Australians, Sandy and Greg have a well stocked wine rack, a beautiful house and a gorgeous dog to call their own. It was like a home from home, which is the cure to any jaded traveller's call centre blues. I was treated like a Queen and have been invited to return to sample the famous Eumundi Markets, which I will head up to in December. The Sunshine Coast really is one of the most beautiful areas I have seen here in Oz, with blue skies, perfect beaches and even the odd Starbucks. It was definitely the break from Brissie that I needed.

The following weekend I hit the Gold Coast with Louise (my roomie) and Chloe, a friend of hers. We drove down in the morning and were at Surfers Paradise by noon. Surfers is a funny little place in the heart of the Gold Coast - which is far removed from the quiet wealth of the Sunshine Coast. With its sky scrapers that run all the way up to the beach, the Gold Coast wears its bright and tacky heart on its Prada sleeve, and is the home to bad nightclubs, huge strip clubs and the Surfers Meter Maids. From what I understand, the meter maids were originally employed to top up parking meters in the city, though their job now involves standing on the street in teeny weeny gold hotpants and having their photographs taken with tourists. I gather they used to be paid, but now all their money is made from tourists paying to take said photos. Either way, they are a staple of Surfers and an unmistakable emblem for the lifestyle of the place - tacky, shiny and probably 99% fake. Surfers is populated largely by women who could hide behind a lampost and the men who buy them breasts. The town is over populated by men at all times - not just the swarms on stag nights, but the draw of Surfers as a business hub means the women have the pick of about 5 men each at all times. We had a great day. :) (photo below not by me unsurprisingly!)

After arriving at midday and paying an extortionate $16 to park for a few hours, we headed to the famously long beach straight away for some vital sun exposure (turns out working all afternoon in an office starts to drain the tan pretty severely). As Chloe and Lou went off to play in the sea, I guarded our stuff and sunbathed, ensuring to cover myself liberally in suncream every hour. When they got bored of the sea, the girls went to buy a ball and promised to return with a surprise (which was unfortunately not Hugh Jackman covered in whipped cream as I had hoped). Instead they returned with an ice cream (don't you just love them!) and a giant, bright yellow inflatable kangaroo, who was promptly plonked beside me and named Sheila. After taking approximately five millions pictures of ourselves with Sheila (it had to be done!) we headed off to play beach rugby by the water and had a merry old time of it having ye olde style fun. By the time Lou and I went off to explore the town, I had noticed my chest was a little pink, but thought nothing of it and went off to see the sights of Surfers. By the time 4pm rolled around I was keenly aware that I had 'slightly caught the sun' as the pink tinge of my chest started radiating enough heat to rival the sun. As I lay on my bed that night covered in cocoa butter and aloe vera, it was quite clear that I had apparently missed out spots just above and just below my bikini, which left me with an angry red burn all around some particularly white areas. And as all good burns do, they blistered beautifully and I have learned a harsh lesson about the Queensland sunshine. No wonder 75% of Queenslanders eventually get skin cancer.

As the burns subsided over the week, Lou and I ummed and ahhed about our next adventure to be had, and I suggested a visit to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which is located in the darling suburb of Fig Tree Pocket just 12km from Brissie. Lone Pine is world famous and is regularly voted one of the top zoos in the world. If you head to their website you can view the whole host of famous faces that have cuddled koalas there, including Carey Mulligan, Taylor Swift, The Queen Mother, Mariah Carey etc etc. I had wanted to go there ever since I received a postcard with a photo of my sister cuddling a koala there when she was in Oz six years ago, and was very excited at the prospect of having a cuddle with one of Australia's most iconic residents (alas, still not Hugh Jackman).

To cut a long story short, Lou and I had an amazing day at Lone Pine. We fed and stroked kangaroos and wallabies, saw dingo puppies, fed lorikeets (very bright parrot things), were chased by an emu and of course I finally managed to cuddle a koala. Lou went for the baby crocodile cuddle (you couldn't even pay me to do that!) and also, randomly, sheared a sheep! I was given a little girl koala called Shassi, who was very sweet. Koalas are lucky enough to spend 20 hours a day sleeping, and the rest of the time getting stoned on eucalpytus, so Shassi was excellently mellow and chilled (which is a great comfort when they have one clawed hand resting on your right breast). It was a really wonderful day.

I had a bittersweet weekend last week as I said goodbye to my dear friend Dominique, who I had been with nearly two months now! She has gone to NZ now for a while and returns to Brisbane over New Years but it is unlikely I will still be here. I did get the chance to see a friend of mine from the UK though on the following day, which was really wonderful. I had a lovely time catching up with my friend Sophie, who left for Oz just a week before I did. It is amazingly comforting to have someone from home in the same country and we had a lovely day together!

Right, there is not much else to report just now (until you want further mundane anecdotes about the call centre) so I will love you and leave you until next time! Not sure what the plans are for the next few weekends, but I will no doubt update you the moment anything remotely exciting happens. :) Love you all oodles. xxxx

PS - all photos by me except the Meter Maids!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Brisbane II - finally living above the poverty line!

Aloha one and all,

Sorry it has taken me ages to get time to sit down and tell you all about my most recent trials and tribulations - it has been a crazy couple of weeks indeed. I will start where I left off, which I believe was a couple of weeks ago. After I left the internet cafe that has become my second home, I skipped off into town and was promptly offered a job interview by a very enthusiastic British girl in a Red Cross tshirt. I was a little surprised she knew I was job hunting (especially as I had left my 'hungry and helpless' sign at home) but I decided it was a sign of divine providence and I arranged to go for an interview on Monday morning. When Monday morning materialised, I whizzed off to Toowong (a suburb) on the train and swished into my interview wearing my snazzy new pencil skirt (thank god for Target - we need to get this shop in the UK! it's like Primark but nicer!). But I digress. After meeting a few people I was sent off for an observation to make sure I could do the job - the job being signing people up for monthly donations to the Red Cross. Yes, you know those people that stand on the street and try desperately to make you talk to them? - well that was me. Having passed the interview with flying colours I was rostered on the start the next morning at 8am sharp (!) and I was away laughing.

Nothing could have prepared me for the following day. I rocked up at 8am as promised, and sat down for half an hour of training (or brain washing, as I like to call it) and watched as everyone stood in a circle and cheered for each other. Yes, it is one of these places. Never accept a job which involves standing in a circle at 8am. It can never be a good sign. Me and my teacher were sent off to our spot for the day - a totally random corner of Brisbane with little foot traffic and a very high population of people who do not speak very good English. It was hardly the ideal spot for me to start pitching about Telecross and the Good Start Breakfast Club. By 10am I was being accused of 'negging out' - and was referred the the 'downward spiral' diagram on the training manual. By the fourth time Rich accused me of 'negging out' I snapped back that the diagram was a circle, not a spiral. It did not improve much from this point.

Despite my keen and friendly approach, and the fact that I made 34 full pitches, I didn't make a single sale. And my mentor, who has 16 weeks experience, made ONE. ONE in NINE hours. My brave face was wearing awfully thin and I was accused over and over of being too hard on myself - a fault which was hardly going to be corrected by some douchy Brit pointing it out repeatedly. I was subjected to speech after speech of inspiring bullshit and by the end of the day I was ready to go home and drown my sorrows in whatever I had at home (a daring choice between milk or squash). I should mention at this point the very worst part of all - the job is 100% commission. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. So if you don't make a sale, you literally go home with squat. And since our delightful leader sent us to the seventh circle of fundraising hell, I didn't stand a chance. So 9 hours of being a prat and I went home with nothing.

At the end of the day as Rich excitedly asked me how I felt about the day, I told him in no uncertain terms that I thought my soul was dying. He looked at me slightly uncertainly and asked if I was being sarcastic, to which I replied I was in fact not being sarcastic, and that I was going to go home immediately to cry myself to sleep. Amazingly enough I told him I would stick it out for the following day and I trudged off home. By the time 7am rolled around I had made a decision. But as I am a woman of integrity, I got up and headed back to Toowong for the morning meeting. To cut a long story short, I finally achieved a life long dream of mine - I quit a job dramatically and in front of a room full of people. Having strolled in and politely listened to the next lesson (he'd already written it all on the white board bless him), I finally told him I had made a decision. As my voice grew louder I told him I couldn't work for a company that only paid commission as I felt it to be unethical and uncaring - I couldn't work for a company that cared so little for the welfare of its employees and I wouldn't be used or exploited for profit. By the time I said "I care about myself too much to let myself be used in this manner", half the room was staring at me open mouthed and without further ado, I handed Rich my tshirt and swanned out of the room. It was amazing. :)

Thankfully my period of peasanthood was due to be brief and I have since secured not one but two jobs that don't make lose the will to live. I am now working a call centre during the day, which is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I am not selling things which is nice, but booking people in for free appointments to do with getting tax entitlements. I still get hung up on a lot and shouted at down the phone, but as the job isn't actually morally bankrupt, I don't mind much. I get a nice base rate as well as a commission for all the bookings I secure so I am finally able to stop worrying about making rent and having enough $ for food. It was Melbourne Cup day on Tues too so we stopped work an hour early and watched the races with free champagne! So much better than any other job I have had yet! I also work in a bar on Friday nights and the odd shift during the week too. The jobs are hardly the stuff of dreams but I have become so much less snobby since getting here, and they are paying for me to continue living my life so I am a happy bunny again. :)

In other less job related news, I have been filling my weekends with as many budget days out as possible. A couple of weeks ago for instance I went out to North Stradbroke Island which is just off the coast of Brisbane. I didn't know much about the island but Shirby and Carolien were keen to go and promised it would be pretty cheap so off I went. It was quite simply one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to. Blue skies, turquoise ocean, dolphins, turtles, giant sting rays, wallabies and roos - it was everything Australia is meant to be and more. We went for a hike along the North Gorge walk and then off to Frenchman's beach for some sunbathing and beach time. I think the photos speak for themselves really. It was awe inspiring.

Dominique and I spent last weekend doing the Botanical Gardens which were amazing. There are two sets of gardens here - one in the city and one up at Mount Coot-ha about 20 mins from the city. We booked ourselves in for the free tour of the city gardens on Sat and were surprised that it was just us - so we had a personalised tour of the city by a little old lady who knew everything there is to know about trees, shrubs and flowers. It was really interesting! The Mount Coot-ha gardens are three times the size of the city gardens and they were amazing. There is a gorgeous lake, a bonsai house, a Japanese garden, a fern house, a tropical dome, a rainforest area... you name it. It was a lovely day out (though I am a bit gardened out now!) and we had nice warm weather for it which was lovely.

I am off to Buderim in the Sunshine Coast this weekend to stay with some family friends which should be lovely. Praying for some sunshine since the weather in Brisbane has turned to monsoon style rain in the last day or two, and the forecast says it is here to stay... :( But still, we should be in line for a very sunny and warm Christmas indeed. Louise (my flat mate) and I are planning a lovely Christmas for the two of us and whoever else is around (though perhaps not our downstairs roommate/landlord who is a bit of a douchebag).

Anyway that's all for now! Sorry the blog has been a bit job-centric! Now that I have settled into work I should hopefully just have nice updates about my weekend escapades from now on! :) Lots of love, xxx

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Brisbane and the inevitable prospect of being a peasant

Aloha one and all,

NB - photos are off Google as I haven't sorted mine out yet!

Alas the tragic time has come for me to stop the backpacking gambit for a few months and settle and find work. I always knew this day would come - and really it should have come sooner - but hey ho, here I am in Brisbane and here I must find a source of $$ that doesn't include standing on a street corner, selling electricity door to door or decorating christmas trees in a dodgy warehouse, that is probably in fact the set of a snuff movie.

I arrived in sunny Brisbane nearly a week ago from Noosa (ahh beautiful Noosa) and was staying in Bunk Backpackers - a very flashy hostel in Fortitude Valley - the entertainment district of Brissie. It is incidently also home to all the tramps of Brisbane, the arty studenty types, Chinatown and all the slightly dodgy sales companies. It is usually just referred to as 'the valley' by locals, which is something I do as often as possible, purely because it makes me feel a little bit like I live in LA. But I digress. I started jobhunting while in Noosa, and I have been primarily looking for temp work in offices, call centres (yuck), and nice shops that will be needing Christmas casuals within the next month or so. I also sent applications to all those slightly suspicious adverts promising me I could earn up to $1000 a week and even put an advert on gumtree, stating that I was looking for work (a massive error I shall discuss momentarily).

I had my first interview the day after I applied for suspicious $1000 a week job and was promptly offered the job that day. The job was advertised as promotions (something I used to do a fair bit of in the UK) but it was actually selling electricity door to door all over the suburbs. I was initially interested - with dollar signs gleaming in my eyes - but was already a bit concerned by the fact it was entirely commission based, as well as the fact it was door to door (according to my mother this means a high chance of being kidnapped on someone's doorstep) so I started to have my doubts. It was the moment the boss (in his south London meets Queensland drawl) said that my "cute British accent would be totally disarming" that I remembered turning to door to door sales was in fact morally bankrupt, and by the time I woke up the next day, I remembered that I hate door to door sellers and everything they stand for, and I promptly turned the job down.

(That's my apartment building above!)

After a few casual rejections for some random jobs, I pimped out my CV to, er, expand on some of the jobs I have done previously. This was an excellent plan. I also put an ad on gumtree in the looking for work section. This was not such an excellent plan. Aside from the man offering to use me as a model in his 'experimental art project' where I would be 'naked and more' (!!), I had three offers to become a hooker (and not in a Billie Piper glamorous way!), another offer to be a door to door sales chick, and a very questionable offer to decorate Christmas trees in a unit in the middle of nowhere. I rang the guy back from the Christmas tree job (and firmly declined the rest of the offers) and was asked to start on Friday (today). When I spoke to the guy yesterday he didn't seem able to tell me the company's name, they didn't have a website (it's 2010 people!), and he was very very vague about how and when I would be paid. When I asked what the hours were he simply said to be there at 7am and that we would work 'all day'. The warning bells were already going off when he gave me the address as Unit 2, street in the middle of nowhere, 45 mins out of the city... so I decided that until he could offer me concrete evidence that it was a real, legitimate company and that it wasn't me walking into a room full of tripods and scary men I decided to call it off.

Beggars can't be choosers is all well and good until you mysteriously disappear and the flatmate who only met you once is suddenly on the news appealing for your safe return. So I am not doing very well in my hunt for jobs as I keep turning down the jobs I am offered... But I have enough $ to survive three or four weeks of rent and food (if I start living on lentils) so I have decided to follow my survival instinct and avoid death by kidnapping, or indeed death by snuff film.

Speaking of my flatmates, I am living with two people in a little apartment in the heart of Brisbane! I haven't actually met the man who lives in the room next to the kitchen yet but all I know is that he is Malaysian and a 'business man'. The girl I share the upstairs room with is also from the UK and she is really nice so it's all good. My apartment is cute and small with a fairly decent kitchen and and a pokey lounge. I have a double bed for the first time in several months which is nice, and I have finally unpacked my backpack which is such a blessing. Backpacking is great but living out of a bag you have to pack up and carry every few days gets old pretty quickly. It is nice to have time to breathe, even if every other breath comes with the paralysing nausea about not finding a job, not making rent, and eventually having to become a very specific kind of masseuse.

But on the plus side, I really love Brisbane, I live 5 mins walk from the very heart of the city, and there are THREE Starbucks here. That is three more than ANYWHERE else I have been in Australia so you can imagine how happy I was to find one just a few mins walk from where I live. It was an almost spiritual experience ordering my first caramel frappucino in 2 months - it nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was like being at home for a few mere moments. And now I cannot afford it so I am one of those crazy people that walks past it inhaling deeply and looking a bit glazed. I have also taken to spending my afternoons in the library (mornings are strictly devoted to job hunting) where it seems all the other unemployed people hang out. I haven't got a memebership yet so I pick books I know I can finish within a couple of hours - which has led to some hilarious sneaky reading of Mills and Boon (I think that last one was called 'Bedded for Love, Purchased for Pregnancy' or something equally ridiculous) which has been a source of endless amusement. I have certain rituals to curb my occasional homesickness and visiting the books is one of my never fail tricks. I also go to the cinema (but only on Tuesdays which are cheap here!) and lie on the grass and make cloud shapes which I have always loved. Being on your own thousands of miles away from family, friends, birthdays, parties and other things you should be at home for is not easy by any means - and there have been moments when I have really wondered what I am doing here. But then I will see something incredible, or I will remember some of the things I have done here and I remember how worth it coming here has been. As I remind my fellow backpackers when they get homesick, it is really easy to forget how brave it was to come here. So a quick pep talk and some library time rights me every single time. :)

Right, have to pop back to my flat and sort some stuff out. It's a beautiful day in beautiful Brisbane. I miss you all, more than you could possibly know. Hope everyone is alright. :) Love xxxxxxxx

PS - I have an interview with a temp agency on Wednesday so hope is not lost!! Woop!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Surfing, Fraser Island, Scooteroo & the one and only Noosa

It's been a while! I have been busy as usual burning money and having a merry old time of it, so I shall pick up where I left off, which I believe was Airlie Beach... As I mentioned in the last blog on the Whitsundays, I met 4 Dutch girls on our trip around the islands, and since then I have been travelling with one of them - a lovely girl called Dominique. We have also been staying in touch with Shirby and Carolien, who we have met up with one and off down the coast, which has been really great. It is so lovely to have people with you doing the same sort of thing, believe me! And the other great thing about my wonderful Dutch friends (aside from the fact that I now speak a tiny bit of Dutch!!) is that I have been introduced properly to the wonderful world of couchsurfing!

For those of you who don't know, couchsurfing is a concept/website/social network based around the idea of sleeping on someone's couch for free while you are travelling. You are supposed to be both a surfer and a host to keep things fair, so when I return to the UK at some point (maybe when I have my own place) I will be hosting travellers! Dominique and I had never tried it, though I have been aware of it for some time, so we decided to do it together on our trip to Agnes Water after Airlie Beach. Agnes Water and the town of 1770 are next to each other and are both teeny towns that mark the first place James Cook stopped in Queensland. This is apparently a big deal. Anyway, back in Airlie we sent off a few couch requests and were delighted to be accepted by a guy in Agnes who was happy to host us! T is a surf instructor with a gorgeous sprawling property outside town, and was one of the most chilled out people I have ever met. Our first night happened to be the jam night he holds weekly and we were treated to several blokes (ranging from 20s to 60s) playing guitars and smoking a certain kind of hand rolled cigarette I am sure I have never seen before. It was completely surreal to be sitting in the midst of true blue hippies - my first REAL Aussies since Adelaide - and to be welcomed into the home of a stranger. We made a big dinner and a cake (naturally) and everyone shared and laughed and drank, and it was awesome.

So couchsurfing is now my new favourite way to go. A real kitchen, a real home, a real garden, a real kitchen, pots, pans... and did I mention that these people have actual kitchens you can't catch hepatitis from?! When you live in hostels for 2 months you learn that most hostels consider a microwave and 3 forks a kitchen. Unless you are living on noodles, you are fated to starvation and Subway. But I digress... Back to Agnes Water.

Dominique and I arrived in Agnes on the overnight bus from Airlie at 9:30am, and by 10am we had agreed to our first surf lesson. I was already dubious about this so called sport that all Aussies seem to be born doing, but I was determined to resemble one of the girls from Blue Crush by the end of the lesson. After half an hour of jumping up and down on the board in the sand I felt that it was definitely going to be a daunting task to say to the least. By the time I got into the water I was losing faith fairly quickly. And of as luck would have it, I managed to get hit quite hard in the face by my own board before 5 mins had even gone by. Only marginally discouraged by the sudden lack of skin on my chin, I paddled out on my board and aimed for the next wave. Disaster. I was thrown into the shallow sand at speed, and emerged gasping for air as the wind was knocked out of me. To cut a long story short, I suck at surfing. Even after three hours I could only manage a crouch on the board, which totally, definitely and without doubt counts as standing up.

After the surfing we headed to T's place and did the whole cooking/jam night (this blog is all out of order, my apologies) and the next day we headed out on Scooteroo - a scooter tour of 1770. I say scooter, but they were more like mini motorbikes. I was wobbles a gogo at first but as soon as I got onto the open road it was heaven. We were given neck tattoos and whatnot to get us into the biker feel, and the guys played Born to be Wild as we roared out onto the open road. Slightly cheesy perhaps, but after a few miles hitting 70kmh I started to feel like I belonged in Mad Max (only without the murder, rape and general pillaging). I enjoyed it so much that I am starting to wonder how easy it is to get a motorbike license back in Blighty, though I might want to start a little smaller than my dad's monster bike... We finished our trip with wedges at sunset (so romantic) in 1770, before scooting on home. We got back to T's to find our friends Shirby and Carolien cooking tacos for us all, which was pretty damn peachy. We had another evening of music (I played the triangle) and headed to bed before our 6am bus the next day.

At dawn we headed to Rainbow Beach, the closest point on the mainland to Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. It is home to the purest dingoes in the world, which means you have to bury EVERYTHING from dishwater to pee 50cm deep in the sand. Not ideal. Fraser Island is one of those must-do things in Aus - you go to see the stunning fresh water lakes in the middle and to drive a big beasty 4WD on the beach. Alas we were fated to what can only be described as shit weather, and the trip was not as good as it should have been. I should also mention here that I sort of hate camping with a fiery passion, so it was not my favourite trip so far...

We headed over there in the morning in our group of 8 in Lady Marmalade Diva, our 4WD (we named her of course). The beaches were a bit grey in the rain and wind, and the high tide forced us to take the inland track to get to our campsite (which was essentially the beach). Our team was not exactly the dream team we had on the Whitsundays - it was more of a ramshackle group of people who really shouldn't be forced to spend more than 3 days together. Alas these things happen. Our first day was mostly compromised of our largely unsuccessful attempts to put our tents up in the pouring rain, with a trip to Lake Wabby in the late afternoon. Lake Wabby is along a 3km track inland. Despite being told we could go everywhere barefoot, I cut my foot on a stick walking through the rainforest, which was pretty painful (wait till day 3!!) but I soldiered on and went swimming in Lake Wabby, which was pretty cool.

After Lake Wabby we returned to the (now dark) campsite to make our dinner (steak and potatoes) on our gas cooker. The potatoes took 2 hours to cook (the water never quite boiled as it was so cold outside!) and the steak looked like it has been thrown away at a butchers. We were all pretty grumpy by the time we ate around 8pm (a good half hour after everyone else) but I maintain that it was one of the best steaks I have ever eaten. Though to be fair I was so hungry that half cooked road kill would have done the job. After dinner everyone started drinking (cue me sipping a single can of cider over 2 hours before going to bed). I was subjected to the shrill yells of the token Essex Girl (they're bloody everywhere!!) who shrieked CONSUME! every 4 minutes during Ring of Fire - a game which is no longer enjoyable when you have lost feeling in your feet and have been forced back into the hoody you wore for over two weeks straight back in wintery Adelaide - and being the grumpy old woman I am now, I went to bed on the hard sand floor in my hired (ick!) sleeping bag.

We were woken at dawn and forced to make scrambled eggs for the hungover miscreants of the night before, before we headed off in our 4WD for the day. I took the first shift as I was the only one sober enough to drive, and was warned by the guide that today's track would be really dangerous. Wonderful. The way the tour works is as follows - 2 lead cars drive with 3 tag along cars each. It's a big version of Following the Leader, but you are driving along beaches, creeks and rainforest tracks that could flip your vehicle without blinking. So off we went along the beach at high tide, creeping along the sand banks of soft sand and running over the beached Blue Bottle jellyfish with a satisfying POP every single time. Every car has 8 people in it and ALL your stuff minus the tents, as the dingoes prowl everywhere and steal all sorts of things. It makes for one very heavy 4WD, I can assure you. Driving on sand is a lot like driving on ice - it is best to go slow and take it carefully, but even with that you can be screwed over. It was the most exciting, stressful driving of my life! The weather was still crap - overcast and windy with occasional rain - but it was still fun. We headed to The Champagne Pools, which look rather like Cornwall when you have zero sunshine, then to Indian Head to look out at the view of the island. We also saw the wreck of the Maheno - an old cruiseliner that washed up on the beach several decades ago. It was really cool - one of my favourite sights on the island. It is sinking into the sand year by year and is much less visible than it was in my sister's photos 6 years ago! We also went to another lake (name since forgotten!) and then skipped off back for the final night of camping (hallelujah!).

Our final day was much better than the previous days as it was sunnyish. We packed up the truck and went to beautiful Lake McKenzie - the lake in all the postcards - and had lunch. I should mention at this point that the little cut I sustained on Day One had become infected and I could no longer walk properly or swim, which did not help my love of the island. It is hopefully on its way to healing now but I have been a hop along for several days now! :( We left Lake McKenzie to head to Central Station for a rainforest walk, but alas, a fateful cock up occurred. The only thing that can really go wrong on Fraser (aside from being mauled by dingoes) is losing your lead car. Unfortunately we were the middle car in the tag along, and after 30 mins or so of driving, the car in front of us slowed to a halt. The guy who hopped out had to inform us and the car behind that they hadn't seen the lead car in a good half hour, and we discovered we were lost on the island with only an hour before the last ferry back to the mainland. As someone who was all for the mainland - a land made of more than sand, a land of showers, of food, of people other than my camping fellows - I was obviously the first one to leap out and attempt to make a plan of action. We back tracked to Central Station, and were finally found by our leader. I took over the driving and we hurtled along the tracks back to civilisation. We made our ferry with only a minute to spare, and I nearly cried with joy when I pulled Lady Marmalade into the garage. I was sick of sand, sick of cider and sick of the pillocks in my group. It was good to be back.

Domi and I said goodbye to Rainbow Beach the next morning and headed to beautiful Noosa, to couch surf with a lovely guy in his late twenties. His house was right in the countryside outside of Noosa, and he took us for an awesome walk through Noosa National Park on our first day. On day 2 he took us out in his boat to the Noosa River to the everglades to the 'the reflections.' The reflections are a stunning natural phenonemon where the water in the river perfectly mirrors the trees and sky above - so much so that going through it is a surreal and magical experience. I have never seen anything like it. If you are ever in the Noosa neck of the woods, I would recommend it!! We had a BBQ at the river - and I tried Kangaroo Kebabs which were... chewy. Not amazing but not too shabby either.

Yesterday we rejoined Shirby with her couch surf host in the centre of Noosa, and had a girls night in (with real wine!!) today we headed to the Australia Zoo - home to Steve Irwin and his legacy. It was a little sad to see good old Steve in posters all over the place given his death four years ago, but the zoo was really fun! We fed and cuddled kangaroos (much more fun than eating them!) and saw koalas, snakes, wallabies, wombats, red pandas and all sorts of other zoo animals. I also fed an elephant, which was a much snottier experience than I would have hoped for. It was a good day indeed. I was very sad to leave Noosa, having fallen in love with it in our brief but awesome stay. If you are ever in Oz, treat yourself to a couple of nights in Noosa - it is just lovely.

We arrived in Brisbane this morning and I have the beautiful task of finding a job before the dwindling money finally runs out. Which means I have about 4 days to find a well paid job. Or in reality (so as not to worry my parents), I have a good few weeks of money left so hopefully I should survive... God only knows what I will end up doing...

Wish me luck my lovelies! Miss you all! xxx

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Made in Heaven - The Whitsundays

Hello chums!

Greetings from Airlie Beach, QLD. As it is my last day in jolly old Airlie I thought I would take this opportunity to kill some time telling you about the latest adventures of yours truly! :) I left Cairns on Friday last week on an all day Greyhound - a staggering 12 hours of coach hell. Not only was there a baby that screamed on 20 minute rotations, some chav in front of me reclined her seat so far back that my personal breathing space was restricted to about 3 cubic centimetres. I also endured an hour sitting in the middle of nowhere while the headlight was fixed and was alternatively frozen and boiled by the faulty air con. AND the DVD player didn't work so I couldn't even arrive in Airlie bitching about the Matthew McConaughey film I would have been 'forced' to watch. After an hour I would have traded one of my kidneys for an hour and a half of McConaughey madcap. But I digress.

Airlie Beach is a small town on the Queensland coast - maybe two thirds of the way to Cairns from Brisbane. It is popular with backpackers as it is the main jumping off point for the Whitsunday Islands, a group of 74 islands set in and around the Great Barrier Reef, which are famous for their pure white sand (which is 97% pure silica) and their stunning snorkelling spots. I spent one night in a 17 bed dorm (!) then headed out on Saturday morning to find my boat. I was a little dubious about my selection of boat as the travel agent had enthusiastically told me it was a 'party boat' - her expression died on her face as I reacted in stony silence and informed her I didn't want to spend three days on a boat full of 18 year old boys who would take any and every opportunity to get naked. I wanted a nice, relaxed but fun tour of paradise minus the hangover and the lingering smell of vomit, thank you very much. I added an aloof, "I am in my twenties now after all," which prompted the inevitable age question which in turn led to me mumbling, "21... an old 21." Cringe. Alas, the next brochure she produced had a price that could have been a phone number, so I was forced to back track a little and accept that maybe a party boat really wouldn't be all that bad.

The Tongarra is a catamaran sailing boat which sleeps between 20 and 25 people, and goes out for three days, two nights on the fabulous Whitsundays. I arrived at the Marina with my 'small back pack with only essentials' (my huge day bag stuffed with 5 books, three bottles of sun cream, 2 phone chargers, 13 muesli bars, 4 bananas, 4 different outfits and 3 bikinis) and sat on the bench with my book, surreptitiously checking out the people nearby in case they were the feared party people I would be imprisoned with in an hour or two. When we finally boarded the boat, I had met and befriended two Dutch girls and found myself sprinting to the bottle-o (the holy place where they sell the booze) to stock up on goon (wine in a box - totally disgusting but cheap and practical). And before I knew it we were herded down to a little red boat and had our shoes confiscated.

To cut all the preamble, it was the best trip I have done so far. Despite the weather being a little bit shitty (rain, wind, rain, wind, clouds, rain), it was genuinely one of my favourite experiences on this whole travelling malark. Our boat had 14 people aboard, with three crew members. Between us we had 5 Austrians and an American who were all ski instructors, 3 Brits including me (though since discovering I am also a Canadian citizen I have been smugly introducing myself as half British, half Canadian - something I haven't done since I was about 9), and 4 Dutch girls and a French guy. With these trips, just like with Kakadu, Litchfield, Uluru, Diving, and Cape Trib, it is often the people that make or break a trip. You can get a hit, or a miss. And sometimes you get a really awesome, star crossed piece of luck that lands you with the most dynamic and interesting group of people, and even in the pissing rain you can have a bloody fantastic time.

Our trip started in the afternoon and we sailed around for a few hours before anchoring in the Nara Inlet for the night. Dinner that night was one of the best meals I have had since leaving my godfamily in Adelaide - an amazing herby white fish with mashed potatoes (clearly the food of the gods) and veggies. Yum! When you are backpacking there is little opportunity to cook sumptuous feasts due to both money and the sheer scariness of the hostel kitchens (for instance my friend in Darwin sent me a distressed text a few weeks ago declaring there was a rat (!!) and several cockroaches in the kitchen) so a real meal with fish and mash and veggies is pure heaven for someone who largely lives on muesli bars and bananas. We then starting drinking our goon and playing amusing drinking games and listening to music - we tortured the boys with Britney and the Spice Girls and were rewarded with unintelligible beats and house music. And as the night drew to a close, we pulled our mattresses up out of the hold and fell asleep on the deck under the stars.

The next morning began at half 5 in the morning with the noise of the anchor being pulled up and we set sail for Whitehaven beach and the viewing point at the Hill Inlet, which overlooks the most gorgeous bay of whites and turquoises. It is the fourth most photographed place in all Australia, and on a beautiful day it is breathtaking. On a not so beautiful day, when you are forced to wear a stinger suit (like a thin wetsuit that protects you from the delightful Box Jellyfish and Irujkandi Jellyfish), it is still amazing. The weather cannot take away the beauty, even if it can dull it slightly. It was still paradise. We then trekked down to the beach and played in sand as white and as soft as flour. We swam in the sea and frolicked, not caring or not noticing the whipping rains that were hitting us at sideways angles. It was just awesome.

After Whitehaven we went snorkelling nearby on the Reef, and saw one of the famous big blue fishies that lives in the area. I would give you a more technical name if I had one, but they are basically huge blue fish with a big snout, and they are so friendly they let you pat them! I was pushed in, snorkel and all, and came face to face with the fellow within seconds, which is a formidble experience to say the least! We saw hundreds of gorgeous fish - stripy black and white fish, blue fish with yellow fins, nemos, giant clams, loads of pretty corals and batfish. It was really beautiful. After that we peeled off the undoubtedly sexy stinger suits (see the sexy hero pose of the model above!) and had lunch. We sailed around the islands taking in the beautiful views of the forests, beaches and rock faces that the islands are known for, before heading in for the night at another nice spot. We ate spag bol and watched a beautiful sunset, before chilling with our goon and playing for a while. As a non smoker on a boat where all but two of us smoked, I decided to get some air at the front of the boat, and spent the next couple of hours stargazing and reading my book, which was lovely. Party boat or not, I still read most of my book and had lots of chill out time when I wanted it. I pulled up my mattress a little early and went to sleep with the sounds of the ocean, the laughter around me and the blare of Rihanna under the moonlit sky.

Our last morning had a lie in till 8am (woop!) and we headed off to our final snorkel spot for the trip. We also went to a tiny beach which was just a sandbar in the ocean - it was a gorgeous spot for finding shells and corals (though of course Australian law prevents you from taking any shells or sand from these protected areas home - if you get caught at the airport smuggling Whitehaven sand you face a $3000 fine!). The weather had finally cheered up, so we were treated to the beautiful blue skies one associates with the Whitsundays before we cruised on back to the harbour after lunch. I was really sad to be leaving my party boat, but our group has hung out every day since in Airlie Beach, so I have had the chance to make some really good friends. Three of the Dutch girls are also heading south, so Dominique and I are going to Agnes Water on the Greyhound tonight, and Shirby and Caroline will catch us up after visiting Mackay on their way south. A day or two in Agnes Water, then we will hit Rainbow Beach so we can do Fraser Island - the world's largest sand island and another must do on the list of Australian adventures.

I also wanted to recommend a book I am just about to finish - one that was given to me by a friend in Cairns. It was the first book I was recommended to read when I arrived in Alice Springs, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week, thanks to my friend Sam thrusting the book into my hands and telling me I absolutely had to read it. Shantaram is a book written by an Australian - it is an account of his life once he escaped from prison in Melbourne and it is set in Bombay and near Kandahar. It is one of the best books I have read in a really long time, so I recommend it to you all! In Australia books are insanely expensive (a new one will set you back $25-30 which is about 13-18 pounds for a simple paper back) so I have been getting all my books from book exchanges and swap shops. It has led to some really interesting and funny reads, such as Just Don't Call Me Ma'am (which is about surviving your 20s as a Texan girl in NY) and the whole Hannibal series, which I really enjoyed. But if you are looking for a beast of a book to get your teeth into, go out and read Shantaram. It is incredibly funny, incredibly moving and heart breakingly sad in some points (which has led to many embarrassing episodes of casually weeping into my iced coffee). The copy Sam gave me (found in the swap shop of her hostel) is so tatty that the last 15 pages have fallen off, so I have them folded up and I am using them as a book mark. I loathe to throw it away though, so I will try and give it to a new person when I am done! Anyway, go forth and read it if you fancy it. It will remain one of my favourite books for a long time to come.

I will love you and leave you now as I am due to meet my friends at the lagoon! I need to do some more sunbathing under the palm trees before I spent another 10 hours on the Greyhound overnight. I plan to take a Nytol and spend the entire trip unconscious so wish me luck! :)

Miss you all - I am stalking most of you on Facebook from time to time and I am always sad to see the birthdays and parties I am missing. Sorry I cannot be there to celebrate with you all!! But please know that my heart finds you every single day and you are never far from my thoughts!! God that is positively vomit worthy. I best go before I embarrass myself further. Love you all. Toodle pip xx