Sunday, April 26, 2009

Australia, the Complete Enhanced Director's Cut Version (PG)

It's taken a little while, but piece by piece through small chunks of time I've finally put together this one complete look at my recent Australia trip. Hopefully this will serve to put my vacation behind well-documented and get this blog up and running again!

In March I wrapped on Toy Story 3 (releasing in 2010), and before going on to my next project I had the opportunity to take a full month off. I threw a full pack over my shoulders and headed out for a half-tour, half-backpacking, very improvised adventure along the East Coast of Oz.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


The 14-hour flight out was a breeze, thanks in part to the plane being half-empty and including a very spirited flight attendant. Five glasses of free wine and a good pair of headphones for my new iPod Touch made the trip go by faster than I could have ever imagined. With no jet lag at all, I was good to go when I hit the ground in Sydney!

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


... And then I got my bag searched by the lovely Erin at the Australia customs desk because I forgot to fill out the back side of my immigration form. Well I couldn't drink that much wine, sleep for ten hours AND be expected to complete some boring form with trick questions just to be sure we didn't go down the whole customs checklist marking the "No" column, could I?

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


I took the rail down to Central Station, proudly finding my way around the airport better than a worker there seemed to be capable. Within a half hour I was downtown, had been called "mate" several times, got used to carrying plastic $50 bills and referring to soccer as "football", was absolutely floored at how good-looking Australian women are, and realized that free Wifi for my iPod might be harder to come by than anticipated (Why else would anyone want to pay $5 for a mediocre iced fruit juice at Starbucks? No wonder they're bombing in Oz). Picked up a sim card and Australian phone number for my borrowed GSM phone (thanks James), checked my bags at the Travelodge, and settled in for a nap in Hyde Park.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


SNAP AWAKE!!! Was that a bug on my leg? Don't stare at me, bird! I know you're inching closer! Is it venomous? Most poisonous continent in the world - Remember to keep sharp, clueless American!

ok, ok... slightly overblown reaction. Back to napping.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


Aaaaaaand I'm awake. Bjorn is here! Had a meat pie and fresh fruit juice with a former co-worker from Pixtown (who also appeared at the "Up" wrap party just 4 weeks later, making the world seem very small). Following lunch I checked in with the hotel and found my tour had been moved to the Chifley at King's Cross, a vibrant nightlife area packed with bars and clubs, as well as a nice quiet line of coffee shops two blocks off. Good news: I would get my own room in a much trendier place. Bad news: I had to hike across town. Good news: My new Osprey pack was exceptionally comfortable!

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


Contiki may have given me a bad impression to start (in addition to the hotel, some of my other vouchers were also obsolete or faulty), but things picked up well when I got to know the small group with which I'd be exploring Sydney. Had some fun exploring some of the bars around King's Cross, a busy nightlife area, and took a full tour of the city. Apparently I have a very easily identifiable American accent, towards which most people were very friendly (although a few thought I was Canadian when I identified myself as being from California). Drank mostly Cooper's and Pure Blonde beer, with some decent wines in restaurants. Found a superb ocean walk near Bondai Beach (which was surprisingly dead between poor weather and a recent shark attack), had a good dinner in Darling Harbor, and took an extremely touristy but beautiful Sydney Harbor boat cruise with a recorded narration that jumped from "... the sailors could do nothing to escape, and in 1914, 120 men lost their lives in that fire." immediately to "... and in 1998, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman bought that gorgeous house over there!".

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


My favorite spot in Sydney - aside from the creepy amusement park on the north harbor - was Manly Bay, at which I took a surfing "lesson" with a pretty worthless surf school whose instructors tried a lot harder to hit on girls than teach surfing in very rough conditions (paraphrasing the Lifeguard on speaker: "Conditions are very dangerous today... Don't enter the water unless you're a strong swimmer with a surfboard... Just... Don't go in. At all." / not a great day to learn), but got in some good rides and a relaxing day exploring the town.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Sydney


The second stop on my Contiki Tour took my group to the Whitsunday Islands. A dramatic series of sharp banking turns landed us on a strip of concrete on a small island. We were walked from the runway to a shack of a terminal, where we picked our bags directly off a trolley and walked across a small lot to a ferry boat. Without any sort of hangar or terminal at which to park, our plane took off again just as we launched from the dock.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


The ferry had a very friendly captain ("Ah yes, it's the stress that gets you... I'm going to try not to hit that sailboat now."), and while it wasn't an entirely smooth ride (still feel sorry for the little old lady who got drenched not 30 seconds after taking a seat in the upper deck's front corner!), the Whitsunday Islands were a strikingly beautiful place to be out on the water, and we soon arrived at Daydream Island, where we were booked for a three day stay.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


Our specific tour group seemed to be something of an experiment, this being the second accommodation which was recently changed from the tour usual and much nicer than I expected. Our new tour guide quickly proved himself pretty worthless (a few texts were sent to our old one telling him he was missed), and over the course of a relaxing day by the pool and wallabies we merged into a much larger, party-minded Contiki tour of about 42. Some really interesting and amusing personalities in that group, which was mostly composed of people from the UK, Canada and Germany, with some odds tossed in. There were six Americans, including myself, so we got used to calling chips "crisps" and ketchup "tom-ah-toe sauce". But damn if I'll ever give in to calling a Jaguar a "Jag-u-ar". Rare instance where the American pronunciation just sounds smoother.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


I spent a full day on Daydream Island itself. It had a very entertaining mini golf course: Anything featuring a giant lobster tending a BBQ has my approval. I got to try scuba diving in the expansive pool, which was much easier than I expected (though I did come to respect the power of the Sun out there after the oxygen tank straps must have rubbed off my shoulder sunscreen).

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


At night the island had a bar open for the Contiki tour and set up a pretty nice outdoor movie theater (playing "Get Smart"... meh). Watching American movies in Australia was extremely interesting for someone who works in the field... I was blown away at how universally watched and discussed American films were. Australians adored their film celebrities, and certainly pushed for a more successful industry at home despite a surprisingly small national population of 22 million. It was amazing to see what comedies bridged the gap and what didn't, as Aussies were very surprised to hear I liked "Flight of the Conchords" and I was surprised to see "Family Guy" a popular show, or anyone outside the US watching "Old School" (though I did have to do some explaining on that one with respect to fraternities).

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


My second full day was spent on a Day Sail around some neighboring islands, with one stop to snorkel at the outer reef (wearing stylish full-body stinger suits to guard from box jellyfish), and another hour-long outing on the stunning Whitehaven Beach. I spent almost all of my time just walking along that iconic span, running my feet through sand that kicked up as almost as light and clean as dry snow, but making a rubbery squeak under the heel that I toyed with in lazy, dragging steps. A meter-long shark swam along the gentle waves. Using a cricket setup as end zones, a few of my tour started up an odd variety of American football using a rugby ball.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


By the time we left the beach, several more boats had pulled up. We weren't actually able to sail as much as motor since winds were very light, but hanging out on the canopy under that sun all day was a great way to go.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Whitsunday Islands


From the Whitsunday Islands, we joined the larger Contiki group and its theme song, "Never Miss a Beat" by the Kaiser Chiefs, on a long bus ride up to Cairns, a town known for its wild pub crawls (go Woolshed! Where else can you find a convenient shelf for your drink just under the ceiling when you're dancing on a table?) as well as its multitude of world heritage sites. I spent a whole day exploring the Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Forest under a French guide, wading into brilliant blue rainforest streams, dodging giant spiders, tasting rainforest fruit ice cream, befriending a cassuary, and stealthily tracking birds through my camera lens in the "Discovery Center" nature sanctuary as the sun went down and the sounds of the rainforest changed. I even got to take the Jungle Cruise ride from Disneyland fo reals, and saw forests with such expansive root systems you couldn't even pass through them.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Cairns

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Cairns

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Cairns

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Cairns

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Cairns


Waking up to the playful sound of The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea" on an early bus ride, an outing to the Great Barrier Reef presented one of the most stunning things I've ever seen. The water was so clear, and the views just overwhelming: A visual overload of life and color, where everything is alive and fish seem just as curious about us as we are about them.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


I took an intro level scuba dive, which was absolutely divine after a rough start. On a diving prep area beneath the docking platform around which we spent our afternoon, we were grouped into teams of four per one instructor, one by one going through some breathing tests and then descending along cables to the sides (think of the submersible room from The Abyss, but without the dude carrying around a pet rat... I know, I was looking for him). Everything was going well: I went through the breathing, mask recovery and goggle clearing exercises without a problem. However, the other two divers in my group, probably not familiar with our instructor's brand of thick Japanese accent, had a great deal of trouble understanding him as he tried to explain the exercises. I felt incredibly anxious and frustrated as I watched all the other dive groups descend cables into the water, pacing for what seemed like 20 minutes as the two girls in my group returned my instructor's requests to repeat after him with blank stares. We were the only ones left on the platform, lines of light coming through the upper floor boards stretching across an otherwise silent and gentle water, which lapped against shadowed metal stairwells and handrails around us. I couldn't see outside of the diving platform, but I could hear snorkelers preparing nearby. I kept thinking that I was so close... but that this might imply a dive time cut short.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


My instructor was visibly frustrated himself, and the girls now seemed a little too uneasy to pick up even my attempts to help with the language barrier. I might have lost my patience a little here, uncharacteristically maybe swearing a bit under my breath while I watched yet another underwater exchange fail next to me, and even trying to talk my way into another group as a replacement when someone had to abort their dive. Fortunately, and admittedly with encouragement on my part, the girls backed out to wait for a different instructor, and I was taken over to the cables for a one-on-one dive with the instructor!

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


At first I had a very tough time with the pressure on my ears. It took a few stops and small ascents to descend the cable halfway down to our 8-10m depth, as I found that I couldn't pop my ears at all underwater (had never tried!). Yuri ended up taking me on a long loop at half that depth, gradually circling lower until my ears did improve enough to reach the bottom. It was never comfortable, but it didn't matter: Swarms of tropical fish were everywhere, and as I got the hang of kicking and buoyancy to the point where I could swim independently, Yuri pointed out clownfish in an anemone, a tiny translcent crab-like creature on coral, and a giant sea clam that responded to touch. At one point he had me hold onto a bar at the sea floor for the tour photographer, who directed swarms of brilliant and exotic fish around me with offers of food. I couldn't resist buying a $20 picture with Wally, a large Maori Wrasse and friendly favorite of the reef platform. Well worth it, and a misprint even gave me an extra copy!

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


Hitting the surface after 30 minutes or so underwater I threw off my mask and burst with excitement to Yuri, having been restricted to the use of hand signals that can only communicate so much without inadvertently requesting an emergency surface during the dive. My ears were horribly clogged, but there wasn't a moment to lose - I took off my scuba gear and slipped on a snorkel tube, all lined up for a guided snorkel "Adventure Tour" with a resident marine biologist on the platform. To hell with the lunch for which I'd paid in advance - I wasn't about to stay out of the water that long!

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


The snorkel loop took us across some dramatic canyons, anemone patches, and dead spots on the coral, and having such a knowledgeable guide made it well worth the extra fee. We even pursued a sea turtle for a short time as it faded off into the distance Finding Nemo style... Speaking of which, many thanks to that crew for doing such an incredible job! It was a riot to see how people everywhere - even locals - referred to various species by their character names from that film, which speaks volumes.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


The Contiki Tour ended the following day; I wish I could write a little about a lot of people I met on the tour, but hey, this has already taken me several mornings to write! You'll live in pictures.

From 2009 Australia - Contiki - Great Barrier Reef


The impeccably clear weather I'd had on the Contiki Tour was finally balanced out when I began my solo traveling amid storms at Byron Bay. I woke up at the Byron bus stop to solid rain, and checked into my first hostel ever, Aquarius Backpackers. The place was ok, and while my 8-share room was a little uncomfortable at first, everyone was generally friendly and making friends at the hostel bar was easy (though I did also encounter what might be the first unfriendly Canadians ever documented - what a discovery!).

From 2009 Australia - Byron Bay


Woke up on the morning of my first day for the start of a 3-day surf lesson with Mojosurf, which spooked me by showing up a half hour late (I literally had just started back to my room when someone saw the bus). Beach time, I suppose. We drove out to a less crowded beach as the sky stared to open up with rain. The lead instructor reminded me of Patrick Swayze's character "Bodhi" in Point Break; a wise veteran surfer who lived by the waves and never totally grew up, he joked about how much harder it was to recover from a night partying at his age, and with an "Oooh! Me too!" had some English guys vault him up in the air into a backflip dive when we stopped in a freshwater river stained with a rusty color from the oils of local trees.

From 2009 Australia - Byron Bay


The beginning of the lesson was held in distractingly blowing and cold rain. We all sheilded our eyes and shivered a bit as Bodhi handled it in stride, going through the motions of catching a wave on land as we huddled around. Once we hit the water the rain eased off, but the surf was very choppy. I managed to catch white water regularly on the big foam board, and started working my way into green waves. On the second day I improved, but on the third day, trying a short board, I was just too tired to get long rides or keep an acute balance. A nasty wipeout in which I inhaled some salt water secured a weak finale to the camp.

From 2009 Australia - Byron Bay


In Byron I predominantly met people in their early to mid twenties who were on work visas, living in Oz for 6 months to several years. Many take odd jobs in hostels, restaurants or fruit picking to pay, and others were just riding the Pound's exchange ratio. I also learned that hippies are usually lame freeloaders no matter where you are, and that Swedes can make exceptionally sharp turns from friendly to cold! While the Australians and Brits were great, I didn't meet any Americans in Byron Bay aside from a family on the bus ride out.

From 2009 Australia - Byron Bay


While I thought I had developed at least a familiarity with a number of people at the bar, on my last day at Byron I hardly recognized anyone at the hostel - the crowd had completely shifted for the Bluesfest music festival starting up in town, as had the level of traffic. I caught a bus to Surfer's Paradise, appreciative of how easy it had become to meet people, but a little bummed to be leaving them so soon.

From 2009 Australia - Surfers Paradise


My first day in Surfers Paradise was a little brutal: Not only was I back to not knowing anyone and facing another rainy day, but my pocket camera lens had jammed, and in a scene reminiscent of Castaway I had also suffered the loss of my very own "Wilson", my one lasting companion throughout the trek: My ipod touch. It had been working just fine on the bus ride, but today it wouldn't respond to any button pushes or resets: The screen returned just a black nothing. I tried charging on multiple outlets, cleaning it, pretty much everything short of a defibrillator... and I saw no response. I trudged through the day reminded of Wilson everywhere I went: My music, movies, email, all the quality time we had spent together leeching free internet connections outside of McDonald's... The thought of a 14-hour flight home without my little buddy was just depressing, and the realization of my near-instant bond with the device a little astounding.

From 2009 Australia - Surfers Paradise


Surfers was a lot like Miami crossbred with Virginia Beach. Very built up and showy with countless gimmicky amusements, it was referred to as a "Paris Hilton" of cities by my ever-helpful borrowed Lonely Planet guide: all about the beach scene by day, but up for a trashy party every night. I was staying at the Cheers backpacker hostel, which again had a built-in bar that offered cheap beer and some opportunities to meet people. Over the course of a few days I got to know a fun group of English girls on gap years, Australian surfers on a road trip with a decked out van and very cool custom-made Jimi Hendrix board, and an American on spring break. We spent the time chasing small patches of sun to the beach, on a massive backpacker pub crawl, writing improv stories in a club with a nice "bedroom" layout but too much ego for its mediocre and painfully loud techno music, getting caught in rip tides (ok, that was just me - thanks for the help, fellas!), and chilling on the beach at night with a case of Hahn's Super Dry and a box of goon. Wilson finally reset and accepted a charge, and with my headphones playing a comforting Illinoise once more, I set an alarm for 5am to catch a bus up to Fraser Island.

From 2009 Australia - Surfers Paradise

From 2009 Australia - Surfers Paradise


I have a page in my Moleskine book that describes the 5-hour ride to Fraser on 2 hours' sleep in jagged, illegible scrawlings. Instead of a normal coach bus, I was riding up in a raised, big-wheeled Buszilla 4x4 vehicle that was about as comfortable and quiet as the Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story, but with loose clanking pieces of metal, loud knobby off-roading tires, and blasting 90s alternative rock music. I swore the thing would tip over and kill us all. The other passengers were looking grimly antisocial or demographically incompatible until the very last pickup stop, at which some twentysomething, like-minded travelers finally turned things around and made the trip fun. Have to give a shout out to Devan, the automotive engineer on the trip, for his photography advice and the similarities we found in his essentially being the real-life version of what I'm now trying to do at work in some abstract animated form.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


Fraser Island itself was a sort of four-wheeling paradise, a huge playground of flat beaches, sand dunes, beautiful freshwater lakes, and winding, bumpy jungle trails dominated by packs of Toyota Land Cruisers (if I may continue the movie references, think of a busy Isla Nubar in Jurassic Park. And yes, there were probably more than a few deadly creatures in there). Our tour guide was an affable goofball/gearhead, proud of his own Godzilla bus and the challenges it tackled in going where no other bus and most 4x4s could not. We drove along the beach in light rain for the entire first afternoon, stopping to wade into a picturesque rainforest creek and a canyon of red rocks, driving into shallow water to traverse a particularly rough, meter-high set of beach rocks in front of a captivated crowd of onlookers ("Is he really... Whoa!"), and wandering about the remains of an old shipwreck.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


When we checked into our rooms at the island hotel the rain was coming down harder. Our tour guide fumbled the key handoff, and I was beginning to catch a cold that would stay with me for the next 3 weeks, but in the end we had a healthy sprint to the hotel bar through a thick, flooding rain (at one point we waded through a good foot of water) and enjoyed a happy hour of rum and cokes.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


A few of us decided to wake early the next morning to catch the sunrise, and dragged out of bed through the debris and road damage done by the storm to find a few too many clouds obscuring the view. Fortunately, our morning was not lost: A trio of dingos was making its way up the beach in search of prey, or maybe a squeaky toy... it was damned tough to say; they look a lot like domesticated dogs! Bearing in mind the stories our guide told us about how dingos were known to herd horses and humans into the ocean with aggressive barks to slowly drown them (impressively bright trick for the pack hunters, I have to say), we enjoyed snapping pictures until they got a little too close, and then scared them off.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


The second day was devoted to the rainforest, and we started off with a rainforest hike that proved much more enjoyable if you were willing to quietly break from the pack to enjoy the small sights and sounds of the forest. As an added bonus, such wanderers are much more capable of seeing Drop Bears - fearsome rainforest carnivorous koalas! At least one tour member recognized my disheveled state and attack story as fact. Watch out for those things, kids. Vicious. The only defense is to hold a hand to your head with a finger in the air as you make your way through the forest.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


We ended the tour by stopping by a large lake in which a few of us dared a swim despite the overcast conditions. The ride home was an extended beach road due to road floodings, and the bus played the simply structured and unfulfilling "You, Me and Dupree" followed by the much better "Cinderella Man". For some reason I seemed to connect a lot with that second film: It seemed to relate to my trip in an odd way. The last leg of the drive back to Surfers was thankfully done by car, and I checked into the Surf 'n Sun hostel to the familiar sound of a Texan accent. I passed out with a full-blown cold.

From 2009 Australia - Fraser Island


My last full day in Oz was a warm and sunny one. I took a slow, 4-5km walk along the beach, trying to keep my senses clear. I stopped by Cheers for their $7 bbq and saw some familiar faces, but was too exhausted to make another run at the backpacker pub crawl. My run of "single-serving friends" had its fill.

From 2009 Australia - Surfers Paradise


Getting back to Sydney for the flight home involved a very close call! The bus system at Surfers Paradise clearly runs on "beach time", and after two absurdly late bus rides I made it to the Gold Coast airport with just minutes to spare before the cutoff check-in time. The flight home wasn't enjoyable, but I can say confidently that I've finally learned how to get sleep on a flight: Ipod, wine, mask, pillow, earplugs, and you're out.

From 2009 Coachella


My trip ended at Manhattan Beach, where the culture shock was softened by a cool Australian racing journalist sharing my hotel shuttle. A full hotel room with microwave popcorn and a Target next door was now a luxury, and within an hour I'd shaved my travel scruff and passed out. One of the things that struck me most was turning on the TV news and realizing just how idiotic it all was: "Check out our tweets! We're on Twitter! Make us your Facebook friend! Swine flu is going to kill you! The same stupid political arguments are still being made because we can't all just friggin' collectively notice that abortion and gay marriage have absolutley no place in government law other than to polarize you! The stock market is a disaster! Now's the time to BUYBUYBUY stocks and ride a whole new bubble! Check us out on Twitter - we're with it! Okay, now go get yourself some drugs!"

From 2009 Coachella


From Manhattan Beach I met up with friends for the desert drive to Coachella, and then home for the Up Wrap Party and a return to reality. A solo trip like this one definitely helps you sort out the people and priorities in your life, and while I'm not 100% back just yet, I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to travel like this when I did.

(This post took three weeks of small time blocks to write - Wow!)

1 comment:

Alexia Tessier said...

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