Monday, August 23, 2010

Melbourne and Australia\Travel Thoughts

I'm writing tonight's blog entry even though I actually haven't posted the entry for Adelaide and Kangaroo Island. If I finish this entry then I'll probably post both of them one right after the other. As I begin this entry I am in our room at the Claremont Guesthouse in Melbourne where we will stay for four nights. In this post I'll highlight some of our activities in Melbourne and then summarize some of my thoughts on Australia and our trip so far because on Tuesday we'll leave Australia and travel to New Zealand.

Melbourne has a reputation from various travel resources as resembling Europe more than other cities in Australia. I would have to agree with that assessment somewhat. It has a more development public transportation infrastructure, cafes, sporting venues, and other European type of amenities that give it a Europe type feel. Now on to what we did while in Melbourne.

Despite the fact that at one time our train was almost a hour behind schedule we arrived into Melbourne Friday evening (the 20th) only a few minutes late. The train engineer made up some serious time on the 2nd half of the trip. We departed our train and made our way through the enormous Southern Cross Train Station over to the Metro Trains. There we purchased a couple tickers which at $3.70 per person for a one way trip were 25% or so cheaper than Sydney train tickets. We then took a train about 5 stops to the South Yarra section of Melbourne. We checked in to our guesthouse which is pretty much just a fancy name for a hostel. They do have apartments but they are across the street. We then settled into our room and had the goal of taking showers before going to bed. The problem is that the bathroom\showers had very little to no working hot water. We had to try at least 4 different ones before finding a couple working showers. We also had an issue with a window next to our room that was jarred completely open and since it was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit it was making the floor and our room cool. It turns out that they had painted recently and the window had been painted open. By the second night the hotel staff had jarred it loose which made the hall and our room a whole lot more comfortable. Showers continued to be somewhat of an issue but we eventually found ones with good enough working hot water to take showers each night.

On Saturday we took advantage of a somewhat cheap all day train pass and toured the downtown area. We mixed that in with taking the free tourist tram which makes a loop of the downtown or central business district area. We strolled through some of their arcades, saw an old Anglican church, & went through Chinatown before heading back on the train to our hostel. We stopped in for a bit an did a load of laundry before venturing out for our Melbourne cultural experience. Our cultural experience was an AFL or Aussie Rules Football match at the MCG. The MCG is the Melbourne Cricket Club which is what we were told is the Yankee Stadium of the AFL and Cricket for Australia. The MCG was only one train stop from our hostel which made it convenient. We purchased two general admission tickets for a total of a little over $42 AUD. It turns out that virtually all tickets are general admission and you just sit where ever you like except for in the center parts which are reserved for the members of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The match itself was pretty neat although I still don't have much a clue as to what was going on. All I know is that a goal is 6 points for kicking it through the center goal posts and 1 point for kicking it through the sides. Some of the other odd aspects is that the coaches run on and off the field coaching their players and trainers are out on the field while play is going on. The match we saw involved the local team of Collingwood and Adelaide. Adelaide is not that good supposedly but almost won the match. Collingwood ended up winning by the final score of 53-51. I'm still as confused as before the match but I'm glad we went. One other note to mention is at the beginning of the match they displayed the betting odds on the large jumbotron screen. They also updated them after each quarter and you could call in and place a bet as the match was in progress. The team that lost was a 13 to 1 underdog but was ahead in each of the first three quarters. After each quarter the odds kept dropping. I wonder if some of the players called in bets between quarters (just kidding).

On Sunday we did a lot of strolling around. The weather was better. It was a few degrees warmer and sunnier. We walked around the Botanic Gardens for a couple hours. I thought Melbourne's were larger and prettier than Sydney's. We then took a tram over to the Victorian Market where we ate lunch. This market had some fresh fruits, meat, and seafood but unlike Adelaide it has several sheds or long large rows with merchandise for sale. It was easily as big as a Super Walmart. After the market we actually stopped and got our first haircuts. Men's haircuts were $9.95 and women's were $14.50. I probably could have gone another week or even two but we figured we get our haircut before going to New Zealand and these were the cheapest prices we saw in Australia. Most places were around $17 to $25 for a men's haircut from what I saw. It is actually the first time I have had a haircut outside of the US. We then walked over to the Melbourne State Library. They had some interesting exhibits including some old books. One book dated from 2,050 BC from Iraq and there was also a 13th century bible in Latin from southern England. We also noticed at the library that they had free internet access both for wired and wireless and you didn't have to be a member. We stopped for about 30 minutes and caught up on email. You had to reserve a computer at a central terminal but it assigned you a specific computer. The system made me enter a name for my reservation so I chose the name of Peyton Manning which probably doesn't mean as much around these parts.

Monday was a down day. We trained back into the city and spent most of the day at the library with free high speed internet access. We are traveling pretty light and didn't bring any guide books with us. Alethea did check out some from the Nashville library and scan in several pages from various countries but that can only help so much. We researched how to get to the airport in Melbourne and how to get to our hostel in Auckland tomorrow. We also researched things to do in New Zealand. We'll be renting a car and driving from Auckland on the north island down to the southern island. Two weeks later (and a day) we end up in Christchurch where we will then fly to Seoul, South Korea. I'm really looking forward to New Zealand even though I really don't know too much about it. I read a guide book several months ago but I've read so many since then I've about forgot what I read. I saw today where they have 4.2 million people and 40 million sheep. They actually had 60 million sheep 20 years ago. In addition to trip research we also caught up blogging, uploading pictures, and other stuff. I'm finishing up this blog from the library. This wraps it up for Melbourne unless something crazy happens. I'll now throw in some notes about Australia and the trip so far.

Australia\Travel thoughts:

I figured I would take a few minutes and list some thoughts on Australia and the trip so far. I'll start with some of the more positive aspects. Australia is an interesting place. Not quite sure how to categorize it exactly. As I mentioned in the Sydney post is reminds me mostly of Canada but there were times when I felt I was still in the US and sometimes when I felt that I was in Europe. The people are generally pretty nice and helpful. Our couch surfing went pretty well too. We ended up surfing 9 out of 24 nights with no major issues. We could have couch surfed another 3 nights in Melbourne but decided not too after having surfer for 6 nights in two locations before finishing up our Australia leg of the trip. We met some really nice people though. We've also had no other major snafus either. No flight or major hostel issues that couldn't be easily overcome (like finding hot water).

I would say I have two highlights that tie as my favorites so far. Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef was very neat. It would have been a little better if the weather would have cooperated but the views under water were great. The other one that tied with snorkeling was seeing all of the wildlife on Kangaroo Island. It was great to get to interact with animals you've never encountered before and may never see again. I enjoyed feeding and petting the kangaroos. I didn't know much about them before our visit. I thought there were only one type. Turns out there are over 40. They are also quite common almost like deer from what I've heard and observed. It was also interesting to be in a country when they were going through an election. Australia held it's national election while we were here. It is pretty much like US elections with both sides distorting the facts to their advantage. I do like the fact that voting is mandatory. I believe the fine is $50 for not voting. I think it should be this way in the US. I think we would get more mainstream candidates versus the extremes we get on both sides. One other very quick good thing is that we totaled up our expenses and we came in under budget. Yeah!

Now for some of the things that could have gone better. Probably the biggest disappointment was with internet access. It was either expensive, slow, or not present which wasn't expected. As I mentioned earlier we are traveling light and researching and planning as we go so lack of reliable internet access is a problem. We've adapted and have done a lot of work offline and made tasks list for when we do get back online so we stay focused. The next biggest disappointment was how expensive alcohol is here. Beer is 2 to 3 times more than beer in the US and wine is about 1 to 2 times more expensive. Also the local Australian beer doesn't have quite the flavor as good US beer does. I guess we were kind of spoiled living out in Portland for 5 months. In my opinion Portland is the best city in the US for beer. Another interesting thing that we kept noticing is that houses and hostel/hotels lack central heat. Most places have a space heater and just use more blankets. This means that places were cooler on average. Like everything else you get used to it. The last item that got my attention was how much public transportation costs. It was very expensive in Sydney, not present in Cairns, very expensive in Adelaide, and mildly expensive in Melbourne. Melbourne did have some weekend passes that were reasonable or good. On Sunday's all day passes for all zones were only $3.10 AUD. On a week day the price would have been $10.60 AUD.

No other big issues that I can think of. I think we did a pretty good job with packing the right amount of stuff and that we selected the right backpacks. We'll see how it holds up. I am doing pretty good too. I don't expect the traveling to get too rough until we hit China in October. We'll probably run into language barrier issues in South Korea and Japan but that is to be expected. Starting tomorrow for the next two weeks we'll be in New Zealand. New Zealand will be done a little bit differently than Australia. In Australia we mapped out where we wanted to go and bought intra-country flights and booked some of our hostels and made couch surfing reservations before we left the US. In New Zealand we know where we'll stay for the first two nights in Auckland but after that we are on our own and will make it up from there as we drive from north to south. I've heard many good things about New Zealand. I've heard that the scenery is beautiful. It will be a little cooler there than Australia though which is fine with us. We did just fine with our clothes in Australia dressing in layers when we needed too. It is also still off-peak for tourism so that should help with expenses. Well that is it from Australia. I'm going to take a break and then go back and edit this entry before posting. Yes, I actually do edit my posts before I post :-). I know I don't catch all of the spelling or grammar errors. I even fixe some of them after I post. Maybe I should let Alethea read these first which is one thing we don't actually do. We don't read each others blog posts before they are posted so we don't end up writing too much about the same thing unless it is a coincidence. Next post will be from somewhere in New Zealand.

Link to picture from Melbourne:

Pictures from Melbourne, Australia

(Post covered from 8/20 to 8/23 including some thoughts on Australia and the trip so far)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Adelaide & Kangaroo Island

I thought I would take a few minutes and write about what we've been up to over the last week. I'll touch a little bit on Adelaide before covering our side trip to Kangaroo Island. I'm writing this entry on Friday 8/20 as we make our way from Adelaide to Melbourne by train. We decided to travel by train after taking three intra-Australia flights across the country. You really do not get a chance to see much from 30,000 feet plus it was slightly cheaper than flying although not by much. The scenery for this 12 hour train ride has been pretty but somewhat similar once we left the Adelaide city area. It is mostly rolling hills and farmland. The most popular crops have been canola and wheat with the most popular animal being sheep by far trailed cows. We did pass by a zoo a couple hours east of Adelaide that is part zoo and part animal rehabilitation center. We were able to see some giraffes in one part of the zoo. We also spotted a couple kangaroos in the wild shortly after leaving Adelaide. One funny thing we keep seeing is that every time the train passes close to a field of sheep the sheep take off running away from the train. They are probably scared to death. Anyway, back to the trip summary starting with Adelaide.

We arrived in Adelaide Friday evening the 13th after having spent the previous few days in Cairns where it was nice and warm. In Adelaide it was pretty much in the 50's with either rain, wind, or both. We couch surfed in Adelaide again. Our host, Carlo, even picked us up from the airport. He also gave us a little bit of a quick driving tour downtown. He mentioned going to a few clubs but we settled on going to a billiards club for a game and beers which helped us get acquainted. We then headed to Carlo's house and settled in for the night. Carlo is pretty new to couch surfing but was a good host. We slept on a queen size inflatable mattress that had not been opened. It was actually pretty comfortable.

We spent Saturday and Sunday checking out the sights in Adelaide that we're open and free. We spent several hours Saturday at the Central Market which is a very large (compared to US standards) farmer's market that had all types of meats, vegetables, fish, cheeses, and breads. We even purchased our dinner supplies at the market for Saturday night. We continued to meander around the downtown area Saturday before heading back to Carlo's place. We got kind of lucky and he happened to be in town and was able to give us a ride back to his house which saved us some money on their rather expensive tram line. The main reason he was downtown was that he was picking up another fellow couch surfer named Pauline. Pauline is 25 years old and was from France. She has been in Australia since January and is about to head up through the middle of Australia to Ayer's Rock and eventually to Darwin on the north coast. She was very nice and even hung out with us on Sunday when we went back in to town. On our second day we toured an art museum, the University of Adelaide, and wrapped up the day using some of the free but very slow free wi-fi at one of the library branches downtown. Adelaide was a pretty basic town. There wasn't that much to see or do and the weather didn't really cooperate that much. I'd probably skip it or only stay for a day. The region does have a lot of wineries but we were limited by the weather and by our lack of transportation. The primary purpose for traveling to Adelaide was for our side trip Kangaroo Island.

As I mentioned Kangaroo Island was the focus for traveling down to the state of South Australia. We both wanted to see some native wildlife and take a quick break from being in cities. We arrived on Kangaroo Island on Monday the 16th and left on Thursday the 19th. Kangaroo Island was a quick 20 minute flight on a prop plane from Adelaide to the airport near Kingscote on the east side of the island. It was is probably one of the smallest airports that I have been in with only two gates and no security screening facilities. We arrived around mid-day Monday and drove around the island's north shore after a quick trip into Kingscote. It took a couple hours over mostly unpaved roads but it was pretty. The north side is pretty green and lush. It reminded me somewhat of Ireland. We actually spotted our second kangaroo in the wild during the drive.

After our tour of the north coast of the island we arrived at the Pardana Wildlife Park which is a private wildlife park that for me was the highlight of the island. The park had numerous types of animals. We saw wallabies, all sorts of birds, deer, a pig, couple donkeys, koalas, and numerous kangaroos including an albino one to go along with an albino wallaby. We stayed at the park for a couple hours. We got to pet the koalas and went in to one of the pins that contained kangaroos. In the kangaroo area we were able to pet them and feed them. They were anxious to get some food. They may be a little aggressive but they are pretty well behaved. We also met up with our couch surfing host for our island visit Dave Morris. Dave is actually the only couch surfing host on the island. We were surprised that there was even one on the island given that is pretty small (only 4,000 residents). He was a great host though. We had dinner with him each night and spent a day with him on his day off on Wednesday. On Thursday when we flew back in to Adelaide he actually picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at our hostel. Dave is a tour guide for the ferry company Sealink. He has traveled the world and has been some of the places that we're going. After we met him at the wildlife park we went to his house while he continued on with his tour for the day. The funny thing was that his house wasn't even locked. You just opened the sliding door and lifted the shades up and went in. I don't think any of the doors had any locks on them.

On Tuesday we spent quite a bit of time in the car. We drove to the far west side of the island to the Cape Borda lighthouse. It was about 60 miles from Dave's house. We stopped and ate lunch there before hiking to an overlook on a bluff about 1 km from the lighthouse. After lunch we drove down to Flinders Chase National Park on the southwest corner of the island. At the park, which came with a $9 per person entry fee, we saw some beautiful scenery at Admiral's Arch and at the Remarkable Rocks sections. At Admiral's Arch we saw several New Zealand Fur Seals in addition to the arch itself and at the Remarkable Rocks we saw some uniquely shaped rocks on an outcropping overlooking the ocean. We also saw some dolphins swimming in the bay from the distance.

We spent Wednesday with our host Dave. We kept to a light schedule but still manged to attend an interactive bird exhibit and eat a good lunch by Vivonne Bay. We also stopped on the way home and bought 3 dozen oysters that were pulled out of the ocean that morning for only $7 a dozen. The only bad part was that we had to clean and shuck them which took awhile. I managed to cut myself 3 times on one oyster so Alethea and Dave did most of the shucking. We all had bloody hands by the time we were done. The oysters we ate with our dinner were good though. After dinner we actually went on a night time animal watching tour in Penneshaw where Dave lives. We saw several wallabies, some cows on the run, and even some penquins!

On Thursday we flew back up to Adelaide and spent part of the day walking around Chinatown in Adelaide with Dave. We stayed at a very basic and somewhat filthy hostel in downtown Adelaide. It wasn't too bad and served its purpose of allowing for a good night's rest before heading to the Keswick train station for our trip to Melbourne. We'll spend 4 nights in Melbourne before wrapping up our Australia part of the trip. Our next stop will be New Zealand. Hope everyone is doing well and I am not putting everyone to sleep with my writing.

Pictures for this part of the trip are posted on the blog and at the link below. After getting caught up on pictures, blogging, and documenting our expenses on the spreadsheet (where we log just about everything), I think I'll head to the bistro car and enjoy the scenery for the remaining two hours of the train ride into Melbourne.

Adelaide and Kangaroo Island album link:

Adelaide & Kangaroo Island Pictures

(This entry covered 8/13 to 8/20: Adelaide – 8/13 to 8/16, KI – 8/16 to 8/19)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef – Monday, August 9th thru Friday August 13th

Note: Posting this entry a little late. Internet access in Australia has not been that reliabe. You pretty much have to pay as you go or if it is free it is slow and locked down preventing you from doing basic things I've used some old school tricks to do some of the most basic tasks. Oh well...

Anyway, here is my entry for our trip to Cairns.............

I figured I would start my Cairns blog entry since we have a little downtime while we do laundry. It is Tuesday 10th as I begin this entry. I'll also be writing this offline since internet access isn't free here (here is Dreamtime Traveler's Rest hostel in Cairns).

The journey up to Cairns was relatively uneventful. We left our couch surf host David around 11:20 am Monday morning to drive back to the airport. It took a good 40 minutes including a quick stop for gas. Gas was about $1.19 AUD per litter. We purchased 25.6 liters or 6.77 gallons so the price per gallon came out to about $4.50 AUD or $4.10 USD a gallon. I was actually expecting it to be worse but we had a pretty fuel efficient car. I think it was Toyota Corolla. I also I am not sure how heavily they tax their auto fuel. I know the US has one of the lowest rates of tax on auto fuel in the world. Also as in Europe you mostly see small fuel efficient passenger cars and few SUVs. Two other quick interesting things about driving in Australia is that they have variable speed limits on the interstate and no billboard signs that we saw.

Once we arrived at the airport we noticed a few things that are different than flying in the states. First of all we arrived three hours before our flight was due to depart. This was because our rental car had to be back by noon and our flight wasn't until 3:40 pm. The interesting thing is that you cannot check in for your flight until two hours before departure so we had to wait for a little bit before actually checking in. The check in process through security is even more interesting. We didn't have to show identification one time. At the check in kiosk Alethea had a printed piece of paper with our flight itinerary and a bar code on it. She scanned the bar code and it printed out our tickets. When we dropped our baggage off the desk agent didn't check for any identification. We then proceeded to the security screening area. We didn't have to take off our shoes, belts, jackets, cell phones, or anything except take our laptops out of our backpacks. We didn't even present our boarding pass or any type of ID as we passed through the metal detector. Security did have question about a water purification filter in my backpack though. It didn't really dawn on us until a little later that we went through security without showing ID once. I told Alethea bin Laden could have gotten on the flight using our names. The rest of the journey up to Cairns went just fine except our plane was about 20 minutes later leaving. They also board planes a little differently too. Rows 1-15 board through the front while the rest board through the back of the plane at the same time so there is no boarding by zones. The flight itself was about 3 hours. We spent Monday evening settling in.

We started out Tuesday by sleeping in then doing laundry. After laundry we walked around Cairns for a little bit. We also were on a mini quest to find some free wi-fi internet access since we had done some research about this area but it was stored online. We tried a few spots including a McDonalds and the Cairns public library. At the library we noticed in our town map we got at the hostel that there was free internet access at the brewery that was only about 5 blocks away. How could we resist plus it was overcast, raining, and almost 5 pm? We hiked over to the brewery and ordered our beers. We eventually got online after they plugged the power up to their wireless router. Anyway, we hung out of the brewery for just one round while we got caught up on email and trip research. On the way back we picked up some noodle bowl dishes from a Chinese place before heading home. We turned in rather early because we had be at the check in at terminal for our snorkeling trip the next morning by 8 am plus we had to walk to get there. The hostel offered a free ride down to the terminal only if you booked through them but we booked at another place downtown that ended up giving us both 10% discounts that we probably wouldn't have received at the hostel. It was only about a 20 minute walk.

Wednesday was our big trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. I'll touch on some of the particulars about the trip but to do it just I'd recommend looking at the picture album on the right side of the blog itself or here ( Our trip was an all day trip that included breakfast, lunch, & three stops to dive or snorkel. The base cost per person was $162 per person if all you did was snorkel. Alethea received a 10% discount for being a member of the Youth Hostel Association. The person we booked with also gave me a 10% too so the total was $147 person. It was a splurge activity. During our travels we will occasionally splurge a little bit for one of these once in a lifetime type activities. The next one probably will not occur for a few more weeks until we hit New Zealand where we might skydive. We've both skydived twice before and really enjoy it. Anyway, we checked in at 8 am, departed at 8:30 am, and returned at 4:20 pm. Each stop for snorkeling lasted a little over a hour. The boat had enough for 80 passengers but only carried 68. No I didn't count them. After each stop they did a headcount check so we didn't leave anyone behind and I overheard them give the number. It was pretty much split 50/50 between snorkelers and divers. It took 1.5 hours to get to the spots we stopped. Between stops it only took about 10 minutes to reach the next stop. I believe all stops were at Flynn's Reef which is pretty far out and further out than where most boats go. It was on the edge of the continental shelf where it drops off to the deep water. We both decided to wear both stinger suites and wet suites due to the conditions at our snorkeling locations. The stinger suites are as you guessed it for jelly fish stings. The lifeguard mentioned that they had some passengers stung 4 days prior. The water temp was 25 C (I believe that is 75 F) which is a little cool for us so we also put wet suites on over our stinger suites. Both suites costs us an extra $6 per person which wasn't bad. All three of the stops had great views of fish and coral. Some people saw turtles. I didn't. Some also saw reef sharks which are common and supposedly harmless. I thought I saw one from a distance but wasn't 100% sure. I heard some of the divers say they saw some on more than one stop so I am sure they were around. I would say the only variables that could have been a little better was that it was overcast with no sun and the first place we stopped at was pretty rough. It was definitely the roughest waters I have snorkeled in. All previous snorkeling for me had been done close to shore and not in the open ocean. There were quite a few snorkelers that were snorkeling for the first time. I definitely would not have enjoyed the first stop if that was my first time. I was getting thrown around and water was splashing in my air tube from the waves. The water was calmer at our next two stops and some of the coral was even exposed above the water on the third stop. The depths varied varied a little between locations. They were were around 25-30 feet where the coral wasn't present. I am glad it was a little deeper which allowed for better viewing without having to worry about being carried into the coral. One other note on the rough seas is that multiple passengers became sick on the trip out with some even getting sick to their stomach. Alethea didn't to well on the way out but did better on the way back. I was just fine and actually thought it was pretty neat although it made drinking coffee a little interesting. All in all I thought it was very good trip and I'm glad we did it. It was definitely the best snorkeling and the most fish I've scene. We finished the day off by redeeming a coupon for a large pizza from Dominos for $6 (total was $6.95 with tax). One funny thing that happened was that when we asked for the red pepper packets to put on our pizza they looked at us like we were crazy. In Australia they call it chilli flakes and they put on your pizza there as a topping verses dispensing it in the packets.

Thursday was a day filled with a lot less activities. We considered renting a car and driving along the coast up to Port Douglas and beyond. However, it was going to cost at least $50 for the rental car plus probably $20 for the gas and then other expenses. We decided instead to stay in Cairns. The weather was much better with the highs in the low 80's and sunny skies. We walked down the boardwalk and on the beach for a couple hours around mid-day. It is a long beach. It is probably 2 miles long. The not so pretty part is that starting around mid-day is low tide so the shoreline begins to recede and in Cairns it receded a few hundred meters exposing mud flats. We did see a lot birds and lizard like creatures. There were signs warning of crocodiles in the area but we didn't see any which actually kind of disappointed me a little bit. We then backtracked the path we took down to the beach and spent a little bit of time at McDonald's using their free wi-fi before walking a little further out to the marina and then back to our hostel. We stopped on the way back to buy a cheap bottle of wine and some basic supplies. Alethea cooked dinner. We've pretty much decided that we need to cook as much as possible to stretch our money to last as long as possible in expensive countries such as Australia, New Zealand, & Japan.

Friday was a travel day. We had a minor hiccup flying down south to Adelaide. The issue was that when we checked in for our first flight in Cairns the agent tried to charge us for one of our checked bags. We flew on Jet Stat airlines. For this flight which includes a layover in Brisbane we had to call and purchase the ticket over the phone because for multi-stop flights you cannot book online. Apparently the agent we spoke too booked my ticket correctly but not Alethea's so they tried to charge her for her bag. We argued for a little bit and they decided not to charge us for the other bag. We also found out that when we got to Brisbane we had to claim our bags and re-check in for our flight to Adelaide. The rest of the trip was uneventful. It was pretty easy to claim our bags and check-in for our next flight. We get in around 8:30 pm.

Overall our side to trip to Cairns went pretty well. Cairns reminded us of Hawaii somewhat. The beaches that we saw weren't all that great but the main attraction here is the Great Barrier Reef. We enjoyed our trip out to the reef Our next stop is 4 hours to the south down in Adelaide. The weather there is going to quite different. Alethea saw a news report earlier today saying there was a chance for snow even. I believe the highs will be in the 50's. Brrrrr

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sydney & the Blue Mountains – (Monday August 2nd thru Sunday August 8th )

This is a my second attempt at writing an entry for Sydney. I wrote one entry after the 4th day but didn't like it because it was too linear and step by step. I think what I'll do is summarize what we did in downtown Sydney for the first few days and what did when we stayed out west of the city. I'll follow up with some observations of the city/country, general observations, and how the trip is going overall.

We spent our first three full days in Sydney after our arrival in the downtown area. Once we saw how expensive public transportation was we decided to walk to the places we wanted to visit. We're both in pretty good shape and many of the things we wanted to see were located downtown plus our hostel (Eva's Backpackers - is centrally located.

The first day in Sydney we hiked a few kilometers west to the Darling Harbor area and checked out the Australian Maritime museum (it was free). We also hiked over to the Sydney Fish Market and enjoyed some fresh oysters before hiking down to the Haymarket and Chinatown areas. It was a pretty good first day to get oriented to the city including distances.

The next day we had a goal of walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. We accomplished our goal! The views from the bridge were pretty. We could see the Sydney Opera House, downtown Sydney, and the Sydney Harbor. The weather was clear with the temps in the low 60's. Before arriving we stopped at the Lorn Nelson Brewery which bills itself as the oldest brewery in I believe Sydney, if not Australia. So far my impression on Australian beers is not that favorable. It isn't just the prices. Australia beer tastes are kind of bland and the alcohol level is lower from what I've seen so far. It pretty much took a full day to walk to the bridge, explore the area downtown known as The Rocks including the Opera House before walking back.

Sydney Opera House from the Sydney Harbor Bridge

We spent the next day walking strolling around the Royal Botanical Gardens. The gardens are downtown and very large. We only spent a couple hours walking around and saw probably less than half. Good thing the weather was pretty good on this day too. After lunch we took a bus about 45 minutes to Bondi Beach. The beach is pretty well developed and still relatively close to the city center. It is also too dangerous to swim and is known for its surfing more than anything else. We walked around the general area for a couple hours before taking the bus back. The bus itself wasn't cheap. It costs $8 per person round trip. Maybe they make a profit off of their public transportation? :-)

After three full days in downtown Sydney we checked out for our first couch surfing experience ( for those not familiar with it). We are staying with David. He lives about 40 km (26 miles) west of downtown Sydney. We decided to rent a car since he lives out in the suburbs plus we planned on driving up to the Blue Mountains. Alethea was the driver since she rented this car. Remarkably it was an uneventful 45 minute drive. Australians drive on the left side of the road and the cars have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Alethea did a good job driving. She turned into and stayed in the correct lanes. The only problem was that she kept turning the wiper blades on instead of the turn signal since they are on opposite sides of the car as in the US! Our couch surfing host turned out to be excellent. He is friendly and a good host. He cooked for us on Friday evening and even breakfast the next morning. We're staying with him for three nights before flying to Cairns on Monday. This is only the second time I have couch surfed. The first time was last fall when we took a weekend trip to San Juan Island north of Seattle.

On Saturday we drove up to the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains begin about 25-30 minutes further west from where David lives. We spent the day stopping at various different lookout points including Glenbrook, Wentworth Falls, Katoomba, before turning around for the day at Mt. Victoria. We stopped first looking for Kangaroos in Glenbrook but didn't spot any. The Blue Mountains remind me of a cross between the Cumberland Plateau and the Smoky Mountains. The geology is similar. The weather was sunny and clear again but much cooler than the 60's we experience in Sydney. The highlight of the day was on our return back to David's. We stopped again at a place called Euroka within the park and spotted our first kangaroo! It was a dark brown one towards the main entrance area. We were hoping to spot several but this was the only one we saw.
Blue Mountains National Park

On Sunday we pretty much decided to take it easy since we have been on the go quite a bit. We've spent most of the day uploading pictures, blogging, and working on the remaining part of our Australia itinerary with a little work done on the New Zealand portion as well. New Zealand will be here before we know it!

I'll dedicate this paragraph or so to some of my observations and thoughts about our trip. Sydney was an interesting big city. It reminds me of Canada sort of with a touch of Europe especially with the driving on the left side of the road. It is also somewhat of an expensive city which is why we concentrated on many free activities such as parks, the Harbor Bridge, and mountains. Our plan for Sydney and Australia in general was to start in a place that should be relatively easy to adjust too before getting to cities and countries that will be more difficult such as well...Asia and Africa for me :-). We knew it would be expensive but I think we did a good job on costs while at the same time exploring the city. I'm looking forward to Cairns which should be much warmer. Highs are in the mid 80's vs. the low 60's here in Sydney. I'm also still getting a feel for my blog as I document the trip from my perspective. It isn't as easy as it looks. I'm sure it will take a few more entries before I feel more comfortable with it all.

So far so good on our trip. I cannot think of anything we left behind nor do I think we took too much. I did have to buy an electrical adapter for Australia\New Zealand. We researched this before our trip. Alethea had two adapters that are supposed to be universal and work for every country we are going to but apparently Australia\New Zealand are different somehow. The adapter I bought only cost $9 and works in both countries. I might try to sell it in New Zealand. Alethea actually got hers for free from one of the women working at the front desk of the hostel. I recovered from the jet lag from the 14.5 hour flight with 18 time zone changes including losing a day by the second day and even then it wasn't that bad.

That's enough for now. Hope everyone is doing well. Let me know if anyone has any questions or any type of feedback for our adventures.

The first kangaroo we spotted!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Journey Begins 7/31 to 8/2

Our around the world journey began with the alarm going off at 3:50 am in Nashville, TN on Saturday July 31st. Our goal for the day was to get on a flight to Sydney by the end of the day. The flights were starting to look pretty full so we decided to head out on Saturday since Sunday's flights looked to be more full than Saturdays. Anyway, we got up and left home around 4:15 am with my parents taking us to the airport. As I mentioned in a previous post we were flying on passes courtesy of Alethea's mom so we had to be flexible and could only get on flights based on seat availability and our priority level. Our first goal was to get out of Nashville. This proved harder than we originally thought. We tried getting on the 5:30 am flight to Atlanta but that flight was full. We then tried the 6:30 am flight. Alethea, whose priority level is higher than mine due to the type of pass she is on was able to get on the flight but I was not. I was the passenger with the lowest priority level and was the only one not able to get on the flight. We weren't going to split up so Alethea didn't board without me. We then took a look at the Salt Lake City flight leaving at I believe 7:45 am. Again Alethea was cleared. It looked like I was too until the last minute when a passenger came running up. She had actually been waiting at the wrong gate for some reason. This actually turned out to be a good thing because if we would have flown to Salt Lake then we probably would not have made it to LA to board the Sydney flight since the flights from Salt Lake to LA were full. We then went back to the Delta Sky Club where we had been camping out since we arrived earlier in the morning and were looking over our options for getting out. Alethea and one of the Sky Club individuals looked at numerous options. We looked at flying to JFK , Cancun (then to LA), and even a wild combination of going to Tokyo then down to Australia. Keep in mind that we are flying on passes that are relatively very inexpensive so the focus was on seat availability and not necessarily price. After seeing that it was going to be difficult to leave Nashville or if we would have left Nashville we would have been stuck in the next city without being able to get to LA. Around 10:30 am or so we noticed a couple flights on American Airlines to LAX. We decided to purchase a ticket on a flight leaving @ 4:50 pm that would have us going through DFW and then on to LAX by 8:40 pm. The cost was only $225. I wasn't too thrilled about this at first since I hadn't planned on spending any extra to fly on this portion of our trip. It turned out to be the right thing to do. One funny thing that happened was that I purchased the last ticket at the $200 rate. Alethea was attempting to purchase her's at the exact same time and when she went to purchase it told her that the cost of the ticket had change and was not over $400. She decided to cash in frequent flier miles and only had to pay $100.

Now that we knew we had confirmed tickets out of Nashville we were able to relax a little bit. We both went into the Quiet Room in the Sky Club and took a couple naps. We also got some lunch and relaxed until it was time for our flight. Our flight from Nashville actually departed a little early and arrived early at Dallas-Ft. Worth which was good since we only had a 45 minute layover. Our flight in Ft. Worth left on time too but we both were stopped while trying to board the flight by a militant gate agent who said our backpacks were too large. Alethea actually had to take her empty purse out before being able to board. I just had to stuff my bag into the empty sample check-in bag frame to demonstrate that my bag was ok which it was and I didn't have to take anything out of it. That is one thing I don't like is because the carry on bag size is so infrequently and inconsistently enforced plus the gate agent in Ft. Worth was so rude. I actually wanted to use some more foul language to describe this incident but I have to keep in mind that kiddos will be reading this blog too :) We both said we got on the first flight with the exact same bag but she said she didn't care about our previous flight. Other than the boarding process our flight to LA was uneventful except for some minor turbulence but we arrived early.

After arriving in LA we proceeded over to the international terminal. We arrived in one terminal and had to walk out of security over to Terminal 5. We had to go to a self service kiosk and re-issue our standby tickets so we could back through security again. We proceeded through security within a few minutes. My bag actually was searched and re-scanned by TSA which was no big deal. We then hiked up to the gate where the Sydney flight was due to leave from and reviewed the standby list screen. The flight was due to leave at 10:35 pm and when we there it didn't look like we had a chance to get on the flight because it was showing full with 13 people on the waiting list and you guessed it I was number 13. I eventually dropped to 15 because two additional people listed over the next 90 minutes. The good thing was that Alethea's mom had actually called ahead and befriended a Delta employee in the Sky Club in LA who said we could spend the night with her if we didn't make the Sydney flight. After seeing that it wasn't looking good we decided to go up to the Sky Club located a few gates down to relax for a little bit. We checked in and chatted with the lady that Alethea's mom had hooked us up with. Her shift was actually over at 9:30 pm and she was going to leave at that time which means we would have to leave with her if we wanted a free place to stay in LA that night. We decided to stay in case a miracle happened. We stayed in the Sky Club and watched online as the gate agents cleared passengers. We enjoyed some snacks and a free beer while we waited. Around 10 pm we saw that more people were starting to clear so we decided to grab our bags and go down to the gate which we did in a hurried manner. We stayed around the gate and starred at the standby list and saw about 10 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave that a bunch of seats became available. This was due primarily to a couple no shows and a late connecting flight. About 30 minutes before it looked like there was no way we would get on the flight then all of sudden we were both cleared. I believe I was the last person cleared for the flight on the waiting list. There were a couple empty seats but not more than a few.

The flight itself for me was relatively uneventful. It was long though. Flying time for the flight 14 hours and 30 minutes. I almost had a quick panic attack because as we were taxing out for take off the pilot came over the radio and said there was a problem with the radio and they had to pull off to the side and discuss it with maintenance. They were actually able to resolve it after a few minutes. We eventually took off although it was about a hour late before we finally took off. The good thing about the flight was that I was able to sleep a lot. The first bit that I slept was about 4.5 hours. I then was awake for about a hour before sleeping another 1.5 to 2 hours. I was feeling pretty well rested at this point. I stayed up and watched one episode of The Simpsons, thee episodes of the The Office, and 2/3rds of The Godfather before we landed. All the TV and movies are on demand per individual seat which was pretty neat. Alethea had a much different experience. She was sitting next to a lady with two small kids with one getting sick to its stomach before we ever departed. The kid got sick to its stomach again later on during the flight too. I don't think she slept at all during the flight.

We arrived about a 30 minutes late into Sydney at about 7 am. We were able to get off the plane and go through immigration and security pretty quickly. The visa for Australia is purchased in advance and is electronic. We also went through real fast because we had no checked bags which is rare for an international flight. We then called our hostel to see if we could get a room since we actually got to Australia a day early. They were able to put us in a 4 person dorm room. On Tuesday we'll switch to a private room for the next three nights. They also have a shuttle service that was able to pick us up from the airport for free. We checked in and took showers before settling in for a 2 hour nap even though I didn't really need one. We then walked around our area before getting some lunch at a Thai restaurant. After lunch we shopped at a local grocery store. We plan on saving some money over the next few days by buying some breakfast and lunch foods. One thing we ran into when looking for alcohol was that beer is very expensive or at least it is at this grocery store. A 6 pack would have cost the equivalent of $15. We bought the cheapest bottle of wine that we could fine for $5. We then went back to our hostels and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. We caught up on emails and so forth and will map out the next few days. We decided to take it easy and relax after spending 36 hours traveling to Sydney. By the way the weather is pretty cool as we expect it. It is still sort of winter here. It will be in the high 50's to low 60's while we're here.

Overall I was pleased with our first day(s) of travel. Things didn't look to good at first but we made up for it by getting to Sydney for a little more than we wanted to spend but much less than what a regular ticket would have costs and that was actually a possibility Saturday when we look at seat availability through different airports.

Well that is probably more than enough for my first blog entry on our trip. I doubt I'll go into that much detail with future entries. My goal is to both document our trip while at the same time making it interesting for our friends and family to follow along so I want to balance details with high level summaries. Also, we'll have more or less downtime depending where we are at so that might influence content as well. Tomorrow (Tuesday August 3rd) is our first full day in Sydney so we'll see what happens over the next few days.