The first driving stop after Sydney was in Port Macquarie, a quaint coastal town. By far the highlight was the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. This hospital becomes a home for koalas in need of medical care for any number of reasons; whether it be loss of habitat because of development, car accidents or the common case of chlamydia (seriously). At the hospital you can “adopt” a koala, and of course the pictures of the poor little things in desperate need of care brought out my wallet. I left the hospital $50 poorer, but the proud “parent” of Bermuda Barb – a little koala who got hit by a car and had a tiny cast on her arm.
The Gold Coast is a 35km strip of coastal highway that is the most built up in all of Australia, a sort of Las Vegas of OZ, complete with tacky neon signs advertising cheap buffets. Apparently the strip is booming as 1000 people each week migrate to the area for the ideal weather, sort of a retirement mecca, as Florida is to the US. Other than the main theme parks (also like Florida), there isn’t really much to do there but lay by the beach or surf.
Brisbane is home the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, definitely one of the highlights of the trip thus far. This is where they allow people to pay extra to hold a koala, which I gladly forked over for this experience I had been eagerly awaiting for so long. The koala I got to hold was a little nervous after the group of kids in front of me were finished heckling her, but she settled down with a few eucalyptus leaves and cooperated fully with her handler and sat very still in my hands as she had dozens of pictures taken. She was surprisingly heavy, about 25 pounds, and had much bigger claws than I was expecting. Her fur was not the soft rabbit like texture I had anticipated, but very coarse and dense. I have now joined the likes of Pope John Paul II and Marilyn Manson on the list of people who have visited and held the prized marsupials. In another section of the park, is an area where the kangaroos run “wild”. Of course the definition of wild is a little skewed because a majority of them were taking a nap in a shaded area, while the hungry ones anxiously waited on their hind legs for tourists to come right up and hand feed them, and of course we were more than willing to oblige them. Most of them were quite tame and let you come right up to them to pet them or if you stuck out your hand they would nibble the food right from you, leaving your hand a saliva coated mess. One of the moms was carrying a baby in her pouch, which at first was hard to see until the little guy started moving around, and stuck his head out. The furless creature looked like a chihuahua, but we only got a short glimpse of it before the dutiful mom pushed the head back in the pouch. Overall, it was a very exciting day for me.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The only way to travel it is in a 4WD vehicle, which you rent at an exorbitant price to drive around a jungle straight out of Jurassic Park and along the oceans beach. You set up camp, and hope that it holds up to the tremendous winds (it didn’t) and cook dinner and hope to see (or not see, depending on your views) a dingo. Dingoes are basically wild dogs that look emaciated and wander around camp sites in hopes of finding food. There was a criminal trial about ten years ago that a young mother claims that a dingo carried off her baby, she was acquitted of murder. One wandered up to our camp site, but then wandered away without incident so it doesn’t really make a good story, but I at least got to see one.
The Whitsundays are beautiful group of islands that offer postcard perfect beaches and snorkeling. We took a day cruise to a couple of different islands, and were fed a bbq lunch, which I got to experience twice because of my wonderful ability to get horribly seasick. Despite the fact that it rained and I only enjoyed the land portions of the day, seeing Matt in his stinger suit (for the jellyfish) definitely brought a smile to my face.
In Cairns Matt and I signed up for a combination learn-to-scuba-dive course and live aboard boat trip with the company Pro-Dive. In our classroom/pool sessions, of our 18 person class, we were the only ones from the US, thus from the first ten minutes of class, we were known as “Team USA”; individually I was known as “Miss America”. You can imagine my response to such a title… After two successful days in the pool and classroom, we were off for our 3 day/2night cruise to the Great Barrier Reef. We did our first four dives with our instructor leading the way for our group in lines, just like kindergarten. Our next five dives were much more interesting as we were on our own. The number and variety of fish and coral was simply amazing! On the night of the newly certified divers’ first (and only) night dive, the crew was throwing frozen fish off the back of the boat to attract sharks. Of course we all thought this was the coolest thing to see – a real live shark. Five minutes later we were all called down for our pre-dive briefing. As the instructor was going through protocol for the dive, suddenly the lights dimmed, and the theme song from Jaws could be heard over the speakers. The instructor then proceeded to tell us what we’re expected to do in the event of a shark sighting; form a close circle with our air tanks to the outside (like a steel cage), with the most knowledgeable person in the middle (i.e. the instructor). After forming the close-knit circle, we were to shine our flashlights on the unlucky person hovering next to us for one minute, just enough time for the instructor to surface unscathed. After that one minute, we were on our own to escape to the surface or attempt to outswim the shark. Unfortunately for everyone, we weren’t able to implement this plan.
Off to Africa tomorrow!