That’s right folks… I have one month remaining on my year abroad (I begin my journey home a month today) yet somehow it feels like it was about three weeks ago that I wrote my first blog post from out here in Melbourne entitled ‘One Whole Month’ (see what I did there?). Time has absolutely flown by and I’ve tried to cram as much as I can realistically do in the time I have had available. Looking back, it’s been such an incredible journey but I’ll save all of those thoughts for another time. After all, I still have this one month coming up and what a month! In just over two weeks time I’m flying to New Zealand, which to me is still a little mind boggling but it’s happening. In the meantime, I’m going to update you on how mind boggling the past few days have been, but before that, let me bring you up to date with what I’ve been up to in the past couple of weeks since my last update.
I wrote a load of essays and hit all of my deadlines. You are now up to date.
Unfortunately that is largely the reality of what’s been going on, but I did grab a day and get out and do something different. At the time, between essay deadlines and even dissertation research in preparation for next year, I needed a break.
So the Wanderlust festival I had booked a few weeks earlier for one Saturday in May fell on the perfect day. I woke up early (around 6am) and headed out to a park area called Catani Gardens right next to St. Kilda beach. Weather wise the conditions were perfect, there was a light breeze, clear skies and a warm sun. This particular Wanderlust event, Wanderlust Melbourne 108, was described as a ‘mindful triathlon’. It consisted of a 5k run, a 75 minute yoga session and then a meditation session. The last organised running event I participated in was the Liverpool Santa Dash in 2012 (I think) and although I loved it, I did struggle. I know 5k isn’t what you’d call long distance, but I am not a distance runner, I’m used to short sprints from playing football so I’ve always struggled pacing myself at these things.
Also I don’t have running shoes out here so just wore my football trainers which past half way really hurt my feet but now the excuses are out of the way, I managed to do the 5k in around 35 minutes. There was a lot of walking. After the run I had a lie down on my $6/£3 yoga mat I’d bought that week to recuperate and ease the pressure on my feet by taking my trainers and socks off. After a few minutes I went to have a walk around part of the park that had been transformed into food stalls, charity stalls and a Wanderlust merchandise shop with everything promoting health, equality and there was a genuine feeling of positivity surging throughout the place. There was a tremendous atmosphere and everyone came across as incredibly friendly. Yoga instructors got up onto the stage joining guitarist Arli Liberman who provided a relaxed backing soundtrack for the 2,700 strong crowd to enjoy whilst following the instructors. My yoga experience was limited to trying out the mat in my room by following two online videos of instructors and realising it’s actually kind of difficult. Before they started, everyone was sat down on their mats and the instructors asked the men to stand up. Apparently at the same event they ran in Auckland, New Zealand literally 8 men were there. Rather embarrassingly I thought (I’d gone out of curiosity and a result of some kind of desire and drive to do something different) the women present applauded us men stood up just for turning up. The instructors were trying to encourage yoga for men and were saying how we’ve done more than most already just by turning up. At that point I wasn’t entirely sure if that was such a good thing but I was there and once it started and I was trying, I actually managed to do most of it! It felt good. Some of it was strenuous, but it still felt okay. As the yoga was winding down and rolling into the meditation segment, I was getting hungry. Meditation had begun and one of the instructors calmly said “listen to your bodies” so I walked off and bought pizza followed by doughnuts. I was only doing as I was told. I later returned to my room exhausted but very relaxed and ready to snap back to reality and press on with work.
For the next week, all week there is one thing at the back of my mind that I simply cannot shake. I have a weekend coming up and I don’t have anything to do. All my assignments are done, I’ve finished lectures, I could go somewhere… Where should I go? What should I do? It was on my mind for a while until one day I just sat down with a blank piece of paper and worked things out. Where, how, when, how much, why?
Cairns, planes and shuttles, next weekend, within budget, Great Barrier Reef. I went for it and as the week drew to a close and I finished with my classes at Deakin University forever, I was becoming more and more excited for my little trip alone up to the Australian state of Queensland to visit Cairns and to see the Great Barrier Reef. The day came and I was so excited, it didn’t hit me that I was going to see the Great Barrier Reef and now that I’ve seen it it still hasn’t hit me. I left rainy Melbourne and arrived in Cairns at about 6:30pm, which was still at least 20 degrees warmer. I checked into my hostel – JJ’s Backpackers after being dropped off by a shuttle bus I’d booked online and I was immediately made to feel very welcome by the staff. Went to my room, flicked the light switch and waited for the light to flicker on and as soon as it did I was greeted by a cockroach scuttling across the floor. Not the start I had in mind and it dampened my enthusiasm a little but there was no time to dwell on that. I followed my phone maps into the centre of Cairns to find food and ended up eating a McDonald’s on the Esplanade before heading to Woolworth’s to grab some food, water and snacks. Walked in to the supermarket at 20:55 thinking “I’m not sure when they shut but I’m sure it’ll be alright” seconds later there was an announcement “ladies and gentlemen just to let you know this store will be closing in 5 minutes time so please start to make your way to the checkouts” oh. okay. So I rushed into making decisions buying 8 croissants, a loaf of banana bread, some chocolate I still haven’t finished and 1.5 litres of water. I got back to the hostel – not yet warming to it and went to sleep with an alarm set for 6am the next day – Sunday.
I slept quite well but to say that I leaped out of bed might be pushing it just a little bit. I was up though and quite happy having my croissant and banana bread breakfast before jumping on a shuttle outside the hostel to take me to Cairns Marina.
The driver told us exactly where we needed to be on the marina and how to get there, so having followed those instructions, I was boarding the ‘Reef Experience’ boat, given a pair of fins complete with snorkel mask, wet suit and a scary looking health and safety form (no it isn’t your fault if I die, no you won’t have to pay anything, yes anything that ever goes wrong is all my fault and you can’t ever be held accountable for anything ever etc etc). I took a seat on the boat and I was joined by two Americans who seemed friendly. After handing our forms in, receiving my hired underwater camera and between safety briefings and informative, entertaining talks we got talking and realised we were each travelling alone. We’d reached the first snorkelling area and having never snorkelled before, I was thinking about the main rules – fairly basic stuff like remembering to breathe. Then I got in the water, swam about 20 yards and was gasping for air realising that I was forgetting to breathe. I turned around, fixed my mask a little at the boat and then swam roughly back to where I’d got the first time, realised actually I was struggling quite a lot with the breathing thing. So I asked one of the staff members if they’d mind going out into the water with me because it was my first time snorkelling, I was on my own and I had NO IDEA what I was doing.
The staff member helped me out though and all of a sudden I was snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef! She pointed some things out such as a bright blue starfish that I hadn’t seen because I’d been distracted by a fish or something. Although it was incredible, it wasn’t as colourful as documentaries would have us believe. After I’d snorkelled I was offered a free glass bottom boat tour, so I went along. The captain gave us a stream of good information in an entertaining manner and there was so much it was almost overwhelming, so I actually managed to retain very little. What I do remember is the reason why the Great Barrier Reef looks so colourful in documentaries but not in person. Underwater, we lose the colour red. The water filters it out completely. When people film professionally underwater, they take massive floodlights to shine down onto the reef on the most perfect, clear, calm day with big red filters on their big professional high quality cameras and it exaggerates the colours visible to the naked eye. The pictures taken on the camera I had are pretty much as my eye saw the reef that day and it was still incredible. I thought that information was quite interesting more than anything, it isn’t something you think about because we don’t know any different but if you’ve just read this, you do now!
There was an abundance of included food on board. I got a second breakfast in the morning and got lunch after the first snorkel location.
After lunch, we moved on to the second snorkel location and on the journey I got talking to the two Americans again – Chris and Carla, and we got on really well. We arrived at the second location and we were going to stay for around an hour, so I went up on to the top deck to get some sun for maybe 5 minutes but ended up talking to a Dutch guy for a good 20 minutes before we both headed out to snorkel.
I went out on my own and this time I’d got it. I understood how to breathe and how to clear the snorkel of water, too. So I ventured out and took pictures of anything and everything, it was an incredible experience seeing everything that was down there. The journey back to the marina involved chatting away to my new American friends, cheese and biscuits and now that we weren’t going back in the water, it was legal to have alcohol so Reef Experience provided us with a glass of wine too. Very civilised.
Chris, Carla and myself had agreed that after showering and changing we might meet up for food later on. In reality Carla napped and woke when I was finishing a fish and chips from the Cairns Night Markets and Chris had just flat out fallen asleep. It was an exhausting day.
Was that likely to stop me doing something equally as exhausting the next day? No chance. 6:30am and I’m up again, armed with croissants, banana bread and sun cream I’m getting ready for the day ahead. Kuranda. It wouldn’t be fair to say that I was more excited for Kuranda than the Great Barrier Reef, but I think after having a whole day under water I was excited at the thought of doing something that looked amazing on land. I’d booked a journey to the village of Kuranda via the scenic railway, and a journey back via the skyrail (or to literally anyone else in the world – a cable car). To get to Freshwater train station, I was met outside the hostel by a coach and a friendly driver who gave me my ticket and itinerary for the day (at that point only consisting of the train and cable car with around 5 hours of free time). At the train station I browsed the museum and a cottage before heading to the cafe to get a coffee. I was drained and didn’t want to sleep on the train to miss the views I knew I was going to get. I was waiting to order then a voice next to me said “Matty?!” it was Chris. He was going to scuba dive that day but heard about my plans and decided actually, something different from under the water isn’t such a bad idea.
We were allocated different coaches so agreed to try to meet up later in Cairns again and boarded the train. A few minutes after the train had departed Freshwater, the conductor came into the coach I was in asking if anyone would like to move so they had a forward facing window seat. I had a rear facing seat staring at some people, so I asked if I could move and he took me from coach 5 to 3 where I got a whole bay to myself, so I spread out and jotted a few things down from the previous day so I could write this properly! I also noted down that the scenic railway has 15 tunnels along the line and at one point during construction eight tunnel faces were worked on at the same time to save time and then upon completion, the train lines were joined up. At a time predating survey equipment, as the prerecorded guide over the speakers said, it was an impressive achievement.
Including a stop off at Barron falls for a 10 minute tourist picture break, the journey took an hour and a half. Once in Kuranda, I made the decision to power walk to the other end of the village, refusing to get side tracked by all of the interesting looking shops on the way so that I can work my way back. At the other end was the heritage markets. I wandered around there before realising that actually, I had no idea what to do in Kuranda.
All of my excitement was completely aimed at the journey both ways. So I did what I often do when I’m out and have to have a bit of a think of a relax. I found a cafe, bought an iced coffee and worked out what I’m doing. I looked at the top things to do in Kuranda and came to the decision that the butterfly sanctuary looked like the one to start with. On the back of the itinerary the bus driver had given me I had discounts for all sorts of things including the sanctuary. So I walked in and took in a tour of the sanctuary, which if I was more awake would probably have been really good. As it was I was asleep on my feet and had the attention span of a blunt pencil so just smiled and nodded at the woman who was clearly doing her best. After that it was time for lunch, I chose carefully from the cafes available and ended up making a horrific decision. The service was slow for average food but the staff were nice I suppose. It did give me time to think about my plan for the rest of my time in Kuranda, though.
So I finished my lunch quickly and went back into the heritage markets to the Koala gardens. Queensland is the only state in Australia where it’s legal to hold a koala bear. As in, an actual real one. I’m all for being opportunistic so I made the incredibly rational decision to spend about $40/£20 on the entrance fee and the price of holding the koala which included a “free” picture and a “free” keyring. I’m not sure how it can be free if you’re paying to hold the bear but anyway, it was amazing and I could not stop smiling to myself after holding it. It was just so fluffy. I walked into shops afterwards and found myself touching some of the koala bear cuddly toys saying “it’s not as soft as a real one” and that just made me giddy. It was so soft. Thick layers of fluffiness with sharp claws. Each koala the koala gardens owned was only allowed to be held by visitors for a maximum of 30 minutes per day and they don’t wake any up to be held. They seemed to manage it very carefully which can only be a good thing really.
Following that I ambled back along the main street of Kuranda, peeking into the souvenir shops and making my way towards the river. I got the 2:30pm riverboat cruise meeting lots of friendly tourists on the boat. We saw fish, turtles, butterflies, birds and crocodiles all completely wild. The guy taking the tour, Warren, gave us another massive stream of information and all I can remember is that there’s 1,160 different types of trees and some are older than others. Helpful, right? Following the river cruise I walked across to the skyrail terminal and headed back down. The skyrail journey itself takes anywhere between 30-40 minutes if you were to go from top to bottom. There are two stops along the way each with view points and information which takes that time up to about an hour and a half. I didn’t have time for that. I had time to do both stops, I was determined, but spent around an hour and 10 minutes coming down, and I had 10 minutes to spare when I got to the bottom. To try to explain how incredible the skyrail journey was… well, a picture speaks a thousand words.
Not bad. I had the cable car to myself. It was just me, the camera and the view. It was phenomenal.
After showering, Chris, Carla and I had agreed to meet up for food at Fryday’s, where they were amazed that I finished the mound of a burger put in front of me. It had been a big day. We finished food and headed to get souvenirs from the Night Markets before saying goodbyes and heading back to our various accommodation. They were both leaving early the next day, and I had nothing planned for that next day whilst I was in Kuranda. Fortunately, I chose my hostel well. I went to reception and asked the lady, Tracy, on reception if she had any recommendations for a more relaxed day. She said I could do Fitzroy Island for a $75 return journey on a fast cat boat which seemed like a good option for a day trip, so I went for it and Tracy booked it for me.
So the next day, up at 6:30 again and jumped on a shuttle at 7:30 bound for the marina. I got on to the Fitzroy island boat, ticket in hand, and made the 45 minute journey cutting through the waves to the island. I wasn’t sure what to do on the island but we were given a sheet of blue A4 paper with activities on both sides as well as prices. There were a few walking paths available to do and I’d worn shoes with those in mind. After arriving at the island I went to sit and chill, get a feeling for the island and what’s on offer.
I then set off on a walk to the summit of the island. The path cut through the rainforest and quickly became like a scene you imagine from a book, as blue butterflies were stirred from my movements and fluttered on ahead of me before settling in trees again. The walk was pretty tough. It was 28 or 29 degrees and although on the river cruise in Kuranda the guide had said it never gets above 23 degrees in the rainforest, I was pretty convinced he was wrong. The concoction of sweat and suncream stinging my eyes from walks like this has become an all too familiar feeling, but the views waiting for me at the Fitzroy Island summit were beyond worth it.
From the top, I walked across to the now disused lighthouse on the island. Which was… well, disused. From there I walked along the other path which I’d read was steeper than the summit path to get back to the resort area on the island where the dive shop, bar and cafe was situated. It was steeper but it was downhill mostly although not in a comfortable way.
See what I mean? It was a bit silly really. Anyway, after lunch I went for another walk through the rainforest to see more rainforest, which was sort of very green. After I got back down I changed into swim shorts and hired snorkelling gear and a ‘sting suit’. I was offered a sting suit or a wet suit, I asked what he recommended and he said that jellyfish and the like are still around as we’re just coming to the end of ‘stinger season’ so he’d probably go for the sting suit. So I went for that. I walked down the beach for a bit, aware that I was alone so if something went wrong I’d be a bit stuck, until I reached an area where others were snorkelling. I suited up and got in the water, unarmed with a camera this time. That was a shame.
I was swimming along, head staring down at the reef below me looking at all of the colourful fish and the coral when suddenly I was aware of something moving that was much bigger than a fish… It was a sea turtle!! After snorkelling with Reef Experience I was a little downhearted that I hadn’t seen a sea turtle, it was the one animal I was really hoping I’d see and all of a sudden I was swimming above one. Because I was so close to the island the visibility in the water wasn’t great because of the sand being stirred up with the tide and it soon disappeared. So I turned back and found myself looking at some more fish on my left. I began to turn my head to the right and then got a bit of a fright and jumped a little underwater, there was another sea turtle on my right just sort of there swimming alongside me! It was amazing! I wanted to take a moment to try to take in what I’d just seen so emerged gracefully (I fell over three times taking the fins off) from the water and sat on the beach taking a selfie that I think really portrays the excitement I was feeling at the time from seeing two sea turtles in the space of maybe a whole minute. It was phenomenal.
So I sat and took this view in for a bit, headed into the water one more time and then took the gear back in preparation to get on the boat back to Cairns. I was exhausted but the whole day was worth it. As I had on the first night, I ate on the Esplanade on my final night – a pizza I’d sourced from the local Woolworth’s supermarket that they cooked for me in the Deli at a cost of $6.50/£3.25. I eventually got back to mine, started packing up and went to sleep mostly thinking of sea turtles.
Between checking out of the hostel and my airport shuttle I had some time to kill which I spent in an art gallery I’d been eyeing up in Cairns.
It was quite interesting. I’m about as into art as an aardvark is into chartered accountancy (I have not researched that), it doesn’t really mean so much to me most of the time, it’s usually just colours and lines that look pretty or perhaps more often than not; don’t look pretty. I went to the art gallery with time to kill and I ended up accidentally enjoying myself, I was in a good mood, I’d had a wonderful time in Cairns and to tell the truth I don’t think I wanted to leave. It was warm, it was beautiful and I was enjoying being on my own and talking to strangers.
I may be back in Melbourne now, but it feels like it’s nearly over. This is it. I have lived out here for 7 months. I technically won’t make it to 8 because three weeks into June, I’m going off gallivanting around the south island of New Zealand for 12 days before having just one full final day in Australia. Then I’m going home. Week one of those three weeks in June is pretty much already behind us all. It’s Friday. Weeks two and three my mind will be (perhaps not so) firmly on exams in both weeks then at the end of number three I’m off for another adventure. You see, this is it. It’s exciting and quite sad too actually. I don’t want it to come to an end because as you can see, it’s been quite the adventure and I’ve learnt quite a lot out here about so many things. Having said that, I’m so excited to be at home and if I’m honest although I’ve been counting down the days until I see my family again, until I see Mags again, until I see Connor and Sean and all you other lovely folks again, I’m starting to realise how close it all is and after so long of wanting time to hurry up, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if it slowed down just a little bit. I’ve still got places to go, things to do and people to meet. Cairns has given me a new lease of life almost and it’s refreshed me a little.
And with that new lease of life, this month promises to be incredible regardless of exams. I may still have two more blog posts left in me yet, but most likely not until I’m home because you know, no one wants to read 4000 words about three exams.
If you read this far then I’m afraid you win nothing but my sincere appreciation, I wrote this thing over two days and it’s greatly appreciated when I know that it’s been worth it, so thank you!