Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the world’s largest sand island. I joined a two day/one night guided tour of the island, as people on self-drive tours frequently get stuck on the soft sand of the island (there are no paved roads on the island).

Fraser Island is amazing, teeming with flora, fauna and scenery. Highlights include Indian Head, a rocky point where one can spot manta rays, sea turtles and pods of sharks. We also visited the Maheno shipwreck, the Pinnacles (colored sandy outcrops) and Eli Creek, which flowed to the ocean.

We went on several rainforest walks and saw eucalyptus, fern and pine trees. We also spotted a giant lizard, huge spiders, a dingo (wild dog) and various birds.

My favorites were the two lakes we visited, Wabby and MacKenzie. Lake Wabby is a green freshwater lake. One can hike up the Hammerstone Sandblow (sand dune) and get a birds-eye view of Lake Wabby. Lake MacKenzie is also a freshwater lake, but with two shades of blue water and white sand. The beach there reminded me of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

Mon Repos Conservation Area, Australia

I got the unique opportunity to visit Mon Repos Conservation Area, a turtle rookery and beach, with my CS host Kathy and her daughter Shari. We were there on a pleasant November evening, the start of the turtle nesting season.

We waited for approximately two hours in the dark before a giant loggerhead turtle came ashore and slowly made her way to a high area of sand. She then dug a hole a few feet deep and laid 123 eggs! Then, she carefully covered her nesting area. The rangers measured her before letting us take photos. Lastly, she slowly made her way back to the ocean. She will be back three more times this nesting season (until January). Her eggs will take around eight weeks to hatch.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Whitsunday Islands, Australia

I spent four of the best days of my life on a sailing trip around the “I-ran-out-of-superlatives-to describe” Whitsunday Islands on the Queensland coast of Australia, in between Cairns and Brisbane. In fact, with all the places I have traveled to, I rate the Whitsunday Islands on my “top ten list”.

Why? Well, imagine sunny weather, cool breezes, glacial-blue waters and 74 welcoming islands. Top that off with warm water temperatures and coral reef and one has got a recipe for paradise. The coral reef there is a fringe reef while not technically part of the main Great Barrier Reef, was far more superior to it. For the first time in while, I saw vibrant, colorful coral and schools of multi-colored fish. My highlights include swimming amongst schools of fish and observing the color changes of the fish as the sunlight shone at different angles. I also observed a stingray, turtle and dolphins! Moreover, I got the chance to observe large fish in action as I fed them bread. Lastly, my CS host Joe caught a dead toadfish (poisonous to eat, though).

The trip itself was amazing. There were the six of us--me; my host and caretaker of the boat (Oceania) Joe; Mark, an Aussie; Maura, an Italian CSer; and Jane and Fran, a pair of German twins. We sailed on the Oceania, a 52-foot sailboat. I played skipper for part of the trip, steering us to safety. Each day, we would go for a swim, a snorkel and an R&R session on the deck. I especially enjoyed sleeping on the deck with the cool breeze brushing against my face, while gazing at a sky blanketed with stars. Then in the morning, I would wake up to the most beautiful sunrise and be surrounded by the cleanest water in this world.

One very special place in the Whitsundays is Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. This is perhaps the world’s longest and whitest beach. The silica-derived sand was so soft and pure, providing a gorgeous contrast to the different blue hues of the water. We also hiked up a peak for unparalleled views of Whitehaven Beach, the sea and a lagoon with swirls of the white sand. This is probably one of the world’s “top ten views”.

En Route to Airlie Beach

My first intercity bus journey was a ten-hour ride from Cairns to Airlie Beach. I was envisioning a beautiful coastal drive but was surprised as the entire stretch was inland. It is surprising that even in a populated stretch of land such as the Queensland coast, there was no civilization for the most part between towns.

Cairns, Australia

Cairns is the tourist capital of the Great Barrier Reef. I was here to go snorkeling, mindful of the fact that the reef might cease to exist in a few decades.

Cairns is very touristy. Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, you name it and they are here. The only exception being Australians, who seemed to be in the minority. The city is geared for tourism not only to the Great Barrier Reef, but also to the nearby rainforests, Aboriginal parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

My main activity in Cairns was joining a day trip abroad a catamaran to the Outer Reef. It is a shame that one has to travel two hours away from Cairns in order to spot some undamaged coral. The trip was a full day but I only got to snorkel for about 1.5 hours, at two different reefs. I saw some colored coral, anemones and colored (blue, green, yellow) fish. However, I was disappointed at the lack of color amongst most of the coral, probably due to bleaching from pollution and global warming. Isn’t the Great Barrier Reef supposed to contain the best and brightest coral in the world?

One interesting observation I noticed while here (nothing related to the reef) is the ubiquitous traffic roundabouts. Thus, instead of traffic lights or stop signs, Australians prefer to utilize roundabouts at their junctions.

Sydney, Australia

Sydney is similar to San Diego, both in its sunny weather and pristine beaches. In fact, I felt that Sydney is more scenic due to its numerous coves and rocky coastline.

In my opinion, one should come to Sydney for its natural beauty and not for its architecture, sites or culture. Since Australia’s history is relatively brief, there isn’t a whole lot of historic buildings. Most of the old homes are 19th century outfits with porches and terraces. In terms of culture, Australia is very similar to the U.S. Thus, I was frankly a bit bored with what I saw in the city.

However, one aspect of Sydney that makes it interesting is its diversity. This truly is an international city, with various cuisines and languages. In particular, I noted the huge numbers of Chinese, Korean and Japanese people. Because of this, Sydney resembles a mini-London.

I spent most of my time in Sydney “bushwalking” or hiking along its coast with the companionship of some great CouchSurfers. It is amazing that one can find pristine nature a few minutes away from the CBD (central business district). On the Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach walk, I was able to admire the blue-green water (Sydney is approximately the same latitude as San Diego; I wonder why its waters are more turquoise and clear than SD’s), various coves and modern sculptures on display. On the Manly Scenic Walk, I found myself hiking in a forested pathway with views of the CBD, bays, ocean and headlands. I also spotted various birds and lizards. And all this was in the city! Lastly, my favorite bushwalk of them all was north of Sydney, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. There, several CouchSurfers and I hiked to a few headlands to admire views of both the ocean and the bay. We also spotted a few caves.

Two observations caught my attention. First, Australia (or at least Sydney) is pricier than I expected it to be. Prices here are on par or if not more expensive than that in the Euro zone. Of course, it does not help that the U.S. dollar is approaching parity with the Australian dollar. Price examples include over $4 for a gallon of milk (explain this to me as Australia is one of the largest dairy-producing countries in the world), at least $2/lb for any fruit, $10 for a sandwich and over $3 for a bus ride.

The second observation is concerning Sydney’s inefficient and user-unfriendly public transportation system. Sure, Sydney’s network of buses, trains and ferries is superior to that in most U.S. cities. However, it is inefficient in that there is no smart card that one can use on any transport, nothing like Hong Kong’s Octopus or London’s Oyster (in which the passenger can seamlessly swipe his/hard card over a reader without needing to know the fare beforehand). Thus, buses are frequently late due to passengers fumbling for change to pay the driver. Moreover, to complicate matters, the bus fare is dependent on the number of zones traveled, which means that one has to ask the bus driver for the fare (again a waste of time). Tickets with ten rides are sold, but unfortunately, these are only for travel in the same zone.

Lastly, I was very surprised at the number of European tourists in Australia. Sure, they are avoiding their winter, but in this economic climate, I was surprised at how many European youths were able to afford $25 and upward hostels and nights of partying in Sydney.

Hong Kong

Between Uruguay and Australia, it was great to make a pit stop in Hong Kong to visit my parents. I had not been back in a few years, so I played tourist by visiting some of the attractions.

One noticeable change is the large number of Western backpacker and adult tourists visiting Hong Kong. I used to rarely see foreigners in my neighborhood. This time tough, there were so many (and they were inside many of the Chinese restaurants too) that their presence hardly draws attention.

The city has also developed its tourist infrastructure. Signs indicating tourist hotspots are everywhere. A nightly sound-and-light show highlighting the harbor’s skyscrapers has been developed. So have trips to the outlying islands to hike the hills or explore the villages.

As a “tourist”, I visited the Peak, with its jaw-dropping views of Hong Kong island’s skyscrapers and Hong Kong Harbor. I also journeyed to the Big Buddha on Lantau island for the first time. Lastly, I joined the local CouchSurfing group walking the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, a path connecting several historical buildings in a neighborhood in the New Territories. I never expected to see old courtyard-style Chinese home and temples in Hong Kong!

And last but not least, I had my fill of scrumptious food, including dim sum, fried beef noodles, wonton soup noodles, steamed fish, egg tarts, mango pudding and sweet tofu. I am sure I will miss Chinese food once I am in Australia!