Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

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Us at the harbor~

We awoke on our second day in Auckland to a very rainy day. Our plan had been to take a ferry to a nearby volcanic island and go hiking all day, which would have been pretty awful given the weather so we immediately scrapped it. That left us with absolutely no idea what to do with a whole day. We spent a good chunk of morning looking things up and trying to find something we could do on our own and out of the rain. There were obviously tours to places that would have worked, but most of those left so early in the morning that it wasn’t actually an option to join now. We ended up finding a couple of options worth visiting around town mixed in with all the shopping areas. We eventually decided to start off with a trip to the aquarium. We had actually considered this aquarium when looking at things back home because you can do dives into their shark tank. When we arrived in the country, though, we decided to scrap the idea in favor of more New Zealand specific sorts of activities. With the weather giving us issues though, why not give it a shot? We did, however, decide to forego the shark encounter. We couldn’t do the scuba diving option because we would be flying too soon afterwards to be safe. The other option is snorkeling in a shark cage which just didn’t seem worth the cost. Too much like viewing them in any other normal enclosure, you’re just wet while doing it. The cage took something away from the whole thrill of genuinely swimming with the sharks, so we figured if we were going to watch them from behind barriers we may as well save money and stay dry while doing it.

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The free shark shuttle bus to Kelly Tarlton’s SeaLife Aquarium.

The aquarium had a shuttle bus that picked up right down the road from our hotel so we headed off that way to find it. We got a little lost, but remedied the problem easily enough by asking a super sweet shop-owner in a nearby athletic and souvenir store, grabbed a quick breakfast at a streetside cart she recommended, and waited. Eventually a big van shaped like a shark pulled up and we jumped inside. A quick ten minutes later and we were climbing back out and heading into the Kelly Tarlton’s SeaLife Aquarium. It was built right on the edge of the sea, and was partially underground. We entered into an area called Scott’s Hut. It was apparently a replica of a hut built in Antarctica for Captain Scott’s famous research expedition. There were a bunch of signs telling you details of the expedition and what it was like to live in the frigid Antarctic weather. They also had a penguin skeleton in the hut, which seems really random but we were interested since we’ve never seen a penguin skeleton. It’s neck was really long and S-shaped, which we didn’t expect. We had no idea at the time who Scott was, but it was still a neat little extra to have as a lead-in to the next area and we’d left having learned something new.

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Penguin skeletons look weird.

As we rounded the corner, we were stopped for photos. Apparently they make those little photoshopped books of your adventure here too. It seems a bit unnecessary in this case considering you can just take your own pictures of yourself in the aquarium, but here they make you do a second pose. In this pose, you’re supposed to act like a shark is coming towards you, and that’s exactly what they shop that pose into later (among other things). Again, it was cute, and we looked at the result before leaving, but passed on buying it. We moved on into the next area, which housed the penguin exhibits. We started off where we could see them swimming around in the water, and then moved up to the land portion next. They had a few different kinds of penguins in there, and quite a few babies too. The babies were at that point where they were the same size as the adults but still had their baby feathers. One of them was insistently trying to get food from an adult’s mouth as we went by. Further on, there was another section that was for breeding. A ton of little penguins had been collecting pebbles and setting up nests, and even possibly laying on eggs. We couldn’t quite tell for sure.

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Flormph penguin!

There was a small bit at the end of the penguin exhibit that was built to look like Scott’s research base again. Perhaps we were supposed to be pretending we were Scott going out onto the Antarctic ice to see those penguins. In this area was an interactive challenge. There was a box with little holes for your hand, and a sign that said “Can you last 30 seconds in the frozen Antarctic seas?” Of course Jeff had to give it a shot, dunking his hand down into the icy water and whining while watching the handy dandy clock count down his 30 seconds. He can’t say no to a dare and doesn’t exactly have the healthiest regard for his own well-being, so of course he kept his hand in there the whole time despite his constantly clenched teeth and screwed up face due to the unbelievable cold. His hand came out quite white at the end of it all.

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Creepy crustaceans in creepy red light. Nice touch guys.

Next up came a preserved giant squid. It was enormous, and not even fully grown. We continued on past some tanks of jellyfish and crustaceans and anemones and such with really interesting lighting. Then we popped out into a more wide-open area entitled Jurassic Seas. This area had an interactive swim with the dinosaurs game, but it was covered in children on a school trip so we didn’t quite get to see what that was all about. Jeff was sad. Instead we poked around looking at the frogs and tuataras, crabs, and random ancient looking fish. There was one small tank that had a giant spiky anemone stuck to the top of it and pointing its spikes down towards where your head was. It was a bit intimidating. I couldn’t help but notice throughout this whole aquarium that the signage was a bit lacking. There were signs near most tanks, but not all, and most of the signs would only have one or two of the various animals inside listed on them. I often couldn’t find signs for the animals I was interested in and it was rather disappointing.

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Cute frogs!

This area opened out into the cafe area. Even this was cute and interactive though they didn’t have much in the way of refreshments. It had a big glass window along the one side, and lapping up against that window was the sea. This was part of the building that was submerged and it was butted right up with the adjacent ocean, so it felt like you were dining partially submerged in the waters. It was pretty neat. In one corner they also had some touch pools where you could poke at some starfish. On the other side was a pool of puffer fish and elephant sharks, both of which are rather awkward looking. We continued on down the path to find some giant stingrays. These things were seriously massive and sitting right up against the glass. I ended up terrified though, as one of them decided to slide straight up the wall I was standing up against the tank. He was just trying to turn around and go elsewhere. It lifted up right up against my face and his total body length and breadth were taller than me. I’ve seen the underside of stingrays at other zoos and they often have cute little “happy faces,” but these bigger cousins of theirs had much angrier looking faces, the ends of their stingray mouths tip the opposite direction. It makes me shiver a bit even now remembering it and writing this.

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A terrifying anemone and his fishy friends.

Next up came a big tank with a moving walkway that went in a circle underneath it. We went around it, watching all the sharks, fish, eels, etc swimming around above us. On the far side, we found a keeper. Apparently something had happened to one of the fish in the tank and it was laying up against the glass having clear difficulties. At least somebody was already on top of that, and we passed two other keepers coming as we left. The last bit of aquarium had just some random fish tanks and a ton of seahorses. The seahorses were cute, as always. One of the tanks was home to a very active octopus, that at one point had been given a camera and taught to take pictures of people. There was a video playing near his tank about it. It would be pretty cool to have an octopus take your picture, not gonna lie. With that, we had arrived in the gift shop an the end of the road. It was actually quite a small aquarium, but it was still quite cute. We didn’t end up buying anything in the gift shop so we headed pretty quickly back to the entrance area to await pickup from the shark shuttle. We had a good 20 minutes or so to wait there, but soon enough we ended up back in town.

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Auckland from the water.

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There was tons of harbor space and boats but it was so randomly spaced about and nonsensical that it didn’t quite make for good pics as a whole. The intense street lamps on the other hand….

Since we were so close to our hotel, we decided to head back there to decide what to do with the next part of our day, what with it still raining pretty heavily and all. We screencapped some maps for potential visiting spots and then headed back out. We grabbed lunch at a nearby Mexican place and headed off down the main street, Queen Street. Right near our hotel was a supposedly good place for shopping, the Queen Street Arcade. We headed over to it only to be somewhat disappointed. It was mostly full of stores that we weren’t even slightly interested in, though the building that housed it was admittedly pretty. We went in a big CD/DVD store that was somewhat amusing, but the only really interesting thing there was a comic and game store. We spent far too much time in here just perusing the wares, even though there wasn’t much chance of us buying anything. The prices were just too high even though we really wanted some of the games and comics both. Even counting exchange rates, for some reason gaming and role playing materials are outlandishly expensive in New Zealand.

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There were so many clock towers in Auckland.

We headed back out of the complex and farther up Queen Street. The nice thing about this street is that a large part of the sidewalks are actually under a roof or awning of some sort or another. This was especially good since not long into our trek, our cheap umbrella decided to break completely. Not in any sort of normal way either. The metal rod going up the center completely separated itself from everything else, and we couldn’t get it to close. We ended up with an open, totally fanned out umbrella with a dangerous metal spike sticking way out the center of it through the top. Jeff ended up smashing it in on itself, half terrified he’d drive a giant stick of metal through his hand in the process, so that we could jam it into a trash can. Luckily he managed not to stab himself horribly. We decided not to replace the umbrella since the rain had slowed notably. As we walked up the street, we really only went in a few stores, partially because we’d already done most of the touristy stores on this street earlier and partially because a lot of the stores looked very expensive.

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Auckland’s Sky Tower was right smack in the center of the city so it was almost impossible for it to not be in shots of the city.

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A big impressive theater we found.

At one point we found an EB Games, and felt like we couldn’t just walk past that even though we knew we wouldn’t buy anything. It was actually really weird because so much of the store was devoted to systems that we don’t own nowadays. Living in Korea has made it difficult to keep up with consoles since what’s popular locally doesn’t match what we play and importing is extravagantly pricey. Still, it was neat to walk around window shopping for all the new games again. We also found a larger electronics store with literally every sort of electronic gizmo you could think of. We spent a ton of time in this one deciding to take notes of movies we were finding that looked interesting. We also popped into a couple of clothing stores, but only one was actually worthwhile. I walked out with a new backpack and a drapey sweater-type overshirt thing.

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Auckland had so many different kinds of buildings all smashed together it actually looked really cool.

Eventually our overhangs protecting us from the downpour disappeared and the rain picked up tremendously. We ducked into some manner of shops-and-fun building. It had a food court and a few shops, but most things were actually entertainment related. There was minigolf, an arcade, a sensory walkthrough (seemed like a sort of fun house), and a movie theater. We walked around looking at everything, but didn’t actually partake in any of the attractions. Instead we headed back outside and back towards our hotel, along the opposite side of the road in case we could find anything new on that side. There really wasn’t much though, and so we ended up back at our hotel pretty early. We decided to do a bit of self-pampering with our extra time. We had bought mud masks with fancy mud from the nearby Rotorua area, and so we piled that onto our faces and sat around just sort of relaxing for a while. Eventually we got hungry and headed back around the corner to a pizza shop we had seen earlier in the day. Their pizza claimed to be authentic New York pizza, and although it was really good pizza, it definitely wasn’t quite New York pizza either. It came with these delicious garlic knots too. They were the best part I thought, and I kind of wished we’d gotten more. We headed to bed pretty early this day, as our next morning was set to be early.

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WOO!!!!! Still feeling on top of the world~

We awoke in the morning, hoping that the day’s plan was good to go. We had booked a whale and dolphin watching cruise, but it came with a warning that they might have to cancel if the seas are too rough. Given that the previous day’s trip had been cancelled because of how rainy and windy it had been, we had pretty much expected the same of ours. It was of course still a disappointment when I got the email though. Our attempts to go whale watching on this trip were thwarted at every attempt, and all we could say was, “Well, I suppose we have to come back now!” Looking outside and realizing that it wasn’t actually raining, and wasn’t quite expected to, we pretty easily decided what to do with the day: our plan that we had been forced to cancel the previous day, hiking on Rangitoto Island!

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Hello Rangitoto!

We got ready and headed out to the marina right down the street, stopping in for some water and snacks to take along. The island we were headed to was a nature reserve and had no stores or permanent residents or anything really. We got to the ferry terminal and our tickets easily enough and waited just a few minutes before boarding started. We headed up to the top level of the boat which was open to the wind but provided the best view to all sides. As the boat left the harbor, some crewman or another started giving commentary. Apparently this ferry was partially a harbor tour as well as just a shuttle to Rangitoto. He told us about various different buildings and such as we headed out into the sea. We could understand almost immediately why our whale watching tour had been cancelled though, as the boat was extremely rocky right from the beginning. We went past the aquarium we’d seen the day before, and some areas where they were reclaiming docking space for ships. As we headed farther away from shore, we went by an old, tiny lighthouse. It was apparently perched on a chunk of lava rock from the volcano we were visiting that was sitting just a couple feet below the waves. He then mentioned that this whole area was actually extremely shallow water, and if you looked closely on a good day you could see some of the rocks just below the surface.

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This area is apparently the most exclusive and expensive area in which to live in Auckland.

It was about this time that our destination came completely into view as well. You could tell instantly that it was a volcano. It just had that shape. This island, Rangitoto, is a volcano that erupted about 600 years ago, only once, and then become essentially a mountainous island. It is now used, along with a handful of other small islands in the area, as a wildlife refuge of sorts, mostly for birds. They are very strict with keeping pest animals or predators off the islands. We even got a flyer about it when we bought our tickets. At one point, people started building small vacation homes of sorts, called baches, on the shores. It wasn’t long before they banned this building though, and since then all have been vacated. Many of them are still on the island though as a sort of museum, with little plaques in front of them and everything.

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An old lighthouse we sailed past that is apparently sitting on volcanic rock from Rangitoto’s eruption that is only a couple feet below the surface. You could even see it as we went by.

We arrived at a small pier and piled off the boat, being warned to check the ferry departure times for later in the day. There were probably only about 30 of us that got off, and the island was all ours. We walked on down the pier, getting a bit distracted by the various birds we found immediately and the scenery in general. Having a weird fascination with volcanoes, I was especially excited and couldn’t stop marveling at the lava rock which made up literally the entire island. At the entrance to the island was a themed archway welcoming us, and signs welcoming us and pointing us to various trails. We followed the way to the summit course, passing by a ton of informational signs about the island and various trails available. There was a bit of a boardwalk area on the way and we wandered along there first. We found a big stone archway near the waters edge with a fence around it. Upon closer inspection, we found a sign next to it that said it was the entrance to an old men’s restroom. Wonderful thing to save I suppose.

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There were so many birds on the island. Both in the trees…

Finally, it was time to venture off down the path. It started off as a very wide, easy path to walk along, but the farther along we went the small and more intense it got. It was actually quite cool. The sides of the path were a mix of snargly, intense forests and fields of broken up lava rock. Everything, living and nonliving, was also covered in mosses and lichens and the like. It looked really awesome, and we couldn’t stop taking pictures of weird stuff. I was especially amused by this one moss or fungus or something that looked like soap bubbles. I took far too many pictures of it, and had to at least point it out every time we saw it. Every so often along the path we would also come across traps. I mentioned that they were really hard on pests on the islands, and this was just a small reminder of it. This path took us up to the summit…..eventually. We meandered quite slowly and it was a long path. At one point, there was a sort of lookout branch that went off into one of the lava rock fields, so we detoured out to it quickly. It didn’t really produce any cool views, but basically just had little information signs on it. Very quickly we also started to see views way back across the sea to Auckland proper. Every so often there were also stairs, which were built to blend in entirely with the surroundings, and quite a few birds. The paths, in fact, were actually quite well done. They were clearly well tended and intentionally made paths, but at the same time they blended in so well with the island. It was neat.

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…and in the water.

Much further down the path, we found a branch. A sign told us that we were only about 20 minutes (of the estimated hour that this path was said to take) from the summit if we continued down the same path. There was another option though, to take a longer path, said to take 40 minutes to the summit. Looking at the fork in the road, the original path looked much less interesting. The new path was much smaller and wound its way off through one of the lava fields. We weren’t at all strapped for time so we decided to take the more interesting road, and I’m really glad we did. Especially since looking at our brochure that had a map of all the trails, we could come back from the summit via the original path and thus see both options in the end anyway. Quite aways down this path we were surprised by the sudden appearance of a very large bird in a tree above us. We were posing with a random pile of stones taller than us that was on either side of the path for no apparent reason, when a pigeon the size of a house cat landed in a tree above our heads. It was quite startling.

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An adorable bird taking a bath in the middle of our path. Even he pampers himself in the volcanic mud!

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Such snargly trees but such a perfect framing for the path.

Eventually this path ended in a larger dirt road of sorts. This was part of the path that the so called Volcanic Explorer tour would take if it was running. It’s an optional way to explore this island, though it seemed like it ran on an as-needed basis. We followed the road just a few minutes before running into the summit boardwalk. We headed up the wooden walkway as it ascended the last bit of volcano. It was made almost entirely of stairs but had a few benches strategically placed throughout to give people a break. We didn’t quite feel the need for those since we took a few breaks of our own as different far off views began to appear. Before we found the summit itself. we found the volcanic crater, or place where the volcano erupted. It was entirely covered in trees now but was still a really big crater in the ground, and was quite intimidating somehow. Knowing what I was looking at made it have a completely different feeling from simply looking off the top off a mountain. I can’t quite explain it, and it’s possible it’s just me. (I mean I do have a goal in life to witness a volcano erupting. Not a violent one, but more like some of the ones in Hawaii that are just constantly oozing lava pretty slowly.)

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The path wound past and through so many vast fields of broken up volcanic rock. It was awesome!

After a number of pictures, we headed up the final stretch to the summit, marveling at the intense views. You really had a 360 degree view from up here, looking back across the water to Auckland, across the small channel to another island, and even straight out into endless sea. It was awesome! We lingered here a little while before heading down via a different path, the crater rim walk. This path immediately took us past an old military lookout shelter. We continued to follow the path around the crater, where the dirt was for some reason switching between red and black at random. We also found a pair of really pretty green birds that we had to stop and take a million pictures of. Soon enough we had returned to the crater lookout point from earlier, and again started on a new path, going back down the mountain.

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The crater of the volcano!

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A bit of the view from the top. From here you can see the land bridge to the adjoining island, Motutapu.

We had one more stop before we returned to the bottom of the mountain and the sea. The branch-off point for this path was only a few minutes down the path. The ground in this area had become much more rocky and chopped up, and it only got worse as we followed our new path towards some lava caves. Eventually our path sort of devolved into the least path-like path yet. It was more of just a rock field with little posts set around it to lead you to the different caves and back to the real path. The lava caves were really neat, but essentially just small holes in the ground. There was one that seemed like you could actually walk through it if you chose, but it was a tight squeeze and with the weather lately it looked quite damp and gross inside so we chose not to try. Still it was a cool extra thing to see.

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Chilling on Rangitoto.

We retraced our steps a bit to rejoin the main path and continued our way back down the mountain. We had now seen everything we had set out to see on the island, and were somewhat concerned about making it back to the pier in time for the ferry. We ended up arriving back at the entrance point almost exactly in between the last two ferry runs, which meant we had about half an hour of time to kill near the sea. The tide had come in at this point, so the boardwalk was a completely different place, so we walked along that again. At one point we both had these tiny little birds that came up and bounced around within a foot of us. I’m not entirely sure what their deal was. We also noticed that there was a sort of man-made rock hole in the ground near the sea that became a sort of swimming pool at high tide. (It was built during the time of those baches I mentioned before for communal use.) We then meandered off to the opposite side of the pier where a ton of the baches were. It also said there was a grove of some sort of tree nearby and we decided to try and find it before the ferry arrived.

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Our trusty boat.

We wandered down the coast, taking tons and tons of pictures, before we found the path to the grove heading back into the forests. It looked fairly similar to all the other paths we’d taken, though it was lined with small rocks on either side that were completely covered in moss. It was quite cute. With a bit of rushing, we made it to the edge of the grove, took a quick picture of the trees, and headed back out to the pier. We arrived just a few minutes before the ferry, watching it sail up as we walked back up the coast, and hopped on. The upper deck was closed this time, as the winds and waves had gotten even more intense throughout the day, so we instead sat on the middle deck on the inside. Even there, while were sailing back to Auckland, you could see the spray splashing up along the windows next to us. We made a quick pit stop at another bit of city before returning to our original location. Leaving the boat, we headed off towards our hotel, stopping at a coffee shop/restaurant for dinner. We both got cheesesteak sandwiches, but they were nothing like what we expected, though still quite good. They were definitely a localized type of sandwich despite their borrowing the Philly namesake.

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Fire meets water! …or at least it did many years ago…

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Goodbye Rangitoto… Goodbye Auckland… Goodbye awesome vacation….

When we arrived back at the hotel we basically just packed everything up for the morning and headed to bed early. Our flight out was before 9am so we would be getting up super early to get to the airport on time. We woke around 4am, and headed out around the corner to the bus stop for the Sky Bus, or bus to the airport. We had already bought tickets on the way out of the airport so it was quite easy. Apparently we gave ourselves a ton of unnecessary wiggle room though. There was no schedule for these buses. They were simply meant to arrive about every 15 minutes. When we arrived though there was one simply sitting at the stop, so there was literally zero waiting time. About an hour later we arrived at the airport. It turned out that we had actually gotten there before check-in opened, so we had a good 30 minutes of standing around waiting for our counter to open. Then when we actually checked in, the poor girl at the counter was super confused by our Korean ARC card and had to ask for help from the Korean guy next to her.

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All smiles even as we finish our last adventure of this awesome trip.

Soon enough though we were ready to go, grabbed some last minute bits from airport stores and a quick breakfast before sitting down to await our flight. We were flying with Korean Air, on an 11 and a half hour straight flight back to Seoul. We pretty much knew what to expect since I had flown Korean Air before, and it really isn’t very different from Asiana which both of us have flown several times. We got quite a few snacks and meals and drinks, and were given pillows, blankets, slippers, and tiny teeth brushing kits. Despite it being a middle of the day flight, they still shut off all the lights and expected us to sleep for a good part of it. We instead watched a ton of movies and read a good bit of our books. I considered sleeping a few times, but we had quite a bit of turbulence (also rather expected since we were flying almost entirely over water and that always seems to be more turbulent.) Eventually though we arrived safely back in Seoul, though we still had quite a bit of travel before arriving back at home. This was travel we knew well and barely had to even think about. We had an intensely amazing trip behind us, but were entirely excited to be home at the same time. Every time we can’t help but be amazed at how happy we are arriving back into Korea from abroad, how much like home it really feels, and how excited we are to hear and use Korean again.

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Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

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The Auckland airport had the perfect greeter! Thanks Middle Earth!

It was time for the last leg of our adventure: Auckland, New Zealand. We had to wake up quite early in the morning in Brisbane to head to the airport, but the trip was painless enough. We had already bought our train tickets back to the airport, so literally we just had to walk the few minutes back to the train station and jump on it when it arrived. The departures side of the airport was much like the arrivals side – notably more urban and modern looking than the tropical party adventure cousin it had in Cairns. It was an easy process to get through to the other side, work through customs and security, and then make it to our gate. We waited inside next to a guy who seemed like some sort of quality control inspector. He was taking notes about how things were running and he seemed to be going through all the motions of check-in as if he were departing. He was talking to the suited folks at the check-in desk so it seemed like he was with the airline. We would be flying Qantas into New Zealand and the trip was much like the first – very brief, very comfortable, and very full of little snacks and treats along the way. Jeff read and finished his book along the way. Our arrival was pretty seamless, though we noted that customs regulations were steep in New Zealand. You had to report almost everything you had and everything you did in the preceding country and they were very thorough with their inspection. Polite, but thorough. We had to show the undersides of our shoes to check for traces of soil from our rainforest and riding expeditions. We also had to report the teas, fudge, and handful of other little candies and treats we had from Australia. Everything was OK, they just wanted to know it all. It was the most thorough customs check I’d ever gone through. We exchanged our money at the airport, causing Jeff to grit his teeth at the awful exchange rates. We resolved to try to get as much money changed while still in Korea from now on, since their rates were awesome and they take little to no commission off the top, especially during peak travel seasons. It’s some sort of incentive for the Korean people that we can benefit from as well.

This is what a simple country farm looks like in New Zealand. Look in any direction and you're met with absolutely gorgeous landscape

This is what a simple country farm looks like in New Zealand. Look in any direction and you’re met with absolutely gorgeous landscape.

We took the skybus from the airport, which is a dedicated airport shuttle sort of bus that stops in all the major areas of the city for hotels. Our hotel was at the farthest point out that the bus went, and in fact we actually had to switch buses. The main bus went in a small circuit, and then at the end you could get out and pickup a smaller shuttle bus that went farther into the city. We took this shuttle bus out to it’s farthest point, and then had a small walk around the corner to our actual hotel. The bus driver was super nice too. He stopped us as we got off to check that we knew how to get to our hotel from there, and even drew the path to take on our map. Check in was a breeze and I remember going through the process and heading up to our room in a sort of daze. This hotel was essentially a small apartment, and we’re pretty sure at least parts of the building were actually used as apartments. It had a full kitchen and a washer/dryer in the room. The feel of the hotel was somewhere in between our previous hotels: not as good as Cairns, but nicer than Brisbane. Less polished, perhaps, but more roomy and with more in it for our convenience.

We lucked out a bit and arrived at the sheep farms in lambing season.

We lucked out a bit and arrived at the sheep farms in lambing season.

We rested for just a little while before heading out to explore Auckland a bit. It was still pretty early in the day, and the city actually seemed interesting. It’s difficult to describe, but it actually reminded me and Jeff of Pittsburgh. We both agreed that the home-ey feeling to it in spite of its size and the overwhelming diversity of architecture, unbounded by district or surroundings, made it feel a lot like the Pennsylvania city. It was one of the things I remembered and Jeff noted when visiting there, and Auckland shared strongly in this quality. We spent most of our time wandering in the Queen St. area by the docks. It was actually really nice and we ended up going into one of the pierside souvenir stores, picking up some local snacks and some bags of dirt. The dirt was actually Rotorua mud, a mineral-rich volcanic clay that they packaged with Manuka honey as face masks. We thought we’d pamper ourselves a bit with these later on. What followed was a ton of additional window-shopping and wandering by the harborside as we ate up the evening and got out bearings in North Auckland. We spent some time admiring the ocean views and checking out the islands off the coast from the shore. We probably walked without aim for a few miles before heading back toward our hotel, grabbing some quick food, and returning to our room.

Did I mention that the land looks gorgeous and green no matter where you look?

Did I mention that the land looks gorgeous and green no matter where you look?

We headed to bed early as we had yet another early day ahead of us, and it was essentially our reason for coming to New Zealand so the excitement was high as well. We woke before the sun to prepare and head just up the street to the main bus terminal. They run a ton of tours from there, and we were actually a bit disappointed that we didn’t look into them a bit more earlier. Apparently you can use these tours to move around New Zealand. They have luggage space on the bus, and you can switch buses at different locations so that you can finish somewhere different from where you started. We also discovered that they ran a tour for something I had really wanted to do but couldn’t find a way to get to and from it. It was a caving adventure where you went abseiling and climbing and rafting in the dark and all sorts of crazy nonsense. We would be seeing part of one of said caves later in the day, but on a very normal sort of tour instead of an exciting adventure sort of tour. Maybe next time. Anyway, we ended up being a little too excited for the day’s adventure to come, and got to the bus station a good 30-45 minutes earlier than necessary. We used that time to grab a quick breakfast and then chilled out just waiting.

The side of the preperty that wasn't dedicated to the Hobbiton Movie Set. Those mountains in the distance are the same ones used as the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Recognize them?

The side of the property that wasn’t dedicated to the Hobbiton Movie Set. Those mountains in the distance are the same ones used as the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Recognize them?

We quickly found a bus labelled similarly to our plans for the day. We asked the driver, and he told us we needed the next bus, and also to check in with a lady nearby. So to that lady we went, but she just told us to wait. As I said, we were about 30 minutes early, so she was busy checking in all the people for the bus that left about 30 minutes before ours. Eventually she came back to us and checked us in. We got little stickers to wear, and in proper hobbit fashion: second breakfasts! They were small bowls of fruit and water bottles. Within just a few minutes our real bus pulled up and we jumped on board, grabbing seats right in the front. We wanted to be able to see everything all day.

 

Welcome to New Zealand! Meet one of the many, many, many, many local natives!

The sheep always came first on this farm! Even when they got in the way of tour buses.

Our bus was one of those really big tour bus style buses, but it turned out to be less than half full, which we were happy about. As soon as our bus headed out of the bus station, our driver started up commentary. He literally didn’t stop until Hobbiton, about 90 minutes later. Some might find that annoying I’m sure, but he actually had some really interesting things to say. He of course talked a bit about Hobbiton, including the story of how it came to be. Apparently Peter Jackson and his crew had been having a really hard time finding the perfect filming spot for Hobbiton. They had looked everywhere, but could only find places that fit one or two of the things he had in mind. He needed tons of rolling green hills with no signs of man-made structures, especially electrical wires. He also needed a small pond or lake in a valley with a very large tree nearby. They were about to start filming for the movies at these pieced together locations when somebody on set suggested checking out the Matamata area of New Zealand, known to have tons of rolling green hills on sheep farms. Some crewmen were sent over to check it out by helicopter and couldn’t believe their eyes. Nestled at the back of a random sheep farm, they had found the perfect valley for Hobbiton. It had literally everything that Peter Jackson had been looking for in a filming location, even the “Misty Mountains” in the background. The crew knocked on the sheep farmers door to request permission to go check it out on foot. They were simply told to be careful of locking the gates and not letting the sheep get mixed up. After taking ALL the pictures, they went back to Jackson. When he came back to look at it himself, they were given the same simple instructions, and Jackson pretty much immediately threw out all the other potential Hobbiton spots. He no longer needed any of them because this one had everything.

 

Our target destination for the day. Next stop: Middle Earth!

Our target destination for the day. Next stop: Middle Earth!

They of course drew up a contract with the farmer, which included a clause stating that they would be sure to put his valley back to it’s original state when they were finished. They built all of Hobbiton, as seen in the original Lord of the Rings movies, but they built it to only last a few months. They used materials that were cheap and would come down easily. After filming, they started to immediately tear everything down. When they were almost finished though, there was a nasty storm that caused them to take a break. The crew then had to rush off to a new job, but promised they would come back eventually to finish destroying Hobbiton and putting the farm back to normal. The sheep farmer was in no rush, and so neither was the crew. Other projects took up the team’s time before they could return for the clean-up project and it took a few months for them to show up again. They waited so long though that the movies ended up being released. A bunch of people in the nearby Matamata area that saw the movie immediately recognized the scenery as being their own, even though the filming locations were kept completely secret. They started calling up all the farmers in the area, and eventually found the right one, asking if there was anything left to see. The farmer warned them that there was very little left: just a couple of hobbit holes that were falling apart, but they all wanted to go check it out anyway. Despite being a bit disappointed with what was left, the locals still kept coming to see it and telling all their friends to do the same.

 

 

You have no idea how much fun it was going through our photos while re-watching the movies once we got home and comparing our shots to the actual footage used in the films. WE STOOD RIGHT THERE!!!!

You have no idea how much fun it was going through our photos while re-watching the movies once we got home and comparing our shots to the actual footage used in the films. WE STOOD RIGHT THERE!!!!

So when the crew called to finish tearing things down, the farmer told them not to worry about it. He would just keep what was left, since everybody wanted to see it. Things stayed that way for a little while, until Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit as well. He called the sheep farmer back up asking if he could film there once again. This time, in the contract, the farmer requested that Hobbiton be made with lasting materials and be left in place after filming. Jackson agreed, and they built the Hobbiton that still stands today. It is infinitely more detailed and intricate and well thought-out. This of course took a lot longer to build, but I don’t think anybody was complaining. It also introduced the only manmade natural feature to Hobbiton. Originally, they had transplanted a tree onto the top of Bag End to fit better with Jackson’s vision and the original book. This time though, instead of searching for and placing that perfect tree there that might grow to big and not quite fit the image anymore or even start hurting Bag End with it’s root system, they made a fake one. So now there is a fake tree atop Bag End, but it is a super intricate and detailed fake tree with tons and tons of individual leaves wired onto it. (Sidenote: apparently after getting the OK on the leaves and thus wiring them all in place, Jackson arrived later and decided that they were the wrong color, so they had to be removed and redone.)

Holy crap it's Bag End! The tree above Bilbo's house is a false one, made to look a few decades younger than the original used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy

Holy crap it’s Bag End! The tree above Bilbo’s house is a false one, made to look a few decades younger than the original used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy

 

After finishing his story, and pimping Hobbiton up a bit more, he continued on with a very different sort of story: essentially, the story of New Zealand. This guy was so clearly proud of and loved his country, and wanted nothing more than to share that with you. He even mentioned at one point that the goal of his commentary was to inform you about what it was like to live in New Zealand and to help you understand being a New Zealander (or Kiwi). He doesn’t want to just spout off a bunch of facts regarding the locations and things you are passing by, but instead wants you to take away a feeling for what makes New Zealand different and special. We definitely really appreciated and enjoyed his approach more than other guides we’d had on this trip.

Behold the immensely huge and glorious Party Tree!

Behold the immensely huge and glorious Party Tree!

He told us all about the history of the Maori people in New Zealand, and their relationship with the newer New Zealanders of European descent. The Maori came first, from what they originally thought was Hawaii, but later decided was more likely Polynesia. They rode over in giant canoes, and lived there in tribes for a good while before anybody else showed up. They were always very warlike though, constantly fighting amongst themselves, mostly over land. Eventually Europeans started to appear. We had heard about the first ‘finding’ of New Zealand from another tour guide in Australia. He had talked about Captain James Cook originally discovering Australia, and how he had briefly also found New Zealand. We heard a very truncated version of Cook’s story here as well, but from a very different angle. We had previously heard that Cook’s expedition having been to study the stars was a fake reason, but this guy seemed to think that was his main goal after all. Whatever the case the most amusing part was the expanded bit about New Zealand. After finding Australia, Cook couldn’t believe that that was the only landmass in the area, so he went searching for more. He came across New Zealand easily enough, but ran into problems immediately. The Maori, being warlike and all, started a battle immediately with them on the water. Cook never even set foot on New Zealand before turning tail and returning back to Britain. From just that one little interaction though, New Zealand finally was on world maps. It was just a squiggle with a name though, since nobody had ANY idea what was actually there. They just knew that there was some manner of land there with people that didn’t want you to come land on it.

OK I'm here! Where's the party at?

OK I’m here! Where’s the party at?

There was then just a small trickle of people going to New Zealand, until some people in Britain decided to try and get rich off of the idea of New Zealand. They put up tons of flyers selling land in New Zealand. They painted a pretty picture of the country as being a wonderful tropical paradise with super welcoming natives and an easy start to a wonderful new life. Super rich elites bought their lies and spent all their money on a voyage to claim the land they bought (from people that had no right to sell it in the first place.) Their boats came at the islands from what seemed like the best option at the time, the west coast. This coast has tons of cliffs and rocky shores and turbulent waters. (Had they taken the slightly less logical route and gone to the east coast, they would have found calm waters and lovely beaches.) They ended up having to anchor the boat pretty far offshore, and then make small trips in small boats onto the land. This always ended with everybody getting completely soaked, and most of their possessions being dumped into the sea. The boat’s crew had done their jobs though, and left the ‘settlers’ to their fate on New Zealand with their fancy little pieces of paper saying that they owned land there and not much else. Having been a super expensive trip and all, these were really only the super rich, so most of them never did hard labor or much of anything by themselves. Suddenly though they would have to do everything, especially since the “friendly and helpful natives” were actually warlike natives that didn’t want them to be there. They also found mostly jungle to work with, as opposed to the lovely pastures and beaches described to them. Thus, most of these ‘settlers’ failed miserably.

The Party Fields and a few hobbit holes as seen from across the "Brandywine River," not a river at all but more of a small, cleverly positiioned lake.

The Party Fields and a few hobbit holes as seen from across the “Brandywine River,” not a river at all but more of a small, cleverly positiioned lake.

Eventually, obviously, people started to succeed and create a European population there. They even started trading with the Maori and thus getting the land from people that had more of a right to give it. (This is one of those points in time where the tour guide sort of glossed over in his explanations because it was less necessary to what he was trying to do.) Jump ahead in time a bit more to the point where the Maori decided that they had given away enough of their land. This of course led to arguments, which led to wars, which led to the attempted extermination of the Maori as a whole. The British sent in some of their best troops to deal with the issue, and they almost succeeded. The Maori that survived, retreated to very heavily forested areas to keep fighting using somewhat sneaky tactics. The precise ending of things, I can’t at all remember, but I know it lasted a long time, and things didn’t exactly go well for either side.

The Shire must be a truly wondrous realm where gardeners are held in high honor.

The Shire must be a truly wondrous realm where gardeners are held in high honor.

Skip ahead in time again, and we have both peoples still living and sort of doing their own thing, but neither quite happy with the other. So the government of New Zealand decides to have a tribunal to figure out how to solve everybody’s grievances. The Maori had been getting especially mad over a land ownership law passed by the government. It stated that to own land, you had to have a building on it and some manner of fence around it, and it was yours. The Maori built all of their cities this way for as long as they’d been building things, and thus claimed that tons of land had been wrongfully taken from them throughout history and they wanted it back. This was the biggest sticking point throughout the tribunal, and was really the hardest thing to figure out. Yes, perhaps it had been wrongfully taken, but there was really no way they could give it all back now, what with how long it had been in the hands of others at this point, and the government just paying the Maori for all of that land would simply bankrupt the country. So they decided on a sort of middle ground of that. The government went around and found all the land that was still owned by the government and gave it back to the Maori. Then, for everything they couldn’t give back they gave them money. The way they gave the money though was a bit awkward, but also both brilliant and slightly sneaky. They put money in an overseas account that had great rates, and said that the tribes that were awarded it were never allowed to touch it. Instead, the tribe got all of the interest that it accumulated. So basically they paid back all of the tribes whose land they’d taken without actually spending a cent of their own money.

The Party Tree is STUPIDLY huge

The Party Tree is STUPIDLY huge

Following the start of this (which negotiations with some tribes is still ongoing) relations got a lot better between Maori and European New Zealanders. The government has also put forward a lot of new laws and such to help bring the two people of New Zealand together. Maori and English are now both official languages in the country, and all kids learn both cultures and languages in school. The guide also talked a lot about recent politics in New Zealand, which was a bit harder to follow. The takeaway message though was just that New Zealand is much further along with the idea of equality. They’ve had tons of women in positions of power, and have thus passed a lot of laws that he doesn’t think would exist with only men in power. One example was about midwives. In the past, pregnant women would have a doctor that they chose to help with the whole ordeal, but they wouldn’t really do much on the all important birthing day. So they changed it to cut out that doctor, and instead the mothers-to-be choose a midwife, who is with them from beginning to end and is the one to deliver the baby and even continues to help them after birth until they decide they are ok on their own. Another example was that prostitution was made legal. One of their leaders decided that it wasn’t fair that those women were looked down upon so much and not actually protected under the law. So she made it legal and made laws so that they got regular health checks and didn’t have to sneak around to do their business. It made things much safer for them, and even if you don’t approve of the profession, that doesn’t mean it should have to be unsafe for those that choose it, whatever their reasons.

The Old Ted Sandyman Mill

The Old Ted Sandyman Mill

Our guide had one more bit of story before we arrived in Hobbiton, but it was sort of a random aside triggered by something we drove past. A trio of very large rocks uncovered when they were building the road we were on. These rocks apparently had carvings and lines on them that were pretty obviously not natural. A few other groups of these rocks have popped up over the years, always in threes, standing up like a sort of pyramid with lines on them somewhere. They also tended to be on the tops of the tallest mountains in different areas. Maori apparently had always told stories from their ancestors saying that there had been a people in New Zealand before them, but nobody believed it because there was no evidence. These rocks are now essentially the only evidence. The stories though say that these people were extremely tall with blonde hair and blue eyes, and they were extremely peaceful. For this reason, they really didn’t last very long after the Maori arrived, what with them being especially warlike and all. Their stories say that when they attacked these people, they wouldn’t even defend themselves. They also said that they had some weird habit of going up to the tops of mountains and screaming. Once one location screamed, they started a sort of chain reaction of nearby areas, so that all of them would start screaming.

hobbiton-banner

She fits right in here

She fits right in here

Anyway, after all these stories, we eventually approached Hobbiton. The town closest to Hobbiton has super adopted all of the tourism coming in for Hobbiton. A lot of the buildings in the town have added Lord of the Rings characters or made their buildings fit the Hobbiton style of building. As we drove up to Hobbiton itself, excitement was running really high. We stopped first near the front of the farm, at the Shire’s Rest. Here we were given about 45 minutes to hit the bathroom, grab some coffee from the cafe if we wanted, and peruse the gift shop. This is also were the tickets to Hobbiton can be found, and all tours to the village itself start. Nobody goes into Hobbiton itself without first stopping here and collecting a tour guide. Me and Jeff spent most of our time in the gift shop, looking at all of the fun things they had for sale. There was the normal stuff of course like books and t-shirts (most of which you could find elsewhere), but also some fancier replica-style items too (including the Elven cloaks the fellowship wore and Gandalf’s hat.) There were also postcards, which if you filled them out and bought a special stamp there, they would put in their special Hobbiton mailbox to be stamped as having come from Hobbiton before being sent as normal mail. It was pretty cute, but without having known about it beforehand, we wouldn’t have had time to send any without wasting the rest of our time there. We picked up a giant Hobbiton mug, a Dwarven bracelet, and Kili’s runestone, before heading upstairs for a quick hot chocolate for the road.

Hobbiton's two newest residents!

Hobbiton’s two newest residents!

We all piled back on the bus, followed by a new Hobbiton tour guide. She gave us a similar but shortened version of the story our guide had told us on the way here, but out focus was mostly out the windows. We were now driving through the sheep farm that Hobbiton sits in the middle of. There were rolling green hills as far as we could see in every direction, and they were all dotted with sheep. It was also the time of year when they all had babies, so there were tons of those too. As we got a little closer, we passed a spot where you could see down into Hobbiton just a bit, and our guide asked us a trivia question. “When Gandalf first arrives at Hobbiton, and Frodo is standing on a hill and tells him that he’s late….Does anybody remember what Gandalf said in response?” Of course me and Jeff both gave her the entire Gandalf quote, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” Both of our guides were quite amused, and we were told that we had just passed the spot where they filmed that scene. We also passed by their film camp before shortly arriving into Hobbiton proper.

One of the first hobbit holes witnessed as you enter the village.

One of the first hobbit holes witnessed as you enter the village.

We all got off the bus, leaving the driver to his own devices, and following our Hobbiton guide around the bend into the village. The entrance to the village is actually the very same entrance that Gandalf drove through as he arrived, with the rock walls on either side. As you leave the walls, the entirety of Hobbiton opens up in front of you. It’s really hard to properly describe the feeling you get walking into Hobbiton; it really is just like walking into a fantasy world. One second you are walking through an (admittedly beautiful but still quite) ordinary sheep farm and suddenly you are in Middle-Earth, surrounded by familiar sights that you never thought you’d actually be able to see or touch. For everyone who ever wanted to set foot in their favorite storybook, this place actually gives you that opportunity. It was like a dream for us. How many people can say they took a stroll through the very same paths walked by their favorite wizards and heroes of fantasy? Our guide led us over to the first hobbit hole and told us a bit about the village and how and why the holes were all different sizes. (They would have different actors stand in front of different sized holes to give the illusion of the hobbits being smaller and Gandalf being taller.) She also told us that behind the doors of each hobbit hole was a wall of dirt. Most of the holes weren’t really meant to open, but we were able to go inside one of them later in the village, so wait for it! We were then given a couple of minutes to wander around and take pictures of the nearby hobbit holes, before congregating again farther down the path.

Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton's home. Jeff actually pointed this out before the guide could mention whose it was.

Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton’s home. Jeff actually pointed this out before the guide could mention whose it was.

Each hobbit hole was unique and different and each one was so intricately designed. Each one had it’s own set of trinkets strewn about the front lawn or sitting inside in the windows, different landscaping, front gates, mailboxes, and designs of brick, wood, and stone. You could walk around in here and study all the little details for days. As we moved down the path, there was a small garden on one side. It looked completely fake, but was apparently 100% real vegetables growing there. We also walked by a sign pointing the way to Tuck Borough and the East and West Farthings. We continued to wind our way through the village with periods of talking from our guide and time to just walk around and take pictures in different areas. We walked past another few hobbit holes before coming across what was known as the frog pond. It was just a small inconspicuous looking pond in front of some other hobbit holes. It was dubbed the frog pond because in summer it is always full of frogs, and they are always making a ton of noise. They actually had to stop filming a couple times, all the way off across Hobbiton at Bag End, because the actors couldn’t hear each other. Somebody ended up with the extra job of going in to catch all the frogs and take them to a different pond, and then bring them back after filming. Nearby, there was also a small orchard of ‘plum’ trees. These were actually small apple trees because plum trees were too big for hobbit children to climb. For filming though, they put a ton of plums into the trees to make them look like plum trees.

"No, thank you! We don't want any more visitors, well-wishers, or distant relations!"

“No, thank you! We don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers, or distant relations!”

As we wandered our way up the hill, we came across a few more small gardens, a wood shed, plenty of bird houses in the trees, a table full of honey jars, wells, benches, clotheslines complete with tiny hobbit clothes on them, and plenty more random things strewn about. They spared no detail and it really looked like hobbits were living there. During filming, they apparently even had people assigned to walk between the hobbit holes and clotheslines over and over again so that it looked like there was a well-worn path there. They even had smoke rising from some of the chimneys, even now.

Jessy is never late. Nor is she early. She always arrived precisely when she means to.

Jessy is never late. Nor is she early. She arrives precisely when she means to!

Finally we found ourselves going up the hill in the back of Hobbiton, to find tons of amazing views of the surrounding farm. The Misty Mountains even came out to play for a little while. Eventually we found ourselves at the hobbit hole that we could go inside of! Everybody was SO excited to see that blank dirt wall. We all lined up to get our pictures standing inside of a hobbit hole, before moving on to Bag End. There really wasn’t much exciting to say about Bag End actually. It was just a bigger hobbit hole really, but knowing whose hobbit hole it was in the movie made it exciting anyway. We wound our way back down the hill past a few more holes to arrive at the party tree. It was a really big tree. There were also all the party toys strewn about the place though, and we were given some time to play with these before moving on. Me and Jeff immediately went over and frolicked at the maypole to laughs from a few of the other folks gathered there. It was like a cue for everybody else to break off and start playing with things though. There were benches and seesaws and swings and stilts. Me and Jeff went for the stilts. I tried first, failing pretty miserably. I just couldn’t get my balance while getting into them. Jeff took over and basically had no trouble, and just started walking off down the party grounds. Show off.

Creepin' on Hobbitses

Creepin’ on Hobbitses.

After fun at the party grounds we ended up at the 100% to scale hobbit holes, and I was told that I am the cutoff point of height for hobbit actors. If you weren’t 5’2″ or less, then you couldn’t be a hobbit. It also turned out that one of these hobbit holes was Sam’s home! We grabbed some last pictures before heading off down the road to the Green Dragon. This path took us through some woods, over some small bridges and around the lake to the Green Dragon on the other side. We reached the mill first, which was just as intricate as the hobbit holes, and even had a notice board in front of it with the cutest little notices. We also noticed a family of swans and a ton of geese playing in the waters as we finally crossed the last big stone bridge to the Green Dragon. It was especially cute inside, and I would have loved to wander around it a little longer to see all the details here too. Instead though, we had to pretty quickly grab our free drinks, nonalcoholic ginger beer for us, and head around the back for our special hobbit lunch buffet! (Apparently they have a handful of drinks, including the ginger beer, that are only served here at the Green Dragon.)

Inside the dining tent, ready for a meal fit for Hobbits!

Inside the dining tent, ready for a meal fit for Hobbits!

We headed inside the tent to find a really fancily decorated dining area. We all sat down at the tables and were set free to enjoy the buffet. Our tables had big bottles of the Southfarthings best water sitting on them, but we didn’t need any what with our giant glasses of ginger beer. The buffet had a ton of different options and they literally all looked delicious. We both grabbed giant plates full of breads, meats, potatoes, veggies, noodles, and eventually cakes. Everything was in fact delicious, and we stuffed ourselves to capacity. As it was time to head out, we headed over to hit the bathrooms before the bus ride to our next destination. I wouldn’t mention this, but even the bathrooms were adorable and themed. They were all wooden and old timey looking and even had those little pull cords to flush. When I was waiting for Jeff to finish up, our guide appeared. He checked to make sure I was one of those that knew the Gandalf quote way back at the beginning of our tour, and when I said that I was, he told me he had a special prize for me and Jeff. He had talked to the staff at the Green Dragon so that we could get a picture behind the counter. With this one last surprise finished, we walked off behind the Green Dragon to reboard our bus and head back up the road, leaving Hobbiton behind us.

...but the only brew for the brave and true comes form the Green Dragon!

…but the only brew for the brave and true….comes from the Green Dragon!

The one hobbit hole that actually had a fully realized interior

The one hobbit hole that actually had a fully realized interior.

As we went back past the Shire’s Rest, we noticed a small helicopter sitting across the road in a field. Our guide said that it probably belonged to somebody famous, as they often helicopter in for a tour instead of taking forever to drive up there. He said that recently somebody from the Jonas Brothers had done just that, but he had no idea who it might be that day. Too bad. Our ride continued on from there, heading off towards the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The guide decided to give us most of the ride to relax without commentary, since people often seem to sleep on this leg of the trip. He would wake us up when we got close to our destination, in maybe 30-45 minutes, to tell us a bit about it. I was feeling more energized than sleepy, so I just sat there quietly taking pictures of everything out the window.

My turn!

My turn!

Eventually, we drove through a small town that our guide decided to tell us a bit about. Apparently this town created a town project (which is apparently a super common thing in the area) to help out one of the species of kiwi in the area. They’ve apparently really helped said species’ numbers climb back up, and have thus erected statues to celebrate their achievements. They also have a Kiwi House, which is like a sanctuary or zoo especially for kiwis, that attracts tons of visitors. While we would have liked to stop there and have a look, we were on a schedule and needed to quickly get a few more minutes up the road to the caves so that our tour didn’t leave without us. We got a little bit of information about the caves on this last leg of the trip as well. Apparently, these caves once belonged to the New Zealand government, and for a while were quite popular with tourists. Eventually though, the facilities started to get too old and outdated and thus not as many people came. The government got the wrong idea, and thought people just didn’t care about the caves anymore, and spent even less money on them. Not too long later though, that tribunal that I mentioned between Maori and European New Zealanders began. These caves were government owned, and like a lot of similar land, they were given back to the local tribe to own and maintain. The tribe immediately started to revamp the facilities and make it a really worthwhile stop for tourists again. They even included a giant canopy over all the buildings and entrance to the caves to protect folks from the ever common rains, and it won some manner of architectural design award. They also started a secondary sort of tour of the caves, called the Black Water Rafting Company. This is actually how I had wanted to see the caves, but it didn’t work out logistically this time around. These tours are more like adventures. They have you abseiling, climbing, ziplining, jumping, tubing and all manner of other crazy things inside the caves as opposed to our tour where we would simply be walking along a simple path.

A Maori totem outside the caves

A Maori totem outside the caves.

With that, we had arrived. It was raining lightly now, but we had that canopy above us and would soon be underground anyway so it was no big deal. We all piled out of the bus and headed around back to meet our guide for the caves. Probably in large part thanks to our morning adventure, the entrance to the caves looked like we were heading into some sort of Dwarven hall. It was sort of a big metal sunburst set into a rock wall. As we gathered outside of it, we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to take any pictures inside, and some other general rules about not touching the cave formations, being careful not to slip, and being quiet.

Our guide opened the door and led us inside through the very low-ceilinged entrance, thanks to tons of stalactites. We wandered down the path, with simple commentary from our guide. It was almost entirely just generic info about how caves form so I honestly didn’t pay attention to much as I quite like caves and knew the info already. I instead spent most of my time gawking at the surrounding formations. The cave was admittedly quite small, and really nothing compared to other caves I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still gorgeous and neat. There were tons of stalactites and stalagmites, some right smack in the middle of the walking path. There was also a ton of water dripping all over and some walls had it essentially cascading down them constantly. The guide mentioned that those drips that land on us are like our souvenirs. We meandered past a few branches in the cave that they don’t walk down, and even a big hole dropping straight down to who-knows-where way below us. As we continued down the path, our guide pointed out a few of the stars of this show, the glowworms. He said that they live all over the area really, and you can often find them along river banks, but here in the cave they were especially numerous. They like the damp and the dark and this cave was full of that. We passed a few that he pointed out, hanging in especially dark crevices. He did say though that those living in these random locations throughout the caves probably had it a bit rough, since food would be more scarce there than their normal haunt which we would see soon.

The boat and our guide as he slowly receded back into the gloom (You can't get pictures inside or you scare the glow worms into darkening their glow, so this is all we could get)

The boat and our guide as he slowly receded back into the gloom (You can’t get pictures inside or you scare the glow worms into darkening their glow, so this is all we could get).

The ornately decorated entry gate to the Waitomo Caves

The ornately decorated entry gate to the Waitomo Caves.

Eventually we got to a very open area of cave that has amazing acoustics. We heard a group in front of us singing in it, and our guide asked if any of us would be willing to try it out for our benefit too, but there were no takers. Back on the bus, our driver-guide had mentioned this saying that the guides usually will sing when nobody volunteers, but apparently our guide was not of that sort. He did mention though that a ton of famous people have come to test out their acoustics and have all loved it. They also apparently have events in there sometimes, a Christmas caroling concert, weddings of local tribe members and the like. At this point, we had essentially reached the end of the cave, or at least the part that this tour walks through. It ended in a big sprawling platform above the underground river. There were quite a few glowworms on our current walls and ceiling. If we squatted down we could see even more though, since we were standing at about the same height as the river’s ceiling. Our guide told us to look closely at those glowworms above the river, because from here you could actually see how they catch their food. They drop a sticky line, sort of like a spider, down below them. Things are attracted to their lights and fly towards them only to be caught in the strings and gobbled up by the glowworms. We all squatted down again after this news and could in fact see tons of strings dangling from the ceiling awaiting their prey.

Acozy hearth to warm your furry little feetses inside the Green Dragon Inn

A cozy hearth to warm your furry little feetses inside the Green Dragon Inn.

Hobbit stilts are hard to play with!

Hobbit stilts are hard to play with!

After we had all gotten a good look at some glowworms, we backtracked a bit to head to the real reason we were all here, Glowworm Grotto. We descended some stairs to reach the river, and all quietly climbed into our boats. Our group ended up being split into a couple of different boats as they were so small, fitting only maybe 20 people in each, but there were other guides waiting here just in case that happened. We ended up being the first people into a new boat, which was kind of like a wider canoe: wooden, sitting pretty low in the water, with just little benches to sit on and literally nothing else. As we got into the boat, which rocked quite intensely, we could finally see what had been going on with boat #1 before us. Above this river, somebody had installed a series of wires or ropes, and the guides used those, and only those, to pull the boats around in the river. The first boat loaded up, and was pushed back behind us and completely disappeared almost immediately. I’m fairly certain they ended up going back past us since that’s the way our boat went once it was full, but we literally never saw that boat again so that’s just speculation.

Little touches like this (actually inhabited) bird feeder made the village really come to life.

Little touches like this (actually inhabited) bird feeder made the village really come to life.

When our boat was full, we headed off with our same guide pulling us along silently. (We had been warned multiple times to stay completely silent and not use anything that made light while we were on the boat. If we didn’t follow those two rules, the glowworms might get scared and turn off their lights and then everybody would be ticked.) So off we floated into the complete blackness and complete silence. Above us were millions of glowworms, with their tiny blue lights shining brightly. It looked sort of like a galaxy of stars right above your head. We drifted around the area very slowly, giving everybody enough time to gaze up into the lights. Some parts of the ceiling were especially low too, so the height of this galaxy of glowworms changed as we floated. Despite the cave being rather basic and simple, this part of the tour makes everything entirely worthwhile. It was seriously mesmerizing. After at least a good 10 minutes of floating around under these worms we headed towards a small hole in the wall. Our boat just barely squeezed through this little tunnel. It popped us into a much more open bit of river that led us to the exit of the cave. We all climbed out of the boat, thanking our guide profusely, and walked back up the forested path to the gift shop and ticket area. Our guide meanwhile disappeared with our boat back into the darkness.

Hobbit stilts are fun to play with!

Hobbit stilts are fun to play with!

We wandered around the gift shop for a while, debating if we should grab anything. They had taken our pictures on the way in, and we could buy a little booklet of pictures where they had photoshopped us into different parts of the cave. It was cute but also tacky and lame at the same time so we opted out of that. Soon enough it was time to hop back onto the bus for our drive back to Auckland. Most of this drive was quiet and sleepy, but with a few things of note. One was a giant river that we drove over where you could see tons of springs bubbling up into it. Our driver also chose to take a smaller backroad for part of the journey so that we could try to spot some New Zealand pheasants. We managed to find quite a few, with me and Jeff being especially good at spying them, and also a few other species of birds as well.

Some New Zealand wildlife on the rainy road home.

Some New Zealand wildlife on the rainy road home.

After that bit of fun, it was pretty much a straight and quiet shot back to Auckland.Until, we got close. We hit a ton of traffic, which caused out journey back to take probably an hour longer than anticipated. It was pretty intense. Eventually though we did arrive safely back at the bus station, and headed off to find some dinner. It was raining super heavily by this point though, so we grabbed an umbrella from the bus terminals convenience store. It was overpriced and especially flimsy, but succeed in getting us home in one piece, and at least somewhat dry. Not having come across anything on our walk home, and not wanting to go back out to find something, we grabbed cheap microwave meals from the shop attached to our hotel. It was extremely unsatisfying but we were tired, damp, and cold and just wanted to be inside and able to go to bed so it was ok. We worried a bit about what would happen the next day if the rain held, but decided to figure that out when we woke up, and instead just crashed pretty much right after dinner.

Good bye Hobbiton! You were incredible!

Good bye Hobbiton! You were incredible!

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Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

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Arriving at Brisbane International Airport. Out of the real jungle and into the urban jungle.

It was finally time to leave Cairns. We can’t say we were happy about that, since it had been so thoroughly awesome from beginning to end, but you never know. Maybe we’ll find our way back another time. In the meantime though it was time for part two of this epic adventure of a vacation; We were on our way to Brisbane. Honestly, going in we knew nothing about Brisbane. Our entire reason for making the city a stop on our vacation is also the original reason all those years ago that I initially decided I wanted to visit Australia. That reason’s name is Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter. I grew up watching his show and all of Steve’s crazy antics, the entire time thinking that he had the most awesome job in the world. I wished someday I could have a similar one. He is seriously a really large part of why I decided to go to school for zoology, and while that hasn’t quite worked out so far, it’s still basically my dream. Knowing that the Australia Zoo was his home I just had to take the opportunity to go see it for myself now that visiting Australia was actually a possibility. We added a stop in Brisbane with only this goal in mind. We were literally only staying overnight there for two days.

Childhood coming full circle - the whole reason we came to Brisbane.

Childhood coming full circle – the whole reason we came to Brisbane.

We woke up in Cairns bright and early, calling a taxi to take us out to the airport. Out hotel did offer a shuttle, but it wasn’t free. For two people it was actually cheaper to go with a cab. Our driver was from India and we had this random conversation about how different areas of a big country can feel like a whole different country altogether. He was also telling us how there are tons of different languages in India, so it’s even more different and difficult than just keeping accents straight. Our arrival and check-in at Cairns airport was super efficient. Everyone was insanely relaxed. Even the security people were chatting it up with each other and being super chill, talking about what their friends had done over the past weekend or some similar topic. They snapped right back to professional mode once they saw people approaching to be scanned, so as they say in Australia, “No worries.” It’s not like they were slacking off or letting things slide under their radar, they were just trying to pass time since they have an admittedly really repetitive and boring job.

This little fella was in the zoo, but these guys were so abundant they were considered pests in the wild in Australia.

This little fella was in the zoo, but these guys were so abundant they were considered pests in the wild in Australia.

We had to take a small bus over to a Qantas specific terminal and spent some time in a central lounge area where we wrote a bit, ate a bit, and rested a bit before the flight. We boarded the plane and were seated in a window behind the wing, just like we almost always are. It was far better than that tiny porthole I got stuck with back in the China Southern flight. Qantas was a solid airline but nothing spectacular – they had good food, free chocolate, and the servers were kind without hovering overmuch. The flight wasn’t terribly long either, so it was a pretty quick and comfortable shot to Brisbane with little to note along the way. We did notice the terrain below us shifting gradually from lush, green, and mountainous to brown, barren, and completely bereft of human habitation for a while. The landing was a little bumpy but nothing to lose sleep over. We disembarked and found ourselves in a fairly small terminal which seemed much more metro-modern than Cairns, which was all about the adventure. Jeff was immediately amused to no end that suddenly he was surrounded by people who sounded exactly like Steve Irwin. He was like a little kid again.

These Eastern Water Dragons were wild and roaming everywhere both in and out of exhibits all day.

These Eastern Water Dragons were wild and roaming everywhere both in and out of exhibits all day.

We took a train out of the airport, which was rather absurdly priced but we didn’t seem to have many options. It was set up very different from the Korean subways. Most obviously, the seats were not along the sides of the car, but rather in pairs, some facing the front of the train and others facing the back. You also had to press a button or turn a handle in order to open the doors, they didn’t just automatically open at every stop. Also, and this became more obvious on our later uses of the trains, the stations were rather confusing. They didn’t really have designated tracks for different trains, and instead the trains just arrived at whatever track was free at the time. There was a schedule board (at some stations) that listed what trains were coming in soon and on what track. The trains themselves also didn’t have anything showing what train they were, except on the very front where they showed their final station name. It didn’t show the line anywhere and if you missed the very front of the train there was absolutely no way to know what train you were looking at. Even if you looked inside. You might see a full subway map, but not one specific to that line or anything. The ticket system itself was pretty odd too. You didn’t get a ticket to a specific station. The subway map was divided up into zones, and you paid based on how many zones you would be traveling through. We had no idea what the zones were and thus got around this by simply buying our tickets off of a person every time. Our car did have free wifi though, which was nice. They would announce the coming stops regularly and all that. It was really just that bit of awkward uncertainty regarding getting on the right train.

We miss you, Steve!

We miss you, Steve!

Either way, our train eventually got to our station, Fortitude Valley. We got off, headed out of the station, and immediately started feeling a bit uncomfortable. Brisbane is much more of an actual city than Cairns, and neither I nor Jeff are city people. Some cities aren’t bad, but others just make us feel uncomfortable. Brisbane was one of the latter. It’s possible that it was in part due to the area of the city we were in, as it seemed a bit red lighty. As we exited the station, we were faced with a road crossing our path. Across the street were no fewer than five consecutive strip clubs, an asian “massage” parlor, and oddly enough a random surgical office. I’m not sure I’d trust that surgeon considering the real estate. There was no indication as to what road this was, and we had no clue which direction our hotel was from there without knowing that. We chose a direction based off a random sign mentioning a mall being that way (it had the same name as a street relevant to our interests). After passing two cross-streets, and tons of bars and strip clubs and adult shops and the like, we realized we were going the wrong way. The street we were following was correct, but we needed to go the opposite way on it. So we turned ourselves around and continued dragging our luggage around. We passed a gigantic adult emporium on the left and continued up the hill past the kink shops (there were families with kids wandering all over, so is this just the norm in Brisbane?) and continued on toward our accomodations. It was actually pretty simple to find the hotel now that we were going the right direction, and we checked in with ease. This hotel was a lot more basic than our Cairns hotel, but we were only staying for the two nights so we purposely got something cheaper. It was still a cute and nice little hotel. The room was fairly small, but had everything we needed. It also operated using these little key cards, instead of normal keys. You even had to swipe them before choosing your floor in the elevator. No swipe meant the elevator just stayed put where it was. It made me feel strangely important, while also reminding me of video games (since that’s the only time I’ve seen key cards needed to operate elevators.) There was a ton of tea in the room and the provided toiletries were actually branded, not the cheap-o hotel fare you usually find that dries you up after one use. It was a nice surprise and all inclusive in the price.

Bluey the croc jumping at one of his keepers. The croc demonstrations are, among many other things, a huge draw to Australia Zoo.

Bluey the croc jumping at one of his keepers. The croc demonstrations are, among many other things, a huge draw to Australia Zoo.

We had actually arrived here a lot later than we’d expected, and although our flight was short, we still felt exhausted from the day of travel. We recovered for a few minutes before heading back out to find some dinner. We had already decided that we really weren’t interested in exploring Brisbane itself, especially not the area we were in. We did still need food. We headed back up the road with the train station, as there had been a bunch of restaurants just past all the strip bars. Eventually we came across a couple in a row that seemed reasonably priced and probably yummy, but neither of us could decide which to go for. Our problems were solved when one of the workers at one of the shops flagged us inside. Usually we don’t respond well to that sort of thing, but we just followed the guy inside this time since it made the decision easy. It was a Greek shop that specialized in Gyros. The lady at the counter was super friendly and helpful, describing all the options and suggesting things for us to choose. We ended up going with a variety platter of sorts. It had lamb and chicken, some salad, pita bread, fried cheese, sauces, all sorts of stuff, and it was really yummy. We pretty much inhaled it, and then headed back to the hotel. We figured out a plan of attack for the morning, and then headed to sleep early. I for one was way more than ready for it to be the next day so I could finally realize a life goal of visiting Australia Zoo.

Free-roaming lemurs enjoying a late snack. The zoo is big on interactivity and getting you close to the animals.

Free-roaming lemurs enjoying a late snack. The zoo is big on interactivity and getting you close to the animals.

We awoke at a stupidly early time in the morning (around 5am), but we must have been pretty excited since we headed out a good bit before our expected time. We grabbed a quick breakfast to go at a convenience store on the way, bought our tickets with no hassle (though we grumbled about them being over $30 per person the whole time), and then stood around waiting for our train to arrive for a good 20-30 minutes (they are really inconsistent and infrequent). Finally it came, and off we went! There was one small hitch -this train didn’t have wifi and we’d be riding it for at least an hour. So, half asleep but too excited to sleep, we sat there playing offline games and reading on our phones until we arrived at a transfer station. The girl that we bought our ticket from claimed there was no transfer, but I had looked it up online the night before. This meant I had some warning, I just couldn’t remember the station name. No matter though, because apparently the train we were on finished here and turned around, so everybody had to get off. There was no indication as to where our new train would be located though. No screens. No signs. Nothing. Except a very obvious flow of people traffic towards one of the other tracks, which we followed. Once there, I asked a worker to confirm what train would be arriving there, and it was indeed the right one. We only had a few minutes to wait before it pulled up, though we were still uncertain as we boarded. The train pulled in as if to continue on in the direction we had just come from. This was explained moments later as our train departed, going backwards the way it had come. Apparently these trains just go backwards and forwards along their tracks, without physically turning around.

I always yell at Jeff for taking pictures of me taking pictures of things. Take that!

I always yell at Jeff for taking pictures of me taking pictures of things. Take that!

After just a few more stations, we arrived at our final destination, sort of. It was the end of our train adventure at least, a tiny station called Beerwah in pretty much the middle of nowhere. As we stepped off the train though, we found our very first Irwin family picture! Steve himself was on a sign pointing the way for the Australia Zoo shuttle bus. We followed Steve’s directions and crossed to the other side of the station, but once there we found no sign of where the bus would actually pick up, or when. We asked the ticket guy, but he really didn’t know either. He did try to look it up for us though, but not in quite the right way. There is meant to be a free shuttle bus from there, but he looked up the public bus for us. The shuttle bus is supposed to be free from there, and you can call the zoo to have them send it out if it isn’t there, but we didn’t have the phone number and felt bad bothering the poor confused ticket guy again. So we awaited the public bus, assuming it couldn’t cost much anyway since it was supposed to be only about a 5 minute drive away.

A beautiful giraffe family.

A beautiful giraffe family.

When it arrived, we asked the driver, and he in turn asked for our train tickets. Apparently when we bought the ticket, we were supposed to mention that we were going all the way out to the zoo, not just the last train station we wanted. The buses and trains apparently run on the same zone system and you just use the same ticket for both. Odd. Our ticket technically didn’t get us all the way out to the zoo, as we were apparently sitting on a zone border, but the guy told us to just hop on anyway and he’d take us. With a quick wink and a gesture over his shoulder, we were smuggled onto the bus as wayward tourists. We thanked him profusely as we rode those couple minutes, and only one stop, down the road to the zoo. The driver wished us a good day, saying the zoo was awesome, before warning us that our tickets back would be a bit more than our tickets there, since we had to add an extra zone. We would worry about that later though.

We finally made it!

Crikey! We finally made it!

As we’d driven up, we got our first glimpse of the zoo. They had a giant cutout of Steve poking out of the top of their sign, all excited like. In fact the whole front of the zoo and ticket area was decorated with not only awesome pictures of their animals, but also lots of pictures of Steve, and the whole Irwin family. This was going to be epic! Already taking pictures of everything, we bought our tickets, though decided to pass on any animal encounters .They were wildly expensive and featured a number of animals we’d already “encountered” elsewhere in life, plus some were already booked solid so the ones we really wanted to see were unavailable. No Red Panda for me, I guess… They have a ton of these encounters. These are guided events where you get to feed or pet or take pictures or something. They have them with different animals throughout the day, but they cost quite a bit. Some of them sounded super awesome, and others just kinda cool, but there was no way we could decide and agree on just one to do so we just passed altogether.We headed inside.

The whole Irwin family (including Sui) was here to greet you as soon as you entered the zoo.

The whole Irwin family (including Sui) was here to greet you as soon as you entered the zoo.

The entryway had a gift shop off to our left, which we decided to check out later, complete with a couple of kiddy rides. I really wanted to hop into the one jeep so that I could bobble along with Steve, his beloved dog Sui, and a croc riding along in the back, but there were some kids climbing all over it. Maybe later. As we headed off onto the paths of the zoo itself, we were met with a big statue of the whole Irwin family, Steve, Terri, Bindi, Robert, and even Sui, holding a croc. We headed off to the right to find a few large lizards followed by some otters. They were frolicking all over their enclosure, play fighting like mad. It was really cute. Right next to their home we ran into a handful of wild brush turkeys, which, while still turkeys, are different enough from the USA variety to not freak me out.

Australia Zoo has an incredible staff of interactive, friendly, and knowledgeable keepers that wander around all day to make sure YOU get to interact with their animals.

Australia Zoo has an incredible staff of interactive, friendly, and knowledgeable keepers that wander around all day to make sure YOU get to interact with their animals.

We finished off this little hidey hole of exhibits with a cockatoo and some snakes before reappearing at the Irwin family statue. Hanging around here now though were a few of the staff members with some critters. This is one of those random things that this zoo does that really makes me like it. They are all about you getting up close and interacting with the animals in order to make the connections necessary to really persuade people to help with wildlife conservation. Throughout the day some of the staff just walk around with random animals letting people pet them or take pictures next to them. There are also photographer staff members that walk around with these animals to take pictures of anybody that wants it. They let you take with your own camera too (which is awesome!) but they also take some too, which are available for purchase and some probably go towards their promotions (they mention in the map you get upon entry that they often do filming and such and by entering the park you agree to being used for media purposes).   So we found keepers with a couple of big colorful birds, a snake, and a koala. We patted everything that allowed it and took a couple pictures before moving on.

We had rather a lot of fun with the statues in the park.

We had rather a lot of fun with the statues in the park.

We wandered past some more random reptiles, including a ton of freshwater crocodiles. Here though we got thoroughly distracted by a big statue of Deinosuchus (an ancient giant croc) attacking a Parasaurolophus (dinosaur). Apparently it was a gift for Robert’s 10th birthday from his mom Terri, since dinosaurs are a favorite of his. We spent all sorts of time climbing on this thing and posing in weird ways. A random staff member even went by at one point, laughing at us. When we had played to our hearts content, we continued down the path to the Tasmanian devils. These guys are super rare in zoos. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen them before this trip, so we were pretty excited. Upon seeing them though, I can’t help but think they’re really ugly. Not even ugly-cute, just ugly. Maybe it’s just me. This one was acting just like Taz and Dizzy Devil though, running around in random circles all over his enclosure. That was amusing.

Tasmanian Devils are terrifying.

Tasmanian Devils are terrifying.

While hanging out here though we realized it was time for the first show of the day to start, so we headed back where we’d come from to catch it. Jeff had thought it was the otters, so we wandered back that way, but nobody was there. We double checked the schedule, and headed off to the real location, the Aldabran Tortoises. When we arrived, there was already quite the crowd. We squeezed in at the far end of their enclosure to watch. The keepers already had a pile of greens and random fruits and vegetables on the ground being eaten by one of their tortoises. The other was in the process of being lured over to join his friend by waving greens in front of his face and waiting as he slowly meandered over to find the large pile of yum. The other keeper then started talking. He warned the crowd that this was not going to be an exciting fast-paced show and if that’s what you want make sure to go see the croc shows later. He continued on to talk about the tortoises and how they are overshadowed by the Galapagos Tortoises even though these ones get bigger. He also talked about the differences between tortoises and turtles, having brought a random Australian turtle with him to demonstrate his points. The most amusing thing though, we thought, was actually the thieves. A few wild Eastern Water Dragons had crashed the party, and kept running about trying to snag bits of vegetable or fruit from the tortoises pile. (Later, after the crowds dispersed, brush turkeys started invading to get at the goodies too.) After the show ended, they had an impromptu encounter time with the tortoises. You could pay $10 to go inside their enclosure and pat and hug and take pictures with the giant tortoises to your hearts content. The keepers also hung around just talking to folks, answering any questions, and telling stories. I was sorely tempted to join the tortoise hugging fun, but we instead decided to move on with the rest of the zoo, since we’ve patted many a tortoise (of varying sizes) in the past.

This is Agro, son of Acco, of croc hunter fame. We watched Steve doing a show with this croc in class with our students once we got home.

This is Agro, son of Acco, of croc hunter fame. We watched Steve doing a show with this croc in class with our students once we got home.

We wandered off to the crocodile area, playing with another random statue, and freaking out a bit about recognizing Acco from Crocodile Hunter. After only a couple minutes though we realized it was actually time for the otter talk now, so we headed back off that direction. There was probably an even bigger crowd here for the otters, and we had a really hard time finding somewhere to watch from. Jeff never really found a spot and just stood back and listened mostly. I found my way up onto one of the platforms and was able to see a good chunk of the enclosure through some heads. These two otters were apparently both old and retired just sort of chilling out. The male, named Mayhem, was actually causing issues at his previous zoo, so Australia Zoo took him off their hands. Also, even though they are male and female, there is no real chance of breeding as they are both too old. Still, they were super playful and cute, and the keepers walked them through some of their training. A lot of animals, including these otters, get training as enrichment. A lot of people think having animals do tricks, especially when they’re zoo animals, is purely for the amusement of people. It’s really not at all the case though. Animals that are trained are generally the more intelligent ones and that training helps keep their brains active and engaged. It helps them stay happier. They showed off their station training, which is when an animal is taught that if they stay in a certain place or sometimes go to a certain place and do something, they will get a reward. The female otter, Rosie, was even trained to stand on her hind legs on a boogie board. It was adorable.The keepers use these otters station training for something else as well. Rosie is apparently a super picky eater, and Mayhem will eat everything he can find. So, in order to keep Mayhem’s diet in check, they use station training to feed them a lot because it restricts what they are given, but on an individual basis. As the shows wrapped up, they gave the otters little ice blocks treats with fish heads inside. They were so excited, and I had a perfect view of Rosie playing around and munching on hers. It was precious. We stuck around for another closer look at the otters after the crowd started to disperse before heading off again.

These Ibises would wander right up to you while you ate in the food court. Some walked on tables and wandered through the forest of chair legs as well.

These Ibises would wander right up to you while you ate in the food court. Some walked on tables and wandered through the forest of chair legs as well.

We decided to head for the food court next, since I was getting quite hungry at this point. On the way, we came across a koala enclosure with tons of babies, which distracted us for a good while. We tore ourselves away soon enough to go up to the food court. It was on the second story of a building that had a gift shop and Steve Irwin museum, and was also attached to the Crocoseum. The backside of the seating area thus overlooked a bunch of the crocodile enclosures. It was really cool. There were a ton of ibises wandering around in search of snacks too. (Though there were also quite a few signs telling people not to actually feed them since they can get sick because of it.) We munched up our pizza and lasagna before going downstairs to take a look at the museum and then head off to get good seats for the Crocoseum show to come. The museum had a whole big wall of pics of Steve doing what he did best. It also had a giant jumping Steve on a wall inviting people to jump with him. (Which of course we did!) There were also a handful of other large billboards of Steve and the other Irwin’s. (They were all very present throughout the zoo in fact on various signs and things.) There was another section that had random skeletons and preserved bits and things. It also included a boot of Steve’s from when one of the crocs got him, along with pics of the damage they’d done to one of the zoo managers during that incident. At the far end of the museum area, there was a tiny theater where they were playing some episode of Crocodile Hunter and you could chill and watch if you wanted.

The croc show was ironically 90% birds, but they were very impressive birds.

The croc show was ironically 90% birds, but they were very impressive birds.

After making our way through all that, we entered the Crocoseum and selected seats around the middle. Before the show they played a ton of clips from Crocodile hunter highlight reels on a giant Jumbo-Tron over the arena. They also played a number of random clips from various media that Robert and Bindi starred in, including their kids’ wildlife shows and even a quick snippet from when Bindi was on Dancing with the Stars. After only a little while of waiting, while seats filled in around us, the show got started. It started with a keeper (one we’d seen toting a koala around earlier, in fact) coming out with her friend, another keeper in a tiger fursuit. They sort of previewed what was to come, and laid out the zoo’s goals and such for us, referencing Steve and his dreams in particular. She tried to loosen everybody up a bit by having the two halves of the arena dance like random animals, and then highlighting the person that did the best. They got prizes of some sort later. Then, to get the show started and to honor Steve, we had a crikey-off. Each half of the arena had to stand up and yell “CRIKEY!!” as loud as they could. This really didn’t win you anything, unless you count the losing side (us….though we went first so it was expected) getting made fun of a bit by the keeper and tiger.

Jump, Munga! Jump!

Jump, Munga! Jump!

Time for the show to start for real! Though it is called the Crocoseum, the show here is actually only partially a croc show. It starts off with a ton of other things first. There were various birds flying all over the arena, people walking around with various snakes, and a raptor show. This included an Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world. It was seriously large and intimidating. Before the show they had to bring out a full rack of ribs for it in order to create a place marker for it to go to. It looked frighteningly like that scene at the end of The Flintstones where the fast food worker tips their car by putting a huge Bronto-Ribs serving on the side of it. They also threw things for another raptor to catch out of the air and had cormorants come out and show off their swimming and sunning. Throughout the whole show, but especially active during the raptor part, a random wild egret was bouncing around the arena stealing little bits of meat. The keepers tried to shoo it away a few times, but it was very stubborn. The flying birds were released into free flight several times throughout the show. There were various different kinds of birds. At one point they even let loose a good 40 or so birds at essentially the same time. They started zooming all over the arena. This included a flock of lorikeets that went zooming around like mad, showcasing the fastest birds that the zoo had, as well as cockatoos, macaws, and who knows what else. They also had what they claimed to be a guy auditioning to join their Crocoseum shows. We somewhat questioned whether it was staged or not. Either way, he came out with a crate of birds and selected an audience member from each side to help him. They had to stand up and assume a “power stance” so that his birds could go land on them. Then they had to practice their call to attract the birds to them, where they had to sort of flap themselves with their whole bodies and yell “kapow! kapow!!” It was pretty hilarious. After practicing, the guy released the birds as the helpers did as instructed, and the birds flew straight out of the arena, followed frantically by the ‘auditioning’ keeper. The other keepers came back out for another round of birds flying all over before it was time for the stars to appear, the crocodiles.

The crocodile we saw was named Munga. He’s one of the younger and smaller crocs they use in the Crocoseum, but he’s also the fastest, with tons of attitude and smarts. The show starts with simply leading him into the Crocoseum. The zoo actually uses several crocs in these shows, rotating which one performs on any given day. They talk a lot in the show about how crocodiles act in the wild and how to stay safe when you live near them. They are able to get the crocs to move around and do what they want mostly because they are invading that crocs territory. When they go splashing around in their water, they get angry and want them to get out. During the show, they show various different attacks that the crocodiles will do. There’s a few different strikes from the waters edge, and also what they call a tail walk, when the croc uses his tail to push himself up into the air to snap at something above him. Munga was clearly not playing by the rules today too. He didn’t want to do exactly what they wanted him to, because he already knows that doesn’t work. So he decided to play with the keepers and try to get them to do more dangerous, or at least different, things. As the show wrapped up, and they led Munga back to his normal enclosure they played an awesome video tribute to Steve. It is an autotuned song made up of various quotes he’s said, and it was simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching. I still have it stuck in my head. You could also clearly see the two kinds of people that were visiting the zoo now too: those that were fans of Steve stayed and watched that video until the very end, completely enraptured by it, but those that were more there because it was a zoo and they probably lived nearby headed out as the croc was leaving. There was a really strange atmosphere while the tribute played. The entire theater was simultaneously confused as to whether they should cheer on the famed and beloved wildlife wrangler, laugh maniacally at all of his over the top antics, or cry their hearts out in mourning of his loss. It was a real clash of emotions in that arena and all of us felt it.

One of the more sociable roos in Roo Heaven.

One of the more sociable roos in Roo Heaven.

After getting our hearts ripped out in the most amusing way, we headed off to Roo Heaven. This is a giant walk through kangaroo and wallaby enclosure. You just sort of wander around and pet or feed them to your hearts content. That is, unless they’re off in their rest area which is fenced off and signposted. It gives them a chance to be free of pesky public hands if they so desire, which is good to know because visitors at a zoo can certainly be overwhelming. Sociable roos can be sociable and the more shy and reluctant ones can hang out in the safe zones. It’s a good system. We wandered around for just a little while, petting but not feeding. (We hadn’t seen where to buy food. But no worries since we’d done that earlier in Cairns anyway. Sidenote: “no worries” is apparently a very popular phrase in Australia.) It was really amusing to watch the kangaroos move around, Their mobility when moving slowly and quickly looking very different. There was also an echidna enclosure here, but we couldn’t find them (Not surprising since they’re nocturnal, but still slightly disappointing since they aren’t common either). We then wandered off through the extensive wetlands bird area, which was full of birds meant to be there and also wild ones.

Nyam Nyam Eucalyptus!

Nyam Nyam Eucalyptus!

Next we decided to head backwards to check out the koala talk. It was located at essentially their koala nursery exhibit. They actually have several koala enclosures, but this is the one where they keep their females and babies. The koalas didn’t really feature in it very much, except to be pointed at. The keeper though told all sorts of random facts about koalas that I didn’t know about, as well as how people living there could help koalas. Jeff was surprised to find out that Koalas actually have two thumbs on each hand, making it all the easier to grip and climb in the treetops. There was also an interesting note about the two distinct colorations they have on their fur, one sie serving as an absorbing side for the sun’s rays if it’s cold and another as a reflecting side if they are hot. They are certainly very interesting products of evolution. At the very end, she took one of the koalas down off a tree and walked him around the crowd, letting everybody pat him. Pat Pat! It was time for us to go see some exhibits that we’d missed earlier, including the dingoes, cassowaries, and binturongs. Then it was time for a different, and smaller, croc show. It was at the enclosure of a croc called Bluey. They did pretty much they same sort of thing, but it had a slightly more comfortable atmosphere somehow. It was more of a loose discussion and less of a stage show. There were no timed points and things that they had to do so it kind of went depending on what the audience wanted to see or what questions they had for the keepers. Bluey was a little more active and cooperative than Munga was earlier, so they got him to jump and snap and do all sorts of angry-croc tricks.

This is THE happiest wombat. Just look at him!

This is THE happiest wombat. Just look at him!

It was now time to go see the rest of the zoo. There were still two shows left in the day, but one was a repeat of the otter show and the other was focused on birds. Birds of prey though, which tend to be more interesting, but we still had quite a bit of zoo left and if we were going to skip any of the shows it would be this one. So off we wandered to see the remaining bits of Australia Zoo. This started with wombats and snakes. Jeff had to be pretty much dragged away from the wombats, and then we both had some trouble in the snake house. It began with an enclosure of the most venomous snake in the world, and we had just watched a video with Steve playing with these snakes. Not this kind of snake, these exact snakes. We actually stood in the same spot he stood when he opened the snake enclosure and took those very snakes out, held them by the tail, and dodged being bitten and envenomated by fangs that could easily kill 100 Steves with one injection of their lethal venom. In the middle of the snake house there was a skeleton of a reticulated python, the longest snake in the world. It was massive, and it was posed to strike a skeleton of a wild pig, which was decidedly less massive but still impressive when you think that python can swallow that pig whole.

That's one intense owl.

That’s one intense owl.

As we left the snakes and wombats, we ran smack into the end of the bird show, so we stuck around and watched the last few minutes. They had a couple birds out on keepers hands that you could walk up and get pictures with. We declined and just got pics of the birds themselves before heading off. Next up was a walk-through rainforest aviary. It was small but really pretty and had tons of birds throughout it. There were a ton of waterfalls and flowers and it was really beautifully landscaped (the entire zoo was, to be honest. The zoo had as much appeal on the paths and walkways as it did inside the enclosures. It is a gorgeous park as well as a zoo). When it ended, the path led straight into a koala walkthrough. This makes it the third high density koala community in Australia Zoo, but this one was unique because you could walk right up to the trees and stare the koalas right in their faces if they were positioned correctly. One of the random, and very large, trees had a big sign at the bottom saying “There is a koala in this tree. Can you find it?” It was way up at the top, barely visible. As we came out of that, we found a cheetah on the side of the path, out for her afternoon walk. They were just sitting alongside the path and the Cheetah was on a little leash. They were already gathering a bit of a crowd as they fed her a chunk of ice with bits of meat inside and answered random people’s questions. We stayed for quite a while watching it lap up the melting ice droplets. It was now Jeff’s turn to  drag me away.

Bindi's very own wildlife treehouse on an island full of lemurs. Jealous? Yes.

Bindi’s very own wildlife treehouse on an island full of lemurs. Jealous? Yes.

This last bit of zoo is super spread out and sprawling with tons of gorgeous random scenery in between. It definitely seemed like a newer part of the zoo as well. Eventually we came upon the tiger area, with both adult and young tigers. Inside the young tigers’ enclosure, a keeper was just chilling out, we’re still not sure why. He had a mic sitting next to him but looked more like he was taking a nap than anything. Around the whole enclosure were little plaques featuring a tiger picture that Bindi drew when she was young giving you random tiger facts. It was cute. There was also a red panda enclosure, but we couldn’t find them. Again, nocturnal and shy animals in zoos are sometimes nearly impossible to find in their enclosures, it’s just the way of things. Next came Bindi’s Island. It’s a literal island that they built in the zoo with a giant three-storied treehouse. It’s also got ring-tailed lemurs freely wandering around it, along with another nearby island that you can see from the treehouse with more lemurs on it. There are also a few other small enclosures including an alligator snapping turtle that everybody walking by thought was fake. It was sitting reptile-still and doing that tongue-lure thing that they do, with its mouth wide open so everyone could see its powerful beak.

The sun setting over the Australia Zoo savannah enclosure. Gorgeous.

The sun setting over the Australia Zoo savannah enclosure. Gorgeous.

The last thing to see was the zoo’s large African Savannah exhibit. It really only had three animals I think, giraffes, zebras, and rhinos, but it was huge. We got here so late in the day that it was just about closing time and the keepers were starting their end of day feedings and such. There was a jeep in the African area that the giraffes all wanted to be near for pats. A few of them ran across the savannah to catch it at one point. It looked so weird watching them run. A running giraffe has to be one of the most hilarious sights in the natural world. They look like they are in slow motion and are so gangly and awkward you can’t help but smile.

Imagine turning a corner to see this little lady just chilling in the pathway.

Imagine turning a corner to see this little lady just chilling in the pathway.

We had to run, too now. Through the entire zoo, no less. A keeper told us there would be one last shuttle if we wanted to wait for it, but we chose to rush back through the zoo since everyone was headed toward the exit and we were on the far end entirely. That meant all those walk-through exhibits would be emptied of customers and we’d have one last flyby all to ourselves. It felt like we were last ones there, especially since keepers were clearly waiting to lock up those walkthrough areas behind us. It was kind of neat actually. Eventually we made it back to the entrance and wandered around the gift shop trying to decide what to buy. It was really, really hard to walk away without the complete boxed set of Crocodile Hunter episodes. We grabbed a couple other things instead and headed out. The cashier told us that the shuttle bus was already finished with runs for the day, but the next public bus came soon enough. It actually afforded us just enough time to wander over to the wildlife hospital and take a look. It was across the parking lot and looked pretty much just like an animal hospital would, but decorated with Irwins. They had a list of the animals inside at the time, showing some koalas and such that were injured and what was wrong with them. You could see their cages, but most of them were hidden from view inside. We also noticed a giant check on the wall denoting an extremely generous donation from the Justin Timberlake foundation inside. We headed back out to the bus stop and it showed up in short order. We hopped on, paying far too much to go just down the road. I have to say I’m not a fan of public transit in Brisbane.

Did I remember to mention Tasmanian Devils are terrifying?

Did I remember to mention Tasmanian Devils are terrifying?

When we got to the train station our massive state of confusion began. There was absolutely nobody there, staff or otherwise, and it was dark. A couple of other people eventually made an appearance, but they were travelers like us, no one was around who could be considered staff. We found a schedule that said the trains should still be running through there, but not for a good while. Like hours of a good while. We sat down to wait, feeling super uncertain, until a local randomly addressed us. He asked if we were going into the city, as he was, and if we’d pressed the help button to see when the next train was. The one on the opposite platform had apparently told him it wasn’t for a few hours still and he was concerned. We hadn’t in fact, but told him about the posted schedule telling us otherwise. We spent a while talking to this random guy about mostly random stuff. He kind of confirmed our uneasiness about Brisbane in comparison to the rest of Australia we’d seen. He had his wallet stolen earlier today and that’s why he was riding the subway. He also said food was ridiculously expensive regularly, as we’d come to experience, and didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the people in the area. We may have loved the croc hunter zoo, but Brisbane in general seemed to be a place we could bypass in the future if we ever swung this way again. Eventually a different train came through and our new friend asked the driver about the next train going the other way. The driver called to somebody or other and confirmed that it would be at that station soon, contrary to what the machine had told us. Finally, the train did appear and we stopped worrying about getting home. It was time to just sit on the train forever until we eventually made it back to our hotel. We essentially crashed immediately, since we had a super early flight out to catch in the morning. Our Brisbane adventure had come to a close.

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Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

The crew prepping our vessel for the day - the Sea Star

The crew prepping our vessel for the day – the Sea Star.

We awoke to our final day in Cairns far too early. We both got ready for the day groggily and a little more slowly than we had been moving previously, but we’d just had a very full and very physical day. It wasn’t too surprising that we were a bit laggy. We had a huge day ahead of us though, and if we didn’t necessarily have enough energy to get us going initially we were given a notable boost of “fuel” by way of pure enthusiasm. We had already gotten a taste of the reef the day before, but today we were literally going to dive headlong into the Great Barrier Reef and see what there was to see. It was a full day of snorkeling and adventure on the high seas with Seastar Cruises.

Our travels would take us first to Michelmas Cay - a tiny sandbar of an island that serves as a protected sanctuary for seabirds

Our travels would take us first to Michelmas Cay – a tiny sandbar of an island that serves as a protected sanctuary for seabirds.

We arrived at the Reef Fleet Terminal by way of taxi a little earlier than required, but we had a stop to make before wet set out that morning. We had booked an underwater camera for our reef exploration tour and we were going to make sure to bring home as many awesome shots as possible before the day was through. We stopped in at the rental counter, received a quick tutorial, signed our lives away (as well as a terrifying security deposit of almost $700 should the camera not return or sink to the bottom of the ocean or some such awful situation… I wonder how many of those actually get cashed in for exactly that reason), and walked out of there with a waterproof camera in a special underwater casing. This would be my baby for the day. I do so love new toys.

The anchor keeping our ship moored by the island

The anchor keeping our ship moored by the island.

We had to head to the opposite side of the marina from just about every other tour we had taken that week. We found the right finger of the docks and headed out over the water to our boat. There was a fairly sizable group assembled there in wait for the clearance to board the boat. (Sizable for tours we’ve done, but actually quite small as far as reef cruises seem to go. We’d seen other tours unloading and they might have hundreds of people on these massive boats. Ours meanwhile capped out at around 30 and was a little cute boat. It was one of the many things that made us go with this specific tour over others, and we’re really glad we did.) We were soon greeted by the Skipper (I’m not sure what differentiates a skipper from a captain exactly) who welcomed us and explained a little bit about how things were going to work that day. We had to take off our shoes, get assigned safety numbers, get sized up for our snorkeling gear, and get into the boat itself. We opted to stay under the deck in the little closed in area because it was still early, we were going to be travelling really quickly on this boat, and the wind was going to whip all over above us on the upper deck. We wanted to stay out of the sun because of the burns we were cultivating from the previous day’s activities as well, so staying below was a better option for the trip out. We wouldn’t be missing much anyway. It was all open sea once we cleared the little peninsula of land and the Fitzroy Island area where we had gone the day before until we approached the reef itself. If we wanted to look out over the waves we could walk toward the back of the boat and stay sheltered while enjoying the view – something we did a few times.

Our rented underwater camera let us get tons of awesome reef shots from really close-up

Our rented underwater camera let us get tons of awesome reef shots from really close-up.

Before disembarking we were given a little chat by one of the crew members and introduced to everyone who would be manning the boat and helping us out today. Our guide was really overly enthusiastic and I don’t think any of us were awake enough to play along just yet (“This boat runs on enthusiasm! Who’s ready to go diving!” Commence eyeroll now) so he had to really work to liven us up. Once we’d met everyone we started to settle in and enjoy the hour-long cruise out to our first activity point.

The waters of the Cay were filled with giant clams - weighing in at well over a ton and dwarfing almost all the other coral-dwelling fauna except the coral shelves themselves

The waters of the Cay were filled with giant clams – weighing in at well over a ton and dwarfing almost all the other coral-dwelling fauna except the coral shelves themselves.

While we traveled we enjoyed some nice conversation with other passengers below deck. We talked an especial lot with a New Zealand trio who now lived in Australia – older folks who said Jessy and I reminded them to an alarming degree of the one guy’s son and his girlfriend. I immediately apologized for that since I wouldn’t want to wish myself on anyone and I couldn’t imagine what they’d had to go through if that was, in fact, an accurate assessment of things. They got a kick out of that. There was also a guy from L.A. who had done a ton of Pacific traveling for his job as a retail associate with Ralph Lauren. We traded a ton of travel stories and I got a lot of information out of him about different potential destinations for future vacations. These were our unofficial buddies throughout most of the trip.

There was an unbelievable diversity of coral scattered throughout the sandy floor of the Cay

There was an unbelievable diversity of coral scattered throughout the sandy floor of the Cay.

As we traveled one of the crew members came down to do a talk about scuba diving and see if anyone was interested in an introductory scuba lesson. It wasn’t part of a certification course or anything and wouldn’t count toward a certification but they would walk through a bunch of basic exercises and do some really shallow dives to give people hands on experience in a really carefully guided manner. Unfortunately, no one in our cabin was interested. I would have been but we were flying out the next day so we were exempt from even having the option to participate. Jessy also reminded me that her claustrophobia makes even snorkeling difficult for her and thus while she would love to learn to scuba dive in theory, it would take a lot more mental preparation for her, and she would rather practice in a pool to get comfortable first (like most courses offer) than just dive headlong into it like he was offering. The poor guy gave an excellent and really informative demonstration but unfortunately people seemed to be only politely being quiet while he talked rather than listening or paying close attention. He had a tough crowd – they pretty much decided they weren’t interested right from the beginning so he kind of struggled through it, but I give him serious props for sticking it out and delivering a very informative talk about the basics of diving. I certainly learned some stuff from it.

We had the incredible luck to share the waters with the endangered Green Sea Turtle, swimming alongside them all afternoon

We had the incredible luck to share the waters with the endangered Green Sea Turtle, swimming alongside them all afternoon.

The boat really jetted along the surf for the trip out. I don’t know nautical speed reckoning at all, I just know that this was the fastest trip we had taken thus far. About halfway through the trip, Jessy started having some trouble and headed out to the back of the boat. Unlike the others that went out there for a bit of sea breeze though, she didn’t go out because of nausea and sea sickness, but that darned random claustrophobia of hers again. To be fair, we were in a very small cabin on the boat, and they had completely closed both front and back doors because of the wind and spray. We also really couldn’t see anything but sky from our seats either, so despite being in the middle of the open sea, you couldn’t actually tell. She felt much better almost immediately upon leaving the cabin though and spent the rest of her time enjoying some really nice views of the open sea from her perch on the back of the boat. Some of the crew members were out there too so she had some folks to talk to. She was apparently their first case of claustrophobia and they were a little confused at first, but upon thinking about it for a minute it made perfect sense. They told Jessy that they could sometimes see whales while heading out to their snorkeling locations but it was really rare. Other than that though, they apparently don’t see much from the boat except for birds. Eventually one of the others on board succumbed to her sea sickness, making it very uncomfortable for Jessy for a little while as things were cleaned up, but the sea breeze was strong so at least smells didn’t linger.

Everybody in the water!

Everybody in the water!

We reached our destination in a little over an hour – Michaelmas Cay and the surrounding reef. It was described to us as a sandy, tiny little island that served as a refuge for birds. There was a little roped off patch of beach which we were allowed to access but were expressly forbidden to go beyond the ropes or suffer intense penalties and fines. It was a sanctuary for wildlife and we were to pay it the highest of respect. We were all cool with that so we geared up in our wetsuits (first time wearing one of those) and hopped on a boat out to the coastline.

Jessy and her trusty noodle

Jessy and her trusty noodle.

Our guide was a very eensy girl named Manut. She seemed new to the whole guide bit and kept trying to get everyone excited about stuff but lacked the presentational charisma to do it. I could tell she knew her content but she wasn’t entirely sure how to express herself in a way that got people to connect strongly with it. Lucky for her a lot of the things she was describing really spoke for itself and the awe factor made her job pretty easy. She taught us how to use our equipment (much more extensively then the previous day) and we got all geared up to enter the water, which was actually pretty comfortable there. It was chilly but once you adjusted to it the water was perfectly fine for a lengthy swim.

Manut took us out from the beach and made sure everyone was OK with snorkeling and with swimming in general before actually leading us around. Jessy opted to take a pool noodle with her to make things a little easier, since fatigue was still hitting her from the previous day and she’s still not exactly comfortable with snorkeling in general. (I have to say, they really were prepared for people of any level on this tour, and made everything really easy, comfortable, and just plain nice. Besides pool noodles, they offered life jackets, not “for those who couldn’t swim” but “for those who didn’t want to strain themselves because afterall this was vacation wasn’t it?” They even had a glass-bottom boat at the second stop just in case one round of swimming was enough, but you still wanted to see more reef. I can’t say what any of the other numerous reef tours are actually like, but I can say that this one was exceptionally good, professional, and fun.)  I, on the other hand, was letting excitement overcome exhaustion and didn’t even notice if I was tiring. As soon as we found our first coral shelf I was riveted. We also started off on an exceptionally high note since literally the first thing we encountered was a Green Sea Turtle surfacing for air. We kept our distance so as not to scare it back to the depths before it could breathe correctly and appreciated it from a safe distance. Manut then led us from shelf to shelf, pointing out the incredible sea life that thrived beneath us. The water was several meters deep out where we swam and was far too deep for me to dive all the way to the bottom, but I made a few attempts at getting as close as I could to things to take videos and snapshots. I was getting used to the camera and didn’t want to miss a thing. I was hooked on snorkeling the reef as soon as I had tried it.

Me diving to the coral forest below

Me diving to the coral forest below.

The tour of the area wasn’t terribly long and was by no means comprehensive, but we were encouraged to explore the reef to our heart’s content over the next forty minutes or so. Jessy and I patrolled the area and were enraptured by the sea flora and fauna by the Cay. We discovered a ton of fish out there – most commonly the coral-eating Parrot-Fish that were responsible for all the sand composing the Cay itself. We upped our sea turtle count to around four by the time we had to leave, and one of them was nestled down by the sand and sleeping alongside a bit of coral. This one made it possible to approach really closely for some diving shots, and by then I had gotten much better at diving down for close-ups. I even started to try some really challenging dives, navigating through little chasms rimmed with coral on both sides. It wasn’t the safest thing to have tried but I managed to not touch anything and I like to live on the edge a bit anyway.

One of the largest clams we found that day from about two feet away

One of the largest clams we found that day from about two feet away.

One of the coolest things we encountered in, near, and among the reef structures were Giant Clams. They were insanely huge and there were a ton of them all over the place. Sometimes you could see them flexing their shells open or, more often, closing them as you passed overhead. They apparently can weigh around 1800 kilos, so they are really no joke as far as their overall mass is concerned. I managed to dive down and get right up close to a handful of them a few times and get some really nice shots, though I would never touch them. Imagine getting your hand clapped inside one of those monstrous shells. They are literally one giant muscle, so all that force behind a closing trap like that is a really intimidating thought.

This little heart-shaped chunk of coral was a placeholder I used to navigate and keep track of relative locations of things along the coral floor

This little heart-shaped chunk of coral was a placeholder I used to navigate and keep track of relative locations of things along the coral floor.

The Cay was composed of stretches of sand dotted with little shelves of coral that interspersed at intervals throughout the area. This was an inner reef area and as such was largely composed of living, wafting soft corals. It was somewhat similar to what we’d seen the day before at Fitzroy in that there were patches of sand interspersed with patches of reef. This place was Fitzroy times at least 1,000 though. There was an insane amount more reef and more diversity of things. It was kind of nuts. We saw a ton of awesome reef structures and I kept diving to swim right among them while Jessy hung by the surface as my “spotter.” She would check out the area and point things out, I would dive down and snap close-ups (or the best I could manage) of the coral and fish swimming about the reef. I was dumbfounded by the diversity out here and didn’t want to leave. Poor Jessy was starting to feel a little bit too tired to continue, and considering that we were floating meters deep in open ocean it was for the best that she returned to the boat. This left me without a “Safety Buddy,” however I hadn’t had my fill of the reef, so I took my idiot self back out on my own into the surrounding reef.

Jessy patrolling the surface of the sea

Jessy patrolling the surface of the sea.

Jessy hung around at the back of the boat watching me while the crew goofed off and chatted with anybody that was around. One of the more experienced guides was practicing with Manut how to recognize snorkelers that were having trouble and how to save them when necessary. I meanwhile flitted in and out of coral structures and followed fish as they cruised the reefs for another fifteen minutes or so until I saw the skipper wave me back to the boat. I had managed to get myself rather far out and hadn’t felt tired or any manner of fatigue at all up until that point. I screwed up on the way back, though, and I overexerted myself trying to get back to the boat quickly. If I had continued breathing evenly and slowly and kept a steady pace I would have been fine, but my sense of urgency (not sure why I felt the need to go so rapidly, to be honest) made me really truck it back to the boat and I tired myself out way too early. (Though according to Jessy, I was either the last or one of the last to return, so maybe it was necessary.) I was still a good thirty feet from the boat when I felt my breath coming really short and I had to struggle to keep myself afloat a bit more. “Great,” I thought to myself, “this is all I need. End my vacation by drowning in the South Pacific.” Luckily I made it to a mooring rope and used it to pull myself back to the boat’s edge from afar. They checked on me, made sure I was all right, and I told them I was fine, I had just swallowed some water (true) and needed a minute. I floated alongside the boat for a short while holding onto the edge of it before hauling myself out and de-suiting. I was totally exhausted from my last-minute exertions but I was safe on deck now. Luckily there was another forty five minutes to rest up for the next leg of our tour – Hasting’s Reef.

This guy was just hanging out and resting on the ocean floor by that little coral bed

This guy was just hanging out and resting on the ocean floor by that little coral bed.

Our sea turtle encounter count totalled up to 6 by the end of the afternoon

Our sea turtle encounter count totaled up to 6 by the end of the afternoon.

Before heading out though, we were served a delicious prepared lunch, including roast chicken, a vegetable bake, many different salads and noodle options, different deli meats, breads, and some fruit. It was a pretty awesome spread for an on-board lunch at sea and it fed everyone. They opened up a deck on the very front of the boat, and we went out there to eat, enjoy the view, and take some pictures. We were rewarded with yet another turtle that surfaced for air right next to the boat. Jessy was actually having some issues though and went light on the meal. She even opted to take some of the sea sick tablets they were offering at the bar. I hadn’t known Jessy to get sea sick, so I was a little concerned with how she was holding up. Apparently her mild claustrophobia had kicked in while she was geared up and out there on the water. It made things more difficult for her while coupled with her exhaustion after kayaking yesterday and it made snorkeling a much greater ordeal for her than it was for me. I was all gung-ho about everything and wanted to (literally) dive in headfirst to everything. I told her not to push herself on my behalf, though, and to rest up while we traveled. The sea sick pills were just precautionary anyway, in the event that she had trouble in the cabin during the next part of the trip. Thankfully, they left the back door wide open for this part though so there was at least a nice breeze blowing at all times, so Jessy was able to mostly stick within the cabin.

Some beautiful reef fish weaving about among the coral formations

Some beautiful reef fish weaving about among the coral formations.

I have never felt sea sickness in my life and am not claustrophobic at all, but even I experienced a bit of dismay during this part of the trip, The water had gotten really choppy and there was a point when I had to go to the bathroom. If you’ve never used a ship’s bathroom, think of an airplane bathroom or something similar and you have an idea of the tiny, cramped box you are being subject to. Being in such restrictive confines, closed in, and with the boat rocking and heaving at high speeds over the choppy surf really did a number on me and I got a massive head rush which didn’t make me nauseous but made me intensely dizzy. I had a weird sort of stationary vertigo that I needed to recover from once I got out of the bathroom. It was really weird and I’d never experienced anything like it. If that’s what motion sickness is like I don’t envy anyone who suffers from it regularly.

Aboard the boat, making our best Giant Clam impressions

Aboard the boat, making our best Giant Clam impressions.

One last farewell to the avian life at Michelmas

One last farewell to the avian life at Michelmas.

As we traveled to the next area we shared some stories with our boat buddies about the things we had seen and experienced out at the Cay. We had a really impressive turtle sighting count, 4 in total, rivaled only by a family that was there with their young daughter who had seen about as many. We were interrupted by Manut, who had popped into the cabin to have a little reef talk with us. She had some pictures prepared to show on little monitors in the upper corners of the cabin but the computer was giving her some trouble so she had to improvise a whole lot. She talked about the different kinds of coral, the difference between inner and outer reef species, and a lot of things we might potentially encounter out at Hasting’s. Michaelmas was a much shallower reef area where we could start at the coast and work our way inward. Hastings would be a different story altogether – over twice as deep and with an entry right into the water off the back of the boat. This was the real snorkeling site and would be along the actual barrier wall that makes up the Great Barrier Reef. (It is also the other main reason we went with this tour. Most tours seem to go to just one spot, and a lot of them go to the same spot even: a station on the reef built specifically for tours. While that station didn’t actually make the reef any less real, it somehow made it feel less organic. We wanted to see the reef as naturally as possible, and this tour offered that, at two locations nonetheless. Sorry for all the promo talk, but this tour was seriously just that good that we want to pimp it up a bit. So, if you go on a reef tour in Cairns, go with Seastar!!! Ok, done with that now. I think.) Manut kept up her talk until we actually arrived at the site and looked around. We were literally parked out in a seemingly random spot out in the ocean and the crew told us it was time to dive in. I was ready and excited to go, camera in hand and excitement bubbling around within me. I was in the water and swimming around in no time, soon joined by Jessy with her companion noodle. To start things off we would be accompanying a different instructor out onto and around the reef for a tour of the area by snorkel. There would also be glass-bottom boat tours going out from the ship throughout the duration of our stay. We followed our new guide and assembled around her little orange floatation ring to depart for the nearby shelf of reef and see what there was in this area.

Suddenly the sandy, coral-peppered floor of Michelmas was replaced by the coral walls and total coverage of Hastings Reef

Suddenly the sandy, coral-peppered floor of Michelmas was replaced by the coral walls and total coverage of Hastings Reef.

In seconds I was dumbfounded by what I saw. The outer reef was immensely different from the inner reef. For one, it was far less patchy. The deep waters literally rose up in a stark and nearly perfectly vertical cliff from the sandy floor into a coral lined wall made entirely of… well…. Life. It was teeming with fish, coral, and anemone species of all kinds. The Giant Clams were back in abundance and were actually more massive then the giants we had encountered at Michaelmas. Our guide this time was a lot more comfortable and conversational. I got yelled at once (not really angrily, just corrected I suppose) for actually swimming out over the shelves themselves in the shallows to get a really close look. They didn’t want people that close in the event they put their fins down and kicked something or the current changed and brushed them into jagged bits of coral. It made sense, so I backed off. After that Jessy and I were right alongside the tour guide. Jessy would spot things and ask questions and the guide and I would dive down and check stuff out. The guide would appear and tell the group all about what we’d found and I would snap some pictures. The guide had a camera of her own, for use on the Seastar facebook galleries, so she pointed out some good shots for me to pursue. We found an unreal diversity of fish out here. Species of particular note were the many different parrot fish which were very audibly munching on the coral itself for a bit of a light lunch, a huge Wrasse that was lazily cruising around the deeper waters alongside the shelf, some long, slender trumpetfish which past tours had mistaken for sea snakes and terrified themselves over, and numerous schooling species which traveled in whole clouds past the wall of living marine life. I couldn’t help but think of the Night’s Watch. This was some sort of screwy underwater version of it. I contemplated “Taking the Blue” and spending my days snorkeling out here in the reef. The fascination of the whole area and the thrill of the experience had me completely spellbound. I found myself diving deeper and deeper, getting the hang of both the camera and the technique of snorkeling. I started doing video shots that looked like aerial flybys over chunks of reef. I started to stay down longer to actually frame up shots and get better close-ups instead of just popping down, snapping whatever I could get, and popping back up. I was definitely getting the hang of things.

By now I was comfortable enough to dive almost as much as our guide, going right into whole schools of fish and swimming right in among them

By now I was comfortable enough to dive almost as much as our guide, going right into whole schools of fish and swimming right in among them.

Even the long empty, hollowed-out shells of the Giant Clams are impressive and mighty

Even the long empty, hollowed-out shells of the Giant Clams are impressive and mighty.

We kept weaving in and out of different bits of reef, but there was one area that was especially cool. About halfway into our guided swim of things, we basically ended up in a deadend of this weird coral maze we were exploring. You could spin around and literally see coral shelves surrounding you. The opening, that we had just swam through was even mostly obscured if you were in the right location. It was intimidating and I really wish I had thought to dive down and spin in a circle while recording so I didn’t have to resort to just describing the awesomeness of it to people now. In order to get out of this deadend, we actually ended up just swimming right over top of part of the shelf. This part was far enough below the surface to not really be in danger of being hit by stray flippers, unlike when I was ‘yelled’ at for swimming over the reef before. It was however still really close to the surface, and thus offered a truly amazing and closeup view of things. I got some of my best photos in this part of the reef, and I barely even had to dive for them. Eventually we swam back into more open water next to the reef, and realized we were back at the boat and our guided tour was finished.

The crunshing of the Parrotfish as they chomped on the coral skeletons was really loud and a little unsettling if you didn't know exactly what it was.

The crunching of the Parrotfish as they chomped on the coral skeletons was really loud and a little unsettling if you didn’t know exactly what it was.

Jessy was feeling like she’d had her fill of things at this point, and while we debated what to do with ourselves, one of the crew members told us it was time to start the first glass-bottom boat tour. We headed back to the boat, as that seemed perfect right about now for Jessy. We climbed out of the water and joined up with the group going out for the first boat ride over the reef, still in our wetsuits. I never could have imagined the surprise waiting for us back at the boat.

The antler-like staghorn corals made terrifying tangles that I would only swim so close to

The antler-like staghorn corals made terrifying tangles that I would only swim so close to.

I wanted to push off from the ladder and duck my head below the boat itself and snap a few pictures just for the novelty of having a shot of the actual underside of the boat. There were a ton of fish underneath it that were fairly nondescript, but about fifteen feet in front of me, just behind the access ladder to get in and out of the water, was a huge monstrosity of a fish shaped like a long torpedo and staring right at me. I had discovered a Great Barracuda swimming alone under our boat. I snapped some pictures of it and it came a little closer (not aggressively, it was just hanging out there) and I confirmed my shots with the skipper. It was, in fact, a Barracuda, and it was probably longer than I am tall. It was like a giant silver missile floating in the water. There was another set of guys who had an underwater camera. They felt like trying to get some shots of their own, so I didn’t exit the water immediately, but by the time they had gotten their equipment together and were ready to dip in the barracuda had shot forward to the bow. All snorkeling was off the rear of the boat, so he was too far and too obscured by distance in the water to get anything but a silhouette. Still, that was easily the most amazing find of the day. I had swam less than ten feet from a fully grown, adult Giant Barracuda. Add another one to the list of amazing personal animal achievements!

The highlight of my swim at Hastings Reef - an encounter with a Great Barracuda beneath our boat - a carnivorous fish longer than I am tall

The highlight of my swim at Hastings Reef – an encounter with a Great Barracuda beneath our boat – a carnivorous fish longer than I am tall.

There was a much wider variety of much larger fish at Hastings - it was like this reef was the levelled up, intermediate version of Michelmas' beginner level experience

There was a much wider variety of much larger fish at Hastings – it was like this reef was the levelled up, intermediate version of Michelmas’ beginner level experience.

With that little adventure behind us we prepared to board the glass bottom boat with a few other passengers, including our turtle-spotting rivals and the older trio/L.A. guy we had hung out with in the cabin. Our guide was the same guy who had done the instructional talk about the basics of SCUBA earlier, and he was a great speaker and held our attention a lot more raptly with this content. We were all more engaged with what he was talking about since what we saw was amazing on its own and it was pertinent to everyone there, so we were less likely to be dismissive of his informative lecturing. He took us out over the shelves and through a few different locations between the different shelves, as there were breaks in them here and there. There was one section that was so close to the boat that we all had to wonder if we were going to smack into parts of it as we cruised overtop. As we found things he would improvise and tell us about the things we came across. Notable finds included sea cucumbers, giant sea clams (they would shut their shells and puff out filtered water if we passed immediately overhead) another two green sea turtles, a ton of reef fish, and species upon species of all different kinds of coral as identified by our guide. We all looked hilarious huddled over the little rail and peering down at the floor as a big group. I sat up straight and looked at how we all looked together and had a good chuckle. I could only imagine what our driver/guide thought of the groups as they stooped, Gollum-like over the glass panels in the center.

Swimming in and among thousands of schooling reef fish

Swimming in and among thousands of schooling reef fish.

Our boat tour had finished up and I hit another impasse. Jessy was really set on doing the second boat tour but I wanted to head back out for one last shot at the reef. Snorkeling and diving into the reef fissures themselves was far too immersive and exhilarating an experience to pass up, especially since this was my last realistic chance, potentially, for life. It felt too much like flying and the discovery potential was far too immense to not take the full immersion experience option. Luckily that turtle-spotting family already was prepping for another round themselves, so I asked if I could tag along with them and we could be spotting buddies, since I was all alone. They were cool with that and I didn’t bother them, nor they me. I just flitted from point to point near them and took pictures of everything I could see. Every so often we checked to make sure the other group was OK and then resumed out flitting about. I helped point out some of the more colorful reef fish to them and they helped me spot a puffer as it lazily cruised by underneath me. It was a good last outing and I made the most of it before they called us all back in to the back of the boat. Jessy meanwhile headed back out on the glass-bottom boat with a different crowd of people. They apparently didn’t take quite the same route this time, so she got to see even more bits of reef from above. There were of course still tons of fish, clams, and sea cucumbers, but no turtles this time. They did however go on an epic quest to find Nemo. The guide apparently spotted one, and once he mentioned it, he had to continuously glide back and forth over the same spot so that everybody could get a good look and photo.

A bright and hungry Parrotfish cruising about looking for lunch

A bright and hungry Parrotfish cruising about looking for lunch.

I really didn’t want to leave the reef behind. It was an amazing chance to see animals and structures I had only ever read about up close and right there in front of me. I left carrying with me a renewed sense of wonder about the undersea world and an incredible sense of fulfillment. This had really been an excellent choice of activity for our last day in Cairns. I was so happy I had chosen to go on the expedition and the crew of Seastar was really excellent. Between our awesome guides and the great choice of spots, I was really glad we picked them specifically (and no, we don’t get any money for saying this. I just really felt satisfied with the experience personally). Any tears I’d have shed over having to leave were sopped up by the huge assortments of cake slices they had laid out on the boat’s bar counter. We helped ourselves to the evening snack before taking another seat to prep for the ride home.

Class dismissed! One last school of fish before waving goodbye to Hastings

Class dismissed! One last school of fish before waving goodbye to Hastings.

The ride back to the marina was the longest one yet, because Hastings was the furthest point out in our travels for the day, so we had to find ways to pass the almost 2 hour trek home over the water. We chatted with the bartender about our respective homes and things we found interesting about Australia since she was from Canada and we are from the states. Also, she apparently has claustrophobia too, but did learn to scuba dive eventually. She agreed wholeheartedly with Jessy’s reasoning for not going out on the dive then, but fully encouraged her to try it out the more normal way, starting in a pool, as it’s apparently entirely worth overcoming the fear. We tried to identify some fish we found and sorted through our pictures a bit, holding the camera against a large wall chart of reef fish that we could potentially spot in the area. We eventually went out back to watch the waves roll by and get some fresh air, chatting with two other crew members until they were tied up with preparations for the final mooring in the dock back in the marina.

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Before we arrived, everyone was called out to the front deck on the bow of the boat to assemble as a group, say our farewells, receive a big, hearty thank you from the crew for coming out and supporting their small family business, and we all took a Seastar picture together. It was cute and we thanked them all in return. We settled our tab (the sick pills from earlier) and headed onto dry land, shaking everyone’s hand on the boat as we exited, fully satisfied and completely energized from an awesome day of snorkeling in an unparalleled location.

One more adventure in Cairns! Time to fly!

One more adventure in Cairns! Time to fly!

Our view of the boat and the city from the air

Our view of the boat and the city from the air.

Our day was far from over, however, and from this point it was a race against the clock to make our last hurrah a reality. Jessy had been in contact with a small boating company on the marina that does jet ski, tube boating, croc spotting, and parasail outings. We were interested in that last one, but were concerned we wouldn’t have the time since we got back so late and the weather had been so crappy all week. We were told that conditions ought to have been great for us on this last day and they were willing to stick around an extra hour longer than they usually take out boats, so we had the chance to get to their pier if we really booked it to their location as soon as we got back. We took a moment to return the underwater cam, rip up the massive deposit slip they created with our credit card information, and then it was back out onto the pier for us for a bit of skyward parasail action.

Having a blast a few hundred feet above the surf

Having a blast a few hundred feet above the surf!

The guys greeted us warmly as we approached, going “Hey, you made it!” before cracking some jokes about how we were the reason they all had to stay late that day. Really only two of them needed to stay for us to go out – the boat driver and the guy who would get us set up and harnessed. We paid for the experience, got fitted with little harnesses that sat under our thighs, kind of between our knees and butt, and then got onto the boat. We were given a little camera to take up with us and given the go ahead to do whatever we wanted with it. The guy who was in charge of harnessing and sending us skyward would be taking our photos from down below as we trailed behind the boat. It was going to be a very well chronicled ten minutes in the sky above the Tribulation Inlet.

Since we were flying tandem, Jessy was set in the front and I was behind her, both attached to the same multicolored chute. We made it to the end of the boating area and they let the chute fly, and it caught the air and created a noticeable drag on the boat as soon as it was aloft. They quickly hooked Jessy to the chute, I sat behind her, they took a preliminary set of pictures, checked our restraints, and waved goodbye. Soon we were slowly watching as distance began to accumulate between us, the boat, and the ever-retreating surface of the sea far below.

Can you reach it?

Oooh! We can almost reach it!

Parasailing turned out to be a lot more comfortable than expected. It’s a lot like sitting in a swing seat on the playground, but several hundred feet in the sky. We sat fairly easily against our restraints and it was a matter of surveying the vista from that point on. We spent a lot of time just drinking in the sensation of being up. We wondered why we had a tendency to finish things by going way up in the air. We’d finished the rainforest leg of our Australia trip by going super up in the Sky Rail and now we were finishing our ocean and reef part by going super up in a parasailing boat. Maybe it’s something subconscious. Whatever the case, there we were soaring above the brackish waters of the inlet, spotting the city of Cairns from the sky and watching as airplanes came into the airport over the water. We could see the mangrove thickets and the surrounding land bridges, mountains, and other topographical features from a whole new perspective up here. As Ash, our driver for this expedition, put it, Jessy went absolutely “Happy Snappy” with the camera and took shots of everything – the boat below, the chute, reverse selfies of ourselves, down-angled shots down the line connecting us to the boat, the waters below, the horizon, the city, you name it. We wanted to get the most to take home after the experience so Jessy didn’t let that camera rest for a second.

Once the bumpy part of the ride calmed down it was actually a really gentle and lovely view from here

Once the bumpy part of the ride calmed down it was actually a really gentle and lovely view from here.

There was one thing that we were warned about, and of course it happened. If a particularly fast boat was coming into the harbor its wake would cause the boat to jump in the water and therefore would jimmy and jerk our chute all over the place up in the sky. This happened once and Ash did his best to compensate for it, but we started to swing back and forth in our restraints like kids in a little baby swing. It was actually kind of hilarious. We weren’t intimidated or frightened at all, we just started laughing crazily as we bounced back and forth and I smacked against Jessy from behind. Ash tried to slow down a bit to ease up on the tugging but it meant our chute dipped really low in the sky. (We found out later that this was actually extremely close to happening, though it didn’t seem like it to us.) To avoid having us drop into the sea we had to wait for him to swing the boat around and circle us back up into the air. That actually gave us a minute or two of extra ride time as he had to sweep back the way he came and follow along with the boat that he was trying to avoid the wake from. It ended up making the ride a little more valuable and a little more memorable for us.

Last moments in the clouds

Last moments in the clouds.

The ride felt like much longer because of how exciting it was, but the actual flight time is really only about ten minutes and that was over quickly enough. We felt ourselves start to descend after a little while and started to slowly approach the boat from the back. We made a comfortable landing on the platform on back and detached the chute. Ash and his buddy hopped up and collapsed the chute, pegging it down in preparation for whoever would be next on the following day. We laughed like little kids as they got our photos with our newly wind-blasted hair style up on the boat’s bow. Then it was just chatting and chilling until we made berth again in the marina. They put all of the pictures they took plus the ones we took on an 8 GB USB drive which we bought and walked away with, thanking the guys profusely for making the extra effort to stay out with us and take us on this impromptu, last minute parasailing trip. They were just glad we could squeeze it in and managed to end our time in Cairns on a thrilling note. We had to agree, and we walked off with smiles on our faces toward the area of the night markets.

 

We grabbed some Australified Chinese food in the food court area before heading over to the bus pickup for our hotel. There were two old buzzards complaining over the fact that they were expecting the shuttle to arrive at 6PM and in reality it was scheduled for 6:20. They never got a timetable and their driver was new, so I’m pretty sure he gave them a ballpark time to get to the stop and wait for the bus. They got so bent out of shape that they lost 20 minutes of their life and the poor driver who picked us up had to listen to their whole lecture on how a “proper hotel” should operate and treat their customers. Jessy and I just rolled our eyes and felt sorry for the guy at the front desk. The best part – and the part we actually had to keep ourselves from laughing out loud at – was when the driver went “No worries, ladies. Sometimes shit just happens.” Yes, sir. Sometimes it does. As unprofessional as that was I couldn’t agree with that guy more and those ladies needed to get over themselves and just shut up already.

Snorkeling in places like this is unbelievably addictive. I can't wait to have the chance to do something like this again

Snorkeling in places like this is unbelievably addictive. I can’t wait to have the chance to do something like this again!

We got back to the hotel and hightailed it out of there before the mad dash for a refund began (double eyeroll) and got to our last minute chores before we headed out. It was our last night in Cairns and we had packed light. This denoted our halfway point through the vacation so we gathered our clothes, did some laundry, and started to pack up for the next morning. We had an early flight to Brisbane and needed to be ready to check out by 10, so it was off to bed for us. Swimming for an entire day is extraordinarily taxing, physically, and we knew we would need plenty of rest before our long day of travel ahead. We slept more soundly than we’d done in a long time. It was one of the most incredible, fun-filled, excitement packed days we’d ever survived and definitely a capstone of our vacation here in Cairns.

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Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

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Welcome to Fitzroy Island!

Our fifth adventure out in the wilds of Cairns would take us to a different sort of environment altogether. We had spent a large portion of our vacation in and around the rainforest inland thus far with the occasional glimpse out over the marina, a quick cruise out over the waters, and a quick dip in a rainforest river. We’ve had plenty of water from the sky, but we were going to be living for water starting today. Our last trips out would be over the ocean and into the salty seas instead of keeping to the woods and mountains of the mainland. This, unfortunately, meant waking with the boat schedules and we rolled ourselves out of bed far earlier than we are typically accustomed to. We caught the first shuttle out to the marina to meet up with our vessel. We were traveling with Raging Thunder Tours out to a small, recently developed island out of the inlet and on the way to the reef. It was called Fitzroy Island and was advertised as a little slice of Pacific paradise that was just developed enough to be convenient but out of the way and untouched enough to afford a good look at pristine Australian reef island conditions. It sounded like a wonderful place to try our hand at reef kayaking.

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Our vessel for the day’s voyage

We checked in at the Reef Fleet Terminal and boarded our boat, choosing seats right up in front on the top deck. We would be sitting through a 45 minute drive out to the island. We were seated behind some girls in matching uniforms and wondered what was up with that – something we would come to learn about later on. One of them was having a rough time with the motion of the seas and was fighting serious seasickness issues. Her friends tried to comfort her and keep her in line while some snarky little boys kept pointing her out to their parents. Eventually she turned and looked straight at them, saying “I’m sorry but I kind of want to strangle you.” This made us laugh endlessly to ourselves. We definitely didn’t miss western kids. It’s one of the perks of teaching in an East Asian country – the kids aren’t snotty and awful and even when they do misbehave the nature of it is totally different and much easier to stomach. I remembered why I hated kids so much back in the states in short order.

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The beach landing at Fitzroy island

Looking out and around the boat as it pulled out of the inlet, I couldn’t help but think to myself how over-advertised the pacific waters of the reef are. I kept thinking that these waters were more green than blue and weren’t all they were cracked up to be on the brochures. I wondered how much of it was chalked up to Photoshop expertise. I was soon put to shame as we proceeded further out toward the island itself. The hue of the water became gradually bluer and more clear as we went out. I had mistaken the brackish marina waters for the reef waters and those were all mucked up with human boat traffic, mixed sand, silt, and probably a fair bit of pollution as well. The water started looking gorgeous 15 minutes out and was absolutely stunning once we approached the island itself. I promptly ate my words, having regretted ever thinking the oceans here weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Our guide approached us and had us sign the usual waiver forms before we got to the island and we had a brief chat. He got to know us a little, found out where we were from, got an idea for our level of experience with swimming and water sports, and then briefed us on the expedition today. We would have an uncharacteristically small group of seven, so it would be a really good trip. Weather conditions finally looked better, the constant rains of the earlier week finally letting up and the winds proving far more forgiving than they had otherwise been earlier in the week. It looked like we would get the full expedition out even to the rougher areas of water by Little Fitzroy, a small and isolated islet alongside the main land mass. We were excited and super pumped to get the full bang for our buck out on these reef waters.

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The kayaks we’d use on our trip

We had a little bit of exploration time as we got off our boat since our meetup time at the shack wouldn’t be for another 30 minutes or so. This was mainly because our boat’s crew were the same folks that ran the shack on the beach from which everyone rented their equipment and the kayaks would disembark. We wandered the beach for a short while and hit the bathrooms before our voyage, taking in how different everything was. For one, the beach was really narrow. It didn’t go back very far at all and there was absolutely no sand. All of it was made of crushed coral, which made it pretty hard on the feet but really beautiful all the same. I’d never been to a beach that was made entirely of coral pieces. Pebble beaches and various sandy beaches, yes, but never crushed coral. It was a new and very different sort of beach. The beach ended abruptly against a line of forest and there were mountains heading further back, up which a number of marked trails led. We would be checking those out later for sure. At the base of all this was a little inn, a bar and cafe area, and the beach shack where you could get snorkeling equipment, some beach basics, and hire kayaks or paddle boards for the day. We saw our guide hauling out kayaks and lining them up along the water’s edge. He got himself prepped with sunscreen and his own equipment so we followed suit, lotioning up and fitting ourselves for our swim fins and snorkel masks. We would be taking those in a little canvas bag lashed to the back of our kayak. We stowed all our dry-land goods in a cubby at the beach shack and lined up with our crew of seven.

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Part of the island we would kayak around

Four boats would go out in total that afternoon – three pairs and one solo kayaker who would ride with the guide. He explained the basics, we practiced a few strokes in the shallows, and then we practiced entering and exiting the kayaks. Some adjustments were made and we got everything prepped for our individual sizes as far as seats and steering equipment was concerned. These were kayaks fitted with a pedal rudder so we didn’t have to steer “the old fashioned way,” by coordinating oar strokes. Jessy was convinced that I was going to do some damn fool thing and tip the boat at some point and she had made it a personal goal to stay afloat the entire time, so she decided not to split my attentions by having me steer. I was appointed to the “power oarsman” mission up front while she took the helm in back. Our guide took out the boats one by one and helped us in. The coldness of the water was slightly shocking at first, but it was the sort that you’d get used to in short order after being exposed to it for a little while. We had a little trouble getting synced up and coordinated at first, but we soon got the hang of it and had some time to play around and turn circles just off the coastline anyway before we started on our actual journey. There was a couple from further south in Australia who were absolutely killing it though. They had perfect synchronization and awesome speed. Clearly they’d done this before. We asked them about it and apparently they had done a lot of canoeing in Canada and back at home, so that explained their automatically practiced technique. If Jessy’s goal was to keep from tipping, my goal was to try and keep up with this couple – a goal which would prove to be immediately at odds with Jessy’s a number of times, much to her chagrin and ever-growing paranoia. The last couple to get in was a younger Japanese couple who were impossibly tall and lanky. They were the low-hanging fruit through most of our trip, seeming to have trouble getting the hang of things for a good while and taking much longer to get from A to B than the rest of us. It didn’t help that the girl seemed to have to translate for the guy, so I’m not sure how much of the instruction ever even reached his ears. The guide got in with one last girl who was travelling alone today, so she got the VIP treatment as he rowed out to meet us. We regrouped out on the swells and set a course, meeting further along down the shoreline as we started to round the island.

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Beaches at Fitzroy are all crushed coral – no sand except under the surf once you go out into the waters

We came to a brief rest after a few minutes of rowing and the guide talked for a while about the green sea turtles in the area. Australia’s Queensland coast is home to all but one of the world’s species of sea turtle and the green sea turtle is the most common, and though all are endangered, some are even critically endangered. The island was home to a rehabilitation center where injured wildlife could be taken to be healed and rehabilitated to a condition where they could return to life in the wilderness. Hurt and injured sea turtles were regularly rescued and nursed back to health at this facility. To a degree, hatchery operations worked as well to ensure sea turtle nest weren’t too heavily pilfered by seabirds and other natural predators – some of which were introduced species and not even technically meant to be preying on the babies in the first place. It was a human way of fighting against our own botched mistakes of the past. We were warned against trying to follow sea turtles with our gaze as they passed under the boat, because as we leaned out to look at the turtle our boat would lean further off to one side. Before we knew it we’d find ourselves much wetter and much more upside-down than a moment ago. Jessy eyed me with a knowing look, a silent warning not to do exactly what the guide had warned us about. It did, after all, seem exactly the sort of thing I’d do to our poor little tipsy kayak.

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The weather was overcast with light showers all day, but we were in the water so honestly, who cares?

We continued as a group to the next waypoint, an area off a boulder-strewn beach called “Shark Fin Point.” The guide decided to have a little fun with us, claiming that this was so named because it was the largest breeding colony of Tiger Sharks in the South Pacific. After gauging all of our reactions to this bit of news about the water that we were sitting just on top of he had a good laugh and came clean, pointing out the rock which jutted out into the sky along the coastline. It looked remarkably like a pronounced dorsal fin of a shark, and it was this marker that helped people navigate the edge of the island and allowed them to name the little beach that formed of washed up coral in the area. He told us about the awesome snorkeling opportunities in the area and some of the aquatic life that could be found just off the surf. It was really informative and before long we found ourselves rowing further out to another rock formation. Throughout all of his little talks and random stops to wait for everybody, we got quite a good look at what was underneath us. The water really was crystal clear so we got a good top-down view of tons of corals, fish, and possibly even a turtle. We saw at one point a larger dark spot that went under us just as the guide had mentioned earlier. Luckily with  a bit of yelling from Jessy, I managed to not try and follow it too much with my eyes. We stayed afloat, but will never really know if it was a turtle or not.

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That is one gigantic rock…

As we proceeded further out along the island we started to round the curve which marked the beginning of the end of the protected waters. This refers to the area naturally protected from the waves by the rocks of the island, so it meant a much more difficult and choppy trip for us all of a sudden. We made our way to the shadow of a massive cliff face that had a rock formation looking remarkably like an overhanging horse’s head. Here we stopped and plotted our course. Because of the way the waves approached the beach on Little Fitzroy we would have to row hard against the waves, trying to remain perpendicular and taking a very specific curved route, approaching from the side. Our guide was there to retrieve us if the current proved too much for us, but we all made the approach successfully, albeit with differing degrees of such. The experienced couple cruised in no problem, we approached with a little bit of a struggle against the tow, and the Japanese couple needed a bit of a hand, with our guide pretty much diving into the surf to grab the rope lead on their kayak and help tug them in manually. We beached and secured our boats, dried off a little, and took in the scenery of Little Fitzroy. We were beached on another coral-made inlet next to massive boulders that wound up one side of the tiny mountain on the island. We were encouraged to lose our shoes and roam about on the rocks as we saw fit, take pictures if we could, and generally enjoy ourselves on this little beach for a short while before we moved on and explored the island. We had no idea how to get Jessy’s camera, let alone my fancy one, out here without dropping it in the sea so we went without. Instead, I took the opportunity to revisit my inner mountain goat and clamber all over the rocks and boulders. I was back in my element. There is hiking in Korea, to be sure, but I hadn’t found raw and unfettered boulder clusters like this in a long time. I was going to enjoy it.

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A shelf of live coral close to the water’s surface …. not the most comfortable thing to dump your kayak over

It turned out that everyone was, because I had been gradually coming to terms with the fact that our guide had a very healthy sense of adventure and was trying to test ours. He was clearly trying to see what we were all made of. He eked out a path straight up the side of the mountain and, as a group, we all scaled the boulders and made it through a tiny little hole in the brush up to the top of the mountain. I scrabbled up the rocks like a little Gollum but some of the others took their time and needed a little help. Though considering there was a point where you literally had to just run up the side of a particularly large boulder that’s not very odd. At the top we found a small lighthouse and an old mounting block for a military cannon. This was apparently a signal tower and outpost for the US military back in wartimes. It also afforded a wonderful view straight out into the sea. It was rather humbling. The guide tried to go back the way we’d come but was confronted face-to-face with a rather large monitor lizard who started hissing uncomfortably and didn’t seem to want to move. This meant our route back down would be a little different and a bit more creative. I spotted a ton of much smaller, humbler lizards myself as we proceeded, as well as some crabs in the surf, a ton of oysters, some butterflies, and some spiders.

We descended the rocky top of the mountain until we came to a hollowed out area in the brush. It looked like the trees had formed a solid wall and joined together to make a dome enclosing a small area of clay underneath. It formed a natural cave that was completely sheltered and naturally hollowed out. Butterflies used it as a refuge since the wind was virtually nonexistant in there. It was gorgeous and very storybook-esque. The light filtering through was all green because of the layer of canopy it had to pass through before it reached us, so everything was tinted and dim in there. Jessy was thoroughly amused at this point because we were literally walking barefoot through a patch of rainforest, and how many people can say that? We scrambled further down and found a tunnel to follow, descending a rope attached to the rocks and sliding down the cliff face one by one. There was another boulder field to traverse – the same one as before, just approached from the opposite direction, before we reached the beach again. I went out over a rock to examine some mollusks I found attached to a rock – some oysters and a few snails – when I got blasted by a sudden upsurge of water from the waves beating against the boulders. This gave everyone else a good laugh, including our guide.

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Some of the rocky shoals off the surf at Fitzroy

After a moment to get some water and relax it was time to chart a course out of the inlet, following another strategically planned curve out to some rocks where we would meet up. We all individually brought our kayaks to the water and cast off again. We regrouped once we were all in the water, the Japanese couple tipping once and needing some help getting righted and moving again before we could all meet at the appointed spot. The guide actually let out a small tow rope for them at one point and helped to navigate them through the waves manually so the current didn’t drag them too far off course or trap them by the island against the beach. We and the Australian couple meanwhile had a good amount of chill time over by the rocks of Big Fitzroy, just staring down into the ocean to see what we could spy. All turned out well soon enough and we all met up again in the much easier waters by some rocks near the beach we’d passed earlier. Somehow while sitting still for so long though, our kayak ended up in a very awkward position. We were facing the opposite direction we wanted to go. While trying to turn around, we ended up being pushed very close to the cliffs of Big Fitzroy nearby, our kayak pointing straight at them. We could hear the guide yelling something or other at us, but not what. This is when Jessy chose to take matters into her own hands, as opposed to her feet. The steering system in these kayaks is perfectly reasonable in normal situations, but it just wasn’t cutting it here. Jessy switched over to steering with her paddle, as she’d learned about forever ago when white water rafting on a college trip. With the added steering power, we managed to fight off the waves trying to push us into the cliffs and find our way back to the group. Crisis averted.

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Some of the more developed parts of the trails through the rainforest on the island

Time to make the much easier approach to the beach by Shark Fin Point and there we would prep for a bit of a snorkel. I hadn’t snorkeled since I was a kid in the North Atlantic, and those waters are, plainly, garbage compared to South Pacific Reef oceans. Nothing but sand back in Jersey and very little to look at through your mask. Not to mention my little lungs had serious difficulty correctly blowing the water clear of my snorkel, so as a child I had a tendency to choke myself regularly by swallowing tons of water every time a swell crested over my snorkel’s tube opening. I was a little worried I just sucked at snorkeling intrinsically but a part of me hoped that age had somehow naturally corrected whatever kept me from succeeding back then. Jessy meanwhile was a bit worried about her slight claustrophobia. She had been snorkeling once before off of beaches in Florida which had quite a bit more to offer than Jersey. She hadn’t gone deeper than just a few feet of water though, right off the beaches because she was having such a hard time. Apparently having your nose covered in mask, thus rendering it useless, and being forced to breath through a tube in your mouth while dunking herself into the ocean was just too much. It was a struggle mentally, and she ended up deciding to overcome it in a rather odd way. She pretty much abandoned her snorkel tube, just holding her breath normally and looking into the shallow waters with her mask for short stints of time. Given the circumstances at the time, this was a perfectly reasonable way to go about things, but it wasn’t going to fly here at the reef, which she knew and was thus concerned about.

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Living it up in the woods

We successfully made it to the beach with our kayaks. The area was full of large boulders and bits of coral that you had to steer between so it was still a bit awkward even though the waters were calmer, but most of that was in Jessy’s hands. To me all seemed good the whole time, meanwhile she was behind me worrying about smacking us into rocks the whole time. We got a quick snorkel primer once we were all ready, since it was my and Jessy’s first time really doing anything like this. After some instruction, a cautionary word about not touching anything (if you think wild animals are dangerous and plants are worse, imagine what’s lurking beneath the sea in coral beds. That stuff will END you and you’ll never see it coming) even if we were absolutely positive what it was. He found a shell on the beach of a kind of conch which is apparently the most venomous creature in the world. It’s known as the cone snail and will kill a human as quickly as 20 minutes after a sting without medical attention. It’s billed as the 20 minute killer since that’s how long you have to make a goodbye phone call back home. Only a handful of cases of actual fatalities are on record though, as it’s not a terribly common creature and you kind of have to go out of your way rooting around under corals and such to stumble on one. They do have radulae (little circular boring tongues, kind of) that are capable of going straight through a wetsuit, however, and we were just swimming in bathing suits that day. With a new respect for nature instilled in us, we set ourselves upon the surf for a snorkel.

I took off like a bullet while Jessy hung back near the shore. I was much better at managing the air tube now, my guess about bigger, adult lungs doing the trick being spot on. I practiced a few dives, tentatively at first and then more confidently, finding that I was pretty natural at this and I started to venture further and further out. The floor was mostly sand and it was spotted with the occasional coral formation and a few larger shelves that rose up from the bottom to make a more formidable cluster. I had enough room to safely pass over all of this without fear of brushing up against it, because coral lacerations can be pretty nasty. I was ecstatic, feeling like I was flying above a gorgeous garden in that kind of mottled silence that only being underwater can bring. It was a serenity you don’t find elsewhere. I was instantly hooked and super pumped for the next day when I could do this at the reef with an underwater camera.

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Behold Fitzroy!

We only had about 15-20 minutes to snorkel in the area but even in that short time I had some interesting finds. I found some larger clams out there among the coral and a ton of parrotfish that cruised around the harder, skeletal corals and chomped on it all for food. There were some surgeonfish (not like Dory, a different kind) and what I think was a small cluster of Moorish Idols. The biggest find of the afternoon was a mid-sized spotted Stingray that was calmly resting on the ocean floor just a few feet away from where I was drifting at the time. I appreciated from afar and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say my immediate first thought was of Steve Irwin. I made sure to give it a wide berth. Call me paranoid, but you can’t be too careful, I suppose.

Jessy’s troubles meanwhile were still alive and well. She ended up spending our whole 15-20 minutes right near the shore, doing very little actual snorkeling. She kept forcing herself to actually use the airtube this time, but was subconsciously panicky and thus could only take very small short breaths. She had to keep finding spots to stand, and remove her mask and tube enough to breath normally, thus calming herself so that she could go back and take another quick look at things under the sea. She seemed perfectly content with this amount of success though, and had still quite enjoyed the taste of coral life that she’d seen.

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As the tide pulled out you could see the live coral exposed over the water’s surface

I wasn’t the last, but the next-to-last to make it back up onto the beach and I found that while I was out cruising the reef the poor Japanese couple had spent most of their snorkel time searching the coast for the man’s wedding ring. It had slipped into the sea and as much as I was sure he’d never see it again I couldn’t blame him for searching for it madly. The guide was giving him a hand as well, more of a token gesture than out of any real potential for digging it up. There was far too much there, the waves were too active, and the ring was far too small to ever have a chance of discovery. It was a needle in potentially the world’s largest haystack – the open ocean. It was a real shame that something like that had to happen to them and I’m sure it put a shadow over their vacation. I can only imagine how badly that guy was going to get it when they got home.

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Wandering in the rainforest

All tragedy aside, we were all fairly comfortable on the coastal rocks, sunning ourselves like turtles to dry off and warm up a little before we jumped back in our kayaks and rounded to coast one last time for our trip back. It had rained a little while we were on the kayaks earlier and the waters were a little more challenging heading back the way we came. The tide had also gone out, so we had to keep a bit farther from the island at times now. The corals still seemed a lot closer to the surface than they had on our way out earlier, and it afforded us quite a good second look at them. At one of our regrouping points the experienced couple asked if they could take a particular route through a few rocks jutting from the water on a little mini island area further out and the guide said it was ok, but gave a little instruction and a few cautionary notes about potential risks of that particular route. We decided to follow because I just had to keep up with those two, though Jessy kept asking me to just take the direct route back. I eventually won out, claiming it would be a lot more fun to go that way.

Remember how I said my goal directly clashed with Jessy’s? As we came around the rocks we got turned broadside to the waves. Anyone who has been canoeing or boating knows this is a fast way to take a swim. A swell pushed us up and over, then a fairly sizable wave came along. We paddled and braced ourselves to ride it out and, surprising us both, we managed to successfully crest the wave and ride it out. As if in answer to our challenge, the sea sent a second, much larger wave to take out the usurpers who dared make mock of its earlier attack. That one tipped us straight into the water, and while Jessy’s end of the boat was safely floating atop a nice patch of open water I had been dumped into a spot that gave me little more than one foot of water before I found myself literally laying down atop a shelf of live coral. Kicking frantically I managed to keep myself perfectly horizontal to float above the knife-like deathtrap underneath me. The last thing I wanted was to let my legs float down, slash them to ribbons, and then end up with some horrible infection (coral cuts are often rapidly septic). While we tried to shift the location of the boat to a place I could more readily enter it the guide came over, dove in, and gave us a hand. Because of where I’d fallen it was far more difficult than it needed to be but we eventually made it back in the boat. Jessy cursed me for ruining our record in the last, homeward stretch and then once again for not at least helping her right the kayak without the guides help. From the water she was able to climb atop it and grab the opposite side, as we’d been instructed to if we flipped, but upon trying to force it to right itself I was thoroughly in the way. In my defense though, I needed to keep hanging onto that bit of kayak so that I didn’t go flailing off into the nice pointy corals below and around me. She ended up with one final complaint even as we noticed upon reentering our kayak and trying to follow the guide back along the normal route that our kayak was now full of water, making it ride super low. This also made it super difficult to control, and we had quite a few more tipping scares as we finished our adventure. We didn’t have far to go though and I was just happy I’d gotten out of that with no more than a small cut on the top of my foot. We washed it with seawater and our guide offered to clean our cuts with Betadine as well once things were all put away. We never ended up taking him up on that offer, though given how easily coral cuts can get infected maybe for caution’s sake alone we should have. With the added water though, we turned into the low-lying fruit of the trip since we had to go very slowly and carefully now to avoid another swim.

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Exploring the boulder formations

We beached our kayaks, bid our guide farewell, and rinsed some of the salt off our bodies with a shower head hooked up to the side of the building. We then collected our included picnic lunch and made our way over to the cafe area to eat it up. It was a really good and surprisingly dense lunch consisting of half a sandwich, a wrap, an apple, an energy bar, and a bottle of water and orange drink each. It really hit the spot after such a physically rigorous morning, and we still had a few hours on the island to check out the wooded trails so we definitely needed to re-energize. When we were done we gathered up our things and headed up and down a few of those trails to see what else there was to see on Fitzroy.

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An overlook of Nudey Beach (don’t get the wrong idea)

We didn’t have a huge amount of time and we didn’t feel like getting stranded by missing our boat so we made sure to make the most out of our remaining time on Fitzroy by heading immediately toward the forest trails. We started with the Secret Garden Path, a winding, stone lined path which headed in a wide, curving arch up through the trees and back into the deeper, more broadly canopied woods. There were occasional placards lining the side of the paths to denote features of note, key items of interest in the forest, and things to potentially look out for while roaming around the area. The path itself didn’t have anything particularly notable or special, it was just a general rainforest appreciation trail. The focus of the entire trail was on the flora and the beauty of the forest for its own sake. Eventually it terminated in a little rest area and once we came to this we had to turn back. We decided to go in a different direction this time, choosing the next path that wasn’t so long it would keep us out past our boat return time.

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Other parts of the island through the canopy. Ocean, forest, and beach all come together here.

The next path was a very up and down path which was a little more and a little less developed than the garden path at the same time. It was paved with asphalt but broke occasionally by going over bits of hill and rock, so it was a weird blend of paths. The goal of this trail was to get to the so-called Nudey Beach. We had the same eyebrow raising moment most of our readers most likely just had, but don’t get the wrong idea about this part of the island. Nudey refers not to nakedness but to the prevalence of the nudibranch in the surrounding waters. We wouldn’t have time to snorkel here and check for them but at least we could check out the beach itself. We really liked this path and its roller-coaster-esque hills and valleys. It wound up through the forest and over a few boulder formations until it came to another cluster similar to the one we found on Little Fitzroy. We climbed around there, checking out the rock formations for a little while and getting some pictures from there. No one else was around there because they were all down at the beach, but that was just a big expanse of broken coral so it didn’t seem nearly as interesting as this highly diverse boulder cluster, full of caves, crevices, and hidden life. We found a number of lizards again as well as some sharp and treacherous patches of boulder covered in oyster shells. We treaded lightly to avoid slipping and shredding ourselves against these areas. Jessy also found some patches of coral that were completely exposed and above water whenever the tide rolled out and the waves receded. It was really pretty and kind of surreal to see the fully developed and quite living coral above the water’s surface. We got a good general idea of the area before it was time to go, and we decided to take just one extra minute and walk down to the beach itself just to scope out the area. We did and it was quite nice, but we didn’t have the opportunity to soak it in because of the return walk to the boat.

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It feels so awesome to be back in a place where you can freely discover little critters in your surrounding environment.

When we arrived at the wharf there was a long line of folks awaiting the boat’s departure and we took notice of those uniforms again. There was some girls’ high school there for a biological field survey. Their school was lucky enough to take field trips out to Fitzroy island. I’ll say that again. Their school took them to places like this on field trips. All I ever got were some run down coal mining towns or podunk area fairs. This place is a lifetime destination of mine and hundreds of dollars left my wallet in getting here. Meanwhile, this is their run-of-the-mill field trip destination for their secondary education. Good god, was I ever jealous of those kids and their living station at this age. What I wouldn’t have given to have that sort of opportunity when I was in school.

We were very tired on our return trip, which wasn’t surprising since we’d spent the entire day rowing, swimming, hiking, and being generally active in a way we hadn’t for quite a while. We alternated between sleeping and chatting with one of the girls on her field trip (lucky…) and our guide, who was sitting in the front of the boat in the driver’s area practicing a whole encyclopedic array of knots on a scrap length of nautical rope he had on board. We passed the time quite quickly and arrived soon in the harbor once again.

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Exposed coral and some little crabs at low tide

We had to wait for our shuttle back to the hotel to arrive so we decided to chill in the area of the night markets and get some dinner. We stopped at a coffee and dinner cafe and helped ourselves to dishes we don’t really get much of back in korea – favorites of ours from back home – lasagna and french toast. Jessy ordered hers with a side of bacon. The bacon never arrived up until ten minutes or so after our entrees came out, so we decided to mention something because we were pretty sure it had been forgotten. The staff got super apologetic (to the point where it was a little awkward for us. We weren’t even mad, we just wanted what we ordered, even if it was a little late) and we ended up getting the side on the house, way more than the amount advertised in the menu, and a free round of drinks between us. They lavished on the service and continued to apologise from that point on as well. We ended up getting pots of tea and sat there sipping it and relaxing for a little while, enjoying the free (and rare, in Australia) wifi and watching time tick away until our shuttle. We left a nice tip for the servers, which is totally optional and no-pressure in Australia and New Zealand. Wait staff isn’t reliant on tips for their livelihood like in the states and tipping is a gift, not a requirement or part of your bill. We thought they had earned it though.

We had a nice discussion about the kinds of people we’d been meeting in Australia and the general feel of it all. We felt so at ease and generally relaxed since coming here. We also noticed that everyone was really easy-going and comfortable with themselves, which is something we miss after living for so long in such an image-conscious and hypercompetitive nation like Korea. Everyone seemed largely comfortable in their own skins despite any imperfections or discrepancies from the accepted social ideal. There was no scramble to be in fashion, no mad dash to conceal your inconsistencies, and far more acceptance of people being individually expressive. It was a nice departure from the constantly conforming, high-fashion, starve-yourself-for-a-diet, rat race culture pushed and pressured so strongly in Korea. We still love the place, but that’s definitely something that you need a thick skin for in order to get by. There’s far less judgement in Cairns, so it felt like we were taking a vacation not just from work, but from social pressures. We could just be us and be happy with that.

We got home, took long, salted baths to ease our tired bodies, and did our laundry in preparation for the second half of our trip (spotting my first wild gecko on the stairwell wall in the process, much to my excitement though less to the hotel reception staff’s). We’d only packed enough for half of the trip in order to lighten luggage, so it was a necessary step in preparation for that second branch of vacation coming up. After all, we only had one more day left in Cairns and we didn’t want to spend that doing chores. Our last adventure was going to be a big one, so we tucked ourselves into bed nice and early so we were fresh and ready for our final hurrah in North Queensland.

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Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

Today's theme - Rainforest Railways. First Stop: Freshwater Station

Today’s theme – Rainforest Railways. First Stop: Freshwater Station

We had a train to catch this morning, so we got up at a ridiculous hour in order to make it out to our morning pickup. We’d settled into the routine by now – get washed up, toss back something small we’d stowed in our minifridge in order to compensate for totally blowing off breakfast, and go out to the bus stop to meet our driver. Today’s driver was super nice and we once again had the luxury of being the first on board due to our hotel’s out-of-the-way location. We chatted with him for a while, having a very intelligent conversation about east Asian countries and our experiences therein. Once he picked up others he had to begin a more generalized commentary on the area and on the destination for the day. Unfortunately the bus had cushy leather seats and the vibrations from the road made me fall fast asleep almost instantly once I was no longer individually engaged. I tried my hardest to fight it but it was too early, the bus too comfy, and I proved too weak for the challenge.

Just one of the many beautiful natural sights we sped by as we traveled up the mountain by rail.

Just one of the many beautiful natural sights we sped by as we traveled up the mountain by rail.

The bus soon pulled up to the Freshwater Train Station, just outside of Cairns and very, very near to the Blazing Saddles farm we had visited the previous day. We hopped off the bus, our train tickets and daily itinerary in hand, and looked around the station for a little while. We both wanted to wake up a bit so we ordered some coffee from a little café. It was way too expensive and not good at all, which seems to be the norm for Australian coffee. I’m admittedly really snooty when it comes to coffee and Australia just wasn’t doing it for me. Korea gets it right fairly often and back home in the states it is hit and miss. Australia, however, wasn’t making me a fan. For the intent of waking us both up, however, the coffee was just fine.

Stopping for a break and some breathtaking panoramic views at Barron Falls.

Stopping for a break and some breathtaking panoramic views at Barron Falls.

We meandered about in the station and saw a cute little museum area recounting the history of the line we were about to ride and leading onto a little path which wound past the foreman’s old house – now emptied and serving as little more than a shell with some seats and a handful of posted placards with information on the place. There was some other train memorabilia and general exhibitry on the grounds, but the train was honestly more of a means to an end for me so I wasn’t terribly interested. I was into trains as a way to get from A to B, not as a point of interest in themselves. The general story was a fairly interesting one, though. The train line is now quite obviously old timey and quite dated, but in its time it was a modern marvel of engineering. Challenging the rainforest and the mountainside proved extremely difficult using the tools and methods of the day and are impressive even by our updated, modern standards. The whole purpose of the train line was to service a gold mine found in the mountain range and to provide transport for goods and workers up the mountain to the mining village. It was a gold rush time in Australia so demand was fairly high for it despite the difficulty of the route and the challenges provided. It is a completely hand-drafted, surveyed, and constructed rail system. Today it serves as a scenic thoroughfare to the village of Kuranda – a touristey hippie town nestled in the mountaintops surrounded by rainforest.

Australia's smaller breed of croc, sunning in numbers in the Koala Gardens.

Australia’s smaller breed of croc, sunning in numbers in the Koala Gardens.

The train station itself was super old-timey. It felt like we had walked onto a station on the edge of a western saloon town. I was almost surprised to find myself not seated next to a man with a waxed moustache and a top hat. Instead, as we boarded the rustic and thoroughly wooden train car we met our actual neighbors – ironically enough a couple from just outside of the Pittsburgh area. We chatted with them and a few older ladies from California as our train made its starting ascent through the mountains. We were soon given excellent views of the surrounding countryside from outside the window. The views only got increasingly more incredible as we proceeded up the mountain. It was a little unfortunate that I was seated furthest out to the left, since most of the viewing highlights were out the right window. This included a number of gorges and waterfalls, as well as a few particularly scenic vistas that I largely had to miss because of my placement. We arrived at the first waypoint soon enough, however, and we all had the chance to get out, stretch our legs, and check out the vast chasm that constitutes the Barron Falls. The view here was particularly gorgeous. It was a churned up system of boulders with a central fall cascading from a deep basin of water at the mountain’s top. It was fed by runoff coming down from up higher and the river was even dammed further up the tracks. After a few minutes of appreciation we loaded the train back up and proceeded up the winding mountain track to the village of Kuranda.

Here's what this kangaroo thinks of THAT.

Here’s what this kangaroo thinks of THAT.

The village itself was a small summit community which seemed entirely converted over to tourism and the sale of local goods. Once you exited the train platform there was the long train station complex and two options over a trestle bridge that overlooked the tracks. You could turn right and go down to the river where you could find a number of different scenic walking trails and hiking opportunities along the river bank as it continued to flow down the mountainside, and even a riverboat tour. Alternately you could turn left and walk up the trails that lead to the community area. We decided to spend our time in the village itself since we were on a really tight schedule this time around, so we only gave the river a token visit without going up any of the trails.

We have heard Kuranda described as “that little hippie village up the mountain” and it is a hilariously accurate take on the area. The village is full of rows and rows of shops and stalls all focused on one artisanal specialty or another. There were tons of food items, many of which I hadn’t seen elsewhere on our travels, and a surplus of varying arts and crafts. There was the usual tourist fare as well with the same unfortunate excesses in wildlife game products and taxidermy souvenirs. We chose to ignore those as much as possible in order to better enjoy the village.

Jessy and her Roo-buddy

Jessy and her Roo-buddy

We wandered through a ton of artist stalls right away, finding a lot of excellent paintings in all media. We also found glass blowing and other handicrafts. There were some pricier items I would have even considered getting for myself if we were considering decorating a house back home or something, but since we are in a temporary living situation in Korea and any purchases made here would have to end up being shipped back home to the USA eventually I abstained. It just layers on the cost for any items we get while we are abroad so it helps to stay our hand when making purchases. It’s a very effective financial check system, actually – as if my inherent cheapness wasn’t enough.

I prefer wallabies, I guess.

I prefer wallabies, I guess.

Jessy got hooked on a few stalls that sell rocks and gemstones, locally collected. They were admittedly beautiful, though my geological knowledge is sadly lacking so I didn’t know the first thing about what I was looking at. My appreciation stopped at “Ooooh Shiny!” unfortunately. I was notably more interested in our next stop, relishing the idea of rock candy far more than rocks themselves. There was a hand-made hard candy store that specialized in an absurd variety of gourmet flavors. They did tastings on the spot and they were extraordinarily flavorful by the piece. We’d also been recommended to this place by one of our horse guides earlier in our vacation. I can’t say no to candy, so we got two different variety packs which, when totaled together, equal out to a sampling of roughly 80% of their total flavor library. It was the most economical and most thorough way for us to get a taste of all they had to offer. Our pursuit of sweetness didn’t stop there, however, as we proceeded to a Honey specialty store which we had been looking forward to the entire day. Both of us love honey and it’s another thing that is bizarrely pricey in South Korea, probably again due to limitations in farmable land and places suitable for bees to gather. We checked out everything, sampling tons of extremely potent and diverse honeys from regional flowers and locations all over the Queensland Coast. We saw a ton of honey products s well – soaps, shampoos, washes, scrubs, lotions, oils, masks, balms, you name it and there was a honey-derived version of it. It’s not surprising considering the long standing documentation of the medicinal, antibacterial, moisturizing, and healing effects of nature’s magical natural sweetener/ointment. We had finally made our selections when we were sadly informed that customs regulations would prevent us from bringing raw honey or honeycomb into South Korea, so we were kind of stuck. Thoroughly crushed and disappointed (that honey was really good) I pouted a bit and decided to get a raw honey lollipop instead to smooth over my roughened up mood. It consoled me a little, admittedly, though I still wish we could have brought some of that quality liquid gold home with us.

This is one of the most terrifyingly pleased crocs I've ever laid eyes on. Those teeth are NOT to be messed with.

This is one of the most terrifyingly pleased crocs I’ve ever laid eyes on. Those teeth are NOT to be messed with.

Our hunt for sweetness was not wholly in vain, as Jessy stumbled upon a shop specializing in one of my other great loves and a total rarity in South Korea – at least done correctly. She suddenly stopped in her tracks (she does this often and without warning, and I often crash into her as a result) and turned in place, calling out “Fudge!” and that made me whirl instantly, dropping all other thoughts I may have had at the moment. There was a huge store blaring bagpipe music with literally walls of the delectable confection. I ran in and checked out all the weird and exotic flavors – there were some I’d never even heard of before. We tried and tasted a ton of them (I thought of every excuse I could to get more samples) and then walked out of there with an armload of Scottish Fudge to take home and enjoy. It was a good day.

This bird actively tried to murder his keeper while he explained to us... how these birds routinely try to murder their keeper. Another Australian animal not to be messed with.

This bird actively tried to murder his keeper while he explained to us… how these birds routinely try to murder their keeper. Another Australian animal not to be messed with.

We ended up checking out some of the generic souvenir booths as well and picked up some stuff for folks back home, along with a Daintree Rainforest tea blend for ourselves to enjoy. We wanted to check out some of the mini-attractions in the area as well, starting with the Venom House. Unfortunately it was a grossly overpriced and super lame single-room exhibit with a bunch of terraria that had no real exhibitry or design to them. It just didn’t look attractive. A volunteer student of the local area was doing a talk explaining some things to others passing by but we didn’t feel the tiny room of random animals was worth the exorbitant cost they were asking. It would have amounted to about five minutes of viewing or so, so we passed on that one. We did, however, opt into the Koala Garden, which included but was by no means limited to koalas. There were most of the common Australian mammals in the collection actually and a central pool with a ton of crocs. It cost about the same as the venom house but had a lot more ground to cover, more animals to see, and a little interactive area where you could walk right in with red kangaroos, wallabies, and a handful of other small mammals that were scrounging around for the proffered food bits. We had a little bit of time to chill with the animals and get some photos in before rushing out and across the town grounds to the bus. We were short on time and had to get to our net stop – a mountaintop wildlife preserve and rainforest sanctuary called the Rainforestation.

I love large, flightless, potentially deadly birds.

I love large, flightless, potentially deadly birds. Especially suave ones.

When we got off the bus Jessy very nearly forgot her phone on board but we recovered it before it pulled away, lucky for us. We were given a quick run-down of how things would work and were led forward to our Aussie guide who would be taking us on a tour of the wildlife portion of the park. It amounted to a small zoo and he had a lot of interesting things to say about the animals. I spent more time chilling with the animals that were free-roaming and mingling with the people than listening in on the commentary though, as it was mostly stuff I had already heard or knew well from prior experience. I kept one ear open in case there was anything interesting to be heard, though.

I....see....youuuuu....

I….see….youuuuu….

There were definitely some really cool highlights in this rainforestation zoo that we’d yet to see in other zoos. Sure there were the cute koalas and wombats and wallabies and such, but even though these were not necessarily common in western zoos back in the states we found them to be ubiquitous in Australian zoos. The cool thing was the Tasmanian Devil, which was a nonstop motion blur and the first one I had seen in a zoo setting. It made me understand why Taz of Looney Tunes fame got that tornado thing attributed to him. The Tasmanian Devil blazed around in tiny circles and was a constant whir as it patrolled its enclosure. Next to it was the Dingo pen, and they rested quietly while we viewed them, but the real lynchpin of the day for me was the next exhibit. There was a very long and heavily forested exhibit which housed a lone cassowary, and as we approached he let out that low, croaking bellow that only large flightless birds can pull off. He was an intense bird. Cassowaries are fiercely territorial and our guide just happened to be this particular cassowary’s dedicated keeper. This meant that he regularly infuriated this huge and powerful bird by encroaching on his territorial bounds. Every day when the enclosure was cleaned and serviced counted as a major trespass against this creature and he had a great memory and substantial grudge. It was written all over the way he was acting. He was pacing constantly behind the keeper as he walked and talked in front of us and his eyes were locked on the back of his head. On two separate occasions he crouched down and leapt up against the fence, slashing outward with his razor sharp claws and powerful, kicking legs. He was constantly in attack stance and his eyes never left the guide. One of those killer leaps was immediately in front of us, so we were positioned roughly three feet from a direct kick attack from a fully grown adult cassowary. That was a humbling and startling moment. We were completely safe on this side of the fence, however, but it was still pretty humbling to be that close to an enraged equivalent to a modern-day Velociraptor.

Koalas are adorable. The. End.

Koalas are adorable. The. End.

Leaving the cassowary to stew in his own bitterness we continued on to a little clearing with more wallabies and roos. Jessy and I found a little family who had a younger (not a baby, but perhaps adolescent) wallaby with them. The older wallabies all made a blockade between it and us in order to keep a safe barrier erected. It was adorable. We meant them no harm, got a few photos, and let them alone so they could go back to relaxing and grazing. No need to stress the animals more than necessary. We continued on, wandering past a collection of tumbly bumbly wombats. I decided I love these things. They are like little fuzzy steamrollers that crash their way through the underbrush and dig furiously in the dirt. I don’t know what my obsession is with stout, digging, powerful things like dwarves and wombats but I like them a lot. We saw a huge adult male saltwater croc who apparently had his own harem of females – that is, until he decided they made better meals than companions. He ate his entire entourage. Now they refer to him as “Jack the Ripper,” or just Ripper for short, due to his history and reputation. It’s fairly appropriate in my opinion.

Just look at how pleased with himself this koala looks.

Just look at how pleased with himself this koala looks.

The last little bit of zoo included a few random parrots, some lizards or various sorts, and an extensive koala enclosure. The koalas were the most active koalas I had ever seen. They were crawling all over the place and eating the eucalyptus supplied for them constantly. Usually mammalian enclosures feature sleepy animals who are just trying to rest and escape the heat of the day but these little guys were trucking all over their little treetops. They were adorable and some of them even had little joeys. The lecturer had some things to say about them in particular but I was trying to frantically run all over and get last minute shots of everything I could since this was our last exhibit before we had to move further on. We snapped our final photos, bid a farewell and thank you to our guide, and moved on to the next station in the day’s travels – the Army Duck Boat Rainforest Tour.

Just chilling out on the tail of this MASSIVE saltwater croc known for slaying and consuming his own wives. You know, like normal.

Just chilling out on the tail of this MASSIVE saltwater croc known for slaying and consuming his own wives. You know, like normal.

Now, we’ve done something similar to this before so we knew, to a degree, what to expect. The duck boat tour was first introduced to us in Singapore, when we rode a bunch of decommissioned amphibious carboats through the streets of the city and into its little bay in the middle to see the sights from the water. He asked us if we’d ever ridden in these boats before and one old guy cracked a joke about Normandy ’44. This would be similar to the Singapore tours but different in many ways. For one, we were REALLY going to see what these boats could do. We were completely off-roading this and, while there were established roads for these boats, they were very steep going up and down inclines, extremely muddy, and often dove right in and through large pools of water. We were going right into the rainforest this time, there would be no city streets involved. It was time to really demonstrate the capabilities of these craft.

Thanks to this guy we now know about a dozen new ways to die, become horribly debilitated, or fall grievously ill in the long term because of beautiful rainforest plants. Thanks, buddy!

Thanks to this guy we now know about a dozen new ways to die, become horribly debilitated, or fall grievously ill in the long term because of beautiful rainforest plants. Thanks, buddy!

Our guide started our tour with a few simple safety rules and some general rules of thumb regarding the rainforest; namely, don’t mess with ANYTHING because it will win in the end, guaranteed. He made a point to accenuate the dangers as well as the beauty of the raiforest and the tour was dotted with a ton of individual examples of ways the forest could ruin your day (month, year, life…) without batting an eyelash. He kept up a very strong sense of respect for the rainforest and the environment as a whole and it was a very admirably delivered sentiment that didn’t come across as preachy at all. He was a very good speaker and an engaging teacher. He was also a really funny guy. He got a huge kick out of my spider man shirt and kept using me as an example when demonstrating the potential hazards, claiming that no one here could handle the rigors of the forest “unless you’re Spider-Man.” He told me he loved the shirt as I got off the boat as well, but I could tell as much from the amount of fun he had with it during the tour.

One of the most terrifying plants we learned about in the rainforest - fancy the feeling of boiling water searing your flesh for a few months? Try using this leaf as a wet wipe. You can eat the leaves, though... if you dare.

One of the most terrifying plants we learned about in the rainforest – fancy the feeling of boiling water searing your flesh for a few months? Try using this leaf as a wet wipe. You can eat the berries, though… if you dare.

He pointed out a ton of key features of the rainforest, from simple fern growths and common basket ferns, strangler figs, and other symbiotic-parasitic flora to the more exotic and dangerous items out there to be found. There was a kind of vine which had little serrated teeth and incredible tensile strength. These snares were easily able to tear cloth or even skin and hide if it came to it before they would break themselves. He showed his brand new shirt which had been shredded after catching on the spokes of one of these dangling tendrils on a recent driveby. We also found that plant that was mentioned in the Paronella Park tour during one of the rainforest walks. This was the plant with the tiny hairs that were like poison ivy on steroids, making you feel like you were on fire for months after contact with them. He went further in his explanation, though, and mentioned a second plant that exudes a kind of waxy discharge. You could coat the exposed area and let the wax harden, pulling out some of the infectious hairs from the original plant. The side-effect of this is that the wax itself has a different brand of toxin altogether, so it was pretty much just treating a poison with a lesser poison to take the lesser of two god-awful evils of the rainforest. I was definitely impressed and my respect for the rainforest grew notably as a result of the tour. Dangerous animals don’t bother me, but plants have the most creative and ruthless ways of making your life a hell. Don’t mess with plants.

Our duckboat's "road" through the rainforest.

Our duckboat’s “road” through the rainforest.

The boat ride took us down a mountainside, through dense foliage, through a chunk of mountain stream and around a central basin where we could see water dragons and butterflies in the trees surrounding the waters themselves, and then back up a mountain trail through a cultivated orchard area. The guide pointed out a number of places where edible items could be found as well as a few key ways to find potable and clean drinking water in the rainforest, since most standing sources of water would result in horrible infections and illnesses almost immediately upon consumption. We didn’t spot a lot of wildlife, but what we did see was a welcome sight and the guide was really good about taking his time and letting us get a good look at everything.

Next stop, Up

Next stop, Up

We disembarked off of our duck boats and headed back to our transit buses to ride to Kuranda again, the only purpose of this stop-off was to make our way back to the SkyRail station. The SkyRail is basically one of those overhead cable car rides with glass walls – the kind that you see taking you from one end of an amusement park to the other to save yourself some walking time and afford you a great view of the surroundings. Imagine taking one of those and suspending it a few hundred meters above a rainforest’s already staggeringly tall canopy and you get an idea of what we were in for. Before getting in line we grabbed some ice cream from the mountaintop gift shop. I also picked up a souvenir coin with a cassowary on one side, proceeds of which went toward rainforest conservation.

The pools of Barron Falls, from the other side.

The pools of Barron Falls, from the other side.

We were assigned to a carriage along with a Japanese family and the first part of the trip was slightly awkward. I think both of our parties didn’t want to say or do anything for fear of potentially weirding out the other party. Right out of the gate we suddenly started moing very rapidly. This may be the fastest moving cable car I’ve ever ridden on, but it had a notably long distance to travel so it made sense (we were going back down to the same place we departed from for our train ride, so it was the equivalent distance of about an hour by rail, but as the crow flies). Every time we passed over one of the support pylons the entire carriage bumped and jostled quite a bit as well. It was unnerving. Vertigo and a general sense of danger ran high. We were insanely high up in the air. The views were impeccable, though, and the sights you could see from the windows of your little glass and metal box were truly awesome. As relaxing and easy-going as a cable car ride can be, this is definitely not a ride for those who take issue with heights. If you have any fear of high places or claustrophobia, just don’t do it. Jessy has a little of the latter but is actually somewhat acrophilic, so the two must have cancelled out and it ended up being a good go.

Our way home - eyes in the sky over a gorgeous green canopy.

Our way home – eyes in the sky over a gorgeous green canopy.

There were stations along the way for us to disembark and get new views of key locations along the way. The first stop was along the opposite rim of the Barron Falls that we’d seen coming up on the train. We started taking pictures of the wide and scenic vista before us when suddenly someone made a comment about the basin up on top that held the water before it fell hundreds of meters onto crashing rocks below. Apparently two local boys had scaled the mountaintop and were swimming in the crystal clear waters at the falls’ apex. We stood with our jaws dangling in amazement at these kids’ gall. We asked the guides located nearby on the boardwalk canopy area and they said while not forbidden, it’s definitely not recommended that people scale the mountain for a quick dip. We got some pictures of the daredevil divers before moving on to some other views and heading back to our car and on to the next station.

The SkyRail afforded views like this for a full 45 minutes of travel time. It was breathtaking.

The SkyRail afforded views like this for a full 45 minutes of travel time. It was breathtaking.

We got our own cable car this time around so it was just Jessy and I. We were free to move around all we wanted in the car and get photos from every direction and out every window. I made especial use of this freedom to the point where I started to frighten Jessy. We were still suspended hundreds of meters skyward and the idea of bouncing from side to side in a cable car, causing it to move more than it already was in the notably strong winds of the day, was not exactly high on the list of Jessy’s things-that-make-her-smile. She repeatedly got me to sit down and stay still so the car would stop swaying – or at least settle to a balanced medium given the winds. I was super excited and really hard to keep down though so it must have been a struggle. The views were incredible and it was an angle of the rainforest you just didn’t get anywhere else.

More sprawling canopy views

More sprawling canopy views

Unfortunately the next station on the way down was very rushed. We checked our phones for the time and we had only just enough time to do a fast circuit of the boardwalk gangplanks in this area before we boarded the SkyRail for the last leg of our journey. We did so, seeing everything in a very quick, token fashion before we got back to the line for our final descent. We were paired with yet another Japanese couple but they seemed far less reticen than the previous family. The descent was steep but comfortable and we all got pictures, making way for the other group whenever we got in each others’ way. We saw some pretty noteworthy things as we went down the face of the mountain. We spotted our next destination – Fitzroy Island – a small island out of the Inlet where we would be headed the next day for some sport out on the ocean. We also spotted the previous day’s site, the Blazing Saddles ranch. We recognized the billabong and some of the familiar cane fields from the air. We didn’t see anyone wandering out there on horseback at the moment, so we were pretty convinced that they were either between tours or just keeping to that basic track on the easy side of the farm.

Cairns from above

Cairns from above

When we got to the bottom we practically ran through the gift shop and out the doors on the far side. We were the last to arrive for our bus and were three minutes late, but no one held it against us. We got on board for one last journey back to our hotel rooms. We ended up getting some food to bring back to our room, allowing us to regroup, wash up, refresh, and record a little of our adventures for the previous days. We had to wake up super early and travel out to the marina the following day so we needed to make sure we were refreshed and ready to go first thing.

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Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…

Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks


  1. Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
  2. Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
  3. Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
  4. Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
  5. Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
  6. Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
  7. Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
  8. Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
  9. Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
  10. Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…

This about sums up the morning - Jessy being super happy to finally ride horses again and me wondering what the hell I'd just agreed to.

This about sums up the morning – Jessy being super happy to finally ride horses again and me wondering what the hell I’d just agreed to.

This day was a real big day for Jessy. She had been excited about it for a long time and she was visibly shaking with anticipation once day actually broke and we began to prepare for the day to come. Event #1 was starting with a bright and early bus pickup at shortly after 8 AM so we had to get moving a lot more quickly than we have been in recent days. We were fully prepped and outside meeting another middle-of-the-road sky threatening weather that could go one way or the other, depending on how the dice rolled on any given hour. In no time our ride pulled up to the bus pickup area – a rather conspicuously painted bus with the moniker “Blazing Saddles” scrawled across its side.

Me and Maxi, the supermodel of their stables. Those long legs were almost my undoing.

Me and Maxi, the supermodel of their stables. Those long legs were almost my undoing.

Jessy has been itching to go horseback riding literally since we left the states. Horses, Equine care, and riding have been a major part of her life since she was young and Korea is very dry of opportunity in that respect. Considering the highly broken, mountain and valley topography as well as the almost total lack of suitable pasture it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that riding opportunities are notoriously few and far between on the peninsula. This has created a starved craving in Jessy for the past several years. Now that we were in the vast expanses of Northern Queensland we felt it was a perfect time to give her a revisitation to her old favorite pastime and a good introduction to the activity for me. I’d never ridden before in my life, so I was keen to give it a shot and see what all the fuss was about.

Steve was our driver, a jovial and fun-to-talk-to old chap who looked remarkably like John Hammond from Jurassic Park. We chatted about different parts of Australia, about our neck of the woods back in the states, and about Japan and Korea, since we had some experience with one and he’s had some experience with the other. We had a lovely talk on the way to the ranch, especially as we were the only western customers on this particular pickup. It was pretty much just us and a whole group of Japanese visitors from different regional hotels. We got out of the bus on the other end, dealt with a moment of bookkeeping wherein we had to complete payment for the day’s events and sign our lives away to the ranch’s insurance companies, and then it was time to gear up and get out there on some horses!

Jessy and Molly, one of the guide horses.

Jessy and Molly, one of the guide horses.

We chatted with one of the riding guides there and she was clearly gauging our experience as we talked. I was the rookie but she said I had more experience than most people due to my veterinary background with horses, so at least I was familiar with their mannerisms and could generally read and understand their body language. I wasn’t just some random body they were sticking atop some large, powerful animal. She must have felt fairly confident because of that because I got paired with a notoriously stubborn horse called “Chewbacca,” or more appropriately, “Chewie” for short. He was a dark brown male and looked a little shaggy around the edges. His name wasn’t just a nod to the Star Wars wookie, but also in reference to his constant veering off the track to try and eat everything in sight. I was warned about his wealth of personality before we began so I had to be prepped for the horse with character. Jessy had a much more tame and chill horse named Rasputin. He was probably their biggest male and was a speckled gray. He was well-behaved but had a few quirks of his own that made his placement important. Jessy would be riding along the back edge of the group (We rode with an English speaking guide at the rear while the Japanese guide led the Asian tourists ahead of us) which was key for Rasputin. He wasn’t too keen on having other horse’s noses near his butt, so bringing up the rear was the best place for him.

We were given a general instructional talk about how to handle the horses. Ours was far more one-on-one and much more personalized since it was just the two of us to the English speaking guide. Jessy probably didn’t even need the talk but sat politely through it and I caught on fairly quickly. Eventually the horses were led in a line out of the stable yard and onto a path that flanked a large field, the first part of the tour circuit.

Traipsing about through the rainforest on horseback in the rain.

Traipsing about through the rainforest on horseback in the rain.

Blazing Saddles is basically a huge, multiple acre property that encloses ATV tracks in the center and is ringed by farm land, sugar cane fields, an area where they keep bees, and a sizable Billabong near the central office space. We started our walk by flanking an open field with some tree growth alongside it just to get the feel for the horses we were on. Chewie demonstrated his habits right away and I learned quickly that I couldn’t be too kind with him. I tested him out a little and there was some push and pull to decide who was boss. I let him stop occasionally, but it was clear that he could only get food when I said it was all right for him to do so, not whenever he chose. As a result I was able to keep a fairly steady bit of control over him but he was also pliable and well rewarded for his obedience. I actually impressed our guide a bit, and she’d commented that I was the first male rider in a long while who was actually willing and able to use a bit of muscle and keep Chewie under control. She said that most of the tourists who come through, even big burly Chinese men, just kind of sit there and let Chewie get away with everything. They lightly tug and he just ignores them and it takes them ages to get the horse to walk properly with the group. We didn’t have any of those issues, though Chewie definitely tested boundaries often and if the group had to halt for any reason he invariably had his head in the grass for a quick bite of whatever he could nab while the opportunity lasted.

So proud I haven't fallen off...

So proud I haven’t fallen off…

Jessy’s horse, Rasputin, was almost the polar opposite. He was exceptionally well behaved and Jessy didn’t even have to kick him or really do anything to make him do exactly what was expected of him. Chewie needed a good solid kick to get him moving, and whenever it was time to trot he wanted none of it, so it took a little more coaxing to get him to listen. That wasn’t the case at all for Rasputin. He was such a good boy. Jessy just sort of chilled out, enjoying the sights and fun of riding again. She also talked a lot to the guide about the farm we were in, the horses, and each other. I was meant to be included in most of this conversation, but the guide was so intensely soft-spoken that I couldn’t hear her from my place ahead of Jessy. She was also throwing little tips and tricks my way whenever I did anything a little off or a tricky riding spot was coming up. The guide apparently did this too, but I really couldn’t hear her. Thankfully, Jessy would repeat the instructions of tips so it all worked out fine.

We proceeded along the edges of a few fields of crop – mostly sugar cane – and came up to a little mudhole which we had to wade through with our horses before we made the circuit around the billabong. This is basically a big, wide wetland lake filled in with lily pad cover and ringed with mangrove trees. We saw a bit of wildlife around there and our guide pointed out a bunch of the animals and plants native to the area. We saw some turtles, some whistling ducks, some really angry geese, and a green tree snake. There are reports of crocs in the water but we didn’t spot any that day. There was one moment when the group was held up and Chewie didn’t want anything to do with standing next to Freckles, the horse immediately in front of me. He turned himself around and actually started to kick at Freckles while I sat atop him. We’re not sure what happened exactly. He bent down to take a bite out of a branch, then he spun around entirely and raised up onto his forelegs, turned, kicked the tree, and then kicked toward his neighbor who scampered out of the way entirely. Jessy doesn’t think he was actively trying to kick the other horse, but he was startled by something in the brush, though the guide seemed confident he was trying to kick the other horse. She even decided to relocate herself in front of me from then on so that he couldn’t do it again. I didn’t know what was going on and according to Jessy I rode it out very well. She had a great view of the whole thing and said that that horse would have tossed most riders who don’t know what they are doing based on how he kicked and behaved just then.

Jessy and Molly by the billabong

Jessy and Molly by the billabong

Afterward I had to learn how to trot and we practiced it for a short distance on a bit of straight path around the far side of the billabong. I did fairly well but had a little trouble since I popped my foot out of one of the stirrups, apparently from not holding my heels the correct way when I had to “stand” on them over the horse. Trotting is a literal pain in the ass and much more difficult than it looks. We continued around the billabong and had a second trot, though this time the guide had us hold back a little so we could get more of a solid trot in and over a longer distance before we caught up to the group. I appreciated this, since the Japanese speakers were going really slow and plodding along very carefully. We had a bit of a chat about phones and how weird it is that in Korea they are a means of survival rather than a mere electronic device and we both connected over our mutual lack of enjoyment of phones and phone culture. I’m apparently rare in that respect as well.

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Sunset over Cairns~

The next trot went much more smoothly than the first and I got Chewie to move at a bit of a better pace, though it took some serious goading to get him to move. He is a fat, lazy bum, it seems. We wandered through some cane fields as well, when Chewie showed his true colors and dove headfirst into the cane shoots, burying himself to the butt in sugar shoots. He reached his face down to the very base of one and ripped it out entirely, pulling it along and slowly chewing it down to the ends as he walked. Chewie was a real food monster and it took a lot of elbow grease to get him back on the track and out of the cane bushes. Jessy’s horse, Rasputin also grabbed a nice chunk of sugar cane, but didn’t dive headlong into it the same way. He just grabbed a piece from the edge, carried it for a few feet and then stepped on the end to tear of the leaves that he had been going for in the first place. After this there wasn’t a whole lot of the trail left for us and our time had started to wind down on the tour so our horse line made their way back to the stables and were returned to their homes. We were asked a handful of questions since we were the only ones staying on for a secondary tour as well, mostly to gauge our responses to our respective horses and to make a decision about whether we wanted to try out new mounts or stick with our current ones. I really liked Chewie, as stubborn as he was, but Jessy and I both wanted to test out the character of a second set of horses. We returned to the main office area, refreshed ourselves with a nut bar and a drink, and then waited for the next group to be ready.

The moon over the marina

The moon over the marina

The second round proceeded much the same as the first. We were the lone westerners in a sea of Asian tourists, though we were not entirely sure if this was a fully Japanese or a mixed group this time. We each got a new horse though. I was now riding Maxi, described as their supermodel horse with crazy long legs. Jessy got a guide horse named Molly. Apparently, she is one of our guides favorite horses of all time, and used to be used exclusively for guides. Jessy had to promise to take good care of her before being told that she’d never want to ride a different horse again after riding Molly, though she was also warned that she could be a bit impatient at times. We skipped all the how-to discussions and safety talks entirely and were joined by one of the male guides who apparently doesn’t go out on the horses too often, judging by the grief he was getting from the other guides. They were all kind of elbowing each other going “Heh, Peter’s gonna ride!” and seemed to get a real kick out of it. I wonder what that was all about. The first thing he said after hearing where we were from was “So is Trump really going to be President?” This led to a giant exasperated discussion over how terrifying the notion is and how much of a mess and a point of ridicule the American Political landscape is internationally now. It was a fun way to kill time whenever we had to wait for the others to go through the whole initial run through that we had already heard. In the middle of this, we all noticed the sky getting a bit darker, and Peter apologized because apparently every time he goes out, it rains. Not two minutes later, the sky opened up, in the middle of the safety talk for the others, and we all stood there in the very cold, but light, rain. It stopped after only a few minutes, and the guides made some jokes about having gotten that out of the way already, but then realizing that that probably just jinxed us for some more later on. Also notable during the setup proceedings were a couple of the other guests. There was a young boy, who clearly had some sort of mental disability, and had to be coerced into every step of riding, including simply putting on his helmet. It took quite a bit of effort to get him onto his horse. One of the guides actually kept him on a lead for the whole ride, walking beside his horse instead of riding herself. Jessy was also amused by the guy next to her, who clearly had no idea what he was doing. As the group started heading out, his horse started to follow naturally, but then he grabbed his reigns and started holding them way up in the air and out to the sides in each hand, and the horse started getting really confused. The guide next to him corrected the situation fairly quickly and he seemed to do well enough after that from what we saw. It was still amusing to Jessy, as she just enjoys seeing how people respond to riding for the first time.

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Nighttime boats~

As we headed out, Jessy’s horse Molly, decided to stop for a bathroom break. A really, really long bathroom break. We all waited there laughing at how intensely long this horse peed before moving on. Once we did, Molly was not pleased at having been left behind so she randomly went into a trot to catch up to the rest of the group. I and the guide meanwhile mozyed along more slowly, still catching up quicky. We lucked out tremendously though, because since we had already proven ourselves to a certain degree and had already seen the super basic introductory course, Lisa and Peter, our two new guides, decided to take us on a far more interesting, more difficult, and longer course. We took a left instead of a right and went through the “Cane Forest” while the Asian expedition stayed right and went on the really straightforward path toward, around, and back by the Billabong.

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Boats in the harbor.

Our path was notably different straight away and it was just the two of us and the two guides, so it felt really personal and customized. There was also a lot of free talk about nothing in particular, so it was really loose and relaxed all around. Our horses were very different this time, too. Lisa was riding Rasputin, Jessy’s horse from earlier. Jessy got Lisa’s favorite horse, Molly. She was notably smaller than a lot of the other horses but apparently has a ton of energy and likes to go fast. My horse was the supermodel of the Blazing Saddles collection, a white mare named Maxi. She was the longest-limbed horse in their stable, so I was warned she might be a bit of a challenge when trotting because she had more leg to stretch out her bounce whenever she followed the 2 beat trot rhythm. Trotting was tricky enough with Chewie so I was a little hesitant, but didn’t realize what a challenge it would be until later.

Our trip took us though a little patch of woods and along a street until we veered off into a huge cane field. We took little paths cut through the cane and were surrounded on both sides by cane stalks higher than our heads, even on horseback. The horses were in heaven. We let them chew from the crop a little bit as long as we were sure they knew it was on our terms, so they often got a chance to chew on some cane whenever they listened well to us. Jessy’s horse went in a zigzag pattern from the left side to the right side every time she tried to correct her to the middle. It was kind of funny how persistent she was at getting that sweet, sweet plant.

Seabirds over the wharf

Seabirds over the wharf

Unfortunately it started to rain just as we had headed out, so things were starting to get a bit muddied up. After the cane fields was a series of hills the horses had to go up and down, which was a little screwy to get used to in the saddle. I managed though, and the horses’ sliding around over the mud just made things more interesting and kept me on my toes. We had a really early trot and Maxi proved to me just how much of a pain her extremely long legs can be when trotting. I bounced insanely high with each step and came crashing back down repeatedly on her back. It was so much more difficult to keep on her back than with Chewie, but I remained relatively stable through the duration of the trot. I was pretty proud of myself since the horse was such a challenge, it was my first time, and the trot went on for way longer than it had lasted the first round.

We went through some more little mud wallows and came around another side of the billabong. Our new guide went on about a number of the local wildlife species in the area. A few of the things were repeated from the previous tour but it was told in a different way so it was still interesting. Furthermore, Jessy hadn’t heard a handful of the earlier commentary because she was further from our guide and she was so soft spoken the first time around. I was bringing up the back with Peter riding behind me to keep watch, so this time I had to strain a bit to hear. It wasn’t too difficult though and I learned a lot.

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Can’t quite explain why, but this boat looked really neat somehow.

We came up by the billabong from a totally different direction but we soon branched off and went elsewhere. We ended up marching through some marshy areas of rainforest and went in some really narrow forested areas. We also marched close up to the shores of the billabong at another spot where the other horses didn’t go earlier at all. It was a much more challenging route for the horses and for us as riders. Eventually we hit another patch where we could have a second trot, and since we’d shown what we were made of the second time around our guide saw fit to make the horses go a little faster. This was great for Molly, since Jessy had to really keep her from just bolting off since she had so much spirit. Maxi, on the other hand, was a bouncing fiend in this high-speed trot. I found myself launched up in the air and coming down increasingly off-center. I was eventually riding, quite literally, sideways on this horse as she continued to trot forward. Peter yelled for them to slow up a little, which was quite lucky because the moment Maxi eased up just a tad I was able to swing myself back up to center. Peter was amazed that I had saved that one and was absolutely convinced I was going to take a spill into the mud. He had commented that my left leg had come fully over Maxi and wasn’t beside her at all, and I looked more like I was sprouting from the side of her flank than riding her at all. Lisa was a little more careful going forward, seeming to have hit the limit of my abilities as a beginner. I felt a little bad since I knew I was the ceiling in this group and Jessy would be limited by my capability but everyone was a good sport about it. Besides, I had recovered really well and there was no mishap or injury to speak of, just a funny story and a little less allocated to pride than I earlier would have afforded myself.

Exploring by the marina

Exploring by the marina

We continued around the farm, wandering through a particularly muddy area of rainforest before emerging through a water hole where the horses were able to wade in and clean their hooves before moving forward. We continued through a field where we were told all about the local bees that were kept at the farm. Luckily the bees weren’t really active due to the rains and we were told that they really weren’t anything to worry about anyway, though Lisa did check to make sure no one was allergic. After the bees and a little more of a walk around the billabong we had our third and final trot. They checked and re-checked to make sure I was all right for it and went over the basics one more time to make sure I didn’t have any tumbles. They all seemed to be watching me this time around and luckily I managed to more than make up for my earlier bungle. I kept a steady center and, despite tremendous bouncing due to Maxi’s insanely long legs, I showed no tendency to one side or the other whatsoever. I felt a lot better about that trot as well. Molly, however, wasn’t a fan of the sudden slowdown, and kept trying to go faster, but Rasputin wanted none of it. Molly ended up zigzagging around to avoid running nose-first into Rasputin’s horsey butt. Poor Jessy had to deal with this, but she was up for the task and it made everyone chuckle once the trot had run its course. By that point we had seen a ton more of the farm than the others and beat them back to the stables by a minute or so. We thanked our guides profusely and joked about how I managed to cling to Maxi’s side without dropping off like a loose barnacle. Ironically, as we finished up, the rain stopped.

We took a look at our pictures (a photographer zips around on an ATV and gets shots of everyone during their tours) and purchased the lot of them for our second, more interesting tour. Our guides asked us which horse we preferred: I chose Chewie and Jessy chose Molly. We met up with Steve, who was ready to bring us back with a totally different group of people who had come in for the second round of horse/ATV tours. We chatted with him again on the way back, and since our hotel was along the outskirts of Cairns rather than in the heart of the city it made more sense to drop us off along the way and then go into the city to handle everyone else. This meant we got back with a good chunk of afternoon to spare before our evening’s outing – a different sort of adventure altogether.

Jessy on our sunset cruise boat.

Jessy on our sunset cruise boat.

Jessy, of course, having introduced me to one of her favorite activities, was super curious about what I thought of it altogether. I think the first conclusion I drew was that I had drastically underestimated the whole concept and skill of riding. I had always looked at it as a “how hard can that be?” sort of activity, thinking I would take to it fairly easily without much effort or instruction. While this ended up being partially true I know I still have miles and miles to go before I can consider myself truly competent. Having a knack for something isn’t the same as experiential skill and I know that more securely now. I really liked the idea of having an independent and individual mind to wrangle with and, if I had the opportunity over an extended period of time, develop a bond with as part of my and the horse’s growth and development as rider and steed. It’s a cool concept. You can get good at riding a bike and bikes might differ from other bikes but they aren’t sentient. They don’t have a consciousness and an individuality. They don’t have wants or needs and they aren’t reactive. You don’t have to pull your bike back to the path because he’s a stubborn oaf and just wants a mouthful of sugar cane. The element of living and thinking that doesn’t necessarily always align with your own goals is a really interesting challenge to overcome when riding and one I would gladly meet given the opportunity.

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One of the random wrecked ships that we passed by.

As far as my opinions toward horses in general are concerned I’m really not swayed one way or another by my riding experience. I always thought horses were just another animal among thousands and they have just been romanticized over an extremely long period of time. People tend to love them outright and put them on a grand pedestal. It may be that I was introduced to them through the lens of veterinary medicine so I am more prone to see them as an evolutionarily botched experiment (they are kind of put together as an organism very messily and are easily prone to all kinds of god awful maladies that an animal this far along in the tree of life really oughtn’t need deal with) than as a stolid companion or a beast of beauty, strength, and nobility. They are a beautiful animal in the same way other animals are beautiful, but there isn’t anything inherently special about them individually that would set them apart or make them deserving of this romance. You can have the same bond with numerous other animals that you might develop with a horse. The ability or inability to ride astride an animal isn’t a lure to me. I’m more drawn to their habits in the wild and wild horses tend to be skittish and temperamental, not the most attractive combination. Domestic horses just seem too…. domestic to catch my fancy. I would never want a horse of my own and I don’t particularly want to take up riding as a new hobby. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Regularly? Not likely. It’s a fun time-to-time challenge but it hasn’t been a life-altering experience. With that said I am wholeheartedly glad to finally have shared in something that has been such a huge part of Jessy’s life. I may not be in agreement on all aspects of horsemanship but at least I can understand that part of her life a little more. It was definitely an eye-opener and a fun, limit-testing experience.

The rest of our afternoon consisted of a rest and writing session in our hotel room, coupled with a bit of clean-up. That was a well earned and very necessary step, considering our morning of being muddied up and drenched while sweating atop a large animal. Once we were refreshed and changed we unwound a little and went over some schedules and plans for coming events.

Our next destination for the day - the Sunset Harbor cruise vessel.

Our second destination for the day – the Sunset Harbor cruise vessel.

We soon found ourselves heading down to reception where they called us a cab. The shuttle buses to and from the marina are unfortunately a little sparse and spread out and we had a very specific appointment to keep at a time that wasn’t in alignment with the shuttles. We arrived at the marina and went to the Central Reef Terminal on the Esplanade to check-in at the counter for our evening’s escapades – the Trinity Inlet Sunset Cruise. We’d ridden on ferries and things before but have never done any sort of cruise to speak of. This was a very small vessel and it only took out twelve passengers or so (it could certainly hold more, but only a dozen went out that day. It wasn’t too surprising in hindsight considering the dreariness of the weather lately) into the river inlet and mangrove woods that extended out from the Cairns marina. We weren’t going out entirely to the reef, just out to the winding bit of mangrove river and back so we could see the sunset over the city from out over the water.

Us with our evening's transport.

Us with our evening’s transport.

We met our skipper and his mate, Stephan, aboard the boat at the allotted time and everyone was given a complimentary drink from the onboard bar. We opted out since we aren’t alcohol drinkers, but I instead got a Ginger Beer (Legit stuff, made with real ginger bits and brewed with cane sugar. Canada Dry and Seagram’s this is not, my friends) and Jessy got a simple Coke. We went above deck (there were two decks, an upper and lower one, both with covered areas and access to the box on the lower deck. The lower deck had the bar and little tables.) with a plate of “nibblies” from below. This consisted of basic deli platter fare, though Jessy and I were super excited for simple white cheddar cheese. Anything derived from cattle is super expensive in Korea, so we probably ate more cheese than was good for us, especially with a big dinner just around the corner.

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Waves made by our boat, which Jessy is weirdly obsessed with.

We heard a small announcement about the cruise, the things available to us, and a little about the planned course and timetable. We would be travelling the length of the Trinity Inlet, swinging sideways into some mangrove rivers, going up it a ways, then turning back to make the return voyage. We would have an excellent view of coastal Cairns and the sunset over its skyline in the process. The sky was still threatening rain so we all kept our fingers crossed in hopes that it would hold out just long enough for us to witness the sunset as intended. It would be a shame for the whole purpose of the cruise to be spoiled by some obnoxiously timed cloud cover.

The biggest, most garish, expensive, and gaudiest yacht in the marina - an its on-board helicopter.

The biggest, most garish, expensive, and gaudiest yacht in the marina – and its on-board helicopter.

Our luck fortunately held out and we had the chance to witness the sunset from the bow of the boat. Jessy and I broke off from the main group and found a Connecticut man on the bow enjoying the view alone. He rightly claimed that the rest of his family “didn’t know what they were missing.” He was right. The view of the oncoming waters was excellent from the bow and the sunset view was pretty great, too. Jessy snapped a ton of pictures while I chatted with the guy about New Zealand, since he had just taken nearly the identical trip that we had planned to follow our Australian leg of our travels. We sort of paused the nerd-speak of Hobbiton and Lord of the Rings nostalgia whenever the sunset poked through a hole in the clouds just over the horizon. It was like the clouds gave us just that little window of opportunity to see our sunset before gathering together again and raining down on us with the full, previously restrained force of the night’s showers. We hid our cameras away and we went back to the stern, taking shelter under the above deck as a little roof. We were mostly protected by the rain, but the sea breeze blew it in at us from time to time.

The seaside business boardwalk district on the Esplanade as seen from the water. You can see the wildlife dome we visited right in the center.

The seaside business boardwalk district on the Esplanade as seen from the water. You can see the wildlife dome we visited right in the center.

There was a lot to look at in the little wharf. Mostly there were converted, project, or derelict ships that had taken up a permanent home moored or anchored somewhere in the marina. There was a surprising diversity of vessels out there. I admittedly don’t know a whole lot about maritime activity or shipbuilding but I still found it interesting to at least look at all the different and fun boats and ships out there. They came in all shapes and sizes and they were representing all sorts of varieties of floating craft. We went past a number of them (apparently some with a bit of history to them, as their stories came up on little monitors on the cruise boat if we wanted to read them) before we took a sharp left and veered around a bend I hadn’t even noticed in the dimming light. There was a thin strip of river cutting out that way that went through the mangrove trees into a twisting, winding waterway that was to be our course for the next fifteen minutes or so.

One of the harborside constructs and the boats that were moored beside it.

One of the harborside constructs and the boats that were moored beside it.

Jessy and I were really amused with this little watery pathway and kept looking into and at the treeline that made up the “walls” of our new “road.” We were looking for creepy crawlies but didn’t have any luck, though the view was still really pretty. We were intermittently going in and out of the lower deck to dodge the increasingly heavy rainfall as the light continued to dwindle in the night sky. When dusk seemed to be settling thickly upon us we noticed the boat spinning in the water and it began to turn and redirect itself back the way it had come. We were beginning the return voyage to the marina and the conclusion of our cruise. The way back was much the same as the way out, just in rewind, but everything looked different in the night’s darkness. Some of the ships were now lightly illuminated and the city looked like a totally different scene altogether. Unfortunately the night’s sky was very obscured for the first half of the trip but by the time we reached the halfway point the clouds had largely broken up and stars began to be very visible. I was surprised just how visible they were, given the lights of the city and the full moon. Jessy and I discussed how crazy it was that we were looking at totally different constellations and a completely unfamiliar night sky. I don’t know anything about stars but she went on about how we couldn’t even see the north star in this sky. It made me wonder if there was a South Star – some equivalent by which it was possible to navigate south of the equator. There probably is, but I don’t know what it is called or how to identify it.

Sunset over the Esplanade

Sunset over the Esplanade

There was a really cool bit of luck with our timing on the way back as well. As it happened we came by the marina broadside as the fruit bats that nested somewhere off on the other end of the city came out of their nest en masse for the night and headed out over the mangrove swamps. Seeing those membranous wings on huge, seagull-sized forms coming straight at us, seemingly out of the mist as if conjured by some sorcery would have been terrifying if it wasn’t so spellbinding. I was immediately reminded of the flying monkeys of Oz, and even started whistling the wicked witch music from the film. There were hordes of them. The coolest part of it was the way they came out. The sky was still heavy and the moon was full. The clouds hung low and the sky over the city was shrouded in mist. They were obscured just enough by the mist and by sheer distance that it looked like a whole cloud of them just burst forth out of literal thin air. It was like something out of a movie, I was hypnotized.

Soon we were back at the docks and we stepped off our much wetter but truly reliable vessel and bid our captain farewell. We were back on dry land with a voucher in hand for the second part of the evening’s package – a dinner at Dundee’s, a classy Bar and Grill Restaurant along the marina, overlooking the pier.

The night lit harbor

The night lit harbor

This place was posh. It was by no means a place I would have chosen to eat on my own if it wasn’t part of a vacation package. I never see the need to throw away colossal amounts of money on basic sustenance. I understand wanting to eat good food, but I eat to live, not live to eat, so as long as I enjoy it that has always been good enough. I’m not some connoisseur in search of the most delectable (and by that virtue, expensive) morsels available to me around the world. This was one of those kinds of places though, and we were honestly a little intimidated by it. The table arrangement featured dyed crocodile leather placemats and we just asked for sparkling water for a drink (again, not one for the alcohol) and the guy showed up and poured it super ceremonially as if it was some sort of fancy wine. It was more than a little pretentious and I was rolling my eyes very hard, but very figuratively. As far as the wait staff could tell I was politely enjoying myself.

Our mangrove river course

Our mangrove river course

Jessy and I had a limited menu to choose from since it was a package meal, but our options were still pretty large and pretty impressive. Jessy went with a sweet potato and vegetable salad as an entrée and I went with the “Aussie Connection,” which was basically a pair of skewers – one kangaroo and one crocodile, served over a bed of rice. I’d eaten alligator before and remembered it being virtually indistinguishable from exceptionally tenderly cooked chicken in most respects except texture. That ended up being the case with crocodile, too. Jessy likened it to a middle of the road between really good chicken and a thick, hearty, steak-like fish that is too dense to be flaky – perhaps like a channel cat steak, for example. As for the kangaroo, neither Jessy nor I could liken it to much of anything. It was similar in consistency to venison but not at all similar in taste. It was very unique in flavor but I have nothing I can really compare it to. It was definitely an interesting experiment in cuisine for me. I shed a single tear over the piece of croc that came off the skewer a little too violently and fell to the floor, making me lose out on the last bite of the yummy reptilian meat, before moving on to helping Jessy finish her artichokes in the salad.

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Our fancy dinner location for the night.

For a main course we got very different meals yet again. Jessy stuck with her carnivorous diet of steak, steak, and more steak, ordering a well done beef steak with sweet potato and pepper sauce. I had a piece and even though I prefer very rare steak it was still excellent and very well prepared. For myself, I chose the White Barramundi, a kind of large fish native to Australia. For my dinner I wanted to go all-out regional and sample the best of things that you could only truly experience Down Under. The fish was fantastic and not at all fishy-tasting. It was served with mango and also had a halved sweet potato served beneath it (these were the deep orange sweet potatoes, not the yellow Asian variety we’d become used to in Korea, so it was a nice change) with a sweet sauce and lime. We were both extremely satisfied and had to really work to complete our desserts – a marshmallow pavlova for me and an ice cream with some sort of special unpronounceable strawberry sauce I’d never heard of for Jessy. Whatever it was, it was delicious.

Our lovely three-course Australian meal, appearing at our table in order from left to right. In the leftmost picture you can kind of see our view from the window of the night lit harbor.

Our lovely three-course Australian meal, appearing at our table in order from left to right. In the leftmost picture you can kind of see our view from the window of the night lit harbor.

We left feeling so good about the meal we forgave the error in their billing (they charged for the water but also mis-charged us for someone else’s wine. We challenged it and they fixed the error promptly) and went out feeling fat and happy. We had a little bit of night ahead of us and we were in the vicinity of the night markets, so we popped back in to get some quick souvenirs, gifts for folks back home, and to replenish our supply of bath salts. We would certainly need them for when we would later soak our saddle-sore bottoms in the hotel tub to relax, unwind, and round off a very full and very satisfying third day of adventure in Cairns.

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