Australia, October 2016
Before I dive into the tails of petting crocs and riding kangaroos in the the land Down Under, I’m going to pour a splash of heart and soul out.
Travel isn’t always glamorous. But, neither is life. The gasp and onslaught of tears brought by that fateful call that my father was dead was not glamorous. It was primal. And raw. And a reminder to take pause often and appreciate the friends and family walking through life with me. From sisters who’ve had to put up with me all of life to the brief moments of conversation connecting me to strangers; each piece of time passing in this universal soup is pretty damn amazing.
A couple years back, I had scored an unbelievable deal to South Africa through TravelisFree.com. Well, it happened again. Round trip ticket to Australia from San Francisco for $524 dollars. That’s 104 Venti Mocha drinks from Starbucks. I think a trip to Australia is a much better deal, you decide. Speaking of necessary caffeine, 23 hours of travel including multiple transfers isn’t the kindest to the body. I usually find a cozy nook in the airport and power up a yoga video from YogaDownload.com and stretch away the travel aches.
Melbourne & Italian Love
After picking up our Jucy car rental ($500 USD for 28 days) and re-adjusting to driving on the left, we settled into Melbourne. The first priority was Fairy Penguins! We scampered onto the St. Kilda pier at dusk and watched in awe as the world’s smallest penguins waddled over the rocks.
The next priority was meeting my Italian family. The story reads like a fabulous movie scene. Fifteen years ago, Maria, found an old envelope from her long lost relative in the USA. The “Arcidiacono” (my surname) and “Giuseppe” family started in Acireale, Sicily, and although many remained, one brother moved to the USA, my grandfather, and she ended up moving to Australia. Letters were passed back and forth from her aunt to my grandfather but slowly dwindled with the American brother left as a mystery to them. Fifteen years ago, Maria, found one of these letters and decided to write the Delaware address listed from the 1950s with the hope someone may respond. Lucky her, as my uncle lived in that very house where he was born. And so began a beautiful exchange of letters between them recounting family trees and life for the family. The memories of letters were hazy to me but the funeral sparked a memory and I asked my uncle for their contact information.
My plans had already been set to start in Melbourne many months prior to this knowledge. Upon contacting Maria, the woman who wrote that fateful letter, she responded with unbounded happiness and insisted we visit. And, she happened to live near Melbourne. Life really handed me that on an Italian cookie platter, didn’t it?
When we pulled up, she embraced me with the warmest hug someone who has never met me could. We spent the next day connecting the dots on the family tree and exploring their yard, which may just be the best in the world. It hosted vegetable growing, vineyard, a wine cellar, a mini golf course, a homemade playhouse for the grandkids, and a plethora of cockatoos and lovebirds to gaze upon. And, this was all packed into a very normal sized yard. The next day, they gave us a crash course exploration of the peninsula. Gorgeous coastlines and wine country. We topped it off with our first koala sighting right next to their home. We said our “arrivedercis” and departed the magical dream.
Ensay Vineyard, Great Alpine Road
After we announced our Australia visit to our second-home, the Paicines Ranch of California, Kelly recounted his trip there helping a vineyard set up a relatively new way of managing their vines, with furry lawnmowers, sometimes called sheep. Before we knew it, we were set to go visit the Ensay vineyard and see firsthand how this system worked and meet the folks behind it.
After a cocktail of curvaceous Eucalyptus lined roads up, up, up and down into lush, sweeping landscapes dotted with picturesque houses, we arrived. The Coys invited us in and schooled us on the incredible game of “footy.” It was the final showdown between the Sydney Swans and Western Bulldogs. A sport that looks like American football on ten times the adrenaline, power, and testosterone without the pads or constant fouling.
It was now time to see how one of the first Australian vineyard managed their land without herbicides, fertilizer, and replace man or machine power to desucker, or prune, the vines. By running two low electric lines on each side of the vines, the sheep only graze the low lying unwanted growth. They’re living lawn mowers and pruners, as well as natural fertilizers through their poo.
We waxed poetic with the Coys over fantastic home-cooked meals and their splendid sheep-grazed wine.
The Blue Mountains & Katoomba
First stop after a day on the road escaping the strangely quiet town of Bowral was the delightful Yellow Deli café. If this is anywhere within 50 miles of your location, stop now, and walk, bike, or uber yourself there. You get to eat scrumptious concoctions while sitting in a Lord of the Ring-esque treehouse setting. With a proper meal in our stomachs, we descended the Giant Stairway of 900+ rock carved stairs towards the Three Sisters, an iconic series of cliffs in the Blue Mountains. Not recommended for someone who recently sprained their ankle; just skip it and take the rail (tram)! Through a mellow rainforest hike and up the Ferber steps because “real” hikers don’t take rails. Sulphur-crested cockatoos swarmed in every tree and cackled at our every turn, likely laughing at my hobbling. Reaching the top, we stared the Grand Canyon-esque views until the wind threatened to throw us into the Blue Mountain graveyard.
Back in the town of Katoomba which is a quirky mountain town. It caters to an eclectic crowd from the barefoot hippies to the punk goth rainbow haired kids to the well-off grannies antique shopping.
We heard there were waterfalls and camels, and we were right. Do go and see the Wentworth Falls. If you go via King’s Tableland on Chester Rd and park at the gate, you get to take the road less traveled, and then descend into the pools of the falls.
Even though camels have been known to decapitate people, which I didn’t learn until later, we were drawn to the Port Macquarie Camel Safaris along the beach. Keith and I mounted our majestic solo-humped beasts and strolled merrily alongside the tranquil waves. His camel boasted the name Obama, as he was obtained the day of the election. It never ceases to amaze me how much the American culture & political news radiates from our bubble to every crevice of the earth, or so it seems. Would we ever name one of our camels after an Australian prime minister?
When traveling toward Byron Bay from the south, be sure to catch the Big Banana at Coff’s Bay. Australia has a thing for very, very large fruit sculptures. I can’t help but love it.
Byron Bay is the Santa Cruz of Australia, full of hippies, surfers, artists, and a hint of ganja at every turn. We stayed at the edge of town at the Byron Bay Beach Resort, an amazing vibrant hostel with hammocks outside of every room. The adjacent Treehouse restaurant and bar is worth a visit or two with their live music and yummy eats. Still daydreaming of that portabella, brie, pear chutney, and egg sandwich for “brekkie.”
If soaring like a bird is on your list, Brian at Byron Air is your man to take you hang gliding. He had me running off a ramp over the rainforest canopy before my heart could skip a beat. We soared and twirled up thermals like a lone vulture kettling (when a group of birds ride a thermal up) his free ride. I watched wallabies munching below me as the sea gloriously crashed into the knife edge cliffs. I finally was a bird, or the closest I’ll ever be.
A neat city for sure, but cities take a long time to grow on me. We picked up our friend, Vona, from the airport and took a day of travel rest, which is often needed. On our departure the following day, we stopped at the Lone Pine Koala Reserve, an exceptional cool “zoo.” Although pricey and touristy, I couldn’t help but love petting the kangaroos and holding a koala.
Town of 1770
A quaint, coastal town where James Cook set foot in 1770, the first European to set foot in Australia. I won’t go into the bloody history of removing the natives, as it echoes my own country’s.
We stayed at the 1770 Backpackers Hostel and spent the day surfing, lounging, renting bicycles, and wondering why there was a population of one-footed gulls.
The known party town of the coast. Seduced by proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, the tropical weather, and bars, the young crowd runs this town. We covered our gray hairs and hopped on a two day-two night sailboat cruise around the Whitsundays. This was the splurge of the trip, and it was well worth it. We chose the Atlantic Clipper, notorious for its party shenanigans. Fifty 20-something year-olds on a sailboat…hmmm.
Our second day on the boat started with the crew happily singing us awake, bouts of seasickness, and a stop to the sun-kissed Whitehaven Beach. With pure white sands, aqua waters, and the bluest skies, it is like walking into a postcard photo.
Next up was learning to scuba dive with James. After getting suited up and practicing, we dove under and followed him like fledglings learning to fly. Our wings just happened to be flippers instead. Parrotfish swooshed by as corals swayed and danced to the munching sound of fish dining. Wow.
The rest of the afternoon was spent snorkeling and shooting down the boat’s 8-meter waterslide. The magic of the afternoon melted into the magic of the night. The costume bag came out and the dance party began. I won’t go into details, but our leading lady and Keith came in second place in the dance competition. The stuff of legends I tell you.
Our last day started with another scuba diving, which is an extra excursion, but completely worth the price. If you haven’t dived, this is a perfect opportunity to begin learning for inexpensive and not commit to getting certified yet. We were back in the bizarre and incredible underwater world. I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked over to see Keith with a seashell connected to a rubber band and plastic ring top from a soda. A Great Barrier Reef scuba proposal! I gave a thumbs up and he put the seashell on my finger. When we emerged to the surface, the waiting boat congratulated us and all the love bubbles they saw surfacing.
The three amigos hopped in their Jucy car rental and headed the eight hours to Cairns, stopping for another big fruit, a mango this time. We arrived late to the Traveler’s Oasis, an absolutely delightful hostel. We found the Green Ant restaurant, the first place I finally found good beer, which is hard to come by Down Under.
Cairns and quite a few cities host massive swimming pools/lagoons for the public. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the water without going into the ocean and getting attacked by stingers.
Daintree & Cape Tribulation
To get to the oldest rainforest in the world, you must cross the Daintree River Ferry ($26). If you are lucky, a local might strike a conversation in the vehicle line and then lead you to his favorite, secret watering hole. After exploring the tranquil spot, we drove the rainforest road to Crocodylus Hostel. A place where locks don’t exist on doors. Located smack dab in the rainforest, you get to enjoy a rugged accommodation in a glorified tent.
We spent the first morning on a Daintree River boat tour with a local birdwatcher, Dan. Between herons, sunbirds, friarbirds, a black bittern, and a few crocodiles, I was in heaven.
The following day we snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef with Ocean Safari. A speedboat raced us out to the insanely looking photoshopped aquamarine waters. We dove into the warm aqua beauty. Parrotfish and harlequin tuskfish dazzled us with their breathtaking colors, as the little chomps of everyone munching resonated throughout the reef. Eye candy in every direction. Keith found the first green sea turtle. It almost matched me in height and dwarfed me in width. She peacefully grazed the coral as I floated above the gentle giant.
The next day brought a steady gray rain, so we wandered to the Cape Trib Farm to try exotic fruits. If you have the chance, check it out. My favorite was the Asian sapote which was reminiscent of cheesecake.
We heard whispers of there being Cassowaries stealthily wandering the forests. These elusive birds are ostrich sized, flightless birds native to the rainforest here and New Guinea. Reminiscent of dinosaurs, they will take you breath away when you finally see one. And indeed, our local cassowary finally appeared on our final hour and transported me back in time for a brief Jurassic Park moment.
Our Australia movie: