Sunday, June 15, 2014

Aussie 6: Fraser Island & Gold Coast

In continuation from: Sydney Zoo, Bondi Beach and the New Year Fireworks

After the New Year celebrations, we flew to Sunshine Coast for the last leg of our trip. Sunshine coast is a reason north of Brisbane with a laid back lifestyle centred around pristine beaches, a number of freshwater lakes and as the name suggests, immense sunshine!! Noosa beach, just 12 kms from the airport is one of the least crowded beautiful beach that you will find. 

Us at the Noosa beach
We had booked a car from the airport itself which we picked immediately and drove towards Noosa Beach. After a short swim in the sea and a filling lunch at one of the many Indian restaurant in Noosa, we drove further to Hervey Bay. If you visit Sunshine Coast with slightly more time at hand, you can also visit a few more beaches and the tropical forests full of Koalas. 

Hervey Bay is a beach-side town famous for its whale watching tours. This is one of the best places in Australia to see whales. Sadly, this wasn't the whale season and we didn't expect to see any whales during our trip. We were visiting Hervey Bay for a day tour of Fraser Island.

Thats Mary river merging into the Pacific at River Heads
Fraser Island is a heritage listed island and is the largest sand island in the world. It is made up of sand being deposited on a volcanic bedrock for over 750,000 years. This process has deposited sand comparable in quantity to the largest inland deserts of earth. It is believed that Badtjala tribe of Aborigines settled here 5000 years ago and lived until 1904 when they were pushed out by the European settlers. This island was particularly popular with the loggers because of the presence of Satinay trees which provide excellent timber. Even a railway track was laid through the forest to facilitate logging. Logging was finally banned in 1991 due to the ecological harm it was causing to the island. This island is now a popular tourist destination because of the numerous fresh water lakes and beautiful creeks all over the island. 

Wanggoolba Creek Can you even notice the water at the bottom? 
We reached Hervey Bay quite late in the evening. Thankfully, our host at Emeraldene Inn stayed there only and provided us the keys to our room and directions to the nearby restaurants and supermarkets. Next morning, Gary Pearce of Fraser Experience Hummer tours was waiting for us even before we readied ourselves to take us to the island in his HUMMER H3. This is the only tour that takes you to the island in a Hummer. The small group size he takes gives you a beautiful personalized experience and Gary himself will ensure to keep you entertained and happy all through the day. 

Thats a carpet snake basking in the sun
A skink slithers away
The tour started with a scenic drive to the ferry station from where we boarded the ferry for a 1.5 hour ride to Fraser Island. At the island, we were driven to the central station which was built by the loggers and was like the town centre of the island with a school and other constructions in the area. From central station, we went on a short boarded walk into the tropical forests around Wanggoolba Creek. All creeks on the island have crystal clear waters as a result of the water being filtered by layers of sands.
The Central Station
Us with gary at the breakfast table!!
These forests are inhabited by venomous Funnel-web spiders which are one of the most dangerous spiders. Thankfully for us, these spiders prefer to venture around in the night. Other than spiders, the island has skinks, flying foxes and some species of snakes. However, dingoes are probably the most dangerous of all the fauna on the island. These dingoes used to keep away from humans earlier, but after feeding continuously on the extra food of the visitors, these have got used to it. Hence, they sometimes try to snatch food from humans aggressively. 

Lake Mckenzie
Lunch time on the 75 mile beach
Next, we moved to the Lake Mckenzie which is a perched lake with pure white silica sands around it. This lake had some religious significance for the Aborigines and is still considered sacred by many locals. As its a fresh water lake with pure water and only about 5 meters deep, we preferred swimming here instead of swimming in the ocean. In terms of beauty, I would rank this lake a close second to the lakes in Ladakh, India. 
Us, Hummer and the ocean!!
Colored Sands
The 75 mile beach on the east coast of the island was our next destination. The drive to this beach from Lake Mckenzie was a long and tough one due to the continuous stretch of loose sands. There aren't any roads built on the island anyways. Just like with everything on this island, it took me some time to absorb the sheer awesomeness of this beach. As the name suggests, it is about 75 miles long and acts as an informal highway for the vehicles. It also acts as a part time runway for airplanes with vehicles advised to give way to the planes!!  
Cars racing on the beach
Maheno Shipwreck. It ran ashore onto the beach and could never be put back into the waters
A few miles north lie the Maheno shipwreck and the magnificent Eli Creek. As it was a hot day, we again went into the cool waters of the creek. Maybe because of the weather, Eli Creek was my favourite point on the island. I could spend hours sitting there in the waters. Post this, we moved on our way back to take the ferry to Hervey Bay. 
That innocent looking thing is a Dingo
Cooling down in the Eli Creek
Next morning, we checked out from Emeraldene Inn to move base to Gold Coast. It was a long drive of almost 400 kms. Thankfully the roads were good and the car we had rented was very comfortable to ride in. The only issue was the weather with the harshest sun ever. We avoided taking any stops unless we could find shaded parking spot. By 2 pm, we were checking into Meriton service apartments, Broadbeach. These apartments are located right in front of Jupiter Casino. This location was just perfect with a couple of Indian restaurants within walking distance and probably the best nightclub in Gold Coast, Platinum Nightclub almost next door.
Us enjoying the drive

For the evening, we went to Surfers Paradise, the entertainment and tourism centre of Gold Coast. This area has 
a wide surf beach and high rise apartments with Q1 being the world's fifth tallest residential building. In order to avoid the installation of parking meters, Gold Coast initially started having Meter maids who will top up expired parking meters. Dressed in gold bikinis and Akubra hat, these meter maids have become a novelty now due to the inevitable evolution of parking meters. We enjoyed the evening walking around the beach and the shopping precinct. Tried entering a nightclub later, but they refused us entry because we were wearing slippers. We then went to the Jupiter Casino instead.
Reverse Bungy at Surfers 
Next morning, we avoided going out of the apartment until late evening due to the insanely harsh sun and really warm temperatures. In the evening, we again went to Surfers Paradise where we bought some souvenirs as this was to be our last day in Australia. Then, we went to the nightclub which refused us entry the night before. Interestingly, they refused us entry again because one of us was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. Now it had become an ego issue. We then bought a t-shirt from the nearby shops and went in. There we met a group who told us about the Platinum nightclub right next to our apartment. After a few drinks, we moved to Platinum which remains the best nightclub I have visited yet. Yes, it was that awesome!!

Goodbye Australia!!
Finally, on the morning of 5th January, we drove the 100 kms to Brisbane airport to board our flight back home to New Delhi.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Aussie 5: Sydney Zoo, Bondi Beach and the New Year Fireworks

View of Sydney Harbor from Taronga Zoo
Having spent some great time at Darling Harbor last night, we decided to visit the Taronga Zoo in Sydney on our 3rd day in the city. Located in the suburb of Mosman, this 21 hectare zoo is divided into 8 zoo-geographic divisions and is home to over 2600 animals. Thanks to its location, this zoo offers some beautiful views of Sydney Harbor. 
Kangaroos have really interesting body structure
Emu: These birds can weigh upto 60 kgs
The easiest way to reach Taronga zoo is to take a ferry from the Sydney Harbour. A visit to Taronga takes about 3.5 hours which includes some free shows and some talks by animal keepers. For people wanting a different experience, the zoo also offers the option of staying there overnight in exclusive safari tents. It could be a thrilling experience with all the sounds of the jungle around while you try to sleep.
An Orangutan sits high in the trees
The oldest predator: Salt Water Crocodile
As usual, we woke up early and took a bus to Circular Quay from our hostel at Railway Square. At the harbor ferry counter, we purchased the Zoolink tickets which covers the return ferry fares, park entry and gondola ride charges. Initially we took a seat inside the ferry, but as soon as the ferry started moving, we came outside to enjoy the cool sea breeze and the beautiful views of Sydney Harbor. This ride provides some great opportunities to click Sydney Opera House from the sea and I clicked a number of pictures from various angles.
A tree frog. I thought it was made of plastic until I saw its eyes move.
Himalayan Tahrs confronting each other on who has the right to pass!!
Upon reaching the Ferry Wharf, we took a short walk up a ramp to the entrance of the zoo. Initially, we found it tough to find the track without a map, but even with the map, we kept losing way. The countless number of staircases kept confusing us all the time and we were too tired to afford taking the wrong path.

One of the most interesting wild cat: Snow Leopard
Just a glass separates this hungry tiger from us visitors
The best enclosure for me were those of the Tigers's with just a glass panel separating the visitors from the tigers. When the tigers walked towards the glass, you are standing almost face to face with one of the strongest predators on land. I being a tiger lover having seen a number of tigers in the wild, I was disappointed to see these tigers as they seemed weak to me. As we were there around lunch time, the tigers kept looking towards the window from where there food would come. When the food came, it was hardly a couple of pounds of meat. I would like to assume that those tigers required only that much food.
Hungry Tigers getting restless for food

A fox. These were smaller than I thought they would be.
Slightly ahead of the tiger enclosure were the chimpanzees'. With a number of ropes and bamboo constructions for the chimpanzees to play with, they were fun to see. Some of them seemed to just mess with each other while some others were performing acrobatic stunts on the ropes. I also made a short video (attached below), where I thought they were about to fight each other. Thankfully, it turned to be just a play.

This one was jumping off the wall every few minutes
And he decided to take rest midway while moving to the other end of the ropeway
Totally fun these guys are

We also attended the seal show and were amazed by the skills of these animals. They performed all their tasks/stunts flawlessly. After that, we heard the Koala keeper talk and I was surprised to know that koalas aren't social animals and too much human interference is actually harming them. These small cute animals spend most of their waking time just gorging on fresh leaves.

The Seal Show
Koala. They aren't bears!! They are just Koalas.
The luckiest animals in the zoo were the Giraffes for they had the best view of the Sydney Harbor from their enclosure. By the end, we were just too tired with our legs refusing to walk back to the Ferry wharf. Thankfully, there was the option of Gondola ride. Other than offering the Sydney Harbor views, the gondola ride also gave us the opportunity to experience zoo from above as the ride passed over various enclosures.

Giraffes being afforded a great view of Sydney CBD
Gondola ride
After the zoo visit, we went back to our hostel for lunch. Soon after, we changed into beach shorts and took a bus to Bondi beach. Living in India, this was the only beach that I had heard of before I started to plan this trip to Australia. The bus drive to Bondi from Railway square was almost an hour long. We got a teaser of what to expect at Bondi as the bus only had people in beach wear a few stations before Bondi making us feel overdressed. 
Opera House from the ferry
Harbor Bridge from the waters
Off the bus, as soon as we got a clear view of Bondi beach, we knew why it was so famous with hundreds of people enjoying the 1 kilometer expanse of the white sand beach. "Bondi" is an aboriginal word meaning water breaking over rocks and the beach justifies its name which makes this a great beach for surfing. The northern side of the beach is considered safer for surfing while the southern side is known to have a rip current that can pull surfers into the water. Lifeguards at Bondi rescue about 2500 people on an average each year. As in all other beaches of Australia, between yellow and red flags is the safe swimming area for visitors.

Panoramic view of the beach
There are a number of popular cafes, restaurants and bars near the beach. However, there is just one bar right at the beach and this one bar had a long queue for getting in as could have been expected one day before the New Year. For those who don't like sand sticking onto them after a swim in the sea, there is a shower/changing room for both males and females right at the beach. We had to take a taxi to get back to the hostel as there were just too many people at the bus stand.

In the queue to get into the Vantage Point Site. Covered myself totally with this sheet after the sunburn!!
Finally we are inside and doing what we do best..making NOISE
So so many people here enjoying themselves
 The fireworks over the Sydney Harbor to welcome the New Year is a huge event that attracts over a million visitors to the harbor and is seen by over a billion people worldwide. A number of Vantage point sites are set up around the harbor for these million visitors. While most of these have free entry, a few of them have a entry fee. Some of the free entry vantage points also allow visitors to bring their alcohol while most don't. We decided to go to Mrs. Macquaries point on the Yurong peninsula. This is one of the biggest vantage point having a capacity of 17000 and offers unbeatable views of the fireworks over the Harbor bridge and the Opera House.

Fire Tug Water Display. This threw tonnes of water into the air
Matt Hall performing some crazy aerial stunts
All the people we spoke to suggested reaching here in the morning itself by 11 am in order to get in as the capacity gets breached by then. As suggested, we reached there at 10:30 am. Even then, there were atleast 5000 people in the queue ahead of us. The Australian sun was scorching hot and everyone was carrying their iceboxes and covering themselves with sunscreen every hour. I thought my Indian skin won't get affected much and avoided sunscreen only to get a sunburn within the first hour itself. The huge lawn that was being used to queue us seemed like a big picnic spot with people having got food as well as beer/wine to enjoy while they wait to get in. We finally managed to get in after 4.5 hours. 

Readying for the 9pm fireworks
9 pm fireworks. My view to the harbour was blocked 
Though, we had tried to be as quick as possible in reaching the queue, we couldn't find and spot with clear views of the harbor by the time we got in. We set up base under a tree hoping to make a move when the time for fireworks comes close. The programs started at 6 in the evening with aerial acrobatics and continued until the family fireworks at 9 pm. These are slightly smaller compared to the midnight fireworks and are for people with small kids who want to go home early. I had hoped for lesser crowds after these fireworks but that was surely not the case. As I couldn't get a clear view of the Opera House in these fireworks, I picked my spot just after these fireworks when people made some space and stayed glued to the same point for next 2-3 hours.

Enjoying the fireworks from one of these boats is also a great option.

Check out this short video of the fireworks

By midnight, most of us were high: some more, some little less. As the clock reached 12 and the countdown started on the giant screen on the Harbor bridge, everyone seemed to wish Happy New Year to everyone else. I wished the people around me and then focused on clicking pictures just like everyone else. These fireworks were enormous and they were being lighted from a 3-4 spots so that no matter, which direction you were sitting in, if you are looking towards the harbor, you are getting to see the fireworks. The best fireworks were obviously being lighted at the Harbor Bridge and I was able to click some vivid pictures. With Opera House reflecting the color of the fireworks, I was able to click it in a number of shades. After the fireworks ended, it was again time to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Soon after, the security staff came in and asked everyone to vacate the place.

Ending with a Bang
All quiet after the best fireworks I have ever seen
We took a taxi to our hotel next to the airport as we were to fly to SUNSHINE COAST next morning.

All of us together post fireworks

Read onto the final post: Fraser Island & Gold Coast