On December 27th we arrived in Cairns and it was immediately my favorite place in Australia. Humid and drizzly, surrounded by turquoise water and purple hills, a low fog hanging over sailboats moored in the small harbor. It brought back so many memories of my life on South. The town was smaller than I'd expected, so fewer hordes of people than Sydney or Melbourne (yay!). We walked around town and got Chinese on a porch restaurant overlooking the harbor, a heavy tropical rain pouring down just a few feet away. It was hot, with outdoor ceiling fans providing a slight cool. Then us girls swam in the pool and we all figured out a game plan for the next few days. Tiera, Kendra, and I were off for a three and a half day dive trip while Mom, Dad, and Kyla were going to snorkel closer to shore and head back to Sydney a day earlier. It wasn't fun splitting up on our vacation but I was beyond excited to be diving the biggest reef on earth. It's been on my life to-do list for years, so it was surreal to finally be there.
The reef is huge (2,300 km long - visible from outer space) and while the Inner Reef hugs the coastline, the Outer Reef is a full day offshore. Since the Inner is so much easier to get it, it is heavily frequented by tourists so much so that much of the biodiversity has been degraded. Divers all say that to really experience the Barrier Reef, you have to dive the Outer. Hence the need to spend three days on a boat. So Monday morning, the three of us packed up our gear and headed to port to board our floating home for the next few days.
The first few hours we toured the boat, settled into our cabins, and did various dive and safety orientations while we steamed to our first dive site. We stopped on the Inner reef to do an introductory/check-out dive and after coming aboard afterwards, I began to not feel very good. I had taken motion sickness medicine too late in the afternoon and within thirty minutes I really did not feel well. I went back to our cabin - luckily Tiera, Kendra, and I had a quad-share but no one in the fourth bunk - and tried to ignore the fact that I was on a steadily rocking boat. I wanted to just get sick and get it over with or get off the boat, anything to make me feel better. I was literally contemplating how I could get a helicopter to come out to get me -- I would have paid a lot of money to get off the boat. But we were too far offshore to go back and there was no landing pad ... so I was stuck. I skipped dinner and the second dive, afraid I would throw up while gearing up, and just laid in my bunk. At some point I fell asleep and when I woke up fourteen hours later, I had adjusted to the rocking and felt much better. Also, I learned to constantly take medicine whether I felt bad or not. (And now, I am so thankful that I couldn't get off the boat.)
Thus began our days of diving. One of the crew would come downstairs and knock on our cabins at 6:30 AM as a wake up call, a light breakfast was set out and then we dove at 6:45 AM. We'd come back to the boat to ravenously scarf down a hot "second brekkie" at 8:30 AM, sit around for a bit and dive again at 9:45 AM. Then lunch, another dive, snack, another dive, dinner, and a night dive. Diving every 2-3 hours was actually kind of tiring, plus the quandary of whether to change in and out of dry clothes or just sit on the sundeck in a swimsuit. But wearing a wet swimsuit in the air conditioned dining hall was a bit cold - especially after being 70 ft under for an hour. The downtime we had was spent reading (or sleeping) on the sundeck, chatting with our fellow divers, downloading the most recent dive's photos on the GoPro, napping in our bunks, reapplying sunscreen, or watching the unending horizon.
That trip I crossed off two items from my bucket list: diving the Great Barrier Reef, and being so far out in the ocean that you can't see land. At first it was a little unnerving, but then it was just peaceful to be so far removed from city lights and pavement, telephone wires and smog.
Main street in Cairns
Our dive boat - sun deck in the back for warming up after diving or enjoying a few hours of sun, the "tender" in the water ready to pick you up if you surface too far from the boat. When I took this picture, we were just finishing up a dive and getting ready to move to the next dive site - the tender is still waiting in case the last ones out of the water need a pick up.
The dive deck. We are just getting ready to go out again so Kendra is putting on her dive booties and fins. Tiera, Kendra, and I's dive gear are the 3 BCDs behind Kendra - we would dive and then strap them back in here so the crew could refill the tanks before our next dive. Everything on this deck had to be strapped in when we steamed to our next dive site - loose gear could fly off the back of the boat (to the right).
Another view of the dive deck from the back, and Tiera getting ready for a dive. Because we had to walk down the narrow staircase with our tanks on, the crew would have our fins for us at the bottom of the stairs. This was taken at the dive site Cod Hole, and you can already see the cod circling when the camera goes underwater!
All set for another dive!
We watched this guy napping on the bommie and then wake up and start swimming to the surface
Trip of a lifetime ... diving with my sisters
Cod Hole, the infamous dive site. The cod get quite rowdy since they know there is food around -- it was actually a bit intimidating just because they are so BIG. We were warned not to gesture with our hands because they will think we are food.
Evidence of sharks! These lemon sharks were swimming off the back of the boat the first night of our trip (when I didn't feel so hot). We saw others while we were diving but there were about 5 of them this night all together.
One night the winds and waves were getting strong right as they served dinner, which happened to be lamb, quinoa, roasted vegetables, and naan. I was doing okay eating my lamb while the boat was rocking, but it was taking a lot of willpower to tell myself that. Since the storm was getting closer, the captain said we better move up our night dive so we could at least go before it got worse. At that point, my stomach said I needed much more time to digest before I would be ready to get in the water. But somehow, 30 minutes later I found myself jumping into the dark ocean with a tank on my back and dive light on my wrist.
Our dinner that night was actually quite amusing: dinner was always a plated affair, served by the crew, who also poured sodas and drinks besides the typical water. When you are warm and dry and eating a delicious dinner, going diving again does not always sound so fun. When the crew came in to tell us about the storm and that the dive entrance/exit would be challenging, but still possible, most everyone said they would pass. One serious diver said he wanted to go. As dishes were cleared and people headed in different directions for the evening, there was the typical chatter over the incoming storm and the dive and who was going to go. Tiera, Kendra, and I really just wanted to stay in our sweatshirts but were feeling tugged that this might be something we would regret. Then a high-energy thirty-something from California said he would go if someone else would. On the other side of the boat, a mid-sixties dad and his two adult children, had their own conversation and decided that they would go but didn't want to make the crew stop if they were the only ones. We finally said "Why not?! We'll go". And a Canadian downstairs convinced his fourteen year old daughter to go with him so he could go as well. Suddenly there was a whole group of us willing to brave the night waters for whatever might be down there.
We donned our gear with high winds outside, the boat rocking so hard it was near impossible to stay balanced. We strapped fluorescent tubes to our tanks so we could see each other underwater, and passed out yellow dive lights. Walking down the stairs of the dive deck, waiting to jump in, the sky was black black and endless, the waves angry and white-capped. A slew of crows sat gripping our mooring line, which seemed ominous and a little eerie. It was a high-adrenaline, high-excitement night for those of us going.
Once we jumped in, signaled OK, and sank beneath the surface it was another world - silent, dark, still. At first glance. When we reached the bottom and began swimming through the coral heads, there was all sorts of activity. Reef fish sleeping in their mucus-lined bubbles, other fish awake and prowling, giant eels peering out of crevices, sea cucumbers inching across the sand, a two-foot-long lobster seeing us and backing away with speed you wouldn't imagine. And the coral, beautiful and still as always. When we got back to the boat, we stayed below the turbulent surface until the last possible minute, swimming up to the ladder and trying to grab it while still under. When back on the boat, the wonderful crew had hot water for us to rinse and warm up in, and within the hour we pretty much all collapsed into bed.
On several of our dives I had been feeling little pinches which I assumed was nothing, or just fish. Later, I saw some red bumps on my legs and I figured I must have gotten a few bug bites. It got progressively worse until at one dive site, I felt something sting my face and realized I wasn't making this up anymore. I inspected the water close to me and saw tens of tiny jellyfish, the size of golf balls, rippling around me. It was not the conclusion I was hoping for, especially since I was holding onto the mooring line with a few minutes left on my safety stop! I turned around and tried to shield my face but felt more stings as I waited out my time and then surfaced. The evidence appeared on my face soon after - a half moon shape of stings from my lip on down, and a nice patchwork around my knee. It was enough to get me to wear a wetsuit for the next dive, but then I gave up again because I strongly dislike wetsuits, especially when the water is warm enough not to need one. The stings were worth it. Kendra got a few, Tiera wore her wetsuit so really didn't get any, but my legs emerged quite battered by the fourth day.
Other forever memories from the trip: That time Kendra and I *almost* got lost underwater, diving with cod as big as we are, seeing turtles and sharks and barracuda and Nemo fish, making friends with our fellow divers who were amusing characters of all sorts, talking in our bunks before bed, rationing the hot water in our shower between dives, living on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
The third day we came upon Lizard Island, where we docked for the night and went ashore Thursday morning (New Years Eve). We had some time to explore the beach and we hiked over the ridge to the "airport". On Lizard Island, there is an exclusive resort, a research station, and not much else. Half of the divers on our boat (including us) were getting off to fly back to Cairns, while a new group flew to Lizard to join the boat that was going to continue another few days. When our 10-passenger plane arrived, we were amused to see the many responsibilities of the pilot: fly the plane, unload baggage, give the safety briefing, pass out refreshments (before we left, don't worry), and give historic/cultural commentary during flight. Since we had just been diving, it was a low-level flight back - just above the water. It was gorgeous and a highlight of the entire dive experience.
Land sighting! Lizard Island, just ahead.
Coming ashore on the beautiful Lizard Island.
From the beach above we trekked over the hill (currently atop) to the other side of the island.
Where we met our plane. No airport, just waited under the trees until the pilot told us we could get on.
We had to wear life jackets strapped around our waists in case we went down over the ocean. Also, notice my lips -- no I am not wearing lipstick, they are just dark because of the jellyfish sting on my lip and down the side of my chin.
Unbelievable views flying back to Cairns with the reef below us the whole way.
A few of my jellyfish stings ... as I am writing this, 3 weeks later, you can
still see these marks on my knee, just less red.
When we arrived back in Cairns, we had a few hours to kill at the airport before we flew back to Sydney for New Years Eve fireworks with the family. As our (much bigger) plane took off for Sydney, the three of us laughed and said wholeheartedly there were no regrets. There were so many unexpected experiences, ups and downs, hilarity and nervousness and sunburns and salt, but it was undoubtedly worth it. I do not get these moments with my sisters very often, so they are all the sweeter.
Then we began to work our way up and inland, the terrain changing into miles and miles of dry cattle ranching. Our black van bounced along the unkept roads while we played rounds of Sparkle and sang along to Australian-themed songs. As the evening began, the road winded into rainforest - a single lane paved through the trees, and we started spotting kangaroos, small ones, as they bounced across our path and into the brush. Earlier in the day we found koalas and their babies high up in the trees - some sleeping and others just being shy. Seeing such cool wildlife, admiring the blue-purple hills in the distance, the gray savanna trees and grassy shrubs trailing the road, great company inside ... it was a wonderful drive.
We played games at our place in the Grampians that night, and then spent the next day hiking in the national park. It was a great interlude to a new part of Australia, one with fewer people and more aboriginal culture. (This was also the place where we tried kangaroo, but I will not describe it more than that.)
Enjoying a moment laying on the road since we were literally the only car for hours
Someone altered this sign so instead of watching out for kangaroos and wombats
it looks like T-rexs and bats are up ahead
New friends!! ...
... are quite shy
Emus in the front yard
Hiking in the Grampians
A few of us did the waterfall trek
... and then filmed it going up for those who stayed behind
We flew into Melbourne the next day and had lunch downtown before starting our drive to the Great Ocean Road. The ocean was beautiful - but cold - and it was quite amusing to drive on the left. Just a few near mishaps today, but with great hilarity. We stopped at a small town for the night and shopped for our own groceries, proud of ourselves for buying the local brands and trying new things. While we "discovered" TimTams, Lambington, crumpets, and other delicious Australian foods, the frozen pizzas we had were beyond awful; the meat on them may not have been from a recognizable animal. It was that bad. But with this family, any experience like that is just one for great memories.
Packed in our strange black van, trying to figure out Australian road signs, scouting for kangaroos, laughing at Dad's driving difficulties, sharing a pint of ice cream between seats ... it was so great to roadtrip together again. After dinner a few of us went down to the beach. A full moon was shining down on the sea, and lights from a nearby pier stretched out to meet the moon's reflection. A few night walkers and their flashlights twinkled across the sand but otherwise, it was black.
The next morning was Christmas Day. We had a lazy and fun breakfast in our condo, eating waffles and crumpets and drinking mango juice from champagne flutes. We opened Christmas cards and looked at Christmas pictures until the hotel manager came to tell us our check-out time was right about then. We loaded up the van again and started on the Great Ocean Road.
Hours of unspeakable beauty, blue-green water hugging a jagged coastline, and the road running just inland. Many photo breaks to capture the views, including the famous Twelve Apostles. We stopped in Port Campbell for a swim, where we ambitiously broke out our dive booties and fins thinking we would swim out far. To our credit, we stayed in for about 15 minutes even though the water was probably 50 degrees.
Mom caught us napping on the plane (what else is new) and the person behind us was a little confused
Ready to roadtrip!
Beginning one of the most beautiful drives there is...
the Twelve Apostles
almost at the end of the road - began to rain offshore
The travel dilemmas meant that we had only one day together in Sydney before we headed on to Melbourne. So of course we wanted to do all of the big important things. First up was getting local SIMs for our phones, to which we got comments of incredulity over our "ginormous family". We continued to get these looks and comments which we found quite amusing :). After a fun lunch on a rooftop downtown, we headed to Sydney Harbour to see the famous Bridge and Opera House. The clouds burned off and we had a gorgeous day to spend in the harbour and Royal Botanical Gardens.
That evening, Dad and us girls went to an evening performance at the Opera House while Mom went to bed (remember, half of the family had only landed that morning). We had a blast seeing the Harbour at night and got a dish of gelato to pass around on the walk back to our apartment.
Trying to figure out foreign mass transit, directions, money, and meals when there are six of you means that you won't succeed in being inconspicuous, especially when you keep forgetting to walk on the left side of the sidewalk and keep laughing at Australian words. Or when you can't figure out what the lunch menu says even though it is written in English (tip for next time, "waygu" means hamburger). Or just the fact that there are six of you together walking the streets in a very metropolitan city. It was hilarious and tons of fun, though I think we were all excited to keep traveling and see what Australia was like outside of Sydney.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Royal Botanical Gardens
Yes we did some tree climbing in the Gardens
Sydney Opera House
Circular Quay, view from the Opera House
Downtown view from our apartment - Sydney Harbour Bridge in the distance
the Opera House at night
December 23rd downtown Sydney
The days in December seemed to just disappear until it was the 20th: the day that had been planned for, looked forward to, and dreamed about for the past two years. AUSTRALIA. The six of us were going to meet in San Francisco around 8 PM for our flight to Sydney, but as the lone east coaster, I had a full day of traveling to get to SF. I took a train to Grand Central and then some subways and a NJ train to get to Newark for my eight hour flight to California. I was pretty proud of myself for packing light - just a backpack and a dive bag - but it was still quite heavy to haul around the airports and train stations.
I landed in the late afternoon and after a few hours was getting bored, ready for my family to join me and the adventures to begin! Around that time I got a message from Mom saying that high winds in SF were keeping planes from landing so their flight from PDX was delayed. They still had a few hours of buffer before our flight to Sydney so we didn't get too worried, but by that evening it was clear that not everyone was going to Australia that night. Tiera made it to CA fine and the two of us got on the 15 hour flight to Sydney while Mom, Dad, Kendra, and Kyla boarded a flight to LA. While we were flying, they made it to LA, slept, and then rented a car and drove to SF to catch the next day's flight to Sydney. Since there is only one flight per day to Australia, they were going to arrive one full day behind us.
Tiera and I settling into the plane for the night (+day) while the rest of the family rents a car and drives to SF, sadly not with us.
With the time change, Tiera and I arrived in Australia Wednesday morning. It was raining in Sydney so two tired girls, weighed down with backpacks and dive gear, walked into the lobby of our downtown apartment drenched as well as exhausted. We weren't allowed up until the afternoon but the concierge graciously let us freshen up in the pool room and leave our bags while we killed some time. Feeling much better after a shower, we set out to find some lunch and see the city.
We learned a few things that day:
Darling Harbour, Sydney
When we were allowed up to our apartment, we raved over the 48th floor views of the city and then curled up with blankets and watched it continue to pour outside. At six, we ventured out for wood-fired pizza and milkshakes before crashing early. We woke up to sunny skies and our family joining us, (further) adventures to begin.
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.