Mona and I caught up for a mere yet memorable and soulful 30 minutes before we had to part, but it felt like not even a day had passed since we last saw each other in Dubai. Like our previous encounters, epiphanies abounded in our conversations as if we were destined for years to run into each other again in her native Sydney. Likewise, Taylan simultaneously caught up with their local Australian friend Nishant whom they had just traveled together with in Myanmar a month ago!
At around 6pm we had to head back to our hostel to change for our much anticipated dinner at Quay:
Australia’s most highly decorated restaurant and formerly ranked #26 on San Pellegrino’s Top 50 Restaurants in the world, Quay is still currently Sydney’s only contribution to the highly esteemed list.
And as we waited for dinner to be served, a local Australian friend and med student I had made a year ago while on a weekend trip to Bulgaria, Tessa, would also join us at the last minute!
Let the hunger games begin:
Salad of crisp artichoke, slow cooked carrots, ewe’s milk feta, smoked almonds, and sherry caramel, paired with Watermelon & Rosemary:
Congee of hand dived scallops, heart of palm, and black vinegar laver paired with Green Tea & Tomato:
Fan shell razor clam, shaved shiitake, smoked pig jowl, topped with sea cucumber crackling, paired with Smoked Buckwheat & Ginger Ale
Roasted pasture raised duck, fermented wild rice, black garlic, orach, and hatsuka radish, paired with Blueberry Tonic
Arkady lamb, barletta onions, ice plant, oca, lemon purée, and roasted hemp seed paired with a Green Estate drink made of green apple, cucumber, and fresh mint:
And finally, their signature dish — the Snow Egg: an egg-shaped poached meringue with an ice cream centre, coated in a sweet tuile/brulée and served on a bed of fruit fool and granita.
It may not look like much, but this was one of the best desserts I ever had.
Finally, we rounded off our palette with some petits fours:
Good food, and good company. Not a bad way to end a week together in Australia.
Tonight we sadly say our goodbyes to David, Sarah, Sampson, and Laura as we head onwards tomorrow to Auckland, New Zealand.
"When you wake up in the hostel and realize that all your travel buddies are gone." - Sampson Lau
- At time of posting in Sydney, Australia, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 89% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
A weird setup faced us for our onward flights to Sydney:
– 7 of us needed to switch airports during our layover from MEL (Tullamarine) to AVV (Avalon), which is an hour outside of Melbourne in the middle of nowhere
– 5 others in our group could stay at MEL airport for another different flight to Sydney, but leaving at the same exact time.
– Both flights were the exact same airline, departing and landing at the exact same times.
If you still don’t get it, me neither.
While 4 of us decided to take it easy (and play it safe — props to them) and not go inside the city, a foolhardy group of 8 of us decided to risk it and try to see as much of Melbourne City during its hottest day of the year. Apparently the heat in Uluru had followed us — it would be 46ºC (aka 110ºF) here too!
Instead of the original plan of dropping off our bags at the left luggage facilities at Flinders St Train Station, I had a local friend from Melbourne I had made a year ago while monsooning in Romania, named Anita, who offerred us to quickly drop off our bags at a lazy brunch her friend was organizing at Southgate — a main promenade on the south bank of the Yarra River. Immediately down for another great story, I took her up on her incredibly generous offer.
Hi Anita! Thanks Anita!
We probably bewildered the crap out of her friends who were in the middle of having brunch when we arrived. Nevertheless, they were equally just too kind as Anita in taking us in without knowing who the heck we were.
So we quickly said hello for a few minutes, and thanked them profusely before setting off again to see the city. Because it was so hot, Anita was smart enough to stay for only 4-5 minutes with us before rejoining her friends in her air-conditioned safety zone.
We first crossed the Yarra River to swing by the iconic and colonial-era Flinders St Station. Apparently saying “meet you under the clocks at Flinders Street station” is in the DNA of every person who lives here.
We then turned east towards Federation Square, Melbourne’s modernistic and popular meeting space featuring unique architecture, as well as the home of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Facing it is Saint Pauls Cathedral.
Around the corner a few blocks into the city lies Hosier Lane, a cobblestoned path famed for its street art.
A bit of Banksy on the right!
We then walked a few blocks north into the city, passing through Chinatown to reach the State Library, famous for once boasting the largest “Domed Reading Room” in the world and being able to house over 1 million books.
Now it was getting close to the point of no return, where we had to head back to pick up our bags from Anita and her friends or else risk missing our flights back to Sydney.
After spending 3 spirited days in the wettest part of Australia (Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef), the group got up early at 4:30am to catch our 6:50am flight to what probably is the driest part of Australia: Uluru.
The 3 hour flight from Cairns to Uluru was uneventful as we landed at AYQ airport at 09:05am local time. However, we happened to get in during a total communications system outage; no wifi or cell signal was coming in and out due to a failed tower (or satellite) which happens here once in a blue moon.
After all, we are in the middle of nowhere — this is Outback country where the closest semblance of civilization is Alice Springs at 500km (or a 5-6 hour drive) away.
While most of the group hopped on the free shuttle service from the airport to Outback Pioneer Resort to freshen up, Bryce, Donna, Taylan and I opted to take an optional 30min helicopter flight from the airport at 10am over Uluru and Kata Tjuta for $210 USD per person.
They can fit at most 3 people at a time (the 4th seat is for the pilot), so we went on 2 separate trips.
Our first approach was that over Uluru:
Uluru has been renowned as a symbol of Australia, famous as its iconic domed monolith rock rising from the middle of a desert 348m above the plain (862.5m above sea level), 5km below the desert plain and measuring 3.6 x 2.4 km at the surface with a circumference of 9.4km. The rock can go through dramatic color changes with its normal sandstone hue changing from blue/violet at sunset to flaming red at sunrise.
Most importantly, Uluru holds special significant to the Anangu Aborigines who considers Uluru their ancestral home filled with stories responsible for their very existence, as well as the space under Uluru containing the very energy source for their dreams.
After 5-10 minutes circling Uluru, we then headed 36km west of Uluru towards Kata Tjuta, a collection of 36 variously-sized rock domes may have once been part of a monolith that surpassed Uluru in size, but then eroded to the several separate rock formations we have today. It too holds special significance for the Anangu Aborigines that live here.
After the helicopter ride, the 4 of us then were picked up by our charming guide Kurt of The Rock Tours, who then reunited us with the rest of the group hanging out at Outback Pioneer. We then drove off towards Kata Tjuta for our obligatory hikes through the Valley of the Wind.
No joke, by the time we began our hike at 2pm, it was 46ºC (aka 110ºF) outside with multiple warning on our park tickets, our park maps, and posted signs that all hiking after 11am would be off-limits if temperatures were above 36ºC.
However, that didn’t deter Kurt from making sure we wouldn’t miss out. Armed with countless litres of water, we set off on our 30-40min hike around Kata Tjuta.
We then recharged back in our air conditioned van for 20-30min before setting off again for our 30min hike towards Walpa Gorge.
By now we were all suffering from what probably felt like first degree burns, so we ended our hikes for the day and recovered at the National Park Culture Centre. Built in 1995 to mark the 10th anniversary of Handover (when the Australian government formally handed Aboriginal land back to its rightful owners, and when Ayers Rock dropped its colonial name to became Uluru), the centre hosts and translates the aboriginal creation stories and articles about the history of the Pitjantjara. There are also shops here where you can buy local art and souvenirs. Photos of the cultural centre are prohibited.
After about an hour at the centre, we then drove to the sunset viewing point where we took as many photos to our heart’s content.
Photo Credit: Sampson Lau
Kurt also cooked us up a delightful meal of noodles and meat as we waited for the sunset.
You’ll know when the sun begins to set as the rock begins to change its color.
After sunset we drove outside the park to Yulara, where we got our swags and sleeping bags to camp outside under the stars for the night.
We then got in our well-deserved sleep, being woken up by Kurt at 4:30am to get our last glimpses of the stars at night and to head out for breakfast as the sun began to rise over Uluru.
It was at this point Kurt realized he dropped some of our backpacks on the way to the sunrise viewing point (doh!), so some of us hopped back in the bus to retrace our steps only to find our bags waiting for us back in the middle of our campgrounds.
What made this experience even more hilarious was that someone’s 11 year old daughter had slept through the whole thing and was still passed out in the back of the bus by the time we got our bags — we had inadvertently kidnapped someone!
We quickly drove back with out bags to the viewing point, returned the daughter to her mother without asking for any ransom (it appeared the mother didn’t even care at all, hahaha), and took whatever photos we could of the last few minutes of sunrise.
Once the sun rose over the horizon, our group began a base walk around Uluru for an hour, split into two 30-40min increments. The surprising part was the amount of greenery and vegetation around Uluru, growing in an area that otherwise has been widely believed to be a totally barren and lifeless desert.
By the rock are various sacred watering holes crucial to the survival of the aboriginal people as well as the local wildlife and flora.
We also visited some of the sacred caves that the aboriginal men and women have used to pass on their knowledge to future generations.
We hiked a bit more around Uluru before Kurt decided it was finally time for our group to head back to the airport and catch our 11am Jet Star flight to Melbourne. Thanks Captain Kurt!
- At time of posting in Uluru, Australia, it was 46 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, brutally hot
It’s been a productive 3 days in Cairns: 2 days ago we flew over the Great Barrier Reef and yesterday we dove straight into the middle of it. So today would be more a free day where the group save for Bryce, decided to rent both a car and a van to drive around the different national parks surrounding Cairns at a leisurely pace. Bryce, who on a previous trip to Cairns already had done a lot that we were planning to do today, instead went bungee jumping on a BMX bike. Totally fair.
Our first stop was the Kuranda Koala Sanctuary. It costs $19 AUD to enter and $22 AUD to take a photo with a koala that’s not under duress and cared for in what seems to be an ethical and safe environment.
We got to the sanctuary as it opened at 9am, so the group wandered around petting various animals while waiting for the half-hour photo sessions to begin at 10am. The sanctuary has wombats, koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies wandering out freely among the petting zoo area.
Definitely didn’t pet the crocs though.
The most interesting creatures you can find here are the human tourists.
Those with a good pair of eyes may spot out a well-preserved and real downed airplane somewhere in the trees:
When 10am came around, they got us ready for our best prom photo stance. But in all seriousness, the staff ensure you pose like a tree so the animals won’t notice a major difference from their natural habitats.
I admit, I was a little conflicted whether to participate at all, but the staff here did a good job convincing me this was indeed an ethical place to do any sort of thing in the first place.
You have the option of holding a snake, a koala or both.
Everyone chose the obvious.
They rotate the koalas so they don’t get too stressed out, while ensuring that you’re really holding onto them as if they believe you’re a tree they can sleep on. Every koala who gets held goes through this for no more than 30 minutes in total a day, with a whole day off every 2 days where they take a break and do nothing but sleep and eat. They really tried to make sure we wouldn’t feel guilty for being there.
After an hour at the petting zoo and receiving our photos, we had lunch at Frog’s Restaurant located within the sanctuary grounds and then drove 30 minutes to check out the waterfalls at Barron Gorge National Park.
A 15 minute hike led us to a few watering holes and a small set of waterfalls.
We took about 45 minutes swimming around here before heading back.
We then drove an hour up to Wooroonooran National Park, passing by Walsh’s Pyramid, the world’s highest freestanding natural pyramid.
Once we parked, we hiked about 700m towards Josephine’s Falls.
…which was a more reputable waterfall featuring a natural water slide and tons of locals and visitors.
We spent about an hour here before driving back towards Cairns, trying to see if we could find any platypus’es hanging out at a local beach.
Alas, this was the point when a major lightning & thunderstorm struck the area, flooding the streets, the beach, and leaving little hope to find any animals brave enough to come out in the deluge.
So we drove back into Cairns, reuniting with Bryce and having dinner back at our favorite local ramen shop Ganbanranba Ramen. We then returned our cars at 9:30pm and turned in early for our 6:50am flight tomorrow to Uluru.
- At time of posting in Kuruanda, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: light thunderstorms
After a raucous pregame at Cock & Bull and subsequent dinner at Goong Korean Restaurant involving lots of meat and soju last night, the group went to bed at around 11pm for a 6:30am wake up call to make it to the 7:15am shuttle to the reef docks.
There we congregated at the Divers Den boat docked at Finger C for an 8am check-in. After registering and getting a safety number for the manifest, we set out on a 90 minute journey towards the Great Barrier Reef.
While Isaac and Bryce started early with their certified dives, we began our introductory dive about an hour later after a crash course and group quiz on Scuba Diving. If you finish the training early, you can snorkel as much as you want around the boat until it’s your turn to dive.
Photo Credit: Mary Lin
When it was our time to dive, we rolled right in!
And found Nemo within minutes. Wasn’t that hard to find.
We did 2 dives total (an extra one costs $50 AUD), with a buffet lunch in between. The first dive covers skills training with your regulator and the second one is a more of a freer dive with your guide showing you what to take photos of.
We spent about 30 minutes for each session under the sea before beginning our slow ascents to the surface.
Nobody died and no GoPros were harmed in the making of this post. And we can’t complain when we can now claim our first dive would be at The Great Barrier Reef!
Here are some of the even crazier photos that the company taking us, Divers Den, was able to get:
- At time of posting in The Great Barrier Reef, Australia, it was 29 °C -
Humidity: 71% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny
After an unexpected 2 hour layover in Brisbane, we took off at 2:10pm and arrived in Cairns approximately 2 hours later at 4:25pm on the dot.
We then collected our bags from baggage claims and promptly hailed Ubers 6 minutes over to Daintree Air in Building 97 at the General Aviation Airport. There we got a quick 5 min safety intro into how life jackets work before boarding our Cessna.
According to them, we would be the latest departing flight out to see the Great Barrier Reef in their 40 year history!
Within 10 minutes we were in the air above Cairns.
And just another 5 minutes away from Cairns lies the one and only Great Barrier Reef.
We spent about 30 minutes in the air, taking turns at the reef at different angles.
Our pilot even let Taylan fly us on the way back to Cairns!
Now we’re checked into our charming little hostel at Calypso Backpackers. To give credit where it’s due, the staff at this particular hostel were kind and efficient enough to organize a last minute combo involving today’s flight above the Great Barrier Reef and both an introductory and certified diving the next morning for a total of $300 AUD per person! Normally at this time of year, everything would be sold out, especially for a group our size.
That said, tomorrow morning we’ll be doing the Great Barrier Reef from below!
- At time of posting in Cairns, Australia, it was 29 °C -
Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy