Australia 9: Brisbane

We arrived into Brisbane early evening after leaving Noosa mid afternoon, it feeling both bizarre and exciting to be driving into a centre after spending so much time in towns and campsites. We had phoned Big Bird in advance and arranged for two spaces for the car and camper and for Tiia and I to have a hostel bed; after many nights in a tent we were in desperate need of a bed and, at 18 dollars each per night, we only paid 1 dollar more than the guys per night (as it 34 dollars for a vehicle). For this price it was in a 16 bed dorm and it was hard to tell which ones were free; this should give you an indication of the quality.

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Anyway, we showered, changed, put on make up (for the first time since Singapore!) made dinner and drank a bottle of wine before all 6 of us leaving for the Normanby Hotel – apparently the place to be on this particular evening. It probably took us about 15/20 minutes to walk there and we arrived to what I can best describe as a wooden, multi-floored building with a surrounding outdoor area that was almost like bars within bars, both inside and out, upstairs and down. Various music was being played on each floor and cups of cider were $7.50. I had 4 or 5 ciders in the couple of hours we were there, danced with Tiia, had random conversations with locals (drunken conversations where I am pretty sure we offended the men we spoke to), lost everyone else and then magically all reappeared together in one spot with Umbi being the last to appear just as we said we needed to find him to leave; it was as though we all had a sense of where to be at what time.

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Brilliant, spontaneous night but I felt horrendous the next morning  and was so grateful to have a bed that I didn’t have to get out of early to dismantle; I made the absolute most of it and laid there until 11am. It was then time for boring domestic duties and I put the laundry on, waited for it to be ready and then put it out at 12:30 for it to start pouring with rain – one of the things I dislike most about travelling Australia compared to Asia is having to be responsible for your own laundry, both in the time it takes and ensuring it is dry.

 

Anyway, once it was done I decided to head out in the rain anyway – minus umbrella or raincoat – and I walked across the William Jolly bridge (a nice one to walk/jog along that has good views of the CBD) and towards the State library – my feet were swimming in rain puddles this point so I ducked inside to use their great facilities and free wifi; my first experience of how awesome, welcoming and accommodating Australian libraries are. Still raining, I then decided to head into the Art gallery where there was some really cool aboriginal stuff that took me back to my time in the Outback. I then went into the Museum where there was some really insightful and thought-provoking stuff on the tourism and commercialism of aboriginals, both with regards to the sale/display of their artwork and the way in which they are represented through art. All that aside, it was really nice to wander around by myself and have some space where I could get lost in a crowd again; alone but with an activity of focus so I could clear my head.

 

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Continuing in this mindset I then walked along Brisbane’s south bank to Ferry Point 3 to catch the free city hopper along Brisbane River – I went back on myself in the “wrong” direction first as I would have to have stood waiting for it to come back round anyway and decided it would be nice to make more of it, but then eventually went in the direction I was aiming for towards the Botanic Gardens. It was a shame about the drizzly rain but I still sat up top and it was so nice to take in the lovely bridges and diverse landscape of high buildings, sailing boats and greenery.

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I hopped off at the stop just north of botanic gardens, walked alongside the river and almost bought a coffee to keep me warm until I realised they add 15% surcharge on public holidays! I wandered through the gardens towards the CBD and popped in to Queen Street Mall with the intention to buy an umbrella, which ended up being the only thing I didn’t purchase (I splashed out on a sleeveless bomber jacket, long socks and a long top; all prep for our return to the cold nights in a tent so totally justified!) 

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I walked back through the city just after 6pm, it already being dark, and this was the first time I’ve felt a bit vulnerable or wary – I received a comment from a guy sat on the street outside a shop about me being attacked, then a drunken group of men deliberately walked straight into me. It was unfortunate as I have mostly felt really safe in Australia and I loved my day in Brisbane, liking it as a city much more than I thought I would, but I guess you can be vulnerable at any time, any where.

I was still feeling a bit ropey but picked up a bottle of sparkling wine for that evening. I got back to the hostel to shower, change and have dinner before the 6 of us reconvened for drinking games – just as an FYI, it is absolutely impossible to play a game of beer pong with cheap balls, so light that they would literally change direction mid-air, swerving away from its original and intended path. Before we went to bed we said goodbye to Toby and Rasmus as we would be leaving Brisbane the following morning whereas they would be staying another night and be moving more slowly down the rest of the East Coast than us. My history with goodbyes is to detach but I’ve been working on my emotional issues (well, some of them, I haven’t had THAT much time) and genuinely felt really sad that this part was coming to an end, and I would miss them both.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get much sleep that night as one Dutch guy felt the need to start chatting on his phone at 1am and then again at 7:30am (I literally do not understand the mentality of some people whom travel, but this is what you are more likely to face in a 16 bed dorm) and we were up early the following morning to check out and load up the campervan.

I then wandered into the CBD to visit the Telstra store and pick up an Australian sim for my time in Sydney where I planned to stay for a few months and work, then I made my way over to the West End; here I discovered cool, tree-lined streets dotted with cafes,  street art, vegan restaurants and vintage shops. I popped into one charity shop where you were charged only $5 AUD for a bin liner full of whatever you could fit into it; I filled up one plastic bag with sweater pants and big scarves for the cold weather (which will be redundant soon in Australian summer) and some basic tops for my time settling in Sydney. 

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I made it back to the camper early afternoon where it was now just Tiia, the Italians and I setting off for our next destination; Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. We managed to get a discount on the ticket by buying it at Chill Hostel (vouchers supplied by Big Bird) and it cost us $29 AUD each instead of $36, passing on paying $49 for a cuddle and a photo with a Koala. We arrived at 3pm and my life was literally made seeing Koalas up close; I have always loved the idea of koalas (animals that get to be free in the trees but basically do nothing other than sleep all day) and I loved them as much as I thought I would. Although I did get extremely jealous watching other people have hugs with the koalas so I paid $18 ($2 less than at Chill hostel, and therefore saving $9 in total) to have a cuddle and a photo; I was surprised by how placid and sleepy they were, and although they are kind of cute they are also quite big and hefty to be cute.

Afterwards we wandered into the Kangaroo feeding area, where you could feed the dozens of kangaroos in the filed but most of them were happily chilling out in the sun or cleaning themselves – the one that struck me the most was one that had a joey in its pouch, which was crazy to see, but I did manage to get a photo imitating a kangaroo as well as a classic kangaroo selfie.

The rest of the time there we wandered around watching wombats, platypus swimming (which is really funny to watch them do with their little feet wading like crazy) birds swarming for feeding time, Tasmanian devils being aggressive with one another (they look like some strange mouse/bear/dog/pig hybrid), and a crocodile (which was disappointingly small and looked half-dead). It was such a good afternoon at a really good price and I got to meet both koalas and kangaroos; standard Australian afternoon. 

We left as the Sanctuary shut at 5pm and then drove to a campsite in Beenleigh on our way to the Gold Coast. We now only had one sleeping bag and one blow up mattress between the two of us as Toby had taken his and the night was particularly cold so, using the boot of the car and the poles from the tent we created our own makeshift tent by draping the canvas over the top, and then slept in the camp chairs wearing multiple layers and blankets over the top.

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I was literally wearing all the clothes I own and was still freezing, waking up every hour or so with a chill, so at 5:30am I moved my chair outside the “tent” to a spot under the morning sun and dozed there for a couple of hours. Camping has been such a cool way to explore and experience the east coast of oz but I am looking forward to having a normal bed in one place!

LS.

Australia 8: Noosa / Mt Ngungun

So we spent our night after Fraser Island at a campsite one hour away from Noosa and it was absolutely freezing cold – yet again. The further down the east coast we drove the colder the nights seemed to become, and the more regular were the cold nights – yet I didn’t seem to be getting more acclimatised to them or beginning to find it bearable. I just remember needing to pee in the middle of the night and doing my best to avoid disturbing the flock of birds that seemed to also be camping the night. The following morning, when using the rest stop facilities, we bumped into people from our Fraser Island tour whom had caught the Greyhound from Rainbow Beach that morning – apparently our “heading off early” the night before hadn’t really paid off.

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Anyway, we headed to Eumundi Market, which is open only Wednesdays and Saturdays but was particularly busy when we arrived as it was a public holiday AND school holidays, and wandered around the fresh local produce shacks, arts and craft stalls, massage and psychic reading tents. I’ve never had a palm reading or any kind of clairvoyant experience but I had recently started thinking I would like to try it, and I think the spiritual side of me was craving something “other”, some connection to something, after not having had counselling for almost 6 months now. So I booked in for an Intuitive and Tarot Reading at 40 dollars for 20 minutes, although it ended up lasting 40 minutes.

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The first part was her taking my basic information (name, DOB, why I am here in Oz) then she offered me an intuitive insight (where she acknowledged me travelling for 12 months, which is something I only recently extended my 10 month trip to, and the fact that I am homesick at the moment, at which point I began to cry) followed by a tarot card reading. A lot of it reiterated stuff I know already but needed to hear and be reminded of (like a good kick up the backside, or where my counsellor or my mum pull me up on my shit) but there were also some interesting new ideas; she basically said – hahahaha, as if I’m sharing THAT with you. But, seriously, I don’t know what I “believe” but I took from it what I needed at the time, and for that I am grateful.

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We arrived into Noosa mid afternoon and immediately felt out of place; us roadies in our run-down camper chugging past upper-class, clean, well-dressed locals gawping at us and reeling in horror. The gorgeous, tree-lined street with fairy lights was a bit posh for us travellers. Still, we parked up by the botanic gardens (more like woods, in my opinion, but ‘botanic garden’ doesn’t ever seem to mean what I picture it looking like in my mind) and began the coastal walk to Hell’s Gate.

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We didn’t get very far along the cliff edge before we spotted a koala wrapped around the branch up a tall tree, just as they opened up into a forest. It was my first sighting of a koala in the wild and this one was particularly cute, with its head down tucked into its body. After “ooooo”ing and “ahhhh”ing at the adorable koala, we continued on our coastal walk, the path finally curving round the cliff and offering beautiful views of the ocean below us. The guys tend to stop to wind each other up or trick one another so Tiia and I ended up walking on ahead, making it to Hell’s Gate and then climbing down the rocks to sit and stare out at the beach below.

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We eventually made the walk back along the coastal path and met up in the carpark, where we then drove around trying to find a hostel within Noosa to spend the night in but to no avail. We therefore decided to have dinner in Noosa at Zac’s (after wandering around for half an hour down the fairy light-lit main street and not being able to agree on anywhere else), where Tiia had the best veggie burger she has ever had, where her and I lost any sense of shame or dignity and sneakily helped ourselves to fries left by the couple sat next to us, and where the 6 of us had one of our only meals out together as a group. Lovely.

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After dinner we drove to a free campsite just outside Noosa, arriving pretty late to find a group of French guys running wild. It was another freezing cold night (what do you do when you’re already wearing two pairs of trousers, a long sleeve top, a jumper, a wind proof jacket and two pairs of socks?) before getting up lazily the following morning and taking our time to pack up and move on (it does get repetitive and tiring, but I also can’t help but smile at the memory of it as I type). We drove to Glass House Mountains National Park (Mt Ngungun) for a 2 hour hike up the mountain – well, supposedly a 2 hour hike.

It was a 2.8km return climb that took about 15/20 minutes each way, then including the time we spent at the top it took a total of one hour. Which would be fine if we had known and not consumed enough fuel for a 2 hour hike. But the views from the very top – which you had to scramble for the last part and then leap across various rocks to get to the ultimate viewing point – of the surrounding mountains and cities below was definitely worth it. We were also pretty certain we could spot Brisbane in the distance (but who cares if we couldn’t – we thought it was and that’s all that counts!)

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After stumbling back down we headed back to our respective cars to change back into comfortable travelling clothes (basically non-sweaty items) and may our way towards Brisbane…

LS.

Australia 7: Fraser Island (Rainbow Beach

The day before our Fraser Island adventure began we had a briefing at Pippies Beachhouse Backpackers in Rainbow Beach as Pippies was the company we had booked our tour with – 330 AUD each (approximately £200) for 3 days and 2 nights. After the briefing we needed to find someone to stay for the night, as the hostel itself wasn’t cheap and didn’t have space for our camper. After picking up supplies we drove to a campsite in by the beach in Bundaberg, pitched our tent, cooked dinner (the last of the tuna!) and wandered down to the pitch-black beach for bright stars in the sky before getting an early night in preparation for a 5:30am wake-up call.

 

It was a freezing cold morning and after packing up we headed back to Pippies for 6:30am for our free breakfast and then jumped into our 4×4 with our overnight bags and snacks. As each 4×4 fit 8 and we had 6 in our group, 2 extra females joined us, and each person in the vehicle would take it in turns to drive (so long as they wanted to!) Toby drove first, taking us out the hostel and onto the ferry to cross over to Fraser Island (where we saw dolphins on our way over) and then, once on Fraser Island, across the sand to our campsite. It was surreal and absolutely stunning to drive along the beach with the sea to our right, the sun piercing down and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.

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We had been briefed on safe driving and the speed with which to take, yet on our first journey – where all four 4x4s drive one in front of the other – the 4×4 in front of us had a tyre explode right on the middle of the beach as we were going approximately 70 mph. It was an opportunity for us all to take a pit stop and snap some photos with our 4x4s on the sand, and more than anything we were just pleased it wasn’t our 4×4 to experience the first problem!

Once at our campsite we picked our tents (obviously me sharing with Tiia!) and dropped off our stuff.

 

 

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It was then my turn to drive the 4×4 (or, I was the first to shout “me!” when asked whom wanted to drive next) – I haven’t driven an automatic in YEARS, and never across bumpy, skiddy sands, so I was a bit nervous, but I found it really enjoyable and most of my drive was through the forest rather than next to the sea; I instructed Toby to play The Chainsmokers and spent the journey bumping along the sandy path to my favourite music.

 

We first went to Lake Mckenzie, which has pure sand (like the Whitsundays) with fresh spring water from the rain forming the lake, meaning it is so pure you can wash your hair in it. It was crystal clear, sparkling from the sun, and ridiculously refreshing.

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I then drove us a bit further on to a section of the forest that had a rainforest walk, where we then had lunch of salad and meat wraps on the picnic benches. It was then Matthew’s turn to drive us back out the forest and across the beach to the SS Maheno shipwreck; an ocean liner that operated in the Tasman Sea crossing between New Zealand and Australia (and was used as a ship by the NZ Naval Forces during World War 1) before being washed ashore on Fraser Island by a cyclone in 1935. It was then Rasmus’ turn to drive the 4×4 back to camp and we almost had a moment where we crashed into the side of the pathway leading up to the campsite – negotiating sandy slopes isn’t the easiest feat!

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We then headed off as a group to walk across the vast, smooth sand dunes for sunset, which ended up being a long and tiring walk in the heat but it was completely worth it. We then headed back to camp for a BBQ dinner – which we pitched in to help with – followed by drinking games. 

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We were up early at 7am for breakfast followed by aboriginal dances by a local aboriginal family – it was interesting (and pretty cute from the little ones!) to see aboriginal arts. It was then Tiia’s turn to drive the 4×4 and she took us across the beach to Champagne Pools – which sparkled like glitter in the early morning sun – where we got to sunbathe on the sand and swim/splash around in the jacuzzi-like waters. It was also from here that we spotted dolphins out at sea.

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One of the other females with us – Emily – then drove us from Champagne Pools Up to the base of Indian Head, where we then had to climb up and across rocks to be gifted with panoramic views across the ocean. Here we managed to spot sea turtles, dolphins and whales, me being totally mesmerised by the deep, vast ocean below us. Umbi then drove us across the beach to Eli Creek where we did tubing down the river – the water was supposed to be 28 degrees celcius, meaning it should feel pretty warm, but it certainly didn’t seem that way to me, and with the water pretty shallow it wasn’t the best tubing experience I have had in my life (Vang Vieng in Laos was far better!) We then had lunch (salad and meat wraps again) before Rasmus then drove us on to Tea Water Lake – a lake that looks tea-coloured but is actually completely clear when you try to scoop it up.

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Unfortunately it started drizzling at this point and didn’t look as impressive as it could but there were beautiful surroundings of lush green trees, and because the temperature dropped due to the rain it was actually colder standing outside the water then being inside. Afterwards, Umbi drove us back to our campsite where we had warm showers followed by a spag bowl dinner and more drinking games. On my walk to the toilets later that evening I passed by a group of 11 year old boys asking if we were having a party and if they could join – “we’re ready to get wasted!!” Sorry guys, wait a few years and you will be inappropriately drinking in abundance on the streets!

We were up at 7am again the following day to have breakfast and pack up our tents and bags. Toby then got to be one of the last ones to drive the 4×4 (following some game he introduced that I am certain he knew the inside secrets to!) along the beach to the base of a forest walk that ended at a huge lake at the bottom of another sand dune. We all chilled out by the lake, taking a swim out to the bushes and back again, before walking all the way back to the 4x4s and having our final lunch of wraps (there is a theme emerging here), for Rasmus to drive us back to the ferry across to Rainbow Beach.

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Once back at Pippies we all had a shower and re-packed our belongings before driving to a free campsite an hour away from Noosa. For me, Fraser Island was peaceful and spectacular, with being able to drive a 4×4 across the sand with the ocean beside you a completely unique experience, and I loved how far away the rest of the world felt. If I had to pick – HAD to – I would probably say I preferred the Whitsundays over Fraser Island, but it was such a fun experience and  beautiful place that I would totally recommend that you go.

LS. 

Australia 6: Agnes Water/Seventeen Seventy

Tiia and I were blessed with Italian music on the drive from Eungella to Seventeen Seventy, Umberto and Matthieu completely in their comfort zone. On this journey I noticed how the landscape in Australia is lower and wider than in the UK; in some ways the cultures are so similar, with attitudes and behaviour not being worlds apart, but the scenery is so vastly different and captivating. 

We arrived into Agnes Water at 1pm but continued on to 1770 (which is, more often than not, spelt numerically rather than alphabetically) where there isn’t actually much going on in the way of surfing and hostels as it is a national heritage site. We therefore drove 10 minutes back in the opposite direction to Agnes Water, where we then drove around for approximately an hour to various accommodation options and deliberating (with difficulty, being 6 of us involved) as to where to stay. We eventually settled on Cool Bananas – a hostel that cost us $12.50 each (£7.60) per night, just for Tiia and I to sleep in a tent and the guys in their respective vehicles, but one which felt worth it with the hostel facilities of wifi, a huge kitchen equipped for self-catering, decent toilets and showers, a lounge area plus free tea and coffee. Besides the only other decent/reasonably priced option was a campsite at $6 each away from the centre, and it tends to feel more like a rip-off paying for something you can get for free and do every night anyway rather than paying double for extra facilities and a hostel/social environment. Plus I really needed some downtime and to be able to easily walk around and explore freely – something I hadn’t been able to do since Cairns as we have been staying in the outskirts for free camping.

ANYWAY, I spent the afternoon with Tiia – while the boys went off to eat and – walking around the quaint town and little beachside shops, treating myself to a chai frappe (which I should have known wouldn’t be great considering it wasn’t a listed option and instead made spontaneously at my request; really nice of them but utterly tasteless and at $6.50 AUD it really wasn’t worth it). We then wandered over to The Tavern for Pig Racing, where you can bet 30/40 dollars on a specific pig or buy raffle tickets for the potential of having your ticket drawn for one of the leftover pigs. We arrived just as they were doing the draw and then witnessed my very first pig race – incredibly bizarre but also rather entertaining. Only in Straya.

Tiia and I then walked to a sunset lookout point a short walk from the hostel; off a dirt track and through the forest up to some rocks above the sea. It said it was a 4km walk but it wasn’t even close to that; honestly, firstly Asia with their sense of time where everything is “just 10 minutes” and then takes an hour, now Oz with their exaggerated sense of distance. But at least we were pleasantly surprised, right? The view from the rocks was really beautiful and with water crashing against the rocks below it felt very romantic – so naturally we spoke about being in our late twenties and a therefore a disappointment to our parents for not having settled down 🙂

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That evening, a few guys staying at the hostel who fish as a sport and caught two massive tunas (I honestly had no idea they were so big!) and kindly barbecued them for everyone staying at the hostel to have, so my dinner was freshly-caught tuna steaks with a delicious pasta salad they had also made; it was without a doubt the best tuna I have ever had, so so tasty and fresh and meaty. I then decided to Facetime my mum and step dad (which, as it turns out, was the first time in over two months) and burst into tears as soon as I saw their faces, with me and my mum continuing to cry randomly throughout the entire conversation. Ugly tears aside, it was so nice to be able to slow down for a bit and be “normal” with them.

The following morning we had signed up for a Gnarly Tours surf lesson at 20 dollars each for a 3-4 hour group session (we left around 10:40am and got back around 3pm). All bundled int a car, Lorenzo (the guy who runs the tours) drove us and our equipment to the top of the beach where we then put on our rash vests, painted our faces, threw a towel over our shoulder to rest the surfboard bag on and walked down to the beach; it was actually a lot further down than it looked and the surfboard was ridiculously heavy to carry, as well as difficult to negotiate with the front swinging out in front of you or the whole thing banging against the side of your leg. Honestly I felt tired before we even started.

We then had a lesson on how to surf while on the sand, being instructed on what to do, how to balance and how to fall – slight information overload, which hurt my brain. We then tried out standing up on the board from laying on the sand, which I mastered pretty quickly despite having ridiculously bad balance simply with walking; I wasn’t convinced it would be much better on the open water. We then carried our boards down to the waters edge, the wind pushing against the surfboard and away from me; it was absurdly hard to carry and not smack someone in the face.

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We then took it in group turns to wade out to sea, jump on the surfboard and paddle towards the waves, before then turning around and continuing towards Lorenzo and his assistant Quinto, who would then hold onto your board and prepare you for the wave. I didn’t manage to stand the first few times I attempted it (the waves were not that strong and, as mentioned, my balance and upper body strength are pretty poor) but fortunately the time I had a GoPro on my board I successfully managed to stand up for all of, ooooooo, 3 seconds maybe, not quite nailing the pose but at least getting myself up!

 

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I really wasn’t a natural and it was actually pretty exhausting – pushing through the wind whilst carrying your board; wading through the waves; paddling against the water with huge waves crashing into your face and water pouring into your mouth and up your nose; keeping yourself afloat as you wait for a wave to carry you forwards and then trying (and often failing!) to stand. But I kept trying, really enjoying it anyway and so desperately wanting to get better at it. Absolutely knackered, I then had to carry the board back up the hill with it smacking against my left leg and my body in tatters, but I felt proud.

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Later, a few of us spontaneously drive into 1770 for sunset, hastily purchasing 5 coronas and lime wedges from the Beach Hotel and walking to the rocks. It was so peaceful and beautiful and I am starting to find myself falling in love with harbours. I then picked up a bottle of chilled sparkling Shiraz for $10 (£6) to have with dinner, naturally drinking most of it before I ate and feeling pretty drunk as I sat down to watch Troy in the lounge. Perfect chilled evening after an active day.

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We drove back into 1770 in the morning as Matthieu and Umbi wanted to fish, dropping Tiia and I off at the beach on their way to the rocks at the end of the bay and saying they would be back to get us Midday/1ish. So Tiia and I spent the next few hours lounging on the beach and having some peace before heading to the car park to be picked up where we ran into Toby and Rasmus; they had joined Umberto and Matthieu, whom told the guys they would be another 30/45 minutes. Well an hour passed and they still hadn’t arrived, and then all of a sudden we see their campervan…drive straight past us. Awesome. Once they eventually came back to collect us, after having to be reminded, they were immediately making jokes about the situation (ah, Italians!), with us finally making it back to the hostel at 2:40pm leaving us with one hour to eat, shower and leave.

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The guy that Umberto and Matthieu were fishing with had caught a tuna and kindly let us take some steaks with us, so on the drive to Bundaberg I asked Matthieu for more information about the “guy who caught the tuna” and he thought I asked about a cappuccino; ah the joys of language barriers! On the way we ended up stopping suddenly at the side of the road for amazing views of the sun setting; one of the perks of travelling the east coast in your own way (along with the joy of being able to stop and pee on the side of the road, grabbing some loo roll as you dash out the vehicle and jogging a few metres away to clamber through the bush…)

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LS.

Australia 5: Cape Hillsborough/Eungella National Park

Me, Tiia, Umberto and Matthieu drove in our camper from Airlie Beach to Cape Hillsborough while Toby and Rasmus chose to stay put for another night to see friends. The couple of hours in the camper was spent laughing out of delirium at everything and anything, finally stumbling across a free campsite 5km from Cape Hillsborough beach that had no showers or toilets; this was going to be some serious hardcore camping for the night, with strategic peeing in the buses. We arrived just before sunset so we had time to set up our time before making dinner; Kangaroo steaks with rice and veg. With nothing to do at the “campsite” and darkness upon us we went to bed at 8pm, absolutely baking. Bed at 8pm, absolutely baking.

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We woke up at 5am so that we could pack up and drive to the beach in time to view the kangaroos and wallabies jumping across the beach at sunrise. While we didn’t catch sight of any kangaroos, the wallabies were absolutely fascinating; some playing together, some stood around in groups, some solo wallabies hopping along the beach in front of us. Plus the sunrise – with the clouds creating dynamism – was absolutely spectacular.

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Tiia and I then walked the jungly mountain for the various lookout points across the water, unable to circle the base as the tide had come in, before taking a freezing cold shower at the top of the beach before packing up our camper after lunch and heading towards Eungella National Park.

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On the drive the guys received yet another speeding fine, with me once again completely oblivious (this time because I was sleeping). We drove round winding, narrow roads up the mountains with vast views below and a spectacular, panoramic view from the top.

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We headed to Broken River where we could camp for 6 dollars (£3.60) each and there’s various “nature” things to do that were peaceful and enjoyable in the wonderfully warm weather; platypus viewing (and turtles), a quaint rainforest walk with a stream along the way, and eat like a local with kangaroo or crocodile burgers. Exhausted after 3 really early mornings and not staying in the same place for more than one night in over a week (which means constant packing and unpacking, tent up and tent down) we were in bed by 9pm. Considering the stifling heat of the night before we deliberately put our tent under a tree in the shade and didn’t put the cover over the top until the last minute, and of course we then had the coldest night sleep ever. Typical.

Despite the cold I had the most sleep I’ve had in ages but then felt weak the next morning. We packed up early and drove 20km to Eungella Dam – literally in the middle of nowhere, off dirt tracks and yellowy trees (with not the best signage along the way), is this beautifully blue and still dam surrounded by lush green trees. I felt at peace as soon as we arrived. There were families and campervans dotting the waters edge and, as we set up and began relaxing on the grass, an Australian woman and her husband whom were next to us began asking about our travels, with the woman telling me about her children going off to travel and live in other countries. It made me really homesick and miss my mum, craving to see her and have a cuddle; I’m a tactile, affectionate person, feeling love and warmth through physical interaction, something that I was really missing along with the deep love and support of my parents and close friends.

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During these low moments it’s hard to comprehend still being away for 7 more months; it feels overwhelming and almost impossible, leaving me questioning whether I am cut out for it. Can I do this?? It made me think about when my travels are over and how I will find the balance between the part of me that craves “home” and the love, comfort and familiarity that comes with it and the part of me that has a strong desire to explore and be culturally challenged and be free. I’m still figuring that one out.

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On our drive towards Seventeen Seventy later in the afternoon I spent most of the time staring out the window and absorbing the characteristics of Australia; we passed through Mackay and streets lined with typical Australian bungalows that fondly reminded me of Home and Away, there were train tracks running alongside the road but for transporting coal rather than people, and huge mountains and open fields to our right in stark contrast to the tracks on the left. Being a car passenger at night – with clear skies and bright stars as I gazed out the window – took me right back to my childhood and how small I felt in the world and how anything felt possible. You can still feel magic, even now.

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We decided to stop at Joan Tierney Park, a couple of hours from Seventeen Seventy, to sleep for the night. Everyone was tired and hungry, over a week now of 24/7 with each other, so it can get a bit snappy. I know I am starting to crave time to myself as someone whom yearns for and needs their own space away from anyone, especially after over 2 months travelling on my own. It’s interesting to see how I have changed just from travelling for 4 months and what I now recognise I need.

It was another cold night but we were better prepared this time – we woke early to the sound of birds and families packing away, so I had an early morning swing ride in the small playground with the sun in my face, at once missing the freedom and joy of being a kid. Maybe I’m having some kind of bizarre mid-life crisis in a campsite playground.

LS.

Australia 4: Whitsundays (Airlie Beach)

Upon arriving in Airlie Beach we made our way to X Base – a camping site associated with Nomads backpackers. It cost 40 AUD (£24) per car per night in powered spot, which totalled at 13 dollars each (£7.80). Airlie had more character than Townsville – cuter and more personable – but I was surprised by how abrupt staff could be and missed the customer service from the UK. Perhaps being in a Westernised country made me also expect the same westernised standards of customer service whereas here it felt like an effort to be nice. Anyway, Airlie Beach is more often than not visited as the base to do a tour of the Whitsundays, so we wouldn’t be spending too much time here.

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After speaking to a couple of tour operators we booked a 2 day/2 night Whitsunday Sailing tour with New Horizon (True Blue Sailing company) at 310 AUD each (£186). As there were 6 of us we managed to get a discount, plus they were the last spots so I think we got a pretty good deal. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking round the Marina and the Lagoon before we all headed back to our cars to make dinner; egg fried sticky rice. We then spent the remainder of the evening having drinks at The Shed and playing giant beer pong.

The next morning we went to puck up alcohol for the Whitsundays before making a slap-dash sandwich lunch by the side of the road after checking out of X Base and finding a parking spot for the next few days. We then headed to the harbour where we clambered aboard our sailing boat – with alcohol in tow – and sailed out to Hook Bay. We spent a couple of hours sitting on board the boat, sipping (or glugging) ciders in the sun, the beautiful still waters surrounding us. Once we arrived at Hook Bay we put our Stinger suits on and dove in for a swim – it was so refreshing and so peaceful as the sun slowly began to go down.

Dinner was hake with mash and home made slaw, after which all 20 of us sat on the deck playing drinking games and chatting until the early hours with the sun setting and moon rising behind the mountainous island. I think I went to bed around 1/2am; our cabin (the boat was made up of a deck, saloon and kitchen, with the cabins underneath) was below deck and I shared a double bed with Tiia, getting a pretty good nights sleep despite the heat and gentle rocking of the boat.

We were up at 6:30am for breakfast, singing and guitar playing for Tiia’s birthday, then we set sail to the Whitsundays, out to whitehaven beach. Once we were nearby we had to take a speedboat to the island, where we then walked to Hill Inlet lookout; without a doubt one of the best views I have seen on my travels so far.

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We then walked to Whitehaven beach where the sand consists of 98% pure silica, which gives it a bright white colour. I think it might even be the purest in the world and it can ruin your phone if you drop it in the sand. It was so flat, white and soft (and vast!) Closed off from everything else, it literally felt like this other world, some baron land almost. Again we were required to wear stinger suits for the water due to the time of year, although all the stingrays I saw mainly swam together and would inherently swim away from you if you even came near them. Still, considering the trip would have to end if someone was stung as they would have to go straight to hospital, it didn’t seem worth chancing it.

 

The morning was spent swimming in the clear turquoise water, skipping along the sand, creating pyramids on the sand, and taking in the purity.

Back on the speedboat around midday, we were back on our sailing boat to have a lunch of pasta and salad. to sailing boat. We sailed for an hour to another spot, Caves Cove, where we spent the afternoon diving, snorkelling, paddle boarding and throwing ourselves off the giant inflatable slide. Having already done scuba diving twice on my travels – and once already in Australia – I decided to give diving a miss and instead went snorkelling. This was the snorkelling trip where I saw the biggest fish I have ever seen. I spent most of the time swirling around and exploring, at times floating peacefully still on the surface of the water while I took it all in that I probably looked dead. At one point during my reverie, my hair swooshed past me and scared the life out of me and making me laugh at my own stupidity.

Back on the sailing boat I then took the inflatable slide into water for paddle boarding – something I have never tried before and struggled with the balance (something I find difficult with the simplest thing of walking), falling off into the water a total of 3 times (once twice in a row) but eventually managed to get my balance enough to paddle standing, knees bent slightly for stability. At one point me, Tiia and Jeske all stood perfectly still on our paddle boards, gazing at the most spectacular white sun peeping behind the island, sending a ray of white light across the water and casting us into complete silhouettes. Still water, still people, still minds. It completely took my breath away.

Back on the boat we had dinner of spag bowl followed by drinking games, with the most common phrase of the night being to wave and smile while saying “vaffanculo”, which is Italian for F*** Off. Pleasant evening, as I’m sure you can imagine. I sloped off at one point and joined the crew round the back of the deck where one of the other passengers was playing her guitar, slipping me into a perfectly peaceful reverie before heading to bed for the night.

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We were again up at 6:30am for breakfast and an early morning snorkel to wake me up, where I finally got to find nemo. It was super colf but refreshing. We then headed back on board for some relaxing in the sun before setting back towards the mainland with a hot dog for lunch. We were dropped off at different pier, where we had to get a shuttle bus back to centre of Airlie.

 

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Here we spent some time talking to different tour operators before booking our Fraser Island trip with Pippies at 330 AUD each (£200) for a week later; we didn’t have many options left at this point as we were reaching their summer peak period. Matthieu, Umberto, Tiia and I then decided to head off in our Campervan that afternoon to spend the night somewhere different while Toby and Rasmus chose to stay in Airlie one more night. I spent the journey still on a high from the really good crew (with the best diving briefing I have ever witnessed – may only be 3 in total, but still!), amazing weather, and most peaceful, beautiful setting.

 

LS.

 

Australia 3: Misson Beach/Townsville

I’ve slept outside by a campfire and I’ve camped in tents before but in pretty heavy duty tents made for 10 people, yet it felt like a bit of an adventure to set up a tent in a free campsite and certainly something I was new to in terms of a regular way of sleeping whilst on the move. You can feel a bit inept and uncertain about what to do but like you are learning something and going back to basics. In no time at all our tent was up, blow-up beds inflated (*cough* with an electric pump…) and essentials inside (with our main bags left in the van). It was certainly cosy, but pretty soon I was fast asleep. That is until it started raining in the night and our botch job of putting the cover over the tent meant the water started dripping through the mesh “window”, soaking my sleeping bag, mattress and pillow. The rain was too heavy for me to go out and run the cover, so I just sucked it up and accepted being wet; we would learn the best way to do things as we went and it’s all part of the experience (what you always say when things don’t go to plan or fall apart). The rain continued into the morning, with 6 of us huddling under the raised door of the boot whilst having our cups of coffee after an early morning wake-up.

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We eventually left Rotary Park campsite around 8:45, despite planning to leave at 8, in the direction of Mission Beach, but on the way Toby spotted a sign for the Josephine Falls (part of the Waterfall circuit not far from Cairns, for which you can pay $120 for a day tour, or £72) so we veered off for a spontaneous waterfall trip. After parking up it is a 5-10 minute walk through the forest until you reach the base of the waterfall, which is the part you can swim in (refreshingly cold and deep enough to swim) and also has a “rock slide” where you clamber up a huge rock part way down the falls to then slide into the water below; incredibly slippy to the point you have to slide along your bum at parts to reach it, but fun (especially when 4 of you go down at the same time holding hands…)

Back on the road for Mission Beach, we arrived at Shrub bar at 11:30am and stopped for a cider (it’s acceptable to justify morning drinking with “I’m on vacation” for an entire year, right??) and a game of Darts (which I naturally lost, and I’m not at all competitive when it’s something I KNOW I am terrible at and have no chance of winning). We then found a spot alongside the beach to park up and cook lunch – a meal of noodles, fried veg and balony (what else?!) It’s hard when you are in a new group and don’t want to step in any toes or cause offence by offering to do something or making suggestions whilst wanting to contribute and not appear lazy. It can take a while to get used to each other, adjust to the dynamic and establish roles. At the same time I’m not shy about putting forward a different way of doing something if I think it might be better or of being honest if there is something I feel strongly about. I’m also happy to sit back and let others take the lad so I don’t have to make a decision.

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After lunch we washed, cleaned and packed away before spending a couple of hours on the beach. Due to the things in the sea that can kill you it wasn’t at all packed and most of the action is above you as skydivers descend onto the sand in their parachutes – I don’t think I have ever been on such a big beach with so few other people on it. But it was nice to just sit and soak up the sun and play football as a group on the fairly hard sand. After the pouring rain in the morning it was lovely to be under a blue sky and bright sun.

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Around 4pm we set off towards Townsville, stopping at a Woolworths (devastated to discover this was not the same as the now-deceased chain from the UK, but delighted to be inside a supermarket wandering down food aisles once again; such a whirlwind of emotions for a Friday afternoon) to pick up food for dinner. Six people sharing a meal, with one of us a vegetarian (not me, in case you were alarmed), can make this a tricky process but we got there in the end, deciding it might be better for a different person each night to dictate what we eat and lead the process.

Then we were back on the road, driving down national speed limit roads lined with trees and surrounded by mountains. I don’t know why but I hadn’t expected so much of a rural, mountainous location along the coast and it is all so beautiful. We made another spontaneous stop (the freedom and discovery with driving yourself compared to taking a bus is such a wonderful experience), this time at a lookout with misty views of the mountains and creeks below – it felt eerie and mysterious. Finally we made it to Townsville and parked along The Strand to have views of the sea as we prepared and devoured dinner of pre-cooked roast chickens, salad and rice; removing meat from the carcass is one if my favourite things to do and fortunately the others gladly passed this greasy task onto me.

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After eating we found a nearby bar to enjoy a beer or two before driving to a campsite for the night – the first two we found didn’t allow tents so we didn’t reach our home for the night until gone 1am and by the time Tiia and I had set up our tent and pumped up our air beds it was 2am by the time we got to sleep. A much drier night than the previous, we woke around 9am to a sunny day and extremely stuffy tent – two very opposing nights in the tent so far!

After a breakfast of porridge oats with cinnamon and cooked apple, and following a much-needed shower, we packed up and drive back to The Strand to spend a couple of hours by the Rock Pool; a public man-made pool with salt water from the ocean. A relaxed, lazy afternoon in a town that, for me, didn’t have much character and felt a bit lost – one of my highlights would even be grabbing a coffee from a Kiosk, delighting the child in me whose ideas of Australia come from Home & Away and Neighbours. I should say now that the coffee I have had in Oz has been really good so far, from the creamy Chai Latte I had at Sydney airport when I first arrived to the deliciously foamy and seriously strong latte at this Townsville kiosk. It makes a welcome change to the shitty instant stuff I’ve been having in hostels and the camper!

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Mid-afternoon we started our journey down south towards Airlie beach, stopping at Coles to pick up food and drink for our evening at a campsite just one hour from Airlie. A more eventful journey than expected, I was tapping away on my iPad in my own little world when all of a sudden we were pulling over on the side of the road as apparently we were speeding and were being stopped by the police. Tiia and I sat quietly in the back – with my humble smile to the police officer not being gratefully received – while Matthieu was being questioned on where we had come from and where we were going. Well, I suppose it’s another thing to add to our road trip experience (and we’ve been gently mocking Matthieu since, of course – I’m convinced he was trying to make a point to Toby, whom had just told him he drives too slow…)

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Once at the campsite Tiia and I set up our tent whilst the guys prepared dinner, Rasmus taking charge of cooking our barbie. After eating it was time for drinking games, starting with beer bowling on camp chairs and then advancing to classic card games that quickly escalated to include punishments such as climbing over the campervan and looping the campsite. Catchphrases from the evening are “its not a beer!” and “just like anal”, so you can see it was a really mature event.

We eventually went to bed at 1am after singing in Rasmus’ birthday, were woken up by the morning heat at 8am, and then it took 3 of us (myself, Tiia and Matthieu) to discreetly prepare Rasmus’ birthday pancake while he was being strategically distracted by Toby. It was a bit of a slap-dash attempt at a banana and Nutella pancake stack, but I’m convinced it was his best birthday cake to date. A slightly gluttonous start to the day before we packed up and started our drive to Airlie Beach…

LS

Australia 2: Cairns

I arrived in Cairns at 8:15pm and, after collecting my bags, made my way to outside the airport to be picked up by my airport shuttle bus as arranged through my hostel. I felt pretty emotional and didn’t really know why – perhaps having felt really at pace in the Outback and being sad to leave, not really knowing what my plan was when I got to Cairns, and being in a completely new continent after becoming settled backpacking in another. Asia had become really familiar and comfortable, with the locals so warm and welcoming, feeling in time with the pace and in the flow of travelling. Then I arrived in Cairns with no clue if where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do and being overwhelmed by all the options and how far apart (and expensive!) everything was. Plus I then arrived at Waterfront Backpackers, which was run by Australians and working-abroad Brits in their early 20s with my dorm room many filled with these Brits in their 20s on a working holiday visa whom are more interested in getting drunk and having their experience than they are with doing their job and helping you out – worlds away from the attitude if most of the Asian hostels I stayed in and not ideal when you’re already feeling a bit lost. For 17 AUD each night (only if you book online otherwise it’s 21 AUD, so you’re looking at between 10 and 12 quid per night).

Whilst in the midst of my mild panic/emotional breakdown I took myself off to explore Cairns a little bit more, walking along the Esplanade that lines the coast to make it to the Botanic Gardens – about 45 minutes to get there on foot I passed joggers and dog-walkers along the peaceful esplanade, was hit by views of the mountains and met a fellow traveller in the way also searching for the gardens. The gardens have a few different sections and there are also a few “hikes” you can do through a slightly jungly area that have lookouts along the way. We decided to do the Red Walk that was supposed to take one hour but took us about 30 minutes an offered a lovely view of….the airport. Not quite satisfied we started the Blue Walk (supposedly this takes 3-4 hours to complete and I wasn’t wearing appropriate shoes) to see if the first lookout offered anything more spectacular – unfortunately it was a slightly boarder view of the airport do we headed back down and parted ways, with me wandering through the a Rainforest Boardwalk to lead me back out of the park.

Walking back along the Esplanade I was calmed by the slow pace and wandered further along to the “lagoon”; a slightly fancy term for a swimming pool that is positioned within the grass near to the coast, filled with sunbathers cooling off and kids playing. It would be a nice way to laze away an afternoon if you have time in Cairns and, with groups of rope doing yoga on the grass and people sat on the ledge overlooking the bay, it’s quite a chilled-out and easy place to be.

Sat on the ledge myself, watching the sun break through the clouds before it set, I was approached by a 24 year old Korean who apologised for taking my photo without my permission and asked if I wanted him to send it to me. We then spent the next hour chatting and taking in the fires, before I walked along the Marina to Salt House for a glass of wonderfully refreshing rose moscato to watch the harbour with.

Around 8pm I then went to meet a group of people I had got in touch with via a Cairns Backpacker group on Facebook. Following my meltdown, subsequent conversation with one of my best mates currently living in Sydney (cheers for the pep talk, Nat) and reminding myself of my travelling mantra (or mantras – Say Yes, and Jump Right In) I decided to try to find people to travel the east coast with in a car or camper. I joined them at one of the many self BBQs lining the esplanade (and found in many places in Australia) to cook a meal together and to get to know each other before leaving Cairns the following evening for the start of our road trip (although they had already done Cape Tribulation together, which I had planned on doing but decided to sacrifice for the sake of joining a group I really liked who were doing the route I was planning on in the timeframe I wanted – sometimes you just have to go with what feels right).

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The following morning I woke up around 6am to check out of my hostel before heading to E Finger at the Marina for a 7:30am start to my Sunkist day trip with Cairns Dive Centre out to the Great Barrier Reef. As I have already done diving on my travels, plus two lots of snorkelling, I had been unsure as to whether to pay to do it again, especially when it was much more expensive than Thailand, but everyone kept saying “yes, but, it’s the Great Barrier Reef!” and, reminding myself of my mantra and not to let money stop me experiencing things, I decided to just go for it. It took about 2 hours to get to the diving spot at Thetford Reefs, stopping at Fitzroy Island in the way for a drop-off/pick-up, on a boat with a small upper deck to take in the views.

Once at the spot we were split up based on whether we were diving or only snorkelling (and if we were certified divers) and giving our dive briefing by our instructor – it was pretty shambolic and if I hadn’t done it before I would have been utterly confused and anxious about getting in the water. Once in, however, he was much more attentive and reassuring, and the water was so SO blue and clear that it was easy to get lost in the experience. Annoyingly my right ear kept playing up so I was forever ascending in order to equalise my ears and stop the pain, plus we were only out for 20 minutes (compared to my 40 minute intro dive in Koh Tao, Thailand) so it was over pretty quickly for me. At $150 (£90) it was at the cheaper end of the many tours on offer but it was still a bit disappointing.

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After a lunch of pasta and salad I ventured out for some snorkelling, taking off my wet suit and feeling more free to explore on my own. The best of the reef is actually quite close to the surface so I much preferred what I witnessed while snorkelling compared to diving (plus I was out for an hour and was able to take my time); it’s hard to describe the incredible colours of the reef and how beautiful it looks with the sun piercing through the blue water, but you can definitely tell why it was given its name. Plus, much to my delight, I managed to spit a sea turtle just hanging out at the bottom of the ocean; I was able to watch him for 5 minutes and even attempt to swim down to him, but he soon paddled off. As I was slowly heading back towards the boat, enjoying my last few minutes snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, a few people snorkelled past me and I caught two of them reach out, mid-swim, to hold hands as they took in the sea world below. It pulled at my heart and took my breath away – a simple, tender act of two people sharing something special together. I sometimes forget how love and relationships – in all its various forms – is the ultimate for me and I felt touched witnessing this moment.

Back on the boat I sat back on the top deck to enjoy the views of the oceans and surrounding islands as we headed back to the mainland. Once back on shore, and after collecting my bags from my hostel plus making a flash-dash trip to K Mart to pick up a $10 (£6) inflatable mattress, I met up with my travelling crew – Tiia (Finland), Matthieu and Umbi (Italy), Rasmus and Toby (Denmark). Toby and Rasmus would travel in the car, which they convert into a bed at night, whilst Matthieu, Umbi, Tiia and I would travel in the camper (with all the amenities including a “kitchen” in the boot), where Matthieu and Umbi would convert into a bed for sleeping at night whilst Tiia and I would sleep in a tent. After hostel-hopping and constantly meeting new people for so long but ultimately moving on my own, I was actually really excited to be travelling the east coast in such a different way with the same group of people and bring able to really rough it and let go of any remaining vanity about the way I look or smell!

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People don’t tend to rave about Cairns, most preferring Port Douglas as a place to stay whilst you explore the surrounding areas, and there isn’t heaps to actually DO there (but there is the party lifestyle if that’s what you’re after), but it’s got a slow pace and a relaxed vibe that I quite enjoyed. However I didn’t have any issues with leaving, setting off in our vehicles at 6:30pm to head to Rotary Park in Babinda to set up camp for the night.

LS.

Australia 1: “The Outback”

As soon as the plane started its descent into Ayers Rock airport, I fell in love. Surrounded by red land, green shrubs and chalky mountains, I could tell this place would be good for my soul. The airport was like a shack and I hopped straight off the plane directly into the baggage belt, picked up my bag and walked out the door 5 metres away to jump on an AAT Kings free bus shuttle to the Ayers Rock resort in Yulara. Located about a 10 minute drive from the airport, this resort has all of the accommodation options for staying in Ayers Rock, a post office, a supermarket, a group shop and a few restaurants. Locals dressed in khaki clothes, walking boots and HATS, gloriously welcoming me with “G’day”, I definitely felt as though I was in Australia as I have always imagined it.

My lodgings – Outback Pioneer Lodge – was the cheapest around but still pricey in backpacker terms at $38 (AUD, obvs, which is about £25 with $1 being around 60p) for a bed in a 20 bed female dorm; not as hideous as it sounds as the beds are in one long row with every 4 being separated by a wall. Anyway, with a camel statue out the front, a pool round the back and a shack bar in the middle it was perfect. After checking in I went out for a walk to explore the resort and head to some of the nearby Uluru lookout points. The resort is in a sort of circular shape surrounded by a main road, but you can cut across the “lawn” in the centre using various paths that weave through the sand. It’s just so unreal and absurd and wonderful.

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After stopping at the supermarket at the Town Square (where I was hit by Australian prices – $4, or £2.40, for a small bottle of water) I started to walk back across the lawn towards the Imalung Lookout point when I met Erin; an American searching for the same lookout point and also happened to be staying at Outback Pioneer. We joined forces for the evening, easily slipped into conversation and quickly fell into a natural rhythm with one another. I will say now that Erin – my “spiritual sister” (yes, it’s daggy, we know, that’s the point) – was one of those people you meet while travelling that you immediately click with, and we happily flowed from sharing our demons with one another to making each other roar with laughter at the most ridiculous things. It is rare that you find you can be completely “you” with someone so quickly and feel totally at ease with them that you trust them with your darkest and most silly selves.

It was a short walk up a slight hill to the Imalung Lookout point, where the skies were completely blue and therefore showcasing the reddy brown colour of Uluru rock in contrast with the green and purple shrubbery nearby. It was crazy how small it looked and how vast the land around us was – it was beautiful. Embracing being annoying tourists and perhaps denting the serenity of the spot, we did that douchey pose where we pretend to be holding up the Rock with our hands. Sorry, everyone. I had been told that the Naninga Lookout was the best spot for sunset so we walked there next (through the Ayers Rock campground) to watch the colours in the sky surrounding Uluru change in front of us as the sun slowly set behind us.

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We then walked back on ourselves to the Town Square to pick up takeaway noodles from Ayers Wok (yup, actual name!), where you pick your sauce, noodles and filling for $16 (£9.60), and took it back to our lodge so we could shovel it down in time to be picked up by our bus at 8pm for our trip to the Field of Lights. An exhibit created by Brit Bruce Munro and open for only a year, you are driven towards Uluru where there are millions if coloured solar panels that light up at night; it was pretty magical and even more beautiful when you could walk to the top of a sand mountain to a lookout offering Panoramic views of he lights that cast a silhouette of Uluru in the background. At that moment, sat in silence with Erin at the top, I felt the outback was just where I needed to be. It’s somewhere you can be vulnerable without being exposed. A place to get over someone or let go of something; somewhere to mend a broken heart.

I was picked up at midday the following day for the start of my 3 day/2 night Ayers Rock experience with The Rock Tour – a cheaper and “rougher”, more authentic outback tour at $375 (plus $15 sleeping bag hire, totalling at $390 AUD, or £234) I was collected in a minivan by Tour Guide Ange and the 10 or so others whom had come from Alice Springs. You could start the tour from Alice Springs at 5:30am or Ayers Rock at midday, the only difference being the journey to AR as the cost us the same; I would recommend starting in AR and spending the night there beforehand as I preferred it as a place to AS.

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We first drove to our campsite for that night to drop off the fire wood they had picked up on the way and to eat lunch (a cheese and salami sandwich) before driving to the base of Uluru to spend a couple of hours at the Cultural Centre. You learn about the stories the Aboriginals have told us about Uluru (the original, Aboriginal name before Westerners discovered it and name it Ayers Rock), how the Aboriginals managed to claim back their land and agreed for it to be a National Park so we could visit it and watched videos to understand the importance of Tjukurpa, which is basically a law they live by with regards to relationships, religion, politics, being – something that underpins everything to them and is their way of life.

Around 3pm we started a 2 hour walk around the base of Uluru, walking along a tree-lined path with the grand Uluru rock to your right, seeing the gorgeous red clay up close with the burning sun shining down from behind the various peaks of the rock. There’s something quite magnificent and humbling about it, whilst at the same time feeling peaceful – especially when you veer in towards the rock to reach the Mutitjulu Watering hole with the sound of the natural water trickling down. There is also a cave you pass where there are aboriginal paintings on the rock surface – there is definitely a sense of “other” about this place, where you want to know more but also enjoy the mystery it offers.

The end of our walk was at the point where people were climbing Uluru; a controversial and contentious issue amongst aboriginal and local people. Whilst it isn’t illegal to climb Uluru, there is a public request from the aboriginals that we do not climb Uluru (which they themselves have not done). The first reason is safety – there is an extremely low “fence” that reaches the middle of your calf and leads the way but nothing else to hold on to on this slippery slope to get up and back down again, the danger emphasised by the number of deaths (at least 36) that are a consequence of attempting to climb Uluru. The second reason is environmental – there is a visible white line cutting through the red clay from where walkers have “scarred” the rock surface. The third reason us respect – aboriginals have not climbed it, seeing it is sacred, and they ask us not to out of respect. Unfortunately the government believe the opportunity to climb it draws a lot of tourism and therefore still allow it to happen, despite the above. It’s a shame that people’s sense if pride and glory means that they still climb Uluru even though they are aware of the background, thus perpetuating the tourist aspect.

Late afternoon we drove to a spot about half an hour from Uluru to watch it’s changing colours as the sunset behind us – it was crazy how it moved from being orange to red to brown in a matter of minutes. It was, of course, a very popular spot swarmed with tourists, but that actually created a buzz and a thick air of appreciation as groups of people sipped champagne and cooked barbecues as they gazed in awe at Uluru under a sunset; we sat on the side of the road and tucked into our chicken stir fry once the sun had gone down.

We then drove back to our campsite, started the fire and lined up our swags around it, drank ciders and ate toasted marshmallows, walked out to a lookout spot for views of Uluru and the millions of stars, and then got into our sleeping bags and swags for a night of sleeping outside under the stars with the nearby fire keeping us warm. I woke up often, finding it difficult to get comfortable but struck by the bright stars staring back at me – it was pretty surreal.

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We were woken at 5am to the sound of “Sun Walking” by Crussen (which is now my song for the Outback) being gently played from a speaker, had breakfast and got dressed before driving to a popular lookout point of the sun rising behind Uluru and illuminating Kata Tjuta. Sadly a lot of other people pick this very spot so it was hard to get an unobstructed view, plus it was still rather chilly albeit bright at this time of the morning so I had to hop on the spot to keep warm, but having the sun slowly rise across this quiet, open space if raw, pure land was really magical. Similar to how I felt in Iceland, there is nothing manmade or artificial about this part of the outback and it’s as though your soul is touching nature.

We then drove to the base of Kata Tjuta – which is a series of mountains – and hiked up the side of the mountains, with the hot sun starting to take a more central position above us, to a viewing spot of the valley below and mountains in the distance. I literally can’t get enough of how vast and pure this place is – I felt as though I could just sit there, gazing, for days on end. I walked ahead on our hike back down, enjoying the solitude and opportunity for personal reflection and space. As we drove away, passing the base of Kata Tjuta, Sweet Disposition came on the playlist – a personal favourite with a lot of memories attached, it was ridiculously fitting.

We drove to Kings Creek but made a pit stop for lunch at a ranch nearby, on the way there stopping to pick up fire wood from the side if the road (a much harder feat than you might imagine) and another to get a close look at a Thorny Devil that Tour Guide Ange spotted on our drive. Once at the Kings Creek campsite we showered (not together, unfortunately) and had dinner before spending another night under the stars. Although this time it started to rain pretty hard after about an hour, so a few of us went under shelter to then find we had even more mosquito bites the next morning. Well, at least we didn’t get wet.

I should mention that we were up even earlier on our last morning, being woken at 4am so we could drive to Kings Canyon and start the canyon walk before the sun rose, as it gets really busy after that point. Kings Canyon is different to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta and spectacular in its own right, yet there is a thread of beauty and grandeur, the kind that takes your breath away, in all of them. The walk took around 2-3 hours, clambering up rock, crossing streams, sitting by waterfalls and gawping over the edge of the canyon into the trees and Valley below. I am running out of words to describe the beauty and experience of the outback, so I guess I will just have to let pictures do some talking.

Once back at the base of Kings Canyon we drove to another ranch to have Lunch before driving on to a camel farm. I feel as though I didn’t spend much – maybe $7 dollars for a 5 minute ride – but it was so much fun. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and had been dared to do it without laughing, which I had thought would be easy but once I was seated up on Mirindy and she started trotting, I began inadvertently bouncing up and down in time with her feet, my bum literally shooting off her back and all the way up into the air and back down again, that I literally couldn’t help it but to shriek and laugh with delight. I’m not sure I have ever grinned so hard.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon driving into Alice Springs where our tour would finish. We were all dropped off at our accommodation – mine being Alice Lodge Backpackers – and then we all made our way to the Rock Bar (did someone say Rock Bar??) for food and a celebratory drink. Alice Springs is a cute little town but nothing compared with Ayers Rock, but as a plus my hostel was near a side Road called Lindsay Avenue – one of many recognitions and appreciations of both my first and surname in Australia. Makes a nice change to the nickname of “Brexit” from one of the other Rock Tour guides – will I ever escape the Brexit chat from foreigners??

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After one night in Alice Springs I had a flight the next morning to Cairns to begin travelling the East Coast, but nothing would compare to my experience in the outback and, as I finish writing this post months afterwards I can say that I felt a peace and connection here I didn’t quite regain in the rest of Australasia, realising that one of my favourite things about travelling is experiencing vastly different cultures to my own. I will even admit the despair I felt at moving away from this – physically and emotionally – had me sobbing in my dorm bed on my first night in Cairns. This leads me to finish with a quote from a fellow outback explorer – one that resonated with me – on the reason their dad gave for handing over a chunk of his savings to fund them getting the help they needed during a time of trouble; “Well it was saved for a rainy day, and it sounds like it is pouring inside.”

LS.

Singapore

My last destination in South East Asia ended up being so different from every other country for many reasons. I mean, there were the classic SEA moments – the bus stopping at the Malaysian border and us not being told anything, just guessing we had to get off and get our passports stamped and get back on the other side, and the same happening at the Singapore border and this time me being chased by the bus driver into border security as apparently I needed to take all baggage with me to be scanned. However I had been warned to expect the whole thing to take 5 hours, yet I was dropped off at some random bus stop in Singapore before 2pm.

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Anyway, everything after this was pretty easy and worlds away from the rest of my experiences in Asia. I asked a local how to get to my address and they pointed me in the direction of the MRT station (the Singapore underground system), which I found easily and quickly. Inside Nicoll Highway the attendant was really helpful in advising of the different ticket options (I paid $12 for a top-up card where you lose a fiver but get to keep the card). The MRT was modern, efficient and air-conned (I don’t think I’ve been on an underground system since China, though, have only been on buses for the last 3 months, that I almost forgot how to operate in one). The roads were wide, the buildings high and the streets super clean. You could tell that English was their main language, that Singapore had only been in existence for 50 odd years and that it would be more expensive than the rest of Asia pretty quickly.

 

Also, I wasn’t really going to be living like a backpacker. Fortunate enough to be staying with friends (big shout out to Emma and Steve!) who currently live in Singapore, after being on the MRT for about 35 minutes (changing to the downtown line at Promenade and getting off at King Albert Park), I walked 10 minutes to their condo and into a double bedroom all to myself with my very own bathroom. And for FOUR days. I actually completely unpacked my backpack for the first time in 4 months and aired out the bag (no wonder nothing stays smelling clean for very long) and even put some bits away in a wardrobe. IN A WARDROBE. Absolutely wonderful to be able to settle for a few days and have a bit of luxury (although being offered the use of a hairdryer felt like one step too far) but also dangerous – I soon was swanning around like a regular tourist and felt slightly separate to those I passed with massive backpacks on the MTR (I don’t even know where the backpackers would stay) and I had to almost remind myself that I was still a traveller and not to get too comfortable with this lavish lifestyle. But for the next 4 days…

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After my excitable half hour of setting up my room, Steve and I headed out to meet Emma at Marina Bay Sands so we could eat at Din Thai Fung; a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant chain that serves a wonderful range of dumplings, noodles, rice, soup, meat and fish dishes. We ordered a few dishes to share and the dumplings (or dim sum) were amazing. We then wandered outside to the bayfront for views across the water before walking to Gardens By the Bay; a nature park with 4 different gardens, a walking bridge high up and “supertrees” which light up as part of an evening “Garden Rhapsody” in time to music.

Afterwards Emma and Steve took me to Level 33 Craft Brewery Restaurant at the Marina Bay Financial Centre. On the 33rd floor (who would have guessed) the terrace bar offers great views of Marina Bay Sands itself (which the view from Marina Bay Sands obviously wouldn’t do!) as well as the surrounding lit-up buildings dotting the skyline. It was a gorgeous view and a really chilled-out bar, although the waiter, Aldo (I always remember a name) turned his nose down at the cocktail I ordered (as its a brewery, I went for a cocktail with beer in it and it was actually really good, but set me back $30 SGD, which is about 15 quid) and didn’t seem to want to take our photo when we asked. But, hey, it all adds to the experience, right?!

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Keen to explore the city (or country – it’s one of only 3 city states) and get my bearings, I spent the following day hopping on and off the MRT to check out the different districts and the different things they had on offer. Being on the downtown line I started by getting off at the Botanic Gardens stop to wander around the gardens for an hour before the weather got too hot – you could spend some time here, especially with a group of people if you settled for a picnic – and there are various little gardens within the gardens. It was a good stroll and a nice start to my day.

14199675_10100437896681181_6209458753887804396_nI then got the MRT to Bugis (which is one of many MRT stations within a shopping mall in Singapore) to walk to Arab Street and Haji Lane, which is lined with independent boutiques and middle-eastern cafes as well as numerous buildings and walls being adorned with artwork graffiti. I really enjoyed wandering around the little lanes and stumbling across little shops and cafes with charm and character – it’s easy to see why young people spend their time here and I even went back on my second-to-last day to sit with a drink and write as I watched the many different types of people come and go.

Really hungry by this point I next made my way to Chinatown on the MRT, striding past the multitude of market stalls as you exit the MRT to reach Chinatown Food Complex (a typical Hawker centre, which is basically cheap street food stalls and where are the locals go to for their meals rather than cook themselves). Located down Smith Street, I was a lady on a mission to find Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle (I have no idea how the head chef came up with that one, it’s so abstract), which Emma suggested I go to as, in 2016, it became one of the first two street food locations (and there are over 6,000 such stalls in Singapore) in the world to be awarded a star in the Michelin guide. Their infamous dish is the Soya Sauce Chicken with Rice at $2 (you can have park instead of chicken, and noodle instead of rice – both of which increase the price by a maximum of $1. After weaving through the food stalls I located HK and joined the queue – well, what I thought was the end of the queue but was in fact a gap to let other people be able to get through the walkway, whereas the queue continued, weaving around 2 separate corners. I was surprised and had a moment of “oh no, should I bother” but I’d already seen the menu and made my choice, plus I estimated it would take no more than 40 minutes and I really wanted to try Michelin-rated food for £1 so I made a decision. Or what almost felt like a life commitment. It felt like we barely moved – with most orders being placed by individuals but clearly for groups or entire offices as it literally took forever – and, an hour and a half later, I finally had my dish in my hand. And a minute and a half later it was gone. Honestly I was so so hungry (and tired, and dishevelled, and demotivated – there were many points at which I wanted to give up and just eat elsewhere but I had come this far and, although my patience is shit I can be pretty stubborn and determined when I want) that I just had to eat. The chicken was ridiculously tender and tasty – I could definitely see why it was doing so well, and the chef was such a machine (!) – but the rice was just rice so, although the meat super tasty, it wasn’t the best meal I have had.

After a relaxed evening at the condo with Emma and Steve (where I got to make a salad; a home-made, fresh SALAD. Madness.) where I picked their brains about things to do and the best way to utilise my time, I decided that the following day I would head over to East Coast Park and hire a bicycle. I was quite leisurely in getting myself up – enjoying the space and freedom to move around the place as I pleased – that it was gone 11 by the time I left and, knowing I had to get to the East and I was currently on the West, I did something very un-backpackery (don’t question it, defo a word) and sacked off the MRT in favour of takin a taxi straight there. Hear me out; yes the MRT is super cheap (I think I spent a total of 20 dollars – including my 5 dollar fee – getting myself around over 4 days, which is basically a tenner) however I would have had to get over to the other side at the end of the green line and still then had to get a taxi to the park anyway as it isn’t serviced by the MRT or a bus (and it’s MASSIVE), taking me over an hour, so I made a decision, hailed a taxi (which I also haven’t done since China, when I was with a group of people) and paid 16 dollars to get there in about 20/30 minutes.

Dropped off about a third of the way down I went straight to the bike station and selected a “ladies bike” for $10; you can get mountain bikes for $6 but this fancy thing came with a wicker basket, plus it reminded me more of my Pendleton from home and I was feeling wistful and nostalgic (I’m trying to justify the cost, OK.) Anyway, it’s actually $10 for the first hour but as it was a weekday you get the second hour for free, and I also put down $50 deposit – they actually asked for my driving licence but I wasn’t about to give that away without protest. I then spent the next hour and a half cycling through the park along the coast in the direction of the airport with the sun on my back, pulling over for views or to watch kids playing football in the sand (only for a couple of minutes – before it starts to look creepy) and then cycling back again. It was refreshing to just be outdoors, taking my time and being active in any way other than through lugging my heavy, uncomfortable backpack through the city.

I then stopped by Old Town White Coffee (quite an average chain but that’s all you can really find in the park, and this was at least relatively cheap) to grab a bite to eat, opting for the local dish of Asam Laksa – almost a noodle soup with fish – and an iced coffee for around $10 before jumping into a taxi to Marina Bay Sands. Now this is where it gets a bit shady – the metre came to $6 but he tried to charge me $8, claiming there was some sort of $2 government tax I had to pay. Fortunately I’d taken a taxi that morning and wasn’t about to just hand over more money – as soon as I questioned it he was all “ok, ok, I pay it for you”. Sure you will, mate. ANYWAY. Just be warned.

I walked through the shopping centre and out to the front before taking myself on a walk round the bayfront, up and over the Helix bridge, along towards the Esplanade and through that shopping centre (see what I mean – shit loads of them) to the front, and then across another bridge to reach The Merlion. Now, I have been educated on what the relevance of the Merlion is, but I just find it one of the more bizarre and less appealing of statues I have seen – it somehow manages to look pointless, sexual and out of place all at once (and they even mod it from its original spot!) I don’t mean to cause offence to anyone or any culture, but I really think Singapore would still be pretty cool without it…

I then paid $25 (reeeaaaaally not living like a backpacker…) to hop on the 40 minute river boat cruise from outside the Fullerton Hotel, circling round the bay and out under the bridges towards Clarke Quay before looping back to where we started. Sat outside at the back it was lovely to just relax and take in the surroundings with the sun beating down on me, listening to the history of the landmarks around me (although I kept switching in and out, getting lost in my own thoughts and the noises around me).

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I managed to stumble across a bus stop as I was searching for a nearby MRT and, after studying the system map, successfully jumped on a bus that took me to outside Emma and Steve’s for a ridiculously cheap price (you can use your MRT card on buses, too), had a shower and changed into some not-sweaty-from-the-bike-ride clothes and headed back out on the MRT to the City Hall stop. After walking through the shopping centre (yup, another one) I arrived at the Raffles complex and took the stairs up to Long Bar; the place of the original Singapore Slings. I met Emma and Steve and, I’m pleased to say, enjoyed the best Singapore Sling I have ever had, which is handy considering it’s the original and considering it set me back $34. Thank god I like Gin. After getting an obligatory picture with the cardboard cut-out of the Sling guy out front, we jumped on the MRT to Chinatown.

Once again we had a purpose – heading straight for Smith Street (but along from the food complex) we went into Noodle Man; somewhere Emma and Steve have been before and raved about, you can watch the chef make your noodles from scratch and even have a photo with him doing it; having absolutely no sense of personal embarrassment I unashamedly stood around watching him work, waiting for the opportunity to jump in a pic with him. Oh and the food was also really good, although surprisingly the noodle dish we picked wasn’t my fave and instead I gorged on the prawn and dumpling dishes, which were so so delicious.

On my final full day in Singapore I first took the MRT to Haw Par Villa, a “theme park” containing statues and scenes from Chinese mythology. Built by the developers of Tiger Balm it was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens and was a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values – the most popular is section is the Ten Courts of Hell, which features gruesome depictions of Hell in Chinese mythology. It was interesting and slightly crazy, but not really my kind of thing. I left after about 40 minutes.

I then walked about 20 minutes to the nearest entrance into Kent Ridge Park as I planned to join/start the Southern Ridges walk, which is a trail leading through the parks leading down to Mount Faber, connected by various bridges looming over and above the wide, busy streets below. I walked through Kent Ridge Park, Hort Park, over Henderson Waves and into Faber Park, finishing my walk at Faber Peak with views of the water below and Sentosa island (plus the cable car connecting Mount Faber with Sentosa). It was quite a sweaty walk (I wonder if I can even do anything sweat-less anymore) but so peaceful and beautiful; a perfect respite from the city and a decent 1.5 hour walk (but maybe a leisurely 2 hour walk; I had a bit of a pace on me, but apparently you can’t overtake your thoughts no matter how hard you try!)

After Faber Peak I walked back down towards Harbour Point and stopped via Vivo City (ANOTHER shopping centre) for a bite to it. Toast Box is a popular chain in Singapore serving thick toast with various toppings, the most classics being Kaya – a buttery jam, almost as if combining butter and jam into one to save time. Liking to try a local favourite I opted for one slice of this with an iced Kopi C (coffee with condensed milk – a totally gluttonous lunch!) To be honest, it was just a really good slice of toast (probably would have been more satisfying at breakfast), but I enjoyed it and it wasn’t too bad for $4 in total.

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This is when I then headed back to the Bugis stop to make my second visit to Haji Lane, visiting Masjid Sultan just before it closed at 4pm and adorning a fancy robe to cover up my flesh, before stopping at a bar to sit outside with a mango shake, scribble thoughts and notes on a napkin and watch passers-by.

For my final evening in Singapore I took the MRT to Telok Ayer – a bit like their financial district, so filled with city workers heading home – to meet Steve for “date night” (Emma had pre-arranged dinner plans). We walked the short distance to Telok Ayer Hawker Market and went through to the back to Satay Street where we ordered 30 sticks of the met tender, best-seasoned meat (10 chicken, 10 mutton, 10 beef) with pots of satay sauce. I’m normally a sauce girl and ask for more pots before I have started, knowing from the outset that one won’t be sufficient, but it was so tasty and so moorish that I didn’t need much of the satay sauce, if at all at times. Steve also popped inside the Hawker Market to pick up a classic Nasi Goreng and a Fried Black Carrot Cake (a dish of rice that had been steamed and boiled in so much water that it becomes jellyfish, fried with egg – I actually quite enjoyed it) to share and a couple of Heinekens. Really pleased with our choices and the amount we ordered, we devoured our food whilst filling the other in on our different days.

We then took the MRT back to Bugis to meet up with Emma and while waiting we got into a praise-filled discussion about the MRT characters and the train harmony they promote. For giving up your seat to those more in need they have Stand Up Stacey, for letting those off the train before you board they have Give Way Glenda (one I feel quite passionate about and made a point of doing, whilst tutting, as some locals squeezed on before others had got off, but it was a point that was completely missed by them and only resulted in me missing out on a seat – sometimes I hate principles), they have Bag Down Benny and Move In Martin (reminding me of snowy commutes into London – “Can everyone move down, please?!”) and, for those blaring out their music for others to hear, Hush Hush Hannah. Much to my delight (and he bewildered amusement of everyone else on the platform) I discovered I had all the accessories required to recreate this last character – thanks, Steve, for being with me and thus allowing for photographic evidence (I’m sure you will want to thank him, too, for this beauty).

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Oh, and if I wasn’t fond of he MRT enough, at every stop the woman on the loud speaker says “Berhati-hati”, which means ‘cautious’ and is in reference to stepping off the train onto the platform but it sounds like she is saying “be-happy happy”, and happy I was!

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Before my flight to Sydney the following afternoon, I spent my morning trying to figure out what the hell I was actually going to do once I arrived, having not thought or planned that far in advance. I eventually booked a flight straight from Sydney (well, 4 hours later) to Ayers Rock for my Outback experience. Despite Singapore easing me into the physical transition from Asian to Western cultures, it still felt really weird to be leaving Asia after more than 4 months there so I was hoping this “real Australia” located in the middle of nowhere would provide the emotional transition (and healing!)

LS.