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Category Archives: Australia

Like many people, I was aware of modern day Australia’s roots as a penal colony for the British Empire. What I didn’t know was that out of the 165,000 convicts transported to The Land Down Under (where women glow and men plunder), tiny little Tasmania received 75,000. Most of the convicts were released to live freely and given a fresh start in their new land, while repeat offenders were again sent to prison. Port Arthur was the largest such penal station in Australia.

Port Arthur was known for its brutality. Prisoners were tasked with manual labor jobs that are usually reserved for beasts of burden, including carrying giant blue gum trees (a task that was dubbed the ‘centipede gang’ due to taking 50 men to carry the massive wood) and manually pushing railcars up and over mountains into and out of camp. In addition to death, physical punishment also included lashes from the infamous cat o’ nine tails. This was considered humane when compared to the psychological torture endured by residents. There was a separate prison that had 100 rules, most notably the requirement for absolute silence at all times. Many prisoners ended up developing – or furthering – mental illness.

There are a number of stories about the characters that inhabited the penal station. The most common is that of Billy Hunt. The only way to escape the peninsula by land was through a 30 meter wide isthmus that was well guarded and eventually had very nasty dogs to supplement the personnel. Prior to the arrival of the canines, Billy Hunt procured a kangaroo skin, put it on, and proceeded to hop to freedom. This worked well until one of the guards (who were severely underfed) raised his rifle to shoot some dinner. Billy revealed his identity and was returned to captivity.

Much like Alcatraz, Port Arthur is a truly beautiful place to have such a dark past. The most notable difference between the two, something which also separates Port Arthur from most every other prison, is the lack of fences. The campus is wide open, very green, and picturesque. There are about 30 buildings – or their remains – on the property. The two most famous are the Penitentiary and the church. The Penitentiary is a huge building that was originally built as a wheat mill, but, when that didn’t pan out, ended up being a confinement building for the worst of offenders. Built by convicts, the cathedral, or what’s left of it, anyways, is big and beautiful. My host in Hobart was in a wedding that took place there last year.

As much as I loathe day tours, I’ve found myself on several this trip and Port Arthur was no exception. Unless you rent a car (which makes no sense if you’re on your own), there are limited transportation options and catching the bus can often cost more than a tour. Once again, I found myself riding to a tourist attraction in a van, stopping briefly along the way to snap photos before being herded back on like cattle, and making friends with people older than my parents. This wouldn’t be as bad if alcohol wasn’t so expensive here, but I made the best of it and still managed to have a good time.

Like CRADLE MOUNTAIN, the Port Arthur tour was extremely touristy, but the ends justified the means. Upon arrival, we went on a 45 minute guided tour, a free service offered to all visitors. The briefing was informative and interesting. We then had 45 minutes to walk around before our harbor cruise. The half hour boat ride took us past the first boys prison facility in the British Empire, Point Puer, as well as Port Arthur’s cemetery, the Island of the Dead. After returning to land, we had just under 2 hours to explore PA. The weather was absolutely perfect and although I had to be conscious of the time, it was a sufficient window to take in Port Arthur.

Port Arthur was what I expected it to be and I was satisfied with the experience. The history is fascinating and the setting is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, the place is said to be haunted and ghost tours are offered nightly. It’s worth checking out PA if you find yourself in southern Tasmania.

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In addition to connecting me with hosts in Launceston and Hobart, friend and Tassie native, Edwina told me to check out Cradle Mountain and the East Coast on my visit. Tasmania isn’t exactly a hotbed of Couchsurfing hosts – especially outside of its two biggest cities – but I was able to find a great host in Orford. Orford is on the southeast coast of Tasmania about an hour and fifteen minute drive from Hobart. It is also conveniently located next to Triabunna, the port of departure for Maria Island.

Maria had a 50% off winter special going on, where the ferry was just $20 ASD return and accommodations at the Penitentiary on the island was $22/night. I went with Maria Island Ferry and was extremely satisfied with the experience. The company is run by a wonderful couple, John and Anne, who provided me with a ton of historical information on the island and surrounding area. They love what they do and it shows in the way they operate their business.

Maria Island has layers and layers of history. Its peopling began 28,000 years ago when Aborigines first inhabited the island. It was the first part of Australia to be charted by Abel Tasman, before mainland Tasmania, and even before mainland Australia! The island was used as a penal settlement for two periods, 1825-1832 and 1842-1851. An Italian silk merchant named Diego Bernacchi took over the island in the 1880s and attempted to turn it into a vineyard, silk producer, and cement factory. Things didn’t work out well and Maria ended up being used for farming until the 1960s.

The island was declared a national park in 1972. Since then forests have replaced pasture land and vines. With a huge variety of birds, including a number of rare species, the island is paradise for orniphiles. Several alien animal species have been introduced, most notably Cape Barren Geese and Eastern Grey Kangaroos. During my visit, the island was filled with goslings – and very protective parents. There is an alleged population of Tasmanian Devils on MI, but the rangers I spoke with said they won’t be moved there until the end of the year. I didn’t find out until after I left, but there is a penguin colony in Haunted Bay in the south of the island.

Like some of the places I’ve been to this trip, Maria Island was pretty much deserted for winter. The only permanent residents of the island are a couple park rangers, who are the only ones allowed to operate vehicles. Other than a French family staying in the penitentiary and a couple of campers, it was just the rangers and myself. Due to it being offseason, the ferry schedule was limited. I left Triabunna at 10:30 on Monday and left Maria at 11:30 on the following day. It was still enough time to see and do quite a bit. We saw 5 pods of dolphins on the 35 minute ride out to the island!

The weather was absolutely perfect for my first day, without a cloud in the sky, and it even hit 16 degrees C! I took full advantage and walked from the islands “town” of Darlington to the isthmus (the island consists of a northern and southern chunk separated by a very narrow isthmus) via the coastal route, with a stop at the Painted Cliffs. Perhaps the most iconic feature of the island, the Painted Cliffs are made of sandstone and “painted” by iron oxide. There is a huge sandy beach on either side of the isthmus and I was the only person there. I returned to Darlington by way of the inland track. The track returns to the sea at the Painted Cliffs and I made it just in time for sunset. I walked more than 30k in 6 hours and had no problem falling asleep in my cell.

On Tuesday morning, I managed to check out the Fossil Cliffs and make it to the top of Bishop & Clerk. Back when all of the continents were still together and formed pangea, Fossil Cliffs was part of the bed of a giant river that flowed from southern Australia into the sea. This resulted in the creation of millions of fossils in the cliff’s layers of rock. You get a much better view of the fossils if you drop down from the cliffs to sea level.

At 620 meters, Bishop & Clerk is the second highest peak on the island. The last bit of the ascent is pretty steep and involves quite a few rocks. The weather wasn’t as nice as the first day, but the view from the top was still decent. On a clear day, you get an excellent view of the Freycinet Peninsula. It’s definitely doable to squeeze Fossil Cliffs and B&C into 3 hours, which I needed to do in order to make the ferry.

I know this was a long post, but the place deserves it. While I was slightly underwhelmed with CRADLE MOUNTAIN, I was totally blown away by Maria Island. It isn’t really on the Tasmanian tourist radar and I consider it a bluechip, hidden gem destination. The perfect weather and discounted price certainly enhanced the experience, but the place is phenomenal. Go there!

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Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park is arguably Tasmania’s biggest attraction. The park’s Overland Track is considered to be one of the greatest walks on the planet. Conditions can be extreme even in summer and it is not advised to attempt the walk during the winter, especially by yourself without proper equipment. The situation tragically reminded me of Milford Sound. The Milford Track also ranks among the world’s best walks, but is closed during winter. I did a day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown and had a great time, so decided to do the same for Cradle Mountain.

The tour setup was very similar to Milford Sound. The bus departed the city at about 8 am and returned at about 6 pm, with the drive accounting for 5-6 hours return. At $100 ASD, the price was just about the same as well. The tour is normally $120, but I was joined by Tina, a university student that rents a room in the house I stayed at in Launceston, so we got a discount. Cradle Mountain is known for being cloudy and rainy, but we lucked out and had a beautiful day.

The centerpiece of any day trip to Cradle Mountain is a walk around Dove Lake. In addition to circling the water, Tina and I also went up to Marion’s Lookout, or at least we thought we did. The guide said it was a demanding 3 hour return trip to the Lookout. I found it odd that I arrived there in less than 30 minutes and it turns out that the platform we thought was the lookout, was not the lookout. The view was still nice and I had my first encounter with a wombat on the way up!

In addition to the wombat and several wallabies (including one that looked either drunk or depressed), I also saw a duck billed platypus! It was a very small platypus that was busy trying to eat something from the bottom of the stream. I couldn’t get a good photograph because it kept to the edge of the water, partially concealed by bushes and had its head submerged. It was still awesome to see the only mammal that lays eggs in its natural habitat.

The walk around the lake was pretty and scenic. There was snow and ice in some spots as well as a few inclines, but it was still a fairly easy stroll. A rainbow even appeared just as I finished the loop around the lake! As nice as it was, it still didn’t “wow” me like Milford Sound had. Perhaps I’m just too spoiled when it comes to things like this?

I definitely enjoyed my day, but what I saw of Cradle Mountain didn’t impress me the way other places have. Seeing the platypus definitely earned the place some points and I’m still happy I went, but, for me, the experience didn’t quite live up to the hype. For what it’s worth, the other 15 people on the tour thought it was the most beautiful place they’d ever seen.

On the way back to Launceston, we made a stop in Sheffield, “The City of Murals.” In addition to the murals, this sleepy little town even had a marble store. I was rather excited to see an entire store devoted to the little glass balls, but, unfortunately, it was closed.

The tour was pretty touristy, giving us just over 3 hours of actual time in the park. This was my only real option for seeing Cradle Mountain and I’m happy I went for it. It’s definitely worth checking out Cradle Mountain when you visit Tasmania and I’d love to come back in another season and have a go at the Overland Track.

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When I arrived in Australia, Tasmania wasn’t on my radar. The place has always fascinated me – with its devils and duck billed platypus – but I didn’t think I would make it there. Shortly before leaving Honolulu, I randomly met a Sydney based travel/food writer. Edwina is AMAZING! She met up with me in Sydney, showed me around, and gave me great recommendation for where to go and what to eat. She also let me know she’s from Tasmania and her family could host me if I’d like to visit. That was enough for me. I even decided to spend my 30th birthday in Tasmania, figuring it would be memorable to hit such a milestone in Tasmania of all places.

After a short but spectacular time in Melbourne, I arrived in Launceston. Ed’s mum and grandmother live in a big, beautiful heritage home just north of town. Robin was an amazing host and a surrogate mom for my stay with her. Grandma Patti is an extremely sharp 90 year old piece of living history. She has lived a fascinating life and I could have stayed there for weeks and just listened to her stories. For my birthday, Ed’s mum, Robin, made me Tasmanian lamb shank, picked up a bottle of local pinot, and baked a delicious orange almond birthday cake!

Launceston is the third oldest city in Australia, has an interesting history, and is loaded with beautiful examples of architecture dating as far back as the early 1800s. There isn’t a terrible amount of things to do in Launnie, but I spent a couple afternoons walking around, admiring the city center. I visited the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, which has a respectable collection of historic and contemporary pieces housed in a beautiful setting.

The main tourist attraction in town is Cataract Gorge. The gorge is beautiful and, like much of Launceston, rich in history. The walk around the Cataract Gorge Reserve takes you to Duck Reach Power Station, which was the largest hydro-electric plant in existence when it was constructed in 1893. There are two suspension bridges that take you across the gorge and offer great views of the Tamar River.

Launceston is also a great base for a day trip to Tasmania’s number one attraction, Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park. The park features one of the best walking tracks in the world, the Overland Track. Much like New Zealand’s most famous walk, the Milford Track, the Overland Track takes multiple days and it’s not advisable to go in winter, alone. I opted to go for a similar day trip to Cradle Mountain as I had done in Milford Sound, just to get a taste of what the park has to offer.

On my final day in Launnie, I got to attend an AFL game. The Hawthorne Hawks are based in Melbourne, but play 4 home games a season in Tasmania. David, My CouchSurfing host for Orford has season tickets and there happened to be a game in Launceston on the day I was supposed to go to his house. He was driving up to Launnie anyway, so I got to catch the game with him and get a ride down to Orford. The game is far closer to soccer than football and much less physical than rugby. I was happy to get an AFL game in before leaving Australia and enjoyed the experience.

Launceston was a great introduction to Tasmania. The weather was amazing for winter, the hospitality of Ed’s mum and grandma was incredible, and I had a 30th birthday I’ll never forget. It blows my mind that noticing an Australian accent while working at the Farmers’ Market back home resulted in me turning 30 in Launceston, Tasmania. What an amazing world we live in!

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Sydney was pretty cool and I didn’t really care for Cairns. I had a great time in New Zealand and wasn’t in a rush to get back to Oz, but thought it would be neat to spend my birthday in Tasmania. I ended up deciding to do a 3 day 4 night layover in Melbourne between Queenstown and Launceston. People had said great things about Melbourne and I decided to give it a go despite not being blown away with what I’d seen in Australia. I’m very glad I did.

There is no shortage of CouchSurfing hosts in Melbourne and I ended up with a great one. Erika took great care of me, showed me around, and let me get a glimpse of her day-to-day life. She took me for a walk around the CBD, showing me some of her favorite little alleyways and cafes, and even braved the cold to bring me to see penguins. I saw 7!

I happened to be in town on the first Saturday of the month, which is when they host a great farmers’ market near where I was staying in St. Kilda. There was beef, chicken, pork, duck, turkey, venison, goat, artisan bread, loads of great cheese, and a variety of seasonal produce. I couldn’t help myself and bought way too much for my short stay. I used my market goodies to make dinner for Erika and a friend of hers that evening. We had braised ox cheek over celeraic fennel puree with roasted brussels sprouts. It came out pretty good.

While on my very touristy tour of the Daintree, I met some students from Laos that have been studying in Melbourne for the last 3 years. They invited me to pay them a visit when I would be in town and I took them up on the offer. For a very special treat, they cooked me a homemade, authentic Laotian dinner. We had bamboo shoot soup, papaya salad, and beef/tripe larb. It was beyond good. They also took me out for pizza at DOC the next night. It’s a very popular pizza joint just off of Lygon St that had a 30 minute wait on a Monday night. The pizza didn’t live up to the hype – or the price – but the company was superb.

I met a great Melbourner in Mondulkiri last year, but, unfortunately she left for Bali the day before I arrived. In addition to providing me with a multitude of dining suggestions, Tracy also left me a box of goodies on her front porch. She supplies some local restaurants with organic, vegan desserts and left me a sampler. I’m far from being vegan and don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but thoroughly enjoyed Tracy’s creations. If you’d like to try for yourself, she stocks Little Deer Tracks, a vegetarian Italian place in Coburg.

In the end, my time in Melbourne flew by and I didn’t get to do much touristy stuff at all. The one thing I wanted to do was visit Victoria Market, but I planned to go on Monday and they were closed. Despite not making it to the market and hardly scratching the surface of Melbourne’s main visitor attractions, I had a great time in the city. While I wasn’t there for long enough to get a real feel for the place, I truly enjoyed what I did see and do. This post won’t be too useful for those of you visiting Melbourne other than to let you know it’s a place filled with wonderful people that love to show visitors their beautiful city. Go see for yourself!

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My one “must do” for Australia was the Great Barrier Reef, and visiting the Reef means going to Cairns. The climate reminded me of Hawai’i and I saw many plants that I see at home. The region is even a huge sugar producer like Hawai’i once was.

Cairns also happens to be the backpacker capital of Australia and is accordingly littered with the accompanying hostels, bars, clubs, etc. I stayed at the Reef Backpackers, which was a 10 minute walk from the Esplanade and cheap for Cairns ($18/night with free wifi). It wasn’t the cleanest or the nicest hostel I’ve stayed at by any means, but it was good for what it was. One small caveat: if you do stay at the Reef, don’t bother going to the “free BBQ” on Sunday evenings. The hotdog cooked on a flat top, two pieces of bread and raw onion they were serving made me question the definition of BBQ in Australia.

What draws backpackers – and most everyone – to Cairns are the surrounding attractions; the biggest being the Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Kuranda Rainforest Village, and the Table Lands.

Outside of the proximity to natural wonders, Cairns does not have much going for it as far as I’m concerned. The food scene was disappointing to say the least. There are plenty of restaurants that will give you a great contemporary Australian meal for $40+. Outside of that there are even more establishments catering to the backpacker crowd in the $8-12 range. These places serve absolute garbage. The two gastronomical highlights of my time in Cairns were Samoan food at Rusty’s Market and ramen from Ganbaranba. They were both outstanding and inexpensive. Rusty’s Market is an open-air farmers’ market that is open Friday-Sunday and a great choice for buying ingredients for making your own meals.

While I was in town, a Greek festival was being held in the nearby suburb of Redlynch. I ventured out there in hopes of having some great Greek food and was, once again, grossly disappointed. I got the sampler which included extremely dry fish, chewy octopus, nearly inedibly tough chicken souvlaki, decent lamb steak, 2 kinds of frozen fries, and salad.

Most of the action in town takes place on or around the Esplanade. In addition to being home to many restaurants, bars, hostels, and travel agencies, the Esplanade is also a great place to catch a sunset or do some grilling on the free BBQs on the waterfront. The trees by the pier are inhabited by very beautiful (and very noisy) birds. Speaking of things that fly, if you walk past the library around dusk, you can see dozens of bats in the trees.

The highlight of my trip to Cairns was spending some time with Rush, the digital manager for the regional tourism office. He is a really cool guy and let me tag along with him a couple nights. Rush knows just about everyone in Cairns and showed me a great time. We hit up several bars/lounges, checked out Cairns’ first open mic comedy night, and even attended a big 30th birthday house party just outside of town. Rush showed me that Cairns has happening, vibrant nightlife in addition to the great daytime activities in the surrounding areas.

Cairns had its highs and lows. The reef was incredible and, although I was extremely disappointed with my tour, the Daintree Rainforest is amazing. If you’re into higher end dining there are some great options, but I found nothing middle-of-the-road and restaurants that serve good, cheap food are few and far between. There is no shortage of nightlife options, but I particularly enjoyed Salt House and The Lounge. Cairns is worth visiting for easy access to the Reef and rainforest and there is certainly some fun to be had in the city, just don’t expect to find a tremendous amount of character or food culture.

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My dissatisfaction with Cairns led me to move my flight up and leave for New Zealand a week earlier than planned. This left me with a day each to see the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. I also wanted to visit Kuranda, but opted to go for Daintree instead. Since I was alone and had just one day to see the forest, I did something I’ve never done before: I booked a minibus day tour.

I asked around town and there seemed to be one option, Active Tropics Explorer. Every previous suspicion that made me avoid such tours in the past was confirmed by this experience. The guide was beyond annoying and did not stop talking the entire day. He held me and 20 other poor souls captive for nearly 12 hours in what seemed more akin to a timeshare sales pitch than a visit to one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

The first stop on the trip, which wasn’t on the itinerary, was the Crossroads Cafe. This was a 20 minute commercial solicitation aimed to get my fellow prisoners and I to buy breakfast and really set the tone for the day.

Next, we went to Daintree Village and did a one-hour crocodile spotting boat tour. The weather was atrocious, but we did manage to see some crocs. The boat dropped us off on the other side of the Daintree River, where the guide was waiting to take us to the rainforest.

The ride was beautiful and the forest looked amazing. It is one of the oldest rainforests on the planet and, like the neighboring Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the reason I booked the tour in the first place and we ended up spending less than 30 minutes on the ground in the Daintree. The part of the forest that we were walked through had a concrete path, omnipresent signage, and lots of other tourists.

We were then transported to Cape Tribulation, where we were released to walk on the beach for 15 minutes before having a horrible lunch. After lunch, came another commercial solicitation. This was the “optional stop” to the Daintree Ice Cream Company. For $6 we got a small scoop of each of the four flavors of the day. That day’s flavors were raspberry, mango, macadamia nut, and wattle berry. The ice cream was probably the highlight of the day and I’m not that big into sweets.

After ice cream, we visited Mossman Gorge, where we were briefed by an aboriginal cultural practitioner. He was really interesting and explained the significance of the Gorge, told us a bit about his people, and played the didgeridoo. Once he finished telling us about the superiority and purity of the rainforest over the “concrete jungle” of the city, we went on a 10 minute walk around the jungle. The walk was on a shiny new metal catwalk and a concrete path…. There was an option to swim in the river for about 10 minutes as well. Before we left the Gorge, we were taken to the newly opened visitor center and asked to buy things.

Thankfully, the day was nearly over. We stopped at two not-so-scenic scenic viewpoints, then were dropped off at our places of residence. Adding to the disappointment, we didn’t get to see any cassowaries. Cassowaries are rare, giant, flightless birds only found in northeastern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

I honestly would have preferred to skip the rainforest altogether rather than endure the Active Tropics Explorer experience. The sad part is that the Daintree is truly an incredible place and it is being shown to visitors through such a lens. My recommendation would be to rent a car, take a few days, and do it on your own. There is a great deal of useful information available on the official website and several travel forums.

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