Date of Trip: July 2008
This trip was a year in the making. It started with an offer from Brisbane, Australia, through Homelink, a well known home exchange site. After I locked in that exchange, I put up a request on Homelink for a second exchange and got an offer from Ken and Shirley B. about an hour and a half away on the Sunshine Coast. I really wanted something else farther away–Sydney, Melbourne or Cairns–but ultimately, and after several lengthy emails from Ken and Shirley (they wanted to go to a conference being held in Washington, DC, near where I live), I agreed and thought I was all set. Wrong. A third offer came in from Whangerai, New Zealand (on the Northwest part of the North Island, known to New Zealanders as “Northland”). I thought, “I can’t be away that long” and accepted their offer. What the heck. I would be in the neighborhood anyway and when would I get an opportunity to do this again? Maybe never. By the way, a 4th home exchange offer in Auckland received afterwards was rejected. Enough was enough!
While I have done 2 home exchanges back to back, I have never done three in a series and this required a lot of planning. I put all the home exchange families in touch with one another so that they could work out the deals of who arrived/and left when. I only had to know when I had to vacate my home and when the last set of exchangers (the New Zealanders) would vacate mine. I then set out to find a “reasonable” airfare for this trip. Given the itinerary Qantas (code shares with American Airlines) was the only game in town. I tried all sorts of itineraries. Each time I was routed through Nadi, Fiji. When I put a stop in there, my airfare went down. OK, I’ll stop in Fiji. I flew American and Air Pacific to Nadi, Fiji on July 10-12 (you lose a day going west across the international dateline), Air Pacific to Sydney on July 15, Qantas to Brisbane and Auckland and Air New Zealand and American back home on September 15th (I had two of those crossing the international dateline home). I was supposed to fly Qantas from Auckland but my flight was delayed about 8 hours and I got rerouted on Air New Zealand.
So much for the logistics.
I arrived in Fiji on July 12th and was met by a van to take me to my low end hotel. The choice in Fiji was low end accommodations on Nadi or very expensive self contained beach resorts on their own islands. Since I was traveling solo, I did not much fancy being solo at one of those resorts–chiefly populated by couples and families from Australia and/or New Zealand. I chose the low end accommodations knowing I would be sharing facilities. That did not bother me but the lack of hot water in the “resort” did. If I were to do this again, I would stay on one of the islands or just skip Fiji entirely (probably the latter). I am a fairly undemanding traveler (and notoriously cheap about hotels). The lack of hot water was, however, beyond the pale. Fiji totally lacks mid range accommodations. Something like a Red Roof Inn or Motel 6 simply does not exist there.
On Fiji I did get to snorkel with the rich people in the same water and saw some beautiful fish. It was much better than any other snorkeling I have ever done. I also had a driver take me around to some of the sites in Nadi. We went to the market where I bought a straw hat I did not need from a woman who told me–no joke–that her name was Merry New Year. I ended up schlepping that hat for two months in luggage and regretting the purchase but who could resist a woman with a name like that? I also visited a botanical garden that featured a wide array of orchids and a very colorful Hindu temple.
I arrived on Sydney on July 15th–right smack dab in the middle of World Youth Day. It was not good planning. I knew about this mega Roman Catholic event but blithely made my airline reservations and only then discovered (when I had trouble making hotel reservations) that I had made a travel “boo boo”. I could not have adjusted the dates anyway even if I had known ahead of time, so I made the best of it. If the kids went one way, I went the other.
I did see all the usual things in Sydney including the Opera House, Manly Beach, Taronga Zoo and the Blue Mountains. I went to the Blue Mountains the day the Pope came into Sydney Harbor and found that there were plenty of World Youth Day kids there as well. For many of the “pilgrims” the guts of the trip was a cheap holiday. While I had had difficulty finding a hotel room in Sydney and ended up at the Ibis at Olympic Park, I could have had a hotel downtown for very little had I waited. The kids were mostly sleeping in school basements (the event was timed to coincide with a school break in Australia) and the like–not in hotels. Many Sydneysiders gave up and left town during the event.
Despite the crowds I enjoyed my time in Sydney and the weather cooperated. I took the tour of the Opera House (the history of its building is very interesting) and went to an opera (“Don Giovanni”) as well as a concert. I must admit I fell asleep during the last act of “Don Giovanni” (no reflection on the opera itself) because I was still jet lagged.
All the touring I did–as well as the transfers back and forth to Sydney Airport–was done on my own with public transportation. With the crowds, taxis could end up caught in traffic and I did not want to chance those sorts of problems. To the Blue Mountains, I took the train and then the hop on/hop off bus there. Staying at Olympic Park was far out but trains were more frequent to Circular Quay (some without the change of train normally required) because many of the kids were staying in the old Olympic Village at Olympic Park. You win some, you lose some. I have no complaints about the hotel and even had a nice meal in the restaurant once.
I took the regular ferries from Circular Quay to Taronga Zoo and Manly. One day I took the catamaran from Olympic Park to Circular Quay as well. There is lots of good scenic water transport in and around Sydney and it is very inexpensive. I did not take a tour boat in the harbor because I saw pretty much the same scenery on the ferries to Manly (without commentary). I also walked The Rocks area on the weekend when there is a craft market there and picked up a small necklace.
This was the location of my first home exchange and I arrived at the Brisbane Airport on July 20th. There I was picked up by Marilyn and John (my second set of home exchangers in Brisbane). They drove me to Kawana Waters. If you see the video feature of me on CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/living/2008/07/25/verjee.house.swap.cnn?iref=videosearch), the man sitting next to me in the chair by the pool is John. CNN was just interested (given TV time constraints) in just featuring the first set of home exchangers.
The apartment in Kawana Waters was top of the line with a video and computer system that was much better than what I had at home. The house, however, was out of the way so a lot of driving was necessary. I concentrated on the area north of Brisbane during my time there because I figured I would do the south area (and the Gold Coast) once I moved to Brisbane for the second exchange. During my time there I visited the seaside towns all along the Sunshine Coast. I have to say that one looks very much like the next one and I never found anything nicer than the view from the coffee shop adjacent to the development where I was staying. I ate there several times. I also did the usual home exchange activities (food shopping, etc.) in the local shopping center.
For tourist experiences, I visited Australia Zoo (way overpriced, shows very disappointing) and Underwater World in Mooloolaba. A highlight was a drive to Montville (spectacular view and lots of craft shops). I ate an a restaurant with a view and took some nice photos there. I spent two nights in Hervey Bay and took a 1 day 4-wheel drive tour of Fraser Island–which was a highlight of my time in Australia. There I am on the bus driving on the sand and a plane pulls up right on the sand and offers us rides for $70 Australian. I had to do that. When else was I going to get a chance to land in a plane on the sand? Top notch. Hervey Bay was a bust insofar as I was concerned. There had been some bad weather and there were no whales. I had tried the whale watching in Mooloolaba before that and there were plenty of whales but that trip is on the open ocean and well, I ended up not caring much about the whales by the time we got to them (same for most of the people on the boat). I decided I had better stick to whales in places like Sea World after that! I have been whale watching in the US before (both successful and seasick varieties), so I just chalked it up to experience and moved on.
I also spent one night out at Toowoomba (and bought a t-shirt that says “Toowoomba? Where the hell is that?” Well it is west of Brisbane a couple of hours. There is a great carriage museum there that I visited, but the real purpose of that trip was the Jondaryn Woolshed in Jondaryn where I saw my first sheep sheared. There are a lot of old farm buildings there and you get a taste of the “real” Australia.
Soon it was time to move on to Brisbane. I made a Greyhound Bus reservation and took the bus to Brisbane arriving at the Central Station there. I then took a taxi to the house in Red Hill. It was the only taxi I took on the entire trip, I think. The apartment in Brisbane was basic and the computer, which I think had a dial up internet connection, had something wrong with the modem. I ended up going to the State Library of Queensland periodically to commune with the internet. It was annoying but not an insuperable obstacle.
It took me awhile to learn my way around Brisbane but I ended up liking it very much. I visited all the museums in the QPAC/Museum complex along the Brisbane River and saw “The Mikado” and “Traveling North” there. The latter is a play about retired Australians (in the US it would be “translated” as “Traveling South” to the warmer weather). Elsewhere I saw a play called “The Narcissist” about Australian politics and a comedy thing involving breasts (sort of the female version of “Puppetry of the Penis” if you have seen that) called “Busting Out” which was absolutely hilarious even if I did not get all the jokes. I find that theater is a window into the local culture and always try and experience it (with or without the jokes) on vacations.
Brisbane is Australia’s most rapidly growing city and, I feel, eventually will be the largest city. There are very few older buildings left and plenty of skyscrapers–which I thought was a shame. While I was there the “EKKA” was going on and I did attend that but I have to say that it was not riveting. The “EKKA” is a sort of county fair full of cattle judging, etc. In Brisbane they say “The country comes to the city”. It was interesting to see once but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it again; I did have 2 of the famous strawberry ice creams which were great.
I did a lot of driving around while in Brisbane as well. I have to say I was immensely assisted in my driving by a GPS that Marilyn and John loaned me when I arrived in Kawana Waters. Those devices have a downside: You never really learn the lay of the land and where you are going or where you have been. “You have arrived at your destination” is all you know. On the upside, you don’t get lost (although some of the directions can be crazy) and the device does not get angry with you for making a wrong turn.
I have to say I found the Gold Coast a really bad version of Florida (even more over development in Australia than in Florida). However, it is dearly loved by many Aussies and New Zealanders so who am I to judge? It is where you go for amusement parks. They even have an Aussie version of Universal Studios. I did not go to any of the amusement parks because I am, thankfully, post kids. I did go to the Australian Outback Spectacular. The concept for that one was borrowed from Disney’s Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and adapted for the Australian market. I enjoyed it. The food was OK but the show was really a lot of fun. So it’s for tourists? Well, I was a tourist. . . .
I did my share of zoos in Brisbane and the Gold Coast (Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Currumbin, etc.). One of those places is all you need to see. They all offer koala petting and koala photo opportunities. I did not have my photo taken with a koala. I thought that thing was totally over done in Australia but, well, tourists want it, so there you go! If you have seen one koala/kangaroo, you have seen them all–honest.
I found the birds and the plants in Australia amazing. The ambient bird sound in the background is different and the lorikeets have to be seen to be believed (bright red, green and blue). I knew nothing about these and wished I had time to explore them in more depth.
From Brisbane I traveled south to Leamington National Park (Yes, I drove the road up to O’Reilly’s and did the treetop walk) and along the coast to Byron Bay (great views). Since I was driving borrowed cars, I was very careful about winery stops (only one a day and lots of spitting). I had a very nice lunch at the Thumm winery.
I did ride the catamaran up and down the Brisbane River for sightseeing and for transport. One Sunday I went to a concert at the old Customs House in the Central Business District. I had a lovely lunch at the restaurant there. I also ate at a variety of unmemorable restaurants along the river and in downtown Brisbane.
SOME LIKES AND DISLIKES
OK. Here are some things I did not like about Australia: All the gambling. It is all over. The slots are called “pokies”. I never bothered with them because I consider that an entire waste of money. I now understand, however, why Australian tourists to North America tend to go to Las Vegas. Unbelievable! Gambling addiction has to be a huge problem there. Maybe it is because people are all spread out over a vast territory and cultural life can be lacking because there are not the numbers to sustain it. When I say spread out, I mean it. It is nothing like the Southwest of the US. There can be thousands of kilometers between cities. Even in 6 weeks, I visited such a small area and I drove about 3,000-3,200 miles there. Huge!
The other thing I disliked were the rude drivers. Take a wrong turn and someone is immediately rolling down his window and yelling obscenities at you (every second word beginning with the letter “f”). OK, I was driving a locally registered car and people therefore thought I was a local, but where does that behavior get you?
The thing I liked best were the open warm hearted Australian people. When I left to go to the Brisbane Airport to fly to New Zealand, some neighbors took me to the Central Station to get the train to the airport. I did not ask. They offered. Would that happen in the US? Probably not. So, aside from the rude drivers, the rest of the people I ran into were basically, well, nice. In the last analysis, on any trip, those encounters are what is going to stay with you.
Due to the length of this trip report, the New Zealand bit will be separately posted. Next part: New Zealand’s North Island