Last July, one of my best friends in the whole world, Jenny, came to adventure through and explore the east coast of Australia with me.
Everyday was an absolute blast, and although Australia is undoubtedly wonderful, I’d have to lean on a tried and true Dave Matthews Band lyric to capture why the trip was simply perfect:
“Turns out not where,
but who you’re with,
that really matters”
It would also be wrong to not quote Dave Matthews at some point here because we met in middle school when I was in the midst of a long lasting obsession with the band, but I digress…
Before Jen arrived, we had roughly sketched a plan based around a handful of experiences we definitely wanted to have or places we wanted to visit during our time together.
The only mildly important guideline was the timing of it all. Because Jen is a middle and high school tutor, she was able to take off most of July for our epic adventure. I was a casually employed waitress in Melbourne – name the day and I’m gone. We had our main parameters in place. Ready, set, plan!
Luckily our points of interests aligned and we slowly formed an itinerary. She was gung-ho for a Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb, and I was hellbent to see a show at the Sydney Opera House. She wanted to hold (and possibly bring home?) a koala and kangaroo, and I was hoping to score us tickets to the much sought after Splendour In The Grass music festival.
We went back and forth with endless ideas and tweaks, leaving a couple days between the big events in case we wanted to further explore or just relax somewhere new.
After the trip, I can safely say we had a f%^*ing blast. I decided, with significant difficulty, to list my top 10 experiences during our time together exploring Australia last July. Enjoy!
1. Visiting Sydney
Having lived in Melbourne since I had arrived the previous September, I was anxious to explore and experience this world class city (although my Australian love and loyalty will obviously always lie with Melbourne!).
Home to the 2000 Olympic Games, stunning architecture including the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Nemo’s tragic and forced domicile, Sydney was not to be missed on our east coast tour.
During our time in Sydney, we met up with friends from our hometown of Atlanta, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, attended a showing of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House, drank endless espresso martinis and other delicious cocktails, and took the ferry to spend an afternoon frolicking on Manly Beach.
2. Watching Jenny, the Aussie Animal Whisperer, at work making new friends
One of Jenny’s most pressing activities was to hold a koala (bear). But more than just visiting the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Aussie animals endlessly flocked to her.
When we arrived at the lake in front of the Jenolan Caves (see below), we were told the platypus viewing trail along the lakefront was closed. “You probably wouldn’t see any at this time anyway” an elderly, extremely disgruntled employee told us. Platypus are nocturnal, and are usually out and about at dawn and dusk; it was the middle of the day. Jen’s face fell.
I turned to her, “My friend Zach and I stood at a viewing platform at a platypus conservatory for almost an hour, and we never saw one either. I think they’re just really hard to find,” trying to lessen the disappointing blow of not meeting one of these elusive little Aussie creatures.
A few minutes and serious spark of determination later, Jen walked as close as she could to view the lake from a track far above the aforementioned, unfortunately closed path. I had barely reached her in the brush when I heard her squeal “Nik, look, there’s one!”
I was shocked.
She continued to spot a few during our time there, as I repeatedly pointed out floating sticks and a catfish that to this day I’d gladly slap. I couldn’t pick a platypus out of a line up, it seemed, and for Jen they practically popped up in their off-peak hour and waved.
It was amazing!
Other animals Jen whispered to included: laughing kookaburra, grazing wild kangaroo, dolphin pods so close we could touch, migrating humpback whales (undoubtedly the least expected, yet most mesmerising animal sighting for us), a gorgeous sea turtle and a terrifying shark while we were snorkeling, and even the extremely rare cassowary birds.
We had a couple walk right in front of our car when we were driving in the Daintree Rainforest (pictured above). We also saw wombats and Tasmanian devils alongside the endless koalas at the Lone Pine Sanctuary.
Through a boat tour with a local Queenslander near Cairns, we got to watch the enormous, terrifying crocs leisurely sun themselves, and even had one casually swimming alongside our boat. I was not very excited.
To top it all off, we were even both stung by jellyfish in the Great Barrier Reef! Hooray for authentic Aussie experiences!
The only Aussie animals we seemed to miss were venomous snakes, enormous spiders, “baby-eating” dingos (despite endless warnings posted around Fraser Island) and adorable echindna. Not too shabby!
Jen knows how to summon Aussie creatures from far and wide, and I was thrilled to be able to reap the benefits of her whisperings!
3. Visiting the Blue Mountains & the Jenolan Caves
One of my Aussie Bucket List items from the beginning of my year in Australia had been to visit the Three Sisters rock formation in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. I am one of – you guessed it! – three sisters and it caught my attention when scrolling through endless lists of tourists attractions before I arrived.
Luckily for me, it was only a 90-minute, rather scenic drive from Sydney and Jen was down to check it out. We rented a car from my beloved Jucy Car Rentals, and headed off to Katoomba to hike and soak up the epic scenery of the Blue Mountains.
While on the drive, we found ourselves wondering where we were: one moment we were transported to Ireland with the lush, rolling emerald fields dotted with sheep, and next we were in the north Georgia mountains endlessly winding up and down narrow roads bordered by vertiginous cliffs.
A couple of the highlights of this chapter were visiting the previously mentioned Three Sisters formation one morning as well as our visit to the nearby Jenolan Caves.
When we arrived at the Three Sisters lookout point, we realized we were completely alone. Looking onto the endless expanse of the Blue Mountains range, Jenny and I spent more than a few minutes in silence while marveling at our luck at soaking in the views without any other visitors in the vicinity.
To our left at the lookout was the Three Sisters formation (tick that off my Bucket List!). This iconic sandstone formation attracts millions of tourists each year, and has an important history to the aboriginal tribes of this region.
After our individual silent meditations, she turned and said “I bet this is what the American Grand Canyon used to look like when there was vegetation there thousands of years ago. It’s crazy how much that can change the landscape.” Damn, there goes Jenny from the Block with the Deep Thoughts!
Afterwards, I felt an incredible sense of smallness. Not quite helplessness, but more awe and wonder at the incredible world we live in. Our own histories, however interesting, are infinitesimal in the grand scheme of our planet’s history.
The hiking and lookouts of the Blue Mountains were incredible, but the equally impressive Jenolan Caves had more geological wonders in store for us.
The colors, sounds, and history lessons pointed out and provided by our guide were memorable, to say the least. I could have easily spent another afternoon exploring the intricate and unending cave system. Definitely one of my favorite experiences!
4. Road trippin’ with DJ Jen
During our month together, we rented cars from Jucy Car Rentals three separate times: Sydney, Cairns, and Melbourne.
In Australia, car rental just makes sense for exploring at leisure (as long as you can get over driving on the opposite side of the road). Luckily, I had driven a handful of times before and even had my Aussie driver’s license, so this choice was a no-brainer for us.
While I was busy not using the windshield wipers for the turn signal, Jen was spitting mad tunes from her iPhone.
A few of my favorite road tripping moments were driving The Great Ocean Road outside of Melbourne, exploring the Daintree Rainforest and seeing an extremely rare and exotic couple of cassowary birds outside of Cairns, and driving through the gorgeous Blue Mountains from Sydney.
By renting a car for these small chapters of our month together, were able to make choices more freely and enjoy the time to chat, daydream and just relax together while enjoying everything Australia has to offer on the open road.
5. Spendour in the Grass Festival
As I mentioned previously, I had my eye on tickets for this über-popular Aussie music festival, which takes place in the insanely laid back Byron Bay each July.
Months prior to our trip, I woke up early to queue on the website for a chance to purchase the $170 AUD/day gems. “Attending a music festival” was on my Aussie Bucket List, and I knew it wasn’t going to be free, but yikes!
Spoiler alert: we got two day passes for the Friday of the weekend-long festival, and had a blast. We saw the amazing Jack Garrett, Band of Horses, Leon Bridges and endless other artists.
The set list was fairly overwhelming. With all of the stages constantly filled, it was impossible to miss out on quality music and entertainment.
By the end of the night we gravitated to the ‘Tipi Forest’ where there was endless dance music throughout the festival. With the bumping music and extensive decorations, it was – by far – my favorite set up of the entire extensive fairgrounds.
I found this YouTube video from the festival to give you an idea. Props to Andy Taylor, whoever he may be, who put it together.
We literally danced the day (and night) away and left absolutely exhausted!
6. Sailing the Whitsunday Islands & snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef
No trip to Australia would be “complete” without attempting to Find Nemo, am I right? Well, that’s how we felt.
During our planning process, we had decided we wanted to visit the Great Barrier Reef, and we had assumed we would want to go scuba diving, though neither of us are certified divers.
Through recommendations from Aussie friends, we opted for a 4 day, 3 night sailing package aboard the Anaconda III with a company called Sailing Whitsundays. This package gave us the options for a practice/learning dive with a dive master and then purchasing subsequent dive packages as we felt inclined. The entire experience included accommodations, meals, and wetsuits and ran us about $560 AUD each, which seemed to be on par with other options of its kind.
Plot twist: I opted out of – even the first complementary – scuba option, and Jen ended up folding after the practice dive. Let’s just say that although it was beautiful, it was not as warm as we were expecting. After all, it was winter when we visited.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Under the water during our explorations, the reefs still offered absolutely breathtaking views of coral life. You could almost hear the sounds of Finding Nemo fish traffic as you watched the array of species co-existing and speeding about their days.
Another perk of the winter was we were smack in the middle of the migration path for humpback whales. Nick, a Canadian member of our group, used to be a kayak whale watching tour guide back home and had endless fun facts for us. What are the odds!?
That being said, we had a great time snorkeling the reefs and sailing for hours each day. After we exhausted ourselves acting like The Little Mermaid, we hung out with our awesome group each night over classy glasses of boxed wine and local canned beer. Mmm! We really lucked out with an incredible group aboard our boat as well as the unique crew.
One of the highlights of this trip, as well as one of the most incredible moments in my life, happened as I had just gotten back onto the boat from a snorkel. Jenny and I had been feeding a few of the Great Barrier Reef’s “poster child” Maori Wrasse fish, and I turned around to see her still feeding them and snapping pictures with her GoPro. I started taking off my wetsuit when all of a sudden a humpback whale surfaced less than 50 yards away from our boat and my snorkeling best friend.
AHH! And I mean that in the most stunned, shocked, entertained, slightly terrified, mostly spellbound, “Wow this world is amazing” sort of way. Seeing Jen, and our boat, so close to this migrating giant was truly spectacular.
So, as expected, the Great Barrier Reef was awesome, even though we visited when the sky was a bit overcast and the whales were on the move. Such a great experience!
7. Eating and drinking EVERYTHING!
Since Jen and I met in middle school, we’ve shared a love of food:
Snacks before soccer practice? Yes, please!
Snacks after soccer practice? Don’t mind if we do!
Dinner at our sorority house? See you there!
Grill out while we lived together after college? Hell yes!
Well, Australia upped the ante in one beautiful word: BRUNCH.
If Australia does one thing perfectly, it’s brunch, and it just so happens to be Jen’s favorite meal. For the record, I share the brunch-enthusiasm, but I couldn’t hold a candle to Jen’s absolute bliss when everywhere we went had killer brunch.
Our only requirement? Taste test everything. Duh!
So we ate and ate and ate some more. Then after we were done eating, we tested all of the local wine, beer, and cocktails we could find. It would have been irresponsible not to, right? Right!
8. Relaxing in uber-chill Byron Bay
When we arrived for the Spendour in the Grass Festival (see #5) in Byron Bay, we decided it was our happy place.
The tiny town was absolutely overrun with visitors, but it would be impossible to take away the relaxed, stoner and surfer vibe of the area.
We spent our first day walking to the popular Australian Stone & Wood brewery located outside of town. We taste tested their offerings and toasted to the start of a great festival weekend.
The next night we met up with some of my favorite humans from my time in Australia, as they were in Byron Bay for the weekend, too.
We had a delicious dinner at Miss Margarita and then went on a DIY pub crawl down the main street. It was great catching up with them, and I’m so glad Jen got to meet some of my friends from my year in Melbourne.
9. Exploring the Daintree Rainforest
Another natural highlight of our adventure was renting a car in Cairns (see #4) and visiting the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland. The oldest existing rainforest in the world, this incredible expanse of lush forest is teeming with (sometimes terrifying croc) wildlife and endless trails to bush walk through. Although the majority of stop off points were very well laid out and marked, Jen and I were fortunate to enjoy many of the walks entirely alone, though sometimes passing other visitors for brief moments.
This welcomed isolation afforded us the opportunity to truly soak up the fullness of our surroundings: birds chirping, branches rustling and every now and again something in the bushes scurrying increased (my heart rate and) our experience exploring the rainforest.
Like everything seems to be in Queensland, the trees, bugs, and everything in between seemed to be extraterrestrial in its enormity.
We spent more than a few minutes climbing in the intricate root systems of ancient trees lining our walk, and marveling at their might to hold such a gigantic tree upright towards what seemed like heaven.
We explored the area’s waterfalls and rainforest lined beaches while continuing to enjoy the dense and diverse landscape of the Daintree Rainforest.
One of my favorite stops during this portion of our road trip was at the beautiful Millaa Millaa Falls where a particularly famous Herbal Essences hair commercial was filmed. Jen and I had to jump in the chilly water under the falls and attempt – as any good tourist should – to do a re-make of the infamous sight. Check it out…
10. Hanging with Jen, DUH!
It should go without saying that the best part was just getting to spend a month hanging out with one of my favorite humans on earth. It’s rare that you get that much time with a great friend, so this was by far the best treat a girl could ask for.
If you haven’t noticed, we had a blast! So much so that we made a pact to carry on our tradition and continue exploring together for years to come.
And I may or may not have even gotten a little tipi tattoo to commemorate our adventure (see #5 for specifics). Which my mother promptly tried to rub off my arm upon my arrival home for the Thanksgiving holidays… Maybe I’ll just have to get a new tattoo each trip?! Who knows!
But the real question remains: where will Jen and Kath take next?