Who hasn’t dreamt about going to Australia? The sunshine, the beautiful beaches, the lovely people, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, and for us watching the Motogp at the fastest track of the calendar on Phillip island! Not forgetting the kangaroos and the sharks! In November 2016 we made that dream come true.
When we started prepping the trip, friends and family couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen, in fact we couldn’t even believe it at the beginning. With our time limit due to work constraints trying to fit in everything we wanted to do on dates that worked was no easy task! The flights, the live-aboard dates and prices, car rentals, accommodation, We’d think we had everything in good order and something would change throwing it into disarray again! But one day everything just clicked into place, dates, prices and times matched, and once the flights were booked, we could finally believe it was going to happen. Thats when the excitement really set in!
As usual our trip would be just under 2 weeks because of our ongoing work commitments. We knew with 34hours of flying time either side of the trip it was going to feel even shorter. But we did it, we fitted everything in and it was definitely worth it even for that short amount of time.
Day 1 and 2 were spent almost entirely on airplanes or in airports! (Yawn!) We chose to fly with Royal Brunei, they were by far the cheapest airline and the one that matched our timetable. The experience definitely met our expectations. The only bad point (that ended up being a good one in retrospect!) was that when booking the flight it only displayed one stop over in Dubai, but when we got to the check in desk we were told that there were in fact 2 stops; Dubai and Brunei. To begin with it annoyed us somewhat that the company was cheeky enough to advertise it as one when booking. However later on we realised it would actually break up the flight nicely into three 9 hour chunks. With short stop-over times to stretch our legs and have a change of scenery!
Another little thing to mention is that as a muslim run airline they do not serve alcohol on any of their flights. Some passengers did bring their own alcohol on board without any problems, and were given cups/ice when they asked.
The stop over in Dubai was a couple of hours long and involved changing planes. It was an impressive airport and there was lots of very designer gear for sale if you like your shopping, from nice electronics to handbags!
Brunei on the other hand was a much smaller airport with a couple of small shops and one main hall area to sit and wait, it was nothing compared to Dubai. We felt a little lost here as there weren’t many screens with flight information on. You get back on the same plane in Brunei but they still advise you to take your stuff off with you as they give the plane a good clean.
After around 34 hours we finally arrived in Melbourne! By this point we were exhausted and jet lagged, although we did quite well with sleeping on the plane at the right time to help us adjust our body clocks a bit to OZ time.
We landed in Australia at dawn and getting through customs was far easier than we’d expected it to be. They simply asked us if we were carrying anything on the list of forbidden items and that was that! Although we’d slept a little on the plane we both felt very disorientated from crossing time zones and flying for so long. Everything felt a little surreal. We had a few hours in Melbourne until our final flight to Cairns. Once in Cairns we would still have to collect our hire car and drive for 5 hours up to Ayr before being able to rest!
The domestic terminal in Melbourne is pretty small, but there are lots of different restaurants, cafes, and shops in one small area. Everything looked so different compared to home. Pata found an awesome bakery that did the tastiest gluten free muffins she’d had! After a few hours waiting we finally boarded our final flight with Tiger Air. Despite our return flight to Melbourne being a complete disaster, the one to Cairns went smoothly.
As we landed in Cairns and got off the plane the heavens opened and torrential rain soaked us! We couldn’t believe that we’d travelled to the other side the world and it was raining, typical! The hire car was easy to sort out, we’d had to get an official translation of Pato’s Spanish drivers license sorted out and didn’t actually end up needing it! Off we went on the 5 hour drive to Ayr. By now we were both running on autopilot utterly exhausted!
Yongala (a famous ship wreck and scuba diving location) is a long drive from Cairns but it was very easy to get to. You find your way to the A1 main road in cairns and it takes you all the way! You might spot some kangaroos on the way, and Pata even spotted some alligators!
Driving in Australia was very cool, they know what a real truck is, in the same way as Crocodile Dundee knows what a knife is! OMG, the size of them was crazy and they were everywhere! Soon we started seeing kangaroo signs by the roads and other cool warning signs. We had expected the journey to take us through lots of green countryside, and were surprised when the whole of the surrounding area to Cairns was pure, thick, jungle!
There were lots of beautiful birds both big and small all over the place to spot along the way. You drive over creeks with signs that warn you that alligators are in the waters. There were hundreds and hundreds of acres of pineapple trees lining the roads with the beautiful jungle as a backdrop. The land had small train tracks and little trains ran alongside the road at regular intervals transporting the pineapples around the land to lorries, and factories. We were really in Australia!
After what felt like many, many hours driving, but was in fact just five! We arrived in Ayr, we had booked the ‘Tropical City Motor Inn’ using booking.com and when we’d booked it, it had looked a little bit like a motel from a horror movie! We were very excited about it as neither of us had ever stayed at anything like it before, mind you we were so tired by this point that it didn’t really matter where we were!
We arrive at the motel and it looked just like the photos we’d seen! We walked around the building looking for reception, while people perched outside their rooms drinking beer looking at us as if we were aliens. When we finally found the reception, nobody was there, it felt like a very small place where everybody knew each other, a place that wasn’t used to new faces. Finally, somebody came and asked us what we wanted?! Mild panic set in by this point; as we stood in the reception area for the motel we’d booked months before, in the middle of the night feeling like very jet lagged aliens… They weren’t expecting us; our booking hadn’t found its way onto their system and they had a family function going on with no empty rooms! We couldn’t believe it, after 40 hours travelling we had no bed! Fortunately, there really are nice people in this world.
The motel was a family run business and they moved some of their family members into their own room to free up a room for us! While they did this, and cleaned the room, they told us where we could find the bar and encouraged us to help ourselves to a drink while we were waiting. How could we say no!? We really needed a drink, in fact we ended up having 2 or 3 each and we were told not to pay for them! The situation was utterly surreal!
After a very good night sleep due to utter exhaustion, we had to get up very early in the morning as Pato had to get to the dive centre near Ayr to do his Yongala dive trip to the famous ship wreck! We had to leave a nice tip in the room for the good service and all the free beer we’d had, so hopefully the motel owners were left happy!
Feeling lost and hungry we drove around Ayr and realised it didn’t have much to offer! We settled on finding breakfast at a small garage.
The diving centre was just 20 min from the motel and the area looked almost completely deserted. The towns in the area seemed pretty big, but we hardly saw a soul!
It was a strange feeling for Pato going to dive and not having his dive buddy Pata by his side. Sadly, Pata is currently unable to dive. (But she will again soon!)
Yongala dive is a very nice dive centre, located in a residential area just outside Ayr. There were lots of people already there when we arrived. Pato was given some paper work to fill out and sent straight to try on all the gear. In the garden, they had their big dingy. Once everyone had finished their paper work and put all the gear on the boat, there was a briefing; the first thing the staff mentioned was that if you are normally sea sick, take a tablet, if you occasionally get sick, take a tablet, if you never get sick, take a tablet… at that point we thought, well, this guy is jut overreacting and it can’t be that bad… can it?!
Although Pata couldn’t come diving, she was there with Pato to help him get sorted out. After the briefing, everyone got in a 4×4 that took the group to the beach where the boat had already been towed down by a tractor and was waiting. The 4×4 didn’t start up and had to be pushed downhill to get it started!
It was only a 5-minute ride to the beach. Once on the boat, Pato thought again that the staff were definitely being over the top about the sea sickness. The sea was a bit rough but it wasn’t awful. However a few minutes later, you realise that all the little waves you passed are within a sandbank and as you come out of that and into open sea the boat starts flying from one wave to another! That is when you start to think, thank god I took the tablets, but don’t get too comfortable, the tablet is not magic and if you normally suffer from sea sickness that 1 hour ride is beyond rough! It was Pato’s worst nightmare. He managed to wait until he’d put his fins on and then it began! Throwing up in the boat and on the water, the sick making other people in the group throw up. It was pretty grim! But nothing was going to stop Pato from diving after such a long journey to get there, even leaving his camera behind to get in the water and off the boat as quickly as possible!
The dive its self was just breathtaking, having to move fish out of the way with your hands to swim forwards, there was SO much life down there…. But that was the end of the fun part. About 2 meters away from surfacing at the end of dive 1, Pato started throwing up again and carried on throwing up non stop for 2 whole hours while the rest of the group did their second dive and they were on the move back to the beach. At least a sea turtle came out of the water close to the boat for air and to say hello!
While Pato was out diving luckily for Pata she had the company of a woman who’s husband was out with the group diving. The dive centre had a nice chill out area above the shop where you could make cups of tea, and sit and read magazines/watch a film, use wifi etc. But Pata and her new found friend decided to go exploring and got some directions to the beach from a local. After a nice long walk on a beautiful sandy beach enjoying the hot sunshine we found a local man selling locally grown bananas; boy were they tasty! By the time we’d got back to the centre and had a drink and a sit down the dive group were back.
There was a BBQ (Included in the price for divers or $10 for non-divers) This was disappointing having read great reviews for it on trip advisor. A small selection of sausages and meat, and a little bit of salad. But it filled our tummies adequately. No time for rest however as it was then time to drive back to Cairns!
We stopped a couple of times on the drive looking for kangaroos but we couldn’t find any! Once back in Cairns we went on a hunt for some food, again we ended up buying snacks at a garage, before getting a taxi to Caravella Backpackers hostel that we’d booked in the town centre. The hostel was fine; the out of hours instructions were clear and we found our key in the safe having followed the instructions for getting into the grounds! After what felt like a treasure hunt we found our room and collapsed into bed. It was a basic but clean and quiet hostel, that let us store our bags for a couple of hours while we went exploring in the morning.
The next morning we had a little walk around Cairns and we both really liked the place. It felt like a very happy, healthy city; it had lots of outdoor gym areas and equipment, children’s playgrounds, a big outdoor pool surrounded by sand that looked out over the sea, walk ways all the way along the harbour and park areas with BBQ’s for anyone to use! It also had lots of bustling little streets of shops, cafes, and a nice looking bar area. We only had enough time to have a little wander before being picked up outside our hostel bang on time, by a posh van that took us to our live-aboard ‘The Spirit of Freedom.’
At first we felt a little disorientated. This was our first ever live-aboard experience and we found the welcome meeting rather naff! We got name stickers and were given a tour of and induction to the boat as we sailed out of the harbour. The whole boat was really clean, spacious, and comfortable, and the food was absolutely delicious and really beautifully catered for Pata’s gluten free diet. Again Pata was unable to scuba dive but could snorkel as long as she had a ‘snorkel buddy.’
Day 7 marked the end of an amazing live-aboard experience for both Patos. The diving was done and sadly the last meal was over! The boat took us close to lizard island, we said goodbye to the lovely crew and were taken by dinghy the short distance to the beach. The beach was deserted and beautiful, it was nice to feel our feet on solid ground again after three days at sea, and the sand was soft and warm under our bare-feet. We had a nice walk across the island while Angus the head of the crew told us a bit about the history of the island. We saw some interesting wildlife and a very big monitor lizard! As you crossed the island you could hear the bats screeching in the mangler trees. We climbed up the rocky hill at the centre of the island and looked out over the small but sweet island and its beautiful jagged coastline, before walking down the other side to the runway…..!
After a picnic breakfast provided by the live-aboard it was time to fly back to the mainland! What a breathtaking end to the trip. An hour on a tiny plane with the most beautiful views all the way!
We’d decided to treat ourselves to a night in a hotel called the Palm Royale Cairns. It was quite a long way out of town but was well priced, it had nice big clean rooms, very helpful friendly staff, and had two lovely big pools (we were the only people at the pool near our room the whole time we were there!) We really had a fun time playing with the camera and messing about in the pool, before we decided to be ‘grown ups’ and head to town for dinner.
The hotel ran a shuttle service with an easy hourly timetable; this was prompt, well priced, and far cheaper than a taxi! It meant that we had no problem being a couple of miles out of town. We wanted to find ‘traditional’ Australian food, we found pretty much any other kind of food, even an international food-hall! But nothing local, which was a shame. We ended up in a burger place called Grill’d, they were VERY good burgers, and did very good gluten free options! The town had a nice atmosphere about it, everyone seemed relaxed and happy and we enjoyed wandering about that evening checking out the place.
The next morning we had to be up hideously early to head to the airport, that is when the nightmare began! We checked in, went to the gate, and even boarded the plane on time, but after a pretty long time just sitting on the plane waiting to leave, we started to wonder if there was a problem. Finally the captain announced that the plane had malfunctioned and lost a component on the previous flight, and that they were waiting for an engineer, in the meantime everyone had to get off the plane! On the one hand we were very happy not to be on a broken plane, on the other, even a short delay would have a dramatic effect on our very tight schedule! We had to get to Melbourne to pick up our camper van before they closed at 4pm, to then get to the campsite we’d booked before they closed at 20:30pm. A few hours of waiting around, and a voucher for a free sandwich later the flight was cancelled.
Weirdly we ended up being sent back to the hotel we’d left that morning paid for by Tigerair. What a waste of a day! This would also mean that we’d missed a day of the MOTOGP, were late picking up the van, and late arriving at the campsite.
Disappointed and pretty pissed off we ended up having a swim and then headed for another dinner in town.
Tigerair had told us we needed to be back at the airport for 6am the next morning to fly at 7:30am. However as we were sitting in the hotel reception waiting for our taxi another couple that we recognised from the airport came over and told us they’d received a text that said the flight was delayed again. We decided to head to the airport anyway and try to find another flight or we’d end up missing all of the MOTOGP.
We booked a new flight with other company and managed to get to the camper van rental shop before they closed (PHEW!) They welcomed us warmly, but the sales woman was a crafty bugger, and after the 24hours we’d had, she basically managed to sell us every extra going, most of which we really didn’t need but were too tired and stressed to say no to. They also ‘upgraded’ us to a HUGE van compared to what we’d booked. This stressed Pato out, he didn’t want to drive something so big, and we’d been looking forward to having a cute little camper to sleep in. Anyway after much deliberation, off we went in this huge van to Phillip Island!!
It was a smooth drive, and we both warmed to the van and had quite a giggle getting used to it. Pato kept accidentally squirting the windscreen wash instead of the indicators when turning. It was also a relief to have made it this far after all the hassle with the flights.
We found a ‘drive thru’ alcohol shop a few miles from the campsite (so many of these in Australia) and bought a good supply of beer and cider for the weekend, though it was pretty expensive. Later we found a supermarket on the island that had a good selection of food and drink that was actually cheaper than the drive thru. Finally we found some traditional Australian food- Kangaroo burgers!! We bought them and decided we’d cook these in the van that evening.
We had found Cowes campsite and booked it months in advance as we knew everything would be booked up for the MOTOGP. We had asked for a pitch near the sea. We arrived and checked in, the owner was lovely and gave us a few choices of pitch if we couldn’t fit the van in our original position. It fitted and the pitch was stunning.
As we parked up, connected up to the electricity point, and stepped out onto the beach all we could do was smile. Those smiles didn’t leave our faces all evening. We had a walk around the campsite and everyone was friendly, naturally there were lots of bikers! We set up the van for the night, and cooked our burgers while drinking a beer, watching a kookaburra playfully fly around the campsite singing loudly, sounding like a woodpecker! What a happy evening we had. We slept like babies as soon as our heads hit the pillows!
Another early start but this time it was worth it, it was finally bike day!! There were regular bus shuttle services around the island to get to the track, and it stopped right outside the campsite. We got the first bus and it wasn’t too busy which was a relief. We took some cans of beer to the track, but security seemed pretty strict at the gates and we chickened out and put the beers in the bin before heading in. Pato usually goes to the bikes with his partner in crime Hector, and as he wasn’t with us the first thing we did when we got to the track was Skype him.
As there was a while before the race started we decided to try and walk all the way around the track before finding our grandstand for the race, It was a nice track surrounded by greenery. The atmosphere was fun and we were excited for the race!! There was a big aerial performance by some fighter jets before the race started, it was amazing and so loud, at the beginning pretty much everyone in the stand jumped as one of the planes broke the speed of sound and caused a loud deep BOOOOM! For a second nobody had a clue what was going on, then everyone stood up to passionately sing the national anthem.
The race was exciting, and the best part was, at the end, everyone could jump over the fences and barriers and walk on the track!! What an experience!
At the end there was a mad dash for the shuttle buses, and we did queue for quite a while before fitting on a bus. Its a small island and seemed like it had been difficult to organise, but we got back to the campsite within two hours, and it didn’t feel that long thanks to the atmosphere. The bus was however very full and claustrophobic! Lucky most people got off at the first couple of stops which meant we could breath again!
As it was our last evening in Australia we decided to have more kangaroo burgers, It was weird to think that kangaroos are the equivalent of rabbits in the UK. Especially as we hadn’t managed to see any yet, yet apparently they are everywhere!
We had a lovely walk on the beach with a last beer before packing up our stuff and sorting out the van. Again we slept like babies, having the bigger van had its bonuses, We had enough space to cook, chill out and the bed was pretty comfy and plenty big enough!
We had yet another early start to head back to Melbourne and drop off the camper van, before flying home 😦
The roads off the island weren’t as gridlocked as we’d expected them to be and the journey back to Melbourne went smoothly. We finally saw some kangaroos on the way! Hurray! We dropped the van off, and although the staff member checking the van over was very friendly, he made us clean the van before leaving, which put us out somewhat as we’d had to pay a cleaning fee! But anyway, we did as we were told and got our deposit back.
Then it was time to get a final airport gluten free muffin for Pata and wave goodbye to a beautiful country. We didn’t want to leave, we’d fitted so much into 12 days that in one way it felt like we’d been there for weeks, but in another it felt like we’d only just got into the swing of things.
We still pine for Australia now, and have promised ourselves another stay on the Spirit of Freedom when Pata is able to dive again.
What a trip, perhaps our favourite of them all…. so far.