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Great Barrier Reef

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Video from the Great Barrier Reef aboard “The Calypso” out of Port Douglas.

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Old Friends, New Places

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“I don’t like Brisbane,” Nug confided as we scooted south after 2 hectic days of buying our van and getting sorted when we first arrived in Australia in December.  In the 3 months since arriving we had seen no reason to return.  Our plans to pick up Ted compelled us to take a long weekend and give the city another chance.  At the Lenny Kravitz/Cranberries concert the 1st night we caught up with a few guys that we had met several years ago in Laos.  We ended up hanging with Rhys and his roomie Mick for a couple days and were treated to a fresh perspective of the city.  Inevitably, discussions of our initial introductions several years ago were revisited.

We met Rhys at the airport in Vientiane, Laos.  We had shared a van ride to Vang Vieng to meet up with “some of his mates”.  We were all at JD’s Bar overlooking the Nam Song River and watching the full moon while enjoying some of the local specialties when we hatched a plot to “hire” motorbikes the next morning and proceed to some rumored limestone caves in the mountains.  A dodgy looking local guy drew a crude map on a napkin and assured us it was worthwhile.  The next morning the 4 of us left town on 3 sputtering bikes (Nug was riding behind me and holding on for dear life).  We streaked down narrow paths through vast emerald colored rice fields and over streams and mud bogs.  We discovered several interesting caves but the sheer darkness kept us from venturing too deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were at least 20km out of town and trailed a river down a side road towards the base of another mountain range when I whacked a massive pothole and our back tire went promptly flat.  “Shit!  Now what?!”  There was a hut on the river and several Laotian guys who were hanging out there assured us in broken English that they could fix the tire.  We settled in and after 15 minutes of talk we were told about an entrance to a “river cave” near the hut.

The Flat

Motorbike Pit Crew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They pointed out one fellow as the professional spelunker.  His English began and ended with, “Yes, come,” which was punctuated with a swing of his arm in a let’s go gesture.  The 4 of us proceeded to the water’s edge where there were some inner tubes.  We were outfitted with headlamps that were rigged to a car battery which we sported around our necks like heavy chains (I use the term headlamp liberally.  They were essentially Indiglo watches attached to our foreheads.).  He pointed to a tiny hole in the base of the sheer limestone cliffs and we saw that the river vanished into the crevice.  A rope was fastened to a tree on the bank and disappeared into the void.  The enthusiastic guide hopped on a float and motioned for us to join.  We took turns squeezing through the minuscule opening and waited for our eyes to adjust.  Stalagmites were everywhere and phosphorescent creatures lit up the water.

The Cave Opening

Nug with the head lamp and battery pack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small gap gave way to a massive chamber with a sandy beach 50 yards away on the far end where we disembarked.  My light flickered and the exposed wires on the battery gave me a buzz.  It was remarkable and we were the only ones there.  Our guide waved his hand, “Yes, come” before squeezing into a tiny crack.  The 4 of us looked at each other in dumb astonishment but obediently followed.  After 45 minutes and numerous stunning chambers, I was clueless to where we were or how deep in the earth we had gone.  We had squeezed underneath rock crannies that offered 12 inches of space at a maximum and wriggled like snakes for 20 yards in utter darkness.  I had to draw in my gut repeatedly to squirm through some cracks.  We had traversed underground rivers that were chest deep with a limestone ceiling inches above our heads.  To avoid getting shocked we had to hold the batteries above the waterline.  My light had flickered off several times and the darkness was entirely complete and silent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I asked our escort with a hint of anxiety, “How much further?”  The response, “Yes, come” was barely audible and he was off again.  Rhys and Steve let on that they were getting nervous at this point.  Claustrophobia gripped my psyche and I began getting dizzy.  I wheezed, “Nug, can you breathe okay?  I’m having a tough time getting oxygen.”  The darkness rushed in on me from all angles and the silence was deafening.  No one has any idea that we are here!  I was panicking.  Nug slapped my face hard.  “Get it together!  Take deep breaths and come on!”  As we pushed on the battery shocked me yet again.  20 minutes later and we slithered beneath a gap and found ourselves back in the original chamber.  It was more beautiful than I remembered.  The 4 of us burst into the sunshine covered in blood, sweat, and in my case tears.  Back at JD’s Bar that night we all agreed…that was one of the most stupid and amazing things we had ever done.

3 years later the 4 of us are still in agreement on this assessment as we reminisced over beers and looked out at the Brisbane River.  After 4 days of catching up with the boys and getting the local low down we bid farewell and headed to the airport to get Ted.  On the way Nug looked over and said, “I really like Brisbane!”

Brew-less in Brisbane

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The drive from Cooly to Brisbane takes us an hour and a half. The speed limit is 110 kph but the “Smelter” maxes out around 80 kph. We are passed by a minimum of 1000 cars on the passage. For the record, on the highway we have never passed a single vehicle.

The stroll from New Market Gardens Caravan Park to Riverstage is 7km but we have nothing but time and the weather is immaculate. The concert is in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens in the middle of the city. The park is picturesque with heaps of local flora and fauna. We eat kebabs under a banyan tree as we wait for the concert to start.

Once inside we stake out a spot on the grass and I proceed to grab a few adult beverages. Like a rookie I have no money so I scan for an ATM machine to no avail. A poster above one beer tent line reads “EFTPOS” (Electronic Funds Transfer Point of Sale or as we know it in America credit card). I see 7-8 disgruntled faces leaving the front of the line as I wait my turn. I soon realize why… “This line is cash only,” the girl chirps. “Why is there an EFTPOS sign above this line?” I inquire. “I couldn’t reach it,” she retorts. “You have to wait in that line.” I argue but it falls on deaf ears. I move the EFTPOS sign over the correct line and am forced to walk all the way to the back of that line along with 10-12 people who were behind me in the same predicament. After 10 minutes in the EFTPOS line I get to the front of the line. “How much do you want?” the attendant asks. “Uh, can I have 2 Carltons please?” She informs me, “Sorry, but you can only get cash here, and then you have to go to that line to get beer.” I let out a maniacal snicker and stare at what is no doubt another 20 minute wait. I think of a hundred things to scream at the poor girl but what’s the use? She is a minion and it will not improve my lot. I am flabbergasted by the difficulty of trying to throw away my money on an overpriced product. I throw in the towel and walk back to Nug empty handed after being gone for 20 minutes. With an inquisitive expression she asks, “What happened?” “I’m not in the mood for drinks for some reason,” I reply. We catch up with some old friends from Laos and the show ends up being much better without the $8 beers anyways.

Mt. Cootha Lookout

Smelter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down Time

The Banyan Tree

Fools Rush In

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After nearly a week of consistent rain with fleeting reprieves it looks like the sunshine is finally ready to reemerge. It is our final day in Cooly before trekking to Brisbane for a few days to catch some concerts (Lenny Kravitz, The Cranberries, and Wolfmother one night followed by Xavier Rudd the next) and pick up our great buddy Ted so he can spend several weeks with us. We are nearing our halfway point in Australia as we recently purchased one way tickets to Cambodia in July. Ted’s arrival marks the launch of a steady stream of visitors over the next months which will undoubtedly hasten the passage of time. We pass the day by packing, reading and playing in the front yard (Kirra Beach) where Nug snaps a few pics of me surfing. To put a feather in the cap of the day we hike to the top of Kirra Hill with some wine to catch the sunset and enjoy the first rain free evening in days. At the top I suggest we sit on the steep grassy knoll overlooking Coolangatta. “It will be to damp,” Nug responds. I spy a bench in the middle of the grassy area and bolt across the greenery while needling Nug to follow. Halfway to the seat the soggy grass comes to life. It feels as if a rug is being rudely swiped from beneath me to the left and I am suddenly airborne. My feet start churning like the road runner cartoon and both hands strain to roll up imaginary windows. My plight is hopeless. My flailing arms fling sheets of wine into my face. I wince at the burning of wine in my eyes a split second before my entire freshly showered frame Pete Rose slides into the sludge. I look up at Nug with pitiful eyes and am met with the most uncontrollable, disturbing laughter I have ever encountered. I fully expect her to choke on her own chortles. After no less than a minute the witch cackles die down and with tears in her eyes she works out a half-hearted, “Are you hurt?” All I can muster is a pathetic, “Does my pride count?” as I lower my face back into the muck.

Surfer's Paradise

Front Yard Barrel

Budgie Smugglers

Kirra Hill Sunset

Nug and the Sea Eagle

Nug and the Sea Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

The Bali Shop

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An orange poster in the window caught my attention, “Casual Help Wanted”.  The store had all sorts of Balinese exports.  The rowdy streets of Kuta and haggling over cheap treasures flooded my memory.  The main differences are that there was no haggling, no sound of motorbikes streaking by and the prices were 500% higher.

“Hi, my name is Ross and I’m applying for the position you have available.”  A middle age woman with a nose ring looked at me and stated, “I don’t know if you want the job.  We aren’t exactly paying minimum wage and we don’t know how long we will be here.”  I responded, “That’s fine, work is tough to come by here.  When can I start?”

The next morning I skated the 3 minutes down to the shop for my first shift.  Her husband, “Warren” was there in a pair of shorts that looked like they belonged on a teenage girl and I helped him unload imports into the store.  He began, “You from the States, mate?” I nodded.  “I love America!  I could live there.  It’s the best place in the world!” he gushed.  “We are pretty lucky,” I returned.  Warren continued, “Mate, you guys have the best food in the world…the all you can eat buffets are beautiful.  The entertainment is amazing…bloody hell, you have Gilligan’s Island!”  I affirmed (while chuckling), “Those are two massive contributions we have made to humanity.  Sounds like you have hit all the highlights of our country.”

Sue (the woman with the nose ring) told me they had filled a crate with stuff from Bali a few years ago and shipped it all back for an online store that never gained traction.  They were essentially liquidating the inventory.  I have never heard her say anyone’s name.  It is always love, dear, or sweetie…to everyone.  She caught a girl stealing and told the thief, “Love, either pay for the necklace or put it back.”  When I worked at Surf and Skate and we caught someone pilfering merchandise we would tackle them!  It was a peculiar approach but worked.  Later that day she told me, “If you don’t know the price of something, just charge what you think.”

Nug brought me lunch that first day and they asked if she wanted to work there too.  That was interesting since no less than 6 people had come in and asked about a job during the morning.  It has worked out nicely so far as we have been able to set our own schedule of 2-3 days per week.  Nug and I can split the 8 hour shift anyway we want.  They do not care which of us is there.  It’s definitely not going to further our careers but we will be free to hit the road when family and friends get here.

Work uniform

Why Surfing is the Best Sport

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The last few days have found us sauntering down to Snapper Rocks to watch the Quiksilver Pro.  This is the first event of the 2012 ASP WCT (World Championship Tour) and features the best surfers in the world along with a large multinational crowd and media circus.  There is no cost to attend and free stuff seems to pop up everywhere.  Sitting atop the hill with Nug and watching the action go down led me to an epiphany…Surfing is the best sport and here are 6 extremely biased reasons why.

  1. Setting– Surfing involves soaking up sun and floating in the ocean.  It directly utilizes the power of nature.  Quite often I find myself in beautiful locales with blue skies, white sand beaches, palm trees and azure water.
  2. The uniform– Typically, it is done in a pair of boardshorts or a bikini (I despise cold water).  It is comfortable to be half naked and it’s always agreeable to observe the fairer sex frolicking around in next to nothing whether in the water or on the beach.  Let’s be honest…I love snowboarding too but I would much rather see Nug in her bikini than concealed in snowboarding gear.
  3. Travel– Surfing is one of the main reasons I started to travel.  “It might be better if we drive a bit further,” is a phrase that I have uttered a thousand times.  The chase helped me develop an appreciation of the world beyond my local bubble and frequently shoved me out of my comfort zone.  Whether it is a drive one hour down the coast or hopping a plane to the other side of the world, surfing has expanded my horizons to be open to different places, cultures and people.
  4. It’s acceptable to pee yourself– Nowhere else (since I was 2) have I had the freedom to freely pee as I do when surfing.  If the water is cold and I am in a wetsuit it’s even better!  The pros certainly go for it in contests as well.  What would happen if Tom Brady did that on the field?!
  5. Transcends boundaries – My dad is in his 6th decade of life and loves to surf.  Even my wife enjoys it when the waves are small and the water is clear.  On any given day people from 3 years old to 80 or more are enjoying the ocean and the sunshine.  All over the world people enjoy the sport simultaneously on the “same field”.  It offers a common bond that connects generations and cultures.  No other sport builds bridges as successfully between such wide ranges of people.
  6. Accessibility of top professionals– Surfing is one of the few sports where I can regularly participate alongside the world’s best.  Any kook has the chance to split a peak with Kelly Slater (I know from experience) and still have a great time.  How much fun would it be if Kobe Bryant marched into my pickup basketball game and how pitiful would my crossover dribble look to him?  At the contest the pros walk through the spectators to and from their heats and actually talk with fans and sign autographs along the way.

Julian Wilson

Kelly Slater

Taj Burrow


The Bloodsucker

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Springbrook National Park is a quick 45 minute hop into the Gold Coast Hinterland from our Kirra apartment.  The drive through the mountains is picturesque and a refreshing variation from the bustle of the Gold Coast.  There are numerous campgrounds and things to see or do which would require a few weeks to adequately cover.  For our first trip, we camped at “The Settlement Campground” which is a national park and has private wooded sites for $10 per night.  It is conveniently located on the Purling Brook Falls Walking Circuit.  After arriving we set up camp and were straight into the woods to check the waterfall and plan our 14km hike for the next morning.  Since it was getting dark we headed back to camp to use the free barbeques (Aussie barbeques are more like the hot plate that you would see at Waffle House) to cook our burgers.  As we were heading back to our site with the cow patties we saw a rat the size of a cat scurry away from our site.  “Yuck!”  We set out the camp chairs and table at our site to enjoy our feast with some boxed wine.  After a few minutes Nug let out a horrifying scream, “Arggghhhhh!!! Get him off me!”  I grabbed a pan and tried to adjust my eyes to the encroaching darkness and started scanning for the rodent when Nug began to swat at her ankle.  “What?!? Where?!!?” I screamed.  “My leg! These leaches!” she bellowed.  I looked down to see her brushing leaches from her feet…all but one.  She broke down, “Nug, get this thing off of me!” she cried.  The tears rolled down her freckled face as I tried to brush it off with no luck.  I picked up the 4 inch brute between my thumb and pointer finger which increased his determination as he burrowed in to her ankle steadfastly while wriggling in my sweaty fingers.  “Please!  Help me! Get it off now!”  Did I think to burn the bugger off?  Of course not… I pulled and the parasite intensified his hold on Nug’s epidermis.  It was a tug of war involving the creature and me with neither willing to budge…until Nug’s ankle skin yielded.  Blood flowed from her ankle and Nug whimpered while the leach went spastic in my hands.  I squeezed him until he popped like a grape…all over my hands.  “Did you murder him?” Nug inquired.  “Yes, baby, it’s lights out for him!” I consoled her.  The burgers were nowhere near as enjoyable afterwards, but the waterfalls and walk the next day were incredible.

Link to video of our hike

The Culprit

Purling Brook Falls

 

 

 

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