Roadtripping in Australia

What is roadtripping in Australia like, you might ask. Great news! We did it and we can tell you.

IMG_9932 This wasn’t outback roatripping, which is a whole ‘nother bag of rocks. This was Queensland coast roadtripping. First, there are sometimes farmer’s markets, and if you get lucky they take place at the right time and place to grab some delicious food for later. We went to a market on the Sunshine Coast, a very relaxed and family friendly place. We were not expecting a large variety of bananas, but bananas we got. Very tasty ones too.

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We definitely were not expecting to try some of the nicest cheeses we’ve had in a while. Australia is not especially well known for cheese, and White Gold Creamery has set out to correct this issue. They homebrew their cheese varieties, experimenting for months at a time until something good comes up. Their stated goal is not to compete with the super-market cheese aisle, but to offer different varieties and pleasant twists on famous styles. Natalie went straight to the mushroom-ripening brie, which gets a stronger and stronger mushroom taste as it ages. They also offered cultured butter – butter that has been to the opera – and we took a block to go with us.

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After shopping around we went behind the market to a local park full of man-made lakes. A mid-morning swim was in order. No pictures of the lakes were taken, suffice to say every park would do well to have a couple. Next, there are sometimes very big things along the way. Australia is kind of famous for this in fact, having about one hundred and fifty big things in the country. Our big thing visit was the Big Banana. We brought out some of the regular-sized bananas for scale.

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If you’re lucky you’ll meet your hair spirit animal. I met mine at a farm/restaurant along the coast. The restaurant was pretty expensive, but they have a free-pick macadamia nut orchard, so that was cool. We grabbed a handful and Natalie got these pictures of me and this yak.

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On any good Australian roadtrip, there will be meat pies. We searched high and low and googled for the best place to get some. Off the highway a bit sits an old house that is actually a restaurant inside, Fredo’s Pies. There the very kind cashier gave us a pile of meat pies and best wishes for the road. These were amazing, flaky and chewy with the meat cooked for hours till it was tender and delicious. The kangaroo pie is the specialty to try.

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R stands for ‘Roo.
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H stands for I don’t remember but it was delicious.

The last thing to see along the road is the sunset. These tend to be, almost universally, amazing in Australia. The open skies lend themselves to great cloudscapes and the sunset paints them in fantastic colors. Our night was rainy and we took the sunset photos from the car, so the amazing doesn’t translate so well, but we were treated to a 20 minute red and orange light show on the road.

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Rainbow Beach + Carlo Sand Blow

After Bundaberg, we drove back down the coast toward Brisbane, 4 days away from our relocation rental dropoff location. The next stop was Rainbow Beach and Carlo Sand Blow in the eponymously-named Great Sandy National Park.

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Fishing in the surf at Rainbow Beach

We got lucky and found a parking spot right above Rainbow Beach (next to the Life saving club), then hopped out and looked for directions to Carlo Sandblow. We’ve learned our lesson by now – hike before ocean swims, lest you want a lot of uncomfortable chafing. In retrospect, and if you’re doing this trip, drive to Carlo Sandblow first and bring water. It’s a long walk. For those of you who want to park at Rainbow Beach or got dropped off by the bus there, here’s how you get to the sandblow from the parking lot:

Head south from the parking lot through the grassy park with the playground, following the street. When the street turns inland, follow it for a few hundred meters and you’ll encounter a stair on your left side. Go up the stairs and follow the sandy path.

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The park you’ll walk through on the way to the sandblow. You could always stop a few minutes and rest in the shade.
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The stairway up to the Carlo Sandblow

When your path diverges, you can take either fork to the sandblow. The left will take you there via Mikado firebreak; the right takes you out to a cul-de-sac where you can walk the paved Cooloola Drive south to the start of the Carlo Walking Track. Either way, the walk is ~30 minutes.

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Walking through suburbia. If you end up walking on a paved street, don’t worry, you’re still on track to find Carlo Sandblow. Just keep heading south.

The Carlo Walking Track is a well-maintained path and we had no trouble following it, which is good because the trail is part of the much larger Cooloola Great Walk that spans ~100 km of the Australian coastline. This small portion winds through dry forest for roughly 20 minutes, filled with Australian birds and bugs.

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The dry forest trail on the way to Carlo Sandblow
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Ants found along the trail. They fold their abdomens above their bodies to keep cool and survive near-lethal ground temperatures.

Then breaks out onto the wavy, golden sands of Carlo Sandblow that span 15 hectares in every direction. There’s no shade from the sun and the intense heat on the dunes is unrelenting, so be prepared. But the windswept sandscapes are well worth it:

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Viewing the sandblow from the trail’s end. If you fancy a long hike, the trail picks up again on the south side of the sandblow. 
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The Queensland coastline, as seen from the sandblow.
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The blue-green surf of Rainbow Beach meets the golden-red sands of the dune. NOTE: No beach access is available from Carlo Sandblow, and any attempts would hurt the dune so don’t try.

Oh, and if you’re going, don’t be a weenie and hike all over the dune. Every person’s step shifts the sand, and too much human activity could destroy the dune’s structure. But fret not, the Queensland Government has provided a sign that tells you where the best views (and photos) are:

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The Queensland Government’s oh-so helpful sign indicating lookout points and other interesting info. 

After exploring the dry dunes for an hour, we hiked back to Rainbow Beach for a heavenly, refreshing swim. Being new to the area, we asked the local lifeguards about any hazards, but there were none beyond jellyfish. Since stingrays are a problem on a lot of California beaches, I asked the lifeguards about stingray risks and they were quick to reassure me. “That thing with Steve Irwin was a freak accident,” one guy said quickly. “Oh,” I replied. I hadn’t even thought of that, but the lifeguards probably field stingray questions several times a year because of it.

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A mummified juvenile triggerfish, about the size of an egg. Dozens of these little guys were scattered along the beach’s high tide line.

We saw neither stingrays nor jellyfish during our two hours of swimming, but there was an odd array of dead juvenile triggerfish, their little bodies mummifying in the sand and sun. The poor little guys probably got caught in a strong storm or current and got swept up here. But it’s just one more thing the tide can bring in Australia.

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Rainbow Beach, as seen from a windswept tunnel in the sandstone of the Carlos Sandblow.

Sands of an Erosion Dreamscape

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A dead tree, engulfed by the sandblow

Somewhere along the vast Australian coastline, a giant is creeping. Grain by grain, the giant oozes further inland, engulfing trees and burying forests. Its particles whip free, tumbling through the air and over the precipice until they come to rest at the giant’s pseudopod. And we as we walk along the giant’s back, feet sinking into its visceral mass, we brace ourselves against the air that shapes this strange dreamscape with erosion.  One day, the giant will engulf a city. But for now, it is content to nibble upon the land and the occasional contents of a human pocket, buried and preserved in the endless sand.

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Human tracks across the surface of the sandblow

 

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Not a bush: the sandblow slowly engulfs a tree as it moves inland each year

 

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Patterns of erosion over sandstone embedded in the dune

 

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A view of a neighboring dune through a hole worn into the sandstone rock

 

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Wind erodes the sandstone formation on the dune’s side, creating holes and tunnels

 

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An exercise in irony: a silica packet recently devoured by the dune

 

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Multicolored sandstone and limestone deposits jut from the giant’s backside

 

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A line of black sandstone drawn in the dune sand, slowly weathering away

 

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A close-up of weathering patterns in sandstone

 

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Little spoils: manmade items (aka trash) collected from the dune

 

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The rocky, steep back of the giant, with the Pacific Ocean in the background

Baby. Sea. Turtles.

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It turns out that very near Bundaberg, only about an hour’s drive, is a sea turtle birthing grounds and science station. One of my favorite animals, and bam! There they were hatching and hey! They give tours and wow! We’re right in the area and.. oh they’re booked? Oh. Oh but someone cancelled? Really? We can get a spot? Oh my god that’s great! Thank you!

And so we got very, very lucky.

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Mon Repos is a national park where the largest concentration of sea turtles nest in Eastern mainland Australia, with a special focus on the loggerhead turtle. Outside of their scientific work, the center engages with the community at large by offering nightly tours to see the turtles hatching. A ticket costs about $12 AUS a person and it all goes to caring for the sea turtles and their environment. This is a fantastic experience and I recommend it as just about the best thing you can do in Australia. Others may disagree, but baby sea turtles! When we arrived the parking lot was semi-full and a small crowd of people waited in a loose line in front of the center.

Two things. One, the line wasn’t needed – the staff would call up people in order of their sign-up sheet. Two, the only thing more abundant than excited people are the mosquitoes. Just an unbelievable number of mosquitoes. The repellent does nothing except taste awful, don’t even bother. There is, however, a lovely old man who runs the only food stall there, and his fish and chips are pretty good. A+ for an otherwise difficult wait.

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Darkness falls and the staff starts calling out names. How this works is, volunteers from the center are combing the beach, looking for hatching clutches of eggs. When they spot one, a group of about 10 people get called in to watch the turtles hatch and make their way down the sand to the water. You get your group sticker, and you wait. If you’re the last group, like we were, it can be a bit agonizing and the hours go by and you wonder if they’ll find a fifth encounter for the night. They usually find many, but sometimes, sometimes.

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We explored the museum for a bit, watched a documentary on the turtles and the center, and waited. After some indefinite amount of time, we were breathlessly called in. They’d found a rare late-night hatching! The staff there really is excited to show visitors the turtles. We walked down the beach, turning off our lights as we hit the sand. From there we walked about five minutes to a small nest where our guide was waiting. She told us about the relative rarity of the encounter, the state of the eggs, and what to look for.

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Initially she thought there were only two turtles left in the clutch – the rest had long since headed to the sea. It turned out there were five in total, with one unfortunately not long for this world. Our guide picked up the turtles and let us touch their fins and backs. Feeling the baby sea turtles flipper pulling against my hand is and will remain one of the purest moments of joy I have experienced. Somewhere between the Lion King’s Circle of Life and a David Attenborough nature documentary, everything else faded for this one perfect moment. It might not be the same for everyone, but for me, apparently this was it.

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But wait, there’s more! While we were looking at the turtles up close, another hatching started mere meters away from where we were. The guide had a terrible time controlling our group, unfortunately, but no turtles were stepped on and very quickly we lined up a few feet away from their line of travel. And travel they did, remarkably quickly for such small animals, yet terribly slowly in the grand scheme of things.

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It was interesting to see how greatly they are affected by light. Our guide used their flashlight to guide them to the water, but they will follow any bright light pretty mindlessly. This is the reason the center fights tooth and nail for blackouts and light restrictions in the breeding area – anything, even light from a house window, will set them in the wrong direction.

We watched the clutch make their way to the water, about twenty to thirty turtles. Amazingness (and luck) for the night being over, we walked back to the center, then the car. At this point we were beat, so I found a nearby park that seemed to allow camping, and camp we did.

A great thanks to the staff and volunteers at Mon Repos for offering this experience to the public and making our night an amazing one. For anyone interested in visiting, information can be found here.

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First stop : Bundaberg!

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Getting a car is de-facto required to explore Australia, especially at your own pace. The country is huge and the infrastructure between cities doesn’t suit stopping in the middle to see what awesome lurks there. We took advantage of a “relocation rental” where a rental car company rents you, the savvy traveller, a car for very, very cheap. In exchange, you drive it from one city to another, ideally your starting and ending cities. We found one from Brisbane to Sydney and went with it.

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Look at all that wonderful sleeping space!
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And all the junk that has to go in it…

“It” turned out to be a monster of an outback vehicle, equipped with a reserve fuel tank, fridge, and full camping kit for four people. The pros were : lots of room, decent mileage, lots of traction. The cons were : huge driving hazard, way too much gear taking up all of that wonderful space, high cost of all the diesel we used. On the road we went, using Australia’s convoluted freeway toll system, but our destination was worth it. Bundaberg. Land of.. not much, as it turns out, except for the sweet, memories of childhood laden syrup known as Bundaberg Ginger Beer. What follows may read as an advertisement for them, it’s not. I just really, really like their sodas. They’re great.

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Visiting the “Barrel” as their center is known was a huge draw for me, and we even went out of our way north, away from Sydney, to see it. Was it a giant barrel of a building? Yes. Was it full of delicious soda? Yes. Did the very friendly staff offer samples of all their wonderful varieties most of which I had never heard of? Yes!

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Ingredients lovingly laid out on the bar for you to sniff.

They also had a short tour for a small fee, but we opted not to go. The samples and machinery on display were more than enough for us. Natalie really like the grapefruit, and I was a great fan of the lime and bitters. We both actually like the seasonal special winter brew the best,  tasting of cardamum and cinnamon and all those other good winter spices, but that one wasn’t on tap. Though you don’t have to buy anything for the tasting, you might want to grab a bottle closer anyway – they’re great for traveling since they can close just about any glass bottle.

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Yes, you do get to try each and every one of them.

Fear not fellow Bundaberg lovers, their lineup is coming more and more to the States, which is their fastest growing market. Hurrah! Except for the cola they make specifically for a reseller who only operates in Australia/NZ. Too bad really, it’s quite tasty.

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Since we were in the area, I decided we should stop by the Bundaberg Rum distillery. Visiting near closing time on a Friday was not the best idea. There were no more tours for the day, and only the shop was open. It was nice, and they gave out samples on the sly (you were only supposed to be able to buy shots), but it was very expensive. At least the outside smelled of a wonderful concoction of rum, sweet fruit, and honey.

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I took a picture with the giant bottle of whiskey outside, sampled a fancy whiskey, and bought a small bottle for the road. This would turn out to be a bit of a mistake – Bundaberg rum is.. uh, well it’s not great. Some of Natalie’s friends shared a laugh when I told them I was disappointed with it – not a surprise to them.

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We finished our stop in Bundaberg at their town center, picking up groceries, buying a water purifier, riding an outback adventure jeep. Great times were had, and back on the road we went!

An open letter to New Zealand about freedom camping

Dear New Zealand,

You’re amazing. Our two weeks spent road-tripping through the North Island were priceless and filled with wonderful hiking trails, delicious meat pies, and breathtaking views. Your parks, from the local to the national, all had a unique beauty we’ve never seen elsewhere. And your people are so friendly and helpful. In short, we loved you.

So it’s totally crazy to ask this of you, but could you please, please change your rules on freedom camping? They’re vague, vary by council region, and are incredibly hard to navigate as a visitor. Twenty hours of our trip were spent on trying to figure out where we could and couldn’t camp with our tent, and in most cases we still weren’t sure. There was also a huge disconnect in understanding the rules between Kiwis and visitors. When we noticed a district prohibited freedom camping, we often asked locals in an area where we could camp. “Uh, right here?” they’d reply with confusion, followed by something like, “Pretty much anywhere, as long as it’s not private property.” Asking about the ban on freedom camping usually led them to even more confusion. So it seemed like there were different rules for Kiwis and visitors. And that felt bad.

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Our tent at a free campsite we found via app and hours of driving.

At the same time, I totally understand why you’ve cracked down on freedom camping. I read online about the environmental and health problems that freedom camping caused.  It’s great that you saw a problem and wanted to protect your beautiful countryside. But letting councils regulate freedom camping hasn’t achieved that goal. Instead, it appears to have pushed budget-constrained campers who can’t afford paid campsites into a few areas where they do more damage. While camping at one of the few free sites in the Northland Peninsula, we watched campers doing their dishes in the river with soap and water. At another site, I listened to a Kiwi tell me that “camping was THE best life” as chocolate wrappers fluttered out of his campervan door and into the grass. When I pointed them out, he laughed and said “Oh no!” but made no effort to retrieve them. And then there are the hundreds of people choosing to sleep in their cars or drive on tired to the next campsite because freedom camping is banned in a district. We did this several times; it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wake up miserable.

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On the upshot, sleeping terribly in the car means you’re up early for sunrises like this.

So given the problems above, I’d like to make a humble suggestion: move to an online course-and-permitting system. One of my many specialties is negotiation, much of which comes down to understanding what motivates someone. You’re motivated to keep your country beautiful and safe, to ensure that freedom camping doesn’t do damage the environment or human health. The motivation of the would-be freedom campers is to see your country’s beauty and have fun while on a budget. Both of these could be satisfied with a course-and-permitting system where would-be campers went through an online course highlighting New Zealand’s freedom camping rules, took a short quiz, and paid a small fee for a freedom camping permit. It could help New Zealand’s citizens as well, who don’t always realize what they’re doing is damaging the environment.

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Freedom camping isn’t just for those on a budget; it lets you capture picture perfect moments in New Zealand’s landscape.

And as a bonus, let’s look at whether the program would pay for itself. Let’s say that you give New Zealand citizens permits for free (they pay taxes already), but you require a $10 NZD permit for every visitor who wants to freedom camp. You had 3.2 million visitors in 2014, and let’s say on the conservative side that 20% are would-be freedom campers. That means you’ve got 640,000 visitors getting a permit at $10 per person, meaning $6.4 million NZD. Could you run a program like this for $6.4 million? As a government, you would know better than I would, and you could adjust the permit cost as needed. But beyond budgeting, the course-and-permit system would help you keep New Zealand beautiful by ensuring people know the rules of freedom camping while keeping it fun and accessible to everyone, even those of us traveling on a shoestring. I hope you’ll consider it. May your grassy hills always stay green.

Love,

Natalie

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There’s a lot of beauty to protect in New Zealand, and a course-and-permit system would go a long way in everyone knowing how to protect it.

Mt. Coot-tha: Brisbane’s nature park

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The view of Brisbane from Mt. Coot-tha lookout

Mt. Coot-tha Reserve is to Brisbane what Griffith Park is to Los Angeles. Covering 1,500 hectares at the city’s edge, the reserve encompasses the manicured Brisbane Botanical Gardens and long networks of dusty hiking trails through natural bushland. When I last visited, I managed to cover only half of the gardens before exhausting myself, and somehow dragged myself up to the lookout point at the end. It wasn’t much different this time; the botanical gardens are just impossible to explore in one day, especially in Brisbane’s summer heat. Here’s some tips for your trip:

    • Bring water bottles: there are taps scattered around the park where you can refill, but few locations (only at the front and at the lookout) where you can buy water
  • Bring food or snacks: Like water, food is hard to come by and expensive
  • Stop by the front to pick up a map: the guides there can help you decide what you want to see and how to get there.
  • Visit the native Australian Plant Communities Sections: it’s a chance to see the diversity of Australian plant life and the forests offer a shaded walk down to the central lake, where you can watch the dragonflies dance around the water’s edge.
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A dragonfly perches on a twig at the botanical gardens’ artifical reservoir
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Ibises gather on a ridge in the Australian native plants section
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A leafhopper on a bench eyes the camera warily before hopping away.
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A flower blooms at the botanical gardens.