A very British update from down under in which I mostly complain about Australia's weather
15.02.2013 - 24.02.2013 27 °C
I'd signed up for surf camp with the sole aim of wanting to surf for five days. But on the bus north I began to feel that in fact perhaps I was a little old for anything with the word camp in the title... I'd been to pony club camp aged seventeen or eighteen and even then it'd been a specifically 'old kids pony club camp'. Also, to my detriment, when signing up for surf camp, I hadn't asked any questions as to what it would involve or even where we'd be going. So it seemed that having done the 'wait and see tour' of south east Asia, I was now on the 'wait and see tour' of Oceania.
So I woke up at 5.50am on the first day of surf camp and made my way to Central Station in Sydney. We drove for ten hours to get to 'Spot X' the location of surf camp (actually Arrawarra Beach) and I spent the duration of the journey feeling much older and a little too mature in comparison to many of my fellow passengers. Whilst I slept for the majority of the journey, my eyes opened often enough to appreciate the scenery (mainly gum trees) along the Pacific Highway en route.
Upon arrival we were assigned rooms and fortunately in our dorm of twelve, we formed a good group and all got along very well. I guessed that as an 'easy' travel destination, Australia attracts a younger crowd than many of the places I'd visited in Asia and I needed to get used to being one of 'the old ones'. But, I wanted to surf and I'd paid for surf camp and I was determined to make the most of it.
We were in the middle of nowhere. Essentially a campsite of permanent 'buildings' and teepees on a beach that stretched for miles, we seemed to be the only people around. There were however lots of bugs, snakes (including one sighting of what may or may not have been the worlds second most deadly - we didn't get close enough to find out) and spiders sharing the area with us. After an hour or so on the beach with my room mates I was feeling much better about the company - it turned out many of the 'kids' on the bus were staying just a night for one surf lesson before leaving. All of my roommates were in it for the long(ish)haul like me and by the end of our time there I felt I'd made some good friends. We ate dinner (another good thing about surf camp was that all food was included, cooked for you three times a day and washing up done afterwards) and had an early-ish night; I was excited to surf again the next day.
About forty of us were scheduled for our first lesson at 9.30 - a far more civilised hour than some groups who began at 6.30am. Unfortunately however, our room was next to the surf school so we were woken at 6.30 anyway. It was a grey and extremely miserable day with intermittent rain and we dressed in already damp wetsuits and rash vests and, after a safety talk we walked to the beach. On the sand we warmed up (I discovered that running in an unsupportive triangle bikini is painful) before practicing 'popping up' on our boards. I'd already learned more theory than I had from Ketut but was keen to get back into the water.
My keenness did not last long however. We jumped on our boards and in groups of eight with an 'instructor' waded out to just after the breaking zone. As I got on my board and began to paddle I felt someone ride up my back and was slammed in the back of the head by another surfboard leaving me sandwiched under water between their board and mine. It was extremely painful and quite scary and an instructor (who looked about twelve) was unsympathetic telling me to cover my head if I went under the water - it seemed futile to attempt to explain that I had not been under the water initially, I'd simply been surfed onto... The water was so full of novice surfers and my head was throbbing - it took me a long time to build up the courage to go back out for fear of being surfed on again.
Our 'lesson' lasted two hours and having received zero instruction or attention from the twelve year old, I was debating asking for a refund and leaving. I missed Ketut and his (almost) undivided attention for a price of my choosing. But after lunch we had another two hour lesson - I made sure to be in a different group - and this time the water was much less busy. I felt comfortable again but still tried to stay at one edge of the group where it was less crowded. Despite extremely heavy rain, I was soon standing up again with confidence on the white waves and beginning to catch some of them myself.
That night the kitchen served burgers for dinner and after four hours in the water we were all starving! Having swallowed a great deal of salt water during each session I was extremely thirsty too. We ate a lot and then drank a bit (box wine for some, not for me).
In the morning I woke with an extremely stiff neck. It took me a while to connect the dots and realise that that was because someone had surfed on my head the previous morning! Fortunately it was a beautiful day and I slapped the factor fifty plus onto my face, stretched my neck a bit, put on my rashie and determinedly headed back to the beach. The morning went much better. Ian, an actual instructor, began to demonstrate on sand how to Eskimo roll under the breaking waves and press-up over the white wash to avoid being knocked off when paddling out past the breaking zone. Whilst I wasn't ready to Eskimo roll, I was happy by myself in the waves and surfed to shore successfully several times (as well as being dunked by several waves as well). By the afternoon's lesson I noticed a marked improvement in my surfing but at the same time my upper body was seriously beginning to ache. After eight hours in the water in the space of just two days we were a subdued bunch at dinner (a roast) and were mostly in bed by 9pm nursing our aches and pains. I was both dreading and looking forwards to the next day.
We weren't so lucky with the weather the following day and as we attempted to get out to surf the green waves, paddling through the breaking zone was a challenge. Once out however it was fun to sit in the board as the waves rose beneath us and I attempted, with extremely limited success, to catch the green waves and surf to shore. The photographs from the day showed several nose dives and dramatic wipe outs. The following day the weather was even worse and aching from over fourteen hours of surfing, most of us stuck to surfing the whitewash nearer the beach. Those that did venture out made slow progress but were rewarded with a dolphin sighting (exciting once it had been established that the fins weren't those of sharks). After one last big lunch we left surf camp, all slightly better surfers but all injured, aching, cut and bruised to a degree.
We travelled to Byron Bay where it was also raining. So far Australia's summer was proving to be extremely disappointing - just over a week in the country had served up only three clear days and I felt I was fast loosing my hard earned Asia tan. Five of us from the camp (Liron from Israel, Anna from Germany, Celina from Holland, Lorna from England and me) checked into a hostel together and, after a trip to Aldi, Liron cooked us up an amazing Shakshouka. Whilst having food provided three times a day (and not having to wash up) had been great, cooking something delicious together in a group was even better. The rain continued to lash down well into the night.
The next day it was still raining heavily, intermittently, but still long, drenching downpours. After a morning of admin (booking onwards travels, trips and desperately seeking a hostel with spare beds in Brisbane over a festival weekend) we needed to do something other than wait for the rain to stop. So we went for a walk in the rain. We walked east along the beach where there was a hilly peninsula and several view points. At the first one we stopped and watched the surfers far out around the headland sat on their boards waiting for waves. And thanks perhaps to the weather the waves were massive. They made our efforts at surfing look incredibly feeble by comparison.
The rain became heavier and, as I was the only one with a raincoat, the others wrapped up in hoodies and towels and became increasingly more damp as we continued a kilometre or so further up the path to another look out, the most easterly point of mainland Australia. Here we were on the other side of the peninsula and the waves smashed with ferocity against the cliffs. By the time we reached the lighthouse at the top we were sodden (I'd stupidly teamed my raincoat with denim shorts) to the point where we couldn't actually get much wetter and the descent back into town became funny as we battled the wind.
Showered and in dry clothes (at least for the time being) we made a rather disastrous attempt at a night out - we joined several others from the hostel in going to a pub for food however there was a large queue and by the time we'd reached the front they'd ran out of most of the affordable dishes. We then waited for close to an hour for our food before giving up and going home via a pizza place.
The next morning Celina left us for Sydney. We splashed out on a farewell brunch at a cafe called Dip. Being a huge fan of brunch, I thoroughly enjoyed it and, although expensive, it was completely worth it. It was also the first meal I'd eaten 'out' in Australia (fast food not included). It rained for most of the day and I'd planned to rent a surf board however the stormy weather made the waves a little out of my league so instead we all rented body boards and spent a few hours in strong currents in the waves under grey skies and intermittent showers.
Leaving Byron Bay the following morning, despite having spent three nights there, I didn't really feel as if I'd properly experienced it as the weather had been so dreadful - I genuinely couldn't remember the last time I'd seen so much rain. Having reviewed the forecast (more rain!), I'd chosen not to stop at Surfers Paradise despite originally wanting to go there - whilst I could still appreciate the beauty of the east coast, even in the rain, it didn't seem there's was much to do aside from surf (I'd have liked to but the sea was too rough for my novice surfing skills), sunbathe (there was no sun) and 'party' (and I've already established that I'm just too old/'boring' to enjoy drinking excessively in sweaty bars with people I don't know (who smell like wet dog thanks to the rain)).
So I went straight to Brisbane hoping that a city would offer more suitable rainy day activities. Liron went to Surfers but I was joined by Anna and Lorna for the journey to Brisbane. The weather was slightly better there and it was a relatively pleasant journey. The city was full (but still relatively empty by London standards) as there was a festival happening that weekend but we'd managed to get the last three beds in an (overpriced and underwhelming) hostel near the main transport hub where thirty two dollars a night got us bunk-beds, no wifi, no lockers and no kitchen utensils - just a cooking area that smelt like someone had taken a poo in a corner and a dorm room that smelled of feet.
I introduced the girls to beer o'clock and we celebrated our arrival with a couple of afternoon drinks before arranging the following day's activities. I went in search of a supermarket for supplies for dinner and wandered around a bit of the city. It was a Friday night and bars were busy and people were shopping. I'd heard there wasn't a whole lot to see or do in Brisbane but it seemed like a nice enough place to be.
The following day, after an early start, we were back on a greyhound bus, this time without luggage, bound for Australia Zoo - the Steve Irwin zoo. I'd wanted to visit since hearing about it from Ryan and Cat back in Thailand and I hoped it wouldn't disappoint. And finally the rain had stopped. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, barely a cloud and temperatures in the low thirties - this was more like what I'd expected from Australia.
With childlike excitement we planned our day to ensure that we saw all the animals and shows in the best possible order. We started in 'Africa' with giraffes, rhinos and zebras before moving on to 'South East Asia' to feed elephants (not quite the same seeing elephants in the zoo once you've seen them wandering along the streets of India!). Next came Australia - we bought 'roo food' and wandered through the kangaroo 'enclosure' where the kangaroos roamed free and you could sit with them as they lazed in the sun and nibbled what looked a bit like rabbit pellets for, our hands. After chilling with the kangaroos for a while, still in 'Australia' we stroked koalas as they slept in trees, watched the crocodile show, saw lots of venomous (caged) snakes and finally visited the wombats - they were all asleep lounging on their backs with their little arms in the air but, even unconscious, they were still the coolest animals. It wasn't the cheapest day out but was totally awesome and I had a feeling that, as well as a longstanding wombat obsession (since meeting a wombat puppet in Riga in 2007) I may have developed a bi of a koala obsession too. Back at the hostel I cooked us a mild massaman vegetarian curry which sent me into a food coma (and was far too hot for the others).
The next morning I finally got by butt into gear and went for a jog - it'd been a while and it wasn't easy as it was an overcast but humid day in Brisbane. But I enjoyed combining sightseeing with exercise (at least until a bird pooped on my leg when I stopped to do crunches in a park). We spent the afternoon retracing the route of my jog through the shopping district and then back through the botanical gardens and along the river past the 'lagoon', a man made beach and swimming pool on the embankment. Then it started to rain so, like typical Australians, we spent Sunday afternoon in the pub. As the rain continued and began to sheet sideways we didn't venture far that evening with the exception of a quick dash across the road to Subway for dinner.
I left for Melbourne the next day feeling just a little disappointed with my time on the east coast (although excited to be heading somewhere sunnier) - I'd enjoyed my time in Sydney and the blue mountains, surf camp had been great despite the weather but Byron Bay in the rain just wasn't right. I also slightly regretted not having planned to go any further north in Queensland. But I had a feeling I'd end up back in this part of the world again in the not too distant future (hopefully not during a monsoon season) and there was plenty left to see then.