Another Top Ten Dive

Robert and I have been Googling “Top dive sites in the world, “Top 10 dive sites,” “Best places to dive” and have come up with a list. Of course, from different sources. they are all different sites. However, we found that most lists had several places in common: Yongala shipwreck, Australia (we dove in April), U.S.S. Liberty, Indonesia (diving in August), Baracuda Point, Malaysia/Sipidan, Malaysia (the one this post is about), and the Red Sea, Egypt (planned in the near future).

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Robert and Nemo

Sipidan truly has earned a place in the top ten. We were fortunate enough to explore it with my family. My parents and brother flew out for mom’s big birthday this summer to meet us. We spent a few days in a couple Malaysia cities before heading to Sipidan, and our dive experience blew the rest out of the water! We spent a whole week (my birthday and mom’s) at an over-water dive hotel, diving every single day!

The boys got a little burned out, but mom and I dove every single dive that was planned. Here are some of the amazing (and weird) things we saw.

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A pygmy seahorse a little bigger than my pinkie nail- can’t see it? It’s upside down hanging from its tail. You can see a little circular eyeball and the snout to the right.

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A porcupine fish…very poky!

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Pipefish (reminds me of a seahorse)- snout is on the ground

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Sipidan has lots of weird creatures and is a heaven for macro divers (people that like to dive and look for all the little things like the nudibranchs above). It’s especially known for places like Barracuda Point where dozens of schools of thousands of fish mass and swirl. It’s amazing to see the schools of fish swimming and swimming in a swirling tornado.

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This is a school of fish…about to swallow a diver!!!

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It was amazing getting to spend my birthday AND mom’s celebrating under water. And we DID celebrate! In case you’re wondering, you can blow AND hear birthday horns under water!

 

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I shared SO many pictures, but I have felt so blessed this year to have experienced so much of our amazing world underwater. I love being able to share the exciting things with you. And love diving!

The Gateway to Asia

Singapore: Asian culture with a Western standard of living. My Southeast Asia guidebook says Singapore can be explored “exhaustively” in just a few days, and we did our best! My parents and brother flew in to meet us to celebrate all the June birthdays. Robert and I turned 26 and mom had a big birthday! We all arrived between 8 pm and midnight and got up first thing Friday for a city tour.


Justin, Robert, and I did a pub crawl and got to experience much of the nightlife in Singapore. It was the best pub crawl I’d ever done as we met at a statue and got to know one another before walking to the bars. We met some really cool people from India, Australia, Norway, Germany…and had a blast!

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I found it very interesting that the Singapore government is very organized and plans better than any other government I can think of! Every plot of land is already designated for one thing or another. The government has a 30 year plan as far as land use and construction go, and it has seemed to work well for them. It’s crazy to think of a city that has the foresight to plan around population growth thirty years from now.

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My absolute favorite thing about Singapore is their policy on replacing greenery. They believe in replacing the green that is lost by building infrastructure which has led to vertical gardening. The buildings all over the city have gardens and trees on the roof, alcoves in the building with trees, vines hanging down the sides…it’s beautiful!

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We visited Gardens by the Bay, an area that Singapore has dedicated to being green. The main attraction (other than the two giant domes with foreign plants and flowers) is the collection of “super trees.” They are giant metal trees that have branches stretching out at the top. They are growing plants and vines on the tree, up the trunk, and eventually the green will cover the metal branches. They use solar power to light up at night and when the leaves fall, workers sweep them up and burn them in a special container. The trees purify the air and release it again. Genius! Every city should have vertical gardening in my humble opinion.


We also visited the night zoo! Their zoos are known for being open. Rather than having cages, the habitats are open are separated by moats or roads. We took a train through the zoo and walked around later to see some more animals. I love zoos, but it makes me so sad to go to the ones that say “This animal’s natural habitat is a lush and cool rainforest,” yet the enclosure has rock and dirt. I really liked that Singapore strives to provide each animal with its natural habitat. We truly enjoyed our three and a half days there and definitely didn’t see everything!

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Seals, Whales, and Glaciers- are we in the Arctic?

We have done so many things in New Zealand that I’ve had a difficult time choosing blogs. You’ll notice I went from one every three weeks to one every 6 or 7 days! I think we had too long of a time in Australia. It seemed like we had forever, so we spent a lot of days not doing much. We spent days doing really cool things, but also days saving money but not really doing much. Our time in New Zealand has gone so fast and we are literally doing something new and exciting every single day. We’re also spending a lot less money by sleeping in the van, so that’s cool. Literally. It’s below freezing at night!

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Enough about that. You clicked to hear about seals, whales, and glaciers! We’ve been driving around with a few destinations in mind, stopping when a place looks cool, moving on when it doesn’t. We stopped in a little town on the east coast of the south island before heading west permanently where we saw enough seals for a lifetime, and finally went whale watching!

There were seals everywhere. We saw some on the coast on the side of the highway. We hiked another coast and found a colony lazing around.

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We saw some while whale watching, and even cooler- we hiked up a stream and got to watch seal pups playing in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall. How amazing is that?

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Whale watching was very exciting. We were so busy zipping from one location to another that we didn’t have time to be “bored” waiting for a whale to resurface. We saw two sperm whales and one humpback- they are SO long!

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It helped that we got to see dolphins between whale sightings, too!

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Finally, Robert and I splurged (thanks to Mom and Dad’s birthday gift which helped tremendously) and hiked on a glacier! It started with a super short but very scenic helicopter ride and gave us three hours of squeezing through crevices, hiking up ridges, and (for Robert) throwing chunks of ice into holes to determine whether or not there was water at the bottom.

It was surprisingly warm because the sun was out. It was amazing to think that the ice below our feet at times was 300 meters thick! The blue in the ice was beautiful and it was a very neat experience we wouldn’t have back in Texas!

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The Most Adorable Cows You’ll Ever See

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Rob and I struck gold with another workaway experience! We stayed for a little over a week at a farm an hour and a half north of Wellington. The farm is run by Alex and Paul as well as Alex’s brother, Martin. During the week, Alex and Paul live in Wellington. They come out on weekends and work like crazy! I asked Alex if they ever came out and just relaxed. It was an answer my mom would give, “When it rains, we kind of have to. One day we will!”

Martin lives on the farm full time, so it was just the three of us during the week. And lots of cattle. And some sheep. And Rob’s personal favorite, two black pigs that want nothing more than constant belly scratching. By looking at the pictures, it’s pretty obvious how I spent most of my time.

Alex and Paul have Scottish Highland Cattle. They have long shaggy hair (which also makes wonderful rugs) and are, in my opinion, much prettier than other cows. Alex and Martin both spent time with me in the enclosures, teaching me about the herd and how to read them/act around them. It was fascinating because they all have different personalities. The first thing I learned about them is that their pecking order rules the way they live their lives, and the second was that they LOVE being brushed. These two things are very much related.

If you start brushing a cow that approaches you and someone higher in the pecking order wants to be brushed, he or she will charge or shove the offending cow/bull out of the way. You don’t want to get in the middle of them! If you are brushing the top dog, you are pretty safe because no one will push him or her around.

I got to touch their horns, which was really cool. I was pretty wary around them because some just want to cuddle and forget they have giant weapons on their heads. Alex could scratch them under their chins, but I wasn’t going near that area!

Aren’t they adorable?

Robert did lots of hard work digging fence post holes and helping feed all the animals. I just made sure the house was clean, he and Martin had awesome dinners at the end of the day, and the cows were happy.

Our last weekend was really nice. We knew the farm pretty well by then and got to enjoy Alex and Paul’s company again. Paul’s pretty sarcastic, so we enjoyed joking around with him. All three of them were such great company, so welcoming, and have such a beautiful farm. It’s definitely on our list to come back, not just to New Zealand, but to the farm!

The Longest Hike of our Lives…(One does not simply walk into Mordor)

One amazing thing about New Zealand is all the walks, treks, and hikes they have all over the country. They have several tracks that take 3-4 days to walk. We looked at doing one, but we don’t have any way to cook food without the stove in our van and the official “trekking season” ended at the end of April. That’s not to say we haven’t had our share of hiking: we’ve had lots of little hikes up volcanoes, through caves, to cool formations, and to hot springs or beaches.

 

The longest hike of our life was actually “only” 20 km. I have a mixed audience, so people like my mom will be like “Wow! I can’t believe you guys did that!” and I have friends who run 100 mile marathons that could have done this hike in their sleep. BUT, most of my friends haven’t walked into Mordor, so that must have accounted for much of the heaviness and weariness we felt.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is probably one of the most well-known hikes. You can do the circuit, which takes about 3 days, or you can do the crossing which is only 20km, one way. Hikers are supposed to plan 7-9 hours for the hike and have to pay attention to the weather because the crossing is closed in cloudy, stormy, or windy weather. We got the one beautiful day of the week, thank goodness! We had to pay for a van to pick us up from the end parking lot and drive us to the beginning of the trail, a 20-30 minute drive.

The first 2 km of the hike were an easy, flat walk. It was a bit frustrating because it was very warm in the sun and very cold in the shade. We stopped about 6 times in those 2 km to take off layers and put them back on. The next almost six kilometers were uphill. All this time, we are walking closer to the famous “Mount Doom” from Lord of the Rings, which was pretty amazing to look at.

There was a point in the uphill trek when every step was a struggle for me. We were each carrying over a gallon of water, I had tons of layers on, there was loose rock that slid underfoot, and it was really windy at the top. I could barely make one foot go in front of the other. Robert took my backpack for the last hill, which made a huge difference. At the top of that hill, we found a sign saying we had a little over 11 km to go. Not bad!

On the hike we saw the awesome volcanoes, gorgeous red colors in the hillsides, and my favorite: the emerald lakes.

Most of the cool stuff to see was in the first half of the hike. We’ve discussed coming back one day and climbing to the top of Mount Doom (it’s an additional “3 hours”- 6 km roundtrip on loose stone) but returning to the beginning afterward.

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What was more difficult than anticipated was almost the entire last 9 km were downhill, which was really hard on our knees. And our bodies in general. We got to the 6 km marker and were exhausted. Our feet hurt. I had blisters and a cut that had been bothering me the whole hike. We stopped and had another sandwich before continuing. By the 3 km mark, everything was on fire. I was hobbling. We found a bench and I could have collapsed and slept there for the rest of the day, but we only sat for ten minutes. The last three kilometers felt like 10. It was the hardest part of the whole hike.

 

The most beautiful site I saw might have been the end parking lot and our car after 8 long hours. We splurged and got a hostel, took long hot showers, and did a much needed load of laundry. It took almost a week for my feet and sore muscles to recover, but it was such an awesome experience and I’m very proud of us.

Hobbiting Around

Journal entry #2: By Robert Ed… enjoy

We went to Hobbiton! It was amazing! I decided that when I grow up, I want to be a Hobbit. My parents will be so proud. So we arrived, hopped on a bus, and drove out onto some dudes farm where they filmed the scenes at Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

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Our schedule went as follows:
1) Tour of Hobbiton
2) Complimentary beer at the Green Dragon
3) FEAST
4) Lantern lit tour back to the bus


We decided to spend the extra money and do the evening tour of the movie set because we got all the “evening” treatment such as the food and being the last tour of the day. Being the last tour was nice due to the fact that it was only our bus load of people left and no other tourists. Aside from all the juicy details the tour guide gave us, there was plenty of time to get all the pictures you want.

I would love to tell you all the cool and fun facts about what we heard, but screw that, you guys didn’t want to come join us so I’m going to just make you suffer and wonder “OMG! LIKE, WHAT COULD THEY HAVE SEEN AND BEEN TOLD? ERRMAAHHGRRRDDD!!!”.

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After our tour we headed to the green dragon and had our beer. They had 4 kinds, a pale ale, a stout, a cider, and an alcohol free beer. Meg got the cider and I got the pale ale. YUM! They were both really tasty and best part, they were cheap to get another! So I then got a stout, meg got the pale ale, and before we knew it we were getting called to gather for the dinner. They opened up the room and there were 3 massive tables packed full of FOOOOOOOOOOD.

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Chicken, lamb, beef patty things with beef chunks, veggies, bread, all sorts of stuff. And damn was it good! I was om nommin and just super stuffed myself way too much. Absolutely didn’t regret it at all. Then they brought dessert and I cant tell you how bad or wonderful it was because it was too full to thoroughly enjoy it. Meg could tell you though, she seemed to enjoy it a lot.


Then it came time for the night portion of the tour. They didn’t give us legitimate lanterns to carry, but still was cool. Electric lanterns with an almost obnoxiously bright light that shone from the front. Either way, all around awesome time at Hobbiton. Can’t wait to become a Hobbit so I can do that every day…

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What’s a Glow Worm?

Robert and I swung into the Waipu caves and ended up spending almost three hours exploring them. It’s one of the coolest things we’ve done so far!

We started with shoes, but ended up carrying them after five minutes because of all the mud and water. I’ve never explored so deep in a cave: it was awesome! We climbed up rock walls and under low stone ceilings.

There was a stream that we followed deeper into the cave that led to large caverns and more twisting tunnels. We went down the tunnels, finding rooms and more streams and getting a little lost a couple times!

 

The coolest part of the caves were the glow worms. They only live above the streams, so I guess they need the condensation. Shining a light on the ceiling, you could see skinny white insects and chains of white beads hanging from the ceiling.

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Turning off the lights, it looked like the night sky inside the cave. The glow worms looked like stars, which was amazing. Some spots only had a couple glow worms and others were covered. It was difficult to get a good picture, but we managed to get a few.

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There are other glow worm caves to explore, many free, and many for a high price. We had planned to take a tour that would have cost us $100, so I’m glad we stumbled upon this cave first! We could spend as much time as we wanted and explore as deep in the cave as we wanted. They’re fascinating creatures! We’re exciting for more amazing adventures in New Zealand!

The Black Sands of Whatipu

The first night in our campervan found us deep in the forest camping by Whatipu Beach. We spent the whole next day exploring the area, which was Robert’s favorite day so far!

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We started the day with a hike to the summit of the tallest hill in the area. The view at the top literally took my breath away. I expected to be surrounded by green and be able to see the ocean on one side, but I got to the top and saw water everywhere. There was a bay that stretched to the horizon on my left, a straight and island in front of me, and ocean as far as I could see on the right. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Even better, there was a bench on the summit that allowed us to sit and look out on the water.

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I could have sat there all day. I felt so in awe of the beauty and so at peace. I felt like I could get through any stress or hurdle at home ifI could just take the whole scene home with me. Everything about it was amazing: the view, the smell, the sounds of the waves crashing, the cold air that stung my cheeks… it is where I would go every day if I was able.

From the summit, Robert saw a cave at the tip of a rock formation jutting into the water. He decided he had to explore the cave, so we hiked down to the beach and set out climbing around the rock formation.

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It took us two hours! We started out barefoot, walking in the water, but it soon became painful stepping on sharp rocks. Robert went back after twenty minutes to get our shoes, which saved us! It made the climb so much better!

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We hopped from rock to rock in the water, climbed over boulders, and had to time some jumps or else we’d get soaked/trapped by the rising waves! We finally made it to the cave and it was actually a hole all the way through the rock. This is Robert’s happy place- exploring where there is no trail, climbing rocks and watching waves.

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We made it back and walked along the ocean until we found several caves to explore right on the beach.

One was flooded with water and we walked back aways until our feet ached with the cold water. There was one enormous cave that used to be used as a ballroom! I’m not sure who used it or how the ladies hiked there in heels, but it was huge!

The best part about this whole day was, it was free! We got back to the campsite and took a quick shower- very very quick since it was icy cold! We love New Zealand- it’s absolutely beautiful!

The Death Hike and Naked Scuba Diving

We had our first visit from a familiar face at the beginning of April- my cousin Ana flew from LA to spend a little over a week with us. Before she came, she sent a wish list that included things like holding a koala, camping in the rainforest, diving in the Great Barrier Reef, and doing a night dive. We were definitely OK with all of that!

Also on her list was what I called the Death Hike. It was a 6-8 hour hike up Mount Sorrow, an apt name for a rough hike. We started out early and excited, loaded down with water and snacks. Parts of it were incredibly steep and exhausting.

 

Most of the trees we walked between were connected by 2-4 foot spider webs. Soon, the leader had to walk with a “spider stick” in front fo them to catch most of the webs before our faces did! We saw some huge (and scary) and cool (and colorful) spiders on the way.

We reached the top and it was beautiful scenery BUT we were disappointed- we hiked all the way up and there was no where to sit down! We had envisioned a meadow where we could sit, eat lunch, and look at the view. Instead, there was a metal platform surrounded by trees.

It was still gorgeous seeing the ocean and rainforest all at once, but the best view was from standing on the railings. We spent our lunch jumping around and peeling leeches from our arms and legs. Gross!

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The trip down was much more difficult. We were tired, our legs were shaky, I pulled a muscle, Ana fell, and there wasn’t much joyful talking. We arrived at the car, glad we had attempted and conquered the hike, but completely exhausted.

A few days later, we left land for the sea. We went on a sailboat for two days and six dives. We had some amazing dives. We found nudibranchs we’d never seen before, turtles and sharks, and lots of blue spotted stingray.

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My 100th dive was while on the boat and the dive instructors reminded me of the Australian/backpacker tradition of diving naked on your 100th dive. I laughed at told them to keep dreaming, but I had heard of the tradition five years ago as well. The idea is that you “will have bad luck for the rest of your dives if you don’t do it.” I’m not superstitious, but it seemed harmless and kind of crazy, so I decided to do it BUT I would wait until halfway through the dive-no way was I giving the boat a show!

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It took both Robert and Ana to help me on the bottom of the ocean- one had to keep me down while the other held my weight belt and BCD so I could take off the stinger suit (a full body suit to protect you from jellyfish). I put my weight belt back on and took off my suit before putting the BCD vest back on. Oh my GOODNESS. It felt very very weird to be diving naked. After ten minutes, we ran into another scuba group! I panicked and hid behind Ana, covering myself with the suits I was carrying. Robert was laughing really hard, which is difficult under water, and Ana was trying to cover me while they took their time looking at a branch of coral by us.

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That cured me of the experience, I dressed again, and we continued our dive. Ana wants us to plan a trip for her 100th dive now!

I do need to mention the Yongala dive we did. We dove a shipwreck twice and had awesome dives! Unfortunately, they were much shorter because they were so deep. We saw 20 eagle rays swim over our heads, the normal cool stuff, a sea snake swimming to the surface, eels, and a lion fish!!! I’m putting some pictures below. We’re in New Zealand now- we’ve traded the summer for the cool!

 

Yellow Brick, Dirt, Long…if it’s a road, we’ve been on it

We spent a couple weeks with relatives close to the Gold Coast in March. It was really nice to take a break from the tent and hostels and enjoy good company with food that was cooked for you.

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We had planned to take our time making our way up the coast back to Cairns, but I got another infection and found out I need my wisdom teeth surgically removed and soon. We weren’t able to take care of it while staying at Robyn and Henry’s, so we scheduled appointments in Cairns. We had a week to make our way up the coast, about a 22 hour drive.

Tues-Thurs, Stop 1: Maryborough- Ross and Ann offered us a bed on our way up the coast. We stayed with them two nights and helped them get ready for their Easter weekend trip. I spent hours cutting out some pretty good looking fish shaped chocolate cookies for a birthday cake. It was really nice to see them again and spend some time with them.

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Thurs- Stop 2: Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. We went on a day tour and absolutely loved it. You can’t go without 4-wheel drive, so we were ferried over and loaded on a 4-wheel drive bus. It was pretty cool looking! We swam in an amazing crystal-clear freshwater lake on the island. The whole time we swam, we could see our feet and the bottom clearly! That was my favorite part of the island.

We also visited 75 mile beach which is actually 75 miles long. It’s considered a national highway and the speed limit is 100 kph! We visited the Maheno shipwreck and a couple other spots. It was a long day, but very fun.

We got off the ferry and drove a few hours north to Bundaberg and set up camp in the dark after a pub meal-yum!

Fri-Sun, Stop 3: Platypus Bush Camp by the Finch Hatton Gorge- This little gem I read about on my campsite app WikiCamps. It had great reviews, so we decided to check it out and stock up on food since we only had a couple cans of veggies and some ramen. It was Good Friday, so all the supermarkets and grocery stores were closed. Halfway there (it was an 8 hour drive), we passed a little independent store and were able to get sandwich supplies.

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We made it to the camp an hour after the sun set, met the caretaker who was stoned out of his mind and wasn’t making much sense, and set up our tent. Before we could get to bed, we were whisked to another camp by two drunk women who wanted to make friends. Robert and I ended up spending the evening having a couple beers and talking to two couples who were there for the long weekend with five kids.

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The next day, we had to drive thirty minutes away to an ATM because we’d spent all our cash on the drive and had no way to pay for the camp. We went for a long walk to a waterfall and river and spent an hour or two climbing rocks up and down the riverbank. The water was freezing, but only I got really wet since I fall more than Robert does. There was a deep pool beneath the waterfall where crazy stupid people were jumping off the cliffs into the water.

Robert convinced me to be one of those crazy stupid people after he did it twice. I probably stood there for 20 or 30 minutes trying to talk myself into jumping and finally did. I have a slight fear of heights. I can go up anything, but when it comes to climbing or jumping down, I’m stuck. BUT, I did it! I’m very proud of myself. We explored the area, swam more, never saw any platypus, and made friends with another Australian family. All of us sat around the campfire that night and made a different version of s’mores that involves nutella, chocolate, marshmallows, and a waffle cone. YUM!

Sun, Stop 4: Whitsunday Islands are an island chain made of like 74 islands and are a national park. We had to wake up at 4 am and pack up camp to get to the office by 7 to check in. Our tour was OK; we both thought the Fraser island tour was a much better deal for the money. The islands were packed with dense trees except for some beautiful beaches.

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Whitehaven Beach has beautiful fine white sand. It felt like walking on flour! Before we even got to the beach, the screen on my camera randomly stopped working. So I changed a couple settings and pointed and shot. We’ll see if any come out! I’m very upset about my camera: I’ve had it for 9 months and it’s gotten amazing pictures diving! I hope it can be fixed under warranty.

Sun-Mon, Stop 5: We were pretty exhausted after the Whitsundays since we had been up since 4 am, but we decided to drive to another camp site I read about in my app. It was supposed to be a three hour drive and ended up taking four because the last 55 km were on a terrible, bumpy, steep dirt road.

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We couldn’t go over 40 km and went 25 for much of it because our car is a piece of junk. We think the road shook some electrical wiring loose because our dome light keeps going on and off and the blinker clicks constantly. The joys of being a backpacker!
On the way, I had a really bad reaction to some anti itch cream I had put all over some mosquito bites on my chest. We found a truck stop where I could shower because my chest, neck, and face were on fire. The shower helped a lot, but it still itched! We set up our tent when we arrived around 10 (we’re getting to be pros at setting up and taking down in the dark) and passed out! Long day!

Monday, Final destination: I woke up to a bumpy angry rash covering my skin from last night. Robert cooked a yummy breakfast, I showered again, and we hit a pharmacy on the way to Cairns. I got some cream for the rash and still don’t know what on earth was in the stuff that irritated my skin. It was pretty miserable for the whole drive! We hit Cairns right BEFORE dark this time since we drove all day. We will be in Cairns until we leave the country April 20th!