Sea, surfers, sand and sea-sickness!
After dropping off Mavis and Gerry at the airport, we drove north and slightly inland to Hunter Valley, famed in these parts for its wine-making (and sampling thereof!).
It was noticably warmer after the distinctly English climate of Melbourne as we strolled down country lanes in search of local wineries, which were very attractively landscaped and beautifully set within rolling hills with horses and tropical birds roaming freely.
Lucy indulged in 2 separate tastings at different wineries and seemed to have a bit of a knack for it as she bought a couple of bottles and giggled her way home in the afternoon sun!
Driving north again, we arrived in the seaside town of Newcastle to find it a place of contrasts - a rather shabby and superficial beach on one side of the bay in sharp contrast to the newly regenerated and cultured dockland area around the headland.
Here we visited Blackbutt Reserve, 20 KM of bushland in the town's suburbs complete with birds, wombats, emus, bats, wallabies and of course koalas!
Of course we indulged in a koala encounter, Lucy having to be persuaded in the strongest possible terms to take the startled creature out of her rucksack on more than one occasion!
We also took a rainforest walk and came across hundreds of bats nesting and flying around the trees above our heads. It was all very 'otherwordly' - the heat, smell, bat calls and 'whump whump' sounds from their flapping wings all made us feel like part of some strange horror film set somewhere in the deepest parts of an alien wilderness!
Take a look at the video to see for yourselves...
The coastal headland area of Port Stephens is comprised of numerous scenic and charming bays with gorgeous beaches and friendly laid-back charm that other parts of the East Coast now lack in their clamour to capitalise fully on the area's increasingly aggressive commercialisation.
On our first afternoon there, we took a summit walk near Nelson Bay to admire the area from above. The summit path was a little steep and treachorous, which became all the more apparant when a local Aussie girl (Amy) came running down the hill behind us, only to twist her ankle and then fall on her knee as she tumbled right next to us. Her sister Teegan was with her but couldn't get hold of their parents mobiles, so We did the only decent thing which was to carry her all the way down the path to the base of the hill!
While carrying her down, one of the sisters' teachers (Liz) came along and offered us some help, and so eventually we got Amy back down the hill, where she was put in Liz's car and taken home!
The next evening, Liz and her husband turned up at our hostel and offered to take us out for a meal, as long as we agreed to be quizzed about Europe and the UK as they were doing some travelling themselves in 2010. It sounded like a good deal to us!
Their whole family were actually present at the meal, Amy and Teegan's Mum had sent a card and present along with Liz for us which was a nice touch.
We also indulged in some sand-boarding while in the area, take a look at this video for how NOT to do it!
We took a dolphin and whale watching cruise here. From September to November, whales are migrating south along the coastline, mothers staying with their calves near the coast which makes for good whale-spotting! There are also an abundance of dolphins around Nelson Bay, which can be seen just walking around the marinas in town.
Unfortunately, as soon as the boat left the bay and tuned off its engines on open sea, Richard was sick as a dog and had to lie on the back of the boat for the whole morning. Lucy got a great view of a calf and mother whale though, as well as a pod of dolphins who tagged on our bow wave for a while playfully jumping in and out of the water alongside us before darting off to chase a school of fish at an impressive 20 knots through the water.
Our next port of call was Bellingen, a quaint and bewitching alternative 'new-age' town with gorgeous cafes, interesting galleries, museums and boutiques and a fascinating national park rainforest just up the road!
The Dorrigo National Park Rainforest was suitably impressive, with accessible walks through its amazing collection of trees and creeping vines leading into a deep valley towards the pretty Tristania Falls.
While in 'Bello', the huge dustcloud (some of you may remember this being on the news) which had blown in from the outback and covered most of New South Wales and Queensland (a not inconsiderable land mass!) arrived in Bellingen, turning the morning sun a strange light blue colour and the sky an eerie yellow! It was a strange sight to behold, like a thick yellow mist had descended and given the world a creepy duotone tinge!
Byron Bay was, at one time, a haven for hippies who came to the area for the laid-back vibes and great beaches. Today, bongs have been replaced with Billabong outlets but elements of the old hippy influences remain amongst the backpacker hostels and greyhound buses.
We had a quick look round before driving to Cape Byron, which boasts an impressively maintained lighthouse and its claim of being the most easterly point in Australia!
Feeling the need for respite from the east coast culture for a while, we headed inland to the strange and sleepy town of Murwillumbah, where our hostel was situated on the banks of a river and had large pet lizards wandering around for company!
We used this as a base to visit the fantastically superficial and unappealing stretch of coastline known as the Gold Coast, which could perhaps be described as a hot Blackpool.
We took one look and decided not to park Maggie, opting instead to drive through Surfer's Paradise and visit 'The Spit', a marina a couple of miles up the coast which comprised of over-priced clothes shops and some of the biggest yachts you're likely to see around these waters!
Brisbane was probably our favourite city in Australia, an opinion perhaps influenced by the fact that neither of us were ill, the weather was great and were staying a great area with plenty of culture and places to relax and watch the world go by.
The South Bank Parklands, near our hostel, was where you could find art galleries, theatres, fairs, markets, beautiful gardens and even an urban beach, complete with sand, palm tress, pools, water fountains and grassy banks for sun-bathing.
Most people who come to Hervey Bay do so to visit Fraser Island, us being no exception to this rule. Fraser Island is extremely expensive to visit due to its inaccessibility and lack of accommodation options, so we decided to take a day-trip there to get a feel for the island by taking a nature walk along a beach and through some woodlands, parts of which were used to train special operations soldiers for WWII (the rusting remnants of an old training camp can still be seen).
Magnetic Island had come highly recommended from friends and so we were looking forward to seeing what it had to offer. Lucy jumped for joy when we were checking into our bush-bungalow accommodation and saw that we could have hold a koala bear in the affiliated wildlife park next to the resort!
The tour at the park the following day didn't disappoint! We handled or were at close quarters with crocodiles, tropical birds, lizards and of course Lucy got to cuddle a koala bear while Richard took plenty of photos to record the occasion!
We also found out from the park ranger that while on our way up the coast, we'd wandered briefly around coastline that boasted the most concentrated number of aggressive saltwater crocodiles (unlike their freshwater counter-parts, these WILL attack and eat you!) in the entire country! Gulp! We agreed to be a little more aware of our environment moving forward!
While on the island, which we both loved almost straight away, we walked over some steep cliffs and through fire-damaged bushlands to bask in the glorious sunshine of the splendidly named Radical Bay, where the warm sea rolled towards us in huge waves, which made for some good improvised body-surfing fun!
On the way home from Radical Bay, we stopped to watch the sun go down over the ocean and found a local chippy to provide a taste of home as we enjoyed a very scenic end to the day.
Before Magnetic Island, we'd made the decision to miss out Cairnes and travel inland through the outback to Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Kakadu National Park to get a taste of the 'real' Australia before heading north to Darwin to fly to Singapore!