A Giant Drive to the Windy City

Reflecting on a long drive in Chicago

Driving into Illinois, the final state for us on Route 66, it soon became clear that this was a part of America that is very proud of its links with the famous road. Much of the original route is still intact, providing the opportunity to drive along much of it while the masses of cars and lorries speed along the Interstate 55 which runs parallel just a few metres away.

Route 66 – and its replacement alongside

After lunch in yet another historic venue, the Ariston in Litchfield, believed to be the oldest café on Route 66, we were heading north on the final leg of this particular part of the journey, aiming for Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan, the historic end of the road.

The Ariston, one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66

It was a drive that gave us many opportunities to stop and take in the some of the historic locations along what was, many years ago, the start of the route for people heading to better times in the west.

Stepping back in time

Its for that reason, perhaps, that the state of Illinois celebrates Route 66 with such vigour. All along the route, signposts, information boards and points of interest are clearly marked, a huge contrast to some areas we had passed through where at times it was difficult to even work out if we were on the right road due to a lack of signage.

We arrived in the town of Atlanta shortly before nightfall, the quiet streets bathed in the soft yellow and orange hues of the setting sun. A town of just over 1,600 people, the town is very much preserved as it was in the good times gone by, when thousands of people would pass through every year on the road.

Atlanta’s old Greyhound stop

As Ian and I wandered through the small gardens in the town, looking at the relics and paintings that adorn the walls, we were approached by a young woman who was also taking photographs.

Her name was Stacy, and she told us how she works for the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway organisation, dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the famous American road. The fact that there is such a group is perhaps why the journey was noticeably more enjoyable through the state. We chatted about where we had already been, the places where we had stopped, and Stacy gave us tips on where to stop off.

Big man and a big sausage

We said farewell, and Stacy continued taking photographs while the two of us went to see the giant. That’s right – a giant. Its known as Bunyon’s Statue, a 30ft tall man holding a giant hotdog. He once stood for 42 years in front of Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand in nearby Cicero, but moved to his current site a while back. He now stands tall, if you pardon the pun, in the middle of the town, close to the old Greyhound bus stop.

Bunyon’s Statue is one of the old ‘Muffler Men’, fibreglass statues designed to be used as advertising around the United States in the 60s. The original design was of a man holding an axe, but that got changed over the years so he could be appearing as anything from a Viking to a chef and holding anything from tyres and exhausts, to, well, hotdogs, depending on the business.

As we made our way back to the car, Stacy came back over to us. She could tell we were so genuinely interested in all that Route 66 had to offer, that she had been back to her car and brought us both a gift – a Route 66 registration plate. There was also a chance for a few photos with a genuine Rt 66 sign, before we said a final goodbye and headed back out onto the road, complete with our special mementos.

With Stacy, my gift and a famous sign!

By now, Chicago is firmly on all the roadsigns, the hundreds of miles slowly ticking down and the end of this long drive is in sight. We stopped for coffee at the Dixie Trucker’s Home in McLean,

Mixing it with the truckers in McLean

another famous stop along Route 66 which has featured in many guides, books and historic accounts. Its still very much a popular stop for trucks, with the colourful cabs all lined up perfectly as the long distance drivers took some refreshments onboard. They seemed to be a friendly bunch, peering out of their cabs and waving at me as I snapped away, clearly proud of their mammoth machines that they call home. Its one thing to be doing this journey for fun, but a whole new ball game to be doing it for a living. I could tell there was a great camaraderie between them.

Mean machines at Dixies

But we still had some serious distance to travel if we were to have a decent amount of time in Chicago the following day, and we drove on into the night. At Wilmington, just a couple of hours away from the end of the 66, there was one more sight to see – yet another giant. This one, another ‘Muffler Man’, is the famous Gemini Giant, named after the space programme and standing outside the Launching Pad restaurant. His space helmet may look more like a welding mask, but that is all part of the appeal.

Gemini Giant

After a stop at an old motel in Joliet for the night, it was just over an hour before we began hitting the outskirts of Chicago, and soon we spotted the famous SearsTower.

At the wheel into Chicago

Except, its not called the Sears Tower anymore – it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. For me, it was the most recognisable structure in the city, having seen it on so many films and television programmes over the years. We knew the Route 66 ended somewhere near it, so we used the towering structure as a point of reference to guide us into the city centre.

The Sears Tower guiding us in

It was strange pulling into the multi-storey car park we found, close to one of the city’s elevated railways with the noisy trains clattering by. We pulled into a space, and turned the engine off. For us, and the car, Route 66, bar finding the final sign, was over. A huge drive across the United States, from the southwest corner to the north east, had clocked up 2,789 miles on the car since I reset the trip computer as I pulled out of the hire car centre at LAX.

Some serious miles are clocking up!

We let the car have a well-earned rest as we set off to see the sights of the Windy City for the day, starting off with a search for the end of the 66. It was a walk that was to take us to the edge of Lake Michigan – as that’s where I had been told there would be some form of sign or plaque – but to get there we had to walk through the main gardens where there was a huge food festival taking place. Amid the smells and sounds of cultures from around the world, Ian and I set about trying to find both the official end to the road, but also to find the silver ‘bean’, a nickname given to Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor.

We made it to Chicago!

Both were difficult to find, and we both found ourselves walking around for a while, asking police officers and marina officials for directions. There were conflicting views on where the official end to Route 66 was located, but firm directions to the ‘bean’ structure.

A dip (of the toe!) in Lake Michigan

After dipping our toes into Lake Michigan, marking the furthest point we could go from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the end of the road in Chicago, we followed the crowds to Millennium Park and easily spotted the shiny silver structure.

The Bean

It really is quite a spectacular structure. Its far bigger than I imagined, the backdrop of skyscrapers seeming to dwarf if, but up close it towers above the hundreds of tourists who gather below. Its impressive for more than just its size and appearance, which raises questions as to how such a shape could be built, seemingly without joins and construction marks, but also because of the unique views of the city reflected on the surface. As a result, from some angles the sculpture appears to blend in to the background, the edges blurred as the reflection blends into the horizon.

Weird reflections

Underneath, you can walk through and take in the way the polished surfaces distort the reflections, sometimes making it hard to actually work out where you are when it comes to spotting yourself on the structure. It also provides for some peculiar photographs.

Big bean

Said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, to me it resembled something that had landed in Chicago from outer space, something more fitting to a huge prop from a sci-fi movie blockbuster, but I loved it. It was welcomed by people in the city from the moment it was unveiled, and overall its loved by tourists. And that’s one of the reasons why it has to be cleaned down and polished twice a day – trying to find a nice spot for a fingerprint-less photo was easier said than done. But we’ll let Anish Kapoor off for that – he had other things to get on with, including a design for the huge red tower at the Olympic Park in London.

A storm brews over the Windy City

As we took the walkway towards the Art Institute of Chicago, we noticed the sky was rapidly turning a deep, dark shade of grey. A view down one of the long streets stretching into the distance revealed a bright haze at the end of it. It was a sheet of rain, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. We knew it was time to move, and quick. We headed back to Grant Park and towards the huge water fountains, the wind picking up rapidly and ensuring Chicago lived up to its nickname. Suddenly, another loud succession of thunderclaps, flashes of lightning, and huge blobs of rain began to fall.

Thunderbolts and lightning…very, very frightning!

It was a storm that came from nowhere, but drenched anyone without cover. The busy park quickly emptied of food festival-goers, all of whom had no dived for cover under marquees and tents set up around the site. Ian and I joined them, watching as wave after wave of heavy rain lashed down, and forked lightning lit up the sky. It was a storm that seemed to hover over Chicago, swirling around the skyline for around half an hour before slowly drifting away.

Grub up, under a shelter!

It was time that Ian and I didn’t really have to waste, but we made the most of the predicament by buying a couple of burgers from one of the park stalls and doing the best we could to shelter out of the storm by cowering under the small shelter provided by the stall’s roof and guttering.

As the rain slowed, our search for the end of Route 66 continued, again with various people struggling to show us the right way. After crossing the busy Lake Shore Drive for a second time, and with no sign of the elusive sign, we gave up and decided to head back towards the Willis Tower. We walked back up the road where we’d walked along a couple of hours before after leaving the car, and we paused to use some free wifi outside a coffee shop to do one last search to see where the road officially ended. After all, we probably won’t be completing the drive again anytime soon.

“It says its down here, in this street,” I said to Ian, trying to juggle a laptop, a phone and bag in the middle of a path full of business people and tourists.

And then we saw it. Up on a lamppost, about 12ft above the path, and what we’d managed to walk underneath completely oblivious just a few hours before.

“END – Historic Route” it said, the familiar brown sign we have been following from the Pacific Ocean.

We’d done it, we’d completed one of the most famous drives in the world, and we marked it with a photograph below the famous roadsign as proof. Our destination was reached, and we celebrated with a trip to the top of the Willis Tower.

Officially at the other end of Route 66!

It was yet another tall building to add to my list of tall buildings visited during this trip around the world, but this one is among the most impressive. At 1,730ft tall, it’s the tallest building in the United States, and with it being just a bit taller than the World Financial Center in Shanghai, it’s the tallest building I will have the pleasure of visiting during this trip around the world.

View from the former Sears Tower

Particularly enjoyable as part of the visit is the history of the building, being fed to visitors from the moment you first walk through the doors. There are a number of incredibly high speed lifts that whiz you to the top, to an observation deck 103 floors above the city. The view is understandably spectacular, offering views across Illinois and Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. Amazingly, people at this height can even feel the building sway on a windy day, but thankfully the earlier storm had well passed by the time we reached to top of this iconic building.

Now, I’ve previously mentioned how the novelty of going to the top of tall buildings can wear off after a while. Well, the Willis Tower has done something to interest even the most hardened observation deck visitors – they’ve installed retractable glass cubicles that jut out over the ground some 412 metres below.

Sitting on top of the city!

And, even better, it costs no extra to step out onto the glass, watching as the edge of the building disappears below you, leaving just a thin surface of transparent molten sand between you and certain death. It is quite a feeling to actually step out, mainly as, with a fully transparent glass canopy around you, it genuinely feels like you are stepping out of the building and into thin air.

Vertigo, anyone?!

It provoked some humorous, staggered, nervous walks from others as they gingerly walked out over the drop. I looked down as the edge of this famous building stretched down to the ground below me. Ian managed to overcome his apprehensions about it too, and we got some great photos of us both in opposing pods. Stepping out of the side of the third tallest building in the world was certainly a memorable experience.

Ian on the Ledge

But we had to get back down to Earth. Our journey along the Route 66 was complete, but our roadtrip across America was far from complete. The Atlantic Ocean beckons – and there is plenty of driving to do if we are to make it on time.

We got back into the car and set out through the Chicago rush hour to meet the Interstate, and a long drive into the early hours across Indiana and Ohio. But on the way to the East Coast, there’s a special place that’s close to our hearts we need to visit…

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Vivid Memories of Australia

Goodbye Oz

Its been the best part of six months since I was last heading to Sydney, on a flight from Thailand, but now, having completed a huge circuit through and around this giant country, it was time to go full circle.

Leaving Byron Bay in the knowledge it was my final overnight Greyhound journey down the east coast, there was more than a tinge of sadness. The initial novelty of seeing the differences in Australia – the different road signs, the gum and eucalyptus trees that line the highways and byways, different retail names and brands, even the Aussie accent, had all long worn off.

It has, to all intents and purposes, become home.

To say “I’m just nipping out to Coles” rolls off the tongue as normally as “I’ve got to pop to Tesco,” back home. I long mastered the Australian currency, although I still think the $2 coin should be bigger than the $1 coin, and seeing incredible coastlines, crashing waves and beautiful beaches has become as much as part of life as driving along the Humber on the A63 back home.

It has crept up on me quickly, and I don’t think it has sunk in yet that within just a couple of days, my time in Australia will be no more, that I’ll have moved on to pastures new, and my friends here that I am so used to being in touch with via text message or Facebook in the same time zone will once again start living further and further away from me.

But I had a few friends to catch up with first before I finally said farewell to Australia, and the first involved a short 24 hour stay in Newcastle, a few hours north of Sydney. Leaving the surf behind in Byron Bay, I joined the Greyhound in the town centre and got comfortable for a night’s broken sleep on the road. Thankfully, two days of hard work on the waves had left me shattered, but its still hard to get a ‘proper’ sleep on a bus, nomatter how many ways you contort your body to try to get comfortable.

A recipe for no sleep

Sleeping on buses, I have learned in the last few weeks, is something of a fine art. For best results, take a pillow – my tiny British Airways issue pillow has been worth its weight in gold. An oversize hoodie provides a great way of keeping your body and head warm, and when pulled over your eyes, acts like a sleeping mask.

Most of all, night time coach travel requires you to be short, which I’m not. How I look in envy at some of the smaller people in life, quite happily curled up on two seats and enjoying the slumber. For me, when my legs aren’t trying to find available cavities under the seats in front of me to fill, they’re often flapping around trying to become horizontal. That’ll involve trying to get comfortable by resting on seats across the aisle, only to be knocked down shortly after by someone getting on or off the bus.

You might just nod off, only for a debilitating pain to strike up, usually in the buttock region, from being sat in a weird angle for too long. Or your arms have gone to sleep from resting on them. Or we’ve just flown around the last corner too quick and I’ve banged my head on the window again. Or the pillow has slipped and my skull is vibrating on the glass.

Early morning driver break. Feeling good.

You probably get the picture that sleeping on a bus isn’t necessarily for me, but when you’re backpacking, it does save the cost of a night’s accommodation. And for me, that’s the most important thing right now – I’ve got the rest of my life to sleep properly in a bed!

Somehow, the night passed and I woke up on the outskirts of Newcastle, a coastal town built up around a busy port, and where I get off the bus for a day. Its somewhere that, before this trip, I would have happily sailed through on the motorway and on to Sydney, but that part changed in Thailand.

Studious Liz at home in Newcastle

Newcastle is home to my friend Liz, who I met in Chiang Mai and spent over a week travelling around the north of Thailand with back in December. We rode and washed elephants together, enjoyed countless Chang beers and Sangsom whiskeys, toured waterfalls and beautiful scenery and had countless laughs in a group with our friends Bryce and Erin. Regular readers, however, will just remember her as the Australian girl I managed to throw off the back of a scooter on the motorbike ride back from Pai.

Liz and I about to get thrown off an elephant in Thailand in December

Thankfully, our friendship survived that little test and we’ve stayed in touch, and I promised to call by should my journey take me anywhere near Newcastle. After a few hours of much needed sleep at one of the town’s only backpacker hostels, Liz picked me up. It felt strangely normal to wave her down in the street and jump into her car, despite it already being six months since we were causing trouble in Thailand together.

Liz is studying to be a journalist, which probably explains why we get on so well together, but she had a bit of coursework due to be handed in that afternoon. We headed straight to a lovely bar and restaurant complex near the docks, where she treated me to lunch and refused to take any money.

“Don’t worry about it, you’re still travelling,” she said.

We had a great few hours catching up, laughing about our adventures together in southeast Asia, and finding out all about each others’ travels since. The last time I saw Liz, she was running out of the dorm room in Chiang Mai, late for her taxi (bad timekeeping is another thing we have in common) to the airport for a flight to Cambodia. She told me all about her new year celebrations in the country, as well as her onward travels to Vietnam and Laos, following a similar route that I took a month previous.

Taking in the sights of Newcastle!

I also read through one of her assignments for her, giving her a few pointers but mainly putting her mind at ease that it would get a good grade. She’s actually a really good writer, and I know she’ll go on to do well in the industry.

Like all good journalists, Liz also knows how to have a good time, and that night we met up with some of her friends as one of them was leaving, funnily enough, to go travelling. We’d promised to relive some of our party nights from Thailand, and we certainly did our best.

Liz and a laser

I woke up the following morning only having had a few hours sleep and with a sore head – a familiar feeling from our nights in Chiang Mai together – and managed to pack my belongings into my bag for the 9.40am departure to Sydney. Co-incidentally, Liz, her partner and her sister will follow me a few hours later with friends to see the Temper Trap gig at the Opera House, and we agreed to meet up for a few more beers afterwards.

In the meantime, I boarded my coach and watched as Newcastle passed by outside the window. When I’d mentioned to a few people I was stopping off in the city, I did get a few quizzical looks.

“Why on earth do you want to stop there?” people would say.

Newcastle seagulls. Mine?!

When I explained I had a friend there, all was understood, but actually, I really liked the place. For me, there were many similarities to home in Grimsby – by the coast, with a beach, a hugely important port and a rich history. Coal exports are a huge deal for Australia, and much of it passes through Newcastle. The port very much resembles that of Immingham, an industrial landscape with huge piles of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for markets overseas.

I didn’t see much more of the journey however, after I managed to fall asleep in a snore-inducing position with my head wedged backwards between the seat and the window. I twice woke myself up with particularly loud snorts, and judging by the looks I was getting from other passengers, they weren’t the only two I’d managed in the three hour journey south. The fact I woke up, on the outskirts of Sydney, with a dry mouth and slightly sore throat was all the evidence I needed that I had, indeed, snored my way from city to city. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with other passengers until I was well away from the coach.

Approaching the Harbour Bridge

The way back into Sydney took me for my first crossing of the famous Harbour Bridge before we pulled into Central Station, my 3,000km journey down the east coast of Australia finally complete. While Sydney felt familiar, it seemed a world away from the Sydney I arrived in at the end of January. Back then, the height of summer, I had everything to look forward to in Australia – I had all my friends to meet, I was catching up with my friend Cat from home, and Jack, one of my best mates from university, was in the city for work.

Crossing the Harbour Bridge

Now I had arrived knowing the end was near, and that my trip is slowly but surely moving into the twilight stages before I finally head home. I walked along streets that I had walked along before my ‘Ballarat family’ was even known to me.

End of the road – arriving in Sydney on the Greyhound

That I walked along believing I was heading to Mount Gambier in South Australia to help out at a roadhouse. That I had walked along not knowing I would attend the Australian Grand Prix, break down in a mate’s car at Ayers Rock, get thrown out of a hostel in Darwin or learn to surf in Byron Bay. Back then, I had no idea how my stay in Australia would pan out – but I smiled as I walked back to my hostel in Sydney knowing I had made the most of every moment here.

As I pressed the button on the lift at the World Square Hostel in George Street once again, my mind flashed back to that day in January when I was doing the same, on my way up to room 403 where Cat was staying, my friend from Hull who was the main person who inspired this trip. I remember the nerves, and of wondering how long I could afford the expensive place that Australia has become. Its almost six months, yet it feels like just a few hours ago that I had last been in the building.

Back then, Cat was in the same position I now find myself in, having worked her way around Australia and arriving in Sydney with a couple of days to spare before flying out to New Zealand. I checked in with reception, before heading off to Darling Harbour and to my friend Katrina’s office.

With Liz, her partner Jim, her sister and friends on my first night back in Sydney

Having left my bank card in Alice Springs, I have been living on a credit card for the past month. Now, however, the funds on the credit card have dried up, and I couldn’t have timed it any better to pick up my card. It was initially sent to my hostel in Darwin, but I’d left before it arrived. It was down to my friends Dan and Laura, who I left in the north, to send it on to Katrina in Sydney, who in turn left it with security at her office for me to collect. It was a relief to get my hands on it, and I could go on to pay for my hostel as a result!

I met Katrina for lunch at the Hard Rock Café on the harbour for a catch up and a goodbye before I left. I’ll always be grateful to her for the help and support she gave me during my first few days here, and we had a great couple of hours laughing about some of my travel tales, talking about her Crossfit exertions and savouring our last meeting for a while.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

There was one other goodbye that evening, to Brandon, who was in my dorm at the Gilligans hostel in Cairns. He’s also made his way down the east coast, but in his own car that he’d bought for his travels.

With Brandon at Vivid

We’d agreed to take in the Vivid light festival together, and met at Darling Harbour in time for the weekly fireworks show at 8.30pm. It’s a great little display, one that I watched with Katrina when I first arrived in the city earlier this year, and Brandon was impressed that it was a weekly event. It certainly brings in the crowds to the area, where, despite the rain, hundreds of people line the quaysides.

We walked on to Circular Quay, where you get the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and where the Vivid festival takes place.

Vivid light festival, Sydney

It’s a collection of illuminated art, the centrepiece being a special display on the sails of the iconic Opera House. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition last year, co-incidentally on the same weekend as this one during my three week trip around the world. But whereas last year the famous sails were lit in bright colours, that would change and evolve into shapes, this year there was a projection of two figures onto the surface.

Sydney Opera House, disappointingly not as Vivid as last year

While they would move, roll around and appear to walk on the landmark, for me it wasn’t quite as effective as last year, which was a shame. The rest of the exhibition was as fantastic as always, including Customs House and the Museum of Modern Art being lit up with some incredibly clever 3D projections.

Customs House before the ‘show’

Customs House during the ‘day of city life’ show

We spent hours walking around in the rain, taking in all the smaller pieces dotted around the area, before heading back to my hostel for a final beer together. While I leave in a matter of hours, Brandon also heads back to his native Canada, and to Saskatchewan, in a few days. As he disappeared down the spiral stairs and back out onto the wet Sydney streets, I headed to my bunk.

One of the highlights of Vivid Sydney – they’re cycles!

Giving art a whirl!

Its hard to sum up my feelings. There’s sadness that I will probably never spend as long in Australia, meeting so many good friends, ever again, but gratitude that at least I’ve had the opportunity to make this trip. There’s a feeling that it’s passed by so quickly on one hand, yet when I think back to my arrival here, it can seem so long ago. Then there’s excitement at a new chapter in my travels about to unfold, a visit to a new country that I have never been to but heard so many good things about. And I also know it means my journey around the world is slowly coming to an end. In just over a month and a half, I will be back home – Sydney, its Opera House, my Australian friends and those uncomfortable Greyhound bus seats will seem so far away.

As I hauled my bags over my shoulders in Australia one last time, I said goodbye to the staff and took my final steps out of the hostel. It was raining, yet again, which seemed to suit my mood. I made my way to Town Hall station, but paused before disappearing down the steps and onto a train to the airport. I looked up and around, taking in one last view of the city, and smiled.

Looking forward

I came to this country knowing just a couple of good friends, who helped to look after me, support me and made me feel so welcome in their homes. I leave with a huge list of new friends, who I will stay in touch with, remember fondly and hopefully, at some point, meet again in the future, either back in this fantastic place Down Under, or back home on British soil.

I also came here with a few ticks outstanding on my bucket list – Uluru and the Whitsundays were high up there. Somehow, despite a few financial problems that cropped up along the way, I had visited all the places I set out to see, and more besides. The beautiful Great Ocean Road and stunning Grampians in Victoria with Siobhan and Matt from home; the sights and sounds of Ballarat with my ‘family’ of Nat, Jess, Liv, Jane and James, the Ghan train to the outback with Dan and Laura, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock with my friend Neil, complete with the fateful breakdown of his car. Diving the Great Barrier Reef, cruising along the beach on Fraser Island and learning to surf the Aussie way – so many highlights, and memories that will always be with me.

A last view of Sydney’s skyline from the airport

On the way to gate 36 for my Qantas flight to Auckland at Sydney’s international airport, I stopped off at a souvenir shop. I had just five Australian dollars left in my pocket. There was only one thing I could buy – an Australian flag patch for my backpack. Its quite fitting that its larger than any of the others from the rest of my trip, having spent the longest time here.

As we turned off the taxiway and onto the main runway, the engines screamed to full throttle. I was pushed back into my chair, and wedged my head into the window and watched as the terminal disappeared behind me. We lifted up into the air, a slight bump as the wheels left the ground, and I left Australian soil for the final time. The street lights of Sydney’s suburbs began to drift away below me, and I watched until the coastline disappeared from view.

I know I’m going to miss it, and I don’t know when I will be back in this far-flung part of the world. But I do know that this huge, beautiful country, and all those who have helped make my stay here so memorable, will always have a very special place in my heart.

Surf’s Up!

Catching my first waves in Byron Bay

I’m writing this on an overnight Greyhound bus. Every limb feels fifty times heavier than it should. Muscles I never even knew existed are aching in every corner of my body. My chest and ribs hurt, and my right foot is bruised and throbbing. And despite the cramped conditions I currently find myself in, none of these aches and pains are because the person in front has fully reclined their chair into my personal space.

My body is seriously hurting as a result of surfing, but boy, was it worth it.

I’ve always seen surfing on the television and wondered what its like, catching a huge rolling wave and effortlessly using it to speed along, pull off tricks and generally have a good time thanks to nature. It looks like you need perfect balance, a ripped upper body and bags of coolness, none of which I possess, and largely why I’ve stayed clear of the sport. Plus, back home, there’s a significantly high chance of a turd finding its way into your mouth somehow.

And its cold.

I never thought I’d give it a proper go though, but all that changed when I reached Byron Bay, three hours south of Brisbane. Having spent hours on a bus passing by some amazing beaches, spotting ant-like surfers bobbing up and down over the swell, even passing through Surfers Paradise, a town named after one of Australia’s favourite pastimes, I think it dawned on me that I should at least give it a try.

Those balmy days in Cairns already seem so long ago

I almost needed a surfboard to get to my hostel when I arrived off the relatively short four hour journey from Brisbane. If I needed any further proof that I have gone south enough for winter, then my welcome into Byron was definitely the required evidence. A huge rainstorm raged, leaving me camped out and sheltering by a rack of public phones until it eased off. It’s the first time I’ve actually had to wear my rain jacket in anger here, and is definitely the first time I have had to find a hostel, fully laden with bags, in the pouring rain. It knocks your spirit somewhat, especially when the address and iPhone map lead you in completely the wrong direction.

After trudging through puddles and looking lost for a while, a kind man with a multicoloured umbrella came over and pointed me in the right direction.

“And don’t worry about the weather – it does this in Byron. It’ll be blue skies tomorrow, you’ll see,” he shouted as I disappeared towards the Nomads hostel.

He was almost right. After a grey start, the sun began to break through. I walked to the beach, where there were already people catching waves. My decision was made, and I went in search of a deal. Most lessons are priced at $49 for two hours, but I walked into one backpacker travel shop where in return for ‘liking’ their Facebook page, I could get two $69 lessons for the price of one at Mojosurf.

“You’ll have to hurry up, it leaves at 12,” the travel agent said.

My surf board awaits…

I looked at my watch – I had 10 minutes to get back to the hostel, pack a bag of stuff for the beach and change into my swimshorts. I somehow made it with time to spare.

“Too easy mate,” said Jimmy as I walked in (they really do say that over here)

He was wearing a cap, his long hair poking out of the bottom and his tan spoke volumes for the amount of time he clearly spends in the ocean under the sun.

“Ahhh, you’re all going to have a grrrreat tiiiime. Yuuuueeeeeeep,” he said, his cool surfery accent putting a smile on everyone’s face.

My instructor was Adam, or Adsy as he likes to be called, and I jumped into the bus to be taken to a nearby beach that is less crowded and better for learning.

Ready to surf

There was only a few of us, a good sized group for learning. Among them was a guy from Western Australia who I was on Fraser Island with, and who I shared a dorm with in Rainbow Beach. Then there was Jag, from Manchester, who has been travelling for 17 months, doing everything from the usual sightseeing and partying to working at an orphanage in southeast Asia. We already had banter going on the bus, and we could feel it was going to be a good day.

After a short 20 minute ride, I found myself being handed a large green surf board. Its quite cumbersome to carry, as its larger than normal to give better balance in the water. There was a small handle in the middle, enough to give you a decent hold of the board, but with a strong wind, it was easy to get caught by a gust and find yourself being swung around.

Me and my board

Down on the beach, and after a few warm-ups, it was time to learn the basics –what to look for in the waves, how to spot a potentially dangerous rip tide, the impact the wind has and how to push through the waves with the surf board.

You do it just like this…Adsy showing us what to do

Adsy briefed us on the correct stance and how to paddle with our arms for a while, before we were grabbing our boards and heading out into the waves.

The first thing I can say is that surfing is a lot harder than it looks. The first thing you have to master, aside from getting up on the board, is making your way through the huge waves that Australia, and the Pacific Ocean, are famous for. Strangely, wave size is measured from the back of the wave – today, they were around four to five feet, but when you look at them from the front, they seem twice as high. Some of them tower above you, forcing you to jump and hold onto your surf board to allow you to keep on the surface. It’s a tiring cycle in itself.

Jag practicing the stance

Then, when you’ve waded out a fare distance, its time to spot a wave. We were in a good training ground, with waves and white water rolling all the way to the shore from breaking point around 60 to 70 metres out. It means you have plenty of time to ‘snap up’ onto the board. The ‘snap’ is a one move jump up from laying down, using your arms to push up from underneath your chest and then quickly bringing your feet from the back end of the board to a stance about halfway along it.

Out into the ocean

Despite plenty of practice on the beach, it’s a move that takes some doing, and relies on some strong upper arms. My first attempt ended with me toppling off the side, while my second attempt saw the board fly out from underneath me and whack me straight on the head.

And that was the general pattern for the next two hours, a constant wave (pardon the pun) of false push ups, falling off the side, the board flying from underneath me and finding myself somewhere under water with my hands on my head, taking yet another bump somewhere on my body from either the bottom of the sea below or my escapee surf board from above.

Kneel up, topple off, swallow salt water, crack my toes on the sandy bottom, back to the surface, drag board back to waves, repeat. It was frustrating, but strangely addictive.

Then, shortly before a break, and with a bit of help from Adsy, I finally did it.

“Get on…start paddling…this wave’s yours,” he shouted, holding onto my board.

I looked back, and a foaming white mass of water was getting ever closer.

“Big paddles now,” came the call from Adsy.

I took some huge, deep paddles on either side of the board. Suddenly I felt the acceleration as it caught the wave and began being pushed along.

“Snap up NOW,” Adsy shouted from behind.

I pushed hard with my arms, jumped up and brought my feet underneath, staying in a low crouch as the board wobbled below me. And then it stabilised – I’d found my balance, and stood up straighter. I remember thinking how high up it seemed to be standing on the board, and how strangely quick the wave moves you forward.

There was a cheer from behind – it might have only been for a few seconds, but I was officially surfing.

Off I go!

After a break, I was back in the water and gradually finding my feet on the surfboard. Eventually, I was able to pick out each wave I wanted to ride, paddle fast enough to catch it, and in a fashion, stand up on the board and ride it all the way to shore. It was a great feeling, and there was a strange addiction to getting back into the ocean and trying it again, but wanting to get on the board that bit faster, that bit smoother, or perhaps just swallowing less of the salty water.

It was a similar feeling to when I learned how to ski four or five years ago. It was difficult at first, but there was something that kept making me go back for more. There might have been the odd fall that twisted a knee slightly, gave you a coccyx-bruising knock and left you shattered come the end of the day, but the adrenaline and fun outweighs the risk. The same can be said for surfing – its hard work, you get pounded by the sea, sand and board, and you can consume enough salt to keep Saxo in business for a year, but it’s a brilliant way to spend some time at the beach.

Adsy and my surf group

Four hours passed by really quickly, and we headed back to Byron Bay happy with our efforts. I promptly passed out in my dorm, despite organising to meet some of my fellow surfers for a beer that night. I did, however, wake up in time to use my free beer voucher at the Woody’s Surf Shack bar in the town,

With Marit and Anna from my dorm at Woodys

meeting up with some of the girls in my room before moving on to Cheeky Monkey’s, a bar-come-nightclub where, by all accounts, pretty much anything goes.

Anything goes, apart from me, however, who got refused entry in the most bizarre circumstances. Having consumed a little leftover goon from the Fraser Island trip, as well as having my one lone free beer at the pub, I led the group to the door. I was asked for ID (which, at almost 31, is a joke anyway) and pulled out some business cards from people I have met, rather than my driving licence. Trying to get some light from a streetlamp, I leaned back to move the shadow of my head out of the way of my wallet. Somehow, shifting my weight like that meant I took a step back and I slightly stumbled on my ankle.

“Woaah, someone’s had enough tonight haven’t they?” said the bouncer, patronisingly.

“Erm, no, I’ve only had one beer,” I put back.

“They all say that mate. You’re not coming in. The police are over there, and they’ve seen I’ve refused you, so you’d better go home,” he replied.

In front of quite a few people who I have just met, the whole episode was more than slightly embarrassing. It was a public humiliation, but everyone knew I’d only been out for half an hour, and that I was just being picked on for some reason. I tried to explain, but just got the usual patronising drivel from the doorman, which ended with one of his colleagues coming over and telling me ‘my night was over’.

Sadly, when faced with that type of ridiculous security, which, quite frankly, borders on bullying, there will only ever be one winner. It was barely midnight, but I went back to the hostel and opted for an early night. I was fuming, as I’d not even had chance to meet up with my surf class inside, but at least I’d wake up fresh for my second surf lesson the next day.

Back to the surf

“Where did you get to last night,” Jag asked as I wandered into the MojoSurf shop with just a couple of minutes to go before the bus left. I explained, and he remembered how I’d sent him a text explaining when I’d got back to my room.

We spent another four hours trying to perfect how to get on the surf board, but strangely, both Jag and I found it much more difficult. The currents were stronger in the water, the waves were breaking and moving towards the shore much closer together, and many were not making it all the way to the beach without re-forming. It was frustration, but still enjoyable. The only problem was my tired and aching arms and legs – by the end of the session, and after hours of being smashed by wave after wave, I was barely able to lift myself up, let alone ‘snap up’, and instead found enjoyment cruising around on the board like a stranded dog.

Surfing is definitely something I will try again, whether its in the warmer waters abroad somewhere, or in slightly chillier waters back home. It’s a great adrenaline rush, and when you’re not leaning too far forward and faceplanting into the ocean, it’s an addictive way of spending time in the sea.

With an evening Greyhound booked, I got back to the surf shop with about an hours-worth of daylight remaining. There was still one place I wanted to reach, Byron lighthouse, which is officially Australia’s easternmost point.

Stormy scenes at Cape Byron

Jimmy, who had been one of my instructors for the day, gave me a rental bike for the change in my pocket, and, despite aching legs and a storm raging around me, I made it to the top of the nearby peninsula with time to  spare. It was a steep climb, but the views, even despite the storm clouds and rough seas, were well worth it.

Byron Bay’s famous lighthouse

An interesting fact is that the Cape Byron lighthouse, which for the past few nights I have seen blinking away from the comfort of my hostel kitchen, houses the most powerful light in Australia, visible for some 50km. Its blinking light, every 15 seconds, warns the busy shipping lanes off the coast of the dangerous coastline, and has been in place since it was built in 1901.

I wonder if they’re still together?!

It was exposed and windswept on the top of the rugged outcrop that the lighthouse sits atop of, and I watched the waves crashing onto the rocks below me. A mile or so out in the ocean, a container ship was pitching and falling on the swell, being whipped up by the offshore storm. One can only imagine what it must be like when Mother Nature puts her full force behind the weather here.

Capturing the powerful light

With darkness falling, a lack of cycle lights and another stormy shower about to blow in from the ocean, it was time to head back downhill to return the bike, collect my belongings and pack my bag back at the hostel. I had yet another free beer with Jag at Woodys Surf Shack, before heading to the bus stop for my final overnight Greyhound journey in Australia.

A final free beer with Jag in Byron

I was glad to have three days in Byron Bay, but part of me wishes I could have spent longer in the town. Its got a brilliant atmosphere about it – apart from the odd doorman here and there – and is a beautiful coastal town. In the height of summer, I can imagine it being a perfect place to spend a few lazy weeks. Everyone I met was friendly, helpful and seemed to just be happy to be living in what feels to be a very happy, cheerful town. Surfing plays a huge part in life here, and who knows, maybe one day i’ll return to ride the waves here once again.

Another overnight Greyhound about to leave Byron Bay

For now though, I’m heading to Sydney, and ultimately, my flight out of Australia. But there is one last quick stop I need to make on the way – and it’s my first visit to someone who I have met on this journey, thousands of miles away in Thailand. A familiar face awaits.

Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

There are not many natural wonders of the world that require an oxygen tank and flippers to go see them, but for the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a good idea.

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

I have arrived in Cairns, right up in the tropics on Australia’s north eastern coast, and for the first time in months I am heading east again – meaning my homeward journey is officially underway.

With just a couple of weeks left before I fly out to New Zealand, I’m up against a bit of a tight schedule to fit everything in that I have wanted to see and do on the east coast before arriving back into Sydney for my flight out of the country. Every unnecessary day spent dawdling or wasted somehow on this 3,000km trip to the land of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, is a day less seeing the many sights of NZ.

Thankfully, my first visit to Oz seven years ago brought me to Cairns, so I have a fairly good knowledge of the town, and I decided to stay at the same hostel that I walked into back then too, a bit of a party spot, but one of the best around, by the name of Gilligans.

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

Its funny how memories come flooding back after so long away from somewhere – and my arrival at Cairns airport after two overnight flights from Darwin and Brisbane was one of those moments. Back in 2005, I had arrived at the same airport on an internal flight from Melbourne, and was waiting by the same luggage carousel I found myself at again on this visit. Only back then, minding my own business and waiting for my bags, there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Is your name Phil and are you from Grimsby,” asked a tall, blonde girl with a smile on her face.

Slightly surprised, I think I replied something along the lines of ‘er, yes, why?’ before turning round to the right slightly and seeing my friend Kirsty, who worked in the Grimsby Town Football Club ticket office and clubshop. She was there with her friend Michelle, from Louth, and were spending a few weeks travelling together

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

It was an incredible coincidence – not only had I bumped into someone from home that I knew on the other side of the world, but they had been on the same internal Qantas flight as me.

“You walked past us and we called your name on the plane but you didn’t respond, so we didn’t know if it was you,” I remember them saying.

As it happens, I do vaguely remember someone saying my name on that flight, but being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t respond as there was no way anyone would know me on that particular flight. Right?!

We ended up spending a lot of time together in Cairns back then, and I remain good friends with them both, so tagged them in a post on Facebook to let them know I was remembering the good times we had before making my way to the town centre bus transfer point.

Another day, another place

Walking back into Gilligans felt very familiar. Its got more of a hotel feel about the place, rather than a backpacker hostel, and indeed, it does have a number of hotel style rooms for couples. I opted for one of the dorms, but had to wait until the afternoon before I could check in, so made my way to the fantastic swimming pool at the complex.

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

With the sun shining, and a much fresher feel to the weather thanks to lower humidity levels than Darwin, I pulled up a sun lounger and laid back, memories of my previous stay still coming back. Despite two overnight flights, I felt awake and ready for a chilled out day, meeting new people and working out what to do with my time in Cairns. It was also time to work out how to get back to Sydney, and in the hot sun I flicked through the handfuls of visitor leaflets and brochures I had picked up in the on-site travel agency.

Despite dwindling funds, I decided that my main aims for the east coast trip south were to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit the stunning Whitsunday islands, make my way to Fraser Island before moving on to visit friends in Brisbane and Newcastle before arriving into Sydney for my onward flight at the beginning of June. Looking at the calendar on my phone, and bearing in mind the 3,000km distance to travel overland, I realised I was cutting it a bit fine. I decided I needed an itinerary drawing up, some proper help with my plans, and so I would go to the Peter Pans backpacker travel agency in the town that afternoon.

Or so I thought.

That’s when I fell asleep – one of those sudden, unannounced, unplanned deep sleeps that creep up on you from nowhere. One minute it was 1pm, the next minute it was 3.30pm and I was on my back, mouth open and with a whole load of new people crowded around me. And then I felt my shoulders and chest – sore would be an understatement.

Ooops. Too comfy

My cheapo Thailand-bought factor 15 suncream, that I had barely covered myself in when I was in the shade early on, was no match against Australia’s finest midday sun. I went for some respite in the shade of the bar, and caught sight of a couple of blokes sipping beer that I am sure sniggered as the bright red  Pommy lobster made its way past them. I checked in a mirror, and it was a bit of a state.

Despite seven months of travelling, it was the first time I had been ‘properly’ burnt, and it was my own stupid fault for falling asleep in the sun. I have actually been really careful, knowing how much time I’d be spending in the sun during the trip. The damage had been done, however, so I gathered my belongings, grabbed my bag from the luggage store and checked into my room for a cold shower. The next few days will be stingy – but I think it’s got rid of my t-shirt tan once and for all!

The pool at Gilligans

Time out of the sun did give me the opportunity to have a proper look into how I’ll make my way south, taking the chance to have a wander around some of the travel shops that night and get an idea of some of the package deals that were around.

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

The following day I made the visit to Peter Pan’s backpacker specialists where Aimee, one of the consultants, cheerfully pulled out a calendar and planned out the next few weeks for me. It starts with two dives on the Great Barrier Reef in less than 24 hours time, followed by tours down the east coast, joining the dots and getting back to Sydney thanks to the Greyhound bus network. Aimee planned me a couple of overnight bus journeys to save on accommodation costs – it’ll mean an uncomfortable night’s sleep, but at this stage of my trip, the equivalent of £20 saved here and there on accommodation goes a long way. All in, it was just over $1,000 for the whole lot, a good price with some fairly hefty discounts.

Speaking of which, it was time for a ‘big’ shop for supplies. My favourite Aussie supermarket Coles – complete with its catchy ‘down, down, prices are down,’ and ‘there’s no freshness like Coles’ catchphrases that get stuck in your head for hours on end – was too far away, so it was the Woolworths supermarket (yes, the name is still going strong here!) near the esplanade that was to provide my latest stash of carb-packed goodies.

Having spent months surrounded by Australian brands, I came across a great little aisle that brought out the Peter Kay ‘Brit abroad’ in me. A shelf stacked with groceries from home. PG Tips, Penguin biscuits and even Marmite were there, competing with their Oz counterparts of Lipton, Tim Tam and Vegemite. Perhaps the highlight was the imported Weetabix, albeit with a new, rather unimaginative name of ‘Whole Wheat Biscuits’ which I presume is to distance them from the Australian brekky Weet-Bix. But at the equivalent price of £5.30 for a box of 24, my pangs for a taste of home will go on for another few months!

I won’t spoil the fun by naming everything – see what you can spot!

After gazing at all the familiar products from home, I got on with the task of stocking up my portable larder, also known as my pretty trendy coolbag. When I arrived in Australia, I saw all the backpackers had one, be it slung under the rucksack, swinging from an arm or clutched in front. They come in bright pink, royal blue, sky blue or dazzling green, and are seen everywhere from luggage rooms to railway stations, botanical parks to famous landmarks.

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

Everyone seems to have one on the move, a commonplace belonging as much as a sleeping bag or a pair of flip flops. Some have special messages written on in permanent pen by their owners. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were the latest fashion accessory.

I was actually quite surprised to see so many of them, but it all comes down to the cost of living in Australia – with sandwiches costing anything from $6 upwards (£4-5 and up) a bowl of chips being around £8 and a basic main course meal setting you back an average of £15, travellers simply can’t afford to eat out. The supermarkets and their special offers become your best friend.

My backpackers essentials. And yes, the cheese really does go by that name here.

Most backpacker larders contain the same sort of things as mine – cheap essentials, but essentials that will keep the hunger away. A loaf of bread, pasta and sauce, two minute noodles, a block of cheese, a jar of Vegemite, a carton of longlife milk, teabags and a box of Weet-Bix. It’ll never win any awards for a balanced diet, and I can’t remember the last time I got anywhere near my five a day, but for around $20 (£16) there’s enough to keep me going for the next week. Occasionally I’ll splash out on some sausages to throw in with my pasta, but be it Vegemite on toast, noodles and bread, a late-night bowl of Weet-Bix or a cheese sarnie to keep me going, there is enough in the bag for a meal of sorts.

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

Communal kitchens in the hostels are always good fun, especially with scores of identical bags like mine stuffed inside the fridges. But when you’re on the move, its great to open up the coolbag and have a picnic wherever you fancy. It becomes part of your luggage, and saves you a fortune on eating out. Even a McDonalds, at $9 (£6) for an average meal, seems expensive in contrast to the sausage special pasta with cheese that I have now perfected – and can knock up for around $1.20 a meal!

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s a part of backpacking people might not think about –when I was dining out every night in Thailand on sumptuous three-course Massaman currys and starters for the equivalent of £2.50, there was no need to think about cooking – it was cheaper to eat out. But I’ve actually learned to embrace the portable larder, gradually adding cutlery and plates to it that are on a ‘long term loan’ from hostels along the way. I’ll be self-sufficient by the time I get back to Sydney, minus a cooking ring!

Back in the dorm, I got talking to two guys who were in my room, a Dutchman called Alex, and Brandon, from Canada. We’d said hello a few times, but got talking about diving and how we had to be up early in the morning – my boat leaves E Finger of the marina at 7am, and with theirs just fifteen minutes later, we agreed to wake each other up at 6am.

Early morning in Cairns

Sure enough, it was still getting light when the alarms, almost in synchronisation, went off around the bunkbeds in the room. One by one we climbed out of our beds and gathered towels and dive log books for the blurry-eyed walk out into the early morning Queensland sunshine.

I’d been looking forward to the diving trip. Its my first dive since becoming a qualified Padi diver in Thailand, and it was time to put all my learning into use. I’d hired an underwater camera for the trip to record the moment. I was introduced to Chris, the divemaster onboard with Cairns Diving Centre, who asked about my diving experience. Strangely, one of the other newly qualified divers came over and said I seemed to know what I was on about. I’ve clearly mastered the art of blagging.

It was a rough journey out to the reef, a three hour trip from Cairns. As soon as we left the harbour and began hitting the big swell of the ocean, I made the trip to the coffee bar to take on some seasickness tablets. Its not something I normally suffer from, but decided I’d rather be safe than sorry. I didn’t want to be feeling rough on such a big day – its not everyday you get to dive on one of the world’s natural wonders.

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

Half an hour later, people were dropping like flies around me, the catamaran marauding through the huge waves, slamming down and rising up and making around half of the passengers a little green around the gills. I felt great, however, and went up to the deck on the bow and joined a few others who were embracing the rollercoaster ride to the first dive site.

Ready to go!

We arrived at Moore Reef shortly before 11am, the water turning a bright turquoise blue around the reef area. As I was a qualified diver, I was asked to kit up first. It felt reassuringly familiar when I pulled my BCD over my body, strapping myself in and running through my checks – weight belt, fastenings, regulator, air supply, backup air supply, mask and fins. All was good, and I was buddied up with a German guy.

Stepping off the back of the boat

As I stepped down to the platform at the back of the boat, the water lapped around my feet. It was surprisingly warm considering how far offshore we were, but there was a strong current that quickly swept you away from the boat. With my BCG fully inflated, I kicked hard to get myself to the front of the boat and to the anchor line that we used to guide ourselves down to about 10 metres.

Going down…

Its always a strange feeling when you make the descent – for a while, you wonder whether there is anything down there as you make your way into a light blue abyss. Then suddenly, a dark outline comes into view in front of you, and suddenly the reef is next to you.

It was full of life, the suns rays lighting up the colours and shapes of the coral everywhere you look, with dozens of brightly coloured parrot fish, angelfish, butterfly fish and even a unicorn fish swimming by as we made our way around the reef. There was also the obligatory clownfish, aka Nemo.

Colourful coral

But the highlight was yet to come – motioned by Chris to swim over to him, he pointed around a corner. As we kicked our feet faster to get a look, just a few metres below us a turtle came into view, swimming towards a gap in the reef. It was a fleeting moment, but it immediately put a huge smile on my face, so much so I broke the seal on my mask and let in a load of water. As did Chris.

In the words of Nemo’s mate: ‘Duuuuuuude!’

“I knew that turtle would be around somewhere,” he beamed as we climbed back out of the ocean.

Back to the boat

“He wasn’t in his usual spot and I got a bit worried. Then he just turned up – nomatter how many times I see them, turtles just make me smile,” he laughed, joking about how he has to clear his mask every time he sees them because he’ll either start laughing or smiling.

The snorkellers from the snorkel trip had another 20 minutes left on the reef, so I took Chris up on the offer of going for a snorkel too, swimming against the strong current in the deep water yet again to reach the reef.

Nemo land

It gave me a whole new perspective, and if I’m honest, the colours on the reef looked even more impressive because they were being hit by more sunlight. It really is like the scene from the film Finding Nemo, with colours glowing and the whole underwater world going about its daily business, despite their human visitors floating above them.

After some lunch and a cup of tea, we moved to another dive site, and the day was about to get even better. I’d always wanted to see a turtle on a dive, but just minutes after getting back into the water again, Chris swam ahead – yet another turtle. He motioned me to come closer and began scratching the turtle’s back as he swam. Apparently, turtles love having their shells scratched with a fingernail, as it removes the annoying algae for them. Then Chris moved out of the way, and for a few moments I swam alongside the creature, watching as his head moved from side to side as he kept an eye on me, his new underwater swimming partner for a while.

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

The turtle descended, slowing down and stopping on the reef just below me. It was my one chance to go and touch his shell, so I let out more of my breath and began to sink a few metres lower. As I got nearer, I breathed in more of my air to level off, handed my camera to another diver, and captured the moment as I reached out and gave the turtle a good scratch on his shell.

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

It was a slimy texture, and I could see as the algae that was covering his shell began to come away. The turtle didn’t move, simply resting on the coral and apparently enjoying his time with new friends. I looked around, still scratching his shell, and smiled for the camera. Yet again, water filled my mask, but I didn’t care. Until now, I’d never even seen a turtle in the wild, let alone swim and play with one!

Underwater smiles for the camera

We dived to a depth of 12 metres, and the 35 minute dive felt like it was over in seconds. It was a great experience, and brilliant to put all my training in Thailand to use. It wasn’t cheap – the cost of two dives and camera hire was almost as much as my four day diving course in southeast Asia, but it was well worth doing.

Off I go to explore the reef

Having had my first ever scuba experience, that of a short trial dive with a guide on the barrier reef back in 2005, it felt like I had gone full circle. I had always been able to say my first ever dive was on the world’s most famous reef, but now my first fully qualified dive was also on the Great Barrier Reef, and this time I had the photographs to treasure and prove it.

Dive over…water trapped in ear pose up the stairs with Chris

A farewell from the Cairns Diving Centre crew back at the marina

That night I celebrated by meeting up with Alex and Brandon, themselves also buzzing with excitement after their trip out to the reef. We stayed at the Gilligans bar, playing Bogan Bingo, which was half comedy show, half gameshow, with a tongue-in-cheek laugh at the ‘redneck’ side to Australian society.

With Brandon (left) and Alex

It came complete with baseball caps, vest tops, 80s rock music and a lot of laughs, and put us in the perfect mood for a trip to the legendary Woolshed pub where we had drinks and joined in with the party, before ending the night back at the hostel where there is an on-site nightclub.

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

I had been in Cairns for four days, but I wished it was longer. It’s a great town, with a great atmosphere and good people. It’s got a really relaxed, easy-going vibe – you can spend hours lounging around the pool on the esplanade, party the night away, trek through jungles and rainforests to the north or dive in some of the best underwater spots on the planet.

Cairns lagoon

With time against me, I had to start making my way south and I was booked onto my first Greyhound bus from Cairns at 12.20am. I was on my way to Airlie Beach, and to the Whitsundays, but there was just enough time for one last pint with Alex and Brandon. They are both heading south too, but with no guarantee of bumping into them, it is always best to say farewell when you can.

Laden down yet again with my life in bags, complete with a cheese and Vegemite sandwich for the morning in my coolbag, I made my way through the city to the bus terminal near the marina. The Greyhound was already there, waiting, and I gave my name to the bus driver.

“Seat 4D buddy,” he said, slinging my rucksack into the underbelly of the coach.

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

And with that, I climbed aboard, stuffed my trusty British Airways pillow I’d stolen from my flight to Sydney against the window, and settled down for a night of vertical sleep on the main road down to Airlie Beach.

If only sunburn didn’t hurt so much when you try to get some kip.