Monthly Archives: November 2016

When It Rains, It Pours

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Some things just aren’t meant to be. This is a collection of travel stories that almost were, but ended up being memorable all the same.

***

Look through any list of things to see in New Zealand, and one thing almost invariably comes up: Milford Sound.

Rudyard Kipling described it as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Waterfalls cascade from mountains in all directions, spilling into the fjord below. Snow-capped peaks rise up in the distance. On a clear day, there may be no better view in all of New Zealand.

Alas, this was no clear day.

We had booked a cruise through the fjord and had spent the past day driving a good four-and-a-half hours to get there. We awoke to a fog thicker than soup and every bit as murky. The rain didn’t fall so much as it shot sideways, mocking you for thinking you’d be safe with an umbrella. With no recourse but to go through with our plan, we set off for the ferry terminal.

There’s a postcard view of the fjord that greets you as you arrive in Milford — that is, on any day other than the one which we arrived on. The fog still hadn’t let up during our hour-long morning drive, and it hung over the water with a quiet stubbornness. It wasn’t going anywhere, dammit.

We pulled up our raincoat hoods and prepared to board.

Days earlier, we had debated which ferry service to book. Most were in the $45 range, but one offered a cooked breakfast for an extra $10. That may have been the best money we’ve spent on the whole trip.

With little in the way of scenery to distract us from the buffet table, we devoted ourselves to eating breakfast with a boxer-like focus. If Ali and Frazier lasted 15 rounds, Warren and I came damn close. Hash browns, fruit salad, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausages… nothing escaped our forks and knives.

Every now and then, we’d take a break between rounds to pop outside onto the deck and soak in the sights — while simultaneously getting soaked. We spotted penguins, seals, and many a waterfall.

Warren summed it up as “the most scenic breakfast we’ve ever had.”

***

Spend a night in a two-person cabin, and you really get to know someone.

Warren and I had plans to camp the night before Milford Sound, only to be greeted by a relentless torrent of rain. Instead, we rented a tiny cabin that would have been much more romantic had it not been the two of us. Nicknamed “Pop’s Hut,” it wasn’t much more than a bunk bed, a coal-fired stove, and a kitchen table, but it was the coziest thing we had laid eyes on.

We spent the evening trading stories and reminiscing on old times — the kind of night that does away with any travel fatigue from spending nearly every waking moment together.

Going stir-crazy in our two-man cabin, Gunns Camp, New Zealand

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***

Spend a night in a car, and you really get to know someone.

It started off like any ordinary day — that is to say, with the requisite egg and toast breakfasts and groggy wake-ups. The plan was to spend the morning hiking in Wanaka before driving to the West Coast for the evening. We had our sights set on camping in Lake Paringa, just a short drive from the Fox Glacier.

The hike itself was ordinary, too — that is to say, without anything particularly unusual, but still rather beautiful. We climbed Mt. Iron and were rewarded with sweeping views of Wanaka, the surrounding lakes, and the mountains behind them.

Even the drive started ordinarily enough — that is to say, with much of the usual banter, disagreement over what music to listen to, and occasional photo breaks. We made it to Haast Pass in good time, and for once, it looked like everything was in our favour.

Then the rain came.

It arrived in sheets and progressed to a downpour so relentless, even the highest windshield wiper setting struggled to keep pace. Suddenly, the thought of camping didn’t seem so appealing. Still, we pushed on, determined to stick to the plan.

We pulled into the D.O.C. campground, and still, the rain wouldn’t let up. Puddles had started to form in the many potholes dotting the dirt road. The parking lot threatened to become a pond. We opted to pull into a spot and wait it out. If the rain relented, we’d spring into action and set up a tent. As you already know, that didn’t happen.

Instead, we pulled our borrowed sleeping bags out of the trunk and got cozy in the sedan. We started with the windows closed, but after agreeing that some fresh air would be a good idea, we decided to crack them all open. That’s when the sandflies showed up.

If you’ve experienced black flies before, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what we were in store for. We closed the windows as quickly as we had opened them, but it was too late — the damage was done. The next half hour devolved into a never-ending sequence of bites, slaps, and scratches. They may have won the battle, but in the end, we won the war.

Aside from breaks to brush teeth and do other things best done outside of a car, we spent at least 15 hours in there. (If you saw Warren in the time-lapse from our cabin, you can probably guess what it was like for him to be cooped up for so long.)

More tales from the road:

1. Queenstown bills itself as the Adventure Capital of the World, so it was only right that we sought out some form of excitement there. Skydiving and bungee jumping were out of the question (or at least, out of our budget), so we had to be a little creative in our thrill-seeking. Finally, we came across a little rope swing over a stream that fit the bill. We each went across the first time, no problem. When we returned for round two the following day, I tweaked my upper back so badly, I was in agony for days. The moral of the story? I’m probably not cut out for adventure sports.
2. 50% of my grocery bill lately has been Tim Tams. Having tried almost all of the flavours by now (except for the unnecessarily experimental ones), I can say with confidence that chewy caramel is the best. They’ve even become a form of currency between Warren and me — we’ll routinely try and extract Tim Tams from one another for different perceived favours. (I thought sharing my umbrella with him was worth at least two Tim Tams, but he found the idea laughable.)
3. If you think gas is expensive in Canada, be thankful: we’ve been filling up for $2.00 a litre in New Zealand. My wallet’s shed more than a few tears (and pounds) in the last two weeks.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Cows.

This may very well have been the strangest experience I’ve had while driving. Warren and I were en route to the Peel Forest when we passed a car with flashing lights and a sign reading “Herd to Follow.” As quickly as we could make out the sign, a herd of cows came around the bend, blocking the entire road — I kid you not, there had to have been at least 60 of them. I had no option but to pull over as much as possible and sit still while row after row of cows passed by on either side, hoping to God that none of them felt the sudden urge to jump onto our rental car.

A few cows spotted close to Geraldine, New Zealand

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2. Milford Sound.

I hesitate to put Milford Sound on the list, because we didn’t really see it. Still, the few things we could make out through the sheets of rain and blanket of fog were pretty nice.

Milford Sound. #milfordsound #newzealand #nz #travel

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3. Franz Josef Glacier.

Our first glimpse at the glacier came on a (you guessed it) relentlessly rainy day. We went anyway and got soaked, figuring it was better to see it than not at all. The next day — coincidentally, our last morning in Franz Josef Township — we finally had a glimpse of sunshine, so we decided to take one last crack at the glacier. It was well worth it.

Franz Josef Glacier from afar

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What I’ve been listening to:

Mumford & Sons – Babel
Alt-J – Live At Red Rocks
J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive

(Header photo by Warren Jones)

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This Is Not A Drill

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Sometimes, you need a good dose of perspective to get you back on track. Earthquakes will take care of that.

After leaving Fiji in a rut, we arrived in New Zealand to a country on edge, but in remarkably good spirits. Five years after the earthquakes that shook Christchurch, another series of quakes had struck just an hour north, laying waste to the roads around Kaikoura and sending shockwaves through Wellington. The tremors could be felt hundreds of miles away.

I expected panic and frayed nerves, but instead we were met with good humour and open arms. A friend of ours from Christchurch told us how her boyfriend flew that same night to Wellington to help with the relief effort. We met a retired American couple who had been in Kaikoura when the first earthquake hit and were forced to evacuate because of the ensuing tsunami warnings, only to be caught on the road when a second quake hit. They could have been upset, but instead they talked about the outpouring of support they experienced — from grocery stores donating their goods to feed those stranded, to families offering drinking water out of their homes. People chipped in where they could, no questions asked.

To visit Christchurch is to bear witness to the damage an earthquake can bring, but also to see firsthand the ways in which the city has regrouped in the years since. Stand on a street corner, and you’ll see ruined buildings right across from living walls and community spaces. Cranes fill the sky. A five-minute walk will take you from a beautiful cathedral built mostly out of cardboard to an entire mall composed of shipping containers. Life finds a way, no matter the circumstances.

The threat of earthquakes isn’t over. At the moment, we’re still waiting on ferry service to resume between the North and South Island.

But all things considered? We’ve got everything we need.

Tales from the road:

1. Warren and I have seen the same cashier three days in a row at a certain fast-food restaurant, including three times in the same day. For obvious reasons, we can’t go back anymore.
2. After nearly two months spent in hostels, it’s been really nice to be welcomed into a few New Zealand homes as a guest. The warm beds, good conversation, and Kiwi kindness have led to a wonderful stay in the country.
3. Old habits die hard. Spend enough time driving on the left side of the road, and you’re bound to have a slip-up. I had to remind Warren of the country we were in as he rounded the bend on the right side of a country road. My story is worse: in Australia, I pulled out of the rental car lot, and the very first intersection we came to, I turned into incoming traffic. I had to stop and reverse in the middle of the intersection — still within full view of the rental car office.
4. No matter how grown-up Warren and I may feel at times, throw candy in front of us and we revert to eight-year-olds. We bought a kilogram of candy and spent the next half-hour divvying it up, and then the next half-hour trading with each other to get our favourites. I learned Warren is helpless in the face of ‘livewires’: red, sugar-coated candy sticks filled with icing.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Endless hills.

Whether in Christchurch or on the road to Queenstown, New Zealand is filled with them — each more impossibly green than the last.

Thompson Park, Christchurch. #christchurch #newzealand #travel #nz #travelnz

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The Road to Queenstown. #queenstown #newzealand #nz #travel #travelnz

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2. Snowy peaks.

After the sweltering heat of Fiji and Northern Australia, the relative coolness of New Zealand has been a welcome change — especially when it includes sights like these. The former was just outside of Fairlie, where we spent two nights; the latter was in Mt. Cook National Park, where we took a day trip to hike to Hooker Lake.

Lake Opuha, New Zealand. #lakeopuha #fairlie #newzealand #nz #travel #travelnz

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The Road to Mt. Cook. #newzealand #nz #travel #travelnz

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Rob Evans and Paul Lewis – Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police
Sickboy Podcast
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Common – Black America Again

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Trouble In Paradise

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“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…” – Kenny Rogers

Sometimes, even the best-laid plans fall to pieces.

It was supposed to be a vacation from our vacation — a quick, 10-day trip to Fiji, the jewel of the Pacific Islands. In truth, it was more like one long episode of Survivor.

We had signed up for a stay on Mana Island, just a short boat ride away from the island Tom Hanks made famous in Castaway. We were told we’d be getting the ‘true Fiji experience’: staying in the village and eating the same food the Fijians ate. At $55FJD a night, it was the best deal going in the Mamanucas. We had no idea what we were in store for.

The troubles started at the airport. We had a tight connecting leg in Brisbane, with just an hour to spare. Before boarding our flight to Fiji, we were required to show proof that we had booked a flight out of the country as well. No problem, we’d booked the flights months ago — only now, my booking details were nowhere to be found, and the clock was ticking. I had 15 minutes to provide proof of a plane ticket out of Fiji before the check-in counter closed. My visions of lying on a beach under the palm trees were fading fast.

I asked the check-in clerk if there were any other methods of looking up my flight details. No dice. Out of options, I made a dash to the travel desk to buy another ticket: $560AUD gone, just like that.

We had three days to spend in Nadi, Fiji’s main gateway to the islands, before heading out to the Mamanucas. Looking for a money-saver after an expensive start to the trip, we came across a food stand downtown selling chicken roti for $2.50FJD — an absolute steal. Warren and I pounced on it, wolfing one down right away and picking up four more for dinner and breakfast the next day. We were going to eat like kings.

We made it through dinner and slept soundly, blissfully unaware of the trouble looming around the corner. By morning, it all went sideways. It started with a whimper, but soon my stomach rumbled with a ferocity that could only mean one thing: there was a performance coming up, and I was pretty certain I’d be glued to my seat. To add to the problem, we were due to board our boat to Mana in two hours, and I wasn’t sure how many acts this play contained. I dreaded an encore.

I prayed it would all pass — and for once, it did. Now I could relax and enjoy the splendour of Fiji. I sat back and wondered what awaited us on Mana.

As it turns out, the answer was bed bugs — and lots of them. It started with one or two spots on a fellow traveller’s back, but soon it spread to dozens of bites, turning half of the hostel into an itching, red-splotched mess. It was like a scene out of The Walking Dead: once you saw someone had been bitten, you steered clear — they were a goner.

The food was another thing: pickings were slim, and seconds weren’t an option. Soon enough, time was spent counting down the hours between meals, waiting to appease our surly stomachs. We killed time by whittling coconuts and watching the days go by, finding strength in our shared hunger. By the time our boat came to whisk us away, I felt like a free man at the end of his sentence.

Just when I thought my Fiji adventure had come to a close, I got one last surprise: someone had tried to use my credit card and my account was frozen. I wasn’t alone: on the same island, someone else had their cellphone stolen and three others had their sandals stolen — all in the span of three days. (On the bright side, I went undefeated in table tennis one night, so the good-to-bad ratio isn’t totally shot.)

Tales from the road:

1. Fijians love their kava — a ceremonial root-based brew that, depending on who you ask, is either a cure-all for everyone from pregnant women to young children or a mildly-numbing drink with dubious stress-relieving properties. Warren and I were offered some on our first night in Fiji, served out of a coconut bowl. It goes down smoothly enough, but the taste leaves something to be desired. Mostly, you notice your tongue going numb.
2. A quick lesson in the Fijian language: “Bula” means “Hello,” and “vinaka” means “thank you.”
3. Slack lines are harder than they look. We met some Australian twins who had brought theirs along to Nadi — I tried it out and barely managed to take a step before falling off.
4. Two words you’ll come to hear often in this country: “Fiji time.” Think the opposite of a New York minute. Things operate at their own pace on the islands, schedules-and-itineraries-be-damned.

Things I’ve seen:

1. Islands in the sun.

It wasn’t all rainclouds and misery in Fiji: boating through the Mamanucas was an absolute dream. The hike up to the top of Castaway Island led to one of the best views of the entire trip.

View from Castaway Island, Fiji. #fiji #mamanucas #castaway #WILSON #travel

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2. Colourful sunsets.

It’s hard to stay too mad in the midst of beauty. Every evening, the sky offered up a new canvas for the sun to paint its brush strokes.

Sunset on Bounty Island. #fiji #bountyisland #mamanucas #travel

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3. Village life.

This view greeted us every morning on Mana Island — often accompanied by a flurry of local kids running around and a quick “Bula.”

Mana Island, Fiji

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Dan Brown – Digital Fortress
Paul Keany with Jeff Farrell – The Cocaine Diaries: A Venezuelan Prison Nightmare
Gary Clark Jr. – “The Life”
BJ The Chicago Kid feat. Kendrick Lamar – “His Pain”
The Streets – “It Was Supposed To Be So Easy”

(Header photo by Warren Jones)

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Farewell To Oz

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Seven weeks later, our time in Australia has come to an end. Warren and I are up at 3am tomorrow to board a flight to Fiji. Here’s a look back at some stories you haven’t been told yet.

***

“Do you like magic tricks?”

The question was harmless enough, but as we sat on a subway train bound for Sydney’s red light district, it took on a more dangerous tone. Across from us sat an 18-year-old shuffling a deck of cards and sizing us up with a look of sly curiosity.

This is it, I thought. We’re either about to get robbed or get a free show. Figuring the former was more likely than the latter, my hand shot reflexively for my wallet. I lost a phone on the train in Italy last year; I wasn’t about to make the same mistake.

Against our better judgment, we took him up on the offer. He’s just a kid, right? we thought to ourselves. What could really happen?

Out came the cards in a flourish. The show was on.

He proceeded to run the gamut of tricks in his repertoire, starting with cards and moving to disappearing objects, levitation, and magnetic powers. He did this while following us up the elevator from our subway stop and out into the street.

I braced myself for the inevitable pickpocketing. Nobody with a sleight of hand like this is up to any good, I thought. The longer he stuck around, the more sure I became.

We eventually made our escape in between magic tricks, apologizing that we needed to get on our way. We both checked our pockets and bags — nothing gone.

Sometimes a magician really is a magician.

***

“So many lows,” Warren laughed.

We sat side-by-side on the curb, greasy and sleep-deprived, eating tuna straight out of the can for dinner. Our bus was parked just behind us, emptying and refilling with bleary-eyed passengers smoking cigarettes and making trips to the gas station bathroom. We were halfway to Airlie Beach, which should have been cause for excitement, except halfway in this case meant another nine hours of driving. It was a long night.

We had boarded the bus in Rainbow Beach at 12:45pm. We didn’t arrive at our destination until 7:30am. One overnight bus ride was enough, but we had planned another one to Cairns for two nights later. The fun was just getting started.

The second time around, we ended up arriving in Cairns at 5:30am — far too early to check into our hostel, but conveniently, just in time to watch the sunrise. I came to enjoy watching the sunrise as part of my daily routine as a morning reporter, so it was nice to see our first of the trip. (Warren passed out on a park bench for the rest of the morning.)

All told, we spent over 24 hours on a bus in the span of 60-odd hours. Never again.

***

True story: while in Cairns, we drove up a mountain and through a forest fire to go swimming in a volcanically-formed lake with a freshwater crocodile. (I know what you’re thinking: sounds implausible, but the Cubs won the World Series, so everything’s on the table now.)

***

On that same road trip, we had our first encounter with an Australian spider (that is to say, a frigging huge one). Just our luck, it involved the spider finding its way into our SUV.

I had pulled over to look for my wallet in the trunk when Warren first spotted it crawling across the outside of the passenger window. Seconds later, our roommate, Thomas, saw it too. They got out to get a better look at it, only it had seemingly disappeared as quickly as it came. We resolved to continue on.

I went to open the driver’s side door, and there it was, perched in the doorframe. As quickly as you could yell “spider,” it had crawled into the SUV. We were screwed.

The rest of our travel companions fell over each other to get out of the backseat. What could we do? We sure as hell weren’t getting back into the car with that in there. A thousand nightmares played out in each of our minds, picturing the spider hidden somewhere in the SUV, laying in wait.

We resolved to open all of the doors and hope to God that the spider would crawl out. A minute later, I spotted it in the trunk. It was as least as wide as the length of a finger. In a repeat act of bravery in the face of danger, Warren grabbed the trunk lid where the spider was perched and hucked it into the grass.

I’ve made sure to check my shoes and socks for spiders ever since.

Things I’ve seen:

1. The Great Barrier Reef, Part 2.

Rarely do sequels live up to the original, but this is the exception — the Godfather II, Dark Knight, or Toy Story 2, if you will.

The Great Barrier Reef needs to be seen to be properly appreciated — it really is an entirely different ecosystem. We saw clownfish, stingrays, hundreds of other colourful fish and coral, and this little guy below.

Great Barrier Reef, Part 2. #greatbarrierreef #cairns #queensland #qld #australia #turtle

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2. Josephine Falls.

Quite possibly the most impressive falls we’ve seen in Australia, and not a bad place to take a swim.

Josephine Falls, Australia. #cairns #queensland #qld #australia #travel

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3. Miles of coastline.

On our last day in Australia, we drove up to Daintree National Park, home to a 200-million-year-old rainforest. The drive took us along the Great Barrier Reef Drive, an absolutely beautiful stretch of road between Cairns and Cape Tribulation.

Great Barrier Reef Drive, Australia. #cairns #queensland #qld #australia #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Paulo Coelho – The Zahir
Derin Falana – Live From Rocky Mountain
Childish Gambino – “Sober”

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Conversations With A Kiwi

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“What brought you to Australia?” I asked.

It was the first night on Fraser Island. The fire blazed bright just a few feet away — the kind of fire that leads to long nights and longer conversations.

He took a sip of beer and thought it over for a moment before replying.

“The root of all evil.”

I had expected a cookie-cutter answer about traveling for a few months before heading home, or perhaps working abroad for a year or two — the kind of story just about everyone has in Australia. Now, with a mere five words, we were heading into uncharted waters.

He went on to tell me about life back in New Zealand on the North Island. The surroundings were great; the jobs weren’t. He left to work in the mines in Northern Australia — the job didn’t leave much in the way of a social life, but the pay was good. He had been there for six years.

It struck me how similar his story sounded to those of so many back in Canada — Newfoundlanders and Cape Bretoners seeking work in Alberta’s oil sands, Jamaicans spending their summers picking fruit in Ontario, refugee families sending their meager earnings back to loved ones in their home countries. In the end, we’re all looking for a better life, aren’t we?

“Everywhere you go, it’s the same cry: money worries.” – Bedouin Soundclash

It struck me, as well, how much money can govern our lives if we let it — even to the point of obsession. Rare are those who feel as though they have more than enough to begin with. Instead, we envy lottery winners and ask each other, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

In my line of work — as in many others — it can be all too easy to become embittered about the number of zeroes in others’ salaries and the lack of zeroes in one’s own. It’s no small irony that all that focus on zeroes leads to a zero-sum game: If you ain’t first, you’re last.

That conversation at the campfire reminded me it’s worth broadening our definition of wealth. I may never be rich, but I’ve made friends all over the world, met more than a few interesting people, and been fortunate to see places that many never get the chance to see. I’m lucky to be welcomed home every time I leave, and doubly lucky that I haven’t had to leave home in search of work. I’ve even seen the Raptors and Blue Jays win a playoff series in the same year, which is the Toronto Sports Fan equivalent of at least six Super Bowls and five Stanley Cups.

The Danes have a word, hygge, that’s as good a definition of wealth as any I’ve heard. In truth, it translates closer to coziness: the feeling you get when you’re spending an evening with good friends, drinking hot chocolate (or something colder) around the fireplace.

Give me that over money any day, and I’ll be a wealthy man indeed.

Tales from the road:

1. “Power is your friend,” we were told by our Fraser Island guide. These were the all-important words of advice for driving 4X4s on the sand dune island’s makeshift beach roads — an experience unlike any other. The hard sand is one thing, but the soft sand is an entirely different challenge — and then there are the waves that break in your path, sending a spray over the windshield as you motor through them.
2. The beaches were great, but the best part of Fraser Island may very well have been the stars. There was no light pollution anywhere to be seen and not a cloud in the sky, and the stars spilled out in every direction. I could have stood and stared all night long.
3. The cooking mishaps continue. Ever since the start of our trip, one dish Warren and I have never seemed to get right is frozen pizza. When we tried it in Melbourne, it stayed in the oven for too long and came out looking more like charcoal than dinner. We tried it again in Canberra, only to realize our hostel had no oven. This led to an experiment in microwaving the pizza until it was warm and then giving it a crispy finish on the frying pan (an improvement on charcoal, to be fair, but still nothing to write home about). You’d think we’d have learned from our mistakes, but we tried it again in Rainbow Beach — this time, my pizza ended up in chunks instead of slices. I think I’ve given up on trying again.
4. If I never drink goon again, it will be too soon.

Things I’ve seen:

1. One big shipwreck.

Perhaps Fraser Island’s most well-known landmark, the SS Maheno washed up onto the island’s shore in 1935 and has captivated visitors ever since. In its heyday, the ship traveled from Australia to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Vancouver.

Maheno Shipwreck, Fraser Island. #fraserisland #queensland #australia

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2. Whitehaven Beach.

Words can’t do this place justice. The sand is impossibly white and fine, and the water is a bright turquoise. The Whitsundays are magic, I tell you.

Sundays in Whitsundays. #whitehavenbeach #whitsundays #airliebeach #queensland #qld #australia #travel

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3. The Great Barrier Reef, Part 1.

When I was younger and traded rooms with my brother, one of the benefits was being able to redecorate the attic the way I liked. I went all out on turning my room into an underwater oasis, complete with marine-themed wallpaper, a dolphin photomosaic, and model pirate ships. In short, I like the ocean.

Getting to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef was one of the best experiences of my life. The sheer amount of life underwater is mesmerizing — we swam with schools of fish and got up close and personal with two enormous tuna. The only downside was having to smear my moustache with petroleum jelly to seal the goggles to my face.

Great Barrier Reef, Part 1. #greatbarrierreef #whitsundays #queensland #australia #travel

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What I’ve been reading/listening to:

Jonas Jonasson – The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared
The Slakadeliqs feat. Justin Nozuka – “Love Controls The Sun”
The Jonah Keri Podcast – Bruce Arthur episode

(Header photo by Adele Connor)

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