Highlights of my term abroad: Part I – Australia

I didn’t do the whole travel-blogging thing this semester because I was really busy and it seemed better to reflect back once it was all over. So now that everybody’s gone, here are the highlights of a life-changing term with some amazing people on the bottom of the world.

Stradbroke Island

Photo Credit: Ann Epifanio

Photo Credit: Ann Epifanio

The very first day of the program, we took the group straight from the airplane to the University of Queensland’s research station on North Stradebroke Island in Moreton Bay. We had a lot of lectures about marine biology, material that at the time seemed impossible to learn given my lack of science experience. What stood out about this week was the people. 31 other students met us at the Brisbane airport that first day. I hadn’t met any of them before, with one exception. As the outsider in the group I really had to go out of my way to be outgoing and friendly, and I was extremely nervous the day they showed up. And at no point did any person in the group made me feel as if I didn’t belong there – a political science and economics major from a different school whose dad was the professor among biology students from Union College and Hobart and William Smith. As we body surfed at Cylinder beach that first afternoon I knew that it would be an amazing semester.

Brisbane

Although Brisbane was technically where our program was based, we spent remarkably little time there. Brisbane was an amazingly clean, open, and sunny city. I felt very comfortable there. Our apartment in Kangaroo point was fantastic, and the busses and ferries could
One of the first days in Brisbane, and then again later with friends, I went to the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary. This may honestly have been the highlight of the area; they had hundreds of koalas that you could see up close, a broad sampling of Australian wildlife including a platypus, and a whole troop of Grey Kangaroos that you could pet and who would eat out of your hand. – with some planning – take you anywhere you needed to go.

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As a student in Brisbane, one of the highlights was the night life. My night club experience before this semester was fairly limited. That changed with the Vic and the Valley. The Valley was an area of the city just across the iconic Story Bridge from my apartment full of bars and clubs. Although mostly clubs. We had some memorable nights there, some fun nights, and some that were just a bit of an expensive blur, followed by a jog home across the bridge. The Vic was some of my friends and my favorite Thursday night destination. The three dollar drinks were a major part of this, and the music was always good. In retrospect I think that we spent too much time in clubs like the Vic and the places in the valley, and not enough in bars with music at a comfortable volume where we could actually talk. That said, I had some great nights at the Vic that I will always remember. The best of these was the Sunday night before we headed to Canarvon Gorge, when a small group of us went. It was much more subdued than on Thursday, and we all sat around talking before our all-day bus ride the next day.

Photo credit: Ann Epifanio

Photo credit: Ann Epifanio

Surfer’s Paradise

One of the weekends that we had in Brisbane, we made a trip down to Surfer’s Paradise. I don’t know if I’d go there again – it reminded me of Miami Beach or Dubai – but I’m glad that we went. Brisbane’s mass transit system – TransLink – got us there, and we spent most of the day hanging out on the beach, drinking wine and getting 30 cent ice cream cones from the McDonald’s across the street. The YHA hostel that we stayed in was in a great location, although the next morning I noticed a lovely patch of black mold above my head that I missed the night before. We went and got a steak dinner. Dinner in Australia, as a rule, means that the meat overshadows the vegetable or anything else. The steak here did not disappoint. After that, we had an interesting night that started in a high rise apartment, moved through several nice bars, and then ended in a dark club that relied too heavily on fog machines.

Lamington National Park

One of the field trips for our terrestrial ecology class took us to the rainforest in Lamington National Park. There, we hiked all day for three days. The first day started with bird watching at dawn and ended, 14 slow kilometers through rainforest and eucalyptus stands later (our professor stopped to explain things quite often), by watching glow worms light up the forest at night. The following days were less strenuous, although they involved as much or more walking. There was something about walking from dawn to dusk, having a great dinner, falling asleep in a sleeping bag on a tiny mattress with eight other people on bunks in the room, and finding that it was not only not difficult, but was extremely enjoyable, that was really amazing. Also, the Pademelons (the small, forest-dwelling equivalent of kangaroos) everywhere were really cute.

Photo credit: Matt Pauve

Photo credit: Matt Pauve

Heron Island

My week at Heron Island was, it’s reasonable to say, the best week of my life. The fun started with an epic two hour ferry ride to the small coral outcrop, home to a resort, a University of Queensland research station, and 40,000 White-Capped Noddys. The ferry had to battle 30 knot winds and three to four meter swells. For some people, this made for a miserable ride. One passenger in particular stands out; green in the face, he stumbled uneasily to the open back deck to empty the contents of his stomach. He didn’t make it, instead spraying it all over the window of the door. Out of the 32 students, 13 admitted to throwing up at some point. So it was pretty awesome, like a roller coaster in the sea. I did feel a bit sorry for the crew though, cleaning up after all the passengers.

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At Heron, we had a great room, lots of free time for “research” that I spent snorkeling, and five fantastic meals a day cooked by an Australian woman whose bad side you did not want to be on.  The best part about the island was probably a spot along the north side called “shark bay.” There, in no more than a meter of water, you would find yourself face to face with innumerable buried and basking cow-tailed sting rays. As you got a bit different you would come through a large school the type of silvery fish that probably would have made a good dinner. Suddenly, the school would part, and a two meter long Lemon Shark would glide by. For some reason, at high tide every day there were between two and six of them, circling in and out of the fish, predator and prey all in together. We never saw any of them eat a fish, but they must have at some point. Even though they (probably) weren’t dangerous, it was impossible to come so close to these sharks and not feel a thrill of terror and excitement.

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The other great part of Heron was the boat snorkeling; we would all pile into a pair of Zodiacs and motor out past the reef crest to snorkel along the wall of the drop off. One day we saw a pod of Humpback whales cruising by. Another day, it was a pair of dolphins. Every day was saw sharks, sea turtles, and countless beautiful tropical fish. Our time on Heron Island was far too short.

Carnarvon Gorge

Our second terrestrial ecology field trip, to a national park 700 km west of Brisbane called Carnarvon Gorge, was probably my least favorite of the four field trips. By this point in the year, the days were extremely hot, but the nights were still incredibly cold. Camping is a less pleasant experience when it gets into the 90s during the day and drops below 40 at night. I honestly was not prepared for that cold. To make matters worse, everyone was stressed because finals were the next week, a cold with a nasty hacking cough was making its way through the group, and something in the food necessitated a lengthy relationship with the toilet and a rather embarrassing stop in the bush for me.

Photo credit: Sarah Buckleitner

Photo credit: Sarah Buckleitner

Despite all that, it was a great week. I shared a tent with my friend Kyler, and we had movie night every night, watching Gladiator and Boondock Saints while trying to stay warm on cots slung low to the ground. The forests were beautiful, with an open undergrowth and dotted with cycads, tree ferns, and pick-a-bean palms. Wild kangaroos were everywhere. The side canyons that we ventured down were each a world in their own, whether dark and moss-covered or filled with the giant ferns that would have been familiar to dinosaurs.

The Whitsunday Islands

If Heron Island was the best week of my life, my time in the Whitsundays was an incredibly close second, and only fell short because none of my friends were there to share the experience. Still, it was an amazing time. This trip was a large part of the reason that I decided to come to Australia this fall, and it did not disappoint.

Along with the other HWS professor from the trip and her family – her husband Dave, and their two children Owen and Griffin – we chartered a 42 foot Beneteau catamaran. At home, we have a 22 foot Catalina monohull that always seemed big to me growing up. That could probably have fit sideways across the bow. The boat had four double beds, four bathrooms, and four showers. It had room to seat the entire group around a table inside or outside. It came with a dinghy and two sea kayaks. All this meant that it was fairly slow sailing – six knots in a twenty knot wind. But with copious amounts of rum, wine, and food, it was perfect for two families for a week.

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The Whitsunday Islands are, unlike Heron, “continental fragments” that were once attached to the mainland. Because of this they’re hilly and mountainous, and would have looked more at home along the coast of Maine than in the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef. We sailed from inlet to inlet, raising our sails to cross open stretches of ocean and then finding a sheltered place to sleep for the night. The coral here was amazing; better than Heron, even. In deeper water I would dive down (I can get to about 20 feet right now) to see massive, slow-growing plate or brain coral. There weren’t as many fish as Heron and (thankfully) no sharks that we saw, but there were sea turtles everywhere and Dugongs (related to the Manatee) in many places, which you would see surfacing, taking a giant gulp of air, and then disappearing into the murk. All around, it was an incredibly relaxing week; I got along with the kids (and they even seemed to have liked me, which was an accomplishment in itself), we didn’t run out of food or water, I read three books and finished the first season of Homeland, and was totally cut off from the outside world except for when I used the FM radio to found out who the next President would be. The Whitsundays marked the end of my time in Australia, and despite the airport difficulties at the end, the time couldn’t have been better.

222574_10151540832453298_1928482013_n After Australia, we flew to New Zealand to re-meet with the group, who’d all been travelling by themselves for ten days, to begin the final two weeks of the term. (To be continued)

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