Hidden graffitied laneways, a concealed coffee culture and chic night spots: the secret side to Cairns

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Cairns. In fact, for the first few weeks I actively despised it. In fairness, this was mainly due to me coping badly with Sydney withdrawal symptoms and working in an English school hopelessly stuck in the 90s (I’m talking tape cassettes, actual tape cassettes…) run by a troll faced, miniature dragon lady who hated my guts. Let me explain… Sydney is my home from home, imo the best city in the world. It has everything, gorgeous beaches a stone’s throw from the city centre, cheap and efficient transport, a varied cluster of interesting suburbs and with it’s happening nightlife and cheap hostels it’s a backpacker’s haven. But I couldn’t stay in Sydney forever (as much as I wanted to). I was still an impostor in this faraway land of barbies in the arvo and if I wanted to stay here I had to do it the hard way, which meant leaving the big city and venturing into the back of beyond to work on a banana farm where I could trade my sweat, tears and sanity for a second year visa. But, due to a bad bout of banana disease and a hellhole of a hostel this plan didn’t work out and so, penniless, I was forced to head to the nearest ‘big’ town and desperately search for work. This big town was Cairns.

Cairns is an odd place. It has the feel of a once promising town that tried to go all out to become party central but lost heart halfway and just gave up. And so there is a curious mix of rowdy backpackers, bored locals and a heavy aboriginal population. Most of the action in the town happens around the lagoon, a pretty, saltwater pool complete with artificial sand, that tries its hardest to make you ignore the vast expanse of muddy estuary beyond it. (Note: even at low-tide do not venture out onto the estuary, you’re in croc country now mate. And it’s probably stinger season too.) Along the esplanade are an array of overpriced restaurants and cafes geared at holiday makers rather than backpackers, the latter sticking to the hostel bars or backpacker faves, Woolshed and Down Under Bar.

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Cairns Lagoon

The main attraction of Cairns is actually what lies all around it; the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the sprawling Atherton Tablelands and Daintree Rainforest on the other, which spreads all the way up to Cape Tribulation over 100km north of Cairns. (See here  about some of the brilliant trips you can do around Cairns.) A cute day trip closer to the town is a visit to Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’. The village is tiny, and very touristy, but it’s worth a visit just for the lush rainforest views and driving up by car is cheaper and just as scenic as taking the train or the cable car.

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Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’

Don’t get me wrong, Cairns has got its fair share of tourist trips and activities, and is definitely worth a spot on any Aussie road trip itinerary. But it is a town to pass through, not to linger in. Friends came and went, heading north to Darwin or south to the Sunshine Coast, or taking advantage of a cheap flight and heading straight to Bali. I had exhausted all the activities on offer and was now extremely bored, lonely and trapped working here in the sticky, tropical heat of a Queensland summer. (All while trying to teach hyperactive Japanese teenagers how to conjugate verb phrases when all they wanted to do was play volleyball and go off for a BBQ in the sunshine. I feel your pain guys.)

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Don’t miss a trip to the Curtain Fig Tree! One of the largest trees in North Queensland. Head towards Yungaburra where signs will point you in the right direction.

But then a strange thing began to happen. The more time I spent here I started to notice a secret side to Cairns, a low-key, quirky vibe away from the touristy bits. And I liked what I saw. Art exhibitions, market stalls selling homemade oddities,  stands serving spicy curries in the enormous Botanic Gardens in North Cairns. I hadn’t even realised Cairns had a Botanic Garden, or a market, until my housemate took me with her to go garden gnome hunting. (A hobby of hers, she gives old gnomes a bit of well-needed TLC and restores them to their former glory. I guess it’s one way to keep yourself entertained in Cairns.)

One sweltering afternoon I found myself at the entrance to Graffiti Lane, a tucked away alley that wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne. Here I found one of Cairn’s ‘secret’ coffee shops. Caffiend is a funky little spot filled with an eclectic mix of furnishings; think skateboards on the wall, a graffiti covered coffee machine and various art works for sale on the walls. The colourful alley wall serves as a backdrop to the outside seating area. You can even buy a t-shirt with the Caffiend logo splashed across the front. The place is pretty teeny and, despite its out of the way location, is constantly buzzing with locals. Unsurprising though, given the cool setup and the amazing menu. ‘European frittata on rocket salad’, ‘Balsamic, strawberry and goat’s cheese bruschetta’, ‘Poached eggs with wilted spinach, bacon and chili jam’ are just some of the options on offer here.

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Image from Google: Caffiend on ‘Graffiti Lane’

Further up the alley, what appears to be a dead end is actually the courtyard and back entrance to La Creperie. This French inspired cafe serves up a great selection of sweet and savoury crepes and unmissable milkshakes. As for the evenings, tired of the same old bar crawl along the ‘strip’ I ventured beyond the brightly lit lagoon and found Salthouse perched at the end of the boardwalk by a little harbour. This became my favourite spot, drinking coffee, marking homework and looking out over the harbour on sunny afternoons and working my way through the cocktail menu in the evenings. It seems that the backpacking crowds haven’t descended onto this spot yet and it retains a chilled, chic vibe that is one of a kind in Cairns.

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Cocktails and ambiance at chic Salthouse

 

4 months later, and a year after arriving in Australia, I was finally able to leave my shitty job and fly off to the sunny shores of Bali for a much needed holiday. But I realised that I would miss the strange little bubble that is Cairns and all it’s tucked away places waiting to be discovered. Look hard enough and you might just find them…

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The Lagoon by night

 

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Don’t miss the Coconut Man at Rusty’s market

 

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Get your fortune told at the Gypsy Shop in Rusty’s market

 

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Innisjail, Cell Block F: the dark side to banana picking

I love Sydney. I love Kings Cross, where ultra-hip, ultra-rich 20 somethings and gay, retired millionaires walking their ridiculously tiny dogs up and down the tree-lined streets of Potts Point coexist peacefully with the scantily clad prostitutes and down and outs who litter the infamous Darlinghurst Road. This is where I called home for 8 months at Zing backpackers, conveniently located near the subway (2 stops one way and you’re in the CBD, 2 stops in the opposite direction and you’re in Bondi), Mr Liquor (whose $4 bottles of red will be sorely missed) and opposite the Golden Apple (one of the Cross’s most reputable brothels apparently, if you’re that way inclined…)

I had a great job teaching at an English Language school, great friends and my days off consisted of barbecues on the beach, taking day trips to exciting places and drinking too much previously mentioned $4 wine.  Life was good, albeit a bit stressful at times. It’s hard to keep up with a ‘proper job’, marking homework and planning lessons while living in a hostel, but I couldn’t have left Zing if I tried. That place has some kind of magnetic pull that prevents people from leaving. A few days turn into a week, then a month, and before you know it you’re in a long-termer dorm, using an inflated goon bag for a pillow and on first name terms with the cockroaches in the kitchen.

But all good things come to an end, and as other longtermers started drifting off to various banana and mango farms around the country I realised that if I was going to attempt getting a second year visa I had to act now. The original plan, of course, had been to travel up the coast to Cairns, (which I did) then stick around in northern Queensland till I found work on a farm , (which I didn’t.) After a few days of sticky heat and strange aboriginal people shouting at us in the streets my friend and I decided that Cairns wasn’t for us and we hotfooted it straight back to Sydney. (Which turned out to be the best decision I could have made, as this particular decision led me to a posh boy from Essex, aka my boyfriend.)

Following a friend’s advice, I called mysterious John who owned a working hostel in Innisfail, land of abundant bananas ripe for picking by enthusiastic backpackers. So a month later the new boyfriend and I are on a flight to Cairns and a Greyhound bus to Innisfail. John who turns out to be a bald, middle-aged Aussie, picks us up from the bus station and takes us to the hostel where we eagerly sign the workers papers with our visa and bank details. We are a bit confused when John says, in between explaining the correct way to ‘hump’ bananas, that there might be a bit of a wait for work. OK, how much of a wait are we talking here, I’m dangerously close to my visa expiring and I need work straight away (which we’d been led to believe we’d be getting on the phone.)

‘Oh you’ll most likely get work in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner” John assures us, avoiding most of our questions, before giving us a quick tour and showing us our dorm room. To call it a hostel is generous, this place makes Zing look like a 5 star hotel. The set up looks like a prison, the dorms are located in different coloured blocks, A-F which surround a large, square patch of grass in the middle. There is a filthy kitchen with one functioning hob, a dilapidated room with a couple of chairs with the stuffing ripped out and a couple of weights in the corner, which John introduces us to as ‘the gym’. That is it.

We are shown to Block F and a 12 bed dorm. As we meet our room mates we realise that, unsurprisingly, John may have been telling a few porkies. This place is full to the brim with jobless, pissed off backpackers that have been spun the same spiel as us and led to believe that there was plenty of work when the reality is quite the opposite.

I’ve been waiting 5 weeks for work’ one girl says with a shrug.

‘Why don’t you just leave?’ I ask her. ‘Go somewhere else?’

‘I’ve waited this long, there’s no point in going anywhere else now. I’m next on the list and work’s picking up. I reckon I’ll be working next week.’

This is the mantra here. I’m next on the list. Work is picking up. I’ll have work next week. People here are so desperate for their second year visas they refuse to admit that they’ve been royally screwed over by a very clever conman who takes rent money and promises work that doesn’t exist. There’s simply too many people and not enough work. Those that do have work are given half days, or 3 days a week at the most, only earning enough to cover their rent and maybe a box of goon for the weekend and then, after a couple of weeks, are told that their farm doesn’t need them anymore. This means that instead of 3 months on one farm (where your days are counted even if you don’t work every day of the week) they then have to start on another farm and complete the 88 days required to get their visa signed off. 88 days, when you’re lucky to get a couple of half days a week, means these guys are going to be stuck in this hellhole for a very, very long time.

Most nights everyone who actually has worked on a farm all day are in bed by 8.30 and the lights turn off at 9pm, so other than sitting around in the dark and damp feeling miserable there’s really nothing to do, unless you feel like fighting a bunch of lads for the only Xbox control, or risking cooking anything in the filthy kitchen. (Even the nearest liquor store is a 40 minute walk away.) When the weekend finally rolls around though, it’s like a break out from the zoo, a hundred or so boozed up backpackers, released from their cages, on the loose in Innisfail town centre and the only nightclub in town, Rumours. (Think groups of menacing looking Aboriginal men, 50 year old women dressed as 20 year olds drinking alcopops and dancing in the haze of a smoke machine. Depressing to say the least. I last about 10 minutes in Rumours before heading straight to Maccas with a fellow inmate from Cell Block C, (equally cramped and mouldy  as Cell Block F). Maccas is only open for drive-thru (unsurprising really, I’d want to be separated from anyone in this town by a thick sheet of glass too). Help comes in the form of a real-life hillbilly, complete with mullet, buck teeth and a pick up truck who takes us through the drive-thru and drops us off at the hostel where we wave him off, greasy paper bags in hand. So at least the locals are friendly, if slightly odd…

As it turned out, I lasted a week before escaping.

Funnily enough, I never saw a single banana.

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Lock up your daughters, it’s Shit Shirt Swap Saturday

 

Pink Barbie cars on Magnetic Island, sailing around the ridiculously photogenic Whitsundays, jumping out of planes in Mission Beach, diving the Great Barrier Reef and avoiding the locals in Cairns…Welcome to tropical North Queensland

Back at the Nomads hostel in Rainbow beach we have a few days to try out some of the activities on offer in this teeny tiny town. We attempt sand boarding on the huge sand dunes nearby, without much success, and wake up super early one morning to drive over to Tin Can Bay, a small spot where, every day without fail, wild dolphins swim into the shallows to be hand-fed by enthusiastic volunteers. It’s a cute place to visit, but word to the wise, don’t eat at the café…

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“Make it look like i’m going really fast’

After 2 days in Rainbow we seem to have exhausted all the possible activities on offer but our Australia map doesn’t show much between here and Airlie Beach, our next destination, nearly 1000 km away… (We are fast realising just how big Australia is. Here, ‘up the road’ means, at the very least, a 2 hour drive) We decide to drive up to the tiny sister townships of Agnes Water and Town of 1770 after a brief stop in Bundaberg, which may be the most depressing town on the east coast…(sorry Bundabergans).

1770, so-named for being the (second) landing place of Captain Cook, seems to consist solely of a hill with a beachside bar perched on top. Agnes Water is just as tiny and charming, with a handful of souvenir shops and a hidden gem of a beach where we have a 3 hour surfing lesson with the Reef 2 Beach surf school for just $17. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never be a pro surfer. By the end we are battered, bruised and exhausted, but manage to muster enough energy for a group photo.

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To save money, we pitch our tent in a super basic campsite for $6 a night. The campsite consists of one toilet full of insects, an outdoor shower in the middle of a patch of grass and a few sandy plots to pitch tents. This would have been fine if a huge storm hadn’t blown up during the night and we had nowhere to shelter except the tent which was trying to fly away, or the car which was full of crap and already soggy from wet towels and bikinis strewn everywhere. Not the most comfortable nights sleep. The campsite had a well kept secret though. A short walk through some overgrown bush (avoiding cobwebs housing enormous spiders stretched across the path) led to a tucked away little beach, where we spent a chilled day soaking up some sun with some cold ciders.

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Jungle huts in Airlie

After a few days in Agnes Water we leave for Airlie Beach and our Whitsundays tour which we’ve booked in advance. Things have been going pretty smoothly so far, apart from the car continuously leaking oil, but this is where our road trip hits a hitch and it seems our luck may have run out. The storm that hit us in Agnes Water has been building up off the coast of Airlie, slap bam in the middle of the Whitsunday islands. The weather reports are predicting it will turn into a full-blown cyclone. No boats are going out. Our tour is cancelled. We decide not to wait around and, grudgingly, leave Airlie behind us to drive up to Townsville where a ferry will take us across to Magnetic Island. Despite our disappointment about missing the trip, it’s hard to feel down on this small, beautiful island covered in lush tropical bush. The renowned BASE hostel we’re staying at feels more like a hotel than a hostel, right on the beach with views over to the mainland, a bar-side swimming pool and cute little bungalows serving as dorm rooms. (Also, possums. Cute, furry possums everywhere.)

There is a strange phenomenon on the island that is the Barbie ‘Topless’ car. For around $100 you can rent toy-like, open-top cars in various neon colours and speed around the windy island roads. However, with money starting to run a bit low, we opt for the budget version. So, while everyone else zooms past us in their fluorescent pink cars, music thumping, salty air in their hair, we penny-pinchers wait patiently at the bus stop.

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The infamous Barbie car

When the bus finally rolls up (everyone here is on island time), we visit the Koala Sanctuary where we get up close and personal with some Aussie critters, holding lizards, crocodiles and snakes, petting koalas and feeding talking parrots. On the way back, we battle the late day humidity and take a short hike up through the bush to a lookout point with a beautiful, almost panoramic, view of the island.

Just as we’re easing into island life, I get an unexpected call from Peter Pans travel agents back in Kings Cross, who’ve managed to do the impossible and squeeze us onto a Whitsundays boat the next day. So we say a fond farewell to Maggie, retrace our steps back to Airlie and finally board the Condor, our home for the next 3 days.

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Sailing, sunbathing and drinking, lovely

The Whitsundays trip is as amazing as expected. At first we are dubious about the overwhelming amount of loud, young German boys that board with us but they turn out to be great fun and become our drinking buddies for the next 3 days. We spend the days sailing blissfully between hundreds of tiny islands, stopping to snorkel and eat freshly barbecued lunch on the deck. The highlight of the trip is, of course, the famous Whitehaven beach, pure white swathes of sand and impossibly turquoise water stretching out for miles. In the evenings, we drink, (a lot, we run out of alcohol after the first night… note to self: you can never bring enough goon) and listen to music as dolphins swim laps around the boat. The nights are hot and sticky, the problem with living on a boat is that you’re never really dry and are constantly aware of how salty and damp you are. It’s impossible to sleep below deck in the cramped sleeping area, so most people drag their mattresses onto the deck and sleep beneath the stars. After 2 nights the trip is over and, though we’re reluctant to leave the party boat behind us, I’ve never been more grateful for a fresh water shower.

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Panoramic view of Whitehaven Beach
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The obligatory park sign photo
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White sand and warm, turquoise water for miles
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Sweaty, salty and very hungover at the end of the trip

Our next destination is Mission Beach, where, on an impulse, we’ve booked a skydive. We take an obligatory pitstop along the way to take photos of another giant piece of fruit, this time it’s (drumroll…) The Big Mango! The mango is a much nicer pitstop than the poor pineapple. It even has it’s own café, complete with coffee cups with little mango men on them. We have ice-cream (mango flavour, of course) and then continue driving until we reach ‘Cassowary Country’ and Mission Beach. Signs along the roadside instruct us to slow down and watch out for cassowaries, though I’m yet to meet anyone who’s ever actually spotted one of these elusive, dinosaur like birds in the wild.

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The Big Mango!

Mission Beach is all hilly, jungly tropicalness. We check into the secluded Jackaroo hostel, a 10 minute drive up a long, winding road from the beach. The hostel is nestled on a lush hillside, practically in the jungle, with amazing views out to sea. (Aussie hostels have really upped their game, European hostels, take note.) The small dorms, lounge area and kitchen are on the second floor, looking over the pool and sloping garden filled with hammocks and a canvas screen for open air movies. We relax, and I mentally prepare myself for the following day, half hoping there will be a freak thunderstorm and it will be cancelled..

 

Everyone says if you have done a bungee jump then a skydive will be a breeze. ‘You don’t even have to jump yourself, you’re attached to a professional, it’s totally safe yada yada yada.’ These people are lying. Doing a skydive is terrifying. And completely different to a bungee. Yes true, you don’t actually have to will yourself to step off into nothingness, but you do have to take a small, bumpy plane thousands of feet into the air (with the door open), and watch as other people hurtle over the edge strapped to another human, looks of sheer terror on their faces until its your turn. OK I’m making this sound like it was a horrible experience, which it wasn’t. It was brilliant because it was equally terrifying and exhilarating. And, like with a bungee, I’ve found that at the point where you’re about to fall your brain kind of stops worrying and switches off and pure adrenalin takes over. And after the initial over the edge, heart in mouth, ’oh my god what the fuck have I done?!’, moment passes, suddenly it’s the best experience of your life. Free falling through a clear blue sky, over a vast expanse of turquoise water, studded with islands (even if your goggles keep riding up over your head making it nearly impossible to see…) And when the parachute goes up you can take off the stupid goggles and really appreciate the indescribable feeling of being suspended in mid-air, taking in the view and the stillness, feeling like a bird. A few swoops and a gentle glide and we land on the beach. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Same goes for a bungee jump. The rush more than makes up for the fear. I think the only thing I wouldn’t do again is Zorbing, which I attempted at Rotorua in New Zealand. Getting tossed around and around in an inflatable ball filled with water with your friends feet in your face. Like being in a washing machine on spin cycle. Horrific.

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Jackaroo Hostel, Mission Beach

Just over a month after we left Sydney we arrive in Cairns, our final destination, amazingly with the car still in one piece despite it constantly leaking oil everywhere. Cairns is an odd place. The esplanade and lagoon are pretty, especially at night when everything is lit up and there are a few nice places to eat and drink along the esplanade. But the rest of the town seems a bit faded and shabby, built for tourists but somehow not quite right. There is a noticeable Aboriginal population here, and they tend to roam the streets at night, slurring drunkenly at passers by who ignore them. For the most part though, they seem harmless, and there is something sad about them and their resistance to modern life and integration. Cairns is definitely a town to pass through, do a couple of trips, get drunk at Gilligans and Woolshed and then leave again. (I realised this when I ended up stuck working here for 4 excruciating months a while later.) But we do make the most of some of the brilliant day trips that Cairns has to offer.

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Attempt number 72…success!

The first trip we do is a day in the Daintree Rainforest on Uncle’s Brian’s Fun, Falls and Forest tour. This trip actually turns out to be the highlight of our whole east coast trip. We make the mistake of drinking far too much the night before and rocking up to the bus very hungover, very early in the morning. We are welcomed onto the bus by Cousin Rob who is a ball of energy and tells us that today will be filled with lots of walking, swimming and singing. ‘Oh God. What are we doing?!’ is my first thought, but as we head off, Rob’s infectious energy rubs off on us and our hangovers miraculously subside as we sing karaoke and pass  ‘magic’ polos around the bus from person to person using only a toothpick between our teeth… yeah there’s no other way I can explain that. We spend the day chasing waterfalls, stopping off at Victoria falls which looks like a scene from Tarzan and has its own natural water slide and Milaa Milaa falls, the famous Herbal Essences waterfall, (yes, yes, YES) and set of Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ video where we attempt the ultimate hair flick.

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Chasing waterfalls with this fun bunch

We can’t leave Cairns without visiting its ultimate attraction, the Great Barrier Reef where I try diving for the first time (after waiting around for my diving buddy, a Chinese guy who apparently hadn’t realised that diving involved putting your head underwater and was having a slight panic attack. He ended up back on the boat by the free buffet where he seemed much happier.) As the boat speeds back from the reef after a blissful day of sun and snorkelling we realise our trip has come to an end and, with now very empty pockets, we have to decide what to do. We contemplate sticking around in Cairns and finding work for about 30 seconds before deciding there’s only one place we want to go. And so we sell the faithful rustwagon and scurry back ‘home’ to Sydney, penniless but with impressive tan lines and many a road trip tale to tell.

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Snorkellers or superheroes…?
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Farewell old friend!
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Fuck…
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The Jackaroo Travel Wall…. The most beautiful thing in the world is of course the world itself

On the BTOA (Big Things of Australia) trail : tacky but fun Surfer’s Paradise, boring Brissy, ‘how the other half live’ Noosa and a real desert island experience on Fraser Island.

After 4 nights at the Arts Factory, (I could happily have stayed longer but the hippies were getting too much for Lisa) we leave Byron behind us and drive on to Australia’s answer to Miami, Surfers Paradise. Disappointingly, there is not a surfer in sight, but there are loads of Continue reading “On the BTOA (Big Things of Australia) trail : tacky but fun Surfer’s Paradise, boring Brissy, ‘how the other half live’ Noosa and a real desert island experience on Fraser Island.”

The infamous Arts Factory Lodge, naked men & quirky little Nimbin: my stay in bizarre but blissful Byron Bay

It’s road-trip time! After months of working hard teaching in the big city it’s time to say a sad goodbye to Sydney and my students and venture up the east coast all the way to Cairns with Lisa. We’ve bought a knackered Continue reading “The infamous Arts Factory Lodge, naked men & quirky little Nimbin: my stay in bizarre but blissful Byron Bay”

Sydney Round 2, Hostel life ain’t so bad

Sydney, I’m back. And where else would I check into than Zing backpackers in good old Kings Cross. I expected to only stay for a couple of weeks, but ended up calling it home for the next 8 months. I never thought I could live in a hostel for so long, but while I thought about Continue reading “Sydney Round 2, Hostel life ain’t so bad”

The time I cheated on Sydney with Melbourne…

Oh Melbourne… I really wanted to hate you. I wanted to return ‘home’ with the smug satisfaction of knowing that this chilly city pales in comparison with the big smoke that is Sydney. But after only a few days here I can already see why Melbournites are so fiercely proud of their city. Continue reading “The time I cheated on Sydney with Melbourne…”