Being a tourist in your own country is something everyone should experience at least once. I mean, it’s pretty simple to pull off. All you have to do is wear a bum bag, hop on a tour bus and carry around an iPad on a selfie stick. Instant tourist-in-disguise. In all seriousness, travelling around the nation you grew up in and seeing the place from a different perspective can be a very eye-opening and invaluable exercise.
When I was asked to take photos on the two-week Island Suntanner Topdeck Tour, exploring the East Coast of Australia, I wasn’t quite sure how to anticipate the trip. I had just come home to my family in New Zealand after three months of travelling abroad and suddenly four days of sleeping in my own bed and not living out of a suitcase didn’t quite seem enough. Not wanting to take the opportunity to explore my own country for granted, I mustered all the enthusiasm I could as I prepared myself to return to Australia and see the place through the eyes of a tourist. Embarking on a two week tour of the East coast with a group of foreigners, I was about to relearn the culture, history and environment of the land I had grown up in.
The trip began with one of the most mesmerizing plane rides of my life. My eyes were glued to the plane window as vivid pockets of turquoise started emerging from the sapphire ocean. Every time the plane dived out of a fluffy cloud, I caught another glimpse of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef. It was hard to comprehend that I was actually staring out of the window at one of the Seven Wonders of the World. As I exited Cairns airport, I couldn’t help but smile as I stepped back into my own country for the first time in three months. Hearing that thick Queenslander accent and being engulfed by the balmy, humid air was a refreshing change.
The first day of our tour along the East Coast of Australia certainly began on a high. Waking up early, we piled onto a boat and set sail off the coast of Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef. I had been fortunate enough to have visited the Great Barrier Reef twice whilst I was growing up, and was ecstatic to have the opportunity to return. I must say, I don’t think anything will compare to the moment I first went snorkelling at the reef the age of seven. I remember feeling like Ariel from the Little Mermaid, in a magical land of rainbow coral, surrounded by a million fishy friends. Vivid memories of my first reef encounter starting returning to me as we spent hours exploring this spellbinding underwater world, swimming amongst the coral with stingrays, clown fish, sharks and turtles.
The next adventure we were to embark on was an overnight sailing experience through the Whitsundays. It quickly became evident to me why this is one of the most popular sailing spots in the world- this place was stunning. We spent our afternoon on the deck of the sail boat, basking in the sunlight, admiring the views. We even managed to spot a few whales breaching in the distance! A few beers and many rounds of cards later, the day had faded in to night and suddenly we were covered by a dazzling blanket of stars. I longed to sleep on the deck of the boat in order to fully appreciate the splendour of the night sky, but the evening breeze was a little ruthless.
The next day we anchored off at the very renowned Whitehaven beach. Known for its very fine sand, which is made up of 98% silica, it’s one of the only beaches where it is actually illegal to remove the sand! With its glassy aqua water and its pristine expanse of sand, I could now see why Whitehaven is considered one of the best beaches in the world.
Our next stop, Daydream Island, was home for the next few days. The island is basically a giant resort, so it is a very popular spot for people who enjoy the all-inclusive, sit-and-do-nothing type of holiday. My time on Daydream Island was spent devouring food at the buffet, drinking cocktails at swim-up bars, stand-up paddle boarding in the ocean and lying in hammocks daydreaming the afternoon away. It was certainly an ideal time to unwind, although the novelty of these types of resorts do wears thin on me after a couple of days.
Once island life was done and dusted, we had a very swift change of the scene. It was off with the bikinis and on with flannelette shirts- we were heading to a farm. We thoroughly embraced the Australian country way of life during our day and night at Myella Farm Stay. Cracking whips, learning how to lasso, eating freshly baked Anzac cookies and damper and watching a magnificent fiery sunset over the farm were among the many highlights of the whole experience.
The next destination on our East Coast adventures was by far my favourite. Despite having lived only a five hour drive from this place for most of my life, I had never visited Fraser Island before. Fraser Island is the biggest sand island in the WHOLE world, making it ones of the most remarkably unique and diverse places to explore in Queensland. We spent the entire day 4-wheel driving through the island on a Cool Dingo Tour, and still only experienced a mere snapshot of this remarkable place. We paddle boarded on the crystal clear waters of Lake Mackenzie, explored the famous Maheno shipwreck, floated down Eli Creek, walked through the only sand-based rainforest in the world, and even took a scenic flight over the island- all in a day’s work. One of the most interesting parts about the 4WD tour we took was learning about the Aboriginal history of the island. It was heartbreaking to hear how this beautiful island was taken over from the native Butchulla people by the European settlers. It is so easy to take the land we freely explore for granted. Learning more about the native history of the land made me feel more connected to Fraser Island and truly appreciate it for what it is.
After Fraser Island, we made our way down the coast and stopped off in Brisbane (or Brisvegas as we locals like to call it) and Surfers Paradise at the Gold Coast. I immediately flicked off tourist mode, as these were places I was WAY too familiar with. It was extraordinarily strange being on a tour which passed through my home city. I got hit by an unexpected and overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the place I spent most my life in. Brisbane certainly isn’t the most exciting or aesthetically-pleasing of cities, yet familiar and sentiment do funny things to the heart. I don’t think I had ever missed a place more in my life.
Enroute to the town of surfers, hippies, yogis, health-nuts and free-spirits, we made a quick stop to see the magnificent natural bridge in Springbrook National Park before arriving in Byron Bay for sundown. I wandered down to the beach and found myself engrossed by the acoustic melodies of the nearby buskers, watching groups of dreadlocked teens huddle around colourful combi vans. Walking along the beach, I felt rather euphoric. The sky changed a million different colours before the sun made its final descent beneath the hazy horizon. Somehow this place just spoke to my soul.
Our final overnight stop on our tour was to a little surf camp in Crescent Head called Surfaris. The weather was less than ideal, but none of us were about to wimp out at the chance to catch some waves at one of Australia’s greatest surfing spots. I had surfed a bit when I was younger, and I had forgotten how incredible the rush of riding a wave felt. I soon overlooked the goose bumps pricking all over my body and instead got lost in the rhyme of the surf. I was overjoyed to be surfing once again. Sandy hair and salty skin had never felt better.
Finally, we made our way down to Sydney, stopping at the Hunter Valley on the way to sample some of the region’s best wines. We even got to try our hand (or feet) at grape stomping! Happily buzzed, we arrived back to Sydney in the late afternoon and it was evident that the September sunshine hadn’t made its way down south. Again, it was strange being back in a city I had lived in, albeit only for four months. This was my final goodbye to the buzzing metropolis that I temporarily called home for the first half of this year.
I think two weeks of road tripping from Cairns to Sydney may have taught me more about Australia than I what I had learned living there my whole life. The whole experience gave me a completely fresh perspective and a heightened appreciation of how great the land down under really is. Let’s just say I’m bloody proud to be an Aussie!