Chances are that if you decide to study abroad somewhere in Europe, you'll be exposed to a ton of culture. You'll be able to go to a new museum, cathedral, gallery or other ancient remnant every week. Australia definitely has some aspects of that, but it's modern history really only dates back to around 1770 when Captain James Cook claimed the eastern territory for Britain. Of course the indigenous history dates back thousands of years and is extremely beautiful and interesting, but the presence of Renaissance art and ancient edifices is lacking. What Australia does have, however, is an unimaginable amount of unique flora and fauna.
About 35% of the Australian mainland is desert - the Great Australian Outback, if you will. An additional 35% is arid or semi-arid, so essentially more desert. So 70% of the continent is nothing but sand, dirt, cacti and scary insects and lizards that I really don't want to think about. But the remaining 30% is absolutely amazing. I had the chance to explore just a tiny piece of that this weekend on a tour from Sydney to the Hunter Valley to Port Stephens. Let me tell you, I've never felt more in touch with nature in my entire life.
For years and years, I've dreamed of cuddling up with a koala (and recently, smuggling a koala into my jacket and bringing it home with me). Well on Saturday I finally had the chance to see some koalas at the Australian Reptile Park. I have to be honest - I wasn't very impressed. They were extremely adorable, don't get me wrong, but the well known fact that they sleep for 20 hours per day sunk in and I realized that they aren't terribly exciting marsupials. I much prefer kangaroos now. In Australia, they are about as common as squirrels are in the states. The difference (aside from the fact that they are two completely different species) is that they are incredibly friendly and sociable animals. I walked up to one of the kangaroos with a handful of food and as I squatted down, she grabbed my hand with both of her forepaws and gently began to eat. I was amazed and felt immediately connected, as if I had known her and been feeding her for years. She then proceeded to grab the full bag of food out of my friend's hand and eat it, including the brown paper bag itself, but that's part of what made her so awesome. The reptile park also held two tortoises the size of smart cars, a family of dingoes (that did not eat any babies), a collection of colorful and conversational birds and a plethora of rare and oversized reptiles that I tried my best to stay away from.
Following a glorious morning at the reptile park, we had an even more glorious (and extremely inebriated) afternoon in the Hunter Valley, one of the most prominent wine regions in all of Australia. I'm not sure if all of you know this, but I love wine. Red wine, white wine, pink wine, sparkling wine. Five dollar bottles of wine to forty dollar bottles of wine. I love it all. So you can imagine my excitement when I looked down at our first wine tasting menu at the McGuigan Winery and saw no less than ten different types of wine that we were scheduled to try. From there the afternoon got really fun. Following McGuigans, we ventured onto Potters Brewery and then onto a boutique (a.k.a $$$$) winery called Wynwood Estate. Now I'm not much of a beer-drinker, but the craft beers at Potters were definitely a step up from the Keystone Lights that tend to be served on every college campus across America. I tried a ginger-cider autumn beer, which was really delicious and would pair well with a slice of warm apple pie (my favorite). At the Wynwood Estate I fell in love with a sparkling Cherry Blossom Moscato that I could drink with breakfast, lunch, dinner and at any time in between. At the end of the day, I was the proud owner of a bottle of McGuigan Cellar Select Noon Harvest Merlot, a sweet red wine that might just be the best wine I've ever tasted (not exaggerating here).
The first thing on the schedule the next day was whale and dolphin watching. Early in the morning we boarded a boat in Port Stephens, one of the hidden gems of New South Wales, and headed into the choppy Pacific Ocean. The rain was coming down hard and the waves made you think that the boat just might capsize at any minute, but once I saw the whales all of those fears and discomforts were forgotten. There was a pod of about nine humpback whales surrounding our boat, all rising to the surface after one of them jumped out of the water just like they do at Sea World. A member of the boat's crew informed us that they were actually mating, and that jumping and flapping their tails up and down out of the water were different mating calls. She then chuckled and said, "Don't you feel so dirty watching whale porn?" Gosh, I love Australians. We then ventured back toward shore, where the waves died down and the warm sun came out. It was time to find some dolphins. Almost immediately, two dolphins surfaced just in front of our boat and stayed there riding the current for at least twenty minutes. We learned that they were a mother and daughter pair of bottlenose dolphins. The mother was about fifty years old and had lived in Port Stephens for her entire life. Interestingly enough, bottlenose dolphins are extremely territorial and live in packs of all females or all males, unless it's mating season, in which case every night is a crazy co-ed party night. I was so amazed to learn how similar to humans they are in their sensitivity and companionship. Dolphins really are as beautiful and compassionate as all of those sea myths and legends say.
Our final stop for the weekend was also in Port Stephens. We were going sand-boarding! We all jumped into sand buggys and went for a ride that was probably more turbulent than the boat ride that morning. When we arrived at our destination, I took one look at the mountainous sand dunes and said, "No way." I'm not much of a heights person, I'm especially not a roller coaster person and definitely wasn't the kind of person that was going to sit down on a tiny sand-board with no protection and fling myself down a thirty foot drop. About five minutes later I became that kind of person, and I have zero regrets. There is something so freeing about falling. Once you're doing it, it's not scary anymore. Sure, I screamed almost the entire way down, but it was a scream of thrill, not an "oh-my-god-i'm-gonna-die" scream. At the bottom of the dune I hit a bump and went air bound, rolling over myself several times once I landed. That was the best part! The sand was so soft and gentle that I didn't feel as if I could ever get hurt. After a few runs down the dune, we ventured on and took in the view from the top. There was ocean, desert and forest within view. The ocean and trees were sparkling from the sun and I honestly had to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn't in heaven.
In a very quick two days, Australia showed me some of the most beautiful places and amazing creatures that I have ever seen. The best part is that I know that there is still so much more out there. Everybody here keeps pushing all of the amazing sights - the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the Blue Mountains, Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and so much more. I've only been here for a little over a week. I have about 125 days until I get on a plane back to the United States. Bring it on, Australia. I'm ready for whatever adventure is coming next.