Author: Jessica Hanson

Location: Newcastle, Australia

I can’t believe it’s already been a week since I left the United States, yet I also can’t believe it’s only been that long. The past seven days have been filled with experiences that literally could be once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. I can’t possibly relay all the details of my adventures, but I figured I’d give you a few highlights and a small glimpse into what Aussie life looks like so far!

The adventure started with my 10-hour layover in Los Angeles. This was my first time ever on the West Coast, let alone California! I was a little bit apprehensive about exploring a new city all by myself, but with my backpack locked and my newly-downloaded Uber app in tow, I was ready to head out. My journey began with navigating the free shuttle bus system, where the shuttle bus driver showed me the best place to hop a fence and make it across the street to the California-famous In-N-Out Burger. With my belly full, I took my first Uber to Manhattan Beach and Boardwalk. 

I couldn’t believe how pretty the beach was, as picturesque as it is on calendars and postcards. The sun was shining bright over the clear blue waters and fine white sand, and to me, this was “real California” (although I’m sure this would offend a true Californian!) At the end of the Pier was Roundhouse Aquarium where I was able to touch star fish and sea urchins- kind of cool I’d say! Next stop was Venice Beach, another typical tourist stop with the street lined with shops and artwork stands of all kinds. A vanilla cone took the edge off of the hot California sun as I continued up to my final stop at Santa Monica Pier. Santa Monica Pier is the Navy Pier of Los Angeles- Ferris Wheel and Bubba Gump restaurant included! I walked down the pier far enough to see this wonderful art stand advertising my very own name (what a coincidence!) before I decided I was hot and tired and ready to head back to the airport.

I won’t go into the boring details of the 14+ hour flight between Los Angeles and Sydney other than to say that I was thankful that at least Australia welcomed me with the beautiful colors of sunrise over the ocean at my 6:30 am arrival.  It was really weird realizing I left LA on the 18th and arrived in Sydney on the 20th, meaning the 19th of July completely disappeared…Anyway, with no time to explore Sydney, me and fellow Valpo student Aaron cleared customs and found our shuttle bus that took us 20 minutes away to the domestic terminal (because we totally would have been able to figure that out on our own.) Our first impressions of Australia on the shuttle bus were A) that there weren’t many American cars on the road but B) at least there was American music! The flight to Cairns was short and sweet where we finally met our lovely coordinator Indigo, a law student at University of Newcastle and our guide and helping hand for the rest of the semester. Cairns is in Queensland, Australia, way up north where the weather was still warm and tropical (thank goodness I didn’t have to say goodbye to my beautiful summer quite yet!) The first night in Cairns was a relaxed night of meeting my fellow Americans on the trip, exploring the city, and getting a small taste of what Australian nightlife is like.

The next morning, bright and early at 8 am, we were up and ready for our day exploring the rain forest! After a light buffet breakfast (with their glass bottles of juice and various types of delicious carbs), we headed out to Rainforestation and Wildlife Nature Park. We fit a LOT into a few hours so my apologies if this gets too long! First stop was lunch, where I tried a passion fruit for the first time and had crocodile soup! Other members of the trip decided to try the kangaroo kebabs- don’t worry, kangaroo is a delicacy only because the population is flourishing, much like the excessive deer population in Wisconsin! After lunch came my personal favorite part of the trip- holding a Koala! Say hi to Kia, my new furry friend and source of joy for a mere 60 seconds as this picture was being taken. Fun fact- Queensland is the only state in Australia where it is legal to touch a koala; the population is endangered and protected in the rest of the country. Up next was the tour of Aboriginal culture, the Djabuganydji tribe, the native peoples of the Queensland rain forest.

The tour included traditional face painting, an introduction to the native plants of the forest, boomerang throwing lessons, a didgeridoo tutorial, and a dance show (featuring yours truly as a special guest in the Shake-a-leg dance.) 

Next stop was a tour through the forest on the Army Ducks (a vehicle made for WWII that serves both as a tank and a boat too!). My favorite plant was the Australian tree fern, a beautiful addition to the canopy and- fun fact- a species dating back to the time of the dinosaurs! Our adventures at the Rainforestation park concluded with a brief tour of the wildlife park with all the favorite furry animals of Australia.

We ended the day with a trip on the Skyrail over the rain forest before heading back to home base at Gilligan’s Backpacker’s Resort for the night.

And now the trip you’ve all been waiting for, or at least the one I have been dreaming of since I was a wee lad (yes, that’s Irish, not Aussie)- REEF DAY! We walked down to the marina bright and early to set foot on our tour boat for the day- Passions of Paradise (one of the few locally-owned companies of the area so check them out if you ever make it over to Australia!) It was 2+ hours from the coast to the location of the reef and although it was overcast when we left the shore, the sun was shining in the open ocean by the time we reached our destination. When the boat parked, me and most of my other travel mates got ready for our Scuba Diving adventure. I had never scuba-dived before, but I knew I would never get the chance to scuba-dive in the Great Barrier Reef again, so I knew I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity. The dive lasted only about 25 minutes- but it was absolutely spectacular! I know many of you will ask about the condition of the reef and if it’s really as bad as people say it is. It’s true that the colors of the reef were much less vibrant than I would have expected, but the diversity of wildlife was still phenomenal, and the reef was by no means “dead,” although I could see how it is not in full health. Nonetheless, it was amazing how many different species of fish there were, and the reef still seemed very much “alive” (at least in my non-expert opinion.) Later in the afternoon, we changed locations, and it was time to snorkel in the reef for an hour. This was almost more exciting than the scuba-diving because I was able to just float on the water and stare at the fish in awe. I was also fortunate enough to see a reef shark and a sea turtle!!! I about screamed when I saw it just hanging out on the bottom; it was pretty young but looked to be in good health. The experience of scuba-diving and snorkeling in the reef was incredible and I am so grateful that it was part of my CISabroad experience and orientation up in Cairns.

By now, I’m officially settled on campus and getting into the swing of life here at Uni (short for University). I’ve had more adventures already but I think that’s enough excitement for one day!

Thanks for reading and I’ll keep you updated on my next big adventure here in Australia 😊