That said, it's worth noting the following:
TOP 10 MOST LIVABLE CITIES
7. Adelaide (2-way tie with Calgary, Canada)
9. Sydney (3-way tie with Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland)
Love this country. Anyway, back to traveling.
Tuesday, 6 January
Ah, Perth. We got off the train and were immediately greeted with a gust of warm air - it had to be at least 28 degrees already at 9 a.m.! After saying our goodbyes to our train friends (Miriam had managed to befriend everyone in our entire car), we set off with Matieu and Patrice in search of a bus to take us into the city...but not before Ron, owner of the nearby Rainbow Lodge hostel, invited us in for free toast and coffee.
We finally managed to figure out the bus system and made our way to the travel info center to figure out the rest of our trip (at this point, we were all considering traveling together) and ways to navigate the city. Armed with maps and an overwhelming amount of friendly advice, we hiked out backpacks on and set off, by foot, into Northbridge towards the Governor Robinson's hostel. Miriam had left me in charge of hostel and transportation booking back in Sydney, and after perusing countless websites for different hostels recommended by my travel books, I'd finally settled on Lonely Planet's top-rated, renovated colonial-style place located a fair walk down Williams St (the main street through hostel-filled Northbridge).
A picture's worth a thousand words, and I really can't be bothered to write that much about Gov. Robinson's exterior and lobby (nor would you want to sit there and read all about it), so I'll leave you with the website. I encourage you to check out what $30 a night looks like in Perth. "Stunned" doesn't even begin to cover mine and Miriam's reaction to our good fortune. Impressed, the Frenchies decided to book a couple beds too.
Deciding to explore the area, we quickly changed into our swim suits (for guys, these are called "boardies" for board shorts or "budgie smugglers" for speedos. Not sure if there's a specific word for bikini...probably "bikkie" or something) and set off for Cottesloe Beach. It was here I first stuck my toes into the Indian Ocean!
The French retired early to go home and make some gourmet dinner, so Miriam and I, noticing everyone's picnics, walked up the hill to the street for fish/calamari and chips, which we enjoyed on the grassy hill while watching the sun set over the ocean. We stayed there for hours, talking about every topic under the sun (moon) and getting to know a lot more about each other and our lives before coming to Australia.
On our way back to the train, we met a guy named Maye (spelled something like that I guess; he's from French-owned Reunion Island, near Madagascar) who had been staying at another hostel in Northbridge for a month and was currently working at the gelato shop near the beach (he had plans to work and travel in Australia for the year before returning home to become a PE teacher). Since he knew the area pretty well, he took us on a walking tour around Northbridge, pointing out the best cafes to get breakfast and the hippest clubs, most of which were bursting with twentysomething travelers.
That night, we slept in the absolute most comfortable beds - and that's not just compared to the train seats. It was pure heaven.
Wednesday, 7 January
After sleeping in a fair bit, Miriam and I gathered our travel books and brochures and walked down to the Italian cafe Maye had recommended for breakfast. Ordering two massive plates of eggs and toast, we pushed two round tables together on the sidewalk and spread our notes upon the surface, determined to map out the rest of our trip. We weighed our options: rent a car or take the bus? Which towns boast the most activities? What activities exactly did we want to partake in? How far could we get with the time we had? (Fortunately, the southwest is actually quite small - it takes about 5/5.5 hours to drive from Perth to the bottom, Albany, plus another six to get to beautiful Esperance in the east). The beauty of backpacking in Australia is that you're encouraged to be spontaneous; hostels expect you to book your bed a couple hours in advance, and they know you'll be coming in at 5 p.m. hoping to book a spot on tomorrow's snorkeling tour. Hostel staff are fabulous.
Between eating breakfast and playing with the owner's toddler son (who was plopped onto my lap, where he sat content for a good 15 minutes), we finally made a game plan...and it didn't involve the French guys (they were more interested in surfing their way down the coast at a faster pace anyway). Realizing we had to act fast, we ran/bussed our way to Bayswater and booked a car for the rest of our journey just before they closed. Exhausted and overheated, we then made our way to the Dome Cafe and settled into iced coffees and split a slice of cake.
The Lonely Planet travel book suggested a great walking tour from our end of the city to the famed Kings Park, so with a final slurp of coffee, we walked down past the Supreme Court Gardens to the Barrack St Jetty (where snorkeling and boat tours depart from), past the Swan Bells Tower (which contains 16 bells, 12 of which came from St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square in London!), along the picturesque Esplanade, until we hit the humongous park. While photographing the sun setting over the Swan River and casting beautiful shadows over the Perth city skyline, we were greeted by none other than...Nagomi from the train! Turns out she was staying in a hostel not far from ours for a couple weeks to volunteer for some tree planting organization. Getting hungry, we invited her into town with us, where we ended up bonding over pints of beer (I now have a thing for Old Speckled Hen) at the Moon & Sixpense brewery on Murray St. How's this for a small world: she had just wrapped up her study exchange at Deakin University in Melbourne, the very uni I would have probably attended had I not chosen UTS (as SF State has direct bilateral exchanges with both). Crazy!
Thursday, 8 January
Today we met up with Nagomi and trekked back to the Barrack St Jetty to catch a ferry to...Rottnest Island! This little island - as in 1 kilometers long and, at most, 4.5 kilometers wide - is about an hour off the coast and boasts some epic snorkeling spots. It's called Rottnest because early Dutch settlers thought the quokka, the island's native marsupial that kind of resembles a wallaby - was a rat. Henceforth, the land was named "rat's nest." About 300 people live on the island, but aside from tour buses, the only type of wheeled transport allowed on the island are bicycles. Once we arrived on the island and had a feed, we rented bikes and away we went!
There are a few paved paths that take you to different areas of the island, but we decided to stick to the east side and hit up Parker Point and Little Salmon Bay, as those were supposed to be the prime snorkeling spots. The first was a bit of a bust, but I saw all sorts of little fish at LSB. No matter; the ride around the island was incredible on its own, and we must have stopped 18 times just to snap photos of each other in front of this lookout point and that distant shipwreck.
On our way back, one of us noticed a little movement in the bushes, and upon closer inspection, discovered it was a family of quokkas!! We probably spent 20 minutes playing with these friendly little creatures, who kept trying to climb into Nagomi's lap and backpack while I snapped photos. (to be posted) Stopping to swim real quick at Little Basin Bay, we were approached by a curious tourist who'd picked up on our three different accents and wanted to know how we'd all met. We smiled at his bemused expression, knowing how crazy our story must have sounded.
We grabbed a bite to eat at a Chinese place near our hostel later that night, and by the time we departed, Miriam and I had learned a few new Japanese phrases and swapped contact info with our new friend. (Remember the water-saving bathroom paper I had to write for int'l business last semester? Yeah, we had a whole discussion about that.) It was as if we'd all known each other forever.
Friday, 9 January
Nagomi had meetings to attend for her volunteer job, so Miriam and I trekked back towards the water for another round at Rottnest Island; this time, we were going scuba diving. Whoop whoop! (Having visited Australia with a past boyfriend two years ago, Miriam was already scuba certified).
Diving near Rottnest looked a lot different from the Great Barrier Reef: there were still tons of fish and coral, but as an added bonus, we were free to explore a network of underwater caves too. Since I was one of the only uncertified divers on board (everyone else had been diving for years, some for decades), one of the guides, a young guy named Alex, went down with Miriam and I. The narrow caves were a little scary to go through at first, particularly because my mask kept filling with water and wouldn't stay clear for long, Alex was able to keep me calm underwater - for the first dive. When we went down a second time in a different spot, I was hit with a bout of claustrophobia and had to come up 3/4 of the way through. Unfortunate, but I still saw a lot of great sea life.
Back on Murray St, Miriam and I left the dive shop and settled into a cafe for several more hours of conversation over dinner. Man, we're great talkers.
Saturday, 10 January
Picked up the car in the a.m. - a cute little Corolla sedan that cost us less than $500 for 11 days. Amazing. We drove south to check out Fremantle, known for its Freo markets (food, clothes, music, candles, you name it), "Cappuccino Strip," and the "Fremantle Doctor," a cooling breeze that comes off the ocean and cools you off when it gets super hot. We poked around the market for a bit, sampling homemade salsas and chatting with the locals (I even met a woman from SF who'd moved to Perth four years before and was running a Berkeley-style clothing stall). Strolling down the strip, we gave into my Mexican food craving and split an order of fajitas at a nearby cafe before continuing on down to Maraschino for cappuccinos...and a to-die-for brownie Miriam insisted on (she's a bit of a chocoholic.)
Before returning to the car, I walked up to check out the Fremantle Prison. Impressive, to say the least - it could've passed for a grungy sort of castle.
I decided to test out my driving skills on the way out of Fremantle and was surprised to find how easy it was to drive on the left side of the road...so long as you keep your wits about you. Miriam helpfully yelled "keep left!" from the passenger seat, which also helped keep me focused as we made our way down the coast to Bunbury.
Sunday, 11 January
Today was going to be one of the highlights of the trip: we were going to swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Discovery Center!
We signed up for a three hour excursion that would take us out to the spots most frequented by the wild dolphins studied at the center. We saw a few jumping around the boat as we sped off towards the first spot, but had to swim around and call out for several minutes before a group of five or six actually came to us. Since they were wild dolphins we couldn't touch them, but ducking underwater and butterfly kicking in my flippers next to them was the coolest experience.
The other spots we tried out were busts, so before heading back to the center, the boat driver decided to take us back to the first spot once more. This time, we were in for just a few minutes before an entire swarm of dolphins surrounded us - the most the crew had ever seen! I swam around like a maniac, racing a couple of the dolphins along the sandy floor and watching another girl in the group as she chased a couple of her own, shooting a good three minutes worth of swimming footage with her camera.
Back on land, out of our wetsuits and holding cups of complimentary hot chocolate, Miriam and I got to talking to three other girls from the tour. They were German, of course - twins Nicole and Yvonne from Ratingen and Kiki from Stuttgart - and upon discovering we were all heading towards the small beach town of Yallingup, decided to travel together.
Nicole and Kiki were nannies in Perth who'd been traveling up and down the western coast for their vacation, so their hatchback was well equipped with camping and cooking supplies. We found a nice caravan park called Caves and uploaded the car to make a simple dinner of rice and noodles. We all clicked immediately, and since Miriam and I hadn't booked any accommodation at this point, ended up sleeping in the back of the girls' car that night.
Monday, 12 January
Today we went exploring: Cape Naturaliste, Caves Bay, and the Busselton Jetty (longest in the world), which was pretty cool but absolutely FREEZING and windy. Kinda forgot the weather opposite in Australia: the further south you go, the colder it gets...
After a dinner of soft tacos (haha, guess whose idea that was? Miriam and I decided to pay the girls back for their hospitality the best way we know how: with food), we piled into the car and drove out to Busselton for...a drive-in double feature! The movies playing weren't the best - High School Musical 3 and Wall-E (okay I'll be honest, I was excited), but the experience was a lot of fun - particularly because it was such a foreign concept to the German girls!
Tuesday, 13 January
Had pancakes at the campsite, then checked out to drive down the coast. We passed Yallingup Beach, which was absolutely gorgeous albeit a bit windy, and a few others, and the best part about them was the fact that they were all EMPTY. Seriously, the southwest may be the best-kept secret in Australia.
We continued south towards Margaret River, a stunning coastal town known for its wineries and karri forests, but first stopped off at the Aboriginal Center for a tour of the natural forest, where we learned about the medicinal uses of various flora. Fascinating stuff.
The German girls separated when we got to Margaret River to find their campsite while we checked in at the Surfpoint Resort, a beach-style hostel perhaps 500 meters from the coast, but returned to make dinner in our kitchen. We met plenty of chill people that night: a Kiwi (New Zealand) couple who'd been traveling all over the world for months, an Aussie surfer named Justin who promised to give us waveriding lessons (side note: we're still waiting to redeem that promise when he visits Sydney!), Jeremy from New Jersey (weird, hadn't met any Americans on this side!) and a bunch of others.