I’ve only been in Brisbane a few weeks when I manage to get myself adopted by a local Australian family. How I manage such a feat? It all starts with the bats.
As my housemate can tell you, I really, really love the giant bats (ahem, excuse me, flying foxes) that come into campus each night. In fact, it’s pretty much the only reason I ever go for a run in the evenings — to watch them all fly through campus in search of fruit. One night in early February, I decide to bring my camera along to see if I can snag a few decent shots of campus and its resident bat population as I jog through UQ’s sprawling grounds.
My pictures of campus turned out great!
My pictures of the bats..? Not so much.
My progress photographing the bats is slow (read: nonexistent) and consists mostly of me feeling very self conscious as I stand there sweating with my huge telephoto lens pointed at the boisterous, bat-filled treetops. As I stand around waiting for some pedestrians to pass and for more bats to file into the main drag of campus, a woman approaches. She introduces herself — her name is Carolyn — and explains that she works for UQ’s marketing department and, having seen me taking pictures, wants to let me know that if I get any good shots of campus, she’d be happy to post them on UQ’s Twitter, giving me a bit of publicity (!!!).
We chat for a little while about the bats (finally, someone who shares my appreciation for chiropterology!) and other Australian wildlife, then she hands me her card and continues on her way. Overjoyed, I wrap up my flying fox photoshoot, jog home, edit my photos, and email them to her that night (I’m pleased to say they do, in fact, make the Twitter). After my initial email, she replies quickly, thanking me for the photos and inviting me for dinner and a swim with her family that weekend. At this point, I’ve been more or less alone in Brisbane for the past few weeks with nothing to do, so despite the little voice in the back of my head warning, There’s no way anyone is this friendly, I gladly accept and thus a friendship (familyship?) is born!
The long and short of all of this is that my new adoptive family is not just content to have me over to their house to give me delicious free meals, allow me to cool off in their pool, play with their foster puppies, and generally enjoy social interaction for the first time in a while. No, they have to go and blow the whole “Australians are so nice” thing right out of the water and invite me on their family vacation, too.
Yupp, that’s right. Some people crash college house parties, some people crash weddings, but me? I crash family vacations.
In all seriousness, I’m blessed to have met Carolyn and her family. Her daughters, Sidonie and Maginnis, are the first friends I make in Brisbane (outside my Airbnb host and new housemate, who I don’t think count as much since I forced them to hang out with me by living in their houses), and Carolyn and her partner Bruce treat me like a part of the family (as evident by the fact that I literally get invited to crash their family vacation).
The vacation is to be a quick weekend trip to Straddie, a beautiful little sand island off the coast of Brisbane that is famous among Brisbanites but otherwise mostly unremarked upon by the rest of the world (Fraser Island, the biggest sand island in the world, had to go and steal its thunder…). I hardly have any expectations for anything (gotta keep an open mind, right?) but even if I’d had any, Straddie would have blown them out of the water.
The trip starts with a perfectly ordinary bus and train ride to the coast, after which Sidonnie and I hop a ferry to get to the island where the rest of the family is already waiting. I should’ve known from the get-go how amazing this trip would be just based off of how fun the ferry ride over is.
We’re set to spend three days in Straddie — Carolyn, Bruce, Sidonnie, Carolyn’s friend Katrina, and me — and they kick off in a blur of unbelievable fun.
Straddie is exactly what you might think of when you think of Australia: gorgeous beaches with flour-soft sand and crystal turquoise water, sprawling expanses of softly rolling hills covered in scrubby little ferns and towering gum trees, and, of course, an ample supply of wildlife.
One of the first and most amazing things we do on Straddie is the so-called Gorge Walk. It’s arguably the most touristy thing you can do on the island (apart, maybe, from driving around looking for koalas, which is exactly how I get all the koala pictures below…), but there’s a reason people flock to it. It’s unbelievably cool.
The walk starts off with jaw-dropping views of the coastline before meandering through an area teeming with wild kangaroos, who munch on the grass around the boardwalk, hardly glancing up as we non-hopping bipedal mammals saunter past.
The gorge itself is…well…gorgeous (hah!). Waves roll in from the Pacific and slam against the rocks, exploding skyward in a glittering spray of foam and mist as they’re bottlenecked into the narrow slit in the rocky coastline. Meanwhile, popping in and out of view beneath the breaking tide in the gorge, several small manta rays surf the churning whitewash, banking and gliding and somersaulting under the perfect rolling blue waves.
We scramble out onto the cliffside to snap pictures and watch in awe as the surf thunders in. I take off my shoes and hop closer and closer to the cliff face, perching precariously on rocks here and there to get a good shot and making Carolyn and Bruce perhaps a bit too nervous.
We meander onwards along the boardwalk, encountering more and more stunning views, more adorable kangaroos, and even catching sight of some dolphins out on the horizon.
The panoramic view of the beach that we encounter on the far side of the gorge is like something straight out of a travel advertisement: surfers rest in the crystal-clear teal water, taking waves as they roll in softly, turning the green-tinted water a perfect turquoise blue. Sea turtles bob up and down on the surf along the cliffs and the sun streams through the eucalyptus trees that line the shore. This truly is paradise.
The entire weekend basically consists a perfect cycle of delicious meals, sightseeing, and swimming in various locations. We even try out fishing a couple times — once at night and once during the day.
Included: sexist comments overheard from a nearby group of middle-schoolers who beat their caught fish to death with their shoes, the sight of a truly incredible fisherman catching a shark and a large fish of some sort, and beautiful views of the wharf at night.
Not included: any fish
Included: more pictures, a truly heinous sunburn, affirmation of our mad fishing skillz.
Still not included: any fish.
After my run-in with the sun (for the record, I did put on sunscreen…just evidently not enough), I do my best to stay covered with shade, clothes, etc., which makes our next piece of sightseeing all the more exciting. After our fishing, we head over to a nearby freshwater stream to take a look at the little waterfall and the wildlife that hangs out around it.
The stream is beautiful and the water perfect, clear, and cool. Sidonie tells me we can just drink straight out of the stream and I just about have an aneurysm. “You’re telling me,” I say incredulously, “that every single thing in Australia will try to kill you slowly and painfully except the water?” They found my disbelief and shock hilarious and tried to reassure me the water was fine to drink, but I still refuse to believe it. If stream water in the pristine, killer animal-free National Parks of the U.S. will land me in the hospital for weeks on end, I’m not about to chug water in a country where picking up a shell on the beach can leave me cold and dead within a matter of hours.
Despite the hordes of kangaroos bouncing around Straddie, we’ve yet to see a single koala, so the next gap of time we get in our busy schedule of relaxing in paradise, we kill driving around Amity Point — a part of the island known for its ample supply of eucalyptus trees and thus koalas. Thirty minutes in, we still aren’t having much luck until suddenly, the alarm is sounded: “There! I see one! In that tree right there!” We pour out of the car and sure enough, high in a big, beautiful gum tree sits a little gray ball of fur. We’ve found our koala.
Despite having been in Australia for weeks at this point, this is my first encounter with a real, life, wild koala, and I’m over the moon excited.
As koalas are wont to do, this little guy is hardcore snoozing. It doesn’t make much for a great picture, but luckily I have my genius local Aussie guides with me, and they have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Apparently, eucalyptus leaves are good for more than just koala food — if you wedge a leaf between your thumbs and blow air into the gap between them, the leaf will vibrate, emitting a high pitch squeal that, as you can imagine, is not very conducive to napping, especially if you’re a curious little koala.
Between the beauty, the beaches, and the wildlife, this family is on track to make my entire Australia (and, let’s be honest, life) experience complete in a single weekend. When we’ve finally harassed the poor sleepy koala enough with our silly leaf noises, we hop in the car and roll onwards…only to find another koala no more than five minutes later.
As if my some 100 pictures from our gorge walk on Day 1 aren’t enough, I decide to get up before dawn on our last day in Straddie and go for a nice scenic run to The Gorge for sunrise (read: jog so slowly to The Gorge that I just about miss sunrise entirely). Despite my slow pace, though, the morning air is crisp and cool and the snippets of sunrise I manage to catch on the run make the whole endeavor more than worth it.
When I finally make it to The Gorge Walk and start up the walkway from the parking lot, I just about run smack-dab into a family of kangaroos enjoying their morning munchies with a view. It appears as though my slow pace has paid off after all: I’ve made it just in time for Golden Hour and kangaroo breakfast time.
After receiving a few too many death glares from Papa Kangaroo, I decide to continue on and snap some more shots further down the Gorge Walk. Even though I was just here, the different tide and the new light make everything here seem like a new world entirely and I’m left just as awe-struck as ever.
With the light starting to take on its usual, painfully strong glare, I quickly finish up my walk and head back down the road the way I came. Though it’s still just shy of 8 a.m., we have a day full of beach-ing ahead of us all and I’d be…well, a beach…to delay in the plan for the day with my unnecessary tardiness.
In no time, we’re all reunited once more and, after a quick breakfast, off to the beach. Fearing for my skin and my safety, Bruce lends me a rashguard for the day and — with me now freed from the heliophobic restraints of my Irish roots — the rest of the day passes by swimmingly.
Sadly, as the sun starts to make its way towards the horizon, we have to start thinking about our departure, too. Saying goodbye to the beach, we pile back into the car and head towards the ferry stop.
I cannot believe how unbelievably beautiful — and yet so underrated and unknown — this island is and how extraordinary these past few days have been. The entire weekend has been the most amazing time, yet even though the days have flown and our time on the island now draws to a bittersweet end, I feel exhilarated to know how close this gorgeous little piece of paradise is to my new home in Brisbane. No matter how busy life gets in the next few months, I will be back. In the meantime though, I have some baking to do: nothing says “thank you for adopting me and taking me on your unbelievably fun family getaway” like some good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies….right?