Beached As, Bro!…Adventures from Sand Island to Sand Island

It’s been a million adventures since we last blogged, including a thousand lessons, sights, sounds and even smells.

We reconvened with our favorite guide, the one and only Rob Elvish, on North Stradbroke Island, east of Brisbane. We took a tour of the sand island on our first day, trudging through the muddy mangroves and checking out the invertebrate life in the nearby tidal zones. We learned about the ancient sand dunes formed by a combination of lowered sea levels and wind, and plucked huge mud crabs from their burrows. We were happily surprised by an unexpected snorkel on Amity Point, where woebegones swam uncomfortably close and a few of us got battle wounds from the spiky sea urchins. We saw some neat coral reefs that were just a sneak preview of what was to come on the storied GBR. While on Moreton, we designed and implemented our own experiments, studying organisms from soldier crabs that parade around the beach in massive armies, to enormous bulb-tailed spoon worms who look like giant sausages with a long tongue hanging out. It was a great, hands-on scientific research experience, and we have continued to grow in our researching skills and presentation skills throughout our travels.

Next we travelled to Carnarvon Gorge. Rob still leading, we observed meat ants, pretty-faced wallabies, kookaburras and kangaroos on a day to day basis, which we will all miss dearly (minus perhaps the early morning wake up calls from the kookaburras at 6 am daily!) Hiking daily, we experienced the different forests, ground cover with cycads or grasses, and swam in freshwater pools within echoing gorges, with beautiful mosses and cascading waterfalls. Aboriginal paintings decorated the gorge walls, and we were inspired to make our own rock tools and paint our bodies with ochre paint from the nearby stream bed rocks. We took model shots, obviously. Here, dear Maggie, our caterer, was brought into our lives, and she has kept us plump and gleeful. She shocked us with her delicious cuisine made solely on the barbie, including, but not limited to, steak, kebabs, burgers, pineapple fritters, curry, pancakes and even a chocolate birthday cake!

Sad to leave, Kroombit was our next destination. It is a cattle ranch that provides meat across the globe, including to the US. Amazingly luscious meat was provided, you can imagine, and we rode horses, wrangled goats, rode a mechanical bull (and fell off of it); cracked whips, bought cowboy hats and bandannas, and lived like ringers (or cowboys and -girls in Australian slang). It was a big contrast to our next stop, Heron Island.

Heron Island. What to say? Words don’t do it justice, and nothing can compare to this beautiful and isolated island plopped in the Pacific. The coral reefs are exceptional, and we’ve been lucky enough to spend the majority of our time checking out the reef life while snorkeling. Common sightings include black tipped reef sharks, lemon sharks, cow-tailed rays, shovel nose rays, loggerhead turtles, eagle rays, green sea turtles, parrotfish, damselfish, triggerfish, manta rays, sea cucumbers, box fish, starfish (including a crazy-looking crown of thorns starfish), and SO much more. Most of us have had a chance to play with a loggerhead turtle, and we usually end our afternoon snorkels with a swim in a shark and ray infested “bait ball.” Needless to say, most everyone has been cured of any fear of sharks. Sure, they’re rather small in the world of sharks… but they’re still sharp toothed and fierce! Our night snorkel has also aided in putting an end to some people’s fear of the ocean with its glowing dinoflagellates, many large turtles, solitary shark and rays and a live eel feeding on a rock cod!

One of the best, and most unexpected, parts of our stay here have been a remarkable sighting of green sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the sea. A couple days later, we saw a sea turtle mum returning to the sea after laying her eggs…three months late!

We have been truly blessed to stay here, on this coral cay that takes only twenty minutes to walk around. I addition to our leisurely snorkels around the island, we’ve also learned how to conduct research underwater. We snorkel along in our wetsuits and record substrate, invertebrates, and types of fish we encounter along a transect line. Vibrant and, in some places bleached, we have now roamed deep waters (some who’ve SCUBA dived) and shallow. Swimming amongst schools of fish we’ve spotted glorious corals and habitats too overwhelming for one brain to comprehend. The message, though: miraculous. The dizzyingly aqua blue seas and skies, breathtaking sunsets, and thrilling marine life, have made these past 8 days remarkable. And, of course, we can’t forget our two favorite enthusiastic and beloved teachers–Jimmy and Andrew, two research scientists, who have made Heron Island a place that will stay with us forever! We have been given the truth about research careers from these two, and told jaw-dropping stories of personal shark research, along with many, many other anecdotes. Definitely the best kind of grand finale to an incredible four month long journey! Could definitely be worse! Now, we saddle up for finals and an enormous plane ride home. Thanks, life, ’cause you’re good. Sweet as, mate! Good times!

Check out these videos on the YouTube:
Beached as, bro!
How animals eat
Flight of the Conchords
Blue planet videos in general (WE <3 MARINE BIOLOGY)
Worst Venom (with a Jimmy White cameo appearance!)

Being our last official post, thank you all for reading about our adventures and see you on the flip side! (Throwback photo posts may appear periodically in the coming months!) G'Day mates!

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From Campsite to Urban Life

Currently, our group is completely and fully immersed in Australian life in its various forms as we enjoy our home stays in Brisbane. We are spread out in various suburbs about 10-30 minutes outside of the city. Because of this, we are quickly mastering the art of public transportation trying to commute to and from classes each day. We’ve gotten a sampling of true Australian television and home cooking (heavy on the meat!). Many of us have had some fun times with host siblings and parents, and some have taken exciting excursions to the Gold Coast, a national park, the Australian Zoo (yeah Steve Irwin!), and even a robotic dairy farm! Our stay began with a short break for ANZAC Day, a celebration to the likes of our Veteran’s Day mixed with Memorial Day mixed with Independence Day. A few attended a sunrise memorial service and drank the traditional rum and milk, and then met up with the rest of our group for the big parade after! Many enjoyed delicious ANZAC cookies throughout the day! :) When not in class or with our families, we have spent a lot of time exploring Brisbane. A favorite find has been the man made beach/pool located in the heart of the city, and the several markets that take place throughout the week! Some have gotten very immersed in the local rugby culture and have attended a few games so far (GO RABBITOHS!!). We’ve also had our own delicious barbie on the edge of the river!

Before arriving at our home stays, we spent a week at Binna Burra mountain lodge in Lamington National Park. It was a week full of wildlife. We saw a plethora of Australian critters, including: bowerbirds, multiple carpet pythons, funnel web and trapdoor spiders, giant earthworms, leg less lizards, skinks, ole the echidna, paradise rifle birds, brush turkeys, pademelons, antechienus, bandicoots, tawny frogmouths, mistletoe birds, crimson rosellas and so much more! One of us was even lucky enough to see a goanna, a huge monitor lizard. In addition to numerous hikes and nature walks, we were able to bird watch, set mammal traps, and conduct some real research! We did a larger group project comparing rainforest and eucalyptus forest, and also did some individual projects. Topics ranged from lichens to spiders to fungi to vines and other cool rainforest plants.

We were guided by some great Aussies while at Binna Burra. Leading the charge is a wildlife expert named Rob Elvish who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian flora and fauna. He can also climb vines like no other–even at 62! We’re all happy that he’ll be accompanying us in the next couple segments of the trip. The Binna Burra staff was also full of Australian hospitality. Dean went out of his way to keep us supplied with ANZAC cookies, marshmallows, and firewood for the nightly bonfires. The entire staff also did a spectacular job of keeping us full to capacity. The food was excellent–elaborate sandwich spreads for lunch, a delectable breakfast buffet, and almost nightly ice cream. We were a happy bunch.

Next we’re off to Moreton Bay Research station on North Stradbroke Island, affectionately termed “Straddie” by the locals. We’ve been told that there’s a good chance that we’ll see some whales and dugongs, so we’re all really hopeful. There’s also more science in our future! We’re all excited to go back to the ocean and get reacquainted with the superb Australian marine life.

Shout outs to:
Jeffrey for feeding the deadly spiders for our entertainment!
Moira for being pinched by the Freshwater crayfish and bit by an antechienus!
Cody for being the echidna whisperer!
Clay for his amazing spider photos!
Ryan for keeping up with Rob as they scaled a mountain!
Lindsay for holding a carpet python!
Hope for wilderpeeing!
Michael for hitting puberty (what a great voice crack!)!
Meredith for braving the Rs and Ms!
Linnea for giving up her sandwich to the brush turkey!
Peter for fitting in our busy schedule amongst his workouts!
Ellen for the Null Arbour Nymph story!
Athena for being a champion goanna spotter!
Brad for being the grill master!
Sydney for being the next David Attenborough!
Kristin for being a champion bonfire builder!
Carrie for her mastery of brush turkey calls!
Pat for demanding our lunch cookie supply!
Dave for being the perfect height to measure with!

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Group 1

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Group 2

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Ole the Echidna :)

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Carpet Python anyone?

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A few Trapdoor Spiders

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Time for a barbie!

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Sayonara Sydney

Our stay in Sydney is in the books, and after a short travel break, we’ve all reconvened in Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city in the very southern part of Queensland. Our week in Sydney was full of classes, picturesque views of the Opera House, ferry rides through the harbour, museum trips, and strolls through the Royal Botanical Gardens. One group highlight was seeing the Sydney Symphony play at the Opera House. Handel’s “Water Music” was the featured piece, and we all felt nice and classy taking in a show while dressed in our Sunday best.

Amidst our stay in Sydney, we took a day excursion to the beautiful Blue Mountains to learn about the unique ecosystems that make up the “uplifted dissected plateau.” The area is known for lovely waterfalls, having around 20% of Australia’s eucalyptus population, and the blue haze that rightly gives the mountains their name. Our eco guide, Tim, led us through the rocky trails with ease and showed us the various flora that inhabit the mountainside, and later took us on a bus tour into the valley to observe the different biospheres. It was definitely a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Sydney city life!

After this, we all ventured off onto our own holidays. Half of us returned to the Blue Mountains to hike a bit more downward.. And upward. Brad went to Cairns, and he was the first to glimpse the Great Barrier Reef. He had rave reviews! Jeffrey was the only one to travel into the center of Australia – the OUTBACK! He ate bugs and saw the famous Uluru lit up by the sunsets. Linnea met up with her parents in Sydney (which most of us were jealous about!), and enjoyed the many tourist attractions in the area. Pat and Dave met up with an old college friend, and cruised around the Sydney coast in a sporty convertible! Four of the ladies stayed on the famous Bondi Beach and saw Hugh Jackman…not. But it was beautiful and sunny the entire time! Via train, plane, but not automobile, we have now all made it to Brisbane and have new adventures yet awaiting us!

Our first day in Brisbane has been pretty relaxing. We reconvened, many of us after a 14 hour train ride, at a hostel near the city center around lunch time. We enjoyed lunch as a group, took a walking tour of the city and took a ride on the ferry across the Brisbane River to check out the University of Queensland where we’ll be taking some classes later on. Boarding our return ferry, we got caught in our very first Australian thunder storm! (It does rain even in one of the driest places on earth!). We all had a delicious dinner at a Thai restaurant, beginning with chicken satay and finishing with fried ice cream. Tomorrow, we’re off to Lamington National Park for several days to learn more about Australian flora and fauna, particularly birds. We’ll be off the grid for awhile, until our home stays begin next week!

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All dolled up for the Symphony

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Blue Mountain crew

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Excited to be hiking!

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Gorgeous view of the Three Sisters

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Look Jack, I’m flying!

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Pat and Dave take on the city

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Exciting Excursions with a Hint of Stress

We all had a diverse set of adventures on our various spring breaks. The majority of us traveled to New Zealand in separate groups, while a few stayed to take on the sharks of the southern Australian coast or visit old friends. Ellen, Cody and Athena took to tramping, in places ranging from sheep-filled hills on the seaside to the mountains and creek beds of the Lake Tekapo area of New Zealand. Highlights included spending a night at a sheep farm, harvesting and cooking our own mussels, and watching Cody catch a trout with his bare hands. Kristin, Linnea, Lindsay, Moira, Sydney, Meredith, Carrie, Ryan, Peter and Michael stayed mainly in the adventure capital of the world (aka Queenstown, New Zealand), where they spent their days hiking the surrounding mountains, jumping into canyons, touring Milford Sound on a chilly and rainy day, taking exotic tours of the local Lord of the Rings scenery, and making friends with fellow travelers at the hostel (Michael even won their Mario Kart tournament!). Hope spent time adventuring the glaciers and Milford sound with her family in New Zealand. Pat and Dave, our fearless leaders, spent their break celebrating their anniversary, starting with a thrilling helicopter ride to a glacier, and continuing to drive around the beautiful scenic countryside of New Zealand. Clay and Jeffrey ventured to Port Lincoln, Australia, and much to their dismay, did not see the great white sharks they had set out to see during their cage dive. Fortunately, they found other ways to pass the time in the form of watching many movies and, in a spur of the moment decision, piercing their ears. Brad spent some time scoping out Sydney while visiting old friends. He perfected his surfing skills by going to the beach everyday and also came back with a pretty nice tan.

After break, we all reconvened in the capital city of Canberra. We learned a lot more about government structure, toured museums, and even got to sit in on a lively session of parliament’s question time. Dubbed by the Aussie newspapers as the most farcical day in recent Australian political history, it involved a lot of mudslinging and spirited debates about the current prime minister, Julia Gillard’s, credibility. The day ended with a closed-party vote to determine if she would keep her post or get booted out. She escaped unscathed, and the reputations of some of her party members were slightly damaged. We heard it first!! It was exciting to see Aussie politics in action. In preparation for our upcoming midterms, much of our time was spent studying, reminding us all that our our-month vacation does involve a considerable academic component.

We were whisked away to a beautiful Oceanside abode for our midterms and were lucky enough to cram for exams surrounded by kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets, and beach views. Exams were taxing, but it was nice to unwind with a long afternoon on the beach. In between exams, we spent a day volunteering at a nearby national park. An Aboriginal ranger, Les, first taught us all about bush tucker, including remedies for nausea and strange bites. He also taught us how to identify a plant called snake whistle, which makes a dying bird sound that lures snakes to their death. This was a popular hit with many in the group. The volunteering portion of the day involved invasive plant removal, building rabbit protection structures for small plants, and excavating a war tunnel. It was a hot but fun day in the sun, and we were rewarded with a delicious barbecue afterwards. Other highlights of the day included hearing the didgeridoo, which females are not allowed to play for cultural reasons because it is bad luck for pregnancy, attempting (and nearly succeeding) to start fire from scratch, and making soap from the coastal wattle plant.

A short bus ride away from our Lands Edge accommodation is the Sydney Central YHA, our current home base. This modern hostel is steps away from the Central train station. We’ve been given multi travel cards which give us access to any form of public transportation, from ferries to trains. These have been invaluable to us so far, some have even gone as far as the South Coast, a 2 hour commute both ways. We’re currently at the end of our Easter Break, and spent most of it splitting off into smaller groups, going to the zoo, visiting beaches like the famous Bondi Beach, spear fishing, getting stung in the face with a jellyfish (Jeff) and simply exploring the seemingly never ending Sydney coastline, including of course the famous Opera House and Harbor Bridge. We even have seen Russell Crowe’s and Nicole Kidman’s houses–the Hemsworth brothers have not been sighted but we will keep all of you posted. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, most of us spent the morning attending different Easter services until we met up at Easter brunch at a rooftop restaurant near Sydney harbor–which didn’t quite fit the brunch description (but really, what restaurant doesn’t serve brunch food on Easter? We just wanted our French toast and eggs Benedict).

An exciting event we are looking forward to is the Sydney Symphony concert, taking place on Monday in the Opera house. We are ecstatic to be able to see a show in the House and will probably agree that it’s the best use of group funds so far (although it is a very small list). Other than that, classes start again tomorrow and we will hopefully have room in our brains after studying our excruciatingly long and consequently hand-cramping exams. We head to the Blue Mountains this weekend after exploring Sydney for a bit, and come back only to start our second independent travel breaks a week from Wednesday. So for now, cheers, and we will try to be more timely with our next post (if we aren’t too busy studying!)

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At the Canberra War Memorial

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Studying diligently for Midterms!

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Looking pretty good after a day of hard work

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First day in Sydney!

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Rugby game at Olympic Park! Go Rabbitohs!!

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Ready to shred some swells!

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Can’t beat a view like that!

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Of Wallabies and Wine

Since we have last blogged, our days have been a blur of activity–some say sweaty and all agree adventuresome. (I think we can all agree on sweaty, too). Our next stop after Queenscliff was Bimbi Park, along the Great Ocean Road. The road itself was gorgeous and lived up to its name, winding precariously along the shore’s cliffs. We would stop frequently to experience the sights offered–mostly small surf towns and cliff-top views–that our guide, the soft-spoken and professional “outback man” Mike Evans, gave us local knowledge of. Activities included: a temperate rainforest canopy walk, a nighttime glow-worm search, koala spotting, and a dazzling shoreside bushwalk ushered by Richard, a man with aboriginal roots and humbling knowledge. We spotted snakes, not to be feared, drank fresh water collected from springs pouring into a sandy shore, and tasted various flora, not fauna. The pig’s face, a pink succulent, was a group favourite for its sweetness. Up close and personal koala experiences left some of us cringing–and local dogs stowing their tails between their legs. Speaking of which, the food was great! We miss normal home cooked food, and tire of tasty cheese–a cheap version of cheddar cheese.

Next, we were on to Melbourne. Located at the heart of the city, just a block from the magnificent daily market (bazaar) and Melbourne Central Station, we slept and wifi-ed when we could at the ritzy Central Sky Lounge Apartment-Hotels. It was awesome. Exploration was our duty, and thus we ventured the ins and outs of the diverse, artsy city. We saw the more jock side of Melbourne at the AFL (Australian Football League) game. Footy is a smorgasbord of several sports ranging from football to quidditch! We had second row seats and had to cover our ears due to local fan passion! Lucky for us, a few locals were willing to explain the complex rules of the game to us dumb Americans! It was a night to remember and made American football look like child’s play! (Previous statement not endorsed by all..)

The Melbourne Aquarium was SWEET! Being science nerds, we got weirdly excited learning about the eccentric species endemic to Australian waters–including but not limited to: THE LEAFY SEA DRAGON, THE ELEVEN ARMED SEA STAR, THE SAWFISH, AND THE…NAUTILUS! Oh, and penguins. The rest of our days were spent in class learning about the strange in between political system of Oz. It is a mixture of both British and American (US) government systems. Voting, we learned, was a civil duty, and everyone must vote.

A winery tour FOR CLASS was a hot day in the sun and a delectable treat when we were allowed to taste the Pinot Noir and Merlot grapes straight off the vine, which are Sweeter than you’d imagine (and no wonder at the price of the impeccable wine). Can you taste the undercurrents of the pineapple and oak? we would mutter, attempting our best to sound proficient in wine-tasting.

After Melbourne, Phillip Island’s tourist-y hot spots were our next stops. Some surfed, some boogie-boarded, snorkeled and sunbathed on the beach. Exhausting were our days in the heat, but we had the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to track a wallaby population in their natural but enclosed habitat. Literally some of us bushwhacked, or, as Moira might say, were whacked by bushes. Ryan even got whacked by a wallaby! LOL!!!!! .??? ………

Our ranger, Graeme, (pronounced GRAHAM as in the cracker), knew all there was to know about the wildlife. After sunset we were blessed to see a shearwater colony migrate into their homes of burrows, having flown hundreds of kilometers from feeding in Antarctica. It was an incredible, serene, and even moving experience to behold. They flew right above us, and we listened to the whir of their wings and watched in awe as they continued to appear, as if out of thin air, from the south. A couple of us, however, with a distaste for birds not on a sandwich, chose to forgo the experience and watched from afar.

Graeme also, to the glee of the ladies on the trip, knew PERSONALLY and was SURFING TEACHER TO the two and only…HEMSWORTH BROTHERS. APPARENTLY, MILEY CYRUS AND LIAM ARE NOT DOING SO HOT…WE HEARD IT FIRST! (For anyone who ISN’T WITH IT, these brothers are Thor (you know, the thunder GOD) and Gale from the Hunger Games). And no, we haven’t seen Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman or any other famous stars…YET.

But that’s beside the point…we found or didn’t find our inner carpenters. We not only made possum mating boxes, but we moved up in the ranks, and constructed LITTLE PENGUIN houses! Take note: it hurts when you hammer yourself. We concluded our stay at the island with a sunrise hike to the land’s highest peak. It was beautiful, and we waved goodbye to Victoria, parting ways for the next week. Spring break is upon us, and we can’t wait to reunite and share new adventures and stories. To New Zealand most of us go; others go to battle sharks, and another ventures to Sydney. Best of luck, and g’day, mates!

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Twelve Apostles

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Mike and Richard

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NO ZOOM

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AFL Game

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Sunset at Cape Woolamai

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Sunrise Walk

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Successful Penguin House Building

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Salty Lips, Fish & Chips

The last week or so has been filled with ocean breezes, snorkel excursions, and walks on the beautiful beach of Port Philip Bay. We’ve been staying in the sleepy seaside town of Queenscliff, Victoria in a large beach bungalow called The Salt House. “Class” has consisted of lectures from exceptionally friendly staff at the Marine and Freshwater Discovery Center, snorkel trips, a marine biology cruise, canoeing in the bay, fish dissection, scientific investigations of rocky intertidal pools, a bus tour of the Swan Bay Catchment and a “treasure hunt” for tube worms and other small organisms. Some cool critters we’ve seen during our assorted adventures include: sting rays, jellyfish, banjo sharks, Australian fur seals, black swans, Australasian gannets, and so much more!! Turns out 85% of these species are unique to this area of Southeastern Australia – pretty neat, huh?
While not in class, we’ve spent much of our free time fishing (one lucky member caught a Port Jackson Shark!), walking and running on the beautiful trails, swimming in the ocean, and taking in the breathtaking sights of this part of the world. Tomorrow is our first day off in a while, and it promises to be a quintessentially Australian one. We’ll be passing the afternoon hours surfing before enjoying a delicious meal of fish and chips. Speaking of food, we’ve been enjoying our first tastes of Australian cuisine. At the Salt House, we’re lucky to have an excellent chef cooking our dinners for us and supplying us with our other delicious provisions. The most memorable meal was an authentic Australian barbeque of burgers with the lot (pineapple, beetroot, bacon and the regular fixings). Best part: Homemade pavlova for dessert! WE’ve also sampled tim tams, Milo, iced coffee made with real ice cream, and pavlova McFlurry’s from Macca’s. The next day, we’ll be traveling along the Great Ocean Road to a world renown drive, and ending up at Cape Otway, where we’ll be spending a couple days tracking down koalas and exploring the rainforest.

20130225-161047.jpg The group after snorkeling Pope’s Eye

20130225-161243.jpg Sunset over Swan Bay

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**Photo credit to Sydney Hataye

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Exploring Melbourne

The last couple days in Melbourne have been a whirlwind! We’ve spent some time exploring the city and getting treated to our first glimpses of Australian critters (not in the wild, unfortunately). Highlights included a 3 hour tour of Melbourne with a highly exaggerated tour guide, a trip to the bustling local Night Market, and an excursion to the bush to checkout the wildlife we’ve been learning about. Much of our time so far has been spent in the classroom where we are learning about different flora and fauna we will be experiencing later in the trip. We have also made friends with some of the local students who all are extremely welcoming and gregarious! In our spare time, we’ve been picking up some local slang and honing our skills on the barbie.

New additions to our Aussie vocabulary:
Ripper – cool/awesome
Dodgy – sketchy
Sunnies – sunglasses
Mozzies – Mosquitos
Ankle biters – small children
Maccas – McDonalds

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utilizing public transportation

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watching the sunrise from the Auckland airport

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refreshing break from the heat in Melbourne

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We Made It!

After 30+ hours of travel, we successfully made it to Melbourne at 10:30 this morning!!!! Although everyone is rather jet lagged and slap happy at this point, we are all super excited to be here and can’t wait for our adventures to begin! Classes will start at 8:30 tomorrow morning, so don’t worry, we will be doing work while here. :P Expect more posts to come as we do more exciting things in the next few weeks!

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Good things ahead

It’s the doldrums of winter here in Minnesota, and we can’t be more excited to be soon departing for a sunnier clime. T-minus 18 days and counting until the big adventure begins!

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