How interesting to experience the biggest jolt of culture shock in months in Sydney, Australia of all places. After growing accustomed to the crazy crowds, chaotic traffic and constant noise of Asia, stepping into sleepy Sydney left an echoed ringing in my travel-deafened ears.

I was prepared to experience a bout of counter-culture shock when returning to Southern California at Christmastime, but what I wasn’t expecting was for the east coast of Australia to feel quite so similar to California. If you can imagine San Diego in the 1990s – shiny happy people, clear blue water and white sand beaches, a quiet and relaxed atmosphere – you basically have present day east coast Australia.

It took a few days to adjust. After months of feeling like an outsider, standing a solid six inches over the majority of the people around me and not understanding a word of the local language, I was suddenly one of thousands of tall English-speaking blondes. Fortunately I had two friends from home to distract me through the transition.

Partly due to my counter-culture shock and partly due to the novelty of once again having constant travel buddies, I didn’t appreciate our few days in Sydney as much as I could have. It was interesting to note that almost immediately after meeting up with my American friends, the ‘traveling solo’ part of my brain switched off. Instead of continuously scanning my surroundings and taking in every detail of the people and places around me, I found myself absorbed in the company of my friends, Oshry and Jen, halfway oblivious to the outside world.  It was like realizing I’d been in Self Presevation mode for the last four+ months without even realizing it. It soon felt like a completely different travel experience than the trip I’d been on for the last four months, not better or worse, just different.

After a few touristy days spent wandering Sydney, checking out the famous Opera House and nearby Bondi Beach, we hopped on a three hour plane ride north to Airlie Beach, the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef. With plans to rent a car there and spend the next few weeks driving south along the eastern coast of Australia to Melbourne, Airlie Beach was the jumping off point for: Australian Roadtrip 2015!

Airlie Beach is a small, extremely touristy town in the northeastern part of Australia. While there we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the Great Barrier Reef, located approximately 80 km from the coast.

After a three hour boat ride through and past the Whitsunday Islands we arrived at the Waterworld-esque floating ‘Reefworld’ for a day of snorkeling and SCUBA! To my absolute delight, the Cruise Whitsundays tour company we chose allows guests to scuba dive without being certified. After overcoming a very brief panic attack over my inability to breathe underwater with the help of an easy-on-the-eyes Aussie instructor, we dove down 20 ft to explore the reef around us!

I’ve always wanted to try scuba diving and was so so stoked to have the opportunity, and at the Great Barrier Reef no less! We didn’t find Nemo, but we did see a ton of beautiful fish and were able to appreciate the wonder that is the reef itself.

Besides our trip to the reef, we found ourselves slightly underwhelmed by Airlie Beach. While it’s the perfect beachside getaway for early 20-somethings looking to practice body shots and maybe in the course of an evening blackout, my friends and I were less impressed with the non-stop drink tickets and purely tourist vibe. After briefly envisioning a potential roadtrip surrounded by hundreds of other tourists making questionable decisions and the salespeople who love them, we decided to scrap our touristy itinerary and solely visit off-the-beaten-path towns and tourist spots.

Time and again locals didn’t believe us when we said we wanted to know what the favorite outdoorsy spots were – we’d receive a bonafide once over and some variation of an observation that we ‘didn’t look like the type of girls that wanted to rough it’. To that we just held our tongues and continued on our merry way. Above we’re exploring a private family-owned cave system called the Capricorn Caves in Queensland. How cool to learn that limestone caves are actually prehistoric coral reef! *Mind blown.* We practically had the place to ourselves and loved every minute of it.

After Airlie Beach we spent a few days in the tiny beach town of Yeppoon. The entire downtown area was super charming, only a few blocks wide and had no tourist stands to speak of! Only a 30 minute ferry ride away was the primary destination for our stopover, the semi-deserted Great Keppel Island.

This place was amazing, it felt just like the set of the original Survivor TV show! There were almost no people to speak of, we had to bushwhack our way from the ferry landing (which literally just dropped us off on a beach), and we could walk/swim right out to a baby reef for some awesome snorkeling.

The water was so clear, it was unbelievable. In addition to fish we saw both manta rays and reef sharks! By the time we returned back to the main beach for our ferry ride home, a huge storm was rolling in allowing for a super dramatic final impression of the deserted island.

Before we took off the following day to continue our roadtrip south, we were lucky enough to finally see one of the national symbols of Australia! After having spotted many kangaroos turned roadkill on our previous days’ drives, we unexpectedly happened upon a little family when cruising through a suburban apartment complex!

They weren’t too sure about us (probably because we were doing a horrible job at stealthily creeping) so after a few minutes the baby kangaroo pictures below surprised us all and jumped into the mama kangaroo’s pouch!

*Trip made.*

With more than half of the east coast of the continent still to go, it felt like we’d barely made a dent in our exploration of Australia after our first week on the road. One invaluable lesson we’d gleaned though which majorly changed the tone and trajectory of the trip was to get off the beaten path and away from the main spots listed in the guidebooks…

Stay tuned for my next post detailing more Australian coastal adventures and the awesome city of Melbourne!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie