Become A Cowboy For The Day (Bucket List #85)

Kroombit Cattle Station, Queensland, Australia • July 2010 • Length of Read: 4 Minutes

Included in the OZ Experience Bus Pass that Fraser and myself were using to travel up the East Coast of Australia, was an overnight stop at a cattle station in Kroombit. Somewhere between Hervey Bay and Rockhampton our driver had taken a slip-road off the main highway and with the Outback horror film Wolf Creek playing on the T.V up front we were now bursting along dirt tracks towards a vast expanse of nothingness. In such a desolate environment thoughts begin to creep into one's mind of nightmare-ish scenarios but thankfully we were in the company of a top Londoner called David and two class Irish girls in Rhiannon and Charlotte to keep the mood light.

As the mid-day sun shone high in the sky our bus pulled into the entrance of the ranch where we would be making kip for the night. A couple of years back some sharp farmers had the lucrative idea of converting their outhouses into bunks for backpackers wishing to 'live the outback dream' and 'feel the cowboy vibes', and now they entertain coach-loads of tourists with activities such as horse riding, clay pigeon shooting, and quad biking. What better an opportunity therefore to tick item #85 off the bucket list: Become a Cowboy for the Day.

We were welcomed with open arms by the staff and immediately treated to a hearty lunch of spit-roasted pork before being given access to the whole ranch for the afternoon. A bunch of us decided to go go for a wander up the hill to the back of the farm and after a nice half-hour stroll were greeted with a fantastic panorama of the barren surroundings. At the summit was a signpost that gave the distances and directions to a number of different capital cities around the globe - Fraser and myself were approximately 9,800 miles from home!

Turning to head back down we noticed that one of the other girls who had joined us was having extreme difficulty managing her footing across the rocks and loose impediments that littered the path. Soon to garner the nickname 'Unbalanced Girl' for the rest of her Aussie trip, Miram explained to us with a wry grin that when her mother accidentally dropped her on her head as a child she lost all sense of stability and to this day still finds it difficult to manoeuvre her way on unfirm terrain.

This out-of-the-blue statement caused each member of the group to react in one of two ways, neither very sympathetic. Charlotte, Fraser and myself immediately burst out into hysterical hyena laughter whilst Rhiannon and David just stood there with frozen expressions of perplexity on their faces. A couple of long seconds passed before it became quite apparent however that this wasn't a joke and she was being completely serious. Using all our strength we managed to regain enough composure to help her slowly back down to camp where we'd been told to rendezvous at 4pm, but the sniggering failed to subside until a good while later.... at which time we were standing in the middle of a pen, swinging lassos, and facing a trip of pissed-off goats.

Our first step to becoming fully-fledged cowboys and cowgirls was to learn how to tame farmyard animals and having been placed into teams of three we were pit against the clock with the challenge of 'goat herding'. The goal was simple: restrain it by its horns, flip it on its side, then pretend to mark it with a cold branding iron. My duty was as chief lasso thrower, but despite having consumed dozens of hours of Western movies found the technique a little harder than imagined, not being aided in the slightest by the fact the goats had decided at this moment to race around the pen like it were some form of NASCAR circuit. After up-teen failed attempts I eventually managed to target one of the slower, fatter, members of the now mosh-pitting mammals, and bringing it to its knees we managed to get the animal branded in a not so brilliant time; by which I mean we finished dead last!

As the light started to fade we headed back to the main part of the ranch where we were then given our second initiation: learning to crack a whip. I turned out to be a dab hand and managed to redeem myself slightly in breaking the sound barrier, but this moment of glory was soon to be shaken out by way of a daunting mechanical bull. Yee Haw!

Wanting to live up to their cowboy reputation, the ranch-hands insisted that the bull be set to the most difficult level - 6 seconds being the time to aim for and keeping in line with that target of the professional rodeo clowns. Well let me tell you, I don't think that even cumulatively our group of students would have reached that target. As the bull lurched into life, one-by-one we flew straight off the front of the machine as the bull twisted and turned like it was performing a rhythmic gymnastic routine; the boys each suffering nasty knocks in the 'cojones' department for their efforts.

The only way any real cowboy would numb such pain is with liqueur so grabbing some beers at the make-shift tiki bar we huddled around the wooden tables and ended up entering into a random game of al-fresco strip poker; our take on the traditional closing Mexican stand-off. I'd say that in our own individual ways we'd each earned our spurs that day and were able to leave the next morning with stomachs full of 'Cowboy Caviar' (their name for beans on toast) and cowboy hats firmly on our heads.

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Snorkel The Great Barrier Reef (Bucket List #110)

Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia • July 2010 • Length of Read: 3 Minutes

The Great Barrier Reef – one of the true wonders of the natural world. Situated in the Coral Sea off Australia’s East Coast it is the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms and can be seen from outer space. Airlie Beach is the best location from which to go out and explore the Whitsunday Islands and the marine life that surrounds them. Many of the other backpackers that we had befriended had booked 3 day, 2 night party boat cruises by which to experience this, but due to our lavish adrenaline junkie lifestyle of the prior week, Fry and myself were now definitely shoe-stringing our way up the remainder of the coast. We therefore opted for one of the cheaper day trips provided by Ocean Rafting.

The combination of staying in a party town and the 2010 Word Cup being televised into the early hours of the morning meant that we inevitably arrived at the dock hungover and under slept. Here we did our best to appear sociable to our fellow seamen and the Ocean Rafting staff, a laid-back bunch of guys and girls who would be revealing the mysteries of the reef. Split into three different rafts, we were fortunate enough to be with the captain who was assisted by one of the best looking woman I had ever seen. Never have I been so stuck for words in my life and to this day Fry and myself still reminisce about this beauty who has become known is fables as 'Girl On Boat' (In the five years since, only the German abs instructor I had when living in Maastricht has come close to knocking her from this pedestal).

Now just to make it through the day without being sea sick.

Whereas the larger vesels take a day or so to reach the reef, Ocean Rafting’s speedboat could make the trip in just a couple of hours. Clinging on for dear life as we bounced over the choppy waves we were rewarded with a myriad of colours bursting through the crystal clear water. Once at a suitable spot the driver cut the engine, dropped the anchor, and issued us with flippers, masks and snorkels. We were then given a briefing to respect the coral, not to damage it, and not to swim too far away from the boat. Sounds simple enough.

Dipping my head underwater I was met by one of the most beautiful scenes in the world. As I floated serenely along the marine life came alive, with fish meandering among the dancing ployps. After about 20 minutes I was only just starting to take in the sheer wonder of this view when  my goggles began filling up with water. Rising to the surface I accidentally knocked some of the coral with my flippers – oops! Strike 1.

It soon got its own back however when, at the second dive spot, I accidentally grazed some of it with my knee and found that it could actually rip through one's skin like sharpened blade. I doggy paddled my way straight back to the boat where the captain looked at me with a “you idiot” smile that he had probably mastered over the years at the job. Having cleaned and dressed the would, I sat there whilst the remaining tourists came back on board, squinting their noses at my now sanguine beach towel.

We docked at Whitehaven Beach for lunch on sands consisting of 98% pure silica which made it a truly white coloured haven. After that it was a small hike of the island to take in the fauna and wildlife before heading back to the boat for our journey back to shore. On the way back we met up with the other two rafts that had split from us in the morning and to top of the day the staff showed us their driving skills by performing doughnuts around each other. The team managed to squeeze so much enjoyment out of just one day at sea and I would thoroughly recommend checking them out if you are ever wanting to tick ‘Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef’ off your own bucket list whilst not breaking the bank.

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White Water Rafting (Bucket List #59)

Tully River, Queensland, Australia • July 2010 • Length of Read: 3 Minutes

Fraser, Mary and myself crowded into the back of the mini bus as it screeched out of the hostel car park and down the Bruce Highway. Still on a 'high' from the previous day's skydive we would now be hurling our bodies down the rapids of the Tully River in a little inflatable dinghy. It was time for some white water rafting.

Raging Thunder, the company through which we had booked, offered two packages: ‘Normal’ for AUS$185 or ‘Xtreme’ for AUS$215. Both packages included accommodation transfers, 5 hours of rafting, lunch and tuition; however the Xtreme package also guaranteed a smaller group, more thrilling paths through the rapids, and extra challenges such as rock jumping, rapid swimming and raft surfing. In true Epic Bucket List style we of course opted for the latter.

On the drive we were divided into groups of six and kitted up with Jesus style sandals, life vests, wetsuits and paddles. As bad luck would have it the three of us were unfortunately paired with a trio of 'mature' crew mates, who upon seeing our enthusiasm and fearlessness were evidently regretting not having opted for the cheaper package. Our cox for the day was a lovely Spanish fellow and following a quick safety brief he steered the raft out into the current. It was time to soak up the white waters.

Off we set, paddling aggressively and screaming “EXTREME!!” at 30 second intervals… well half of our raft’s passengers anyway. The rapids were a lot faster than I expected and it took some careful balancing and positioning simply to avoid falling into the choppy waves that persisted on crashing over the sides of the raft and soaking us through. One of the elderly women was evidently not happy with this and kept complaining that her hair was getting wet. This isn't meant to be a trip down an amusement park's 'lazy river' darling!

When this bickering failed to cease within the next half an hour the Spaniard coined a secret plan by which to end it for good: a deliberate capsizing. When we reached a quiet point in the river he suddenly shifted his weight in a way that flipped the raft 180 degrees and sent us all flying overboard. I was in hysterics watching this woman cling on for dear life to the now inverted vessel, with no hope in hell of saving that shaggy barnet.

After righting ourselves we continued the journey, quietly sliding along the ribbon of water that weaved its way through the dense foliage overhanging each bank.  This eventually broke into a clearing that was home to a massive tower of rocks and the Spaniard docked the raft to let us test out diving skills. Leaping from the platform with screams of 'EXTREME' echoing around I hung  for an age before crashing ungracefully into what felt like a concrete wall of water. My attempt at some Tom Daley finesse had clearly not paid off and what was originally meant to be a classy swan dive turned into an uncontrollable mid-air tumble whose crescendo was a belly-flop splash into the pool below.

...never mind, I would soon get a chance to redeem myself...

For the second ‘Xtreme challenge’ we had to make our own way down a mini waterfall without the use of the raft. The Spaniard again chucked us out, this time with the warning: "hold your breath so as not to swallow any water and let the current do the rest. Do not try and swim up to the surface, it will not work!"

Letting go of the raft I was immediately dragged under by the current and for the next twenty seconds found myself fighting the urge to start paddling as I was flung down the rapids in a coffin-position: "please don't let this be my funeral" the untimely phrase repeating in my head.

After twenty of the longest seconds I was rewarded with the sweet sweet taste of fresh air; my life-vest having served its purpose. The group members popped up behind one by one and we gathered to watch the Spaniard expertly weave the dinghy down through the minefield of rocks we ha just traversed. Stroking our paddles some more then brought us to the end of our rafting adventure: tired, sunburnt, and drenched. Despite being overpriced, this adrenaline fuelled day on the Cassowary Coast of Queensland was a fantastic experience, and one that if you happen to have some reserves in the travel budget I would thoroughly recommend.

Raging Thunder Adventures -

Skydive (Bucket List #50)

Mission Beach, Queensland, Australia • July 2010 • Length of Read: 4 Minutes

Before we start - YES that was my haircut five years ago, and NO I did not truly understand how bad it actually was until I began flicking back through my archive of photos from that summer spent on Australia's East Coast. I hesitated momentarily whether to even include it in this post at all, but hey - that's how I used to roll and I'm going to embrace the mop-head to its fullest.

Situated 150km south of Cairns, Mission Beach is a quiet, picturesque little town that emits a chilled-out and relaxed vibe… until your hostel receptionist drops into conversation that it also offers thrill-seekers the chance to skydive over the corals of The Great Barrier Reef before coming to land on its golden coastal sands.

"Tell me more" I pleaded; heart already beating  faster than a military bandsman's snare drum just from the thought.

"Well there are three packages available. The first is a 9,000ft dive with 25 seconds of free-fall, and the second an 11,000ft dive with a 40 seconds free-fall."

"What about the third?"

"The third is a 14,000ft dive with a minute-long free-fall."

"We're doing that one!" I belted at my bewildered companions, a group of predominantly English backpackers Fry and I had met further down the coast. Priced at AUS$299 it was going to blow the budget, but these opportunities don't come around very often. We paid-up on the spot, having managed to wrangle a free t-shirt out of it each by making a group booking. I retired to bed that night a very very nervous little boy.

Turning up at the aptly named Australia Skydive Company the following morning we were first asked to fill-out a liability form that contained the not-so encouraging clause: “In the event of my death I do not hold the company responsible”. Signing the dotted line, with a now wavering confidence, gave us each a 2 month Student Parachutist Licence and a very unlikely chance of getting any travel insurance payout if things were to go tits-up... or down as the case would be.

We then had to a participate in a weigh-in that was not to dissimilar to those at professional boxing matches. The maximum weight limit allowed was 100kg and coming in at a featherweight 70kg I was cleared to jump. The poor fast food diet we had been shoe-stringing on over the past month however must have caught up Fry, who tipped the scales at a mighty 102kg. Never worry however, he had a bulletproof solution.

Emptying his pockets of loose change, keys, wallet, and phone, he then proceeded to remove his socks and shoes to stand proudly on the scales at a mere 98.2kg. Perhaps it wasn't the most accurate device ever used but we didn't care. With a sigh of relief he to was now ready to meet the professional skydivers whom we were putting our lives in the hands of.

Imagine if you can the type of person that would stereotypically be doing this job as a living and you’ll probably not be far off from the bunch of eight happy-go-lucky guys that bounced into our lives. Spready, my instructor, nattered away in whirlwind fashion as he tightened and twisted my harness straps into place. By the time we were briefed on the safety regulations I felt like I had heard his life story twice, however this gave me the comfort of knowing I wasn't strapped to the chest of a complete stranger.

"How many jumps have you done?" I asked.

"This is my second day at work", he responded with a wry smile.

Not the time for jokes Spready. Not a good time.

After the above group photo was snapped we marched to the plane that would be taking us up to the magic 14000ft, and never in my life have I been more glad to be wearing a harness. On the tarmac in front of us sat the most haggard looking piece of machinery I had ever seen. Even the Wright brothers would have considered  sending this aviation to the scrapyard. We boarded in the blazing heat and watched as the pilot, who couldn't have been long out of kindergarten, went through the pre-flight checks. Everything was given the OK and within minutes the tin-box was miraculously climbing over some of the most beautiful scenery on planet earth.

The door was flung open once we reached peak altitude and a gust of wind shot into the plane, sucking us all towards the exit. I was third in line to jump, and as my feet dangled over the edge Spready uttering some final words of encouragement that were hopelessly blown away by the bursting noise of the propellers.

And then we were falling….. falling at a speed of 200km/hr through rain clouds that cut my t-shirt with an icy vapour; the next sixty seconds a blur of fear, exhilaration, and struggled breaths.

Breaking through the clouds Spready released the parachute and as the multi-coloured canopy bloomed out above we gradually began to  slow. He told me that I could now remove my goggles and enjoy the view… and what a view it was. The myriad blues and greens of the Great Barrier Reef glimmered from the surface below and as we circled around I got a panoramic of the densely vegetated islands that stippled the landscape. It was a shame that the moment had to be interrupted by a harness ripping through the groin and bursting the testes.

We spiralled for another couple of minutes and the ant sized figures of my comrades landing safely on the beach below came slowly into vision. Before long my arse was then planting itself on terra firma and joining them. In the words of my brilliant instructor: I had “successfully jumped out of a perfectly good plane”. A plane certainly, but the ‘perfectly good’ part is  up for debate.