As my partner and I gear up for another trip across the Tasman to run an ultra marathon, I thought I would write about the first time running brought us to Australia. In 2016 I decided that after countless road marathons, it was time for me to give the ultra distance a try. Instead of starting on a gentle course with a more manageable distance, I entered the Ultra Trail Australia 100km, a grueling run climbing over 14,000 feet in Blue Mountains west of Sydney. I was pretty naive about the distance, I just wanted somewhere pretty to run with a lot of runners, because I am fearful of getting lost. After seeing this crowd at the race briefing, I was pretty confident that with the crowd below there is always someone to run with.
The Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains are a fairly rugged landscape, named for the natural blue haze that the eucalyptus forests create. Now a World Heritage Site, they were first inhabited by the Aboriginal Gundungurra Tribe, who were highly involved in the race planning through their land. I couldn’t wait to run in through this beautiful landscape.
Although the race started and finished in Katoomba, we stayed a bit further northwest in Blackheath. Unfortunately, the race and associated events took up most of our time in the mountains, so we didn’t have time to see this colonial town, but it looked loaded with history and seemed a little quieter and more quant than Katoomba. We spent most of our free time in a peaceful little treehouse away from town where we could relax amongst the eucalyptus trees and accompanying birdsongs.
The race started early and went well into the night and extended into the early morning (for me anyways). The run was sometimes highly remote, climbing endless stairs out of steep valleys and descending tower ladders, while running wide undulating fire roads between. The check points were often placed in nearby communities so after hours in the bush I would suddenly find myself in residential subdivisions with recreation centers where we gathered to refuel.
While I had some pretty low moments at various points, I generally felt pretty great until the 80km mark when my body decided to reject all fluids and fuel. I was sick for nearly the entire last 20km falling off pace by hours. I was fairly delirious so I don’t really have much memory of this part of the race….thankfully. However, I do have evidence that I finished 18.5 hours after I started and I looked quite happy. Check out this badass belt buckle that I received for finishing under 20 hours.
Green Island Great Barrier Reef
After a sleepless night because my feet kept trying to run in my dreams, my partner dragged me out of bed early so we could catch our plane north to Cairns where I would recover in the Great Barrier Reef. The 3+ hour flight from Sydney to Cairns gave me an understanding of just how big Australia is. We really struggled to decide where to stay in this region, but ultimately settled on Green Island, a small, coral cay that is a 45 minute boat ride from Cairns. We spent three nights on the island, snorkeling through colorful coral and fish and walking the white sandy beaches. Check out my outfit to protect me from all things evil in the Australian waters.
We weren’t very impressed with the Green Island Resort. It can be lovely during the morning and evenings when only resort guests are on the island, but by midmorning heaps of daytrippers crowd the walkways, beaches, and snack bar. We tried to escape by boat at this time, finding further reefs to explore. While the beaches were lovely and the rooms were quite nice, the rest of the resort seemed run down and we weren’t impressed with the food.
At night the resort hosted a fish feed on the pier. While they try to claim that the fish are not dependent on the food, they are of course. Many arrived before they even threw the food in the water. Most people leave for the free drink the moment after they finish dispersing the food, but for those who are patient (us) and stick around longer, there is a good chance a shark will come by for the leftovers.
We spent our last full day boating out to one of the far reefs on a large charter boat arriving from Cairns. It was a fairly long trip through large swells, so if you aren’t good on the sea, come prepared to manage your sickness. While we have good sea stomachs, I struggled watching so many others get sick. When we arrived at the reef, there was a large floating barge where you could get snorkeling gear, food and drink, and lounge in the sun. It was pretty touristy, but once underwater we quickly found solitude amongst the little fishes and endless coral walls. We snorkeled for hours and still didn’t want leave, it was absolutely breathtaking. So many different types of colorful corals, staghorn, pillar, star, brain, and blue just to name a few.
This section of reef seemed fairly healthy, but there were some areas with significant coral bleaching.
After the mountains and the sea, it was time for an urban experience in Sydney. We spent only two nights here so we didn’t venture far from Sydney Harbor and spent quite a bit of time on the water, enjoying both evening and day cruises. Below are some scenes from the evening cruise.
After our cruise we enjoyed drinks at the Altitude Restaurant at the top of the Shangri-la Hotel and Glenmore rooftop bar, both offering views of the harbor and the city. It was nearly winter (May) and it was odd to see the snowflakes that were hung at the Glenmore when the temperatures reached 70 degrees by day.
We stayed in the Rocks neighborhood, the historic area of the city filled with markets, restaurants, and local shops. Our room was within a couple’s flat that had amazing views of the harbor. They were hardly ever home so we enjoyed morning coffee and evening cocktails on their large balcony in solitude….with the exception of the colorful lorikeets that greeted us each morning.
Obsessed with the harbor, we were back on the water to see the same sights by day. We found a small cruise that travels the various bays throughout the harbor, with brief stops at Darling Harbor and a small swimming cove on the north side of the harbor where we took a dip and had lunch on the deck. While the boat can host up to 20 people, we enjoyed our cruise with only one other couple…one of the many perks of traveling outside of the tourist season (mid May).
On our final day in Sydney, we traveled north across the harbor to Manly Beach. Manly is a popular surfing beach with walking trails along diving coves, coastal pools, and small restaurants, leading to the Queenslandcliff Headland.
These little metal diving art pieces were embedded in the rocks along the trail along with several signs showing the types of fish you may see while diving.
Small coastal pools that seamlessly merge with the sea provide safe areas for swimming and are common along the Australia coastline.
About halfway along our walk, we stopped for a yummy brunch at the Boathouse along Shelly Bay. This restaurant has heaps of open air seating and views of a calm swimming beach. It may look packed, but somehow you can miraculously find open tables.
The end of the track leads to the Queenlandcliffs, another great spot to watch surfers!
We crammed quite a bit into our 10 day trip, seeing only small glimpses of each destination. This is typically how we roll. I would return the following year for a work trip during Vivid Sydney, a spectacular 3 week light festival (late May – early June). During this visit, I was able to explore inland parks and neighborhoods and the famous Bondi Beach. I have included a few shots from this trip. May is an excellent month to explore Sydney, it is a little bit quieter, a little cooler, but the water is warm enough for swimming.
Bondi Beach Walk
Sydney Park Wetlands