Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
I nearly missed the bus.
After spending a bit too much time enjoying the breakfast buffet at Hilton Sydney’s Glass Brasserie, I dashed toward the rear door out to Pitt Street when I saw the back half of a tour bus that looked suspiciously like the one that was supposed to show up, oh, right about that minute, to pick me up. The driver told me the tour guide had gone to the lobby to find me, but he appeared behind me, explaining he saw me make a dash and figured I must have been his missing passenger.
Off we went, first to Sydney’s only casino, Star City, which doubled as the tour company’s hub for other passengers taking advantage of hotel pick-up services for their day tours. From there, we crossed Harbour Bridge and headed north to our first destination.
Up Close With Kangaroos
They call it Australian Reptile Park, but that’s not quite right. Sure, there are a variety of snakes and lizard-like animals to be found, but the main attractions aren’t reptilian at all. This was our first stop of the day and a chance to get up close with some of Australia’s most famous animal residents.
A large koala exhibit held about a dozen of the cute creatures, napping in precarious positions, hanging from trees in such a way that it seems certain they’ll fall at any moment and be rudely awakened.
We got the opportunity to pet them!
I was surprised at how they felt, more wooly and a little less soft than you might think.
The kangaroos nearby were the real treat. There was a large, free-range area where they could roam about and you could pet and feed them. While I expected them to feel more wiry, like a squirrel, perhaps, they were just as soft as petting a dog.
The one I spent the most time with didn’t want anything to eat at first, but after I scratched his belly for a little while, he worked up an appetite.
There were also dingos on display. It’s hard to believe that these are considered dangerous predators in the wild, as they looked like little more than cute dogs.
However, they were kept at a distance, as were the wallabies that sunned themselves on a large rock structure.
The real treat for me might have been the kangaroos, but for many of the tour guests – mostly from Australia, New Zealand and China – it was a chance to see an alligator up close. It was a healthy reminder of how far from home I was, where little guys like the one on display can be found in most lakes and canals.
We were on our way farther north soon enough, stopping next at Port Stephens for a quick lunch and then a boat ride to see dolphins. Again, this was an experience that felt more like home than for many of the guests. I hadn’t been out on a cruise to find dolphins in quite a while, but living in Florida, they’re never far away. I’d just seen many up close a few months earlier in the Keys.
It’s fun to compare what seems novel to you, based on your own home and experiences, versus how people from other walks of life perceive the same thing. Kangaroos? They’ve seen ‘em; it’s not that different than seeing a deer by the side of the road. Alligators, though: there’s something to get excited about.
Surfing The Dunes
After that, it was on to the true highlight of the day: a chance to sled down some of the massive sand dunes at a nearby beach. With dunes like these, snow days aren’t necessary.
Probably 40 feet or so in height, the climb is steep but the payoff is worth it. To steer these dune sleds, which look more or less like large skateboards without trucks and wheels, you place your feet at the front and your hands behind, digging into the sand to slow your momentum or use one hand at a time to rudder in one direction or the other.
The view at the top was beyond breathtaking, and one of the highlights of the whole trip. To one side, miles of golden coastline, painted orange by a setting sun. At center, undulating dunes, deceptively treacherous in grade, but beautiful. Looking only forward, it’d be perfectly plausible to believe you were in the Sahara. To the other side, a clear break where dunes suddenly turn into lush forest.
Pushing off from the top, you pick up speed more quickly than you’d think going down the dune. The slope is deceptively steep – it seemed like a chore getting up, but once you’re up there, it doesn’t look so bad. It’s just the light and the uniformity of the dunes playing tricks, you realize, as you begin to dig your hands in behind the board a little harder to help contain the momentum. At the bottom, you’re greeted by a big plume of sand. Wearing jeans, this is easy enough to just wipe off. Wearing shorts, you’d likely gain a few pounds in sand.
It’s winter holiday for many Australian schools, and that was true for our tour guide’s daughter. Maybe 6 years old and shy, she joined us on the tour as a rare chance to spend some time with dad. Watching her clamor for just one more ride down the dunes – and watching her exhausted father make sure to take full advantage of this rare chance to take his daughter to work – was almost as much fun as the sand-boarding itself.
The trip was worth it for the sand-boarding alone, but combined with the ability to meet some kangaroos up close, get a little farther out of the city and see a bit more of the countryside – sorry, I mean bush – and not only see dolphins and gators and such but see how those less familiar with them react made this a very worthwhile expedition.
I spent roughly $178.04 USD for this tour. It was recommended to me by American Express Concierge, which – along with all the Membership Rewards points I can earn and use with it – is a benefit of my Business Platinum Card. The same tour can be booked via Viator.