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Underwater adventures!

I am now a certified PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver as of a few hours ago! I'm glad I finally got certified since it was so much fun. Tuesday was Confined Water Dive day, in a 27C/80F heated outdoor pool, with cold pouring rain from above. Went underwater with all the gear for the first time. At the end of the day I had to swim 200m and then tread water. Since I absolutely suck at swimming on the surface, it's a good thing the swim was untimed. Then I flailed about for the requisite 10 minutes for the water tread. Ended the day freezing cold and tired (sleeping less than 5 hours the night before didn't help.) So I was a bit concerned about diving in the 17C/63F open water on Wednesday... but I was plenty warm in a wetsuit, and the rain stopped and sun eventually came out, so it was a great experience right from the first time in the ocean! We did two 45min open water dives on Wednesday; we saw a ton of sharks on the first dive which was rather cool (little 1m baby ones.) Lots of other interesting fish too, of course! Then on the second dive my instructor was trying to show me this electric manta ray-type thing that was hiding on the sea floor, so she tried to brush off some shells and sand from it when it decided to zap her! (Much to my amusement. :) We're going to go get sushi tomorrow for some revenge!

Took the written exam and finished the third and fourth open water dives today, so I'm now signed off as certified! We saw a big cuttlefish on the last dive which was quite cool (I poked at a slimy tentacle!) As it happened, I was the only person signed up for the course this week, so I basically got private lessons for the price of regular lessons which was nice. I opted to do the extended version, which means I get two more dives tomorrow, so that should be quite fun since we'll be mostly just swimming around seeing interesting stuff rather than practicing and testing skills. I'm going to take my camera and underwater case too. I'm still having a bit of trouble with buoyancy control so an extra day of diving with my instructor will fix that up. (I'm fine until I try to do something like navigate with my compass or play with the dive computer, then I sometimes forget to breathe properly and accidentally end up drifting upwards. Oops.) I got signed off on all my skills, requirements, and course completion, but my instructor wanted to hold off until tomorrow to submit all that so that I'm fully comfortable with buoyancy, so I'm TECHNICALLY not quite a card-carrying certified diver just yet, but close enough! Anyways, anyone who likes the water, or hates the water, should definitely try out scuba! It's amazingly fun. So now I'll be able to dive most anywhere in the world with other certified folks, so I have yet another exciting thing I can do along my trip! (Friday Update: Yup, I'm now officially fully certified as an Open Water Diver. Got my certificate and card, dated yesterday even! Yay.)

Oh yeah, and my visit out to Tooraweenah last weekend was a lot of fun. Started off visiting the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo which was a disappointment; spent AUD30 to get in for the 3 hours I had there, and decided to take the walking trails which seemed well placed on the map. Except there were tons of OTHER random trails and none of the trails were marked at all so I ended up getting lost more than once. Missed a couple feeding times I wanted to see and spent more time wandering around trying to find trails than I should have had to. It's a nice zoo at least; tons of space so all the big animals are in open areas with natural barriers rather than caged up. Headed up to Tooraweenah after that, stopping to go over to James' "shed night" with him, which was a informal gathering of about 20 guys from his religious group, but other than a couple people telling their personal stories there wasn't any of that stuff involved, and everyone there was really nice. It's interesting talking to farmers who live out in the middle of nowhere with a completely different lifestyle and background from mine. Tons of tasty food too. And they had an old blacksmithing setup that a few people were playing around with! (Complete with bellows and coals and huge showers of sparks and all.) Seeing red-hot iron emerging from a shower of sparks and being hammered into random shapes isn't something you get to see every day. Got a bunch of pictures of that in action with sparks flying and fire burning (no brimstone though), and a nice tour of the wool shed where they shear the sheep.

On to Tooraweenah itself for the weekend, where I stayed with James and Petria. It turned out Saturday was the inauguration of the new public grill in the park, so we went down to have some tasty sausage sandwiches and meet some townsfolk. The outside of the bathroom had this big mural painted around it depicting the infestation of Australia by rabbits, and one of the artists who'd done a bunch of the work on that was there so she took me around the mural and explained it all. (I had no idea the rabbit problem had been so bad!) It's really great how friendly these rural folks are (and Australians in general) compared to much of the world.

We went up to the observatory in the national park there as well and saw the inside of one of their big telescopes. It's great being in an area with about zero light pollution. Of course I had to introduce James and Petria to geocaching, and there happened to be one right at a scenic lookout that they were taking me to anyways, so yet more geek sporting! Saw a bunch of wild kangaroos there too; I got out of the car at one point and walked RIGHT up to some of them for some photo ops (I managed to be non-threatening enough to get within 1m of one kangaroo while it posed for me!) Oh yeah, I rented a car out of Dubbo to go the 120km up to Tooraweenah, which was my first time driving on the left! At least it was country driving and not trying to navigate around a city so it was pretty easy. I was a little nervous since I was warned about errant kangaroos and wallabies randomly hopping into the road, but I didn't run into any. Though when we were driving around the Tooraweenah area in the dark James had to brake suddenly a few times to avoid the hopping obstacles in the road.

Took the train back from Dubbo on Sunday (I'd flown over there, but decided to do the 6 hour train ride back for the experience; it was somewhat scenic but I think I'll fly both ways if I go out there again!) Had "Australia's Award-Winning Best Meat Pie" in the bakery across from the train station, which was pretty good, though I'm not quite sure meat pies can quite be considered a delicacy. As far as the next couple weeks... I might head up north where the water's warm and do some diving up there now that I can do that! Still planning to hit Melbourne over a weekend, though probably not this weekend since I'm pretty exhausted from too little sleep and tons of activity. I'm booked to leave for Tokyo on Jun 20, but I might push that back by a week or so so that I can see and do everything I want to in Australia.

Oh yeah, I've decided I'm going to go off by myself on an overnight camping expedition in the Blue Mountains sometime in the next week (gets to around 0C/32F there at night.) Great hilly terrain to hike, caves to explore, and wonderful views. I got a bunch of info from a local friend who's familiar with the area and picked up a nice detailed topo map of the area, so it's just a matter of packing my tent, sleeping bag, warm clothes, food/water, requisite gadgets (but I bought an actual non-electronic compass as backup!), and making it out there! Only a couple hours west, and the Sydney trains go all the way out there at certain hours. I'm looking forward to my first solo overnight adventure in a strange country with unfamiliar terrain, animals, and weather.

Well, that's my past week in a nutshell. If you're somehow not bored and still reading, go sign up for scuba diving lessons right now or else! I expect everyone back home to be certified when I return so we can go diving!