When I first decided to study abroad in the rainforests of Australia, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I imagined some combination of pouring rain, jumping kangaroos, and an abundance of vegemite. I also thought I would learn a lot about Australia and the rainforest, hopefully meet some great people, and have experiences that I could not have had anywhere else in the world or at any other time in my life.
As you have probably guessed, I was partially right. I did experience rain, I saw some kangaroos (sort of), and we did have vegemite in the fridge. The second set of expectations were all completely accurate: I learned more about Australian bird sounds and geography than I ever thought I would, I made stronger friendships than I believed possible in such a short time, and I had more unforgettable experiences than I could ever fit on this page. So, I’ll talk about a few.
First, because we were in a rainforest, let me mention the rain. I did have the opportunity to experience some rain here in Australia, despite our dry season being unseasonably dry this year. I remember our excitement the first morning we saw the clouds appear: the normally piercing blue sky and the normally scorching Australian sun was covered by a layer of gray clouds that blew in over the treetops surrounding the SFS center. The rain began slowly, and then picked up speed, until buckets of water were pouring down, hitting the metal roof of the center and sliding down the leaves onto the dirt paths. The most entertaining part was watching the assortment of rain gear everybody grabbed on their way to breakfast. There were a range of raincoat colors, and a rainbow assortment of rainboots; there were rain hats and rain overalls; my personal favorite was the umbrella hat that one of our Student Affairs Managers (SAMs) produced.
The rain here is magical. It drapes a beautiful silence over the forest, punctuated by the quiet tapping or the loud drumming of raindrops. The forest canopy is so thick, that sometimes when it rains you stay dry as you walk along the path. However, the greatest experience I have had with the rain was outside the center.
This memory begins with our first trip off the SFS property; we drove to an Indigenous community and learned about their lives and history. We had a fantastic day walking around the property, taking a boat tour on the river, and practicing spear throwing. We then filed back into the vans and drove towards Cairns to spend the night in a hostel before our first snorkeling experience. On this short drive it started to rain as we followed the highway past the assortment of sugar farms blanketing the Tablelands.
Suddenly, someone in our van shouted and pointed out the window; we all looked out. There, spanning the valley floor, was the clearest rainbow I have ever seen. The colors were vibrant, and you could see both ends all the way down to the ground – there was even a second rainbow framing the first. We chatted excitedly about this sighting and about snorkeling and about all the wonderful experiences to come. It felt like an omen and a metaphor for what our time in Australia would be, and, indeed, signified what it became. This experience has been vibrant and broad and full of excitement. It was been marked by new bonds with 24 wonderful people. The semester had the intensity that comes with a rainstorm and the Australian sunshine, as well as the beauty and purity that comes with the rainbow that follows.
Speaking of rainbows, I did have the chance to see some kangaroos – or rather, wallabies. Another thing I have learned: there are many kangaroo-like animals including kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, and tree kangaroos. Google it to learn the difference. Fast forward in time to our trip to Chillagoe, an area that is part of the outback.
By this point, we had learned how to get all our homework done, what time you had to clean up breakfast to get to class in time, what a python and a cane toad looked like, and about the geological history of the Atherton Tablelands. We had in essence become our own little family, and we were all going on a camping trip in the Outback in two-person tents named after the fauna of Australia. Everyone was excited about seeing a new area of the country and kept talking about the wallabies in the campground. However, try as I might I could not see one.
In the middle of the night I got up to use the bathroom and, on my way back to the tent, I finally saw one. I walked down the steps and suddenly I was looking directly at a wallaby on the side of the road; my flashlight illuminated the animal and it froze in the spotlight staring at me, daring me to move. I locked eyes with the wallaby as it tracked me and when I finally walked away, it returned to its investigation of the roadside. I continued to my tent. This represents yet another magical moment with nature in Australia – one of hundreds of moments I experienced myself and hundreds more that I shared with others.
One more final memory I want to share: our last Sunday at the center. To the surprise of our SAMs, when a sunrise hike was suggested, 18 of 22 students decided to come. So, that morning, we all woke up at 3am and loaded into our vans to drive the short way to the Gillies outlook. Once there, we hiked the 4km to the outlook point, using our headlamps to walk through the darkness. Then, we sat in silence on a small hill, watching as the day lightened over the forested mountains of Australia. We stayed there for about an hour until the sun itself peeked above the clouds and turned the world golden. This trip represented a fitting start to our last week at the center; the sunrise served to remind us that what we were about to experience was not just an ending, but a beginning to a new part to our lives as the people we had grown to become in the last three months.
There is nothing quite like living with 24 other people in a tropical rainforest. We grew to be a family, bonding over the physical and mental challenges we encountered and sharing in each other’s academic and personal successes. We celebrated Halloween with pumpkins and haunted houses and group games and Thanksgiving with personalized dishes and hand turkeys and guests from the Tablelands. We celebrated a number of birthdays marked by a variety of chocolate, vanilla, and ice cream cakes. The people I have sweat with and sang with, followed the emotional roller coaster of finals and heartfelt movies with, will forever hold a special place in my heart.
So, my main takeaways from Australia? I will bring home with me many random Australian facts, extensive plant collecting experience, irreplaceable memories, and connections with incomparable friends. Studying at SFS Australia has truly been an unparalleled experience and I believe everyone who can should study abroad and take advantage of the chance to grow as a student, a person, and a citizen of the world – and learn a lot of Australian slang. Cheers!