Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Days 23, 24, and 25: The Great Ocean Road

That night in our 8-person hostel room we barely slept. We were already a day behind on our itinerary, I had a flight in just a few days that was several hundred miles drive away, and the storm outside sounded as bad as any typhoon or hurricane I’d been in. I’m guessing that mostly in reaction to complaints they’d received from travellers whose plans were ruined more than ours, the ferry did operate in the morning, but it probably should not have. I should have known we were in trouble when I tried to buy a coffee from the snack bar on board the ferry, and the lady refused to sell it to me on the grounds that I’d be puking it up in 10 minutes anyway. At first it was exciting, like a roller coaster, the way the ferry travelled up one side of each wave and then crashed down on the other. Then, in about 5 minutes, faces starting going pale. By the 10 minute mark, people were vomiting into little paper bags in every direction. After an hour, legs were not very steady as people stumbled off the ferry. Angela and I didn’t get sick, but I wouldn’t say we were very well either.

The weather finally cleared as we started our drive down the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide. Just before dark, we did stumble upon Larry the Lobster, an Australian icon, which was a treat.

As we began to set up camp in a rest area down a long, quiet road, it began sprinkling a bit. Since we didn’t think anyone would notice, we just moved our tents under the picnic enclosure, and climbed inside for 4 hours of gin rummy and wine. Some time during our games, the wind began to pick up, and it began to rain harder. We had another sleepless night as we lay there wondering if the car was going to blow away.

By the next morning it had cleared, and we continued down the road to Mount Gambier, a beautiful little town with some very blue crater lakes and the nicest public park I’ve ever seen in a small town, made even nicer by the fact that it was centred around a sinkhole that had been used as a trash pit and used car lot in the past. That evening, as it began sprinkling, we found another out of the way picnic area to camp in and began round two of the gin rummy championship.

The final day of our trip was as good as any day we’d had along the way, most of it spent driving along the rocky southern coast of Australia. In the morning we visited the site of an old shipwreck and the famous 12 Apostles rock formation.

In the afternoon, we spotted several whales who had come in close to the shore with their calves and stopped in at Bells Beach, home of the most famous surf competition in Australia.

Following the pattern we had begun to expect, the rain started in the early afternoon as raced to return the rental car several hours late. I made my flight just in time after leaving Angela and Dylan standing in the rain in Melbourne with no idea where they might sleep that night. But after almost a month together on the road, I knew they’d figure it out.

Days 19, 20, 21, and 22: Kangaroo Island

After two hours on a bus and an hour on a ferry, we arrived in Kangaroo Island. Until the 1980s, there was no ferry to Kangaroo Island, meaning that it is still relatively uninhabited and pristine. The Australian government relocated so many endangered animals there that they are now looking at having to cull the koala population.

We were enchanted instantly. First, we found a sweet little campsite near a river with hundreds of tropical birds and not a single other person. Then we took a hike along the coast, which is edged with green, green grass. The peninsula where we spent the first day was populated primarily by sheep. The car had to be stopped for cooing at the baby lambs many, many times.

After spending sunset with a cheese plate and a bottle at a local winery, we settled in in front of the fireplace at the local pub to play cards until time for the penguin tour.

Yes, I said penguin tour. The rocks along the coast of the peninsula were infested with penguins. Given the full moon, many penguins were keeping out of sight, but we did get to see two little babies huddling together while they waited for their mom to come back from fishing.

The next day we toured various eco-tourism attractions on the island. First, we visited an Emu Distillery, where they turn the layer of fat under an emu’s skin into amazing lip balm. The owner of the distillery rescues little joeys who survive their mothers being hit by cars and raises them in cloth shopping bags that he hangs from door knobs to simulate the pouch. He had two joeys hanging on the door when we visited, and one of them decided to pop up and say hello for a bit. We also visited a lavender farm, where we sampled their lavender fudge and lavender scones, and a bee farm, where we sampled honey mead and honey soft drinks.

That evening we found a secluded camp site on a cliff overlooking the ocean, where Dylan mentioned what I’d been waiting to hear all day. At the emu distillery, Dylan and I were chatting with the owner, who mentioned that the trail we were going to hike the next day actually continued around the entire peninsula, about 20 miles all together. From the glint in Dylan’s eyes, I knew he wanted to do the full walk. He had a GPS and plenty of supplies, so we walked a ways down the path with him in the morning and then sent him on his way.

Now on our own, Angela and I did a couple of short walks and then went to the marron farm for lunch. The marketers of marron will tell you it is like a more succulent lobster. I can tell you that it looks like a cockroach and tastes like nothing. However, we had a nice feast on other tasty treats, including a bottle of local wine.

That afternoon we visited the Remarkable Rocks, the Admiral’s Arch, and the three different types of seals that live on the beaches surrounding the two landmarks before stopping in at the Flinder’s Chase National Park visitor centre to check in to our campsite.

The first thing we noted at the visitor centre was a map of the peninsula that Dylan was trying to hike, clearly indicating that the trail only went half way. Angela and I both began to panic a bit as we had no means of communicating with Dylan (we only had one phone), and we had not made a back up plan if he didn’t meet us at the other end the next day.

The ranger was very keen to know whether we had 4WD as the recent rains made it impossible to reach our campsite without it. As we did not have 4WD, he suggested that we drive out of the park to one of the caravan parks, which are typically fields full of RVs that cost about $40/night. I pushed for other options as I’d made these reservations several months before, which lead him to consult with two other rangers. From their group investigation, they could not tell whether I’d paid over the phone or not, because their detailed record keeping system involved writing names in a notebook and highlighting them if they’d paid. The conclusion, mostly because they couldn’t tell if they owed us a refund and wouldn’t have known how to process it anyway, was that we would probably be fine as no additional rain was anticipated in the next 24 hours. With not a lot of confidence, we set out on the 20 km track back to the camping area. To be sure, there were a lot of low points in the road with some standing water, but it didn’t look like anything to be concerned about without quite a bit of rain.

Angela and I set up the tent on top of a sand dune overlooking a pristine beach and played nine games of Yahtzee while consuming about 2 litres of wine once it was dark.

Then at 10 pm it began to rain. And rain. And rain. We both spent most of the night wondering whether we had left Dylan to die, whether we might wash away, and whether we’d ever get back out on the road to find Dylan if we weren’t washed away. The camping area had only one other inhabitant, who we had been avoiding since we weren’t camping in a designated spot. Obviously we weren’t as tricky as we hoped as she was parked by our car in the morning when we ran up the hill in the rain with our gear. She did have 4WD and very, very nicely agreed to let us follow her so that she could see if we got stuck.

Anyway, all’s well that ends well: we made it out without incident, and we found Dylan. He’d realised that the trail ended about mid-day the day before and hoped that we wouldn’t make the discovery. With the help of the GPS, he found his way out, and then we found him.

That afternoon, we decided to stop in at Kingscote, the main town on the island, just to see it before we caught the evening ferry. As we filled the car with petrol, the owner of the station casually mentioned how rare it was that all ferries were suspended. With alarm, we proceeded to the ferry office in the town centre, where we were told that all ferries were indeed cancelled due to rough seas. Looking out at the sea from Kingscote, it was difficult to imagine how they’d come to this conclusion – it looked relatively placid. The lady at the ferry office was able to book us into one of the last rooms remaining on the island, a hostel room that slept 8 for $150. A bit pricy, but none of us was keen on camping in the cold rain another night. As it had been 4 or 5 days since our last showers, warm water sounded nice, too.

We also stopped in at the car rental agency to confirm that the gentleman would still be at the ferry stop to collect the car that evening as we were staying close enough to the dock to walk the next day. The lady looked down at her notebook full of scribbles and erasures and said that according to her records, we had turned the car in at 10 am that morning. We really must get these Australians access to Excel; it would revolutionise their world. However, she assured me that he would still be there to meet me that evening.

When we got back to Penneshaw, the town where the ferry actually docked, we understood why the ferries were cancelled. The seas there looked like they’d been churned by a tropical cyclone. The wind was howling and the rain was driving hard. We were shocked by how different the weather was just 30 km around the side of the island.

At the designated time, we drove over to return the car. We waited. And then we waited. But no one came. Then Angela noticed that the keys to the office were sticking in the lock on the outside of the door. I simply walked up, turned the key, walking into the office, and turned on the lights. In the unlocked drop box near the door were the keys to several vehicles parked just outside – I could have had my pick. I called the emergency number for the rental agency and reported the situation, expecting shock, alarm, and immediate action. Instead, I was instructed to leave my car keys in the box, turn off the lights, take the keys out of the front door, put them on the desk, and leave. I explained that I wasn’t comfortable doing that as someone could steal a car for which I was still responsible. Sighing, the man on the other end of the line explained that in that case he’d have to come up there, which I affirmed was a good idea. I let him know that he could find me in the pub with the keys. At this point, I’d simply had enough of the Australian lasseiz-faire approach to life. While charming in some situations, trying to book travel arrangements and adhere to an itinerary were not those situations.

Day 18: Adelaide

After working with Angela on an outline for her Personal Statement for her medical school application in the dining car over some much-needed instant coffee, we got off our last train of the trip in Adelaide around mid-day. Our Couch Surfing host, Alexis, met us at the train station and walked us to his house. That afternoon, we ran around various outdoors good stores preparing as if we were heading to the Arctic. For the remainder of our trip, we would be doing winter camping.

Days 14, 15, 16, and 17: Alice Springs and surrounding area

We arrived in Alice Springs on The Ghan at about 10 am on day 14, fresh faced after a night sleeping squished into the hidey hole created by the two set of seat backs converging. We picked up our exceedingly tall Land Cruiser with the camper built ON TOP of it only to find out that it had a manual transmission. Now, I rarely drive in Sydney, and I certainly don’t drive ridiculously top-heavy vehicles with a stick shift. In fact, as Eric and I have been discussing buying a camper van, a major hesitation of mine has been whether I could learn to drive with the stick on the “wrong” side. After one false start, I’m glad to say I conquered my fear.

Fear returned about two hours later as I barrelled down a rough dirt road and noticed smoke spewing from the rear of the vehicle. Apparently I’d had a flat tire for some time but had not noticed given the rough conditions. It took quite a bit of fanning and pouring of water bottles into holes in the tire to cool it enough to lift. More alarming, we were now in a famous desert with no spare tire!

There was no time to waste, though, as Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock as the white settlers called it upon their “discovery,” is most famously viewed at sunrise and sunset. We pulled into the sunset viewing area with about 10 minutes to spare and were in no way disappointed.

The next morning, we got up at 5:45 am to see the rock at sunrise. It was well worth dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags into the cold desert dark.

We then visited the cultural centre, run by the aborigines, which tells the stories their ancestors passed on for thousands of years about how a giant red rock came to be standing alone in the middle of the desert and about all of the markings on the rock. The cultural centre also asked that you think about the spiritual meaning of the rock to their community before choosing to climb Uluru. As we hiked around the rock, we came upon the spot where people climb, and again there was a large sign asking people to “make good choices.” Sadly, in the 3.5 hours that we hiked around the rock, we probably only saw about 15 people, but there must have been about 300 people climbing the damn thing.

After circumnavigating the rock, we drove over to The Olgas, which is basically a pile of smaller (but still giant) red rocks.

The last thing you want to do in the outback is to drive after dark given the very high odds of coming head to head with a kangaroo, which does bad things to your vehicle even if you aren’t an extended-height Land Cruiser. Therefore, we did a quick sprint of a hike through The Olgas before hitting the road to drive as far toward Kings Canyon as we could before sunset. That night we camped in a roadside rest area, and the full moon had the eeriest blue ring around it.

Next morning we sped over to King’s Canyon, where we were able to get a new spare tire. From the time we got of the train in Alice Springs, we kept running into a French girl and a Belgian girl. When we saw them on the hiking trail at King’s Canyon, it was probably our fifth encounter. We decided to stop fighting fate and hike together. By the end of the hike we were old friends and had agreed to meet up again in Sydney. So far, we’ve had drinks with them twice since we’ve been back!

That afternoon, armed with our new spare tire, we braved the unpaved roads again. After four hours of intense bouncing, we were happy to arrive in Finke Canyon just before sunset. In the morning, I drove down the most intense 4 km of 4WD track that I’ve ever been on, with lots of coaching and support from Dylan. After a quick morning hike, we returned to Alice Springs to return the Land Cruiser and re-board The Ghan. I almost had a fist fight with the car rental guy, who made me drive up the road to put an extra $2.83 in fuel in the tank, but Angela restrained me, and we made it just in time. Some people just shouldn’t be given even small amounts of power.

We were able to shower on the train, which was a blessing for everyone around us, even though our clothes still smelled, and we were able to turn our seats to face each other again. This time, I found a lovely spot to sleep just outside the toilet curled up behind a trash can.

Day 13: The Ghan

The Ghan is the train that runs north to south, bisecting Australia. It such a famous train that people came out to see us depart. We might have felt like movie stars, but we were sitting in Red Class, which entitled us to seats…and not much else. There wasn’t even a lounge or bar car where we could play cards. Fortunately, we met a really nice family from Perth who coordinated with us to turn two sets of seats to face each other. That evening, they shared their lollies and contraband port with us while we all played Yahtzee. I knew Eric couldn’t be right that only my sister and I like that game.

During that first day, the train stopped for 5 hours in Katherine, the most depressing sh*thole of a town I’ve ever seen. Now, it didn’t help that it was so hot that we were melting on the sidewalk, but the composition of the town being primarily destitute aborigines didn’t help. You can only see so many shoeless children before feeling quite sad. We retreated to the pub immediately and stayed there until we could reboard the train.

Day 12: Darwin

Sadly, Eric had to jump ship at this point and return to work. At least he was on a domestic flight to Sydney, which allowed him to carry on the numerous bottled goodies we had purchased at the distillery. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we were on a flight terminating in Singapore after dropping us in Darwin, requiring some quick baggage shuffling as we were suddenly travelling on an international flight. The only thing we couldn’t squeeze into the pack was the four litre bladder of wine we’d taken out of its box. I decided to try to sneak it through the x-ray scanner – at least the lady seemed to find my attempt amusing.

I was more concerned when my name was called over the loudspeaker several minutes later, and I was escorted back through security to the ticketing desk to explain why I had explosives in my checked baggage. Why is it that we immediately feel a mixture of guilt and fear that we’re about to be in a bad movie when these things happen? Apparently, tent poles look much like fireworks through an x-ray machine. Despite the fact that when shown the photo I immediately identified them as tent poles, which seemed reasonable given that they were in a giant hiking backpack, I was asked to unpack the whole thing in front of a crowd.

We had thought Cairns was uncomfortably warm, but it had nothing on Darwin. The public swimming area is open and at capacity year-round, because you start to sweat the moment you exit the front door. That night, Angela and I had to take a dip in the hotel pool just to stop sweating before we went to bed. The sea surrounding the Northern Territory, which houses Darwin, is off-limits to smart swimmers due to the presence of man-eating crocodiles. With many Queensland beaches off-limits during parts of the year due to box jellyfish, I was beginning to realise how lucky I was to live in New South Wales where the water is merely cold instead of deadly.

Aside from the heat, the other noticeable characteristic of Darwin and the Northern Territory is the presence of aborigines. Most months in Sydney, I won’t see a single aborigine unless I go down to Circular Quay outside the Opera House and see the man who is always playing the didgeridoo. Sadly, most of them do not seem to be very prosperous, mostly hanging out in public parks or outside supermarkets.

Days 9, 10, and 11: Cairns

Our first day in Cairns, we rented an eensy-teensy clown car and drove north to Cape Tribulation, where paved roads give way to the jungle. Angela suggested that we attend an exotic fruit lecture, which I rejected as sounding, “f&cking awful.” Youth trumped experience here, and it was actually very interesting. This couple purchased the land without any idea how to use it and then hit on the idea of scouring the globe for exotic fruits they could grow for sale in local markets. He now consults with the UN and other organisations trying to introduce new crops to tropical, third world countries.

Along the way to and from Cape Tribulation, we stopped at open air markets, rainforest boardwalks, and scenic beaches. We were even lucky enough to see a family of cassowaries, an endangered bird species that can slice a human jugular with a wicked claw on his foot.

The next day, Angela’s birthday, we boarded a catamaran at 8 am for a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. On two scuba dives we saw giant clams, Nemos, and a baby sea turtle. Sadly, the Reef is dying quickly, and since we were taken to popular tourist spots, we didn’t see many spectacular colours. That night we took Angela out for a meat festival at a Brazilian place in Cairns. Lord, that was a lot of meat.

On our last day in Cairns, we rented another clown car and drove south into the mountains. We visited a fruit distillery, which was in a corrugated metal shed but had a friendly host willing to let us taste all of his wares (after which we were all a bit drunk), a biodynamic dairy (we’re still not sure what this means except tasty cheese eaten at a picnic table under their trees), and a number of waterfalls on our way to Paronella Park.

Now, let me just say that Paronella Park has the best marketing I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it couldn’t quite live up to its hype. Essentially, a quixotic Spaniard dreamed of building a castle and chose to do so in rural Queensland near the sugar plantations where he’d made his fortune. He then opened it up as a recreation centre with pools, tennis courts, and a cinema for the local people. It was lovely, but I was expecting the Taj Majal after reading their brochures. Having driven so far, though, we stayed for both the day and night tours.

Our last night in Cairns we went to local brewery. Two American Naval ships were in town, and the 4th of July was only a couple of days distant, so the entire place, like much of the town, was draped in American flags. Given how much Australians pick on Eric and I for being American, he found it a little gross that they were pandering so much to the shore leave dollars. I thought it was kind of nice that the sailors felt so welcomed (especially by ladies in very small skirts that we saw on the streets) but could see his point.

On another point Eric and I agreed: we were too old for Cairns. It very much had an MTV Spring Break Beach Party feel, which has felt more slimy than electrifying since I was about 19 years old. The hostel where we were staying, like most hostels in the town, gave us vouchers for a free dinner each night at a pub up the road. After our adventures each day, we were generally pushing the 9:30 pm expiration time for our vouchers and the 10 pm start of the cheap beer special, when the place turned into a giant, throbbing meat market. Now, I’m generally told I look young for my age, but even if I could pass for 26, I’d be an old lady in this place. I felt like everyone was staring at me thinking, “Granny go home.” Would have helped if I’d brought underwear that could double as a skirt or skintight pleather pants or something.

Days 7 and 8: The Sunlander

Most of day 7 was actually spent re-supplying and hanging out at a nasty bus station waiting for transport to the train. (If you ever think the US has the monopoly on white trash, come to Australia.) The only real highlight was spending 30 minutes in a tiny town called Maryborough, so called because PL Travers, author of Mary Poppins, was born there. Bet you didn’t know she was Australian.

By the time we boarded the train that evening, we were glad to have a sleeper car and to only to have to interact with humanity in the bar car, where beer was just $5. Almost the entirety of day 8 was spent drinking and playing cards on the train, of which I won’t bore you with any details (which I don’t really recall anyway). At about 8 pm that night, we stepped off in Cairns and experienced hotter, more humid mid-winter weather than we could ever have imagined existed.

Days 4, 5, and 6: Fraser Island

We ferried over to the Fraser Island in the rain and proceeded to see all of the renowned sights on the touristy eastern side of the island through the drizzle (they were crap). The main attraction of Fraser Island for most guests is that the entire eastern side of the island is a huge, hard-packed beach on which you can drive, and indeed land airplanes. There’s nothing so disconcerting as seeing signage indicating that your road is also a landing strip.

By 3 pm, we were done in with the rain and looked in at the K’Gari aboriginal campsite to seek refuge. While the large, open-air huts had been rented out to another group of 6 or 7 Irish boys, they agreed to let us stay with them. Our aboriginal hosts had agreed to demonstrate playing the didgeridoo that evening, but by 9 pm most of us had consumed several litres of wine each and were not musically inclined. Starting drinking at 3 pm may not have been our best idea, but there’s not much to do in a hut in the rain. We did learn that only men are allowed to play the didgeridoo, although there are large plastic tubes that women can play. We were also warned against whistling at night or spitting in the fire, although no further explanation was given.

The camp also had a mostly-friendly dingo. Fraser Island is filled with dingos, and there are signs everywhere showing small children being whisked off by packs of dogs.

Next day we took off to see the forbidden west side of the island. Along the way, we saw lots of scribbler gums. The larvae of this animal are laid inside the tree and eat their way out, creating these weird patterns.

The 4WD rental companies only allow their vehicles to be taken on the touristy, eastern beach; because others are more rule-abiding, we had the entire beach to ourselves. We made a picnic lunch and hiked an hour up the snow-white beach past thousands of suicidal sea slugs gasping their last breaths. Back in our campsite was a freshwater river emptying to the sea with a rope swing. As the sunset, we took turns swinging out into the water, swimming down the river a bit, and circling back for another turn. It was just idyllic. That night we drank wine and ate cheese as we watched the sun set over the ocean and then cooked by headlamp on the tailgate.

Our last day on the island, we drove on tracks through the middle, which took us past a number of the freshwater lakes. I should mention that the sea surrounding Fraser Island is so shark infested that you are strongly advised against swimming in it. Hence the popularity of the freshwater lakes! The water in the lakes is so fresh and clear that you can safely drink it.

That night, we had been told by our hostel owner in Hervey Bay to camp outside the Kingfisher Bay resort. After a frantic dash to and fro around the resort, Eric and I decided just to get a hotel room. Since we hadn’t showered since Brisbane, it was about time anyway. We were boarding a train for 26 hours the next day, so I’m sure our fellow passengers appreciated our splurge.

Day 3: Tilt Train to Hervey Bay

Our hostel in Hervey Bay

The next morning we hiked through the rain to the train station with our giant packs. Unfortunately, we had quite a long walk to the Mango Tourist Hostel on the other end as well. The hostel owner was a riot. He asked us how we planned to travel to Fraser Island and what we intended to do there, interjecting, “That’s unfortunate,” at each step as he told us how we’d gone wrong with our planning. Not sure what he thought we could to correct things at that point. According to him, the best and most economical way to see Fraser Island was by private yacht. Uh, yeah.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Days 1 and 2: Brisbane

We began our trip in Brisbane, which is about an hour’s flight north of Sydney on the east coast of Australia and is the gateway to tropical Queensland. Although not far from Sydney, Brisbane is often a few degrees warmer and more humid. Brisbane is the capital of the state of Queensland and the third largest city in Australia with a whopping two million people. I hate it. It seems to be rather too crowded for a city of its size. However, it was Angela’s favourite city in Australia. This is only because she hasn’t been to Perth.

Like most travellers, we realised just hours after leaving home how many things we had forgotten. Angela needed some flip-flops, or thongs as they are called here (which I still find difficult to say in public). We popped into a surf shop on the main outdoor shopping district, and Angela began her quest for the perfect plastic shoe. Dylan, impatient after a few minutes but not abandoning ship as Eric had already, came up to Angela with a brown pair he had found, slapped them down, exclaimed, “Problem solved!,” turned on his heel, and left. Upon inspection, these were actually the ugliest flip-flops in the store and not even Angela’s size. But the catchphrase of our month-long adventure had been born! Problem solved!

On my visit to Brisbane for work about a month earlier, which was over a weekend, I had taken a cruise up the river to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, opened in 1927. The Mirimar, launched in 1934, was originally the only way to get to the sanctuary, and it has made daily trips there since, with occasional breaks to assist with world wars and such. I had learned when I took the boat the first time that she was soon to be retired, and one of the two nights we were in Brisbane was to be one of her final river cruises. The first night of our vacation, we sat on the back deck of the boat downing bottles of red wine and watching the sunset as old-timers reminisced about their times on the boat around us – an auspicious beginning for our trip.

We stayed at the Kookaburra Inn, a lovely hostel with lots of outdoor patio furniture where we could gather to consume more wine, play cards, etc. The next day we went to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, where we learned that girls like koalas (cute) and boys like raptors (deadly). At least there was something there for everyone!

That night, I tried to find my way back to The Valley, where my colleague had taken me on my previous visit for my birthday dinner. Instead, I managed to drag us into the sex district, which was interesting but considerably less appetising. Clearly, it was time to leave Brisbane.