...images from planet Earth
15 March - 14 April 2002
Arrived in Sydney on the morning of 15 March. I stayed at the Jolly Swagman (about $22 per night in a four bed dorm). It's a large, busy hostel, occupied mainly by young Brits, as most hostels in Sydney probably are. It was a bit of a student union atmosphere. On the first day I'd arranged to meet a friend I'd met in the States a few years ago, so a few hours after I landed, I was on a train to Cabramatta, a far out suburb.
I had three more days to explore Sydney, during which I walked through the Royal Botanical Gardens which is an excellent place for a walk. At night I walked to a viewpoint where I watched the sun go down behind the Royal Opera House and Harbour Bridge, providing me with probably the best night view I've ever seen. Other attractions I went to were the Australian Museum, Sydney Aquarium, Hyde Park, Manly beach and the Sydney Tower. Sydney is an amazingly clean and green city. Even the central area has no litter. The exception is King's Cross, the area I stayed in, but it was in a good location, walking distance to the attractions and the city centre. And Oxford Street has good restaurants and bars.
On the morning of 19 April, I flew to Adelaide. I knew some former neighbours who'd moved out here and I stayed with them for a night. I had just one day to look round Adelaide, a clean, friendly city, with lots of parks and open spaces. I went to the excellent Migration museum.
The next day I did an eight day tour with the Wayward Bus to Alice Springs, which I had booked and paid for a few weeks before online. This is what I came to Australia for - the outback. There were 20 other people on the bus and we went through some remote places like the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, with its underground homes (to escape the heat and flies) and its surreal lunar landscape. And there was William Creek, one of Australia's smallest towns with a population of about 10, but on that night there was a big charity ball on and the number of people increased to about 500. We sneaked into the ball through the back door and watched Aussies from all over the country who had come to get drunk and dance, mainly to country music (most of the blokes in cowboy boots, jeans, a white shirt and bow tie, and a hat).
There are some strange people living in the outback, including a guy with a long white beard who goes by the name of Talc Alf. When he's not carving sculptures from talc, he comes up with ideas of where letters and words in the English language come from (eg, 'G' is shaped like a man sitting and leaning over as if he's giving something, which is why 'give' and 'god' begins with a 'g').
There was lots of wildlife along the way; kangaroos, emus, lizards, etc, including the amazing thorny devil. Our guide spotted one on the road while we were driving. The unique wildlife and vegetation is one of the things I liked most about Australia. Our guide was excellent, both funny and knowledgeable. He'd answer any question I asked about the country, its history, people and wildlife. When we weren't sleeping in tents, we were camping out under the stars, and the skies in Australia are unbelievably clear.
The last three days of the tour were spent at Uluru (Ayer's Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Watarrka (King's Canyon). We didn't climb Uluru (because the Anangu, the indigenous people of the area, ask you not to), so we walked around it instead. It's at its best from close up anyway, amazing red rock formations, combined with the surrounding greens and the deep blue (a blue unlike that of any other sky I've seen) and cloudless sky.
Luckily, it had been a wet summer and there was much more greenery in the usually dry central areas. It wasn't the outback I had been expecting but I wasn't complaining, it looked damn good. We camped two nights at the nearby resort of Yulara, watching the sun set over the rock one night over crackers and stubbies (bottles) of VB (Victoria Bitter). The next day we drove to Kata Tjuta, which is part of the same park as Ulruru. The aboriginal name means 'many heads', coming from the large dome shaped outcrops. We did a three hour hike through Kata Tjuta, again, impressive to look at with the vivid reds, greens and blue. Finally, we went to Watarrka, an unusual canyon in that it has been formed out of an outcrop as opposed to out of the ground. We hiked along the rim and then down to the bottom to the 'Garden of Eden', an oasis of tropical plants, including palm trees that are survivors from 200 million years ago. It really gave the place a prehistoric feel. Some of us went for a refreshing swim in the waterhole at the bottom of the canyon. This, for me, was the most scenic of the three parks, but the others preferred Kata Tjuta.
On the eighth day of the tour, we arrived in Alice Springs, after travelling more than 3,000km and 11 degrees north. We had dinner at Bojangles, a pub/restaurant decorated with animal parts (and cowboy boots sticking out the air conditioning vents), people with cowboy hats again, and a band led by guy in a long white beard singing Irish songs and various others like the one that goes 'who the f**k is Alice'.
I only planned to stay in Alice for a couple of days, but a guy I met on the Wayward Bus was going to stay a week and then do a three day tour to Darwin. I had a few days to spare so I decided to do the same. I'm glad I did, Alice is a nice place to relax for a few days, and there are plenty of things to see in and around the town. Another two people from the trip joined us for a two day trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges, for which we hired a Toyota Rav4. There are several gorges to stop at on the way, and the scenery throughout is stunning. We camped at Glen Helen, where we found some unused tents, and then continued on the loop road back to Alice, stopping at the excellent Desert Park just before arriving back in Alice Springs. The best thing about the park was its nocturnal animals display, allowing us to see animals we would never otherwise been able to. It was strange seeing all these animals I've only seen pictures of, like the mala, echidna and hopping mouse. There was also an interesting birds of prey display.
Alice Springs is an unusual place, typical of an isolated outback town, but on a larger scale than the others. Here we saw the shocking reality of the state of the Aborigines in Australia. Many of them, homeless and jobless, spend their time walking the streets or sitting together on the grass. Many looked like they'd been in a fight, with puffed up faces, bandages and walked with limps. Most were overweight and were often drunk. It's sad to see what has become of the world's oldest and most amazing people. I had a good time in Alice Springs. We stayed at Melankas, a large hostel with a bar/club/restaurant attached. I shared a room for $90 for a week. As with most places there, there was a pool where I spent a lot of the time relaxing. When I wasn't sunbathing, I went to the reptile centre, did a hot air balloon ride which cost $110 for an hour (apparently, Alice Springs is one of the four best places in the world for it), we went on a cultural tour which included a trip to the old telegraph station, a boomerang throwing lesson, a talk on aboriginal kinship and aboriginal dance show (which was too much of a circus show but it was still interesting). I also had some didgeridoo lessons. One night we went to watch a didgeridoo expert play with his band at Scotties pub and, for one of the tracks, I was playing the bongos.
The guy I was travelling with suddenly had to fly back home, so I went on the tour to Darwin without him. This tour was with Adventure Tours, the only company that does this route, and it's cheaper than doing it with Greyhound which goes straight through. Adventure Tours are by far the biggest tour company in Australia and are heavily plugged by hostels and travel agents (they probably pay the most commission). In Australia, unlike India, Nepal and Thailand, the cost of a particular tour is the same wherever you book it. The commission is a fixed amount which is paid to the hostel/travel agent you book at. In the other countries, the travel agents/hotels buy the tour from another company and charge you as much as they want in commission. But despite their size, Adventure Tours not necessarily the best. There were 24 people on this one.
There wasn't so much to see along this route, but it was still a good trip. The guides were a bit immature but they did their best and still knew quite a bit. We saw the Devil's Marbles, Tennant Creek, the old gold mining town where we were given a tour of a replica mine maintained by the MOT, and we went canoeing at the scenic Katherine Gorge. Other places we stopped at were the thermal pools at Mataranka and our guide's favourite outback pub at Daly Waters. This was another camping trip but, like the previous tour, it didn't really feel like camping; our campsites had showers, with hot water and everything. There were electric sockets and even toilet paper. When I went camping in the States it was a more rustic experience, washing in lakes and rivers etc.
The tour finished in Darwin. I checked into Chillies backpackers which was cheap at $16 for a four bed dorm including breakfast. I had one day before my next trip to Kakadu and Litchfield national park. It was more than enough. Darwin was bombed to bits in WWII and then destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. So it's all been rebuilt and the result is ugly. On top of that it's really humid, I couldn't wait to leave. I booked the three day Kakadu/Litchfield tour with Gondwana. They don't advertise in hostels and travel agents like other tour companies, you can only book with them directly, so they don't pay commission from anyone. This tour was much smaller, just 9 of us in a 4WD land cruiser.
There were plenty of waterfalls and rockholes and plunge pools to swim in. The water was crystal clear, so clean we were filling up our water bottles from the pools. And this was proper bush camping, cooking on campfires, no showers, the only time we'd wash was when we swam. The first night we camped out on a disused WWII airfield. The second night we stayed at the most mosquito infested place I've ever experienced, not only that but, for the first time, my industrial strength repellent (50% DEET) would not work. We went on walks to see Aboriginal rock art and did some hiking through yet more amazing scenery. From one viewpoint in Kakadu, we could see four different habitats; monsoon rainforest, another type of woodland, the stone country, and floodplains.
On the last day of this trip we headed out of the park to the Mary River, were we would go croc spotting. As we got there it started pissing it down, probably the heaviest rain I've seen. So we stripped of and got into our power boats. We were given a quick lesson on how to drive then and we were off. Immediately, we saw huge saltwater crocs, some 4-5m long. The rain wasn't a problem (except for being bitten by a leach). It actually made the whole thing more dramatic. On one occasion, when I was driving, I tried to get close to this big croc, but I panicked and used too much throttle, turned the wrong way and ended up missing it by inches. It twisted its body towards us, its mouth wide open. Needless to say, I shat myself. I didn't take my camera with me on the boat because of the rain, so the next day I decided to squeeze in a trip to Crocodylus Park before my flight out. Here, I saw crocs being fed, just a few feet away from me. It was an awesome display. As they leapt up out of the water, they'd snap their mouth shut with so much force it made a loud popping sound (apparently, this sometimes causes them to lose teeth).
That afternoon, I flew out to Perth, six hours away. Only two days here. I stayed at Hay Street backpackers, another nice hostel with friendly staff. That too, was $18 for a four bed dorm. The next day, I went on a one day tour with Redback Safaris ($90) which included a trip to a Yanchep national park where we saw koalas (the one animal I still wanted to see) and wild kangaroos, before going to the Pinnacles (strange rock formations in the desert) then a white sandy beach. We ended the day with four wheel driving on the sand dunes and sand boarding. Again our guide seemed to know everything about the Perth, its history and wildlife. That was an excellent day. The next day wasn't so good. Someone told me Freemantle was brilliant. It was OK. Went to the old prison, walked around for a bit then got bored and decided to watch Rabbit Proof Fence at the cinema, a true story about the stolen generation of Aborigines. The next day I flew for 11 hours across the Atlantic to Africa.