Big Question Marks

Monday, December 29, 2008

Highlights from the Centre

It would probably take ages to take you through all of our road adventures of the past few weeks, so we'll just skip to the best parts. Driving in Australia is quite the adventure in itself!

* Driving the Oodnadatta Track: After a few days soaking up the nature in Flinders Ranges in SA, it seemed the unsealed road ahead open and ready for Daisy (we looked the other way from a few of the "4WD only" warnings, tee hee). Life was more and more remote as we headed north along the route of the old Ghan railway-- the new Ghan, which connects the country north to south, takes a more direct and definitely less scenic route. As town populations went from 1000 to the 100's and less, fuel became pricier and fruit more difficult to find (we raided one truck stop for all of its 4 apples and 6 bananas!). We spent a night in dusty Marree, where the Oodnadatta Track splits off from another famous Outback Track to Birdsville, QLD-- a place where the only residents are hanging out at the pub, and the only life on the street is a lonely wandering dog-- and wondered, if this was the beginning of the Track, what would the middle of it look like? The flies were getting unbearable but the sunsets were gorgeous. The next day we went further into nothing, where you'd wave excitedly to passing vehicles (if there were any) and the roadside was littered with rusted-out car wrecks and hardly a brushy plant. We hopped in and out of the car, exploring deserted rail stations, giant salt lakes, mysterious springs to swim in, and then the scariest moment ever-- we were almost at the legendary William Creek, town of population 10, on the biggest cattle station in the world (size of Belgium!) when we crested a hill and had to hit the brakes-- a river was crossing the road! We measured the depth with our ankles, and found it wasn't super-deep, but it was about 4 road lanes wide. Cold and with a bit of a current though-- and we had no idea how Daisy might fare. It was only 30 km to William Creek past there (to gas!) or another 150 km back to a detour. We were debating this problem-- we certainly didn't expect a flooded road in the dustiest, driest Outback ever-- when we heard the hum of a distant engine, and a big 4WD Landcruiser crossed the river easily toward us. The couple, a sweet older pair from near Sydney, inside assured us it would be no problem for us to cross, and if we did get stuck, they'd pull us out. With a bit of coaching to Adrian, he crossed the "creek" with no problem! There was lots of cheering and we left our separate ways-- though we don't know what we would have done without those people turning up at the very right moment. It was an easy cruise to William Creek, where we had a much-needed beer at the pub (of course a town with 10 people has a pub-- it's Australia!). And then our dusty detour was finished... it was back to the main highway (relieved!) to opal-mining capital Coober Pedy.

-Coober Pedy, SA- Opal mining town where half the population lives in dugouts (underground homes) while they mine for their fortune! The whole place looks like some sort of disaster zone... mounds of dirt everywhere from digging and many signs saying "watch where you're walking" so you don't fall in a hole!

- Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), and Kings Canyon: The big natural rock wonders of the centre were awesome when seeing them up close-- despite the hype! We did lots of hiking around them, though we didn't catch much in the way of beautiful sunsets. Our first night in Uluru rained and our subsequent sunsets and sunrises were pretty cloudy. Amazing to get to see these sights in person though. Check out the photos on Flickr.

-Etc: Chasing herds of feral camels grazing at the roadside (they're fast!). Dodging toads hopping in the road after dark in the rain while trying to get to our next stop en route to Darwin. Getting beaten by a knee-deep and very muddy river near Kings Canyon (Palmer River) while trying to take a shortcut to Alice Springs (we had to drive an extra 250 km instead). Would it really hurt to just pave a few more roads, or even build a bridge or two?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Xmas from the Big Aussie Road Tour

Merry Christmas to everyone from the sweltering-hot desert town of Alice Springs! We hope you're all having a great Xmas & have big plans for New Year's. We've been taking a few days off our hectic driving schedule to chill out (literally) in an air-conditioned villa at the Desert Palms Resort, a cute little complex of self-contained hotel room huts hidden amongst palm trees and bougainvillea. There's a swimming pool with an island in it where we spent a nice chunk of Christmas Day-- also nice. But the best part about our stay is we're away from the (a) dust (b) mozzies, and (c) flies which have been annoying us so much since crossing that invisible line to the Outback. You hear about all of this stuff prior to your trip, but it's impossible to believe how annoying life is with the combination of these elements (not to mention 40-degree heat). We made a cup of coffee a few mornings ago and before we could have a sip, three flies committed suicide into the steaming mug. Adrian especially loves to kill the flies, and will sometimes sit in the van murdering fly after fly after fly until he's got a sore arm... and then new ones just keep on coming. Dayle prefers to coat herself in Aerogard (a very strong "Tropical Grade" bug repellent) which keeps them away for a while. Some days we even wear our flynets (over our faces) to make dishwashing, etc a little less tedious!

But it's been an adventure already-- it was hard to get off the East Coast beaches but the long days of driving do pay off into some really rewarding sights and experiences! Here's a couple highlights...we've tried to recount the days since we entered the Outback (and backdated them a bit below on the blog). We'll have to leave you with a cliffhanger, as it's checkout time at the hotel-- but we'll finish and post the story of Daisy & the Oodnadatta Track in a few days. (We're heading to Uluru this morning) For now, do check out our photos on Flickr- freshly uploaded and fully up-to-date... at least you can get an idea of our last week! Merry Christmas... read on. Love D&A

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Going Outback Pt II: Ghost Towns & Mountain Hikes

By now, we were still marvelling at the silence of the Outback-- day and night, we'd barely meet another soul. We passed through Wilcannia, a former gold mining town which had a ghost-town feel to it-- dilapidated buildings and not a soul on the street (it was really hot outside though). Next it was Broken Hill, a relatively large town close to the South Australia border. It's known as the "Silver City", and the town has been built around a giant silver mine (looks quite weird to see a huge mound behind the town's buildings, and it always sounded like a construction site). There was also gold mines back in the day, and the "downtown" was full of Gold Rush-era, well-preserved buildings. It's also been a hotspot for films-- the Palace Hotel is a huge pub featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and nearby ghost town Silverton was the filming site for Mad Max II. Since Adrian's a huge Mad Max fan, we drove out to the spooky town to check out the tiny pub and the scenic sunbleached buildings of the town. The publican told us about the crazy dust storms that come through town, as well as the floods that close off the town from civilization when too much rain falls. We even met some wild donkeys hanging out by the (closed) museum/jail. There are a few people who live and work there-- there are a few art galleries, a house which we saw a ute pull into, and the family who runs the pub are residents, too. But otherwise, Silverton had quite the spooky, deserted air to it.

Nonetheless, Broken Hill was the closest we'd get to civilization for a while. We crossed into South Australia later the next day, through a manned quarantine checkpoint (you have to toss out your fruit & veggies just between most states here, it's crazy!) and straight into a dark storm cloud. We stopped in at the info centre in a cute town called Quorn, just below the Flinders Ranges National Park, and got the bad news we'd been dreading: the Oodnadatta Track was closed due to rains the Friday before (it was already Wednesday by then!). Norm, the biker who planted the adventuresome idea in our heads earlier that week, had told us authorities close the roads due to creeks flooding, but mostly so that vehicles don't create but ditches and ruts in the soft, wet ground. Since this was the rainier season (despite the drought), there was always the chance it would get closed down. Word is, if you travel on the road when it is closed and are caught, you'll be fined $1000 per tire. Yikes!

Disappointed as we were, we decided to at least check out the Flinders Ranges the next day and see if the track would reopen. It would be a detour-- the path we were taking is on the east side of some very large (and dried-out, we believe) lakes and there was no way north to join the main north-south highway, without the unsealed tracks. We'd have to detour back south for about 300km, and return north on the other side of the lakes-- a lot more time and fuel, but we'd heard the Flinders Ranges were worth it in scenery.

We drove further north, checking out historic ruins of sheep stations (abandoned because of the inhospitable conditions, heat and drought) and some Aboriginal rock paintings along the way to the National Park. We paused for the night in a wee town nestled in the mountains called Hawker, along the road where every town felt more and more like the end of the line.

Hanging onto our last bits of hope, we arrived inside Flinders Ranges National Park, to begin a hike with views of Wilpena Pound, a mountain range with a circular valley in the centre (apparently shepherds used to round up their sheep in this natural "pound"). And we got the news-- the Oodnadatta Track had reopened! As long as there wasn't another freak rain (we were told they'd had a huge amount of rain this month compared to normal), we could do it with ease, even without a 4WD, we were reassured. So with a burst of excited energy, we opted for a hike with great views and kind of overlooked that it was the only one listed as "Hard". Two hours of steep rock climbing to the top of Mount Ohlssen-Bagge found us sweaty and exhausted at the top (why do we always seem to hike in mid-afternoon?). We'd seen a few lizards but all the other wildlife was sensible enough to stay inside for the day. The views were phenomenal though and it was a much easier time down the steep trail, even with jello-ey legs.

We found a sweet campsite in the park (after "snaking" a refreshing shower from the Wilpena Pound Resort at the trailhead...) after a winding drive past emus sipping from puddles and roaming kangaroos-- by a dry riverbed and a mountain, and watched the stars from our peaceful site. In the morning, another camper came by to check out our trails map and we warned him about Mt Ohlssen-Bagge. He may have suited it better than us though, being a Bavarian who wore his lederhosen camping (we met him again in Coober Pedy, days later, in his lederhosen again!). We opted for a more peaceful trail through some grasslands and through a gorge that day... figured our energy is best put into the Outback Track driving the next day!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Outback Pt I: Many Miles in NSW

After leaving the Gold Coast, we paid a visit to our old home of two months last year, Stanthorpe. Everything pretty much looked the same as before, and it was just great to catch up with old friends from our previous year cherry-picking! Unfortunately it's been an even rainier year than last and the weather destroyed a lot of Cherry Park's cherries again. But the ones we did see/taste were just great. We caught up with the Minifies (who own Cherry Park) for an evening and had many laughs and a drink or two... Adrian even had a SingStar contest with the kids, that is, until they somehow broke the PlayStation with their lovely singing! The next night we took a walk down memory lane and stayed in the caravan park we stayed at for nearly six weeks last year, but this time, as tourists (what a great feeling to not have to be up at 5am!). It was still quite a nice place to stay. We met up with our fellow pickers Debbie & Katrina (and the husbands) at the local pub who cracked us up every day while picking, and they filled us in on the rest of the gossip and gave us some tips for our Outback travelling.... good times!

And the next morning it was into the unknown--we started inland on December 14 and only then truly realized how big each state is! New South Wales runs more than 1000 km from east to west, so it took ages to reach true Outback. And then suddenly it was there, all that red sand, scrubby bushes, and wild goats grazing at the roadside. It was only after about a day and a half driving south and west from Queensland, we were just starting to wonder where the Outback really begins-- Was it when we spotted a tumbleweed crossing the road? A dust devil crossing a field? When we really met no cars along the way? And then a sign appeared at the flat, dusty roadside:

Naturally, we hopped out of the car immediately and ran through thorny dried plants to pose in front of it (who wouldn't?!)... and it was about 100m past that when another sign said, "Welcome to Outback New South Wales". Aha! We had lunch in the first town we found in Bogan Shire, a nice little place called Nyngan which seemed very un-Bogan at first, until we spotted a group (family?) with two teenage girls and their babies, a brother and sister holding hands (we think), long hair and rattails on the boys and two-tone hair (think contrast: white-blonde on top and black on the bottom, or something like that), and the mom/young grandma in a really tiny denim miniskirt. The unfortunate thing about Bogan moments like this is we are usually so enraptured by the scene we usually forget to take pics (this happened on the Gold Coast with the most Bogan family we've ever encountered... too many rattails to count. We were absolutely tongue-tied). Next time, we promise!

Our first night spent in the Outback was incredible. Town were getting fewer and further between, and about every 100km there would be a rest area. It was getting close to sunset (which means kangaroos jumping out in front of the car... we'd already spotted a few emus running about, too) and we were still on the 282km expanse between towns, so we just chose a rest area and set up camp. It wasn't far off the Barrier Highway, the major route to South Australia, but we barely heard a vehicle all night. The landscape was extremely flat, and reddish with a few scrub plants and a couple of trees providing shade from the scorching sun. We thought we had the place to ourselves when a solo man in a pickup truck pulled in and just hung out in his truck. We were making dinner when we thought we saw him sharpening hedge trimmers... ("oh no, it's going to be Wolf Creek...") we thought as it got darker and we got our axe and a kitchen knife handy just in case. (Have we watched too many horror movies or what?) We spied on the guy, who was sitting in his truck, chatting on a mobile phone, and willed him to leave our camp spot. We were super relieved when a man on a motorcycle pulled up and cruised around the rest stop until he found a good place to pitch a tent. (A witness! We're safe now!) We were eating our meal when the friendly biker strolled over to have a chat with the scary truck guy... and to our further relief they were laughing and having a good conversation (Social skills, hooray!). Not long after that, truck guy pulls off onto the highway again and the biker comes by our camp to say hello... Norm was a retired NSW farmer with a craving for the open road-- he'd just been to Perth and back on his motorcycle, just for the hell of it. He told us about the scary truck guy-- a 'roo shooter, a local dude who shoots kangaroos and sells them to places like Europe where apparently kangaroo fetches a high price in restaurants! A bit more of a relief...

Norm also suggested some places to check out and planted the seed for some adventure-- we'd heard of the famous Outback "Tracks" that run up the middle of the country from South Australia, but we'd always assumed it was four-wheel drive only. Norm has taken the Oodnadatta Track not long before and said it was much more interesting that taking the paved, monotonous Stuart Highway. Daisy was probably shuddering already, but a new idea for our route was taking shape...

But what really topped off the night, after we quizzed Norm on the constellations (his wife is an astronomer at a nearby planetarium) and kept trying to spot the Southern Cross, was a very different kind of visitor. We were admiring the stars from our little table when we heard a faint noise nearby. Adrian switched on the flashlight and caught a dingo, quietly sniffing around the rest area. It was actually really small, nearly silent, and pretty cute. It slinked off into the darkness nearby soon after it was caught, but we were thrilled to have spotted yet another Aussie creature in the wild!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Conquering the East

We can hardly believe it-- phase one of our trip is pretty much complete. We've conquered the east coast and lived to tell the tale! Tomorrow we'll head inland- after one more surfing hurrah earlier today, where we battled surfing "snakes" (one who "snakes", or steals one's wave) and the fierce waves of Surfers Paradise. Not to mention tomorrow our unpowered campsite on the Gold Coast goes up to $39 a night (as if $34 for a patch of grass near the beach wasn't enough!).

We've surprisingly grown quite fond of the Gold Coast, the flashy party beaches at the very south end of Queensland, and we've now been here for four days. Perhaps it's that mix of city comforts-- and skyscrapers-- combined with a tropical climate and a gorgeous, wide, squeaky-sand beach. It's supposed to be THE place in Oz for nightlife and restaurants... though we still prefer Melbourne for that. But if we did get really bored, at least we know we can go to a shooting range, mini-golf, cosmic bowling, a haunted house, and to countless brothels all in the same day.

The Gold Coast has been quite the contrast from our last few stops. After Coffs Harbour (where we first caught the surfing bug) we headed north up the coast to Byron Bay, a must-do on the backpacker trail, and as we found, a laid-back surf town with an interesting mix of hippie and yuppie. We resisted the urge to buy some tie-dye in what is truly the land of the VW Kombi, as well as resisted the surf (we'd heard the bay's full of sharks). But the people-watching was superb!

After Byron we headed for the mountains just inland to the otherworldly Nimbin... a sleepy town of rainbow-painted shops selling incense, patchouli oil, books on world religions and UFOs, and even some Hello Kitty trinkets. The pot dealers were out in swarms in front of the Nimbin Museum (a cobwebby, claustrophobic couple of dim rooms plastered in murals telling the story of the town), and there were lots of funny smells coming from the cafes. Some might say Nimbin is still living in 1973, when the legendary "Aquarius Festival" drew in students and hippie types from all over... some who perhaps never left. We decided to experience Nimbin slightly outside of town, in a privately-owned campground (er, hippie commune?) on a hill called Rainbow Retreat. We camped by a tree with a dreamcatcher hung from it and relaxed while a wallaby hopped around the grounds, and at dusk, searched for the elusive resident platypus. Everything from beer to internet to freshly-baked muffins was sold by the"just put the money into the box" method and it was pretty much the most chilled-out place ever, run by a man named Duck (we think?!) who got nostalgic to us about his days road-tripping through B.C. and Montana in his younger days. And at night everyone from the campground (except for this one guy who wore rainbow tiedye and lived in a neighbouring tent, we think for quite some time) gathered in the outdoor living room-- comfy old chairs around a big TV and black light decorations, just minus walls-- and watched Thelma and Louise with surround sound. Truly surreal, right up to the hand-sized Huntsman spider in the half-outdoor bathrooms at night. (eek!)

One thing we've been lacking on the east coast is some real characters, which perhaps we would have found had we stayed longer in Nimbin... the closest one we've found was a dude at the bottle shop here in the Gold Coast who informed us as we bought our Coronas, that the real reason for putting a slice of lime in the bottle is to keep the giant flies of Mexico out of the beer. Hmmm...

Another thing we're excited for in the Outback is the creatures! Yesterday we took a trip up to the Australia Zoo, home of Steve Irwin. There were lots of cool animals to check out (though many of them we've already seen in the wild... kangaroo...cassowary...crocodile... have we been here too long?) and we learned a bit as well. We saw crocs that were more than 100 years old-- Steve's dad started the zoo in the 1970s as a haven for crocs that were neglected in zoos or being nuisances in residential areas-- We finally got to see a Tassie devil, and the poor thing wasn't very fierce at all (and didn't spin in a tornado, either)-- but instead gallopped, piglike, in figure-eights around its enclosure-- impossible to get photos but quite funny. We also got to pet extremely tame kangaroos, and we even saw a fat wombat being led around on a leash! It was a pretty good zoo, aside from the endless Bindi Irwin songs played on the speaker system. Animal cruelty!

It's been a busy few weeks, but it's been exciting as well. We'll keep you posted from the Outback the best we can, as we dodge snakes (not the surfie kind), road trains, and feral camels...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Point Break Becomes Reality

Yesterday we got to finally live out our dreams of learning to surf!

We'd heard Coffs Harbour, about 6 hours north of Sydney (and 4 or so hours south of Brisbane) on the east coast, was a spectacular place to learn, with waves for beginners and pros alike (we could have taken a lesson down in Victoria but it always seemed too cold). The water here in Coffs is minimum 18 degrees all year-- and around 24 at this time-- and very clear, the beaches having some of the softest sand we've ever felt. It's very tropical, with lots of palms, colourful flowers, and green mountains surrounding the town-- and felt very much like we were in northern Queensland again.

Since we've arrived just before high season, our surf lesson had only five of us in it-- three "Schoolies" (kids who just graduated high school last week and were celebrating with a trip) and us. It was a bit of a windy day on Diggers Beach, so carrying the boards out to the beach was a bit of a feat-- they were massive Malibus (a type of big board easy to learn on) which seemed to double as sails. We learned the basics from our instructor Brett, who's been a surfing nut for years, taking on waves as big as 20 feet high in 'Jungle Surf Camp' in Indonesia. And it wasn't long before we were in the water, on one-foot waves which seemed plenty big to us, anyway.

By the end of the 2 1/2 hour lesson, we both had managed to stand on the boards more than a few times (though we still fall off pretty easily) and didn't lose any limbs to sharks, which Dayle though was a pretty amazing feat. (Actually, it turns out you just shouldn't surf around dawn or dusk, when it's the shark/fish feeding time. Otherwise you're all cool. And we can see why the surfers don't worry about the sharks-- there's so much to think about while catching waves, your mind is entirely elsewhere.) But our gangly office-worker arms were shaky and sore from pushing ourselves up onto the boards, our knees chafed from sand and salt, and we realized after that despite all the sunscreen we put on, we still got sunburnt in some not-so-funny places... lips, ouch! back of knees, ow! back of hands, yeow!

Nonetheless, we were already anxious for more and booked a second lesson straight away...

PS. Please rent Point Break, for further references.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Big Ups *updates that is!

We can hardly believe it's already more than a week into the trip, and we're 2000 kms along. We've been excited to do the New South Wales east coast for ages, after having to speed past it last year to make it to Melbourne to meet our friends for Xmas last year.

After having a few days in Sydney, we've started to wonder if we should have given this gorgeous city a chance to be our home. It's definitely a prettier city (sorry Melbourne), being on a gorgeous harbour and having really old buildings like The Rocks district, and fantastic beaches like Bondi. But Sydney's really expensive-- like if you want to cross the harbour by ferry you'll pay (perhaps not as a local) $5.20 one way. There's a great train system, sort of a multi-line subway mixed with an aboveground train, but it's pricey and confusing as well. Melbourne's definitely got it figured out there-- your ticket is good for 2 hours in Melbourne, and you can hop on as many trains, trams, and buses as you want... none of this no-option one-way crap! Nightlife-wise, Melbourne seems to have way more of our scene (as people had told us prior to our move there)-- little eclectic, hidden bars and drinking spots... and there's definitely more of an artsy vibe in Melbourne. Sydney seems to be more about flash and appearance (you wouldn't believe how much people get dressed up for a Friday night!) while perhaps with not as much substance (sorry Sydney!). It's a real toss-up... no regrets though!

But since we don't have enough time to plant roots in the great city of Sydney, we channelled our inner tourist and hung out on pretty Bondi Beach, drank cocktails on the fifth storey of a pub/nightclub in Kings Cross, strolled through the green Botanical Gardens, had an overpriced breakfast right on the harbour (like, next to the railing!) with a great view of the 'Coathanger' (the bridge), and did the walk across the Harbour Bridge to the northern suburbs. And what a fantastic city it is for a tourist...

On Sunday it was time to say goodbye to Sydney and head for the hills... er, the Blue Mountains, that is. First order of business was to locate a new camping fridge (while trying to dodge Sydney's mnay toll highways!), as ours had the great timing to conk out just before we left Melbourne. We scoured the first K-Mart we found and lucked out-- so we have cold food again, this time in a round fridge (which is surprisingly easier to pack than our previous box-shaped fridge). Not that we needed so much refrigeration in the Blue Mountains... it was quite cool as we travelled higher into the mountains.

On Monday we visited the Three Sisters, one of the famous sights in Oz-- three sandstone pinnacles carved naturally out of the sandstone cliff, high above a tree-covered valley which once would have been a great river system. The size of the valley was huge-- kind of like a green Grand Canyon! We camped in a very remote spot in a national park that night and found we were steps away from another Grand Canyon scene-- just amazing. We did some hiking along a few trails but unfortunately didn't find any wombats, and fortunately did not find any deadly funnel-web spiders (they're only found in Sydney & the Blue Mountains and they're the deadliest ones in the country... venom which kills in a few minutes, if I remember correctly). We did see one wombat, belly-up on the roadside-- they're pretty tubby and almost bear-size!-- and some Huntsmans, where else, in the campsite's dunny! Old news... though Dayle has to get used to them all over again. Eeek! Eeek! Along the way, we also visited the Jenolan Caves, a spectacular cave network which snakes through the mountains (ie. you even drive through a cave to get to the office), as well as a little ghost town called Hartley... just a wee bit spooky.

We were meant to make Coffs Harbour on Tuesday, but didn't realize the length of the drive from the Blue Mountains up the coast. More dodging of toll highways (not so successfully!) and then northward along the Pacific Highway, which despite the name isn't really close to the ocean at all. If we had more time we'd probably explore more turnoffs and little beach towns along the way... but we're trying to keep on schedule the best we can so we can time our Christmas and New Years well around the centre. We made it to Port Macquarie that night (too far to Coffs Harbour, our original plan), which is a large beach town and the second-oldest prison colony town in Oz. We watched what looked like it would be a cool lightning storm-- but fizzled out to sea, and got our first mosquito bites of many to come. It already felt like the tropics!

Wednesday morning we visited the oh-so-cute koalas at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, where injured/sick koalas are cared for (usually injured as a result of dogbites, car collisions, falling out of trees, and burns from bushfires, but also some suffer from cataracts and others from chlamydia!). We watched a baby koala have surgery done on a dogbite wound through a window at the hospital, and cruised around the enclosures where the rest were being pretty lazy. We still thought "Koala Hospital Unit" might make a pretty cool reality TV show! It was then onwards to Coffs Harbour, where we've been relaxing ever since... great surf but no koala hospitals...
Yes, that's koala boogers.