Country number: 39
Territory number: 43
When? July – September 2019 with side trips to Norfolk Island, Niue, East Timor, Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands
How? On foot, local plane, train, car
Who? Part solo, part with Petra
‘The only time an Australian ever walks is when his car runs out of petrol.’
Sydney is across the international date line and nine hours ahead of BST, so I don’t know if I’m coming or going timewise. I’m staying with Petra, who I met on a boat in the Antarctic at Christmas. Her book group, of eight very welcoming ladies, is meeting in a very fine wood panelled café, part way along a headland in a park on the huge Sydney Harbour. It’s all exceptionally civilised. Not least because the largest natural harbour in the world is looking its best, basking in the winter sunshine.
After tea (in fancy pots) and chat, Petra and I leave the women to talk about their books (they’re Australian authors and I’ve never heard of them) and follow the dirt trail round the edge of the water to the zoo. The water is clear blue and sparkling, criss-crossed with the foaming wakes of boats. The ferries are full to the gunwales (the whole of Sydney is out to enjoy the best day for months) and the sailing dinghies pose gracefully in front of the Coat-Hanger Bridge and the Opera House. I’ve viewed these two iconic structures from every possible angle today: the shore, the road over the bridge itself (when Petra picked me up at the airport), the ferry from the zoo to the city, (scrapers and the Sydney Tower thrown in here too), a pub rooftop and finally from the ferry across to Manly, where there is hardly any room left to sit down on the famous beach. It’s an exceptionally pleasant way to spend a Sunday.
Next stop – Norfolk Island and then Niue.
I’ve missed most of Tuesday, as I’m back across the dateline again in Auckland. My late arrival doesn’t leave much time to pick up my bag and check in for my JetStar flight to Melbourne. I’ve been having an easy time of it at the e-gates at immigration in Australia and New Zealand so far, but Niue paperwork has let me down again. My boarding pass has been manually filled in and so I’m told to join the line for non- automatic processing. It’s very long. The brusque man in charge isn’t remotely interested in the fact that I might miss my next flight. There’s an even longer queue for bio-security clearance. I weave my way forward, explaining that I’m about to miss a flight – I’m getting a mixed response. – ‘Go for it mate’, or ‘Tough – we have flights too’, just not ones that are about to depart. It goes down to the wire but I scramble onto the plane. It’s another one of those days.
The Great Ocean Road is one of those scenic wonders of the world that’s been on my bucket list for some time. So, I’ve decided to squeeze it into this trip on a one (very long) day bus tour.
The passengers on my ‘small’ (20 passengers) bus option are a polyglot bunch. Qataris, Filipinos, Indians, Latvians, Brazilians, Spanish, Romanian, no Australians and one American. The American, CJ, is a young, good looking black guy on a round the world trip. He has laudable ambitions to make round the world travel more accessible to his fellow countrymen and is setting up a website. He’s an intelligent and thought provoking companion. He also carries my coat and bag and takes photos of me. What more could I ask for?
The scenery, along much of the 243 kilometre drive, is reminiscent of parts of the South African Garden route. Wide golden beaches, wild sprawling cliffs and the sea cascading over glistening rock steps and pavements. It’s clear why one stretch has been named the Shipwreck Coast. It must be glorious in the summer sun (though packed with traffic – there are plenty of tour buses out today in the depths of winter) but today’s clouds add superbly to the brooding atmosphere.
The road was built as a World War One memorial (it’s the longest memorial in the world) and construction took 13 years. There’s an arch commemorating this near the entry point. Later, the route diverts from the coast into lush English style countryside: rolling hills and lambs gambolling. Then we’re in rainforest, where incredible huge tree ferns and giant eucalyptus offer a Jurassic Park experience. Our guide, Jimmy, says that these eucalyptus are known as mountain ash (confusingly, a completely different family to the European variety) and are the third tallest trees in the world. He also says Anglesey (we stop for coffee at a town of that name named after the British original) is in Ireland, so I’ll check that fact out. Kangaroos are elusive today. I catch one hopping by out of the corner of my eye and a few bedraggled koalas peer down balefully from the treetops. (Not in the mountain ash though – they’re not keen on these as a food source).
Back at the sea, the highpoint of the day is the rock formations of the once Twelve Apostles (now eight and shortly to be even fewer, as erosion progresses) and the arches of the Loch Ard gorge. This is one of those sights that gratifyingly, exceeds expectations. The heavens clearly agree, as the sun is sending shafts of light though the clouds, bathing the limestone stacks and glinting on the surf. It’s a scene straight out of a biblical epic.
A whizz round Melbourne this morning. The city is compact and easy to navigate; it has a comfortable buzz about it. I’ve come out on a shopping mission today and Melbourne is a great place to shop. It’s not the most photogenic of cities, but I like the spacious streets and heavy Victorian/1930s colonial architecture, of the centre. Behind, tower modern skyscrapers, purple, green and black mosaics. Sandwiched in the middle, Chinatown,with the usual dragon gates and scarlet lanterns. I purchase a brand new underwater camera, identical to the one I have at home, and then set off to the landmark Queen Victoria market, aiming to eat lunch there. But Chinatown spills out into lines of bright and tempting Asian eateries, abutting the main department stores, and I’m seduced into a Japanese restaurant, where the (very fresh) sushi is indeed excellent.
Melbourne is looking like a great foodie city. There are a huge variety of offerings, unusual and otherwise. There’s much less in the usual western fast food line and a great deal of oriental, as well as bakeries displaying a range of delights, most notably roll shaped cakes and pasties slathered with bright coatings (I’m not sure what of) that I’ve never seen before. The market has even more to offer. But I’m seduced again, this time into purchasing a pair of UGG boots. I’ve been worrying that Tasmania, my next stop, will be uncomfortably cold and I’ve only got trainers with me, wet (and very smelly) from Niue. These UGGs are proper Australian ones, not the Chinese made American ones, which are at least double the price. UGG is simply a generic word for sheepskin boots here, a stall holder spends a good half hour explaining to me. I check up on the internet when I get back. Wikipedia confirms what he said. It also states that the average Australian wears them as slippers and wouldn’t be seen dead on the street with them on, as they’re deemed to be ‘daggy’.
I walk back to my hotel surveying footwear as I go. There’s not an UGG in sight, not so much as a tall boot. The footwear of choice is a trainer or heavy ankle boots (DM style). Nearly everyone has several inches of bare calf below their trousers.
A small plane flight to the South Western Wilderness today. I’m not learning my lessons, when it comes to making good choices. It’s a really bumpy flight. Pilot Gavin says there’s a lot of wind round here. I’ve been very lucky, as he’s allocated me the co-pilot’s seat, but I’m too terrified to take full advantage. I am congratulating myself that at least I have bright skies, but as we reach the southern capes of the main island, the sun disappears behind dark clouds. Anomalously, Hobart in the south-east, is one of the driest places in Australia, and south- western Tassie (as the Australians always call it) is the wettest part. So, I’m settling for brooding and atmospheric again, as we bounce over islands, rivers and soaring cliffs.
We land on a tiny mud airstrip and pick up a chilly flat bottomed boat. Gavin is a boat captain now, as well as pilot and tour guide. I hope they’re paying him well. We’re bobbing across the dark tannin waters of Bathurst Harbour; Gavin says this is the darkest water in the world and deep water fauna (milky pale fish) are fooled into inhabiting its twelve metre depths. We eat a packed ‘gourmet’ lunch in a settler’s old cottage (the TV is still there and the fireplace works – thank god) and trek up rocky outcrops for views of the Celery Islands – aptly named clumps of frilly vegetation sitting atop quartz outcrops. We’re the only people in this inaccessible area of the country, except for the two resident rangers. It’s bitingly cold, so my daggy boots are a comfort, though they haven’t stayed pristine very long. The paths are boggy and slimy.
It’s a mixed sort of day, but the upside is that it’s a really good group onboard. Jenny and husband Geoff, from Perth, are overwhelmingly positive about everything, food, plane and views, and Lee, from the Sunshine Coast confesses to being terrified also. She teaches me grounding techniques, and lends me Valium for the return journey. One of them works.
A drink in my hotel bar with Jenny and Geoff. My hotel is the epitome of urban chic; the rooms are huge and equipped with lit display cases (pottery), hooded flannel dressing gowns and bottles of cocktails in the fridge. The restaurant and bar (and my room) face onto the harbour, flaming bowls lining the walkway. The bar has hundreds of gleaming stacked bottles arranged on white shelves, like a bottle library and more display cases, this time real fossils.
Hobart’s a very pleasant little city. It’s a melange of chic little hotels and cute wrought iron decorated cottages (up at Battery Point). I have a quick whizz round and shop for food at the Saturday Salamanca street market. I’m really impressed with the food scene in Australia this visit. There’s a huge variety here in Hobart too: a diverse range of cakes and pastries in the bakeries again. And the range of tempting goodies on offer at breakfast in the hotel was extraordinary.
A quick coffee with Lee at a Hobart institution – The Machine is a café attached to a thriving laundrette. You can watch your washing revolve through glass panels, while you munch your cake.
Another hire car and I’m on my way to Cradle Mountain National Park. It’s a long ( 5 and half hours) and increasingly scenic drive, as I follow the Lakes Highway through rolling hills and stark wintry red and white forests. Past several lakes, of course. There’s a dusting of snow on the tops of the mountains and on the edges of the road. It’s the Lake District with eucalyptus trees and wallabies. I don’t see any live marsupials, (probably because I’m concentrating too hard on the narrow winding road), but there’s been wallaby carnage on the tarmac. There’s a tiny furry carcass every mile or so.
Beyond the small town of Deloraine (café stop) it’s the Western Tiers Road, and I’m hugging a very long and jagged snow spattered ridge, before descending into thicker spruce forests and climbing up again, finally to my park lodge amid flurries of snow.
I have a pencil pine cabin, with stacks of firewood outside. I’m not sure why, as there’s a gas ‘log fire’, though no-one has thought to turn it on and my room is a distinctly uncomfortable seven degrees when I arrive. The only thing to do is switch it on and go to the bar. This involves wandering on several unlit boardwalks. There’s a huge wombat lumbering in front of me. I decide to give him some space. I don’t think they’re as cuddly as they look.
I’ve left the fire burning all night and the temperature has crept up to twenty degrees indoors. I’m not risking the switch being turned off when I go out, so I’ve hung a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door. Tthe Australian version is somewhat weirdly: ‘ I’m experiencing privacy’. I have to chisel the frost off the car and am one of the first hardy souls into the park, taking in lungfuls of freezing air and exhaling clouds as I go.
It’s a beautiful, if treacherous trek, on the boardwalks and gravel paths that circle Dove Lake. Some uphill stretches are caked in ice. The vegetation is varied: scrub, ancient moss covered ‘ballroom forest’, cinnamon sassafras, myrtle, leatherwood and, surprisingly, pandanus. Towering above it all and demanding to be photographed from every angle, are the crags of Cradle Mountain itself. I’m assuming that its named after the crib like shaped formed by the two peaks.
For a while I take on the role of tracker, following rows of tiny pawprints in the snow. I’m proud of myself for working out that they’re very recent, but whatever I’m pursuing could be a Woozle for all I know. It isn’t going to permit an encounter. There are one or two false leads, when I think I’ve seen something in the gnarled branches. Later, there actually is a padymelon wallaby, balled up and feeding by the water. He is happy for me to stay close by and watch until two very loud Brazilians rush up with their cameras – I have words. The odd wombat is ambling in the foliage on the way back to the lodge, they’re still my favourite. They have cuboid shaped poo.
Back at the lodge I’m turned hunter again pursuing a baby wombat for a photograph. The bushes are alive with the wombats and wallabies (the minuscule rotund padymelons and the larger, more kangaroo like, Bennetts) at dusk. But I fall off the boardwalk and the wombat shoots under a nearby cabin in alarm. I’ve scraped my hand and twisted my ankle, but I decide to see if I can glimpse him on the other side and limp round the building, to find a naked couple in a hot tub, drinking champagne. I beat a quiet and hurried retreat.
It seems that Australian marsupials are the focus of today. Next, it’s the ferocious Tasmanian devils. There’s a breeding and rehabilitation centre here, with some eastern spotted quolls and some spotted tail quolls thrown in for good measure. The devils numbers are dwindling alarmingly in the wild, as there has been an outbreak of highly infectious facial cancer. It’s passed on by biting and they bite each other a lot, scrapping continuously and making the most appallingly raucous screeching noise. They have huge fangs (they are carnivorous of course), and definitely couldn’t be described as pretty. It’s easy to see how they got their name. I’m wondering why they want to save them anyway – but all God’s creatures I suppose.
The quolls are much smaller and initially appear more endearing, tiny quivering Bambis. Nevertheless, they run round their enclosures at full pelt and tear ferociously at the wallaby legs they are offered. Both species are quite capable of bringing down a padymelon.
I’m awake very early. I’m anticipating a long day and my body is still on Niue time. The car is packed and I’m ready to leave at 5.30 a.m. but then I realise that reception doesn’t open until 7 and I have to pay my bill. It’s probably prudent to delay. It’s still pitch-dark and possibly icy.
I’ve read that Freycinet Bay lookout (over Wineglass Bay) and the Bay of Fires, both on the east coast, are viewing highlights of Tassie. And they’re not on my itinerary. Or they weren’t. I’m supposed to be ambling to Launceston today – a leisurely two hours or so. Instead, I’m beetling down to Freycinet (four hours), back north up to The Gardens to get the best view of the Bay of Fires (two hours) and back to Launceston (two and a half hours).
The Wineglass Bay jaunt also involves a stiff 40 minute climb to the top of the hill, for the iconic view. Is it worth it? Ho-hum – what I saw from the plane trip into the wilderness was probably equally beautiful.
The Great Eastern Drive, hugging the coast up to Bay of Fires is more rewarding – I’m passing some stunning wild beaches. Bay of Fires itself isn’t totally amazing either, but its orange lichen covered rocks are unique and I’m lucky enough to have the sun shine, so they contrast spectacularly with the shimmering blue of the sea. I’m glad I came. It’s not called Bay of Fires because of the colour of the boulders, as one would think. This was aboriginal land and when Cook first spotted it, the beaches were lit up with the glow of their hearths.
Needless to say, I’m exhausted by the time I get back to Launceston and my hotel. It’s in a converted grain silo by the edge of the Tamar Gorge. Most towns here are named after somewhere in Great Britain. Going by place names I’ve done a huge tour of the United Kingdom today, everywhere from Glenorchy to Epping Forest. Sheffield isn’t at all like its namesake – it’s a little country town that boasts of its murals -decorating the stores in the high street. Cornwall is, oddly, just up the road from Launceston, which is actually on the banks of the Tamar River here – not too far off geographically I suppose. I can forgive that, but not the Australian pronunciation – Laun-ceston.
It’s raining and blustery today, so there won’t be any wandering round the much touted gorge. Launceston is quiet and quaint, with colonial architecture and wrought iron curlicues. It’s a good place to get my hair done before I set off for the airport and Adelaide. I’m also on another camera mission. I dropped my trusty Nikon as I got out of the car yesterday and the menu button is stuck. As a result, I can’t use any of the features and the screen is permanently fully lit which means I’m going through batteries at the rate of knots. The nice little men at the camera shop in Launceston can’t get it to budge, but they don’t have any tools. Their screws and Stanley knife technique is even less professional than the sunglasses screwdriver I tried. But they say there’s an in house camera repair man at their partner shop in Adelaide.
Petra has flown in to join me in Adelaide. I had to get myself up to Darwin for my flight to East Timor and the Ghan seemed the obvious way to do it. But first, more photographic travails. The little men here, in Adelaide, say my camera is a lost cause. It could be sent away, which will take at least a month and cost almost as much as a new body. So, I strike what seems to be a very good deal for a second hand camera, complete with battery pack, three batteries and a 32 MB card, all for 250 Aussie dollars. I test it complete with their lens but get a reduction because I have my own. I also visit the mall and buy cough syrup (I’ve picked up a streaming cold) and a new electric toothbrush. The centre of Adelaide is very different to my first trip thirty years ago. It’s gone high rise and modern.
At the station I’m excitedly showing off my camera and everyone agrees I have a bargain. Except it now won’t work. Some detection ensues (I’m getting good at this) and it transpires that the body is incompatible with my lens. An irate phone call – the little men try to tell me that I’ve damaged my lens when I dropped the camera – and it’s agreed that Petra will post it back to them for a refund. Now I have to set up a rolling programme of battery charging.
Ghan is short for Afghan. The original Adelaide to Darwin train was called the Afghan Express, because of the Asian cameleers who supported the engineering endeavour. They were collectively known as Afghans, even though many came from Pakistan, Persia and India.
Today’s train is (I imagine) very different from the original. and we have extremely well fitted out single cabins, in what looks like an almost new carriage. The storage is cunningly contrived to make good use of every inch of very compact space. It’s certainly infinitely superior to the offerings on Amtrak. So is the food- and there’s unlimited access to soft drinks and alcohol. Which probably explains why the ticket is so expensive.
The train rolls peacefully along, past wind farms, salt pans and the Flinders Ranges. As with Amtrak, however, there are plenty of halts in railway sidings.
It’s the outback sunrise experience this morning: bonfires, bacon and egg sliders and a view of the sun, a huge fiery ball bursting over the low bush.
From then on its red dirt and low green bush. The train manager attempts to make things more exciting. ‘The northern territory sign is ahead, get your cameras ready’. It’s so unprepossessing I almost miss it. The iron man sculpture that is promoted as the next attraction is even more diminutive. But the outback scenery, the squat acacia and the quavery ghost gums more aesthetically pleasing than the man made art, is a relaxing backdrop. It’s a good chance to recharge batteries (mine this time) and chat to fellow passengers. These are nearly all retired Aussies, (think Norfolk Island) for the most part extremely sociable. Australia is definitely one of the friendliest countries in the world.
I was in Alice Springs thirty years ago too. I’ve retained a soft spot for the name ever since reading Nevil Shute’s novel, when I was eleven. This afternoon, I’m heading out to the McDonnell Ranges for a walk at Simpsons Gap. Long pants and covered shoes are obligatory. They don’t want the punters getting bitten by snakes. The sky is azure, the ridges fiery red, the dusky rock wallabies peer down at us from the heights and the bus driver plays a didgeridoo.
One of the very elderly passengers has gone AWOL this morning. The crew are walking through the winding corridors calling out ’Donald’ and looking anxious. He can’t have got off. All the doors are locked.
The landscape is now golden rather than red. There are more trees, though they’re spindly and interspersed with minaret-like termite mounds. Today’s excursion takes us to Katherine Gorge, where we embark on two cruises on a pair of the thirteen gorges, walking between the different boats. The scenery here is splendid, with wonderful reflections on the still water, especially the pools between the gorges. The escarpment towers above us and (relatively) friendly freshwater crocodiles bask on rocks. Any of the much less amenable salties that are discovered are transported to reserves. (They put out red plastic decoys and look for teeth marks.)
One of the attendants tells me that Donald was discovered in the platinum class area. The more affluent amongst us have a separate dining car, which we thought was locked off, (we couldn’t get in) but Donald managed to find his way through and was hogging a table and enjoying a superior breakfast.
The Ghan is undoubtedly a comfortable train, but it’s more of an excursion experience than a train ride. We seem to have slept through most of the terrain. Perhaps there isn’t anything else to see? We’re decanted at Darwin and I prepare for my early flight to East Timor.
Back in Perth, after my overly exciting trip to Christmas and Cocos Islands, there’s a grand reunion. Petra has come over from Sydney for the weekend and Jenny and Geoff from Tasmania are taking us out for the day. They do us proud.
Fremantle for breakfast, in an uber cool art gallery café. Fremantle itself is the epitome of cool with industrial chic cafes (coffee break) and canopied colonial architecture. Then we take the ferry to Rottnest Island in search of cute quokkas. The captain warns that the ‘sea is quite rough’ and it is, but the sky is blue and there are multitudes of the tiny mammals waiting to meet us. They are dotted throughout the little settlement and along the edges of the beaches. The latter are gorgeous and golden and there’s a suitably atmospheric lighthouse.
The cafes serve excellent food and cocktails. It’s a perfect day,
Petra and I are quite keen to venture into southern Australia and have booked a coach tour to the Margaret River area, though we have been warned it will be a very long day. Our tour has, however, been cancelled, so we’re biting the bullet and have hired a car.
It’s actually very easy driving – the roads are quiet and its two-lane highway most of the way. The weather isn’t being as cooperative. We eat breakfast at Bunbury, buffeted by a howling gale. The café is much busier than the roads – it’s Father’s Day here and the only tables available are outside. The wind starts to gust after we’ve ordered our food. The water for my tea has cooled rapidly, so I ask for a replacement. The waiter says he will charge if I require any more. Wait till I get on Trip Advisor.
The famous ‘longest jetty in the southern hemisphere’ at Busselton is scarcely visible and Margaret River itself is a dull little town masked by the rain. But then, in defiance of the weather forecast, the sun comes out. The many wineries, with their lakes and clusters of hostsas are velvety green and picturesque, even if the wine isn’t as good as we would have hoped. The beaches on the Dunsbrough Peninsula are gorgeous and the sun glints on the boulders. We even get to see the Busselton Jetty on our return journey. Petra insists that we walk at least half way and the lights come on as we finish. It was all worth the drive.
The rain is back but a damp hour is enough to see the main sights of Perth and its scrapers, and eat another great breakfast, before I leave for Singapore.
To see more of my photos of Australia visit this page.