Monday, 28 December 2009

It's just not cricket

I've had the most sensational three days, living in the lap of luxury in a hotel on Melbourne's most exclusive street and being a guest of a member of the MCC at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It's back to earth with a bump today, though - a rickety top bunk in an eight-share dorm, with two blokes snoring like bandsaws, five people returning from their night out at 3am and a couple giggling and rocking the bed below me (I don't think they were doing anything more sinister than cuddling, thank God, but the bed was really not up to much - the slightest movement had it trembling like a hammock tossing on the high seas). Anyway, after some moments of severe petulance at reception this morning, I've been moved to a different (and hopefully more peaceful) room, and tomorrow I have a trip down the Great Ocean Road to look forward to.

In the meantime, I'll just reminisce about living in the Novotel - with a chaise longue, for reading, and a gloriously comfortable double bed, for lounging, and room service, for stuffing myself with delicious morsels on Christmas day! Not to mention watching films until my eyes were popping, plus a new print of Easy Rider at the arthouse cinema on Boxing day. And amidst all this sybaritic pleasure, I even managed to look after my soul too, and visited St Paul's Cathedral for Christmas morning mass, which was lovely.

And yesterday was the apogee - a visit to the MCG, which for most Melburnians is considerably more holy than St Paul's, and my first live Test match, courtesy of Keir, whose guest I was. Those in the know said it was the slowest day's play they'd ever seen (in fact, I missed the most exciting part of the day - the streaker - when I popped to the loo, dammit), but being a cricket virgin I think I got more out of it than them. First, I had nothing to compare it to, and second there were moments - when Pakistan was scoring runs, and Australia was taking wickets - when I could really see why people become obsessed with the game. Looks like I might have something to watch to tide me over when the rugby's on holiday for the summer...

Aah, heady days. And more to come - the Great Ocean Road, New Year in Melbourne, and then pastures new in New Zealand. On second thoughts, who cares about a bit of snoring?!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

I'm not sure if I'll have internet access over Christmas, so I just wanted to wish everyone a very happy time, and a merry New Year too! I'll be back on 28 December, blogging again, and in the meantime, here's wishing you all health and happiness. Much love, Abigail xxx


Just back from two days exploring Gippsland, the highlight of which was the penguin parade at Phillip Island. The Little Penguins are the smallest in the world (as you might expect from the name), and also the most timid. During the day, if they're not out at sea stuffing themselves on anchovies and sardines, they hide away in tiny burrows, peering out suspiciously at all the tourists urging them to come out for a photo opportunity. In the early evening, after an afternoon on Churchill Island, looking at the National Trust building there (once a farm, then a holiday home, and now again a model farm; absolutely charming), and watching a demonstration of sheep-shearing (I felt very smug, having done it myself!), we headed down to the Nobbies headland to try to spot a few. I have a photo of a flash of white breast hidden in the hillside, and we saw several lurking underneath the boardwalk, wondering who all these bloody people were disturbing the peace, but it wasn't until we were settled in our seats on the beach and darkness had fallen that the real action began.

They don't like walking across the sand, because they're not camouflaged for it and fear all the birds of prey, so first they gather at the water's edge, waiting for others to come and join them. Then they creep to the rocks, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, and... turn around and rush back into the water. Then they begin again, and you think they're going to make it across the beach this time, then... something spooks them and they rush back into the water. This went on for about 20 minutes, until there was a critical mass and suddenly hundreds of penguins were streaming past us, having a groom and a fight and a chat, finding their babies and feeding them, and waddling up to their nests on the hillside (and falling over when they'd had too much to eat!). There was even some penguin loving going on.

It's the largest colony of Little Penguins in the world - about 30,000 on the island all told - and even though the Parade is a tourist trap it was just spectacular. Photography is banned, because the penguins don't like the flashes (their eyes are very sensitive), and the people are firmly kept away from the penguins' homes and coralled onto boardwalks, so as far as it can be it's regulated in favour of the penguin. Plus they're also busy demolishing holiday homes on that part of the island so the penguins can move in and expand the colony! More penguins, please - they're absolutely adorable.

The next day we headed off to Wilson's Promontory, which was equally spectacular, in terms of scenery. In places it's still looking very sorry because of the fires in February, but most places are amazingly recovered. We did some bush walking down to the world's southernmost mangroves, and then high up on to the hillsides to see the amazing views out over hundreds of hectares of bush and forest. The shine was taken off the day a bit when I ran into a low-hanging branch and thumped my head (nosebleed, lump on my head, the works - most embarrassing!), but once I'd mopped myself up a bit I was game on to head to Squeaky Beach. As usual with Australian titles, the name says it all - the beach squeaks when you walk on it. Apparently, this is because the sand has a high level of tin in it, making the grains very fine and regular, so they squeak when they rub together. More importantly to me, it was a beautiful, white beach with crashing waves, bristling with surfers doing amazing things on boards, and the sound of the surf whispering on to the shore as the sun started to go down.

We rounded off a lovely day by going wombat hunting on a deserted airfield; sadly it was still too warm for them to come out - all right-thinking wombats spend the heat of the day underground. It seems the nearest I'm going to come to my favourite Australian animal is the entrance to their burrows - but that's OK, I guess. I've not been short of wildlife on this trip! And now I'm off to spend Christmas in the lap of luxury, thanks to Mum - Novotel on Collins Street, here I come. Hooray!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Culture vulture

More from Melbourne, and I'm still loving it! Saturday was Ned Kelly day - Victoria's most famous son. I visited the Old Melbourne Gaol, home to the death masks of criminals hanged on the grounds, including our Ned, which was incredibly atmospheric and not a little creepy. You could brave the claustrophobia and wander right into the cells - making sure the door didn't swing shut behind you... The effect was diluted somewhat by a painfully embarrassing live-action reenactment of the Ned Kelly story by two actors playing all the parts in bad wigs. I was reminded of a street performer Paul and I saw once at the Wireless festival - all eyes and teeth, he'd realised it was his moment and was giving it his all.

After that, it was on to the State Library, which is sensational - the domed reading room is just beautiful; I almost signed up to a course of study there and then just so I could spend time studying again. Wonderful. And around the rotunda there were exhibitions, one displaying some of the library's collection of old texts, from Bibles to Japanese ukiyo-e illustrations, and another on the changing face of Melbourne, which had Ned Kelly's armour from the siege of Glenrowan - mighty cool.

And yesterday I headed down to the South Bank (wherever I go in the world, it seems there's a south bank with all the arts stuff there) to take in the National Gallery of Victoria's international collection. The building itself is a work of art - one wall is made of water, constantly falling before being recycled to start again - and inside it's all high ceilings and angular rooms. I only had time to look at the European stuff, which starts with icons and altarpieces from the 14th century, and goes on to Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth, and of course Stanley Spencer (hooray!).

And there's more to see today - I might wander down to Parliament House and have a look at Carlton Gardens, and the Melbourne Museum. And later I think I'll have to take advantage of my hippie surroundings in Fitzroy and find a meditation class. Groovy. And tomorrow I'm off to see the fairy penguins on Phillip Island, which will be the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Cinema paradiso

I've just spent my first day exploring Melbourne, and I'm so excited I've had to rush back to write this! Today I was mostly hanging around Federation Square, which is home to some outstandingly ugly - but strangely compelling - architecture, notably the Ian Potter Centre, home to Victoria's collection of Australian art. This in itself was fantastic - Hugh Ramsay, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and more - but it was also housed in the most spectacular space. Around every corner was a window onto the Yarra river, or a peek at some steel-and-glass corridors, or the contrast of the grand old, mellow stone Flinders Street station... I'm not usually a fan of all those self-consciously geometric angles, but somehow it works.

But the best was to come: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which is a film buff's heaven. If I was speaking I'd be stuttering with excitement - there are clips of early movies, from Georges Melies to The Story of the Kelly Gang from 1906, the world's first full-length feature film (though only a few frames survive now); there are celebrations of Australian film icons, from Mad Max (they even have the car!) to Christopher Doyle, a true artist and my favourite cinematographer. Even more excitingly I discovered that he only started in films in his mid-thirties, which gives me hope for myself - if I can achieve a tiny part of what he has I'll be the happiest woman alive. Plus there are amazing interactive displays showing the separate importance of colour, sound, light and movement to make a beautiful, coherent whole. And an installation from Anthony McCall, who experiments with solid light, as well as a short from the Australian animator Anthony Lucas, whose shadow plays are the most sensational things - watch this clip and you'll see what I mean... I've booked a ticket f0r Boxing Day for the centre's showing of a new print of Easy Rider, so I'll have the chance for another look, but I'm just overwhelmed with excitement - I could jump up and down!

That's going to be a hard act to follow, but I think that Melbourne's up to it. I'm staying up in Fitzroy, which has the feel of Brighton, somehow - slightly seedy and dirty, but hippieish and laidback, with second-hand stores and kooky cafes everywhere you look. In fact, I'm going to be putting on all the weight I've lost, because the food round here is sensational - every nation on earth is represented, most of them within a stone's throw of my hostel! I've already been taken to a Thai place with the most exquisite dishes (and beers from 100 countries to complement it) by Pearl, who was on the dive trip with me. Still to come is the Victoria Markets, with all that foodie produce. In short, I'm in heaven!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lest we forget

I've made it to Canberra, and I was going to write a post about how it's so empty of people it feels like the Marie Celeste (or that stretch of the A406 on the way to Stoke Newington; those of you who've driven it will know what I mean); how the architecture in the parliamentary zone is as concrete and ugly as the South Bank, but without the latter's looming gravitas; how the best building is the National Portrait Gallery, filled with wooden struts going up the walls that make you feel as though you're in some MC Escher drawing; how the place lacks soul, because it's been constructed rather than allowed to evolve... And all of this is true, but I've just spent the morning at the Australian War Memorial, and feel too sombre to be a smartarse.

It's a combination of the Imperial War Museum and the Cenotaph, standing at the top of a hill running up from the centre of the city, a broad boulevard flanked by memorials to the Korean, Vietnam, First and Second World Wars. Inside there's a series of exhibition halls telling Australia's wartime history, with dioramas and paintings, photographs and personal effects... There are even recordings of former prisoners of war in the Pacific, which are incredibly moving - more than once I was wiping a tear from my eye. As I was, of course, over the exhibits on Gallipolli. It's all been done so well - it's dignified, and moving, and educational, all at once. And then you come outside into the searing heat (it's 35C today) and the dry smell of the eucalyptus, with no one around except in cars, and it becomes something you'll never forget.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ride the high country

Want to see some pictures? Here's the link for Leconfield:
These are some of my favourites off the CD they made up for us so we didn't have to carry around cameras the whole time. Oh, and there are some of me too - not so much my favourites but at least you get the idea of what I was doing!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Whole Lotta love

Back from Leconfield and a week on horseback, and I'm just about walking straight again (I was using muscles where I didn't know a person had muscles). Aches, pains, bruises and scratches aside (including a rather neat mark from a calf's hoof on my thigh!), what a fantastic week. It turned out I really didn't have to have horseriding experience, as my horse knew what was what without my input. Tim (the school's owner) paired me up with Lotta, a beautiful tall chestnut who was (mostly) a sweetheart. In fact, she and I had a fair amount in common: she liked to eat all the time, hated going up hills, and didn't suffer fools gladly - the fool in this case being me! We'd be riding off to muster sheep or cattle, and she'd stop and look round at me with this expression on her face that just told me to stop trying to direct her and let her get on with it. By the end of the week, though, we'd reached an understanding - she sometimes listened to me, and always let me check her hooves and groom her, and even had a bit of a nuzzle and a whinny, bless her heart.

When we weren't riding out to far-flung parts of the farm to round up sheep and cows, we were doing all sorts - wrestling sheep to the ground and shearing them, putting in fencing, shoeing horses, slaughtering and butchering sheep, lassoing, whip-cracking and calf-wrangling. The latter was indeed the most rugged part of the course - especially when I was paired up with Philipp (another glasses wearer) and we were told to take off our spectacles in case they got broken in the scrum. The plus side, of course, was that we couldn't see the hooves coming, but the minus side was that we couldn't see the damn animal all that well! Still, we got it down on the second attempt (once I'd got hold of the tail and hung on for dear life), and then they castrated the poor little bugger. It was all very red in tooth and claw, with that outback spirit of no-nonsense make-do-and-mend. Plus we ate the balls later on that evening - just like crackling, and rather tasty!

Sadly, without the Jackaroo school the farm wouldn't be viable - there just hasn't been enough rain for too long; all the horses and cattle have to be fed extra because the pasture won't sustain them on its own, and that's 400-plus acres. And that's not their only problem - during the week there was a haze of smoke on the horizon from 5o bushfires in the Tamworth area, and it's only the start of the summer. The previous week they'd all had to spend Saturday night fighting a fire on their own property too. What makes up for the harsh existence, I guess, is the slow pace of life and the amazingly beautiful scenery. Certainly the staff seem to like it - they're all backpackers who've stayed for months to get experience, notably Robbie, the manager, who was in road construction back in Holland but now shoes horses and castrates cows with aplomb! And we pupils had a great time, eating round the campfire and being woken at 6.30am from our wooden bunks in the shed with country music.

For me it was a truly memorable experience, and despite being kack-handed at just about everything we tried (except the sheep - I was quite good at that!), I wouldn't have missed any of it for worlds. Tomorrow I'm off to Canberra and a post-Impressionist exhibition that's on loan from the Musee d'Orsay, but I might well be hankering for the cowboy life...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Even cowgirls get the blues

Proving once again that Australia is a land of contrasts, I've come to Tamworth, the country music capital of Oz, where I'm preparing myself to be turned into a Jillaroo (Australia's version of a cowgirl) over the next five days. So far I have the hat, and tomorrow morning we're all going to pick up the second-hand clothes, but beyond that I'm apprehensive. I asked one girl who's on the course if she had riding experience. "Oh, no," she laughed gaily. "Just dressage and showjumping, not Western." Which was distinctly daunting for yours truly, who hasn't so much as been on a donkey ride down the beach. The nearest I've been to riding, in fact, is reading "National Velvet". Still, I'm here now and stiffening my upper lip as we speak. After all, I'm a good sturdy girl from good sturdy peasant stock, and if I don't shine at the riding and mustering, hauling sheep about should be no problem!

I'm going to be out of contact for the whole week - we're on a farm in the outback hills, and there's no mobile phone reception or internet - so if you're interested in seeing how I'll be spending my time, this is the link: The calf-wrestling looks particularly rugged, I must say! I'll do a post on the whole experience when I'm back in Sydney next weekend... It's all a far cry from the Eastern beaches cliff-top walk from Bondi to Coogee, or the chi-chi Paddington markets on Oxford Street, but I can certainly say I've never done anything like this before! Wish me luck, guys and gals. Yee haw!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

My Blue heaven

Up in the Blue Mountains, and I've got my groove back. I lost my zest for a while there, but a few days of crisp, clean air and hiking through wondrous scenery has brought it all back again! I'm staying in the most amazing hostel - it's like a Swiss chalet, all wooden walls and polished floorboards, jolly paintwork and roaring fires (I don't know why I thought the mountains would be hot - the clue's in the name after all; I've had to invest in another fleece when I brought frankly unsuitable clothing up here!). It's small and friendly and great to come back to after a hard day's hiking.

Talking of which, yesterday I climbed down the Giant Staircase (I was going to go back up again, but by the time I'd got to the bottom my legs were trembling and I figured I'd be stranded halfway up the side of the mountain; these are really steep steps, and there are a lot of them). Then I walked along the valley floor among the tree ferns and climbers, with the sunlight filtering through the foliage, the previous night's rain a distant memory. And after a quick trip up to the top via cablecar, I wandered past the Katoomba Falls and along the cliff walk to the Three Sisters (Aboriginal princesses who were turned to stone to save them from their father's enemies, but tragically he was killed before he could turn them back).

Today I'm heading into Leura - to browse the second-hand bookshops and antique shops if the rain doesn't ease up, or to explore another part of the cliff walk if it does. It doesn't really matter - the walking is beautiful, and the towns are charming, so I'm in heaven whichever I do. Truly, this has been one of my highlights - I absolutely love it up here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Harbour lights

I've reached Sydney, and spent yesterday being the cheesiest kind of tourist there is - great fun. I'm staying with my friend Keir somewhere to the north-west of the city, in the most idyllic apartment. He's right on the water (really - you can see the ferry stop three floors below), and I have spent much time soaking up the sun on his balcony, watching coxless fours being bullied across the water by men with megaphones and powerboats, and generally being cosseted with home comforts and bulging fridges. All in all I feel a bit like a baby seal, waiting on the beach while more grown-up and responsible seals head out to sea to forage for food, losing their bodyweight and leisure time in the process. Puritanism is battling hard with hedonism, and hedonism is winning.

The most energetic I've been so far was when I packed up my camera and a guidebook and headed over to the city on the ferry (great public transport!). I spent the day pottering around the Rocks (where the colony began), along the waterfront under the bridge, and down to the Opera House, where I hung out on the steps for a bit, soaking up the iconic scenery. Then it was down to the Botanic Gardens, Hyde Park, and through the business district, before heading back to the opera house for an evening of avant-garde ballet. Thank God I'd put on a dress - everyone was dressed to the nines in honour of the venue, which was as smart as the clothing.

The ballet itself was pretty great, too - it was a trio of pieces, the first one a response to dance in 16th/17th century Spain, with beautiful costumes and haunting music; the second was a comic piece with all the traditional Royal Ballet moves and scenery (my favourite); the third piece was frankly puzzling. It was by Wayne MacGregor, the top billed choreographer there, and was the kind of piece where everyone dances in white undies to discordant music and represents polar exploration. I admired the technique and athleticism, but the dance itself left me cold. Am I simplistic to prefer narrative and melody? On second thoughts, don't answer that.

Sadly the journey home brought me back to earth with a bump - first, my travelcard got swallowed by the ticket machine, and I've been waiting in all today for it to be returned to me (it's a weekly pass, and too expensive to let go); and second we were treated to more performance art from a former squaddie who'd wet himself, who bellowed "Waltzing Matilda" all the way from Darling Harbour to Chiswick. I was feeling sorry for him, too, until he weighed in about "the Muslims", at which point I just wanted him to get off. I felt right at home - just like being on the 149 through Dalston!

Now I've got my travelcard back Sydney is my lobster; tomorrow I think I'll head on out to Manly, or the Bondi clifftop walk if it's not too hot. More soon, folks...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Dead poets' society

I've reached Byron Bay, and spent the afternoon exploring the literary landscape - notably the plethora of bookshops (which I scoured for more in Shane Mahoney's Murray Whelan crime series; having picked up the first one for free in a hostel, I've fallen in love - again - with a literary character, and this one has a few film spin-offs too. Why is passion so expensive? Or is that just my passions? Still, Murray is the modern Australian Philip Marlowe, wisecracking his way through sinister situations that are none of his making, and he's my kind of hopeless gumshoe. How could I resist?).

The road names, too, have a certain literary air - they run the gamut from (naturally) Byron Street to Browning, Ruskin, Kingsley, Cowper, Tennyson, Jonson, Carlyle and Keats Streets. Sadly - unless I manage to find the Arts Centre, which apparently has a cinema with bean bags - that's about where the artiness ends. I know the place was set up by hippies as a radical art community, but it's long since become a seaside resort. A very nice one, though - and apparently there's a literary festival in August.

Still, I got some culture in on Brisbane's South Bank - seemingly modelled on London's, right down to the concrete monoliths and big wheel, but with warm weather and places to swim! The Art Gallery of Queensland, in particular, was superb - a wonderful collection of Australian art from a Western perspective, tracing its roots from the colonists to the modernists of the Sixties and beyond. Plus a lovely collection of international art (covering my darling Stanley Spencer, who seems to be something of a hit in Australia, plus Picasso, Matisse, Van Dyck, Hepworth, Rodin, Reynolds...) and the most informative labels I've ever come across in a gallery, with the minimum of pretentious art-speak in them. I did venture out of the arty area, but not for long - I have to say, I think that's the best of Brisbane (though it's pretty damn good).

Tomorrow I'm upping the alternative ante and heading out to Nimbin, plus a quick trip through the rainforest (again! Hopefully no leeches this time). And then I have another day to explore the beaches here, and some more of the walks around town. I'm a lucky girl...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Don't let the bed bugs bite

So here I am in Brisbane, and I've had my first real hostel horror. As soon as I walked in to the Yellow Submarine late yesterday afternoon my instincts were telling me to walk straight out again - the dingy paintwork, the grotty sofa in reception, the abject mess in the room, the snapshots of people at toga parties lining the walls... All of this spoke of a place that would be my personal hellhole - but I put it down to being tired from the journey and pressed on. Until I sat on my bed and was bitten seven times within half an hour. I told the lady in reception that there were bed bugs, and after she'd insisted that they were mosquitoes (I know what mosquitoes look like, and it's not like that), she said that it was probably lice - certainly not bed bugs. When I answered rather dryly that I wasn't all that keen on sharing my bed with lice either, she got rather shirty with me and implied I'd brought them along myself. At which point (and buoyed up by a pep talk from Mum - thanks, Mum!) I cut my losses and booked in to the YHA down the road.

And what joy it has been. Spread over five floors with lifts and maps detailing all the amenities, it's a little like living in an airport lounge - I certainly wouldn't want to stay at places like this all the time, as it's not very friendly. But it's blessedly, blissfully clean, and the laundry room is so luxurious I was almost - almost - tempted to do some ironing. Tomorrow night is movie night, and tonight I'm going to stretch out in my little bunk to read by the light of my own reading lamp (fellow hostellers will understand the wonder of this).

I'm trying not to let my opinion of Brisbane itself be coloured by this: one dirty hostel (and more traffic than any other Australian city I've yet seen, plus the poor opinion of everyone I've yet met) shouldn't put me off. Tomorrow I'm going to go for the sightseeing like a demon and catch up with as much of the nice stuff as I can in a day, and then it's on to the next destination. Poor Brisbane - I have a feeling that it never gets a fair go. But onward and upward...

Monday, 16 November 2009


So here I am in Hervey Bay, having just had breakfast by the sea, sipping mocha coffee while the waves lap on the beach and the sunlight sparkles on the water. And now you all hate me, there's more, because over the weekend I went over to Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. It was formed around an extinct volcano, and is now 124km long and covered in rainforest - absolutely amazing. Occasionally I'd catch myself thinking: "yes, but I've seen rainforest" and then realise that this one has taken root on sand alone. One of nature's true wonders.

And the island's beauty even shone through the mother and father of all headaches - one of those ones where you feel as though your brain is being squeezed through your nose. Consequent to this the first day passed in a bit of a blur - we went on a gentle (thank God!) rainforest walk, and saw the Coloured Sands (there's a great Aboriginal story to go with this: a princess was betrothed to a respected but old warrior and she was unhappy about it, so she used to go to this place by the beach to be by herself and think; one day she was joined by the Rainbow Serpent man, and they fell in love and continued to meet in this special place. One day the warrior caught them together and decided that if he couldn't have the princess no one would, so threw his boomerang at her; at the last minute the Rainbow Serpent threw his body in front of hers and saved her, but the boomerang hit him and he exploded into all the colours you see in the sand there today. To this day it's a sacred place for Aboriginal women and men aren't allowed there). We also climbed the headland on the only true rock on the island to watch stingrays, sharks and turtles in the water below, and paddled down Eli Creek, a crystal clear stream of water that flows from inland down to the sea.

The following day - after nine hours of sleep in my own room, luxuriously - I woke refreshed, relaxed and gorgeously free of pain. And it was just as well, because Sunday was much more action-packed. We went on a 2.5km walk (uphill, through sand) to get to Lake Wabby, which is populated by catfish and turtles and was formed when the sand blew across a creek to form a dam. Arriving at the top of a sand dune, looking down towards a sparkling blue lake, was like being in Lawrence of Arabia - complete with mirage. And that wasn't even the best, because in the afternoon we visited Lake Birrabeen, which was formed when vegetation filled a depression in the sand at the top of a dune, making it waterproof, and capturing the water for all time (known as a perched lake). This was absolutely sensational - first of all we were the only people there, and then the water itself was like nothing I've ever swum in before. It was as clear as if it had been drawn out of a tap, cool but not cold and so unpolluted it was potable. I could stand up to my chest in it and see my toes as clear as day, wriggling in white sand so fine you could clean jewellery in it. Yet another magical experience - I took photographs but they simply cannot do it justice, not least because the water is so clear on the island that you can't see it on film!

All in all, I had a fantastic time, and we even got in a bit of 4WD adventure when the bus got a flat (and our driver was nearly flattened when the jack collapsed in the wet sand), and then we got bogged down in the sand 10 minutes further on! Poor Ben, the guide, had several beers once we made it to our accommodation that night. There are no roads on the island, of course, and the beach acts as the main road - another amazing sight, seeing 4WDs obeying traffic laws as the waves come in up to their wheels.

And today I have a free day to swim in a sea that has no jellyfish in it (hooray! no stinger suits!), and then swing in a hammock on the verandah at my hostel. Tomorrow, Brisbane, and after that Byron Bay. I'm a lucky girl...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The horror, the horror

Before I get back on the bus tonight, I have to share the last journey, during which I was trapped in a confined place with... "The Da Vinci Code". Films on the Greyhound aren't like on the aeroplane - it's not like you can choose to plug yourself in to listen, the soundtrack is just beamed throughout the bus and you have to watch. Hence I found myself on the Townsville leg watching "Troy", starring a disturbingly pneumatic Brad Pitt, and on the last one watching, horror of horrors, "The Da Vinci Code". And now I've actually seen it, I can - as I have maintained all along - confirm that it is indeed the quintessence of mediocrity. It's big and glossy and expensive, and it's still boring, which is unforgivable. Somebody put a lot of effort in to create something that has no passion, no spark, and the least charismatic leading man since Freddie Prinze Jr. Although I hated "Troy", at least it wasn't bland. Wrong, yes; cliched, true; an affront to anyone who knows and loves the Greek myths, sure - but it wasn't bland.

Well, *that* was weird

So I'm just back from three days of platypus spotting in Eungella National Park, and it was a truly surreal experience! I'd been feeling pretty smug on the Greyhound, when all the backpackers got off at Airlie Beach and I was the only traveller to carry on to Mackay - I've beaten the crowds, I thought; I'm not being a sheep, I thought; how original, I thought... And all of this was true - but possibly for a good reason. Mackay is not exactly set up for tourism, and on Monday it was teeming with rain (my curse is back - Queensland is being flooded at the moment). Once I'd fended off the advances of a teenager literally young enough to be my son and found the hostel, that was about my lot for the day. Apparently there's a nice art gallery here, but no time for that - we were up at 4am the next day to drive up to the rainforest to spot platypus.

And that was superb: first off, they're so much smaller than you expect. The male grows up to 50cm long, and the female only 40cm. They're also so at home in the water they don't look as odd as they should - they swim along with their bills scenting the air, then dive like ducks, leaving barely a ripple. It was another magical experience to see such shy creatures in the wild, ignoring all of us on the riverbank and carrying on with their daily lives.

However, you can't look at platypus forever, particularly in the rain, and we soon headed off to the next stop - the historic Eungella Chalet (est. 1934). There, at 8.30am, Barbara and Karin (Swiss sisters) and I were left, bereft, to amuse ourselves for two days. Not what we were expecting at all - we'd been thinking there would be three days of bush walks and camping, guided walks and so on. And though the Chalet was a lovely place to stay - we had an ensuite in the room, and I got a double bed to myself; the luxury was indescribable - it was so empty it really did have a definite air of The Shining hotel. Thank God there were no lifts or I'd have had conniptions.

The horror movie feel only continued when we went out after lunch to explore the area. The place was surrounded by mist (I now know that Eungella translates as "Land of Cloud") and we could barely see 10m in front of us. Certainly the advertised beautiful view down to the coast was completely obscured! Still, we thought, the rainforest would be good, and we found a promising looking path up to Sky Window and Broken River. All was well for the first few kilometres, but then Karin noticed something attached to her ankle... and pretty soon we were overrun with leeches. Those bloodsuckers just kept on coming, faster than we could peel them off us. I've still got the bloodstains on my trousers from where one of the little bastards had a good munch. We were out of that forest so fast we must have set a record (another event in the backpacker Olympics, along with luggage weightlifting and speed eating?), and that was the end of the bush walking for the rest of the visit. There was something so disgusting about the way one end of a leech attaches itself to you, while the other end waves around blindly looking for something to hang on to - perhaps you had to be there, but I'm not keen to try that again! It wasn't the sort of wildlife we were looking for.

We got some more unexpected wildlife that evening, when three pissed-up Queenslanders on a work jolly (the only other people in the hotel apart from a Swiss couple and their son) decided to chat us up. Or, rather, not to - because they were married, they reassured us, "we're not trying to shag yous"; however, they couldn't promise not to "kill you and eat you, like in Wolf Creek". Actually, they turned out not to be such bad blokes when they were sober, even though Wolf Creek continued to be something of a theme. And they weren't even the most eccentric ones in the place - that was Susanna of the Hideaway Cafe, where we had breakfast on the second day after walking 10km to see the platypus again (along the road, naturally). She's a German woman who came to Eungella some years ago, and - judging by the newspaper clippings about her on the walls - was once a very beautiful woman. Now, however, she's held back the ravages of time with way, way too much plastic surgery - she is actually shiny and slightly misshapen, and I was so startled by her appearance I took a moment to remember my order. She's also got collections of woolly hats, and coloured button sculptures of peacocks and kookaburras in her garden. Her apple strudel is sensational, though - well worth the morning's hike.

And that was that. We'd seen all that Eungella had to offer (apart from the Natural Therapies Centre, which we didn't dare go in) by 9am. The rest of the time, we played cards in front of the fire and tried to get warm and dry. On the plus side, I have seen a wonderful creature in the wild (the platypus, not the Queenslanders); learnt the rules of poker; spent two days with a pair of great women; and had an experience that very few other backpackers will ever have had. Surreal, but rather wonderful. Jokes aside, the owners of the hotel were fantastically friendly, and we had some great chats with them - Tony used to be a farmer and had a whole different perspective on the country - not to mention that when the mist rose on the last morning the scenery truly was amazing! I wouldn't have changed the last couple of days for anything else. And now it's back to the major routes - overnight on the Greyhound down to Fraser Island.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Her name is Rio

I had a true Duran Duran moment yesterday, when I went sailing on a schooner called Providence. We were crewed around the island, stopping at Radical Bay (one of the most secluded beaches on Magnetic Island) for some snorkelling and a picnic lunch on the sand. The only thing that was less than glamorous was the stinger suit (de rigueur right now because it's jellyfish season)! I'm not sure I'll ever be much of a sailor - had it not been for the travel sickness tablet, I think the rather choppy water could have been my downfall - but there was a certain wonderfulness about lying under the rigging, listening to the waves crash against the side of the boat.

Today has been pretty wonderful too, starting with a brisk bush walk up to the top of the island where the remains of the Second World War fortifications and gun emplacements are gradually mouldering away, being overtaken by eucalyptus and gum trees. On the way I spotted a koala and her baby, cuddling into a tree and majestically ignoring the tourists and their cameras. And then on top of the hill somehow I managed to lose everyone, and was alone with the beautiful landscape, and an eagle flying overhead so close I could see its markings, and the distant sound of the waves on the beach hundreds of feet below. A truly magical moment.

Tomorrow it's on to Townsville, and then down the coast to Eungella National Park - fingers crossed I get to see a platypus in the wild...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I can't believe it - I missed the Melbourne Cup. It all comes of listening to three Sydney ladies who told me that it was run at 3.30pm. And of course it is - in Sydney. In Queensland, however, we're in a different time zone and I missed it! I just can't get my head around the fact that one country has four different clocks. Not to mention some of the states doing daylight savings and others not. It's all too much for my little brain to cope with.

Still, nil desperandum. I did get to see some of the celebrities in their finery (to my horror, one of the ones being interviewed was at school with me). And now I'm on to the next destination - Magnetic Island. I'm fresh off the bus and haven't explored yet, but I'm looking forward to breaking out the snorkelling gear tomorrow and having a look at the Reef. The accommodation is all in these cute cabins amongst the trees, and there are apparently masses of koalas in the wild here. If I hear any shrieks and grunts during the night, they tell me, it's the female koalas getting attention - not British backpackers doing drinking games...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Trials and tribulations

Well, no trials really, except ones of endurance! I went straight from the boat to the after-dive party - I suspect I drank my own bodyweight in booze, though it was the gin and tonic at some backpacker bar that finished me off for good. I'm proud to report, though, that the people left standing at this stage (only about 1am, but we'd all been at sea for three days which takes it out of you) were all in our thirties or more, and Ken is 70 this week. The youngsters had all caved and gone to bed long since. Vive les oldies! I was feeling pretty seedy, however, when the alarm went off the following morning to wake me for my next tour, up to the Atherton Tablelands and the rainforest village of Kuranda.

When I got to Skyrail, though, I felt immediately better (that and the ham and cheese croissant worked wonders). This is a cable car ride above the rainforest canopy, going up past Barron Falls and as high as 55om (, before you reach the artsy village at the top. Along the way you get to stop at various boardwalks and lookouts to see the rainforest at ground level too - it had been raining that morning and there was a beautiful loamy smell, with faint traces of sunlight just filtering down through the canopy. It's all wonderfully peaceful - I was going to say still, but it's never that; even 10m above the trees you can hear crickets and birds singing away like mad. It felt even more luxurious because I had a car to myself, and I could just sit back and soak up the scenery.

And the village itself was great too - OK, it's a tourist trap; once it was an artists' colony and now the only arty thing about it really is the smell of patchouli in the street markets. But it was still great to wander around (I succumbed to a Kiwi guy selling some gorgeous smelling salt scrub - his patter was too good to resist, and though I absolutely do not need a luxury salt scrub in my life it does smell wonderful!). I also headed to some of the best attractions - the koala gardens first, where I finally got to cuddle one. I have photographic evidence of it, too - a picture of me looking rather uncertain (they look and feel lovely and soft but smell appalling!) and a female bear looking terribly bored. Still, I can add it to the growing collection of pictures of me with wildlife - along with a friendly sun conure parrot perching on my finger at Birdworld, the next stop.

This was fantastic - an aviary filled with native and exotic birds of all kinds. There were parrots and parakeets, emerald doves and galahs, finches playing about in the waterfall, black swans and cockatoos... I spent nearly an hour just wandering around and listening to the bird song and watching them fly about, then went on to the butterfly sanctuary, which was also packed with beautiful creatures. They were everywhere, fluttering about the place and landing on your hands or backpack, the most sensational colours and sizes. Sadly I didn't have time for the venom zoo, but perhaps I'd had the best of the wildlife that day!

The following day was another early start, though at least this time I wasn't hampered by a hangover. My tour was heading up for a day trip to Cape Tribulation (finally you get to appreciate the dreadful pun of this post's title), and because of how much we were fitting in to one day it was a bit of a tick tour - I've seen the rainforest meeting the beach at Cape Tribulation, tick; I've seen Mossman Gorge, tick; I've seen Port Douglas, tick; I've seen the world heritage route from Cairns up past the Daintree River, tick. That said, I have seen all these things now, and they were beautiful. Plus, we had a guide who amply made up for any hastiness in the itinerary. Billy had a typical Queenslander drawl and didn't stop talking and joking around from 7.30am until 6pm. This sounds trying but absolutely wasn't - sometimes day tours can be a bit po-faced because people don't get to know each other at all. Billy, however, could remember all 20 names and was introducing us to each other, ribbing us (me especially, being the only Pom) and getting everyone laughing; in the meantime he was giving us some really knowledgable commentary on the history and surrounding landscape. I suspect he might be Australia's top tour guide - he's a tough act to follow, certainly.

And now I'm off down the east coast towards Brisbane. Tomorrow night I arrive at Magnetic Island, off the coast of Townsville, and after all the excitement of the last week I'm looking forward to spending a few days lying in the sun and snorkelling intermittently. This is definitely the life! Now for those horses...

In search of Nemo

It's been a full-on week or so here in Cairns, but I'm finally catching my breath, just before the Melbourne Cup starts - the world has fallen silent here, which is actually quite eerie! Still, I'll be tuning in shortly, and my (metaphorical) money is on Roman Emperor to win by a head.

So much to catch up on, but first was the diving. I had two days of dive school in the swimming pool and classroom - I nailed the theory, but struggled underwater. It turned out later, after I kept getting water up my nose and choking, that my regulator had a hole in it and my wetsuit was too small and restricting my breathing, but by that time the damage had been done - I was panicked. Still, I pressed on because I wanted to get out to the Reef and see all those lovely fish (Nemo! Sweetlips! Sharks!) and figured that the worst-case scenario would be if I couldn't manage the diving but snorkelled for three days on the Great Barrier Reef instead - and how bad, really, is that?!

The boat itself was amazing. We had cute little cabins, a sun deck and six meals a day, prepared by an authentically sullen French girl - but boy, could she cook. Plus, and more importantly, the company was fantastic - in particular Debbie, one of my classmates, who had come aboard with her brother and his partner, both diving, and her dad Ken, just snorkelling. We all hung out in the evening playing cards and having a giggle, joined by whoever was around, and had an absolutely excellent time.

Sadly, I didn't get on so well with the watery deep. The first dive we started before the engines had even properly stopped from our three-hour journey to the outer fringes of the reef, and I was standing on the side of the boat still feeling queasy and wondering what the hell I would do if I was sick underwater. The water, too, was choppy, and we were hurried off the boat into it with waves slapping our faces and going down our snorkels and people pressing up from behind and wanting us to go faster... The idea with diving is that you use your breathing to rise and fall, but by this stage, caught in a log jam and under terrible pressure, I was sucking in so much air it was a wonder I didn't rise out of the water like a helium balloon. I certainly couldn't get under, and the instructor had disappeared beneath the waves long since, so I cut my losses and went back to the boat.

After 10 minutes clinging to the steps and bringing my panic attack under control, everything looked much brighter, and the next dive I did complete - I insisted that I was going first with the instructor and at my own pace; oddly enough that all went much better! Still, I was still terrified under the water - the fear was making it difficult for me to breathe - and I decided to stop torturing myself and snorkel instead. Once I'd made peace with my decision - and despite the dive instructors, who spoke not another word to me once I'd told them - I had a fantastic time, and have absolutely no regrets. There's an extreme sport out there with my name on it, so I just have to keep trying them all! And I did get to see Nemo; and sweetlips; and sharks...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Things I have learnt

  • The early bird in the hostel catches the hot showers and the free internet
  • The first question to ask in a new town, after "Where is my bed?", is: "Where is Woolworths?" (Someone volunteered this information to me in Perth; at first I thought they were directing me to the pick'n'mix, but it turns out to be a supermarket over here.)
  • Ear plugs are a Good Thing
  • So is handcream (I know, bizarre)
  • Never, never take a white towel on tour
  • Vanity is also surplus to requirements. And any pretensions one might have had towards hygiene
  • The fastest way to make friends is to share a campsite with no toilets. And a bus after no showers. Odd, though, that this doesn't work in London
  • I can make myself comfortable anywhere. This might not come as a surprise to those of you who've seen me leap into pyjamas at the slightest provocation, but it was news to me and I think it's pretty cool!

Blimey, what a scorcher

Today's the day when I'm going on a jumping crocodile cruise on the Adelaide River, and at 9am it was already hotter than a London heatwave! So I'm just grabbing a bit of an air-conditioning hit before heading out again, and updating everyone on my Kakadu adventure. It was more luxurious than I'd anticipated, as we were put together with another tour group to make up numbers - only one night's bush camping, which was brilliant as usual, and the other nights in fixed tents - beds and mattresses, no less! Very comfortable, though I'd have preferred to rough it - maybe the sun's gone to my head...

Other than that, it was great - there were 13 of us for the first three days, then four disappeared back to Darwin and we had nine hardcore campers for the rest. We were mostly older, which was nice (ie in our thirties or late twenties), and no teenagers this time. The first day we went to Litchfield, to have a dip in Florence Falls and Buleh rockhole, then it was swiftly on to what was billed as "culture camp" - actually a very informative few hours with an Aboriginal man named Graham (plus his staggering mullet), and his brother and daughter. We were taken on a bush walk to identify fruits and trees that were useful, as well as ones that would kill you (invariably the ones that look the tastiest). We also had a masterclass in didj playing, and basket weaving - something only the women do. The latter in particular was immensely skilful - from collecting the pandanus leaves and preparing them for weaving, which takes three years of drying, to dyeing them and then weaving them into baskets or bags. The whole thing was a delight - all three of them seemed so confident and happy with their lives, sharing their culture but not giving it away to the tourists, that it felt really optimistic. (I got the same feeling about art class with Manuel, on day four: he's attached to an art gallery in Katherine, and tells stories about his family and growing up in Arnhem land to tour groups, then teaches them how to draw rarrk (traditional northern Aboriginal crosshatch drawing; dot painting is a central Australian tradition) with sticks - though you do get to touch up the mistakes with a Western brush. Again, he seemed incredibly happy with what he was doing - and also got some good belly laughs out of our woeful attempts to copy his painting.)

After that, we were into Kakadu for a few days, clambering over boulders and shimmying up rocks to get to Barramundi Falls, Jim Jim Falls (or Jim Jim No Falls, because it was the end of the dry season!), and Twin Falls. I'm definitely getting fitter - one track was billed as 900m, but it was surely the longest 900m in the history of the world, as there wasn't a flat part on it! Even so, I kept up with everyone else - by the time I've tramped around New Zealand too I'm going to be a champion walker. My favourite route was to Twin Falls, however, because we got to travel on a ferry in the middle of it - with the gorge rising on either side of us, and the water cool and green underneath the boat, it was beautifully peaceful. The only hint that it could erupt into danger were the crocodile traps along the banks - the rangers try to move the salties into other areas like billabongs where they'll be more comfortable (ie where they won't kill tourists, I imagine!). We did do another cruise along a billabong where there were a few salties out for the afternoon, one a mere 25ft away, but like us they feel the heat and most were underwater.

And it's not just the water that can be dangerous - on the fourth day we were on our way to Gunlom to visit the waterhole when our guide discovered that there had been an unplanned forest fire - started either by arson or stupidity. We'd seen other places burnt out on purpose - at the end of the dry, the rangers burn certain parts to clear up the leaf litter and long grass and make the area less vulnerable to lightning strike - but this was really melancholy. It had jumped the road and on either side the fire had got too hot and taken out the trees too. It was smouldering all over, and in places tree trunks still had flames licking out of them. And it was amid all this desolation that we shredded a tyre - saved only by a couple of rangers who were passing and helped us wrestle it off. It turned out the next day that the spare had a slow puncture also, but thankfully we were in bustling Katherine by then and near to a mechanic's. We still swam at Gunlom, with the smell of scorching in the air, but didn't stay long.

The last two days were spent down in Nitmiluk national park, near Katherine - climbing up Edith Falls (which actually had some falls even this far into the dry), and canoeing down Katherine Gorge. Myself and Daniela, a German doctor working in Melbourne, were Team Europe, and we may not have been the fastest pair on the river, but with the amount we were zig-zagging from side to side, unable to steer, we certainly went the furthest. Eventually, Emily and Michael, a lovely Australian couple from Newcastle (NSW, not upon-Tyne), gave us some paddling tips and we made it back to base - it had been a very long 6km!

Another lovely tour, another lovely group of people. The next one is learning to dive at Cairns from Tuesday, before heading out on to the Great Barrier Reef to see what's what. Fantastic. But first, the jumping crocs...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Tropic thunder

So, here I am in Darwin at the start of the dreaded "build-up", and I'm bearing up well. Actually, having been told that, as a bloody Pom, I'd die in the heat, I'm pleasantly surprised - judicious spells in air-conditioned shops aside, I'm more of a mad dog and out in the midday sun (plenty of sunblock, water and a hat my constant companions, of course).

In fact, Darwin is great all around - I love the tropical weather and plants (there's a coconut tree outside my window, for heaven's sake, plus little geckos running over the walls and making great cries), and there's plenty to look at, as long as you do it languidly. I've been over the botanic gardens, which have all those tropical rainforest plants I've only ever seen in glass houses before, and along one of the many beachfront walks to the art gallery. This, as well as having another good Aboriginal art collection, also has a chilling section devoted to Cyclone Tracy. I knew that the city had been badly damaged by Japanese bombs in 1942 (there are memorials dotted all over the city), but didn't know that it was also razed to the ground by this cyclone on Christmas Day 1974. The newsreel footage is devastating, and there's also a sound booth with a recording made by an intrepid clergyman as the storm was raging - in the darkness it's absolutely terrifying. Truly, Darwin is a testament to resilience.

It's also closer than most places to nature - notably of the crocodilian sort. Today I headed up to Crocodylus Park, to watch the salties [salt-water crocs] being fed. There's a mix of rescued and rehomed crocs there, many with horrific injuries sustained in territorial disputes. The really horrible part about this, from a human perspective (or from mine, at least) is that they can heal themselves. So not only can crocs hear your car pulling up near to their waterhole, smell you, see you (particularly at night) and sense you through their skin, but they can also generate a powerful antibiotic to recover from astonishing wounds. No matter what my guide says on the trip to Kakadu/Litchfield (starting tomorrow, 6.30am), I'm not going to risk swimming in any waterholes! Particularly at the end of the dry season, when there's less water about for us to be fighting over - the salties can have it, with my blessing. They're cute when they're little, though - I have a picture of me cuddling a baby one (its mouth safely taped shut for the tourists). Not as cute as the turtles, however - no cuddling, sadly, but the long-necked one in particular was absolutely enchanting, like some Disney cartoon.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Alice: a wonderland?

At first sight, yes. It's a shiny, clean, modern town nestled in the shadow of the Western Macdonnell ranges - from the main street you can see the mountains rising up behind the buildings. It has the magnificent setting of those bush towns, without being bleak. Closer inspection reveals more problems, however - Aboriginal people are everywhere on the street (it's an outdoor culture), but somehow utterly separate. There is evidence of poverty and alienation, and signs up banning alcohol in public places, which - as in the communities - clearly don't apply to Westerners. Two peoples are living uneasily side by side - UK's assimilation problems are nowhere near as severe as this.

Having said which, I continued to be a tourist too. I visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service museum, which is absolutely fascinating. The "mantle of safety" continues today, mostly funded by the public, which I think is scandalous! The states pay for the running costs, but the planes and their kit are paid for by donation. I've been dropping money into RFDS tins since I've been here, but having learnt that I'm going to have to step it up. Elsewhere, I visited the Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame, in the old gaol (again, fascinating - great stories about the women who gave up everything to come and make a life in the bush in the 19th century). And climbed Anzac Hill to get amazing views of the town and its gorgeous surroundings.

Even more touristy was my hot air balloon trip - I thought I would die when I had to get up at 3.30am the morning after the outback trip (the balloon has to get in the air before sunrise because the wind picks up then), but I've recovered now and have a certificate and photo souvenir to make up for it! I must confess, for the money it wasn't the most amazing experience - we were 16 in the basket, in cramped conditions, which made it less than peaceful, and it was hazy over the horizon so the sunrise was less than spectacular. However, I can say I've done it, and it was rather special to take off silently, to see the trees below us with kangaroos hopping about, and being so high that the birds were flying beneath the basket. Plus, the gourmet breakfast was as delicious as billed.

Actually, I'd have stayed in Alice longer, but had already booked the Greyhound so was on my way in only two days. I've passed through Katherine, which was something of a lost weekend - the hostel was booked up (it's a one-hostel town), so I had to get a motel room (shame!), and it was so nice I mostly stayed there! Not very intrepid, but I am going to the falls on another tour so I don't think I missed much, and I needed the time to recuperate by a pool. And now I'm in Darwin, back in hostel world, and preparing to go out and explore. I'll let you know what I find...

"If you panic, you will die": Part Three

Once we were on the road again, it was mostly a case of escalating superlatives: first Uluru, which was awe-inspiring, from close-up and from a distance. We did the base walk (only the teenagers wanted to climb it, listening to Jarrod's carefully balanced explanation of why it was a sacred site and shouldn't be disturbed, and then asking how long it would take! It was moot in any case - the top was closed due to high winds). The base walk alone is about 9k, giving you some idea of what a bloody big rock it is. Then we headed to the sunset viewing point, passing by the coach parties with their canapes and magnums of champagne, carrying our filthy coolbox with its sparkling wine and cheese biscuits! We had the best view, though - and the next morning too. Jarrod had found a campsite far away from the crowds, where we slept in our swags on the sand dunes and saw Uluru at dawn, our own private viewing. Absolutely beautiful.

The next day was Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), which is a site sacred to men (Uluru is more a women's place). That walk was far more taxing, but consequently more beautiful. Once you've scaled the path for 3k you can see down the Valley of the Winds, with the red rocks rising and falling around you. It's just on such a massive scale it's hard to comprehend. You can see why the Aborigines told these Dreaming stories about how their landscape came to be - it's hard to imagine it happening by accident; one needs to pull it down to a human scale.

The day after that was Kings Canyon, and that was more spectacular still. The first 10 minutes of the walk (or 20 in my case!) were straight up, and then you were on the top of the canyon, which in itself was beautiful enough, but there was much more to it. There was a natural amphitheatre weathered out of the rocks at the top, and a waterhole filled with palms and birdlife (called the Garden of Eden), mulgas [bush trees] growing out of the rock... And once we'd finished that, we headed off to camp in the bush again, by the River Todd, with dingoes howling in the distance - one of the many experiences from the trip that will stay with me forever.

Actually, there are so many: the kindness of, particularly, Audrey and Romu when I was struggling with the walks - they hung back so I didn't feel I was holding people up so much, and encouraged me to keep going up the steepest parts. The nights by the campfire, drinking Fucking Good Port (seriously, that's the brand name; it lives up to it, too). Listening to Radiohead on the long drives, the perfect soundtrack to the desert (Jarrod is a major fan, and we heard it a lot to my delight). Getting an extra day because of the delay at Mt Dare and just five of us heading off to Palm Valley outside of Alice, which is like some kind of prehistoric landscape (the palms are the only ones of their kind in the world, descended directly from the age of the dinosaurs). Climbing the rocks on top of the lookout, despite my vertigo, with everyone cheering me on. Being the camp clown - I'm not sure what was wrong with me, but I tripped over everything from camels to rocks, set fire to the pot when it was my turn to cook, broke my camera, my boots and hat fell apart (literally - the last few walks I was sticking them together with gaffer tape) and I am still covered in bruises! Not to mention getting locked in the composting toilet at Dalhousie hot springs and breaking myself out with a pair of tweezers. All of it, the good and bad, was brilliant. It was just a sensational, unforgettable trip and I loved every filthy, exhausting day of it.

Friday, 9 October 2009

"If you panic, you will die": Part Two

So, to take up where I left off, our band of happy campers are stranded at the Mt Dare Hotel, waiting for a new Land Cruiser - but what a cool place to be stranded. We all enjoyed the rest and the comparative luxury (most of the places we stayed had no facilities at all, and none had showers; we drove into campsites every three days or so to wash and by halfway through I was dirtier than I've ever been before!). We played cricket in the bush (England may have won the Ashes, but we lost this game comprehensively I'm afraid), and headed out for an evening walk to see the sunrise (this is the origin of the phrase above: Jarrod couldn't come with us because he had things to sort out, so cautioned us against treading on anything that looked like a King Brown snake, gave us a bandage to keep the poison from spreading too quickly if we were bitten and told us not to panic. Defence against one of the world's deadliest snakes - a piece of crepe and meditative breathing. After all that we were quite disappointed to see nothing more exotic than some camel tracks!).

The birds around the camp were amazing, too - actually, they were amazing throughout. I was surprised that there were so many of them in the desert - galahs, rainbow bee-eaters, black and white cockatoos, clouds of budgerigars, crested pigeons, wedge-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons, emus... We also saw kangaroos (of course!), a colony of yellow-footed rock wallabies, which were incredibly cute, wild horses and plenty of cattle out for a stroll. The place is teeming with life despite looking so barren, with the saltbush and mulga trees supporting a huge range of animals. I'm not sure I'd live out there, despite the really cool outback attitude - if you don't have it, improvise, and take it easy while the parts arrive; when life is more basic you strip away a lot of the bullshit. It was great to do it for a day or so, though, before getting back on the road (Part Three of the trilogy of the trip to come).

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"If you panic, you will die": Part One

Have landed at Alice Springs after 11 days on the road, and so much has happened I'm going to have to do this in stages! First off, to introduce our crew: Jarrod, our guide; Audrey and Romuald, a lovely French couple who have been travelling for six years now, via Scotland, Canada, USA and Fiji (basically, barring Scotland, my journey in reverse); Julian and Elisabetta, an Italian couple at university; Kevin, an extremely taciturn Dutchman; and four German teenagers ranging from 15 to 17 - Charlotta, Roxana, Stefan and Victor. We piled into a Land Cruiser on 28 September and very quickly became acquainted - sitting face to face and shoulder to shoulder will do that, particularly when you have to disentangle your legs from each other when you hit a dirt track (and we hit plenty of those).

First up was a "quick" walk up Devil's Peak - devilish indeed, particularly with the tail end of a satanic cold; I never made it up to the top, I confess, though I did get to sit in the bush and the sun (hallelujah!), watching lizards and soaking up the scenery. Then on to Quorn and a camel ride through the bush into our camp for the night, before going yabbying at the creek (yabbies are small crayfish; we didn't catch much, but enough for hors d'oeuvres; the food throughout the tour was excellent, particularly when Audrey and Romuald took over cooking duties - any hope I had of losing weight went right out of the window!). That night Jasper, a local Aboriginal man, came over to our campfire to tell us some stories about the landscape (the Rainbow Serpent; Yurla, the kingfisher spirit, and so on); it was fascinating, but quite uncomfortable - understandably given how they've been treated Aboriginals are usually fairly stand-offish, and it felt unnatural to have someone performing for us. Very interesting, but for a white colonialist oppressor not a cosy experience.

The next day we visited Wilpena Pound, a huge crater surrounded by mountain formations, one of the many geological phenomenons of the last 11 days and at one time a sheep station, though how they got the animals to market with no viable road I don't know. We also climbed to some Aboriginal rock paintings - some claim them as 30,000 years old, and though that's unlikely they're certainly thousands of years old. We don't know what all the markings say, as that's a closely guarded secret that the oldfellas only pass down to the initiated; it's a good guess that they relate to good waterholes and food sources, and the tribe's responsibilities under the law. Aboriginal law is written only in paintings such as this, which is partly why the community is in so much trouble now - as it's passed down orally, the Stolen Generation lost touch with their roots completely. Apparently there are some moves afoot to teach the languages in school, but much of the lore has gone for good.

Day 3 was mostly spent on the road - we were now into the Outback proper, in towns that had once grown up around the old Ghan railway line and are now windswept places where you can see the desert on either side of the high street. Cook may have been a ghost town, but some of those places are not much more lively, and certainly just as inhospitable. We fetched up that night in William Creek (pop. 3 - one at the airfield and two at the pub), near to Lake Eyre, and next morning took a flight over the salt lake - absolutely beautiful. Sadly the birdlife that comes when it fills had disappeared - they can only stay about two weeks because of the extreme salinity of the water - but the sweep of the salt flats was amazing to see, contrasted with the red sand around it. I've waited 20 years to see the outback, and it is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as I thought it would be.

It's also just as eccentric. On Day 4 we hit Coober Pedy, really everyone does live underground. Fortunes have been made and lost and made again on the opal fields, and it's a great Australian story - no big companies have moved in because opal mining is hit and miss; you can only guess where you're likely to find it and hence a lone miner is as likely to be lucky as a conglomerate. Thus an eccentric outback town has grown up around the mining - it's slightly less lawless than it was (at one time, only 10 years ago or so, people resolved arguments with gelignite; the local bobby who tried to put a stop to some of the antisocial behaviour had his car blown up twice before he got the message and left them to it!), but pretty rough and ready. The houses underground are great, though - it was pelting with rain (we went through the driest part of the driest continent, which is lucky to get 4in of rain a year, and saw 16mm in a night). Thankfully we were allowed to sleep indoors at this point, and living underground in a place hewn out of the rock is actually pretty cosy; I'm not sure I want to try my luck mining for opals, but perhaps those green people who are building under hills in the UK aren't so eccentric after all... Though they wouldn't have a kangaroo orphanage, run out of an art gallery. Here a couple take in joeys, usually ones who've survived their mother being hit by a car, and try to release them in the wild once they're weaned. It doesn't always work - Bella frankly didn't want to go back into the wild and now lives in their home, toasting herself in front of a gas fire! If I don't come back as a koala in the next life, I'm coming back as that kangaroo.

From there, the weather cleared up beautifully and we were on the road again via the Painted Desert just after dawn, which was sensational (every sight we saw was more spectacular than the last), and on to Dalhousie hot springs. These are bang in the middle of the Simpson desert and large enough to swim in; they're about 37C, bathwater hot, and surrounded by birdlife and native mulgas and red gums. We bathed in the afternoon and under the stars that night, which was a magical experience. It was also a riot with Romu and Julian, who decided they needed to form a human pyramid for the photo album and roped in Roxana. Actually, the photos turned out pretty well, despite Julian nearly drowning!

And then we were on the road towards Uluru - or were supposed to be. Most of the driving was four-wheel drive on dirt roads, and that was the good stuff. We were luckily not far from a way station when there was a grinding of gears and the car stopped, for good: the rear axle had sheared straight through. As misadventures go, this one was fine - Jarrod got on the CB to the Mt Dare Hotel (pub, campground and mechanic's, though we never did discover where the mountain was) and a fantastic bloke with a beard the length of my hair and swagman's hat came out to give us a tow. There we stayed while Heading Bush drove through the night to bring us another vehicle - quicker than getting a part from Alice, which takes three days. And here ends Part One, with our intrepid crew stranded in an Ocker pub. But a pub with showers - the luxury was indescribable!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

My (current) favourite things

  1. Fleece No. 1
  2. Fleece No. 2
  3. Home-brand cold cures
  4. Morrisons' woolly travel pillow
  5. Ikea sleep suit
  6. Hostel libraries
  7. The Original Pancake Kitchen, Adelaide
  8. Palace Eastend Cinema, Adelaide
  9. Mum's walking boots
  10. The fact that an echidna's young is called a puggle.

Last night in Adelaide, then it's 10 days in the outback, sleeping in a swag and cooking on a campfire (itinerary below). More when I hit Alice!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Tie me kangaroo down, sport

Back from Kangaroo Island, off the coast of Adelaide: it rained for two days out of three, I had a streaming cold throughout, and I loved it. Brilliant, brilliant trip.

We started at 6.30am on Monday, heading out to Victor Harbour where we saw the last of the Australian Right Whales (called "right" because they float to the surface when harpooned, hence they were the "right" ones to hunt) before they head out to sea for the summer. There were some mums there, being very stately, and some babies playing - flicking their tails flirtatiously, breaching the water and so on - as they got their test drive before the big migration. Fantastic - and just the start of the wildlife.

Once we hit the island, Simon (our guide, a right-on Australian dude) took us to one of his koala spots, where we saw (and this is pretty rare) a couple in the wild. One was even awake, which is something of a miracle - since this isn't mating season, they mostly sleep, and then eat, and then sleep again. Basically, they're stoned on eucalyptus... If there's such a thing as reincarnation I'm coming back as a koala - they eat, sleep, get high and have sex and that's it. Sounds pretty idyllic to me.

After that, we hit the caves to escape the rain (I should say that it started raining when we disembarked from the ferry and didn't stop) - cool stalactites and other formations - and then tried to go for a hike along the cliffs, but only got five minutes in before we were wet through - and I'm not talking a bit damp, but wringing water from our clothes and hair! After that we gave up and went to the camp for the night, which was really comfortable. Got the wood fire going, got the clothes drying and played Jenga amid the steam. We were seven at this point - me, an English guy called Mike, three cool Chilean dudes, an absolutely silent boy from Hong Kong (I never knew his name) and Eva from Holland, perhaps the world's coolest 18-year-old.

Next day it was still raining (!) and I still didn't care - though possibly it was something to do with the fact that I was high on cold cures throughout - and we did another hike to a beautiful waterfall (I concentrated on not having a seizure when we went up a horrible hill - even the youngsters were struggling with this one), then met some birds of prey at the sanctuary: a frog-mouthed tawny, peregrine falcon, barn owl, kestrel and wedge-tailed eagle, some of whom we could pass from arm to arm. Very cool indeed.

After which, we joined up with the two-day crew and went sand-boarding (basically like sledging except on sand dunes at Little Sahara), and in the evening went out looking for fairy penguins. In between we saw echidna (shy creatures who weren't best pleased to be surrounded by tourists taking photos, bless them), kangaroos and their joeys, wallabies, brush-tailed possum (including a cheeky one who was stealing from our bin late at night), Australian sea-lions, New Zealand fur seals, more koalas and a whole heap of scenery. Sadly there aren't many photos - and none of the third day when the sun came out - because my camera ran out of juice and I'd stupidly left the charger behind - so I'll just have to remember the Remarkable Rocks (actually remarkable - like a Salvador Dali sculpture) and the Admiralty Arch, with the fur seals basking underneath, or the little schoolhouse that was in use until 1945 (one room, and an outside dunny)...

Altogether a great tour; only a few days before I head out into the desert and I'm hoping I can shake this blessed cold before then. To which end, I'm spending the day with an Ian Rankin novel and some biscuits. If that doesn't do the trick, nothing will...

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Noodling around

The sun's come out and yesterday I headed up to Hahndorf in the Adelaide hills to celebrate. This town was at the heart of the German influx in the mid-19th century, and still has a German character today. It's very touristy - every other building offers you wiener schnitzel and apple strudel - but also pretty, and artsy (Hans Heysen used to live up there, and his studio is still open to the public, as well as the old Lutheran schoolhouse, which is now an exhibition space for local artists). Perhaps I was unduly influenced by the sunshine and the big glass of locally brewed pale ale, but I liked it a lot! And the sauerkraut/wurst hot dog. And the endless shops offering carved wooden toys etc. And the alpaca strutting across the hillsides.

Next up, now I've learnt to negotiate the bus system, is Cleland National Park, where you can indulge in a spot of koala cuddling, and Glenelg, the local beach hotspot. And tonight I'm off to the cabaret at the Adelaide Festival Arts Centre - the city is apparently the arts centre of Australia, so I thought I'd better get stuck in. I don't know anything about Cookie Baker (tonight's chanteuse) but I'll let you know. In the meantime, I feel a spot of noodling around is called for...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I feel like the rainmaker

It's pissing it down in Adelaide too! I should hire myself out to those farmers who have been hit by drought. Still, it's not conclusive until I reach the desert - if it rains then, I really will be like that lorry-driver from Douglas Adams' "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish", whom the rain clouds love and want to be near.

It led to today's bizarre highlight, though: I was escaping from a shower into St Francis Xavier Cathedral (Catholic hub of Adelaide, with a mad statue outside of Mary Mackillop, a nun who was beatified in 1995) just as a service was starting, so I thought I might as well stay. Communion went on its merry way according to the liturgy - until the votary candles caught fire and the Eucharistic Prayer was punctuated by the verger deploying his fire extinguisher. Considering they emptied a whole 2kg one into the Lady Chapel, everyone kept very calm - we were pushed through Communion at some speed, though, and it ended with a very perfunctory blessing: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord... and under the circumstances I'm sure you'll all clear the cathedral quickly." But then I always knew priests were unflappable.

Bedtime for me, goodnight all...

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Perhaps the coolest thing I've ever done...

Just got off the Indian-Pacific train from Perth to Adelaide, and it was sensational. I splashed the cash and booked a Gold Service sleeper, which made for two incredibly comfortable days. (See for the pictures.) There was a diner that looked like something out of Agatha Christie - all it needed was Hercule Poirot telling us whodunit - and a lounge for when the comfort of your own cabin all got too much. And the food! Oh, the food! And all while the scenery of the Nullabor Desert flashed by the windows - surreal and very beautiful.

There was even some touristy stuff along the way - on Sunday night we went on a coach tour of Kalgoorlie, site of the biggest gold find in the world and still very much operational as a mining concern. The driver gave waggish commentary throughout (particularly on the "skimpies" phenomenon: some years back an enterprising businessman sought to boost trade by having his barmaids serve topless, until the health and safety put a stop to it; he then got them to wrap up in Clingfilm, and then someone stopped that too; nowadays they get their jugs out (to receive the tips for getting their jugs out) for only a few hours each week, so the tradition is watered down a bit, but they're all very proud of it, and of their brothels, which do daytime tours apparently!). We also visited the Superpit itself, with the giant trucks looking like Tinker toys in this vast, vast hole in the ground - like some James Bond villain's plan to take over the Earth's core.

There was also a stop at Cook, a ghost town in the Nullabor that used to have a hospital, school and the works, till the railway closed it as a stopping post and now only five people live there, amid gradually rusting, deserted trucks and buildings, to keep the place open as a watering hole for long-distance trains. Most poigant, for some reason, was the basketball court - such an odd thing to have in the desert, with no one to play on it anymore.

And now I'm in Adelaide: Kangaroo Island, wine valleys, koalas, beaches and botanical gardens to come...

Friday, 11 September 2009

My kind of sightseeing

Freemantle today, known for its cafe culture and bijoux markets. But today it was known for the wet - even locals had never seen anything like it. I stuck it out for a bit, but in the end went to the cinema to dry out instead - and saw District 9, which is absolutely superb! See the trailer here:
An alien-human buddy movie that's action-packed, poignant and surprising - go see...

Thursday, 10 September 2009

It's raining, it's pouring...

Yes indeedy, I have come all the way to Perth, Australia, and it's colder than when I left England. Apparently there are weather warnings out for tomorrow - gale force winds! That trip down the river might have to be postponed...

Everything else is a plus, however. Being a neurotic insomniac is coming into its own, as I haven't felt the jet lag too much - I'm used to being knackered so switching to night shift is going OK. As for the plane ride - it's been much too long since I flew anywhere; I was so excited by the personal entertainment system! I watched six films back to back (good ones, too), whereas the last time I got on a plane they were still pulling down the overhead projector which didn't quite sync with the voices. It might have been economy but to me it was luxury.

And Perth has some really cool things too - there are iridescent green parrots roosting in the trees as you walk down the street (so much better than pigeons); Kings Park is 400 hectares of loveliness; and in the Art Gallery of Western Australia, amid some fantastic Aboriginal art, I stumbled over a series of nine Stanley Spencer paintings (Christ in the Wilderness). My favourite artist, on the other side of the world - I was absolutely stoked.

Tomorrow, weather warnings and all, I'm going to have a go at Freemantle. I'll let you know how that goes - I remind myself slightly of those people who go to National Trust gardens in the pouring rain, telling each other brightly how nice the roses are as they're being lashed with water. It's the kind of pig-headed Blitz spirit I really admire, so I hope I can do the same!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Curses, I did it!

G'ah, I've joined the Facebook revolution, and it's like social networking crack cocaine. Actually, I see why it's so good, but I'm going to keep faith with what now looks like my totally lo-fi blog! And pop in to see what's going on in Facebook. And email. And update Flickr... Good God, I'll be a better correspondent from the other side of the world than I was in the UK. Sorry, guys.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

To Facebook, or not to Facebook?

That does seem to be the question. Bella has bet me A$20 that I'll be signed up within the month, once I start trying to hook up with people on the road. But I'm still commitment-phobic, and can't bear to enter the Facebook universe! In the meantime, and before I cave (just as I did with my mobile phone, alas), I have a new link:
It's got a few things on already, such as my attempts at drawing (not bad, considering), but will soon, I'm hoping, have sweeping Australian vistas and cuddly koalas...

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Collection

So, it's goodbye to the film collection. I'm feeling slightly bereft already. Though I can always go to the cinema a lot and decide on the next generation of DVDs. And pick up some Australian rarities. Hmm. Perhaps I need to work on this Zen, no-possessions, rolling stone thing.

In Limbo

Only a few weeks to go until D-Day, and I'm finally running out of chores to do. I've packed up most of my stuff. The builders have nearly finished repairing my flat. I've even managed to jettison the demands of my neighbours - for one year only, leakgate is someone else's problem. Now that the inevitable last-minute panic with the loss adjuster turning up four days late is sorted, I'm running out of things to fret about, and it's a very peculiar feeling. Never mind, I'm sure I'll find something to worry about...