As our Australia trip draws to a close, we are back where we started from, in the city of Melbourne, home to 4m people, in South East Australia. We have spent 12 weeks in this country, and despite driving 5,000ks have seen just a fraction of it. The place is huge, mind bogglingly vast and to try to visit even the main sights of Australia is to undertake a massive journey. We restricted ourselves to two of the 8 states; Victoria where Melbourne lies, and New South Wales, home to Sydney.
We got off to a slow start, spending several weeks adjusting to being in a new country, enjoying the coffee culture of Melbourne (coffee capital of Australia and therefore perhaps of the world?) and relishing having a comfortable place to stay. Thanks to friends here we had use of a lovely city centre apartment, surrounded by cafes, close to a dozen art galleries, a short walk to the beach, and with more wifi than we have ever dreamed of. Unused as we were to such luxuries, we settled in, surprising ourselves at how easily we again adapted to city life, how much we appreciated all it had to offer, and delayed any thoughts of travel and exploration beyond the boundaries of Melbourne.
[Graffiti in one of Melbourne’s many alleys]
We had arrived in the heart of Australia’s Winter, and in Victoria this meant wind, rain and single digit temperatures. Most unpleasant weather both for camping and photography. This fed our apathy towards travel anywhere in the vicinity, and finally after a few weeks of seeing nothing but rain on the forecast, we decided to head to the sun, driving 700ks inland to the outback. Our destination was the UNESCO world heritage site of Mungo National Park. We were excited as we set off – here we were finally getting our Australia adventure underway and about to reach the outback. And as we drove out of Melbourne the sun was shining and we lapped up the views. Beautiful gum trees, red dirt landscape, and most strikingly, flat as far as the eye could see. Miles and miles of flatness, with low bush dotted amongst the red soil, and the horizon shimmering in the far distance. No buildings. No people. No livestock. Just a vast emptiness. The novelty lasted about 200ks and then with the sun beating relentlessly down we began impatiently measuring our progress, watching as we inched our way across the map, with hours more driving ahead of us, and the tedium broken only by the rare sight of another car, or a rest stop where we could stretch our legs. After more than 500ks we turned off the main road for a 3 hour drive on dirt roads before we finally reached Mungo.
We were a bit nervous driving on the unsealed road – when we hired the car we had Mungo National Park in mind, and as the rental agency guy handed us the keys he told us that driving on dirt roads was strictly off limits and we would be uninsured on them. Daniel had his most innocent face on so little did the guy suspect that everything Daniel ever wants to see is at the far end of a dirt road. It was only when we reached the rough road that we realised that we were the only ones not driving a large 4×4 and equipped with 2 spare tires and large containers of petrol. As we drove along the road, praying we wouldn’t get a flat tyre, our anticipation was building for Mungo, where we would see the ‘lunettes’, supposedly remarkable wind blown sand cliffs. And indeed they were remarkable – remarkably small and remarkably out of reach. We couldn’t get closer than 100 metres, and they were barely indistinguishable from the sand all around. Talk about underwhelmed! In fact the only remarkable thing about the area was an old French man serving excellent coffee at a nearby lodge, the only cafe within 3 hours and discovering this cured our disappointment. After a couple of days there trying to make the most of the minuscule lunettes, we packed up and headed for Broken Hill, an outback mining town, and home to the mighty BHP Billiton (a mere 300ks once we had the 3 hours of dirt road driving behind us).
[Leaving Mungo National Park and finally hitting the sealed road]
Broken Hill was an amazing sight, a town of 30,000 people planted in the middle of the outback, surrounded by emptiness and blisteringly hot, even in Winter. (Mad Max was filmed nearby where the flat landscape supposedly reveals the curvature of the earth.) 100ks away are a set of lakes (Menindee Lakes) providing a welcome relief from the hot, dry and dusty outback and these were our destination for the night. Reaching these lakes also meant a dirt road drive, albeit only 6ks. We reached them just before sunset and set up camp looking forward to exploring the lakes the following day. We awoke early in the morning to the sound of rain on the tent and thought back to the sign we had seen as we left the sealed road ‘Roads may become impassable after rain’. It was about 3am and we decided to sit tight and wait for the rain to stop – after all, this was the outback, an area that sees rain an average of 4 times a year! With the rain continuing for an hour we decided to get packing or risk getting stuck, and as we stepped outside the tent our boots slipped from under us. The whole surface had turned into a mud bath. Undeterred, we packed the tent and jumped in the car and slid our way 1 or 2ks before losing all grip and sliding off the road as if on ice. Here we were, uninsured, sitting half on, half off the road, in total darkness with a lake a few metres away and the rain still falling. A few fellow campers also drove out before the rain got too bad, all in large 4x4s, with massive tyres and engines roaring as mud flew everywhere. We clearly had no chance in our little Toyota Yaris. As dawn broke and we saw the dark clouds overhead we began contemplating a day or two stuck there, waiting for the rain to stop and the mud to dry. We had plenty of water, plenty of food and we could sleep in the car. Not exactly a dream holiday, but better than being in the office we both agreed. After a few hours of this an enormous truck came by (like a giant version of a toy truck), and the driver, a local lad of about 20, stepped out to help. In between telling us about his truck – he had built it himself – he helped get us back on the road with him driving our car and us pushing (someone had to do the dirty work!). Now that some cars had gone by there were hard tracks in the road we could follow and the guy offered to drive our car to the sealed road if Daniel would drive his truck. The wheels of the truck were almost as tall as Daniel, and it was a mean looking piece of machinery. Whether it was thought of grinding the gears in this guy’s truck or of him spinning the wheels in our uninsured car, Daniel declined and we headed off ourselves. Unexpectedly out of trouble and back on the road. We stuck to sealed roads from then on.
Our experience of the heat in the interior as well as the long distances between towns convinced us to stick to the coast for our future travels. Our return to Melbourne meant more wet and cold weather, so for our next trip we decided to head North up the East coast, near Sydney, where temperatures were a good 10 degrees warmer. But first we again enjoyed Melbourne and the company of friends, as well as each day searching out the best coffees and pastries, knowing that wherever our future travels take us, it will be a long time before we have access to so many fabulous cafes. Every street in Melbourne has several cafes, many of whom roast their own beans, and there is a permanent smell of roasting coffee in the Melbourne air. Each cafe distinguishes itself with a unique blend, full of flavour, and carrying the citrus taste characteristic of Melbourne coffees. There are several websites and guidebooks dedicated to describing Melbourne’s coffees, but rather than relying on these, we endured many hours of personal research on the topic.
Suitably fattened up for the journey, we then set off on a month long trip to New South Wales. Our goal was to travel along the coast, searching out nice towns in which to spend a few nights, soaking up that town’s particular atmosphere and ensuring regular days off from driving. We had no trouble finding candidates – every bend in the road revealed another gorgeous stretch of coastline with blue bays and golden beaches, as well as a campsite right by the beach. Thus we made our way up the coast until we reached the beaches of Northern Sydney. The suburbs north of Sydney are prime, being less than half an hour’s drive to the city and blessed with a dozen beaches suitable for surfing and swimming, together with tidal pools for safe swimming, shady beachside parks, lovely cafes and a sunshine rich climate. We spent a week at a campsite here and like all campsites in Australia, it was spacious, quiet and well run. Camping in this country is therefore a pleasure and with the added benefit of our tent keeping us safe from any nasty bugs in a way that no hotel or cabin could. Most of our fellow campers were middle aged or older (“grey nomads”), and seemed to be carrying everything but the kitchen sink. Setting up camp is an all day event for them and they usually stay in each campground for a week or two. They made for lovely neighbours, far nicer than the twenty-something, camper van driving, late night drinkers we encountered in New Zealand. The only campsite noise here tends to be the dawn chorus, which is almost deafening as scores of exotic birds welcome the day. Overall the wildlife here has been a pleasant surprise. The variety, size and colour of birds has been astonishing, and we have so far not encountered any of the snakes we were dreading. We did though see a lot of spiders – not long after we arrived we spent an hour splitting wood at our friends’ farm and saw more spiders in that hour than we saw the entire year in New Zealand. Nothing venomous thankfully and despite fearing the worst every time we enter public toilets or flick down the car’s sun shade, we have not seen the infamous huntsman.
Surprisingly we haven’t been bitten by anything in our 3 months here and that’s a pleasant change after the vicious sand flies that were everywhere in NZ. Other wildlife we saw a lot of are kangaroos – grazing by the roadside, or in the bush, or sadly, squashed in large numbers on the road. Some of them weigh as much as 60kg and travel at 50km/hour, so hitting one is no joke for the motorists, not to talk of the kangaroos. On the topic of road hazards, one of the most dangerous creatures here is the tourist, swerving all over the road while distracted by the view, and even driving on the wrong side of the road. They are lethal on the Great Ocean Road where we had a near head on smash with idiots on the wrong side of the road, and the kangaroo risk pales in comparison.
While on the East coast we rose at dawn and enjoyed the long sandy beaches, busy with early morning surfers, surf spotters (people stopping by to check the conditions), dog walkers, swimmers, joggers and all sorts out and about. By 10am we had to seek shade as the intensity of the midday sun was unbearable. Our skin has struggled in the hot dry conditions and we have both seen new wrinkles appearing on a weekly basis. And this is Winter! We don’t know how the Australians tolerate the sun, the heat, the bush fire risk (there have been bush fires already in October even though Summer is the main fire season) and the chronic water restrictions (ironic given it rained every day we were in Melbourne and on the one occasion we ventured into the outback!). With a climate like that we couldn’t countenance living here and admire the tough Aussies who battle it out with nature all over the country. Speaking of tough Aussies, many of the guys we’ve seen are muscle bound, singlet wearing, 4 wheel drivers who seem to ooze testosterone. But looks deceive, and those we’ve interacted with at the beach or in the bush have been very chilled out, and easy going. Nonetheless, there is a lot of sexism evident here in the media and in politics. For example the current prime minister Tony Abbott was pictured in one of his recent electoral campaigns with his arms around his attractive teenage daughters while saying “Vote for me, i’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters“. A recent national newsparer editorial referred to “the housewives of Australia” and just this morning, we heard on the news about a taxi driver protest against some law changes, with the newscaster announcing “taxi-drivers are protesting together with their wives and children”. Surprising for a supposedly advanced Western civilization!
Relative to our New Zealand trip we have met far fewer people here, as we spent time with friends in Melbourne and overall did less traveling, less hiking, no work and no hitchhiking (we haven’t seen a single hitchhiker on the roads here). But the Aussies we did meet have been very kind – yesterday alone Daniel got 3 pats on the arm from old ladies on the street from whom he had asked directions, and one old man recently was 50 pictures into a photo album of his recently deceased wife before Daniel and he had even exchanged names. It struck us recently just how much time we have spent together as we travelled over the past year. Most days it is literally 24/7, to the extent that when one needs to go to the supermarket for something, the other tags along for the walk. With so long in just each other’s company, when we met friends here it was a relief to discover we can still communicate with others. And while sometimes the sand all over the car from Daniel’s tripod drives me mad, or my nagging while he drives presses his buttons, overall we get along very well and each couldn’t wish for a better companion 🙂
At the conclusion of our New South Wales trip we made our way back to Melbourne, with a major storm reminding us we were re-entering Victoria. A cracked windscreen, which was further expanding in the storm, cut short our trip and hastened our return to the city. After a short break in Melbourne, we undertook some touring of the surrounding coast. Here the coastline is rugged and far quieter than around Sydney and on our daily rambles we usually just meet a dog or two out with their owners’ for a walk, and some hardy fishermen line fishing off the rocks or jetties. Unsurprisingly we find fresh fish everywhere and we have indulged in fish and chips often knowing it won’t be available in our next destination … As Winter turned gradually into Spring we finally toured the Great Ocean Road in Victoria’s South coast, a famously beautiful coast which we had delayed visiting until our last week. Despite some cold nights (3 degrees) the days have been sunny but windy and we will depart Australia in a few days time happy to have finally seen that coast.
Overall, this Australian trip has felt more like one long holiday. We have had it easy here, having a car when we needed it, great campsites and a lovely city apartment. We have been comfortable and gotten quite lazy, a factor relevant when we were thinking about where to go next. Our destination post Australia has been long debated – everything from Japan to Taiwan to South East Asia to Europe and even a return to New Zealand was considered. Finally we settled on Asia, with a short stopover in Hong Kong before flying to Yunnan, a large mountainous province in South West China and home to many ethnic minorities. It seems to have developed at a slower pace than China’s industrial eastern seaboard and will present a physical and cultural challenge after Aus and NZ. During our weeks in Melbourne we initially researched South East Asia together with Yunnan and were at one time planning a 6 month overland itinerary through the region. But the planning killed all enthusiasm for the trip and we have now realised that we prefer to travel without a plan, just having a destination. So we will finish October in Hong Kong and begin November in China. As to where we will travel while there or where we will go afterwards, we will have to wait and see …
P.S. we are sadly lacking photos of our Australian trip as my camera broke in the first week here and Daniel’s is full of dust. Repairs are scheduled for Hong Kong and photos will follow after that …