Australia

In the summer of 2003 I made a two-month trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, with a stopover of a few days in Singapore. Below the second part of the travel-log that I wrote.

After my first great experience with the ‘Servas’ (hospitality) organization in Singapore, my stay in Sydney was also off to a great start. Adam, a trombonist and filmmaker from the center of Sydney, responded to the email I had sent to a few hosts. He offered that I could stay with him. There was only one problem: on the evening that I arrived he had to play at the Sydney opera, so he was not at home to receive me … This complete stranger then offered to put his house key somewhere for me so that I could enter his house…. It was very strange to arrive somewhere where you are unfamiliar, at someone’s place you don’t know….

Fortunately there was a cat who welcomed me kindly.

Adam also turned out to be very nice when he came home in the evening. He has a tiny apartment right in the center and I sleep on the sofa bed in the living room with the cat.

The next day we went for a walk along the harbor. Sydney is awesome! Very green, lots of water and it even boasts some beautiful beaches. It is cold, 10 – 15 degrees, but when the sun is shining it is lovely. In the evening I crawl into my two sleeping bags, with an extra duvet, a hot water bottle and the cat for extra warmth …

A big advantage of such a cultural host is that he gave me a personal tour of the famous Opera House. Unfortunately there was no opera, but he did arrange free tickets for a kind of comedy show (about Germans in the jungle; difficult to explain, but very funny…), and a wonderful concert. I joked that if the opera house had collapsed, none of my friends would worry about me because they never expected me to be in it …

The other days I walked through the city and saw a lot. I have a new hobby: Aboriginal art. With the digital camera that I bought in Singapore, I take pictures to be able to retrieve those beautiful colors and shapes later. I think the paintings are sooo beautiful that I can watch them for hours. The aboriginals do something with energy when they paint them and I can feel that there is much more to them than just figures and paint.

Today I made a long walk. It is unbelievable how you can suddenly sit in the jungle in the middle of the city or just on a beautiful beach. I’m really impressed.

Tomorrow I will fly to Alice Springs, the warm, dry, red interior of Australia, where Uluru (that famous, red, holy aboriginal rock, or Ayers Rock) is also located. Unfortunately I have less success there with Servas hosts, because the only one who lives there is abroad. However, a ‘day host’ has offered to show me around. On the 16th he invited me to join a group of bushwalkers for a walk in the desert. A great opportunity; I want to try and learn as much as possible about the country. I also hope that I can camp outside for a few nights and see the Milky Way at night.

It is now full moon. By the way, did you know that there is a ‘bunny’ in the moon here in the southern hemisphere? In Europe you don’t see that, but if you look at the full moon here, you clearly see the silhouette of a bunny!

Well, I’m going to pack my things again. Adam calls me a ‘TechNomad’ because I have so many cables in my backpack. While I am used to travel light, I now carry my laptop, charging cable, telephone cord, GSM, telephone charger, digital camera, docking station, charger, connection cord with computer and TV-out cord. I don’t even need half of all those cables on the road, but yes I got them with that camera in Singapore. Maybe I will send them to the Netherlands en route. By the way, I had brought a world plug from the ANWB, so that I can charge my laptop in every country. Indeed there are contact points for every country. It also goes into every outlet, but to my great surprise (and frustration) I don’t get the Dutch plug of my laptop into the Dutch ANWB plug !!!!!! Can someone please complain about this at the ANWB ???
That nobody has ever had this problem before !!!
Well, if that is the biggest ‘trouble’ I will have on this trip, then I am more than OK with it!

Alice Springs is literally ‘in the middle of nowhere’. From the plane I have the most beautiful views of the desert. To my surprise, I see Aboriginal paintings on the land below when I look out the window. The colors, the compositions, the patterns (lines, dots, etc.) are exactly what I have seen in the museums. Did you know that the Aboriginals always paint the land and its inhabitants from the air? How they do that is a mystery.
I also feel like painting and one of the first things I do in ‘Alice’ is to buy paint and canvases …

I am picked up from the airport by an older man named Ernie (no kidding), member of Servas and the local ‘Bushwalkers club’. He takes me to the youth hostel and promises to pick me up for the bush walk later that week. That night I don’t sleep at all, because an English woman in my room snores all night like a lumberjack. She looks (just to stay in Muppet show terms) very much like Miss Piggy, but I during that sleepless night I do not find that funny at all. The next morning I immediately move to another room.

Many Aboriginal people live in Alice Springs. The first time I saw one, I had to be careful not to point and stare: “look, an aboriginal!” Unfortunately I have to say it is a bit sad and disappointing. I had imagined a proud people; with their history and skills. But the vast majority who live in the cities are very unhealthy, because of bad food, obesity, diabetes and especially alcohol. People look dirty, with unkempt hair, old clothes, bloated faces, drunken eyes, shouting and scolding, or hanging around in the street. Really sad to see.

For 35,000 years they had the most stable civilization on earth, until ‘we’ came. In a relatively short time, the original inhabitants of this continent have been massacred, put into ‘re-education camps’, their land and even their children have been taken away. Many were sterilized to ensure that they would die out. In short, a beautiful, special people; almost eradicated. If I had experienced all that, I might have turned to alcohol too …

Ernie tells me that the English couple who will also join the bush walk, will continue camping in the national park for three days. If I want, I can join them! I only have a sleeping bag, but Ernie lends me a mat and a blanket and Dave and Alison (the English couple) have cooking gear etc. I don’t need a tent (I think), because in Australia everyone sleeps under the stars, right !?! On the morning that we leave it is so cold (just below zero!), and I am so desperate, that I ‘borrow’ the youth hostel’s comforter. If I hadn’t done that, I think I would have been an ice cube; it’s so cold  at night in the desert, in the winter …

The bush walk was amazing! Ernie, with his 65+ years, stepped out of the car, straight into the wilderness. Did not follow paths or tracks, but went straight for the mountains; through bushes, over boulders, straight to his goal. I almost had to run to keep up with him and the rest!

To my surprise, we went straight up the mountain! A completely different flora and fauna lives in the crevasses, because water remains there, even in the dry season. We even saw Cycads, a kind of palm trees. These date from the time when Australia was covered with rain forest and dinosaurs were walking around!

The views are indescribably beautiful. Red earth, rocks in all colors red and orange, incentive bushes, low bushes and the views, so beautiful!

In the evening the rest of the group went back to Alice Springs and Dave, Alison and I remained behind. We cooked something at the campsite in the middle of the desert. After the sunset I saw the enchanting starry sky of the desert for the first time. Because there is no light in the entire circumference, the sky is very dark and you see the Milky Way as a dot of cotton wool. I have never seen so many stars!

I was so excited to sleep outside that I put my tired body (5 hours of walking / climbing!) early to ‘bed’. By the way, there was not much else to do…. With all my clothes on, I crawled into my sleeping bag (with extra sheet in it), the blanket and comforter over it. Hood on, towel over my head …. Gosh how cold I was!

However, sleep never came, because as soon as I was lying and everything was quiet at the campsite, I heard shuffling and sniffing around me… The light from the stars was so bright that I didn’t need a flashlight to see who was making these sounds: dingoes! These wild dogs are known to be so cheeky that they even steal a baby once in a while! These dingoes, however, hardly judged me worth a glance. Still I did not like the idea that they walked half a meter away all night along my ‘bed’ …

The next morning I was broken, but the sun warms you up slowly and the beautiful walk we made was also worth it. We even saw a wallaby and a kangaroo! The second night was the same: beautiful stars, ice cold and … dingoes, so no sleep. OK, so I am not made for ‘living in nature’ …

But when Alison and Dave promised to let me borrow their tent (they sleep in their own caravan), I decided to go with them to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kings Canyon.

The evening before we were to leave, Alison had to return to England unexpectedly because her grandmother had died. She would fly back to Ayers Rock a week later. From ‘lonely backpacker’ I was suddenly traveling with someone elses husband, their car, caravan, tent, scooter and all the trimmings! Quite a change, but what a luxury! So in the evening I sit in the caravan with music on my laptop to work or read a book. There are BBQ sites everywhere, so you take your food with you and you can cook wonderfully. We even have a fridge, so delicious things are regularly put on the table here.

Every evening I enjoy the stars again. I never knew that there could be so many and that the Milky Way is really almost tangible…

We still walk every day for about 3 to 4 hours. There are such beautiful mountain formations here, with views that make you completely dizzy, so beautiful. I never thought a desert landscape could be that varied!

Tomorrow we are going to Ayers Rock, where Alison will hopefully join us again.

Yesterday at the campsite we had a funny moment. Dave parked the car in front of the reception and I went inside to pay for another night. I said that I wanted to pay for ‘that old caravan’. The lady behind the reception asked for Dave’s last name and I had to walk back to the car to ask him…  I saw the lady look at me: you SLEEP with someone and don’t even know his name?!?

My temporary travel companion Dave had found a job at a ranch in the middle of nowhere, about 100 kilometers from Ayers Rock. I was allowed to borrow his car with tent and camping gear to go to Ayers Rock on my own for two days. Great, that freedom; I felt like a queen! The national park where ‘the rock’ is located is very large and there is much to see.

Everything they say about that gigantic red rock is true: impressive, beautiful, fairy tale-like color change etc. Apart from a small resort about 20 km away, it is not at all touristy. By the way, I loved walking around that resort: shops! Restaurants! Only then did I realize how much I had missed ‘civilization’ after two weeks in the bush …

At the end of my second day I had to drive another 80 kilometers through the desert, through nothing, back to the ranch where Dave was staying. When it is dark in the desert it is pitch black, you see nothing. And animals run free, also on the road: kangaroos, cows and wild camels. Just to be safe, I left Uluru well before the beautiful sunset (which I actually didn’t want to miss).

About fifteen minutes before I was back at the ranch, it got really dark. I drove a little slower. All of a sudden I saw cows along the road and was reminded that they are walking around there too. So I drove even more carefully. When I saw the sign that said ‘another 2 kilometers’, I started to relax: I was almost there, I had made it! Then suddenly there was a cow in front of me on the road, less than a meter away. I tried to avoid it, but couldn’t do anything anymore. I hit him on the head! I think I even saw his teeth fly out of his mouth … A hard blow, screaming brakes and a moment later I managed to stop the car. My arms and legs were trembling. Fortunately I had managed to stay on the road. I was physically unharmed. But how about the cow, and the car? I hardly dared to look back and drive back. What if the cow was still on the road? What if it was injured, or dead? What should I do then? Still, I thought I should take a look. I turned the still-smoking car around and luckily saw nothing on the road. A little further on a cow limped into the bushes. I didn’t see his head, but I feared the worst.

The car was also in very bad shape. It was still driving, but the front light was broken as well as the hood; the side panel, both doors and the rear panel were heavily dented. The cow must have made a pirouette as a result of the blow, hitting every panel and door on the left side of the car.

With trembling knees and very reluctant I drove back to the ranch … How do you tell someone who loaned you his car that you just hit a COW?!?!?

I found Dave in the bar, busy talking with old Pete, who founded the ranch some 60 years ago. Within 5 minutes everyone who worked at the ranch (about 20 people), including the passing ‘road train’ drivers, knew what had happened. Jokes of ‘cow girl’ and other silly things (such as ‘that cow had a mother, you know’ and ‘she also had a name: we called her DOLLAR’) were readily available. Fortunately they did not know that I am a vegetarian, otherwise they would probably have had even more fun …

Eventually we found someone on the ranch who could repair the damage a bit. My insurance told me it doesn’t cover ‘borrowed cars and / or cow accidents’, so this adventure cost me a hefty blow. Still that was the least of my worry, I felt particularly bad for the cow (and for Dave of course).

Anyway, within one evening and one morning both Dave and I were completely included in the ‘family’ on the ranch. All special people, each with their own story.

There were also camels, including a very sweet baby camel raised with a bottle, an orphaned kangaroo, etc. It felt so special, such an outback mini village, that I didn’t want to leave at all. But I had already booked my flight, so I flew to Cairns.

On the bus from Cairns airport on the way to a hostel, I felt like I had taken the wrong plane and that I had ended up in Disney World. I had never seen so many neon signs, lights, hotels, restaurants, shops, tour operators, cafes together. Cairns is the ‘party capital’ of Australia. Everyone goes here te get drunk, go out, drink more and brag about their hangover the next day. So it’s really me (..not!). But I’m having a good time eating sushi for a few days, drinking fresh juices and sleeping in a clean bed. All those things you miss in the outback.

One of the major attractions here is of course the Great Barrier Reef. Everyone is (learning to) scuba dive, so it is busy! I wanted to go to a part of unspoiled reef, so booked a four-day trip on a sailboat to Holmes Reef, the most remote reef, 240 km from Cairns. With a small group we would do 9 dives in 2 days, including 1 shark feed. That seemed great to me!

However, the weather was not good. The wind was strong and the sea was rather rough (= understatement). I hung green-faced over the railing for the entire 15-hour outward journey. I quickly got the hang of ‘feeding fish’. In any case you should NOT do it against the wind!!!

I stayed on deck all night, cold, wet, seasick and miserable. I can’t remember ever feeling so bad. The next morning everyone came back on deck after a (for most) wonderful night’s rest and started the briefing for the first dive. I didn’t even think about moving, let alone diving! But they persuaded me; I didn’t want to miss this and I would feel so much better in the water! I can tell you that after such a night, weak, sick and nauseous, a dive of more than 35 meters depth into the cold water is no fun! I skipped the next dive and disappeared into my bed. In the afternoon I felt a little better and made another dive. There were white tip sharks (small ones) and beautiful coral formations. But I must honestly say that Curacao (where I lived for a while and dived a lot) is just as beautiful, if not more beautiful.

The next day there were 5 dives planned, but I still didn’t feel really well on that constantly wobbling boat, so I made 3, which I think is quite an achievement in itself. The shark feed was great! First, fish waste was thrown into the water to lure the sharks. Soon a few, and also other fishes, a kind of tuna over 2 meters in length, started to roam fairly aggressively. The idea that we would soon jump into that swirling water of activity was pretty bizarre. A kind of giant seafood skewer was made from fish heads that were threaded through their eyeball holes on a thick iron rod. Yes, it looked as unpleasant as it sounds …

Then we were very carefully guided into the water and somewhere safely (?) positioned on the ground. Not too close together, because the sharks still had to be able to swim between us if they wanted to go onto the reef with their prey….

As soon as the ‘seafood skewer’ was hung in the water, all the sharks went crazy: they dived for it and tried to tear off pieces. Just like you see in a movie, when a shark hooks its jaws into its prey and then tries to tear pieces loose by shaking its head and its body weight. Impressive! Luckily none of us ended up as dessert …

I was already looking forward to the way back and disappeared into bed at 7 am, with a good dose of anti-seasick pills. They did their job, because I just woke up in the harbor. However, I feel like I have a jet lag …

Now a few days of sun-sea-beach and jungle (if the sun comes out again, because it is rainy now …) and then on to New Zealand!

One thing has to be said: the Australians have a great sense of humor, as can be seen from this photo of a traffic sign that I came across on the way …

Will you continue traveling with me to New Zealand?

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