Around the world in 125 days
Nepal and Australia are my two favorite countries. And interestingly they are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. While Nepal is small, backward and poor, Australia is big, modern and wealthy. But they do have a lot in common too, like friendly people and beautiful scenery, both natural and man-made.
Other than driving on the wrong side, Australia is also a lot like North America, to the point that occasionally I forgot I was in Australia, thinking I was somewhere in Florida. Australia is a big country and we chose to visit only the following places, Alice Springs for Ayers Rock, Cairns and Port Douglas for the coral reef, and finally Sydney for everything at its harbor, namely the Opera House and Harbour Bridge etc. We also decided not to join tour other than the camping trip. After all there should not be any problem with language.
We arrived at Sydney International Airport and then rushed immediately to the domestic airport to catch a flight to Alice Springs. We had signed up for a 3-days-2-night Outback-camping trip. The idea was to experience the 'Crocodile Dundee' Outback, plus Ayers Rock. I always wondered what it is like to camp out in the Australian wilderness. That was why we signed up for this trip. Alice Springs is just a very small town with one major street in the middle of the Australian desert, relatively close to Ayers Rock. If not because of the Rock, nobody would bother to come here at all I am sure. One thing that surprised us is the number of flies in the Outback, something that the Australian tourism ads never tell you. They are just everywhere. It is so bad that some people wear fly nets over their heads similar to the mosquito nets used in Canada. You might have seen hats with a lot of corks hanging around the rim. They were invented here, to scare the flies away. I made the mistake of having a kangaroo burger for lunch in a small outdoor cafe. It was kind of disaster. Really hard to eat and fight off the flies at the same time. Certainly took away all the fun of eating outdoor, something that I enjoy immensely. There were other people eating outside as well. I guessed they must be all tourists. So in case you want to go to the Outback, beware of the flies. I did ask where these flies come from. They told me it is the cattle and dead animals out there that attract them.
I had a bad cut at the back of my leg and it was getting worse. So the first thing we did was looking for some treatment. We found a hospital and went into the emergency room. Waited a while before a young doctor showed up. He did a good job of fixing me up with disinfectant and bandages. While we were waiting for treatment, we saw some Aboriginals also waiting for treatment. From what I read they were badly mistreated at the beginning by the European newcomers. They were treated as part of the fauna and flora, in other words, like the wild animals and plants that one had to deal with when arriving at a new place rather than another human being like you and me. Of course, like progressive governments everywhere, Australian government is now really ashamed about the past and working to correct the situation. So things have definitely improved substantially for the natives. They are treated much better now.
That night we went to a restaurant that served Outback food. You can order a combination plate that come with camel, emu, crocodile and kangaroo meat. I found camel and kangaroo are most beef-like. Emu tasted like tough beef jerky while crocodile meat looked and tasted like octopus.
We spent one night in a hostel called Melange Lodge which claimed to be a "backpacker resort". That of course sounded pretty oxymoronic to me. The place was in fact very basic. There were dormitory-style rooms, with 8 beds to a room. We went for a private room instead. It was a small room with a double bed. The amazing thing about this room was that, other than a double bed, there were absolutely no furniture at all. No table, no desk, no chair. But it was clean. The hotel had a big restaurant and a bar with dance floor. During the night, a young couple got into a big fight. The girl was crying and swearing really now loud. It was very annoying to say the least. I was tempted to run down to the office and find somebody to complain.
Next morning, we started our trip. We had about 8 people in our group. The tour leader and driver was John and he looked exactly like the Australian actor Bryan Brown. The other people in our group included a retired Australian couple from Melbourne. There were two travel agents, one from Germany and one from Japan. Both of these were traveling extensively in Australia. The Japanese girl was also doing some work. Apparently a few countries have special arrangements with Australia. The young people from these countries can legally work in Australia for a period of time, like one year. The countries include England, Canada, Japan, and Ireland. Hey, wouldn't it be nice to get myself a job and work in one of these countries. Unfortunately, there is an age limit to it because this program is really meant for young people. So Estrella was out of luck. The tiny Japanese girl told us she was working in a melon farm one time, picking giant watermelons sometimes bigger than her.
Our journey would take us in a loop around Ayers Rock spending two nights at two different campgrounds. The bus we were on towed a trailer that contained the camping gear, such as tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, etc. Our tour leader did multiple tasks, as guide, driver, and cook. Like other camping trips I did in Canada, guests are expected to help do the dishes.
Ayers Rock (its Aboriginal name is 'Uluru') is Australia's most famous natural landmark, located 350 km southwest of Alice Springs, inside the Kata Tijuta National Park and is the world's second-largest monolith - in other words, one really gigantic single rock. The height is 318m (986 ft) and it sits on flat land. The distance around the base is 8 km (5 miles). and it goes 2.5 km (1.5 miles) below the surface. Supposedly around 500 million years ago it was part of the ocean floor. How it was raised up like that is truly a natural wonder.
You can actually climb to the rock's top. there is a trail with a chain rail guiding you up the rock, but it is very steep. definitely not for older folk or those with weak knees or hearts. apparently people do occasionally die while climbing, either from falling off or by heart failure. when it gets too windy the park rangers close the trail. another thing to note is the aborigines consider the rock a sacred spiritual site and are not too crazy about people climbing it. they have no choice but let people climb it because that was a condition when they received the area back from australian government in 1985, even though the government had earlier promised them otherwise.
In case you wonder, the honour of the largest monolith goes to Mount Augustus, also in Australia. Hey, how come nobody heard of Mount Augustus or bothers to visit it?
As we headed southwest, most terrain is pretty flat rocky desert with scrub vegetation here and there. so if you see any big hunk of rock, like Ayers, you certainly notice it right away. At one point I saw a huge rock at a distance, looking very much like Ayers. But it wasn't. Apparently there are a few of these huge rocks that look very similar to Ayers. Why the Rock became so famous and the rest are in total obscurity I have no idea, as i never expected there would be more than one.
We arrived at the Rock in the early afternoon and settled into a modern campground, with all the conveniences of washroom and barbecue facilities. In fact we were right next to a hotel and sharing a convenience store with them. We purposely signed up for a camping trip to experience the outback. In this case, it was a rather unusual arrangement in that the campsite and the hotel appeared to be owned by the same people. It's almost like if you pay for hotel trip, you stay in room inside the building, and if you go for camping then you camp outside - in the hotel's parking lot. While it was great to have all the facilities nearby, I did not feel we were camping in the middle of the Outback that much, particularly since you can see the hotel building not too far away. A bit disappointing. By the way, John told us that a sleeping bag in Australia is called a 'swag' or 'metuda' and different in design from North American ones since they allow sleeping under the stars without tent and somehow protect you from nasty things that can bite you at night. In the old days, that was the way cowboys slept. Nobody bothered with the tent thing, which was just way too civilized for them.
During the night, Estrella noticed some weird rattling noise inside the tent. She was panicking. With our tiny flashlight, we finally tracked down the source of the noise. It seemed to be coming from the bag of beef jerky she had inside the tent. Did not know exactly what to do, and not really keen to find out what it was, Estella used a long stick to push the whole thing out of the tent. That seemed to solve the problem and we were able to sleep in peace afterward.
We visited the Rock twice, once the afternoon we arrived to watch the sunset over Ayers. Watching the sunset over the Rock has been made into a big-deal event. We joined hundreds of other tourists lining up about a kilometer away, where everyone parked their cars and took out their champagne. We all stood there and watched the sunset and drank champagne before we settled to the campsite. I even saw some folks set up nice dinner tables with white table cloths and candle lights to enjoy a fine meal while watching sunset over the Rock. Next morning, we went again to watch the sunrise this time. The reason you want to see the Rock so many times is because its colour can change dramatically during the day and during different seasons, from orange to brown and even to yellow or purple, due to the change of the Sun's angle and the atmospheric conditions. For me, it was pretty much sandstone brown all the time - did not notice any differences.
Next morning, we also went for a walk around the base of the Rock, as the natives prefer you do that rather than climbing it. some people did but I decided not to climb it because my leg was not exactly 100% yet. After that, the group visited another big rock called Orca nearby, which is a smaller version of Ayers, or as I called it, 'Ayers Light'.
From the Rock, we moved on to King Canyon for a second night of camping. This canyon is different from our canyons because you don't look down. Instead you look up so it is really more like a flat top hill than a canyon, in other words, a canyon in reverse. Hard to describe. This campsite was much more rustic. John had a interesting way of preparing our dinners: he first cut up the meat and put it in a big pot with some potatoes and carrots etc. Then he started a big bonfire with a bunch of fire wood. Then after the wood was burning really hot, he just buried the whole pot into the wood and let it cook. The meal came out quite delicious. Next morning, the group tried to hike up to the top. I did not go all the way to the top. but did see a small wild kangaroo or a wallaby hopping around in the bush. Not bad being able to see some real native wild life. If I did not see a wild kangaroo, it would be just as bad as going to Canada and never seeing a moose.
After the Outback, we went back to Alice Springs and took a flight to Cairns, described as a place where "the rain forest meets the reef". Cairns is in the northeastern part of Australia, located in Queensland State and is a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef area. The Reef is considered one of the world's natural wonders. It stretches out along the entire coast of Queensland for 2000 km. Believe it or not, one-fifth of the world's coral is located there. Coral reef is a peculiar creature that can only survive in water that don't fall below 28 degree Celsius, so it's limited to between 30 degrees North and South of the Equator. The water must also be clean and clear for light to reach the creatures. Otherwise they can't grow properly. What truly amazes me is the different shapes of reef. They vary from giant fans, to tree branches, to long tubes or net formation. How it determines what shape to form, I have no idea. you just hope they would be around for a long long time because tropical fish love them.
Cairns is a tropical place, very touristy. The atmosphere is almost like Orlando. The major difference is people go to Orlando for Disney and theme parks. Here people go for the Reef. Unlike other tropical places, there isn't any easy beach there for swimming or snorkeling. For that, you have to join one of the boat trips offered by the numerous travel agents.
The hotel we where stayed is called Rhiga Colonial Club Resort. It is a beautiful 5-star hotel built inside a block of tropical forest. Unfortunately it is about half-hour drive from downtown which has a casino, and marinas. In downtown, you can also find many souvenir shops and nice restaurants and shopping mall along the street facing the bay, but the prices were rather expensive by Canadian standards, especially the seafood. The hotel has a shuttle bus to the downtown but it stops after 6PM, making it difficult to dine outside the hotel.
One thing that is being sold by a lot of souvenir stores is an Aboriginal musical instrument with an interesting name of 'didgeridoo'. It is made out of a polished hollow tree branch and painted with colorful motifs. Since these are made out of natural trees, they are all different with various length, usually around 3 feet long. You blow into it from one end and it makes this haunting sound which is very hard to describe. While we were there somebody was actually giving a 'didgeridoo' concert. Some tourists would actually buy one and bring it home as memento. If you have a friend who visited Australia, ask him if he got one. Don't be surprised if he says Yes.
Personally I have not seen anybody perform with this instrument except once after the trip. At a Yanni PBS concert special, one musician took this baby out and did a solo tune. Of course folks who have visited Australia would recognize it right away. The rest would be definitely scratching their head and wonder what the heck was that guy playing.
One night, I wanted to go into town but Estrella did not want to go as she was in a "I am not going anywhere tonight" mood. So I took the shuttle and had a good time wandering around town. around 9PM at night. When it was time to go home, I really did not want to pay for a taxi. Instead, I decided to walk back to the hotel. At the beginning I tried to follow the bus route, but after a while I started to get lost and ended up in some residential area. Like most typical towns in North America at night, it was kind of dark and quiet in streets. No pedestrians at all except once in a while a car would go by. By the time I was a bit despairing, a car pulled up next me and offered to help. Turned out it was a cop car with a big German shepherd at the back seat. I guess at a neighborhood like this, cops do not expect anyone walking around by himself at night. Residents would all be in cars for sure. Good thing he decided to check me out. I told him that i could not find my hotel. He kindly offered me a ride back, so the cop car pulled up to this nice hotel entrance and I got off while the door-men looked at me funny, probably wondering if they had a criminal staying at their hotel. Anyway, that was one of the two times I was in a cop car and the first time I arrived at a hotel by one. Nice cops in Australia I must say.
To go snorkeling, we took a ferry to Fitzroy Island. The island is about 3km long and mostly part of a national park. The boat we took was completely full, with over 100 people, yet when we got there they all seemed to just disappear. We went to the beach and pretty much had the whole beach for ourselves. The water was calm and there was coral reefs everywhere. We snorkeled for about an hour and were totally impressed by the varieties of fish that we saw. Some of them were very colorful. We had a great time.
One of the sightseeing attractions available in Cairns is something called Skyrail. Kind of like ski gondolas, but they take you over rain forest so you can check out the trees and flowers underneath. Since it was clearly a tourist thing, it ended at a station with all kind of souvenir stores. Nothing too exciting. but at a open field, we saw people demonstrating the famous boomerangs, apparently invented by the Aboriginals. When it works, pretty amazing to see them flying at a curved path, right back to the throwers. Of course, some of them never come back at all. Believe it or not, there is even a World Cup competition every two years for this kind of thing.
One day we went to a beach just outside Cairns called Palm Cove. Nice condos and hotels along the beach front, similar to those you find in Florida. We checked out the beach and found signs posted along the edge. It warned people about jelly fish. There were also a couple of big bottles containing emergency vinegar. The jelly fish problem here is no joke. They routinely kill people by inflicting severe burns, especially killing those who can't be rushed to hospital in time. Once attacked, the idea is to pour the vinegar on the wounds until proper treatment is available. That sign kind of dampened my desire to swim there. Good thing for some reason, this jelly fish thing only infests certain beaches. Australians solve that problem by putting up swimming areas that are protected by some kind of net device which excludes jelly fish.
After Cairns, we took a bus to go one hour north to Port Douglas, which is an even smaller city than Cairns, but has some very expensive hotels and it is also closer to the Great Barrier Reef, especially the outer reef. This time we stayed at the Radisson Treetop hotel. It's in the middle of a rain forest with a beautiful tropical salt-water pool. That afternoon after we arrived, there was some heavy rain. The guests did not complain too much. After all, we were in a rain forest - What do you expect?
When the rain stopped, we went to to check the place and saw one nice big hotel that was used by Clinton when he visited Port Douglas. Close to our hotel is the beautiful Four Miles Beach. But it is not exactly good for swimming, because we saw a couple of fenced off swimming areas for swimmers just in case jelly fish showed up. The place is really a smaller resort town with one main street lined with tourist eateries. During our walk, we found some trees with mangoes hanging on them. One thing we still found puzzling is why in here you have mangoes hanging from trees for free locally but if you go to supermarket to buy some, you would find the price is much more expensive than the mangoes in Toronto supermarkets. And Toronto is of course thousands of kilometers away from the nearest mango tree. Makes you wonder how things really work.
Port Douglas is also the place where the famous QuickSilver reef tour is based. Actually they have at least 3 of them. These are big, I mean huge, air-conditioned catamaran powerboats that can go up to 20 knots an hour. Since the boat appears to be made of aluminum, they should really call themselves Quick Aluminum I suppose.
We decided to go with QuickSilver for a snorkeling and diving trip, even it is almost twice as expensive than others because they go to the outer Agincourt Reef. Plus they had a platform built right on top of the reef where they have all the facilities setup. In other words they are the biggest outfit and well known in this area, if not in the world. Majority of the people just did snorkeling but some signed up for diving. After the Red Sea diving, here was my opportunity to try the Great Barrier Reef. Since I am not a regular diver, I did what I usually do by simply signing up after what they call a 'resort course'. This course is designed to teach total beginners enough to go diving after about a couple hours of lessons. This way I get a refresher course on how how to use the equipment and I get to hang around with the dive master.
My dive master in this case was a young Japanese girl called Hiromi. I believe she also used that special program allowing Japanese to work in Australia. While on the boat, before we arrived at the destination, she gathered her group and started the lesson on various pieces of equipment and how to use them, like checking air gauge to see how much air left and clearing the mask under the water in case water managed to get inside. There are of course all kinds of hand signals that you have to know to communicate with the dive master. The Okay hand sign would mean you are okay etc. After we arrived at the platform, we were all ready to go.
The Quicksilver platform is big, anchored on top of the Reef and it has all the gear and lunch facilities ready to serve customers. About couple of hundred of tourists got off the boat. We all got changed and got into the water for close fish encounters. Quicksilver no doubt had the best diving setup I have ever seen. Very well organized. You got your equipment at one place and then got into water at another place. There were steps and ropes that guide you to the bottom. Here the fish are not only big; they also had no fear. They swam back and forth right in front of your mask, literally looking at you eye to eye. A Quicksilver diver was also on hand to take underwater video. I regretted not buying a disposable underwater camera.
After my dive, I joined Estrella for some snorkeling. She claimed she saw me beneath her at one point. Together we saw giant purple claims and big groupers hiding under the reef, in addition to numerous other colorful tropical fish. After all the snorkeling and diving, we were all wet and tired. We enjoyed an excellent buffet with barbecued or grilled 'surf and turf' food before heading home. I always wanted to dive in the Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. I must say I was not disappointed at all at both places.
After Port Douglas, we went to Sydney. The 2000 Olympics were just over and now they were well into and almost near the end of the Para-Olympics. We intentionally went after the Olympics to avoid the crowd and stayed at a Holiday inn located right downtown next to the King's Cross subway station. King's Cross is their entertainment zone, so you may say it is a bit on the sleazy side, with a happy mix of strip clubs, Internet Cafes, ethnic foods and dollar stores.
But since it was the end of Paralympic, we did see a lot of people sightseeing in wheel chairs. Of course, they were athletes who had finished their competition. Got to say I never had seen so many people in wheelchairs in my life. One day we took the subway to the Olympic site, checking out the place, hoping maybe we could get to see some of the stadiums and even watch some competitions. To our big surprise, all the events on that day was sold out, even some obscure sport was not available. I was really expecting the stadium would be mostly half empty but that was not the case. Obviously even Paralympic has fans. Could be the family members of the athletes. Who knows. The only event we managed to see was an outdoor wheelchair marathon.
The competitors were streaming into the stadium, one here and one there on their way to the finish line. The first Paralympic was considered to take place in Rome in 1960 for people with disabilities, which include mobility disabilities, amputees, visual disabilities and even people with cerebral palsy. Starting 1988, they held the games in conjunction with the regular Olympics in the same city and three weeks after the regular closes. Not sure how they work, but I heard the logistics could be extremely complicated for those organizing the events. For example, for track and field event for visually impaired folk, there would be separate events for people with 50% vision and others for those with 10% vision etc. Or for people with one leg and others for those with no legs. Finally there are also Special Olympic games for people with mental disabilities. Such games are sometime incorporated into the regular Paralympic and sometime not. The reason for 'not' was occasionally some people with intellectual disabilities want to cheat, just like the non-disabled. Makes you want to smile, doesn't it.
Sydney is famous for its harbor and opera house. It is also a fairly compact city with all its main attractions close together. We visited the amazing opera house, admiring it from front and back. We also went inside but did not see any opera being played there. Even if there was one, we would probably give it a pass. Around the harbor, there is a aquarium, a big multi-story shopping complex, and several outdoor restaurants. Certainly a lot of stuff to keep you occupied. Next we went to Chinatown. It consists of two short blocks and a small Chinese garden. There is also a fairly big indoor food market.
Next to the harbor is the Harbour Bridge. If you want, you can pay A$100 and they will let you climb to the top of the bridge as part of an organized package. You are required to wear some outfit, with a harness which is hooked to a safety cable. So even if you accidentally fall off the edge, you would still be okay. Heard the view is spectacular.
One day, we took a ferry to see the two beaches near Sydney, Bondi and Manly. Part of the benefit is the ferry let you see the bridge and the opera house from the waterside, saving you the cost of joining a sightseeing cruise. Both beaches are nice. Bondi is more famous and I do like it better. There is a trail on the right side of the beach that winds up the hill and a lot of artists setting up kiosks along paths to display and sell their creations. We joined the crowd window-shopping up the trail.
I like Sydney a lot because it is so clean, so modern and has so many outdoor restaurants. One thing I should mention also is on some downtown streets, the curbs on the major intersections actually have the instructions painted on it to tell you to look to the right first before crossing the street. It was done, I guess, to avoid accidentally killing some North American tourists when they try to cross the streets and are checking for traffic in the wrong direction.
For some reason, during our stay in Australia, Estrella often refused to go to decent restaurants. Instead we had fast food all the time. Maybe we ran out of money and time to go home. I was really tired of fast food anyway. On the plane, we talked to an American girl who was on her way home. She told us she volunteered as a reporter for Olympic events. Her job was to update a website with reports and current scores. According to her, she had to pay her own accommodation and food etc. Finding a place to stay during the games of course was hard. She had to share room. But she said this experience should help her later with her journalism career.
As I mentioned earlier, Australia is a big place and there is still a lot to see. But I was satisfied that we had seen enough, hitting all the highlights anyway. After Sydney, it was definitely time to go home. On one hand, I felt sad that the trip had to end but the same time I was also happy that we were going home soon. After four months on the road, I started to miss home.
But many more travels to come.
© Dave Cheng 2000