Friday, March 21, 2008
It wasn't until the next day when the sun was up, I realised Cairns is nestled in between a series of towering rainforest-covered slopes. But then again, it is in the Tropics. Like Lilt, it really is Totally Tropical.
And to prove it was raining. Oh boy, was it raining. Rain that would make your head bleed. Rain that would make Noah go "...oh no, not again" before nipping down Focus Do-It-All for some supplies.
Cloud here isn't so much low as at street level, and because Cairns is a doing place rather than a seeing place, travel agents peer out from amongst gaudy posters for diving courses, wondering when the torrential downpour will end.
And amongst the deluge, my camera decided to give up the ghost, so I spent the afternoon rushing round Cairns trying to find the one Sony accredited dealer on the edge of town. One discounted $30 fixing fee later, and back at the hostel I found that though it worked in the shop, the camera was broken again, my day had been wasted and it was too late to book any activity for the following day. Not that it would have been particularly pleasant in this end of the world weather.
A balls-up frankly. But never mind. Greyhound bus to Airlie tomorrow where I am hoping the weather will stay fine.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Again I spent the first few hours of the journey asleep and when I woke we were still 4 hours from our destination. The temperature was already up in the high 30s and was threatening to prevent us from doing any walking. Unfortunately it didn't prevent tour guide Tom from playing the atrocious Australian equivalent of Chas 'N Dave and insisting everyone do the actions under threat of being dumped in the outback.
"Give me a home among the gum trees,
with lots of plum trees,
a sheep or two, a ka-kangaroo.
A clothes line out the back, verandah out the front,
and an old rocking chaaaaair....... "
Each animal had an appropriate hand action. I certainly knew which hand action was most appropriate. I sat with my arms resolutely folded like a child who had not won the Knight Rider keyring during pass the parcel.
The Red Centre, as it's known, comprises three natural features: Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kata Tjuta and King's Canyon, which many professed to be their favourite, although for me was the least impressive on account of our truncated tour and resemblance to the Peak District if it was painted pillar box red.
Another hellishly long drive and were approaching Uluru. And it is at its most impressive on approach; appearing seemingly from nowhere, ominously dominating the skyline, eerie and foreboding, and standing out in sharp relief against the flatness of the surrounding land.
Over to the observation area to watch the setting sun cast its purple hues against the rock, and then back to camp for kangaroo steak.
That night I camped out under the stars. Using a swag (a cross between a sleeping bag and a huge bulletproof vest) and my rucksack as a pillow, I gazed up at a trillion pin points of light showering down. I listened to some suitably epic Sigur Ros track and lay counting shooting stars. I counted 7 before I fell asleep. A real moment.
I was up at 4.30 am next morning to catch the Uluru sunset. We made our way round the base of the rock as the sun turned it to glowing ochre. I really hadnt appreciate how rough and craggy it was. I assumed it was smooth and rounded but it is riddled with holes punched messily into the side and shattered scree litters the floor.
Final visit of the day was the most impressive. Kata Tjuta looks like a boxing glove slices up by a pizza cutter. Or an alien city fashioned from bright red Playdoh. A walk between the giant rock bollocks revealed a truly otherworldy landscape of blood red sand and giant magenta meatballs.
And amongst it a sight only myself and Riccardo (from Milan) saw. A lone kangaroo stood stock still staring us down. I spotted it first and nudged the blabbering Riccardo into silence, but upon aiming our cameras it bolted across our path and headed off down the escarpment.
From there a wearisome 5 hour journey back to Alice. A total of 1300km which added to the 1600km from Coober Pedy made nearly 3000km in 4 days. And I haven't even started on my Greyhound bus ticket yet.
The next day I had a wander into Alice itself. There's not much there and it's very redolent of a mid-West US town with its low rise shopping arcade, small mall and Pizza Hut.
But the Aborigines are ever present in Alice; the majority, and the dominant presence on the streets. What I find interesting, all race cliches aside, is that they really don't appeared to have changed in 40,000 years. Today we have anti-lock brakes, blue tooth headsets and Youtube videos of people falling off skateboards. Yet wander into Alice and you'll see seven Aborigines sat in a semicircle under the shade of a tree, gazing at the sky and casually wafting the flies away.
I can't work out whether they steadfastly refuse to participate in the 21st Century as a protest to their horrendous treatment at the hand of the invading white man, or that they are simply forever out of step with modern living. Or both. Or neither.
One thing is for certain. They ooze history. You can see it in their gait and the shape of their skulls. They are living history. Perhaps I shouldn't be viewing them as curios or exhibits; thye are after all people. But they are a fascinating people, and it seems such a shame that when you look into their eyes all you see is defeat.
A 5.30 am start, then, for my journey to Coober Pedy, remote underground mining town and location for such sci-fi classics as Mad Max and, more recently, Pitch Black starring human lintel, Vin Diesel (despite this it is actually a great film).
Our ultimate destination was Alice Springs over 1000 miles away, and so the journey was to be split up into two days of bum-numbing cross-continental driving.
We were picked up in a minibus at 6.00am by the relentlessly cheery Steve, whose perma-tan was matched only by his perma-grin, like he’d a had a huge lungful of nitrous oxide before he’d set off.
The first few hours were spent asleep while Steve gunned the Groovy Grape tour bus out of Adelaide and into the desert. Yes, that’s right, Groovy Grape. Jesus – it sounds like some programme some Christian youth workers have put together to keep the chavs off the street and the alcopops on a Friday night: “Hey kids, come down to the Groovy Grape on Friday night. There’ll be shandy, Twister and someone has brought in a copy of Goonies on VHS”
When we’d all woken up the landscape had started to change; the vegetation was sparser, the trees shorter, the sand….well….sandier. Soon we were passing giant salt flats previously inland seas before Australia broke away from Asia and became warmer. And when we called in at a petrol station the thermometer read 43c in the shade. The bloke at the counter reckoned it was 48c in the centre of the car park. His wife disagreed, she guessed at 52c. I settled for an average at 50c.
We arrived at Coober Pedy at around 7.00 and immediately set up camp in a hollowed out cave rammed with metal bunk beds, before heading out on to the mounds of pink earth which dominated the town skyline.
Coober Pedy is home to 80% of the world’s opal production and so the town resembles a cross between a Martian building site and a Wild West watering hole. Rusting cranes sit atop salmon coloured dunes, homes are carved into the cliffs (Coober Pedy is Aboriginal for White Man’s Burrow), whilst huge sun-weathered men in fluorescent tabards brush dust from themselves in the glow of the setting sun.
Coober Pedy was great. Its remoteness, harsh environment and unearthly atmosphere created a real alien feel. But I must take issue with the literature billing it as “underground”. “Come and visit the underground pub” says the bumph. However, piling earth on top of something at ground level does not constitute “underground” in my book. As one member of our group pointed out “that means the ground floor of my house is underground as it’s buried beneath my first floor”
Thursday, March 06, 2008
She didn't say anything vaguely feminist and did appear to be wearing a bra. Disappointing.
Bridge over the River Torrens
Saturday, March 01, 2008
An empty gesture, it turned out, as I was woken up at 1.30 am by two exceedingly late (or early?) check-ins, who preceded to turn on the light and spend the next ten minutes ensuring their duvet covers were at right angles to the pillow and the pillow cases tessellated.
I was woken again at 4am by the Frenchman singing in his sleep. He’s no better when he’s unconscious. And then again at 5.30 by a tram, sounding like a Sherman tank charging through a junk yard. In a thunderstorm.
So bleary-eyed I was picked up 6.55 by the tour bus and met Trevor – driver and guide for the day. Trevor was about 53, very tall, very thin with a pocked-mark face and a world-weariness about him. “Long day ahead” he said puffing out his cheeks and furrowing his brow. He wasn’t wrong.
After an hour of picking people up, some sat nonchalantly eating their breakfast when they should have been at the pick-up point, we set off towards the Great Ocean Road, a 120km southern coastal road, constructed by soldiers returning from WWI.
Throughout the trip Trevor, all microphoned up, delivered an informative yet strangely morbid commentary:
“See this? There were terrible bushfires here a few years ago. One family tried to take refuge in their water tank….Boiled. To. Death”
“See this ridge? This is named after a woman who drove her car off this ravine. Poor bitch”
“A couple of years ago a man in that house went mad and killed his entire family. Stupid bugger”
…but Trevor was good value and didn’t suffer fools gladly, shushing an annoying group of giggling Swedish schoolgirls talking all over his commentary.
The tour wend its way along The Great Ocean Road, round numerous inlets, beaches and outcrops, but our ultimate destination was The 12 Apostles - a series of million-year-old giant rock totems hammered into the coastline in parallel, like huge igneous fenceposts.
We arrived there after an 8 hour drive and made straight for the helicopter ride as for an extra $60 we could see the Apostles from the air. 10 minutes later I was being weighed for the trip.
My tummy did a little fart of fear when I saw one chopper launch off at an impossibly-stupid angle before erratically veering left and right like it was trying to evade an Afghan stinger missile. I was reassured, however, when one of the ground crew pointed out “Don’t worry. There are no passengers that. The boss is bored and has taken a chopper out for a spin” . 5 minutes after that I was strapped in the front seat next to the driver. “The stick and the rudder are live” he said “Don’t touch them, otherwise we will crash. And that WILL hurt”.
The trip was perfect, however. Great steep turns allowed us to swoop down on the rocks. The skies were deep blue clear. It was like being suspended in a little bubble of happiness. But, alas, after 12 minutes we returned to Earth.
And then began the long journey home. A good day, but a very long day – nearly 11 hours in the car. Trevor himself admitted he didn’t agree with the route and would have preferred to belt down the motorway for 2 hours to the 12 Apostles and then spend more time there, rather than the windy, carsick inducing Ocean Road.
But a good start to my grand Australian tour.
12 Apostles from the air.
...and then from the viewing platform
Understated, quaint and.....well....just more pleasant. Where Sydney is a bustling metropolis, Melbourne feels more provincial, more steeped in cafe culture, more friendly.
And it's cheap. Much cheaper, in fact, than it's New South Wales rival. Here the same money buys me a good Geoff Capes-sized portion of pasta as opposed to the petri-dish of microwaved slop found on The Cross
I am staying in a hostel called The Nunnery, formerly a convent, now a home to backpacker-based vice and inequity. The staff appears jolly pleased with the number of puns they've managed to wring out of this: the chief receptionist is called Mother Superior, the hostel's cat is called Brother Francis and backpackers must abide by the 10 Commandments, including "cleanliness is next to Godliness". Judging by the state of some rooms, then, we are lucky that Satan himself hasn't tried to book a room for the night
The first person I bumped into was bear-like Quebecois and my former Pink House bunkbed buddy, Etienne, who I last saw in my room at 4.30 that morning. "What the fuck are you doing here?" I asked slack-jawed. "No. What the fuck are YOU doing here?" he asked with equal incredulity. I can't believe we shared a room for the best part of 6 months (and a bed - not like that, though) and didn't even discuss our respective future travel plans
My room is home to two Aussies and a French bloke called Quentin, who upon finding I could play guitar, and convinced of his own singing ability, made me thrash out Coldplay songs whilst he crooned at excessive volume
At times his voice did a carry a Chris Martin-esque oaky tone, but more frequently sounded like Arthur "Good Moaning" Bostrom from 'Allo 'Allo
After extricating myself from the Gallic jamming session, I made my way over the Eureka Skytower, because I am a sucker for observation decks. Easily one of the best towers I’ve visited, the windows were floor to ceiling and tinted to give a clear view of the city and small, cushioned footstools were liberally scattered around allowing visitors to take in the panoramic view.
For an extra $12, tourists could ride The Edge. Not, as some might hope, the opportunity to saddle up U2’s guitarist and ride him into the sunset, but rather frosted-glass box-like contraption which steadily extends out from the skyscraper, until suspended 287 feet over the ground, at which point the frosted glass instantly clears, leaving you to peer down through the glass floor at the ground. It makes you feel a bit funny in your willy. Not in a rude way. In a “where’s the handrail?” way.
The older trams are like the troop transport from Empire Strikes Back. They are very, very noisy and look likely to fall apart at any point.
"The Edge" from the side. It's a 287 feet drop straight down. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take photographs whilst in it. Tight bastards