Monday, June 28, 2010

Jun 21-25: I loathe goodbyes

I returned to Australia on a Monday, with 4 days to cross any remaining items off my list. I wandered Sydney aimlessly, packed and repacked my bags, and read furiously to try to finish a fantastic book that Oscar had loaned me that I didn't want to steal (Jitterbug Perfume - read it, you'll love it). My last afternoon was spent wandering the Botanic Gardens, watching the sun set over the Sydney Opera House and the imposing Harbor bridge. I've taken more than 12,000 pictures over the last 6 months, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if I had taken 500 of that one iconic building.

I have never been good at saying goodbye. Sometimes it feels easier to sneak away without bothering anyone, and avoid subjecting everyone to the emotional distress. Why does it always seem easier to start things than to end them? I got a chance to say a final so long to some of the people I met along my travels. As I reflect back on the 6 month adventure now, I am not going to miss the country. That is to say I won't miss the beaches, and the sunshine.

But I am going to miss all the wonderful people...

Jun 11-21: My Fijian Detour

With a handful of days left before my flight home, I decided to squeeze in a quick trip to Fiji. Amazing diving, wonderful beaches, and great sun... it seemed like a very relaxing way to spend the tail end of my trip. Why not?

Fiji is a collection of islands in the south Pacific. I opted for a budget backpacker tour, starting from the main island moving to the northernmost of the Yasawa group of islands, then stopping at islands for a day or two on the way back. This type of touring is generally jam packed with youngsters, looking for a fun way to see the world.

There were 6 people in our core tour, 3 German fellows, an Australian, an English lady, and me. We spent a week together, riding the big yellow boat (the Yasawa Flyer) as though it was some sort of giant smelly bus reeking of the same colorful odor of a wet towel left in a pile in the bottom of the closet. We stayed at 4 islands in 6 nights, each with its own special charm.

Coral View is a scrappy resort with incredible scuba diving on the northernmost island. Koruvu is a charming spot with a nice outdoor pool, and the most incredible manta ray snorkelling experience you can imagine. Kuata is a tiny island, where they will take you snorkelling while feeding white tipped reef sharks (I liked it so much I went twice). Beachcomber is a tiny island the size of the resort, known as a party island with a ridiculous 200 bed dorm.

The cool part about touring Fiji was that every resort was small. With somewhere between 30 and 40 guests (excluing Beachcomber), all eating the same meals at the same time, it was easy to get to know new people. At every port we would meet new people, some on similar tours, some doing their own thing. We met a handful of Canadians, some lovely English folks, the odd Australian and oodles of Germans.

I was in Fiji when the world cup started. It was wonderfully refreshing to see an international sporting event with people from around the world. The first game of the tournament was England vs USA. A group of 3 English guys were up (and drinking) at 6:30am. They had improvised a little, using markers to draw jerseys on their backs, cheering loudly whenever anything of note happened in the game.

I have exercised much restraint in my curio shopping over the past 6 months, staying away from all of the shops and stands selling tacky tourist items I would just shove in a box when I got home... But passing through downtown Nadi on a Saturday morning, I picked up the greatest souvenir at a car parts store... an authentic Fijian Taxi sign. I can't wait to mount that on my car back home.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jun 1-10: Peaches gets a new home... and so does Oscar!

I've spent the last 10 days at Manly Beach in Sydney... It turned out that Peaches the Pajero was going to need a couple of days with the crack team of mechanics at Midas, which meant I had some time to kill.

So I decided to invest my time...

Oscar, my host in Sydney, has been a great friend to me and has put me up on a number of occaisions. In order to show him how much I cared, I decided to play a little joke on him. While he was away in Tasmania on a diving cruise, his lady friend and I played a game of "While you were out". Celebrating Oscar's special ageless quality, we converted his bedroom into a child's playroom, complete with a basketball hoop, a new space invaders duvet cover, and a rubber floormat. This is exactly why you should never leave your buddies with your house keys.

In other news, I found Peaches a new home! I met a Kiwi couple at the airport, and handed over the keys. It was a bit on the shady side... a cash deal, with no test drive, done in the dark...

And so I'm down to my last two weeks. I have decided to spend some time in Fiji before I make my way back. I'm getting pretty excited about coming home. It feels like I've been away forever.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

May 30-31: Last Stop - Sydney!

Last planned stop on the Australia tour... Sydney!

I have arrived bright and early in Sydney to see my friend Oscar off to Tasmania. I offer to give Oscar a ride to the airport, should Peaches the Mitsubishi Pajero decide she wants to start... but she politely declines. Despite my many attempts to convince her, she sits quietly, resolutely, obviously tired from her long adventure and pleased to be home.

In a way, I feel fortunate. In the entire 31,000km trip, there has been no better place for a breakdown than Sydney. And had I not broken down, I would never have got my money's worth out of my roadside assistance coverage.

Enter Chris, NRMA roadside assistance technician. After exhausting almost every one of his alternatives, he busts out a fancy trick. Connecting a spare battery directly to the starter motor bypasses the ignition and the inhibitor switches, effectively hot-wiring Peaches back to life. Nice move Chris.

Being back in Sydney feels a little like a mini-homecoming. I am so happy to see everyone again.

My plans from here are to:
a) fix Peaches
b) sell Peaches (or give her away if required)
c) find a great way to spend the next 3 weeks. Bali perhaps?

I'm off to visit the mechanic to see how much it costs to repair an inhibitor switch!

May 27-29: The Gold Coast

The Gold coast is a very nice area along the east coast of Australia located between Sydney and Brisbane. I am venturing through familiar territory now which is (paradoxically) an unfamiliar feeling.

I spent a night in Coffs Harbour and a night in Port Macquarrie. Both are sleepy weekend holiday destinations for folks from Sydney. Were I not on a backpacking budget, nearing the end of my tour, I would have gladly stayed longer.

Peaches is starting to act up a little. I'm having less and less success trying to start her. When I turn the key, I need to wait for 10 seconds to see if anything happens. If not, I begin a methodical set of experiments in a trial and error sort of method, beginning with changing the gear I'm in, to adjusting the steering column, ending in me wiggling my butt to shake the Pajero back and forth. On separate occaisions, each of these strategies have worked. I've recently discovered a new trick... if I leave it in neutral, turn the key and then slam it into park, the car starts. I can't wait to explain this to the mechanic.

I popped into Newcastle to see Will, Leah and Hugh once again. In the 5 months it has taken me to circumnavigate Australia, they have had a baby (Hugh), Will switched jobs, and they moved about 1500 km from Melbourne to Newcastle. It is so great to see them to catch up again.

May 24-26: Rolling down the Sunshine Coast

On my way south from Fraser Island I got a chance to pop in to see Terry in Woombye. For those of you who have read the whole blog so far (that would be you Mom), you'll recall that I met Terry and his wife Bec about 40 blog posts and 3 months ago on my way back from my first trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a week before Terry's wedding. Unfortunately Bec was away for work thistime. This meant we got to spend some quality guy time together drinking beers and cooking on the barbecue.

Leaving Woombye, I made my way past the Glasshouse Mountains. Last time I came through it was pouring rain, and I didn't get a chance to do any hiking. I'll tack in a picture or two of the spectacular view.

I spent one night in Byron Bay, the most easterly point in Australia. Byron is a very cool little surf town with a bohemian zest to it. It is popular with backpackers and Aussies alike. It was in Byron that I FINALLY got a picture of the rainbow lorikeet. A very brightly colored little parrot, it that seems to know when you're about to take a photo and does this fancy Houdini kind of a move to avoid being caught on film... or on disk... or whatever...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 19-23: Fraser Island Adventures

Fraser Island is the world's largest sand island. It is a 4-wheel-driving paradise, with a 75 mile sand beach, and incredible tracks through the deep forests. It was the last real adventure for Peaches the Pajero - my last shot at doing any real damage - after this it will be mostly highway driving.

You hop on a 30 minute ferry and presto, you're adventuring around the island. As a rookie 4 wheel driver, I took it pretty easy.

The island has several noteable features. My favorite was the wreck of the SS Maheno. It was a turn of the century luxury liner that was washed ashored during a cyclone in 1935 while it was being towed to Japan to be sold as scrap. The other is a bold population of dingoes. Usually a small and timid scavenger dog, the Fraser Island dingoes have grown accustomed to human contact. My buddy Ashley and his crew had their campsite raided on the first night, and lost all of their meat for the trip.

This marks an inflection point in my trip. From here I'll be doubling back over ground I've covered before. It officially marks the completion of my "lap" of Australia. I have a month left until my return trip to Canada, and I have to start thinking about things like selling my truck, getting a job, and sorting out what I want to do with my life. It is bittersweet. The past 5 months have been such an incredible adventure - I'm looking forward to seeing everyone from back home... and to my next adventure :)


May 14-18: The Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsunday Islands are a chain of islands of the coast of eastern Australia which sit between the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef and the mainland. It is a very popular tourist spot, as sailing ships leave Airlie Beach out to tour the marine-life rich waters and unspoiled beaches.

I did a 2 day, 2 night tour on a boat called Wings 2, a giant catamaran. It looks like a pretty serious sailing maching, with all the obligatory ropes and pulleys. But in the 2 days, we sort of just drove around as the sailing conditions weren't really windy enough to move the huge boat.

Whitehaven beach is particularily spectacular, as the fine white sand swirls in the shallows to make swirling shapes. We caught it on a cloudy day. It is often named one of the top ten beaches in the world.

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airlie_beachwhitehaven_beachwhitehaven_beach2Day 2 b Whitehaven Beach Hostie Cam (69)

May 12-13: Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest

Just north of Cairns is a World Heritage Site called the Daintree Rainforest. It is a quick 2 hour drive. My dinner team and I took an afternoon to wander through the forest and to check out the beautiful beach. Beaches in the area are heavily signed to warn people against crocodiles and jellyfish.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 9-11: Scuba Diving at the Great Barrier Reef

I have spent the last 3 days on a purpose built scuba diving boat cruising around selected sites diving the Great Barrier Reef. We did 11 dives in total, including 2 night dives. The second night dive was probably the most interesting. The captain was feeding the sharks off the end of the boat prior to our dive. When we came up we had reef sharks cruising by to check us out. I had an AMAZING time, and met some great people.

The last dive site we visited was easily the most spectacular I've ever seen, and I can't wait to get back in the water again. The photos don't really do it justice... they never really do...

Starting tomorrow, after roughly 2 months of driving in all three of the other directions, I'm finally headed south again - on the way to the Whitsunday islands.


May 5-8: Hello Cairns!

Hello Cairns! I made it! I'm offically back on the east coast of Australia, ready to act like a tourist. I'm super pumped because a couple of the girls from the Uluru tour are also in town, which means I'll have a couple of people to hang out with... Monique and Jente are Dutch teenage backpackers - working their way across Australia in the year between high school and university. I decided to bunk in at their hostel which (not surprisingly) is filled with teenagers from all over the world. It is difficult to describe feeling both young and old simultaneouly. I'm enjoying this colorful and unexpected flashback to my past.

Monique and Jente and I have had a blast working as a dinner team - pooling funds to buy groceries and make dinners together. Our dinner team made a quick day trip out to Cape Tribulation, part of the Daintree rainforest. With lush vegetation and mangrove swamps, it is spectaularily different than every other part of Australia I've seen so far. But stay off the beaches... there are crocodiles nearby!

Tomorrow I'm headed on a 3-day diving tour of the Great Barrier Reef. I'm trying hard not to contain my excitement - this is one of the big reasons I decided to come to Australia.

As I'm laying in a hammock on the coast in the Australian tropics, I'm starting to yearn for the predictability of sleeping in my own bed. After 4 months and a half months away from home, I'm starting getting used to the idea of heading back.

For those of you who are moms (most especially mine),


May 2-4: The road to Cairns

Between Darwin and Cairns is another 2500km of road. It is largely uninterupted highway driving, save for a big corrugated stretch of dirt track that tests your suspension and loosens your fillings all at the same time. I'm excited to report that once complete, I will only have another 3000km or so to go before I'm back in Sydney... To date, I've driven more than 25,000km in Australia.

Apr 28-May 2: Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks

Just outside of Darwin are two of the Northern Territories most prolific parks.

I toured around Litchfield with Kaitlin whom I'd met on the Uluru tour and her friend Micah. Each wandering around with our giant cameras, we popped in to visit breath-taking waterfalls, and perfect naturally formed swimming holes.

After dropping them off in Darwin, I made my way through Kakadu park. Like Litchfield, it has some remarkable natural features, but the park is defined by the spectacular native art on the rock walls. It would have been easy to spend a week exploring all of the amazing walking trails.

One of the incredible rock photos below is a guy named Narbulwinjbulwinj who eats women after attacking them with a yam. Yep... a yam.


Apr 22-27: Alice Springs and Uluru

I decided to make a quick trip down to see Uluru - formerly known as Ayer's Rock - a bourneheart stone in the red centre of Australia. It is a place of much cultural significance for the aboriginal people.

As opposed to the self-guided adventure I've been leading to date, I decided it would be fun to try to take the train there and join a tour... stopping for a quick helicopter tour of the Catherine gorge en route. For three days and two nights we visited the area around Uluru and did some hiking through King's Canyon. Save for the series of bedbug bites I picked up at the hostel in Alice Springs, this was a great way to get to know the outback and to meet some new people.

I rode the train back to Darwin with Joseph, a German guy who tests the steering in new Audi cars (this is a true story: he test drives cool cars for a living). Where did I go wrong? Maybe it is time for a career change...


Apr 19-21: Welcome to Darwin!

Following my overly adventurous trip down the Gibb road, I was happy to hit paved highways again. I forged ahead to Darwin, in an effort to catch up with my Irish buddy Fergal for beers. After a week or so of social starvation, it was great to see a familiar face and enjoy a multi-party conversation.

My first order of business was to go see a crocodile jumping tour. Based on their stubby little legs, I hadn't imagined that crocodile were much good at jumping. The tour was about an hour long. You float up and down the Adelaide river and a guide hangs a giant pork chop out over the water. Next thing you know, a saltwater crocodile makes his (or her) way out next to the boat, and gets into position to leap for the pork chop. It has a bit of a circus feel to it... but it is impressive to see these fellas in their natural habitat.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Apr 15-18: Gibb River Road

I have spent the last 3 days driving across "the Gibb".

It is a 600km stretch of highway from Derby to Kunnunura that shoots directly across the northwest corner of Australia. If you're going from Broome to Darwin, this is one of two routes available. Road conditions vary heavily over the course of a season. The road is currently only open to 4-wheel drive vehicles below 7 tonnes, because there is still quite a bit of water on the roads. It has been an interesting trip. My first night, I ran into a pair of dutch guys that I met in Exmouth. We had a couple of good laughs, due in part to the fact that I had forced them to take some mp3 audiobooks to help pass the driving time - including Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

Though the vast majority of the drive was remarkably uneventful, there are a couple of very noteable exceptions.

At the midpoint on the second day I hit a bump so big that it broke the mounts for my roof rack, sheering its feeble steel legs. The cage above, complete with full gas cans and huge spare jug of water came crashing down on the roof, giving the truck a somewhat appropriate set of battlescars to remember the trip.

The morning of the third day I came to a river. Up to this point, there had been a number of water crossings over small streams, creeks and floodways. The operating manual for the Pajero says she can safely cross something up to 60cm deep, so to this point the water crossings were more of a novelty than a concern. Until I came to the Durack river. It was there that I met a German fellow standing next to river driving a little all-wheel drive car... swearing in German. We inspected the river several times. I walked through the 20meter track I would drive and carefully measured the depth of the water. 58cm. Half of my engine would be submerged, along with the exhaust. After about a half hour of deliberation I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go. Worst case scenario, we could just push it through if I got stuck.

And I made it. The truck made a little wave when it hit the water, and I ambled along slowly in its wake trying to match the same speed. The German fellow held his breath the entire time. Once I'd crossed we tried to sort out ways to get his car across. He ended up turning around, guessing that the water would engulf the computer in his car, effectively parking it for good. Probably a wise choice...


But the real drama came when I came to the second river crossing. The Pentecost river is right at the end of the Gibb road. About 100 meters across, it looks daunting from the start. It doesn't help that there are "beware of crocodile" signs posted everywhere to keep you from testing the water. Previous reports I had seen had listed the depth of the river at 50cm, though it was tough to tell given the width. A very helpful Australian couple who had just crossed in the other direction decided to stick around with me in case I didn't make it.

If I decided I didn't want to cross it, I would have no choice but to return 500km in the direction I came and then go an additional 1000 km detour around the whole region.

I decided to risk it. The parting words of the helpful Australians as I left the west bank of the river were "If you get bogged, don't get out of your truck. There are crocodiles in the river. We'll go for help." Not exactly reassuring, considering the last sheep/cattle station was at least an hour back.

At the first quarter marker, the water was already well over the height of the hood of the truck. Instead of the rumored 50cm deep, this was more like 90cm in depth. I winced as I continued onwards in terror, dreading the possibility of an engine stutter. If the engine stalled I would be screwd. Trudging through the mucky water, jerking wildly as I bounced over the unseen rocks below, I could see water start to pour in around my feet from under the doors. Please keep going, please keep going. By the halfway point the hood was back above water, and truck was still plugging away. When I finally creeped out onto the east bank of the river, I parked for a minute to let the water drain from the truck and some of the adrenaline work its way through my system. I shouted a thank you across the river to my would be rescue team, and continued onwards. So far the truck seems to be running perfectly (or at least as well as it was running before) save for one curious issue... Instead of burning oil, the running engine smells like sugar cookies.


This is easily the most reckless and irresponsible choice I have ever made.
And oddly one of my proudest moments. What a blast!