Published: January 5th 2012December 17th 2011
Livin' in the land down under! Where bleh blah blah, and blah down under...yeah...
I shall start this Australian blog with Singapore. Odd, indeed, but Changi airport is worth a mention. It is probably the best airport in the world, ever. We had a five hour stop between flights, and we were still rushing around. Airport are usually places to rush, but rarely to do cool stuff. There was the xBox Kinect lounge, the free massage chairs, the 5 gardens including cactus garden on the roof, free internet everywhere, the inter-terminal skytrains to get around it all, some insanely good shopping, koi ponds, music chairs, tv lounge, free cinemas and decent restaurants. We didn't even take the time to go on the free city tour (if you have 5 hours or more of a stop, they give you a free bus tour, though you can't get off the bus as you haven't cleared customs). Long story short, if you're in the region and transiting by air, try to include a 5 or 6 hour stop in Changi.
Anyway. We got in quite late to Perth, around 23:00. Passing through customs was faster than expected; Australia
has pretty strict biosecurity controls, which is understandable if a little tiresome. We were pretty well prepared, having researched stuff online, and declared anything we though might be against the regulations. In the end, the only problem was a diary I had bought in Cambodia - the woodpulp cover contained seeds. It was a really nice diary, but not worth killing native species over. We were fortunate enough to have a great welcome in Australia. My uncle Bertie and his wife Annette were there to collect us, and had offered us a room in their home. It was the first time on the trip that I had had someone waiting for me, other than airport transfer drivers the odd time, or the occasional Hare Krishna, and it kind of had a feeling like coming home. We got back to the house, indulged in a whiskey, and hit the hay.
In the morning, Bertie and Annette showed us around Perth a bit. We drove to Cottesloe, a really nice little seaside town with a stiff breeze, great beaches and many fish and chip shops. We entertained the idea of going for a swim, but it was pretty cold
- added to which, 3 people had been taken by sharks in Perth waters in the days before we arrived. Statistically, an anomaly, but still a reason to be wary. We headed on to Fremantle, the bohemian centre. Fremantle is home to masses of funky cafés, off beat shops, natural healing centres (sigh) and the general sort of stinking hippy stuff you find in such places. To my mind, the closed prison in the area could be put to much better use. It is pleasant though, largely pedestrianised, and the waterside area has a micro-brewery and some great restaurants, even if they take their image a little seriously. Our last stop for the day was King's Park, which has some great views over the city of Perth. In the evening, we met Áine's brother Niall, who has come to work in Australia, and he came back with us to the house for the...barbecue! Our first Aussie barbecue was marred by weather a little (as was nearly the whole Australian leg, actually...), but it was fantastic. Bertie and Annette happen to be very well travelled, and talented cooks, which led to a varied and delicious menu. Also, my cousins Warwick and
Emily, Warwick's wife Deanne, all of their kids, Annette's daughter Jo and her husband and kids, and my aunt Estelle and her husband and daughter were there, making for a big reunion. We also heard the great news that both my cousin Emily and cousin-in-law Deanne (married to Warwick, remember?) are pregnant. More little wonders with the Carter genetics, out improving the world!
The day after the barbecue, we motored down to Whiteman park with the leftovers. This large park area is typical of Australia: tons to do, and facilities that we couldn't dream of in Ireland. Granted, we don't have the weather, but even if we did, a public gas barbecue would probably last about 10 minutes before being vandalised and having the gas bottle stolen back home. We had a good look around the free to enter tractor museum (many attractions are free, though with a "gold coin - 1 or 2 dollar - donation", which is optional if you're a mean git). The museum showcased some of the more extraordinary machines employed in taming the bush, from gigantic steam engines to modern behemoths, as well as a few items of interest like a tractor
that had driven around Australia three times. On the way back from the park, we stopped into a couple of Asian markets for ingredients. Áine and I cooked a Thai dinner that evening, putting some of our lessons into action. Again, the techniques need a little refining, but it wasn't too bad...
The next day was a little less active for us. We had some research to do on camping in Australia and New Zealand, and a bunch of flights to book through to the US and beyond. It took ages, but the schedule and groundwork were laid for the next while, which allows you to relax a bit. We did take the time to have a look at some of the lineage work my uncle had done. We had already heard that our family is related to Percy French (Irish songwriter, penned classics like "Abdul Abulbul Amir" and "Are Ye Right There Michael"), and through him to the O'Connor high kings of Ireland - yep, royalty. This time, it came out that, through Percy once more, I am either the 27th or 28th great Grandson of William the Conqueror. Royalty again! I'll be writing to Buck
Palace, asking which room I can stay in next time I'm in London. Of course, if you think about it, probably a whole lot of people are equally as related to him as I am - kings loins tended to be prolific, England was not so populous then as it is now, and there has been a long time for the genes to spread out. Still, it is cool to trace back that far to interesting characters. I should also note for integrity that we are missing a marriage certificate to actually finally prove the link, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support it.
Some details sorted, we took the time to have a better look at Perth. There was a free walking tour from the info booth, which we joined. It was pretty good; the best bits were the moving clock, on which St. George jousts every 15 minutes, then slays the dragon on the hour (the little wooden dragons head comes off!), and the city herb garden, an open area where a variety of edible plants, herbs, etc., are grown and can be picked from. We took the train out to Fremantle,
and took a tour of the prison. Fremantle prison was built by convict labour in the 1850's - part of the floor is ballast stone from the convict ships. The prison closed in 1991, reopening after being cleaned up, and after the smell from the bucket toilets had subsided - they never installed toilets in the cells. They had good diplays on the history of the prison, showing the differences between the original cells (7 foot by 4, a hammock, a small desk, tiny chair and a bible) and the cells in use by 1991, with bunk beds, small personal devices and walls knocked through to increase the size. There were also minor differences to door design, to allow for ventilation and to stop passing of materials between cells. The cells could get very hot or cold depending on the season; in 1988, with internal temperatures reaching a record 53 degrees celcius, the prisoners rioted, setting fire to the original wooden roof. The tour also took in the kitchens, exercise yards, chapel and death row. We saw the gallows, last used in 1964 to execute Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer known as the "Night Caller". He was buried over
the body of Martha Rendell, the last woman executed in Western Australia; she had tried to "cure" her children's diptheria by swabbing their throats with hydrochloric acid.
We finished the tour and went for dinner at the Little Creatures brewery by the water. Little Creatures is a kind of bohemian spot, taking themselves and their facial hair quite seriously and charging prices to match the image. They do good work behind the scenes, though, with great woodfired pizzas and some really lovely ales. By the time we had finished dinner, the weather had taken a bit of a turn (obliterating our borrowed umbrella in a single vicious gust), so we headed back to Perth. Perth by night was a bit eerie. Now, this would probably not have been so noticeable if we had not come from the human throng of South East Asia. For me, from India on I have been surrounded almost constantly by masses of people; every footpath is a market or a scooter park, every restaurant or bar is crammed, every street is a pastich of human states. The streets of Perth were virtually abandoned. Few people live in the CBD, though they are
trying to encourage people to move there.
We spent the next day preparing to go camping, and making still more bookings on flights, campers, etc. In the evening, we went out for dinner and drinks with my cousins, while Bertie and Annette minded the flock of little-uns. Nancy, Audrey and George are more so entertainment than a burden that needs watching, it seems to me. Can't wait to seem them when they're a bit older, and tell them I knew them when they were 'thiiiss tall...'
The next day, we picked up our first Wicked Camper van! Wicked run budget rentals, with the main idea being low cost and not caring about little bits of damage here and there. Never rented a vehicle before where they tell you little bumps and dents are fine. To be fair, the vans were not in bad condition. Wicked have a mixed reputation, as some of their vans have been taken off the road for failing standards tests, and they were fined for claiming to be the cheapest when other companies had some lower rates. Firstly, if you check what offers are on the website, they are definitely
the cheapest - e.g. say "Cheech and Chong" when you call, and get a free day of rental, simple as that. Secondly, if bad vans have been taken off the road, then what's left must be fine. That was certainly the case for us - our 3 rentals all ran fine. The first van was named Wet Spot, with the slogan "Chocolate doesn't leave a wet spot" on the back - some vans are worse! It looked a little shaky from the outside, but was fine inside. The common model in Australia is a Mitsubishi Express, with wooden compartments on the floor in the back, which you put bags in and lay matresses over to sleep, and with a kitchen at the back door. One gas hob, a sink and water tank, pot, pan, cutlery, an esky and a brush and pan.
It was a long drive to Margaret River, so we departed early the next morning. The Western Australian countryside is really pleasant. We stopped at Koombana bay, again shocked at the facilities available for people along the road. Unfortunately, the frequent dolphin visits in the bay were not in evidence the day of our visit.
We had planned to spend one night in the Prevally campsite; it ended up being 3. It just suited very well, in a great location near the sea. Having checked in there, we went to see Áine's brother again; he and his friends had moved down to work outside the city. Doing regional work gets you an extension of 12 months to your working visa. You need to build up 88 days, and the work tends to be underpaid, as the businesses know people need their time. The lads were working at a vineyard, and getting gipped - very bad pay. Don't buy Cape Mentelle wines owned by Louis Vuitton!
Back at the camspsite, we cooked up our first camper dinner - spag bol! Pretty good, especially along with the local red wine. We drank with our camping neighbours, Richie and Maria from Northern Ireland, then turned in and slept soundly in the surprisingly comfy van. We woke early, and had a hearty scrambled egg breakfast. Took our home on the road again, and went to see some highlights of the Southwest coast. Redgate bay is a quiet, rocky beach, and the Georgette sunk just off the
coast - it once chased three Irish "fenians" escaping their exile aboard an American whaler. The next stop was Lake Cave; we passed through a karri forest on the way there, and a kangaroo hopped across in front of us. It was the only one to do so, as we didn't drive by night - not insured in a camper if you do. Lake Cave is a doline, or collapsed cave, though the lower section is still underground. The entrance is a long walk down steps to the floor, through a few karri trees. It is odd as you walk along to see stalactites outdoors. Down in the cave itself, a wooden walkway leads to the back of a fairly shallow cave. Inside is an inverted table formation, where columns are holding up some of the original floor, where the rest of the floor has washed away. Apparently, it is one of only two known, the other being in France. On the way home, we stopped at a meadery to sample their wares, and picked up some spicy biltong at a petrol station run by a South African guy.
In the evening, we had a barbecue down
at the campsite. Niall and his mates came along, and we munched down on burgers and sausages. Bit of a change for the lads, who were living on tuna and soup packets. We got really lucky with a bottle of wine we picked up, too - Light and Finnis Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, flipping tasty. Yes, that sounds knobby, but when you're in serious wine country, you just get into it a bit. Speaking of which, the next day was a wine tour. It was really excellent, including stops at a chocolate factory, cheese factory and several vineyards. My favourite was Tassel's. The founder, Ian Tassel, greeted us himself, and spoke in plain terms about the wine - very unpretensious, but obviously proud. The last stop was a micro-brewery, where we got a tasting set of 5 beers, including a stout. Fruity ales are really popular at the moment, and I can see why.
The quick trip was over. We headed back north, hardly stopping on the way to Perth. The exception was Busselton, where we paused to see their newly restored jetty. It is pretty impressive, the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere at 3km, but
they charge money to walk along it, and dogs are forbidden...not cool. We dropped the van back in Perth, and stayed with Bertie and Annette for another night. The next day, my netbook was finally repaired. The Samsung repair centre in Perth was not great, really, and they could not recover my data - over 600 travel photos lost. The...thing on reception was just about the least helpful human, if that term applies, that I have encountered, a good approximation of the "Computer says no..." character from Little Britain. Regardless, having the netbook back was great, and I started writing the blog immediately again. And downloading games.
The next morning, we flew to Adelaide. It was sad to be leaving Perth, having enjoyed its beauty - and the hospitality of family - so immensely. We were eager, however, to set out on our longer camp trip. We headed directly to collect the new van: Tramp! Tramp was adorned with paintings of Bob Dylan, and was pretty clean inside despite the haggard outside appearance. We didn't get too far on the first day, just stocking up on supplies, petrol, ice, etc. Stopped at Christie's Beach, just outside Adelaide,
another nice campsite with a great beach beside it. We set out early, hoping to cover some ground. In the end, we got 400km done, stopping at: McLaren Vale, a town with many people of Irish descent; Victor Harbour, a lovely little seaside town, where we took a walk across a causeway that normally serves horse drawn trains to Granite Island; Port Elliot, another gorgeous coastal town, where we had lunch in a car park behind the beach; Kingston, where we pulled in to take touristy photos of a gigantic lobster sculpture. We also crossed the Murray river, a crossing which has to be made by ferry. The ferry is free, and it is the cool way go - you can also go by a road further inland. We stopped in Wright's Bay for the night, at a campsite run by Ron. It is about 20km outside of Robe. The campsite was opened in 1973; the grandchildren of the first person whose name is in the guestbook still visit today. Ron filled our camping stove with gas, and gave us a spot for a mere $6 - the cheapest place we stayed in Australia. The beach was fantastic, though swimming
was not advisable - no shark nets. It was also bloody cold.
The following day, we shot through Robe and on to Beachport. Just outside of Beachtown is Siloam lake, a tiny lake on a hill with an extraordinary salt content. Despite the cold, we donned swimming gear and jumped in. Lets just say it was bracing. It was very easy to swim and stay afloat in the salty water, and we headed out to a platform in the middle of the lake and back. It was a little creepy in the water - you couldn't see more than a few inches below the surface. Áine assured me there are no crocs in southern Australia. Onwards! We went through Millicent to Mt. Gambier. A good stop, Mt. Gambier is where you'll find Blue Lake Crater. The crater holds a large lake now, which is a stony gray in Winter, then changes over the course of a few days in November (we just missed it) to a deep, rich, royal blue. It is quite a sight to behold; the camera doesn't do justice to the colour. The winds across the rim of the crater blow interesting patterns on
the surface of the water, and the water looks perfectly clear - would love to have dived it. We had lunch on the rim, and drove on some more. Passed through Portland and Port Fairy, the latter having been originally named Belfast, another town with many Irish descendants. We arrived in Warrnambool, and decided that they were asking too much for a camp site. It was an hour later, in fading light, when we pulled into a place just after the beginning of the Bay of Islands road, and bedded down.
The Bay of Islands is extremely popular with road trippers and campers, with a number of huge limestone coastal features to admire along the route. The best are the Arch, "London Bridge" and the 12 Apostles, though some of the Apostles have been eroded totally by the action of the sea. Not far along the road was a forest walk in the Otways. Apparently, there is a carnivorous snail in this forest; we weren't lucky enough to spot this black shelled, maniacal invertebrate. After the forest walk, we did as Withnail in Withnail and I, and set about "Making time...". We got all the way to
Geelong, and realised that our clocks were wrong by half an hour - Melbourne is on slightly different time from Adelaide. We decided to use the extra daylight to go on into the city, where, we had been told, there was a camper site in Footscray. Nope. Nor anywhere else in the city. It got dark, and we couldn't drive out for fear of getting uninsured damage. We resolved to explain this fact to any policeman who would have the gall to ask about it, and parked the van up in a residential area to the east. It couldn't be called a comfortable nights sleep, as I woke up to every set of headlights that shone in the window, as well as having the worst sore throat I can remember. We did manage some sleep though, and headed into Melbourne for a look around in the early morning. It was pleasant in the morning cool, and also very different from Perth - much busier, much more dense. There is a lot going on in Melbourne - the Melbourne Cup just finished, and they are holding a big music festival. Melbourne is also home to a lot of national museums and
galleries. We rode around on the free tourist tram and buses, listening to the commentary about the sights, hopping off for a closer look at some locations. We collected Tramp from the car park and headed on, searching for a campsite in Frankston first, then settling in Dromana - yet another place with a stunning sea view.
Phillip Island was quite the spot. There was a bridge out to the island, which offered fantastic views along the shores of the mainland and island itself. We had heard about the famed penguin march on Phillip Island, but on arrival we discovered that it was on in the late evening. Further, they charged $22 to see the spectacle. I'm all for supporting conservation, but it was a bit much to observe a natural phenomenon. Little penguins in their hundreds waddling to shore command a high price of the tourist. In place of the penguins, we visited the Nobbies. The Nobbies are coastal rock formations, inhabited by seabirds. The area is a preserve for the birds, wooden walkways almost impossible to see beneath the layers of pooh. The rocks are large, black in colour, and savage in appearance; the huge
waves beating against them are very dramatic. After the Nobbies, we headed back towards the mainland, stopping off to visit some koalas. I had never seen one in person, or in koala, before, so this was a very cool visit. Koala spend 20 hours a day sleeping, napping, resting, snoozing, catching 40 winks, etc., and the rest of the time eating or...gettin' it on. We were lucky enough to observe them...eating. There was a wizened old fellow, unperturbed by the visitors at the bottom of his tree, and a very inactive young male. The mother and young one made for the best entertainment, climbing down to munch on some leaves. We spent the night in Inverloch, down the road a bit. We went for a walk down the beach - another beach, how dull - and found it beautiful. There were some school kids on a camping trip, and they had made some pretty amazing sand castles at the shore. They were noisy enough early in the evening, but come 23:00...silence. So very un-Irish.
The next day was a pleasant outing down Wilson's Promontory. A road runs out to almost the end of the prom, ending at
the tiny town of Tidal River. Tidal River is the setting out point for treks into the hills beyond; we didn't have the time to go very far, but we had to visit the "squeaky beach" nearby. Squeaky Beach is a quartz crystal beach; when you put your foot down, the quartz sand slides across itself, making a very pleasing squeak. We stomped along the beach, and climbed on the massive rocks a while. It never hurts to indulge your childish instincts. The weather was pretty dismal, and actually had been for a while - and continued to be. I couldn't believe our bad luck in that regard; it just pissed on us for 2 and a half weeks. We drove back up and out of Wilson's Prom, choosing Bairnsdale to stay in for the night. The town was a little rough, frankly, but the caravan park was lovely, as was the walk along the river down the back of it. In the evening, we heard news that Margaret River - the area we had taken our wine tour in - was ablaze. If we had visited during the inferno, we would have been stranded - the main road was
cut off by the fire. I'm sure the wine for 2011 will be affected by the smoke, and that's assuming the vineyards are intact - some were affected. A real shame for that to happen in such a lovely place.
In the morning, we indulged in a little shopping in Bairnsdale. Áine's camera had crapped out, so we get a nice little Canon at a bargain price, and some other bits and pieces for the trip - including memory sticks, not losing any more pictures. When we departed, it was for a long drive, all the way to Narooma. Unfortunately, when we got there, the stupid caravan park was locked and unattended, so we drove further still to Dalmeny. Cooked up a barbecue of kangaroo burger and chicken legs at the park; despite the biting wind, it was pretty good. In the morning we headed for another warm welcomein Jervis Bay. I was lucky enough to meet Stuart and Dawn on my Intrepid trip in Southern Africa, and luckier still to be invited to their home. It was lovely to see them again. Stu and Dawn live in a beautiful house, just minutes walk from the shore,
where Dawn frequently swims with dolphin and whales. During our visit, it was frigid and there were bluebottles washing up, so we didn't get the chance to go for a dip. Nonetheless, we had a lovely time drinking fresh coffee and catching up. Their house also has some really interesting stuff - my favourite was a Chinese marital or dowry bed. Dawn headed to Sydney to do some business - Dawn designs and makes jewellery - and Stu arrived home to entertain us for the evening. The next day, he brought us on a great tour of the park where he works, Boodera. It is actually a state of its own, with its own laws, etc., and most of it is wildlife reserve. We toured the park in a ranger vehicle, and had the chance to observe wallaby, kangaroo, yellow-tail black cockatoo. Stu's in depth knowledge of the plants, animals and history of the area really helped us to appreciate what we were seeing. There is some interesting history around the park, such as the lighthouse that was built in the wrong place - eventually blown sky high by the navy, after several tragedies nearby - and the camp site
that was originally cleared for the construction of a nuclear power plant that was never finished. Off the coast, there are prefectly round holes in the reef where the engineers detonated charges to test the seismic stability of the area. Unfortunately, we had to make for Sydney in the evening, so we said our goodbyes to Stu and drove on.
It was not an auspicious start. We had real trouble finding a place to stay within a reasonable budget, finally booking a spot called Dulwich Hill. On arrival, it was revealed to be a flophouse, shithole, dive. The area around it was ok, funnily enough, but Dulwich Hill was not so good. John, who ran it, was a nice guy, but the clientelle left a lot to be desired. We dropped our bags, taking valuables with us, and went to leave Tramp back at the depot. After retunring him, we went into the city to meet Dawn for dinner. We selected a Japanese place, and had some fantastic sushi and saki. Back at Dulwich Hill, we barred ourselves in our room, pretty much. It was clean enough, just hard red brick and a bed. We went to
sleep...until around 02:30, when some drunk guy decided he didn't like the building postal system and ranted about it in the hall by himself for a bit. We went back to sleep...until around 04:30, when a couple had a real Jeremy Kyle moment. It seemed to be over $200, which I believe the fellow spent at the race track. How DARE he? At least, that was the question this banshee bitch screeched about 40 times. People obviously asked her to keep quiet, but she did not take this very well either. Finally, she stomped out, complaining that she had broken all her nails - presumably it got physical - which she had just had done that day. Aww.
A little more sleep later, we headed out with all our valuables again. We camped out in a café for a bit, writing some Xmas cards home and waking up with hot coffee, then met up with Dawn again for lunch. We went for a walk down by the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour bridge, saying goodbye to Dawn when we boarded a ferry to see the bay. I hope to see Dawn and Stu again; maybe they'll
visit Ireland some time. Earlier, we had looked into the tours going up the bridge; turned out it was $200. I wouldn't pay that for them to install the thing in my back yard. The cruise was brief enough, but we got a good view of the harbour area, and some good shots of the bridge and opera house. Upon returning to land, we took the monorail back to the city, and headed to the room to pack for flying the next morning.
We survived Dulwich Hill's junkies and oddballs, and had a hassle free flight to New Zealand. Leaving Australia, my impression was that it was probably the country in which I had missed the most. 3 weeks was hardly enough to properly see just the stuff along the routes we drove. Also, I was not overly enamoured with Sydney. It was much busier and more varied culturally than Perth, but it also seemed centreless, and in places it really needs some patching up. Despite all of this, I had a really fantastic time in Australia. The facilities are amazing. The welcoming, helpful spirit of Australia is refreshing. Travelling in a first world country again was
more costly, but also meant there were certain things that you just didn't have to keep in the back of your mind. Also, my eagerness for an epic camping trip was thoroughly fulfilled. Áine found the camper surpirsingly comfortable, and it was really a lot of fun working out how to make our delicious meals with just one hob. Australia is a stunningly beautiful country, savage and Eden-like in turns, with hugely varied biospheres and an endless array of peculiar animals and plants. I suspect 10 years would not be enough to see everything there; I urge you to at least go for a while and try.
There are more photos below