The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 2 (December 2010)

Once I was back in Sydney after the stint in Canberra, I spent the rest of November and the first couple days of December doing all the stuff that needed to be done – getting the essentials for the apartment, figuring out the best supermarket to shop at, and of course starting to book flights and hotels for the rest of my travels.  Back when I had been only thinking about the trip, but hadn’t actually sat down to figure it out, I had always contemplated hiring a car in Sydney, driving down to Adelaide, and then straight North with major stops in Alice Springs (detouring to Uluru) and Darwin.  Once I actually started looking at the logistics, the costs, and so on, I realised this just wouldn’t be possible in the time that I had or the amount of money I could really afford.  It would’ve required at least a few weeks, and a lot of money.

But I still wanted to do a trip like that, so I compromised.  The new plan was to fly to Darwin (domestic flights in Australia are dirt cheap compared to North American flights), take the Ghan (train) to Alice Springs, and do a bus tour to Uluru (Ayers’ Rock) from there, flying back to Sydney from Alice Springs.

I left for Darwin on December 3, arriving in the early evening.  It was supposedly the beginning of the “wet” season, but the first couple days I spent there showed no sign of it.  It eventually did rain, and rain hard.  All the locals kept warning me it was really hot out (it was consistently in the mid-30s), to drink lots of water, wear sun cream, etc, etc… I don’t think they realised I’m not from the part of Canada that never gets warm temperatures!  I stayed at the Travelodge in Darwin, and got my first taste of Aussie accommodations – always nicer than you expect. Every Travelodge I’ve stayed in before has been, basically, a cheap  motel or hotel with very few services.  This Travelodge was a budget resort (literally – it had a pool with a bar and a fancy restaurant).  A good start to the trip!

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The first day in Darwin I was booked on a trip to the Territory Wildlife Park, somewhere between a zoo and a nature reserve, where the animals mostly roam free and the humans mostly stick to boardwalks to view them.  I got to feed a wallaby (photo above), which was fun.  They’re such sweet animals!  If you ever go, I recommend timing your trip to see the pelican feeding (there are also freshwater crocodiles nearby)  as well as the bird show.  The stingray feeding is also entertaining, but only so much.

The trip to/from the park goes past a detention centre where Australia keeps a number of Afghan detainees.  It’s well known locally, but to be honest it was rather unnerving when our guide mentioned it.  Not that I would’ve been happier in ignorance, but it was a stark reminder of how invested Australia is in this war.

The tour I was on returns to Darwin mid-afternoon so I spent the rest of the day (which lasts quite long – we were approaching the summer solstice) wandering the Darwin CBD and taking in the historic and new buildings.  The city was devastated by Cyclone Tracy in the mid-1970s so a lot of its buildings were built since then — it led to a rather bright and colourful city centre, despite what the guide books tell you about it being dreadfully modern.  I eventually found myself down at the waterfront, which has recently been redesigned and is a great use of both public and private space – it’s nice to see the city use a waterfront that looked like it was formerly quite desolate.  While there I noticed a sign announcing a free concert in the space for that night, and returned there after dinner to check it out.

Looking at my Flickr photo set for Darwin, I realise I spent another three days there.  That trip was planned when I was still grasping the size of Australian cities.  Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territory, and the country’s 16th largest city, but it has a population of less than 130,000, and is surrounded by very little else.  It’s a great city, with friendly people, excellent weather (well, for the days I was there), and is great to visit – but it’s small.  I had to really slow down the pace in order to fill the time.

I spent the next day wandering Eastward – walking out to the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT (which was refreshingly air conditioned) and back via the botanic gardens.  MAGNT itself was interesting, and a good introduction to Australian museums — every capital city in Australia has a museum and/or art gallery, and after a while you realise they’re all basically the same.  There’s usually a few interesting locally-specific exhibits, but generally they feature similar content.  You can generally expect the art gallery to have aboriginal art (which has been modernised – British missionaries saw potential in the aboriginals’ traditional works and encouraged them to apply it to canvas to be ‘accessible’), traditional Tiwi burial poles, and at least one painting from Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series (though I’m not sure if MAGNT had any of the latter, it was the only museum I visited in Australia that actually explained the tradition of burial poles — most other museums simply portrayed them as “art”).  The museums usually have some geologic history about Gondwanaland, various exhibits on the animals that are unique to Australia (there are a lot of them), some aboriginal histories, and references to the apologies to and land disputes with aboriginals.

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Anyway, on my way into town from the airport I had spotted a sign advertising “Carols by Candlelight” which took place that night, so I made the walk back to the gardens to check it out.  I’m convinced the whole town was there — they had local television and radio hosts on stage throughout the evening, accompanied by the local orchestra and various school and amateur groups performing Christmas carols.  This was also my first introduction to the song “Six White Boomers,” which I immediately downloaded on iTunes and now cherish as one of my favourite holiday songs.  What struck me most about this event, though, beyond the very religious speech from a local priest (which would never fly at a municipally-sponsored event in a similar city in Canada), was that I grew up in a city only slightly larger than Darwin, and we never had any events that brought together such a large part of the population.  It was nice to be surrounded by that sense of community.

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The next day I spent wandering / shopping in the morning and spent some time photographing a building that had some really awesome street art all over it – it looked abandoned but was gorgeous!  I spent the afternoon at Crocosaurus Cove, a crocodile sanctuary/tourist attraction featuring, well, lots of crocodiles.  It was interesting, but overpriced. In retrospect, I should have booked on one of the tours where they take you off the coast and you can see them in the ocean.  I can’t recall exactly what I did the next day, but I think I slept in after a really awkward Grindr hookup, and spent the day killing time and wandering the CBD for lack of having anything specific planned.  To be fair, I decided this was my first ‘real’ vacation I’d had in a long time, and it was just so nice to be outside in the hot air (in December, no less) and just relaxing.
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The next day, the 8th, I headed off on the Ghan.  The Darwin-Alice Spring leg of the Ghan has only recently been built, and in the wet season runs very infrequently.  I was booked in ‘red class’ which is basically the cheapest fare option – but still had an extra wide seat that reclines quite reasonably.  Even the cheapest sleeper class was over $1,000 for the 24-hour journey, so I decided I would rough it, and was glad to discover that roughing it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.  The journey itself is actually quite nice – a few hours out of Darwin the train makes its first and only stop in Katherine, where I (along with my British seat-mate, who I’ve since stayed loosely in touch with) booked on a boat tour of the spectacular Katherine Gorge (pictured below).  The tour itself was great, and my MEC laptop bag (which doubled as a general backpack my entire time in Australia) came in handy as I discovered the waterproof cover built into its base.  The rest of the train trip was also great, though mostly uneventful — except that I somehow broke my camera overnight, and when I woke up and the screen had a big crack in.  It lasted the rest of the trip but was replaced when I got back to Sydney.  I also got my first taste of weather-related plan-changes: flooding in South Australia had washed out the tracks, so, by some fluke of scheduling, our train was waved through all the way to Alice Springs and we arrived literally hours early.  Fortunately the amazing people at the Crowne Plaza (where I was paying about 20% of the normal rate thanks to a discount program promotion!) let me check in to my room at 8 am!
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Alice Springs was a great little town, with an emphasis on the little.  Right through the middle of town runs the Todd River, which for virtually the entire year has no water in it. The fact that it had rained nearby lately was a big excitement to the locals — the river was, in fact, flowing by the time I left, and it was all anyone talked about.  By the time I left, the road I’d been using to get across the river (the times I didn’t just walk straight through the river itself) was regularly flooded.  Fortunately it was warm out, and I was wearing sandals.

Out for a walk in the river. #youheardmeDSCN4707

I ended up spending much of the first afternoon with the Brit I met on the train – we grabbed lunch at the local food court (being an accountant, too, he shared a desire for something affordable) and hiked up ANZAC Hill for a view of the town.  After we parted ways, I took a wander around town only to discover that a lot of the attractions were closed for the summer.  I really didn’t think it was that hot, so I still don’t understand why it’s “off season,” though the flies were a bit much.  One advantage of the long sunny summers in central Australia is the access to solar power — countless buildings, including my hotel, were powered by solar power.

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The next day I was off on a one-day tour to Uluru.  In retrospect (though most of the decisions on this particular trip were directed by the train schedule), I should have done a two-day tour.  That said, I don’t at all regret the one-day one. It’s a long day — you start at the crack of dawn, and get back to Alice Springs shortly before midnight – but you do get to see quite a bit.  I don’t remember which tour company I booked with, but apparently three or four of the tour companies in town pool their bookings at this time of year so they can fill an entire bus – our bus was an Emu Run Tours one.  I spent most of the day chatting with a few of the other single travellers – a young Australian woman who was in Alice Springs for a conference with work (she worked for an Australian intelligence agency which, apparently, was not a problem to tell us about), a young British woman who was travelling around the country on a gap year, and a young Canadian guy (from Mississauga, whose only comment on Toronto was “can you believe they spent $6 million building bike lanes on Jarvis? But that new mayor, he’s even worse”) who was finishing up at uni in Brisbane, and trying to find a way to stay in the country as his profession had just been delisted as a priority one for immigration.

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Anyway, after a long drive from Alice Springs the tour makes stops in Kata Tjuta, an enormous canyon of red rock, for a short walk into and out of the canyon.  The rest of the day is spent in and around Uluru, a massive monolithic rock jutting out of the middle of the desert.  Because of its access to water it was (and is) a meeting place, and sacred place, to many aboriginal groups in the area.  The guides (all white/anglo) recounted a number of the aboriginal stories which were really interesting and we got some of the scientific background too.  The day culminates in a barbecue (with plenty of sparkling wine – something I developed an affinity for in Australia) at an area with a great view of the rock – it was really a magical day all around.  I took far too many photos, which are in my Red Centre photo set here.

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I still had one day left in Alice Springs, but at this stage I was thoroughly exhausted.  I decided to spend the day taking  a slow walk along the river (which was now flowing fairly steadily) out to the telegraph station reserve.  Alice Springs exists as a town because when telegraph wires were established through the centre of Australia (from Adelaide to Darwin), they needed repeater stations every so many kilometres – and towns generally started to form around the telegraph stations (it was also a centre for aboriginal people, so missions rapidly spread around the area).  The reserve itself is basically just the now-abandoned telegraph station, with some history about the station and life in the days it was built.  One of the guides responsible for answering visitors’ questions was a very friendly aboriginal man who had not only been taken to a mission as a child, but was featured in one of the photos of mission life in the museum.  Missions are generally looked upon now as having been an awful chapter in Australia’s history (they were Australia’s equivalent of Canada’s residential schools, with the added racism of phrases like “get the black out of them” and “the aboriginal female soon forgets her young” (both came up regularly in histories that have recounted life in the days of missions)) – but this particular bloke had an interesting take on it.  He told me stories about how they brought all the kids together and divided them up amongst the various churches based on how many each church could accommodate, and they were told “you’re now a protestant” and were treated as such.  They got shuffled around numerous times from place to place, as resources dried up and as political views changed over time.  He acknowledged all the negatives that happened, but it was interesting to hear him put a positive spin on it — I remember him saying “with my mother, I was lucky if I got two meals a day. At the mission, they gave me three solid meals a day, and I never wanted for anything.”  If only that kind of charity could have come without the kidnapping and indoctrination.

The other interesting part of this trip was that while on my walk back, I encountered a kangaroo in the wild for the first time!  It was just hanging out, with a young one nearby, eating some grass.  I stopped and photographed it for a while… they’re such calm, peaceful animals.  You can’t help but watch them for a little while when you see one – especially when it’s the first time.  I since saw countless kangaroos in the wild, but this moment was particularly special!
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Anyway, I’ve rambled on and I’m only half way through December.  Fortunately, the rest of the month was less eventful.

I spent the rest of the month in Sydney, exploring various places and neighbourhoods, including a trip to Olympic Park on a cloudy/rainy day that gave me the only real sunburn I had the entire time I was in Australia.  I re-did a lot of the touristy stuff I had done when I visited in 2009, like wandering around the botanic gardens, opera house, art galleries, circular quay, Darling Harbour, and so on.  I also went to see Carols In The Domain, which is Sydney’s big public Christmas concert.  That was my first real exposure to big public events in Sydney — where I learned that people show up early, en masse, and well prepared for big events no matter what they are. It was fun, though!

It was also my first Christmas that I spent alone – completely alone.  Strangely, that wasn’t weird at all. I think what was weird, was Christmas being in the middle of summer.  I spent Christmas Day doing a photo walk of the Potts Point and Kings Cross area – usually very busy areas which were much easier to photograph when people weren’t on the street.  I actually rather enjoyed it — I’ve never valued Christmas that much, being a non-Christian, and that lack of interest has increased over the years.  I like some things about Christmas – the food, getting together with friends, and yes, even the music – but the event itself is, well, uninteresting to me. So spending the day wandering around Sydney, and having a delicious pad thai in Potts Point for dinner, was actually the best possible way I could’ve spent the day.

The reason I didn’t go anywhere over that week was that I wanted to spend New Year’s in Sydney, where New Year’s is famous.  It’s a long story, but I got in the queue to get into Mrs Macquarie’s Point (one of the prime free viewing areas) around 11:30 am or so, which looked like this.  I believe it was around 2 by the time I got in.  That was followed by finding a spot I could sit for the day (just big enough for me to sit on a blanket, and with a view of virtually nothing), and then 10 hours or so of reading a book, trying desperately to connect to 3G so at least I could amuse myself with Twitter, and eventually chatting with some later arrivals.  To actually see the fireworks, I was able to get up and crowd into the walkway with others in order to see one set of fireworks — fortunately they were designed to look the same from no matter where you were, so they were going off in three different directions and picking one meant you saw the same show no matter what.  The midnight show was a little better as the crowds had shifted a little, and I was eventually able to see the fireworks over the opera house / bridge which was really the main attraction.

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While I ultimately did have a good time, I would recommend for anyone else who goes to go early, bring lots of friends, and make a day of it… none of my friends in town (except one who was on a private boat!) had any particular interest in going to see the fireworks.  I figured it would be my only chance to see the world famous event, so it was worth it — I’m glad I did it, but would never do it again.  The better part of the night was hurrying back to my apartment in Woolloomooloo (conveniently a short walk away), downing a drink while charging my iPhone, and dashing to Oxford Street’s Midnight Shift, where I danced the night away.  I stayed out until shortly after 5 am, at which point the bar was still serving (I remember this being very exciting to me at the time — though it’s legal year-round there).  Thanks to a new Twitter friend, I had also learned the proper Australian way to order my regular drink (“Vodka-Lemonade” – Canadians call it a “Vodka-7”), which made the night feel far less awkward.  There was some point that night when I felt I was finally getting a hang of being in Australia.  And I was just so thrilled to be there — Sydney new year’s eve fireworks followed by dancing all night made me feel like I was in a dream… that it was finally and actually happening was still a shock.

And now I’ve ranted — January has even more to come!

Six White Boomers at a shopping centre in Alice Springs:

Six White Boomers

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by traveleish on 2011/11/16 at 5:46 pm

    Another Aus-centric Christmas song to check out on iTunes or YouTube: “White wine in the sun” by Tim Minchin (2009).

    Reply

  2. […] The Travel Blog That Wasn’t – Australia part 2 (December 2010) […]

    Reply

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