Australia As You Thought It Was

DEAR WORLD, I’M back. Obviously I’ve been back – as in, back home, not travelling, not living the dream – for some time now. Four months, in fact. It’s been traumatic. And wonderful, obviously. Seeing friends and family. All of their pale, cheerful, slightly chilled faces. Wonderful. Returning to work, getting the train into central London, bodies crammed into carriages like paperbacks on an overcrowded bookcase. Having a dishwasher. Having to shave. All the things that you romanticise when you’re lugging a backpack up to the fifth floor of a dingy hostel, cockroaches scurrying before you. Wonderful.

Home...

Home…

...and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver festish

…and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver fetish.

But I’m not talking about that. I mean that I’m back here, in the blogosphere or whatever the kids are calling it now. I’m here with a post that I mostly wrote whilst I was still travelling, but I haven’t been able to search out photos for until now, on account of having to hit the reset switch on life and wait for the loading screen to disappear. Now I’m all booted up and running DKC 2.0, I can write some more things for you, dear reader. And maybe for myself a bit, if I can keep from crying when I look through our travelling photos.

I have some Proper Thoughts about returning home. But they’re for later. This is for now.

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THE NORTHERN TERRITORIES are Australia as you imagine it: long roads, red scrubland, and the sudden realisation that those hats with corks hanging from them might actually be helpful because, man, these flies that keep landing on my face are annoying.

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We were there with my parents in the third week of our Australian journey. It was the second week where we’d been travelling together, and the bird count was high. This is not a euphemism. As this was his first time in Australia, for my dad every bird was a ‘lifer’ (for the uninitiated in twitching ways, that’s a bird that you’ve never seen before in your life), and every waking moment was another opportunity To See More Birds. There had already been some tensions and controversies as I tried to navigate a course through BKC’s likes (sleeping) and dislikes (walking) and those of my father (walking and sleeping, respectively). There had been numerous binoculargates, the latest – as we left our one-night-only AirBnB place in Darwin to head for Kakadu, now locked out with no way of re-entering – the most serious. When the hallowed optics were discovered missing, believed left-in-flat, recriminations flew, bags were turned inside out and pockets thoroughly checked. Only the late discovery of said binoculars in the side pocket of a less used bag saved us all from the sight of a grown man crying.

Thus blooded, we headed out to the land of man-sized termite mounds.

Trav22-6 GENERALLY, I AM not a fan of sunrise tours. The early rising is rarely justified – they invariably cost more and they usually mean spending a significant portion of your time at the temple/volcano/natural wonder in complete darkness. Sunrise tours are an epidemic amongst Asian tour operators. Sunrise is often beautiful; tourists want to see something because it is spectacular/historical/it-said-so-in-the-guide-book; tourists will pay more to see the attraction at a time that everybody knows is beautiful. Thus the thing that they see will also be more beautiful. And we will be richer. That is the logic.

Hence we once found ourselves tramping through a grey, dusty, volcanic ash landscape in complete, utter, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness, trying to find our way solo to the crater of Mount Bromo in Java, Indonesia, as a light rain pattered onto our heads. Every so often, moped drivers passed us, travelling from somewhere to nowhere; sensing our weakness, some occasionally stopped and circled us, like vultures. “Hey, you want volcano? I take you for 80,000. No? Ok, ok, 60,000.” After telling the first four no, we eventually caved – but only after having a heated, whispered argument as two moped drivers looked on (“we’re lost, we don’t have a choice, and it’s dark.” “It’s too much [it was £2.50], it’s a rip off. They might murder us and chop up our bodies. We’ll find our way.”).

A  volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

A volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

They took us to the bottom of the volcano, which we dutifully climbed in silence. As morning dawned behind the grey clouds, we were treated to an underwhelming view down a steep crater from which grey steam emerged into the grey day, joining its great friend, grey rain. Then we walked back the way we’d ridden on the mopeds and realised that in the darkness we’d missed the best part of the trip – an otherworldly, moonlike landscape, truly spectacular in its monochrome desolation. But there wasn’t time to stand and enjoy it: we had to catch our bus.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the "blue fire" from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the “blue fire” from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just as darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

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And you’re rewarded with what a volcano should look like: spectacular. It’s Ijen Plateau, also on Java. If you’re there, skip Bromo, do Ijen instead.

So I was sceptical about the Yellow Water Sunrise Tour in Kakadu National Park. During the dry season, when we were there, Kakadu is a vast expanse of outback with just scrubby, red bushland stretching for miles and miles. There’s the odd, half dried Billabong, patrolled by hopeful birdwatchers and hungry crocodiles. And that pretty much seemed to be it on our drive into the park along the dead straight roads that disappeared into the heat haze.

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But Yellow Water at sunrise made me feel like I was David Attenborough. And, let’s be honest, you can’t get better than that. As we boarded our boat, the sun was sliding over the water, nuclear bright but honey-in-hot-milk soothing; mist was creeping out over the river like a flock of ghostly sheep that had taken a wrong turn; and an Azure Kingfisher was perched atop our boat, flashing its iridescence and shitting on seats. I have never seen so much and so diverse birdlife all in one place as we did on that day (and I spent most of my childhood in bird hides). We were in for a remarkable trip, our guide told us, but “just remember not to lean out of the boat, otherwise a croc might go for you.”

Better than most volcanos.

Better than most volcanos.

Don't be fooled, something's lurking in there.

Don’t be fooled, something’s lurking in there.

...and he wants to be your friend.

…and he wants to be your friend.

See how friendly he is?

See how friendly he is?

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that's right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that’s right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Whistling Ducks.

Whistling Ducks.

...and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they're massive. And easy to remember.

…and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they’re massive. And easy to remember.

But Kakadu is not just about the birdlife. There’s also the thrill of longdrop toilets in the dark. Will there/won’t there be a spider crouched under the toilet seat? Probably not, but, as I discovered when I heard a small scream from BKC in the toilet next to me – to be fair, it was more of a yelp, certainly less of a screaming-like-a-girl sound than I would have made – there are other things that lurk. “Everything alright?” I ventured, over the partition wall.

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

“It was a frog!” my wife shouted back. “It jumped up my bum!”

I considered this statement for a moment whilst I stumbled in the darkness to find the sink. “It jumped up your bum?”

“It was inside the toilet and it jumped right at me.”

Such aggressive frog behaviour is perhaps more understandable in the light of my mother’s experience in Darwin: queuing outside a similarly rustic toilet, she was surprised by the sudden emergence of a pale faced Dutch girl, who slammed the door behind her. “There was a frog in there,” she told my mother, “it was in the toilet.”

“Are you ok?” my mum enquired.

“Yes, but,” whispered the beleaguered Dutch girl, “I weed on it.”

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We were also lucky enough to join a tour that headed into Arnhemland, a vast, largely untouched wilderness that covers over 97,000 square kilometres, roughly equal in size to the state of Victoria, and is home to about only 17,000 people. It’s aboriginal land and for non-residents it can only be entered by permit. When we went, Tony Abbot, the Australian PM, had just spent a week living and working there.

One of the primary reasons for visiting Arnemland is to see rock art. There are places where it’s possible to see drawings and paintings that were left centuries or millennia ago by the ancestors of those who now live on the land. And when I say millennia, I mean 10,000 years plus – which is a staggering amount of time for one culture to have been in the same place, uninterrupted, let alone for its artwork to have survived. Perhaps more so than other works of art, photos cannot truly convey rock art.

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To truly appreciate aboriginal art, you need to walk around half-dried billabongs, under dusty red overhangs of rock, and watch as distant dust devils twist upwards from the flat, baking bush. You need to scramble up cliffsides, anxiously holding your binoculars in one hand whilst balancing with the other, pausing for a moment to appreciate the 8,000 year old paintings and the view that stretches into the distance. And in that moment you might forget the fragility of your optics, whether or not you’re wearing enough suncream, or the fact that you should have brought a hat and didn’t; instead, you might appreciate how the light here stretches water into glass and landscape stretches time into a past before the arrival of European settlers. Or something like that anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s what the Australian Tourism Board told me to say. They definitely said not to mention the giant man eating reptiles or the small, slithery, deadlier-than-a razorblade-smoothie snakes. (“are those fires deliberate?” asked my dad of our guide, pointing out to the long columns of smoke in the distance. “Yeah,” he replied, “round here long grass is bad news.”).

Nothing to worry about, apparently.

Nothing to worry about, apparently. Keep driving.

Whilst in Arnhemland, we also visited the art centre of Gunbalanya, where locals ply their artworks to tours and daytrippers. Gunbalanya is a small, dusty town of squat buildings with corrugated iron roofs, a few shops, a police station, and a modern looking school. The place felt poor in a way that we hadn’t experienced in the rest of Australia.

Whilst there was some outstanding work at the art centre, on sale there was also a lot that was less good. As we were led around on a somewhat haphazard tour by a local artist who worked at the centre, I couldn’t help but feel that – despite there being some excellent artwork on display – the place was as much a job creation scheme as a place for artists to work. How to decant aboriginal culture into a European, tourist, market driven system, whilst still preserving its heritage? It’s a question that Australia still struggles with.

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Alternatively, of course, you could go to Mindel Market, in Darwin, and watch the Northern Territories sun sink into the Timor Sea whilst eating kangaroo sushi rolls and browsing aboriginal art sold by a stoned white hippy lady. No it’s not Crocodile Dundee, but there’s still always the threat of amphibians in the lavatory – and you don’t get much more authentic than that.

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A Note To My Future Self On The Importance of Home

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I AM SAT in the car as I write this, door open, remnants of the morning’s rain spattering the windscreen as the wind ruffles the trees above. In the driver’s side cupholder there’s an empty beer bottle leftover from the night before. Our tent, pinned down by all four of its pegs, sits next to the car, looking about as good as a NZ$30 (£15) tent can. When we erected it for the first time, yesterday, we discovered that, due to a manufacturing error, the entrance had partially been stitched closed. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

We’re in a peaceful Department of Conservation campsite somewhere north of Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. We’re basically marking time until tomorrow, when we can decamp to our luxury cottage accommodation in Lake Taupo that we’ve booked for three days over Christmas. That and we’re doggedly attempting to justify the NZ$157 that we optimistically spent on camping gear when we first arrived in New Zealand, six week ago – before we knew about the six weeks of rain that was to come and before we’d realised the LIE of free camping (“yeah man, you can, like, just camp anywhere you want in New Zealand. It’s, like, awesome” – this from pretty much everyone we’ve ever met who’s been to this country).

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Instead of sitting in this car, we could be going and doing THINGS, important TOURIST THINGS in this beautiful country. But we’re not – in fact I’m quite enjoying just sitting and doing very little, quite enjoying not spending the day driving around (although I am, ironically, still sat in front of the steering wheel). New Zealand has been one of the best countries we’ve visited. We’ve loved it, from its snow capped Southern Alps to the crashing waves of its West Coast, from its varied craft beers and delicious Sauv Blancs to its unfailingly friendly people and laid back ‘tude. It’s every bit as good as people say. And it’s so far away from anywhere else (our flight home from Auckland to London will take us 30 hours) that there’s a good chance I’ll never come back. In two weeks our year of travelling will be over, and soon after I’ll be back in work. So why not maximise our time seeing the place? Why not revel in our freedom?

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On the shores of Lake Tekapo, NZ

This post is an effort to answer those questions. It’s also an effort to recount the impact of long term travelling and, above all, it’s a reminder to my future self about the importance of home. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to hate the uniformly white mugs found in motels, hotels and hostels everywhere? Remember how you just craved a mug with some colour on it? Remember how it bothered you so much that you went out and bought your own mug?).

WHAT’S A NORMAL week in travelling? The glib, cliché answer that’s only half true is that “there is no normal week.” In fact, there are rhythms to travelling, some regardless of who you are, others specific to us.

Accommodation

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I’ve developed a real problem with authority whilst travelling. Sometimes, in motels, I DON’T DO WHAT THE SIGNS say! Stickittotheman.

When I was a student and went travelling in Eastern Europe for a month, we just turned up at places and found accommodation by speaking to people or walking between hostels. This seems to me now to be an incredibly inefficient way of doing things when you have a very heavy backpack. But maybe that’s because I’m a decade older. Without exception, everywhere we stayed in Asia we booked in advance, usually over the internet, often through Airbnb. Thus a portion of our time (and, it has to be said, more of BK-C’s time than mine) was always spent researching accommodation options. Where do we want to stay in the city/region? What’s available? Why have they got such bad photos on their websites? What does tripadvisor say? How long should we book for? Sometimes this could take five minutes, sometimes it could take hours; sometimes we’d book only the day before, sometimes we’d go on accommodation binges and book several stops in a row, gaining breathing space but losing spontaneity. Booking accommodation is a never ending rabbit hole: remember that, Future David.

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I didn’t risk this one though.

In Australasia we’ve always had a car and sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to be staying with friends. So we’ve quite often just turned up in places without anywhere booked, and it’s always been fine. However, see below for Transport, specifically travelling by car.

Rowf?

Rowf?

Packing/Unpacking

There’s been a lot of this. In Asia, particularly towards the end, we slowed down a lot and thus were able to properly unpack our bags and live out of things like wardrobes and drawers for a while, which was blissful. However, then there was always the hassle of trying to fit everything back into the bag, which often resulted in me sitting on BK-C’s bag (which is marginally smaller than mine) whilst she zipped it up. In Australasia we’ve spent much less time in places – normally one or two nights – and thus there’s been a lot more packing/unpacking, but we’ve had the luxury of cars, so breaking zips has been less of a risk.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

When we arrive in a new place now (every night it seems), we have a well oiled routine: BK-C empties the cooler bag and food items, I get the toiletries out of the bags and arrange them in anally straight lines in the bathroom and on bedside tables/the floor. The side of the bed nearest the bathroom will always be mine. That’s just the way it is. (Future David: remember the sinking feeling when you emptied the washbags only to discover that something had leaked over everything else. Remember that one time when it was tiger balm that had melted in the heat, and everything, everything smelled of tiger balm for weeks?)

Budgeting

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Actually, this rarely caused us a lot of stress. I researched every country before we came and how much we were likely to spend on a daily basis in each. This has proved to be fairly accurate, so we were prepared for how much things cost. But we’ve also been scrupulous about recording everything that we spend, through the marvellous phone app Trailwallet. Every time we spend money, it goes in the phone. Thus I can tell you, for instance, that on 19 March, a date that I just selected at random, we spent a total of £72.02, or NT$1,858 (Taiwanese Dollars). The financial record reminds me that 19 March was a great day of food – we caught the metro to north of Taipei to Tamshui, where we indulged in a “delicious pasty like thing” (59p), “cheese potato with bacon” (£1.19 – about as bad as it sounds), and “steam dumplings” (£1.19). Then we caught the metro back home via Taipei’s famous night market of Shilin, where we ate “green onion bread” (49p), “stinky tofu and oyster omelette” (£2.67, worse than it sounds) and “delicious sushi” (£7.71). I can also tell you that street food – of the sort that we indulged in on 19 March – made up 3.82% of our total spent budget in Taiwan, at £53.79; our biggest expenditure was, predictably, accommodation, at £689.46; and our smallest expenditure category was laundry, at £2.77 (read into that what you will).

This kind of data is fantastic when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but it’s also great in retrospect: its specificity dredges from my memory a vivid image from when we were sitting by the quayside in Tamshui, enjoying an evening iced coffee (£6.96) at a posh restaurant, watching the simmering orb of an Asian sun dip into the Taiwan Strait, turned a deep crimson by pollution blown over from China.

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I’m glad that we recorded everything we spent, and what it went on, simply because it’s meant that we’ve curbed our potential expenditure and because it prompts memories of what were we doing on each day. Putting purchases into the Trailwallet has become second nature. But, I must admit, I’m also looking forward to being able to buy a coffee without assiduously recording it, without making an assessment as to whether it’ll take us over budget for the day. Future David: revel in your ability to choose any of those sandwiches neatly lined up in Pret, without fear that you’ll go over budget.

Transport

I know, I know. I look COOL.

I know, I know. I look COOL.

This one’s up there with accommodation. Whoever you are, you’re going to need to get from place to place. It’s sort of the point of travelling. In Asia, that means buses, trains, planes, boats, tuc-tucs, mopeds, or some ingenious – probably hand built, certainly not safety tested – combination of all of them. Often, you can (and we did) just rock up and get a bus. If you’re in Malaysia then celebrate! For you are blessed with a cheap, well organised and above all easy public transport system. If you’re in Japan, don’t even think about it – the Japanese system is so efficient that they’ve probably heard you were coming and booked everything for you already (except you Tokyo, yes you: please meet my friend London who has a unified transport authority and not A GAZILLION private companies running different lines and routes in a confusing mish mash of colours and acronyms). But if you’re in Burma, well, don’t exactly expect efficiency. You’ll probably have to walk forever to book your bus tickets and then the bus “terminal” will be dozens of kilometres out of town and you’re just expected to know which bus is yours. It’s all part of the fun. In the forty degree heat.

Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads...

Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…

In Australasia we travelled by car. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. It was liberating. But I also realised how much I’d grown to value that time bundled up on public transport – time to read and write, the opportunity to meet locals, or simply the chance to stare at the landscape, thinking big thoughts about the world. In Australia, we drove over 7,000km in two months. After four months of driving for several hours most days, I’m beginning to tire of the road. (Future David: remember how towards the end of travelling you used to get into those moods where nothing was quite right and where your tolerance of other people was equivalent to that of a cat? Remember how you wrote that blogpost to remind you in the future about the wearing parts of travelling, and then instantly regretted it because people would think you were ungrateful?).

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Eating

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Shan Noodle Soup from a roadside stall in Nyaungshwe, nr. Lake Inle, Burma. Possibly my favourite noodle soup of the year.

I love food. It’s one of the reasons I love to travel. We’ve had so much amazing food this year, from banana leaf curries in Malaysia that really put the “gorge” into “gorgeous” (no, I can’t believe that I just wrote that cheesey line either) to so-fresh-it’s-nearly-still-moving sushi in Japan – we’ve had it all, and then we’ve asked for seconds. But there comes a time when even the most hardened foodie tires of eating out at restaurants, of choosing where and what to eat every night (why is it worse having lots of choice instead of just what’s in the fridge? I don’t know, but after a while it becomes overwhelming – I want less choice, not more). In Asia, there’s always that old staple of noodles-in-a-cup, easily enjoyed in your hostel/hotel room. Yes, there’s the hostel kitchen as well, but if you buy those ingredients you’ve got to carry them around with you and, besides, it’s actually cheaper to eat out and that’s not to mention the fact that all the fresh produce is sold at markets miles away from where you are at times when you’re highly unlikely to be up. So: you’re probably going to be eating out at restaurants. And it turns out that you really can have too much of a good thing. (Future David – think about how much you love eating out at restaurants? It’s one of the Best Things, isn’t it? Now remember how you’d come to resent having to eat out when you were in parts of Asia. It seems like a form of cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it?).

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In Australasia – and especially in NZ, where we’ve been without family visits – there’s been, blissfully, a lot of self-catering. The facilities with which to cook have, however, been varied – most motels have only a microwave, all have blunt knives, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll have a fridge from night to night. As a lover of cooking this is frustrating, as a shopper for food, it’s limiting: most things that we buy to eat for dinner can be cooked in the microwave. I can’t wait to have my own kitchen again, where the knives are sharp and the spices are neverending. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to quite like tinned STAG Chilli, the best long shelf life microwaveable meal you’d found in the supermarket? Yes, that’s right, hang your head in shame).

People, other

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Our hosts in Penang, Stu & Clara.

The people you meet is one of the best things about travelling. Vincent, the Taiwanese IT consultant turned design-guru surfing hotelier; Francoise, the 71 year old French man with whom we shared accommodation and a love of antiques (“my treasures,” he called them) in Kyoto, and whom I helped with his IT problems: “I wish to send an email to my girlfriend, but I do not wish to send it from this account, because it is my wife’s. Can you help?”; the postcard seller from Yangon, Burma whose name I can’t write here because he dared to talk to us about politics and his hopes for the future of his country; Joslyn, who was our Oregonian tour guide on a trip to Central America and later put us up for the night at her house in Brisbane; Lorette, our French, wise old-soul-in-a-young-person’s-body companion on the two day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, in China; Tom, the funny, open minded film editor from LA on his own travelling odyssey – these are just some of the amazing people we’ve met this year. But for each Tom and Lorette there’s been a dozen others who we either haven’t clicked with, who have been downright unfriendly or, worse, friendly and the most annoying person alive. Yes, yes this is the joy of travelling – and I’d meet everyone again just to meet those few gems – but after a while you start to ache for shared context. You miss your friends. I miss my friends. And then your patience starts to wear thin, and you become as intolerant as BK-C has become of Other People’s Music, however minimally it may be leaking out of someone’s headphones, and you must, you simply must ask them to be quiet. In short, you begin to Hate Other People. When this happens, Future David, you remember all the good things about home – the way that you don’t have to start conversations with everyone by telling them where you’ve been, where you’re from and where you’re going; the way that you can can say something and the person you’re talking to will just get you (or at least pretend to) without you having to explain just how witty you really are; and you remember how your home friends delayed their New Year celebrations until you got back, and how much that meant to you. At this point, you realise that it may be time to head back.

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Our hosts in Bali, Ktut and… er… Mrs Ktut.

All These Things Together

INDIVIDUALLY, THESE THINGS are insignificant. But together, taken over time, they start to matter a lot more. Everyone needs something to anchor them – a space to retreat to, a good book to read, a friend to turn to, an ipod to plug into; travelling either takes these things from you or makes them more difficult to control. It’s fine at first, but after a while you’ll go to greater lengths to secure your anchor, and not being able to do so frustrates you more. The good thing is that taking nothing for granted – be it comfy accommodation or the ability to speak to your family – you get a better sense of what’s important to you, something more difficult to achieve in the rhythms of home routine. The bad thing is that after a while the exciting challenges that travelling brings seem only to get in the way of your anchors, not to augment your appreciation for them. Some people are able to spend their lives travelling; I do not know how. For me, to have meaning, all things must have an end. You might say that travelling is a constant series of beginnings and endings, as you depart and arrive from places, greet and leave companions – but sometimes I just want to enjoy being in the middle of the story.

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Future David, the things that I’ve written about are not the things that you’ll recall. When the 6.30am alarm goes off telling you to get up for work, you’ll remember having no alarm when you travelled; you’ll remember sunrise over Yellow Water in Kakadu, the way that the birds cut through the mist; you’ll remember walking through the blistering heat of the market in Pyay, Burma, and the friendly, confused smiles of the locals; you’ll remember the exquisite pork dumplings from that place in Hualien, Taiwan where no one spoke English and everyone – yourself included – laughed at your ineptitude in miming what you wanted to eat; you’ll remember the flight over the Great Barrier Reef, the way it stretched out and disappeared beyond the horizon; and you’ll remember feeling free to do whatever you wanted to do, all of the time. But also remember this: there’s a wide range of multi-coloured mugs in your kitchen cupboard, and not a single bloody white one.

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Our year of travelling comes to an end on 2 January, when we arrive back in the UK. But don’t fret! I’ve got loads of stuff still to write about, including an oh-so-nearly finished post about PROPER travelling stuff, in Australia, rather than this boring boo hoo I’m ready to come home stuff. So stick with me.

Australia Is More Than This

Trav20-2 “WELL, IF YOU’D have kept up with your blog, then you’d be able to remember all these things, David.” So said my mother as she sat opposite me in our cabin in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia, and quizzed me about our year of travelling. “Your fans are waiting.” 

Yes, well. Thank you mum. Sorry all for the interruption. Been busy travelling and seeing things and that, which I appreciate is a departure from my 2014 normal of just sitting and reading in different places. Hope that you’ve got along just fine without me.

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I CANNOT TELL you how strange it is to arrive in Australia after eight months in Asia, eight months of being different. You’ve journeyed from London to the other side of the world; you’ve seen sights, eaten foods, learnt strange new things; and then you arrive in Melbourne to find Woolworths and pie shops, fish and chips and hipsters. And everybody kinda looks like you.

From this...

From this…

...to this.

…to this.

It’s a wonderful, awful, comforting, uncanny thing and we were so happy to be here. After nearly six weeks in Bali, drinking water from the tap and having a refuse disposal system that didn’t involve burning plastic on every street corner was a joy.

When we first booked our flights for this year, I said to our guy at Travel Nation (who worked their airline ticket magickery and got us an excellent deal) “but what are we going to do in Australia for two months? Do you think we’ll be bored?” I imagined Australia as being a few big, western cities, a lot of beaches and lots of red scrubland.

Sorry Australia, I had you all wrong.

And I guess that I was wrong about what we’d want at this stage of the trip. I’d imagined leaving Indonesia as the end of the “proper” travelling. It’d all be easy from now on and we’d have a gut wrenching nostalgia for eating dirt cheap street food on tropical beaches, floating from place to place on a cushion of camaraderie and travelling awesomeness. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. It was amazing, obviously. But when everything is amazing all of the time, things stop being, well, amazing. After a while you become a bit jaded and find it hard to get excited about things. It’s a sort of travelling impotence – you just can’t get it up for anything anymore.

Another bloody volcano? It's alright. I s'pose.

Another bloody volcano? It’s alright. I s’pose.

So we spent five weeks in a bungalow on a family compound in Bali, our days filled with hammock swinging and reading, cake eating and writing. I probably won’t have so much free time all at once for decades, possibly ever. If anyone reading this is considering going travelling long term, I urge you to build in time to rest and do the things you want to do without worrying about going to visit that temple or those rice terraces. You won’t have the chance to do it again for a long time and you probably saw a better temple in Burma anyway. And when you start thinking thoughts like that it’s time for a holiday from the tourist duties.

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Five weeks of this: highly recommended.

So when we finally did arrive in Australia, not only was I well rested and a lot better read than before, I was also excited to see new things. And more than a little glad to be met at the airport by our Melbournite friend Catherine.

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Later on that week we met up with my parents who’d flown out to see us and also, I should’ve known, as much bird life as possible given that they were accompanied by their reluctant, none-twitching son and daughter-in-law.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

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And in other news, today a woman was escorted from the premises of a Melbourne deli after shouting “cheese!” and immersing her head in brie.

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“Yeah, she just put her head right in there. A whole brie. Just gone.”

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Do you have any eucalyptus for me? no? Then sod off.

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And in other news today, a man was escorted from a food truck after attempting to drive it away whilst shouting “I want all the tacos.”

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AFTER MELBOURNE, ROAD. But don’t be fooled – the Great Ocean Road, heading west from Melbourne, is about more than the coast. Or it should be anyway. Yes, there are amazing clifftop views.

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My mum laughs in the face of danger.

My mum laughs in the face of danger.

But unless you fantasise about being in the landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, being seaside on a rainy day when everything is the colour of tumble dryer lint and the rain stings like a swarm of kamikaze bees is not that much fun. Instead, on one day, we followed a winding, decaying road into the Otways National Park, taking nearly an hour to travel 18km and wandering whether we’d just entered into a different kind of hell, the kind where a T-Rex might jump out and attack the car.

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Something

In hindsight, putting superglue onto the lenses of everyone’s binoculars wasn’t that funny a practical joke.

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The Otways is a temperate rainforest that elected to skip the last 60 million years of evolution. Enormous ferns loom overhead, lorakeets squawk out of sight and Giant Myrtle Beech entice the unwary into their cavernous, hollow inners, offering far-too-convenient path-side person-sized crevices that surely bring only a spidery death (this is Australia, after all). When we were there the reluctant sun broke into a crusty light, falling between the leaves, fronds and twisted tree limbs, and we idled amongst the prehistoric fauna, feeling more than pleasant. This was my favourite part of the Great Ocean Road.

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Venture further into the Otways and you will find a forest of Californian Redwoods, planted in 1939. They stretch up to the sky, eerily uniform in their giant, branchless reach upwards. There was no one there when we went, and we just stood amongst them, dwarfed, watching a tiny, Pink Robin proudly show off its fluffy fluorescent chest. It was still there when we left, alone amongst the redwoods.

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IN TRUE ROAD trip fashion we didn’t book any accommodation for our time on the Great Ocean Road, and instead just rocked up at wherever took our fancy. We never had any trouble finding somewhere and were never disappointed with where we slept. One night, curled up in front of a log fire in the common room of our B&B in Port Fairy, we were roused from our reading and sipping of peppermint tea by a raucous party of seventy-somethings returning from a Tuesday night out. “Hello and who are you?” asked the man who had come to sit on the sofa, breathing alcohol over me in a friendly manner. “I’m 70,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “you wouldn’t guess would you?”

We sat with them and talked about “the old country,” as they called the UK, including its relative merits (“Europe on the doorstep”), its de-merits (“the rain, and the awful food, or it was when we were there in the 80s.”) and what we did there for employment (“and are you far enough along to have any influence?”). Britain persists in the mind of many Australians as a strange historical anchor that many think they know and perhaps did thirty or forty years ago; it’s glimpsed through the news and through the ex-pats that never quite made it home. I lost count of the amount of times that I had conversations with people about what the weather had been like in the UK this year and last – they knew more about it than me (“those floods were awful.”). And yet small town Australia can feel like the Britain of forty years ago, stuffy and unapologetically blue-collar, all shops closed on Sundays and a varied cuisine provided only by the changing of what the pastry walls of pies hold. People eat mysteriously early here, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to close at 8.30pm. At one restaurant in Brisbane that we visited with friends on a Thursday night, we were the last people there at 9pm and shortly afterwards were asked to leave as they were locking up. All of these things feel like an echo of a Britain passed – the greatest irony is that “the old country” is now found only in Australia.

After the Great Ocean Road he headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

After the Great Ocean Road we headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

Or possibly Mordor.

Or possibly Mordor.

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BUT THE TOP End is not like any part of Britain, now or then. After driving all the way to Adelaide we flew to Darwin, in the Northern Territories, 3,000 km north. Then we headed into the bush. Kakadu National Park is exactly as you imagine Australia to be – long, straight roads, red earth and man size termite mounds. Oh, and hundreds of crocodiles, just waiting to eat you.

But more about all that another time.

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NEXT TIME: Crocodiles! Long Roads! More Birds Than You Can Shake A Stick At!

This post has been a long time in the writing, mainly because I’ve been so busy. It was started in Lismore, in the Gold Coast hinterland, NSW, Australia, and finally finished in Christchurch, New Zealand.