Saturday, December 30, 2006

Alice Springs

I'd like to have something nice to say about Alice Springs, I really would. I came to this town wanting to like it. It was one of those places in the world that I had heard about since I was a kid. When I was a kid it sounded like one of the most remote places on the planet. An old town in the middle of Australia with nothing for hundreds of miles except Uluru. A town that was just on the road to somewhere else but which had itself had become a destination. I then read Bill Brysons Down Under where he talks about the city having lost all its old charm and having been turned into a tourist trap filled with American restaurant chains and hotels.

Even if it had been Bill Brysons Alice Springs I may have accepted it. If it had been Cairns II or even Surfers Paradise in the Desert I would have found something nice about the town itself. Instead it was unique in my Australian experience and thankfully so. It lacked anything resembling character, in fact it would appear that someone had systematically gone through the town and eradicated anything that could hold a tourists interest for more than a few minutes. Just be thankful Uluru is 300 Kms away or they would probably have blown it up and used the rubble in the foundations of a car park.

Ok thinking back I am being a little harsh, not much, just a little. There is a Flying Doctors station that I visited and did a tour. That was interesting and passed an hour or so if you count the time I spent drinking a coffee in the little café attached to the base. A couple of old buildings do seem to have survived the harsh glare of development but that's because they are hidden away and kept out of the view of tourists who can be put to better use spending money in one of the numerous souvenir shops. Another rare plus is the bar in Annies hostel which serves quite a nice camel lassagne. When I am reduced to remembering a plate of lassagne as something good from a town you know the town itself is in trouble.

Unfortunately I was staying in another hostel away from Annies and it was the worst kept hostel I stayed in during my travels, but I wont name it here. The room I was in was ok but that seems to have been the exception as several of my friends complained about dirty rooms, broken air-cons and door locks that didn't open. The shared toilets, sinks and showers were filthy and covered in excrement when I arrived and were not cleaned in the two nights I was there. The pool area looked like the janitor had died in a corner somewhere and the bar was deserted as the bouncers wouldn't let anyone in. Still the other backpackers were friendly and I was only there for two nights.

The best thing I can say about Alice Springs is that the bus I took to Uluru continued on to Adelaide and I didn't have to return to it.

Cairns to Alice Springs

(This is a long post, I'm writing it at home as I use my travel journal to catch up with my Australia blog posts, more will follow).

After 6 days in Cairns it was time to start my journey back to Sydney. Of course while other people did sensible things like fly, I had decided it would be cool to do the whole journey over land by bus. I mean Australia is just one country, how big can it be... ;-).

The first stage of the journey was to get from Cairns to Alice Springs. I think my first idea that this was not going to be a run of the mill trip down the motorway was when I saw the bus. At first glance it looked like a standard bus, but closer inspection revealed it to be 4 wheel drive and have front body work that looked like less like bull bars and more like elephant bars. Still it was a pretty comfortable bus as they had taken out some rows of seats to give everyone more space. Plus there was a DVD player and TV screens so we would have something to watch when the landscape became boring.

The first day leaving Cairns we stopped at several tourist attractions like Milla Milla Falls and Millstreet Falls. We were still in the tropics so there was actually water in these water falls. For lunch we stopped at a little rest stop whose claim to fame was that it has Australia's Smallest Pub. Of course I suspect that every few hundred miles in Australia you can find a pub claiming to be Australia's Smallest Pub. This one was impressively small however and had there been 3 people in it at the same time two of them would have to be getting very up close and personal while the other leaned over the bar to order a pint.

After this point we hit the dirt roads. Long straight roads through the outback which are just gravel tracks down which jeeps, road trains and buses travel. But don't think we were on side roads, at one point one of these dirt tracks is called the Plenty Highway. Even in 4WD vehicles these are still tricky roads as they can tear a tire to bits in seconds as we learned the hard way. Driving along the passengers on the bus could hear a strange tapping noise, but since this was day one of the trip none of us were concerned enough to put our hand up and inform the driver.

It was only when we hit a metal cattle grid that the driver himself realised we had a problem. One of the tires had burst or just gone flat earlier and had been shredded as we drove along the dusty rocky road. The next two hours were spent trying to get the old tire off the bus and put on one of our two spares. One of the passengers, Sharky, obviously trying to be helpful and impress the ladies decided to take control help the driver undo the wheel nuts. We would have been there even longer if it was not for the driver of a road train that showed up after half an hour informed the guys that they were actually twisting the nuts the wrong way and had just tightened them all. Still no serious harm was done and we eventually got back on the road to Porcupine Gorge and from there on to our hostel for the night in a place whose name sounded like Hugbemden.

Day 2 started early, as all days on tour in Australia seem to. We had breakfast and then headed down the dirt roads again. There was an early stop in the town of Milton where Waltzing Matilda was written. They are really proud of this and have statues and displays all along the one street in town repeating the song. Unfortunately since it was around 8am on a Sunday there was little open, apart from one little shop which I presume knows the bus schedule and opens just for the thirsty tourists. For lunch we had a BBQ on a cliff top overlooking the desert and three rocks called Mary Maude and Kate. A search under the cliffs for Aborigine art revealed a few small drawings and several spooked kangaroos who hopped away as we approached passing quite close in the confined spaces.

We then went to a sheep station to use the toilets and fill up the water tanks on the bus. The property is 40,000 acres and is run by a man called Charlie and his family. This year is tough for them since they have only had 60% of their usual rainfall (12 inches) and it has been light rain so it doesn't really help break the drought. Still Charlie gave us water from his rain water tanks so we wouldn't yet have to drink water from the Great Artesian Basin, as we would later, the water in the basin is 2 million years old, was safe to drink but tasted awful. We then moved onto the town of Midleton and the cattle station of Wirrilgerna for the night Some of us slept on camp beds outside under the stars which were amazingly clear since there were no man made lights for miles around.

Day 3 we were up to watch the sun rise and then we headed into the Simpson Desert. This is a really barren place. It's been a desert for so long the sand has blown away and now its just a rocky plain with scrubby grass and a few small trees somehow managing to survive in that way that Australian plants seem to survive where nothing else could. Finally after 2 full days of travel we crossed into the Northern Territory. It's strange to think you can drive solidly for 2 days and still be in the same state, this country is HUGE. Another weird thing is the Northern Territory has a 1/2 hour time difference from Queensland. Typically the Australians just figured a full hour was too much so they just change the time by 30 minutes.

One of the highlights of this day was seeing a 5 meter high termite mound. After 3 days on a bus it could have been a 5 meter high dung mound and we would still all have gotten off the bus, walked around and took photographs. Still something about this mound seemed very alien. We stopped at an Aboriginal dry settlement where no alcohol is allowed. We basically just stopped to refuel the bus and pay a quick visit to the shop. Next I passed the tropic of Capricorn again, this time heading South and finally got to Alice Springs.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Back Home

I'm back home in Ireland, tired, a little jet lagged and more than a little relieved that I was flying through Frankfurt than Heathrow.

My travels aren't quite over however as I have to now head down to my home town for Christmas. No broadband, hell dial up barely works, so normal service on my blog will resume when I return to Dublin for New Years.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Hello from Sydney, Again

Well I'm finally back in Sydney. As I explained in my last post it's been a busy enough few weeks and I haven't had time to blog. I think that's a good thing cause, lets face it, I spent too much time on the internet before I started this trip. Now don't worry, I'm not stopping blogging and as for this holiday I will write blog posts that describe where I've been and what I've seen (I also have a personal journal that I can use when writing my blog) but with such a limited amount of time I'd rather spend the day experiencing the holiday than in an internet cafe :-). However I will summarize what I've been up to for the last few weeks.

After I left Cairns I traveled by bus to Alice Springs. This was a big, full size, four wheel drive bus that travelled through the outback and the Simpson Desert. This was my first experience of the "real" Australia, or at least the Australia I had in my mind when I left Ireland. Scrubby bush, rocky deserts, a shortage of water, lots of sun. The east coast was fun but this was more of an adventure, as burst tires and on the fly bus repairs testified.

After 3 days we got to Alice Springs. I only had one day in Alice and to be honest I was bloody glad I only had one. Sure there were some nice people off the bus that I spent time with, but Alice Springs itself was a total disappointment. Someone seems to have systematically gone through the town and removed anything with character, replacing it with another shop catering for the needs of travellers and backpackers. To me it seemed like a sad town that was past it's prime and had lost whatever had once made it special. It does host a Royal Flying Doctors Service which I did a tour of, that was the highlight. It also hosts the worst maintained hostel I've seen in Australia. The toilets were not cleaned for the two nights of my stay and they were already covered in s**t before I got there and the pool looked like it may well have been refilled with the slops from the bar.

After two nights I was delighted to get on the first Adventure Tours bus tour down to Adelaide. This was probably the best bus I was on in the whole 3 months. 6 days and a great crowd. The bus was full, 24 people, which was initially worried me but with in a couple of hours we were playing cards down the center aisle and generally settling into 6 days together. This trip took me through Uluru, Kings Canyon, Coober Peedy and lots of other great places. The real Red Center of Australia. It was bloody hot, 45C in the shade and 62C in the sun. A bottle of water frozen solid at the start of the day was liquid within an hour and like warm tea within 2. Sleeping in swags in the open air. Swimming in pools as dust devils hit the area and sent chairs and bottles flying. Drinking and sleeping in buildings under ground. But it was great fun. I've pretty much made a point of not mentioning names on my blog, what goes on the Oz Bus stays on the Oz Bus and I am bound to forget to mention someone and be in trouble, but I was asked specially to give a big shout out to everyone on my blog so here goes. Big hello to the swag Germans, Cathi, Linda and Ina. Dutchie, Duchess, Frenchie and Dingo whose pool playing skills passed several hours. Heather (Roxy girl) and all the Catherines. Richard for being my eyes after I was "struck blind" for a couple of hours when a trainee driver joined the bus and was faced with a bus that had a "blind" passenger, a "deaf" one and several who couple who "couldn't speak English". Though I suspect he twigged to the joke when the real driver doubled over laughing. And Helen from England, who really likes the number 4 on the Irish team, so if anyone has his email pass it to to her. I'm sure I've forgotten people so please forgive me, I've been trying to remember who was on what buses. I was really sad to move on and leave all of you behind.

I only got to spend 2 days in Adelaide and fortunately got out of town just before the Ashes arrived. 5 of us continued on the 3 day trip to Melbourne joined by 19 others. This was a pretty sedate bus for me. I was in pretty serious pain as I limped around the sights of the Great Ocean Road. I picked up blisters walking too fast around Uluru and they got a bit infected. A couple of soaks in detol did the trick but I was really looking forward to sitting on my ass for a while in Melbourne.

Melbourne was a city I had been looking forward to all trip as lots of people were telling me that it was a much nicer city than Sydney. It was not a disappointment, but I still think my favourite is Sydney. The good thing was that after 2 days of cricket fans several of the group we had left in Adelaide took an unplanned overnight bus to Melbourne and a car and we all got to meet up again. St Kilda is a really beautiful part of town and I spent two days out there. Victoria Markets, museums and a nice city center passed the rest of the time.

After a week in Melbourne I got on the next bus, my last, to Sydney. I really didn't want to take this bus since no one I knew was travelling on the same bus and the day I left was the birthday of one of the others and I had wanted to be there. Two weeks on a bus can make for good friends. Still perhaps it was the fact that I was not looking forward to it that made this bus special but it was. For starters it was the first bus in two months that was not full. With only 15 of us on the bus and some people travelling together I managed to get a row of seats to myself. The joy of stretching out across the bus and sleeping for a couple of hours after an early start! Many of the others on the bus thought I was German for the first day. Fair hair, glasses and I had apparently picked up a German accent during my time with all the Germans and Dutch on the Alice Springs to Melbourne journey. I'm told it's mostly gone, but every now and then I still say something that sounds German. This bus was a little more divided than others with 7 or so of us hanging out together 4 in another group and 4 kind of travelling in between. Still the 7 I was with were up for a laugh. No names, as is my standard, (and I think some of you don't want names and deeds mentioned on the internet ;-)) but you all know who you are :-)

Sydney is where I am now. Its was my starting point in Australia and my finish point. It's a lot busier now than it was back in October but it is Christmas shopping season. As is pretty standard on my visits to Sydney the weather hasn't been great but I still love this city. The seven of us from the bus are still together, all our hostels were close together and mobiles are great. I also really enjoyed being here with people who had not been here before (here I'll once again break my no names rule but she deserves a mention) and especially Adriana from Italy who when I pointed out the Harbour Bridge to her she responded with "The what? I've never heard of it! Why is it famous? What happened there?". I have to admit she had a point and I was lost for a reason why it was a great bridge beyond "look at it".

Ok, so that pretty much summarizes the last month or so, I've lost track of exactly how long. My time in Oz finishes on Sunday. I fly to Singapore for three nights and then I get home to Ireland on the 22nd. No more hostels and dorms once I leave Sydney. I've booked a hotel in Singapore, ah the simple luxuries in life like a bed that isn't a bunk or being able to turn on the light when getting back late.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hello from Melbourne

After two weeks of travel I have finally arrived in Melbourne. Sorry for being so quiet over that time, internet cafes were a little sparse, expensive and lets face it, when I only had one day or more often one night in a town it just wouldn't be right to spend that time on a computer.

I promise I'll post updates about where I've been over the next couple of days, I have a week in Melbourne so plenty of time to see the sights and do some blogging. First of all I need to read my journal and try to remember what happened where and when, after 2 weeks on a bus towns begin to blur a little. :-)
Update: 6-Dec-2006: Ok, so despite having 6 days in Melbourne I didnt actually get time to update my blog. Between sightseeing and meeting friends I only got one post started but it is far from finished. I leave for Sydney tomorrow morning and get there on the 10th so I will do some posting when I get there, promise.