Chapter 16: Lord of the Flies

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Maze Backpackers

Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Hi! Sorry for the delay in updating (and e-mailing, if I owe you one), but it's been an action-packed week and I've had very little internet time. First thing Monday morning I met the Autopia backpacker bus at the Pint on Punt pub near my hostel. The bus was a 21-seater from 1975 or so, and it towed a rickety old trailer containing all of our bags. There were 15 of us on the tour, and our chauffeur to Sydney over the next 3 days was Bernie, who was, as they say, "a character." Bernie looked like Santa Claus, but he had an over-the-top stereotypical Aussie demeanor: loud, direct, hilarious, and warm.

We got out of Melbourne pretty quickly and headed up to the town of Glenrowan. Glenrowan depends on the legend of the bush ranger Ned Kelly for its survival, and everything in the dusty backwater 'burg revolves around Ned in some way. Ned became something of a national folk hero (think: Robin Hood) in the late 1800's despite the fact that his gang killed several police officers and then went into hiding. He died in a big stand-off with the police in Glenrowan, and all over town you can find models of his home-made 100-pound armor. We walked through the Ned Kelly museum, heard lots of funny folksy Ned Kelly tribute songs, and chuckled at the 20-foot high plaster Ned in the middle of town. There's a movie based on his life (appropriately called "Ned Kelly") that stars Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, and Naomi Watts, and it's coming out stateside on the arthouse circuit in March. Reviews have been kind, and given the high-profile cast I'd imagine Glenrowan's tourism will be booming for a while.

Our next destination was the Brown Brothers winery where we got to do a free wine-tasting at noon. That's when the fun and group bonding started; I tasted about 15 varietals and got to know Terhi from Finland and Eva from Holland. After a quiet morning on the bus, everyone was suddenly very chatty after the wine stop. All tours should provide free alcohol-based ice-breakers!

We continued on into the Victorian High Country, and stopped for ice cream in the gold-mining town of Beechworth. I think by the time I'm done with Australia and New Zealand I'll have seen enough goldrush towns to last me the rest of my life. At least this one was very picturesque. Lake Hume, along the Hume Highway, was interesting. It's huge and man-made, and when they create lakes in Australia they don't bother clearing the land first, so there are lots of dead trees poking up in the middle, giving it an eerie & swamp-like quality. Soon after passing the lake Bernie told us all about the "Man From Snowy River," and just like Glenrowan & Ned Kelly there are a few towns in the High Country that seem to exist simply because the Man From Snowy River lived near them.

Our stop for the night was in the middle-of-nowhere town of Kanchoban in the Snowy Mountains, at the Alpine Lodge. It looked sketchy at first, but turned out to be a treat: we paid dorm prices for actual hotel rooms, so I had my own queen bed for the first time on my trip! I shared the room with Rowan & Amir from England, and the first thing we did was jump in the large pool, which was another luxury. I tried to ignore the fact that there were chlorine-resistant bugs swimming around. After a dip in the hot tub (!), the 15 of us filed into the cafe to order dinner. Everything was relaxed at the Alpine Lodge except for the service; the 2 women behind the counter were dragon-ladies, and they seemed poised to bite off our heads if we so much as asked for ketchup.

The next morning Bernie drove us further into the mountains on some very twisty and scenic roads. We stopped at a bathroom (well, shack with a hole in the floor) at a remote park, and that's where I saw my first wild kangaroos. There were about a dozen or so hopping around not too far off the road, and the young ones were especially cute. Other wildlife sightings included cockatoos & parrots & a huge dead snake on the road.

The main destination for the day was Mount Kosciuszko, which is the highest peak in Australia at some 2200 meters. To get there we stopped in the cute Alpine ski-town of Thredbo and took a 20-minute chairlift to the start of the path to the top of the mountain. It wasn't a steep climb, and it was paved with metal grating the whole way, but it was a 13 km round trip so we brought packed lunches and plenty of water. The landscape was beautiful - all rocky, snowy, windswept, and barren - and the day was perfect... but the trek was almost ruined by the flies.

Before I got to Australia I'd heard that the flies can be ruthless, but I sort of laughed it off, thinking "how bad can a few flies be?" The answer, unfortunately, is "very bad indeed." For four hours we were incessantly harrassed by hundreds of the things, and they weren't shy at all. They especially enjoyed buzzing the ears, face, and hair, and it was about the most annoying thing I've ever experienced. It was horrifying looking at the person ahead of you on the track, because their back would be covered with 50+ flies crawling around... and you knew your back looked the same. *shudder*

Somehow we survived the insect attack and reached the summit, which was cool, but after the spectacle of New Zealand's southern alps, a 2200-meter peak just seems anticlimactic. Still, it's nice to be able to say I climbed to the top of Australia. We practically ran down the mountain to escape the flies, and then pushed on to the town of Cooma to pick up supplies for the BBQ that night.

At 6 or so we arrived in Canberra, and Bernie took us on a quick tour around the city. Canberra is Australia's capital, and despite its population of 300,000 and a large number of uni students, it has a reputation as being incredibly dull. While we weren't there long enough to form a real opinion, I at least thought the city was fascinating from a design and architecture standpoint. Canberra is a purpose-built city... a hundred-odd years ago Melbourne and Sydney were fighting over which one of them should be the capital, and so to appease both Canberra was plunked down right between them. There are big government buildings with expansive lawns, solemn war memorials, massive museums, embassies built in the style of the countries they represent (the US embassy looked like it was brought over brick by brick from Williamsburg!), and lots of parks. The only down side to all the grandeur is that the city isn't walkable at all because everything is so spread out. Victor Lodge was our home for the night, and we had a fun "barbie" on the patio at 8pm. Afterwards I did my laundry, and then we walked to a pub around the corner. I have to say that the restaurants and bars were pretty lively for a Tuesday night in a "boring" town!

Wednesday morning our first stop was Goulburn, which is notable only for the 3-story sheep ("Big Merino") that dominates the main drag. We passed by enormous Lake George, which Bernie told us is called "the disappearing lake" on account of the fluctuating water level. Actually most of the lake is dry or only slightly swampy, and livestock can even graze on the more solid ground. It's rumoured that the lake has the highest concentration of poisonous snakes of anywhere in Australia, but unfortunately no one else was keen on stopping the bus and stomping around in the grass to see if that was true.

Before long we were back into hilly country, and Bernie took us to the Blue Mountain World Heritage Area via some bumpy unpaved backroads. We got to the Jenolan Caves at noon and took a 1-hour tour through one of the larger caves in the system. The cave itself was decent, I guess, but it wasn't anything I hadn't seen before in Luray or Waitomo. We learned a lot about cave science, though, thanks to the dotty old tour guide who added some unintentional humor to the proceedings by repeating himself often and ending every sentence with "so is that alright?" He told us that Jenolan was the second place in the world to install electric lights, which I found hard to believe, but he probably had no reason to lie. The walk was cold, so I was happy to emerge into the sunlight for lunch, despite the ever-present flies. There was a waterfall by the picnic area that was home to some really cute foot-long monitor lizards who were happy to pose for photos.

In the afternoon we went to Echo Point in the Blue Mountains National Park. They're called the Blue Mountains because the eucalyptus oil that escapes into the air supposedly makes the mountains look hazy and blue... but I find that most mountains look hazy and blue to begin with. Anyway, they were pretty: the Jamison Valley reminded me of a cross between the Appalachians and the Grand Canyon. We took the Scenic Railway down into the valley, and it's famous for being the steepest railway in the world, at a 50-degree incline. It was only a 1-minute trip down, but sitting in the front was thrilling because of the surprising lack of any safety bar to keep me from plunging to my death. From the bottom of the railway we hiked the hour and a half back up to the Echo Point lookout. The flies were mercifully scarce, the waterfalls and forest were beautiful, and by this point all 15 of us had bonded well, so the walk was a lot of fun. The main attraction at the lookout point is the Three Sisters rock formation, which I thought was interesting but over-rated.

We had another BBQ that night at the Blue Mountains YHA in Katoomba, and then I tried to book my accommodation in Sydney. Little did I know that thousands (between 8,000 and 80,000, depending on who you ask) of Jehovah's Witnesses were descending on Sydney this weekend for a convention, so finding a bed was a challenge. I booked into the Central YHA for Thursday, but I'd have to figure out the rest of the weekend once I got tyo Sydney, as most places seemed full. That night most of us went to the Clarendon Guesthouse for some drinks. I earned a round of applause for downing a bottle of Strongbow in one go by inserting a straw next to my mouth to let air in. I'm learning such useful things on the road!

Thursday morning we went on one last bush walk together at Wentworth Falls, and then we drove the 2 hours to Sydney. It was cloudy when we got here, but the skyline, Harbour Bridge, and Opera House were still impressive on arrival. Bernie brought us to Central Station, and after we swapped contact info and set a time to meet later that night, we headed off to our respective hostels. My first order of business was finding a dorm for the weekend, and luckily a place up the street from the YHA called Maze Backpackers had a space open up, so I nabbed it. My second task was to sort out my transportation north, so I settled into a travel agency for an hour or two and made a rough map of the next month with Norah, the helpful agent. I bought a ticket on the Oz Experience, which is a little bit of a gamble, but I think I'll enjoy it. It's like Magic Bus in New Zealand: a hop-on/hop-off backpacker bus with drivers doubling as guides, and it runs all around the country. The big positives are meeting other travelers, and the fact that Oz Exp often takes the backroads instead of the boring coastal highway, and there are some unique stops like a night at an outback cattle station and a night in Warrumbungles National Park. It has a reputation for being a "party bus" filled with drunk 18 year old UK gap year kids... but A) that probably wouldn't bother me, and B) I talked to plenty of 20-somethings in Sydney and Melbourne who raved about their Oz Exp trips and said there were all kinds of great people of all ages on board. So we'll see.

I could finally relax after I got everything organized, so I met up with the Autopia gang that night for drinks and dinner before heading back for a much-needed 10 hours of sleep. Yesterday morning it was pouring, so I wrote in my journal until the rain let up, and then moved myself into Maze. I called my friend Sabina who I'd met in New Zealand, as she had one more day in Sydney, and we met up for lunch and a stroll through Chinatown, downtown, and King's Cross. It was great seeing her again; hopefully we'll bump into each other along the coast. King's Cross is funny - it's a mishmash of strip joints, cafes, and hostels that's both sleazy and hip.

Maze Backpackers had a free wine and cheese party at 7 last night, so of course I was thoroughly tanked by 7:20. I stumbled off for some food and then went out to a pub for a quick drink with Paul (Edinburgh) from my dorm room. At around 11 it was time to check out Sydney's infamous nightlife, so I planted myself in ARQ, which is a trendy club in the heart of Gay Sydney (around Oxford Street). Predictably, I befriended the one straight guy in the club. Mike is a bass player in a band, and he was at ARQ for an office party that his lesbian boss organized. He and his friends were super-nice, so I hung out with them in Darlinghurst until... well, late. I think it was 4:30-ish. The walk home took about 3 times longer than it needed to because I kept getting lost, and the sad thing is I even had a map. I vaguely remember some hottie on the street trying to convince me to come back to his place, but somehow I had the sense (stupidity?) to repeatedly and politely decline.

Thanks to some hangover prevention pills I'd bought and taken before the wine party, I was up at 12 and ready to go. Today was beautiful, sunny, and hot! It was a good day to explore the city on foot and take lots of touristy photos, so that's what I did. I'd been told to lower my expectations for the Opera House, but as a modern architecture fan I thought it looked much cooler in person than in pictures. I wasn't let down. Didn't quite understand the big deal about the Harbour Bridge, though. After the harbour area I walked for a few hours through the Botanic Gardens, which are magnificent, sat by the fountain and reflecting pool in Hyde Park, and then cruised along George Street looking at surfwear shops. I think I need to treat myself to a new t-shirt, because I'm getting bored with the same three and my long-sleeve shirts will be pretty useless for the next few months.

Sydney is incredible; I like it much more immediately than I did Melbourne. The people seem slightly friendlier, everything is a little closer, and there's a great energy to the place. I only have until Monday morning, so I'd better sign off and make the most of my Saturday night! If you made it this far - thanks for bearing with me through this never-ending entry!

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