Outback and Out there in Oz

Trip Start Sep 1999
Trip End May 2004

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Flag of Australia  ,
Sunday, May 18, 2003

The grass is always greener, just probably not in the Northern Territories during a drought. One day I'm sailing Sydney's glorious bays on a luxury boat, pampering my lifestyle with champagne, strawberries and sun-bathing. The next day I'm dirty, sweaty and roughing it "outback". This is how to learn the hard way that there is something true in the "location, location, location" thing.

I travel quite well but heat and sun don't always travel well with me. Bikini-clad on a boat, gently fanned by cooling sea breezes, it's manageable. Hiking at midday with endless swarming insects and not a breath of wind, the heat is just, well, not so great.

The infamous 2 litre casks of cheap red wine don't always travel well either. At just $15 each they are perfectly OK served straight from a cool fridge in suburbian Sydney. But it is not quite so good served at boiling point after re-fermenting itself again and again in its foil bag on a sweltering hot bus. Despite this, we did shamelessly down a whole hot bag of the stuff anyway, swigging it from chipped tin mugs sprinkled with red dust in the outback. We shamelessly blamed dehydration. I'm nothing if not a classy bird!

Up in the Northern Territories, I met up with a Motley crew. We shared a unique experience of being incarcerated in an un-airconditioned bus for the 4000 km from Darwin to Broome. We recently went our separate ways and few tears were shed, except joyful ones from me. I will NEVER do an organised tour again. Independent travel is the only way for the future. I realised this after less than 2 days. Unfortunately, this meant that the next 8 days after this revelation were long, taxing, painful....

Let me share this championship team with you :

Eddie, our part aboriginal, part eco-crusader driver. He seemed keen to subsidise our supermarket meals with true "bush" tucker. The fruit was fine but we chickened out of catching our own fresh meat and insects. Still, his tales, knowledge of indigenous culture and didgeridoo playing were great companions in the long hours till dawn.

Rita and Donald, our Sheffield retirees. They swiftly took the "b" out of trailblazing, reducing our walks from sprints to crawls. Rita was disturbed by the absence of Holiday Inns and air conditioning; we were disturbed by her howling snoring, which seemed to also scare the roaming dingoes into silence in the dead of night.

There was one great lass though, St Albans Sally. Her 26th birthday celebration was an apple muffin, candle, hot red wine and bed at 9.00 pm. She was suitably underwhelmed.

We had Dutchie who never said a word, a very rare trait in a Dutchman, but we soon found a better use for him. A few days before our arrival a German toursit had been snatched and eaten by a crocodile. In reality she was wading at midnight, his dinner time, in a small pool that was effectively his kitchen, but that's another story. Wrong time and definitely wrong place. We were a little concerned about this latest development and elected our Dutch friend as our Litmus Crocodilus test at every new water hole. We based this election on the fact that he was the nearest geographically and linguistically to German, whcih crocs seemed to favour, so he was sent paddling into every waterhole first.

Our swimming stops were also planned with military precision by Aussie Steve. His CV when he applied for the job of "water divining supremo" said he had spent his lifetime living in city-central Perth. Despite this, he felt that he was superior in his understanding of the ways of nature in wilder parts of Australia than any of us. It was a little irritating. His personal hygiene wasn't much better than his survival skills. I'm worried that it typifies the habits of the average Perth male, as I am headed there soon. He brought only 2 shirts for the sweaty 9 day trip. Our response was to isolate him at the front of the bus whilst we had our mouths pressed to the window gulping in fresh air at the back.

Lastly there was Mikhael, an Israeli girl. She had an annoying habit of stopping us from reading her journal entries upside-down across the table by writing them in Hebrew. We got our own back by manouevering a match-make with the Dutchie. We thought it would be funny. We were wrong. They surprised us all by holding a 2 hour conversation on the joys of Tolkein's writing. As they waxed lyrical on style and content, we drowned our boredom with more hot red wine and sat back to enjoy the nocturnal show put on for us by nature out under the stars.

The landscape's been stunning, better possibly in the dry now than in the wet season when everything's more lush. Although I haven't seen it in the wet yet, that's another trip, but reputedly equally beautiful, just greener. I have some great friends in the British Royal Marines. I think even they would struggle to be camouflaged around here. It is every colour possible. There's vast vastnesses of red, from dancing flames in the bushes to the all-encompassing brick red dust. The greens go from lurid lime to almost bottle black. The silver-frosted eucalyptus's are fragile and gorgeous framed against the blue sky, bluer than anything imagineable, from iris and cobalt blues to lilacs. Often they have been stripped of leaves, ravished, burned and blackened to just dark silhouettes with a light dusting of white ash at their feet. The "coolest" things here are the incredible 12 metre high rust-brown termite hills. Over a hundred years old and proudly defiant in a desert wasteland. Even cooler for us hot tourists would be the rivers, with their white sandy creek beds strewn with pink-pebbles, but they twist a way through the rocks without any water at this time of year.

Out in the Bungle Bungles we clambered up rock pinnacles that were air-sprayed pure punk orange, just standing in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by black rocks, grey rocks and every colour in between. And forget orange and pink sunsets. Here they are cerise through the smoky haze. Location, location, location - simply stunning, stunning, stunning. And then the true gems in the midst of all this, little pockets of crystal clear waters for us hot pink hikers to cool off in!

The main vegetation here is spinnafex, spread out in endless seas to the horizon. They are small individual hummocks of grass, like cute clumps of aliens. That's cute until you try and walk through them. Very quickly your skin is dripping with blood as this soft billowing grass cunningly disguises millions of razor-sharp needles. After hours of being cut to shreds and plucking tiny pricks from my legs, it was easy to take some sadistic satisfaction every time I saw acres of these buggers reduced to ashes and vapourised by the passing bush fires. All that is left behind are little circles of scorched black earth. Justice is served.

Water's become a fixation - billabong swimming, lazing around in rock pools on the top of huge waterfalls or showering underneath them. The heat is oppressive. Its like walking in a scorching hot pressure cooker breathing air direct from a hair dryer. The air itself is really a super-powered vacuum that sucks every ounce of water from every pore. Walking is actually too co-ordinated a word - it's a drunken stagger. Familiar but strangely disconcerting without the alcohol first!

The electrical storms each day are almost worth the heaviness of living through the intense heat. The lights suddenly get switched off. The sky drops into blackness. Masses of pregnant, purple-bellied clouds gather. Firstly they prod dark fingers down to the ground in the distance. Then they shoot lightening down, connecting sky and ground, splicing and forking and momentarily lighting up the whole sky. And then after the light show, the relief - "lashings" of gorgeous cold rain. It had us jumping out of the bus and rain dancing in the middle of the road every time.

Life is certainly on the road. Roos, birds, cows, bats. Squashed. Of the living variety we saw snakes, kangaroos, wallabies, creepy crawlies galore, galahs (flaming and not), cockatoos, budgies, crocs, kites, eagles, reptile things and bouncing marsupials of all sizes. Its romantic, sleeping in swags under the stars but you do share it with ants, mossies and dingoes. The shrieking, shit-bombing bats I could also have lived without at night, when I foolishly camped under the trees. It would also have been nice to have an on/off switch for the dawn riot, which started a little early at 5.00 am. Probably also one for the 24/7 cicada chorus, which never seemed to noticeably have a start or stop point but droned noisily and endlessly on forever. After the first night, the novelty of both soon wears off as the nerves wear thin. Apart from that, the sleeping was easy?!

Its remote out here but we passed through some signs of civilisation (a petrol station) every 400 kms or so. Someone told us that these communities have the record for highest per capita alcohol consumption and no police presence in most of them. This is Australia's equivalent of the wild west. We were impressed but not impressed enough to be physically moved from the safety of the bus!

We've crossed a lot of rivers on the trip, most if them with no river in them. The only things left are usually some terrified, gasping fish crammed together in about a cupfull of evaporating water. I've seen alot of grass too, and most of it isn't green and comes in a bag. I've seen plenty of the most successful creatures out here, the fly. So bloody well named, they fly into every orifice in massive swarms with their highly trained kamikaze units particularly good at committing suicide in their thousands on my cleavage and teeth. But its great,.....really!

Sadly I have to share with you that at this precise moment nature may be beautiful but it has robbed me of all my beauty. If I had a mirror I'd be able to tell you if my eyebrows have met in the middle yet. The bags under my eyes are so heavy I'm sure they are competing with my backpack for the most cubic litreage. I could cultivate a crop of potatoes under my finger nails (as my good Irish mother used to say....) The tan of red-dust is almost all-over, with just panda white eyes where my shades have been. Topping off this great look, my hair is an odd blonde/red (verging on ginger)/auburn confusion. As for diet, I am cold-turkeying from the Sydney staples of alcohol and Mrs Macs Beef Pies. This has sent my digestive system crashing into free fall. It yo-yos one way or the other. At the moment my bowel has imposed a 3 day strike. I resemble a first trimester pregnancy. On a plus side my boobs are brown and my legs are toned from hiking. But its not necessarily a big enough plus for the rest of the disaster that is my body.

I've hit Broome now, an over flowing metropolis and nerve-centre of life in comparison with the last 10 days. Now I can hopefully re-transform myself to the beauty I once was. Firstly I might need to remember quite when that was....

So onwards and downwards. I bought a car today. It looks fantastic and pushed all those critical buying buttons for a woman - nice colour, got a radio and clean inside. It's a non-backpackers Ford Falcon so I'm hoping the engine's been spared its usual back packer flogging. I peeked under the bonnet and nodded sagely for a moment or two, for effect. On paper (admittedly written by the seller)it's in superb condition, all reconditioned and improved and with massive engine. Another female buying button - size! It has enough room for a mattress and me in the back. Time will tell if my buttons are any good. In the hope of building a travelling relationship free of breakdowns, I've started by christening my purchase. The car is now called Bertie. As Eric's successor (my NZ vehicle) I am hoping he is a new improved version. Going at more that 45 mph would be a bonus, as I don't have 5 months to complete the next 9000 kms, just 5 weeks!

Starting out on the road alone again sounds brilliant. I have some camping gear to buy to make me self-sufficient and started with the essentials - a new guitar. It's important to have company for those lonesome star-lit nights and concerts!

During my travels I have accumulated a long list of concert venues, including dorm rooms, late night bus stations and cars. Recently I have added camp fires and Cathedral Gorge to the list. Certainly the most impressive venue to date, Cathedral Gorge is a huge natural rock ampitheatre in the Bungle Bungle ranges. We trekked for an hour to get there. To mark the occasion, I belted out a patriotic "Swing Low Sweet Chariots". It had amazing acoustical echoes. The audience were amazed and tearful. The reviews were of "soprano-Pavarotti". My next gig may be Ayers Rock, or a desert rave on eclipse night on 4th December. Should be one not to miss.

Until then, this land's looking forward to torrential rains and sprouting a new coat of greeness. I'm looking forward to normal bowels, 9000 kms of driving and a whole lot of water drinking...adios!
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