Normal Service Resumed

So, where did I leave you? That’s right…stranded in Perth while I continued gallivanting around WA then the South Island of New Zealand.

Sorry about that. I really am very sorry.

I’m back in Melbourne now and planning to stay here for a long time. Even though I don’t have an internet connection in the house, I think it will be easier to stay on top of things (blogging, I mean) now that I’m not moving all over the place anymore.

Let me catch you up on what I’ve been up to: in Perth I had an amazing run of good luck. I got a job and a room in a flat for the exact length of time that I needed them. I found a great group of people to hang around with and got back in touch with some friends from school and Edinburgh and Russia(!) that I hadn’t seen for ages.

The weather was amazing, so good in fact that I think it has ruined me. In my last week in Perth when it finally got a bit colder, I morphed into one of those whiny British people that wears their summer jacket from home in winter in Australia and complains how cold it is. It was 16 degrees. Freezing!

I grumbled about going to New Zealand, where I’d heard there would be snow. Sure it would be nice to go on holiday with my parents, but why couldn’t we have flown north to the sunshine? (You see? Whiny.)

But New Zealand was beautiful in winter: all snow capped mountains and mirror lakes. It was worth feeling as though we were living inside a refrigerator. We went to all the places you might expect: Queenstown, Milford Sound, Dunedin and Christchurch, which were all interesting and beautiful in their own ways, but the surprise star of the trip was Oamaru. Have you even heard of it? The only reason we stopped there was because it was midway between Dunedin and Christchurch which made it a good place to overnight.

It was awesome! It’s the home of New Zealand’s Steampunk Headquarters!!! How cool is that? (It also begs the question, where are the other Steampunk Headquarters in the world?). The Victorian town centre had a European feel and was full of arty shops that sold homemade soaps and hand bound notebooks and locally made jewellery. Alas, during the winter months the Steampunk HQ and many of the shops and cafés were only open at weekends. We arrived on a Monday so just missed out.

My only slight consolation was to imagine that all the business and workshop owners were occupied with their artistic pursuits. I’d hate to think that they were sunbathing in Bali while we gazed forlornly through their darkened shop windows, our breath condensing on the cold glass.

I’ll just have to go back in summer.

West Coast Road Trip Part 5: Dinosaur Footprints and Rocky Outcrops

I didn’t realise how much I appreciated curious rock formations until I came to Australia. On the way up the west coast we stopped off at the Pinnacles, columns of golden limestone clustered together in the desert; in Broome we hopped over stacked discs of red rock at Gantheaume Point.

We’d driven out there hoping to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints in the bay but since the tide was high they weren’t visible. I really liked the idea of being somewhere where ancient history hadn’t just shaped the landscape but physically stamped it. Even the characteristic red colour of the earth had its origins in prehistoric times when heavy rain soaked through to the bedrock and dissolved the iron. The water percolated back up to the surface resulting in iron rich red soil.

By the time the next low tide came around we had somewhere else to be. We joined the gathering crowd at Town Beach to watch the Staircase to the Moon, a natural phenomenon where moonlight reflected off the sand flats looks like rungs of a ladder leading up to the moon. There must be places all over the world where you can see this effect but in Broome it’s a big deal. After watching the moon rise we wandered round a nearby market where there was a lot of Staircase-to-the-Moon- inspired jewellery for sale, pendants made from silver bars topped with pearls, for example.

The following day, Dave and I said our goodbyes. The original plan had been to go all the way up to Darwin and then back to Perth via an interior road but since I had run out of money and Dave had lost faith in the campervan after the Coral Bay incident, we decided to call it quits after Broome. I flew back to Perth to look for work and Dave arrived back in the campervan a few days later.

West Coast Road Trip Part 4: Big Moon Over the Highway

Before I began road tripping in Australia, I relished the idea of driving on long stretches of highway through the empty outback, the road in front of me like a shimmering oil slick streaking towards the horizon. I couldn’t wait to be in that enormous landscape, a tiny person in a tiny car with nothing but sand as far as the eye could see.

That was until I drove north towards Port Hedland on the North West Coastal Highway. I nearly expired from boredom. Don’t ask me why, because I managed the road from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy without a problem and it was even longer and more monotonous than this one. Perhaps because by the time we were approaching Port Hedland we’d already been on the road for eight days? Maybe one week of red earth and stunted trees is the most I can handle. I was almost hoping a kangaroo would dive nose first in front of the car just to give me something to do.

We were maybe about 30km away from the next rest stop and I couldn’t wait to get off the road and lie down for the night. Behind me in the mirror I could see the sun was setting. Ahead there was nothing but road and red, and a curious, glowing pink mound. Some kind of man-made construction, I thought, for its curved top was far too smooth to be natural. But then it began to rise up from the ground, gradually, like a hot air balloon, and I realised it was the moon, enormous and pink. I have never seen anything like it before in my life, although Dave told me that the moon often appears magnified when it’s low on the horizon.

Moments ago I had been so weary of the landscape, thinking that there was no more pleasure left for me in outback driving. Now, watching the moon rise and deflate and change in hue from pink to yellow, I felt as though I could stay on that road forever. Too soon we reached the rest stop and the moon went back to normal, a hard white disc in the sky.

West Coast Road Trip Part 3: Breakdown in Coral Bay

We were half way up the west coast when our campervan broke down. We tried to start it up one morning and it just wouldn’t go. Luckily it happened in Coral Bay where I had a good phone signal and there was a mechanic only half an hour away.

He looked inside the engine and whistled. There were two wires attached to the battery with alligator clips. “Look at that! The positive wire has been touching the metal casing. It’s welded itself on. That’s how you burn a car to the ground.”

But that wasn’t what was preventing the campervan from starting. The mechanic was stumped. He fished around inside the engine pulling out wires and looking for fuses. Eventually he left with assurances that he would be back once he’d got hold of a wiring diagram for our vehicle.

We had been planning on spending a few hours snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef but now we had the whole day at our disposal. Boy am I glad we had that extra time. It was amazing, like being inside a giant aquarium.

We swam through clouds of tiny, iridescent blue fish that floated up from coral towers. Pancake flat neon yellow fish, spiky lionfish and metallic green parrot fish flitted in and out of the reef, oblivious as we drifted on the surface of the water above them.

In places the coral bloomed from the seabed like huge stone lettuces. Sometimes it was piled up like stacks of petrified firewood, or bulged into cratered domes like brains suspended in formaldehyde. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colours darted through their curious playground, wriggling into holes and diving under arches.

We returned to the caravan park salt crusted and exhilarated shortly before the mechanic reappeared. This time he was able to find what was wrong with the engine and fix it.

The next day we could continue with our adventure.

West Coast Road Trip Part 2: Dolphins at Monkey Mia

The next morning we got up early and snuck quietly out of the parking bay where we had spent the night. That is, we got out as quietly as we could in our ancient, growling campervan.

We refuelled and headed back to Geraldton, lesson learnt. After that, we always made sure we had plenty of fuel and water and I regularly texted my parents to update them on our itinerary.

The following night we stayed in a 24 hour rest stop at the side of the highway. These rest stops are the best kind of free camping you can get on the west coast: you don’t have to stray off course to get to them, nor do you need a four wheel drive to access them. There are public toilets there and plenty of people around for company.

We made it to Monkey Mia on our third day on the road. This is a beach resort where dolphins swim up to the shore three times a day to be fed by the rangers. The beach was also visited by pelicans and emus.

West Coast Road Trip Part 1: Lost on the Road to Mt Magnet

It was night time, we were lost on a red dirt road out in the middle of nowhere and we were almost out of petrol and water.

To our left, red lights glowed in the dark like scattered garnets on a velvet cloth. The flickering light told us they were not streetlights but flames. The series of small fires in the neighbouring field were too close together and there were too many of them to be campfires. It was eerie. All we needed now was to hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand had escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum and we would know that it was all over.

It was only day one of our road trip. How did it all go so horribly wrong?

What happened is this: in my zeal to save money, when we stopped to refuel at a highway roadhouse I only half filled the tank. The petrol here was 15 cents a litre dearer than in Perth and I began to panic when I saw the rate at which the numbers on the petrol pump were flapping up.

“We’ll just refill properly in Geraldton tomorrow,” I said.

Another one of my great money saving ideas was to only camp in free campsites. We consulted our guide to camping in WA and found one a short way along the Mt Magnet road.

Taking the turnoff just outside Geraldton, we passed a sign warning that there was little drinking water available north of here. “We’ll get water in town tomorrow too,” I said.

The thing is, in Australia, what looks like a very short distance on a map is actually a very big distance on the road. We drove more than 60 km before we found what we thought was the turnoff for the campsite, a rutted red dirt road that crossed the train tracks and disappeared into the darkness.

The campervan juddered and shuddered over the uneven surface taking us further and further away from the main road.

There was no mobile reception and it occurred to me that no one would ever think of looking for us so far from the highway if we broke down now. Or if we ran out of fuel.

“How many kilometres have we done now?” I asked Dave.

“520” he said. “Do you know how many we were on when we stopped for gas?”

“350”

We were both silent for a moment while we did some calculations, because you see, the fuel gauge on the campervan didn’t work. We reckoned we could go 400km on a full tank and the plan was to reset the counter to zero every time we filled up. But since I had only partially refilled the tank last time we stopped…”I think we can go 150km on what I put in,” I said.

“And we’ve already gone 170km since then,” Dave shot back.

Uh oh.

We decided to get back onto the Mt Magnet Road and to try to get to the next town, which was 20km away.

We made it all right but, wouldn’t you know it? Both of the town’s petrol stations were closed for the night.

Loneliness

Sorry for my long absence from the blogosphere. I’ve been travelling on the west coast of Australia where a good internet connection is hard to come by. I’ve still been writing posts, I just haven’t had the opportunity to upload them till now so they’ll be appearing over the coming week.

Don’t feel bad for me when you read this one, because I wrote it two weeks ago and of course everything has changed since then.

Yesterday I left the tomato farm. The time I was there passed so quickly. I wish I had appreciated the stability more, maybe taken a few moments every evening to be thankful for my own bed, the regularity of the working hours and the nice people that surrounded me.

In seven months in Australia the longest I’ve stayed in one place was seven weeks. There were the six weeks on the tomato farm and the rest of my time has been a patchwork of two weeks here, ten days there. Stability has definitely been lacking.

I feel so lonely to be hitting the road again on my own, leaving friends behind. I spent the day in Adelaide today brimming with tears. I watched a video installation in the art gallery for half an hour just to be in the company of other people, focusing on the same thing.

I’m not homesick, but I miss the comfort of being able to stay in one place with loved ones close by. I miss being able to meet friends for tea in Edinburgh at a moment’s notice and then decide to spend the whole weekend together just because we could. I’m sad because I can’t imagine I’ll ever have that again in the future.

When I left Melbourne to go to Tasmania I felt the same way, lonely and lost, and I wrote about it in my notebook. A few days later I was in the Barossa Valley working on a vineyard with a great group of people. When I reread my notes from Tasmania I couldn’t believe that I’d ever felt like that. The loneliness passes so quickly.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Perth and I’ll be meeting friends so I know I’ll be fine.

Adelaide

There was a storm right over Melbourne Airport so my flight to Adelaide was delayed by more than three hours. I had planned to grab dinner in a sushi bar and to spend the evening strolling around the city centre but it was well after dark by the time I arrived.

I stepped off the bus into the middle of a street brawl. I swung my rucksack onto my back and walked away as fast as my 20kg of luggage would allow. A few blocks later I saw a drunk man standing outside a building shouting abuse at some people on the balcony. I realised with dismay that the building was my youth hostel and the people on the balcony were some of the guests.

“Don’t worry, it’s not always like this,” the man at the reception said. I asked if there was anywhere nearby where I could get something to eat. He directed me to Hindley Street. “It looks seedy because there are lots of strip bars and night clubs but don’t be scared, it’s quite safe.” He thought for a moment then added. “Except at the weekend.”

Great. Where in God’s name had I come to?!

After making a bad first impression, Adelaide didn’t seem much better the next day. It suffered from following immediately on from Melbourne. I went to Central Market but it just wasn’t as good as the Queen Victoria market. The street art wasn’t as vibrant and the coffee wasn’t as smooth. Everything that I liked about Melbourne was a shade less awesome in Adelaide.

I left for a few weeks to do some grape picking in the Barossa Valley (and yes, I did see some redbacks) and came back to Adelaide for the festival. This is when the city really came into its own.

Most of the events in Writers’ Week were free: completely, utterly, wonderfully free. I saw Kate Grenville, Jo Nesbø and Alice Pung FOR FREE. And you know what a geek I am about author events; I was riding on that high for a week.

The event space in the Women’s Memorial Garden was open, under the shade of trees and canopies, which made the whole thing even more accessible. This would never work in the Edinburgh Book Festival where the frequent rain would make for soggy audiences but in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent in the world (as we are constantly being reminded by stickers above sinks in public toilets and youth hostel kitchens), it works well.

Sadly the Adelaide Fringe is less accessible than the Edinburgh Fringe because the tickets are so expensive, but I still managed to stretch my budget to two shows: slapstick comedy Kaput and the dirty, flirty East End Cabaret.

I spent most of last weekend hanging out at WOMAD, which has got to be one of the easiest festivals in the world to get into for free. What you do is you run up to the gate shouting “I’ve lost my lanyard but you’ve got to let me in, quick! Quick! My band’s about to go on stage and they can’t play without me.” Or you say “I’m under 12. My mum’s over there to vouch for me,” and point to some random woman in the crowd before running through the gate to get your free wristband slapped on by some well meaning volunteer who overlooks the fact that you’re 6ft tall and have acne/facial hair. Or you could do what I did and get a festival pass in exchange for 14 hours of your life scanning wristbands at the entrance, where you will witness a whole range of people blag their way in for free.

On my last day in Adelaide I hung out with Ruby in Glenelg, a seaside suburb close to where she grew up. She was desperate to show me her favourite places in the area which was really quite sweet and somehow made up for the time I had to spend hearing about all the things you can do with marshmallows and chocolate sauce to make money.

We visited some great boutique shops that sold clothes made out of reworked vintage pieces. The dresses were beautiful and quite affordable at around $30. If it wasn’t for my already ridiculously heavy rucksack I might have treated myself to something. That kind of stuff can cost $100 in Melbourne, so perhaps Adelaide is a shade more awesome in some areas too.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy was known to me as the town where Guy Pearce’s character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert was chased by angry miners. I had no intention of going to backwater Australia where the locals spent their days hacking out tunnels underground and their evenings drinking beer among the surface rubble and beating up the occasional passing transvestite.

Then Gabby and I started planning a road trip that would neatly fill the four days we had until we needed to be back in Adelaide for WOMAD, the world music festival where we were volunteering.

We had both read Bill Bryson’s Down Under and were enamoured with the idea of an outback sunset “a hundred layered shades – glowing pinks, deep purples, careless banners of pure crimson – all on a scale that you cannot imagine”.

Suddenly there was Coober Pedy on the map, so tantalisingly in the middle of nowhere and a two day drive from Adelaide.

To make our trip into the outback affordable we needed to recruit one or two more people to share the cost of car hire and petrol. We advertised on Gumtree and that’s how we found Ruby, an exotic dancer with no nudity complex and a penchant for gambling. With Ruby we discovered the thrill of pub pokies – nothing to do with her source of income but the push button fruit machines that you find in amusement arcades back home.

On the 541km stretch of highway between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy there are only two refuelling stops: Pimba and Glendambo. We missed the turnoff for Pimba and sailed straight past it. I worried that we might do the same with Coober Pedy. I’d heard it was built underground and I imagined the entrance to be a solitary escalator out in the desert that would be almost invisible in the shimmering heat rising off the tarmac. I hoped it would be well signposted.

I needn’t have worried. The conical mounds of pink earth that had been churned up in search of opals signalled our proximity to Coober Pedy long before we saw the numerous advertising billboards that lined the highway on the approach to the town.

Coober Pedy was neither the rough and desperate place I’d expected from Priscilla nor the underground city of my imagination. The pubs, restaurants and bars on the main street were mostly above ground and the people we met in them were pleasant and friendly. There were a few cave-like constructions that served as entrances to underground churches and B&Bs and the dugout homes, designed to protect their inhabitants from the baking desert heat, were identified by the chimneys, aerials and satellite dishes perched on pink slopes. I thought it was charming.

I wanted to buy some postcards to send to friends and family but it was almost impossible to find one showing an attractive image of the town. The photos were of drills and cranes and brutal looking machinery that gave the impression that everything in Coober Pedy was designed to destroy and damage the landscape.

We spent the day underground visiting an old opal mine and a model dugout home. In the evening Gabby and I climbed a hill to watch the outback sunset we had longed for. Like the machinery pictured on the postcards, the mosquitoes in Coober Pedy were brutal: industrial strength with drills for faces. When we came down off that hill our arms were bubbled and bobbled with itchy bites. It was worth it for that outback sunset though, which really was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Tasmania Photo Diary Days 7 & 8

Day 7: I drove back to Hobart stopping off at Ross on the way. I’d read in my lonely planet that the bridge was the third oldest in Australia and one of its most impressive. I wasn’t blown away.

Day 8: I went on a sculpture trail around Battery Point where I learned about the history of Hobart’s waterfront. The sculptures took the form of numbers – weights, measures, dates, quantities and distances – that were important in the development of the waterfront and were made of materials that recalled the eras described. It was very thoughtfully done.