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There’s just something about Australia that gets into you blood that makes you feel like you can take on anything. Australians have this go get ’em attitude that seems to say they’d be willing to wrestle a 15-foot croc to the ground, without shirts or shoes of course, if that’s what needed to be done. I hoped a little of that bravado would sink in to help me with my irrational fear of sharks.

Forget about sharks, there's crocs in them there waters.

It’s hard confronting a fear that has no foundation. I can blame it on my overactive imagination or whichever cousin or uncle (I can’t remember which) told me there were sharks in the deep end of my grandparent’s pool. But neither of those excuses stands up to the truth that I am a grown adult and should know better.

I am a good swimmer and grew up going to the beach so it’s not like I am a fish out of water when it comes to the ocean. I am not afraid that a shark will kill me. I am afraid that a shark will try to eat me and I will live to remember baring the scars to prove it.

But in Cairns, Australia, we had the opportunity to sail out to the Great Barrier Reef and snorkel. This experience has to be a top bucket list contender. I couldn’t get so close then chicken out. And besides I need to win back the title of “cool Aunt” to my nephews and niece. I am hoping to leverage the whole “I saw Nemo and his friends” angle to get back on their good side.

Roughly 30 people sailed out to the Great Barrier Reef with us that day. Our destination was the Pinnacle Reef right off the coast of Green Island. It took about two and a half hours to get out there and after we’d reached our mooring, the four person crew gave us a few instructions.

“Yes these are shark infested waters…,” the Captain said, “But you have nothing to worry about.” First of all, why do they always use the word “infested” when referring to sharks? According to dictionary.com the meaning of infest: to live in or overrun to an unwanted degree or in a troublesome manner. If the water really was overrun with sharks then something would be seriously wrong and out of balance and we probably shouldn’t be jumping in.

They also announced that one of the crew members, Paul, would be giving reef tours. Paul would pull around one of the orange lifesavers and those wishing to snorkel with him could hold on to one of the many rope loops and be dragged along. The reef tours were primarily for people who wanted help identifying the fish below or those that felt a little sheepish about their swimming skills. I wanted to go along for another reason – strength in numbers.

In the past, I’ve asked Nellu to snorkel with me to calm my fears. But unfortunately, if I go into panic mode, I leave him in the dust. I couldn’t ruin this experience for him, holding him back from going to far because I was scared.

“I am going to tag along with you,” I told Paul. “It’s not that I am a bad swimmer. I’m just chicken.”

I figured Paul had some special shark defense skills that he learned in snorkel boot camp or that I would be able to climb on top of the orange lifesaver faster than those other slow swimming suckers if need be.

So we geared up and jumped in the water. And when I say I jumped in the water, I mean I walked up to the edge, hesitated, let someone else go in front of me, hesitated again and then jumped in.

The moment I took the plunge, I felt like I was on someone else turf. The boat was moored a distance away from the reef so there was nothing around it but a deep blue something. A deep blue something and huge fish that congregate underneath the boat. For the most part these fish just looked like television-sized versions of their cute little cousins you find in pet stores, but there was a big black menacing looking one that a German kid decided to call Darth Vader. “He’s got teeth too,” he announced.

I quickly made my way over to the group of people snorkeling with the lifesaver.

The actual snorkeling part of this story couldn’t have been better. The fish out there were beautiful and they were everywhere. Not only did we see Nemo and his clown fish friends, we saw Dory, and angel fish, and a turtle, and a giant clam, and these little rainbow looking fish, and so many more fantastic fish. It was amazing.

Photo by Matt Kieffer

At one point, I think someone said they saw a shark. But I was pretty sure they only meant a tiny reef shark. Still I pulled myself on top of the orange lifesaver while Paul went down to investigate. When he came up for air, I ignored the report and didn’t ask any follow-up questions. He didn’t look worried and that’s all I needed to know.

Overall I felt pretty safe. And the longer I spent in the water, particular by the reef which was pretty shallow, the safer I felt. I even went back out when we had some extra time to snorkel after lunch. This time, I was the only person dangling off the lifesaver.

When our time was wrapping up, I turned to my new best friend Paul and asked, “Can you help me get back to the boat?”

Our crew in Cains Harbor

So while my progress has been slow, it’s still progress. We’re in Cape Town now and one of the popular things to do here: shark cage diving. One of the company’s brochure boast celebrity clientele including “Brad Pill (3x visits)” and “Matt Damon (2x visits)” and delightfully says of its crew, “Sorry Brad Pitt no longer aboard!” For now I am sticking to the excuse that it’s too expensive.  But hopefully in the not too distance future, I will have no more excuses.

~ Molly

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Hungry Jacks: Australian for Burger King

When started telling people we were going to take a year off to travel, one of our friends was troubled by one particular thought, “What are you going to eat?”

It was a legitimate concern. I am one of those funny eaters. I try to hide it but every once and a while I have to come out with it. Most of my close friends know and some even boast proudly that they can pick what I am going to eat off of any menu.

I am afraid of food. It’s not that I am afraid to eat and then get fat. In fact, the more likely a food is to make me fat, the more likely I will eat it. Breads, cheese, desserts, bring it on. It’s the foods that keep you skinny that give me angst – protein and vegetables primarily. I am afraid that I will put something in my mouth that will insult my bodies internal meter of what is an acceptable food, which will in turn trigger a gag reflex.

This fear can be all consuming, particularly when we’re at social gatherings or guests at someone’s home. Often, I ask Nellu to switch plates with me and finish the food I wouldn’t eat to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or getting that dreaded question, “Didn’t you like it?”

In most cases it comes down to texture. If the texture is mushy, slimy, tendony or generally unexpectedly inconsistent… Gag!

When our Sydney host Art was preparing for the Stockton Beach camping trip, he emailed and asked if there was anything I wouldn’t eat. That’s always a loaded question.On our camping weekend, he confronted me. “I used to be like you,” he said.

Art made me swear to try a few things while we stayed with him and I did. There’s no place better to confront a fear than Australia and no better time to deal with eating issues than when you’re a hungry traveler. The night that we got back from our camping trip, he made ribs for us with this delicious sauce. Ribs are usually a big no for me for one major reason: you have to eat the meat right off the bone and sometimes there’s funky things like tendons and ligaments still attached nearby and that is oh-so scary. But I tried them and they were good. I did leave a little meat on the bone mostly because it was close to the tendony looking pieces. I also ate the cherry tomatoes in my salad. All together, progress.

As Nellu goes further down the road of extreme eater trying everything from snakes to cicadas, I am working on eating what most people would consider every day food. But I am trying. To date here are a few things that I have started to eat on this trip (unless of course there’s some serious funk going on and all bets are off):

#1) Watermelon: For years this fantastic fruit offended my sensibilities with its pseudo-sweet watery texture, but now I can’t get enough.

#2) Pork dumplings: The day that we hiked the Great Wall, we returned to our hostel in the middle of the dumpling party. We were famished from hiking up and down the Wall in the August heat. So after checking with Nellu on whether he thought these particular dumplings were “Molly friendly,” I dove right in. They were delicious. In Shanghai, there was a tiny shop just off the People’s Square that served up fried, soup dumplings. We went back there several times and now I regularly crave the little suckers.

#3) Red meat: You may remember that I tried my first steak in over ten years in Buenos Aires. But I have also had red meat since. I ate a steak when we were home at my parent’s house in July. I ate the hamburgers our hosts in New Zealand served up for Christmas Eve barbecue, and two nights ago night we bought ground beef for dinner.

#3) Tomatoes in things, primarily sandwiches: While I am still a little weary of eating tomatoes on their own (seriously, they are super mushy and gooey and not in a sticky, sweet dessert kind of way,) I have tried not to remove them or eat around them when they’re served in other dishes.

I have also stopped for the most part preemptively picking apart my sandwiches to remove anything that could possibly upset me. And you know what I’ve found? Sandwiches are actually better the way they’re served. I guess there is a little genius that goes into sandwich design.

~ Molly

Before we get into the meat of this post, there are a few concepts that our regular readership may find quite foreign, so I’ll take a moment upfront here to explain them:

The Campervan Phenomenon: A campervan is van of any size that has been pimped out to provide both transportation and lodging. Some campervans have room to sleep two people. The one that we drove slept four – the passenger seating section converted to a double bed and on the roof, an oversized-luggage compartment popped up to display another double.

Our bed in our first campervan

Campervans often have pull away blinds on the windows for a little extra privacy because there’s really nothing like waking up to some stranger staring at you while you sleep inside your van. Many campervans also have built-in stoves, refrigerators and sinks so you can just pack up and go. You often see retrofitted VW buses as campervans and there are backpackers who live out of these vehicles for weeks, months or even years. There’s a book you can buy with comprehensive listings of all the free and cheap campgrounds and other sites where you can park and sleep in your campervans across Australia – Camps 6.  In many ways the campervan is more than a phenomenon, it’s a way of life and maybe even a movement.

Campervans: a room with a view

Relocation Cars:  Rental car companies often need people to drive their cars or campervans from one city to another so that a paying customer can have access to the vehicle. They call it a relocation. We had heard about relocations from other travelers we had met along the way, but it didn’t really hit us that we too could relocate until our friends from Two Backpacks, One World did it and blogged about it in New Zealand.

In Australia, the distances are far and traditionally cheap methods of getting around (bus or train) weren’t cheap down under. So we looked into relocating cars and campervans. You can sign up to relocate these cars for free or often $1 a day, but you have to pay for most of your gas and put down your credit card for damage under a fixed amount. I should also mention that gas, or petrol as they call it in Oz, is about $4.50 to $6 a gallon. You can also purchase additional insurance. To offset these charges, it’s best to get a campervan so at least you save on lodging for the nights you are relocating and sleep comfortably. We used two sites to find these opportunities: www.standbyrelocs.com and www.transfercar.com.au.

Relocation #1 Sydney to Cairns

The route from Sydney to Cairns along the coast is a little more than 2600 km or 1600 miles. In U.S. terms, it’s roughly the equivalent of driving from Boston, MA to Key West, FL. We had five days to do it. This would be our first drive on the other side of the road, but aside from occasionally turning on the windshield wipers when you wanted to signal a turn, we got used to the concept fairly quickly.

Who’s driving on the correct side of the road?

On this trip, we relocated a Jucy campervan and boy was it nice. The back hatch opened up to reveal a sleek little kitchen complete with gas stove, sink, and refrigerator.

Nellu boils eggs in our campervan kitchen.

It had cups, plates, knives, a cutting board, almost anything you might need. They provided bedding and towels. The entertainment system came complete with a DVD player and iPod jack so we could finally finish the book Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance along the way. We’d downloaded the audio version from audible.com and we’d been working on it for more than a year. But let’s be honest, when in real life do you really have the chance to to explore the metaphysics of quality.

Our Jucy campervan framed by the lavender blooms of the Jacaranda tree.

For me, this was the best of our relocation trips.  We stopped along the way at some of Australia’s beautiful beaches: Byron Bay and Mission Beach. The more north we drove, the warmer the water got.

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We also clued into another Australian phenomenon – the Big Things.

Australia is filled with more than 150 sculptures know as the Big Things. A friend of ours had mentioned it to us before we left on our road trip but we didn’t get it. We didn’t get it until we saw the Big Pineapple. I am happy to report it really is a Big Pineapple. And even better, it wasn’t real. I think I would have been sorely disappointed if it was real. A real Big Pineapple is a miracle, a marvel of mother nature. A real Big plastic Pineapple is a study in human nature. You can entertain yourself for miles wondering, “Who would spend all this money to create a giant plastic pineapple?” and probably more importantly, “Why did we exit the highway and drive all the way over here to see. it?” Finding Big Things became a mission on our Australian road trip.

Nellu and the Big Pineapple

Me and the Big Mango

We also discovered that Australians love to engage in random acts of small talk. People would regularly come up to us while we were pumping our gas and say things like, “Enjoy the drive.” It really caught us off guard at first. One time I walked out of the store after paying for gas to find a dumbfounded Nellu.“That guy just told me to have a nice day,” he said. “I was about to tell him to f-off but then I realized he really meant it.”

But by the end of our 3000 km drive (all those Big Things added a few kilometers), I believe we embraced the spirit of the Australian road. We even started waving to everyone we passed who was also driving a bright green Jucy van.

Relocation #2 Cairns to Melbourne

We could have driven Cairns to Melbourne back a long the coast, but we’d done that already. So on this leg of the trip we went inland to the outback. This trip would be just under 3000 km and we had six days to do it. Our vehicle was a four-berth, full-on camper home with walk in kitchen, table and standard bathroom. I think our living space in this mobile home was bigger than our room in Hong Kong.

This camper was a beast. Not only was it a beast but it was an old manual beast. If you thought driving on the other side of the road was hard, add in the extra fun of shifting gears with your left hand. Now when I say this camper was old, it had over 350,000 km (about 220,000 miles) on it. It was also one of those old manuals where everything doesn’t click as well as it does in a newer car. The gears have been abused so much the channel markers become a little ambiguous. You thought you were in third but you’re really in fifth. The clutch/gas pedal balance was extremely off, which would cause you to rev the engine quite dramatically. And there was a prominent creak coming from somewhere underneath when turning or going over minor bumps. It sounded quite structural.

The beast in all its glory.

It didn’t take us long to realize that driving at night wasn’t a good option. On our first trip, we were on well-traveled roads through highly populated areas and we still saw the occasional kangaroo along the side of the road. On this trip, we drove right through the middle of nowhere and the animals were everywhere or at least the remains of animals were everywhere. We saw more dead kangaroos than live ones during our days on the road. We would have been devastated if we hit one, and so would our camper. And there weren’t just kangaroos. Cows, sheep, emus, cassowaries, and even an echidna (an Australian porcupine) wandered across our path.

We saw more dead kangaroos than live ones. Photo by Nellu.

Not that we needed to drive during the night. We got plenty of driving in during the day because there was nowhere to stop. You’d go hundreds of kilometers before finding your next gas station and drive for hours before seeing another car. I told you on the way up we would wave at other Jucy campervans. On the way down I just started waving at everyone.

Nellu in the middle of nowhere.

This was also the leg of the trip where we drove 100 km in the wrong direction before we saw a sign that clued us into our mistake. The site of this famous wrong turn – an eerie little town called Charter Towers. The first time we drove through, it was just getting dark and we were anxiously looking for gas and a place to park for the night. The sky was full of bats and the road was all of a sudden filled with frogs. It was as if we were in a Steven King novel or the book of Exodus. (The floods came later). Nellu tried his best to dodge the frogs but I think he squished one or two.

Charter Towers was also the scene of our first road fight. We had just retraced the 100 km track of road we had followed north when we were meant to be going south. I was in the driver seat for the first time with the beast. I pulled into the gas station, the same one we had filled up at the night before, and I got all the way next to the pump before Nellu looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked accusingly.

“The gas tank is on the other side.”

My response to this observation was heavy-handed. The truth is I was a little nervous about driving such a large vehicle especially a clunker. “Why didn’t you tell me,” I yelled. “Why did you let me pull all the way in. You never back me up.”

I put the beast in reverse and pulled back in with the gas tank on the right side of the pump. I was going to let the situation go but Nellu was not. There was a new dynamic developing. Let’s call it extreme proximity. You see, for the majority of the last few months, Nellu and I have operated in roughly a 20 meter radius of each other at every waking moment. On the road, we spent the days operating within a 1 meter radius of each other with little else going on. This extreme proximity was slowly cultivating extreme detest.

“How much should I put in,” I asked.

“Whatever,” he said shortly enough to make my temper flare. I slammed the door hard enough to let him know I was pissed.

As I started to fill up, a sea of obscenities, directed at me of course, came from Nellu’s side of the car. He then did something very curious. He got out of the camper with his bag and everything, walked over to the phone booth and just stood there. He must have stood there for a full five minutes before he walked back.

“Please get in the car or go pay,” I said and was relieved when he went into the station to pay.

Later I tried to restore a little humor to our lives by teasing him. “Who were you going to call back there?”

I have a friend who once comforted me with the declaration, “You don’t have a real marriage until one of you threatens to file for divorce.” I know some people find this statement shocking, but for me it’s a huge relief. We’ve both cried wolf several times, mostly for dramatic effect. When I recounted the phone booth story over Skype to this friend, she shared another simple truth with me: “There’s nothing like a road-trip to test your relationship.”

I know some of you are wondering if Nellu knows I am telling everyone on the internet about our fight. He does. I asked him one day if it bothered him that I told everyone (of course at that time I was talking about the everyone we knew and not the everyone on the internet but that’s just semantics). He said, “I guess if you’re telling everyone then it’s not a big deal.” So see, he’s ok with it and I am running with that until I hear otherwise.

Over the next few days the tension would come and go. But we made it out of outback and into wine country.

Hello wine country!

Nellu and I love wine country. It’s a magical place on earth created for exploring, tasting wonderful wine, and swapping stories with interesting people. Our Sydney host Art had recommended this particular wine region, called Mudgee, to us. It was lesser known than some of Australia’s other valleys but had some top quality wines. We spent one afternoon and one morning driving to some of the area’s vineyards but it was what happened in between that time that deserves a mention here.

Because we had our camper, we weren’t going to get hotel room in town. Mudgee has a campervan park where they charge about $30 to park overnight and use the facilities, but we were on a tight budget here. So we found a nice little spot in the park, right by the river, where we decided to rest for the night. We parked the camper around 5pm or so, took a nap, and made some dinner. After dinner, I suggested we walk up the street to one of the town’s bars for a little more local color.

The bar was fairly busy for a Monday night but not overly entertaining so we each had a couple pints and left. We got all the way back to the park before we realized they’d locked the bathrooms for the evening. We returned to the bar and I slipped back inside, noticing on my way in a shirtless man talking to the bartender.

(I should point out that Australia and New Zealand don’t have no-shirt, no-shoes, no service policies like we have in the U.S. Quite the contrary. You often see shoeless men, women and children in stores, walking down the street, and just about everywhere. Of course, being who we are and where we’re from, we look on these situations in horror and proceed to point out to each other all the pieces of broken glass and other awful things on the ground that could get possibly get stuck in your feet whenever we pass a footloose friend.)

I took care of business and walked back out of the bar to find a shirtless husband. My first thought was that Nellu had taken his shirt off as a joke, making fun Australia’s clothing optional policy perhaps. But he stopped me. “Wait for it,” he said.

Less than thirty seconds later, the shirtless man I had seen on my way to the bathroom came out wearing Nellu’s white v-neck t-shirt.

“Thanks so much, man,” he said, handing the shirt back.

Apparently this guy approached to Nellu and said, “Hey, I have a strange question for you. I am on my honeymoon…”

Nellu wondered exactly where this was going.

“…There’s a party we’re trying to get to and the bartender won’t let me buy booze without a shirt. Can I borrow yours for a minute.”

Nellu gave someone the shirt off his back so that someone could go buy beer on his honeymoon. Isn’t that heroic?

This whole situation had an “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” feel to it, which was only heightened by the idea that we were living in the park that night.

We returned to the park to get ready for bed. Then we heard a car pull up and someone got out.

This was it I thought, the police have come to tell us that we can’t stay here overnight and we’ll have to move. Frankly, I’m just used to hearing “no” and “you can’t” by police and security at home even if there are no signs or good reasons why you can’t do things. But wait, this was Australia. You’re allowed to do things unless there was a sign that said you couldn’t. We certainly looked for such a sign in the park and didn’t find one.

“Hello in the camper,” the voice outside said. “Yes,” Nellu replied and opened the door.

“I am part of the park security staff. I just wanted to let know that I have to lock the gate overnight and you won’t be able to drive out until after 7am tomorrow. I hope that’s okay.”

Relocation #3 Melbourne to Sydney

Our last relocation in Australia was in many ways our easiest but in some ways the hardest. The route was just over 1000 km long, which we could do in one day flat if we need to. Our vehicle was a brand new Holden sedan with all the comforts of a new modern car. It was a joy to drive after, especially after the beast. We had an unlimited kilometer allowance and three, full, 24-hour days until we needed to drop the car off at Sydney airport. So we took a little detour in the completely wrong direction – west of Melbourne.

Our first day with the car we drove to Geelong, another lesser known wine region and then met our friends for dinner. Now the one issue with having a car instead of a campervan is that you really don’t have a place to sleep when you’re relocating. The first night we rented a cabin at a tourist park in town. It was big and clean but a whopping $100 a night. We couldn’t let that happen again. As we waited for our friends to arrive for dinner, Nellu and I checked out what would be our 2nd and 3rd nights accommodation – our car seats. Parked with the nose of the car going up a hill, we lowered our seats back as far as the could go.

“See it really wouldn’t be that bad,” Nellu said and I giggled at the thought of us sleeping in the car.

“This is the kind of thing that’s only really fun to do if you’re doing it with someone else,” I told him.

Our second day with the car, we drove out along the winding path of Great Ocean Road in western Victoria to the 12 Apostles, a collection of naturally formed rocks jutting out of the sea. It was quite a drive and quite a view.

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We then crossed back through Melbourne to make our way back toward Sydney.

We did sleep in the car that night and it was not as fun as I thought it was going to be. The car got quite cold during the night and even though I was dressed up in half of my clothes like the scene from “Friends” where Joey wears everything that Chandler owns, we both slept poorly.

Our third day was a long drive with surprisingly less to see and do than we anticipated. We were both tired and irritable and at the end of the day we got into the second fight of our road trip and the second big fight of our year-long adventure. I’m going to save all the gory details for the Lifetime Original Movie version of this trip. But just know, it was bad. I would say it was one of the worse fights of our more than decade long relationship. But don’t worry, we’re fine now. We’re already back to being the annoying couple who mixes our travel memories into every day conversation saying things like: “Where are those Mongolian farmers when you need them?” and “I think the Incans build a much better rock path.”

When we arrived back in Sydney, we went straight to our hostel and had one of those great it’s-been-a-long-road-and-now-I-can-rest-and-don’t-care-how-long-I-sleep-even-though-it’s-the-middle-of-the-day-or-if-I-drool-on-the-pillow naps. Aaaahhhhh!

So with over 8000 km of pure Australia road behind us, you could say we’re now fully road-tested … in SO many ways.

To be continued…

~ Molly

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