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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

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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

Our Stockton Beach crew tries out dune surfing.

Just over 24 hours after we’d left our friends in Japan, I wake up in a sleeping bag somewhere in Australia in the middle of the night. I remember that we’re sharing a tent with another couple but I can’t for the life of me remember what the woman next to me looks like. If she wakes up she’s really going to be freaked out if she sees me staring at her…

We decided to try couch surfing for the first time in Sydney. We had our doubts about how this would work for us, mostly because there are two of us and we’re old. It’s one thing to be a 24-year old crashing on strangers’ couches. It’s another to be a married couple both in our 30s doing the same. But we lucked out running into Art and the rest of the Sydney crew. Before he had met us in person, Art invited us to come on a two-day camping trip to Stockton Beach.

Stockton Beach is a place you can only get to if you have a 4×4 (or really don’t care about your car), two and a half hours north of Sydney. There are spots you can drive to where you are surrounded by towering sand dunes in every direction.

There were three cars that made it out to Stockton Beach that weekend. Nellu and I traveled up with our host Art and Ryohei, a fellow traveler from the New York City area who had come to Sydney for work and spent a few days getting to know the place. We were the first of three cars but we were still running behind schedule. We got up to Stockton Beach around dusk. We were carting a ton a gear so it was decided that Ryohei would stay behind at the entrance of the beach with the flat bed of wood so we didn’t risk getting stuck in the sand. He would also wait for the other two cars coming out so Art could direct them to our spot. With the sand dunes as high as they are it would be easy for someone to drive around all night looking for their party.

Art, Nellu and I drove into the darkening night looking for a camp spot. When we found a good site sheltered off the main drag of the beach by a towering dune, we unloaded all the gear from the jeep and and the roof. Art then hopped back in the driver’s seat with a few parting words.

“You guys could probably start setting up your tent,” he said, “It’s not brain surgery.” And he drove off into the night leaving Nellu and I with all the gear (and beer!).

Confession time: while Nellu and I have been camping in the last year, we haven’t set up a tent on our own in decades. On the Inca Trail, our porters would faithfully run ahead of us up the mountain side and have not only our tents pitched but a fully cooked meal waiting for us when we finally emerged hours later.

The tent Art let us borrow was a monster. It was made for six people and when we stretched it out, the top layer was roughly the size of our old apartment bedroom. So we stood there in the dark with Nellu’s head lamp and my failing small torch (torch – Australian for flashlight), with the wind whipping around, trying to make sense of the complex geometric shape in front of us.

By no means could we fail. We may be city kids but we couldn’t let our new friends know that we couldn’t even set up a tent.

The base was fairly self-evident or at least it was rectangular. We chose our spot and drove the stakes into the ground. We put it at a slight incline up the sand dune figuring our heads would go at the top and not realizing that even a slight incline will leave you sleeping at the foot of the tent by the end of the night.

But when it came to the top rain layer, we were clueless. We would stare at the diagram directions sewn inside the tent bag and then stare at the rain sheet in front of us. “That’s not helping,” Nellu would say.

We were rescued though. Art came back for Nellu to help with the flat bed of wood that had gotten stuck in the sand. So for about a half and hour it was just me and Art’s German Shepard Rani sitting in the dark with all the beer and Art’s cellphone just in case they had trouble finding me. A few trips back and forth and they recovered all the wood and the two other cars arrived as well.

Can you guess which one is our tent? Photo by Nellu

No one gave us any trouble about not having the tent completely set up. I got help from our new friend Sheridan with the rain layer as Nellu was already busy working to get the fire started. We did get a little flack for setting the tent up on an incline but not from the Heather and Dave who ended up sharing it with us that weekend. But everyone was mostly interested in dinner and digging our heals into the sand with one of those cold beers in hand.

Art, Dave and Heather prepare dinner at sunset. Photo by Nellu

~ Molly

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