I never wanted to post about things I’m actually up to on here. In fact, all my travel related stuff was meant to stay within a select email group, give or take the odd person here and there. But this post has outgrown the modest box of email and STILL isn’t finished. So, whatevs, its going to be a work in progress. One of those. Yes.
But first, to bring you smack bang up to date - here’s Calvin, the dog I’m currently living with. He is in the top three cutest dogs of all time. Look at him.
Travels Part One
It’s pretty easy to get swept up in time’s blurry, frantic fog. It’s been around three months since my last email and it only seems like a couple of weeks. Time doesn’t just fly, it uses wormholes to contract itself.
So what has happened between the months of March and June? The reason for a lack of communication for a while was the lack of real news. Strawberry picking is not the most enthralling activity, especially for weaving tales. There was far more to tell about our hostel adventures in Huonville – hazy memories of freshly caught and barbecued oysters, the worst hangover of my life thanks to the destructive powers of Australia’s notorious cheap four litre box of wine (repeat it in your head forever, in scarlet red, as a warning to stay away: GOON GOON GOON), my proudest moment ever as I began a drunken YES! YES! YES! chant in the pizza annex of our hostel complex, moving out briefly into the adjacent house on the surprisingly comfortable floor, movie nights, Jeeveston pie shop and plenty of other fragments – but I’m keen to move forward. With my 88 days signed off, I’m now pretty much ready to apply for my second working holiday visa. As the last 20 days of my current visa begin to count down, it’s nice to feel I’ve done all I need to earn that extra year. UPDATE: I HAVE MY VISA GUYS!
With little planning, and a growing urge to begin wandering, five of us – Owain, Loïc, Michelle, Andrea, and myself – hired a rental car, packed bags, bought camping and food supplies, and set off along the east coast of Tasmania.
I should note here that I’ve never driven an automatic car before. So, even the start of the journey was refreshing and new. Getting into the car, I realised immediately I wouldn’t know how to drive the car. I was on my own when I picked it up from the airport, having got a lift with one of the hostel owner’s sons. Very nice of him to drop me off. So, I ended up doing what I felt had to be done; I found some instructions on the internet. All automatic cars have slightly different gearstick layouts. Some allow you to touch it only for parking, neutral, and reverse. This one required you to push it into the next gear, by basically flicking it up or down. It’s much easier than a manual of course. And then there’s the ‘ghost pedal’. Putting my left foot down, I realised, was going to be a constant problem. It’s an automatic thing whenever you want to change gear or brake. So, the first few minutes of trying to get out of the car park in this HUGE tank of a thing must’ve looked hilarious. Especially when I put on the brake for the first time. Pressing down like my life depended on stopping, I lurched forward as the car stopped on the imaginary dime. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t help laughing at myself. It turns out you should use one leg for the two pedals, as your right foot has muscle memory of long-travel pedals. These pedals are like stepping stones made of thin ice. They’re not delicate though, just sudden and precise.
Our first stop was upon Mount Wellington, close to Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. A huge rocky expanse, with wind speeds and chilling temperatures above what is strictly comfortable, it afforded as a view – the first of many – which was as breathtaking as those wintery gusts. We could outline our journey by tracing the shoreline in the distance with our fingers. After a few hours of driving – including along interminably long unsealed roads which we were not insured to drive upon – in the rapidly encroaching darkness, we reached a camping spot. Among the trees, whispers of Blair Witch in our ears, and with our sight (and very lives) guided by head lamps and extremely cheap, dying hand-torches, we couldn’t do much but set up our tents, gather wood for a fire, and begin boiling water for our delicious first meal of ready-made beef tortellini and Woolworths (supermarket) tomato and basil sauce. There was no sense of foreboding, but the darkness was absolute so our environment was alien to us. As the fire began to build in intensity, our food ready, we ate ravenously as the cold began to set in. Chatting amiably, our pots and plates discarded, we were satisfied with our first evening in the wild. We could hear water lapping at a shore not far away, and the occasional rustle of nearby bushes, but otherwise everything was far from ominous. Until the scrape of claw upon metal. It was too near. Way too near. “What the-” We turn, almost in unison for our eyes to greet whatever might be waiting for us, sharpening its natural weapons in preparation for…well, we daren’t speculate in those split seconds. POSSUM! Cheeky possum nabbing our bloody food! Well, what was left of it. The residual sauce congealed on the side of the pot proved too much of a draw for this little possum, who was as tame as you like. He stuck his whole head inside the pot, much to our amusement. We allowed him to lick our plates too, for the mutual exchange of food for cute photo opportunities. Humans: ever the exploiters. We mentally noted the need to wash plates properly later.
When we awoke that morning, we watched the sun rise from the sea. The glade we had come across was a beautiful natural spot with soft green grass, sparse trees and a short drop off to a small beach. It was enough to just stand and contemplate our recent escape from fruit picking servitude – freedom tasted of salty air, and looked like an infinite reflected glow on an impossibly distant horizon. Returning to our camp site, we were greeted by another native to these strange lands. The Wallaby was far more timid than Mr Possum, but food brings out the confidence of any animal. The fun continued when, as we threw precious bread in small chunks on the floor, a horde of ridiculously confident birds grabbed the bread before Wallaby could get them. He got angry and chased some of the birds away. It was amazing.
Satisfied with our nature-as-puppets playground, we got back on the road. Our next destination was Freycinet National Park, the site of the world-famous Wineglass Bay (Google image search now everyone!). We stopped at a different national park for lunch and to buy our day pass ($24) for 24 hours of national park access. We took a walk through the woods along another beach to reach a shipwreck – a rusted skeleton of a boat that was yet another unfortunate victim of the Bass Straits. It was an arrestingly creepy sight, but we needed to get back on the road. We eventually reached Freycinet as dark fell, meaning the next stage of our journey would be treacherous and tiring. With a 40 minute hike, with bags and camping gear, in the pitch black, both up and down a mountain pathway, it was a real test of endurance and patience. Initial good humoured jibes turned to silent contemplation and conservation of energy. Unlike the previous night, which eventually blossomed in lunar light as the moon rose, clouds obscured any moonlight, making even the trek across Wineglass Bay’s famed beach difficult. Eventually deciding to camp at the far end of the beach, we settled down to a surprisingly satisfying meal of noodles with a few cups of goon. We were joined by beach possums too, the little scroungers. The night was the kind where you toss and turn and pray your shelter holds up – the wind and rain pounding upon the plastic, the only thing between you and the elements consistently trying to get at you. The morning was worth it. As the cold continued to insidiously creep into our bones, the bay looked both ominous and beautiful under the billowing black clouds.
We decided to walk a short distance to the Hazards, an incredible (and on this day, particularly breezy) beach on the other side of Wineglass Bay. If we whisper it we may be able to reveal that actually Hazard Bay is nicer than Wineglass Bay..shock, horror! So, with sand blowing in our eyes, and walls of gales trying to prevent us from pushing on, we trekked up the beach to continue the 8km walk through scrub, the bush, and even along rocky outcrops. At one point the view was particularly breathtaking. Arriving at the car, we found a couple of tame wallabies, who insisted on hanging around – immune to shooeing off – until they were fed by some gullible, rule-breaking tourists (ie. Not us). The next stage of our journey was a long drive towards the Bay of Fires, a long stretch of the east coast so called because of the rusty-coloured lichen and moss upon the coastal rocks. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been led to believe.
Because the drive between places in Australia are generally lengthier than necessary, most of the next day was spent on the road. Now, where and when the next incident occurred is unclear in my head, though I definitely have it written down on paper somewhere in the wastepaper basket that is my ruck sack. Nevertheless, what happened was a simple speeding incident. As most of you will know though, there’s nothing like the cold sweat breaking out on your neck and forehead as you realise you’ve been caught red handed. If you’ve been caught by a cop doing stuff, then your body reacts even more severely, shaking, chattering of teeth, perhaps even involuntary swearing. I was going, I think, 112 in a 100 zone. I thought the speed limit was 110 because, well, each state has its own limit and Tasmania’s is 110. But, it seems you have to be even more careful than in the UK. Anyway, the police officer was fairly nice. He checked my licence. He seemed to like that I’d been in Tasmania for three months. He let me off with a mere warning, which is probably the nicest thing that could’ve happened from being caught going over the national speed limit on a busy road, and being a silly English backpacker, with some silly French, German, Welsh, and another English backpacker in your rented vehicle.
Sometime in the afternoon we decided we needed four walls to enclose us for the night, as camping conditions had become distinctly unfriendly. We’d been told by a Tasmanian tour guide turned farmer’s daughter (ummm…) that a very pleasant – and cheap – place to stay is a very secretive semi-hippy commune called Lily Cottage. We’ve been sworn to secrecy as far as publishing on the net goes, but if anyone ever wants to find it, I’ll try and remember where it was. It was a combination of determination and a fear of being left out in the cold again that enabled us to combine our efforts of satellite photographic topography identification and real-life signposts, and bloody well find this fabled place. As it turns out, it was unattended and all we got was a glimpse through the windows into a multi-coloured dream palace as rendered in poverty blankets and with the slightly-stoned and vegan love of a deluded but lovable family of misfits. Or something. So, we decided to drive on to a town which would enable us to rest our heads without the fear of being tangled up in dreamcatchers. We ended up in a place that allowed us – all five of us – to sleep in one small dorm room, separate from the larger dorm. Nothing too exciting I know, but it felt a bit like that trick where loads of clowns fit into a VW Beetle.
Following a nice-enough breakfast in a wonderful glass room, with the sun streaming through and highlighting our wonderful faces, we headed towards a north-easterly point on the Tasmanian map. We ended up in front of an extensive rack of boulders, all adorned with that wonderful autumnal moss, emerging from the sea. As we climbed over the hill and began, gleefully, to clamber over these natural playground obstacles like the children we so obviously still are, a canine bounded over the horizon. Seemingly emerging from nowhere – like a devil dog from the gates of hell, except looking cuddly and sent from some kindly old man up in the sky instead – this lovely labrador decided we looked good enough to be guided around his territory in exchange for a bit of attention. His name was Buckley and he immediately became a firm companion while we leaped over rivulets from the ocean, and grappled with smooth, rounded rock surfaces. Unfortunately we had to leave Buckley to his absent family, and he gave us the sorry sad eyes as we all jumped in the car and drove off. He followed for a while, but realising – in a heartbreaking role reversal - that we were the Littlest Hobos to his human child friend, he broke off and returned home to, we hope, his loving, caring family. Backtracking and then continuing north, we arrived at another secret location – a beach whose name we never actually figured out. It might’ve been Deep Creek, but we’re not sure. Anyway, it’s a semi-private strip of sheer whiteness meeting the clear blue of a remarkably calm sea. It had us mesmerised, and there wasn’t a one of us not wishing it were warmer. It would look and feel a lot like paradise. I’m not even a beach person, but there’s no denying its allure.
The next section of the journey is a little hazy, but I remember we drove a fair way towards Launceston – a sprawling mini-city full of aggressive drivers and an infinite loop of a road that constantly thwarted attemps to navigate out of the city. It turned out to be a rapidly closing fist of some hellspawn. We escape though, because we rule all. We ended up stopping in a tiny little town whose main feature seemed to be mini roundabouts (I think there were six). Think a midget Milton Keynes but with far more charm. The highlight of the journey, by far, was a sudden and unexpected mountain road, that seemed to take over an hour to chicane through. With 180 degree bends, and a rapid ascension, we were soon all staring across a vast expanse of leafy green plunging into a depth best not explored in any free falling way. This might’ve been my favourite part of me driving. Mountain roads never cease to amaze me and my little, over-awed brain. We stayed at our first hostel with an actual fire, and met an English couple who insisted on telling us two important facts: 1) our destination – Cradle Mountain – had had its roads closed due to severe weather: snow. 2) that fascinating drink of the dogs, goon, could well possibly be mixed with the interesting and utterly repulsive ingrediant of rat blood, as they creep in during the grape crushing process. Mmmmm. We already knew it was filtered through fish embryo for clarity purposes. Fun facts for all. The next day, we set out with the express intention of reaching Cradle Mountain, trekking around for half the day and settling in one of their lovely cabins. Nature, as ever, had other ideas. As our trusty vehicle – that could’ve been armour-plated if it wanted to be – clawed its bulk up another sprawling mountain road only for me to anchor the brakes as I spotted an unexpected sight up ahead. Yeah, lots of unexpectation on this trip. It looked as if a tree had decided to give up and take a nap across the road, and, indeed, it had. What was our reaction? Why, ito run immediately up tot he tree, climb on top of it and pose for photos. Damn the consequences of our trip now being curtailed by fickle trees being lazy, we wanted to raise our arms as if victorious over this mammoth but helpless tree. MAN CONQUERS WOODEN GIANT! We quickly realised moving the thing wasn’t an option and, with no phone signal between us to alert anyone, we left. We took another route, reflecting on the possibility that someone had tried to stop us doing our long Cradle Mountain trek. We needn’t have been stopped, as the mountain snow would’ve prevented our reckless trudge through the elements. It turned out to below freezing (IN AUSTRALIA!), spread with snow (IN AUSTRALIA!), and very windy (ON A MOUNTAIN!). A proposed 2 hour walk around the giant lake within the craterous confines of Cradle Mountain turned into a three minute shiver, shake, and abandonment. It was just too cold and we were too happy not to worry about getting miserable from the wet and cold. Still, it was very pretty and my first sighting of snow since January 2011.
That night we stayed at an old mining village, in the shadow of some more snow-capped mountains. Though the mess hall and corridors were very cold, we did have a TV room in an adjacent building which had a wonderful log fire. Consumption of rum led to many incidents of sleeping in front of the fire like old people. The result of that were accusatory photos of said incidents, and stubborn refusal to accept the evidence of such behvaiour.
At this point, we were running out of time. But we did two of my favourite things last. The first was a wildlife park which promised the visceral treat of a Tasmanian Devil packl’s feeding time. Yussss. What we didn’t expect was cuddle time with a wombat. Wombats are…well just go look them up. Go on. I’ll wait here. Seen em? Aren’t they adorable? Well, they are. This one was docile and cuddly and furry and soft and content. There’s a few pics of my arms becoming a hammock for her bedtime. Apparently they have an invincible bone back, which they use to plug up the entrance to their burrows, and if attacked, they don’t feel any pain on that part of them. Then, they allow entry by crouching down before standing back up and crushing the intruder to death with its invincible bone back. Yeah, they’re cute, but don’t try and break and enter.
Next was Tasmanian Devil feeding time. Now, these little tykes divided us. I think the general opinion were that they were ugly and stupid. Actually, I happen to think they’re pretty cute but quite uncompromising and aggressive. Just like our beloved Looney Toons creaton, Taz. They snap at each other, bite each other, are covered in scars from various social scuffles, and when they get given a carcass to dissect, go at it in huge groups. However, they have impeccable table manners. They don’t fight or curse or spit when eating. They share and use the power of each other to pull the meat apart, crunch the bones and even eat the coat of fur. It’s disconcerting and fascinating to say the least. The thing is though, is that they are half blind. Take that carcass away and they will sniff around trying to find it for AGES. They’re to be pitied, these poor, inbred creatures. We also got time to use the feedbags we were given at the entrance to feed kangeroos and wallabies. Baby ones, bigg’uns, lazy and active ones. Our first contact with these native Tasmanian kangeroos was addictive. We didn’t leave them until the feedbags were almost gone. We also saw crippled eagles, whose impressive wingspan was diminished by the fact that they only had one wing each. We left the place satiated of our desire to meet some native wildlife. It was a great place to visit, and defintiely one to take the kids to.
Even shorter on time, we decided to check out the Mole Creek caves – definitely worth the time. These limestone cavverns stretched underground splitting its reaching fingers into bizarre shapes, its very rocky flesh mutating into shapes that resembled palm trees, pipe organs, and the traditional stalagmites and stalgtites. In a section called The Cathedral, an expansive, church-like cave with the organ as a centrepiece, the guide informed us a couple who had met on the cave tour actually got married under these leaking formations. But the best part of the surprise was the unlikely volunteering of a group of lads who offered to sing for us, in order to show off the exquisite acoustics of the cave. So, the rest of us walked down the etched steps and waitd at the bottom for a caterwauling rendition of a popular footoe chant (Australian footie at that), or perhaps the latest Pitball chart-topper. It turns out that, instead, we were in the presence of a bunch of Christian choir singers. Sounding like monks in the grips of some transendent humming, it was a truly beautiful sound. It totally wasn’t a setup at all. Oh no. Actually, we were assured it wasn’t.
We decided to drive as far as we could back south. Itturned out that this five hour drive got us to Hobart, where we stayed for the night. We missed the vast expanse of lakes in the dark on our journey, but it was enough to be safely within The Pickled Frog’s familiar surrounds for me. We ended the night playing drinking card games, which included the legendary combination of forfeits for losing a hand. In this order 1) shout in your loudest falsetto “THIS IS MY VOICE!” similar to the theme tune of that popular TV show, The Voice. 2) bleet like a dolphin 3) put your eye socket on the person to your left’s shoulder – affectionately known as the eye socket lean 4) put your finger across your upper lip and drink. Believe me when I say, you haven’t lived until this exact order of stipulations has been exacted upon you.
We can skip the return of the rental car, the flight, the waiting for the bus at Melbourne Airport. We can even skip out Melbourne entirely really, as it is merely a very good city. Still, highlights include the view from Melbourne’s best positioned skyscraper, my first – and probably only – live AFL game at Melbourne Cricket Ground, the schnitzel burger at that game, which was the best schnitzel I’ve had in Australia (and its practically Australian cuisine as it is served in every pub and restaurant, seemingly), our afternoon at the rooftop cider bar, which included PROPER pints of PROPER scrumpy, and the wonderful talents of a shy female busker. It’s a fine city with some fine bars and some great art spaces and music venues. But you all knew that anyway.
Rental car narrowly picked up – with a few minutes to spare before Hertz closed for the day – we began driving into the night. The dark, dark night. Oooooooooooohhhhhh. The intention was to reach the beginning of the Great Ocean Road and to start the trip proper the next day. Unfortunately, some idiots decided to have a massive sporting event which closed one of the main roads out of the city. So, we had to backtrack A LOT, circumnavigating the one way system, and then reaching the flyover which allowed as an exit from the city. Finally on our way, it didn’t take long before we went through Geelong and reached xxxxxx. Here we ended up at another cosy hostel which was actually a really nice little house. There were a bunch of drinkers there, but after dinner and tea, we ended up talking to several people on the table. This descended into yet another drinking card game. How it then collapsed into the indescribable hilarity it did is unknown. But somewhere along the line, an older Australian guy named – almost incredulously – Spez (NEVER Spaz) joined us, already half-cut, already a liability to intelligent people everywhere. With his apparent inability to grasp the simplicity of our fast-paced game, he reduced us all to gibbering, stomach-clenching idiots. It hurt to laugh, but it hurt to try and stop laughing. A resounding cry of “…and there’s no FUCKING spoons” rendered us ineffectual, unable to offer a defence against this repeated battering of laughter. It was a good night.
It set us up well for a very well paced and weather-lucky drive along the valued and beautiful Great Ocean Road. Described as the world’s largest war memorial – a working tribute to both the heroism of Australian troops, and the devotion of the then government to their wellbeing by providing them with well-paid and vital infrastructure work – it’s simply a 500km stretch of curvy tarmac that outlines a micro-section of Australia’s vast southern coastline. Along the way there are plenty of sights, the most significant of which is the legendary twelve apostles. They’re not actual apostles, alas, but bits of eroded, outlying rock. They don’t sound glamorous, but they are still fascinating icons of land once there, now merged into the raging seas below. Along the way you see beaches, and surfers, and high cliffs, and plenty of insane waves. While its hard to trace the entire journey, there’s no doubt that the sudden bunching up of rock miracles means good timing is necessary to get the best out of the journey. Go too early and you may be swamped with tourists, go too late and you may miss some of it to the darkness. Of course sunrise or sunset would be the best time to try and catch one of the Ocean Road offshoots. Oh and clear days with no rain. We managed to time this extremely well, reaching the apostles at a decent time and the final sight, Martyr’s Bay, as the sun was disappearing into the horizon. The layers of sediment are beautiful on each strangely and savagely chopped rock, and the shapes range from towering points to long razor spines, to resembling a falling London Bridge. With only one arch left in the sea, its partner collapsed into the ocean sometime in 2004 – stranding some poor buggers on the arch further out to sea – the London Bridge is less impressive, thought the surging water careening around it is nothing short of awe inspiring. The Grotto is perhaps the most laid back of all the rock formations. A solitary archway punched into the rock, entry is blocked by simple waist height wall. There’s no doubt the sea crashes into the grotto at points – hence the huge rock pools stagnating within – but a brave soul (me) decided to wander inside anyway. It’s probably the closest you want to be to a sea like this. It’s continual, slow work at stripping the land away from us all is a frightening process and it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage you standing up and looking over the edge for one of those rogue waves to snatch you from your safe outcrop and pull you onto the jagged rocks below and out to sea goes your ragdoll body. It’s exhilarating, if a little frightening. You can actually FEEL the power of the sea below. The sound rushes into your ears like the waves filling the caves it has made. For those of you with Facebook, my current cover picture is me standing next to the entrance to the Grotto, standing on the ocean side.
During our time along the Great Ocean Road, we spent a night in Apollo Bay. Apollo Bay is a place you would live. Right by the sea with a great, long strip of beach, lovely restaurants, shops, and houses, hospitable people, and an ancient rainforest only a few miles up the road – as well as those wonderful and eerie rock formations – it is probably the best place I’ve seen for an idyllic existence between cities. You’re fairly close to Melbourne though quite a few hours from Adelaide (probably around nine). But you’d always rather be further away from Adelaide than other cities if you can be (sorry Adelaide). Befitting such a place, we stayed in my favourite backpackers of the trip – a homely place called Surfside Backpackers. Here we were offered a cheaper rate than usual by a brilliant elder woman who wouldn’t stop talking, but who was never boring. The place was formed of old hospital buildings, wooden nurses stations, and a sea view from the front of the house. It was comfortable, with heaters, a functional kitchen, and a ridiculous vinyl collection spanning classical to Greek Traditional Party Songs Vol. 20.
Following our stay there, we headed away from the Great Ocean Road towards Adelaide. We stopped by a national park to visit a dormant volcano and its magnificent crater. Here, we were accosted by wild kangaroos. They didn’t slash us open with their clawed feet, or attempt to couple with our heads or anything. But they were pretty large and ever-so-slightly intimidating. I mean, what kind of creatures live within the crater of a dormant volcano? Well, packs of kangaroos apparently. How brilliant are kangaroos?
We hit a dilemma due to the limited time of car hire. Did you know that if you are five minutes late with your rental car, they report it stolen to the police? Well, that’s what the literature says, but I have a feeling they’re a lot more laid back about you being late. Anyway, we had to make a decision about where to drive and where we could stay. As fortune would have it, we ended up stopping at Mount Gambier. At first, we thought it an industrial wilderness, but there was one saviour. The jail. We spent a night in jail, and paid for the privilege. Not something many people can say they’ve ever done.
Duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuunn! To be continued (probably in about six years).