Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Australia 1


Greetings from the land of Oz.

It has been a while, so this is going to be a bit long. Actually it is very long.

Anyway, to kick off. When I got to Australia at the beginning of April, I was looking forward to catching up with several friends. The first amongst these to enjoy the pleasure of my company was Tamara, whom I had met some months earlier in Fiji. When Tamara told me that she lives in Stanmore, Sydney, I said we had to meet up for drinks as my house is in Stanmore, London. The opportunity for twin town drinking should not be missed. She agreed and so, my first night in Sydney I had a nice time chatting with Tamara over a few beverages and in the Stanmore pub. It made a really nice and welcoming first day in Australia.

The next day I had a bit more detective work to find another friend. Sophie was a friend of mine from University, whom I hadn't spoken to or heard from in years. The last I had heard was that she was in Bondi Beach, doing something or other with the Surf Rescue team there. After a bit of Internet research, I found that she was actually an instructor with the North Bondi Surf Rescue team. So, off I went to see if she was there. She wasn’t. I met someone who knew her, who introduced me to someone who knew her better and then got her phone number and gave her a call. I think she was a tad surprised to hear my voice on the line. Anyway, a short while later, we met up and caught up a bit on old times which was nice. So far that was two days and two reunions.

The bus journey back to Woolloomooloo (who thought of that name, though it does have an impressive quantity of ‘O’s in it) from Bondi was more interesting than normal as the driver was either completely off his tree, drugged to the gills or just released from an institution. Most likely all three. He would greet you on the bus with some friendly conversation that usually involved asking, “Are you feeling groovy? Because this is the groovy bus baby.” Then he would whistle, launch into song, enlighten us with peculiar or invented anecdotes and information. He also spoke as smattering of Chinese and Japanese, which meant that those people would be subject to him shouting at him in their native tongue, with a broad Ozzie accent. He would also harangue people he knew along the route. This did make the journey more interesting, from a socio-psychological point of view.

So far I had been in Sydney two days and not seen its most famous view. The one of Sydney Opera house next to the Harbour Bridge. I thought I would try and get the most from it, by making an effort not to get even as much as a glimpse of these landmarks until I reached the best vantage when they would be revealed to me in their full glory.

To do this, I walked through the Botanical Gardens, observing the flying foxes and some nice trees and flowers, through to the park where Mrs. Macquarie's chair (not actually a chair, but where the woman in question, wife of a megalomaniacal Premier had sat down once). I walked there with my head tilted in such a way that my hat obscured any view of the harbour and so the bridge. It also kept other pedestrians away from me, as I was looking somewhat demented walking along in a lop-sided manner.

When I got to the pre-designated, top spot, I turned to see the view in its full glory and to get the overwhelming sense of architectural awe I so wanted. What I got was nothing. It just looked like all the postcards, posters, advertisements and everything else, but a bit dirtier. Clive James described Sydney Harbour as looking “like crushed diamonds”. Although I appreciate the poetic effort, this stretch of water reflected the sunlight in the same way that water often does. It was nice, though the diamonds thing is a bit over-stretched Clive.

As I continued my walk around the harbour I was tempted to go to the Sydney aquarium, but had been disappointed by the last couple of aquaria I had visited in New Zealand. I decided to go anyway and was suitably impressed by the range and presentation of the aquatic life on display. The information and presentation was first class and I enjoyed it immensely. My favourite was the duck-billed platypus display. These are a strange aquatic creature with venomous claws, a sensory bill and is a mammal that lays eggs, not giving birth to live young as all the others do. It is actually from a very select group of animals called monotremes. There are only three monotremes: the duck-billed platypus, another platypus that can only be found in New Guinea and the echidna. Echidnas look like an ant-eating hedgehog, just a bit bigger. The monotreme thing by the way, means one hole. That is all they have for all their bowel and reproductive processes. The platypus was almost classified as a reptile, except that a meeting in London decided that it was a mammal. I am not convinced, though they are cute, very special and lethal.

Something else that I was interested to see in the aquarium was the box jellyfish. This is the most poisonous thing on the planet and as all these things like to be in Australia, that is where this one can be found too. It is actually quite unimpressive looking, but as far as venom goes, this one is the all out winner. The funny thing is, nobody knows why it is so venomous as it has no need to be. It doesn’t eat what it kills, it is just a killer. Not in a good way either. Apparently the paroxysms of pain that you feel from just the lightest touch from one of its tentacles are indescribable. There is an anti-venom, though the best policy is simply to make sure you have no exposed flesh when swimming in water where there are ‘stingers’.

Leaving the aquarium, I watched the antics of a bloke who calls himself Bikeboy. He would juggle knives, chain saws and other such paraphernalia, balanced on the handlebars of his BMX. Then, I was chosen to help out. This involved me holding on to a pole whilst this freak, stood on a bike, on top of a pole, juggling dangerous implements. I want you to remember, this meant that I was stood underneath him. At the first available opportunity I got clear to watch him from a safe distance. It was all reasonably impressive, though being a victim of a falling chainsaw was a bit much to ask from me.

I had been debating how I was best going to see Australia and had consulted with friends in the know on the subject. It was widely agreed that having my own transport would be the best way, though whether to get it in Sydney or perhaps on the West Coast (easily reached by a long train ride) was debated. I checked out a number of vehicles, all with too many problems. When at the Backpacker car market in Sydney I found some guys desperate to sell their Pajero 4x4, I managed to knock them down to a price I found acceptable and they accepted. This thing had so much crap in it. I hardly had space to put my bags, though I did squeeze them in amongst the detritus as I headed down to Melbourne to catch up with another friend. I had actually never thought I would own one of these things, as Pajero unfortunately means wanker in Spanish. Not the best choice of name for a car. Mitsubishi is the same company that called a car the Starrion, a Japanese mistake, as it is an accented Stallion, in the same stable as their Colt.

Melbourne to Sydney is about nine or ten hours driving. At first I thought of this as quite a drive. I now think of it as popping down the road. On arrival Nick and I caught up and talked crap, over several beers into the early hours. We hadn’t seen each other since we had done a tour together in Vietnam and although we had always kept in touch intermittently, a lot had happened since then.

I enjoyed my time in Melbourne, particularly, when Nick and I went to see an AFL game. Australian Rules football is a fast paced, frantic, often violent game. The game we went to was Hawthorne vs. Essendon. Both local teams, both doing poorly. There was supposed to be some local tensions and the venue, the MCG, is the place to see a game. The first two quarters were a bit slow going and Hawthorne (Nick’s team), were a bit crap. This allowed me the time to understand fully what was going on, who was doing what and why, the rules and so forth. The second half, the Hawks really stepped up a gear or three. The game became quicker paced, more fun and it looked for a while as though Hawthorne might win. There were some dramatic goals, but ultimately, Essendon managed to win by just two points, though Hawthorne could certainly be proud of their second half showing. The pace of the game makes this a very enjoyable game to watch and I really decided I liked this sport. Incidentally, it was later shown that a goal that had been allowed for Essendon should not have been, as it had not crossed the line. That meant that six points had been awarded when they shouldn’t – the Hawks had actually won.

Melbourne is an eclectic, multi-ethnic, cultured city. Apparently with the third largest Greek speaking population, after Athens and Thessaloniki, it also has a large Italian, Vietnamese, Jewish and many other communities. This gives it a different feel. It also makes it a good place to eat.

I met up with Gene, another friend, whilst in Melbourne and together we toured some of the more cultural sites. Across the river from the main town is Federation Square, a new architectural, arty area. At first look, it looked like some recycled metals had been thumped into large cubes and dropped by the side of the road. On closer inspection, it is actually much more intricate. There are no conventional shapes in the structure and none of the areas is completely flat, including the ground. Despite myself, I quite liked it. The displays of Australian and aboriginal art were also very good.

There are several galleries, theatres and so forth in the precinct and the international art collection is housed in a building reminiscent of Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing. We didn’t go in there, though we did visit an exhibition of Kylie Minogue’s costumes and so forth. It only took a few minutes to get around. You don’t realise until you see the life-sized mannequins, with her clothes on, she really is a small. Actually pint sized would be an overstatement, more like a shot glass. Despite having very high-heels on and being on a platform I actually stand taller than she does. She is clearly a midget, though not with the stumpy limbs normally associated with the vertically challenged.

Our wandering took us further and to the casino where I won a bit of money, but was quickly bored of it, so we left to go to the Victoria market. There one can find all sorts of things, from tourist tat, to general stuff. Nice to look around though. Gene and I then parted company and I continued my meandering.

Also whilst in Melbourne I got some work done to the car I had bought, checked over and did some preventative stuff. I also cleared out a lot of the crap the previous owners had sold it with. In the end there was still a lot of crap that was slowly thrown away as I toured the country. I was prepared for the long haul around the country.

I thought that it would be fun, more interesting and more economical to find a travel companion or two, to head west with me, to which end, I put up a number of notes on notice-boards at hostels around town. I also contacted a number of people who had put up notices asking for rides. The response was just frustrating. Of the many I contacted, most wanted me to wait several days to fit with their schedules. One said she couldn’t come, as she did not have a sleeping bag. Another, whom I met, she wouldn’t come unless she knew precisely when and where we would be stopping en route. In general, they were just completely bereft of any spontaneity, something I think of as a pre-requisite for enjoyable travel. So, I decided better not to have any of this lousy mob and headed towards Adelaide along the Great Ocean Road, on my own.

The Great Ocean Road is often feted as an epic, impressive, journey along the South Victorian coastline. It is nice. The thing is, most of it is just pleasant, there are a few great bits, though these are within about fifty kilometres of each other. They should change the name to the Pleasant Ocean Road, with the Great bit in the middle. Perhaps not quite so catchy for the tourist market, but a lot more honest. By the way, the great bit is where the coastline has eroded to leave large chunks at see. These make for lovely viewing. One, London Bridge, was a double arch extending to the sea, when one of the arches collapsed leaving several tourists bemused and temporarily stranded.

After spending the night in the car, at a truck stop, I got to Adelaide, had a bit of a look around and realised that the town did not inspire me. I had already put up a few notes in hostels to find a travelling companion, met one, who seemed okay and then decided my time would be better served heading down the Fleurieu Peninsula towards Kangaroo Island.

The ferry crossing to the island was uneventful and on the island I boarded a bus for my tour. The tour took us to several viewpoints and we also got to see seals, sea lions and other wildlife. For me, the main reason to go was to see a Koala. Koalas were actually introduced to the island and are so successful there, that they have taken over entire sections. Where we stopped for lunch was apparently the best place to see them, so whilst everyone else slowly munched through their meals, I wolfed mine down and went off to find the cuddly marsupial. Almost tripping over a few Tamar wallabies, I came across one high up in a tree, silhouetted against the sky. I was told by some other folk wandering around, that this was the only one. They were wrong. I found one a little further along, resting in the bough of a tree, with his back to the path. I clambered through the undergrowth and part way up a neighbouring tree to get a better view look and the Koala turned slowly and gave me a disparaging look. I was now just a couple of metres away and for the next little while, the Koala and I would exchange glances, in between me taking photos and him dozing off. A little further down the way, was an even cuter koala, just a couple of years old, with Rosellas, a colourful bird flying around, it was very picturesque. There was another Koala in the car park, so in total four. I had seen what I wanted to see. The rest of the tour was pleasant enough, I got to meet a Kangaroo Island kangaroo up close as he was scrounging for food. We also saw the remarkable rocks. Interestingly eroded granite formations. Then after a brief stop at the pub, got the boat back to the mainland, where I drove back up to Adelaide.

In Adelaide, I spoke to several more annoying people about travelling with me. I decided though that Jan, the fellow I had met the previous day would do. So we met up again, then I went out with several people from his hostel and had a generally uneventful night out. The following day, after using the facilities in Jan’s hostel (I had slept in the car outside), we headed west.

I think it is important to note that when I slept in the car, it was comfy. I had a quilt and the back seats folded down and with a couple of thin sheets of MDF and the mattress in place, it was more comfortable than a dorm bed. With the curtains I had rigged, it was more private too.

The next bit of the journey is often regarded as a bit of an epic trek. It isn’t as challenging or repetitive as many had led me to believe though. The trip actually would actually go through just a small bit of the true Nullarbor. The other bit was just the same long road. The drive on the first day was not too dramatic. The most interesting things to see were some of the strange sculptures some people had put on their land adjoining the highway. Jan made for reasonable company and we either chatted or listened to music contentedly. That evening we drove little off road to camp for the night. Jan slept on the roof rack, I was in the back. In the morning we set off for some more driving. There are some spurs off the road, where one can get to see the Great Australian Bight. This is a dramatic stretch of cliffs, most about eighty metres high and stretching for eight hundred kilometres. Not only is a beautiful setting, it also made for a welcome break from the tedium of driving.

Something else that would break some of the monotony were the signs. It would seem that the Australians love to have signs all over the place. On this stretch there would often be kangaroo, wombat and camel warning signs, with a ‘next 76kms’ bit, or some such distance underneath. Then sure enough 76kms later would be the same set of signs, this time with ‘next 85kms’. This goes on for thousands of kilometres. There is no reason why they couldn’t just have said at the start of the highway, until you get to the other end of this bloody long road, there may be all sorts of wildlife on the road, try not to hit it. When crossing from South Australia into Western Australia (the states here are very imaginatively named), there was a camel, kangaroo, wombat sign next 356kms, at least a mild improvement. There are signs all over the country for anything they can possibly put a sign up for. Some are genuinely required, some are just a waste of money. On even the gentlest of bends there would be a sign alerting you to an upcoming curve. My favourite for banality was the ‘No lines, No Overtaking, Unless Safe’. So what is that supposed to mean. The other version presumably is - No overtaking, unless safe, as opposed to normally when you can overtake when you like, even if it is deadly.

Another recurring theme of driving through outback Australia particularly, is the roadkill. The amount of dead wallabies and kangaroos at the sides and on the roads is prolific. Some stretches there would be some dead animal every two or three hundred metres. Given the industrious efforts of Wedge Tailed Eagles and crows feeding off the carcasses, they could not have been there that long either. There were literally thousands on this stretch alone. There would be dead cows, birds, snakes and lizards too, though the ‘Roos’ were certainly the biggest casualties. Sometimes bloody huge. A red kangaroo can be well over six feet tall and so hitting one can be lethal not only for the kangaroo, but also for those in the car. For this reason most cars going through the area are fitted with Roo-bars.

As we approached Calguna, a roadhouse along the way, we must have passed about two hundred kangaroos just stood along the sides of the road, seemingly transfixed by the headlights, sometimes they would decide to run across the road, making driving quite hazardous, as dodging these things was not easy. We stopped in at the roadhouse to get a something to eat and to get some circulation back in the limbs. The folk there were telling us that the kangaroos would often be found hopping around the forecourt at night. Then the woman who worked there told us that the previous evening she had heard a knocking at her front door. When she went to open it, there was kangaroo stood there looking back at her.

Between Calguna and Balladonia is ‘Ninety Mile Straight’. The longest perfectly straight bit of bitumen in the world. 145km or ninety miles of it. This bit did not, in all honesty seem any different to the other straight bits of road, the curves if there were any, were so gentle as to be almost imperceptible. In Balladonia there is an impressive little museum containing parts of the Skylab, an American satellite that crashed nearby. By the afternoon of the third day though we reached the end of the Nullarbor at Norseman, a town founded by a horse. Seriously, this is Australia, things like that happen here.

The Nullabor, supposed to be treeless, is actually quite green for the most part. In some areas there are less trees, though in general there were plenty. The types of tree would change from time to time, all different Eucalyptus though (there are about a thousand types of Eucalyptus). Something that was particularly picturesque would be some of the bird life along the way. Lorikeets and Galas would fly in flocks and look quite lovely.

The drive had not been as treacherous as we had been led to believe, with roadhouses every two or three hundred kilometres and actually apart from the kangaroos darting across the road, the most dangerous thing had been an ‘Oversized load’ coming down the road. It was a massive bulldozer. By massive, I mean, the thing, which was on the back of a truck, was wider than the entire road. It had police out-riders directing us off the road. The bulldozer itself was big, then came the shovel, even larger and threatening to turn my car into a convertible. This was a big bit of kit. Later, I saw some pictures of even bigger things, some which required several trucks pulling and pushing in unison to take them down the road. The road trains on this route were not as massive as I was to come across later, mostly being only two trailers long, occasionally three. In the Northern Territory, I would regularly see road trains of four trailers. That is a long truck to overtake. When they passed in the opposite direction, it often felt like they were going to suck the doors off the car. It gave a little wake up nudge from time to time.

Norseman did not hold our attention for long and so we went north to Kalgoorlie. Kalgoorlie is in the Western Australian goldfields and is an attractive little city. It is also the only place I am aware of where you can take tours of a working brothel. It had to be done. I went along and with a group, we went through all the different theme rooms in the place and were given some insights into the history and workings of the brothel and town. Some rooms were fitted out for sports enthusiasts, with a boxing ring bed, another was like a car, there was a Japanese room and a Roman orgy room amongst others. It was an interesting insight into the world’s oldest trade. As I went in, I saw the price list. Quarter of an hour was a hundred dollars, half an hour, two hundred and the full hour, three hundred dollars. That is a lot of money. Although the tour cost me thirty-five dollars, it lasted over an hour, so I think going by those prices, I actually screwed them. Before you wonder, no, there were no samples.

An interesting bit of information by the way. The courthouse is just down the street, just after the road changes its name. The reason it does this is that according to Western Australian law, you can’t have a court on the same street as a brothel. As the council didn’t want to move the courthouse and the prostitutes were firmly ensconced in their bordellos, the cheapest way of getting around this was just to give the two ends of the road different names.

From Kalgoorlie, we headed south to Esperance and Cape Le Grand National Park. There we found long pearl white beaches, fringed with gentle cliffs in parts and in others, rolling dunes of the same silicone rich sand. There I got to use the 4x4 ability of the car to full extent driving amongst, through and over the dunes. Then we drove along the beaches and encountered wallabies relaxing there. With a little cautious coaxing we could approach them and actually stroke them a bit. This made the setting even more special as the beaches were world class.

On our way through the southwest, we saw various spots of minimal interest and then headed up towards Perth. En route we stopped to see the big Karri (or Red Tingle) trees near Walpole. These are not just big they are amongst the largest trees in existence, up to sixty metres high and sixteen metres around the base. There is a walkway that takes you up to the canopy and gives you more of a sense of the size of the thing. At ground level, one could actually walk inside some, where there was space for several people.

From there, we drove towards Perth and stayed in a spot nearby. That is when Jan, who had previously been a reasonable travel companion, although incredibly tight, pissed me off completely. We had taken it in turns to pay for petrol and kept an account, so that it was kept equal. It was his turn to do so when we were a couple of hundred kilometres from Perth, which he did. As we went off, he mentioned that the tank had not been full when we had left Adelaide. I agreed, so said that it would not be when we got to Perth either, so we would call it quits then. He didn’t like this, as he thought that the car was less full in Adelaide than it would be when we got Perth, so he wanted me to pay the difference. I said that this was probably about ten dollars worth of petrol. He wanted the ten dollars. I explained that I had just driven him four and a half thousand kilometres across a country and he was asking me for ten dollars. He still wanted the ten dollars. My response “I just #@%#@@## drove you four and a half THOUSAND #@$$#$#@ kilometres across the country and you are talking to me about ten dollars, what about wear and tear?”
“Ten dollars is a lot of money to me.”
That’s when I threw him out the car, drove over him repeatedly and buried him in a shallow grave, which I then defecated on. Actually I didn’t, but I should have done and I think I had just cause to do so. I actually just fumed and was pleased to get rid of him in Perth. He was at least very thankful for the drive, he said.

In Perth, I chilled a bit and got some things sorted out. There I met Stephanie, who was to be my travelling companion for the next while. I told her what had happened with Jan, that I would not accept a repetition and she said that nothing like that would happen. She had no personality, this I saw as a potential bonus as there would at least be no prospect of a conflict. It was a good theory.

On our first leg, we headed north from Perth and the first site of much interest was The Pinnacles. These are hundreds or perhaps thousands of limestone pinnacles, dotting the desert all over one area.

From there we headed on to Shark Bay and saw wild dolphins being fed from the beach in Monkey Mia. The dolphins come right in shallow to less than knee deep water and then are given a bit of fish by some rangers, who make sure that they are not given much, so they still need to hunt themselves. Also only adult females are fed. It is rare to see a wild creature so docile and close up, so it was nice, the rangers would give a lecture explaining the dynamics of the environment, dolphins and so forth.

In shark bay there are also stromatolites. What the blue buggery is a stromatolite? I am sure you are wondering. Actually they are cyano-bacteria, formations that resemble lumps of coral, but are actually living things. They are usually several hundred years old, sometimes more and to most people are as exciting to look at as cement. They aren’t particularly attractive, they do not move in a noticeable way, actually there is a fair amount of reason that most people don’t care about them. They are however remarkable things, actually it would not be wrong for everyone to go and see the stromatolites and say a big thankyou to them for all they have done. I think it would be best if I explained a bit. These things existed in the world’s oceans three and a half thousand million years ago. They are essentially amongst the first life forms to have existed. They were thought to have been extinct for hundreds if not thousands of millions of years and then someone literally tripped over colonies of them in Western Australia (that is the sort of thing that happens in Australia). What is remarkable about this, is that the person actually knew what he was looking at, as to most folk they look like rocks. Now, the most impressive bit. When these things first turned up, the atmosphere was toxic. What these things did was breathe all the toxic nastiness in and out came oxygen bubbles. Over the course of many millions of years, these oxygen bubbles changed the balance of the atmosphere, cooled the oceans and essentially paved the way for an environment that could support life on a major scale. These little single-celled fellas are the reason we even have the possibility of a chance to maybe exist. I think they deserve a bit more recognition than they get, even if they do look and are slightly more active than a rock.

Heading further north, we got to Exmouth, on the Ningaloo Reef. There I had an excellent dive under the Navy Pier in the nay base there. The dive was world class, with wobbegongs, reef sharks, catfish, crayfish, octopi, lionfish, grouper, nudibranchs and so much stuff that it was almost too intense. The place is a marvel, crammed with so much marine life, an exceptional dive. Shontel, my dive buddy, a marine biologist was useful to have around as she is very observant and the two of us were constantly pointing things out to each other.

From Exmouth we went East to Karijini National Park. Karijini is most famous for its chasms and gorges, many that were very picturesque and some of which we could swim in, in the plunge pool of the waterfalls. The best viewpoint of the park was definitely where four canyons meet, very special.

From there, we traversed the Great Sandy Desert, which is not that great, merely quite big. Then through the unattractive town of Port Headland, home to most of Australia’s illegal immigrants. Apparently Mr. Howard is considering sticking them on boats, which will then sink once in international waters. Perhaps that is just a malicious rumour against a Prime Minister who really means to do his best, despite taking Australia into wars that the majority of the population oppose vehemently and looking like the funeral director who won the competition for being the least charismatic. He does look like the sort of guy who would throw a sack full of puppies into a river and his record in that regard is not good.

In Broome, we had a day around town, mostly taking it easy, then in the afternoon, we went to the beach to watch the sunset that Broome is famous for. Stephanie, one of the least enthusiastic people I have ever met, was particularly excited about seeing the sunset here. I didn’t quite know why, though it was nice to see that she wasn’t entirely bereft of emotion. She had told me that a friend had sent her a picture that showed the most beautiful sunset imaginable in Broome, so she was hoping for that. As we waited for the sun to set, some clouds came around and Stephanie was becoming miserable, worried they would spoil the view. When the sunset, it was very lovely and the clouds gave an added depth and richness of colour, it was very nice indeed. The strangest thing was that just after the sun dropped over the horizon, it actually got lighter for a while, something I have not previously seen (strange things happen in Australia).

Stephanie admitted it was nice, though was almost inconsolable that it was not as good as the one her friend had sent her the picture of. I tried to cheer her up a bit, but to be honest her general miserable nature was pissing me off a bit. In the picture, there was a child throwing a ball up in the air, just by the setting sun, none of that was happening here. I asked if that was what she had seriously expected. Apparently it was. It had been in the photo her friend sent after all. When I finally saw the photo a couple of days later, I saw that it was torn out of a promotional magazine and was the most cliched shot imaginable. There was nothing to make it special to Broome and it had been dressed, with the set up with the boy and so doctored with filters and so forth, it was not surprising it hadn’t looked like that. Anyway.

Near Derby, is the Aboriginal Prison Tree. A huge stocky, boab tree that may or may not, have been used to chain prisoners too and even to stick inside. It is a funny looking thing, fat in the trunk, with bits of branches and so forth sprouting from its top. If a particularly obese troll was turned into a tree, this is probably what he would look like. Although there were other boab trees around, this was certainly the most rotund. Derby is not an attractive town, it is home to the world’s second biggest tide (after the Bay of Fundy in Canada). It isn’t something that one can see and appreciate, except for at spring tides, so we left.

We were getting closer to the border with the Northern Territory and there were many more Aboriginals around. In Hall’s Creek, a small town, I was filling the car up from the Jerry cans when an old aboriginal fellow came walking towards me, with one flip-flop in his hand, the other on his foot. So, “have you broken your shoe?” I asked.
“No it’s just that, this one is a bit tight, so I carry it instead.”
We got chatting and he asked me where I was from.
“England” I told him
“Oh right because I’m Irish you know.”
“First thing I thought when I saw you was, that man is Irish.”
We both had a good laugh and Samuel, as that was his name, waved us goodbye as we headed to Pernululu or the Bungle Bungles, as it is more commonly known.

Just down the road though, the police stopped me. I wondered what might be wrong, so I got out the car and asked, “What can I do for you?”
“Oh we’re just pulling over South Australians today.” Came the response, referring to my South Australian numberplates.
“Well I’m English so I’m leaving then.”
I like Australia, there are not many countries in the world where you get pulled over by the police and the first thing they do is crack a joke. At least I think he was joking. They were actually conducting random licence and breath tests. Once I had passed these, we continued chatting for a bit. The officer asked me, “So, what are you doing now then?”
“Oh I’m off to get pissed and then I’m going to drive north, after all what is the chance of getting pulled over twice in one day?”
“In this town pretty good, there are only about three cars. But where are you heading?”
I told him that we were going and he gave some recommendations and off we went. Very sociable, especially for Police (Things like that happen in Australia).

The turn-off for the Bungle Bungles was a little way up the highway and then it was a full on four-wheel drive track across a station (ranch), for two hours, to go fifty kilometres, before we even entered the park. There were a number of tricky bits on the trail, but thankfully no damage was done. We stayed that night in the car park for a lookout and had a beautiful starry night sky to look at.

The following morning we walked up to the lookout where we had some nice views and then headed to the Echidna Chasm. A narrow chasm, which got more and more orange as more and more light poured in. I also found a green and yellow frog in a little nook, who was interesting to look at and quite cute. He was probably deadly, almost everything here is, the dirt is probably toxic, the snakes can kill you just by looking at you, the sharks munch you, estuarine crocodiles take you without a trace, the jellyfish torture you to death, Dingos eat your babies, kangaroos box you to death, cows and camels crash cars, the spiders are lethal in the extreme and lurk in places that it seems they have thought about as being the most embarrassing or likely to surprise you, so even if they don’t bite you, you will probably crash your car or have a heart attack anyway, giving the same sort of result. Even the sun is so deadly in this country that they regularly have burn times of three minutes. That is about enough time to get out the car, go for a leak behind a tree and get back to find that you have probably just got skin cancer. After looking at the little fellow for as long as we did, we were probably lucky to escape with our lives (things happen in Australia).

Down the other end of the park, we visited Cathedral Gorge and the domes. This is the bit that the Bungle Bungles are most famous for. The rock formations are like massive orange and black banded beehives and the walk amongst the domes is lovely. Then one goes into a natural amphitheatre, carved from the rock. All extremely lovely.

After leaving Pernululu, we headed north, through Kununurra, winner of Western Australia’s crappiest town award, for the last few years. Just a little while later, we were in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory is a bit of an odd creation (things often are strange in Australia). It was actually formed by the states all drawing their borders and then this was the bit left that no one wanted. Then a while later, several clamoured for control and South Australia got it. The South Australians didn’t get as much out of it as they had hoped, so they did a deal that meant that the Northern Territory would become an independent entity within the Australian Commonwealth. Part of the deal was that there would have to be a rail link from Adelaide all the way to Darwin, paid for by the federal government. The silly thing was that they didn’t stipulate when this would have to be completed. The deal was done in 1911, the railway was completed a couple of years ago. It is a massive area of more than 1.3mn square kilometres, with a tiny population of around 132,000 almost a third of which are aboriginals. The even stranger thing is, the Territory is not even officially fully part of Australia. The populace voted not to become a state and so, their representatives is government have no voting powers, but the Federal government can impose decisions on them. Australians never seem to do things normally and Territorians like to be that bit extra special.

There are some excellent parks in the Territory and on the way to the country’s largest Kakadu, we stopped in at Edith Falls for a swim and a look at the lovely setting.

Kakadu is a national park, full of things to do. It has nature and also well presented, easily accessed aboriginal culture. Actually, much of the land that makes up the park is owned by aboriginal clans who in turn, lease it to the government. Amongst those things in the park we saw, were some impressive rock paintings. The first ones I saw were primitive in every way, some though were actually very much more involved, intricate and sometimes quite lovely. These paintings are in general many thousands of years old. Some depict animals that have been extinct for several thousand years, the mere fact that the paint has lasted that long is impressive. There is also impressive natural beauty and some of the views are exceptionally nice. The sunset view from Ubir is famous and we were lucky to see rock wallabies as we came down, after the sunset.

I took a boat ride down the river, with an aboriginal guide who explained how the aboriginals use the trees, implements, natural elements, live and their social structures. Their system of justice, whilst brutal is effective. The men will generally receive a spear in the leg or several, depending on the crime. Other women beat women who have misbehaved with a heavy stick, often breaking bones. He told us of a guy driving through some ancestral lands without permission. This was both wrong and illegal. Moreover it really pissed off the tribal elders, one of whom, threw a spear clear through the metal door of the Toyota and into the guys leg. Justice was duly served. The scar will make a convenient reminder to get a permit the next time I am sure.

During the trip I spotted a “Saltie”, an estuarine crocodile. These things are natural born killers and take people without warning. The guide kept the boat some distance from the croc, though we all wanted a closer look. Just because these things are easily capable of jumping into the boat, I don’t know why he was being so shy of it.

Apparently in the short hop we did, there are about one hundred and twenty of these impressive killing machines, the biggest being Eric, five and a half metres long and seventy years old, who can swim at up to thirty-five kilometres an hour. I have seen plenty of seventy year-olds who don’t even drive that fast.

Another thing I decided to pay a bit more for was a scenic flight to see the Twin and Jim Jim Falls. The views across the countryside were lovely and the falls, although a little bit in shadow, looked lovely. The access road to the falls had been closed, as apparently there are too many estuarine crocodiles around. As reported by the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4526281.stm.

The last stop we had in the park was Manuluka wetlands, where we could see all sorts of birds, a snake, dragonflies and fish.

Darwin the capital of the Northern Territory is not a beautiful city, having been bombed during the war by the Japanese and then destroyed by cyclones, it is a wonder they even bothered to rebuild it, but they did. After a brief stop there, we headed to the Katherine Gorge, had nice views and then to Litchfield National Park. There, we bathed in waterfalls, before heading south.

The drive south is quite a long one, broken by very little in the way of distractions. The most notable (because it is the only real one is) The Devil’s Marbles. These are spherical rocks positioned on top of each other and we stayed there the night and saw them with the sunrise, which was very nice.

From there it was just a few hours drive to Alice Springs or The Alice as it is often known (they talk strangely strange in Australia). There I got rid of Stephanie, who had actually been so miserable and mean, I was pleased to be shot of her. The rude cow didn’t even say thankyou. I told her that “next time someone drives you NINE THOUSAND kilometres, it is polite to at least say thankyou”. I didn’t receive a response.

Alice Springs is a town with a bit of character and I stopped in at the Museum of Central Australia there. A surprisingly impressive spot and also where someone I knew from when I first went to Chile worked. Ian was not around unfortunately, so we didn’t meet up. He didn’t know I was coming and quite possibly wouldn’t have remembered me anyway.

Many people mistakenly think that The Alice is just next door to ‘The Rock’, that being Ayer’s Rock or Uluru as it is now officially as well as traditionally known. In reality, the Rock is about four hundred kilometres away. So, from Alice I drove their, narrowly missing cows and kangaroos on the road as I went. One car was not so lucky as it lay written off and abandoned, with the same fate as the cow it had clearly collided with. I parked up just a few hundred metres from the Park entrance and woke early the next morning to see the sunrise at the rock. It was unfortunately overcast, so the sunrise was not special, it just got lighter. It was quite funny as I eavesdropped a middle-aged German couple. He kept on looking at his watch and then turned to his wife and said in German “The sun was supposed to rise at 7.10, it is now 7.11, let’s go” and off they went. Arseholes. By 7.15, almost everyone from the bus-loads there had gone. Arseholes.

Afterwards, I went for a guided walk around the Mala area. This was a free thing, given by a ranger, who explained some of the environmental, historical, ecological, traditional and theological issues. With aboriginal things, the men’s and women’s business is clearly delineated. So, some areas were specifically women’s sacred sites and some were men’s. For the Spanish speakers, there is one women’s sacred site called Mala Puta, it means something very different in the aboriginal language (home of the wallaby I think). After that, I carried on walking to circumambulate the thing. It is somehow mysterious and engaging and exudes a character of it’s own. Quite impressive for an inanimate object. The rock has shapes and crevices, marks and interesting areas of erosion. Some of which look a bit like solidified melted red cheese (not the finest analogy, but if you saw it, you would know what I mean).

After having seen the cultural centre, which was informative, I went to the sunset viewing area. The sunset that afternoon was very nice and I had an excellent spot. Also, as the car has a large roof rack, I could stand on it, watching the sun go down behind me and changing the colour of the rock, through reds and oranges.

Next morning I got up once again for the sunrise, this time from a different spot near to Kata Tjuta, previously known as The Olgas. From there, the sunrise was very lovely, though in the direction of Uluru. It slowly lit it up, but it was the colours in the sky around it that were so special. Then I went to walk amongst some of the rocky outcroppings of Kata Tjuta. These are a similar type of rock to Uluru, but there are several of them next to each other.

I had spent enough time at Uluru etc. so, I headed south towards Coober Pedy. I stopped on the way, at a viewpoint over The Breakaways, some pleasant small mountains, for the night and saw the sunrise there in the morning. Then I headed into Coober Pedy.

Coober Pedy is apparently a corruption of what the local aboriginals called the people there Kupa Piti – men in holes. Coober Pedy is the opal capital of Australia and the method of extraction is to dig, originally by hand, slowly unearthing a seam, which is then carefully excavated. The people did and still do live in holes too. There are a number of homes that are carved from the ground, where it is cooler and actually has a consistent year round temperature. I saw one place for sale at one hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. It actually looked quite plush. There are homes with a number of bedrooms (sometimes as many as ten) large reception areas and so forth, all finely furnished. The advantage of this system of living apart from the heat and sound insulation, is that an extension requires hiring a digging machine for a bit, then you have an extra room. Not even very expensive. The average house apparently costs about thirty-five thousand Australian dollars to excavate. I visited various underground churches too, the most impressive being the Serbian, with reliefs carved in the walls.

After Coober Pedy, I had long drive north to Port Douglas on the east coast. This took me back past The Alice, much of the way back north I had previously been and then East, to the Queensland border. As I crossed the border, I felt sad that I had left the Northern Territories and said “see you N.T.”, as I left – good thing it wasn’t a text message. Nick had always maintained the imbecility of rural Queenslanders and in Vietnam, this had been vindicated with some experiences there. Many people think of Queenslanders as imbeciles, even a former premier said, “Queensland isn’t a state it’s a condition”. Just a few kilometres over the border I stopped to get a little bit of fuel at a roadhouse. Mine was the only car in the forecourt, yet when I went in there were a couple of people ahead of me at the checkout. The guy in front took about ten minutes with the checkout girl, doing some paperwork or whatever. Then another worker comes along has a look at the forecourt and at the computer and says “number three still hasn’t paid”.
She cranes her neck around and replies, “the car’s still here, he can’t have gone far”.
“I have been stood in front of you for ten minutes you morons!” I wanted to bellow, but didn’t. I waited another minute or two paid for my fuel, pointing out to the checkout assistant, that was my car, the only one there and I have been stood here the whole time. She didn’t understand vaguely why I was telling her this, so off I went.

The next hundred kilometres of highway was the worst I had yet travelled on in Australia. Just a single lane width, with dirt at the sides. The genius thing is that they have put posts at regular intervals along the side, so cars can’t even pass each other easily, with just one side of each driving in the dirt. One has to stop to let the other pass. This is a bit like Chicken but seemed to work as you could slow enough to duck between the posts as the car passed. However, road-trains are a different story. Playing chicken with hundreds of tonnes careening along at one hundred kilometres an hour is not fun. I was lucky that I same across one going in the same direction as me, so I stuck behind him and just watched the cars swerving off to a halt in the dirt. It looked vaguely like the bit in a Hollywood film where the police inevitably end up driving down the wrong way of a Freeway, only it was a little less dramatic and there was no-one shooting at us.

Thankfully the road came to an end a little bit before Mount Isa. There, I had a bit of a look around and came across a sign “Head Reconditioning”. Probably a lucrative business in this state. Finding The Isa (Australians also call this place The Isa. At least they are consistent in their illiteracy), entirely unimpressive, ugly and unworthy of my time, I continued to press on towards the coast. Before dusk, a massive storm descended, actually several. I would drive through one storm, into another for hours. At times, the rain was so heavy I could hardly see past the front of the car. At these times I drove down the middle of the road with the full beam on, just following the white lines slowly. The storm abated and I carried on until the car backfired a couple of times, lurched a bit and stopped at the side of the road. I tried to turn her over but nothing was happening. After trying a few times, the power in the battery was fading fast. So, after I had pushed it mostly off the road, I stood outside the car, keeping an eye out for things coming down the road, which could be seen from some distance away. Then I would wave a torch at the car (I did have hazard lights on too), just so they could see and avoid it. The road-trains would steam past shaking the car from side to side as they went. After a while one of the road trains actually stopped, then reversed the thing, quite an impressive feat, as hundreds of cows mooed away. Then the driver got out gave me his diagnosis (incidentally, he was wrong) and then headed off again. A little later still, a ute (pick-up truck) stopped and the passenger got out. He was so hairy, I wasn’t sure if he had several possums glued to his face. He spoke in such a broad country accent and looked so decidedly from the outback, that I would guess that this is the sort of person Banjo Patterson (author of Waltzing Mathilda and other Australian verse) would have been writing about. He actually made me think more about the banjo player in Deliverance and I began to fear for my life and my sphincter. They actually turned out to be helpful folk and they towed me to Richmond, where I stopped for the night, waiting until morning to get some help from a mechanic.

When morning came, the breakdown company sent a mechanic along, he diagnosed the ignition coil having burned out, probably due to some wet getting in it during the storm. He then managed to find one for a Land Cruiser that was bullied into place and made to fit as a temporary solution to get me to the coast where I should be able to pick up a genuine part. Because of my affiliation, thankfully it didn’t even cost.

I got to Charters Towers, the next big town, three hundred kilometres down the road and went to see if I could get the part there. In the shop, they asked if I had just come from Richmond, I said I had. Apparently word can travel fast in these parts. Possibly the most exciting thing that had happened in a while. They didn’t have the part but had already found that there was a coil for me in Townsville, where I was heading. It was reserved for me, so off I went to go get it.

In Townsville, I got the coil, fitted it and then headed north to Port Douglas. Going through Cairns, I formed an instant dislike for the place. From the highway, it is just a succession of traffic lights and strip malls. It reminded me more of LA than anywhere else and that is not a good thing. From Cairns to Port Douglas is just a short hop, through mountain roads. It actually made for slightly more interesting driving than the straight roads I had been used to. After driving three thousand two hundred kilometres (two thousand miles), with a numb bum, I pulled in to Port Douglas, spoke to a local friend and went to stay at a hostel there, the first time in a month that I had not slept in the car. I should point out that at the roadhouses and many petrol stations, public toilets and so forth, there are shower facilities, so I had bathed, though perhaps not as frequently as I otherwise would have.

Anyway, I think that is enough for the moment. I will leave you there and my final fortnight in Australia will be covered in the next newsletter. I’m sure you can hardly wait.



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