Evelynne and Ruth’s Great Escape to Australia
A few years ago I had the opportunity to live and work in Australia as part of the Working Holiday Visa program for UK citizens. My friend, Ruth, travelled out with me and before I started job hunting we took a three-week trip around Australia. We had a package deal with Greyhound Coaches and the IHYA youth hostel chain, and this is the story of our adventure. Here is a map with out route marked:
Thursday 6th June: Arrived Sydney
Naturally, we were pretty bushed after the flight from Singapore, and of course, we couldn't check into the hostel when we arrived at 8am. They did at least let us shower to freshen up! Most of that day was spent by my dragging Ruth around to sort out some of the practical things I needed to do for my year in Oz, although we did have a good breakfast at J's on George St – worth checking out if you're down Sydney way. When we got into our room eventually, Ruth decided to have a nap while I tried to track down the illusive tax office. Found the Opera House quite easily and the Harbour Bridge (I knew I was in Sydney then!), but it took me hours to track down the office, by which time Ruth was nearly sending out a search party for me. Despite that, it was lovely how easy it was to organise the practical things here, compared to say the French love of bureaucracy. By the time we'd wandered back down to Circular Quay, the hub of Sydney's nightlife, and found a nice Aussie pub to eat in, we were just about falling asleep into our dinners so we decided to call it a night.
Friday 7th June – Sydney
We spent this morning catching up on our sleep and trying to decide which tour to the Blue Mountains to go on. We also had a bit of a nightmare when the express bus we wanted to catch to Melbourne on the Sunday proved to be full. Fortunately, it wasn't too much of a problem – simply meant a 15-hour journey instead of a 12-hour one… Oh joy… Remember we are Europeans, and not North Americans. Any journey over four hours is incredibly long to us.
In the afternoon, we decided we'd better try to fit in the sights of Sydney as well as tracking down some warmer clothes – we'd rather misjudged how cold it was actually going to be. We walked across the Harbour Bridge and got a great view of the sun setting over Sydney. Let's hope the photos turn out! We also went on the ferry to Manly to get the best view of the city from the harbour. By this time it was dusk, so we didn't see much of Manly except the beach. Naturally, we were keen to adopt the Aussie tradition of BYO – bring your own drinks! – to our evening eating establishment, something not common in the UK at that time.
Saturday 8th June – Blue Mountains
After much indecision we'd decided to spend today on a bus tour with Wayward Bus to the Blue Mountains. The weather wasn't great – dull and slightly drizzly – but it was a lovely day out. We did see some kangaroos in the wild, which was fantastic. The rest of the tour involved walks through some great scenery, including some temperate rainforest. We did become a little alarmed when the guide mentioned that the redback spiders could bite through shoes if they weren't very thick. "But not to worry, they're probably all sleeping now…" Hmmmmm… The trip passed without incident, spider-related or otherwise, fortunately.
Sunday 9th June – Sydney to Melbourne
This was the first of our travelling days, and involved 15 hours on a Greyhound coach. It also introduced us to something with which we'd become very familiar over the next few weeks, the Aussie roadhouse. One of these days I'll write something for Lonely Planet on the various ones we encountered (bonus points for friendly camels and kangaroos, black marks for running out of pumpkin scones) but not right now.
We'd decided to pass the coach journey finalising the rest of the trip. It was fortunate we did as the first coach we wanted to book at our first meal stop was fully booked, meaning we had to rethink our plans to go down the Great Ocean Road between Melbourne and Adelaide. This was a pity – we ended up going the express route inland, so no whale watching or fairy penguins. Fortunately, we were able to book the rest without too much hassle.
It was around 9pm by the time we got into Melbourne, so by the time we found our hostel and got a bite to eat it was time to hit the hay.
Monday 10th June – Melbourne
We awoke to a rather dull and drizzly Melbourne, but as it was our only day in the city, we thought we'd better explore. Our trusty Lonely Planet had advised us that Melbourne was short on sites, but hot on good cafe ambience. However, at a rough guess that probably applies to hot summer evenings, not damp afternoons in the middle of winter… Oh well.
The one thing we'd planned to do in Melbourne was to take a trip on the Yarra River to see the fairy penguins come in at dusk, to be rounded off by that other Aussie tradition, the barbecue. However, Fate apparently had decided we weren't meant to see the penguins; the Yarra was too high to allow the boat to get under the bridges.
When we'd arrived we'd noticed Melbourne to be a bit deserted, but we put that down to being 10pm on a Sunday evening and the Aussie Golden Jubilee Bank Holiday. However, despite extensive searching for something to do instead of penguins,we still couldn't find where it was at, so ended up going back to the hostel to do our laundry!
Tuesday 11th June – Melbourne to Adelaide
Yet another day on the coach – so, more roadhouses, very old videos and boredom. Not much more to add really. After arriving at the hostel we set out along Rundle Street, Adelaide's main one, to see if we could find some suitable eating establishment. Lonely Planet had warned us that "there was life in Adelaide – it just takes a lot of effort to find it." Well, we failed miserably in the finding life stakes and began to wonder how on earth all the empty cafes can actually survive.
Wednesday 12th June – Adelaide – Barossa Valley Wine Tour
We were keen to sample the local vintage, so we'd booked ourselves on a Groovy Grape wine tour. It didn't get off to a very auspicious start when one of the group we were with was so hungover after celebrating Germany's win in the World Cup that he started to throw up before we even hit the first winery! Fortunately, he recovered.
All in all we stopped at four wineries; two giants of the Aussie wine industry including Jacobs Creek, and two smaller "boutique" wineries. It was a really interesting day, although I still don't know my Riesling from my Chardonnay. We did sample some chocolate port, which was, um, intriguing. The tawny ports, however, did all go down very very well. As well as being a major wine region, the Barossa Valley is a really attractive area in its own right, so it was again a lovely day out. Sadly, the weather conspired against us once again to do us out of the Aussie barbecue and we ended up eating at a local pub instead. The pub did do a barbecue platter though which went down well. It included kangaroo meat, and I have to confess "Skippy" was very tasty…
On returning from the tour we set out once again to see if we could find some life in Adelaide. We eventually found it in the local casino, where everyone had gathered to watch the footie on massive screens or throw their hard earned cash down "pokies" – slot machines. Ruth and I were interested in neither so we set out again to find a meal in a lonely empty cafe somewhere.
Thursday 13th June – Adelaide – Alice Springs
As our coach (the first of the overnights…) didn't leave until early evening, we had most of the day in Adelaide. We'd noticed that many of Adelaide's museums were free, so we'd decided that today was going to be our day of "cultcha". One of the things to do in Adelaide is visit Haig's chocolate factory, so we were able to combine culture with food, always a good combination! The afternoon was spent at the very interesting museum of South Australia.
Neither of us were particularly looking forward to the overnight coach journey to Alice Springs, but it couldn't be avoided, so we had to just grin and bear it. We were hoping, however, that by travelling to the Red Centre, we might leave the drizzle and cooler weather behind us. We didn't quite feel we were in Australia with the rain and clouds.
Friday 13th June – Adelaide – Alice Springs
It seemed that no sooner had we closed our eyes than the bus driver was waking us for breakfast in Coober Pedy (6am, yawn). We might have enjoyed spending longer there as it is quite an unusual town in that most of the buildings are built underground to allow the inhabitants to escape the searing summer heat. However, there is no YHA hostel in Coober Pedy, and as we were tied into them, we couldn't stay.
By the time we got to Alice Springs, we were naturally exhausted, so it really didn't help that we encountered the most unhelpful hostel staff we had come across. Apparently there were "computer problems" which prevented our checking in. Great, just when we needed to crash. Fortunately, they were resolved fairly quickly, otherwise Ruth and I might have been tempted to actions we would have later regretted. It probably also helped that that the weather was actually warm and we could get out the shorts and tee-shirts for the first time. Woo hoo!
To pass the evening, we booked ourselves into a didgeridoo concert. It was certainly in keeping with the locale, and we were both pleased to be able to get some kind of sound out of the instrument during the lesson at the end. The performer also told us of the local legend that if you see the usually dry Todd River in flow three times in your lifetime you will end up settling in Alice. Ruth and I looked at each other and vowed to keep our eyes closed when we crossed the river, just in case…
Saturday 16th June – Alice Springs to Uluru
This part of our trip was an organised tour which came as part of our Greyhound bus pass package and it turned out there were only five of us on it; Ruth, myself, another girl and a Swedish couple. It was very cozy and we got to know each other and our driver/guide, Robin, fairly well.
The trip from Alice to Yulara (the Uluru/Ayers Rock resort) went via a camel farm (as you do…) and the sky was threateningly overcast. We thought great, come to Ayers Rock and get rained on… It didn't come to anything though, and in fact we couldn't even decide if they were real clouds or just haze from the numerous bush fires we kept seeing scattered across the place.
I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed in Uluru, particularly the sunset. It was rather spoiled by the sheer number of tourists jostling each other for the best viewing spots. The colours were magnificent though. We also had our first Aussie barbie at Yulara – our hostel was doing a cook your own. Very tasty.
Sunday 12th June – Ayers Rock to Kings Canyon
This morning the base walk or climbing Uluru was on the agenda. Ruth and I had read that the local Aboriginal owners prefer that visitors do not climb the rock, so we'd already decided we would not climb it out of respect, and would do the 8km base walk instead. The warm weather in Alice and the sun had lured us into a false sense of security, and I certainly had not put on nearly enough layers. I'd thought I'd be warm enough with a tee-shirt and a fleece I'd bought in Sydney, but I was absolutely frozen – you know, the kind of cold where you feel you'll never be warm ever again. We felt so sorry for our Swedish companions who'd been camping – it had reached -2 degrees overnight…
I don't think we appreciated the walk as much as we could have, nor that around the Olgas, for that reason.
In the afternoon we made our way to Kings Canyon, where we went for a sunset viewing. To me it was infinitely preferable to the one at Uluru – the colours were just as spectacular and the audience was much more select in number.
Monday 17th June – Kings Canyon to Alice Springs
For me, I think this was one of the highlights of my trip. Not so many people go to Kings Canyon – they're really missing out. We were prepared weatherwise for the cold from the previous day, so suitably bundled up in numerous layers we set off to climb Kings Canyon, setting off at 6.45am for amazing views of the sunrise. It was a few degrees above freezing when we were there, so it was a bit hard to comprend the 51 degrees our guide said it regularly reached in summer. The play of the light on the rock formations, the hidden watering holes and the views over the surrounding countryside made it a lovely walk.
In the afternoon it was back to Alice where we had a farewell drink with our select few in the group.
Tuesday 18th June – Alice Springs to Tennant Creek
Our bus was a late afternoon one, so we had a morning to explore Alice once again. It was our first longish lie for a while so we didn't get up as early as we might have, so we didn't have time to visit the School of the Air, which was a pity. We did visit the Flying Doctors Centre, which was extremely interesting and informative. It certainly gave me new respect for those who live and work in Australia's heartland.
Due to bus timetabling and lack of suitable YHA hostels, we had to spend a night in Tennant Creek to break the journey, a place about which everyone asked us "why the heck are you going there?", and even the trusty Lonely Planet said the delights of Tennant Creek are easily exhausted in a morning so it was with some trepidation that we boarded the bus for that old gold mining town. It did have the advantage however that the hostel was so glad to have us staying there they met us from the coach and drove us back! By the time we arrived though, it was time to hit the hay, so Tennant Creek would have to wait for another day.
Wednesday 19th June – Tennant Creek to Townsville
As this was an overnight coach ride (oh joy…) we had a full day in which to amuse ourselves in Tennant Creek. It was sunny and warm if very windy, so we were fairly upbeat despite Ruth's cold. We walked the 2km to the mining information centre and decided to hang around for the next tour of the mine. It was given by an ex miner which made it much more interesting and informative than one given my your average tour guide. The admission fee included the right to keep any gold you might find there, but neither Ruth nor I found any, which was a shame. Guess we'll need to keep on working, then… We rounded off the afternoon with some damper (traditional stockman's bread), golden syrup and tea, which went down a treat.
We passed the remaining few hours in the hostel before setting off on the longest of our trips – we left Tennant Creek at 22.45 and arrived the following day at 18.40…
Thursday 20th June – Townsville/Magnetic Island
Due to the lack of a YHA hostel in Townsville itself, we were forced to make our way by ferry to Magnetic Island which was the nearest YHA establishment to Townsville. And, naturally, because we were getting the "late night ferry" at 8.30pm(!?) the hostel courtesy bus was no longer running. Just what we needed after a 22 hour coach journey. To add to the delight, the sea was particularly choppy, just in case Ruth was feeling homesick for the boat she works on and the accompanying seasickness.
We were lucky however, in that the local bus was waiting for the ferry and took pity on us two exhausted tourists and dropped us as the hostel. We were delighted to see a couple of cheeky possums run across our path on the way to our dorm room, obviously on the scrounge for food. I was less than happy though to see the green tail of a gecko disappear into a corner somewhere in our bedroom…
Friday 21st June – Townsville to Mission Beach
We only had a very short morning on Magnetic Island and so we wanted to get up early to see if we could spot the koalas who live there. This was easier said than done as I had slept very badly what with the cold and the thought of a gecko loose somewhere in our bedroom! However, we didn't manage to spot any grey bundles huddled in the trees which was a pity.
It was a comparatively short coach journey from Townsville to Mission Beach and of course the driver put on the video entertainment after the meal break so we missed the ending of the film. If anyone knows what happened at the end in Eddie Murphy's Holy Man, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyway, we'd chosen to spend a couple of nights in Mission Beach, which is right in the heart of the tropical rainforest, as a couple of days to chill out after all our travelling around over the previous couple of weeks. It could have been so great; the hostel was really nice (if not as clean as I might have wished…) the setting was spectacular, there were hammocks to relax in, and there were even roaming cats and dogs to make guests feel at home. However it was all totally and utterly ruined by the sheer volume of music that was played throughout the complex. It was deafening and with being a small hostel, there was absolutely no place for you to go to escape it. It was such a relief when "quiet time" finally kicked in at 11pm.
Saturday 22nd June – Mission Beach
Sunday 23rd June – Mission Beach – Cairns
This was the final stage on our Greyhound trip and involved a short couple of hours trip up the coast to the party-town of Cairns. I was only going to have half a day as I was heading back to Sydney the following day, so we booked a half day trip to Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Once again the weather conspired against us unfortunately and the sea was very choppy. This meant that visibility over the Reef was very poor so we didn't see as much as we might have. Still, I guess we did come in the Australian winter!
All in all, it was an amazing whirlwind trip around Australia. Next time though, I think we'll travel in the summer!