CategoriesUncategorized

5 of the Best Places to Mountain Bike in Phoenix, Ariz.

EDITOR’S NOTE (May 1, 2012): This post is really old. I will publish an update soon. Subscribe (it’s free) in the box to the right so you don’t miss it!

EDITOR’S NOTE PART II (May 11, 2012): UPDATED and cooler than ever.

I just recently ran into an old classmate at an ad hoc high school reunion. He’d moved from the area, and mentioned that he was getting more into mountain biking, but isn’t sure where to ride here. Naturally, I promised him some tips … and then I thought, “hey, maybe some other people besides Mitch would dig some advice!”

So here are 5 places in the metro Phoenix area where you can ride. Each will offer something different. These are in no particular order. I’ve linked each to my buddy at MTBikeAZ.com, who has produced some fine maps and profiles!
Photobucket
McDowell Mountain Regional Park: There is something for everyone here. The Competitive Loops host all sorts of races. You can choose from the Long Loop (about 9 miles), the Sport Loop and the Technical Loop (both about 3 miles). You can string them together for some uberloops. All require some skill to handle steep drops, breaking bumps, rocks and lots of loose nastiness. Speeds can run high. Leave your iPod at home … rattlesnakes love hanging out trailside, and your earbuds will mask their warning signal. And watch the trail closely – that big rock you’re zooming around just might be a desert tortoise! Also, the park offers a 15-mile loop called The Pemberton, aka Trail B. This is technically easier, a varitable mountain bike super highway. By the way, the MTBikeAZ site’s map of this is outdated. Pick up a fresh one when you come into the park. Some snobby riders will label it boring: Not true. It has all sorts of offshoots to explore – and if you’re not up for a 15-mile loop, it has lots of connections back to the trailhead to cut it short, some of which are so fast that you’ll arrive at the bottom before the sound of your tires on the ground does. The park entry fee is $6, and it’s a screaming deal: The race loops feature a beaut of a new bathroom. Trail B’s launching pad has a groovy restroom AND a vending machine!

Pima and Dynamite: This is great for winter epic rides. You can just go forever and really get away from the red tile roofs. As you head away from the intersection, you’re on a false flat as you roll your way up. The terrain undulates and wiggles beautifully. Lots of hardpacked stuff, but it gets more wild and wooly the further north you go. Bring lots of food, water, sunscreen and tubes! Epic high desert scenery makes it even better. The terrain can be tricky and the speeds can be high. I rode here once with a friend, and we went home bloody, thirsty and late: His wife banned me from their house for one year, saying I brought him home sun-baked, penniless and smelling of cheap perfume. I only participated in two of the three! No bathrooms or facilities of any sort here. A bummer … this is State Trust Land, which means you need a permit. Yes, you really do. It’s pretty cheap, though it requires prior planning.
Photobucket
Phoenix Mountain Preserve: Trail 100 is the mainstay of this ludicrously awesome urban park. The visionaries who set land aside for this gem deserve medals. There’s a trail at Tatum just south of Doubletree Ranch Road. You can ride this monster clear to 7th Avenue … and don’t forget all the side trails! Bring a GPS for sure so you can log everything you ride. Some terrain can be tricky: Crossing the Dreamy Draw freeway and heading west takes you up a few nasty climbs, and into a hideous, rocky wasteland. That eventually turns into some wild, good-time singletrack. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a snake, a bunny or three or even a ringtail. There are actually water and toilet facilities scattered around, which is nice.
Photobucket
Papago Park: You experienced riders out there better stop snickering. You were once a newbie, a squid, a beginner. And I’ll bet this is where you cut your teeth. Mountain biking isn’t just about YOUR ride – it’s about what you pass on to create a new generation of riders. And Papago is the place to train your apprentices. And let’s face it: this place is fun. That four-mile loop around the old golf course is fast as hell, with beautiful sweeping turns that’ll help even the stoniest veteran keep them skills up. Parking, bathrooms, vending machines and water fountains are scattered all around. As your skills (or those of your apprentice) improve, head south to some short but steep climbs and a few super-secret drop-offs way south toward the freeway.
Photobucket
Fantasy Island North Singletrack (FINS): This is a new trail, and I pumped out 900 words or so about it for the awesome Mountain Flyer magazine. It’s a bit controversial, though, as you’ll see from the article. But we won’t worry about that, for now. Let’s focus on this: People who know and love mountain biking built this beast, and did a right bang-up job. They smashed a lot of miles (15 and counting at last check) into a really small footprint. It’s all hardpacked and groomed. These trails are fast, like bowling balls on a greased bobsled track. There are some switchbacked climbs that’ll burn your legs and scald your lungs. Lots of turning, barely any straightaway flying; that’s to keep the speeds reasonable and hone your turning and braking skills. No facilities here, either, so stock up on the water and be willing to pee outside.
Photobucket
Okay, I know some people’s rides got the shaft. I know there will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’ll give some explanations below about why some got left off the list, but here’s the bottom line: If you don’t like my choices, go write in your own blog about your favorite rides!

Onto those that didn’t make it:

South Mountain: The Mormon Loop, the National and the Desert Classic are legendary around here. But you know, they’re just too crowded and eroded to be my favorites.

Hawes Loop: Too much road pedaling to fully access everything.

Estrella Mountain Regional Park: Because it’s the most suck-a-licious, pointless, loose-rocked POS trail I’ve ever turned tires over.

A few quick mountain bike notes about Wandering Justin: Riding since 1992. Ex shop mechanic. Raced in several 12-hour races (including one win in co-ed sport category), several epic singletrack races, one state series. Rides a 2006 Gary Fisher Cake 2 DLX, but likes Santa Cruz and Specialized way better. Has been (falsely) accused many times for gross malfeasance, negligence and nincompoopery leading to riding parties getting lost.

CategoriesUncategorized

Descending into the Abode of the Gods – Belize

From my January 2007 trip

And a quick note from Wandering Justin – even after touring the mighty Australian Outback, this day still holds its own as one of my greatest ever days traveling. Do NOT miss this if you go to Belize!

This is one of the best vacation days I’ve ever had. I knew it would be cool, because I enjoy caves in general. It’s hard for me to pass a hole in the ground without strapping a light to my noggin and diving in.

But the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, known as the ATM Cave, would surpass all my other underground adventures. I’ve been in bigger, more scenic caves before. But I’ve never been in one that contained an underground river and the most incredibly graphic, gruesome vestiges of the Mayan culture. Nor one that made just getting there such an adventure.

The day started at the Maya Walk Tours headquarters in San Ignacio. The place was jammed with people milling around, getting their gear, meeting their guides, etc. It was a scene of total chaos. Finally, they tossed us all in an Isuzu Trooper and some weird Toyota I’d never seen in the states before (though the model is ubiquitous in Belize). We bounced along for close to an hour, first on decent paved roads and then into jungle roads that got more rutted, slimy and muddy as we drove. Meanwhile, there was a steady drizzle falling.

Our driver/guide, another guy named Emile, was telling scatological stories about people freaking out/needing to pee/getting the runs in the cave. One guy, who he claimed was a famous American football player, even filled his shorts up!

Continue reading

CategoriesUncategorized

Lonsdale Quay Hotel: Three Things to Know

dscf1211

A few years ago, I visited Seattle and uncovered a love of the Pacific Northwest that I didn’t know I had. And many people, including my longtime friend Big Frank, insisted that I’d like Vancouver even better.

With that in mind -and despite the fact that the Canucks NHL team had been my

Clouds build behind Sarah.
Clouds build behind Sarah.

Blackhawks’ playoff nemesis in the 80s- Sarah and I booked a trip that would give us a little taste of attractions in Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria and a side of Squamish.

I’ll get to all those at some point, but today’s focus is on the Flight Centre Lonsdale Quay area. This is a bit of a haul from the airport and will probably be a $50 cab ride. You could take buses, but that’s up to you.

Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.
Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.

I’m a very big fan of the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. Since it’s across a bay from Vancouver proper, it’s very reasonably priced. Three other things work in its advantage:

1. The SeaBus connects directly from there to downtown Vancouver, with easy access to all the fun that area. It’s also a nexus for bus transport.

2. The first few floors are an awesome marketplace. All the food you need, plus an extremely friendly coffee shop called Bean Around the World.

A trio of Stanley Park racoons.
A trio of Stanley Park racoons.

3. The staff is friendly and eager to help. And determined to be even better – for example, I filled out the customer comment card when we checked out. A few weeks later, the hotel’s GM sent a letter my way mentioning specific comments I had (an idea to stock rooms with more pillows, praise for a particular front desk staff person). I’ve never had that happen before!

Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries
Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries

Now, about that SeaBus – be sure to hop on. You’ll get off near the cruise ship terminals. For there, a sturdy walker can accomplish a lot: Chinatown, the under-construction Olympic Village, the southern portion of Stanley Park, probably a bit of Granville Island.

Get out there and walk, and then hop the SeaBus back to Lonsdale Quay when you’re ready to relax. Also, the bus service is excellent throughout Vancouver. In any case, just picking a direction and walking is a solid strategy. You’ll have a great chance of finding something fun.

A totem pole in Stanley Park
A totem pole in Stanley Park
CategoriesUncategorized

Puerto Rico – Go or no?

skytrain

I never really would’ve thought about going to Puerto Rico on my own. It just never occurred to me, especially since it’s harder to get to then a place like Costa Rica (which has all the jungle, more critters and, well, more on that later).view

However, some of the wife’s family seems to love Puerto Rico. So much so that they decided to tie the knot there. They’re from New York, so I was and am amply glad they decided to enter the ranks of the blissfully wedded there rather than in Nueva York. That’s what led the wife and I through Houston on our way to San Juan.

canario
A view up from El Canario by the Sea.

Now, Puerto Rico is a US territory. That means a number of things. It’s not gonna be wild, woolly and/or adventurous. They’ll take dollars. You don’t need a passport. And your dollar isn’t gonna go that far. That was obvious from the word go when we tried to book hotel rooms. Heck, we got way better prices dollar-for-dollar nearly everywhere in Australia, with the possible exception of Darwin.

That’s not to say El Canario by the Sea isn’t cute and comfortable, because it certainly is. It’s even in the very fun and lively Condado district, which is surrounded by restaurants and even one of the ubiquitous Condom World stores.

San Juan skyline.
San Juan skyline.

But it’s not $150 a night nice, that’s for certain. Most of the immediate in-laws stayed there the first night, but decided to make the jump to a Hampton Inn in the Isla Verde neighborhood. That’s right across the street from the Ritz-Carlton where the wedding would be, and it saved them a bunch of time that would otherwise go to buses or taxis. Sarah and I stuck with El Canario: It was cheaper, and it the neighborhood had considerably more flair than what we considered the rather plastic feel of Isla Verde.

The Ritz, though, has a sweet beach despite being very close to the international airport. That is probably Isla Verde’s biggest draw.

Isla Verde is close to the airport.
Isla Verde is close to the airport.

One thing that doesn’t endear Puerto Rico to us: the food. Aside from mofongo, there’s not a whole lot to it. And little of it is super-healthy. Some of the seafood is decent, though. Puerto Rico also suffers from the Latin American ailment that deactivates the skilled beer-brewing gene. Connoisseurs will turn their noses up to local offerings, where indiscriminate folks won’t even take the time to find it. Stick to mojitos.

Old-town San Juan is separate from the rest, and involves a bit of a bus ride. It’s

One of the forts in Old Town San Juan.
One of the forts in Old Town San Juan.

definitely worth it. It exudes charm, and offers some cool historic forts as centerpieces. The forts are open for tours during the day, and are creepy-cool at night. There are also lots of funky shops, some of which aren’t even that touristy.

Also worth a visit is El Yunque National Forest. The best way to get there is to rent a car. Bring hiking shoes, lots of water, some snacks and hike ’til you drop. It’s a nice rain forest, and you’ll even see some critters.

The question is this: go or no? I say no. Keep flying a bit further and you’re in

A critter in El Yunque.
A critter in El Yunque.

Belize or Costa Rica.

A tunnel in one of the forts. Cool!
A tunnel in one of the forts. Cool!
Another view of the fort.
Another view of the fort.
CategoriesAccommodationsAdventures

The dirt on Hopkins, Belize

fly3

Hopkins, Belize
A stretch of beach near the main part of Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize, is the place to get away from Starbucks. Traffic. Commercialism. Even ATMs.

Hopkins, Belize, is a town of about 1,000 people. And I’m serious about the ATM thing. Be sure you get some cash before you show up to Hopkins.

Hopkins, Belize
A cabin at Jungle Jeanie’s

For reasonably priced accommodations, check out Jungle Jeanie’s by the Sea. Jungle Jeanie is the wife half of the husband-and-wife ownership team. They are friendly and helpful, and have a pair of big dogs that roam on patrol. Xena, the German shepherd, is especially active and entertaining, especially when Jeanie tries to get her to surf. They serve  meals there, and you can also hoof it into town to try some local places. There’s also a pricier place or two as you walk south along the road. Many of the resorts even have semi-private bits of beach that they meticulously comb of former flotsam.

Hopkins, Belize
Charlie might not surf, but Xena does!

There’s not much to do in Hopkins, Belize. It can be hot as hell, even in January. There’s no nightlife. The beach isn’t even all that nice. But if you want to get away from the noise, the pollution and the nonsense, this is the place to do it. Local residents are friendly, and you’ll hear them speaking the really cool-sounding Garifuna language. It’s super-quiet.

So how do you get here? Chances are, you’re flying into Belize City. The best way to get there is to grab a Maya Air or Tropic Air flight

Hopkins, Belize
The afternoon gets stormy

from Belize City to Dangriga (the view is spectacular). From Dangriga, you can grab a bus to Hopkins, Belize. It’ll take about 30 minutes, though you might have to share some space with a mattress or a load of melons – the bus usually carries cargo, too. There were also some dudes offering boat rides to Hopkins, but they seemed sketchy. Dangriga is also a great place to grab some fresh fruit and a bite to eat.

Hopkins, Belize
The road to Hopkins, Belize.
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga
Flying to Belize City from Dangriga
CategoriesUncategorized

The Final Australia 2007 Post

Friday, Aug. 31

Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an F-111 fly a few hundred feet over your head with its afterburners lit. This was part of a crazy celebration called Riverfire. If you ever visit Australia, do yourself a favor: Be in Brisbane for Riverfire. The video is lengthy, but it gives you a great idea of the fireworks display, and the jets that open and close it. Awesome!

We woke up early and took a stroll around the downtown area. This is a very outdoorsy city, lots of people running and cycling. After some breakfast, we picked a direction and walked. We also noticed that everybody was getting all aflutter about Riverfire. People were already lining the riverbanks to grab primo spots for the evening’s festivities. Sarah and I aren’t much for parades and shindigs, so we largely ignored it. We were pretty happy to be proven wrong later, but more on that toward the end.

Our first stop was the excellent Queensland Museum, which is really strong on science and nature. There was just too much cool stuff to see. We spent a few hours easily cruising around in there before heading out for general walking about. There’s a very neighborly feel to Brisbane, with a lot of non-chain store types of places. This particular section of Brizzy is like a big college town, even though Queensland University is down the river. Speaking of QU, we thought it would be fun to check out the campus.

We hopped on the CityCat, a huge, fast-moving catamaran, to scope out the river banks and get us a lift to the university. QU is actually a bit dumpy and not surrounded by as much funky cool stuff as, say the University of Washington in Seattle (talk about the epitome of a perfectly awesome university). We were pretty amazed by the sports facilities and the very athletic-oriented vibe, though. We returned to our area via the CityCat and headed to the area near our hotel. We strolled around the Queen Street Mall, which is a termite mound of activity at any hour.

We also stopped at The Brewhouse, which certainly doesn’t swing in the same weight class as Sydney’s Redoak. At that point, it was about time for us to look up Sarah’s former roommate, who happened to be living in Brizzy with her new dude Michael, who is in the Ozzy army. We were soon on their 23rd floor flat, which was right across from out hotel. This provided a great viewing point for Riverfire, plus it gave us a great chance to hang out with a bunch of Ozzies in their natural habitat. They were a very fun bunch, very lively and welcoming. The occasion, aside from Riverfire,was Michael’s birthday. Those cats sure enjoyed their karaoke! Well, we had a full last day. Time to pack! Boo, as Sarah would say.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Man, I can’t make any of this travel sound cool anymore. It’s depressing packing and heading for the airport. Especially when the lines are long and slow.

But still, what a great vacation. You don’t really need to know more than that, do you?

Sunday, Sept. 2

Back home, in Arizona. Tired, time sense jacked up. But this feeling is worth it, and more. Quit saying you want to go to Australia someday. Just go do it.

Well, that wraps it up! Thanks for reading … I hope you enjoyed reading as much I as I did writing. So what’s next here at Wandering Justin’s blog? Well, plans for New Zealand 2009 are well in the works – Sarah and I are filling up notebooks and plotting our course on a dry-erase board. We’ll share what we learn as we book hotels and activities, and pick up the necessary gear.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little time travel with some far shorter accounts of our adventures in Vancouver, Belize and Costa Rica. I might even go REALLY far back in time to my famous aerobatic journey in a WWII-era AT-6 Texan. So stick around – there’s more fun to come!

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #11: Yunguburra to Cairns to Brizzy

Thursday, Aug. 30

The early bird gets to see a tree kangaroo, don’t you know? I was lazy this morning. But Sarah wasn’t, and she got rewarded: She went for a run and spotted a mama tree kangaroo cradling its baby.

The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.
The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.

Anyway, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel (NOTE: The brown gooey stuff is Vegemite, not Nutella. Don’t believe otherwise for a second!) and drove off to see the curtain fig tree, which is just a slight detour from our route back to Cairns. It’s cool. Look at the pictures, and you can be the judge if it’s worth the trip.

From there, we dropped into a small park to hike down to one of the many crater lakes in the area. It’s not really a big lake, but it’s still really cool and worth seeing. But here’s the really exciting part: As we finished the hike (which was really too easy to really be a proper hike) and returned to the car, we saw the one critter that had been eluding us: a cassowary!

Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?
Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?

Now, these are big, mean, nasty birds. They’ll often chase joggers and rip up the roofs of convertible cars. They have nasty claws that can rip you up, and they’ll also peck the shit out of you.
Photobucket
But me? I had a Steve Irwin moment, and “crikey’d!” my way up to it and fired off a bunch of photos before we dove into the car and sped off. Cool!

So far, this was shaping up to be another one of those rainy/sunny days. And it was quite cloudy as we headed down a one-lane road to our next stop: The famous Mungalli Creek Dairy. It’s what they call a “bio-dynamic” dairy. You can read the Web site to find out about that – all I can really say is that their food is great. I’m ordinarily not a cheesecake guy, and I think everything at the vaunted Cheesecake Factory tastes the same. That is not the case here. It had a cinnamon crust with dark chocolate and bits of orange in it. Even BETTER than it sounds. The cheeses were great, and they pull a mean shot of espresso. Awesome!

These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.
These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.

Then, we sadly had to get back in the car and drive back to Cairns. This is the sad point of the vacation: It’s nearly over, and there’s a good chance I’ll never see any of these places again. And that’s too bad, because this is just such a relaxing, beautiful, uncrowded place to be.
Photobucket
The drive was pretty uneventful. I managed to stay on the proper side of the rode, and didn’t really scare anyone. Not even my passenger.

We returned the rental car to the friendly Avis people and got in line for the plane. The wrong line, it turns out. We’d be flying JetStar for this flight rather than Qantas. In essence, this means a nice, new comfy plane, but no free food or drinks. Bugger!

The flight to Brisbane was quick and uneventful, as was our baggage recovery. Wish I could say the same for getting to our hotel. Our hotel, it turns out, is way on the other side of the city and far from the city center. That wasn’t floating our boat. And the train was shut down for the night. Ugh!

Sarah worked the phones and canceled our reservations. We quickly found another hotel in the city center, and this one just happened to be across the street from where her former roommate, Megan, lives with the Aussie dude she was seeing at the time. They usually live in East Timor, but the Australian Army reassigned him temporarily to Brisbane.

Anyway, we caught a shuttle full of people to the city center. We had some friendly conversations. If you need to talk to an Aussie bloke but can’t thing of anything to say, just ask him about cricket. It’s the sport they all agree on and love. Naturally, I had a Stereotypical Aussie Bloke ready to yack it up with me.

The rest of the night? Walked about a bit, and then slept. Or tried to. There was drunken revelry next door.

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #10 – Port Douglas and Yungaburra

dscf0248

Tuesday, Aug. 28

For some time, I’ve chased an elusive fruit called the black sapote. It’s related to the persimmon, and I first encountered it in Mental Floss magazine, which also called it the chocolate pudding fruit. The magazine said it tasted like chocolate pudding. How could you not love that? I’ve scoured the Internet for any way to get a hold of them in Arizona, but could never succeed. The nearest was Mexico. I could try to grow my own, but that would take years. And my brown thumb would likely kill it. The only think I can grow is basil. But more on this later …

At the hotel, we were walking distance from a place called Four-Mile Beach. If you think that Sarah’s not gonna run that beach first thing in the morning, you’ve got another thing coming. I didn’t pack running shoes, so I just puttered around town a bit.

A hilltop in Port Douglas gives us a nice view of the South Pacific.
A hilltop in Port Douglas gives us a nice view of the South Pacific.

Anyway, Sarah came back and we went off in search of some breakfast and an idea of what we’d like to do with our day.

We rented a small motorboat ($30 for 90 minutes) and went up the nearby river system. It was fun to be at the tiller, but the scenery was only so-so. I had the most fun checking out all the old boats. I honestly didn’t spot any interesting wildlife.

Sarah is the highlight of the river scenery.
Sarah is the highlight of the river scenery.

I also thought about how nice it would be to live in Australia and just anchor a boat on the river, and maybe take it out into the ocean now and then. Ahhh…

Okay, now things are gonna get fun. We head up the road to Cape Tribulation. That’s where we’re going to the exotic fruit tasting. Orla told us this is a must, and she’s right.

It all happens at this organic fruit farm. Everybody gathers around a table while a staff member introduces every fruit, talks about its history and its used, cuts it up and lets everybody have a taste. There wasn’t a single fruit in the bunch I’d had before.

The elusive black sapote ... get in my belly!
The elusive black sapote ... get in my belly!

This is where I find the elusive “chocolate pudding fruit.” I didn’t find it to be that, exactly. It had a very, very slight cocoa flavor and a texture like a somewhat dry avocado. Apparently, the little suckers are also loaded with so much Vitamin C that they make an orange look like a potato. Breadfruit, mangosteen, white sapote and star fruit are also pretty cool. I might be skipping some, because we ate A LOT of fruit.

We grabbed a rather unspectacular dinner before heading out for a nighttime nature walk in the Daintree Rainforest. It was kind of cool, and we saw a few cute sleeping birds, an occasional lizard and a really big damn jungle rat. But honestly, this was pretty unspectacular. I’d skip it. It was two hours of trying to be quiet, hoping to see a rather small animal.

We caught the last ferry across the river, and were soon back in our cool hotel in Port Douglas.

Wednesday, Aug. 29

We headed out for the Atherton tablelands. This would be a lot of wandering and hoping to see something cool. We planned to be spontaneous.

INVISIBLE SPEEDO!
INVISIBLE SPEEDO!

For about the umpteenth time, the low density of people amazed me. We’d drive for miles without seeing another car. Our first stop was the Mareeba Wetlands. It seemed kind of a long drive down the road (which is just before the town of Mareeba if you’re coming from Port Douglas), even though it’s only four miles. That’s probably because I had to coddle a wimpy little Corolla down a graveled road that our Subaru would eat for breakfast. There’s a visitors center, and you have to pay an entry fee. But that gets you water, maps, bathrooms and a friendly staff!

The walking itself was pretty easy. There was a lot of grassland, plus a few lagoons. We were out there for hours, and we saw a lot of smaller termite mounds, but we also ran into a few clusters of kangaroos!. They’re so fast, and it’s almost like they’re invisible. Seen from a distance, they almost look like a termite mound … until they start running.

A weird landscape in the Wetlands.
A weird landscape in the Wetlands.

Next up was The Coffee Works. Sarah and I decided not to take the tour since we didn’t see a point in throwing down $25 a person – we’ve been to Costa Rica, and we know how coffee works. We were more interested in getting stuff to take home to other people who like coffee – and for ourselves! The Highland Pearls were our favorite. And they make some mean desserts there, too … but stay away from those dreaded ANZAC cookies. Not just here, but anywhere!
Throughout this whole day, there was intermittent rain. One hour, the sun is shining. Then, it’s pissing down. Kind of nice, really, and we were prepared.

Crikey, a cassowary!
Crikey, a cassowary! It's posted a day ahead of schedule, but so what?

At Mareeba, it was sunny. By the time we got to Atherton, it was pissing down! We stopped at a few places like The Crystal Cavern…it’s a gem store with a fake cave. Totally not really worth the visit. But I got a cool Qantas Wallabies shirt and had a great talk with the store staff about the State of Origins series. I was really starting to get this whole rugby thing!

From there, we decided to push onto Yungaburra, where Sarah had scored a room for the night at On The Wallaby. Now, this is a somewhat drafty and super-chummy but ridiculously cute backpackers hostel. It ain’t quiet, cute or luxurious. But I defy you to not have fun there. Yeah, you’ll have to bundle up hardcore in the cool weather, and you can’t lock your room and thus can’t leave your valuables in there.

But you can hold a rather docile, even friendly snake and get great directions to everything.dscf0092

The first place we wanted to see was the viewing area for the platypuses. They come out at dusk, so you have a narrow opportunity to see one. We crept around the creek for about 30 minutes before spotting one, and each glimpse was fleeting: There was a lot of foliage in the way, and we were expecting something the size of a beaver … but no! The platypus is really a rather small creature, no bigger than a chihuahua! We also saw a tree kangaroo, but it was too dark by this time to get a good photo. So, then … back to the hostel!

By the way of the Wild Mountain Cellar and Distillery, of course. They make a rather fine selection of wines there, but the standout was The Ruins, a wonderful port that is nearly life-altering. Apparently, the grapes were growing when there was a huge bush fire. The smoke permeated the grapes, and you can taste it in the port. It has a very heavy alcohol smell, and you wouldn’t think it would be good. But it’s actually really spectacular. The label is also great … the tagline for the distillery is “The True Taste of the Australian Bush.” We still giggle a lot over that. We took a bottle of that home and shared it with some of our friends.

Afterward, we ambled to a local jeweler that was next door. They did amazing work with opal. Sarah picked up a really awesome pair of opal earrings. I wish I could remember the name of the place; the good news is, you can find it just a few steps away from the Wild Mountain Cellar and Distillery.

We were kind of in a pickle about dinner after that. There’s really not much in Yungaburra, so we decided to join the rest of the backpackers for the communal (and cheap) hostel dinner. Pretty healthy stuff … lots of vegetables, some steak, mashed potatoes – everything you need!

It was plenty chilly, so I decided to shower in the morning. We closed every possible window in our room and dove under the blankets.

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia 2007 Post 9 – Cairns to Kuranda to Port Douglas

dscf0201

Monday, Aug. 27

On the Captain Cook highway,  I’m in the right seat and I feel like a 15-year-old learning to drive again – all that’s missing is my mother swatting me in the arm with a rolled-up newspaper while screeching “We’re only TWO MILES from the next stop sign! Slow down!”

One view of Barron Gorge
One view of Barron Gorge

Here’s what’s odd about driving in Australia, no matter what side of the road you’re on: Superhighways are rare, and people drive slower. The Captain Cook highway is four lanes at its widest.

We headed north and turn off toward Kuranda, a small town that’s tucked away in the mountains just west. The road is very narrow and twisty, and several times we get caught behind some old scrap heap laboring and wheezing its way up the road (which really is only about 3,000 feet in elevation change). But the Ozzy drivers are pretty nice people (so long as you’re not a pedestrian), and the pull to the left (wrap your mind around that…) to let faster cars pass.

Though it’s only about 22 miles, it took us a good 45 minutes with a slight construction delay. For us, the Venom Zoo was the highlight of Kuranda. Otherwise, it was all pretty much touristy shops. We took a nice walk to where the scenic railway from Cairns shows up into town. We logged a good five miles of walking through some of the tracks and through the countryside. The view toward the dam and Barron Gorge is pretty awesome.

On a little walk near Kuranda.
On a little walk near Kuranda.

But back to the Venom Zoo. I believe it was about $15 to get in. I can’t say it’s the best value, but I really enjoyed seeing some of the nasty poisonous critters up close. The thing that amused me is the Ozzy employees telling us there’s always some bigmouth from America going on about how dangerous black widow spiders are. Let me tell you as a long-time Southwestern dweller – the black widow has nothing on antipodean spiders. The only venomous creature we have that can hang with anything from Down Under is the centruroides scorpion, which is a horrible, ghastly little monster. So do us all a favor if you visit The Venom Zoo … don’t talk nonsense. Let the Germans be the loud, obnoxious know-it-alls that get turned into crocodile canapes.

We had our fill of Kuranda by about 3 p.m., and that freakin’ early closing thing Australian eateries like so much whacks us again: This cool German sausage shop that had been passing out samples had closed by the time we returned. Bollocks!

We went back down the road toward the Captain Cook Highway, my confidence growing with this wrong-side driving thing. This time, we turned toward Port Douglas rather than back toward Cairns. I found this drive a touch nerve-wracking because it’s a narrow, twisty, undulating road. And the ocean views are spectacular, so I was trying to scope them out just a bit. But hey, I’ve gotta concentrate on the driving for a bit. This is a 35-mile trip that seems to take a lot longer. Maybe it’s because of the many X factors on my mind …

Another view of the gorge.
Another view of the gorge.

Either way, we got there and check into the Port O Call Lodge. It has a pretty wide mix of choices, from dorm-style hostel living to hotel-style rooms. We threw down for a hotel-style room. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Inside, though, it’s colorful, clean and really modern. It was like a Ikea meets the Outback. Very cool! It was about $100 a night.

Port O Call also has a nice little bistro, and they offer you something like 30 percent off dinner on your first night. That makes it not only cheap, but it was also very tasty. The selection was mostly pastas, a few curries and some chicken dishes. All had some nicely cooked vegetables, for those who are healthy eaters.

We did a little walking. Again, Sarah made a good choice. Not only is Port O Call just a pleasant spot, but it’s also away from the noisier parts of Port Douglas. But even at its noisiest, Port Douglas is still fairly sleepy.

I was still a bit peckish, so I homed in on Wicked Ice Cream (not affiliated with Wicked Campers), which also sells videos and provides Internet services. We each got a shake, with me selecting a coffee-chocolate blend.

I saw a 10-year-old Ozzy boy with his mum wrinkle his nose and point out to her that I had coffee in my shake.

I told him it also has chocolate, and chocolate always makes everything better.

“Same with cheese and bacon!” I added.

“Stop corrupting my son!” his mother said. “Cheese, bacon and chocolate are already his favorite foods!”

Heh, heh. Consider that my public service.

Strolling around Port Douglas, we got the impression it was very much like Sedona. Very touristy, quite upscale and relentlessly laid-back. That said, it was still pretty charming and relaxing.

Guess what? It was another long day. Time to watch some Ozzy rules footie and fall asleep!

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia 2007 Post #8 – Darwin to Gove to Cairns

A note from Wandering Justin: I had a little lapse in posting this week … lots of freelance work to finish! Also, the next entry or two won’t have many photos. I tend to take fewer photos in the cities.

Saturday, Aug. 25

The previous night, our foursome had decided to meet at the Parap Village Market. That’s about a mile-long walk from the center of Darwin. This market goes on every Saturday, and it’s a good way to dig into the Asian flavor of Darwin. There are booths with cooked food, pre-packaged stuff, fresh fruit, vegetables and ingredients you can make yourself. There’s a lot of the usual schlocky weekend market stuff, too…hemp clothing, jams, bad art and the like.

But I ate a bunch of stuff I’d never seen before, and it was all tasty. Couldn’t tell you the names now, that’s for sure. Except I do remember pawpaw salad. It’s pretty much raw, unripe shredded bits of papaya covered in a chili sauce and peanuts. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an explosion of flavor.

We were pretty lazy, so we spent most of our time at the market, walking back to town and just hanging about. Orla left for Sydney, but that evening we met Karen again for dinner. She brought some Italian guy, Michael, with her. He was a bit different from us, being about a decade older. And he was clearly looking for some female attention (What? An Italian chasing tail? Never!)!

But still, he was a pretty fun character to have around. He led us down to the Darwin Wharf Precinct, which is right on the water and offers some nice nighttime views. Even the the compressed nitrogen gas plant across the bay takes on a romantic light at night! There’s also a spotlight on the water, which lets everyone see a lot of cool water creatures. My favorite was a big ol’ box jellyfish! The precinct is set up a lot like a food court…there are all sorts of places to eat. I found a place offering camel schnitzel, so I had to try it. Camel tastes a lot like veal, and is much more tender than I expected.

We’d done a lot of walking, so by the time 10 rolled around, we were pretty well out.

Tomorrow, on to Cairns!

Sunday, Aug. 26
vh-nxi-small

We were up plenty early to catch our bus to the airport. It’s the usual Australian airport experience…fairly quick and a lot less of the maniacal hysteria of a U.S. airport. We boarded our Qantas flight, a little Boeing 717. It’s about a three-hour flight to Cairns, and obviously not as many people make that flight as they do from Sydney to Darwin.

We’re barely in the air before the breakfast cart is rolling (wow, they don’t starve their passengers to keep them in a docile, calorie-deprived state!). Now, it gets strange: After about an hour of flying, we were landing again.

It seems this flight also stops in a tiny mining and fishing town called Gove. It’s a single-gate airport with a handful of private planes. We stayed about 30 minutes before we’re back in the air on the way to Cairns.

No more surprises on the rest of the flight. Today, though, is to be one of my most trying days: We’re renting a car, and I have to drive on the opposite side of the road. D’oh!

The Avis people are all really nice, much more so than the airport car rental agents I’ve dealt with before. They’ve quickly got us on the way, and have told us all the cool places near by that we really should visit.

Soon, I was completely freaked out as 15 years of driving experience turned to its opposite side. I kept trying to signal, but wound up hitting the turn signals. Even putting the car in drive was a chore, with all the controls being flipped. At least the gas and the brake pedals are in the same place, or this would’ve been a short trip!

Wandering Justin does NOT approve!
Driving on the right side of the car: NOT Wandering Justin approved.

We were pretty impressed with our hotel, the Heritage. Apparently, it’s part of a chain. But after several days of either camping and the Mom’s dorm-style looks, this place was a palace. And cheaper than the Mom at about $75 a night. Sweet!

As usual, we stowed our stuff and immediately started walking. The Heritage is a nice distance away from the hurly-burly of central Cairns: Close enough to walk, but far enough not to notice the noise. After a few minutes of walking, we were watching a weekend criterium bike race, looking at a replica pirate ship sailing into the harbor and enjoying an artificial “beach” area. There’s also a huge shopping district down that way. On the weekend, you can find a huge local farmer’s market. One booth was selling keychains made from kangaroo scrotums! How funny is that?

The seaside in Cairns
The seaside in Cairns

One of my missions during our stroll through the shopping district was to find a cool Australia sports jersey, preferably soccer. But over the past week, I’d really learned that soccer stuff isn’t easy to come by, even on the opening weekend. So I decided to start my collection with a shirt from the Australian Football League Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles team. We also grabbed some boomerangs from a local shop, some for our house, another for Sarah’s parents and some for the nieces. I’ve been noticing the didge prices are really high here, so I’m glad I grabbed one in Darwin…and got to see a baby wallaby, too!

Another early morning and a lot of marching around was starting to make us feel hungry, so we tried to grab an early dinner. With the clock saying 4 p.m., our pickings were pretty slim. Very few places were open. But I’d gotten lucky by picking up one of those tourist magazines, which said there was a quirky little hostel called The Green Ant that was open early.

A downtown criterium race shows more of Australia's sporting culture.
A downtown criterium race shows more of Australia's sporting culture.

We headed over to The Green Ant’s cafe and find a rather large, goateed, red-headed Australian turned Coloradoan back to Australian in charge. He not only makes a mean kangaroo burger and a great salad, but he’s good at spinning some fun tales. I’ll also say that The Green Ant is one of the few places in town that is open early and doesn’t charge a fortune for some decent food. If I ever get back to Cairns, I’m going to The Green Ant.

After our early dinner, we headed back to the hotel and grabbed a quick nap. We also checked out the nighttime market downtown, where Sarah scores a few packets of kangaroo jerky for her dad.

We walked around for a few more hours, and then headed to bed to get ready for some serious driving tomorrow. Lots of pictures for the next few days, so come back soon!

Overlooking Cairns
Overlooking Cairns
CategoriesUncategorized

Australia 2007 – Last Day in the Kakadu

Friday, Aug. 24

dscf4507

At dawn, I found out what makes Sandy Billabong so cool: There is nothing like seeing a sunrise here. The water is cool enough to throw off curtains of mist, and the sunshine filters through them to create and incredible scene that your eyeballs won’t believe. It’s impossible to not get a great photo of it. I am still blown away by the sight. And these photos are very raw: There is absolutely no post-production digital manipulation. These are all JPEG files straight out of my Fuji Finepix S5200.  Enjoy!

English Dave on the billabong.
English Dave on the billabong.

English Dave with his bush-style hat cast a perfect silhouette for my photos. I got a few of a German who tagged along behind us. And yes, I kept her away from the billabong lest she become a morning morsel for a croc.

dscf4492

Our first stop was about four miles from Sandy Billabong: It’s called Culture Camp, and a cheerful Aborigine woman named Jenny talked to us about really funny stories, bush tucker (what the native people ate) and various traditions. My favorite was about the husband of an Aboriginal goddess who was so well-hung that following her everywhere made him tired. So he and his prodigious wang settled down while she wandered the continent.

Sarah takes aim with a spear.
Sarah takes aim with a spear.

We also learned how to throw spears with a device much like an Indian atlatl, and had more encounters with my friend, the didgeridoo. I must say that I could hang with anybody who worked at Culture Camp.

We still had more to see, so it was back aboard the Possum.

The Possum was thirsty for gas and oil, and we filled it up in Jabiru, where we also grabbed some pastries from a rather well-known local bakery. Jabiru also features a Holiday Inn in the shape of a crocodile, which Amy described as “not at all over-the-top or anything.”

We cruised out to Ubirr, where got to see some truly awesome rock art. There was actually a good bit of history detailed in the rocks. Apparently, the aborigines had one wall dedicated to their hunting/fishing catches. And women.

Justin has a blow with his Culture Camp mates.
Justin has a blow with his Culture Camp mates.

“Just like a modern mechanic shop,” Amy said. “Nothin’ but huntin’ pictures and naked ladies.”

I’ll also point out that, on the “Things We’ve Eaten” wall, there’s a painting that definitely depicts a white person. It’s drawn in white, it appears to have a pipe and it’s carrying a gun. Did he wind up in a tribe’s belly?

This is where Sarah and I met up with the green ant. Actually, it’s a red ant with a green bottom. The Aborigines used these to season their food, but just the green bottom. That’s because they taste like lime. Pick one up and give its butt a lick, and sure enough it’ll taste like you dabbed your tongue with key lime juice. Amazing! Sarah’s ant took exception to the assault and dug its mandibles into her hand as she pulled it away. She had to give him a good yank to pry him loose.

Justin licks a green ant's bum.
Justin licks a green ant's bum.

We also climbed to the top of a hill that overlooks Ubirr. From there, we could see a huge rock that was used in Crocodile Dundee. Paul Hogan stood atop it in the scene where he swung the bullroarer around. A bullroarer is a flat piece of ironwood that aborigines put on a rope. They swing it overheard, where it makes a weird buzzing sound. Apparently, they use this as a telephone.

We were then on to White Lilly Billabong. Some members of the group grabbed a swim, but Sarah and I went to scout for kangaroo. Thus far, we’d only seen a few wild wallabies, and none had been obliging enough to pose for a photo.

Orla's ant gives her a good bite.
Orla's ant gives her a good bite.

But here, we got our first decent glimpse of gray kangaroos! They were pretty awesome, and so much faster than we expected! We also saw some kind of huge brown/orange snake that was chasing a lizard.

The Possum was having a bit of a problem getting started. Remember, this is one old truck. It’s only two trips away from reaching its mandatory retirement age. Fortunately, some other guides are around … everyone put their heads together to bring the Possum back to life.

Next stop, the termite mounds! They’re everywhere in Kakadu, but some of the most impressive were just outside Darwin. There, some geniuses tried to build wooden viewing platforms among the mounds. That’s like making mouse traps entirely out of cheese.

That's a monster termite mound!
That's a monster termite mound!

Finally, we were on to the last stop: The Didgeridoo Hut. Rumor has it this is THE place to buy a decently priced didge. When we got there, it had even more: A baby emu came running out to greet us. Inside, a little aborigine boy sought to impress Sarah by allowing her to hold his pet snake and a fat skink. But then, a baby wallaby bounced out from behind the sales counter. He’d let everyone pet him, and he’d usually lick your hand. His mother had been run over by a car, and the owners of the Didgeridoo Hut had been feeding it out of a bottle. This might be the cutest creature I’ve ever seen.

I also picked up a nice didge, about five feet long with art of one of the mimi spirits on it. But I spend most of the time petting the wallaby and taking photos of him.

We wrapped up with a short drive back to Darwin, where we checked back into the MOM, and this time in a room far away from the hurly-burly!

I can haz baby wallaby?
I can haz baby wallaby?

Let me tell you, it was really nice washing three days of accumulated bush crap off my skin and enjoying a nice shave! And a little air-conditioning, too… After getting all freshened up, Sarah and I met Orla and her friend, Karen from Canada. We spent the night wandering about town, stopping for a late-night snack and some sangria before heading back into bed.

Attention, please! I am cuteness personified!
Attention, please! I am cuteness personified!
CategoriesUncategorized

How to Talk to Aborigines

Thursday, Aug. 23

dscf4287

G’day, mates, and welcome to the inaugural episode of “How to Talk to Aborigines.” I’m your host, Wandering Justin!

Alright, now … lesson #1. Traditional Australian Aboriginees are quite polite. They don’t like to disagree with people. I’m hear live with Outback Amy. Amy, give us an example then, love!

“I was out in the bush with some aborigine buddies. I found some plant and said to one ‘Gus, I can eat this, right?'”

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s good eating?”

“Yeah.”

“Will this kill me or make me sick?”

“Well, yeah.”

He didn’t want to disagree with his friend, so he didn’t. If you’re asking an aborigine a life-and-death sort of question, it’s best to be open-ended. For example: “Are there crocs in this billabong this time of year?” rather than “There’s no crocs in that billabong, right?”

You’ll remember this lesson if the need arises, right?

Sign of the times
Sign of the times

Ahem. I mean, remember this lesson if the need arises.

Okay: So I’m from the American Southwest. I know nasty desert roads. Hell, I survived the roads of rural Costa Rica. But little of that prepared me for the battering we’d take in the Possum today. We got rattled by ruts and beaten by bumps that would swallow lesser four-wheel-drive vehicles. Some rental car companies won’t even let their vehicles into certain parts of the Kakadu. This would be why. How rough were these roads? So rough that we stashed our trailer alongside a fairly civilized road. We’d get it on the way out of Twin Falls.

Welcome to Jim Jim Beach!
Welcome to Jim Jim Beach!

I’m not ever sure what time it was when we got to the beginning of the trek to Jim Jim Falls. It’s a fairly shady walk, and we twisted up and down through the trees lining a placid green river. Of course, in the wet season, there are crocs here. Sometimes they get caught for the dry season, which is why there are croc traps throughout the river. A few wet seasons ago, Amy says, a croc had a little touristschnitzel. Yes, another German. Eep!

Sarah, Orla and Anna hang out by the river.
Sarah, Orla and Anna hang out by the river.

During the one-mile hike, Dominique gave her ankle a good wrenching, followed by her knee. Dave stayed back, but the rest surged ahead. We scrambled over boulders to an inland beach at the base of a huge dry waterfall. Now, this is quite a trek, really. This is a like a giant rock monster took too many laxatives and pooped SUV-sized rocks over a quarter of a mile.

The top of the escarpment towers more than a thousand feet overhead. I can imagine this place gets dramatic during the rains. Tourists swam and lounged on a white-sand beach more scenic then anything you’ll see in Southern California. Except most of the bodies here weren’t quite as beach-ready, if you know what I mean. There was a main pool warmed by the sun, and another frigid pool that stays in the shade. Oh, my … the coldness of the water was totally epic.

Orla, Fiona, Anna, a German straggler, Sarah and me.
The camping crew: Clockwise from standing: Orla, Fiona, Anna, a German straggler, Sarah and me.

We hung around for an hour and then turn the other way. We hopped into the Possum and headed to Twin Falls.

Now this is the most rugged road of all. The Possum tackled it pretty easily, but then there was a huge stream we have to cross.

“Pick yer bags up off the floor,” Amy said, “if ya don’t want ’em to get wet.”

The Possum turns into a submarine!
The Possum turns into a submarine!

The snorkle-equipped Possum plunged into the stream, water creeping nearly up to the top of the hood. Water sloshed around the cabin, getting most of us at least a bit damp. But we were soon out the other side and on the way to Twin Falls.

We pulled to a stop at the bottom of another large escarpment. I realized that I’ve forgotten my hat, though. Not such a big deal on the first leg, but we’ll eventually climb about 1,000 feet to the top of the falls. In really bright sunlight. Fortunately, Sarah had an extra white t-shirt, which I turn into a turban type of thing. I look ridiculous, but it beats having the sun fry my gulliver.

Tony is the man in the boat.
Tony is the man in the boat.

It was a short, fairly shady walk and we soon came to a boat landing. There, we waited a few minutes for Tony and his crew to ferry us up the river. During the wet season, this stretch of river is filled with … crocs! And yes, a German was eaten here, too.

The water is incredibly clear here. Tony dropped us at a landing, where we hiked the rest of the way to Twin Falls, just more than a half-mile. We stopped to make sandwiches with the food we carried in. I was low on water, but Amy told me the water is okay.

“It’s some of the best you’ll ever drink,” she assured me.

Twin Falls is just a trickle next to what it is in the rainy season. Still, lots of fresh, cool, tasty water!
Twin Falls is just a trickle next to what it is in the rainy season. Still, lots of fresh, cool, tasty water!

I got near a waterfall and fill my CamelBak. And yes, it was some tasty water. Nice and chilly, too! It streamed down from the escarpment in two huge sheets of water, where it collects into a pool before spilling over a natural rock damn and into the river that floats Tony’s boat.

We do the usual “eat and hang out” before hiking back out to get to Tony’s boat ride. From there, we headed up the escarpment. It’s not a long walk, but it’s fairly energetic. Dominique is sitting this one out because of her injury, and Dave goes back to check on her and use the toilet. Orla also feels nature’s call, because she went back with him. Apparently, heading off to use the toilet bonds people together: As we find out later, Dave used this time to engross (or just plain gross out) Orla with tales about his bowel movements. I didn’t think he was quite old enough for that sot of conversation!

You may recognize this terrain from Crocodile Dundee.
You may recognize this terrain from Crocodile Dundee.

Once we reach the top, it’s a fairly undulating walk through bush country. It’s very dry, and you’d never know there was a major body of water within a mile. But we got there soon enough, and everyone is in for a swim again. And I’m at the nearest waterfall topping off the Camelbak. I am still amazed at how quickly what seems so arid becomes so lush and watery. Terrain like this in Arizona would mean despair, dehydration and death. But here, the dryness turns into greenery and a flowing stream before you realize what’s happening.

The view from the top of Twin Falls is pretty spectacular. The rock is smooth and slick from the water that comes pounding down the basin. I’d love to see this in December!

Amy, Orla and Sarah march toward the water at the top of the Twin Falls escarpment.
Amy, Orla and Sarah march toward the water at the top of the Twin Falls escarpment.

We lingered, swam and took photos for awhile, and then we trooped back down the hill.

After our steam crossing and our battering on the trails, we hit smooth road and grabbed the trailer. We also made a roadside stop to gather firewood for the night’s campfire.

Then we were off to Sandy Billabong where to camp for the night. This billabong is known for its rather ravenous cadre of mozzies (that’s mosquitos, to those of you who haven’t been Down Under), so we’ll be sleeping in tents. I sensed this group’s fear of mozzies, not least of all from Orla, who still bears the marks of her encounters with the savage critters. Being a pale Irish girl makes it hard to cover up the welts!

Unfortunately, the rest of the crew prepares by marinating themselves in DEET, which makes it hard for me to breathe in the Possum. By the time we get out, I had worked myself into a ferocious headache, which was relieved somewhat by swallowing a large burrito or two.

Oh, and something else about Sandy Billabong – there are lots of frickin’ crocs here. Would you be shocked if I mentioned that a German got eater here? I think the only place where a German hadn’t gotten eaten was at Sydney Airport!

Grady, another tour guide, parked his crew next to us. He had a didgeridoo, which got passed throughout the camp. Now, I must admit … I hadn’t told anyone about this. But I actually enjoy building didgeridoos from agave, or century plant. So I have my fair share of experience on the didge. I’m not great at circular breathing, but I can make all sorts of cool sounds and can sustain a drone for a long time. So while most of the other folks sounded like a donkey that had wandered into a bean farm, I was doing all sorts of mad didge stuff – I must say not even the tour guides could keep up with me. Remember the flute-playing scene from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”? It was like that, but I couldn’t conjure any flames from the end of the didge.

Oh, here’s something else funny. Tonight’s dinner? Burritos! Ha!

With the exception of the DEET, it’s been another great day in the Outback. I am also completely grubby and filthy from two days in the bush without a shower. Still, I can’t say enough about what an amazing couple of days I’ve had in the Kakadu. Do not miss this if you visit Australia.

Sarah is at the top of the falls. During the wet season, she'd get swept away standing where she is.
Sarah is at the top of the falls. During the wet season, she would get swept away from this spot.
CategoriesUncategorized

Intro to Crocs and Billabongs

This monster was just waiting to charge at our boat ... and he did!
This monster was just waiting to charge at our boat ... and he did!

Wednesday, Aug. 22

Being German near water is the most dangerous thing you can do in Australia.

Starting today, I will start hearing a plethora of tales about German people being eaten by salt-water crocodiles. This theme will continue through the trip, to the point where I’m eyeballing the shower waiting for a swarm of mini-crocs to shoot out of the spigot to devour me. And I’m only half-German. If I were a Speedo-wearing, techno-loving Bayern Munich fan, I’d stay away from this continent altogether. Or at least not get within mortar-distance of a billabong.

But there are no crocs in Darwin, for now. Especially during the pre-dawn hours. My eyes are barely even open when an Arkana Safari II four-wheel-drive truck towing a wagon picked us up. At the wheel is Amy, our tour guide. She looked almost identical to a friend at home (Mary, that would be you!), so I can tell she’ll be a character.

dscf4394

Speaking of characters, we’re a tourist short. So far, we’ve got a 40-ish but sturdy English couple (Dave and Dominique), Orla from Ireland, Fiona from Canada and us. Apparently, Amy and the staff at a hostel have been trying to rouse our last member, English Anna. She was big-time hung over.

Eventually, someone pried her out of bed and tossed her and her gear into the Arkana, which is known as the Possum.

Once Anna is in the car, we’re bound for the bush! The sun was fully in the sky, and traffic cleared quickly as we neared the edge of Darwin. In less than 30 minutes, we start seeing the first massive bunch of cathedral termite mounds. They’re amazingly tall and stately, more like stage sets from The Dark Crystal than giant communes for gross, glistening-white insects. Which, by the way, largely vacate the mounds and ants take over. We’re blaring the Rolling Stones, much to Anna’s torment.

Morning on the billabong.
Morning on the billabong.

Soon, the Possum is flying down a dirt road toward Corroboree Billabong. What we’re going to do is take a boat ride with a madman who loves crocodile. We got lectures from everyone not to stand up, jump in the water or even stick a hand in to test the temperature. Apparently, you have a maximum time of three seconds once you’re in before a salt-water croc will overtake you.

And these things are monsters. We quickly start spotting 10-footers lounging about, and we start seeing some really gigantic specimens, too.

Here’s the thing I really learned about crocs: They are hard-wired to quickly evaluate any movement within their range. If they determine they can get it with 100 percent certainty, they will attack. It doesn’t matter what they had for lunch, they’ll eat a tourist or a whole bunch…just as long as they’re in range.

Well, that’s not strictly true. If a croc’s just eaten and you enter its range, it’ll grab you, drown you and then stuff you someplace where it can nibble at your carcass at its leisure.

In short, if a croc heads your way, you’re toast.

Sarah and Justin keep their arms and legs inside the boat.
Sarah and Justin keep their arms and legs inside the boat.

I got some great pictures, and we saw many lesser creatures. I can’t get worked up about a bird when a 12-foot croc is eyeing me from 25 feet away. And this croc happened to get a wild hair up its cloaca and shot into the water, missing our boat just by feet. Apparently, he spotted something else. It thrashed its tail (its main device for swimming) and passed us in about three blinks of an eye. Zero to 60 in nothing flat …

Another interesting thing I learned is that not all Aussies are enamored of one Steve Irwin. Our tour guide considered him little more than a sideshow. And all the croc wrestling? That’s done by keeping them cold. Crocs have a narrow range of operating temperatures, and they spend most of their time regulating their temperature. See the beast in that photo? His mouth is open to help him cool off.

Some kind of big bird.
Some kind of big bird.

After our boat ride, we left the billabong and headed back to the highway for a spell. We eventually left the pavement, where we stopped for lunch near another watering hole. At this one, a German had recently disappeared, likely as a result of a croc attack.

The crew of the Possum breaks for lunch.
The crew of the Possum breaks for lunch.

Anyway, this is a camping trip. So pretty much everybody pitched in to make food and clean up. The communal tasks actually do a good job of bonding the group pretty well. We’ve got tuna, turkey, bread and other sandwich fixings, which all went down pretty well.

We bounced over more rugged trails before hopping out again. This time, Amy took us along a mostly-dry creekbed that looks like it must really rage in the rainy season. There are quite a few people, and after about 45 minutes of hiking, we found out why. The trail goes upward, leading us to a series of crystal-blue swimming holes. It’s all red rocks, blue pools and bikinis. In Arizona, no place this hot and dry will suddenly yield swimming holes. There are people an guides everywhere. Oddly enough, we’d run into many of them in the days to come. FYI, there was no way for crocs to get in here during this time of the year. No waterways big enough for them, and too many waterfalls!

A Top End swimming hole ... no crocs here!
A Top End swimming hole ... no crocs here!

We hiked back down, drove further inland and stopped for fuel. Here, I met yet another SAB. He was on holiday with his family, and he looked at the Possum like it was an old girlfriend. Apparently, he had been in the military when he’d driven through the country in an old Arkana just like this one. Since they’re getting rare, he asked me to snap some photos of him posing with the Possum.

Then we headed off to a relatively nice camping area that has bathrooms. We also stopped on a random stretch of highway to gather firewood for the night. We actually did this every day after the hiking. We’d stop the Possum and scramble around by the roadside, tossing branches and logs atop the roof.

Once we got to the campsite (a fairly civilized one with toilets and running water), the crew of the Possum set to work on dinner, the centerpiece of which was Amy’s honey-ginger chicken with veggies and rice. Nice healthy stuff to accompany our hiking! The meal is another good chance to yack. I got on well with Dave, who is from Bristol. Orla was also pretty amusing – she speaks in exactly the same voice and vocabulary that Roy Keane, the former Manchester United star, used in his autobiography. She and Sarah got along well since they’re both into triathlon. Anna, our hung-over group member, was a pretty good character, too.

After dinner, we learned how to sleep in a swag. A swag is like a big vinyl Hot Pocket for people. You stuff your sleeping bag inside it, then zip yourself inside. There’s a big flap to cover up your face. It’s smart, according to Amy, to keep your shoes inside the swag. Dingos, apparently, have an affinity for footwear. They will run off with unattended shoes that are not inside a swag.

Campfire in the Kakadu
Campfire in the Kakadu

It was a nice chilly night with a brilliant moon and a good amount of stars, and soon I was dead asleep in my swag. Sarah got up for a toilet visit, and shoo’d a dingo out of camp. Maybe he was looking for a new pair of Timberlands?

A damn fine day in the Outback, this was. This is why I wanted to come to Australia. Crikey!

The next day, we’re up early. The plan is to get to Jim Jim and Twin falls in a hurry.

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia 2007 – Bleedin’ on Darwin, Tour de France Pee at Lewinsky’s

Tuesday, Aug. 21

The beach at Darwin. Watch for sharp underwater rocks ... and mud!
The beach at Darwin. Watch for sharp underwater rocks ... and mud!

Midafternoon

I was trying to keep calm, but I was kind of worried. Sarah was leaving bloody footprints all over the beach, and had also left a trail of red swirling in the water.

The beach two miles from the downtown area seemed nice enough, but there were lots of sharp rocks in the water. And Sarah was unlikely to slice her foot open on one. I tried to look casual as I sort of speed-walked up to the lifeguard. I mentioned that she had a little cut on her foot, and could he take a look.

Remember that Stereotypical Australian Bloke I mentioned? Well, this lifeguard – chubby; long-haired, laconic- was another. We started walking back to where Sarah was waiting a few hundred feet away, medical kit in hand.

“There’s no bleedin’ allowed on me beach!” he shouted as we walked.

Sarah cocked her head in confusion, looking puzzled even at long range.

“I said ‘stop bleedin’ on me beach!'” he yelled. This time, she heard him and was hysterical with laughter. Sarah asked him if he’d seen any crocs.

“Naw,” he drawled. “I haven’t seen one in hours!”

Let’s just say that he made a bad situation much more fun and memorable in a good way as he patched her up.

The day started off pretty routine: breakfast at one of the ubiquitous Coffee Clubs and some general walking around, scoping out didgeridoos, bush hats and last-minute items for the start of tomorrow’s adventure.

Darwin by daylight. This is Mitchell, one of the main drags.
Darwin by daylight. This is Mitchell, one of the main drags.

Darwin. What an odd place. It’s like a beachfront college town that collided with Tombstone, Ariz., circa 1850. It’s clearly a “what happens in Darwin stays in Darwin” hive of debauchery for the younger folks. And there’s just a hint of anything-goes lawlessness, along with four-wheel-drive trucks equipped with snorkels advertising it as a jumping off point to the wild lands to the south and east of it. Which is what brought us here, by the way. It’s also very diverse … I had more than a few startled moments when some young Asian woman would speak to me in a perfect Australian vernacular accent. Very odd, that combination.

A low center of gravity helps in lawn bowling.
A low center of gravity helps in lawn bowling.

On the march to the beach we stopped for a look around at the Botanical Gardens. It seems they were tearing down from a festival the previous night, and all I could think about was how much fun it would be to play a gig in Australia. The park had a lot of nice footpaths, and some of the vegetation was really nice and lush. It gave a good idea of what Darwin might look like without human influence.

It's cricket, baby!
It'c cricket, baby!

Then was our earlier-mentioned stop at the beach. After that, we started the trip home, but sidetracked a bit to watch some cricket. That was kind of fun. I still can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on, but it was fun to watch people watching it: Now, this was just a practice. But the practice had spectators, and they bananas when something happened. What that something is, I don’t know – but they seemed to!

We also stopped to watch the elderly enjoy their sport of choice: lawn bowling! It was like a cross between shuffleboard and bowling. I can’t imagine Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski approving. But hey, it’s better than golf.

We finally made it back and grabbed a shower. Then, it was off to have a nice, early dinner. This isn’t easy in Australia. It seems that you have a narrow window of opportunity at a lot of the restaurants. At just before 6 p.m., that window had not opened. We walked up to a place Hanuman, which locals insisted was some of the best stuff in town. We walked in, and the place was virtually empty.

Wicked Campers are popular, and they often have a German at the wheel. I think this was Borat's camper. Great success!
Wicked Campers are popular, and they often have a German at the wheel. I think Borat rented this one. Very nice!

“Do you have a reservation?” asked the maitre’d. Sarah and I looked at each other like he’d grown a second set of buttocks in the middle of his forehead. Nobody has asked us for reservations in Australia, and this is the Top End! We told him no, but he seated us anyway after methodically consulting his reservation book.

Despite that beginning, we actually really like the place. The baramundi curry was pretty amazing, and we had a vegetable dish in a masala sauce that was just as good. For an Indian-influenced restaurant, though, it amazed me that they didn’t have mango lassi.

After dinner, we decided to walk to a wine bar we’d seen the day before. The reason we picked this one is because it’s called Lewinsky’s, which we both found hilarious – as it turns out, the place sucks far less than its namesake!

Now, Lewinsky’s has a pretty cool schtick. You buy a little pre-paid card and they give you a couple of glasses. Then, you go to this wall with a bunch of fancy-looking fountains. You stick the card in the fountain of your choice, and it gives you a sample of the wine inside it, deducting from your card. It’s pretty laid-back and allows you to go at your own pace. They also have a bar, where you can order stuff that’s not in the fountains.

Sarah was curious about a wine she’d heard of that was made from mangos. She asked the bartender about it, and the manager overheard.

So the manager -a 40-ish character who seems a lot more cheery ad mischievous than the stereotypical wine bar manager- bustled over and said he’d had a few bottles in the cellar for a few years. He had more than a bit of the stereotypical Australian bloke (henceforth called an SAB) in him. The company had sent them over, he tried one, and “hoped nobody would ever ask about it again.” But since we were curious, he’d open another up with us to see if age had done it any favors.

He emerged a few minutes later, and poured a yellow liquid into each of our glasses. He swirled it around, holding it up to the light.

“Looks like a specimen from a Tour de France rider,” he said, smirking.

It doesn’t taste much better. It has this plastic-like taste that gives way to a pine flavor. I don’t mind the pine, but the plastic is just foul.

“Just like I remember,” he said.

If all wine bars like this, I think wine would be more fun. No pretense, no snootiness. Just a bunch of people enjoying an evening in the same place.

Though was it still early, we headed back to the MOM. Tomorrow is the big one, when our real Australia vacation begins. We just have to get some sleep to get ready for the 5:30 a.m. wakeup so we can be ready to roll into the Kakadu National Park with Wilderness Adventures.

I can’t overstate this enough – I have set it in my brain that this is going to be the highlight of the trip. A real taste of the Outback. Morning can’t come soon enough.

The crew at Mom wasn’t cooperating, though. We were just about 30 feet from the front office, and every X-swallowing, lovey-dovey, high-spirited young backpacker was making a ruckus. And there’s god-awful European techno being played on the bar on the second floor. God, it’s heinous! Sleeping is a challenge – if you plan to stay at Mom, try to get a room as far from the front as possible. Apparently, we arrived late enough last time to miss all this fun.

Eventually, we drifted off despite the racket.

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia 2007 – Entry #3

qantas-767

Monday, Aug. 20

NOTE: Not many photos in this entry. I chose not to lug the camera around during most of the day’s walking around Sydney.

I honestly didn’t expect to freeze my goolies off in Australia. Now, keep in mind, August in Phoenix is like being 10 feet up a dragon’s poop chute, but brighter. And when I think of Australia, I think of the arid parts of it.

But Katoomba is again rainy and socked in with fog. Unpleasant? Hardly. But this desert creature was unprepared. But no matter … we were soon on our way back to Sydney.

A few hours later, we found a place to stash our packs at the train station and began searching for Redoak. This pretty much turned me into a psychotic Captain Ahab, and I began wondering if the place really existed. I hadn’t fired up my GPS receiver, preferring to conserve its power for the Top End adventures.

So we got turned around. Misplaced. Hungry. Cranky. We made an emergency stop at some fast-food kebab place. And either it was really good, or we were starved silly. It went down pretty well, and gave us the energy to continue our quest for the one pub to rule them all.

Finally, we discovered Redoak! Oh, my, this place is good. The oatmeal stout is unearthly, with a hint of butterscotch to it. The Belgian chocolate stout and the holiday ale are also contenders. Some of the best brews ever. If we didn’t have to catch a flight, we would’ve been there for hours.
We finished our brew and bolted for the train, which dropped us square into the middle of the airport. Flying domestically in Australia is a breeze. The security lines are sensible, and they don’t seem to dig the whole “take your shoes off thing.” We boarded a 3/4 empty 767 for the four-hour shot to Darwin, up in the Northern Territory. It was definitely a bit dingy on the inside, not like the sparkling-clean 747-400 we had from Los Angeles.

Now, this flight rams home how few people live on this huge continent. We see nary a cluster of lights once we leave Sydney until we enter Darwin just past 10 p.m.-ish. Vast and empty. It’s like flying over the ocean.

While the plane was a bit rough around the edges, the service wasn’t. A pleasant flight crew, and a full meal. Anyone who complains about Qantas has obviously not experienced Northwest Airlines, or probably even American and US Airways.

It's a chilly morning at the train station.
It's cold at the train station in Katoomba!

Our first setback was waiting for us when we landed: Some Swiss twit thought my bag is hers and ran off to a hotel with it. She left me with her blue backpack. She saw blue and thought it was hers. Yeah, like blue isn’t a common color. Qantas largely kept me calm and got the situation under control. They sent us off to the hotel (Malalueca on Mitchell, or Mom for short), promising to get a hold of us when they tracked the person down. Eventually, the dummy realized her error and contacted Qantas, who hooked us up. She dropped the bag at the hotel at around 1 a.m.

On the bus ride there, a friendly Ozzy and his wife could tell I was fuming about my missing backpack. So he took it upon himself to lighten me up by telling some tall tales. He was going on about a huge snake that wandered into the Darwin Airport a few months back.

“Well, he was so big they put a hun’red gallons of fuel in’im before they realized it was just a snake!”

Well, how could that NOT get a laugh out of me?

I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I would run into a few more just like him throughout our stay. You can just call him the Stereotypical Australian Bloke. He’s politically incorrect, but doesn’t hold anything against other people. He isn’t really an intellectual, but has a certain practical sensibility. He’s also so friendly that he’ll make a Lutheran from Iowa seem like cocaine-addled New York stockbroker.

Speaking of the hotel, it caters to young backpackers. There’s a full kitchen, laundry facilities, a bar and a pool. Some rooms have their own bathrooms. Others are dorm style. For a room with a bathroom, you’re looking at about $120. Damn, Darwin is kind of pricey… Best advice: Get a room as far from the front as possible. More on that tomorrow night.

This, by the way, is clearly a party town. It’s well after midnight, and a lot of places are still open. And the partying shows no signs of abating …

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #2

Katoomba is about 90 minutes by train from Sydney.
Katoomba is about 90 minutes by train from Sydney.

Saturday, Aug. 18

I like my coffee a lot, and my coffee likes me. That means I want to taste the coffee, not have it buried under sprinkles, whipped cream and a bunch of fake pumpkin-spice flavor. I didn’t know this when we booked the tickets, but that meant Australia would be just right for me.

First, though, I had to learn to speak the language. Unless you’re at Starbucks, the names won’t be what you’re used to. And most of the good drinks are espresso-based. Now, if you like a plain americano, order a long black. If you like a latte, order a flat white. Mochas are the same, but a lot less sweet than you’re used to. And probably less bitter, so you won’t need the sugar to compensate.

Justin feels a bit like suppository in the hatch of the Onslow.
Justin feels a bit like suppository in the hatch of the Onslow.

dscf4130
Ah, 1970s granny chic decor aboard the Vampire!

We also filled up on some pastries to get ready for the Maritime Museum, which is a complete blast. We both like sailing stuff, so we have a great time touring the destroyer Vampire, submarine Onslow and a full-sized replica of Capt. Cook’s Endeavour. There are all sorts of fun displays inside, too. Frankly, there was more there than we had time for. Tickets to get on all the big boats are $18 each.

The ceiling is kind of low on the Endeavour. And this is the fancy part of the ship!
The ceiling is kind of low on the Endeavour. And this is the fancy part of the ship!

The Vampire was pretty fun because it felt like we’d stepped straight into the Disco Era. All the recreational areas were brown and “gold.” The Onslow was typical submarine fun for a guy my size … lots of hunching over to squeeze through hatches, and nearly banging my head on pipes.

The Endeavour, though … whew! Europe must’ve really sucked back in the day. I can’t imagine how bad it was – so bad that people were willing to live on bad food under brutal conditions for months at a time to get away from it. Floor to ceiling measurements were less than five feet! So you can imagine what must’ve been like crawling around there with a violently pitching deck!
dscf4169
We cut out to grab lunch at Thaifoon before collecting our bags and grabbing a train to Katoomba. It’s a pretty tasty Thai meal, but not as fiery as we prefer. Nothing really worth noting here.

A Quick Note for City Lovers Who Want to Hang in Sydney Awhile: One of my new inside sources who knows Sydney tells me there’s an area south of Circular Quay called New Town. Word is that’s the place to party and whoop it up. He says it’s just miles of independent cafes, pubs and shops.

Katoomba is about 65 miles away in the Blue Mountains at about 3,000 feet above see level. By the time we go there, it was already chilly. The train drops passengers off at the top of Katoomba Street, the main drag through town and out to its scenic cliffs. Best to find your hotel quickly and grab a bit to eat before everything closes.

The air in Katoomba definitely has some nip to it this time of year, but it smells clean and fresh. We were socked in with clouds, too.

We stayed at the Katoomba Mountain Lodge. It’s not exactly five-star, but it’s cheap ($60-ish a night) and clean. It’s a bit drafty, but electric blankets will keep you cozy. It’s also European style, so you don’t get your own bathroom (rooms that have bathrooms are known as ensuite, in the local lingo). No big deal, really. It also has a kitchen, TV rooms and games. We hung around watching rugby on TV before falling asleep.

Sunday, Aug. 19

It's a chilly, foggy morning. Perfect for fools to go hiking ...
It's a chilly morning ... perfect for fools to go hiking!

Despite the chill, we got a great night of sleep. We were so well-rested that we awoke before anything was open! It was already foggy and drizzly, a perfect winter scene for a town in the mountains. We wandered the streets, waiting for cafes to open. Finally, we found one that’s open. And they serve up some awesome porridge with fruit and ricotta. The Aussies use ricotta with sweeter stuff a lot. As usual, the coffee is pretty awesome. Sorry, but I just can’t remember the name of this place. But just walk up and down Katoomba Street. You won’t go wrong.

After breakfast, we started a seven-mile hike from the lodge, down the Federal Trail and then back into town. We started out with out jackets and ponchos, and the rain got progressively heavier throughout the hike. My poncho finally ripped…I got my three bucks out of it – it survived Costa Rica and Belize, working hard in both places. Sarah’s kept on tickin’, lucky for her. We descended a really slippery thousand-foot chute called the Great Staircase and went down into a nice pine forest. We were totally deprived of the views, and the photos we’ve seen make it look truly awesome.

Sarah's poncho has survived Costa Rica, Belize and Australia. For me, two of three will have to do.
Sarah's poncho has survived Costa Rica, Belize and Australia. Mine can only manage two of the three.

But I still enjoyed it … beats being in a plane next to Jon Lovitz! But holy cow, I got totally soaked. My poncho was leaking, and even my jacket was waterlogged. My mighty Vasque boots stayed dry for a good three hours, but there’s only so much they can take (these also survived complete immersion in a raging river in Belize while exploring a wet cave, but that’s another story). I was pretty relieved when we ascended the thousand feet back upward.

After that slog, we were ready to get dry. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. Sarah went as far as to buy a cheap hair dryer to get our boots dry. Then we hit the showers, and were off to the Carrington Hotel for dinner. We met up with some friendly British women and a somewhat dour Australian guy (one of the few). We all had a good chat, and the Aussie turned us on to Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe back in Sydney. Good thing we have to go back there to catch a flight! We have a great meal at the Carrington…be sure to try the Guinness stew and the sticky date pudding. Very nice!

Not for Sarah are wimpy wheeled Gucci bags! Tomorrow, we return to Sydney.
Not for Sarah are wimpy wheeled Gucci bags! Tomorrow, we return to Sydney.

Something weird about Ozzy spirits: Australians seem to love rum and coke (this would make travel in Australia extremely dangerous for my friend Stan, who insists that overindulging on this beverage makes him yearn for the company of hefty lasses). It’s often available pre-mixed straight from the tap. Bundaberg, the same cats who make the amazing Aussie ginger beer, is the most popular variety. It’s also sold in cans.

CategoriesUncategorized

Wandering Justin is live!

Crikey, you’ve found my adventure blog!

Here’s what you’ll get:

-A chronicle of upcoming adventure
-Flashbacks to past adventures
-Lots of links and advice
-The odd photo
-A PG-13 sense of humor … nothing too bad, but fair warning.

The first real post is coming. That’ll be the first in a series about my trip to Australia. That’s why you got the opening “crikey!”.