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.

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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.

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.

Australia 2007 – Entry #3

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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 …

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.

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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!
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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.

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!”.