You can only cram in so much skiing, especially when the slopes are icy. There comes a time each day when you’ll have to troop indoors for a bite. Or sometimes before you board the lift.
I can’t say North Tahoe cuisine titillates the tongue. It’s a lot of Mexican food, steaks and pizza. But there are a few neat little places tucked around, if you know where to look. Let me save you some time driving up and down the winding roads. In no particular order --
FiftyFifty Brewpub â€“ There’s a lot to like about this spot in Truckee. And I’m not just talking about the oak-aged barleywine, which is a rare treat you shouldn’t miss. But you can also get some great entrees. I went for a BLT served with seared ahi tuna. And get this â€“ FiftyFifty offers a side of black beans! Far healthier and tastier than fries or chips, no? I’d like to go back and try a pizza. The service was also excellent.
Jason’s â€“ This became our favorite spot in King’s Beach. You could eat healthy with some decent veggie angel hair, or go for a burger or porterhouse. Jason’s also has a decent salad bar, a friendly vibe and a very good staff. The desserts are pretty good (though not as awesome as Tahoe House), as are the spiked hot cocoa drinks. Parking can be tough â€“ be sure to look around the back of the building for more spaces if the front is crammed.
Gear and Grind Cafe – This is an awesome spot in Tahoe City. They brew seriously strong coffee, and it doesn’t sit around getting stale. You order it, they grind it, they pour hot water over the filter. BOOM! Serious coffee. And they make a great ham & egg croissant, too. If you’re lucky, Sierra the Calm but Friendly Shop Dog will appear to hang out with you. She is most excellent company. They also open early and can set you up with supplies you might need before you hit the slopes or trails. Lots of good reading material on-hand if you’re solo that day. A very friendly staff, in both the cafe and sports portions.
Holy cow, it’s so easy to beat up on poor Utah. People snicker about Mormons with dozens of children in tow. They giggle about not having any fun … at least when other Mormons are watching. They wet themselves laughing about the unfailingly cheery young men pedaling bikes everywhere from Tucson to Timbuktu.
But really, if you want awesome skiing and a cosmopolitan vibe, you are going to have a hard time beating Park City, which is just 40 minutes from the airport in Salt Lake. You’ll find a wealth of awesome ski resorts, great food, excellent post-ski activities and killer scenery all within about 20 minutes of each other. And you don’t even have to rent a car: You can grab a shuttle from the airport, and Park City has an extensive (and free) public transit system. This city is still riding the high from hosting the 2002 Olympic Winter Games … that Park City won restored a smidgen of my faith in the selection committee, because I believe this city deserved it.
What won’t you find? If you’re a beer snob, you’ll suffer. Utah law caps the alcohol by weight at 3.2 percent. And that, my friends, is the end of the taste. It’s a small price to pay, though, for awesome, convenient skiing.
Here are five things that make Park City rock, in no particular order.
1. The Canyons Ski Resort – Sorry, wanna-be X-Games dudes with funny hair, piercings and MP3 players jacked directly into your brains: No snowboarders allowed! But that’s not all that makes this great: Fast lifts, beautiful trails and lots of places for intermediate stooges like me to enjoy really put it to the top of my list. The views are intense, and it’s pretty much the first in the line of several resorts. You can grab an excellent lunch, but be sure to get in early if you want the rather pricey but highly regarded skiers’ buffet. Some of the runs are extremely long, and even run in short tunnels under roads leading to pricey ski villas. Cool!
2. Utah Olympic Park – I have always loved the winter Olympics, especially the early 80s-vintage voice over talking about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as a ski jumper crashes out-of-control through a mass of barriers. Here, you can see exactly what a ski jumper sees while looking down one of those jumps – and let me tell you, I practically needed a diaper just looking down that jump. I can’t even fathom volitionally sliding down it. You can also check out the bobsled/luge track and a fun museum at the visitors center. If you time your visit right, you can also check out amateur bobsled action. We struck up a conversation with one such minor-league sledder … I wish I’d been taking notes, because it was a great look into what goes into making it to the Big Time.
3. The Best Use of a Golf Course EVER! – I won’t mince words. I hate golf. Not so much the game itself, but the culture around it, that it takes up gobs of space and that you can actually be a top-level golf pro and smoke cigars while playing! But when it snows, the golf courses near The Canyons become cross country ski havens. This was my first time doing XC skiing … and let me tell you, it was AWESOME. It works you like a dog. I had my jacket off and was shushing along in naught but an Under Armor shirt within a few hundred yards. After putting in near 35 miles of downhill the previous day according to my GPS, putting in 10 XC miles was hard! The good side? I got to eat everything in sight sans guilt!
4. An international vibe – Everywhere I went, I was hearing a Brazilian or Australian accent. It seems Brazil has an exchange program that send young people to Utah to work during the winter (that’ll keep ’em on the straight and narrow – no Samba carnival lewdness here!). Australia, on the other hand, largely exports middle-aged, gin-blossomed dudes eager to mack on young women. Well, I ran into a few young Aussies here, to be fair … not exactly the Stereotypical Australian Blokes I mentioned in my Australia travelogue, but still fun nonetheless. (The acronym SAB, by the way, seems to be gaining traction.) Lots of people from the UK, too. So it’s not the insular, innocent mountain town you may have expected from Utah.
5. Unintentionally Lewd Toy Displays – Well, apparently the crew at the J.W. Allen & Sons toy store is, um, up on the latest way to catch attention for the little sleds they sell. Apparently, you put your bum on the plastic, grab the handle and cruise down the slopes. Well, I just have to wonder if they also sell a model that takes batteries, if you know what I’m sayin’. I’m sure these items were at the head of their best-sellers list! Sometimes, it’s the little things that give flavor to a place … but this casts the area’s conservative nature in a new light, and makes me what happens here when nobody else is watching.
When I landed in Costa Rica back in 2003, I was pretty underprepared. This was my wife’s trip. She planned it and sweated the details. I packed my backpack (and actually remembered my underwear, for once), got on the plane and went along for the ride.
Unfortunately, this means I had little concept of the awesome soccer culture of Costa Rica. We woke up the day after our flight to a soccer mania that, we learned, would literally sweep the nation. We had little idea of this until we boarded a shuttle from San Jose to La Fortuna. As I got on the bus, I noticed that the driver, one of three employees on the bus, was decked out in purple: some sort of purple jersey, purplish jeans and even purple mirrored sunglasses.
As we drove off, I asked the older employee, who seemed to be the boss, what the deal was.
“Is for Saprissa, the football team. We are playing today against Alajuela, our rival. It is very big game,” he explained.
And wouldn’t you know it! Our route would take us straight through the heart of Alajuela, where fans of La Liga Alajuelense were parading up and down the streets in their striped jerseys. Our driver, apparently not one to let a sleeping dog lie, leered at, wagged his tongue at, gesticulated at and honked his horn at roving mobs of Alajuelense supporters. Everywhere we went, La Liga fans were boring holes in our bus with our eyes. And mind you, the match hadn’t even started yet!
The bus crew explained to me that Saprissa is the biggest team – which I took with a grain of salt, because every Leeds United fan in England will still insist that their team is “a massive club.” But Saprissa was apparently ahead on points, but La Liga had had their number for the past few seasons. A victory today would be a famous win for the ages.
We made a stop halfway to La Fortuna at a roadside market. And they sold soccer shirts, so I could get in the mania! They mostly had La Liga and Saprissa. I selected an extra large Saprisa knock-off jersey (really more like a large in U.S. sizes) and stepped up to the register.
“No, no!” the clerk objected, pointing at a La Liga shirt. “You have to support the local team!”
I insisted on the glowing purple Saprissa shirt, which set me back something like $17 … I can’t remember what that was in colones. Anyway, I came out of the store with my new Saprissa shirt, and the bus crew saw it. They start whooping, patting me on the back, shaking my hand and high-fiving until their arms were about to fall off. They also clued me in, saying the club’s nickname is El Monstruo, or The Monster. That Jarvis Drummond is a god. And all sorts of other things I can scarcely remember.
By the time we got to La Fortuna, the match had started. The bus crew wanted to drop everyone off quickly and get to a TV. The clerk at Las Colinas could barely tear himself away to check us in, but he was really friendly and wanted us to get to a TV to watch, too. We headed to a nearby restaurant for a helping of gallo pinto. There, they had a TV. And all of La Fortuna was urging Saprissa on. Televisions everywhere were blaring. The entire town cheered, groaned and gasped in unison.
By the time were left the restaurant, La Fortuna was in rapture: Saprissa battered La Liga 4-1, breaking the cross-town rival’s hold on the derby. The entire town was upbeat.
And here’s the funny thing: About that time, I noticed that my sunglasses were gone. They must’ve slipped off sometime in the bus. Which meant I’d have to grab a cheap pair of sunglasses somewhere … bummer, I really liked those Spys.
But the next day, Sarah and I were having a morning stroll. We heard a bus honking behind us. Behind the wheel was my purple-wearing friend, waving my Spys out the window. We exchanged more handshakes, and they were on their way back to San Jose. Think they would’ve done that had I bought a La Liga shirt?!
As we traveled through Costa Rica, a theme repeated itself: I would meet a resident, and we’d talk a bit. Inevitably, I’d ask if they supported Saprissa. And nearly to the word, they’d say “I am THE BIGGEST Saprissa fan!!!”
I only ran into on La Liga fan: She was employed at the airport by Costa Rica’s version of the TSA. As she was screening me, she noticed a flash of purple jersey under my long-sleeve Lost Dutchman Marathon shirt.
“Tu eres Saprissista?” she growled, raising an eyebrow. That’s when she pulled me out of the line, gave me a wink and proceeded with the full-service search.
Be careful where you wear your Saprissa shirt, kids …
A preface from Wandering Justin: I originally wrote this for another blog, but it seems relevant here. Enjoy!
Every time I go to band practice, I take the 143 freeway past Sky Harbor. I always look to my right and see a British Airways 747 parked at Terminal 4, getting ready to head to London.
And I wish I was getting on that plane. Not so much because it’s going to London, but because … well, I can’t explain it in one sentence. But here are the thoughts that jumble through my head:
-First, there is a certain something special and exciting about a 747. It’s an icon of style, adventure and anticipation. You don’t take a 747 from Charlotte to Pittsburgh. No, That’s what takes you to Hong Kong, to Paris, to Sydney, to Johannesburg. From the first time I rode one on the way to Germany as a 5-year-old boy, it has made me feel something no other airplane can replicate. The 777 is a marvelous piece of technology, and the A380 is built on a mind-boggling scale. But no aircraft save the Concorde cuts the same image on final approach, or puts that flutter in my stomach as I cross from the jetway into its fuselage. Sadly, less than a handful of American-based airlines still fly it.
-Second, it being a British Airways flight, I know that the people aboard will not be treated like cattle. Foreign airlines seem to have figured out how not to nickel-and-dime passengers to death, and understand that a good experience aloft will endear them to American passengers. I’ve only flown Qantas and JetStar recently. But people whose opinions I respect tell me Air New Zealand, British Airways and Air France are on their game. And I’ve heard Emirates and Virgin are dialed in, too.
-Third, I just love flying. The longer the flight, the happier I am. But put me in a seat with a few hundred people on the way to someplace that requires a widebody jet, and all is right with my world. Is it as comfortable as my reading chair? No. Is the food all that good? No. But I can afford to buy a seat and travel 7,000 or more miles and get off that plane in what feels like a different world. If you can’t get fired up about that, I seriously don’t know what the hell is the matter with you.
-Fourth, I love airports. Sure, the TSA seems like it’s deliberately trying to drive me crazy. There are throngs of people, completely bovine in their lack of situational awareness and clueless meandering. But outside, it’s a well-choreographed display of efficient motion. And there’s something electric in the air at a major international airport (as opposed to my local Sky Harbor, which hosts all of one flight from the U.K., and then a bunch from Canada and Mexico and another from Costa Rica. Hell, that’s barely enough to qualify.). All these people from around the world, all these aircraft that have been who-knows-where. It invigorates me, and gets me excited about everything going on in the world at every given moment.
For me, the inconveniences and discomforts become so petty and so worth enduring when I wake up in another city that my grandparents never could’ve imagined visiting in their lifetime.
If I had just one place to go in Belize, I’d head straight for the Cayo District. I’d skip the beaches. I’d turn my nose up at the cayes. I’d blow off the cities.
I’d head inland to the limestone maze of the Cayo District … caves, rivers, ruins, pine forests and a laid-back vibe are what you’ll get. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
1. I already waxed poetic in an earlier post about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour. This is seriously not to be missed. If you won’t take by word for it, go back and read the earlier post. Now, doesn’t that sound mind-blowing?
2. The town of San Ignacio is a perfect launch pad for the ATM cave trip. There are plenty of restaurants and services, and hotels from bare-bones budget to luxurious. San Ignacio is big enough that you can walk all over the place and get everything from Indonesian food to a pint of the ubiquitous Bilikin stout. It’s also more friendly and genuine – not everyone here is a huckster wanted you to buy souvenirs (I’m looking at you, Caye Ambergris!).
Ahhhhh! There are some things in this world that are simply dripping in cool factor. No, this is marinated in cool, so much that the awesomeness infuses every morsel.
I’m talking about the 747 that’s been turned into a hotel! I know some people might think “hey, why would I want to spend more time on an airplane?” Well, I just happen to love airplanes and flying, so half the fun is getting there. And I can think of little that’s cooler than smartly reusing something.
As I mentioned in a response to their blog entry, I live in Arizona. We have two massive airplane graveyards (The AMARC in Tucson and Pinal Air Park) and a third smaller one in Goodyear. Each has its share of civilian heavies, C141s and even B-52s. Can you imagine the possibilities if we stopped cutting them up and started doing something really cool with them? In many cases, they’re only getting cut up enough to be rendered unflyable. Here’s a way better way to do that!
We’d already had plenty of excitement – I survived someone crashing right in front of me and falling right into my front wheel, but we’ll save that story for another time. Let’s just say I pulled off some sort of move straight out of The Matrix to keep the rubber side down. (Actually, the moment was pretty rife with cinematic parallel, now that I think of it. For instance, the protagonist in Shaolin Soccer would insist that I must’ve studied kung fu all my life. Darth Vader would say that the Force was strong with this one. Commander Data would chalk it up to a rift in the space-time continuum, and Dante from Clerks would tell me I’m not even supposed to be here today.)
About 15 miles after that craziness, Sarah and I were between a bunch of packs of riders. We were pedaling up the road that leads to Sunset Crater, and we still didn’t have a clear view of the crater.
But then we came around a corner and saw a blackened vista of dry lava stretching before us … and it was absolutely amazing. We could barely keep our eyes on the road as we passed the lava field and splatter cones. I was dumbstruck that I’d lived in Arizona since I was six, and had never been here. Don’t be like me: Make this a priority stop.
We loved it so much that we came the next day. We also went further down the road to the Wupatki Ruins, which are awesome. You can check out three different sets of ruins at various points. The largest one has this little blow hole … during some parts of the year, this hole sucks air in; in the summer, it blows cool air out! Perfect for those hot days … Sarah was surprised the ruling class didn’t build their pad right on top of it! In a future post, I’ll give you the lowdown on the Taylor House Century.
This is the crater itself … awesome, eh?Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
Another ViewÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
One of the bigger ruinsÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
This is a blow hole!Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
Jagged cooled lavaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
A red splatter coneÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â From crater
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! 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the Captain Cook highway,Â 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!”
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.
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 …
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!
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
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.Â Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?'”
“It’s good eating?”
“Will this kill me or make me sick?”
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?
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
“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.