CategoriesAdventures

Three Australian Adventure Destinations I Missed

Australian adventure destinations
Coober Pedy – inside a home hewn from rock. Awesome! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people think you shouldn’t travel until you can do your destination "justice." That usually  means spending at least a month there, sinking yourself into the surroundings and leaving as few stones unturned as possible.

I understand the sentiment. But if I waited until I had a month to spare, I’d never go anywhere! I usually make do with 16 days or so. That’s barely enough for a small country, and it’s totally inadequate for Australia. I left so Australian destinations unseen that I have a huge craving to return.

Australian adventure destinations
You’re not in Sydney anymore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, where would I go when I return? Here are just a few of my Australian adventure destinations for my second visit.

Coober Pedy – An Odd Slice of Desert

Why would I want to go to a dry, treeless, hot place in the desert? Well, if you’ve been reading awhile, you know that I love anything that’s underground. And most of Coober Pedy’s people live in caves bored in the sand- and siltstone. Most of the residents are here to mine in an area known as the world’s opal capital. Visitors can try their hand at mining, so there’s another good reason for me to visit.

You probably also know that I ordinarily don’t care about golf. But I’d play nine holes in Coober Pedy because local golfers tee off at night with glowing golf balls to avoid the scorching daytime temperatures. I’m in!

australian adventure destinations
Experience Fraser Island, from red rocks to salt-water crocs.

Fraser Island Tours on My List

I’m really into wildlife, so my next Australian destinations will be a smörgÃ¥sbord of opportunities to take photos of fauna. During my first visit, I missed Fraser Island. There’s where I’d go to look for dingoes, swamp wallabies, sugar gliders and other creatures. Out in the water, I’d watch for humpback whales and all sorts of sharks – including whale sharks. You have some odd geology there, too, which is always a plus.

Australian adventure destinations
“Remarkable Rocks” on Kangaroo Island, one of the best Australian adventure destinations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I usually lean toward DIY adventures where I handle everything myself. But in Australia, a good guide can make the difference. And so can the other people on the tour. Multi-day tours from Sunset Safaris can turn Fraser Island tours into a chance to meet other people and swap travel ideas while you enjoy the sites.

A Hop to Kangaroo Island

We’ve established that I can’t get enough wildlife, right? So that’s why I need to visit Kangaroo Island. But there’s even more going on here than just kangaroos: Add platypus, seals, penguins and bats to the wildlife I’ll find flapping and finning around the island

And I’ll also find shipwrecks, caves, lighthouses and dunes. Another plus: I can fly one leg of the journey from Melbourne, and rely on a 45-minute ferry cruise for the other. Let’s not forget that I’m kind of obsessed with seafood. I wonder if I’m allowed to go running around trying to catch my own rock lobster …

This post is brought to you by Sunset Safaris. This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship or other forms of compensation. All information reflects the opinions, experience and research of WanderingJustin.com

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CategoriesAdventuresTravel

What’s Australia Like?

what's Australia like?
Brisbane – a great city that answers the question “what’s Australia like?” (via wikipedia, photo by Baycha Byrne.)
I mark 2005 as the true beginning of my international travel experience. Since then, the way I view travel has changed as I’ve seen and done more. This post marks the first in a series that collects and compares what I’ve learned. Let’s get it started with "What’s Australia Like?", a look at what you can expect from a visit Down Undah. Watch for more "What’s It Like?" posts in the future.

Australia in a Word: Balanced

What do I mean by that? Australia struck me as a place that strikes a near-perfect balance of everything that I like in life. I saw a lot of hard-driven, Type A people on the move in Sydney. But they also had the sense to know when it’s time to relax. People love watching their Aussie rules football, rugby union and cricket matches – but I got the sense that many people love actually playing as well as watching. People talk to each other easily, even to strangers.

What's Australia like?
Black sapote fruit – one of the many exotic tastes you’ll find in Australia.

And here’s something else: I only had one person display any air of snobbery -- and he was being more than a little ironic and smirky about it. There a no-nonsense, non-douchey, unpretentious air to Australians that I really like. And it’s one of the first things I mention when people ask "What’s Australia like?"

Dining in Australia

What's Australia like?
That’s me havin’ a blow on the didge.

I also love Australia’s adventurous food options. It’s close to Southeast Asia, so you have some of that influence seeping into all sorts of great regional ingredients. Kangaroo is a fixture on a lot of menus, as is the mild fish called baramundi (takes very well to a good curry). To this day, I’ve not had a better cheesecake than the outrageous example I had at the Mungalli Creek Dairy just outside Cairns. The beer scene lagged at the time, but my bet is that it’s improved (if the delicious Galaxy hops I had in a craft beer is any indicator). This might surprise you, but Australia also grows great coffee beans, and skilled baristas turn those beans into great espresso drinks (they’re not as into the brewed coffees).

What's Australia like?
Up in the Kakadu … the mythical Australia of the big screen.

Outdoors in Australia

It’s everything you’d expect. Termite mounds, snakes, huge bats, salt-water crocs, wallabies, kangaroos, water fowl -- it’s all here and abundant and impressive and potentially deadly. Start off in Darwin and get a tour to Kakadu National Park (don’t try to do this on your own … crocs and crazy roads can make your trip turn pear-shaped),

And that scenery! You have everything from desert in places like Coober Pedy to thick tropical rain forests near Cape Tribulation. The coasts are scenic beyond belief.

When I went: 2009

What's Australia like?
Awwwwww, Skip!

Duration: 16 days

Areas Visited: Sydney, Katoomba, Kurada, Kakadu National Park, Darwin, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, Atherton Table Lands, Brisbane (such an underrated city)

Things to Remember

I realize it’s impossible to get the essence of a country in just one two-week visit -- especially one as large as Australia. Still, I think my observations have some value for anyone considering a visit. People from around the world laugh at Americans who show up with just two weeks to spend – until our country catches up with the rest of the First World when it comes to vacation time, that’s pretty much what most of us can afford. Any less is barely worthwhile. Whether you spend your entire time on the beach or head into the Kakadu for an expedition, you will have an unbelievable time.

CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Travel to Australia: An Adventurer’s Itinerary

Travel to Australia
Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I get a lot of questions about travel to Australia. So far, I’ve helped a few friends craft itineraries – from hanging out on beaches to my preferred style of adventure travel.

I thought some other adventurous people could use some tips for travel to Australia. Here’s what I have for you.

A Quick Pre-trip Briefing
Question 1: "When should I travel to Australia?" September, for a few reasons. First, if you’re headed outdoors -- you’ll want to know that salt-water crocodiles won’t be rampant. This is the dry season, so outdoor guides will know where crocs lurk. Also, the Brisbane Festival starts in September. I wouldn’t miss Riverfire, the monster pyrotechnic display that launches the weeks-long festival.

Kuranda Cairns Australia Queensland Travel to Australia
A view near Kuranda, just west of Cairns.

Arrange air travel between different phases of your trip. It’s a big country. Qantas offers great deals for inter-country travel if you book an Aussie AirPass.

Onto the main itinerary!

Phase One: 1-3 days
I recommend flying into Brisbane, the overlooked city of Australia, rather than Sydney (the departure/check-in queue in Brisbane is unwieldy). You’ll arrive early in the morning. Get some rest to banish jet lag. Then you’ll be ready for Riverfire revelry.

I enjoyed the Queensland Museum and the Queen Street Mall. Brisbane is very walkable – and great for biking and running, if that’s how you prefer to beat jet lag.

Phase Two: 3-6 days
If you travel to Australia, Queensland is a must. You’ll find the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Forest, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton table lands. I recommend renting a car.

Travel to Australia
What’s cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that’s what.

I spent a few days each in Cairns and Port Douglas, plus one night in the small town of Yungaburra. Suggested sites: The Venom Zoo, Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm, Mungali Creek Dairy, the town of Kuranda. Also, watch for walking tracks – Queensland is a great place to spot kangaroos. You might also catch sight of a cassowary. I also recommend a guided night hike in the Daintree Forest.

Phase Three: 4-6 days
If you’re adventurous  go to Darwin on the very northern tip of the Northern Territory. It might be the highlight of your travel to Australia. You’ll spot wildlife from salt-water crocs to wallabies. You can find guides to run you out to Kakadu National Park and other Outback destinations. My trip took me to Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls and the Corroboree, White Lilly and Sandy billabongs.

The possibilities are mind-boggling. Figure out what sites you want to see, and find a good guide company. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car and doing it yourself. It’s easy to get lost or stuck in the Outback.

When you feel like relaxing, check out the Wharf Precinct and the Parap Village Market. A quick note: Accommodations in Darwin are pretty expensive.

Sydney from Darling Harbour Travel to Australia
Evening in Sydney

Phase Four: 3-6 Days
Your travel to Australia wraps up in Sydney … the Sydney Opera House, the beaches and a lot of nightlife and shopping. I’d also recommend a trip to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. It’s a bit cooler – and extremely laid back. You’ll find plenty of hiking.

Back in Sydney, I wouldn’t leave without a visit to the Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe. You’ll find plenty to do near Circular Quay and Cockle Bay, too.

Otherwise, I don’t need to tell you much. This is Sydney, probably the biggest reason you wanted to travel to Australia. Pick a direction and walk. Grab a water taxi. You will, if you have any innate curiosity, find something to do. Sydney is cosmopolitan and hip, yet also friendly. It’s as lively a city as you’ll ever see.

Wrapping it Up
Well, you’re about to head back home. I hope you found some great experiences during your travel to Australia.

Have you been to any of these places, whether after taking my advice or just by coincidence? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Tell me all about it!

This post contains a sponsored link.

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CategoriesAdventuresFitnessGear

Stand Up Paddle Board Trip – New On My “To Do” List

Stand up paddle board

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for something new to try. An excursion on a stand up paddle board is now a new item on my to-do list.

So, first off … what is a stand up paddleboard? I think of it as a surfboard that’s so stable you can stand on it – and paddle wherever you feel like going. Here’s the wikipedia definition. It’s an emerging sport that has much of what I look for: a chance to build fitness, some cool equipment and the chance to spot cool wildlife.

Let’s start with the fitness part of it. You’re standing up. You’re using your arms. And here’s a big one – water is an unstable surface. So you have to use just about every muscle in your body to stay balanced on a stand up paddle board. Remember, you can catch a wave, too – so you’ll need stability even when the water works in your favor.

Stand up paddle board, SUP

Add the paddling motion into it, and the intensity ramps right up. When you really bear down with the power, you’ll have to work your core muscles even harder to stay upright. All that adds up to nice fitness benefits – and I’ll try just about anything that promises a fun way to work off all the tasty local foods I like to sample when I travel.

Now, let’s talk about equipment. For some people, gear is a huge chunk of the stand up paddle board fun – I can say this with all the authority of 20+ years on the mountain bike. The crew at Legends SUP in Southern California knows the gear and its impact on the fun; the Legends SUP staff outfits all sorts of paddleboarders from the beginner level all the way up.

You’ll need a board and a paddle. But what else? Possibly a wetsuit, a personal flotation device and some sunscreen. I was surprised by the array of gear for different usage – you’ll see a stand-up paddle board for every application from river use to women-specific designs.

Paddleboarding at Sunset
Paddleboarding at sunset looks alright to me. (Photo credit: Rosa Say)

That leaves us with some opportunities to spot wildlife. If your travel takes you to the Monterrey, Calif., area, you’ll find places to spot a sea otter from a stand up paddle board. And sea turtles and sea lions sighting ares common in the Galapagos Islands.

I’m an Australia-phile, so I’d try a stand up paddle board next time I travel to Australia. The only thing better than spotting wildlife in Australia is managing to not get eaten by them. But just mind the advice from any locals, and you should be good to go.

This is a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts on the sport of stand up paddleboarding are my own. 

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CategoriesAdventuresTravel

Best Sporting Events – My Top Four

Arsenal F.C. and FC Barcelona line up before the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final. Photo taken from en.wikipedia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a little different about what I consider the best sporting events. Baseball? Blah. Basketball? Meh. Football, the American kind? Doesn’t do much for me. Hockey? I still love it, but the recent constipation in getting the NHL season started tarnishes the world’s most-prestigious league.

But so what? There are plenty of other leagues and sports in the world. A combination of travel and straight-up curiosity led me to ask: What makes my list of best sporting events? Well, here they are. Get ready for some surprises.

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage
You’ve heard of the FIFA World Cup. It’s supposed to be the pinnacle of soccer (sorry, my UK friends – I feel like a poseur being an American who says football unless I’m in your country). I argue that the UEFA Champions League is a higher standard of play. Think about it – national teams get together every now and then, and meaningful matches are rare.

The UEFA Champions League, though, pits the top teams from member leagues against each other. These guys play together week in, week out – they mesh like no national team can. The quality of play puts it on my list of best sporting events. By the time you reach the knockout stages, there’s all to play for. The teams in best form eliminated the rest in the group stage. And now, you’re left with a few rounds where teams play a home-and-away series. The team with the most goals in each advances to the next round, with away goals being a tiebreaker.

A curling rock waits for a throw. (Photo credit: markjdos)

A Big Ol’ Curling Bonspiel
Curling is cool, and I don’t care what anyone says about it. I can say this with the authority of not only someone who’s seen the movie Men With Brooms, but someone who has actually tried curling.

That last bit is important. Curling taught me that it’s difficult, both in strategy and execution. And I have yet to meet a curling person who isn’t friendly and eager to welcome interested people to the sport. That makes me want to see a bonspiel, or curling tournament. The biggest is the Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel, which is the sport’s biggest and oldest – more than 1,000 teams, and the inaugural happened in 1888. But biggest isn’t always best -- I hope a curling cognescenti weighs in with a suggestion of the best bonspiel for spectators.

Hurling (Photo credit: Steve Burt)

An Irish Hurling Experience
I know, I know -- Irish + hurling = jokes about having too many pints. But no: Hurling is a cool game of Gaelic origin. Played outdoors. With a ball and wooden sticks. And lots of lacrosse-like action -- but the only protective gear players wear is a helmet with a faceguard (a requirement since just 2010).

Here’s the really good stuff: The game has a low-key vibe where player egos take a back seat. The jerseys feature no numbers or player names. Players are unpaid, throwing themselves out there for love of the game. I’ll make the same appeal to hurling fans that I did to the curlers: Feel free to educate me on the best competitions!

Believe it or not, rugby can get physical. (Photo credit: paddynapper)

For the Good of the State
I’d never heard of the State of Origins rugby series. That changed when I went to an Australian’s birthday party in Brisbane. He educated me on the appeal of this best-of-three series of matches; they pit players from Queensland and New South Wales. He told me there are also political overtones, with the teams representing the more conservative versus the liberal (respectively). That added fire makes it one of my best sporting events … even if it’s far too overlooked.

Aside from being arguably the highest standard of rugby, I love the idea of players representing their home state/province. More accurately, they play for the state where they first registered for senior rugby. So there’s occasional controversy, as you might guess. But the central idea remains intact, and makes this a must-see on my next visit to Australia.

 

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Categoriesfeatured

Australia and New Zealand – Not the Same Continent

Resident of Australia – not New Zealand

To my friends in Australia and New Zealand,

If you felt a disturbance in The Force earlier, blame my co-worker. She said a few things about you that weren’t true. I was there, though, to step up for you both. To set the record straight. To make your antipodean world clearer and more real … one person at a time.

You see, I overheard two co-workers talking about skydiving. One of them was talking about going to San Diego to skydive.

Being the tireless travel advocate I am, I said “If you really want to get into some adventure, go to New Zealand. It’s the place where adventure sports are born.”

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CategoriesAccommodationsAdventuresfeatured

Darwin, Australia: My Guide to the Top End’s Top City

Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”

But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.

Launchpad for Adventure

The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.

Enjoying a sunny day in Darwin, NT.

Small City, Big Nightlife

Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.

Don’t Go Homeless

Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.

Want to see really Australian wildlife? Then get to Darwin and book a tour.

Shopping and Stuff

The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.

This post is sponsored by Accor Hotels. With over 4,000 hotels in more than 90 countries stretching across all continents, Accorhotels offers you a huge choice of destinations.

There are over 400 hotels and resorts in 18 countries across Asia Pacific. Choose from a range of hotels, from Sofitel to Ibis, Pullman to Novotel. Accorhotels offers accommodation to suit all budgets.

CategoriesAccommodations

Brisbane – Overlooked City of Australia

BNE CityFerry
The Brisbane riverside at night. (By Bachya Byrne via Wikimedia Commons)
Brisbane is Australia’s overlooked city. It was my last stop Down Under before heading back to the United States. Though I knew little about Brisbane, it became one of my favorite cities.

We arrived with barely any plans. Our first mission was to look for cheap Brisbane hotels. We picked a bad time to wait until the last minute because of a city-wide festival about to begin. We got lucky, though, and found an affordable place near the Queen Street Mall. That put us across the street from the apartment of some friends who lived in Australia at the time.

So what’s cool about Brisbane?

First off, the Brisbane Festival in September. It begins with a crazy fireworks display called Riverfire. In 2007, the fireworks started when F-111 jet fighter-bombers screeched over the city at sub-skyscraper altitude, flames from their afterburners casting a glow over the city. Australia no longer flies the F-111, so I’m not sure how Riverfire launches now. The weeks-long festival showcases art in all its forms. We had no clue about the festival when we arrived in Brisbane, but left blown away by its scope and quality.

Then, we did what we always do in an unfamiliar city: We walked. One of the better finds? The Queensland Museum. Since we like science and nature, we found a lot to enjoy. I always approach museums with caution – some are weighted heavily toward the kids. The Queensland Museum’s literature and displays had a nice balance – simple enough for younger visitors, but thorough enough for adults.

A look inside the Queensland Museum.

Then there’s the Queen Street Mall, an open-air thoroughfare of shops and dining. I didn’t do much shopping. I was there just to stroll around and enjoy the Brisbane ambiance. But I could’ve found anything from the usual touristy items to pretty much any clothes or sportswear – especially if it’s rugby, cricket or Australian Football League-related!

We also found a brewery called The Brewhouse. The selection wasn’t huge back in 2007 – but craft brewing was still filtering through Australia at the time. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a chocolate porter.

And I know this might be routine for some people -- but for a desert dweller like me, a ride down the Brisbane River on the CityCat is a lot of fun. Any amount of standing water gets me excited. Embarrassing, I know! It just continues the Australia theme of good public transportation by rail, boat or bus.

This post is sponsored by QuickBeds.com, the fee-free way to book cheap domestic and international accommodation. They’ve done their fair share of sleeping around so that you have the best deals on a not-so-slumberous 50,000 international and 4,000 domestic accommodation options. This includes hotels, apartments, B&Bs, backpackers, resorts, motels.

CategoriesAdventures

The Kangaroo – A Spotter’s Guide

Hold still, Skippy! My one half-decent wild kangaroo shot. And I’m not even convinced it’s not actually a wallaby.

A kangaroo in the wild is nothing like what you see in the zoo.

Stealth and speed kept me from getting many good kangaroo photos. I tried hard, everywhere from Kakadu National Park to the Atherton Table Lands.

First off, imagine the setting: Forest lands, often dotted with termite mounds. When you scan the terrain, you’ll see the trees. And you’ll see the termite mounds. Things get interesting, though, when a group of "termite mounds" starts to move. Fast. Their body shape at rest is an amazing camouflage.

From a distance, a good-sized kangaroo can look like a big ol’ termite mound.

Now, just set aside your notions of how a kangaroo moves when it’s hell-bent to get away from you. Forget everything you imagine about a placid, languid bounce.

Instead, imagine a furry missile streaking over the land. From what I could see, they fold their upper bodies parallel to the ground. They push off with their hind legs and project their considerable power back rather than up. The result is a tremendous burst of speed – and little chance for the camera I carried at the time to catch any action: My Fuji superzoom was great for landscape, but was just overmatched for trying to catch a fast, quick, camera-shy creature.

So if you want to photograph Skippy, remember these tips:

  • Be quiet
  • Be patient
  • Use an SLR
  • Bring a big, honkin’ lens, no less than 200 millimeters.
CategoriesAccommodationsUncategorized

The Awesome Australian Crocodile Hotel of Jabiru

An aerial view of the Gagudju Holiday Inn of Jabiru, Australia. Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

You can count on seeing all sorts of crazy things in Australia – termite mounds, bizarre rock formations, sharp-beaked and cantankerous cassowaries, just to name a few.

But it might be a hotel that leaves you scratching your head most.

I’d have to rank the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn as one of the craziest hotels in Australia. Just being in the deep Outback town of Jabiru in the famous Northern Territory puts it on the list. Being built in the shape of a salt-water crocodile takes it into the upper echelon of wacky. And it surely has to be the most unusual Holiday Inn ever.

So is it kitschy or cool? I can’t say first-hand since I only drove through Jabiru with Wilderness Adventures guide Amy and a crew of other loons. We stopped long enough for wallaby meat pies and some oil for The Possum before heading back out. While images of kachinas, cowboys and Kokopelli statues raise the hackles of Arizonans like me, Aussies are more laid-back about embracing the touristy elements of their area. So they probably get a few laughs out of it.

As for you -- if you’re staying in Jabiru, I say go for it. The Gagudju Crocodile could be a really fun departure from the usual bland hotel experience. It’s also owned by indigenous people, so you may get some insights from the staff.

While you’re in the Top End, think about adventuring into the Kakadu National Park, which is 60 by 120 miles of rugged territory filled with wildlife. It’s definitely one of the Northern Territory’s main attractions. I don’t recommend renting your own car and going off into the Kakadu, though. It’s best to grab a knowledgeable guide to navigate the trails – and to know where the crocs are lurking!

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

"Hell Walking" and Tramping – How to Hike Abroad

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugar
Right, mates ... who's up for some hell walkin'?

When Sarah and I were in Australia, we met a traveler from Ireland. She was single, in her late 20s, active.

She told us about all the trouble she was having getting other lone travelers to hike with her.

Well, she didn’t actually say "hike." That’s not the Irish vernacular for "stomping around in the dirt in big boots." For our Irish buddy, that’s known as "hill walkin‘."

Wandering Justin shows us how to tramp.
But, you pair this with an Irish accent, and you get -- "hell walkin’."

So she was probably scaring everyone away with the threat of walking into Beelzebub’s own nature preserve.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness any such mix-ups in New Zealand. There, "hiking"/"hillwalking" is known as -- wait for it -- tramping! Yes, you and your best friend can spend weeks tramping around New Zealand.

You can make what you will of the phrase Australians use -- bushwalking!

"Trekking" is another word that’s common for long-distance hiking. But really, it’s nowhere near as fun as these others.

CategoriesUncategorized

How Visiting Family is Ruining America

Visiting your grandma is making you dumb and ruining the United States. I just realized this while reading Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.

The author, Chuck Thompson, briefly mentions that most Americans travel to visit family members across the country. That, and the meager piece of vacation time doled out to Americans by those cutting their paychecks, are the roots of the problem.

Americans get the shaft when it come to vacation time.

I get 120 hours per year, and this is considered a king’s ransom of vacation time in the United States. Meanwhile, I get snickered at by part-time baristas from Holland for that measly chunk of paid time off (and for my health benefits, which to them is the equivalent of being cared for by faith healers, witch doctors and veterinarians).

So there’s problem one. We have a limited chunk of time.

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CategoriesUncategorized

Visit Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory

The ultimate eating machine - waiting for you to visit.

A Guide to Darwin, the Gateway to Adventure in Australia’s Top End
If you’re off to Australia, you need to see the rugged Northern Territory. It’s rugged and untamed, and the port town of Darwin is a major gateway to all the fun. There are tons of trips departing Darwin – all ready to take travelers from Litchfield Park to the mighty Kakadu!
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CategoriesUncategorized

Watch Wallabies and other Wildlife in Australia’s Top End

What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.
What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.

Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.

It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit: The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.

If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory. It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,  measuring nearly 60 by 120

Crikey, what a specimen!
Crikey, what a specimen!miles. Many of the roads are rugged, and barely even worthy of being called trails - much less roads. There are certain rental car companies that will not even rent their vehicles to people who intend to venture into the Kakadu.

And each square mile of both the Top End and the Kakadu is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.

During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):

Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong
Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong

Corroboree Billabong

This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s  a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.

But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.

Rock wallaby at Ubirr
Rock wallaby at Ubirr

Ubirr

There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guides are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking. You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.

White Lilly Billabong

While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.

Hold still, Skippy!
Hold still, Skippy!

This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!

The Termite Mounds

Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.

Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.

The Didgeridoo Hut

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – and your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high. During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.

Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
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Australia Post #11: Yunguburra to Cairns to Brizzy

Thursday, Aug. 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, we sadly had to get back in the car and drive back to Cairns. This is the sad point of the vacation: It’s nearly over, and there’s a good chance I’ll never see any of these places again. And that’s too bad, because this is just such a relaxing, beautiful, uncrowded place to be.
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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.

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Australia 2007 Post 9 – Cairns to Kuranda to Port Douglas

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Monday, Aug. 27

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

One view of Barron Gorge
One view of Barron Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same with cheese and bacon!” I added.

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

Heh, heh. Consider that my public service.

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

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

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Australia 2007 Post #8 – Darwin to Gove to Cairns

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

Saturday, Aug. 25

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow, on to Cairns!

Sunday, Aug. 26
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We were up plenty early to catch our bus to the airport. It’s the usual Australian airport experience…fairly quick and a lot less of the maniacal hysteria of a U.S. airport. We boarded our Qantas flight, a little Boeing 717. It’s about a three-hour flight to Cairns, and obviously not as many people make that flight as they do from Sydney to Darwin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seaside in Cairns
The seaside in Cairns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overlooking Cairns
Overlooking Cairns
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Australia 2007 – Last Day in the Kakadu

Friday, Aug. 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attention, please! I am cuteness personified!
Attention, please! I am cuteness personified!
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How to Talk to Aborigines

Thursday, Aug. 23

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s good eating?”

“Yeah.”

“Will this kill me or make me sick?”

“Well, yeah.”

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

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

Sign of the times
Sign of the times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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