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Gear for the First-Time Traveler: 5 Essentials

A selection of must-have items for a traveler.
A selection of must-have items for a traveler.

Earlier this week, I found out my 17-year-old niece is taking her first international trip … without her parents. She’ll head to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, as part of a youth group. There, the group will get its hands dirty with some public works projects.

My official notice of her plans came as a form letter; members of the group are asking friends and family for some dollars for their trip. You probably already guess that my niece asked the right guy. I called her up and told her that I’d not only send some dollars, but I’d also make a run to REI to pick up a few odds and ends that will be handy for her Mexico trip … and any others that await.

So what does an intercontintental traveler/uncle send his first-time traveler niece? Here’s a breakdown of her Wandering Justin travel care package … and how each item earned its place.

English: Petzl Tikka XP
Not a Tikka 2 … but still a great headlamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Petzl Tikka 2 Headlamp
Light, water and air – you can’t live without them. A Petzl headlight can take care of at least one of them. And I’ve used my Petzl headlamp everywhere … from a blackout-stricken hotel in Dallas to a rainforest in Belize. It’s one of the first things I pack for a trip of any duration. Don’t even think a normal flashlight will do: A headlamp frees your hands, which can be essential when – as Forrest Griffin would say – the shit goes down. And the Tikka 2 has everything you need without any superfluous junk.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack
There is no limit to the Ultra-Sil pack’s usefulness. Folded up, it’s about the size of a D battery. Shake it out, and it’s a perfect piece of carry-on luggage. Going out for the day and don’t want to lug your full-sized backpack? Throw your stuff in the Ultra-Sil and call it good. If you’re camping (whether in a forest or an airport), stuff the Day-Sil with some puffy clothes and you have a pillow. Perfect for the international first-time traveler.

Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER at Canberra A...
If you have a bottle, you’ll always have water on an Asiana Airlines 777 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Platypus SoftBottle
Remember that water I mentioned earlier? Here’s where you can put it. Breeze through the TSA security checkpoint with your empty bottles, then fill them up on the other side. No forking over $5 for 16 ounces of water for you! Once you’re on the plane, you can fill the Platypus bottle at one of the water taps throughout the cabin (well, that assumes you’re flying something awesome like an Asiana Airlines 777, my favorite plane out there right now). At your destination, carry the Platypus bottles with you everywhere. Drink, refill, repeat. I chose a pair of 17-ounce models for my niece; they’re more compact than the 34-ounce model.

Guyot Designs MicroBites
I remember watching a bunch of Europeans noshing away on a trail in New Zealand. They weren’t eating anything great, but it was better than my energy bars. But I didn’t have utensils to dig into something more substantial anyway. Never again, since I got my Guyot Designs MicroBites. They’re hard to destroy, and handy anywhere from a mountaintop to a hostel kitchen. They wash easily, too. And my niece will have a hard time losing the bright-red set I picked!

Energy Bar Mix
Sometimes, some solid pre-packed foods are just what you need. Airplane food’s too gross (or expensive)? Whip out a good bar. Have a long hike in front of you, and you’re keeping weight and bulk to a minimum? Energy bars, done! I’m hooked on ProBar – I got her a few different varieties including the big high-calorie ProBar Meal. They give you a huge amount of energy while taking up barely any room in your stomach (a very important point when traveling).

I also added a few Rise bars. I brought its entire line with me to Norway, and it powered me through a long, hard hike in conditions from sleet to sunshine, with more than a bit of wind for good measure.

Other Items Worth Considering
I could’ve gone hog-wild equipping my niece at REI. I went for some main essentials, but also gave thought to a few nice-to-haves:

Electrolyte Tablets
A kid from the Midwest could get dehydrated pretty easily in Mexico’s heat. Water alone might not do it – you need sodium, potassium and other good stuff along with the H20. Dissolve some electrolyte tabs in the Platypus bottle, and you’re good to go. So why didn’t I get some? I don’t know which of the myriad flavors she might like. Me? I love Gu Electrolyte Brew tablets in Peach Tea flavor. Another good point: If the water doesn’t taste good, electrolytes can mask the nastiness. That makes you drink more and stay hydrated.

Travel Towel
There are several companies making travel towels. These magical bits of fabric pack into no space at all, and yet the absorb water like a 500-pound sheep. Not a necessity, but handy.

last bit of advice: If you’re travelling solo, be sure to do some research on the destinations before you hit the ground. Websites such as Travel Associates have some really great must-read information on places to visit for solo travelers  Packing your gear is always easier if you know a bit about your destinations!

This post contains sponsored links.

 

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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 #10 – Port Douglas and Yungaburra

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Tuesday, Aug. 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, Aug. 29

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

INVISIBLE SPEEDO!
INVISIBLE SPEEDO!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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