Sunday March 14th to Sunday June 6th 2004
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon -- fortunately. We rented a car at the airport and headed off to a caravan park to camp. Sydney is a big city with over 4 million people and, to the new arrival, has a complicated and busy road system. At least on Sunday we didn't have to deal with the crazy traffic. Their city streets seem to suddenly turn into highways that then suddenly turn into toll roads (much to our surprise and expense). After a few wrong turns we managed to find the place we were looking for and were delighted by the colourful rainbow lorikeets, crying ravens, laughing kookaburras and screeching sulphur crested cockatoos in the trees by our tent. This was just a taste of the fantastic wildlife that was to come.
The next day our first order of business was to buy a car. We so liked the freedom and versatility that having a car gave us in New Zealand (not to mention not having to carry our packs everywhere) that we decided to do the driving thing again here. Once again, you buy a car and cross your fingers that it's not a lemon that will die in the outback. We're jumping ahead but we can tell you that we got lucky again and our Toyota Camry station wagon carried us over 16,000km and did not let us down.
The Blue Mountains
We only spent a couple of days in Sydney; just enough to get ourselves outfitted and ready to go. We wanted to do the south while the weather was still nice and planned to see more of Sydney when we returned. Our first stop was at the Featherdale Wildlife Park on our way to the Blue Mountains. So, our first day of real touristing and we saw almost all the animals Australia has to offer. We were so excited to see our first kangaroos and dozens of other animals, some we had never heard of. We saw exotic birds, big lizards, cuddly koalas, emus, cassowaries, dingoes, wombats, Tasmanian devils, poisonous snakes (OZ has the 10 most venomous snakes in the world) spiders, echidnas, flying foxes (bats), little blue (or fairy) penguins and saltwater crocodiles. This was a great introduction to the wildlife, much of which we would see later in the wild.
Our first night was in the famous Blue Mountains. The mountains are covered in eucalyptus trees, which release oil into the atmosphere. This oil refracts light more than air does which gives the area a blue haze -- hence the name. We saw a few waterfalls and impressive escarpments but, after two months in New Zealand, we're a little hard to impress with landscape. However, the national park and the eucalyptus forests are beautiful. There are 500-year-old lilli pilli trees and we were lucky to see three elusive lyrebirds.
Heading west we visited the Jenolan Caves, the biggest cave system in Australia. It’s a huge cave system with many caves; it has been a tourist sight for many years. At one point our guide pointed out a column that was formed when a stalactite and a stalagmite meet. Due to movements of the roof or floor (possibly during an earthquake) the column had been broken. He went on to explain Aussie-naming conventions for things. He said, “You know the city of Sydney, right? And there’s a harbour there called Sydney Harbour. And there’s a bridge over the harbour and it’s called Sydney Harbour Bridge, right? Well, this formation is called Broken Column”. Yup, they tend to call it like they see it in Oz, fair dinkum.
Parkes and "The Dish"
We stayed the night in the town of Orange. They don't grow oranges here; it's named for Willem of Orange. It has two claims to fame -- before Canberra was selected, Orange was considered for the national capital and Barry Paterson, who wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda was born here. But, the real reason for our detour to this little visited part of the country was to see "The Dish" near Parkes. If you haven't seen the movie “The Dish” with Sam Neill, go rent it, we can guarantee you'll enjoy it. The movie is a light comedy about Australia's contribution to the NASA Apollo 11 moon landing. The Parkes radio telescope was the biggest dish in the southern hemisphere and the television pictures that the world watched (600 million people) of the first moon landing came through that dish. They were also instrumental in helping the stricken Apollo 13 mission when they lost power. The huge dish was able to pick up the their weak signals. But the dish wasn't built for NASA's space program; it is really for seeing far across the galaxy and into the distant past. They have discovered over 1000 pulsars and helped map our Milky Way galaxy so we know it's a spiral galaxy. Our trip to Parkes had two unforeseen bonuses. We drove through a cloud of locusts (bug juice all over the front of the car) and we saw a large red dust devil (or small tornado).
When the separate British colonies were federated in 1901 they decided to build a new national capital. In 1908 the site was diplomatically chosen, halfway between the two great rivals of Sydney and Melbourne. Parliament was first held in Canberra in 1927. They were a little short of money when building the first Parliament House so it was always considered a temporary building until they could construct a more appropriate building. They never figured that the 'temporary parliament house' would be in use for 60 years until the new one was finished in 1988. It was a good plan because the new one is a striking building that almost melds into the hill with its grass covered roof. Inside are marble columns and staircases, detailed marquetry, one of four known copies of the 1297 Magna Carta and over 3000 original works of art. There are also a few hundred comedians who put on a show in a big room called the House of Representatives. They called the show "Question Time" -- all quite interesting and entertaining. John Howard, the prime minister, must have quite a talent to be able to give long winded replies to the same question asked five times and never come close to answering the question. It was such a rowdy show that the straight man in a big chair (called “The Speaker” even though he didn’t do much of the talking), threw some of the comedians out of the show. We ended up spending most of the day at Parliament House. One little interesting fact we learned is that the kangaroo and emu are featured on the Australian coat of arms because they are two animals that cannot walk backwards (i.e. Australia will always go forward).
The next day we visited the old parliament house that was used from 1927 to 1988 and is now a museum. Architect John Smith Murdoch, a Scot by birth, designed it. In British tradition the upper house is in red and the lower is in green. We took a tour then wandered around by ourselves. They've got hundreds of exhibits and, once again, we ended up spending most of the day in the one building. One of the more interesting exhibits was a temporary show of details of the 2002 Bali bombing in which 202 people died, 88 of them Aussies. The display documents the unprecedented co-operation between the various police organizations from many countries and the highly technical forensics used. This co-operation led to the quick apprehension of the terrorists. The forensics on display included fragments of the mobile phone used to set off one of the three bombs, a piece of the suicide bomber's vest/jacket, a piece of copper wire used in one of the bombs and a damaged metal street sign. It's amazing, seeing photos of the destruction, that they could find and identify these tiny bits. (Jackie found this a rather strange thing to exhibit).
Outside the old parliament house is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. This was established in 1972 in response to the then government's refusal to recognise land rights. It is now listed as a heritage site. We also visited the futuristic and cheerfully wacky National Museum of Australia -- great architecture but not much content.
We decide to apply for our China visas here rather than waiting until the last minute before we left from Sydney. This would take three days so we headed off to the Snowy Mountains and Kosciuszco National Park. Along the roadside are warning signs to watch out for animals. Jackie's favourite is the kangaroo sign. At each sighting she sings "Skippy, Skippy, Skippy the bush kangaroo". It drives Peter nuts as she only knows the first two lines (and can't sing). In time, Peter, growing tired of this started singing "Skippy, Skippy, Skippy the mush kangaroo" at the sighting or each road kill kangaroo. (After our 16,000km journey we’re not sure which we saw more of, kangaroo signs or dead kangaroos.) Aussies have a great sense of humour -- as we approached the ski area we saw a kangaroo sign that someone had modified to show a skiing kangaroo - we didn't spot any of those. We bush camped (usually we’re in caravan parks) and on our first night saw our first wild kangaroo, a big eastern grey hopped by. Next day we sat and watched 40 or so of them lolling in the shade and occasionally munching grass. We also spotted a snake. It may have been poisonous but someone had just run over it (poor thing) so we figured we were safe. We also saw an echidna (looks like a porcupine) and a thylocine (well, these are actually extinct but Pete swears he saw stripes on it's back. It was probably a dingo). We took the chairlift up to the top of Mt Crackenback (1930m) and walked towards the highest mountain in Australia, Mt Kosciuszco at 2228m. It was windy and chilly and by July there will be enough snow for skiing. We drove along the Alpine Way surrounded by mountains and trees. Although it is pretty, it wasn't vibrant in colour due to the dry summer months.
Next we popped back to Canberra to pick up our visas and then we headed to the coast. We stopped at Blackfellas Point, a little known holiday park on the beach (recommended to us by an Aussie). Here there were lots of big eastern grey kangaroos and little red-necked wallabies hanging around. The wallabies were very friendly and came up close to check us out.
We then headed south, briefly stopping in the old whaling town of Eden. Local orcas (killer whales) actually used to help the whalers catch humpbacks. Orcas can’t easily kill humpback whales by themselves but they can scare them. The whalers couldn’t easily catch humpbacks in their wooden rowboats but they could kill them with harpoons. A strange working relationship evolved where the orcas would push the humpbacks into the bay and the humans would kill them. The orcas would eat just the tongues and lips leaving the rest for the humans. Another story tells of 2 whale boats that went out after a whale, they harpooned it but the whale dived. It eventually came up again and wrecked one of the boats, most of the crew got into the other boat but 2 men were missing. The whale eventually died and was taken ashore. As they cut it up they saw something move so they cut open a stomach (whales have between 2 and 9 stomachs). Inside, one of the missing men was found, alive but unconscious. He had been there 15 hours. The digestive juices of the whale had bleached him, he had no hair and he was blind. However, he survived and lived another 15 years.
Wilson's Promontory NP & Phillip Island
We continued on into Victoria to Wilson's Promontory National Park, the southern most point on the mainland. We camped under stringybark trees and wandered along the beaches. There's a tidal river called … you guessed it … Tidal River with swampy paperbark trees, banksias, grasses and wetlands. We spotted many brightly coloured crimson rosellas and we experienced our first Aussie rain. Next it was on to Phillip Island. The island is famous for hosting the Australian Grand Prix and for the colonies of very cute fairy (or little or blue) penguins. We sampled some local wines and visited the Koala Conservation Centre. These cuddly creatures sleep for 18-20 hours a day, the rest of the time they eat eucalyptus leaves, groom themselves and (hopefully) find mates. Mating is painful for the female and it only lasts 1 or 2 minutes. Thirty-five days later a little, hairless, "embryonic " baby is born and immediately crawls up through mum's furry tummy to her pouch, finds a nipple and clamps on. It will suckle for several months. When it gets too big for the pouch it will hang on to mum's back. At around a year it will find its own branch to hang out on.
Next we explored the big city of Melbourne with its Victorian-era buildings, futuristic Federation Square, China Town, Greek Street, trams, museums, art galleries and lots more. With over three and a half million people it's Australia's second biggest city. Jackie also looked up an old school friend, Lynne. We had a great night meeting Joe (her husband), Craig, Daniel and Ryan (their 3 boys). We reminisced and Lynne was able to bring Jackie up to date with the Glasgow gossip despite being 16,962.9514km (we looked it up) away. Thanks for dinner, guys.
We then moved onto the gold town of Ballarat. Here, they've re-created a gold mining town of the 1860s. It's a living museum, with actors dressed in costumes of the time. We had fun panning for gold (no luck), took tours of the mines underground, watched a gold pour ($50,000 worth of liquid gold made into a 3kg bullion bar) and watched some very corny (but fun) old theatre shows - the jokes were worse than Pete's. From here we headed south for the drive along the famous Great Ocean Road. Described in Lonely Planet as "one of the world's most spectacular ocean drives". We passed through the little towns of Torquay (surf capital of Oz), Anglesea, Apollo, Lorne, etc. The scenery is great and a big highlight is the much-photographed Twelve Apostles. These are huge rock stacks in the ocean. There's also dramatic limestone cliffs, gorges, arches and blowholes.
Mt. Eccles NP & Grampians NP
We then headed inland to Mt Eccles National Park, known for its large koala population. No sooner had we set up the tent and had a cuppa, than a little guy came down from a tree behind us and checked us out. He allowed us to get close to take photos and as they like to conserve their energy, he stopped there for a while. Later he got down onto the forest floor and hopped along to another tree and slowly climbed up it. He then happily munched on some delicious eucalyptus leaves. Our presence obviously did not upset him and with no one else around it was a fantastic encounter for us. Later a brushtail possum also came to visit. The next morning we explored Mt Eccles with its crater lake and lava caves, then drove north to the Grampians National Park. There's mountains, forests, trekking (called bush walking here), waterfalls etc. We ventured on a couple of short bush walks and were rewarded with incredible views, especially from The Pinnacle and The Balconies. In a nearby village we tried some bushtucker - emu, kangaroo, crocodile, damper bread and berries, they were pretty good (later in our trip we try kangaroo again and camel). We also visited some pretty waterfalls and saw hundreds of kangaroos.
Naracoorte Caves & Flinders Ranges NP
Now into South Australia, our first stop was the Naracoorte Caves. These caves have acted as pitfall traps for unwary animals for over 300,000 years. Their bones have been covered up by sediments and fossilised. Palaeontologists have been excavating for three decades and have found 127 different species and only 10% has been uncovered so far! Many of the bones belong to large animals that became extinct around 50,000 years ago. Collectively these animals are known as the "megafauna". There were huge kangaroos, giant quadrupedal marsupials such as Zygomatum (hippo like) and Diprotodon. Megafaunal predators included the marsupial "lion" (Thylacoleo) and the enormous Wonambi, a constrictor like snake. We were taken on a fantastic tour of the caves and the fossil site itself. Our guide was so enthusiastic and we got a real hands-on experience. Who knows what will be uncovered in the next couple of decades.
It was on to Adelaide, a pleasant city of over a million people. We explored downtown and visited the South Australia Museum (very good). They have a great exhibit on Sir Douglas Mawson and Antarctica. He was born in 1882 in Yorkshire and emigrated at the age of 2. He was the physicist on the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition with Shackleton and later as leader of the Australian Antarctic Expedition in 1911-14 (which Frank Hurley was also on as photographer). On show are personal belongings, reconstructed huts and wonderful film and photos that Frank Hurley took. Also in the museum are the oldest fossils in the world - 550 million years old. This fairly recent discovery has resulted in a new 'era' in the geological time periods. We used to refer to everything prior to the Cambrian period (540 million years ago - mya) as Precambrian. Now, thanks to these fossils dated 543-600 mya the Ediacaran period has been proposed - you heard it here first folks :-)
From Adelaide we headed up to the Flinders Ranges NP where some of those fossils were found. This mountain range stretches for some 400km and parts are protected by national parks. We spent a couple of days exploring Wilpena Pound and a couple of gorges. This area was laid down over millions of years, sometimes a shallow inland sea, sometimes a desert. It was then raised and crumpled so there are stretches that are tilted almost 90° to the way they were laid down. Brachina Gorge gave us an opportunity to drive along a 'geological trail' that displays a history of 150 million years of rock deposition from 490 mya to 640 mya. We drove along the dirt road and passed through areas of slate, limestone, sandstone, laminated dolomite, tillite, quartzite, etc. each representing a different time of deposition. Our campsite was on 600 million year old rock.
There is more than just rocks in the park, we saw emus and many wallabies -- several liked to hang around the tent. It was here that we had our first real encounter with the annoying Aussie fly. They love to crawl all over, especially on your face. We had carried our mosquito head nets all around South America and had had no use for them. We now really appreciated them; we would have been driven mad without them. They look really stupid but the people without them looked at us with jealousy.
So then it was north bound on the Stuart Highway into the real Outback. Here we had our first encounters with the famous Road Trains. These trucks are 3 or 4 trailers long. With our wimpy car we needed almost a kilometre to pass them. Fortunately, on the straight, flat roads you can see 10km ahead so it wasn't too much of a problem. We passed huge salt lakes on our way. Years ago, before Australia had been fully explored, the conventional wisdom said there must be a huge inland lake in the middle because there were rivers flowing inland. One intrepid explorer even took a boat with him when he went to explore the outback. But, alas, all that water just dries up under the hot sun, and so did many of the explorers.
As the sun set we reached Coober Pedy, the opal capital of Australia. The lure of this gem has attracted thousands of people over the years. Today there are people of over 45 different nationalities searching for the big find. The name 'Coober Pedy' is an Anglicisation of an aboriginal language meaning 'white man's hole in the ground'. This aptly describes the place as about half the population lives in dugouts (formerly mines) in the ground. Daytime summer temperatures can reach 58°C (136°C) and winter nights are below freezing. Underground it stays a comfortable 25°C year round. And it's not just the temperatures that make this an inhospitable place -- there's almost no rainfall or vegetation, just sand and rocks. No wonder so many post-apocalyptic sci-fi films like Mad Max are filmed out here. Around town we visited underground shops, art galleries, museums, posh hotels and cafes.
Out of town we saw thousands of mounds of rock and sand each indicating a hole that was dug in search of opals. They do have a golf course but there’s no grass and the 'greens' are black (they use old oil to keep the 'greens' from blowing away). We also saw The Breakaways, a group of colourful hills and the dingo fence. Back in the 1900s a fence was built to protect the sheep from the dingoes. It starts in South Australia and runs 5600km to Queensland -- twice as far as the Great Wall of China.
Click here for Australia Part 2