Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On the Road in South Australia

Starting tomorrow, Feb. 21, I will be on the road for nine days on a tour across the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia to Perth in Western Australia. The trip will be a mix of camping and staying in very basic accomodations. I think there might be one day in a town.

The itinerary includes bushwalking in the southern Flinders Ranges, swimming with dolphins, sand boarding, desert golf, coastal hikes, wine tasting and a walk in the treetops in the southern Eucalypt forests of Western Australia. There will also be a lot of driving as nothing is closer together in this part of the world. This is the only tour I planned before I arrived in country. I can't promise updates on the road, but I'll do my best to keep in touch. If you don't hear from me soon, check in on March 2 for an update from Perth. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my posts from the past few days and the photos. And just for yuks, I've updated my profile.


Three weeks into my trip and it’s time to take inventory. I intentionally left New York without buying everything I might need for the journey, preferring to pick up supplies on the road based on my needs.

In the past few weeks I’ve discarded a few things, sent home some others and picked up gear that I’ll need in the weeks to come. As of today, the following list is evrything I carry. The whole lot weighs about 30 pounds.

Written out it seems like a lot. I've used just about everything on the list at least once. I think I could get by with less.

50 liter backpack
15 liter daypack
1 pair long pants
1 pair short pants
3 t-shirts
4 pairs socks
3 pairs underwear
Swimming trunks
Short sleeve collared shirt
Long-sleeve collared shirt
Short sleeve base-layer shirt
Long-sleeve base-layer shirt
Fleece pullover
Waterproof pullover
Baseball cap
Wide-brimmed hat
Crocs sandals
Merrill hiking shoes
1 Pair plastic-rimmed glasses
1 pair rimless glass
Sunglass clip-on
Large travel towel
Sleep sheet
Travel pillow
Plastic rain poncho
Sony Viao laptop computer
60GB iPod
Canon Powershot 400 camera
Palm Treo 650 triband phone
Swatch watch
Assorted cables and adapters
23 tea bags
Lonely Planet Australia guide
Two books (“The Fatal Shore” and “The World Is Flat”)
Map of Australia
3 thin moleskin notebooks
3 pens
Travel documents
Air mail stationary
Plastic Spork
Swiss Army knife
Small stuffed monkey
Deck of playing cards
1-Liter water bottle
1 roll duct tape
Medical kit (band-aids, prescriptions, antibiotics, etc.)
Roll-on deodorant
Dental floss
Nail clipper
Shaving cream
Hair brush
Sewing kit
Biodegradable soap
Universal drain plug
Small stuff sack
Money belt
Wet wipes
Hand sanitizer
Laundry soap
Insect Repellent
30SPF sunscreen
Assorted plastic bags


Classic Coast: Days 3 and 4

(Note: This is part three of a series. Scroll down if you missed the first two posts.)

The first stop of day three was an hour outside of Port Fairy. A huge crescent of white sand beckoned at the beach at Bridgewater Bay. There was an option to take a boat ride out to Cape Bridgewater to see fur seals, but I chose to enjoy an hour of solitude on the deserted beach. We arrived early enough that the sun had not yet begun to bake the sand and fry our heads, and the hour I spent wandering the beach was one of the most pleasant of the whole trip. I mostly just walked slowly and gazed at the water, but did take some time for some self-portraits. The number of people who passed me during the hour could be counted on one hand. Double the count to include their dogs.

I returned on time to discover there was a delay for the folks on the boats trips, so we were given another hour at the beach. It was spent chatting with Bernie and Kate Barnes, a retired couple from England who I would spend a lot of time on the rest of the tour and in Adelaide. I’m tempted to say they were lovely, or charming, or some such thing, but they were too cool for cliché. We sat outside the beach’s café and did what travelers with time on their hands tend to do: traded stories, remarked on the scenery and discussed destinations on past and future trips. We also found a common interest in travelogues by Bill Bryson and laughed at his description of the giant kitschy statues dotted across Australia.

The last boat finally landed and we were on the road again and crossing into the state of South Australia.

The Australian government is serious about accidents on its highways, and frequent signs remind drivers to pull over and rest. “Drowsy Drivers Die” was one particularly alliterative example. Another reminder was the use of painted metal posts to mark the location of wrecks. Black posts meant a death; red signified an injury. Most of time a single post stood by the road, but some locations might offer four or five red posts and a black one at the end of the row. Once Lawrence clued me into the meaning of these markers, my eyes were peeled for them. (For kangaroos too, but I still haven’t seen a live one yet, only roadkill.)

With the Great Ocean Road behind us, there was more driving and fewer stops. We traveled away from the coast, but often I caught glimpses of the ocean in the distance.

The rest of day three included a trip to the Umpherston Sinkhole (more limestone) and a stop at the Blue Lake, a volcanic crater that is now a reservoir for the city of Mt. Gambier. The blue lake gets its color from, yes, you guessed it, the limestone. Calcite crystals dissolve in the water and turn it a shocking shade of blue. There was mention of phosphorus, but no stink lingered in the air.

The day ended with a short walk along the cliffs of Cape Buffon at Canunda National Park. After the Shipwreck Coast, this walk was less of the same. Still, getting out of the bus and stretching our legs left everyone prepared for a night out in the town of Robe. Our backpackers’ accommodation was a converted 1880’s mansion, complete with library, tv room, volleyball court and a resident puppy more than happy to play tug-o-war with the paying guests.

We had dinner at a local pub, where Lawrence got nipped in the ankle by a small snake while we hung out in a dark corner of the patio. It was enough for him to break a nervous sweat and leave to seek medical attention. With 10 of the 10 most venomous snakes in the world living in Australia, I don’t blame him for being cautious. It turned out to be nothing and he was ready to roll the next morning.

On day four, our last day on the Classic Coast, the heat was dampened by a cloud layer. Lawrence told us the first stop was a visit with his friend Larry, and he made a show of calling “Larry” before we arrived. Bernie, Kate and I knew what was up before the bus arrived at a giant lobster perched in front of a gift shop. Lobster fishing is a multimillion-dollar industry on this part of the South Australia coast, and Larry commemorates this with kitsch. Fifteen minutes with a giant lobster never killed anyone and we all had a good chuckle. Australia also has a giant pineapple, koala and other sculptures. The lobster is enough for me.

Larry stayed behind and we drove to Coorong National Park, a mass of wetlands that is extremely dry due to drought and the diversion of water to local farms. We stopped at 28 Mile Crossing for a walk over the sand dunes to another deserted beach. I could have spent the day there, but a tour is not a tour without a tight itinerary. As much as I enjoyed the trip and saw more than I ever would have seen on my own, it was disappointing to be told to move on after 45 minutes on this beautiful beach.

The Coorong is also home to the Ngarrindjiri Aboriginal people. The Ngarrindjri have bought their land back from the Australian government and are slowly populating the area with native plants and returning it, as much as is possible, to it’s natural state. We were given a tour of the area by a local guide and learned a smidgen about the area’s edible plants and the culture of the Ngarrindjiri nation. I wanted more, but was content with this first taste of Aboriginal life. There will be more as I travel around the country, especially into the center in March.

The afternoon was upon us as we crossed the Murray River on a ferry the size of a tea cracker, then up and down the Adelaide Hills (good wine country) for a stop at a corny Bavarian tourist town called Hahndorf. One overpriced Bavarian beer later, we piled back into the bus for the last time and made the short drive into Adelaide. Goodbyes, quick hugs and a round of see-ya-laters and the trip was over.

I had never taken a tour of this kind before and was anxious before it began. I’ve seen too many tour buses in my travels to be comfortable about being part of the masses. Guides carrying colored flags being followed by lemmings is not my style. We were stuck with a tight schedule, and covered a lot of ground between Melbourne and Adelaide – 750 miles in three and a half days – but the trip felt relaxed, the stretches in the bus were never too long and the group coalesced into a fun little unit. I’m happy I took a chance and hopped on the bus. Will I take another tour with 20 people? Probably not. But hey, who am I not to try something once?

Flickr Photo Set: Classic Coast (73 Photos)

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Classic Coast: Day 2

(Note: this is day two of a four day trip. Scroll down for day one if you missed it).

In the interest of brevity I will not describe every stop along the Great Ocean Road. It’s enough to say that day two provided adventure and a mind-boggling display from Mother Nature. The cliffs of the Victoria coast are composed of limestone, a porous rock susceptible to erosion and change. The result is jagged coastlines, secluded coves and spires that jut out of the sea and appear ready to topple at any moment.

However, before heading to the coast and the helicopter, the first stop of the day was a short walk at Melba Gully in the Otway National Park. To my surprise, right there on the southern coast, right next to the Bass Strait that separates the mainland from Tasmania, is a small rainforest. The walk (to short and easy to qualify as a hike or bushwalk) took me back to my recent trip through Northern California to see the redwoods. Wet conditions, giant ferns and a look at a few Mountain Ashes, the tallest flowering trees in the world. A quick botany lesson and we were back on the road headed for the Shipwreck Coast in Port Campbell National Park.

This treacherous stretch of coastline claimed dozens of ships in the years when traffic was steady between England and the colonies. The most famous landmark is the 12 Apostles, a series of 12 limestone stacks that are best viewed from the air. One of my goals on this trip was to ride in a helicopter – check it off the list.

When I learned that the 10-minute ride over the coast was affordable, at least by my standards, I jumped. The sensation of rising straight from the ground and hovering over the coastline was beyond my expectations. How can you really know what it’s like to hover 1,000 feat above the ocean until you’ve done it? The ride was a quick back and forth over the 12 Apostles and along a stretch of the Shipwreck Coast to a famous site called Lord Ard Gorge. At the center of the picture below, behind the horseshoe shaped island, is the gorge.

It’s impossible to get all 12 apostles into a photo because in July 2005 one of them collapsed, leaving only eight. You can just make out a pile of rubble at the center of this photo.

The apostles will not last forever – they are eroding at a rate of 2 cm per year – but there’s time for all of us to get out there and see them.

The next stop was Loch Ard Gorge, the site of a famous shipwreck in 1787. The site’s fame comes from the fact that two out of 55 passengers on board the clipped the Loch Ard survived after being washed into the gorge. Standing on the beach and gazing at the narrow passage to the ocean, I realized how lucky they were. And later looking at my helicopter photos drove the point home.

The rest of the day was spent hopping in and out of the bus at one scenic vista and photo op after another – London Bridge, The Grotto, and a 280-degree panorama at the Bay of Islands. They begin to blur together after a while, but each one was breathtaking. The only drawback was the scorching heat and the persistent and annoying black flies. There’s a joke that the motion of waving your hand in front of and around your face to shoo away the flies is called the “Australian Wave.” One day on the Shipwreck Coast and every member of our group mastered the technique.

The last stop of the day was at the Tower Hill game reserve for an up close look at some of Australia’s wildlife. I took a 30-minute walk and saw a handful of koalas and a trio of emus. The koalas sit there stoned and you can walk right up next to them. They are slow-moving creatures with brains the size of a walnut, but they have sharp claws and will take your eye out is provoked. Australia – land of deadly creatures.

The end of the second day also marked the official end of the official Great Ocean Road. We spent the night in a hostel in Port Fairy (insert joke here). The hostel in Port Fairy is a converted old farmhouse. The men stayed in the stables, the women in the coachman’s house and our guide Lawrence enjoyed a private room in the hayloft.

Tomorrow: Deserted beaches, sinkholes and a blue lake.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Classic Coast: Day 1

With Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne under my belt, I was ready to leave concrete, skyscrapers and museums for some Australian countryside. After all, this is a land of massive spaces.

I am traveling in Australia on my own, with only a backpack. No wheels means I’ve had to open myself to options I once would have never considered. I’ve booked myself into three tours while I’m here, each one of different sizes and lengths. The three and a half day Classic Coast trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, through a company called Wayward Tours, covers 1,200 kilometers of coastline, long stretches of farmland and timber forest, a variety of national parks and a detour into Aboriginal territory.

(I will be traveling leaving Adelaide on Wednesday for on a nine-day trek across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth with a small group of seven. In late March, when the weather cools to tolerable levels, I will again depart from Adelaide for the Uluru and the red center on a 10-day, camping tour of the outback, dust, scrub, kangaroos, snakes and all.)

My Classic Coast group consisted of 21 travelers and a driver, an exuberant young bloke named Lawrence. I spent most of the trip in the front seat watching the landscape unfold while Lawrence shared tales of motorcycle-hopping kangaroos, offered insight into government programs to reduce highway accidents and opened my eyes to healthy state of Australian hip-hop.

The trip starts with a simple instruction: show up at 1:30 p.m. at the Victorian Arts Center in Melbourne. Packed and ready for the country, I joined the other travelers waiting for the bus. I was the only American in the group – Americans are scarce around here. But the mix of Canadians, Germans, French and Australians were accepting of the Yank in their midst and we settled in for the ride.

About an hour outside of Melbourne we stopped at Bells Beach, a famous surf break known to surfers worldwide. The ocean was “flat as a bone,” as Lawrence described it, and the beach smelled overwhelmingly of kelp, but there’s a little bit of surfing commerce worth mentioning in the area.

Bells Beach is outside of Torquay, the home of Rip Curl, a manufacturing giant specializing in wetsuits, beach wear and anything that reeks of surfing. The waves at Bells Beach are best in the winter, when currents bring cold water from Antarctica. At some point in the not too distant past, two young surfers stole some insulating material from their school and one of them asked his mother to sew a wetsuit. The suit kept them warm in the frigid waves and they soon set up shop selling wetsuits to other surfers out of the back of a truck. As they say in Hollywood, the rest is history.

The road from Bells Beach leads to the official entrance to the Great Ocean Road, a major destination for tourists and the centerpiece of our trip.

The road was built after World War I by some 3,000 laborers looking for work in the midst of a depression. The Australian government supplied the tools and told the men to connect the coastal towns that up to that time were only accessible by boat. The road took 13 years, from 1919 to 1932, to complete, and snakes its way past secluded beach, along treacherous cliffs and past picturesque coastal villages.

Late in the afternoon, we passed a stand of Eucalyptus trees were a few cars were pulled over and tourists armed with cameras were gazing into the branches. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop, but a quick glance out the window and I got my first look at koalas. One creature was perched high in a tree, with legs splayed like a dog lying belly-down on hot pavement. This image seared itself into my brain, and is the standard by which all future koalas will be judged. (There will be more koalas before this trip is through, I promise.)

The first night was spent in a village called Apollo Bay, a sleepy seaside retreat. The group ate dinner at a local resturant and after a few drinks started to bond. I assume anything can happen on these tours, with some groups keeping their distance while others become fast friends. With day one behind us, we wer starting to relax, have some laughs and looked forward to day two on the Great Ocean Road.

Tomorrow: Rainforests, helicopters, shipwrecks and a dozen scenic vistas.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Melbourne Blitz

Three days was just enough to scratch the surface of Melbourne. I rolled in on an overnight bus from Canberra to a city waking up. As I hiked through the empty streets, the lights blinking off as the sun rose, Melbourne immediately presented itself as a viable rival to my new love, Sydney.

What I find most surprising is the two cities present different and complementary identities to the short-term visitor. Sydney is a beautiful, with spectacular architecture and a stunning natural setting. Melbourne, in contrast, straddles a river and presents itself as a rather plain and undistinguished metropolis.

But under that plain exterior lies a city with heart. As much as I love Sydney, Melbourne has real character, a relaxed and confident city bursting with charm. Whereas Sydney felt like a city hurtling toward the future, Melbourne seems content to just be itself. And it’s got no shortage of confidence.

The last thing I did in Canberra was connect with a friend of a friend. I got in touch with Belinda through Elisa, my high school girlfriend, and she brought her daughters, Izzy and Maddie, to dinner. After dinner, we drove the Ainsley lookout for the view of Canberra from above. Clouds were plentiful, but not enough to diminish the experience. And I beat Maddie twice in a race up and down the stairs at the lookout (she’s only 7, and I’m fast!).

With elevation in mind, the first thing I did in Melbourne was visit the observation deck on the 55th floor of the Rialto Tower. Spoiled by the Empire State Building and even the Ainsley lookout, the Rialto was a bit of a disappointment. But getting the lay of the land is a great way to start any visit and it was nice to get the elevation.

The rest of the day was spent exploring. Downtown Melbourne is very walkable, with alleys and lanes to get lost in and cafes and restaurants around every corner. Coffee is popular here, and sidewalks are dotted left and right with tables. With the temperatures hovering between scorching and hellish (Melbourne is in the midst of a massive drought), I was not in the mood for coffee. There’s a bit of Parisian sidewalk café here.

Day two in Melbourne, I hopped one of the city trams for a trip to the seaside neighborhood of St. Kilda. What I hoped would be a funky place to relax turned out to be a bit depressing. Score one for Sydney and its beaches. Melbourne’s beach reminded me of being in New Jersey. ‘Nuff said.

The evening’s fare was much better. Anyone who knows me knows I’m crazy about moving pictures. I embrace any chance to see movies, and Melbourne delivered with Open-Air Cinema, a huge outdoor theater downtown by the Yarra river. An afternoon of rain threatened to turn the night into a soggy experience, but as I walked from Federation Square to the cinema, the rain started to let up and a rainbow arched over the river. I reserved a primo seat for myself, bought at beer at one of the food stalls and read my complimentary copy of The Age (for $21 a ticket, at least there was a free newspaper!). The film was the Australian premiere of “Notes on a Scandal” – superb performances from Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (my new favorite actress), but I felt let down by the third act. Still, the setting was amazing and the evening a success.

My final morning in Melbourne was spent tying up loose ends concerning the rest of my time here in Australia. The country is massive, with enormous distances between destinations, and while I came here hoping I could cover it on the ground, I quickly realized I would have to take a few flights. It’s all settled now and my itinerary has been set for the rest of the trip. The short version is I fly to Bali on April 9.

With business taken care of, I took off walking again. My first stop was Lygon Street, an old Italian section of the city offering pasta, espresso and gelato. I headed straight for the caramelized fig gelato, which wasn’t figgy enough for my taste. The second scoop was macadamia nut, which was nutty and good.

Next up was Brunswick Street, which is the real deal, a truly funky collection of restaurants, vintage clothing stores, bars and nightclubs and cafes, with no franchises in site. Anyone who loves shopping would love Melbourne. I'm no shopper, but even I was drawn into stores by intriguing window displays and original merchandise. I even bought some Earl Grey tea from a really nice local store called T2.

Meandering under the hot sun was taking its toll, so I ducked into a promising place called Bimbo’s, where the lunch special was $4 pizzas. My Agnello pie was piled with spicy minced lamb, pine nuts, rocket and sultanas. Rocket is lettuce and sultanas are raisins – now I know. For a beverage, I had seen the bartender pouring something with a color between ginger ale and beer. It turned out to be something called Lemon Lime Bitters, which I assume is a sugary blend of lemon and lime and bitters. I am a huge fan of lemonade, and this hit the spot. I drank two.

So now I sit here at E:fiftyfive taking advantage of unlimited wireless internet. It’s Valentine’s Day, so the place is rather busy, but still low-key. I leave tomorrow for a three-day trip along the Great Ocean Road. The road is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Can it beat Highway 1 on the California coast? I'll let you know Sunday night from Adelaide.

Flickr Photo Set: Sydney to Melbourne (116 photos)


Eating Well

Thanks to everyone who send me suggestions on healthy eating while on the road. The consensus is fresh veggies sautéed in garlic with a grain or pasta. There's no shortage of delicious fresh vegetables in Australia so I’ll give it a go. Any more ideas? Send them on. I’m limited by the fact that I can only buy what I can eat in one to three days.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Help Matt Eat

I'm finding as I travel that the guesthouses and hostels where I spend my nights are all equipped with kitchens. The best way to save a buck on the road is to cook for myself. But I'm realizing I'm not very creative when it comes to making a meal with limited ingredients. So if you are reading this, help me out. Imagine you are staying somewhere for two nights and have to cook for yourself. There is most likely butter or oil available, but for the most part you can only buy what you will eat for the next two days. Sure, I can always fall back on a bag of pasta and a jar of sauce, or a can of souce and a hunk of bread, but that's boring. What can I cook that's healthy, interesting and delicious with limited ingredients and cookware?


The World's Best Internet Cafe

I'm sitting in E:fiftyfive, a basement lounge on Elizabeth Street in downtown MelbourneI've got a tasty stout from New Zealand on my right, a dj is spinning mellow reggae tunes and there's unlimited wireless internet for just $2 ($1 Australian dollar equals about 76 cents U.S.). Buy one beer and you can surf all evening, no hassles, no ticking clock, no worries. (To put this in perspective, the going rate in Australia is about $6 an hour.) My kind of place. Reminds me of Amsterdam, but with wi-fi instead of space cakes.

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Life on the Road

I’ve been meaning to write something about what’s life has been like during these first days on the road. Before I left New York, I read a few books about long-term, independent travel, and one of the comments I found most valuable was about how a traveler spends his or her time. Consider the daily activities like eating, sleeping and hygiene that everyone must attend to. Then there are the logistics unique to the traveler: booking tickets, finding lodging, arranging transportation. Finally, there are those activities that everyone travels for: sightseeing and entertainment.

There are considerations for the traveler that anyone living in one place may not think about. I’m carrying what I feel is the absolute minimum for comfort on the road. While a light backpack makes walking a few miles an enjoyable experience, it means I have to keep tabs on my clothes and wash something every day. Synthetic materials make it easier to stay fresh and clean than it was when I traveled 20 years ago. And a stinky traveler is not a happy traveler. Or, more accurately, a stinky traveler does not make other travelers happy.

Also consider the logistics of transportation. Live in one place and getting from one around becomes second nature; whether by car, bike, bus, train or on foot, you know exactly where you are going and how long it takes to get there. The traveler constantly encounters new, unfolding landscapes, sometimes poorly marked or not marked at all. If you can’t navigate with a crude map or orient yourself in space, good luck on the road. Part of it is just trusting your intuition and heading in what seems like the right direction.

I love the challenge inherent in arriving in a strange place, scanning a map and planning where to go and how to get there. That I carry a minimum of personal belongings means I have to pay more attention to cleaning and upkeep, but it frees me from the burden of clutter (that miracle of modern technology, the iPod, is the ultimate anti-clutter device). Eating becomes an adventure in and of itself, whether it be finding a restaurant with affordable and healthy food or going to a local market and scanning the unfamiliar products to cook and consume at a guesthouse or hostel.

With all of this in mind, long-term travel is far from a constant adventure. Take, for instance, a 100-day trip. Thirty days are committed to sleep – I like a good 8 hours so make it 33.3 days. Another 30 days might be consumed by eating, cleaning, research, email, blogging and general upkeep. There might be 10 days of solid transportation, depending on how often and how far one moves around. Even considering that I’m guessing on these figures, that’s already 70 days out of my 100.. Does that mean I spend the remaining time enjoying the sights and having fun? I like to read, to watch people, to just walk. So the answer has to be no. For me, travel is not all adventure and sightseeing – it’s just living a nomadic, ever-evolving existence that makes it rewarding. It’s not something I can sustain forever, but I will do my best to enjoy it while it lasts.

I have only just begun my travels, but already the practical realities of life on the road are taking shape. To be a traveler requires attention to detail, otherwise you become a vagrant. People often ask me what I do and I tell them I am a journalist, but in the back of my mind, for the time being at least, I’m a traveler. Does that also mean I’m a tourist? Could be. But that’s a complicated subject for another time.


Who Needs Privacy?

I’m lucky enough to have the resources to take this time to travel, but not rich enough to travel in style. For the first time in many years, I am staying at hostels and sharing rooms with complete strangers. I don’t do this every night, but when the choice is between paying around $20 for a bed or $50-$100 for a bed, I will choose to pay $20. Once in a while, I need my space and will splash out for a private room.

But what I’ve found very surprising in Australia is the range of people I encounter in places I’ve staying. When I was 21 and traveling through Europe, it seemed like everyone in the hostels was young.

Perhaps because I was young, that’s what I chose to see. What I see now are people of all ages, from around the world, staying in hostels. In just a week, I’ve shared rooms with an American retiree, an Argentinean farmer (a gaucho!), and graduate from California and Israel. I’ve met locals looking for accommodation and college students on holiday looking to get drunk. It’s ironic that you can play less, and in a way get more. There’s a lot of camaraderie in hostels – they are places to sleep and shower, but they also provide a social outlet. Like wildebeests at a watering hole, travelers congregate at hostels socialize. You won’t get that paying for privacy and room service.

Still, when I reach Southeast Asia, prices will plummet and I may change my tune. For the time being, consider me part of the pack.


Overnight Into Melbourne

I'm in Melbourne after an overnight bus ride from Canberra. I thought the bus ride would be pure hell, but thanks to the travel pillow Emily and Lexi gave me at my going-away party, it wasn't so bad. I slept most of the night, and woke up at 6:30 a.m. as the bus was pulling into Melbourne. As the sun rose and the city woke up, I walked the two miles from the bus station to my hostel. A very nice way to start the day.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

50 Hours in Canberra

Canberra is the capital city of Australia. It is not flashy like Sydney or refined like Melbourne. It is not a place with spectacular natural beauty or unique architecture. But in the two days I’ve spent here I’ve found Canberra to be an easy-going, friendly destination. There are museums galore, a tranquil lake and an interesting history. All in all, enough to keep me occupied and happy.

In the early part of the 20th century, there was a debate over whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the country’s capital. I guess no one could settle the dispute, so Canberra was chosen as the capital. As such, it is a planned city, much like Washington D.C. There are long stately avenues and roundabouts for traffic. All this means everything is rather spread out and not very pedestrian friendly.

But I’m a walker and after New York and Sydney I was happy to strap on my walking shoes (ok, a pair of black Crocs, my new favorite footwear) and set out to explore. An afternoon at the Parliament House led to Friday afternoon happy hour in the courtyard of the Old Parliament House, an event I was told my a local bloke is the highlight of the week around here. I think he needs to get out more. After a drink (a Blue Tongue Ale, a local brew with little to distinguish itself), I headed back to the centrally located hostel where I was staying in a shared room.

The Parliament House gets Funkadelic with that spire thingy:

Lucky for me, this weekend featured a festival in Canberra, the annual Multicultural Festival, an event that brings groups in from around the world for two days of food, music and culture. A festival can be a traveler’s best friend: free entertainment, cheap and tasty food and a ton of great people watching. So I started my Saturday with a stroll through the festival and a lunch of South Indian food. A short bus ride took me to the National Gallery for a rewarding hour of Australian art, then another short ride to the National Museum of Australia.

Pears outside the National Gallery:

The National Museum is basically a multimedia tour of Australian history and culture. I found the exhibits on local foods (macadamia nuts, Vegemite) and the peculiarities of language the most entertaining. There is enough in the museum for a solid day, but a boy like me can only take so much culture.

A tacky exterior hides an exceptional interior at the National Museum:

Saturday night was spent like many Saturday nights: drinking. The boys from Room 304 at the Canberra hostel headed out for a night on the town. A few good micro-brewed pints at the Wig & Ale were the highlight. Otherwise, Canberra struck me as similar to many other small cities – too much bad music and too many trashy outfits. I know there’s a cool scene somewhere here, but I certainly didn’t find it this weekend.

This morning (Sunday) I walked out to the Australian War Memorial, and what I thought was just a massive stone structure on a hill turned out to be another outstanding museum experience. Australia’s involvement in war over the years is thoughtfully and tastefully presented, with battles like Gallipoli getting special attention. There’s a moving gallery featuring the names of every Australian soldier killed in action, including two names in the current Iraq conflict.

There was also a special exhibition of Australian war photographers from World War II and Vietnam to conflicts in Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan. Very good for fans of journalism.

I head out tonight to Melbourne on an overnight Greyhound bus, leaving Canberra behind. I will probably never return, but am very happy I made the trip.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Salty Yeast Extract

Anyone who visits Australia will sooner or later encounter Vegemite, a spreadable yeast extract that is a national obesssion. Not one to shy away from a culinary challenge, I took the plunge this morning at breakfast at the Canberra hostel. Ingredients: one piece of toast, a mini-pack of vegemite and strawberry jam. The vegemite itself is a dark brown with the consistency of creamy fudge. I had been told people eat it on toast by itself, with butter or cheese or with a little jam (perhaps I dreamed that part). And I'm sure some folks scoop it out of the jar with a spoon and eat it like I would eat peanut butter.

The verdict: take a leather shoe, walk for about 100 miles without changing socks or washing feet so the sweat and stink seeps deep into the leather. Cut into small pieces and boil down to extract the essence. Add heaps of salt and package. Spread on bread. Chew. Grimace. Swallow. Repeat. They say it's an acquired taste. I may try again tomorrow, but the first time did not convert me.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Making Plans (update)

I changed my plans at the last minute and will be spending the weekend in Canberra (pronounced CAN-bra). The change was the result of booking a trip out of Adelaide next week and wanting enough time to enjoy Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road before crossing the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia.


My last day in Sydney marks the end of my first week on the road. Sydney has been wonderful – a great city to start this adventure and the perfect place to transition to travel mode. However, I have to remember I’m living the life of a traveler not a transplant. Time to get moving!

So this morning over breakfast - Earl Grey tea, cereal and a fresh juicy fig - I sketched out a rough itinerary for the rest of my stay in Australia. The problem with this country is twofold – so much to see and great distances to cover. I came here to experience the outback and the open spaces, so getting out of the big city would serve me well. This means preparing for long bus trips and a domestic flight or two.

My plan is to leave Sydney tomorrow morning and head south to a small town called Kiama. From there, I’ll stop in the capital city of Canberra (no one has anything nice to say about Canberra, so I’m determined to see it) and then on to Melbourne. A trip along the Great Ocean Road will take me to Adelaide, where I plan to sign up for a 9-day trip across South Australia and the Nullarbor Plain to Perth. Then it’s up the west coast through Broome to Darwin, where I’ll hop a flight back to Adelaide for another tour. This one will take me into the center, the great outback, to Uluru and Alice Springs. From Alice, it’s back to Melbourne and a flight to Bali on April 9.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sydney From Above

The Sydney Opera House is the icon for the city, but turn around and you will see another landmark, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Opened in 1932, the bridge connects downtown Sydney (the CBD) with North Sydney. Daily traffic includes about 180,000 cars as well as trains, bicycles and pedestraians. The steel structure once earned the nickname "The Coathanger," but I haven't heard anyone use this nickname.

The bridge is also unique because of a company called BridgeClimb that shepherds packs of adventure seekers on a 3 1/2-hour tour from the street to the top of the structure, 134 meters above Sydney Harbour (420 feet or the height of a 40-story building). Australians, tourists, celebrities, adults, familes, they all climb the bridge. What could have turned out to be a dismal experience was the highlight of my trip so far.

The BridgeClimb starts at street level, where climbers sign a release form, are given a breathalyzer test and are introduced to their climb leader. My group of 12 include three English girls on holiday, a French mother and daughter who looked exactly alike, an Australian-Bralizilian couple spending their last days in Sydney before relocating to Brazil, and a mother and her teenage daughter from Tasmania. And me, the lone American.

Once we'd been briefed, we were told to empty pockets and remove nonessential items - watches, jewelry, hats, tissues, anything and everything - and then given snazzy grey and blue jumpsuits and directed to changing rooms. I assume that in order allow the general public to climb to the top of a public structure, the insurance company has instituted strict rules and guidelines. So I looked like an Oompa-Loompa for a few hours. Big deal.

Once we were outfitted with jumpsuits, we were given harnesses, hats, bandannas, a strap to hold glasses/sunglasses, radio transmitters and headsets. Everything clipped to the jumpsuit so nothing would plummet onto the roadway below. We were also given a conntraption that clipped onto the harness that would attach us to a line on the bridge. Noone would plummet onto the roadway either.

There are two sets of ladders that we would be climbing and there was a short practice session. Basically, one at a time, watch your neighbor and be careful.

After a quick group cheer, we were paraded onto the street for the approach to the bridge. Imagine a dozen dorks in matching suits walking through downtown Sydney and you get the picture. This is not an activity for the vain or excessively shy. We reached the start of the climb, clipped in and were ready to go. There was a sense of nervous excitement in the group, with everyone looking forward to the climb but not really knowing what to expect.

The route starts with a level walk across a catwalk on the approach to the south pylon, a massive structure of white granite. This first catwalk is about two feet wide and see-through, so as we moved toward the water the street and the roof of the Sydney Hyatt were visible about a hundred feet below (there's a nice little pool on the roof of the Hyatt - who knew?). Already there were views of The Rocks, Circular Quay and the Opera House to the west. After passing the southern pylon, we started to ascend the eastern arch by by a set of short steps. At this point you are still beneath the roadway and feel a bit encased, often ducking to avoid banging your head on a beam. You are walking on catwalks, wooden planks and steel steps - always attached to the bridge and never in danger. This is the guts of the bridge, all laid out in front of you. Anyone interested in how bridges are constructed would be well served by this tour.

Once you reach the ladders and climb past the roadway, you leave the guts behind and the sense of exposure grows. The header at the top of this blog now shows the bridge. The route takes you on top of the structure on the easern side (closest to the camera). There is a long series of steps as you continues to the top, to where the flags are, and then you cross to the western side for the descent. Along the way, there's little chatter from the guide other than a few safety reminders. There are a few stops for individual photos (available to purchase in the gift shop later, of course), but for the most part everyone is left to gawk at the view and experience the climb for themselves.

I was worried that the climb would be rushed, but there were often times when we just stopped to enjoy the view. As individual pictures were being taken, on the approach to the top, at the top itself and while descending eh western arch, the group was left to its own devices. There were a few times when I was relatively by myself at the top of the bridge. The 360-degree views stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the east, north over North Sydney, to the inner harbour to the west and south over the Central Business District.

I chose a 5:30 pm climb, which meant we started when the sun was shining, but as we got higher and higher, the lights of the city started to turn on, the sun started to set in the west and the temperature dropped. Good move on my part. For an extra $80 there is a twilight climb, which I would do if I were to return to Sydney someday, just to be on the bridge at night.

The BridgeClimb could have been lame. Instead, great care has been taken to making climbers feel safe, giving them time to enjoy the climb and making the experience something to really remember. Paul Cave, the founder of BridgeClimb, worked for 11 years to make this a reality, battling city and state organizations to make it happen. His persistance has paid off. CLose to 2 million people have climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I'm just one of them, and I'm not being paid by anyone involved with the organization. But I can wholeheartedly recommend BridgeClimb - you will never forget the experience.

I think the look on my face says it all.

My group at the top of the bridge:

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Going Mobile

One of my goals on this trip is to explore travel in the age of the technology. It's been 20 years since I traveled extensively and nearly 15 since I lived overseas.

By carrying a few portable gadgets (about 6 pounds total), I'm able to keep friends and family informed of my travels with this blog and through email. I also have an unlocked Palm Treo, which means I'm able to carry a cellular phone and buy connectivity as I go.

Here in Australia cell phones are called mobile phones, and as of yesterday I am officially going mobile. With a relatively small investiment (less than $50 U.S.) I bought a SIM card and minutes and now have an Australian phone number, complete with voicemail and text messaging. It's not cheap to call the U.S., but it's not terribly expensive either (I'm now paying 30 cents a minute).

Having the ability to call hostels, taxis, tour operators, train stations, restuarants, old friends, new friends and family at any time makes travel a lot easier. Having the ability to make a receive calls from anywhere anytime makes the world that much smaller. And best of all, for me at least, all incoming calls are free! If you feel like dropping a few dollars to hear my voice, go for it. Nothing to it but to do it.

My Australia phone number is 04 2080 3351

Australia's country code is 61, and the cellular prefix is 04, so calling from the U.S. you drop the 0 and dial 61 4 2080 3351. Confusing I know. It took me a while to understand the minutia of the Australian phone system. I understand calls will be few and far between, but can you believe this is even possible? All it took was a portable gadget, some cash and a passport.

I will be looking into this option in each country I visit. Stay tuned. Or should I say stay connected?


Monday, February 05, 2007


Adjacent to the Opera House are the Royal Botanic Gardens, a sprawling park in the center of the city. After about an hour, I entered an area with tall trees and thick brush and heard a terrible racket. There must be hundreds of birds here, I thought, some species you wouldn’t want to living next door. But when I looked up it wasn’t birds, it was bats. Hundreds of fat furry creatures hanging upside down in the trees, occasionally flapping their wings and screeching. It is a species called the Grey-Headed FLying Fox, or fruit bats. They are found only in Australia and are some of the largest bats in the world.

As much as I prepared for this trip, the best moments will be the ones where I’m taken by surprise. No one told me I'd see a colony of bats in the middle of a major metropolis. Great stuff.

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Sydney = Awesome

Every city shares distinct features. There’s always a central business district, charmingly referred to with the acronym CBD in Australia (has anyone heard this used in America?), entertainment areas, parks, universities, slums, industrial zones, and the inevitable tourist atrap. In Sydney, this is The Rocks, an overly developed conglomeration of shops, restaurants, high-end hotels, street performers and tourists sandwiched between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It's everything I don't want to see in one convenient location. It's inevitable that I ended up there -- it's close to major attractions, in every guidebook on the planet and probably worth the 30 minutes I spent there. I saw it. I left. Check. I didn’t travel half way around the world to mingle with passengers from the Sapphire Princess. Nevertheless, the harbor is beautiful and the Opera House is a spectacle worthy of the hype.

I’m surprised by my reaction to world landmarks. Before visiting the Grand Canyon, the pyramids in Egypt, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal, I assumed their reputations were based on hype. Seeing, and in some cases touching, them validates the hype. What makes them so special? They are grand in and of themselves, but seeing them up close gives them context. They all fit perfectly in their environments. I'm no urban planner or architect, but to me the Sydney Opera House felt like a representation of Sydney, perhaps even of Australia.

I’ve only been here two days and have just skimmed the surface, but first impressions are important. Sydney feels like a city of the future. It’s modern yet comfortable. It’s sleek and stylish but inviting and relaxed. There are futuristic skyscrapers (no pictures yet, damn battery!) and tranquil parks. There’s a mix of people and cultures, all of them friendly and accomodating. Here in Sydney, where the nearnest neighboring country is hours away by air, Australians have carved out a pretty special piece of the planet. Perhaps this is what America once was, an open, inviting society pushing its own limits and creating its own future.

An Indian woman I met on the trip from the U.S. described Sydney as an American city and Melbourne as more European. Australia is still a rather young country, so perhaps it’s adopting whatever tastes, modes, styles or attitudes are right. Whatever the answer, it is doing something right. Coming from the dog eat dog streets of New York to this place is like opening a window and letting in fresh air. I'll be thinking about this more when I leave Sydney and visit the country's other cities. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s the middle of summer, sunny, warm and beautiful.

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Travel and Learn

My first full day in Sydney and I learned two important lessons. First, don’t leave your hotel without putting on sunscreen. My pale New York skin is not used to the inense Australian sunshine. After a few hours of walking I felt the effects of exposure. Nothing to keep me from going out again today, just a little pink on the arms, neck and legs. Second, if you are going to take digital pictures, always carry an spare battery. I had planned for this, buying a second battery in New York and making sure it was charged. But as I was setting up to shoot the Sydney Opera House, my camera told me to “Change the Battery Pack.” Grrrrr... I was able to snap a few pictures for the rest of the day by conserving power, but it was frustrating. Lesson learned.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sunday in Sydney

My first day in Australia turned into a total bust - just too exhausted from the trip to do anything more than check into my guesthouse, take a nice hot shower, wash some clothes and wander the neighborhood for an hour. At 4pm I lay down for an hour's nap that lasted all night long. Every experienced traveller knows you should adjust yourself to local time by staying awake until bedtime and putting in a normal night's sleep. My normal night's sleep just turned out to be 14 hours.

This morning I got up early and strolled through the quiet Sunday streets, enjoying the warm weather and sunshine and registering my first lucid impressions of Australia. A place is never what you expect it to be. It's too early for me to pass judgment on Sydney, let alone Australia as a whole, but first impressions are all good. This is a mellow place, with friendly people and an international atmosphere. My taxi driver yesterday was Lebenese (Al, who told me the people in the neighborhood I'm staying in, Glebe, are "rubbishy"), my morning coffee was purchased from a Vietnamese bakery owner and the guesthouse is staffed by an older American. And there are plenty of Aussies around.

Here is a picture of Sydney as I saw it for the first time, from the air. The view is of the city south of the airport:

By the way, Glebe is awesome, not rubbishy, with friendly people, great ethnic restaurants and lots and lots of used bookstores. My kind of place.

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Exhaustion in the South Pacific

Nadi International Airport, Fiji

After six hours in the air from New York to L.A., a quick layover at LAX and another 10.5 hours crossing the Pacific, I’m now sitting in the departure terminal in Nadi, Fiji. The photo below was taken minutes after touching foreign soil. THe enourmous double-decker 747 can be seen in the backgroun.

The flights so far have been forgettable as air travel, but memorable for the company. I have yet to reach Australia and have already made friends along the way – two business cards and two email addresses as well as an invitation to an Australian Rules Football match in Melbourne.

There’s no doubt that my mind switched gears once I entered JFK – fellow travelers are easy approach and there is common ground from the start. “Where you traveling to?” “Where have you been?” “How long you out for?” These are the building blocks of the fraternity of travelers. And they are all so friendly. Perhaps it’s because we are all away from home, uprooted from the day-to-day and looking for a little contact. Or it’s the excitement of being on the road and the desire to share a few minutes while in a line or waiting in a terminal. Whatever the source of this camaraderie, I like it. And the ease with which I’ve struck up conversations and made temporary friends has been a relief. I was worried about being shy, about having nothing to say, and it’s come naturally.

As I sit here waiting for my third flight of the day, I’ve stripped off my boot and socks and have my bare feet propped on a cushioned bench. When I took off my socks I released the first dose of traveler’s stink. Bottling this stench and selling it to ward of predators, thieves and undesirables would earn anyone a fortune.

On the Road Again

Feb. 1, 2pm, at the American Airlines terminal at JFK, waiting for the first of three flights that will take me to Sydney over the next 30 hours. I’m again struck by the chatter that surrounds me. Most of it is people on cell phones talking to friends and family about the fact that they are at the airport waiting for a flight. Airports bring out the worst in me.

Otherwise, I’m having a hard time believing that I’m actually here and waiting to begin the trip I’ve been planning for the last seven months. Some might say that the trip has already begun, or that it began as soon as I decided to make it real. If that’s the case, I’ve been on this trip since May 22, when I brought up the idea to Kathleen at Sapporo over bowls of steaming ramen noodles. Her response was that I had to do it, that it was an opportunity to do something special, and that if I didn’t do it she would hunt me down and hold me accountable. With that support, I approached a few other friends, and all of expresses support (and a smidgen of envy). I broke the news to my parents, worried that they might see this as my way of shirking responsibility (I would be quitting my job after all), but was again pleasantly surprised to receive full support. Perhaps the notion of shirking responsibility is all mine.

The plan all along was to take myself out of my comfort zone by traveling alone in unfamiliar parts of the world. I’ve always wanted to see Australia, and not for just the two weeks I could secure while on the job, but to make it an extended trip, with time to see the cities and sleep under the stars in the outback. This trip will allow me to do just about everything I want to do in Australia. Having no return date is the key to this trip; flexibility and a relaxed pace will open possibilities that two weeks will not. I say all this assuming I will be able to enter the country. While checking in for the American Airlines flight, I was asked whether I have a return ticket or passage out of Australia. I replied that I don’t as this is an extended trip and I plan to purchase onward passage once I’m in Australia. That seemed to satisfy the agent, who typed a few keystrokes and handed me my boarding pass with a smile. I have to remember that I am not the first person to do a trip like this, nor will I be the last, and that anything I say they will have heard before.

Keeping an open mind, being flexible, patient and honest will carry me through this trip.

So I sit at JFK, excited to get going, anxious about what lies ahead and open to all possibilities. Until this morning, I hadn’t thought much about being outside of the U.S. for so long (however long it may be), and now that I allow these thoughts into my head I’m curiously unfazed and even excited to leave the U.S. behind. The sentiment was expressed best the other day when Michael Park came over to move some furniture. My iPod was on shuffle and playing through portable speakers. As we struggled with a three-ton television set, I could make out The Clash’s “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” coming from the kitchen. I smiled, knowing that the cure to boredom is to buy a ticket, cross an ocean and hit the open road.

Friday, February 02, 2007

So Long NYC

The day has finally arrived! After seven months of planning, I am about to leave Carroll Street for JFK and the Southern Hemisphere. Planning has tested me in ways I never expected, but every minute, hour, day, week and month has been worth it as it has brought me to where I am now. My apartment is bare, my belonings are in storage, I've said so long to friends and family and there's nothing left to do but start travelling! So this is bon voyage. See you in Sydney.