Starry, starry night

Starry, starry night
Alice Springs, Australia

Alice Springs, Australia

We made it back to Alice Springs without a scratch on the van. I heard some horror stories up there – one couple who forgot to unwind their canopy and ripped it off and another 4WD who saw a campervan on its side on the back road linking Kings Canyon and the MacDonnell Ranges. Insurance explicitly doesn’t cover either cases.

Anyway, we didn’t do much in Alice, as you do towards the fag end of a holiday. There had been a lot of driving and walking, and we were tired. We ate out a bit, saw the free light show in the reptile park and spent some more time with Celia and her sister.

We stopped off at a camel farm and took a short ride. It was way more comfortable than I thought it would be. Now I regretted not going on a morning safari at Uluru. It would have been a totally atmospheric way to waltz through the desert. The swaying of the camels had a hypnotic quality to it.

The campervan was far better than we thought. It’s a great way to see the country. It was easier to drive than I thought and a lot more comfortable. Not sure I’d want to drive it in the city, but out here it was perfect.

There was a lot of walking, but it was satisfying. The desert had a calming effect on us all, and I was happy I’d listened to Josefa about seeing some of Australia’s famous sites rather than shooting over to Bali, like I wanted. It is a pilgrimage for a reason.


The Rock

The Rock
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia

For most visitors to Australia, the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are probably the most iconoclastic site in Australia, along with kangaroos and koalas. For Australians, I think Uluru has the edge. It used to be a pilgrimage when I was growing up – visiting and climbing the rock made you an inch more Aussie.

Anyway, to see it on the horizon was definitely special. Right in the middle of the desert! It was quite epic. It almost looked like a film set or a Photoshop image stuck behind the deep blue sky.

My parents visited years ago, and it seemed like the whole operation was rough edged, with camping and drop toilets and not much else. Now it has a swanky village built up around the park. We stayed in the caravan park, but looked at the hotel anyway. Great pool!

The Rock isn’t quite as epic up close. It’s nicer from a distance. It was closed for climbing. The rangers use any excuse to close it. This time it was the distant threat of rain. It had been closed a week after three men had to be rescued after trying an alternative route home. I wouldn’t have climbed it anyway, with the guilt Jo and Rosa put on me and the wishes of local Indigenous tribes not to climb. They stand at the base handing out leaflets on the days when it is opened.

We were pretty tired so just managed the guided tour around part of the base, though we still made it back for the sunset.

Perhaps more impressive from a walking perspective is Kata Tjuta. I could never remember the name of it, so still called it the Olgas. We took the longer than expected Valley of the Winds walk. Didn’t take enough water, I was wearing sandals and it was hot. Probably not ideal, especially with Aidan complaining half the way, but we made it to the lookout and back. Tough walk, but totally worth it.

The Indigenous art gallery and centre was a good stop off. I don’t mind Australian art at all, but the cost of the holiday was already sky high and I couldn’t quite drop another $300 on art. Sort of regret it, but I had my eye on a didgeridoo back in Alice Springs. Balked at that too in the end! Now I know why ****** souvenirs are so popular.

There was a calming effect in the desert here. Nothing moved too quickly. The local Indigenous people look more contented (having possession of the park) and friendly than in Alice Springs. It had a better feel. The sand was warm and red, the stars just a bit brighter. It was a good place to spend a few nights.

It was busier than I expected though. Cars turned up and I saw more than one sleeping overnight in the back seats, as the budget hotels and hostels were all full. Glad we had the luxury of the van, especially as it got particularly windy one night.

The Big Walk Around

The Big Walk Around
Kings Canyon, Australia

Kings Canyon, Australia

It’s funny how six hours drive in the outback means little. If it was in Melbourme, we’d be heading over the border and almost at Dubbo! Here, it means endless plains of brush and red dirt.

We decided to break the trip up with a night at Erldunda (the real centre of Australia!). It had the worst flies I’ve ever experienced – and this was in moderate heat at the start of spring. The flies followed you everywhere. It was even worse at the Erldunda filling station and shop. Everyone stopped here, and the toilets seemed to hold half the fly population of the Northern Territory. I have no idea what summer would be like, or how the English backpackers working at the counter coped with it.

Kings Canyon was only a lazy four hours up the road from Erldunda. They was little between either place. No wonder Alice Springs is geographically the most isolated major town in the world. In the time we drove we’d have made London to Moscow.

The Kings Canyon Resort (everything is a resort here) was fully booked, so I was glad I paid well ahead. Everyone seemded to be from Melbourne, driving up for the school holidays in 4WD and caravans. We saw a sore looking dingo in between the caravans.

We took a mini walk along the Kings Creek Walk. Josefa and Aidan worse orange fly protectors, although there wasn’t many flies. It was good practice for the full Rim walk.

The Rim walk took around four hours, and it was coincidentally one of the warmest days of the trip, in the low 30s. It was a breaktaking walk around the surpringly green basin of the canyon. We broke off to take a look at the Garden of Eden where water feeds the ferms and gums and billabong. I even went back a second time after I realised I’d dropped the nib for my Camelbak canteen.

We definitely deserved the Magnum ice-creams, which we had to fork out around $8 each. The ice box had stopped working in the van, as had the air-conditioning, both temporarily. I don’t think we were charging the van properly at night. We got used to the cost of everything soon enough, from the $2 a litre petrol to the food and the water.

We even managed a swim in the busy pool. However it tipped just above freezing ( the nights here kill the water tempreature) so Aidan lasted about two minutes. I’d promised the kids a pool each day, but it looked increasingly likely our bathers would be underused.

High water

High water
West MacDonnell National Park, Australia

West MacDonnell National Park, Australia

We’d only come to the MacDonnell Ranges for a couple of nights, but such is the number of gorges snaking off the Namatjira Drive you could stay here a week exploring them all.

We went to Ormiston Gorge. There had been so much rain we found ourselves cut off half way into the walk. A couple of hikers were wading chest high across the other side, but I didn’t fancy carrying Aidan on my shoulders. It was warm enough to dry off quickly, but the water was still cold.

In the end we retreated, but it was a decent hike. A lot of people gathered at the water hole, including an entire family in Western Bulldogs supporter gear. They were hanging out for the Bulldogs to play Hawthorn (or was it GWS) in a few days’ time.

We couldn’t quite get brave enough to try the water, but we did back at Glen Helen in the gorge and river behind the caravan park. The water was fresh, cold and drinkable. Felt like swimming in a really clean dam with spectacular cliffs overlooking you as you swam.

We tried Serpentine, but only went on the mini walk as we headed off on the long drive to Kings Canyon. One thing you get used to here is a four or five hour drive. It just doesn’t mean much, and as it is basically non-stop at 100 km/h until you reach your next destination, easy driving too.

Spending time with Alice

Spending time with Alice
Alice Springs, Australia

Alice Springs, Australia

It’s been eight months since we travelled to Central Australia, but since I managed to update the two-year old trip to Europe, why not our wonderful holiday in the dead centre?

Good excuse to upload photos, anyway.

It was great to get away from a frigid Melbourne. We’d heard about the cold winter mornings in the Territory, and the tempreature wasn’t promising (around 17c with rain) but it was nice to be wearing a T-shirt again.

We took our 4WD and headed through Alice Springs. I was surprised at how small the town was. It’s similar to an Ararat or Shepparton in Victoria. Lots of aboriginals, lots of campervans and lots of policevans. It was cool to be somewhere we’d read about so much.

A huge centipede greeted us in our bathroom at the hotel. Nice welcome! Certainly woke us all up. We ambled around the town, went shopping for groceries for the two weeks and drove to the top of Anzac Hill for a spectacular sunset.

We also visited a couple of friends who now call Alice Springs home. Celia lives an almost nun-like existence on a spiritual retreat, working for the Anglicans and reading, praying and contemplating the spiritual life. She seemed most content and clearly loves the desert life.

Catherine is a school teacher who I hadn’t seen in twenty years. We experienced a downpour of biblical proportions as we drove out to see her and her family. She seemed to be looking forward to moving back to Melbourne – teaching obviously taxing on her.

The next day the Todd River was flowing! An unsual sight for locals, and if I remember rightly it signified good luck or an early summer or something similar.

We spent a good morning at the famous Desert Reptile Park. It felt a little sparse with a lot of walking between the exhibits, but the bird show was good and the snake exhibits reminded us not to run around the shrubs barefoot at night.

We took ownership of our campervan and drove out into the plains of the desert and the Todd River flowed by us out of town. We all really enjoyed our time in the town, even though the pool at the hotel was freezing and living in the one hotel room for a couple of nights pushed us a bit far. Good practice for the six person campervan!

J Ward for the family – life sentence

J Ward for the family – life sentence
Ararat, Australia

Ararat, Australia

On the way home from Halls Gap we stopped off at J Ward for the Criminally Insane. It closed in the early 1990s but it feels like a relic of the 1950s. Beautiful blue stone walls, but it is only a step up from Pentridge. Cramped jail cells, desolate shower blocks and a grim exercise yard.

It was a psych ward and jail before becoming a jail for the criminally insane. Inmates were in for a variety of reasons – killing a man for smoking in a cafe being one of the more mad ones.

Josefa didn’t enjoy it, even though we’d been here before! She feels too much empathy for those who were in the cells. Aidan thought the guided tour a bit long. But Rosa seemed interested in the stories behind the prisoners, the escape plots, the hangings and the exercise yard engravings.

Ararat is one of the better large country towns. Next time we’ll have to take a look at the Chinese Heritage Centre.

We also dropped in to see a friend from Year 12 who is now a Senior Detective in the region. He gave us a tour of the police station, so it was a real contrast and also a day of crime and punishment.

Reaching the Pinnacle(s)

Reaching the Pinnacle(s)
Halls Gap, Australia

Halls Gap, Australia

The Grampians National Park is probably the best national park in the state. There’s at least three breathtaking walks involving boulder scrambling, soaring canyons and views that let you almost see to Melbourne that start at your doorstep if you stay in Halls Gap. So it’s almost a crime that it has taken eight – nine years for us to get back there. After all, it’s less than three hours from home.

The problem is there’s not a lot to do in the Grampians and the main town of Halls Gap if you don’t really, really like bushwalking. And once Rosa was old enough to manage the walks on her own, along came Aidan and that was the end of bush walking for another few years.

But I was pretty determined to get to the Grampians for the first term holidays, so I rushed into renting a house that turned out to be a little too much like cheap beach accommodation (second hand furniture, front door that fell of its hinges, 1970s art on the wall). I didn’t realise 90 per cent of Halls Gap properties are actually for rent. I think we could have wranged a bargain too, as the closure of half the park after the January bushfires meant numbers were down.

It was terrific to get into the bush walking again. We managed to do at least an hour or more every day, culiminating in a four hour walk up to the Pinnacle. Everybody who stays in the Grampians for a week does the Pinnacles. It was busy! But such a good walk. Steep climbs, rock pools, scrambles and an eagle eye view of the park to finish it off. Aidan did very well, as did Jo, but I ended up having to piggyback him back down several times. Rosa got a bit frustrated having to wait for us so often. Still, it was a triumphant return home after spending so much of the day in the Autumn air in beautiful surroundings.

I did put Rosa through her paces later in the week with a fast scramble up Chatauqua Peak.

The entire northern Grampians walk was off limits after the January bushfires, but there’s enough major walks in the Wonderland area not to worry about journeying too far away.

We also went to the surprisingly engaging Halls Gap Zoo. The pens were larger than the Melbourne zoo and I certainly didn’t expect to see bison, alligators and exotic species of Asian long haired goats alongside the Australian animals.

I’d be happy to get back to the Grampians this year. In some ways it is more enjoyable than a beach holiday, mainly with the bush walking and the high mountain air. I’d just make sure I book better accommodation next time.

Return to Eden

Return to Eden
Eden, Australia

Eden, Australia

A return to Eden and Twofold Bay two years to the day. We rarely return to the same interstate holiday destination without good reason. I think it was the pool and jumping pillow that did it for us. And the summer weather that doesn’t incite bushfires and extreme sunburn. And Eden fish and chips. Possibly safe surf beaches and warmer water than Victoria too.

We did almost the same things as well. Bodyboarding at Eden and Pambula; snorkelling in the ebb and flow of the Nullican River; shopping in Merimbula (it rained the entire day – something it always does on holidays in Eden). We had the fish and chips, the kids played on the jumping castle and since our cabin was situated next to the tennis court, we had a hit twice a day.

We even drove down the same dirt track to Haycock Point, a beach with stark green waves and kangaroos and not many people. I was searching for an elusive cliff face I jumped off twenty years before on a youth camp. In one weekend I saw a black snake lazily slide through our camp site, the biggest goanna ever on the beach and a big sting ray that forced my hand and made me jump from the highest point of the rock (I thought it could stay in the bay and I’d land on it if I waited any longer). It was an amazing weekend, but for some reason I can’t actually remember driving to and from Eden, even though it would have taken seven hours.

I never did find the rock, much to Rosa’s disappointment.

Aidan again suffered from a slight frame and cold water. Up until the last day he stayed in the surf and the park pool a total of around five minutes. Rosa loved the boarding in Eden, even if the waves broke on the sand. There were some nice dunks. Josefa didn’t enjoy hers. She’s not a fan of surf beaches. Aidan prefers the spa. We spent a half hour a day in it, both legally and illegally. I snuck in without booking and the manager asked me gruffily if I could read (the sign said you needed to book). Multiple smart **** answers beckoned, but I kept quiet. We still had two nights left.

Melbourne baked, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Eden hit 30c. There’s a decidely cool breeze permenately coming off the Tasman Sea. It means a bit of shivering at the beach, but there’s no melting while struggling along the sand or few sleepless nights, which was welcoming coming off a week of 44c.

Eden is a bit of a old man’s retirement village. There was a load of houses and apartments for sale and lots of hotel vacancies. Not sure how popular it is anymore – definitely doesn’t seem like a decent holiday investment, but the weather and the beaches and the vast tracts of national parks make it a great place to relax. Nobody from NSW bothers to travel south for their holidays, so it’s rarely too busy. I can see why people who holiday in Eden stay in Eden. I remember a couple of families who religiously travelled north each year for a couple of weeks each summer and were happy to do it for twenty summers or more.

We’ll see how we go for 2016. By then Aidan may be able to cope with the cold(ish) water – although the sea is a nice temperature really, and if I can bring the golf clubs I’ll have more to do than brave the wind and the beach. That fish and chip shop on the jetty will still be there, anyway, it’s the most popular place in town.

The Caves, The Caves

The Caves, The Caves
Naracoorte, Australia

Naracoorte, Australia

I thought it would be a rather picturesque drive from Tailem Bend to Kingston SE on the way to Naracoorte. Along the coast, the sea lapping along the SA coastline, the flats, the stone cottages. Instead two hours of unrelenting low lying brown shrubs and flooded flats. It just didn’t change. Almost nothing else. Driveways to homes stretched miles off the tarmac. Everyone else fell asleep – Aidan for most of the trip. I wish I could have.

The only memory I have of Kingston SE was as a seven year old visiting Adelaide. Dad bought me a Giant Lobster pencil with the crustacean sitting on top. It was one of those souvenirs that last years. Like my map of Disneyland. For some reason I just kept it. And this time I decided it was Rosa and Aidan’s turn to keep their own Giant Lobster pencil.

Only one problem. When we eventually drove into Kingston (the AFL grand final was about to start) the lobster shop was closed. And looked like it had been for quite some time. I read about the history, and it seems it was a struggle to make a go of it. The through traffic would only be busy during the summer. Still, there were at least four cars parking in front of the deserted shop taking photos of the ever so slightly mouldering lobster.

Aidan, having just woken up, stayed in the car.

Strange town. Massive wide streets, expansive foreshore. There’s so much room here everything stretched out as much as it could. It was also deserted except for the two pubs. The opposite of a European seaside town. Jo wasn’t impressed. We spent the afternoon watching the Dockers blunder and smother either way to a 15 point loss. Terrible team to watch. I left when the Hawks stretched the lead to 31 points.

We diverted to Naracoorte, purely so Aidan could go to the Naracoorte Caves the next day. He loved it, although I still balk at having to pay $60 or a half hour tour. I would have preferred just to run riot myself through the caves.

We shot it home without too many stops. Glad we bought Aidan with us this time. He had a good time, especially considering it was not beach weather, we played board games three of the days and the Barossa is not exactly child paradise. I think they’d just prefer a week at the beach, but it had been a good while since we had a holiday, and this was a decent excuse for one.