A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: stevecrow

Prelude

(or "Something of An Act Title...")

sunny 15 °C

This is a test.
When last we left our hero, it was two years ago - he had just staggered through the front door into the arms of his family, desperately needing a shower and clearly delirious - swearing that the meal he had at Denny's earlier in the evening was actually really good. He had just returned having spent three weeks on an adventure traveling across Australia - Sydney, Alice Springs, and a solo road trip across the Tanami Desert and back through the Kimberly to Darwin. Of course, we are applying the term 'hero' in a very generalized sense, providing you are OK with using 'hero' to refer to a man who spent his life-defining Australian voyage hanging out in graveyards, exposing himself to passing resort patrons, grossly misidentifying Australian spiders, and instilling terror into female airline passengers. So for our purposes we will simply analogize 'hero' and 'protagonist' and agree to disagree. My blog, not yours.
Flash-forward to two years later...two long years of staring of photos on the slideshow screensavers he set up not only at home, but also at *work*...two years of conversations that were consistently being steered in a direction that allowed some anecdote that begins with "oh, that's like when I was in Australia..." (shortly followed by less and less subtle eye-rolling)...two years of pining that eventually culminated in our hero's wife exclaiming in exasperation "just GO back! Please! Just shut up about the Kangaroo steaks!!!".
And so, two years after that fateful and awkward journey...we're going back to the Outback.
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The map shows my intended route...and several alternatives, which is why just by looking at the picture you probably have no idea what I have planned. Allow me to explain - this trip basically is like the last trip. In fact, it starts off *exactly* like the previous trip. This trip is my "Hangover Part 2". The shitty made-for-TV sequel of my last 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip. Really, the whole thing is pretty much like the last trip with just enough details changed to evade a plagiarism lawsuit launched on behalf of myself. I'll be travelling down to Seattle, flying to LA, and then onward to Sydney...after which I fly to Alice Springs to pick up a rental 4WD camper. Sound familiar?
It's at that point we'll shake things up a bit. The 'act title' of this blog is "The Red Center and Great Western Deserts", and hence my ideal path will lead me through the mountains around Alice Springs (the "Red Center" bit), and then west along a road called the "Great Central Way" and finally - and this is the real point - to a long, lonely desert track called the "Gunbarrel Highway". No, it isn't a highway. I'll be lucky if it is wide enough in some areas for a single vehicle to pass through without having the gaudy Britz adverts on the side Freddy-clawed by the overgrown brush that lines the track.
However, for this all to work out, I need two major forces to cooperate - the weather, and Britz. If it rains even a bit within a week or so of my intended travel time, the Gunbarrel Highway will turn into pretty much the Water-Noodle Highway and I can kiss my plans goodbye. So...I'll be going with mitigation plans. If I can't take the Gunbarrel, I plan on continuing down the Great Central Way and using the extra time to head over to the west coast of Australia...at which point the blog will probably get renamed "The Red Center and Shitty Wet Rainy Wintery West Coast". Of course, if it rains over a wide enough area in the western deserts, then the Great Central Way may be out of the picture. So, I'll have two choices: travel north-west, west, and then south in what is surely to become "The I've Done Most Of This Already But At Least It's Warm But A Long Fucking Drive" blog. Failing that, for whatever reason, I'll be left with the only alternative, the "Driving South And I Have No Real Idea Where I'm Going Because I Didn't Prepare For Plan D" blog. That one will be a blast, I'm sure!
Well, let's hope for the best, and stop thinking about it. I have a little over 36 hours before I leave home and drive towards the Emerald City, so I'll stop here...having really said nothing about Australia so far. If you've read this far, you're part of the problem, really.
Thanks for coming along. I'm sure it's going to be fun.

Posted by stevecrow 23:35 Archived in Canada Comments (2)

Ghosts

(or..."What???"...)

sunny 15 °C

I have an idea about ghosts.
Not about the restless spirits of dead people, though maybe my idea is just a natural extension of traditional ghosts. I believe that one need not be dead to leave a ghost behind, in fact I think we are doing it all the time. We may not even know we're doing it. We do things, visit places, experience things that affect us for our entire lives. Sometimes we recall these things, places, or people as fond (or not so much) memories, but it feels to me sometimes that there is more to it. Maybe sometime we visit a place that means a lot to us somehow - the rose garden where one was engaged, one's first apartment building, the house in a small town where one grew up. Sometimes it may be a smell or taste - some aroma that reminds us of the smell of the blanket the hospital wrapped one's child in after he or she was born, or a wine with a distinctive flavour that takes us back to the first time we had it. We are aware of the memories, but I think that if one were to really concentrate, one can find their ghost, the part of us we left behind in that memory that will forever haunt that place and time as a result of the sheer emotional energy we generate in these moments. Sometimes memories are created with such energy that we shed a part of ourselves and leave it to be rediscovered later, should we be lucky enough - and cognizant enough - to look for it. Passing by that first apartment, one might be able to feel themselves from years past staring down from the balcony, forever looking towards a future they will never know. Smelling that newborn blanket and feeling yourself holding your newborn, trapped in that frame of time and repeating it over and over again forever. I think this is why it has become increasingly difficult to wander around Seattle alone now - I have shared so much of this city with other people, in particular my wife, that I cannot go anywhere now without being haunted by ghosts of the two of us. Of course these ghosts mean us no harm, and they don't mean to inflict the loneliness they create, it isn't their fault. So instead of spite, I simply embrace them and acknowledge them - knowing that their very existence is evidence of the fact that I have until now lived - and continue to live - a wonderful privileged life that lets me visit my ghosts once in a while.
So I'm starting to wonder - is that one of the reasons I'm going back to Australia? To find some of my ghosts? And to leave some more behind to be found in the future?

  • * *

I have discovered a flaw in my blogging plan. A flaw born of the fact that so much of the first part of my trip is identical to the last trip. Simply put, I used up all my good (...?...) material last time. Being a creature of habit, I simply have not found much new to talk about. I fought a typical legendary Seattle traffic apocalypse to eventually drag my ass into downtown around dinner, spent the evening sipping and eating, and started my first full day of vacation nursing a mild hangover - not that I drank a lot the previous night but any time you invite the ever-regal Absinthe to join your Iame party that already has cheap red wine taking up all the room on the shitty guest couches, you are courting a debt to be paid to Karma the next morning....
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Anyway, as you can see I am a creature of habit, and hence have very few original blog ideas so far that I haven't already milked. This may account for the crazy diatribe about ghosts above, and I'm sure some of you immediately assumed I had simply imbibed in Washington's recent freedom from the prohibition of Cannabis but I assure you that is not the case, I'm simply a weird person.
The hotel was a pleasant surprise. I had been booked into some place called Hotel 5 whose online gallery did it no justice, the rooms looking like someone found out how to weaponize tackiness and blast the hotel decor to the other side of Planet Hip-And-Quirky. Blech. I wasn't looking forward to it but it was cheapest thing I could find at the time close to the city centre that wasn't a hostel or a shipping container. However at the very last minute I took a chance and played the Hotwire game, hoping to gods that I neither believe in nor know about that I didn't end up at the Silver Cloud Stadium which is a cruel joke Hotwire likes to play sometimes and I'm pretty sure is about 147 miles away from Pike Place Market, give or take. Luck was on my side and I ended up spending my first night at the W Seattle.
So how about a hotel review to pass the time between now and Sydney?
The good: the lobby. It's serene and awesome and a bit unsettling with the dark candle-lit setup because everyone is saying "Welcome" in a way that had me mildly concerned that I had actually died on the freeway and found my way to the entrance to Elysium.
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Also good: the room, nice neutral brown and greys and cremes which is the complete opposite of the trip to Funky Town I had only narrowly avoided. The view was nice, not spectacular but I wasn't looking over a parkade or drug sting or anything.
However this came with some costs. First: venetian blinds. Venetian blinds.
No blackout shade. Really? Who puts venetian blinds in a hotel room? What is this, rehab? This slight peculiarity lead to my other complaint: me being awoken from a sleep that was already about as wholesome as the infomercial channel between 1am and 4am, by what I was pretty sure was Batman crawling up the building outside my window. It was just some window washers, the realization of which both infuriated me (ok yeah it was 10am but some of us are trying to adjust our internal clocks!) and deeply disappointed me because it wasn't Batman. Lastly, the toilet-paper holder has a sloped lid on it so you can't put your iPhone down when, well, doesn't matter, forget I said anything.
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Anyway, this is quickly becoming reminiscent of a Seinfeld episode - in that this whole entry is really about nothing at all, but without any of the clever wit, or humour, or whatever the hell else Seinfeld had that appealed to people. So I'm going to stop while I'm already behind and hope that I have more interesting things happen to write about by the time I get to Sydney. Preferably nice things, but I suppose beggars aren't choosers. So if you don't mind, I think I'll go look for my ghost at the International Terminal at LAX.

Posted by stevecrow 22:11 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Day 1 and 2: Urban Walkabouts

sunny 20 °C
View The Red Center and Great Western Deserts on stevecrow's travel map.

My ghost has been exorcised, I realize as I enter the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, finding the entire second level of the terminal, the one where my ghost stares down at the massive network of ticketing stations with anxiousness, anticipation and hesitation, has been completely eradicated. A sad end to one of my ghosts.
I proceed through security to the gates to find why the entrance to the terminal has undergone such a face lift, discovering a massive and elaborate shopping mall style gate complex that I have no interest in really, aside from the fact that I'm able to get a last-minute glass of Cabernet from Starbucks...yes, Starbucks. This, I say to myself, is pretty awesome.
The apprehension is muted this time boarding the plane that will take me to Australia, though the apprehension is still there, hiding behind the cloud that has followed me this entire voyage, and in fact before I even left. The cloud is the question why: why am I returning, especially so soon? Is it simply because I loved it? Re-reading my blog from the first time would certainly suggest as much however one need not read too far deeply into it to find a consistent theme of isolation, confusion, and a persistent state of discomfort. Do the positive feelings of freedom and discovery and adventure eclipse the negative feelings of my first trip, or are the negative feelings simply easier to forget?
These are all natural emotions I decide, taking my seat next to a gentlemen and his 16 year old son who is a bit of a cross between Michael Cera and Sid, the nasty kid next door in Toy Story. The boy lives up to first impressions, snarking at the fact that he is not allowed to have his cell phone on during take off, and no, the in-flight monitors do not work during take off. He is clearly perturbed about anything he can get perturbed about, huffing and sighing and trying to get comfortable, making nasty faces and the "wtf" hand gesture at the woman in front of him who immediately reclines her seat and goes to sleep upon takeoff. His actions and exasperated exhaling make it clear that it is everyone else's fault on the plane that he is stuck in a middle seat and can not find a comfortable position.
Tough shit, kid. Welcome to the real world
To break the ice, I tell him that if at any point during the flight he has to get up and use the can, elbow me so I can go at the same time to avoid having to disturb him. He grunts and nods.
Of course the joke is kind of on me since both he and his father have cast-iron bladders - the kid only finally went after hour 13, and as far as I can tell the father never went - at all. I endure my own pain born of some misplaced politeness.
We land after 15ish hours and the kid strikes up a friendly conversation with me. Nothing like a 15 hour flight to suck all the air out of a privileged kid. Maybe he isn't all that bad after all.
I am nervous filling out the customs form, because the question I have to answer YES to (due to my 14cm camping knife, as I found out last time) is something to the effect of "are you in possession of narcotics, illegal pornography, weapons or anything that may be subject to restrictions?" This should make customs interesting.
It doesn't. The customs guard pulls me aside and asks what I have. I answer, and off I go. No additional screening or even x-ray of my luggage. Apparently this is how to get illegal pornography into Australia. I kid. Please do not flag me.
And so I make my first mistake. Being in an elated, undoubtedly semi-delirious state of mind, I decide to get off the train one station early and walk through Sydney since the morning is so magnificent. Note that despite the fact that at home I am a clutter-Nazi, a trait that I am sure my family is enjoying a welcome respite from at this very moment, that I do not pack light. I am hauling more shit than an overburdened fully trained Shirpa. I am not a fully trained Shirpa, and have not had a shower in 22 hours. The morning may be 'cool' but it is still 17 degrees Celsius. And humid. By the time I reach my hotel I am a sweaty, sticky, smelly disgusting sack of man-slime. And what do they mean a room isn't available...six hours before check-in? I make my second mistake - I beg them to allow me to use the gym/fitness centre shower, which they are more than willing to do (surprised they do not plug their nose while handing me the temporary key) and so I haul my suitcase into the tiny, single shower in the men's change room and rinse off as best I can.
Did I remember to grab a towel?
I am still scraping the paper towel remnants off myself as I find ways to waste six hours in the city before being able to check in. And as it turns out, it is really hard to find some place that serves not-breakfast before 11:30am. Being someone who truly believes there is a limit to the number of eggs you should take in within a twenty-four hour period (and having already having had...'eggs'...on the flight in) I instead have toasted banana bread that is served with butter and syrup all French-Toast style. Much healthier.
Continuing to describe my first day in Sydney accomplishes very little. All I can say is that mathematically speaking not getting a proper lunch does not permit a free ticket to have two dinners...particularly within an hour of each-other. The first, on a rooftop terrace at a cool place in the Rocks called the Glenmore, a dish of baked barramundi in a ham broth which is awesome and expensive and, well, small...So I wander back to Darling Harbour to find most places stop serving food past 9pm on Sunday...so I end up back at Crinti's, which I swore off of last time because of the sucky service. The service is way better this time, but I still feel gross after wolfing down a chili chicken burger and maybe three of four fries, after which I'm sure I will need a wheelchair to get back to my hotel. I hate being 40.
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(The picture above is from the Vivid Sydney light festival and has no bearing on pretty much anything from this blog).
Day 2: I have nothing planned today. This should be nice. Over a nice cup of instant coffee I open up a travel magazine sitting on my coffee table (I should add a quick note here that my hotel room is amazingly awesome with a balcony overlooking Darling Harbour where I can sit and not come up with any really good blog ideas) to find an article describing something like 100 awesome things to do in Australia. Item 1 is a walk from the Taronga Zoo to Balmoral Beach, in Sydney. Hey, I'm in Sydney! So I wander to get breakfast from a cool little outdoor cafe in Chifley Square that rated highly on Tripadvisor, after which I proceed to take the ferry from Circular Quay to the zoo. I would love to go to the zoo, but I've already overspent...in only one day...and besides I have an eggs benedict and two dinners to work off.
When I left my room the weather was typical Sydney winter - overcast, maybe threatening rain, maybe not, and not overly warm. By the time I start my walk along the Bradley Head trail the sun is a peeping-tom through the clouds making the sub-tropical forest around me sweat as much as I am now sweating. Long story short, I stick to my walk but it costs me. Mistake three - going on a city hike with a jacket, pants, and long sleeved shirt - and no sunscreen. By the time I ooze into Balmoral Beach I'm positive no self-respecting restaurant or cafe will let me through the door. I can literally scoop handfuls of sweat off the back of my head. My shirt is glued to my body. But I have gotten some fantastic pictures, and the walk was worth it.
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I dry off and grab lunch - and a bus back to the ferry wharf. I had planned to walk back, but I know when to give up. After arriving back in the city centre I head straight to the Botanical Gardens, which I swore I would not miss this time. I take more pictures. Yay!
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For the record, I walked a bit over 11km today.
I enjoy a glass of Cab-Merlot at Circular Quay and visit my now-favourite expensive but knowledgable place place to buy wine, and head back to the hotel. The city is inspirational tonight, the sunset reflecting off the buildings with unreal colour.
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Tomorrow I will fly to Alice Springs to begin part two of this endeavour. I cannot say I am not nervous, though for different reasons this time. I'm not worried about driving on the 'other' side of the road - in fact, I'm looking forward to it because I remember the first time that being one of the most exhilarating and amazing experiences of my life. I'm concerned about where this trip is going to lead me. As I have previously pointed out I have options, no lack of them. But it is the not-knowing I think that preys on me. I have prepared for all of them, but it feels like I have prepared for none of them all at the same time. I'm probably just getting delirious again, because really I don't think my internal clock adjusted quite as well this time.
I am heading off now to find dinner (number one) tonight. Right after I acknowledge the ghost looking at me from Crinti's across the harbour, enjoying his veal and chicken marsala and Longview Cabernet...I don't think he's looking at me though, I think he's looking at the other ghost, the one sitting in my chair right now.

Posted by stevecrow 03:48 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Day 3: Return to the Red Centre

(...or "A Tale of Winners and Losers")

sunny 13 °C
View The Red Center and Great Western Deserts on stevecrow's travel map.

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(Circular Quay at late afternoon)

I am unable to resist the temptation of Chaos. On the advice of a friend, I leave the Sydney CBD and take the train to King's Cross to find the King's Cross Hotel, not really a hotel but a five storey bar. In fact as a general rule of thumb, if a place is called a 'hotel' here it is really a bar. you can't sleep there. Not really. The evening is pleasantly warm (for a Canadian), the train-station uncomfortably more so. A brief ride, I emerge into the, ahem, depravity of King's Cross, the true spirit of whom has quietly retired for a night off. Case in point: the lowest level of the King's Cross Hotel, the self-proclaimed "Dive Bar", is closed and will not be enlightening me with it's dank underbelly and reptilian taxidermy.
Winner: pub food at King's Cross Hotel, cheap, plentiful, and good. Accompanied by the the ambiance that is King's Cross this evening, this was well worth the short trip.
Loser: me, as I am not propositioned by any prostitutes this time...which is...good? Also, I didn't bring a camera again (which is...good?) so I have to steal my own crappy iPhone picture from Facebook so I have something to show.
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I am sitting on my hotel balcony enjoying my last night here, bathing in the sounds and smells of the city night, flashes of the light festival over the water of the harbour bouncing off the sides of the aquarium across the lane from me. A brief stay that came and went before I could properly introduce myself. This was expected, one of the trade-offs of a trip-of-a-lifetime part the second so soon after the pilot episode was to trim time and money off the endeavour. So far Australia is 'easier' this time, or at least Sydney is. Familiarity nurtures forthwith-ness, and wearing a smile for the sake of doing so makes it easier for those you meet to return the gesture. As it turns out a frown born of self-consciousness and nerves, for those you meet who cannot know, is to them simply a frown.
Winner: the sunset over Darling Harbour from my balcony on my last night here, the lights and sounds of the Vivid Light Festival and the heavenly smells of charbroiled everything all around, so potent it even sticks to my clothes.
Loser: me, because now I have to leave the relative comfort of Sydney. I want to stay and just keep eating. Also, I can't sleep worth shit.
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A minor footnote-slash-advice if I may, because it doesn't really belong anywhere so I'll put it here:
Winner: Telstra. If you come here, bring an unlocked smartphone (at least) and better yet, also an unlocked tablet. $30 on the phone gets you $0.15/minute to call back to North America, $0.10 outgoing texts (free incoming), and data charged at $0.10/MB. And the same $30 on the tablet gets you 3GB of data. By my math, this makes these prepaid offers about 10% of the cost of my monthly Rogers plan back home. And as I learned last time, it is a mistake to rely on hotel or caravan park wifi, as it can be expensive, flaky with tablets, or simply non-existent.
Loser: me...clearly so strapped for blog ideas I let it briefly deteriorate into an advert for a cell phone company.

My second night's rest is not as productive as my first. I believe my body has not adjusted to the time yet, and I spend most of the night tossing and rippling between a light schizophrenic sleep and full miserable wakefulness. But as it turns out, there is perhaps a bit more of an explanation behind my restlessness. As many of the momentary flash-in-pan dreams I had might suggest, it could very well be nerves about where I might be headed. But there may be another, far more unpleasant reason...
Winner: the beautiful clear Sydney morning as I walk back to the train station to head into the airport, jacket off enjoying the fresh cool air, slowly and with much resistance realizing that...
Loser: ...me, because I'm developing a chest cold.

I'm getting sick.

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I employ self-denial, and instead focus on the flight to Alice Springs. The flight itself is quiet and uneventful, apart from my shunning a mild panic at this recent development, instead convincing myself that it is the lack of sleep that is really making me feel this shitty. And the sell-job kind of works, at least for now. I'm able to relax and enjoy the flight, catch up on a Tom Robbins book I've been working on for the better part of a year, and enjoy my small in-flight snack: a not-quite meatpie, not-quite quiche. Basically just ham, cheese, and butter baked into a shell. I am surprised at my own resolve being able to munch it down without regretting it in one way or another. Even the young Aussie fellow next to me appeared unimpressed with the dish.
Winner: seeing the clouds below the plane give way to reveal the barren and pitted red land, brown and endless plains and empty salt lakes of interior Australia, and later the massive sand tides of the Simpson Desert, forcing the apprehension to move over to elation, because whatever happens, whereever my travels take me, I'm traveling through freakin' Australia!
Loser: me, I left my camera in my bag and have only shitty iPhone pictures to share with you.
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Upon first arriving, I am waging a full-blown internal battle - on one side telling myself that I am tired and nervous, and that after a good night sleep I will feel better...and on the other side, me being realistic and trying to admit that I may be running a mild fever and should probably take precautions. Ultimately I turn away from the melee and let it rage on inside as I walk into town to start supplying myself for the road trip that, no matter what, I have to take. I need to be in Perth in two weeks, and there is really only one method to getting there - at least one that would not cause me to lose a fortune and ruin this trip beyond repair. The sun having finally emerged I wander along the beautiful, though empty, Todd River bed and arrive into town, little glints of familiarity entertaining me. For example I now remember that in Sydney, at least in the CBD, pedestrians pretty much have the right-of-way. In Alice Springs (and possibly everywhere else) it is the complete opposite to the point that I'm sure those Roo-bars on the front of vehicles here are probably meant for more than just dumb road-dwelling Roos.
Wandering through the grocery store I hear an INXS song over the pa speakers and simultaneously think of both my wife and my trip to Michael Hutchence's memorial on my first trip. By the time the song is done, I miraculously feel better. Much, much better. But still I will take precautions.
Winner: the porter house steak from the hotel bar (the bar in the hotel that I swore in my first blog I wouldn't return to because 'it was expensive', only to realize that first, I obviously had not adjusted to Australian pricing the first time, and second, the hotel is really nice.) And the sunset reflecting off the MacDonnell Range outside my room.
Loser: me, the 'cold and flu' relief I purchased, upon further inspection now, is some kind of funky 'natural' relief. Instead of acetaminophen there is "White Willow Bark", instead of Ibuprofen there's "Elderberry", instead of menthol, "Horseradish", and no antihistamine...and..."Valerian Root". My mistake, I clearly missed the "Elvish Medicine" section sign.

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Sleep last night was better though still mis-programmed. I will shortly be packing everything and heading to Britz to pick up my mobile hotel room for the next 13 nights, and at that point I will have a much better idea where I will be headed. Despite the anxiety and less-than-perfect health I am still hoping I will get permission to drive the Gunbarrel...at least leaving the decision in my hands, one I will make once I get closer to the turn-off of the Great Central Road by influence of both health and weather. I am not sure exactly when I will get a chance to update this blog again for a while, but it should be within about 3 or 4 days. Three out of my four possible routes has me at Yulara (Uluru) on Friday whereby I should be able to check in. The last, northerly route, could be less predictable, because I will not subject myself to that 12-hour, 800km Tanami Marathon again. I got lucky the first time, I know when to not push said luck.
Thanks for reading.
Winner: the sunrise over the MacDonnell Range mountains outside my room. And the awesome resident hotel peacock who is endlessly grooming itself. Much be hard to be a local celebrity.
Loser: my ghost, sitting back at the hotel bar, sipping Merlot and whining about the menu prices. However he is also shaking in his socks because he is terrified: the next day he will be going to Britz to find out if he is able to take the Tanami Road and Gibb River Road and stick to his original travel plans. He is still feeling way out of place here, shy and unsure of himself, unclear how to act, how to greet people. He is scared shitless of what will happen when he has to drive on the left side of the road, and on the right side of the truck. He is nervous about bush-camping on the side of the Tanami. And even now, he has no idea what to expect from this country and what will happen next.

What a noob.

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Posted by stevecrow 17:30 Archived in Australia Comments (4)

Barreling Towards The Gunbarrel

sunny 8 °C
View The Red Center and Great Western Deserts on stevecrow's travel map.

Day 4: Back Out into the Outback

Cass (my Britz hire campervan from my previous Australian excursion) was admittedly a spring chicken. She had about 10,000km logged when I picked her up before ravaging her through, what was it, 4800km of Canadian-in-Australia madness? Admittedly I think this number grows each time I recall it. In any case, if hauling Cass through the Australian Outback was cradle-robbing then by comparison I am now playing caretaker to the tribal elder. The rig I am now driving through Australia is only a 2010 but has been shaken through over 138,000km of god-knows-where, AUS. I sure hope she's up to the task.
Britz seems to think so, because they didn't bat an eye when I told them I wanted to drive the Gunbarrel Highway. In fact it took firm convincing to get them to initial on the contract that yes they explicitly gave me permission to take this route (the only provision being that if it starts to rain to get the hell out of there). All in all, I don't think they cared if I told them I was going to take the campervan to Reno via a home-made raft made up of recycled Tim-Tam wrappers...as long as I returned it on time, clean and with full fuel tanks.
This is partially reassuring, and partially disconcerting all at the same time. At least I hired a satellite phone. Provided I don't lose my fingers or eyesight I should be ok no matter what.
And just like that, I hit the road on my journey.
Well, not just like that because I had to indulge in my favourite pass time - grocery shopping. I decided not to be original and basically stocked up on all the same crap as I did last time - peanut butter and bread, instant noodles, those awesome cans of flavoured canned chicken flakes, and sausages and pre-breaded chicken schnitzels. History repeats itself before my very eyes.
In several different ways.
For starters the Australian Outback, being as large and diverse as it is, never ceases to leave me absolutely breathless...which makes things difficult when I am trying to concentrate on adjusting to the vehicle weight being on the wrong side of my body. I take the road towards the West MacDonnell National Park which leads through mountain ranges of sharp red rock, massive green vales, and endless groves of desert oak. This, I believe, is actually heaven, and perhaps I truly did enter Nirvana back in Seattle. Unfortunately for me there was little time before the sunset to reach my first destination so very few quality photos were obtained.
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I had planned to stop at a campsite called Red Gorge but instead pulled off at Orminston Gorge since this is the only campground with a solar powered shower. Yes, I wimped out but since I'll be travelling for a few days between any established campgrounds once I hit the Gunbarrel I decided to make it easy on myself for the time being.

I learn early to make sure my rubbish is tucked away. The dingo roaming around my site was very interested to find out what was in the garbage bag I hung on a tree. Unfortunately for me they are much like coyotes - pests and cowards, and so I don't get a chance to take a photo of the mooch. I'm sure I'll see more before the trip is through.

Speaking of pests I forgot the iPad screen attracts a lot of unwanted insecticoid attention. I don't even have a clue what that completely clear bug was I just shooed away. Maybe an elusive deadly-poisonous Australian Glass Weevil?

And what I am going to name my elderly chariot, anyway?
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Day 5: Orminston Gorge

As if some force is easing me into my current predicament, tonight is not as cold as it should be. My 4:30am recess from sleep to the toilet is met with a fairly warm (if you call something like 8 degrees warm, and in central Australia in winter it sure as hell is) early morning air, though the trade-off here is that the wind is strong enough to wobble the pop-top camper I currently inhabit, on more than one occasion. Whee!!!

I am spending the morning exploring the gorge, not a second of which is wasted. I climb up a trail called the "Ghost Gum Lookout" which could have easily been called "God's Skybox to the Superbowl" (or World Cup Final for non North Americans) and it is at this point I think I finally realize ok, NOW I'm in Australia.
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And I get to meet the dingo. Or at least, a dingo.
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The combination of a messed up internal biological clock and my ever-harassing urge to scurry to my next destination gets me moving towards King's Canyon. I am entertained along way with two new games: the first, a little thing I like to call "Dung Dodging" because the cattle around the area seem to love shitting right in the middle of the road, despite the fact that they have like a kagillion kilometres of Outback to relieve themselves upon. The other awesome game I discover is called "figure out the error margin on the GPS", because once I hit the unpaved road of the Mereenie Loop my GPS is consistently messed up and has no idea where the road is supposed to be. This is of no real concern to me since I'm just using it to keep a sense of how far it is to my destination. In fact, at one point, the GPS gets so confused that it starts into a loop of "Recalculating...recalculating..." and it somehow manages to do this exactly to the beat of the song playing on my iPod. I kid you not. I was laughing out loud for several kilometres. My GPS was jamming with my darkwave music.
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Speaking of unpaved roads, the Mereenie loop is a nice warm-up of things to come. It is rough at times, long lengths of sharp rocks and moderate corrugations, some twisted turns and pitted surfaces. I am convinced I might be getting a preview of the Gunbarrel as I have to take a detour track along the side of the road where they are doing roadwork, apparently in preparation of sealing the Mereenie Loop (boo!) The detour track is a sandy, twisted, washed-out mess of Jesus-Christ-Are-You-Kidding-Me...at least in comparison to the otherwise "Beginners Guide To Dirt Roads in Australia" that the main road has been to this point.
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Fast-forward a bit, and my elation cannot be accurately put into words. Only a few hundred kilometres but I have already seen the magnificent landscape around me transform several times, from rustic mountain passes to flat desert scrub to endless groves of desert oak and gum trees and whatever other awesome shrubs and trees Australia has to offer. All with a long endless red dirt track cutting through it leading on towards the horizon.
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This is Australia. I'm finally here.

Speaking of unspeakable, I am now settling down after witnessing the glorious spectacle that is the sunset against the mountains of King's Canyon. I fought through a difficult afternoon that combined with the exhaustion of a body that was positive it should be in bed and the urge to do something remarkable but not having the time to do so (i.e. leaving the King's Canyon walk for tomorrow) had me wallowing in a bit of a "what-the-hell-am-I even-doing-here" funk. I'm sure there will be a few of those yet to come. But nothing extinguishes these useless feelings like the view of a magnificent sunset...from a viewing platform...that has an outdoor bar.
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One last personal note, because it's my blog (and not yours). I want to publicly call out my absolutely amazing wife, my best friend, the one that recognized in me the urge to explore, to venture out into unknown parts in the world, to realize dreams I didn't even know I had. So many times when she has explained to others how I was going to Australia - alone - the response be "you're *letting* him go?" (I paraphrase, but not really). She would get annoyed at the idea that she would have to *let* me do anything, and respond politely that no, she wasn't *letting* me do anything. She was encouraging me to go. Truth be told, I am here on my second trip into the Outback at her urging - yes, we joke about the "enough about Australia, if you love it so much just go and marry it!" but really what it comes down to is that I have a desire to explore things and places, one that she just doesn't have, and rather than hold that against me she embraces it and loves me for it and sends me off on my way knowing that when I get back I'll be a fuller person. I'll be even more me than I was when I left, and since she loves me, this will give her more of me to love. Mel, if you're reading this, thank you for understanding and you are in my thoughts always. I would love it if someday I can show you all this, but if not, that's OK because if that just isn't you then I don't want any part of it. All I can say is that all beauty of this land around me will never compare to the beauty of the wife that I will soon come home to.

Day 6: King's Canyon

I spoke too soon with the whole "God's Sky Box" analogy.
I have now completed the fairly difficult task that is the King's Canyon Rim Walk and I don't think I've seen anything in Australia - this time or the previous - that couple possibly compare to what I have now seen. King's Canyon is basically a mountain that has split open up the middle - I'm sure there are more scientific ways to explain it, and several signs along the path attempted to do so but I'm on the clock so I simply took pictures of the info boards and will read them when I get home. The walk begins with a stone staircase that leads way, way, way up the west side of the cliff, and then walk takes you along the edge of a massive chasm, deep down in which there lies a little ecosystem of permanent gorges and sub-tropical groves. I'm really glad I brought a good camera, but this of course slows my walk greatly since, not really knowing how to use the camera properly, I employ instead the approach of "take twenty, one will turn out". I will need to purchase a new hard drive when I get home just for the mess of pictures I've taken.
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I do the 3.5 hour walk in about 2 hours, yes rushing along a bit for reasons I'll explain in a bit, but I think the 3.5 hour quoted time is pretty conservative. All I know is I wouldn't want to attempt this walk in the Australian summer.

The reason I'm kind of hurrying (and really, when am I not) is because I'm concerned about making my next destination - the Ayers Rock Campground - and getting a site, since I now have realized that it is Friday and if the campground is full my plans will take a serious left turn for the worse. As I barrel along in my yet-unnamed elderly campervan I convince myself that the fact that it's Friday probably doesn't mean much - Ayers Rock Campground is a six hour drive from the nearest major town so really the only force I have to contend with is the normal tourist contingent, which probably has no bearing of the fact that it's Friday. They're tourists, they don't care what day of the week it is.

I am now writing this from the large red dirt overflow lot of the Ayers Rock Campground, because they were completely full by the time I got here - at 3:40pm. At least they had an overflow. Stupid fucking tourists.

My plan was to leave early and visit Kata Tjuta, which is sort of a sister monolith to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and then proceed along the Great Central Road into Western Australia, but I've modified my plans slightly - I've decided to stay here an extra night (not in the shitty overflow lot, I've booked a site for tomorrow). I'd rather take the extra time to explore Kata Tjutu and Uluru properly, and since I've allowed myself several days leeway for the entire trip I figure it would be good to slow down a bit, take some time to physically and mentally prepare for the Gunbarrel Highway, and I guess spend more money because this resort is freaking expensive. Nonetheless I think it will be well spent to get some rest and prepare.

Good to know that even in Australia there are assholes, specifically the ones blasting music out of their rented motorhome at 9:30pm when most folks are trying to retire for the evening. I can't believe someone would blare that horrific "Turn Down The What" travesty, admitting that they not only like the song (the term song used very loosely) but own a copy of it. And some German guy just drunk-barfed out the side of his campervan just up the lot from me.

Stupid fucking tourists.

Day 7: Kata Tjuta and the Great Central Road

And...I alter my plans again at the last minute and instead decide not to spend the $50 on a campsite here. I have a Gunbarrel Highway to get to.

The consequence is that I do not get a chance to truly enjoy Uluru and Kata Tjuta as much as I would have liked, though since I have already explored Uluru once I'm ok with this plan. I stop to snap some quick pictures of Uluru and then spend a bit of time taking in Kata Tjuta as much as my schedule will allow...a whole whopping hour. Oh well, something for trip three.

Kata Tjuta is like if Uluru had a litter of babies...instead of one monolith it is several, all huge, all red, and all reaching up into the heavens from where I walk through a gorge in between two of them. There is a more substantive walk that provides better viewing but it is a 3 to 4 hour hike and I have to motor on into Western Australia.
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I hit the Great Central Road and flashbacks of the Tanami come rapid-fire, though this road is far prettier, leading through plains of desert trees, mountain ranges, and several large dry riverbeds that are a reminder of how completely impassible this road would be after any substantial amount of rain.
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It is a long bone-shocking drive but I have settled into a campsite at the Warakurna Roadhouse. Tomorrow I will head to Warburton and consult with the roadhouse caretaker and check the weather online. If there is even a hint of rain in the following three or four days then my plans for the Gunbarrel are ruined, at which point I'll just have to carry on and explore some other places in Australia - a pretty wicked consolation prize if you ask me. So if all goes well I will not be posting for quite some time, at least four or five days...not like I've been particularly reliable to this point anyway.

No quips or witty endings to this one. It's too damn cold. I want to post this and crawl into my warm bed. This may be Australia, but it's winter.
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Catch you all on the other side of the Gunbarrel!

Posted by stevecrow 04:27 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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