A New Horizon

Rain. Annoying isn’t it. This is what the Whitsundays, and in particular, Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet, is supposed to look like.

Stunning (Image ©Australian Geographic)

And this is my lasting memory of one of the most beautiful places in the world….

Wet and bleak – more Skeggy than paradise!

Yes, after weeks of unbroken sunshine, the clouds came and dumped a load of rain on us at precisely the moment we were supposed to be taking in one of the best beaches in the world. It didn’t stop us from having fun and making the most of it though, taking part in a UK and Ireland (wet) beach football match against a mostly German opponent. Sadly, they won.

Pass us a brolly!

Thankfully the weather didn’t spoil a brilliant few days, where I took to the seas and sailed around a particularly beautiful area of Australia with some great people. It involved a stop in Airlie Beach, where despite its name, there isn’t actually much sand to go and relax on. Instead, like many places where there’s a risk of crocs and stinger jellyfish on the coast, there’s a huge swimming lagoon where people hang out.

The New Horizon

I didn’t have much time for that, arriving the day before I set sail on the New Horizon, a 30-year-old sailing boat that spends its time taking backpackers and tourists around this islands for snorkelling, partying and sightseeing. I was under strict instructions not to take any bags with zips, mainly because its how bedbugs travel around apparently, and so with a beachbag of clothes and a box of wine (more on that later), I made my way to the marina.

I arrived to find a huge group of girls standing around.

“Hurray, another boy,” I overheard one of them say.

I asked if it was the waiting area for the New Horizon. There were nods and smiles.

“There’s only four boys coming,” said a blonde German girl to my right.

Now, you might think this a bit odd, about to spend three days at sea with a boatload of girls, but I was more than a little worried. With 31 people on the trip, that’s a ratio of almost eight girls to each bloke. I began to have visions of dinnertime chats being dominated by lipstick and makeup tips, which boys they fancy, and shoes.

Welcome aboard!

Thankfully, the girl’s sources were wrong, and slowly but surely another few lads turned up, mostly German, but lads all the same. There were still twice as many females as there were males, but we weren’t complaining, and neither was Brett, the slightly cheeky chappy who would be our host onboard and who turned up with a huge smile.

“They sell seasickness tablets in the shop behind you, and it will get a little bit bumpy out there with this wind,” were some of the key words I picked out in his welcome speech. I invested in a pack.

As we all climbed onboard, handing over our footwear for the next couple of days (‘this is a naked from the ankle down boat’) we were welcomed to the New Horizon on the bow, 31 of us from all around Europe. There was a large group from Germany, some from Switzerland, Holland, a good group from Ireland and one other guy from England.

Andy the captain

The New Horizon is skippered by Andy, a cheery, smiling bloke who looked every bit the salty seadog when he’d hang out of the wheelhouse, looking out to sea and sailing his vessel with pride.

Alex is the cook/anchor attendant/washer upper, a great guy to have a laugh and a chat with around in the kitchen. He’s originally from back home, but has been living and working on boats for years. He clearly loves life at sea.

Then there was Brett, our host come entertainer come alarm clock, who would be the one telling us what we could do, what we couldn’t do and when we need to do them for the duration of the three day trip.

Alex and his sausage

It was Brett who told us where the goon box was onboard. Now, goon, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a huge thing for backpackers in Australia. With a pint of beer costing anything up to $12.50 (just under £8) it leaves young, skint travellers with a problem when it comes to having a bevvy. Thankfully, a box of wine saves the day – known as cask wine, it comes in either ‘fruity’ or ‘dry’.

Its fairly similar to the boxes of wine you get back home, except probably not as nice. It definitely won’t win any international quality wine awards, but it does get you a little tipsy. And when you can pick up 4.4litres of the stuff for $12, thanks to the proximity of Australia’s wine growing regions, it becomes the drink of choice!

Goon it up!

The only problem was, with everyone taking their goon out of the cardboard boxes for the ice box – known as an ‘esky’ down under – it would be a confusing array of silver foil bags without any kind of marking system. Thankfully, it’s a problem the crew of the New Horizon have found a solution to, in the form of multicoloured elastic bands. For the next two nights, my grog was the one with a green and red bands twisted around the nozzle.

The sun goes down

With the sun shining, the calm, crystal clear blue water near the marina slowly gave way to the choppy ocean as we made our way over to the anchorage for the night, waving goodbye to Airlie Beach and mainland Australia. We got to know each other a little better when we hit calmer waters, and watched the sun set over the ocean.

Sunset at sea

The rest of the night was spent playing cards, drinking games, finding out about each others travels and watching sharks circle the boat. Yes, you did read that right. Sharks.

You can imagine the commotion, spotlight shining on the waves in the darkness, when someone shouts ‘shark’ amid a boatload of young people. Suddenly, we were all at the handrails along the side of the boat, watching and waiting.

Shark attack!

Sure enough, appearing like a ghost from the deep, an outline appeared, swooping around in a definite shark-like manner. Its long pointy tail, top fin and rounded head confirmed it. I strained my eyes, trying to spot any markings, and could just about see some dark markings on its fin.

“It’s a black tip reef shark,” said Alex, adding that it wasn’t often the trip would be blessed by the appearance of such a fish.

We watched as the shark circled other fish that had made the mistake of being attracted to the light and noise onboard the vessel. A short time late, another shark appeared, and I’d spend much of the night watching the two of them swooping around together, diving beneath the boat and getting dinner for themselves.

Cloudy arrival in the Whitsundays

The next morning, with a thick head thanks to the goon, there was a rude awakening that, being in the forward-most berth onboard, I’d been warned about. It was just after 5am – the noise was the anchor chain being hauled in and clanging away just centimetres from my head.

My lower bunk at the front of the boat

Just about the last thing anyone needs after a heavy night of goon, but thankfully it didn’t go on for long and we were told to carry on sleeping to avoid a rough bit of sea before arriving at Whitehaven.

The New Horizon can’t get close to the shore – shes’s a pretty big boat – and with no jetty at the Whitsundays National Park, it was a case of jumping in the small boat we’d been towing along and making a few shuttles to the shore. We headed up to the lookout, passing huge webs full of evil-looking spiders, before there was a clearing and a wooden platform. Stretching out for miles in front was the famous view I had seen on television travel programmes and in almost every Australian tourism brochure I have ever looked in.

There’s no doubt Whitehaven is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth, but I was gutted there was no sunshine. For me, this was one of the places I had come to Australia to see, right up there with Ayers Rock. Without the sun shining, however, the brilliant white sand and turquoise blue waters just didn’t glow.

Still beautiful

The sand is famously white because of its high silica content, caused by years of washing by the ocean before being dumped on the sandbanks here. At low tide, you get an amazing view of the sand bars amid the bright blue water, a result of the incredible white sand below. I waited until the sun managed to poke between the clouds for a few seconds before grabbing a photo, but it’s a long way off those picture perfect postcards. Worse still, out to sea, there was a storm brewing.

We made our way down to the soft white sands of the beach, where most people donned stinger suits to protect themselves from jellyfish in the water. Alex told me there was a good chance of seeing some stingrays near the mangroves, so I went with him in search of them. It wasn’t long before a familiar dark outline appeared in front of us, along with a few others. We’d waded out to a family of them, who gradually lifted themselves off from their sandy beds and swam away.

I headed back towards a group from our boat that had set up camp on the beach, and was in the process of setting up some cricket stumps when I heard my name being called. It was Alex and Brandon from my dorm at Gilligans in Cairns!

With Alex and Brandon, mates from Cairns

“How are you buddy,” they said as I threw everything away I was doing to go and meet them.

It turned out they were onboard the Atlantic Clipper, the sister boat to New Horizon, and who were anchored just a short distance from us the previous night. We had just started talking about our respective boats when I caught sight of what was happening a few hundred metres away out on the sandbank.

Dozens of people were running. Fast. And towards us. Behind, a menacing cloud and a sheet of white from the ocean waves to the sky. It was rain – very heavy rain – and it was heading right for us.

The heavens opened

Alex and Brandon scarpered for shelter under a tree with the rest of their boat. Someone handed me a giant blue plastic bag. But it was too late. In an instant, the heavens opened with some of the heaviest rain I’ve known, not only on this trip, but ever before. It absolutely threw it down, and everyone, whether they had been in the water or not, was instantly soaked. I made a hole in the bag so I could see through (and breathe!) and braved my camera to get a few shots of the monsoon-like conditions that had suddenly swallowed us.

With everyone soaked to the bone, there was no point in heading back to the New Horizon. Instead, we carried on regardless – the cricket continued in the storm, people swam in the sea, we found a football and had a kickabout. Paradise might have changed to a winter’s day in Skeggy in an instant, but we were making the most of it. We’d only be here once, and if you can’t remember it for all the right reasons, then you may as well remember it for smashing a six into the sea. Or in our case, hitting the tennis ball so hard, it smashed the end off the plastic cricket bat. Whichever way you look at it, we turned a negative into a positive, and we’ll always remember our visit!

Fun and games jumping off the boat

Strangely, just as we were leaving Whitehaven, the clouds broke and the sun came out. We finished off the day with some snorkelling around the coast, diving off the boat and entertaining some batfish that had come to us for a feed. We sailed past the world-famous celebrity hangout Hayman Island, anchoring not far from its shores, and the goon was out again in the evening, along with yet more drinking games.

Our host Brett explaining where we had been

There was also an outing for my iPhone, after the German contingent alienated most music lovers by hijacking the sound system onboard at about 7pm in the evening to engulf us with a selection of weird European hardcore trance that absolutely nobody out of Germany had any interest in. I, along with a few of the others with better taste in music, agreed something had to be done. My family and friends back home will no doubt have a facepalm moment when

Our map and journey around the islands

I say it was my iPhone selected to make a playlist for the night, and after a few minutes selecting classics such as Scatman John, the Grease megamix and a bit of Aqua (there was a fair share of Oasis, Muse and Florence too!) the boat was rocking along to my DJ’ing for the rest of the night. Thankfully, the German contingent was dancing along too – its fair to say my music taste appeals to all!

Having fun on deck at night!

Despite being away for a few days, the trip was over quicker than you could say ‘landlubber’. After an early morning snorkel and breakfast, we headed back to the mainland with full sail, bouncing our way across the waves. Andy, the skipper, smiled at me when he saw how many people were on the bow as we made our way to the open water.

Early morning snorkelling

“They probably think this is as bad as its going to get…they’re going to get soaked in a few minutes,” he laughed, with a knowing wink.

It was a bit choppy…

Sure enough, as we hit the swell, the New Horizon lurched from one side to the other, throwing water up over the sides and drenching everyone in the process.

Water everywhere!

Even sheltering in the doorways you weren’t safe, with water gushing up over the top of the boat, landing on the roof and cascading down on anyone in the vicinity. Most people found a spot and stayed in it, hanging onto anything they could. Some where just trying to hold onto their stomachs. Thankfully,  I found my spot – it was in the sun, on the deck, and horizontal – catching 40 winks!

My spot on deck!

A couple of hours later, we were sailing into the calmer waters near the harbour, posing for group photos and looking forward to losing our sea legs. I was working out what to do for the afternoon, with another overnight Greyhound booked for the evening. I decided to head back to the hostel where I had stayed before the trip, knock on a few doors and blag a shower in someone’s room before collecting my bags and heading to a café somewhere.

The motley crew onboard the New Horizon!

We gave all the crew members a round of applause and a few cheers as we got back to the mainland. They had done a brilliant job – Brett had kept us all safe and entertained, Andy had steered us on the trip of a lifetime, and Alex had kept us fed with some great meals considering the tiny amount of space he has to work in. The spaghetti bolognaise on the last night was one of the best I’ve had.

I said goodbye to the crew and headed off up the pontoon, where I could see Alex and Brandon who had just left their boat.

“Phil! Where are you heading?” they asked.

I told them I was off to blag a shower in a hostel. They told me they were heading to a luxury apartment in the mountains overlooking the bay.

“How in the world did you manage to afford that?” I asked, slightly envious.

One hell of a luxury apartment!

They told me a friend that Brandon had worked with had managed to get them a good deal for a few nights, and said I should go with them for the afternoon. It was an offer I would have been stupid to turn down, and walked with them up some of the steepest hills Airlie Beach has to offer until we reached a fantastic set of apartments. These were the best of the best in the area – $300 a night jobs, complete with a pool high in the mountains overlooking the stunning scenery.

Living the life!

The boys had landed on their feet. They knew it, I knew it, and in return, I too had shared in their luck. I spent the afternoon chilling by a pool in a setting that millionaires would be happy with, dumped some washing in their utility room, had an amazing shower in one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen and caught up with two good mates on a balcony with one of the most brilliant views in the area.

Alex, a self photo, with Brandon and I in the pool!

Yet again, it was another example of the beauty of travelling. Within the space of an hour, I had gone from trying to scout out a shower in a grotty dorm, to spending an afternoon at one of the most luxurious apartment complexes I have ever seen. It was all thanks to two guys, who a week before I had never met. Now, after meeting in our dorm in Cairns, they had invited me to share the afternoon with them, and dropped me off back at my hostel late in the afternoon to collect my bags. They are both heading south towards Sydney, the same as me, and we hope to meet up again further along the way. But whether we manage that or not, they are already two more people to add to my ever growing friend list from this trip.

Strangers to mates in an instant – and photographs and memories that will last a lifetime.

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Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

There are not many natural wonders of the world that require an oxygen tank and flippers to go see them, but for the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a good idea.

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

I have arrived in Cairns, right up in the tropics on Australia’s north eastern coast, and for the first time in months I am heading east again – meaning my homeward journey is officially underway.

With just a couple of weeks left before I fly out to New Zealand, I’m up against a bit of a tight schedule to fit everything in that I have wanted to see and do on the east coast before arriving back into Sydney for my flight out of the country. Every unnecessary day spent dawdling or wasted somehow on this 3,000km trip to the land of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, is a day less seeing the many sights of NZ.

Thankfully, my first visit to Oz seven years ago brought me to Cairns, so I have a fairly good knowledge of the town, and I decided to stay at the same hostel that I walked into back then too, a bit of a party spot, but one of the best around, by the name of Gilligans.

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

Its funny how memories come flooding back after so long away from somewhere – and my arrival at Cairns airport after two overnight flights from Darwin and Brisbane was one of those moments. Back in 2005, I had arrived at the same airport on an internal flight from Melbourne, and was waiting by the same luggage carousel I found myself at again on this visit. Only back then, minding my own business and waiting for my bags, there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Is your name Phil and are you from Grimsby,” asked a tall, blonde girl with a smile on her face.

Slightly surprised, I think I replied something along the lines of ‘er, yes, why?’ before turning round to the right slightly and seeing my friend Kirsty, who worked in the Grimsby Town Football Club ticket office and clubshop. She was there with her friend Michelle, from Louth, and were spending a few weeks travelling together

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

It was an incredible coincidence – not only had I bumped into someone from home that I knew on the other side of the world, but they had been on the same internal Qantas flight as me.

“You walked past us and we called your name on the plane but you didn’t respond, so we didn’t know if it was you,” I remember them saying.

As it happens, I do vaguely remember someone saying my name on that flight, but being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t respond as there was no way anyone would know me on that particular flight. Right?!

We ended up spending a lot of time together in Cairns back then, and I remain good friends with them both, so tagged them in a post on Facebook to let them know I was remembering the good times we had before making my way to the town centre bus transfer point.

Another day, another place

Walking back into Gilligans felt very familiar. Its got more of a hotel feel about the place, rather than a backpacker hostel, and indeed, it does have a number of hotel style rooms for couples. I opted for one of the dorms, but had to wait until the afternoon before I could check in, so made my way to the fantastic swimming pool at the complex.

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

With the sun shining, and a much fresher feel to the weather thanks to lower humidity levels than Darwin, I pulled up a sun lounger and laid back, memories of my previous stay still coming back. Despite two overnight flights, I felt awake and ready for a chilled out day, meeting new people and working out what to do with my time in Cairns. It was also time to work out how to get back to Sydney, and in the hot sun I flicked through the handfuls of visitor leaflets and brochures I had picked up in the on-site travel agency.

Despite dwindling funds, I decided that my main aims for the east coast trip south were to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit the stunning Whitsunday islands, make my way to Fraser Island before moving on to visit friends in Brisbane and Newcastle before arriving into Sydney for my onward flight at the beginning of June. Looking at the calendar on my phone, and bearing in mind the 3,000km distance to travel overland, I realised I was cutting it a bit fine. I decided I needed an itinerary drawing up, some proper help with my plans, and so I would go to the Peter Pans backpacker travel agency in the town that afternoon.

Or so I thought.

That’s when I fell asleep – one of those sudden, unannounced, unplanned deep sleeps that creep up on you from nowhere. One minute it was 1pm, the next minute it was 3.30pm and I was on my back, mouth open and with a whole load of new people crowded around me. And then I felt my shoulders and chest – sore would be an understatement.

Ooops. Too comfy

My cheapo Thailand-bought factor 15 suncream, that I had barely covered myself in when I was in the shade early on, was no match against Australia’s finest midday sun. I went for some respite in the shade of the bar, and caught sight of a couple of blokes sipping beer that I am sure sniggered as the bright red  Pommy lobster made its way past them. I checked in a mirror, and it was a bit of a state.

Despite seven months of travelling, it was the first time I had been ‘properly’ burnt, and it was my own stupid fault for falling asleep in the sun. I have actually been really careful, knowing how much time I’d be spending in the sun during the trip. The damage had been done, however, so I gathered my belongings, grabbed my bag from the luggage store and checked into my room for a cold shower. The next few days will be stingy – but I think it’s got rid of my t-shirt tan once and for all!

The pool at Gilligans

Time out of the sun did give me the opportunity to have a proper look into how I’ll make my way south, taking the chance to have a wander around some of the travel shops that night and get an idea of some of the package deals that were around.

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

The following day I made the visit to Peter Pan’s backpacker specialists where Aimee, one of the consultants, cheerfully pulled out a calendar and planned out the next few weeks for me. It starts with two dives on the Great Barrier Reef in less than 24 hours time, followed by tours down the east coast, joining the dots and getting back to Sydney thanks to the Greyhound bus network. Aimee planned me a couple of overnight bus journeys to save on accommodation costs – it’ll mean an uncomfortable night’s sleep, but at this stage of my trip, the equivalent of £20 saved here and there on accommodation goes a long way. All in, it was just over $1,000 for the whole lot, a good price with some fairly hefty discounts.

Speaking of which, it was time for a ‘big’ shop for supplies. My favourite Aussie supermarket Coles – complete with its catchy ‘down, down, prices are down,’ and ‘there’s no freshness like Coles’ catchphrases that get stuck in your head for hours on end – was too far away, so it was the Woolworths supermarket (yes, the name is still going strong here!) near the esplanade that was to provide my latest stash of carb-packed goodies.

Having spent months surrounded by Australian brands, I came across a great little aisle that brought out the Peter Kay ‘Brit abroad’ in me. A shelf stacked with groceries from home. PG Tips, Penguin biscuits and even Marmite were there, competing with their Oz counterparts of Lipton, Tim Tam and Vegemite. Perhaps the highlight was the imported Weetabix, albeit with a new, rather unimaginative name of ‘Whole Wheat Biscuits’ which I presume is to distance them from the Australian brekky Weet-Bix. But at the equivalent price of £5.30 for a box of 24, my pangs for a taste of home will go on for another few months!

I won’t spoil the fun by naming everything – see what you can spot!

After gazing at all the familiar products from home, I got on with the task of stocking up my portable larder, also known as my pretty trendy coolbag. When I arrived in Australia, I saw all the backpackers had one, be it slung under the rucksack, swinging from an arm or clutched in front. They come in bright pink, royal blue, sky blue or dazzling green, and are seen everywhere from luggage rooms to railway stations, botanical parks to famous landmarks.

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

Everyone seems to have one on the move, a commonplace belonging as much as a sleeping bag or a pair of flip flops. Some have special messages written on in permanent pen by their owners. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were the latest fashion accessory.

I was actually quite surprised to see so many of them, but it all comes down to the cost of living in Australia – with sandwiches costing anything from $6 upwards (£4-5 and up) a bowl of chips being around £8 and a basic main course meal setting you back an average of £15, travellers simply can’t afford to eat out. The supermarkets and their special offers become your best friend.

My backpackers essentials. And yes, the cheese really does go by that name here.

Most backpacker larders contain the same sort of things as mine – cheap essentials, but essentials that will keep the hunger away. A loaf of bread, pasta and sauce, two minute noodles, a block of cheese, a jar of Vegemite, a carton of longlife milk, teabags and a box of Weet-Bix. It’ll never win any awards for a balanced diet, and I can’t remember the last time I got anywhere near my five a day, but for around $20 (£16) there’s enough to keep me going for the next week. Occasionally I’ll splash out on some sausages to throw in with my pasta, but be it Vegemite on toast, noodles and bread, a late-night bowl of Weet-Bix or a cheese sarnie to keep me going, there is enough in the bag for a meal of sorts.

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

Communal kitchens in the hostels are always good fun, especially with scores of identical bags like mine stuffed inside the fridges. But when you’re on the move, its great to open up the coolbag and have a picnic wherever you fancy. It becomes part of your luggage, and saves you a fortune on eating out. Even a McDonalds, at $9 (£6) for an average meal, seems expensive in contrast to the sausage special pasta with cheese that I have now perfected – and can knock up for around $1.20 a meal!

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s a part of backpacking people might not think about –when I was dining out every night in Thailand on sumptuous three-course Massaman currys and starters for the equivalent of £2.50, there was no need to think about cooking – it was cheaper to eat out. But I’ve actually learned to embrace the portable larder, gradually adding cutlery and plates to it that are on a ‘long term loan’ from hostels along the way. I’ll be self-sufficient by the time I get back to Sydney, minus a cooking ring!

Back in the dorm, I got talking to two guys who were in my room, a Dutchman called Alex, and Brandon, from Canada. We’d said hello a few times, but got talking about diving and how we had to be up early in the morning – my boat leaves E Finger of the marina at 7am, and with theirs just fifteen minutes later, we agreed to wake each other up at 6am.

Early morning in Cairns

Sure enough, it was still getting light when the alarms, almost in synchronisation, went off around the bunkbeds in the room. One by one we climbed out of our beds and gathered towels and dive log books for the blurry-eyed walk out into the early morning Queensland sunshine.

I’d been looking forward to the diving trip. Its my first dive since becoming a qualified Padi diver in Thailand, and it was time to put all my learning into use. I’d hired an underwater camera for the trip to record the moment. I was introduced to Chris, the divemaster onboard with Cairns Diving Centre, who asked about my diving experience. Strangely, one of the other newly qualified divers came over and said I seemed to know what I was on about. I’ve clearly mastered the art of blagging.

It was a rough journey out to the reef, a three hour trip from Cairns. As soon as we left the harbour and began hitting the big swell of the ocean, I made the trip to the coffee bar to take on some seasickness tablets. Its not something I normally suffer from, but decided I’d rather be safe than sorry. I didn’t want to be feeling rough on such a big day – its not everyday you get to dive on one of the world’s natural wonders.

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

Half an hour later, people were dropping like flies around me, the catamaran marauding through the huge waves, slamming down and rising up and making around half of the passengers a little green around the gills. I felt great, however, and went up to the deck on the bow and joined a few others who were embracing the rollercoaster ride to the first dive site.

Ready to go!

We arrived at Moore Reef shortly before 11am, the water turning a bright turquoise blue around the reef area. As I was a qualified diver, I was asked to kit up first. It felt reassuringly familiar when I pulled my BCD over my body, strapping myself in and running through my checks – weight belt, fastenings, regulator, air supply, backup air supply, mask and fins. All was good, and I was buddied up with a German guy.

Stepping off the back of the boat

As I stepped down to the platform at the back of the boat, the water lapped around my feet. It was surprisingly warm considering how far offshore we were, but there was a strong current that quickly swept you away from the boat. With my BCG fully inflated, I kicked hard to get myself to the front of the boat and to the anchor line that we used to guide ourselves down to about 10 metres.

Going down…

Its always a strange feeling when you make the descent – for a while, you wonder whether there is anything down there as you make your way into a light blue abyss. Then suddenly, a dark outline comes into view in front of you, and suddenly the reef is next to you.

It was full of life, the suns rays lighting up the colours and shapes of the coral everywhere you look, with dozens of brightly coloured parrot fish, angelfish, butterfly fish and even a unicorn fish swimming by as we made our way around the reef. There was also the obligatory clownfish, aka Nemo.

Colourful coral

But the highlight was yet to come – motioned by Chris to swim over to him, he pointed around a corner. As we kicked our feet faster to get a look, just a few metres below us a turtle came into view, swimming towards a gap in the reef. It was a fleeting moment, but it immediately put a huge smile on my face, so much so I broke the seal on my mask and let in a load of water. As did Chris.

In the words of Nemo’s mate: ‘Duuuuuuude!’

“I knew that turtle would be around somewhere,” he beamed as we climbed back out of the ocean.

Back to the boat

“He wasn’t in his usual spot and I got a bit worried. Then he just turned up – nomatter how many times I see them, turtles just make me smile,” he laughed, joking about how he has to clear his mask every time he sees them because he’ll either start laughing or smiling.

The snorkellers from the snorkel trip had another 20 minutes left on the reef, so I took Chris up on the offer of going for a snorkel too, swimming against the strong current in the deep water yet again to reach the reef.

Nemo land

It gave me a whole new perspective, and if I’m honest, the colours on the reef looked even more impressive because they were being hit by more sunlight. It really is like the scene from the film Finding Nemo, with colours glowing and the whole underwater world going about its daily business, despite their human visitors floating above them.

After some lunch and a cup of tea, we moved to another dive site, and the day was about to get even better. I’d always wanted to see a turtle on a dive, but just minutes after getting back into the water again, Chris swam ahead – yet another turtle. He motioned me to come closer and began scratching the turtle’s back as he swam. Apparently, turtles love having their shells scratched with a fingernail, as it removes the annoying algae for them. Then Chris moved out of the way, and for a few moments I swam alongside the creature, watching as his head moved from side to side as he kept an eye on me, his new underwater swimming partner for a while.

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

The turtle descended, slowing down and stopping on the reef just below me. It was my one chance to go and touch his shell, so I let out more of my breath and began to sink a few metres lower. As I got nearer, I breathed in more of my air to level off, handed my camera to another diver, and captured the moment as I reached out and gave the turtle a good scratch on his shell.

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

It was a slimy texture, and I could see as the algae that was covering his shell began to come away. The turtle didn’t move, simply resting on the coral and apparently enjoying his time with new friends. I looked around, still scratching his shell, and smiled for the camera. Yet again, water filled my mask, but I didn’t care. Until now, I’d never even seen a turtle in the wild, let alone swim and play with one!

Underwater smiles for the camera

We dived to a depth of 12 metres, and the 35 minute dive felt like it was over in seconds. It was a great experience, and brilliant to put all my training in Thailand to use. It wasn’t cheap – the cost of two dives and camera hire was almost as much as my four day diving course in southeast Asia, but it was well worth doing.

Off I go to explore the reef

Having had my first ever scuba experience, that of a short trial dive with a guide on the barrier reef back in 2005, it felt like I had gone full circle. I had always been able to say my first ever dive was on the world’s most famous reef, but now my first fully qualified dive was also on the Great Barrier Reef, and this time I had the photographs to treasure and prove it.

Dive over…water trapped in ear pose up the stairs with Chris

A farewell from the Cairns Diving Centre crew back at the marina

That night I celebrated by meeting up with Alex and Brandon, themselves also buzzing with excitement after their trip out to the reef. We stayed at the Gilligans bar, playing Bogan Bingo, which was half comedy show, half gameshow, with a tongue-in-cheek laugh at the ‘redneck’ side to Australian society.

With Brandon (left) and Alex

It came complete with baseball caps, vest tops, 80s rock music and a lot of laughs, and put us in the perfect mood for a trip to the legendary Woolshed pub where we had drinks and joined in with the party, before ending the night back at the hostel where there is an on-site nightclub.

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

I had been in Cairns for four days, but I wished it was longer. It’s a great town, with a great atmosphere and good people. It’s got a really relaxed, easy-going vibe – you can spend hours lounging around the pool on the esplanade, party the night away, trek through jungles and rainforests to the north or dive in some of the best underwater spots on the planet.

Cairns lagoon

With time against me, I had to start making my way south and I was booked onto my first Greyhound bus from Cairns at 12.20am. I was on my way to Airlie Beach, and to the Whitsundays, but there was just enough time for one last pint with Alex and Brandon. They are both heading south too, but with no guarantee of bumping into them, it is always best to say farewell when you can.

Laden down yet again with my life in bags, complete with a cheese and Vegemite sandwich for the morning in my coolbag, I made my way through the city to the bus terminal near the marina. The Greyhound was already there, waiting, and I gave my name to the bus driver.

“Seat 4D buddy,” he said, slinging my rucksack into the underbelly of the coach.

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

And with that, I climbed aboard, stuffed my trusty British Airways pillow I’d stolen from my flight to Sydney against the window, and settled down for a night of vertical sleep on the main road down to Airlie Beach.

If only sunburn didn’t hurt so much when you try to get some kip.

Get me out of Here!

Darwin – the capital of the Northern Territory, home to more than 120,000 people, named after that famous Charles bloke and with a bad habit of being flattened and rebuilt.

Its also a place full of people with one intention – getting as drunk, and as noisy, as possible.

Laughing…but not for long!

While I understand that is a bit of a sweeping generalisation, and probably makes me sound really old, it isn’t without justification. In just two nights outside the hostel I was staying in, there were at least four fights. The police were called to one of them.

For Darwin seems to attract the type of person I, and Dan and Laura for that matter, just cant stand. The type that will quite happily waltz around a town centre back home with no shirt on at the first sign of sunshine. The type who would be seen clutching a can of Stella as if his life depended on it. The type who would quite happily start a fight for no apparent reason.

First night in Darwin…before we noticed the problems!

While I’m not going to start labelling anyone here, the vast majority seemed to be Irish labourers who have been working in the building and farming sectors around Darwin, who head to the town to get as smashed as possible in the little time they have before the next pineapple needs picking.

Alpha males, Dan called them, among other choice words. And unfortunately, the vast majority of them were staying at our hostel, the Melaleuca on Mitchell, which didn’t do itself any favours with us either.

On the face of it, its not a bad hostel – there’s a pool, a rooftop bar, hot tub, large kitchen and the rooms were not a bad size. But there were a few things that went on that spoiled the whole experience, and the main one was a biggie. I was kicked out onto the streets!

Darwin: full of troublemakers!

I’ll get onto that in a moment, but first let me tell you about Darwin. It might be full of annoying tourists giving backpackers a bad name, but then there isn’t much else to do apart from drink. Its small, has a city centre about the size of Great Coates (a small village near my house back home) and has been rebuilt twice thanks to Japanese bombings in the war, and a massive Cyclone that undid all the good work during peacetime by flattening the place again in the Seventies. The redeeming features include the fact that it is at least by the coast. Except, there’s no sand, and you can’t go swimming in the water because you’ll get eaten by a crocodile.

Instead, they’ve built a paddling pool for the restless population to swim in, without the threat of a salty croc having you for lunch. Its not a bad spot either, despite the fact it costs money to use, and there were plenty of people sat around, sunbathing and probably plotting which bar they were going to get wrecked in that evening.

Darwin does have a nicer side!

As you can probably tell, I didn’t really get a good vibe from the place the moment I arrived. I did, however, get to meet two lovely people, Ciaran and Lisa, friends of Dan and Laura’s from Melbourne. They all met when they worked together in the south, with the Darwin based couple having moved up to the north about seven weeks ago. They are both originally from Ireland and are in the process of travelling around the world, having spent most of the past year in Australia. We met on the first night in Darwin, but having not slept too well on the Ghan from Alice the night previous, I had to go to bed early.

Ciaran, Lisa and Dan at Kakadu National Park

Instead, I got to know them better when I was invited to dinner with Dan and Laura, a chance to escape the noise and frivolities at the hostel and relax in the couple’s lovely courtyard at the rear of their flat. The couple cooked a chicken curry, probably the best I have had on my travels so far, along with starters and nibbles, while we provided wine and beers.

We chatted late into the night, all getting on so well and its clear how well the two couples had got on together in Melbourne. We chatted about how long we were staying in Darwin, and discussed a visit to the Kakadu national park a few hours down the road.

Darwin’s beaches. Not the best place for sunbathing!

Back at the hostel, I had a broken night’s sleep. The doors to the rooms were made with an automatic catch which, quite possibly, were the loudest door mechanisms known to mankind. It didn’t help that the one to my room was right next to my head, as I was sleeping nearest the door, and the fact the door was a bit ‘sticky’ so you had to give it a good shove to open it. Brilliantly, most of my room were out until all hours the first few nights, which meant a steady stream of bangs and clunks until everyone was home at about 7am.

Then at 8am, the guy below me in the bottom bunk – who I later found out was a squatter and shouldn’t have been there – decided to have a full blown conversation with someone on the phone. It was all a bit trying. Ive mastered the art of being able to sleep anywhere during this trip, but it was hard to ignore everything going on.

There was also a Russian couple at one end of the room, who, worryingly, had a huge stockpile of prescription drugs by their side the whole time I was there. I think one of them was ill, and the other was playing doctor and nurse with the amount of bedside manner time being paid out, but for some reason that eliminated them from any answering the door duties.

So, trying to find out what to do about my lost cash card situation on the phone to the bank back home, you can imagine my frustration, aside from having to deal with an overseas call centre that couldn’t understand my problem and the fact I was in Australia (I was told ‘we can get the card in the post to your registered address’ at least seven times before it registered I was overseas) I was simply being stared at when there was several knocks at the door.

After a bit of a contortion act, I managed to lean from the top bunk, reach a door handle, keep up a conversation on the phone, stop my netbook from crashing to the floor, open a door and let the person on the other side know his drunken friend had already left without him.

Phone still to my ear, the door closed and I flashed a ‘thanks for your help’ look at the couple, neither of whom spoke a single word to anyone else in the room during the three days I was in there.

Roasting

Mealtimes were fun at the Melaleuca too – while there is a good-sized kitchen, the scores of hot plate cooking rings running down the centre, combined with tropical heat and humidity, meant it was like stepping into a furnace every time you wanted to make some two minute noodles. It’s a good job they make the noodles cook so quickly. Any longer and you’d end up cremating yourself in the process.

Then, when you’ve cooked your two minute noodles, you have to go and hire some cutlery and plates from reception to eat the flipping things. $10 gets you a green plastic plate, bowl, camping cup and some cutlery. I never actually got to use my plate, because someone nicked it from my bed within minutes of me picking it up from downstairs reception. It was probably the squatter.

So, with hired plastic camping plates, two minute noodles, quite literally made with blood, sweat and tears, you’re free to sit down in the communal eating area, which is actually the bar where everyone is getting trolleyed, and watch the antics unfold before your eyes. You have to remember to step over a steady stream of water that ran over the floor from the direction of the toilets, however, otherwise you’d slip, noodles will be everywhere and you’ll be back to square one.

Speaking of toilets, or the bathroom in general, that was another part of the hostel that needed looking at. The gents on the first floor get hammered, mainly because when it turns into a bar at night, the toilets are the main conveniences for everyone who is drinking. We all know what sort of a state bar toilets can be in towards the end of a night – and unfortunately, that is what most of us were having to use and get showered in the following morning.

The whole place felt more like Kavos, Ibiza or Malia rather than the ‘real’ Australia I was so used to experiencing. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for those types of stays, and ive done my fair share of them in the past, but on top of the party atmosphere, it was like having to get clean in one of those party resort bar toilets, day in, day out.

Another nice bit of Darwin – the esplanade

As you’ve probably gathered, I wasn’t a fan of the place, and it did little to endear itself to me when it rendered me homeless. Having originally planned to stay in Darwin for at least a week, my lost cash card meant I was living day by day. I decided to stay for two more days, and went to see reception. Unfortunately, they told me, while there were beds available for the Saturday, they were saved for extensions in the morning and I’d have to go back then. Fine.

Except, when I went back down in the morning, there were none left.

“So, you couldn’t sell me the bed last night, and now they’ve gone, I’m effectively being kicked out,” I said.

“Yes, I’m sorry, it’s the system we use,” was the reply, looking at a computer screen. “You can try again tomorrow, when we’ve got a few more available in the morning for extensions, but I can’t sell them now.”

I immediately spotted the flaw in the fake helpfulness.

“But I won’t be a guest, and so how will it be an extension,” I put back to them.

“Ah, no, you won’t be entitled to them then,” I was told back, with that weird scrunched up fake ‘I’m sorry’ face.

I set off across the road, to Chillis backpackers. It too was full, as was every other hostel in the town I tried. It began to get desperate. I told my hostel reception it was a ridiculous system, who simply told me I should have checked out five minutes ago. Unhelpful, to say the least.

I dragged my feet upstairs and made sure I had the longest shower possible. Dan and Laura were on hand yet again to help me out. I was able to store my bags in their room, getting to know their room mate Jay in the process, and Laura told their friend Lisa about my predicament. I checked out, but then immediately went straight upstairs to the bar area and logged onto the Skyscanner website and booked flights to Cairns in a couple of days. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back – i’d had enough. And so had Dan – he wanted out too, to head to the west coast and Broome, but Laura had just landed a waitressing job at a Greek restaurant in the city.

World War storage tunnels in Darwin

Thankfully, Lisa and Ciaran offered me the spare room at their flat for a couple of nights, a welcome relief after a good few hours fretting about where I would be sleeping that night. Again, its one of the beautiful things about the backpacking community – everyone helps each other out when its needed. It could just be looking out for jobs or flats on noticeboards for each other, buying someone a beer when the funds have dried up, making an extra dose of pasta for a hungry roomie or sticking a load of someones clothes in with your wash, or it could be offering someone a bed for a night or two. Generally, the theory is, what goes around, comes around. I’d only known Ciaran and Lisa for a couple of days, yet they were willing to put me up in their home until I left Darwin, a gesture I was extremely grateful of.

Roadtrip time!

It gave us a chance to club together and hire a car for the day, taking in a trip to the Kakadu National Park, one of Australia’s largest parks at 7,646 square miles – about the size of the country of Slovenia.

Long, straight roads!

We set off early, and soon came across huge mounds by the side of the road. They were termite mounds, huge ones at that, so big they are known as cathedral mounds, and hard to believe they are built by such tiny insects from the soil around them.

Termite mounds. Impressive!

And giant termite homes were not the only gigantic things around – we were on a main road train route, with dozens of the mammoth lorries thundering past, slightly snaking from side to side at the rear as they make their way down the long straight roads.

Mammoth road trains!

Kakadu was a good three hours drive away from Darwin, and was a mixture of wetlands, swamps and billabongs, along with mountainous ridges.

Relaxing in Kakadu

There’s no denying it’s a beautiful part of Australia to visit, although it is very flat. As a result, when you are driving the many kilometres through it, there is little to see apart from the first few rows of trees at the side of the road. Thankfully, Lisa was driving and able to stay awake, something the three blokes in the car were unable to do. Whether it was the monotonous sound of the road, the heat and humidity, the lack of exciting scenery or just general exhaustion, the three of us just could not stay awake. It was almost instant sleep the moment we first got back in the car, and as a result, we saw some beautiful areas, and also had a cracking kip!

Croc warnings…if seen, get out and make it snappy

There was something that managed to keep us awake, however – the duty of croc-watch near the edges of water. Due to the rainfall in recent months, many of the tracks are closed as they are infested with saltwater crocodiles that have moved around to new areas.

Snap snap

It was quite unnerving to walk past signs warning there was a very real risk you could be gobbled up at any moment, but thankfully we didn’t see any. Even more thankfully, they didn’t see us either.

We headed back to Darwin, where I would spend my remaining few hours reorganising my bags before heading off to the airport and my flights to the east coast.

Looking out for Crocs near the water!

Try saying this after a few!

It did, however, mean my last few moments with Dan and Laura, who by now had decided to head to the west coast in search of work. From being complete strangers just a couple of weeks ago, we had become close friends and travelled through the centre of this huge continent together. There had been many laughs and dramas along the way, most notably how we all got stranded in the outback together thanks to the infamous dodgy fuel pump incident.

My Darwin gang – from left, Ciaran, Lisa, Dan, Laura and Jay

But all the drama just served to make us become closer friends, helping each other out and relaxing together. For two weeks, I had two good mates I could hang around with, chat with, ask for advice and travel around with. Laura and I agreed it was a good job she’d dropped her chicken schnitzel in the oven at the Backpack Oz hostel in Adelaide – thanks to that, and me dashing to the rescue with a pair of tongs, we had a friendship that I know will continue long after we have all returned home.

Heading off for pastures new

It was yet another sad set of goodbyes, as everyone joined me for a few beers in the bar to see me off. Lisa, Ciaran, Dan, Laura and their roommate Jay all turned out for a few photos, and with backpacks on I headed out of the Melaleuca hostel and towards the bus stop for Darwin Airport.

Trouble for Man City before my flight!

The sadness soon subsided, when, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I could watch as Manchester City played for the Premier League title. I saw as QPR took the lead, before I was then called for my flight. I was gutted – I knew I was about to miss something special, with Manchester United on the verge of snatching the title back from under the Blues noses.

My first flight for three months – strangely, the longest i’ve not been on a plane for three years!

Then, on the Virgin Australia flight to Brisbane, I noticed there was a great live television system onboard, complete with Fox Sports and coverage of the game. Sadly, as we took off, the system was stopped, but came back on just as Man City scored the winning goal. What an incredible end to the season!

I watched the celebrations unfold, 35,000ft in the air, thousands of miles away from where the action was taking place. What a brilliant system, and what a brilliant result!

Managed not to miss any of the action!

I didn’t get much sleep, thanks to a connection in the middle of the night in Brisbane, but arrived in Cairns where I immediately felt happier. I have been here before, and there was huge part of me glad to be away from the chaos of Darwin. Sadly, for me, my memories of what can actually be a really nice city were tarnished by the age-old problem for backpackers – the wrong crowd, and at the wrong hostel.

A Train to the Tropics

Back on The Ghan through the red -and green- desert (Image © Great Southern Rail)

I’ll let you into a little secret – the so called Red Centre of Australia isn’t actually that red.

The sand, soil and rocks are red, for sure, but the days of the deep red desert stretching to the horizon have gone, at least for now.

Its all because of the weather Australia has had over recent years, and in particular, the higher rainfall in the Northern Territory. As a result, its actually surprisingly green, with trees, shrubs and grasses thriving on the damper conditions. Its still incredibly dry, but then these desert plants know how to make the most of what little water they do get.

The Ghan making its way through the Red Centre (Image © Great Southern Rail)

It means the view from The Ghan is predominantly a mesmerising conveyor belt of different plant life, but the journey north from Alice Springs promised to bring changes aside from those you could see outside of the window.

It was an evening departure from the Alice, but I made sure I was in the town centre to see the huge train arrive into the town after its 24 hour journey from Adelaide in the south. It was mainly to get a photograph from the front of the train – its actually so long, its impossible to get to the front when it stops at a station before I knew it was scheduled to arrive at around 1.45pm, but having arrived on the same train last week slightly earlier, I knew it would be worth getting to the station earlier than its due time.

The Ghan pulling into Alice Springs a few hours before I board

I rode along the Stuart Highway and waited at the level crossing, and just five minutes later, there was a tell-tale sound of a horn in the distance. Suddenly, photographers descended on the crossing from cars that were parked around the area, and then down the tracks there was a dazzling bright light as the train curved around beside the highway.

The powerful Ghan loco passes by

It seemed to take an eternity as one by one, the carriages trundled past, making the earth rumble underneath my feet. In the windows, excited passengers, all having their own adventures, waved as they arrived in this desert town. There was another blast of the horn, and the Ghan came to a halt.

I spent the afternoon buying provisions for the journey, the usual stuff to go in my backpacker fridge – a coolbag – like bread, biscuits and a fine selection of nuts and dried fruit reduced from $8 a pot to just 50 cents! My friend Laura was impressed. “What a bargain,” she smiled, looking forward to a night of chomping away on pawpaw, chocolate covered liquorice and cheap chocolate balls. A strange mixture, but it was cheap all the same.

A wave from a passenger

There was a very familiar feel about getting back onboard the Ghan. In a way, the excitement had been lost a little. When we left Adelaide, we were heading off into the unknown – what would the train be like? What will the people be like? What will the red centre look like?

Dan, Laura and I, pillows at the ready, for The Ghan at Alice Springs

We now knew all the answers to these, but we were instead looking forward to the relaxing comfort of the train. Bang on 6pm, the scheduled departure time, we began slowly inching forward before quickly gathering speed, and before we knew it we were pacing out of Alice and back into the outback.

Dan and Laura’s ‘cheap seats’ carriage – actually pretty swish!

I spent most of my time with Dan and Laura, who were again in the ‘cheap seats’ as they called them a few carriages back from me. Of course, cheap seats was an in-joke – infact, with almost full recline, a shower, more legroom than you would ever need and a nice peaceful cabin, it was about the same conditions as first class on a plane.

With most of the journey in darkness, we spent the evening playing cards and laughing and joking about our escapades over the past week.

Overnight train journey – always means the cards come out!

The route we were taking on the Ghan is actually relatively new – the railway from Alice Springs to Darwin was only opened in 2004, and in the darkness outside we were passing the famous rounded granite boulders known as the Devils Marbles, and passing through gold rush towns like Tennants Creek.

Getting nearer to Darwin (Image © Great Southern Rail)

Everyone onboard the train was awoken early in the morning by a brilliant story of Tennants Creek, dating back to the days when there were more than 600 men in the town, and just 40 women. According to the story, there was a lot of fighting for the affections of the few females around, and in the meantime, the men would mine, go to the pub and generally not look after themselves. That’s when one had a brilliant idea to attract more girls to the town, and advertised a free holiday in the outback for any women wanting to visit. Apparently, a young woman took him up on the offer, and arrived in Tennants Creek to find hundreds of men clean shaven, immaculately dressed and on their best behaviour to impress the new pretty thing in town.

The idea caught on, and in the end, busloads of women were signed up to visit the town on a freebie stay in the outback. The only problem was the wives of the few men who did initially set up homes as couples in the town grew increasingly frustrated with the new competition, and pulled the plug on the scheme. It was a great story to wake up to, and I’m sure it put a smile on many travellers’ faces.

Early morning arrival into Katherine

One of the reasons the story was played was to wake everyone up onboard, as we were about to pull into Katherine, a town some 300km south of Darwin. The Ghan stops in Katherine for about three hours, during which time we were encouraged to get off and have a look around the town. It was $15 for the shuttle to the town centre, so we bought a ticket and got driven to the town. Apart from shops, there wasn’t much else to see, apart from a visitor centre which showed how devastating the frequent floods can be in the area.

Enforced stop-off at the Katherine River

It’s a chance for people on the train to take up the rail company’s tours – splashing out on anything from helicopter tours of Katherine Gorge to a few holes on the local golf course. They come at a price, but there was no shortage of takers. Dan and I laughed a lot about how we’d have rather had a sleep-in on the train, being rocked away by the sway of the carriages.

“Its like being on the East Coast mainline back home, being kicked off at Grantham and told to have a tour of the place whether you like it or not,” I joked.

Katherine River – when it floods, it covers the bridge…

We walked to the Katherine River, which runs far below the bridge we were walking across. Then we saw some metre markings on another bridge a short distance away, showing how high the river flows at times of flood. A frightening prospect.

Road Train. Long. Fun fact – it can take 2km to overtake one at 80km/hr!

We sat and had a picnic breakfast, sheltering under a tree and watching the dozens of long road trains making their way up and down the Stuart Highway, from one end of the country to the other.

We walked back to the pick up point, only to have to wait for the third return trip due to the number of people trying to get back to the train on the small minibus that was being used. Back at the terminal though, the two powerful locomotives were being inched back towards the main train, ready for the final section of its mammoth journey north.

Watching it turn greener again outside

By now, it was noticeably warmer. The joining sections between the carriages, which are the only parts of the train where you can feel the outside temperature, had changed from the slight fresh chill in the south, to a warm and warm and humid place to stand and take photos. Outside, the red desert and shrubs were turning into lush greenery, jungles and palm trees dominating the landscape as we passed through Adelaide River and the Litchfield National Park, arriving into Darwin just before nightfall.

Darwin comes into view on the horizon

It had been a brilliant journey in comfortable surroundings and with some very friendly staff, who clearly love their jobs. This train, while being a vital link between the coasts and the centre of this massive country, is far more than just a way of getting around. People I spoke to had been saving for years for a chance to ride the tracks in one of the gold or platinum classes, complete with all the lavish luxury and gourmet food. But those of us in the standard Red class were also made to feel special, with the train having an overall feeling of an interesting tour, rather than the straightforward, faceless point-to-point transport we’re normally accustomed to.

Backpack and the backpacker’s fridge – a coolbag – reunited by the Ghan

Yes, I could have caught a plane and flown the distance in about five hours, but it wouldn’t have been the adventure it seemed to be onboard the Ghan. It was 2,979 kilometres of meeting new people, having a laugh, enjoying a coffee, relaxing in a lounge and watching a fantastic landscape glide by your window. I left the train with the feeling that I had actually ‘seen’ Australia, a feeling you definitely don’t get when you walk off a plane.

Welcome to Darwin, the end of the line!

As we waited for a taxi, we noticed how hot it was. We’d definitely arrived in the tropics, with high humidity and that ‘holiday smell’ of somewhere far away that spends its time baking in the sun. It was strange to think how different the weather could be, just from one train ride.

The taxi took a while, so I rang the HSBC bank back home to find out why my card wasn’t working anymore, having tried to use it online in Alice Springs. It turns out my details had been stolen by fraudsters and so they’d had to stop my card, leaving me without any way of getting money out.

Except, I’d also found a way of stopping myself getting money out. I looked in my wallet for my card, as a result of the fraud problem, and couldn’t find it. Cleverly, I’d left it in Alice Springs, down the side of my mate Neil’s sofa. Thankfully, Dan and Laura were on hand to pay for my hostel until I sorted something out. Another little problem to find a solution to – the joys of travelling…and of misplacing bank cards!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Flying Docs and Festivals

Taking in the spirit of the Outback

After the adventures in the outback, it was great to have a few days in Alice Springs to have a look around the town before heading further north.

Staying at Neil’s home, my friend from Grimsby, it was easy to get around the town. Neil had to help friends at a music festival they had organised out in the McDonnell ranges for a few days, but before I went out there to meet him, I had the use of his mountain bike to explore the area.

Royal Flying Doctors base in Alice Springs

Thankfully, despite my record with all things bike-like, the wheels and pedals stayed on long enough for me to make it to the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the Alice, a service I only really knew of because of a slightly old programme I used to watch as a kid. I say watch, I remember turning it over a lot of the time.

Mock up of intensive care in the sky

The visitor centre is based in the town, the centre of Australia and hundreds of miles away from any other city – the exact reason why the flying doctors are needed in this country. Having now experienced how vast the outback is, and how frighteningly alone you can feel when stranded somewhere within it, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone in the remote communities dotted all over the bush to have an accident or fall ill.

That’s where this service comes in, providing aircraft, doctors and medical boxes to those who need it. Covering an area of 7.1million square kilometres, the aircraft land on special runway strips dotted all over the back country, and in emergencies, can even land on the roads. It helps out more than 250,000 patients every year, including a number of tourists. It cost $12 to go into the centre, which is in the middle of being refurbished and, if I’m honest, wasn’t really worth the money. Instead, I thought of it as a donation for a brilliant service. As it says, the inland area contains many lonely graves of people from the days before the flying doctors, who would have lived had they received medical care quickly enough.

Aboriginals sheltering on the Todd River in Alice

I then set off in search of the telegraph station, the site of the first European settlement in the outback. I thought it would be on a hill somewhere, and instead found Anzac Hill, a lookout point where you can see across the city. It was a struggle to bike up the steep incline, but the view was worth it at the top.

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

From there, you can see how the Alice sprawls out within a valley, the famous Stuart Highway running through it from left to right as it joins the north and south coasts of the continent.

Looking over the Alice towards the Gap

Its named after John Stuart, who led an expedition through Australia in 1861, and ten years later the settlement here started when a repeater station for the overland telegraph line which linked Adelaide, and indeed the country, with Darwin and the rest of the world.

The line opened up the centre of Australia for settlement, and that settlement was now a sprawling city, a place where the indigenous and European populations live side by side. There are undoubtedly divides between both, and its sad to say, but the many Aboriginals that I saw seemed to spend their days endlessly wandering around the streets or sitting under trees in the shade. There is a huge problem with high unemployment, crime and alcohol abuse among the Aboriginal people, and despite vast sums of money from the Australian government being put into projects to help, it doesn’t quite seem to be enough of the right sort of help.

Some people here argue that the indigenous population is not doing enough to help itself, and while there are many that work and earn a living, the general opinion from people I spoke to was that more support was needed. That being said, being shouted at by a group of them while wandering home one night was slightly unnerving, but I laughed it off and made my way past without any problems.

Alice Springs telegraph station

After taking some time to take in the view, I sped back down the hill and on to the telegraph station, some of the oldest houses in the area. Located by the Todd River, which is mostly a dry riverbed, it is next to a permanent waterhole – the Alice Spring.

Alice Spring – the water is visible top left

The settlement was optimistically named Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd, from whom the Todd River takes its name. Strangely, the water sits around thanks to a base of granite that it can’t seep through, meaning that despite all the heat and dry conditions, there is always life-giving water here.

The point where the overland telegraph line entered the buildings

That’s why it was picked as a main repeater site for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, the first communications link from the south of the continent, linking through to Java, Singapore and on to Europe. Teams of workers, led by Todd, took more than 30,000 wrought iron poles, insulators, batteries, wire and other equipment, shipped in from England, and linked the northern and southern coasts. The poles were placed 80 metres apart for the entire 3,200km link, and in some of the worst conditions, but it allowed the development of the nation.

Supermoon from Anzac Hill memorial site

As I was cycling back to Neil’s house, I noticed the moon appeared brighter and larger than normal. It turns out it was a so called ‘supermoon’, a phenomenon where it appears 30 per cent larger and brighter when the point it is closest to Earth coincides with a full moon. I took the opportunity to further practise with the manual settings on my camera, getting some fairly decent results considering it’s a simple compact job. A decent tripod would have helped matters further!

Supermoon over Alice Springs

My last day in Alice wasn’t actually spent in the city, but about an hour and a half away in the MacDonnell ranges, at a music festival called Wide Open Space. Its an annual outback festival, celebrating music, the arts and desert culture, and my friend Neil’s housemate was one of the organisers.

Music in the outback

It was one of Neil’s friends, Emma, who gave me a lift out to the bush and to the dusty bowl that was home to stages, funky festival goers, bands and beer. Emma is a cross-media reporter for the ABC in Alice Springs, a very similar job to mine back home, and the journey soon passed as we swapped tales and stories from journalism on opposite sides of the globe. We were so engrossed in talk about each others jobs, that Emma briefly ended up missing a turn, much to our amusement.

Festival spirit

My mate Neil enjoying the festival

The long dusty roads led us to some incredible scenery, and there was a great atmosphere at the site. It was very much a small-scale Glastonbury, with a very friendly and relaxed feel about the place. There was an underlying beat from the stage, everyone was chilled out, and the sun was beating down through clouds of dust being kicked up by dozens of dancing feet in the main arena.

The festival and campsite – in a Wide Open Space

As the festival was ongoing, I decided to climb up to the top of one of the ridges overlooking the campsite.

A tricky climb!

I knew the sun would be setting shortly, and it was my last chance to see one of the stunning sunsets in the outback, where the sky passes through such a vivid rainbow of colours before darkness falls.

It was a tough hike, clambering up the deep red rocks which would often slip under your feet, and pulling myself up through a gulley. There were plenty of other festival-goers around with the same idea, and we were helping each other with the tough bits. At one point, someone from the top started shouting for us to bring up some wood. Most of us had our hands full making sure we didn’t have a painful fall to the bottom, and so politely laughed off the request.

View and campfire from the top

At the top, however, we could see why – a few people had set up camp, complete with a camp fire, right on the top of the mountain. And what a spectacular view they had – the ranges stretching as far as the eye could see, people dancing below, music still heard as clear as if you were down by the stage. The beauty of being in the middle of nowhere – in a wide open space, to steal the name of the festival – is the complete silence and isolation. Somehow it seems to help the acoustics.

Soon the sun began to sink from the sky, turning a deep yellow, then orange and red, casting a glow and the red centre desert and mountains around me. The flicker of the campfire to my right grew ever more noticeable as the 30 or so people that were alongside me found a rocky seat and watched the natural spectacle.

Spotted this shot as the sun went down.

Many sat in silence and watched, others meditated, others cheered and hugged friends. As the sun disappeared over distant mountains, it was one of those moments when you realise just how quickly it sets. With the last sliver of light gone, everyone turned around into the opposite direction, watched, and waited.

The moon rises over the ranges

Within minutes of the sun disappearing in the west, over in the east, a giant moon began to slowly rise above the mountains. It prompted cheers and wolf howls from many of those stood alongside me.

“It looks like a giant baby’s head,” shouted one bloke, clearly having had a few too many Coopers ales.

As the moon rose higher in the sky, another set of cheers came from a larger crowd of people stood on the top of a smaller hill near the stage, as it became visible from their vantage point. Then, 20 minutes later, another set of cheers from everyone else down on ground level. It was a great couple of hours, taking in the atmosphere, admiring the view and trying to savour the experience.

The next problem was how I’d left it far to late to return back to the ground, and like a few others, had the tricky task of making my way down a mountainside in darkness. Thankfully, the moon was bright and my iPhone torch app once again paid dividends, lighting the way just enough so I knew where to put my feet.

Darkness falls

I was going to stay the night at the festival, but with it winding down and the bar shut, Emma offered me a lift back to Alice Springs. I was also thinking of making the train I was booked on north to Darwin the following day when I said goodbye to Neil, knowing it might be the last time I see him for a while. There was no guarantee he could make it back in time before my train leaves, as he was helping his housemate with packing away everything the following day. But we had met up again, and that’s what mattered – a friendship rekindled, and one I know we’ll keep up. He’s hoping to be back home in the UK for a few weeks in the next year or so, and so I hereby keep my promise to him of dinner and a night out on me when he returns.

After a week of staying at his house, borrowing his car, getting it stranded and repaired in one of the most remote parts of the world, a cracking bacon bun and coffee when I returned and fantastic memories of the outback, it’s the least I could do. We’d had a great time catching up, and it was brilliant to find him so happy with his life in the Alice. I’m sure it won’t be another 12 or 13 years before we meet again, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find myself in the red centre once again.

For now, its back on the rails north and to Darwin, courtesy of The Ghan.

*To see more on the Wide Open Space festival, visit the website at www.wideopenspace.net.au

Farewell, Cod Flop

I’m in mourning. I’ve lost an old, dear friend of mine.

It’s a friend I have known for ten years, a friend who has been everywhere with me, that has walked with me on every continent (apart from South America!). A friend that brought comfort and support, one that I could rely on and trust never to let me down. A friend I just could not bare to replace.

I have lost a beloved Cod Flop.

MISSING: Last seen near Ayers Rock – the other one of these!

Now, most will read this and wonder what on earth I am gibbering on about. There are some who will roll their eyes and think ‘about time’. There are a few who will no doubt share a little bit of sadness with me at the passing of such a special friend. There are one or two who will read this with a knowing nod at my loss.

Those one or two will be the people I met at Camp America, in the Catskill Mountains of New York back in the summer of 2002, the likes of Steve Rose, Steve Reynolds, Lynne, Katrina, Peter, Mike and Chris, who, lovingly, christened me Cod Head thanks to my Grimsby roots.

I celebrated my 21st birthday at Camp Nashopa, and in July that year a few of them clubbed together to buy me something special for my landmark birthday. Aside from vast quantities of alcohol when I became a legal drinker for the second time in my life (its 21 in the States!) I was handed a present. They had splashed out on me, and handed over a pair of blue flip flops. All $1.50-worth of Walmart flip flops.

These, however, were not just any old flip flops. These had a picture on them – a picture of a fish.

Well, it was the skeleton of a fish to be precise, but it was a fish all the same. And from that day forward, we were all in agreement that they shall be named the Cod Flops.

And that was the start of a beautiful relationship, a relationship I am sure even some of those who helped buy me that beloved gift are unaware of, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this!

Back then, I promised I would wear them for the summer, partly as they were a bit of a novelty joke gift, but partly because they were so incredibly comfortable. We went to the American countryside with the kids together, ran the go-cart activity together, had a special trip to New York City together. We even went as far as Boston and Atlantic City together, with my new friends not even as much as nipping my feet, let alone give me any blisters.

It was the start of something special, and I couldn’t just leave them behind. I packed them into my bag, and they came home with me, as something to show the parents of ‘what the lads got me for my birthday’ before being thrown away or forgotten about.

Except, it didn’t stop there.

With no other flip flops so comfy, I began to wear them at home. Then they were packed into my bag when I made a return trip to the States the following year, returning to the summer camp to see friends for a few days, and enabling my Cod Flops to feel at home for a while.

Cod flops in Spain, taken by my ex Leanne as a joke about my big feet

Then there were holidays – to Turkey, to a week with the lads in Greece, to Spain and the Canary Islands. We began to venture further afield, travelling to the Gulf with the Grimsby Telegraph and spending a week onboard HMS Grimsby as we sailed from Abu Dhabi in the UAE to Muscat in Oman in 2003.

With my cod flops in Sierra Leone, on a work trip with Comic Relief in 2007

We were together on my first trip to Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore a few years later. I changed jobs, and the Cod Flops continued with me to Africa, visiting Sierra Leone when I was sent to film the work of Comic Relief projects in the war-torn country, even coming with me and flying with the RAF to Cyprus when we filmed the Tornado fighter jets returning home from Iraq.

My Cod-Flops met people in my life, spending time with best friends and travel friends, a couple of ex-girlfriends who would roll their eyes as they see the tatty, ill-fitting footwear going on yet another journey. We had more holidays – to the Caribbean, to Egypt, to Prague and countless trips to Madrid to see best mate Dan and wife Denise. I learned to ski, and the cod-flops made their first adventures up mountains with me – just to wear around the hotel of course, but they went out in the snow from time to time too.

Cod flops protected my feet from the salty bottom of the Dead Sea in 2009

We were inseparable while I was away, and last year they made it to Thailand, Australia and Connecticut in America on my three-week trip around the world, a trip that helped me decide to make this very journey. They had circumnavigated the globe with me once, and with wear and tear beginning to take its toll, I had decided this would be their swansong, a chance to go out with a bang, a trip that I could show them the world and say ‘thankyou for being there’.

And I looked after them well – when all their flip flop friends were being washed ashore, abandoned or lost by their owners in a drunken haze at Thailand’s Full Moon parties, my trusty Cod Flops were still firmly held on my feet. When the little rubber toe holder pulled through from the bottom of the blue foam base on a walk in Cambodia, it wasn’t a snap, just a temporary, repairable blow-out, as always. They kept my feet dry and away from nasties on the dirty trans-Siberian train conveniences, and in the countless squat toilets across Asia.

But this trip did begin to take its toll on my weary friends. I began to feel sharp stones underfoot as the fish-painted base began to wear thin. In Thailand, a bit of broken glass stuck right through and cut the big toe on my right foot, leaving a half-inch gash in Coddy. The edges began to bend up and around my feet, and they still, even to this day, made my feet blue every time I wore them as some sort of paint or dye rubbed off. Yet I always forgave them.

I did, however, almost buy a new pair of flip-flops in Thailand, as the Havianas were just £2 a pair in Bangkok. I told myself that if I had to retire the Cod Flops early, I would write a post about them, to give them a send off and let the world know how much they meant to me, and how much I would miss them. An obituary like no other.

But their time wasn’t up – as long as I could walk in them, they would be my companions. They would make it to the end of my journey, and I would take them home, back to Grimsby and Hull, where they would have eternal rest in a wardrobe or a loft, a treasured momento of times past rather than being thrown out and forgotten.

And so, in our latest adventure together, we set off for Uluru, Ayers Rock, one of the most famous sights in the world. A walk around in the Red Centre of Australia, the sacred deep red sands being a first for me and my Cod Flops. I set off from Alice Springs, trying to drive my friend Neil’s 4×4 in them. It wasn’t working, so I swapped them for my North Face walkers and threw them into the back of the car.

And that, my friends, was the last time I ever wore my Cod Flops.

Arriving back into Alice at 1am, it was dark and cool. I unpacked the car as best as I could, and grabbed my Cod Flops. Except, there was only one- my right one. I looked under the seats, in the back, around the front. Nothing. The other one must be in my bag. I’ll have a better look in the morning.

Morning came. Everything came out of the car. Still no left Cod Flop. I searched my bag, frantically looking through every compartment. I even checked my cool bag. I texted my friends to see if it had been put in their bag by mistake. Nothing.

I removed the back seat from Neil’s car once again, to check my lost friend hadn’t somehow been wedged underneath. It hadn’t.

The Cod Flop has gone. Lost. Misplaced. Run away. Departed.

I was struck by a strange mild panic over an inanimate object. I feel like I have betrayed them, telling myself how I should have looked after them better on the journey. How I should have placed them nicely in my bag, rather than slinging them over my shoulder into a rear passenger footwell. It was my fault. All my fault.

I thought of how Tom Hanks must have felt when he saw his beloved Wilson, his volleyball friend, drifting away from him in Castaway. Friends for so long, a part of his life, yet a relationship that when he lost him from his raft and drifted away on the tide, resulted in tears and that famous cry of Wiiiiilllllllllssssoooooooooonnnn.

And they were only together for four years.

Wilson.

Ten years together, bought for me by good mates in great times gone by. We’ve shared laughs, been out for beers, met a few girls, stubbed toes and hit a few rocks during our relationship, but we’ve seen the world and walked thousands of miles together. But now our time, and our journey together, has come to an end.

My left Cod Flop must have known the end was night. It wasn’t bothered about New Zealand or Fiji, or returning back to the streets of Hull. It didn’t care for the accolade of travelling all the way around the world. Pah – it had already done that last year.

No, for my left Cod Flop, the red centre of Australia, the middle of one of the most vast, inhospitable desert areas on Earth, home to the majestic Uluru and Olgas, and just about as far away as you can get from Grimsby or their birthplace in New York, was the place where my long-term close friend decided to continue its adventure.

Holding cod flops in Lanzarote, 2009

It’s the place that Coddy decided was so stunningly beautiful, it wanted to stay. A place where it hopped from the car to see out its days, its travels never ending, and living for eternity in a place so far away from my home, but a place that will now forever be its. A place where I can think back to in a few months time, while I’m out at the crack of dawn filming on Grimsby Fish Market, safe in the knowledge that Cod Flop is still out there, in the middle of Australia, still having the journey of a lifetime. A place that I was just the middleman, the person chosen to deliver Coddy to its final destination, where it will see incredible sunsets and sunrises, watch as the deep red sands blow across the plains, and wave to countless thousands of people like me, from all over the world, driving by to look at one of the planet’s greatest sights.

I don’t know where my left Cod Flop fell out of the car in the outback, but it must have been somewhere near Ayers Rock when we stopped. While I am sad it has gone, and that I won’t ever have the pair of them to look at or wear ever again, in a way its only brought more romance to the tail of its remaining flippy.

I will keep my right Cod Flop, and take it onward and home with me, every day and every mile getting further and further from them being the pair of friends I have grown to love. I promise to look after it, to treasure it, and for it to have a special place in my house when I return. A place where I can see it, look at it and feel it, every gouge and mark, bend and scrape being part of the story together, and every time I will remember the good times we shared around the globe.

One of my last photos with cod flops, on the Great Ocean Road, February 2012

Who would have known that a pair of cheap flip flops, bought as a joke for a 21st birthday years back, would have such an amazing story of travel and adventure behind them. And for that reason, it’s quite fitting that it chose such an incredible part of the world to leave me, a place I may never visit again, but somewhere that I will always look at on a map and remember the special part of me that remains there.

Walk in Peace, Cod Flops. My feet will miss you. I will miss you. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Ready to Roll

Finding a path to Ayers Rock

“Its all sorted, the fuels going back in and it starts every time”

They were the words we’d wanted to hear, albeit not too loudly with our slightly fuzzy heads.

It was 11am, the time we were supposed to be getting the car back to my mate Neil almost 500km away in Alice Springs. Instead, we were finishing up breakfast at the Ayers Rock Resort backpackers lodge near Uluru having been stranded overnight thanks to a worn out fuel pump on the Mitsubishi Pajero Neil had lent me.

We’d actually managed to make the most of a bad situation, although it cost a fair bit in beer. Having checked in at the lodge, we headed straight to the bar to drown our sorrows after a day in the outback we were better off forgetting. We are still pretty sure it was laughing at the Sorry book, letters from people plagued with bad luck after stealing rocks and sand from the sacred Uluru, that saw us copping our own major dose of bad luck by conking out right next to Ayers Rock.

A little reminder of our big problem…

Helping us drown our sorrows was Kurt, the mechanic who came to rescue us, and whose garage is the only one for some 500km or so. He came along to the pub with another mechanic from his garage, and spent some time talking and joking with us. It was a busy night – there were a number of tours staying at the place, so it was lively too. Kurt told us how his daughter was a supermodel, even appearing in issues of Vogue, and that his dad was someone who invented the famous road trains, the two or three trailer-long lorries that run up and down the country on the Stuart Highway. He also told us how breaking down in the outback could have been a lot worse – on a rough track some 300km away, he could still be the man called to fetch the stranded tourists, at a cost of more than $4 a kilometre! That’s the equivalent of around £750 before there’s any work done. Painful – and quite a bit more than a tow from the M1!

We actually did pretty well at turning a negative into a positive, with a great night all round. Dan and Laura treated me to drinks in return for stumping up the cash for the tow, and there were a fair number of tours staying at the resort, so it turned into a lively and entertaining evening.

It was a rude awakening the following morning, however, when despite being in a male dorm, someone, clearly on a dawn tour to Ayers Rock, decided it would be a great idea to start drying his hair with a hairdryer. Now, there are certain protocols to follow when it comes to backpacker dorm etiquette – mainly centred around not waking other people up. Both Dan and I woke up with the same reaction, firstly one of thinking it was a mixed sex dorm and wondering ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing at this ungodly hour making all that noise, go to the bathroom’, quickly followed by ‘you’re a bloke, what on earth do you think you’re doing with a hairdryer in a backpack’.

Kurt the mechanic, and our repaired rocket, as he called it

It was just before midday before Kurt picked us up and handed over the key to Neils car. Thankfully, it started like a dream, its V6 engine purring away, a sound we had been longing to hear just 24 hours before. It had come at a cost though – in the form of a bill for over $1,000 for the repairs. Neil had given me his credit card details, which was promptly dented. I still feel bad, although as Kurt said, the fuel pump had been on its way out and would have still happened even if Neil had come along on the trip with us.

Really sorry Neil…

For me, however, it felt like taking the school pet home for a weekend – it was always a nice thing to do, and great to have a little hammy running around for a few days, but there was always that risk that it would die on you, leaving you with the prospect of having to go back to lessons with a dead hamster carcass in a margarine tub. Never a good thing.

Thankfully, our loaned pet had been brought back to life by Kurt and his team, and before we left he proudly showed us a copy of Vogue magazine, complete with pages of full-page spreads showing his beautiful daughter modelling thousands of pounds worth of dresses. We all shook hands with him and he wished us well for our journey. He might have just made a pretty penny out of our bad luck, but he was a thoroughly nice bloke.

Dan and Laura on the walk around the base

Back on the road, we headed back to Uluru to finish off the day we had started before our bad luck hit. We went up to The Rock for the first time to see it close up, its surface a mass of layered sandstone with an incredible colour. It almost has the same colour and appearance of rusting metal, with millions of patches of rock peeling away in the scorching desert heat.

One of the sandblasted caves

Around the base are some amazing curved caves, blasted away by the forces of wind and sand being shot against the rock for thousands of years. Inside many of them, Aboriginal artworks still remain from the historical owners of the site, who to this day still regard the rock as one of their most sacred sites.

We found a watering hole at the base of Uluru – the rock becomes a mass of cascading waterfalls during the occasional rainstorm that passes through – and for many years, animals and humans have relied on it to survive. Below the surface, tadpoles thrive, a fantastic example of how life can begin despite the harsh, hot conditions this area is permanently subjected to.

The one thing I will say is that there is no shortage of flies in the area. The whole of the red centre is plagued by the things, but whereas normally you can bat them away, they are particularly persistent in this part of the world. Everywhere you see people, you see hands and arms being wafted around near a face. Its jokingly known as the Aussie Wave, and I was particularly good at it by the end of the morning. You do get used to the little blighters going into your nose, mouth and ears a little after a while, but its still a bit grim.

Flies. Buzz off.

With one last look at Ayers Rock from a viewing area, we climbed back in the car and made our way towards the Stuart Highway, where we’d find a turnoff north to Kings Canyon, another site of incredible beauty that is a must-see while in the area.

A last photo of us at Ayers Rock

The Rock disappears into the distance in the wing mirror

Before we reached the turnoff, we passed the man we’d seen walking and pulling a cart on the way to Uluru. We looked at each other in the car – even since we saw him two days ago, he’d walked miles. I was intrigued, and my journalist head went into action.

“I’m turning round to speak to him,” I told Dan and Laura, who were both as interested to find out his story.

Making a large turn in the middle of the desert highway, I doubled back and slowed down beside him.

“How far are you walking?” I shouted out of the lowered window.

At first he looked a little unsure of us, but in broken English I was sure I heard ‘to Europe’.

A combination of flies trying to attack me, trying to keep a lookout for cars and my general interest in this walking man meant it was much safer to pull off the road, so I went ahead of him and pulled onto the dusty run-off.

With Masahito Yoshida , who is walking around the world

I could see that the man was smiling, well tanned and sporting a hat. His bright green t-shirt was teeming with flies as he lifted his metal handlebar above his head and freed himself from his interesting life on wheels.

“I’m walking around the world, around our planet,” he said.

Masahito’s life in a cart

Suddenly, I knew this man wasn’t messing around. I looked at the wheels of his cart – they were bald. Stickers from across Europe and Canada were plastered all over it, beneath a tent and basic food supplies. I looked at his shoes, but they were surprisingly new.

“I’m from Japan,” he tells us.

“I have been walking for three years, through Europe, Canada and now through Australia. I want to see Ayers Rock,” he continues, with remarkable frankness.

We’re captivated. Before us is a real-life Forrest Gump, a man who turned his back on life at home and went for a walk. And just kept walking.

He handed me a card with his website blog address. His name is Masahito Yoshida, 30 years old, the same as me, but on an incredible journey of human endurance and achievement. He then asks if he can take our picture- our picture. Somehow, it felt strange meeting someone doing something so incredible, yet he was so happy to meet us.

He pulled out an expensive-looking digital SLR camera and says he’s taking photographs of the amazing people he meets on the journey, the people he says he would never had met had he not taken up his epic walk.

Masahito left his home in Japan in 2008 with the hope of changing his life. More than 22,400km and four continents later, we found him in the middle of his 4,200km walk to Darwin from Melbourne.

He has already walked from Shanghai in China, through through Asia and Europe, ending in Lisbon. In Bulgaria, while travelling through the mountains, he suffered frostbite that left him in hospital for eight days. In Russia he was punched in the face, in the Ukraine his rickshaw was stolen before being recovered by police, and in Canada he had to escape the advances of a hungry grizzly bear that sniffed out a sausage in his tent.

From Australia he will fly to Singapore and walk back to Shanghai, hoping to be back home by the end of the year. It really is an incredible story. One man, one planet, and his own thoughts while he walks around it for four years. A man who set out to cross the paths of other travellers, and while my journey will never come anywhere close to his feat, for just a few minutes I felt privileged that our paths had crossed.

I feel that more people should know about Masahito’s story – he hopes to release a book when he completes it, including photographs of all the people and places he’s come across. How on earth he manages to pluck up the willpower to wake up every morning and set off on yet another mammoth walk really is beyond me.

We asked if he needed any food or water, but he politely declined.

“Is there a supermarket at Ayers Rock,” he simply asked us.

Continuing his trek into the horizon

We told him there was, exchanged all of our details for his records, shook hands and he smiled as once again he lifted his cart handlebar over his head and walked off towards the horizon. I watched and admired him – its not everyday you meet someone who is walking around the world, and now we had been part of his story, just as much as he is part of ours. You can follow him and his journey at http://alkinist2.blog135.fc2.com/

Back in the car, Masahito’s story had reinvigorated our love of the journey. Alice Springs may have been more than 500km away still, but we were loving life on the road in the outback. The only problem now was that of time – it was late afternoon before we arrived at Kings Canyon, and we watched as the sun set over the deep red ridges.

The moon rises over Kings Canyon

We carried on to the Kings Canyon resort to get some fuel for the homeward leg of the trip. At $2.23+ a litre, its not cheap, so we filled the tank to three quarters and brushed off the advice from the attendant that we shouldn’t be driving through the outback after dark.

Kings Canyon

It was a fact that had been drilled into me in advice throughout backpacking guides and books, but I knew Neil needed the car in the morning. I rang him for advice.

“The only thing to be careful of is the wildlife. Kangaroos tend to get confused, and instead of jumping out of the way, they jump at you,” he said.

“Go steady and be on the lookout for all the creatures and you’ll be fine.”

What he didn’t realise was that I was taking a 200km dirt track back to Alice, a common road in the outback, but one that needed a lot of care during the day, let alone at night. In the pitch black night, with nothing around for miles, I turned the spotlights and full beam on and kept to a steady 80km/hr. It wasn’t long before we saw the first bit of wildlife on the road – dingoes. Then there was a camel. Then a family of kangaroos, all jumping around the road in no particular order, and not making much of an effort to get out of the way. Further along there were wild horses and cattle.

Emergency noodles for tea – sneaking into a campsite to use facilities!

Looking out for random Australian wildlife was only part of the task. Badly corrugated dust roads, potholes, sudden dips and sharp bends through mountains meant my driving ability was put to the test. Having never driven a 4×4 properly before, I quickly became accustomed to it.

After four more hours on the road, I noticed a problem. The fuel gauge had dropped to a quarter, and we were still some 120km away from Alice Springs. The map said there was a petrol station on the way. There was – but it was closed.

Noodle and leftovers time!

With 90km left to go, the petrol gauge was dropping ever lower. I dropped the car into two wheel drive mode, with a theory it would use less fuel, turned off all the air conditioning, and drove with my foot as light as a feather on the accelerator. I decided not to worry Dan and Laura too much about it, but then I had to break my silence.

“Guys, I’m a bit worried we’re not going to make it back,” I said.

“We really can’t have any more bad luck,” said Laura, telling us to think positive.

Thankfully we spotted this little Roo and his friends in time!

We continued past kilometre markers – 80km, 70km, 60km…by now the needle was about to hit the bottom. Any downhill stretch of road I coasted down, knowing it was taking us that little bit further to the Alice. We still had no phone coverage, no way of ringing for help if we became stranded, and we’d only passed six cars in the entire night of driving. And worst of all, I’d have to tell Neil of yet another calamity if the worst came to the worst.

50km, 40km, 30km…the distance markers continue passing at nervewrackingly slow intervals, made worse by how I was keeping speed down to conserve fuel.

“I’ve done a few 10k runs,” said Dan.

“I could run it from here if I had to,” he said, mentally preparing himself for a midnight jog for a Jerry can.

Suddenly, a red light appeared on the horizon – a radio mast in Alice Springs. We knew we were nearly back. Street lights began to appear, and then houses and other cars. We were running on vapours, but somehow, and against the odds if I’m honest, I’d managed to limp the gas-guzzling machine and its occupants back to safety, and a welcome drink at the fuel pump.

After three days, 1,414 kilometres of hard driving, a dodgy fuel pump and numerous bits of bad luck, we had made it back. The red centre and Ayers Rock were among the sights I was most looking forward to seeing, and they did not disappoint. A brilliant few days that we will all remember, not just for the magnificent views, but for the experiences we had all shared together. It might have been daunting to break down in the outback, stranding us hundreds of kilometres from base, or worried us that we’d run out of fuel, but we had got through it. And, on top of all that,  we met a man who was walking around the world.

Now, you don’t get that on the tour

Neil and his car…

A Rock and a Hard Place

Beautiful Ayers Rock – Uluru – can cast a spell over you…

“You don’t get this on the tour,”

The immortal words of my mate Dan as he dusts down his hands after pushing a 4×4 around a car park. Our 4×4.

Its never good when you break down. Infact, its horrendous when you break down. I remember once hauling a load of stuff down to Southampton for Uni when my Ford Escort conked out in the fast lane near junction 13 of the M1. Nobody would let my dying car onto the hard shoulder. Terrifying.

But thanks to the UK being highly populated, you’re never really that far from help. Unless you’re in the Shetlands or somewhere – I could imagine that being a bit of a pain – on the whole there’s usually a mechanic around.

Fuel up when you can…

The Australian outback, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Break down here, and it could be hours before anyone drives past to even notice that you’ve got a problem. Even then, they might just drive by and leave you as a tasty snack for the circling vultures above.

In a nutshell, the outback is really not somewhere that you want to be breaking down. Especially when it’s not your car.

You can probably guess what’s coming next?

That’s right, my bad luck on two wheels this trip has suddenly made the move to four wheeled transport – and it left us stranded in the red centre, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere resembling a city.

This isn’t good.

My stay in Alice Springs began with a long overdue catch up with Neil, a good mate from years back during my days at Pizza Hut in Grimsby. Back then, I was at college studying my A-levels, had just learned how to drive, was living with my parents and somehow working out what to do with my life. Neil was pretty much in the same position, and we first met serving stuffed crusts and Super Supremes to the paying public.

Neil, a good mate, and all round legend!

We had a brilliant team at the Victoria Street restaurant back then, a team that didn’t really change much over the two years most of us worked there before heading off to university. For many of us, it was our first job, and we had a ball. We worked hard – the restaurant was consistently among the best in the country, and we won awards for our customer service – but we also played hard too. Finishing late, we’d often head over to the nearby Gullivers nightclub for a beer, no doubt ending the night with the familiar beat of the Cranberries ‘Zombie’ ringing through our ears.

When I first started, I was told it was a team that laughs together, cries together and falls over together, and I was soon a part of it. By day we were running the restaurant, by night and at weekends we were all out together and enjoying each others company.

But as everyone headed off to university, slowly the team was split up. Gradually, some of us lost touch, and one of those was Neil, someone who I always looked forward to working with as he was one of the funniest, helpful, and most kind-hearted members of the crew, who was always making me laugh.

Time went by, and while a few of us kept in touch, whatever happened to Neil remained a bit of a mystery. I knew he headed off to Europe somewhere, but he’d hardly been seen or heard from since. Until Facebook came about that is, when suddenly, a couple of years ago, his familiar face popped up.

Somehow, Neil found his way to Alice Springs, slap bang in the middle of Australia, and a town that he has grown to love, and made it his home. It’s a far cry from his Cleethorpes upbringing.

Having started my travels, I got the following message from Neil last November.

“Hey Phyllis (his name for me from years gone by) I’m probably not the only one hating you for your extravagant work trip right now! I see you are well and living your dreams these days, good for you mate.”

What followed, aside from me reassuring him the BBC licence payer wasn’t funding my travels for work, was an exchange where we were finally back in touch. It ended with Neil saying if I made it to his part of the world, to get in touch.

As I stepped of the Ghan train into the hot Alice Springs sun, I was certainly in his part of the world, and he’d offered me a place to stay. After around 13 years, in the carpark of a hostel that I’d been hanging around at with some friends, we met once again, his tall frame and familiar smile and laugh taking me back to the times we’d be larking around in the kitchen or staffroom of the restaurant back home.

Reunited!

“Mate, its so good to see you again,” we both said, laughing at how the circumstances led to us meeting on the opposite side of the world, and quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.

We spent the night reliving old times and laughing about all our memories together, reminding each other of funny stories and the people we worked with. We laughed at how we would get the kitchen to make a ‘mistake’ pizza, so that we could deliberately stick it in an area near the freezer, out of sight from customers, and quickly munch away.

“We almost had to inhale it so that it was gone by the time you got to the next customer’s table,” we joked, remembering how Neil would down countless espressos and coffees from the machine to keep him awake, and how his jeans were once wet by a prankster and placed in the walk-in freezer.

“They were good times, man,” he smiled, taking another drag from his cigarette.

Neil hasn’t changed, and is still the kind-hearted, generous bloke that I knew in the late 1990s. I had planned to take a tour to Uluru – Ayers Rock – at a cost of $355, along with my friends Dan and Laura who I met in Adelaide. But Neil offered me the use of his car, a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, for the trip, an offer that was too good to refuse.

Neil lends me his car…

And so, early the next morning, I loaded his car with sleeping bags and clothes, and set off to pick up my friends from Toddy’s hostel in the town and off we went down the Stuart Highway, passing huge road trains, desert and bush, on our way to perhaps the most famous rock in the world.

Picking up Dan and Laura…roadtrip!

It was a long drive, some 440km just to the national park, but with good company and an exciting few days ahead, it passed quickly. After about four hours, we began to notice a huge rock on the horizon.

Ayers Rock…

“There it is, Ayers Rock,” we all said in unison. It was huge, dominating the horizon, but in the back of my mind I knew we were still more than 150km away. Perhaps the road loops around the back? Perhaps the size of the thing means you can see it from so far away?

In any case, I waited for a bit of road so that we could pull over with a good view and turned off at the side onto the deep red dust and sand.

On the road and with Uluru behind me. Sort of.

There then followed around 20 minutes of photos and smiles, looking at what the three of us had been wanting to tick off the list in Australia. We got back in the car and drove on, only for us to pass a sign about 100 metres over the crest of a hill.

“Mt Connor lookout, 300m on left”

It wasn’t Ayers Rock. We all felt a bit stupid, but at the same time, found it hilarious.

“You wouldn’t get that on the tour,”  said Dan. He was right.

We motored on, driving along seemingly endless straight roads, with little in the way of scenery aside from the occasional mountain range, trees and bushes. At one point we passed a man, in the middle of the outback, walking along pulling a trailer. A bit odd, but we left him to it.

“There, through the trees,” I said to Dan. “I think I can see it”

This time we knew it was the right rock. The familiar curved edges and rounded tops of Ayers Rock – or Uluru, to use its Aboriginal name – were a dark outline on the horizon, still many kilometres away, but after hours of driving it was a great sight to see.

As we got closer, it seemed to just grow and grow. I didn’t know what to expect really – I knew it would just be a big lump in the ground, but when you approach, it’s the overall size that takes your breath away – its something that just doesn’t come across nomatter how many times you see it on photographs or on the tv.

Huge!

There is also the wonder as to how, when all around is flat for many, many miles, this huge rock came to be in the middle of the desert. For me, that was difficult to get my head around – it doesn’t seem to conform to any of the geological norms that we have come to expect, the sides are smooth and rounded, there are few signs of any layering and there’s no evidence of other mountains around it.

Infact, once upon a time, Uluru was part of a range, but the composition of its sandstone led to its survival, while all other rocks and mountains around eroded away.

The Olgas loom ahead

We drove another 30km or so to another rock formation known as the Olgas, which are visible from Uluru. These were perculiar, and if I’m honest, almost more interesting than the famous Ayers Rock because of the strange shapes and domes which stand so tall. As we walked around, the wind funnelled between the gulleys that separated the domes and the sound filled the desert around us.

Valley of the Winds

The Olgas

The sun began to set, so we dashed back to Uluru to watch as the terracotta red sandstone changed through a whole range of colours as the sun sank down from the sky behind us.

Watching as the sun sets on Uluru

First a deep browny red, through to a range of orange colours, before changing into a deep red as the daylight slipped away. We watched until it got dark, Uluru turning into a shade of purple as the stars and moon began to shine.

Glowing

Enjoying the experience together

We made our way to a nearby campsite, had a barbecue and went to bed relatively early, getting up at 6am and making our way back to the site for sunrise.

The sun rises above the horizon

Again, the colours in the sky and on Uluru were spectacular, a whole variety of blues, pinks, purples and reds. In the distance, the Olgas seemed to get sunlight first, before our star rose above the horizon again behind us and beamed light upon the rock and the miles and miles of outback wilderness.

With nothing in the way of human settlements around, its easy to see how this whole process of sunrise and sunset, the glow of the rock and the arid, occasionally windswept desert plains have been on this repetitive cycle for millions of years. It would have looked just the same back then as it does now.

Daybreak over Uluru and the Olgas

After showers and breakfast back at the campsite, we had a whole day ahead – Uluru, a walk around the base, perhaps another visit to the Olgas and then onward to Kings Canyon and back to Alice Springs in the evening.

We visited the cultural centre in the Uluru National Park, a place where you can learn about the Aboriginal people who own the land this huge solo mountain sits in. Inside, there was a register to sign to say that you haven’t climbed the rock – it is seen as a sacred site by the indigenous people, and encourage against walking on it. There was also a ‘Sorry’ book, which intrigued me.

Inside were pages and pages of letters from people all over the world with almost unbelievable lists of bad luck. The common factor – they had all taken rocks or sand from the site as a souvenir. Now, this is something that I would be likely to do, thanks to my collection of bits and bobs from around the world back home. However, even I know the significance of Uluru to the people here, so my pockets would remain empty.

For those a little less thoughtful, rocks and sand made their way to all corners of the globe as their little bit of Uluru. But reading stories of how friends, relatives and pets suddenly died when they returned, or how they themselves were struck down by illness or misfortune, was an eye opener. Coincidence, maybe? The reason why their letters were on show is because they were so convinced that Uluru had cursed them, they had sent the rocks and sand back for the park wardens to return.

Indeed, underneath this book of confession was a huge pile of rocks and sand that had once been taken away, but now returned to its rightful place.

Dan and I spent a long time reading through the letters, even laughing at some of the tales – it includes stories from people noticing weird things happening at home, noises, movements, that kind of thing. We walked away from the book and back to the car, looking forward to a walk around part of Uluru’s base. I turned the ignition. Nothing happened.

I looked at Dan.

“Ah, could you imagine,” we laughed together.

I turned the key again. The started motor fired. The engine didn’t.

By the third attempt, the laughter had stopped. It was now beyond a temporary mis-start. This was a major problem.

Houston, we have a problem.

I got out and spent about half an hour with my head under the bonnet, removing spark plug connectors, rubbing them down, checking oil, pressing fuses, even rocking the car while trying to start it to see if that would help. It didn’t. We were stuck.

We began to worry. There was no mobile phone coverage, I had no details for any breakdown cover, no way of finding out a garage number, and nobody else who was passing by seemed to care. And we were losing time to see the rest of the area. Thankfully the cultural centre had a payphone. I rang Neil to tell him we had a bit of a problem. I described the symptoms.

“You know, it did this a few months back with me. I left it 10 minutes and it started again,” he said.

It filled me with a bit of hope. I’d tried most things I could think of, so we left it and looked at the huge rock dominating the view through the window.

I tried again. Nothing.

A French couple came over and said they had a number for a local mechanic – local being about 30km away – but we might need it. In the meantime, we tried push-starting the vehicle with their help. Its an automatic, and I didn’t really know how to, but I put it in neutral and tried starting the engine as I slowly trundled around the car park thanks to Dan and the French guy pushing at the back. Still nothing.

“You don’t get this on the tour,” said Dan, ruefully.

Kurt the mechanic arrives… Dan ponders!

By now, we knew we needed help. I rang Neil again to tell him the bad news. Thankfully, he thinks he has a two year breakdown policy, so he gives me the details and I rang the company.

“Sorry sir, the policy expired on April 19,” came the not so helpful response. I asked if there was anything they could do, afterall, it was less than two weeks ago. In a nutshell, she said no. The bad luck continued. Could this be payback from the Rock for laughing at the Sorry book?!

There was nothing for it, I had to ring the garage based near the resort, a good 20 minutes away. I spoke to Kurt, a mechanic, who told me it was a $99 callout and just over $100 for the tow. I had no option, and he told me he’d be with in just over an hour.

By now it was early afternoon, and I was gutted. Gutted for Neil, as I knew there was probably an over-inflated outback repair bill heading his way, gutted for Dan and Laura as I’d managed to get them stranded in the desert, and gutted for myself as I knew this was in danger of ruining my visit to somewhere I had been so looking forward to seeing.

Sad face from Laura!

We cheered ourselves up by getting something to eat, having spotted some public barbecues. Except they wouldn’t work either. Yet more bad luck. I remembered Neil said there was a portable stove in the boot of the car, so we got that out and made some burgers while we waited for the mechanic.

Food always cheers me up!

Kurt turned up a while later, tall, fair haired and with a big smile and arm outstretched, he shook my hand and I showed him to the car. He did a lot of the same checks as me, before crawling under the back of the car and kicking it. He asked me to try starting the engine at the same time. Still nothing.

“I think your fuel pump’s gone,” he said. “It’ll have to come back on the trailer.”

And so, with yet more pushing, we manoeuvred the car to Kurts truck, and with a powerful winch attached, I steered it onto the back.

Groan

This wasn’t the off-roading I had in mind behind the wheel

It was a sad sight to see all of our belongings in the back of the car, now helplessly strapped onto the back of a lorry as it awaits its diagnosis quite a few miles down the road. The next problem was that Kurt could only take two of us to the garage with him in the cab, and so Laura volunteered to stay and get a lift back with someone. She argued that it might be easier for a girl to get help.

Pants.

As Dan and I chatted to Kurt in the truck on the way to the garage, talking about our lives back home, how we met in Adelaide and how we were thinking of doing a bus trip to Uluru, I muttered that we wouldn’t have had this experience on a tour. Dan laughed.

At the garage, Laura turned up at the same time as us, a couple had seen the predicament we were in and offered to help, following us all the way to the village. The car was checked over, and soon the fuel pump theory was proven.

Poorly car…outback garage

“With labour, you’re looking at about $900 plus tax,” said Kurt, telling me that it could have been a lot worse after fitting a two-grand part on a Landrover Discovery that afternoon.

“But we need to get onto it soon – its half four now and the freight leaves Alice Springs at 5pm.”

I agreed and rang Neil to break the news. He took it amazingly well – there was a sharp intake of breath at first, but I don’t blame him. We were stuck overnight while the part arrived from the shop more than 400km away.

“Stranded in the outback. You don’t get that on a tour,” we joked.

Kurt drove us to a nearby backpacker lodge where we would stay for the night. We might be stuck in the outback, but we decided to make the most of it. We went straight to the bar and ordered a beer. We needed one!

Stuck in the bush. We had to smile somehow!

Railroading north on The Ghan

The Ghan – one of the world’s great rail journeys

When it comes to famous railway journeys, this trip has already allowed me to experience the world’s longest, the trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing.

But for sheer wow factor, The Ghan must take the absolute crown.

Leaving Adelaide, and the south of Australia

The train’s name honours the Afghan camel drivers, who set off years ago, long before engines, diesel and rail, to help find a way to reach Australia’s unexplored interior. The honour is bestowed upon one of the finest trains you will find in the world. With 28 pristine carriages, it stretches back almost three quarters of a kilometre along Platform One at Adelaide’s Parkland Terminal. In front of me, 1,344 tonnes of pure rail journey heaven, its shiny silver consist glinting in the warm South Australian sun as I walk its entire length.

Ready for the trip north

At the front, its bright red powerful locomotive muscle, emblazoned with the famous Ghan camel insignia, waits for a green light and the signal to start hauling the behemoth through the iconic deserts of Australia’s red centre.

You can feel the anticipation in the air as the crew and porters busily load hundreds of suitcases and bags onto the train. Ahead, a 54 hour marathon through some of Australia’s most inhospitable, baron and empty landscape, straight up through the centre to Alice Springs and on to the very north. A trans-continental adventure that clocks up just shy of 3,000km before it slows to a halt in Darwin, turns around, and does it all over again.

Awaiting departure from Adelaide

This station is no stranger to impressive railway feats – the Overland to Melbourne, the Southern Spirit to Brisbane and the awe-inspiring Indian Pacific, which takes passengers from the east coast to the west coast of this huge nation, all pass through Adelaide. Yet there was almost a feeling that this was the first time anyone had ever made this particular journey, a feeling of celebration, summed up by the welcome meeting from the crew by the train.

“The party starts right here,” bellows one of the immaculately-dressed staff over the station tannoy.

The train crew introduction show – you dont get this on Hull Trains!

There then follows a brilliant run-down of who was who, who was in charge, who was at the controls and who would be reading the map on the way. There was a huge sense of fun mixed with pride – it was clear that everyone who lives and works onboard this incredible train loves every bit of it.

“Alllll aboard,” was the simultaneous cry from the crew as they made their way to their respective carriages, a walk that can take some time. Hundreds of passengers and travellers dispersed along the platform, eagerly looking forward to stepping onboard and settling down.

I met up with my two friends I met at the Backpack Oz hostel in Adelaide, Laura and Dan, both of whom have been travelling just a couple of weeks longer than me. They are in the Red section of the train, while I’m in the Red Kangaroo sleeper section, a couple of carriages in front of them, but they are both getting off at Alice Springs too. They have arms full of pillows and bags, but we all stop to take photos of each other.

All aboard…well, almost!

I’m in carriage N, berth 25, and we soon see the carriage label on the side of the train. I am welcomed onboard by the carriage attendant, Danielle, who directs me to my room.

The ever-smiley and helpful crew member Danielle

“I’ll come and find you later on,” I say to my new friends as I step onboard, waving them off as they walk further down the platform.

Inside, the beautifully furnished carriage swallows me, a sweeping, curving corridor through the centre winding its way past all the private cabins. Mine is towards the end of the carriage, the door already ajar to welcome me. I put my bags down onto the floor and take a minute to have a look around, and smile to myself. I think back to my experiences in some of the ‘second class’ carriages across Russia and Mongolia. This is the ‘basic’ service on this train, yet compared to my times on the trans-Siberian, it was like a palace.

My private cabin

Huge comfortable chairs, storage space, a clever little sink that folds down, smart red carpets and power sockets. Relaxing music is being piped into the room thanks to an individual radio in the ceiling, there are towels neatly folded up on the side, and on my table, a beautiful red toiletries bag, complete with shampoo, conditioner, earplugs and soap.

A proper shower on a train – and yes, you can watch the world go by when you’re in it!

Just a few steps away, a spacious and fully-functioning shower awaits on either side of the corridor. Its hard to believe it is all packed inside a normal sized railway carriage, a cleverly designed carriage at that, an example of some fine ergonomics to maximise space

As I marvelled at the shower, I immediately thought back to my times on the trans-Siberian through the depths of Russia, and of my long stint lasting four days and four nights on one train without getting off. What I would have done for a shower and facilities like this over there. Somehow, I don’t think my squash ball improvised plug, that came oh so handy to block the sinks back then, will be needed on here.

With departure imminent, there is an announcement for staff to remove all the flags and markers from outside the train. I settled down into my seat, wondering if anyone else would be sharing the cabin with me. Nobody else arrived – I’ve got it to myself.

And we’re off – the rest of Australia beckons

Just a couple of minutes after the scheduled departure time of 12.20pm, I could feel a slight vibration, and then movement. Outside, friends and family were waving to loved ones as they disappeared down the tracks. Workmen, who just a few minutes ago were loading bags and suitcases, leaned on the steering wheels of their carts and watched as the mammoth train began to slip out of the station. Adelaide began to move past my window ever faster, the train being waved on by many who had made a special trip out to watch its departure.

The locals turn out to wave the train off

The Ghan is held in such high regard, it wasn’t just your typical train spotters that had turned out to jot a number down in a pad, or take a photo as it passed. As we inched our way over the points and crossings in the city, a young boy on his father’s shoulders waved at every passing carriage. It must have been something to see the passengers waving back, and I joined them, giving the young lad a big wave back. His father pointed at me and smiled.

Further along, a couple walking their dog had stopped by the fence to watch the departing spectacle. Even their pets were standing to attention. This wasn’t just your average 10am departure to Kings Cross like you or I are used to. This was special. This was a journey that even now, even for those who live here, captures the imagination. We were not just passengers getting from A to B – we were being waved off as if we were explorers, early adventurers setting off on a ship into the unknown.

Heading out into the bush

Soon, the cityscape of Adelaide and its suburbs began to change into open fields and plains, peppered with gum trees and sheep. I went for a wander through the carriage and into the lounge area, full of similarly-minded travellers just getting stuck into a book, sipping a coffee or with their noses pressed against the window, watching as the Australian landscape unfurled in front of them.

I sent a text to my new friends Dan and Laura, a few carriages away in the reclining seat section, and asked how it was back there.

“Hey Phil, its really good! Can’t believe how much room we have! What’s yours like?” came the reply.

I sent a cheeky one back.

“Just tucking into some caviar with a personal hostess fanning me. Heaven knows what Gold and Platinum class must be like.” I pressed send, and laughed to myself as I imagined what the reaction would be just a few dozen metres behind me.

I quickly sent a follow-up, telling them about my cabin and that I’d meet up with them later.

“Sounds quality mate! It’s even good back here in the cheap seats. Will let you know when we venture forward later,” came the reply.

“Careful of the guards if you venture forwards from steerage – meaner than those on the Titanic,” I quickly sent back, putting another cheeky smile on my face.

With Dan and Laura in the onboard cafe bar

I can see us becoming good friends – we’re already planning to spend time in Alice Springs and around Ayers Rock together, and we’ve all got similar interests and a sense of humour. I’m looking forward to dinner with them later.

Outside, there’s definitely a changing colour to the landscape, the pale green of dried grass and fields is being interspersed with a browny orange soil. I lost phone signal, so decided to have a wander through the train to find Dan and Laura. It didn’t take me long, they’re only a couple of carriages back, and I sat with them over a coffee, watching the world go by and chatting about our travels.

Dan told me how he’d been working on a syrup mixing plant at a Schweppes factory in the south, making Pepsi and Solo. He explained how he was earning more money pouring citric acid into a vat than what he was ever earning as a teacher at an inner city school back home. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite right, but I’ve met a surprising number of people with similar stories, of giving up careers they have worked so hard for because they realised they can earn more money by doing something that needs far less in the way of skills.

A quick glimpse of the front of the huge train snaking ahead

Obviously, with travelling, most save for a few months and then use that cash for the next adventure, but it does explain why there are so many older people on the backpacking circuit, out in Australia having learned they can live a comfortable life on their travels, yet still save money.

Sunset in the outback

As the sun set, the sky turned a beautiful shade of fuchsia, casting an array of bright colours across the clouds over the plains. I settled in the lounge carriage with a complimentary coffee, and splashed out on a Kit Kat. It has a very relaxed feel about it, with comfortable bucket chairs and sofas to sink into. I spent the evening in the Matilda restaurant car, talking to fellow travellers who were all enjoying the experience just as much as me.

The comfortable lounge car

They included Cathy, a 60 year old woman from New Zealand who moved to Australia in the 1990s, and is living proof you are never too old for backpacking. She’s currently taking a year-long tour of the country with her beloved car, which she occasionally waves to on the Motorail carriage as the front of the long train negotiates a bend ahead, briefly becoming visible through the window.

“I love just meeting so many different people, of different ages, from all around the world,” she beams, talking to us all like the friends we already are, if only for a few hours.

Cathy (left) and fellow travellers from across Europe relaxing in the Matilda cafe

By 11pm, most of the train had gone to bed, and I made my way through the curvy corridor to my room, unhitched the bed from the wall and laid it down.

Cosy bed!

I looked out of the window at the blackness outside, only illuminated by a feint light shining out from the shower cubicle a few metres in front of me. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t long before the gentle rocking of the train worked its magic, sending me into a deep sleep as we made our way north through the outback.

The next morning, an announcement for breakfast service woke me. I slowly opened the blind. Outside, the landscape had changed – a repetitive scene of bushes and small trees rolling by my window, the greenery contrasting with the deep red sand which stretches from the tracks below, far and beyond the horizon. This is the outback, Australia’s red centre.

Red.

I relaxed with a coffee and began talking to Paul, a skin cancer specialist from Hamburg in Germany. He’s in Australia for a conference in Brisbane, but decided to tick some things off his bucket list before getting down to work in a few weeks time.

Paul, from Germany, and who realised the joy of overland travel

“Going by train gives an entirely different perspective, doesn’t it,” he said, watching as a dry river bed passes beneath us.

He’s well travelled, having backpacked through southeast Asia back in the 70s, and a keen photographer. Our first conversation actually began thanks to me finding out the door windows between carriages offer better photographs of the world outside thanks to a single glass pane cutting down on reflections.

“Doesn’t it give you an idea of the vastness of this place. It looks so different to how it looks from a plane.”

I couldn’t agree more – its one of the reasons why, with time on my side, I decided to make most of my way Down Under by keeping my feet on the ground. There are some parts where you have to fly, but on the whole, making your way over vast distances by land only gives more of an adventure, more of an experience. And it’s a social experience too, wandering through the carriages to meet friends along the way. There are no seatbelt signs here to keep you in your seat!

Another brilliant touch is the regular updates of what we are seeing outside the window from the train manager, with informative and interesting anecdotes about sites and scenery along the way. Its all broadcast via the onboard radio, giving the journey the feel of a tour more than just a way of getting from point to point in Australia. At one point, he came onto the radio to explain how the drivers were slowing the train down so we could see a unique statue at the side of the track, that of Iron Man, a figure holding up the one millionth concrete sleeper.

It was erected as a tribute to the work of those who built this huge line, which was actually re-routed in 1980 to avoid flooding problems around 100km to the east which had plagued the service. We had plenty of time to take photos, before the engine powered on and we accelerated back to normal speed.

The Iron Man carrying the 1,000,000th sleeper

With the kilometre posts alongside the track knocking on through 1,500km, we are just a few minutes away from Alice Springs, the magnificent Macdonnell Ranges looming ever closer. A Qantas jet plane flies overhead, the first reminder of civilization for a good few hours, with only desert and outback bush to look at for most of the morning.

Crossing a dry riverbed before Alice Springs

As we creep around a gentle bend, the Stuart Highway comes into view, full of cars and road trains making as equally an impressive trans-continental journey. The length of the train brings the town to a standstill as carriage after carriage rolls across the railroad crossing and alongside the platform, the halfway point for this train’s epic journey.

Pulling into Alice and holding up the traffic for a while

For me, it offers a week-long stay in the outback, a chance to visit the world famous sights of Uluru, the Olgas, Kings Canyon and the terracotta red sands of the Northern Territory. While I’m doing all that, this very train will make its way on to Darwin, turn around, go all the way back to Adelaide, and then come back to pick me up in exactly a week.

Arrival in The Alice – and its warm again!

As I step off into the warm sunshine, Paul comes up to me.

“I forgot to ask, where in England are you from?” he said, camera over his shoulder.

“Ah, it’s a little town on the east coast, you’ve probably never heard of it. Grimsby.” I replied.

He stepped back, gasped and smiled, gently shaking his head.

“I know Grimsby so well, I can’t believe it,” he laughed. “I have friends there. Whenever I go to the UK, I visit the town.”

A statue remembering the roots of the Ghan in Alice Springs

The irony is that it’s partly down to Grimsby why I’m here – to visit Neil, a good friend from years back who I used to work with in the town’s Pizza Hut restaurant.

Backpack back on, adventures continue

I grabbed my backpack, bid farewell to the Ghan for now, and set off with Dan and Laura into the town centre and to their hostel, Toddys, which will be my home for a few hours until Neil finishes work later in the afternoon. The last time we saw each other, I was 18, driving a gold Fiat Panda, had my university days ahead of me and had no idea how or what I would do to get into my journalism career. And when we said goodbye back then, how could anyone predict our next handshake would be on the other side of the world, and quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got almost 13 years-worth of catching up ahead. This week should be fun!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Has this made you want to read about my time on the trans-Siberian railway? Try A Trans-Siberian Adventure, Still on Track and The Wheels Come Off