Vivid Memories of Australia

Goodbye Oz

Its been the best part of six months since I was last heading to Sydney, on a flight from Thailand, but now, having completed a huge circuit through and around this giant country, it was time to go full circle.

Leaving Byron Bay in the knowledge it was my final overnight Greyhound journey down the east coast, there was more than a tinge of sadness. The initial novelty of seeing the differences in Australia – the different road signs, the gum and eucalyptus trees that line the highways and byways, different retail names and brands, even the Aussie accent, had all long worn off.

It has, to all intents and purposes, become home.

To say “I’m just nipping out to Coles” rolls off the tongue as normally as “I’ve got to pop to Tesco,” back home. I long mastered the Australian currency, although I still think the $2 coin should be bigger than the $1 coin, and seeing incredible coastlines, crashing waves and beautiful beaches has become as much as part of life as driving along the Humber on the A63 back home.

It has crept up on me quickly, and I don’t think it has sunk in yet that within just a couple of days, my time in Australia will be no more, that I’ll have moved on to pastures new, and my friends here that I am so used to being in touch with via text message or Facebook in the same time zone will once again start living further and further away from me.

But I had a few friends to catch up with first before I finally said farewell to Australia, and the first involved a short 24 hour stay in Newcastle, a few hours north of Sydney. Leaving the surf behind in Byron Bay, I joined the Greyhound in the town centre and got comfortable for a night’s broken sleep on the road. Thankfully, two days of hard work on the waves had left me shattered, but its still hard to get a ‘proper’ sleep on a bus, nomatter how many ways you contort your body to try to get comfortable.

A recipe for no sleep

Sleeping on buses, I have learned in the last few weeks, is something of a fine art. For best results, take a pillow – my tiny British Airways issue pillow has been worth its weight in gold. An oversize hoodie provides a great way of keeping your body and head warm, and when pulled over your eyes, acts like a sleeping mask.

Most of all, night time coach travel requires you to be short, which I’m not. How I look in envy at some of the smaller people in life, quite happily curled up on two seats and enjoying the slumber. For me, when my legs aren’t trying to find available cavities under the seats in front of me to fill, they’re often flapping around trying to become horizontal. That’ll involve trying to get comfortable by resting on seats across the aisle, only to be knocked down shortly after by someone getting on or off the bus.

You might just nod off, only for a debilitating pain to strike up, usually in the buttock region, from being sat in a weird angle for too long. Or your arms have gone to sleep from resting on them. Or we’ve just flown around the last corner too quick and I’ve banged my head on the window again. Or the pillow has slipped and my skull is vibrating on the glass.

Early morning driver break. Feeling good.

You probably get the picture that sleeping on a bus isn’t necessarily for me, but when you’re backpacking, it does save the cost of a night’s accommodation. And for me, that’s the most important thing right now – I’ve got the rest of my life to sleep properly in a bed!

Somehow, the night passed and I woke up on the outskirts of Newcastle, a coastal town built up around a busy port, and where I get off the bus for a day. Its somewhere that, before this trip, I would have happily sailed through on the motorway and on to Sydney, but that part changed in Thailand.

Studious Liz at home in Newcastle

Newcastle is home to my friend Liz, who I met in Chiang Mai and spent over a week travelling around the north of Thailand with back in December. We rode and washed elephants together, enjoyed countless Chang beers and Sangsom whiskeys, toured waterfalls and beautiful scenery and had countless laughs in a group with our friends Bryce and Erin. Regular readers, however, will just remember her as the Australian girl I managed to throw off the back of a scooter on the motorbike ride back from Pai.

Liz and I about to get thrown off an elephant in Thailand in December

Thankfully, our friendship survived that little test and we’ve stayed in touch, and I promised to call by should my journey take me anywhere near Newcastle. After a few hours of much needed sleep at one of the town’s only backpacker hostels, Liz picked me up. It felt strangely normal to wave her down in the street and jump into her car, despite it already being six months since we were causing trouble in Thailand together.

Liz is studying to be a journalist, which probably explains why we get on so well together, but she had a bit of coursework due to be handed in that afternoon. We headed straight to a lovely bar and restaurant complex near the docks, where she treated me to lunch and refused to take any money.

“Don’t worry about it, you’re still travelling,” she said.

We had a great few hours catching up, laughing about our adventures together in southeast Asia, and finding out all about each others’ travels since. The last time I saw Liz, she was running out of the dorm room in Chiang Mai, late for her taxi (bad timekeeping is another thing we have in common) to the airport for a flight to Cambodia. She told me all about her new year celebrations in the country, as well as her onward travels to Vietnam and Laos, following a similar route that I took a month previous.

Taking in the sights of Newcastle!

I also read through one of her assignments for her, giving her a few pointers but mainly putting her mind at ease that it would get a good grade. She’s actually a really good writer, and I know she’ll go on to do well in the industry.

Like all good journalists, Liz also knows how to have a good time, and that night we met up with some of her friends as one of them was leaving, funnily enough, to go travelling. We’d promised to relive some of our party nights from Thailand, and we certainly did our best.

Liz and a laser

I woke up the following morning only having had a few hours sleep and with a sore head – a familiar feeling from our nights in Chiang Mai together – and managed to pack my belongings into my bag for the 9.40am departure to Sydney. Co-incidentally, Liz, her partner and her sister will follow me a few hours later with friends to see the Temper Trap gig at the Opera House, and we agreed to meet up for a few more beers afterwards.

In the meantime, I boarded my coach and watched as Newcastle passed by outside the window. When I’d mentioned to a few people I was stopping off in the city, I did get a few quizzical looks.

“Why on earth do you want to stop there?” people would say.

Newcastle seagulls. Mine?!

When I explained I had a friend there, all was understood, but actually, I really liked the place. For me, there were many similarities to home in Grimsby – by the coast, with a beach, a hugely important port and a rich history. Coal exports are a huge deal for Australia, and much of it passes through Newcastle. The port very much resembles that of Immingham, an industrial landscape with huge piles of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for markets overseas.

I didn’t see much more of the journey however, after I managed to fall asleep in a snore-inducing position with my head wedged backwards between the seat and the window. I twice woke myself up with particularly loud snorts, and judging by the looks I was getting from other passengers, they weren’t the only two I’d managed in the three hour journey south. The fact I woke up, on the outskirts of Sydney, with a dry mouth and slightly sore throat was all the evidence I needed that I had, indeed, snored my way from city to city. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with other passengers until I was well away from the coach.

Approaching the Harbour Bridge

The way back into Sydney took me for my first crossing of the famous Harbour Bridge before we pulled into Central Station, my 3,000km journey down the east coast of Australia finally complete. While Sydney felt familiar, it seemed a world away from the Sydney I arrived in at the end of January. Back then, the height of summer, I had everything to look forward to in Australia – I had all my friends to meet, I was catching up with my friend Cat from home, and Jack, one of my best mates from university, was in the city for work.

Crossing the Harbour Bridge

Now I had arrived knowing the end was near, and that my trip is slowly but surely moving into the twilight stages before I finally head home. I walked along streets that I had walked along before my ‘Ballarat family’ was even known to me.

End of the road – arriving in Sydney on the Greyhound

That I walked along believing I was heading to Mount Gambier in South Australia to help out at a roadhouse. That I had walked along not knowing I would attend the Australian Grand Prix, break down in a mate’s car at Ayers Rock, get thrown out of a hostel in Darwin or learn to surf in Byron Bay. Back then, I had no idea how my stay in Australia would pan out – but I smiled as I walked back to my hostel in Sydney knowing I had made the most of every moment here.

As I pressed the button on the lift at the World Square Hostel in George Street once again, my mind flashed back to that day in January when I was doing the same, on my way up to room 403 where Cat was staying, my friend from Hull who was the main person who inspired this trip. I remember the nerves, and of wondering how long I could afford the expensive place that Australia has become. Its almost six months, yet it feels like just a few hours ago that I had last been in the building.

Back then, Cat was in the same position I now find myself in, having worked her way around Australia and arriving in Sydney with a couple of days to spare before flying out to New Zealand. I checked in with reception, before heading off to Darling Harbour and to my friend Katrina’s office.

With Liz, her partner Jim, her sister and friends on my first night back in Sydney

Having left my bank card in Alice Springs, I have been living on a credit card for the past month. Now, however, the funds on the credit card have dried up, and I couldn’t have timed it any better to pick up my card. It was initially sent to my hostel in Darwin, but I’d left before it arrived. It was down to my friends Dan and Laura, who I left in the north, to send it on to Katrina in Sydney, who in turn left it with security at her office for me to collect. It was a relief to get my hands on it, and I could go on to pay for my hostel as a result!

I met Katrina for lunch at the Hard Rock Café on the harbour for a catch up and a goodbye before I left. I’ll always be grateful to her for the help and support she gave me during my first few days here, and we had a great couple of hours laughing about some of my travel tales, talking about her Crossfit exertions and savouring our last meeting for a while.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

There was one other goodbye that evening, to Brandon, who was in my dorm at the Gilligans hostel in Cairns. He’s also made his way down the east coast, but in his own car that he’d bought for his travels.

With Brandon at Vivid

We’d agreed to take in the Vivid light festival together, and met at Darling Harbour in time for the weekly fireworks show at 8.30pm. It’s a great little display, one that I watched with Katrina when I first arrived in the city earlier this year, and Brandon was impressed that it was a weekly event. It certainly brings in the crowds to the area, where, despite the rain, hundreds of people line the quaysides.

We walked on to Circular Quay, where you get the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and where the Vivid festival takes place.

Vivid light festival, Sydney

It’s a collection of illuminated art, the centrepiece being a special display on the sails of the iconic Opera House. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition last year, co-incidentally on the same weekend as this one during my three week trip around the world. But whereas last year the famous sails were lit in bright colours, that would change and evolve into shapes, this year there was a projection of two figures onto the surface.

Sydney Opera House, disappointingly not as Vivid as last year

While they would move, roll around and appear to walk on the landmark, for me it wasn’t quite as effective as last year, which was a shame. The rest of the exhibition was as fantastic as always, including Customs House and the Museum of Modern Art being lit up with some incredibly clever 3D projections.

Customs House before the ‘show’

Customs House during the ‘day of city life’ show

We spent hours walking around in the rain, taking in all the smaller pieces dotted around the area, before heading back to my hostel for a final beer together. While I leave in a matter of hours, Brandon also heads back to his native Canada, and to Saskatchewan, in a few days. As he disappeared down the spiral stairs and back out onto the wet Sydney streets, I headed to my bunk.

One of the highlights of Vivid Sydney – they’re cycles!

Giving art a whirl!

Its hard to sum up my feelings. There’s sadness that I will probably never spend as long in Australia, meeting so many good friends, ever again, but gratitude that at least I’ve had the opportunity to make this trip. There’s a feeling that it’s passed by so quickly on one hand, yet when I think back to my arrival here, it can seem so long ago. Then there’s excitement at a new chapter in my travels about to unfold, a visit to a new country that I have never been to but heard so many good things about. And I also know it means my journey around the world is slowly coming to an end. In just over a month and a half, I will be back home – Sydney, its Opera House, my Australian friends and those uncomfortable Greyhound bus seats will seem so far away.

As I hauled my bags over my shoulders in Australia one last time, I said goodbye to the staff and took my final steps out of the hostel. It was raining, yet again, which seemed to suit my mood. I made my way to Town Hall station, but paused before disappearing down the steps and onto a train to the airport. I looked up and around, taking in one last view of the city, and smiled.

Looking forward

I came to this country knowing just a couple of good friends, who helped to look after me, support me and made me feel so welcome in their homes. I leave with a huge list of new friends, who I will stay in touch with, remember fondly and hopefully, at some point, meet again in the future, either back in this fantastic place Down Under, or back home on British soil.

I also came here with a few ticks outstanding on my bucket list – Uluru and the Whitsundays were high up there. Somehow, despite a few financial problems that cropped up along the way, I had visited all the places I set out to see, and more besides. The beautiful Great Ocean Road and stunning Grampians in Victoria with Siobhan and Matt from home; the sights and sounds of Ballarat with my ‘family’ of Nat, Jess, Liv, Jane and James, the Ghan train to the outback with Dan and Laura, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock with my friend Neil, complete with the fateful breakdown of his car. Diving the Great Barrier Reef, cruising along the beach on Fraser Island and learning to surf the Aussie way – so many highlights, and memories that will always be with me.

A last view of Sydney’s skyline from the airport

On the way to gate 36 for my Qantas flight to Auckland at Sydney’s international airport, I stopped off at a souvenir shop. I had just five Australian dollars left in my pocket. There was only one thing I could buy – an Australian flag patch for my backpack. Its quite fitting that its larger than any of the others from the rest of my trip, having spent the longest time here.

As we turned off the taxiway and onto the main runway, the engines screamed to full throttle. I was pushed back into my chair, and wedged my head into the window and watched as the terminal disappeared behind me. We lifted up into the air, a slight bump as the wheels left the ground, and I left Australian soil for the final time. The street lights of Sydney’s suburbs began to drift away below me, and I watched until the coastline disappeared from view.

I know I’m going to miss it, and I don’t know when I will be back in this far-flung part of the world. But I do know that this huge, beautiful country, and all those who have helped make my stay here so memorable, will always have a very special place in my heart.

Surf’s Up!

Catching my first waves in Byron Bay

I’m writing this on an overnight Greyhound bus. Every limb feels fifty times heavier than it should. Muscles I never even knew existed are aching in every corner of my body. My chest and ribs hurt, and my right foot is bruised and throbbing. And despite the cramped conditions I currently find myself in, none of these aches and pains are because the person in front has fully reclined their chair into my personal space.

My body is seriously hurting as a result of surfing, but boy, was it worth it.

I’ve always seen surfing on the television and wondered what its like, catching a huge rolling wave and effortlessly using it to speed along, pull off tricks and generally have a good time thanks to nature. It looks like you need perfect balance, a ripped upper body and bags of coolness, none of which I possess, and largely why I’ve stayed clear of the sport. Plus, back home, there’s a significantly high chance of a turd finding its way into your mouth somehow.

And its cold.

I never thought I’d give it a proper go though, but all that changed when I reached Byron Bay, three hours south of Brisbane. Having spent hours on a bus passing by some amazing beaches, spotting ant-like surfers bobbing up and down over the swell, even passing through Surfers Paradise, a town named after one of Australia’s favourite pastimes, I think it dawned on me that I should at least give it a try.

Those balmy days in Cairns already seem so long ago

I almost needed a surfboard to get to my hostel when I arrived off the relatively short four hour journey from Brisbane. If I needed any further proof that I have gone south enough for winter, then my welcome into Byron was definitely the required evidence. A huge rainstorm raged, leaving me camped out and sheltering by a rack of public phones until it eased off. It’s the first time I’ve actually had to wear my rain jacket in anger here, and is definitely the first time I have had to find a hostel, fully laden with bags, in the pouring rain. It knocks your spirit somewhat, especially when the address and iPhone map lead you in completely the wrong direction.

After trudging through puddles and looking lost for a while, a kind man with a multicoloured umbrella came over and pointed me in the right direction.

“And don’t worry about the weather – it does this in Byron. It’ll be blue skies tomorrow, you’ll see,” he shouted as I disappeared towards the Nomads hostel.

He was almost right. After a grey start, the sun began to break through. I walked to the beach, where there were already people catching waves. My decision was made, and I went in search of a deal. Most lessons are priced at $49 for two hours, but I walked into one backpacker travel shop where in return for ‘liking’ their Facebook page, I could get two $69 lessons for the price of one at Mojosurf.

“You’ll have to hurry up, it leaves at 12,” the travel agent said.

My surf board awaits…

I looked at my watch – I had 10 minutes to get back to the hostel, pack a bag of stuff for the beach and change into my swimshorts. I somehow made it with time to spare.

“Too easy mate,” said Jimmy as I walked in (they really do say that over here)

He was wearing a cap, his long hair poking out of the bottom and his tan spoke volumes for the amount of time he clearly spends in the ocean under the sun.

“Ahhh, you’re all going to have a grrrreat tiiiime. Yuuuueeeeeeep,” he said, his cool surfery accent putting a smile on everyone’s face.

My instructor was Adam, or Adsy as he likes to be called, and I jumped into the bus to be taken to a nearby beach that is less crowded and better for learning.

Ready to surf

There was only a few of us, a good sized group for learning. Among them was a guy from Western Australia who I was on Fraser Island with, and who I shared a dorm with in Rainbow Beach. Then there was Jag, from Manchester, who has been travelling for 17 months, doing everything from the usual sightseeing and partying to working at an orphanage in southeast Asia. We already had banter going on the bus, and we could feel it was going to be a good day.

After a short 20 minute ride, I found myself being handed a large green surf board. Its quite cumbersome to carry, as its larger than normal to give better balance in the water. There was a small handle in the middle, enough to give you a decent hold of the board, but with a strong wind, it was easy to get caught by a gust and find yourself being swung around.

Me and my board

Down on the beach, and after a few warm-ups, it was time to learn the basics –what to look for in the waves, how to spot a potentially dangerous rip tide, the impact the wind has and how to push through the waves with the surf board.

You do it just like this…Adsy showing us what to do

Adsy briefed us on the correct stance and how to paddle with our arms for a while, before we were grabbing our boards and heading out into the waves.

The first thing I can say is that surfing is a lot harder than it looks. The first thing you have to master, aside from getting up on the board, is making your way through the huge waves that Australia, and the Pacific Ocean, are famous for. Strangely, wave size is measured from the back of the wave – today, they were around four to five feet, but when you look at them from the front, they seem twice as high. Some of them tower above you, forcing you to jump and hold onto your surf board to allow you to keep on the surface. It’s a tiring cycle in itself.

Jag practicing the stance

Then, when you’ve waded out a fare distance, its time to spot a wave. We were in a good training ground, with waves and white water rolling all the way to the shore from breaking point around 60 to 70 metres out. It means you have plenty of time to ‘snap up’ onto the board. The ‘snap’ is a one move jump up from laying down, using your arms to push up from underneath your chest and then quickly bringing your feet from the back end of the board to a stance about halfway along it.

Out into the ocean

Despite plenty of practice on the beach, it’s a move that takes some doing, and relies on some strong upper arms. My first attempt ended with me toppling off the side, while my second attempt saw the board fly out from underneath me and whack me straight on the head.

And that was the general pattern for the next two hours, a constant wave (pardon the pun) of false push ups, falling off the side, the board flying from underneath me and finding myself somewhere under water with my hands on my head, taking yet another bump somewhere on my body from either the bottom of the sea below or my escapee surf board from above.

Kneel up, topple off, swallow salt water, crack my toes on the sandy bottom, back to the surface, drag board back to waves, repeat. It was frustrating, but strangely addictive.

Then, shortly before a break, and with a bit of help from Adsy, I finally did it.

“Get on…start paddling…this wave’s yours,” he shouted, holding onto my board.

I looked back, and a foaming white mass of water was getting ever closer.

“Big paddles now,” came the call from Adsy.

I took some huge, deep paddles on either side of the board. Suddenly I felt the acceleration as it caught the wave and began being pushed along.

“Snap up NOW,” Adsy shouted from behind.

I pushed hard with my arms, jumped up and brought my feet underneath, staying in a low crouch as the board wobbled below me. And then it stabilised – I’d found my balance, and stood up straighter. I remember thinking how high up it seemed to be standing on the board, and how strangely quick the wave moves you forward.

There was a cheer from behind – it might have only been for a few seconds, but I was officially surfing.

Off I go!

After a break, I was back in the water and gradually finding my feet on the surfboard. Eventually, I was able to pick out each wave I wanted to ride, paddle fast enough to catch it, and in a fashion, stand up on the board and ride it all the way to shore. It was a great feeling, and there was a strange addiction to getting back into the ocean and trying it again, but wanting to get on the board that bit faster, that bit smoother, or perhaps just swallowing less of the salty water.

It was a similar feeling to when I learned how to ski four or five years ago. It was difficult at first, but there was something that kept making me go back for more. There might have been the odd fall that twisted a knee slightly, gave you a coccyx-bruising knock and left you shattered come the end of the day, but the adrenaline and fun outweighs the risk. The same can be said for surfing – its hard work, you get pounded by the sea, sand and board, and you can consume enough salt to keep Saxo in business for a year, but it’s a brilliant way to spend some time at the beach.

Adsy and my surf group

Four hours passed by really quickly, and we headed back to Byron Bay happy with our efforts. I promptly passed out in my dorm, despite organising to meet some of my fellow surfers for a beer that night. I did, however, wake up in time to use my free beer voucher at the Woody’s Surf Shack bar in the town,

With Marit and Anna from my dorm at Woodys

meeting up with some of the girls in my room before moving on to Cheeky Monkey’s, a bar-come-nightclub where, by all accounts, pretty much anything goes.

Anything goes, apart from me, however, who got refused entry in the most bizarre circumstances. Having consumed a little leftover goon from the Fraser Island trip, as well as having my one lone free beer at the pub, I led the group to the door. I was asked for ID (which, at almost 31, is a joke anyway) and pulled out some business cards from people I have met, rather than my driving licence. Trying to get some light from a streetlamp, I leaned back to move the shadow of my head out of the way of my wallet. Somehow, shifting my weight like that meant I took a step back and I slightly stumbled on my ankle.

“Woaah, someone’s had enough tonight haven’t they?” said the bouncer, patronisingly.

“Erm, no, I’ve only had one beer,” I put back.

“They all say that mate. You’re not coming in. The police are over there, and they’ve seen I’ve refused you, so you’d better go home,” he replied.

In front of quite a few people who I have just met, the whole episode was more than slightly embarrassing. It was a public humiliation, but everyone knew I’d only been out for half an hour, and that I was just being picked on for some reason. I tried to explain, but just got the usual patronising drivel from the doorman, which ended with one of his colleagues coming over and telling me ‘my night was over’.

Sadly, when faced with that type of ridiculous security, which, quite frankly, borders on bullying, there will only ever be one winner. It was barely midnight, but I went back to the hostel and opted for an early night. I was fuming, as I’d not even had chance to meet up with my surf class inside, but at least I’d wake up fresh for my second surf lesson the next day.

Back to the surf

“Where did you get to last night,” Jag asked as I wandered into the MojoSurf shop with just a couple of minutes to go before the bus left. I explained, and he remembered how I’d sent him a text explaining when I’d got back to my room.

We spent another four hours trying to perfect how to get on the surf board, but strangely, both Jag and I found it much more difficult. The currents were stronger in the water, the waves were breaking and moving towards the shore much closer together, and many were not making it all the way to the beach without re-forming. It was frustration, but still enjoyable. The only problem was my tired and aching arms and legs – by the end of the session, and after hours of being smashed by wave after wave, I was barely able to lift myself up, let alone ‘snap up’, and instead found enjoyment cruising around on the board like a stranded dog.

Surfing is definitely something I will try again, whether its in the warmer waters abroad somewhere, or in slightly chillier waters back home. It’s a great adrenaline rush, and when you’re not leaning too far forward and faceplanting into the ocean, it’s an addictive way of spending time in the sea.

With an evening Greyhound booked, I got back to the surf shop with about an hours-worth of daylight remaining. There was still one place I wanted to reach, Byron lighthouse, which is officially Australia’s easternmost point.

Stormy scenes at Cape Byron

Jimmy, who had been one of my instructors for the day, gave me a rental bike for the change in my pocket, and, despite aching legs and a storm raging around me, I made it to the top of the nearby peninsula with time to  spare. It was a steep climb, but the views, even despite the storm clouds and rough seas, were well worth it.

Byron Bay’s famous lighthouse

An interesting fact is that the Cape Byron lighthouse, which for the past few nights I have seen blinking away from the comfort of my hostel kitchen, houses the most powerful light in Australia, visible for some 50km. Its blinking light, every 15 seconds, warns the busy shipping lanes off the coast of the dangerous coastline, and has been in place since it was built in 1901.

I wonder if they’re still together?!

It was exposed and windswept on the top of the rugged outcrop that the lighthouse sits atop of, and I watched the waves crashing onto the rocks below me. A mile or so out in the ocean, a container ship was pitching and falling on the swell, being whipped up by the offshore storm. One can only imagine what it must be like when Mother Nature puts her full force behind the weather here.

Capturing the powerful light

With darkness falling, a lack of cycle lights and another stormy shower about to blow in from the ocean, it was time to head back downhill to return the bike, collect my belongings and pack my bag back at the hostel. I had yet another free beer with Jag at Woodys Surf Shack, before heading to the bus stop for my final overnight Greyhound journey in Australia.

A final free beer with Jag in Byron

I was glad to have three days in Byron Bay, but part of me wishes I could have spent longer in the town. Its got a brilliant atmosphere about it – apart from the odd doorman here and there – and is a beautiful coastal town. In the height of summer, I can imagine it being a perfect place to spend a few lazy weeks. Everyone I met was friendly, helpful and seemed to just be happy to be living in what feels to be a very happy, cheerful town. Surfing plays a huge part in life here, and who knows, maybe one day i’ll return to ride the waves here once again.

Another overnight Greyhound about to leave Byron Bay

For now though, I’m heading to Sydney, and ultimately, my flight out of Australia. But there is one last quick stop I need to make on the way – and it’s my first visit to someone who I have met on this journey, thousands of miles away in Thailand. A familiar face awaits.

Meeting the locals in Brisbane

Koalas – grey, furry, cute, most definitely not a bear but a much loved and treasured icon of Australia.

Altogether now…ahhhh!

A trip to this vast nation wouldn’t be complete without seeing a few of the fluffy bundles, and where better than a koala sanctuary, home to well over 100 of them and on the outskirts of Brisbane.

“I am not a bear”

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is only a small place – I was budgeting for just a few hours – but ended up spending my whole afternoon there watching the animals, playing with kangaroos, and even getting a hug from a koala.

It’s a great place to visit, and somewhere that I only discovered after I checked in at the Base hostel in Brisbane city centre. A few travellers had questioned why I was staying in Brisbane for a couple of nights. “There’s not much to do there” and “Its an awful place” were just two of the comments I’d helpfully had passed my way by people on tours or on the Greyhound as I have been making my way down Australia’s east coast.

The truth is, a former colleague of mine, Andy, now lives in the city, and it would be rude to just pass by without at least trying to meet up for a coffee. And besides, when you’re travelling, a stop-off is what you make of it. That’s why, when I saw a pamphlet in the hostel reception for the koala park – and someone holding one of the little animals – it shot right to the top of my ‘to do’ list in the area.

Greyhounding down the coast

Also near the top of my list was the task of spending as much time away from my dorm room as possible. Despite paying for a 10 bed dorm, someone somewhere thought they were doing me a favour by upgrading me to a four bed dorm. The only problem was that the three others in the room, two German guys and a Russian, quite liked their eastern European hardcore trance music. Their stereo, it seems, only has ‘loud’ or ‘loudest’ as settings.

Random giant kangaroo at the service station

Without so much as a hello, or even a glance up from whatever artist they were lining up next on the laptop, I walked in, dropped my bags, attempted to make a bed and then gave up, only to walk back out again. I took myself off for a wander around the city centre, taking in the atmosphere and meandering through the busy pedestrianised area full of people enjoying meals in bars and restaurants, sports fans watching the footy on big screens, and quite a few people heading out to nightclubs.

Back in the hostel, things had quietened down, and I worked out that I had been put in a room with three workers. They were carrying out cleaning duties in the hostel, working for their accommodation, a popular way of saving money while travelling when funds run dry. It meant that they were up at the crack of dawn, banging around and turning lights on, but I needed to be up early anyway to cram more sightseeing into my short stay.

Hello!

The journey to Lone Pine involved finding a public bus and taking a half hour ride out some 15km or so to the park, but it was well worth the effort. Set up in 1927 there were initially just two koalas being cared for here, called Jack and Jill. Now its an internationally acclaimed breeding centre, the world’s oldest and largest koala sanctuary, and the kindergarten enclosure was by far one of the best bits about the day.

Adult koalas, due to their low energy diet of eucalyptus leaves, don’t move around a great deal during the day, but the kids on the other hand are full of life. Leaping around from branch to branch, chasing after each other, trying to climb the fence to escape and general juvenile fun and games means they are very entertaining to watch. You could tell they were developing personalities, even at such a young age. One koala would happily climb to the top of the enclosure, standing proud as king of his castle for hours.

I watched a presentation about the animals, where it was revealed all 130 or so koalas at the park have a name – and the staff know each and every one of them. Now, one koala to the next looks pretty similar to me, give or take a bit of fluff around the ears, or perhaps a smaller nose here and there. However, there’s a way to tell each animal apart.

You have to look at its bum.

Yes, every koala has unique markings around its bottom, lighter shades of grey or white patches arranged in special patterns amid the dark grey fur. The staff revealed they have learnt to tell all of the koalas apart by working out pictures on each of the koalas to remember them by – one of the males sitting nearby was named thanks to his markings looking like a pair of eyes.

Next it was my turn to hold and cuddle one of the koalas. For $16 (£10) you get a photograph of the moment too, and with my hands held out, palms up and crossed together, Violet was placed in my arms.

At first she looked at me, putting her arms around my shoulder and clinging on to my shirt, before she was distracted by the camera. She was the weight of a small dog, but actually felt very stable and happy in the short time she was in my arms. Her fur was short, and slightly rough, and actually felt very similar to the koala cuddly toys that are available in all the tourist shops here. I gave her a rub on the back, before I had to hand her back to the koala keeper.

With a Skippy or three

The best thing about the park is how well cared for the koalas are – they are only ever held by the public for short periods of just a few minutes every few days, and all of the animals I saw seemed so happy.

“What have you got for me?”

That included the field full of kangaroos, jumping around all over the place as the sun began to set. It is their most active time of the day, and instead of spending money on food to feed them, I pulled up some grass and held it out. They loved it, and I got quite a few of them bounding over to me.

Somehow I had whiled away an entire afternoon at the park, spending much of the time taking photographs of the koalas. I took that many, my camera died – you just never know when you’re going to get the perfect shot. Besides, they are my mum’s favourite animals, so I had to get plenty of photos to keep her happy. The afternoon was a great way, towards the end of my stay in Australia, to spend some time with some of the country’s most famous animals.

Almost lost my bag…

There was another catch-up in store the following day, when I met Andy, a former colleague of mine from when I first started at BBC Look North. He’s the man who would operate the satellite truck out on location, transmitting live reports back to the studio, and in turn, out to televisions across the north east of England.

Another city, another mate to catch up with!

We only worked together for about a year before he left for Australia, eventually settling, having a family and making a life for himself Down Under.

We’d promised to try to meet up if our busy schedules allowed it, and thankfully he’d been called into Brisbane city centre to run an errand, and so took the opportunity to meet up for coffee.

We had a great time reminiscing about my early days in the Look North newsroom, and Andy appreciated the information I had about all the recent goings on that he’d not heard about. He told me all about the exciting life he’s had here, operating satellite trucks to broadcast sports events from across the Asia Pacific area, even beaming shows such as I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here to homes back home.

“Ant and Dec’s trailer was really close to ours. They’re really nice lads, would always give you a wave and a smile,” he told me.

Andy (eighth from right) and I (right of Pudsey) at Children in Need, Lincoln 2005

He told me how I join a huge list of former and current colleagues who have visited him, with around eight or nine mutual friends that have stopped by to say hello since he left Hull in 2006, who, like me, remember a good mate despite the miles between us these days.

“Its been amazing that I’m all this way from the UK, and I might not speak to someone for months, even years, yet they’ll drop by,” he said, smiling.

He admits it can be tough being away from family and friends in his native land, especially when it comes to bringing up a young family and the extra hands close friends can lend, but he’s really happy with his life here. And with near constant sunshine, beautiful scenery and a good job, its easy to see why he’s so happy, and I’m really pleased for him.

Saying goodbye again!

After a few hours of telling each other about our current lives, and remembering some of the television projects we worked on – including my first Children in Need outside broadcast in Lincoln in 2005, Andy had to get back to work. We had a few photos in the park near my hostel, before we said goodbye and promised to stay in touch.

With my Greyhound bus set to leave in a few hours time, I booked myself on an economy cruise through the centre of Brisbane to get some shots of the city. It was, of course, my usual trick of buying a regular passenger ferry ticket and just going for a ride. It was onboard a particularly fast ferry, a ‘fast cat’ catamaran to be precise, which afforded great views of the waterfront and exclusive yachts and millionaire riverfront villas that line stretches of the river.

Brisbane

It’s the equivalent of catching the number 16 bus in Grimsby and going for a ride to Asda and back, but it’s a great, cheap way of seeing a place, as well as it being quite fun.

Brisbane’s waterfront area

The fast cat was particularly nippy, and I stood on the front deck watching the world go by for two hours, before it turned around and delivered me back into the city centre with just enough time to collect my bags and head to the coach terminal.

Yet again, I was heading south on a Greyhound, this time to Byron Bay. I’m more than halfway back to Sydney, with Byron being my last full ‘east coast’ stop before hitting the city once again and preparing to fly out of the country.

Back on the road again

Fraser Island, Yeah?

Touring Fraser Island

‘They’re my cars, yeah. Cars are not boats – they don’t float, yeah?”

The words of Al, the man tasked with telling 30-odd twenty-somethings (and some a bit older!) that a 4×4 car can’t be driven into the sea on Fraser Island.

“And don’t go swimming, yeah. I’ve seen it, you get all fuelled up on goonie juice and head off for a swim in the ocean. Get caught in a rip, yeah, and two minutes later you’re two kilometres offshore, yeah.

“You’ll be shark food, yeah,”

The ‘yeah’ thing has already been noticed by a few of us, giggling away like schoolkids every time he launches into another crescendo of his end-of-sentence punctuation.

Al, on the right, with Graham (saying ‘yeah’) and Kelly

“Show my cars a bit of respect, yeah,” goes another one in the background.

By the end of the half hour talking to – sorry, welcome – to the Fraser Island tour, we were left wondering if we’d actually be allowed to breathe without someone barking a rule – followed by a ‘yeah’ – at us.

“And don’t go feeding or petting the dingoes, yeah,” Al continues, reminding us that the island we are about to spend a couple of days on is actually overrun with wild dogs. So much so, controls are strictly enforced to prevent the dogs becoming aggressive towards humans.

So if we fail to sink the car in the ocean, get eaten by a shark, mauled by a dingo or pass out due to too much ‘goonie juice’ we should have a good time.

More goon…or ‘goonie juice’ as it shall now be known!

Its dark and raining outside at the Dingoes hostel in Rainbow Beach, where I’d arrived on the Greyhound from Airlie Beach just a few hours before. Yet again, I’m about to be put into a group of complete strangers who I will live, breathe, sightsee, cook, laugh and party with for the next 72 hours.

Fraser Island is a sightseeing tour with a difference, being on a 120km long sand island in the sea. There are no main roads, and so the only way to see the place is by jumping in a 4×4 and roaming around the place behind a tour leader in a vehicle in front. It promises to be a lot of fun, and is one the ‘must do’ attractions of the east coast.

“Phil, you’re in the A Team,” came the call, along with the obligatory theme tune from a few.

I took my seat on a table with four blokes and four girls, who were also in the A Team. They were Ryan, Alan and couple Graham and Kelly, all from Ireland, and fellow English companians Melissa, Georgia and Kate.

“I’m gutted you all want to drive – I want to be at the wheel as long as possible,” says Ryan

Everyone else basically tells him its tough, and we’re all taking it in turns.

Fraser Island by 4×4

Meanwhile, there’s confusion. There are two Phils in the room, and the other Phil is up with the leader trying to work out where he is supposed to be. They look at second names, and it turns out he’s supposed to be in the A Team rather than me, but he gives me a nod seeing that we’ve already done introductions and makes his way to the B Team. It was a similar situation with ‘our’ Alan.

“We meet at 7.30am, yeah. Don’t be late, yeah,” comes yet another order from Al.

And with that, everyone gets on with the task of getting to know everyone. Kate seems young and loud, quite fancying a bit of attention. Ryan has one of those personalities that at first can seem quite ‘in your face’ but I know I’ll warm to him. Graham and Kelly seem like a great couple, while Melissa and Georgia take a role a bit like me, quietly watching and joining in a bit of the banter. Ryan and Kelly are joking that they could be cousins.

A few of us walked to the shop to buy some snacks for the next few days, when inadvertently I put the missing part of a jigsaw in place for them. Graham asked me what I do back home, and as soon as I told him, he called out to Kelly.

“Phil’s a journalist for the BBC,” he says.

“No way, do you know my aunt, Donna Traynor? She works for the BBC in Belfast,” Kelly asks.

And with that, Ryan pipes up about how he’s also related to the BBC Newsline presenter.

“So, we’re cousins,” he excitedly shouts in his broad Irish accent!

Incredibly, on the other side of the world, two people had been put with each other and worked out that somewhere along the line they are related.

With supplies of Doritos, biscuits and drinks, we headed back, with Ryan telling anyone and everyone that he’s found his cousin. We were already laughing and joking, enjoying banter between us. I think we’ll get on just fine!

Al giving the early morning briefing

After another early morning briefing, we got on with the task of loading up our vehicles and preparing for the trip. We were introduced to Shane, our guide, a typically shade-clad, cap-wearing, chisel-chinned Aussie who seems up for a good time with us all.

Al stepped in to give us a briefing on how to steer, followed by instructions on how not to lock the doors and keep the keys in the ignition at all times.

“Drop the key in the sand, yeah, and it’ll be gone. Then you’ll be stuck for a day before I get a new car to you, yeah.” We all nodded.

And we’re off!

Before long we were on our way, with Melissa taking the controls for the first leg to the island, involving a short 15 minute ferry crossing. Sadly, Kate took control of DJ duty and put Justin Bieber on, but thankfully we arrived at the sea crossing to spare us any more.

On the boat to Fraser

The first sight of the island included the ominous view of a Jeep that had become stuck fast in the sand, with around 50 people trying to shift the thing. Maybe all of Al’s orders and driving tips were needed after all. (Yeah..)

Hitting the beach…with wheels

But we were on Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island measuring in at around 75 miles long, 15 miles wide and made up of rainforests, woodland, mangroves, swamps and heaths. Its sand has been accumulating on a base of volcanic bedrock for some three quarters of a million years, and some of that volcanic rock juts out at impressive lookouts like Indian Head.

Lake McKenzie

Most of the hills on the island have simply been formed by sand dunes growing and growing as wind blows more and more sand onto them, while there is also some incredibly pure fresh water from springs, and our first stop took us to one such place, Lake McKenzie, said to be one of the cleanest lakes in the world. Like the Whitsundays, the sand is almost brilliant white, a result of it being almost pure silica.

Braving the chilly water in Lake McKenzie

The lake is also impressively cold, but most of us braved the water, opting to run and dive to get the icy blast over with as soon as possible.

My A Team family enjoying the water

It was very refreshing, and nice that for once it wasn’t saltwater – there was no taste when it went into your mouth, and you actually feel clean when you can’t take the chill anymore and finally climb out.

After a few hours of getting to know everyone in the rest of the group – or should I say, getting to know who would annoy everyone – on the beach beside the lake, it was time to move on. We got back into the car, with the windows down, only for one young lad in a neighbouring vehicle called Adam, really push himself to the top of the annoying list by spraying a whole load of goon (cheap wine) through our open window and all over Ryan and I.

Now, while I went for the ‘stare’ technique of showing how little I was amused, Ryan – who has bigger muscles, and who looks a little fiercer than me when he needs to – ripped a shred off him by telling Adam exactly how he felt. His card had been marked with a firm but fair warning to behave!

Beautiful lakes on Fraser Island

Back out to the beach, and to Fraser’s informal highways. There are 80km/h speed limits on the beach, with normal ‘keep left’ rules of the road applying. It’s a great way to travel, and I could spend hours just gazing out of the window as we cruised along the shore, waves lapping just a few metres away from the wheels below us.

Dingo dos and don’ts

All along, we were on the lookout for dingoes, the wild dogs that have a reputation, perhaps unfairly gained, for being aggressive and dangerous towards humans. Unique to Australia, the island is famous for having some of the only remaining ‘pure’ dingoes in the continent, and while there have been a handful of cases where the animals have attacked humans – including a couple of deaths as a result – on the whole they tend to stay away.

“I’m starting to think it’s a bit of a myth,” said a couple of the girls in the car as we were driving along.

Having seen a few near Uluru a few weeks ago on the drive back to Alice Springs, I know they are far from a myth, and I’m confident we’ll see some before we return.

An electrified dingo trap, keeping campsites safe

Back at base camp, it was dinner time, and the A Team is quickly becoming a family. We made a trip to the shops together, buying a few snacks for the evening, while also investing in some plastic cups due to the lack of drinking vessels available at the camp site.

Its Phil’s cup!

With a permanent pen, we marked them with our names. The fact I’d written ‘Phil’s cup’ around the outside of mine caused a few giggles, and we’d protect them for all they were worth over the next couple of days to prevent any cup theft from ruining our much loved cuppas.

When it came to mealtimes, we would all find our jobs to do – some would prepare, some would cook, while Graham and I opted to help out with cleaning duties on the first night. After just a small sandwich for lunch, itself eaten at 11.30am, we were ready for the steaks that Alan had managed to cook perfectly considering the facilities, and we sat around a table together to eat, laughing and joking about the day’s events, and with more than a few ‘yeahs’ thrown in for good measure.

Mealtime fun. ‘Who likes tomatoes?’ Silence.

In the room next door, the younger contingent on the trip had already begun passing out from too much ‘goonie juice,’ to coin Al’s phrase, and it was barely past 6pm. A few of us joined in the drinking games, but most of the time was passed playing pool with some of the worst cues I’ve ever had the misfortune to play with. I never knew they could fray so much at one end, with one having a tip about the size of a 50p with all the wood that had folded back on itself. It was certainly a challenge.

At the wheel!

After a short stay at a creek in the morning, it was my turn to take the wheel and drive ‘the family’ around for a bit. Despite my love of driving – and I like to think I’m fairly good at it – I got off to one of the worst starts of the lot of us by getting us stuck and then stalling the engine in the deep sand.

Ryan: “Phil, remember, cars are not boats, yeah?”

Thankfully, I got it going again fairly promptly and, giving it beans, powered out with some revs and down to the wet shore where I ignored Al’s advice to keep it out of fifth gear (‘Forget about fifth, yeah, you won’t be needing that. Yeah?)

Approaching the wreck of the Maheno

The drive also happened to be one of the shortest of the trip, to the wreck of the Maheno, a Scottish-built Edwardian liner that was washed up onto the beach in 1935. With the weather closing in, the outline of the shipwreck appeared as a dark outline through the sea spray and the rain on the horizon, its full size and scale only becoming clear once I’d pulled over and parked up near the site.

The Maheno being launched (Copyright http://www.clydebuiltships.co.uk)

The SS Maheno was built in 1905 as a luxury liner for crossings of the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia. She was used as a hospital ship during the First World War,

The Maheno as a hospital ship

serving in the Mediterranean, Gallipoli and the English Channel, before returning to work as a luxury liner in peacetime.

In 1935, the ship was declared outdated, and on June 25, 1935, the ship was being towed from Melbourne to Japan for scrap metal when it was caught in a strong cyclone. A few days later she drifted ashore and was beached on the eastern shores of Fraser Island.

The Maheno in her final resting place

It wasn’t the end of her military service, however, even being stranded on the island. During the Second World War, the wreck served as target bombing practice for the Royal Australian Air Force.

The A Team family and the Maheno – Alan, Graham, Kelly, Me, Ryan, Kate, Georgia and Melissa

Since then, she’s become a tourist attraction, with most people who have visited the island having a photograph of themselves by the wreck. It was a fascinating place to get atmospheric and creative shots, and to gaze and wonder at the journeys the rusting hulk in front of me had made. It was hard to believe there was another three storeys of the ship hidden, buried below the sand.

With dark clouds getting thicker above, we made our way further along the beach, to Indian Head, offering spectacular views of the ocean, and to the champagne pools, which were not very ‘champagne-like’ thanks to a low tide.

View from Indian Head

The prayers of the dingo hunters were answered at a shop stop on the way back to the camp, with one of the wild dogs showing up to please the group. From a distance, all was well, the dog even yawning and almost posing for photographs from the intrigued group milling around.

Dingo dangers!

That was until he got up, walked meaningfully towards the group and sent everyone scattering to their cars. While I didn’t dive into a car like most, I must admit it was slightly unnerving to come face to face with a famously unpredictable animal as it came to within a metre or two of my legs. It seemed to be showing everyone who was boss, and then seemed quite chuffed with itself for managing to send an entire tour group back into their cars. He soon wandered off down the road, having given us all the chance to take some photos and prove once and for all that dingoes call the shots on the island.

Bingo! A dingo

That evening it was my turn to cook, knocking up a stir fry with the remaining ingredients from our food rations,

Dinnertime!

before having a few drinks and heading down to the beach for an impromptu beach party. With 4×4 headlamps as the lighting, goonie juice as the drink of choice and a car battery-powered stereo system providing the music, it was a great way to round off the day. I spent much of the night with Ryan, who has become a really good mate in such a short space of time, and Susie, a German girl who was in my dorm before we left Rainbow Beach, but who has spent the last few days with a carload of blokes!

With Ryan and Susie at the beach party

The fun you can have with a beach and car headlamps

With the end of the trip upon us, and a slightly fuzzy head from too much cheap wine, we packed away our belongings into the cars and prepared to head off for more sightseeing before an early ferry back to the mainland. Suddenly there was a voice directed at me.

“There’s no point getting in there. There’s a blue cushion missing from the sofa thanks to your lot. Go and help them look for it.”

It was the owner of the campsite, and he didn’t look happy. And because he wasn’t happy, he clearly forgot to talk to us like adults.

“You’re not going anywhere until it’s found,” he chipped in, before herding me out towards the back of the building.

I resisted the temptation to ask him to put my flights back a bit, just incase the blue cushion doesn’t turn up.

After much walking around, searching everywhere from the campfire site to the kitchen, from the sand dunes to the dingo traps, even underneath the building, the much missed blue cushion didn’t turn up. Better still, despite most of the group having had a fairly rowdy last night, I don’t think anyone had anything to do with its disappearance.

Family outing!

Neither did Shane, our tour guide, who decided that enough was enough after wasting half an hour looking for the foam-filled fixture that we were heading off whether the camp owners liked it or not. It’s a move that, apparently, sealed him a ban from the campsite with any future tour groups, but we headed off towards Lake Wabby and leaving the slightly patronising volunteers and manager to look for their beloved cushion. It turns out the other group who left before us possibly took it.

Sand dunes on Fraser

A long walk through a rainforest and over a breathtaking expanse of sand led us to Lake Wabby, where we’d been advised against running down the steep dune into the water. In the words of Al: “You’ll break your neck, yeah,”

Lake Wabby

Instead, some of the group rolled down on their sides, while our A Team family relaxed near the top with a view overlooking the lake, making various shapes with the sand over our feet.

Ryan and his, erm, creative talents

The rain, however, brought any further relaxation to an abrupt halt, and instead sent us running for the walkway back to the vehicles. Drenched, tired and done with sightseeing, we caught the ferry back to Rainbow Beach and enjoyed a couple of jugs of free beer with dinner.

It was time for us all to say goodbye. In just a couple of days, we had become a close-knit group. We’ll definitely be staying in touch, and with a few heading over to New Zealand, there’s a chance we could meet again in the next few weeks. We’ve agreed there are reunions planned for both Hull and Ireland, where I’m sure we’ll relive our memories of dodging dingoes, glugging goon and searching for a stupid cushion.

Farewell family beers

It was a shame the weather wasn’t kinder to us, but it was a brilliantly enjoyable three days of driving around what is a beautiful island, among some great new friends and with a lot of fun banter.

Had we had a great time? Yeah!

A wave goodbye from Ryan as he, and the rest of our group, head off in different directions

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

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

Bye Bye Ballarat

Saying goodbye

A few people have asked me what is the hardest thing about travelling. Is it the language barriers perhaps? The constant moving around and lack of routine? Naff hostels and a lack of sleep? Or how about being away from family and friends back home?

My farewell to Ballarat was by far the hardest one of the trip so far, and if I’m honest, is likely to keep that dubious honour until I return home.

Plainly speaking, it became a home away from home, thanks to some fantastically brilliant people, without whom I would probably be back at my real home in Hull right now.

Sturt Street, Ballarat, in the rain

I had initially planned to spend a weekend in Ballarat, the city in Victoria that was home to the gold rush of the 1800s, and the location of the Eureka Stockade, which still holds the accolade of being Australia’s only civil conflict. I came to visit my friend Nat, who many moons ago I worked with on the go-kart activity at a children’s summer camp in New York. We would spend hours talking about our little towns back home, myself about Grimsby and its fishing history, while Nat would talk of a similar sounding small town a few hours from Melbourne.

The old mining exchange, Ballarat

I remember at the time thinking of the far-off land, hearing all about her friends back home and building a picture in my head of a Wild West setting from a bygone era. How little did I know that 10 years on, that little town of Ballarat would take a special place in my own heart, a place that I would learn to navigate my way around, make my own lifelong friends, have so much fun and laughter, and, albeit for a short time, I would become a part of the community.

My weekend visit might have lasted almost three months, but it was time to say goodbye.

My extended stay meant I got to know Nat’s circle of friends, including Jess, who for the past few weeks I have also been staying with, along with her daughter Liv and playful little dog Cleo. It was Jess who introduced me to Nathan, the owner of the Lake View hotel, where I would earn some pocket money to help out with my financial strife thanks to a missing lodger back home. It was also Jess who would give me lifts, lend me her car, feed me, provide internet access and generally pick me up when things got a little tough over the past few weeks.

Together, Nat, Jess, Liv and their mutual friend James made sure I kept to my original travel plans, amid thoughts at one point of packing my backpack and returning home to sort out the problems in person. Thankfully, my parents have also been helping out back in the UK, and I’m pleased to say that gradually the issue is being rectified.

But the support meant we had all grown really close, and despite knowing that one day I would have to start moving on again, I don’t think we’d realised just how hard it would be.

Raising a glass

It ended up being a week of goodbyes with others too. I had made a lot of friends at the Lake View bar and restaurant, and as it happened, Mitch, one of the supervisors who guided me through my first few days there, was also leaving, heading off to run a bar on the Greek island of Eos for the European summer. It meant there were farewell drinks to be had all round, especially as he is close to Jess’s mum Rosie and the family.

There was no better place for it than the Lake View after Mitch’s final shift, especially thanks to a ridiculous number of coffee loyalty cards, offering a free glass of wine, that Rosie had saved for a special occasion. It produced some of the finest bartering I have ever seen between Rosie and Glen and Lachie from the bar, who settled for four cards in payment for a bottle of wine.

With Rosie, Jess and Liv (far right) family and Lachie

I volunteered myself as the designated driver for the night, and after vast numbers of coffee cards had traded hands for equally vast glasses of wine, Mitch made his way to his official leaving bash at the Seymours pub in the town. Glen and Lachie used the increasingly sozzled ladies as guinea pigs for some of their new cocktails and punch, before I drove them home at around 9pm.

With Jess heading to bed early, I decided to say goodbye to Mitch and the Lake View staff at his leaving drinks, and set out to allow myself one beer before driving back and having an early one myself. I had a lot to do in the short time I had left in Ballarat, and was planning to allow myself at least one day in Melbourne before making my way north.

Lachie welcomes me to the pub!

I arrived at Seymours to a cry of ‘Pom Pom’ from Lachie, who has become a good mate during my time in the city. It was closely followed by “you’re coming out for beers with us,” and I didn’t need much persuading. I drove the car back to Jess’s house, hailed a taxi and made my way back to the bar where the party was in full swing. Mitch was still somehow able to string sentences together, despite the copious amounts of alcohol that had been passed his way, while one of his mates, Chris, the owner of Seymours, came over to me to say hello.

Mitch (the one leaving!), other Mitch, and Chris

I’d got to know Chris from some of my first few days in Ballarat, when I discovered that his pub had some of the best free wifi I had managed to find in the area. I spent many an afternoon in there, lasting out a coffee for hours and sometimes stretching to a lemon lime and bitters as a treat. I would sit in the same seat in a corner of the bar area, where I was initially told there was the best wifi signal. A couple of weeks later, looking for something to occupy my time, I ended up doing a trial shift in there, and laughed as it was referred to as ‘my corner’.

Sending Mitch off to Greece

After a detour to the Bridge, another pub nearby, when I mistakenly thought everyone had left, Seymours officially closed for the night. Except, we were all still in it – and the doors had been locked! Chris opened up the bar as a treat, and from around midnight until 4am, Lachie made it his mission to pour as many alcoholic drinks down my throat as possible.

Oh dear...

The cider and shots were interspersed with goodbyes, as people dropped by the wayside and disappeared into the night. There was the lovely Miranda, who until I arrived in Ballarat had never spoken to an English person.

Miranda with an Englishman!

“Your accent is so funny,” she’d giggle, normally as Mitch would purposely get me to talk to her.

Then there was Kelli, who bounded over to give me a huge hug when I saw her in the Bridge, and who promptly fell about laughing as I tried to perform the Inbetweeners dance. Badly.

Back at Seymours, there was a guy called Tungy who I spent a large chunk of the night talking to, while his girlfriend Rose, who used to serve me those long drawn out coffees back when I was fleecing the wifi, was a lot of fun and great to party with.

The Lake View and Seymours staff bash for Mitch

With round after round of multicoloured shots, glasses raised to Mitch and I for our travels, and Lachie filling up my glass with cider every time there was room for a drop more, the night flew by.

Yet another round of shots

And that’s where it all gets sketchy. What I do know is that Lachie and everyone else succeeded in giving me one heck of a send off – and the worst hangover since my university days.

Pouring our own drinks at the bar

I have little memory of anything from between 2am until 2pm the following day, when I awoke from a coma to be sick once again. Jess took great delight in telling me all the details of how my 4am dash to the bathroom woke the house. Sick as a dog, calling for help and passing out on the toilet floor with my legs wrapped around the bowl wasn’t the lasting memory I had set out to leave my Ballarat family with, but, thankfully, Jess and Liv found it hilarious.

Tempting me again. It was all Lachie's fault!

Its not my style to get into such a state, and at this point I have to stress i’m not proud of it, but it has been a long, long time since I have been anywhere close to as ill as I was. Part of me still thinks it might be something i’d eaten, but then I would say that. At least I’d managed to apologise in the midst of it all – “I’m so sorry, its all Lachie’s fault,” was apparently my repetitive whimper, closely followed by “I don’t want to be sick anymore.” Classy!

I paid the price in more ways than the mother of all hangovers too – I was unable to move from my bed until 6.30pm the following day, which meant I’d lost my extra day in Melbourne, and already word had spread around town about my antics. On the upside, James had awarded me 100 of his citizenship points towards becoming an honorary Australian for having a typically Aussie night out.

Thankfully, I was fully recovered for my send-off dinner the following day, which, I’m glad to say, was a much more dignified affair. Nat, Jess, Liv, James and our friend Jane, mum to the adorable 18-month-old Lucy that we had many hours of laughs with, all dressed up for dinner at The Boatshed restaurant on Lake Wendouree.

Presents all round!

I was armed with gifts for Nat, Jess and Liv, just small tokens of my appreciation for all they had done for me. I’d got Nat some flowers and the My Kitchen Rules cookbook, the official book of the television series we had both got into a routine of watching when I first arrived. For Jess, who is a huge fan of music, I chose an Ipod FM transmitter, so that she can listen to her Iphone playlists, that she would often belt out from the bathroom, in the car.

A card and gift for Jess

Liv was an easy one – she’s a fan of all things sweet, and after tempting me with gobstoppers and Nerds (remember them!) over the last few weeks, I bought a couple of the biggest boxes I could find, along with a giant box of Lindt chocolates. I also put in something special for her relating to my job back home. Having watched some of my stories online, taken the mickey out of some of my on-screen hand gestures, asked countless questions about the BBC and my work, there was only one thing I could give her – my BBC lanyard.

I make a habit of taking my journalist identification everywhere with me, and this trip was no exception. Afterall, you just never know when or where the big story of a lifetime could fall into your lap, and when you might just need that bit of proof that you are who you say you are when you need access to a story. It was still attached to my lanyard that I wear around my neck off screen, and I knew she’d love it.

Liv, my hoody and her non-edible present!

I was right, she proudly wore it for the rest of the night. Sometimes, it’s the smallest gestures that mean the most – and if my bosses are reading this, I’ll pay for a new one!

Speaking of great gestures, I had a lovely surprise bag of gifts myself from Nat, complete with an Australian flag, a stubby holder, a pen and lanyard, and best of all, a selection of Aussie foods and snacks to keep me going through my long days of travelling ahead.

A funny note and drawings from Nat

There was a moving letter and card, complete with drawings of all of us and some of the sayings that have become commonplace between us, cause of a lot of laughter in the time I have been here.

It was a brilliant night, I had a delicious porterhouse steak, some beautiful wine and had a thoroughly memorable final evening with everyone, rounded off with drinks at the Lake View.

My Ballarat family - Jane, James, Jess, Me, Nat and Liv

It was already getting hard, knowing the inevitable departure was growing ever closer, but finally packing my bags again after almost three months of routine made it sink in a little more that I was on my way again.

Liv getting a taste for backpacking...once she'd managed to lift the bags!

After lunch in the city centre, we headed back to Jess’s to pick up my bags and to say goodbye to another part of ‘our family’ of recent weeks, in the form of Cleo the dog.

A last cuddle for Cleo

She’d clearly picked up on something in the last day or so, and had become very clingy around me, following me around the house and jumping up for cuddles at every opportunity. She was sniffing around my bags and looking at me with sad eyes for much of my departure day, and with one last tummy tickle I said farewell, with a promise that I’d give her a wave and a whistle on Skype.

And so I found myself on the platform at Ballarat station once again, only this time I had a one-way ticket to Melbourne in my hand. It didn’t seem real that I wouldn’t be coming back, and I was gutted to be saying goodbye to three people that have become so close to me.

Moving on...much to Liv's delight!!

Farewell Nat

There wasn’t a dry eye around as we all had one last group hug. I kissed each on the head, thanked them one last time, and then the doors of the 4:11pm train to Melbourne closed. The engine revved, the brakes let go, and we slowly drifted out of the station with Nat, Liv and Jess running alongside, waving. And then they disappeared out of sight.

As the Ballarat suburbs turned into the bush outside, I thought back to my early days in Australia back in February. I was supposed to head to Mount Gambier to help out at a roadhouse in return for board and lodge, but got let down at the last minute. I was only told the day before I was due to fly, but I decided to go to Melbourne as planned. I fell back on the whole theory that everything happens for a reason…and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Without that last minute change, there would have been no visit to the Australian Grand Prix, no music festival, no incredible body surfing on Bells Beach, and the guys at the Lake View would have merely been staff who brought me a coffee.

Instead, I leave Ballarat with a whole new set of close friends, some of whom I’m sure I will stay in touch with for life. I hope to see many of them again, perhaps welcoming them to my home and returning many of the favours that have been offered to me during the past few months.

Finally, i’m dedicating this post to Nat. Ten years ago, like me, she took a leap of faith and travelled to a childrens’ summer camp, Camp Nashopa, in upstate New York. Neither of us had any idea how to run the go-kart activity, nor how to fix an engine, but somehow, by chance or otherwise, we travelled from our respective sides of the globe and ended up sharing a brilliant few months together. At the end we said our goodbyes knowing the likelihood was we wouldn’t see each other again.

While it was sad back then, it’s also the beauty of being a traveller – a promise to stay in touch can be broken or kept. To keep it means there will always be a door open for you somewhere in the world. Ten years on, our friendship was as strong as ever. We might only message each other once in a blue moon, and last saw each other seven years ago, but Nat helped to save me from returning home early by offering me a place to stay.

Her support and encouragement to stay in Ballarat led to some fantastic experiences, some brilliant days out, laughter like there was no tomorrow and the discovery of lemon-lime and bitters, peanut butter with honey on toast, and the most delicious chicken parma.

But much more than any of that, she introduced me to some of the most generous, kind-hearted and amazing people I could ever wish to meet. People who looked after me, supported me, took me under their wing and gave me a place I could call home. To Nat, Jess, Liv and James for all you’ve done for me, to all at the Lake View for the fun and laughs, and to everyone in Ballarat who made me feel so welcome, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I will miss you dearly.

The hardest thing about travelling? Saying goodbye.

Bye for now xxx