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

A ‘latte’ good times

Enjoying the last days of summer in Ballarat

After months of life on the road and living from a backpack, my time in Ballarat has almost been like a holiday away from the travelling circuit.

It has given me some time to develop a sense of normality and routine, a town I can call home for a while, and new friends I can develop lasting bonds with.

A few people have asked me why I seem to have got stuck in one place in Australia. While it was always my intention to stay around the Melbourne area for when Matt and Siobhan arrived, the simple fact is I had to seriously sort out my financial situation thanks to an errant lodger back home. I was owed months of rent, and it had left a huge hole in my finances. I came within a whisker of returning home.

Earning my keep

However, that side of travelling is hopefully sorting itself out, and in the meantime I was lucky to have friends in Ballarat who were happy for me to stay for free. Besides, I had fitted in really well with Nat’s group of friends, especially with Jess, her daughter Liv and friend James, who all know each other through their paramedic course at the university in the city. From the moment we all first met, we’ve been bantering and laughing together – its like I have known them for years.

Paramedic practice: "Er, Phil, you've got to lay off the Tim Tams"

So, what else have I been up to? Well, Ive been getting to know the locals, learning how to make ‘proper’ coffee, washed an ambulance, pulled a few pints and even squeezed in a game of squash.

Washing an ambulance, something I wasn't expecting on my travel 'done' list

Its certainly been a busy few months, a huge chunk of it I spent at one of the leading bar and restaurants in the town, The Lake View. Overlooking the huge lake Wendouree, it’s a great location and seen as a cool place to hang out by students from the nearby university, workers from the city and many of the locals who take leisurely walks or jogs around the lake.

The Lake View hotel

I ended up helping out at the Lake View, and got to know the owner Nathan really well, as well as a great bunch of staff who became friends. I was soon affectionately christened as Pom Pom by Nathan and Lachy, one of the supervisors, and the name stuck. Another supervisor, Mitch, showed me the ropes and where everything was in the restaurant, as well as taking me through my first coffee using the proper espresso coffee machine.

With boss Nathan (left) and Glen behind the bar at the 'Lakey'

Coffee is a huge deal in Australia these days, probably on a par with America, but there isn’t much of a reliance on the huge chains like the Starbucks and the Costas like over there. Instead, there is much more of a café culture, with many private and independent coffee shops, where the quality is excellent. And its taken seriously too – those who serve coffee, or baristas as they’re known, have often completed special courses to learn the trade.

It’s a far cry from back in my own hospitality days, working at Pizza Hut and catering agencies to fund myself through college and university, where people were happy with button-pressed, machine-made coffee and cappuccino. Nowadays, standards are so high, coffee shops have to make sure their drinks are the best around. Its for that reason I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the coffee machine when it comes to making drinks for customers. It also gave me a newfound appreciation of the art of coffee making. Trust me, its not as easy as they make it look.

With Mitch and my first ever latte!

And so, during a quiet afternoon, Mitch showed me the ropes, starting with perhaps the hardest part of coffee making – frothing the milk. This is the bit that makes all the noise in the coffee shops, the distinctive bubbly, hissing, whooshing noise as a powerful jet of steam stretches out a jug of common, everyday milk. To an onlooker, it looks really easy to do – just stick the steam wand in, turn it on and let it do its stuff.

Wrong.

Four jugs of wasted milk later, and with a hand from Mitch, I managed to get something that resembled properly frothed milk. It’s a fine art, using your hands to judge the temperature of the milk, while simultaneously getting the milk to rotate in the jug, and at the same time lowering the milk so that the steam works its way through, ‘stretching’ it out and giving it a lovely silky texture. It only takes a few seconds, but it can quite easily result in a milk explosion as it whizzes around inside the jug, up the sides, goes all out of control and rockets out of the top. It makes for a fair bit of cleaning up.

Next up was the actual coffee part – getting the ground beans into the group handle. There’s a lot to be done right here, from making sure the handle part is clean and dry before you put the coffee in, to making sure the outer part of the head is free from grounds, and of course making sure you put the right amount into it in the first place. Two to three pulls on the grinder handle deposits enough to fill it, and with a tap and a press down with a tamper, it’s good to go onto the espresso machine.

I won't be putting Starbucks out of business anytime soon! My first latte!

It’s a process that takes just seconds for the pros, but with so much technique to try to remember, it takes me substantially longer. It doesn’t always go quite right either – too little in the way of coffee, and it’ll be too weak coming out of the machine. Pack in too much, and the machine will struggle to push the water through, burning the coffee. If there are any grounds around the connector, it will also impair the flavour.

With it all connected up, speed is crucial to avoid ruining the coffee. With a latte glass positioned under the spout, I press the one cup button and the dark brown liquid begins to pour out. While its doing its stuff, there’s enough time to tap the jug a little, to get rid of some of the bigger bubbles, before removing the freshly brewed coffee from the machine.

Its then a simple case of pouring the milk into the coffee.

Wrong again.

Trying to make a latte proved to be tricky. I found it hard to give the coffee a good head (behave yourselves), but in my mind it still tasted ok. In the end, I was shown a number of different ways to do it, all of which involved various tricks of keeping the milk pouring, hitting the side of the glass with the pour, shaking it as I poured, using a spoon to hold froth back or just going a bit more gung ho and dumping the milk in, somehow leaving it perfect. I usually ended up pouring it in two parts and hoping for the best.

I made that!

I did, however, start to knock out  a few decent cappuccinos having got my head around the milk-making technique, even getting a “Not bad Pom Pom” from Mitch. I was never going to start threatening Starbucks with my skills, but it was enough to make myself a cuppa from time to time!

It was Nathan, one of the owners, that perhaps gave me the greatest piece of advice however.

“Pom Pom, never forget to wipe your wand. Always remember to wipe your wand when you’ve used it,” he smiled while making yet more milk, putting a few cheeky smiles on everyone else’s face who was stood nearby. A priceless bit of advice – it stops milk burning and sticking itself onto the metal rod!

Lachy at the Lakey

Its been a brilliant few months getting to know everyone at the Lake View, both the staff and its many regular customers. One of them, Margie, would be waiting at the doors for us to open at 7am some mornings, but without fail she would put a smile on mine and everyone else’s face. She’s retired, always smartly dressed, loves a latte (but not too hot!) and does a mean crossword. She would always be asking me about my travels, my life back home and where I was heading next, and she had a wicked Aussie sense of humour too.

I’ve got to know many of the locals, often intrigued by what brought an Englishman so far off the beaten backpacker track to Ballarat, and I’d spend a lot of time explaining my overland journey to Australia to ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the wide-eyed customers, who would often give me invaluable travel tips for their country. The staff too would be intrigued about my situation, especially when word started getting out that I was ‘on the telly’ back home.

“So, the rumour is that you’re a television reporter back home, and now you’re here doing our dishes. How did that happen?” was one particularly great line from Danny, one of the chefs, as I was running countless plates and pans through the potwash one day.

It made me laugh. I’d not really talked about my career back home, mainly as it seems so far away right now, but I could totally see his point. As I was scraping yet more nachos from a bowl, I thought about what Danny had said. This time last year I was covering top stories on the BBC news, and now I’m scraping food scraps off plates and getting covered in baked bean juice. But perhaps contrary to what some must have thought, I didn’t feel the work was ‘beneath me’. Infact, it was quite the opposite – I was happy, its something completely different, and it reminded me of my times through college and uni when I’d spend hours pushing plates through a Pizza Hut dishwasher and serving customers.

A cheeky wave from a regular at the Lake View!

The fact is, while I have got a fantastic job back home that I’ve worked so hard for, I was just so happy to be meeting an entirely different set of people and serving the public. It was great, just for a while, to be having a laugh and some banter with customers again, just like what I used to do before my journalism days, without a tight deadline hanging over me. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what this trip was all about, meeting new people, new environments and finding new ways to spend my time.

When I wasn’t serving in the bar or restaurant, I’d often be in there with Jess and James, who have become very close friends during my time in the city.

Taken just before Cleo deleted a whol

I’m currently staying at Jess’s house with her and her 12-year-old daughter Liv, and their little Taco Terrier Cleo, who is an adorable three year old Chihuahua cross. She’s an affectionate little thing, always bounding up to me as I walk into the house and following everyone around. She’ll usually sleep on (or in!) your bed at night, with a particularly good technique for hogging the mattress, and is constantly looking for hugs and cuddles. As I’m writing this post, she’s snoozing on my lap, only waking for an occasional glance up at me or my netbook screen.

Out for a walk. Cleo came too

Nat, Liv and I all went for a walk around Lake Wendouree on one particularly sunny Sunday, a good 6km meander around the water. We took Cleo for the walk, who particularly enjoyed a quick jog alongside me. It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos of the beautiful setting that I have been fortunate to look out over most days that I have been in the city.

Black swans on Lake Wendouree

There was also a chance to have a look at the Olympics commemorative area, close to the rowing finishing line on the lake. It had been used in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for the rowing events, and as such a little garden has been set up, complete with a statue of the Olympic flame.

Olympics finish line

There was also a great feature that had been set in place during a visit by many of the medal winners from the games, which included hand and feet imprints in stone left by the Olympians. It gave us a few laughs putting all of our hands into the huge imprints left by some, obviously big hands help out with the oars!

Olympics? Woof.

I also had a day trip into Melbourne to keep me busy, thanks to the saga of Matt and Siobhans clothes that got left in the campervan before they flew out to New Zealand. It involved a train ride into the suburbs from Ballarat, changing at the delightfully named town of Sunshine. It’s a shame that particularly high levels of crime in the area have earned it the nickname of Scumshine, but every time I pass through I can’t help but smile at the thought of giving people your address as living in Sunshine.

Clothes recovery exercise for Matt and Siobhan. Mission Accomplished!

Having recovered the clothes, I decided to catch up with a few friends in the city, both of whom I had met during my travels. First was Rosie, a graphic designer who was my dive buddy during my Padi diving course in Thailand. I made my way to Balaclava, another smile-provoking named area of the city, where I grabbed a coffee and sat in the sun before Rosie arrived, bounding down the street with a hug and laughs.

We caught up over drinks, reminiscing about our time on Koh Tao as we learned how to dive in January. She laughed about how it was strange for her to be meeting up with me in her home city, her own travelling days over for now. She took me to the beautifully manicured botanical gardens, and we laid in the sun chatting, laughing and talking about our respective travels and experiences since we’d said goodbye on a dusty Thai street a few months ago.

Chilling with Rosie

“Its funny being with someone who is still backpacking in my own city,” she remarked as we made our way through the lovely streets of St Kilda towards the beach, stopping off at a bottleshop for a six pack of cider. They were crucial ingredients for the next activity.

Bryce on St Kilda beach

We were on our way to meet another friend of mine, Bryce, the Canadian guy who I spend a lot of time with in Thailand. We first met in Chiang Mai, spending time together on a trip to the zoo, and ended up hiring motorbikes and making the ill-fated scooter road trip to Pai together. We also met up again over the New Year period, and having thought we’d parted ways for good on Koh Phangan, now he had just arrived in Melbourne for his own Australian adventure.

Introducing Rosie to Beersbie

As usual, there was a game of Beersbie on offer, the self-styled game that Bryce has invented and promotes on his website beersbie.com. I wrote about it here from when we played it in Koh Phangan on New Years Eve, and while the teams were somewhat smaller here, it was just as much fun.

I taught Rosie the rules, and we played as the sun began to set. Considering Rosie and Bryce had never met before, everyone hit it off, fuelled by a few errant Frisbee throws and catches that results in the inevitable punishment of a swig from the cider bottle. It’s a cracking drinking game with friends, all taking it in turns to knock the opposite team’s can off its post.

Taking aim

We were also blessed with a fantastic sunset over the water, by far the best sunset I had seen since leaving Thailand. The sky changed through almost every colour of pink, red and purple before the huge orange sun disappeared over the horizon. All along the beach, people could be seen armed with cameras and mobile phones, capturing the moment. It was obviously one to remember, even for the locals.

The sun goes down on the game

Wow!

Rosie and I said goodbye to Bryce as we made our way back into the city, feeling the effects of three stubbies of cider each. Rosie had been invited to the opening night of an art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. We went along, partly for the offer of free food and wine.

If I’m honest, I didn’t think much to the art. Its probably because I just don’t ‘get it’. I appreciate a nice painting, and the masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso admittedly knocked out a couple of nice pieces, but I’m not one of those who can stare at pictures and ‘see’ the meanings of it all. Especially when one of the ‘pieces of art’ was a picnic that had been laid out on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs of the masterpiece, and somehow I resisted the temptation just to tidy it all away.

There was some particularly good cheese on offer that I gorged on, along with a glass of red, and while everyone was smartly dressed with the odd suit here and there, I flip-flopped around in my shorts and beach t-shirt looking every bit the freeloader that I was. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t the one marvelling at a picnic as if it had life-changing significance.

Thankfully, Rosie and I both had the same thoughts about the exhibition, and we both had a few giggles at having to behave and talk to others in the gallery as if I knew exactly what I was on about. I didn’t have a clue, of course, but then art is down to individual taste. Unfortunately, the only taste I developed during our half hour stay was that for a good Danish Blue.

After another beer at a nearby pub, I left Rosie with some of her friends and came within a whisker of missing the last train back to Ballarat, but it had been an excellent day out. With Matt and Siobhan’s clothes safely in hand, I snoozed my way back to the ‘Rat’ and looked forward to more times in Melbourne.

I’ll be back again soon enough – it wont be long now before I hit the road again and make my way around Australia.

St Kilda, and the end of a great day