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

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

Everybody needs good Neighbours

Rack off Bouncer!

Ramsay Street has seen some dramas in its time – and somehow I became involved in one.

While Kylie and Jason, Mrs Mangle and Bouncer the dog have lived out their lives on the famous street, within moments of arriving there, Matt, Siobhan and I found ourselves helping out the locals.

“Lads, I don’t suppose you could help out and give us a push could you?” came a cry from an Irish sounding Aussie wearing a grey Neighbours t-shirt.

Drama on Ramsay Street - i'm in the jeans pushing uphill with Matt!

It turned out the security mans car has broken down, the security man employed to keep pesky tourists away from the street which many of us have grown up watching on our television screens.

Unbeknown to the Neighbours tour guy as Matt and I began pushing the car up Australia’s most famous street, we were having our own dramas too. The campervan needed returning imminently, but against our better judgement, we just had to fit in a visit to the television set.

The day started out in the Grampians at Halls Gap, where we’d spent a couple of days touring around the mountains and beauty spots, while keeping an eye on the local wildlife. Speaking of which, One Leg, the one-legged duck, had yet again come up to us over breakfast, making his weird broken quack noise and looking at us with as much of a ‘I need feeding’ face as a disabled duck could muster. It worked, and yet again I was reaching for the loaf of bread.

Our setup at Halls Gap in the Grampians

With tent packed up, our maps checked and route planned, we set off at around 10am in the direction of Melbourne. The camper was to be handed in at 3pm, and by our rough estimation it allowed us an hour’s stop for lunch and to clean out the camper in Ballarat, where I’d drop off my belongings. My friend Jess has sorted us out some tickets for an Aussie Rules football match at the MCG in Melbourne in the evening, and so I’ll be getting a lift back with her.

I had a problem to sort out on the way, however. With no mobile phone signal in Halls Gap, I had been unable to sort out where to stay. Nat had needed to move her mum into her house, so was unable to accommodate me at hers, and so while we were on the move, and when I finally got phone signal back, I rang Jess and explained the situation. In an instant, she agreed I could stay at hers. I was and still am grateful, and felt lucky to have met such a great group of people in Ballarat.

However, with Jess out for the day, we ended up stopping at James’s house in the city to drop off kit and use his brush to clean out the van. We arrived by midday, and knowing the ride to Melbourne takes a little over an hour, we knew we were ahead of schedule. Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way again and counting down the clock, as well as the kilometres.

Hitting the suburbs of Melbourne, we made a decision. We had all originally wanted to go on the Neighbours tour together, but after finding out it would set us back a staggering $68 each (£40) we decided against it. However, I had been doing some research, and it turns out that Ramsay Street is infact a normal residential street, going by the name of Pin Oak Court. We put it into the satnav – and it told us we’d be there a little after 2pm.

“We’ve got time, we can do it,” Matt said, optimistically.

“It will literally be a get out, get a photo and get back in job,” mused Siobhan.

“I’m easy, I can go another time if you like, but you won’t get another chance to go for a while,” I helpfully threw into the discussion.

The only problem is the Neighbours street is on the complete opposite side of Melbourne to the rental place for the van. With less than an hour to go before it was due back, the decision was made – we were on our way.

As the city skyline loomed large, Siobhan was at the wheel and we were on our way towards a toll tunnel. It was a long tunnel, taking us deep under…. And we emerged back into the sunshine.

“Where’s the toll, how do we pay,” worried Siobhan, as we passed under a set of automatic toll cameras and a sign that said ‘No cash payments’.

It wasn’t the only worry, as by now every set of traffic lights seemed to have colluded with the last to keep us as stationary as possible as we made our way through the city. It was hot, and I could feel the stress levels building between everyone in the van. Nobody wanted it to go back late, especially as there was a hefty fine if it was, and the fact that the office closed early. With Matt and Siobhan flying to New Zealand early the following morning, missing the hand-in was unthinkable.

Yet still we were trapped in more and more traffic. Both lanes were jammed for what seemed like miles, but slowly and surely we were making our way through the intersections. Surely we should be able to hear Lou Carpenters infectious laugh by now?!

Ramsay Street and the official tour bus we didn't catch!

I think it was about 2.25pm on the clock when we finally turned into a quiet suburban sidestreet and caught sight of the Neighbours tour bus, complete with its colourful portraits of characters and the famous soap’s logo.

“Right, get out quick, no hanging about, a quick photo and then back in Knocker,” said Siobhan. She’s not one to mess with when she means it!

And so, with my camera primed, Matt and Siobhan were striding ahead, with barely half an hour to get the photos of a lifetime, back to the van, drive it across Melbourne through afternoon traffic AND get it handed in.

That’s when the cry for help came.

When you can see someone struggling with a broken down vehicle, who has probably been waiting for two fully grown blokes to arrive to lend a hand, the last thing they would have wanted to hear from them when they finally arrive was ‘sorry mate, we’re in a rush,” as they stride off to get some photos. Well, they didn’t, because Matt and I went over. It was just about the last thing we needed to be doing, slowly pushing a van up a hill, but it was only right that we did. It was eating into our already miniscule timeframe in Ramsay Street, but we had no option.

One of the houses

Thankfully, someone who lives in one of the houses turned up in his car and offered to help with some jump leads. Matt and I made a discreet but sharp escape and joined Siobhan, who was already snapping away up the road near a bin with some cricket wickets painted on it. (Toadie’s, apparently)

Now, while the official tour was undoubtedly expensive, what it does offer is the chance to pose with the ‘Ramsay Street’ sign.

Siobhan. Chuffed!

Its pretty much what you pay the money for,  a photo of you on the set, with the sign. This is where we had a stroke of luck – with everyone distracted by the broken down car at the bottom of the street, Siobhan had found the two signs used by the tour under a tree outside one of the houses. Wasting no time, she posed for a couple of photos before swapping with Matt. And then the Neighbours tour man came over and took them away before I had chance to get one.

Then he walked back over again.

“Here you are guys, you’re not actually supposed to be up this end of the street, even the tour doesn’t come up here, but seeing as you helped us out, you can have this,”

One for the scrapbook!

He handed me one of the signs, and we all snapped away again. Two minutes later, we wandered back down the street, I handed the Ramsey Street sign back to him, thanked him and headed back to the campervan. In the meantime, a family of Scottish tourists were quite clearly wondering why they had spent hundreds of dollars on a trip that we had done in just a few minutes for free, and got exactly the same photos. A tip for anyone visiting Melbourne!

Back in the camper, and time was running out to get it back to the other side of the city. As Siobhan crunched through the gears, I was dropped off at a bus stop to find my way to their hotel – afterall, it was a hire on the basis of two people riding in it, so I had to make myself scarce!

I jumped on a tram and made my way through the city to St Kilda Road and to Matt and Siobhan’s plush hotel, which funnily enough was next door to the centre where I did my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. I settled down for a coffee in the lobby, only to get a desperate series of texts and phonecalls from them both. The gist of it was whether I had moved the jackets and shirts from the inside of the campervan, and that Matt was an idiot…

I hadn’t moved said jackets and shirts – they were still hanging inside the campervan, which in turn was now locked up inside a compound. It didn’t open up again until 8am the following day, one whole hour after Matt and Siobhan’s flight leaves Melbourne for New Zealand. It was fair to say Matt was in the doghouse.

Thankfully, I was still going to be a train ride away from the offending rack of clothes, and while I couldn’t get them over to New Zealand, I would at least be able to send them back to the UK in the post.

Jacketless, but on the way to the MCG

In the meantime, we had one last bit of entertainment ahead, a match of Aussie Rules footy between Collingwood and Hawthorn at Melbourne Cricket Ground, affectionately known as the MCG, or just the ‘G’ by the locals.

The MCG is as imposing as it is spectacular, a huge, modern bowl standing proud right on the edge of chilled-out Melbourne’s central business district. The trams were packed with fans and good-natured banter, and as we walked along the riverside path among them to the stadium, there was a familiar feeling. With the G getting closer, it felt very similar to that walk up Wembley Way, with fans of both teams walking side by side and the tension building among them.

Getting closer to the G

The other side of it that also felt familiar was the colours of the shirts – the walkway was full of black and white stripes belonging to Collingwood, and of the dark brown and amber of Hawthorn. It was as if I was in the middle of a crowd of people on the way to watch Grimsby Town versus Hull City, and naturally, I was supporting the team that resembled the Mariners. Collingwood are also known as the Magpies, or the ‘Pies in short, which kept Siobhan happy.

Members entrance

It was all helped by the fact we were meeting Jess and her daughter Liv from Ballarat, who had managed to secure some tickets for us through a friend who is a member of Collingwood Supporters Group. The match is a huge fixture on the calendar, and the equivalent to one of the big name opening day fixtures in the Premier League. This was the Chelsea vs Man Utd of Australia, eagerly looked forward to by fans around Australia. According to those you speak to here, soccer (as they call our game) is for wimps and pansies. Apparently, this is a mans’ game, and when we got into the stadium you could begin to understand why.

Kick off, bounce off, whatever it was...

Its basically a cross between rugby and football (our football) played on a cricket pitch. There’s a ridiculous number of players, its far from a game of two halves as there’s four quarters, and its played with an egg, sorry, a small rugby ball. The aim is to kick or punch the ball between two big sticks at the end of the pitch – through the middle, taller sticks for six points, and through the smaller side posts for one point.

Huge playing area

There’s no denying it’s a fast-paced, full-blooded game. I had no idea what was happening at first, but thankfully with Jess and Liv by my side, I was able to relay the rules across to Siobhan and Matt at the other side. It was an exciting game to watch, and the atmosphere inside the MCG was electric. There was a lot of goals scored, each one welcomed by fans with huge pom-poms behind the posts.

Liv and Jess getting into the game

I've had an idea for the Pontoon at Blundell Park next season...

There were more than 70,000 fans inside the G, showing just how popular this sport is. The first quarter, of around 25 minutes, was over in a flash, and it was close between the two teams. After a five minute break, the action started again, with Hawthorn piling on the pressure, much to the delight of quite a few fans around us. Collingwood managed to keep the scores down before going in at half time at 51-66.

Familiar colours around my neck during a game...

With a black and white scarf around my neck, there was a familiar story of poor defending costing the black and white army the game – and with 10 minutes left of the fourth quarter, and with Collingwood trailing, Matt and Siobhan had to leave.

A last pic with Matt, Siobhan and Liv before we went our seperate ways

There were hugs all round before I watched them make their way down the dozens of steps to the exit, knowing I wont see them again for months. But we’d had a brilliant week together, a week that was a fantastic reminder of my life at home, the fun and laughs that you have with such close friends, the stories of everyone back in Hull and life in the Look North newsroom.

It had been an exciting week full of beautiful scenery, fresh air, wildlife and walks. It had also been a week of being cramped up in the front of a van made for just two adults and a small child, of living in the bush with just a thin layer of tent material separating me from all that Australia’s insects could throw at me, and of drinking wine out of plastic cups. But saying that, it was also a week that surprised me, in that all the campsites we stayed at offered great facilities, all had hot showers and clean toilet blocks, and it was remarkably easy to roll up, drive in and have dinner on the go within minutes at the often well-equipped and hygienic camp kitchens. It was a week that we’ll all remember, and I smiled as I watched my friends from home disappear through the exit tunnel.

In the end, Hawthorn ran away with the match, finishing with the scoreline of 137-115, but for me, the scoreline was almost irrelevant. It had been a great experience to witness this great Australian spectacle in one of the world’s most impressive sports grounds.

Final score

Jess and Liv after the game, still smiling despite the result

I spent a good 15 minutes with Jess and Liv at the end of the game soaking up the atmosphere and walking further around inside the ground to fully appreciate the size of the place. It is a great stadium, and there was nothing better than seeing and hearing it in all its glory, full of sports-mad footy fans.

With my friend Jess at the almost empty MCG

Despite the result, Jess was still smiling even though her beloved Collingwood lost thanks to a special mention of the Pies on the radio thousands of miles away from Melbourne. My friend and colleague Simon Clark had picked up on my Tweets from the game, given Siobhan and I a mention, and used it as a topic for a phone-in on BBC Radio Humberside’s Sportstalk programme he was presenting. It was all about ‘the most extraordinary sports event you’ve been to’.

As Jess drove me back to Ballarat, I reflected on how my night at the MCG was definitely up there on my list. What a special night, and indeed a special week, the past seven days had been.

Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

We left the coast and the incredible Great Ocean Road behind us to move inland and on to the Grampians, a national park and huge area full of mountains and waterfalls known for its outstanding natural beauty.

The drive itself was an experience, with long straight roads scything through open expanses of farmland as we left Point Fairy behind us and made our way towards Halls Gap, a small town right in the middle of the mountain range.

The Grampians loom on the horizon

For mile after mile, cattle farms and gum trees dominated the flat landscape, but a few hours later, mountains began to appear on the horizon. For much of the journey, the three of us have been listening to an Australian singer called Matt Corby thanks to a couple of CDs that we’d bought Siobhan for her birthday. While it wasn’t for a few days yet, we decided we’d let her open a couple of presents along the way.

As we began to rise above the surrounding countryside, we passed through areas that had been clearly affected by bushfires at some point in the past. But as we pulled into our first tourist point in the Grampians, it was another natural disaster which surprised us.

Eek!

We found ourselves at Silverband Falls after being tempted by the brown tourist signs advertising a waterfall. There was a slightly worrying warning of falling limbs as you enter, but despite Siobhan’s fears she may end up legless (a not uncommon problem when we’re together) we presume it meant from the trees.

As we worked our way down to a slow meandering stream in the valley, some stepping stones had been put in place to cross to the water and rejoin the pathway on the opposite side. It was there that we came across a sign and some remarkable photographs – part of the path was closed, the stepping stones were in place of what was once a permanent bridge, and the dead trees, branches and debris that was scattered around was all thanks to a huge storm that hit the area last year.

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

We walked along the path at the side of the stream, struggling to comprehend the damage and destruction that had been caused by the storm and floodwater that had gushed through the valley just over a year ago. Great gulleys had been formed down the hill side, with broken trees and branches littering the ground. Huge piles of driftwood were gathered around anything strong enough to withstand the force of the water. Huge rocks had been washed down like pebbles, yet the waterfall at the end of the walk was almost a trickle falling over the side of the cliff face. How different it must have been when Mother Nature was showing her true force.

Just a trickle of a waterfall

Just a few minutes up the road, we went on to find a lake set in a bowl between the mountains, a lake that just opened up before us as we made our way into the car park. There was hardly anyone around, and the place was silent. The water level had clearly receded in recent weeks and months thanks to a drought, but it provided ample opportunities for photographs.

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

From the lake it was a relatively short drive to Halls Gap, but we were on the lookout for somewhere to eat. We came across an adventure golf place, and I was sent in to scout it out. Not only did it look like a great place to bring out the competitive spirit in us all on the brilliantly laid out crazy golf, but it had a lovely little place to stop and have some lunch, and at good prices too.

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

After a chicken and avocado toasty, some potato wedges and salad, it was time to grab a putter and take to the greens. True to form, I’d already promised Matt I would beat him, but we both knew Siobhan could be a dark horse when it comes to sport. Especially when much of it is down to luck – and there was no shortage of it needed on the 18 holes at the course. After the first couple of holes, where apart from some devilish gradients to trap the ball, it was a simple putt, the course changed into one of the most difficult I have ever seen.

Concentration...and pot luck

With steep runs down past water, jumps, rickety wooden tubes, nasty traps and some almost impossible accuracy needed in places, it proved to be a great laugh. After I got the first hole down in two, I took an early lead that I managed to hold on to for much of the game, while Matt simply had a shocker.

Fore!

Siobhan, on the other hand, kept the pressure on me, and when it comes to sport, as many friends know, I tend to bottle it when the pressure gets going. And bottle it I did, throwing away a healthy lead on a stupid hole where you had to guide the ball through a tiny gap. It meant Siobhan emerged from the last hole victorious, but at least I wasn’t last. That was Matt’s job.

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

The owner of the golf course also pointed us in the direction of the best place to stay in the town, at a camping site slap bang in the middle of the area, surrounded by hills, trees and wildlife.

We pulled up in the camper and jumped out. The sun was beating down, with some late afternoon warmth. We got chairs out of the van, pitched the tent, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Matt and I pulled out yet another gift for Siobhan, this time a bottle of bubbles that I had cunningly disguised by wrapping it inside my backpack daypack. It went straight into the fridge for later.

Birthday bubbles

One of the first things we all noticed at Halls Gap was the amount of wildlife. There were many famously Australian kookaburras hanging around, while cockatoos and magpies, with their strange garbled songs, were everywhere.

Kookaburras

About an hour after we arrived, and as the sun began to set behind the mountain, suddenly there was a cry of ‘kangaroos’ from Siobhan.

Sure enough, a family of kangaroos hopped into view in front of us, making their way across the grass and stopping to eat along the way. A few of us went over to take photographs, while still keeping a safe distance, while one daring couple went over to try to give them some food, despite all the advice, warnings and signs around the place telling us not to.

Kangas in the campsite

It was great to see the kangaroos in the wild, and suddenly it felt like I was properly in Australia again. The animal is a national icon, and I spent a while just looking at them and watching as they happily hopped around, stopping to eat grass, all under the watchful eye of who I presume was dad, laying on the ground and giving me an occasional glance nearby.

There was another interesting character we met too – a one-legged duck that we gave the original name of ‘One Leg’. We first spotted him when he came flying towards us and made a perculiar crash landing near the tent. When we saw him hopping back towards us from his crash site, we soon realised why. Somehow he’d lost a limb – we don’t think it was related to the falling limb signs in the woods earlier in the day – but he had clearly been surviving quite well. All his duck mates did seem to have turned their back on him though, so, always a sucker for poorly animals, we pulled out a loaf of bread and gave him some of the end.

'One Leg'

It was quite something to watch as he hopped over to the bread, flung it around in his beak, ate a bit, and then hopped off to wherever it had landed again, repeating the process over and over until it had all gone. But little One Leg would quietly hang around, waiting for more scraps, looking at us forlornly as if it knew we would take pity yet again and cave in to giving him more of the Coles wholemeal loaf. I know we would have done, had the neighbouring camper not sparked up a barbecue and tempting the disabled duck off for a burger.

We were tempted across the road for pizzas that night, spending the evening out on the decking with dinner, wildlife, and planning for the following day.

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

With a strenuous day of walking and climbing ahead, we made the pledge that night to get up early the following day. It was, as usual, a pledge we failed to keep, and instead we found ourselves making the ascent up to the Pinnacle, one of the highest points in the Grampians, in the middle of the day. It was a bit of a scorcher too – after the disappointment of the weather in Melbourne when Matt and Siobhan arrived, along with the cloud, wind and rain for part of our time on the Great Ocean Road, I was glad that we were now getting some nice warm weather.

On the way up to the Pinnacle

The ascent up to the Pinnacle wasn’t difficult, but it was a good old fashioned scramble in some places. Rocky outcrops, a stream, great little bits to climb, overhangs to duck under – it was a fun climb up. At one point, Matt and I clambered on top of a rocky shelf, grabbing some great photographs with the landscape behind us. It was amazingly quiet too, just the noise of a gentle breeze and the occasional bird on its way through the valley. You had to look where you were walking too – there were scores of lizards baking out in the sun, most of which would quickly dive under rocks the moment my size 10s went anywhere near them.

Cooling down in the cool cavern

On the way up we came across around a dozen people on the way back down, all of whom said it was worth the effort. We took a breather and a drink in the originally named Cool Cavern, which, as the name suggested, was refreshingly cool and it was nice to get out of the hot midday sun for a while.

Matt and Siobhan at the top

Back on the walking trail, there were a few bits that would leave us puffing and panting, but then when we got to the top, all the energy and exercise was forgotten. As the name suggests, the Pinnacle was a fantastic rocky overhang, leaning out high over the rock face. You could see for miles, a fantastic view of the lake stretching out below, mountains opposite, Halls Gap nestled among trees in the valley, and a horizon stretching out for miles across the flat Victoria countryside beyond.

We made it!

After our workout to get up to the top, we spent a while up there taking photographs and enjoying the view. Thankfully there were metal railings to hold on to at the top of the Pinnacle, and they were needed too – it was easy to feel a bit giddy thanks to the height and lack of anything around you. There were also some giant flying ants that had a habit of dive bombing you, and efforts to bat them away usually failed.

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

Thankfully, the walk back down to the car park only took half as long as the long hike up to the top. It might have been something to do with the reward of a drink and a bit of leftover pizza we’d kept in the fridge from the night before, but once we got there we savoured the treat.

Beautiful Grampians

Next up was another viewpoint, a place marked up as Boroka lookout. It was around half an hours drive through beautiful woodland from the Pinnacle, and there was nobody there when we arrived. Yet again, the view left us speechless. For the sake of driving just a few kilometres, it gave us a whole new perspective on the lake and the mountains that we had just been standing over. Now, they were in the distance to our right, and looked even more spectacular.

At the viewpoint

By now, ice creams were calling, but first there was another waterfall to see. As Siobhan quite rightly pointed out, we were fairly ‘waterfalled out’ but I was assured McKenzie falls was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, it also had a particularly impressive steep descent down to the bottom of the falls, but going by the sound of water crashing at the base, along with the river that snakes its way over boulders and rocks at the top, we knew it would be the best of the lot.

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

With the sun glinting from the white foamy water as it tumbles down the rockface, the tip offs about it being the most spectacular waterfall around proved right. Like most places in the area, there was evidence of the huge storm that hit last year – a mass of twisted trees, branches and metal from a collapsed bridge were cordoned off to the left of the waterfall, a trail that follows the river simply washed away. With driftwood littered all over the hillside and down the face of the waterfall, it must have been quite something to stand where we were, looking up at the torrent that surely would have been streaming over the top.

The trek back up to the top was probably the hardest of the day, and all of our legs were aching and tired by now. It wasn’t helped by the steep steps and long stretches of uphill pathways back to the car park, but there was however an ice cream shop where we all enjoyed a breather and a refreshing ice lolly. It was there we decided to head back to the campsite to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, with a barbecue to look forward to.

Campsite cooking!

I say barbecue – it was actually more of a fry up if I’m honest. The campsites all have public barbecues, either free or for a small contribution of a dollar or so for the gas.They are completely different to what you’d imagine though, and are pretty much just a hot plate for cooking on. Its outside, so I guess that makes it a barbie, and rather than throwing shrimps on it (that’s one for my Aussie readers, mainly because I know how much the saying is both a) wrong and b) a great way of winding you up) we slapped a couple of burgers and some eggs on it. I was chef, Siobhan was on salad and bread duty, Matt was photographer for a while.

Yes, we'd both agreed not to shave for the week...

It wasn’t long before we had some familiar faces by our side – good old One Leg showed up for a bit of bread, while a kookaburra kept a close eye on any scraps that were going spare.

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

Despite our best efforts to find a pub that was open in the town, Matt and I ended up going for a quick beer at one of the nearby restaurants, while Siobhan got an early night. All the fresh air and exercise had taken it out of us all, although we had a sneaky suspicion that the combination of Matt Corby and the motion of the campervan was to blame for much of our lethargy over the last few days. We all ended up in bed early though, and tried to get to sleep.

With a few of my friends that kept me awake...

Only in the pitch darkness, just as my eyes were closing, there was a strange noise outside.

“Padump, bop. Padump, bop. Padump, bop.”

It was accompanied by a munching sound, similar to that of a horse or a cow. I slowly opened the zip to my tent, only to see a huge kangaroo just a few metres away. I looked around further to see a whole family of eight were dotted around me – a fantastic sight, and in the moonlight I sat with my head out of the tent, watching kangaroos and trying to savour the moment. I know in a few months time, it will be times like this that I’ll struggle to believe.

­­

Great days, Great Ocean Road

Going 'Round the Twist' on the Great Ocean Road?!

I had a vitally important job to do before the arrival of Matt and Siobhan into Ballarat – a large chunk of birthday shopping.

Matt had messaged me on Twitter a week or so ago that he was relying on me to go out and buy a selection of pressies for Siobhan, who celebrates her 30th birthday while she’s away. He was unable to sneak away to buy some surprise gifts, so I was more than happy to help him out.

On top of the list? A cuddly wombat. Apparently, Siobhan had her heart set on seeing wombats in Oz, and after a planned visit to an animal centre in Sydney failed to deliver the goods of a cuddle with one, Matt was needing anything wombat-related.

Thankfully, my friend Jess knew exactly where to take me, and after a short ride I was at a Ballarat nature centre, complete with a shop selling all manner of wombat related goods.

Wrapping (innit!)

Back home, it was time for a bit of frantic wrapping before the pair of them arrived at about 3.30pm. It was strange to see them pulling up outside Nat’s house, which until now had seemed so far away from my life back home. Now, as I welcomed them inside, it was almost as if they had just popped round the corner to see me. I put the kettle on, got some chairs set up outside and made toasted sandwiches all round, which went down well in the autumnal sun.

Matt and Siobhan arrive to pick me up in Ballarat

It still doesn’t feel real to have Matt and Siobhan here with me, although at the same time, it almost feels normal. For almost six months, my life back home has been on hold, and feels so distant from the exciting life I’ve been leading on the road and from the almost mini life I’ve made for myself in Ballarat, with my own group of friends and way of life here. Yet suddenly I was talking about everything that was so familiar to me – everyday life in Hull, the latest goings on at Look North, the latest with the job cutbacks at the BBC, the mini baby boom that has suddenly happened in the office since I left… it was great to hear about everyone back home, and a reminder that in the not too distant future, I too will be back in the office and making the daily trips around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the meantime, we had a road trip to enjoy. With my belongings loaded into the campervan that Matt and Siobhan had hired, I jumped into the front and Siobhan drove under my directions to a nearby Coles supermarket so we could stock up for a week of camping on the Great Ocean Road.

We piled in a whole load of things to barbecue – chicken fillets, burgers and sausages, while Siobhan made sure we had a few greens too. I threw in some cheese-filled meatballs that I have discovered go really well with pasta and sauce, and after a stop by the milk aisle, it was on to the bottle shop where the real essentials were brought onboard…the beer and wine.

Matt does the cooking, while Siobhan judges the cooking on the telly!

We were soon on the road and heading to Torquay, the starting point of the Great Ocean Road and our first night stop. We pulled in at the Torquay Holiday Park, where it cost us $43 for a powered pitch for the night. We hooked up the camper, had a brew and pondered what to do for the night. It turned out that Siobhan, despite only being in Australia for a week, had become hooked on the My Kitchen Rules television programme, a kind of cross between Masterchef and Come Dine With Me.

Bangers for tea!

I must admit, it has become a habit for me to watch too, and Nat and I would often spend an hour catching up on it and laughing at some of the strange meals the contestants would attempt to cook. There was a television in the barbecue area, so with bangers on the go and MKR on the television, the entertainment was sorted.

With a busy day ahead, it was an early night as I settled into my tent and got tucked into my sleeping bag. Except it wasn’t my sleeping bag. Confession time – a few weeks ago, as Siobhan was clearly preparing for her trip, I got a message from her on Skype:

“Hey, weird question…my sleeping bag in a grey carrier was accidentally left at your house – do you happen to know of its still there? Did you put it in your room before you left? Last place I saw it was on the landing outside Matt’s room 😥 ”

Now, for those who haven’t been reading my blog from the beginning, the day when I left Hull was slightly hectic, and as I hurriedly packed seven months-worth of belongings into a bag, I had trouble finding my own red sleeping bag. What I did find, however, was a red sleeping bag in a grey carrier. With just a few hours before my train, I presumed somehow my sleeping bag had been taken by Matt by mistake – and so the only option was to take the remaining sleeping bag. Besides, it was far better than mine anyway, its bulkyness stood my big bag up perfectly, and surely someone would have said if it was theirs by now?

This was my reply: “Hello you…good news and bad news. Good news is…I know where your sleeping bag is. Bad news is….it’s on the other side of the world, attached to my backpack!”

Siobhan did give me points for honesty, but I’d have been a bit annoyed, and I admit I felt a little guilty. However, it was now keeping me warm as I laid in the tent, listening to all manner of wildlife on the outside. And, with a thin cushion bed, I listened to the wildlife for hours. When I did finally get to sleep, it was just a few hours before all manner of birds decided it was already time to wake up. My lack of sleep provided Matt and Siobhan with some humour in the morning as I greeted them with this sight.

Matt claims I look like a wombat...

There was some other drama aside from my scrunched up face too. Having spent the night outside in the Australian countryside, a place full of some of the worlds most delightful insects and creepy crawlies that can kill a human within minutes of the merest prod of their fangs, there was a bit of a shock as I delved into my rucksack. As I reached down for a pair of boxers, I noticed the glint of a shiny black spider as it wandered across the back of my hand. Needless to say, my hand didn’t stay in the bag for long.

I told Matt. “What? In the bag that’s been in the camper all night? Whatever you do, don’t tell Siobhan.”

There was then a secret mission between us as I moved to the barbecue area with a solid and clean floor to empty the entire contents of my backpack bit-by-bit onto the ground in search of the eight-legged invader.

Looking for Incy Wincey biter

Eventually, he was located. He didn’t look too poisonous, but then again I was surprised by how normal the bad ones look when I saw my first venomous spider here so far, a white tail.

Running for cover...

With said spider on his way for cover under a barbecue, and after a bowl of Aussie Weet-Bix all round, we turned out of the caravan park and onto the main road towards Bells Beach.

I’ve been looking forward to taking them both to this stretch of the coastline after my hugely enjoyable visit with my Ballarat friends a few weeks ago, where I’d tried my hand at body surfing in the huge waves. Sadly, the waves were not quite as impressive as they were back then, but still incredible to watch as scores of surfers hit the swell in preparation for the Ripcurl Surf Championships in a weeks time.

Hitting the surfing mecca of Bells Beach

With Siobhan overlooking Bells Beach

Infact, many of the grandstands and commentary positions are already in place, with teams of workers busily erecting stands and office blocks on the car park while the guys with the boards perfected catching the waves out in the ocean.

Surfer at Bells

We spent a good hour up on the cliffs and down on the beach, watching as wave after wave crashed onto the shore. It was nowhere near as hot as last time I was here, but thankfully the sun was out. It was windy, but that just added to the atmosphere as we took in the vast horizon of the Southern Ocean, knowing that the next landmass is Antarctica.

Waiting for the surf

We headed off along the coast to Lorne, but stopping off at a particularly famous lighthouse at Aireys Inlet – the one that starred in the Aussie kids television show Round the Twist. It provided a comedy photo moment, while Matt managed to fall over while trying to get a snap of Siobhan. She gave me a knowing look and a roll of the eyes.

Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

Next stop was Lorne, where we had originally planned to spend the night, but the weather had turned and the wind had blown in plenty of clouds. In need of some lunch, I texted my mate James back in Ballarat with an SOS for a decent feed, and he more than delivered the goods.

“The bakery does a really good lamb and rosemary pie,” he texted back.

Now, when it comes to pies, Siobhan and I are huge fans, and it didn’t take much in the way of a decision before we found ourselves heading down the road and sniffing out a pie. It was true, they were particularly good pies, and my beef and burgundy more than hit the spot.

Welcome to the Great Ocean Road

Over lunch, with no sign of the cloud clearing and with little to do in Lorne apart from look at waves crashing onto a beach, we decided to head to Apollo Bay, a route which took us on one of the most spectacular drives in the world.

Plaque at one of the viewpoints

The Great Ocean Road is actually classed as the world’s largest war memorial. Surprisingly, it was built by soldiers who had returned from conflict in the First World War. They needed employment, and they also wanted to build a memorial to those who had fallen. Along the southern coast of Victoria, just a hard, rocky and almost impassable track joined the few communities hardy enough to survive in what was then a dangerous and inaccessible coastline. It wasn’t just the locals who struggled either – offshore reefs, rocky outcrops and rough seas earned the whole area the affectionate nickname of Shipwreck Coast, thanks to the high number of vessels lost to the ocean here.

Waves crash just metres from the famous road

So as well as a huge memorial, the road would become a vital link between the isolated communities, bringing benefits to the timber and forestry industries as well as bringing tourism to the south coast of Australia. Work on the road began in 1919, with around 3,000 returning servicemen finding work on the construction project. Conditions were still tough though, with dense bush to work through, cliffs to navigate and steep coastal mountains to work through or around. The construction was mostly down to hard graft- picks and shovels, explosives and small machinery. Many died due to falls or construction injury.

Matt and the camper on the Great Ocean Road

Infact, as I researched the road and its origins, I couldn’t help but think back to my time in Thailand on the Death Railway, the route constructed by Australian and Allied prisoners of war during the Second World War, just a few years after the Great Ocean Road was finished. With much of the road set on clifftops and mountains, the rock was largely chiselled and blown away by hand and explosives, much the same way as Hells Pass was made near Burma. Admittedly, that was through forced labour, and there were no Japanese soldiers waiting to beat the Aussie war vets as they made their memorial on the Victoria coast, but tough all the same.

The Great Ocean Road

A lighter story I picked up though happened in 1924, when the steamboat Casino managed to get stranded near Cape Patton after hitting a reef. In order to free itself, it was forced to make itself lighter by throwing items overboard. Those items included 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, most of which ended up coming ashore right near where the workers were busily building the road. It apparently resulted in an unscheduled two-week-long drinking break – now that would have been one hell of a hangover when the dynamite started blowing again!
After 13 years of work, the Great Ocean Road was completed, and when you drive along the work of all those soldiers, you can see just why they thought it a fitting tribute to those who never returned to Australian shores. It offers almost everything that is good about the country – rainforests, huge expansive views of the Ocean, a formidable horizon, huge open skies, dense bush, an incredible amount of wildlife. Beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see, with each twist and turn of the road prompting another deep intake of breath. For once it wasn’t Matt’s driving – just fabulous vistas that are simply stunning.

A great drive

We made a few stops off the road along the way, with the dark looming skies providing drama in the photos of waves as they crash onto rocks. Galahs and cockatoos were flying around, squawking and making a noise. Road signs warned of countless different animals, and we passed smiling couples walking on the road, looking up into the eucalyptus trees for koalas.

Up to our usual tricks!

One of many coves on the Great Ocean Road

With dark clouds gathering, we spent the night at Apollo Bay, catching up over cups of tea and glasses of Aussie wine.

Cosy!

The following morning the weather had changed. The sun was out, the temperature was rising and it promised to be an excellent day for visiting perhaps the most famous part of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles.

Matt, Siobhan and a great spot for brekky!

First, however, we decided to track back along the road we’d come along in search of koalas. They are incredibly hard to spot, but we’d found out there was a huge area we’d driven through where they are easy to find at Kennett River. We were keen for breakfast with a view too – the beauty of having a campervan means you can have the perfect scenic spot for something to eat or drink, and at a beach near the river, we ate boiled eggs on toast whilst watching surfers of all ages trying their luck on the waves.

Egg-celent views over breakfast

Siobhan went in search of koalas at a nearby campsite, and came back with a huge smile on her face after seeing two. Matt and I went for our own look, and soon came across one chilling out in the sun amid the branches

'Can't. Eat. One. More. Leaf....' Zzzzzzz

after a hearty meal of leaves. We walked further to come across a whole range of colourful birds that would land on our heads and arms in search of food. Next to our hungry feathered friends, another koala was climbing around on a tree. It was fantastic to see a koala in the wild after keeping my eyes peeled for so long out in the bush – I’d started to think koalas were just a huge hoax by the Aussies to get you to visit, sticking a few in zoos around the world, in the hope people would come to the country in the hope of seeing the cute furrballs. I’ve been warned they are far from cuddly though, so I kept my distance!

Ahhhh!

I made a friend...

...and so did Matt!

Aussie birds. Pretty.

Back on the road, our main destination was the Twelve Apostles, and we headed straight there, stopping only after hawkeye Siobhan spotted an echidna – a huge hedgehog-type thing – waddling around by the roadside. It prompted an immediate u-turn, but despite our best efforts to add him to our animal photo gallery, he took refuge in a drainage pipe. I quite liked the silhouette effect anyway…

A spiky character

We arrived at the famous coastline in the mid afternoon, the sun beating down on us although the strong breeze from the magnificent Southern Ocean kept everyone cooled down. Sadly, the sun was also in the wrong place for us to get really clear photographs of the limestone stacks, but we spent an hour wandering around the walkways and taking in the spectacular views. There were scores of people there from all around the world, many of whom had also parked up their campervan in the car park to tick this must-see formation off the list. Overhead, helicopters were buzzing around giving the richer punters a sight to remember.

The Twelve Apostles. Only, there aren't 12 anymore

It’s a strong reminder of how powerful nature can be – the stacks have been formed over the years by the powerful waves eroding the coastline. They would have all started out as caves, then into arches before the ocean took a further toll by causing the arch to collapse.

I guess that spells it out pretty clearly!

It’s left a series of stacks, some of which have recently collapsed into the sea, but its still an impressive sight to see them jutting out into the water. When you seen how hard some of the waves hit them – bearing in mind the ocean was relatively calm – it can leave you wondering how they have stood for as long as they have anyway. But then you realise that where the sea crashes onto the shore now was once land that has long been eroded away.

Taking a pounding from the ocean

One for the scrapbook

After Siobhan made cheese sandwiches all round back at the campervan, we headed further along the road that hugs the shipwreck coast, stopping for icecreams and coffee in Port Campbell before pulling off the end of the Great Ocean Road and into Port Fairy, where we were to spend the night.

Spotted on a sign at a viewpoint - and how to state the obvious

It was my turn to cook. And it was also the grand final of My Kitchen Rules. With the night’s entertainment sorted (the television programme, not watching my attempts at cooking) Siobhan lit the woodburning stove and we sat well into the night drinking wine and watching the television in the camp kitchen.

Matt and I having a shocker with the tent!

The wind picked up in the evening, and Matt returned from a visit to the camper to let me know my tent had been blown to bits. After a bit of shuffling it around, I spent a large part of the night listening to the gale and watching as it threatened to rip the cover off my tent once again. It was pretty chilly too, and I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to get to sleep wrapped in a sleeping bag, fully clothed, wearing a hoody and my outdoor jacket.

I awoke in the morning to hear Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’ playing in the neighbouring camper. Oh, the irony.

Fancy seeing you here!

Friends from home - celebrating the arrival of Siobhan and Matt in Melbourne

It was always going to be a special moment when two of my closest friends from home came out to join me, but seeing their smiling faces waving at me from a bus on the other side of the world will always stay with me.

I was at Southern Cross coach terminal in Melbourne, having caught an early morning train from Ballarat. Also up and about early that morning were Matt and Siobhan, my friends and colleagues from home who were flying in from Sydney as part of their four week holiday together.

We’ve been good friends for years – Siobhan and I first met when she worked as a reporter and news presenter on Viking FM, who, during a series of police drugs raids in Grimsby, decided to take refuge in my car as she felt she was unable to keep up with the cops as they ran red lights and broke speed limits across North East Lincolnshire. I had been at Look North for almost a year at this point, and still in the process of getting to know people in the world of broadcasting after my time in newspapers. Siobhan was a good laugh, knew her stuff and was good fun to be around. We hit it off straight away, staying in touch through email, and I’d often drop her a cheeky line having listened to her make some sort of cock up on the radio while I drove into work. A particular highlight was when she was asked in a radio quiz to name something with eight legs: Her hasty answer of ‘a dog’ still makes me laugh.

Back in the day with Peter - taken before Siobhan joined the Look North team!

It was rumoured in those days she was Peter Levy’s number one fan – which I may or may not have let slip to our main presenter on a couple of occasions – but the fact she now works as a fellow presenter on Look North is actually nothing to do with her apparent love of the Levy. Matt, on the other hand, is my former housemate and producer, thanks in part to Siobhan who collared me one night and told me to take him in.

As it happens, Matt and I became such close mates, he’s almost seen as a big brother to me – although a lot of the time, I ended up having to look after him!

In Dublin on my 30th last year with Matt (right) and our mate Rich

The fact that we’re clumsy, forgetful and untidy made our housemate arrangement as lodger and landlord a match made in heaven. While he might have driven me mad on some days as he bossed me around the patch for his programmes, back home we’d spend hours playing Fifa on the Xbox, he’d cook countless meals for me, and I’d spend many hours cleaning the hairy bloke’s mane from the bathroom plugs. For three years, it was non-stop laughter that at times mirrored Clunes and Morrisey in Men Behaving Badly – and thanks to his relationship with Siobhan, the three of us would often spend much of our spare time together at each others homes.

Another one from my birthday Dublin trip - this photo was Matt's idea!

They had been there for me through some of the toughest times I’ve known, becoming soulmates and people I knew I could trust as I found myself single once again. They were a shoulder to cry on far too many times than was good for them, and they never failed to make me see a brighter future ahead. They were two influential voices in my decision to travel, but were also two people I loved being around, be it beers on ‘The Ave’, dinner at Siobhan’s or trying to tame her beloved cat Dave.

We did so much together that it was perhaps part of the script that as my decision to take a career break was taken, Matt moved out to live with Siobhan, and just a month or so later gained a dream job at Sky News. It meant he was leaving Look North at the same time as me – we even shared the same leaving date and had a joint leaving do that night.

Back then, they had already booked their holiday for the following year of four weeks in Australia and New Zealand.

“Imagine if I’m still around then, we could meet up and do something together,” I remember saying to him in my living room as he priced up flights.

And so, as the bus from Melbourne’s Avalon Airport pulled in, you probably now have more of an idea as to just how much I had been looking forward to the pair of them arriving after an eventful five months strapped to a backpack.

They've arrived!

Siobhan’s beaming smile was the first one I could see, waving to me from the coach as I walked over to the railings it had pulled into. As the lights went on inside the vehicle, I could see Matt laughing, smiling and waving. Once again, suddenly the world felt like a very small place, and there were big hugs all round as we were reunited once again.

“You’ve lost loads of weight,” was their first observation, followed by groans as I lined them up for a photo with their bags.

“You know me, its for the blog,” I laughed back with them.

It was strange welcoming them to Melbourne, a city I’m now feeling very familiar with. For them, it’s their first visit to Australia, let alone the city of Melbourne, and so I took them outside to the trams and taxis. We headed to their hotel in South Yarra to drop their bags off, before making our way into the city by tram for some breakfast.

We found ourselves in a pancake place with the slogan of Lovely Pancakes. Their slogan was branded on everything, and Siobhan put her lovely cups on display, as did Matt.

Matt and his Lovely cups...

Already, we had picked up where we left off on that autumnal day in October when I said goodbye to them, and there was plenty of catching up to do – news from work, who’s doing what, who’s working where, news from Hull and nationally, things I’ve missed, gossip, personal news, stories from my travels. The list went on, and somehow, although we’ve got a week together, I don’t think we’ll even be able to catch up on everything in that time.

After downing three refills of coffee (I’m still in backpacker mode!) we made our way out into the shopping centre we’d found ourselves in, stopped by a few shops to find some canvas shoes for them both, and then made our way to the river for drinks and a bit of lunch.

Impressive shopping centre roof over an old mill

We ended up at a nice spot enjoying a beer and some chicken and lamb kebabs when a particularly surreal thing happened. Suddenly, a guy who works in the restaurant came up to Matt and I and asked if I worked on television.

“Erm, well, yes, and so does Siobhan,” I said, slightly surprised.

“I knew it,” he said back.

“I recognised your face from somewhere. What programme is it you work for?”

I told him, explaining that there was no way he’d have seen Look North while being on the other side of the world, but that he may have seen me on some of the outtake programmes that have been made.

“That must be it, I’ve definitely seen you on tv,” he said back.

On the way out, he even told me how he’d remembered it was on the SBS channel, which does show a lot of British television programmes. Incredibly, and probably down to the fact I once dropped an ice cream in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square, much to the amusement and ridicule of Anne Robinson on Outtake TV, I have now been recognised in Australia. Someone somewhere has made some money out of that particular mishap…and it wasn’t me!

Matt and Siobhan, a map and Melbourne

From there we made our way to Melbourne’s tallest building, but decided against making the trip to the viewing platform, instead heading back towards the city centre in search of a rooftop bar I had been told about in Ballarat.

Things were looking up

Sure enough, six floors up above Melbourne in Swanston Street, there was a rooftop full of people enjoying the views and a frothy beer. We joined them, catching up over pints of James Boag beer and a burger. It was well priced for the centre of the city, with a pint costing $9 (about £5) which for Australia is a decent price.

After a few hours chinwagging and getting slightly tipsy in the process, we made our way back towards St Kilda on the tram and to their hotel. I left clutching a bag of their washing to clean overnight in Ballarat, and looking forward to an exciting week ahead together. Tomorrow they will pick up a campervan and drive to Ballarat to pick me up, before we head down to the famous Great Ocean Road.

Fingers,Thumbs and a Festival for Free

Rocking out and keeping the punters happy at Soundwave Australia

I learnt something today – opening hundreds of drinks cans really messes up your thumb and forefinger!

I have blood underneath my thumb nail, which has been bleeding on and off since around can 200 of the day. My index finger did have a blister on the knuckle bit near its nail, but then that was rubbed off.  Its now just a pink mess. And I have countless little cuts and nicks all over my hands.

Naturally, I’m going to man up at this point and say it doesn’t hurt – and besides, its been a great day which takes my mind off it.

For today, I have just worked at the Soundwave Music Festival in Melbourne, one of the largest summer festivals in Australia, and featuring top name acts from around the world. It’s a little on the heavy side for my liking – Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit don’t feature too much on my iPod – but I was offered the chance of free entry in return for working on a bar, with some pocket money thrown in for good measure.

Spotted from the train on the way to Melbourne - Aussies take their scarecrow festivals seriously!!

The opportunity came thanks to completing my RSA course in Melbourne, something anyone who works in any role in hospitality in Oz has to complete before they can serve alcohol. After the course I got talking to a girl called Esther, who mentioned about how she was working the festival. I thought it sounded fun, she took my details and suddenly I found myself in contact with some of the organisers. They were still looking for qualified bar staff…so I threw my name into the hat.

I admit, my bar work experience probably extends to a few shifts covering quiet bars at functions while working for a catering agency in Surrey with my then girlfriend ten years ago. This was a whole new ball game – helping to keep beer flowing for tens of thousands of rock music fans might just be a little more than I can chew, but what the hell. It’s a new experience, and exactly what this trip is all about.

Arriving in Melbourne's main Southern Cross station

I caught an early morning train from Ballarat to Melbourne, arriving at the city’s Southern Cross station three hours before my 1pm start time. I made full use of some decent internet at a coffee shop for a while, catching up with the parents on Skype and getting a blog post online. Before long, I was on the local train to the city Showground and making my way to the staff sign-in. After three days of non-stop rain out in the sticks, the bright sunshine was welcome, although it made me look drastically overdressed in my hoodie and raincoat as I made my way through the shorts and t-shirt-wearing masses.

The Hard Bar area

I was allocated the Hard Bar, a name which instantly filled me with dread. It’ll either be right next to the headbangiest of headbanging music, or its just so renowned for being so busy, its known as the hard bar for staff. Either way, myself and another guy called Sam joked about the prospect.

I was issued with a Jim Beam staff t-shirt and led through the crowds, past the huge stages and into one of the drinks enclosures, where a bloke wearing dark glasses and with his hair slicked back introduced himself as the bar supervisor.

“No more than four drinks per person until 6pm, when it’ll come down to two. Rip the drinks tickets in half first before issuing the cans, and go out and have fun,” he said.

And that was it – I walked into the bar and was met with a crowd of people looking in my direction and waving shiny red tickets around.

“Two JB and drys please,” came one cry.

“A Vic B and CC and Coke please,” came another.

“Can I get a Jimmy please mate,” asks another tattoed guy with huge long dreadlocks.

Now, when you work on a bar, you’re pretty much expected to know the lingo for the local bevvies. While I’ve been in Oz a month now, an expert on the drinks here I’m not. It took most of the first hour not only to get my head around what on earth everyone was asking for, but also how much each drink cost in the pre-bought tokens.

(If you’re wondering, JB and Jimmy is a Jim Beam whiskey mixed drink with ginger, a Vic B is Victoria Bitter, while CC is Canadian Club whiskey and coke or ginger!)

The Hard Bar...and hundreds of punters wanting a drink!

Perhaps the highlight of my Australian drinks knowledge – or lack thereof – came after about half an hour, when a fairly well built guy came up to the bar and ordered two Jim Beams and a Solo.

I had no idea what a Solo was, so I bought myself some time by grabbing the Jim Beam cans and desperately thinking what a Solo could be. It sounds like some sort of cocktail or a long drink, yet it wasn’t listed on the drinks boards behind me. There was nothing for it, I might have misheard him, so i’ll ask again.

“Two Jim Beams and what else was it mate?” I asked

“A Solo,” came the short reply.

I clearly had a confused look on my face now. I looked back at the rows of tubs containing all the different cans, then back at the guy making mixed drinks at the back.

“A Solo?” I muttered back to the punter, hoping he’d give me an idea on how to make it.

“Yeah, a Solo,” came the reply, clearly getting a bit annoyed.

“What’s in it?” I asked back.

“Errrr. Lemons.” came the sarcastic reply.

At this point, I started to dig myself a hole by stating that I didn’t think we had any.

“Yes you have. I can see them. They’re over there in the yellow cans with the Pepsi.”

And so we did. It turns out that Solo is one of the most popular and common canned soft drinks in Australia. To give you an idea of just how dumb I must have looked, its about the equivalent of saying to someone “What’s in a Coca Cola.”

No wonder there were a few rolled eyes as I sheepishly traipsed back to the bar with said can of Solo in my hand.

I also quickly learnt about another quirk with music festivals in Oz. Whereas at the Leeds Festival back home, that I’ve been lucky to work at in a far different capacity over the years, all the drinks are draught, here it comes in cans. Thousands of them. And someone has to open them.

That duty falls down to the bar staff, and after a few with my fingers, I soon twigged those using spoons had the right idea. It was definitely the way forward, and I was soon totting up tokens, grabbing icey cold cans and popping open the ring pulls in no time at all.

Then I broke a nail…and yes, I do realise how that sounds.

Problem was, I’d caught it on one of the ring pulls and it pulled right down to that really sore bit beyond the white nail. There was nothing for it but to grit my teeth, pull it off and hope it didn’t hurt too much. Thankfully, I got away with it, but a few minutes later I noticed some blood. This time it was my thumb – the constant pressing down on the drink hole ‘flap’ bit of the can to fully open it had worn away at the side of the digit.

I battled on.

Grabbing yet more cans of Jim Beam. Pass me a spoon!

It was actually a lot of fun – everyone was in a great mood, there was some banter with many of the punters, some of whom noticed my English accent (including one bloke who asked for his Jagerbomb shaken and not stirred, just how ‘my pal Mr Bond would like it’) and once I’d got into full swing, it was actually really straightforward, if a little tough on the hands.

Two stages side-by-side, reducing the turnaround between bands

Soon I was sent on a break, so took the opportunity to have a wander around and see some of the festival. Its spread over a huge area, but one huge difference to the UK festivals is the tight control on alcohol. I’d not realised, but all the alcohol is contained within a few set areas, quite a way from the stages. It means you can’t take beers with you to watch the bands, which seems a little odd when I’m so used to having a pint with me while watching live music.

Swedish band In Flames entertaining the crowds

Marilyn Manson on stage at Soundwave

Marilyn Manson wrecking some stuff on stage!

I opened a few hundred more cans in the evening. I’d probably estimate that during the course of the day, I opened well over 1,000, but it was just great to be part of such a huge event. I think my enthusiasm was noticed too – a tall guy with long blonde hair, who I’d served twice earlier in the day, was back for another couple of Jim Beams. He’d heard me helping two others decide what to have, along with a laugh and a joke here and there, and when I turned round to get the drinks, I heard him the tall guy speak to the others.

“This guy has been cheerful and happy all day, even now he’s still smiling. Fair play to you buddy.”

It meant a lot – but then I was just happy to be at somewhere with such a great atmosphere and in the sun!

Sticking out like a sore thumb...although the picture doesn't do it justice!

I got signed off at 9.15pm, my thumb and index finger now red raw, but off I went to see a couple of bands.

Whats better than being at a gig? Being at a gig for free!

I managed to see most of the Angels and Airwaves set, a band which I’d heard of and recognised a few of their tracks. Where our stages back home are often held in huge circus style tents, at the Melbourne Showground there’s a few purpose built buildings that resemble sheds. Its not great for the acoustics if I’m honest, but it was a good atmosphere inside, even without the alcohol in everyones hands.

Angels and Airwaves during their set

The headliners on the main stage were System of a Down, which I knew I’d probably not like. I was right, and its not because I’m just getting old. It was just screaming and shouting on the track I heard, so made my way back to Angels and Airwaves to watch the rest of their gig.

System of a Down..cool stage, but music didn't go 'down' well with me

I signed off in the staff area and was told to grab a beer from a bucket, which I gulped down. It was nice to finally relax, and so I got a Southern Comfort and Coke mixed can from the bucket too. I said goodbye to the great bunch of people I’d been working on the bar with, finished off the drink, took another ‘for the road’ and headed to the adjacent railway station.

There was a huge crowd of people still waiting. I had to be at Southern Cross station to catch the last train to Ballarat at 11.24pm, but by my reckoning there were about 5,000 people in front of me waiting for the same trains. I did a bit of nifty manouvering along the inside of the crowd by a railing, which probably got me a few trains ahead of where I would have been, but time was ticking. If I missed the last train, I’d be stuck in Melbourne for the night, and would have to go find a hostel somewhere, an expense I could really do without.

Thankfully, I was squeezed onto the 11pm train, and 10 minutes later I was at Southern Cross with time to spare. I got onto the train ‘home’ and watched as the city disappeared behind me once again.

Heading home, along with thousands of festival goers

My legs are killing me, my hands are sore and I’m shattered, but its been a fantastic day out, a day I know I wont forget. I arrived back into Ballarat just before 1am, stepped off the train and began the walk home. But after seeing off thousands of ringpulls in the past 12 hours, there was one more can I had left to open. I had a friend to accompany me on the walk back to Nat’s house in Ballarat.

His name was Jim Beam.

The last can of the day...and it was mine!