Fraser Island, Yeah?

Touring Fraser Island

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

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

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

“You’ll be shark food, yeah,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fraser Island by 4×4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al giving the early morning briefing

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

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

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

And we’re off!

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

On the boat to Fraser

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

Hitting the beach…with wheels

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

Lake McKenzie

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

Braving the chilly water in Lake McKenzie

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

My A Team family enjoying the water

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

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

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

Beautiful lakes on Fraser Island

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

Dingo dos and don’ts

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

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

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

An electrified dingo trap, keeping campsites safe

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

Its Phil’s cup!

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

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

Mealtime fun. ‘Who likes tomatoes?’ Silence.

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

At the wheel!

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

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

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

Approaching the wreck of the Maheno

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

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

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

The Maheno as a hospital ship

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

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

The Maheno in her final resting place

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

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

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

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

View from Indian Head

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

Dingo dangers!

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

Bingo! A dingo

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

Dinnertime!

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

With Ryan and Susie at the beach party

The fun you can have with a beach and car headlamps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family outing!

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

Sand dunes on Fraser

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

Lake Wabby

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

Ryan and his, erm, creative talents

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

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

Farewell family beers

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

Had we had a great time? Yeah!

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

Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

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

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

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

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

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

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

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

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

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

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

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

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

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

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

Another day, another place

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

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

Ooops. Too comfy

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

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

The pool at Gilligans

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

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

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

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

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

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

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

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

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

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

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

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

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

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

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

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

Early morning in Cairns

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

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

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

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

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

Ready to go!

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

Stepping off the back of the boat

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

Going down…

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

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

Colourful coral

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

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

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

Back to the boat

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

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

Nemo land

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

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

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

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

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

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

Underwater smiles for the camera

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

Off I go to explore the reef

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

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

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

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

With Brandon (left) and Alex

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

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

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

Cairns lagoon

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

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

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

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

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

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

Get me out of Here!

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

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

Laughing…but not for long!

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

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

First night in Darwin…before we noticed the problems!

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

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

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

Darwin: full of troublemakers!

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

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

Darwin does have a nicer side!

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

Ciaran, Lisa and Dan at Kakadu National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roasting

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

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

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

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

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

Another nice bit of Darwin – the esplanade

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

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

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

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

I immediately spotted the flaw in the fake helpfulness.

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

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

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

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

World War storage tunnels in Darwin

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

Roadtrip time!

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

Long, straight roads!

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

Termite mounds. Impressive!

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

Mammoth road trains!

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

Relaxing in Kakadu

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

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

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

Snap snap

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

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

Looking out for Crocs near the water!

Try saying this after a few!

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

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

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

Heading off for pastures new

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

Trouble for Man City before my flight!

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

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

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

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

Managed not to miss any of the action!

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

A Train to the Tropics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The powerful Ghan loco passes by

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

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

A wave from a passenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overnight train journey – always means the cards come out!

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

Getting nearer to Darwin (Image © Great Southern Rail)

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

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

Early morning arrival into Katherine

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

Enforced stop-off at the Katherine River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching it turn greener again outside

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

Darwin comes into view on the horizon

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

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

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

Welcome to Darwin, the end of the line!

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

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

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

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

A Rock and a Hard Place

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

“You don’t get this on the tour,”

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

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

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

Fuel up when you can…

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

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

You can probably guess what’s coming next?

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

This isn’t good.

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

Neil, a good mate, and all round legend!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reunited!

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

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

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

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

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

Neil lends me his car…

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

Picking up Dan and Laura…roadtrip!

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

Ayers Rock…

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

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

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

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

“Mt Connor lookout, 300m on left”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huge!

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

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

The Olgas loom ahead

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

Valley of the Winds

The Olgas

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

Watching as the sun sets on Uluru

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

Glowing

Enjoying the experience together

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

The sun rises above the horizon

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

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

Daybreak over Uluru and the Olgas

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at Dan.

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

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

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

Houston, we have a problem.

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

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

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

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

I tried again. Nothing.

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

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

Kurt the mechanic arrives… Dan ponders!

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

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

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

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

Sad face from Laura!

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

Food always cheers me up!

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

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

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

Groan

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

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

Pants.

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

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

Poorly car…outback garage

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck in the bush. We had to smile somehow!

Railroading north on The Ghan

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

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

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

Leaving Adelaide, and the south of Australia

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

Ready for the trip north

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

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

Awaiting departure from Adelaide

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

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

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

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

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

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

All aboard…well, almost!

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

The ever-smiley and helpful crew member Danielle

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

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

My private cabin

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re off – the rest of Australia beckons

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

The locals turn out to wave the train off

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

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

Heading out into the bush

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

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

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

I sent a cheeky one back.

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

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

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

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

With Dan and Laura in the onboard cafe bar

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset in the outback

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

The comfortable lounge car

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

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

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

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

Cosy bed!

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

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

Red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing a dry riverbed before Alice Springs

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

Pulling into Alice and holding up the traffic for a while

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

Arrival in The Alice – and its warm again!

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

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

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

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

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

A statue remembering the roots of the Ghan in Alice Springs

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

Backpack back on, adventures continue

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

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

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

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!