They say that travel is about the journey, not just the destination. But if you’ve ever arrived at your destination …
From Melbourne we took the short (by Australian standards) trip to the capital of Australia, Canberra where we had arranged to stay with some friends Pip and Yvonne. It was striking that the journeys between the more populous towns and cities in the South and East were not really very much busier than those between the outback towns in the West and centre. This is of course because there are only a third as many people living in Australia than there are in Britain and yet it is vastly bigger than the British Isles. Its bound to be quiet there!
It doesn’t take long before the sprawling conurbation that is Melbourne gives way to scrub and bush again as you head towards Canberra and soon we were back on the familiar two lane highway, either side of us the red sandy earth, pock marked by spinifex and gum trees. The rich, clear smell of the eucalypts is something I still haven’t forgotten, like the hot pine panels of a Swedish sauna it pervades your lungs. It is an aroma that you do not become accustomed to like most others and so in the hot, dry eucalyptus forests it is always in the background, always behind everything else that you see, hear, touch and smell, like a sandy coloured wash on an artists canvas.
Canberra, like most of Australia’s larger cities is a planned conurbation laid out in the grid formation that would be familiar to most Americans although to an Englishman this layout takes a little bit of getting used to. It is situated within its own tiny state, the Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.) which is in reality surrounded by the much larger state of New South Wales. New South Wales itself could not really be any less reminiscent of South Wales and so just why Captain Cook chose to name it this is a mystery. Canberra was built as a political centre and encompasses the parliament building, all of the foreign embassies and the large majority of its residents are civil servants or at least employed by the government in some way. As a result Canberra has a reputation as a boring town all across Australia. It is true to say that Canberra is quiet and there is little in the way of night life, but equally property is worth more there, the average wage is much higher in Canberra than across the rest of the country and the people there are generally more affluent.
Night fell quickly over the expansive bush, which seemed to have an even heavier population of kangaroos and wallabies than the rest of Australia and the seemingly endless scrub land gave way to the tidy avenues of Canberra. By now the arrogant van was coughing and backfiring and refusing to idle. If we stopped at a light then the engine would cut out entirely and refuse to start again without a push, which meant that whoever was pushing had to jump into the van as it was moving because if it stopped then the engine would cough, splutter then die again and we would be back to square one. It was as though it knew when we were arriving at our destination and would start to shut itself down ready for a rest at the end of the journey.
As I mentioned earlier, we had problems with the fuel turning to vapour during the hottest part of the day and we would have to stop and let the van cool down before we could go on. That was when we realised that the van had a personality all of its own. A stubborn, self important but vaguely thoughtful personality whereby if it wanted to stop for a rest then it was going to, like it or not, but every time the engine cut out we would still have just enough momentum to carry us into a rest stop.
The rest stops were not like the rest stops we are used to in the UK and instead tended to comprise of a tree to sit under and a lay by in which to park. If you were really lucky they would have a bowser of dubiously drinkable water and a picnic bench, but such luxuries were few and far between.
Faye had rung ahead to let our hosts know that we would soon be arriving and before long we saw the shadowy silhouette of a woman, waving cheerily to us and so we pulled over and Yvonne pointed out the way to her house.
“We’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” I chuckled. “We’re gonna have to give the van a shove to get her started again.”
Yvonne laughed until she realised that I wasn’t joking. Then I would imagine that she laughed some more until we knocked on the front door about ten minutes later.
We spent another relaxing fortnight with Pip and Yvonne, commandeering their living room and sharing a bed with little Max, their diminutive white dog. If I knew more about dogs I would tell you what breed he was. But I don’t.
Canberra itself, although not the liveliest town in the world, was a great place to visit as a tourist. It has huge swathes of public park land, with lakes and fountains dotted around. Although there are nearly half a million people in Canberra, it never seems crowded. The roads are big enough to prevent traffic and there is enough space for everybody to exist happily without feeling as though they are living in one another’s pockets.
The frequency of roundabouts in Canberra actually did us a favour as by this point the van was being so uncooperative that we had to plan our routes to avoid traffic lights at all costs and to negotiate roundabouts by timing our approach in such a way that we could get around them without stopping. At one point Faye directed us on a traffic light-free route which took us through the university campus, into a pharmaceutical plant and along an unfinished section of road which was more like off roading than city driving.
One of the most interesting and moving places to visit is the Australian war memorial which exists to commemorate all fallen Australian soldiers from all wars. The memorial is similar in tone although not in appearance, to the sprawling wartime graveyards in France, it’s sheer size and the huge number of names listed upon it lending a frightening sense of perspective on the horrific casualties of war. It is particularly pertinent to think that as a very isolated island nation, Australia has had little to worry about in terms of actual invasion aside from the Japanese bombings of Darwin in the far North. These names list those brave enough to sacrifice themselves fighting not for the immediate safety of their homeland, but instead fighting on fronts thousands of miles from home for what they believed to be right.
There is no better example of this than Gallipoli, where no fewer than nine Victoria Crosses were awarded to the brave Australian soldiers who fought there, all of which now reside in the Canberra War Memorial.
Australia joined the First World War in 1915 when soldiers from Australia and New Zealand joined the Allies and set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, in order to open the Black Sea shipping lane for the navy. They landed at Gallipoli and were immediately met by Mustafa Kemal (more famously known as Atatürk). The planned surprise attack was met with fierce resistance and soon stagnated taking eight months to reach its bloody conclusion. Following the evacuation of the allied forces the casualties were astounding numbering an estimated 44,000. These included 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India on top of those suffered by the British and French.
The other point of interest is the National Museum of Australia. This is a comprehensive and well presented history of Australia, split into rooms with themes as disparate as Aboriginal history, art and motor sport. One could easily lose a day in there, and we did.
Before we said goodbye to Pip and Yvonne, I had to do something about the van, so I bought a new fuel pump from a motor factors and proceeded to fit it underneath the van. The original mechanical fuel pump was shot and had been replaced by an electric one at some point but this had been mounted too far from the fuel tank and so was not operating as well as it might have. I reasoned that if I could improve the flow of fuel to the carburetor by replacing the pump and mounting it closer to the fuel tank then the fuel might burn more cleanly and the stupid van would stop coughing, backfiring and generally misbehaving. I had dismantled and cleaned the carburetor the night before, so I changed the fuel pump and started her up. The bloody thing started first time and I was very pleased until the loom caught fire. I ran into the shed where I was sure I had seen a fire extinguisher and covered the engine in white powder, luckily stopping the fire before it did any real damage. I had missed one of the bolts that sealed the carburetor and so it was spraying flaming petrol over the engine bay. I fixed the missing bolt in place and the van was finally running as sweet as a nut.
Sometimes though, it’s best just to get a mechanic.
Melbourne looked fantastic as we arrived. We drove in over a huge flyover, the city spread out in front of us like a great sprawling futuristic metropolis. It was much bigger and busier than we had expected. Our expectations were of course based entirely on Neighbours so some degree of inaccuracy was inevitable, but this vibrant looking city was beyond everything that we expected.
We found ourselves a camp site in the middle of a housing estate, had a few drinks with the ubiquitous grog swilling bogans that are a fixture of every camp site in Australia, many of them like strung out, tattooless tattoo artist Rob in Broome living there on a fairly permanent basis. Then in the morning we headed out to explore the city.
The first thing that strikes you in Melbourne id=s the famous “hook turn” which involves not leaving a junction when the light is green when you wish to turn right. Instead of waiting in the right hand lane, you get in the left hand lane and then join the traffic moving from left to right when it is their turn to go. This is very counter intuitive and had I not read about it in my Lonely Planet guide book we probably would have crashed almost immediately as there is nothing that explains what needs to be done except for some ambiguous signage. On top of this, Melbourne is the only city in Australia that does this so even the natives can easily get caught out if they are Melbourne virgins.
As if this isn’t enough to deal with, there are trams on the roads. Bloody great trams that expect you to just get out of the way as they sail past.
“Trams, how quaint.” I hear you say. “I don’t know what you are complaining about. They are environmentally friendly, convenient and aesthetically pleasing.”
Well to put it in perspective, in Melbourne last year there were one thousand collisions between trams and other vehicles. One thousand. That is about three a day. That may not seem like a lot for a big city like Melbourne, but the difference is that trams are huge. Their sheer momentum makes them much more dangerous than the vast majority of other vehicles on the city’s roads.
In theory they are a good idea, but why they have to share the roads with the other traffic I do not know. So with unexpected hook turns and trams to dodge, Melbourne is the least enjoyable city to drive in that I have ever been to. And I’ve been to Nairobi.
Traffic aside, we really didn’t get into the vibe of the town in Melbourne and so instead here is a little on the foundation of the town, which is an interesting if sad story.
Originally Melbourne was founded in haste as the British were concerned that the French may settle in the area, taking the rich and fertile land for themselves and creating the potential for future border and land title disputes. The land was “purchased” from the local aboriginal tribe The Wurundjeri by the fortunately named John Batman who, had he been alive today would not have struggled to attract the ladies with a name like that.
The contentious Melbourne Treaty was signed by Batman and the tribe, with the aborigines purportedly giving ownership of 2400 square kilometres of land that they did not technically own in the first place to Batman in exchange for some blankets, knives, axes, scissors, mirrors, grain, handkerchiefs and shirts.
The land was in fact at this point already under the jurisdiction of the government and so not legally for sale by anyone but them, at least in the eyes of the British. On top of this, the aborigines who sold the land had no real concept of land ownership, believing instead that they belonged to the land due to the fleeting nature of human existence and clearly they did not fully understand the deal that was being offered to them. Either that or they really needed handkerchiefs.
However, this audacious attempt to purchase a truly vast amount of land in exchange for what appears to be the contents of his shed went ahead, and Batman made his fortune.
Melbourne went through a number of incarnations before it became the city that it is today, the best of which for me being the period during which it was known as Batmania. If only it had stayed Batmania it would probably now be home to the coolest villains on earth rather than the more boring mafiosos that frequent it now and lunatics such as the infamous Mark “Chopper” Read. Maybe we should have realised that we may not fully “get” a city whose most famous son achieved his notoriety by cutting off his own ear. Still if it worked for Van Gough…
We only stayed in Melbourne for three days and so although we left without it having made any really notable impression on us, we weren’t really there for long enough to make any sort of fair appraisal of the city. We mainly drank cheap lager on the camp site for the three days that we did stay there until on the morning of the fourth day, we set out for Canberra.
After our impromptu drinking session in the Adelaide camp site, we headed out for the day to explore this colonial city. Probably the most European of all the cities in Australia, Adelaide had an air of familiarity to it that we had not experienced anywhere else since leaving London what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Adelaide is the capital city South Australia, and the fifth-largest city in Australia. It is a coastal city with some lovely sandy beaches, some of which have the ambience of a British seaside town with fish and chip shops, ice cream parlours and those little shops that inexplicably turn a profit by selling what seems to be a randomly accumulated selection of garbage.
The city was named after Queen Adelaide, and was founded in 1836. Adelaide has wide boulevards and large market squares reminiscent of the forums of Roman towns and cities and is surrounded by parks.
Adelaide ranks in the top ten ‘most liveable cites’ and it is obvious why. The relaxed atmosphere, excellent beaches and amenities and proximity to bush, woodland, temperate and desert areas mean that it has a little something for everybody.
We spent the morning on the beach with a couple who we had met the night before. I had bonded with the guy, Scott over his collection of AC/DC records. AC/DC are truly massive in Australia. They are everybody’s favourite band and references to them can be found everywhere. For example there is an Australian company called Scott which manufactures toilet paper dispensers for public toilets. In public toilets all over the country people have augmented the dispensers with the addition of the word Bon before the word Scott in honour of the AC/DC star Bon Scott.
After we had toasted ourselves for long enough we took a stroll around the city centre before heading over to stay with some friends, Sue and Peter and their daughter Roxanne. It was strange returning to normality like this, staying in a normal house doing normal things with people but it was a welcome change from living in the back of a people carrier. They were very welcoming and I even celebrated my birthday there.
They drove us out to a pub in the Adelaide hills for my birthday and it was an even better treat than I had hoped as they had Old Speckled Hen ale on tap there. Australians will tell you differently but their beer is rubbish. For a nation that prides itself so much on its drinking culture they really haven’t got the hang of it at all. The only thing close to a real ale that was available was a sickly concoction called Tooeys Old. Everything else available was tasteless lager. This is because due to the climate all the hops used in the brewing process are freeze dried and imported which leaches out a lot of the flavour that they possess.
Also in the Adelaide hills is a wildlife park called Cleland. Cleland is more a safari park than a zoo and is fairly unique in that it contains all of the animals that you would find in the bush normally, and you can wander among them. And best of all if you ask Faye, you can hold a koala.
The most exciting animal we saw in the park though, was a king brown snake. It was in the park, but it wasn’t one of the attractions. It just happened to slither by when we were eating lunch on a picnic bench so I grabbed the camera and chased it into the long grass in an attempt to get a picture. I didn’t get a picture. I didn’t even see it after that, so I turned back and wandered over to Faye who told me off for chasing yet more deadly creatures. I argued that I didn’t so much chase the blue ringed octopus as poke it, so this was technically a first offence. That didn’t wash though and so I was given a telling off like a little boy.
We spent two weeks staying with Sue and Peter in total and so I can’t thank them enough for being so welcoming and patient.
Our next destination was Melbourne, home of Neighbours which had been my guilty pleasure until ironically I went to live in a van in Australia and got behind with the plot. There are two routes to get to Melbourne from Adelaide and neither of them involve the Stuart highway which seemed unusual. One route heads on a fairly straight bearing inland through what we were told was nondescript bush land, punctuated by a couple of Australia’s roughest towns. The other being the grandly named Great Ocean Road which we had been told had some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia and passed through the town of Mount Gambier where there is a deep blue lake of potable artesian water, nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano. The lake famously changes colour from steely grey to deep blue depending upon the season. Nobody is sure why this is although I suspect it is to do with the reflection of the sky on the lake surface. With the opportunity of visiting Mount Gambier in mind and the fact that we had seen a lot of nondescript bush lately we went with the latter and the scenery truly didn’t disappoint.
Initially we wound our way through wooded hills and vineyards until we were thoroughly lost, which is inevitable when there are two roads to choose from. To add insult to injury, when we did finally get back onto the right road the van decided to break down on a ferry crossing over a tiny river. We delayed the ferry for so long that eventually we were pushed off the boat by the humourless boatmen to the sound of the humourless passengers honking their horns. Humourlessly.
Back on the road again, and we drove on through more woodland, signs intermittently warning us to avoid koalas or helpfully informing us of how many people had been killed or maimed in road accidents along that stretch. Surely if avoiding koalas is that dangerous, maybe we should stop swerving to avoid them. If there were signs up showing statistics of how many koalas had been killed or injured maybe they would stop being so careless when they cross the road.
We stayed two nights at a camp site overlooking Mount Gambier’s colour changing lake and the scenery was beautiful, reminiscent of the mountain regions of Canada. We spent a day walking unhurriedly around the hills and lake, taking our surroundings in before hitting the road again the following morning.
When we descended out of the hills and reached the Great Ocean Road it was soon apparent that the rugged Victorian coastline was indeed as spectacular as we had been told. Reminiscent of the Cornish coast of England it is characterised by great tall cliffs, caves, stacks and archways and is one of the most naturally photogenic areas in the world.
We spent two leisurely days riding along the great ocean road stopping for the night in Apollo Bay for a spot of fruitless fishing before heading on to Melbourne. Westopped for petrol at a garage along the way where we encountered this sign;Eventually we arrived in Melbourne via a very modern highway into a very modern city that appeared at first glance like a cleaner incarnation of Los Angeles with the towering skyscrapers of the C.B.D. looming up out of the low rise sprawl surrounding them. We headed for our desired camp site (the cheapest one in the guide book) and bought a case of beers en route. We found our camp site fairly easily and proceeded to get drunk with some more strangers, an art we had by now mastered, and went to bed.
We set out from Alice Springs for no discernible reason at around eleven o’clock in the evening as we weren’t doing a huge amount and decided not to wait until the morning. Another contributory factor in this decision was the vans continued refusal to function between eleven a.m. and 3 p.m.. It seemed that the added risk of kangaroo collision was worth taking given the circumstance and so we hopped in and hit the road.
Originally we had planned to share the driving, taking turns to sleep, but that went out of the window when I spent the entirety of the night pointing out wildlife to Faye. There is actually an awful lot more wildlife to be seen in the outback at night than during the day as most of the Australian fauna tends to take shelter from the hot sun during daylight hours. One of the commonest and most memorable sights were the great herds of kangaroos, appearing out of the darkness and bounding across the road, silhouetted against the magnificent, bright bush sky.
It is advisable when driving at night to keep to the middle of the road in remote areas because the roads are unlit and unfenced and so the split second warning you get from the centre of the asphalt as something looms out of the darkness onto the highway could easily represent the difference between hitting it and missing it.
Traffic is so scarce in these areas that the local wildlife has no qualms about leaping out in front of you and so we spent a good deal of the journey just waiting for roos and cattle to get out of the way.
The big road trains have a different and less subtle means of dealing with these obstructions. They prefer to hit the gas and drive straight over them. Even cattle. The huge bull bars on the front are enough to protect the vehicle from damage and so they just plough on through whatever may get into their way.
This roadkill will then sit at the roadside rotting, a smell which can be picked up from miles away. Larger animals such as red kangaroos and cattle have also been known to swell with gas as they fester before finally exploding, sending a mist of decaying flesh across the surrounding area. Those buggers are particularly pungent.
I avoided these creatures though. My nemesis was much smaller. We still aren’t sure what they were but we called them ‘cone-head pigeons’. They looked like regular English wood pigeons but had crests on their tiny, brainless heads. I say brainless because the tarmac roads cool more slowly than the surrounding countryside and so the pigeons choose to roost there. It goes to show just how empty the roads are when a creature can sleep on a highway every night because it is warm and still survive long enough to reproduce. The outback is so quiet that natural selection doesn’t seem to need to apply there.
I hit five that night and narrowly missed a lot more. Two thudded sickeningly against the windscreen, one hit the roof box and got wedged into our luggage, one managed to attach itself to the front of the van in the cartoon style of a Warner Brothers movie and one somehow managed to wedge itself so neatly between the panels of the bodywork that I had to pick it out with a screwdriver.
We continued until the sun came up with one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen then stopped for a water break by the dry salt pan Lake Eyre.
Lake Eyre is dry most of the time and was dry when we saw it to. It floods around every four years and with it comes a vast array of bird life. More remarkably though, some species of fish actually lay dormant in the parched soil, wriggling out of the sediment when the lake floods so that they can fleetingly reproduce, feed and act like normal fish again before the waters recede and they burrow back into the salty earth. The lake even has its own dedicated yacht club which sails there whenever it floods enough for it to be possible.
After a rest we pressed on to Coober Pedy, a town famous for its rich opal veins, for being the hottest place on earth for a time and for the fact that a large proportion of its residents live in caves carved into the rocky earth to shelter from the blistering heat. In fact the name Coober Pedy literally translates from the aboriginal as ‘whitefella live down hole’. This quirky name is however pretty much its only endearing feature. Well that and the fried breakfast I had at the roadhouse.
As we kept heading south, the desert became at once very hilly and then almost as suddenly as that had happened, the ranges of bluffs opened out onto vast swathes of wheat fields and meadows reminiscent of the mediterranean. The suddenness with which the desert gave way to such temperate areas was shocking but it made a welcome change to the faceless desert we had encountered since we left Darwin weeks before.
We stopped briefly for refreshments in Port Augusta where I caught sight of my reflection for the first time since I had left Alice Springs 20 hours earlier. The whites of my eyes had given way to dark red. I didn’t look very well, but I felt alright and awake, probably due to the eight litres of Coke I had drunk and the sixty cigarettes I had smoked since leaving and so we pressed on to Adelaide where we had arranged to meet and stay with some friends. We arrived a day earlier than planned and so rather than drop in unannounced, we pulled up to a campsite in Adelaide.
Arriving in Adelaide was a shock to the system too as real roads with traffic lights and other cars criss-crossed the city. It resembled London, at least by night. We pitched our van at the campsite and had soon befriended a few people camped nearby. We spent the rest of the night drinking with some Aussies and two barking mad and heavily tattooed Danish guys.
We finally went to bed thirty two hours after leaving Alice Springs. It had been an enjoyable trip in places, but I for one was glad to close my eyes that night.