2004-05 Roadtrip 26,000 km Around Australia

We are posting (below the links to our photo website) the contents (basically unedited) of a letter we wrote to a friend describing our roadtrip and our stay in Australia (the "I" in the letter is Audre). 

Have a look at our photo website pictures of our year in Australia.

Click here to see the main picture album for Australia, and keep clicking below for the rest
here for our snaps from our stay in Sydney in February and March 2004 
here for the snaps from our roadtrip from Sydney to Melbourne
here for our snaps from our stay in Melbourne
here for our snaps from our roadtrip from Melbourne to Adelaide
here for our snaps from our stay in Adelaide
here for our snaps of the Outback in May and June 2004
here for our snaps of the Outback in June and July 2004
here for our snaps of the Outback in August 2004
here for for our snaps of our stay in Perth
here for our snaps of our roadtrip through the southwestern part of Western Australia
here for our snaps of the Outback in October 2004
here for our snaps of our final stay in Sydney from November 2004 to February 2005

          "We’ve been having a fine time in Australia. We’ve been here since February 2004 and we’ve been on a gigantic “roadtrip” since March. We spent a month in Sydney getting to [re-] know Dimitri’s Greek school friends from Port Said, Egypt who he hadn’t seen or heard from for 40+ years. Dimitri had been reunited with them through the Internet last year. When we arrived we were embraced as treasured friends and we reveled in that attention.

They are an old-world cosmopolitan mixture of cultures and no sentence ended in the same language as it started. One story that tickled me was during a car ride with another couple. We were in the back seat of the car and the Greek couple was in the front seat speaking French. Another car cut us off and the driver said what I thought was homard. I asked Nicholas why he called the other driver a lobster and he laughed in response. He said that he had called the other driver houmar, which means donkey in Egyptian.

          "We spent a lot of time on administrative matters in Sydney, such as getting a one-year visa and sorting out a long-term car rental. Consequently we will return to Sydney for 3 months at the end of our road trip so we can really enjoy and get to know it. When we were there, however, we did do as much biking as we could. Sydney has dramatic vistas, particularly of the inner harbor and the Harbour Bridge. For instance, we could be 25 miles away from the CBD [aka  central business district] and, at the top of a long uphill climb, be rewarded with a fabulous view of the inner harbor. We were disappointed with the architecture of the homes along the way. It looks to us like the real estate bubble has left many people in Sydney land-rich and cash-poor. The homes look stuck in the 50’s, with little or no improvement.
          "When we left Sydney in March, fall was just starting. We went down the coast and saw our first kangaroos in the wild—called roos here. Dimitri took a snap of me standing next to them and you can see the vein in my neck I was so scared. They were friendly and not aggressive. Now we have seen so many, we think of them like squirrels that can do serious damage to a car if they hop out and hit you.

          "We spent a month in Melbourne and had a fantastic time there even though it was getting cold and a bit rainy. The city is much prettier than Sydney is (though not as dramatic) and the architecture is beautiful—with a lot of lacey wrought iron. Planned bike paths connect the river and the parks and it makes biking lovely. We joined a COTA (Council on the Aging) bike group and went on all-day rides around town with them. There were 80 year olds in the group who were fast. We were invited to people’s homes and made some lasting friendships. We were also invited to a Passover sedar given for 16 people by a couple in which the man is a Greek/Australian and the woman is Jewish from an orthodox family. (Now who would have thought that the combination of those two cultures would work?!). It was a very long and traditional sedar.

         " We’ve noticed that white people (called Europeans here) are much more ethnic in Australia than in the states, possibly because so many people weren’t born here. Perhaps their children have melted into an Australian pot. We also think that Australians are big-hearted, generous people. We have been feted at a ranch and treated to quad-bike riding on the ranch (previously I had never even driven a motorcycle by myself and quad biking in the outback was really fun—not scary). As another example, we are now staying in a large home in Perth which was made available to us for free by an 80 year old Italian man who is spending the winter and spring in his house in the northern town of Broome. We met him and had him over to dinner when we were in Broome and that was all. Pretty remarkable. He loves to cook and his kitchen is pretty remarkable too.

         "After Melbourne, we took the Great Ocean Road across to Adelaide (it won’t eclipse Hwy 1 in California). We saw the world’s tiniest (and cutest) penguins along the way. In Adelaide we did some fantastic biking too. Adelaide has parkland all around the small-ish CBD and the city will stay small because of that. All growth is outside of the parkland. We rented a beautiful house (there were lots of beautifully designed houses in Adelaide) that bordered the parkland at a good price (that means within our budget) which has been unusual for us in Australia. Adelaide was also special because Dimitri met his namesake who had done a search on his name and found our Dimi. He was 30-ish and calls himself  ”Jim” (maybe to melt in). Actually we had more in common with his parents. His Greek father was, co-incidentally, born in Egypt and had seen Dimi’s father’s ship chandlery in Alexandria. He met Dimi’s father and they determined that they were not related. The parents had us to their house in Adelaide for a traditional Greek meal that was great fun.

          "After Adelaide, we started north into The Outback. What a kick. We only drive on the paved roads (called bitumen here) because we rented a 2-wheel drive car. (We had to buy a bike rack for the car.) However, we’ve taken our bikes on many tracks and have seen much of the outback that way.

          "There is so much of this country that is dry, rugged and inhospitable that it is amazing it is populated at all outside of the cities on the coasts. But there is an Outback Culture that is distinct and “taming the untamable” is very much a part of that culture. As we’ve driven north from Adelaide, we’ve been surprised that in the arid countryside there is any vegetation. But there is and the billowy mulgas and acacias make the miles pass pleasantly. If it weren’t for what is called the Great Artesian Basin, there would be no water in the center of Australia at all. I [Audre]  read that Australia is the driest continent on earth after Antarctica. You may remember that we lived on a street called Acacia Ave in Bethesda. Before coming to Australia I’d never seen an acacia tree and now I have seen millions of them, and flowering ones too.

          "All of the mineral rich soil (Australia has mining almost everywhere because it has so much of everything) makes for gorgeous red earth and the iconic Red Center of the country at Ayers Rock. It wasn’t until we got to The Tropical Top End that we saw normal-colored soil again.

          "In the center, we started seeing Aborigines. All I wish to say on the subject is that I hope that the US government is doing better by our Native Americans than the Australian government is doing by the Aborigines. On the other hand, the art produced in the communities is original and pleasantly interesting. We have seen much of their rock art around the country too. It is not nearly as exciting to me as when we went into the middle of Portugal and saw rock drawings from 60,000 years ago. Now I am a cynical pre-history art critic.

          "Ayers Rock is a very special place. The accommodation in the area is very limited and extremely expensive but well done (which we can’t say is typical of expensive outback accommodation). The Red Center is called semi-arid and there is small but interesting vegetation around. We biked and had our photo taken on our bikes with the iconic rock in the background. Days later, as we very visiting the other famous places in the Red Center, people hiking in the Olgas or King’s Canyon would recognize us and say: “Hey, aren’t you the people who were biking at Ayers Rock? " and then they talked to us. Australians are sooo friendly.

          "As we traveled north we were on the one and only north-south paved road. Most of the people we met were retired and caravaning around Australia. They are called the gray nomads or the wrinklies who are “ski-ing”, that is, “spending the kids inheritance”. Many have bikes on the back of the caravan and we’ve biked and shared meals together with some.

"We’ve tried to rent houses or apartments wherever we stop and to stop for 3 or more days at a time. We prefer to eat at home every other night so we want to have a kitchen. This allows us to have caravaners over to dinner too (the typical caravan doesn’t really have enough room for 2, let alone 4.) We started renting apartments in Europe in 2002 and the only time we had trouble doing that was in Greece. The places there that were billed as apartments, with kitchens, made the small NYC kitchen look huge. We are confronting the same phenomenon in Australia. Although I admit that, for the same price, the kitchens in Australia generally are better equipped than they were in Greece.

          "We have also experienced living in “pre-fab” cabins. Some are designed better than others but they are tight little boxes, even when we rent a 2-bedroom unit. Sometimes the only available accommodation is a pre-fab box in a caravan park, in the middle of nowhere. Along the way north, in the Red Center, we stopped at a hot springs to soak and had bought food to prepare in our pre-fab box. It was warm enough to sit outside to eat dinner (the farther north we went, the warmer it got). The generator that produced the electricity serenaded us. No one said the outback was quiet.

          "In the town known as The Alice, an oasis along the north-south road, I went on a star gazing excursion. I can now identify the Southern Cross and other Southern Hemisphere stars. The sky in the outback is wonderful but in winter it does get cold out there at night. It would be completely different to be touring in the summer. Also, we were there at a unique time. The typical rainfall is 6 cm per year and there has been a drought for the last couple of years. However, 2 weeks before we arrived, it rained half the yearly average in a day or two. It looked totally different than usual and the people were so happy. There was a green tinge to the desert.

"I am asking myself whether I want to see the desert in it's most desert-y condition. But I love it now, so I don't know. We drive along the mineral-rich red earth and there are billowy trees in the gum family, and bushes that are in the wattle family and brush and scrub—all in contrasting green colors. And it's interesting to look at it.

"In Alice our bikes were stolen off the top of our car from our locked bike rack that we previously thought was inviolate. From the depths of depression, we soared to pure elation when we arrived at the police station to discover they had already recovered our bikes. They were cleverly removed from the locked rack without scratching the car or the bikes and without breaking the bike rack. The conclusion was bored Aborigine kids had taken them and then left them on the street when they were discovered perpetrating another crime.

"In the Red Center we found a fish seller from a truck that had lots of frozen fish and even frozen oysters in the shell. We had never had frozen oysters before so we bought a dozen, not expecting much. They were quite tasty and the texture was authentic. Additionally, they open up themselves when they defrost. We were told to hang the ziplock bag on the clothesline for 15 minutes and they would be defrosted and open. And they were!

"After the Red Center, we continued north to The Tropical Top End. It was the highest of the high season so accommodation was difficult to find and expensive. We’ve been enduring the plunge of the US dollar as well. Everything is a third more expensive than the last time we were in Australia and about a third to twice more than we think places are worth too. Our experience in the Top End was colored by our accommodation and the prices (actually that’s true of everywhere we travel). The Top End (a.k.a. Crocodile Dundee country) seems over-hyped to us: it is tropical but it doesn’t have the warm sunny days and nights that we associate with tropical Thailand, for instance.

"As you know, we accumulate experiences rather than possessions these days. In the tropical Top End, we had a unique experience. We worked on a mango farm! We joined WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) by paying $60. That allows us to work in Australia without a workpermit in exchange for housing and meals. We absolutely adore mangoes but unfortunately it wasn’t mango season when we were on the farm. The farm is east of Darwin near a dam (which permits the agriculture) and a great place for bird watching. We had a fabulous time and worked very hard. We have a greater admiration and appreciation for the work farmers do. It is grueling, tedious, repetitive work that requires great patience.

"The farm is small-ish by Australian standards. There is a B&B on the property along with the owners’ house and our “demountable” house. Our house had a living room, 3 bedrooms, a complete kitchen along with blenders, food processors and mixers and a bathroom. I could cook anything I wanted and have smoothies each afternoon after work. Of course we had dinner each night with the WWOOFer hosts who were lovely people and interesting to talk to. They are still working full-time in Darwin, she in public health policy (with a masters from Columbia), he in government-encouraged mineral development. The farm and B&B are supposed to be their retirement project. Jeremy would give us farming instructions and we would spend the following days planting, mulching, weeding, putting in irrigation lines, cleaning, watering and getting bitten by mosquitoes (or mozzies as they are called here). We haven’t WWOOFed since because we probably couldn’t find the same kind of ideal conditions. Most WWOOFers are young backpackers and most of the time the accommodations are like shearer’s quarters: a bedroom without a bathroom.

"We wanted the real Australian outback experience working on a station, some of which are the size of small US states. We volunteered for a program where you live on a station and help with the education of the children (traditionally done by radio or now Internet). Unfortunately we couldn’t get our approvals in time and also a minimum commitment of 6 weeks is required. So it didn’t fit. Our WWOOF experience gave us a window into Australian homelife and it was fun.

"After the farmwork, we went to the World Heritage Site at Kakadu NP. It is a mandatory stop to see the Aborigine rock art and to do the hikes. We were under-whelmed. We did go on a sunset cruise in the park called the Yellow Waters cruise. We saw crocodiles and all kinds of birds, including Jabirus (storks).

"I have been having a terrific time birdwatching in Australia. The first time we saw crimson rosellas outside of the house we were renting, we went nuts; they are the most gorgeous reds, with some green contrasts. We bought wild bird food and watched and waited for their arrival. They came twice a day and we got some great photos. Now we can identify many of the parrot varieties as well as cockatoos and kookaburras.

"We continued across the Top End, after spending a week in Darwin (which wasn’t touristically memorable), although Dimitri had an tooth implant done there by a Greek dental surgeon (his first titanium bit). Now Dimitri is a bit bionic. Darwin has a beautiful situation because there’s water on 3 sides of it. But it’s not a particularly pretty place.

"Our long drives were getting repetitive in the Top End because it’s the Savannah Way—lots of grassland, sometimes with forests but mostly not, until we got to the next iconic spot in Australia. The distances are enormous and famous spots are sometimes accessible only by 4WD. To get to the Bungle Bungles, the beehive domes of the Kimberleys, we helicoptered. We stayed at a roadhouse for 2 nights to do the trip. It was surprisingly fun to watch the comings and goings of a typical day at a roadhouse. Fortunately we had a SCU (“self-contained unit”) on the property and I was able to cook the food that we carried there. Our very expensive SCU only had a bed, a kitchen-like area, 2 chairs and a bathroom. So, we borrowed a table from the roadhouse and we ate outside our SCU. There we learned that in The Outback, one is supposed to eat without a table: with your plate balanced on your knees. We were the talk of the roadhouse folk, because not only did we eat with a table and chairs, but also I gathered wildflowers for a flower arrangement and had a candle in our stuff for a candlelight dinner.

"The helicopter trip and the Bungle Bungles were awesome. It was expensive but well worth it: and we can tick off one more iconic spot in Australia.

"We continued across the Top End to the west coast town of Broome. The Savannah Way unfolded into a beachy tropical area. Unfortunately it was still the highest of the high seasons there and we had to move 4 times to stay in Broome for 11 days. We met the one and only Greek family in Broome just by chance. We were walking near the port and I heard a man speaking Australian/English. I turned around because he sounded just like one of our Sydney friends who is a Greek born in Egypt. I took a look at him and then asked “are you Greek?”. It was instantaneous mutual admiration. He and his wife had us over to dinner and we had them to our house. They were the ones who introduced us to the Italian man whose house we’re staying at in Perth.

"In Broome we were able to bike on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world: Cable Beach. It is wide and the sand is hard near the water. We found beautiful sandstone formations there and ate our lunch on the rocks by the water. Even though it was high season, we had that particular beach to ourselves until another biking couple came along. We had a great time getting to know these gray nomads from Adelaide. We had them to our apartment and then, co-incidentally met them, farther south on the west coast. So we biked and had lovely meals with them again.

"Having a social life is unusual for us in our itinerant lifestyle. So this Ozzie experience is unique and memorable. We are learning more and more about Australian values and the way they talk. They use abbreviations for everything: breakfast is breakie, football is footie and so on. The most used expression is “no worries, mate” even when its marginally appropriate.

"After Broome, we went south and saw gorgeous wildflowers along the side of the road. These flowers aren’t just buttercups and dandelions. They are growing in dry, sandy soil and are copious, fragile and unique. There are even wild orchids. It is spring and everything is flowering (after a good rainy season). We even went inland to the wildflower region and were rewarded with lovely sights. It looked like a Disney version of fantasyland. We even saw the elusive wreathflower, which is eyepopping.

"Inland, we stayed in a farmhouse that was an art deco treasure. It was on a huge farm but the owners didn’t live in that house. They have another farm and house where they live. This place was amazing. After we toured it and saw all the bedrooms and the bathroom, lounge (that’s the living room here), we had to pee. It was then we discovered that we had an outhouse. And it was cold in the morning and at night! But we are inventive. Fortunately we bought a portable heater at the beginning of our roadtrip (and found a niche in car to keep it). We took a long extension cord and plugged our portable heater into an outlet in the house, boarded up the otherwise open window and voilà we had a warm toilet.

"We were going to go to Ningaloo Reef for snorkeling because it’s known as the “little barrier reef” but it was still too cold and going in the water would have been unpleasant. We also gave a miss to Monkey Mia and feeding the dolphins for the same reason. And because it’s a must do thing in Australia, there is high demand for very little.

"So farther south we went, even though as went south it was colder. We stayed in some mining towns that were ugly but served as rest stops until we came to Carnarvon a farming community on a river (that flows). There we found crabs that rival Chesapeake Bay crabs (the crabber even spent time studying the industry in MD!) We were able to steam some ourselves and whoa! They were good. I used up the Old Bay spice can that I had been carrying. I remember being able to eat 3 crabs at our feasts. So we bought 6. I could only eat 2 but made amuse bouche crab cakes (using Gerry’s recipe) with the third crab of mine for the next night.

"The fresh fish and shellfish has been delicious when we can find it. The fishing fleets are so modern they catch and freeze all the fish while they are still out at sea. In Darwin we never did find an interesting fresh fish market. However in Broome and along the west coast, we have been eating good fresh fish and shellfish. We even found Dimitri’s favorite: sea urchins in Kalbarri. We will go to a sea urchin-ing farm (mostly exported to Japan) on the Southern Ocean before heading up to Sydney at the end of our roadtrip. We’ll pigout.

"We loved Kalbarri NP. The Savannah Way and the humungous stations faded in the distance and we had lovely rolling hills of farmland to view along the road. In the tiny town of Kalbarri, we had a beautiful apartment with a river and a sea view and the price was affordable. There were whales out there and we saw them spouting water. We went biking to the ocean gorges, hiking on the trails by the river and tried to harvest sea urchins along the shore (one really good one kept us looking for more for hours). The days were sunny and warm but the nights were cold. Our portable heater has come in handy—they don’t have built-in heating.

"Before coming to Perth, and after our inland wildflower excursion, we went to the Pinnacles NP to see the famous sand formations. It was unusual but not beautiful.

"You must be getting tired from this long travelogue. If I try to edit it down, you’ll never get it. So before we leave Perth (another great biking town), I’m going to mail this letter.

"Australia, to sum up so far, has been delightful. We had a desire for a roadtrip and we certainly came to the right place for it. There are unusual and worthwhile places to see everywhere, although there is a lot of nothingness here too. The people are fabulous and the wine is cheap and good. Almost everywhere we can buy delicious meat and produce (even if it has to be trucked long distances) and it’s wonderful to be in a country where you can drink the tapwater everywhere, even the most remote places (that is, if there is any water!) even if there aren’t telephones or electricity. We were excited to experience The Outback and we certainly have. We have concluded, however, that we really like the creature comforts that civilization (and a populated area) can bring. The cities are beautifully civilized. We thought they might be 10 or 20 years behind the states, but that’s not the case. There is much that is familiarly American as we drive around the cities. Additionally, the infrastructure in the cities (and many towns) is remarkably good. The cities have created terrific walking/bike paths by the rivers and by the ocean (we wonder why all cities in the world haven’t done this) so that their populations can stay fit. Each city gives a free introductory walking tour (patterned after the one in NYC) given by volunteers. We’ve met lovely people that way. Each city has had a botanic garden where we’ve learned about our environment. So, we’ve absorbed a lot of new experiences.

"Next we head to the wine region of the southwest and across the Nullarbor (“no trees”, where you can see 100 miles ahead on the road at night, it’s so straight). Then to the sea urchin area on the Eyre Peninsula and directly up to Sydney. We’ll stay in Australia until February 2005 when our visa expires and then head to New Zealand for a year. Next year at this time, with luck, we’ll be just finishing a ski season in the New Zealand snow fields."

If you have any questions, we'll be glad to try to help you. E-mail us at: aleanddm@gmail.com

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