I am dubbing this newsletter the Annapurna Travelogue, in honor of my new nickname. No, I did not give this nickname to myself; I was given it by a friend. And no, I am not climbing Annapurna when I get to Nepal, but I still think it’s a cool name, so I think you should all start using it!
Today is my last day in Australia, and it’s been a great four weeks. I started in Sydney, where I spent two days visiting the zoo, aquarium and botanical gardens so I could identify various nasty Australian creatures in the bush before they bit and killed me. Then I picked up my rental car, which turned out to be the thing most likely to kill me. Remember when you first learned to drive, and the car looked twice as big from the driver’s seat so you thought you were going to hit something on the side of the road all the time? Well, you have to go through that adjustment period all over again when you switch to the left side of the road. The other thing that happens is you can’t get used to being on the right side of the car, so you go to use your turn signal and switch on the windshield wipers instead. So on and so forth.
After a terrifying two hours trying to find my way out of Sydney in the dark, I drove to a National Park west of Sydney called the Blue Mountains, acclaimed for its beautiful rock formations, like the famous Three Sisters, and its bluegum tree forests. I spent two days hiking there on trails through the forests and up staircases cut into steep, moss-covered canyon walls with waterfalls spilling over them. The Blue Mountains are so called because they have a blue haze hanging over them, which is created by the eucalyptus trees. The Smoky Mountains meet the Grand Canyon is how I would describe it. I also visited Jenolean Caves in the Blue Mountains, which are beautiful limestone caves which you can take guided tours through.
Now, a word about my living arrangements. I had heard from my brother that the backpacker’s hostels were the way to go, full of other travelers to meet and a good place to get ideas for things to do. And they are indeed very well set up in Australia, with tour desks who can book anything for you and answer any question. But while in Sydney, I stayed in a hostel in an area called King’s Cross, which I later discovered to be the slums of Sydney, and in which my dorm room was populated with over-sexed, twenty-year-old British girls who drank until 3:00 am and brought men (boys, that is) back to the room, and one of whom was a lesbian who kept up a loud, drunken and untiring effort to get one of us to get in bed with her. Now, I know I have a number of friends out there to whom this all sounds pretty darn good. But I was fed up in no time at all. After my hostel in the Blue Mountains also turned out to be filled with twenty-year-olds, I went in search of an alternative and found the pub hotel. A pub hotel is a nifty place where you walk into a historic looking corner pub, ask the bartender for a room, and he pulls out an old ledger book from behind the bar and gives you a key to a room upstairs that is admittedly dingy and has bed springs popping out and a communal bathroom, but is ALL YOURS and does not have any twenty-year-old girls in it. And it only costs a few dollars more than a hostel, usually $20 or $25 Australian dollars, which is about half that in US dollars.
So, I began to make my way across the state of New South Wales, staying in pub hotels along the way, headed for Warrambungle National Park, which is about 700 kilometers inland and very much off the beaten track. At Warrambungle the only option was to camp, and since I didn’t have a tent I slept in my car. I spent a couple of days hiking and seeing the volcanic rock formations and the wildlife, which was very accustomed to people in this park. Kangaroos, wallabies and emus would walk right up to you in hopes of a handout. I saw goannas (big lizards), and all sorts of exotic birds, including laughing kookaburras. On one occasion my path was blocked by a fierce looking wallaby mother protecting her baby, and I got close enough to touch her. Then she growled at me and I ran the other way. Wallabies (which are similar to kangaroos, but smaller with different coloring) can actually rip you up pretty good with their back paws if they feel threatened, although it is rare.
After Warrambungle I made my way back to the coast, stopping at New England National Park and Dorrigo National Park on the way, both part of New South Wale’s National Heritage rainforest area. There was more wildlife to be seen in the rainforests, including brush turkeys and pandemelons (picture a huge rat that has mated with a wallaby, but is actually somehow very cute). In the evenings I continued to stay in the pub hotels, and the cool thing about that was meeting local Australians instead of twenty-year-old travelers. Pub hotels tend to be used by working-class Australian men who are doing some type of job away from home and need a place to stay on a weekly basis. I would frequent the pubs at night and find someone to chat with, and in support of my rapidly developing early mid-life crisis, I discovered that I am a magnet for 65-year-old Australian men. If I was lucky I might find an outdoor type who had advice for me on national parks or good trekking spots, or maybe a teacher or engineer who would educate me a little on Australian culture or current events or how the national elections worked (election day was November 10th, so I heard a lot about this). If I was not so lucky, I would get stuck talking to an excavator operator who was so drunk as to be completely unintelligible, and possibly quite happy to rage on and on about the “Aboriginal problem” or the horrors awaiting women who travel alone until I couldn’t stand it anymore. On one particularly memorable night I asked some poor sod to repeat himself about thirty times, at which point he snapped that I was very slow-thinking and I replied that he was drunk. That was the end of that conversation. But in general, I notice that Australians are extremely friendly, even when they are, say, a policeman giving you a speeding ticket, or an auto shop worker just realizing that he has illegally fixed a dent in a rental car without the rental agency’s permission, because the driver didn’t take the insurance option. (OK, so perhaps the rental car was not the best idea I ever had, but it did allow me to get off the tourist track and see much more than I would have in four weeks on the buses or trains).
After the rainforests I decided I hadn’t given the whole backpacker scene enough of a try, so I went back to the coast to the town of Coffs Harbor, known as a mecca for adventure tour operators offering everything from whitewater rafting to skydiving to abseiling (the term they use for rappelling here). I had planned to do some whitewater, but due to recent drought, I was talked out of that quickly. Despite years of being somewhere between disinterested and fearful of it, I decided to get dive certified instead.
In Australia you can get your PADI certification for as little as $200 ($100 in US dollars). I checked into another hostel, which wasn’t so bad this time, and signed up for a four-day course. My classmates were–you guessed it—four twenty-year-olds, three Germans and a Brit. They took to diving like fish to water. This left the instructor plenty of time to deal with his frightened remedial student–me. While the kids were on the bottom playing, the instructor was constantly coming back up to the top to grab my foot and drag me back down. I had problems breathing through the regulator, problems sinking, problems buddy breathing–you name it, I couldn’t do it. Somehow, I passed the course, and by my fourth dive I even began to enjoy it. We skipped the usual swimming pool stage and did all our dives in open water, and I saw wobegone sharks, manta rays, and a giant sea turtle that one of my classmates took a ride on.
After five nights in Coffs Harbor, eating in restaurants instead of having canned food out of the trunk of my car, and drinking with the other backpackers, I was ready to hit the national parks again. I headed inland, this time in the state of Queensland, and stopped at Lamington National Park on the way, another rainforest park. I had one of my most memorable nights there. The park hosts a prestigious and locally famous eco-lodge called Binna Burra. The lodge is very small and rustic, and also very expensive and upscale, with a fine dining restaurant and a high staff-to-guest ratio. They offer all sorts of nature tours and small cultural events, and they attract a very ecologically-minded type of guest. I was staying at the campground nearby and came over for a glass of wine, and somehow I managed to meet two of the hotel managers and some visiting friends who were fungi experts doing research for the Australian National Parks Bureau. They invited me to dinner in the Binna Burra dining room, which I could never have afforded on my own. We drank about a case of Australian wine and then attended a recitation of Australian bush poetry in front of a roaring fire in the lodge’s lobby. One of fungi experts performed, and I was amazed at how much poetry a 65-year-old man who has just consumed incredible amounts of Shiraz can remember, not to mention while jumping up on the coffee table and gesturing wildly.
My next destination was Carnarvon Gorge, a park about 80 kilometers inland, described by the guidebooks as looking like something out of Jurassic Park. Carnarvon featured huge king ferns, narrow canyons with towering sandstone walls and waterfalls, and several ancient Aboriginal art sites. It poured rain the day I was there, but it was well worth the drenching hike I took to see all of the park’s best features.
Back to the coast again, to Cairns, my final destination. Cairns is surrounded by the Atherton Tablelands, beautiful mountainous land covered with subtropical rainforest. I spent three days exploring before I had to return my car, and saw enormous strangler fig trees, one the height of a twelve-story building. I had an embarrassing bout with a canoe on Lake Tinaroo, where I could not control the boat and the wind kept washing me back on shore, and I climbed Bartle Frere, which is Queensland’s highest mountain. Everyone said Bartle Frere could not be climbed in one day, even though it is only 1622 meters high, and with typical American arrogance I scoffed at them and set off to climb it in one day. Although I still don’t buy that it’s a two-day hike, I do have to admit that it gave me a surprising run for my money. After getting lost in a boulder field at the summit, I returned from the climb bruised, battered, and covered with leech bites.
On my last two days in Cairns I splurged a bit. One day I went to another eco-lodge, this one called Daintree, and had an expensive lunch of kangaroo, crocodile and emu and a two-hour treatment in the spa, which featured supposedly Aboriginal techniques like Kodo massage and rain therapy. It was awesome, Aboriginal or not. On the other day, I went out on a dive boat and did a couple of dives on the Great Barrier Reef. I could not name anything I saw, other than a giant clam that pulsated when we touched it, but I will say that the Reef is everything it’s cracked up to be and more, with fish and coral of every size, shape and color imaginable.
Well, that’s probably a lot more than any of you actually wanted to know about my trip, but I hope you will all tune in again for the next edition of the Annapurna Travelogue, which will be coming to you from New Zealand.