a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “australia

Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.

Australia Through Five Eyes

Between some lazy days enjoying our idyllic back yard and the late summer sunshine, we’ve finally been able to catch up on some editing.  This is the first of two videos covering our 82 days and 10,000 miles across Australia.

Strung around the outskirts of a vast, empty interior, Australia boasts a captivating array of landscapes— lush rainforest, snowcapped mountains, miles and miles of rugged coastline, towering gum trees, some of the world’s finest swimming holes, the beautiful city of Sydney. And, of course, in the middle of it all, the most famous rock in the world


How to be homeless

After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.

First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:

Tent vs. campervan

Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too?  Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.

Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.

Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.

Home away from home.

Where to sleep

While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.

DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:

Near Cannan Downs, NZ.


Australia by the numbers

From estimating the hours left on long drives to imposing a strict budget upon ourselves, numbers dominated our time in Australia. We kept track of everything with a certain disturbing compulsiveness that made Nate realize he may be turning into his father. But it was out of necessity: after the budget paradise of Southeast Asia, it would have been easy to get carried away here in the land of $22 burritos and endless miles of road. Here is a breakdown of our time down under, in numerical format.

Home sweet home

82: total days in Australia.

77: nights spent camping. We are especially proud of this number. Proud, and pleased that they are behind us.

5: nights in a hostel. For the most part they were dirty, loud, and crowded, and made the thought of camping quite desirable.

<10: other people we saw camping in tents. It seems to be a lost art in Australia.

1000s: people traveling in caravans. The Australian dream: retire, sell your house, buy a caravan and live out the rest of your days in crowded caravan parks and grungy roadside rest areas.

12: most consecutive days of free camping. Between free rest areas, backpacking the Tabletop track, and taking advantage of lazy national park staff in Kakadu, we were pretty happy with this string of free nights.

20: an estimate in degrees F of the lowest temperature we camped in. It was a cold hollow below Alpine National Park, and we woke up to a tent caked in frost.

2:33: Minutes it takes us to set up our tent. Yes, we timed it.

Behind the wheel

15,110: kilometers driven in the Ford Falcon (plus 700 in our rental car)— just under 10,000 miles.

130: highest speed limit in km per hour— or 80 mph. In empty central Australia you have to go fast if you intend to get anywhere within your lifetime. Thankfully the government realizes this. On average speed limits were quite generous and nearly impossible to eclipse especially on curvy, narrow roads. We don’t know how anyone gets a speeding ticket in this country.

$2,595: dollars spent on gas.

$115 : most money spent on a fill-up. In the middle of the country, you can’t really afford to be picky. When gas comes along, you buy it, no matter how exorbitant the price…

$1.99: highest price per liter of gas, which works out to $7.50 a gallon. Ouch!

1: Kangaroo collision.

1000s:  Unfortunate roadkill encountered.

$500: what it would have cost us to tow our car to a garage when it refused to start outside Kakadu National Park one morning. Luckily we found a kindly mechanic on our own— thank you Rosco!

150: average length of a road train, in feet.

46: percent of our total Australian expenses spent on our car in repairs, gas, and maintenance. This doesn’t even include the purchase!


17: days where we didn’t spend any money.  Zero days were always exciting and a cause for celebration.

92: Australian cents a US dollar could buy at our dismal exchange rate.

$1.60: lowest price ever paid for a bottle of wine. Actually, this is just a 750ml portion of the two 4-liter boxes of fine Stanley wine that were on special for $18. Yep.

$2.77: most money ever spent on a single banana. Back in February Cyclone Yasi, in addition to mangling Hinchinbrook Island, took out nearly all of Australia’s banana crop. We bought this one for our Fourth of July fruit salad but otherwise refrained due to the price hike.

$12: cost of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s we spied in Melbourne.

Our Australian lifestyle

20: national parks visited.

26: degrees of latitude crossed. Ranging from 36 degrees south in southern Victoria to 12 degrees south in the Top End of the Northern Territory. The northern hemisphere equivalent to this would be driving from Virginia to Venezuela.

5,300: highest elevation reached, in feet. We hiked through snow part of the way to Mount Feathertop, in Victoria.

45: approximate kilos of pasta consumed. This is estimating three hefty pasta dinners per week.

152: kilometers we walked on our four backpacking trips. Or 94 miles, a third of the Long Trail.

36: bins of fruit (apples, oranges, and mandarins) picked.

2: longest silence in the car, in hours, after a large rock hit our windshield and the subsequent bickering.

5: longest number of days we went without showering, though we did swim!

9: approximate times we did laundry, which averages out to once every ten days. This becomes more disturbing when you factor in the number (3) of underwear Nate currently owns.

8:00: earliest bed time. There’s not a whole lot to do after dinner when you live in a tent.


A slice of Australia

Last October, sitting next to a roaring woodstove on the other side of the world, we booked a backpacking trip on Australia’s Hinchinbrook Island, the largest island national park in the world. It was the only thing we planned in advance for our trip to this enormous country, purchasing our permits to camp there before our flights.

So it was a bit surreal when we finally boarded the boat on a sunny morning, headed for the uninhabited, mountainous outcropping of land in the Coral Sea.

We had booked five nights and six days to walk and enjoy the 32-kilometer Thorsborne Trail, but opted to walk the trail both ways. Not only did it save us nearly $200 on transport to and from the island, we would have been so bored with all the downtime.

Hinchinbrook is like a mini Australia. We saw just about every type of landscape we had driven or hiked through (aside from the massive expanses of nothing, thankfully).

The trail passed through jungles similar to the ones we just left in Daintree, through the arid desert-like forests of the Flinders Ranges, the swampy grasslands and beautiful swimming holes of Litchfield and Kakadu, and the mountains, rolling hills, and stunning beaches of Victoria and New South Wales. It was amazing, and we were glad we got the chance to see each place twice. (more…)

A world of green

Far northern Queensland is lush and tropical, bearing a palette of colors far removed from the arid, red Australia of the imagination.

Rolling hills hold field upon field of vibrant green sugar cane, their silvery tassels catching the breeze and the sunlight. Behind the ocean of cane, a near-constant shroud of pearl gray mist blankets dark green mountains and tumbling waterfalls. Not far off to the east, sandy beaches line the edge of the Coral Sea.

Due to usually cool weather there were no vegetables to harvest, and we found ourselves with an unexpected but not unwelcome abundance of time to explore both sides of the highway. It was a leisurely change from our past two months of long drives and endless places to see. Suddenly we had time to stop wherever and for however long we pleased, enjoying the small, out of the way places that are sometimes the most enjoyable.

A brief stop to see Josephine Falls in Wooroonooran National Park.

The Boulders, in Babinda, had a great boardwalk along the river, and was an excellent place to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Millaa Millaa Falls.


Lazy days in croc country

Kakadu is everything a national park should be: a massive and untouched sanctuary for diverse wildlife, a site to experience ancient culture, holder of some awe-inspiring scenery and natural beauty. At 20,000 square kilometers, it is Australia’s largest park, and is highly revered in guidebooks and the mountains of tourist literature that piled up in our car. Unlike past parks where we’ve had hikes planned and sites to see, the three days we reserved for Kakadu were refreshingly blank of an itinerary, aside from exploration.

One thing was for sure— after slogging along the Tabletop Track, we were more than ready for some lazy sightseeing featuring very short, very flat walks down paved paths. In the park’s excellent visitor’s guide, we highlighted trails clocking in under two kilometers and gave stars to the ones featuring a decimal point in front. Anything requiring footwear more substantial than flip-flops was out of the question. This was going to be an enjoyable three days.

Kakadu is known for its lovely and life-sustaining wetlands, home to countless birds and fish, turtles, snakes and— possibly the scariest animal ever—estuarine crocodiles. Signs everywhere warn you not to enter or even get close to the water, frightening you off with a depiction of a toothy and malevolent-looking croc, jaws wide open ready to gobble you up should you dip a toe in the river.

The scary part is that in Australia, warning signs mean something. People have met their early and unpleasant ends due to croc attacks inside the park, and the stories are too common and too gruesome for comfort.

We wanted to see one from a safe distance, and were on the lookout.

On our first day, we spotted a massive yet disappointingly docile-looking fellow on the far side of the river, resting in the heat of the day. While impressively long and powerful looking, we wanted action, preferably involving him lunging up to eat a bird or annoying child.

Kakadu is also famous for several extensive Aboriginal rock painting sites—something I’ve been wanting to see since we arrived in Australia. Painted in layers of ochre, pale cream, and deep red, the drawings depict several aspects of daily life—mostly, it seemed, dinner. Barramundi, catfish, ­­­­­­­­­saratoga, long-necked turtles and wallabies all adorned the walls and roofs of caves at Ubirr, painted in a distinctive X-ray style. Since people often painted over other images, the older images we could see date back to somewhere the last 2,000 years. It was way cooler than we expected.

After looking at several sites, we clambered up to the lookout. A wide floodplain extended below us, bright green except for a few lingering expanses of sparkling blue water. Reddish rocky outcroppings rose in the distance, and several dark green trees studded the plain. The occasional white bird or kite flew above the plain, and a vibrant blue sky spread above. We stayed up there for a long time, captivated by the colors, staring out at the plain as other visitors came and went.



Our foreign Fourth of July

The Fourth of July, in our opinion, might just be the best day of the year. What could be better than a day off in the height of summer to do whatever you please?

This year, despite being on a faraway continent full of people oblivious to the holiday, we were determined to carry out our duties as Americans on our nation’s birthday. Namely:  grill meats and get drunk next to a body of water.

We happened to be in Babinda, in northern Queensland, on the morning of the Fourth of July. Babinda is a beautiful town, but also happens to share the dubious and unfortunate title of the rainiest town in Australia. Low, grey clouds unleashed rain with varying degrees of enthusiasm all day.

Undeterred, we took over a covered picnic table and proceeded to make ample quantities of some classic and unhealthy American summer foods— hot dogs, pasta salad, fruit salad, watermelon, baked beans, potato chips, orange soda. At the highly acceptable hour of 1:30 p.m., we added Dark and Stormies to the mix.

We didn’t have any flags or fireworks, but we tried our best to be patriotic:

Clearly we had plenty of time on our hands.

It just wouldn’t be the Fourth of July without swimming, so despite the weather, we peeled off our rain jackets and dove in. Briefly.

This also seems an appropriate time to pass along some of the things we love about America. Being so far away from home for so long has also made us realize what we take for granted.

Beer. The beer here is an improvement over anything found in Asia, but we would have to commit all sorts of nefarious deeds in order to regularly afford $20 for a six-pack of 3.5 percent pilsner. Americans live in the promised land when it comes to beer. Oh, how we miss our hoppy and affordable IPAs!

S’mores. Imagine a place where the mention of s’mores receives a blank and questioning look. Imagine a continent devoid of graham crackers, where marshmallows are pink and taste like cherry cough syrup. Well, my friends, this land is Australia. With such an outdoorsy population, you would think Australians would have caught on to the wonder that is the s’more. But no. They have never heard of them. It’s a travesty.

Not being foreign. Though it’s not as obvious as when we where in Asia, we are still readily identified as foreigners here in Australia as soon as we open our mouths and talk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just nice to walk down the sidewalk and know that the people who pass share your citizenship and the things that come with it. It’s like you’re on the same team. Even if they’re assholes.

The price of everything. Most things in the States are cheap, but in this context, everything means the essentials: beer (which we’ve already discussed), gas (it costs $5.10 to $7.50 a gallon here), ice cream cones, and McDonalds cheeseburgers (each about double the price). Why do we care so much about McDonald’s prices? Well…

Internet. Fast, free wifi is nearly nonexistent here. The one and only reliable source of wireless is, oddly enough, McDonalds. We’re in one right now. It’s a bit depressing.

Baseball. Sunshine, warm weather, and tropical beaches aside, it just doesn’t feel like summer without baseball. Not to mention our beloved wiffle ball field.

Our friends and family. Not that we don’t like each other, but it would be nice to hang out with someone else for a change. There’s something about a holiday, especially this one, that makes you miss home.

Last year's fireworks from the Richmond Bridge.

Swimming holes the hard way

Driving north out of Australia’s empty interior, the arid desert’s red rocks and low bushes slowly phase into the sparse trees and tall grasses of the savannah woodland. Here in the Northern Territory’s Top End, well above the Tropic of Capricorn, winter is the dry season and temperatures still rise well into the 80s. Litchfield National Park is one of the region’s top attractions, providing locals and tourists alike with deep clear swimming holes and a welcome relief from the heat.

Florence Falls.

We were there to spend four days and three nights on the Tabletop Track, a 39-kilometer walking track through the park. For better or worse (worse) we didn’t know much about it, other than that it linked up numerous waterfalls along a rocky plateau. Though the parks service deems it mandatory to purchase and carry a detailed topographical map of the area, they are apparently only available in Darwin, which was well out of the way. We came prepared with this:

As you can see, the trail is ringed by a road that accesses nearly all the highlights, so most people simply pile into their car/campervan/tour bus and drive between them. Choosing to ignore this, we packed our bags and began with a refreshing dip at beautiful Florence Falls, which was well visited but not overwhelmingly so.

From there, our first afternoon was an easy 6 kilometers through pleasant landscapes, crossed by the occasional clear stream. Fields of stiff, straw-colored spear grass, taller than us in some places, clacked gently in the breeze and, true to its name, occasionally speared us in the shins.

Every once in a while a cloud of golden dragonflies would rise from the spear grass and surround us, fluttering gracefully. Butterflies, some sky blue and black and others rust-colored, floated in the slight breeze. It was nice. We reached camp around sunset, set up alongside a quiet but friendly Cairns native, and went to bed looking forward to more of the same.

On the second day, though, the Tabletop Track revealed its true, hateful character. Spear grass disappeared as we entered a former burn zone, and we trudged through more than 12 kilometers of flat, scorched terrain, sweltering under an unforgiving sun. Sparse, twisted trees offered nothing in the way of shade, and the ground was strewn with loose rocks, looking half melted from fires or the sun or both. It was a wasteland, much more suited for a landfill, or say, Hell, than a national park.

We'll spare you more pictures, but it was about seven hours of this.


Australia’s biggest icon

Two hundred fifty kilometers down a lonely stretch of road, an isolated hunk of sandstone looms in stark contrast to the vast and featureless plains of central Australia.

The remote but world-renowned Uluru is one of the most recognizable and iconic images of Australia. We’ve all seen photos of it a million times, and just about everyone can equate “that big red rock” with Australia. It’s the sort of thing you go see almost more out of obligation than desire: it just doesn’t seem right to travel to Australia and not see The Rock. Thus, we turned off the Stuart Highway along with countless trundling caravans full of traveling retirees for the 500 km out and back detour.

As it turns out, it’s awesome. And big. From the moment it looms on the horizon through the walk up to its base, you find yourself gaping upward and frequently muttering things like, “now that’s a big rock.”

Uluru rises 348 meters (1,148 feet) into the air — more of a mountain than a rock — and you can’t help but wonder how it got there. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is always supremely boring and usually revolves around the solidifying of sand layers and deathly slow wind and water erosion.

The local Anangu people have lived in the area an exceptionally long time and have some creation stories of their own which are infinitely more satisfying. Most of them involve ancestor animals battling and dying gruesomely on or around the rock, leaving scars in the earth behind. Cool. Some of these sites are sacred, and signs ask you not to take pictures on one whole side of the rock.

The Anangu officially own the land and lease the park back to the Australia government. Ownership details aside, it was unclear who exactly was raking in the 12.5 million dollars in park entrance fees ($25 per adult) that Uluru generates per year, but it sort of makes you wish you had a really big rock in your backyard doesn’t it?

A 9.5km trail winds its way around the base of the rock, which is not the bland, featureless oval that we expected, but a jagged spearhead shape with huge gorges, countless insets, caves, boulder outcroppings and odd formations. Two waterholes surrounded by leafy eucalypts sit peacefully, fed by rivulets cascading down the rock whenever it rains. Gazing up from the base, the massive red walls rise high above, until they curve out of sight against the bright blue sky. It was instantly and immensely impressive. Why had we never seen photos of it up close?



Inland and upward

Before Australia’s coastal hills flatten out into the interminable Outback, a worthy collection of the craggy, cliff-laced mountains that are typical of this country rise from Flinders Ranges National Park.

The park is best known for Wilpena Pound, a curiously circular valley surrounded by impassable red cliffs and deep, dry gorges. Once used to hold herds of sheep in the 1800s — and for Aboriginal gatherings long before Europeans arrived— it is now home to kangaroos grazing peacefully in the grasses and low bushes. A lot of them. We also spotted the odd group of mountain goats, introduced to the area long ago, which rangers are now apparently trying to stomp out. Australia has huge problems with their animal populations. There are tons of species that are not supposed to be here (foxes, goats, rabbits, toads, camels), and too many of the ones that are (kangaroos), as we would discover later.

These guys are supposed to be here: an emu.

We opted for a 23-kilometer overnight hike, which led us through the floor of the Pound, over the ring of mountains, and back along a forested trail.

After a night in the Pound (and the robbery of half of our dinner by some unwelcome crows) we hiked up to St. Mary Peak, dodging the enormous webs of some large and deeply unsettling spiders that enjoyed hanging just above eye level. The view from the top was well worth it. Rocky, rolling mountain ranges snaked into the distance, melding into the flat, unbroken plains beyond. No doubt there was interesting geology at work here.

This orb weaver spider was as long as my index finger.


Stepping up in society

After a laughably low-class week harvesting citrus, it was time to blow some of our hard-earned cash in one of South Australia’s famed wine regions.

McLaren Vale lies just an hour south of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Row upon row of grapes stretch from rolling hillsides and across yellow-green plains until they meet the ocean. Narrow, tree-lined roads thread the countless tasting rooms together, and simply driving around town is a worthy afternoon activity in itself. It is just as pleasant as it sounds.

Dressed in our finest clothes (which for Nathan, meant the jeans he worked in all week), we headed for picturesque Coriole Vineyards. Despite our efforts, the employees seemed to realize we weren’t going to order a case of wine—probably from my lack of fancy handbag and leather boots— and didn’t spend much time on us. Oh, well.  The wine was very, very good.

We took a bottle of Sangiovese and headed to a table surrounded by blooming gardens, shaded by an old tree, and frequented by the resident cat— a green-eyed and extremely soft fellow who thankfully spent a fair amount of time hanging out with us. From there we sipped wine, nibbled on cheese and crackers, and laughed at the overly fancy crowd in cable-knit sweaters and designer sunglasses swirling their wine and commenting on the elegance of the vintage. It was pretty hilarious, and quite a contrast from the orange picking crowd.

Notice Steph's scarf... a bold attempt at fitting in.

Sitting there soaking up the last of the winter sunshine, we realized we lacked only four things for a perfect stay in McLaren Vale: time, money, friends, and bicycles. It was easy to imagine an excellent long weekend of riding bike paths and back roads from vineyard to vineyard with some good company.

Early the next morning, we drove south to Victor Harbor in the hope of spotting some of the many southern right whales that swim into the bay in the winter. Sadly, we were apparently a week or two early, but a walk around the surprisingly lovely Granite Island more than made up for it.

Not to mention some hot, fresh, very unhealthy cinnamon doughnuts.

It was a short but satisfying goodbye to the ocean. The next few days took us straight inland— towards the Outback, Uluru, and the dry, empty country that to many means Australia.

In a sea of citrus

The best part about picking oranges is the smell. From the moment you rustle the dark green leaves and pluck the first fruit, a light, fresh citrus scent fills the air.

As it turned out, that was probably the highlight of our highly unglamorous week picking citrus in the never-ending groves of Renmark, South Australia. A swath of country here, called the Riverland region, is entirely made up of rows upon rows of citrus and grapes, and it seems that half the population is transient pickers. Once again, a quick glance at the National Harvest Guide and an appearance at the employment office was all it took to land a job. In fact, our recruiter informed us that we could pick citrus seven days a week for the next seven months if we wanted. Thanks, but no thanks.

Renmark in all its glory, taken from the town's scenic lookout.



And more oranges.

It took the better part of the first day to master the twisting and snapping motion required to cleanly part an orange from its stem. After a few hours we were filling bins in 45 minutes and left feeling quite optimistic about our earning potential for the week.  But it was not meant to be.  On Tuesday, everyone was lead out to Patch 41, where we were instructed to strip the tall, thorny, under-pruned trees of their remaining oranges.  The trees had been select picked earlier in the week, meaning all of their large, plump, eye-level fruit was gone, leaving us to reach through thorns and deadwood to harvest the stragglers. It was terrible, and we before long hated Patch 41 with our whole hearts.

By the second day, we had yet to learn any of our picking compatriots’ names, as it’s hard to make friends when you have your head in an orange tree. However, we did already have clever nicknames for most of them:

–       Three jolly and well-traveled Belgians (The Belgian Troupe).

–       A rambling, rough looking fellow (The Crusticle, Ol’ Crusters, or Crusty for short) who turned out to be quite harmless. In fact, we grew a little fond of the guy.

–       A funny stout/tall and skinny duo (Boggis & Bean), who were laughably slow pickers and unfortunately lacked a short friend whom we could have dubbed Bunce.

–       An Aboriginal guy (The Zen Master) who told tall tales of fruit picking heroics and looked like he could fill bins faster than us in his sleep.

–       Our favorite was some sort of farm manager/supervisor who we never came up with a name for but looked a bit like this:

Others included a lone Irishman, a rude German who fortunately quit, and a guy from China who picked mandarins as fast of the both of us together. Countless more appeared and disappeared over the course of the week, as it seems the average turnover time for orange pickers is around 48 hours.

All this was overseen by a mob of Indian contractors. When we asked a questions (like, “how are we getting paid?”) one person would go to another, who would ask yet another, who would usually ask a surly man in Hindi, and the info would then be translated back to us. Needless to say, we took everything we were told with skepticism. By Friday we estimated a $200 range that our wages could fall into, depending on tax withholdings and getting scammed by various amounts.

Midway through the week, we abandoned our post at our manicured caravan park and moved down to a local campsite called Plush’s Bend. The whole area had been flooded recently and was scattered with dead trees, giving it the look of an abandoned hazardous waste dump. But, it was free, and we set up our tent in a dirt patch where we could wave at Ol’ Crusters in his semi-permanent campsite across a stagnant backwater. Home sweet home! (more…)

Under gum trees and waterfalls

Just a couple hours outside Sydney, rivers in Blue Mountains National Park have carved enormous canyons into a lofty sandstone plateau, rimmed with red cliffs and carpeted with eucalyptus trees.

Though we’d planned an overnight hike through the valley, landslide damage had closed a good portion of our intended loop. Instead, we opted for two day hikes in different parts of the park.

The first day, we descended to the floor of the Grose Valley, picking our way carefully along ridiculously steep and narrow stone steps. At the bottom, the trail followed the river, winding through a towering blue gum forest, arid desert-like terrain and a lush, mossy woodland before leading to the bottom of Govetts Leap Waterfall.

This section of the forest reminded us of home.

Govetts Leap waterfall plummets 180 meters to the valley floor.


Pies in the park: a visit to Sydney

Warm, sunny days, waterfront eateries, good beer, and beautiful parks are the recipe for a perfect city experience. And that’s exactly what we got during our two days in Sydney.

After an unappealing drive in through the suburbs, we checked into a hostel in Glebe, a lovely residential neighborhood lined with cafes and large trees. Leaves fluttered down and collected on the shaded sidewalks in crisp, cool autumn perfection.

Sydney’s harbor is as beautiful as we’ve always heard. We wandered along the docks in Darling Harbor in the morning—taking note of upcoming happy hour specials—and made our way out onto the Harbor Bridge.

Our first glimpse of the water at Darling Harbor.

Midway across, the sun cast the bridge’s shadow onto the sparkling blue harbor, and illuminated boats of all sizes that ply its waters. Scalloped dark green shores extended into the distance and the city’s iconic Opera House lured wandering eyes directly below.

We expected the Opera House to disappoint. Synonymous with Australia, slapped on a million postcards, and featured in many a token travel photo, the Opera House is victim to the kind of overexposure that often ends in letdown upon seeing the real thing. But it’s awesome. As we walked further across the bridge, the differing angles changed the shape of the sails entirely, giving it a totally new look. Up close, it’s even better. The tiled roof— actually, those of three separate buildings— soars into the sky, sloping gracefully away from your eyes, with the harbor and bridge as an unbeatable backdrop.

Landmarks aside, Sydney’s incredible Royal Botanic Gardens were by far the highlight.  The 75-acre gardens hold countless plants from all over the world, arranged aesthetically for maximum pastoral enjoyment. Enormous fig trees spread shade over swaths of grass, their thick branches almost skimming the ground. Vegetation of all shades and shaped is scattered around, while birds and flying foxes twitter from the treetops. At a turn of the trail, you can find yourself in a different environment— from the Oriental Gardens to the Rainforest Walk to the Fernery and the succulents. It’s just incredible. And it’s free.

One of the garden's many sprawling fig trees.

A perfect mix of garden and open space— this is how to design a city park.


Walking the Wilderness Coast

Overnight backpacking trips are phase two of our money-saving strategy for Australian travel (phase one: live in a tent) — just another way to sequester ourselves even further from the expensive edible temptations of the developed world. Fortunately, exploring the wilderness on foot is an excellent way to see the country we are here to see, and our first four-day walk through Croajingolong National Park was a wild success.

The Wilderness Coast Walk extends along 100 kilometers of Victoria’s deserted northeastern coastline, and it sounded sufficiently remote and beautiful to warrant a few days of our time. We woke up in the wonderful Mallacoota Foreshore Holiday Park on Tuesday morning, shuffled food and gear around for a few hours, and finally left the Shipwreck Creek trailhead at the unimpressive hour of noon.

The first day of walking took us through gorgeous fields of pale green and wheat-colored grasses, swaying in a slight breeze and dotted with bright pink winter flowers. Over the edge of the cliffs, the ocean spread bright blue in the background, and filled our ears with a distant roar.

The trail changed character every few kilometers, and once again, we walked through miles of strange, foreign vegetation. Huge, spiky cattail-like spires grew from clumps of wiry grass, and little objects that looked remarkably like Furbies hung from the branches of trees. They looked like they might hop off at any moment and start scurrying around.

As evening fell, we crossed the mouth of the Benedore River and set up our camp on a dune high above the isolated cove. Unintentional but fortunate timing meant that our first night coincided with the full moon, and we waited patiently and eagerly for the clouds to break aside a crackling campfire. Before long the landscape was bathed in bright silver, illuminating the dunes and sparkling off the ocean…magic.


Back to the working world… for two days.

As part of our ultimate goal of having enough money in our bank accounts to return home, our plan for Australia includes finding several weeks of gainful employment. It’s part of the reason we came to this part of the world in the first place— Australia and New Zealand are some of the few countries that grant one-year working visas to Americans.  Nine months ago, we applied for Working Holiday Visas online, and it seemed like an excellent way to extend our budget and our travels.

Nine months later, in the midst of a cool, cloudy week in Victoria, the idea of working for the first time in more than four months was less appealing. Still, we took advantage of Australia’s amazing National Harvest Guide and found the nearest town with ripened fruit. A few phone calls and a drop by the employment office later, we had signed up to harvest apples for a few days in Cobram. It is a very small town on Victoria’s northern border where not much happens and, incidentally, there is little else to do but pick apples. Perfect.

As far as monotonous manual labor goes, it was a remarkably pleasant way to earn some cash. We showed up at 8 in the morning, slung a picking basket around our shoulders, and got to work. The apples were cold from the night’s chill and dripping with dew, but the broken morning sun soon warmed them, along with our fingers. We filled enormous wooden crates— worth $35 each— with crisp, tart Pink Lady apples as fast as possible. Before long, we could swiftly pluck two apples per hand and fill a crate an hour with ease.

Note the blurred hand indicating incredible picking speed.

Each night, backs and fingers sore from the day’s work, we’d return to our campsite and reward our efforts with tasty food and a $3 wine called Bowler’s Run, surprisingly good for the price. After two and a half days, we’d filled nine crates, and snagged more than a few tasty apples as bonuses for ourselves. Not bad for our first return venture into the working world. It felt good to be a contributing member of society again, and we look forward to mastering the harvesting methods of other crops.

Once the last of the fruit had been picked, we headed back south towards the ocean and soon merged with the Great Alpine Drive, another of Australia’s scenic roads. After watching the sun rise over a fog-filled valley, we entered Alpine National Park, home to some of the country’s tallest mountains. As the road ascended into the Australian Alps (nice, though not nearly as impressive as the European or Japanese versions), a few inches of snow materialized on the ground.

The view from Mount Buffalo at 7:30 a.m.

Near the top of the pass, a trail snakes off the road along The Razorback, a long, undulating ridge headed for the distant Mount Feathertop, 11 kilometers away. Though the trail was covered in snow, the sun shone down in a clear sky, and soon we were hiking in our t-shirts.  The open ridgeline provided extensive views of blue rolling mountains as the trail wound its way past alpine heath and snow gum skeletons, leftover from fires years ago.

It was an ideal way to spend a sunny day, and an excellent warm-up for our next adventure: a four-day backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast in Croajinglong National Park.

Exploring Victoria: a road trip warm-up

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia winds along nearly 250 kilometers of spectacular coastline, looking remarkably similar to California’s Big Sur. It’s an easy drive from Melbourne, and we elected to rent a car and get out of the city for a few days while our newly purchased car was tuned up. From the unfamiliar left side of the road, we watched the ocean crash against yellow cliffs and long, cold beaches.

Sometimes the road hugs the cliff sides, and other times it veers inland to pass under koalas perched in roadside eucalyptus trees or next to pastures dotted with dairy cows. Frequent turnoffs and trails down to the water provide enough diversions to fill a whole day alternately driving and hopping out of the car to explore. It was quite a nice way to take in the scenery, and a refreshing freedom after the restraints of public transport in Southeast Asia.

Erskine Falls, a short drive inland from the Great Ocean Road.

The coast reaches its southernmost point at Cape Otway, and from there eastward it becomes even more rugged. For the next 120 kilometers, it is known as the Shipwreck Coast— over 80 ships sunk off the unforgiving shoreline in 40 years during the 1800s. We walked down to Wreck Beach, where two rusted anchors are visible at low tide. After snaking through low bushes and wild-looking, twisted trees that seem to have jumped out of a Van Gogh painting, the trail broke out into open, wind-swept headland before plunging down steps to the beach.

From here, it’s easy to see why the coast is so treacherous. The angry Southern Ocean was stacked high with frothy waves, which were thrown ashore at jagged cliffs, creating the sound of a roaring jet engine. (more…)