fter our awesome diving adventure in Bali, the time has finally come to fly to one of the farthest corners of the world: Australia. A continent in itself that hasn’t even been on the maps for that long and whose existence is often still a bit forgotten by the rest of the world. When did the newspapers last mention Australia? Who is the prime minister of Australia? Point taken? A country which everyone has heard of, but seems to exist in a different universe, far from our bed. At the same time many people would love to travel there to explore its stunning natural beauty, crazy wildlife, appealing beaches and eminently surfable waves, doused with a good dose of the mythical laid back attitude and topped with a cool Aussie accent. It is a world of which we assume it is similar to the “Western” countries in the Northern Hemisphere, but still completely different. “Western”, but definitely with a unique take.
If you want to just get to Australia on the cheap from paradisiacal Bali, you should look for a flight to relatively nearby Darwin. For only 50 € per person we manage to fly to the top end of Oz. Hot, humid and decidedly tropical Darwin is definitely different from what most people imagine when they think about Australia. We are immediately warmly welcomed at the airport. We are taken out of the line and our passports are checked for falsifications, after which we get interrogated. Pen and paper are whipped out and the party gets started. An abridged version of this interview in which our every answer is met with strangely sincere-looking disbelief: why are you coming here, do you have enough money to afford staying here, you might think you have enough but how much money do you have on your bankaccounts exactly, what are you planning to do for so long in Australia, what places are you going to visit, are you trying to work here illegally, are you sure of that, very sure? Jokes are not appreciated in this somewhat more official welcoming ceremony than we had expected.
Our answers are jotted down, and after the interview we are allowed to walk on. However, not that far … we get stopped at least five times for questions about whether we are taking vegetables, fruit, seeds, animal products, etc… Australians are understandably still pretty frightened about further endangering their fragile island ecosystem. The officials, however, do not just take our word for it, and we have to have all our bags scanned. And then comes this question: do you have any medicines with you? We do have quite a travel apothecary with us, so yes. We have to take them all out of our bags. Do you have all the prescriptions with you? – No, in Belgium we are required to leave those at the pharmacy. Do you have your name on the boxes at least? – No, our pharmacists don’t do that. We get a most unfriendly reminder that “You are in Australia now and in Australia you have to stick to our rules and in Australia that is the way it has to be done”. Kate tries another route and starts to take out all the medicine one by one and explaining why we have them with us and what they are for. They end up asking us for specific types of medecine that are apparently widely available worldwide but completely forbidden in Australia… We answer in the negative and after some further lecturing are let off with a stern warning that next time we at least need an explanatory letter from our doctor with us. We can repack our bags and are allowed in the country proper. In the arrival hall we get questioned again by an anxious young backpacker, whose friend was taken away for interrogation at the same time as us and didn’t seem to have made it through the Aussie inquisition. With a slightly bitter feeling, we head into Darwin.
In this “Top End” of the country, you immediately have to revise your preconceived notions of what Australia is supposed to look like. The Northern Territories are a special place even within exceptional Australia and really stand apart. People tend to forget that Australia is not just a country but also a vast continent. North and South, West and East, they are quite literally thousands of miles apart.
Darwin was rebuilt after extensive bombing during WWII and again after a terrible cyclone in 1974 and is decidedly modern. It’s set along the waterside and its beach at first looks like an ideal spot for a walk on the white sand and a refreshing dive in the beautiful cerulean waves to escape the humid tropical climate. But this is apparently not a good idea. Tiptoeing to the edge of the water and getting your ankles wet might be the last thing you do here thanks to the “salties” a.k.a. saltwater crocodiles. These huge scaly monsters can just jump out of the surf and drag you into the deepest end. But that is not all, mortal danger can be found in the smallest thing in these waters: tiny jellyfish that can instantly knock you out, small but deadly blue-ringed octopi of James Bond fame and even highly venomous shells for crying out loud! Not to mention the many dangerous snakes and spiders you might run into next to the beach. This is one poisonous country, the smaller the critter, the more dangerous it could be!
This toxic bunch is luckily not the only wildlife you might encounter. Even in and around Darwin our belief that we have a pretty good grasp about what types of animals exist in the world is shaken to pieces. Confronted with all these new species at every turn, we start naming them ourselves to fit them in our mental Noah’s ark. We do of course start seeing animals we do know thanks to National Geographic and childhood classics such as “The Rescuers Down Under”. We visually bag our first wallabies, kangaroos, dingos, kookaburras, cockatoos and parrots in all sizes and colour.
It is more than a bit weird, that even in this “Western” country, you get a bit of a “culture shock”. This place is definitely worth exploring further.
In Darwin we also meet the country’s Aboriginals for the first time. These original Australians are very visible in the Northern Territories where they constitute a significant part of the small population. But at the same time they seem to live a completely parallel existence. We have never experienced anything quite like this. Asking around it becomes pretty clear that the seeming lack of integration and the unenviable living conditions of many Aboriginals are a touchy subject to bring up. This is obviously a huge challenge for modern Australia, but difficult to fathom as an outsider. Nonetheless we feel it is worth researching the issues a bit before you visit Australia, as it gives you an interesting viewpoint on its past, present and future. When in Darwin, do visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territories for great Aboriginal art and insights.
After this very interesting introduction, it is time to head inland. While cheap to fly to from Bali, Darwin is a looooong way from everywhere else in Australia. We start off with an epic drive through the outback of the Northern Territories in the direction of Alice Springs. Of course we would like to do this on the cheap. Renting a car or campervan one-way only is pretty expensive, especially in these remote corners. Gas mileage is often poor and while gas prices are lower than in Europe, distances are extreme, adding a heavy burden to your travel budget. To top the calculations off this might be one of the only places were taking the full insurance package (including windscreen if available) is a good idea thanks to the abundance of crazy kangaroos and loose gravel.
How do we solve this? Read more here in our blog about doing Australia on the cheap. A little taster: we manage to get a campervan for free, including gas and insurance. The only drawback is that we have to do it in 2,5 days, but that isn’t that big a problem. We are sent of by the rental agency with “If you get lost on that road, you get a medal…!” That says it all. Between Darwin and Alice Springs, there are mostly empty magnificent tracts of land, and a very very long straight road (sometimes even without speed limits). We even have the time to swing through glorious Kakadu National Park and get to see the magnificent paintings of the Aboriginal people on the Nourlangi walk.
Considering how barren and uninhabited the area is, we expect a pretty quiet road trip with most of the excitement stemming from us singing along to our greatest hits lists. However, starting of with a first chip in our front window after only 20 km, it turns out to be one of the most exciting 1800 km we have ever driven with more wildlife and crazy sights than we could have ever imagined. This is far from being a boring drive, the landscape gradually changes from tropically luscious green to the deepest martian red. The vegetation shrinks in size until all that is left is yellow grass and sun-dried bushes. You drive over dry and not so dry riverbeds and creeks, past dramatical cliffs and craggy rocks and through eccentric half-abandoned communities.
Along the road you luckily encounter an isolated gasstation once in a while, but you better keep an eye on your fuel level if you want to make it to the next one. These roadhouses often also serve as basic accommodation, roadside bar and general store for an area larger than some countries. As they don’t have an abundance of potential clients they do everything to lure you into their particular roadhouse, including precariously balancing scrap helicopters and airplanes, an alien viewing area, antique train carriages, invoking questionable fame for being such things as the “most central bar of Australia” or decorating their walls with all sorts of crap.
The few outback communities get smaller and smaller and soon a spread-out collection of 18 inhabitants gets to be called a village. Very lively these places ain’t. We wonder whether Amazon would deliver here? A little plus, if you fall ill here, the “Flying Doctors” come to the rescue and as we remember from the eponymous TV show they are all pretty hot.
We also encounter all shapes and sizes of termite mounds, often dressed in T-shirts, hats, lampshades and the like. Not exactly as pretty as those flying doctors, but that way you at least can pretend seeing somebody to beat the loneliness. That dressing up termite mounds for fun is a popular thing to do here at all, hints at how exciting a place to live it must be.
Considering how few cars we actually meet on this road, we are astonished that quite a lot of them are pulling a boat on a trailer behind them. Apparently nobody here thinks twice of driving a 1000 km to go boating. The other “traffic” mainly constitutes of the occasional earth shattering road train. These huge metal grilled trucks with up to 4 trailers race through and stop for nothing and nobody, leaving a trail of dead animals in their wake. We see such roadkill as a cow, a snake, an eagle and plenty of kangaroos. If you thought the yellow “caution kangaroos” signs were a cute addition to your childhood room, in Australia you will learn to fear these signs like the plague.
We (almost) get our own run in with these bouncing angels of death. Before sundown we want to park our campervan on a camping at the edge of Kakadu National Park, but the one we were heading for has obviously been abandoned and is decorated with a “private property – keep out” sign and barbed wire. We decide to follow their instructions and keep on moving. However, the next camping is 50 km further down the road. That means driving at dusk, which is strongly discouraged here (and never insured). And boy are they right, because the legion of dead kangaroos we have seen during the day were only a taster for what would come at dusk.
As soon as the sun runs out, you better watch out! We swerve and slam the breaks several times just barely evading all sorts of wildlife. On this little stretch we get to dodge: eagles, a herd of cows, wild donkeys, wild horses (e.g. brumbies), a wild bull, and many a crazy kangaroo. The latter are the most difficult to evade as they are easily the most traffic stupid animals in the world. They even manage to bounce into a parked car (but more about that in another blog). And according to local lore your vehicle is pretty much totalled if you do scoop them from the road. Not to mention that they often lethally slide into the front window kicking and trashing. It turns out to be the most nerve-racking, but possibly the most exciting drive we have ever done, and when it comes to spotting wildlife it can’t be beat. Every drawback has a plus side hasn’t it?
However, to be honest … we didn’t manage to dodge everything. Suddenly coming out of a turn we see a grey bird with beautiful blue highlights and a big kingfisher-like beak. It seems to be a bit too relaxed about lifting off and we do not want to risk making a sudden swerve of the road. BANG! An unlucky bird less in the world. We roadkill-ed a beautiful blue-winged kookaburra. Apparently a very common bumper accessory here because they are famously slow in the uptake. The only positive note is that our car is not visibly damaged by this brutal involuntary bird-slaughter. After a while we start to notice extra clues about which areas are especially prone to crossing wildlife, keeping an eye out for such things as skid marks and carrion birds hanging around. As we have mentioned, full insurance is not an unnecessary luxury in this part of the outback.
Dusk is not only the perfect time to spot some wildlife …. but also the perfect time to drive past the Devil’s Marbles scattered alongside the road. A collection of round boulders that glow up bright orange-red at sundown. Very beautiful and atmospheric in the middle of nowhere and definitely a perfect spot to put up camp for the night. The outback with its incredibly starry ceiling is an amazing place at night. But when daytime comes you have to be able to bear the thousands of outback flies. They are the most persistent and annoying species of non-biting insects we have encountered so far. They go straight for your bodily fluids, so they try to suck on your eyeballs and go caving into your nose and mount… Really? Swallowing and snorting in flies becomes inevitable… just great…
All in all we absolutely love this drive and rate it as one of our best road trips ever! The destination Alice Springs is also worth a look, be it mainly because it is famously geographically isolated and surrounded by amazing scenery. This really is the middle of nowhere, but nonetheless 28.000 people live here and it is a fully operation small town. A bit strange in this remotest of remote places: apple sauce comes all the way from Belgium and the cheapest kiwi’s from … Italy. Local alternatives are invariably more expensive. Beats us why!
We spend our time close to the dry riverbed of the Todd in our favourite hostel in Australia: Alice’s Secret. Especially the German proprietor Seb, an “old” outback hand, makes this a great place to stay. After a few days we manage to get another almost free car to get to Adelaide with a swing past Uluru/Ayer’s Rock. However, when we go to pick up the car at Alice Springs airport it appears that the car does not have a license plate… It will take 4 days before they can fix this mishap as Easter weekend pretty much closes the country down. The local representatives of the car rental company start blaming their main office for confirming the car and then try to put the blame with the booking agent. Very unprofessional and towards the end downright rude. As we will find out this is not the country to rely on customer service (read more about this later). After many a phone call we have not progressed an inch and in disgust give up on the whole thing. Luckily Seb manages to fit us in Alice’s Secret for a few more days, thank you Seb!
As on Monday it is Maarten’s birthday we decide to head to Uluru and actually pay to rent a car. We manage to get a pretty reasonable deal through the Alice Springs Tourism Agency. Luckily our budgetary problems are partially alleviated thanks to Seb lending us some camping gear and an “esky” (e.g. cooler box). All is set for a culinary and luxurious birthday trip. Ok, maybe not, but it is going to be pretty impressive nonetheless.
The drive up to the famous monolith is not exactly the most riveting and constitutes of almost 500 km with little variation nor wildlife. This is, however, more than made up for by the goal at the end. Somewhere in the inhospitable red center of Australia, suddenly a huge glowing orange rock rises out of the barren landscape. With this magnificent icon draped in the glow of the lowering sun, we toast to Maarten’s birthday and to all this beauty.
We also take the time to get to know something about the meaning of Uluru for the Aboriginal people and their way of life around it. We take a.o. the Kuniyawalk to the Mutitjulu waterhole and join a free guided tour on the Mala walk. Especially the ranger guided Mala walk is really interesting as you get to know how the nomadic Aboriginals managed to survive in these harshest of environments moving from watering hole to watering hole (of which Uluru had quite a few) where they stayed for short periods to use the local resources in a sustainable manner and to teach their children.
The rock paintings here were also largely meant as an instruction tool for the children. Furthermore the shape and structure of Uluru was used as a mythical mnemonic device for the further transmittal of their ancestral stories and impressive survival skills to the next generation. You can see why this is not only very important but also sacred to a culture that relied on this for their survival up until little more than half a century ago. Therefore certain things, such as climbing this holy rock, are considered a form of sacrilege. This really adds to your respect for the place and the Aboriginal culture, and reminds you that for them this is not just one of the most magnificent monoliths on the face of the planet, but also a sacred repository of their culture.
We also visit the Kata Tjuta/Olgas, a nearby collection of stunning domed rocks, with beautiful walks weaving through which are one of the safer spots to get a true outback feeling. If it weren’t for their proximity to Uluru, they would be a top sight in their own right.
We could not think of a better or more memorable place to celebrate Maarten’s birthday. We toast in our little tent pitched underneath a grove of desert Mulga trees with a cooled glass of white “cleanskin” wine and Kate assembles a feast of chicken with apple sauce and pavlova with rasberries. You might think it isn’t much, but considering it has to be put together in a tiny tent in the beam of a petzl head light, it turns out to be amazingly tasty.
After two days of being baffled and amazed at every turn, we have to head back to Alice Springs because we have booked a flight out. If you can’t drive a rental car for free, flying Virgin to Melbourne turned out to be the cheapest option. As we stayed a bit too long admiring the red beauties, we only just make it to the airport in time. Just before we jump on the plane, we get the confirmation that we have been accepted for a housesit on a farm in Albury! As this starts within a few days, we are pretty happy we are already boarding a plane and not driving through the desert. We probably have just enough time to squeeze in Melbourne and drive the Great Ocean Road! You can read more about this here. Are you curious about our first housesit on an Australian Farm? Have a look here!
Would you also like to take a ride through the outback? You can already have a little taste by looking at our pictures here.
Reading tip: “Down Under” from Bill Bryson.