Saturday, March 28, 2015

Driving the road trip off the bucket list

It has taken a long time to get around to this latest instalment of the Australian odyssey.  I could blame a lot of things.  But where would that get me?  It would just reinforce the tired, lazy stereotype of the "whingeing pom".

So, here I am, in Max Brenner, the self proclaimed bald expert on chocolate, as I sip an Italian hot chocolate, which is so luxurious, I am half inclined to further procrastinate.

But let's cut to the chase.  Bucket list.  What springs to mind when I say bucket list?  A film starring Jack Nicholas?  (not his best btw).  A rather morbid checklist of all the things you want to do as you count down your final days?  Or just a list of items that are more a wish list than something you are actively working towards completing?   An "aspirational list"?

For me, it's possibly an amalgam of all these.  But without doubt, the overriding factor is a list of things that I am determined I will do.  In my lifetime.  Whilst I am still young.  Yes, I know this is patently up for debate, but it is my bucket list.  My rules.  Ergo, I AM still young.  For now.  And my bucket list is something I am actively tackling with much gusto.  Hopefully well before the bell goes on my time here and I shuffle off this mortal coil. 

And for this reason, all the items I have on said list are eminently doable.  As is being proven by my working through the list.  The most recent achievement being the camper van trip. 

What started as a germ of an idea over 20 years ago, on a walk through the salubrious surroundings of Halifax town centre, finally came to fruition, almost a lifetime later, at the other side of the world.  Where I now currently call home.  Australia. 

I suppose there are many places where you could have the quintessential road trip.  Across Route 66, following in Kerouac"s footsteps from Chicago to California.  There is also the Pacific Coast drive, on the west coast of the US.  Taking in the Big Sur, beloved of Steinbeck, up past Portland, Oregon, onto Washington state.

Port Douglas
But for me, in my adopted home country, the east coast was the place to embark on my first camper van trip.  The romantic, idealist that resides in me would have wanted to do this trip in a grandly restored VW Kombi van.  With split windscreen etc etc etc.  But, a good friend of mine would have no doubt warned me how unreliable these Teutonic beasts could be.  And would question whether I would want to be worried about breaking down at any moment, being chase by kangaroos, or mad killers of the Wolf Creek variety.  No, you are right.  

Palm Cove - the hidden secret of FNQ
We went for the rather more modern, if less stylistic, mode of campervan transport.  Which these days is a Toyota Hiace.  But, as you will have seen from my last blog, it ticked all the boxes.  And over the next 4 weeks we were lucky enough to have experienced such highlights as:

Palm Cove - one of far north Queensland's best kept secrets.  We ARE going back
Kuranda - via the worlds longest cable car (or gondola as they are known in Oz) - 
Port Douglas - my new "would love to live here" place

Daintree - the place for crocodile spotting.  Well, only if you have "crocodile girl" with you it seems.  I did.  She was travelling with me.

Tiny Daintree village
Cape Tribulation - quite splendid isolation.  Idyllic.  And at Cape Tribulation camp site...awesome wood fired pizzas served onsite, with cold beers to wash them down.
Mission Beach - as it says on the tin, on the beach.  With a cold XXXX.  Does it get more Australian?  Fair dinkum.
Yeppoon - emergency stop having disciovered we would have had a 10 hour drive without it.  My bad.
Halifax - admittedly not really a highlight, more of a 1 pub, 1 street, town.  But on the list due to its name 
Hervey Bay - one of the best coffees of the trip.  Believe, I tried a few.  And have you ever seen SO many mobility scooters?
Bundaberg - does it need saying?  Rum...
Airlie Beach - where we spent Xmas, and had Xmas Eve sailing and snorkelling on the Great Barrier reef.
Noosa - now famous for having no camp sites with vacancies, prompting a frantic day of driving to find our home for the night. (with a bit of schmoozing, we managed to get into a site in Mudjimba).
Coolum beach - just beautiful.  And worth repeating.  Beautiful.  Oh yeah, and a damn good latte.

Having dropped the van in Brisbane, via a few toll roads (which would come back to haunt us), the trip continued by good old buses, with us having the relative luxury of real rooms at night, with a real bed.

Brisbane - New Years Eve fireworks, and very good change from Sydney, albeit on a much smaller scale
Surfers Paradise – for just being Surfers.
Byron Bay - notable for being awesome, as Byron always is, and for the magic powers of the alcohol that doesn’t manage to get you drunk.  Until you wake up in bed with a kebab, and wonder how you, and it, got there.  You know who you are.

Selling "magic" beer
And how better to end the travelling experience than to take the overnight, 13 hour, bus journey back into Sydney.  There weren't many smiles in my travelling party of two, when the driver announced the 3.30am meal stop at a road house.  At which everybody would have to be off the bus so the driver could secure it.

Maybe chugging into Sydney, over the Harbour Bridge, on a glorious morning, at 7.30am, was not the best time to reflect on the whole journey.  But with the benefit of a good rest, a proper nights sleep, I think it was unanimously declared a success.  And something that has to be repeated.

So now, camper van trip remains on the bucket list.  Next venue?  New Zealand perhaps.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

No Fixed Abode - Road Trip part 1

If you are reading this, and know that I am without gainful, paid employment, there is no need to worry that I am finally destitute, and now living on the streets of Sydney.  No, that is not going to happen for at least a few weeks yet.

The title refers to the recent road trip, and not my current living arrangements.

Inspired by writers such as Kerouac, I have long wanted to be “On the Road”.  Set free to explore, windows down, wind in my hair, no agenda, and a very loose itinerary, I finally got to tick off another item from the bucket list.  A camper van road trip. 

"Chubby" - how I miss this little van!
However, not one that didn’t start with a little trepidation.  Neglecting to pay for additional insurance (well, I am still a Yorkshire man), thus leaving me with a $3000 excess should anything happen to the van, had me ever so tentatively reversing the camper out of the parking spot in Cairns, after checking all mirrors so often my neck was hurting.

The road trip started in Cairns, after flying up from Sydney two days earlier.  Cairns has continued to develop and improve over the years, now catering for a slightly more up market clientele, and not just for the hundreds of backpackers that have a visit to “The Woolshed” as a rite of passage on their overseas adventure. 

New waterfront developments, bars and restaurants, targeting the cruise ship arrivals no doubt, add some much needed drink and dining options if you tire of the $10 beer and burger offers proliferating central Cairns.

And as an element of this trip morphed into being a search for the east coast’s best coffee, I found a definite contender in Cairns.  If you ever find in town, and in need of a caffeine fix, head to “Caffeined”, a Mebourne-esque alley way coffee shop, with coffee that will make you want to stay in Cairns.

Hipster-ville, in the centre of Cairns

From Cairns, the plan was to head north, across the Daintree river, all the way up to Cape Tribulation, until the road runs out.  Literally.  The sealed road ends in Cape Trib, only allowing for 4x4 vehicles to travel past that point.  From Cape Trib, we were going to turn around (it is one road in, and only one road out), and then head south, back over the Daintree, back through Cairns, and continue until we hit Brisbane, a few weeks later.  It was in Brisbane that we had arranged to drop the camper van off, hopefully strike off the $3000 excess on my credit card, and then continue by bus to Surfers Paradise and Byron Bay.

The state of Queensland

Quite an adventurous undertaking, with some 3000kms of road to cover.  All of our road trip would be done in Queensland, Australia’s second largest state.  To provide a sense of perspective, Queensland is about seven times the size of Great Britain, covering an area of 1,727,000 square kilometers.

But we were in no rush, had no constraints, and set off with a great sense of adventure.

My next instalment will be to cover off the highlights, and lowlights, of the trip.  Make sure to keep reading.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What a difference a year (or 20) makes

Yup, believe it or not, and I am not quite sure I do, I was first in Bali 20 years ago.  I agree, I don’t look old enough do I?  It was the second stop on the trip that lit the travel fire in my belly.  The trip that changed my life for the better.  The trip that made me realise what life was about, and what I needed to do to enjoy it.

A chance conversation, one lunch, with a work colleague (who has become a life long friend), quickly escalated into us jointly leaving our jobs and embarking on a 12-month working holiday to Australia.  1994.  That is where it all started.

Prior to this, the longest I had ever left the UK was for 7 days.  For various holidays to the usual spots, across Europe.

So, describing us as wet behind the ears would be something of an understatement.  This could probably explain why, within 2 hours of being in Bali, I had been robbed of all my money.  That sounds dramatic doesn’t it?  Every self-respecting travellers’ rite of passage.  Being robbed.

Maybe I should add a few clarifications.  When I say “robbed”, I mean quite purposefully distracted by some of the smallest kids you had ever seen, whilst their erstwhile friends unzipped my bum bag (YES, I did say we were wet behind the ears), and cleaned me out of rupiahs, the local currency.  And by cleaned out, I mean the sum total of the few quid that I had allowed myself as my budget for the night.  Anybody reading this, who knows me well enough, will know that spending money is not one of my strengths.  I think it is the Yorkshire genes.  So I may have lost about £5.76 in real money. Still…I was robbed.

Bali, 20 years ago.  Apart from the trauma of the robbery, the things that stick in my mind from that very first trip in June 1994, was arriving at a very small, ramshackle airport.  Very different to the gargantuan, gleaming terminal, just opened this year.  Staying in Kuta, boy how that has changed, we found THE place to drink, a happening little place called Sari Club on Legian Street.  Many of you will know the Sari Club as the place that terrorists struck on October 12th 2002, decimating the club, and the surrounding area, taking the lives of 202 people. 

Bali bomb memorial
 Kuta looks to have recovered in many ways from this atrocity, and the development now seems rampant, to the extent that, like many places I’ve seen through southern Thailand, the tipping point has been breached, between tourism, and over development.  There are no moments of peace available at the memorial for the bomb attacks, on the site of what was Paddy’s bar, another of the bomb sites, as open air night clubs blast out tunes from the turntables, drowning out even the traffic. Some feat in itself.

The place is now unrecognisable, yet, there is one thing that will never change.  And that is the wonder of the setting sun, which we viewed from a little plastic stool, on the beach, with an ice cold Bintang.  THAT is what brought travellers to Bali all those years ago.

One other thing that doesn’t change, and gets much worse, is the traffic situation.  Why the roads have lines, and traffic lights, is beyond me.  It literally is everyman, and woman, for themselves. Scooters and motorbikes weave in and out of traffic, taking their life into their own hands.  And as you can see, not just their lives, but those of almost every member of the family too.  As a seasoned scooter rider, on the mean streets of Sydney, I had a change of heart from my original plan to hire my own wheels and rip up Bali.

Just 6 hours from Sydney, Bali is a different world.  And it wasn’t just a result of the wines, and whisky, and gin that was consumed on the flight.   Much alcohol was required after the stress of making it through some of the longest queues I had ever seen at Sydney airport.  And then equally long queues on arrival at Denpasar airport in Bali.  That said, the long queues gave plenty time to read and absorb the warning signs regarding ebola, and how you could catch it, such as “touching a dead body”, something that I then made a studious effort to avoid whilst I was there.

The week was spent in a great hotel in Tanjung Benoa, slightly north of Nusa Dua, in the south of Bali.  A far cry from my humble abode whilst in Kuta on my second visit in 1999, where I stayed in a very quaint little bungalow.  With a fresh flask of tea and banana pancakes served up first thing every morning.

Seven days flew by in a whizz of all you can eat breakfasts (it turns out I can actually eat quite a lot.  Who knew?), mid day beers at the swim up bar in the pool, trekking with elephants and hugging orang utangs, and lots of pork, a staple of every Balinese dinnertime.  There were satays aplenty, and large Bintangs all around.  One of the days was spent on the Bali Fun Ship, its actual name, where much fun was had on a day trip to a little island off the east coast of Bali, Nusa Lembongan.

I can’t go without mentioning the fact that I fell victim to the infamous Bali belly.  Probably as a result of the curry I had, that did in fact taste very good whilst eating it.  What I didn’t anticipate was the poo-snami that it would bring on the day, and subsequent days after. 

Oh, god, no.