AUSTRALIA - PART 1
August 25 to November 25, 1996
By Rob and Melissa Gunter
Australia, according to Mel.
Rob and I are "down under now mates" and loving Australia, affectionately known as OZ. As Rob fills you in on our travels, I’m attempting to explain what life is like traveling and living out of a car.
Upon arrival in Sydney we purchased "Matilda", a 1980 Holden Commodore Station Wagon for $1600 AUD ($1280 USD). This is the mobile of choice for local and foreign travelers staying on paved or good dirt roads. The cars are all stocked differently; I'm covering our car only.
When we have other riders, we pile the back up; otherwise the rear seat is folded down. Please, come with me to tour our new home:
The Living Room- 2 big bucket seats and a radio/tape player. As we no longer have a TV. We
enjoy the passing scenery.
The Bedroom - A 2 man tent, air mattresses, pillows, blankets and our sleeping bags.
The Bathroom - A shovel (the toilet), the water bottle (our shower/sink). We each have a small bag for toiletries and one small medicine bag.
The Kitchen - Our hatchback lifts up and we use the back space to cook in. We have a 2 burner travel stove that folds like a suitcase and runs off a gas bottle. A bucket replaces the sink and the water comes from our 20-liter water bottle (filled at gas stations). We have an old bucket filled with the bare minimum cookery and cutlery we’ve been given or purchased 2nd hand. Our food is held in 2 old liquor boxes, we usually stock up in the larger towns.
Aside from Rob’s catch of the day we eat canned or dry food and some fresh fruit and vegetables (not readily available in the North). We’ve learned to make fresh "damper" (bread) in a campfire. When staying at caravan parks we may treat ourselves to real milk or a coke, otherwise, drinking water comes from a beat up water cooler we can put ice in.
The Patio - The world is our patio and we enjoy it from our 2 deck chairs.
The Office - One day pack with organizer, paper and pens. One large Ziploc bag with important stuff replaces a file cabinet. NO PHONE!!!
Wardrobe - We each have one bag of clothes, our shoes go under car seats. All told we have less than 20 pieces of clothes.
Lights - We carry flashlights, a light that connects to our car battery and candles.
Library - We always have books we’ve been given, traded for or purchased 2nd hand living in the wheel well.
Tool Shop - Again in the wheel well. The spare tire and a Jerry can for extra gas live on the roof.
A/C - None, which is very bad in the 100-degree plus heat. To keep the car cooler we’ve hung curtains (an old sheet torn down the middle) and covered the back window with foil.
Several other items, all with multiple purposes, round out our possessions. Example: a large plastic tarp that serves as a lawn, ground cover under the tent, roof when it rains (seldom) or shelter from the sun (often).
Does Matilda look as bad as she sounds? Yes, but we love her anyway.
We usually free camp at roadside stops, on the beach or in National Parks, some charge $1-$2 a night. Sometimes we stay in caravan parks to take a proper shower and do laundry. Most places we stay 2-3 nights or move up the road only 1-2 hours. We seldom drive over 4 hours in a given day.
We often run into the same people over and over as there are few roads. As we all live in such close proximity, we pass the evenings talking. Thankfully, most travelers are wonderful people: usually Brits, other Australians and a handful of Europeans and Canadians. We’ve met 2 other Americans in 3 months!
The places we’ve been so far are very remote, often less than 1 person every 100 square kilometers. These areas are sometimes dangerous but always intriguing.
What is it like to live out of your car? At times it is wonderful- minimal possessions allow for so much freedom. Other times, the loss of conveniences, comfort, privacy and having to deal with dirt, bugs and the constant packing/unpacking brings me close to tears.
Before I close, let me also say that I LOVE the abundance of wildlife! We have had may close encounters with the following: kangaroos, wallabies, euros, emus, feral camels and horses, lizards from 1 inch to 4 feet in length. Exotic birds are everywhere, colors galore. There is nothing like passing a flock of iridescent green parakeets in flight. Along the coast and inland rivers we’ve seen fresh and salt-water crocodiles, sharks, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and so much more.
So long, see you again in March.
Australia!!! According to Rob.
$AU 1.00 $US O.80
All quotes in $AU
After spending the last few days lounging around in New Zealand, we flew to Sydney. Here we looked up a friend we traveled with in NZ and made our strategic plan (a little corporate lingo) for the conquest of Australia (a.k.a. OZ).
Since we had spent the southern hemisphere winter in NZ, most of the time cold, it was decided to start our campaign in the middle and head north to warm weather ASAP.
We took the following route: Sydney - Adelaide (non-stop), then up the middle to Yalara (site of Uluru or Ayers Rock) - Alice Springs (The Alice) - Darwin. From there we took the highway west across the Kimberly to Broome then south along the coast to the stopping point of this transmission at Perth.
30 Aug. We’re off
From Sydney to Adelaide we took the northern route stopping only for gas and to camp alongside the road. The scenery started with the Blue Mountains passing into desert plain. We saw lots of kangaroos and emus (like an ostrich). In Adelaide we had the car tuned up and stocked up for travel in the outback (where the steak houses are few and far between). We also picked up a rider to share fuel costs (petrol = gasoline = $0.90/liter). Marina is from England.
The road north took us to the Flinders ranges and the Oodnadatta Track to Cooper Pedy. The Flinders Range is mostly desert with a few streams supporting all life in the area. Spectacular scenery crossed by hiking trails and dotted with Aboriginal rock art sites. There were TONS of roos here and we got to watch a few boxing. They really scrap! Australia has a number of "Tracks" that lead to some of the remote areas of the center. The Tracks are dirt roads that go for hundreds or thousands of kilometers and are usually passable by 4wd vehicles only. Some can be passed during the right time of year (no rain) with a 2wd, especially if the road had been recently serviced. We took the Oodnadata track from the crossroads of Maree though William Creek to Cooper Pedy along the remnants of the Ghan Railroad (used to be the only link to the middle) and trails run by camel trains in the old days.
The road was basically a dirt track covered with rocks of between golf ball and softball size separated by continuous corrugation. We shook, rattled, and rolled by old ghost towns and along the rail line for about 400 km. Occasionally you would cross over a "creek" or "river" which might see water once every few years. The problem with rivers is that when they do see water they usually wash out the road. You also have to be careful because if there is water in one you don’t know it until you have already run your car through. FYI they provide depth indicators so you can decide if your vehicle can make it. Most 4wd vehicles here are fitted with snorkels so they can pass these streams.
The big attraction here was the stop of William Creek, home of the most remote cattle station in OZ. Here the "locals" fly their planes in for a "coldie" in the evenings. Good thing there aren’t any mountains nearby. Traffic on the road was relatively heavy due to a horse race up the track. We saw about 4 vehicles a day.
We headed into the town of Cooper Pedy. The name is a variation of the aboriginal word for "white fellows hole in the ground". One look at the place lets you know they were right as the area is pockmarked with working and abandoned mine shafts. Signs on the side of the road warn you not to stray from the roadside. The town is centered on the mining area and most houses are built underground in old mines.
We stayed in a hostel underground and found it to be cool and dark. We slept until noon. The town is chock full of tacky tourist sites and is the area where the Mad Max films were made. One such site is run by "Crocodile Harry" who for $2 or some beer will provide color commentary during a tour of his house and collection of bizarre yard art items left from the movie. Old props are everywhere including Tina Turner’s brassiere, which used to fly on the flagpole outside. From here we drove up to Uluru or Ayers Rock.
Uluru (Aboriginal name for the rock) was quite impressive even though nothing has been carved into the side of it. Equally majestic are the nearby Olgas, a worn down formerly larger version. Both sites contain areas sacred to the Aboriginals who have been given back all the land around it. They prefer you don’t climb the rock because there have been a few deaths from falling. When we were there it was obvious why. They have a handrail that runs up the side and literally thousands of people climb it in the morning. We chose not to and watched as others did. It looked like an escalator in the mall at Christmas. We enjoyed the hikes and interpretive panels around both Uluru and the Olgas during the relatively mild time of the year (temp about 35C). The cultural center was excellent too.
News Flash: I just heard that the Aboriginals now forbid anyone to climb the rock!! (1/1/97)
We headed onto The Alice via Kings Canyon for more spectacular scenery and our first dingo sighting. The ranger was giving a slide presentation as one walked by. After accounting for all the babies, the presentation continued.
The Alice has few things of interest but we did find something to do. We dropped off Marina and discovered there is a seismic array here run by the USAF, monitoring for nuclear explosions around the world. On the wall were charts of recent activity from the French testing near Tahiti. We also met an American family here who had us over for a spectacular AMERICAN STYLE dinner!!!
We headed out from here to the nearby western section of the MacDonald range and more spectacular scenery. We camped at a few sights and were treated to the local pack of dingoes gathering for a hunt at a nearby waterhole. We sat near the fire as the pack gathered all around us, calling to each other with eerie howls.
After a few days in the "bush" we headed back to The Alice to stock up and pick up a few riders
(Frank from Germany and Marcion from Poland) to share petrol for the trip to Darwin, about
1500 km. The first 1200 km had one attraction: the Devils Marbles. We made the most of the collection of huge boulders stacked on top of each other.
The road runs right by them and many people get off the bus to spend the day and night there. The problem arises when they try to get back on the bus. Only one heads north per day and it passes by about 4am. One guy missed the bus for 3 days. The nearest roadhouse is about 70 km away.
25 - 27 Sept.
1200 km north of Alice is the town of Katherine and the nearby Katherine Gorge. Here we rented canoes and paddled up river into 6 of the 13 or so gorges found here. We only did 6 because you have to carry your canoe and gear between 50- 500 meters over boulders between gorges this time of year when the river is low. There were lots of bats here and Mel felt one’s wing as it grabbed a mosquito (mozzy) off her arm. If you laid still you could see them catch the mozzies hovering over you.
From here it was on to Darwin via Mataranka Springs; a travelers favorite with perfect temp (34C) water in a lush tropical setting; and Litchfleld National Park with its’ spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes. We arrived in Darwin exhausted.
30 Sept. - 2 Oct.
Darwin is a mango and beer infested outpost of humanity along the wild north coast of OZ. There’s not much to do here but drink and fish. It reminded me a bit of the Florida Keys except you can’t swim most of the time because of crocodiles and box jellyfish. A 25-foot croc named Sweetheart is stuffed in the local museum. We rested up at the beautiful YHA hostel and picked up Rob and Pete, brothers from England, for the trip to Kakadu National Park (location for filming of Crocodile Dundee) and across the Kimberly to Broom on the Northwest coast of OZ.
Darwin - Broome = 3,000 km
On the way to Kakadu we stopped at the famous (at least in OZ) Shady Camp. Here we spent the day among hundreds of cockatoos and 4-meter long saltwater croc’s (salties). We rented a 15-foot john boat (tinnie) and the 4 of us motored up and down the river and watched the salties bask on the shore with their mouths open and teeth everywhere. It was a good thing that they didn’t figure out how easy it would have been to tip the boat over and dine on us.
We crossed into Kakadu ($15.00 pp) the next day and hit all the sights accessible by 2wd (about 2/3rds). A highlight was the Ubirr Aboriginal art site with a collection of the best Aboriginal art we have seen yet. Included were many using the X-ray style where internal organs and bones are drawn on the fish, turtles, and etc. People generally come here two times a year. Just after the "Wet" when the waterfalls are truly impressive and later in the dry when the billabongs (remnants of rivers formed into ponds) have mostly dried up and the birds and other animals are concentrated. We were there at the end of the dry towards the "build-up" to the wet season. Most waterfalls are reduced to a trickle, but the swimming areas are good. Signs are posted at places where there are salties that say "DON’T RISK YOUR LIFE". Of course some people do, proving the theory of natural selection.
You can swim with freshwater croc’s. They grow to about 2 meters and reportedly don’t like humans. The signs here tell you not to harass them. People swim here (we did) and even bring their children out into the water! You can tell them from Salties, but you have to get pretty close to do it. The rangers have traps set to catch the salties if they try to go into these areas.
Once out of Kakadu, we went back to Katherine and stocked up for the trip west across the Kimberly on the Victoria Highway. Here we stopped at various National Parks and hiked through lots of gorges and billabongs with spectacular scenery. It was getting hot with daytime temp s up to 45C, so we hiked mainly in the mornings and late afternoon and consumed large quantities of water and popsicles at the roadhouses. Water and relief from the ZILLIONS of flies (none biting fortunately) was hard to come by.
16-19 Oct. Kununurra - Broome — 1000 km
Based on our experience on the Oodnadatta Track we decided to skip the rougher yet more spectacular 650 km Gibb River Road. We were rewarded nonetheless with more desert scenery including the towns of Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. FC is the home of the world’s largest pile of empty beer cans placed by the original owners of the beers.
On a tip from a local we camped at an old limestone quarry where we spent the night and half the next day exploring caves full of bats. Next it was onto Tunnel Creek where we waded through a cold river running through a black cave with lots of fruit bats. It was the hideout of a notorious Outlaw/Freedom fighter Aboriginal named Pidgeon. An Outback Pancho Villa he managed to elude the authorities for a few years but was eventually shot. From here it was onto Winjanna
WG was the most interesting of those we had seen to date. The river has cut a wide swath through the remains of an ancient coral reef. The black, weathered limestone of the reef rises about 300 feet out of the plains like the wall to an ancient city. At night we had an incredible show as 10’s of 1000’s of fruit bats left their limestone hideaways and headed out into the night. It looked like the flying monkeys of the Wizard of Oz. After the bats came an electrical storm which backlit the reef. All this and we had swum in the billabong "chock-a-block" with freshies. What a day!
19 - 29 Oct. Broome and environs.
Beautiful white sandy beaches and turquoise water as far as the eye can see. The scenery was great as were the Mangoes! We even made it to the outdoor cinema where we saw the movie Erasure. It was fitting to see the crocs munching away at the bad guys right up here in croc country. We did a lot of camping on beautiful deserted beaches and otherwise recovered from the trip across.
30 Oct. - 25 Nov. The West Coast
South from Broome we camped at Port Smith. The site is made memorable by my first dog bite. Unfortunately I couldn’t catch him to bite back. We made our way down the coast camping along the beaches and fishing for dinner. The scenery was amazing as were the huge number of iron mines. Apparently the whole area is solid iron ore. We were a bit out of season so we couldn’t make it out to the nearby Dampier Archipelago. Photos showed coral rimmed islands with 100+ ft visibility. Oh well.
We drove instead to Exmouth, a small town built by the US Navy to serve as a radio transmitter. The Navy has since pulled out but we did check out the nearby Solar Observatory jointly run by the USAF and the Ozzies. We got a short tour of the Observatory, one of about 10 worldwide, monitoring solar activity 24 hrs a day. Info is provided for everything from radio interference to astronaut radiation dosimetry. Things were slow as we are m an 11-year inactive period with the sun.
Exmouth is also home to other interesting features such as the nearby Jingaloes Reef and an area where whale sharks (in season a few months ago) congregate and can be reliably found for swimming encounters. One person we met had spent 2 hrs swimming with one that appeared to enjoy the company (and followed them back to the boat). We did a dive on the reef and also at the old Navy Pier. The pier is protected from fishing, and there are zillions of fish including deadly stonefish and blue ringed octopus.
From Exmouth, we went around the peninsula to the Cape Range National Park. Here the Ningaloo reef comes within 100 meters of shore. We snorkeled out and saw tons of reef sharks, turtles, and lots of other reef fish and coral. One night we went out to the beach and watched a bunch of sea turtles laid their eggs in the sand.
The next attraction (besides the off-limits islands where the Brits lit off 3 nukes) was Shark Bay. Shark Bay is one of only 14 UNESCO World Heritage areas that meet all the requirements for that designation. Located here is the town of Monkey Mia where dolphins appear daily to the delight of tourists. Rangers control crowds in the "Dolphin Interaction Zone", but if you swim outside this area the dolphins will come out and play with you. The whole area is an ecological wonderland as there are huge bays of large grass flats teeming with life. There are over 10,000 dugongs (Australian and Indian Ocean versions of Manatees) grazing in the area. While I was fishing, Mel sat above on a bluff and watched as huge sharks and rays crossed the sandy patches. Some came within a few yards of me on the rocks.
Next stop was the windsurfers Mecca of Geraldton. Here we registered the vehicle (new Western Australia Plates) and got a lobster license ($25).
Next stop was a place south of there called Freshwater point. Here we met lain and Steve, a lobster fisherman and his buddy who showed us a heck of a time. We went fishing, diving, lobstering & etc. Lunch was usually a lobster sandwich. If you wonder why lobster are so expensive it is because the commercial license costs so much. Iain pays $30,000 in tax for each of his 80 pots. The boat of course is extra. This entitles him to fish for 6 months of the year averaging a catch of $3,000 per day. The local price is $40/kilo live.
Our last stop before Perth was the Pinnacles. Named for the limestone formations exposed in the sandy desert near the beach. The place is really weird as they look like grave markers. The area is a few km square. We hung out until sunset for the colors and shadows.
Wrapping things up!
Well, what can we say about OZ so far. The natives are friendly. We have spent most of our time in the Outback and haven’t had or heard of any problems with personal security. We wouldn’t even dream of camping like this in the states, as we usually would pull off the road and set up camp in a rest area or in a national or state park. Of course the east coast is reported to be a bit worse.
The scenery through the middle, top, and the west coast has been magnificent and we have timed the weather perfectly. We probably have seen about 2 hrs of rain over the first 3 months! Since we are driving a 2wd we have been somewhat limited, but we have seen a lot during our relatively short time in OZ (3 of 6 months total). If we had a 4wd we would probably just be making it to Broome. Just in time for Hurricane season. There is still a lot up there we will have to come back for.
Lastly here is the cost breakdown for OZ part 1 (3 months).
Distance traveled: 14,000 km
Mileage: 6 - 7 km/liter
Entertainment, food, and lodging for 2: $3,300
(Eating at restaurants runs about $40 for middle of the road places with
2 main courses, 1 appetizer and 2 beers, we cooked about 85% of our
Fuel: $1,500 after splitting costs.
Car Repairs: $420 Mostly tires and preventive stuff.
Car Cost (recoverable): $1,600
Professionally speaking, I (Rob) had the opportunity to visit some Health Physicists at the South Australia Department of Health, and a local contractor. I gave a short TLD presentation at the Dept., and they showed me around. Mike, the contractor, invited us over for dinner and showed me around his workspace. The Dept. of Health provides dosimetry to all monitored personnel in the State of Western Australia using film badges with attenuating filters.
The Staff of the Radiation Health Section were great. They showed me around their facility, and talked about their areas of responsibility. WA is one of the states in OZ, which provide their own dosimetry. I believe Queensland does too. Other states rely on the Australian National Laboratory in Victoria for dosimetry and regulatory services. They maintain their own calibrations facilities and have a tremendously diverse task of regulating the use of radiation sources, mining operations (monazite sands and maybe U), nuclear medicine, and radiation producing machines. I got a little homesick looking at their display case full of old instruments and source containers with the familiar ORNL logos on them. Kind of reminded me of Paul Frames display at ORISE
Mikes’ business (Radiations Safety Services) mainly deals with industrial sources. He remanufactures source holders and performs inspections and repackaging of old sources. Driving out to his office, it was interesting to see signs declaring the area "nuclear free zone". I guess the guys who sell these signs have great marketing because they are everywhere. He also got involved in a problem a few years back in which a huge multinational firm (?) which had a problem with static eliminators and beverage containers Anyway, it was great opportunity to tour his facility and check out all the special tools he and his crew devised to deal with source removal and handling.
We are missing everyone and really enjoy your words of encouragement. We hope to send Part 2 of OZ fairly soon detailing our trip from Perth back to Sydney. For now it is onto Manila in the PI, and then over to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for the Asian thing.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert and Melissa Gunter. All rights reserved.