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Looking to the South from Remarkable Rocks, there was nothing between me and the southern ice cap but cold water. I had gone about as far as I could go… finally. From this point near the bottom of the world, I would go North, across the continent and transition from penguins to crocodiles. I was soon to board The Ghan, but fortunately it was no longer a camel ride in the Outback. This luxury train ride will take me from the bottom, up to the top of Australia.
Southern Australia is a winegrowing region and a terminus of the cross-continent train, The Ghan. This 48 hour ride goes across an arid land but not a wasteland. I had reserved a nice stateroom with my own window to this interesting world.
Meeting my wife in Sydney, we boarded a train for Adelaide in Southern Australia. I figured it was just an overnight run, so at my insistence we booked the cheaper cabin. My bunk was like a coffin and I got claustrophobic. To enter the bunk you have to crawl in head-first, if you can imagine the situation since I haven’t any pictures. There are no bars to allow swinging into the bunk. So, I reversed and put my head where the feet belonged and made it to Adelaide where I promptly upgraded my cabin status for the next leg on The Ghan.
In Adelaide we rented a car and took off for the famous Barossa Valley wine region. This area has wine grape production that is at a level with any in the world. Huge areas of fields covered with vines. It is an area with enough wineries and sights that two or three days can be justified. From Adelaide, we took a flight over to Kangaroo Island to see the nature preserves and some wine tasting. There is a wine appellation (Kangaroo Island) with 28 wineries.
On Kangaroo Island we walked amongst the kangaroo. I could see that “outsiders” are fascinated while the locals consider them to be much too common. Australians often cover the front of vehicles with a steel cage for impact with kangaroos, and carry an iron bar to humanely finish-off the injured animal. Everyone was thrilled when we spotted koalas in the trees and it didn’t seem to care that I was directly under it with a camera. Later, I was told the urine of a koala is nearly impossible to wash out so this time I was lucky.
Boarding The Ghan in Adelaide, one of the first instructions briefly ruined my day. My American whiskey, purchased at a dear price in Sydney, is outlawed on The Ghan. In shock, I learned you can purchase drinks at the lounge bar and I can understand they need to cover all costs. I still have crocodiles to see in Darwin and the Great Barrier Reef ahead; plenty of time for sipping my favorite libation.
Every meal we had a formal seating and enjoyed conversation with people from everywhere. This is unlike flying around and checking in at hotels because the food quality, the car window view of the Outback, and variety of people encourages meaningful talk. One evening we shared the table with the government official responsible for health care delivery in the Queensland province. If the tablemate is Australian, many have interesting stories about their immigration decision and experiences.
Darwin suffered heavy bombing attacks by the Japanese during World War II and the attack leader (Mitsuo Fuchida) was the same officer that lead the attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. Fuchida ordered the now famous radio message, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”; a prearranged code for complete surprise of the U.S. defenses. The fact that Darwin was attacked, over several months from land-based planes, means the Japanese-held jungle islands are reasonably close to Darwin. Nearby Darwin are several large nature parks with fantastic views of jungle areas.
Also suffering, but not from the Japanese, are the native aboriginal people. There are groups of aborigines sitting around, on the grass, around stores, and wherever possible to take weight off the feet. They don’t beg or bother, but as with street dwellers in the USA, people just act like they do not exist. My having just crossed their former territory by train I was able to grasp, in some small measure, the lifestyle that is lost and true freedom sacrificed. The government is making greater efforts, but compensation is not really possible considering the lost heritage.
I expected that the jungle nearby Darwin is a place of no sunlight and hanging vines. It appeared more like heavy scrub brush to me. Too much Tarzan reruns in my youth, I suppose. However, there are strange birds and dangerous reptiles plus beautiful waterfalls with natural pools. At Litchfield Park we got into the cool water coming over the Wangi Falls (video) for guaranteed crocodile-free swimming (I kept a lookout, anyway). Later, we saw the huge termite mounds and the little critters actually sense magnetic orientation to build their cities.
Taking a flight over to Cairns and driving to Port Douglas, the next jungle (a real rainforest) had crocodiles that are close by on a boat tour of the Daintree National Park. It wasn’t like Disneyland, where the boat driver shoots a pistol at an attacking hippopotamus, but the boat is much the same while the threat can be real. I was leaning over the rail, near the shore (video), and taking a picture of a flower – then realized this was a really stupid thing to do, holding a shiny object in my hand over the water.
Back in town at Port Douglas, we took a tour of the beautiful beach in preparation for the next day at the Great Barrier Reef. Imagine waiting to see such a famous natural wonder; a place you have heard about and seen on television in travel logs. This is a protected reef and the government restricts vessel traffic that may pass close to the national resource. The same reef that Captain Cook ran into before going to Hawaii and getting himself killed.
The tour company has a permit to permanently position a platform over the reef for tourist coming from shore on a large catamaran hull ship. At the platform, I was able to enjoy a catered lunch and watch people prepare for their reef diving adventure (video). I did swim, but preferred to take the glass-bottom boat around to see more of the reef. This was a marvelous experience and I only saw a large sea turtle instead of a great white shark.
Flying out from Cairns to Sydney, I had several more days ahead before leaving this unique continent. It was in Sydney that Captain Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) held a governorship and the old buildings can be toured. Another interesting thing to do in Sydney is simply buying the all-day bus pass and riding around the shoreline, including famous surfing zone at Bondi Beach. The water is zoned into surfing and swimming, with shark nets deployed for peace of mind while reading Jaws in a recliner. After seeing Sydney, there is the Hunter Valley wine region available by tour bus or private car. I didn’t have time to see it all and plan to visit New Zealand next, and this may include landing in Sydney en route. One more chance to partake of their national pastime at the Barbie!