Thursday, July 1, 2010

the outback tour

Here are select stories and images from the outback tour the last couple of weeks...

We learned a lot about Aboriginals on the journey. It's pretty amazing how they live - truly off the land and with really no environmental impacts. On a cultural tour, we were given the official welcome... Steve - shown in the photo - welcomed us all by drinking water from the nearby billabong and proceeding to spit it out in a kiss-like contact with the top of our foreheads. I was lucky enough to go first in our group and have zero warning of what this welcome would entail. After he finished, I stood there unsure how to proceed: Do I say thank you? Is it rude to wipe the water off my forehead? Luckily he moved onto the next person quickly before anyone noticed my confusion...

Accommodations were included in the tour, and included hostels, camping and sleeping in swags. That's me in a swag on the left - it's basically this bedroll thing that has a mattress on the bottom and a cover on the top that you put your sleeping bag into. We slept in these for 2 nights when we were visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta and although it was freezing outside (I was wearing 5 layers of shirts, 3 layers of pants, in a sleeping bag with a liner and then the swag and still cold) this was by far the best accommodation... falling asleep and waking up to shooting stars... AMAZING!!

Speaking of accommodations, I have to address the whole hostel thing. It had been awhile since my last stay at a hostel - think it was a few years back when I backpacked through Europe after school. I had prepared myself for shared rooms, grimy bathrooms, squeaky bunk beds, sketchy roommates and interrupted sleep. But the night we got to Darwin, I was definitely not prepared for... We arrived in Darwin in early evening and went to check in at reception. This place was so disorganized it took them a good 10-15 minutes to find our booking and figure out whether or not we'd already paid. After putting a deposit down on the room key, we went to our room and found something that looked like it belonged on Hoarders or Buried Alive. There was stuff everywhere - it looked like several suitcases (or backpacks!) had exploded. The room Priscilla and I were in was a 4-bed dorm, so 2 bunk beds. Two of the beds were covered in clothing, and a third bed was covered in change. After assessing how many occupants there likely were based on the variety of clothing around, we determined there were at least 3 - one larger man, one smaller man, and a woman. Figuring they had probably put us into the wrong room (given the organization skills observed at check-in) we went back down to reception and asked to be put into another room. The lady came out from behind the desk and paused for a second to ask: "Do you smell something?" I wasn't feeling great - think I had mild dehydration - and not in the mood to play games. I responded: "What do you think you're smelling?" She replied: "I thought I smelled some pot." I couldn't smell anything and informed her accordingly. She went on: "I thought it might be you girls. No?... Ok, come along, we'll get to the bottom of this!" I have checked in many times in my life - probably many more than most people - but this one was by far the most entertaining... never before have I been accused of being high as a reason for a check in glitch! When we got to the room she informed us that 2 men were checked into the room (apparently it was a mixed dorm), cleared the change from the bed and offered to bring a new bedsheet (which never materialized). I began to wonder if perhaps the smaller man in the room was a cross-dresser. In the middle of the night when our roommates returned I woke up to find out there were actually 3 occupants - 2 men and 1 non-registered woman - and 2 of them were sleeping in the bunk above me. When I opened my eyes I could swear the bottom of the top bunk was closer to me than when I went to sleep. I thought back to engineering, trying to remember just how big those weight load safety factors typically were. Double the anticipated load? 10 times? 100? I couldn't remember but figured it must be at least double. I lay there thankful that I'd remembered to get travel insurance before I left home and tried to get back to sleep so I'd be rested for our early morning start...

We saw a lot of really cool things on the trip, including Uluru, Kata Tjuta, all the stuff along the Great Ocean Road, Katherine Gorge, King's Canyon, lots of national parks... the list goes on and on! This is me at Devil's Marbles - supporting one of the big stones ;)

In terms of activities along the route, in the northern part where the weather was warmer we visited a lot of waterfalls, swimming holes and thermal pools inside some of the national parks. Here's a picture of our group at the Pinnacle in the Grampians - this was by far the best view of the tour and totally worth the challenging hike to the top.

We visited Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world. The highlight of this stop for me was definitely the stop at the kangaroo orphanage. That's me with Francesca (7 months). There were 4 red kangaroos there and I learned that not all red kangaroos are red! One of the four was blue grey. I couldn't help but wonder if the blue grey one felt like an outsider... which led me to think about whether or not kangaroos have body image issues. They're beautiful creatures and are quite small at the top and very large at the bottom.

We found several abandoned cars along the route. I'm not quite sure how exactly you can abandon a car in the outback - sometimes you're literally 100s of kms from anything.

One night while going to our campsite, some time after turning off the main highway our tour guide admitted we were lost. We were trying to find a horse farm that had camping grounds, and our guide had only been there once before. It was pitch black and we came upon a patch of light green coloured bags in the dark. As we drove further, there were more and more patches. People on the bus started to freak out - especially since our lunchtime discussion that day had been about Wolf Creek, an Aussie horror movie about backpackers who get killed in the outback by a psycho and is based on multiple true stories. I asked the driver to stop as several people had expressed interest in taking pictures of the bags, since we had no idea what was in them and our speculations were causing a lot of nervous anticipation. When we stopped, I was the only one to get off the bus. I walked to the back of the trailer and managed to take this shot before my heart was pounding so much that I had to run back onto the bus... As you can see I was still quite a distance from the bags and that was more than enough! After circling around a few times because it was too dark to tell we were choosing the same turns over and over, we finally managed to find our campsite. I wonder if anyone slept well that night...

Ok, so this wasn't in the outback but it was part of the tour... The night we arrived in Melbourne was my birthday. We were staying at a hostel and this place was known to be sketchy. At check-in, we found out that there was a possibility to upgrade to something called a sanctuary room - a room for ladies only that was supposed to be more secure and posh than a standard dorm. I asked the man behind the counter if he'd consider upgrading us as a birthday gift to me, and after suggesting that I carry around ID that shows that it's my birthday for each day of the year (which actually, for this kind of trip, wouldn't be a bad idea!) he upgraded me and my friends to the sanctuary. It wasn't actually posh - the main difference I noticed compared to other hostels was that I didn't have to make my bed - but along with the upgrade came some free champagne from the bar downstairs! Score!!

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