Six Months in a Land Called Oz

A great place to pause & reflect . . .

I’ve been avoiding this particular post for some time now.  In fact as I write this I still don’t know where to begin.  I thought I would publish my first reflective post after my first month abroad, but I was busy enjoying life on the road with Heather & Adam & it was enough just to keep my notes up-to-date on all the things we were seeing & doing each day.  That’s alright, I thought – I was living in the moment, soaking it all in, there would be time for reflection later.

Heather & I enjoying a beautiful day at Perth City Beach in Western Australia

The end of my third month – a quarter of the way through my time in Australia – marked another important milestone, but at that point I was going through a bit of a transition – that from traveler to . . . well, for lack of a better word, resident! (don’t worry mom & dad I haven’t applied for permanent residency, hahaha ;))  I was in the midst of making what I would consider to be my second big decision of this journey (the first being to come to Australia at all) & that was whether I should spend the working part of my work & holiday visa in Melbourne or Sydney.

The Clocks at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne

Of course by now you know that Sydney won out & I am quite happy with that choice, as well as the initial choice to spend a year Down Under, BUT . . .

. . . six months in, what do I have to say about it all??

I suppose the best way to go about reflecting on my time in Oz thus far is to revisit the travel philosophy I wrote shortly before departing on my trip, specifically: Live in the Moment; Step Outside My Comfort Zone; Let My Heart Lead & My Mind be the Accompanist; and finally Seek Passion in all its Forms.

Let My Heart Lead & My Mind be the Accompanist

I will start here as it was this piece of my philosophy that finally enabled me to overcome my fears, rent out my house, quit my job & buy a one-way ticket to a country I had previously spent only two weeks visiting.  How did what initially seemed to be such a difficult decision suddenly become a no-brainer for me?

Goodbye Buffalo . . . Hello Australia!

It happened like this: I first came to Sydney to visit Heather in September/October 2010 while she was living here on the 12-month Work & Holiday Visa that I now also possess.  I had such a fabulous time that I (privately at first) started to flirt with the idea that maybe I could follow in her footsteps . . . but no, no, no, that was totally crazy!  Banish the thought!!  How could I just pack up & leave?  Very irresponsible indeed.  I think it seemed to some as if I was giving up the pieces of the American Dream I had worked so hard for – leaving a house, a job, family & friends to – to what, travel?  Was that a worthy enough goal?  After all, it’s not as if I hadn’t taken short-term vacations abroad before (while keeping the security of a full-time job back home) & I’d surely do so again – wasn’t that enough?  What was the point of leaving everything behind only to return to a life of uncertainty 12 months later?

I asked myself these questions & many others before I made my ultimate decision.  I searched for signs that I should take the leap so I wouldn’t have to bear the immense burden of making this choice all on my own . . . well, needless to say I started seeing signs everywhere.  I tried as hard as I could to turn anything & everything around me into a sign, but I knew in my heart that none of those occurrences were signs at all – they were mere coincidences & vague connections at best.  I only saw them as signs because I wanted them to be.

Searching the Skies for an Answer . . .

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was trying to turn everything around me into a sign!  I was trying to turn them into signs because I wanted them to be signs.  I wanted them to be signs because I wanted to go to Australia.

So I had my answer, simple as that: I wanted to go to Australia!  All along it was there, just under the surface, but I couldn’t acknowledge it, I was too blinded by fear.  Once I fully understood the strength of my heart’s desire, there was no going back.  I felt so empowered that I could make such a major life change & yet feel so relaxed, so relieved, so free!  I wanted to hold onto that feeling forever – the feeling that I am ultimately in control of my life & that I don’t have to follow a prescribed path in order to be happy or successful – I can create my own. 🙂

Sunset at Uluru - this is the life!

Now that’s not to say that the past six months living in Australia have always been easy, but if I could go back in time, would I do it all over again?  In a heartbeat.

And I’ve had at least one other opportunity to test out my philosophy on allowing my heart to rule.  Initially I had planned to live & work in Melbourne for a while, either instead of, or in addition to, Sydney.  By all accounts, Melbourne should have been my ideal city, known for its artistic vibe, culture & great cuisine.

One of the many lanes & arcades in Melbourne

But ultimately, it just didn’t feel right.  I’ve written a bit about this decision already & I will be writing about the two and a half weeks I spent visiting Melbourne soon in a separate post, so I won’t go into any more detail here.  Suffice it to say, my heart was right again – I should have trusted it all along.

Live in the Moment

Actually, one more thing about the decision above . . . I wrote in my travel philosophy how stressed I was at the thought of having to decide how & where to spend my time in Australia & that was before I had even left home!  I wish I could go back & tell the “Me” from six months ago to relax a little – I couldn’t possibly have known what to do back then because I hadn’t experienced any of it yet.  I would figure it out when the time came – in the moment. 🙂

That very idea still freaks me out though; I’m still not quite comfortable with it.  In fact, now that I’m at the halfway point of my trip (OK, who am I kidding, since before I even made the decision to come here), I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do when this adventure is over.  It’s not that I’m ready to go home yet – although I do get homesick at times & very much miss family & friends – it’s just that it’s so hard to let go & trust that things will somehow work out in the end.  I want complete security as well as unmitigated freedom but unfortunately I can’t have 100% of both.  So much can change in a year, in six months even, & I can hope & dream & plan all I want today but there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring.  So I have to let go a little & let each moment lead into the next, until finally enough moments have passed that I am ready & able to make those next big life decisions.

Living in the moment is easier when you have a view like this to remind you of how magical each day can be

Fortunately, living in the moment tends to be a bit easier on a day-to-day basis.  By that I simply mean pausing every now & then to appreciate what you have, enjoy what you’re experiencing & let the wonder of it all sink in.  It’s a bit like meditating (or as close to meditating as I’ll probably ever come!)  Whenever I eat one of Zumbo’s delectable macarons or gaze at the incredible beauty of the Opera House, or even once in a while at work when I inch ever so much closer to making the perfect cup of coffee, I feel like I am truly living in the moment . . . OK, admittedly there are also moments when I just want to scream & curse & kick the espresso machine, but I won’t mention that here. 0:-)

Mouth-watering Macarons

Step Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve actually surprised myself with this one in ways I never would have imagined before coming on this trip . . . I mean, come on, weeing in the bush?  ME?!  Not exactly something I had on my Oz to-do list, but it sure makes for an*ahem!* interesting blog post. 😉

Forget the animals crossing, this sign should read "No Toilets Next 96 km"

And then there’s the driving.  On the other side of the road.  With *me* in the driver’s seat.  Now if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is!  But I did it.  Not entirely sure I want to do it again, but I’m also not ruling it out just yet . . . 😉

Aussies, Beware: Niki is Behind the Wheel!

I have also had (& taken advantage of) the opportunity to try a few new foods during my time here.  Now, don’t get too excited, I’m not as adventurous as Heather, what with her feasts of ‘roo & croc & emu!  But I have had a few (vegetarian) foods that are indigenous to Australia, such as quandong & lemon myrtle.

Lemon Myrtle Pancakes with Quandong Sauce & Ice Cream

And I’ve also discovered a few other incredibly exotic foods that I somehow managed to miss out on previously – for example, avocados & poached eggs (I’ve always gotten my eggs scrambled or as an omelette) – I know, I know, this is really big stuff people!! 😉

Avocado, sourdough toast, Persian feta, poached egg, rocket & lemon infused olive oil from The Book Kitchen in Surry Hills

I did NOT, however, volunteer to go up on stage with George Calombaris & Gary Mehigan at the Good Food & Wine Show when they asked for a volunteer who was squeamish around oysters – I knew where that was heading!! 😉

As for traveling solo, it has been both challenging & rewarding.  Sometimes I enjoy having time to myself, free to wander about & see where the day leads; other times I’d prefer to be in the company of friends.  Having spent six months in Oz (only three of which have been in Sydney), it hasn’t always been easy to make new friends, but fortunately Heather introduced me to some great people she had met along the way & we’ve enjoyed some fun get-togethers, with hopefully more to come! 🙂

Me, Hannah & Lauren at an American ex-pat 4th of July Celebration (in case you were wondering, those are goofy American stickers on our faces)

Seek Passion in all its Forms

Alright, so I can’t claim to have had any international romances – yet!  But I have certainly been developing my passion for food . . . well, mostly just for eating good food, hahaha.  Hey, with patisseries like Adriano Zumbo, can you really blame me?  But don’t worry, I’m incorporating food into my life in other ways, not all of which impact my waistline. :-/  MasterChef Australia has become my favorite Aussie show . . . too bad season 3 just ended on Sunday, but hopefully another season of Masterchef (or maybe even Junior MasterChef!) will start up again soon.  I’ve landed a job at Ghermez Cupcakes (OK, admittedly this is *not* so good for my waistline as one of the perks includes free cupcakes!)  And finally, I am gearing myself up to hopefully take some baking & pastry arts short courses soon!  One course will definitely involve macaron-making (surprise, surprise) & perhaps I may find one or two other topics that pique my interest (without breaking the bank!)

Koala Cupcake I decorated at the Good Food & Wine Show

So all in all, I’d say my first six months of living abroad have been a success.  Here’s to another six months continuing on my great Australian adventure! 🙂

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The Curse of the “Sorry Rocks”

If you missed my previous posts on my 7-Day Groovy Grape “Desert Patrol” Tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs, you may want to check out post #1 & post #2 first; then read below for the conclusion of a three-part series on my trip “up the guts” of Australia.

Outback Sunset

If you’ve read my previous posts on the Outback, you’ve heard a bit about Whales, our tour guide.  Of all the things he said to us throughout our week-long tour, this was by far my favorite:

“Anything can happen in the desert . . . & it usually does.”

Yeah, that just about made me want to jump off the bus right then & there & run for my life! . . . But more on that later. 😉  First, we must set the scene:

It is believed by the Aboriginals that Uluru tells many stories about how the land was created.  Due to both the spiritual significance of the site, as well as the danger involved, the Anangu people ask visitors not to climb the Rock, but many do so despite this request, including two people on my tour.

Climbing Ayers Rock (a.k.a. Uluru)

Another Aboriginal law that has frequently been violated over the years involves the taking of small rocks, sand, or other “souvenirs” from Uluru & the surrounding area.  As our guide cautioned, legend has it that anyone who steals from the land in this way will be cursed.  Not a believer?  Well, hundreds of would-be thieves have later returned these “sorry rocks” to the National Park along with letters of apology asking for forgiveness (& of course to please, please remove the curse!)

A different view of Uluru

So you will understand why, when I found myself in the middle of a 1 hour & 45 minute walk around the base of Uluru with a *very* full bladder, my angst was taken to a level beyond the embarrassment & awkwardness I felt the first two (yes, two!) times I was previously forced to wee in the bush.  What was I to do?!  Others in my group advised me to find a spot away from the Rock & just go (& I’m aware of at least one other person on my tour who did just that), but exactly how far away did I need to be in order to avoid a lifetime of misfortune?  For surely if the gods have cursed people for pilfering a mere stone or even a teensy grain of sand they would deem it just to deliver a far worse judgment upon one who urinates on their beloved land, would they not?!

Clearly this was not a good situation to be in.  So what did I do?  Well . . . I did what any other neurotic/OCD/superstitious individual would have done – I started repeating various mantras in my head to take my mind off things, my pace getting faster & faster all the while . . . first from a leisurely stroll up to a brisk walk, then to one of those half-skip/half-jog fiascoes (where you take 2 or 3 hop-steps to every normal one, trying to keep your legs as close together as possible lest anything should, er, leak out) & finally to a full-out sprint as I neared the end of the trail.  What exactly were those mantras, you ask?  Oh, ya know, something along the lines of “I will not pee on sacred ground” & “I did not travel all the way to Australia to be cursed.”  I know, I know – I would make a *great* motivational speaker.

Uluru is the largest monolith in the world

Well, joke if you must, but I made it!  Just barely, but still – I have never been so relieved (no pun intended) to see a toilet!  But now you must be curious as to how exactly I found myself in such a predicament in the first place; After all, an hour & 45 minutes is not so long . . . unless you’ve sculled a liter of water before the walk even began & then another liter after that!  So why would I torture myself in such a way?  Well only to avoid an even *more* epic disaster of course – that of getting dehydrated in the dry heat of the desert & having to be rescued by the R.F.D.S. (& that was only one of the many catastrophes Whales was alluding to when he said that anything can happen in the desert.  “Trust me,” he said, “it will totally ruin the rest of your holiday” . . . So I was not taking any chances!)  Fortunately we had an “uneventful” tour in the sense that we all somehow managed to avoid the need for any type of medical treatment, but we were told that people have gotten ill previously & that was all the warning I needed.  Although . . . it would have been nice for Whales to point out that it can also be dangerous to drink *too much* water – I did not even think about that possibility since I was so preoccupied with the fear of dehydration! :-/

Well, all’s well that ends well I suppose.  And Uluru was definitely an amazing sight to behold, especially at sunrise & sunset.  It is a tradition to toast the sunset at Uluru & our group did just that.

Champagne & hors d'oeuvres to celebrate the sunset at Uluru . . . for the rich guests on the tour group next to ours!

Hahaha – in all fairness, we did get some snacks – they just weren’t nearly as elegant as the spread in the picture above.  As for the alcohol, that was not included in the price of our budget tour, so we had to stock up before leaving Ceduna, the largest town we would see until we arrived in Alice Springs a week later.

Petra & I toasting the sunset at Uluru

But Uluru is not all there is to see in the Outback.  Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas) & Kings Canyon are also magnificent sites.

The gently rounded slopes of Kata Tjuta can't help but put one in a peaceful frame of mind

Kata Tjuta - Beautiful views from every angle

After climbing "Heart Attack Hill," we were richly rewarded with a gorgeous view of King's Canyon

Me, atop Kings Canyon

So this concludes my 7-day tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs.  While I wouldn’t want to live in such remote areas of the Outback, I’m really glad I visited & took the opportunity to see what Australia is like beyond her major cities.  So far I have to say that this tour along with the two weeks I spent in Tasmania (Wombats!!  Need I say more?) on the Oz Road Trip with Heather & Adam have been my favorite adventures to date, but I imagine that Queensland (which I am hoping to visit before my visa expires in February 2012) will provide some pretty amazing experiences as well.  For now, however, I am living & working in a place that I have deemed the most magical in all of Australia: my first love, Sydney.  More to come on my life in the Harbour City in future posts.

The Sound of a Sunrise

If you missed my previous post on my 7-Day Groovy Grape “Desert Patrol” Tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs, you may want to check that out first; then read below for the second in a three-part series on my trip “up the guts” of Australia.

By the way, if you’re scratching your head right now wondering: “Didn’t she mention last week that there would only be two posts on the Outback?” you’re absolutely correct, but I realized I have way too much content to squeeze everything into just two entries, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer to read the conclusion of this story. 0:-)

Welcome to the Outback

When I think back on my tour to “a town like Alice,” the memories come complete with a soundtrack.  The playlist consists of a few songs our guide Whales played repeatedly throughout the tour, but the song I hear most vividly (& most fondly) is Shane Philip’s “The Morning Song.”  Our tour group came to rely on that song to greet us at dawn each morning as we made our way to see a sunrise at Uluru or the Olgas or some other picturesque location.

Sunrise at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), Northern Territory

And while I’m on the topic of music, let me just say that I quite like the idea of having a theme song for a holiday.  When I went on a 13-day tour of Italy in 2006-7 with Contiki, our guide played Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (a strange choice, I know!) to start each day & now every time I hear that song I am immediately transported back to Italy where I am happily sipping a frothy cappuccino & devouring any one of a number of delectable pastries – sfogliatelle, anyone? 🙂

Of course “The Morning Song” has a slightly different effect on me – there were no cappuccinos in the Outback . . . & certainly no pastries (well, none of any note anyway). 😦  BUT, I met some great new friends & they are what I’m reminded of each time I think of that song. 🙂  I also can’t help but picture us all sitting around a campfire (sans smores, unfortunately – Australia, I still can’t comprehend why your supermarkets don’t stock graham crackers!), our new German friend Elke playing some tunes on her guitar & inventing new lyrics for the popular children’s song “I Like the Flowers:”

“I like the flowers,

I like the desert oaks,

I like the Olgas,

I like the Uluru,

I like the fireside when all are drinking beer,

Boom de-ah-da, Boom de-ah-da, Boom de-ah-da, Boom de-ah-da . . .”

I should point out that the song is best enjoyed around a fireside when all are drinking beer . . . in case that wasn’t evident.  Oh – it should also be performed in a German accent (i.e., “I like dee Ooooh la ru!”) 🙂

Matt, Celeste, Me, Sabrina, Petra & Elke at The Breakaways near Coober Pedy, South Australia

There were several highlights for me along this trip, so I will do my best to cover them all!  In this post, we visit the opal capital of the world . . . Coober Pedy.

I had been looking forward to visiting Coober Pedy since I first decided to come to Oz on the 12-month Work & Holiday Visa; No, scratch that: since I had first visited Heather in September/October 2010!  I bought an opal necklace on that first trip to Sydney & I promised myself I’d be back someday & I’d buy a ring to match. 0:-)  As Coober Pedy produces 80% of the world’s opals, it seemed the perfect place for just such a purchase!

Opal necklace from Sydney & ring from Coober Pedy; You can't tell from the picture, but if you look at my ring in the light, you can see subtle blue-green specks.

During my tour of the Umoona Opal Mine & Museum, I learned that there are three types of opals: solid (the most valuable), doublet & triplet.  A doublet opal is a thin slice of quality opal glued to a piece of black glass (or other dark material) to highlight the color.  In addition to the black glass, a triplet also has a protective dome of quartz glued on top.

Opals are also valued by their dominant color, red fire opal being the most prized.  The water trapped within the mineral is what gives the gems their color. Opal mining is a tough business as it is very difficult to predict where they will be found.  Also, most opals that are found have no color & are therefore of no worth.

"Coober Pedy" comes from the Aboriginal "Kupa Piti," which roughly translates as "white man in holes" - rather fitting, don't you think?

Coober Pedy was quite an interesting town – which is to say I’ve never seen a town quite so strange!  The crater-like holes produced by the opal mining industry, along with the reddish-brown color of the dirt, give the landscape an almost other-worldly appearance.  Add to that the fact that most homes are “dugouts” built into hillsides & the result is a place like no other on earth.  In fact, certain areas of the town appear so foreign & uninhabited, Coober Pedy has been the site of many films, namely those involving aliens. 😉

Alien Invasion at Coober Pedy . . . or could this just be a prop left behind from the set of the movie Pitch Black?

Outside temperatures in Coober Pedy can range from about 0C (32F) to 50C (122F), but most residents live in "dugouts" where it remains a consistent 23-25C (73-77F) year-round. While in town, we too slept underground - just like the locals!

I had no idea until after we arrived in Coober Pedy, but my tour included a stop at a kangaroo orphanage, & much to my delight, I was given the opportunity to hold a baby kangaroo!!

Me, holding joey Azza (Azza is a common Aussie nickname for Aaron)

Before we took turns holding Azza, the owners of the orphanage showed us how they feed him.  Kangaroos normally climb into their mother’s pouch to feed, but since Azza had lost his mum (yes, I said “mum” . . . when in Rome . . . ;)) the owners made a pouch for him to climb into during feeding time – you can see it in the picture below.  Azza climbed into the pouch the same way he would have climbed into his mother’s pouch – entering head-first & then doing a somersault in order to right himself – so cute!!

Little Azza is eager for his bottle!

Probably the best part of the night was watching little Azza hop around the yard – which is a bit like a watching a toddler drunkenly stumble about (there I go again comparing animal babies to human babies!), except on a much more massive scale.  We learned that baby kangaroos simply don’t know their own strength, which results in a tendency to bounce with a little too much force (seriously, can ‘roos get any more adorable?!)  Right on cue, baby Azza bounded straight into the shed with a loud *clang!*, startling the older kangaroos whose facial expressions seemed to implore that they couldn’t possibly have ever been so young & foolish. 😉

I left Coober Pedy feeling that I had seen a lot, but also knowing that more Outback adventures lie ahead.  Next we travel onward to Uluru, so stay tuned for the third (& final, I promise this time!) post on my Desert Patrol tour, coming soon!

One Rock, One Canyon, One Railway . . . 10 *Billion* Flies

Groovy Grape Tour Bus at Coober Pedy, South Australia

The title of this post comes from a caption I saw on a postcard while I was traveling through the Outback, & trust me, it pretty much sums up the entire experience!

Aboriginal Rock Art at Yourambulla Caves, South Australia

About a week after Heather & Adam departed from Adelaide it was time for me to begin my 7 day / 6 night tour “up the guts” of Australia to the red centre.  As has often been the case during my travels, I was both excited & nervous.  I knew Heather had gone on an almost identical tour with another tour company last winter & she had survived unscathed, so that gave me courage.  Then again, who was I kidding, Heather is a *much* better camper than I!  I knew my fears were well-founded when halfway through the trip our tour guide gathered us all around & with a grave face, warned, “We’re heading into the desert now.  If anyone doesn’t like snakes or spiders, I can put you on the next bus back to Adelaide.”  WHAT?!  I *specifically* asked for the spiderless, snake-free Outback tour when I booked this gig!  I bet Oprah didn’t have to deal with this crap! 😉

Of course I knew there would be some critters in the desert, I just hoped they’d stay far, far away from me & my swag.  *Then* he tells us, in that laid back, no worries attitude perfected by Aussies & Kiwis:

“If you get bit by something in the middle of the night, wait 5 minutes before you wake me.”

“Wh- Why, Whales?!”  That was the name of our tour guide – Whales.

“Because if it’s poisonous you’ll be dead after 3 minutes & there’s no point in waking me up for that.”

Oh, riiight – makes sense . . . um, remind me why a city girl like me decided that an Outback camping trip would be a *good* way to spend her holiday?!  Thank goodness for the Royal Flying Doctor Service & travel medical insurance, but I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to use either!

Sunset at Uluru, Northern Territory

Well, I have to admit that swags are not a bad way to camp assuming the critters actually do stay away, which for the most part they did.  It’s pretty cool to be able to look up from your pillow & see the southern cross star in the clear desert sky.  Out there, in the peaceful stillness that can only be found in a place as remote as the Outback, the moon is so bright it serves as a reassuring night light all night long until the sun rises to greet you the next morning.  Hmmm, maybe this wouldn’t be so scary after all . . .

Swags - yes, we really slept in them!

. . . So, I was fortunate enough never to see a snake in the Outback, but I did see some type of black creepy-crawly on the corner of my swag during our first night of camping.  No big deal – I calmly brushed it aside & went back to sleep.  OK, stop right there; If you read that last sentence without busting a gut then you probably don’t know me very well.  In actuality I stifled a scream, punched at the swag to get the thing as far the hell away from me as possible & then buried my head as far down into the swag as I could.  Have I mentioned that there are no zippers on the top part of that thing?  Shortly thereafter I found out why when I began to notice the lack of oxygen & had no choice but to expose myself to the elements once again.  Staying calm in scary situations is a real strength of mine – I come from a very long line of super calm & not at all neurotic people on my mother’s side of the family – you know who you are! 😉  While I’m amazed & grateful that I didn’t encounter more little buggers during my trip, I was unfortunate enough to spot mice around our campsites on multiple occasions – ewwww! 😦  So in conclusion, I really loved the Outback.  No, really!  I did!!  Just not the bugs. 0:-)

In all honesty, of all the pests we encountered during our tour, the flies were the worst offenders.  Brushing them away is fruitless because as soon as you do they land right back again.  Stubborn little #$!@#&!  Your only real recourse is an Aussie flynet which at least prevents you from inhaling/ingesting any suicidal buggers.  At $10, it tops my list for best value for the money of anything I’ve bought on holiday before or since.  It’s probably also the most stylish. 😉

I couldn't look any more ridiculous if I tried, but it kept the flies away!

“The Flies”

So now you know that the title of this post is no joke – there truly are an *insane* number of flies in the Outback!

“The Railway”

The Ghan is named for the Afghan cameleers who blazed the trail from Adelaide to Alice

This refers to the Ghan.  I considered the possibility of taking a train ride on the Ghan either up to Darwin in the “top end” or back down to Adelaide at the end of my tour, but ultimately I decided that I need to pick & choose which destinations/attractions I most want to spend time & money on while in Australia (if only I could do it all!) & I chose to forego this experience (which leaves me with a very good reason to return to Oz yet again on some future date . . . hehehe).

“The Canyon” & “The Rock”

I plan to write about these & several other highlights in detail in my next post, which will conclude my description of my 7-Day Outback tour.  Get excited! 🙂

Me, Matt, Elke, Petra, Celeste & Sabrina in the Outback

A few signs you are in the Outback:

You know you're in the Outback when the town you rock up to has population: 2

If this sign doesn't scream Outback, I don't know what does. 😦

Many Outback roads are not sealed (paved) & along the Oodnadata Track you often see road closures due to rain. We really lucked out during our tour!

Lessons Learned & Memories Made on the Oz Roadtrip

Home Sweet Home

After nearly two months on the road, HeatherAdam & I knew the Oz Roadtrip was quickly coming to a close.  We hadn’t seen it all, but we’d seen quite a bit & it was time to head back east.  While I’ve already written about most of the highlights of our trip in my previous posts, I couldn’t resist one more reflection on some of the smaller moments that made this trip such a memorable experience for me.

ON CAMPING:

  • As it turns out, empty tents that are not pegged down have a silly habit of blowing away . . . *Oops!*  Thank you Mr. Caravan Park Owner who (begrudgingly) chased it down & stored it in a shed until we returned from our day out . . . Imagine our surprise (& embarrassment) when we “rocked up” (Aussie lingo for “arrived”) to our campsite & realized it wasn’t quite where we had left it. 0:-)
  • Pitching a tent on concrete can actually be more comfortable than pitching it on grass or dirt, namely when the ground is sloped, rocky, or has a well hidden sprinkler system that rudely awakens you to monsoon-like conditions at 5:30 a.m.  ‘Nuff said. 😉
  • It’s amazing how adaptable one can be to living the life of a vagabond.  I wasn’t quite sure how I would fare with constant travel for weeks on end, sleeping in a tent on the cold, hard ground (haha – little did I realize then how luxurious it was to actually have the “walls” of a tent to protect me from the elements . . . I would soon find out during my 7-day “Desert Patrol” tour with Groovy Grape, which I plan to write about in an upcoming post).  Honestly, though, traveling became such a normal part of my life for those two months that I found myself referring to “home” as wherever we made camp for the night.  In fact, I once almost caught myself referring to the tent as my “apartment” – how crazy is that?!
ON FOOD & DRINK:
  • I think it was around day two of our trip when Adam offered me some cereal he had packed from home.  I took a quick look at the label on the container & the bits of what I now know to be dried fruit & immediately remarked “Australians eat beets in their cereal?!”  Those who know me well will not be surprised that I can be so gullible.  Just for the record, no, Aussies definitively do *not* eat dried beets in their cereal (Thank goodness!  Although beets do appear on menus here with more frequency than I’ve seen in the States).  In any event, Adam had packed the cereal in an empty container that must have originally contained beets.  As we would say in America, my bad! 0;-)  Needless to say, he & Heather would not let me live that one down for days!
  • We were fortunate to enjoy many great eats during our travels, but one treat that was sorely missing was s’mores!  For an American, s’mores & camping go hand-in-hand, but sadly I learned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find graham crackers in Australia!  Or as Adam would say “GRAY-um” crackers.  Craziness! – Both the Australian pronunciation of the word & the fact that they don’t carry this product here.  Wonders never cease!

One of my favorite pumpkin dishes from our road trip: Potato & pumpkin quiche from the Salamanca Markets in Hobart, Tasmania

  • While there are some foods from back home that are sorely missing here, or that are just not quite the same, there are also new foods & food combinations to enjoy.  I think I’ve mentioned previously in my blog that pumpkin has been a favorite food of mine since I “discovered” it here in Australia.  What I didn’t know until Heather informed me a few weeks into our trip, is that what Aussies refer to as “pumpkin” is not the Halloween jack-o-lantern type of pumpkin that I was picturing; It is actually butternut pumpkin or what we in the U.S. refer to as butternut squash.  Aha! [light bulb turns on] . . . now it makes so much more sense why they use this as an ingredient in so many savory dishes & also why I had such a hard time finding savory “pumpkin” recipes when I tried to do a google search on this topic last Thanksgiving!  In any case, it really is such a versatile & delicious food that I think I will have to devote an entire post to some of my favorite pumpkin-inspired meals in the future. 🙂

A Delicious Coffee from Three Bags Full in Melbourne, Victoria

  • If there is one thing I’ve learned about Australians, it’s how seriously they take their coffee & Adam is no exception.  We tried many a coffee during our road trip & I slowly started to ascertain the differences between a good cup & a bad one (it’s becoming even more clear to me now that I have taken a barista training course in Sydney, but more on that in a future post).  Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned (or should I say confirmed?) about myself through my coffee tastings is how far a good cup of coffee can go in putting me on the path to a great day. 🙂
ON AUSSIE LINGO:
  • It’s impossible to reminisce about our road trip & not have Adam’s kooky attempt at an American accent come to mind.  It sounded to me & Heather like he was trying to do an impression of a redneck pirate!  Ridiculous combination, I know, but just listen to this & judge for yourself!  OK, you might not pick up on the pirate part, but it was clear to us when we instructed Adam to work on articulating the letter “R” (Aussies tend to swallow this sound when it occurs near the end of a word, similar to Bostonians).  Anyway, perhaps he took our advice too much to heart as he seemed to us to be saying “Arrrr!” 😉
  • Adam fared much better at speaking “American English” than I did with “Australian English.”  It’s not the accent I’m after (believe me, I wouldn’t even come close!)  All I want to do is try to pronounce Australian place names & other words with a reasonable degree of correctness.  It’s why I spent weeks trying to master the pronunciation of Melbourne (it sounds sort of like “MEL-bin”) & why Adam couldn’t help but tease me every time we came across a new town during our trip.  Places like Geelong (JUH-long) & even more tricky, Launceston (LAWN-sess-ton), boggle the mind . . . well, at least my mind! 😉
  • It also amused me how amazed Adam was that most Americans pronounce words like “berry,” “bury” & “Barry” exactly the same.  I can hear the difference in the way he says them if I listen closely, but it’s a real effort for me to mimic his speech.  Interestingly, I once had this same conversation with my friend Christine who is from Queens, NY, so while not all Americans have trouble with these subtle distinctions, to Heather & I they’re all the same.
FINAL THOUGHTS:
  • Another memory woven throughout the fabric of our entire trip is the almost nightly ritual of watching an episode or two of Dexter on Adam’s laptop in the back of the van.  It’s an American show, but neither Heather nor I had seen it before (it airs on Showtime) & Adam got us both hooked . . . Because watching a tv show about a serial killer is a great way to lull yourself to sleep at night when you’re camping out in the middle of nowhere. 😉  (N.B. to Adam & Heather: I’ve only watched two more episodes since we ended our trip, so don’t spoil it!)

Aussies, Beware: Crazy American Driver Behind the Wheel!

ME, in the driver’s seat after we had switched drivers at a pit stop . . . always a genius when it comes to directions: “So, we have to go left to get going in the right direction again, right?”
ADAM: “Yes.”
ME, with a slightly terrified tone to my voice: “And I drive on the left?”
ADAM, witty as ever: “That would be preferable, yes.”
Ah . . . memories 😉

Driving Paul Heinz: Braving “The Nullarbor”

Driving Aussie Style (Photo taken by Heather)

Those of you who have watched Adam & Heather’s YouTube videos of our Oz Road Trip know that Paul Heinz (a.k.a. Carlos) was our nickname for our beloved traveling companion (i.e., our campervan). This was the name given to the van by his previous owners (apparently one of them wanted to give it a German name & one wanted a Spanish name) & Adam & Heather decided to go with it.

Paul Heinz (Photo taken by Heather)

As you may know, our Nomad friend was not without his problems, but he got us across the Nullarbor & back & that’s saying something! . . . So, what exactly is the Nullarbor? Funny you should ask, because that’s exactly the same question I had when Adam informed me that that’s where my Aussie driving lessons would be taking place!! Um, ever heard of a parking lot, Adam? Oh, wait – I mean a car park? (still getting used to the Aussie lingo) 😉

I knew nothing about the Nullarbor before coming to Australia & the strangeness of this new term conjured up images of a Bermuda triangle-like void, designed to ensnare unsuspecting American tourists. Riiight . . . sounds like the perfect place for me to practice driving in a mirror image of what I’m used to from the States!

Just a friendly reminder lest you forget!

That’s right, in Australia you drive on the left side of the road. Sounds simple enough, but to accommodate that the steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle. The turn signals & windshield wipers are also reversed, which on several occasions caused me to appear as if I was performing some type of modern rain dance. But starting the wipers when I wanted to put on my turn signal was the least of my worries. I needed to use all my powers of concentration just to stay in my lane – it sounds silly, I know, but you have to line yourself up differently than you do back home & it just feels awkward at first. Besides that, I’ve never driven a 7-passenger van & with 2 out of 3 mirrors hanging on by a thread, well, the whole situation took some getting used to – OK, a LOT of getting used to. 0:-)

But, I digress; I never actually answered your question. The Nullarbor, it turns out, is not as scary as it sounds. The term actually comes from the Latin phrase “nullus arbor,” meaning “no tree.” Essentially it’s a treeless plain in the middle of Australia that we needed to drive across in order to get from the eastern part of the country to the west (& vice versa).

The beautiful scenery goes on for miles 😉

See, not so bad after all – no trees means less obstacles for me to have to avoid! 😉 And although it wasn’t a very scenic or interesting drive, Adam was correct that it wasn’t a bad place for a foreigner like me to hone her Aussie driving skills. With only one lane in each direction, all I had to do was stay in my lane & well, drive (which we already know is about all I could handle!)  Of course, I did have to keep an eye out for the occasional ‘roo as well as a few other Aussie critters!

Camel, Wombat & 'Roo Crossing!

Since poor Paul Heinz could only manage about 80-90 kph (50-56 mph) for fear of overheating, it was extremely rare for us to have to pass (I mean “overtake”) any other vehicles (which, you guessed it, is done on the right). Although other vehicles didn’t come along too often (in either direction), one of the things I loved about the Nullarbor is that people coming from the opposite direction almost always waved to us as if we were old friends; we seemed to have been initiated into some sort of secret society of Nullarbor travelers!  I also loved the trees we saw along the way filled with all sorts of goodies, each usually with its own theme – shoes, CDs, underwear, TVs, mattresses (no joke!) & the one below ornamented with various stuffed animals:

One of the many decorated trees along the Nullarbor

Thankfully I did very little driving save for the Nullarbor, but in the few small towns in which I did give it a go, Adam was always very forthcoming with advice. Like the time he cried out “Give way, Give way, GIVE WAY!!!” when I *almost* failed to yield at a Give Way sign. Geez, talk about your back seat driver. 😉 I guess I hadn’t quite noticed the sign, perhaps because it was on the left-hand side of the road instead of the right or perhaps because I was still so busy concentrating on staying in my own lane. Oops. 0:-)

Well, at least I can say I achieved a goal by driving in Australia. And I didn’t just do it for me – I actually helped Heather & Adam accomplish goals, too! You see, Heather has this quote that she tries to live by: “Do one thing a day that scares you” (Eleanor Roosevelt). Well the day I first drove Paul Heinz (& let’s be honest, pretty much every day thereafter), I told them I was doing something that should rightfully scare all three of us!! So, you’re welcome guys, glad I could help. 😉

Thankfully, Adam & Heather did the bulk of the driving throughout our trip & I didn’t even think about getting behind the wheel anywhere other than the Outback. So now that we’re back from our road trip safe & sound, all of Australia can breathe a collective sigh of relief that one more crazy American is off of their roads . . . at least until my next adventure! 😉

Where to next?!

Map of Australia

WA = Western Australia; NT = Northern Territory; SA = South Australia; QLD = Queensland; NSW = New South Wales; ACT = Australian Capital Territory; VIC = Victoria; TAS = Tasmania

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