Sydney: The First Encounter

Buckling up on the plane from Darwin, I felt like a bit of snob for being surprised at seeing the cabin crew wearing t-shirts, ‘even Ryanair can kit their staff out in suits’, I thought. On the other hand, I was glad to find nobody sitting beside me so got to lie down on my makeshift 3-seat bed and get some half decent sleep through what was left of the night. The peace came to an abrupt somewhere round about 5 though, as the bunch of 4-6 year-old sisters in front of me uncannily sprung to life as at the first sign of dawn. The landscape went from agricultural plains to rugged mountainous land to a carpet of forest with the occasional house tucked in the corner of a river valley, so I was quite thankful to be woken and not have missed it but I could have done without the running commentary, dominated by the girls thinking (well, shouting) obscure usernames and passwords for their future facebook accounts and then battering the seat tables in what turned out to be an exercise in e-mailing each other. I was through Sydney airport and on an expensive train – $15 single to roughly the same corner of the city – to Bondi Junction, doing my usual staying at the door just in case I missed the two stops although in hindsight, I’d have done pretty well to miss Central Station and even better, Bondi Junction, where the train terminates.

So, I’d made it to what was originally going to be the half-way point of my trip, although with quite a bit of cheating seeing as I’d missed the whole the east coast through Queensland and most of NSW, but all that could wait for now as I’d found there were still spaces left on a 9-day paragliding license course in Victoria and it was time to act on what was, before I’d got distracted by this whole year out in Australia, my main goal for the year. It’s great to be staying with an uncle and auntie who I’ve not seen for 11 years, and my cousin who I’ve never had the chance to meet before. Obviously having my own room in beautifully restored house (and the only one on the street that hasn’t been sub-divided into a semi, or worse, too) in the afluent eastern suburbs, with a view to a bit of Bondi beach was a bonus. Round the corner, I checked out the car adverts in the YHA and found one or two of interest. As is often the case, a few of the numbers rung out or just didn’t connect but eventually someone answered and I sorted out a test-drive for the next morning. The Ford Falcon was exactly what I was looking for, with plenty room in the back to leave a permanent sleeping space and with the peace of mind that it’s reliable and can get serviced almost anywhere. I don’t like automatics but the car drove well so I shook on it and was the proud owner by the end of the week.

In hindsight, I should have done a lot more homework before looking to buy a car, never mind actually handing over money for one, but I’d never owned a car before (not bad for over 4 years driving) and was blissfully unaware of the complications of buying a second hand car in Australia. For a start, each state has it’s own rules and cars have to be registered, generally yearly, in any one state to be driven anywhere in the country. When selling a car, the seller should provide a current safety certificate with the car, as one is usually needed to officially transfer the registration to the new owner. Also some paperwork should be filled in to prove transfer of ownership. There’s other stuff about ownership transfer tax and that sort of thing, but those are the main ones. If the car’s registration isn’t due for renewal any time soon then these things aren’t so much of worry, since as long as you’re displaying a valid sticker on your windscreen the police aren’t going to bother you, although you technically have 14 days to transfer the ownership. Also things, tend to get more confused when trying to transfer the rego of car interstate. Anyway, you might guess that not much of the above happened during my buying experience, so next month things could get interesting when I’m in Victoria, trying to get a safety certificate and registration for a car that I can’t legally prove that I own and that was previously registered in Queensland. Fun times.

Between the Tuesday that I viewed the car and the Saturday that I bought it, I did fit in a bit of sight-seeing around the city. The was a bit pants for photos on my first trip into the CBD so I took a fairly direction-less walk around through the main streets, spending a lot of time just gawking up at the size and beauty of the buildings – every building seems to have a bit of appeal either through architecture of previous eras or through sheer size of the current one – and then found myself having a seat in Hyde Park, finding it slightly odd that although I’ve been told I’ve been to the one in London many times, this is the first time that I’ll remember being in a Hyde Park. There was an American guy, on a much shorter holiday than I, sitting next to me so we both headed through some massive cathedral and on to the botanic gardens as a map promised a decent view of the opera house and bridge from there.

Another sunnier day, I went back and headed for the Harbour Bridge as I now realised that I could climb one of the pylon towers, which are still pretty high, for a lot less than a full-on bridge climb, where I wouldn’t even get to take photos with my camera. Deciding to let my instincts lead me on a fairly convoluted route through the city, round by Darling Harbour and up past the observatory. The view from there is great, looking along level with the road over to North Sydney instead of peering up at it from the water. Eventually I was on top of the south-east pylon tower taking in stunning views of almost all the city and the harbour, watching boats zipping about all over the place and a constant flow of people doing the bridge-climb. I must have been up there over an hour – there’s just so much to see – before the wind started feeling a bit chilly and a remembered I was supposed to be earning my keep by cooking tea that night.

My auntie took me on part of the east Sydney coastal walk through Tamarama and Bronte beaches, both of which look way nicer than Bondi, I’d say, and on Saturday I helped with a garage sale we held to to get rid of some of the mountain of cds and books that were lying in boxes around the house – remnants of when my cousin ran a shop in the city. It was pretty quiet so I took the chance to discover some new music before I got the call that my car was ready to collect. Even on a Sunday, I didn’t like the thought of trying to find my way out of Sydney, especially I was going to try to avoid toll roads, so before 7am – pretty much a week to the hour since I’d arrived – I was leaving Sydney in my first car, on my first road-trip, getting my first taste of true freedom in Australia..

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”sydney” tag_mode=”all”]


On approach to Darwin I was surprised at myself for almost being excited at seeing high-rise buildings – they weren’t even that big – but this was the first time I think I’d seen such a spectacle and sure sign of a place of mentionable social prospects since I’d left Perth, 3 months ago. Geraldton, although quite large, was purely like that for industrial reasons and Broome was such a feeble hub of people that it took me at least 2 days to find the town centre, even though I was living almost across the road from it. The fact that that morning I’d woken up in my room in the caravan park in Mataranka: population 200 – only now do I realise that my mango-picking crew boosted the head-count by about 15% (and probably the month-end earnings of the pub by 300%) – probably only made me appreciate more the social oasis that I was about to enter and, although I normally prefer country to city, this was exactly where I wanted to be. That thought diminished as soon as stepped foot off the bus and into the tangibly humid air, and before I could even mutter, fuck me that’s hot, I was sticking to my clothes, or really, they were sticking to me.

And so I headed off down, or up, Mitchell Street to find the YHA that I’d booked into a few hours earlier on the bus – one reason I’m loving having bought a cheap-ish pre-pay Telstra mobile: $10 of internet lets me download the Gmail, Google Maps and Opera Mini apps with enough to spare to let me browse, email and navigate for the rest of the month, with almost no need to ever go near a $4-6/hour internet cafe; the other reason being that almost everywhere I’ve been along the west coast, I’ve met some poor soul who opted for Optus or Vodafone and had no signal whatsoever – but what time I saved by booking it when I had nothing better to do I more than lost by trying to find it, on a dead straight street may I add. See, the problem with Australian proprietors, is that most of them seem almost embarrassed to display the number of their property anywhere, making it ludicrously hard to find places because even when you do find a place crazy enough to display the one thing that absolutely identifies it on the street, that building happens to be roughly mid-way along so you still have no idea in what direction the numbers go. I walked past Shenanigans three times before I felt less of a noob than I did confident that the direction I was walking in was going to lead to the place where the bed I’d paid for awaited me.

Refreshed from a shower and a change of clothes, but having failed to spark up any banter in the hostel, I headed on a fairly aimless walk along the esplanade, mainly as, having seen it from the bus, it was the only place I knew the location of and partly because I hadn’t seen the sea for almost 7 weeks. Looking out over the flat waters of the bay towards what I could have been an island for all I knew, but was more likely Mandorah, I couldn’t help but think back to last summer when I was in Leverburgh, Harris watching the sun go down over a calm sea on a mildly warm and probably to some degree humid evening. Even though there were similarities between the two scenes, I was still surprised to find an evening spent in a tropical city where there is no such thing as frost – it would be funny to see though, if a freak frost were to occur amongst all that humidity, would the air just turn to block of ice and would people have to pick-axe their way out of their doors in the morning, but anyway – itched my memory just the right way to conjure up scenes from Scottish Highlands. Crossing over Mitchell Street I came across a Christmas show setup at the bottom end of the Smith? Street Mall and, although I was dismayed that such an event could take place before December had started, I hung around for a while because the atmosphere was really nice, especially because of the beautiful arrangement of lights and (presumably) Asian-style lanterns hanging from the trees who’s limbs arched right across the seating area, creating a ceiling of twinkling lights on a backdrop of sunset-coloured storm-clouds.

After a while I found myself in a small cafe, through a complete lack of desire to cook, which suited me perfectly, serving Indian food and being completely empty. As I ate the delicious beef madras, cautiously but unnecessarily offset with a helping of butter chicken, the place livened up a bit with an American student and a very chatty Melbourne guy who seemed to have the ability to spark up a conversation with rock if he felt so inclined and so we all ended up there till close before heading off to somewhere that specialised in strong beverages and not-so-strong cuisine and so a good evening was had, rather unexpectedly, leading to a more than expected not-so-memorable walk home. That said, I do vaguely remember meeting someone I’d only had the briefest of encounters with back in Coral Bay, although she clearly didn’t remember me, but after remembering her name through some fluke of memory I joined her group for a few more drinks. All I really remember after that is talking, presumably quite enthusiastically, to an American guy, who after a few minutes rather abruptly kill the conversation with something to the effect of, you’ve asked me like 3 questions in a row and I’ve asked you nothing. Either, possibly by that stage there was not a lot of compelling conversation to be had with me or, more likely, he was a complete cock and shouldn’t have been out if he didn’t feel like being even passively social.

An eventful first few hours in the city subsided, mainly through a complete lack of motivation to do anything brought on by the humidity, to a fairly quiet week filled mostly with car-hunting, dips in the pool and cooking 2-minute noodles. Darwin revived the pattern of bumping into lots of people who I’d met at some point on my travels up the coast: Joseph, the quirky Estonian who I’m almost certainly went mildly insane waiting for a job in Kununurra, turned out to be in the same room as me, and I met one of Swedish girls who’d been on that awful bus to Broome. It was great to meet up with Kevin, Antoine and Vincent – who had to leave Mataranka early because they got severe mango rash – and when we drove into Litchfield National Park for a day, I met awesome-Thai-green-curry-Yvonne from Broome.

Having skipped the apparently awesome Kakadu National Park on the advice of a number of people that it was loosing its appeal at this time of year, especially with some attractions closed for the wet season, the only area of notable natural beauty I explored was Litchfield National Park. Although featuring less prominently than Kakadu in all tourist guides, most people said they liked it better, and I found the plunge pools amazing, although the termite mounds and tablelands were pretty good too. One day, on the advice of David, my cool Israeli roommate, Vincent and I took the ferry to Mandorah, a little piece of highly accessible, and so more surprisingly peaceful, peninsula directly across the bay from Darwin. I’d meant to sort out bicycle hire before the day, but as usual was too lazy, so we found there wasn’t a great deal to do but while away a few hours at the pub at the other end of the beach from the pier, enjoying the tropical island feel but with the postcard view across the water to Darwin.

By that point I’d more or less exhausted my motivation to see much of Darwin so, as we sat under a tree on a typically warm and sunny afternoon, looking back across the sea to Darwin, I booked my flight to Sydney – once again I’d like to pay testament to Telstra, my phone and my geeky-ness for letting me do something that is generally only possible in overly-ambitious tv adverts – and a few days later I was away, happily bidding farewell to a place that I’d have liked to have gotten to know better, and felt a bit guilty for not making more of an effort with. Maybe another time.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”darwin” tag_mode=”all”]

Mataranka: 100,000 Mangoes Later

Disembarking into the caravan park that was going to be my home for possibly the next six weeks, I was introduced to Steve, the AREA supervisor for our farm, and shown the room that I was to share with a Irish couple, Aidan and Pamela. Seeing as tomorrow was going to be our first day picking and all we knew about the job was that we had to be ready for 5.30am and would finish picking when we’d filled the lorries, whenever that may be, so we hit the sack pretty early.

Getting up at 5 was never going to be easy but I think the excitement of starting something new, even it that something was probably going to be pretty underwhelming as far as experiences go, always makes me want to get up early, so I was skulking around in the dark at 4:50, trying not to sabotage the last ten minutes of my room mates’ sleep. Then there was the decision of which of the grotesquely over-sized charity shop shirts to wear: I settled on the one that was probably equivalent to a medium and so looked the least absurd and, almost, stylish to boot, along with my trousers that were about 2 inches to big in every dimension, and girls’ hat. Mornings quickly turned into my favourite time of the day: stepping out into the relatively cool, faintly-lit pre-dawn air; the ten minutes of time on the bus with nothing to do but watch – almost without fail – the clouds set ablaze by the yet-to-rise sun; and the 10 minutes out in the field watching the fiery sky give way to the rising sun, counting down the minutes till 6am, when we started picking.

As far as first days on a job go, the first day at the Oolloo Farm, Mataranka, wasn’t great. After a quick demonstration of how to pick mangoes we were set loose to the do the only productive thing were ever going to do in the next 6 weeks, but it was slow going at the start. Although we’d be made believe that picking was completely scientific and that there is a set minimum size of mango to be picked, once we were out picking them ourselves with no reference and very little feedback it very quickly turned into a subjective exercise. As with any repetitive job like this, we were slow, really slow in fact, for the first day but things soon picked up. To put it in perspective, on day 1 we had to fill 2 road train trailers; each trailer holds about 65 bins; each bin holds maybe 700 mangoes. It took 6 teams of 5 people (with mostly only 4 of those actually picking) 11 hours to finish that. In a few days, the same 6 teams were filling 3 trailers in 8 hours. So, understandably after my first 11 hour shift, through 40 C heat and perpetually clear skies, I resorted to all that I could be bothered cooking, 2 minute noodles, and pretty much headed straight to bed.

Throughout what turned out to be the 4 and a half weeks it took us to ravage the plantation of all marketable mangoes, we probably averaged out at about 7-8 hour days. Because we were paid by the hour, and not by the bin, we were always torn between picking quickly so as to not get an arse-kicking from the bosses and get home a bit quicker, and coordinating a go-slow between all the teams so as to get paid more for picking the same amount of mangoes. To this end, if we’d been getting paid per bin we’d have probably finished not long after 11 most days.

Although mornings were the highlight of the day, being able to jump into a what seemed like quite a liberally-sized swimming pool for a caravan park after each shift was great, especially since I’d usually get it to myself for 10 minutes before anyone half as eager as me joined. On the other hand, something that I won’t miss for its monotonous, repetitive and generally un-compelling content are the local television stations. I once foolishly – and I won’t do it again in a hurry for any Australian broadcast, local or otherwise – perked up a mild interest in a particularly ominous looking advert for a storm-rescue documentary, which gave the distinct impression that some poor soul was in a fairly serious kerfuffle, stuck down a storm drain as a clearly visible storm approached. Alas, the camera approached drain, past numerous emergency service personnel and looked down the drain to find nothing but a feeble kitten mewing. It wasn’t even trapped, just completely ignorant. That was it, I immediately went outside and hunted down one of the grazing wallabies with my bare hands, just to feel human again.

And so the month passed without a great deal of excitement, well actually there were a few funny moments generally fuelled by alcohol and race-mis-relations. In fact, after getting told out of the blue – as was generally the way with any communication from our employers, who seemed to think that we just sat around picking our noses when we weren’t working and therefore didn’t need to be told till the morning whether we were going to be working or not that day – that we had a holiday the following day, almost everyone headed straight to the bottle shop and started an afternoon-come-evening of unrelenting drinking that split open every little social crack that had formed in the last few weeks of being stuck together in dump on the highway. I can’t remember what caused me not to join in that night, but it gave me an unparalleled view of the amusing sight of almost everyone trying to leather everyone else. A French guy gave an Indian guy a pretty decent run around (he had his reasons), leading to a Nepalese guy thinking this was a great idea and trying the same, but on all Indians, for no reason other than that the Nepalese don’t have a lot of neighbourly compassion going on towards the Indians; an Irish guy lobbed a beer can off my English supervisor’s head; and just when I’d gone to bed and thought it was all over, the gay guys in my room sparked up a hissy fit which escalated from one of them misguidedly resting his foot on the edge of the other’s bed to them both romping around on the top bunk with the resulting stability similar to an elephant on Penny Farthing. In fact, rather surprisingly, the only person, apart from myself, to not get in some sort of raucous was the pro-IRA-Muslim-Irish-Egyptian and that was probably minor miracle, seeing as after about half a can of beer his only communication with the anyone involves proclaiming that ‘it [Ireland] is my fucking island!’.

Although it was essentially a month work and not much else, there are so many things I haven’t got round to writing about, many of the good, like: having peacocks and wallabies running around our back-yard, meeting the French guys I’d first seen in Kununurra, going to the thermal pools and swimming along the stream of the bitter springs, getting drive for the first time in Australia and almost hitting my first ‘roo while I was at it, eating warm mangoes straight off the trees and getting paid for it, pelting the other teams with our dodgy mangoes, spending most of my working hours dreaming of buying a car and learning to paraglide, having the privilege of seeing the making, and tasting, of authentic Indian and Nepalese cuisine, meeting and getting to know so many foreign people, shooting a cover for the single that a French and Nepalese guy wrote about mango picking, and finally getting the hell out of the place when it was all over.

Obviously there were a few bad points, almost entirely related to the mango picking: getting mango burns in the first few days (but they cleared up), getting mango rash in the last week after I thought I was immune (but I survived till the end), having an arse of a recruitment manager who tried to tell me I couldn’t find my own way to work because that would mean less money coming in for his bus (thanks in particular to Aidan for telling him where to stick his greed), not knowing when each day would end, not knowing when the work was going to end, drinking at least 4 litres of water a day and sweating it all out, walking around most of the day with wet feet from the sprinklers (I was almost a martyr for the cause, getting bollocked a few times for waging war on the irrigation system), literally burning our feet through our soles because the ground was so hot, waiting in the searing heat at the end of the day for the bus when all we wanted to do was get home, and generally finding some sort of discrepancy on our payslips.

But none of that matters now: it’s all over, I’ve made it to the other side, and now have the money to hopefully chase that dream of getting a car and learning to paraglide, and I’ve racked up almost 1/3 of the working time I need to do to be eligible to apply for a second year’s visa in Australia.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”mataranka” tag_mode=”all”]


Spending over two weeks in Kununurra meant it was a bit more of a pain to be back in a bus trying to kip down for the night, but it was good to be on the move again after what seemed like a wasted last week spent stranded in the Kimberley. Arriving in Katherine, I got the same feeling that quite a few other people I’ve subsequently met also got when passing through the town: there’s not a lot going on here and I’d rather move on as soon as I can. But with a renewed motivation to find a job I knew I had to at least have a look around the town and find some recruitment agencies before jumping on the first bus that would have me.

Going on the guidance of my Lonely Planet, I headed for Coco’s Didge Backpackers as it should have been the cheapest place in town, so I was a bit surprised to find Coco asking $26 for a night’s stay at what seemed like the most basic accommodation I’d yet come accross. Anyway, I was too hot and bothered to walk the two blocks to check out the other backpackers so I bit the bullet. It turns out that all the accommodation is part of Coco’s house, which makes for quite a different feel to the place over a normal backpackers. The kitchen, outdoor shower and lack of pool definitely make it feel more basic than a typical backpackers but it had a certain chilled out atmosphere that just worked. After scoping out where the recruitment agencies were, I didn’t mind that I couldn’t go for a swim as I sat out under a tree, watching thousands of flying foxes heading off to feed under an intensely red sky, while frogs hopped about the grass and a guy played one of the many improvised didgeridoos made from pieces of plastic pipes.

Morning gave me a chance to do a very quick bit of sightseeing, which basically covered the road and old rail bridges over the Katherine river. On the rail bridge I met two guys who explained that they were the traditional owners of the land around river here as well as an area to the north-west. The guy who laid claim to the local land did have a pretty strong smell of booze on him so I didn’t get a lot more insight into his people, but he was pretty keen on me taking a photo of him and his mate on the bridge, overlooking their land, so I obliged with that. By then the Australia Regional Employment Agency office was open so I headed there hoping, with not a lot of optimism after my fortnight in Kununurra, to get some work that count towards my eligibility for a second year working holiday visa in Australia. Shreyas, the recruitment manager, seemed almost hesistant to tell me that there was one position left and explained that it was a mango picking job 100km from here, it would be long days and hot work and there was always the risk of mango rash which can be quite bad… I think by that point I didn’t really care and just wanted the work so an hour later I was signed up and heading round all the charity shops desperately trying to find some long-sleeved shirts, trousers and a hat.

Back at Coco’s, I was talking to the man himself and got round to my IT degree, to which he said I could be of use to him, so it turned out he was actually planning a bit of renovation and extension to his place and had some plans drawn up on his computer. He wanted some changes made to the car parking layout but didn’t have a clue how to use the software so I gladly earned almost two night’s worth accomodation for sprucing up his plans. Hopefully they’ve passed the scrutiny of the council and he gets to go ahead with his work. Incidentally, the name of the backpacker comes out of Coco having a small shop which sells a lot of didgeridoos and a bunch of indigenous artwork and it’s definitely worth having a look in by for this even if the level of accommodation isn’t up your street. Also, if you’re a cyclist, it’s worth stopping by as Coco offers good discounted accommodation – although it might only be for camping spots outside, i can’t remember exactly.

By the middle of the afternoon I was back at the AREA office with my stuff and the new set of fairly oversized clothes and I’d scraped together from the charity shops and was feeling a lot better about the month ahead. A quick check of the staff list confirmed the name of the place I was going to – Mataranka – and a quick of my phone confirmed where it actually was. After the fairly slow pace of life in the last week it was relatively exciting to have gone from being a jobless backpacker hopping on and off a pre-definied bus route to having a job in a place I’d never heard of, that wasn’t part of my original route, with some a guy I’d just met that day, and for how long? As is the way with a lot of harvest work, nobody really knows the timescale until it’s over. Not that it mattered anyway – I’d done what I set out to do, and I was getting away from Katherine too.



Sure-footed, by Kieran Campbell

15/10/09 – 18/10/09

While I was staying in Kununurra, I met a guy who was staying in the hostel for a few nights who didn’t look quite like the regular backpacker. He turned out to be a local-ish guy on business, opting to stay in the hostel for cost saving and a bit of banter. Since he wasn’t the standard cost-cutting backpacker, the latter was facilitated quite easily by bringing a slab of beer outside with him and watching as the moths swarmed around the proverbial lamp. Being one of those moths, I learned that Grant is actually a pretty decent guy who lives in a small Aboriginal community a couple of hours away and was in town to put some hours towards his swimming pool maintenance qualification, which would benefit a number of small communities in the Kimberley region by creating someone who could provide cover to any community when their local pool maintenance guy needs to take leave.

Soon after hearing that one of Grant’s numerous jobs was as an abseiling instructor, he was offering to take me to his community for the weekend and to chuck me into one of the many gorges there are there, so on Thursday we both headed to the Mandangala community – a 2 hour drive of which half was on the roughest road I’ve yet been on. Mandangala is a small (around 40 people) Aboriginal community in Glen Hill station with not much apart from a few houses, fields, hills, gorges, and Jungdranung Remote Community School, which employs both Grant and his wife.

Friday mornings at the school start with an hour of fitness, so, instead of my usual routine of sleeping in until it was too hot to dare move out of the air-conditioned bliss of my room, I was up at 7 to play continuous cricket and, oh yes, dodge-ball. At break times we squeezed in as much tennis and frisbees as we could too. Pretending to be a teacher and assessing one of the pupil’s reading ability was fun, although the abundance of comments in his logbook along the lines of ‘strong reader’ and ‘could speak up a little’ didn’t inspire much more compelling constructive criticism from me. School finishes not long after mid-day – at least on a Friday – and there’s only one thing that pretty much everyone does: head for a dip, or a jump, in the warm-ish water of the nearby gorges.

Friday evening gave me my first decent Australian lightening show. It took a while to get used to just how often the flashes lit up the sky, and that because most were way up in the clouds, there was usually very little noise. Needless to say, I was straight out with the camera, although I was quite lazy and just left it locked doing rolling 15 second shots, letting me eat while it caught almost all the good forks.

After playing the IT repair guy in the school on Saturday morning, we got down to way more exciting business of chucking me off one of the gorges. I think my efforts at the points where we had to do a bit of rock climbing to get to where we wanted to abseil in to the not very creatively named Second Gorge probably gave Grant an idea of how arduous a lesson this was going to be. As I peered down from the top of the gorge he explained how, normally, a beginner would probably start on a drop of about 15m and then reassured me that my judgement of height wasn’t that far off, as the descent to the bottom of our gorge was nearer 60m.

With that sorted out, we got down to anchoring a line round not one, but two trees, and a rock, just to be extra safe. Although he explained all the reasoning behind the choice of anchor points and knots, I’m sure a bit of it was a publicity exercise aimed at calming my nerves a wee bit! After running through the figure-of-eight, how to control the descent and -crucially – how to stop, Grant was on his way to a ledge about half-way down the side of the gorge. That left me, alone, at the top of the ledge pondering a number of things, like whether I’d paid enough attention to how to hook up to the figure-of-eight and control my descent, to worrying about the anchors not holding up (a bit crazy, since I was easily lighter than Grant) and so, with extreme trepidation, I was straddling the rope, easing myself towards the ledge. I can safely say that at that moment, as I stood on the ledge leaning further and further backwards over that drop, I had never been more at odds with my instincts, which were pretty much screaming ‘we’re a’ doomed’. After getting over the point of no return, the descent-proper wasn’t so bad, and I definitely was a lot more confident with pushing further away from the rock face and dropping for longer stretches at a time by the time I’d reached the half-way ledge on which Grant had been patiently waiting.

Apart from the ledge being less than a meter wide, smooth and sloping just enough away from the face to make me a bit worried that my over-worn trainers would slip at any moment, it was a brilliant spot. Being half-way down a gorge, it was still and quiet and the views in every direction were amazing, and having so much rock-face to look at in every direction did make me appreciate what I’d just done. From the ledge, we had two options, keep going down straight into the water and swim out, or drag ourselves back up the rope. If I was comfortable with dropping off the end of a 60m rope into deep water, swimming out would have probably been great, but I wasn’t, so the best part of 30 minutes later, we were finally back up top. While I caught my breath after the ordeal that was hauling my dead weight up 30m, Grant showed off how to get down really quickly: by running forwards. He was down so quick that the only shot I got was the one above. Apart from abseiling, I was introduced to a few other new experiences that day: the film Australia, and icing-sugar-popcorn; my sweet tooth knows exactly which one of those I’ll bother to try again.

Grant was quite keen on getting a bit better at photography, and my star-trail shots got him interesting in trying some night sky shooting. It was a bit of disappointing night though, as we found his Olympus SLR has a shocking bulb exposure limit of 8 minutes, and my battery died – once again, due to my own lack of attention – during the noise reduction frame. For such remote area, the night sky isn’t as good as could be as the light pollution from the nearby Argyle Diamond mine is pretty noticeable.

After a fairly sleepless night, Sunday saw me feeling pretty rotten and wondering if I’d been food-poisoned, but since we all ate the same food and I was the only one complaining, we figured it must have been the water supply, which reportedly has made some other incomers sick for a day or two until they get used to it, and has even had the same effect on locals who’ve returned to the community after being away for while. The water isn’t unsafe, it just doesn’t agree with everyone and by Monday I was feeling fine again.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”mandangala” tag_mode=”all”]


After another predictably uncomfortable but unusually eventful trip (a guy got chucked off at Halls Creek for being drunk and a little bit touchy-feely with some of the other passengers) it was bliss to be walking into my air-conditioned dorm at the Kimberley Croc YHA in Kununurra. Surprisingly it’s the first place that I’ve found with air-con in the dorms and one of the few with lockers in the dorms too. They’ll pick-up and drop-off where the Greyhound stops – I hadn’t phoned to confirm this but when I saw the mini-bus driving past me as I was about half-way to the hostel I realised they’d read the note I’d put on my online YHA booking and had come to get me anyway. Anothernice thing they do is offer a weekly rent-rate which you can further reduce by doing various cleaning shifts and other odd-jobs round the place – I spent 3 hours trying to rid their internet computers of viruses and earned 2 nights free for my efforts.

My first day at the hostel was spent doing a few chores – signing up at the Job Shop and the Grunt recruitment agency in the hope of landing some harvest work (I’d heard that the mangopicking season was about to kick off and there’s a lot of sandlewood taking advantage of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme too) and making use of my Medicare card for the first time. My day of surfing at Cable Beach had inadvertantly killed a small skin tag on my stomach and by the time I got off the bus it was swollen, black, and generally looked quite ominous, but a quick visit to the GP had it chopped off, not before the doctor took a photo of it and even emailed it to me – doubt I’d get that through the NHS!

Apart from generally sitting around almost disabled by the heat, the second day saw me hitching a ride to Lake Argyle – the largest man-made body of water in Australia – with Constance and Wendel who’d rented a 4×4 for a few days. We made it just in time to throw our credit cards at the receptionist and get on the bus to the jetty for the sunset tour of the lake. The tour starts at 3 giving almost 3 hours out on the water and the guys who do it keep a constant stream of facts and stories going towards you for that time. We saw a couple of crocs (freshies so not too dangerous), pelicans and fed some fish who have evolved the ability to spit water almost a metre in the air to catch flies – it was bizarre to be holding bits of bread over the side of the boat and having the fish sticking their mouths out of the water then squirting my hand with amazing accuracy. I was so engrossed getting the fish to actually jump out of the water and take bites at a slice of bread that I missed a croc jumping out of the water, completing the food chain.

The lake is over 70 times the size of Sydney harbour, so after the fish feeding it took about 20 minutes of cruising to break out of the corner where we started from and reach the main part of the lake. The sun was getting near the horizon and the water seemed to go on forever – it looked as though we could have been out at sea, had the water not been perfectly calm. Once we were in open and deep water (20m, the crocs don’t venture out this far) the pilot killed the engine and we jumped in the 26 degree water and watched the sun go down while – slightly pretentiously – enjoying sparkling wine, crackers and dip which had been handily placed on a float so we could eat and swim at the same time. Getting home was a bit interesting as Wendel admitted it was the first time he’d driven a car on the left side of the road, never mind in the dark!

The next day Wendel, Constance and I headed west to the Gibb River Road and into El Questro National Park. The first stop was Emma Gorge, and, although the walk to the plunge pool at the end was only a couple of kms and relatively flat, the heat definitely made it feel like a bit more of a challenging treck. The gorge is well worth the walk though and, if you don’t mind quite chilly water (at least in September), then the pool is great to cool down in. After dipping my feet in, I gave the pool a miss and got distracted by a photographer who’d lugged a box-brownie and a bunch of slides in and was setting up for a shot in a way which definitely takes much more time and discipline than I’m generally used to. Next stop was the Zebedee Springs, a tropical oasis in the middle of the barren landscape where water flows over rocks and between the palms into small jacuzzi-sized pools, and all at around 30 degrees. The springs close to the public at midday but we stretched out our stay – incidentally getting the place to ourselves – for at least an extra half hour as the place was so intoxicating. At the township, I had a really good steak, although I felt a little bit guilty as there were cows walking around the camping area that we were looking out onto, but they seemed blissfully unaware of the atrocity being committed beside them. The drive home took a lot longer than it could have, mainly due to a good hour being spent parked on a section of the Gibb River road that had great background views, very similar to those in the film Australia, trying to synchronise our jumping with not only ourselves – which turned out to be tricky enough – but also the self timer of my camera. More distractions were to be had further down the road as the sun set over monumental Boab trees and the equally monumental ridges behind them.

In the end, I spent just over 2 weeks waiting in Kununurra and apart from a trip to an isolated Aboriginal community, which I’ll blog about later, it was pretty quiet and featured a lot time in the pool as well as playing Connect-4. A few evenings were spent watching the sunset from either Kelly’s Knob or the Hidden Valley national park (also known as the Mini-Bungle-Bungles) and one, quite scary, night was spent light painting in the national park with a french artist. I wouldn’t say we got anything really compelling out of the 3 or so hours we spent in a dead-silent valley with only the light from the stars to see with but I certainly won’t forget how any little noise or perceived movement got us on edge and how we walked just a bit faster after a massive flying-fox flew over our heads. It was also one of a few times where I did a longish (15 minute) exposure just to find that my battery had died during the black-frame noise-reduction – not something I was ever careless enough to let happen when I’ve been doing the same thing in Scotland.

Another nice spot I visited was the Ivanhoe river crossing – the first crossing of its kind I’d ever seen – basically a 300m long low bridge in which the water almost always runs over. Driving over it the first time was a little nerve wracking as the water was high enough to go over the marker posts at either side of the crossing and the current just strong enough to pull the 4×4 a little sideways. Despite saltwater crocs visiting the area, it seems a fairly popular spot in the dry season for a dip.

Talking of dips, one evening near the end of my stay I saw a few flashes of distant lightening in the sky and once I saw the trees swaying in the wind that was starting to gather I walked over to the park opposite the hostel to get a better view, and hopefully some photos, of the impending storm. What I didn’t realise that, with the build-up to the wet season underway, the storm was pretty big and a few minutes later a couple of us were sheltering under the supermarket watching the strongest combination of wind and rain I’ve ever seen. Soon after, lightening struck what I guess was some part of the electricity grid a few hundred meters away from us, plunging the entire town into darkness. Getting back across top the hostel turned out to be a bit hairy as the now dark street was an ankle-deep torrent of water and branches that had been ripped from trees and once we did get back to the hostel we found that most of the outside areas were also flooded. One of the most comical images of the night was the soapy silhoutte of one of the guys taking a shower in the rain, lit up only by the odd flash of lightening. If this were Britain, there’d be news about all the flooded houses the next day, but about 5 minutes after the rain stopped, the hostel and streets were clear of water and the only sign of the storm was the slightly over-filled pool and mess of branches everywhere.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”kununurra” tag_mode=”all”]

Broome – Sunsets & Moonrises

Broome plays host to two iconic stellar events – the most well known probably being the sunset over Cable Beach. I spent all of Sunday at Cable Beach with Annie, Sarah and Tracy – who’d I’d been kayaking with in Coral Bay – with intention of watching the sunset that evening. Turns out, by 5 we were the air-conditioned bliss of the pub too content with our beers to bother with anything more than sitting on veranda watching the glow that burst up from behind the dunes – ah well, another time eh?

A few beers and games of pool later and, with no cheap way of getting back to the hostel, I was kipping on the front seat of the girls’ van – possibly the most uncomfortable sleep I’ve had so far and definitely on a similar level to the Greyhound buses. The discomfort did mean I was awake, but certainly not bright, before sunrise which turned out to be quite spectacular even if it was over land and competing for attention with the morning vista that was an almost empty Cable Beach. The highlight of the morning was actually swimming in the warm water before 8am, with almost all to ourselves, bar a few fish riding the waves that were rolling in and forcing us to push our stuff back up the beach every half hour or so. If there was ideal way to wake up every morning it would almost certainly include a dip in the sea at Cable Beach. After a starter of choco-milk, the fry-up breakfast at one of the nearby cafes was just what I needed to set me straight for a Monday almost entirely spent in the pool back at the hostel.

Once I got a hold of the dates of the event for October I extended my stay at the Kimberley Klub just so I could see the Staircase to the Moon for myself. It’s a thrice-monthly dry-season moon-rise during which the mud-flats revealed by the extremely low tide reflect the light of the moon creating a shaft of light which looks a bit like a staircase leading to the moon. It draws a crowd which, for the apparent size of Broome, seems quite unlikely so it wasn’t quite the peaceful bit of astronomical viewing I was expecting but it was still interesting and worth seeing once all the same. I’m told it’s best viewed earlier in the year as, later in the year, the moon rises over land which detracts a wee bit from the overall effect of the event.

The Kimberely Klub runs a free bus to and from Town Beach on each evening of the Staircase to the Moon, so I don’t really know why I didn’t take my tripod. Anyway, I managed to get some passable shots with my camera resting on my shoulder bag, using live-view and a countdown timer to stop me shaking the camera as it took the shots. It’s at times like this, and this night was no exception, where I get a bit dissappointed at folks who’ve spent the money on an SLR over a point-and-shoot and merrily continue using it on auto which, as the camera continues to the rather futile exercise of firing the flash at an object millions of miles away, just goes to show they’ve probably got more money than sense. I don’t mind seeing people with point-and-shoots doing that but if you buy an SLR at least read the manual and preferably read a photography 101 too. When we got back we had an awesome bbq: thanks to a Scottish girl rounding up a mere $5 from willing people and going to the shop for the food we had all the burgers, sausages, kebabs and salad we could manage to shovel down.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”broome” tag_mode=”all”]

Broome – Surfing, Cycling & Cinema

27/9/09 – 6/10/09

After spending a few weeks living out of IGAs and smaller local ‘supermarkets’ it was nice to be arriving in a town serviced by Coles and Woolworths. If there’s one thing that I find hard to be a budget-shopper for, it’s food. After not seeing hardly anyone I’d met before in Exmouth and staying in a dorm with only one guy, who’s sleeping pattern was the polar opposite to mine, it was really cool to walk into the Kimberley Klub and get mobbed by Anouk, Rick – the Dutchies – and Nina and Timm – the Germans. The hostel is probably the best I’ve been to so far for atmosphere – it’s got a pool, bar, decent sized kitchen, lots of tables to eat/drink at, pool and table tennis tables, a big tv area with sofas, a volleyball court…and hammocks! Unlike the normal hammocks that the hostels in Geraldton and Denham had, these were hung in a clothes-hanger sort of fashion from the ceiling, so you couldn’t lie down in them but they were great for squeezing into, getting wrapped up and falling asleep in, and gently swaying in the breeze.

Other cool things were the offers the bar did, like pizza (2 slices, ordered from the local pizza joint) and a beer for $10 and the, not so easy to take advantage of, 30 seconds of free beer. Every day the hostel runs a free bus to Cable Beach at 10am and 2pm – nice for a few hours of frying yourself in the hottest sun. They also run a bus to Town Beach on each night that the Staircase to the Moon phenomenon occurs. Bike hire is offered at $15/day and the bikes were in better condition than anywhere I’ve paid more to rent a bike from. I stayed in a 6-bed dorm but, as long as you stay in a dorm, it doesn’t matter what size of dorm you’re in as they are arranged in sets of 4 with only dividing walls between them, so you can hear all the noise from the other 3 dorms and, at night, see the light spilling over when someone comes into one of the other dorms.

On the first day there was no question what the plan was – straight on the morning bus to Cable Beach. Reaching the steps that lead down to the beach the first thing we noticed was the board giving predicted conditions for the day – the one that really caught our eye was the water temperature: 28degrees, don’t mind if I do! The surf/boogy-board rental place was pretty reasonable and we each got a surf-board for 4 hours for $25. And so began my first day of trying to jump on a big plastic board while getting chased down by a wave about as high as me – it was awesome. I think I only actually managed to stand on the board for about 3 seconds over the 4 hours, but at least by the end I’d pretty much got the hang of catching a wave and so could just lie on my belly and cruise back to shore on top of the bubble-bath-like surf. Even wearing a rasher, after 4 hours my belly and ribs were extremely tender and so ruled out going back again the next day. Lying on the board so much also seemed to have aggitated a spot on my stomach causing it to swell up a bit, so I was hoping that would calm down before heading out into the surf again. For all the injuries I seemed to sustain, the amount of sea-water I inhaled completely got rid of the really sore throat that I’d woke up with that morning, but walking out of the sea to find that every time I tilted my head forward water would uncontrollably spill out of my nose was a bit disgusting!

I thought Exmouth was hot, but this was definitely a different level – basically even more hot and humid. After walking all of the 10 minutes in the late afternoon sun to Woolies I had to find the first chiller cabinet and take as close an interest in the food within as I could without it being obvious that, ideally, I’d like to be in there too. Later on I went with, what seemed like, most of the hostel went to see Inglourious Basterds at the open air cinema. It wasn’t quite as open-air as the bunch of chairs in the middle of a park I’d imagined but about half of the seriously comfy deck-chairs weren’t under the canopy that extended towards the screen so quite a lot of the film was spent looking up at birds, bats and clouds floating past the moonlit – but still very starry – sky. I thought it was pretty good going that only by the end of the film was I starting to the feel the cold from not wearing only shorts and a t-shirt and nothing on my feet. When we left I noticed some smarter folks had brought pillows and blankets make themselves more comfy but, for what they were compared to big cinema seats, the deck chairs were definitely up to the job. Oh and they also accept pretty much any form of student ID in there so that got me a ticket for $12 instead of $16.

Although I never actually got round to visiting any of the pubs in Broome, I’m led to believe that most of them are actually different facades of the same building so there isn’t a lot of real choice in where you drink. The alternative, and almost as popular a choice especially with some of the locals, to the pubs was to buy a 6 pack and find a shady bit of grass to park down on – there was a nice patch near the Last Resort hostel, although the first night we hung out there someone – who could have been the owner but I don’t really know – got a bit worked up and threatened to call the police. The second night we were there the police actually visited the hostel and didn’t seem to care about us so it seems like quite a safe spot to have a cheaper night out at.

On one of the quieter days I took a walk down to Town Beach – it’s quite a nice walk from the town centre along past the Mangroves and Roebuck bay and in the late morning the sun is at a good angle to let a polarising filter really pull the sky down to brightness that is comparable to, if not darker than, the sublimely tropically-coloured sea. The day after, I rented a bike and did pretty much the same route, in a lot less time, then continued on across town towards Gueantham Point. I stopped where the road turned to dirt and kicked myself when I got back and realised that the Point was only a few hundred metres away. While I was down there I did nip onto the quiet end of Cable Beach, although there were still plenty people there. It took the best part of an hour to cycle (along the roads) the length of Cable Beach but that included a detour into the dunes along one of the walking trails which cover most of the dunes, bush and the beach itself. Later on, I went back to Town Beach with Yvonne and Kate and found it was a really nice place to sit on the grass watching the purple hues rise over the sea as the sun went down behind us. We met a french couple, who were living out of their car, there so invited them along to our late-night park drinking sessions. If I get a car of my own and start living out of it I can see it being really hard to meet half as many people as I have done by staying in hostels and will definitely miss decent showers and kitchens.

I can’t remember what night it was now, but Yvonne made the best Thai curry I’ve ever tasted. I like to think my dedication to stirring the sauce may have helped somewhat but the small fact that she’s from Thailand probably was the winning factor. If I can track down exactly how she made it I’ll probably make a post for it as I’d love to be able to make it properly myself sometime.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”broome” tag_mode=”all”]