Monday, November 19, 2007


I hope you find this as enjoyable to read as I found it to write. I didn’t take many notes while I was on the trip, but the dynamic nature of Australia made it terribly easy to relive the events from memories and photos.

BTW... I'm posting these in chronological order. Read top-to-bottom and ignore the blogger posted dates. This covers our travel from Oct 15 - Nov 7, 2007.


Our Trip Trail

Hoboken to San Francisco: 31 Flavors at 2AM

On a caffeine bender we stayed awake all night in a futile attempt to shift our body clocks. This was one the night when the 24hr Baskin Robins below our place made so much sense.

We finally left Hoboken at 5:45AM and took off in a Delta capsule from JFK at 8:25AM and landed at SFO just before noon. With an all-day layover we finagled a rental car for the day and drove to Napa Valley. Although she hides it well, Amy is a bit of a wino.

Tasting at Pine Ridge Winery

I have no interest in wine so for me this was simply killing time surrounded by a more humane landscape than the airport terminal. My humble highlight of the day was a heavenly tostada at a dive Mexican joint called Rancho Grande outside the town of Napa. Good refried beans are an art of immense complexity. Wines, on the other hand, are all blurred by sameness. Which reminds me, I need to re-up my sub to Frijoles Spectator.

San Francisco to Sydney: Free PJs!

Herein lays the beauty of using hard-earned frequent flyer miles for first class tickets. We were able to shower and snack on cheeses, assorted cracker thingies and gummy bears in the British Airways lounge. British Airways opens their SFO lounge to Qantas passengers – how perfectly magnanimous of the Brits to share with their compatriots. Australia remains, after all, a Commonwealth under the Queen. I for one had my own little Golden Jubilee, consisting of finger foods and baseball on TV in recognition of the monarchy.

We took-off from SFO on Qantas flight 74 at 10:40PM in a mall-sized double decker Boeing 747-400.

Legroom with a view

Starting in the BA lounge and carrying onto the plane we struck up a conversation with a kind Aussie, Carol Sproats. Carol seemed to know everyone in the country and spoke of places like they were her babies. I’ve still got to Google her and see if she is the Deputy Prime Minister or something of the like. After a full hour of scribbling in a notebook at the beginning of the flight she handed me an 8 page list of tips for each of our destinations in Australia. Unbelievably nice. You’ll see in future episodes how we took advantage of her insights. Maybe she is the head of National Park Service? Minister of Tourism? In any case we happened across a human Frommers.

With a full-length bed, Qantas pajamas and belly full of dinner I watched a documentary on the Space Race and then dropped like a brick for 7 hours. When we woke up they were serving breakfast and we were less than 2 hours from Sydney. The flight took about 13 hours, yet felt much shorter. Granted, I probably wouldn’t be saying that if we had been sitting in coach where a flight attendant felt compelled to violently jam a scoop into ice right next to my ear every 10 minutes. But trust me, sleeping flat is the bee knees!

Touchdown in Australia: Where’s our underwhere?

We arrived in Sydney at about 6:30 AM. It was no sweat going through customs but we weren’t out of the woods yet. Our bags were marked to our final destination, Darwin, but we were told we would have to claim our bags and take them through customs since Sydney was the first Australian port of call. Except no bags matching ours appeared from the depths. The Qantas agent told us they were likely going to be a day late because US baggage handlers often get the date change confused with US to Australia travelers. The agent took our lodging info for Darwin, handed us a bag of toiletries, Qantas t-shirts and a $400 stipend for clothes to tide us over.

We sulked over to the Qantas lounge to get some snacks and shower. We then decided that we would go into Sydney before our flight to Darwin to get some essentials and clothes.

Sydney's Central Station

We took the subway to Central Station to look for clothes. This was our first indication of how expensive Australia would be. We were in a major shopping mall and couldn’t simply find t-shirts under $35 AUD (equivalent to about $30 USD). I looked at the best cost barometer in the clothing category I could find, a Lacoste polo. I think the Lacoste polo should be used like the McDonalds hamburger for worldly cost comparisons. A simple polo shirt was astonishingly $145 AUD. Two or three years ago when the USD was much stronger this price might have made sense. My dear new Australian friends… if by chance you really love Lacoste polos, might I suggest you travel to the US and go hog wild. At full retail you would only shell out $60 USD for this simple commodity. Even in pink.

Emergency apparel. Orange should do.

Graffiti in Surry Hills

Is saying the "Down Under" subway redundant?

The moral of the story… our US dollar is seriously hurting. Travelling to anywhere in the EU or Australia is financially draining.

After procuring underwear and socks we made our way back to the airport for our flight to Darwin. A relatively short 3.5hr flight meant going from temperatures in the low 60’s in Sydney to low 90’s in Darwin.

Quattro Qantas

Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Serving as an indication of the quirkiness that surrounds nearly all things in Darwin, the local time had moved up another 30 minutes. Darwin doesn’t sit in a full one hour time zone, it has adopted the half hour plan – a noticeable difference that sums up Darwin’s entire personality. Think of it this way… for every question someone might ask about life in Darwin I would probably provide the same answer each time… “it’s a little off.” The weather, the food, things to do… all a little off.
Sunset at Mindil Beach

After sleeping in until 10:00 10:30, we went to brunch at non-descript diner called CafĂ© Roma. They had a single ancient bottle of Tabasco stashed away for me to use. There is no need to comment on the quality of the food – to me it was 100% hot pepper flavored. Yum.

After brunch we stepped out into the sweltering heat to hunt down a couple more items we would need before leaving on a safari the next morning. We after arriving in Darwin learned that our bags would arrive in town two days later, by which time we would be in the Outback on safari and unreachable. So we were effectively without luggage for 5 days.

I bought two more t-shirts, both of which represented Australian Rules Football teams I had never heard of. I then carried the extra stress of thinking something like this might unfold...

Random Aussie: "Hey you a Geelong Cats fan too?"
Me: "Uhh... yeah, they're the best!"
Random Aussie: "Actually mate, they are the worst team in the division"
Me: "Yeah, tough year"
Random Aussie: "You think they oughta can coach Hamilton?"
Me: "uhhh... yeah... Can Him... hey... how bout them Redsox? uhhh... I... I should go."
Random Aussie: "whatever mate. See you at the games!"

Of course no safari would be complete without a classic Aussie Outback hat. Amy opted for straw and I opted for suede. We looked quite fetching if I do say so myself. We also picked up flashlights, long pants, and sunscreen.

It’s hard to describe the density of the heat and humidity in Darwin that first day. As I have said many times under similar circumstances, I was sweating like a whore in church. We went back to the hotel to enjoy a swim and some cold beer.

Late in the afternoon we grabbed a cab and went to Darwin’s very popular Mindil Beach sunset market. This market reminded me on any old US street fair where earth-loving folks had schlepped their crafts to the beach and set up a tent.

Mindil Beach Sunset Market

There was a wide variety of food and artsy trinkets, that for some supernatural reason make you consider redecorating an entire room of your home into a Polynesian/Aboriginal theme. We kept our wits about us and decided against that.

The only real difference in this market compared to a Sixth Avenue street market on a Sunday in NYC is that this was literally the only thing going on in Darwin at the time. So you basically had two camps - the locals socializing and the tourists daring each other to eat dried emu jerky.

Although I paid $10 for a runny roti wrap, the sunset at the beach was worth every penny. We left after about an hour for the nights main event. Deckchair Cinema.

We read about Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema online before leaving the states. This little local nuance is a permanently established movie-in the-park type of thing. The seating however, was less like deckchairs, and more like 25-person hammocks supported by plumbing pipes. Fun.

Deckchair Cinema proudly presents Air Guitar Nation

The cinema is run by a local non-profit and they primarily show independent films and super played out classics. So don’t try finding Men in Black XII here on opening weekend. With that said we did pay $13 for tickets. The snack bar served beers so we grabbed two and sat down for Air Guitar Nation – just as quirky as the cinema itself. Perfect.

Sleepy time.

Building facade in Darwin

Industrial pier in Darwin

Top End Safari : Free Coffee for Drivers

The safari caravan pulled in front of the hotel shortly after 7AM. We met our guide, John Grant and a few other campers who had already boarded. After picking up 4-5 more we headed south on the Arnhem Highway.

If someone you meet claims to have traveled through Australia but can’t recall seeing termite mounds, then you are being conned. Here is our requisite photo.


These things are literally everywhere you look and come in all shapes and sizes - the largest of which are decades in the making. Given the negative connotations that come with termites in the States, it’s quite a paradox that we found it beautiful how the mounds stuck out of the deep blue horizon. Amazingly, we never actually saw a single termite but the mounds clearly let you know who secretly rules the ecosystem down under. Crocs and roos are just tolerated companions in Termitetown.

The other thing you’ll see on main roads are signs stating “Free Coffee for Drivers.” This is just plain smart. Australia has life-sentence-length roads that dictate long hours of driving without reprieve. Safety first.

It was this or cocaine. Of course the gov picked the lowest bidder :(

Billabong Cruise

Shopping cart for crocs

A bona fide croc cruise was our first stop on the safari.

Ted, our leathery guide, had some hard and fast opinions. He was a self-proclaimed man of the bush and assured in the ways of mother earth. We found him entertaining and a willing banter participant.

I felt bad for Ted because everything he said was totally lost on half of the boat. Our Dutch and German friends had very limited experience with English. As proof, Ted had just finished a spirited safety briefing culminating in one final life saving point – Don’t Stand Up in the Boat. Over the next five minutes, as the boat idled in water teeming with 500 pound man-eating crocs, each Dutch and German stood up in successive order as Ted rolled his eyes and through a one-sided smile conveyed the idea of “screw it, this is just survival of the fittest and English speaking.”

Awwwe look-at-ahh... she's a beeuueauty

When it comes to crocodiles Ted was a bit of a preacher. He had a 5 minute rant on the late Steve Irwin. Although some of what he said made sense I got the impression it was fueled by jealously. His main issue was the environment that Irwin placed crocs into. Crocs have no internal temperature control and according to Ted, if their bodies are much below 86 degrees or much above 89 degrees, they will slowly die. Ted says that Irwin would simply take crocs into arenas in southern Australia where the low temperatures would basically put them into a vegetative state. He said that Irwin would approach large crocs will full knowledge that they could not attack him – the crocs didn’t have enough energy. He felt that Irwin would never want the audience to know that because tickets sales to shows would plummet. Although much of this is probably true, it was deeply disturbing to hear him lambast a dead guy. And in my in my personal opinion, although Steve Irwin probably embellished the experience for his shows, he most certainly did more good for the future of crocs and the rest Australia’s environment by garnering massive global awareness.

We did see a number of crocs on the cruise, but as you might imagine, they are pretty sneaky and I'd see a pair of eyes on the surface and then try to get Amy's attention and the eyes would have disappeared. I can only imagine how unnerving that would be if you had tried to do your own two person cruise in a small wooden boat.

As we would comment throughout our trip, the variety and size of the birds on the trip was amazing. While on the croc cruise I kept waiting for the birds on the bank of the river to go under with one big gulp of a croc. It never happened, but we learned that it does happen. Basically, the birds get complacent after a longtime without a croc attack. They begin to gallivant around the bank without keeping an eye out for danger. Then SMACK! Stupid birdbrains.

Heron? Crane? I'm not much of a birder.

Shade tree perch


Pink Lotus

Ubirr: A Lifesize Game of Pictionary

Ubirr, in Kakadu National Park, is a fascinating stop because of its large collection of Aboriginal art on striking rock formations jutting out of the surrounding flood plain.

We arrived on a terribly hot day, but the large rock formations helped cool the situation off. The rocks provided overhangs with plenty of shade to hide under and when we climbed high onto the formations a brisk breeze battered the top of them.

Peering at the Gallery

We hiked back into the bush a few hundred yards and came to an area known as the “main gallery” where the largest amount of artwork can be viewed. The artwork is very understated and tells simple stories - often just a singular event or a singular life form. I personally liked these drawings because they were not cryptic or abstract. The Aborigines drew clear depictions of Aboriginal life and environments. Some drawings are ridiculously old and others are quite young. For example, there are elements that depict the arrival and first contact with Caucasians – events that are less than a few hundred years old. Other drawings of animals at Ubirr are estimated to be 2,000-3,000 years old. I read after our trip that carbon tests have shown some Aboriginal paintings in Australia may be 20,000+ years old

They took some liberties regarding proportions

I also really liked the signs of human ingenuity still visible on the surrounding rocks. You can clearly see the dimples on flat surfaces where the Aboriginals would grind and prepare the paints to be used on the walls above.

Drawings near the top of large overhangs survived extremely well and it just makes me wonder how many must have been lost on less protected rock walls or protected places that lost their overhangs over thousands of years. I’m personally convinced that we are only seeing a tiny fraction of the stories captured by the Aboriginals and I only wish we could see more of what happened at the dawn of human experience.

We an the hour or so climbing the rock formations to take in the amazing panoramic view of the flood plain. Every once in a while we would barley notice an object darting around far below. Then nothing. Then a glimpse again. Until finally we had our eyes trained on an area long enough to see that the movements were Kangaroos jumping through the tall grass.

After leaving Ubirr, we cruised in the van about 45 to camp at Cooinda. The camp site was large and offered tent sites and little cabins. Our tour operator, Connections Safaris, had about 10 permanent tents and a large mess tent where we ate as a group and drank until we became outback experts and veteran bushman. John, our guide, cooked up fish, veggies, and rice.

sunny day + big dinner + beer³ = sleepy²

Taking in the flood plain

Natural staircase

Paint Holes


The Dharma Initiative Tours Australia

So our new French friend, Lin, climbs into the caravan sporting a conspicuous logo and I immediately say to Amy, “That’s the Dharma logo.” She disagrees, but I was positive I had seen it before.

Where are 'they' taking us?

Now it’s important to understand that Lin’s English and my French are rather broken, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to ask him about it and see if he was a Lost fanboy too.

So I point to his t-shirt and ask, “Is that from Lost?” It didn’t register so I ask for a little translation help from the bi-lingual Isabelle. Lin says that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about and that it means nothing to him. “It is just a t-shirt.” Or so he says.

Over the next five minutes I try to get anyone else in the van to agree it looks familiar. Nobody agrees and I felt completely deflated and wished I had an internet connection to show them that Lin is a spy and should not be trusted.

What if I was traveling with one of “the others?” It was everything I could do to not sneak into his tent and search for needles, vials, strange videos and the like. Lin, if you are reading this… I’m just kidding… I would never do anything to get Dharma on my bad side.

It’s very important that you enter the numbers.


Edith Falls

While travelling through Nitmiluk National Park, on our way toward the town of Katherine, we visited Edith Falls.

Amy affectionately calls Edith Falls, Heaven. I tend to agree. The pictures we took don’t really capture the beauty of this multi-level waterfall. We parked at the base and hiked about 20 minutes rigorously uphill. This hike took us to an amazing elevated pool of water under the upper part of waterfall. The water was warm and the setting reminded me of what it looks like when a billionaire tries to create a natural-looking rock fall and pool behind their massive home. Imagine a backyard pool like you’ve seen on an episode of MTV Cribs and then multiply the size by 10 and force of the waterfall by 50. Just seven of us made the hike and we had the place to ourselves.

If you find yourself in the Northern Territory of Australia this is a can’t miss.

The Upper Falls

John Grant

Children of the Corn

After a life-affirming swim in Edith Falls we cruised into the town of Katherine to pick up some supplies (read: beer and wine). After shopping we made our way out of Katherine to the Springvale Homestead camp. Making a left onto the long driveway we spotted a couple wallabies. We pulled back into the campsite and could see wallabies scattered throughout the area and bounding away as the van approached.

Everyone went to get things settled in their tents and then slowly reconvened around the wine, beer and cheese in the mess tent. Near the grill, John was locked in a heated battle with some chicken, kangaroo meat and barbecue sauce.

Dining in the Outback

After dinner we sat by the fire and did what you do by fires in the Outback… talked. Periodically we were startled by a flying fox (aka massive bat) in the tree above. Another long day meant heavy eyelids so we made our way to the tent for what turned out to be a long night.

I’m guessing that about two hours into sleep I heard the first thug outside. A little ruffling of the sticks and leaves on the ground followed by a few minutes of silence. Then more ruffling. This went on all night but I was able to get some sleep. Finally the sun burst above the horizon and I turn my head to peak through the mesh wall of the tent. Not even a foot from my nose there was a Wallaby staring right at me. Then another one 10 feet behind him. Probably putting the other up to a dare.

“Psst, take his camera. I dare you. Grab her knickers…. panty raid!”

“Dude..shhh… you are going to get me killed.”

Actually the wallaby looked as startled to find that I was awake as I was to find his bristly snout sniffing me through the tent mesh. He scampered away but I did capture a picture of the one that put him up to it a little further away.

All is well though - the camera was where I left it with no surprise photos of wallaby butt and the Dean of Students eventually made all of the wallabies return everyone’s panties.

The darer

Suspected accomplice

Fireside chat

Katherine River Gorge

We arrived at the entrance to Katherine Gorge, also known by the aboriginal name Nitmiluk, bright and early – too early for my taste. We boarded a large aluminum flat bottomed boat. Even though it was still a young morning the heat was nearly unbearable.

The boat silently slumbered up the gorge and the guide told stories and pointed out nuances of the surrounding rocks and wildlife. As with nearly all water in the top half of Australia, the gorge was hiding a numbers of crocs. However, the area is involved in a trapping program to keep out the larger saltwater crocs to protect the smaller freshwater crocs. So the croc danger was more of the limb-removing kind and not so much the whole-body gobble. Ehemm… much safer.

Small kayaker. Big gorge.

After a bit of cruising we pulled up to a rock platform and the guide encouraged those interested to walk up the rock bank and check out the surrounding rock art high on the sheer walls.

The guide explained how terribly low the water level was in the gorge. Many of the trees and rock formations spend half of the year under water – the amphibious trees are easy to spot because they are permanently bent from the river current. Even the ticket booth itself, would be entirely under water during the wet season. Seeing the gorges and the Kakaku flood plains during the dry season, made us want to see the inverse season. You can tell from the remnants of the wet season that it becomes a completely different landscape. Numerous depth markers show the impending deluge. Many of the roads become impassable and water levels in areas like the gorge can change 60-70 feet. Upon arriving in the Northern Territory we pondered why so many of the trucks had snorkels high above the doors, but now it was clear that they could be put to good use.

Class is in session

River bend

World Solar Challenge

We had the ridiculous fortune on the last leg of our safari to be on the exact route of the World Solar Challenge, an annual solar car race from Darwin to Adelaide. I have seen multiple documentaries and reports of this race and have always been amazed by the designs and ingenuity of the solar car teams.

We were even luckier to be heading the opposite direction of the actual race – meaning that we seemed to pass a different race team heading south every 5-10 minutes. Most cars were surrounded by a number of chase cars carrying supplies and no doubt a host of laptop toting megageeks (aka my idols). Most solar cars didn’t appear to going more than 30-40 MPH on a road that is quite desolate and routinely allows Australians to “open her up a little.” I’m doubly glad were heading in the opposite direction because being stuck behind a team would have been super great for 2-3 minutes and then extremely frustrating for the next 2-3 hours.

The aliens are cruising around Oz

After passing 10-12 teams our guide, John was terribly kind and let us stop to visit with the UniSA (i.e. University of South Australia) team as they were on a routine maintenance stop recharging their TREV electric vehicle. They were racing in the Greenfleet class of vehicles which allows fuel efficient non-solar vehicles to take part. TREV stands for “two-seater renewable energy vehicle.” We learned that while on the road the TREV was being recharged by a diesel generator, but in normal circumstances the car would be recharged by household electricity and cost less than $1 per 100km.


Port Douglass: Leftist Tendencies

Our flight from Darwin landed in Cairns and made our way to the tiny temporary-under-construction-pardon-our-dust baggage claim as I tried to prepare my mind for driving on the left side of the road. I played it out in my head like a video game.

Isabelle, our new favorite Frenchwoman, was standing next to the Hertz counter contemplating renting a car or snagging a cab. We were headed her way and solved her decision by offering to give a lift. Sweet Lincoln’s mullet! Now my left-side skills were going to be responsible for the health and safety of someone not legally family nor emotionally bound til’ death do us part- I was certainly hoping it wouldn’t come to the later for the three of us. Toyota Camry’s are five star safety rated right? Right? No, left? Shit!

I hadn’t gone 14 feet before I announced to the greater Queensland area that I was an outsider by flipping the wipers into action instead of the turn single. I did this approximately 37 additional times on our trip. If brushing flies from your face is the Royal Australian wave, then accidental windshield wipers are most definitely the Royal American wave. Countless times we each walked to the car and entered the wrong side. In one case I went so far as to think someone had thieved our pedals because when I sat down and extended my legs my feet stabbed at thin air and the seat was disturbingly reclined.

Right or wrong?

In all reality the left-side thing caused nary a problem the rest of our trip. It felt perfectly natural within 10 miles and I never had an once of nervousness beyond the airport parking lot (excluding nervousness over inconspicuously stalking crocs the size of single-engine Cessnas).

After dropping the French contingent at a B&B near Holloways Beach we cruised 30 more minutes north along an amazing, yet common, ocean-side highway. Stopping periodically to take in the vistas. There are literally thousands of these circumventing the Red Center and I’m not sure you can pick a bad one. Imagine taking the most beautiful single mile of coastal highway in California and then wrapping an entire continent with it. Copy, Paste, Copy, Paste. (Ctrl C, Ctrl V… for you PC users). That is the view when driving on the edges of Australia. And to make it even more interesting, the grade of the land sloping out into the ocean is so low that that each time the tide changes these vistas become stunningly different. You can go from water colliding with lava rocks at lunch to sheer salt flats as far as the eye can see at dinner in the same exact location.

From the road

Port Douglass Wildlife Sanctuary

We fell into town around 10:30AM and needed something to do while they readied our room at the Sheraton Mirage Resort. With a few hours to spare we decided to back track just a couple of miles from the resort to a wildlife park we had driven by on the way. It looked small and not at all grand but perfectly sleepy enough to help us spend 2 hours without getting lost in a new area and never finding our way back to the long sought after resort swimming pools.

What an amazing surprise. This turned out to be the little sanctuary that could. The guide, Peter, was awesome, the life unbelievably vibrant and diverse, and we kinda had the place to ourselves. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

No clue what type of bird this is

I tried to tell him to apply sunscreen

I spy...

Koala kuddling

Roos eating

Talk to the hand...

This wallaroo is part of the BALCO investigation

Slightly more colorful than our NYC pigeons

Cane Toad Races

The Iron Bar watering hole in the center of Port Douglass holds a nightly event called Cane Toad Racing. Regularly smart folks and zoologists know that the title is an oxymoron. The race, of course, is less of a competition and more the butt of a very long and entertaining joke told by the MC [the local yocal donning a yellow hat as shown in figure A]. It was just the keen type of white trash antics that I love. Nothing sensible goes on during this wagering event, yet each piece of the ritual feels fitting after three beers – maybe five for you hearty blokes.

Each patron throws in $5 and pulls a number. If your number is selected from the bucket you are the proud owner of a racing cane toad. Amy and I were down on our lottery luck and sadly just observers for the epic tilt.

Figure A: Local Yocal

Bet = $5. Beer = $5. Racing toads = Priceless