Winter Wonderland: Southern Hemisphere Edition

This will have to be quick as I’m on a very short timer. I have yet to find a restaurant or coffee house that gives out free Wifi in Australia. I only have 15 minutes on this.

Today was very cold. I drove up to Mount Wellington and Mount Field where there was snow and ice. The wind was biting and the wind chill made it colder than I’ve experienced on my trip so far.

I also got to see some of the largest trees in the world, second only to the Redwoods and Giant Sequoias in California.

Tomorrow I fly back to Sydney and I’ll make plans for the upcoming week. My plane flight over the national park yesterday was canceled due to weather so my Tasmania experience was less than I had hoped. Oh well…

Tasmania: Australian for Cold

I arrived in Hobart last night and was taken aback at how cold it was. The temperature was in low 50sF (12C). Thank goodness I have a stocking hat and some long sleeved. The room I have looked like a 1950s motel room with only an electric space heater to keep it warm. The heater wasn’t really that powerful. Thankfully, there were two beds in the room so I took the blanket off the second one.

I’m at an internet cafe in downtown Hobart right now. I’m trying to book some day tours for Sunday and Monday. I’d at least like to explore the national park and see some the giant hardwood trees before I leave. I’m glad I came here when I did. If I came later it would probably be even colder.

Off to Tas!

I’m off to Tasmania today for four days. I’ll be pretty busy while I”m there so I can’t promise many updates. I’m going to cram in as much as I can while I’m there. Once I get back I’ll try to fly to Lord Howe Island for a few days, then head up to Brisbane. I think I’m going to try to drive up to Brisbane with someone else to save some money and break the monotony.

I’m expecting to have another photo glut after Tasmania and Lord Howe’s. I’m really looking forward to Lord Howe Island. Charles Veley, the world’s most traveled man, says it is one of his favorite places on Earth, so it must be good….

I am really sick. I have a head cold that has me sneezing non stop. Snot is flowing out of my nose like water. My sinuses are so active they almost hurt. I’ve tried taking antihistamines, but they don’t seem to do anything. I am carrying around a role of toilet paper I stole and I’m going through it fast.

I got some more props for the website. Travel Connect has named me as one of the top 10 travel blogs on the internet. So, I got that going for me…. Ladies of Hobart, watch out, a top 10 travel blogger is heading your way!

Mungo National Park

My trip to Mungo was something I almost didn’t do. To explain why I need to back up a bit…

One of the fundamental decisions you have to make (over and over) when you are on a trip like mine is “what do you see?” Australia is a big country and there’s lots of things to see and places to explore. There are many national parks which are not well known. Trying to visit all of them would be impossible. On the other hand, if you limit yourself to just Uluru, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, you are missing out on a most of the country.

One of the things which I use as a rough guide is the UNESCO World Heritage sites. The idea is if it was important enough to get on the list, it is probably worthwhile seeing. This isn’t always the case. The Melbourne Exhibition Pavilion was pretty underwhelming as was the Sangiran Early Man site in Indonesia. I also can’t visit all of them. I didn’t get to any of the sites in northern Japan for instance and had to pass on a few in Indonesia and South Korea. Some of the neatest things I’ve seen were not on the World Heritage List and probably never will be. Nonetheless, it is a good rule of thumb. If you are in the area, it is probably worth visiting.

The Willandra Lakes Region is in the far South West of New South Wales, just across the border from Mildura, Victoria. It was one of the places which I didn’t know much about other than it was a World Heritage Site. The primary site in the World Heritage area is Mungo National park. Looking at a road map, there appeared to only be one, unpaved road going to Mungo. I had no idea if there was a visitor center or if it was open to the public (if I used guidebooks, I’d probably have known those things, but that is another discussion)

I figured with a large city nearby, there was probably some sort of tourism industry and there was probably some way to go visit the park. I rolled the bones and drove up to Mildura not knowing what to expect.

My hunch turned out to be true. Mungo, it turns out, is a pretty popular destination for people visiting the Mildura area (they call it Sunraysia) and there were tours available every day going to the park. The visitor’s information center in Mildura was easy to find and they were able to set me up.

Prior to this point on my trip I had been to rainforests, coral reefs, glaciers, fiords, tropical islands, mountains, megacities,

My Walk Up The Sydney Harbor Bridge

Yesterday I walked over the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was a unique experience, but I think what I found unique about it might be different than what other people find unique.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge isn’t the biggest bridge in the world. It isn’t even the biggest arch bridge in the world. It is nonetheless an impressive and imposing structure which dominates the Sydney Harbor. It has become one of the most famous landmarks in all of Australia and has become known as the focal point of the gigantic New Year’s firework display in Sydney.

I’d actually compare it to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Like the Eiffel Tower, it is an older, iconic steel structure which has come to define a major city. Not the biggest, but the best known. Like the Eiffel Tower, you can climb up to the top. That is where this story comes in….

The bridge climb started about 10 years ago. Since then over 2,000,000 have made the climb over the Harbor Bridge. The climb isn’t cheap. It is over $100, and yet it is usually so busy you have to book in advance and there are usually long waits at the top as groups try to get through. They tend to do the walk in all conditions except for electrical storms and very high winds. There are even several times in the year where they run walks 24 hours a day.

Groups leave about every 10-15 minutes. Mine was scheduled to go at 1:15 pm. Because I was doing it by myself, it was pretty easy for me to schedule I time I wanted. In addition to me, my group consisted of two other Americans and nine Australians from Perth, Adelaide and Alice Springs. The ages in the group went from 12 to 69.

The bridge climb company is very concerned about safety. I get and understand that. They have the general public climbing a bridge. They also don’t want people throwing stuff from the bridge. I understand that too. Objects falling on moving cars and the reaction that might cause could be really bad. Nonetheless, the whole process together felt like I was being treated like a baby. Let me give you a feel:

  • You check in and are given a waiver to fill out
  • You are asked about every possible medical condition possible
  • You are given a breathalyzer test (I’m not kidding)
  • You cannot carry ANYTHING with you. That includes wallets, hats, keys, cameras, anything
  • You have to wear a gray and blue jumpsuit (supposedly so to not distract drivers
  • You have to have your glasses attached to your jumpsuit
  • You can’t wear sandals. They gave me a pair of shoes and socks to wear
  • You have to practice going up a ladder
  • You have to go through a metal detector

It is what going through an airport is going to be like in 10 years.

The things are, I can understand the justification behind any one of those requirements. Put them all together and it feels like something created by a committee of bureaucrats. The end result is you look like a member of a space shuttle crew from a country who couldn’t afford to buy real space shuttle jumpsuits, so they have copycat jumpsuits from a guy on a street corner.

In addition to all of the above, you are also tethered to the bridge for the entire walk. There is a wire which runs along the entire walk and there is a contraption which is attached to you which slides the entire way. I’m not totally sure why they have it. The way it is designed, it won’t really stop anyone from falling down the steps. If you start sliding down the arch, it will probably just slide with you. If you wanted to kill yourself, you could always slip off your belt (or save some money and jump off the road deck of the bridge). There are handrails on both sides of you the entire walk and the arch is wide enough that you probably can’t fall off if you wanted to.

I suppose if you are afraid of heights this won’t be your cup of tea. However, this is nothing close to extreme. This is the opposite of bungee jumping. The walk is very leisurely. You do have to climb a few ladders, but the climb takes about an hour and even if you aren’t in shape, I highly doubt if you are going to get winded at any point. The most dangerous part of the walk is avoiding hitting your head on some pieces of steel which have padding on it.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend someone taking this walk is the cost. It is expensive considering that you can walk across the deck for nothing. That being said, doing the bridge walk has sort of become “the” thing to do in Sydney for tourists. You do get a great view of the harbor and if you do it, you can say you did it. It is like going to Paris and not going up the Eiffel Tower. No matter how lame and touristy you might think it is, it is sort of something you have to do at least once.

Plus, you don’t get the dorky astronaut uniform going up the Eiffel Tower…..

Walking the Sydney Harbor Bridge

Easter here is a four day weekend. Easter Monday is a holiday, so today (Tuesday) is really the first day I’ve been in Sydney where most businesses have been open. I’ll be walking over the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge this afternoon (sort of one of the things you just have to do when you’re here) and sending a big box of crap back home. I’ve been going through my gear and evaluating if I have used it in the past year. I ended up throwing a bit of stuff away and sending the rest home. I’m also sending home the bags I was previously using, so it will be a sizable shipment .

I should find a scale and figure out just how many kilos I’ve shaved off my bag weight. I have always been carrying a heavy load. Electronics will do that. With everything more compact, I think I could get everything into one bag in theory.

Last night I had kangaroo for the first time. It was almost exactly like eating venison. If you had put them side by side, I don’t think I could have told you the difference. Kangaroo products are illegal in California, which I think most Australians would find humorous because they are certainly not endangered. I think it has more to do with the fact they are cute on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. When I was at Mungo National Park, our aboriginal guide was really upset at the fact they couldn’t serve kangaroo to guests because of health regulations, even though his people had been eating it for tens of thousands of years prior to the New South Wales health department showing up.
Nominations for the 2008 Travvies have started. If you like my site, you can toss me some love by nominating me in some of the applicable categories below. All you have to do is click on the below links and leave the name of the site and URL. If the site has been nominated already, feel free to keep sending the love. The more the merrier. I’m up against the likes of National Geographic, so all the support I can get is appreciated.

  • Best Travel Blog
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  • Best Destination or Trip Narrative Blog
  • Best Photography on a Travel Blog

Final Thoughts on East Timor

I was only in East Timor for a long weekend and in that time I was only in the capital of Dili. So anything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I am by no means an expert on the country. However, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the country had gone through. Dili looked like a city which had just been in a nasty bar fight. It is the first and only place I’ve been during my trip so far where I saw the effects of violence first hand.


First, let me provide a bit of background on the country. My guess is that most people either haven’t heard of East Timor, of if they did, it was in passing on a news program. Most of the Indonesia archipelago was colonized by the Dutch via the Dutch East India Company. The only exception to this was the eastern half of the island of Timor (Timur means “East” in Bahasa Indonesian) which was colonized by the Portuguese.

The Dutch and the Portuguese did not go about the business of colonization in the same manner. While traveling through Indonesia, I didn’t see much in the way of obvious Dutch influences. I’m sure there are bits of Dutch which appear in Bahasa Indonesian, but I don’t know enough Bahasa or Dutch to notice it. The Dutch, for all their faults, didn’t go about changing the religion of the Indonesians nor did the country end up speaking Dutch.

The Portuguese, however, managed to convert most of their colony to Catholicism and made Portuguese the official language. Over several hundred years the colonies grew very distinct from each other.

Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1945, whereas Portugal hung on to its colony. In 1975 they left East Timor (Timor Leste in Portuguese) and unilaterally declared them independent. That didn’t happen.

The Portuguese left in a rush and nine days after declaring them independent, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia.

The US had a role to play in this. Prior to the invasion, Suharto (former leader of Indonesia) told Henry Kissinger and President Ford of his plans and got the OK from the US for the invasion. The US didn’t want a communist government to take root in East Timor. All UN efforts to impose sanctions on Indonesia were blocked by the US. The only country to formally recognize East Timor as part of Indonesia was Australia. (It should be noted that most western nations to some degree or another supported Indonesia. The government of Portugal basically walked way and gave some weak verbal support for East Timor.)

During the next 25 years, the East Timorese fought a guerilla war against the Indonesia’s occupation which an estimated 100,000 Timorese were killed.

In 1999, under UN oversight, the East Timorese held a referendum and voted for independence. When Indonesian troops left the, out of spite, basically destroyed most of the infrastructure of the country. Today, you can still see the gutted out and abandoned buildings in Dili.

Since independence, things haven’t been rosy. As with every revolution, civil strife broke out in 2006 which brought UN Peace keepers back in. As you might remember, on the morning I left Dili there was an assassination attempt on the President and Prime Minister.

Life on the Ground

The moment you hit the ground in East Timor, you can tell this place which is in trouble. Immediately across the street from the airport was a refugee camp. In fact, most of the open spaces in Dili seem to have been converted to refugee camps including the main part and the area around one of the churches. They are mostly people from rural areas who fled to Dili after fighting in 2006.

You can’t look down the street in Dili without seeing a UN vehicle. They are mostly 4-wheel drive SUVs with air intake pipes near the roof. Many also have metal mesh around the windows. The presence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the UN are everywhere. During the time I was in Dili, I only spoke to a handful of native East Timorese. Most of the people I interacted with were outsiders working in East Timor.

Every so often, the sounds of helicopters would be heard overhead. The UN helicopters were used for even trivial transportation of UN troops. I heard from several people stories of UN personnel using helicopters to take trips which easily could have been done by car.

These operations are done with good intentions, but I can’t help but wonder how locals feel about it. As they are forced to live in tents in the refugee camps, the UN personnel live in gated communities with all the amenities you’d expect in a western country. They travel from place to place in their UN trucks and live in another world along side of the people in Dili. I was the only non-East Timorese I saw walking alone in Dili. Everyone else kept in pairs and didn’t seem to have much contact with locals.

The few people I did get to meet were very friendly. Several times while walking around Dili I had people come up to me and shake my hand. They were genuinely surprised that I was an actual tourist, not someone working with an NGO or a reporter. They were also surprised that I was an American. Most of the white people you meet are Australians. (a large part of the peacekeeping force are Australian soldiers. You can tell them apart from the UN because they are much more heavily armed and wear camouflage and armor.)

East Timor is poor. Of that, there is no question. I had read statistics about just how poor East Timor was and while I was there I tried to make mental comparisons to the Solomon Islands. I have come to totally disregard economic statistics in evaluating the wealth of a country. Not only are the statistics collected improperly, beyond a certain point they just don’t matter.

I met several people working for NGOs in Dili. I have to confess I have a built in bias against most people who are do-gooders. For the most part, I think well-intentioned people who use very blunt methods in trying to do good end up causing much more harm. The most obvious example of this would be giving away free stuff. The thinking goes something like this: people are poor, therefore we should give them stuff. That sounds great, but what often happens is when you give free stuff, the local industry built up around producing that stuff (clothes or food usually) will collapse because they cannot compete with free. Sending bags of rice to starving people sounds great, but the long term impact might be destroying the local rice growing industry. The desire to do and feel good usually trumps the actual good which is done.

I mention this because I was rather heartened to hear from people working in NGOs a recognition of this problem. Rather than giving food away, they are selling it at a price which still leaves room for local farmers to sell their product. I think westerners think that people in third world countries have NO money. There is a world of difference between little money and no money. That difference is having any sort of local economy at all.

I don’t know what, if anything, can be done for the economy of East Timor. The first obvious thing is that there needs to be an end to the fighting. The one good thing that came from the assassination attempt was that the rebel leader was killed. I’m not sure what he was thinking in trying to assassinate the President and PM. The country is occupied by UN and Australian forces. Killing the leaders and sitting behind their desk isn’t going to give you power.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what the future holds for East Timor. If they can become a poor but peaceful country in the next few year, I suppose that would be a step in the right direction. Once the UN leaves I think they will fall off the radar of the NGOs as they all move to the next hot aid area in Africa. My guess is that they will probably develop in unison with Indonesia, as for better or worse, they are the biggest market they have. Supposedly there is oil on the straight of Timor and Dili has sign agreements with Australia for extracting resources. Oil could help the country, or as in many oil producing countries, it could be a curse.

I can’t in good faith recommend East Timor as a destination for most travelers. It isn’t easy to get to and there isn’t much there to see. There are no major attractions despite the existence of a Lonely Planet guide to the country. Tourism would probably be the easiest industry to build up. There is a reasonable amount of English spoken and they use the US Dollar as their currency. If they can reach some sort of lasting peace, I could see some sort of tourism industry developing in about five to ten years.

The Great Ocean Road

Monument and sign to the builders of the Great Ocean Road. Most of the workers were veterans of WWI.

What are the top drives you’ve taken? By that, I am referring to very scenic stretches of road where the journey is really the destination. On my current trip, I’ve only rented a car a few times, but in those few times, I’ve taken several spectacular road trips. The Hana Coast Road in Maui was certainly near the top. The west coast road on the South Island of New Zealand was pretty amazing. The drives up to the cedar groves on Yakushima Island very beautiful. Before my trip, I’d say that the most amazing drive I’ve ever taken was from LA to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway, which I did back in March 2000. (I still think that the Pacific Coast Highway is the best drive I’ve ever taken. It is on my list of things to do again.)

The Great Ocean Road had received a lot of build up as I was sitting in Melbourne. Everyone I talked to told me how amazing it was and how it was the greatest stretch of road in the world. The “great” in Great Ocean Road is certainly merited, but I won’t go so far as to say it is the “greatest”. Probably a top five road.

The Twelve Apostles
The Twelve Apostles

What makes the Great Ocean Road so great are the erosional features you can see on the coast. The southern part of Victoria where the road is located on the coast of the Great Southern Ocean. (Ok, you won’t find the Antarctic Ocean on any maps, but it is often considered a body of water in its own right given the unique currents which exist around Antarctica.) The seas in the southern ocean are the roughest in the world and the cost of Southern Victoria is limestone.

The most noteworthy of these erosional features are the Twelve Apostles. As the cliffs are eroding, they do not erode in a uniform way. Depending on the angle the waves hit the shore, you can get inlets, coves and other formation which develop. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks where everything else has eroded around it. They are popular because you can see so many of the stacks next to one another in a single location. One reason why I don’t rate the Great Ocean Road higher on the list of all-time great drives is that the formations are sometimes difficult to see from the road. Had the visitor center sign not been on the road, I would have missed the twelve apostles entirely.

Inside the Loch Ard Gorge
Inside the Loch Ard Gorge

Near the Twelve Apostles is the Loch Ard Gorge, which is a small inlet and beach carved out into the rock. The gorge is named after a ship, the Loch Ard, which sank nearby in 1878. (there were a LOT of shipwrecks in this area). If it wasn’t so populated with tourists and the water so cold, the beach in Loch Ard Gorge would be a great beach. It is hidden and well protected from the wind. It reminds me of the green sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in some respects.

The other big name attraction in the region is the London Arch. It originally got its name because it had a resemblance to London Bridge (now located in Lake Havasu City, Arizona).

The London Arch
You can see the span where the London Bridge collapsed. After the collapse, it was renamed the London Arch.

The history of the London Arch over the last few decades is a good reminder of how geology, even though it usually acts slowly, is an ongoing process. Every day, every hour, every minute, the cost along the Great Ocean Road is slowly getting eroded. The base of the towers of the Twelve Apostles slowly become narrower and narrower until at some point, it will collapse in a dramatic fashion. One of the Twelve Apostle towers actually did collapse in 2005. Likewise, the London Arch was totally connected to the mainland back in 1990. On January 15, 1990, while several tourists were on the end of the rock formation, the span to the mainland collapsed, stranding two tourists on the rock. No one was harmed, but the two people stranded had to be evacuated by helicopter. (If you are American, take a look at the New Hampshire quarter sometime. The image on the quarter is of the Old Man of the Mountain. It doesn’t exist anymore. It collapsed in 2003. The quarter was released in 2000.)

There are many other formations to see along the route, not all of which had names (or at least not signs pointing out the names). If you are diving from Melbourne, it is possible to at least see the Twelve Apostles on a day trip if you leave early. The nearest city to the major formations is Port Campbell, which has small hotels, campgrounds and hostels.

Question for commenters: What is your favorite scenic drive?

Spring Break!

One problem with traveling for so long is that you lose track of what day it is. There is really no distinction between weekdays and weekends for me anymore. Everything just runs into each other.

Normally that isn’t a big deal, but it has really screwed me up this weekend. For starters, i had no clue that it was Easter. It turns out that this part of Sydney is really popular during Easter weekend. Many of the “backpackers” suddenly started wearing sequin dresses and sport coats tonight. I think there is a crowd that just comes to Sydney for spring break to go to clubs and get drunk. Or at least they behave as if that were the case.

It has been overcast and raining all day today. I did manage to walk down the the harbor and see the bridge and the opera house. The opera house is really unimpressive up close. Have you ever seen a building that was built in the late 60s or early 70s and it is really dated by the architecture and the materials used? Usually, the buildings have a lot of cement and tile and they don’t look like they would stand the test of time. That is basically the Sydney Opera House. It looks great from a distance, but up close, it sort of looks cheesy. For some reason, I always assumed that the exterior of the building was metal. It isn’t. It’s tile. It looks like something they would have built at Disney World to show what the future would be like in the early 70s, but in reality it just ends up looking like the early 70s.

The harbor bridge is just the opposite of the Opera House. It is an old bridge. It isn’t the biggest or longest bridge in the world, but it is really impressive up close. Much of it comes from being able to see it up close from the foot of the bridge. It looks like something out of the 19th century. There is nothing futuristic about it. They have a walking tour where you can literally walk over the top of the arch of the bridge. You have to wear safety harnesses and such. I’m considering doing it.

Because it was good Friday, I spent most of today thinking it was Saturday. Everything was closed. In addition to the kiddies here for spring break, there is also a cruise ship in port. I have no desire to ever actually go on a cruise, but I am impressed as hell by the ships. I would want to take a cruise just to get tours of the boat. I could easily spend a week looking at the engines, the control room, and all the backstage stuff. Maybe I will do it in when I’m in the Caribbean….

I plowed through a ton of photos today. If you go to Flickr you can see all my Great Ocean Road photos, all my Melbourne photos, and a good chunk of my Mungo photos. I’ve also made some updates to my map. Tomorrow, assuming the weather is good, I’ll go do all the stereotypical photos of the bridge and opera house.