December in Australia

December 2013 Australia RouteI’m happy to report that I’ll be spending most of the month of December in Australia!

Starting in early December I’ll be embarking on a 3-week long tour of Australia with G Adventures. This tour will be the 5th continent I will have traveled to with G Adventures and my longest trip with them to date.

I’ve been to Australia six times now, but my first and biggest trip to Australia was back in 2008 when I spent almost 5 months in the country and visited every state and capital city. I drove from Melbourne to Cairns and from Darwin to Perth. I even took a bus from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

I’m often asked if I revisit places I’ve been before, and the answer is a resounding YES! Most of the stops on this trip are places I visited in 2008, but it was under different circumstances. My photos from 2008 were OK, but I have a much better idea of what I’m doing now. Also, after years of daily photos, I’ve pretty much run out of decent photos of Australia to post on my site. So if nothing else, I’ll be able to restock my portfolio with Australia images.
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Sydney’s Second Chance and How You Are Never “Done” With A Place

Sydney Opera House at NightIn February of this year I was invited by New South Wales tourism to attend the Australian Open of Surfing in Sydney, Australia. I’m not a surfer and I had been to Sydney several times before, so I wasn’t really that interested in attending and suffering through a 16 hour flight. However, having read my list of my 13 Most Wanted Destinations, they sweetened the pot by throwing in a trip to Lord Howe Island.

This, however, is not a story about Lord Howe Island.

This story is about Sydney and about how no matter the number of times you visit a place, you can never assume you have it all figured out.
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Thoughts on Australia

Over the course of the last five years, I’ve been able to explore more of Australia than most Australians have. I’ve been to every Australian state and territory and have driven over 20,000km throughout the country. My recent trips to New South Wales and Victoria this year have given me a new opportunity to see Australia and reflect on some of the changes I’ve seen over the last 4 years since my first visit.

Here are some of my thoughts:
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Travel and Tragedy

Brush Fire in Western Australia
Brush Fire in Western Australia

If you’ve paid attention to the news in the last several days, you’ve probably heard about the brushfires in Australia. I’ve been paying closer attention to that story than I normally would have because I’ve been to many of the places which have been damaged by the fire. I’ve driven through country Victoria, I’ve seen first hand what the conditions are like and I’ve even seen brush fires (albeit nothing on the scale of what is happening now). I even got to see a rather large brush fire up close in Western Australia on my drive from Darwin to Perth.

There are tragedies which happen all around the world all the time. Floods, mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fire are natural disasters which occur every few months and probably will never end. When you hear these things, there is a ceratin intellectual sympathy for the victims which exists, but it is nothing on par with what you experience when something happens to someone you know. To quote Adam Smith from The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Travel changes that equation. Travel creates a link and changes how you perceive far away events. Everyone in the world saw the events of 9/11 on television. The previous year I had visited the World Trade Center. I had been in the buildings and had a personal grasp of just how big they were. When they were destroyed, it wasn’t just an intellectual outrage at people dying, I was personally flabbergasted at how it was possible for something so large to disappear. That extra feeling came from having been there. Obviously, the closer you were to the event, the bigger the impact would be.

On New Year’s Eve there was a fire in Bangkok which killed 60 people. It was about a kilometer from where I was staying at the time. That night I heard sirens and sounds but had no idea what was going on. The next morning when I read the news, it sort of hit me harder than it would have if I had read about somewhere else. 60 people died……right over there. I heard the sirens. Maybe I met one of the people who died. It drove the story home a bit more than if I had been somewhere else.

Sometimes this can backfire. In the tsunami of 2004, a disproportionate amount of media attention was given to Thailand, in particular Phuket. The tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people around the world. The death toll in Thailand was over 5,000 which would be a horrible disaster by itself on any other day. Of those 5,000, about half were western tourists. Most of the video of the tsunami which made it to the internet was from Thailand. Thailand was by far the biggest tourist destination hit by the tsunami.

The 5,000 deaths in Thailand, however, were dwarfed by the over 130,000 killed in Indonesia, 35,000 killed in Sri Lanka, and 12,000 killed in India. Yet, a disproportionate amount of attention was given to Thailand because that is where the westerners were and where everyone goes on vacation.

On balance, the ties and connections made by travel are beneficial. The more people can see other places and meet other people, the impact of disasters like these will be more than intellectual curiosities which are quickly forgotten.

The Seven Wonders of Australia

Planning a trip to Australia and have no idea what to see while you’re there? For your entertainment and information, I present to you the Seven Wonders of Australia.

Sunset at KakaduKakadu National Park
Kakadu is the premier national park in Australia and offers some of the most stunning displays of wildlife you can find on the continent. Saltwater crocodiles can be found all over the park, as well as kangaroos and wallabies. In addition to stunning rock outcrops and wildlife, Kakadu some of the oldest aboriginal artwork in Australia. Many of the rock drawings date back over 20,000 years. Kakadu was the location for many of the scenes from the movie Crocodile Dundee

Uluru at SunsetUluru/Kata Tjuta
Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) is probably the best known natural icon in Australia, and no list of the Seven Wonders of Australia could be complete without it. The iron content in the rock makes its colors change through the course of a day from bright to dark red. Sacred to the local aboriginal Pitjantjatjara people, it is also of great cultural significance as well as natural significance. Often overlooked, nearby Kata Tjuta is actually higher than Uluru but has been eroded into several pieces.

Sydney Opera House and Harbor BridgeSydney Harbor
What says “Australia” more than Sydney harbor? Maybe a kangaroo holding a boomerang and beer in the outback, but that’s about it. The center of Australia’s largest city, Sydney Harbor is home to the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. You can take a ferry across the harbor, walk across the top of the Harbor Bridge, have tea in the Opera House, and take a stroll in the nearby Royal Botanical Gardens.

Bee Hive Domes. Purnululu National Park. Bungle Bungles/Purnululu National Park
Had this list been created 30 years ago, the Bungle Bungles might not have been listed. Having come to the world’s attention only in the mid-1980’s, the beehive domes of the Bungles make Purnululu National Park the premier attraction in the Kimberly region of Western Australia. Difficult to get to, what makes the Bungles fascinating are the unique erosional features which are unlike anything else in the world.

Heart Reef. Great Barrier Reef Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is so big, the scope of it can really only be appreciated from the air, or even better, from orbit. By far the largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef extends over 2,600km (1,600mi), almost the entire length of the coast of Queensland. It is usually on any short list of the natural wonders of the world. There are plenty of places you can experience the reef, the most common of which are Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands.

commentGiant Eucalyptus Trees of Tasmania
Tasmania is the most unspoiled wilderness in Australia. In addition to its pristine beauty, it is home to many unique species of plant and animal including the threatened Tasmanian Devil. The most dramatic of all the things in Tasmania is the Eucalyptus Regnans, the giant eucalyptus tree. Also known as the Swamp Gum, Mountain Ash or Tasmanian Oak, it is the largest flowering plant and hardwood tree in the world and is second only to the redwood tree in height.

Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean RoadThe Great Ocean Road
One of the greatest drives in the world is the Great Ocean Road on the southern coast of Victoria. Carved by thousands of years of battering by the Great Southern Ocean, the sandstone formations of the Great Ocean Road are truly stunning. The Twelve Apostles, London Bridge, Lord Ard Gorge are just some of the significant erosional features which can be seen on the drive near the town of Port Campbell.

Honorable Mention
Lord Howe’s Island, Fraser Island, Blue Mountains, Coober Pedy, Shark Bay, Mungo National Park, Pinnacles Desert

Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of the Philippines | Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt | Seven Wonders of Spain


Hey, Hey We’re The Bungles!: Purnululu National Park

Beehive domes in Purnululu National Park
Beehive domes in Purnululu National Park

On my swing through Western Australia, I made a stop at Purnululu National Park, home of the Bungle Bungle mountains. When I told people I was making the drive from Darwin to Perth, everyone told me I had to stop at the Bungle Bungles.

I wasn’t really prepared for how remote and hard to get to it would be. To get to Purnululu, you have to drive about three hours south of Kununurra, which is itself a day drive from Darwin. (800km/500miles) There are no real cities or towns anywhere near Purnululu. The closest thing to a settlement is the Turkey Creek roadhouse, which is nothing more than a gas station and a campsite. There is an abrigonial community near the roadhouse, but it is closed to the public.

Echnida Chasm
Echnida Chasm
Once you get to Turkey Creek, you are still several hours from entering the park. The day tour I took picked me up at around sunrise at 5:30am. We had a 4WD bus, similar to the sort I took on Fraser Island. Just going from the Turkey Creek roadhouse to the entrance to the park was a three hour drive, none of which was paved. From the park entrance to anything interesting in the park was another hour drive from the park gate.

The Bungle Bungles weren’t really “discovered” until the 1980’s. I put “discover” in quotes because it was known to the local aboriginals and to local ranchers, but they never thought it was a big enough deal to tell anyone about. In 80’s a television crew in a helicopter brought footage of the bee hive domes back.

Cathedral Gorge
Cathedral Gorge
The main reason why Purnululu is special is the erosional features. The Bungles aren’t a large mountain range. I’m not even sure you can call it a mountain range at all, but that is the term which is used. On the north side of the range, you can find Echnida Chasm. The chasm is just a split in the rock where it was cleaved apart. You can walk down the middle of the gap which rises up almost 100ft (30m). At some points, you have to turn sideways to get through because it becomes so narrow. After four hours of driving, Echnida Chasm was the first part of the park we visited.

After that, we packed up again and drove to the south side of the park to have lunch. It took about an hour and a half to get to the permanent camp which the tour service has in the park. We had lunch there and then went to the south part of the rang, where we were able to walk around the signature feature of the park: the Bee Hive Domes.

Picananny Creek
Picananny Creek
The bee hive domes are called that because a) they are domes and b) they are striped like a bee hive. Both of those features are fairly unique. The domes were created by erosion channels which flowed at 90 degree angles to each other. You usually only see erosion channels which are close to perpendicular to the face of a mountain, but here you see it on more than one axis. Despite how dry it was when I was there, Purnululu can experience so much rain during the wet season that they close the park.

I assumed the striping on the domes was due to different layers of sediment, but I was wrong. The bands are due to layers of microrganisms which gives the bands color. Underneath the bands, the rock is an almost white sandstone. There were a few places where the colored crust was broken off and you could see the sandstone underneath.

Tree reflected in water
Tree reflected in water
Also on the south side is Piccananny Creek, which is the main water channel during the wet season. It was dry when I was there, but you can see large erosional channels carved into the rock in the bed of the creek. You could also see what looked like post holes in the rock. This happens when a smaller rock gets trapped in a depression and the water swirls the rock around, scouring out a round hole.

The biggest feature in this area is Cathedral Gorge. It is an enormous water carved channel created by the creek. You can look at the walls of the gorge and see just how high the water gets during the wet season. (about 12ft/4m) The walls of the gorge are enormous and really give you the feeling of being small when you are inside.

From what I’ve seen, Purnululu is probably the premier attraction in Western Australia, however, it is so remote and hard to get to, it isn’t something I’d go out of my to see for its own sake. If you are making the trip from Darwin to Perth, however, you definitely need to stop as it will be the most incredible thing you’ll see along the way.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Uluru at sunrise
Uluru at sunrise
Uluru (aka Ayer’s Rock) is probably the single most recognizable feature in Australia. While it is probably one of the bigger tourist attractions in the country, getting there is a challenge. The closest city is Alice Springs which is a three hour drive. While you can fly to Uluru directly, it is an expensive flight and most people go from Alice Springs, which is where my adventure started.

I don’t know why, but the economics of tours to Uluru is such that a three day trip is cheaper than a two or one day trip, so that is what I took. The tour was 20 people, mostly early 20-somethings from the UK and Ireland and two retired couples from the Switzerland and Australia.

We got picked up at 6 in the morning in a small bus that exactly fit 20 people. It also had a trailer which all our gear and the camping supplies were hauled around in. When I say “bus” it was closer to a school bus than a touring coach. It was extremely uncomfortable and difficult to sleep in, which is a big deal when you have to drive for several hours a day.

After making sure everyone was paid, we arrived at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park. Most everyone has seen photos of Uluru, but you almost never hear about Kata Tjuta (the first “T” in Tjuta is silent). Kata Tjuta is a monolith similar to Uluru, except broken up and slightly higher. You can easily see one from the other as they are only about 10km (6mi) apart.

In many respects, Kata Tjuta is just as impressive as Uluru. Because the rocks are broken up, you can walk around inside, between the rocks as opposed to just around it. While we were walking around Kata Tjuta, we ran into a bunch of different European church groups who were in Australia to see the Pope. None of the hiking in Kata Tjuta was very difficult. There was some vertical climb, but it wasn’t anything difficult.

Crowds at Uluru at Sunrise
Crowds at Uluru at Sunrise
After walking around Kata Tjuta for a few hours we got back into the bus and drove back to Uluru for sunset. The rock in Uluru is heavy in iron, which is why it is red in color. It also changes the shade of red through out the day as the sun climbs the sky. Every photo of Uluru you see is pretty much one of two angles. There are sunset and sunrise viewing areas so you can see the rock in the best light. Because the sunset and sunrise color of Uluru look the best, you only see photos from those two angles.

The sunset viewing area was packed. I think that many of the Europeans who were in Sydney to see the Pope visited Uluru on the way home. We had champagne (well, sparkling wine to be precise) as did many of the other groups. I’ve noticed this with many tours I’ve read about on my trip. Somehow, adding champagne and cheese to something makes it classy.

Me and my group at Kings Canyon
Me and my group at King's Canyon
The company that ran the tour had their own campground. We cooked dinner and made a fire. All the wood for the fire we had to collect from the side of the road earlier in the day because you can’t collect wood in the park. We slept on the ground in a combination mattress, canvas sleeping bag enclosure called a swag. Everyone went to bed early, save for the Irish girls and the guys from the UK who stayed up drinking until 2am. (stereotypes aside, all the Irish I’ve met on my trip drink a ton)

I barely slept that night because it got so cold. The temperature dropped to about 28F (-2C) and the sleeping bag really wasn’t up to that sort of temperature.

The next morning we got up at 5:30am to pack and get to Uluru by sunrise. Sunrise was just as crowded as sunset, except it was much colder.

Me at Kings Canyon
Me at King's Canyon
We then had the next several hours to walk around Uluru. Several guys did the hike up to the top of Uluru. There are all sorts of advisements about how the local aboriginals don’t want you to climb to the top, yet they have hand rails on the path and don’t actually ban anyone from making the climb. I kept looking for a reason why they didn’t want you to climb, but I could never find any straight explanation. At no point did I ever read anything which said that you shouldn’t climb to the top because it isn’t respectful of their traditions. They sort of imply it, but never come out and say it. They will say that is a tradition, and they will say you shouldn’t climb for reasons of safety, but they never say you shouldn’t climb because of their traditions. The local abrigional people own the land which Uluru sits and are heavily represented on the board which runs the park, so they could ban people from climbing if they wanted to, but they don’t.

After walking around Uluru, we got back in the bus and drove for several hours to King’s Canyon. The routine that night was the same as at Uluru, except that it wasn’t nearly as cold.

King’s Canyon was interesting, but as canyons go, was probably secondary to what I saw in the Blue Mountains, NSW and the rock formations weren’t as specular as what I saw in the Bugle Bungles. If you are into geology, some of the formations you’ll see in the canyon are very interesting. I could tell there were probably many PhD theses which came out of this place. We walked around the rim of the canyon (which isn’t all that deep),

When we got back to Alice Springs, I was tired from three days of walking, dirty from all the dust and sweat, and had a terrible runny nose from being cold. Uluru is one of those thing that you really should do if you visit Australia, but you have to work to get there. It is well worth the effort.

See Ya Later Aussie

I’m bound for Singapore in a few hours. I’ll probably get to the airport a bit early just because they have free and fast internet access there. Much better than what I can get in Darwin.

I can’t believe I’ve been here for more than five months. I originally intended to be here for about 2-3 months. The size and vast emptiness of the country really is astounding. While it is approximate in size to the continental US, it is very different in how things are spread out. It would be like the US if everything outside of the east coast and Sand Diego was the Nevada desert.

I’ll have a lot to say about Australia in the coming months. There is too much to say in one post. If I can summarize it in a simple sentence however, it is that Australia (and Canada, US, New Zealand, UK) are more alike than they are different. When you visit a place like Australia, as an American, you notice the things which are different. When you visit Japan, you notice the things which are the same.

Singapore will be the second country on my trip which I’ve visited previously (technically third, but a 24 hour stop over in Japan really didn’t count). I was in Singapore for four days back in 1999 and fell in love with the place. I am really interested to see what has changed and how the city is different. I’ll probably be writing more about Singapore than I otherwise would for a country its size, just because I find the place so fascinating.

One thing which I’m looking forward to in Singapore is FREE WIRELESS INTERNET. During my entire stay in Australia, I’ve found it in one place outside of an airport. Australian internet has been disappointing to say the least. It is slow and expensive. Many things I’ve wanted to do on my site I’ve put on hold till I could get to Singapore, just because of state of the Internet. I hope some of the location based services on my iPod Touch will work in Singapore.

I’m also looking to the lower prices of South East Asia. Australia is expensive for someone using American Dollars (and in some items like Coke is expensive for everyone. $3.50 for a 600ml bottle, or about 20oz. Yet you can often buy 2, 2 liter bottles for $5). Even though Singapore is probably the most expensive place in SE Asia, it should still be cheaper than Australia. One Singapore dollar is worth about US$0.75. When I was there in 1999, five Singapore dollars was about US$2.

Expect a few podcasts in quick succession. One problem with doing a podcast like I do, is you are held hostage by what internet connection you can get. I have two I shot in Australia almost ready to go. I might not be able to post exactly one per week, but I think I can average one per week by putting up more to compensate for when I can’t post. I also might be going back and revisiting some places I went where I didn’t shoot video by doing the Ken Burns thing with still photos. We’ll see.

If anyone in Singapore is reading this, drop me an email (gary AT I always enjoy meeting people.

Back from the outback

I’m back from my trip to Uluru. We slept under the stars (literally), and froze our asses off. The swing in temperature in the desert is really crazy. It went from -3C (30F) to 21C (70F) in a single day. It is a reoccuring theme with me, but I am not equipped to deal with cold weather. A sweatshirt and a long t-shirt isn’t really cold weather gear.

My legs are sore and when I got back to Alice, I had dirt in places dirt should never see, and had odors which could kill animals.

I leave for Darwin in a few hours, where I’ll finally be out of the “cold”. I’ve been wearing a stocking hat and long pants for the past month since I’ve been to Perth and Adelaide. I’ll be in Darwin only a day or two before I head to Singapore. I’ll write a more in-depth review of my time in the outback when I’m on the plane (I’m on a internet kiosk right now).