Archives: 31st October 2001

Wednesday 31st October 2001, Perth Oz.

We were out of the hotel by 5am.  The rental car had to be returned to Thrifty’s Outback Pioneer office at Ayers Rock by 10am – or pay a further half day’s rental.

It was still dark, so we were cautious as we joined the Stuart Highway.  Just as well.  We had been on the road for less than 20 minutes, when a kangaroo bounced out of the brush and across the road directly in front of us! Now we knew we were in Australia!

We made good time and arrived at Ayers Rock a little after 9am.  Our shuttle was due to leave for the airport at 12.30pm, so we killed time uploading our digital photos onto the computer. We got fed again on the plane, which played havoc with Brigid’s “points”.  But she managed to avoid the temptations of cheese and wine.  Out of the plane window there was nothing to see from 28,000 ft – just a vast expanse of red-coloured desert, and a few salt lakes.  Brigid wasn’t complaining, the flights into and out of Ayers Rock were aboard a BAE 146, her favourite aircraft: tiny and producing a variety of such strange engine noises that most pilots warn passengers early in the flight! 

This flight, however, we had a special treat in store.  Much to our surprise, the chief stewardess asked us if we would like to visit the flight deck! As neither of us had ever seen the flight deck of any plane (and, frankly, since September 11th, never expected to), we jumped at the chance.  Brigid stooped nervously in the doorway of the cramped cockpit, as John chatted to the pilot – apparently oblivious of the banks of important-looking switches millimetres from his head.  As he turned to exit, Brigid placed her hand on his head, forcing him to duck.  As he uttered some exclamation of surprise, the co-pilot looked at the bank of switches marked ‘Engine Fire’.  “Did you notice those switches were set to ‘off’?”, he asked the pilot … hastily flicking them ‘on’!

Mercifully there were no engine fires, or other excitements, and we touched down safely at 3.15pm.  As we prepared to leave the aircraft, a member of the cabin crew warned us to dispose of any food items “… or the beagle will get you!”  This caused a certain amount of amusement amongst the passengers.  No one thought she was serious.  But lo! As we arrived in the baggage hall, a cute little beagle wearing a smart red coat, bearing the words “Quarantine Service”, mingled with the crowd, sniffing all our hand baggage.  As he came to something that smelled of food (even if it had been recently removed), he would simply sit down and let his handler search the suspect bag.  In a way we were quite disappointed for him that all he found was one apple!

We picked up our Britz van (identical in most respects to the one we had in New Zealand), and set off to the supermarket at Midland to stock the larder.

By now we were feeling the strain of our long day, so we had a quick bite to eat at the Texas-themed (“yee-haw!”) Lone Star restaurant, and checked into the Central campsite.

Tuesday 30th October 2001, Alice Springs Oz.

Having ruled out a second attempt on Kings Canyon, we might have been at a bit of a loss for things to do. But, in fact, there is plenty to see and do in “The Alice”.

Just out of town is the ‘Old Ghan’ train museum. (Click here for truly awful, irrelevant, Auzzie joke.) The Ghan train replaced the Afghan cameleers, after whom it was named, and provided the principal trans-continental route for mail and supplies. The original service was legendary for its unreliability. Its tracks were laid directly on sand, and therefore constantly buckled by heat or washed away by flood. It was not uncommon for a train to be delayed for several weeks – the crew were provided with hunting rifles with which to shoot goats to feed stranded passengers!

While the locomotives switched from steam to diesel some time ago, the tracks were only replaced in the last 25 years or so. But the role played by train travel in the population of Australia has won the Ghan train a particular affection.

Before the trains, the journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs took 6 weeks.

Afterwards, we headed back to Larapinta Drive to the Cultural Precinct. We toured the Museum of Central Australia, viewed the wreckage of the Kookaburra plane (lost in 1929 in the search for pioneer aviator, Charles Kingsley Smith – the infamous Coffee Royale affair), and strolled around the original Connellan hangar – formerly part of Alice Springs’ principal airport.

Alice Springs, by the way, takes its name from the telegraph repeating station sited near a spring, which itself was named in honour of Alice, the wife of the then Postmaster General, Charles Todd. The actual town was originally called Stuart, and only changed its name to Alice Springs in 1933.

Monday 29th October 2001, Alice Springs Oz.

Before doing anything else, we visited the Britz campervan depot coincidently, and conveniently, located opposite the hotel. We already had a quote of AUS$91 daily for a HiTop van from GetaboutOz, but felt sure that Britz would be cheaper. It was. We managed to secure a 4-week rental from Perth for $65 per day. Next stop was “downtown” Alice to find an Internet café.

By the time we left Alice Springs, it was already nearly midday, and we had some 450km to drive (in the heat of the afternoon sun) to reach Kings Canyon. We topped up with fuel at Stuarts Well Roadhouse, and had been going about an hour when we came to the slow realisation that we really would not have time to see the Canyon. By the time we got there, it would have been time to leave, in order to have any chance of getting back before sunset. (You really don’t want to be driving around Australia’s outback in the dark – hitting a 45kg wombat can take the bottom out of a 4×4 SUV, and ‘roo bars’ are standard issue for good reason!)

Instead, we spent the afternoon touring the very excellent Desert Park. We can thoroughly recommend the Desert Park (off. Larapinta Drive). It costs AUS$18 to get in, and you are then free to follow a painless 2km walk in natural bushland teaming with native wildlife. In case the native wildlife is hiding when you visit, the curators have carefully enclosed sections of a particular habitat, where you can view the resident creatures from behind glass.

The real showpiece is the ‘moonlit’ nocturnal house, where you can see creatures that don’t normally venture out into the blazing Australian sun. Make sure you arrive at the kangaroo and emu enclosure before 4.30pm, otherwise, like us, you will find the gate locked.

For a novel dining experience, we booked the Aboriginal “Red Centre Dreaming” performance. For AUS$55 we were treated to traditional territorial food (not to be confused with stomach-turning ‘bush tucker’) including kangaroo and barramundi. During dinner, a local Aboriginal called Gary, gave a talk on their culture. Dinner was followed by a dance performance. The audience were invited to join a “bird dance”. We seemed to be the only pair prepared to make fools of ourselves!

By the performers’ own admission, the performances were not entirely authentic, but then Aboriginal culture is very private, and their ceremonies can only be attended by ‘initiates’. At least this way tourists get a glimpse of what it is all about – with the great bonus of being able to take photos!

Sunday 28th Otober 2001, Alice Springs Oz.

The taxi collected us promptly at 5.45am for the 6.50am flight to Ayers Rock. Only when we arrived at the airport, did John remember that Australia’s clocks went forward an hour for summer! We both felt a chill down our spines, as we realised that we must have missed the flight. But no! Queensland is alone in that it doesn’t bother with daylight saving. “No worries, you’re right”, said the check-in clerk, as we hastily presented our bags.

Relieved, we sauntered through to the departure lounge. John went to by a cup of coffee. He had only just paid for it when, to our astonishment, the tannoy announced the ‘last call’ for our flight – it was just 6.05am! John gulped down his coffee, and we grabbed our bags.

We were barely in our seats, when the doors were closed, and the plane began to taxi towards the runway. It was 6.15am!! (We later discovered that the timetable had been altered to take into account the effects daylight saving in the rest of Australia.)

At Ayers Rock, we waited in line while a group of Belgians disputed a criminal AUS$125 surcharge made by “Thrifty” for bringing their hire car to the airport from the Outback Pioneer Resort, 5km down the road!

We had no such problems, and we drove straight from the airport to the Rock. It was not our first sighting. Rather agreeably, incoming and outgoing flights tend to make a complete (and apparently unnecessary) circuit of the airport, so that passengers on both sides of the aircraft get a decent view, of this extraordinary red boil sticking out of the central Australian desert.

We did intend to do the walking tour, but having ‘oohed and arghed’ appreciatively, we spent some time visiting the imaginative and educational aboriginal cultural centre.

The drive to Alice Springs took 5 hours, and by the time we arrived at the Red Centre Resort, we were both very hot and tired. We dined in, intending an early night in preparation for a tour of Kings Canyon tomorrow.

Saturday 27th October 2001, Cairns Oz.

We had to be up early. We were collected for our cable car ride at 7.30am – and we had to be on the boat for the Great Barrier Reef cruise at 9.30am!

The gondola took us over the rainforest canopy as far as Baron Falls. Our guide, Sam, pointed out the various trees and landmarks, and we were able to get off and use the purpose-built walkways at each station.

To be honest, the rainforest was a bit of a disappointment. Hundreds of exotic native birds squawked and chattered beneath the canopy – out of sight of the gondola. Baron Falls was also less than spectacular, as the area was suffering from a drought.

By now we were running late. We had to run to catch the ferry out to the Reef. It was surprisingly packed, but we found a couple of seats in the stern, and reapplied our sunblock.

First stop was Fitzroy Island, where numerous passengers disembarked for a snorkeling lesson in the shallow waters off the beach.

The Great Barrier Reef is a National Park, and the tour operators lease a small area where they are allowed to set up a semi-permanent pontoon. The area is strictly fenced off, and the tourists must keep within the cordons. Also on offer are glass-bottom boat rides, a ‘semi-submersible’, and helicopter tours.

We donned our snorkels and fins, and (because everyone else did) buoyancy vests! However, it soon became clear that the majority of the party could barely swim, let alone snorkel, so we handed our vests back and duck-dived beneath the thrashing hoards. In fact, we missed nothing by not being able to scuba dive. Beside the pontoon, the Great Barrier Reef was only about 10m deep, and snorkelling worked very well.

Before lunch, we took the opportunity to go on the glass-bottomed boat (much under-rated) and, while Brigid did some more swimming, John went out on the semi-submersible.

Despite the obvious commercialism, and limited access to the Reef, the exotic fish were diverse and plentiful, as were the other marine species and corals.

The cruise operators have devised a clever ploy to ensure that passengers stay in their seats for the end-of-day head-count. Photographs taken of us all throughout the day were displayed on video screens around the boat.

Back at the hotel, Amanda (the receptionist) had been in touch with the Outback Pioneer hotel in Ayers Rock on our behalf. The news was not good. A basic double room was going to cost us AUS$348 per night. Alice Springs was cheaper, but we would have to hire a car to get there. We had a stab at changing the flights, but to no avail. In the end, we booked the room in Alice Springs, and hoped for the best.

Friday 26th October 2001, Cairns Oz.

Time to jump back on the tour bus, so to speak. Our flight to Cairns was scheduled for 11.15am and the shuttle bus arrived for us at 9.30am. Denied a seat in the business class lounge, we settled down in the café to write our postcards.

The aircraft was a 747, and we were both rather childishly excited to be sitting on the upper deck. It was not the most comfortable flight for either of us – Brigid nearly jumped out of her skin every time the plane hit a bit of turbulence, and John winced every time she gripped his arm!

Cairns was hot and humid on our arrival, and slightly chaotic. Remembering the helpfulness of Sydney’s Information Desk, we hadn’t booked accommodation – hoping to get a better deal at the airport. No such luck.

John rang Hides Hotel and booked a double room with shared bath (marginally preferable to a dormitory, and all they had available). Hides is one of Cairns oldest hotels, but certainly not one of its grandest. We found our room to be small and dark, and the bathroom served the whole floor. After a short discussion, we moved up the street to the much more pleasant ‘Club Crocodile’ hotel on Lake Street.

Again short on time, we booked a combined reef cruise and rainforest cable car ride for the following day.

Thursday 25th October 2001, Sydney Oz.

Brigid’s mission for today was to join WeightWatchers. John wanted to replace his rather tired-looking trainers. So, after breakfast, we made a few phone calls, and set off in search of ‘outdoorsy’ sort of shops.

We were never going to succeed in finding a suitable pair of shoes for John. They needed to be light and breathable (for the hot weather), but also waterproof for the mountains. Only one brave shop assistant dared suggest that John should hang on to his old shoes until we get home …

So on to WeightWatchers. All the restaurant food and lack of exercise had taken its toll on Brigid’s waistline. No wonder her jeans were beginning to feel a little tight. She weighed in at 79.3kg – at least 7kg heavier than when we left home!!!

After a (very) light lunch, we took a stroll down to McQuarrie’s Point, and the mysteriously-named Mrs McQuarrie’s Chair. The Botanical Gardens were lovely – even in the showery rain. We joined the hoards of Japanese tourists to take pictures of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. (A wedding party posed beneath umbrellas!) We were thrilled by the sight of dozens of white parakeets swooping down to feed on the grass, and rainbow lorikeets calling from the trees. Then we walked back across Hyde Park to change for the ‘Opera’.

Our ‘Opera Afloat’ tour was very undersubscribed, which meant that, despite the discounted tickets, everyone got a front row or window table. As the evening got under way, we were given a glass of champagne, and the first half of the performance followed the starter.

Brigid was delighted with the programme, which included some of the world’s best-known arias – so that even John was soon humming the tunes (especially after ‘Carmen’ had seductively thrown her feather boa around his neck and embraced him as she sang “L’Amour!”).

It might have been a slightly cheesy way to see Sydney, but for us (short on time because of the messed-up flights) it put the icing on the cake – I’d recommend it to anyone.

Wednesday 24th October 2001 Sydney Oz

We hadn’t had much time in Melbourne, but we had liked what we had seen. Given extra time, we might have hired a car and gone to see the blue penguins on Phillips Island. But, as it was, at 9am we were picked up from our hotel by shuttle bus and transferred onto the airport bus at the Spencer Street Station. Our flight was scheduled for 11am, and we arrived a few minutes before 10am.

To our surprise, the check-in clerk told us there was just time to put us on the 10am flight. He tagged the luggage, and we sprinted to the security gate.

There followed an embarrassing delay while Brigid located two pairs of nail clippers at the bottom of her day bag … Since 11th September, these nail clippers had travelled in her hand baggage from Kalului to Honolulu, from Honolulu to Nadi, from Nadi to Auckland, and from Christchurch to Melbourne. Yet it took the vigilance of Ansett’s staff, on a domestic flight, to recognise them.

The nail clippers were hastily packaged up in a bright yellow plastic bag, and removed by a member of the security staff – to be returned upon arrival in Sydney.

(In fact, neither our luggage, nor the nail clippers made it on to the same flight. So, for all the good intentions of the Ansett check-in clerk, we were stuck in Sydney airport until the next flight landed.)

The Travellers Information desk at the airport booked us into the excellent Pentura Hotel on downtown Pitt Street. They got us a terrific deal on the room: a 4-star hotel on a 2-star budget! We dumped our bags in the room, and set off on a reconnaissance mission.

With so little time to spare, we booked an evening “Opera Afloat” tour. Opera does not rate highly on John’s list of ‘things to do’. But Thursday evenings were half-price, and the idea of seeing Sydney’s lights from the boat, with dinner thrown in, was more than he could resist – even if he did have to put up with some soprano warbling in Italian!

We walked over to trendy Potts Point for dinner, where we ate fish and chips at the Fountain Café.

Tuesday 23rd October 2001, Melbourne Oz

We were on the corner of Bourke Street bright and early for collection by the AAT Kings tour bus. Initially the two of us had the whole bus to ourselves – at least as far as the “Puffing Billy” train – then we boarded another coach with other tourists who had mostly booked a tour of the wildlife park. We have to admit that we were slightly disappointed that we were unable to do both tours.

When we reached the wildlife park, we were amazed to find that we were among only four people doing the wine tour. Everyone else got off the bus! The only others were two Kiwi girls in their early twenties, Jane and Marie.

Our first stop was Ferguson’s, where we were treated to a spit-roast lunch. Jane and Marie were on a tight budget, and had bought sandwiches. But it seemed a shame, there being such a small party doing the tour, so they agreed to pay a little extra and have the roast. We were given a couple of carafes of nondescript red and white wine to wash down the meal, and were feeling ‘cheerful’ by the time we got back on the bus.

Next we visited the Yerring winery, before spending a while sampling Chateau Chandon’s excellent Aussie fizz. I am ashamed to admit that neither of us can remember the name of the last winery that we visited. We poured ourselves back onto the coach (ignoring the disapproving looks from the Wildlife Park tour party), and slept all the way back to Melbourne.

Monday 22nd October 2001, Melbourne Oz

What a night! Our economy room may not have been such a good idea after all. Although clean and reasonably comfortable, we shared the second floor with a group of Neanderthal rugby supporters who suddenly awoke at 2am and decided to go out for a drink. About half a dozen ‘20-somethings’ thumped up and down the passage, laughing, shouting and hammering on each other’s doors. John stuck his head out of our room and bellowed some Anglo-Saxon expletive at them, but went unheard.

Eventually the noise died down as the party moved downstairs, and we went back to sleep – at least until they got back from the pub!

In the morning we went out to buy some Internet software. After shopping around, we settled on AOL. Then we went down to the local Trailfinders office to book our train journey to Sydney, and to book some ‘whistle-stop’ sightseeing for Tuesday.

The sightseeing was easily sorted. We settled on a Wine Lovers’ tour of the Yarra region. But the rep couldn’t help with train travel – instead she suggested we book a cheap Ansett flight over the Internet. Ansett? Sure enough, like the proverbial phoenix, Ansett had risen from the ashes and was offering AUS$77 flights to Sydney.

At the hotel reception desk we complained to the Duty Manager about last night’s disturbance. In fact the perpertrators had checked out, but nonetheless he offered us a quiet room on the fifth floor, which we accepted.

John went out to get a haircut … and came back an hour or so later, waxing lyrical about the pleasures of having his scalp massaged by a pretty (and, it has to be said, a rather well-endowed) female hairdresser!
For dinner, we walked over to Southgate. Melbourne looked very pretty from our table in Elgreco. The pinks and blues of sunset were reflected in the river and in the mirrored windows of the City’s handsome skyscrapers, complementing the original Victorian buildings perfectly.