Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Varadero

Cienfuegos

 

Jill has two great loves in life…trains and chicken buses. On our last major foray travelling she could not go past a good train ride and when they aren’t available, enter the chicken bus. You have all seen the movies, dodgy little buses with some overly rural looking woman holding a live chicken (caged or uncaged). Well this is Jill’s idea of fun.

So for our 250 km journey from Havana to Cienfuegos, this was her choice. We hopped a cab to the bus station for me to be pleased that there was not a chicken anywhere in sight. In fact the long distance bus fleet was more modern than anything else on the road. We sat in a comfortable, air conditioned coach doing around 100km/h, on a well maintained 2-3 lane road almost the whole way. And when we got off that we got on a standard dual carriageway, in good repair, that ran through beautiful farmland. Later on, it ran parallel to the ocean throwing up some of the most stunning shades of blue imaginable. Playa Larga and Playa Giron were two of the stops along the way…while this may mean very little to most of you, Playa Giron is better known as the “Bay of Pigs”, where the Kennedy administration tried to invade and overthrow Cuba.

img_2214After a relaxing and pleasant journey we arrived in Cienfuegos mid afternoon and checked into the best of the home stays available (Bella Perla Marina) got the grand tour and headed out for our usual exploratory walk. As it happens, 2 hours is enough time to see all of the sights of Cienfuegos. We saw the town hall, theatre, cathedral (de la purisima concepcion), museum and a mock version of the Arch de Triomphe (Arco de triunfo).

 

     

What would we do with the next 36 hrs.

We headed back to the guesthouse for a fantastic meal and one hell of a sunset from the rooftop garden and viewing platform.

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The vehicle fleet in Cienfuegos was quite different from that in Havana. The big flashy convertibles were non existent, but had been replaced with much better maintained versions of the Havana “B” fleet. Still lots of 1950’s vehicles but not as big and not as ostentatious. But the main type of taxi was the horse and cart and it seemed like around the corner from our joint was the local cab rank.

     

Day 2 of Cienfuegos saw us wandering along the malecon to the ritzy resort end of town. This part of the world is the home of 1960’s architecture and some of the homes are seriously cool, and immaculately maintained. We checked out the yacht club and some of the flashy hotels before catching a pedicab ride back to an expensive seafood restaurant and a lobster lunch (total bill under $40). Another great meal that night at the guest house and prepare for the next chicken bus.

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Trinidad

After a short 2 hr, chicken free, bus ride we arrived at the hilly town of Trinidad. Cobblestone streets meant that I had to use my bag as an actual backpack for the 4th time since owning it. Usually I can just use the wheelie bag option, but cobblestones make that a no go. So after trying to remember what happens when you unzip the straps, we did the 850 meter walk up and down hills lugging our packs on our backs. We were staying at yet another guest house (casa particular) and despite the $20 a night price tag, it was by far the best one we stayed in the whole time in Cuba.

Trinidad is another of those see it in 2 hrs kind of towns. So after a cold shower, did I mention that it is hot and humid in the tropics, we did the schlep. Once again we hit all of the sights early: the museum (x2), cathedral, church, Plaza Santa Ana. And settled in to some Cuban music and drinks on the steps of plaza Mayor.

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That is until a tropical downpour started. And it poured, for about an hour and a half it teemed. So we had cervezas and mojitos with a French couple until it finished.

An interesting sideline that we came across in Havana and now again in Trinidad was the use of old cannons as bollards in the street. I guess with the Spanish and pirate heritage of the region, there were no shortages of cannons either laying about or contained within sunken vessels near the shore. Many of these have been salvaged, repurposed and buried to block traffic into pedestrian areas. It is nothing massively noteworthy but adds to the charm of the place.

  

Fourteen kilometres down the road from Trinidad is Playa Ancon one of the best beaches in the country. So on day 2 we hopped a cab and spent 4 hours lazing on pristine white sand underneath palm frond umbrellas. I lolled about in the water while Jill worked on her Canberra tan.

  

You wouldn’t believe it…I got sunburnt…I haven’t been sunburnt in decades. Something about the tropical sun, breeze and water got me. I got red as a beetroot on my chest and a bit on my back. It is a shame it is about a week early otherwise I could have blamed it on the “April Sun in Cuba”.

Another early start for a 6 1/2 hour bus ride to one of the few beaches in the country reportedly better than Playa Ancon.

Varadero

Varadero is little more than a resort town, so very little in the way of tourist sights. No cool looking buildings, just rows of modern resorts, bars, trinket shops and restaurants. What the resorts do offer are all inclusive packages and many of them offer child free experiences. So for people like us who do not enjoy noisy rugrats messing up your holiday bliss, this could have been for you. But in reality it just a town full of drunk eurotrash.

An interesting note that we learned was that Al Capone had a mansion here right on the ocean front. Of course it has now been turned into a guest house and restaurant.

  

The fact that most of the resorts offer all inclusive packages means that all of their food and drink is included. As such, there is very little need for them to leave. Which means that competition at the local restaurants is fierce. This we thought would be great news for us as we were not doing the package thing. But it was anything but, the restaurants tended to be more specialist or boutique. The prices were through the roof (by Cuba standards), the food was below par and according to Jill the mojitos were weak.

Don’t get me wrong, the beach was nice (if a little too much seaweed by Australian standards). You could get an ok meal cheaply. And Varadero could be considered a good holiday by some… just not us.

But as with all of Cuba, the classic cars were everywhere. We got a 1957 Plymouth as our standard cab from the bus station. We wandered the street to see gangs of drunken package tourists, clinging to their refillable booze jugs or kegs, being generally loud and obnoxious. And I am sunburnt, here I am an Aussie surrounded by Europeans and I am the one glowing red. I feel like I should hand back my Australian card…poor form.

In short Varadero was hellish, but it was insightful as an example of everything that we would never want to do on a holiday.

Cuba an overview

On the whole I loved Cuba and am so glad I got to experience it before the tourist hoards turned it into every other largely homogenous island nation. But it is an island of contradictions. Many of the things that give it its charm are also detractors to its effective operation.

Rubbish collection is a major issue in Cuba with many corners occupied by stinking, messy skip type bins awaiting removal. Dogs infest the streets during the day, rifling through the uncollected rubbish bins. Cats cannot be seen during daylight hours but come out in force at night and (yep you guessed it) raid the uncollected rubbish bins. This means that very little of the rubbish remains inside the original receptacle but rather is scattered in the vicinity. And when it does get collected, only that which remained in the bin gets removed, leaving piles of filth and stink on many corners.

The lack of internet was annoying but less of an issue than I thought it would be. The adoption of the French attitude to smoking (including at meal tables) was more of an issue than I thought it would be. But the people are wonderful. There is virtually no crime, no drugs, no guns just sunshine and sea breezes.

Propaganda (anti US) remains high to this day. Billboards are filled with images of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara and words like viva la revolution are commonplace, especially in the country areas.

And of course there are the cars…

 

                        

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Cuba

 

Havana

After less than a day…this place is everything that I had hoped it would be…I love it. You get an idea in your head of what a place will be like and are usually disappointed…but not here.

We arrived late afternoon and had an absolute nightmare at the airport trying to get our money changed over. They have unmanned money changing machines…not ATMs but rather you scan your passport place in euros and retrieve the local equivalents… and there are only 4 of them…this doesn’t work very well when you cannot get the local currency (the CUC) elsewhere and you have 3 plane loads of people trying to get cash…simultaneously.

It is probably timely to mention that Cuba has two currencies that operate in parallel. The one that tourists use is the CUC which is worth the same as a $US. But if you try and swap a $US for it, it will attract a 10% surcharge. Euros and Canadian $ are the currencies of choice and they attract no surcharge. The second currency is the CUP which is used by the locals and is the equivalent of about 4 cents. So one CUC will buy you 26.3 CUP. Obviously, this adds a degree of difficulty to getting change.

So back to the airport, we stood in line and waited…something that we are learning is also a very Cuban thing to do. We got to our accommodation to find that they were full so we would stay 2 doors down at the neighbour’s place…Cuba does not do much in the way of traditional hotels or hostels, it is more like a home stay, where you rent a room in someone’s home…it was all good and we finally met up with our intended host the next morning.

Our accommodation was in the middle of everything but nowhere near anything…we were relatively equidistant between Old Havana, New Havana and Chinatown…but still quite a walk from most things. On night one, after the airport, money and housing debacle, we headed out for a walk and a meal. We got to the water and wandered along the esplanade (Malecon) seemingly not having passed by any restaurants. Either this was wrong, we were unlucky or we just had yet to pick up on the rhythms of the place. Having eventually found a place for dinner and eating well (if expensively by Cuban standards) we called it a night.

For $5 a head the little home stays offer breakfast, and ours was no different. So our first full day in town started with fresh fruit, fruit juice, coffee, fresh rolls, egg, ham, cheese and a great chat with Charlie another houseguest (Canadian). We then got about the rest of our day. This started with a walk towards old town and the checking out of all of the old buildings.

And here the real Cuba kicked in in true style. After bartering a bit (from 80 down to 40) we hopped into our huge 1950’s yank tank for a one hour tour of Havana. While this is incredibly touristy and stereotypical, it was exactly the experience that I had wanted. We sat in the back of our huge red and white convertible (Jill wanted pink but the guy with the pink one wouldn’t barter with me), being chauffeured by a dude wearing a Panama hat, while Cuban music blared through the stereo. I managed to get the dude to let me stage a photo with me in the drivers seat (he even put his Panama hat on me briefly).

 

 

So it is probably time to talk about cars in Cuba. For the most part they are all pieces of shit. The most common vehicle that you will see is the Russian made Lada. They are ugly, loud, smoky, smelly and quite frankly it is mid blowing that they are still even running. The next is the classic yank tanks…the majority of these are clapped out, poorly maintained, bashed up, beaten and in sad need of either TLC or scrapping. Then there is the convertible tourist fleet that are shiny and pretty for us tourist types. And finally there is a combination of little taxi (type) options…these range from pedicabs, horse drawn carts, old motorbikes (with or without sidecars) and the freaky bubble looking tuk tuks.

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So we cruised the streets (either in our car or just walking about) while we took in the sights, sounds and smells of Cuba. For the most part it was enchanting. The people of Cuba seemingly want for nothing, but at the same time they have very little. Education and healthcare is free. Food ration books ensure that everyone has enough of a broad range of food groups, but very few extras or luxuries. The system works but the wants of consumerism are pervasive.

Some of the buildings around Havana are stunning. But for every beautiful building, there is about 20 in a state of disrepair. Added to this are the hidden gems, a virtual oasis enclosed behind a nondescript door on a dodgy looking street. I have never been in any city in the world where I have felt so safe or secure. Crime is virtually non existent and everyone is smiling, happy and willing to greet you with a grin and an “hola”.

On our last night in Havana we headed down to plaza Vieja where we stopped in to ‘La Vitrola’ and we had some small bar snacks, beverages and live Cuban music. I have entirely fallen in love with the jamon croquettes, while Jill cannot seem to be able to say no to a $3.50 mojito complete with a sugar cane swizzle stick. Add to this some bruschetta, cheese balls and fried chorizo and ice cold cerveza (beer) and life is good.

Oh and guess what… Cuba has a $3 bill.

 

 

 

 

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Lima, Peru,

Well if first impressions count…I am going to hate this place.

The traffic was horrendous. And this coming from two people who spent so much time in Asia. I have not seen traffic so bad in a very long time. The volume of cars was high, the honking and beeping was constant and the fact that lane markings were not even considered made this place a hellhole…and that was just getting from the airport. We turned right from the left hand lane, across 3 normal but 5 actual lanes of traffic, at speed. It was certainly a white knuckle ride and we both decided that perhaps it was better if we just didn’t look.

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But everyone I spoke to told me I would love Lima…so lets see…

After a nap (early morning flights and another 2hr time zone change) we headed out for a late afternoon stroll and a bite. While the traffic remained devilish there was some semblance of order to it…but not enough to trust. We wandered along the park in front of our hotel towards the centre of town

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We came across a seafood restaurant that we had seen during our “what is nearby” searching that has become commonplace when we hit a new city…so we gave it a try. And wow…we picked well. The early bit was just basically bar snacks, corn kernels (concha) plantain chips and a mayo and a salsa type dip. All incredibly salty but perfect for ordering more cerveza (beer).

Then came the entrees…mine was (tequenos) a South American version of a wonton, usually made with cheese but this one replaced the cheese with crab, deep fried with an incredible dipping sauce…but despite this, Jill was the clear winner…she got some Panko covered prawns that were set on a tube of polenta, slathered in crab meat, with a sauce that I cannot describe and of course the obligatory cerviche (this one did not have “ass weed” (coriander/cilantro) on it). Then came two seafood skewers set on a bed of tiny potatoes and mushrooms. All this for under $40.

I may like this place after all…

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The next day we set off on the walking tour from the hotel. It was atrocious…the guide basically said “hello friends, follow me” and began to walk past everything that looks interesting (without a word)… about 2 kilometres later in the main square he handed us off to another guide and was never seen again. Despite his indifference, the city sights were good and my opinion of Lima softened once again.

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The piece that I really want to do is the street food. I have heard so much about it and have coveted it as I walked past it, but am yet to dip my toe in the water. Hopefully, today will be the day. The key they tell me to Peruvian street food is that it must be 3B

  • Bueno (good)
  • Bonito (beautiful)
  • Barato (cheap)

I did, as it happens, get to try some street food from two of the many carts around but was mainly foiled by my wife who NEEDED to sit down to eat like a civilised person. And after one of the generous servings (generally with change from a $20) the need to eat any more is both unnecessary and virtually impossible.

Alright…I really quite like this place…

So today became a day all about culture. We went to two museums the National Museum of the Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru and the Larco Museum. They were both excellent and we got a real sense of the history dating back around 12,000 years.

The Larco Museum was another level altogether. The first impression is stunning. It is housed in an 18th century vice-royal building that is covered in bougainvillea that are old and amazing. It is a private museum and was 3 times the price of the first one so we were highly skeptical. But we paid and entered. The intro was a 10 minute video and then the walk began. What immediately strikes you is the absolute quality of the pieces, they are virtually pristine. As you finish the tour through the actual display there is another room off to the side…this is the overflow. It is massive. A virtual warehouse of pre-Colombian artifacts that is seemingly endless. There was enough high quality pieces in the overflow area to stock another 10 museums. It is no wonder that the pieces on display were of such high quality, with such a massive range to choose from.

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On our last day in Lima we finally bit the bullet and headed to Miraflores. It is the main tourist neighbourhood in town, that is described in the tourist blurbs as an upmarket suburb having a western feel. It is clean, safe, beautiful and is full of shops, restaurants and ritzy cafes…all those things that we try to actively avoid.

It has the ‘Malecon’ a 6 mile clifftop boardwalk starting at the marina and following the Pacific coastline. It hosts one of the world’s best paragliding spots as people launch themselves off the cliffs and for $US50 you can get strapped to one of the and launch yourself too…we did not do that.

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Miraflores was everything that it promised to be…it was just not for us. It was an expat enclave in the heart of Peru. All the usual chain stores and the culinary delights of McDonalds, KFC and Subway washed down by a Starbucks. And all of this for 4-5 times what you would pay in any other neighbourhood. It was pretty and the boardwalk was nice. but we were both so glad that we stayed in the centre of town rather than out here on the coast. On the up side, we did get to see the Pacific ocean from the other side. PS our side is bluer and cleaner. The one thing that surprised us was the sight of a Paddington Bear statue on the top of the cliffs at Miraflores. When you went to the plaque it said from deepest darkest Peru…and it all fell into place.

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The final thing that we did on our last night was head across the road to the Circuito Magico Del Agua or the water fountain park. It is a light, laser and fountain show that runs almost every night and is quite the sight to see.

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And because this was only a teaser trip to see if we should comeback we missed the main reason that most people come to Peru…thankfully…Miraflores has big photographic murals on the walls so you can cheat and pretend that you went.

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Santiago, Chile

Well we left Sydney at around noon, flew sleeplessly for the next 12 hours to arrive in Chile a bit after noon on the day we left… in notional terms we left at 11:10am to arrive at 12:20 the same day. In actual terms… long haul flights seem tougher now than they did when we were younger.

Being both sleep deprived, and in a Spanish country we were happy to have the siesta…so we asked the dude at the hotel who replied “we don’t have that custom here”…well we did…so we crashed for a couple of hours to try and cope with no sleep and a 14 hour time difference. Upon waking we headed along the road to reach Plaza de Armas…this is in essence a large square surrounded by some absolutely stunning buildings.

The town hall, the tourist office (now a museum), and the the post office lined the northern edge of the plaza. As you pan to the left the cathedral (of Santiago de Compostela) is a major feature before the square blurs into shops, cafes and restaurants.

Possibly the most stunning thing for us was the fact that the park was actually used…in fact it was packed at all times of the day. Coming from Australia there are many parks and green spaces but for the most part they are empty. Not in Chile…as we wandered around the city every park bench was full, and the lawns were also crowded. There were preachers, artists, activists, couples, people watchers and dogs…lots of dogs.

 

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We took the “tip only” walking tour a few days later and got the history behind these and many more local sights of the city.  The walking tour saw us adding the High court, Pre-Colombian Museum, Congress (former), Presidential palace (which was once the mint and now bears the title La Moneda), the stock exchange / financial district and the opera house.

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On day two we did the walk across the river to Barrio Bellavista, the bohemian quarter of the city. It is packed with bars, nightclubs and restaurants and the streets are adorned with street art and murals of all shapes and sizes. But we were here to visit San Cristóbal Hill. This is the hill that rises around 300m (984 ft) above the city and is the site a 22 meter statue of the Virgin Mary and the place to get almost panoramic views of the city as it lays nestled among the Andean Mountain Range.

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And of course my job was to sample some of the local ales. This is a task that has long since challenged me, but I endure. Add to this some of the fantastic scenery and even a view from the rooftop bar our accommodation.

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Finally moving again…

Well it has been a long time between blogs. The world finally caught up with us and forced us to be adults again. Doing all of those things that you must do to fund the things that you want and need to do. This has seriously curtailed our travels, a fact that I am seriously unhappy about.

Life should not be about the job that you do or the items that you own…it is about the experiences that you have and the people that you share them with. On this front both Jill and I have been blessed.

We returned to Australia after our last big overseas jaunt in debt and jobless…this necessitated a consolidation and some pulling in of our ears. Alas along the way we both found jobs (in completely new industries) that we liked and that it seemed that we were both pretty good at. Add to this the fact that we fell in love with the lifestyle that Perth has to offer and we kind of landed and stayed put.

But things change, as they always do, and we found that life was pulling us in different directions. The beauty of this is that other things were going on in the world that were also fuelling the urgency for us to get back into the travel sooner rather than later. Not least of these was the opening of the borders between the US and Cuba. The thought of Cuba being ruined by hoards of US tourists homogenising the place to oblivion was the trigger to act.

Cuba is a place that has long interested us but the 35+ hour flights/transit to get there has meant that we had continually delayed that trip. Our timeline was extended thanks to the election of Donald Trump who proceeded to wind back all of the border opening moves that Obama tried to bring in. Combine that with my impending turning of 50 and it was time to act.

img_1973Enter into the equation two new players…Jeremy and Claudia. New for you, but long term friends of ours. Jeremy and I first met in our late teens when we played rugby against, and later with, each other. Decades of interactions has seen us both simultaneously and interchangeably embrace the title of “Jimmy Lau Lau”. This title started as some rubbish spoken in a bar has endured for over 30 years. So with our respective birthdays only a month apart…so began the notion of “Jimmy and Jimmy’s Caribbean vacation”.

 

 

 

 

The domestic legs

So the first leg of this journey began with me flying to the other side of the nation to join my wife. This is one of those understated “things that change”. Work opportunities and changes has seen us living on opposite sides of the country for the preceding 8 months. Still happily married with no intention of anything different, just separated by around 3718 kilometres.

Princess took up a position as the CEO of an aged care company reporting directly to the board of directors. This was a move that she needed to make. Frustrated by being a middle manager and unable to make the improvement changes that she wanted. So if those above you are resistant to change…then be the boss…and she now is.

For my sins I landed a job (primarily) as a writer. It is a government style gig that focuses on the Emergency Management Sector. Specifically…if the world went completely wrong tomorrow (cyclone, flood, fire, storm etc.)…how well would we (as a state) cope…would all of the pieces come together as they should or would we flounder…

And this became my job…and it was awesome…while my main task was to produce a summary document of how prepared we were…the real work was in developing what we actually needed to be able to consider ourselves capable in the face of an emergency. The complexity of this is mind blowingly interesting, and has contributed greatly to us delaying our travels.

Anyway, enough catchup…I flew to meet up with Jill and spent the next 3 days helping her get squared away and ready to travel. Did I mention that she was a CEO…I guess they actually have a lot of things that they are responsible for. So skipping out for a month took some scrambling and organisation.

Once that was done, it was off to Sydney for a few wind-down days with Jeremy and Claudia before things started in earnest.

The usual routine kicked in the moment the 4 of us got together…a trip to the Sydney Seafood Markets. This necessitated loading up on tiger prawns, bugs, oysters, and sashimi quality fish. A quick trip to the bakery added fresh baked crusty sourdough. And the fruit shop gave us some avocado and seafood sauce. Jeremy added some homemade chilli sauce to the mix… and we were set.

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Another couple of relaxing days in Sydney and we were out of the work mindset and ready to travel.

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Inle Lake

This is a 2017 post and not a 2014 post like most of the others. Having run out of money and going home to be adults and work for a while we saved our pennies and came back to Myanmar. This time to catch the bits we missed and see some of the things that were under construction or renovation on the first trip through. And the big ticket item that we missed was Inle Lake.

Jill was looking for a bit of pampering on this leg so the accommodation was significantly more extravagant than we normally use. We stayed at the Novotel and to be fair…it was both very nice and well priced for what it was. As usual in a western hotel in Asia…the food sucked. The buffet breakfast was good but the a-la-carte fusion thing just never works and this was no exception.  But it had (as I have been told) the bathtub to die for, a swim up pool and views across the lake that really shone at around sunset.

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The lake itself is about 26 km long and 10 km wide at the widest point. And Dr Google tells me that there are about thirty species of snails and fish that can be found nowhere else in the world. But for most of us it is just pretty. The commuting by longboat water taxis makes for an interesting time and there is so much to see and do around the area. That said, it will cost you a lot of money to do it (especially by Myanmar standards).

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Everything here is more expensive. The taxis, the boats, the food, the beer…everything. And this is without even factoring in the Novotel factor (which adds extra onto the bill if  they find out where you are staying). But it is pretty and is certainly worth the  trip.

A major factor of interest around Inle Lake is the rolling markets. The markets alternate on a five day cycle between the little townships and villages along the shore (Heho, Nyaungshwe, Taunggyi, Minethauk, Shwenyaung). This means that every morning you can head off by boat to a new township and see a different market. There is the obvious tourist junk that is at every one of the markets, but there is also a local flavour to each of them and each one is just a little bit different.

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The other thing of note with the rolling markets is the sheer beauty of taking  the boat rides to get to them. Needless to say over the years we have been to any number of floating villages. For the most part these have  been tourist traps designed to part you from your dollars. But here on Inle lake, they are almost all floating villages. It is not a gimmick it is the lifestyle…and it is charming. So the boat rides to the various markets see you riding along past ramshackle residences and shops all perched on stumps above the water.

Another major attraction of coming to the lake is to meet with the Kayan people of Myanmar. For those  that do not know they are the group that place brass coils around their neck. Most often they have been seen on the Thailand border (having fled the former fighting) the Kayan people have largely migrated back closer to their original home base. They have been referred to in any number of ways, that not surprisingly they find  somewhat offensive. Names like giraffe women and long neck women are less than appreciated. They are however  more  than comfortable being referred to as the ladies with the long elegant necks.

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Another unique thing about the lake is the local fishermen and their rowing style. They perch on the edge of these insanely narrow and shallow boats while casting and retrieving  fishing nets and simultaneously rowing the boat using their legs. This is a sight not to be missed and for us mere mortals, a zen like demonstration of both concentration and balance. The fishermen come in two varieties…the actual fishermen who use modern nets and the touristy ones that use bamboo nets as perhaps was done once upon a time.  The second type just do it to pose for tourist photos and stage capturing fish by throwing them into their nets after the fact. Both types are highly entertaining.

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And lets not be silly…it is Myanmar so there is no shortage of stupas, pagodas, temples and monasteries to go to. The lake is littered with them. You can cruise the lake stopping at any one that you like.

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And other than this…almost everything that you can imagine happens on the water. The weeds are harvested manually and are used for fertiliser for crops. The lake itself is turned into a massive hydroponic tomato cropping area.  The lake bed is dredged manually for dirt and building materials, the banks are used to distil rice down into what passes for the local hooch. In short there are so very many things to see and do on Inle Lake.

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But the most impressive of all…is the people. This is as true for Inle Lake as it has been throughout Myanmar. It is impossible to walk down the street without being met with a huge smile and somebody greeting you with the local “Mingalabar”.  This is even more evident with the little ones. Shy kids (generally) under the age of 4 will be beaming and waving as you go past. They will try a ‘hello’ if they are old enough or they will merely beam a huge smile and wave.

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And lastly, as we always do…we eat local. We ignore the hotels and we find dodgy little shacks to eat at.  Our options this time around were a little limited as we were in an out of the way location. But a short 2km walk away was the long jetty at Maing Thauk. This is the location that you could come to to get a boat for the day if you did not want to add  the ‘Novotel’ premium to your price. But it is also the location of some local fare that is just delicious. The jetty itself is quite the tourist  attraction and makes for some stunning sunset photographs along with some very tense moments in the dark as you wander along in the pitch blackness hoping not to hear a big splash meaning that Jill or I has hit the water.

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But we didn’t…and we found about 4 different restaurants along the jetty serving local food, cold beer and heapings of smiles and hospitality. Plates give way to lily leaves and the local salads come to the fore. The local avocados are the smoothest and creamiest that I have ever tasted and the other offerings that they put forward are tough to beat. And needless to say, for a village on the lake…they know how to cook a really good fish. We tried many incantations of the fish and they were magnificent.

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So if you are a traveller looking for a place to come, Inle Lake should be high on a list. It is on the pricey side (activities) for those on a tight budget but it is definitely worth a look…if you can swing 5-6 days here you will get to sample each of the townships and the markets. The big hotels are well priced  by western standards (half to one third of back home) for the rooms but comparable on the food and drinks.

 

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We live in WA now…

So we are here…in Perth…it has been a monster journey and we have seen and done so very much along the way.  Before we get into the world of Perth we will have a little summary of what it is we have done in the preceding 18 months…

We both left well paying jobs in Canberra to share our adventure together.

Overseas – We ran away offshore and spent 433 days backpacking through Asia. Hit 13 different countries, slept in 121 different cities and visited many more. We saw sights, climbed mountains, and sampled the local foods, beverages and culture at every step of the way.

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Australia – We bought a new car, drove almost the full height north to south and did drive the full width east to west. We saw family and friends and even tried living in a tiny remote town. All up we drove over 14,000 kms in a 8-9 week window and that included a 3-5 week block of time in the middle where we went nowhere.

normanton to perth

We got back to Australia with nothing but each other and debts… within a reasonably short period of time…we both found well paying jobs again, have cleared our debts and have racked up a wide variety of experiences along the way. I guess the moral of this story, for us at least, is that it is very possible to run away, give up all semblance of our former lives and careers and leave everything behind. Then once you have sampled sections of the globe you can come back, settle in a new place, both start new careers, in different industries, earning collectively as much if not more than you were before…and not miss a beat.

And now life continues…

We left the last post with us having driven into Perth and with me job and house hunting. Jill’s new job was working for an aged care company and as we rolled into town they gave us bridging accommodation within one of their facilities while we found a place to live. In short…we were living in a retirement village.

To be fair I had no concept, knowledge or experience of what a retirement village was like and my knowledge was limited to TV shows that depicted depressing, institutionalised looking places that looked like hell on earth. Jill had long been interested in this area as the boom area of the future and over the last decade we had embarked upon numerous conversations about the future of aged care.

These conversations led to the facts that with the retirement of the baby boomers and the first real generation of self funded retirees coming through that the industry focus has been shifting from the stereotypical versions I had imagined to an almost hospitality model where the client is used to levels of service and value for money.

Clubhouse 2And this is what we found… We stayed in a manager’s unit that was centrally located within a retirement village above “the clubhouse”. They are not called retirement villages but rather they are independent living units but for my purposes retirement village works just fine. In reality it was a suburb of about 160 townhouses surrounding a centralised community area. Each townhouse was freestanding, fully independent and spectacularly maintained and the communal area had the clubhouse that contained a gym, library, pool, bowling green, putt putt course, pool table, art and craft rooms, an industrial kitchen and heaps of dining and recreation space.

Being independent units, the cooking was generally conducted in your own home but each Saturday they would hold an optional communal event for those that wished to attend. This was organised by the residents and rotated each week. There were raffles, drinks and pleasant company and for about $5 they organised various food option nights…things like fish and chips, chicken, pizza etc. On the odd night about once a month they held a special night when some of the ‘menfolk’ took over the kitchen and prepared a monster feast.

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Every afternoon at 3pm (just after the scratch lawn bowls game) the bar would open in the clubhouse and beer, wine and soft drink was available for the ridiculous prices of $1 for a wine and $2 for a beer can or bottle. Needless to say that after job and house hunting through the day, this became a regular home for me while Jill was still at work. And of course my beer sampling continued…including some uniquely  local brews.

While we were on average 15- 20 years younger than everyone else we found some great friends here and were inspired by what life in such a village was actually like. While having a beer one evening I casually inquired about golf. By noon the next day somebody had sourced a set of loaner clubs for me and a group of us headed out to the local course for 18 holes.

People there basically kept doing the things that they had done and enjoyed before moving in. But now they shared the activity for those that may be interested. We met a lady that was a fitness instructor before she retired and she became the host of water aerobic sessions each morning for those that wanted it. There was workshops and now men’s sheds for the wood and metal workers, sewing  and knitting rooms. It was all organised by the people there and they were all ‘opt in’.

In short it was great and led to the why wouldn’t you get into one of these joints as soon as you turn 55 (the eligibility for entry) conversations.

perth aerialAnyway…I found us a place to live a job for me. Our home is walking distance to everything the CBD has to offer and has a restaurant strip walking distance in the other direction. We are about 250 meters from the Swan River as the crow flies and half way across the the river is Heirisson Island (a landscaped nature reserve) that contains a mob of Western Grey Kangaroos. This is a favourite for tourists as it is a leisurely 2km circuit walk around the island and you are almost guaranteed to see the roos.

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Perth waterfront is lined with parkland and green space which means at most angles looking either in or out from the city the views are stunning.  On the city side is Langley Park, a 900m x 100m rectangular open park that was used as an airstrip in the 1920’s and is now used to host any number of riverside events. On the south Perth side is Sir James Mitchell Park which was named after the 13th Premier of WA and the park is similarly used. There are running and cycling tracks along the length of both sides and huge open areas that are full each weekend.

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On the western end of the city atop mount Eliza is Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre park on the fringe of the city that is made up of grassed parkland, botanical gardens and 2/3 of the grounds are conserved native bushland. From here you can see some of the best views of Perth and for a short period I got the opportunity to work closely with the CEO of the park and set up my makeshift office out of the boardroom of the park…with magnificent views overlooking the city and the distractions of random backpackers stripping down to bikinis to soak up the WA sunshine…right outside my window.

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So we settled in…started bashing our debts over the head and in less than a year we were back in the black and saving for our next adventure…We will keep blogging as we go… we have fallen in love with the beauty and variety that the West of our country has to offer…and rightfully so.

 

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Nullarbor to Perth

Well we left off the last post with us on the Nullarbor Plain doing the drive from east to west. We had just left South Australia and had entered what we found out was an entirely new time zone (The Central Western Time Zone) that we had never known existed. This differential messed with my mind more than anything before…I just could not work out what was going on. Having left the east coast during the end of summer daylight savings time applied in some states and had finished in others but none of this was the issue.

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Nullarbor Plain

The move to SA was a known 30 minutes difference and Perth was a known 2-3 hr time difference depending on the daylight savings component. We knew we were to be driving around 800kms, how long that would take and what time it would be in both SA where we had left and Perth where we were headed…we knew all times but in the middle there is this random 45 minute time zone… and none of the maths computed in my head.  Ignoring the time zone issues we kept heading west and eventually we found ourselves in a zone that allowed my tiny mind to operate again.

As you drive across the Nullarbor there are any number of random roads or dirt tracks that spill off to the left. These take you to the ocean and the Great Australian Bight which primarily is a really long cliff face around 60 meters tall ….randomly dotted along the road are surfing beaches and viewing platforms. These side roads are a good distraction to what can be a long drive and some of the scenery along the way is unrivaled.

The other major distraction on an almost 48 hour drive from east to west is The Nullarbor Links. This is an 18-hole par 72 golf course that exists between the WA town of Kalgoorlie and Ceduna in South Australia. This stretches a distance of 1,365 kilometres and the holes are located in the various towns and roadhouses that you hit along the way and equipment can be hired at each.

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The Nullarbor Links golf course

The concept was developed to give travelers a reason to stop and spend more time and money at towns and roadhouses that they may otherwise just blast past at 110kph. Some of the holes are at actual golf courses at either end while others have been designed to show off the local landscapes and wildlife. Some of these also provide degrees of difficulty for the golf game. Some of the highlights include:
  •  Hole 4 – Nundroo (the wombat hole) has the biggest population of the Southern hairy-nosed wombat in Australia.
  • Hole 5 – Nullarbor Roadhouse (Dingo’s Den) reinforced with dingo traps and scrap iron.
  • Hole 8 – Mundrabilla one of the world’s largest meteorite sites
  • Hole 10 – Cocklebiddy Motel a series of interesting cave systems

When you hit the border of SA and WA you come across a compulsory agricultural checkpoint and a little joint called border village. Just south of Border village is the Bunda Cliffs which at the right time of year (between May and October) provides views of the Southern Right Whales and in between times gives views of 90 metre tall perpendicular limestone cliffs alongside the Southern Ocean.

Having crossed into WA we then passed through a range of towns such as Mundrabila, Madura, Cocklebiddy, Caiguna, Balladonia, Fraser Range and Norseman. At Norseman you get to make a choice…head north to Kalgoorlie-Boulder or head south to Esperance. Having seen enough desert and barren landscapes we chose to head south and do the scenic coastal route into Perth.

This is a straight steal from the WA tourist website but it is about as accurate as it gets for the area around Esperance.

  • A beach and nature-lover’s dream, Esperance is blessed with squeaky-clean beaches, turquoise waters, untouched islands and colour-filled wildflower country. Among its most famous beauty spots is Australia’s whitest beach, Lucky Bay – set against a stunning seascape of 110 islands of the Recherche Archipelago, even the kangaroos can’t resist lounging here.
Esperance Jetty

Esperance Jetty Sunset

In 1979, the space station skylab fell to earth with pieces of it landing across WA and in the vicinity of Esperance. In typical Australian style the mayor of Esperance issued a $400 fine to NASA for littering. Leaving Esperance we headed along the coastline taking a series of relatively similar photographs as we came across bay after bay of white sand, crystal clear water  and stunning scenery.

From here we headed to Albany stopping along the way at the the Valley of the Giants Treetop Walk. This is a 600m walkway 40m in the air meandering through the canopy of some of the largest tress around. The Karri trees and forests of the southwest of WA are truly amazing.Huge trees with massive circumferences and even though you may be 40m up… the trees soar above you for almost as much again. To be honest even the drive to get to these giants is wonderful but getting out and wandering along gives an entirely different perspective. From here we were an overnight stay and a short drive from the place that would be our home for the next few weeks.

So we had a sleep and did the last 400kms into Perth. This leg involved :

  • Madura to Esperance – 730kms
  • Esperance to Albany – 480kms and
  • Albany to Perth 417kms

SA to perth

So pulling into Perth we headed straight for the accommodation that Jill’s work had lined up for us during our transition. It was in the Southern suburbs 50km south of Perth. It hasn’t been mentioned yet but Jill’s new job was a high ranking position with an aged care company here in WA. So of course the accommodation provided was a manager’s unit at one of the facilities.

So for the next 3-4 weeks we became residents of an old folks home.

As Jill does she flew straight into work and I was tasked with the jobs of finding us a place to live and finding myself a job. So it started…we scoured the real estate websites and went to open homes…basically hunting for some semblance of area familiarity. We had a brunch with my cousin who has lived here her whole life. Met her husband and child and got some tips as to good areas to look.

Subiaco was the first port of call, close to town and full of cafes and restaurants…one attempt at finding a carpark and a wander down the street surrounded by wannabe hipsters and I decided that Subiaco would not be for us. If I continually saw  perfectly gelled hair, bowties, button up cardigans with skinny jeans, Ned Kelly beards and twirly moustaches…then I would likely as not punch one of them…martijn

The next port of call was Scarborough Beach…neither of us had lived by the beach and we thought it might be worth a try. So while Jill worked I bounced around the laziest and least interested real estate agents on the planet. Bearing in mind that we were 50km south in the suburbs…each day was quite the trek. As the mining boom had flooded the WA economy…prices were through the roof and demand had been so high that people were knocking each other over to pay over the asking price. As such the real estate agents got complacent and when the mining money dried up prices plummeted and the attitudes needed adjusting.

Perth Map1

We found a great place about 200 meters from the beach and put in our application…and waited…and waited…no word…so I rang and asked…no response…so we kept looking…we checked out other suburbs and got a sense of where would be good to live. We found a nice place, walking distance to town and signed up straight away…renting straight from the owners (more about this next post).

Three days later we got a phone call congratulating us that we had got the first place by the beach. This was almost 3 full weeks after we first saw the property. We declined and made comment about the lack of service provided. A month later on and this place was still on the market and the asking price for rent had dropped by about $25 a week. I wonder if the owner knows that if it had not been for the ineptitude and laziness of his estate agents that they would have had 12 months of guaranteed rent.

 

 

 

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Far North Queensland to South Australia

Well we left the last post with us living in Normanton having sprayed the job markets with applications… with a job for me back in Canberra in limbo. Normanton is a great town to visit and this part of the country is truly stunning. The wildlife was mentioned in the last post and the sunsets and summer storms are amazing things to experience. This ‘great place to visit’ concept didn’t really translate to ‘great place to live’ though. The gossiping nature of the town added to the lack of food options and work opportunities for me was becoming problematic and there really was not too much to do unless you became a recreational fisherman who battles the crocodiles in your own boat to fight for the Barramundi. This is great for a little while…but…

Kurumba sunset

At one point Jill had to travel to Perth to (in the Australian vernacular) ‘see a man about a dog’. So she asked if I could drop her off and pick her up from the airport. As the airport was about 2 kilometers from our house I saw no issue with this and on the Thursday I dropped her off with the collection to be on Saturday at 5pm. As she was getting out of the car she mentioned that collection was …in Cairns…For those that do not know Cairns is about 700km and 8 hours driving east of Normanton.

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So Jill had booked me accommodation in Cairns on Friday night and kept the room for us on the Saturday. I was to drive 8 hrs on Friday…put the car in to get cruise control fitted…pick the car up the next morning and pick Jill up at 5pm that afternoon before having a meal and a sleep then driving the 8 hrs back to Normanton. The upside to this driving was that I got to do the first section of the Savannah Way. This has been described as the ultimate road trip in in Australia. It starts in Cairns in Queensland and can be followed 3700 km all the way to Broome in Western Australia.  And the first section at least…is stunning.

As you drive around Australia you are met with a range of road signs. Most of these are benign, some are crucial to obey, others are amusing and the ones we saw between Gympie and Maryborough were just clever. In an attempt to combat driver fatigue the Qld Government had instigated roadside trivia to keep people alert. You come across a sign asking a question and about 5-10 kms later the sign with the answer appears. It is a great initiative that both gets the mind going and also makes you watch out while you seek the answer. Along the same theme…the drive into Cairns along the Savannah Way saw us pass a fatigue sign that unfortunately I did not photograph. But it read…

Tired – Take a break

Dopey – Just keep smiling

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While I had driven both legs of the Cairns run…Jill had flown back and forward to Perth and sat through an 8 hour drive…a pretty big few days by most peoples standards.  On the Monday morning I dropped Jill at work where she handed in her resignation notice which thankfully was able to be expedited. She rang me at 9:30am on the Monday saying that today was her last day and that we could go…I was to pack the house and we would be moving. On top of fully packing and cleaning the house, I got another call telling me that I had to mow the lawn at the loaner house so that there was nothing outstanding for her workmates to deal with upon our departure. So by the time I picked her up at 5pm the house was cleaned, lawn mowed, chuck the truck packed with every item we had brought or purchased and we were primed to leave first thing the next morning.

We were up and about and ready to leave by 6am…but the service station in town did not open until 9 am. The nearest town heading south is Cloncurry and it was 400km away and we had 1/4 of a tank of fuel and a fully laden truck…Half way between Normanton and Cloncurry is the Bourke and Wills Roadhouse. This is one of the most remote petrol stations in Australia. It was early, it was cool and we didn’t feel like treading water for the next 3 hrs. So we turned off the air conditioning on the truck and set off hoping that we could make it the 200kms to the roadhouse.

  

On a side note…as you drive around Australia you tend to find a large range of Australia’s fauna (generally on the side of the road as roadkill) and depending on where you are will depend upon the squished animals that you see. The experienced nomad could probably identify their location by the number type and frequency of the roadkill.

In the central stretch between Longreach to Cloncurry and a little further north you come across a large number of termite mounds. Long desolate drives and the Australian sense of humour has led to the practice of dressing up termite mounds. As you head north you will find any number of these mounds that have been dressed up with random items of clothing. There are hundreds of them…Bored drivers stop, raid their wardrobe and clothe lumps of dirt… and some of them are very funny. I believe a similar phenomenon takes place in the Northern Territory.

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Anyway…we made the roadhouse, refueled and kept driving. As we had stopped in Cloncurry on the way up we blasted past (pausing at the bakery for breakfast) and stopped in Winton where we visited the Walzing Matilda Centre (this burnt down about 3-4 months later) and then kept going until 910kms away from Normanton in we stopped in Longreach. After being robbed blind in Longreach with both accommodation and a meal at the local RSL (gone are the days of cheap meals at the RSL) we crashed and the next day I got to visit the bits I wanted to see on the way up. We started at the Stockmans Hall of Fame, which fittingly saw a kangaroo jumping in front of our truck as we drove in. From here we hopped over to the QANTAS Founders Outback Museum and once we had seen these we then got back on the road and ripped out almost 700kms back to Rockhampton.

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Outside Longreach is a little town called Ilfracombe that has a nice little display of old machinery. Trucks, tractors, tankers, cranes, firetrucks, graders…pretty much anything that you can think of. It has a population of under 200 people but is a pretty little town and is worth pausing in rather than just blasting past.
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So we arrived in Rockhampton and our preceding week looked like this:Map4

  • Thursday – Jill flies to Perth
  • Friday – Richard drives to Cairns – 700kms
  • Saturday – Jill flies back from Perth
  • Sunday – Both drive back to Normanton – 700 kms
  • Monday – Jill works – Richard packs and cleans the house
  • Tuesday – Both drive Normanton to Longreach – 910 kms
  • Wednesday – Visit sites and then drive to Rockhampton – 700 kms

We got to Rocky and crashed with our mates Boof and Bec and hung with the kids. Given the preceding week we thought we would stop for a couple of days and then keep moving… until I learned that there was a rugby trial game on the Saturday and that Boof was the president of the club. So we hung for a few extra days. Training days, function preparation Hangiand match day followed by a hangi (native NZ Maori pit cooking). For those that do not know the Hangi involves digging a pit in the ground, heating the stones in the pit with a large fire, placing baskets of meat and veg on top of the stones, and covering everything with earth for several hours before uncovering. Boof and I first did this together many years earlier when I stood next to him at their wedding. The reality is that his Kiwi mates have the skills and we were little more than labour…nothing has changed…however even the labour level reduced this time around.

When we finally left Rockhampton on the Sunday we headed south towards Brisbane stopping at the Walkabout Creek Hotel. This is the pub that was used in the movie Crocodile Dundee and is in the town of McKinlay about 120 kilometres southwest of Gladstone. We got to Brisbane that evening having put another 650 kms of driving under our belt. For the second time in a couple of months we said our goodbyes to family and friends and headed off to our next port of call. As it happens Jill had found employment in Perth in one of those spray the world with job applications things. Perth is a major city…so my job options immediately skyrocketed.

Walkabout creek hotel 4  Walkabout creek hotel 1   Walkabout creek hotel 2

So in an all too familiar pattern we headed to Canberra to collect more things that we would need for job hunting from our storage shed. Needless to say I did not grab suits and ties from the storage shed the first time around when I was headed to Normanton. My Canberra job option was crawling along so I kept rolling along with Jill.

As we were heading down the first time we stopped in a little town called Young where we stayed with Jills cousin Andrew and his family. The same night her other cousins Louise and Brett were headed to the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne. So we all descended on Andrew’s farm, surrounded by what seemed like about 7 families worth of kids. Together we had an evening of drinks, BBQ  and generally good company and conversation. As part of this we learned that another of  Jill’s many cousins, Ash, had  recently bought a pub in the town of Harden, not too far out of Canberra.

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As it turns out, Ash and I had played rugby against each other many years earlier as 19 year olds,  we have mutual friends through both school and rugby and when the Queensland Reds would play in Canberra he would come to town and we would head off  together to watch the footy. So stopping in was an obvious thing. What we found was a night of good company and a charming old
country hotel.

CBR to MilduraInto Canberra, a few more days catching up with friends, raiding the storage shed and planning our road trip to Perth. And then we were off. First day we did an 800 km hike to the lovely town of Mildura. I had been here before back when I was about 20 when Boof (from Rockhampton) and my cousin Andrew (the one we met in Beijing) went on a boys road trip. This was a 3 week rampage that had zero cultural elements to it…but some stories that endure to this day. One of these was when we pulled into Mildura and headed into the Working Mans Club. Our night started brilliantly as we learned that at the time it had the longest bar in the world which had 127 taps, and a $12 special on lobster (well river crayfish/fat yabby version…but close enough).

Being 20 and infinitely full of wisdom we decided that we would drink our way around the bar…fairly early on the three of us decided that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. Not willing to give up too early we reassessed and decided that if we each had one from a tap that we as a team could encircle the bar.  Drinking from every third tap still meant we would have to drink over 40 beers each…and we had all raided the first 6 or so taps…needless to say that we battled valiantly…and failed miserably.

CBR-SBBack on the road the next morning and we ripped out another 924 kms to the South Australian town of Streaky Bay. On the West Coast of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, Streaky Bay is a stunning spot with three stunning scenic drives covering this section of the Great Australian Bight: Westall Way Loop, Cape Bauer Loop and the Point Labatt Sea Lion Scenic Drive. So we stayed at the pub for a couple of nights. Overlooking the water and jetty, ate good food, relatively well priced,  wandered the streets, admired the old school stone buildings, did the tourist drives and had what was becoming an all too familiar conversation.

Streaky Bay 1 Streaky Bay 12 Streaky Bay Pier

We had fallen in love with yet another small charming Australian country town. So the conversation generally starts with us staring into a real estate agents window and pining for the comparative value to be had in what we have determined was a charming town. We look in the window and find great places, on great blocks, with great views for way less that you could buy the crappiest of places within a major city. At this point our bottom lips start to pout…for as great as the town is…there needs to be employment opportunities…and alas so few of these charming little places offer such things.

sb-madura

Anyway…Back on the road. We did 782 kms from Streaky Bay to Madura passing through famous towns like Ceduna and Bordertown and driving across the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor Plain is the section of land between Norseman in Western Australia and Ceduna in South Australia. “Crossing the Nullarbor”, is one of those quintessential experiences that every true Australian should do at some point. I had done it as a child with my parents but that doesn’t count.

The first thing that you realise when you do this drive is that everything that you had expected and imagined about the Nullarbor Plain is wrong. I expected to be driving through a dry, desolate and largely spartan wasteland…I expected hours of barren plains…what I found could not be further from the truth. It is a truly amazing drive. Sure there are sections of dry and desolate… most notably the treeless plain. But for the most part it is pretty, there is a roadhouse every 200 kms or so and a heap of tourist drives off to the south that drop you onto the stunning cliffs and inlets of the Great Australian Bight.

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So this little section has seen the following run of driving…

  • Normanton to Cairns – 700kms
  • Cairns to Normanton – 700 kms
  • Normanton to Longreach – 910 kms
  • Longreach to Rockhampton – 700 kms
  • Rockhampton to Brisbane – 650 kms
  • Brisbane to Canberra – 1250 kms
  • Canberra to Mildura – 800 kms
  • Mildura to Streaky Bay -924 kms
  • Streaky Bay to Madura – 782 kms

And we are still not there yet…

 

 

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Back in Australia – Queensland – The first 2 months

This is a post that was not intended, however over dinner one evening Jill and I were reflecting on the year that we had experienced since our return to Australia. The first and most obvious issue was that of getting ourselves re-employed and all our debts paid off. This, as it happened, proved much easier than expected.  Other major issues were the change of mindset between travelling and staying put. Seeing family was great but the itchy feet after 4-8 days is something that took some serious adjustment.  But let’s do this systematically.

We arrived back in Australia in late December 2014 to find that our blog had already told everyone what we had been up to. This translated to a general pleasure that we were home but none of the fussing and storytelling that would normally accompany the return from such a journey. This was highly understandable and simultaneously both a blessing and a touch disappointing.  So we were a short term novelty and then life carried on.

FamilyBut we were in our home town, surrounded by family, just in time for the boy’s birthday and the family Christmas celebrations. We set up camp at my sister’s house and revelled in the Queensland summer with her pool as a get out of jail free card from the humidity.  We ate, we drank, we caught up with family and friends, and generally just got back in the swing of being in Australia.

We had some relatively minor bills (and of course a mortgage) when we landed home and no jobs to service them… Back to the real world I guess.  Having travelled for so long and not having had a home to speak of we were not fixed on any single location. So we did a deal, “First one to get a good job wins”.  So we both applied furiously for any job we could think of or that amused us. Jill of course won this…twice.

The first win was for her to obtain a job as a clinical team leader in the town of Normanton in far north Queensland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was an almost a six figure job that had the benefit of having a 4 bedroom house thrown into the package. I had a job offer back at my former employer (and back in Canberra) but my security clearance was going to take a while to get back. Her job was only for 6 months and mine would take a while to come through, so the initial plan was to stay together in the interim and potentially live apart for a little while as things settled themselves…. so off we went.

normantonBeing in the outback and in the Gulf of Carpentaria we figured Normanton would pose some logistical transportation problems so to overcome this we decided to buy ourselves the dreaded and long avoided 4WD vehicle. This is something that neither of us ever wanted and in fact both hated as we were used to seeing pristine versions of 4WDs that had never touched dirt and were solely used for dropping children off at schools and screwing up shopping centre carparks.

Anyway… the search was on…we looked around and googled furiously which allowed us to find out that almost every one of the vehicles on the market have very few if any 4WD credentials. The list of vehicles that could actually be used in an off road capacity was very short. The obvious Toyota versions were excellent; however the price was on average $6000 more than for any other vehicle on the credible list. So after some hunting, and some quite entertaining lessons being learned along the way we settled on a Ford Ranger.

Jill has always had a habit of naming her vehicles and as such the new 4WD needed a name. So we thought of famous Fords and famous rangers…Henry and Lone just weren’t cutting it…the obvious one came up as Walker Texas Ranger…but we felt that the concept of calling a mode of transport “Walker” was a poor omen. BUT…the character was played by the infamous and seemingly indestructible “Chuck Norris”. This was seen as a good omen…so the name took care of itself…Chuck the Truck.

Chuck the Truck   Map 10  Chuck the truck 1

This started what turned out to be a few months of marathon driving efforts. The first little leg was to head to Canberra to collect some clothes as all we had was dirty and grotty backpacker gear. Not really appropriate for job hunting and Jill starting work. So we headed down to raid the storage shed that held our stuff.

  • Brisbane to Narrabri – 570 kms
  • Narrabri to Canberra – 705 kms
  • Canberra to Brisbane – 1250 kms
  • And back – 1250 kms

So a 2500 km round trip just to pick up some stuff. We saw friends, had good meals and generally caught up with people we had been missing over the preceding 16 months. Cruising around the ACT did give us that overwhelming “groundhog day” sensation.

Anyway, back to Brisbane to say goodbye to the families and start the next leg of the journey. A stop in Rockhampton  on the way to see one of my oldest and best mates and his family (including my godson). Jill, being her father’s daughter, turns into a machine when she drives. So leaving Rockhampton we passed through some historic Australian outback towns Emerald, Barcaldine, Longreach (home to the QANTAS Founders Outback Museum and the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame), Winton (the home of the Australian dinosaur fossils including the Australovenator wintonensis known affectionately as Banjo).

Dino

Did I mention that Jill turns into a machine when its time to drive…all of these historic sites were blasted past at over 100km/h and stops were only allowed for fuel. So after 1215 kms of straight driving from Rockhampton saw us begrudgingly stopping at Cloncurry for a feed and a night at the pub. The next morning we were up, fed and on the road for the last 400km to Normanton.

  • Brisbane to Rockhampton – 650 kmsMap 2
  • Rockhampton to Cloncurry – 1215 kms
  • Cloncurry to Normanton – 400 kms

So lets set the Normanton scene…Normanton is a small country town of 1100 people 60% of who are indigenous. Being seasoned travelers, we hit the travel sites to see what to expect from the town of Normanton and found that it was to be an incredibly entertaining place. There was three major attractions

  • a concrete crocodile,
  • a train that runs once a week (in the right season) and
  • an aboriginal art shop

The number one restaurant in town was a take away shop called the “Gobble’N’Go” which along with the 3 pubs, saw the place fed.

croc  barramundi  GobbleNGo

So leaving Cloncurry in the morning we got into town around noon on the Friday and had a few days to get settled before Jill had to start work. We got the keys to our included house and unpacked in 42 degree temperatures before meeting some of Jill’s future workmates at one of the pubs for dinner (this was to become a regular Friday evening thing). A few chats about employment opportunities for me took place but jobs were scarce and my skill set was not exactly highly sought after. house

The next day I met some locals at the PCYC (opposite our house) and was told of a cricket game to take place the next day. So off I went on the Sunday to immerse myself into the town as quickly as I could. Before you could blink, it was 43 degrees on a Sunday morning and I was playing in a game of cricket in a strange town and losing bodily fluids at a pace that was previously thought impossible.

Jill started her job on the Monday and I spent the next few days arranging all of the logistical things that were needed. Little things that nobody who grew up in cities ever thought to consider. Things like a PO Box because the town was too small to have mail delivery, or internet dongles as there was no connections to anywhere in town. The main issue was to change my telco supplier to Telstra as no other carrier provided any service to the area. This meant that my bills went up and my service levels went down…but I did have coverage within the town.

IMG_4682  Krys  IMG_4652

Krys the Croc – Is the highlight of the town and is the replica of an 8.63 metre crocodile that was shot on the banks of the Norman River near the town. It was shot in July 1957 by Krys Pawlowski, a 30 year old Polish immigrant. There is much skepticism as to the legitimacy of the claim. But if it is to be true then this thing is truly a dinosaur.

Our time in Normanton was highly educational both in terms of country life and especially about the sort of characters that reside in such towns. The lack of activity and the seemingly innate need to gossip was something that did not sit well with me but gossip and petty squabbling did seem to be the main activity of the town. We tripped around a bit, headed up to  the Gulf of Carpentaria where the prawn trawlers come in (Karumba), had meals at the famous Sunset Tavern and discovered that in the far north…cows eat cars. We found out of the way little places like the aptly named ‘Pub in the Scrub’ and stood amazed by the sheer variety and diversity of the wildlife.

Cows eat Cars IMG_4668 Sunset Tavern Karumba

The town was full of birds of prey and the sight of wedge tailed eagles, falcons, harriers, hawks and kites was commonplace. But the drive north to Karumba introduced me to the Jabiru which when seen taking off in the wild with an 8 foot wing span is seriously impressive. So too is seeing a wedge tailed eagle launching away from whatever roadkill the trucks have left behind.

Wedge tailed eagle  Jabiru  1

The road kill comment is possibly an interesting time to mention the sheer size of some of the vehicles that we encountered in our journey throughout the outback of Australia. Wiki tells me that Australia has the largest and heaviest road-legal vehicles in the world,with some vehicles towing up to 200 tonnes. This means little to most of us however for the city folk out there seeing a semi-trailer is commonplace, a  BDouble too is fairly common but the double road train is less frequent but still not rare.

2Above this you start to see things like triples, AB-quads (B double with two additional trailers coupled behind) and full quads. These almost only operate on remote highways but do pose some serious overtaking challenges, particularly as the biggest trucks extend beyond the 50 metre mark or 174 feet. While these trucks are seriously long…they are nothing when compared to the trains that operate between Rockhampton and the coalfields. Trains of 100 wagons is commonplace and recently a record was set with one train having 136 wagons with a total length of 2.3 kilometres. Thankfully these run parallel to the roads and do not need to be passed or overtaken.

 

road train  Train  road train1

 

gulflander

 

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