July - August 1998
Thursday July 23rd 1998
London to Singapore is a huge long flight but it went very very quickly for me. Thunderstorms lit up the skies over eastern Europe, and as we flew over central Asia we saw Tashkent glowing far below. We got to Singapore at 6am, and it was already 26°C. Soon we were off again, and into the southern hemisphere for a journey across Australia.
Our first stop was beautiful, sunny, laid back Perth. For the first day or so I had the odd sensation that I was still on a turbulent plane, a memory of the long flight here. We spent a few days looking around Perth, and I thought it was pretty awesome.
Saturday July 25th 1998
While we were in Perth we visited the Pinnacles Desert. It doesn't look far on the map but it takes a few hours to get there. After a long drive north, we stopped at a town called Cervantes just before we reached the Pinnacles. On a white sandy beach by the Indian Ocean, we could see a storm approaching, and soon the rain was battering down.
The rain passed but the skies were still heavy when we arrived at the Pinnacles. Some of them are small, some huge, and they all looked amazing under the dark stormy skies.
Monday July 27th 1998
To get from Perth to Adelaide we took the train. We rumbled out of East Perth station in the early afternoon, and until nightfall we wound our way through some fairly green countryside. At 11pm we arrived in Kalgoorlie, and in the morning we were deep into the desert. The line was a single track, and so the train would occasionally stop at a passing loop in the middle of nowhere, sometimes waiting for a long time for whatever was coming in the other direction. An announcement was made that getting off the train at any point like this would be a seriously bad idea. "If you get left behind", said the announcer, "you will die."
On the second day we travelled along the longest straight stretch of track in the world, three hundred miles without a single bend. It was monotonous enough for me; I wondered how the drivers did it without going insane. I thought we might be able to get up some serious pace with no corners to worry about, but we continued on at the stately pace we'd been running the whole way. Over the whole trip we averaged just over 40 miles an hour; if there was a TGV line here, you could do the journey in about ten hours.
In the afternoon of the second day, we stopped in Cook, formerly a reasonably sized village but now with a population of two. A sign at the edge of town said "No food or fuel for next 862km".
In the middle of the second night, we stopped at Port Augusta. I got off the train to stretch my legs, looked up and saw a bright meteor run right down the length of the Milky Way. Early the next morning we arrived in Adelaide.
Wednesday July 29th 1998
We spent a few days in Adelaide staying with relatives. I had a terrifyingly close encounter with a huntsman spider while we were there, which left me on edge for days afterwards. A day out touring South Australian vineyards helped me to relax again, as did wandering along the shores of the Southern Ocean at Hallett Cove, watching porpoises swimming just off shore.
After that, we set off on another epic journey, this time by bus to Yulara, a couple of miles from Uluru. "Don't worry if you feel a sudden huge thump in the middle of the night", said the driver as we pulled out of Glendambo at nightfall. "That'll just be us hitting a kangaroo". We passed through the Woomera Prohibited Area during the night, and at 6am we found ourselves in Yulara. It was freezing cold, and frost glittered in the morning sun.
Later that day, we walked out to a viewpoint near the town. All around was flat, the horizon never-ending, except for the solitary form of the bright red rock.
Thursday July 30th 1998
We didn't even know helicopter flights were an option here before we arrived, but when we found out we could do them, we didn't hesitate. It was a spectacular ride - we flew high over the rock, and it was the best possible way to appreciate what an astonishing place we were in. Everything was flat, red and barren, and the only things in the whole landscape that stood out were Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Friday July 31st 1998
We went out to a viewing point near the rock one evening at sunset. It was extremely touristy, and there were people nearby drinking champagne, which I thought was a bit over the top. But the sunset was more impressive than I thought it would be, with the rock turning some vivid colours as the shadow of the Earth crept up on it.
Saturday August 1st 1998
The darkness of the skies over Uluru was incredible. Even from the cities, the Milky Way was impressively bright, but out here in the desert it looked like it was painted on the sky. I couldn't really believe what I was seeing. I walked a little way out into the desert outside Yulara to try to photograph the river of stars.
I didn't spend too long out there in the end - it was getting very cold very quickly, and I was still traumatised by my close encounter with a huntsman spider in Adelaide. I could hear a lot of noises of things moving about in the spinifex. When I thought I heard something running across the ground near my feet, I hurriedly packed up and headed back to Yulara.
Monday August 3rd 1998
Kata Tjuta is a collection of giant red rocks about 20 miles from Uluru. The tallest rocks are taller than Uluru but I hadn't even heard of it before we arrived in Yulara. We headed out there to have a look around, and did an excellent walk through the rocks. We passed through the Valley of the Winds, and the six of us were the only people in sight in the vastness of the landscape. I felt like we were walking on the surface of Mars.
Tuesday August 4th 1998
Alice Springs is in the middle of nowhere. If you drew a circle 600 miles across centred on Alice Springs, about 10,000 people would live within it. If you did the same thing in London, you'd encompass about 60 million people. We wandered up Anzac Hill and looked over the town to the Heavitree Gap. Beyond the Gap you could travel through empty desert all the way to Ceduna on the South Australian coast. At the other end of town from Anzac Hill was Billy Goat Hill. This was off-limits to all except aborigines, being a sacred place to them. The sad state of urban aborigines was clear to see near Billy Goat Hill, as there were always a number of miserable-looking people there clutching bottles.
It rained while we were in Alice Springs. This only happens once or twice a month, and after the shower had passed, the concrete paths near our hotel became covered in cockroaches. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared, with only a few pieces of pulpy mess left behind where a careless foot had fallen at the wrong time.
Friday August 7th 1998
We flew from Alice Springs to Sydney. After we'd got into the city and found a place to stay, we walked toward the harbour, through the forest of skyscrapers around the central business district. Sydney Harbour is so famous that it almost seems unbelievable that it's real, and I'll never forget my first sight of Circular Quay, with the Bridge to the left and the Opera House to the right.
Saturday August 8th 1998
One evening we went up the Sydney Tower. We went up late in the afternoon, and not long after we got to the top night began to fall, and the lights of the city came on.
Monday August 10th 1998
On an overcast day, we went to the museum in the south west tower of the Harbour Bridge. The museum was quite interesting, but possibly better were the views over the city from the top of the tower.
Wednesday August 12th 1998
On our last night in Australia, it was cold and miserable, and drizzle drifted on the breeze. We walked down to the harbour for a last view of the bridge and the opera house. By the morning, a ferocious downpour was battering Sydney. Our bus to the airport almost crashed, and our take-off was delayed by a couple of hours. On the way to Australia, the journey had gone quickly. On the way home it dragged on and on. To stave off boredom, I accepted every offer of alcohol the cabin crew made, and soon discovered how much more effective drinking is at high altitude. By the time we landed in the sticky heat of Bangkok at midnight, I was already getting the hangover. It had passed by the time we got back to London the next morning.