Canberra, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne and Sydney
Three years after my first trip to Australia, I had an opportunity to return, for a conference in Canberra. It was a few months after the September 11 attacks, and my flights were unusually quiet. I flew to Osaka with a row of seats to myself, then got an even emptier flight to Sydney.
It was good to be back in this amazing city. I'd left London on a cold November day, but here it was 30°C. In a jetlagged haze I wandered around the harbour, and ambled into the Royal Botanical Gardens. I sat down in the sunshine and before I knew what was happening I was waking up and a couple of hours had passed. I got up and blearily wandered back down Pitt Street to where I was staying.
The next day it was raining heavily. I ran through the downpour to Central Station and got a bus to Canberra. All my Australian friends in London had told me that a week in Canberra was a week in hell. Soon I would find out if they were telling the truth or not.
My Australian friends were right. A week in Canberra was not a vast amount of fun. The day I arrived it was cold and windy, and the town was deserted. I was wandering around looking for somewhere to get a coffee, but nothing seemed to be open. Eventually I came across a lonely figure at a bus stop, and asked him if there was a cafe nearby. "You might find one in that direction", he said, gesturing vaguely down the road. Eventually I found somewhere, open but deserted, and had a coffee.
OK, so that was a Sunday. Maybe it would liven up during the week. I spent most of the week in conference sessions at the ANU's Science Dome, but we had Wednesday afternoon free so I set out to explore. I went for a long walk along the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, which was nice enough, but still the town felt more or less deserted.
Each night I'd been out to restaurants and bars in town, and they had always been pretty quiet. But on the last day of the conference, finally the town came alive. It was a Friday evening, and the transformation was dramatic. Restaurants and bars were busy and lively, bands were playing, and all seemed good. Canberra began to redeem itself, and I decided that my Australian friends in London were just Sydneysiders with a superiority complex.
But in the morning, Canberra was a ghost town again. I walked through the silent streets to Cafe Essen for breakfast, then decided it was time to get the hell out of this alleged capital and go back to Sydney.
I was relieved to get back to Sydney. I booked into a hostel near Hyde Park. The sun was shining, and I thought I would spend a relaxed couple of days here before moving on. I wanted to go to Adelaide next, so I went to the train station to book a ticket for the Indian Pacific. Three years ago I'd travelled from Perth to Adelaide by train, and now I wanted to do the other side. But the next Indian Pacific was sold out, and for a moment I was extremely disappointed. But don't worry, said the ticket seller, the Ghan leaves this afternoon, you can get a ticket on that. I thought the Ghan started in Adelaide but apparently it ran from Sydney too. I bought a ticket, and went back to the hostel to pack.
I had a few hours to spare, and as I was doing a lot of training at the time, I decided to fit in a run. I'd done a couple in Canberra, and not seen anyone else out, but here I could barely move for runners. I went through Hyde Park towards the Botanical Gardens and it seemed that half of Sydney was out for a run.
It would take 24 hours to cover the thousand-odd miles to Adelaide. As I settled into the blissfully cool air conditioned carriage, I looked at the spare seat next to me and thought it would be great if a cute girl happened to be booked onto that seat. As I thought this, a cute girl appeared at the end of the carriage, walked down and took the seat next to me.
As we rumbled out of Central station, we started talking. The train clacked along slowly, the engines struggling to haul the great body of the train up out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains. After a few hours we'd crossed the Great Dividing Range, and we accelerated down into the endless plains of New South Wales. By nightfall me and the girl were still talking, although we were both English so we hadn't found out each other's names yet.
When we woke up in the morning we were in the red deserts of New South Wales, not far from Broken Hill. I looked out the window and saw two kangaroos bouncing off into the distance. Me and the girl went for breakfast in the restaurant car, and finally got around to introducing ourselves. During the morning, a conductor reported regular news from a World Cup qualifying match between Australia and Uruguay. Australia had to win to qualify, and initially the word was positive, but the conductor became increasingly forlorn as the Australians went down 3-0 to the South Americans.
I got to Adelaide not longer after the World Solar Challenge competitors got there. They had raced across the deserts from Darwin to here in solar-powered vehicles, and in the hostel I met a guy called Sven, who had been a competitor. He'd finished last, but didn't seem too unhappy about it.
I went to look around Adelaide. My dad's cousins live in Adelaide, and I got a train to Marino to visit them. Three years ago in their house I had a terrifying encounter with a huntsman spider, but this time there were none in sight. I was constantly keeping half an eye out though.
Back in the city centre I looked around. As night fell I walked along the river and watched the lights of the city come on. I walked up to Light's Vision, a statue of the city founder overlooking his creation. I thought he must have been pretty pleased with it.
From Adelaide I headed towards Melbourne. I wanted to travel along the Great Ocean Road, and it seemed like this was only feasible with an organised tour. There was little public transport, and I didn't fancy hitch-hiking, so I booked a trip with the Wayward Bus Company. I wasn't too much looking forward to it, as I'd never really been on any kind of tour before. Three days with a bunch of people I'd never met before was an uncertain prospect.
Things started OK. The trip would last four days, and we'd only get to the Great Ocean Road proper on the third day. We drove through the suburbs of Adelaide, passing through the German town of Hahndorf, and crossing the Murray River on a pontoon that reminded me of criss-crossing the Zambezi on my journey from Mongu to Livingstone four months earlier.
Eventually we reached the Coorong, a long thin peninsula separating the Murray River from the Southern Ocean. In the imaginative style typical of the early settlers, the ocean-side beach which stretched away out of sight in both directions was called Ninety Mile Beach. We stopped here to walk along the shore, and to jump off giant sand dunes.
In the evening we reached Beachport and stopped for the night. Already between Robe and Beachport the ocean scenery was pretty impressive, with jagged cliffs rising out of the turquoise sea. If we were not even on the actual Great Ocean Road yet, then I was definitely looking forward to that.
The second day of the trip was quiet. We stopped at some OK places, but probably the best thing about the day was that it finished in Port Fairy, where we had a great night out in a pub in the town, and where in the morning I went for a dawn run along the beach and around the marina, where colourful boats bobbed about in the quiet morning sunshine.
The third day was epic. The scenery was amazing from the start, and it just got more and more spectacular. We made stops at the Bay of Islands, the Bay of Martyrs, London Bridge, the Grotto, Loch Ard Gorge and the Razorbacks, and visiting even one of them would have been impressive. I burned up film, and was amazed that places like this existed. The turquoise sea crashing against the wild yellow rocks looked otherworldly.
In the evening we stopped at Apollo Bay. It was our last night, and it turned into a very late night. At the start of the trip I had had major reservations about doing this tour, but by now I knew I'd have seriously missed out if I had done the trip on my own.
On the final morning, we made a couple of stops, but they were nothing like as spectacular as yesterday's, and the weather wasn't so good either. We were all glad we'd done the trip starting in Adelaide - starting in Melbourne you'd have the best scenery on the first day and then two anticlimactic days to follow.
I felt sad the tour was over, but most of us stayed in the same hostel in Melbourne so it was not goodbye just yet. I liked Melbourne a lot more than I thought I would, even though the weather here was similar to what you'd expect in London in November. There were lots of things happening - we saw a great photography exhibition at the Arts Centre, and took shelter from the rain at a cafe where there was live music. It seemed that you didn't have to look to hard to find interesting things to do here.
We went to the Rialto Towers one evening. In the daytime, under grey skies and in constant drizzle, Melbourne was no beauty, but at night from above, it looked pretty impressive.
I got an overnight bus from Melbourne to Sydney. It was almost entirely full but there was one single spare seat on the bus. It was the seat next to me, and I was very happy about that. We arrived in Sydney at 6.30am and I got straight on a train to Katoomba.
It was a beautiful day in the Blue Mountains. I walked from Katoomba station to Echo Point and along the edge of the Jamison Valley, to Katoomba Falls and beyond. The hazy blue valley looked vast and impenetrable. I only had a few days left in Australia before I had to head back to London, work and winter, but it was so peaceful here that such thoughts were very far from my mind.
After the bus journey I was tired. I headed back to Katoomba, and had a power nap at the hostel I was staying at. It had been a beautiful day and I woke up in time to go back down to the valley edge to see the sun set, but to my surprise it was now raining and misty. I got up early the next morning to see about seeing the sunrise, but thick fog was drifting through the streets. I headed back to Sydney.
I had one more day in Sydney. It rained heavily for most of it so I didn't do very much. I got the ferry to Manly, and walked on the beach for a while. On the way back, the waters of the harbour were choppy, and me and another guy who was standing on the bow got completely soaked when we hit a large wave and spray crashed down over the decks.
Back at Circular Quay, I walked along the shores of the harbour to Macquarie Point. It was getting dark, and the bridge and the opera house were looking good. It was my last night in Australia, and I wondered when I would be back. Opportunities to visit the other side of the world don't come around too often, and after two visits in three years, I thought it would probably be a while before I could return.
My journey home was via Tokyo. It had been raining heavily when I left Sydney, but the temperatures were in the twenties. It was quite a shock to land in Japan eight hours later to find that it was the middle of winter. It was freezing and foggy.
I found a hotel in Narita. It was much more expensive than the kind of place I normally stay, but much less expensive than I'd feared it might be. I went for a walk through the town to some temples, which looked eerie in the green-lit fog.
The next morning it was bright and clear and very cold. My flight was at midday so I didn't have a lot of time to explore Narita. But I did see temples, and beautiful gardens with outdoor bonsai trees. The previous evening I'd walked past a karaoke bar, and some of the streets I walked along were lined with vending machines. Even in my short time, I'd seen some quintessentially Japanese things.
I flew home. Not long after we took off, the plane banked and I found myself looking right into the crater of Mount Fuji, covered in snow and looking very beautiful. We were flying with the sun, and so we took off at midday and landed ten hours later at 3pm. But our flight path took us well into the Arctic Circle, and for most of the flight the sun was just below the horizon and we were in a very long twilight. Far below, all of Siberia was covered in snow. I could see frozen rivers and lakes in the half-light, and it looked really stunning. I started to think about a future trip.