You can’t travel 32,000 kms across parts of Australia and not have a few musings and observations etc.! The stunning scenery, changing landscapes and diverse weather conditions have of course been the stand-outs on our trip and the fact that you can be so up close and personal with wildlife and nature: we are very lucky! But, that aside, these are some of the things that we’ve observed and laughed about along the way. As we drove back down the East coast of Australia and into Avoca Beach we both agreed that it’s as beautiful a spot as anywhere we had seen on our travels and it’s really good that’s it not in the Lonely Planet and still ‘kind of’ off the beaten track.
W.A. is IGA Country
Most of our ‘shopping’ was done at local supermarkets and unfortunately this often included Coles or Woolies. We don’t have anything against them; we just don’t like anyone who has the monopoly due to their size, power and money. We also see how they shove our much loved ‘Australian’ products from smaller suppliers to the bottom of the shelves to make way for their ‘own brands’.
A tip: always check the bottom shelves, all the good and interesting stuff is down there!
What we loved about WA and a lot of NT is that there is an IGA in every small town and city suburb and they are, usually, independently owned by locals. I loved checking out the local IGA, it said a lot about the town and the owners of the store as each one reflected what was happening in that part of town and if the owners were passionate about food – or did not have a clue!
Our local IGA in Wembley, Perth was better than a David Jones food hall (I’m not exaggerating!). Jack could not get me out of there. The place was heaving at anytime of the day and had a wonderful deli section with home-cooked meals you could take home for dinner. These were made by their resident chef on the premises and were clearly labelled with the ingredients and did not contain added sugar, bad oils, fillers, food acids, preservatives etc. just five or six ingredients. They were inventive too: black rice and roast veg salad, or Indian Yellow curry with Red quinoa, etc. The deli also stocked every type of dip you could think of, healthy dips, raw cakes, a wide selection of cheeses, including several types of goat’s cheeses. You could order a coffee or juice to go and pick one of their 10 types of ‘real, fermented for 18 hours’ sour dough breads. I was in shopping food heaven.
The worst IGA was in Norseman, WA, at the West end of the Nullarbor, when you are looking forward to a ‘real shop’ and fresh fruit and veg, after ‘existing’ on Nullabor fare for the last couple of days. The first thing that hits you is a fridge full of toys: they’ve used one of the deli fridges to showcase an array of kids toys! Next up was a fridge full of pet food and finally a fridge full of meat. The only fruit I dared buy was a banana and an orange (still in their own skin) and I picked up a box of Carmen’s muesli bars. We bolted it to Esperance as quickly as quick as we could!
The bottom line is that if you want to find good, healthy food on the road, you can – by juggling your shopping between Coles, farmers markets, small grocery stores, health shops, independent IGAs and organic shops. It does take a bit of effort, but it’s worth it, so that you don’t come back feeling toxic. Driving into Litchfield NP, NT, we saw a sign for a farm stall and swung off the road to find this stall, which consisted of farm produce freshly picked, on display in boxes covered with wet tea-towels. The stall was run by the farmer’s wife with her little boy in a playpen besides her: hubby was out in the fields getting more stock – brilliant home-industry at its best! If we had a proper fridge we would have bought up big time, but alas with just our esky and a block of ice we took what we could: it was the most amazing vegetables and fruit we’d eaten in a long time. She told us how the previous evening her husband had to sleep outside all night in the middle of the watermelon field to chase off the wild pigs who could trash $20,000 worth of fruit in one night. I really appreciated my watermelon after that!
We also realised that just because you were in an area that had a huge amount of fresh fish it did not mean you would actually get to try any! We were served New Zealand oysters in Esperance when up the road there is an abundance of natural fresh oysters, but these are sent directly to Perth fish markets for shipping around the world. The restaurant owner admitted that 90% of his fish was imported because the local fishermen could not supply small local establishments as it was not worth their while and the cost was too high as the public would not pay the price. Instead they sold everything in bulk to the markets. Very sad, but fortunately for us he had a mate who just that day had caught local Gummie Shark and he served this grilled, with a big salad, and it was delicious! Of course, it also made us realise that we need to start fishing!
We now understand why people become bird-watchers because we had the privilege of experiencing such a variety of birds up close on this trip and they are fascinating to watch! As we moved from one campsite, region, state, city to the next, the birdlife changed and amazed us; they also provided very reliable ‘alarm clocks’.
We’ll never forget the huge Eagles that looked like Romanian weight-lifters, their legs so strong, feeding on dead Kangeroos at the side, and in the middle, of the road across Australia. I think they could carry off a small child.
Many variety of beautiful falcons circling above us everywhere in NT and WA as we hiked through national parks: the dangerous fire-starter falcons who pick up the embers of a bush fire and drop them further away in the bush to try and flush out the wildlife so they can have easy access to their dinner; white-as-snow albino peacocks strutting their stuff through a campsite in Derby; little ‘Willy’ wagtails feeding out of our hands and jumping on our heads when we free camped in Cervantes; wild emus running down the road in Coffin Bay NP; the white cockatoos stained with red dirt in the red centre; the black cockatoos at the East Macdonnell ranges; the nightly scream of the bush-stone curlew – I swear it was like a child screaming, and it would scare the proverbial out of you!
We saw colourful fish up close; dolphins swimming past; whales on the West coast and the East coast; giant barramundi; sting rays; every type of kangaroo, wallaby and bilby feeding in the bush or high up on the rocks; black swans and bunnies begging for food at a campsite in the centre of Perth; shy turtles in hot springs; lizards and geckos sunning themselves on rocks; dingos slinking into camp to see if you have anything for dinner; green frogs in toilets; fresh water crocodiles everywhere in NT; camels walking home after their nightly trek up Broome beach and at Kings Creek Station where you can pat them, ride them or have them in a burger (yuck!).
We felt like we were able to get a bit more up close and personal with the birdlife and the wildlife because of the locations we visited. It has made us so much more appreciative of our natural surroundings and the wonders of nature. Yes, we need resources and more housing, but national parks are amazing places and we hope they never become reclaimed land in Australia. The people that work there and look after these areas, the local rangers & volunteers, are amazing, with obvious passion for their enviros & jobs.
Travelling in Australia is expensive if you stay in commercial campsites, but the majority of people we met don’t, they use the free campsites just outside of town to camp up for the night and take their chances with whoever turns up. Most people are respectful but you will always get ‘ratbags’ who spoil it for everyone: playing loud music and trashing the place with their litter.
We stayed mostly in paid campsites due to our ‘set-up’ which required us to unpack the van each night to access our bed – not the best, but it worked for us. We paid anything from $10pp to $25pp for a campsite and the price depended on the location and time of year. In stunning Kalbarri we got a beachfront apartment for $85 per night, and in beautiful Broome we got ‘a piece of dirt’ crammed in between two caravans facing the road at Cable Beach campsite for $50 per night! We were in Kalbari in early July when it was quiet and we hit Broome at the end of July, peak season. Even though you are staying in a secure campsite, this does not mean it will not deter thieves, who are rife in certain areas and will slash tents, or unpick locks on campervans and caravans whilst you are sleeping and do a mad grab for your valuables. This was certainly the case in areas such as Geraldton, Broome and Mount Isa. In these areas, you are probably better off in the free campsites out of town. The theft is usually driven by the need for money for drugs.
Often there is no rhyme or reason for being charged huge prices, or for finding absolute gem spots, at a fraction of the cost. One of our favourite campsites was Edith Falls in NT which was run by two chicks on behalf of the national parks and they charged $10pp! They had clean, hot showers and ablutions (travellers speak for the loos & showers J), sold really good coffee, breakfasts and lunch in a beautiful outdoor garden area, and are based on the edge of the most magical waterfall and pool imaginable. You could slip into the water first thing in the morning and have it to yourself with a 150mtr swim over to the waterfall, mid 20’s water temp.
In Darwin, we found a ‘pod’ in the back-garden, belonging to a couple, in the suburb of Ludmilla, close to town center. This was advertised on Airbnb. Previous searches had resulted in the cheapest self catering unit at around $250 per night. Motels were slightly cheaper but we wanted to be able to cook our own food and save on eating out: Darwin is super expensive for accom and food. The ‘pod’, which was in a lovely area and an easy bike ride from the beach was $150 per night and was fully self-contained with a plunge pool in an architecturally designed ‘Granny Flat’! Most of the caravan parks in Darwin are at least 50km out of town and in the middle of whoop-whoop! Hence the need to find a little unit in town. Actually we used www.airbnb.com three times on the road for units in Perth, Darwin and Toowoomba and we were blown away with the level of accommodation at a fraction of the cost if we had booked through traditional methods. The places we stayed in were outstanding: we felt kinda spoilt! We paid $95 per night in Perth for an apartment; $125 per night in Toowoomba for a townhouse and $150 per night in Darwin: this included the cleaning fee and service fee to airbnb. This was a bargain compared to some of the caravan parks in WA and NT who were charging $200 for a ‘shed’, which they called a cabin!
All in all, we did 80 odd nights in the van, 10 nights staying with friends (thank you, our lovely friends!! You gotta come to Scotland for reciprocal!) and 35 nights in paid accommodation of some kind (we’ll never forget the half a caravan in Tenant Creek for $95 a night: don’t turn around too quickly otherwise you’ll be back outside)
Tolerance, patience and ‘keeping your mouth shut’ were things which helped us get through four months on the road together. I have not had more than two hours away from Jack in four months! I’m sure we have both had our moments where we could have easily have got in someone else’s caravan just to have some time away from each other, but on the whole we did fine and we soon learnt that sometimes you just have to nod and smile, or say nothing to keep the peace! You learn a lot about your relationship on a trip like this and about yourself. You can’t react in the same way as before to minor irritations or major ones! You have to examine your reactions and become more mindful of these and often you realise your emotional response has nothing to do with the other person, it’s all about you!
Visas and access to this great land
On the road we met so many backpackers from around the world: intelligent and educated young people working in bars, coffee shops, restaurants, visitor attractions etc. across Australia. Actually I don’t think I met an Australian working behind a bar in WA, NT or Qld! The amount of foreigners on two year visas helping to keep our tourism industry alive is amazing. Jack loved asking them all about themselves, where they came from, where they’ve been in Aus, where they are going: he loved hearing their stories – said it took him back to his back-packing days – many moons ago!
It got me thinking these last few days about the huge refugee problems in Europe and the need for sanctuary for thousands of people, most of whom just want to work and earn their keep. I just wondered (and please, I know nothing about immigration matters) that if we can issue two year working visas to young people from Commonwealth countries to work here in Australia, then why can’t we issue two year working visas to refugees from other countries?
There are so many jobs in WA/NT/QLD in the remote areas and they are getting paid, sometimes $35 per hour for semi-skilled jobs. The young folk said they can earn more as a bar person here in Australia than in the UK as a qualified professional! Surely the two year working visas for young people from commonwealth countries could be put on hold and we could offer refugees a two year working visa? If they don’t commit a crime, become a nuisance or cause harm, then perhaps they can then apply for a full-time visa, if there is work available in that area. It would give them a place of safety, a job to earn money and the opportunity to return to their homeland if things got better in two years?
Speaking English is obviously not a prerequisite for issuing jobs to backpackers, as seen in the small rural town of York in WA, for example. The pub was run by two French girls and I asked for a light beer and they said: ‘tell us name of beer and we give you’, as they did not understand what a light beer was. If they can get jobs fronting up a country pub, then anyone can! It just seems such a shame that all these jobs are available, often with free accommodation and food and we can’t offer them to those most in need. Darwin loses half their workforce in the wet season as the backpackers shift off somewhere with more manageable weather, as it can get unbearably hot. I don’t think these refugees would find the wet season too much to take somehow after all they’ve been through.
Things we will not miss on the road:
Using public toilets, everyday of your 4 month trip, and‘bush pees’. I was constantly on the look-out for the next toilet stop and I’d be fine travelling around India now using the ‘squat toilets’ system – easy!
The varied customer service on the road: you never knew what to expect when you checked into a caravan site, we got it all: rude, arrogant, obnoxious, or super-friendly, lovely and kind, to indifference.
Sleeping in a van: it was our ‘home’ for 4 months, and it served us so well, but I’m ready to not sleep in it for a while. Jack of course wanted to turn round & do it all again, in reverse direction!
Enjoying being back in Avoca Beach, making green smoothies and using a food processor for healthy meals (very sad……. but it’s super exciting!), a quick knee operation for Jack; some more courses down the coast and then we are off to the USA, starting with Hawaii.
Another fitness/health challenge for us: staying healthy on the road in the states where portion sizes are huge, and fast food is king! It will be mind, and stomach boggling.
Maybe we just ‘super-size’ for a wee while, sicken ourselves, & climb back on the ‘health wagon’ the next day?