Uluru, Kata Tjuta, King’s Canyon

I’ve never been one for guided tours; I always felt like they were too touristy. You couldn’t do your own thing and really see what you want to see, and on top of it all you’re missing the local parts, the stuff you only find if you get lost in the area or wander a bit off the main path. But, I was going to Uluru alone, and I didn’t want to rent a car or wander the desert alone, so I bit the bullet and signed up for a three day camping tour of the area. Best call I could have made. The tour was amazing, the guide was super laid back, but really knowledgable about everything he showed us, including cultural, historical, and even geological and ecological aspects of the areas we visited.

On the first day we walked halfway around Uluru. Sounds kind of lame: we didn’t finish? But it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit with almost no shade and no breeze, just the brutal Australian sun and mosquitos. And Uluru is bigger than it seems. It took us around two hours just to hike halfway around, and by then everyone was ready for some cold water (ours was all warm by then) and shade. It was really incredible though, our guide pointed us through the cultural center first, which was set up by the Aboriginal people who traditionally lived in the area. It described a sort of children’s version of some of their creation stories, and it was only a children’s version, our guide explained, because to them more knowledge must be earned. They shared only the “first level” with everyone who visits the site in hopes of spreading some understanding and respect for Uluru and the country around it. Our guide gave us a little more context for the information in the cultural center. He also showed us spots around Uluru that would have had no meaning without his explanation. A rock worn smooth on one side where generations of Aboriginal women had ground paints on its surface, a pool shaded by Uluru that was a near permanent source of water, and an overhang with paintings in it that would have meant nothing to me,

but our guide explained they told the stories of Uluru, and such information as where to find water nearby. Having the guide around provided context for everything I got to see that day, it really made the experience far more significant than if I’d just gone on my own and strolled around waiting for the famous Uluru sunset.

That night was interesting too, we slept out under the stars in swags, which, I learned, are these canvas sacks that zip open wide enough to fit a camp mattress and a sleeping bag inside. They were surprisingly comfortable for just being a thin mattress and canvas on hard packed sand. We only slept a few hours a night anyway, we had to wake up around 4 each morning to pack up camp and get to our hike before the heat of the day.

On the second day we went to Kata Tjuta, which our guide translated as “many heads,” what the Aboriginal people of the area thought the large collection of massive stone domes looked like from a distance.

This was a very sacred site to the indigenous people of the area, so the hiking trails there were more strictly enforced to keep visitors from disturbing important cultural areas among the domes. We started our hike at about 6 am, and I was sweating ten minutes in. I can’t imagine trying to do hike any later in the day, or in the summer. It’s just too hot. I drank nearly a gallon of water each day, and still was mildly dehydrated by the end of the three days.

The hike was worth it though, we got some incredible views across the central Australian landscape for our troubles, and we finished the day with some Australian barbeque and a swim in the campsite pool.

The third day we went to King’s Canyon for our hardest hike yet. The trail started with a steep climb known as “Heart Attack Hill,” which we broke into three segments to avoid actually giving anyone a heart attack. Then the climb was relatively easy, tracing around the rim of the canyon and offering awesome views of the surprisingly varied landscape. We crossed stretches of barren red dirt and rock, only to round a corner into a (comparatively) lush area of bush grasses and small trees.

Halfway around we descended into the canyon to see the Garden of Eden, an area in the canyon with a permanent watering hole surrounded by tropical plants and large trees. It was a startling change from the desert above, and a welcome break from the blistering sun.

The hike back up was not as welcome, but the best view yet was at the top of the other side, where we had a clear view across the canyon, over the low mounds of earth on the other side, and out across the desert beyond.

It was an exhausting three days, and by the time we got back into Alice Springs that night I was ready for a shower and a nap. However, the tour group was full of really great people, so we all went out to a local restaurant together for one last hurrah before we scattered across the country. Our guide even made an appearance late in the night, just long enough to add everyone on Facebook and disappear again.

Going into it I was really nervous. This was my first solo travel without a support system waiting like I had arriving at Monash, and even though it was with a tour group, I had no idea what to expect. It was a really great experience though, and I think it gave me a needed confidence boost before I took off on my longer three week trip down the east coast of Australia.

Tasmania Part II

Finally got around to this, okay. So on day 5 we drove a lot.

We started the day at MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. As someone who really struggles to appreciate art, I have to say this was probably the most interesting art museum I’ve ever visited. It had tons of, well, new art. One piece was a kind of waterfall, but it released water so that the drops formed words that were frequently searched online.

Another room was full of massive paper airplanes an even flying cities made of paper. It was by far the least stuffy art museum I’ve ever been to, I really enjoyed walking around. Especially four hours after we left when we were still in the car driving through winding semi-mountainous roads. Sadly, not much happened that day after we left MONA.

Day six, however, was pretty cool. We started the day with a hike looking for platypuses (apparently it’s not platypi?) and while we didn’t see any, we did make it up to a really nice waterfall for some cool pictures.

 

Then we drove on to Cradle Mountain, our last stop before returning to Launceston for our flight home. Cradle Mountain was probably my favorite stop on the trip after Nature World. We checked in, then went to find some short hikes to take, and on our way to the trails we passed half a dozen wallabies and wombats just chilling and eating grass on the side of the road in broad daylight. It was awesome. I’d seen my fill of wallabies by that point to be honest, but wild wombats were new to me, and there were so many! One moseyed across the road in front of us when we stopped at a stop sign. It was honestly kind of surreal. And when we actually went on our hike, it started off winding through a field right next to three wombats. I took way too many pictures, I could honestly make a short flip book of one just eating grass.

After that there were no wombats on our hike, but it was really pretty. It was insane how suddenly the landscape could change, one minute we were in a scrub brush field, the next we were in a mossy forest next to a river. And we found more waterfalls! So of course more touristy pictures were taken.

That night we meant to go out to see if we could spot a wild Tasmanian devil – we were told they looked for scraps along the edge of the camp site – but we got caught up talking to some other uni students we met in the hostel kitchen. Two girls were there on rotation from a veterinary school in Sydney, one was from Canada originally, and the other was from California. Apparently, a lot of their classmates were from the US… So I could go to vet school in Australia… That nugget of information was saved for later. But they were in Tasmania for a few weeks working at a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, where they met a uni student from France who was also hanging out with us. He was interning at the sanctuary, and I was starting to wonder why on earth I was wasting so much time on a boring chemistry degree in the middle of Oklahoma. Anyway, I got some food for thought from them about international internships and vet schools.

Day seven was kind of sad. Most of us were ready to quit traveling at that point – sharing a car with six people for a week gets old, even when everyone gets along fairly well – but none of us was ready to leave Tasmania. So, we took one last hike around a lake at the foot of Cradle Mountain. I took way too many pictures there again, but it was so picturesque it was hard to stop. There was snow on the peaks, and low clouds and fog occasionally obscured the very tops of the mountains. The water was relatively calm, and there were just so many great views over the lake along the trail. It really was a great way to end the trip.

When we finally drove back into Launceston, we made one last stop at our first accommodation to pick up… my darn wallet. And I had the honor of paying for the last tank of gas to sort of make up for mooching off of everyone else all week. In all, it was an awesome trip and a really great experience.

Tasmania – Part 1

Okay, this may have to turn into two posts, because a week’s worth of travel just doesn’t fit well into only a few hundred words.

 

Our plan consisted of flying into the major airport in Tasmania, renting a car, and driving a loop around the middle of the island, skimming along the eastern and southern coasts as we went and passing through both major cities. My trip started a few hours after everyone else’s. I traveled with the same group I went on the Great Ocean Road with, plus one other guy from our apartment complex. I had a lab that day, so I had to catch an evening flight and meet up with the group at our accommodation… where I somehow managed to leave my wallet the next morning. Huge mistake. But there were a few lucky things about that: it was in the only city we’d be returning to, so getting it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, and I was with amazing people who didn’t mind lending me money (especially since I’d prepaid for most of our accommodations, so they kind of owed me anyway). So travel hack no 1 here: always make sure you have your wallet. Just always. Any time you think about it. Or move. Or breathe.

Anyway, the rest of the trip was awesome when I wasn’t begging Jeanine for cash. My first full day in Tassie started at a wildlife sanctuary, my third one since arriving in Australia and by far my favorite entirely because of the keeper we met there. We timed our arrival to coincide with a scheduled Tasmanian Devil feeding, and we thought that was all we would get. But the keeper who took us around the sanctuary showed off several Tasmanian devils, as well as sugar gliders, ringtailed possums, bilbies, black swans, wedge tailed eagles, a juvenile wombat, spotted and eastern quolls, and I don’t even remember what else. He talked about the relative endangerment status of every animal, how it behaves in the wild and in captivity, personal experiences with them (including some awesome stories about nursing orphaned babies) and just did an incredible job of informing us about the animals in his care. I’ve wanted to be a vet for a long time, and a zoo/wildlife vet for a slightly shorter period, and he honestly reminded me why. He was so passionate about every animal he showed us, but he had a huge amount of respect for them too. I honestly feel terrible that I don’t remember his name, but that keeper is absolutely amazing.

Keeper-man feeding a Tasmanian Devil and telling us about how it can bite through bone… and can’t distinguish his fingers from the piece of meat.

We also went on a hike to a lookout over Wineglass Bay and got an amazing view – after we spent an appropriate amount of time watching a wild mamma wallaby sniff around the lookout. We actually saw her joey peek out of the pouch for a while, it was freakin’ adorable.

Mamma and Joey

The Lookout (we peeled our eyes away from the wallaby eventually)

After that we headed back to our AirBnB until just after sunset, when we drove to the beach to see the fairy penguins come ashore for the night! I don’t have pictures of this because a) it was dark and b) penguins don’t like flash. (It can actually kill them in a roundabout way). We almost stepped on about a dozen of the little guys because it was so dark we could only see the white on their chests, and then just barely. That was the second time I’d seen fairy penguins come in from the ocean, but it was honestly cooler to me, because I wasn’t at a tourist hub watching, I was just by a random beach near a town. I guess it felt more genuine, although the penguins were no more or less real than the last ones I saw.

The next morning we got up insanely early to catch the sunrise over the blowhole, an opening in the rocks along the beach where the waves can rush into a crevice, only to be forced upward and out the hole. I took sooo many pictures there, it really was incredibly beautiful. We just spent an hour quietly watching the sun rise over the ocean, not talking, just taking pictures and enjoying the sight.

The colors almost rivaled sunsets in western Oklahoma. Almost.

We followed that with a hike up to a lookout right next to our AirBnB. The lookout was disappointing though, so we found our own… on top of a massive boulder at the top of the hill the lookout was supposed to be on. Climbing up (and down) from there was probably the sketchiest thing I did in Tasmania, but man the photos were worth it ten times over.

Awesome view. Bad upload.

Then we headed on further south and west. We stopped briefly at a vineyard to sample some wine. I flashed back hard to Italy, and I realized that my taste for wine has not grown at all since that summer. It was still fun though, and interesting to try Australia made wine. The tasting was free too, which was even better.

From there we went on to Port Arthur, the former prison island, now historic site. We took a guided day tour, but honestly, I felt like I got as much history from the ghost tour we took that night as I did from the short day walk everyone took. My favorite part was probably the harbor cruise though. When we first arrived we just managed to catch the last boat that took us on a lap around the shores of the prison area – they had two separate prisons: an adult prison that took up the main area of one shore, and a boy’s prison that was far less successful on the other side of the harbor. In the middle was a small island they used as their cemetery. The whole thing was a bit eerie, especially the Island of the Dead, as they called the cemetery. It was an oddly beautiful place though, for one that housed so many horrors. The place was a last chance prison, for horrible criminals, repeat offenders, and escape artists. It was the place they used as a threat at other prisons, where lashes were given as frequent punishments, and they even had a “Separate Prison” for the worst criminals, where no speech was allowed by anyone, and inmates were left in endless mute silence with no real human interaction for years. Shortly after it was established, they had to annex an insane asylum, as it was called at the time. Apparently it was common for inmates to get transferred from the first to the second.

Island of the Dead

Adult Prison area

I’ll end this one here since it’s long and description-heavy, but I’ll continue the Tasmania trip in my next post.

Australia – Thoughts on Travel

Well, I’ve been here for three weeks minus a few hours. I’ve probably done as more traveling in that time than I’ll get to for another month now that classes have started. Monash University has an amazing exchange/international student support team, and they set up some awesome trips for us. I’ve been into Melbourne’s city center several times now, and I’ve ridden an elevator to the 88th floor of the tallest building there and taken pictures of the city at night. It was more like flying low in an airplane than sitting in a building.

I’ve visited the largest shopping mall in Australia (just a 20 minute bus ride from my apartment on campus). I’ve fed kangaroos, wallabies, emus, cassowaries, and even geese and some kind of pheasant-esque bird by hand. I’ve watched penguins come out of the ocean to nest for the night and I’ve taken selfies with a koala.

I’ve also been chewed out by a customs officer, gotten thoroughly lost navigating the bus system at least three different times (twice in the first week), and lost my keys and wallet at least a dozen times each in the first few days of jetlag-induced haze (luckily always in my bag or my room). I’ve hiked through mildly sketchy neighborhoods alone trying to find the post office, and I’ve found myself carrying heavy grocery bags back to my apartment on foot after getting off the last bus at the wrong stop (just in case it sounded like I was having too much fun petting marsupials).

I’ve had some wild experiences here (in many senses of the word) in just the first few weeks, but I’m afraid things are going to slow down now that classes have started. The fantastic orientation trips to sanctuaries and penguin islands are over, and school work is starting to pile up. I started off my semester by reading about half of what was assigned because I wasn’t ready to quit going out with friends and watching movies late into the night. I’m honestly a bit anxious about whether I’ll be able to make myself do school work when there are so many awesome opportunities to go do other things coming up all the time. So far, I’ve been doing the bare minimum in my classes so I can keep doing other “Australia” things, as I keep calling them. There is so much I want to see, it’s really difficult to keep in mind that schoolwork is something I’m required to do in order to stay here…

When I’m not wrestling with unwanted homework, I’m finding that traveling in Australia is like traveling in the US in some ways that are unfortunate for the American student abroad. Mainly in that there is minimal public transport between major cities, and getting around the country as a whole is a massive pain without a car (especially since Australia is about as big as the US mainland). I’m discovering that I can take (fairly expensive) bus tours around Victoria (the state/territory I’m in), but if I want to go anywhere else I basically have to fly there and then either use public transit or pay for more bus tours. I suppose my hopes for easy transportation across the country were just set a bit too high after visiting Italy and its fantastic train system. I think I made another miscalculation in how much time I left for myself to travel after term. In Italy, I was disappointed that I didn’t give myself a few more days to see a few more cities, so I planned my Australia trip to leave a couple extra weeks after the term ends to travel. I should have left an extra month or two. There is just too much to see. The Gold Coast alone can take a month if you really want to enjoy the experience, and I hoped to spend some time in Tasmania and New Zealand too, not to mention the smaller trips around Victoria that I hoped to make. I’m beginning to realize that there will never be enough time to see everything in any country I visit – heck, I live in the US, and I’ve seen almost none of the major landmarks there. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. At this point I think I’ll be dragging my suitcases into the airport to go home with my nose stuck in a travel guide for some part of Australia I didn’t get around to visiting in time. But still, we’ll see what I get around to, and worst case scenario I’ll just have to find a way to come back here. It’s only halfway around the world, right?

Australia – First Thoughts

I’ve been “down under” for just over three days now, and I’ve spent what seems like every minute of that time racing from one thing to the next – shopping, orientation, campus resident events, trips with other exchange students – the list goes on. But what keeps striking me on my second journey abroad is the same thing that bothered me during my previous foreign venture: the very idea of being abroad, in another country, on another continent, in entirely new territory, seems completely surreal.
In Italy we stayed in ancient city centers, where the buildings were often more than ten times older than America, and yet the idea that I’d flown over a thousand miles across an ocean and landed in a foreign land seemed far too huge a concept to really process. I find myself facing the same thoughts here. I’m not just on a new continent, I’m on the complete opposite side of the world, in the southern and eastern hemispheres, where everything from the land and waters to the stars is entirely new to me. It’s not like you fly slowly in from the outer atmosphere so that you can see yourself slowly approaching the “Australia shape” you see on Google maps, zooming in slowly until you can see the dot that will be your new home city, and then further in to see your campus and apartment. Instead, you fly in the dark over the ocean for hours and hours, until you finally pass out from exhaustion. And when you wake up, maybe you’re still over water, but more than likely you’re over land. Then, you continue over landscape you can’t quite see in the dark until the plane lands. You eventually walk out of the airport into this new land, but the differences are relatively subtle.
The gas stations are different, but not too different. Odd companies like United and Woolworths appear, but so do BPs, so you could just be in another part of the United States. An increased concentration of Asian restaurants and shops can also be accounted for by assuming a densely populated coastal area of the US. The cars drive on the left side of the road here, and to compensate for this the driver’s side of the car is on the right, but unless you’re paying attention it’s easy to overlook this difference. Buildings are a bit different too. It takes a bit longer to figure out the difference, but advertising is apparently done differently in Australia. External walls often sport more ads, web addresses, sale posters, and other additions than they do on average in the US, but again not so much that it couldn’t just be an unfamiliar American city.
To me, more than the things I’ve listed so far, the flora and fauna remind me that I’m not in the US. The birds here are much larger on average, and more boldly colored. Lorikeets, which I’ve only ever seen in the big netted enclosure at the OKC zoo, fly around campus freely. Big, round, black birds with long, skinny necks pick through the grass on the commons. Massive ravens caw loudly from the trees along the sidewalks. And a variety of birds – magpies, water birds that look like thin, long necked ducks, and others – have bold, black and white coloring that stands out strongly to me compared to the browns of most US birds. And the plants and trees, while more subtle, still indicate that things are not what I grew up with.
Deeper exploration of the area shows a few more differences – odd brands in stores, and staples of American cuisine, such as “normal” bacon and Kraft Mac n Cheese are nowhere to be found, and in their place are things like Tim Tams and Vegemite. But still, it’s hard for processed beer leftovers to really translate the magnitude of my presence in this place. It’s slowly beginning to make sense to me, as I make trips into Melbourne, interact with locals, and talk to the friends I’ve made here in the last few days. The more differences I find, the harder it is for my brain to try to brush them off as minor differences. My time in Italy was enough to accept where I was, but not enough to really appreciate it. Hopefully my semester here will be enough to fully realize exactly where I am, and how far I’ve come. But if nothing else, my few travels abroad have highlighted to me just how huge and diverse the US is, that I can travel thousands of miles to foreign lands and still find ways to half think I’m still in the US.