Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Small Furry Critters...and lots of trains!

So this is another one with lots of pictures, particularly of animals of varying degrees of weirdness, cuteness and general attractiveness. Thoroughly enjoyed taking these! Apologies for the terrible formatting - I unreservedly blame blogspot's terrible photo integration software for this, but at least it saves space and makes things slightly more readable (I hope?).

Heading north from Melbourne towards Australia's tropical Top End, it was hilarious to witness the transition from suburban, pleasant Adelaide to classic redneck territory as I watched the landscape transform over the 3000km (1850 miles) via Alice Springs to Darwin. On the whole, buying a rail pass to get around this huge country has been a mixed blessing: without a driver's license, there are few alternatives apart from Greyhound buses and planes, which would mean just hopping from city to city without seeing anything in between. In fact, trains here have turned out remarkably comfortable, and it is very pleasant to just watch the world go by. The only thing that naturally falls short of expectations is the photography: unlike India, it is definitely not possible to just hang out an open door whenever you like.

Making very sure everyone knows what train they're getting on...
My first train was The Overland from Sydney to Melbourne, which winds through almost unbroken seas of golden wheat(?) fields. This is one of the three "great trains" through Australia, the other being the 2670mi India Pacific connecting Sydney and Perth and The Ghan (1800 miles), which I rode, from Adelaide to Darwin. The legroom inside is frankly astounding - enough that I could stretch my legs fully without my feet touching the seat in front - and the seats are armchair-style so I was a very happy bunny on this 10-hour journey which would have been exceedingly unpleasant on any UK train. The view was, shall we say, reasonably repetitive, with the only real variation occurring in the degree of undulation in the countryside, but pleasant enough to follow for a day (Apologies for the window reflections...):

Adelaide proved a little surprising at first - as I made my way from the station to the house of my first couchsurfing hosts, Stephen and Luke, the city was completely deserted when it should have been rush hour on a weekday at 6pm. Indeed, Adelaide is a quiet place, but I had an awesome time staying at Luke and Stephen's, who took me in happily and let me partake in their beautifully relaxed lifestyle. We got off to a good start as I got treated to an AB, a stalwart of sorts of Adelaide cuisine - a massive takeaway of lamb/chicken gyros, chips and a generous measure of chili sauce. On the whole, couchsurfing has turned out to be a fantastic experience, and it was nice to get a bit of local knowledge of a place instead of stumbling from one standard backpacker place to the next.

Before leaving the fertile southern shores of Australia I decided I couldn't not go to a wildlife park to see all the weird and wonderful creatures this continent has spawned over the millenia. Cleland Wildlife Park proved a lovely day out and I got some pretty decent pictures out of it. 

Fun fact about koalas - they don't just look *really* slow, they actually are. In fact, they are the only mammal whose brain does not fit its skull but is, in fact, far smaller and sort of swims in liquid. This is because they spend a far higher percentage of their energy output than other animals digesting their poisonous eucalyptus-based diet so that not enough energy is left over to run a powerful brain. Living in said poisonous tree means they can actually get away with it because they have so few natural predators (predominantly fire). Talk about living the dream...

An intimate moment...and a...more intimate one?

And most importantly, of course, more marsupials (wallaby/Tasmanian devil/kangaroos)...

...and awesome dingoes!

My favourite, though, has got to have been this feisty kangaroo delightedly disposing of my apple core for me, and coming back keen for more:

Cheeky bastard! Gutted I didn't quite get his face in the frame here.
On my last day in Adelaide, Stephen and Luke took me rockclimbing with their Uni climbing club - on a perfect day for it (ie <30C), we drove out to Morialta Conservation Park to find a wall that, fortunately, proved manageable even with my meager skills. In fact, after chilling out for most of the excursion, enjoying my surroundings and trying and failing to find decent vantage points for photos, I had a go without and, even without climbing shoes, just about got by.

The man himself!
 The journey up to Darwin from Adelaide proved a long one. Having missed out on Ghan tickets for the first half of the trip to Alice Springs, I had to hop on an overnight coach for this leg before catching the train in Alice. Fortunately, a mostly empty bus and ample opportunity to stretch out made this bearable. As the wheat fields began to give way to the desert, I failed to adequately capture yet another glorious sunset through the bus window.

The border between South Australia and the Northern Territory comes, predictably, in the middle of nowhere - so much so, in fact, that Australia's point of inaccessibility (point on a continent furthest from the nearest coast) is right nearby. 

That conical thing on the hill is Australia's Point of Inaccessibility. A very, very long way from anywhere...except, as it turns out, Kulgera Pub!
...where they've come up with some interesting decorations.
The "Red Centre" - aptly named...

Alice Springs itself proved too much for me at 45-odd degrees - even in the bone-dry air it's hard to cope with those kinds of temperatures, so I fled to a shopping centre after finding very little to see in the town itself. Finally, the time came to board the Ghan, which proved as comfortable as the Overland and a lot more exciting in terms of views. My humble abode for the next 24 hours also came with oldschool-looking carriages and engine: Australia's trains are few and far between, but what they do have is pretty cool!

Whistlestop in Katherine: if possible, this place was even more desolate than Alice Springs - but at least water existed as we entered the tropical latitudes. 
Having made it to the tropics at long last, Darwin et al. will follow in the next post. Hope this one wasn't too long to deal with...feedback, as always, much appreciated!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Heading Down Under

Noms everywhere!
Sitting in a monsoon-ridden hostel on the normally gorgeous Queensland coast which has been transformed into a grey uniformity where it is impossible to not get soaked within 5 steps, this seems like a good time to get stuck into a bit of writing about the land Down Under. Having spent a lovely Christmas in England I was rather keen to spend at least a few more days there, but it seems a bit silly to complain about getting the chance to go travel more. And indeed, arriving in Sydney after 60 hours on 4 different planes (London-Dubai-Chennai-Singapore-Sydney), tired and exceedingly jetlagged, I couldn't help smiling: I fell in love with this place when I was last here in 2005, and memories abounded. It is as gorgeous as ever, with its crystalline blue bays, pristine beaches and smatterings of vivid green everywhere. It is also an absolute paradise for road cyclists - lots and lots of hills, perfectly paved roads, plenty of cycling paths and not too much traffic outside the city centre made me very sad to have left my bike in London (although, it appears, in capable hands!). 
On the last hilly outcrop before the ocean, looking into the harbour - it's a big city...
Standard life in Sydney. The number of pleasure craft of all kinds here is incredible!

 It is also, unfortunately, an almost unbelievably expensive city, the pinnacle of a phenomenally expensive country; I hadn't been ready for this and have been leading a rather frugal life these last few weeks, but on the upside this has meant unprecedented quantities of fruit and a generally healthy-ish life. Drinking is practically unaffordable (5 pounds and up for a beer, which comes in half-pint measures put me off that quickly), and so I managed to keep up a pretty tight running regime in Sydney. My aunt and uncle very kindly put me up in their stunner of a house which is just up a big hill from Bondi Beach, making for a very convenient and photogenic 9k circuit with mats for bodyweight circuits along the way. 

Bondi on a windy day - though no conditions or time of day seems to stop the incredibly fit Sydneysiders who populate this beach from going for their runs. Apparently, this includes New Year's Eve at 8pm (yes, I was out as well...).
That said, I did go out in Sydney with a friend of my uncle's daughters - this turned into a fairly random and fun evening as we ended up in a gay club. Having never been to one before, it subscribed to all the cliches - many sweaty men in various states of undress, a lot more fairly intense grinding than I've seen in most other clubs, and a *lot* of me getting groped and having to clarify that I am, in fact, straight. Still, there was a decent sound system and bass-heavy music, so even though it wasn't as fast as I'd normally choose we danced away happily enough. 

On the whole, though, the prohibitive prices of practically everything in Australia - coupled with my recent larger investments - have meant that most of my time has been spent wandering around various cities. In Sydney, this took me to the fish markets (and some oysters, made tasty by the bacon and cheese on top of them), and to various corners of the city accessible by ferry. To be perfectly honest, though, I would have been a very happy man just sitting on the ferries, looking around - that's how pleasant the place is.  

Bridge climbers on top of the Harbour Bridge. Now a guided tour...
A few cool-looking sailboats came in looking like they are racers - someone who knows anything about sailing might know more, though!
New Year's Eve, of course, was every bit as spectacular as the annual news photos make it appear. The fireworks here were absolutely huge, putting to shame the John's May Ball fireworks which had been my previous benchmark. I watched them from the balcony instead of braving the crowds jostling for position in every free spot around Sydney Harbour from midmorning onwards, and was rewarded with some fairly sweet shots (and some tasty food!). 

Early in the new year, I headed out to Melbourne on a night train. I was less impressed with the place last time I was here, but this turned out unjustified - apart from the two days I was out of action with (man)flu, I had a lovely time clocking some miles around town in my trusty Olympics-uniform trainers. It's full of really cool public spaces, parks and places to eat (although I can't afford any of the latter, supermarkets & cooking is the way forward!), and comes across as more laid back and less formal than Sydney. This made it thoroughly enjoyable to just wander around and get lost, only to find my way back home sometime in the evening. 
This screen shows what's going on right in front of it - my touristy self on the left side.
Melbourne Museum - I sought refuge from the 43C heatwave here, and found a really quite pleasant museum!
St Kilda's beach, swarming with kitesurfers - how I miss these blue skies!
Sadly, I didn't get the chance to look around the Rod Laver Arena as the place was in lockdown for a pre-Australian Open security sweep (flashback to working at Eton Dorney!). I'm starting to realise, though, that a big part of what there is to see in Australia is the wildlife. In the cities, this consists mostly of the obligatory botanical gardens, and of the possums that seem to swarm the numerous parks once darkness falls: they're adorably inept, but constantly hungry and very used to human attention. 
A possum, more intimidating with red-eye...
...and the anti-possum measures on old trees which would otherwise be climbed and eaten by the critters.
And a taster of desert vegetation!
Oh, and maybe most importantly - Melbourne's boathouses! I came across these right by the city centre and started missing rowing even more than usual immediately. Sadly, nobody seemed to be about - I would probably have gone up to them to see if anyone needed a random sub...

Melbournites teasing me with their shiny boats...
Anyway, more soon - will do my best to keep these posts reasonably short and snappy and well-supplied with photos instead of rambling on and on!