A chronicle in 5 parts about traveling through Australia.
-A new continent-
We knew we would need a good travel vehicle for this new continent, but we couldn’t find one. This was 1989, tourism was just beginning in this part of the world and there was not a great market for things like motor homes yet. So, after only a brief survey in Sydney we quickly decided to not buy a camper but build a motor home. I had converted enough vehicles before and by now we had kind of refined this unique travel style, so why not do it again here?
We bought a big old bus – Toyota Coaster, diesel; it looked like a school bus – threw out most of the seats, bought tools and stuff and a heap of plywood, found a quiet campground outside of town and went to work.
Even in hindsight I can hardly believe it myself, but within 10 days we had a perfect motor home with all the usual amenities, even with a fridge and a shower. The bed was perhaps even the best we ever had: Super-king-size, it filled the whole room in the back, but during the day it could be hoisted up to the ceiling with an ingenious pulley system and make room for ample living space underneath.
The windows all around could be opened and fitted with self-made snap-in screens, which made it feel like sleeping outside in the open.
This thing was absolutely perfect for Australia. It did well even on very bad roads in the outback. In the end – the journey took one year – we sold it even with a nice gain.
* * *
Australia is a hot place. In order to avoid the most extreme temperatures it makes a lot of sense to mind the seasons. When we left Sydney after this short preparation phase and started traveling in the south in the month of March at very comfortable temperatures the north was still too hot.
New South Wales can look a bit like Europe.
We soon saw our first kangaroos in the wild. These animals are too funny and seem to have come from another world when they gaze right through you with this far-away, absent-minded look out of their black eyes with so beautiful eyelashes. Their “oversized” hind legs seem to bother them most of the time; as superbly suited they obviously are for jumping and thereby covering distance at incredible speed, so inept are they for grazing, what they, of course, really do most of the time. When they hop around the tiny little arms wobble rather uselessly in front of their belly. It looks even more unreal when they carry a pretty grown-up baby in their belly pouch. It seems to be pure laziness when these big babies let themselves be carried around; often enough you can see them outside jumping around very well by them selves. It’s quite an acrobatic act to climb back into the belly pocket; often the little hind legs don’t fit in and remain sticking out.
Koala Bears, these sluggish, tailless uniquely Australian creatures are no longer to be seen in the wild. Only for tourists are they kept alive in zoos all over the country.
* * *
The mountainous peninsula south of Melbourne is called Wilson Promontory. This is where the Australian coastline stretches out a bit half-heartedly into the southern ocean like a little droplet, like the last attempt to follow the big drop of Tasmania further south. Gentle mountains cover the peninsula, rounded and polished in ancient ice ages, densely overgrown by eucalyptus forests. In the midday heat the gentle mild and aromatic scent of their name-giving evaporation fills the air. In the deep valleys, we find amazing tropical rainforests. Vegetation overgrowing everything, huge old fern trees with their filigree graceful palm-like green gleaming umbrellas; deep silence in muggy, sometimes moldy still air.
The Bass Strait at the most southern end is one of the roughest places along the wild Australian coastline. You can feel the ground trembling from the ceaseless bombardment with violent seas. The famous Twelve Apostles are near by.
A truly historic picture: Parvin riding her bike over the London Bridge there. Only a few weeks later this spectacular natural feature collapsed.
Today it’s just another old gap (left).
* * *
The Flinders Range: a unique ancient mountain range quite a bit north of Adelaide. All Australia is very old; these mountains are supposed to be a billion years old. It’s easy to see how, back in the day, the inside has been a natural corral for cattle.
March 27. 1989 It’s been Easter holiday when we roamed the Flinders. The entire outback was drowned in mud; we had a ball. It rained so much in a very short time that the worst floods since 80 years messed around in the canyons and ruined the dirt roads tremendously. The Stuart highway up to the north, which we were about to take, was washed away at several places and closed for two weeks.
We got stuck in the mud a few times and finally just waited until everything dried up again. We had our bikes to travel in these beautiful river valleys lined by awesome gnarled eucalyptus giants, “river gums”. We saw wallabies, emus, snakes, eagles, galahs, and cockatoos.
* * *
Coober Pedy, a place-name you’d find on the map halfway toward Alice Springs. Not much of a town when you see it from the road, in fact, you hardly see houses at all there. But there are thousands of people living in this strange incredibly hot place – underground.
After digging for precious opals there they later make the “dugouts” into quite lovely naturally cool living quarters. The scratch marks of the digging machines on the rock are lacquered over and look like stucco.
* * *
There were a number of places on my ‘bucket list‘ when I was young – (that silly term wasn’t in vogue yet then, and I think it only applies to old people anyway) – Ayers Rock was certainly one of them. I dreamed of it since I can remember, it haunted me, and I have to say I was truly excited when I finally got to see it and touch it.
Ayers Rock is a massive rounded rock pretty much in the center of Australia, like a gigantic piece of red meat kind of “lying” on otherwise flat and barren, vast desert surface. It looks very strangely out-of-place there in the middle of nowhere, everything about it seems mysterious almost supernatural. The Aborigines call it Uluru, for them it has a huge mystical significance. Even with all the banal tourism now it is really hard to be blasé about this fantastic presence when you stand before it.
Although it used to fill my dreams at times I knew only very few facts about Ayers Rock. It is old, very old, and it did not fall out of the sky what I had somehow imagined. It consists of ordinary sandstone and not some extraterrestrial material.
When we arrived we stayed at the campground about a mile away and first looked at it from this respectful distance. Of course, I wanted to climb it. And I wanted to do it “in style”, go at night and be up for the sunrise. I kind of knew that people could climb up on top, but I had no idea where and how. So in the middle of a warm, spooky night we rode our bikes to the base of the mountain and stood there in awe wondering how to get up. We later found out that there actually is a chain, which people can hold on to when they walk on the very steep surface, however, we did not know of it and saw nothing but absolutely awesome darkness – the moon would come out later. We touched the rock, felt its texture providing perfect friction, sensed the significant steepness, and carefully started to climb. The first hundred yards or so were steep enough to be called hairy, and the deep darkness didn’t help, but then it soon let up and we wandered around on the top sooner than expected.
It was absolutely still, not a whiff of a breeze. First the moon came out, then, a few hours later the morning light started to ooze up in the east. We had brought a bottle of wine – such events need to be celebrated – and greeted the day when it came.
Other people came up and when we looked where they came from, sure enough, we found the chain and a less demanding slope.
Somewhere around Ayers Rock Parvin picked up a serious eye infection. She got a fly in her eye and next day a violent infection flared up.
It was cured just in time by a specialist in Alice Springs, a wonderful Australian-Burmese character who became a good friend of us.
For check-ups in the following months we visited an eye specialist wherever we could find one in this empty country. I think we saw pretty much every single eye doctor in northern Australia; there are not that many up north away from the cities. Fortunately it healed ok, but a tiny scar on the eye remained and continues to be the source of occasional pain when aggressive chemicals or dust is in the air.
Followed by Australia II
Klaus April 2012