Not everything should be shrink-wrapped (day 34)

Here I am in Darwin airport, on an extremely reasonably-priced flight to Kuala Lumpur (the kind of flight that confirms one’s prior hypothesis that airlines charge too much for tickets).

The ‘hitch-hike on a boat’ idea sounded like a brilliant one to me. But, yesterday, when faced with a choice of searching (in the rain) for a willing skipper (which search might not have been successful anyway), or buying a bargain-priced flight that was only on sale for another 4 hours, mammon prevailed.

Some might say this was the course of reason, rationality, practicality, common-sense, short back and sides, 9-5 jobs, the 40-hour week, two-car garages, car-seat covers and assigned seating.

Others might accuse me of betraying the basic philosophy of travelling on the cheap, of dodging the big adventure walk in favour of the well-marked tour, dumping the uncertain in favour of the tedious, choosing the mass produced over the hand-made, eliminating risk but destroying hope.

Can you tell where my sympathies lie? I console myself with the fiction that i can always come back and do it next time.

But one has to make the most of the clay one has. I do like the way the guy speaks several languages over the intercom (one after the other).

I exhibited that classic British (and therefore common New Zealand) tendency to avoid makinng a fuss this morning. I am (still) a member of the Qantas Club, but I sent my card home a while ago (why should I carry it with me when I do not intend to fly?), so I felt a little apprehensive about just rocking up and asking them to find me in their computer or whereever.

I thought it might be okay, though, so I went off to find the place. But I was turned back decisively when I discovered that I had to ring at the door to get it opened (note to self: it is unlikely to encourage your customers to come into your shop if you just present a solid, closed door and a buzzer).

I think that this is something I should change. A similar thing happened yesterday when the computer I was on at an Internet cafe did not work. Rather than complain and get it fixed, I just left, telling myself that I was mostly done anyway. Such self-deception is designed to hide the fact that I am afraid to knock on the door.

I have never seen a plane so empty before. It is a 747-400 (a huge plane), and everyone is in one section – a maximum of 50 people. This leaves around 400 seats completely empty. I managed to get an emergency exit row. It was not difficult.

Anyway, the next time I write it will be from a different country. Farewell Australia, you lucky little country you. I will be back before you know it.


Australia – 7/10

hi all,

for those of you who do not know, i am travelling the world just now. this is the very first of the updates on my travels. unsurprisingly (since i haven’t been anywhere else yet) it focuses on australia.

the key points (for those of you too busy to read the fine print) are:

* overall i give australia 7/10 – although i reserve the right to revise this number later on as more data comes in on the quality of other countries.

* australia is big and empty – the best way to find out how big is to drive across half of it. this also allows you to experience the emptiness first-hand.

* i am in darwin just now, heading for asia – through some good fortune i came across an extraordinarily cheap ticket to kuala lumpur, so i am off to malaysia tomorrow (tuesday) morning very early.

* travelling is fun – good things include being able to choose to do nothing (all the time), total uncertainty about destinations and means of transport, not knowing what day it is, swimming pools, sunny days, cheap beer, friendly people, good books, interesting stuff, and internet cafes. bad things include nasty people or just plain weirdos (very rare), and spending money faster than i am earning it (very common).

i have been on the road for just over a month. highlights include (some in chronological order):

* i played some ultimate (see this link if you don’t know what that is) in sydney – which was, as always with ultimate, hugely fun.

* i hitch-hiked north to airlie beach (a backpacker place 4 hours sourth of cairns). i travelled with my old friend fraser to surfers and alone after that. along the way i heard about 140,000 bottles of beer that were (accidentally) dropped in a river, got offered work (once – i did not take it), got offered drugs (several times – ditto), and met people who amazed me with their generosity to a young man with a ridiculous beard (now shaved) and orange hair (now faded) that they had never met before (and never would again).

* i went diving on the great barrier reef (and got sea-sick coming back from the same)

* i canoed up the katherine gorge in a national park with a name that i find it incredibly difficult to remember, to pronounce, or to spell.

* i ran into two israeli guys who were going the same way as me in a van, so i hooked up with them. it was easier (and more certain) than hitching. but not a lot more expensive.

* i travelled more than 4000kms in the same van (from airlie beach to cairns and then across to darwin) – only to have it break down 60kms short of the final destination.

so yes, now i am in darwin. a long, long, long way from the east coast of australia, and even further from the west coast. don’t even mention the south coast.

i was thinking about hitching a lift on a boat from here to indonesia. but while i was thinking about it i came across an extremely extremely cheap flight. so (you have to take your serendipity where you find it) i am off tomorrow morning, bright and early. more the latter than the former, i suspect.

speaking from experience, driving across australia (while sometimes cheaper than flying and usually faster than walking) is not as exciting as either. in fact, some of the trip was downright tedious. it was a little bit awe-inspiring to be in the midst of so much nothingness, and sometimes there was traffic coming the other way that made things a little more interesting. the sunsets were nice – and the sunrises too. some of the road-side campsites were a little primitive. grass is more comfortable than stones or ashphalt.

the key things you need for a trip are good travelling companions. mine were good ones, i am pleased to say. also remember that there is very limited cell-phone coverage (it is a good test of whether the town you are in is civilised or not though). and very few radio stations. bring lots of cassettes (or cds). otherwise you will have to resort to listening to U2 albums endlessly repeated. bear in mind also that if your travelling companions are israeli, your only alternative to U2 is going to be hebrew music, which they find wildly enjoyable and will sing along with with great gusto, but which you will only enjoy for short periods while telling yourself that it is an enjoyable cultural experience.

i have, of course, met a huge number of people along the way. some of them are even recipients of this message. hi! it surprises me every day how young the people are who are backpacking around australia. admittedly i was 19 when i first went to russia, but that is no reason why any other 19 year olds out there should be allowed to travel in foreign countries.

people like new zealand, by the way, although (compared with other parts of NZ) christchurch does not have the best reputation.

motivation and money (the two key drivers of travelling achievement, it seems to me) are holding out. in no small way, the former is due to the frequent messages i get from people at home. so thank you for those. on the latter, i am more than happy to accept donations to my travel funds. i doubt that they are tax-deductible though.

i hope that things are just peachy for all of you too.

probably seeing you not very soon at all, i have the honour to remain your
humble and obedient servant,



On the way (Day 25)

Sometimes fortune smiles on the idolent. I met in my new favourite beach resort, two Israeli guys who were going my way.

Well, kinda. When you have no real settled plans for how or when to get to anywhere, just about everyone seems like they are going your way. Kinda like how when you only have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But I digress.

So I headed up with these guys through Townsville (hot, dry, bar fights at 9:30 in the morning) to Cairns (hot, sunny, tropical, swimming pool in hostel). Four nights of my life I spent in Cairns. Hard to say that I recall much of anything. I have some photos of a walk in the bush (beware the Cassowary) that led to a charming lookout over the airport. Hmmm.

In any case, doing nothing much of anything fits perfectly with the emptiness theme that seems to characterise my perception of Australia. Not that it is entirely empty, but just that there is so much emptiness between the full bits, especially when one is trapped in an empty bit looking for a free ride north.

My beard is, I am pleased to report, starting to grow properly. When you think about it (okay, so when I think about it) facial hair does seem a little strange. Just what exactly is it about? There might possibly be a survival justification in the ice ages, when it could have helped to keep one’s face from frostbite and stuff. I might even understand its usefulness in Canada or Quebec in the present day, but Cairns? What exactly is it for – keeping off flies?

When I think about it a bit more, I think that there is nothing much in this world of mine that determines survival or not (which just goes to show how lucky I was to be born into the bit of the world I was born into). So holding beards up to the survival standard and arguing that they are pointless is a bit like arguing that we could all survive without talkback radio. True, but so what?

I conclude that beards, like talkback radio and so many other things, are purely decorative. Little baubles on the face of life that serve to make things more interesting, more different, more entertaining, more outrageous, or just more hirsute.

Some might complain of itchiness. Not I (although ingrown hairs, yes). For I am in the service of looking strange. Aren’t holidays great?

The weird bit is that sometimes I forget that I look strange. The next thing I know I am looking in a mirror and I see some blondish haired guy with the makings of an ugly beard and I start and think ‘who the hell is that’. But it is worthwhile trying these things out, I think, if only to surprise oneself and see what impact it has.

I am also experimenting (not that that is the right word) with beauty. Other people’s, of course. I have always wondered whether girls realise the impact they can have on people just by walking around (okay, so part of me says that boys can have that impact too, but let’s fact it it is not nearly as pronounced as common or as interesting).

So I asked one (admittedly one tall, slim one with very long legs) to take a wander from her lounger in the sun by the pool to the door and then back again. My part of the bargain was to count the eyes that followed her – momentarily diverted from the book, the conversation, the beer, only to turn away again when she turned around to come back and there was some chance of eyes meeting eyes. Shock horror. So long as it is secret it is okay.

Amazing how many people stopped whatever desparately important form of entertainment they were engaged in to watch her walk. It didn’t require full attention from most people, except for the one guy in every crowd who just about strained his neck watching her go one way and suddenly got very interested in his book again when she turned to come back.

It reminds me of an interesting film I saw, once upon a time. ‘Beautiful girls’ it was called, if I am not much mistaken. Well worth a look. Kinda partly about the influence of women and partly about a high school reunion (sorry, yes, horrible high school reunion type plot stuff, but not so terrible for all that).

So do we forgive a pretty face more easily than an ugly one? No doubt. Do we favour pretty faces over pretty other things? Maybe. But can one parlay one’s dextrous fingers, elegant feet or perfectly turned knee to the same slight bending of the rules as one’s long eyelashes, smiling eyes or push-up bra? I think not. Monetise, unitise, which body part is best? Does it vary by country, by gender, by time of day? Is what really matters differentiation? Would our man with the crook neck look so closely if six long legged lasses walked by one after the other? Or sixty?

Far too much thinking for a Sunday anyway.

Civilisation is more than it is cracked up to be (Day 19)

Today was mostly sleeping. Yesterday was mostly diving. Despite getting a little seasick on the way there, a lot under the water (I think the second dive – where we went to places with a whole lot more current – was worst because I could not see the movement, but I could feel it), and sleeping most of the way back, I really enjoyed it. I even bought the video.

The great barrier reef was great, but, if it is not a sunny day, don’t expect it to sparkle in the light. The fish are neat. The people who took me were friendly. And breathing underwater is just something else entirely.

Also on the good news, I found two excellent Israeli guys, one of whom is going north (as far as Cairns) then across to Darwin. His plan suits me perfectly. He is taking his time, but it is nice to not hurry too much. I might need to catch a flight from Darwin to Malaysia, since a boat through Indonesia is likely to take too much time.

Whatever I do, I do need to speed up. Tomorrow will be May. I guess I need to make a choice – do I spend 13 months in South-East Asia and then go on to Russia et al. Or do I spend just 1 month there. The best of all possible worlds might be to go north more quickly, and then come back south when it starts getting cold. But then that means that heading west (into Central Asia, the Middle East and to Western Europe) isn’t really an option.

I also need to plan for visas. Planning is not exactly my strong point, I must admit. I think Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand will be okay sans visas. But I will need visas for Mongolia, China, and Russia. Sigh.

I am in Airlie Beach by the way. I arrived very late a few nights ago after making what seemed like a foolish decision to press on with the hitching despite it being late, dark and a long way to my final destination. Thanks to the truckie who took a chance on the stranger in the petrol station.

Every day is a weekend for me at the mo. It is funny how people here (backpackers, that is) say that there is nothing to do and and they get bored and they complain that they appreciate their holidays more when they are working the rest of the time.

I agree that all this is true – only the rainy days make you realise how great the sunny days are. But it seems to me to be more about the attitude you take towards your holidays. If you live every one like it is your last, you get a whole lot more out of them. And hanging out and doing nothing is enormous fun sometimes – at least I think it is.

I have this fear of jumping into cold water. It is not my only fear, of course, but it is something that I have decided to vanquish. I am not quite there yet, but I am making significant progress. The key indicator of this fear of mine was the way I would inch into swimming pools (rather than just jump in), and the way I would always test the water before doing anything. Not that I would not swim in cold water, just that it would take me a while to get in.

So I have begun my attempt to be the type of person who just jumps in to cold water without worrying. Swimming every day is helping. So is trying to enjoy the feeling of sudden frigidity that overcomes one when one leaps pell-meel into a swimming pool.

I am unsure whether the fact that Australian swimming pools seem to be very warm on the whole is helping or hindering me.

I just read ‘Into the Wild’ (by Jon Krakauer – who also wrote ‘Into Thin Air’ – another brilliant book – not sure why he likes books about going into things so much), which is a story about a guy who abandons civilisation to go live in the wilderness of alaska for 4 months with just about no gear, and planning to hunt and gather his own food, all by himself.

Of course, it would not be a story if he survived unscathed, and in fact he dies (from starvation, but maybe because he ate some plants that prevented his body from absorbing energy from his food, rather than because he could not gather enough food). I am not telling you anything that exciting – his death is referred to on the first page of the book.

There was quite a lot of evidence that he was finally (after years of drifting arond North America) ready to settle down somewhere and live a more ‘normal’ life, and that he actually tried to leave his self-imposed prison but was unable to cross a river in flood (and had to turn back to wait for it to subside).

The book is really an exploration of why people do this kind of thing – why there is value for some people in being far away and alone and isolated. It is still not entirely clear to me why, even after reading it. I guess it is a bit like why people climb mountains, or why they climb trees, or even why they climb out of bed in the mornings.

I sometimes have these isolationist feelings, you see. So I guess I hoped to find in this book some idea of where they come from. But I didn’t really. Maybe I will figure it out on my travels.

Serendipity rules (Day 14)

Okay, so it was not the best possible preparation for a big day of hitch-hiking. I ended up out on the town in Brisbane until just before 4 in the morning.

But I did have (nay, share – so you can ask my companion if you don’t believe me) a rather surreal experience on the way home. Let me tell you more.

Tuesday night (actually Wednesday morning), around 3am, a little chilly, but not cold. Town was basically deserted, apart from those miscreants like the man from Geraldine and me who are making our drunken way home.

From a distance we espied a figure on a lonely street corner. Surely it was not playing the violin. Could it have bene a she? But she was (playing the voilin that is), and she definitely was (a woman that is – and an extremely attractive one too). The early Wednesday morning crowd does not seem likely to be the most profitable busking audience. So even were her musical taste exacting, and her pitch perfect, we might have had cause to question her business acumen. But there she was, never the less.

So we danced a little in the pale moonlight, made a request or two, and left off for home in different directions, we two wondering if we really had seen a red-haired busker, playing to a tiny crowd in the wee hours of Wednesday.

Speaking of surreal, I met two people in Nrisbane (they were staying at the same hostel as me) who were meeting in person for the Very First Time, having met on the Internet playing on a mud (like dungeons and dragons, but online). How strange would that be? Parenthetically, he seemed much keener on her than she was on him. But what do I know?

So I was in Brisbane. Heading for Airlie Beach (which I am now spelling correctly) for a look at the reef and the Whitsunday Islands, and then heading west to Darwin across 3500kms of nothing. It would actually have been shorter to go straight from Brissy to Darwin, but to not see the reef seemed a little silly to me (given that I was so close to it, and all).

The travels started today with very bad hitchiking signals. My friend who met me in Brissy, the Lonely Planet (twice – I read a couple of different books), the woman at the train station information desk, and two of my dear friends (who would far rather I took the bus) all cautioned me against hitching anywhere in Australia.

In fact, the woman at the information desk told me that it was illegal. While I haven’t done the research necessary to establish the truth of this point, I do have some empirical data that cast some doubt on the clerk’s opinion. Many times when I have been on the side of the road the police have driven by. And while they have not offered me any lifts, they have not stopped to arrest me either.

So anyway, by the time I reach the appropriate train stop (far enough out of town to be a good place to hitch from, close enough to town to be cheap to get to, and with a station that is close to the motorway), I am saying ‘why am i doing this?’ to myself.

Fortunately, all was well. Even better than well, actually. I walked to the motorway, and waited less than 5 minutes to get my first lift. They were going bugger all distance down the road, but they rearranged all their luggage to fit me in. Thanks guys.

Then 5 minutes later a guy pulls over and announces that he is going to Gladstone (my ‘wouldn’t it be great if i could get to there’ destination for today). So I hop in, we talk all the way (a good 5 hours), he sorts out for me to stay in his mate’s spare room (he is staying here too), he shares his dinner and even buys beer for us. Tomorrow he promised to take me back to the main road before he goes to work. How amazing is that?

So here I am sitting on the couch, watching crap US tv, drinking beer, and all of it provided by someone who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap (or at least a bar of soap he had spent the day talking with). Yay for the world.

Often the best defence is relaxation (Day 13)

Sadly I am not impressed with Brisbane at all. Okay, sure it has some nice bits. The boardwalk on the far sideof the river is neat if a little eclectic (with its fake beach, climbing wall, rainforest and Nepalese peace temple.

But it is pretty grotty all the same. The river is ick (only god knows how they take the postcard photos to make it look so lovely), and even the swanky hotels are prett dated and ordinary (although I recognise that I should be grateful to Cath for sponsoring what could be my last night of supreme luxury for some time).

I also had the world’s worst thickshake today in Brissy. Perhaps that is unfair. It met the specifications in some sense – at least it was very thick. It might be better to say that it was the world’s least appropriate straw. So thin was it that I found it impossible to actually suck up any of the shake. The straw just colapsed under the pressure. Most frustrating.

Last night in Brisbane was my first night alone. That is, my first night when I have to rely on my natural skills to meet people, rather than being able to depend on meeting up with people I know. It was a little bit scary – even though I knew it would work out fine (and it did).

It is also a little bit scary to look at my newly purchased map and see how far (and where) I have to go. I saw a book today in a shop where a guy recounted his journey from London to Sydney overland (technically he was not overland, cos he took boats to avoid getting too wet, but he did not fly). While he was going in the opposite direction to me, at least it shows that it is possible.

This guy ended up hitching a lift on a boat from Timor to Darwin okay. So maybe I will try that on. We shall see. Whatever happens I think I am going to have to speed up a little. I am running out of time for Asia and Russia by dawdling so long on he east coast of Aus.

I went out on the town last night with two English girls, two Kiwis (one an excellent fellow, the other drunk). I met two Dutch lads as well. I must say that I found it rather bizarre to be out at 2 in the morning with the pub trying (unsuccessfully) to close, and to suddenly realise that it was a Monday night. But I guess that is just part of the whole travelling thing as well.

As it turned out, I was out far too late, and I only got up with 10 minutes to spare before check-out time. Needless to say I am not perfectly packed.

But (good things happen in mysterious ways) the Doctor held me up anyway (I went for my final Hep B shot) and I had to rebook my appointment for the afternoon. So I could not leave Brisbane today anyway. Back to the hostel, back to my bed. So much for needing to hurry. Just breathe deep.

Karma is not universal (Day 8)

Scott picked us up from Woo-woo-woo-woolgoolga. He took us several hundred kilometres all the way to Surfers. He had been driving all day and needed a rest, hence the stop in the National Park, which was exciting in itself (particularly given the noisy parrots that we saw this morning, about which Scott knew quite a lot).

He saved us from hitchhiker purgatory, rescued us from the ignominy of supper at the dull Thai place, and restocked our motivation from the inexhaustible stores that spring from serendipity. Not only that but he drove many, many miles out of his way to take us right into Surfers.

But he must have done something bad in a previous life. Because shortly after dropping us off (while we were on the other side of the road repacking my bag) Scott reversed his van into a Porsche that he could not see, which had just pulled in behind him.

The car in front of him was too close for him to get out without reversing. And it was illegally parked. His van was too high to see the super-low car that pulled in behind him after he had checked that the space was clear. The driver did not have the presence of mind to beep his horn, and his cries were drowned by the noise of the traffic on the main road.

I really hope Scott has insurance.