Christmas in Australia

This year there would be no cosying up by the fireside with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie… well actually there would be mince pies, a lot of mince pies! Otherwise Christmas in Australia was going to be a little different than back home.

There would be no blustery wind, rain or snow days either but as Christmas approached the temperature rocketed. The hottest day we have had so far is up to 45 degrees so instead of huddling inside for warmth we found ourselves flopped out under the air con. Sticking my feet into the kids paddling pool was also a favourite way to cool off. Yet despite the heat it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

A big part of this was living with a family and being au pairs. Seeing the kids excitement growing everyday definitely helped with the Christmas spirit whereas I think if we had been travelling on our own for this portion of the trip we might have felt a bit detached. We made Christmas cookies, played Christmas songs while the kids got ready for school and even helped Elfis, the very cheeky elf that came to visit.

So how is Australian Christmas different to UK Christmas? For starters ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ has new lyrics (obviously) and they have a song called ‘Six White Boomers’ a.k.a Six White Kangaroos – you can listen to them if you click the links. The kids got to meet Santa when he drove through the streets on a firetruck handing out ice lollies. Although mince pies are available here they aren’t as popular as back home but Claire kindly bought us some to help us get a taste of home and every time supplies ran low, another box appeared. And another box. And another box, until I think I ate more mince pies here than I ever would at home and I LOVE mince pies. But it was a sweet gesture and much appreciated, especially when we got ourselves a bottle of Baileys to go with!

Otherwise everything felt surprisingly similar. Even the Christmas cards and decorations are still snow themed, which I still can’t get over. What we did miss was our own traditions. Weekends away with the family, having Christmas songs blasting in my headphones while I shop for presents, meeting our friends on Christmas Eve and of course all the family traditions big and small we enjoy on Christmas Day itself.

Christmas Eve in Australia was spent baking cookies with the kids and cooking a big sausage roll as our contribution to Christmas lunch. In the evening we watched Noelle with the kids and once they were in bed settled down with a glass of rum and coke to watch Bad Moms Christmas. Then it was into bed ourselves before Santa arrived.

Despite turning twenty-seven this year I am truly a big kid at heart and barely slept for excitement of Christmas Day. We woke early to the kids excitement as they opened their Santa sacks and then Joey had to put up with my excitement at the presents my mum had kindly posted to us to have something to open on Christmas Day, which we had placed at the foot of our bed. It was nice to have a moment to ourselves to open presents in bed, exchange the simple gifts we got each other, and make sure we did some things just for us as well as getting involved in family Christmas. Joey’s mum sent us money, which we greatly appreciated as it can go towards an awesome experience for us along the next leg of our trip and make it that much more special. We also got to FaceTime our friends as they enjoyed annual Christmas Eve drinks (thanks time difference!) so as we were passed down the table, having mini catch ups, our FOMO diminished and Christmas cheer peaked.

Breakfast was pancakes and ice-cream and not long afterwards the Grandparents and Great Grandparent (Claire’s grandmother) arrived for present opening. Cue absolute chaos. Wrapping paper flew in every direction, Claire tried to keep track of whose presents came from who while taking photos, we tried to snap photos for the family, attempting to catch that brief moment of joy before the furrowed concentration of opening the next present and the toys piled up. The family was even kind enough to get us a few small gifts and chocolate to add to our ever growing stash. It made us wish we weren’t such poor backpackers that we could gift them more than a box of chocolates in return. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces when they opened their chocolate Christmas trees and an X-Box Kinect game we knew they would love, was the best part of all though.

As present-opening mayhem calmed down and the nerf gun war began, we gathered up the food to take over to the grandparents for lunch. They live on an olive farm just down the road and in fact their land stretches as far as the field at the end of the street from the families home. Even though it was a short distance I gripped the plate of nibbles I was holding in fear, using all my core strength to stop pretzels and salami flying in all directions every time we went round a corner. Luckily everything arrived in one piece and we were soon sitting down to lunch.

Due to the heat a massive roast is the last thing you feel like eating but there was still turkey on the menu. After a starter of prawn cocktail we got stuck into a buffet of cold cuts of ham, turkey and chicken, various salads (including a delicious broccoli salad I want the recipe for), our sausage roll and a cheesy potato bake. There were almost as many desserts as there was main food so of course I had a bit of everything. No Christmas pudding here, there was pavlova, rice pudding, cheesecake and trifle. Yum!

Full of booze and food and with the kids eager to get home and play with their toys, we retreated back to the families home for a rest. It wasn’t long before I was deep in a food coma and woke later in the afternoon to the family getting ready to head back over to the grandparents for the evening. Joey and I hung back, allowing them to have some family time and a bit of downtime for ourselves as well before joining them later on. As the sun faded, spreading orange and pink across the sky, the golden grass shimmering in the last of the days heat, I felt like this year Christmas had been a world apart from our normal Christmas and yet in some ways exactly the same. In the end it wasn’t the type of food we ate or opening presents or the little Christmas traditions I missed, it was simply being with family and friends. Yet I was grateful to have Joey by my side and being able to share in this adventure together.

The miracle of technology helped as well and getting to FaceTime both our families throughout the day to hear that they were having a good time too. As the stars (and the mosquitos) came out we shared family stories with Claire and Josh, having one more Christmas tipple before bed, feeling happy about where we were and what is yet to come for the New Year.

Wine, Beaches and More Wine

After leaving our farm position we had a couple of weeks before our next opportunity working as au pairs in a small town called Tocumwal, three hours north of Melbourne. After looking into what we could do along the way we decided Kangaroo Island seemed right up our street. It is hailed as one of the best places in Australia to see wildlife so it seemed perfect for us. The ferry departs from Cape Jervis so we decided to take our time travelling there and stop off at a few places along the way.

Having not really experienced the beaches in Adelaide yet we spent the first few days after leaving the farm hanging out near Glenelg beach. The weather still wasn’t quite sunbathing standard yet but we enjoyed nosing around the shops, the small museum above the information centre that explained the history of Glenelg and how it is considered the oldest European settlement on mainland South Australia and spent the rest of our day sipping a cider and a beer, watching the world go by. It was nice to have a little extra time in Adelaide area but it wasn’t a place that grabbed us so we weren’t too sad to be moving on.

From here our next stop was the McClaren Vale, one of the best wine regions in South Australia. Our campsite was really pretty, an alley of trees leading to a secluded green spot amongst the fields of grapes. Almost immediately we ventured out to some of the local winerys. Within walking distance were two recommended ones, Oxenberry Farm Wines and Serafino. Both offered free tastings and funnily enough I preferred the wines at the first while Joey preferred the wines at the second. They might have only been small tasters but you could easily get tipsy from hopping from one winery to the other and though the tasters were little more than a sip or two for each wine there would be five or six tasters per winery so it never felt like your cup ran dry. At Serifino we decided to grab a full glass each though to truly relax and savour our favourite wines while looking out across the nearby pond.

The next day we headed to d’Arenberg Cube, a winery that is as much an art piece as a vineyard. The building is designed to look like a Rubik’s cube, representing the puzzle that is wine making. Corner balconies jut out, like the Rubik’s cube in motion, allowing for spectacular views of the rolling hills and grape fields for miles around. The winery has connections with art in other ways too and was currently showcasing a Picasso art collection. On the first floor there is also an art gallery full of weird and whacky sculptures from legs dangling from the ceiling to old wind up wooden fair ground toys. There was also a room featuring projections on every wall that showed just as whacky annimations with interesting names such as The Laughing Magpie and The Broken Fishplate. We couldn’t get our heads round it but took it to just be part of this eccentric aesthetic however when we got up to the top floor where the tastings are held we learnt the true meaning behind the animations. Each one was representing the wines on offer, which had the same unique names. We went for the classic tasting options but rotated in a Reisling to try too as it is a wine we enjoy back home and were curious what it would be like in Australia. The reds were a bit too dry for me but right up Joey’ s street. The white wines were fruity, crisp and delicious. Afterwards we grabbed a drink in the cafe to continue enjoying the laid back atmosphere and amazing views.

We had thought to end up there for most of the day but finished earlier than we thought and so decided to check out the nearby town and beach front. I imagined a beachfront pavilion with shops to explore and cafes to while away some time in but it turned out to be just the beach and one expensive restaurant. We didn’t really mind though as the beach was a really pretty spot and not too busy. Part of the joy of having the van with us meant that after a short walk to check it out we headed back to the van, changed into shorts, grabbed our camp chairs, some snacks and a drink to soak up the sun for the rest of the afternoon.

Being in no rush to get to our next campsite we returned to the beach in the morning and this time I even braved the water – cold but refreshing! We had a picnic lunch on the beach then set off for our last stop before Kangaroo Island. Joey had discovered a really cool campsiteto that wasn’t too far from the ferry port called Rapid Bay. It was cheap at just $9 per person per night and we got to park up right on the beach. This was what we had dreamed of when imagining our life in the van, being parked up so close to the beach we could take a dip in the water, walk along the sand to see the jetty at one end and the cave at the other then take just a few steps to our camp chairs to sunbathe the rest of the afternoon away. It was probably our favourite campsite yet.

Our ferry was departing in the afternoon the next day so again there was no rush and we enjoyed another swim and walk along the beach before packing up to go. It was only a short drive to the ferry port and super easy to get checked in and board the ferry. Joey drove on and any other passengers have to board on foot so I met him on board once the van was loaded on. It was just 45 minutes to Kangaroo Island and as we set off towards our campsite we were blown away by the beauty of this island and immediately knew we had made the right choice in going there. We would have plenty to see and explore over the next five days.

Kings Canyon, Alice Springs and Back The Way We Came

We were coming to the end of our outback roadtrip and soon it would be time to turn our tails and head back the way we had come for an opportunity back in Adelaide. In the meantime though, there were still a few places we were keen to see.

Before we left Uluru we took one last morning to soak up the culture by visiting one of the art galleries on site there and happened to catch one of the free talks. This turned out to be such a good experience as, since first seeing Aboriginal artwork, we had wondered what the meaning behind the dots, lines, patterns and symbols were and this talk explained exactly that. Our speaker was a lovely young Aboriginal woman who explained that each painting depicts a story but only those within the tribe can know the full story, even she does not know the full meaning behind paintings done by someone outside her tribe and her own tribe’s stories were passed on to her only when she came of age. However, there are certain aspects of the paintings that everyone can understand and she taught us how to look for these symbols. For example, a “U” shape means a person and if they are arranged in a circle it means people sitting together. A circle with a dot or smaller circles within it means a meeting place and the marks that look like bird feet are actually kangaroo feet! Dot painting is probably the most well known form of Aboriginal painting but is by no means the only one. Sometimes the Dreamtime story is depicted beneath the painting as another layer so that it is woven into the artwork without revealing itself to anyone outside the tribe. The speaker told us a story about an obnoxious customer who had bought one of the artworks and then demanded to know the story behind it, believing that because he owned the painting he also had the right to own the story. Definitely not!

There were yet more talks and activities I would have loved to do in Uluru but our time there was up and we set off for Kings Canyon. There are a couple of camping options here but similarly to Uluru most of the land is protected and therefore other than roadside stops there are only two options. One is Kings Creek Station which is further away from Kings Canyon so to save some fuel and driving time we opted for Kings Canyon Resort, though it has stunning views of the canyon it is still a short drive to the start point of the hikes. On the first afternoon we did little more than get settled in and watch the sunset over the canyon.

After a relaxing afternoon I was hoping I would be all fired up for a day of hiking Kings Canyon but alas, our hiking mojo was gone. It had been a busy past couple of days, even weeks, and we were starting to feel it. We hadn’t come all this way to sit in our van though, so dragging our heels just slightly we set off regardless. We chose to do the iconic Rim Walk, a 6km hike to the top, around the rim, a visit to the Garden of Eden, an oasis tucked away within the canyon, past the domes and back to the bottom again. It was supposed to take 3-4 hours but we did it in around two. There were some incredible views and I’m very glad we did it, at the same time maybe our reluctance to hike was simply that it is a slight anti-climax after Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We were happy to finish up earlier than expected and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the shade of our camper van as we relaxed.

We had only planned on spending a couple of nights in our next stop, Alice Springs, yet when we arrived Thursday we were told about the Henley on Todd regatta happening on Saturday and decided it was a sign that we should stay longer. Living near the Henley on Thames regatta back home, though we had never actually been, it seemed too weird and wonderful an opportunity to pass up going to the Henley on Todd and seeing how on earth a regatta works in the middle of the desert! It would also give us a longer break from driving for a while, something we were in need of after the long distances we had traveled.

There were a few other things to explore in Alice Springs as well. First up we decided to mooch around Todd Mall, which turned out to be a single street of a few random tourist, charity and other shops. In the afternoon we checked out the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia Museum. The name is a bit of a mouthful and so is the information provided! There is lots to read but also a lot of displays of old medial equipment, radios used, an aircraft you can get in to explore, virtual reality headsets that let you “sit in”on a real medical flight and a holographic presentation to start the experience off. Even if there was a lot to take in it was very interesting. The Royal Flying Doctors of Australia is a service used to this day for people in rural communities to receive the medical care they require. It was officially started by John Flynn but the idea arguably came from himself and two other men. One of which was a man who was hit and trapped under a cart, he was suffering internal injuries and had to be taken on a harrowing and bumpy journey over miles to the nearest doctor to then also have to wait for a surgeon to arrive separately to perform an operation and in the end he died the day before the surgeon arrived. He was an inspiration for the desperate need for medical care to be able to reach these remote places. And so the idea of flying doctors was born. It was also brought together by the use of radio. This allowed people in remote communities to talk to a GP and have a consultation without having to travel.

Although I would have loved to visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs at $80 per person and having been to Josephine’s Kangaroo Sanctuary and art gallery in Coober Pedy, we decided to give it a miss. The next best thing was a visit to Desert Park. This is kind of a botanical garden / wildlife centre mix. As you make your way through the park you’ll visit different types of desert environments and get to explore and learn about the flora and fauna that grows there, as well as the eco-systems they support. If you’re an avid bird watcher this is the perfect place for you with many mini averies along the way. The highlight for us was the Nocturnal Centre and joining onto the guided tour made it even better. Lots of the creatures were really active in their darkened enclosures. I had no idea how many similar but at the same time very different types of marsupial rodent type creatures the Australian outback had! The Bettong looks like a rat, only bigger, with furry tails and a more rounded face, then there are Bilbies that look like a mix between a mouse and an anteater, with grey fur, long pinkish ears and a long nose and the Northern Quoll has a rodent-like face but with big rounded ears, brownish fur with white dots and long claws – just to name a few! My favourite was the Hopping Mice who raced about so quick they looked like a blur. When they do pause long enough to look at them properly they have big ears and kangaroo like legs that make them so quick! We finished our visit at the bird show which is one of the more impressive bird shows I’ve ever been to as the focus was more on demonstrating each birds unique skills as they would use them in the wild as opposed to simply doing tricks for the audience. The black-breasted buzzard uses tools to break open eggs. In the deomnstration the bird picked up rocks and repeatedly threw it at the egg to crack it, revealing a treat inside.

On the day of Henley on Todd I still didn’t know what to expect. We were about to watch a regatta on the dried up riverbed of the Todd river. I shouldn’t have doubted the Australians though as a little drought was never going to hinder them. The day started with a parade of the boats. These turned out to be self-made, carried, shells of boats in all shapes and sizes which, when the events started, would be held up by teams running races across the sand to see who could come first. There was much silliness, cheating, laughing and good fun. The races had different categories and were broken up by other challenges and events reminiscent of a British sports day obstacle course. There was also a prize for the best boat and this rightly went to the man dressed as a barrel with a baby on his front and a toddler on his back, the three of them making up the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They won the hearts of the crowd and joined in every event, they were brilliant!

The sun was out, we were finally feeling some real heat on this trip, there were plenty of food trucks to scurry off to and we were loving the festival vibes. Throughout the day the three main teams of the bigger boats (vehicles dressed up) egged on the crowd for support and frequently broke out into water fights and scuffles between the teams. This was all in the lead up to the grand finale which was a massive battle between the three teams: the Navy, the Vikings and the Pirates. If I thought the day had been worth it so far things were about to be taken to the next level as the teams climbed aboard their vessels and the battle began. Suddenly all hell broke loose with canons firing what looked like dust and confetti, water balloons being hurled and water canons being fired. The boats chased each other round and round the arena and often ended up with one poor team in the middle, desperately spinning and hurling water bombs in every direction as two other teams circled them, equally ferociously fighting back. When the bedraggled teams did one last lap and lined up to have the winner chosen you wouldn’t be able to tell who came out best from looking at them. However the reason for the teams throwing sweets into the crowds all day became clear as we discovered the winner was to be chosen by the loudest cheer. My favourites were the vikings who seemed to have endless energy and really threw themselves into the days events all day long but it was the Navy the crowd seemed to love more, even if it was a close call. The whole day was a bit strange and a bit fantastic and definitely worth extending our time for.

Originally we had planned on travelling all the way into the Northern Territory and to Darwin before continuing on to the East Coast however, all the way back in Hahndorf we had found an opportunity to do our farm work in the Adelaide Hills. This meant a massive change of plan but to be able to tick off our farm work so soon was a massive plus to us and we felt it was worth the effort of turning tails and coming back. At the time of writing this we’ve actually come to an end of our time here so I’ll tell you all about it in the next post. The journey back was a lot shorter, though with the lengthy drives it didn’t feel like it! We drove from Alice Springs to Coober pedy to Port Augusta and arrived back in Adelaide on a wet chilly day, already missing the outback temperatures. We had loved our time in the van and now we could set up and pack up in a few minutes. Although the van was beginning to feel like home at last we couldn’t help but crave some stability of being in the same place for an extended period of time – not to mention having a proper bed to sleep in! That first night on the farm I was nervous as to what the experience would be like, feeling out of sorts in a new place that would be our home for potentially the next few months and a little excited to be in the beautiful and peaceful Adelaide Hills. Our Outback Adventure was over but (and please excuse the cheese) a new chapter to our trip was just beginning.

150 Days On The Road – Expectations vs. Reality

Strictly speaking not all 150 days were spent on the road. Some of those days were spent on boats, in aeroplanes, on beaches, on farms, riding bikes, travelling by foot, working in fields, swimming in oceans or swimming pools and a whole load of other places and ways to travel in between. But it makes for a catchy title and it is true that we have now been away from home for over 150 days.

This is the longest either myself or Joey has been away for and yet, though we have moments of missing home, friends and family, surprisingly neither of us feels ready for the trip to end yet. We’ve found that where the working holiday visa works really well for us is being able to stop and work when we are craving stability and move on when we are getting itchy feet again. In that respect the WHV has been what we expected and hoped for but in pretty much every other way it has not gone how I imagined it would at all. As someone who often has high expectations, a fantasy version of how I imagine everything will fall into place perfectly, it has been a steep learning curve to be more flexible and accept that I can only make decisions based on my current situation. In fact I feel like I’m still learning that there is no place for regrets on this trip, that I need to live in the present and accept that I can only make decisions for the next steps based on my current situation. That being said, I thought for 150 days I would run you through my expectations for this trip and what it has been like in reality.

Expectation: Australia is expensive.

Reality: Australia is expensive.

There are plenty of ways to keep costs down in Australia from free campsites, house sitting, work aways, cooking cheap meals for yourself and other tips and tricks but it is unavoidable that Australia is an expensive place to travel. There were definitely points of this trip where we could have travelled smarter or cheaper but I also know we have spent money on some amazing experiences that I wouldn’t change for the world, as well as finding plenty of free ones too. However, owning a vehicle, especially a camper van, has been the main expense. I didn’t expect so many repairs, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the costs of rego and insurance and general set up and I definitely underestimated not so much the price of fuel but just how often we would have to fill up because of the distances travelled. If you think you’ve saved enough for Australia, save more.

Expectation: We’ll find farm work easily and find something cool and unique.

Reality: Lots of terrible Gumtree ads, more experience needed than we thought and cool, unique places not being what they seemed at first.

There are plenty of ways to find farm work in Australia but finding something that doesn’t sound dodgey, isn’t impossible to get to or doesnt require farm experience was harder than we expected. We thought we had hit the jackpot when we got a position in the Adelaide Hills on a beautiful farm less than an hour from the city but the reality of being the only two workers there meant it still felt isolated. We had wanted to find something different from fruit picking if possible but at least fruit picking with other backpackers gives you a sense of community we felt was missing from our experience. Basically it had all looked picturesque and too good to be true on the surface and definitely didn’t live up to expectations. However I still enjoyed working outside, having time off to explore the local area and learning some new skills.

Expectation: We will spend the majority of our time on the East Coast.

Reality: Halfway through our visa and we haven’t even reached the East Coast yet.

The plan was always to travel through central Australia really quickly and end up working and spending the most time on the East Coast, when we accepted the farm work and backtracked to Adelaide this changed everything. The downside of this is we feel we have met less backpackers on the road than we thought we would as we have been travelling less popular routes. On the plus side we have been travelling less popular routes. We would never have ended up on Kangaroo Island if we hadn’t been looking for a way to fill our time being farm work and au-pairing. I never imagined that the little town of Hahndorf we admired while passing through on our way to the Red Centre would be somewhere we could pop into for lunch on our days off from the farm. At times it feels like we still have so much left to see of this vast country and other times it feels like we have already seen way more than we expected.

Expectation: We’ll meet lots of other backpackers in campervans.

Reality: Not so much.

We’ve met and seen plenty of grey nomads (retiree Australians with fancy campers and trailers) but not so much other backpackers. Maybe this is due to the places we’ve travelled to so far and maybe this is due to staying on paid campsites more often than we thought we would. It could also be the season we are travelling certain areas in. Whatever the reason we are often left thinking where are all the backpackers? Sometimes we like the time to ourselves and sometimes we crave company. Our recent trip to The Grampians did change things though when we got chatting to an Ozzy bloke traveling with his girlfriend who turned out to be from the UK, who in turn also got chatting to another van life couple from the UK. We spent a couple of nights swapping stories round the campfire and one very adventurous hike together and it did wonders for lifting our spirits.

Expectation: Freedom and Flexibility.

Reality: Constant decision making but also more opportunities.

I thought I had always wanted to do a trip that was completely open-ended with no plan in sight, however this trip has made me realise that I definitely prefer to have a plan. I might not always stick to it but I feel a lot happier and more secure if I know what our next steps are. One of the things I have found hardest about this trip is the constant decision making. Trying to judge whether we are doing the right thing or not is not easy. I mean I can’t even decide what to order at a restaurant let alone where, when and how we should travel the next part of our trip! Yet not having a plan, or at least not having anything booked ahead of time that we have to be somewhere for, has meant that when an opportunity has cropped up that sounds really good, we can go for it. There is no wondering ‘what if’ because we just move things around, reassess our current vague plan and make a new one. It is what led us to au pairing in Tocumwal, where we are currently at, a rural town three hours north of Melbourne we would never have expected to be but living with a lovely family and learning about the Australian way of life.

There are so many more ways I expected this trip to go but these are the big ones. At 150 days in it is hard to say Australia has exceeded my expectations as I still feel we have so much more to do, but it has certainly been unexpected in some of the best ways possible.

I have some major catching up to do on the trip posts so hang tight and expect a flurry of updates on what we have been up to. I’ll link them here as they come out too so all expectations and realities will begin to make sense.

Outback Roadtrip – Sunsets, Sunrises and the Magic of Uluru

The lights on and around our table were switched off so that there was only the glow of the heat burners close by and the stars above. Our star guide was pacing between our tables as he began to speak.

“I want to begin with a Hindu story of wise sages. One night the wisest sage was meditating and in the morning he had a question for his disciples. When does the true night end and a new dawn begin?” Our guide paused for dramatic effect. “One of the disciples replied, when I rest my head on my pillow after a long day of work and wake to the sun through my window ready to start again. That is when a true night ends and a new dawn begins. It is a good answer, replied the sage, but not the one I was looking for…”

We were in the middle of the desert at a secluded spot for the famous Sounds of Silence dinner at Uluru. It was an activity I agonised over booking, availability wasn’t there, then it was, then it seemed too expensive, but now I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Uluru so far had been magical, exceeding my expectations in every way.

As mentioned, booking our stay at Uluru had been a stressful experience. There is only one accommodation option there, The Ayers Rock Resort, but it caters for all levels of budget, from campsite to simple cabins to 3 and 4 star hotels. There are shops, museums and a huge range of activities available on site and Uluru and Kata Tjuta are a short drive away, which you’ll need to pay a $25 park fee per person for three days entry to the protected site. However, accommodation gets booked up fast and the online booking system was a nightmare, no one was replying to emails and calls went straight to an automated message so we had rushed to book two nights in where we could and hadn’t been able to arrange the Sounds of Silence dinner I was keen to do, so had instead opted for the sunrise Field of Light tour. On arrival we discovered they could squeeze us into a tiny spot that meant we could have an extra night which also meant we could book in for the Sounds of Silence dinner. Everything was coming together.

It was an early and freezing cold start to be up for the sunrise and to visit the Field of Light. This is an art installation of over seven football fields worth of lightbulbs slowly changing colour, fibre optic tendrils spreading out from them like something from Stranger Things. It was created by the artist Bruce Munro and was originally conceived in 1992 when he visited the red desert with his wife and said of the place;

“There was a charge in the air that gave me a very immediate feeling which I didn’t fully understand […] It was a moment when I felt at one with the world […] I recorded thoughts of creating a sculpture on a landscape scale, incongruous in size and location, and experienced by the transient visitors […] I saw in my mind a landscape of illuminated stems that, like dormant seeds in a dry desert, quietly wait until darkness falls, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, to bloom with gentle rhythms of light.”

The art installation is so far temporary and will only exist until 2020 so I was keen to see it while I could. First we got a view from above, looking down on the huge expanse from a dune top viewpoint. Then we got to walk amongst them, pathways winding this way and that, the whole place feeling like something out of a sci-fi or fantasy film.

As the light began to creep into the sky the automatic and solar powered bulbs began to switch off and we made our way back to the dune top to watch the sunrise with hot chocolates in hand.

We had caught glimpses of Uluru as we drove in, seeing it from afar, but this felt like a special reveal. Uluru went from a shadow on the horizon to a glowing red rock, as if it was pulling all the sunlight into itself, warming up for the day. Which was something we were in desperate need of. Once we could pull ourselves away we headed back to the van and climbed back into bed, still early in the morning, to try and get toasty and ready for the rest of our day.

We had seen Uluru from afar and now it was time to take a look up close. The base walk is 10km but there is a shorter walk called the Mala walk which takes you as far as Kantju Gorge or you can hire bikes and cycle round if you aren’t up for the long walk. I wish we had also known about the free guided version of the Mala walk you can do in the mornings too as this is the perfect way to learn about the Aboriginal stories associated with this sacred place. Instead we gathered information from the Cultural Centre before setting off and it was well worth doing as it meant we could look out for the specific formations that denoted stories.

Uluru is fascinating to see up close as one side looks fairly symmetrical but the other side is a contortion of shapes. There are areas that look like the rock has been burned with acid, a section where it looks as if the side has melted and dripped down into a cavern and up close you can see the mottled surface looks almost like rust or copper.

The Story of Kunija and Liru

Wherever you walk around Mutitjulu Waterhole, you are surrounded by the presence of two ancestral beings – Kuniya, the woma python, and Liru, the poisonous snake.

The Kuniya and Liru story occurs on different sides of Uluru, but their deadly battle took place near Mutitjulu Waterhole.

The Kuniya woman came from far away in the east to hatch her children at Uluru. She carried her eggs strung around her neck like a necklace and brought them
to rest at Kuniya Piti on Uluru’s north-east corner. There she left the eggs on the ground.

Kuniya camped at Taputji and hunted in the nearby sandhills. As she left and entered her camp, she formed deep grooves in the rock. These grooves are still there.

One day, Kuniya had to draw on all her physical and magical powers to avenge
the death of her young nephew, also a Kuniya. He had enraged a group of Liru, or poisonous brown snakes, who travelled from the south-west to take revenge on him.

They saw him resting at the base of Uluru and rushed upon him, hurling their spears. Many spears hit the rock face with such force that they pierced it, leaving a series of round holes that are still obvious. The poor Kuniya, outnumbered, dodged what he could but eventually fell dead.

When news of the young python’s death reached his aunt on the other side of Uluru, she was overcome with grief and anger. She raced along the curves of the rock to Mutitjulu Waterhole, where she confronted one of the Liru warriors, who mocked her grief and rage.

Kuniya began a dance of immense power and magic. As she moved towards the Liru warrior she scooped up sand and rubbed it over her body. Her rage was so great that it spread like a poison, saturating the area at that time.

In a fearsome dance she took up her wana, or digging stick, and struck the head of the Liru. But her anger was now beyond restraint,
and she hit him again across the head.

He fell dead, dropping his shield near Mutitjulu Waterhole, where Kuniya herself remains as a sinuous black line on the eastern wall. The blows she struck are two deep cracks on the western wall, and the Liru’s shield, now a large boulder, lies where it fell.

-from https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/stories/kuniya-liru-story/

One of the things to be aware of around Uluru and much of the outback, is flies. They are everywhere and they will get everywhere. You may feel like a fool but I highly recommend a fly net and we even got stopped by people who thought it was a great idea and asked where they could get some from – ours were generously gifted to us by one of the parents of the kids Joey taught.

The other thing to know about Uluru is that the Aboriginal People ask you not to climb it. I was aware of this before we arrived and as the climb is closing permanently in October it has been a topic of conversation every time we mentioned we were going, yet still it shocked me to see so many people climbing the rock right next to a sign that literally asks people not to climb. For the Anagu people Uluru is a sacred site, not unlike a church would be to a Catholic or a mosque to a Muslim, so it is worth asking yourself whether you would climb these sacred buildings? There is the argument that Uluru is natural and so that should make it available for everyone to do as they wish, however if anything this should make us want to protect it more. We can’t renovate something natural, once it is worn down or damaged by tourists there is no going back. Most importantly it is the route for Mala men to complete as part of their Mala ceremonies. If you need another reason not to climb, it is also dangerous; the way is steep and there is only a metal chain fence to use as support on the way up. To date 35 people have died climbing Uluru, something which greatly saddens the Anagu people. If you will be visiting before October, please do not climb this sacred site, there are plenty more ways to enjoy this incredible place.

It had been a long day, starting with a sunrise it felt only fitting to end by watching the sunset. Even though we got there early the sunset viewing Carpark was pretty full and all the best spots taken. We knew that we had other opportunities to get a better view, so we mentally edited out the tree that was central to our view, brewed some hot chocolates and set ourselves up in the back of the van. As the light changes from oranges and yellows to pale lilacs and blues so did Uluru change from a burning orange to a dusky purple.

Uluru is without a doubt the main attraction but the national park is also home to Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas. The sacred sites of the Anangu, and in fact any aboriginal Dreamtime stories, can only be told in part as each must be kept secret within the different tribes and passed down through families. Kata Tjuta is an important site for men’s business and so little of the Dreamtime stories are known about this place, which may be another reason why Uluru is better known as we have more access to these stories, even if we still only know them in part. It is still an incredible place and so different from Uluru yet equally striking against the otherwise flat landscape. We headed there for a walk and a look around. Again there are various length walks you can do and this time we opted to go through the Olgas rather than do a longer base walk around it, offering some very different views when you are surrounding by the magnificent red rock.

In the evening it was time for our Sounds of Silence dinner. We were picked up by bus just outside the campground with other guests and transferred to a secluded area of desert quite a distance from Uluru. It was another chance to watch the sunset and this time we could do so while sipping Prosecco and nibbling canapés. The area where we mingled was perfectly located to be able to see Uluru on one side and Kata Tjuta on the other. To be honest I think I preferred the sunset over Kata Tjuta just because it is perfectly placed to be thrown into darker shadows, creating a much more intestine silhouette as the colours of the sky burn around it. When we were shown to our table we happened to be seated perfectly to take it all in.

While enjoying our bubbly we got talking a lovely Australian family visiting Uluru. David and Helen were traveling with their grown son, Benjamin and his partner Mijoko. Over dinner we spoke about Dark Emu, an interesting book and a constellation the star guide referenced later, about Aboriginal culture. We compared campervans and it was safe to say theirs sounded much more impressive than ours and by the end of the evening we had been invited to visit anytime we were in Cairns, where they were from. The evening was beautiful but it was made even more special by making new friends.

As for the dinner itself, we were serenaded by a didgeridoo through our starter of tomato soup (which even though it was a simple dish was full of flavour) and then invited up for the buffet dinner after. I didn’t have high expectations for this but every bite was delicious and we even got to try kangaroo (actually very tasty and similar to beef) and crocodile (a bit too fishy at times and the texture of calamari), though my favourite of the night was the creamiest risotto I’ve ever had in my life. Desert wasn’t as great, but perhaps that was because my nut allergy only allowed me to have a couple of selections of the mini cakes and tarts on offer. The hot chocolate and port to finish the night made up for it though.

Between dinner and desert was when our star guide took us on a journey through the night sky (so cheesy but I couldn’t resist writing it) helping us spot certain constellations and telling us stories of the stars. “When the disciples could not answer the wise sage’s question,” our guide concluded, “he told them the answer. The true night ends when two travellers meet and share a meal and wine and look up at the stars and realise they look at the same stars, they are the same people, that’s when a true night ends and a new dawn begins”. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this perfect night.

The Outback Roadtrip – German Food, Kangaroos and Underground Homes

The road trip had only just begun but already our van was running into problems. It was jerky and struggling to get up hills or change gears and though it had started along the Great Ocean Road, by The Grampians we had to admit we couldn’t go any further until it was sorted. We called the mechanic who had done our roadworthy in Melbourne and though he tried to diagnose the issue over the phone there wasn’t much he could do. He knew a guy in Adelaide who could take a look at it for us if we could get it there but we didn’t want to risk the long drive. We asked around for a local mechanic and rocked up first thing to find out what was going on. Within minutes he knew it was an ignition misfire and luckily said he believed we could nurse it to Adelaide and get it fixed there as he was booked solid that day and we wanted to avoid staying somewhere so out of the way.

With the road trip at least temporarily back on we set off straight away but before Adelaide we had one more stop to make. Back in Melbourne we had spoken to two different people who recommended a German town outside of Adelaide called Hahndorf. They said there was good food and cute shops and it sounded like our kind of place.

We arrived late in the afternoon and once we were all set up at the campsite we ventured out into the rain to find food. There are a few German pubs in Hahndorf all of which do these huge sharing platters of German food, which as soon as I read about I knew we had to try. The Hahndorf Inn had the best reviews and straight away we had great service, being offered to sit by the fire and getting wine recommendations. The German Platter was piled high with pork shoulder, the meat falling off the bone, pork chops, sauerkraut and a variety of German sausage plus two pretzels. It was all a bit too much even for us! Tasty, but very stodgy too. No room for dessert!

The next day we got to explore the town a bit more, ducking into shops selling handmade soaps, candles and honey. We admired the expensive imported wooden trinkets made in Germany and realised it would be cheaper for us to fly to Germany to buy something there than to buy here. We also tried out one of the other German restaurants called Haus, this one had more of a mix of cuisine on the menu so was a great place for breakfast, serving some of the most delicious pancakes and poached eggs we had so far on the trip.

When we reached Adelaide it was too late to get the van looked at that day and we happened to have arrived on a weekend so we extended our stay and waited until Monday to get the van seen to. In the meantime it was a good opportunity to catch up with Ashlie, a friend of a friend who had started her working holiday visa a few months before us and happened to fly across from the East Coast to Adelaide in search of farm work. It was so nice to commiserate on finding work and share the ups and downs of travel. We got to chat to a few of the friends she had made in the hostel too and gain some travel tips from them and her. More than anything, I think for both of us, it was nice to have that little piece of familiarity from back home and I hoped our paths would cross again while in Australia.

Finally we managed to get the van looked at and the ignition misfire confirmed. As much as we love the van it has been a struggle and a cause for some low moments when our plans seem halted to get things fixed or paperwork needing to be ticked off. It had been a huge worry for us that if the repairs set us back financially it would change the course of our trip, or even lead us to have to give up the van entirely, or if not now then it could become a constant stop start on our journey and possibly even leave us stranded in a tricky situation if we broke down on the road. It is something we had accepted when we knew we wanted to buy a vehicle and road trip Australia but when the reality hits it can be a different story. Thankfully the costs were less than first quoted and it was all sorted in a day putting us back on track for the next leg of our journey.

Along the Great Ocean Road the drive times had been relatively short at 2 – 4 hours per day. Now we were heading into the outback those drive times would mostly be 6 – 8 hours long. Port Augusta was our first stop and this was mainly to break things up a little bit. It is definitely a hub for different road trips, whether you are heading north, south or west, it is a good jumping off point and quite a pretty place in its own way with a huge river cutting through it.

After resting up and enjoying the first evening of the trip so far that we were able to sit outside our van for a little while, it was an early start to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town whose residence have a unique way of living. Most of Coober Pedy’s homes are actually underground! This means that the houses stay cool in the hot sun and it makes expanding easy as you simply dig out another room whenever you need one. Even our campground was underground…well… sort of. We opted to stay at Riba’s Underground Campsite, which is just outside the town and offers people the chance to pitch up their tents underground for a campsite with a difference. Unfortunately we couldn’t park the van up underground so we had to live with the dust and the wind up top but we did join in with the mining tour the owner runs on site.

We gathered at the entrance with quite a big group of other guests at 7pm and were taken down into the cavern where various pieces of equipment were set up to demonstrate the method of opal mining in Coober Pedy. Our guide was a little odd, trying too hard to be funny at times and getting quite short with people (verging on rude) if anyone asked any questions as he clearly had his speeches and ways of explaining things that he didn’t want to be interrupted or thrown off course. It was $26 per person but meant we got 50% off one night stay but to be honest we saw better and cheaper mining tours around town so I wouldn’t necessarily be suckered in by this deal.

Still, it was interesting to learn how miners would follow certain veins in the rock to where the opal was most likely to be. Most of the mines were dug out by hand but slowly machinery began to be brought in and huge blowers would be used to suction out the debris creating the iconic mounds of dust and limestone that you’ll see scattered across the otherwise flat landscape as you arrive in Coober Pedy. If you are lucky you may even find some opal shrapnel by noodling (sieving through) these piles, something we saw several people doing while we were there.

The next day we visited Josephine’s Gallery and Kangeroo Sanctuary and met Judy, an incredibly knowledgeable woman both on aboriginal art and kangaroos. To begin with we had time to look around the gallery. There were some gorgeous art pieces but all too expensive for us frugal backpackers! Though we did treat ourselves to some smaller, cheaper prints of the original art. Once enough of a crowd had gathered we were taken out back to where the kangaroos were. They currently have three adults and many more joeys. We were handed some wasabi peas (apparently kangaroos like spicy food! They even eat the plants in the wild that have a spicier taste that other animals don’t eat) and all stuck our hands over the fence expectantly. But they were too lazy and remained where they were, collapsed in some interesting positions…

The little joey she brought out next was much more friendly. After having some milk Clyde clambered out of his pouch strapped to Judy and hopped around, exploring the little courtyard area, licking the wasabi peas (he was still to young to eat them but liked the flavour anyway) and sniffing at everything. He liked reaching up to give Judy a cuddle and let us stroke him too – he had the softest fur! Judy told us so many facts about kangaroos but one that stuck with me was that kangaroos actually use their hormones to choose the sex of their offspring right before birth. With most animals the sex is random or if it is affected by hormones it happens much earlier in the pregnancy but kangaroos can wait until the last moment to judge whether the ratio of male to females is right before the joey is born to keep things in balance. Pretty cool!

Although I could have had cuddles with little Clyde all day long, eventually we had to let him hop back into his pouch for a nap and head out exploring. We stopped off at the Big Winch View point, which is no more exciting than the name describes but did gives us a Birdseye view of this strange town. Everywhere you look there are junk piles or sculptures made from abandoned cars and rusted metal. It seems almost like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape, which may be why it was chosen as a location to film the Mad Max films. To get a real sense of what is going on beneath ground it is worth checking out Faye’s Underground home.

It was only $10 per person to look around the house and $15 to see the mine as well. We were taken through each room and told more about underground living and about Faye and the two other women she lived with who helped build the house. Faye came to Coober Pedy in the 60’s and decided to start opal mining, she hand dug her house, which became known for parties, as was evidenced by the liquor cupboard there. As their mining company became more successful they even built an above ground pool, which was a major luxury seeing as they had to have the water driven up from Adelaide to fill it! But they were always welcoming guests and neighbours to make use of it. They sounded like pretty badass women.

Coober Pedy is probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever been and for that reason alone it is worth visiting, even if it isn’t somewhere you would want to linger. Our next stop was to be a big one though – Uluru. It has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit and I couldn’t wait to get there.

The Road Trip Begins

Finally, after much paperwork and repairs, the van was ready for us to hit the road. We had ended up spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne and we felt this was more than enough. We were ready to move on and put our road trip plans into action.

On a grey morning we did our final preparations and set off for The Great Ocean Road. We couldn’t have picked a more scenic way to begin our trip. The Great Ocean Road actually officially starts from Torquay, a surfing town just outside Melbourne, and hugs the coastline for 243km until it reaches Warrnambool. Along the way there are plenty of viewpoints to stop off at and towns to explore so I had planned that our first day of driving would be a short one. The drive itself is half the fun though. The road twisted and turned, always with the sea to our left, crashing against rocks or lapping at small beaches. We passed coastal towns and stopped along the way at Point Addis, one of the many scenic viewpoints along the route. It felt so good to know that we were finally on our way.

Even though I had planned a short driving day after a late start and stopping for a few photo opportunities it was getting dark by the time we turned off The Great Ocean road and headed inland to find our first camp spot for the night. I had picked a free site in the Otway National Park called Beauchamp Falls. I pictured us arriving early, in time for a quick hike down the falls and then setting up camp. As is easy to do in Australia I had misjudged distance and we found ourselves driving through the dark up a long and winding road. Either side of us was thick forest and the signal was patchy and then gone entirely. We only passed one other vehicle, a mini bus of Asian Tourists, who stopped to ask the way back to Melbourne. We warned them it was a long drive and they would arrive in the city late and they warned us that they had turned back because the road was too narrow. But we had no choice but to carry on.

When we eventually pulled into the basic campsite it was pitch black. We used the headlights to scout the campground and found we couldn’t even park up on the grass as there were bollards in the way. There was no one else there and the deep dark forest surrounded us on every front. My imagination was running wild. Every bad horror movie was running through my head and looked suspiciously into the trees, half expecting to hear something or someone stirring. I tried to push these thoughts aside and started cooking dinner, making the van warm and cosy.

In the morning I emerged from the van into a tranquil forest glen. What had seemed dark and eery the night before was actually a gorgeous forest, with moss and vines growing over the trees that stretched endlessly to the sky and curly fungus growing on fallen logs. I stood in the middle of it all and took in the beautiful quiet, only the occasionally drip from the leaves around me and the twittering of birds nearby.

We were up nice and early and headed over to the nearby Otway Fly Treetop Adventure where you can either zip line through the trees or take a more sedate walk along the treetop walkway. Normally I’m always up for zip lining but to save a few bucks we opted for the walk instead. It was incredible to be right up in the canopy of these giant trees and there were signs with information about the local fauna that were really interesting. It is definitely worth a detour from the Great Ocean Road.

There was still plenty more to see along the next stretch of our journey and we headed out of Otway National Park and back to the coastline. There are several different rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, though the most famous and the one I was looking forward to the most was The Twelve Apostles. First we saw the Razorback, a long section of broken away cliff where the top has been worn razor thin by the elements. Then there is Loch Ard Gorge, which is named after a ship that wrecked there in 1878 as they were coming to the end of their three month journey from England to Melbourne. And finally The Grotto, an archway in the rock that frames a rock pool looking out to see, like a little private infinity pool. The Twelve Apostles is the main sight to see and it does perfectly capture what is so beautiful about the Great Ocean Road – a coastline stretching on forever, picturesque beaches and impressive rock formations. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks that have taken over 6000 years to form their shape and only eight remain after the other stacks collapsed into the ocean. But to me they were a symbol that the places I had seen pictures of, taken tips from guide books and brochures about and even described to others looking to book that trip, was now something I was getting to see and experience in real life. It brought home the fact that our long awaited road trip dreams were finally happening.

We veered off from The Great Ocean Road before it officially ended as our next stop was The Grampians National Park. It was another short drive day but again with all the stops in between we arrived as it was dark and bumped down a dirt track that led to our next free campsite. Luckily in this case there was another car on the road, a Juicy camper car we figured was also heading for the same campsite. We turned out to be correct and once we were parked up they came over to say hi. They were a lovely French couple spending six weeks exploring Australia and had already been in the national park for a couple of days so were able to give us tips on which hikes to do. This night didn’t feel quite so creepy as the last one and we were starting to find our feet with traveling in the van. Before settling in for the night we gazed up at spectacular starry sky, the Milky Way shimmering above us and loving every moment of being out in nature.

The next day we were off to explore it all by foot, starting our day of hiking with The Pinnacle, one of the most popular hikes in the Grampians. There are a few different options for walking it. You can start from Halls Gap, which is around 9.6km and takes around 5 hours going in a loop, there is the Sundial Carpark start point which is around 2.1km and 2 hours or from Wonderland Carpark which is similar distance and length but a slightly more challenging route. We started our walk from Sundial Carpark, mainly because we had one full day here and there were other hikes we wanted to fit in as well. The first natural marker we came across was The Grand Canyon,which isn’t quite as Grand as the one in the USA and made of grey stone instead of red (wish I could tell you the actual types instead of just the colours but that’s as far as my geology stretches). It is easy to think of Australia as being all like the outback, very much a desert landscape, but one of the things that has fascinated me about this country is just how different it can look from one area, one town, one state to another. In the Grampians, despite the different coloured rock, it could have been an American National Park we were hiking through – apart from the eucalyptus trees every so often – no koalas though unfortunately.

From the mini Grand Canyon we continued following the dusty path upwards, passing little nooks in the rock perfect for cooling off and tall sparse trees either side of us. Sometimes we followed the path and sometimes simple markers as we walked over rock. Eventually we reached Silent Street, an indication that we were nearing the top. This narrow path between a stone crevasse finished with a few steep stairs and only another ten minutes or less to the top. The Pinnacle itself is a rock jutting out (not unlike pride rock in the Lion King) over an incredible view o the National Park below. The views took your breath away but there was still more to see.

If I thought the view from The Pinnacle was amazing then I was even more blown away by the view from Baroka Lookout. For this we had to jump back in the van and head upwards on some very wiggly roads, even the temperature dropped further this high up. But it was worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to see so far from a viewpoint before.

After Baroka Lookout we did another couple of shorter walks, one to The Balconies, an almost mini version of The Pinnacle but on a much flatter walk and overlooking a different side of the Grampians. The second to MacKenzie Falls Lookout. You can do a longer hike down to the falls themselves but we were feeling a bit tired at this point and opted to just look from afar from the shorter viewpoint walk instead. It turned out we made the right decision as after checking out the falls we turned to do a loop back to where we came from where a sudden movement to our right startled us both. We turned to see a wallaby hopping away into the brush. We got a good clear look at him as he tried to suss us out and then hopped into denser brush then we spotted a second but both were so well camouflaged (there is a wallaby in the first photo below as evidence of this – check out @ThereAndBackAgainJJ for a clearer video) we could have walked pass a hundred that day and not realised. We were so excited to see them up close and we got an extra treat back at the campsite when a cluster were grazing just outside our van at night and some were even nearby in the morning as we packed up for our next destination.

I would have loved to stay in The Grampians longer. There is so much to explore and many more hikes on offer, plus the campsite itself was so peaceful, but unfortunately up all the hilly roads our van had started making strange noises and we felt it was best to get it checked out in Adelaide where there were more accommodation options if we had to leave the van overnight to be fixed. As great as van life is this was a reality check to us that there are always possibilities of things going wrong and we crossed our fingers that we would make it to Adelaide safe and sound, that the van would be an easy fix and that this wouldn’t be the end of our road trip before it had really begun.

Melbourne – Exploring Australia’s Most Liveable City

Melbourne was voted most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit for seven years in a row, a record breaking length (until it recently lost out to Vienna) and out of everyone I had spoken to about Melbourne I had only found two people who weren’t too keen. It was why we chose Melbourne as our starting point, to suss it out as a potential place to live later in the trip. Yet a week into arriving in this magnificent city and we hadn’t seen anything more interesting than the VICSRoad office, the bank and our caravan park. With life admin squared away we decided it was high time we checked out what Melbourne had to offer.

Melbourne Sea Life Centre

Just down the road from our hostel (also a short walk from Flinder’s street Station) is Melbourne Sea Life Centre, so after passing it so many times we decided to kill an afternoon while waiting for van repairs to take a look around. It was fun to check out, especially when trying to spot and name the fish we had seen on recent dives, but it was definitely more of a family activity. With the ticket price at per person $42 (or $32.50 if you have student discount) it probably isn’t worth it for a backpacker on a budget. That being said I did enjoy the talk by the big tank which features several types of shark, giant rays and a massive grouper called Mr G. When they first bought Mr G to the aquarium they decided to make sure he was well fed so that when he was introduced into his new tank he wouldn’t eat any of the other fish. They stuffed him full of 12kg of fish and figured that was more than enough. Oh no. Not for Mr G! He had been in the tank only a short while before he swam up to one of the sharks, almost the same size as him, and swallowed him whole. Yep. A grouper ate a shark whole. I never thought I would be more scared of a grouper than a shark! Apparently if you had blinked you missed it, his huge mouth opened and just gulped the shark whole. As unbelievable as it sounds, watching Mr G contentedly swimming around his tank, huge mouth gaping, it actually wasn’t too hard to believe.

Melbourne Zoo

I love a good zoo! I know a lot of people question the ethics of zoos but I believe as long as you are selective about going to legit zoos with a good reputation and outstanding conservation efforts, you can support something worthwhile. Melbourne Zoo was super easy to get to with tram, bus and train routes that stop directly outside the zoo. It’s a reasonable size too that if you want to see the whole park you can fi it into a full day without feeling rushed. The enclosures are broken down into groups and paths lead you on loops around each section. There are plenty of eating options but like most zoos it is all overpriced so best to bring a picnic. The only downside was the animal talks were quite short, less than ten minute run downs on the animals main attributes and background. It was one of my favourite things to do in Melbourne because it is always a joy to me to watch animals just being animals.

Free Walking Tour

After an incredible free walking tour in Berlin that set the bar high, we always keep a lookout for free walking tours wherever we travel. They are a great way to get a feel for a city and know your way around while getting an interesting history and side stories about the place. At the end you tip what you feel the tour was worth, or what your budget will allow. We took this tour with walkingtours101 which we heard about through the YHA hostel as they do pick ups there. He told us many interesting facts about the city, including that it was originally designed without any town squares as they didn’t want places where people could gather. Our guide explained the rebellion against the gold mining licences at the Eureka stockade and how the Eureka tower represents this with the red representing the blood shed, the blue the flag they flew and of course the gold top for the gold. Another interesting fact is that the city was originally called Batmania after one of the founding fathers called John Batman. Personally I think they should have kept the name, imagine telling people you were just off to Batmania for the weekend! The highlight for me was ending. At the Melbourne gaol where Ned Kelly was hung. Our guide told us the story of Ned Kelly’s final showdown and it sounded epic and made me interested to know more.

Secret bars – Berlin’s Bar

There are loads of secret bars in Melbourne. They have adopted the prohibition style without ever having had a prohibition in Australia. I wanted to check out a few more than just Berlin Bar but being a bit far out from the city centre this was the only one we made it to. It is above a bar called House of Maximon, which holds a free comedy night (again tip what you like) every Wednesday night. The bar is designed with one half like east Berlin and the other half like West Berlin, though we heard that strangely most people choose to sit by Stalin’s portrait in West Berlin than to enjoy the glam of the East Berlin decor.

Laneways

As part of our walking tour we passed through Hosier Lane, well known for its ever-changing street art. We were recommended to go more than once as you’ll see something different every time; this was definitely true as some of the art had already changed only a few days later when we passed through again. Most of the best stuff in Melbourne happens down these laneways, there are quirky shops, cute cafes and hidden gems of restaurants waiting to be found. We also met a friend for drinks at Chuckles Park Bar, right near Flinders Street, that turned out not to be down an alleyway but the bar was the alleyway itself! Heaters gave the place a warming glow, lanterns hung above us and the little shed at the end served up cocktails, wines and beers. Perfect place to spend an evening after a day exploring the city’s backstreets.

Immigration Museum

We walked past this museum over and over again and what caught my eye was the exhibition on tattoos in different cultures that sounded interesting. On a rainy day we decided it was a good time to mooch about the museum. Students get in for free, otherwise an adult ticket is $15, and it is worth checking out. The exhibitions are detailed and thought provoking. I’ll admit I found the tattoo exhibition the most interesting but it was a great rainy day activity.

St Kilda

I had heard lots of good things about St Kilda – basically if you like cafes, good food and markets this is the place to go. We went on the weekend and there were definitely Sunday vibes in the air. Everyone was eating outside in the sun and it reminded of pub lunches back home. The other great thing about Sunday is the St Kilda Esplanade Market that runs every Sunday and sells all sorts of trinkets, home-made soaps and tasty oils, spices and other foods with plenty of tasters on hand. Another must do is to try one of the cake shops in St Kilda. Europa has windows lined with chunky cheesecakes, thick wedges of cakes and fruity tarts – just about every treat you could want! We grabbed a chocolate cheesecake for me and a lemon meringue pie for Joey and headed to the Botanical Gardens for a mini picnic.

As the sun started to set we headed to the Pier for the other reason we had come to St Kilda. Every evening the little Fairy Penguins that call the rocks surrounding the pier home come back to their nests to fee their young and rest up before heading back out into the bay at dawn to fish again. Get there early as it gets very crowded but once the penguins start coming in people tend to disperse and stay a little later to see many of these cute penguins up close. The little penguins are kept an eye on by volunteers from Earthcare St Kilda, a non-profit organisation that work to protect the penguins and their home, making sure a safe distance is kept and their habitat isn’t disturbed.

I could see why Melbourne had won the award for most liveable city. I imagined myself living here, heading to the markets for fresh veg, hopping on the free inner city trams, spending lazy weekends in St Kilda and discovering all the secret bars with friends of an evening. At the same time the cold and the rain was off-putting and with so much more to explore of this vast country we were excited to move on. It was the perfect start place and I look forward to visiting again in the summer, whether we will settle here or not is still a long way off, for now we have some road tripping to do.

Bali Part 3 – Broken Roads, Manta Rays and Surfer Pros

Spending the past week in one place was a really welcome break but with so much to see and do in Bali we started to get itchy feet to explore some more. We were enjoying island life and had heard good things about the Nusa islands so we hopped back on the ferry and left the gorgeous Gili islands behind.

Day 12 – To pick up where I left off we arrived in Nusa Lembongan and had booked a stay at Taos House. While checking in our host told us it was her birthday and invited us to join in the celebrations later that night. We were immediatly made to feel welcome with home cooked food and ice cold Bintang beers, which mysteriously kept replenishing every time one was finished. Once the Bintang ran low we were offered vodka in a small martini glass and from there graduated to a strong Balinese liquor that came from a plastic water bottle. Apart from the fact it tasted like nail polisher remover, it didn’t seem all that strong but that being said we only had a bottle cap full. It was a fun and unexpected experience – the party as a whole, not just the alcohol!

Day 13 – Our main reason for coming to the Nusa islands was because we had heard we were basically guaranteed to see manta rays there, something which had become a bucket list item for us after hearing it was a possibility in Bali. So first on the agenda was to find a dive centre and book in a manta dive. We asked around at a few places before settling on Two Fish divers and booking in for two dives the next day.

With this underway we stopped for lunch by the sea and then continued on our way the Mangrove forests. You can book boat trips, snorkel trips or kayaking through the forest. When a guy we were chatting to knocked the price down to 100,000 IDR we were tempted but having lots of cameras and bits with us we didn’t trust leaving them behind or potentially getting them wet. I had also read up that there wasn’t a huge amount to see in the Mangrove forest, that being said though the only way to see them is to take a boat trip. We went to the edge thinking we could at least see a little bit or venture part way in ourselves but the way is pretty much blocked by restaurants and places to arrange tours. Being able to bargain down to £5 for a couple of hours trip though isn’t a bad deal if you do want to explore.

From the mangroves it was on to the neighbouring island of Nusa Cenigan. I had heard of some beautiful spots, such as Blue Lagoon and Secret Beach. They were a bit tricky to track down and to be honest Blue Lagoon was pretty but nothing spectacular and after rattling down a dirt track and going through a resort to get to Secret Beach, I was disappointed to see it was nothing special. The wind and waves were too fierce to swim there and it was a rocky beach with very little sand to chill on. The photos I had seen online looked more impressive. It is something which has been a topic of conversation recently that many typical instagram spots in Bali turn out not to live up to expectation and I have to say this is something we encountered a lot. Many places looked nice but less impressive than the edited photos online and for these photos to have zero tourists in they must have had superb timing in visiting places as it was a constant struggle to get photos without crowds. Aesthetics aside the other disappointment is that many of these picturesque beaches are too dangerous to swim in and generally, views aside, there are not a lot of activities to do on these islands.

That being said, simply watching life pass by from the back of the motorbike, zipping through villages, past bustling markets, serene temples or even the beautiful blue ocean, on our way to these view points and beaches was an experience in itself and made the day all round worth it.

Day 14 – An early start for our dives this morning but it wasn’t long before we were on the boat speeding round to Nusa Penida. After some research we discovered that although Manta Point dive site is off Nusa Penida, most dive shops are based on Nusa Lembongan, although more are opening up on Nusa Penida now too, and they will charge an extra fee for the manta dive sites (150,000 IDR per person). On the way we saw a couple of dolphins jumping out of the surf and I took it as a good sign for the days dive.

The water was a lot colder than we had been used to in the Gili islands as manta rays prefer colder water. We were diving down to a known cleaning station where other fish come to eat parasites and other icky things from the rays, keeping them nice and healthy and feeding the other fish at the same time. I was expecting we would be lucky to see a couple on our dive but almost immediately we saw our first manta ray and it was stunning. I knew they would be big but their size still surprised me and so did their grace as they glided through the water. I could have watched them all day. The most magical moment was when a particularly dark one, black almost all over, came straight towards me. I hovered in the water as it moved closer, feeling completely at peace and in awe of this incredible creature, before it swerved away into the ocean depths. One of my favourite moments of the trip.

After that experience the second dive was a bit of an anti-climax however it was still a beautiful reef, teeming with fish. We managed to see a couple of moray eels and I even spotted a lobster that had recently de-shelled, the poor naked lobster looked very startled and scurried under a rock!

Day 15 – We checked out of our AirBnB and headed to the Yellow Bridge to get a boat across to Nusa Penida. The journey is just 10 – 15 minutes and costs 40,000 IDR per person each way. It was simple to get a ticket, there was a guy with a stall, he handed us a yellow ticket with the names of the boats on the back for us to look out for on our open return and then took a seat and waited to be called up. Our next Air BnB picked us up the other end and a kind local even helped us out by calling him to let him know we had arrived when he saw us trying to track down wifi to message him.

The rest of the day was spent chilling out and in the evening we hopped on a scooter hired from our host and headed to a popular restaurant I had read about online called Penida Colada. If you are a big group it is best to book ahead and I think most tables are reserved after 8pm as there is always a queue. But the wait wasn’t long and it was most definitely worth it! Penida Colada is a stylish beach side restaurant with a mixture of tables and more casual beanbags, benches and sofas, in case you want to wander straight off the beach, and is great for watching the sunset. It was started by a Balinese guy called Pak Wayan and his Australian wife, Liz, you can usually see him helping out around the restaurant and keeping things running smoothly. They only hire locals and cook with local produce, which is great in itself, but they also make it their mission to get involved in community projects, run beach cleanups you can join in with and sell eco friendly bits and bobs such as bamboo straws. The menu is quite small but there is only one thing you need to order – the honey barbequeue prawns. We ended up coming back a second time and I couldn’t resist eating them again. Joey had major regrets and food envy both times. If you are on Nusa Penida definitely pay them a visit, it is a great way to support the local community and eat some amazing food.

Day 16 – Around lunchtime we headed to the nearby Crystal Bay, the same bay we had done our second dive at, to chill on the beach. We were hoping it would be a bit more built up so we could grab lunch, wander through some shops and then relax on the beach but it turns out to be a few shack shops selling cheap lunch and not much else. So we chilled for a bit and then hit the road again to find the Guri Putri Cave temple.

When you arrive you can hire sarongs from a shop over the road, then head up the stairs where at the top you’ll receive a blessing and provide a donation to enter (40,000 IDR for two of us). The entrance is a very small hole you have to climb into. It isn’t too tight a squeeze and as soon as you are in the ceiling is low but it all opens up pretty quickly then you can walk through these huge caverns. It was very humid and there were several alters and statues in the different chambers we passed through. A few people were at prayer but otherwise when we visited it was very quiet.

At the end as we left there were some monkeys outside the temple, only I got completely caught off guard by one on a railing that I seemed to have also startled. He bared his teeth at me and then made to lunge forward, I took a step back and lowered my gaze, trying to appear submissive, and at the same time one of the men from the temple chased him off but it was a scary moment!

Day 17 – Today was our big siteseeing day. We were driving over to the other side of the island to see Broken Beach and Angel’s Billabong, Kelingking Beach and Waterfalls. As we were leaving our AirBnB host warned “broken beach, broken road” and he was not wrong! I expected some uneven ground, potholes and dirt tracks, what we got was mile stretches of all of these things combined to the worst possible standard you could imagine, plus going up and down hills, plus going round tight bends sometimes and as there were plenty of big cars taking other tourists there, we also had to occasionally dodge these too. “Hold on”, Joey was yelling repeatedly as I gripped the back of the motorbike and rattled around so much I swear my brain was bouncing about in my skull. But eventually, we made it.

Angel’s Billabong is a rock pool that creates a natural infinity pool overlooking the sea. If you come at low tide you can swim, enjoying the crystal clear waters, but at high tide the waves crash over the edge and it is too dangerous to enter the pool. We had tried to time our visit for low tide but seemed to have gotten the wrong information as the pool was cordoned off. There were so many people surrounding it to get photos that I was almost glad I wasn’t swimming with them in a small pool where everyone would be trying to get the over the edge shot.

Around the corner from Angel’s Billabong is Broken Beach, so called as it is encircled by land that has an opening, creating a kind of bridge on one side and an enclosed beach to look down on. You can’t get down to the beach but it makes for some stunning pictures from above.

Next was KelingKing Beach, so well known as the rocky outcrop next to it looks like a t-Rex head from above. Again it was a bit of a battle to get photos without people in (how they do it for instagram I have no idea?!) but it looked gorgeous. The beach is accessible here… if you fancy climbing down approximately one thousand steep steps. We went part way down for a better look but didn’t much fancy the climb back up and to be honest we would be glad we saved our energy. This is another beach that isn’t great for swimming, though as long as you don’t go too far out in the surf you can actually get in the water.

Final stop for the day was Waterfall and if I thought the steps at Kelkinking were bad I was in for a surprise! The blue stairs leading down was more like a ladder at points and the gaps between the stairs themselves were enough to make my knees weak. The fact that the old, collapsed and rusted previous stairs still lay directly underneath these new ones didn’t help either. However, it was worth the journey. At the bottom is a temple so you need to wear a sarong t visit. When we reached the rocks at the bottom there was water cascading over them and it was a little slippy so you had to be careful. We passed through the small temple gates and down the rocks, with nothing more than natural footholds to climb down, to an area where you can bathe. There is a set of mini infinity pools that offer a beautiful look out to sea as the waves crash just below you. For the first time that day there were not many people around, we reached the bottom not long before sunset so everything had a slight golden glow and the water was cool and refreshing after a humid hike down. It was so peaceful. I took a moment just to be.

Unfortunatly it couldnt last too long though as we were nervous about getting caught on bad roads in the dark so as much as I would have liked to sit and watch the sunset we got going on the long climb back up and luckily didn’t come across any broken roads on the way back.

Day 17 – The end of our trip was approaching fast and we had decided to spend our final days back in Canggu. We loved the food, it was nice to go back to somewhere we knew and we were still keen to give surfing a go. It took us retry much the whole day to get back as it involved getting the short boat trip back to Lembongan first, getting picked up by Scoot at the Yellow Bridge, a bumpy boat journey back to mainland Bali and then a long taxi ride mostly in traffic from Sanur to Canggu.

Day 18 – Canggu is known as a good place to give surfing a go as the waves are great for beginners. I had only tried surfing once before and loved it, so was keen to give it another try. We booked a lesson for 350,000 IDR per person but we went with the first person we spoke to so it is worth asking around for the cheapest price.

The instructor didn’t have the best English so I felt like I missed some of the finer points of surf techniques but once I got the hang of it in the water he was very encouraging. It was slightly disappointing that Joey had a different instructor and was taken off separately but he really needed bigger waves than me to get the best experience. We managed to cross paths though when I looked up to find the surfer in the white rash guard was my boyfriend, my first thought was ‘amazing! He’s standing up!’ And my second, as he came straight towards me was ‘please dont kill me!’ Up to that point I had been struggling to stand, always losing my balance at the last moment, but I think seeing him made me more determined than ever and on my next go I stood up on the board. I was amazed that I managed to ride a wave a fair while and only jump off when I was either losing momentum or heading towards another surfer.

It was a great way to end our time in Bali and we sat talking over our trip and reminiscing about our favourite parts as we sat on the beach, cold drinks in hand and watched surfers more pro than us. Our next adventure was about to start and although I hoped there would be more times like this I knew that we had a lot to do when we touched down in Melbourne. Bali was the perfect break we needed to soak up the sun, let go of past stresses and find our feet traveling. There were times this country surprised me, times it didn’t quite meet expectations and times it exceeded them immensely. Above all I can see why people come back again and again and I knew as we lingered another moment longer on that beach, that we too would be back again one day.