Monday, July 14, 2014

Hitchhiking and Train Riding in Australia: A guest post

Guest post by Ryan

My last night in the Ayers Rock Resort campground, I decided to take a shower instead of a dip in the saltwater pool. I went to the men's "bathhouse" and the only showerhead was in a handicapped stall with a broken door latch. I'm not sure if that was indicative of all the amenities of the campground but in that particular men's room I just accepted my fate and used the handicapped shower. Thankfully, nobody else needed to shower then.

The next morning, I woke up and broke camp. I bid adieu to the only patches of grass in hundreds of miles and walked the short distance out of the campground. I stopped to say goodbye to Taylah, but she wasn't working. I posted up on the road across from the resort and extended my left thumb, indicating that I needed a ride east. I've hitchhiked over 1,000 miles, mostly in California, Oregon and Alaska. Alaska, in particular, is notoriously easy to get rides. I was interested to see how the Aussies treated the vehicularly-challenged travelers. It was less than 15 minutes in the 30 degree Celcius heat before a white van screeched to a halt and I grabbed my pack and hustled to catch up. The vehicle was a vanagon/westfalia style with a mattress in the back. I later learned that the couple who owned it were on a pre-marriage honeymoon trip. They bought the van in Sydney and built drawers and shelves in the back and were planning on driving all the way across the continent to Perth.

The travelers were a young couple from Israel. I wish I could say I caught their names and if I were a real reporter, I would have. I sat up front in the middle while the girl drove and the guy made conversation. His English was better than hers but as those conversations go, we stuck to things that weren't too complicated. I think I actually prefer talking to people whose first language is not English. You can talk about anything; the clouds, the cows, the fenceposts, the roadkill and compare them to where they're from. The guy explained to me that that she was a decade younger than him and was not very confident in her English. Of course, I'd picked that up but still conversed as if they understood me equally. As with any beautiful girl I am introduced to, I looked at her ring finger. She was sporting a decent sized rock so I commented to her "Congratulations". They were to be wed after their journey across Australia. I wish I had the funds and the commitment to take a significant other to a vast country and drive across it with no reassurance that our vessel would make it. I mean, with no side trips, Sydney to Perth is 4,000 miles and that's completely bypassing Uluru. I've had breakups that ended on roadtrips—I couldn't imagine that kind of journey.
I told them about my camel ride since I had so much fun and they laughed hysterically. You paid $120 to ride a camel? In my country, you would pay $5.

Throughout the trip, we had a pleasant conversation and they were, hands down, the most genial couple I've ever caught a ride with. We chatted about the dangers of Australia (snakes, spiders, crocs, etc.) and the driver just smiled and told me, "Australian people like to talk about how dangerous it is to live here. The natural hazards aren't very bothersome. We live in a place where people get killed by other people and get away with it. That is the real hazard, a human wanting to kill you for no good reason."

A couple of hours later, they dropped me off at what can only be described as a pitstop. It was about lunchtime so I went into a pub and dropped my backpack on a stool. I ordered a Victoria Bitter and some potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce. I took in the ambience of a true outback outpost—reptile skins on the walls, flies darting in and out of beers, and a state-of-the-art karaoke machine... probably the main source of income in this dump.

Tipping is basically unheard of in Australia, which is quite a change from the States where tipping anywhere is expected at more or less fifteen percent. Tipping can be annoying but let me tell you, it is better than the flipside. Waitstaff in Australia usually greet you, take your order, then ignore you. They then check Facebook on their phones and space out until it's time to bring out your food. Forget about getting a refill without a response of rolled eyes. After half an hour I got my taters and I saw a scraggly, exhausted, sunburnt bloke wander in and sling down his pack. I figured he'd been hitching, too so I asked him, "Where ya headed?" Uluru, he said, in a British accent. "Where ya comin' from?" "Alice Springs," he told me. "I just got a ride from a guy who's headed back to Alice." He then asked me if he could snag a potato wedge and I jumped up and told him they were his if he pointed me in the direction of the man driving to Alice Springs.

I waited for the driver to emerge from the truckstop restroom and then intercepted him on his way to his car. He was only caught off guard for a split-second. He was singing some sort of college sports song for football or rugy or cricket or who knows what. It was a fight song and he was in his own little world. He accepted my request without hesitation and continued singing while he filled with petrol. Honestly, I asked his name also but I didn't catch it either. Let's call him Bob. He was definitely a "Bob". He was a retired Navy veteran who enjoyed driving aimlessly. It was my lucky day because he had no reason to drive to that intersection in Erldunda—and he was running an errand in Alice Springs and saw the gangly Brit signaling for a ride. Two hours later, he was on his way home and the poor guy was still there, so Bob took him all the way to the junction. Bob really wasn't interested in the States or me at all, I was the sole maker of conversation for the first half hour and then he cranked some tunes and we didn't really speak. I actually dozed off for at least 45 minutes. Bob had 3 cds in his car. Fleetwood Mac, Crowded House and John Farnham. I haven't given too many rides to hitchhikers but it is a power trip—you're in control of the windows, music, conversation, everything and if you feel like kicking them out, well, that's the end of the ride. Of course most people who pick up hitchhikers are good-natured people. I actually had a girl pick me up in Alaska in 2007 and ended up dating her the rest of the summer. She drove me 269 miles out of her way to Denali National Park that day. Bob drove me 259 miles out of his way. Bob was a perfect traveling companion because he didn't care if I talked or slept but he did have an incessant fascination with John Farnham. Bob informed me was known as "The Voice" in Australia. In the late 80s, early 90s, apparently, John Farnham was a legend. Farnham is not a bad singer, but he made some of the most god-awful videos of music video history.
Finally, I boarded The Ghan (rhymes with can), the famous train that dissects Australia North/South from Darwin to Adelaide. I've logged many miles on Amtrak and Canada's VIA Rail, so I can make some informed comparisons of the different trains. First of all, Australia Rail made me check a bag under the train that I could not access for the entire trip. Strike one. The seats were fine. Some power outlets would be nice but really nothing was lacking. All "red" economy seats shared two bathrooms. One had a shower though, which was a nice surprise at first. 40 or so people shared the shower but it's better than no shower at all. There was a dining car/minibar car as opposed to Amtrak that has an entire dining car with a downstairs minibar car. Not to mention an upstairs viewing car with seats pointing towards the windows. I'm not saying that AusRail is not worth the money, I definitely found that it was. I spent the first day talking with this German girl Julia/Yuliya (or some variation of that) who was across the aisle from me. We shared a lot of laughs. She was a part of a group called G Tours. I have a friend from Virginia who has been to Costa Rica with G Tours. I'd never in my life considered paying to travel with a bunch of strangers, but they really were fun and they included me as much as could be expected. I get the concept of the group tour now—you get to experience a country with tried and true accommodations and excursions with other people who are equally excited to be on vacation and you can watch each others' backs.
The Ghan, the train that runs from Adelaide (in southern Australia) to Alice Springs (in the Red Centre of Australia) to Darwin (in northern Australia)
The next day we had a "whistle stop" which was actually a 3 hour stop in Katherine to visit the Katherine Gorge. I didn't have it in me to hike to the gorge. The G Tour did, though. In the peak season there are two ferries going back and forth across the Katherine River and in the middle is a designated swimming zone. I would assume that the boat traffic discourages crocodiles, but when I was there the ferries were not running and swimming was prohibited. I went by myself to a tributary creek of the Katherine River. During that time I didn’t see a single human or crocodile, so I decided to go swimming and forgo the line for the shower back on the train. I could see the bottom of the 7-foot deep creek so I wasn't too worried. After surveying my surroundings for half an hour I took the plunge.

In Darwin, I said goodbye to the people I'd met on the train and got some email addresses. I took a taxi to the airport and my driver must have been a true bogan (Australian for ‘redneck’) because I couldn't understand half of what he was saying. He told me he wouldn't book a flight longer than 4 hours because that was the maximum amount of time he could go without a cigarette. He asked me how many elderly ladies were on the train. Eight, I think. They were sitting behind me. The Ghan is one of those bucket list trips for Australians, so he was surprised there weren't more old people.

Australia's first European inhabitants were exiled prisoners sent to Botany Bay in 1788. In 1859, the Outback still remained uncrossed, so the government offered a reward for the first expedition to successfully navigate from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria. This led to the almost successful but ultimately disastrous Burke and Wills expedition. I say ‘almost successful’ enough because they didn't actually reach the northern shore, the thickness of the mangrove swamps caused them to fall a few miles short. The disastrous part came on the return journey, when seven men died, including both Burke and Wills. The remaining men required several rescue expeditions to return home. Today, 9 out of 10 people in Australia live within 50 kilometers of the coast. Life is good on the coast and hard in the interior. The Great Australian Desert remains an unforgiving place where the sun shines down hard and the landscape offers little shade. I was expecting red dirt as far as the eye could see, but 2014 brought more rain than average and what I saw was mostly scrubland, sage-looking bushes and plenty of red dirt in between. Eventually, drought will choke the water out of the land and bushfires will clear the dry vegetation.

Termite mounds as seen from the train window
Uluru is inconvenient and even expensive to get to. The cheapest way to see it would be to fly from a coastal city to Yulara and then back, but then you'd only see a tiny speck of the Outback. I wanted to spend time in one of the world's least populated regions and I'm glad I did. To quote my favorite author, environmentalist and desert advocate, Edward Abbey; "I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

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