As I sit down to write up my 1o day Australian voyage its 10 degrees in New York City–or at least it feels like it. Its pretty unbelievable that just over a week ago I was in 100 degree summer heat, in the middle of the Outback, on a formidable quest to see wild kangaroos. An hour ago I just walked around the corner to get breakfast and my face almost froze off and fell onto the ground. I am looking forward to dipping back into the memory bank, in my well-heated West Village apartment, and reliving a reunion in Australia with some of my most favorite people on the planet. As I bang out this post in the next couple of hours I get the privilege of journeying back to the wedding/reunion in Sydney, my Australian Super Bowl circus, the scantly clad beaches of Wollongong, and the 16,000 acre sheep station I was hanging out at in the middle of the Outback.
Weddings and Reunions
I started this blog in 2007 while backpacking through South America. I left by myself for what turned out to be 18 months of traveling around the world (it turned out to be mostly South America, North America, and Africa). Before I left for the trip, the guy that inspired me to travel to begin with (One of my best friends in Baltimore, an Australian) gave me the following advice, “Mate, the first thing you want to do is hook up with a group of Aussies!, They’ll be everywhere, so choose wisely”.
So, on the first day of my solo trip in January 2007, in a hostel in Buenos Aires, I met Benny Vears and Billy Barnetson. They were straight out of the Australian Navy Special Forces (think Australian Navy Seals but a notch less hardcore), and they too were on the first day of their year plus trips. That chance encounter was without a doubt one of the most fortunate of my entire journey. The three of us traveled off and on throughout the entire duration of my 18 months voyage (Benny traveled a total of 2 years, and Billy 3 years). Our adventures ranged from trekking deep in the Amazon Jungle, to skiing in the Canadian Rockies, to wildlife canoe trips deep in Bolivia. Benny and I spent almost 8 months traveling together in total.
Through Billy, I met Jess Ledger. We spent two and half months traveling in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. I met Dave Mallet (also an Australian Navy Seal) when he came to South America and synced up with Benny. We traveled 3 months through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos.
The purpose of the trip to Australia was Benny’s wedding to the wonderful and beautiful Leah Williams, who he has been with for the last 5 years. The wedding proved to be a most excellent forum for a long overdue, full-blown reunion from those days in South America. There were many stories to tell and experiences to relive.
Benny and Leah were to be married outside on this beautiful “postcard from Sydney-esk” overlook of the entire city–with the Sydney Harbor bridge and the Opera house in the background. The remnants of a cyclone that hit Northern Australia did not quite agree with their choice of venues, and after a morning of touch and go decisions on whether to have the wedding indoors or outdoors, they decided to go with plan B (which turned out to be the same view, but from inside a tent) inside of Sydney’s biggest zoo. A rainy wedding day is most certainly good luck. This much has been confirmed throughout the ages. But, little did Benny and Leah know that they cemented in their good luck with the decision to do the wedding under cover. Just 10 minutes before the wedding a huge storm steamrolled through. If we were outside everyone one have gotten crushed. Leah and Benny’s grandmothers, aunts, great aunts hair would have been a disaster! The ceremony was full of family and friends laughing and crying—just as one would expect. In Australia there is an actual signing of paperwork after the vows.
The reception was a blur of magnanimous speeches, Australian beer, and wedding traditions along the 180-degree backdrop of one of the most beautiful city skylines in the world (the picture at the top of this post is the view from the reception).
Ben got back into the Australian Special Forces after we returned from traveling–and actually spent some time in international waters off the coast of Somalia fighting pirates. The sheer mass of some of his mates from the Navy Special forces, would cause any single, slightly intoxicated American some stress when trying to figure out which of the 20, extremely attractive Australian ladies to dance with. One wrong move could have easily landed me upside down with my head in the cake. Fortunately, I had my wits about me.
The Super Bowl in Australia
Its funny how quickly the Super Bowl becomes old news. It was exactly two weeks ago. But, the Baltimore Ravens, my team of all teams, took home the Lombardi trophy. I was apprehensive at first about even finding a place to watch the game in Sydney, but my nerves were quickly calmed when I came to the realization that Australians really like the NFL. They get three games a week on cable TV–and it is the offseason for their national pastime, the Australian Rules Football league. Jess and I had to wait in a huge line that winded around the corner of the mega pub in Sydney where we decided to watch the game. There were at least 400 people, most wearing extremely outdated NFL jerseys (think any Daunte Caulpepper jersey, and Peyton Manning Colts jerseys), surrounding us on all sides at 10:30am on a Monday morning. The cases of Budweiser, that the bar had for the special occasion, sold out before the game even started.
I also learned that Australian pubs like to strategically place full on, giant wall mirrors throughout their establishments (I guess to make the bars look even bigger). I learned the hard way as I was walking to the bathroom and noticed a very similar looking guy walking right toward me. I was like, “geez that guy looks a lot like me”…. WAM! and smashed into the mirror. The 10 Aussies to the left of me were highly amused, and I quickly and softly informed them that I hadn’t even had a drink yet!
I also quickly learned from my new Aussie NFL compadres, that the Super Bowl is a pretty good reason to take off of work and go to the pub. While some people knew all the rules it became clear pretty quickly that most had no idea what the hell was going on. Also, whether they were for the Ravens or the Niners, the crowd went crazy with every big play and every score. In the end, as you know, the Ravens barely held on to win one of the best Super Bowls in memory. After the game, Jess and I stumbled through Sydney on foot back to the waterfront where we were staying, having victory lunch at a tiny little gem of a noodle shop in Chinatown that we found on Yelp. There is nothing like “post-SuperBowl-victory-euphoria” on a Monday afternoon in Australia.
Scantly Clad Beaches in Wollongong
After the wedding festivities, Ben and Leah headed to Bali for their honeymoon, while Jess and I headed south to the Wollongong coast to hang out at Billy’s beach-front place. Billy lives in a suburb just north of Wollongong. Thirroul, is as sleepy, surfy, and relaxed of a place as I have ever visited in the westernized world. Flocks of wild cockatoos constantly scream overhead (apparently they are major pests), and the entire town is surrounded by either the deep blues of the Pacific Ocean or the rich greens of the bush of national park land. It has been confirmed, Wollongong is colorful! Billy, whom I most recently traveled through Nicaragua with last month, was born and raised in and around Wollongong and things definitely crystalized with respect to my understanding of his good nature. I am going to go out on a limb and make a completely unscientific assumption, but I would imaging that growing up and living in such a beautiful, chilled out, Australian paradise can have positive effects on ones character. It’s the kind of place where people do not lock their front doors, everyone has a dog, and families get together weekly. Every Tuesday, Billy and his family and friends have “make your own pizza night” at his parent’s house. Apparently it has been going on for years.
Billy works in commercial diving, and lives in the same building as his girlfriend Anna. Together they are putting massive plans together to bike from the tip of the Alaska to the tip of South America. It is a two-year bike ride and incredibly intense experience that will most likely involve grizzly bears and sleeping on the side of the road in El Salvador. The physical conditioning and stamina needed to do something like this is extreme. The fact that Anna is up for such a wild and crazy adventure shows me just how perfect the two of them are for each other. I am planning to meet up with them at some point on their trip—hopefully biking through Oregon and Northern California.
Everyday we would wake up, and jump into the ocean to get the day rolling, which was a short 100 yards from Billy’s front door. The water was rough and choppy, from the remnants of the same cyclone that affected the wedding. Unfortunately, it was too choppy to surf. But we did get to go on some solid day hikes through the bush. We climbed the sharp, ladder-laden escarpment that overlooks all of Wollongong and the Ocean (see pic).
We also did a hike through the bush to a remote beach in the National Park in the north. At one point we “zigged”, where we should have “zagged” and ended up at what was noted by a sign as a “scantly clad” beach. The beach was beautiful, with high cliffs overlooking the ocean, and with sharp rocks lining the shallow waters. We walked down and noticed on one side of the beach, a group of people under umbrella’s wearing bathing suits. Lets label this group the “non-scantly clad”. We situated ourselves next to these seemingly normal people and unpacked our lunches.
It was then that we noticed that there was another contingent of people on the other side of the beach. Lets label this contingent “the shirtcockers”. Urban dictionary has a very solid definition of a shirtcocker.
|1) a male whose commitment to nudity stops above the waist. 2) a common phenomenon among cartoon characters wherein the character is deprived of pants; see Donald Duck, Ziggy, Winnie the Pooh, etc.|
The parade of shirtcockers back and forth in front of us was consistent throughout our time at the scantly clad beach. It made for a much more interesting lunch than we were anticipating. The sun in east Australia is scorching. So I certainly get the strategy, but it was nonetheless not exactly the breathtaking views that we were endeavoring for on our epic hike.
2 Hours to Adelaide, The finest wine and the wildest Kangaroos
*Sidenote Pause: There are two Jess’, so don’t be confused!
Jess Ledger and I took the train for Wollongong to the Sydney airport where we said our goodbyes, Jess was heading back home to Perth after spending 6 months taking classes in Denmark, I took the 1.5 hour flight to Adelaide. Jess and I had an amazing time the first 7 days of my trip. I really can’t wait to get to Perth and Western Australia.
I didn’t have this part of the trip worked out before I was in Australia, but I am so glad that Dave invited me, and that I made the decision to go. The first night Dave and Jess gave me the tour of Adelaide. Dave works for a company that is building a massive overland bridge, while Jess is an Architect. We had about 3 days before I had to head back to New York City and we filled the South Australia itinerary to the brim.
Wine country in Australia is legendary. We hit up four vineyards in the Barossa Valley, one of the most important wine regions in the world. The nicest vineyard we hit up, Torbreck, has vines that are over 100 years old. Most of these vines were brought from France, and the same variety in France had been lost to disease years and years ago. Everytime I go wine tasting I come back with a breadth of new knowledge—and a uniformly extreme next day hangover. Australia was no different.
Dave and Jess have friends that have had a sheep station in their family for 8 generations. The estate and property is named “Baldina”. If you are not familiar with what a sheep station is (I definitely had no clue), its basically a massive Australian outback/desert sheep farm. Baldina is 16,000 acres large (unbelievably ginormous). Dave and Jess’ friends, Toddy and Prue had organized a weekend for some of their closest friends to come out and hang by the pool, eat lamb, drink wine, and relax.
Embracing my American-ness, I was clearly the only one excited to go on safari for wild kangaroos. Everyone else, well, couldn’t have been less excited. Kangaroos are as commonplace as deer on the east coast of the US. But, even Australians have to admit that Kangaroos are cooler than deer. I mean, come on, they have their babies in pouches and can jump over very tall things. Anyway, I managed to convince Todd to take us on an all wheel drive Kangaroo safari through the barren property. The breadth of the area is daunting. To wander off in any direction for too long would be instant death by dehydration. The kangaroo and emus (we saw a heard of emus too), drink much of the water that is meant for the sheep.
To summarize the safari, “Hell Yes!! I saw kangaroos!” The tiny speck in the middle of this picture to the left is indeed a kangaroo. We saw 6 or so if I remember correctly. They were all “hopping up and down and all around” as a Kangaroo will do. Apparently they can really mess up humans if you get too close. Lots of people eat them too–and the meat is said to be pretty gamey unless it comes from a kangaroo farm. I should dedicate a post to random kangaroo facts, as I now have many such tidbits of knowledge dancing around in my head.
At dinner that night we consumed a good bit of the wine we had bought in the vineyards, then went out back and hung out under the milky way (which was highly visible), and told travel stories. All of 8 of the Australians there had extensively traveled the world. We looked up and saw shooting stars, and a completely different sky then we see in the Northern Hemisphere, but one I’m very familiar with from my many trips to South America. Orion, is upside down in the Southern Hemisphere, and my iPhone “Star Map” app alerted us that the brightest star in the sky was indeed Jupiter. That last night in the outback was a picture perfect ending for my first, albeit very quick trip down under.
Some perspective on the experience
I think to properly experience Australia one needs at least 3 months and a camper van. I have been told that driving around the parameter of Australia (they call it “the loop”) brings you face to face with the diversity of the people (both Indigenous and from European and Asian ancestry), its multiple climates, and its extreme wildlife. So, while this trip was a short one, there is way more to see and learn. But even so, there are a few key learnings, perspectives, and lessons I pulled from my quick 10 days down under.
Australia is unbelievably expensive- The Australian economy is completely killing it, largely due to the mining that they are doing on the west coast of the country. The mining has mostly kept Australia out of the worldwide recession experienced throughout most of the world (at times) over the last 5 years or so. It is also expensive due to taxes. A six-pack of nice beer is 25 dollars US. A Gatorade at the store is 5 dollars US. If you are on a tight budget, I would definitely recommend Nicaragua instead.
Although our cultures are similar in so many ways, its just so much more chilled out down there- The Real Housewives of where ever definitely has viewership in Australia. As do all of our movies and most of our TV shows. Sports dominate most conversations involving men. Capitalism thrives and drives everything down there just as it does here. But there is something distinctly more relaxed in Australian culture than in US culture. I know I’m coming from New York City (and it is a whole different level of insanity here than in most places in the U.S), but I’ve traveled overland through a big chunk of the U.S. as well—and have been to most major cities. I think Australians (as a whole) are more focused on the present than other cultures. Whether it be a routine Sunday afternoon to the pubs, or to the beach, or just in their day-to-day lives. I think the fact that most of the populace of the country is located 1 hour from the beach is a factor, as well as the “culture of travel” that is engrained into most people down there from birth.
Sometimes I feel like I have traveled a lot. But every single one of my friends that I met up with down there have traveled far more extensively than I have at this point. What is really unique about my travel adventures in the USA, is pretty damn regular in Australia. Australia is so far removed from any other place in the world, that there is an intrinsic need to explore built into the DNA of the populace. For better or worse, most of the people I know from Australia are also much more focused on (and well versed) in world and U.S. news, than most of the people I know in the US.
Its easy to pick right up where you left off with friends you meet on the road- This crew, Benny, Billy, Jess, and Dave were some of the best friends I made on my big trip. In addition to the Aussies, I also traveled back then with an Irish crew and English contingent, and met an amazing Brazilian couple. When traveling, the people you travel with extensively (like Benny, Billy, Dave, and Jess) become like family. You end up spending significant amounts of time these people, and learning everything about each other. Traveling overland with someone for three months is the equivalent of being friends with someone in your city or town for three years, or even more. After coming back from this reunion, I am left with nothing but more confirmation of how important these people are to me, and how lucky I am to have connected with such a bad-ass crew. I was welcomed everywhere I went in Australia with open arms and extreme hospitality. I’m looking forward to heading back down under as soon as I can, but next time for much longer.
What’s next?- Soooo, I have signed up to Climb Mt. Rainier (outside of Seattle, Washington) in June. That’s four months away, and my focus is to train hard for what is going to be my toughest physical challenge to date. It will be the first Ice climb I’ve tried where you are roped into a team of other people, using crampons and pick axes. I’m figuring out my mix of cardio, strength training, and yoga (so my body can endure it all) as we speak, and training will be starting tomorrow. Summiting Kilimanjaro was one of the best “life highs” I have ever experienced, and I felt good at the top. The goal with Rainier is to finish, and finish strong. This trek is going to teach me a lot more about mountaineering, and should be a good test to figure out if I want to climb even bigger, higher mountains. Game on!!!