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 South America, North America, and Africa. Before I left for the trip, one of my best friends (an Australian) gave me the following advice about traveling the world, “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 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, and they too were on the first day of their multi-year 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 adventure (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.
The purpose of the trip to Australia was Benny’s wedding, which 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 his wife-to-be Leah were married at the Taronga Zoo, one of the biggest in Australia, with a beautiful view of the entire city and the Sydney Harbor bridge and the Opera House in the distance. The reception was a blur of magnanimous speeches, frothy beer, and Australian dance moves.
The Super Bowl in Australia
It’s 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 some Australians really love the NFL, and the rest love the excuse to take off work on a Monday morning and go to the pub. My friend and I had to wait in a huge line that wound around the corner of the mega pub in Sydney where we decided to watch the game.
There were at least 400 people, most wearing outdated NFL jerseys (think any Daunte Caulpepper jersey, and Peyton Manning Colts jerseys), surrounding us on all sides.The cases of Budweiser, that the bar had brought in for the special occasion, sold out before the game even started.While some people knew all the rules it became clear pretty quickly that most had no idea what the hell was going on. Whether they were for the Ravens or the Niners, the crowd went crazy with every big play, and every score.
I quickly learned that Australian pubs like to strategically place 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 informed them that I hadn’t even had a drink yet!
In the end, as you know, the Ravens barely held on to win one of the best Super Bowls in NFL history. For me personally, the Monday morning viewing, in a far away land, not to mention my home team winning, made for the most unique Super Bowl of my life.
After the game, we stumbled through Sydney on foot back to the waterfront where we were staying, and had a victory lunch at a 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 Sydney.
Scantly Clad Beaches in Wollongong
After my three days in Sydney, I headed south to a beachfront suburb of Wollongong to hang out at Billy’s place. Thirroul, is as sleepy, surfy, and relaxed of a place as I have ever visited in the western 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. Billy 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 imagine that growing up and living in such a beautiful, chilled out, Australian paradise can have positive effects on one’s 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, which was a short 100 yards from Billy’s front door. 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 umbrellas 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. Let’s 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.
2 Hours to Adelaide for the finest wine and the wildest Kangaroos
After 3 days with Billy in Wollongong, it was time to visit my friend Dave and his wife Jess in Adelaide in South Australia. Dave traveled with Benny and I for two months in South American and was also in the Australian Special Forces.
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 head full 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 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. I managed to convince them to take us on a 4-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.
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. 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. That last night in the outback was a picture perfect ending for my first 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, 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, cultivated by routine Sunday afternoon to the beach, pub, or family BBQ. 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, and 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 U.S.
Its easy to pick right up where you left off with friends you meet on the road: My Australian crew were some of the best friends I made on my big trip. When on the road, the people you travel with extensively (like Benny, Billy, and Dave) become like family. You end up spending significant amounts of time together, 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.