Travel stories

A collection of Adam’s travel stories from here and there…

Specific website here https://itsawideopenroad.wordpress.com

but a few yarns below too…

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Arrivals and departures

By Adam Gibson

A man with a roast beef coloured face in the plane seat behind me is excited as hell about his recent trip to Ireland.

“Went to Ireland and the people were just great,” he intones to the man next to him as the flight to Alice Springs primes for take-off. “Great people. Friendly! Ireland … great! Fair dinkum, loved it!” And then came the knockout blow: “In the whole week I was there, I didn’t buy one drink! Best drinkers in the world, the Irish.”

I listen and wonder… Is that all it takes? Just one week? Can you really define a place in that time? Is that enough chance to get a handle on a location? Enough chance to become an expert, to know somewhere emphatically? And is it fair to do that?

Overhearing this speech makes me unaccountably churlish. Then it strikes me why: perhaps I do that as well. Perhaps most of us do it. Perhaps that’s what “tourism” actually is. Most of us are just on whistle-stop tours, we just get a glimpse of a place and then nick off. We don’t have enough time to see the grime in the cracks, or vice-versa, but will soon be telling everyone we meet our knowing opinion of the place.

The bloke behind may be, in fact, the perfect tourist. Meet the locals, have a laugh, don’t pay for a single drink, get pissed as hell. And then you can buy the t-shirt, souvenir the coaster and go home and tell your friends your definition of the location.

“So friendly”.
“Very dirty”.
“The people are rude” etc.
After all, you’re now the expert.

*

A quilt of farms recedes into khaki plains then to a crusty red earth that looks like an overcooked pizza base. Burnt ridges and snaky veins of sick-green dried rivers cut swathes through the shrivelled dough. Every now and then what must have been huge waterholes or creeks are visible, drying from the edges, like sores healing. Bright white salty scabs in the redness.

Flying over this country, all dazzling and sunny, I imagine being planted down there in the middle of nowhere. Nothing except the tuft of wind hitting my ears. My face getting more unshaven by the minute. My forehead sweating. My eyes crunched up tight, whatever lightness in them being turned into tortoiseshell. Would I be waiting for something? Would I be looking for something? Water? A plane flying overhead?

Can you claim to have been to a place that you’ve seen from an aeroplane? I flew over Lord Howe Island once, the reef-fringed splodge of green glowing below in the afternoon. Can I say that I’ve been there because I’ve seen it? I saw it, definitely; I can describe it in detail right now, like I just did. It’s an extreme version of my friend in the seat behind me’s idea but how can you really argue? I have been there, I have seen it. So, anyway, by extension, using that logic, I’ve now been to far western NSW and the top right hand corner of South Australia as we fly over on the way to the Red Centre.

*

Before we know it, the throw of descent hits our stomachs. Before we know it, the ridges of the McDonnell Ranges, which seem to cradle Alice Springs like a baby in a cot, rear into view, the hot air rising off the tarmac buffeting the plane, making the overhead compartment shudder seemingly independently of the cabin. Then we bust through the turbulence to be swiftly a few metres above the ground before plonking down so quickly and going into reverse thrust so immediately that the paranoid among us could be forgiven for deducing that Alice Springs airport has a smaller than regulation landing strip. Or perhaps the pilot is simply impatient to land after a three hour and forty minute flight, battling headwinds all the way. Perhaps he’s keen to get out of the darn plane and hit the ground for a beer or three. Like the bloke behind me loudly expresses he is.

We climb from our seats, walk to the rear door and take the stairs leading down to the tarmac. A woompf of hot air whacks me in the head and I feel dizzy and thirsty instantly. It’s my first moment in The Outback.

Arriving in a new place, I always devour the looks of the people in the airport. Their faces, their clothes, the way they hug and talk and their choice of footwear. I always look at the footwear. It’s the great indicator of the true heart of a place. And I look to see if the people are tanned, if they’re noticeably taller or fitter, if their hairstyles are of any particular note. I scan to ascertain whether they seem friendlier, check out if they say “hello” when you meet their eyes, whether they say “s’cuse me” when they bump into you with their baggage carts.

It’s easy to convince yourself that the people in any airport throughout the world on your arrival there are locals. Sure, some are, but many more are just like you: tourists. The difference is of course that they now wear the assured expressions of knowledge. They’re not wide-eyed like you any more. They’re cool and see themselves as slightly elevated. It’s all old-hat. They’ve got the place down pat and know that you, all eager on your arrival, haven’t.

In Alice Springs, this is powerfully evident. It’s not a threatening atmosphere but pushes the more modest, the more aware or perhaps the more easily embarrassed, to imitate nonchalance. It makes them dampen down most excitement about being there and calmly gather their bags and walk unwaveringly towards the toilets, where-ever the bloody hell they are, when they need to go.

All this I think about as we wait languidly at the baggage collection carousel. The “departures” look brown and more earthy, a little worn around the edges. The “arrivals” are still carrying white calves and unfreckled faces. They — we — looked unripe. We look like bread pulled out of the oven before the crust has began to brown at the top.

*

This is the first organised tour I’ve been on in my life and I’m feeling slightly condescending, yet also humble. Condescending because I always am when I see tour groups being led by their noses to this place or that; humble because that’s in fact what I’ll be doing this time.

My girlfriend and I catch the tour company’s courtesy bus into town from the airport. Two motorcyclists, I believe taking advantage of the legendary “no speed limit in the Northern Territory” (there is in fact one in this area near Alice Springs, I later find out), zip past us if we’re standing still. The bus driver dryly notes “a couple of temporary Australians” without missing a beat in his opening spiel. He tells us that the sandy area full of twisting trees running along beside the road is actually the Todd River.

“If you see it flow three times you’re considered a local,” he says. (A line I later realise is trotted out by every second person in Alice.) Right now, it looks like the upper edges of Bondi Beach, creamy golden sand running through clumpfs of red river gums. Then he says: “But don’t go walking along there… The friggin blackfellas will go beserk at ya.”

We look out the window and see groups of Aboriginal men and women sleeping here and there under trees. We turn back to each other and raise our eyebrows in surprise at his comment.

The driver is a sunburnt blonde-haired fellow named Greg in his mid-20s. He has a big gap between his two front teeth and reminds me a little of Ron Howard when he was Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. He speaks confidently about many aspects of Alice Springs. He tells us about the tremulous relationship between the whites and the Aboriginal population in Alice, how the Heavytree Gap, the pass through which the main access to town is achieved from the south, got its name and was formed, and also names a couple of good places to eat and drink in town. He strikes me as a real expert on Alice and I imagine he’s probably lived here all his life and knows the town inside out. It’s only later that day I discover he’s been here for just two weeks after moving from Victoria to work as the tour company’s airport bus chauffeur.

We’re dropped off at our hotel and find that the accommodation is a series of low-lying self-contained bungalows. We’ve gone to a little expense so as to avoid the nightmarish connotations of the phrase “backpacker-style accommodation”. We’ve eschewed the shared dorm rooms and the socks drying on the window sills and opted for more comfortable surrounds. Not that anything would take long to dry here. It’s 42 degrees and everything feels sandblasted. You couldn’t even cry if you wanted to. We go for a swim in the pool and are dry before we reach our towels.

Soon after we catch a bus to town, forgetting that it’s midday on a Sunday. The only people in Todd Mall are scattered groups of dishevelled blacks and bewildered and hot tourists almost audibly thinking “we came all the way for this?” The tourists wander around, nervously eyeing the Aborigines under the council-erected shade pergolas and trees in the parks and on seats in the mall.

I myself am also drooping, wondering where the action is.

We catch the bus back to our hotel, asking Greg where he’d recommend we go for dinner and perhaps a beer that night.

“What about the Todd Tavern?” I say, remembering the pub we’d seen at the top of the mall.
“Todd Tavern?” he replies. “”Nah, give that a miss mate. The Animal Bar’s there.”
“Animal Bar?” I say.
“Spot where all the blackfellas go,” he says. “Get pissed, fight, smash fings up.”
“It’s called the Animal Bar?” I ask.
“Yep.”
“What,” I say, “is it officially called that?”
“Dunno if it’s officially called that but that’s what it’s called,” he says. “Couple of the blokes went there a while back. Got stared down, followed into the dunnies, a blue and all that. Shit. If you go there, stay in the other bars at least.”

It seems there’s no qualms about calling it the Animal Bar, political correctness yielding to a disgraceful realism which is clearly really racism.

That night, when we’re going back into town, I ask the cabbie about a good pub for a beer, again mentioning the Todd Tavern. The physical size of Alice makes it necessary for a cab service but there’s just a small enough population for that cab service to stay personal and therefore be a strong touchstone of the town’s psyche.

“The Todd Tavern?” the cabbie says. “Hmm, alright ‘cept for the animals in the Animal Bar.”
“What’s the story with the Animal Bar?” I ask, my conscience troubled by the ready use of the phrase.
“All the blackfellas,” he says, “get yerself in trouble there.”
“Why?”
“Mate, ya darn’t wanna gah in there orroight?,” the cabbie says. “Well ya can gah in there butcha mightn’t come out. If ya gah, gah in wif an extra pack of smokes cos ya warn’t come out wif any, lemme tell ya. I’m not racist but I’m tellin ya tha truth.”
Had he been in there himself, I ask.
“Me? Ahh yeah … in there? Course I been in there.” But he didn’t even appear to convince himself that he had.

This story will be repeated to me several times throughout our visit and after all that, we want to go to the Animal Bar. For whatever reason, we never do. We go on our five-day camping trip and are given a taste of the Outback, climbing this canyon, looking at that ancient rock art. When we come back to Alice the disparate tour party is keen to hook up for a beer that night to celebrate our return to “civilisation”. I mention that we could possibly meet at the Todd Tavern.

This is met by loud and immediate protestations from the tour group. “We’re not going to the Animal Bar,” they chorus, almost as one. After all, they’re now the experts on the place.

They know all about the way things work here.

The End

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Crossing the nation

[published in TNT Magazine, London]

By Adam Gibson

Let me get this straight. I’m no trainspotter. No rail buff. The longest train trip I’ve been on was when I fell asleep on the Hammersmith line one night and woke up at Bromley-by-Bow.

So the thought of spending three days and three nights in a train carriage (and covering 4352km) on the trans-Australia Indian-Pacific didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. It filled me with … well, just let’s say uncertainty.

The Indian-Pacific journey is truly an incredible trip. It’s the only true trans-continental train ride in the world, literally going from coast to coast. You can have a dip at Bondi Beach in Sydney on a Monday and then take the plunge at Scarborough Beach in Perth on a Thursday — with every centimetre of land in between having rattled beneath your feet.

After leaving Sydney’s Central Station on a September afternoon, we headed straight west out of town, through graffiti-emblazoned suburbia and then began to ascend the foothills of the Blue Mountains. From the wide windows of one of the bar cars I watched as the sun went down and the escarpments of the mountains proper passed by. And then, with the last glimpse of sunlight, we rolled into Lithgow, nestling snugly in the hills like a scene from the movie Babe. Then night fell and around that time the thought struck me … I would be on this train all the way across the country.

There’s something about travelling by train which the rarified atmosphere of plane travel or the eye-wearying rigmarole of driving on Aussie roads cannot hope to match. Train travel gives the best of both worlds. You get the cushioned comfort of flight combined with the real sense of travel that driving can bring. And, basically, you get none of the bad bits.

Waking the first morning, after a night spent largely trying to not fall out of the top bunk, I was hit by the sight of a blindingly orange sunrise across the scrubby plain en-route to Broken Hill. After eating breakfast while spotting kangaroos, emus and the odd wild horse darting away in the distance, signs of mining operations appeared and then, without fanfare, we rolled into Broken Hill station for our first stop.

Operated by Great Southern Railways (GSR), the Indian Pacific has four scheduled stops on its journey: Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook (on the Nullarbor Plain) and Kalgoorlie. Organised tours are available at each stop except Cook.

The Broken Hill stop was the first chance we had to see passengers from other sections of the train. They represented a fair cross section of the community. There were elderly couples, hip young groovers in dark sunnies, daggy middle-aged couples and everything in between. The “IP” caters for all these types, offering three classes of travel.

There’s First Class, where mostly elderly passengers share twin rooms with fold-down beds and a shower and toilet, plus lavish meals from the dining car included in the fare price. There’s Holiday Class, where less extravagant passengers have single or double rooms with shared bathroom and shower facilities in each carriage and meals available from the on-board cafeteria. Then there’s Coach Class, the more budget option which Train Manager Robert Knight described to me as “a bit wild but good fun”. You’d probably go a bit wild too with just an upright seat as your accommodation for several days. Throw in the fact that you have to share toilet facilities with passengers who are often “tired and emotional” from a day spent in one of the bars and you have a recipe for … well, an interesting trip. But it’s worth it.

The price of these classes (Sydney to Perth) varies steeply, with Coach Class adult fares starting around $450 and First Class reaching up to $1500. If you’re strapped for cash or if your idea of a good time is sitting in a seat for 65 hours, then take the Coach Class option. Alternatively you could go the pampered near-opulence of First Class — but pay accordingly.

For mine, the best option is Holiday Class, costing around $900 from Sydney to Perth (or vice-versa). There you at least get to sleep in comfort, something you’ll be heartily glad of because the rock and roll of the train is akin to a giant mother’s hand rocking the cradle — I could hardly keep awake to enjoy the spectacular scenery flashing constantly by.

After a walk around Broken Hill in the icy early morning wind, it was back on the train for our journey to Adelaide, which we reached in the late afternoon. There was just enough time to catch a cab into Rundle St East and grab a sterling pint of Coopers Pale Ale in one of Adelaide’s great pubs.

After Adelaide it was onward towards the undisputed drawcard of the Indian Pacific journey — the Nullarbor. This vast 5,900sq. km “treeless plain” holds a special place in the Australian psyche. Regarded as a near-insurmountable barrier by the early explorers, these days there is still an undoubted mystique about it.

Unlike the Eyre Highway, which runs along the fringe of the plain along the Great Australian Bight, the Trans-Australia Railway line runs smack-bang through the middle of it. Indian Pacific staff regularly say “the only way to see the plain is by train” and, rough-hewn poetry aside, they’re pretty well spot on.

But with the prospect of the Nullarbor consuming one’s thoughts, it’s easy to miss some of the wonderful country leading towards it. There’s the township of Pimba, for instance. Just north of here is Woomera, once a rocket testing site for the British Army and home to the infamous Immigrant Detention Centre. Further north of that is Roxby Downs, the equally infamous uranium mining site. And somewhere nearabouts too, shrouded in secrecy, is the US military installation called Nurrungar.

A few hundred kilometres west on the train line is the township of Tarcoola. This is the spot where the legendary Ghan, also operated by GSR, leaves the Trans-Australian track and shoots off north to Alice Springs. But the interesting bit for me about the place is the fact that it must surely be the only town in the world named after a racehorse. Yep, that’s right: it took its name from the 1893 winner of the Melbourne Cup. Only in Australia…

The Indian Pacific was formerly operated by the state-run Australian National railways (AN). However in 1997 it was sold to private interests and GSR was born. The change has had a significant impact on a number of the railway siding towns along the Trans-Australia route. Perhaps the most noticeable has been at Cook, our next scheduled stop, in the middle of the Nullarbor.

Cook was formerly a bustling town with a population of around 100 people, all employed or connected with AN. With privatisation and a subsequent decision to move most of the railways operations to Adelaide and Port Augusta, Cook was virtually shut down overnight. Now the only people there are the station master, his wife and their small delightfully mischievous-looking child. But the evidence of the former life there is compelling. Arriving in the early morning, you see the gravel-filled swimming pool, the deserted school and hospital plus a number of desolate empty houses baking in the heat.

Re-boarding the train and heading towards Kalgoorlie, the true vastness of the Nullarbor can be appreciated. For at least eight hours the landscape doesn’t change a jot … kilometre after kilometre of dry scrubby land. No sign of human or animal life whatsoever.

By the time we reach the gold mining city of Kalgoorlie in the evening it’s well and truly time to disembark for another breather. The train is resolutely comfortable and enjoyable but the long stretches on the tracks are surprisingly tiring. One or two more stops along the way would prevent that and provide for a more languid journey. But then, I’m not the boss, am I?

After an insightful night-time bus tour of Kalgoolie (costing $16), it was back on the “IP” for the final run through the night to Perth.

Waking as the train wound through the lush Avon River valley there was a noticeable spring in the step of all passengers. And, as Perth’s outer suburbs came into view, a strong sense of achievement hit me. Sure, it wasn’t exactly hard work, but the feeling of having crossed the entire continent on land was an incredibly exciting one.

And, alighting at East Perth station, another pleasant thought hit me … I’d be going back the other way in a few days. Maybe I’d become a train buff, after all…

The End

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Fiji by backpack

[2003]

[published in TNT Magazine, London]

By Adam Gibson

THERE’S many places in Fiji where you can experience true Fijian culture. Places where gentle winds fan lolling palm trees and Polynesian tradition is adhered to not as a gesture for the tourists but rather as an actual way of life. And then there’s Beachcomber Island.

Forget the reverent kava ceremonies, the traditional dancing and the laidback pace of living. Beachcomber is Fiji’s party central. It’s a place where you’re more likely to kick up your heels and go off than you are to kick back and take it easy (but you can do the latter too if you really must).

An oval-shaped island 19km off the main island of Viti Levu, Beachcomber is the sort of place where even the most reserved tourist would find it tough not to have a good time. The island has been in business for 37 years, with the owners twigging recently there was a virtually untapped market in Fiji for younger tourists and backpackers. The result is an island now firmly established as the place to go for a party throughout Fiji.

But that’s not to say it’s the only place for the backpacker to go. Far from it. Tourism is a huge industry in Fiji, with a vast number of companies employing thousands of people and offering a multitude of tourist facilities. The “traditional” Fijian holidaymakers — the sunburnt Aussie family groups, honeymooners and resort-dwelling types — are still well catered-for in an array of often seriously tacky establishments. But an increasing number of facilities are springing up with this younger, budget, crowd in mind.

This trade was recently given an unexpected boost. The combined effects of the George Speight-led nationalist coup of 2000 and the September 11 terrorist attacks basically knocked Fiji’s tourist trade for six. The former cast a pall of danger in the minds of many while September 11 caused jitters for travel worldwide. This double-whammy left Fiji’s tourism operators with barely a customer between them. At one point a large hotel on the usually bustling Coral Coast reportedly had just a solitary paying guest.

But … hail the backpacker! While those “traditional” tourists went elsewhere, the more adventurous types kept coming — and usually stayed for a longer time. This trade kept many operators afloat during the toughest period and appears to have opened Fiji’s eyes to the value of this type of tourism.

According to several Fijian tourism industry sources, the knock-on effect has been a considerable change in focus towards this market. As a result Fiji has become a “must visit” place for travellers heading Down Under. It might not offer the exotica of South-East Asia nor the other-worldliness of India, but Fiji and the Fijian people have an undeniable charm.

With the recent sentencing of the Speight to death, which was commuted to life in prison, for attempting to overthrow the government of ethnic Indian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudry, locals appear keen to put the whole affair behind them. Racial tensions can be evident if you scratch the surface but are unlikely to cause major problems for travellers.

One important point to make about Fiji is that things aren’t necessarily cheap there. It’s no bargain destination a la Thailand where you can rent a room for next to nix and hang out indefinitely under the (sorching) sun. The cheapest beachside huts start at around A$50 and dorm rooms from around A$15. These prices escalate fairly quickly, depending on island and location.

At Beachcomber, for example, expect to pay AU$70 for a dorm bed (with all meals included, fortunately). Food and other essentials cost the same, if not more, than what you’d pay in Australia or the UK. Occasionally also you can be hit by strangely exorbitant fees for such things as transfers and “commissions” that aren’t mentioned anywhere in your brochure. Be careful and check any fine print.

However, with the right plan, and I’d say at least two weeks to spend, you’d be hard pressed not to have a rewarding experience in Fiji. If partying Beachcomber-style is exactly the sort of trip you don’t want, there’s plenty of other options. While Viti Levu offers a diverse range of backpacker accommodation and other attractions — including the seedy bustle of the capital Suva — it’s the outer islands that tempt those with a more adventurous bent.

You have travel options in all directions from Viti Levu. The Yasawa and Mamanuca, Lomaiviti, Northern and Southern island groups all have their unique pleasures.

The Yasawa and Mamanuca islands lie to the north-west and west of Viti Levu and, due to their proximity to Nadi (plus their bloody awesome scenery), they’ve become hot spots for travellers to laze away a week or three on a beach. There’s a necklace of small islands in these groups and they’re basically the stuff tropical island dreams are made of. Accommodation and facilities are often basic but that’s part of the fun. When Hollywood producers were looking for a perfect tropical island to film the Tom Hanks movie Castaway, where do you think they found their location? Smack bang in the Mamanucas, just across the sparkling water from Beachcomber… Enough said.

The Northern group consists mainly of the large islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni. These are also renowned for their incredible natural beauty and endearing lack of development. The scuba diving here is regarded as some of the best in the world, with mind-blowing dive sites so easy to access it’s almost ridiculous. There’s also several spectacular walking tracks through National Parks and nature reserves, if that’s your thing. There’s a range of different accommodation and the cheapest and often best bet is to check out small beachside bungalows operated by local people.

The Southern islands and the Lomaiviti group, to the west of Viti Levu, also have some good spots to visit and places to stay. Being slightly more off the well-beaten tourist track, these groups offer the traveller an opportunity to experience Fijian culture in it’s more unfiltered state. And, believe me, this may seem an attractive option after possibly having found yourself caught up in the tourist-driven tack of some places elsewhere in Fiji.

And of course, if all that sounds a little too relaxing, a little too laid back and, dare I say, a little too cultural, there’s always Beachcomber Island, sitting there like a thrilling lure in the azure sea…
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