There's no place like home," Dorothy said. I'd argue that there's no place like Oz either. For three months I travelled around Australia, or "Auz"/"Oz", and for the first time since leaving home in January, I considered giving up my ruby red slippers for life abroad. There may come a time when I decide to click my heels and return to Canada but it’s certainly not yet. At least not while it’s winter in the motherland. Just like the movie, Australia comes with its own yellow brick road, emerald cities, colourful Munchkinland, cast of interesting characters and Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a classic that you can’t help but fall in love with.
Yellow brick road
The Stuart Highway was my yellow brick road. Named after John McDouall Stuart - the first European to cross this vast country from south to north - the highway was the artery of an unforgettable Contiki trip. Not only would we cover countless kilometres but I’d gain many amazing life-long friends in the process. Shouldered by an ever-changing topography, the Stuart highway brought us to many wonderful, and oftentimes very strange, places. It started with a trip to Uluru, or ‘Ayres Rock’. After a round of hilarious campfire games and a conversation that I never wanted to end, we rolled out our “swags” (Australian sleeping bags) and slept under a sky jam-packed with stars at Kings Creek Station.
As we made our way south-west, we were told to keep an eye on the horizon for the imposing Uluru. After just a few hours someone on the coach called out that she had spotted it. Without skipping a beat, our tour manager Mark Davies stopped the bus and let us off to take some photos. As we posed for a group shot, he decided the typical “cheese” would not suffice. Instead we should yell “fooleroo”. Fooleroo? Yep, we’d been completely fooled. What she, and admittedly all of us thought was Uluru, was actually Mount Conner. We were embarrassed at the time but it only got worse once we saw the actual Uluru and realized that they look absolutely nothing alike. Woops! A pretty funny joke nonetheless. We’ll done, Mr. Davies, well done.
The next day was pitched to us as “everything Uluru” and it really was. From sunrise to sunset, we walked, drove, and even flew by helicopter around the sacred rock and the nearby, and arguably more impressive, Olgas. Sipping champagne with my awesome Contiki group while watching the ridged façade of Uluru change colours as the sun set is something I’ll never forget.
While this region was undoubtedly the best part of the trip, there were many awesome places to explore as we made our way back to the Stuart highway and then north to Darwin. The first of which was in Alice Springs. Unlike Dorothy, I actually got to go in a hot air balloon. In the darkness of 5am, eighteen of us climbed on to a bus and headed out to the MacDonnell Ranges where the balloon was being unrolled and filled. Just before the sun rose, we climbed into the basket and soon we were up and floating over the fields. As the sun crept over the ranges, we watched a team of horses running and even spotted a kangaroo hopping around below. Before we knew it, we were making our way back down. With a gentle bump, our basket landed and tipped over into the grasses below. One by one, we tried to stop laughing, climbed out, brushed ourselves off, and helped pack the balloon away. The wonderful morning was capped off with some breakfast snacks, bubbly and a comedic act by our bus driver. It was an incredible way to start the day.
Over the next week we continued to discover the “wild, weird, and wonderful” of the Northern Territory. For example, we quickly learned thanks to the wisdom and expertise of our tour manager, which public toilets – or “long drops” – were acceptable and which ones were most certainly not. We stayed overnight in Tennant’s Creek where the “best” hotel came with toads in the toilet and an army of bed bugs.
After applying copious amounts of anti-itch cream to my legs, we were on the road again. While I don’t consider myself spiritual or religious, it’s difficult to accept the scientific explanation for how a site like the Devil’s Marbles came to be.
One of the best lunch stops we had was at Daly Waters - the best Australian pub (Est. 1930) where the bravest staple their undergarments to the rafters. In addition to losing a pair of underwear, I also played a little four-pin bowling in the middle of the road.
But of course, a trip to the outback wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Wycliffe Well – also named the UFO capital of Australia, to see “Fuck It” the kangaroo and “Apples” the pig who have become incredibly intimate mates, and Brutus, a gigantic (read: fat) crocodile who was saved from the purse factory after he made a poor first impression on swimmers and boaters.
Next up was a variety of swimming holes including the Mataranka Thermal Pools (where we brought chaos to a noodle-using crowd of ‘Grey Nomads’), Edith Falls (a picnic and a cheeky walk back down) and Florence Falls (the largest and busiest of falls but arguably the most beautiful). Kakadu National Park was picturesque but I’ll remember it most for its pool party and awesome Sunday roast.
Our epic tour of the Northern Territory finished in Darwin. Given how much fun our tour had been till this point, I had low expectations for Darwin. Boy, was I wrong! With an interesting museum, my new friends pretending to be crocodile bait, a night market on the beach, and a pub with a pool full of jelly, Darwin delivered in spades. It’s a clear sign that everyone was having fun when days after the tour had ended, many were still hanging around and two had bailed on their pre-booked flights home to England and New Zealand.
It’s no surprise that nearly three months later, I still miss our Contiki trip. Thankfully, I’ve been able to meet up with many of the people from it and plans are in the works to see even more of them over the coming weeks and months.
They may not have been actual cities but Australia's emerald rainforests, tablelands and hinterlands were just as magical. My first road trip was to the Daintree Rainforest found along the east coast just north of Cairns. The road trip was stunning and reminded me of the Malahat Highway on Vancouver Island. Curving its way along the coast, I was forced to pull over several times to take photos. When you’re first learning to drive on the left, this can be tricky.
The Atherton Tablelands were just as beautiful but very different. Here we found lush green pastures and plenty of waterfalls. My friend Adrian and I drove through the tablelands one weekend, stopping for a swim in a river, and walked to countless waterfalls (some came with pesky leeches).
My next road trip took me through the Hinterland. After a couple of awesome dives in Byron Bay, I said goodbye to the ocean and headed inland. Over the course of a very long day, I drove through sprawling farmlands, stopping at whatever lookout or hike seemed interesting. The photos speak for themselves.
If Australia had a Munchkinland, it would be found below sea level. The colours and creatures on the Great Barrier Reef were amazing. I was fortunate to dive some of the best spots including the Cod Hole and Ribbon reefs, SS Yongala wreck, Wolf Rock, Julian Rocks, Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef out of Cairns. I'm already making a list of the dives still yet to do around Australia. Here are just a few of the photos from my dives...
A memorable cast of characters
Just as in the Wizard of Oz, there was an entire cast of characters that played both small and large roles in my visit to Australia. A tin man, a scarecrow, a cowardly lion and, yes, even a few munchkins. There were new friends made and old friends revisited. For instance, there were so many new friends made on my Contiki trip. It was a risky decision to book a tour where I would essentially be on a bus with the same 30 people in the middle of nowhere for 10 days. I was worried that it would be too young a crowd and I worried that after being on my own for 8 months that I wouldn’t be able to march to someone else’s drum. In the end, I couldn’t be happier with how it all worked out. It’s telling that I’ve met up with so many again and again in both in Australia and now, in New Zealand.
While travelling around Australia I also got to see people that I had met while travelling and diving in South East Asia (Lucy, Daanish, Bea, Cat and Claire). Not to mention, I even had an evening visiting a few Canadians from home!
There were also many that I met through friends (Adrian, Benny-boy, Kate French, Hannah, and Jill Dafoe), or struck up a conversation with in a bar (a British couple who assure me I have a place to stay if ever I go to England), or maybe shared a tour with (Tina and Lisa/Nick in the Whitsundays). While I'm not sure when I'll see these awesome people next, they all added to a very memorable and magical three months.
Wicked Witch of the West
If there was a Wicked Witch of the West, it would be Australia's Minister of Immigration. After three months, I had to leave Australia. And while I could immediately go back for another three months, I would deplete my savings in no time flat. So for the moment, I’m travelling around New Zealand and finishing up the original trip that I started in January 2016. While I’m not entirely sure what 2017 will bring, one thing is certain. I don’t plan on clicking the heels of my ruby red slippers anytime soon.