I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the Prime Minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me – that Australia could just lose a Prime Minister (I mean, come on) – Bill Bryson from ‘Down Under’
Not that Australia minds too much about who is their Prime Minister at the moment; they seem to go through them as fast as horny koalas. Bill Bryson, however, gives a perfect illustration of how bizarre and massive this country is. With its vast, crimson wastelands, lush, city jungles and raw, undeniable refinement, Australia is notorious for its sense of adventure and not to mention its lethal and odd inhabitants. I mean, have you ever paid attention to the strangeness of the kangaroo or the wombat? The ancestors of kangaroos look like they’ve bumped into a wall and never quite recovered from it and the grandparents of the wombat were basically just massive hamsters on steroids.
Anyway, we flew to Sydney from Amsterdam and roughly planned out our trip. We wanted to drive from Sydney down to Melbourne, follow the coast to South Australia, drive through the Nullabor and from Esperance go to the Margaret River. Then to Perth, up along the coast of Western Australia, then via the Gibb River Road to the Northern Territory, Darwin. From there, to Townsville, in Queensland and drive back down back to Sydney again. This is the map, where the red line is the route we’ve driven.
There is no way to prepare yourself for a trip such as this, and so, moderately nervous, with butterflies in our belly, we drove off to start our trip around Australia. Armed with the Lonely Planet, freshly bought camp gear – except for our 25-year-old fridge -, a healthy amount of excitement to explore the unknown, old books on how to cross the Nullabor safely, and a bag of Snakes, we set off to Melbourne. Neither of us had ever travelled around Australia before on this scale. We decided to have an easy start and book our first 3 nights at Jervis Bay, to enjoy the pristine beaches and azure ocean, which was a lovely first few days, yet desperately unrepresentative of what the journey actually was going to be like. Ignorant as hungry, carrot-loving wallabies, we ventured further into the wilds of Australia.
Now, I’m not going to give you a detailed description of our trip, for then I will need to write almost as long as we’ve been away for. However, I will tell you the highlights, what we’ve learned (most likely, the hard way) and attempt to do justice to how much this trip has meant to me.
1. Weather is more important than you think
Especially when you have a relatively high tent, that needs to be pegged down firmly into the ground for it to be able to stay up. We never thought that our most fierce and persistent nemesis would be ‘the wind’. When it was cold, we simply rugged up into our woollen jumpers and blankets. We laughed when it poured and poured from the sky onto our campsite, safely dry in our tent. However, we cried, shivered with fear and dread when the wind would increase and pull and push our tent and precious awning around like an inflatable air dancing tube man. If we were very unlucky, sand would blow through our ‘windows’ and form small dunes around our bed, as if the Dutch had come and tried to keep the water out. If we were very, very unlucky, the poles of the tent would sag and cause the whole pavilion to slowly come down onto us. And I can assure you, no man as ever felt stress like we did when we would wake up to wild flapping sounds, caused by the awning who had detached from its pegs and expressed its liberation by moving through the air like a flock of panicking seagulls. No, we can decidedly say that we would prefer rain and cold over wind any f***ing day.
2. Food and water can get tricky further up north
We knew Australia regularly deals with draughts and that the further north you go, the sparser water becomes. It is essential to bring along jugs where you can store water in when you can’t get it fresh. Towns where you can find a supermarket that doesn’t try to sell you a cucumber for 8$ also become a thing up north, and so ideally you want to make sure you have enough supplies for a week or two. As a cucumber lover, though, it was hard to make them survive since the fridge would either freeze them and leave them inedible or the heat would make them foam (yes, they can foam), and taste like socks and thus leave them inedible. We basically stocked up on cans of tuna, beans and tomato sauce, used wraps instead of bread, cooked with frozen (thawed) veggies instead of fresh ones, and had either rice or pasta for dinner. In the end, you’ll become pretty inventive and making lists of food for the upcoming two weeks became something like a sport for me. Also, as the semi-alcoholics we are, buy wine in goon, preferably when they’re on discount, ’cause WA and NT have some very strict laws on alcohol.
3. Expect the unexpected
While we casually drove towards the attraction of the day in WA, listening to a True Crime podcast, nibbling on raisins, Tim suddenly saw that the backlight that was attached to the wheel had broken off and was leaning sideways, ready to hit anything that came remotely close to the car. After a rapid stop on the highway, it took us at least half an hour to get the bloody thing off. During our trip, the car posed multiple issues we had to deal with, such as a broken exhaust pipe, a dead battery, issues with the second tank and a flat tire. The ancient fridge decided to be even more of a menace than it already was, and broke its nob with which you turn it on and off. The ground in the NT and northern part of WA was often too hard for us to put a peg into, so it became a constant struggle to find a spot to put our tent down. We designed the ‘peg-test’, where Tim would pull over at a spot that looked moderately promising, I would jump out of the car with a hammer and a peg, crouch down and beat the peg furiously, nod my head in disappointment and fall back into the car, which would drive off with squeaking tires in frustration. Many odd looks of relaxing elderly we’ve had, who sat down in front of their 4 meters long luxurious campervan, though to be frank, we’ve given them many judging looks in return. One day, we drove 600 kilometres to find a place to get our tent into the ground. Things that not even crossed my mind when we started this trip, happened and often required quick problem solving, yet made this trip even more memorable than it already was.
4. How to deal with crawling and flying things
March flies, mosquitoes, sand flies, spiders, ants, guana’s, possums, flies, crocodiles, crabs, wombats and wallabies, and I am sure I’m forgetting a few more. Here is a quote from our journal to illustrate our experience with march flies:
However, as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were visciously attacked by swarms of march flies. On their own they can be annoying, but managable, but when they attack in groups, masses, of 50 at least, the whole experience of camping becomes impossible, incomprehensible, because the only thing you want to do is to get away from those nasty, little, develish, persistent flying horrors. After I had broken down into crying, I resolved to stay in the car untill they’d all gone.
Besides march flies, mosquitoes drove us crazy in the beginning, though soon we knew how to keep them at bay by using excessive amounts of insect repellent (I honestly feel that it has been my main moisturiser during those months). We’ve had possums and kangaroos and magpies tear our bins open and scatter litter everywhere, though possums where the most fun for they’d sneak up on you during the night and then freeze when you shine a light on them. One night, we had an army of crabs on our campsite, trying to climb up onto the side awning, which was hilarious since they would slide off again after a couple of centimetres. Less fun was the day up in WA with 20 flies zooming and tormenting you with a 40 degrees heat, where you can’t swim in the ocean because of the saltwater crocs. I’m thankful spiders were our least concern.
5. Meet amazing people and be awed daily by Australia's beauty
Along the road trip, we’ve met so many interesting people, from casual talks with grey nomads, obnoxious booksellers who won’t stop talking, to neighbours with who you later go out for drinks and old friends you randomly meet in a pub in the middle of nowhere. In the end, it feels as if we did half our trip travelling with other people who happened to go the same way. We had a drunken night in Agnus Water, watching the English team play soccer. We visited the local giant lobster with Tim’s old friend, and we drove in a convoy with a couple for almost 2 months through WA and NT. I would say that the trip by itself was beautiful, but the people we’ve met along the way made it just the little bit extra. There was not a day that we didn’t see either stunning mountains, fascinating wildlife and flora, gorgeous gorges, vast salt plains, dazzling sunsets and magnificent oceans. To be able to share it with people you enjoy makes it more worthwhile.
Today is a remarkable day: it is the last day we camp and sleep in our tent! It makes us feel slightly sad, but also happy, with mixed feelings of relief, nostalgia and fondess to our tent. We’ve been sleeping in our beautiful high, blue & beige square tent for more than 5 months and it has brought us so much happiness despite its faults. Today even, the middle pole was stuck and Tim had to pull it for a while with a tool to release it. Besides that, the tent had a lot to endure, causing multiple small issues we had to deal with. The pegs are the first obvious issue, but also one pole has become slightly lame and tends to sag a bit during the night when not tightened properly. The flaps are dirty, and there’s a continious smell of wetness and dirt. Nonetheless, it has been our home during the trip and it has been a great tent; it got us through rain, heat, mozzies & flies, and a LOT of windgusts and it managed to stay up. We will treasure it always and look back on the tent as an amazing feature of our lap around ozzie.