I qualified as a recreation pilot of Light Sports Aircraft on September 15, 2018.
I qualified in a Faeta 321, and the picture below was taken after I flew the CTSW solo for the first time on May 15, 2017. Training took longer than anticipated, mostly due to aircraft maintenance issues. I was trained by instructor Ian Downes at Alice Springs Aero Club.
I was on the media team for the 2017 World Gliding Championships, held at Benalla, VIC.
I collected stories for the website and social media, and helped out with events and other tasks.
My stories are accessible on the wgc2017 website. Here are some examples:
After 81 flights I finally flew a glider solo on June 6 2015. I experienced a cable break at a low altitude on my second solo, which was a really good experience...even if it left me a little shaky at the time!
It's a good job I hadn't caught anything before the royals came! This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a good test of some of the radio equipment...and my patience...in areas where there was no phone signal, which is something you literally have to plan for all the time here.
It was great to see William and Kate in the flesh, and for the first time experience what it's like to be part of the press pack for such an event. But the best bit was travelling with my friends from the local paper, the Centralian Advocate. Many people don't realise that Uluru is about a five hour drive from Alice Springs, and no outback drive should be undertaken without reasonable planning. It was lovely to travel in a group, and a vehicle that was going to make it. I don't think I'd risk taking my car down there! Thank you Phil, Jess and Editor Bryan who made it all happen.
The actual job was definitely a case of work hard, play hard. I worked a 19 hour day on the day itself. But it was cool, after the madness, to catch up with some British journos I either knew, or recognised off the tele!
An awesome place if you love animals!
When I was looking for pictures for this blog, I found a snap of a lovely huntsman spider who'd brightened my morning as it was time to leave Uluru after the royal visit. I noticed when I was camping once that they run towards you, as opposed to the usual spider reaction, a fear of movement. Here he is:
The joey in the middle found himself to be in my radio studio one day. I can tell you that work is 100 times better when there's a joey on your lap! And the other picture (with a bluetongue lizard) was taken at the reptile centre some time ago. I've been there a couple of times since, and on my last visit they let me into the staff room to look at a deadly Western Brown snake they'd just collected as it tried to get into the doctors' surgery. Look what happened next: https://vimeo.com/106365692
When I was first in the Alice I was lucky enough to arrange a house sit with two beautiful doggies while their owners got married. This is Diesel and Sheila on 'their' wedding day. The money I saved on rent enabled me to afford a car, so I was very lucky. And I made some canine friends! Although that's not hard in Alice Springs. Never have I known a more dog-obsessed place. People have them for security reasons primarily.
Taking advantage of blue skies
By far the single most thrilling new experience that Alice Springs has brought me is gliding. I had already thought that the blue skies would enable me to indulge my lifelong sky obsession in some form, but when I was invited to cover the gliding club open day for the radio station I'd only really just moved into a long-term house and thoughts of how I could spend any 'spare' time were limited.
One radio feature later and I'd signed up to learn to fly. But it wasn't an easy start. Despite a skydiving licence, a previous job on a rough ferry crossing and numerous other dabbles in air sports, gliding made me feel very airsick - my poor instructor Robert TWICE having to deal with me actually vomiting! I'm now taking motion sickness pills, but almost 20 flights in I hope to rid the need for medication when the pack runs out.
Here I am operating the launch point radio, which is what I do a lot of the time when I'm not in the air. The gliders are launched by a winch, as you can see in the picture on the right.
Gliding is everything I've ever wanted from an air sport. It teaches you about the theory of flight, it's a test of skill, and something you do on your own but from a team environment. And the landscape we fly over is beautiful; vast and dry. The airfield is 20 kilometres north of Alice Springs where there is no phone signal, and no significant population. For another 500 kms. I often spend the whole weekend out there. You are entirely removed from normal life in town.
And before you ask, no I don't fly them solo yet....that's quite a way off. Here I am with instructor Simon who took me for a few awesome loop the loops recently. I filmed it for a friend as a birthday surprise. You can watch the video here.
I'd been both dreading and hugely anticipating the morning I was due to get on the plane to Alice Springs. I'd been destined to be in Sydney Airport at that time for the entire year, as that was when the very last flight I could catch back to the UK left. If I didn't get on it there were to be no refunds, and flights to the UK from here are MUCH more expensive than the reverse.
I stared at the runway waiting for the Korean Air flight to take off, knowing it would be my chance to step back on British soil gone for the foreseeable future. I never spotted it....probably a good thing...although I felt strangely unemotional. It felt so entirely right to be moving to Alice Springs.
My love affair with Central Australia began when I visited Alice Springs as a backpacker in November 2013. It was a series of experiences: seeing my first outback sunset, attending a house party where all the people seemed to be totally engaged with their jobs and happy to be part of the community, driving through vast open space, seeing the stars form a dome above you because there's no pollution horizontally so you can actually see them ALL! Spotting kangaroos just on the edge of town, the dry, searing heat, the incredible smell of hot, sweet eucalyptus when it rains, the aboriginal art, the amazing languages spoken in the town centre....the dust and dirt and utes and real Aussie people. Also the total lack of shops, no noise, no pretence, no big nightclubs and general commercialism. No worries mate! Your average townie would absolutely hate living here :-)
I got here because I wrote to some broadcasters to see whether anyone could use my skills. I didn't get any replies for ages until a lovely man called Bruce called from a commercial radio station called 8HA and described what sounded like my perfect job. We barely talked through any detail but in my heart I'd decided I was going, whatever the outcome. I had two weeks left on my visa within which time I could do a trial as a freelancer, and after that I either would have to be sponsored, or I'd have to leave the country sharpish.
Luckily the boss, Roger, agreed to sponsor me after I provided news bulletins for the station for (apparently) the first time in 20 years! It was a baptism of fire and at first extremely frightening: new news patch, no contacts, no other journos, no lawyer, no inbox full of press releases. Nothing. AAAGHHRRR!
But once you've been out on the town for a few nights, you realise everybody here has the same story. Alice is a town of 25,000 people, two days' drive from anywhere of significance and entirely surrounded by desert. You have to take responsibility for your own role, as there's nobody else here to carry you!
On my second day at work (Valentine's Day) I met a Canadian girl called Jenn who does sales for the station. She must have wooed me with the ladies' BBQ we had that night because she's quickly become a tremendously good friend, and is pictured, right, and above with myself and Roger. We were photographed by the local paper when we went to an Aussie Rules football match.
Work is excellent. It's demanding (in a good way) and I've quickly had to get across plenty of issues, find the go-to people, and try to get to grips with the mad world of Northern Territory politics...some of the stories that have come out recently are literally jaw-dropping.
But the best thing is I have the creative outlet to record the features I want. I've started by doing a 10-week environmental challenge with a piece per week to accompany it. After that I'll be working on some history features for our tourist information station, and I also grab interviews with anyone who either comes to the station, or makes an appearance in town.
It was an absolute honour to meet Gaby Kennard...the first Australian woman to fly solo around the world, and she only started learning to fly when she was 30! I now count her amongst my heroes.
I also met another hero of mine, Brolga (aka Kangaroo Dundee), for a second time and I was pretty blown away to know that he'd heard my news bulletins and also the radio show I do with my totally awesome office mate, Nicky G. Nicky is an announcer on the sister station, Sun 969, for which I also provide news bulletins. She has me in stitches every week without fail when we record a show together. I've not cried with laughter so much in years!
Alice Springs is an intriguing town to live in. I have to say it's the biggest culture shock I have ever experienced. The local indigenous people like to sit on the floor a lot, especially in the dry river bed. Sometimes I feel like I'm looking at living history....as if the town's grown up around them, but they have always sat in that spot for thousands of years. There are social problems here beyond anything I could imagine. There are government-run houses where alcohol isn't allowed. There are policemen outside every bottle shop, asking where it's intended that your alcohol be consumed. But the biggest thing you learn quickly is that you do not walk at night in Alice Springs. People will go out of their way to give you lifts here because assaults are rife. But as someone said to me the other day, the crime is low-tech, and it's very very easy to stay out of trouble. Someone else has said the positives here entirely outweigh the negatives. I couldn't agree more.
One rather large negative, felt keenly by people from colder climates, is the amount of flies. Oh my goodness they're irritating! You see tourists wearing fly nets in town, but I would only do that when I'm walking two dogs, so I don't have any hands free to do what we call 'the Australian wave' (dispersing flies from one's face). But out bush...boy oh boy you need a fly net. Here I am at Corroboree Rock sporting the essential!
But on the other hand, in this town you don't see dog mess on the pavement. The flies are straight in there cleaning it up....so again, positives to outweigh the negatives!
I recently went out to Ross River Resort, about 90kms east of Alice. Jenn used to work there, and it's a beautiful, quiet spot with a bar and animals. Paradise!
As you can see, I got my hands on a lovely python, as well as the obligatory joey...this one was called Boris.
But most intriguingly there was a kingfisher living on the windowsill! His name is Terry and he'd been brought up by the staff, after his egg fell out of a nest, and he fell out of his egg. Lovely Terry sat in my hand while I had a beer! By the way I'm wearing no make up in these pictures and I'd been camping. There's no room for TV ways around here!
The sky here is just unbelievable. I'm currently house sitting with two gorgeous dogs, and one evening I took them for a walk and saw this. Don't ask me how pink triangles were created in the sky, but this is a photo taken on my iPhone with no editing or effects.
Sunrise and sunset are easily the best times of day here. Wherever the sun is will be orange, but in the opposite direction it's always blue and purpley-pink.
The daylight hours don't vary much through the year. Sunrise is 6am give or take an hour and sunset is about 7pm. Here's a sunrise from a hill near where I'm staying...
Travelling between Melbourne and Sydney is relatively straightforward. I could have caught the Greyhound bus, which is a twelve hour overnight trip, and was horrendous just coming from Canberra so I wasn't too keen to go the extra four hours to Sydney. Plus I wouldn't see anything. You can obviously fly, but I had time and I hate wasting the chance for adventure by getting on the plane.
So I went back to my second favourite travel discovery (second to house sitting) which is campervan relocation. Within an hour of looking I had scored one, and 24 hours after that, I hit the road. I had about 1000kms ahead of me and two and a half days to do it in. I was alone, just me, and my fabulous 'hippie camper'!
I made an early fuel stop at Avenel...mostly to check whether they'd short-changed me on petrol, which they had! But there was nothing I could do once I'd left so I continued on, and then had to stop at Euroa to ask why my engine warning light had come on. I then had to pull over at Wangaratta for a cat nap because the heatwave in Melbourne had been sapping my energy. So I wasn't getting very far!
I finally crossed the border into New South Wales and left the Hume Highway. 400kms after I'd started, I stopped at Culcairn to stretch my legs and get some fuel. It looks about halfway but it really is nothing of the sort. My route from here on in took me through some places I'd long been fascinated by. But the roads, although reasonable, weren't going to be a straightforward motorway trip.
As is the case in many parts of Australia, Culcairn boasted a grand total of zero half-decent food for vegetarians so I decided to push through my raging hunger and on to Wagga Wagga. Pronounced Wogga Wogga, it's one of those places you see on the weather map every morning and wonder what it must be like (well, I do anyway). Here's a picture of the ABC there!
The town is attractive, neat and tidy and easy to get around. It's also big enough to have 'things' in it. I like these inland towns. Their remote nature leads to great community spirit, and I got chatting to other customers in the line at the supermarket as well as the friendly cashier.
It was nearly 7pm when I reached Young, the 'Cherry Capital of Australia'. They have a cherry festival here every December and I'd edited a piece about it during an Avid video editing course I'd taken in Sydney.
There was another reason I wanted to go; Bill Bryson mentioned a shop in his book 'Down Under' which sold pet supplies with a surprising sideline. I'm sad it was closed, but the window display was good enough for me....
I'd done my research before I left because although it is mostly fine to pull into a truck stop and stay overnight, I had a pretty tight timetable so I knew how far I needed to get each day. Also, as a woman alone, I'd been asking the local tourist information centres for advice. One of them had recommended a popular rest area between Young and Cowra called Bendick Murrell. I had hoped there'd be other families - perhaps on the way back from their holidays. But there was NOBODY. And it was quite scary! Not only that, but it had been 44 degrees during the day, and it was still 30 degrees at 11pm when I was holed up in my camper, with plastic sheets to cover the windows so nobody could see inside. The sweat was dripping off me in the same way that it would in a sauna. I was forced to sleep with the window open. I figured heat exhaustion and dehydration were bigger threats than a truck driver having a peek inside.
Bendick Murrell had very few facilities. Just a toilet and a tap that you probably couldn't drink from. So I got out of there as soon as I woke up and headed for Cowra. At the visitor centre I washed my hair in the sink, charged my phone at a power point in the bathroom while I was at it, and cooked breakfast in the car park. Proper road life! Making coffee would have been one effort too far and luckily they sold a good cup, so I took my purchase to the visitor centre for what was to be my second viewing of this most spectacular, incredible hologram presentation about the 1944 Cowra breakout.
The girl steps out of a photograph and interacts with real-life objects in the cabinet, as she tells the story. She sits on a box, leans against the other picture, and lights a candle. It was totally mind blowing and I can't believe a tiny place like Cowra boasts such an amazing display for tourists. My fellow viewers were an Australian couple who'd clearly been many times before and said 'we come here every time we pass Cowra'. I don't blame them.
Another interesting visitor centre is the one at Lithgow on the edge of the Blue Mountains. After Cowra I'd stopped at Blayney and Bathhurst and I was making good progress. I called in at Lithgow to check that there wasn't anything bushfire-related that I needed to know about before I headed into the mountains.The visitor centre sits underneath this huge miner's lamp!
I headed up the 'Bells line of road' which is a name extremely familiar to me after working for the ABC on the NSW bushfires in October. The damage was clear. I drove for about an hour and not once within that time was I able to avoid evidence of the fire.
The bush actually recovers amazingly well from fire, but to see the proximity of homes and businesses was frightening. My goodness the firies did a fantastic job up there.
I stayed at Catherdral Reserve Camping ground, again, totally alone, but it was such a peaceful area and beautiful in the morning when I went out to take pictures.....
The settlement near my camp ground was called Mount Wilson. It's full of beautiful big properties with fancy gardens and views second to none. I took a number of shots from a lookout near the fire station, an area that had been decimated. I was staggered - it appeared they'd been able to stop the flames literally just feet from the fire station, and subsequent houses.
I had another car park breakfast at the Botanic Gardens at Mount Tomah. That's where I took this shot. Any guesses where the Blue Mountains have got their name??
A few hours after I took these shots I'd reached Sydney, and handed the van back. 1022 kms my final distance.
There are two main routes through the mountains from Sydney and this is the less touristy one....but I had plans to come back to see the rest...
Blue Mountains: revisited
I'm lucky to have a friend who lives in the mountains so a few days later I went back, minus the campervan, for a day of hiking and seeing what most visitors to the Blue Mountains see...the 'Three Sisters' at Katoomba.
Amy very kindly drove me around and we stopped at Springwood for a coffee, Leura for a lovely pie, and then somewhere near Wentworth Falls for a three hour hike in the rain. It reminded me of home!
It was extremely misty and I loved how it looked, although Amy assured me the views would have been spectacular if we could have seen them!
I regret not spending more of my time in this wonderful area, but I never waste a day and when I was living in Sydney I was often working seven days a week, so days off would be concerned with organising myself for the next stretch of work.
But it's places like this that make Australia so much more than just what you see in the soap operas. It's not all heat and beaches. There are mountains higher than anything we have in the UK, cold places, extremely hot places, mad characters, vast stretches of nothing, rain forests, rolling countryside, coral reef, farmland, and of course terrific cities and spectacular coastline. This will be the last of my 'travels' for now. Next stop, the place I've fallen in love with more than anywhere else on earth so far: Central Australia. I am moving to Alice Springs to see what it's like to live and work in the middle of the desert! :-)
They say we're all only separated by six degrees...well, this lovely lady you see with me on the left was far closer than that, as an acquaintance of a cousin of a friend, and we met because I moved into a house share with her in Sydney last year. Actually, she knows my friend's cousin through a food co-operative, so she was bound to be my kind of person!
Suzie recently moved to Melbourne and it was during a night out with her that I mentioned my wish to drive the Great Ocean Road. She fancied it too, so we decided to make the journey during the 'Australia Day' weekend at the end of January. This is us outside her flat just before we set off for our first destination: Apollo Bay.
As Suzie kindly did the driving, I was able to snap as we went. The Victorian countryside looks gorgeous in the fading light, but unfortunately when we reached the coast it was already fairly late. We stopped for dinner in Anglesey and drove the rest of the stunning stretch to Apollo Bay in the dark!
It's ok, we revisited it during daylight hours a few days later...
An early theme of our trip seemed to be food and drink. With grand plans to get moving on the first day, Apollo Bay held our attention for many hours with its market, art gallery, interesting shops, beautiful beach and decent places to eat or have coffee. We managed to tear ourselves away mid-afternoon.
We travelled west towards Cape Otway lighthouse, and as we drove the approach road we noticed almost everybody had stopped and was outside their vehicles with cameras pointing upwards. It could only mean one thing: KOALAS!!
These were the first wild koalas I'd ever seen. But as if that wasn't exciting enough, you'd never guess who we met while we were snapping....only the Irish Ambassador who was there doing the same thing with his family! They were very, very nice people. And gorgeous koalas. What a result!
I ascended first into the lighthouse and I was intrigued by what I thought may have been a waxwork. Turns out the man I was staring at was a real, living, lighthouse keeper, and he was just wonderful! His name was Pat and he said that Neil Oliver and the crew from 'Coast' had been up to see him recently. He really is one of the last of a kind. He's a lifelong lighthouse keeper. He saw me taking pictures of my funny little mascot, 'Munkyboy' and offered to pose with him!
I asked him what it took to be a good lighthouse keeper and he replied 'nothing between the ears'!!! He was great fun :-)
As we were about to leave, Pat beckoned for me to stand in a corner and he then told me I was the closet person on the Australian Mainland to Antarctica! An interesting thought on a very warm day....
We were booked to stay that night at somewhere we'd found on 'Air BnB' and the drive took us inland towards Carlisle River. The place was a long way from any eateries or other general signs of life, but luckily it had a well-equipped kitchen and we were supplied bread, eggs and fresh herbs by the lovely owner. And just as had happened the previous day, we were enjoying ourselves so much just cooking and chilling that we didn't manage to leave until 2pm! It's a good job the Great Ocean Road isn't very big!
to the twelve apostles....
The Great Ocean Road stretches from Torquay to Warrnambool, although we drove from Melbourne to Port Fairy. The landscape is surprisingly changeable: sometimes rugged cliffs like you see below, sometimes rolling farmland or just quaint seaside towns.
The Twelve Apostles is the iconic Great Ocean Road scene, one of Australia's 'must see' locations....
There are nowhere near twelve of these outcrops, as many of them have crumbled into the sea. But this stop is one of a series of lookout points along this stretch of the road. We ventured down Gibson's Steps onto a delightful beach with absolutely wild waves. The skies are abuzz with helicopters, and an unfortunate amount of flies competing for your attention.
One of the other stops a bit further along is 'London Bridge' which used to be attached to the land, but part of it collapsed in 1990, leaving two tourists stranded! They were rescued by helicopter....
We stopped to eat that evening in Port Campbell where brave souls were leaping from the pier. We pressed on to our destination of Port Fairy where we sat in our room drinking red wine until the 'lights out' policy of the YHA forced us to retire.
We were told about the Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve by the man who ran the Port Fairy YHA, so we bucked our trend for hanging about by getting up at the crack of dawn in search of animals and birds. We weren't disappointed. We saw wild emus...the first I'd ever seen....as well as kangaroos and this gorgeous wallaby and her joey, having a sneaky feed every time she leant forward!
To make the most of Port Fairy, we went for a walk around Griffiths Island, which is an easy stroll that boasts beaches with the most spectacularly clear water, a lighthouse (but no intriguing lighthouse keeper unfortunately) and benches where we had long breaks and equally long chats...as if three days together 24/7 hadn't been nearly long enough!
We needed to get back to Melbourne by evening so we drove the quicker inland route back until we got to Colac, but felt we'd missed some great views between Torquay and Apollo Bay, the stretch we'd driven in the dark. So we took a right-hand turn and about an hour later found ourselves in the sea at Lorne!
Lorne was a very attractive place to stop and the most intriguing thing was the number of cockatoos in town. They're a common sight all over Australia (well, the bits I've been to anyway) but it's still odd to my English eye to see a family nonchalantly eating ice cream while surrounded by these funny birds!
Another thing we'd driven past in the dark was the 'Great Ocean Road' sign and memorial statue. According to Wikipedia the road is the world's largest war memorial. It was built by returned soldiers after WWI and dedicated to those killed during that war. There is a stunning statue of two workers by the sign that some people say is the 'official' start of the Great Ocean Road.
My view of Canberra had been primarily formed by Bill Bryson who (if my memory serves me correctly) in his book ‘Down Under’ describes an evening walking and walking in pursuit of a decent feed, only to be forced to admit defeat and eat the culinary offerings of his hotel.
I instantly understood what he meant. The city centre is referred to as ‘civic’ and until you know where to look, it’s almost as if all the eateries and shops have been hidden somewhere. The other centre ‘The parliamentary Zone’, where most of your museums are, seems close on the map but it’s actually 3 kilometres away. Therefore the biggest top tip for anyone considering a trip to Canberra: a car is essential.
Luckily I had a car, which is incredible. On loan from the lovely family for whom I was house sitting. They lived just over the border in New South Wales and had extraordinary views. Sometimes my propensity for early rising pays off...as you can see the landscape is ideal for some sunrise ballooning. Spotted through my bleary eyes!
I'd been given a list of some 'must see' destinations if you had one day to spend in Canberra, so I did them first with some friends: Parliament, the War Memorial and cocktails at The Hyatt.
But first we drove up Mount Ainslie to get an idea of the city's layout.
From Mount Ainslie you get a great view of this road: Anzac Parade, and if you descend to the Australian War Memorial, as we did to take this shot, then your camera can enjoy the full benefit of the Australian capital being a designed city!
The War Memorial is just staggering. I was very keen to see the Commemorative Courtyard and the Roll of Honour, as I'd seen them so many times in the course of producing news programmes for the ABC. What I didn't realise was just how many names there'd be. The roll of honour lists virtually every Australian who'd ever died in war since 1885, and to quote the website that's over 102,000 people. My friend Bert said he felt sick. I was absolutely gobsmacked. Australia's population is small nowadays, so imagine what it must have been like to lose 60,000 people in one war alone (that was the ball-park figure lost in WWI).
We took a tour with an amazing tour guide called Gordon. His name badge said 'volunteer'. Good work Gordon! He said the WWI wing of the building was closed. Thank goodness, I thought, I couldn't even absorb what WAS on display. I think it would take days to really appreciate this amazing museum. After all that war and politics, it was time for a beverage....
The first thing I asked when I took on the house sit was 'what about bushfires'...but I was assured it had never happened and even if it did, a fire was likely to bypass the house I was looking after. But what happened four days into my stay? I spotted white smoke just after lunch and thought it was just someone's normal fire. When brown smoke started to creep into the mix I got in the car and went to investigate. I found all the residents on their balconies staring in the direction of the flames. I shouted up at one of them to ask what was going on and she said 'I don't know, this has never happened before'.
I then saw my neighbour from opposite who had piled her children into the car and was leaving. Even though I didn't really believe the blaze would reach us, this gave me a sense that the situation could be pretty serious. I started running around with hoses trying to make the ground wet, but I quickly realised that in the heat it was a futile effort.
I rang home owner Terry, and upon asking him what he thought I should do, he replied in the most Australian way....'get yourself a beer'!!
In the end the amazing 'firies' got control of the situation but the flames were reportedly 20 metres from houses. And this was how the area looked afterwards.
Bushfires are just a fact of life in Australia, and I now see why people risk living in the bush. It's beautiful, and the wildlife in the srea where I was staying was phenomenal. Huge kangaroos came to visit every night, I saw a couple of wombats, the world's second-deadliest snake, the Eastern Brown, as well as plentiful birds like rozellas and galahs. I was in the area during the heatwave, when the temperatures reached 41 degrees. Bushfires were thankfully a long way away but we did see the resulting, amazing, sunsets.
My favourite thing about my time in the area was the wildlife, and most nights I had a mob of kangaroos come through a gap in the fence to enjoy some grass. It was wonderful to watch but too dark to photograph.
But then the heatwave came and I saw a post on the ABC's Facebook page about a guy who had put water out for his local wildlife. So I followed suit and started a craze amongst my new roo friends! They began to visit during the day, so I was finally able to get a couple of shots.
This one was a regular visitor but my kangaroo highlight has to be when the alpha male came to visit one night. What huge beasts they are!
The landscape is just wonderful to drive through (with loads of air con!) and one of my favourite drives was towards a place called Tidbinbilla, which is where Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is located.
It's one of three centres that are spaced 120 degrees apart, across the earth. Here, Spain and California. This satellite dish - the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere - was talking to a craft near pluto while I was there! It then moved to talk to something else. I wasn't expecting to see this 70 metre dish (DSS43) move, and it's quite a sight!
And on the subject of communications, the Telstra Tower up Black Mountain was pretty awesome too. You pay a small fee to go up to the viewing deck, from which you can get excellent 360 degree views of the city. Canberra's population is 367,000 putting it somewhere between Bradford and Leicester in size!
One of the best days was spent doing something very Australian: watching the cricket! I'd mentioned to Terry that going to a cricket match was on my bucket list, and he said that a very high profile match, the Prime Minister's XI, was on the following week. Some very lovely and hospitable neighbours offered to take me, so that I could have the full experience and drink beer!
On arrival we had the opportunity to be photographed with the ICC Cricket World Cup. I reluctantly agreed as I had no make up on and was dressed to cope with the forecast 37 degrees but they make it look ok with all those logos!
The idea of this annual game, as I understand it, is that the Prime Minister of Australia picks a team and they play against an overseas team.
In my case it was England...I suppose because they were already in the country following their Ashes defeat...or maybe there's more to it than that! I am no sports expert.
So I got to see Prime Minister Tony Abbott walk onto Manuka Oval to be greeted by Alastair Cook. You can recognise Tony Abbott from miles away. He has a very interesting walking style....
You can see the England team I saw incuded Cook, Root, Carberry, Morgan, Butler, Bresnan, Jordan, Tredwell, Rankin, Woakes, Ballance and Bopara. Cook went out after one run!! But eventually England WON by 172 runs and I got my ticket signed by the captain. As you can see, I was pretty shiny-faced after more than a handful of beers and about 10 hours in the heat....
Click HERE for a full match report from someone who understands sport.....
The rest of my time in the area was spent visiting other museums like the fantastic National Portrait Gallery, the small but interesting National Film and Sound archive, and the National Museum of Australia. There are plenty more I would have liked to have seen but then again, I always like to leave one or two things unvisited to give me an excuse to come back!
I was also thoroughly entertained by the most hospitable of neighbours, and also the family whose house I was in, once they'd returned from their holiday in Tasmania. I was blown away by everyones kindness and I look forward to the day when I can visit again.
I'll leave you with a few of the stunning skies I captured during my stay. And don't ever believe anyone who says Canberra's boring. They secret is knowing where to look.
The Whitsundays has always been up there in the top three things I wanted to do in Australia but when I traveled down the East Coast originally, passing this area, not only was it cyclone season, but the exchange rate was horrendous and I was travelling on the pound. I wanted to experience the Whitsundays properly so in March I made the decision to skip them, and keep my fingers crossed that a better opportunity would present itself.
Before I even booked my flight out here a couple of mates from England said they intended to spend Christmas 2013 in Australia, and it was they who suggested the Whitsundays as the destination. Well, don't mind if I do!!
They didn't fancy one of the classic 'boat trips' that most people do so I traveled up a few days earlier and got on board the Kiana - a proper dive boat, and with only 14 passengers on board, it was pretty small in comparison to most boats. It's also one of the few that sail to the Great Barrier Reef from here. Most just stick around the Whitsunday Islands themselves, which are a lot closer to the mainland.
The very first place we visited was Whitehaven Beach which some say is Australia's most photographed. A prime location then for one of my fellow passengers to propose to his girlfriend! John and Claire are from England and were on holiday. Of course she said yes, and it provided a cracking start to a trip where a hugely diverse range of people got to know each other, without any irritation, even though we were cooped up in sailing dorms for two nights! When we arrived back on land EVERYBODY turned up to the pub, and that wasn't the last time certain members of our group were to frequent the drinking establishments of Airlie Beach....let's put it that way.
The funny thing about gorgeous Whitehaven Beach, and the area in general, is that at this time of year you can't swim without the full protection of a 'stinger suit'. It's so odd to see a group of people dressed head to toe in black just to go for a simple swim! But a brush with a Box or Irukandji jellyfish is a brush with death so the gear is pretty essential.
I quite like it because it means I can be a bit lazy when it comes to the application of sunscreen!
After all the excitement, we sailed off to Hook Island where we ate terrific food and had a glass of champagne for obvious reasons!
At first the size of the dorms made my breath feel rather shallow and I honestly didn't know how I would cope with a bed where I couldn't even lean up on my elbow, never mind sit up! I'm lucky to only be 5'6 because any taller and I wouldn't have been able to stretch out. But it was fine in the end. It's amazing what you can adapt to if you have no choice!
How nervous do I look here?!! Well, I was about to go on only my 6th scuba dive, and given that I was the world's worst diving student (I used to be scared of water, depths, big things underwater like ship wrecks, seaweed, the list goes on, and basically I cried in the POOL when I did my PADI course in March 2013 because I was so scared!!) I was a little apprehensive!
But there was no need. The stuff under the water in the tropics is just SO awesome. I ended up doing the maximum of four dives during the trip.
What I love about scuba diving is the same as what I love about skydiving...the ability to put your body into any position you like, and that feeling of being a spaceman! I also, of course, love the exposure to the different environments, and diving seems even more worthwhile because there are animals to look at!
Thanks to my diving instructor Cindy for these snaps. It was so cool that she encouraged me to play around and get into silly positions. I find messing about a bit during a dive relaxes me, which I need at this stage. I've now done 9 dives and there are a LOT of improvements I need to make.
We saw loads of lovely things, including a type of nudibranch (top left), which I'm told is pretty rare. I spotted Mr Lobster, for which Cindy gave me an underwater high five! We saw a few turtles, lots of nemos and completely bizarrely coloured and patterned fish. These leopard print fish were quite common, but my favourite sea creature of all (bottom left) so far is the totally weird sea cucumber.
That night we slept on the Great Barrier Reef, 64 kilometres out from the mainland. We were treated to a cracking sunset, followed by a chance to lay on the deck and look at the stars, which are just like outback stars: no light pollution whatsoever.
I got up at about 4am to see the sunrise. I was joined by most of the people on the boat, and I was in the water on my final dive before 7am. I love how everything happens early on these adventure trips. Sunrise is my favourite time of day.
I can't remember how long it took to sail back to shore, but it was in the region of five hours, with a stop near Hayman Island for lunch. Myself and a dutchman, Olivier, had our hands up first when they asked for volunteers to lift the main sail. I think they probably wished someone had beaten me to it - I don't think my little arms made much difference!
After my sailing trip it was then time to meet my friends on Long Island. I'd booked a self-catering bungalow for Christmas Day so we could do our own barbie and pretend to be Australian! But because Long Island consists of basically two resorts and absolutely no shops, if you self-cater, you have to ship it all from the mainland. So I single-handedly had to carry all the stuff I carry anyway, which is a nightmare in itself, plus a load of extra bags full of food and booze for three people for two days. Luckily I met a lovely family from Norwich of all places, who helped me onto the bus! The ferry wasn't too much of a drama to load onto, and then my mates were waiting at the other end to help me off the boat. So it could have been worse!
We spent the majority of Christmas Day in the pool, which was just glorious. In the tropics the water tends to heat up to a good 29 degrees or so. Even the bottom of the sea is in the mid 20s (well, the depths I can get to anyway...) so while I'm not much of a swimmer elsewhere I love it up there!
Of all the backpackers I'd met in the previous month, not one of them wasn't going to be in Sydney for New Year, and we were no different. So with great regret I had to leave the Whitsundays and follow the crowd. But we did have the privilege of a private rooftop party at the abode of former Anglia and Channel 7 journalist Laura Burns. And along with the top notch company, the view wasn't bad now was it?!!
For some reason I've developed an obsession with travelling overland. Even though the plane would have almost certainly been cheaper, I wanted to catch the ferry to Tasmania. I used to work on a ferry (The Lynx across New Zealand's Cook Strait) so I think I have a certain attachment to taking the boat. Anyway, the sunset at the start of the 11-hour overnight trip across the Bass Strait didn't disappoint, but the amount of sleep you get in the budget 'Ocean Recliner' (basically like being in a plane) seats is questionable...
Because the ferry landed at 0630 and I had a stupid amount of stuff (mostly due to the extra blue cool bag which is an essential backpacker accessory) I decided to hire a car straight away and see part of the island that's tricky to do via tours or public transport.
I drove to the very far west, and attempted to get to the lighthouse at Bluff Hill Point, but I lost my nerve on the unsealed road and also because I hadn't seen a human being for a very long time. It felt like The Burren in the West of Ireland. So remote and absolutely silent. I wish I'd had the guts to enjoy it without the feeling of being at the start of a horror film!
That night I caught the sight of my ship, the 'Spirit of Tasmania II' leaving Devonport. There is only one sailing each way, each day. Maybe two in peak season. Tasmania is monstrously expensive and tricky to get to, and get around.
I quickly moved onto Launceston (pronounced Lawn-sess-ton) where I met a lovely Swiss lady with whom I was able to hire a car to drive the Tamar Valley. Have any of you noticed a theme when it comes to ideas for place names yet?!!
Once I got to Launceston I was really taken by the hostel I stayed in there. It's called the 'Arthouse'. It's a beautiful wooden building, with fabulous owners and lovely staff, and the best selection of backpackers I've ever met. Every day I met awesome people there, people who made me feel I wasn't too old to be a backpacker - which was something I felt quite keenly on the East Coast, with its population of drunken gap year backpackers.
Launceston has a real feeling of one of those towns in the South West of England. And it's a proper town - not one of these nondescript, underpopulated Aussie backwaters which are so common. It has a very good museum and art gallery, a VEGAN cafe and everything else you might need. It also boasts a gorge just a few minutes' walk from town....no wonder I spent 6 of my precious Tasmanian nights here!
From Launceston I had hoped to travel through Cradle Mountain on to Strahan and back towards Hobart via Lake St Clair. But that was to be a dream. The buses go TWICE A WEEK. And Cradle Mountain is cold, lacking in facilities and phone signal and expensive to stay in. Had I done what I'd hoped I'd have had to wait five days for the bus!
Instead I went to Cradle Mountain for a couple of days and I reckon I walked at least 30 kms, in the rain and hail with only a poncho bought from the Bundaberg Rum factory to protect me! I felt very under-equipped, especially as I'm the one moaning about people who try to climb Ben Nevis in flip flops etc etc when I'm back home!
I did all the short and half-day walks (by doing them mostly back to back) including the Dove Lake Circuit, Marion's Lookout (where I had to hunker down against the hail with a surprised-looking couple from Queensland) and the Dove Valley Circuit, which was another scary wilderness experience. I did it alone in the spare few hours before I caught my bus. I saw NOBODY for three hours and started thinking 'you idiot, if you break your ankle, you're done for'. It involved scrambling, walking through bogs and along cliff edges, and beating back bush that seemed as though nobody had been there for months. Now, the Aussies call this walk 'moderate'. You know how you'll go to the Lake District and if the authorities say something's 'difficult' you can manage it without raising your pulse? Well, if the Aussies give a walk a grading, they mean it. And the rest. I would definitely class that walk above moderate!
Needless to say, my trainers have now been deposited in the bin!
Cradle Mountain is a haven for wildlife. Some wildlife are easy to spot, some impossible. You would be amazingly lucky to see a Tasmanian Devil or Duck-Billed Platypus in the wild. Which is why I've frequented a number of animal places since I've been here. I've met quite a few Pademelons, which are a special Tasmanian Kangaroo-like creature. They're more timid than your common or garden wallabies...which I've been enthusiastically coaxing over for a good scratch!
The iconic creature of Tasmania is, of course, the Devil. But they're facing a terrible threat from a massivley contagious cancer that causes tumours on their face. See here for more. It's so sad, nobody knows what to do, and they could be extinct within a decade. The sanctuaries in Tasmania, and mainland Australia are building 'insurance stocks' of healthy devils so that when an answer is found they can all be released into the wild. They are terrific creatures...especially when they argue. They are VERY angry!
So I decided to counteract the wilderness with a tour of Tasmania's East Coast with a bus load of people. We went from Launceston to the stunning Bay of Fires, down to Bicheno where we stayed the night in another great hostel and watched penguins make their way out of the sea at dusk.
The next day we ventured into Freycinet National Park where you can see 'Wineglass Bay' which, along with the Bay of Fires apparently makes it into Lonely Planet's top 10 beaches in the world. And before you ask, no I didn't swim. Tasmania is quite like Scotland!
While we were at Wineglass Bay having lunch, a wallaby decided to join us. Which was a bit of a highlight for me!
We ended the tour in Hobart...home to the gallery MONA, which, along with meeting Tasmanian Devils, formed my sole ambitions for Tassie before I actually knew anything about the place!
If you've ever been to the Saachi Gallery in London, think of a massive version of that with much more weirdness and some very bad smells. I won't go into detail in case you're eating your dinner, but if you google 'cloaca' by Wim Delvoye then rest assured, I've smelt it on your behalf.
From Hobart I decided to explore the South East of the state, a journey which would culminate in a visit to 'Tasmania's top tourist attraction' Port Arthur. The site is one of the most significant places in the story of convict transportation, and it's pretty eerie. Not least because there was a mass-murder there in 1996 which seems to have slipped past the radar of most of my generation. Including, I'm ashamed to say, myself.
In those few days I drove 700kms and got to the most southerly point of sealed road in Australia. The picture below shows what that looks like! The picture in the middle is a place called 'Dover' and is a pretty good reflection of what a lot of Tasmania's south east looks like. I also walked amongst some of the world's largest trees at Tahune Forest, and I stayed in their forest lodge which, due to the presence of a wood-burning stove, rainwater as tapwater and no phone signal was one of my favourite nights in Australia!
I also visited beautiful (and a huge hassle to get to!) Hastings Cave and 'thermal' pool. Which is geothermal, and unlike thermal pools in New Zealand, not actually hot! Apparently people get married in the cave. I've decided it would be the ultimate in wedding venues. The rock formations have formed a wedding cake, a pile of glasses and a bottle of champagne, as well as the 'cathedral' you get in most caves. The acoustics in there are amazing and apparently they have choirs and orchestras down there quite a bit, which sounds spectacular.
I spent my final night on my mini-tour at Eaglehawk Neck. If you're wondering which part of Tassie burnt down at the start of the year, it's here. The reason the fires were so bad is because they happened on the Tasman Peninsular and people couldn't escape. There's one road on and off the peninsular and it has about 3 metres of land either side. I've driven those roads today and the trees, although recovering well, are blackened and sparse. Entire hillsides are covered in trees that look this way. I didn't take any photographs because there weren't any places to stop, and I'm sure you can imagine what a hillside of blackened trees looks like!
Near Eaglehawk Neck there are a number of amazing geological formations. I met the above Possum while I was photographing the 'tessellated pavement' (in the middle below). The sea cliffs are amazing and the area on the right below is called 'Tasman's Arch' named after Abel Tasman - the Dutch explorer who discovered Tasmania.
I spotted Melbourne rising out of the horizon when we were still about 60 kms away. It’s an impressive sight. A waterfront city of skyscrapers surrounded by rolling green hills. We’d decided to stop at our hostel and dump our stuff while we had access to the rental van. We tried. We failed. Cue my racing heart as I tried to negotiate the tram tracks and madness of a totally unfamiliar city through bleary eyes caused by 2300 kms of driving.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. A strong smell of marijuana wafting through the building didn’t help matters and I just didn’t feel like being in the city after all that remoteness, so the next day I hired a car and went on a little road trip by myself, knowing the geography of a few things I wanted to do formed a perfect circle.
I wanted to see the penguins at Philip Island. No pictures as you’re not allowed, but having paid your 20 or so dollars you wait on an absolutely freezing set of concrete steps for night to fall, at which point the penguins start appearing from the sea in groups, and slowly make their way up towards the visitor centre.
I decided to choose a group to follow and the little creatures are hilarious. Their tiny feet slapping against the wet ground, stopping for an occasional ‘chat’ or sniff of the air. When they finally got to the top they had a kerb to negotiate. They all lined up one by one, none of them willing to take the lead. But then one of them fell off and the floodgates opened, they were all at it, waddling up the road like a group of men who’d left the pub after a few.
Then there was one penguin who waited and preened and waited at this kerb. The staff knew his game. He was obviously a diva and had decided to go his own way. The crowd of people were parted, and the penguin walked a totally different way to all the other penguins, as if taking to the red carpet.
And that was that, the penguins were home, it was dark and I felt hypothermic. I don’t think I’d really expected to come this far south on this trip so I’d packed ONE hoody and that’s it! Silly me. Anyone who thinks Australia’s hot is only imagining certain areas. A lot of it is pretty chilly I can tell you.
The next day I caught the Portsea to Queenscliff car ferry that takes you across a small gap in the land at the bottom of Port Philip. The drive from Philip Island to there takes you along the classy Mornington Peninsula which, if I was a Melburnian I would be frequenting at the weekends. Apparently they have thermal pools down there. I wish I’d known that post-penguin trip!
Once we landed it was onto a settlement called Lara, just east of Geelong, where some friends of mine from home now live.
After a good chat about old times and all the things you usually talk about having not seen someone for the best part of a decade, Dan, Jody, Jake and Ella introduced me to their great collection of pets – a dog, some chooks, some bearded dragons and a guinea pig, and showed me a typical Australian house, complete with cinema projector and swimming pool.
We ate at a great Mexican place in Geelong, I was welcomed home with an introduction to the great Australian ‘beer fridge’ and we chin-wagged until I pretty much fell asleep while talking. Now nearing 3000kms of driving in less than a week, I was starting to feel it.
Pancakes made with home-laid eggs lined my stomach for another day behind the wheel. Half an hour along the road is Point Cook, and I’m massively lucky to have had a friend from New Zealand move there a matter of weeks before I passed through. Lunch in South Melbourne was a bit good…a sunny day, great company and a cheeky afternoon beverage on a street cluttered with interesting bits…like deck chairs. Tamati and I used to work as cabin crew on the Lynx Fast Ferry together in Wellington in the year 2000. Friendships can cross amazing stretches of time. And time zones.
Then it was onto what would be my base for the next week or so, a house sit, with a lovely cavoodle puppy called Charlie. I didn’t do much because I found my need for dog-hugs and rest rather overruled any desire to see Melbourne! However I did make it into town for dinner and an extreme gelato with my Sydney housemate Suzie, who also moved to Melbourne recently, and up the Eureka Tower – the highest public viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere.