Spots of Time

June 24, 2003

The Tour from Hell

I was sick. Not hung over sick, or tired sick, but honest and truly sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, and sore throat sick. All the classic flu-like symptoms that made me want to crawl into bed and sleep until I died, or at least, felt better. But, instead, I was leaving on a 5-day "camping-under-the-stars" tour of Kakadu National Park, at the Top End of Australia near Darwin.

Now, some may question my sanity in making the trip. You are not alone - I questioned my sanity many times throughout the trip, starting on Day One and continuing through Day Five. However, the tour was pre-booked and pre-paid and the tour company would not allow me to post-pone the trip until their next scheduled departure. I was told that if I could not find someone to take my place, and I did not go, I would forfeit the $650 I spent on the tour. And, so I went. Armed with a belly full of chicken soup and an assortment of OTC flu pills and throat soothers.

In hindsight, I imagine that the travel insurance policy I took out might have covered me for this type of situation. In hindsight, I imagine that I could have asked to talk to the owner of the travel company and pleaded my case. However, as I had been sick for a couple of days, and hadn't really slept in 48 hours, these ideas did not occur to me at the time.

After traveling with friends for the past few weeks, I was back on my own and eager to meet some fun new travel companions. My tour was billed as "adventure travel for young, fit people between the ages of 18 and 35" which sounded perfect. Except, looking around at the faces on my tour something wasn't right. Over half the group was more than 50 years old! Now, while I actually enjoy an eclectic mix of ages when I travel, this was a bit much - especially considering the expectations I had when I booked.

Our group of 10 travelers was made up of a young English couple, a 30 year old American girl and myself. The oldies included an elderly librarian/birdwatcher and her friend, an Aussie grandmother and her second husband, and a fit but mature New Zealand bushwalker.

Sick from the start, I was able to commandeer the front seat, the only thing that made the over 1000 km round trip manageable. However, this gave me a front row seat for the vehicle breakdown we had about 2 hours outside of Darwin. The tour guide, a white woman with an Aboriginal name, whom I will call Flower Blossom (not her real name) was completely inept at vehicle repair, even though the brochure had advertised that all drivers were "mechanically inclined."

Five hours later we were still sitting there, waiting. The police had come and gone. Other vehicles had pulled over and tried to help. In between there had been sparks and shocks coming from the battery since Flower Blossom did not know the proper way to attach positive and negative jumper cables. We had lunch. And I spent the majority of the time curled up on the benches in the back of the van, raising my pounding head occasionally to ensure that we were still stuck and that if the van caught on fire someone would wake me up.

You know it is going to be the trip from hell when you are counting down the days and the hours and you aren't even 200 km outside of your departure city.

After the break down, Flower Blossom lost confidence in the vehicle. We lost confidence in her. And the tour went downhill from there.

Back on the road, I started telling Flower Blossom about a previous tour where we had encountered a number of dead kangaroos. She silenced me halfway through my tale. "Tour guides are very superstitious," she said. "There are three things you never talk about or tell stories about - vehicle breakdowns, dead animals, and injured people. At least, until the tour is over."

I apologized and was silenced, but in the back of my head I was already thinking - hmmm - we've already broken down. I wonder how long before we hit an animal or someone gets hurt? Looking back at the oldies in the van, I assumed an injury was our next order of business.

I was wrong. Less than an hour later, a large black and white bird came swooping down near the windshield. Flower Blossom did her best to avoid him, but to no avail. SMACK! The bird's body hit the window, feathers flying. "Damn it!" the guide said, and then, turning to me accusingly, said, "See - what did I tell you? You can't talk about those things!" Did I mention that it was still Day One?

By the morning of Day Two, I had lost my voice completely. The dysfunctionality of the group showed when it took most people until our lunch stop to realize that I simply wasn't speaking. No one said good morning, no one asked how anyone else had slept, people just ate their breakfast in silence, washed their dishes and got back into the truck for the next destination. This was not my idea of fun, but without a voice, I couldn't do much to change the dynamic of the group.

Day Two also included our first injury - the Aussie grandmother twisted her ankle during our long hike at Kooplin Gorge. This was not a shock - of the five oldies, it was apparent that three (the grandmother, the librarian/birdwatcher and her friend) were not truly fit enough for the hikes - some of which were 8-10 km per day. Our pace was slowed considerably, which made for some very late nights. We didn't make it into camp once during daylight hours, and I don't think we ate before 9 p.m. any night. The bickering grew (especially from the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend) and extended to the tour guide, who was quickly losing patience with everyone. I remember thinking, if I get my voice back tomorrow, I might just pretend I don't - just so I don't have to talk to anyone. Sad.

On Day Three, still without a voice (legitimately) I volunteered to sit in the back seat, not wanting to hog the front seat for the whole trip. It only took about an hour on the dry, dusty roads for me to start coughing. Coughing so hard that I couldn't control the coughing, could hardly breathe, tears, snot and saliva dripping down my face. The guide stopped the car so I could get out and collect myself, after which point I was put back into the front seat. The coughing fits continued however, and I found the only way to keep myself sane and breathing was to wet a bandana and breathe through it any time we were in the car and during dusty parts of the hikes. My level of misery was growing and there was nothing I could do about it but keep moving and count down the hours until we were back in Darwin.

Without a voice I was powerless - that is, in addition to not being able to communicate effectively, I could also not defend myself. Some of the tour members apparently thought that my lack of voice also meant a lack of hearing. I overheard more than one unkind word about my participation on the tour while I was clearly ill - and my coughing keeping the camp up at night (even though I sequestered myself as far away from everyone as I could). I cried myself to sleep that night.

By Day Five I finally had my voice back, though I sounded like a cane toad and didn't speak much unless it was necessary. Thinking we were in the home stretch, I relaxed a bit, actually enjoying the last day's boat tour over crocodile infested waters. Maybe that had something to do with the boat tour guide - who actually explained to us what we were seeing, vs. Flower Blossoms minimal commentary, mostly in response to questions.

Pulling away from the boat tour we traveled down a dirt road toward the main highway and our final stretch back to Darwin. Suddenly, from the bushes a wallaby (similar to a kangaroo but smaller) jumped across the road. Flower Blossom slammed on the breaks and tried to swerve but at the last second the wallaby hesitated. THUNK. His body hit the front of the truck and it was all over. Flower Bloom was heartbroken - she turned the truck around so we could go back and check on him. His tail twitched twice and then, nothing. She got out of the truck and grabbing him by the tail, pulled his body over to the side of the road. We were all silent for a while, and even though I tried to stop it, I couldn't help but think, "the perfect end to the perfect trip."

As we neared Darwin, Flower Blossom turned to me and only half jokingly said, "You know, if I get sick, I'm blaming you." I looked at her for a minute with surprise, and then said, "Actually, if you get sick, its is your company's fault. I knew I was not fit to go on this tour, but they told me my only option was to go or forfeit the money. So if you want to blame someone, blame your money hungry boss." By now I had lost all patience with the group and couldn't wait to get out of the truck and get away.

I had a feeling that Flower Blossom felt the same way. I'm willing to bet any amount of money that for the next 6 months, when she talks about the "tour from hell" it will be a blow by blow description of our trip. And, I don't blame her. Even in my misery I frequently felt bad for her and what she was going through - don't let anyone tell you the tour guide's life is all sunshine and roses.

The irony of the trip is that most of this was completely lost on the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend. During our last night (Day Four) both a bit tipsy on their boxed wine, they proposed a toast, "To us - we've been a great tour!" Flower Blossom looked at them incredulously and then, quite sarcastically said, "You're the best tour group I've ever had." Most of us laughed, knowing the truth. However, the birdwatcher/librarian and her friend didn't get it. "What are you laughing about?" she said. "I think we've been a great group - we haven't complained at all - even though people kept us up all night with their coughing and others slowed us down because they were hurt. I think we've been great - to us!"

If I had a voice at that moment, I think I still would have been speechless.

June 17, 2003

Heading Bush

The rain came in big splashy drops, quickly turning into a downpour. Our group rushed back down the hill to the van, but our efforts were in vain. By the time we all piled in we were drenched - but laughing. A good sign that our group was finally bonding. While everyone was friendly enough when we met, we hadn't been making a lot of headway in the bonding department - that is, until the sky opened up. It's funny how a little bit of shared adversity bonds a group together. It's just as if the rain were meant to come - to loosen everyone up for the adventure that lay ahead.

The day after our train arrived in Adelaide, Alex and I left on a ten-day outback camping trip called "Heading Bush." Ten days of 4WD off-road driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs, camping in swags along the way and traveling with 9 strangers through some of the most remote country Australia had to offer to those willing to go off the beaten path. In my travels to date I had never been on a tour that had lasted for more than 4 days, so 10 days trapped (er, traveling) with 10 other people was new territory for me - and I was a little bit apprehensive.

Our group was an international mix of three Germans, one Swiss, one Irish, one Belgian, an Israeli couple and an Australian tour guide and ranged from one teenager to one 40-something with a mixture of 20 and 30-somethings in between. With the exception of Alex and I and the Israeli couple, everyone else was traveling solo. On the afternoon of the first day I looked around with the sudden realization that that fate of my trip rested on these 10 strangers. And I wondered, would we all get along?

Traveling is not just about where you go. In fact, I would say that where you go only accounts for about 50% of your trip. The other 50% of your trip is the experience you have while you are there - and that is almost always dependent, to some extent, on the people you interact with while you are there. I have incredibly fond memories of rather unremarkable cities - simply because of the wonderful people I met while I was there. Similarly, I have horrible memories of otherwise lovely cities - again, because of the people I met while I was there.

Luckily, both halves of the equation with regards to this tour were excellent - a great tour with great people. But that wasn't a given - getting along with a group of strangers thrown together for 10 days of eating, sleeping, and traveling takes some work and some compromise. In addition to different ages, we were dealing with different personalities and different nationalities - more than half of which were speaking in a language that was not their native tongue. And, we were dealing with less than ideal conditions - long, hard road travel, exposure to the elements, bug attacks, lack of regular showers, and 11 people sleeping in the same space for nine nights. Not to mention different ideas about humor and sharing and responsibility. And yet, somehow it all worked out - well.

From Adelaide to Alice Springs we drove through some amazing areas. We stopped in towns like Williams Creek, with a permanent population of just 6 people, and Coober Pedy a city where 3/4 of the people live underground to escape the heat of the desert. We saw natural wonders like Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Uluru (Ayres Rock), saw amazing sunrises and sunsets over desert landscape, and woke up to the sound of dingoes and galahs. We learned how to bake bread in a camp fire, shared traditions from different countries and cultures, told jokes, played games, passed around pictures, and generally got to know each other. I'm convinced that 90% of all the worlds issues could be solved if world leaders were forced to get to know each other a similar environment - without their handlers, press agents and speech writers.

I recently returned from another tour - one that did not work out so well. In fact, I am willing to bet any amount of money that the tour guide from this tour will use our tour group as her "tour from hell" story for at least the next 6 months. I know I will. While only a five day tour, and this time with all native English speakers, it just didn't work. But that is a story for another time. :)

So, while a big thanks goes out to Mother Nature for all the natural beauty we saw (especially the amazing desert sunrises and sunsets) I want to sent out a special thanks to the people - to Avi and Idan from Israel, to Bart from Belgium, to Suzanna and Tine and Lilly from Germany, to Peter from Switzerland, to Sara from Ireland, to Alex, and to our tour guide Simon - for an excellent tour.

June 10, 2003

"Don't Count Your Quokkas..."

Biking around Rottnest Island this afternoon I had my column all planned out: the benefits of off-season travel to high tourist locals - the quiet, the tranquility, the lack of screaming children and vacationers hell bent on having a good time. I even had the title - "Off-Season Island Oasis." However, there is a reason the saying "don't count your chickens before they hatch" exists - though in my case, it would have been better to say "don't count your quokkas."

The Dutch "discovered" Rottnest island, located 19 kilometers off the western coast of Australia (near Perth), in the 17th century. They gave it the name "Rottnest," which means rat's nest, mistakenly assuming the island marsupials were very large rats. Of course, the Aboriginals had already known about the island, which they called Wadjemup (meaning "place across the water") and had their own name for the little animals - quokka. Quokkas are in the wallaby family (think a smaller version of a kangaroo), and are native to the island - the only place in all of Australia that they exist.

I had heard about the island and these friendly little animals, said to run rampant around the island and friendly to boot, so, my last day in Perth I decided to take the hour long ferry down the Swan river to the island. Though it was raining when I left Perth I had high hopes for better weather on the island. I was not disappointed - though still overcast, there was no rain and pockets of blue sky were visible.

I rented a bike - de rigueur on the island as cars are almost totally absent and visitors don't get the option of bringing their own or renting once there. Since the island is only 11 km long and about 4.5 kilometers wide, it was fairly easy to bike around the whole island in a day. For $20 I received a multi-gear bike, a bike lock and the mandatory helmet.

From the Thompson Bay settlement (the only thing resembling a town on the island) I biked north, stopping frequently to walk out to sandy bays, explore a lighthouse and check out the near-deserted vacation cabins and condos. Though I passed a few people here and there, my experience was fairly solitary. My first quokka experience took place within 10 minutes of my ride. The little fellow calmly posed for a picture and seemed nonplused by my presence - even though I was about three feet away from him. His eyes glazed over and he looked like he was half asleep. Later I found that quokkas are nocturnal animals - and, as it was about 12 noon, my little friend must have been sleepwalking when I came across him.

At Parakeet Bay, on the top of the island, I stopped to explore one of the many beaches. Though there were a pair of fresh footprints along the water's edge, I couldn't see a living soul in either direction from where I was standing. The water was turquoise blue intermixed with a deep midnight - reminding me of a much more tropical location - though the weather was brisk (about 15 degrees C, 60 F). Standing there, alone, I was thrilled by the solitude and calm - a product of the time of year more than the location. Earlier, at the bike shop, weaving my way though row after row of bicycles and helmets, I was told a story of a much busier time of year. I patted myself on the back for the "discovery" of this tourist-free time of year and congratulated myself on my off-season visit.

Continuing west I barely noticed the dark rain clouds that covered the sky - until they let loose a torrent of tiny raindrops. "No worries" I thought, putting on my raincoat and turning back toward Parakeet Bay and blue sky. Except there was no more blue sky. And now the rain was coming down in much bigger raindrops. As I peddled my mind suddenly remember something about the promised Mediterranean-like climate." While summer promise hot, sunny weather, winters are known for being mild - but wet.

I peddled as fast as I could toward Thompson Bay, a mere 20 minutes away according to one tourist sign. By now the rain was lashing at my face and hands, soaking the tops of my pants so they stuck to my legs like cling wrap. I peddled on while huge drops of water collected on the edge of my mandatory helmet and every so often splashed down before my eyes, temporarily blurring my vision. Not that I passed any other pedestrians or cyclists. Two service vehicles passed me along the way, and I managed only a half-hearted acknowledgement of their existence before pressing on. Suddenly, the solitude of the island and the lack of visitors made sense. Who in their right mind would want to bicycle around an island during a rainstorm?

Once back at Thompson Bay I took shelter at a cafe and ordered a hot tea. As I brushed wet hair out of my face I imagine I looked like a drowned quokka - which, by the way, I hadn't seen any more of since my soporific little photo model. Apparently, the little buggers are weather indicators too. I walked into the bathroom and surveyed the damage. My jacked had done a good job of keeping my torso dry but my pants were soaked. I leaned back on the edge of the sink, propped one foot on top of the trash can and tried to dry them as best as I could under the hand dryer. It was awkward at best and I quietly hoped no one would walk in while I was performing the balancing act. I would have taken the pants off completely but it somehow seemed more dignified to be found in the balancing predicament than standing there in my hiking boots and underwear.

By the time I saw down with my tea, the rain had stopped. By the time I finished writing this story, the skies had returned to a slightly overcast but pale blue hue. But, by then, it was near time for the ferry to pick me up and take me back to Perth. Damn. Like the Dutch, I spoke a bit too soon - there is a reason why location have a high -season and a low-season. Next time, I'll do more research before proclaiming "Eureka!"

June 03, 2003

Slow And Steady Wins The Race

The only thing visible from the windows is the reflection of the inside of the train and its passengers. The motion is noticeable, with a vibration you can feel coming up from the tracks, through your shoes, up through the seat, and radiating into your spine. It is just past 7 p.m. yet many passengers have curled up to sleep - the rocking motion of the train lulling them to dreamland. Everyone's body clock is shutting down with the setting of the sun and the knowledge that our journey will be a long one.

Train travel has always held some kind of romance for me - and I know I am not alone in this feeling. I'm not sure why - my experience with train travel has been limited - I never even did the European rail pass experience. Maybe it is old movies or maybe it is the foreignness of the form of travel that appeals to me. Either way, I knew before arriving in Australia that I would travel by train whenever possible.

I first heard about Australia's rail system by reading Bill Bryson's book about Australia, "In a Sunburned Country" (or "Down Under," depending upon its country of publication). Upon arrival I found that while train travel was possible throughout much of the eastern half of the country, the only really efficient trains were those three that traveled the southern half of the continent. Packaged together as the Great Southern Railway Pass, a "backpacker" could purchase a 6 month pass for unlimited travel on either The Ghan, The Overland or The Indian Pacific for $450 Australian dollars. Done deal.

My rail adventure started when Lindsay, Alex and I left Sydney on The Indian Pacific, traveling west to Adelaide, Australia's fourth largest town. The journey was 25 hours - for us. However, The Indian Pacific's route spans the continent of Australia - from Sydney through Adelaide to Perth, located on the country's western coast. The Web site boasts it to be "one of the world's longest and greatest train journeys." The total distance from Sydney to Perth - 4352 km. Needless to say, this was not a minor undertaking. Though we had originally planned to do the entire distance in one trip, the timing of our 10 day Outback adventure tour (which left from Adelaide), required that we break up the journey. In retrospect we would be patting ourselves on the back for this decision.

Our travel companion was Nigel, a tall, blond Canadian that distinguished himself by being one of only a handful of Canadian travelers I have EVER met that didn't travel with a Canadian flag prominently displayed on his pack. We liked him immediately. His impressions of us were a little more vague. Throughout the trip he quietly studied our group with his intense blue eyes and I could see him alternate between mild amusement and slight fear at the thought of 25 hours with three slightly wacky Americans. Nigel, more adventurous (or crazy?) than the three of us, was traveling the full 4300+ kilometers in one trip - more than 60 hours on a train traveling solo. I was impressed and worried about him all at once.

Bill Bryson traveled and wrote about his experience from the comfort of the first class sleeper cabins. Our group did not have this luxury. We were traveling via Red Kangaroo Daynighter seats - reclining airplane style seats - though slightly wider. Though the booking agent had said the train was completely full, we left Sydney with only about 50% of our carriage's seats taken. This was a blessing as it allowed us to commander two seats each, and, by turning the seats around to face either other, create our own little "beds" - Nigel and I on one side and Alex and Lindsay across the aisle from us. Following Alex's overnight long-distance bus travel experience, we all took a sleeping pill to help us sleep through the night. A huge help - even coming from this pill-commitment phobic individual.

Speed is not the main benefit of train travel in Australia. Alex, who had traveled on many a European "speed" train was shocked at how slow the train was traveling, even after it was far outside the Sydney station. "I think that guy in his wheelchair out there is beating us," Alex said. "And look, a child learning to walk is moving fast than we are!" She was exaggerating - but only a little bit. If speed is your main priority, then traveling by air is the way to go. However, if you aren't as concerned about the destination, I highly recommend train travel - and this is why.

Lindsay and Alex had been traveling for two weeks before they met up with me in Sydney and were consequently relaxed, fun and just the slightest big insane. I had been working on a major deadline for the past month and was stressed, still thinking about work and decidedly unfun. If we had flown directly to Adelaide (a flight time of about 2 hours) I would have arrived as stressed as when I left Sydney. However by traveling slowly through the countryside, I was allowed time to slowly say goodbye to my Sydney work life and embrace the upcoming 6 weeks of travel and adventure - without the usual air travel whiplash. Traveling by land has a grounding affect on you - no pun intended.

(I must stop here to say that the following information - like much of what I learn, sticks in my head with no context whatsoever - as easily attributed to Cosmopolitan, The New York Times or a random conversation with a passenger on a bus. I only mention its enigmatic origin as a desperate attempt to avoid any kind of charges of plagiarism in case I've actually taken it from a travel book or a quote by a famous writer. So, if you are my source, know my source or have read my source - please let me know. Thanks.)

I once heard/read/was told that a certain traveler/individual/writer only traveled by ground and only by day because slower travel allowed you the benefits of a constant uninterrupted flow of destination to destination - allowing one to get accustomed to the leaving of one place and arrival at another without the jarring reality that comes from a relatively quick plane ride or overnight journey. Now, while I realize this is not an option that most of us have due to time constraints, huge distances or barriers - such as say, the Pacific Ocean - the idea of what this individual said stuck with me.

While long-distance train travel is not exactly staying true to this individual's theory, it is much closer than jumping on a plane to your next destination. The 25 hours on the train allowed me time to chill out, let go of the work world, watch the sun set, listen to Alex and Lindsay's stories from the past two weeks, read up on Adelaide, write in my journal, meet and actually talk to an interesting traveler, sleep relatively well, and wake up to the sun rising. All in all, a rather pleasant experience.
Though I know even my leisurely long-term travel schedule won't allow for this type of travel in all circumstances, if I have the option, slow and steady definitely appeals to me. To quote another random mysterious source - it's the journey, not the destination.