26.06.2012 - 26.06.2012 16 °C
Really this is just a brain dump...it may come in useful for anyone even contemplating trying something like I did. I may have made it out to be a bit of an ordeal, but really it wasn't hard. A few things are important: first of all, common sense. I cannot stress that enough. Second, know ahead of time what you are getting yourself into, where you plan to go, and read as much as you can from other travellers that have been there and / or done that. Don't be afraid to ask questions; no question is stupid, and even if it was, it is better to know the answer to a stupid question than to do a stupid thing that gets you into an uncomfortable situation...or worse.
First off, a bit of background. I've wanted to visit Australia since I was a kid. I have no exact idea why - maybe it was the crush I had on Olivia Newton John when I was 4. Maybe it was the boomerang and coins with kangaroos that my aunt brought me back from Oz when I was 6 or 7. I suppose Crocodile Dundee may have contributed, but honestly I was already sold by then anyway. So last year I was approaching my 7 year anniversary at my employment - which granted me, as a benefit, a 7 week sabbatical, and my seriously awesome-bet-you're-jealous wife tells me, quite seriously: "you should go to Australia" (she had known I always wanted to). Sounded great, but I had never given much thought to what I would do in Australia. So I did what probably countless others do: I Googled "Outback Tours" (in the back of my mind, John Locke hollering from his wheelchair "don't tell me what I can't do!!!") Within a few links, I came across a web site that, although did provide useful information in sourcing local tours for various Outback attractions, spent most of its energy simply telling you the facts about the Outback, the Kimberley region, and how the best way to see these places is to take your own tour. It dispelled (with actual facts and links) most of the sensationalist North American perceptions about how "dangerous" Australia is, rather giving you the details about what you really need to be focused on. Remember my first bit of advice? Common sense...and the lack of which is the single most dangerous thing in Australia (or probably anywhere) you will come across.
I want to cite this work:
So after reading these sites (over and over again) for two weeks, I went from planning a, well, I-don't-know-what trip to Australia, to planning a self-drive tour of some of the Outback and the Kimberley region. And, well, the rest is history...very, very recent history.
If you at all interested in planning something like this, let me tell you some of the things that worked and didn't work: I can't promise the same results, I can only reflect on my own experience.
First and foremost, read the website(s) above and thoroughly research the things you find in it - wildlife, locations, histories, routes, companies, etc. The website is very thorough but what it really gives you is a jumping pad to quickly locate the information you really want to find.
Stop thinking everything in Australia can kill you: here's something to chew on...I bet that more bears kill people throughout North America each year than people die of something wildlife-related in Australia. In fact while I was gone, a damned black bear roamed through our backyard, terrifying my wife...e.g she got closer to a 'dangerous' animal while I was in Australia, than I did the entire time I was there. What will kill you in Australia: stupidity and / or a lack of common sense. Not spiders. Not snakes (if you can even find one) provided you simply leave it alone, exhibiting what I like to call in these parts "common sense". Not crocodiles - unless you are stupid and ignore every warning that is readily available to you, at which point maybe you're better off. Not jellyfish - read the literature available and posted warnings. The country simply is not out to kill you - unless *you* are out to kill you. Maybe then you'll find it helpful...
Sunscreen: many web sites will recommend a minimum of SPF30. Well, I was slopping SPF60 on to my pasty Canadian skin and finding I needed to reapply after driving a few hours; less if I had been hiking. Even in the Australian "winter", the sun is really intense here (due to the arid conditions) and you simply cannot take the sun for granted as you can in Canada during most of the year.
Hat: go ahead - laugh at the wide-brimmed kangaroo leather Barmah hat. This thing not only rocks my world, it damn well works...and works great. We may not be used to folks wearing this type of headdress in BC but in northern Australia it is common, and with good reason. They work - it keeps you cool, keeps the sun off your head, can be soaked in the creek for extra-long-lasting cool-off, and looks classy. Or creepy, depending on how you like to wear it.
Shorter days: since visiting Northern Australia during the wet season is, well, restrictive at best, chances are you will plan your trip during the dry season. This is late fall / winter / early spring in Australia. The days are shorter than summer days in Canada. Plan your day (or more importantly, your drive) accordingly.
Items I found helpful (that can be brought with you most of the time)...I don't include stuff you can get with your 4WD hire, because, well, they'll explain why that stuff in helpful (but make sure you get the air compressor, if nothing else):
- iPod FM transmitter. This saved my ass from insanity.
- iPad: instead of a laptop...it was way lighter and easier to deal with and charge, no contest. However, WiFi-compatibility issues knock it down a few notches...
- road atlas: I bought a copy of the HEMA maps Australia + 4WD. Very helpful. Here's a hint: it may be published in Australia, but it is half the price if you order it out of the UK. No idea why.
- sunscreen: particularly if you are buying a better quality higher SPF rated brand, I found this cheaper to bring than to buy in Oz.
- hat: it was definitely cheaper to buy the Barmah hat out of the US than to wait to buy it in Australia.
- Torch (flashlight): I grabbed a good-quality 3-D cell mag light and belt-ring (transport in luggage without batteries, buy there) for Tunnel Creek - I don't regret it. Add a mini-mag light that converts to a lamp for bonus points.
- Headlamp torch: I didn't actually have one. Everyone else camping did. I was jealous...they (the headlamps) looked really helpful.
- Light-coloured clothing: be it long or short sleeved; I did not bring enough of this, and hence sunburned through my shitty black t-shirts.
- Long distance card / dial-up plan. Duh.
- Unlocked GSM/3G cell-phone: do not underestimate this for cost savings. If you have an unlocked phone, bring it. If you have a locked phone, get it unlocked. I can only speak for my experience with the company I chose, but Telstra in Australia offered a prepaid sim card plan that allowed calls back home for .15c per minute. Free incoming. This actually is cheaper than many long-distance calling cards. So as long as you are in an area that offers cellular coverage (all major cities, most smaller towns, and many coastal and larger rural villages - even the odd 'major' roadhouse) you are totally set. Obviously not helpful in most of the Kimberley and Outback. For those, buy a Telstra calling card.
- Travel adapter: convert 110V North American plug to 220V Australian outlet. You can bring or buy. *Make sure* your devices (if you can get away with it, all of them) have AC adapters that take 110-220 so no actual voltage conversion is needed. Better yet...
- 12 cigarette lighter USB charger plug: if you can ensure everything electronic you bring either is charged via a standard 5V USB, or can be charged through its own 12DC adapter, then you are no longer dependent on 'powered' camp sites to charge things like your laptop/iPad, cameras, phones, etc. as everything you own can be charged through the cigarette lighter / power point. Bring these plugs and cables with you.
- Masking/electrical tape: bought this in Oz, and whenever I opened something (milk, juice, peanut butter, etc.) I thoroughly taped it shut. Definitely a must for all Tanami / Gibb travellers. (also if you are travelling with wine, yogurt, etc. make sure to pack and pad well).
- Windshield GPS mount: great for mounting a video camera for recording, oh I don't know, river crossings maybe?
- Fold-up reusable water bottle: I impressed more than one Aussie with this ingenious item, which I would fill up with water from one of the several boxes of spring water I bought and carried in the truck (that's another tip) and throw in the backpack...speaking of which...
- Backpack: take as your carry-on, then convert it to a day pack once you are on your camping trip.
- And lastly, depending on where you are actually travelling, the guides (both the free ones and the ones for sale) at the sites above may come in really...really handy.
Things I did not actually find useful:
- GPS: yes, its true. Partly because I left the electronic Australian map file on the computer at home, so the most granular the thing could get with me is it could tell me I was in Australia...but also partly because I did not stray from known / marked routes and / or trails. Had I had the map file maybe it would have been useful for finding a restaurant in Sydney, but really that is what wifi + tripadvisor.com is for. The most useful thing the GPS did was give me quick access to the sunup/sundown times for wherever I was. And since you are reading my advice, you'll find these out ahead of time anyway...right?
- Hunting knife: let's be honest, this was a pre-trip souvenir in the first place, I couldn't have found a use for this if I tried. Maybe because I didn't make any fires or target-throwing bets.
- Corkscrew: they don't use corks in wine as far as I can tell. At least not for any wine under $30. Leave it at home.
Here are a few last bits of learning I acquired:
- Try to find hotels that advertise wifi...preferably free. A lot of hotels in Australia charge for WiFi, and in some cases it is up to $25/day.
- Do NOT get sticker-shock from the prices when you get to Australia (because it won't help you anyway). Yes, the same $10 cheeseburger may initially look more expensive, but combine this with the fact that you won't be tipping under many circumstances, and the fact that a lot of restaurants offer cheap beer and wine to go with your meal, tax is rolled into the price, it all kind of works out. Everything seems more expensive in Australia - it probably is, but don't let that bother you, because you can't do anything about so just start bloody enjoying your time here already.
- When reading a review on Tripadvisor.com about a restaurant in Australia, (probably) ignore any review written by a North American. Chances are they are having a hard time with the point I mentioned above about sticker shock, and this seriously clouds their viewpoint.
- Talk to people who have been here. They can give you the leg up on where to go / not to go, how certain social 'customs' work and how to talk with people. This would have been helpful for me.
- Driving on the left-hand side of the road is not nearly as challenging as it should be (even manual, with the gear shifter on your left). Just remember, in terms of 'difficulty', "right is left" and "left is right". And the turn-signal is on the RIGHT of the steering column. And don't be afraid, and if you need time to adjust, do circles around the rental lot for a while. But you won't need to - honestly.
- It's "long black", not "Americano".
I may update this entry as I think of more stuff, but I think that may be the most obvious. If you are at interested in asking me about anything, please feel free to send me a PM through Travellerspoint or Facebook, depending on where you are reading this from.
Again, thanks for reading. And if I can inspire even one other to go do a self-drive through Australia then I have succeeded!