Cruising on Inle Lake, Burma

The Burmese escape continues north where we find the beautiful Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is a shallow freshwater lake located in the Shan State of Myanmar and surrounded by the picturesque Shan Hills which cover parts of Burma, Thailand and the Chinese Yunnan province.

There is no direct railroad connection between Bagan and Inle Lake and this complicates and prolongs your journey if you want to travel by railroad. First, one would need to take the train from Bagan to Mandalay after which you would hop on the Mandalay to Yangon train and finally switch to the Thazi – Kalaw – Shwenyaung train. We did not have time for such detour and decided to derail and catch a bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. A bus ticket on the Bagan Min Thar Express goes for 11,000 kyat ($10) per person and you can ask to be picked up at your guesthouse at no extra charge. Departure from Bagan is daily around 7 PM and arrival is scheduled at 5 AM the next day.

In a country where the GDP per capital is barely $1,000, AC has become a peculiar status status symbol and this was no different on the Bagan – Inle Lake bus. Consequently, I was shivering all night, didn’t close an eye and was more than happy when the bus arrived at 3 AM, surprisingly two hours earlier than expected. Mind that, just as when arriving in Bagan, you are aggressively forced to buy tickets for the Inle Zone ($10) which you can avoid by claiming that your hotel already has bought the tickets for you.

The bus drops you off Shwenyaung Junction after which you can get to Nyaungshwe (or Nyaung Shwe), the main town next to Inle Lake, for about 1,000 kyat per person. It was surprisingly cold in the morning (Inle Lake has an elevation of 880 m) and a dense fog limited visibility to a few meters. Trash is getting burned alongside the streets and, together with slash-and-burn agriculture, produces an eye-watering smoke which made me cough in the early morning.

We stayed at the Gypsy Inn (on Strand Road) which offers doubles including breakfast for 20-25k kyat per night. The rooms are basic (but clean) and the breakfast features pancakes and fresh fruit.

Then the lake.

Inle Lake covers 116 square kilometers and is best explored by renting a boat including captain. You pay 20,000 kyat for an entire boat per day (I read you can bring prices down to 15,000 kyat). You can fill the boat with up to 5 people which makes it cheaper and we found two other persons to share the boat. Boats are made from wood and nowadays powered by a (loud) diesel engine. Traditional leg rowing has become obsolete and we only saw it once during our stay and it was a fake fisherman begging for money.

You should start your cruise early, say 8 AM, to experience the mystical fog which reminds of epic scenes of The Lord of the Rings. The captain will give you blankets to keep warm and slowly, once the morning fog has cleared, you will be able to witness Inle Lake in its full beauty. The all-consuming celestial blue of the lake and surrounding resplendent green rain forest make for excellent pictures.  You will also quickly exchange your blanket for an umbrella – it gets hot!

The captains make commissions from souvenirs you buy on and and around the lake. Except if you want to go on a shopping spree, explain your captain that you do NOT want to buy anything. I found it a bit sad to see that all markets on the lake were reselling Chinese-made souvenirs and overpriced clothes and jewelry. They did not seem to understand that most tourists are looking to experience real Burmese life and not something artificially created.

There are, however, plenty of things to see and sample on and around the lake. It was particularly interesting to see the floating garden agriculture which is yielding excellent fruit & veg. These gardens are little islands constructed of water hyacinth and mud kept together by long bamboo poles. They can be transported and are traded as they were regular farmland. Clearly, Inle Lake’s food was superior to the rest of Burma because of the abundance of fresh produce. We tried tasty salads of tea leaf, tomato and avocado. Also the fresh juices are superb, most notably the papaya-lime juice. A new combination with which I immediately fell in love with. Approved restaurants with reasonable prices are: Sin Yaw, Linn Htett, Evergreen and Sun Flower (take the grilled fish!).

In the evening, the setting sun reflects off the surface of the water and you can hear youngsters play Beatles songs covered in Burmese. Inle Lake needs to cope with an increasing amount of visitors and many of the markets and villages around the lake are purely set up for tourists and felt fake to me. However, it are the amazing views, “Hey Jude” in Burmese and the fresh food that make this trip a genuine escape.

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The best (and cheapest) way to get out of Inle Lake is songthaew for 1k kyat per person to the Shwenyaung Junction. The songthaews depart from a little station close to Mingalar Market and the last one departs around 4.30 PM. You can sit on the roof as I did.

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From Shwenyaung you can either take a bus/minivan for 11k kyat per person (last one departing around 6 PM; picture above) or wait alongside the road on the T-junction for a songthaew to stop. For 3k kyat per person you can experience a very local ride to Thazi. The journay takes you through mountains and the stretch takes about 4 hours. The songthaew will also stop for a very local dinner which will only set you back 2k kyat per person! It will be late when you arrive in Thazi and you can spend the night in one of the two guesthouses with similar prices (20-25k kyat for a double) and inspiring names: Moonlight and Wonderful. Trains. There is absolutely nothing to do or see in Thazi and the town serves the purpose of transit town only. We found great (but fatty) snacks at the Power Cafe next to the main road.

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As previously mentioned, no central Burmese train ticket booking system exists which means that you cannot book tickets in advance. However, you can persuade the railroad clerk to call up the Mandalay railroad station (all trains going south to Yangon come from Mandalay) and inform whether there is a place on the sleeper train. If possible, try to hop on train number 6 which has sleepers and departs from Thazi at 5.45 PM and arrives next morning at 5 AM. We were out of luck and had to take the “4 Down” which did not have any sleepers unfortunately. An Upper Seat Ticket on the 4 Down goes for 7,350 kyat per person and departs at 7.49 PM to arrive the next morning at 8 AM in Yangon.

This brings us full circle.

This was the fourth post about travel in Burma. You can read part 1 to 3 here:

Burmese Days

The Bumpy Train Ride from Yangon to Bagan

Exploring Temples in Bagan, Burma

Welcome to Scambodia!

It was still dark when the 6 am train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong main train station to Aranyaprathet, the last Thai station before the Thai-Cambodian border,  slowly departed.

Train travel in Thailand is dead slow, but a cheap and convenient way to get around and see the country. I usually don’t bother, but you can have a Thai person calling to check the availability of tickets to your desired destination. Mind that the trains will be fully booked during peak Thai holiday periods! Most notoriously during Songkran, the Thai new year, trains will be crowded and you should definitely book your tickets in advance. But every great escape involves some chaos and uncertainties, that’s why you should map out a few itineraries, and go for whatever is available. In this case, to Cambodia. Let’s go!

In Bangkok, all long-distance trains depart from the Hualamphong train station. Main online resources are the State Railway of Thailand and the Man in Seat Sixty-One. Following the latter, I learned that Aranyaprathet is the last Thai station before the Thai-Cambodian border. Tickets for third class wooden benches go for a ridiculously low THB48 (USD1.6 or EUR1.2), and you can also catch the train at a further train station as Hua Takhe. Alternatively, if you miss the train, you can find buses and taxis driving you to the Thai-Cambodian border. Expect to pay 50-100 times more for the taxi (first asking price around THB4,5o0).

The train ride is an escape from the chaos in Bangkok to a more colorful landscape of rice paddies and palm trees.  The first light of the rising morning sun also enabled me to continue a great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Price winner and Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman. It’s definitely one of these books you should read every year to remind yourself how ignorant and irrational we are in our decision-making processes.

We finally limped into the Aranyaprathet train station after a 6-hour train ride during which we barely covered 250 km. This is definitely not a Train à Grande Vitesse, but at least you see some scenery, not just the departure and arrival hall of airports.

The title of this post says “Welcome to Scambodia!” and we will hereafter explore the most important scams. The fun starts from the moment you get off the train in Aranyaprathet.

 

Scam #1 The fake visa application office

 

Be extremely vigilant with the tuk-tuk drivers driving you from the Aranyaprathet train station to the Thai-Cambodian border. It’s simple: they don’t bring you to the border, but to a dodgy consulate close to the border. There, you will see a sign “CAMBODIA VISA BORDER” and the the tuk-tuk driver will instruct you to apply here for the Cambodian visa. The entire scam is incredibly well set up, and everything looks very official with a neat office, a visa application form, and arrival/departure cards. The truth is that this is the Cambodian consulate and not the Thai-Cambodian border. The price you pay for your Cambodian visa is higher and they will also try to add extra costs for passport photos (OK, fair enough, they also try this at the official border).

The fact that this office is a sad scam, became clear to me when I noticed that the visa application fee was higher (THB1,000 or USD30) than the official fee (USD20) and the extra cost to take passport photos was ridiculously high  (you should always carry a stack of passport photos in SEA). Always check some sources beforehand in order to learn about the common prices, scams, etc. The online, independent, open-source, and free travel guide Wikitravel is a good starting point.

Of course, the tuk-tuk drivers are getting their fair share in the scam and have every interest in repeating, “Yes sir, you need to do visa here!”

Walk away from this scam and firmly ask your tuk-tuk driver to drop you at the border and otherwise refuse to pay. In my case, the tuk-tuk driver and middlemen reacted extremely hostile, and when I tried to take some snapshots from their office, I was brutally pushed away and told that my camera would be destroyed.

Then there is the story of a Russian hip hop gangster, a stolen iPhone, the search on a fishy second-hand phone markets, flashing knifes, etc. But that would bring us off-topic. Let’s continue crossing the border.

Scam #2 The extra fee for passport photo at the official Thai-Cambodian border

Next is the Thai-Cambodian border.

The visa on arrival (VOA) officially costs you USD20 and you need to attach a passport photo to the application. I didn’t have a passport photo so the border officer asked me for an additional USD5. In this case, I always ask for a receipt as I know this money just disappears under table, and is used to buy cheap whiskey at night. By asking for a receipt you have a chance that they drop this bribe. Also flashing fake United Nations or other official badges can work.

I asked for a receipt for the additional passport photo fee. Didn’t work.

I then tried to attach a friend’s photo. Didn’t work.

I then told them to get lost. Didn’t work.

I then brought down the price from USD5 to THB100 (little more than USD3) as I didn’t want to push it. I was traveling in group, and was clearly slowing down our trip.

Interesting fact: they never took any passport photo.

Like in many banana republics, the preferred currency isn’t the local one. No difference here: you are highly advised to pay the visa in USD since every other currency will result in an inflated price at a ridiculous exchange rate (more money to buy whiskey at night – Keep Walking). They also seem to dislike euros or anything to do with Europe.

Scam #3 The fat border officer and the VIP queue

Then there is the huge queue before entering Cambodia.

A fat border officer is waddling around and stops to have a chat.

He smiles and says, “Good luck, very long queue today!”

“Oh really,” I reply.

His smile broadens and asks, “VIP? Only 200 baht for you! Sir, special price for you!”

I politely refuse and off he goes to find other victims. I was surprised to see so many people paying the bribe. There is, however, a good reason that we will explore under scam #4 below.

Scam #4 The “government” bus from Poipet to Siem Reap

There is absolutely nothing to see or do in Poipet, the first town after crossing the Thai-Cambodian border. Except for touts. Wikitravel even mapped out the major tout zones.

After the lengthy and tiresome border crossing you find yourself in Poipet. There are several options to continue to Siem Reap, the closest city to the Angkor Archaeological Park. The scams here are extremely well-organized. Watch out.

From the moment you step foot in Cambodia you are pretty much pushed on a free bus to the “government bus terminal” a couple of minutes away. Official-looking guides, including laminated badges around their neck, will tell you to hurry as the bus will leave soon, and only a few places are left. It all looks very genuine and even random people will advise you to get on the bus that departs from the roundabout. “Yes, Sir. Cheapest bus! No other option.”

Don’t forget, they are all in cahoots.

I failed, however, to figure out this one because I didn’t have much time for my online research before the trip.

The free bus brings you to a bus terminal where you hastily need to purchase tickets before they stuff you in one of the minivans. The baby pink-colored ticket says “Support Tourist Association & Transport” and costs USD10. This is twice as expensive than the other buses to Siem Reap.

Anyhow, I was stuffed in a Toyota minivan with a driver who appeared to be a policeman. This shows that literally everyone is involved in the Poipet transport scam. C’est le centre de la corruption.

A fat woman was pushed to the front by an unfriendly man screaming, “You too big, you go sit in front!” She was indeed seriously obese and the party was relieved that she wasn’t taking up the rear seat habitat. Soon, the minivan was filled to the attics and we departed for Siem Reap.

How you should do it? The cheapest way to travel to from Bangkok to Siem Reap is most probably by bus. However, as the border crossing takes ages, you might end up missing the bus (they seem not to care whatsoever). I witnessed several anxious-looking tourists paying the VIP bribe to the fat border officer we met at scam #3.

The most flexible and cheapest option from Bangkok to Siem Reap is:

1/ Train – THB48

2/ Tuk-tuk to the border – THB30-40

3/ Bus to Siem Riep – the cheapest ticket should go at USD5

There are many trucks at the border, so I expect this to be an excellent hub for far-distance hitchhiking, which I might try out in the future. Mind that no trains pass the border.

How to return to Thailand? Double-decker buses leave on a regular basis from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Tickets are sold at most ho(s)tels and should not cost more than USD15. At the border, you will be stickered to indicate your final destination. I’ve seen different colors and city codes: dark red with BK for Bangkok, PY for Pattaya, light blue stickers, etc. After the border, minivans drive you to your final destination.

Scam #5 The food, accommodation, transportation, and actually everything in Siem Reap

The government mini vans originating from Poipet will drop you in Sieam Reap at either a selection of ho(s)tels that pay them a commission, or out-of-town where tuk-tuks are eagerly waiting to squeeze the next dollars, baht, or whatever currency, out of the Western cash cows. Hallelujah!

Welcome to Siem Reap.

Imagine a small town, only a stone’s throw away from a large collection of ruins. Then, Western people started to visit this collection of ruins near Siem Reap and flooded the town with tourist dollars.

Things only got worse. In 1992, when the Angkor Archaeological Park was declared UNESCO World Heritage. Tourism skyrocketed, and Westerns are considered walking ATMs since.

High-volume tourism changes places.

Google Public Data Explorer indicates that Cambodia’s GDP per capita is lower than USD1,000. Also Hans Rosling’s Gapminder (hit play) doesn’t exactly rank Cambodia top of the class.

Clearly, The Kingdom of Cambodia is an underdeveloped country that survives on textiles (check your wardrobe) and, in the case of Siem Reap, tourism. A general elevated price level and a strong preference for the USD instead of the local currency, the Khmer Riel (KHR), make a trip to Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park relatively expensive for Southeast Asia.

You can choose from a wide variety of transportation options, tuk-tuks being the most flexible. For USD5 per person per day, you can find a tuk-tuk driver driving you around in the Angkor Archaeological Park. The 5 dollars will include the main temples on “le petit circuit“. If you go outside the little circuit, your tuk-tuk will ask for a bonus, which seems fair to me.

Street food is good and cheaper than in most restaurants, although you often pay the “white price”. The à la tête du client pricing can be avoided by a simple trick that I have applied all across Southeast Asia. First, watch carefully what locals are paying for their meal. Next, quickly point to the meal you want and shout, “Same same!” If the vendor tries to overcharge, point to the local customer and firmly say, “I eat same same, I pay same same!” This should suffice to make clear that you know the correct price of the meal and don’t expect to pay more. You can also try to just push the right amount of money in the vendor’s hands and walk away. The same trick also applies around the temples: try to eat at the tuk-tuk restaurants and use the “same same” trick. It pays off having some local currency because often amounts will be smaller than USD 1 and no change will be given. Never, ever, change money at borders, but budget, and change in advance in major cities.

You can stay at clean and safe hostels or homestays for less than USD5 per night, or splurge on expensive hotels and golf resorts.

 

Then the temple complex.

Wat is Khmer for temple and there are many of them. The Angkor Archaeological Park is 400 km² in size and reflects the wealth and power of the Khmer Empire during its peak in the 12th century.

These are not the colorful, and sometimes kitsch temples that you can spot in Bangkok. No, the adjectives that apply here are raw, massive, gray, and simple. The setting reminds of Indiana Jones-quality temples. You can imagine Indy, including fedora and leather jacket, zigzagging between trees shouting, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” or, “Don’t call me Junior!”

Contrary to Indy, don’t even think you are alone. It takes time and patience to photograph the ruins without tourist hordes disturbing your lens. Let’s take a look at the main highlights.

We kicked off the day with a postcard-sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most famous and largest religious site in the world!

 

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Next, was King Jayavarman VII’s Angkor Thom, the new Khmer capital he constructed. Prasat Bayon, or simply Bayon, is a temple known for its stone faces surrounded by a dense jungle.

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Angkor Thom also includes Ta Prohm or “Tomb Raider”. In fact, Ta Prohm is a tree-strangled temple that was the chief location to shoot the movie Tomb Raider (2001), based on the highly popular video game series Tomb Raider. It’s here that Lara Croft is involved in heavy gunfire with stone statues while running through the ruins bound by the massive roots of fig and silk trees. From that day in history, the Ta Prohm temple goes under the name Tomb Raider.

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The Angkor Archaeological Park is definitely worth the long journey and scams. It is unique in every sense and lived up to my expectations. If you remove the tourists, you can feel like the French botanist Henri Mouhot in 1862 when he discovered Angkor Wat.

You can readily spend days (weeks?) exploring the secluded temples. As for me, one day was sufficient to be templed out by the heat of an overabundance of dark, sweltering ruins.

Oh yes, don’t accept any of the bracelets that the monks try to tie around your wrist. They will surely ask for a few dollars. I spotted at least 3 monks with iPads. Religion takes a modern turn.

All pictures courtesy of a friend-photographer.

The Final Stretch back to Sydney

All good escapes come to an end. Or not? What if it’s all part of a one big escape?

  • This post summarizes the 3500 km journey from Uluru back to Sydney.
  • I will cross more red-soiled land before joining urbanization again in Port Augusta, a major logistics hub in South Australia.
  • Adelaide and Melbourne are next before coming full circle in Sydney.

After a late pasta lunch and siesta, I decided to say goodbye to my friendly compañeros with whom I visited Uluru, and continue my path  south. There’s only one gas station in Uluru and that’s the Shell next to the Ayers Rock camping. I assumed it was going to be easy. I was wrong. Simply put:

Fact 1: most people leave Uluru very early in the morning. I was admiring the sunrise so I missed these cars.

Fact 2: most tourists first head to Kings Canyon before continuing their journey. This means that they turn off at Curtin Springs and don’t continue to Erldunda.

Fact 3: most traffic is local.

Luckily, I meet Cyril, Camille and Laurencie. Three French travelers with two Ford vans and four places. Easy math.

 

#23 Cyril / Erldunda -> Port Augusta BP truck stop

I share the van with Cyril, a 26-years-old telco salesperson from Lyon. We speak French and I can only conclude that he sounds incredibly depressed After the regular chit-chat, I ask him why he is driving alone.

“Why are you driving such a long stretch alone. Seems boring to me. ”

“Yeah, I’m bored to death. But it’s a long story, my friend.”

“I happen to have time.”

“I originally arrived in Australia together with my girlfriend. Beautiful girl. Been together for more than six years. We decided to work in Melbourne and save some money for the trip. She takes up this hospitality job and starts an affair with her boss. Just couldn’t stand it. I Spent the next two weeks continuously drunk before deciding to start traveling on my own. But I was still boozing and, as you can imagine, it was not a good combo with driving. So I realized that it’d be better do something more constructive. So I bought a guitar and learned to play.”

He points to the guitar in the back and promises me that he will play some songs tonight. I also notice an axe hanging in the van and I wonder if he also bought it after the breakup?

We camp at Curtin Springs and watch the sky turning black. Only seconds later, strong winds and rain make it almost impossible to set up my bivvy tent. By placing the vans in a strategic direction, my bivvy survives the night full of thunderstorms.

Next day, silence dominates the trip. But suddenly, Cyril mumbles “C’est le Toyotisme.”

“What you mean with le Toyotisme?”

“Everything has to be perfectly streamlined these day. I read a book about it. Toyota started it in Japan after WWII. The entire supply chain, production and delivery are juste-à-temps and maigre. Sounds horrible to me. ”

I have no clue why he brings this up and am a strong advocate of lean companies in general. But maybe he is also right to some extent. There should always be room for errors – but maybe more in life than in business. Maybe we should evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

Tonight we camp in Coober Peddy, the opal city of the world and home to an 18 hole grassless golf course. Fortune hunters have been digging holes in search of high-quality opals since 1915. Noteworthy is that many of the 3500 inhabitants live underground as temperatures easily hit 40°C during summer. It doesn’t appeal to me as a permanent place to live.

The next day at Port Augusta I rediscover how cold weather feels like. It’s rainy and we decide to camp at the BP truck stop and grill chicken. Port Augusta is a major logistics hub for both trucks and freight trains. The amount of  trucks at the BP truck stop is impressive and I felt confident in finding a lift back to Sydney and catch my plane after exactly one month of travel.

 

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#24 Matt and Paul with a rental van (!) / Port Augusta BP truck stop -> Adelaide

In the morning I meet Matt and Paul from Paris who offer me a lift to Adelaide and the Great Ocean Road. I jump in and realize this is the first time I hitchhike with a rental van.

The landscape between Port Augusta and Adelaide reminds me of the softly undulating Tuscany region in Italy. Except for the soil, which is dark-red. We get off the main freeway and follow little roads through the country side. Many houses seem empty and make some towns look like ghost towns. Would people have shifted to the city life?

We arrive in Adelaide, a city founded in 1860 by a certain Colonel William Light. Light was a man with a plan. And you can take that literally, as he designed the grid lay-out of the city center and surrounding park lands. Curiously, however, during weekends it seems hard to find a living soul outside. The abundant parks are desolated and the wide lanes attract no traffic at all.

At night, I find the idea of spending more time with my French companions cruising along the Great Ocean Road not particularly attractive. We had not much to say and I preferred to change company. When we pull over on some grim-looking rest area, I decide to say goodbye to the Frenchies and look for the next lift.

 

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#25 Ashley / Adelaide -> Tailem Bend

Ashley works in a hardware store and is returning from Adelaide. He’s very suspicious of this European hitchhiker and refuses to offer me a lift. Since it’s cold and I don’t feel like camping, I try to convince him while he smokes his cigarette. Ashley changes his mind and brings me to the Shell truck stop in Tailem Bend (there is also a BP in the opposite direction).
#26 Gred’s wife / Tailem Bend -> Unknown place just outside Tailem Bend

It’s 3 am and a woman drives by the Tailem Bend Shell truck stop. She lowers the car window and yells at me “Get in the car because we only have 15 minutes before he is leaving!” I get in the car and quickly understand that her husband is a truckie who is driving to Melbourne overnight.
#27 Gred / Unknown place just outside Tailem Bend -> Melbourne

“No, not Greg, it’s Gred,” says a friendly 40-year-old truckie when I climb in the truck. We shortly discuss the usual topics, but I’m consumed with sleep and switch to the cabin’s bed while Greg, euh Gred, drives through the night.

In the morning we arrive in Melbourne and have a brekkie at the BP in Laverton North, the major truck stop for trucks going to Adelaide. Gred drops me off at the Newport train station and 20 minutes later I walk out of Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. I’m in Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria.

 

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I spent three full days exploring Melbourne and totally loved it. Melbourne is often ranked as the most liveable city in the world and I can only comply with this ranking.

The impressive Yarra River acts as a green lung crossing the city before flowing into Hobsons Bay in Port Phillip. People are rowing, cycling and running after work. Life appears to be fun for the average Melbournian.

Metropolitan areas always put urban camping to the test. But if Paris, London, NYC, and other major cities have proven to be doable, why would Melbourne with its overabundance of green be any different? I found an excellent spot with soft grass, a public barbecue and unique views in the Birrarung Marr Park next to the Yarra river. Especially the barbecue was great and I found myself grilling gourmet burgers while the sun slowly sank behind the CBD’s skyscrapers. It was my riverside hotel and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

Gred had advised me to catch a train to Epping and hitchhike on the BP truck stop on Cooper St. That’s exactly what I did, but the walk from the station to the BP took me more than an hour. But it was worth it as it’s the largest BP I’ve seen in Australia. You can find trucks heading to most major Australia cities, but mind that routes significantly differ. Trucks to Sydney will take a different route than trucks to Brisbane. Generally, most trucks leave in the later afternoon, say after 4 pm. However, around 2 pm, I found a direct lift to Sydney and loaded my backpack in the truck for the penultimate time.

 

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#28 Ernie / Epping (Melbourne) -> Sydney

Ernie has been trucking for 44 years and invests every hard-earned dollar in real estate. His last acquisition is a $750k penthouse apartment in Surfers Paradise. He rents it out at $2000 per week and wants to get the initial investment back in less than 8 years. Signs of an overheated property market?

Ernie is a good storyteller and often stops to have a break. We have an excellent latte at the BP in Alburry, stop to snap a picture of the submarine in Holbrook and devour a succulent burger at the Caltex in Holbrook (good spot for hitchhiking, too). This trip clearly ends with a crescendo.

I see a very familiar skyline when I wake up the next morning. Yes, we have come full circle. This is Sydney.

 

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#29 Joe / Sydney suburbs -> Sydney CBD

Ernie’s colleague Joe drops me off in Sydney after 4 weeks of travel.

 

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It’s been a short but intense trip. The numbers don’t lie. Here are the final stats:

– Total distance hitchhiked: approximately 12,ooo km.

– Total lifts: 29.

– Total travel days: 29.

– Total travel days of which actively hitchhiked: 20.

– Average distance per lift: approximately 400 km.

– Average distance per day: approximately 400 km.

– Average distance per day actively hitchhiked: 600 km.

– Longest lift: 1,600 km (Mt Isa -> Darwin).

– States explored: New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria.

– States not explored: Western Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania. You always need to keep something for the next time.

– Highest temperature: >40°C (Uluru).

– Lowest temperature: close to 0°C (Dunmarra).

– Animals hit: numerous wallabies, possums, dingos, snakes, etc. No large kangaroos (redbacks and the like), camels or cattle.

Australia. Been there, done that.

What’s next?

I wrote this post in Bangkok and published it in Singapore. Prepare for a whole new escape in Asia where chopsticks carefully maneuver noodles to your mouth, Tiger Balm virtually cures all aches,  shopping malls are the ultimate pastime experience, and crane counting still yields impressive economic indicators.

Escape. It never gets boring.

To the Big Red Rock: Uluru

Uluru is a 500 km detour for me, but I see the Big Red Rock as an important milestone of this trip. And what is 500 km in Australia?

  • We are now in the middle of Australia. Switch to satellite view to see yourself how red the landscape is.
  • On almost every brochure or website about Australia you can spot a panoramic shot of Uluru or Ayers rock, part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The incredibly aggressive flies are, however, never mentioned.
  • Traffic stopping at the Erldunda roadhouse either goes south, north or to Uluru by the Lasseter Highway. It is thus fairly easy to find a lift.

It took me 15 minutes to find a lift to Uluru.

#22 Colette, Carlos, Rodrigo / Erldunda -> Uluru

Rodrigo is a 40-year-old Spanish traveler with a youthful spirit. He rents out his two apartments in Barcelona and uses the rent to travel. Interesting attitude.

“You have to choose between a wife and freedom. I chose the latter.”

Carlos is a Spanish engineer who wants to work in Australia, the new land of opportunities.

“Europe is dead now, there are virtually no jobs in Spain. I can make up to five times more as a bartender in Australia than as an engineer in Spain. I’ll try to stay here and see what I can find.”

Colette is from the UK and worked as a researcher at Imperial College in London.

As the van is older than most of its passengers, we drive at moderate speed and enjoy the red landscape. At some point Rodrigo jumps up and points to what he thinks is Uluru but it appears to be Mt Conner, a fake Uluru. We also spot several dust devils, little tornadoes that pick up dust and small twigs.

Finally, we arrive at the Park’s gates. The park entry is $25 pp for 3 days. It’s already late afternoon when we arrive, but decide to enter and go for the sunset.

Rodrigo and myself want to climb Uluru but underestimate the walk to the start of the climb that leads to the top of this massive sandstone. When we arrive at the base it is already dusk and a sign is indicating that the climb is closed. Moreover, the climb will also be closed tomorrow because a temperature of more than 36°C is forecast. The sign also adds that the climb is physically demanding and over 35 people have died while attempting. A fine of $5000 applies to safety breakers. Sounds like a good escape.

We jump the fence and follow the path up. It is definitely no lazy Sunday afternoon stroll and I can conclude that this is the steepest path I ever walked on. We also started way too fast. Half way up (total height is 348 m) and breathless we realize it is getting too dark to continue. We descend and capture a unique  sunset.

Next day, it’s still dark when we wake up and jump in the van. The beauty of this fantastic sandstone is that its color changes while the sun rises. The rest of the day is taken by a very hot Uluru base walk during which you can admire Aboriginal paintings and, simply, sandstone and red dust.

The verdict? Slightly over-hyped but worth a visit if you happen to be nearby. Also, look up. The stars shine brighter than ever.

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The Never Ending Road through the Red Middle

We continue south in the direction of the Big Red Rock, Uluru.

Yes. This is the real deal. Landscapes covered by not much more than red soil and termite hills. Roadkill is abundant and cleaned by vultures circulating above the Stuart Highway. Wind has no longer a cooling effect. Yes, this is it. The Outback. Finally.

 

I tried to leave Darwin on a very humid Saturday and checked 4 gas stations in 4 hours (4 short lifts #15, #16, #17, #18):

– The BP on Wishard Rd close to the Berrimah rail yard: this is a popular place for trucks to fuel up, but not on Saturdays as most of the trucks leave Darwin on Friday.
– Fairway Waters gas station: only local traffic, worst ever. Chances are minimal to find a lift here.
– Coolalinga on the Stuart Highway: two gas stations of which one is 24/7 but in the wrong direction (Darwin) and the southbound one closes in the late evening. There’s also a truck rest area with no trucks.
– Gull Truckcity on Berrimah Rd: a large truck stop, but also in the wrong direction (Darwin) and almost no traffic during the weekend.

I was tired after the intensive scouting and a little disappointed in the erroneous advice of locals. The Gull Truckcity is playing Tomorrow Never Dies in the truck lounge and a truckie offers me a Martini. Shaken, not stirred.

 

#19 Woman with catering business / Darwin -> Katherine

I camped behind Truckcity and neither mangos, ants nor snakes woke me up this morning, but sprinklers.

Truckcity is very calm on Sunday. I do meet Franziska and Adrien, a Belgian-German couple trying to hitchhike to Alice Springs. The competition is on!

I switch to the Caltex gas station on the other side of the road and find a woman who can bring me to Katherine. She talks about the 4 businesses she runs with her family and the rather traditional life in the outback. Politics is always a popular subject and this is no different this time.

“Our ministers are very disconnected with the real life. The minister of agriculture recently visited my farm and it was the first time that he set foot on a farm. Had no clue at all. I doubt he can distinguish chicken from turkey. The problem is that we are too spoiled in Australia. The mining boom elevates the overall salary level and makes us lazy. The tax payer’s money is not efficiently allocated.” We pass Pine Creek and she adds “The gold rush can cause incredible things to happen. Here in Pine Creek they moved the highway because they discovered gold underneath it.” It’s true and you can see it on Google Maps.

She drops me off at the BP/Shell truck stop just before Katherine. It is very calm on Sundays and most trucks seem to be heading to Darwin.

 

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#20 Simo / Katherine -> Threeways

Simo is the pilot driver of two oversize road trains that are transporting two caterpillar dumpers to QLD. I can join the convoy till Threeways. Sounds good and I chuck my backpack in the trunk of the pilot car.

Simo has a very long name that I didn’t fully get, but I should call him Simo. He will also shorten my name because he is Australian and Australians abbreviate everything.

He explains me that he’s working for his son in law, actually ex-son in law.

“My boss is a nice guy, but he sacked my daughter. But not me. Big company, big guy. About 60 people on the payroll, including my daughter now, haha!”

“I’m almost 70, but I continue driving because it’s good money. I receive $49 cents per km. We average 1000 km per day so it adds up quickly. It’s actually good money. Most truckies make between $2000 and $3000 per week. The government takes its piece of the cake, of course.”

“Downside of this job is that we are limited to 80 kph, can’t go faster with the oversize. It ain’t cheap for the client either. We charge $1.5 per km for the pilot car and $6 per km for one oversize transport. Everything with tits or wheels costs money!”

Simo’s job is to scout the road and warn the oversize trucks of oncoming traffic or potential dangers. He uses a certain jargon to announce the oncoming traffic. I quickly learn that petrol trucks are called “road bombs”, and road trains “two four and a half”.

Simo is quite a character and really talkative. He was also in the RAAF, the Australian air force. When I ask him how his time in the army was, he silently answers “Don’t remember much.  I think I was an alcoholic then. Now I can stop after 3 beers, but I wasn’t able to do that as a young bloke. Always drinking and chasing the birds you know.” The bird is the word.

Simo’s favorite artist is The Man in Black so we play Johnny Cash almost non-stop. He also has other CDs of a friend who switched to iPod. He is amazed by such technology.

“Nowadays those little machines contain hundreds, maybe thousands of songs. Impressive do I find that, very impressive.”

The donated CDs, however, aren’t worth much. Often, Simo dislikes the disk, ejects and throws it out of the van swearing “What the heck is this?”

I point to the stuffed camel sitting on his dashboard and he jumps up and explains “This is Clyde. Clyde, the camel. He protects me from hitting camels. Very useful and it works!”

“What about the other animals on the road?”

“Well, I guess that I can’t fill up my whole dashboard with stuffed animals right?”

I travel without time so I ask him what time it is.

“It is beer o’clock, son. Beer o’clock!”

We pull over at the Dunmarra roadhouse and have an excellent burger. Australia is the first country where I find beetroot between the hamburger buns. A refreshing taste. Additionally the option “The Lot” exists for most burgers and gives you extra toppings and fries. I always take The Lot.

Darkness sets in and I plant my bivvy next to truck convoy. Camping outside the caravan park is explicitly prohibited although we are surrounded empty land as far as the eye can see. Simo assures me “You’re with us so they won’t bother you. We just fueled up for $4000!”

It is a very cold night and the heavy condensation wakes we up early in the morning. I get up and see that Simo is already brewing coffee.

“Cold huh?”

“Yes,” I shiver.

“Temperatures can drop close to zero, never forget that!”

He pushes a coffee in my hands and informs me that the convoy will depart in 20 minutes. I pack my belongings and get in the heated pilot car.

The remaining drive to Threeways is relatively short and the sun rises soon and we switch from heating to AC. It’s again a clear sky day with temperatures well above 30 °C.

Simo is, as always, talking.

“People disappear all the time in the outback. If you break down with your vehicle, your best chances for survival are staying with your vehicle. Many start walking, get lost and die. Simple. Many forget that it is a long and desolate road. And very arid, too.”

It is indeed a long road. The Stuart Highway between Darwin and Port Augusta is 2834 km long. It is the only North-South connection for road transport, and certain sections are even used as a landing strip for planes. The highway is also the race track of choice for the World Solar Challenge, a solar-powered car race, since 1987.

Simo continues “On the other hand you have the murders. We got many. The Peter Falconio case and Ivan Milat, just to name a few.” A simple Google search for outback murders gives enough tales of outback trips that have taken a wrong turn.

Our ways separate at Threeways. I continue south, while the convoy hits east.

Simo gets in his pilot car, honks, lowers the window and screams “You ain’t seen nothing yet. The road goes to infinity and beyond!”

Sounds like a trip worth taking.

 

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At the Threeways roadhouse I see Franziska and Adrien, whom I met in Darwin and have apparently also made it to the intersection of the Stuart and Barkly highway. And that’s a good thing because it wasn’t easy to find a lift at Threeways.

Franziska tells me stories about their fruit picking jobs in the North.

“So we were doing this fruit picking job up north and the farmer told us that the pay was $1 per tree. When asking if it was $1 per tree per person, the farmer nodded and we gave it a shot. Soon it became clear that we finished about 3 to 4 trees every hour and that the pay was not per person but per tree. Our actual pay was around $2 an hour. Ridiculous. We quit the next day.”

Finally a car passes and I speak to the driver.

“Is this a good place to find a lift?”

“No idea.”

“Would Tennant Creek be more strategic?”

“No idea.”

“Is there more traffic at night?”

“No idea.”

“So what do you know?”

“That you’re stuck here.”

A truckie was more informative:

“Sorry mate, I’m not going south. You got to know that most trucks are heading to QLD or up to Darwin. If I’d need to choose between Threeways and Tennant Creek, I’d stay here as more trucks stop here. On the other hand, trucks coming from Mt Isa could simply fuel up in Barkly Homestead and simply skip Threeways. One more advice: scout for Gilberts trucks as they should head to Alice Springs.”

A few rental vans stopped but refused to take hitchhikers. It’s of course their right to refuse, but I have the impression that these tourists are the least open to hitchhikers. Why? There was plenty of time to reflect and the following reasons can apply:

– The obvious one: it’s of course very dangerous to pick up hitchhikers.
– The van rental tourists are typically non-adventurous tourists. Their travel agent advised them to discover Australia during a road trip and they got a rental van (buying is way too much hassle). A hitchhiker was not mentioned in the tourist guide and doesn’t fit in the planned travel journey.
– The van rental tourists have rented their van for a ridiculous amount of money. Now they consider it their own for a certain period. They don’t want to share it and don’t see the fun of picking up a total stranger and the beauty of a random conversation. They are mean.

While enjoying the shade of the Threeways roadhouse, a young bloke pulls over his pickup.

His name is Nick and he asks “Where you going mate?”

“Alice Springs.”

“Jump in,” he says.

I greet Franziska and Adrien and assures them that at one point they will get a lift to Alice Springs. Adrien nods and says “Catcha bro!”

 

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#21 Nick / Threeways -> Erldunda

First, jumping in proved to be difficult. The passenger’s seat of the pickup was covered with empty beer cans and packages of cigarettes.

A bit surprised, I tell him “That are a lot of beer cans!”

“Well, it’s a long stretch you know!”

I remove between 20 and 30 beer cans and a handful of cigarette packages.

It is not clear from where Nick is coming or where exactly he is driving to. The only thing I understood that his trip has something to do with a girl in a hotel room of which he didn’t know the number. That’s it.

After only 5 minutes drive, he pulls over and grabs 4 beers out of the fridge. By the time I have drunk a single beer, he has downed 3. I keep a close eye on his driving behavior and conclude it is still safe. Nick enjoys Australian country music and puts on Chad Morgan who plays music with striking titles as: “Let’s Get a Cow”, “I’ll Just Get Stoned This Afternoon”, “You Can Have Your Women, I’ll Stick to My Booze”, “Truckloads of Starvin’ Kangaroos” and “Drinking Man”.

While we cruise through the desert, I understand that alcohol is the center of Nick’s life.

In Tennant Creek he asks me “You have a license?”

I take over the wheel because Nick suspects coppers to circulate the streets and check passing traffic for DUI, driving under influence.

“So what’s your story Nick?”

“I work on a station in the outback, every two months I have some holiday. Very isolated places, but we try to have some fun there. Every time I go there I bring 1000 beers and 30 bottles of Johnnie Walker.”

“Euh, that’s about 16 beers and half a bottle of Scotch every single day?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s not too much. And you have to be careful not running out of booze at the end. If you plan, you keep walking.”

His driving behavior doesn’t exactly improves and he often zigzags hitting the shoulder. I’m ready to grab the wheel if necessary. There is fortunately little to hit except for animals.

At Ti Tree we stop and Nick buys a little snack in the roadhouse. He receives a call from a friend called Blacky and the conversation is mainly about boozing. When hanging up he says “Ah, my friend Blacky has been boozing all day. He is an alcoholic. I like him.”

I notice that the dashboard fuel indicator says E for empty. Since Alice Springs is still around 200 km to go, I ask him if he doesn’t need fuel.

“Roger, my bad! I knew I forgot something. No dramas.”

Finally, we arrive at the Desert Palm Resorts in Alice Springs. He has booked a nice villa and offers me to sleep there too. It’s already dark and I only have heard bad things about Alice Springs so I accept his invitation and enjoy the Resort’s pool.

He unpacks his stuff and gently places a bottle of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. He jumps up and yells “I’m a thirsty, thirsty camel!” while spinning around his eyes and walking on 4 legs. Note that Thirsty Camel is also a major Australian chain of liquor stores.

“We have to celebrate!” Nick screams.

“Celebrate what?”

“We got to Alice Springs. Yea Yea, Alice Springs. Let us celebrate!”

I think to myself that it is indeed incredible that he got alive and well to Alice Springs. We get in a cab and are dropped off in city center  Nick disappears in the first bar without saying a word. When I run after him he has already ordered Jack and Coke. Eight of them. He socializes with other alcoholics and I realize that alcoholism is an important problem in the outback. And clearly not only for aborigines. Soon, he is barely able to stand on his legs anymore and wisely orders a taxi. We get back to the resort where he crashes.

When I wake up next morning, I’m afraid Nick died last night. But when I look for him I can only find a half empty bottle of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. His bed is empty. Maybe he did die and housekeeping has already removed the body?

I also wonder if Nick would call the bottle half full or half empty.

Sitting on the veranda, the neighboring guest greets me and we have a short chat about the Alice Springs Masters Games, a yearly sports event exclusively for elderly people. About 15k people attended this year. I’m not sure if sporting in the desert is the most healthy thing to do for elderly people.

Nick pops in with a Hungry Jack’s burger and fries. He seems sober and greets me with “G’day mate”. He tells me more about his work and explains me you can’t do much there in the outback except for drinking. He is 26 and the last two months of hard work have earned him $30k. Not bad, and I ask him what he plans to do with the money.

Nick explains “Well, I’ll put $20k in the house, you know pay of the loan. Bought a cheapie, so I should try to pay it back asap.”

“What you do with the other $10k?”

“Have some fun, have some fun.”

I do some quick math and conclude, if Nick continues like yesterday, he will actually finish his $10k very soon. One day in Nick’s life costs $735:
– around 30 beers at $6/beer = $180
– around 3 packages of smokes at $30/package = $90
– at least 10 Jack and Cokes at $8/drink = $80
– 2 taxis = $50
– 1 night at resort = $200
– fuel = let’s say 600 km at 15L/100km and a petrol price of $1.5/L = $135
(- except for the burger he is holding now, he doesn’t seem to eat)

I have no idea what to respond, so just nod.

“I also give to charity,” he adds, and carefully takes out of his pocket a key ring of which the engraving says Amnesty International. “I’m going to heaven again!”

Nick decided that we won’t drive today since his hangover is giving him a hard time. Even three Pauls Iced Coffees can’t help to start him up.

Next morning we continue our way south. I drive because Nick is still feeling sick. Our ways separate at the Erldunda: Nick continues further south while I will try to hitchhike to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. The next post will be fully dedicated to this Big Red Rock.

I think Nick is the most destructive person I have ever met. You could compare him with Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We will never know, but the chances are high that Nick would have killed himself if I wasn’t there to drive.

 

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Hitting West to Darwin

The story continues in fast-forward mode.

  • Cairns is a little isolated in the North so I have to travel back along the East Coast in the direction of Townsville and then continue West on the A6 or Flinders Highway.
  • And then there was absolutely nothing.
  • We finish in Darwin above the Tropic of Capricorn.

#11 Sandy / Cairns -> BP truck stop Charters Towers

The common rule of thumb is that hitchhiking out of a city can be tough. Cairns proved to be no different.

I slept from dusk till dawn and am ready to hit West.  Here we go again. Cairns is still deserted and the few people I ask about a a good hitchhiking spot stare at me as if I just landed with a DeLorean DMC and asked for directions to the Milky Way. Not very helpful.

I walk along the Bruce Highway and find a gas station with only local traffic. Not good.

A Canadian cyclist stops and waves at me. He advises me to take a bus to Edmonton and try to get a lift in front of the Coles/Woolworths/Hungry Jacks. I follow his advice and jump on the next bus. A ticket goes for $3.10 and the bus driver assures me that I’ll get much better traffic in Edmonton. It is almost 10 am and the southbound traffic should start shortly. Once in Edmonton, I install myself with a sign just after the traffic lights on the Bruce Highway. Lots of traffic, but nobody pulling over. Finally, after one hour, a Ford stops. The driver yells “Get in mate!”

His name is Sandy as it is tattooed on his left arm. Sandy is a retired truckie and has driven interstate road trains for his entire life.  He visited relatives in Cairns and is driving back home. He smokes almost continuously and often breaks out in a violent coughing.

“I tried to stop,” he almost apologetically explains, “but now it’s too late anyway so why stop?”

I’m afraid that Sandy will go the way of the audio cassettes in his car.

I tell him about my hitchhike experiences in Australia and the hard time I had getting out of Townsville.

“I won’t drop you off in Townsville. Townsville sucks. Everyone hates Townsville. I think even the people in Townsville hate Townsville. There should be a good truck stop in Charters Towers. Let’s try that one.”

Avoiding Townsville sounds as a great plan to me.

Sandy stops at the 24/7 BP truck stop in Charters Towers.

“Just follow the A6 and you’ll get there eventually. Don’t die!”

I grab my backpack and thank him for the lift. “Rock on,” he replies and off he goes.

Yes. He is spot on! I’m on a Highway to Hell.

 

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# 12 Tiffany / BP truck stop Charters Towers -> Shell truck stop Mt Isa

The Charters Towers truck stop sees a lot of traffic passing by. Taking into account the advice of the many truckies, I try to find a lift directly to Darwin. This should be a 3 day drive of 2400 km. I can’t find a truck heading that far and after a truckie told me that Saturday night is relatively calm, I decide to pitch my tent next to a warehouse. I simply need some sleep.

Twilight wakes me up and I notice a tubular object lying on my bivvy. I hit the bivvy with my toothbrush and the object escapes. I pack my bivvy and walk back to the truck stop. A man informs me that this a snake-infested region. Duly noted.

The traffic at the BP truck stop heads in a variety of directions: Mt Isa, Sydney (2000 km), Adelaide (!), mines, and many cars to Townsville. I realize that a direct lift to Darwin will be rare and have to downgrade my expectations. I decide to accept any westbound lift to a major town.

Around 9 am, a girl named Tiffany offers me a lift to Mt Isa.

This 800 km drive proved to be a grand experiment in patience.

Tiffany is a devote catholic and hasn’t much to say. And neither have I. Sometimes it’s tricky to find overlapping interests during a lift. So I propose to listen to some records that I spot on the dashboard. She inserts a CD and describes it as “the best CD ever”.

I’m curious.

Bad luck. The CD contains a collection of prayers and so do all the other CDs. I don’t exactly recall what is was about, but I vaguely remember the preacher complaining about Jesus having drunk too much wine and eaten too much food. This lift reminds me somewhat of the US where my travel companion and myself were often picked up by deeply religious drivers or simply sects. I silently fall asleep and can only dream about food. Lots of food.

Tiffany is going to visit her parents in Mt Isa and I ask her why someone would want to live in the middle of the desert.

“My father is working in a copper mine, I think it is the largest copper mine in the world. It’s huge. But it’s actually not bad there, they have a very nice church. It’s easy you know, you just go to church and you immediately have all the friends you want!”

Long silence.

She asks “So how do you try to be a good person?”

I try “Being a good colleague?”

“That’s not convincing”

Damn. Second try “I don’t kill anyone, I guess that’s also good? I mean, I don’t do many bad things, I assume that should also apply, right?”

She mumbles something and asks “So you don’t believe in anything?”

“I just believe in me. I don’t feel the need for a religion in my life.”

Luckily, we pass Cloncurry and the conversation switches to the extremely hot Australian climate. Cloncurry claims to be the warmest town in Australia. I’m not sure if that’s positive. Although some discussion exists, the highest temperature recorded is 53.1 °C. I can’t see the magic to live here. Fortunately, we don’t stop.

The conversation, however, takes again the religious turn and she tells me about her prayers and the healing effect.

“We prayed for many disabled people and they were cured. There was this old man who was hardly able to walk and after a couple of weeks of intense prayers he was almost a marathon runner.”

Tiffany also prayed to solve relational problems of friends and she was also personally healed by prayers!

“I had severe eczema on my arms and no medication helped. Then we prayed in church and my eczema disappeared.”

She shows me her arms and they are indeed eczema-free.

“Amazing,” I say,  “did you change your eating habits at the same time or maybe it was dependent on the climate?”

“No, it healed because of the prayers.” She notices that I’m not entirely convinced and continues “And how would you explain trees growing out of rocks. Explain that to me.”

I want to bring up that the rocks have simply weathered and the correct nutrients have gathered in the cracks making it a fertile base for plants and trees. But I also realize this discussion is useless, so I agree with her diplomatically replying “Yeah, there are some pretty strange phenomenons in this world.”

The interrogation continues with the question “Do many people go to church in Europe?”

“No, not really, there is actually a strong decrease.”

“How come?”

Since we are approaching Mt Isa, I’m less inclined to play the nice guy. So I reply with a quote of Andre Baptiste Sr. in the movie Lord of War:

“Personally, I blame MTV.”

“MTV? What you mean?”

“Today, you have many alternatives to going to church. And I think many of these alternatives appeal more to the younger generation than church. With the ease of a mouse click you can discover the world, isn’t that fascinating?”

“I hadn’t seen it from that angle yet.”

Silence ruled during the remainder of the trip and Tiffany drops me off at the Shell Truck stop in Mt Isa greeting me with “God bless you”.

The slogan of Mt Isa is “You ain’t a real Aussie before you’ve been in Mt Isa”. Apparently, I’m a real Aussie now!

At the Mt Isa Shell truck stop there’s a young bloke napping under a tree. His name is Xochi and he’s on a “business trip” to Katherine. He tells me that he dropped out of school and is now hitchhiking north to find a farm job. If I remember correctly, he had just turned 18.

Since the tree is not providing enough shade for two people, we switch to a shaded spot next to the truck stop. We share travel stories and my last bread together with tea and coffee from the truck lounge. It’s an incredibly hot day and none of us feel the urge to hitchhike on the road with a sign so we stick to the truck stop.

Xochi is originally from the UK but has been living in Australia for a long time. Often he talks about the Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road and I notice he has been deeply inspired by the book. I ask him what other books he reads. He opens his backpack and shows me the content. About half of his pack is filled with books, mostly English novels.

I show him my small pack with only the bare essential and ask him “That must be heavy to carry?”

“Yes, a little bit. But you know, I’ll probably throw out a lot stuff on the way. I still have to learn how to travel I guess.”

“So what do you want to do after the farming job?”

He swiftly answers “Volcanoes”.

“What you mean with volcanoes?”

“You know, when the earth trembles and lava and ash get out of a mountain. I’d like to wait till I’m 21 and go back the UK and start physics.”

“Why the UK?”

“Education in Australia sucks. You are covered with debt when finishing your study and you haven’t learned a damn thing.”

Not many trucks stop and a helpful truckie  informs us that most of the transport to Darwin has already passed early this morning. He adds  “Trucks coming from Brisbane usually stop in Mt Isa on Sunday to be in Darwin on Monday. When driving back to Brisbane, they usually stop in Mt Isa on Wednesday to be back home in Brisbane on Friday.”

I take a cold (read: lukewarm since cold is very relative) shower and decide to camp after the truck stop. Xochi wants to continue hitchhiking at night and I wish him all the best. The next day he was gone.

 

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#13 Gibson / Shell truck stop Mt Isa -> Darwin

I wake up with hundreds of ants inside my bivvy. And they sting. Although I carefully closed the zippers, some smaller ants have made their way in and are very interested in my limbs. Since I had to use rocks to set up the tent, I might have uncovered an ants nest and now they take revenge.

I meet Coraline at the truck stop. She is a 26-years old girl from Bordeaux (FR) and is hitchhiking from Townsville to Darwin. The amount of luggage she is carrying is frightening. I count a HUGE backpack, one dangerously stuffed smaller backpack, two large water bottles, not to speak of the numerous items attached to her backpack. She looks like a decorated Christmas tree. In the desert.

Coraline has no plan (“No plan is the best plan!”) so I propose to split efforts. I stay at the Mt Isa truck stop and she stands on the road with a sign saying “Darwin – my parents are waiting for me.”

By the time Coraline has walked to the road I already have found a lift. And it is a triple-A lift directly to Darwin! Gibson is a statistics graduate from Taipei on a working holiday visa and is driving to Darwin to pick mangoes on a farm. We squeeze the luggage in the Ford Falcon and off we go for a lift of 1600 km.

I had seen grassland for miles and was curious to see how the landscape would change.

It doesn’t.

The concentration of trees fluctuates, but the landscape remains either grassland or savanna.

Coraline kills the time smoking. I try to have a chat with Gibson, but there’s a bit of a language barrier and most of the trip is covered in silence.

The speed limit changes at Queensland-Northern Territory border from 110 to 130 kph. This is appreciated by all passengers and we shortly hit the end of the Barkly Highway at Threeways. Only 1000 km left to Darwin.

We camp at Tennant Creek, a town south of Threeways with a population of around 3000. It is the fifth largest town in the Northern Territory.

I only have two sets of clothes, including the ones I wear. I wash my clothes and my Levi’s jeans dry in less than half an hour. Meanwhile, Gibson proves to be very well equipped and cooks up a storm.

Darwin is getting closer and the next day we make it to Katherine. We find a nice camp spot next to the Katherine hot springs. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to a hot spring, but they appeared to be cold. Refreshing.

Our last day together is short. We pass by a job agency in Katherine and Coraline finds a job as mango packer. I help to fill in the paperwork while the agent is warning her to handle mangoes extremely carefully. When the stem is removed from the mango, the mango releases a highly irritating sap that can burn the fruit and skin. The skin irritation it causes is called mango rash and is a common problem among farm workers.

Gibson and me hit the road again for the final stretch to Darwin. After 4 hours we arrive in Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. It feels and is very small. I want to see Mindil Beach and start walking in that direction. A woman from New Zealand (#14) stops and offers me a lift to Mindil Beach. I gratefully accept and enjoy the AC.

It is not advised to swim in Fannie Bay due to the high concentration of deadly box jellyfish. Also saltwater crocodiles reside in the creeks around the beach and are aggressive compared to their freshwater variants. And of course, sharks patrol the coastal waters. Sleeping on the beach is also a no-go because crocodiles are sometimes sleeping on the beach, especially now that the water is warming up. I speak with a certain Jeff who tells me “Many have disappeared at night. Devoured by crocodiles and never found back.”

I stroll to Vesteys Beach and witness a scenic sunset when the sun sinks in the Timor Sea.

 

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The Long East Coast from Sydney to Cairns

Escape is back!  October has been an epic adventure through immense landscapes on the world’s most iconic routes. 

  • The great Australian escape will be divided in 5 posts:
  1. The Long East Coast from Sydney to Cairns (yes, this post)
  2. Hitting West to Darwin
  3. The Never Ending Road through the Red Middle
  4. To the Big Red Rock: Uluru
  5. The Final Stretch back to Sydney
  • Google Maps tells me that I hitchhiked more than 11,000 km! A personal record.
  • I will follow the structure of my notebooks: the number of the lift is preceded by a number sign (#) and followed by the name of the driver, a slash (/)  and the travelled route.

This escape has been cold and hot, dry and wet, hungry and thirsty, long and short, fast and slow. It has been everything. And nothing. But let’s rewind to where it all began: Sydney.

I left Sydney on a sad drizzly Sunday night.  On my back a small backpack with only the bare essential. Most people tend to pack a lot more than they really need. I do the opposite. In the end, the things you own end up owning you.

The last thing I did in the civilized world was listening to the album Highway 61 Revisited. I put Like a Rolling Stone on repeat. I was ready to escape.

Since it is very hard to hitchhike out of a big city as Sydney, I decided to catch a train to Thornleigh. I reasoned Thornleigh was a strategic start because this suburb is close to the major ramp to the M1 Pacific Motorway going north. Additionally, there is a BP, Caltex, Shell and 24/7 McDonald’s. And a 24/7 McDo always attracts traffic. If all these options were not going to work out, I’d try a different suburb called Turramurra.

Both the BP and McDo seemed pretty dead at 10 pm. A 24/7 McDo doesn’t always attract traffic.

I switched to the Caltex petrol station. I thought about the conversations that I had had with colleagues about hitchhiking in Australia. They all had assured me that it was either impossible or dangerous.

I found a lift in 5 minutes.

#1 Train driver / Thornleigh -> Beresfield BP truck  stop

A man returning from a camping trip is happy to offer me a lift to the Beresfield BP truckstop, just above Newcastle. He’s an ex-truckie (truck driver) and now drives coal trains for QR National. “I drive very, very big trains,” he tells me, “this country runs on coal and whatever is left goes to Asia.”

The conversation turns to trucks and we shortly arrive at the BP truck stop. It was cold at night and under the motto “sleep is overrated” I decided to continue my journey.

#2 Truckie / Beresfield BP truck stop -> Elanora

A B-Double (a truck consisting of 2 trailers) stops and is heading north. I quickly jump in.

After the usual chitchat, my eyes start to get blurry and I shift to the spacious cabin’s sleeper. Travelling and sleeping at the same time, this is a great combination!

When I wake up we are already approaching Gold Coast and the New South Wales – Queensland border. This is going smoothly.

“A young bloke as you should definitely go to Palm Beach. It’s on the way, I’ll drop you off at Elanora and it’s only a short walk to Palm Beach. You have to see Palm Beach,” the truckie assures me.

There seems to be little room for discussion so he drops me off at Elanora and I walk to Palm Beach as instructed.

I didn’t get what all the fuss about Palm Beach was. Not only wasn’t it particularly beautiful with a large pipeline running over the beach, but is was probably the rain that let me decide to move on. More to the North should be warmer, right?

#3 Lady with two children / Palm Beach -> gas station on the Pacific Highway

I ask a lady for directions to the closest gas station and she spontaneously offers me a lift to the closest gas station. She just has to convince her two children to get in the car first. Not an easy exercise. Our conversation was brief but interesting.

“I’m an anaesthetist in a hospital. Had a very rough week. People in Australia are getting fatter and fatter, and it doesn’t make my job easier,” she complains.

“What is the connection between obesity and the problems you face as an anaesthetist,” I ask.

She explains “I’m presented with obese patients in the operating room almost everyday now. These patients provide specific complications as respiratory problems during anaesthesia.”

She drops me off at the a large gas station on the Pacific Highway and gives me the final advice  “to eat enough fruit and veggies, do sport, and avoid fast food.”

Thank you.

#4 German-Aussie couple / gas station on the Pacific Highway -> Brisbane

No particularly interesting lift. We arrive in Brisbane in the afternoon. About 1000 km so far.

     

#5 Gardener / Hamilton BP station on the Kingsford Smith Drive -> BP gas station on the M1

After two days in Brisbane, I wanted to continue north to the tropical Cairns. Hamilton, a suburb northeast of Brisbane, seemed as the ideal start to find someone driving to the the M1.

At the BP gas station I find one very timid man who refuses to give me a lift (“We don’t pick up strangers these days, you know, in Australia it’s a little dangerous these days, you know.”). The rest of the cars stopping for gas are all local.

Luckily, a young man wants to drive me to the first BP gas station. He is a gardener, hates his boss and isn’t particularly inclined to work today. The latter is interesting for me and I accept the lift to the BP gas station.

#6 Felipe from Brazil / BP gas station on the M1 -> BP truck stop Caboolture

A BP with 24/7 McDo always attracts traffic. At least this time.

I find Felipe who’s working on a hemp farm and will drop me off at the BP truck stop in Caboolture. He explains me the whole hemp business and concludes by saying “We do everything with hemp except smoking it.”

#7 Truckie called Birdy/ BP truck stop Caboolture -> Gin Gin

Australia’s British roots are revealed by the omnipresence of the huge network of BP gas stations. But they attract a lot of traffic. And that’s a good thing.

A Western Star truck is stopping and I ask the truckie where he’s heading to.

“Rockhampton,” he answers, “you can join if you want.”

No need to ask twice. Let’s go!

The truckie is transporting plastic pipes and introduces himself with a very long name adding that I should call him Birdy. When I ask him why people call him Birdy, he shrugs his shoulders.

Birdy is a very talkative truckie and giggles after every sentence. We cover a range of topics while playing Dire Straits through the truck’s speaker system.

“You have to find a balance between what the boss wants and what the government allows. The boss always wants to deliver asap. The truth is that the boss will let you down when you get caught for speeding or not taking the compulsory breaks. And the chances are high to get caught. The police patrols are here to stay.”

And Birdy is correct: a police patrol is already driving in front of us for twenty minutes, closely monitoring our speed.

We cross the Mary River and are often surrounded by large sugarcane fields. Australia is the main producer and exporter of sugar after Brazil. Up to 5 Mt are produced each year and 80% is exported.

We finally lost the police patrol and Birdy cracks open a can of beer saying “Now the bitch is hitting the gas.”

There is not much time to celebrate because we hear the engine making an unhealthy sound.

We stop.

Birdy opens the truck hood and inspects the engine. The sound of dripping water catches our attention. Indeed, the cooling is leaking. And a lot.

We refill with water and gently drive 5 km.

We stop.

All the water is gone. We refill and continue this exercise every 5 km. At Gin Gin, Birdy pulls over and advises me to look out for a different truck. He will search for spare parts and it is unclear how much time that will take.

We say goodbye and the last thing I hear him say, while forming a gun with his fingers and aiming at the truck, is “This piece of crap of Detroit.”

Birdy wasn’t giggling any longer.

     

#8 Truckie called Fabian / Gin Gin -> Townsville

Luckily, Gin Gin is on the Bruce Highway and is a hotspot for truckers. I mingle with the truckies and a truckie called Fabian is heading to MacKay where he will pass the wheel to his colleague Greg who will continue up to Townsville. That’s a lift of 1000 km.

Fabian is 66 years old and has been driving trucks for the last 44 years. He owns the Freightliner truck that he’s driving and has seen the roads evolving from hardly accessible unpaved roads to the asphalt jungle today.

We cover a wide variety of topics. A few quotes below.

“Everything is going more slowly in Australia, we are a bit retarded compared with Europe. I don’t think this country would have been able to develop without the mining boom. That’s really huge. I mean, really, really huge. A young bloke as you should go into mining. Can make $100k easily, no degree asked. It’s hard work.”

“Ah politics. It’s all bad. They need more truckies in the government.”

“So we have this demerit point system in Australia. You start with 12 points and gradually lose points when breaking the law. Truckies should get more points than regular car drivers! You know how many kilometres I drive every single year? About 300! Damn, we need more truckies in the government.”

Fabian goes on about his time in Vietnam and then he starts calling up people. It seems that he randomly selects contacts out of his address book and gives them a ring. The conversations are hilarious. He speaks about:

– The focal point in his conversations was his Jelly and Custard that was sitting on the dashboard. “Got a damn good-looking Jelly and Custard for later. Yeah, looking forward to that Jelly and Custard.”

– About an autopsy. “I heard they moved the body. Why would they move the body?”

– Some very nice chicken in the fridge. “Don’t forget that we have some nice chicken in the fridge.”

You really hear it all when hitchhiking.

We also hit a lot of animals during the drive. A road train is survival of the fittest with a dark twist. These road trains weigh up to 200 tons and can exceed 50 m. Typically, wildlife looks for the greenest grass, which can be found next the highway due to water runoff. At night, the truck’s lights attracts kangaroos and other wildlife resulting in a massacre.

Around 3 am we stop in MacKay and change drivers. Fabian is staying at a motel and Greg takes over the wheel.

The first thing that Greg tells me when jumping in the driver’s seat is that this truck is only a toy.

“I drive trucks in the mines of up to 8 trailers. This truck is for kids. Anyway, I’m on leave and a buddy asked me take up this job.”

Greg seems a little confused and isn’t very talkative. I decide to take a nap in the cabin’s sleeper.

When I wake up at 8 am it is already light and we are just entering Townsville. Greg tells me he will bring me to a good BP truck stop after having dropped off the goods.

Since Greg has no GPS, no map or whatsoever, he has to continuously pull over and ask for directions. Greg takes the cake for the most disorganized truckie.

We lost around 4 hours driving around Townsville and Greg even dropped off goods at the wrong address because he wasn’t able to find the Casino. Finally, around 1 pm, Greg drops me off at the BP/Caltex.

I want to continue North on the A1 to Cairns but quickly notice that most of the traffic is going West or is very local. Thanks Greg.

Moreover, the BP and Caltex staff are very hostile and don’t allow hitchhikers on their gas station. They assure me that it is illegal (theoretically, this is true) and very dangerous to hitchhike in Australia.

“You won’t get anywhere. Take the bus. It is impossible and you are likely going to die. People don’t hitchhike in this country. That time is over.”

As very often, you have to walk your own truth. Nothing is impossible. It might only be a little more difficult.

I decide to make a clear sign with CAIRNS on and stand next to the road. I try for 4 hours, but nothing stops and it is incredibly hot in the sun. Moreover, most drivers appear to be very unfriendly towards hitchhikers and I almost start believing what the Caltex staff previously told me.

Often, drivers pretend to be stopping, I run to the car, the driver flips the bird at me, and quickly drives away. Just when I feel that I need to take a break because I’m getting sunburned, a truckie comes to me and informs me that he will be leaving for Cairns around 6.30 pm. He is now taking up his long break and explains me the concept.

“Truckies can drive for maximum 12 hours before they need to rest for at least 6 hours. In a time span of 24 hours, the driver must have a rest period of at least 10 hours with 6 hours continuous rest. Additionally, the maximum time a truckie can continuously drive before having a compulsory break of 30 minutes is 5 hours.”

I happily accept the lift and wait in the shade.

#9 Truckie / Townsville -> Cairns BP gas station

The truckie is driving a Kenworth truck and is transporting beef to Cairns. He is glad to have a companion for the final 350 km stretch.

We discuss hitchhiking in Australia. He tells me “Hitching is pretty much dead in Australia. Used to be popular but it silently stopped after Ivan Milat killed backpackers in the nineties. ”

When asking him about advice to cross the desert by thumb he says that it is pretty much impossible. “You know, the truckies that go West depart in the beginning of the week and can do up to 3500 km without refuelling. We prefer not to stop for anything or anyone. There are some dangerous places out there, mate. You also don’t want to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Make sure that, but I strongly discommend you to try crossing the dessert, you only are dropped off at major truck stops or cities as Mt Isa. Don’t catch the mining trucks because you don’t want to get stuck at some kind of mine. Again, there are some dangerous places out there.”

“You are talking about snakes, spiders and the like,” I ask him?

He nods and mumbles “You will see a lot more coons over there. Watch out for them.”

“Ah, really,” I answer. I honestly have no clue what coons are, but I assume it is slang for kangaroos.

“Yeah, it’s full of them there. Never trust them. They’re always playing games with the truckies, standing on the road, messing with the truck and so on. But I don’t stop for anything, mate. When I hit one, I just report it in the next town.”

“So they can clean up the mess?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Wouldn’t want to get in trouble you know.”

“So is your bull bar sufficient to absorb the shock?”

“Well, yes, the bump can be pretty heavy. You see, the coons can be pretty big. They used to collect berries in the forest and now they switched to fast food and soft drinks. And they are lazy, very lazy. Don’t hunt anymore, just sit on their lazy ass drinking. God dammit.”

At this point I figure out that we have a serious misunderstanding. So I ask “Just to clarify, coons is slang for kangaroos right?”

He laughs and turns his head to me saying “Coons! You know, blacks, or more politically correct: aborigines. Mate, you are a funny bloke!”

It is apparently very hard not to become racist in Australia.

I’m dropped off at the BP in Cairns and camp next to some warehouses.

#10 Aircraft mechanic / Cairns BP gas station -> Cairns city centre

A short lift in the morning brings me to the city centre. It’s warm and the sun shines. I realize that I travelled almost 3000 km in 1 week.