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.

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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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