Tuesday 1st November 2011 Day 30 – The Final Leg

We are delayed by an hour, manage to retrieve our luggage with out a problem and head once again for security. We have electronic passports so theoretically can scan ourselves. True to form, mine doesn’t recognise me. This seems to be because I have my glasses on. My photograph is without my glasses because the original ‘with glasses’ photo was rejected by the passport office. I am advised to remove my glasses next time. There is no explanation as to how I am supposed to see what I am doing if I follow this option. Mind you, by this time we are vowing there will be no ‘next time’. Then the real killer, five hours to wait at Heathrow coach station. All I want to do is collapse on the coach and fall asleep. Owing to ignorant people who don’t understand queuing we are almost the last on the coach and can’t sit together. This makes it harder for me to fall asleep but I do anyway. We meet some people we know on the coach. They have only come from Italy and spent the night in London so are a lot more alert and fresh looking than we are. Apart from the journeys out and back we had a lovely time. We stayed in 19 different places and travelled 2950 miles but it is good to be home.

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Monday 31st October 2011 Day 29 – Homeward Bound

We are up early to sort the van and then begin a nightmare journey through the Sydney suburbs, averaging 20km an hour and stopping at a million red traffic lights. My navigation only goes very slightly wrong but I resolve that my career as a Sat-Nav is going to be short-lived. I am feeling travel sick from map-reading and have decided that I never want to go away ever again if anything resembling a city is involved. We finally make it to the suburb of Clovelly so Chris can be photographed in his real Clovelly t-shirt. It is a lovely place but the journey has taken us forever so we can’t stop.

We arrive back at the Apollo depot just in time. Matthew tells us it isn’t sensible to phone for a taxi as all is mayhem because Quantas are grounded – well at least we aren’t flying Quantas. He says the taxi will take an hour to come and charge more so he recommends standing in the road and waving. I thought Chris, with his penchant for traffic directing, would be good at this, but no. We manage to work out which side of the road to stand but it is a while before we realise that our lack of success may be to do with the fact that we are standing in a no stopping zone. This remedied, Chris’ worst nightmare – a Chinese taxi driver with very little English. We get by by saying airport a lot and smiling.

My hand luggage causes problems at security. It is passed through the scanner several times and there is a lot of pointing at the screen and shaking of heads going on. ‘I want that bag’, says the customs’ officer. In the end she takes me to one side, dons her rubber gloves and begins to rummage. I am racking my brains to think what might be causing a problem. She suspects I am carrying bottles of cosmetics. It turns out that this is my travelling stiffed koala bear, packed neatly in a plastic cup – never waste any space. He looks like a bottle on the screen, how embarrassing.

Once on board, I have trouble with the in-flight entertainment system. First, I fail to work out how to turn off an annoying stream of world news travelling across the bottom. In trying to remove this, I press every button on the handset several times, including the one that summons the cabin crew in an emergency. I try to watch Harry Potter but I don’t know which of the four possible films comes first; though even I can work out that Deathly Hallows Part 1 comes before Part 2. Try as I might I can’t get any of these films to start at the beginning and they don’t make much sense starting, as they do, thirty minutes in. Each time I try again I have to sit through the same set of preliminary adverts. I give up and go for ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’, fine if I can ignore the Japanese subtitles that have crept in somehow. I am still trying to work out why ‘Grease‘ and ‘Billy Elliott’ are classified as comedies. After Bridget Jones I manage to find three other vaguely watchable films, strangely all featuring the same actress and whose titles have made little impression.

Once off the plane at Singapore we have security to go through again. This time Chris sets off the alarm; his keys are to blame, although they made no impression on the Australian scanner. I still haven’t worked out juggling lap-tops, bags, coats, plastic bags full of liquids and in this case, a cardigan as well. An Asian couple at our check in are having trouble with customs. Their passports are examined with an illuminated magnifying glass and additional border control staff are summoned. They are eventually allowed on the plane and are sat a little in front of us across the aisle. The third person in their row is asked to move to a different seat but declines. Is he being asked to move in case something goes bang? Next we are delayed whilst someone’s luggage is taken off the plane. Then the captain announces further delay because ‘the doors aren’t shutting properly’. This seems to me to be kind of vital and it takes an hour to fix, at least we hope it is fixed. More films, more reading, more dozing and more food.

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Sunday 30th October 2011 Day 28 – Sydney

I am not sure about today as we have decided to brave the big city because I guess we really should see something of Sydney whilst we are here. Unbelievably there are three buses an hour in to the city from the site, even on a Sunday. That’s more buses in two hours than I get a week at home. The lady driver is very helpful and saves us from wasting money on a day ticket; bus fares are one thing that is cheaper here, unlike food, clothes and cars. Fuel is, of course, less expensive, so that probably helps to keep the fares down. In ‘inflight entertainment’ is a rather loud Australian giving advice on alcohol and relationship problems over the phone. She keeps stressing how confidential this all is, regardless of the fact that the whole bus now knows about her friend’s sex life.

We cross into the city on Sydney Harbour Bridge and get off the bus at the station. We find the stop for the hop on hop off tour bus quite easily. Sydney seems altogether less daunting than Melbourne; maybe Melbourne just got me on a bad day. We duly hop on the tour bus at the station and wend our way round Sydney. It is an open topped bus and being English, we are unconcerned by the occasional shower. The taped commentary tells us to look out for overhanging branches but we are more worried by the lower bridges which we only just miss; no wonder we have been warned not to stand up when the bus is moving. Some typical Victorian terraces are pointed out but it seems strange to hear these being referred to as ‘cottages’.

The harbour master hangs out in ‘the pill’, so called because it controls the berths in the harbour. I hasten to point out that this was not my ‘joke’. On reaching the harbour, dragon boat racing is going on. This is the equivalent of west country gig racing. Some of the teams look decidedly antiquated and unfit. We see the ‘finger wharves’, made from wood from the turpentine tree as this resists water. The Finger Wharf Building at Wolloomooloo (another great name) is the largest wooden structure in the world. Then Sydney Harbour bridge, which took nine years to build, between 1923 and 1932 and is nicknamed ‘the coat hanger’.

We hop off by the Opera House, conceived by Dane Jom Utzen in 1957, following a competition for the best design. By this time the weather is glorious and we are not looking forward to being 15-20 degrees colder tomorrow. We take the obligatory touristy photos of the bridge and opera house then walk round the harbour. It is impossible to imagine what it would have been like for the early settlers. There are Aboriginal buskers by the harbour. This is interesting but somehow seems rather exploitative. Back on the bus and we go through King’s Cross, bizarrely named for Queen Victoria. It was originally called Queen’s Cross and is now the red light district. Although there are quite a number of rough sleepers and we are approached by beggars, Sydney is generally better than many cities. I was quite surprised to see not only feral pigeons, as in England but also Australian Ibis wandering about in the middle of the road.

We transfer back to our ordinary bus and are a bit confused to be told that Warranambul Mall (at first we thought this was all one word – Warranambulmall but no, it is a shopping centre) is the next stop and then to find the bus stopped numerous times before reaching the Mall. Apparently you can get on but not off, which seems a bit pointless. Back to the van, where the internet is now working and we must clear, clean and pack ready for tomorrow. Some Australian pensioners sell their homes and buy enormous caravans in which they tour the country. These ‘grey nomads’ favour the many free camp sites and some even offer services such as hair dressing from their vans. We have enjoyed our holiday but I’m not sure we are quite ready for grey nomadhood.

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Saturday 29th October 2011 Day 27 – to Sydney

No opportunity for an early morning paddle as it is raining and misty. There is a slight detour whilst finding our way out of Bateman’s Bay; I am blaming a no right turn sign. The drive to Sydney begins on the Prince’s Highway, which is not particularly interesting. We then opt to come off the main route to go along the tourist route called the Grand Pacific Drive. I suspect that there is no trade descriptions’ legislation in Australia as this is neither grand nor, except rarely, in sight of the Pacific but it is an improvement on Highway 1. Chris comments on the various vehicles, many of which are three or even four litre four-wheel drives. I’m not sure most of these are justified, especially in the city.

We stop at Kiama Blow Hole which was described by surgeon George Bass when he was exploring the coast south of the penal colony in 1797. It isn’t blowing very vigorously but maybe it is more impressive at high tide. The last part of the journey, through the Royal National Park, is pleasant, then we are in to the Sydney suburbs and the weather has improved. We pass through Sylvania without sight of any cute fuzzy animals, or indeed any trees. The journey to the site is complicated by our desire to avoid any toll roads. Not because we have an aversion to parting with money, well we do but that isn’t the reason. You can’t actually pay but have to have purchased some kind of electronic pass in advance and that just sounds too hard. The Sydney suburbs prove less daunting than those of Melbourne and I am thinking of a new career as a Sat-Nav. I just need to perfect ‘turn around when possible’ and I’ll be fine.

The Sydney site is some way out of the centre of Sydney to the north at Narrabeen and it is very hot by the time we arrive. We have been upgraded to avoid putting us in the middle of a large party of small children so we have a complimentary ensuite block with a toilet and shower of our own. This gains the site extra points, as does the nearby beach which we go to inspect. No books available though and the free internet is not working.

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Friday 28th October 2011 Day 26 – Canberra

Michael collects us from the site at 8.15am and we leave the van outside his house while he takes us on a guided tour of Canberra. This is an incredible capital city. It is clearly laid out with plenty of space and greenery. Canberra’s centenary as the capital is next year so I guess, being so new, they had every chance to get it right when planning it from scratch. There is very little traffic and few people. First we go to Mount Ainslie, which is 846 metres high and we have panoramic views of the city. Next is the Black Mountain Tower or Telestra Tower The tower is 195 metres high and is already on top of a mountain so the views are amazing. Chris and Michael qualify as ‘Aged Pensioners’ but I have to pay more than twice as much to get in. We look at Blundells’ Cottage, the only original dwelling remaining from when the lake was created.

We see round the New Parliament Building. There is airport type scanning but security measures are very laid back and photography is permitted. They try to retain some of the features of the British Parliament and the seats in their upper and lower houses are red and green like ours. The shade of green was especially chosen to replicate the eucalyptus leaves. We then go to the Old Parliament House, which is now the Museum of Democracy. Nowhere have we had to pay to park, although it was rather strange to see a jogger running through the multi-story car park. The Old Parliament House building is impressive and we wonder why they felt the need to go to the enormous expense of erecting the new building. Finally we visit the War Museum and see George Frederick Braund’s name on the War Memorial.

We set off along King’s Highway to Bateman’s Bay. Open plains give way to twisting and turning through the Bundawang National Park. Susie has warned us to look out for Winnie the Pooh’s Cave as we enter the National Park and we spot it as we drive past. We arrive at Bateman’s Bay in glorious sunshine to see a notice by the entrance telling us that there are 55 days until Christmas! This has to be the best site yet. The van is within inches of the beach. There is a stone breakwater but we hope it isn’t spring tides. We take a walk on the beach and I collect shells for illegal importation into the UK. I also have paddle. The sea is very warm but it is shallow so perhaps it is not surprising. Bizarrely there are upholstered settees on the beach. We fall asleep to the sound of the waves lapping,

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Thursday 27th October 2011 Day 25 – Kosciuszko National Park and the long way round to Canberra

There is sunlight over Lake Jindabyne as we leave for our longest drive (about 250 miles) of the trip. We have decided to go the long (very long) way round to Canberra through the Kosciuszko National Park. Having been through the largest National Park in Victoria, we are now in the, even larger (675,000 hectares) New South Wales equivalent. Mount Kosciuszko is Australia’s highest mountain but at 2228 metres is about half the size of the highest peaks of other continents. We have to have a pass to enter the park. This is a transit only pass and we are not allowed to stop on pain of death, well on pain of $100 anyway.

The very expensive medication has kicked in and although not exactly well, I can at least now stop my eyes from shutting. Here, compared to yesterday, there is typical Australian colouring and a more touristy feel. In winter, these are ski fields and there is still snow on the ridges. Reassuringly, signs tell us that snow ploughs are in operation and there are places for us to stop and put on the snow chains that we don’t have. The road markings are yellow instead of white, presumably so that they show up when it snows. We encounter a number of geriatric cyclists cycling up the very steep hills. I hope they have a support vehicle equipped with a defibrillator. One of the places we pass is called Tom Groggin – sounds like a Lord of the Rings character.

We pass the dams and hydro electric plants and acre upon acre of seemingly dead, white, fire damaged trees; shades of Armageddon. The Tooma Dam, constructed in 1961, is 220 feet high and the views are impressive. We leave the park on the Snowy Mountain Highway, traveling across the vast plains to Cooma. We then head north on the Monaro Highway. There is a seemingly recently used cemetery, with a handful of graves some 10km from the nearest settlement – bit of a way to go to leave flowers. We cross into our third Australian state, entering ACT.

On arrival in Canberra, Michael picks us up from the site and we have a very nice meal, spending the evening with him and Susie at their home.

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Wednesday 26th October 2011 Day 24 – The Snowy River National Park

We decide that we will go for the further of the two routes out of Bairnsdale so we can go through Lakes Entrance, which has a fishing fleet of 80-100 boats. It does look somewhat ‘millionaires’ playground’ but is very attractive and Chris stops off to look at boats and chat to a fisherman. We then head off through a very green landscape, reminiscent of Switzerland, along the road through the Snowy River National Park. The mountains here are the southernmost part of the Great Dividing Range, which limited the westward spread in the early days of European settlement. We pass the Seldom Seen Service Station, which is miles from anywhere and we wonder who would bring a vehicle so far off the beaten track to be serviced.

Here, we are breaking all the rules by traveling on unsealed road but we do feel that we are making the effort to really experience this part of Australia. ‘Experience’ is one word for it. Most of this ‘road’ is about two foot wider than the van, very twisty and with an unfenced sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet on our right. It is also, like most of the soil, red mud. This, Chris points out, is very slippery, as there has been rain recently. Bizarrely, the speed limit sign reads 100km.p.h, yet Chris has spent about an hour not getting out of second gear. A little light on the dash board reads ABS; apparently that means our emergency breaks have come on because we have no traction – the camper van is two wheel drive. Oh well, we seem to have survived. We wonder how long it would take anyone to notice if we plunged to our doom over the cliff. We are very aware that, if something were to come in the opposite direction, one of us would have to reverse round these bends for several kilometers. Fortunately, we don’t have to find out how difficult this might be. Chris claims he is enjoying the driving and I am certainly enjoying the scenery, despite streaming eyes that won’t stay open. We pass through the prosaically named Suggan Buggan, not so as you’d notice though as signs of habitation are very few and far between. We then cross back into New South Wales.

The scenery is even more amazing and less touristy than yesterday’s. In the best part of 120 miles we only see four cars. Much of our route takes us alongside the picturesque Snowy River and we are surrounded by mountains with the bluish tinge that we’ve been told is something to do with the eucalyptus oil being given off. I shall miss the smell of the eucalyptus forests. Chris spends his time ensuring that ‘alongside’ the Snowy River does not become ‘in’ or, more likely, ‘submerged by’. We later read that 84 gigalitres (not a unit of measurement with which I, or the spell checker, are familiar) of water has been released into the Snowy River in the last 19 days. It did seem to be flowing quite fast but certainly wasn’t over full. We see quite a few kangaroos and manage to avoid hitting any of them. Kangaroos can suspend pregnancy if conditions are bad but the recent rains in Australia have been favourable for them, so they are breeding well. Many of the trees appear to have something akin to mistletoe hanging from them.

Just as we were wondering how we could have possibly got lost on a road with no side turnings, we arrive at Jindabyne. This is an affluent ski resort where diesel is 20 cents a litre dearer than anywhere else we’ve been – luckily we filled up in Bairnsdale. The shops here are all very up-market ski hire outlets. Chris is trying to replenish our supplies of medication. His first attempt failed as he had left his wallet in the van. It doesn’t pay to be ill in Australia as the over the counter items cost three times what they would in the UK.

We do have a little trouble finding the site. We are in the right road but the site is number 6532 so it must be a very long road, none of the well spread properties have visible numbers and we are not sure in which direction to start. The site found, Chris manages to upgrade to a powered site and avail himself of several discounts. If he takes much longer they will be paying us to stay here. Instead of a boom that lifts as you enter, this site has a thick wire that lowers so you can drive over it. We are right by Lake Jindabyne and there are very impressive facilities but we deduct points for the lack of a washing line. I expect everyone else who stays here can afford the tumble dryers. We do check out the lake, trying to avoid the onsite school party. There’s a bit of crashing about in the night and we wake to find that the school party have tripped over our electric wire and we’ve come unplugged. No school children were harmed in this process (as far as we know).

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