’Round the world in 72 days: Australia

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D. (Part 2 of a series)

After relating last month the beginning of the 72-day, ’round-the-world trip that my wife, Flory, and I took, Aug. 31-Nov. 11, 2009, in this issue I describe some highlights of the Australia portion.

Note that an electronic visa (ETA), costing AUD20 (near US$18), is required for US and Canadian citizens for a stay of up to 90 days in Australia. This is available online at www.eta.immi.gov.au or through a travel agent.

On Sept. 7 we flew from Tokyo, Japan, to Sydney, Australia. Our final destination was Melbourne, which was, following a five-hour wait, a one-hour-and-35-minute flight from Sydney on Qantas.

Australian Wilderness Tours

We booked our Australia trip through Australian Wilderness Tours (Mt. Seaview, New South Wales, Australia). To my chagrin, I was dissatisfied with this company right from the start.

One issue — Ralph, the owner, would not allow a deposit to be made by credit card but required a bank-to-bank wire transfer. Confirming the transfer necessitated my phoning both the company and the bank in Australia repeatedly, with my conversations with Ralph becoming very unpleasant.

An exhaustive Web search disclosed that the firm had lost its license in 2001! The license was later reinstated. Since it was the only firm that offered the private sightseeing tours we wanted, I called Tourism NSW (US office at 6100 Center Dr., Ste. 1150, Los Angeles, CA 90045; 310/695-3235, www.visitnsw.com) before our departure and was assured that the company was now trustworthy.

However, during our tour, Flory and I frequently were dissatisfied with the motel selections as well as with the poor condition of the vehicles. When I made a remark about the bald tires, the driver/guide replied, “They may not be legal, but they certainly are safe.”

The total cost of our Australia tour for two persons for five weeks, including lodging, breakfasts, dinners, SUV, driver and extensive sightseeing, was AUD27,885 (US$24,942).

Into Australia

The start of our guided tour in Australia was delayed by three hours, since our vehicle’s front and rear brakes, which were completely worn, first had to be repaired.

We finally left Melbourne at 3 p.m. and proceeded to Geelong, Victoria’s second-largest city. Continuing on, upon reaching Torquay we followed the spectacular, 243-kilometer-long Great Ocean Road, which snakes between the cliffs and the unruly ocean.

The next day we traveled through dense forests to Great Otway National Park, where our car got stuck in the mud on a dirt road.

John, our driver, put branches underneath the tires, which succeeded only in spitting mud from the spinning wheels onto John’s new pants. He promptly shed his trousers and, in his underwear, continued the fight with our recalcitrant vehicle in the cold and rainy weather. Since the car wouldn’t budge, he tried a winch from the trunk, but it turned out to be broken!

After about an hour, a car carrying thick tow ropes (which many Australians keep in their vehicles) pulled us out.

We continued through the delightful Grampian Mountains, where wallabies and kangaroos sat by the side of the road. Unfortunately, the moment our car came close, they would flee.

We overnighted at the (Best Western) Halls Gap Colonial Motor Inn (141 Grampians Road, Halls Gap, Vic. 3381, Australia; phone 03 5356 4344 or, locally toll free, 1 800 680848, fax 03 5356 4442, www.hallsgapcolonial.com.au), in a magnificent mountain setting in the center of Grampians National Park.

Besides all the facilities that we have come to expect from a member of the Best Western group of hotels, it offered kangaroos, which were hopping in the property’s meadows.”

N.B.: In this and future articles, I am mentioning only accommodations that were truly superior.

The next day, a 45-minute ferry ride took us to Kangaroo Island, where we visited Flinders Chase National Park, which features magnificent coastal landscapes, vast wilderness areas and diverse wildlife. Despite its being named Kangaroo Island, we never saw any animals there.

It was dark when the ferry returned to the mainland, and we didn’t arrive in Adelaide until midnight.

Adelaide

In the capital of South Australia, Adelaide, which was never a British convict colony, we visited the famous covered Rundle Mall, with its many fashionable shops. We found the department store Woolworths to be an upscale place to buy groceries, something which was true at Woolworths throughout Australia.

The next day, the rich farmland we traversed gradually transformed into a dust bowl. While the area once had been booming, in 1896 the rains suddenly ceased, causing many farm owners to leave their properties. Many of these ranches, now in ruins, are still in fairly good shape, such as the Kanyaka settlement. In its heyday, the Kanyaka property had 70 people and 50,000 sheep and covered 579 square kilometers.

After visiting the picturesque Flinders Ranges National Park, which features the Wilpena Pound (a large, sickle-shaped, natural amphitheater covering nearly 80 square kilometers) and the Brachina Gorge (with 550-million-year-old rock formations), we arrived at the Outback.

Marree

John explained that the word “outback” refers to “anything in the sticks.” The soil can be green, black or gray or the area can be desert. Endless expanses of sand abound. The roads are predominately gravel and dirt, with an occasional homestead flying its flag in the distance far from the main road.

Our first overnight in the Outback was in Marree, a tiny settlement with unpaved streets. While in its heyday Marree was an important railroad junction, it now consists of a few pathetic buildings. Our motel accommodations comprised a small portable unit with barely enough room for two beds, one chair and a bathroom.

After a mediocre dinner in the only restaurant, we went back to our room — and just in time, too, because a little later a severe rain and dust storm played havoc with the electricity, which went off and on for a while and finally quit altogether in the middle of the night.

The next morning we had no cold water, as the electric pumps weren’t working. The shower’s hot water, however, came on full blast, necessitating my teetering at the very edge of the water stream to keep from being scalded.

At noon, when the roads were dry, we headed via Port Augusta toward Wilmington and Broken Hill, the latter a spread-out mining town in the Outback.

Broken Hill

In Broken Hill is one of the regional headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (www.flyingdoctor.org.au), which covers more than 80% of Australia and can reach any patient in Australia within two hours. Besides providing treatment on the spot (sometimes under the wing of the plane), the service offers monthly primary clinics and clinics for women, while specialists are flown in on a regular basis.

Medicine chests are sent to isolated homesteads. When there is a medical problem, the homestead inhabitants call the service by radio. The doctor either tells them what to do or flies out.

Broken Hill is also famous for the School of the Air, from which a teacher communicates by radio with pupils all over Australia. Teaching is also done via the Internet. Unfortunately, the tour company had booked us in Broken Hill on a Saturday, a day that the School of the Air is closed.

Next month, I will continue with my Australian narrative, discussing our travels to Sydney via Bendigo, Melbourne and Canberra.