Exploring the Red Centre

Another travel post, I’m afraid… I’ve had more than my fair share of holidays lately, but it’ll calm down for a while now! This time, it was just under a week in the Red Centre – Alice Springs and Uluru – and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Uluru has always been on my bucket list, so when my parents told me they were planning to go while over here, I jumped at the chance of gatecrashing this bit of their holiday. What I didn’t really know was what there was to see other than Uluru itself, and the answer is lots. Variations on the red rock theme, but all different and spectacular.

The trip didn’t get off to the best start, and I was lucky to be on the plane at all! I managed to completely stuff up my alarm setting and overslept, waking ten minutes before I was planning to leave for the airport. Thankfully, I’d allowed lots of time so still managed to leave the house in comfortable enough time for the flight, but the bits of packing I’d left til that morning were rather hasty. And at no point during the packing process did it occur to me that my wallet was in the bottom of my cycling bag, and maybe I might want to bring it. It dawned on me on the train to the airport that I didn’t have it, and therefore had no photo ID (as I’d consciously decided to leave my passport at home and use my driving licence if needed) but I didn’t have time to go home and get it. Now, I’ve only rarely been asked for photo ID for a domestic flight but Jetstar would have been entirely within its rights not to let me travel. At check-in, the lady manning one of the desks was asking people for ID, so I made sure I went to the other desk. All passed off ok, but my heart was in my mouth for a while! As an added bonus, I had a window seat and got some fabulous photos both of Sydney and the outback.

For the first three nights, we were staying in Yulara, or Ayers Rock Resort. It’s an odd place, built in the 80s only existing for the tourist trade, but the 900 or so residents who work at the resort or for tour companies make it one of the largest few towns in the Northern Territory. That tells you something about the Territory! It’s all owned by Accor and accommodation prices are eye-watering, so my parents’ apartment having a sofa bed was an epic win!

20km from Yulara is Uluru, and about 50km in the same National Park, Kata Tjuta or the Olgas, a group of lump-shaped rocks which are nearly as impressive. We spent a day at each, walking and taking photos. I ummed and ahhed briefly about climbing Uluru – the aboriginal community asks tourists not to as it’s sacred, and it’s been agreed to close the climb from late 2019. The knowledge that the opportunity won’t present itself again gave me a tinge of regret, but I think not climbing was the right decision. The base walk (an easy 10km) gave some fabulous close-up views of the rock. We watched sunrise and sunset from a viewpoint in the resort, giving some wonderful colours, and did sunset drinks and BBQ dinner close to Uluru one evening – of course the only evening of the trip when it was cloudy! Never mind!

It’s a common misconception that Uluru is very close to Alice Springs – it’s actually over 450km, but the road is good so it’s easily driven in a day. My parents drove it in a hire car, but I wanted to go to Kings Canyon (which is sort of on the way) so found a tour that would take me there and then on to Alice. It was a very long day with a 4.45am start and I spent over 8 hours on a bus, but it was fabulous! After climbing 500 steps, we walked around the top of the canyon which was spectacular, and the sheer cliffs made it very different from Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

I also really liked Alice Springs. It’s a big country town rather than a city, so easily walkable, but big enough to have decent facilities and infrastructure. I enjoyed a steakhouse which is a bit of an institution, and was especially impressed with the network of cycle paths, though didn’t have time to get on a bike. We had a walking day (more amazing red rocks!) and a town day when we went to the desert park to see birds and wildlife, the art gallery and the old telegraph station, which is the reason Alice exists where it is. The walking day, at Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm, was possibly my favourite day of the trip – the basic walk at Standley Chasm was short and easy (though the chasm was fascinating) so we tacked on a bit of the Larapinta Trail, a long-distance walk that starts in Alice. This was a steep and rocky path which took us up to a lookout with spectacular views up the valley. It made me want to come back and walk the whole Larapinta – added to the list! Earlier that day, Mum and I did a dawn hot air balloon ride, with mine part-funded by a voucher from my brother and sister-in-law. That was also great – very serene and didn’t feel like we were as high as we were, and amazing to look down on waterholes and miles of red. And of course sunrise from the air was pretty unforgettable. It was seriously cold at 6am though, which I didn’t expect.

I came back from the trip refreshed, revitalised from loads of exercise and really pleased to have seen a totally different side to Australia from life on the coast. Having ticked off the tourist spots, I really want to go back and get properly off the beaten track.

Food, glorious food!

I can’t come to the foodie paradise that is Melbourne without writing a blog post about food and eating out!

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what the best meal was I’d had all trip. I ummed and ahhed and could only think of one worthy of consideration. I hadn’t eaten badly, indeed I’d say well, but nothing had really wowed me. Now, things have changed, not only because I’ve spent the last few days in Melbourne, but it helps! After four days at the MCG, today I wandered into town from North Fitzroy and back again and passed hundreds of places that made my mouth water!

Eating out here has a couple of differences from back home. It’s a more efficient experience, because (other than in the poshest joints) it’s normal to pay at the bar or a cashier rather than waiting for the bill. In cafés, ordering at the bar is also much more common than in the UK, especially in NZ, though restaurants all offer table service. Secondly, there’s no compunction to tip and it’s unusual to have service charges added on. Living in London, I got used to 12.5% service charges, which made meals a lot more expensive than the menu suggested, so I find this amazingly refreshing! In NZ, some places charge a public holiday surcharge to cover their additional staff costs, and I’ve seen it on Sundays in a few places, but I’m yet to spot either it in Aus. Tipping is reserved for exceptional service rather than the norm, a model I much prefer to the UK (where I’ve only refused to pay it when service has been awful) or, worse, the US tipping culture.

In chronological order, these are my seven favourite meals on my trip so far…

The Rockpool Café, Stokes Bay, Kangaroo Island.

This was the one that was winning when my friend posed the question. The food – a seafood platter with chips and a flat white – were excellent, but probably not in the culinary league of the later entrants. But the waterfront setting, it coming straight after a delightful swim in the sea, and the fact I’d frugally solely eaten meals cooked in the back of my campervan for the preceding three days, made this meal memorable.

Campervan leftover omelette, Kangaroo Island

I was particularly smug about this gas stove creation, which I enjoyed in a seafront campsite in Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island, at the end of a wonderful few days of total freedom. It wasn’t fancy, but made perfect use of all my leftovers – eggs, tomatoes, ham and two granary tortilla wraps, which I lightly toasted and managed wedge the omelette between (no mean feat in the dark!). All washed down with a couple of glasses of Wirra Wirra Shiraz bought at the cellar door in McLaren Vale. Somehow this summed up my little campervan trip.

Depot, Auckland, New Zealand

If I were ranking these meals by deliciousness, this one would probably be at the top. A menu of small plates and large plates designed for sharing was perfect for me and a friend, both of whom enjoy variety and flavour. Everything was incredible, but the winner definitely hapuka belly with eggplant kasundi. The waiter made the mistake of telling us we could order extra kasundi, so of course we did, and noshed it all. We also loved sitting at the bar and getting recommendations from the bar staff. My only regret is being too full to order pudding, though the espresso/short black I had in lieu was excellent. I’ll be back.

Hone’s Garden, Russell, New Zealand

This excellent spot provided lunch on the middle day of three in the beautiful Bay of Islands. My aunt and uncle report that when they were last here, several years ago, it was a ramshackle garden bar where a small BBQ was fired up if food was ordered. Now it’s smartened up rather, with comfy seats, a craft beer bar and excellent pizzas. The only low point of our meal there was me chucking a glass of beer everywhere, including on my aunt’s skirt, but I can’t blame Hone for that!

Grain Store, Melbourne

This was excellent Melbourne breakfast venue number 1, and is where the photo above was taken. I decided to go there before play on Day Four of the test match on the basis of a number of online recommendations, and the fact they had a sweetcorn fritter on the menu. I’m a sucker for a good sweetcorn fritter, and thankfully this one was definitely up to standard! I didn’t need to eat at the cricket until well into the afternoon session.

Supernormal, Melbourne

A close-run second on the deliciousness ranking, and discovered entirely by accident. After the cricket ended yesterday, I hoped to have a quick dinner at my previously-favourite Melbourne eatery, Chin Chin. The queue was out of the door and round the corner (at 6pm! Seriously, that’s how good it is!) so I took to Google to find the nearest Asian restaurant. The result was Supernormal, a Japanese restaurant a block further east on Flinders Lane. It was heavier on my wallet than intended, but wow, it was sensational! All the savoury dishes – Kingfish sashimi, pork loin with wombok and chilli, and the best prawn and chicken dumplings I’ve ever eaten – were fabulous, and I enjoyed soaking up all the flavoursome sauce with rice. I didn’t need a dessert, but, once I saw peanut butter parfait with salted caramel and soft chocolate on the menu, there was no way I wasn’t having one. And that was another good decision! I loved sitting at the bar and watching the raw dishes being prepared – artists at work!

Babajan, Melbourne

My friend’s favourite local café in North Fitzroy, so it would have been rude not to give it a whirl. Another place where I could have happily eaten everything on the menu, but I opted for crab and halloumi omelette and wasn’t disappointed. And the coffee was excellent, and staff lovely.

Sydney is, so far, conspicuous by its absence, but only because I haven’t spent enough time there. I look forward to putting that right!

No such thing as too much cricket!

The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or indeed just the “G” to Melburnians) is on many cricket fans’ bucket lists. I’m extremely fortunate in that this was the second time I’ve attended the game in an Ashes series. Despite a lifeless pitch, suffice to say that this year’s experience has been infinitely superior to its 2006 equivalent.

In both cases, England entered the series 3-0 down. In 2006, England were rolled by an innings and 99 runs within three days, and I spent what would have been Day Four getting hideously sunburnt on St Kilda Beach. This time, however, England gave us plenty to cheer about. Indeed, until the middle of today’s afternoon session, we had a decent chance of winning the game. However, in the end, a combination of rain, the dead pitch and Australia’s extraordinary, immovable captain, Steve Smith, conspired to give the Aussies a draw. I’ve also enjoyed staying in a friend’s house, not a hostel, and being able to afford to partake in Melbourne’s excellent foodie scene and coffee culture.

I skipped Day One of the test, as I was in transit from Auckland, and it doesn’t sound like I missed much after David Warner got out for an eventful 103. On the second morning, things got interesting, with Australia collapsing from 244/3 to 327 all out, thanks in no small part to Stuart Broad rediscovering his bowling mojo. Finally the Barmy Army’s chant of “He’s big, he’s bad, he’s better than his dad” was believable again! Then it was the turn of another senior player in the spotlight, Alastair Cook, to do his thing. Over the course of the following ten-and-a-half hours of play, he took his series runs from 83 to 327, and career tally to a stonking 11,956, by racking up his 32nd century and fifth double-century. Quite a turnaround, and remarkably (and this says a lot about the rest of our batting line-up…) he now topping the series list for England. Class is permanent and all that. When the match petered out to a draw this afternoon, nobody can have been surprised at the man of the match selection, and it was a privilege to have been in the ground for every ball of a great innings.

So what’s special about the “G”? It isn’t an easy question, though hard to look beyond the sheer size of the place. The view from the fourth tier is quite something! There were nearly 90,000 in on Boxing Day and not far shy of 70,000 the following day, approximately twice what I’ve ever seen at any other ground. With that comes atmosphere, of course. I remember finding it quite an intimidating place to watch cricket during a 2007 one-dayer with anti-Pom abuse flying, but this time I found the locals knowledgeable about their cricket, and respectful. The Ritchies (around a hundred blokes dressed as Ritchie Benaud, sitting in the sun in 36-degree heat) provided some entertainment on Day Two, complete with three-part trumpet harmony, no doubt an attempt to trump the English Barmy Army. But the whole crowd rose to applaud Alastair Cook’s hundred and then the double-ton the following day. It’s not a cricket ground in the purist sense, but it’s one hell of a stadium. That said, it felt pretty empty today on Day Five when there were “only” 14,000 people in!

Of those, I reckon the vast majority were English, mostly sitting together at the Great Southern Stand End. I chose a seat today at that end, right above the Barmy Army – a safe distance, but close enough to feel part of the atmosphere. Love them or loathe them, they are part of touring with England, and were in full voice for much of the last four days, often garnering applause and encouragement from the team. Indeed, after the presentation this afternoon, all eleven players ran across from the other side of the ground to show their appreciation, and then Jonny Bairstow came back to give his pads to a young fan in the front row.

To provide a comparison, and because I don’t believe there’s such thing as too much cricket, last night I went to my first Big Bash League (BBL) Twenty20 game at the Etihad Stadium across town. Definitely an occasion to leave the “cricket purist” hat at home, but a lot of fun. And, on a rainy evening, a great joy (and surprise) to discover the stadium has a roof so my concerns about losing the game to the weather were unfounded! Much to the disappointment of the partisan home crowd, the Perth Scorchers were too good for the Melbourne Renegades, thanks largely to Mitchell Johnson, and I find it hard to see past the Scorchers as potential winners of the tournament. The BBL is doing a lot right – I’ll post more on it once I’ve seen another game in Sydney in a couple of weeks.

The England team now moves on to Sydney, and so do I – after two more nights in Melbourne. I’ve heard very good things about the New Year’s Eve fireworks here and so will certainly head into town late-ish in the evening, but don’t plan to rush around seeing things earlier in the day – one of the joys of revisiting a place I’ve been to a few times before is feeling no compunction to do the touristy stuff!

I ❤️ NZ

I’ve been pretty silent for the last ten days, but in that time I’m mostly been visiting people rather than places – so, for those of you who don’t know my extended family, that might not make such interesting blog posts.

But what I can say is that I still love New Zealand. It has pretty much always been top of my favourite countries list, even before I spent a year living here in 2006-2007. I decided that, in transport industry terms, NZ might be a bit small-town after London so decided against settling here for now at least, but I’m delighted to be much, much nearer for holidays!

This time I haven’t travelled too far from my base of Auckland, where my aunt and uncle live. (This is my dad’s sister, as opposed to my mum’s family who are all in Sydney). However I have made it to Hamilton to spend a weekend with my cousin Matt, his wife Julia and their gorgeous baby Madeleine, and am writing this from Paihia on the beautiful Bay of Islands, a few hours’ drive north of Auckland. I’ve also enjoyed my aunt’s choir performing the Messiah, and two dinners out with friends. It will be a while before I forget the hapuku with aubergine kasundi that I enjoyed with Jane in Depot, central Auckland!

Paihia has been delightful. Combine glorious sunshine, stunning coastal scenery and a bit of walking and you get a happy Sarah (as discussed in parts one and two of my campervan travels). Add in a dolphin-seeking boat trip, some interesting historical sites, good company, and some super food and drink (I’m being rather less parsimonious than on my South Aussie trip), and it gets better. I’ve been here before, with my cousin Matt on a road-trip in 2006, which also included Cape Reinga (far north of the country). But that was September and it rained, and I doubt we collectively had the funds for the dolphin trip, so I’ve been very happy to return! This part of the world is very significant in NZ history, with the first European settlers being here, the Treaty of Waitangi signed about a mile away, and there being various religious missions, and battles between Maori and westerners. It’s made for fascinating visiting and reminded me of some of the national history that I probably knew ten years ago.

For some time, I’ve considered myself an honorary New Zealander. But why do I feel so at home here? I guess it’s got a lot in common with home (language, culture, etc.), but with a much more laid- back pace of life, far fewer people (most of whom are super friendly) and, if anything, a better array of fabulous scenery. It’s not that NZ has the most spectacular coastline, mountains or forest in the world, but the combination of natural features in relatively close proximity is what sets it apart. For example, from where I used to live in Christchurch, within two hours I could get to the top of a ski slope, most of the way to the west coast glaciers, into the Mackenzie Country with its lovely lakes and mountains, or to Kaikoura with lovely coastline and whale watching/ dolphin opportunities.

I’ve come to love the North Island too, having got to know many of its scenic spots, and appreciate Auckland for what I now reckon it is – a mid-size waterfront city with a fantastic food scene. It may not have the charm of Wellington, the traffic (and drivers) may be bad and public transport isn’t what it could be, but I adore the amount of water you can see from any vantage point, the place has a multicultural and cosmopolitan feel, and I’ve not had many meals ever better than the one last week including the hapuka!

Now I know I can come back more frequently, I’m already compiling a mental list of things I want to do here: re-visit Wellington (one of my favourite cities in the world but I’ve neglected it since 2010); ski in some of the South Island ski fields that I haven’t done before; go to Dunedin, the Catlins and Moeraki Boulders; go back to the Coromandel for more stunning coastal scenery; skydive in Taupo; visit the volcanic Rangitoto Island off the coast by Auckland; walk the Milford and Routeburn tracks. But my first trip back will be at the end of March, to see two NZ v England test matches in successive weekends, in Auckland and Christchurch. The Christchurch game I’m particularly excited about, given the Hagley Oval’s development from club ground in the park into an international venue following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and its proximity to where I used to live. But it will surprise nobody to read that cricket is the reason for my first planned holiday from a job I haven’t even started yet!

Travels in a campervan – part two

Continued from part one

I’ve always been drawn to the sea, perhaps because I’ve never lived anywhere near it (though that is going to change soon!). I’m a sucker for a beautiful coastline, white sandy beach, seafood platter and swimming in the sea. Kangaroo Island has combined all of the above with some wonderful remoteness and wildlife; no wonder I’ve adored it!

My trusty van has got me off the beaten track – and onto some “interesting” roads. I knew much of the Flinders Chase National Park was unsealed, but wasn’t prepared for the last 30km of the main East-West highway on the north side to be a corrugated, bumpy dirt track. At the end of a long (albeit wonderful) day yesterday, navigating that took all the concentration I could muster. I spent the night at Harvey’s Return, in a nearly-deserted and admittedly quite basic campsite close to the NW tip, and was elated this morning when I got as far as the bitumen road on the journey back east!

I spent pretty much all of yesterday in the Flinders Chase park and suffice to say I was impressed (other than the quality of some of the roads). There were loads of walking trails, clearly explained and signed, the visitor centre people were super helpful (and sold me good coffee, which is equally important!), the coastline was stunning, and my national park fee was all of $11 plus the camping charge. That and the coffee were, I think, all I spent on a full day’s entertainment – full as in ending after 8pm with a lovely sunset at Cape Borda lighthouse. Delightfully, in my 90-minute drive there from the south east I came across no other cars at all, in either direction, and the only other people at Cape Borda were a couple staying in a holiday cottage and a ranger/owner type who cheerfully enquired whether I was aware I wasn’t allowed to camp there. Clearly campervanners arriving for sunset and then scuttling off 4km to Harvey’s Return campsite are not the norm. They’re missing out.

In the national park, I saw plenty of the wildlife that KI is famous for – koalas, lizards, New Zealand fur seals, many kinds of birds, wallabies, and many of the eponymous kangaroos. I spotted a few by the side of – and indeed in – the road last night and this morning, and heard at least one sniffing and hopping around very close to the van after I went to bed last night.

Today I drove back from the far west to the far east of the island, ending up in Penneshaw in a campsite 200m from the ferry terminal. Handy when I have an 8.30 sailing tomorrow! I stopped for a while in Stokes Bay, on the north coast, which is known for calmer seas and safer swimming than the south. So of course I took the opportunity for a dip, once I’d navigated the rock tunnel to the beach. Still morning so a bit bracing, but lovely once in, and I had the ocean to myself with only a few others on the beach. I then splashed out on my one meal out during my stay, a seafood platter lunch, which was every bit as delicious as I’d hoped. After a quick stop at a honey farm for ice cream (and in Kingscote, the island’s commercial centre, which was a disappointment – though perhaps unfair to judge a place on a Sunday afternoon), I made my final pilgrimage before setting up camp. This was the Dudley wines cellar door, where I enjoyed a glass of local Riesling overlooking the sea and the view to the mainland. A bargain at $7.50/£4.50 too!

I’m currently sitting in the van with a glass of McLaren Vale red, listening to the sea, and all is well with the world. I’m sad to be leaving in the morning, but I’ve squeezed a fair bit out of three days! I’ll miss my trusty green and purple van – I’ve loved the freedom it’s given me, and having everything with me. Yesterday evening at Cape Borda, I was hungry and had half an hour to kill before sunset, so I whipped out the stove and cooked dinner. And I was cold so I dug around in my bag for another layer of clothes. There have been frustrations, like running out of gas last night so I had a not-quite-hot-enough cup of tea and no hot water bottle, and I’ve eaten a lot of the same foods in an attempt to be thrifty (tortilla wrap for lunch, pasta for dinner has become the staple), but that was my choice to balance some of the extravagances of my travels. I’ve enjoyed the actual driving too, which is a relief as there’s been quite a lot of it.

One more night in the penthouse awaits, then a ferry ride and a two-hour drive back up the peninsula and a flight to Sydney, where I’ll remain for less than 48 hours before the next flight to Auckland. I haven’t changed….

Travels in a campervan – part one

This week has involved a new experience for me – hiring a campervan. It struck me as the most cost-effective way to “do” Kangaroo Island, a scenic wildlife hotspot off the coast two hours’ drive south of Adelaide, being only slightly more expensive than a car to hire, and allowing very cheap campsite accommodation without buying a tent. A bit of online research back in the UK led me to Jucy, a kiwi company whose vans are distinctively green and purple. So nobody will be missing me as I tear up the South Australian highways!

The van I ordered sleeps two and is essentially a Toyota people mover with the boot converted to a sort-of kitchen, and the back seats able to be folded out into a bed. However I was given the next model up the range, which is the same with the addition of “the penthouse”, a double-bed sized canvas sleeping pod on the roof, accessed via a ladder. So I’m sleeping up there and have a “lounge” below, consisting of a table and two seats – one of which is covered in my stuff. I can see how this sleeps four, but I’m not sure how you’d get all their gear in as well! It’s surprisingly comfy up in the penthouse, though was chilly last night – glad I thought to bring a hot water bottle.

The kitchen is pretty clever too – there’s a little fridge, butane stove, water tank and sink, and a full set of pots and pans, all provided. The only trouble is that is takes a very long time to boil water in a pan on the stove. Currently half an hour and counting… it’s 8.30pm and I fear it’s going to go dark soon, and I’ve not cooked the sauce yet!

My travels in the van have so far taken me to McLaren Vale wine region, where I spent the last two nights, and I arrived on Kangaroo Island this morning. Yesterday I left the van parked up at a caravan park while I pottered about some local wineries on a hired bike. And, unlike on previous Australian wine tasting escapades I’ve done, I could order some for delivery… winner! It’s famously Shiraz country, but I also tasted some lovely rosé and whites, though some of the white was shipped in from the same companies’ Adelaide Hills vineyards. On Wednesday, I was taken to lunch and for a bit of a tour of the area by Angie, one of the lovely team I did the Overland Track hike in Tasmania with – fortuitously she lives very close to McLaren Vale and has Wednesday afternoons off. It was a lovely day, and vastly better than Day 5 of the Adelaide test, which would probably have been the alternative had she not suggested meeting!

This morning I got up early and drove to Cape Jervis, at the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula, a place of interest only as the point on the mainland from where the ferry goes to Kangaroo Island (known in these parts as KI). A straightforward (though riotously expensive) 45-minute crossing later, I arrived in Penneshaw, at the eastern tip of KI. I’ll be back in Penneshaw on Sunday night, so I headed away along the South Coast Road, towards the more remote western end of the island.

I’ve read this before, but KI is a lot bigger than people expect – about 160km from end to end – and is the third biggest offshore island. The main roads are good (but quiet – so delightful to drive along!), but you only have to turn off them to be on a dirt track. Via lunch on a beautiful beach I had to myself, a trip to see a sea lion colony at Seal Bay, and a meander along a quiet river in a hired kayak, I’ve stopped for the night at Vivonne Bay, which is maybe 90-100km along the south coast from Penneshaw.

The council campground has evidence of five other groups and is pretty quiet. I didn’t have to book, just rock up and put my credit card in the parking machine and pay $17 (£10). In London, that might get me two hours’ parking, here I get all night with access to loo, shower, BBQ and sink. Glad I’m not in a tent though – the ground is very hard and gravelly with no grass to be seen! Tomorrow I’m going to camp right up on the north western corner of the island in the Flinders Chase national park, for the princely sum of $16!

So far, I’m loving the van and the freedom it gives me, and will definitely look at campervan options again for future road trips.

Lovely city, fantastic ground, some great cricket… shame about the result!

Given the name of this blog, I thought it was about time I wrote about transport, Australian confectionery or cricket! I’ll start with the third and maybe work backwards…

I’ve spent the last three days at days 2-4 of the Ashes test at the Adelaide Oval. The alignment of the timing of my move and the Ashes wasn’t coincidental and I’m also going to parts of the Melbourne and Sydney games in a few weeks’ time. Everything about Adelaide was fantastic, apart from the performance of the England team for over half of the match!

I first visited Adelaide in March, on holiday with my parents, and my impressions then were very good. It’s much smaller than Sydney and Melbourne and has the sarky nickname “Radelaide”. Even if not exactly “rad”, I’ve found it to be pretty, very walkable, and very green. The Oval overlooks the Torrens river, with a pedestrian bridge linking it to the main part of the city on the south side. Fans streaming across the bridge to and from the game was a sight to behold, and the atmosphere began before entering the stadium itself. The ground has been extended in recent years so now seats 55,000, but the wonderful old manual scorebox is still there – and most of the time was quicker and more accurate than the score on the big screen next to it! I did the stadium tour back in March and getting to go in the box (and have my photo taken in there) was one of the highlights of my holiday… yes, I’m an unashamed cricket and scoring tragic! As a purist, I’m still not sure about day-night test cricket, but as a spectator it was a fabulous spectacle – and the sunset at the ground last night as England were going nicely with the bat was something else.

The cricket itself, well… I nearly had hope, which is more than I expected at the end of day 2! England had three or four excellent sessions and Jimmy Anderson was immense in the second innings – and the atmosphere then was particularly fun, with the Barmy Army finding its voice and taunting every Australian mistake – but after conceding a 215 run lead in the first innings they were always going to be playing catch-up. The end was a bit of a damp squib this afternoon – I’m glad I didn’t cancel plans I’d already made in order to be there! I can’t help feeling that the English players aren’t much, if at all, lower calibre than their Australian counterparts, but (with a couple of exceptions in the last couple of days) they really haven’t applied themselves at all well. The series is surely lost now – they’ll need to raise their game in Perth to save any face at all.

As for me, I’m not going to Perth despite a desire to see the WACA before it is retired – given I’ll be spending Christmas in NZ, it’s a four hour flight in the wrong direction! I’m now down the coast from Adelaide in McLaren Vale (in a campervan) ready to do some wine tasting tomorrow and then head to Kangaroo Island on Friday morning. More on that to follow soon, I’m sure…

The Overland Track – one for the bucket list!

I’ve just rejoined civilisation after six days walking the Overland Track in Tasmania with the Tasmanian Walking Company. It was absolutely wonderful – I don’t quite know where to begin. When our lead guide, Sanjay, said on the first morning “welcome to the best six days of your life” I thought that it was heavy on the hyperbole, but it may not have been too far wide of the mark. I’ve pushed myself physically (including climbing Mt Ossa, the highest peak in Tasmania), seen so much stunning scenery, swim in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall, taken a much-needed detoxing break from city life, and met some fantastic people. I spent part of the bus journey back to town trying to decide which photo to attach to this blog post. The competition was too stiff, and I’ve put a bunch in a Facebook album here (should be visible even if you don’t have a Facebook account).

Let’s be honest – the way I did the Overland might be construed as cheating a teeny bit. Instead of camping or choosing to walk alone and stay in public walkers’ huts along the way, I joined a guided trip run by a superb Tasmanian company which has its own huts tucked away from the track which you can only find if you know where to look. These have the added benefits of hot showers, drying rooms, electric lighting, food (and wine!) dropped in by helicopter twice a year, board games, books, a gas oven and stove and guides whose job is not only to guide but also to cook delicious meals. It didn’t come cheap, but I wanted the company and, although we carried packs containing six days’ clothes, the idea of carrying a tent, stove and six days’ food as well didn’t especially appeal. The hut experience was not unlike a catered chalet ski holiday, enhanced by the fact that four of the five huts were laid out the same, so it did feel a bit like returning to the same place each evening.

I was lucky in a lot of ways. The weather was rubbish for the first two days but then glorious, including on the all-important day four when we climbed Mt Ossa in perfect conditions. The guides and the group were just brilliant. There can be up to twelve in a group but in ours just five, and not only that but we were pretty evenly matched in terms of pace. I was worried that my slow, steady and stubborn style of walking would see me consistently left behind, but this was only really the case on the last day when I felt pretty unwell. Three of the group were kiwis who’ve lived in Australia for a long time, and they’ve given me some great ideas for more walking in both countries. The guides, Sanjay and Silas, were two guys in their 20s who are knowledgeable and passionate about the national park and its geology, flora, fauna and history, and who enjoyed sharing this with their guests. They also had a great sense of humour and, perhaps most importantly, were fantastic cooks.

The Tasmanian Walking Company thought of everything, especially how to create superb dinners with food that’s non-perishable – dropped in by helicopter twice a season – and the minimum of fresh stuff carried by the guides. The huts have been there 30 years and appear to minimise waste and manage tricky stuff like toilets very impressively. Food is cooked in a gas oven and gas hob with gas coming from big cylinders out the back, also used for heaters and hot water, and the lights were powered by solar panels on the roof. I can understand how costs would have mounted up. We also appreciated the little things like having the same book collection in each hut so you can read a book over multiple evenings.

The other thing I hugely appreciated was being completely away from the “real world”. A tech and city detox was part of what I was really looking forward to, and it was wonderful! I read two books, played cards, and had a lot of time to myself and my thoughts – I must get away from phone signal more often! My only disappointment was not seeing a wombat, as the track is known to be a hotspot for them, and I’ve never seen one in the wild. Maybe I’ll have to come back…

The last thing I did each evening was write a diary-style paragraph for the blog, so here are my daily notes:

Day one

Saturday began with a 5.35 alarm in my small single room in a “faded glory” kind of backpackers’ hostel, and ended standing on a wooden helipad by our hostel for the night watching sunset over the mountains and a rainbow over the bush. The ten minutes I stood out alone on the helipad, which doubled nicely as a viewing platform, were utterly magical. The feeling of remoteness and appreciation of the beautiful surroundings is exactly what I signed up to this trip for. The walking was, at times, challenging, the weather variable (but mostly wet!), and the scenery consistently lovely with craggy mountains and sheltered lakes. Despite getting thoroughly drenched, I loved it. But I resolved to wear waterproof trousers tomorrow!

Day two

Today was even wetter. And, for some unknown reason, I didn’t wear waterproof trousers until lunchtime because it wasn’t raining when we set off. Growing up in Manchester clearly taught me nothing! I did, however, discover that my entry-level gaiters are worth ten times the £16 I paid for them (thank you Costwold for the 20% National Trust member discount!), keeping my feet vastly drier than they were on day one. The walking was less challenging – undulating for sure but not much steep stuff and a fair chunk was part of the 30% of the track which is boardwalk. Despite this I was stiff as a board at the end of the day and walking like a robot by the time it got to bedtime. The vegetation changed as we passed from quartzite to dolorite rock – the former relatively barren shrubby moorland and the latter more fertile and, at various stages, forest. At times we could see bugger all due to basically walking through a cloud; at others there was still a half-decent view. In the morning we passed several lakes, including Lake Will, which boasts a little sandy beach, and Tasmania’s own Lake Windermere, where we stopped for lunch. Rather smaller and fewer tourists than the Lake Windermere I’m familiar with! On arrival at the hut we were greeted with lemon myrtle scones and tea. And unlike the previous evening, i didn’t leave the hut as the mist meant there was nothing to see! Others went out in search of a teensy glimmer of phone signal available on the veranda. I couldn’t have cared less – the phone stayed on flight mode and I enjoyed blissful ignorance of the world outside, despite it being day four of the first Ashes test. Who am I and what have you done with the real Sarah?

Day three

What a difference a day makes! This morning in the sunshine we realised that at the end of the “driveway” to the hut was a stunning view of mountains, that had remained shrouded in most the previous afternoon. We swapped anoraks for sunscreen, enjoyed being dry and took it easy, stopping for photos (many photos in my case!) to make up for the previous day. We descended to the track’s lowest point at 720 metres, then back up and took a side track to Old Pelion Hut, which celebrated its centenary last week. The hut hasn’t been used for overnighting for many years, but still has bunk beds, and graffiti dating back to the 30s! With only half an hour left to walk if we wanted to head on, we took a big break, had lunch and wandered down to the creek. Having been told by a friend who’s done the track previously that it was worth having a swim despite it being cold, I took the opportunity and it was incredibly refreshing despite, yes, being seriously chilly! We also went into an old copper mine which was a little claustrophobic and full of crickets and spiders – ick! We passed the public Pelion hut and had a nose in -reckoning that its inhabitants and those camping outside thought we were seriously soft with our private huts, skimmed stones on another creek from a fossil beach, and ambled on to our own Pelion hut where cherry muffins and tea awaited. Bliss! Over dinner we were told about the day ahead – a long and tough one if we take the side trip up Mt Ossa (highest mountain in Tasmania) but one which promises incredible views if the weather behaves.

Day four

Wow, what a day! Climbing Mt Ossa in perfect conditions was just incredible. I’m not sure I’ve seen a view like it, or if I have then not one I’ve earned by hauling my arse up a pretty steep rocky mountain for three hours! Being able to see for miles and miles in all directions, including where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and see neither a road nor a building, was completely incredible. The climb itself was tough – more so than I expected, but nothing I couldn’t handle. A fair bit of scrambling near the top, and some walking across snow patches despite it being very nearly summer. It was amazing to get to the top as a group, and then sit and eat our lunch overlooking what looked like all of Tasmania (I’m told it’s actually a third). Adding Ossa to the standard day made it a long one – nearly nine hours from setting off to arriving back – but it was entirely worth it. And this hut, Kia Ora Hut, is probably the most lovely of them all. The deck overlooking Cathedral Mountain really makes it special! If I need the toilet in the night, I might detour via the deck to look at the stars like I did at three o’clock this morning at Pelion. That was an incredible experience – I’ve never seen so many stars shining so brightly before. I felt truly out in the wild!

Day five

I don’t think I’ve ever done a four-day hike before, and I’ve certainly never done a five-day (let alone six). But by day five, the rhythm is well and truly ingrained. Get up, get dressed, breakfast (best porridge ever – and I’m not normally a porridge eater), pack, boots, lift the pack (which invariably feels heavier than yesterday) onto your back, walk. One foot in front of the other. This morning routine, it’s what we do, all thoughts of the real world forgotten. Today was a little more sore and a little slower after the exertions of Ossa, but was still a full one. We took not one but two detours to beautiful waterfalls (on the River Mersey – rather different from the Mersey I grew up near!): the first to view D’Alton and Fergusson falls, the second to the bottom of Hartnett Falls, where we could swim in the pool where the water landed. On a roasting hot day, this was utter bliss. I didn’t get quite unset the falls, because their power was such that there was a hefty current away from them, but I was full of the spray and adored the cool, clear water. The schlep back to to the track was totally worth it! We reached Windy Ridge hut around 5pm and were presented with a trip first: cold beer, which was extremely welcome! The idea that the real world is less than a day away doesn’t sit too well, if I’m honest. I may be shattered and walking like a robot, but if I could start this all over on Friday then I’d be there in a flash.

Day six

I’m now writing from a B&B in Launceston, having finished the track at lunchtime. Today, while it didn’t involve a tremendous amount of walking, really took it out of me. I didn’t feel particularly well, and add that to moderate humidity and a side dose of exhaustion and it gets a bit tricky. Thankfully, the walking wasn’t especially challenging – up and down, but no serious hills – and both scenery and weather were once again lovely. Despite what felt like snail’s pace from me, we made it to the Narcissus hut at the top of Lake St Clair about 12.15, so in plenty of time for lunch and a paddle in the lake before the 1pm ferry back to civilisation. The afternoon was spent mostly on a bus back to Launceston, via a glass of bubbly and some Tassie canapés at the walking company’s base, where we said goodbye to our wonderful guides Sanjay and Silas who gave us cards with personal messages to mark the end of the trip. It’s very odd now to be spending the evening on my own – I miss the company of the group already!

A flying visit to my new home city

I’ve arrived! Not only that, but I think I’ve managed to adapt to the time difference in record time. Which is a very good thing, because I’m already on my travels again – I’m now in Launceston and tomorrow morning I start six days hiking the Overland Track in the remote centre of Tasmania. Despite my excitement for the Ashes, I think this is the bit of my trip I’ve been looking forward to most – a chance to detox from city life, enjoy scenery that’s stunning by all accounts, and do some proper exercise for the first time in longer than I like to think about. More detail about the trip is here if you’re interested.

The flight to Sydney from Abu Dhabi was uneventful, which I reckon is the way flights should be. 14 hours was never going to be fun, but three seats to myself and a couple of glasses of red wine definitely helped, and I managed a couple of hours’ sleep. Probably for the best that it wasn’t more – arriving in the evening, being tired definitely contributed to the almost complete lack of jetlag that I’ve had since. Sydney Airport was extraordinarily efficient, with me leaving the airport in my cousin’s car 45 minutes after touching down. 90 minutes after my scheduled arrival time, I was tucking into dinner in the far western suburbs. Winner. The weirdest feeling on the journey ticking the “permanent migration” box on the customs form. I’m an Australian resident now – ulp!

After an admin, shopping and cricket-on-TV day with my cousin yesterday, I spent this morning in central Sydney. I met a couple of partners from the company I’m joining in January for a coffee and a chat, which was really positive, especially about the applicability of my UK experience here in Aus. There’s a massive amount of government investment in infrastructure here at the moment, so there’s plenty going on – doesn’t sound like I’m going to be bored when I start work, so I’m going to make the most of the downtime I have now!

After that and before going to the airport for the second time in under 48 hours, I took a ferry ride to Neutral Bay wharf and walked up to the high street with my “would I like to live here?” hat on. The answer is definitely maybe! I’ve been to Sydney more times than I can be bothered to count, but never really looked at it through the eyes of a potential resident. It’s exciting to do so, and I look forward to exploring a few inner suburbs in the new year to help me make up my mind. I’m lucky that my relocation allowance is generous enough to include four weeks of temporary accommodation, so I already have somewhere within walking distance of the office to stay for the start, which ought to give me time to make some decisions.

I expect to be off the grid for the next week and am looking forward to the tech detox… photos to follow in a week!