A Travellerspoint blog

Flying to Malaysia

on my way to complete the best six credits of my uni career

sunny 25 °C

This semester, in addition to Australian History & Politics and Sustainable Enterprise (think green business initiatives of the future), I decided to sign up for an International Management Field Study: essentially a 10-day trip to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia, where I'd experience living in a Muslim culture firsthand and tour various business facilities in order to gain a broader understanding about how business is conducted in Southeast Asia.

Thirty-nine students - most of whom had never met before the info meetings leading up to the trip - and two advisers embarked on this journey on Thursday, 9 April. Jo, a sweet, well-traveled gal I'd met at the second meeting, picked me up on her way to the airport, where we met up with Courtney (another well-traveled soul who became the token photographer on the trip), Jeremy (who was looking forward to scuba diving in Malaysia. Who'd have thought?), Alecia (a quick-witted girl I soon became good friends with) and James (who was flying to Singapore straight after the trip. Jealous!)

Soon after boarding the Malaysia Airlines plane, the stewardesses walked around with the usual cups of water and orange juice...and beer. Apparently on long journeys, according to Jo, it's normal for an airline to provide free beer and wine, but nevertheless, I was pretty stoked on this information. I grabbed a beer (which turned out to be Tiger, a tasty light beer that's brewed throughout SE Asia. Apparently it's also available in San Francisco. Hmm...) to start, then Jo and I happily sipped small cups of red wine with our lamb-and-potato airplane dinners while we discussed traveling (she's curently planning a four month trip to South America) and Australian music festivals (she's been to several of those too.) Since we all had our own TVs, my magazine lay forgotten as I sat back to watch Revolutionary Road (a sad yet heartfelt movie starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet - I highly recommend it) and Adam Sandler's latest Bedtime Stories (yes, I'm a kid, but don't see this movie. Terrible.)

Upon arriving in KL, the lot of us boarded our charter bus and met Billy, our fabulous, funny tour guide for the next week. Feeling sleepy after the 8-hour flight, we were pretty subdued on the bus as we made our way towards the Ancasa Hotel.

Since the hotel was conveniently located next to Chinatown, those of us who still had a little energy left headed out for a quick bite on Petaling Street (aka "the street of fakes" - might as well have been New York's Canal Street). The group dispersed to shop while I followed Jo (whose mother is Malaysian and thus has a fair bit of knowledge about the cuisine) to a small noodle stand to share a plate of noodles and chicken covered in a dark sauce (will include the name once I remember...)

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Posted by Alykat 18:40 Archived in Malaysia Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

Big Day Out and Australia Day

the biggest party weekend of the australian summer

sunny 28 °C

Music festivals are kind of a big deal in Australia during the summer, and the most hyped-up one has got to be Big Day Out. Held in Australia's major cities - Sydney, the Gold Coast, Melbourne, Parth and Adelaide, as well as Aukland, NZ - BDO attracts hundreds of thousands of people for a full 12 hour day of music, sunshine (being that January = summer!), and friends.

A group of about ten of us - most being my new flatmate Paddy's friends from down south, plus Nizam and Dylan from Geegal - caught a train to the Sydney Showgrounds at the Olympic Park in Homebush the morning of Friday, January 23rd, grabbed a couple beers (or for some, a vodka slushie - what a strange phenomenon), and headed out to check out the FIVE outdoor stages (plus the indoor Boiler Room, which was just that: boiling hot). Among the highlights of the day were...

- TZU, an Aussie hip hop band who put on a great show. One of the band members proposed to his girlfriend at the end of the set.

- Birds of Tokyo, a Western Australia band with very catchy rock songs. I ended up sitting down in the stands to catch their entire set.

- Pendulum, a fast-paced rock band also out of Western Australia. I'd never heard them before, but they were one of the best performances.

- Cog, another surprisingly good live rock band.

- Sneaky Sound System, whose songs makes you want to jump up and dance ("UFO" and "I Love It" are big ones.)

- Cut Copy, whose electro-dance beats I caught at a show the previous month. My music taste has certainly changed since I moved to Sydney...

- The Living End, whose frontman has a great voice. Download "White Noise," their hit single at the time.

- Neil Young. His set was incredible, and the crowd was a mix of twentysomethings through people in their sixties, all rocking out to "Old Man," "Keep on Rocking in the Free World," and many more of his classics. Dylan and I literally stood there and hugged each other through the set, captivated by Young's gruff voice.

Needless to say, it was an awesome day.

On Sunday, my friend Rob and I drive down to Canberra with a few of his old school mates to hang out at his friend Bum's (that's not his real name, haha) for Australia Day. (As the weather in Canberra was beautiful and hot, this was a smart plan; it rained all day in Sydney). This is basically celebrated like the 4th of July in the States: pool, BBQ (sausages, white bread, eggs and bacon, the works), music, and copious amounts of beer (plus fireworks, but we just barely caught those by the time we got back to Sydney.)

This Australia Day commercial pretty much sums up the day's nationalism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGZEBjzkZMg

Despite the fact that I'd literally walked into a high school reunion with a bunch of people I'd never met, I ended up having a blast playing volleyball in the pool, sunbathing with the girls, and listening to the Triple J Top 100. (Triple J is an extremely popular radio station in Oz that's actually broadcast in every big city in the country.) Before Australia Day, listeners login to their website and vote for their favorite songs of the previous year, and these are then compiled into a list and played from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on the 26th. I recognized a fair amount of the songs, but what I found hilarious was the fact that, in the top 5, four of the tracks were by American artists:

5. "Kids" by MGMT
4. "Walking on a Dream" by Empire of the Sun
3. "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon
2. "Electric Feel" by MGMT
1. "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon (which received the most votes in the countdown's 19 year history and is easily the most overplayed song on the radio; when it won, they actually played it twice in a row)

Some fun facts:

* Both Vampire Weekend and Kings of Leon scored four tracks each.
* 48 of the Hottest 100 songs were by Australian artists.
* Both Kings of Leon and MGMT placed twice in the top 5 - the first time two bands have done this. The last bands to achieve two songs placing in the top 5 were Gorillaz (2005), Powderfinger (2000, Nirvana 1991 and The Offspring (1994)
* The song "Ice Cream" by Muscles which placed at 14 in the previous years countdown is in again at 45 with a Triple J live acoustic version.

One day, I hope to come back and experience this weekend all over again. Amazing.

Posted by Alykat 23:27 Archived in Australia Tagged events Comments (0)

Forging Through the [karri and tingle tree] Forests

Margaret river, walpole, denmark, albany, then wrapping back up to perth

sunny 32 °C
View South-WA on Alykat's travel map.

Yup, I've FINALLY finished updating the second half of my WA adventure. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 14 January

Justin had intended to take us surfing this morning, but he called and said the swell was pretty shit. Hmm, what to do? The five of us trooped to the front desk (at this point it was probably almost 10 a.m.) to check out the wall of brochures for another idea, and after some consideration, we settled on...wine tasting! I'd looked into Wine for Dudes earlier (it's a tour designed for young folks who enjoy wine but don't understand much about it; one of the guys we'd met the previous night had also recommended it), and after the girl at the front desk had called up the company, we had twenty minutes to get ready before the van would come to pick us up. I'm starting to feel really spoiled by the spontaneous nature of Australia at this point!

Our driver was also the company's founder - a cool, laid back guy named Dave who chatted with us as he drove to pick up a couple other twosomes (both were probably just under 30, so we were certainly a young group of dudes). Our first stop was the Juniper estate, nestled next to a cheery little spot I could picture enjoying a picnic at. Such a picnic was on my mind when we tasted the first wine, a fruity semillion sauvignon blanc, that I nicknamed it "the picnic wine" and snapped up a bottle to take home. Dave, having visited Juniper countless times, took us behind the tasting room to the fermenting area (where we were able to taste unfermented wine - ick) and the barrel room, where Miriam tested his winemaking knowledge for a good 15 minutes. He definitely passed the test, though.

From there, we visited Hayshed - another estate located in a picturesque picnic spot. This time, we actually had lunch on the lawn - a delicious spread of different breads, meats and cheeses, plus dips, spreads and olives. Yum.

Back in the winery, we were led to a back room to apply our tasting skills: with a 100 mL beaker, we had to come up with our ideal blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It was like a chemistry class the way everyone was carefully measuring out the wines and tasting their creations. I ended up satisfied with my blend: 30% merlot, 70% cabernet. (Apparently my parents did this at a wine party years ago and ended up creating the top voted blend and bottling it. Funnily enough, their ratio was exactly the opposite of mine: 30% cab and 70% merlot.)

Boarding the van, we set off for a quick visit to the chocolate factory. Picture a bunch of people walking around with handfuls of white, milk, and dark chocolate chip samples as they circled the displays of boxed chocolates and nougats - it was absolutely bustling.

The last winery we went to was called Saracen, and it was actually half wine tasting, half brewery - the perfect way to end a day of drinking. Haha. Unfortunately, my wine tasting notes (yes, I took notes) got lost while I was traveling, so I can't quite remember which wines I specifically liked...but I do know they had a cab/merlot blend with the same ratio that my creation was! (Plus, we got to meet Dave's girlfriend, who poured our tastings.)

Since we were Dave's last stop on the way back, he stopped by the beach so we could all take photos of the crashing waves and lowering sun before returning to the hostel.

Thursday, January 15

After breakfast and some shopping in downtown Margaret River (which was basically just one street lined with surf shops and organic cafes), M and I said goodbye to the departing German girls, grabbed the car (which was nicknamed "Baby" by the way) and drove through the tree groves to Hamilton Beach. There were flies galore, but that didn't stop the beach from being absolutely stunning. The white sand and clear turquoise water made me feel as though I were staring at the Mediterranean Sea, and it was a perfect sunny day. Ahhhh.

We swam and napped for a few hours, then M left to go find water and and ice cream. She was gone for quite a while, and when she returned all excited and beckoned me to follow her, I knew she must have found something neat. We walked across the sand towards the pier, where a few fishermen and their families were gathered. A couple little boys were feeding bits of fish to something in the water, and when I looked to see what they were feeding, I nearly screamed: gliding under the small waves were a family of stingrays - and they were massive. The biggest, which had to be at least four feet wide, was missing a stinger, and it was eating fish bits straight out of the boys' hands. Looking excited, M approached the fishermen and asked if she could join in, while I hung back and watched for a bit before reaching for a piece of fish.

Before heading back to Surfpoint, we drove further south to the Leewin Lighthouse, which we were told was the most southwestern point of Australia. The lighthouse was closed by then, but we hung around and danced to The Best of Foreigner (we only had two cds, that and classic Aussie rock) on the car stereo to pass the time until sunset. Just as the sky was turning bright pink, we relocated to the rocks next to the water, armed with a jar of peanut butter and a box of cookies, to take turns snapping photos of each other attempting to perform yoga moves against the colorful backdrop.

As we drove through town, we decided to stop and grab pints of Little Creatures Bright Ale (I'd recommend their pale ale though) at the Settlers' Tavern and catch the last live set of Neil Preston and the Atheists. The German girls called from the road and said they wanted to meet up with us again, so we made plans to meet up the next day in a town called Denmark.

Friday, 16 January

Today we left Margaret River and drove south to Walpole, where we visited the Tree Top Walk: a long series of ramps 20-40 meters up that run through the tingle tree forests (tingle trees are absolutely massive; in California terms, they remind me of lighter colored sequoias). The ramps were grate-style so you could see straight through to the forest floor, so I was pretty shaky the first time we went around, but by the second round (yeah, we decided to do it again), M and I were racing between platforms and shooting videos on M's camera.

After leaving Walpole, it was a short trek to Denmark, where we arrived at the girls' campsite just as they were preparing a yummy dinner of chicken burgers, potatoes, grilled onions and salad. Mmmm. After helping wash up and running to the hot showers (by this time is was freeeezing down south), the five of us gathered in the tent to swap photos and share my bottle of Juniper estate semillion sb. Figuring we should stick together for the remainder of the trip, we made plans for the last few days before falling asleep in the 3-person tent. I'd be lying if I said I had a good night's sleep, but it was certainly fun. :)

Saturday, 17 January

The girls had been raving about this beach called Greens Pool, so we squeezed into Baby and headed off to the beach. Unfortunately, we'd left the warm sunny weather further north, so we ended up snorkeling and jumping off the small rocks before the cold sent us into our towels and sweatpants. M and I left to explore the "Elephant Rocks" after lunch and took photos next to the massive boulders, but once we got back to our spot on the beach, we were all ready to head back to the hot showers at the campsite.

Sunday, 18 January

Today we packed up our campsite and drove east to Albany, a small town that looked completely empty under the dreary gray sky. M was driving, so I flipped through the guidebooks (Lonely Planet's was an absolute savior, as was my Let's Go Australia book) for something exciting to do in this town. We settled on something called the Sandalwood Factory. The German girls were too tired to join us, so we booked two places in the gong meditation session and drove out to the factory.

Gong meditation is interesting: we entered a small circular room lined with cushy mats and pillows that surrounded a set of...well, gongs. They looked like those Chinese gongs found in the Disney movie Mulan. There was about 15 of us in the room, and once we were settled on the mats, the instructor handed out silk scarves that had been sprayed with a lot of sandalwood and directed us to lay the scarves over our nose and mouth so we'd inhale the calming scent. While we did this, she tapped out a sort of song with the gongs (I think there were four - one big one and a few smaller ones) that were supposed to bring us into a deeper state of relaxation. After a while, she picked up one of the smaller gongs and stood over each person so they could each receive an individual gong while she murmured something. The session lasted for about 45 minutes, and since I was pretty tired from the trip by then, I allowed myself to be carried away by the soothing sandalwood and take a much-needed nap. A guy laying a few mats down was obviously very affected by the scent and gongs, as five minutes into the session he was heard snoring so loud, the instructor had to kick his foot to shut him up.

We visited the gift shop on our way out to get our fix of sandalwood-scented candles and moisturizer before heading back to the hostel.

That night, we all cooked pasta together before driving to the single movie theater in town to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Maybe it was the fact that the movie was so long, perhaps it was because I didn't buy the relationship between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's characters, or because I was mystified as to why the movie's "present day" setting was during Hurricane Katrina, but I didn't really enjoy the movie. The company was good though - we actually ran into the Kiwi couple from Margaret River at the theater and again at our hostel. Funny how all our travel itineraries were similar.

Monday, 19 January

Our flight back to Sydney was due to fly out of Perth on Wednesday, so we left Albany that morning to drive back up to the city. While M drove, I called every hostel in our guidebooks to find a place to stay, but for some reason everything was booked out - maybe because Australia Day was the following weekend? This presented a problem until we arrived at Nicole's nanny house and she (bless her heart) invited us to stay with her and Yvonne in the family's guest house. Cool!

Tuesday, 20 January

Since it was our last day in Western Australia, we decided to go do something fun: sandboarding in Lancelin! It's a bit like snowboarding, but instead of cold snow, you have soft white sand dunes; instead of carving your way down the hill, you point the board straight down and cruise; and, rather than boarding a chairlift to the top, you walk. We all pretty much sucked, but M got the hang of it by her third run and proceeded to amaze us by climbing to the highest peak of the hill and coasting flawlessly over the sand. Jerk. :)

We sat down to dinner with the family that night: two very sweet parents (who'd been college sweethearts) and their three boys aged 4, 6 and 7 (or something like that). The oldest, Maximus, took to me immediately because I allowed him to teach me how to play the Pokemon card game. Man that was confusing to learn - even still I haven't grasped how to use each character's powers. Their dad, who claimed he'd never before met an American, immediately started grilling me about college life and sports (apparently he'd played rugby in college but he follows American football), but he declared I should withdraw my citizenship when I couldn't tell him who was scheduled to play in the upcoming Superbowl. Hell if I cared - I only watch the game for the expensive commercials and the halftime show (and of course, there's the inevitable Superbowl party!)

While everyone else went to bed, I stayed up on the couch to watch Obama's inauguration. With the time difference in Perth, the program started after one in the morning, but I figured this was a piece of history I wasn't about to miss (plus it was the first election I'd been able to vote in.) Alice, the mom, popped in to watch a bit while she prepared for an upcoming dinner party, but I was on my own (besides my mom and friend Beth texting my cell phone while they watched in America) when Biden and Obama recited their oaths. It was really a magical moment (minus the new president's stumble over the words) after such a dramatic campaign, and despite the fact that I only got a few hours of sleep that night, I'm happy to say I kept up with US politics from, what, 10,000 miles away?

Wednesday, 21 January

Since our flight wasn't until later in the afternoon, M and I joined the girls and their "charges" (Kiki nannied for an adorable little girl of about four) at the animal park, where we took the kids to pet the kangaroos, check out the cassowaries, and take photos with the wombat. I think I've now been to four or five animal parks in Australia, but it's hard to get tired of seeing these awesome creatures only found in Australia.

At the airport, M and I grabbed some food and coffee and discussed out trip. The verdict? It was one of the best trips we'd both ever been on. I believe there may be more joint travels in mine and Miriam's future...

Posted by Alykat 23:27 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Life in Oz's Fourth Most Livable City

...according to The Economist's 2008 living conditions survey

sunny 30 °C
View South-WA on Alykat's travel map.

That said, it's worth noting the following:

2. Melbourne
4. Perth
7. Adelaide (2-way tie with Calgary, Canada)
9. Sydney (3-way tie with Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland)

Love this country. Anyway, back to traveling.

Tuesday, 6 January

Ah, Perth. We got off the train and were immediately greeted with a gust of warm air - it had to be at least 28 degrees already at 9 a.m.! After saying our goodbyes to our train friends (Miriam had managed to befriend everyone in our entire car), we set off with Matieu and Patrice in search of a bus to take us into the city...but not before Ron, owner of the nearby Rainbow Lodge hostel, invited us in for free toast and coffee.

We finally managed to figure out the bus system and made our way to the travel info center to figure out the rest of our trip (at this point, we were all considering traveling together) and ways to navigate the city. Armed with maps and an overwhelming amount of friendly advice, we hiked out backpacks on and set off, by foot, into Northbridge towards the Governor Robinson's hostel. Miriam had left me in charge of hostel and transportation booking back in Sydney, and after perusing countless websites for different hostels recommended by my travel books, I'd finally settled on Lonely Planet's top-rated, renovated colonial-style place located a fair walk down Williams St (the main street through hostel-filled Northbridge).

A picture's worth a thousand words, and I really can't be bothered to write that much about Gov. Robinson's exterior and lobby (nor would you want to sit there and read all about it), so I'll leave you with the website. I encourage you to check out what $30 a night looks like in Perth. "Stunned" doesn't even begin to cover mine and Miriam's reaction to our good fortune. Impressed, the Frenchies decided to book a couple beds too.

Deciding to explore the area, we quickly changed into our swim suits (for guys, these are called "boardies" for board shorts or "budgie smugglers" for speedos. Not sure if there's a specific word for bikini...probably "bikkie" or something) and set off for Cottesloe Beach. It was here I first stuck my toes into the Indian Ocean!

The French retired early to go home and make some gourmet dinner, so Miriam and I, noticing everyone's picnics, walked up the hill to the street for fish/calamari and chips, which we enjoyed on the grassy hill while watching the sun set over the ocean. We stayed there for hours, talking about every topic under the sun (moon) and getting to know a lot more about each other and our lives before coming to Australia.

On our way back to the train, we met a guy named Maye (spelled something like that I guess; he's from French-owned Reunion Island, near Madagascar) who had been staying at another hostel in Northbridge for a month and was currently working at the gelato shop near the beach (he had plans to work and travel in Australia for the year before returning home to become a PE teacher). Since he knew the area pretty well, he took us on a walking tour around Northbridge, pointing out the best cafes to get breakfast and the hippest clubs, most of which were bursting with twentysomething travelers.

That night, we slept in the absolute most comfortable beds - and that's not just compared to the train seats. It was pure heaven.

Wednesday, 7 January

After sleeping in a fair bit, Miriam and I gathered our travel books and brochures and walked down to the Italian cafe Maye had recommended for breakfast. Ordering two massive plates of eggs and toast, we pushed two round tables together on the sidewalk and spread our notes upon the surface, determined to map out the rest of our trip. We weighed our options: rent a car or take the bus? Which towns boast the most activities? What activities exactly did we want to partake in? How far could we get with the time we had? (Fortunately, the southwest is actually quite small - it takes about 5/5.5 hours to drive from Perth to the bottom, Albany, plus another six to get to beautiful Esperance in the east). The beauty of backpacking in Australia is that you're encouraged to be spontaneous; hostels expect you to book your bed a couple hours in advance, and they know you'll be coming in at 5 p.m. hoping to book a spot on tomorrow's snorkeling tour. Hostel staff are fabulous.

Between eating breakfast and playing with the owner's toddler son (who was plopped onto my lap, where he sat content for a good 15 minutes), we finally made a game plan...and it didn't involve the French guys (they were more interested in surfing their way down the coast at a faster pace anyway). Realizing we had to act fast, we ran/bussed our way to Bayswater and booked a car for the rest of our journey just before they closed. Exhausted and overheated, we then made our way to the Dome Cafe and settled into iced coffees and split a slice of cake.

The Lonely Planet travel book suggested a great walking tour from our end of the city to the famed Kings Park, so with a final slurp of coffee, we walked down past the Supreme Court Gardens to the Barrack St Jetty (where snorkeling and boat tours depart from), past the Swan Bells Tower (which contains 16 bells, 12 of which came from St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square in London!), along the picturesque Esplanade, until we hit the humongous park. While photographing the sun setting over the Swan River and casting beautiful shadows over the Perth city skyline, we were greeted by none other than...Nagomi from the train! Turns out she was staying in a hostel not far from ours for a couple weeks to volunteer for some tree planting organization. Getting hungry, we invited her into town with us, where we ended up bonding over pints of beer (I now have a thing for Old Speckled Hen) at the Moon & Sixpense brewery on Murray St. How's this for a small world: she had just wrapped up her study exchange at Deakin University in Melbourne, the very uni I would have probably attended had I not chosen UTS (as SF State has direct bilateral exchanges with both). Crazy!

Thursday, 8 January

Today we met up with Nagomi and trekked back to the Barrack St Jetty to catch a ferry to...Rottnest Island! This little island - as in 1 kilometers long and, at most, 4.5 kilometers wide - is about an hour off the coast and boasts some epic snorkeling spots. It's called Rottnest because early Dutch settlers thought the quokka, the island's native marsupial that kind of resembles a wallaby - was a rat. Henceforth, the land was named "rat's nest." About 300 people live on the island, but aside from tour buses, the only type of wheeled transport allowed on the island are bicycles. Once we arrived on the island and had a feed, we rented bikes and away we went!

There are a few paved paths that take you to different areas of the island, but we decided to stick to the east side and hit up Parker Point and Little Salmon Bay, as those were supposed to be the prime snorkeling spots. The first was a bit of a bust, but I saw all sorts of little fish at LSB. No matter; the ride around the island was incredible on its own, and we must have stopped 18 times just to snap photos of each other in front of this lookout point and that distant shipwreck.

On our way back, one of us noticed a little movement in the bushes, and upon closer inspection, discovered it was a family of quokkas!! We probably spent 20 minutes playing with these friendly little creatures, who kept trying to climb into Nagomi's lap and backpack while I snapped photos. (to be posted) Stopping to swim real quick at Little Basin Bay, we were approached by a curious tourist who'd picked up on our three different accents and wanted to know how we'd all met. We smiled at his bemused expression, knowing how crazy our story must have sounded.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a Chinese place near our hostel later that night, and by the time we departed, Miriam and I had learned a few new Japanese phrases and swapped contact info with our new friend. (Remember the water-saving bathroom paper I had to write for int'l business last semester? Yeah, we had a whole discussion about that.) It was as if we'd all known each other forever.

Friday, 9 January

Nagomi had meetings to attend for her volunteer job, so Miriam and I trekked back towards the water for another round at Rottnest Island; this time, we were going scuba diving. Whoop whoop! (Having visited Australia with a past boyfriend two years ago, Miriam was already scuba certified).

Diving near Rottnest looked a lot different from the Great Barrier Reef: there were still tons of fish and coral, but as an added bonus, we were free to explore a network of underwater caves too. Since I was one of the only uncertified divers on board (everyone else had been diving for years, some for decades), one of the guides, a young guy named Alex, went down with Miriam and I. The narrow caves were a little scary to go through at first, particularly because my mask kept filling with water and wouldn't stay clear for long, Alex was able to keep me calm underwater - for the first dive. When we went down a second time in a different spot, I was hit with a bout of claustrophobia and had to come up 3/4 of the way through. Unfortunate, but I still saw a lot of great sea life.

Back on Murray St, Miriam and I left the dive shop and settled into a cafe for several more hours of conversation over dinner. Man, we're great talkers.

Saturday, 10 January

Picked up the car in the a.m. - a cute little Corolla sedan that cost us less than $500 for 11 days. Amazing. We drove south to check out Fremantle, known for its Freo markets (food, clothes, music, candles, you name it), "Cappuccino Strip," and the "Fremantle Doctor," a cooling breeze that comes off the ocean and cools you off when it gets super hot. We poked around the market for a bit, sampling homemade salsas and chatting with the locals (I even met a woman from SF who'd moved to Perth four years before and was running a Berkeley-style clothing stall). Strolling down the strip, we gave into my Mexican food craving and split an order of fajitas at a nearby cafe before continuing on down to Maraschino for cappuccinos...and a to-die-for brownie Miriam insisted on (she's a bit of a chocoholic.)

Before returning to the car, I walked up to check out the Fremantle Prison. Impressive, to say the least - it could've passed for a grungy sort of castle.

I decided to test out my driving skills on the way out of Fremantle and was surprised to find how easy it was to drive on the left side of the road...so long as you keep your wits about you. Miriam helpfully yelled "keep left!" from the passenger seat, which also helped keep me focused as we made our way down the coast to Bunbury.

Sunday, 11 January

Today was going to be one of the highlights of the trip: we were going to swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Discovery Center!

We signed up for a three hour excursion that would take us out to the spots most frequented by the wild dolphins studied at the center. We saw a few jumping around the boat as we sped off towards the first spot, but had to swim around and call out for several minutes before a group of five or six actually came to us. Since they were wild dolphins we couldn't touch them, but ducking underwater and butterfly kicking in my flippers next to them was the coolest experience.

The other spots we tried out were busts, so before heading back to the center, the boat driver decided to take us back to the first spot once more. This time, we were in for just a few minutes before an entire swarm of dolphins surrounded us - the most the crew had ever seen! I swam around like a maniac, racing a couple of the dolphins along the sandy floor and watching another girl in the group as she chased a couple of her own, shooting a good three minutes worth of swimming footage with her camera.

Back on land, out of our wetsuits and holding cups of complimentary hot chocolate, Miriam and I got to talking to three other girls from the tour. They were German, of course - twins Nicole and Yvonne from Ratingen and Kiki from Stuttgart - and upon discovering we were all heading towards the small beach town of Yallingup, decided to travel together.

Nicole and Kiki were nannies in Perth who'd been traveling up and down the western coast for their vacation, so their hatchback was well equipped with camping and cooking supplies. We found a nice caravan park called Caves and uploaded the car to make a simple dinner of rice and noodles. We all clicked immediately, and since Miriam and I hadn't booked any accommodation at this point, ended up sleeping in the back of the girls' car that night.

Monday, 12 January

Today we went exploring: Cape Naturaliste, Caves Bay, and the Busselton Jetty (longest in the world), which was pretty cool but absolutely FREEZING and windy. Kinda forgot the weather opposite in Australia: the further south you go, the colder it gets...

After a dinner of soft tacos (haha, guess whose idea that was? Miriam and I decided to pay the girls back for their hospitality the best way we know how: with food), we piled into the car and drove out to Busselton for...a drive-in double feature! The movies playing weren't the best - High School Musical 3 and Wall-E (okay I'll be honest, I was excited), but the experience was a lot of fun - particularly because it was such a foreign concept to the German girls!

Tuesday, 13 January

Had pancakes at the campsite, then checked out to drive down the coast. We passed Yallingup Beach, which was absolutely gorgeous albeit a bit windy, and a few others, and the best part about them was the fact that they were all EMPTY. Seriously, the southwest may be the best-kept secret in Australia.

We continued south towards Margaret River, a stunning coastal town known for its wineries and karri forests, but first stopped off at the Aboriginal Center for a tour of the natural forest, where we learned about the medicinal uses of various flora. Fascinating stuff.

The German girls separated when we got to Margaret River to find their campsite while we checked in at the Surfpoint Resort, a beach-style hostel perhaps 500 meters from the coast, but returned to make dinner in our kitchen. We met plenty of chill people that night: a Kiwi (New Zealand) couple who'd been traveling all over the world for months, an Aussie surfer named Justin who promised to give us waveriding lessons (side note: we're still waiting to redeem that promise when he visits Sydney!), Jeremy from New Jersey (weird, hadn't met any Americans on this side!) and a bunch of others.

Posted by Alykat 08:46 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Three Days. Two Girls. 4,352 kilometers.

Who takes the train across the world's driest continent?

sunny 31 °C
View South-WA on Alykat's travel map.

Most Australians you meet have usually either (a) never traveled further than 200 km outside their hometown/nearest city, or (b) have traveled the world extensively - we're talking everywhere from southeast Asia to Africa to North America - but haven't seen much of Australia. It's pretty unlikely that you'll find an Aussie who's been to Perth, the most populated metropolis in Western Australia and a five hour flight from Sydney.

That said, you may never meet one who's crazy enough to have taken the Indian Pacific train the 4,352 km (about 2,704 miles) from Sydney to Perth, a journey that would take from Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning.

My friend Miriam, a fellow Geegal resident on exchange from Munich, Germany, and I decided to be that crazy.

Saturday, 3 January

Our friend James kindly offered to drive us and our massive backpacks to the Central train station in the afternoon so we could catch our 3:30 train. Since we were trying to save money, we'd packed an entire bag of sandwiches (mine: PB&J and hummus/tortilla wraps; hers: ham and cheese on good grainy bread. classic German) and booked ourselves two reclining seats. Yes, we were going to be sleeping in seats for the next three days in order to save a good $200 (which is what the flight would've cost). Between our general conversing and the books we'd brought along for the journey, we were able to keep ourselves relatively occupied that first day.

Sunday, 4 January

Today we arrived in Broken Hill, a little old-looking town in NSW, at about 7 a.m. A bus tour had been arranged for those interested in touring the sleeping town during our hour-long break from the train, but Miriam and I opted to do our own walking tour, stopping at a cafe to grab some much-needed cappuccinos. While Miriam had slept like a baby on the train, I'd be surprised if I slept more than two straight hours at a time. Oh man, this was going to be a loooong three days.

Back on the train, M and I pretty much kept to ourselves and took photos of the passing scenery (which was flat, of course, but had much more vegetation than I'd expected. Where was the red dirt and the 'roos?) until we got to Adelaide, the main city in South Australia. Since we had a two-hour break here, we decided to take advantage of the bus tour. Adelaide's a sweet little town and an urban planner's dream, with all its square blocks and simple, right-angled streets. MUCH easier to navigate than Sydney. It was amazing how many parks we passed - this had to be the greenest city!

Since Adelaide's the only other major stopping point on the journey before Perth (and also the connecting point for The Ghan, a train that goes up through the middle of Australia towards Alice Springs and Darwin), a lot of passengers (who I noticed seemed to be quite aged; there was hardly anyone under 40 in our car, minus a couple kids) and the entire crew disembarked here.

Deciding to check out the newcomers (and because we'd already finished our homemade food supply), M and I decided to eat in the dining car. Balancing our food, we joined a table with two guys from The Ghan: Marco, from Brazil, and Andres, from Germany, both of whom were earning their PhDs in computer science from a university in Melbourne. After chatting for a bit, they invited us to join their game of Uno - what memories! I used to play this before the fireworks started on the 4th of July! - along with Jason, another guy in the dining car. Jason was originally from five hours south of Adelaide, but he was moving to Perth to be with his family and study personal training at TAFE (a vocational uni). I knew immediately he was from SA because I picked up on subtle differences in his accent, as it sounded different from the Sydneysider and country folks' way of talking.

As the rounds intensified (for some reason, I was on an unbreakable winning streak), we were joined by Pia, an au pair from Germany who was taking a break from her two male charges, and Dan, an Italian beach manager on holiday. Talk about an international table!

Monday, 5 January

After a much better night's sleep (perhaps the Uno competitiveness wore me out), M and I stumbled into the dining car for breakfast. This time, we were joined by two French guys from Bordeaux named Mathieu and Patrice, along with another German girl named Annette (it seems the further west you go, the more Germans you meet....) One of them had a pack of regular playing cards (sensing a theme to this train voyage?), so for the next several hours, we played everything from deuces to go fish to spoons. Eventually, Jason joined in too.

Later that afternoon, we stopped in Cook, a "ghost" town with a population of four. FOUR! We only had 20 minutes to explore, but considering the sights included a dirt-filled pool, a tennis court with weeds growing out of the cracks, an abandoned saloon, a few houses, and a gift shop run by the residents, that was more than enough time.

Around dinnertime, we stopped in the mining town of Kalgoorlie. While the French guys went off to explore with their cameras, Miriam, Jason and I decided to grab some food. Settling into an empty Chinese restaurant, we laughed about our adventure over plates of fried rice and chicken curry. We headed further down the street to grab some coffee and ran into Matt, a cute guy who worked on the train (I believe he was 24 or so.) We swapped life stories until the clock beckoned us back to the train.

Miriam headed straight to sleep upon returning to our seats, but I wandered back to the dining car with Jason to join in on the massive Uno competition: besides Marco and Andres, there was Scott (an Aussie), Nagomi (from Japan, near Osaka), a woman from Colombia (her name may have been Alex, but I can't quite remember) and two other Aussie guys named Ronny and Stephen. Squeezed into two tables, we played round after round - my winning streak prevailed somehow - until we'd ticked off enough passengers with our shouting and were forced to retire to our seats.

Luckily, we were due to arrive in Perth at 9 the following morning...

Posted by Alykat 03:31 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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