Month: January 2007

I’m Going LOS For A Couple Weeks

Loss Of Signal, for you non-rocket scientists. I’m still back-filling the posts, trying to catch you up to my current location of Melbourne, but I may not be able to complete it prior to my trip to Tasmania in about 7 hours. And since I’ll be mostly camping around Tasmania, I’m not sure how many chances I’ll have to write while I’m there.

A coupld days ago, I was scouring Gumtree.com (a more international-friendly version of Craigslist) trying to find a ride to Adelaide and Perth when I came across a German who was going to drive to Tasmania (Tassie, as it’s affectionately known). And no, he didn’t have some kind of boat-car, he was planning on parking the stationwagon he had purchased on the ferry for the duration of the 11-hour ride. Unfortunately, the ticket across the water is $160, whereas a one-way flight works out to about $100. I’m flying out on Tuesday morning and meeting Steffen in Launceston. From there, he, I and two other people he met in Melbourne will be driving around the island, hiking, camping and lazing on the beaches.

After Tassie he was planning on heading west to Adelaide and Perth so I may have a ride there too! I can’t imagine the island is any better for wireless access, and I’m not sure how often we’ll stop for internet cafes, so you may not see another entry for about a couple weeks.

‘Course, I’ll have plenty to say when I get back. And I’ll hopefully have some pictures of one of those little devils.

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Sydney, NSW: I Expected More From A Place Called “The Church”

The Flying Fox is a very homey hostel. It is a family business so it’s run like one, and Ross and Wendy made it a point to try to get to know everyone. I went to “check out” and Ross said “Well, that’s it mate, there’s nothing to do. You’re checked out, have a good one.” Except I realized as I walked away that when I checked in, I had only payed for 3 rooms. On Sunday morning I extended my stay by one night which I didn’t pay for at the time. Hm. Well, here we have an interesting situation.

So I was faced with the ultimate decision: tell Ross of his mistake and pay him the $23 for my last night, or stay quiet and save that money. I sat in the TV room and contemplated. On the one hand, I’m a backpacker, could I be expected to do anything else than steal away before he discovers the error? And wouldn’t that $23 be put to good use, like food or more accomodation, rather than simply a night out at the pub? On the other, Ross was a good guy and he and Wendy had been nothing but helpful and friendly. They were a small outfit, competing with the larger hostels, they deserved everything they had worked for. What did I do? Well you’ll have to read on to find out.

I caught the 10:30 train back into the city and then tried to find a bus company to get me to Melbourne. All seats were booked until the next morning, so I booked a ticket on the 7:30 AM bus and worked to find a place to stay that night. I tried my favorites, Wake Up!, the Railway YHA, and Sidney Central YHA. Even after calling three more hostels, I was out of luck. The receptionist at Wake Up! had given me a coupon for a place called Footprints, up Pitt St., so I walked up and gave it a shot. They had a 6-share available for $25 and a 28-share for $23. Of course, I went with the latter, in a room called “The Church.”

The room was large and almost completely occupied. The bed I chose was next to a large barrel that was collecting drips from the air-con unit above me. There was also a piece of the ceiling missing nearby (but, fortunately, I got the bottom bunk), and you could here the plumbing work whenever someone a floor above flushed the toilet.

As I sat on the bed and contemplated what to do that day, all of a sudden, I saw something that was just so disappointing. A long, thick roach running towards me. It went between my legs and made a break for the wall. Three years in Texas had desensitized me enough that I didn’t jump into the barrel and start screaming. One of my dormmates saw me moving around looking for the critter and smiled and rolled his eyes when I told him. Then I saw it, it was on the wall right behind his head. I twirled my finger at him and gave him a sorrowful look. He turned around and almost flew off the top bunk, as his attempt to swat it resulted in it landing on his bed. A while later, I saw it again on the floor and I gave it a good stomp … and it survived! It wasn’t so fortunate when I tried again.

Although, I suppose I should be relieved that it had taken me almost 3 weeks to see my first hostel chockronoach.

I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales near the Gardens, which contained wonderful Australian contemporary art exhibits and a pretty extensive collection of period European art too. I was particulary impressed by pieces from Janet Rawsom, Royston Harpur, Godfrey Jones and Robert Jacks. Then I spent some time reading in the Gardens before heading back to the hostel.

The next morning I got in the metal container that would carry me for 12 hours to Melbourne. Fortunately, they showed a few movies, Flight of the Phoenix, Ice Age and Shrek, which certainly made the time fly.

Stay tuned for antics in Melbourne with Charlie and my spontaneous decision to completely change my plans for Australia.

Oh my, I nearly forgot: as I sat in the TV room at the Flying Fox, I already knew what I’d do, I just wanted to entertain the devil for a bit. As I muttered because it’s the right thing to do to myself, I caught Ross and told him of his mistake. He swiped my credit card and tried to comfort me, “it’s good karma”, then told me of a some recent food stealing that had gone on. Karma. I suppose I could use some of that on this trip. And maybe the free place to stay in Melbourne and meeting Steffen, who agreed to drive me all around southern Australia, was Karma’s way of saying thanks. More on that later.

Katoomba, NSW: Day 4, Blackheath Day Trip

On Monday, Nelli and I, along with another couple at the Flying Fox headed for Blackheath, a $9, 15-minute bus ride down the highway. Due to bushfires, the only trail open was the Grand Canyon Walk, starting at Neates Glen and ending at Evan’s Lookout.

The walk through the canyon was very easy, but absolutely magnificent. The forest floor was lush and vibrant, like a shampoo commercial, with little evidence of the fires that had moved through the area recently.

About halfway through, we stopped for a quick snack.

That’s Nelli on the far left and Ian, a brit we met on the bus over, on the far right. The girl standing next to me and the cameraman was a German couple who’s names I didn’t catch.

There was a large group in front of us who was on a guided tour and they had paused at one point on the trail. The reason was this little guy:

It was pretty funny to see how calm he was as 15 different people shoved cameras in his face. At one point, he almost started … well, posing.

After some more beautiful forest walking,

and some gnarly stairs (after the Staircase, they were cake), we finally reached Evan’s Lookout, where we were treated to spectacular views of the valley.

By the time we started heading back to the bus stop, we were on track to make the 2:39 bus to Katoomba. We had better, since the next bus wasn’t until 4:10. The others were walking a little slow, so I sped ahead in the hopes that I could catch the bus and at least hold it for them. I seriously misunderestimated the distance between the lookout and the bus stop, and was late by about 3 minutes, which was apparently too much. The 5 of us sat there trying to figure out what to do. The next bus into town was coming at 3:36, so we could go into town and wait for the next one to Katoomba, or we could walk into town and catch the train. We had all already paid for the return fare, so option 2 wasn’t happening. We waited until the bus into Blackheath arrived and were pleased to find out that it was the same bus that would make the route at 4:10 and take us into Katoomba. So, we just stayed on the bus for his whole route and then he took us home.

That night we hung around the TV area and watched movies. I helped Nelli transfer some pictures off her SD card and onto a CD. When I brought my dinner into the TV room, I was greeted by a loud “have a nice meal!” from a new girl in the corner. This was Natalie, and she was absolutely hilarious. She was from Italy, currently living in Leichardt, a suburb of Sydney with Isabelle, who was from France (the Riviera region, near Cannes).

Of all the people I’ve met so far in all the cities, no one has been able to put a smile on my face like Natalie could. To say she was full of life would be an understated. She asked me where I was from, and when I responded she gave me a big smile and shouted “America? Bello! Bello! Boston? Bello!” After we watched Primal Fear, with “Oh no!” and other gasps coming out of her every few minutes, a group of us stood around talking, with Natalie as the center of attention. She knew a little bit of several different languages and was trying to speak to the Germans and Dutchman. After a failed attempt at getting everyone to sing (she kicked things off by singing an Italian nursery rhyme), she taught us all the usual hello, goodbye and goodnight phrases in Italian. Then she expressed concerns about “chockronoches” outside near the tent in which she was staying (cockroaches, she had a tought time with that word) and recalled horror stories of seeing them in her apartment in Sydney.

She, and Nelli too, said they had dreams of visiting the US, but also Canada. I started laughing, Canada, really? Nelli said the landscape there is beautiful, but even so, I guess it’s hard for me to think of Canada as being one of those dream destinations. Maybe us Americans tend to take it for granted.

After an hour or so of talking to Natalie I was exhausted and the whole group ended up calling it a night. Stay tuned for my  karmic test and one night at a Sydney $hithole.

Katoomba, NSW: Day 3, The Hard Way Up The Giant Staircase

The forecast called for rain on Sunday morning. Still, Ross, one of the owners of my hostel the Flying Fox (along with his wife Wendy), kept waving his hand at me saying “Go, the weather will change, you’ll have a great time, just take a light raincoat.”

With my raincoat and peanut butter-and-Nutella sandwich packed, I set off for the Federal Pass. I started my hike the same place I ended it the day before, even overlapping the first bit of it. I hiked to the Leura Forest, where the Dardanelles Pass ended and split off onto the Federal Pass.

This time I had my iPod with me and was hiking along at a pretty serious clip. An hour and a half later I made it to ScenicWorld, where a type of rail car can take you up the steep incline of the cliff wall to the top. It’s $8 and supposedly alot of fun, one of the steepest climbs in the world. Near ScenicWorld was something easily missed but very interesting: water was flowing down some of the rocks, and they had placed a pipe there to direct some of the water into a fine stream so that visitors could fill up their bottles. The area was marked with a sign saying “Miner’s Rest” (the mountains used to be heavily mined for coal). I filled up my water bottle and gave it a taste, and I kid you not, it was some of the best tasting water I’ve ever had. More pure than anything that’s come out of a tap.

From ScenicWord the path ran into a portion of the mountains that had undergone a landslide. It required me to scale small and large boulders to get through the trail, definitely an interesting alternative to the traditional hike. Although, it was troublingly easy to lose the trail and not know where to go next (I lost my way several times).

Other than occasionally going up and down stairs and hills, the walk wasn’t too difficult, just long. It took me about 3 hours of pure walking to get there.

After finally reaching the path up to the Ruined Castle, I encountered this sign:

I loved that they intended for some qualifier to be placed after “Track in very poor condition:”, as if it was only matter of how very poor was the condition of the track. “Yes”. “Seriously.” “Trust Us.” I really can’t imagine what they expected to put at the end of that sentence.

The trail was indeed in very poor condition. When I got to the top I reached what appeared to be a very large boulder, but got my hopes up thinking it was a part of the castle. It happened again shortly thereafter with another run-of-the-mill rock. I forced myself to check my hopes as I walked past the third set of rocks, which was good because it only enhanced my surprise when I found out they comprised the “castle”.

I was exhausted. I was hungry. I had been walking continuously, without a break, for 3 hours. And that was the @#$!%-ing Ruined Castle?!

I made sure there wasn’t anything further by walking to the end of the trail and the edge of a steep cliff. Then I stood on one of the rocks and surveyed the land. I was still pretty doubtful until I spied what appeared to be the foundation of a building:

Yep. It appeared that this rather random set of boulders was the famed Ruined Castle.

I made my way through a small opening and climbed to the top of one of the highest rocks. There, amongst a strong breeze blowing through the valley, I ate my sandwich, took my cold medication and listened to my iPod. I spent about an hour on top of those rocks, and was grateful for the experience. As Ross had predicted, the weather started improving and the clouds were disappearing, making way for warm shafts of light, enveloping the top of my picnic area. By the end of lunch, and the hour I spent on top of those rocks, I had a newfound respect for the castle. It may not have been worthy of Arthur or Lancelot, but it offered some spectacular views of the mountains and valleys, and after such a long journey to get there, it was exactly what I needed.

On the way back, I ran into a couple at one of the other boulders on the same hill. The boyfriend was atop the giant rock taking pictures while the girlfriend waited on the ground. I asked them if they were there to see the castle and they answered in the affirmative. I told them they weren’t far, just a few more meters. The boyfriend said “Oh, I thought this was it.” Haha, been there, my friend, been there.

The last railway car up the mountain was at 4:55 PM and even though at the pace I covered the ground back to Katoomba I could’ve made it, I decided to walk back to the hostel. Why? ‘Cause I was a man. I don’t need no stinkin’ railway car to take me back, I’ve got my bloody legs. And if I can’t use those then you might as well take them from me. And I wasn’t just going to walk up the mountain back to Katoomba, I was going to take the stairs.

I reached the Giant Staircase and stopped to drink some water and catch my breath. My legs were really sore and I was beginning to think that I should’ve taken the railway car. But it was 5 PM, and I had missed my opportunity. There was no way out but up.

I once did cardio at the gym for 3 hours before playing a game of ultimate frisbee for another two. I once hiked 18 miles over the mountains of the Applachain chain in Pennsylvania. I once walked 20 miles around the city of Boston. Never, in any of those situations, did I think I’d ever completely lose control of the muscles in my legs, until I finished the first flight of the Giant Staircase. I was in pain. If it weren’t for the short breaks I kept taking — until, of course, someone came by and I had to “man up” and keep going — my heart would have certainly exploded. When I didn’t think I could take any more, I reached the top of another flight and saw a sign: “Halfway Point.” Sweet mother of god.

About 3/4 of the way up I encountered a family who let me pass before they made their way down (the Staircase is very narrow). They asked me how much further it was until the bottom. I told them I’d been walking for about 25 minutes, taking breaks, and that they were not even halfway done yet. The mother reluctantly explained to the two children that “that man said we’re not even halfway done and he had been walking for almost 30 minutes. Sorry guys, I don’t think we can walk down the whole thing, why don’t we head back up.” The poor kids complained a bit, but the parents were steadfast in their decision. I felt bad, but then thought about the condition I was in: I hadn’t shaved for several days, I had been sweating profusely since about 11 AM, I smelled like a goat and I probably looked like I was about to faint. As she looked at me, in the mother’s eyes, I could see an evolutionary instinct saying “this one doesn’t have much longer, I can smell it on him.”

Even further up I came across an old woman who was taking a picture of the valley.

She smiled at me and told me to pass her, as she would probably take much longer than I to climb up the stairs. I thanked her and continued up. By this time I was near delirious and was thinking about how much ice cream I’d eat when I reached the top. After a few stairs I looked back to realize the old lady wasn’t too far behind me! Oh $hit, she’s gonna beat me! I stepped on the gas for the last couple flights and finally finished. Oh, sweet release.

I stopped by the store and bought some supplies for dinner, including a celebratory six-pack. Back at the hostel I met Nellie, another German, whom I had passed while walking back on Federal Pass towards the Staircase. I told her about my plans to visit Blackheath (a couple towns over, featuring a walk through a “Grand Canyon”) the following day, depending on how my legs felt in the morning, and she said she’d come with me.

That day, Doreen had spent much of the day in bed, as the night before she had said she was coming down with something. Some of the other backpackers were also dropping like flies. I’d find out the next day that even Ross had gotten sick, enough to miss work. I had managed to take out the majority of the guests and employees at that one hostel with whatever bug I brought from Sydney. Now that’s one heck of a virus.

Stay tuned for the Grand Canyon Walk in Blackheath and a test of honesty proctored by the Buddha himself.

Katoomba, NSW: Day 2, The Easy Way Down The Giant Staircase

Saturday morning I was feeling much better, so I set off on a walk to Echo Point to check out the Three Sisters. I started at the far west end of the Prince Henry Cliff Walk, which follows the cliff from the northern ridge, through Echo Point, past the Three Sisters and over towards Leura, the next town over.

The path was actually pretty heavily trafficed, to my dismay. By the time I hit Echo Point, it was like Disneyland. All the tourists who only came to the mountains to snap a couple pics from EP, then sip a latte in the town centre were crowding the lookout platform, preventing us real hikers and nature lovers from taking in the view. These are the Three Sisters, which have some signifigance for Aboriginal culture (not sure what), the protection of which is why they have now stopped any repelling and climbing of the formation:

Near the Three Sisters is the Giant Staircase, 843 stairs that connect the Prince Henry Cliff Walk with the Federal Pass trail. I headed down the stairs to catch the Dardenelle’s Pass trail, then connect with the Federal Pass to hike some of the Leura forest and avoid the crowds on the up above.

The forest walk was beautiful and serene. I only encountered a few other hikers and got some great pictures:

The walk on the far east side of Katoomba, near Leura, with a nice view of the eastern ridge.

By the way, the Blue Mountains are so named because of the blue haze given off by the Eucalyptus trees when hit by the sun. I could’ve corrected the color in the picture, because it makes them look a little overexposed, but that wouldn’t make much sense.

Back at the hostel I made myself some lunch and planned my walk the following day. I had heard of something called the Ruined Castle. The Federal Pass connects the Scenic Railway to the Ruined Castle by way of the northern ridge. The whole trip is about 6 – 7 hours round trip, but it sounded like a lot of fun. Stay tuned for that one, and a surprising discovery when I finally reached the castle.

Katoomba, NSW: Day 1, A Loooonnng Day 1

I want to die. No, let me rephrase, I want someone to kill me, I don’t think I have the strength to do it myself.

It was 9 AM on Friday morning. I had to be checked out of the hostel in an hour and on a train to Katoomba that afternoon. But ever since 5, my condition had been crashing. It started with a little roughness in the throat and some early congestion. I countered with an orange juice bought from the Kebab shop next door. But by 7:30 I had muscle and joint pain, my head hurt and I was running a little hot. By 9, I could barely move.

Finally, I came up with enough strength to get up, and then immediately regretted it. I was sore. Like I had just run a marathon. I shuffled around the dorm, packing up my things. When I put my pack on, it was the first time I doubted I’d be able to make it to the train station, let alone the door 4 feet away. But I wasn’t going to let a silly debillitating illness stop me. Plus, the mountain air would probably be good for me, or at least that’s the medical advice they keep giving in 19-century literature.

After checking out I locked my things in storage and went up to the kitchen. I made myself some lunch, then lay down on a couch and tried to sleep. One and a half hours later I wasn’t feeling any better, so I just headed for the station. My forehead had gone from warm to a raging inferno.

Fortunately I got there just before a train left, so there wasn’t much time wasted waiting. Although, even sitting in the seat was a strain for me, and I couldn’t find a position that didn’t make some muscle or joint scream with agony. Two hours laterI arrived in Katoomba and I started on the trek to the hostel. The check-in process was brutal, as their computer system had messed up and they had me down for two nights starting the next day. They corrected the mistake and showed me to my room. I immediately passed out for a couple hours. One of the other travellers told me there’s a pharmacy up the hill, so I walked up and purchased some cold/flu medication. I don’t know if it was a placebo effect, since medication rarely works for me, but I started feeling better almost immediately. In a couple hours, the fever was gone and so too was most of the headache. I hung around the hostel and chatted with Doreen, a German who had been traveling for nearly a year, and was trying to extend her Working Holidy Visa for another year.

That night I popped a couple more pills and went to bed, confident that, contrary to my earlier fears, I’d actually be well enough in the morning to do some hiking. Stay tuned for the Prince Henry Cliff Walk.