We left Cairns this morning along with many other people packing up to head out away from Cyclone (Hurricane) Yasi heading for the Queensland Coast. Looks like we left in the nick of time. We found out later that our flights was one of the last ones out of Cairns and they shut the airport down shortly after. Our flight to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (the Outback) was only a couple of hours long but what a different environment altogether! Prior to landing, we were told to expect very hot temperatures, around 110-120 degrees. I'm spoiled by the climate at home and my normal operating temperature is 50-70 degrees. We were also warned about the flies in the outback and how they can bite and fly in your face. Many tourists opt for the fly netting to put over their heads.
When we landed, it was raining. The rain didn't last long and it was pretty hot although a "mere" 105 degrees or so. The afternoon was free time and I explored a bit of Alice Springs, although the heat chased me indoors and I amused myself by doing a thorough inspection of Woolworth's, a grocery chain in Australia. Many people travel for the different adventures that other countries have to offer. That's well and good and I enjoy that too but I also enjoy checking out the food scene, whether it's restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores. You can learn a lot just by checking the aisles, the packaging, the sizes and the pricing. I found it pretty fascinating. Yes, I'm in the Outback and yes I'm hanging out in a grocery store. Yeah, that might sound weird. But in 105 degree weather, it was just self preservation.
Our hotel in Alice Springs is a far cry from the one in Cairns. I have to admit to not being all that impressed with it. The air conditioner doesn't work that well, the faucet in the bathroom drips, the TV needs sine coaxing to turn on and one of the lamp bulbs is burnt out. But it's only for a couple of nights and I'm no diva so I just suck it up. I could transfer to a new room but it doesn't seem worth the bother especially as my fellow travelers are having similar problems with their rooms. I don't want to be the spoiled American tourist who can't roll with the punches so I'm just rolling.
Tonight we had a "barbie" at our hotel. Erica, our tour guide, got kangaroo, camel, crocodile, burgers, chicken wings and sausages for the barbie and we cooked it outside at the hotel's barbecue facilities. Unfortunately we got hit with a thunderstorm so after the meats were cooked outside, we went indoors to eat. I've never had 'roo, camel or croc so it was my first time trying them. Honestly, the kangaroo and camel tasted like tough beef, if a bit gamey. If you didn't know what you were eating, it was like eating overcooked beef. They looked the same too. Can't say I loved it but it was good to try and say I've eaten it. The crocodile was a bit of a surprise. It looks like white breast meat and interestingly, it really did taste like chicken! That was the funniest part.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Day 2 in Alice Springs: there was an optional excursion this morning to visit an Aboriginal village but I skipped it. The excursion is only a few hours long and I wanted some free time to explore Alice Springs as we were already booked for that afternoon. I went back to the Todd Mall to poke around and continue my exploration of the stores, products and prices. I discovered a Target at the mall so that was amusing to snoop through. It's much smaller than the Targets at home and mostly stocked with soft goods (clothes for men, women and children) and a few hard goods (small appliances, books, CDs, DVDs). Still finding things pricey here. I also browsed through a bookstore and was horrified to discover paperbacks were $20-$30 AUD. For a bibliophile like me, I would go bankrupt in a month if I bought books here.
In the afternoon we visited 3 main spots in Alice Springs: the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the School of the Air and the Telegraph Station. The RFDS is just what it sounds like - doctors and nurses who fly out to service patients in the Outback who don't have easy access to medical care. It's funded primarily by the government and private donations/fundraising. It was pretty interesting and gave us a good idea of the vastness of Australia and what it does to serve its people's needs. Same with the School of the Air where children spread through the region don't have access to a brick and mortar school so they have a virtual classroom and interact with their teacher and other students hundreds of kilometers away via computer. It was fascinating. Also funded by the government like any public school. They also told us the kids typically score in the top 10% on standardized tests compared with other schoolchildren who go to a regular school. The government pays for the computer, satellite dish, and other equipment the children need to be hooked up into their virtual classroom. That's what I think tax dollars should be spent on - education.
Lastly, that afternoon, we also visited Telegraph Station which used to be where the telegraph master and his family lived and where they ran the telegraph out of Alice Springs. It was an outcropping of various buildings that gave a sense of how they lived back then. I can't even begin to imagine those conditions and the fortitude of the people who lived there at the time. I think it takes a certain toughness to live in the Outback at any time.
Dinner that night was at a local bar where they offered tourists a $15 menu. After the priciness of some of the places we visited, $15 was a bargain. The offerings included camel pie and kangaroo but since I'd already tried those at the barbecue (and considered them to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences), I went with the barramundi fish and chips. Bo Jangles was a bit quirky but fun.
Ned Kelly was Australian's most famous outlaw - you turned the handle on the coffin to get shelled peanuts
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Thursday morning started at 4:30 am for those of us who went on the sunrise hot air balloon ride. They took us out to where we would take off from, tested the wind for favorable (or not) conditions and determined we'd be able to go on the ride that day. It took about 45 minutes to an hour to fill up the hot air balloon with a huge fan and the flames from the "office" of the hot air balloon basket to warm up the air. There were 2 balloons and we fit about 19-20 people in each one. I have to say this was one of the highlights of the trip. It was really smooth to go up in the air and we had beautiful weather for it. The sunrise was partially obscured by the clouds but it was so pretty to be up there that it almost didn't matter. What there was of it was beautiful. Heights don't bother me so I enjoyed looking out at the view as we got higher and higher. The takeoff, the ride and the landing were all as smooth as can be and a very enjoyable experience. I'd recommend it to anyone who wanted to try it.
Pic of the other balloon from the balloon I was in:
After the balloon ride, we got back to the hotel and immediately took off again for the 6-hour bus ride to Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock. On the way we stopped at a camel farm where we could pay $6 to ride a camel around a small track. I'm not much of a rider and have gone on horseback a few times when I was younger. Riding a camel is a lot different than riding a horse. And infinitely funnier. The movement of the camel as it steps down and steps up so you can mount the saddle is similar to a rollercoaster movement. I had a fun time on it but was glad the ride only took a few minutes as it definitely wouldn't have been comfortable for longer. At the back half of the track, the guide had the camel trot. Trotting was actually easier to hang on than walking. Overall, it was hilarious.
To be continued as I'm running out of internet minutes
Still need to cover:
Observations about the aborigines in Alice Springs