Homeward Bound

I had two and half weeks to kill in Melbourne before flying home, and my plan had been to relax, catch up with friends, and visit all of the things in the city that I didn’t have time for before. This worked well for the first week, but then I got ill and spent the second week in bed having nightmares about making the 24-hour journey home with a cold and a stomach bug. Thankfully I got over it in time to go snowboarding for the day at Mount Buller and to do a few other bits and pieces in my last few days, and it gave me a bit of time to evaluate my time here.

The main thing I’ve learned about Australia is how little I knew about it before I came here. If someone tells me they’re going to the USA for a holiday, I would immediately ask where; New York, California, Florida, New England, different parts of the US have different implications in my head, and I have a sense of general cultural context that tells me that there is a lot of variety in the country, even only ever having been to one part of it. But despite being roughly the same size as continental USA, my knowledge of Australia a couple of years ago was incredibly vague. I knew the names of the cities but couldn’t have placed them, and my mental cultural map of the country would have included the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and the Sydney Opera House, with the rest filled in with beaches and deserts and vague notions of vineyards and sheep farms.

My ignorance, in which I’m sure I’m not alone, made me subscribe to the ‘just a hotter version of Britain’ view of Australia; the fact that I didn’t know what was here made me certain there wasn’t much to draw me here, and four years ago Australia was really very low on my destination wishlist. Even when I did decide to come here, I was more drawn by the prospect of visiting friends than of seeing the country itself.

But of course I was wrong and ignorant and if you think you’re not bothered about visiting Australia then you’re wrong and ignorant too, because Australia is the most interesting and diverse places imaginable. It’s got everything, from rainforest to desert, pumping metropolis to barren outback, every kind of beach you can think of and literally hundreds of national parks.

During my six months here, I have worked in the big city and on a farm; I’ve surfed, hiked, snowboarded, sea kayaked and scuba dived; I’ve slept under the stars, swam in waterfalls and hot springs, and been to a concert in the Sydney Opera House. I’ve made spectacular road and rail journeys and experienced every season and weather system there is; I’ve seen wild kangaroos, emus, quokkas, camels, koalas, kookaburras, dolphins and seals; I’ve eaten Anzac biscuits, vegemite, kangaroo, shark, Tim Tams and enough flat whites and smashed avocado to last a lifetime; I’ve learned about Aboriginal culture, convict history and even the mysterious world of Aussie rules football. And most of all I’ve learned that there are many different sides to Australia, and that every corner of this country has its own character, reputation and feel about it. There’s a lot going on here and there’s a lot to see; it’s a pretty big country after all.

I’ve also been reminded, in a more personal way, of one or two things about myself. One of my hopes in working in Australia was that I would find my ‘dream job’ and be inspired in a particular career direction. That hasn’t happened exactly but what has happened is that I have remembered some of the things that I really value and enjoy and seemed to have forgotten about at various points. Being outside and being active, reading great books, my family, being on and in and around the sea, and of course writing. Rediscovering all this and exploring this wonderful country has left me feeling much calmer and relaxed about all sorts of things, almost as if I’ve had a big long holiday.

But I’m ready to go home now, and I can tell because as well as missing my friends and family, I’ve started missing other things as well. Proper bacon, having my own bedroom, the BBC, normal plug sockets and road signs, familiar accents, the furniture in my parents’ house, people tutting. I’m looking forward to going home (although not the journey to get there) and to getting back to real life.

So thank you for reading and for all the lovely comments I’ve received through various avenues, it’s been a pleasure.

“Then the wind will set me racing

As my journey nears its end,

And the path I’ll be retracing

As I’m homeward bound again.”


Time on the Farm

One of the aspects of travelling around that can get a bit wearing after a while is the lack of routine. It’s very liberating at first, being able to do whatever you feel like whenever you want, but after a while I start craving structure, responsibility and routine. This was certainly true as my time in Perth came to an end and I got the train south to the small rural town of Waroona, for two weeks of volunteer farm work.

I found Hamel Homegrown, run by organic farmers Fiona and Anton, on WorkAway, the same website that I used to find my volunteering placement at Yellow House in Kuala Lumpur. The deal on the farm was the same, and similar to most WWOOFing and farm work projects; working five hours per day, five days a week, in return for food and accommodation, and the rest of the time free to relax and explore.

Fiona and Anton started the farm just over twenty years ago, after spending much of their twenties travelling around the country ‘doing the hippy thing’. On the twelve acre plot they have a small orchard and a chicken coop as well as rows of crops, and they grow small to medium quantities of all kinds of fruit and veg, which they sell to organic wholesalers, at a farmer’s market, and from a honesty-box stall on the driveway. They’ve worked hard – in Fiona’s words “it took a long time and a lot of work to become profitable” – and have amassed a huge amount of experience and knowledge of their trade.

The farm

Working hours were 8:00am to 1:00pm, and I quickly got into the routine of early mornings and freezing cold starts. Along with the part-time staff, almost exclusively members of the extended family, and Francis, another volunteer from Uganda, I moved through a wide variety of jobs from picking and cleaning beetroot, packing lettuces and picking citrus fruit and pumpkins to cleaning up garlic, mulching and weeding and planting onion seedlings. We had a mid-morning tea break together on the veranda, during which I heard the local gossip and got to know everyone better.

The veranda

It was surprisingly satisfying spending so much time outside and getting my hands dirty doing such physical work. After the first day my body ached from all the bending and lifting, but I had more energy as well, and the more I did the more I was able to see what organic farming is all about. More than just not using chemicals it seemed to me to be about not fighting against nature but working with it; a huge amount of effort was put into improving the soil through mulching and making compost, and instead of waging war against weeds and pests, they were pretty much accepted as inevitable, although some beds were covered in black matting with holes cut for the plants to poke through, in order to prevent weeds in the more delicate crops.

Me and Francis

The afternoons were my own and after a shower and some lunch I spent most of them reading and relaxing, or walking around the local countryside with Francis. The landscape was not too different to the UK really with lots of green and woods and farmland, and the Western Australian winter was much like the English spring or summer, so it was very pleasant to walk around. A few times I walked to the town along the railway line, and one afternoon Fiona lent me their old ute and we went for a drive and a look around the nearby Lake Moyanup. The truck was ancient but worked well enough once I’d figured out how to take the handbrake off – instead of a horizontal handle is was a thin lever below the steering wheel that you twist and push in – extremely retro!

Lake Moyanup

In the evenings Francis and I would cook, using the wonderful fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs at our disposal, and watch television with Fiona and Anton. They were very welcoming and over the course of two weeks I met most of their extended family; children, grandchildren, nieces and all, and they took me to their Pentecostal church and introduced me to everyone in the town.

Walking along the train track

Two weeks flew by and I would have been happy to stay longer. Given my inherent laziness I hadn’t been sure how I’d get along with such physical work, but I found it incredibly satisfying and relaxing being outdoors all the time and getting my hands dirty, and Fiona and Anton’s outlook on life and on growing things was brilliant. I felt quite calm as I returned to Perth, resolving to find a community garden back in Brighton and promising Fiona and Anton to keep them updated with my progress.

After a few more days in Perth, this time in the slightly more interesting suburb of North Bridge, I took an overnight flight back to Melbourne, to see my friends there and prepare for the impending journey homewards.

Perth and Fremantle

I have a theory about trams; if a place has a tram system, you can tell immediately that it’s got something about it. San Francisco, Nottingham, Melbourne; all quite different, but all good places to be, with lively cultural scenes, interesting architecture and a real sense of history. As for Perth, well, suffice it to say that Perth clearly and definitely does not have any trams.

It’s not an unpleasant place to be as such; the city centre has a few good museums and galleries, a great zoo, a nice park overlooking the business district (which when I went was packed with young people playing Pokemon Go), and the recently regenerated Elizabeth Quay. It’s just that none of it has any kind of uniqueness, none of it makes you think ‘oh, this is what Perth is all about’, it was all a bit generic and uninspiring.

Perth from King’s Park

I’m being very unfair of course, and it’s probably a question of expectations. I’ve met plenty of people who have lived or stayed in Perth, and everyone seemed to speak quite highly of it; it’s a place that people emigrate to, or do a semester abroad in, and generally seem to have had a great time. I was expecting quite a lot I suppose, compared to Adelaide, about which everyone who lives or visits there seems to say ‘meh, it’s alright’. Growing up in Milton Keynes and working in Coventry has given me a soft spot for underappreciated towns, so this review of Adelaide made me resolve to see the best in it. Perth on the other hand, didn’t sound like it needed my goodwill; it has a reputation in Australia for being an up-and-coming, self confident kind of place, and after all, it’s one of the most remote cities in the world so surely it should be some kind of cultural beacon. As it turns out, the distance from anywhere better just seems to have given people much lower standards.

Elizabeth Quay

Luckily however, I ended up spending most of my time in Fremantle, a completely lovely and infinitely more interesting suburb of Perth. As if to prove my point, within minutes of leaving the train station I saw a local tour bus decked out to look like a tram.

Fremantle Prison Museum

The original port of the Swan River Colony, settled in 1829, Fremantle feels very much like a self-contained town, rather than a suburb of Perth, with its own trendy feel and rich maritime history. Nowadays it’s a popular seaside spot with pretty streets, a nice parade of cafes and shops, and some great cultural spots. My hostel was in a refurbished wing of the town prison, the other end of which is an excellent museum, and in the harbour was the Leeuwin II, Australia’s largest working tall ship. 180 feet long with three masts, it’s a real pirate ship, and the charity that maintains it offer sailing training day and week-long trips in the summer months, as well as youth education programmes. Already in a swashbuckling mood, I visited the Shipwreck Galleries, a museum telling the story of a range of ships wrecked off the Western Australian coast. The main event is a huge piece of the hull of the Batavia, a Dutch East India Company ship which was wrecked north of Perth in the ultimate swashbuckling story of mutiny, murder and revenge.

Leeuwin II

A visit to the Perth tourist information centre seems to indicate that the best things to do in Perth are day trips where you get away from Perth, so with this in mind I went to Rottnest Island, a half hour ferry ride from Fremantle, and hired a bike to cycle around the car-free island. Australia seems to have a real knack for perfectly matching landscapes to activities, and it was excellent terrain for biking; not too steep but lumpy enough to be a bit of a challenge, with clear routes and lots of little beaches and viewpoints. It was sunny but not too hot, the colour of the water was pretty incredible, and there were lots of quokkas, marsupials native to the island, curiously sniffing about.

My final day in Fremantle was a sunny Sunday at the end of the school holidays, and there were lots of families around. While the 15 degree weather was pleasant to me, like a fresh Spring day in the UK, here it was the depths of winter, and the cafes and restaurants were advertising soup, hot chocolate and even mulled wine. I must have been starting to get homesick at this point, because the families I saw walking along the sea front reminded me of my own family at different points in time, from the young children whining about how far they’d walked, to sulky teenagers lagging behind looking at their phones, to grown up children catching up with their parents, some with children of their own.

Fremantle sea front

I got fish and chips for lunch, which was a massive disappointment; the batter was way too light and crunchy, the chips were nowhere near fat and greasy enough, and I got plastic cutlery instead of a little splintery wooden fork. But the seagulls were comfortingly intimidating and aggressive, so I felt quite at home.

Exmouth to Perth via Northampton

As in Broome, I had a vague intention of finding work in Exmouth in order to fund more diving and generally stretch out my dwindling funds, and this time I got as far as walking around the town looking for adverts on shop windows and notice boards. But, when it came down to it, I couldn’t quite summon the motivation to apply for service industry jobs, and the thought of staying in the town’s friendly but poorly maintained backpackers’ hostel helped me decide to move on south towards Perth. The questions then was how to get there. I had no luck finding another campervan relocation, and although the bus I’d taken down from Broome did continue another seventeen hours to Perth, I wasn’t keen on the idea of another overnight journey in a rattly, funny-smelling coach.

So it was with some relief that I heard about Red Earth Safaris, a small, Perth-based tour company that run eight-day trips from Perth to Exmouth and back again. Although they stopped for the sights and activities on the way up, for slightly less than the cost of a public bus ticket they offered a spot on the day-and-a-half return leg. And to sweeten the deal, food and a night’s accommodation was included, so I signed up online. Having spoken to some people at the hostel who had done the tour and was expecting a similar set-up to the tour I did in Alice Springs; some kind of small bus with 10-15 people, a fairly structured itinerary and an informative guide who would slip into ‘storytelling mode’ when he told the anecdotes he’d told a hundred times before. I was surprised then on the morning we left Exmouth to be met by a guide and just two other punters, in a car. As Nicola the guide explained, all of the other guests had opted to end the tour at Monkey Mia, several hours south of Exmouth, and so with so few people it made sense to carry on in the car rather than the big bus. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it made for a much more comfortable journey, and felt more like an informal road trip than a tour.

We set off after an early breakfast and drove all day, stopping for breaks at the funny little roadhouses along the way. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the 24th Parallel, the border of north-west Australia, and the landscape gradually changed as we made our way south. Green replaced orangey brown, fields replaced bushland, rolling hills replaced flat plains. We stopped for lunch in Carnarvon, in banana-growing country, as as we pushed on we passed fields of wheat, rapeseed and sheep, as well as plenty of wild goats (which apparently are quite a problem given their tendency to eat anything and everything). As we drove Nicola told me about the area and some of the things I would have seen on the journey up, while the two other passengers, a pair of grumpy German teenagers slept in the backseat. Nicola wasn’t a professional tour guide – she and her husband had just bought the company after he had lead groups for the previous owners for the last seven years, while she was an English language teacher and administrator for an ESL college in Perth, and was taking a break to consider a career change – and her unrehearsed storytelling style gave the journey even more of a road trip feel.

The Convent

Our stop for the night was a hostel in Northampton, a town spread along the main road with 868 residents and three pubs, imaginatively named Top Pub, Middle Pub and Bottom Pub. Our accommodation was a former convent build in 1917, and now a hostel in the style of what I imagine hostels were like about fifty years ago. No light and bright spaces, no backpackers’ drinks deals and promo photos of young people having fun, no reception even. To get in we rang the caretaker Maureen, who came to meet us with a big bunch of keys and showed us around. We were shown the kitchen which didn’t seem to have changed since 1917, the living room with furniture that reminded me of my Granny’s house, and our simple bedrooms. When old buildings are repurposed, especially when they become hostels, the interiors seem to be refurbished to such a degree that they can lose their character, but here there was no chance of that as nothing, from the wallpaper to the furniture to the pictures on the walls, seemed to have been changed. It was quite nice really, and a beautiful building, but very, very cold.

Leaning Tree

The next morning we set off early again and hit the road, passing by the town of Geraldton, scared some emus crossing the road, and stopped to have a look at one of the area’s ‘leaning trees’, trees that are bent so much by the strong winds that they grow horizontally. We came into Perth through the northern suburbs, which reminded me very much of Milton Keynes right down to the roundabouts. Arriving at lunchtime, Nicola dropped me off at the YHA Hostel in the city centre, and after nearly a month of small towns and deserted bushland, I was back in the hustle and bustle of big city life.

The Watery World of Exmouth

Somewhere along the 17-hour journey from Broome to Exmouth, the season pattern changed from wet-dry to Summer-Winter. In Broome and Darwin, being in the middle of the dry season meant temperatures in the low to mid 30s and relatively low humidity, but in Exmouth – still technically in the tropics – the winter season meant it was suddenly 10-15 degrees cooler and rainy. Had I known, I might have stayed in Broome for a couple more days…

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the Exmouth come to see the Ningaloo Reef, which stretches 160 miles along the western length of the North West Cape peninsula, a twenty minute drive from the town. People come for snorkelling, scuba diving, and at this time of year boat trips to swim with whale sharks. People don’t hang around in the town unless they’re forced to by, say, inclement weather, so there’s not much touristy development in the town; a couple of surfer clothing shops, a single cafe, two supermarkets and a few pricey restaurants is about all there is in the town ‘centre’, as well as a scattering of shops to book reef excursions. It reminded me in that way of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, where I lived and worked a few years ago. The village of Lake Louise is pretty nondescript; people come to see either the lake or the ski hill depending on the season, and then they move swiftly on to Banff, a more charming place to wander around, with lots of amenities and eateries. Also, although Exmouth has a much more substantial static population than Lake Louise, the workforce is largely driven by transient workers, in this case diving professionals who work for the whale shark and scuba diving companies. The similarity between this group and Lake Louise’s hospitality and ski bum population was highlighted on the Friday night a week after I arrived, when the bar next to the hostel had its weekly party night, and all of the dive boat staff came out to play. Just like in Lake Louise, the local economy can’t support a nightlife scene as such, but there are enough young working people to support a weekly dance night in the otherwise deserted and low-key hotel bar. Very nostalgic.

Although it’s on the opposite side of the peninsula to the Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth does have a beach, known unimaginatively as Town Beach, which I walked out to see on my first day. It’s not particularly well-regarded compared to the fine sand and clear water further around the coast, but it was what I think of as a ‘proper’ beach; brown, gritty sand scattered with a heavy dusting of pebbles and sharp shells, a strong smell of seaweed and a breeze that whips the sand and grass up from the dunes right into your face. After the hot sun and immaculate white sand of Cable Beach, it made quite a refreshing change, and walking on to the small harbour I had a good nose around the fishing and sailing boats.

Mandu Mandu Gorge

It’s useful and usual to have a car here, because the main land-based event is to visit the Cape Range National Park on a drive up and around the peninsula. Luckily I was able to catch a ride with some people I met at the hostel and we went for a drive through the showers to have a look. It’s pretty amazing the effect the weather has on the landscape; on a hot sunny day the undulating scrubland of the bush looks parched and sandy, but with a little rain and cloud it is suddenly transformed to a green but desolate place. It reminded me so much of the North York Moors, I half expected to see Kate Bush dancing around in a leotard. Dodging the showers, we made a brief, windswept stop at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, before going for a short but energetic walk around Mandu Mandu Gorge, a pebbly dry river valley surrounded by steep green and orange slopes. We then headed to the popular snorkelling spot of Turquoise Bay, which on that grey, windy day was all but deserted, and had a rather pessimistic and ill-advised go at snorkelling in the rough swell. After quickly giving up on that idea I had a bit of time to look at the amazing colours of the landscape – the turquoise shallows then the deep aquamarine of the water over the reef, blending into the ominous dark purple of the clouds – before the heavens opened and the rain started.

SS MIldura Wreck

This rain continued all afternoon, and for two more full days, during which my scuba dive trip was cancelled and there was very little to do except hang around the hostel and wait for the weather to improve. But eventually the worst of the weather passed and my temporary travelling buddy Cat and I hired a car and went for a drive, and although we followed almost exactly the same route as I had done a few days before (there’s pretty much only one direction to go for a drive from Exmouth), a bit of sunshine changed everything. We stopped by a viewpoint for the wreck of SS Mildura, a cattle ship sank off the tip of the North West Cape in 1907, which is juuuust about visible from the shore, and had a second, less windswept visit to the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

The views over the land and the sea were lovely, not to mention the imposing figure of the pylons of Harold E Holt Naval Base. The site was leased and developed by the US Government as a communications base at the height of the cold war in the mid 1960’s, and the town of Exmouth was established 6km away at the same time to service the base. The naval base has the distinction of housing the highest freestanding structure in Australia in the form of the central mast, as well as being named after Harold Holt, a previous Prime Minister of Australia, whose premiership came to an abrupt end in 1967 when he went for a swim in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria and was never seen again. After a lunchtime picnic stop at a packed Turquoise Bay, we headed on for a walk along the Yardie Creek Gorge, the only permanent river on the North West Cape. It was very pretty and enjoyable, slightly scrambly walking, and we even spotted a few tiny rock wallabies scurrying around on the cliff.

Yardie Creek Gorge

As the weather improved, so did the prospects of my being able to do what I came here for; to get out on the water and see some wildlife. The most popular excursion from Exmouth at this time of year is to take a boat trip to spot and snorkel with whale sharks, the biggest and most docile species of shark. Unfortunately it’s also the most expensive excursion on offer and as awesome an experience as I’m sure it is, I couldn’t justify the $400 price tag. Instead I spent an afternoon sea kayaking along the coast, spotting turtles coming up to the surface for air, pelicans grazing the water, and looking at the swampy mangroves growing along the shore.

A break from kayaking

But the main event for me was my scuba diving day. I had been hoping to do some more scuba diving since I did my Open Water course in Thailand, but I when it came to getting in the water I was really quite nervous. I hadn’t dived in five months, I’d never dived with anything less than one-on-one supervision, and I was suddenly hit by the knowledge that I was very inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing. As I got into the water the feeling got more intense as the current and the swell were much stronger than anything I’d experienced in the still waters of Thailand. Hanging onto the mooring line as the rest of my group started to descend, I decided in a hyperventilating panic that I couldn’t go through with it, turning and explaining to the group behind me that I needed to get back onto the boat. Luckily however they helped to calm me down, reminding me that the surface is the worst part of a dive, and when my guide noticed I was missing and came back up to find me, he was very calming and kept a good eye on me as we began the descent. As soon as I got away from the waves of the surface I felt much better and had a fabulous dive. On this and the following dive we saw a couple of friendly sea snakes, a huge stingray floating overhead, a big reef shark scouring the bottom, as well as some lovely corals and lots of pretty little fishies.

The Ningaloo Reef

After finishing the dives and returning to the hostel, it was sunny and warm enough to sunbathe by the pool, and I spent a while picking the brains of diving instructor Keenan. It was really good to be diving again, great to learn from the pros and improve my skills, and quite elating to have conquered my fear and panic and to have not given up.

Scuba diving