Saturday, September 06, 2008 Australia Australia

Crossing Continents

Chilli's Backpackers hostel [Enlarge]

Note to reader: this post should be read in an Aussie accent.

We stumbled into Darwin's airport at 05:10 local time (02:40 Sumatra time) and were completely awed by how friendly, helpful and efficient the immigration and customs staff were. They were like normal people. The staff in certain other Western countries (ours included) could learn a lot from watching them at work. We swapped our last few Indonesian rupiah for Aussie dollars and got on the airport shuttle bus into town. It was driven by a German guy on a working holiday visa. A visa which we'd love to have ourselves, but unfortunately we're over 30 so don't qualify.

Arriving in Australia was information overload. After 22 months in countries where English was at best a second language, we could now understand people's conversations on the bus, read every shop sign and billboard, and speak to anyone we wanted to. It was bewildering. We hadn't been able to book accommodation from Indonesia, so we asked the bus driver to drop us in the city centre.

Actually we say 'city centre' but the centre of Darwin is about the size of the centre of a typical market town centre back home, so it didn't take much walking to get anywhere.

We just wanted to find a room and go to sleep. After twenty minutes looking around the few places to stay which had manned reception desks (it was now still only about 06:30), we settled on Chilli's Backpackers hostel. Our double room with a shower, but no dunny, cost 77 Aussie dollars per night (GBP 34.64 / USD 64.31). Our days of sub-ten-quid hotel rooms are well and truly over. The Brit (on a working holiday visa) at the reception desk said that we couldn't check in until 11:00, but we could put our bags in their locked storeroom until then, which freed us up a bit. We gave up on the idea of sleep at that point—it was getting light and we were feeling more awake than before. So we went for a proper cooked breakfast at a nearby cafe, which consisted of extremely non-halal bacon and sausages, egg, beans, and proper tea with milk and the bag still in... absolute heaven. It was cooked and served by Brits on working holiday visas.

Now when we have western food we don't have to feel the slightest bit guilty about not eating the local food—this is the local food!

As we ate our brekky a group of Aussie workmen turned up at the cafe for their morning tucker. They were dressed in blue denim shirts, blue shorts, blue socks with workmen's boots and bush hats, and all of them were called Ned. We wondered if they were part of some tourist attraction but it gradually dawned on us that these were just regular guys. Although we were in a city, this was no Melbourne or Sydney. We were in the capital of the Northern Territory. The fair dinkum outback, mate. We loved Darwin already.

While we waited for check-in time to roll around, we put our efforts into what to do next. Number one on our list of things to investigate was transport. We didn't want to take a bus or train through Australia: a seat on 'The Ghan' train from Darwin to Adelaide will set you back a stinging 710 dollars (GBP 319 / USD 593) and a sleeper berth will come in at a brutal 1410 dollars (GBP 634 / USD 1178). The bus is cheaper but did we really want to sit on a bus for 42 hours? Anyway, we wanted to be able to take our time, and stop when and where we wanted. We've been looking forward to Australia as a major goal for a very long time, and there was only one way we were going to see the place: in our own vehicle.

The noticeboard at Chilli's was full of campervans for sale, but they weren't all that cheap, even if we went for a heap of scrap metal which would probably break down hundreds of miles from anywhere. And if we bought something we'd have the hassle of selling it later. Several companies will sell you a vehicle with a guaranteed buyback at the other end, but there are strings attached and of course a hefty margin built in for them on the prices. Hiring something seemed like the better choice. The tourist season in Darwin is very close to being over (summer, from October to March is very wet and very hot), whereas in the south of the country it is now springtime and the season is just beginning... So vehicle rental companies want their cars and vans down south to meet the demand of the summer tourists along the coasts. Maybe there was a deal to be had on a one-way hire to the south?

We eventually hired a little Mitsubishi campervan for 64 dollars a day (GBP 28.79 / USD 53.45) including fully beefed-up no worries insurance cover and unlimited kilometres. We have to deliver the van to the company's Melbourne branch in three weeks. We'll obviously have to pay for fuel, food and campsite fees, but that's us sorted for the next few weeks. Maybe we'll camp by the roadside some of the time to save on fees. We celebrated the discovery of a way forward with a delicious meal in town with Australian beer for Glenn and Australian wine for Isla and went to sleep very early.

Roads in the Northern Territories go on forever. [IMG_5050]
Endless highway [Enlarge]

At a reasonable hour the next morning, we had another fab cooked breakfast, picked up the van and spent the rest of the day sorting ourselves out with supermarket shopping (at which the checkout was manned by a Brit on a working holiday visa) and route planning. Mid-afternoon we drove out of Darwin and spent the night at a campsite on the edge of the city. A pitch in a campsite with cooking facilities, showers, barbecues and a swimming pool cost 30 dollars—much less than a gloomy hostel room. Prices will come down a bit as we get further from Darwin and choose more basic sites. So now, let the adventure begin! Ahead of us is over 5,000 kilometres of tarmac.

You will have noticed that we mention the fact that there are a lot of foreigners here on working holiday visas. If you spend any time in London, you discover that everybody working in the pubs and hotels there is an Australian backpacker. In return, all the British and European backpackers are doing the same jobs over here.

Map of Day 651

Day 651
Denpasar to Darwin

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.