Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Damn, Nature, You Scary

Australia is home to deadly, deadly things. The deadliest snakes, spiders, reptiles, fish, birds, and probably fluffy bunny rabbits live here. Here's a quick survey of the things I'm afraid of in Australia, on a fear scale from 1 to 10.

1: Snakes. Yes, Australia has the deadliest snakes in the world, including sea snakes, but on the whole, I don't think of snakes as that dangerous. I've never been bitten by a snake. Nor has anyone I know. I kind of like snakes, and from all experience, they tend to be sedate or even timid if you leave them alone. So while snake venom may be terrible, you have to get it in your bloodstream for bad things to happen, and that seems unlikely. 

2: Spiders. There are tons of venomous spiders in Australia, including one that focuses itself in and around Sydney. I kind of feel the same way about spiders as I do about snakes: in opposition to the popular opinion, I have a certain affection for them. Unlike snakes, though, I can certainly see how someone could overlook a spider and accidentally get bitten.

The redback, clearly a relative of the US black widow. I lived with black widows in Tucson without a problem.
2.5: Drop Bears. Google that stuff. 

2.5 Cassowaries. Like other big, dangerous animals, encounters with these guys are rare, but the cassowary is reported to be aggressive and potentially dangerous if it feels threatened. Like other big, dangerous, animals, I'd love to see one. But from a distance. Those things are dinosaurs.
3.5–4: Sharks. I plan on being in the water a lot, but sharks are rare, and shark attacks are rarer, and many beaches in Australia are patrolled.

 5: Crocodiles. This is where things turn from "Not really something I'm going to bother thinking about," to "Yeah, no." Saltwater crocodiles are big, charismatic, and fascinating. I'd love to see one, but in a controlled environment, like a croc farm. They're one of the few animals that routinely stalk and kill humans, and they do it much more often (and much better) than other maneaters. Guidebooks note that when camping in croc territory, it's best not to fetch water from the same spot more than once. Which is extra scary, because it means they're watching you.
Keeping the food chain in order.

6.5: Reef Residents: Stonefish, Blue-Ringed Octopus. You can see why people get stung by picking up the delicate, lovely blue-ringed octopus. Don't you just want to make a necklace out of it?
A necklace made of death within minutes.
 8–10: Jellyfish. Brainless, floating shopping bags with tentacles that sting you just by touching you. You can even get stung if you brush against stray shreds of tentacles that aren't attached to the animal anymore. Some, like the box jellyfish, are deadly. Others will just make you wish for death, what with the crippling, full-body pain for up to a week. The problem with jellyfish is that they have no real behavior to speak of. You can't avoid them by being conscientious or out-thinking them or even avoiding their specific homes. They just float there, in the middle of open water, all like "DUHHHH," and if it floats near you, you're dead.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

All About Planning

So, Australia is a long way away. And it's big--about the size of the continental United States. This is useful to keep in mind when I'm planning. It's as though I'm working on a vacation that sees all the best of the US, from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon to New Orleans to Disneyworld to New York to the tip of Acadia to Chicago to Yellowstone. It's an overwhelming amount of information, and sorting it is a daunting task.

The lucky bit is that because I'm renting a campervan (view its charming tutorials--complete with Aussie automotive slang!--here), the majority of my lodging is taken care of. I'm actually not allowed to import a single scrap of food into the country, so no planning there, either. I can't even use my remaining 30 or so dehydrated meals, which are STILL IN MY FREEZER. Basically, my only planning involves making a long list of must-sees, and hanging a loose schedule on them.

So far, they consist of:
  • Shark Bay: North of Perth, in the center of the coast of Western Australia, Shark Bay is a world heritage preserve that contains dugong (manatee) habitat, sharks, the world's only remaining stromatolites (the oldest and most primitive life forms known), and a pod of dolphins that have taken to chilling with human tourists. 
  • The Great Australian Bight: Running along the south coast, it's like the Cliffs of Dover, if the Cliffs of Dover went for seven hundred miles. This coast abuts the Nullarbor Plain, an astonishingly flat, treeless expanse of the outback, so the contrast between it and the wave-swept Southern Ocean is incredible. The Bight also includes the Twelve Apostles, an oft-photographed series of dramatic sea stacks. 
  • Kangaroo Island: Off the coast near Adelaide, it's a rural wildlife oasis that is remarkably unspoiled by introduced species (such as invasive plants or placental mammals, like rabbits and cats).
  • Melbourne: Reports say it's the Portland or San Francisco of Australia; good cafes, hip culture, vital markets, trendy bars. Keep in mind that, like most Australian cities, its population tops out at about the same as Boston's, which I find to be a comfortable human scale.
  • The Sights of Sydney: The opera house, the bridge (which you can climb on top of--at night!--with a guided tour), the royal botanical gardens, the beach, etc.
  • The Great Barrier Reef: As mentioned in a previous post, the reef (and its depressing prognosis) is a big reason for taking this trip now. There are several islands where you can actually camp within the reef itself, with snorkeling opportunities right outside your tent flap.
    The GBR presents a challenge to planning. I thought about getting a dive certification before I went, but honestly, the idea of SCUBA diving doesn't appeal to me all that much, and the idea of spending nearly $1,000 bucks and many hours getting a certification I may never use again appeals to me even less. Of course, I want to see as much as I can, and the whole "oxygen" thing limits me, but in the end, I decided to go the free-swimming route.
    The other planning challenge is that campsites understandably fill up quickly. I should probably make a reservation as soon as I can. On the other hand, I really have no idea how my schedule will go once I'm in-country, and I hate to give myself a firm deadline for a destination that's so far into the itinerary. Since this is a pretty big must-see, though, I bet I'll bite the bullet and book a site ahead of time. Or maybe book several at different times, and cancel the ones I don't use. 
  • The Katherine Gorge: A stop in one of my few true excursions away from the coast and into the outback. It's supposed to be a spectacular canyon, and IT'S MY NAME, DAMNIT. 
  • Kakadu National Park: Right next to the Kate Gorge, it's a distillation of the swampy, wild north coast.
There are other must-sees that aren't plugged into the schedule yet, mostly because there are several opportunities, and I'll decide which to take once I'm there:
  • Take a Surfing Lesson
  • Visit a Vineyard/Tasting
  • Have a Cold, Shitty Beer in a Roadhouse
  • Eat a Kangaroo
  • Eat an Emu 
  • Snuggle a Koala
  • See Some Parrots/Cockatoos
  • Visit a Croc Farm
  • Have Baby, Feed to Dingo (check accelerated gestation)
  • Set Foot in the Indian and Southern Oceans
Right now, I have an outline that hits all of these in one way or another, all within the 8 weeks between my flight in and flight out. It's a packed schedule, and as with my trip out west, I'm open to the idea of throwing it away if the fancy strikes. The result is that despite all I want to see, I feel like things are seriously up in the air, especially considering I'm leaving in a bit more than three months!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tickets. No, really.

Okay, phew! The skeevy discount-airfare web site did, in fact, refund 100% of my money. Today, I went to a REAL AIRLINE'S website and did a bang-up job of getting a ticket to Perth, Western Australia. This time, the price was actually below the best price I'd hoped for. So it worked out great in the end.

The dates weren't as ideal, plus I fly through Dubai, and Dubai wigs me out in a how-did-we-not-see-that-this-is-the-End-Times kind of way.
No one lives here. Nothing but the invisible desert wind howling through the empty glass towers.
I still found flights with manageable layovers, though. I'm flying out on February 25, and landing in Logan again on April 22, losing a day on the way out and gaining a day on the way back.

So: February 25, 2014. Heading to Oz.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Okay, whuuut...

So scratch that.

After booking the tickets through, I woke up in the middle of the night last night to a notification on my phone. Apparently, Kayak booked the tickets through yet another discount-airfare site, called me and left a voicemail (at midnight!), saying the cost of my ticket had gone up "tremendously" at the "last minute," and recommending that I call or go online and cancel the tickets, unless I wanted to "pay... [ominous pause] more." They didn't even leave a phone number.

This sounds very un-legit. I poked around online and found a string of freaked-out, one-star reviews of, rife with words like "scam," "avoid at all costs," and " should have dropped these people long ago."

This morning, I called's customer service. It turned out that the "tremendous" price raise was about $100.00, which on a flight to Australia is actually pretty insignificant. But I was skeeved, and I had a recording of them saying they would cancel my reservation with no penalty, so I thought it best if I just got out. I cancelled the flight, and the guy on the phone said he would honor the no-fee promise. I'll have to wait and see what the credit-card statement looks like when it comes back in the next few days. I hope to God this isn't some drawn-out battle with incompetent/malicious customer service.

Anyway. All in all, it shouldn't be a huge loss. It's on my credit card, so I can dispute the charges through my own bank as well, and the price of airfare is still the same, if not a little lower, than it was yesterday when I booked. I kind of want to wait for the refund to show up before purchasing other tickets, but either way, I'll look very closely at who's doing the booking next time.

Monday, September 30, 2013


My Australia plans have lagged, and it's no mystery: new(ish) job, new apartment, new town. It's tough to think about getting on a plane for two days and exploring an unfamiliar continent when you still can't find your way to from your own bedroom your bathroom with the lights off.

But I knew that plus-or-minus six months out was a good time to get the best price on plane tickets. Today, after several days of careful comparison shopping, the price on trans-Pacific flights dropped to my reasonable benchmark, and I leapt.

I'll be leaving the U.S. of A on February 26 and returning (or at least arriving) on April 24. I'm proud that I found a series of flights from Boston to Perth that connects one right after the other, getting me to Oz in record time (I'll see how my back feels about nearly 30 hours of nothing but sitting down after I get there.) Coming back, I end up with about a day's layover in LA, but it's long enough to actually give me time to get a hotel and sleep.

Now, to lay the rest of the major pieces in place: I have to reserve the camper van, and make sure I have a hotel to land in in Perth so I can skip a few days while my internal clock realigns. I might even get a vacation rental/apartment style spot so I can do serious gearing up and grocery shopping from a home base with a fridge.

This trip will creep up on me faster than the last one, I predict. Gotta make sure I stay focused!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Outlining Oz

Though it's just about a year off, I'm squaring away the plans for my Australian journey. This will help me prep and pounce on any airline/camper rental deals I spot in the meantime. Here's a general overview:

I fly into Perth, Western Australia, on the far west coast of the country.
From there, I'll drive north to Shark Bay, where I can see stromatolites and swim with dolphins.
Unavoidably, I'll have to head back south to Perth in order to trace the coast eastward to Adelaide, and then on to Melbourne.
I'll spend several days in Melbourne before swinging up the coast to Sydney.
In Sydney, I'll walk along the harbor bridge and look at the opera house and probably eat ice cream before heading north again, passing through Brisbane on my way to the Great Barrier Reef.
You can actually camp on islands in the reef, which yes. Coming back to the mainland, I'll make my first major trek inland, crossing Queensland into the Northern Territory.
Once I'm in the Northern Territory, near Darwin, I'd love to make some detours back into Western Australia to see a crocodile sanctuary and a couple of national parks.
I'll return the rented camper in Darwin, where it turns out it's cheaper to get a domestic flight to Perth and complete the round trip from there to Boston, rather than fly home out of Darwin.

Put it all together, about 12,000 kilometers, and it looks something like this:

View Larger Map
My main accommodations will be camping, either in my tent or in the "van," which will probably be more like a Land Rover with sleeping acomodations, like this:

Roughly. HA! Because it's rough.
I'll be sticking mostly to parks, preserves, and wilderness areas, with the exception of longer stays in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. I hope to make friends with emus, wallabies, bandicoots, koalas, cassowaries, dugongs, kangaroos, and other absurdly named fauna. I'd like to snorkel in the coral and learn to surf. Also, vineyards, cheese places, Asian food, and identifying southern constellations. I hope to run into weird primitive plants in the tropical rain forests and run over some lizards in the desert.

As it is, the plan is a tight squeeze at 8 weeks, which is the most I can allow myself. I unfortunately can't fit in Tasmania or Uluru/Ayer's Rock, not to mention New Zealand, due to time. 

I'm internally debating whether I should adopt a philosophy of driving short distances, making short stays, and visiting a lot of places; or driving long distances, taking longer stays, and visiting fewer places. As it is, I have an enormous list. I suppose (with a few exceptions where I have to reserve camping spots or hotels ahead of time) I can decide once I'm there.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Prepare your butt, Southern Hemisphere!

My western-US trip was amazing, and while another New England winter lingers interminably into spring, I'm thinking about where to go next. The answer (for a depressing reason I'll mention later) is: Australia and New Zealand!

This trip will be on the order of 6-8 weeks, rather than 6 months, so it's a different scale of planning, but the distances involved more than make up for it. What I'm thinking now is to rent a camper or sleeper van and drive around the circumference of the continent, either all the way or in a large backward C, skipping the vast and unpopulated west coast from Perth to Darwin. I'll make stops in major cities and at several national parks for a few days at a time. It will probably be around this time next year--March--making it late summer/early fall in the Southern Hemisphere.

Luckily, I'm not the first person to have this idea, and there's a whole camper-rental industry that caters to weirdos who want to drive long distances in and around Australia (including one that rents graffiti-ed molester vans). There will be altogether less camping and backpacking involved in this trip, but I do plan on sleeping in the van, camping, and doing lots of hiking, swimming, and wandering around. I'd like to drive into the outback enough to say I saw it, but I don't think I want to spend much time there. Uluru (Ayer's Rock) is probably too out-of-the-way.

And New Zealand! So far, I haven't thought much about it, but I know I'd like to see it. Depending on the amount of time I want to be gone, I may not get to spend much there, which could be too bad. But at this point, things are still very up in the air. I'm only starting to make dents in the Internet research. Next will be the library. Check for infrequent updates.

Oh, and the depressing reason? Skip if you don't want to be depressed. Scientists estimate that the Great Barrier Reef will die off before the end of this century, and possibly within 50 years. So, yeah. While it lasts.