Saturday, May 31, 2014

Australia and The Challenges of Finding True Adventure

I don't understand why so many Yanks rag on Australia. I heard a neighbor of mine ragging on Australia, and I never talked to him again. He's a creep anyway. He was complaining that Australians end everything in "ee." I mean, they do end many words with an "ee" on the end. Blimey. Crikey. But then they do it with occupations as well. Like when my friend Andrew caught a tradey using his power outlet to do some work in the house across the street. Andrew unplugged the cable, and the guy came out all pissed. Andrew was like, "Why are you plugged in over here? That's my power. Get your own power, tradey!" Andrew is not a tradey. He's an urban professional. I wonder how they end that in "ee."

Anyway, sadly, Americans get a really shitty impression of Australia from the following:

Outback Steakhouse

the Crocodile Hunter 

and Paul Hogan. 

Unfortunately, the impression that most Americans get from Australia comes from the Americans that market Australian culture. Nobody I know in Australia had ever heard of Outback Steakhouse, but holy shit the assholes at Outback have most yanks convinced that everyone eats Bloomin' Onions and shrimp on the barbie every day in Australia. My friend Macca from Adelaide heard this, paused and said, "I don't think I've evah cooked a prawn on a barbie! Sounds bloody good though!"
Tell an Australian that the motto at Outback is "No Rules, Just Right," and they scoff. I'll cut Steve Irwin slack because that poor bastard died in the name of conservation, and I loved that guy for his efforts. Good surfer too. I actually got a text message the day he died from my mates in Australia that read "Figured you should hear it from us first. Steve Irwin got killed by a sting ray on the Great Barrier Reef." I happened to be at a party with a stage and got on the microphone and announced his death to the audience only to be met with about fifty "Fuck You's!" Then, it took about twelve hours for the American news agencies to find out and report the story. As for Paul Hogan, who would have guessed that a shitty 80's movie would be such a box office success... and then a second... and then a very, very bad third movie. I'm not going to lie. I love Crocodile Dundee I and II, especially part II when they lead the cocaine dealers into all the traps set for them in the bush. 

Not only that, but I grew up with a deep interest in Australia. My Dad always said, "If America goes to shit, Australia is the place to go." Between him introducing me to Australia as some sort of wonderland at a young age and watching BMX Bandits every time I stayed home from school when I wasn't feeling well, it was always in the cards. Then in France in 2004, I met a couple from Adelaide who I would spend exploring the mountains around Chamonix with for a few days. After talking shit about politics, eating these addictive chicken sandwiches from some place called Poco Loco, and drinking a few bottles of wine, I knew I had some friends to visit. 

Australia CAN be, simply... fucking awesome. There are a few factors about traveling there that can be annoying. I mean, I intend to criticize aspects of its tourism industry, but Australia is like all the good stuff you find in America after you filter out the bullshit, with a twist of Britain, and a pinch of socialized medicine. Instead of running you through the whole story of both trips I've taken to Australia, I'll skip Sydney and Melbourne for the most part. Everyone has a photo of the Sydney Opera House, so I'll spare you mine. 

My first trip was six weeks in May-June 2006. I flew from Orlando to San Francisco for free using my Airtran points I dug out of the dumpster at Wendy's. Then I flew to LAX, then to Melbourne, took a train to Sydney, flew to Darwin, then down to Adelaide, up to Brisbane, back to Melbourne then home. Looked like this: 

In order, I'll list the three conditions of travel to and within Australia that one should consider...

Flights: Most people say, "Ooh, I'd love to go to Australia, but isn't the flight really long?" Yes. It is. If you only get a week off from your job to go on vacation, Australia will not work for you. If you were to start from Florida like me, it takes 22 hours of time in the air. You lose TWO DAYS on the flight over, and you land back home on the same date you left 20+ hours ago due to the dateline. But if you can squeeze three, maybe four weeks off or longer, then break the flight up into shorter stints. And, even with three or four weeks off, every other tourist you meet from another country is going to say, "Wow, you Americans take the shortest vacations!" I spent three days in San Francisco skateboarding with my buddies before flying over. I then flew down to LAX and got on a Qantas flight which stopped in Auckland for a few hours before heading to Melbourne. From LAX to Auckland it was just over ten hours. We then had a weird, middle of the night layover in Auckland before continuing for four more hours to Melbourne. But between the free beer, the food and the television and movies offered by Qantas, it was an easy flight. You won't get the free cans of Victoria Bitter on any of the other airlines. 

Once in Australia, I tried taking a train, but the comfort levels of an overnight train from Melbourne to Sydney and the old man that I think was hoping to buy me a coffee to see my wiener were enough for me to consider flying. From there I few on Jetstar and Virgin Australia to bounce around at ridiculously cheap fares. 

Hosteling and Backpackers: One major difference about backpacking in Australia is the type of backpackers you interact with when hosteling there. But first off, let me point out that Australian hostels have notorious bed bug problems. I've been twice in the winter time, and even in the cold times of year kids are trucking bed bugs in on their gear. I can recall three hostels from memory that treated for bed bugs when I was there the first time. You'll be sleeping in a room, and the kids in every other bed get bit while you sleep soundly, which was my experience. Either way, while most European hostels supply your sheets, I recall many kids coming into rooms with sleeping bags that must have been infested or using their sleeping bags when hostels didn't supply sheets. Without even unrolling their gear, they constantly infected the rooms. Nonetheless, I stayed mostly in hostels or camped while there. 

Backpackers in Australia are primarily British and a mix of Canadians and Europeans. In Europe you run into so many other Americans, many who are on a 10 day, 8 country drilled march of naive, Yank ambition, sadly. I've rarely run into Americans either time in Australia, but droves of fucking British and Canadian kids are there, living in the hostels along with the bed bugs. They go there to work on a sort of commonwealth visa--something the Americans gave up when they threw all the tea into Boston harbor. Now, in many traveling situations I'm eager to hang out with non-Americans, especially English people as I get all nostalgic about London and shit, but in Australia these kids get really annoying. Why? Because they are fucking kids. Many of them are, like, 19-21, many are on their "gap year" between high school and university, where the Imperial sailor in their British genetics goes journeying for a year to learn about the world. A number of these kids are living in the hostel at which you are staying. Considering that I was twenty-six my first time there, these kids got annoying very quickly. Also, because many are heading to "Uni" as they call it, in a year, they are uptight, condescending and obnoxious. We act like the whole "I've gone to college and learned big words and can point out how this or that comment is offensive because it harks back to our colonial past or our embarrassing history blah blah blah" but the British kids have this disease as well. People give Americans a bad travel reputation, but I'm going to make an educated guess that the 19-21 year-old POMs (Prisoners of Mother, Queen Elizabeth) that carry the worst rep down under when it comes to public drunkenness, rudeness, lack of manners, etiquette etc. They also ragged on America constantly, and while I'm game to discuss the fucked up foreign policy of my country any day of the week, I couldn't bear more than a few days of all the yahoos fresh out of Hampstead Heath and Cardiff and Stoke-On-Trent and their pimply, little, late-teenage mouths babbling on about it. I'll give them some slack. They are all young, and stupid and pumping their wages back into the local bars and trying to snog and fek themselves into blackouts. I bring this up only because my first trip in Australia, where I experienced these kids, led to my more enjoyable, second, more solitary trip to Australia. 

Organized Tours: This is my major complaint about Australia. It seems you can't do anything on your own considering how many people are urging you to take a "tour" with a professional guide. Granted, if you live in Switzerland and have never seen a snake before I can imagine why a guide to the outback is a good idea. People have rented cars only to drive them into mud holes and be eaten by crocodiles in the outback. But I'm a Florida native. We have alligators, five poisonous snake varieties, rip currents, hurricanes, jellyfish, sinkholes, pedophiles, meth heads, and invasive pythons and coyotes. 
To be given no choice but to buy into a tour of the outback was really a bummer. To not be able to rent a 4x4 and explore on my own and try to hypnotize a water buffalo like Crocodile Dundee was bullshit.

Granted, it's bad for business if tourists go on their own and die from a spider or snake bite or crocodile attack. The conservation efforts of promoting Australia's biodiversity in addition to the money that it brings into the economy would disappear if the fear factor of visiting Australia were to be ramped up much more than people do already. It's already a common, annoying topic of conversation amongst Americans of whether or not the country is "dangerous." 

But, it really does get annoying that EVERYTHING you aim to do has not one, but many tours offering to take you for a price. Wanna see penguins south of Melbourne? Tour. Wanna go the Barrier Reef and dive? Fifty tours to choose from. On big boats, little boats, sail boat. Wanna see the beach where dolphins swim up to you? $100. College kids looking to meet an aborigine? Twelve aboriginals are offering to walk you through the bush and eat some bush tucker. Wanna play a didgeridoo? One thousand assholes will pick you up, take you to the forest and play the didge... Tours, tours, tours. 

The one tour that stands out most in memory is when I was in Town of 1770. Yes, it's named that. That's when Captain Cook found the area I guess. Some Swedes told me you could chase kangaroos on miniature Chopper-looking mopeds that you could rent. So, I happened to be driving by this area while journeying through a very stupid decision by car from Cairns to Brisbane (1000 miles at 55 mph in nothing but cane fields), and I stayed the night. The next day I discover that I can't just rent a scooter. I have to take a tour. I was already there and said, "Fuck it. Alright." Then some shriveled up bikey (biker, in Australian), has about fifty kids waiting around and arriving by bus load to be outfitted with a helmet and learn the basics of riding a scooter. Then we had to learn the rules of riding when there are fifty+ kids on scooters clustered together going about 40 mph. 

On top of being with such a crowd was way the guy then went around asking, "Who wants wedges? I need to place the order ahead." So, say, twenty-five people wanted potato wedges, he calls, places the order at a restaurant we'll be making a pit stop at. He makes money. The restaurant makes money. Did we see kangaroos? Yes. Did we get to chase them? No. That's not the bikey's fault, and the tours and the notion that one tour company suggests another or makes sure they stop at this art gallery or this restaurant is nothing new either. I was just hoping Australians didn't ALSO do this. I'm from the capital of this bullshit! Orlando. Mickey Mouse. A swamp that sucks up billions of dollars a year and sends you back home with Chinese made souvenirs! 

And when you come from Orlando, London, Tokyo, New York City, Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong, Sydney, or any other tourism hub, you don't want to feel like you are at home. You want to find your own adventure, one that far exceeds that backdoor bullshit Rick Steves is always talking about...

Part 2: Adventures in the Outback and Bunny Woop Woop...

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