Family Vagabonding » Australia Family Travel Blog Mon, 09 Sep 2013 23:53:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Newbies in the Hostel World Fri, 21 Jun 2013 11:07:41 +0000 Powell Berger Mention hostels to casual travelers and images of Jim Belushi fraternity parties may spring to mind. Twenty-somethings traveling with no money, perfecting the art of booze consumption on every continent, and passing out in hole-in-the-wall dives littered with moldy towels, dirty dishes, and bathrooms that shouldn’t be entered without protective clothing. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Until I found myself traveling the world, on a tight budget, with two teens in tow. The essence of travel, I think, is to blow up pre-conceived notions on all variety of things and start anew. Such was the case with me and hostels.

We’ve dipped our toe in the hostel world on previous adventures.  We ended up in a hostel in Wellington New Zealand once, where I spent the entire evening checking the door locks and keeping tabs on my kids – who thought I was crazy (and they were right.) Then in Fiji, our Yasawa Island “resorts” included backpacker dorms, and while we enjoyed our private bure in lieu of the dorm life, it was the dorm travelers we hung out with. They were more fun.

It’s been this trek through Australia that converted us. It started as necessity, as with most hostel guests I guess.  Australia is just plain expensive, and our dollar doesn’t do what it used to.  I’d always heard about the Sydney YHA, in the Rocks, near the Four Seasons, with a killer view. At $125/night for a private family room, it was still over our budget but the best deal in town, so I booked it. On a roll, I booked another one in Perth and a campervan park backpacker dorm in Exmouth. We wandered into yet another one in Adelaide (one of the highlights of our 24 hours there) and now have a couple more booked across Europe.

I know, I know. Not all hostels are alike, and staying in a half dozen or so doesn’t exactly make us experts. And like everything, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. But so far, it’s been a good thing for us.




Backpacks Optional. It’s still part of the vernacular, but not necessarily part of the scene.  Leaving our bags in the luggage holds, we found a department store assortment of rolling bags and luggage, and an occasional backpack or two.  The occasional backpack looked oddly retro actually, like the true adventurer is still out there while the rest of us have discovered wheels and never looked back.


Baby boomers just keep plugging along. Think I was the oldest resident in the joint? Not a chance. Maybe there’s fewer backpacks these days because there’s fewer folks young enough to trek their possessions on their backs.  We ran across an incredibly fit 60-something cycling his way across Australia (his luggage, panniers for the bike), numerous “mature” women traveling solo, an assortment of families, men beyond the age of beer pong, travel photographers and videographers on a budget, and a wide assortment of Europeans of all ages looking for work.


BBQ Night at Wickham Retreat, Perth

Beer and Ramen for Dinner?  Not a chance. While I ate my toast for breakfast in Perth one morning, a group of women from Malaysia made a most exotic assortment of soups and veggies and meats for breakfast.  In Exmouth, we were joined by a couple who’d just grilled the fresh fish they’d caught earlier in the day, while the table next to us had some sumptuous stir fry, and yet another had a roast lamb with all the fixings.  And of course, a bottle of Australia wine was always close at hand.

In Perth, the proprietor hosts a weekly BBQ for his guests.  We were dubious, and had planned to go out that tonight.  Until we saw the grill. Steak, sausages, burgers, chicken, grilled veggies, and all the sides. It was one of the best meals I’ve had on the road. And it was free, part of the hospitality that brings guests back to his indy hostel again and again.

OK, so there was the moment later in the evening when the snarky French guests with whom we dined asked Austin and Emmi what it was like traveling with their grandmother. My children wisely withheld that tidbit of info for a few days.  And they both observed the finer art of hostel pick-up lines as the various guests mixed and mingled over the evening. All part of traveling, I figure.


Wild Parties Every Night? Not Even Close. Admittedly, a private family room insulates us a bit from the late night comings and goings, but I’ve heard wilder parties at Hyatts when there’s a car dealer convention in town. Like most guests, we were drawn to the communal spaces – comfy sofas, fast wifi, maybe a game of ping pong or pool or darts – but we never came upon a boozing rager.

And check out the book swap table.  Sure, there’s the expected assortment of travel guides and airport lit, but there’s also a surprising assortment of well-loved copies of Hemingway and Dickens and other classics.  And not a single copy of Fifty Shades of Gray to be found. (Our only sighting of that one was a woman at the airport who clearly had no clue what she’d just picked up; we figured her husband was in for a long flight.)


HazMat Equipment Needed for the Bathrooms? We didn’t think so. Okay, so in one spot, Emmi and I decided to wait til our next city for a good shower, but Austin used the showers and reported they were fine.  The next spot was spectacular though, with fluffy towels for hire (and we could even change out our towels for fresh ones at no additional cost), hot water, great pressure, and spotlessly clean facilities.  And in the family rooms, we usually scored a private bath – even better.


Scary Beds & Linens & Pillows, Oh My! True, it’s not the Four Seasons, and I’ve yet to find a hostel with pillows that really meet the definition of the word.  But, at least where we’ve been, the linens are clean and fresh and without stains and rips, the beds are reasonably comfortable, and the blankets seem to be cleaner than anything I’ve ever gotten on an airplane.  That works for me.


But Are They Safe? To borrow from another blogger, that’s like asking if the world is safe.  Sure, as long as you’re reasonably attentive, know what to expect and use common sense.  Basically the same rules for travel anytime, anywhere. We travel with a bike lock to secure our bags together when we leave them somewhere, and with a couple of padlocks, just in case we need them. Most hostels have some sort of provision for securing your belongings – often a locker in your room – and I’ve found the locks to come in handy.


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Being an American Around the Globe Thu, 30 May 2013 09:21:07 +0000 Powell Berger “Its rather difficult traveling the world as an American, isn’t it?” our Australian host asked as we drove from the airport.  It startled me.  I’d been relieved when Obama took the White House; we were traveling in Asia and Europe at the time, and the political discussions under the Bush era had become tiresome. And embarrassing.  But difficult to travel as an American?  I’d never thought of it in those terms.

He asked the question because of the question I’d just asked him.  His two daughters, both grown now and also traveling the world, were born in the US to Australian parents.  “So they could have duel citizenship, then?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess they could. But they’ve never bothered. Just never saw a reason for it.”

I think it was the first time I’d ever encountered someone who didn’t see any benefit to US citizenship. My arrogant American self – the one I try so desperately to avoid – was stunned.

“Less controversy traveling as an Australian, I reckon,” I replied.

We both changed the subject.

I couldn’t shake the thought as we continued on our travels. I’ve not always been proud of my country’s actions, but I am proud to be an American.  When a cab driver in Adelaide – recently immigrated to Australia from Syria – showed me the Queen’s face on an Australian coin and asked if the US is also loyal to the Queen, like Australia, I couldn’t help but smile. “No. We waged a war over that one. And won.”  He seemed shocked.

We consider ourselves global nomads, but we are first Americans. I was reminded of this in Fiji once, when a young French woman – convinced that the US knew nothing of how the world really works – started a brisk discussion at our dinner table one night.  A smart young army officer also shared our table, and I had some sort of out-of-body experience, tag-teaming with him to defend our nation’s integrity, showcase our considerable achievements, and share a tutorial on the US / French relations dating back to WW II, a piece of history she seemed to have little knowledge of.  The beer flowed – and the politics were fiery – and I remember even being surprised by my veracity. Apparently she’d touched a nerve I didn’t even know existed — desecrating a country she later admitted she’d never visited — and I felt honor-bound to wave the flag.  She left the next day, so we never got to finish our discussion, but I took some childish pride in knowing she’d locked herself out of her bure that evening and had to break in through the outdoor shower to find her bed in the wee hours of the morning.

But I digress.

Australian Defence Force Memorial, Kings Park, Perth Australia

Australian Memorial to those lost in Iraq & Afghanistan

It was a couple of weeks later, still in Australia, that my friend’s words resonated again. We were wandering through King’s Park, a magnificent oasis in the middle of Perth, larger and more manicured than New York City’s Central Park, with spectacular vistas sweeping out across the city. It’s a working park, with kids playing, ladies sharing their wine and biscuits on the sweeping lawns, and meandering waterways and hiking trails and memorials.

The park’s memorials are its centerpiece.  The original memorial was built to honor the Australians who died during WW I, but as the conflicts around the globe continued, so did the memorials in the park. There’s a wall dedicated to Korea and Vietnam, and another section that honors Australian women who’ve served their country.

It was the shiny new addition, off to one corner, which stopped us in our tracks.  Emmi spotted it first.  “Look mom,” she whispered.  The granite was new and shiny, the brass lettering polished, and the flowers at its base still fresh. A hand-written note was stuck to the wall, ink still new and legible. There aren’t many names listed, but even those are too many. The memorial, honoring those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflicts for which no end date is noted, because none is yet known – is there because we called the shots, and we brought our friends with us.

In that moment, I heard my friend’s question again. In that moment, it didn’t feel so easy being an American, looking into the face of loss we’d brought upon our global neighbor.  In that moment, I was struck by all our power and our might and our force, yet wondered where in it all our integrity and our honor might still shine through.

Note on War Memorial, Perth Australia

Sentiments from around the World....when will it end?


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Whale Sharks Sat, 25 May 2013 08:09:47 +0000 Powell Berger

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Picture 1 of 16

“Great idea,” Owen (my 23 year old son who’s off doing his thing in the world) commented when we told him we wanted to swim with whale sharks.  “All of you in open waters, hundreds of feet deep, swimming with sharks larger than school buses. What could possibly go wrong?”  Truth is, Emmi and I wondered the same thing.  They are huge, and Emmi is pretty tiny, and I’m, well, not tiny, but still, they are really big. And they are, after all, sharks.

Austin and a whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

But it was Austin’s 16th birthday request, and so it was to be.  That’s the deal in our family. I adopted the idea from a client, back years ago when I had clients and my kids were still young, that on their 16th birthday, they could choose an adventure and I’d do it with them. There are rules and limitations of course, and it requires some mutual planning, but if it’s doable and within reason, that’s their big pay-out.

Austin was 12 when he learned about whale sharks and started planning.  Now, here we are, in remote western Australia, in a tiny outback town called Exmouth, the jumping off point for all things sharking on Ningaloo Reef.  Yep, that’s what they call it: sharking.

Exmouth itself is half the story. The town came into existence because the US military, during WW II, decided a refueling station was needed, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, selected this little outpost on a pristine reef as the perfect spot. They built a base, complete with a water tower (which was never used but was erected to make American soldiers feel more at home in the Outback), a bowling alley, and standard issue US military barracks. A tiny little town evolved to support the base, even establishing the point on the edge of town where cars moved from the left side of the road to the right in recognition of this American outpost.  Eventually, the US military abandoned the base – just shutting off the lights and walking away – leaving Exmouth to reinvent itself. The abandoned barracks became a traveler’s inn, and whale sharking and diving on the reef became the new source of revenue and prosperity.

We did what we came to do. We forked out the requisite small fortune and went sharking.

And I am here to tell you, it was worth every penny and every moment of trepidation.

It’s a funny dance, this sharking thing.  A plane flies overhead and spots the creatures, directing the boat captain to the vicinity. On signal, a group of ten “sharkers” jumps in the water and assembles itself into a pre-arranged order (which my group never seemed to fully grasp) and when done correctly, the whale shark comes swimming through the tunnel, almost like kids at the end of the soccer game running through the throngs of proud parents.  Unless the shark has other ideas. Then at the direction of the guide, the sharkers start swimming with the shark or around the shark or away from the shark, trying to stay with the amazing creature while also keeping the requisite distance – 3 meters from the body and 4 meters from the tail.

Trust me when I tell you that being any closer than four meters from that massive tail is something of a death wish.

Our first time in the water, it all worked just as planned. And I swear that massive, beautiful creature heard me mutter “holy f***king shit” when I saw him. We locked eyes as he swam by, as though to say, “yeah, I hear that all the time.”

Our next encounter, same drill. In the water, get in position, guide spots shark. But this time, the shark had other ideas. He took off swimming in the other direction, leaving us to catch up. This time, his swimming abilities and mine were not in the same league. Not even close.  The kids stayed right with him, but I was the forgotten bait, dragging up the rear. The kind and handsome guide in the dinghy took pity on me and towed me back to the group.

I was determined that would not happen again.

Two more encounters, each time same drill, and each time, “holy f***king shit” when I saw the shark. I couldn’t help it. There are no words to describe these magnificent creatures.  I’ve snorkeled the Great Barrier reef and seen some amazing things. I’ve been in a cage encircled by feeding sharks. I’ve had the privilege to swim with dolphins. None of it compares.

They are massive, yes, and they are beautiful, with unique patterns of spots all over their huge bodies. But it’s more than that. They swim with a grace and a power that is almost spiritual. They lock eyes with you, lazily open their massive mouths (easily 3 – 4 feet wide) and strain the krill from the water, then silently move on.

It’s magic.  And we were there to see it.

Oh, I did have one more encounter with the handsome dinghy captain, after swimming with one of the sharks I was a bit slow getting back to the boat. Once again, he came to the rescue, this time hauling me into the dinghy and giving me a lift. Trust me when I say there’s nothing ladylike about being hauled into a dinghy, but I didn’t care. I’d just been swimming with whale sharks.


(Photos courtesy of Three Islands, the magnificent outfitter we spent the day with. Luke, our photographer, was stellar.  The other cool creatures pictured — including turtle, reef shark and octopus — were spotted during our morning snorkel before heading out to the outer reef.)



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Perth — A Vibe and an Attitude that Fits Sat, 25 May 2013 06:50:37 +0000 Powell Berger We wandered into Perth for a couple of days on our way up to Ningaloo reef. We hadn’t loved Adelaide, where we’d spent one night before flying on to Perth. While the surrounding areas – Kangaroo Island, the wine regions, and Hahndorf were wonderful – the city left us cold and ready to move on. Our hostel (the YHA in Adelaide Central), a cool bar table/pit at the pub where we had dinner, and the new airport were our only highlights from the 24 hours, a sure sign a city won’t be on our come-again-soon (or ever) list. By the time we got to Perth, we were jaded, fearing another let-down.

Silly to be so worried.  In its little corner of Western Australia, this smart, can-do city delivers on the charm, adventure and simple pleasures that make Australia one of our favorite destinations.

Melbourne brags about being the best of the best of Australia (which, by the way, it’s not really, in our opinion, but would be pretty darn cool if it quit bragging so much.)  Darwin is the entry point to the Outback – or so it seems – and revels in its too-cool-for-school rough and tumble self sufficiency. Cairns and Queensland have the Great Barrier Reef (enough said).  Sydney has that iconic Opera House, a harbor with ferry tale boats that bob around taking folks to and from work, the globe’s best New Year’s Eve fireworks (above one of the world’s coolest bridges) and world famous surf spots; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, no wonder those folks are so damn happy all the time.

And Western Australia? It sits over there on the other coast, some several thousand miles from the rest of the country, just doing its own thing.  We get it now. Why would they want to share the secret?

We did what we always do in a new place. We walk. We eat. We explore. In those first three or four hours after dropping our bags, we introduce ourselves, get to know each other.

It was the simple stuff that spoke to us.  The artsy, playful street scene in the downtown walking area, for example.  It’s not that we’ve not seen it in other cities – street musicians, playful fountains, acrobats doing various routines for a crowd – but here, it felt normal, like part of the vibe.

Take the random fountain. A young mom embraced it with her two children, allowing her toddler to run, dodge, jump and try to outwit the spurting water that shot up unexpectedly from the sidewalk.  The little girl squealed and giggled, and mom encouraged her, praising her bravery, even joining in and darting between the spurts with her stroller to get in on the action. And when the little girl was finished, drenched and happy, mom popped in the department store and bought dry clothes so her daughter could change before continuing on. Other parents with other strollers followed her lead, and soon the fountain was filled with giggling, happy pre-schoolers.  And the department store readied for the after-party. All this on an otherwise random Wednesday afternoon.

In Kings Park, two women sat with their perfectly outfitted folding table and chairs, their picnic basket, their glasses, their biscuits and their bottle of wine, chatting and nibbling and enjoying the afternoon.  All in the middle of the green lawns between the memorials where people walked and snoozed and caught up on their reading. And somehow, it looked perfectly at home, this tea party setting in the middle of the park. I choose to believe these two kindred souls meet there weekly, and the stories they share are honor-bound to those grounds, never to be spoken of outside that sacred spot.

The café scene is all it’s cracked up to be, with cool, hip spots on every corner, and coffee a religion as though spun off of the grounds shipped over from Seattle. Even public transportation is in on the action:  free buses carve a pattern through the main areas of the city – totally free! – so locals can get to and from without drama. When we hopped on, clueless, the bus driver and several passengers took time to help us map our route, made sure we got off at the right spots, and even made suggestions of things not to miss.

When planning long-term travel, you get it right some of the time, and other times, you realize you fumbled.  Perth is the jumping off point for the vast wilderness wonderland that stretches up the western coast and on to Broome, the Kimberlys and eventually into Darwin.  I routed us through Perth for a quick stop-over before flying up to Exmouth for our Ningaloo Reef and whale shark adventures, not understanding that in this part of the world, getting there really is half the fun.  We’ve already decided, next time through Australia, we’re setting aside a month to drive, explore, meander and get to know the place.

And of course, we’ll start that journey in Perth, where we, too, will dance in the street fountains and share secrets at a tea party right in the middle of the park.

Perth Australia Bus Sign



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Walkabout Fri, 24 May 2013 20:41:46 +0000 Powell Berger The Aboriginal culture uses the term Walkabout to describe a journey of unforeseen destination and adventure in an effort to find one’s soul.  It’s a journey of unknowns –  destination, duration, and discovery. You go, then one day, you return. And in that time, it is believed, you find what you’ve been seeking.

Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia

Sitting in a campervan park in remote Western Australia, looking out over the vast red earth that stretches past the horizon, I get it.  What’s out there, beyond the last visible scrubby tree? As the sun sets, the reds and oranges and pinks stretch across the sky in technicolor, a prelude to the carpet of stars that soon fill the darkness.  What might be discovered if one ventures just a bit further, beyond the horizon and into the Outback?

Seems maybe there’s a reason our vagabonding keeps bringing us here.  We started our adventures in Australia, several years ago, and now seem to be drawn back again and again. This time, we’ve wandered through Southern Australia – Adelaide, Barossa wine region, and Kangaroo Island – and now on to  Western Australia, first Perth then north, to outposts it seems even many Australians seem only to have heard about but never visited.

We came seeking whale sharks.  We’d heard about them one starry night sitting on the Sydney Sundancer back in 2009, after yet another glorious day snorkeling the waters of the Whitsunday Islands (Cross link to that post.)   As our friends and hosts told tales of Western Australia – it’s rugged, outback terrain, and the stunning coastlines that stretch for miles – we knew we’d one day see that corner of their country.  When they told us about the whale sharks – gentle giants larger than school buses that swim near the surface – Austin knew what he wanted for his 16th birthday.

He never forgot.  For the following several years, he researched and studied and followed the patterns of these amazing creatures.  He knew where in the world they could be viewed; apparently one can also swim with them in Baja, but it’s less reliable to have a siting there he told me.  I think it was a ploy to get us back to Australia, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to return to this mosaic of a land as well.

Much has happened in our lives since sitting on that sailboat, bobbing around the Whitsundays

Exmouth, Western Australia, Vlamingh Lighthouse

Vlamingh Lighthouse

.  On that journey, we were just beginning our roadschool adventures, not sure how we’d do it or even what it really meant. Four years later, we’re still trekking around the world, roacshooling along the way, a Walkabout of our own, I guess.

As happens in travel – and in life, too, I guess – we plan less now than when we started out on these adventures.  We leave more to chance. We follow our whims and our instincts.  We’ve embraced hostels and campervans and rental apartments in the sketchier parts of town. We’re still learning to spend less and enjoy more.

Our family has changed too. We are older now. The kids, primary and middle schoolers when we started, are now teenagers with their own ideas and plans and dreams.  I’m older too, and keep the Advil bottle a bit closer for those days when the joints remind me of my age.  It’s just the three of us on the road these days. Sometimes families take different turns and course corrections as well.

It’s our Walkabout, our discovery, our adventure. Sometimes it’s hard, not knowing what’s around the next bend, where life might take us.  But it’s harder, I think, to be still and dormant and stuck, and know exactly what’s ahead day after day after day. And so we wander.

Tomorrow, we swim with whalesharks. We make a 16th birthday wish come true.  Then after that?  We leave that to the Walkabout.




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Why DOES the Kangaroo Cross the Road? Fri, 10 May 2013 04:26:20 +0000 Powell Berger There’s a fine line between adventure and stupid – my mantra when traveling. And particularly so when traveling alone with the kids. Yet somehow, no matter how hard I try, I all too often find myself teetering there, wondering how the hell I managed to do it again.

Such was the case driving back to Penneshaw from far western Kangaroo Island tonight.  We’d known it would be a long day, taking the southern highway to the far end of the island to see the Remarkable Rocks.  “They’re indeed remarkable,” our friend and local host promised.  “You’ll surely remark,” he snarked.

Kangaroo, Kangaroo Island Australia

Kangaroos should not be hood ornaments

Of course, he also advised against driving all the way out there, recommending instead that we take one of the coach tours.  Our aversion to bus tours, however – except in Iceland where they do them brilliantly – sent that suggestion whistling in the breeze.

The rocks were, indeed, remarkable, a moon like landscape perched by the sea, eroded by hundreds of years of wind and waves.  As, too, were the seal colonies we visited, the koalas stoned on eucalyptus hanging on to the tippy top branches of massive trees, and the sand dunes that stretched for miles along the coast.

“Driving all the way back to Penneshaw tonight?” the park ranger asked as we headed into Flinders Chase National Park.  “Be careful. Drive slow. You have no idea how many creatures there are on the highway at night.”  We’d heard the warning before, and nodded dutifully, then sped off down the track towards the rocks.

It came out of nowhere. That’s what they always say, but now we know why.  It really did come from nowhere, a blur of furriness as it dashed in front then under the car.  Thu-thump.  The wallaby’s eyes were still looking back at us as its little body was flung to the far side of the road, lifeless.

Yikes.  And it’s not even dark yet. And that was a cute little wallaby, not a 6 foot tall, couple hundred pound kangaroo.

I’ve driven through oceans of fog; I’ve driven on fuel fumes through the back roads of Maine in the middle of the night; I’ve driven through mud tracks under the moonlight in Mississippi soybean fields, having sneaked out after curfew and worrying that I’d be caught. But never have I driven as I did tonight.  160 kilometers of inky black roads and Australian bush. My toes cramped; my thighs ached; my lower back screamed, and my eyes darted constantly left to right, right to left, then straight, repeatedly, until they ached too. And all of this on the wrong side of the road, as though it mattered, given only us and the creatures wandered the night.

Quickly proficient at spotting the wallabies, we weaved, bobbed and braked through their midst. They seemed almost suicidal, waiting in the brush until our lights were upon them, then darting across the road in front of us. There’s an entire island here they can roam, and only three roads. Do they have to claim the roads too?  Apparently, they do.  Our favorite, an albino wallaby, shot across in front of us just a few kilometers out of the park.  “Albino ones are really rare,” Austin shared from the back seat. “Well then, glad we didn’t kill that one,” Emmi and I replied in unison.

It was the kangaroos that were most daunting.  They say the kangaroos are bigger and burlier on Kangaroo Island than throughout the rest of the country. While no experts on the subject, Emmi and I can attest that the ones lumbering along the road, gathering in groups as though plotting our demise, were the biggest we’ve ever seen.

Yeah, I know. Kangaroos are cute and funny, hopping and carrying their joey in the pouch. They aren’t scary, right?  That’s what I thought, too. Until tonight.

Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Hanging out at the Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island Australia

Just as we’d settled into the 60km/hr pace, daring to pick up a bit of speed on the longer stretches, a massive ‘roo stood us down, right in the center of the road.  The bright lights illuminated his muscular frame, his eyes staring straight at us. Emmi and I both gasped loudly, and I think she yelled something. All I could absorb were its eyes, staring at me and owning the road. They say the car lights blind them momentarily – which I’m sure must be true – but to me, we’d locked eyes and were in a face off.  And the kangaroo was winning.

I swerved hard right (the blessing of an open road), then back again, barely correcting before careening off the other side.  The menacing ‘roo stood in place, watching, then with a snail’s urgency, hopped off to the left, seemingly irritated we’d cost him his coveted spot in the middle of the road.  Our road, I wanted to remind him.

Finally breathing again, we took our place on the wrong side of the road, resumed our plodding 60 km/hr pace, and continued the trek. It was still dark; I still ached; and Emmi still stood guard from the co-pilot’s seat.

Then there were the mice.  Tiny, quick little buggahs, these guys also darted across the road in the beam of our lights.  They deserved it, I reasoned.  No braking or swerving for them.

Half way home, we’d settled into some sort of rhythm.  My toes cramped and back ached and Emmi stared at the road pointing out every possible creature as well as the inevitable bush-a-roo that seemed so daunting in the night shadows.  It wasn’t fun, per se, but it was our rhythm.

Then she saw something else. I saw it too. Small, furry, and sauntering about the middle of the road, seeming dazed and confused.  “Holy crap!  It’s a koala!” she yelled. It seemed vaguely aware of our imminent arrival, but completely unphased. Koalas live on eucalyptus, which is a mind-altering substance of sorts, so truth be known they spend their entire lives totally stoned.  It wasn’t surprising it just wandered. I slowed to a crawl. He took a couple more twirls in the middle of the road, and eventually sauntered off towards the bush. “A koala!” she yelled again. “I can’t believe we saw a koala in the middle of the road!”

Austin, seemingly mostly oblivious to our front seat piloting since the albino wallaby, piped up. “It was a possum.”  Then he was quiet again, almost as though he had not spoken at all.

“We’re in the front seat, and it was a koala,” I declared.  I’m the mom. I get to make declarations like that. Particularly when my toes are cramping, my bright lights can’t possibly be bright enough, and there’s 75 kilometers more of black road in front of us. A koala siting was what we needed to get us home.

Austin quieted back down again, seeming to know he stood no chance against two women in the front seat.  Emmi continued her expert piloting, and I pressed on.  Somewhere at the end of this black track was a cold bottle of chardonnay.  I was determined to get to it without a dead kangaroo as my hood ornament.

The wine’s never tasted so good.


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From the Outback and Beyond Sun, 09 Aug 2009 01:36:32 +0000 Powell Berger The end of the road, Litchfield Safari Camp
Let the good times roll!

When your imagination wanders and you think of the movie-esque campground of the rugged Australian Outback, images of desolate scrub, horizons stretching beyond normal vision under a scorching sun, an oasis of sorts at the end of a dusty, narrow dirt road, and perhaps an old, faded blue tarp draped over some form of a dusty office outpost where, hopefully, someone in an Outback hat will eventually emerge and grant you a plot of ground for the night.  Well, at least that’s what I imagined, and at Litchfield Safari Camp, I met my imaginary match.  Rural, remote, dusty and absolutely perfect.

We trekked up from Katherine, and like everything in Australia, were reminded that it’s a long way from here to there.  It looks simple enough, maybe three hours between Katherine and the Litchfield turn-off, but as Columbus and I have discovered, the good stuff is always way off the highway, and in this case, our campground was at the end of the road, literally.   Now old-hands at the road-tripping aspect of RVing, we almost looked forward to our numerous encounters with Australia’s ubiquitous Outback road-trains, which Bill Bryson best describes as “…multilayered trucks up to 150 feet long…coming at you at full throttle on a two lane highway where it desires all of its lane and some of yours.  (It’s) an explosive whoomp as you hit its displaced air, followed at once by a consequent lurch onto the shoulder, several moments of hypermanic axle action sufficient to loosen dental fillings and empty your pockets of coins, an enveloping shroud of gritty red duFlorence Falls, Litchfieldst and the metallic dinks and savage thumps of flying rocks, some involuntary oral emissions on your part as the dust clears…and a sudden, miraculous return to tranquility and smoothness as the car regains the pavement, entirely of its own volition. ” And Bryson didn’t encounter road-trains from an RV, with two children.  Suffice it to say, we were ready for a tinnie from the esky by the time we rolled into Litchfield.

Waterfalls, monsoon rain forests, termite mounds the size of small huts, and desolate scrub to the horizon and beyond, Litchfield doesn’t disappoint.  Trekking into the rainforest surrounding Wangi Falls, we found ourselves in a Halloween haunted house of sorts, hundreds of bats hanging in the trees above us, screeching wildly as they jousted for position, and spider webs encapsulating large chunks of the forest, home to the scores of massive Orb spiders we’ve come to love.  The trek to Tolmer Falls took us through rugged scrub and over rock cliffs, rewarding us with magnificent vistas of the falls and the horizon beyond.  At Florence Falls — the crown jewel of the bunch — Dundee was ecstatic as he swam under the falls and into  the caves, while Sacagawea and I enjoyed swimming with the fish a bit closer to the bans.  Exploring Buley Rockhole after lunch, quietly aware that our adventures were drawing to a close, Dundee and I were climbing over the rocks to our next swimming hole when he reached back and took my hand.  ”Let me help you, mom,” he said quietly.

Thousands of miles, countless adventures, moments to treasure a lifetime.

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Vagabonding through the Top End Outback Thu, 30 Jul 2009 00:15:42 +0000 Powell Berger

Australia’s Top End, Northern Territory.  Vast, mysterious, rugged . . . a place that even most Australians seem not to find.  You know from the moment you land in Darwin:  this is  a strange and wonderful place.  Two flights and some twelve hours after bidding farewell to the Sundancer,  we groggily stumbled into Darwin’s airport at 1AM, stunned to find the place humming.  Flights coming and going, bars and restaurants at full swing, and people everywhere.  It’s a long way, and only a certain breed finds their way here, so the airlines squeeze those revenues in the middle of the night, getting the planes safely back to points south for daylight, civilized travel.  Yep.  This is gonna be a wonderfully wild ride.

Headin' home after a wild ride with the crocs

Headin' home after a wild ride with the crocs

Hoses to fill tanks and empty tanks…and make sure to remember to distinguish the fresh water fill hose from the brown water empty.  And the bathroom…images of Robin Williams emptying the tank in the movie RV convinced even the kids that the bathroom offered a wonderful spot to change clothes.  Nothing more.  There’s  really only one way to experience this part of Australia’s wildnerness – up close and personal – so settled into our 22’ traveling home, we set off, still chugging down the wrong side of the road, but Columbus now feeling quite comfortable over there and me now resisting the need to lean to keep us on track.

First stop:  Sacagawea’s jumping croc cruise.  She’d heard of these crazy adventures before we left home, and this was her pick of the trip. We followed the directions, from the surfaced highway, to the gravel road, to the dirt track down towards the river, where we met up with Morgan, our guide for the afternoon.  “Oh yeah, that’s Godfrey,” he said as we excitedly pointed to this monstrous, prehistoric creature watching us from the water, a few meters away.  From our perch in the tinnie, we came up close and personal with Godfrey (a big guy at 5 meters and 100 years old) and his many friends up and down the Adelaide River as Morgan rammed the boat into the shoreline so the crocs could lumber up for a snack.  Jaw-dropping and utterly prehistoric…. amazing.  And what an introduction to the Top End!

From Mary River National Park to Kakadu and now Nitmiluk in Katherine, we’ve been amazed, moved and inspired by this magical place. This is Aboriginal country, with a history that dates back some 50,000 years, indigenous art to tell the story, and landscape unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  As the sun settled into the afternoon sky, we climbed to the top of Ubirr to gaze across the mass Arnhem lands, extending forever across the horizon.  At Nourlangie, we discovered the settlement nestled in the massive rock formation, emblazoned with art dating back thousands of years.  We watched the sunrise over the Yellow Waters of Cooinda as jabirus, sea eagles, kites, and kingfishers soared overhead and crocs rested comfortably up and down the shore.  Then later that day, welcomed the setting sun from the waters of Katherine Gorge, floating among the cavernous cliffs of gorges older than time.  We’ve held our breath as wallabies and kangaroos gather by the dozens in the early mornings and late afternoons, scavenging for food and casting a curious and trusting eye our way.

Settled into a wonderful routine of self-contained living, we’ve enjoyed breakfasts with the sunrise, lunch in whatever park or scenic vista we stumble upon, and dinner under the stars in state parks across the region.  Grilling steaks and burgers on the communal barbies, Columbus has honed his skills in this most revered Aussie male ritual, and has found new travelling friends along the way.

Feeling a million miles away from civilization – and not terribly interested in figuring out how to find it again anytime soon – we’ve honed new skills, discovered new wonders, and found, in ourselves and each other, nuggets we never knew were there.  Yes, it’s a magically wonderful place, indeed.

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Captain, Chef, Conchologist, Hosts, Friends — The Tale of an Amazing Couple Sat, 25 Jul 2009 09:05:44 +0000 Powell Berger John Boyce has had sailing in his blood since he was a kid.  That’s obvious the moment you step aboard.  He designed every inch of this boat, and carefully directed its creation over 3 1/2 years; his vision, the perfect private charter vessel.  By our measure, the reality exceeds his wildest expectations.

Lynne Boyce is just one of those women.  You marvel at her; you admire her; you learn from her . . . and you secretly wonder if she isn’t stashing Superman’s kryptonite in her small cabin below.  How else does she possibly pull it all off so effortlessly?

Together, Lynne and John are a match made in heaven — or perhaps at sea.  Lynne left her native England to explore the world, found her passion in shell collecting, and migrated to Australia on the whimsical tales of Banfield’s Confessions of a Beachcomber. John’s had sailing in his blood since childhood, and mixed with a good measure of entrepreneurial adventure, he seemed destined to a life of adventure on the water.  Together, they’ve been chartering adventures around Sydney during the summers and the Whitsundays by winter for well over two decades.  And by our measure, there’s no chance of them getting bored and moving on anytime soon.

Lynne’s life’s passion — the shells, the seas they inhabit, and the amazing symbiosis that makes nature so enchanting — is infectious.  She’s not just a guide through this spectacular world; she’s it’s steward, and she brings her guests into its spell. And she manages to do it while the chicken’s in the oven, the prawns are marinating in the galley, and the potatoes await her touch to peel and prepare.  Three gourmet meals per day appear effortlessly, and between each, adventures to some of the most spectacular vistas, waters and hidden gems of this Australian paradise. . . . and she does it all, smiling, welcoming, effortlessly.

John, the quintessential  captain, takes the helm, charts the course, and brings the adventure up close and personal for each of us…while always making sure the chardonnay is chilled and ready in time for sunset.  His vintage Aussie charm and quick wit give way to delightful conversation, and he’s quick to find the passion in each of us.  He’s taken Dundee under his wing, sharing sailing instruction and stories of the seas, while he and Sacagawea have become fast friends, affectionately nicknaming her “Zoomie” for her lightening speed underwater.

Our week in the Whitsundays has been magical, to be sure.  Memories will last a lifetime, and perhaps we’ve been changed, if even just slightly, by the wonder and inspiration of this special place.  Seasoned vagabonders always say, tho, that it’s the friends you make along the road that make travel special, weaving the fabric of connectivity between people and lands.  I’m quite sure we now understand exactly what they mean.

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Whale Songs & Manta Rays Fri, 24 Jul 2009 00:29:02 +0000 Powell Berger  

Manta Rays on the outer reef

Manta Rays on the outer reef


So beautiful...

So beautiful...


Blogging, even from the Outer Reef!

Blogging, even from the Outer Reef!

Holding our breath as we snorkeled, we could hear the distinctly magical sounds of whale songs wafting across the currents.  Absolutely magical….but not necessarily a surprise.  We’d been escorted by whales as we sailed to the outer reef yesterday morning, some 40 miles off shore and a beautiful three hour sail from our overnight mooring nestled amidst these special islands.  Pods of whales swam with us, tails slapping the water, adults and babies leaping out of the water.  While we were often the only boat in sight, we were definitely not alone.

I’ve dreamed of exploring the Great Barrier Reef since I was no older than Sacagawea and my older brother brought me shells from this spectacular paradise, so far away.  This week’s adventure has been the realization of that dream, and today’s excursion to the outer reef, the exclamation point.  With images of Finding Nemo dancing in our minds, we set out, swimming over the edge and into the deep blue sea. gliding over coral gardens as Nemos — oops, I mean, clownfish — darted in and out. We gazed into caves to see what treasures they held, and lay still in amazement as reef sharks darted just in front of us.

As stewards of this magnificent place, Lynne and John are careful to make sure we’re in the right place at the right time.  Lynne made sure we finished lunch quickly and admonished us that the dishes could wait:  we’ve got a date to make.  It seems that manta rays congregate on certain corals, just at certain times based on the tides.  She’d checked the charts, and we weren’t going to miss out.  As if on cue, there they were, lazing around the coral as we approached in the tender.  An amazing sight, these magnificent, gentle creatures . . . as we swam with them, they’d glide up and around us, as if to say hello, then dart off to the next coral, waiting to see if we’d follow.   Eyes wide, we eagerly played along, gliding gently above them as they rested, them swimming madly across to the next stop as they darted away.  Quite a game of hide and seek, and we loved every minute of it!

We’ve enjoyed 24 hours on the outer reef, snorkeling time and again, and watching in amazement as the tides continually change the seascape — reefs popping up above the water’s edge, then disappearing again a few hours later.  Still waters on top, betraying the strength of the strong currents below.  And at night, after the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, the stars exploded across the sky, dancing across the Milky Way in a celestial ballet unlike any we’ve ever seen.  The waters gently rocked us to sleep, and awoke us again as the sun slipped back into the morning sky.  Often alone — not another boat in sight — in this magical place, we couldn’t help be awed by the splendor, and humbled by our great fortune to have found this boat, these guides, and this experience.  Lucky, indeed.

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