The Ghan is widely regarded as one of the worlds great train journeys, rivalling the Moscow-Vladivostok, the Orient Express and the India-Pacific lines for scenic grandeur. The journey in its entirety takes a mammoth 4 days to traverse the entire continent from the far northern reaches of Darwin, all the way to Adelaide on the south coast. Fortunately, we would be boarding the train at Alice Springs about 1/2 way into its time on the rails. Nevertheless we still had a rather epic 20 hour ride ahead of us.
Being as this was the case, we ensured that we were well prepared by stocking up on sufficient sustenance to last the entire trip and hopefully prevent us from having to waste any cash on overpriced buffet car beverages.
Arriving at the platform, it soon became clear to us exactly why the Ghan has its reputation amongst train buffs. It was huge. The carriages stretched along the platform as far as the eye could see in either direction, and was quite something to behold as it rumbled into the station. Typically enough, our carriage was the furthest away from the waiting room, and we had to trudge sweatily for a good ten mintues laden down with bacpacks, daypacks and carrier bags stuffed full of food and drinks.
The trip began most smoothly, and we sedately rolled out of Alice springs station and into the outback. We were rolling along at a pedestrian rate as the town slowly dropped away into the distance, to be replaced by endless tracks of bright red sand pierced by occasional spinifex bushes. It all felt rather rugged and really gave us another sense of the sheer scale of the centre of Australia. We had rather naively assumed that the train speed would increase somewhat when we pulled clear of Alice springs but frankly, should have know better.
We had only been en route for something like 2 hours when the train slowly ground to a halt. Curiously, we glanced around looking for anything that could have neccessitaed this momentary pause in our momentum, but no reason was forthcoming. Eventually, the train manager (Called-rather obviously-Bruce) piped up over the tannoy and cheerfully announced that we had "A busted locomotive". A "Busted locomotive?" Dunc audibaly enquired. "We're miles from bloody anywhere here and now we've got a 'Busted Locomotive?'". Fortunately, just as he was wondering how long it would take before cannabalism would become neccessary to survive in the desert, the train juddered free and began to carry on..... for about 30 minutes.
Clearly someone somewhere had decided that a 20 hour train ride in a couple of cheap seats just wasn't taxing enough so had decided to make things a little more interesting. This was holding us up and it wasn't until we reached a nearby siding that the drivers were able to swap the lead loco out for the "Spare" and we could attempt to pull back some of the time we'd lost.
As the evening wore on, boredom began to set in - The irritatingly vociferous old woman perched about five seats ahead of us was really beginning to grate on our nerves and the distraction of the godawful film "Because of Win-Dixie" was not helping in any sense - with the unendingly monotonous scenery and increasingly unfomfortable seats. We had a brief moment of excitement when a drunken passenger rowdily kicked up a fuss in the carriage ahead of ours, and spent many minutes eagerly peering through the window as he was dragged out of his seat and given a stern talking to by the train duty manager and immensly bulky chef (who had obviously been radioed and asked to come down and apply a little 'intimidation' to this overtly raucous character). This little tete-a-tete was all to brief, and we soon had to return to our books and sandwiches to pass the time.
We had left Alice springs at midday on Thursday, and finally pulled into Adelaide 2 hours late at 11am Friday morning, only to have to trudge our weary carcasses all the way back along the platform to the beginning where our hostel courtesy bus was waiting, complete with grinning hostel driver who hurried us onto the transport before waiting around for a good hour or so for some others who were due in but had clearly missed the train/fallen asleep/got lost etc. By the time we eventually got to check into our room, the hostel bed looked like quite possibly the comfiest thing in the history of the universe.... ever.
Rather than a fully fledged city, Adelaide has more of a reputation as being an overgrown market and agricultural town, where life slows to a crawl and the people always have time to chat. Being as the only place we'd visited in Australia that was even remotely fast paced was Sydney, we felt that this could potentially be quite an endorsement and by osmosis, quite a relaxed place to spend a few lazy days.
As it turned out, this was most definitely the case. We set out for a brief exploration of this unhurried slice of Australian urbana, and ended up feeling rather taken by it. The streets were wide, roomy and clean, and the whole place seemed to take great pride in its status as the capital of the primary pastoral and (South Australians will argue, at least) gastronomical state in Australia. Adding to the rural feel of the city was the fact that whenever we paused to glance along one of the busy and arrow straight main roads within the CBD, we didn't have to look far into the distance to see rolling hills and lush pastoral land.
During our meanderings, we stumbled across the quite fantastic central market. This is an old school " 'free apples for a paahnd love" style market, and was crammed with all manner of vendors gleefully showing off their produce. The fare was varied and intruiguing, and Dunc especially enjoyed surveying the stalls and repeatedly imagining what it would be like to be in possession of a few bucks and be able to feast on some of the fine meat, fruit, vegetables, breads and other more exotic goods on display. Just when it appeared that he was running the risk of drowning in his own drool, Vickie decided to placate her salivating other half by purchasing two of the largest peaches we had ever seen - once she had sufficiently fondled them and was satisfied as to their quality at any rate - before eagerly tucking into said foodstuffs on our way back to the hostel.
We needed to book our train journey to Melbourne for later that week, so Dunc strolled over to the hostels travel desk to sort our arrangements out that evening. As he did so, he remembered that they give away free internet time with each tour booking (we had found that out when we booked our barossa valley wine tour with them previously). A cunning plan began to formulate in his mind, and he gently enquired as to whether a train ticket counted as a "tour". The response was a mildly non-commital "Erm... not really", to which Dunc persisted and pointed out that we were staying there the whole week, and surely they could help us out just this once. The girl behind the desk acquiesced, and Dunc promptly spun on his heels, strode purposefully to the nearby hostel "shop/fridge" and returned clutching a couple of chocolate bars. Smiling his most charming smile, he pointed out that these sugary treats were worth the same monetary value as the free internet on offer, and could he possibly have those instead. The desk girl was momentarily flummoxed, but a couple of "pretty please" style pleads caused her to blush and cave way, and Dunc jauntily hopped back to our room flaunting the chocolate bars at Vickie - who was just about to chastise him for spending our money on such frivolous items - and feeling altogether rather smug about the whole affair.
We felt in need of a touch of culture the following day, so we decided to pay a visit to the museum of south australia (safe in the knowledge that said museum was free and would take up a couple of dead hours thinly masquerading as education). However, by this point in our journey, we should have realised that nothing is ever quite that simple where we are concerned, and instead of strolling straight into a mueseum with sage looks on our faces, we got completely distracted by the vibrant and much more interesting looking kids toy jumble sale taking up the entire museum forecourt. Well, if this wasn't just about the most fun thing in the world!
We ambled around the various stalls, taking it in turns to excitedly stop at one before grabbing something that reminded us of our youths and cooing nostalgically to knowing smiles from the other. Dunc in particular seemed to get especially passionate when he stumbled across some mint condition old transformers and zoids, and only the gentle (and surprisingly sympathetic) discouragement from Vickie prevented him from handing over his cash and sitting contentedly cross-legged in the middle of the forecourt playing with his new finds and making "Vroom, vroom, you'll never defeat me Optimus Prime!" type noises.
Unfortunately, playtime had to finish eventually, so we headed for the museum and spent an absorbing couple of hours considering the huge range of aborigional artifacts and information boards detailing the noble and proud history of this race of people. We found it a little hard to get to drawn into the whole feeling though, as on our way to the museum, we had seen several groups of aborigional people sitting in clusters - in much the same state as in Alice Springs - usually drunk and occasionally rather shirty and breaking out into arguments before smashing stuff and sitting down again. Again, the messages coming across were more than a little mixed.
Just as we were feeling rather learned and sage upon leaving the museum, we chanced upon some odd goings on near the kids market. It appeared that a travelling troupe of adolescent dancers had taken up residence on the pavement, and were regalling a slightly disinterested crowd with some biblically awful break-dancing and funk groove (or whatever the kids are calling it these days). Dunc swiftly grabbed the video camera to video the clip-board holding woman who was frantically trying to co-ordinate the enthusiastic young performers, pausing only slightly to tell off the more "rythmically challanged" kids for not being able to back-flip properly or theatrically grabbing the ridge of her nose in a "Gah, who'd be an artiste!" style pose. Enthralling stuff.
After such a roller-coaster of a day, we both concurred that we needed to break into some of our remaining budget for a happy hour beer in one of Adelaides numerous hosteleries. To this end, we found a suitable looking place, and sat furtively in the corner of the bar trying to avoid the gaze of the barlady who clearly wanted us to purchase something to justify us scruffying up her establishment and watched the clock tick ever so slowly round to five o clock (it was now half past four). As the clock struck five, Dunc leapt to the bar and ordered two pints of our now favourite tibble VB, only to be told by the barlady - who could scarecly disguise her mirth and disdain for us - that their taps were broken and wouldn't be fixed for a couple of days. Gutted wasnt quite the word, and the mood wasn't helped by the next two pubs that we tried being closed. Vickie seemed to take this development especially hard, and spent the next couple of hours growling menacingly like a glaswegian drunk about how she was "really looking forward to a beer... what's the matter with this city? I thought Australians liked to drink!"
One of the activities we were particularly looking forward to during our time in Adelaide was a day trip into the renowned Barossa Valley. The Barossa Valley - along with the Napa Valley in California - is arguably the most famed wine region in the world, and is jammed tighter than a barrel of freshly squeezed grapes with quality wines and wineries. Bring it on. We were picked up early by Matt, our highly entertaining guide, who spent most of the day amusing us with anecdotes and occasionally slightly blue tales - it was already pretty clear that this was going to have a whole different atmosphere than our previous wine tour in New Zealand. Our first stop prior to hitting the alcohol was the "Worlds largest rocking horse". This gargantuan wooden structure, measuring about 4 stories high, sat next to a small locally owned wooden toy shop. It was quite the most impressive shop sign we'd ever seen, and we pondered just what neuron fired in the local owners to inspire them to construct such an equine behemoth. The shop itself was a charming little place and very reminicant of an old school christmas movie from the 1920's. We were slightly dissapointed when we peered into the back workroom and were not greeted by dozens of rozy cheeked elfish workers skipping and rhyming as they sprinkled the toys with "magic dust", but instead by a grizzled and leathery old Aussie chap, who barely registered our presence before re-focussing on his next construction. Vickie fell in love with the place, and only the rapidly departing tour bus persuaded her to put down the toys and reluctantly depart.
First stop on the wine trail was the famed Jacobs Creek. Pretty much a household name back home in Blighty, the large signs were instantly recognisable and Vickie was already smacking her lips at the prospect of getting amongst the tasting samples. We briefly disembarked to allow us to take some pictures of one of their vineyards, at which point our guide saw fit to let us know that the Barossa Valley is home to almost all of the most venemous snakes in the world, and that the nearby anti-venom centre is deliberately situated so that it it never more than a 20 minute drive away from anywhere in the valley. He also announced with a smirk that we were better off getting bitten now than at the end of the day, because a belly full of wine would thin our blood and take a good 10 minutes off our survival time - combine this with panicking and jumping up and down post-bite, and our time would be cut by half an hour. The average length of time that backpackers spend picking grapes in the valley is a mere 5 days due primarily to the fact that once a few taipans have slithered over their flip-flopped feet, they tend to get a touch of the willies about returning to the field.
Fortunately, he tempered this by letting us know that they had "only" had 5 bites in the last 6 years, and all of those were Japanese tourists who insisted on picking the snakes up because it might make a groovy pic for the family back in Osaka. Duely warned, we tentatively took a couple of shots before diving briskly back onto the bus and returning on our way. As we neared the winery, we passed 'the' Jacobs creek - the actual creek where everything began. Matt was quite surprised to see that the Jacobs Creek sign was actually in situ over the water. Evidently, it's the second most stolen sign in the whole of Australia, only being pipped by the Ramsey Street sign in Melbourne. Safe to say that had pretty much spoilt our plans to take the sign ourselves.
The Jacobs creek visitors centre was a most swish affair, immaculately done out in a very modern style. We were greeted by our winery guide, who puffed visibly when she pointed out to us that the walls were made of recycled coke bottles - Dunc hadn't had a diet coke in days but Vickie rapidly talked him out of licking the wallpaper to quell his craving - as was the floor. We were given 6 generous tastings at the bar and by the time we made it back to the bus, people were already feeling less reserved and rather more chatty on the way to our second winery. Richmond Grove was our destination, and we were given an interesting tour that showed us the traditional basket-pressing methods that are still used today, before being given a further 7 or so wines to taste.
It was now lunchtime which was set to happen on the pretty green lawns at the back of the winery. A traditional aussie BBQ was on the cards, and Dunc for one was like a kid at christmas at the prospect of grilled animal to feast on instead of pasta and toast. Also on the menu was something neither of us had tried before, Kangaroo. Repeated references to Skippy coupled with our time at various zoos and animal sanctuaries had pretty much dissuaded Vickie from giving it a try, and she pursed her face up in disgust at Dunc troughing himself and making "mmmmm, Skippy tastes gooood" noises. Eventually though, peer pressure caused her to crack, and she tentatively skewered a tender chunk of 'roo and dipped it in sweet chilli sauce before chewing it slowly. Her face lightened up and she confessed that, actually, Skippy did taste rather good. She still refused a second chunk on moral grounds though.
Next up was the snug Bethany winery situated atop one of the many hills with beautiful views of the autumnal country-side. The staff at Bethany were clearly enthusiastic about their chosen careers and couldn't give us enough wine. Being the ever polite Brits that we are, we couldn't refuse, and 13(!) tastings later, we were beginning to feel rather "comfortable". Dunc decided to pass some of the time there by picking almonds off the nearby trees before bashing them open caveman-style with a large rock.
Our final winery was the locally owned, rather exclusive Vinecrest Winery, which takes pleasure in its 'organic ingredients only' tag. As it all seemed very classy, and we were informed that they never export any of their wine apart from by special request, Vickie broke out the puppy dog eyes and took advantage of a now very 'mellow' Dunc, persuading him to blow a big chunk of our remaining budget on a couple of rather agreeable bottles for a 'special occasion' back home. Needless to say, the journey back was a very quiet one, with many people being struck down by a case of "The commuter nods" on our way back. It was all getting a bit much for Vickie, and upon our return to the hostel, she flumped into bed and passed out, leaving Dunc to prepare dinner alone whilst she snored and dribbled her way through the remainder of the evening.
The rest of the week was spent lazily sampling the rest of what Adelaide had to offer which, it had to be said, wasn't a great deal. We took a stroll along the attractive torrens river to have a brief look at the Adelaide oval, said to be the prettiest cricket ground in the world, before heading onwards to the south australian aquatic centre for a bit of a swim in an attempt to contiune our recent excersise regime and catch some more rays before our eventual return home. We also jumped onto one of Adelaide's historic trams for a trip down to the nearby beach resort town of Glenelg for a stressful afternoon spent lounging on the beach and idly wondering if there were any Great White sharks in the area, what with this being shark season and all.
Soon enough, the our time in this sedate south australian city came to a close, and we needed to steel ourselves for an upcoming 11 hour train ride back to the starting point of our Australian tour, the victorian capital of Melbourne.
It had taken nearly 3 months in total, but our Australian adventure had finally come completely full circle and brought us back to Melbourne. This time we were to be staying with some good friends Chris and Leona who had volunteered their spare bed for the week or so we were due to be in town. Being as it was pretty much our last stop (besides Hong Kong) before returning home, money was needless to say a touch on the tight side, and budgeting was most definitely the order of the day.
On the bright side, the journey from Adelaide on the Ghan's sister train, the Overland, was pretty much free of the usual public transport irritants (noticably, there was a distinct absence of coughing, hacking, farting and burping people, which was a definite plus), and we arrived in Melbourne in reasonably good order. The train from Melbourne city centre out to the suburbs where Chris was to meet us was a touch more eventful though, as we had to negotiate our way past a heroically drunk Maori fellow who was polite and chatty as long as you indulged him in conversation, but rapidly became quite agitated if your chats didn't include him. Fortunately, the train filled up and we ended up with a few people between us and him so he soon became distracted with bothering them instead. However, the chap that plonked himself down opposite Dunc soon jumped into a lengthy conversation with us about everything and nothing, and clearly felt comfortable enough in our presence to confide that he'd just been released from prison. Dunc considered asking why he'd been clinked up in the first place, but this chap wasn't shy in the slightest, and revealed that it was for being drunk in a car, driving whilst disqualified. Quite. We were pretty relieved to pull up to the station to be greeted by a grinning Chris who taxied us over to his place in a much more comfortable manner.
As things stood, we were less than impressed with the autumnal melbournian weather, especially when a large thunderstorm rolled over the area on saturday. Vickie seemed most perturbed by this, but when Leona enquired as to why, she simply pointed out that she was running out of sunbathing days, and needed to get out into the garden sharpish because "My tan is fading and i don't want to go home all white". Nontheless, our surroundings were comfy and friendly, so we had no qualms about spending a couple of sloth-like days lounging on sofas and watching the tv.
On sunday, we decided to briefly venture out and investigate the nearby Berwick agricultural show. This is an annual event in much the same vein as the maynooth loggers festival we had sampled in Canada, only with much more livestock kicking about. As we strolled around the show jumping and assorted arenas, our attention was snagged by some commotion off in one of the side arenas. It turned out that there was a rather unique form of logging competition occouring, whereby groups of moderately insane axe wielding lumberjack types had to batter their way up the side of a log, holding themselves in with planks of wood, before attacking a specially placed log at the very summit of their climb. It was one of those surreal and enthralling spectacles that you really had to see to fully appreciate, but the sight of these beefy chaps balancing precariously on the side of a 20 foot tree whilst hacking vigerously at it was a rather special slice of entertainment on a lazy sunday. Dunc and Chris decided that there was a little too much testosterone kicking about, so removed the girls from the area before they got too swept up in the atmosphere.
As Melbourne was rapidly gearing up for the forthcoming commonwealth games, we couldn't not pop back into the city to have a butchers at what they were up to on the preperations front. We were greeted with an odd spectacle when we noticed a large string of humungous metallic fish on floating platforms stretching for some considerable distance along the yarra river. Apparently the authorities had chosen a fish for each individual country, and sure enough, there was just about every species from Hammerhead sharks to loggerhead turtles on display. A couple of weeks after we had left the city, we saw what they had planned for these chaps when we caught the opening ceremony on tv. They basically wanted to blow them up in an impressive fireworks display leading right up to the lighting of the torch. Needless to say, calls of "We were just there!" rang out long into the broadcast.
As we meandered through the city, we stumbled once more across the gargantuan crown casino. We glanced at each other, fished about for our last $5 note, and said in unison "Oh what the hell, we might win some beer money". We strode purposefully into the casino, only for Vickie to be stopped at the door and asked how old she was. Unfortunately, this question seemed to throw her somewhat, and she glanced wide eyed at Dunc and asked him "How old am i?". Duncs face dropped and he stifled the giggles just enough to point out that she was 28. However, this little display of memory incompetence convinced the bouncer that he needed more proof of her age, and requested that she go back to the cloakroom and retrieve her passport. He studied it long and hard, seemingly unwilling to believe that she was, in fact, comfortably over 18, before eventually relenting and suggesting that she might want to keep her passport on her because she'll probably get stopped again.
After that palava, we shuffled over to the only roulette table that took bets as small as $5, hung around shiftily for a bit, watched a bloke hand over a wad of $50 notes for chips, before handing over our paltry cash and asking for the same. The croupier looked a little non-plussed as he handed us two $2.50 (about £1.10) chips with a sigh. We briefly considered if we should just bet $2.50 at a time, but soon concluded that we looked quite pathetic enough as it was. We were determined to bet big. We put the whole shooting match on black. And lost. We grumped out of the casino having learnt a valuable lesson as to the futility of gambling when you haven't really got any money to lose. Bah.
Later in the week, we borrowed Leonas car and travelled down the Mornington Peninsula to the pretty little seaside town of sorrento and our date with a previously booked dolphin swimming expedition out into Port Phillip Bay. We were deliberately attempting to surpress our hopes, being as we'd previously been foiled in a shark dive in California and another dolphin swim in New Zealand. As we checked ourselves in and struggled into some very thick wetsuits - Vickie in particular was having an impressively comical time leaping around on the pier and grabbing at herself in a vain attempt to fit the huge suit over her body, and occasionaly needed Duncs assistance to "Power wedgie" her into it - we were told that the dolphins were nearby and we shouldn't have any trouble. A likely tale. The other consideration that would probably complicate matters slightly was the manner in which we would be 'swimming'. As port phillip bay has such a strong tide, simply hopping off the side of the boat isn't really an option unless you fancied getting swept off into the Great Australian Bight, so we actually had to cling onto ropes hanging from the back of the boat, and wait for the dolphins to come to us. This was all getting rather complex.
We did in fact spot some of the elusive marine mammals as soon as we departed, and rapidly prepared to join them in the water. However, pretty much as soon as we'd got "snorkelled up" and began hanging off the back of the boat, the regular cross bay ferry ploughed past us, causing all the dolphins to bugger off and ride its wake across the bay instead. Foiled. Now the problem we were facing was that we were wet, cold, and distinctly unable to spot any more dolphins for over an hour. We were clearly jinxed. Our fortunes only took an upturn when, after scouring the bay for an eternity, the tide began to drop and the dolphins began to reaccumulate near where we had started off. We made full steam to greet them, and wasted no time in leaping into the water when they came near.
When we finally did see a pod swim underneath the boat, it was nothing short of fantastic. These weren't trained dolphins in a tank in sea world, but genuine wild animals who'd come to take a look at these oddly un-coordinated creatures that were flailing about in their backyard. The only things dampening our enthusiasm were the raucous orders being barked at us from the boat hollering about where the next pod was coming in from, and the lack of water ability of many of the other swimmers meaning that we seemed to spend just as much time pushing feet and arses out of our faces as we did looking at the dolphins. Although it wasn't quite the serene and spiritual experience we were expecting, it was still an absorbing and incredible day, and we were more than chuffed that, right at the end of our trip, we had finally achieved our goal of sharing some water with some genuinely wild dolphins. Nice one
With that, all that remained for us to do for the remainder of the week was to spend some quality time in Chris and Leonas garden catching some last minute sun, and to gather together our things to prepare for the very last leg of our journey, to the culturally unique chinese principality of Hong Kong, and the prospect of chinese food, street markets and lots and lots of shopping.