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Day Two of the Bluesfest, just as Day One, I spent my time moving between tents discovering a handful of fantastic artists. Kat and I also took a break from the main stages to explore the rest of the festival, including the Original Musician Competition. We took a seat on the grass to watch the Mojo Bluesmen – two guys, one with a guitar, one with a loudspeaker as a microphone and harmonica. The harmonica player looked a bit like a plump sheepdog, but other than that they were pretty great. At The Avett Brothers performance we met two brothers, Danny and Ben who we hung out with the rest of our time at Bluesfest. They were Australians who spend most of their lives skiing and snowboarding around the world. Tough life. When we met them, they were back in their home country for the summer tour season including, of course, Byron Bay.

I was definitely getting used to festival life.

Martinez Trio

Chilean band, the Martinez Trio are a father and sons group led by Victor Martinez. I have to say I didn’t know that when I saw them performing on the Apra Stage at Bluesfest, but it makes a lot of sense. It was clear that they were purely loving their time together on stage, completely wrapped up in their music.

The three men seemed to be improvising the entire performance, although I can’t believe this was anything but a well rehearsed show. I’m not a musician, but even I understand that for three individuals to play together so seamlessly at the sheer pace that these guys were playing at is damn well difficult. Their hands blurred across the guitar strings as they played separately, then two at a time, and finally together. And apparently a guitar isn’t just a guitar… it’s the percussion too. Who knew… With ‘nothing’ but three guitars, close your eyes and you could have a full band in front of you. This was a family purely loving their time on stage together.

Joe Bonamassa

I’ve already alluded to this, but while the Bluesfest was brimming with jaw-dropping talented musicians, the actual ‘blues’ musicians seem to be the minority. but Joe Bonamassa is certainly one of them. This really seemed to be what a modern blues and rock band should be, with real ‘blues-y’ lyrics (about losing things mostly…) fantastic guitar solos and a man who has clearly spent a lifetime loving and mastering his talent. It’s great to see someone of such renown and experience still putting everything into each and every performance.

At times, Joe’s hands were up in the air, eyes closed, totally focused on belting out his songs. Perfect Bluesfest band. Plus he was pretty grateful to be there since apparently it was his first time in Australia. “Anyone who knows my name in this country is a miracle, so thank you” he said.

The Avett Brothers

The Avett Bros were yet another band I didn’t know about, but they were one of my favourite performances of the week. A total mix of bluegrass, country, rock, pop and a lot more, this was sheer rowdy, infectiously crazy music. The brothers (Scott and Seth) plus standup bass player Bob Crawford along with the rest of their band have an electric stage presence. This was their first ever weekend in Australia and I’m certainly happy they came. Their most popular song and their big single is ‘I and Love and You’ but there was plenty to love.

Imelda May

I briefly stopped by the Jambalaya Stage to see a few minutes of Imelda May – an Irish woman with a rich soul voice that probably belongs in a different era, but sounded damn good in this one. She rocked out in her stylish tight black and white outfit, while her guitarist enjoyed the show in a rather loud Hawaiian shirt. But hey, the clothes don’t make the music. Thank goodness.

Jeff Beck

I left Imelda May’s stage early because I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see at least a few minutes of Jeff Beck live. You couldn’t help but feel a bit humbled and in awe listening to this guy. He has influenced and inspired some of the most famous musicians of the last five decades. Now I get to say I watched him play, including all the greats. Even a rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow.’

John Butler Trio

This was the big event of night. Australia’s most successful independent musician, John Butler Trio was the local hero of the day. His set was great and he definitely knew how to get the audience moving. Personally, I loved the improv (sort of) drum session. I knew this was one of the ‘tricks’ of their show, but it was still fantastic. As was John Butler’s acoustic solo songs – just him, his hat and his guitar in a spotlight.

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In 1990 when the Byron Bay Bluesfest began, it was actually held in Byron Bay. Imagine that. The Arts Factory – a hostel/campground that is well known to any backpackers that pass through the town was the first site. These days the festival has far outgrown its humble beginnings. For over a decade the site has moved around, while the organisers search for a permanent home, which they believe they have finally found this year at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. Eleven kilometres away from Byron Bay, the 2010 Bluesfest was actually closer to Brunswick Heads, but I suppose changing the name now would just be confusing.

If you still chose to stay in Byron Bay (and who can blame you) then you had to be prepared to open up your wallet. Hostels were almost doubling their prices, as were all the campgrounds in town and anywhere along the road towards Tyagarah. I decided to take the hit myself and stay at Main Beach Backpackers, which cost me $35/night for a dorm bed. I couldn’t say no to staying 20 metres away from Byron’s gorgeous beaches, although spending my days at the festival meant not a lot of time for sand and surf. Oh well.

After reuniting with some fellow Poms, Day One of Bluesfest began with a 20 minute bus trip on the $4 Bluesfest Shuttle. I could go on about how if they’re going to take the Bluesfest out of its hometown, shouldn’t they at least help people get there for free to compensate, but I won’t…

After I arrived, picked up my media pass and found my way to the press tent, I finally had time to properly peruse the schedule to figure out who I would actually have time to see. Always a problem at festivals – multiple stages mean overlapping performances; picking and choosing can be a painful process.

This year’s fest was centred around celebrating great guitar music from legends like Jeff Beck to eclectic world music bands like Tribali. There were enough musical geniuses around to blow anyone’s socks off.

The day had a good start with artists from the Brushfire Records label – Zee Avi, Neil Halstead and Matt Costa. From there I got to rock out with Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, jump around like a maniac with the Narasito Pan Pipers, stare in awe at Daniel Champagne, salsa to the Buena Vista Social Club and sing along to all my favourites by Jack Johnson. More thoughts on that in my Day One post.

What a great way to kick off the Easter holidays.

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Zee Avi

Zee Avi was the first performer on stage at the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Quite an honour. The petite Malaysian/American girl pulled the strap over her shoulder for a guitar that just about matched her in size. After playing Poppy, and a cover of Interpol’s Slow Hands Avi played her “only love song” Honeybee. She explained that the lyrics were about two non-conformists finding love. After a couple more tunes, she switched to an instrument much more her size – a ukulele. Zee Avi was a gentle, happy beginning to the five-day music celebration.

Neil Halstead

Neil Halstead added a drum beat to what had been Avi’s guitar only set. He rocked up to centre stage, thick bushy beard, fisherman’s hat, checkered shirt like he had just hopped off his fishing boat. Just like Zee Avi, and a lot of the Brushfire Records artists, his tunes are laid-back melodies that are easy to listen to without too much effort. Just smile, sway a little and maybe bop your head to the beat. Easy.

Matt Costa

The third and final act from the Brushfire Records was Matt Costa. Just like his two predecessors, Costa was just another musician (okay, a really good musician…) looking to have a good time and share his music with a largely new audience. They played songs shouted out from the crowd, they told stories about their lives – like moving and getting random strangers knocking on their doors selling Bibles, and they drank beers on stage.

Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea

After a little wandering around, I found myself standing in front of the stage for Jen Cloher’s band. A big difference from the Brushfire beginning where jumping around on stage would definitely not have seemed logical. Not so in Cloher’s case who spent her set jumping around jamming with her bandmates for song after song. In keeping with the trend, Cloher listened to her audience and seemed to truly appreciate her existing fans showing up to the festival. She played Better Off Dancing requested from a man in the crowd called Sam (also the name of the drummer’s dog, but Cloher insisted that the dog was really cute so the connection shouldn’t be taken the wrong way).

Narasito Pan Pipers

I left Jen Cloher’s tent and went exploring again. I eventually found myself in the First Nation tent and I’m so happy I did. The Narasito Pan Pipers –farmers and fishermen from the Solomon Islands. They combine their traditional music and dance with contemporary styles to create some of the most fun, can’t-help-but-dance-and-feel-good music I heard at the festival. In fact, I saw these guys twice during my days in Byron Bay. The energy and fun that came from their performances was irresistible. Near the end of their set, they explained that since they were at a Bluesfest, they wanted to play a blues song. Sounds logical. Except that they’re pan pipers from the Solomon Islands. So what do they do? Invite Jeremy – a tall, blonde haired man on stage to help them out. Okay, it wasn’t as random as that, Jeremy has worked with these guys in their village and afterwards. He brought his guitar and played a true blues song with the band. Probably something about his dog, but I can’t quite remember.

Daniel Champagne

Daniel Champagne was one of the Bluesfest lineup that is already well on his way to becoming a true guitar legend. I’m not a guitar player myself, but everyone, myself included, stood in awe in front of the Apra stage as his fingers moved across the guitar strings with unbelievable speed. During Pendulum, an instrumental song, Champagne’s face was clenched and his tongue was out with the effort. I wouldn’t have looked twice if the guitar had started smoking. Not kidding.

Jack Johnson

After Daniel Champagne, I had time to check out a little of the Buena Vista Social Club although I didn’t stick around because I knew I’d be seeing them later in the weekend. Then it was time to stake out my piece of grass at the Mojo Stage for the headlining act, Jack Johnson. What can I say? It’s Jack Johnson. He played all the crowd favourites, I sang along to every one, I got pushed and shoved, I was offered drugs. Everything I expected from the big act at the end of the night. I love live music, and I particularly love seeing the smaller lesser known acts. There’s that sense of intimacy and exclusivity that you don’t get anymore with a guy like Johnson. But you know, with all that, the night definitely ended in a high. Sometimes it’s nice to see a band play and sing along to all the songs with thousands of other people at the same time. A sense of collective appreciation.

Welcome to the Bluesfest.

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Now that I’m in Byron Bay I’ll be doing my best to update you all on what’s going on at one of Australia’s biggest music festivals – the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

Yesterday was the first day of the festival so I spent the afternoon/evening trudging around in the muddy fields flitting from tent to tent to check out some of the amazing music that is taking place here this week.

The selection is amazingly varied; I’m actually curious to find out what the criteria for performing here is, since there are plenty of bands that certainly do not fall under the category of ‘blues.’

From solo guitarists to folk bands, traditional pan pipers to Cuban 10 piece bands there’s something for just about everyone here.

Keep checking back for more details of how I spend my days. But for now, I’ve got a bus to catch for Day 2!

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Life in the outback opens up a whole new set of everyday experiences.

The sunrises and sunsets are almost always stunning. My camera’s memory is full of photo upon photo of the sun coming up and going down, but it still doesn’t get old. When the horizon seems to go on forever and your line of sight includes Australia’s most amazing natural wonders, it’s easy to see why. Even in between the morning and evening this place is hard to take for granted (even though I probably do, especially when I’m up at 4:30am for an early work shift and wishing I could be doing anything else…until the sun rises of course and I remember why I love this place).

During the day, if it’s sunny, the sky is a blue that you just don’t get in the big cities. Even on a rainy day, the Rock is covered in silver waterfalls barreling down every crevice. And at night: I have never seen so many stars. Apparently when you’re not surrounded by pollution you can actually see the Milky Way, plus whole other galaxies that look like clouds in the sky. For our guests at Longy, our guides do a ‘star talk’ and show them the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations, so thanks to them I know where the Southern Cross is and have seen all the zodiac signs that are currently in the sky – things I had never seen before.

Then there’s the wildlife. First there are the flies. Step outside and it’s like your face is covered in honey. They seem to fly straight for my eyes, nose, ears and mouth. I try not to think about how many I’ve swallowed. The extra protein in my diet isn’t worth the unpleasant feeling of an insect hitting the back of my throat. Trust me. Even the ants around here aren’t normal – here you get Inch Ants. No prizes for guessing why they got their name. On top of that are the endless grasshoppers, giant centipedes, and the oh-so-aromatic Stink Bug. There are plenty of things out here that eat all the little critters, but I’m not sure that’s any better since half of them can take down a human any day they feel like it too. Why a bug that only needs to kill tiny flies and ants has enough venom to take down any man is beyond me. Maybe the most literal sense of overkill ever…

First there are the snakes. So far I’ve come across a Western Brown Snake (NOT a snake you want to annoy) and what was apparently a Whip Snake jumping across my path. And I thought snakes only slithered…  The emergency call list in the office includes the numbers for the local fire department, medic centre, police, and snake catcher.

Then my favourite: spiders. It is amazing how much I have been forced to quell my usually uncontrollable arachnophobia. When a six inch long Hunstman suddenly crawls onto a table at dinner in the restaurant, I have to act like the cool, calm employee that has everything under control. Inside I’m screaming, but never have I exhibited such restraint around an eight-legged thing. Lately there’s been an outbreak of Golden Orb spiders – apparently harmless but I’d still rather keep my distance, and this past week whilst walking into a bathroom I looked up to see four Redbacks, one of which was getting ready to lay her eggs. The larger female Redback spiders are barely one centimeter long, but one bite would definitely ruin your day. I just found out that these little things can take down lizards 20 times their size, and the females eat the males WHILE they’re mating. Not a creature you want to annoy…

Some of the wildlife here is a lot more entertaining. Like the Blue Tongue Lizards, the really cute little Thorny Devils, the occasional dingo or herd of wild camels and the ever-colourful birds.

The pigeons and squirrels in London are never going to hold quite the same charm…

** Unfortunately I’m having trouble uploading photos onto WordPress at the moment, so please check out the links below for all my photos including the wildlife!

Ayers Rock

Ayers Rock 2

Kings Canyon – blog post coming soon

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I have been in airports a good number of times in my life, and every once in awhile, I’m sitting at my gate, maybe reading, listening to music or eavesdropping on the nearest conversation feeling all smug about how early I am when I see someone sprinting down the hall, trying to hold up their shoulder bag, maybe yelling at their girlfriend/husband/kids/etc. to hurry up as a voice echoes overhead “This is the final boarding call for flight BA 247 to Barcelona. Would all remaining passengers please make their way to Gate 15. Final boarding call for flight BA 247 to Barcelona.”

Well…

That was me. I was the idiot sprinting down the hall in Sydney airport, running to the front of the First Class check-in desks to beg the woman to let me get on the flight, getting stuck at security TWICE because I forgot to take out the nail scissors and bottle opener from my hand luggage, desperately searching the screens for my gate number which has already been taken off the screen because I’m so late, red-faced and panting as I get to the gate just before the staff members close the doors and getting all the haughty looks that I give out myself so often to that last guy who gets on the plane and can’t find a place for his bag overhead because it’s all full already. Yikes.

But I clearly did make the plane (just), and was on my way from Sydney to Ayers Rock. For whatever reason, I didn’t really pay attention at all to how long my flight was about to be, but when I realised that I would be getting a meal AND watching a film, it started to sink in how far I was really flying. And I wasn’t even going across the country; I was just getting to the middle.

I had a window seat and there were no clouds at all, so in between watching the film (The Invention of Lying, by the way, not a bad movie) I kept an eye on what we were flying over. Which was…nothing. Miles and miles and miles of red sand, bush, dry riverbanks, and nothing else. For the ENTIRE flight. I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under and in that book Bryson points out that “Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all inhabited continents. (Only Antartica is more hostile to life.)” So that’s what I saw. Dry, flat, red land.

After a few hours, it was there. Ayers Rock (or more traditionally, Uluru) was passing by my window, and what seemed like a stone’s throw away (it’s actually 20 kilometres) was a tiny line of little white tents – Longitude 131, my new place of work. I first heard about “Longy” when I wrote the article linked earlier during my time at Black Tomato. It was quite another thing to really see this place from the sky.

I was met at the airport by Kristy, my restaurant supervisor, who drove me around Yulara (the resort-town) to help me get a grasp of where everything was. Yulara has less than 2,000 residents and almost nobody here is actually from the Northern Territory. The ‘town’ is essentially one ring road with one of everything you need. One Post Office, one petrol station, one bank, one small library, one supermarket and so on. The ground is nothing but bright red dirt that now colours most of my clothes, and the bushes that cover the land seem to thrive despite all the odds. In fact, a lot of the bushes around here are completely blackened from previous fires and yet they are green with new leaves. In the middle of the ring road is a hill that gives you a good 360 degree view of the place and the hundreds of miles of nothingness that is behind every building. You can also see Kata Tjuta and Uluru (usually just called ‘the Rock’ around here) which are everyday sights since they’re both only a few kilometres away. After all, the only reason this town even exists is because of these huge monoliths.

I have never been quite so literally in the middle of nowhere.

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As I’m sure often happens with travel writers who are on the move, I have, for a few days, neglected this blog and have received plenty of comments, E-mails, and other messages of concern. My only excuse is that I became quite unstable (in regards to my location, not my mental health…), so first, my apologies.

I’m actually very eager to begin telling you about my current situation – living and working in Yulara: a ‘town’ (I don’t know what else to call it…a settlement? A village? A random group of buildings set in one of the most unlikely and uninhabitable places on Earth?) in Australia’s Northern Territory that exists for only one reason: Ayers Rock.

But first: a catchup. There’s a lot to fit in. I’ll try to keep it short.

The last time I wrote, I described the hard life on the coast of Australia. After that grueling weekend, I spent about two weeks in Canberra. Thanks to my lovely network of £10 Poms, I was able to sleep on a surprisingly comfortable Australian swag in my friend Toby’s living room.

My first full day in Canberra also happened to be Australia Day.* After a good day of celebrations, I spent my time learning a bit more about Australian history and listening to some groovy tunes.

I was actually the third £10 Pom to grace Toby’s floor, and a few days after my arrival, another one, Tom, arrived for a one-night visit from Sydney.

After Tom, the Brits kept coming. Chris, Kerri and Kat (who spent just a bit more than £10 to fly Down Under) arrived in their camper van after exploring Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road. I count Chris among my STA connections thanks to Cam and the lovely people at STA Travelbuzz.

During Tom’s visit, and again during the camper van crew’s stay, I visited Canberra’s War Memorial Museum and went to the top of Mount Ainslie. There was also a brief drive-by sighting of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The ‘tent’ part of that should be a clue –this embassy is actually a tent city of activists who have been living outside Canberra’s old Parliament building more or less constantly since the early seventies. Not a recognised embassy at all, it is a group campaigning for the rights of Australia’s indigenous population. While they are not, of course, fighting the same issues, it reminded me of the campers that live outside London’s Parliament. I suppose hanging out directly on the path of every politician’s morning commute is a pretty effective reminder.

I was really impressed with the War Museum, which is surprisingly enormous. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was more or less oblivious to Australia’s involvement in any wars past or present, despite their participation in just about every major war I’ve learnt about in school, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. Their perspective is very interesting; especially when it comes to the First World War. From what I saw at the museum, it seems the central most important event during WWI, to Australians, is the battle at Gallipoli. This was Australia’s first ever serious conflict. Were it not for my dad sending me the film ‘Gallipoli starring a very young Mel Gibson a few months ago, I would have walked into that room completely clueless. The battle brings up a few sore points in Australian history and at times I actually felt rather uncomfortable as a British person in the room. Luckily I left my Union Jack at home…

Next was Mount Ainslie for a birds eye view of Canberra. The city was built after Melbourne and Sydney couldn’t agree on which of them should be the nation’s capital, so somebody had the bright idea of building another city in the middle of nowhere. From the mount you can clearly see the perfect triangle that makes up the Parliamentary Triangle, leading down from the Parliament building across the manmade lake to the CBD, past the War Museum, to the Defence precinct and back across the lake to Parliament again.**

After all this guidebook following, I managed to spend one evening enjoying some jerk chicken and cold beer listening to my new Canberra friends DJ at a local café/art space/bar where I also acquired some funky retro heels. Who said backpacking was all about practicality?. Then on my last night in Canberra, Toby, his housemates and I found our way to a conference room at the Rex Hotel to see the launch of a band named Cousin Alice, after Alice – the person whose home I relaxed in during the tough weekend I’ve mentioned before. Alice described the band as ‘kind of a funky jazz and soul band’ so I’ll go with that. All I know is that they performed a very smooth version of Rihanna’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ that actually made the lyrics sound good during an evening of the kind of music everyone loves to sway to. Not a bad way to end my time in the ACT.

Phew. There we go. Next stop: the Northern Territory.

*To see my article about Australia Day, head to Go Girl Magazine and check out my post published on February 1.

**Check out Chris’ blog about our day in Canberra for some more good writing.

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