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After almost five months in Australia, having sneakily avoided winter, I’m settling back into London life. When I think about my most recent travel adventure, I suppose I was able to see quite a lot of Australia, but really, I didn’t see half of it. This is one big country. I passed through five of Australia’s eight states and territories, saw cities, the ocean and the outback and I left thousands of miles uncovered. But what I did see, I’ll never forget.

I loved wandering through Darling Harbour or taking the ferry to Manly Beach in Sydney, exploring the great cafés and night spots in Melbourne, and hitting some of the fantastic museums in Canberra.

In the Northern Territory, I got a taste of what I’ve always imagined to be ‘real’ Australia (not that the cities are any less real) in the Outback. I walked around Ayers Rock and ran under its waterfalls after the rain, trekked through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta, and hiked around the rim of Kings Canyon. I drove past herds of wild camels, slowly backed away from a Western Brown Snake (one of the deadliest in the world), and evicted various lethal spiders that had found their way indoors.

On the coast, I got to see some music legends at the Byron Bay Bluesfest before heading up to the Whitsundays for a spot of sailing among these beautiful islands. I walked across pure white sand on Whitehaven Beach, and went snorkeling around the most amazing reef I’ve ever seen. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t world famous for nothing after all.

And finally I got to explore the famous Fraser Island – the largest sand island in the world, with its stunning freshwater lakes and abundant dingo population.

My list of Australian memories could go on, but the list of things I still want to see is even longer. It is almost impossible to really convey how fantastically huge and diverse this country is. I’m glad I got to see what I did, and I can’t wait for my chance to see more. The plane ride has never been more worthwhile.

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My last day at Bluesfest, I spent most of the afternoon enjoying the time with my friends before I headed off. After a few drinks at the festival camp site, Kat and I headed off to see Tribali and I’m SO glad we did. You already know that I enjoyed every day and every band of this festival, but nobody got me dancing and hyped up like Tribali. Absolutely stunning world-music band from Malta, with enormous amounts of energy and an almost equal amount of instruments. Guitars, bongos, didgeridoos, mouth harps, drums, even a conch shell at some point. They were a totally mixed bunch of people going nuts on stage and sounding great. And they’re the only band who popped confetti so they get points for that too.

Later on in the day, Kat, Danny and I went to meet Tribali which was great. We also met Nick Kickstand who gave me his CD after he jammed out on his bongos with the band.

After the energy of Tribali, we couldn’t help ourselves, so we headed back to the Narasito Pan Pipers yet again and jumped around to the pan-piping/blues singing bunch.

At night, we camped ourselves at main stage, seeing Blue King Brown, Fat Freddys Drop and Crowded House to round off the night. Blue King Brown sang their heart out – they were a band to make Bob Marley proud. A soul, a purpose, a message, and definitely some music you could sway and nod your head to. You know the kind.

After them it was Fat Freddys Drop. I hadn’t heard of them before, I have to admit, but Kat had assured me I’d love them. She was right. The highlight was probably the trombonist who came out looking FINE in an all white suit and an energy he seemed to have a lot of trouble controlling. In fact, he had a lot of trouble controlling the suit too… he ended up in a vest top and boxer shorts by the end, but to say he enjoyed himself would be an understatement. His enthusiasm definitely rubbed off. I’ll thank Kat for that one.

Finally was Crowded House. Ahh my last act. Another one I wasn’t too familiar with – they’re homegrown Australian. Although I did recognise “Four Seasons in One Day” and “Fall At Your Feet.”  My old boss from Longitude, Tapa, had recommended them so I thought I had to check them out. They were a great band, definitely of a different generation I have to admit, but I was just enjoying the time with my friends at my last day here before heading off for more East Coast fun. And I enjoyed it just as I wanted to.

So that was it, the Byron Bay Bluesfest was over for me. An epic four days in one of my favourite Australian towns. Even if I didn’t spend much time IN the town…small detail.

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Saturday at the Bluesfest I took a bit of a break from running stage to stage. When I arrived, Kat and I briefly met up with our new friends Ben and Danny, then I left them to head to the press tent as I’d been told I had an interview slot with Bela Fleck.

I was pretty excited about my interview – Bela Fleck is arguably one of the best banjo players in the world, and had recently done a tour around various parts of Africa, studying the banjos origins and playing with local orchestras and village kids as he traveled. I saw Bela Fleck live back in Maryland when I was about 15, so I was really excited about the prospect of getting to meet him in person. I know he isn’t the most high profile musician of the week – but any interview was great for me, and this was a blast back to my high school days, plus I couldn’t wait to talk about his travels in Africa.

I was duly escorted backstage and shown to a table to wait patiently for the man to arrive. Delay after delay after delay later, it started to become pretty clear that it wasn’t happening. Mr. Fleck was running late and ran out of time before he had to get on stage. It was disappointing to have been missing so much good music in the meantime, but the silver lining was Poor Man’s Whiskey did a little improv jam session backstage after one of their interviews. So at least I got to see a little music, and hey, can’t complain about a more or less private backstage show, right?

After that, I finally made my way back into the festivals and located my friends again. I had time to briefly check out a bit of Bela’s set before we headed to the Mojo Stage to stake out our spots for the night. First one was the Buena Vista Social Club – a great latin orchestra that makes you wish you knew how to salsa. The problem I had with them was, that while they are GREAT musicians, and their music is top quality, it isn’t the type of music I particularly enjoy listening to for a full hour. They sing in Spanish, eliminating any chance of singing along, and maybe it’s my ignorance, but I simply cannot enjoy that chilled Latin beat for more than a few songs before I want something a little different.

Obviously this is a personal taste – and there were plenty of people in the crowd that would have vehemently disagreed with me. Unfortunately for us, everyone in front of us was there for the same reasons we were – to get as close as possible to the stage before the headliner. Jack Johnson. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already seen him play once this week, but how can you say no to seeing him twice?? He was just as great the second time around too.

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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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A day in the life…

Spending this past weekend on the beaches outside of Canberra with four Australians was a lesson on how the average Aussie spends his/her summer days. It’s a grueling routine. I shall provide an approximate outline so that you see what I’ve had to go through these past few days.

Wake up early (between eight and nine, or later if your Aussie is more relaxed…), have a cup of coffee.

Collect your thoughts and throw on some ‘swimmers’ (or bathing suit, swimsuit, bikini, or your own preferred term).

Walk down your back garden to the beach either empty handed, or with a kayak, body board or surf board. At this point you’re fully expected to jump right into the ocean. Australia is famous for surfing for a reason – I haven’t seen many (or any?) beaches in Australia yet that didn’t have waves that tower over my head. Also – Oz is surrounded by very large oceans and isn’t all that far away from a very large and icy continent, so the water? Freezing. On Sunday I was told ‘the water was great’ just before my entire body turned numb during my ten minute dip. So, I suppose all I’m saying is, be sure you’re comfortable with you ability to hold your breath as you kick for the surface before you get further than knee deep. You get used to diving into the icy water as quickly as possible, otherwise you look like a scaredy-cat and nobody wants that.

Walk back from the beach, take an outdoor shower, dress and turn on the barbeque. Bacon, eggs, toast, whatever takes your fancy.

Eat.

Sit around relaxing, preferably with a cold beer in hand.

In a few hours, turn the barbeque back on. Homemade burgers, sausages, some amazing grilled veggies, again the ingredients can be flexible.

Drink cold beer and cheap wine late into the night, perhaps walk back to the beach for a bonfire.

Sleep.

Repeat.

Phew, I think I need to lie down.

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Meet Marianne, a 10-pound Pom

15 DEC 09 @ 08:50PM BY ALEX WARD

Marianne Mcphee - Now living in Lane Cove

Marianne Mcphee - Now living in Lane Cove

MARIANNE McPhee camped for two days outside a London travel agency to win the chance to become a 10-pound Pom.

The agency offered 150 British travellers with working holiday visas the 10 tickets to Australia as part of its 30th birthday celebrations.

Ms Mcphee, 23, now living in Lane Cove, determinedly queued outside the STA office near London’s Victoria Station to get one of the highly sought-after Qantas tickets.

“Camping on the streets of London was an experience” said Ms McPhee of sleeping in a tent.

“I still can’t really believe it has happened. I just bought a flight to Australia for 10!”

The term 10-pound Pom was given to British immigrants who travelled to Australia between the 1940s and ‘70s under an assisted-passage scheme. More than one million people journeyed to Australia this way.

An avid traveller, Ms McPhee plans to work in Sydney over the summer before exploring and working in other parts of the country.

Tourism Australia UK and Europe general manager Rodney Harrex said the promotion was to raise awareness of the working holiday visa among young Brits at a time when increasing numbers were looking to travel Down Under.  – By Alex Ward

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