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Australia Rock

The Roo Road – Sydney to Melbourne

Australians get annoyed when us wimpy Northern Hemisphere types obsess about their dangerous wildlife. Yes, there are killer spiders, crocs and sharks, but Aussies like to play down the danger of their great outdoors and find the idea of a kangaroo sighting being a novelty wryly amusing. For us however, whilst we were happy to avoid an encounter with a snake or a nasty arachnid, we were somewhat disappointed that not a single kangaroo, wombat or koala showed themselves on during our five day trip. Possoms, whilst sometimes present vocally, were also failed to appear. However, that’s not to say we didn’t see some sights.

Waving goodbye to the Bulls in Sydney, we guided our garish but practical green campa out towards the Princes Highway, the road that would take us all the way to Melbourne by Friday. We stopped to fill up the little fridge from one of Australia’s extremely well stocked supermarkets, but otherwise we pressed on to our first intended stopping point, Kiama. The small and pretty town is famous for its blowhole which noisily spouts seawater, and for a small fee, we could camp on a beautiful council run site right on the beach just down the road from the main attraction. This was what it was all about, cooking off the back of the van in view of the sea and enjoying a beer on the beach. Coupled with the opportunity for a shower at the site, we decided that the camper-van life was good.

Yorkshire Tea - Thanks To Lucy!

And it continued to be so the next day…until it rained. After a visit to the blowhole and at least seeing some galahs, we headed off to get more miles under our belt. Lunch was a stop at Kangaroo Valley. Needless to say, there were no roos: more dubious advertising.

Flamin' Galahs

The drive was dotted with small towns, some delightful and elegant, others a little more Murial’s Wedding, and when the rain started they seemed to err more on the side of the latter. Thus we ended up at Bateman’s Bay, having achieved not very much but milage. Our sleeping arrangements consisted of a car park. Despite this, and the fact that the “Best Fish And Chip Shop In NSW” over the road was closed, we managed to get our fish’n’chip fix and hunkered down for the night, the rain bouncing off the roof percussively.

The sleeping arrangements

Bateman’s Bay is in an area where Australia’s first gold rush began in the 19th century. Desperate for something other than driving to do (so many more miles still to get through!) and with something of a dearth of animals available, we stopped off at what was essentially a gold mining theme park. Here we learned how to pan for gold (“I know there’s gold in that trough, folks, I put it there meself to make sure…”) although we declined the opportunity to be photographed in an “old world” style and photoshopped into a wanted poster.

As we moved on the sun began to dazzle the previously dreary coastline and we began to see how beautiful this part of Australia could be. Given this opportunity, we found our way to a rough track from where we could access a long and picturesque beach. For a huge stretch in either direction we were unaccompanied. This became therefore, the perfect place for a cup of Yorkshire Tea. The joys of the campavan were returning, and as we later stopped briefly at another beach, so was the wildlife: dolphins occasionally dipping their fins playfully above the waves.

Our stop that night was at a rest area – a space set back from the road with areas for fires and highly dubious toilets. Here we enjoyed Aussie hospitality, with tinnies around the campfire, tales of sharks, possums and spiders, and very few jokes about cricket. It turned out that the people we met had been having numerous kangaroo encounters on the same stretches of road. They were incredulous that we hadn’t.

By Thursday, the need to shower meant the need to stop for the night at a real campsite. The novelty of the van was beginning to wane and the distance we needed to cover was still quite large. So, at Sale we prepared for our last leg of the journey on Friday, a three hour drive into Melbourne down the freeway. As freeways are pretty much kangaroo free, it looked like our chances of seeing the little hoppers were over. If it hadn’t been for a creative menu at the pub in Melbourne on Friday night, and a delicious cooked fillet, we could have gone the entire week without spotting a Kangaroo…


Green Machine


So it’s time to hit the road. Our van is green, our loins are girded and we’re off in a four day roadtrip to Melbourne in a green Jucy Vans campa. If only we knew where to stay for the first night…

pbtrek 007

1 Man, 3 Patagonian Llamas and 7 Hours – El Chalten

Two things are immediately striking about Patagonia: they have some of the slowest, most careful drivers in South America and the sky seems unusually big. The long and straight bus from El Calafate to the small hiking resort town of El Chalten allowed us to appreciate both as the sun went down.

There are numerous trails to try from El Chalten, which stands in a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, the most imposing of which is Mount Fitzroy, its domed pate rising defiantly up into the sky. As we only had two days of our whistle-stop tour of Patagonia available, and Helen being the ambitious hiker, we opted for the longest option, a seven hour hike to Largo Toro, returning the next day after camping out.

I have to be honest, this seemed a bit much for me. I’m someone who sees the real benefit of a walk from the toasty comfort of the pub at the end, or in the middle at the very least. Add to this a dismal record of rain effected camping and it’s easy to see how compliance in this venture was tricky for me.


Not keen.

So, weighed down by what seemed like literally tons of camping equipment and food, and with me in a bit of a stinking state of mind not helped by a rude woman at the hire shop, we eventually got away along a trail leading away from town to the south.

The scenery was picturesque, with the mountains closing in slowly as we rose up though woods and picked our way gingerly across tumbling streams and snow melt. The packs were heavy, and the trail led constantly uphill, but very slowly my spirits lifted.

The careful traversing of water soon became futile. Despite a conspicuous lack of spare socks we were often more than ankle deep in freezing water. With one or two comedy slip-ups, the acquisition of a stick, a careful supply of empanadas and sugary food from Helen, and above all a realisation that it was too late to turn back, I became less grumpy and more morosely determined to get to the camp.

Along the way we passed sights both beautiful and slightly surreal. Throughout the forest there were trees in all stages of life and death. As spring reveals the havoc wrought on the trees by heavy snow, high winds and the other extremely harsh conditions of the southern Patagonian winter, dead trees littered the forest. Some had become almost integrate into the forest floor, others stood as ghostly statues: pale grey and flaking against the green of the living woodland.

Further on, as we approached the campsite, large parts of the mountainside looked like the aftermath of a battle. Unexplained fires had rid the landscape of living trees, leaving only sinister grey and charred stumps. On the ground, rocks bore the scars of burnt grass, leaving perfect charcoal etches on their sides.

We were very tired and our feet very wet by the time we reached the campsite (distinguishable by its latrine toilet and the fact that it represented the only manmade object we’d seen in seven hours). Expecting some company, we found none. The only person we were due to encounter in 24 hours was a man and his 3 llamas, a couple of hours into the first day. This left us camping alone, seven hours walk from civilisation and just around the corner from a rather large glacier. Only in Patagonia. Ominously and true to form, it was beginning to rain.

Who knew it would be possible to boil pasta in sparkling water?

After a tussle with the inevitably broken hired dome tent (lucky I inexplicably had brought selotape…) we managed to cook and eat our heaviest supplies before removing sopping shoes and resting our aching bones. It wasn’t long before my camping curse took full effect. The tent leaked and the light rain turned into eight hours of that big sky unleashing itself on us as we huddled just a few metres from a glacier.

The glacier at Largo Toro from near our camp site.

After a night of sometimes uncomfortable and damp sleep, we started early, determined to beat the seven hour barrier. As it was, a combination of lighter packs, determined wading and longer downhill stretches meant that we were back in El Chalten in just over five hours, wet and aching.

A cleanup and a couple of delicious beers later saw us stiffly lowering ourselves onto bus seats for the journey back to El Calafate under that huge sky.

And now even Helen agrees: if you find yourself with a couple of days to go trekking in beautiful El Chalten, take a couple of the shorter trails where you can carry small packs and you can shower and sleep in a real bed afterwards. Oh, and always remember the selotape.