Archive for October, 2003

“Update your webpage slackass!”

Friday, October 31st, 2003

Several of you have reached out and touched in the past few weeks, for which I am quite grateful. One of the snappier sentiments forms the headline for this page.

Sorry about the lack of news of late, but I’ve been a bit boring. Took in a few more cities, but generally kept a low profile. Since then I’ve returned to Sydney and have been plowing into some work in advance of a 1 November contract milestone.

Not to worry, however — the site is far from dead, with November fully scheduled and December starting to fill up. Stick with me a few more days for the details.

Oh, and Happy Halloween.

Outback by Land

Monday, October 13th, 2003

The shuttle dropped me off at the hostel at 8.45, which gave me just enough time to drop into an internet café and see if anyone had e-mailed me recently (thanks, Matt!) Soon enough it was time to pop back, as another bus with another trailer was coming to pick me up as well as a guy I met on the Rock trip.

What were Tom and I off to do? Why, quad riding in the Outback, of course!

Tom and I on our trusty steeds

And what a blast we had. The two-hour trip involved a nice variety of terrain, and a small group size (just four of us plus the owner/guide.) Ripping through the desert, we threw up huge dust clouds, against which I employed my visor just in time — barely three seconds after I first pulled it down, a large insect slammed into the plastic just in front of my left eye.

I started just behind the leader, but eventually worked my way to the back of the pack. This was in part because I wanted to let other people ride in different positions, but also because I quite enjoyed falling back for awhile, getting some distance, and then balling that jack to the max to catch up. It was just totally invigorating, and I had a great time.

Judging by the "after" picture*, it also looked like I got a great tan, so caked with red dust was I. (But you should see the other guy.)

Anyway, dust be damned, it was so worth it.

* I’d post it, but I blinked. So it’s a bit sub-sly. If you still want to see it, just e-mail.

Outback by Air

Monday, October 13th, 2003

Four. Fucking. Fifteen.

That is the ungodly hour at which I was going to be picked up for my latest adventure, making it the third day in a row I was on the road before 5. This time it wasn’t a drive down Stuart but a smaller trek out of town in a bus with a large trailer, upon which sat the morning’s vessel.

I was going ballooning.

I’m not sure what the logic was behind our brutally early departure time — something about the winds and seeing the sunrise — but once again I was shocked at how mind-boggingly cold it was in the Outback. I was wearing jeans, a jacket, sneaks and socks and still I shivered as we all got out of the bus and pitched in to unfurl the "envelope."

I ducked back into the bus to try to warm up, but by this time the pilots had finish deploying huge fans to fill the envelopes and were making use of the burners. I thought standing near the long flames sounded like a good idea.

firing into the balloon basket starting to tip

It’s a really simple concept, inflating a balloon. First you use a big fan to fill the balloon with (cold) air. The basket sits on its side, and you basically juice it up until the balloon starts to lift and then rights the basket. Then you have your people jump in and you’re on the rise:

basket rising, everyone's faces red from reflected fire

Soon enough you’re leaving the buses far behind.

balloon in foreground, buses down below

So simple, and so smooth. I took a picture of the basket resting on the ground, sort of a "before" shot, (here’s an after, with horses) and then fooled around with the camera. Next thing I knew, we’d risen twenty meters into the air. I’d felt nothing, and indeed throughout the whole journey never felt as though I was absurdly high, though we peaked at 1,000 feet.

sunrise behind balloon

The other amazing thing was how quiet it was. When the burner wasn’t firing, you could hear everything. It was incredibly peaceful, and just a little bit amazing when you looked up into the empty balloon:

looking up into the balloon

I mean, I know the principles at work here, but it still gives me pause when I look up and see no visible means by which we are being supported. Just hot air.

The trip ended too soon, and then we had to pack up the envelope and jump in the buses to go to our champagne breakfast, which consisted of hot chicken, quiche, various breads, fresh fruit, crackers/cheese, and chocolate cake. I skipped the fresh fruit and had double helpings of everything else.

Except for the champagne. I had to stay sober for the next activity.

The Red Centre: Wa(l)king to Uluru

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

The night passed far too quickly, and I was amazed at 1) how incredibly cold it was and 2) how the moon was bright enough to be annoying. Not as annoying as Keith, however, when he came to wake us at a shocking 4.30am. I fear I may not have greeted him pleasantly at that hour.

However, all was forgiven when we entered the national park and watched the sun rise and spill red on the Rock. Finally I could take a proper photo:

Sunrise at the Rock

(The dot in the sky on the right is the moon; it actually looked a lot larger that morning.)

After photo time, we were going to split into two groups: those who would climb the rock, and those who would walk three-quarters of the way around its 9.4km girth. However, wind conditions meant we were all walking. This gave me the chance to take some up-close photos of the rock I found interesting:

Rock pic

Rock pic

Rock pic

Rock pic

It’s sometimes a difficult thing to take photographs of Uluru, because portions of it are fenced off, with signs warning that they are sacred, and entering the area or taking photos would result in a combined A$6,000 in fines.

All of the areas seemed a bit arbitrary to me, and a few weren’t clearly delineated, so sometimes I was confused as to which areas were kosher and which weren’t. Still, the have-it-both ways philosophy was consistent with the way the Aborigines played it, welcoming tourists but telling them very little. Some signs actually said that a given area was important to their mythology "but we can’t tell you why." (Video and photo equipment is also banned in the cultural center.)

Most contentious of all was the climb, which actually opened when we completed our trek ’round the rock. You can barely see its track in this photo:

climbing track on the Rock

The gray and white bit in the lower right is a sign reading "Please Don’t Climb the Rock," next to one reading "Nganana Tatintja Wiya (We Don’t Climb.)" These are copied verbatim on page 6 of the Visitor Guide, which notes: "The ‘climb’ is not prohibited. But we prefer that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing. … The ‘climb’ is dangerous and over 35 people have died [half from heart attacks, the other half from falls] while attempting to climb Uluru, and many others have been injured." The next page quotes a traditional owner: "If you worry about Aboriginal law, then leave it, don’t climb it…"

That’s nice and all, but I was a bit annoyed. I was a bit tired of being told to respect Aboriginal law, while simultaneously being informed I couldn’t be told it. So when Keith said that even though we were a bit behing schedule, those who wanted a taste could have ten minutes on the rock, I charged as far up its 384 meters as I could get.

And I actually got pretty far:

view from the climb

(Note my knee in the right corner. My left leg was straight out against the bar, holding me in place.)

Getting down was a bit tricky, but it wasn’t the hardest part of the day. That would have been sitting through the 500km drive back to The Alice. In fact, in the course of two days we covered a full 1,500km.

Good thing there was free pizza when we returned.

The Red Centre: Camping

Saturday, October 11th, 2003

We arrived at our campsite with plenty of time before sunset. I was excited
because it was to be our first real glimpse of the Rock. The group of us dutifully
went up a path to a designated viewing area, and saw it in a distant

The Rock just before sunset

It looked good, but this was clearly not the best angle. The real action,
photo-op wise, was happening with the ranges behind us, so I took a few shots,

Sun setting behind mountains

Soon enough it was getting dark. The sun didn’t really cast any intriguing
shadows on the Rock, as it was mostly obstructed by the ranges behind us.

Sun set behind mountains

So we all returned to the camp and feasted on sausages, steaks, and a
wide assortment of other things that could be grilled.

Following our meal, Keith gave us a little rundown on the "swags." These were
a sort of squared-off quasi-mattress meant to envelop your sleeping bag and
provide some additional cushioning. They’re also meant to help you
keep warm, which works best if you sleep out on the ground, Keith said. Oh,
and naked.

Yeah, some deal about your clothing keeping sweat close in, but the sleeping bag/swag wicking it away, or some such nonsense. All I know is I opted to sleep in the swag under the moon and stars — but with some clothes on.

Naturally, I selected a place near the fire:

swag and tents, campfire to far left

(My swag is there on the right, between the two benches. I never actually
went in any of the tents. I like this photo because it’s actually a 20sec long
exposure using only the fire as a light source.)

The Red Centre: Kings Canyon

Saturday, October 11th, 2003

After a 5.30 (!) pickup, my 12 fellow trekkers and I (plus our guide/driver,
Keith) were on the road to Kings Canyon, our first destination and
a hearty 450km away. Along the way, Keith was only too happy to point out a few sights:


Camels were probably the most common animal we saw on the journey, both in
farms and in the wild. (Cattle would be the runner-up, but there were some others as

The Kings Canyon trip was basically a lot of walking, with little stops where
Keith would explain things like vegetation, recent bushfires, and which places
were used for the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert shoot.

I just took pictures.




emergency radio


These stairs became infamous. Keith had asked fairly early on if anyone
was "allergic to heights." The oldest person on the trip, a Swedish girl’s
mother, indicated she was — a little. As soon as we hit those stairs, though
(which in fairness, were quite narrow), she had some intense stress. She tried
to come down by sitting down and sliding, but she only made it part of the

Keith suggested she and her daughter retrace their steps and rejoin us at
the bus. That was for the best, because what we climbed down later would not
have pleased her:


The Alice

Friday, October 10th, 2003

The Northern Territory is big and small, with a sixth of Australia’s landmass
and just 1% of its population. This is evident in the town of Alice Springs,
a community of just 27,008 people (roughly the size of Fort Dodge) that is
situated 1,500 km south of Darwin on Stuart Highway, the only North-South highway in central Australia.

"The Alice," as it is known, certainly isn’t close to Darwin, but it isn’t close to much else either:

Highway sign

(Kulgera is the first city in South Australia. Its population: 50.)

Alice originally sprung up as a telegraph repeater station, but of course
now it lives and breathes on tourism. (You won’t find many other towns of this
size with highway signs in 5 languages.)

It was here that would be my base for a foray into the area known as the Red Centre.

Leaving Darwin

Thursday, October 9th, 2003

Well, a highlight of my stay here in the Top End would have to be the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. This was made especially cool because I happened to be wandering around the area earlier in the day, so I could see what it looked like at mid-day and then later when the market was in full swing.

And was it ever! There were tons and tons of food options, a live band, craft (and god knows what-else) sales and even pony rides. As befitting a fair-like atmosphere, I started with a “Pluto Pup,” which is basically just their name for a corn dog. (Any guesses what “Fairy Floss” is? Hint: it’s bright pink.)

Having satisfied the requirement for Iowa-style fair food, I next decided to mix it up with something perhaps a little more Australian: crocodile satay. (Other choices: possum satay, camel sausage, kangaroo…)

Now that I’ve had both a kangaroo burger and crocodile-on-a-stick, I can definitively say that neither tastes like chicken.

In My Book, That’s a Hurricane

Thursday, October 9th, 2003

There were two things that drew me to Darwin: the heat and the cyclone. The
heat was easy to comprehend upon arrival, but I filled in what little I knew
about the cyclone with a visit to the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern
Territory. In a fascinating display that included samples of home construction
and even a room with recordings from the storm, I learned the story:

3 images of destruction

In the early hours of Christmas 1974, Darwin became the site of the worst
natural disaster Australia has ever known. What first began as a weak tropical
lull some five days earlier began to pick up steam and was named Tracy by meterologists
on 21 December. Tracy was on track to hit Darwin with a vengeance: just after
noon on Christmas Eve, a "Flash Cyclone Warning" went out warning residents
that the storm would bring very destructive winds.

After midnight, Tracy landed with 100 km/h winds, gusting to 195 km/h.
(Three hours later, the anemometer was broken after recording a gust
of 217 km/h.) Later analysis suggested that winds reached 260 km/h, with others putting the figure as high as 320km/h. Winds in excess of 100 km/h continued until 7am.

Most of the city’s 48,000 people became homeless. Hardest hit was the suburb of Nakara, where 97% of homes were destroyed. Throughout the city, communication, power, and utility links were disrupted. Over the next several days, the Australian military took things in hand, patrolling for looters as an RAAF/USAF joint
airlift took nearly 26,000 people out of the city. A further 10,000 left by

When all was said and done, the death toll officially stood at 49, with a
further 16 "missing at sea." (Unofficial estimates were much higher.) The damage
was tallied at between A$500 million – A$1 billion in 1974 dollars.

The greatest contributor to the damage was the construction style common for
the time. An open-air design featuring glass louvers and elevated homes was
well suited for the tropical temperature, but lethal when the debris began
flying about. A federally-established Darwin Reconstruction Commission set
new standards — informally called "the Cyclone Code" — that were
designed to ensure Darwin was never again destroyed. The regulations demanded that new houses contain their own cyclone shelters and be able to withstand winds of 65 m/s (234 km/h.) This has since been relaxed to 55 m/s due to the expenses involved.

And it’s not the first time that widespread reconstruction was taking place:
Darwin was also destroyed in 1942 by the Japanese.


Monday, October 6th, 2003

The flight here from Sydney was long. I mean long — over four and a half hours, and though I secured an exit row, I was seated in the middle with a portly, bearded guy to my left and a frigid woman to my right. (Chick could have moved to the middle seat across the aisle to sit next to her husband, but nooo…)

I told everyone I wanted to go to Darwin — which, at about 90,000 people, is by far the smallest capital city in Australia — because it was hot. When we landed, I was not disappointed. Though it was nearly 1 am ACST (a mere half hour difference from Sydney) the heat was still firmly asserting itself. This during the pleasant time of year; in addition to temps in the 90s, the airport shuttle driver cheerfully informed us (when he wasn’t putting down the mic to switch gears), we could expect 99% humidity to come as soon as “the Wet” arrived. (As I write, it’s a mere 55%.)

Oh, and “the Wet”? The driver claimed one recent storm brought 15″ of rain in 15 minutes. “It’s something you really have to see,” he said dryly.

The Days Ahead

Sunday, October 5th, 2003


A new phase of the journey has begun. First a flight to Darwin, in Australia’s “Top End.” It’s part of my plan to branch out from Sydney.

On Friday, I’ll fly down to Alice Springs, the airport nearest to Uluru (a/k/a Ayers Rock.) After a day at the Rock, I’ll jump on The Ghan for a 19 hour train ride down to Adelaide. I’ll be in Adelaide for a few days, then catch my next plane to Perth, on the west coast. From there, we’ll see…

I Suspected as Much

Saturday, October 4th, 2003

Here is, no joke, the meal selection menu for a Qantas flight booked through

Drop-down menu of food choices, 'bland' is highlighted

I have to assume that “bland” is the default option, since that’s the type of meal I always seem to get…

Hello, Moto Siemens

Thursday, October 2nd, 2003

Now have a new phone with a new number. Plus a new SIM card with the old number. (Don’t ask.) So everything new is old again.

The phone didn’t come in time for me to get a text from Simon informing me he couldn’t make it to Quiz Night, so I ended up going by myself. Just as I had decided to do a solo team named “Penultimate” (for where I expected to place) I ran into a guy I’d met on our first night there.

He and I managed to place fifth, which was pretty good. The Quizmaster praised our team for having “the highest per-head score,” but the real fun came with one of the questions. It was three points for “In mobile phones, what does ‘SIM‘ stand for?”

I was the only one in the whole bar to get it right — because I’d looked it up not an hour before! Naturally, when people asked (such as the Welsh guy who said “How the fuck did you know that? Do you work for the wireless company?”) I just smiled in what I hoped was a mysterious fashion.