|Week 1 - Day 6
There are a very large number of options for travel and rentals in Australia. Quantas has a program for combining international flights with several in country flights that can save you a good deal of money. trains run between the major cities as do buses. Then there are various commercial companies that run guided and unguided bus tours. these can be quite flexible and are not overly expensive. Clientele for these tours tend to be quite young and the tour often degenerates into a pub crawl from one hostel to another.
I was looking for something different. I wanted to be able to go where I wanted and when i wanted. I didn't want to be stuck with people I wouldn't get along with. I wanted to go to a lot of parks and do a lot of hiking and that didn't fit all that well with the bus tours that tended to hit major tourist attractions and bypass many of the smaller parks. So I had arranged to hire a camper van before I left the States.
There are many companies offering plans for hiring campers in Australia. But most were out of the price range I was willing to pay. i started to look at the possibility of buying a car and then selling it after I had finished the trip. But my trip was seven weeks long and I was afraid that this would be too much of a hassle. Even with the assistance of the car auction places available in Sydney, which will hold and sell your car even after you have left the country, sending the money when the car actually sells, I was reluctant to try their service as I did not know anyone who had had any experience with the service. Several internet articles described the service as very satisfactory but I just didn't want to take the chance.
So I spent several weeks search on the internet for how I was going to get around Australia. Finally I located a company that was renting a Toyota HiTec camper van for $25.00 U.S. per day for the seven weeks I was going to contract it. This seemed really reasonable as it would provide me with both transport and lodging. Every other option cost more than double for the combination.
Then came the problem. Australia is one of the six countries that your own insurance and your credit card will not cover you for. You have to purchase the insurance separately. It is really expensive. Full insurance cost another $15.00 U.S. per day - more than 50% more than the cost of the rental itself. This put the cost up to $41.00 per day for the vehicle almost as much as some of the other options I had investigated. ( Having completed the trip I would not again take the full coverage. Only liability and bodily injury, not property damage. The insurance for the vehicle itself is invalid on unpaved roads. I did not understand that nearly all the roads in the parks are unpaved and I would be spending most of the time on them. thus in effect I paid for insurance that wouldn't have been effective had I had an accident.)
I was familiar with the Toyota van as I had owned one for seven years. I knew it to be a tough and reliable performer. This unit was equipped with a battery driven refrigerator, a propane stove, a double bed, a sink, plenty of storage and supplies, pretty much everything needed for an extended camping trip. I wouldn't need to hassle with all the gear usually associated with camping - tents, sleeping bag, stove, ice chest - all in a standard sedan. It seemed the ideal solution.
The Toyota was not four wheel drive and I only really needed it once when I got stuck on a sand road in the middle of nowhere. But I can easily imagine that you would need one for Western Australia or the Northern Territory or north Queensland. If you are considering buying a vehicle and particularly a four wheel drive, start your trip and purchase your vehicle in Western Australia. The heavy tax levied on 4WD vehicles is exempted in WA, saving a substantial portion of your purchase price.
Anyway, I had this van all lined up and only needed to pay the nearly $2500.00 rental fee and security deposit. Before leaving on the trip I had to electronically deposit some extra funds to my credit card so that my limit on the card would not be exceeded. I had some difficulty doing this as there was a recent change in my checking account number and the Capital One web site was less than clear about what number they wanted where. In fact my checks listed the account number and bank routing number differently than specified on the web site. So my first two attempts at transferring funds failed. I had called the company days prior to leaving to make sure that the funds were available. I was assured that everything was all right.
So imagine my distress when I get to Sydney, give the rental place a ring and find that my credit card is rejected for insufficient funds. I go to an internet cafe and log on to my account. Not only are the extra funds not available, but my credit limit has been set to zero. So now I have no funds instead of the double credit limit I expected to have. Great. So I try to call Capital One. No local number. I try to call the international toll free number. It is always busy. I try ten times during the day. I look for a local branch in Sydney. They don't have one. They still don't answer. Finally I use the low balance on my other credit card to call back to the States and get help from one of my friends to call Capital One and get a number that will work. ( Don't ever do this - a five minute call cost me $90.00) I call the number. I am talking to India. I am getting no help from Apu. I get a new toll free number to call. I am getting no recognition of what the problem is. Finally I lose it and demand to speak, in no uncertain terms, to a supervisor. After a long wait I finally get someone who not only understands the problem but can fix it. She says, "Would you like me to restore your credit balance and make the funds available?" Well, duh, yeah. That's what I have been trying to get you to do for an hour! Click click, OK its done. Advise to the international traveler - get an American Express. You really shouldn't leave home without it. AmEx had its own skyscraper in Sydney.
To solve my phone charge problem, I finally got smart and went down to the local corner store and purchased a phone calling card for $20.00. This gave me enough international long distance and Australian long distance to last me for the rest of the trip. Use this method for all your international calls. It works great and is cheap.
OK., so now I have wheels for the next six weeks. Now I all I have to contend with is the right hand drive of the car. All the pedals are in the same place but I am on the wrong side of the car. I have to shift the manual transmission with my left hand instead of my right. The turn signals are on the opposite side of the steering wheel as is the windshield wipers ( I never did get use to that. ). Even though I had spent nearly three days walking around Sydney and had started to get use to the idea of keeping to the left instead of the right ( Aussies walk on the street and the stairs to the left just as Yanks walk to the right) I wasn't sure that I had the hang of it yet. Of course there were all the rotaries to deal with too. They go clockwise instead of counter clockwise and you have to concentrate when exiting to remember what side of the road to be on.
I loaded up my stuff, fired up the van, use both hands to get into first gear and eased onto the highway. I drove to the closest fueling station for "petrol" and there the comedy started. I pulled up to the pump and got out. Damn it, the fuel tank fill is on the other side. So then I moved to the other side of the island. Then I noticed that the pump was ethanol not petrol so I moved again. This time the pump I pulled up to was natural gas so I moved again. This time it was diesel. Finally I located the one pump I needed. People at the station must have been muttering about the crazy Yank.
Filled with fuel for the van I followed the map out of Sydney, around the roundabouts without incident and onto the road out the northwest side of Sydney headed to the Blue Mountains. This range of mountains separates the wetter, cooler climate of the eastern one third of New South Wales (NSW) from the hot dry interior. It provided a substantial barrier to the early settlers of the coastal regions of the new continent much as the Appalachians did for North America. But shortly a route across the modest range was found and that was the route I was now following. The park preserves most of the top and western side of the range. Train service to the park leaves from Central Station in Sydney and I considered using it. But since I was renting the van anyway and the extra days got me a lower rate on the whole rental I decided to use the van. If I was going for a longer time or going to spend so days back packing in the park I would definitely use the train.
Week 1 - Day 7
On the dry plateau, the trees were small stringy bark eucalypts, small in diameter and short in stature. But as I descended into the valley, the flora changed rapidly as I descended. Once off the cliff face, the trees became much taller. Mottled red gum eucalypts soared high overhead. The air became heavy with humidity and the temperature increased. Foliage became much more dense and the canopy closed in overhead. On the valley floor, fern trees began to appear turning the forest into a tropical rain forest that reminded me of Puerto Rico. The foliage dripped with moisture and small streams and falls appeared and ran along the trailside. The rail returned to the cliff and the climate changed abruptly again. Now the red cliff rocks gave off a sensible heat. The resident iguana seemed to be enjoying the infrared sauna. I climbed back up the trail winding up the escarpment and back to the car. This day was nearly done but I would be back tomorrow to poke further down into the valley. I headed for a campground at the edge of the park and set up for my first night in the van. I fixed supper on the propane stove from the supplies I had laid into the refrigerator. It was a sweet setup compared to the limited amount of stuff that can be carried in a backpack.
At a junction the trail diverged to continue on for miles down the Grose valley. It was beautiful here and I thought this would be a great place to spend several days down in the valley. Next time I would have to prepare for an extended stay on the valley floor. But now I turned onto the trail that led back to the escarpment and began working back up to the top. The trail regained the plateau next to the falls I knew plunged from the top. A trail led to the stream that plunged over the edge. Beyond this edge w there was a steep 200 meter free fall. Yet no warnings no fences - how nice. I took a dip in the waters on the other side of the walkway, well away from the edge. Late morning clouds began to form over the valley contrasting with the green foliage I had recently left.
The next morning I got an early start and headed for another longer trail down into Grose Valley. The trail started from a parking lot on the plateau winding through several groves of stringy bark eucalyptus. The forest was open here and the white bark of the eucalyptus stood out against the green of the increasing foliage. As the trail descended these soon gave way to a denser forest of trees, bushes and dry forest ferns. In another couple hundred meters of vertical, I was in the dark of the tropical rain forest. Once again I plunged into the world of small showers of water in pools with overhanging ferns along the trail. Bell birds donged their strange tones sounding just like their names. An even stranger bird sounded in the near distance. A bull whip bird, whose call sound exactly like the crack of a bullwhip, held forth high is some canopy branch. It was fascinating to stop and listen to the very odd sound emanating from this bird - a sound which was almost too strange to believe could come from any animal.
I went back into Katoomba the little town at the entrance of the park and bought a few food supplies. I then drove to Kings tableland drive and found a secluded place to park the van. After a simple dinner it was back into the back of the van for sleeo.
I returned to the car and drove along the park road on the edge of the plateau overlooking the valley. Scattered turn outs and parking areas allowed me to get out an see parts of the valley. it reminded me of the drives in Canyon de Chelley and the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the U.S. One particular one looking especially intriguing. The platform provided a spectacular view, but was definitely not for the altitude challenged. As the sun continue to heat the sides of the sloping valley, a blue haze developed from the "air pollution" released by the eucalypts. Similar to the blue haze in Americas Great Smoky Mountains, these natural oils and aerosols gave the region its name. At the end of the drive was a small trail to a cliff with some strange wind driven erosion. Thousands of little holes were created in the soft rock by the wind blowing across the face of the cliff. The small bits if sand and rock swirled in the little depression creating deeper and deeper little holes. There were a few that were half a meter across and maybe as much as one meter deep.
Week 2 - Day 1
It was time to move on, even though I had made only a cursory exploration of the park. I resolved that I would come back here one day and give it the deeper exploration it so deserved, but for now it was time to drive on as more discoveries awaited me down the road.
The section of Australia south of Sydney to the southeast corner of the continent is the most developed section of the lush coastal strip between the mountains and the ocean. Here is where almost all the cattle is raised, milk and cheese produced and crops grown. Most of the rest of the continent is ultra dry desert. It seemed like I was in a much different place than the "normal" picture of Australia. Gerringong lay to the south, its bucolic green pastures framed a charming little town with its own beach.
I left the park on the same road, M4, I had entered. I was headed back to Sydney. Skirting the edge of the city, I followed a series of highways out to the coast. The road ran along a highland that skirted the edge of the ocean. For part of the coast, it ran right up to the ocean's edge. Below the high cliffs was one of the classic walks of Australia, the Coastal Walk. I was saving that as for the last days before leaving Australia from Sydney at the end of my trip. I pulled off the main road at Billi into Sublime Point in Royal National Park overlooking the coastal plain to the south where the mountains angled away from the sea. A large sign proclaimed the latitude and longitude. It was an irresistible shot for someone new to the southern hemisphere. I found the end of the Coastal Walk where the trail came up the escarpment and reached the road once more near the town of Otford. Here at the beginning of my trip I was looking at what would be the end of my trip six weeks from now.
The lighthouse was abandoned shortly after its construction because it was sited where there were materials for its construction, oyster shells for the creation of lime for the mortar cementing the stone blocks. But the committee that decided on its location forgot one small detail. A lighthouse needs to be seen by the ships out at sea approaching the dangerous land, and this one was hidden by other land forms to the north and the south rendering it totally ineffective in warning shipping. The coast here is rugged with steep cliffs of unforgiving rock. To the south the end of the T shaped peninsula open into a shallow bay, but even here the land ends in rock. I returned to camp where I saw my first and, as it turned out only, kookaburra, although I would hear many of them in the coming weeks.
Following the coast road past the heavily industrialized city of Wollongong, I eventually came to Jervis Bay National Park, the destination for this night. Jervis Bay National Park sits on a T-shaped peninsula forming the lower pincer of a kidney shaped bay in the otherwise unbroken Australia coast facing the Tasman Sea. It was blowing 20 plus knots and even the enclosed bay was sporting some decent sized waves. I pulled into the campground and found a site for the night before setting out to explore the area. Down on the beach I tested out the squeaky sand. Supposedly if you shuffled your feet, the sand made a sound somewhat similar to sneakers on the gym floor. I tried it out. Sure enough it definitely made a sound. The beach right at the campground was long with beautiful white sand. Returning to camp I drove out the dirt roads to Cape St. George to the lighthouse ruins.
More Jervis Bay to Mimosa Rocks ........