The last part of our overseas trip to Malaysia, Thailand and Australia entailed a 4,000-mile road trip through five Australian states.
We marked our trail on the map from Adelaide in South Australia to Mackay in northern Queensland. All told, the trip would entail 4,000 miles of driving on one-lane roads, freeways, oceanside-clinging roads, hills, mountains and, most intriguing of all, through part of the Outback.
After a dozen trips to this unique island-nation spent mainly on the coasts, I wanted to see the agricultural producing areas. Years ago in grade school I read about the gigantic sheep stations of Australia, the uncounted miles of golden wheat fields and the hills dotted with grass fed cattle that America at one time imported and wanted to see them in person.
Once ferried off Kangaroo Island, we headed northwest for the seven-hour trip to the Grampian Mountains that slowly rise out of the lush green agricultural land that precedes them. The Grampians were named in the early 1800s by a Scottish explorer who thought they reminded him of the Grampians back home.
The Grampians are not impressive in height as they top out at just a little more than 3,000 feet, but they are a veritable paradise of vegetation, birds and wildlife. We took a small, one-lane road for nearly 45 miles through an isolated valley filled with huge, stately gum trees.
The Australian trees sometimes appear as though the birds in God's birdcage have been let out. Flocks of the beautiful Rosella mountain parrot decorate this tree ready made for Christmas.
Kangaroos lined the road at dusk, acting like jumpy sentries guarding the isolated country road that wound through pastures filled with herds of Brahma cattle that interrupted the flocks of sheep that worked at keeping the pastures looking like well kept golf greens.
After a short stay in Hall's Gap at the peak of the Grampians where we were delighted to see flocks of rosellas, a multi-colored mountain parrot, we headed back down the mountain toward one of Australia's greatest international attractions, the Ocean Road.
The Ocean Road runs along the south edge of the state of Victoria, almost to the outskirts of Melbourne. The coastline is not for the timid. Bell's Beach, the site of many world championship surfing contests, is a good example of the ruggedness of the area. Because there is virtually nothing between the South Pole and the south of Australia, winds are nearly continuous and harsh, even in summer.
Winds often gust into the 35-mile-per-hour range during the summer months and reach more than 50 mph in the winter. Consequently, the seas are rough. According to the park service, during storms it is not unusual for waves to curl upward of 90 feet!
Coupled with the wind and the waves, the limestone coast has developed unusual rock-like forms, most notably the formations now called the Twelve Apostles. Interestingly, they were once called the Pig and Piglets but evidently some Aussies felt that was not classy enough to attract tourists. For whatever reasons, the Twelve Apostles is one of Australia's most famous and beloved natural tourist sites.
The universally recognized koala can be seen in the Mackay area.
The Ocean Road often crawls alongside the beaches but also climbs high above the ocean with myriad hairpin turns that eventually flatten out as the two-lane highway nears the Melbourne area. A wonderful six-lane freeway takes a traveler either into Melbourne itself, or a fork takes you around the city and heads north toward New South Wales, the state north and east of Victoria.
After leaving the coast, we were now headed into the interior rural areas surrounding the famous Outback. There are different parts to the Outback. I have flown over the Outback several times and it goes on seemingly forever, the red earth stretching over the center of Australia like an outdated cattle rug.
Only the brave and the nave venture into the very center of Australia's Outback. There are strict rules for anyone who wants to take a four-wheel drive vehicle into the interior, including registering with authorities, as well as having your food, water and safety supplies checked and carrying an electronic positioning gadget.
The Outback can kill people in a whole lot of varied, interesting ways. Ironically, in this driest of dry lands, either the lack of drinking water or the onslaught of a flash flood in wet season can end one's life.
A local Aussie related to me how he had gone on a hunting trip and driving in a dry river bed, he looked up on some trees about 25 feet above the bed. Up on the tree tops were decaying kangaroos that had been swept to their deaths during a recent flash flood that had reached that level in the river bed that was now dry.
Sun, sand and lots of places to lounge around are the main attractions for those who visit the Whitsunday Islands. The absence of motorized vehicles adds to the appeal of those who like to worship the sun in isolated places.
The part of the Outback we traveled in was quite safe for a regular car as long as you did not leave the road or do something stupid. Though every step you took outside was a step that crackled in the dryness and raised dry dust, there were miles and miles of golden winter wheat ready to be harvested and in some cases, already started.
Everywhere we drove, there were irrigation units set up that helped Aussie farmers in their battle with the Great Dry in its efforts to claim more land from the worst of the Outback.
As we drove, signs warned of no services for 75, sometimes 100 miles or more, yet along the slightly kept, narrow two-lane highway, enormous combines, semis and tractors spidered across golden fields. We often would not see any houses for 50 miles or more and it made us wonder where the farmers lived and how long they had to travel each day to their fields.
The uninvited hot wind constantly curled around your face and dried your mouth out so much that you had to sip water just to talk. At times, the wind was gusty enough that we saw magpies sitting by the road with a wing stretched out trying to hitch a ride.
When we covered the first 400 miles through this heartland of Australia, we stopped in a small, rural town for the night and discovered friendly people who still had time in their lives to talk with strangers, to find out not only where you were going, but where you had truly come from in life. I nearly expected Andy of Mayberry to show up at any moment
Considered one of the world's scenic wonders, the Twelve Apostles are wind and wave crafted limestone formations along the southern coast of Australia near Melbourne. Their not-so-lofty designation in the 1800s was Sow and Piglets.
The immensity of this part of Australia is humbling. Realizing there were countless men and women in decades long past who had given their lives trying to make a living in this dry, unforgiving part of Australia, made my trekking across in a Toyota Camry seem luxurious. Stepping out of the car and looking at swaying wheat in fields that had no end, hearing nothing but the incessant hot wind and seeing a narrow, hot tar road wind its way beyond the limits of the eye is an experience that shrinks the ego and swells the heart.
After several incredible days of experiencing the livable part of the Outback, we turned eastward toward Brisbane and headed up the east coast of Australia to Mackay, the heart of Australia's coal, sugar cane and fruit production. I had received an invitation to go down into a working mine some four hours west of Mackay but after hearing the hours of tests and preparations I needed to go through before I would be allowed to descend some 2,000 feet into the ground, I decided to head the other way and sample the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Mackay instead.
Mackay is a growing city of about 100,000. The tourism industry is just now beginning to boom. The Great Barrier Reef starts just a little south of Mackay and the Whitsunday Islands have become a prime spot for tourists from all over the world, as well as from other parts of Australia.
Sailing out to the Islands on a catamaran ferry in Australia's summer is a heady experience. The sun beams large in this part of the world and beautifies the water as it paints various shades of blue on the palette of the Great Artist.
We visited three islands: South Molle, Daydream and Hamilton, the latter the biggest as well as the most developed.
All three islands boast a resort and do not have any vehicles on them except for local transportation for their guests. A simple hotel room starts around $250 so it is not for everyone. Swimming pools dot the islands as during the summer months it is unsafe to swim in this part of Australia because of the presence of stingers.
Stingers are a clear, small-bodied pest that have long, trailing tentacles that if you are unfortunate enough to come into contact with while in the water, you better have your will up to date. A small sting can cause excruciating pain that eventually leads to death, although some people do survive.
Lifeguards who patrol the beach during the summer wear pantyhose to protect themselves, a sight that draws some amount of humor from the unlearned.
There are multitudes of people in this world who love to travel to places like these islands and lounge for days, but after several hours on each island, I was down at the wharf whistling for the ferry to come back.
And, after a trip up to trek through the beautiful Eungella National Park to see platypus in their natural setting and other quaint Australian birds and animals, we packed up and headed 800 miles down the east coast to Burleigh Beach on Australia's playground, the Gold Coast where we always end our trips in Australia to rest and recoup before the grueling air trip back to Brainerd.
As we reflect over our multi-faceted, once-in-a-lifetime trip, we realize this island-continent is a unique part of the world where a person can still truly be alone in many areas of the country. Australia this year will hit 20 million in population for the first time and that population is spread out over a land mass approximately the same size as the United States.
As this trip ends, our impressions of Australia remain nearly the same as they have been for 30 years. The Aussies are a great people living in a great land.
(Henry Hintermeister of Crosby; his wife, Lyn, an Australian native; and their daughter, Meghan, recently traveled to Malaysia, Thailand and Australia, combining more than 14,000 miles in the air and another 4,000 on the ground by car in Australia. They also visited six islands during their two-month trip.)
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