Entry 045: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 (Cairns, Australia)

Well, I'm currently in Cairns, my last stop in Oz. You might think I came straight here from Sydney, but you'd be wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, I had a whole little adventure in the outback, based in the central city of Alice Springs. It's just as well I didn't post from Alice Springs proper, because that town is kinda dull. The things I did in the Red Center (aka the dry, arid parts of the outback), though, were quite exciting. I ate a live bug, for one thing. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

(Truth be told, I'm gonna go through all of this relatively quickly, mainly because I'm not in the mood to go through the nitty-gritty details. It seems I sometimes bounce in between writing moods.) And we have lots to get through, so let's do it to it!

Way back in Sydney (which seems like so long ago), I woke up bright and early, had a nice smoothie breakfast, and then got on a bus with Teresa, who was heading off to work. We stopped at the bus's terminal station, where we parted ways, her going to work, and me jumping on a train to the airport. It was a generally smooth, uneventful process, as was my time in the airport. After getting my ticket from a machine, I was able to get through security without any issues, got to my terminal, and just waited. I got onto the plane, sat down in the exit row I was able to book for no extra cost for some odd reason, and off we went. Looking through the in-flight entertainment, I saw that I was low on movies that I had any interest in seeing that I hadn't already seen (I'd actually say that my watching films on planes has upped my movie-watching tenfold). I ended up going for The Great Gatsby, which was fine but pretty forgettable, and then an episode of Top Gear, which is a show which I thoroughly enjoy despite the content, as I couldn't give a hoot about cars (the same goes for the NPR show Car Talk). Almost immediately upon finishing that, I arrived in Alice Springs.

Now, one thing I've learned is that Alice Springs in and of itself is not a terribly interesting town. But I'll cover that later. Upon arriving, I was full of pep and excitement, and I looked around for any means of getting where I needed to go. I eventually found a brochure for Annie's Place, and called the number on it, asking about the shuttle I was supposed to be able to get. Turns out, it was already there, and just about to leave. That's one of the things about Alice Springs: the in's and out's are like clockwork, with flights arriving and departing at the same times every single day. As such, the shuttle companies (if there are, in fact, more than one) have set times revolving around these flights. So once I hopped on the shuttle (I was the last person, as I had milled around the airport a bit), we were off. Before too long, we arrived at Annie's Place, dubbed as "The Friendly Backpackers". Even now, I'm still unsure how I feel about this place, but I think that's partially dependent on what company I keep. But again, I'll get into that later.

I set everything down in my room (a room which had eight bunk beds, but only one that was being used), and then decided that I should go out to get some lunch. So, I walked out to the nearby Coles grocery store, bought myself some sandwich supplies (again, if you can get two good sandwich meals out of this, it's paid for itself; more than that and you're in the gold!). I walked back, thanking my lucky stars that it wasn't too hot (only 83 degrees), and had a sandwich to get things started. I then thought about what I wanted to do, since I had a good chunk of the day remaining. I had asked the front desk what was fun to do that didn't require driving out of town. They gave me four points of interest:
  1. The Reptile Center
  2. The Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility
  3. The ANZAC Hill
  4. The town mall ("It's air conditioned!")
On the way to get my groceries, I had passed by the first two of these. The Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility (which may need a snappier name) didn't look terribly interesting, but you can't really go wrong with reptile centers, so I went there. For being in a small town, it was actually fairly sizable, and I enjoyed looking around quite a bit. I went in when they were having a small talk/handling session, so some French dude, two old women, and myself got to hold a variety of little critters, as well as a few big ones. I was the only one of the four who willingly held the snake. (What actually surprised me is when the old women felt it and said the skin wasn't as slimy as they expected. I genuinely thought, in this day and age, that everyone would know what snake skin was supposed to feel like.) Probably the most interesting animals there were the thorny devil (which was much smaller than I expected), and the eastern long-necked turtle which, upon initial observation, was one of the most oddly repulsive things I've seen. In fact, it still is.

When I had exhausted all the reptiles with my relentless photography, I walked back to the hostel, and, figuring there wasn't much left to do, since everything in town was closing (and I was told not to be out on my own after 6pm or so), I just kinda relaxed. There was a slight break in my relaxing when I went downstairs to make myself another sandwich. But then the relaxing commenced anew. Now, I was actually quite happy with my situation at the time. The other guy who was in my room basically only came in twice all night, for less than a minute each time, and stayed somewhere else. The room I was in was close enough to the main office to get the free (and pretty decent) WiFi. And the shower was nice and hot. Basically, it was a slightly larger and less comfortable hotel room. So, I just enjoyed myself, did some future planning (with a focus on different options travel options within Argentina, and trying to figure out if any of them were worth the a high price for just a couple of days. And, when I wanted to be a bit less serious with my activities, I just watched some videos.

I also was dealing with a distinct sense of unease about the tour I was going to be taking into the Red Center (aka the full-on outback of the country, including Uluru [Ayer's Rock] and some other places). Not because I thought anything bad was going to happen, but more that maybe I had wasted the money I paid for the tour, even though I got it on discount. I could have just rented a car and explored the place on my own. What if we had a poor guide? What if the group was a bunch of airheads? I dunno why I started having these doubts - I can assume the guide one was because the southeast Asia cycling trip really punctuated how important a good guide is - but they made me think that I may have made a mistake.

The next day, while not the least eventful day on my trip (that, I'd say, would be the day I literally didn't leave my hotel room in Morocco, not even to eat, and just read The Hunger Games), was the most unexpectedly uneventful day. After waking up and having some breakfast (of toast, the hostel special), I spent the next...something like four hours just doing some creative stuff in my room. Nothing related to the blog (though in retrospect, that would have been a good idea), mostly stuff related to some Kickstarter campaigns that I had backed before I even left on this trip, and only now were asking me for the creative for vanity items. (Oddly, they all had deadlines at about the same time.) All the time trying to focus while trying to convince the cleaning folks that I was supposed to be in the room for another day.

I had packed myself a couple sandwiches, as I had planned to climb to the top of ANZAC Hill, and wanted to make sure I had lunch ready for me. Since it was already noon by the time I left, I ate and went out. I walked through the town, got to ANZAC Hill and...got to the top in seven minutes. I...I had budgeted three hours for that trip, meaning that I did absolutely no research on what constituted that hill. Turns out, it was less a trekking hill than a military remembrance hill (which is to say, one they want people to get to the top of easily). So, with hours left in the day, I walked around town, and decided that there was very little to do here.

I walked by a number of Aboriginal folk, who were just standing or sitting outside buildings, not doing anything except staring in a way that pinches your white guilt nerve. Some things I had learned since then: First, there still seems to be a bit of segregation between Aboriginals and "whitefellas" (that's the actual term they use) - somebody noted that in bars, there is a white section and a black section. This apparently isn't institutionalized, it's just how things end up being. It still seems a bit awkward. Second, I had asked why so many of the Aboriginal people, in particular the women, were so grossly obese. Basically, it comes down to the fact that Australia has their own form of reparations, and cuts a check (something like $500) to Aboriginal folks every week, in apology for the Stolen Generations. A noble cause, but one with the decidedly unintentional side-effect of making folks lose their motivation to do anything but eat and sit around all day. Third, apparently the reason that crime committed by Aboriginals is so proportionately high, and why you weren't supposed to stay out too late alone in this town, is because the Western justice system is laughably lenient to them. In Traditional Law, if you were to, say, steal food from a neighbor, you'd get a spear in the leg. Compared to that, being "punished" for committing a crime by being provided food and accommodation, even if it is a prison, comes off easy. On the whole, not the best of circumstances for them.

Anyway, I continued walking around town until I reached the fabled air-conditioned mall, which was...a mall, more or less. I did enjoy seeing a Target in there, and spent some time walking around, just like I used to do back in college. (No absentlmindedly tossing items into a cart this time, though.) Having exhausted that, I just went back to the hostel, and again, just spent the day messing around, doing some research, watching some videos, getting a few exercises in, and generally not doing much. I guess I went downstairs to have a quick dinner in the hostel's restaurant, but, yeah, that was about it. And, since I'd need to get up early (what a terrible six words) I didn't stay up terribly late. But it was nice having an off day.

Now, for the Red Center Trip!

Oh, jeez, how am I going to go about this...I don't know if it would be a good idea to give a sequential overview of this, because that would just be a series of "We drove, we walked, we ate, we drove, we slept" on repeat. So I'll just cover off topics in no particular order.

The Locations
This was a three-day trip, with three main locations to visit. In order, we saw:
  • Uluru: Better known as "Ayer's Rock" to the Western World, this is easily the most famous of the main places we visited, and possibly the least interesting, at least from a scenery perspective. We started off the tour by going into the cultural center, which had Aboriginal stories, artwork, and videos about the place. There was, especially in the video, a fair bit of underlying resentment of Aboriginals towards whitefellas, which is understandable but still uncomfortable. There was also an "I-didn't-climb-Uluru" guestbook. See, the climb/hike to the top of the rock was closed, because it was summer, and it was hot. However, even in other seasons, you are encouraged to not climb, because it is a sacred site to the Aboriginals, and you don't want to trample upon that. I get that, it's 100% fair; there were also some mountains in the Himalayas that were Buddhist sacred sites, and were thus off-limits. That said, I flipped through this book, and it was the most sanctimonious tripe I'd ever read. "I didn't climb Uluru because nature is so much bigger than us always," "I didn't climb Uluru because I choose not to trample on the world," and other stuff like that. I considered contributing myself, noting that I don't need to pat myself on the back - publicly - about it, but I decided to hold my peace.
  • As for the walk itself, it was just around the base of the rock, stopping at a few points to talk about the Tjukurpa, which is an all-encompassing idea that discusses creation stories and is basically the basis for all Tradition and Law in Aboriginal society. And it's guarded very heavily - because foreigners are considered children to the Aboriginals (at least in terms of being bush-ready), we only get to learn the children's stories. There are parts of Uluru that are sacred men's and women's sites, which no foreigner knows the stories behind, and which we are not allowed to take photos of. It's easy to get frustrated by this, since some of these areas are visually quite beautiful, but this is offset by the mystery of trying to figure out what the stories could possibly be, based upon the nature of that part of the rock.
  • We managed to avoid a lot of the crowds whilst we were walking around, but we couldn't avoid them when we went to see the sunset, a fair distance away from Uluru itself, where people were eating, drinking, and making merry (our group even opened up a few bottles of champagne, which seemed so unnecessary, and also maybe not a good idea after walking around in the hot sun all day. Still, it was nice to see all the different colors that it phased through.
  • Kata Tjuta: This place is also called "The Olgas", and is located in the same park that Uluru is, though quite a distance away. The name Kata Tjuta means "many heads", which is reference to the fact that this is actually a number of large domes. The formation of these is actually quite interesting: in the summer, the rock would expand, which would create perpendicular cracks. In the winter, water would seep into these cracks and freeze, widening the gaps until the thing would look like a giant chessboard from above. Millions of years of wind then smoothed down the different blocks into domes.
  • In any case, this walk was supposed to be the hardest of the three days, mainly because there were a good number of uphills and downhills, some of which did not have stairs or assistance of any kind. You just had to scramble up a big boulder, basically. In fact, it was here that I felt at my best. Maybe I was just in good spirits that day, but this hike, more than perhaps any other hike I had taken in the whole of my trip, had me feeling like I was in my element. Like, the more rough-and-tumble feel of the surroundings, the dust and rocks and shrubs and trees...it all felt right. So I really enjoyed my hike, especially when I was able to get ahead of most of the group, and finish so quickly that the guides (who were waiting back at the truck), thought I had ran. (In fact, I had stopped quite a bit, took a bunch of pictures, listened to the sounds of birds and the rustling of lizards, and even waited for someone to catch up [the Polish girl did, so I slowed down for her]. I'm just a really fast hiker.)
  • I also think this place had the single best view of the three days, which is a point at the top of a hill, looking out over a point called "The Valley of the Winds". When I first saw it, I thought a pterodactyl was going to fly by. Seriously, it was the most Jurassic Park-looking thing I've ever seen. Canyons and plants and rocks jutting out in the distance...it seemed primeval. They say Australia is has some of the oldest geography on earth, and it definitely seems like this place either hasn't changed much since the dinosaur age, or is really good at faking it. Either way, I literally said "Wow!" aloud in a completely earnest manner, and after all the things I've seen on this trip so far, that is saying something.
  • King's Canyon: This place, while having a similar geologic origin to Kata Tjuta, isn't really considered sacred by the Aboriginals (at least not that I can tell), and is mainly interesting for the amazing views it offers. It also had a huge number of smaller domes, including in this place called "the lost city". The shape and color of the rock domes actually reminded me quite a bit of the Angkor temples in Siem Reap. I...I don't really have much more to say about this place, which I think may be doing it a great disservice, because it was pretty neat as well. Hmmm....well, there is a point at the very beginning called "Heart Attack Hill," due to its fairly intimidating height and steepness. Thankfully, I didn't get a heart attack on it, but I was short of breath when I reached the top. I'm doubly thankful that we managed to do that before the sun rose about the opposing canyon face.
We also had a couple of side stops, not on the itinerary, often just to have a chance to get out of the bus, but also to learn some more.
  • Camel Farm: Despite not being native, camels are considered an important animal in the outback, though their numbers are increasing at an unsustainable rate. In any case, this place had some camels, which people could pay to ride (I didn't, since I already had that experience tenfold in the Sahara). They also had some kangaroo and the world's saddest-looking dingo.
  • Mount Conner: Also known as "Fooluru", as uninformed people driving to the red center sometimes see it and think they've arrived at Uluru (I know I sure did before I was told otherwise). We actually didn't stop at the site itself; we just pulled off the road to have a view, take some pictures, and listen to some "sand stories" from our guide Chris.
  • Curtain Springs: This is a bit of a cheat, as we mostly just stopped here for gas, shopping, and lunch on the second day. But I do want to mention that this cattle station is big. Remember how the Pidwa reserve, at 25,000 hectares, is big? Well, this place is 416,000 hectares. That's 1,560 square miles. That's bigger than the State of Rhode Island. And this place is the 47th(!) largest cattle station in the country. The biggest one in Australia is bigger than Israel. Basically, old white people in the middle of Australia own a lot of land. Also, Curtain Springs had an emu walking around like he owned the place.
  • ??????: At one point, we pulled over to the side of the road to gather firewood for our camp on the second night. While we were doing that, though, Chris wanted to show us how to look for bush food, which is something that most guides wouldn't do. He found a witchetty bush that had some dying leaves an cracked soil nearby, and dug up the swollen roots. Like clockwork, in each of these swollen roots was a witchetty grub, a two-inch-long moth larva. Chris ate one, and then asked the rest of the group (including our second guide, Luke) who wanted to eat a live one. Only one person accepted: me. (Of course it was me; I wouldn't be writing about it otherwise.) I took the little guy, and after psyching myself up (because the mental barriers were the hardest part of the whole experience), I put it in my mouth, biting off and discarding the head. (This was both to kill it quickly and to keep it from biting me in return.) I actually then chewed it up before swallowing. It was...bland. Not good, not bad, just bland. Consistency was a little slimy - if I were to give a good approximation for both flavor and consistency, I'd say it was like eating raw egg whites. Maybe with some salt and other seasonings, it would be great, but I don't think it'll be the next nation-sweeping craze. At least I know they're not disgusting, in case I ever need to eat them for survival. We also learned how to cook them (on hot sand, not on fire), and a few of the more squeamish folks were able to eat the roasted versions. Definitely glad I had that opportunity, because, really, when else would I be able to do that?
The Drives
So, Australia's a big place. 95% the area of the continental US. The drive from Alice Springs to Uluru? 290 miles. The drive from Uluru to King's Canyon? 200 miles. King's Canyon to Alice Springs? Another 200 miles. And then some more between those. Basically, we were in the bus for possibly half the time we were awake. Except that, well, most people used the drives to sleep. (You'll understand why in a bit.) And even when you couldn't sleep, there was an eclectic variety of music to listen to, including some Australian roots music (namely by this guy named Xavier Rudd), some oldies, some new stuff, and a few nineties songs I haven't heard in years (chief among them being REM's "Orange Crush"). I also took the opportunity to look out the bus windows and just marvel at how vast and desolate the outback truly is. It's pretty gorgeous, I'm not gonna lie. It actually reminded me, probably by no small coincidence, of the Borderlands games, and I kind of wish we could also listen to the old western-influenced soundtrack of them.

The Food
Apparently, the food we had on our trip was one of things that made G Adventures stand out from the rest of the tour groups that had the same three-day itinerary. It wasn't on the level of what we got on, say, the Kilimanjaro trek, but it was pretty good. Breakfasts were your standard, simple fare: toast, spreads, cereal, yogurt, cofee, tea. Lunches ran the gamut from packed sandwiches, to barbecue sausages, to bacon and eggs and Dutch oven-baked bread (though that last one was technically brunch). For dinner on the first night, I finally got to try kangaroo. I enjoyed it quite a bit; it was basically like a very lean beef, which is how I like my red meats. We also had camel burgers. That's right, camel burgers. Apparently, if people ate more camel, the populations wouldn't be so much of an issue. Well, if I lived in Australia, I'd have no problem eating camel, because it was really good. Admittedly, that might have been somewhat due to the spices used in the patties, but still, I ate the leftovers of that for the remaining days of the trip. Dinner the second night was also quite good: pseudo-burritos (though I ended up with more of a salad, since my tortilla had absolutely no holding power.

So yeah, all in all, really good food, and I even got to try those meats I was looking forward to.

The Guides
Remember how I was saying that I was worried about this trip, and that part of that had to do with the fact that a bad, or even middling, guide can make it a bleak experience. Well, the Lord does indeed provide, because I managed to get just the guide I needed. In fact, we had two guides. One of them, named Luke, was relatively new to G Adventures, and so was kind of serving as an assistant guide of sorts, learning the ropes. He still knew quite a bit, though, and I enjoyed speaking with him quite a bit. The head guide, though, was a Grizzly Adams-type named Chris. Big and bearded, he looked 36, is 40, and has the experiences of a 70-year old. Remember how I said I'm going to be that guy who always brings up my experiences on this trip in my future? That's kind of how he was, except that it was all in Australia. He's trained in identifying all the flora and fauna of the area, has had more jobs than you could count on both fingers (including being the fire marshal of an area thrice the size of England),  has been trained in bush living by Aboriginals, and was guiding since 1998. Simply put, this guy knows his stuff. What's remarkable, though, is that he's been out of the game for some time; he hadn't led a tour since 2008, when he decided to focus on some other things. We were, in fact, his first group in over five years. In that regards, we hit the jackpot, because he was able to tell us stuff and show us stuff we would have never seen otherwise (the bush food being a prime example). He also had a good mix of outback gruffness and humor (such as drawing a map on the windshield of another tour's bus) that made him easy to get along with. I would definitely say that the guides were instrumental in making this an enjoyable experience.

The Other People
One of the other concerns I had about this trip was how the other people were going to be. On the G Adventures website, this trip was categorized under "YOLO", meaning a budget-conscious trip for backpackers. I was concerned that the kind of people I'd be with would epitomize this mindset, and thus be drunken party animals. Thankfully, this was not the case. It wasn't a boring group by any means, but they were all respectful in their fun, and I got along with mostly everyone pretty well. Included in the group were five Brits (and, as per usual, I get along with Brits smashingly well), four Germans (two of which, a couple, I got along with very well. The other two...well, the other two were a pair of girls who kept to themselves and seemed unmoved by everything; when they finally smiled by seeing a camel and donkey on the last day, the guides laughed at how they couldn't do what a couple animals could), three Spanish speaking folks (two from Spain, one from Columbia, who I got along with fine, though they seemed to prefer to keep to themselves), a very competent Swedish girl, a hilariously ditzy Polish girl, and some American jerk. So really, all but two gelled pretty well, and there wasn't any major fallings-out, so I'd say that turned out pretty well.

The Weather
It was hot, I'll tell you that.

In Kata Tjuta, you weren't allowed to start the walk after 11am. In King's Canyon, you couldn't start after 9am. When we finished King's Canyon at 10:30 in the morning, it was already, like, 97 degrees. And it would get hotter and hotter until about 4pm. And this is the beginning of summer. So yeah, if you plan on doing this, I hope you like sweating. Truth be told, I was actually able to deal with it pretty well. First of all, I've found that I can adapt to hot and cold temperatures better than my temperate SoCal upbringing would have you believe. Second, my attire, which included my amazing hat and amazing shamagh, kept the sun off pretty much all parts of me, sans my arms (which don't get hot, and don't burn).

Even so, getting into the bus and having the air condition turned on....heaven!

The Sleep
Sleep was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was very pleasant and comfortable. We didn't use tents. Instead, we had these self-contained...things, called swags. It's like, a rollable, zip-up bag that is possibly waterproof and insect-proof, and contains a sleeping bag and pillow (and maybe has the sleeping pad built in). You just unroll, hop in, and you're good to go. It's very cozy, and I had no complaints about it.

Also, on that same hand, the weather made it very pleasant for outdoor sleeping. The nights were nice and warm (70 degrees, maybe), meaning that I could just sleep in my pajama pants, with the sleeping bag only loosely covering me, and I'd be fine. Additionally, the stars you could see were wonderful. I unfortunately wasn't able to get great star pictures, mainly because of the light from the campsites and the quarter-moon, but it was still the kind of starry sky you'd love to sleep under.

On the other hand, while the sleep both nights was great, there wasn't much of it. On the first night, we had to get up at, what, 5:30 in order to see the sunrise. (Thankfully, we only walked to a sunrise viewing stop near our camp. Other tours had to drive for an hour to the official viewing spot.) The sunrise was nice, I suppose, but I really couldn't give a rat's rump about sunrises (100% prefer sunsets), and I hate mornings. So, having to wake up early to see a sunrise? Not my favorite thing. The next morning was even worse, as we had to wake up at 4am! This was to get to King's Canyon before it got too hot, which was in fact the best idea, but Christ, 4am! If I could have, I would have let them just carry my limp, sleeping body into the bus.

One More Thing
I don't really have anywhere else to note this, but three different people on this trip (all separately) noted to me that I seemed completely calm and unfazed by everything. (The word unflappable didn't come up, but I wish it did, because I really like that word.) Whereas others in the group were...I don't want to say "complaining", because that makes it sound worse than it was...giving their thoughts on all the stuff that was happening. Oh, so hot! Oh, all these flies! Oh, we have to walk uphill! Oh, we have to sleep without a tent! And so on. Meanwhile, I pretty much take everything in stride, often noting that it's not as bad as one of my former experiences on this trip. But yeah, I've been hearing those kinds of sentiments more and more as time goes on, that I can take these hardships well. I suppose I have kind of matured in that regard, so...good.

(By the way, the flies were pretty annoying. There were a ton of them, and they were fifty times more persistent than almost any other flies I've encountered. Probably the only reason I didn't complain about them was because, no joke, my goggles prevented them from crawling into my eyes, which was happening to everyone else.)

....So, yeah. On the whole, it was a great tour, and I'm really glad I did it.

So, in any case, we got back to the hostel at about 6pm on Sunday, and to my great pleasure, I was in the same room that I was in before. I still remembered the door keypad combination, even! My pleasure was immediately dashed upon walking into the room, and seeing that not only was there evidence of people staying in there, but that evidence was in fact, five shirtless guys. What was worse was that all the good beds in the room were taken, as were all of the electrical outlets (there were only three outlets in the room, all of which were away from all the beds; a stupid design choice, but one I didn't mention until now because it was fine when I was by myself). The guys were German, and were clearly more the "hosteler" type of guest here. They actually were planning on leaving the next day. They'd be driving to King's Canyon at 10am (itself already too late to start the walk), so they would arrive, at the earliest, at 3:30. I told them it would be closed, and - after I confirmed that evening hikes were not allowed - they seemed disappointed. I tried, not altogether selflessly, that they should leave tonight, but that didn't work.

I spent some time repacking my bags so that they'd be ready to go in the morning, took a shower, and then went down to the hostel restaurant to meet up with the rest of the group. It could have been a really excellent last dinner, except that the restaurant was full of drunken idiots, and there was a live band playing. Now, I don't mind live music, but the fact of the matter is, I also don't like when I have to shout to have a conversation. So that part wasn't good, but spending some time with everyone was. In fact, I stayed there until 11:30, when my near-20-hour day was starting to catch up to me.

I went into my room, which had the door open, allowing the stench from a pot smoker sitting right near the entrance to drift in. I went in, closed the door, and hopped in my bed to sleep. Unfortunately, my moment of peace was interrupted within five minutes, when the German guys came in and started asking me questions. Two of these exchanges really got me. First, they asked if the Uluru climb was open. I said it wasn't, due to summer. "That's so bad," said one, "It's been my dream to climb to the top of Uluru and smoke a joint. Now that dream is ruined." I didn't know how to respond with that. Also, when discussing how I save money, they noted that they save money by eating cheap, cheap cup noodles. I noted to myself that they had four cases of beer, which is grossly expensive in this country. One of those could have been left aside to buy sandwich supplies for ten people. I finally dropped some unsubtle hints that I wanted to go to bed, namely putting in my headphones and lying down, and while they didn't turn out the lights or anything, they went out to do whatever their thing was, and I went to sleep.

Unfortunately, because the window curtain in the room was only about 80% the width of the actual window, I woke up as soon as the sun was shining through. It was just as well; I had no desire to stay in there when those guys would be doing their packing. I gathered my stuff, left the room, and went downstairs to check out. I then packed away my big bag, got some breakfast, and did some computer work, mainly checking through my emails and filtering through photos. Oh, not the Red Center photos; I'm not that far yet. No, I still had plenty of Southeast Asia photos to go through. I met up with a couple of the people from the tour who had early flights, and said my farewells.

At lunchtime (yeah, it was a fairly uneventful morning), I decided to go out to get some lunch. Despite considering getting some restaurant food, I ended up going to the Coles and getting a cheap frozen pizza and a 2-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi. If that latter item sounds excessive, if not gluttonous, consider the following: a 2-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi (which was technically Pepsi Max) was $1.59, on sale. A 1.25-liter bottle of the same stuff was $1.99. A can of Diet Coke was $2.50. So this huge bottle was literally the cheapest drink I could find. Anyway, I got back to the hostel, was dismayed to find there was no oven, did a sketchy microwave job of the pizza, and then met up with the British folks, who were on the same flight as me. I ate, and then continued filtering through photos. In fact, we were all basically chatting with each other while doing administrative computer work for the next couple hours, until the shuttle came and took us to the airport. Once there, it was a mostly smooth process, except that I was forced to check in my big bag at the counter (there were no self-service machines here). We met up with the German couple at the gate (they were staying at a different hotel) until the plane showed up, and then rushed to get on board, as for some unknowable reason, it started to rain in Alice Springs.

There was no in-flight entertainment on this plane, which was just as well. I had originally thought to do some writing, but decided to do more photo filtering instead. What was great about having nobody next to me was that I could have my laptop on my tray, and the in-flight meal on the other; it's the little things, ya know? Anyway, we arrived in Cairns at 8pm, and after picking up our bags, we all said goodbye to each other. The Brits would be in the city for a few days, so I said if they wanted to meet up, they could just contact me, but I didn't expect them to because they really don't need to; they already have a group.

I walked outside, and before long, found the car that was picking me up. It was my host (well, they lady I rented a room from), Ursula. I hopped in, and we drove to her home. Once inside, she showed me around, I set my stuff down, and we had a conversation with some tea. But after some time, I was feeling a bit tired, so I decided to go bed, feeling pleased that there weren't any drunk people in the room.

When I got up the next morning, Ursula had already left for work. I had some breakfast, and then spent the next little while planning some of my activities in Cairns, with some help from a booklet of brochures and websites Ursula had provided. I had to do a Great Barrier Reef trip - that is almost non-negotiable when you're here - but I decided that I also wanted to look at one of the other cool natural elements of this area, the rain forest. I ended up booking a rain forest 4x4 drive for Thursday, and a reef trip for Saturday. I chose those two days because they both had discounts for the respective times, though I might regret the reef trip on Saturday, as I might not be able to do a dive proper (just a snorkel trip), since I have a flight the next day.

After that, I decided to go on a hike in the nearby hills. There were two nearby walking trails, one which was a 1.1 km loop, and one which was a 6.6 km loop. No prize if you guessed which one I decided to go on. It was a nice hike, through a fine wooded area, and there were some cool lookout points of the coast and airport, but it wasn't terribly memorable. That said, I do remember a couple of things. First, once I got to the center point, I decided to refill my CamelBak with my extra water bottle, but then saw that I had plum forgotten my other water bottle back at Ursula's place. Now, the CamelBak holds 2 liters, which is fine, but it meant I rationed the water totally wrong, and had little left. Umm...oh, I saw a goannna climbing a tree! That was legit exciting. And, I, uh, talked to some old guy for about twenty minutes. And, um, that's about it. When all was said and done, I finished their "4-5 hour" walk in 2.5 hours, and that's with all the stops, photos, and conversation.

I then walked back, stopping in the local botanical gardens, which included both a "Gondwanaland Garden", showing off the evolution of early plants, and a more traditional flower place. I then realized that it was well past 3pm, and I hadn't had lunch yet. So, I walked a few miles to get to the closest supermarket, where I bought myself some cereal, snacks, spinach, and a full chicken. I took this back home, and prepped myself a very late lunch. I then relaxed for a bit, letting the gallons of sweat in my clothes evaporate. Ursula had also come home at this time, and offered me the opportunity to go on a community bike ride with her, a friend, and about 600 neighborhood folks around Cairns to see the houses decorated for Christmas. While this could have indeed been quite fun, I decided I'd rather just continue relaxing, so she went off with her friend. (I did manage to go out onto the main road to watch the hundreds of bikes passing by; Ursula and her friend were tickled pink to see me wave at them.) Afterward, I went back to my room, did some work, had some more chicken and spinach for dinner (it was almost like a dinner back home), did some more work, and then went to bed.

This morning, I woke up, had some cereal for breakfast, and spent most of the morning in a mix of messing around and doing writing for this entry. That lasted until shortly before noon, when I had lunch (again, chicken and spinach) and then left for a day on the town. Or around the town, at least. I basically started by walking down to the beach. And by "beach", I mean "mudflat", because that's seriously what the coast is. Apparently, mangroves grow there, so it's just all mud. I experienced this quite intimately when I was walking to take a photo of a young plant (probably a mangrove) growing close to the waters edge. When I didn't stay light on my feet, I would sink down into the mud a good four inches. I actually felt lucky to have made it back onto solid ground without falling. I then just walked down along the coast for an hour or so, until I reached their man-made lagoon, which was constructed so locals and tourists could actually have the beach they so wanted. I didn't go in, mainly because it was super hot and sunny, and I didn't want to get burned (also, I didn't have my swim trunks). I passed through a shopping center, where I happened upon an underwater camera rental place where I was able to get something set up for my reef trip on Saturday.

I kept walking, going back up the main road to complete the loop back to Ursula's place. However, at some point, I turned onto the wrong street, which turned out to be a serendipitous choice, because it led me to a cemetery. In case you don't remember me mentioning in one of my earliest entries, I love walking around cemeteries, taking photos, admiring the artistry of the tombstones, soaking in the history. So, that's exactly what I did here. I think the oldest grave I could find was from 1917. I have no doubt there were older ones, but this cemetery easily had several thousand graves in it, so there was no way I'd see them all. The saddest grave I saw was for a pair of identical twins who died while being born. That must have been devastating, and seeing a pair of teddy bears placed at the stone made it all the more mournful.

Walking through the cemetery from top to bottom actually got me onto the street I was supposed to be on, so I continued on my way, making a quick stop at the Centennial Lakes, which were not as impressive as their name makes them out to be. I got back, having walked for a good five or so hours, and saw that Ursula had come home and was taking a nap (she had to leave the house at 6am this morning). After eating the last small pieces of chicken I had and guzzling down some water (I had brought my bottle with me, but was only able to refill it once, so I was damn dehydrated), I went to my room and continued writing in this entry. Eventually, it was time for dinner, and I had no more chicken to eat, so Ursula and I ordered some pizza from a local joint. I got a Mexican-themed one (if it has jalapenos, I'll eat it). And once finishing that, I just continued my writing for the day.

Upon quickly scanning the last several paragraphs, I think I should note that Ursula is 60, or at least will be tomorrow. So don't get any wrong ideas.

Anyway, it's hard to believe I only have a scant few days in Australia left. But there's a few more little treats to enjoy before I have to worry about that, so I saw bring 'em on!

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