Having just spent ten days on a steamy bus charging through the nether regions of Western Australia, you would have thought I'd have had enough. But no, not John Parker, bring it on, lets have some more. I like to do these things with a ripping off a sticking plaster attitude - fast and all in one go. When you are as hairy as me its definitely the best way.
So after a night on Ellie's sofa it was up at the crack of dawn (a nice girl) again. With a freshly laundered hanky to tie up all my possessions, I set off for the bus stop. I'd managed to get all the dust and sweat caked gear into the wash the night before. Most of it was dry but the red earth of the outback was still stubbornly ingrained in most of my modest wardrobe. I had followed the Lonely Planet packing guide to the letter and possessed a meager one tea shirt, one long sleeved top, one shirt with collar and long sleeves (doubles as passable evening garb in case the local greasy spoon has a dress code), two pairs pants with zip off legs, a frugal ration of undercrackers, one pair sandals, one pair of trainers (shortly destined for the great sneaker sanctuary in the sky). Oh and a toothbrush. If that was all I had I could probably get away with a Tesco bag to hump it around. Its the assortment of books, notepads, binocs, pen knife, accumulated pebbles and stones, copies of documents (halt, papers! - must be said in a Hollywood German accent) and heaviest of all, the assorted converters and battery chargers required to keep alive even the most modest of electrical necessities. At least I don't need a hair drier. Even with all the miscellaneous bits my pack is still a pretty manageable fifteen kilo's or so. Some of the others on the trips had massive bags. Fifteen kg wouldn't have covered the toilet bags of some of them. Its usually the young girls that are the worst. They have to have an outfit or three for every possible eventuality. On the last trip, as one of the few boys and the only one over six foot, I usually copped for passing bags up to and from the roof of the bus. So I have excellent first hand knowledge of the benefits of traveling light.
There is a curious sort of anxiety that sets in while waiting for your tour bus to turn up. There is usually a motley crew of bleary eyed backpackers of every shape, size, colour, nationality and smell, assembled by the bus stop. There will be four or five tours to different places all leaving from the same place at roughly the same time. You can comfortably while away twenty minutes or so weighing up who you think is likely to be a new traveling companion. Secretly weeding out the weirdo's. Its a psychoanalysts beanfeast. You learn a lot about your own prejudices on these occasions. They reckon you can weigh someone up in seconds and be more than 95% correct in your assumptions, without even speaking to them. Its really interesting to put this theory to the test. So I've surrepticiously edged out anyone over twenty stone and sweating, all men with pony tails (especially ones with dreadlocks), guys with Eric Morecambe shorts and calf length white socks with sandal's, any boy or boys under twenty clutching a slab of beer. I'd better leave it there or I'll be getting into libel land. Just as an amusing aside while I'm on the subject. This will appeal to at least one reader who shall be nameless (Trumper). When flying on to Sydney a very pretty girl sits next to me and starts chatting away, real friendly like. I'm thinking this is going to be a pleasant four hours. Everything was normal until I asked her what she did, to which the answer was, 'studying the bible'. Its one of life's 'oh shit' moments. God in his ironic wisdom had sent me a Jehovas witness to whiten my tarnished soul. Fortunately salvation appeared in the form of an angel pushing the dinner trolley. It gave me a moment to get the headphones on and face the front - the flying equivalent to slamming the front door. It just goes to show you cant judge a book by its cover. Also thankfully, not every pretty girl is a religious fundamentalist (unless the beard gives it away).
Anyway...... The new fellow excursionists turned out to be an excellent bunch, with a good proportion from my mental A list. This was going to be a three day trip down to the far south, in a loop through Albany, Pemberton, Margaret River and back to Perth. The country this time was very different to up north. Lots of forest, wheat farms, rolling green hills. You could be in Shropshire until a kangaroo hops out across the road. They are buggers for jaywalking. Especially at dusk. They stupidly stand and stare at the approaching headlights, transfixed like a 150 pound rabbit. If they do move its invariably back into your path. They get no change from the road trains. To these 200 ton multi trailered monsters that barrel along at 110kph and take over a mile to stop, its just like a fly hitting the bumper. But to a bus or saloon car it can mean being totaled.
Although I hated the thought of getting back on the bus, I was really excited about seeing the worlds second tallest trees... sorry but there has to be a nerdy corner in every story. There are two types of giant trees in this neck of the woods. The Tingle trees grow only in this area of Oz. To get the best view of the titans they have built a tree walk. This is a metal walkway suspended 40m above the forest floor and very shaky, as were my knees halfway along it.
We had four guys with us in their late 20's early thirties but still being properly juvenile as all lads on tour should be. They thought it would add greatly to the experience if they shook the walkway until you had to cling on like Indiana Jones crossing a bottomless chasm on a fraying rope bridge. Well done lads! You will all be pleased to know that tempted as I was to scream like a girl, I managed to maintain a modicum of self composure as you can see below -
For the cissy's there was also a ground level walk. They really are amazing close up. There used to be a big fella you could park your car in until it gave in to its age. It must have been a sapling around the time of the Spanish Inquisition - a fact I hadn't expected!
Just to get in the mood for all this high level action. We stopped on the way to Albany to have a walk up Castle rock and get a great view of the surrounding wineries and the distant Flinders Ranges. I liked this idea. After being cooped up on the bus an excuse to stretch your legs and have an hours walk was most welcome. Unfortunately it was another vertigo trip at the top. With steep sided rocks, enclosed ladders and a very rusted, not to be trusted summit.
All this was just a warm up though for the BIG ONE. There are a network of fire watch trees in the Southern Forests. They are not used so much now. Planes are a better option. I knew it was coming and had been psyching myself up on the bus all morning. The Bicentennial tree is a 74m Karri. With a viewing platform on the top which is reached by climbing metal spikes hammered into the trunk in an upward spiral. No safety net, no climbing harness. You need the nerves of a trapeze artist to get up, and down this thing. Some of us made it to the top but I considered it enough just to get to the first platform some 30m up. The ascent wasn't too bad. I just looked at the spike in front of me. But coming down I had to step out backwards off the platform and look down to check where my feet where going. When I got to the bottom my legs had turned to jelly.
I used to love climbing trees when I was a kid. Okay, not this big, but the vertigo thing kinda crept in while I wasn't looking. I must admit, I felt better for having done it. They say the best way to conquer your fears is to face them head on. There must be some truth in that. We visited the Gloucester Tree a little further on. It was getting dark so we couldn't climb, but I felt I could have done this one. Especially as at 60m it was just a tiddler ;-)
The far south of WA is a really beautiful place. The beaches are magnificent. Long white sands, big grey granite boulders and masses of wild flowers. The Southern Ocean is a deep blue. It was a bit too nippy to swim, it is full of icebergs after all. I must be getting soft, it's still got to be warmer than Angelsey in the summer. I ticked it off my ocean list. Have swum in the Atlantic and Indian, dipped a toe in the Southern, just the Pacific to go.
The last day was a bit of an anticlimax with lots of short stops to the small towns along the coast back to Perth. I just wanted to stop the bus and get off now. The thought of a single room and a hot shower kept me going though.
Taking tours is a great way to see the country. You don't have all the hassle of finding your own way, places to see, shopping to buy, accommodation to find. Its all laid on a plate for you. Plus the guides have heaps of local knowledge (like the best bakeries and cheapest bottle shops). You get to meet loads of new people and make new friends, even if some of them do have pony tails and dreadlocks.....