Over there…….just: A journey across the Simpson Desert

“Come they said. It’ll be fun they said. A holiday of a life time……..so they said.”

It was the year 2013, in the July school holidays, when five Land Rovers, ten adults, four children and three babies, set out on an epic journey of more than 3000km to cross the Simpson Desert. It was a journey that would change their lives forever (*disclaimer may not have changed anyones lives but lets run with that).

We spent a LONG time preparing for the trip, planning the route, agreeing on the must see places of interest, getting our Defender mechanically ready and planning meals & supply stops. We also took the opportunity to refresh some of our older camping gear including buying a new camping table, a saucepan set, and a frying pan with a removable handle, to help with packing and make cooking that bit easier. All were very worthwhile investments. Here’s a typical campsite setup.

Campsite Setup

For those not in the know the Simpson Desert (apparently the largest dune desert in the world) is a National Park in the north-east corner of South Australia that runs along the Northern Territory border and up and over into Queensland. The spot where the three states meet is called Poeppel’s Corner and it’s one of the places of interest we set our sights on. Another was the ‘Lone Gum’ the only substantial tree in the Simpson. There are several ways to get into the desert. We came in from Oodnadatta to Mt Dare then headed east towards Birdsville. The iconic Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse and Birdsville Hotel are well worth the stop, even if you don’t have to fill up with fuel. Our longest planned distance between fuel stops was around 850km in soft sand so every last drop we could squeeze in was essential.

Places of Interest

We were extremely lucky with the weather, with rain in front of us and behind us, but mainly sunny weather around us, although It got EXTREMELY cold at night particularly on the way up and on the way back, where thermals at night were essential. The wide open skies meant we were in for a spectacular nightly light show.

SunsetsWith all the rain the road from Mt Dare to Purni Bore (an artesian basin filled swimming hole perfect for a refreshing dip as long as you don’t mind being nibbled on by little fishes) had been closed for three days. As good fortune would have it, word arrived that the road was re-opening just as we were filling up the vehicles at Mt Dare and discussing Plan B! The muddy tracks made driving in a straight line interesting. Some of the water puddles stretched the full width of the road while others were like mini lakes that we had to divert around. There wasn’t a shammy large enough to keep the vehicles clean! We had one Go Pro video camera attached to the back of the vehicle and one down near the front wheel. Even though the front one got completely covered in mud, we took some of our best footage on this section of the trip with water spraying up and over the vehicle at times. 

Mud Shots

Apart from a delayed start to the trip due to one of the vehicles malfunctioning (it wouldn’t start), and accidentally running over our digital camera after it fell off the bonnet driving out of the first campsite (all of these photos were taken on my iPhone) it had been a relatively event free run to this point. That’s where things started to change. One by one the Landy’s became self-aware and started to dictate how far they would travel each day before spitting the dummy. Very soon the babies followed and then it was anarchy!

Well maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that, but one vehicle did completely fail to proceed, and a second blew their rear diff while towing the first. This resulted in a through-the-night complete rear diff transfer (hub to hub) from the disabled vehicle to the towing vehicle, involving some very imaginative bush welding. For those of you that know anything about mechanics you’ll understand this operation was an amazing feat and the towing vehicle made it safely home with no further trouble! The disabled vehicle and its owners were towed back to Mt Dare the next day by the wonderful folk from the Mt Dare Hotel ……….and then there were four.

Our final major hurdle was Big Red the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert, at 40m tall, and the focus of my banner photo for this page. Three of the remaining vehicles in our convoy made it up and over. The fourth unfortunately also blew a rear diff but managed to limp into Birdsville. After cutting the axles to avoid any further damage to the rear diff, and disconnecting the rear prop shaft, this vehicle also made it safely home, with the exception of one shattered alpine window (how remains a mystery). Personally, we had a brake caliper come apart on us during a stretch of night driving, requiring an awkward bush fix, and one of our panard rod bushes disintegrated on the way home. Don’t ask me what that is – all I know that it made steering very interesting and not in a good way!

You’ll be pleased to know, however, that no babies were harmed in the making of this adventure and all have been successfully camping again since, so none have been scared for life – at least not that we’ll know until they learn to talk.

Putting all the mechanical difficulties aside it was another amazing adventure that took us through some of the most beautiful landscapes South Australia (and a bit of Queensland) has to offer. Ending as all our far north trips do, driving home through magnificent Flinders Ranges.

Nature

Landscapes

A restful holiday it was not, but it certainly was an adventure, and one I will remember fondly, once my therapy kicks in.

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Kangaroo Island Adventure

It’s taken a while but I’ve finally found the time to sort through all the photographs from last year’s Kangaroo Island Adventure to put this post together.

The trip was well planned in advance as we only had 7 days, and with so much to see and do on the island we wanted to experience as much as we could in that time. We travelled with another family (hi Tim, Mimi & Cora) and lucky for us Tim had previously led some tours on KI so he knew all the good spots.

The Ferry to KI leaves from Cape Jervis and is a relatively short and easy ride as long as you don’t get seasick. Our kids can be prone to car sickness so we came prepared with each taking a Quell 45 minutes before departure. No worries on either the trip over or back! Once all the vehicles were unloaded from the Ferry (glad I wasn’t involved in unravelling that jigsaw puzzle) we headed straight to Kingscote Tourist Park for an over night cabin stay.

I got up early the next morning and headed straight to the beach for a morning walk and to take some photos. (I may have also sung quite loudly, but if no one was around to hear me did it really happen?) The weather was fantastic and I got some beautiful shots especially of the pelicans and a fisherman returning from his morning outing, not even going to try to guess what time he got up.

It’s safe to say that being on an island means there will most likely be a beach somewhere nearby and we had many beach lunch stops. Here’s a selection of some of my favourite beach photos.

Beaches

From Kingscote we travelled to the Snake Lagoon Campsite at Flinders National Park, on the western end of the island, where we camped for 3 nights. We were very happy with the cleanliness of the amenities block and the privacy afforded to each of the campsites, and would highly recommend staying there. Contrary to its name we didn’t see any snakes, but it did appear to be a local feeding ground for kangaroos and wallabies who came out in their droves at dusk. In fact we saw a lot of wildlife during our travels.

Animals

These were the busiest days of the trip. On top of seeing all the big attractions such as Seal Bay, Remarkable Rocks, Admiral’s Arch and Kelly Hill Caves, there was a koala walk, penguin feeding, pelican feeding and a lot of scenic driving. On one drive in particular it was interesting to see how the land was recovering from the large bushfires in 2007. Out of all of these things the one I would recommend the most would be Remarkable Rocks. It’s a must to visit it just prior to sunset as on a nice sunny day the colours of the sun play out of the rocks and really bring them to life.

Remarkable Rocks

We could have camped for the whole week but our rented beach house (mansion), on the south coast, was calling, and so was a turn in the weather. Up until mid-week we had nothing but glorious sunshine, but even a bit of rain couldn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves. We spent our last few days quad biking, sand boarding the Little Sahara Desert, touring farms and boutique wineries, and our evenings on our big verandah watching the sun set over Vivonne Bay. Our last stop was the Kangaroo Island Farmers Market at Penneshaw just before returning on the ferry.

Activities

A week was all we had but I’d recommend staying a bit longer if you can. Even though we went in the school holidays there were no crowds or lines or waiting, although some of the key tourist attractions can get a bit ‘busy’ if a big tour bus rolls in.

Kangaroo Island is a brilliant place for a family holiday and if you’ve never been I say you’re missing out!

To Ballarat and Back Again….

This week we hi-jacked Monday, declared it a long weekend, and decided to seek our fortune gold panning at Sovereign Hill, in Ballarat, Victoria.

To shorten the drive on Saturday we drove for a couple of hours on Friday before pulling up stumps at the Keith Motor Inn around 10.30pm. Would highly recommend if you’re passing through. Big thanks to the owners who left the key under the mat for us, and the heating on full. Our family room was spacious and clean with electric blankets all around which were very handy given the overnight temperature was -1°.

After loading up with bacon and egg sandwiches for breakfast we set off. While we decided not to bring all our camping gear this trip, having the fridge permanently mounted in our Land Rover Defender means picnic lunch anywhere, anytime. This time it was opposite Seppelt Wines in a little town called Great Western.

It was too cold to stay outside for long so we ate in the Landy before driving the rest of the way to Ballarat. About an hour and a half from Melbourne, the City of Ballarat is one of the largest inland cities in Australia with a population of over 90,000 (according to their website). Gold was first discovered there in 1851. It is where the ‘Welcome Nugget’ was discovered and in 1954 it was the site of the infamous Eureka Rebellion.

We pulled into Ballarat around 2.30pm and set up our home away from home in a family cabin at the A Welcome Stranger Big 4 Caravan Park. This place also had lovely owners and not just because they gave us a free packet of Tim Tams when we checked in! After a nice counter meal at the local pub we made our first visit to Sovereign Hill.

Sovereign Hill is an open air museum, set over 25 hectares, representing the first 10 years after the discovery of gold in Ballarat, and their nightly light and sound spectacular ‘Blood on the Southern Cross’ recreates the story of the Eureka Rebellion. It’s not included in the entry fee but is definitely worth the extra money. Bookings essential. Also be warned! If going in winter like us wear warm EVERYTHING (beanie, gloves, jackets, socks, thermals) as it is held outside and goes for around 90 minutes.

After another freezing night outside, but warm inside (I could get used to having an electric blanket), we were back at Sovereign Hill for a full day of adventure. After freaking out at the extraordinary long line to buy tickets, then celebrating the fact we had pre-paid over the internet and could jump the line, we found ourselves in one cue after another for most of the morning. This was more than a little frustrating but it was only for the extra activities that weren’t included in the entry fee like the underground Gold Mine Tour. Again well worth the extra money, but get in early! Also handy hint: bring your own lunch = no lineup!

Things got better in the afternoon and the kids had a great time looking around at all the free exhibits like the steam engines, the school, the stables, the shops and of course the diggings. Although we did find some gold (yes they do put real gold in the creek and yes you can keep it) sadly we didn’t make our fortune. For a school project Josh brought Bear with him and took some fun photos.

We quickly ran out of time and decided to make use of the “second day free” on the Monday, to have a horse and coach ride, take another look around the shops, and take an olden times family portrait before starting the long drive home. We had a ball dressing up in the costumes and posing for our photo. Here’s Emily in the dressing room.

All in all it was a great holiday. Definitely take the two days to look around if you can. There’s so much we still didn’t get to see (i.e. bowling alley, musket firing, live pouring of a gold bullion). If you can, get there as soon as it opens, try to avoid the school holidays, and especially Sundays in the school holidays (the short time we were there Monday was much better crowd wise).  It’s a long drive from Adelaide but our kids are seasoned travellers so 7½ hours plus meal and toilet breaks was manageable and yes……we’d do it again next weekend if we could.

Hawaii 2-0 Part 8 Farewell Honolulu, G’Day Australia

Our remaining time in Honolulu was spent walking up and down the streets of Waikiki, exploring the local shops and markets and buying last minute souvenirs for friends and family. We also visited places of interest such as the Eternal Flame, built-in memory of all Hawaiians who have served in the armed forces, the War Memorial, Government House and the Town Hall.

We also spent half a day at Waikele Premium Outlets. With only 50 stores it was nowhere near as big as our Harbor Town, but they had an impressive list of stores including: Armani, Adidas, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, Coach, Gap, Guess, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. We spent about half an hour at Levi’s alone just trying to figure out US sizing for the kids to buy them some jeans for winter (which we’ve since found out we got totally wrong and none of them fit).  We also got Chris some new shirts, pants and ties for work from Calvin Klein.

We couldn’t leave Hawaii without experiencing a luau so one evening we booked into the  Waikiki Starlight Luau, which is held under the stars on the roof top of the Convention Centre. Included in the tickets were two drinks (Mai Tai’s of course) a banquet feast, live music and a wonderful show of dances from across the pacific region including the Hakka from New Zealand and a Tongan fire dance. The costumes were amazing and we had a really great night.

All good things must come to an end, and by 8.30 Tuesday morning we were all packed and waiting for our hotel pickup to take us to the airport. After a 1/2 hour ride to Honolulu Airport, a relatively easy check-in (which included getting exit row seats for the flight home – YES!) and more Starbucks (I love their iced white chocolate mocha almost as much as the free wi-fi) we were boarded and on the way home.

While the flight back was longer than the flight over (not quite sure why) the extra space in the exit row, plus the fact we were travelling during the day, made for a relatively painless flight and hardly any jet lag. I finally got to read my new Matthew Reilly book ‘Scarecrow’ which I had bought and he autographed for me late last year, and Chris and I watched Fast Five (the fifth edition of the Fast and the Furious – meh!) and Battle Los Angeles (highly recommend).  Due to the curfew at Adelaide Airport it wasn’t possible to travel all the way home in go so we had an overnight stop in Sydney where we stayed at the Radisson Suites and Apartments and had a good nights sleep in a king size bed. Then it was back to the airport in the morning and onto Adelaide. There was a lovely surprise waiting for us at the airport, two happy smiling children who were very glad to see their mum and dad home again, and couldn’t wait to see what presents we had bought back for them.

After travelling close to 20,000 km by plane, boat and car/bus it is nice to be home, although I am sitting here looking at a massive pile of laundry that just won’t go away. Thank you for joining me on my adventures. I’m not sure when I’ll be posting again, but after how much we enjoyed this trip, it won’t be long before we start planning again.

Mahalo!

Hawaii 2-0 – Part 7 Adventures in Honolulu – Pearl Harbor

Okay some of you caught me out and realised that I’m now back home, and writing this from the comfort of my couch. Too much to see and do and not enough time to write about it, so I left the last three days of our trip in Honolulu and our travels home till I got back so I could just take it all in.

While the beginning of the trip went by quite slowly by the end I felt that it was racing along with so much more we would have like to do before we left. We didn’t get to travel outside of Honolulu to other parts of Oahu, we didn’t get to the Aquarium or Wet and Wild Water Park and we didn’t get to do any snorkelling, surfing, body boarding or even get to swim in the Pacific Ocean. The weather wasn’t really warm enough to do the last couple of things.

We did however spend almost a whole day at Pearl Harbour which, while it was an extremely long tour, was a very worthwhile experience.  The tour started with a hotel pick up at 6.45 am (which for anyone that knows us is REALLY EARLY!!!!)  It takes about 1/2 hour to get to Pearl Harbour from where we were staying at Waikiki, a little longer if the tour driver diverts through his neighbourhood to show you where he lives. :-)  Funnily enough he wasn’t the only tour driver to do this.  Because Pearl Harbor is still a working Navel Shipyard you are not allowed to take bags into any of the facilities, or across the bridge to Ford Island. Also until recently overseas travellers had to carry their passport, however now only a valid photo ID is required (i.e. Australian Driver’s licence).

Access to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Information Centre is free, and you are welcome to look around at the historic monuments, memorials, and artefacts located on the grounds. In addition there are a number of separate tours you can do such as boarding and looking around the USS Bowfin Submarine and the USS Missouri Battleship, traveling by boat to the memorial of the USS Arizona and touring through the Pacific Aviation Museum.  We didn’t have time for everything so we did the Arizona and the Missouri tours.

Pearl Harbour Visitor Information Centre & USS Bowfin

For those of you that don’t know the history of Pearl Harbor and haven’t seen the movie, starring Ben Afleck and Kate Beckinsale, here’s a brief run down on its history and the history of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri. More information is available at http://www.pearlharboroahu.com/index.htm.

Early in the morning of December 7, 1941 the Japanese Empire launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base. The attack was significant for several reasons, one being the devastating loss of life (2,402 people) and assets (eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and a mine-layer were damaged with four sinking).  The second being that as a direct result of the attack, the US decided to enter World War II and the following day, December 8, 1941, they declared war on Japan.

Of the lives lost at Pearl Harbor, 1,177 were from the USS Arizona which they say exploded due to a direct hit, and sank within 9 minutes taking almost its full complement of personnel down with it.  The ship is still there and a memorial to those that lost their life on board has been built over the top.

Remains of the USS Arizona & the Memorial

The USS Missouri or the “Mighty Mo” was both the last battleship to be constructed by the US and the last to be decommissioned. While some of you may recognise it as the ship in the film “Under Siege” with Steven Seagal, the ship has a more important place in history, as it was on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945, that the Japanese unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Forces, ending World War II.

USS Missouri

The tour guides speak of the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri as the bookends of the war. There they sit facing each other bow to bow, one underwater and the other above.  One representing the United States entry into the war, the other Japan’s surrender.

Hawaii 2-0 – Part 6 Farewell to the Pride of America

The end of the cruise had arrived and just like a hotel all passengers on board the ship had a set time to check out. It wasn’t too early so we had plenty of time for our last on-board breakfast and a final run around the ship to take photos of everything to share with you.

While my blog posts have focussed more on the activities we have done off the ship, one of the things I’d like to do here is dispel some of the myths about cruising, well at least about our type of cruise. When we told people we were going on a cruise we got mixed reactions. Some asked why we would want to travel with a bunch of old people, some absolutely got the concept of a floating hotel and loved the idea, while others just laughed and asked what else we would do besides playing shuffleboard.  I am happy to say while we did find the shuffleboard deck we also found many more varied things to fill our time, as well as lots of interesting people to talk to, when we weren’t off the ship exploring the islands that is.

MYTH 1: You have to choose between two sitting times for each meal i.e. an early or late sitting for breakfast, lunch & dinner, with half the ship trying to eat at each sitting.

FALSE: On our cruise you could dine pretty much anytime you wanted to and had a choice of a 14 different restaurants some included in the fare and some speciality restaurants with a small cover charge.  Each of the restaurants had a theme of decor and food so there was plenty of variety.

We tried to mix it up and eat at different places each day. We also tried two of the speciality restaurants Little Italy, which funnily enough served nice Italian foo,d and Jefferson’s Bistro which served French food. Yes, I even tried the escargots (snails) and like them!

You could also rock up to any restaurant and order food to take away with you back to your room, to the pool deck, or anywhere else. Alternatively you could order room service 24/7. There were also bars all over the ship with different themes, everything from the Gold Rush Saloon (which offered beer tastings and Karaoke every night) to Pinks Champagne Bar which almost always had a pianist on hand to play a few tunes. Best of all there were nightly happy hours at bars across the ship (Mai Tai’s became our drink of choice).

MYTH: There’s nothing to do while you’re at sea

FALSE: There is in fact too much to do we often had to miss things because we had organised tours, or had dinner plans, or more than one thing was happening at the same time. Apart from the obvious outdoor activity spaces like the pools & hot tubs, putting green, basketball court, etc, there was a day spa for massages, facials, etc and there was a gym with lots of equipment and daily classes (body fit, trx, body sculpt, yoga, etc). For entertainment there was karaoke every night, nightly performances in the piano bar, and nightly theatre productions, a late night comedy hour, lei making classes, sarong tying classes, lectures on the history and culture of Hawaii, quiz nights, game shows, themed parties (e.g. all white night and FABBA), much, much more.

For the more cultured traveller there was also an art gallery with daily art auctions, shops, a conservatory, library, chess/cards and backgammon room and the Napa Wine Bar with wine tastings for the connoisseur.

MYTH: Only old people take cruises.

FALSE: Well false on this cruise anyway. Yes there were groups of older people but there were just as many people our age and younger, as well as many young families. In a way there were different time zones happening on the ship. The oldies would be up and eating breakfast really early, then the young families and then the 20’s & 30’s and those without kids.  This would repeat at both lunch and dinner with the oldies eating early and heading straight to bed, same with those with kids, while everyone else seemed to eat later in the evening. There were just as many oldies dressing up for FABBA and the white nights party as the younger crowd.  Don’t forget they were younger once too.

In closing I’d like to make a disclaimer that not all cruise ships are the same and not all cruises are the same but I can highly recommend this particular cruise. It suited us perfectly, allowing us to work to our own timetable, make our own choices about when and where to dine, and provided us with lots of variety for entertainment.  I would love to do it again with all our friends.

Hawaii 2-0 – Part 5 Adventures on Kauai

Nawiliwili Harbor on the island of Kauai was our last port on the cruise before heading back to Honolulu, and it was an overnight stay, so we wanted to make the most of it. We had pre-organised two tours for this port, one for each day, allowing a bit of time to also look around the island before leaving.

First up was a Mountain Tubing Adventure. What is Mountain Tubing I hear you ask? Well while it’s not white water rafting the idea is the same, though on a much smaller scale, and it was certainly a lot of fun. Historically Kauai was renown for its sugar plantations, all of which needed a lot of water, and so an extensive irrigation system of ditches and tunnels were hand dug to direct water across the island’s plantations. Kauai Backcountry Adventures has exclusive access to the irrigation system of the former Lihue Plantation, which includes five tunnels and miles of channels.

The tour starts with a safety briefing and everyone gets handed their safety gear, a hard hat with headlamp (for the tunnels) and a pair of thick gloves. You also have to wear water proof shoes with straps. The main reason for the safety gear is that a number of the tunnels were dug out of rock, and some of the channels are lined with rocks and you need to be able to push yourself out from the edge if necessary. It’s also possible that you’ll get shoved a bit as you move along, by the other tubes (rubbing is racing or so they say), hence the hard hat just in case. Unfortunately we didn’t get a photo of ourselves decked out in our gear.

After everyone was loaded into the tour van our fantastic guides made everyone feel welcome, and told us a lot about the history of the places we drove through on the way to the tubing site.

Because our camera is not waterproof we left it on the tour van and didn’t get any photos of the tubing but I’ve included some images from their website so you get the idea http://www.kauaibackcountry.com/

Everyone on the tour had a great time, especially with the tunnels. We did the last tunnel with all the headlamps turned off. All the guides were amazing (thanks guys!) and made it lots of fun, especially their instructions on removing certain words from our vocabulary and replacing them with more appropriate alternatives.  For example, the water is not “freezing” or “icy” or “bum numbing”. No we were encouraged to use the more appropriate descriptions of “refreshing” and “exhilarating”. Also given the length and structure of the irrigation system saying sorry every time you bump into someone gets extremely repetitive. We were advised that the most appropriate alternatives were “bring it on”, “take that” and “coming through”.  Finally following instructions to go left and right can be a little tricky if you speeding backwards or spinning round and round in circles, but we all made it to the end in one piece.

After the tubing was finished the tour guides drove us to a beautiful, secluded picnic area where they served us lunch and gave us the opportunity to go for a refreshing swim. Anyone that knows me well will know that I was one of the first in the water and one of the last to get out. There was a cute little waterfall that fell into the swimming hole, and it was warm.  Nice!

This was also a very special day for us because it was the day of our actual wedding anniversary.  So to celebrate we went to dinner in one of the speciality restaurants, Little Italy, where you pay a small cover charge ($10/head). The meals were great and the staff were lovely and even presented us with a celebratory cake for dessert.

One the second day we had a fairly early pick up for our helicopter tour. This was probably our most expensive tour for the trip but it was certainly good value for money and well worth it for what we were able to see of the island during the 75 minute flight. We had chosen this specific tour as it sets down at a place called Jurassic Falls (the main waterfall used in the movie Jurassic Park), where we had the chance to walk around to look at the falls up close, before flying away again.  We had to wear little shoe covers for the ride to the falls as it was really muddy there and it was the best way of keeping the chopper clean.

Jurassic Falls

The falls were around 400 feet high and were definitely the most spectacular we’d seen on the trip. You couldn’t take photos up close because the air was full of spray. After the falls we did a wide circle back to the airfield where we saw the Waimea Canyon, Mt Waialeale Crater and the NaPali Coastline, a 15 mile stretch of the island’s most rugged coastline where the cliffs drop thousands of feet straight into the ocean.

I would highly recommend this flight to anyone that has time to spare on Kauai. It is the best way to see the whole island and the pilot flies really close to the ground, so you can see so much detail, which is great until the ground suddenly drops away from you a couple of hundred feet into a valley. Most helicopter flights I’ve been on haven’t been this long, and with the wind buffeting us around so much flying in and out of the canyons and valleys I was definitely feeling a little off towards the end and was glad to get my feet back on the ground.

The rest of the day was uneventful as the ship had an early departure (2 pm instead of the usual 6 pm). This gave us plenty of time to grab some of our favourite foods from both the Cadillac Diner and the Aloha Cafe and take them back to our room to sit on the balcony and watch the beautiful NaPali Coast sail past followed by some whales and another glorious sunset. Was a fantastic way to end the cruise.