The image I’d had in my head of cage diving was a serene one. The diver hangs motionless in the water, still as a star in the night sky, the metal cage around him keeping the sharks drifting slowly through the crystal blue waters from getting any ideas.
In reality, it’s total fucking chaos.
Have you seen the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan? It’s like that, only under water and also with sharks.
After squeezing all your lumpy bits unflatteringly into a preposterously tight wetsuit during the 3 hour boat trip out to a special spot where the great whites like to hunt for seals, you suction a mask to your face, bite down onto a regulator mouthpiece and climb down off the back of the boat into the shark cage.
The water hits you like an icy punch to the balls and you seize up. In a few minutes the thick wetsuit will start to keep you warm, but for the moment it’s just a big soggy thing making you even colder. Your face and hands are on their goddamned own. You pause for a moment to instinctively compress all of your internal organs into a tight ball in a desperate attempt to recoil them away from the cold water, as your body’s survival mechanisms all inform you simultaneously that you’re going to die. And then you dunk your head under water and climb down the ladder to the bottom of the cage.
Everything after that is like being in a huge blender full of fish and sharks and bubbles.
Instantly, a gallon of ice cold salt water shot right through my poorly-sealed mask and straight up my nose. GAAAH I’m dying and I just got in. I exhaled forcefully and blew it all out, blowing my mask off my face in the process. Somehow trapping some of the air that was originally in the mask, I got it back on and sealed with a pleasing suction against the skin of my face. Then I fell down into the corner of the cage.
I’d finally broke down and bought a GoPro for this trip, after thinking for a while I could just hold my iPhone in a waterproof sleeve or a ZipLock snack bag or something. After briefly fussing over how to mount it to film the sharks, I ended up buying a grip with a noose-like wrist strap. This choice is the only reason I still have a GoPro, as I would have lost anything that wasn’t bolted to my skeleton within a second of entering the melee in the cage.
The ocean waves were violently battering the shark cage and the boat above us, so staying in one place meant the cage was going to bash you in the face and nuts repeatedly like a drunken monster. Add to this the fact that you’re extremely buoyant in the wetsuit, a fact they try to balance out by having you wear a leaden harness covered in weights that makes walking across the deck feel like you’re on Jupiter. Getting this just right is an imperfect science, and there were no scientists on our boat so I was way more buoyant than you’d like to be when you’re trying to keep your head from going through the viewing gaps in the violently bucking cage and into a shark’s mouth.
“That sounds crazy!”
Wait I'm not done.
I’d managed to hook my feet under a bar on the floor of the cage, which was keeping me from shooting straight to the top of the cage. Whew! I looked around. Hundreds of large fish swirled all around us in a chaotic blur. Goddamn this water is cloudy. Wait, shit, my mask is fogged up. I tilted my head and looked down, and then quickly up, to slosh the water trapped inside the mask around and clear the condensation, then squeezed the bridge against my face to squirt that trapped water out the sides of the mask. A fish hit me in the face.
Goddamn, there are fish in the cage with us?
The cage rocked violently to one side and I was thrown into the person next to me. I was briefly part way upside down, then managed to grab the railing and pulled myself up against the wall of theHOLY SHIT THERE'S A GIANT GREAT WHITE SHARK RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME.
The shark glided by out of nowhere, calm as death, and circled our cage. I could have reached out and touched him had I found myself tired of having hands and arms.
My brain politely informed me that I was about to die. Not because of the shark. Because I wasn't breathing. You know you have a lot going on when you forget to breathe for two minutes straight.
My body clenched in an “Oh god get out of the water you dummy!” panic spasm and I gasped in a deep breath. And another, and another. I had to mentally tell my body “See, we’re breathing! It’s all okay, not gonna die!” before it calmed down. Then I had to center myself and slow my breathing, as you can pass out if you breathe too fast.
Not everyone was able to do this. Some panicked and bailed out of the cage up the ladder. One guy got to the “cold water hits you like a truck” step at the beginning and said “Nope, fuck this!” and got back out into the boat. A few people never even got their wetsuits on, too sick from the rocky boat ride over to even attempt it.
I’m pretty sure that during the shark’s first pass, my camera was pointed straight up, toward where my feet were. Thankfully he made four or five more passes during our forty minutes in the cage.
Spotting the sharks from inside the cage is not as easy as you might expect. You’re facing forward, looking out into the open ocean behind the boat. But that’s only one direction the sharks could be coming from, and the least likely one at that. It’s much more likely they’re going to try and sneak up on you from below or under the boat, so you’re constantly scanning the water in every direction, trying to see through the stream of bubbles coming out of your regulator and everyone else’s, tons of fish swirling around and looking at you like “What are YOU doing here?”
You also can’t hear anything. This should probably go without saying but it’s surprising how oblivious you can be to a huge shark going right by you if you aren’t looking straight at it, since they don’t swim by going “Doot de doot de doo.”
The girl next to me in the cage was like a goddamned ninja, she was sprawled on the floor of the cage and would tug on my leg any time a shark went by below us or under the boat. I only saw the shark as many times as I did because she was constantly pointing it out, other people in the cage with us were convinced he had only passed by twice in our entire time in the cage.
Watching the great white circle our cage and cruise by right in front of us is definitely one of those experiences you’ll never forget. Honestly, just getting in the cage and not drowning, with no sharks involved at all, would have been a pretty adventurous experience, so being face to face with great whites made it like two adventures in one. Eventually I got the hang of the cage and managed to both breathe and keep my feet hooked under the bar at the same time more or less most of the time.
After we came out, we watched from the top deck as everyone else took their turns in the cage. This great white, a 13 foot long male, was a bit of a hot dog as he jumped out of the water after the bait four different times. Getting to see that was just gravy on top of the whole experience. Later a 10 foot long female joined him, so we definitely got our money’s worth on the shark front.
Speaking of my money’s worth, the place I was renting in Port Lincoln for the cage diving day was suspiciously cheap. At $10 a night, I figured the house had herpes or something and I’d just deal with it for the sake of saving money.
On the flight to Port Lincoln, our flight attendants had offered to order us taxis from the air. This was something I’d ever heard of before, but I’d also never flown Qantas before and I figured this was just their shtick. Thanks kangaroo people, you’re very sweet, but I’ve got this. I can hail my own cab.
Once we landed and walked across the runway into the ridiculously small airport, I started to wonder if their offer wasn’t just a courtesy. How small is this town? Maybe they only have one taxi. Some guy was renting a car at the little car rental shack inside the arrivals/departures/everything hall, and I say hall not like the Great Hall at the masonic lodge or anything, I mean like the hallway in your house. Hmm. Maybe I should just rent a car. I’m only here for the cage diving and then I’m back out, maybe a 36-hour car rental would be cheaper than taxis from and to the airport, down to the marina in the morning, back to my rental, etc.
I pulled out my phone and started looking up the rental rates. Huh. About the same. Might as well just rent a- I looked up and, having handed over the keys to the one guy who was in line, the car rental shed guy walked around to the front of the counter, pulled down the security shutters, flipped off the lights, and got the F out of the building like Fred Flintstone at the end of a work day. Huh.
I looked around. I was the only person still standing in the airport. The tiny building grew dim. Huh.
I wandered around and watched a guy with a tractor start to put the plane away. Uh-oh. Maybe I should have ordered ahead for a taxi.
I walked outside and blundered into a girl from my flight, who was talking to the only taxi driver waiting at the airport. “Do you want to share a cab?” Hell to the yes I want to share a cab. Let’s go.
After taking the $45 cab out to the house I had rented and checking in, I looked around. Huh. This place is really nice. Hmmm. The host asked for payment in cash. I laid a $20 on the table. “What’s this?” “Payment?” “It’s $220.” “Yeah, no it’s not.”
It turned out they’d typo-ed their listing on Booking.com and had entered $10 a night instead of $110. This was super-awkward. Most professional hosts would recognize their mistake and honor the booking, just chalking it up to a learning experience, but most professional hosts wouldn’t fuck up their listing like that in the first place. Even after the initial mistake in the listing, they had confirmed the booking and had over a month to notice the dollar amount, so although I felt bad for them, I didn’t feel that bad.
The woman who let me in put me on the phone with her partner, who accused me of trying to cheat them. She was convinced she hadn’t made a mistake and I had somehow manipulated the situation. Super, super awkward. They wanted me to pay the additional $200, which I wouldn’t on principle, and also because I didn’t have it. Eventually they relented and accepted the $20, after laying on a guilt trip so thick it would have made peanut butter seem runny.
Whatever people, it’s your life, I’m just blowing through it.
Tasmania means something wildly different for Americans than it does for Australians. To us, it’s a mysterious land at the end of the world. An exotic question mark. Most Americans likely don’t even know where Tasmania is (or confuse it with Tanzania in Africa). Maybe some explorer in the 1800s went there, and probably died. There’s just a dragon on the map. What do they even have there? Tasmanian Devils? Jesus!
The keyboard on my phone resolutely insists that Tasmania isn’t even a word.
To Australians (and Brits, who frequent Australia) it’s a cute little vacation spot, like going to Catalina Island. About as wild as your grandma’s back yard. Even the Tasmanians were like “Holy shit, you came to Tasmania?”
I’d figured Tasmania would be about the size of Easter Island. It’s the size of The Republic of Ireland. That’s Australian for small, mate.
We descended out of the clouds over the island, the land and the sea melting into each other in a magical, misty haze. Thanks for that, Tasmania. I think I might discover a new species!
Hustling across the tarmac into the tiny, aluminum (aluminium?) sided airport, I picked up my rental car. The girl explained the car to me like I was borrowing a car from a friend.
“This is how you take the parking brake off. If you forget it’ll turn off on its own eventually.”
“What have people told you about me?”
Nodding to the statue of several Tasmanian Devils eating someone’s luggage, I piled into my Holden Captiva (Holden is an Australian brand but I think my SUV was just a Chevy with a lion on it) and out onto the road, singing a little reminder song every time I reached an intersection.
“Driving on the left, driving on the left, doot doo da doot doot doo.”
Between driving in Ireland, England, Scotland and Japan it’s become almost second nature for me to drive on the left side, to where I just think of it as “Driver’s on the center line” regardless of where I am, and I just trust the car designers to put the steering wheel on the appropriate side of the car for where I am. I do still turn the windshield wipers on to signal turns, though.
I had just enough time to get to the Bonorong Wildlife Refuge for the evening feeding. For a respectably-sized donation, you can join the amazingly-knowledgeable handlers there as they feed all the animals in the park. This was my favorite thing I did in Australia.
While I was waiting for the local mother and son who were joining us for the tour, I wandered over to the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo hanging out in a nearby enclosure. His name was Fred and he was over 100 years old. “If he likes you, he’ll talk to you. Otherwise he’ll ignore you.”
“HELLO!” Fred answered with a friendly enthusiasm.
“Ha!” I laughed.
“Ha ha ha.” Fred laughed back.
We continued our conversation as I mentally sent my appreciation and admiration to him. Fred hopped down onto the ground, fished around the wood chips at the bottom of his enclosure, and found a nice twig with a few leaves attached to it. He proceeded to very deliberately climb up the chicken wire separating us, by beak and foot, until he was at my eye level. Then he threaded the twig through the wire and handed it to me. Hey, thanks!
As I sent my thoughts of appreciation, I felt Fred basking in it. We had some nice bonding moments as he showed me his head crest and the yellow coloring under his wings. Then the tour was beginning.
We first fed the kangaroos in their huge, wide-open enclosure. There seemed to be about 25 of them. We were given a bag of some kind of grain mix, which you pour into your hand and hold out flat, close to the ground. A kangaroo will mosey over and lick the food off your hand. They were extremely peaceful and mellow, with sad eyes. They really like it when you scratch their fur at the top of their chest, their necks stretching out and heads curling back in enjoyment, as they can’t reach this spot with their little T-rex arms.
Having new-mom kangaroos come over for a nibble, with random parts of a joey poking out of their pouch at odd angles, was amazing. Some of the bravest joeys who had been pouch-evicted even came over for some grain and a pet.
Next was the wombat.
I held the wombat like it was a baby sitting up on my lap, wrapped my arms tightly around him and nuzzled in. I bounced my knee to rock him back and forth. The wombat settled into a peaceful, secure breath. Then he craned his head up and kissed me on the cheek. Trip to Australia: Worth it. On night one!
The wombat kissed me again. Then the wombat began to eat my hair. Just a nibble at first. “Hey! This stuff isn’t half bad! Have you tried eating the food growing out of your head? I think you might like it.”
Orphaned wombats actually have to be raised like human babies, held and cuddled constantly, or they don’t survive. Then when they’re two they suddenly turn into giant assholes, just like human babies, and all the good times are over. That’s when they’re cut loose to roam the wild or the area underneath the table I’m trying to use at Starbucks.
Wombats also have square poop. If this was a private detail the wombats didn’t want me to tell anyone, I apologize to them now.
After that we fed the Tasmanian Devils.
These guys are smaller than you might imagine, but they would still totally kill you. They have the strongest bite relative to their size of any animal, so once they clamp on, you’re going to lose something. I peeked over the the top of the short wall of their enclosure and one of the devils lept up and snapped at my face. GAAH!
Our guide handed me a metal pole, which I used to pick up a wombat’s leg. Where do you even get a dead wombat’s leg? Probably better not to ask. I dangled it into the Tasmanian Devil enclosure and the two devils clamped onto it and tried to rip the leg, and pole, out of my hands. This tug of war went on and was fun as shit.
The two devils were getting along reasonably well now, but our guide played us a video of them during mating season, at which time they were both cutting loose with the absurd cacophony of sounds that Tasmanian Devils are famous for. I tried to imagine hearing that outside my tent while camping, you’d definitely decide this was the end of the line for you.
Throughout the tour, I found myself humorously fascinated by animals that weren’t even part of the refuge. A pair of kookaburra birds in the trees above called out alarmingly, their long, bizarre call one of those classic “jungle sounds” I’d previously thought was made by some kind of monkey. Some fuzzy thing crawled down from the trees and walked the tightrope on top of the fence, lumbering right by and bumping into me as he passed.
“What is THAT?”
“Wow! Your possums are adorable!”
“Are your possums different in the states?”
“Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to pet our possums. They’re sort of horrifying.”
Feeding the echidna was another special treat. This little spiny thing is sort of like a hedgehog, sort of like a porcupine. His name was Randall. Randall crawled out from under a stump in the dark of night and licked echidna chow right out of the palm of my hand with his freakishly long tongue. Wow! As he lumbered away, he carried himself like a tiny armadillo.
Later we fed the sugar gliders, which are like tiny little flying cartoons. Their fur is the softest thing you will ever touch and they weight basically nothing, so you have to be careful that one doesn’t hitch a ride out of their enclosure on your back or head.
We stopped to spend a little time with a koala. They’re very still and surprisingly grouchy. You can pet them if they’re in a decent mood, and your reward is that your hands will smell like absolute death afterwards, the result of a musk the koalas emit to mark their territory. Their armored butts reveal them to be a relative of the wombat. The wombats use theirs to plug their burrows for defense but the koalas just sit on theirs.
This went on, through the owl-like Tawny Frogmouths, Quolls, a different kind of possum and weird mushroom-eating giant rats called Bettongs.
I looked up at the sky. Holy shit! The moon was ten times brighter than I had ever seen it before. The stars were like lasers screaming down from the sky. I’ve been in a lot of famously low-light-pollution places where people travel to see the stars, up with the observatories on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in the empty desert of the Navajo Nation reservation, and in the absolute middle of nowhere in Bolivia. But I’d never seen anything like this. The moon was almost too bright to look at. Instantly, it felt like I’d been looking at the night sky through a muddy haze my entire life. Wow.
Fred screamed loudly when I left.
Australia is, without a doubt, the world capital of street pizza.
When you combine dozens of adorable unique species that weren’t built to deal with predators and a big country where you need to drive a lot to get anywhere, this was bound to happen.
After being enraptured by all the incredible animals at Bonorong, many of which were there because they or their parents had been hit by cars, my first thought upon leaving was “Jesus… I hope I don’t run over any of those awesome things with my car.”
This became my goal for the trip.
Australia is a bit like the old joke about joining the Army:
Australia: Come, meet unique and fascinating rare animal species and kill them with your car.
When you’re driving in America and you see a deer that has been hit by a car, you may feel like “Aww, bummer,” but generally speaking you’re not going home and crying yourself to sleep. Whether it’s conscious or not, there is some slightly crass sense of “Welp, plenty more where that came from.”
Kangaroos are the deer of Australia.
Seeing a kangaroo that has been hit by a car is deeply upsetting and jarring, like seeing a unicorn being processed into Burger King. Because to us, kangaroos are rare, quasi-magical creatures that only live in imaginary lands like Australia. But in Australia, it’s a bit more like SPROING!-SPLAT-“You arsehole!” (to the kangaroo) and the dead kangaroo flops on top of a pile of dead wombats by the side of the road.
Do the Australians drive too fast? A little. But, honestly, this is an impossible situation. Shit just jumps or flies or sproings out onto the road while you’re blinking and half the shits are black and blend right into the tarmac. I like to think I didn’t kill anything while I was in Australia, but that highway could have been paved with wombats for all I know. “This was white when we laid it down!” It’s just the karmic tax for driving down under.
After being reminded of this by absolutely no one, it occurs to me that I haven’t told nearly enough stories about pooping in foreign countries. I’m here to rectify this now.
The next morning I headed out at dawn to Tasman National Park, to hike the Cape Pillar trail and climb The Blade. That sounds pretty badass, right?
Pretty much the second I got on the trail for this day-long hike, I felt a loud knock at the back gate. Oh come on! This couldn’t have come up while I was at the AirBnB this morning? Nope. Fine. I can hold it. There will be a bathroom eventually.
I hiked through the forest and open fields, as intermittent rain made me glad I’d bought an Australian badass hat for this trip.
A couple of hours into the hike, and the knock at the back gate had become more of a battering ram with a dragon face on it, and the fucking thing was on fire. I was seriously contemplating hopping off the boardwalk, kicking a hole in the ground just off the trail, and playing the odds that someone wouldn’t walk by while I was in mid-squat. My muscles began to spasm and my body began to inform me that the in-laws were coming over in a few minutes whether I liked it or not.
Crap. Is this the kind of thing you can do in Tasmania’s nice national park? Is this going to be a national affront? I don’t have any of the gear for this with me. Yes, I own woods pooping gear. A bear sold it to me.
After some deep soul-searching, during which I had picked out a spot and everything, I decided I could try to hold it just a little bit longer. I walked up the trail and literally around the very next corner there was a huge complex of nice cabins with swanky deluxe bathrooms, after hours of nothing but wilderness. I had literally almost shit on their lawn.
“Hi there! I just shit on your lawn. Have a good one. I’m American.”
There was something interesting I was dealing with on the hike, beyond the poop story you now wish I hadn’t told. I’m allergic to cats and most dogs, and the night before I’d been cuddling wombats. I woke up that morning feeling like a bag of ass, and continued to suffer throughout the hike. Okay, guess I’m allergic to wombats, too. It doesn’t matter, it was still completely worth it.
But worth it or not, I felt like someone had hit me with a van. For hours on end. As the hike went on, I was thinking of ways I could feel better. Do I need to drink more water? Eat something? What if I got some caffeine? Then gradually it dawned on me that so much of what has been opening up for me spiritually as of late is about our role as conscious creators in this world. What was my suffering but a bunch of receptors in my body telling me to feel bad? This should be child’s play to change. I surely have more power than to be at the mercy of this, don’t I?
I decided to try an experiment. I started to imagine feeling great. As intensely and thoroughly as I could. Every sensation of feeling physically fantastic, what that would be like in every small detail. Imagining it so strongly I could really feel it down to my bones. And keep up that focus, over and over. Return to that, return to that, return to that. And it took a little while, but I was surprised to find it really worked shockingly well. It took a level of concentration that I don’t think most people are used to holding, a thorough and absorbing focus on how good I felt, but in about thirty minutes I felt fantastic and continued to for the rest of the day. Wow. I need to work with this some more.
It was another few hours of hiking to The Blade. Walking through the woods on the way there, I saw a dark figure moving eerily through the trees. Thus far I’d had the trail to myself on this rainy, windy day. I watched the dark-skinned and minimally dressed figure walk with what looked like a spear between the trees. And then he was gone.
Holy shit, was that some kind of Aboriginal ghost? Crazy.
Occasionally there was strange artwork embedded into the boardwalk trail, from tile mosaic eyes and mushrooms to ominous messages.
It was unclear if this is all part of the official experience or just really patient and painstaking graffiti.
When I first spotted The Blade off in the distance, it seemed both beautiful and also utterly impossible to climb. I guess I’m going to find out.
Overlook by overlook, I wound my way closer.
I eventually reached the spot where you climb up out of the trees and start scrambling up the bare rock. There was a parks sign that basically said “Go no further unless you want to die or are a total badass.” You know when Australia tells you something is too dangerous, you’re probably going to die.
The higher I climbed up, the stronger the wind became, which was completely terrifying. I left my pack by the side of the trail so I wouldn’t have my balance compromised at all when I really needed it to survive.
Up, up, up, staying as low to the rock as possible. Once I got to the peak, all I could do was lay on the rock to keep from being blown off by the powerful winds. This makes good photos difficult but it was a beautiful view.
On the hike back I began to tune into the trees on a very deep level. I stopped at one tree covered in a wrinkly, furry bark and put my hand on the trunk. Immediately I saw the tree expand out, like its diameter had swelled several times right in front of me. I pulled my hand away and the tree shrank back down to its original size. Hand on tree, it expands out. I was very interested in this because I wasn’t shifting into any kind of inner vision to see this, it was happening right out in front of me. Clearly I was seeing something on a higher dimension, but it was integrated into what I was seeing in the physical.
The rest of the hike I kept laughing as I was seeing faces in all the trees and wood, like another way of recognizing the consciousness within them.
As I was walking back to my car, I began to perceive all the trees around me leaning in, as if to embrace me. As I walked along, they all curved inward, in the same kind of higher dimensional vision I’d had about the “breathing” expanding tree.
As the sun went down and twilight bloomed, the little yellow flowers in the trees glowed intensely. It was a magical experience walking through what looked like glowing clouds of these floating, otherworldly flowers.
Once I got back to my car, I realized I’d only been keeping warm in the wind and freezing rain all day by hiking fast as shit. As soon as I stopped moving, it was colder than a penguin’s balls. I struggled to open the back of the car and pull on more layers as I violently shivered and my exhausted body only responded to about 20% of my commands, at a decreasing rate. Brrrrr! I was so tired from the hike it had taken me ten minutes to figure out how to put my fleece on. This in spite of the fact that I was fucking freezing. I was toast.
Okay, time to haul ass out of here so I can get to the place I’m renting in Northern Tasmania and set off to hike Cradle Mountain in the morning. And also I need to get the heat running in the car so I don’t die. Let’s go!
I wound through the dark dirt roads of the park until I came up behind a car that was just sitting there in the middle of the road. What’s this idiot doing?
I got out of the car. Oh. Oh. There is a GIGANTIC fallen tree across the entire road. This is a problem.
I approached the skinny French guy in one of the two cars in front of me. Maybe we can push the tree off the road together? My hands shook violently just taking my phone out to use it as a flashlight. And… yeah, this is a giant tree, it’s not budging at all. Maybe if we were pushing it off a cliff, but it was Velcro-threaded through the branches of the unfallen trees on the other side of the road. The girls waiting in the other car didn’t get out at all, perhaps because they’ve been wisely taught not to interact with strange morons who are trying to move a gigantic tree with their bare hands.
The French guy told me he had called the parks service and they’d said they’d be there to remove the tree within 20 minutes. This was 40 minutes ago. I returned to my car and promptly fell asleep. I woke up with the interior of the car all fogged up, a blindingly bright white light illuminating the entire windshield. Ah, the forest service people are here to move the tree. My logical mind knows they must have come out, used a chainsaw to cut up the tree, and dragged the pieces away with their truck. But through the fogged up windshield I could make none of this out, and it pretty much all looked exactly like the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Blinding lights from some improbably tall array, dark silhouettes, strange noises. The important thing is that the aliens took that big fucking tree with them to go do experiments on.
Driving through the gap in the tree, I rumbled up the dirt road to leave the park. As I drove, the front end of my rental car suddenly started making a bizarre sound. BA-JUNK KRUNKLETY DUNK. BARGLE-CRAK-SNAPPETY-DRAG. Oh Jesus. Is that a flat tire? Seriously, whatever you are, you CAN NOT be a flat tire right now. I just changed into dry pants in the back seat of my car to deal with the fact that I was shivering uncontrollably. My IQ is 7 right now. A flat tire is not an option. At all.
Thankfully the car kept driving and before I knew it, I was on the open, paved road. All is well! Wait, is all really well or is it just because I’m playing “Who Can It Be Now?” from Sean’s Awesome Australia Mix (how many times did I play “Down Under” by Men at Work on this trip? All of them. All the times.) so loud I can’t hear the scooptity poop under my car? I turned down the music.
Huh. Pretty sure the car’s not supposed to be making that sound. It sounds like I’m dragging Robert DeNiro and his whole family under my car.
I pulled over and checked the front tire. Fine. Checked the back tire. Fine. Huh. Squatted down in the dark and looked under the car, only to find a huge branch wedged between the car and the road. Like, you could build a cabin with this branch. Huh. It’s probably a good thing it’s so wet, who knows what would have happened if the friction had caught this thing on fire. I kicked the branch. Nothing.
Kick. Kick. KICK!
Eventually after much stomping it came loose and I was able to yank it free from my car’s underbelly and fling it at a wombat cowering off in the woods.
As I got back in the car, I briefly pondered just skipping Cradle Mountain and returning to Hobart for the night. I’m exhausted and I could probably get my AirBnB from last night back. Maybe that fallen tree was trying to tell me something? Nah, I didn’t come all the way to Tasmania to not hike Cradle Mountain. Let’s go.
I motored my way up to Northern Tasmania for five hours, watching the road carefully as kangaroos hopped through the night shadows just off the sides of the road. Eventually I hit Cradle Mountain and drove up, up, up. As I got higher, it began to snow. Uh-oh.
Given the last-minute nature of this trip, I hadn’t had time to research it as heavily as I’d wanted to, but I’d been reassured on hiking forums that it wasn’t likely to snow at Cradle Mountain in September, and if it did, it was just going to be a light dusting.
Snow dumped down from the sky in bushels and buckets. Shit.
Soon I was driving on snow, which was just there to cover up the ice underneath from the freezing rain all day. I climbed higher.
The snow grew deeper as it continued to cascade down from the sky. Huh. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea?
At this point it was basically impossible to tell if I’d be better off turning around or continuing on ahead. There was no cell signal, so I couldn’t check the elevation of the rest of the route. For all I knew, I was through the worst of it and turning around would just have me driving through the shit twice. I drove on as the snow continued to fall.
Wombats began darting out into the road like it was a game. Seriously? You guys pick NOW to start running out into the road?
“WHEEEE! IT’S SNOWING!!”
I’m so glad you guys are having fun.
I began to climb a long incline and my car slowed. Slower. Slower. Slowest. And then it stopped. It didn’t matter how much gas I gave it, this was as high as it was going to climb on the icy road. Shit.
I turned around, drove down the hill, and took another run at it. Stopped in the exact same spot. Huh.
Okay, guess I’d better go back the other way. I headed down the hill and up the opposite incline. Slower. Slower. Slower. Stopped. Shit.
I’m stuck. I pulled over.
How long will it be until they plow this road? Maybe in the morning? It’s 1am. Do I just wait here until the morning?
I had no data signal to research the situation further. I had one bar to call with. Who do I call? I don’t know any Australian numbers. Maybe they have 911?
I called 911 and had a nice conversation with the police, who were very sympathetic aside from telling me I was insane to drive as far as I had in one night. But they didn’t have any way to help me. I had them patch me through to a tow company.
The tow company put me on hold for so long that I had an idea. Maybe I just needed more momentum to get up the hill? I drove back up the hill as far as I could, turned around, and accelerated down the hill as fast as I could. The traction control was going insane as my skids left and right basically averaged out to driving in a straight line. Steer into skid! Wrestle car straight. Steer into skid! Wrestle car straight. Steer into skid! All the winter driving skills that my years of living in the Great White North have beat into me were being put to the ultimate test, as this was way faster than it was safe to drive in these conditions, but being stranded all night in a blizzard isn’t that safe either.
The tow company finally picked up on speakerphone as I was cheating death racing down the mountain.
“Do you need a tow truck?”
“I don’t know yet!”
“I think I may have found a way out! Hold the line.”
I zoomed down through the valley and up the opposite mountain. Up, up, up, slowing down but not as much as before, until finally… I crested the peak. Woohoo! Never mind tow people, I’m good.
I drove through the snow for another 20 minutes until I hit another incline, this one bigger than the last. Slower. Slower. Slower. Stopped. Shit.
The hill behind me was too steep to make it out that way either. I was stuck again.
I took five or six runs at hitting top speed going down one mountain to try and carry on up the other, but it was no use. I wasn’t getting out of this valley. I pulled over and got my car as close to the ditch on the side of the road as I could, so I wouldn’t get hit by another car in the middle of the night.
An hour passed, then a pickup truck went by and slowly motored right up the mountain and over top. Damn! Why can’t I do that? Huh, they look like they’re driving in low gear. Does this thing have a low gear?
I broke out the instruction manual from the glovebox. The SUV had an automatic transmission, but it also had some kind of weird manual shifting option. I turned this on and shifted into the lowest gear. I touched the accelerator as lightly as possible.
Instantly, and I mean instantly, my back tire slid off the road and into the ditch. Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit. The car hadn’t moved forward at all, the only movement was absolutely sideways. I felt the car teetering on the edge of the ditch. I turned the wheel and touched the accelerator softly again.
SHOOOMP the car instantly slid sideways completely off the road and into the ditch, like a magician deftly shunting off a card he doesn’t want the audience to see.
I sat in the car, which was resting at a sharp diagonal angle down in the ditch and somehow not tipping over. I looked out across at the mountain in front of me. What now? I looked at my phone. No signal.
I climbed out of the car with some difficulty and walked up the road a bit. One bar! As I dialed, my hands began to violently shake from the cold. A cruel wind blew across the valley. The tow company finally picked up and started running me through the long list of standard questions I’d already answered on my first call. I kept trying to interrupt them to say it was me calling back and that I needed a tow now. My body began to convulse in the cold. Holy shit. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Minnesota and Alaska and I’ve never been this cold before. I’m not dressed for this at all. I can’t keep standing out here.
“Yes it’s me from before, I don’t have long and it’s very cold, just please send a tow truck to-”
The call suddenly disconnected. Shit.
I got back in the car and ran the heater until I felt human again. I figured I’d need to go further up the road and climb up the mountain to get a stronger cell signal, but I wouldn’t make it that far with the clothes I had. By morning, either a plow would come or at least it would be warmer walking in the sun. Best to just sleep.
And that’s how I spent a night sleeping in a car at a crazy angle down in a ditch in Tasmania. This is really, really not comfortable at all. But I was just grateful that I had enough gas to run the heater occasionally.
The sun came up and the plow had not come. No other cars had passed since that lone pickup truck in the middle of the night. I need to call a tow truck if I’m ever going to get out of here.
I had my one good idea of the day, went into my suitcase, and put on all the clothes I had with me. Three pairs of pants at the same time, countless shirts. I put socks on my hands for makeshift gloves and headed out.
I got to where I’d had signal in the middle of the night. Nothing. Arg. I went further, hiking up the side of the mountain. Goddamn it’s cold. Higher and higher. Wait! One bar! I called the tow company.
“Okay, I’ll come get you out, but I need you to pay in advance since it’s a 3 hour drive for me and I don’t want to get there to find you’re gone because some Good Samaritan pulled you out. I’ll call you back in 45 minutes or so and get your credit card info.”
“Dude, remember the part where I told you I just climbed a mountain to get cell signal? I’ll be dead in 45 minutes if I stay here. I have to go back to my car. Can’t I just give you my card info now?”
“Oh yeah sure, that’d be fine.”
WTF. “Cool, here you go.”
$500 later, I made it back to the car and in the 3 hours I was waiting for the tow, approximately 37 locals drove by and stopped and offered to pull my car out of the ditch. You guys are awesome but goddammit where were you 20 minutes ago?
HOW NOT TO SPEAK AUSTRALIAN
“G’day. How ya going?” (A.K.A. Hello. How are you today?)
“How… by car?”
“Good on ya, brotha.” (Nice! Well done.)
“I like your accent.”
“Cheers, mate.” (Thanks, buddy.)
“Are we drinking? Cool, thanks.”
“No worries.” (You’re welcome. “No worries” also means no problem, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, and absolutely anything else you want it to mean. “The dingo ate my baby!” “No worries.”)
When the tow driver came, it took him a half an hour to get my car out of the ditch without flipping it over, having to try multiple times from various angles, and he had a huge flatbed tow truck with a winch, so I comforted myself with the thought that any of the many pickup trucks that offered to pull me out for free probably would have rolled my car or otherwise fucked it up and left me with a much bigger than $500 bill from the rental company.
Anyway, people in Tasmania are extremely nice. Although it was a crazy night, I realize I met way more Tasmanians through this adventure than I ever would have otherwise, and it definitely refilled my “faith in humanity” account. That may have been meant to be in the big picture.
I’d never even made it to my rental cabin and hiking was out as I didn’t have the gear to hike in snow this deep, so I turned around and drove back down to Hobart. Driving down the mountain, the sun grew in intensity until it was coming down like a laser. I don’t know if this is due to the hole in the ozone layer over Australia or what, but it was crazy to see. The sun hitting the road was instantly melting the snow and ice, causing huge wafts of steam to curl up off the blacktop. This is really surreal to see and it took me a minute to even realize what was happening. Why is the road smoking?
Driving through these magical wafts of jungle steam, the sun gleamed off the wet road and huge chunks of snow fell off the tropical tree branches like they’d been hit with a shotgun blast. This is like some kind of insane nature mash-up, a bunch of elements that should never go together. What a bizarre, beautiful scene.
I stopped for gas at one point on the drive back down and went to use the restroom. There was a brief moment of extreme confusion in there as I had completely forgotten I was wearing three pairs of pants at the same time.
We walked toward Uluru and my mind swam. What am I seeing? The huge red rock loomed massive in front of us, and yet at the same time it seemed like it wasn’t there. I could sort of see through it. This is trippy as shit.
Uluru seemed to jitter in and out of reality before my eyes. It was something like what I’d seen with the trees in Tasmania, but on a much grander scale.
The smooth, folding surface of the rock looked like the skin of a huge sleeping beast. Uluru began to swell and morph, changing shape before my eyes. Holy shit.
I began to perceive that Uluru existed in a higher dimension than just the physical. It wasn’t “there” in the normal physical sense, though you could touch it and stand on it. It was this and something more.
I wasn’t sure what to make of my perception and messaged my mom about it. She did some digging around online and came back with multiple sources of channeled information about Uluru existing in the fifth dimension and serving as a portal for higher dimensional beings coming to Earth. Well okay then!
Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m still here and I already want to come back.
That night we visited the Field of Light, an art installation in the desert near Uluru consisting of 50,000 hand-blown glass bulbs that all light up in different colors. It’s like walking through the synapses of a gigantic brain. It’s very magical and absolutely the kind of thing you can’t capture without a real camera and a tripod.
I don’t do drugs but this would be a fantastic place to do drugs.
The otherworldly, transporting effect of the place holds until one of the other boneheads there with you tries to take a picture of it with their flash turned on. 90% of the people there were not present enough to realize that this was both going to completely ruin their picture as well as the experience for everyone else, and the other 10% couldn’t figure out how to turn their flash off.
If I stare out across the lights, I feel like I’m floating over a *FLASH* Goddammit.
I need to find a quiet corner to sit and stare out over this, somewhere where there isn’t a couple arguing about how you turn the flash off on their camera. This took a while.
Sitting in the back corner of the huge display, eventually the crowd thinned out until it was just me. The lights gradually shifted colors in mesmerizing patterns. The wind blew through and the lights waved like a field of wheat. Wow.
I felt like this place was trying to show me something, there was a reason I was here. I looked out across the otherworldly glowing bulbs and thought back to the faeries and elementals I’d seen in Minnesota. I suddenly saw the tens of thousands of lights representing all the higher-dimensional beings packing every square foot of even a place as seemingly barren as this desert. This is all there waiting for me to tune in and experience. Huh.
The next morning we returned to Uluru for the sunrise, and I became aware of the rock as a being, as a consciousness I could communicate with. As the sun rose behind the rock, I asked Uluru to help open my ability to experience the higher dimensions where it exists.
A voice replied “This will be done” as I felt a column of energy going into my forehead. My top two chakras buzzed for the entire rest of the day.
I’d signed up for four days of outback camping in the Red Center of Australia, deep in sacred Aboriginal territory. We spent the first day learning about Uluru from our Aboriginal guides. The next day we hiked Kata Tjuta, trails snaking between massive mounds of stone, similar to, but for me not as powerful as Uluru. We had two options for the hike, a short and a long version. I opted for the long version, most everyone else chose the short and I still was the first one back to the truck, which cemented my reputation as a crazy fitness guy for the rest of the tour.
The next day at King’s Canyon I got so far ahead of our group that I took a nap at the beautiful Garden of Eden watering hole, and when I woke up they still hadn’t caught up. I don’t think this is how the tortoise and hare story is supposed to end. I ended up doing a whole other hike and was still the first one back to the truck.
On the fourth day we hiked Ormiston Gorge. I wasn’t sure how far the group would get since it was raining lightly, so I took off at my own pace. About an hour into the hike I realized I must have missed a turn on the poorly-marked loop back, but it wasn’t clear that turning around would be any faster than finishing the longer trail I was already well into. I continued on.
It was a beautiful hike, winding out of the deep canyon and up a dry river bed, over huge boulders and out into a wide open valley. The trail went on and on. How long could this thing be? My sense was that I was heading further away from the truck, which was on the other side of the mountains to my right. The trail’s gotta cut through those mountains at some point, right? It’s not gonna go all the way around, right? The trail went on and on.
Eventually it finally did cut right, at the very end of the mountain range, and snaked through a really cool opening in the mountain face, like a gateway. Switchbacks up to the top of the mountain, and then back down the other side. I saw the parking lot way off in the distance. We were leaving at 10:45am. It was 10:30. Shit. Run!
So this is that part of the trip. Dammit. I sprinted down the trail, which took an extremely indirect route to the parking lot, snaking down the mountain side and switching back over and over. Closer to the trailhead I began to pass other hikers who looked at me quizzically as I sprinted by.
I made it to the parking lot just before 11, ready to barf after running miles on rough trails. Our tour guide was chill. “Dude, I knew exactly where you went! I know you. Man, that is a long hike!” I looked back at the trailhead sign for the trail I’d accidentally hiked. Six hours, for experienced hikers. I’d done it in two. No one was upset that I was late, they were more fascinated by how far I’d hiked. The map at the entryway didn’t even go that far, the trail just disappeared off one side and reappeared at the bottom. We didn’t see the scope of the whole trail until later that day when we stopped at an overlook that detailed the entire region.
Our days in the Red Centre were a blur of beautiful hikes, pulling the truck over to collect razor sharp firewood by the side of the road, rinsing off in bush showers while the open desert checked out your junk, and hotly contested games of Uno. At one point we continued driving beyond where the paved road ended and onto a preposterously rutted dirt road. The entire huge truck shuddered violently as dirt mysteriously rained down out of cracks in the ceiling. The Australian girl’s water bottle danced across the floor of the truck. My window vibrated open and refused to shut, the cold air stinging my hands. This went on for hours as we tore through the middle of nowhere. At the end we realized we’d broken the hitch that attached the trailer to our truck, and all of our luggage and firewood was just hanging on by a pin.
I kept reminding myself to look up at the sky at night. I’d totally spaced this in South America, not paying attention to the different constellations visible in the southern hemisphere. In the outback, the moon hung in the sky directly over our heads, like a skylight. I’d never seen this before, I don’t think. In America it seems like the moon is always much closer to the horizon. It moves, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it perfectly overhead like that. It’s eerie.
I also had to keep reminding myself to watch water swirling around drains, to watch it spin in the opposite direction. To my consternation, modern toilets seem to flush in a torrential cascade that doesn’t really swirl at all. I ended up having to plug a sink and fill it part-way with water so I could see it swirl down.
One of the best aspects of the trip was sleeping in a swag under the stars. A swag is a traditional Australian way of camping, it’s basically a big canvas sack that your sleeping bag and pillow go inside, so you can roll it all up in the morning and carry it on your back because you’re an Australian hobo. At the top there’s a “monster flap” you can pull down over your face if it starts raining or if there’s monsters. Every night the Aussies on the tour and I would roll our swags out around the fire, as the less adventurous campers opted for tents with cots.
Our first night, a dingo came into our camp. Our guide Phill reminded us over and over that dingoes aren’t dangerous, usually when their eerie howls were filling the night air all around our camp. “What if you’re a baby?” “Hush, you.” Though they will steal your shoes if you leave them outside your swag, a fact that I found hilarious.
Watching the sun set beautifully over the wide open outback just outside our camp one evening, I was hit by the powerful desire to see the sun set like this over the Serengeti in Africa. One day!
Our last night of camping, one of the two German couples in our group opted to sleep out in a swag at least once so they could tell their friends back home that they had. Then the husband took one look at the rain clouds in the sky and bailed. His wife was made of tougher stuff. We hunkered in with the Australian mom and her two teenaged kids who had swagged it every night of the trip.
“If it rains for real, you should go in a tent. The swags aren’t waterproof.”
I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up to the pitter patter of rain, the Australian girl had bailed. Asleep again. Woke up, Aussies still there, German girl still there. No way am I going in a tent before the Aussies do. Asleep. Woke up. Still there. Asleep.
When I woke up again, it was morning. The other two Aussies had bailed at some point during the night. The German girl was still there, she was apparently using me as a guide for when to go inside. The outside of my swag was wet, but the inside was fine.
Phill came over. “Whoa, you guys stayed out all night? Well done, I slept in the truck!”
I rolled up my swag, revealing the bone dry dirt underneath and the perfect outline of rain soaked earth around where my swag had been.
I slept in a swag in the rain and I ate Vegemite. I’m Australian now.
There are two sides to Alice Springs, a remote town in the absolute center of Australia.
This is sacred Aboriginal land, and I could feel this profoundly walking through the bush in the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. After visiting the Landscape Arboretum in Minnesota, I wrote about my experience smelling the roses, the way I felt what seemed to be the etheric essence of the flower move through my body when I inhaled the scent of the rose.
Walking through the bush in Alice Springs, I would stop to look at the nondescript desert plants. Short, shrub-like trees in pale olive. But when I stood before each one and opened myself, I felt the essence of the plant move alarmingly through my body like a cloud. I felt my energy shift as the properties of the plant filled my beingness. I instantly knew, without needing to wonder how, that this is what the Native Americans mean when they use the word “medicine.” Not a treatment or cure for disease, but rather the mystical presence of a being, its spiritual power. I was experiencing the medicine of each of these plants as I walked by, like particles of potent energy swirling through the cloud of my awareness.
On my way out of the gardens I met a woman who was talking to the trees. We talked for a long while about the aboriginal culture and the connections to Native American culture in the US. I marveled that she seemed to know instinctively that I was someone she could talk to about this.
Alice Springs also has a really fun little hostel where I stayed, the weird shit painted on the walls keeping me company…
…when I wasn’t eating a burrito out in the magical courtyard with its funky hammocks and laser-projected stars.
They also have a pretty awesome reptile center, with all the snakes of Australia in attendance as well as geckos, blue-tongued skinks, and a saltwater crocodile. But my favorite by far were my new best friends, these amazing chill Thorny Devils:
Sorry goanna, we had a good run but if you need anything I’ll be over by the thorny devils’ terrarium.
The other side of Alice Springs, the darker side, is that it has been put here on the Earth to make you very, very uncomfortable. The town is simultaneously a cute little tourist mecca and the epicenter of aboriginal social meltdown. It has tons of swanky art galleries and expensive little shops and the highest murder rate in Australia.
There’s a definitely cognitive dissonance when you’re standing in a souvenir shop, buying a postcard of smiling, happy aboriginal kids (“Fuck yeah, this is what my trip to Australia is about!”) while outside a gang of actual aboriginal kids throw rocks at passing cars while an old guy drunkenly vomits into the gutter.
Coming to Australia, I’d hoped to make a meaningful connection to Aboriginal culture the way I have with Native American culture in the US. This was… more complicated than I had expected.
At the most superficial level, the aboriginal folks have a serious problem with RBF (Resting Bitch Face). Every aboriginal person I saw wore a menacing glower that was truly intimidating, the kind of expression we read as “I’m furious and am going to kill you right now.” I don’t believe any of them were thinking anything like that, they’re just not coming from a “Let your smile out!” kind of culture.
Combine this with the fact that alcohol and gas huffing have hit this community very, very hard, the heavily visible police presence anywhere alcohol is sold, the gangs of aboriginal teenagers roaming the town at night breaking into things, the adults screaming at cars and the women who were yelling at me for no apparent reason on my walk to the botanical garden, and it’s not an ideal scenario for harmoniously bridging the gap. What you end up with are a bunch of tourists going about their tourist town business until the sun goes down, while the aborigines drift through the town like ghosts, the two worlds seeming to totally ignore each other. It’s very sad and bizarre.
I talked to a few aboriginal people on the street, but didn’t get very far into any conversation, as they tended to speak in a soft, mumbling way that trails off and is very hard to understand. Not that it was their job to talk to me, I’d just hoped to get past the very obvious barrier between us and I didn’t want to pretend like they weren’t there, like everyone else seemed to be doing.
This was all a very intense challenge, trying not to perpetuate an unfortunate situation, while also keeping myself safe as I walked around the town alone. The first bus driver who warned me to look out for the Aboriginal gangs and not walk around at night, I wrote him off as a probable racist. And the second. And third. After the former director of an Aboriginal behavioral health center told me the same thing, and told me stories of her co-workers being murdered, I realized it was a real problem.
It was hard not to feel like we, the white people of the world, have had a hand in this, creating a world where it was impossible for these folks to thrive. Can you go back to sleeping in a cave and eating witchy grubs after you’ve seen cars and towns and iPhones? But at the same time you don’t have the means or the connections to be part of this new world either. I know there were periods where the aborigines were forcibly integrated into white society, but are you really helping someone when you “lift them up” to occupy the bottom rung of your own culture rather than the top of their own? The whole situation seemed hopelessly broken.
This all made me very grateful for our time with our aboriginal guides at Uluru, a woman and her young apprentice, who taught us about their culture and the rock art at various locations around Uluru. The woman had the typical aboriginal “I’m trying to kill you with my mind” look, but her eyes were light. I was more fascinated by her apprentice, a girl in her teens, whose eyes were positively glowing, like hot coals in a fire. I wondered if she was still connected to the powerful aspects of the aboriginal spiritual culture, and less to the modern dysfunction.
Whatever the answer to these larger questions, I can say that “Being at the mall with a shit ton of aboriginal people” was not an experience I had expected to have on this trip. It was fascinating.
I was standing on the sidewalk in Adelaide when I saw a Target up the street. This was interesting because Target doesn’t have any stores in Australia. This was the “other” Target.
Australia seems to have some kind of weird loophole in international copyright law. There was a Wendy’s at the mall, but not the Wendy’s with the shitty square burgers. It was a hot dog stand.
And there’s Hungry Jack’s, which has the Burger King logo but instead of “Burger King” the logo says Hungry Jack’s, and they sell Whoppers. Apparently the Hungry Jacks’ are actually legit, when Burger King came to Australia there already was a local restaurant called Burger King and the owner refused to sell the copyright to BK, so they had to Hungry Jack it up down under.
There’s also K-Mart, which looks exactly like our K-Mart and has the same logo, but has no relationship to K-Mart in the US. They have stores with multiple floors like an old-school fancy department store, which is weird as hell for a K-Mart.
But the weirdest case is Target. I already knew these stores existed, as it’s a running joke at my work that there’s a knock-off of our stores in Australia. I’d figured it would be only a vaguely similar store, maybe they came up with the name around the same time that Target in the US started in the 1960s, and had just kept on doing their own thing since then. At worst I figured it might be like going to a Target time-warped from the 1980s.
Nope, it’s a complete copy of modern-day Target. The logo, the colors, the signage and advertisements, all directly copied from the US version in their current and up-to-date form. No Australian person would have any reason to believe it wasn’t the same chain. I tried to explain this to a tour guide and I think I pissed him off by implying that their Target wasn’t real.
Aussie Target carries many, but not all of the same things the American version does. Clothes, housewares, movies, etc. But some of the differences are strange. They carry chocolate but not groceries. You can buy suntan lotion but not a toothbrush. Maybe that’s just a reflection of Australian priorities, I don’t know.
It turns out Aussie Target and Aussie K-Mart are owned by the same parent company, which apparently specializes in this kind of thing. Take that, China, you’re playing catch-up. Oh, also, Australia has Woolworth’s, which has no connection to the famous American chain of dime stores. So, yeah. Damn you’re weird, Australia.
Australia is expensive as shit.
By the time I hit Melbourne for my last day in the country, I was kind of burned out on this fact. It’s a bit like going to Disneyland, where you feel like you’ve been thrown into the gears of a perfect machine built to extract all your money. You pay for parking, then you pay to get in, then you pay to put your bag in a locker, and then you need something to drink.
“Seven dollars for a soda?? Fuck that, I’ll just have water.”
“That’ll be six dollars.”
In that sense, Australia is Disneyland the Country. I spent the equivalent of $30 US on fast food meals for one person several times. I mean, it’s amazing that they have vegan fast food, but still. That’s heroin money. Getting into Melbourne, I dropped $70 between dropping my bags off for the day at the airport and taking a bus into the city. A bus. $30 for a lunch I ate walking down the street. I should get a metro pass. $6. I need to load $6 onto it? No, the piece of plastic costs $6. Then you need to load fares onto it. Damn Australia!
About a day after I wrote the paragraph above, Australia decided to show me that they meant it. At the end of my time in New Zealand, I was flying from Christchurch to Sydney on my way back to the US. Christchurch was absolutely buried in a dense fog. Our plane sat on the runway for 3 hours before we could actually see the runway (“That’s where you’ve been hiding! Under the plane!”) and take off on it. This meant I missed my connection in Sydney to Los Angeles, and there were no more flights that day, so I’d have to spend the day and night at an airport hotel before flying out the next morning.
That’s just a regular travel annoyance, but the twist was that since I’d flown out of Christchurch on Air New Zealand, and was flying back to the US on Virgin Australia, neither airline was responsible for me missing my connection, and I was utterly boned. My ticket was toast and I had to buy a whole new $1,100 ticket back to the US from Australia.
Touché, well played Australia.
I descended down into the bowels of Sydney to take the metro from the international terminal to the domestic, where all the airport hotels are. I’d loaded too much money on my metro card when I’d been in town at the beginning of the trip, but now I’d at least get to use it to get to the other terminal. Except the turnstile had other ideas and wouldn’t open for me. I went to the customer service counter.
“You only have $7 on your card, you need to have $17 for the turnstile to let you in.”
“I’m only going one stop, it’s a $3 fare and then I’m leaving your country forever.”
“Fine, put $10 on my card.”
“Can’t do that, minimum top-up is $35.”
“Of course it is.”
For a point of comparison, New Zealand is very reasonably priced. I don’t know what Australia’s problem is.
Back in Melbourne, I spent my first few hours in the city annoyed that Melbourne had set my wallet on fire, and unimpressed by what I was seeing. Their Saint Paul Cathedral felt like even more of a soul trap than our version. The Queen Victoria Gardens didn’t have any plants in them. The art in the National Gallery of Victoria felt uninspired and soulless. The famous Degraves Street laneway was just a ton of touristy stores.
The funniest thing about Melbourne was that it is the fashion capital of Australia, so nobody dresses like they just spent a week camping in the outback. I was the only person in the entire city wearing an Australian badass hat and I stuck out like a hilariously sore thumb. I felt like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.
Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying…
I had basically decided that Melbourne just wasn’t my jam and I only needed to check the Melbourne Museum off my list before I could leave.
Of course, the Melbourne Museum was amazing.
The main attraction was the Aboriginal history exhibit, which was full of cool masks, tools and animal totems from the various Aboriginal tribes around Australia. But shockingly, this wasn’t the part of the museum I enjoyed the most.
In the center of the museum, there’s a forest. A goddamned forest. It’s amazing. You walk through some sliding glass doors into a huge central atrium that’s full of native trees, walking paths and a stream. The path goes under the stream and you can look at the fish, and little exhibits show you the tree frogs and ants and crazy shit that live there. Birds flit around overhead. At the far end, a bowerbird was building a nest to attract a mate. He’d made an elaborate decorative panorama out of blue bottle caps, and tiny yellow flowers that made the blue caps look even more blue through the magic of complimentary colors.
As I walked up one of the paths that wound through the atrium forest, I crossed paths with an agitated-looking bird. He sat on top of one of the informational panels and looked at me nervously. I stopped and met his stare.
When I’d been at the Minnesota Zoo with my mom the month before, we’d visited the exhibit of a Russian wild boar. The boar was eyeing us nervously as he chowed down on some kind of melon. I looked into his eyes and really felt his emotion, his agitation. As I stood there I began to more and more fully put myself in his shoes (hooves?). I imagined what that melon tasted like and what it would feel like in my mouth. I imagined my head being shaped like his, and having four legs and thick, wiry fur. I felt my interior sense of my body start to morph and shift. I imagined the scene from his perspective, looking out at us through the chain link fence.
As I did this, I felt like I had projected my consciousness actually into the boar, and as I did so, he began to calm down. His eyes softened, and he began to chew more slowly, enjoying the melon at a more satisfied pace, no longer nervously powering it down before someone could take it away. I felt his breathing ease and slow down. I felt him relax and share the space comfortably with us. I could feel from within him the warm comfort of having food and being safe in that moment.
I remembered this as I looked up at the little bird in Melbourne, and so I ran through the same projection of imagination with the bird. And as I did, he wound down. With my mental awareness projected inside the bird I began to breathe slowly and softly, calmly. The bird’s breathing slowed and his posture shifted. He stopped jerking around nervously and just sat. I felt his tension release. We sat there together for a few moments in peace.
The great thing is that the forest was only my second favorite thing in the museum. My favorite was the exhibit upstairs on the history of Melbourne.
When I was buying my ticket and the kind man working the counter explained to me what was in the various sections of the museum, when he mentioned the history of Melbourne area my first thought was “Cool, I can skip that part,” since I didn’t have much time before the museum closed. So it was extra impressive that it won me over so completely.
You walk up a curving ramp to the second floor, turn a corner, and holy shit what is this? Some kind of dreamy calliope music is playing as you enter a recreation of a penny arcade from the early 20th century. The overall exhibit is a series of settings from Melbourne’s history, where you’re walking through the actual places in chronological order. You walk through an early frontier cabin that has been preserved, with its bizarre triangular beds cobbled together to fit the available space.
You sit in an actual chain of cars from Melbourne’s old roller coaster, as film footage recorded on the ride in the 1920s plays on a screen in front of you.
You enter a tiny theater and sit in the actual seats from Melbourne’s silent film era movie theater, with a period-appropriate film playing on the screen. This goes on and on, you sit in a 1960s suburban living room with period furniture and a 60s television playing what was playing then. It’s such a simple idea but the execution and time-warp effect was deeply charming. It made me wish every city had something like this.
This shifted the tide on Melbourne for me, and I enjoyed everything I saw after that. Which was a good thing, because they had all my money.