Saturday, February 28, 2009
I'm gonna start a petition to change the Newnes greeting sign to the above text. While there are conceivably one or two species of bug that didn't bite me during my week-long stay in the mountains, the rest of it's accurate. The abandoned mining town's population rose by 33% when I arrived late Monday afternoon. For a week, a quarter of the population was named Phil.
Welcome to the world of the WWOOF program (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) where you never know where you'll end up. Thomas, a smallish man of German descent, was my new boss... the goal of my week-long tenure being to assist in constructing a brick water tank. His property was 40 acres in the middle of the gorgeous Wolgan Valley canyons; its primary feature a century-old hotel/saloon in the process of being refurbished with the ultimate goal of becoming a tourist haven. Solar powered with a water purification system and sewage treatment plant, the property was entirely self sufficient. Apparently the water supply from the mountains was slighty acidic, and the best remedy was to create a filtering tank, constructed of brick and mortar, and consisting of a chamber filled with crushed marble, a base substance which would - in theory - neutralize the ph level of the water and reduce its acidity.
My initial job was to get sand from a nearby creek to mix in with the cement for the tank's base. The job was daunting for several reasons. I'd have to drive an old four-wheel-drive Suzuki across a river with an empty trailer attached to the back, turn around on the other side of the river, load it up with sand, and then drive back across. The steering column was on the right and I hadn't driven a manual transmission in years. I was filled with a sense of foreboding. Here goes nothing.
Thomas had forgotten that the Suzuki's clutch was mostly burnt out. Halfway across the river I got stuck. 4WD high, 4WD low, 2WD... nothing would work. Finally I threw it in reverse and rambled back up on the shore. Determined to make it work, I floored it and roared across the ford, blasting water in every direction, slowing down but grinding up onto the opposite shore. I was exultant, but only for a moment; the stupid thing wouldn't climb the hill so I could turn around. I got halfway up and started drifting backwards... it turns out the brakes were gone too, so jamming the pedal to the floor only partially slowed it.
Somehow I managed to get it turned around and facing the direction I'd come from. Shovel after shovel of sand filled the trailer; exhausted, I clambered back into the Suzuki, threw it into gear, and floored it. When it grumbled to a halt halfway across again, and the acrid odor of burnt clutch filled the cabin, I knew something was wrong. This time it wasn't going anywhere. Cursing my luck I, jumped into the river, and proceeded to shovel the entire load of sand back into the waters from whence it came.
Even lightened, the rig barely made it back to shore. There I reloaded it with a smallish portion of sand and gunned it up the embankment. By this time Thomas showed up, wondering what was taking so long, and then remembered the clutch's terrible condition. "We'll just use the Ute," he said, referring to his utility vehicle. "Drive that up to the site and dump it and we'll retire the thing for the day."
The site was halfway up a mountain.
Bouncing and crashing up a horrendously-formed dirt track, I drove about three quarters of the way there, made a left up a hairpin curve, and... you guessed it... the thing died. The verdict: out of gas! I yanked the emergency brake as far back as it would physically reach, wedged heavy rocks under the tires, and refilled the thing. Even fueled up it would go no further, thanks to the clutch problem; we ended up just tossing the sand onto the ute and coasting the Suzuki back downhill, where it stayed for the rest of the week. Good bloody riddance.
I stayed in the beautifully-constructed holiday cabins on the property, welt-scratching my nightly ritual. My lower arms and legs were mottled with bug bites, mostly from spiders. Some spider with a sick sense of humor bit a smiley-face pattern into the top of my left foot. I wished I could meet that spider and smile back at him. And then stomp him into the freaking floor.
All week we worked, mixing mortar and laying bricks, mowing grass, constructing plumbing fittings, etc. Most days we finished by around 2 pm, and I was able to go on walks. I must've trekked a good 50 km over that week; my legs were exhausted every night, but it was well worth it. One climb ascended a mountain on railroad tracks that'd been abandoned since the early 1930's... when it reached the treeline that separated foliage on the right from sheer cliffs on the left, it was like being dropped into the Jurassic era. The trail wound through a narrow canyon, humid and cool in contrast to the dry heat of the day, with bizarre palms and exotic shoots of flowers rising from the spindly creek on the rock floor. The trail halted in front of an enormous abandoned railroad tunnel, a foreboding presence of yawning blackness.
In I went.
My dying flashlight was a pittance against the enveloping blackness - the tunnel curved, which led to absolute darkness, absence of all light. Luckily I didn't need any... the walls were dotted with hundreds of thousands of tiny glowworms. I switched off my light and stood in awe as irridescent blue blotches surrounded me. It was like stargazing... almost an unearthly experience. A half-kilometer later the tunnel dumped back out into the open, and I found myself disappointed.
The walk back to Newnes was another good 10 kilometers; seven or so into it the trail disappeared. I wandered for a half an hour trying to find it, couldn't pick it up, and decided to blaze my own trail back. I knew the river was to the west, so I trudged through the bush, following the setting sun until I could hear the Wolgan River in the distance. Alternately walking and listening, I navigated my way to the riverbed, crossing on an enormous tree that'd fallen and connected the two shores. I simply followed the river into Newnes, arriving a little over an hour later.
As if that wasn't enough of an adventure, two days later I hiked up Mystery Mountain. It was aptly-named, because finding the trail was an absolute mystery. Following the previous hike's logic I decided to make my own way up the moutainside. This time it didn't turn out so well.
The terrain was heavily sloped, rocky, and slippery. Footing was precarious and by the time I reached the cliff base that led to the top, there was no trail and no way up. I considered just leaving, but decided instead to follow the cliff base and find a way up.
I clambered across little ridges in the ground, snagging onto a nearby eucalyptis tree everytime my footing failed. At times I walked mere feet from two or three hundred foot drops down sheer rock walls, found no way around the edge, and had to climb near-vertical stretches of wind-worn rock face. It was one of the scariest things I've ever done, gingerly picking my way along footholds and crevices, no safety gear, nothing. Just my wits and prayers. Heart beating out of my chest, twice I slipped and hurtled momentarily towards the edge, latching onto tree trunks or rock outcroppings and stopping myself.
In retrospect, it was probably the stupidest thing I've ever done... certainly the most dangerous, the scariest, and arguably the most fun. Eventually I found the original trail and struggled up a tiny fissure in the cliff, another hundred feet to the top. The view was absolutely magnificent; I let out an involuntary yell as I finally stepped onto the summit. A devil-may-care climb was rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of Wollemi wilderness: plunging canyons surrounded by wind-eroded cliffs in every direction. Absolute solitude; just me, my Creator, and ten billion itchy bugbites. I downed the rest of my water, took a few pictures, and half-slid down the mountain on the way back. You don't realize how steep a mountain is until you descend it... balance is much more difficult to keep.
Thus ended my Newnes adventures. I departed Saturday morning satisfied both in the completed water tank and the week's mountaineering. I'm now in a hostel in Katoomba (still in the mountains, but with a five-digit population this time) planning out my next move.
Whatever it is, Newnes will be hard to top.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
As of Monday, 23 February 2009, I will technically be a farmer. Here's how it happened.
After selling my bike (and my original plans with it) I left Ulladulla with my new 'wherever the wind blows' philosophy in full gear. I had no clue where I was going to go next... up to Queensland? South, to Adelaide? At the last second I randomly decided Melbourne, one of the destinations of my original cycling layout. If fires were a problem, the bus would be faster than my on a bike.
The bus left Ulladulla at 8:30 pm... twelve bumpy, sleepless, atrociously-uncomfortable hours later I was in Melbourne, Australia. I wandered the city for a few hours; the number of people on the streets was directly proportional to how high in the sky the sun was... at 7:30 a.m. it was a ghosttown. By 10:00 the streets were clogged.
I checked into a hostel for two days and explored the city. There was nothing overly spectacular... just another big city, really. I liked Sydney better. I went grocery shopping that evening, only to have most of my stock stolen the next day. Uncool. The loss of my food kind of got me down; I'd have left Melbourne bummed about the overall experience had it not been for meeting a group of Israeli girls who randomly invited me to join in a card game. It was a lot of fun... I learned an Israeli army card game, and a ton of Hebrew, some of which I actually remember. It turns out my name is one little dot away from meaning "elephant" ...a somewhat dubious honor, I think.
Bored with the big city, I decided to return to Sydney and head north, to see the Queensland coast. Everyone I'd talked to said it was the best place to go, so... why not? I hitchhiked through a tunnel and out of the city, then took a train, and finally another uncomfortable bus ride to get to Wollongong. I stayed there for a a night, meeting up with Sarah and Alex, two Austrian girls I'd met a week before in Ulladulla... officially the coolest people I've met on the trip so far. They gave me a ride into Manly, Australia... just outside the North Sydney city limits. I stayed at a hostel there for a day, enjoying the beach and planning my next move.
I'd heard from a few people about Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF), a program designed to let foreigners without work visas exchange free room and board for five hours a day worth of work. Sarah gave me some more information about it; you had to purchase a membership, it seemed, to join. My money running low pretty quickly, I decided to go for it. Free food and accomodation would make living pretty inexpensive.
I rode the ferry into Sydney the next morning. An hour later I was sitting in Backpacker's World Travel, and office for ...well... helping backpackers travel the world. Sixty bucks poorer, I had the WWOOFing manual in my hands. Time to get down to business. Miraculously, I found a hostel for twenty bucks a night in the middle of downtown Sydney... with free internet, no less. I checked in, got my stuff situated, and started emailing contacts.
Two hours later I got a response. A guy rennovating a hotel for tourism purposes in the Blue Mountains, 100 km west of Sydney, agreed to sign me on as hired help for landscaping, general construction, and ...yea, farming. I was stoked beyond all belief to get a response so soon (twenty or so more would pour in over the next two days.) Then the guy sent me a website link to the views from the place I'm staying in.
I nearly wet myself. I'm not going to post any pictures from the site; I'll take some myself and upload them. The place is spectacular by digital image; I'm sure in person it'll be even more so. Since then I've spent time enjoying the city; including walking a mile from the hostel to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at night, where I took a picture of the Opera House. Absolutely amazing view.
Tomorrow I have off, and Monday I'll catch a ride to Newnes, Australia. What awaits me there? Who knows. But remember. Don't ever, ever, ever call me Farmer Phil.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Here's the newest article, special column exclusive to The Carolinian, available for reading a good seven or eight hours before anyone else will read it. This is crucial, as my column is clearly the only important news out there, right? (Much of the content is new to followers of the blog, but offers a different take of the hard data already recorded.)
17 February 2009
Urgency, urgency. A mere three days after departing from Sydney by bicycle, I was stressed and worried; my ambitious scheduling was staring me in my sweaty sunburnt face, and self-imposed deadlines grabbing me by the throat. Bushfires were burning out of control in the region I'd planned to cycle through. Before leaving the states I had thoroughly planned every leg of my voyage with excruciating detail, mapping my projected mileage goals for the day, precise routes, and rest stops, with Google Earth, geographical maps and Lonely Planet as my guides. I made sure there was no room for error; and it never quite occurred to me that exorbitantly-detailed, rigidly-structured itineraries were the exact opposite of wandering, which was what my journey was all about. I was blind to the absurdity of my antithetical methodology - and I would've stayed that way, but for solitude and the sea.
One cannot properly speak of, or comprehend, the word power until witnessing the mighty Pacific dash against a sea wall. The explosion of foam, the salty surf hurled into the air; tossing, plunging, roaring... never ceasing. The sun precisely positioned in the sky so that the surf's eruption creates for the briefest moment an iridescent rainbow; disappearing just as quickly with the vertical plunge of the water's return. What beauty, what glory to behold! Perhaps a glimpse of infinite, comprehendable at last - if only microcosmically - on a craggy outcropping on the other side of the world.
I'd been in Wollongong only a day and already I was going to miss it. The lazy afternoons, the salty breeze, the friendly laughter with the evening sun... time stands still here, I wrote in my journal. Gives a man a chance to breathe, to think; to collect his thoughts, to perhaps jot down a sonnet, or read a book, or simply relax in the shade. No hurries, no worries... just a man in the shadow of nature.
The seagulls... they know nothing of deadlines. What cares have they? "That's why seagulls don't rule the world," one might reply. "NASA didn't get to the moon by napping on a rock by the sea." Aye, perhaps, but what of the heart and the soul? In the end, what good is ambition as a means to its own end? Give me beauty and a pen and I'll find my way to the moon.
Why do we find this so hard to embrace in our everyday lives?
Days later, I have found new life in my journey... I am no longer hurried, no longer a details-man. I have slowed down. I have skipped rocks in a harbor in Ulladulla, sketched the view of the Pacific coast from the rolling Kiama highlands, ukulele-jammed with a German on holiday; read French philosophy in Melbourne and searched for conch shells in a rocky alcove. I sold my bicycle, and with it my plans. I'll take it as it comes, one day at a time. Rivers Cuomo said it best:
Don't bother to pack your bags
Or your map
We won't need them where we're goin'
We're goin' where the wind is blowin'
Not knowin' where we're gonna stay
I think he's onto something there. So who knows what I'll do next... maybe learn to surf in Wollongong, or hitchhike to Adelaide. Maybe I'll skydive over Brisbane or kayak in Cairns. "Wherever the wind blows" is my refreshed journey philosophy... and I'm feeling a breeze.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Monday, February 9, 2009
Sunday: I chilled in Wollongong for the entire day, relaxing, map-checking, and preparing for the next day's journey... 113 Fahrenheit that day, definately not riding conditions. I also set foot in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life, and then sat on a craggy seawall, watched the booming surf, and reflected on life. More on that later.
Monday: I left pretty early in the morning; my goal was to reach Nowra by nightfall. The sky was mercifully cloudy, sparing me of the agonizing heat. The first third of the ride was fairly enjoyable, as the route hugged the coast and was flat for the most part. Easy riding. Then the middle third ripped out my lungs as I plowed up massive inclines; the Kiama Highlands proceeded to make it worth the pain. The views were absolutely spectacular. The terrain leveled out after that and I rolled through some more flat areas, including through seven miles of swampy bush.
Somewhere along the line my brakes decided to not work... the front ones are completely shot, and I have to use the rear ones now. As I contemplated this, every cloud on the east coast of Australia emptied itself on my head... I rolled into Nowra drenched, sore and completely exhausted. There was no place to camp, and it was almost dark, so I rode around town for the next half hour looking for a cheap place to stay. I managed to find a reasonable rate.
Once in the hotel I realized just how starving I was... but I didn't want to actually spend money on food. Expenses were mounting like crazy, far more than I'd expected. I had a bag of noodles and a can of chunky beef soup, but there was nothing to cook them with... so I proceeded to turn the bathroom into a makeshift kitchen. I poured water from the showerhead into the coffeemaker and boiled it; I poured the boiled water into four separate mugs of noodles. The can of soup I opened and sat in the sink, plugging the bottom, and poured the boiling water around the can. Ten or so loads of boiled water later, the sink was full and the soup was getting hot. I changed out the noodle water when it got cold.
The noodles were slightly undercooked, and the soup wasn't as filling as I'd hoped, but I saved some money and had a lot of fun doing it.
Tuesday: Rain. I'd planned to leave around 6 am so I could shoot for Bateman's Bay by the end of the day, but it didn't stop raining until 10 am. It was pretty frustrating... luckily it slowed down soon after I got on the road. Around 2 pm the bolt holding my rear rack popped out and the rack jammed against my wheel. Miraculously I found the bolt, and then spent a good half hour trying to get the bloody thing back in place, parked on the side of the road in a cloud of flies and rainshowers. A good day all in all, but easily the most difficult day thus far. Hills exploded up and plunged down, not leveling out until a city block from the backpacker's hostel where I booked a night.
Camping is proving to be a bit difficult... finding a spot where it's legal isn't overly hard, but trying to time it with the end of a day's journey is. Backpacker's hostels are relatively cheap and a lot of fun, so I've mostly been staying in those. Expenses are soaring... everything in Australia is a lot more expensive (a number one meal at mcdonalds comes out to about $9.00 USD) and I may have to readjust my planning of the trip due to it. It's something I'll have to simply play by ear.
I'd write more but it's beachtime for Phil.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
This journey might be a bit more difficult to pull off than I originally thought.
One thing after another has obstructed me. The back of my helmet smacks up against the rack of my backpack - which, conveniently, is non-adjustable - and there's no way at all to get around it. I can't lean my head back... when going up hills I have to lean my entire body back, or cock my head to the side and look out the corner of my eye. Then my bike decided to have technical difficulties... downshifting below second gear would cause the chain to pop off the rear wheel and jam inbetween the gears and the shifting mechanism, a problem which I've still not solved.
Then came the hills. Gigantic, rolling monsters... half-mile inclines snaking through the mountain ranges as the terrain exploded from sea level to 500 feet above it in five miles. Absolutely grueling... yesterday, my second day on the road, I was trying to time the ride so I'd reach Wollongong by noon to avoid the heat. Ten kilometers out I completely ran out of energy... I could barely even push my bike up the hills by that point. I'd sucked all four canteens of water bone dry... dehydration was kicking in and I had the sunburn to beat all sunburns.
I swallowed my pride, stuck out my thumb, and caught a ride into town... if I'd been able to make it another hundred yards, the rest of the way was one long downhill slope to the Pacific coast. I checked into a local hostel, booking two nights at $20 a night... Sunday (today) was forecasted to reach a blistering 113 degrees. No way I'm riding in that.
So the end result is, I'm absolutely baking, and sore, and tired... but having the time of my life. I may have to plan the trip a bit differently due to the heat... it'll probably take me significantly longer to reach Melbourne than I'd originally though. I'll play it by ear. I picked the hottest summer in 70 years to come make this trip... you may refer to me as 'Master of Timing.' Thank you very much.
Pictures coming... as soon as I figure out how to get 'em loaded onto a regular PC. My PDA isn't being very helpful. Cheers mates
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
After a year of planning, poring over maps and blogs and prices and logistical calculations, I'm in Australia.
The year it took me to get here didn't feel anywhere near as long as the two days it took me to fly from Raleigh, NC to Sydney, Australia. It was rediculous. After hauling my awkwardly-packaged bike into the airport in North Carolina (and paying a $50 oversized-package fee) I was off... my last view of Greensboro was from 15000 feet, a twinkling blur in the hazy purple twilight. For a moment I waxed sentimental, realized I was leaving behind everyone I know and love. Then I remembered they had to get up and go to work in a few hours, and I was on my way to summer beaches, and then everything was alright. (Sorry guys.)
I stopped in Denver during a layover, and caught my first glimpse of the Rockey Mountains in a decade... I hadn't seen the front range since I lived there years and years ago. Once I landed in Los Angeles (lovely from the air, but officially the most overrated city ever) I found my bicycle's makeshift box ripped wide open in several spots... there's no way it would ever make it to Australia in that condition. I spent the next hour piecing together strips of cardboard from the baggage service office, and taping them on with a full roll of packing tape acquired from the same location. I finished it up well enough, but I was still worried about how well the thing would hold up. Luckily some awesome guy named Marcus walked up with a roll of packing plastic and offered to help... five minutes later the thing was completely cocooned. Bears couldn't tear the thing apart, it was so well wrapped.
My next flight was to Fiji, but I had ten hours to kill before departure. Because baggage checkin times weren't until about two hours before the flight, I had to sit with my bike in the middle of a crowed airport until then. Audio security tapes in constant loop announced that any packages left by themselves would be promptly removed by security. So I babysat the thing for the next eight hours, alternative reading Pascal's Pensees and sleeping on the floor. Concrete is NOT comfortable.
Finally I was able to check my bike, and my bag (which had my camera in it, which meant it wouldn't be available once I arrived in Fiji... the bags were automatically transferred to the next flight. I realized this too late.) I slept a couple of hours on the way to Fiji, and landed there just as the sun was coming up. Sore from the long flight, I staggered off the plane, miffed that I didn't have my camera... the scenery was beautiful, a row of tropical mountains exploding from the grassy plains surrounding the airfield.
Four Fijians were waiting in the terminal with guitars and mandolins, singing and playing to greet travelers. It was pretty awesme, but all the lyrics sounded like variations of the word "Bula" ("hello" in Fijian.) "Bula bula buuuuuuula bulaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa buuula bulabulabulabulabulabulaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa bula..."
Pretty much just like that. It was still cool.
FINALLY i arrived in Sydney. It was surreal, getting off the plane and going through customs... my head in a whirlwind, I tried to contemplate that I was here at last. The very first thing I did was purchase a prepaid cellphone in case I needed to contact somebody. I hadn't thought of it until I saw the booth... definately a good move. Right next to it was a hostel directory; I called around to find the best prices, and ended up at a place for $28 a night with free breakfast. Not a bad price for a room in the middle of the largest city in Australia.
I booked two nights; the first one all I did was sleep, from 7 pm until the next morning. I was bloody exhausted. (They say 'bloody' a lot here too.) I woke up this morning and killed about five bowls of rice krispies and a half a loaf of bread, and then spent the rest of the day wandering the city. I had to have walked a good ten miles total, seeing everything from the famed Sydney Opera House to the botanical gardens to Chinatown to the King's Warf. It was complete awesomeness. And only in Sydney do you find an open-air McDonald's with pigeons chilling on the stools inside. I'd love to know what the health code standards are for that place... reflecting on how gross that is, I ate there.
So I'm alive and very well. I begin the biking portion of the trip tomorrow morning... I'll take the bike package to a nearby park and pull it out, assemble it, and navigate my way out of the city. I haven't quite found a way to upload pictures yet, so I don't yet have any to display... doing so might be a bit more difficult than I'd imagined. We'll see how it goes.
More updates soon! Keep checking back.