Through the Viewfinder
And What Alice Found There
In 2017, Greg and I set off to make one of our lifelong dreams come true; to road trip along the infamous Route 66 in America. It wasn’t our first road trip together, but it was the longest one we’d ever done and we had an absolute blast. It’s safe to say that when we returned home the travelling blues kicked in almost immediately, and in true Alice style I straight away started looking at where we could go next! Considering we’re both still young (debatable) and at the time we had no major commitments i.e. we lived at home and had no children or pets to worry about, we thought hey…why not do another crazy road trip! And while there’s tons of places closer to home that would have been amazing (one of our favourite road trips to date was on our doorstep in Scotland!) we don’t like to do things by halves so we settled on going to the opposite side of the world! Yes it would be expensive & our bank accounts may get totally wiped out, but this might be the only chance we ever get to do this trip before we start to think about mortgages and savings and all that adult stuff. So I decided to leave my job, booked us one way tickets to Australia and let the planning begin!
Fast forward 12 months and eventually we’ve saved up enough money for our 6 week trip, including spending money and any payments we had to make for things in advance like hire cars etc. After a whirlwind of a Christmas, we packed our bags and early morning on Boxing Day off we headed to Manchester Airport. Long haul flights are never much fun when you’re stuck in your seat for hours and you have to try and stomach airplane food, but we were surprisingly pleased with the service we got from Singapore Airlines! Very attentive staff, amazing food (I had roast chicken on one flight!) comfy seats and a great selection of films to keep you entertained! The service even kept up once we landed in Singapore too! The thought of a 15 hour wait in the airport had made me want to cry a bit (as if our journey wasn’t long enough as it is) however, it worked to our advantage in the end. Skip through the transit area of Singapore Airport and if you’re waiting time is longer than 5 hours then you can hop on a free city bus tour to pass some time! On our trip we saw some amazing architecture including a building covered in greenery, plus the famous Merlion statue. We also had a lovely stop off at the Malay Heritage Centre where we were free to wander round, view the temple and stroll past the market stalls. All in all a great way to bust the boredom while waiting for a connecting flight and something I’d recommend doing if you’re ever over that way! We also spent some time in the airports butterfly garden – a beautiful little gem in amongst the bustling crowds and a great place to hide away for a while. For the last part of our layover we wandered round the airport shops, snacked on some Singapore delicacies and lounged in the bar with a Singapore Sling cocktail - perfect! Then, after our brief encounter with Singapore, we boarded yet another plane to continue our journey down under…
In our opinion, you can’t go to Australia without experiencing the outback. It’s what most people imagine when you think about Australia – red dusty roads, quiet towns, aboriginal culture and of course the famous Ayers Rock. Although it would add on quite a chunk to our costs, our trip wouldn’t be complete without it so our first stop was Alice Springs in the heart of the Northern Territory. Yes I loved this place because of it’s amazing name, but it was also the perfect start to our trip for many reasons! Firstly, it was hot. And I mean REALLY hot. I’m talking 45 degrees in the day and about 30 degrees at night, and even the wind was warm so that didn’t even cool you down. This might sound like hell to some people but I secretly loved it. I’m a real lover of hot weather so feeling the sun on my skin was a welcome relief from the cold & blustery days we’re used to in Cumbria. We had two nights in Alice Springs, staying at the comfortable and really well-situated Diplomat Motel which had a great pool for cooling off in at the end of the day! We jam-packed our time here full of awesome activities, hiring a car from Avis to help us get about. The car turned out to be a massive 7 seater 4WD which we aptly named The Beast! This took us all over the place including Standley Chasm for a great hike into the ravine, Ellery Creek Big Hole for an amazing wild swim in a desert watering hole and Alice Springs Desert Park where we could walk alongside kangaroos and spot beautifully coloured birds.
After two nights in this desert paradise, we then headed off in The Beast on the 5 hour car journey to Ayers Rock. This journey wasn’t just a long one but a scorcher too, with the heat not letting up at all during our stay in the Northern Territory! The roads were long, red and dusty with barely any traffic passing us by and it felt like we were in a movie driving across the outback! After a couple of hours we had to turn off the highway and on the corner of the junction we spotted Erldunda Roadhouse where we decided to stop off, fill up the car, grab a bite to eat and stretch our legs. After another few hours of driving we finally arrived at the holiday village of Yulara – the only place to stay close to Ayers Rock. We stayed in the Outback Pioneer Lodge which was a basic but comfortable private lodge with shared bathroom facilities – most importantly the air conditioning in the room was amazing! We had two nights here packed full of activities – we visited Ayers Rock at both sunset & sunrise, walked along some of the base trails, explored the Cultural Centre to learn about the history of the place and enjoyed a traditional Aussie BBQ (including kangaroo fillet and crocodile tail)! The rock itself was great to visit but not as impressive as we thought it would be at first sight. Essentially, we stood watching the sunset on a giant rock which to be honest wasn’t very exciting! The sunset viewing area for cars was packed with people which made it hard to get a good photo of the rock with nobody else in shot. However, when we returned the next day for sunrise we had the place to ourselves and the way the light spilled over the top of the rock was much more impressive than the night before. We also found the rock much more interesting close up where you can see the different shapes, colours and textures and read all about how the aborigines worship this place, and how they believe it’s involved in their stories of creation. We did walk some of the base trails but the heat was so severe that the trails were actually being closed from 2pm onwards and we were advised to have all walks finished by 11am before the midday heat hit. Despite the trails closing early we were never short of things to do – the cultural centre teaches you all about the discovery of Ayers Rock and how it is so important to local people. There’s also some great gift shops and cafes within the resort where we spent a few relaxed hours wandering around, as well as a lovely outdoor swimming pool back at the lodge. We also spent New Years Eve here which was so much fun, partying the night away in the Outback Pioneer bar with ice cold drinks to cool us down from the 40 degree heat outside! It was certainly an interesting way to see in 2019!
By New Years Day our time at Yulara was up and we set out on the 5 hour journey back to Alice Springs, again stopping off at Erldunda Roadhouse for a break. This time we discovered they have an emu farm just around the corner of the restaurant which we didn’t spot the first time we went there! Once back in Alice Springs we checked in at our accommodation for the night – a big yellow bus called Betty Boop! No, we didn’t just camp out in an abandoned bus…it forms part of the quirky little hostel called Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. It’s an amazing little spot close to the centre of town, offering you your own little slice of paradise in the desert. The lush green garden featured a small swimming pool, sun loungers, picnic benches, giant noughts and crosses games, hammocks and all sorts of colourful decorations – it was beautiful! And our bus was equally as amazing! Still featuring the driver’s seat, steering wheel and gear stick but kitted out with a double bed, table, drawers and cool lighting system it had everything we needed for a comfy night’s sleep before our next flight. We also took a short trip from here up to ANZAC Hill for a view over the whole town at sunset.
The next morning we said goodbye to Betty Boop, dropped off The Beast and hopped on a plane to Cairns. The weather here was considerably cooler than in Alice Springs but it was by no means cold! We stayed in a stunning apart-hotel called Cascade Gardens with our own private studio room, complete with an outdoor patio area. We loved this place – it was so comfortable and felt a bit like luxury being so modern and spacious in comparison to the first few places we had stayed. Plus there was a gorgeous resident cat called Bruzer that roamed the hallways, often greeting us when we returned back from our day of adventures. Within walking distance to the centre of Cairns city we could easily wander around in the evenings to find somewhere to eat, explore the night markets, or do a bit of late night shopping. I have to say that the clothes shops were so stereotypically Australian with big names like Ripcurl, Billabong and Quicksilver showing off the surfer-style fashion on almost every street corner (I did have to buy some stuff – I couldn’t resist)! We also enjoyed strolling along the promenade where we were lucky enough to see some wild pelicans on the beach, and took a dip in the large outdoor swimming pool called the Esplanade Lagoon – a great way to cool off from the summer sun!
In total we spent 3 nights in Cairns and it was probably one of my favourite cities in Australia. Of course there is the infamous Great Barrier Reef which is easily accessible from Cairns, so we felt compelled to take a trip and see this natural wonder with our own eyes. We booked a trip through Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises and took a leisurely 45 minute boat journey to Green Island – a lovely little paradise full of green trees and golden beaches. As it was stinger season we hired lycra suits from the boat staff before heading off into the sea for a morning of snorkelling. In all honesty, I was disappointed with what I saw. The reef (or at least this part of the reef) was nothing like what I expected. There was barely any coral to see, and hardly any fish or wildlife at all. There were no colourful plants and nothing really to distinguish it from any other part of the sea, anywhere in the world. I did manage to spot a stingray which was exciting, but other than that I was just swimming around and seeing people’s legs rather than any sealife. Despite the disappointing swim we had a lovely time relaxing on the beach which was incredibly picturesque, followed by a free ride on a glass bottom boat. Admittedly we saw a bit more on the boat including large shoals of fish, turtles and apparently a reef shark (I missed that one somehow)! After a morning on Green Island we then headed back to Cairns where we grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading off on the next part of our adventure – white water rafting! We booked this as a combo deal through Big Cat, with the rafting part organised by a company called Raging Thunder and it was so much fun! A bus ride took us up to the Barron River where we got kitted out and briefed about rafting techniques, then in we went! Unfortunately, on the day we were there, there were a lot of other people also booked in for rafting which meant a lot of waiting around in between rapids. However, once we got going it was such a thrill and something I’d love to do again! I highly recommend giving it a go if you’re into adventure sports!
Our second full day in Cairns saw us take a trek into the rainforest surrounding the city. We hired a car from East Coast Car Rentals and headed off to see what we could discover. Our first stop off was at Millaa Millaa Waterfalls – a spot I’d seen a few times on Instagram and knew I just had to visit. It’s apparently the place where Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ video was filmed, along with some of the old Herbal Essences adverts. We arrived early morning and had the place to ourselves, and I immediately headed in for a swim! The water was chilly but amazingly refreshing, with the spray from the falls sprinkling down on you in the pool. As the sun began to rise over the tops of the trees, the rays of light came streaming through the leaves creating an stunning scene, with rainbows forming within the waterfall – an amazing sight to witness! Eventually we dragged ourselves away and were heading to our next destination at Josephine Falls when we stumbled across the Australian Platypus Park. At first sight it appears to be a quiet, humble little café but in fact, if you take a short 5 minute walk down a grassy path you have the chance of spotting wild platypus! The helpful guide explains how to spot them and also gives you some information about these unusual creatures. To our delight as she was talking to us a platypus made an appearance in the water! We were then left to watch at our own leisure and could spend as much or as little time by the river as we liked. On heading back up to the café area you only pay if you were lucky enough to see a platypus – which we were happy to admit to as we were so excited to spot one! After a tasty lunch of lasagne and chips we carried on to Josephine Falls where we took a short walk through the rainforest to a gorgeous swimming spot, complete with a natural waterside on the smooth rocks. We had great fun here feeling like kids again, racing down the rock slides then hurrying back up to have another go! Greg managed to lose his sunglasses on one go, so after that we called it a day and went back to the car! On the way back to Cairns we had one more stop off at Babinda Boulders. This was a busy spot for swimming so we decided not to get in the water – instead we took the quiet footpath through the trees to view the spectacle of the boulders themselves. There is a legend that once upon a time a young woman threw herself into the river to escape her captors after falling in love with a man from an opposing tribe. Her lover followed and drowned in the waters, and the cries of sorrow from the young woman caused earthquakes and giant boulders crashed into the river, creating the natural spectacle you can see today.
Next up for our adventure down-under was yet another flight down to Brisbane, where we were picking up our first campervan for our long-awaited road trip! We hired the Hippie Drift van through Hippie Campers, which are part of a bigger company called Apollo Campers. What we hoped would be a smooth, quick and easy pick up process (as we’ve found with all car rentals we’ve done in the past) turned out to be a long, drawn-out process which almost turned into a disaster. We chose the Hippie Drift van for its older style and, well, the hippie vibe it had! The designs we saw on the website were bright, colourful and fun and we could really imagine nipping around in one ourselves. The vans weren’t high spec and were all older vehicles but to us that’s part of the fun. However, at the collection office we got told we had been given a “free upgrade” to a hi-top camper instead – I was not impressed. Not only do these vehicles look ridiculous but they’re also not practical when visiting cities as a lot of car parks are multi-storey with height restrictions. The girl tried to tell me it was much better, more modern and even had a microwave in it (like I care about a microwave when I’m supposed to be camping?) but I put my foot down and refused to take the upgrade. After being told a few times they had no Hippie Drift vans available and after a few more sharp looks from me, they somehow magically produced one for us (which I already knew they had as I could see it parked up outside)! Unfortunately, this gave me a bad first impression of the company for being so difficult, and I had already made up my mind that I wouldn’t want to use them again – sorry Apollo campers!
Despite the hiccup with collecting the van, once we got on the road things were great! Our van was white with a faded pattern of flowers and music notes painted along the sides. She was named Jessica and she was brilliant! The cabin was comfy with lots of leg room in the passenger side – perfect for me to shove all my camera stuff to get pics on the move! Open the sliding door on the side and you enter the two-in-one seating / sleeping area. During the day we had this set up as a sofa with floor space for our suitcases, and at night we folded the seats out to create a basic but comfortable bed (suitcases has to go in the front cabin at night). Right at the back of the van was the sink, fridge, gas stove and drawers full of crockery and dish washing stuff, plus there were a couple of plugs you could use if you were hooked up to power. All in all, the van had everything we needed and after only a few days we started to feel at home in Jessica.
We took Jessica all the way from Brisbane to Melbourne, following the coastline all the way and stopping off at loads of cool places as we went. We hoped to easily find campsites as we went along and either show up on the day or book online a day in advance, however we forgot that the schools were off for their summer holidays (a baffling thought to us as it was the beginning of January!) which meant a lot of places were already booked up. After a stressful time frantically trying to find somewhere to spend our first night (and ending up in a highway rest area!) we then heavily relied on the CamperMate app to book places in advance. This app was brilliant and I don’t know what we’d have done without it! You can search the map for nearby campsites, colour coded depending on the price – green are free sites, blue are low cost and purple are usually fully-established holiday parks. You can see the facilities available at each site, look through photos, read reviews and find the contact details to make a booking. You can also specify certain search criteria so we could easily find powered sites every few days to keep the fridge going! We didn’t have a toilet in our van so it was a handy tool to search for public toilets and showers when we’d had few nights camping for free – we did resort to using beach showers a few times although you never really got any of the sand off you! The other essential part of van life was the cooking – our little gas camping stove was only a single burner but we made loads of tasty things (admittedly there was a lot of pasta involved!) and we really loved getting all set up at the end of the day for a home-cooked meal and a nice cold drink from the fridge.
We stopped at loads of places on our road trip and if I went into detail about each one then this blog post would be even longer than it already is (well done for making it this far)! Instead I’ll do a quick round up of everywhere we went…
After picking Jessica up we wandered round Brisbane – a beautiful, modern and lively city that seemed to have loads on offer. We spent some time wandering along by the beach, had lunch near the markets, and admired the beautiful architecture. We also visited:
Finally, our time in Australia was coming to a close. We reluctantly drove back to Melbourne, making the most of our last day in Jessica. We parked in a multi-storey car park, cleaned her off with some bottles of water and rags, dropped her off back at Apollo Campers (another stressful experience!) and had our tea in McDonalds before spending our last night at an Ibis hotel next to the airport – a classy end to our time in Oz! We had such a brilliant time enjoying the Australian way of life while also getting into the swing of van life and learning to live with sand in your hair, in your pants, in the van, and sometimes even in your ears?! Our favourite places and some of the best memories come from the smaller moments and less-touristy areas. Funny little stories like when Greg put his swimming shorts on the front of the van to dry out then drove off with them still there, or the time the wipers on the van stopped working so we swapped a load of fuses round until we could buy new ones, leaving us without a working horn, interior light or passenger airbag! It’s not always about the big landmarks and famous places, it’s about the happy memories you make and we certainly made enough in Australia to last a lifetime! But it wasn’t over yet…next up, New Zealand!