Seven wonders, by the road: Australia road trips to natural wonders

A great view from the road: World Heritage-listed Uluru in
Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo: Steven Siewert

Seven great icons, seven great road trips, Belinda Jackson discovers that the journey becomes the destination.

Australia’s icons come with plenty of drama – the world’s oldest rainforest, world’s biggest monolith and it’s not called the Good
Barrier Reef, is it?

With some of the planet’s best scenery outside
your window, switch off the phone and seize the moment to explore our
most photographed beaches, our most frequently painted mountain ranges
or go it alone in the strange, remote deserts of the continent’s
interior – often easily seen through your car window. There’s no
hardship: eat our national coat of arms in South Australia, fill the
Esky on the Great Ocean Road or shop for a glass of wine at day’s end in
Tassie​. Read on to discover seven natural icons found on seven great
road trips, where the journey becomes the destination.

The icon: Great Ocean Road, Victoria

Great Ocean Road: the Twelve Apostles. Photo: Damien White

The flavour of the trip: From Torquay to Allansford,
near Warrnambool, the winding road curves along Victoria’s southern
coastline. The road was built by returned soldiers from WWI and
commemorates their fallen mates.
Get the picture: You’re
doing it to see the 12 Apostles, right? But make time to visit
Australia’s capital of surf, Torquay’s Bells Beach, spot wild koalas and
feed the parrots at little Kennett Creek. Plan a cafe and ice-cream run
at Lorne and fill the Esky from Timboon’s providores for a picnic at
Cape Otway.
Leave from: Melbourne. Torquay, the starting point, is 100km west of the capital’s CBD.

How much time to take: You can drive the GOR
straight in five hours, but why bother? Allow at least two nights to
explore. Double your driving time allowance if you’re doing it in the
summer school holidays.
Distance: 243km with plenty of hairpin bends and most of it is speed limited to 80km/hour.
See visitgreatoceanroad.org.au.

The icon: Alice Springs to Uluru, Northern Territory

The flavour of the trip: You’ve seen the ads: blood-red desert sands flank long, straight stretches of highway.
Get the picture:
Sacred Uluru is the undoubtable drawcard, but add to the list Kata
Tjuta​ (the Olgas) and Atila (Mt Connor, aka Fool-uru), another
spectacular monolith that rises up on the southern side of Lasseter
Highway: the rookie mistake is thinking it’s Uluru. To visit Atila, book
through Curtain Springs Station (curtinsprings.com)
Leave from:
Fly in to either Alice Springs or Ayres Rock airport and hire a camper
or standard car (you won’t need a 4WD if you don’t stray from the
highway). For the full immersion, drive 1500km from Darwin.
How much time to take:
Six hours without stops, but savour it with an overnighter​ en route.
It’s speed limited at up to 130km/hr, so you can put your foot down, but
don’t drive at night: you won’t see anything except that roo, camel,
cow or emu coming through the windscreen.
Distance: 462km down the Stuart Highway, then chuck a sharp right at Erldunda Roadhouse onto the Lasseter Highway. See travelnt.com.

The icon: Flinders Ranges, South Australia

The flavour of the trip: A gentle introduction to
the outback (though flashes of aquamarine waters of the Spencer Gulf
always come as a surprise). It’s hard to keep your eyes off the
watercoloured​ ranges, but watch for wild donkeys on the road.
Get the picture: Stop for a FMG (“feral mixed grill”) at the Prairie Hotel, Parachilna (prairiehotel.com.au) and a wedge-tailed eagle’s view of the ranges with a light aircraft flight from Wilpena Pound Resort (wilpenapound.com.au).
Stay overnight at tiny Arkaroola village and wilderness sanctuary to
spot elusive yellow-footed rock wallabies, take a 4WD tagalong tour and
visit the astronomical observatories (arkaroola.com.au).
Leave from: Hawker is 400km from Adelaide on the A1, which finishes at Darwin.
How much time to take: Four nights will fit in the basics, but it deserves a week’s exploration.
Distance: The
classic Flinders circuit is 230km, from Hawker to Blinman, across to
Parachilna and back to Hawker. Add on a round-trip from Hawker up to
Arkaroola, about three hours from Parachilna. See roadtrips.southaustralia.com.

The icon: Mungo National Park, New South Wales  

Big skies and bigger stories: Mungo National Park. Photo: Quentin Jones

The flavour of the trip: This is ancient land:
people have been living around Mungo for 50,000 years – gear up for big
deserts, big rivers, big skies and even bigger stories.
Get the picture:
See the skeletons of ghosts past, when Australia’s massive inland sea
receded at the end of the last ice age. Mungo Man, Australia’s oldest
human remains, were discovered here, and plan for sunset and sunrise
looking to the dramatic Walls of China. You can do a 2.5-hour tagalong
driving tour of the national park with Aboriginal Discovery Rangers and
learn about the megafauna – giant kangaroos, wombats, lions and emus –
who lived here.
Leave from: Sydney via Goulburn
and Wagga, with eyes peeled for emus on the Hay plains. Otherwise,
award-winning Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours runs tours from Melbourne
(echidnawalkabout.com.au).
How much time to take: Allow
two days to reach Mungo. If desert camping is too extreme for you,
pitch your tent by the Murrumbidgee in Balranald, 130km from Mungo, or
take a motel room in Wentworth and visit the red dunes outside the town,
148km from Mungo.
Distance: 875km from Sydney. See visitmungo.com.au.

The icon: Daintree, Queensland

The flavour of the trip: A sunny drive up the scenic
Queensland coast to visit the world’s oldest surviving tropical
rainforest, with the Great Barrier Reef served up on the side.
Get the picture:
Beach camping, twice-daily swims, sunset barbies: it’s the great
Australian holiday. For a change of scenery, take the byroads through
the lush Atherton Tablelands.
Leave from: Townsville.
The drive up to the Daintree and nearby Cape Tribulation is around
500km. Determined roadtrippers​ could start out in Brissy for an 1800km
one-way journey.
How much time to take: Allow a
week to soak up the Cairns vibe and let yourself be diverted from the
road on a boat trip out onto the reef off Townsville, staying at luxe
Orpheus Island (orpheus.com.au) or friendly Magnetic Island (magnetic-island.com.au).
Distance: 470km. See queensland.com.

The icon: Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania

The flavour of the trip: A slow drive up Tasmania’s
sleepy east coast with a day’s detour on the foot passenger ferry to the
former convict colony of Maria Bay.
Get the picture:
Constantly featured in “Top 10 world’s best beaches”, the perfect curve
of Wineglass Bay is best appreciated from its lookout.  Don’t miss the
chance to stock up on local wine on the way (winetasmania.com.au)
and make time for a short walk down to Hazards Beach on the Freycinet
Peninsula. Keep the camera ready for white-bellied sea-eagles and
adorable little paddymelons.
Leave from: Hobart via Sorrel, Orford and Swansea.
How much time to take: Three days minimum, unless you really like seafood and cool-climate wines.
Distance: 400km for a round-trip circuit. See discovertasmania.com.au.

The icon: Bungle Bungle Range, Western Australia

The flavour of the trip: Lonesome and lovely, this
drive through the Kimberley is the dictionary definition of the word
“remote”. Mind you, the Gibb River Rd does become a bit crowded in peak
(winter) season.
Get the picture: The sandstone
“beehives” known as the Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu National Park,
weathered away over 350 million years. Book a scenic flight over them
from the local caravan park (bunglebunglecaravanpark.com.au). Take a dip
in Cathedral Gorge, but stay clear of the waters of Windjana Gorge –
it’s croc territory.
Leave from: Broome and turn due east.
How much time to take:
Seven days minimum – you’re on bush time now and the roads into
Purnululu are slow. But you could fall in love with the Kimberley and
never leave.
Distance: 1100km via the Gibb River Rd. You could leave from Perth, but that is a 3000km drive, one way. See westernaustralia.com.

This article brought to you in association with Avis.

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published on Fairfax Media’s Traveller website.

Sustainable Melbourne

EDIT: I am very pleased to note that this feature, originally published in Honda Magazine, has won the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ 2014 award for Best Responsible Tourism feature.

Little Hunter, 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne

Travel
can be a guilty pleasure for the green-minded, but Melbourne shows how to blend
ecology and exploration without stinting on the good times, discovers Belinda
Jackson.



SHOP SUSTAINABLY
For
clothes with karma, vintage clothing is the classic sustainable fashion option:
what goes around, comes around.  Forget
fusty, Melbourne’s top shops yield fabulous finds. Check out one of Australia’s
largest vintage stores, Retrostar,
in the equally vintage Nicholas Building (1st floor, Nicholas Building,
37 Swanston St), while Shag finds all its clothing in
Melbourne (Centreway Arcade) and Circa
Vintage
has fashion dating from the Victorian era (1st Floor, Mitchell House, 358 Lonsdale St). 
Serious hunters, book your spot on a Melbourne Op Shop tour (0421 431 2780421 431 278, melbourneopshoptours.com.au).
Don’t want to wear clothes made by small children or
workers in life-threatening factories? Melbourne’s Etiko sources eco-friendly range of footwear and clothing from
owner co-ops in Argentina and Pakistani micro-businesses, so you can look good
outside and feel good inside. Shop online or see etiko.com.au for stockists.
Lisa Gorman designs
You can go green with current fashion: each season, top
Melbourne designer Lisa Gorman releases her gorman organic range, which uses organic and sustainably produced
fabrics produced without pesticides or with non-chemical processing (GPO Melbourne, Bourke
St Mall, gormanshop.com.au).
Out of the CBD grid, make like a Melburnian and jump a
tram for the fashion label, shop and café that is Social Studio for limited-edition garments handmade from reclaimed
and up-cycled material (126-128 Smith St, Collingwood, thesocialstudio.org).  On Saturdays, dig for handmade treasures at
the artists’ haven of Rose Street
Markets
(60 Rose St, Fitzroy).
ON THE TABLE
You know organic
and sustainable production are on trend when the quest takes you to some of the
city’s top tables, including Vue de
Monde
, for its salt-cured wallaby (Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins St) and the signature smoked trout broth at Attica,
recently voted number 21 in the world’s top restaurants (74 Glen Eira Rd,
Ripponlea). Even old-school can go new school, as Italian dining staple Cecconi’s has demonstrated, becoming
the first restaurant to compost its food waste through the Closed Loop system:
the compost is used to grow vegetables on its Bellarine Peninsula farm (61
Flinders La).
Head underground to a recent Melbourne edition, Little Hunter, tucked away beneath city
streets, and order up on beef from the remote Tasmanian locations of Cape Grim and Robbin
Island or tiny Chatham Island’s Blue Cod with seagrasses.
Chef Gavin Baker sources all produces from farmers committed to organic
production and humane treatment (downstairs, 195 Little Collins St)
Melbourne’s café
scene is justly famous: check out the winner of the 2012 Tourism Victoria
Sustainability award, Silo by Joost, a
café that doesn’t have garbage bin. Everything is recycled, renewed or
composted, including the bench you’re sitting at (123 Hardware St, 03 9600
0588). Meanwhile, newcomer Dukes
Coffee Roasters
is pushing toward a carbon-neutrality with its emphasis on
minimising waste and off-set power, with organic and ethically produced
products. What does that mean for you? Seriously fine coffee (247 Flinders La).
And shoppers at Melbourne Central can grab a cuppa at social enterprise STREAT Café, which has so far trained
60 young homeless and at-risk kids into a hospitality career (Cnr Elizabeth
& La Trobe St and 5 McKillop St).
Kinfolk cafe, 673 Bourke St, Melbourne
Kinfolk is a rare bird: it is environmentally sustainable and also socially
responsible, its staff training volunteers to run serve local, organic,
good-tasting food. A private enterprise by young entrepreneur Jarrod Briffa,
its high overheads are eased by the generosity of its patrons: coffee is
donated by crop-to-cup pioneers Di Bella, while meat is from renowned Barossa
organic producer Saskia Beer (673 Bourke St).


And
finally, self-caterers can find local produce at Queen Victoria Markets, which also has a section devoted to organic
fresh fruit and vegies (513 Elizabeth St).
PLAY NICELY
A night
on the town can also be good for your conscience when you start (or end) with a
drink at Shebeen, Australia’s first
not-for-profit bar. All profits go back to the countries where their drinks are
sourced: think Chilean wines, Sri Lankan beer, South African cider, (36
Manchester Lane).
Melbourne is also a playground for ‘green’ brewers. Pope Joan pours beers from Victorian independent
breweries such as Victoria’s Secret Hoppy Wheat Beer from North Melbourne and
Moondog ‘Love Tap’ Double Lager from Abbotsford (77 Nicholson St, Brunswick
East). Get on your bike into the Mountain
Goat Brewery
for real beer and pizza (Wednesdays & Fridays, 80 North
St, Richmond) or tram it to Monkey  for local, organic and biodynamic wine, beer and
cheese (181 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North).
Alto on Bourke hotel
ECO-EXPLORE

Take a walking tour of the
city to orientate yourself (1300 311 0811300 311 081, melbournebyfoot.com)
and uncover the city’s vivid street art scene (03 9328 555603 9328 5556, melbournestreettours.com) or to get under the city’s skin, through its literature and laneways
(0407 380 9690407 380 969,meltours.com.au) Hit the shops with hunters of high quirk
(03 9663 335803 9663 3358, hiddensecretstours.com) or discover the city’s Aboriginal heart
(03 8622 260003 8622 2600, koorieheritagetrust.com)

SLEEP EASY

Alto on Bourke is Australia’s first carbon-neutral hotel
and winner of domestic and international sustainability awards. The 4-star
hotel uses 100 per cent renewable energy, harvests its rainwater, recycles and
uses energy-efficient cars. There are even beehives on the roof, as part of
Melbourne’s rooftop honey project: see the results on the breakfast buffet
alongside the fairtrade coffee (rooftophoney.com.au) There are 50 hotel rooms from petites to
three-bedroom apartments with full kitchenettes, employing the best environmentally
aware technology including LED lighting, low-water showerheads and an electric
Goget hire car on site, with free parking for all hybrid cars  (1800 135 1231800 135 123, altohotel.com.au)

GETTING AROUND GREEN
The best start to a green escape is to offset your airline flight, which
costs around $2 per flight. Melbourne’s CBD grid is a walker’s paradise: you
can cross the city by foot in about 20 minutes. Otherwise, it’s a short tram or
bus ride: the red Number 86 City Circle
tram
does free tours, as does the Melbourne
Shuttle Bus
(131 638, thatsmelbourne.com.au) If you need a car, consider a green car, which can be hired by the
hour from $15 (try flexicar.com.au,  greensharecar.com.au
or goget.com.au) or go
luxe with an eco-limo (ecolimo.com.au) Melbourne
Bike Share
hires bike for 30 minutes for free (1300 71 5901300 71 590, melbournebikeshare.co.au)

DIARY DATE
Keep a day free for the 2014 Sustainable Living Festival,
held annually in Melbourne. Expect fabulous fashion, thoughtful thinktanks,
green markets, gardening and art. Now on until 23 February, 2014, slf.org.au.
This article was published in Honda magazine. 

Frogs in the belly get you the jump on Saigon

Saigon’s jumping chicken: high in calcium.

I can’t even really look at this photo any more: not after knowing that one of these beasts is now part of me.

In a life spent putting weird things into mouth, Saigon’s ‘jumping chicken’ was a fairly thoughtless decision. It’s only now, afterwards, when I look at the photos, that I’m feeling the qualms.

The frogs (apparently, though they look like toads, they’re definitely frogs) are part of an after-dark tour on the back of vintage Vespas through the streets and alleyways of Saigon.

It’s a wind-in-your-hair, frogs-in-your-belly extravaganza, made moreso because of its simplicity: restore a few gorgeous old Vespas, grab a handful of punters and take them to a few out-of-the-way eating haunts and bars around the city, experiencing life as the locals live it.

The locals cruise the streets, shoulder-to-shoulder with their mates, slowing down for a chat. Long-haired girls in hot pants gossip and do phone. Mums charge determinedly between with kids in front. I even saw one family – mum, dad and a boy about 18 months, who was seated on a wicker chair, its legs wedged across bike’s the petrol tank to keep the little fella from toppling into the traffic.

Knee to knee with the rest of Saigon, cruising the streets on the back of a bike thrashes sitting in a sealed taxi, though a facemask would go down well in peak hour. Preferably one with a pirate’s skull-and-crossbones on it.

And if the thought of a little traffic bingle has your knickers in a knot, the frogs are allegedly high in calcium: so at least your bones would knit back quickly.

Trip details:
Saigon After Dark tour costs US$72 a person for four hours, includes Vespa, driver, guide and all food and drinks, Vietnam Vespa Adventures

Getting there: Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), costs from $1180, vietnamairlines.com

Staying there: The five-star Caravelle is the grande dame of Saigon’s hotel scene, and will be relaunching a new look over the coming year. Costs from VND660,000++/A$299 deluxe room/night (84-8) 3823 4999 caravellehotel.com Newest kid on the blog, the four-star Novotel Saigon Centre, has an opening deal which includes free wi-fi and 10 per cent off spa treatments until October 30. Costs from USD$100++ superior room/ night. +84 (0)8 3822 4866, novotel.com.

Things that get me excited in the Philippines.

So I was in the Philippines last week, and in a post-tropics slump, all I feel inclined to show you is this picture. Now, it doesn’t look so amazing, but it IS. Yes, it’s a car park. But what a car park.

Manila is renowned for its filthy traffic jams, and there’s almost no room on the streets for the motorbikes, taxis and jeepneys – extended jeeps that are the local public transport – so this car park is the coolest. It stacks cars up along a wall, moving them up and down, and even left to right – like pieces of lego.

Hand on my heart, I can safely report this is the first time I have ever taken such a picture. It may well be the last…

Delhi traffic and books I should have read

I was stuck in traffic. Nothing new in Delhi.

The city is plagued by traffic jams of epic proportions. Perhaps not as bad as Cairo, where midnight traffic jams are a constant occurrence, nevertheless, it’s a sprawling city and crossing it can take hours.

Waiting at traffic lights is a shopper’s paradise – if you like blow-up plastic dolls, bunches of roses, car window shades (handy) or… Vogue magazine.

There was a tap on the window and a little trader about 10 years old flashed a shiny, plastic-covered copy of this month’s India Vogue in my face. When I declined, he pulled out the big guns.

“GQ? House Beautiful? Look, madam, Elle Deco!”

Eventually, he left, to be replaced by another boy bearing an enormous pile of books – Paolo Cohelo, Dan Brown and Geoffrey Archer were lined up his arm, as well as Salman Rushdie’s fabulous Midnight’s Children and The White Tiger, winner of the 2008 Booker Prize by Aravind Adiga.

“But madam, The White Tiger!” entreated the lad. With no space in my bags, I declined, but he persisted while I was stuck at the longest lights change in living history, straining The White Tiger through the tiny crack of open car window. Beseiged by visions of my enormous luggage, I declined again.

Finally, I asked him, “Well, is it a good book?” He didn’t speak English, I reached for my wallet, the lights changed and I’m left bookless. Onward and upward, we continued on to the beautiful Lotus temple, a Ba’hai temple on the southern fringe of the city for some much-needed peace, meditation and damned fine architecture. Shades of Sydney Opera House, anyone?

The art of Egyptian bus travel

I was stuck on a bus travelling from the Mediterranean town of Marsa Matrouh back to Cairo, watching the nerdy, diminuitive, slapstick actor, Mohamed Henedy, who despite (or perhaps because of) appearing no more than five feet tall with a baby face, feels the need to shout his way through every movie. Napoleonic complex, if ever I saw one.  Having said that, he’s a prolific little bugger, his new movie, Prince of the Sea, is out now, and he has 12,600 fans on Facebook.

In the bus movie, he’s got thick glasses and a comb-over, and is teaching a few young boys a lesson for staring at his girl (who is inevitably tall and beautiful) and whips off his slippers to give them a good hiding.

He’s also making them slap their faces, which women do when they’re screaming with angst at, say, the death of a loved one; amply demonstrated in the following movie where the naughty Lebanese actress Haifa flashes her knickers and gets slapped around a lot: if you were looking for women’s rights in Egyptian cinema, you’d have to be looking hard.

Bus travel in Egypt is cheap – US$10 will get you across half the vast country, but it’s not necessarily fast, thanks to the revered tea stop. It’s a test of patience, however, I’m becoming Egyptian in at one aspect: stuffing my face with sugar at hourly intervals while on the road.

The chemically-enhanced taste of Twinkies sponge and fake cream (do you remember the ads for them in Archie magazines???) have worn out their welcome with me, and I never got into the hard stuff, the solid sugar hit of basbousa, but Egypt is a biscuit culture and I’m a culture vulture. When in Rome. Or Egypt, in this case. 

Of course, there must be tea at every break, even in the middle of the night in grim roadside cafes full of hard-faced microbus drivers, their vans piled twice their height with everything from sofas to antique wheelchairs and, in this one’s case, a wheelbarrow hanging off the front. 

Who knows how they manage to achieve such death-defying speeds: I heard that one hit a camel that was sleeping on the warm road on the stretch out to Siwa last week.

El Ahly stops the nation

If you wanted to tear through the congested Cairo streets at 200km/hour, last night would have been a good time to do it, as 20 million people were all glued to the TV or at the football stadium in Alexandria as the reigning champions of Egyptian soccer, El Ahly, played the young guns of Ismalia. It was billed as a match between youth and experience. El Ahly scored in the fifth minute, the ball headed in by Flavio, the player they call, rightly, the Golden Head. In the crowd, boys pulled off their bright red Ahly shirts leapt up and down in unison. The crowd was a sea of red, a marked absence of the blue and yellow of Ismalia. Other giants of El Ahly included Wael Gomma, who looks suspiciously like Vin Diesel, and the god of football, Abu Treka, widely tipped to do all the scoring.I was half listening to the commentary while I worked and thought, How impartial is this commentator? Then I realized, it’s El Ahly TV (yes, the football team has its own TV station). So what do you think? Even I could it work out, cos the commentator yelled ‘mabrook’ (congratulations) on every forced offside and foul.El Ahly won, 0-1, the captain, Shady, climbed up on the goal posts, goading his fans on to get louder, and the station showed its colours…“Your sympathy is not enough,” said the (totally partial) commentator in the glitter-laden post-match dissection of other teams in the league who were supporting Ismalia in a bid to end El Ahly’s iron grip on the league. “You can compete with us, but you can’t take it.” Humility, obviously, is not a quality prized in the Egyptian league.

Giving Cairo the horn

God love the Bangles for giving lazy journalists the phrase ‘walk like an Egyptian’. I’ve written about Cairo traffic before (http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/africa/curse-of-toot–and-karma/2008/09/04/1220121408026.html) and I thought that while I am now quite experienced – which means I don’t have to hold anyone’s hand (unless I really want to) to cross the road – I had a road-to-Damascus moment the other night when a small group of us were walking down my favourite street, the impossibly beautiful Sharia Al-Muizz in Gamaliyya.
A taxi was squeezing through the narrow lane and past us, and tooted. “Habibi,” said Hany. “Why did you call the taxi ‘friend’ or ‘darling’?” I asked.He explained that when the taxi tooted at us, he tooted ta-taaa-ta, which means, ‘habibi’. I’d already heard the horns when people get married, the married couple drives through the streets followed by all their friends who joyously toot their horns in a victory sequence that’s also used after football matches by victorious fans. Ta.Ta. Ta-ta-taa. Ta.Ta. Ta-ta-taa (repeat ad nauseum).So, apart from having to learn Modern Standard Arabic, slang Egyptian and all the various hand signals, there is yet another language in this polyglot country – the language of the horn. Ta-taaa, ta! Ta-taaa, ta! Translates as “Bahebak bahebak, “I love you” (always tapped out twice) but weddings and niceties aside, then there’s also the darker side – trading insults on the freeway. Not content with shouting such pearls as “Shame on your beard!” (my favourite, and apparently QUITE an insult to a religiously observant man who grows his beard), there’s a sequence for, “Get out of the way, mother***,” which is then correctly responded to with, “Ok, son of a mother***.”)So there we were, tearing down the broad roads of Saleh Salem, alternatively loving and insulting ourselves, till other cars started to give us a wide berth as we made Hany tap out this wondrous new language on his car horn. As Rachael noted from the back seat, you’d get done for noise pollution in Australia.