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Thoughts of a Solo Traveler

I had only a few more days in Australia before I was planning to fly back to America, and as I drove out of Coffs Harbor that morning heading south on Highway One, I thought about my travels during these past few months.  I was glad that I came over here to see this country that I've idolized since I was little, and traveling around Australia has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  That's partly because, as I've discovered, Australia is in many ways a friendlier, gentler and more civilized version of America. 


Above:  Near Oodnadatta in one of the most remote parts of the Australian Outback.  I've had a great time in Australia with the help of the countless, kind Aussies I've met along the way.

I'd had a great time seeing Australia, but my trip, both here and in New Zealand, wasn't always rosy.  There's a big difference, as I've learned during these past four months, between traveling alone in your home country and traveling alone in a foreign country. 


If you've been reading my website, you know that I really enjoy traveling alone.  I like doings thing that I like to do, when I like to do them.  I don't enjoy being tied down to someone else's schedule or being told what to do by a traveling partner, especially if they don't want to do or see the same things that I want to.  So yeah, I guess that makes me a crusty curmudgeon (guilty as charged!)  I especially love driving alone around the U.S., because I'm familiar with just about every region, having traveled through all 50 states and having lived in many of them, so there's a comfort level there.  Wherever I go in the U.S., I'm always within a day's drive of a friend or relative if I ever want companionship or assistance (and indeed, visiting friends is one reason I love traveling around America).


In Australia and New Zealand, though, I was totally on my own, things were a bit different, and I didn't know anyone.  This past fall before I left Bellingham, I spent several weeks preparing for the logistics of my overseas trip:  buying clothes, doing research, making reservations, etc.  What I didn't adequately prepare for, though, was the emotional part of it:  the prospect of being completely alone and having to be totally self-reliant for the next four months.  While I really enjoyed my trip overseas and am glad I went by myself, I was surprised by how difficult it was to travel 1). alone, 2). overseas, and 3). for a long time.  That triple combination was a real challenge at times.  Fortunately though, I'm a person who enjoys his own space, so I dealt with it better than most folks probably would have.  But please do think about that beforehand if you ever plan such an extensive trip.  I certainly hadn't.



I've been listening to the Aussie group, The Bee Gees, all over Australia.  Here's Jive Talkin'


Although challenging, traveling alone does have its advantages over traveling with a partner because it exposes you more to your surroundings, since your focus is on the place you're traveling through and not on your companion.  Furthermore, I think solo travelers are more approachable than pairs or groups, and consequently I met many more locals than I would have if I'd gone with someone else.  Many times during my trip, locals would walk right up to me and start talking, something they may not have done as readily if I were with someone.  In those respects, then, I certainly learned more about Australia and New Zealand than I would have if I'd gone with someone else and that was the main point of my trip.  So while traveling alone overseas can be a lot more challenging than going with someone else, it can also be far more enriching.


One nice thing about traveling with someone else, as I've learned from previous trips, is that you're having a "shared experience."  But on the other hand, I figured that I was "sharing" my solo trip with my website readers, so I didn't need someone with me to provide that.  I actually had a chance to visit Australia with another person a cute woman, no less, whom I met shortly before I left Portland last spring.  Traveling with another person (and a person I didn't know very well) would have been interesting, I'm sure, and the experience would've been a lot different, for better or worse.  She was a nice person and I think we would've gotten along all right.  But overall, I'm glad that I decided to come over here by myself.


Despite the challenges I faced, not the least of which was being an introverted person who was constantly thrust into extroverted situations (as well as occasional bouts of homesickness), I had a great time traveling alone overseas and that was largely due to two things.  One was e-mail.  The messages that I received from my friends and from people who stumbled across my website, taking a few minutes out of their day to send me a note made a big difference, and those encouraging words kept my spirits up during the whole trip.  I won't forget the kind messages that folks sent to me while I was overseas, or the people who sent them.


Second, the hospitality of the Kiwis and Aussies who I met during my four months of travel was overwhelming.  I'm thinking back now on many of the pleasant conversations I've had with folks in both countries, and there are just too many to describe.  I was constantly amazed by how total strangers would go out of their way to help me.  I don't know if that was because I was a solo traveler who looked like he was lost (which I often was), or if that's just the way folks are here.  Either way, I'm very glad that I chose New Zealand and Australia as my first overseas countries to visit.

Friends Across the Sea

Before I left my job with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Portland last year, I sent e-mails to about a dozen folks in PB offices throughout New Zealand and Australia asking if I could drop by their office if I happened to visit their respective city.  I just picked these names randomly from a staff list and had never met any of them before.  As testament to the good will of Kiwis and Aussies, though, I received a nice reply from each and some rather humorous replies, as well.  A fellow in Wellington, New Zealand wrote back suggesting that I stop in for some "chokky biscuits" (which I later translated to "chocolate cookies"), and a cheerful chap in the Sydney office filled his reply with all sorts of Aussie-isms, like "G'day, Mate!" (i.e., "Hello") and "Give me a bell" (i.e., "Call me").


Above:  Having pizza dinner with Peter and Helen shortly after our great "tortilla" debate.

Over the following months, I exchanged several e-mails with a guy named Peter Horn who worked in the PB-Newcastle office in Australia.  From his e-mails, Peter seemed like a pleasant fellow and I was looking forward to meeting him if things worked out. 


As I traveled through New Zealand and Australia, I'd been able to meet with only one PB office (in Auckland) due to scheduling conflicts.  As I got closer to Newcastle, though, I kept in touch with Peter and it looked like a visit might work out.  He and his wife Helen even offered to put me up for a night or two, which I thought was exceptionally kind since he knew me only from reading my website.  Newcastle was a few hours north of Sydney, so based on their kind invitation, I decided to spend my last weekend in Australia visiting the Horns before flying out of Sydney on Monday morning.


I drove into Newcastle on Friday afternoon, found Peter's office and introduced myself.  Peter, as I had deduced from his e-mails, was an exceptionally nice fellow and he gave me a tour of his office.  After work I followed him out to his house in the bucolic countryside, in the town of Clarence, where I met his wife Helen, his dog Iva and Helen's cat.  Peter and Helen were both super hosts and unbelievably kind to this total stranger, and the next day they showed me around the beautiful rolling foothills of the Blue Mountains, one of the most scenic areas I visited during my two months in Australia. 


Back at their house on Saturday afternoon, Peter brought out a bag of tortilla chips and opened it up.  We then had a friendly and funny disagreement over how to pronounce the word "tortilla."  Peter and Helen, being Aussies, pronounced it "tor-till-a," just as it's spelled, which I thought sounded odd.  Being an American, I said "tor-tee-ya," the way it's pronounced in Latin America and the U.S., and I'm sure Peter and Helen thought that was odd.  Oh, the things you learn when you travel.  I'm sure I expanded their perceptions of the world just with that one discussion!


Not only did Peter and Helen put me up for two nights, they fed me, entertained me, and even showed me the correct way to spread Vegemite on my crackers.  Getting to know them was one of the highlights of my overseas trip and I'm looking forward to seeing them again someday.



Above left:  Getting an all-day tour of the rolling hills west of Newcastle with Peter and Helen.

Above right:  Like almost all Aussies I've met, Peter and Helen were exceptionally hospitable.  Thank you so much!



Above left:  Saying goodbye to them (and their dog, Iva) at their place in Clarence.

Above center:  On my way to Sydney that morning, I passed by an Australian hotel.  A "hotel" in Australia has a pub on the ground floor and basic rooms on the top floor.  Just about every town in Australia, no matter how small, has at least one hotel.  

Above right:  Roundabouts are also common throughout Australia, but they can freak out Americans.  They're simple, really:  just yield to the traffic in the circle.  They work much better than four-way stops, but remember to get off!

A Sunny Sunday in Sydney

I left Peter and Helen's house on Sunday morning (Peter even washed my windshield for me what a guy!) and drove into Australia's largest city, Sydney, thus completing my two-month, 9,000-mile drive around the country.  Although I'd spent my first few days in Australia on the periphery of Sydney, I didn't have a chance to check it out then because I was too busy getting ready for my upcoming drive around the country.


To celebrate my last entry from Australia, here's my favorite Aussie singer, Kasey Chambers.  This is On a Bad Day.  I didn't have any bad days during the two months I was in Oz.


I was flying out of Sydney International Airport the next morning, so I had exactly one afternoon to see the city.  I figured that would be enough time since, not being a real "city person," I didn't have high expectations for Sydney.  My impression of Sydney from my brief visit there in February wasn't very favorable.  It seemed to be a lot like Los Angeles:  big, hot, sprawling, and smoggy. 


After heading across the Harbor Bridge on Sunday morning, I drove smack dab into the middle of downtown Sydney.  I was glad this was a Sunday and traffic was light because the street system in downtown Sydney is pretty convoluted, a holdover from the early settlement days.  I quickly realized that Sydney, like Boston, isn't a good place to drive around if you don't know where you're going, and I definitely didn't.  Melbourne was big, too, but at least the streets there were in a grid pattern and laid out logically.


I drove around downtown Sydney for about 20 minutes looking for a parking garage, too busy driving to glance at my map and figure out where the heck I was.  Finally, though, I saw a sign for an underground garage at a place called the Queen Victoria Building.  I was harried from the drive and not especially looking forward to exploring Sydney, but I figured I better or else I might regret it.


And I'm really glad I did.


Above:  A Sunday in Sydney.

I spent the next six hours walking through Sydney and discovered that it's an absolutely fascinating city.  I could've spent weeks here.  The most interesting part is Sydney's Old Town section, a district called "The Rocks."  This area juts out into Sydney Harbor with lots of curving cobblestone streets and charming old brick buildings.  From the Rocks, you can stroll across the 70-year old Harbor Bridge.  If you're adventurous, you can walk up inside one of the bridge turrets for a great view of the city.  And if you're REALLY adventurous and have 50 bucks (I'm not and I didn't) you can join a guided "Bridge Walk" and walk on TOP of the entire bridge from one side of Sydney Harbor to the other.  You can do the same thing now, incidentally, on the long bridge in Auckland.


For legal reasons, I'm sure, they don't have these kind of bridge walks in the U.S., which is a shame because I'd imagine that walking on top of, say, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco would be pretty awesome.  That's one of the major differences between the U.S. and Australia, by the way:  lawsuits.  Compared to America, Australia and New Zealand are not litigious countries at all.  Folks in New Zealand and Australia take a lot more responsibility for their actions and, unlike a lot of Americans, don't go whining to a lawyer or judge every time something bad happens to them, which is a refreshing attitude.


Along with The Rocks and the harbor bridge, the newer sections of downtown Sydney are also quite interesting.  I spent a half-hour wandering around the outside of the the fabled Sydney Opera House, one of the most famous icons of Australia, and thought that was pretty cool, too.  After a few hours I decided that I really liked Sydney.



Above left:  Sydney from above.  

Above center:  Inside the AMP Tower where you can get a 360-degree view of Sydney.  I don't know what AMP stands for and neither did the AMP Tower tour guide!

Above right:  At Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens, with the AMP Tower in the background.  The lion statue didn't know what AMP stands for, either.

Completing the Loop

Although the day was sunny and pleasant, for the first time during my visits to Australia and New Zealand, it was a little chilly and the sun lingered low on the horizon, all of which made me automatically think of football season!  But wait, this wasn't September, it was April.  Oh that's right, I was in the southern hemisphere.  It's funny how fall weather makes you think about football, even if it is April.  With winter fast approaching here in Australia, this was a good time, I decided, to head back the U.S.


I walked back to the parking garage at dusk regretting having only a single afternoon to visit Sydney because, as I say, I could have spent a whole week there.  I made one last stop that evening, at a street-side cafe to buy a "meat pie."  In case you've never seen one, a meat pie is a small pie stuffed with meat, gravy, and potatoes, and completely enclosed in a flaky crust.  Back in the U.S. they're called "pastys," (not to be confused with "pasties," which are what female strippers wear in certain intimate places but not that I would know about that).


I'd seen meat pies advertised nearly everywhere I went in Australia during the past two months but, for some reason, I hadn't eaten one yet.  The night before, Peter had told me about meat pies so I decided to try one and, actually, it was pretty darn good better than a pasty (and much better than a pastie).  So as I walked back to my car that evening, I decided that next time I visited the wonderful country of Australia, I would:

  • Spend more time in Sydney, and

  • Eat more meat pies.



Above left:  The Hyde Park water fountain on a Sydney Sunday afternoon.  

Above center:  And, of course, the famous Sydney Opera House.

Above right:  Sydneysiders affectionately call the Harbor Bridge "The Coat Hanger" because, well, that's what it looks like.  It was built in 1932 and links the south side of Sydney Harbor (left) with the north side (right).



Above left:  Those little specks on top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge are people.  For about US$50, you can climb across the top of the bridge.

Above center:  The Circular Quay and the Sydney waterfront.  

Above right: The Sydney Opera House from the Harbor Bridge.



Above left:  Another shot of the Harbor Bridge and a few bridge climbers.  

Above right:  These are among the few Aborigines I saw in the eastern cities of Australia.  There are lots of Aborigines in the rural Outback but relatively few in the large urban areas of Australia.  It's similar to the situation with Native Americans in the U.S., I suppose.



Above left:  The circular quay on the Sydney waterfront.

Above center:  I got a meat pie here in the Queen Victoria Building on the way back to my car.  I had a great time in Sydney and wish I could've spent more time here and eaten more meat pies.

Above right:  Packing up in my tiny hotel room near the Sydney airport that evening, getting ready for my flight back to America the next morning.  This was my last night in the wonderful country of Australia.



I've posted a summary of my two-month trip around Australia at:

My Impressions of Australia





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