Tag Archives: overland travel

Home & Away Part 1

Is it me, or are the desire to travel and the desire to garden at odds?

The reason I ask is that I find myself faced with the quandary of wanting to travel and wanting to settle (literally cultivate a home and garden).

Inside me, the hunter/gather and farmer/settler archetypes coexist in uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relation.

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Not an ideal scenario, right?

Over the past few years I’ve attempted (with varying degrees of success) to harmonise my desire to travel with my desire to garden: I’ve gardened whilst dreaming of travel, and have even gardened whilst travelling, albeit in other peoples’ gardens (if the latter appeals to you I suggest you look into becoming a WWOOFer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms).

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy - labors spent in service of anthers' garden

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy – labours spent in service of anothers’ garden

Although my heady months of WWOOFing during my overland odyssey from England to Australia in 2012-2013 were extraordinary and deeply rewarding, there was something that dissatisfied me, generally, about my experience:

I never stuck ’round long enough to reap what I had sewn.

The nature and manner of the type of travel in which I was engaged (long-term, multiple-country, terrestrial, low budget, low carbon) was such that no sooner had I settled down and begun to develop feelings for a place, than it was time to move on.

And on…

And on…

And on.

By threading one WWOOF to the next I finally made my way overland from England to Australia, via twenty-one countries. The entire journey took seventeen months to complete and is remembered as a series of falling in love with places, and then having to leave – learning gradually, and with distance, to let them go.

The good news, I discovered, is that as a species we’re admirably well-adapted to love broadly and widely, deeply and long. The understanding that I have cultivated over the course of my hybrid travel-gardening adventures is that humans are polyamorous in terms of their relationship to place: that they can belong to many places (and cultures) at once.

Mine and Richie’s beloved first-ever kitchen garden at The Patch, England

As I write, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I regard travelling and gardening as incongruous (and I admit, I haven’t decided outright that this is truly the case) is that gardening is something you do at home. Traveling, on the other hand is a practice you practice ‘away’ from home. Insofar as practices go, gardening and travelling share the characteristic of being place-specific. It just so happens that the places in which they occur are thoroughly incompatible, even opposite: home & away respectively. Continue reading

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my country

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On the outskirts of Charters Towers giant mango trees appear, signalling with their torrid green foliage that we’re back in habitable country. The returning sight of veggie plots and herbaceous borders quiets me. I wave goodbye to the Outback. Not long now ’til the sea.

After the parched, upstart ugliness of Mt Isa, Charters Towers is paradise: well-proportioned civic stone buildings line the streets, vying with one another for shoulder space and the largest share of generous Queensland winter sun. Tidy bakeries, hardware stores and cafes crowd the pavement, offering their assurance that, in Charters Towers, the scaffolding of a well-functioning civic community is still intact: every tile, masonry block and wrought iron bannister attests to the gravitas of the town’s rich cultural history.

The nexus of streets at the heart of town is awash with people: good, simple folk out for a stroll with dogs, or gone to fetch the morning paper for an elderly aunt or neighbour. I have a brief but compelling urge to throw myself on a pink iced finger bun; the kind you only get in really really uncouth Aussie bakeries.

Around the corner, a group of mourners spill out of a church, down the pavement, smoking cigarettes and scuffing their shoes, looking nonchalant; heedless of their grief as they keep one another company under the flimsy canopy of the bus shelter. A contingent of police stand ready, watching for signs of dissonance. In our white-man van we glide, slower than Kennedy’s black limousine, past the mourners, wondering what it is all about, who has died, and why the police feel it necessary to be present.

At this rate, there are two hours remaining until we reach the East Coast; two hours to rescind my old values and re-form my opinions of my country, myself.

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An 18-month journey is coming to an end. In a matter of days I’ll be home. The conscious process of re-configuring, re-inventing… over… for the time being, superseded by a string of expenses, reunions, outings, job-seeking, home-making. With the strictures of arrival firmly in mind I draw my awareness back to the present: to the space I am occupying in Norman’s car; to the sight of the mourners and the giant waving branches of the mango trees of Mt Isa, who have seen it all, and survived.

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ratatouille on the balcony – Couch Surfing in Townsville

The following night, on the balcony of Steve’s apartment in Townsville, Richie and I are privy to an impromptu recitation of Dorothy Mackellar’s ‘My Country’. Headmaster Kevin has put away all reserve and is up on the table amid bottle tops and discarded empties, reciting lines of Australia’s most iconic poem. After a confident first verse, Kevin loses nerve, bolstering his bravado by forcing us up out of our chairs, onto our feet, goading us to repeat after him:

I love a sunburnt country

A land of sweeping plains

Of rugged mountain ranges

Of drought and flooding rains

I love her far horizons

I love her jewelled sea

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me.

Caught midway between the novelty and splendour of this rash, drunken moment, I look about at the faces around the table, feeling faintly uneasy to be participating in such a flagrant show of patriotism. Glancing across at Richie’s animated schoolboy face I wonder, what meaning, if any, the words have to him: a visitor of 10-days to this country.

Hearing the words shouted wilfully, late, on the balcony of a suburban home feels wonderfully affirming, wonderfully Australian! I am bemused to hear the Maltese, French and English persons in our midst affirming their love of and allegiance to this ‘wide brown land’. I feel involuntarily moved by the image of my country that the poem conjures; brown foliage, dry creek beds, expansive vistas – the aspects that make it unique, different to the ‘green and shaded lanes’ and ‘ordered woods and gardens’ of the world from which my ancestors (at least some of them), came, and in some cases, fled.

Since our arrival in Darwin 10 days ago, and our journey through the Outback, Richie and I have heard a lot about what it means to be Australian. We’ve heard plenty of points of view and a fair bit of nonsense. I’m anxious about the impression my country is making on Richie and keen to make amends.

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roo balls – Richie embraces ‘Australian culture’

That night, on the balcony in Townsville, Kevin’s performance is followed by a lengthy discussion of what it means to be Australian. I’m among friends and as an absentee of six years, want to know what the hell is going on in my country; why my fellow Australians are hell bent on erecting a razor wire fence along our borders to keep the ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘legitimate’ citizens in, and the ‘greedy’, ‘opportunistic’ migrants out.

I hold my breath and listen to what my peers tell me.

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Luck of the Irish

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I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.

Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.

At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.

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That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly,  in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?

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On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.

It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.

‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.

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Sailing Home

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Out of office reply: Gone Sailing.

We apologise as we are currently unable to respond to your emails. We are onboard the Tientos with Lea and Keith bound for Darwin, Australia via Komodo and Kupang, Indonesia and and Dili, Timor-Lieste.

We are in capable and experienced hands and very much looking forward to the voyage, with our dream of flightless travel from England to Australia intact.

Wish us luck

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Couch Surfing in Ubud

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scanning for Couch Surf hosts… is anyone out there?

Five weeks prior to our arrival in Bali we contacted Di and Nigel through Couch Surfing (CS). At the time, Indonesia felt like a far-off dream, and the prospect of sailing home to Australia, a ludicrous endeavour.

We had our backs bent to the task of digging rice paddies on a burgeoning eco-tourism project on Koh Phangan. The barrage of bass-line from late night doof-parties, for which the island is famous, and the bloody proclivities of the local mosquitos was taking its toll. For the first time in a long time we were at a loss: couldn’t say where we were going, when, or for how long.

After hanging up our gardening gloves for the day, we took up our laptops and pegged our hopes on a series of couch surf requests: a life-line of introductions that stretched all the way from Southern Thailand to KL and Singapore, and from peninsular Malaysia all the way across the sea to Jakarta, Kuta and Ubud.

Di and Nigel received our CS SOS with felicitous welcome. They stuck with us while our plans changed and accepted us even after the date of our stay shifted from the 17th to the 27th of April – a mere three days before they were due to depart for their holiday in England.

Fast-forward five weeks to the afternoon of the 27th of April and there we were, trussed up like a couple of Christmas turkeys on bean bags on Di and Nigel’s front porch, gazing into limpid mugs of coffee and mooning over proferred plates of door-stop sandwiches – organic white ciabbata!

During those first crucial hours of host-surfer bonding it became apparent that the four of us shared a cultural lineage: Nigel and Richie grew up within 129 miles of one another in Birmingham and Thetford respectively, whereas Di and I are both Queensland lasses, our home towns separated by a meagre 1,600km: which in the spacial-geographical terms of our country, meant we were practically neighbours.

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Nigel shares his passion for micro-brewed beer with his fellow countryman

Once we’d established the parameters of our youthful follies, we fell to that favourite passtime of refugees and migrants: laughing over the quaint traditions of our countryfolk; recalling landmark festivals, fads, celebrity-downfalls; and sharing humorous anecdotes about the inexplicable customs and idiom of our ‘host’ country – Indonesia: it was Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island meets Down Under all over. Continue reading

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the one that got away…

Richie peeping through the window at the Bali Marina as our boat-dreams sail away

Richie peeping out the window of Bali Marina as our boat dreams sail away…

I write from Bali Marina where Richie and I are staging a stake-out (steak take-out?). We’ve been here three consecutive days for 3-4 hrs at a stretch. Today we’re pushing out the boat, clocking up a total of 9 hours, and counting…

Today we have our sights set on Churaki, a sturdy-looking catamaran. Onboard, 3 middle aged fellas from the Gold Coast/Tweed Heads area. All surfers in their day. Only one continues to ride his board, the other two have resorted to boogie boards and body surfing. No shame in that.

The skipper, Peter, is the founder of Kirra Surf. He and his ‘boys’ limped into port on monday to attend to a couple of engine filters that had become clogged by ‘dirty fuel’. Today, with their engine troubles behind them they’re out shopping for supplies in Denpasar, and tomorrow, after breakfast, they sail for Darwin via Komodo Island. Headlong into trade winds. Will they or will they not take us with them?

We watched slack-jawed from lounge chairs on the open-sided deck of the Bali Marina this morning while they loaded their boat with yellow jerry cans plum-full with fuel. Shirts off. Naked brown skin and bulging beer bellies. A brightly painted timber boat drew alongside and pumped their 800Lt tank full of diesel. We wished we were onboard too, scrubbing down the deck, checking charts; caught up in the muscle, hustle and bustle of preparation. Out of limbo and into the deep blue sea.

try and look casual... stake-out in the Marina cafe

try and look casual… the stake-out in the Marina cafe

We waited breathlessly as the sailors re-robed and marched purposefully off the pontoon toward us… straight into the black 4WD which was waiting, we guessed, to take then to Denpasar for one last attempt at having their sailing navigation program, Sea Map, installed on their brand-new computer. Silently, forlornly, we watch as they walk on by… barely a glance in our direction. Continue reading

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TRAVEL, EAT, SLEEP

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Travel, eat, sleep. Boil mine and Richie’s lives down to their bare bones and there’s little more to them at the moment than these three things: travel, eat, sleep – each element supplied in fluctuating amounts of excess and scarcity.

Among the three, Travel is the undisputed heavyweight champion: the other two, eating and sleeping, are its dependants: we eat as much as necessary to sustain ourselves during our travels, and sleep as much (or in this case, as little) as travel permits. More often than not, we do two of the three activities simultaneously: eating while we travel, sleeping while we travel, and in some cases, dreaming of eating and travel while we sleep.

toying with the idea of sleep

toying with the idea of sleep

Out of the last eleven nights: we’ve travelled from Koh Phangan to Yogyakarta; spent two nights aboard ferries and two aboard trains; had seven changes of bed; entered our 18th and 19th countries in 15 months; and covered a total distance of approximately 3, 500km. No wonder we feel tired!

The panoramas of rice fields and jungle glimpsed from the window of the train from Jakarta to Joygyakarta twist our necks and put our noses out of joint, making us wisftful for experiences we won’t be having, not this time. Volcanoes, crater lakes, rice terraces and national parks beckon from the pages of the Indonesia Lonely Planet, threatening to turn us aside from the task at hand, which is, finding a flightless passage from Indonesia to Australia.

“On our way back to England,” / “next time” / “if we do this jounrey in reverse” I find myself fantasising twice, sometimes three times a day, “we’ll come back here” / “we’ll climb Mt Bromo” / “We’ll visit Ijen” / “We’ll go via Papua New Guinea to the Philippines”. Richie shakes his head, smiling at my optimism. He pretends he knows better but I know for a fact that he too is planning the return journey from Australia to England: first New Zealand, then the Americas from south to north, arriving in Ireland from Canada, from Canada to Wales, then finally across to England. We’re as bad as each other.

Richie, you see, has his heart set on Uluru. Meditating on the red rock would be a peerless way to signal our arrival: “Hello Australia, we are here, please give us the best.” Richie could stage a rave and I’d give Alice a dance performance the likes of which it had never seen, not since Felicia and her feathered friends pulled into Alice in a shiny candy-pink bus. Continue reading

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