Australia – Our winner returns with a great story to tell

Matthew Standing from Warrington was the lucky winner in our Travelbag competition last year. He set out on his adventure in May and here with his own words and images is his account of this ‘Trip of a Lifetime’

Last year I entered a few online competitions and couldn’t believe my luck when I received a phone call from ‘Travelbag’ to say I had won a three week trip to Australia for two people. I booked two weeks holiday and implementing a few shift changes was able to get the time off work to go on this ‘chance of a lifetime’ holiday. I found a companion to share this experience and we both looked forward to the adventure ahead.

The Journey to Australia

Our journey began on the 15th May from Heathrow and after a short flight from Manchester we were ready to board the biggest passenger airplane in the world, the Airbus A380, run by Malaysia Airlines.

The flight was over 12 hours, but it soon passed. There was plenty of entertainment on board including a variety of films, games and puzzles as well as our flight progression. We were soon landing at Kuala Lumpur airport where we had a couple of hours wait before a short 4.5hr flight to Darwin Airport.

We arrived at our final destination in the early hours of the morning and as our hotel room was not ready yet, we took a walk over the skylight bridge to the city centre. Darwin is only a small city compared to Warrington but has a variety of shops, bars and cafes. We returned to the hotel at 6am and were prepared to wait in reception for several hours only to be given our key early and settled down in our room for a much needed sleep.

Our hotel, the fabulous Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront, was right on the coast with a small beach and a wave pool right outside. The facilities were excellent and it was situated within walking distance of the city centre. While we were there, the weather was warm and sunny as the Australian dry season had just started. During our stay in the city, we took a coach tour and for a small fee could hop on or off the bus, while being entertained with a running commentary of interesting places to visit. We got off at the harbour first, then re-boarded and stopped at the local museum. On the way back we went down the WWII oil tunnels. They were built to store oil for the Navy during the war, although were never actually used for that purpose. Later in the evening, still with a valid tour ticket, we were taken to the local Sunday market. There were many stalls selling locally made jewellery, pictures, clothing and food. It was here we heard our first Didgeridoo performance.

Setting off from Darwin down the Explorer’s Way

The following morning we picked up our Maui motorhome. Everything was arranged for us by Travelbag so the process was quick and easy. We were soon on the Stuart Highway heading to our first destination, a campsite at Bachelor. Although it was very basic, the owner was friendly and helpful when we told him this was our first experience at camping. The town itself was tiny with only a shop/post office, a school and information centre. However, we were on the edge of the Litchfield National Park. We stayed 2 nights so we could visit the famous termite mounds, some of which have been there for over 50 years and were huge structures.

We continued on to Florence Falls, where we started by taking a leisurely walk to Buley Rockhole. On returning to the campervan, we decided to walk down the 100 or so steps to the Florence Falls, and once at the bottom, swam in one of many waterholes. There are many of these in the area and it was an awesome experience. We met some lovely Australian people too, which made it extra special.

Our next stop was Katherine. The campsite facilities were good and the town really nice. We took a boat trip down the Katherine Gorge and it was here we spotted our first ‘freshwater crocodile’. The whole experience was excellent and good value for money. Having parked under a tree to keep the campervan cool, we were dismayed to find the tree full of bats and the van covered in droppings when we returned.

Life on the Road

By now we were getting good at this way of travelling and discovered some interesting facts about our mode of travel. Not only did we have air-conditioning, cooking facilities, a fridge, and external BBQ, we realised we had cruise control too. This made our subsequent journeys so much easier. We were also supplied with bedding, towels, camping chairs, plus indoor and outdoor tables. There was a toilet and shower room which were on the small side, so we decided to use the camp facilities close to where we were parked. We could plug in to the camp electrical supply to power the TV and fill up with fresh water. The camping sites also had toilet and shower blocks, washing and drying facilities, BBQ and kitchen areas and a swimming pool. This was far more than we expected and made the whole experience of camping most enjoyable.

By now we had decided to only stop at the larger towns on our map and the next one Tennant Creek was seven hours away. We broke the journey up by stopping several times on the way. One small town called Barrow Creek with a population of only 11 consisted of a gas station, where we filled up, and a wonderful little outback pub. The walls were covered in T-shirts, jeans, underwear (men’s and women’s), flight tickets, socks, money and other paraphernalia. The ceilings were made of tin and the toilets were labelled ‘Blokes and Sheiler’s Dunnies’. This was our first taste of the true Australian Outback. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop for long, as we wanted to reach Tennant Creek before nightfall. On arriving at Tennant Creek, we found the town was quite small, so decided to only stay one night and set out for Alice Springs a day early.

We had another long journey ahead of us, but by now, we were eager to continue on our way and experience the excitement of visiting another location. Still on the Stuart Highway, we passed the amazing ‘Devils Marbles’. These can only be described as giant ‘Pebbles’ scattered along the road side. We didn’t stop to take a closer look as we had another six hours to drive before we would reach our destination.

Alice Springs

Alice Springs was a lovely town and the campsite we stayed at was again very well equipped. There was plenty to do here, so we decided to stay 3 nights. During this time, we took a trip to Standley Chasm. It was very scenic and was named after the first ‘white’ lady to visit the area. We also visited a reptile centre with this being the first time I have ever had a snake draped around my neck. The talk we had by the guide was very informative and helped to alleviate our fears of local wildlife.

Alice Springs has a great local market and it was here I picked up a few souvenirs. Everywhere I travel I like to bring back a picture depicting local culture and to remind me of my holiday in that country. The one I chose was unusual, as it was painted on a piece of bark. The weather was still very warm and we took advantage of swimming in the camp pool. We stocked up with food from the local supermarkets and were pleasantly surprised to find that quality T-bone steaks were very cheap. We cooked them on our campervan BBQ, but only after dark as the flies were being a bit of a nuisance during the day.

Our next stop was Kings Canyon. By now we were approaching the middle of the desert region and the flies were becoming unbearable. Now I know why Australians wear those hats with the dangling corks so we purchased one from the camp shop as well as a couple of fly nets. These proved to be very useful during the next few days.

That evening, there was a live performance in town by a local country singer, Rod Dowsett. He was very good and helped create that authentic outback atmosphere. As we were in the middle of the desert, there was often no TV or Radio signal. Luckily, many of the campers sat outside drinking and talking so often we were often too engaged socialising anyways. Before we left the area, we took a walk down ‘Kings Creek’. It was interesting and again an incredible scenic sight!

By now, we were becoming adept at camping, travelling and cooking. What took us by surprise were the distances between destinations. We left Kings Canyon with an almost full tank of petrol and made our way towards Ayers Rock, our next chosen campsite. There was a gas station on the road we were travelling, but when we reached it, there was no petrol available. We still had 175 kilometres to travel and by the time we reached the complex we were dangerously short of fuel. This taught us a valuable lesson to NEVER leave a campsite without filling up. It was at Ayers Rock that we tasted Kangaroo, Buffalo, Emu and Crocodile, which we bought and cooked ourselves on the BBQ. We met a nice Australian couple who were there to watch the Rugby League on the huge screens making it a very enjoyable night.

Ayers Rock

The following day, we travelled to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, home to Ayers Rock where we walked part way around the rock where the Aboriginal people lived in caves at the base of the rock formation. Further on we went to see the ‘waterhole’ that allowed them the dwell here in the middle of the desert and then onto the cultural centre to learn more about their way of life.

It was time to move on and our next port of call was Coober Pedy. It was another long drive and we arrived late in the evening. The town is famous for its opal mines and nearly everything there was embellished with different cuts of opals. The campsite we stayed at was only small, but the facilities were excellent and we ate at a local restaurant recommended to us by the campsite owner. As we were still a fair way from Adelaide, which is where we were eventually heading, we could only stayed one night.

Our next stop was Port Augusta. It was a nice town, but we didn’t arrive until late evening and the following day, Sunday, everything was closed. We drove round Port Piri and found that was also closed on Sundays. It was a pity because it looked and interesting place to visit.

Arriving in Adelaide

Our final stop was in Adelaide. This is the place to be! We stayed at a nice campsite and not far away from the Harbour Town shopping centre. There were some great shops and fantastic cafes plus the car park was huge so there was no trouble parking the campervan here. We ate at the ‘Hogs Breath’ inn in Adelaide Harbour. The food was great and the service superb. We would have liked to stay longer at the campsite, but the campervan had to be returned the next day.

After dropping it off, we took a taxi the Adina Hotel, which was well situated right in the centre of the city. It has a gym, a fantastic pool and Jacuzzi. Beneath the hotel were cellars and we walked down there, as they were part of the hotel’s history. The Adina Hotel was excellent and the staff were very friendly and helpful. I would recommend this to anyone as a good place to stay.

We spent our first evening in Adelaide at the cinema where we watched ‘A million ways to die in the west’, which was a great laugh. There was an Art Gallery and Museum and we also took a tour of these.

Adelaide’s zoo is a long walk away but worth the effort. Although it is only small, it is very well set out and even features 2 Giant Pandas. On the way back, we walked through the Botanical Gardens. The weather had turned cooler this far South and a light drizzle had begun. It was a welcome change from the heat of the desert.

We spent hours walking around the shopping malls and in the evening, ate out at the some of the many restaurants. One of the ones we tried was a Korean BBQ restaurant and this one was different. We paid a set price, helped ourselves to the salads and vegetables on offer, but the meat was raw and we had to cook it ourselves at the table. Each table had its own burner and extractor fan so we can cook it to our perfect taste.

On our last night we booked tickets to see the Adelaide Philharmonic Orchestra perform in the Adelaide Town Hall (the building next to the hotel). What a wonderful way to end this trip of a lifetime. During our holiday, we met some lovely people, saw interesting, varied places and experienced a different way of life. I would love the repeat the whole trip again and see more of this wonderful country.

Words and images by Matthew Standing

The partners involved in putting Matthew’s trip together were

Travelbag – www.travelbag.co.uk

Malaysia Airlines – www.malaysiaairlines.com

Britz/Maui Campervan Hire – www.britz.com / www.maui.com.au

Tourism Northern Territory– www.australiasoutback.co.uk

South Australian Tourism Commission – www.southaustralia.com

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