Remember the movie Crocodile Dundee? My 2001 four-month “Working Holiday” in Australia was in some ways the same story, in reverse. The lead as a small-town girl from Ohio who had only experienced large cities on a tour group’s detailed itinerary. I had only flown twice, once to Florida, and once to Cancun, Mexico, back when it only required a birth certificate. So, when I arrived in Sydney, Australia, 36 hours after leaving Ohio, I have no doubt the look on my face was the same as Paul Hogan’s when he arrived in NYC.
I was 22 years old and had just graduated from college and finished a second year as a camp counselor at a residential YMCA Camp. My trip was inspired by working with friends who had come to the USA on a Work Visa to staff Camp Kern. I looked forward to reuniting with a the Aussies that I had worked with. My plan was to find a temporary place to live and job of some kind for three months in on the west coast city of Perth.
I packed my large backpack with five sets of clothing and the finest panoramic disposable camera that money could buy. My biggest regret is not having a better camera, now that I’m only left with blurry digital scanned copies of my photos to match the blurry memories of a trip I took almost two decades ago.
For a brief time, I was unsure if I would go; my departure was less than a week after 9/11/2001. It felt like the best and worst time to be leaving the United States. I was traveling for the first time alone, but nearly everyone else was also unsure of the protocols for international travel. Restrictions were changing daily. My 19-hour LA-Sydney flight was on a nearly empty plane; I had three seats to stretch out across. At first, I wasn’t sure what was permitted. I waited for the flight attendant to tell me an hour after we took off that no one else would be boarding the flight from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and that I was free to unbuckle my seatbelt and relax.
I had a 2-night youth hostel stay arranged through BUNAC, the company that arranged my Visa. I realized after exiting customs I had never taken a cab by myself, and was thankful to meet up with three other women from my flight that were in the same program.
The next three days are hazy; they were a combination of jetlag and having absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’m lucky I wasn’t hit by a car because I thought they would be coming from the opposite direction. I was often embarrassed to be holding up foot traffic because I was standing on the right “walking side” of an escalator because that would have been the “standing side” in the US. I was appalled that my Caesar salad came with anchovies on top, with no idea that they were a traditional part of the dressing’s recipe. I do remember feeling the great sense of accomplishment by navigating an internet café by myself.
After two nights sharing a bunk room with my fellow Americans in the hostel, we moved to Bondi Beach, where two of them secured an apartment to rent. We relaxed on the beach and spent one last night planning before we went on our separate Australian adventures.
The Indian Pacific
The Indian-Pacific Rail was a four-day train trip across the continent, from Sydney to Perth (the equivalent to crossing the entire US but with even less in the middle). I had reserved one seat in the “Red Service” coach class and it was my first time on a passenger train. I was able to change scenery by eating in the dining car. The bathroom in the train car was slightly upgraded from an airplane in that it had a shower. I had nightmares of the creaky door swinging open to the train car it faced while I was mid-shower. The “Red Service” option for travel was discontinued in 2016, with only more upscale options available today.
The first stop on the train was in Broken Hill. I opted for the paid bus tour, which was mostly the grown-ups from the fancy end of the train. They all seemed much better rested, probably because they slept in a horizontal position in their sleeper cars. On the tour I learned about the history of the mining town, that a “hotel” was actually a pub, and that The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed there.
The next stop was Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. A few nice Australians had noticed that I was on a 72-hour+ train trip without a pillow, blanket, water, or food, so they pooled together some donations before they left the train. In Adelaide I opted to take a cab to a pub for dinner with other backpackers instead of the guided bus tour. There was a brief moment of panic when the group who had started in Sydney thought we had missed our train departure (the last one to Perth; we would have been stranded for a day). We were then comforted by the people from Adelaide who alerted us to time zone change that we had missed. (I have no idea what I was using to tell time at that point; I don’t think I owned a watch and was a week from purchasing my first cell phone.)
I re-boarded to a completely full train. One of only a few domestic airlines in Australia had recently gone bankrupt, so if you wanted to go from Adelaide to Perth, train was one of the few options left. Adelaide marked the last major station, so nearly everyone would be sharing the same train for the next 48 hours.
We woke up to a view of the Nullarbor Plain that looked like a combination of the being on the moon and the sun at the same time. (And it took writing this blog twenty years later either remember or to put together that “NullArbor” means treeless.) The only excitement that day was a brief refueling stop in Cook (population 4), where we explored the ghost town.
The next day the seat assignments self-realigned to create a car of young international backpackers. That evening we stopped in Kalgoorlie; a mining town with a long history of pub drinking. We were in no place to not follow the cultural norms. After a short pub tour, we re-boarded the train a much merrier group of travelers. That night someone trying to cross through our train car would have found an obstacle course of backpackers who were much less picky about where they slept, from stretching out in the aisles to building tents in between seats. Daylight came much earlier than we wanted, but the upside was that there was far more vegetation to be seen out our windows, and even an occasional kangaroo.
End of the Rail Line: Perth
I was thrilled to finally arrive in Perth, considered “the most isolated city in the world” and my home for the next three months. My Australian friend Louise (a camp co-camp counselor who I hadn’t seen since we worked together in Ohio nearly a year before my arrival in Australia) was waiting take me to her house to house to stay for few days. We then went to nearby Cottesloe Beach, where I got my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean, and we celebrated my arrival at the OBH (Ocean Beach Hotel) restaurant. When we got back to her house I slept for what felt like nine days, happy to be on a bed that wasn’t actively moving.