The Great Hitch is over!

I am now sat in McDonald’s in Cairns as it has free wifi. They’ve had a lot of business out of me in Oz since they rolled this out across every branch.

However, the reason I’m posting is that I’ve finished hitching all the way from Adelaide to Cairns (with brief uses of public transport and a hop out to Mt Isa – not a hitchable journey). And I think that’s pretty darn impressive. I had a heck of a walk out of Townsville this morning until I was picked up by a very pretty 30-something and her young son, then shortly after by a family originally from the Pacific Islands. They dropped me right on the Esplanade in Cairns, about 100m from the hostel I checked into.

£15 for the night, hot shower and a free dinner at 7:00. Awesome.

Tomorrow begins the long trek by campervan to Darwin so I’ll be off the radar until then. They don’t have many McD‘s in the Outback.

[I have some more posts to backdate, but I’ll get these up once I reach Darwin]

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Around Townsville

Not windy today

Not windy today

The train pulled into the new Townsville station at around 10:15. In case you’re using an old map, this is about 500m further out of the town to the west than the “proper” station. While walking into the city, I passed the old station which looks like a traditional British one. Fairly recently, I think, this was closed and the trains now only stop at the new station. It’s hard to tell, but I think the travel centre still operates at the old one.

Tourist information in the mall pointed me in the direction of the backpacker area, which is essentially South Townsville. The first hostel I spotted was the one built over the bus terminal and it turned out to be the same price ($22) as everywhere else. No need to walk any further, so I checked in.

It’s OK. All the rooms are airconned and have a fridge. Mine even has a telly. I’m sharing with a Korean guy and one other person I’ve not seen yet. The reception also deal with bus tickets so I checked the Cairns prices – around $50. The bus departs at 2pm and gets in after 7pm. The train also runs on a Sunday, takes 6 hours and costs a shade under $100.

So tomorrow I’m hitching. There’s a public bus I can take to more or less where the highway starts and I’ll thumb it from there. It’s only a 3½ hour drive, after all. I may as well aim to get to Cairns in the early afternoon than depart from Townsville at that time.

Right, I’m off for a walk up the hill (which apparently is only metres short of being classified as a mountain) and a stroll along the beach.

[later that day…]

Castle Hill

Castle Hill

I decided to start things off with a visit to the library to see if I could check any maps out. Only it closed at midday on a Saturday. So scratch that plan.

Instead I walked directly to Castle Hill and started up the “Goat Track”, a pretty steep climb up the side. It’s hard going, but not impossible. Water is definitely recommended – you can refill your bottle at the top. Partway up, the track splits. Stick on the Goat Trail until you reach the road at the top. The summit’s just around the corner. On the way down, follow the other route to be taken more toward the northern side of the hill.

The view from the top’s quite pleasant and you can see virtually the entire city from up there. The most impressive view, obviously, is out to sea. Magnetic Island is clearly visible only 8km off the coast.

Sweaty and hungry, I hopped down to ground level and through the Queen’s Park to Red Rooster where I picked up a burger. In a small shady spot just off the Strand, I munched on unhealthy food and read some more of my book.

Strong gusts

Strong gusts

I then walked the entire length of the Strand, starting at Kissing Point. This is the northernmost end and still has some military significance if the fences and “do not enter” signs are anything to go by. There’s an artifcial lagoon which is filled with seawater and about the safest place to swim between November and May when the jellyfish are in abundance. It’s sealed off from the sea and the water is replaced every three hours by a continuing pump system.

Further down the coastline are a couple of “stinger nets”. These are inflatable tubes with nets hanging off them. The idea being that the water within these nets is stinger-free and (hopefully) stays that way – although they’re not 100% safe. Canisters labelled “VINEGAR” are dotted along the coast where you’d normally expect to see flotation devices, along with instructions on how to deal with sting victims.

Typically Australian – Queensland in particular – is that it’s a beautiful place but there are natural dangers everywhere.

Beware of jellyfish

Beware of jellyfish

Again, I paused to read a book for a while before ambling further down towards the southern point and back to the hostel. Nobody was up for a night out, so I picked up a 6-pack from the local bottle shop and sat and watched films on the large projector telly. I had a good natter with a couple of Kiwis and a guy from London, then collapsed in bed just before midnight. I don’t think I slept as well on the train as I thought I had.

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Mt Isa to Townsville

A bye-bye hug

A bye-bye hug

OK, I don’t have wireless but I’m typing this up as the Inlander service approaches Townsville. The 21-ish hour journey has gone fairly quickly, partly as I didn’t sleep a lot the night before I set off so I snoozed a bit in the early evening.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the train. From the outside it looks like a bit of a banger, but the fittings inside seem almost brand new. The seats are comfy and the dining car area is very pleasant. A few TVs in there are used to show very family-friendly DVDs (a lot of people who use the service are pensioners) and the food from the canteen isn’t too badly overpriced.

Sleeping in the seater cars isn’t the most comfy option as the seats don’t recline at all. However, you get what you pay for and it’s now 9am and I don’t feel too knackered. With luck I should be in a hostel by 11am.

This in itself will be noteworthy. I arrived in Australia almost a month ago to the day and this will be the first night’s accommodation I’ve paid for. It will also be the first of only three if I have my sums right (Cairns tomorrow and again the night before I fly to Japan). So again, a huge shout out to everyone who’s been kind enough to put me up over the last four weeks. If ever the chance arises for me to return the favour, all you have to do is ask!

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Last night in Mt Isa

After quite a chill-out, some relaxing, a lot of doing not very much and more kicking back than I think is normal… it comes time to leave Mt Isa.

Last night we drove up to the city lookout and ate chips. Talia and Ben also took me out to the lake, 15km or so from the centre. It’s nice out there. Very peaceful. There’s good fishing, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Aside from the expensive and sporadically-operating “mining experience” tourist trap, I think I’ve done everything here.

I checked my options for getting to Cairns where my $1-a-day campervan awaits. Flying can be written off on the basis that at short notice you’re looking at $500 or so. The bus was my next option. They depart each morning, take 12 hours to Townsville and that leg costs around $150. If you connect with the Cairns bus there, expect to arrive up north at around 1am and parting with an extra $80.

I’ve opted for the train. It takes 21 hours, roughly, but a seat costs $123. Sleepers of various classes are also available, but I’m not fussy. It also saves me money in accommodation and beer as I’ll be in transit overnight. As a bonus, it also means I arrive in Townsville in the mid-morning which gives me more time to explore the place.

If you decide to book a train trip, especially out of Mt Isa, the only place to get tickets from it one of the travel agents. However, the procedure is to ring Queensland Rail direct who then give you a booking number which you then take to the agency who then give you the ticket… and charge you $30 for the privilege.

However, this rigmarol can be avoided by simply paying by credit card over the phone direct to QR. They can email you a ticket or even just give you the reference number and your train seat number. Turn up on the train, quote your reference and name and the guard should have you listed. In the worst case, he can ring and confirm that you’ve paid in full. Quick, easy and around 20% cheaper!

The number (within Oz) for Queensland Rail is 132232. I dealt with Sandy who was incredibly helpful, answering my battery of questions and being a great help.

On Sunday I’ll hitch up to Cairns – it’s only a 4-hour drive so that should be easy enough. Then on Monday, I begin a 3-day drive to Darwin. I have the van for 5 days in total, but I want to get to Darwin while Katie’s off work. I am visiting her, after all!

As mentioned below, my flight to Japan is also booked. I’ve got one flight (JetStar) from Darwin to Cairns which was around $200, and another from there to Tokyo Narita which was $384. Being a budget flight, though, things like food and the entertainment centre are extra. I’m not bothering. $30 for airline grub seemed overpriced and the Air Asia X flight I caught from KL to Perth didn’t have any films that interested me anyway.

Dates: Darwin to Cairns at a stupidly early time on Wednesday 8th, then a lunchtime departure for Tokyo arriving at 6pm local time.

Then the fun begins. I am partly chomping at the bit, partly freaked about dropping myself into the Land of the Rising Sun with very little preparation.

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Japan is booked!!!

YOKOSUKA, JAPAN - MAY 28:  US navy soldiers li...

Japanese flag

Ok, I did it. I just booked a flight from Darwin to Cairns and another from Cairns to Narita International Airport in Tokyo! After wanting to do so for more years than I care to remember, I am finally going to Japan! A actually have tingles and goosebumps at the thought of it!

Part of the reason I’m looking forward to it is the new challenge. By all the accounts I’ve heard, Japan is a very “individual” country. Being an island like the UK it’s developed a very unique society and ways of doing things. I also believe that only 10% of the population speak any English at all and outside of the main city centres, all the signs are only in the local language.

Time to dig out the dinky phrasebook I have in the backpack and see if I can find a bargain bucket out-of-date Lonely planet somewhere…

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