Two main threads ran through the bulk of our days in Australia and the US: Being on the road, and being looked after by other people. This blog usually focuses on a different country in each instalment, but this time with road trips and generous hospitality so defining the trip, I’ve decided to instead combine Australia and USA into one narrative but split across two posts divided on these two topics. This is the ‘Road Trip’ blog, a companion piece to Part Two
, which is focused on ‘Kindness and Hospitality’.
During the 50 days we spent in Australia and the US, we clocked up nearly 5500kms ‘on the road’ (travelling by car) plus about 2000kms on trains and a couple of cheat journeys via plane to cut the distance in the States. Kate’s unease about driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road meant that apart from a couple of stints in Australia, the vast bulk of the driving was carried out by yours truly. “Big deal”, you might think, but it does become a bigger deal when you consider that before January this year I didn’t have a licence. Until beginning a 35-hour intensive ‘crash course’ just before Christmas, I had absolutely no idea how to operate a car – had never even sat in the driving seat! I finally completed the standard teenage rite of passage in January, only fourteen years behind schedule. This is a roundabout way (great driving pun!) of letting you know, dear reader, that Kate was absolutely terrified of being chauffeured by my amateur ass. I’ll put you out of your misery now to reveal that we didn’t crash (even once!) and only a maximum of three times a day did Kate slam her hands on the dashboard and scream in terror convinced we were about to hurtle off a ditch/canyon/cliff.
|Aussie Road Trip|
Without further ado, let’s put our foot down and accelerate through some of the best road trip tales from our adventures in Australia and America. The first time I was allowed behind the wheel was during a three hour journey from Sydney to Canberra. This was also the last time I was allowed to choose accommodation – apparently, a cheap room in a shared student flat at the University of Canberra is not OK. Apparently, it being a Saturday night and the whole campus jumping with student house parties doesn’t make it any better. It was also very nearly the last time I was allowed to decide on a destination. People were very surprised we had a night in Canberra. It’s not exactly a tourist hotspot. However, I convinced Kate that Canberra is ‘on the way’ to Melbourne and it would be great to attend a Super Rugby match there. It’s actually a two-hour detour. It’s also about 10-20 degrees colder than Sydney and we didn't have any warm clothes. Kate found it hard to really get behind a rare Brumbies win over the Hurricanes, stood there in a largely empty stadium, shivering in a skirt and pair of tights, as the refreshing evening temperature hit the -2C mark. Suffice to say, our Aussie adventure was off to a grand old start.
After Melbourne, our next venture onto the tarmac was a real classic Aussie road trip – the Great Ocean Road. The full route snakes along the coastline for 250kms and is the world’s largest war memorial, built by returning soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to all those lost during World War I. We didn’t have time to cover the entire length, and the middle of winter meant the views weren’t always the postcard-perfect blockbuster shots clogging up Instagram (#nofilter) but it was still a wondrous route to trace. Oscillating in constant twists and hairpin turns from paradisiacal soft-sand beaches up to dramatic clifftop vistas, the shimmering, shimmying ocean a constant inviting companion along the drive. There are many quaint towns in which to stop for a quick coffee or seaside lunch, maybe even spot a koala or two. Here’s the thing though: Navigating a vehicle along this route is a different kettle of fish to the ruler-straight, three-lane-wide highways from Sydney to Melbourne. This was a real baptism of fire on my second day of driving – it wasn’t always pretty, there was a fair bit of lurching, nails bitten down to the knuckle from Kate, and a whole lot of pissed-off sportscar rentals moving at a glacial pace in the rearview mirror, but we didn’t hurtle off the top of a cliff even once. A successful day all around.
|Walking in the Blue Mountains|
Apart from the return journey to Sydney – including a stopover in a random roadside motel (one of the weirder things to tick off the bucket list) – and a day trip to the Blue Mountains – an astonishingly beautiful glance into the scale of untouched Aussie nature and wilderness – that was pretty much it for adventures on the highway in Australia. The rest of the time was simply spent in remarkably good company, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog for that. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the wonderland of opportunities, contradictions and cholesterol that is America….
We covered a lot of ground by car in the US – approximately 3000km in total, including one slightly ludicrous 4-day stint that topped 2500km. This is most definitely a country that lends itself well to a road trip or two. The sheer size, variety and beauty of national parks on offer are a little overwhelming at times, and the change in scenery can be remarkable and sudden as you hop from state to state. It’s a country built for the motor car with some of the most iconic routes in the world – just hearing the names of Route 66, the Big Sur, Highway 12, can conjure up instant emotions and mental images even for people who’ve never set foot in the country before.
Our first stint on the road in the ‘Land of the Free’ was in a state that is almost as close to Australia as it is to mainland USA. You guessed it – Hawaii. If you’re as stupid as me (unlikely) you’ll be surprised to learn that dancing hula girls don’t greet you with leis (those flower necklaces) as you step off the plane and directly onto the beach. In fact, the state capital of Honolulu on the main island of Oahu (yes, ignorant James-types, Hawaii is a collection of hundreds of islands spread over an area of 2400kms, not just one single landmass) is a bustling, skyscraper-filled city of 400,000 inhabitants. We were unashamedly in town for the Hollywood version of Hawaii, so didn’t waste much time in hot-footing it over to the island of Maui, which is a lot more in keeping with the idyllic white-sand palm-tree-fringed beaches of Hawaii stereotypes. This is also where the fun really began for us behind the wheel stateside!
|Highway to Hana Road Trip, Hawaii|
|'Compact' Hire Car|
By now, we’d forgotten the sheer terror of the Great Ocean Road, so didn’t hesitate to take on Hawaii’s version – the Highway to Hana. Turns out, the GOR is a piece of cake compared to this monster. It’s shorter at 100km in length, but there is absolutely no let-up, with 620 turns (many of them hairpins) and 59 bridges (46 are one-way) running nearly the entire east side of the island from one of numerous beautiful seafront towns to Haleakala National Park. The distance to cover alone isn’t much, but the complexity of the route as it meanders along the coastline on a road meant for two-way traffic but in reality with barely room for a single car, means the time soon clocks up. The cheapskates that we are meant our rental was the tiniest ‘compact’ vehicle available. Everyone else in the States is driving a hulking great pick-up truck or at least a giant 4x4. As we pottered around the high-octane asphalt, there seemed to be a speeding mass of metal waiting to greet us on the other side of every blind corner – some trucks so large they could barely see our miniature rental over their dashboard. I consider this to be the day I passed my advanced driving course.
|Aerial shot of the Highway to Hana|
|River and sea meet at the coast|
The trauma was worth it. On reaching Haleakala National Park we were treated to a hot and humid trek through a fairy-tale bamboo forest climaxing in the dead drop Waimoku waterfall hurtling down towards us from 120m above. The entire park is a thing of beauty – from these hidden waterfalls at the top right down to the coastline boundary, where the river from the falls meets the ocean in a never-ending push and pull, the river determinedly flowing outwards and the sea waves just as relentlessly pushing back.
|Road Trip to the summit of Haleakala Volcano, Hawaii|
|GPS route to summit!|
Deciding that eight hours of driving in squeaky-bum conditions wasn't quite terrifying enough, we decided to add sleep deprivation, darkness and altitude into the mix the following day – rising at the ungodly hour of 2am to embark on another complex drive up to the summit of Haleakala Volcano (Maui’s highest peak) in time for sunrise. The early departure did have some benefits – it was so pitch black it was hard to see how dangerous the drive actually was (the road gains 10000 feet in only 38 miles, making it the world’s steepest route from sea level to 10000 feet) and there weren’t many other vehicles on the way up. This was partly because we’d misjudged the journey time and arrived about two hours before sunrise – a blessing in disguise as we reclined in the car seats and watched the stars slowly shift overhead. The skyline continued to provide sights to make the heart soar, as the sun hesitantly emerged above an ocean of clouds lapping softly like waves against the surrounding mountain peaks. Check out the short time-lapse video below to see for yourself....
Leaving Hawaii for mainland USA, we had to wait a few days for the next self-driven journey as most our exploration of the West Coast was courtesy of American railways rather than American highways. Most locals looked at us with bemusement when we told them we were travelling via Amtrak but the quality and comfort of the trains was far superior to anything we’ve ever experienced at home. Seats are wide and recline with adjustable leg- and foot-rests to allow almost horizontal relaxation. Catering is pricey but high quality. Best of all, some of the lines feature an observation car with floor to ceiling windows all around allowing uninterrupted views of America’s organic beauty. Taking the train through Umpqua National Forest from Portland to Klamath Falls, surrounded by mountainsides drowning in pine trees, was the first time we truly understood and appreciated the sheer scale of this country and the unparalleled majesty and vastness of the natural world out here.
|Road Trip to Crater Lake National Park, Oregon|
The next time we had our own transport was in Klamath Falls. About 100km from this small city is Oregon’s only National Park – Crater Lake. The eponymous feature of the park is a striking vividly blue body of water about 10km across situated deep in an ancient caldera. The perfection of the lake, as it twinkles an impossibly intense shade of indigo-blue, commanding your gaze from the caldera rim, is only more jaw-dropping when you consider the facts and figures behind its creation and existence. In place of the lake, Mount Mazuma used to stand an impressive 4km high. That is until a catastrophic eruption 7700 years ago (recent enough to have been witnessed by the Native American tribes that populated the area at the time) caused the entire structure to collapse in on itself, creating a sight of inverse wonder with a 1200m deep crater. Eventually, within about 400 years of the collapse, enough water filled the caldera to create what is the deepest lake in the USA today (600m at the centre). There are no streams flowing to or from the basin, it is sustained solely by rain and snow, the exact level of the lake ebbing and flowing over centuries and millennia dependent on the rate of precipitation and opposing evaporation.
|Kate & Crater Lake|
Having our own vehicle allowed us the wonderful freedom to slowly circumnavigate the entire caldera rim by road, taking breaks at our fancy to enjoy the view, ascend a mountain-top or two, or scramble down to the lake surface for a dip in the icy refreshing water. The hikes were particularly enjoyable. We climbed up to the park’s highest point, slowly shuffling along the heat-baked trails past weather-hardened pine trees with not another soul in sight – Kate pretending she was in an episode of WestWorld, me caught up in a fantasy of being one of the first American pioneers (we watch too much TV).
|Epic 4-Day Road Trip Across Mainland USA|
Our final stint of American road-trippin’ came in a manic four-day dash across California, Nevada and Arizona, covering 2500km in total. Day one saw us tackle the famous coastal Big Sur highway from Monterey to San Simeon, then onto Los Angeles via Los Padres National Forest. The Big Sur has been a hugely popular route to navigate since its creation in 1937, even more so in recent years after featuring prominently in the Big Little Lies
TV show. A winding, narrow road cut into the dramatic coastline, often floating perilously across clifftops, sandwiched between the ocean and untouched redwood forests. It is, without doubt, one of the longest, most scenic and isolated stretches of shoreline in the world. Its pristine nature and lack of development is protected by a local coastal plan brought into place 30 years ago that severely restricts the density of dwellings. That isn’t to say the Big Sur is lacking in terms of road users, though. This is far from an unknown beauty spot. We were often stuck in long queues of traffic or being pestered from behind at an intimately close distance by someone with a rental Mustang and a tiny penis. A lot of people drive like complete tools and we saw two crashes within a couple of hours – the luckier ones in a vehicle just flipped onto its roof, the others flown of a clifftop down 100 feet or so to the rocks below. My 50 hours of previous driving experience came in very handy.
Day two and three of our 2500km whirlwind tour involved excursions into the neighbouring states of Nevada and Arizona. First up, a drastic change of scenery after all the natural American beauty enjoyed on previous days. You can’t get more unnatural than Las Vegas. A heady, glowing, unapologetic hulk of vice, capitalism and debauchery, rising up in a bewildering clash of concrete and neon from the barren desert floor. Should such a place really exist in the desert!? This wouldn’t ordinarily be top of my travelling list, but one additional factor alongside simple perverse curiosity made the decision for us – my old University housemate, Woody, and his girlfriend, Eleanor, just so happened to be in town at the same time. Reunion time! Strap yourselves in for The Hangover: Part 4…. (yes, they have made 3 of those films). To be fair, we had a grand old time, and somehow managed to stick to the cheapskate travel budget: Sharing a quadruple room in New York, New York (the hotel with a roller coaster inside!), chasing happy hour drink deals around town, spending no more than $50 each on electronic game machines (we didn’t set foot on a table with live players) and turning in at the crazy hour of 1am. I’m pretty sure the plot of The Hangover films is very similar.
To be honest, if we’d have stayed up any later it may have become a little depressing. After you’ve wandered a few of the big casinos, the fluorescent sheen, the razzle-dazzle and feverish hysteria of ‘The Strip’ starts to fade a little, shedding away to reveal the sad truth of many gambling addicts sat alone fixated by the flashing fruit machines – many too fat to walk unaided, drinking steadily, smoking hastily, pockets slowly but surely emptying. Vegas, baby!!
Let’s finish this already overly-long blog on a high…. Back to the pure, wild beauty of the Great American Outdoors. It doesn’t get much more Great and American than the Grand Canyon. A road trip from Vegas takes around four hours, mostly on a fairly featureless highway, but the smaller roads as you enter the national park boundary begin to reveal more about the unique flora and fauna of this wonderful place. Hardy desert scrub vegetation and pine trees line the canyon rim while red-tailed hawks on the constant lookout for prey coast on swirling thermals and updrafts. One of these magnificent birds seemed to mistake our car for a rabbit (it was an economy compact vehicle after all) and swooped down to within inches of our bonnet, momentarily frozen and framed by the windshield. One of those moments.
The canyon itself really has to be seen to be believed, and even then it can be hard to fully comprehend. I will include plenty of pictures because language seems limited in communicating the majesty of this place, the unfathomable scale of time and space over which it has formed. 450km long, 30km across at the widest point, and nearly 2km deep at its most profound. It seems impossible that the Colorado River, barely visible as it dribbles along the canyon floor, could be responsible for something of such incomprehensible enormity. But this is
the river’s doing; a gradual grinding down in infinitesimally small scrapes of erosion, diligently and patiently establishing the route of least resistance across the landscape over the last 6 million years.
Brains positively buzzing with the effort to conceive of movement and continuity across such vast aeons, our own microscopic amount of time at the canyon was over before we knew it. All that remained of our USA road trippin' was the journey back to LA along the infamous Route 66. Four straight days on the go left us cramped, exhausted, invigorated, fulfilled.
Here’s my epiphany from the last couple of months on the road – driving yourself is by far the best way to travel! No doubt most of you have been driving for years like normal people so are already aware of this, but nothing beats sticking a waypoint in a map and getting there under your own steam. Stop off for refreshments, to stretch your legs, enjoy a vista, take a detour wherever you like, whenever you want, at your own leisure, choose your own soundtrack, watch the tarmac speed under your wheels, enjoy the freedom of the open road and the satisfaction of reaching a destination thanks to your own locomotion. Perhaps I am still in the honeymoon period when driving is a novelty. Perhaps after a couple of years commuting to and from anonymous towns back in the UK the allure will have worn off somewhat and I’ll begin to dread hunching-over behind the wheel. But for now, driving is unrestrained independent bliss, and the Great American Road Trip is undoubtedly the pinnacle of that dream.
|Roadside motel stop in Australia|
|Haleakala National Park bamboo forest|
|Haleakala National Park bamboo forest|
|Waimoku Falls at Haleakala National Park|
|Haleakala National Park|
|Sunrise from Haleakala Volcano|
|Sunrise from Haleakala Volcano|
|Sunrise from Haleakala Volcano |
|Sunrise from Haleakala Volcano|
|Crater Lake National Park|
|Crater Lake National Park |
|Crater Lake National Park|
|Crater Lake National Park|
|Big Sur coastline|
|Big Sur - Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery|
|Elephant Seals sparring|
|Elephant Seals sparring|
|Kate enjoying Vegas |
|Kate enjoying Vegas|
Enjoyed this so much, especially having done Big Sue, Vegas, Oz ... thanks James xxReplyDelete