Being The Outlier In The Outback — Going Back To Backpacking

Once upon a time, I was a backpacker. I slept in hostels, partied with young travelers and quietly built an internationalization brand in between sightseeing time and nights at the club. Even though I had global (tax-free) business ambitions, I still fit in. Those days have come and gone.

That doesn’t mean I must always stay in fancy temporary living quarters and socialize with heavy hitters (think seasteaders). Having completed a month of solo luxury travel around the South Pacific, plus living not so luxuriously on ultra-remote Pitcairn Island, I was ready for a change of pace.

I was ready to reembrace the backpacker’s life. And I was ready to embrace being the outlier in the group.

Kata Tjuta Rocks

 

Why Australia?

Despite its less than ideal business climate, Australia is a country meant for me to explore. You know why?

Here’s a fun fact: As a kid, I wanted to become a zoo director when I grew up. I guess that clues you in that I really like animals. Directing the zoo is no longer my ambition, but owning a zoo or two could be in play.

In Australia, I get to ogle at the cute koalas, peer at a rare Tasmanian Devil, gaze at kangaroos  and playfully observer platypuses. Really, the platypus is a fascinating creature. It is a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying venomous mammal that can swim like a fish. Are you starting to see the zookeeper in me? 😉

Tasmanian Devil

 

Where in Australia?

I actually got started 60 miles off the coast of Australia at the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. After visiting scenic Whitehaven Beach on the Whitsunday Islands, I indulged myself with an overnight stay on the Heart Reef 90 minutes by catamaran from Hamilton island.

Me at Whitehaven Beach

 

There, I stayed with an American girl and her uncle (She wasn’t happy about him being there). We slept on a pontoon above the reef and spent the daytime snorkeling. The setting was exquisite.

Camping at the Great Barrier Reef

But the fun really begins on an Australian adventure when you reach the north. That’s where I jumped in a Cage of Death and swam with a 5-meter long saltwater crocodile.

In the city of Darwin (fitting name for what I did), I entered a cage and was lowered into a pool in which I swam with the crocodile. By the way, my croc weighed a ton and had a bite force of 3,500 pounds per square inch. That is nearly a record, according to National Geographic, which crowned saltwater crocodiles “the world’s champion chompers.”

Separating this champion chomper and me was just a few centimeters of Plexiglass. I came eye-to-eye with the beast, actually eye-to-teeth, as you can see in the film of my real-life Jaws experience. I emerged from the standoff alive and managed to take a selfie with my new friend to boot.

Eye on eye with the beast

 

And then the backpacking adventure began…

In the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, I joined 21 other people, and we embarked upon a 5-day, 3,500 km adventure south through the Outback in a… pink van. There were only a few males in the group, so I guess it was understandable that we were driving through the Outback in a pink van. My backpacker group consisted of about half Germans, but fortunately, they did not know about my (Staatenlos) blog. There were some sweet girls in the group. There was also an Australian man whom I befriended. He was traveling with his two daughters.

This eclectic group, which also included a slightly overweight young woman from San Luis Obispo, California (Don’t pester me about getting mentioned in my blog, you asked me for it), was traveling under the roof of a pink van, but under the umbrella of Mulgas Adventures, a tour company that specializes in northern Outback excursions. Mulgas Adventures is named after the Mulga, a tree native to the Outback that is known for being “water-wise” (doesn’t need much to survive), as well as providing seeds and sap to consume and leaves and twigs that serve medicinal purposes. Also, Mulga wood contains a poisonous substance, and Aboriginal people were said to use the wood for spearheads. If you get it on the wrong body parts, they will rott forever…

Ok.. enough with the botany.

As foreshadowed, alcohol played a significant role in this backpacking excursion. Our first stop of note was Daly Waters, a town of about 20 people. What do you do in a town with a population of 20? You go to the town pub. In the Northern Territory town of Daly Waters that is, of course, The Daly Waters Pub.

A pub in the middle of nowhere

Fun fact: This town of a dozen or two is where Australia’s first international airport was located. The old Daly Waters Airfield was a commercial and, at times, military airport. An old hangar has been there since 1930… Would you drink to that? 😉

The Outback also is famous for UFO sightings – the tiny town of Wyclife Well with a alien-themed petrol station lives up to that. Many people here report UFOs regularly – some say they have even been kidnapped. Unfortunately, we were (un)lucky – but for another planet you do not need to leave planet earth.

The UFO town

 

The main highlight of the tour — at least the largest attraction — was Uluru, the massive bright red rock in the middle of the desert. It’s 348 meters high, and it looks kind of like Mars. Actually, I haven’t been to Mars yet, so I will hold off on that judgment.

Uluru at Sunrise

We walked all the way around the rock, checking it out from basically every angle.

Uluru at Sunset

Toward the end of the tour we also explored King’s Canyon, which as you can guess, is a large canyon. It made for a great day, actually.

Kings Canyon

But the camping was more memorable. On our Muglas Adventure, we (a bunch of giggling girls, myself and a 50-year-old man) spent a couple nights in dorms and a couple nights sleeping under the stars. Regarding the stars, we could see them so clearly that I managed to snap a photo of the stars using my phone — a feat I had not previously achieved over the course of my life.

The Southern Cross at the Outback night sky

As I’m sure you are well aware, there is more to camping than sleeping and stargazing. We drank and we played games. On the final night we played a game that involved opening up a bit about ourselves. I opted to break the news to the group that I had already traveled to 110 countries or territories. That admission resulted in some surprised faces, including the one belonging to the weight-challenged girl from California (sorry dear, but you wanted to be mentioned in my blog 😉)

Speaking of alcohol and playing games, the purchase and consumption of booze in Australia’s Northern Territory is no game. Rather, it’s more like a highly regulated affair that stops short of involving metal detectors and body scanners, but does include thorough passport checks.

Devils Marbles

Alcohol regulations in the Northern Territory have been the source of international controversy. The local authorities have been accused of using alcohol laws to target and discriminate against Aboriginal people. There has been a slight rollback in alcohol regulations, but there are still areas in the region (particularly Aboriginal areas) where alcohol is banned. And for locals and tourists alike, showing proper ID when purchasing booze is mandatory all over the Northern Territory. If you have a record of prior alcohol offenses, you’re not getting booze.

 

What else is there in the Outback?

I glossed over the driving portion of the tour, which consumed quite a lot of the trip. We drove by red earth, bushes and poisonous snakes and then we drove by more red earth, bushes and poisonous snakes. Intersections were few and far between. Distances were long. Everything is spread out in the Northern territory.

Touching on the poisonous snakes, I have alluded to the fact that Australia has its fair share of venomous animals. When scrolling through a list of the most poisonous animals in the world, one discovers that at least several of these creatures are found in Australia.

The Box Jellyfish is widely regarded as the most poisonous animal in the world, according to Conservation Institute. The Box Jellyfish floats in the waters surrounding Australia. It ranks Number 1 on Conservation Institute’s ranking of the 10 Most Poisonous Animals in the World. Australia’s Inland Taipan snake ranks 8thon the list and the Blue-Ringed Octopus, which also appears in Australia, ranks 4th.

But having been around Australia, I can say it’s neither the crocs nor the snakes, neither the spiders nor the scorpions, neither the sharks nor the jellyfish, that humans must fear. It is most certainly the flies. In the Outback, the flies are aggressive and swarming at you — hundreds at a time.

The Inland Taipan – most venomous snake in the world

 

But no bug can spoil my return from backpacking retirement.

Yes, I was the strange guy who hung out with the 50-year-old man over the course of the Outback trip, then announced at the end that I have 100 countries under my belt. So what?!

I love being with the young backpacker crowd and playing the role of the outlier. Their reality is not tangible for me anymore, nor is mine for them. But it’s all great fun, and no venomous animal or annoying insect or discriminatory liquor law is going to stop it.

Consider me a backpacker again.

Outback Sunset

 

Stay: Camping around a fire in a swag below the Outback night sky is a memorable experience. More luxury can be found everywhere in Australia – but you miss something if not camping. It is also the cheapest way in expensive Australia.

 

Eat: When in Australia, some bush tucker is a must. Not necessarily insects, crocodiles or snakes – but I could certainly get used to juicy kangaroo and camel meat BBQs.

 

Drink: Dont forget your passport in the Northern Territory. Despite heavy anti-alcohol legislation, the supermarkets are well stocked up. I am a particular fan of ginger beer, either with or without alcohol. Bundaberg is the brand to go – they even have zero sugar ones for me as a low-carb eater.

 

Connect: This post is mostly about the Outback – as you can guess mobile connection is mostly non-existent in this large patch of desert. However, most pit stops have paid Wifi and outback towns like Yulara, Daly Waters or Alice Springs offer reliable LTE connections with good speeds.

 

See: The Outback is a never ending monotony of flat reddish ground, dry bushes and swarms of flies. Now and then, you have canyons or big boulders like famous Kata Tjuta or Uluru. Just dont make the mistake of holding Mount Conner – the fake Uluru – for the right one.

 

Do: Book a tour and enjoy the landscapes. There is not much to except hiking, drinking and chatting with your fellow travelers. Mulgas Tours can be recommended – they have funny and knowledgable guides. You will get discount booking with the code MULGA20.

 

Go there: Fly into Alice Springs or Yulara – or take a long bus or train ride from either Darwin in the north or Adelaide in the south. The Outback is big and Australia even more so. I wont do the torture of 3500km by car in 3 days again.

 

Go next: Depending on the direction you drive, at some point you may end up one of the beautiful Australian beaches full of dangerous creatures waiting for you in the water. I chose to go to Perth flying from Alice Springs – but that is another story.