9 steps to a perfect road trip

We Aussies are road-trippers. I grew up roading tripping up and down the East coast of Australia, and loved it so much I couldn’t wait to be the one behind the wheel. But if you’re a car trip newbie and the thought of weeks on the road makes you shudder, start small. Start at home, start with one day, start by yourself and follow these 9 steps:

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Roadtripping New South Wales: Magnificent Mudgee

9.00am

We rule out the caves for no other reason than it’s raining and we can do what we want. Time to head home. Well actually, time to head to Mudgee, the town of under 10,000 people making quite a name for itself in the food and wine markets.

10.00am

Finally ready to leave, have you noticed we’re slow starters?

11.00am

Mudgee! The winery signs have been coming thick and fast the closer we get to town. The plan was to grab lunch before heading home, but it’s a bit early to eat…so naturally we pick out a couple of Cellar Doors to try out.

Bunamagoo winery

11.15am

Fun fact: a lot of Mudgee Cellar Doors and all their adjacent restaurants are closed on Mondays. But we find enough still open that we have to make a choice. We choose Bunnamagoo Wines, because how could we not with a name like that!

Owned by the Paspaley family, we discover a large winery with a modern Cellar Door, dwarfed by its lush green grounds. Boasting several awards over the last few years, the wine isn’t bad either!

Sally from The Small Winemakers Centre

11.40am

Just a little more wine time to kill before lunch, so we stop in at the Small Winemakers Centre closer to town. As the name suggests, this serves as the Cellar Door for some of the region’s smaller vineyards which may only produce a couple of different varieties of wine.

In a quaint cottage that is over 100 years old, we find Sally waiting to help us downstairs in the actual cellar. She explains this is where they hide out over summer when it’s too hot. During the colder months they head back upstairs and get the fireplaces into action. Sally sells us on her wine deals and we walk away with a lot more bottles than originally planned (in my defence the Furlong Pink Moscato was irresistible!).

Mudgee Brewing Company

12.15pm

Time to be eating! We had passed by the Mudgee Brewing Company brewery and restaurant on the way to all the wine. The bare brick walls made it look like a hipster’s dream, and nobody does food like the hipsters.

The wooden tables, corrugated iron trimmings, brewing vats and small stage for regular live music acts inside were already giving me a good vibe. Then the food came. I don’t often go into so much detail when it comes to food but the buttery mushrooms, soft cheeses and fresh breads of the tasting plate for two definitely earned a shout out. Washing down with their American Pale Ale didn’t hurt either.

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2.00pm

If we don’t leave now it’s possible I never will, and not just because I’ll have drunk too much to legally drive.

4.00pm

Hey look, more cows!

4.30pm

Surely it’s my turn to pick the music. I can not with this top 100.

4.35pm

Oh ok, it’s Disney sing-a-longs now, we’re good.

6.00pm

We took the scenic route home, looping around through the Hunter Valley (no, we didn’t stop for more wine) and Newcastle. We’ve ended up in my friend’s home on the Central Coast (also where I grew up). I still have to catch the train for an hour back to Sydney, but the grand adventure is done! I do love a road trip!

Roadtripping New South Wales: Dubbo Zoo

8.00am

Turned out to be a good thing the party did end early last night because today we wake up early…ok, like, earlyish.

10.00am

Just because we woke up early doesn’t mean we got moving early. Plan, shlam. We’re heading two hours further west to turn a last minute thought into a plan: a trip to Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. This zoo is Dubbo’s biggest claim to fame, alongside Old Dubbo Goal, where Australia’s most infamous Bush Ranger, Ned Kelly, was hung.

11.00am

That dairy cow is using that fallen tree as a scratching post. How adorable!

12.30pm

We’ve paid our $50 zoo entry fee (that’s adult price). This zoo is so large that $50 gets you entry for two consecutive days so you have time to see it all. You can walk around, but it’s far more common to drive your own car or hire an electric cart or push bike from $15. We’re on bikes.

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12.35pm

Ever noticed how big open zoos are a lot like Jurassic Park? We sure have.

1.15pm

What’s that high pitched squeak? Why is everyone turning to look at me instead of the animals? Oh damnit, my back tire is well broke! The only thing for it is to ride back the way we came and swap it over, which the lovely staff are more then happy to help me with.

1.45pm

Let’s try this again.

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3.45pm

Lions and meerkats and monkeys, oh my! From the African savannah, to the Asian jungles and scorching Aussie bush, we’ve seen the whole zoo in record time. We even went into the Australian Animal enclosure to pet a wallaby or emu (we failed, but we still had fun) and watched on with other giggling zoo-goers as the giant tortoises got it on…you know what I mean.

What we didn’t do was wait for any animal talks, which happen around the zoo regularly during the day and are a particularly good idea if you’re dragging around any little ones.

6.00pm

As we drive back through Dubbo nothing is calling our name so we keep on driving back the way we came to a small town called Wellington (no, nothing to do with New Zealand). We’ve heard tell of the Wellington Caves and take refuge in the family owned Cow and Calf Hotel.

We only paid $75 for a double room, but we’re very pleasantly surprised by this place. It’s an old building but has obviously been newly renovated, making it modern and comfortable. The bathroom facilities are still shared between over 20 rooms, but they are modern and clean. There’s not much in the way of a kitchen, but why would you when the restaurant downstairs is serving delicious modern cuisine at reasonable prices. Plus the whole family is working in there and like they say, nothing beats a home-cooked meal.

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7.00pm

I need ALL the food. They even kind enough to whip me up a couple of tasty vegetable fritters when I explain that I’m one of those annoying vegetarians and my hunger couldn’t possibly be satisfied by a salad right now. The beer selection is surprisingly broad, and delightfully cheap. I am in my happy place.

7.50pm

These guys give good beer range, good thing we live upstairs for tonight!

8.30pm

Out like a light.

Roadtripping Mid-West New South Wales: Day 1

What do you do in Australia with three days off work and nothing to do? You grab a willing friend and hit the road with a tank full of petrol and no plans. Where did the road take us? From Sydney to the mid-west of New South Wales, where livestock is the lifeblood and the bartender knows you’re from out of town because he knows everyone else’s name.

1.00pm

I’m designated driver today while my friend drifts in and out, working off his New Year’s hangover. This suits me just fine because I can sing as loudly as I want along to The Doors with no complaints.

4.00pm

Anywhere in Australia, it’s going to take some decent hours to start seeing a change of scenery. Three hours later we’ve only just made it out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains.

5.00pm

Another hour and we’re finally getting into new territory. Although I will miss the blue-hazed mountains and picturesque main roads, I feel like the expanding fields of farmland, covered in dry grass and sparsely spread trees mean we’re getting closer to nowhere. We’re definitely out of the city now, and into the places where farming forms the heart. Everywhere you look are cattle and sheep, oh and roadkill.

5.30pm

The road  took us to a Yetholme truck stop, featuring every porno mag ever and not much else, then through the original gold-mining town, and my birthplace, Bathurst. This is a town worth spending a day or two in just to check it out, especially if colonial history and trying your hand at panning for gold is your jam, but we bypassed in search of somewhere new. And we found it in Orange.

6.00pm

Orange is actually quite large, clocking a population of just under 40,000, but it still feels like a country town. A country town that is slowly becoming recognised for its food offerings and wine production. It’s a town you hear mentioned quite often living in Sydney, but this was the first visit for us.

I’m done with the car for today so we follow the highway through the main stretch of town in search of somewhere to stay. There are several options but we pull up in front of Hotel Orange.

Ok yes, we were initially drawn in by its low cost ($70 for a double room), but we stayed for its history. Hotel Orange is actually the first established in Orange, way back in 1890 (don’t worry it’s been done up since then!).

The few rooms are basic, just beds and hanging space with a shared bathroom and basic shared kitchen facilities, but it’s everything you need, at least for a night. It also appears to be the only nightclub in town come the weekend, which could be a positive or negative depending on how keen you are to party with the town’s teens and very early 20s.

“Just warning you,” the manager told us as he showed us the room, “it’ll be loud until about 3.00am, it’s a Saturday.”

Well if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

8.00pm

While the food looks pretty good where we’re staying, we head outside to explore the area and end up at  Percy’s Bar & Kitchen. It’s very trendy looking (dare I say, hipster-esque) and there’s a very cute singer/songwriter serenading us, but mostly we were pulled in by the fact this is where most of the locals seemed to be.

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10.20pm

I am stuffed. Completely done. And Mr. Soulful Guitar has stopped playing. Also the crowd has dispersed. Time to go.

10.25pm

What was that about Hotel Orange being loud until 3.00am? The music may be booming but where are the people? There’s just one table being used, and they all look about 18.

10.30pm

But hey, it’s not even midnight yet, maybe this town just gets started later. Plus there’s a Woolies (one of Australia’s main grocery stores) down the road. Yes, yes we do need a snack run. Come at me chocolate and two-minute noodles!

11.30pm

After Woolies we drove around town looking for other signs of life…of which there was next to none. But did I mention we had two-minute noodles and a couple of drinks? So back to our accommodation we went.

There was one more group of teens. That was it. Upstairs next to our room was the dance floor, with party lights and music, but no people. In defence of Orange I do believe this was an unusual Saturday night. It was the 2nd of January, most people were probably away on holidays, and it still wasn’t quite midnight yet.

Not that it mattered, if you have no-one to join, party on your own! Not only could we clearly hear every song from the comfort of our own shared living room, we could party with our noodles in hand.

12.30pm

We crawl into bed and let the booming R’n’B shake-your-booty tunes soothe us to sleep.

That time I jumped off a bridge…

I joined up with Earthstompers Garden Route and Addo National Park tour for an amazing 5 days of sight-seeing and good company. Day 4: Sedgefield- Tsitsikamma – Addo

“Can you go first?”

What? No. I thought my heart would be racing, but it seems to have just stopped. My brain appears to be picking up the slack:

If I die, how will they get my body home? That’s if there is a body. Is it better to go first so the rope hasn’t been stretched, or last so you know there isn’t a fault in the rope? What if they haven’t tied me properly? What would they say about me at my funeral? Will the rest of my tour group still enjoy their trip if I plunge to my death? My parents are going to kill me, if I survive.

“Don’t hesitate, hesitating is the worst thing you can do.”

I guess I take the advice from Mr. Bungyman, because next thing I know I’m tied into two harnesses, attached to the end of a hand-made bungy rope and standing on the edge of the 216 metre high Bloukraans Bridge along South Africa’s Garden Route. Sometimes I really hate my life choices.

The team of experts are counting down from three, assuring me they’ve done it a hundred times, I’ll have fun. My thoughts have turned into a single mantra. You are safe, you can do this.

I don’t remember making the decision to jump, but I do remember the first time I let myself look down. For the whole walk along the bridge, the waiting for the person who was supposed to go first to look over the edge and chicken out and the harness preparations, I hadn’t let myself look anywhere but straight ahead. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like the view stop me from taking this leap, not until it was too late. Now it was too late. Oh shit.

Blourkraans Bridge Bungy

I am free falling only a few seconds, but it feels like a lifetime. All I can do is hug myself for dear life because, just maybe, if I do that and the harness breaks I could still come out alive. I can’t clearly say if I had any other thoughts until I reached the end of the rope, but once I got there it is pure relief flooding through me…until I feel myself falling down again.

The logical brain could assume that, of course, the rope is elastic and will bounce more than once before coming to a stop. The terrified mind can only assume the rope is breaking and this is how you go. Once the bouncing has come to an end and you’re happily still attached, nobody mentions that your feet really feel like they’re slipping out of their harness. Seriously, somebody should mention that. But if you can just ignore it for one second, the view, oh the view.

One of the bungy team members is lowered down to hoist me back up. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see another human. The conversation went a little like this:

Him: I’m here to take you back up.
Me: You beautiful, beautiful man! I’m completely in love with you right now!
Him: You have to let me go so I can hook you to the hoist.
Me: NEVER!

Finally, finally, with a team of about 10 hauling me back and lending me a hand, I reach solid concrete. Photos are being taken and a chant of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ goes up once they discover where I’m from. I am Kassia, Queen of the World. Bow down bitches. But just never put me back on that bungy.

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I’m sure things happened before the bungy, there was definitely driving involved, but apart from that I couldn’t tell you a thing: I was far too consumed by my impending doom. But I can tell you we spent the afternoon in the gorgeous Tsitikama National Park. Right on the coast line, small waves lap against rocky cliffs and pebble shores.

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While some of our group had skipped the drama and arrived here early for the full 3 hour hike, we jumpers only had time for the shorter 45 minute walk to the suspension bridges connecting the islands. The walk to get there felt a little surreal: somehow I must have ended up back in Australia with these trickling waterfalls and scrubby plants. Only the dassie’s, milling about in sunlit branches, reminded me I was still in South Africa.

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After the walk, when my adrenaline levels were finally starting to calm down, we headed to the only restaurant in the area. There was only one vegetarian plate, but it was full of deep fried mushroom and cheese goodness. I deserved this.

The most expensive view in South Africa

I joined up with Earthstompers Garden Route and Addo National Park tour for an amazing 5 days of sight-seeing and good company. Day 3: Oudtshoorn – Knysna – Sedgefield

“I’m going to show you the most expensive view in South Africa” claims Charlene, our Earthstompers tour guide.

As she says this we are driving through the heart of the valley, seeing some nice but normal looking houses surrounding a very large pond, complete with fronds. Well actually it’s the River Estuary of Knysna, the famous town of The Garden Route’s Lake District.

It’s also place with no elephants, thanks to woodsman killing all but 20 of them in the 1960s for the crime of ‘getting in the way’. What put the nail in the giant elephant coffin however, was the bright idea of the local council to let a hunter go kill just one more, to determine the species of course, because science. He killed 11. The final 9 were helped to hightailed it out of there, by being taken to Kruger National Park. A great idea in theory, but the completely different winter weather conditions at the time of their introduction and the changed sources of food meant they couldn’t survive.

These days, elephants sightings are claimed from time to time, something like big-foot or the lochness monster, but there has been no proof. Perhaps it’s just the ghost of elephants past trampling trees and leaving giant droppings in revenge.

 

As for the view, I’m sure it’s nice and all but I get the feeling it won’t live up to the hype. Then we make it to the lookout at the top of the cliff. Up where South Africa’s hottest property lies.

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Well ok, it’s quite spectacular.

Bright blue Indian Ocean views stretch out as far as the eye can see to one side. On the other, the sun pokes its way through light cloud cover to to glisten on the rocky ocean inlet below. I’m reminded of coastal Australia, where I grew up, and not for the first time today.

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We spent the morning driving through the eucalyptus forests of the Outiniqua Pass, yes Aussie Eucalyptus, brought over for paper plantations. We pass through The Garden Route’s capital town, George, named after England’s King George the Fourth. But the final destination of this particular drive, is a bushy riverside town, aptly named Wilderness.

It might be overcast, but by golly we were going to canoe this river, especially with promises of a waterfall at the end. Despite some serious against-wind battle, the river canoe cruise is calm and pleasant. All kinds of birds squawk from the dense tree cover to either side, or float right along with you. Back home, my fellow Aussie paddling partner and I concur, this would be exactly the kind of place you’d find a croc. While we’re assured that’s not likely here, we can’t help keeping a sharp eye out.

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Making it to shore with all our limbs still attached (at the front of the pack, I might add) we commence the leisurely bush walk to the waterfall. Scrubby bush (known here as bushveld, no denying that’s a fun word!) grew on either side of the wooden path, broken only by the trickling creek running through it. From time to time it was necessary to duck a low-lying tree branch, or of course, grab onto one of the vines and make like Tarzan.

Ok seriously, did I just canoe right back to Australia?

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I may have already suspected it, but the small waterfall at the end confirmed it. I had seen this place before. And I kept telling everyone, I’m sure they were sick of hearing it, but I was tripping. At least, settling on a large rock to eat a picnic lunch purchased this morning, I felt very much at home.

Getting Deep in the Cango Caves

I joined up with Earthstompers Garden Route and Addo National Park tour for an amazing 5 days of sight-seeing and good company. Day 2: Cape Agulhas – Oudtshoorn

 

I was nearly at the end of the line. I hated going last, particularly when my heart felt like it was thumping out of my chest. What was it about crawling through a 27 centimetre hole, 27 metres underground that made me so nervous?

Oh right…

I’d opted for the Adventure Tour option of Oudtshoorn’s (nope, still no idea how to pronounce that one, tragic English speaker that I am) Cango Caves, because apparently that’s what I do now. Plus it came highly recommended by a new backpacking friend.

After a particularly uneventful few hours walking through an Ostrich Farm in Little Karoo (known as the Ostrich Capital of the World), cringing as usually humane people thought it was worth the money to jump on the backs of grown ostriches with bags over their heads and worn off feathers, I was ready for the change of pace the caves brought.

Descending down the 200 damp and potentially slippery stairs of Jacob’s Ladder to enter the The Grand Hall, a place where they used to hold concerts until some jackass inevitably wandered off and broke off bits of cave and ruined it for everyone, quiet descended. It might just be to avoid the echo, but I’ve never been inside a cave where everyone didn’t just automatically start whispering. Then our tour guide hit the lights.

As someone with an overactive imagination who jumps at her own shadow; standing in a pitch black, wide open underground space was not only disorientating, it was nerve-wracking. I was waiting for all the world’s bogeymen to reach out and stroke me menacingly. I was clutching for the three people from my tour group who had come along with me, but also trying not to move my feet for fear of falling over.

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The lights did come back on, as our guide had promised, the whole thing had only taken about 2 minutes. If I’m honest, continuing on through the cave, while the structures were large and interesting none of them particularly stood out. So I may have been guilty of paying less attention than I should have.

Until I was faced with the 2 meter near vertical climb through a 75 centimetre opening that was Devil’s Tunnel. Come to think of it, this was probably a fairly significant contributing factor to that whole heart-out-of-the-chest thing. I’m 6 foot tall and nearly 5 foot of that is leg. How does one with zero arm strength get up a small tunnel without being able to bend your legs? How does one with mild claustrophobia get themselves into this situation in the first place? Honestly, I have no idea, but I did.

Now there was just a small matter of getting through the 27 centimetre hole. The only way back now was through Devil’s Tunnel, and once was enough. Let me tell you, nothing makes you more self conscious of your own body than sizing up a hole to squeeze it through.

You start coming up with little reassurances that are actually kind of horrible: See the shoulders on that guy? They’re at least double mine and he got through, you’ll be fine. And what about that girl? She’s definitely wider than I am and she got through, you’ll be fine. But goddamn I wish I was a skinny as that girl, I’d only need half the hole size. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.

And then you make it through. You were fine, and now you feel accomplished. You walk back towards The Grand Hall with your head held high, making a huge effort to befriend and be nice to all the people whose bodies you just judged in your head. You catch eyes with the rest of your tour group who opted for the calmer, less squeezy, Heritage Tour and both of you know, you made the right tour choice.