We spent the eighth day of our Ghan train trip in Alice Springs, the geographic heart of Australia. “The centre of the centre.” We weren’t catching the Ghan north until dinnertime, so we had a full day to explore this spirited Outback town with a population of nearly 25,000. Even with our limited time, we managed to walk through the botanic gardens, see the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, take photos from the top of Anzac Hill, visit a pharmacy, and even eat a couple of sit-down meals.
Part of the reason I wanted to ride the Ghan train across Australia was to make a stop at Uluṟu (oo-luh-ROO) – the infamous red sandstone rock in the middle of the Australian Outback. Formerly known as Ayers Rock, to call it a “rock” is a bit of a misnomer; at just over half a billion years old and 348 meters or 1,142 feet tall, Uluṟu is visible from space. If you’ve ever seen a postcard or image of Australia, chances are it featured Uluṟu. I visited it previously in 2006 when my dad and stepmom came to visit, and it was one of the highlights of my euphoric grad school year in Australia.
Part of our touring package was a round-trip bus journey from Alice Springs for an overnight at Uluṟu, about 450 km (280 miles) each way, along with multiple activities and accommodation in the premier hotel on the resort grounds, Sails in the Desert. In retrospect, I wish I had questioned the distance a little more and arranged to stay at Uluṟu longer, but in order to reboard the Ghan in Alice Springs, we needed to either stay a night or wait until the following week to catch it north. And thus, a Hail Mary trip to Uluṟu it was.
On day four of our trip, we headed to the Adelaide railway terminal to catch the midday Ghan train north to the Australian Outback. We were greeted with champagne and juice, our luggage quickly checked, and then we were off with our overnight bags to snap some photos of the train before boarding the first leg of 2,979 km (1,851 miles).
[This post is part two in a five-part series about our Ghan voyage across Australia. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
For more than a year, I have been dreaming about a train trip across Australia on the Ghan. Now in its 90th year of service, the Ghan is a passenger train that traverses the “red centre” of Australia from south to north. Operated by Great Southern Rail, the 54-hour ride starts in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and ends in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, you could be forgiven for not realizing that covers an astonishing nearly 3,000 km (1,880 miles), plus whatever stopovers and forays into the Outback you do along the way.
This isn’t a trip you do on the fly. Most people who do it are retired – Australians call them “grey nomads” – and have been thinking about it for a lifetime. Several months ago I finally bought the tickets as a special gift to my husband, and in mid-June we took this inspiring 12-day journey. Now that we have safely returned home and entered our last month at Post, I cannot imagine a more profound way for us to have begun our goodbyes to Australia than riding the Ghan.
Earlier this month, we combined our last three-day weekend in Australia with our last road trip to Sydney for the 11th annual Vivid – a festival of “light, music and ideas.” Vivid didn’t exist when I lived there as a grad student, and last year we missed it, but I thought it would be fun to see to see the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge lit up, and to check out the light installations at the zoo and Royal Botanic Gardens. We also did a couple of coastal walks, ate delicious food, saw a grad school friend of mine, and visited the Anzac Memorial’s recently completed WWI centenary exhibition.
Although we were only in Sydney for two nights, the trip reminded me of how much I love Sydney and what a beautiful city it is. There is often debate among embassy colleagues about our favorite Australian cities. I cannot fault Melbourne, Brisbane, or anywhere else; I have never been anywhere in Australia that I did not like. But Sydney holds a special place in my heart as my former home. In the intervening years, it has been full of changes. But many delightful old ghosts come back to life for me with each visit, and sharing that with V is terrific for me. It was good to be there one more time, with less than eight weeks remaining at Post.
Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
The original plan had been to see more of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart on the afternoon of day eight and then move on to Port Arthur on day nine. However, we as human beings had not been able to move at the speed of my paper itinerary, after all. So after a quick redrafting of the plan, the morning of our ninth day we headed to the infamous Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), about nine miles away.
After a wonderful but long day on Victoria state’s Great Ocean Road, we looked forward to a day of sightseeing in Melbourne, followed by an overnight ferry trip with the car to Tasmania. I hadn’t sailed on the Spirit of Tasmania since my grad school days in 2005, and I was excited about getting back to one of my favorite places in Oz. Only this time, I would sleep in a cabin with a bed rather than on the floor, and I wouldn’t have to drive on the left for the first time upon arrival!
[This is the second post in a series about the Australian road trip I took last month with my mom and V. If you missed the first post, you can find it here: Bush Capital to Great Ocean Road (Aussie Road Trip, Part I).]
Last month, my mom came to Australia for two weeks to visit V and I, and celebrate her milestone birthday. We spent a few days in Canberra (Australia’s “bush capital”), showing her around and letting her adjust to the 19 hour time difference (!). Then we took an epic eight-hour road trip through rural Victoria down to Melbourne, where we looked around the city and did a day trip down the Great Ocean Road. Afterwards, we loaded up ourselves – and my car – on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry and sailed 10.5 hours overnight to Australia’s island state of Tasmania. There we spent six days trying to circumnavigate the island’s breathtaking coastlines, lush valleys, and primordial forests. We then reversed our course all the way back to Canberra, spending a couple more days sightseeing around our little town and celebrating V’s own milestone birthday before my mom returned to American winter.
It will probably take me two or three posts to share all the cool things we did, so with no further ado – three Americans take an epic Aussie road trip across three states and one territory!
Whenever there is a three day weekend – be it for a U.S. or a local holiday – I’m generally keen to go out of town, taking advantage of an extra day off without using leave. And back in August, I’d planned ahead for a quick getaway up to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state, for the Veterans Day weekend.
This month, I celebrated a milestone birthday and welcomed my visiting dad and stepmom to Australia. Getting a family visit as a Foreign Service Officer, even to an “easy sell” country like Australia, is a relatively rare chance to catch up and share a bit of your FS world with loved ones you don’t see often enough. The ‘promised’ influx of visitors during our tour in Australia has not materialized; our time here is two-thirds over, and my dad and L were our first visitors! I’m not really surprised: after all, Canberra isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. And although Americans are fascinated with Australia, relatively few actually get here – less than 1% of Americans traveled down under in 2017. Although my dad and stepmom could only stay a week, we had a great time with them, touring Canberra and saying goodbye to my 30s on a road trip to the South Coast.
This past May when V and I went to the Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival, I saw a flyer for a hot air balloon fiesta to take place at September’s end. March was our first hot air ballooning experience in Canberra, an experience we both wanted to do again. So I bought our fiesta tickets almost as soon as we returned home, in anticipation of celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary in a hot air balloon over vineyard country. And last weekend, we did just that.
No, not us – a small Macedonian dog named Kikiriki (“Peanuts”) who we’ve been caretaking for the last four months. Her owners, our dear friends J and M who previously served in Canberra, made it to their onward assignment in Pakistan and sent for her. So on the morning of September 11, we gave Keeks our typical Foreign Service goodbye: “See you on the other side somewhere!”
On the recent Labor Day weekend, I took my husband on a trip to Kosciuszko National Park across state lines in New South Wales. When I’d planned it back in May, the park’s eco-cabin accommodation was booked out for months and had a two-night minimum. So I went for a three-day weekend during a U.S. holiday when Australians would be working and bingo! It was mine. The park’s northern area of Yarrangobilly Caves is only about 2.5 hours southwest of Canberra, and boasts more than 400 caves, some dating back several million years.
This weekend, we took a small road trip 50 miles south into New South Wales’ Snowy Monaro Region to experience a black truffle hunt. The greater Canberra region is known for its fresh black winter truffles. This year, the tenth annual Canberra Truffle Festival runs from June through August (the southern hemisphere equivalent of December-February). What better way to experience the festival and support local farmers than enjoying a black perigord truffle-infused brunch and tagging along with dogs trained to hunt the savory black gold?