Do you remember that scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands in Oz, she first steps out and everything transforms from black and white into the most vibrant colors and fantastical setting? Along her journey to see the Wizard, Dorothy meets new friends; has several (mis)adventures, discovers bright, crazy and sometimes scary new places; finds her own brain, heart and courage along with her travel companions; and saves the day when she realizes that the hero isn’t the Wizard, but that it’s her destiny. That pretty much summaries my two month journey along the yellow brick road through the magical and massive land of Oz.
I arrived in Sydney and stayed in an Airbnb in a neighborhood called Surry Hill, which turns out to be the gayest area of Sydney and as I passed attractive gay men of all ages and shapes and as soon as I saw the rainbow flag waving outside of my window, I knew I was home. It reminded me so much of Chelsea, my very gay and wonderful place in NYC. And just as Dorothy got to experience an exciting makeover when she arrived in the Emerald City, I put on mascara and lipstick, my only pseudo “going out” top to meet up with my friends James and Jonathan for what turned out to be a long and crazy night out. I met Jonathan and James in Cambodia when I dined with my friend Rob and Andrew from San Francisco who met the couple in Siem Reap. As soon as I met this beautiful and hilarious couple in Siem Reap, it was love at first sight. They’re a couple of British boys who are living the fab life in Sydney and I was excited to reunite with them in their hometown and they took me under their wings, introduced me to their incredibly sexy inner circle of friends and made me feel like Sydney was my own. I’ve been asked what it is about my gay male friends that bonds me so closely to them and the answer is that there are so many things. In simplest terms, we have a mutual admiration for our strengths and vulnerabilities, and the traits (independence, sassiness, humor and sometimes brutal honesty) that have often been a cause of strain with men that I date are the same that are cherished by my gay friends. J&J also allowed me to keep my large and unruly roller bag in their brand new home for the next 6 weeks while I skipped all around Australia. (THANK YOU!)
I got to tour around Sydney with my friend Rachna’s brother Anish who recently returned to the city. It’s no surprise that the city ranks among so many traveler’s favorites. It’s a gorgeous city, the harbor, restaurants, Opera House, bridge, many restaurants, bars, shops, Bondi beach, and fast but not insane hustle add to its dizzying appeal. Sydney was a time for me to also reunite with my friend Alex from Soul & Surf in Sri Lanka and I also got to spend time with my friend from my William & Mary days, Erika who lives in Manly with her teen-dream kids Taylor and Hunter. While so much of my time in New Zealand was spent alone and isolated, Australia was the opposite with reunions and making a lot of new friends.
After a fun few days in Sydney, I set off for Melbourne the country’s other popular city in the south. I stayed in St. Kilda’s a suburb of the city in a place just outside of the beach. One of my favorite things about St. Kilda’s small town is that there are seriously like five bakeries all on the same main street! I arrived just in time for the beginning of Australia’s winter, so instead of bathing suits and shorts, I had to layer up in my mostly summer clothes and explore the charming town feeling cold. That feeling of being cold is a theme that would follow me throughout my journey, particularly in the next part of my trip. The highlight of Melbourne was getting to go out with Alexis and Andrew close friends of my favorite NYC Aussies Tim and Lucas. I got to meet this beautiful couple at Tim and Lucas’ wedding in upstate NY and was so happy to get to see them on the other side of the world. I went to a fun improv performance of Andrew’s and his improv group in the city and then we all went for pizza and cocktails, it felt very NYC. Melbourne is known to be the country’s cultural center, boasting the best in food, bars, coffee and culture.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road to Uluru
Australia is such an enormous country, it was intimidating to figure out where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there. The only place I absolutely knew I wanted to see was Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock in the center of the country. So I decided to sign up for a 10 day tour that takes you by bus from Melbourne to Adelaide and then Adelaide to Alice Springs, which is about 2500 kilometers or 1500 miles. Sounds like fun, right? I spent more time on buses in Australia than probably all of my other trips combined, but a trip’s not just about the destination but the people who are part of it. And I was lucky enough to meet two really great groups of people on this long haul journey, people from all over the world, of varied ages, backgrounds and interests. But we all had that commonality of wanderlust and curiosity that took us from our homes to drive from the ocean coasts of South Australia up through the no man’s land in the outback into the Northern Territory.
The first three days of the tour was a drive through the famous Great Ocean Road and hitting some of Australia’s well known sights including The Grampians, Twelve Apostles, as well as getting to see kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and emus along the way. When I arrived to Australia, I remember thinking, “I really hope I get to see some koalas and kangaroos here”. Well, on Day 1 of this trip, it’s as if the Great and Powerful Oz heard my wish and we were literally surrounded by them and even got to pet a few roos on the trip, which made me feel quite guilty when our tour guide Steve grilled some kangaroo steaks for us to try. Sorry little fellas but your friends were kind of yummy. After the gobsmacking natural wonder of New Zealand, it’s a bit hard for Australia to compete, but it’s unfair to compare the two even though both countries love the competition with their neighbor. I saw some remarkably beautiful places in Australia especially in that stretch of the Great Ocean Road.
Two of my tour mates Alistair from Australia and Julia from Switzerland were also continuing on with me from Adelaide to Alice Springs where we joined another dozen new people and our new guide Keith. The seven day trip was the hardcore portion of the program, you know where Dorothy is really tested with flying monkeys, scary trees, and poppy fields that knock her out. Australia is a remarkable country for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a country filled with every species of plant, animal, insect, fish and other living creature that is designed to kill you. I’ve actually theorized that the reason Aussie’s are so outgoing, funny with an often dark sense of humor that I love is because they live in a country where you’re constantly on the cusp of death so there’s a true “FUCK IT” esprit de corps.
It was also the first time I felt like so much reminded me of home, the size and scope of the country, the humor, the friendliness and of course the English (although there were definitely times the accents were so thick I couldn’t understand what was being said and at times I was told my accent was also challenging to understand!). Also, as a major fan of several Australian films (Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Crocodile Dundee, etc.), everywhere and everyone I met felt like a scene and/or character from these awesome films. Whether it was talking to a leathery man wearing a vest without a shirt who spoke to me at length in the outback and the only discernible part of our conversation was “G’day” or seeing how the desolate and dry desert would inspire George Miller’s post apocalyptic Mad Max, or getting a chance to dance on the canyon where they filmed Priscilla Queen of the Desert, there were many magical moments for a pop culture nerd.
I had so many firsts in Oz. Like in New Zealand, there were some hikes, but this time I was with a group of people and most of the hikes weren’t as crazy treacherous as the ones I experience in NZ. But there were other dangers. One of them included sleeping outside in a swag. For those like myself who are unfamiliar with what the hell a swag is, it’s basically an outdoor envelope that you put your sleeping bag into that allegedly protects you from the elements. Do you know how cold it is in the desert in winter? The answer is fucking freezing. And as previously stated, I did not have winter clothes nor did I have a winter sleeping bag. I bought one from the tour company but tragically they only had a summer bag, which turns out is as warm as wearing my summer dress to bed. My new pal Alistair, an outdoorsy Aussie found it unendingly amusing that I was so ill prepared and miserable in my hypothermic state. My first night in the swag, I borrowed a warm winter scarf from my friend Liz and it was the warmest thing I wore and I spent the entire night shivering, miserable and convinced I wouldn’t make it to the morning. When dawn finally broke, I anxiously awaited tour guide Keith to wake up so I could turn in my resignation and let him know that my weakling, city self wasn’t cut out for this tour. But as the sun started to shine brighter, so did my disposition and my resolve that I would not give up because I really wanted to see Uluru and well because quitting wouldn’t do me any good in the middle of the outback where there was no other option out of there.
During the days when we weren’t driving through hundreds of kilometers of empty road, we would stop in random small towns full of quirky people. One of those stops was in Coober Pedy, a town known for opal mining where it gets so hot in the summer and cold in winter that many of its residents live in holes dug out of the ground. They convert these holes into “apartments” but the walls, floors and ceilings are dirt. We got to tour one of them and the lady who showed us around was straight out of a real estate reality show enthusiastically selling us on the great benefits of life underground. We even stayed in an underground motel with dormitory rooms and I was so grateful to not be in a swag that I was beginning to understand what that lady was so excited about.
Uluru, A Big Red Sacred Rock
When we finally arrived to Uluru, I was worried that the time and effort of the trip and the hype may diminish the effect of seeing this wonder of the world, but it absolutely did not. We stayed at the campsite for a couple of nights and got to see Uluru a few times in various light, sunset to sunrise. I opted to do the sunrise walk around the perimeter of the rock and it was completely magical. Each side magically transformed colors from red, orange, brown to shades in between as the sun rose higher, as did the shape and terrain of each face. My time seeing Uluru remains at the top of my list even after everything I saw and did in Australia. There is a reason that the indigenous people believe this place is sacred — there is something so unique and other worldly about it. In fact, the Australian government recently returned these sacred lands back to the aboriginal people and they requested that people do not hike up the rock. To my disappointment, many still do, but for me, seeing it up close and from afar and walking the perimeter was more than enough and as there are so many places in the world you can hike, I did not want to do something that would disrespect the wishes of those to whom this place sacred.
One of the aspects of my time in Australia that I found really tragic was learning more about the history of and seeing how so many of the indigenous people live. The history of genocide, persecution, racism has paid a heavy toll on the original people and their younger generations. Much like the shameful history and current pervasive racism that exists in America, Australia has far to go in making changes not only politically, but socially to bring these people to equality. It was most stark in Alice Sprigs where many aboriginal people live and were visibly under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
After the tour ended, many of us spent the last night in Alice Springs out together, sharing a last meal and drinks together. My time with the Alice Springs tour group was really fun. We were like a mix of family, friends, school kids and fellow world travelers sharing stories, advice and laughed our way through thousands of miles together. I am so happy we got to experience this part of my trip with new friends who cheered me on, laughed at and with me, some of whom I would see again in Australia and others whom I hope to see somewhere else in the world.
Dorothy’s journey does not end in Alice Springs so stay tuned for part 2 in the Land of Oz.