18 days in the Outback


“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m tanned, or just really dirty”.

This quote of Christine’s, from our campsite in Tennant Creek, nicely sums up our 18-days traveling through the Australian outback. Lots of sun and lots of red dirt.

Our route took us from Darwin on Australia’s northern coast right down to Adelaide on Australia’s southern coast; the first time either of us had driven across the entire length of a continent. The main highway for the journey is the Stuart Highway and the journey itself is dubbed “The Explorer’s Way”. Both are in reference to the early Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart who was the first white person to cover this stretch back in 1862. One slight difference between Stuart and us is that he did the journey from south to north. Another slight difference is that he didn’t have a car.

In Darwin, we picked up our 4wd rental, fully equipped with tent, sleeping bags, mini-fridge and cooking equipment. Having a fridge was a pretty sweet addition and meant we’d have more flexibility in what we cooked than we otherwise would have with just an esky.

Before we left Darwin, we stopped by a supermarket to stock up on provisions. The two most important items for us to buy were 30 litres of water in case we broke down in the outback, and a bunch of lacinato kale because Christine doesn’t eat any meal that doesn’t include kale these days. Along with this we bought some other moderately important things like toilet paper, soap and non-kale food items too.

Fully stocked, I was itching to hit the road. But one last thing to do before we left was to set the trip odometer to zero and photograph it so we could capture the full number of kilometres we travelled on our journey. Little did I know that this thing resets itself every 2,000km so I was unable to get a nice picture with the total kilometres we covered. In case you’re wondering, we covered 5,425km and if you do the math you can work it out with the pictures below :).

Our first stop was Litchfield National Park. Although less well-known than the nearby Kakadu National Park, Litchfield is a beautiful park in its own right. Upon arrival we went straight to the nearest waterhole for a quick dip, which was a great relief from the 40+ degree (Celcius) temperatures. Cool and relaxed from our swim, we then found a nice patch of dirt to set up camp. Admittedly, we struggled at first working out how to pitch our very large 4-man tent. It was not as easy to assemble as the 2-man tents we’re used to. However, later we were very grateful to have a large tent since the night time temperatures throughout the trip were often north of 30 degrees and the bigger tent was actually quite airy, providing some relief to the heat.

The following morning we awoke early to sunrise and did a short hike to a peak where you could look out over Litchfield. Having built up a sweat we then made our way to a waterfall for a swim and were lucky to have the entire place to ourselves. An incredible first 24 hours.

Next stop was to backtrack a little and then head east over to Kakadu National Park. I’ve been wanting to go here for years so I was excited to finally make it. We ended up spending 3 nights in Kakadu. Highlights were our first evening picnic at the Ubirr sunset point; seeing some of the oldest Aboriginal rock paintings; the Yellow River cruise which allowed us to get upclose to tons of saltwater crocodiles along with other beautiful bird life; and the little advertised waterfalls at Yurmikmik that Christine and I stumbled across and got to swim in.

On the topic of swimming in Kakadu, because of the saltwater crocodiles there aren’t really any truly safe places to swim in Kakadu. Waterholes are either signposted as “Don’t swim”, where you’d be stupid to swim since there are known crocodiles in the area; or “Swim at your own risk” which is where the rangers do not believe there are crocodiles and make an effort to check on this, but just can’t be 100% certain. Knowing that nothing is 100% certain, definitely made the heart beat a little faster on the couple of times we did swim in Kakadu.

On day 5, we woke up early to hit one of the longest stretches of our journey from Kakadu down to Tennant Creek. Fortunately the road conditions were good so we got into Tennant Creek a little earlier than expected. This allowed us to spend some time getting to know the town. We hit the local RSL club for a beer and a steak, chatting with one of the locals who regaled many a story about Tennant Creek’s booms and busts over the years with mining and cattle butchering. Afterwards we stopped by for a beer at the Tennant Creek Hotel. We were the only non-indigenous clientele there that night. Interestingly the only people who gave us funny looks were the bar staff.

Next morning we got up at 4:30am so that we could make our way down to see the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) at sunrise. It was breathtaking experience and well worth the effort. The Devil’s Marbles are this incredible set of rock formations where weathering over time has created these large round rocks everywhere. At sunrise you got to see the rocks change colours and the landscape come to life.

Later that afternoon, we arrived into Alice Springs where we stayed with Christine’s brother-in-law’s sister, Geeta, and her partner David. Geeta and David were incredibly hospitable, taking us out for lunch and showing us around Alice Springs. It was great getting an opportunity to get to know them. It was also great to learn from them and their experience working on Aboriginal health issues. One of Australia’s most pressing social issues is the state of affairs of Aboriginal communities and our country’s dealings with its original owners. It’s an incredibly complex issue and was great to hear perspectives from people who work and contribute to change in this area.

Although we were tempted to stay a little longer hanging out with Geeta and David and getting to make use of a real bed and clean shower, we were also excited by the next few days ahead: a short detour off the highway to pass through the West Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Highlight of the West Macdonnel ranges was driving from gorge to gorge, where we’d do a short hike followed by a dip in a beautiful waterhole. In Kings Canyon the highlight was our sunrise hike around the rim of the canyon. And the highlight for Uluru was  probably the highlight for our whole trip: seeing Uluru at sunset. I’d been to Uluru before about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve always remembered it as my single favourite place in all of Australia (and maybe the world). Coming back to Uluru for a second time, it was equally as incredible. As you approach the Uluru from 50km out, there is only flat earth as far as the eye can see. And then, on the horizon, you see Uluru as this massive rock that seems to emerge from nowhere. It boggles the mind as to how this rock should exist there. Up close, Uluru feels like it has its own field of gravity, pulling you in. For our sunset there, we went to the lookout, prepared a wonderful picnic spread, popped open a bottle of bubbly, plugged in our headphones to our iPod and sat on the roof of our 4wd admiring the changing colours of the rock at sunset. We ended up staying there long after the sun had set, admiring the beauty of our surroundings. Just magical.

After Uluru was another long driving day of about 750km, first heading east back to the Stuart Highway and then south all the way down to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a quirky town of only 1,500 residents. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s largest Opal mining town. Its other claim to fame is that it is the most uninhabitable place on earth with ground temperatures often above 65 degrees, along with extraordinarily strong winds. In order to deal with these conditions, many of the people live in houses built underground. So one of the “must do’s” in Coober Pedy is to stay underground for the night. In our case, we camped underground which was a really fun experience. It was actually one of the more comfortable places we slept in given that the temperature was a cool 22 degrees and we didn’t have to battle with any rain or wind. While in Coober Pedy, we also made time for an Opal mine tour and a visit to an underground church.

After Coober Pedy, we decided to take another detour of the Stuart highway so that we could make our way over to the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we bumped into some travelers we’d seen at our underground camp place in Coober Pedy, so we hung out with them for a couple of days. Dimitri and Els from Belgium and Maarten from the Netherlands were in the middle of a longer road trip from Perth to Melbourne, also via the Flinders. Together we visited some cool natural springs, camped under the stars, and had a lunch of Australian feral animals at the very “hip” Prairie Hotel. The Prairie Hotel is worth a call out because it was an absolute gem of a find. Situated in the town of Parachilna with only 2 permanent residents (which, as described by Grant, the hotel manager, is “northeast of the middle of f***ing nowhere”), the only reason to stop is to come to the Prairie Hotel. 20 years ago, on what sounds like a whim, the new owners decided to turn the run down pub into a boutique hotel. The hotel itself is very tastefully done. But the reason we came by was to try the famous “Feral Platter” which is an antipasti plate of emu pate, camel wurst and smoked kangaroo. Everything we ate there was just delicious. And Grant was a barrel of laughs too.

Along the drive to the Flinders we saw emus in the wild for the very first time. Crazy animals as you can see in this video:

But the highlight was for Christine getting to see big red kangaroos in the wild for the first time. Prior to this, Christine had been complaining that she’d only seen small kangaroos and wallabies in the wild and was starting to not believe me that you could see big ones in the wild too. But once we arrived into Flinders Ranges National Park, we saw big ones everywhere. Very cool.

Flinders is famous among geologists for having some of the oldest known rocks in the world that now potrude out after movement in the earth millions of years back. But beyond just having really old rocks, the area itself is beautiful. We spent two days there, hiking around and enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures than further north. Given the vast area of the Flinders Ranges, that we could never entirely cover by hiking or even by car, we decided to take a scenic flight which gave us a very different and spectacular perspective of the landscape.

Our penultimate stop along the journey was in the South Australian wine region. It was two stops really, one in Clare Valley and the other in Barossa Valley. Part of the reason for deciding to go from north to south was so that we could finish up our journey in this beautiful wine country. In Clare we hired bikes and rode along the Riesling Trail (Clare is famous for its Rieslings) from winery to winery tasting wonderful wines and gourmet food. In Barossa we did a wine hike, walking from winery to winery to taste the wines and food. Mixing exercise into our wine tastings helped us justify the 4 straight days of indulgence.

And finally, 18 days after departing Darwin we arrived at our destination: Adelaide. We’d both been to Adelaide before so didn’t budget a lot of time here before we flew back to Sydney. That said, we still made time for one last gourmet experience dining at Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar where we celebrated the amazing journey we’d just completed.


Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas


Exhilarating, strenuous, cold, remote, stunning, and very rewarding. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when summarizing our recent 7-day trek to the Jhomolhari base camp in the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was very much looking forward to this adventure and being back in the remote wilderness. I must admit, however, that I tend to romanticize those type of trekking trips, somehow forgetting the unavoidable painful moments. But Christian and I love the challenge. And with that challenge comes appreciation and a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what we feel looking back on our Himalaya adventure.

The incredible thing about an organized trekking tour (you have to book through a travel agency to get a tourist visa to Bhutan) is that you really “just” have to carry yourself up (and down) the mountains. Everything else is taken care of. Tenzin, our tour guide, brought us up to speed with Bhutan’s history and every imaginable story about Buddhism; our horse guide took care of our seven pack horses; and three other guys managed the camp. Yep, that’s right: 5 men and 7 horses supporting just the 2 of us! Sounds like luxury camping. But wasn’t. The whole experience was still an adventure. It was physically challenging (we hiked an average of 15km a day with an average altitude difference of 1500-2000m), it was hard to breathe (our highest pass was 4890m), and it was cold (freezing temperatures at night which made sleeping through pretty much impossible). But it was so worth it. Here is a glimpse of our daily “life in the mountains”:

Day 1: Talking about challenges, we didn’t even make it to our starting point on Day 1. Heavy rain in the days before our hike had caused some landslides, blocking the road. Our driver, determined to navigate through the narrow opening on the street, tried to make it through. That turned out to be a bad idea. The car slid to the left and hit a huge rock. Luckily, the damage wasn’t too bad.

There was no way, however, to drive any further so we packed up our stuff and decided to walk instead, adding 3 extra kilometers to the 22 kilometers planned for that day. And the fun was only about to begin. The rain had turned the rocky trail into an enourmous mud slide. What we expected to be a long but leisurely hike through the sub-tropical forests ended up being an 8-hour balancing and rock-jumping exercise.

Exhausted but proud of our progress, we reached the camp side where hot tea and a glimpse of the stunning Jhomolhari summit, Bhutan’s second tallest peak, awaited us.

Day 2: We woke up to sunny skies and a crystal clear view onto Jhomolhari. Just beautiful.

Energized we set out to conquer the next 17km of the trek, hugging the valley floor and a fast flowing river.

Close to the 4000m altitude mark we came through a small village. Really just an accumulation of a handful of houses. It’s hard to imagine to live in such a harsh climate. The place is snowcovered from November to March and people mainly live off yaks and sheep. Despite being remote, the people were quite inviting. A group of villagers that were catching up (outside in the cold) happily posed for pictures. And some school boys took the opportunity to practice a few English phrases with us.

After one more hour we reached the base camp (4080m) with spectacular views onto the 7314m high Jhomolhari. It got cold pretty quickly so we bridged the time until dinner, snuggling up and reading in our sleeping bags. Besides the actual hike, dinner was the main highlight of the day. We couldn’t wait for our daily dose of hot soup – the best imaginable thing when it’s cold outside. Well, actually, there was something that topped the soup. When we all huddled in the kitchen tent that night, our crew produced a whiskey bottle. Not being a big whiskey fan my enthusiasm was limited. But, hey, try that stuff with some hot water. It’s magic! The perfect way to warm up before jumping back into your sleeping bag.

Day 3: Our acclimatization day. In order to avoid altitude sickness, the itinerary plans in an acclimatization day at the base camp. While we had woken up to clear views, that soon changed.


We set out on a 4-hour hike up to the actual base of Jhomolhari and got caught in a hail storm before it started to snow a bit. Crazy how you can get all types of weather within a couple of hours.

Back at the camp in the afternoon, the sun reemerged. Time for some hooping with the crew! This turned out to be super fun. Our horse guide had the funniest technique and everyone cracked up laughing. Once dusk was upon us, the typical routine kicked-in: reading, dinner, mystical stories in the kitchen tent over our shot of “hot-water whiskey”, some more reading, bedtime 🙂

Day 4: This was a tough day with an ascent of 800m followed by a descent of 1000m. But also very rewarding. We passed yak herders through a stunning scenery with crisp blue alpine lakes and rivers. The weather gods kept challenging us with a hail storm during the last 200m of our ascent. But we made it up to the highest point on our route (4890m), cold and sweaty at the same time!

The amazing outlook was shortlived, however, as we needed to make a 1km vertical descent back down to our camp. Again, the scenery made up for the workout. Our path led us through rocky cliffs, wildfower meadows, various nomadic settlements and provided incredible views onto gigantic waterfalls.

Our camp was tucked away in a beautiful small opening in the wood right next to the river. Optimistic about the sun that broke through the clouds, I took a little “shower” in the river. But, somewhat predictably, the weather turned rainy and cold within minutes so my enthusiasm was shortlived. I jumped back in my usual 5-layer outfit immediately. The attempt to start a cozy bonfire was rained out. But we had gotten a few minutes of warmth.

Back to our usual treat: a bit of hot whiskey and hot water bottles. Yes, our crew prepared hot water bottles for the night for us! This was another nice surprise. Reminded me of my childhood when I was sick and my mum would tuck me into my bed with a hot water bottle. Without our little “heaters” I would have probably woken up even more times during night.

Day 5: Both Christian and I thought we had the hardest day of the trek behind us. Happily we jumped “out of bed”, stretched our stiff bodies and eagerly awaited our hot coffee and breakfast.


Our cook kept surprising us with new items. That day he produced pancakes. Strengthened, we continued the journey. But it was not as easy as expected. The previous four days of intense hiking in altitude must have taken a toll on us. Both Christian and I moved in slow motion, our bodies feeling incredibly tired. Like snails we dragged ourselves up the first 200m past hillsides lush with rhododendrons before gradually climbing above the tree line again. And then we hit the last killer ascent, a steep 550m climb up to our last pass (4520m) on the trek. Mentally, this was the toughest stretch for Christian and me. But I also knew it would be our last big one. And again, stunning views from the top. Only one more hour downhill to our camp for the day!

Arriving at the camp, Tenzin, our guide, surprised us with a Druk 11000. Druk is one of Bhutan’s national beers. The Druk 11000 is an extra strong version with 8%. We were happy 🙂


Day 6: Our last day of hiking. One more last, steep ascent before venturing into a 1.6km vertical, rocky downhill path. The weather gods on our side, we had sunshine for the whole day. After arriving at the camp site around lunch time, we ventured out to meet locals in the nearby village.

While enjoying a beer at a local grocery shop (really just a room with some basic goods), we got a peak at “doma”. Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. It’s made out of betel nut, betel leave and lime (synthetic calcium carbonate). You chew the mixture which makes your mouth go slightly numb and stains your teeth red. It’s spat out after chewing, so you can see doma stains on the ground all over the place in Bhutan. These days the government is trying to reduce the use of it given its addictiveness and negative health implications. But it’s so ingrained in Bhutanese culture that people, especially older ones, won’t give up the habit.

Two little girls, just back from school, were curiously peaking through the shop window. Happy that I had brought the hoop, we attempted to teach them how to do it. Very timid at first, the girls barely dared to touch it. But with a little encouragement they went for it, and had a lot of fun.

Back at the camp there was one more game we wanted to try. A typical Buthanese stone-throwing game. Sounds pretty simple (i.e., just get the stone as close to the target as possible). Turns out it’s not. Both Christian and I were pretty bad at it. Our trekking crew, unsurprisingly, “rocked” the game.

With a little bit of nostalgia, we enjoyed our last trekking meal that evening. Our cook surprised us again – this time with empanadas and a pizza! What a treat on our last night camping. Satisfied, we stumbled into our tent and, admittedly, were both looking forward to a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed again the next day 🙂