The Down Under Report: Month 9 of 12

The Down Under Report is a monthly recap of my time and money spent in Australia on the Work and Holiday Visa in 2015. Be sure to check out the other monthly recaps as well!

A year on the Australia work and holiday visa

Month 9 in Australia was full of beautiful moments. It was the final leg of my 3 months in the far north, which ended up breaking down as follows:

  • 3 weeks working at El Questro (ELQ)
  • 1 week traveling from ELQ to Darwin, via Kununurra and Lake Argyle

My final weeks at ELQ were some of my best, full of excellent hikes and good times with fellow staff. Having my end date in sight made it that much more bearable scrubbing walls and washing dishes for 40 hours each week. I was offered an extra week of work (which likely would have turned into a month, had I agreed), but I turned it down because it felt like time to move on.

I think I bowed out at just the right time, though, because during my last week it suddenly got unbearably humid. I’d be standing still in the Steakhouse kitchen peeling onions or melons and feel sweat just pouring down my back and forehead, even with aircon on. And on days I worked in the Homestead kitchen, my white button-down shirt would be so soaked in sweat that it was wet t-shirt contest-worthy. Woof! Honestly, I loved the 100F days when it was dry heat – but the second humidity enters the picture, I’m OUT.

After my contract ended on August 30th, I had about a week to get myself up to Darwin for my flight to Melbourne. I intentionally left it open-ended until the last minute, which totally paid off because I was offered a ride to Lake Argyle with some staff who were leaving ELQ the same time I was. I got to ride on Anita and Andrew’s converted bus with them and Anita’s two daughters, Joy and Amy, as they kicked off a 5-month journey down the west coast. They welcomed me as part of the family with the perfect blend of generosity and fun, sharing meals and inviting me to watch movies on the bus at our campsite.

Crocodile in Darwin, Australia
Crocodile jumping in the Northern Territory.

After that, I had a couple days in Kununurra to wind down and organize myself before making the trek up to Darwin. While in town I finally sorted out my bank transfer, lay out at the campground pool, and explored Mirima National Park.

Then at the end of the week, I caught the Greyhound bus to Darwin with Claudia (ELQ staff) – surprisingly, it was a very-bearable 11 hours on the road. Once I arrived in Darwin, a friend of Anna (aka the Traveling Tinderella) picked me up and whisked me to his house just outside the city and let me crash there for a couple days while he was out of town. His friend Chris was also staying there, house sitting for the week – and he was happy to drive me around for two days to show me the best of Darwin, from a jumping crocodile cruise, to a sunset dinner at the Sailing Club, to a day exploring Litchfield National Park (which Claudia tagged along for). I found myself wanting a little more time in this Top End town, despite it being my third visit. I may just have to return sometime for Round 4!

The month concluded as I caught my flight from Darwin to Melbourne, straight back into the Great Unknown. Here we go!

Favorite Moments From Month 9:

Hiking to Wandjina’s Window and the G-Spot

Wandjina's Window, El Questro

One of those hikes in El Questro Wilderness Park requiring at least one person in your party who’s done it before, I was super lucky to tag along with a couple of ELQ staff on their trek to Wandjina’s Window. We started off on the trail to Emma Gorge, then veered off into the bush and ascended the ridge. With no markers to guide us, I half expected us to squander our time looking for the correct way down – but we didn’t, and we had plenty of time to sit and enjoy both Wandjina’s Window and the G-Spot below. All the bushwalking and subsequent scraped legs were well worth the beautiful spots we saw on this hike. The view from Wandjina’s Window and the pools down at the G-Spot are some of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen at El Questro. I’m so happy I did this hike!

Camping at Saddleback Ridge

Australia work and holiday visa

Desperate for some genuine alone time and privacy, I inconspicuously packed my daypack with my sleeping bag, mat, camera, and tripod and hiked up to the Saddleback Ridge viewing platform around sunset. Then once all the tourists dispersed, I set up my little camp right on the platform and started watching the third season of Orange is the New Black on my laptop while waiting for the stars to come out so I could photograph them. I fell asleep staring at the Milky Way directly above me.

Kimberley sunset

I woke up around 2:30am to a completely different palette of stars in the sky and couldn’t resist getting up to shoot them again. I mean, can you blame me?

Outback night sky

A few hours later I woke up to light breaking over the ridge and slowly lighting the surrounding land. Even though I slept like crap, I felt completely energized from such a peaceful night on my own. It really is true: sometimes all you need is a quick little getaway to feel refreshed again.

Finally booking my flight to Melbourne

I spent WEEKS agonizing over my onward travel plans. Should I fly straight from Kununurra to Melbourne, or wait a few days? Should I try to make it up to Darwin to explore more of the top end before venturing south? The prohibitively expensive flights out of Kununurra made the decision a little easier, and I ended up saving about AU$200 by taking the Greyhound bus from Kununurra and flying out of Darwin. I’d have nearly a week of Outback adventuring before arriving in Melbourne just in time to start my first house sit. Can’t even tell you how relieved I felt to have that all sorted!

Hanging out with all my favorite ELQ staff during my last week

El Questro Station

During my first 10 weeks at El Questro, I made a point to avoid hanging out at the bar for numerous unsurprising reasons: I worked early morning shifts and went to bed by 10pm most nights, I didn’t want to spend any money, I liked cutting down on my already-minimal drinking, I’d rather be doing Me Things. But I made an exception during my last week and put in some quality time at the Swinging Arm Bar with my coworkers. We laughed, we gossiped, we talked travel – which is what we always did over meals and drives, but it was even better over a BBQ and drinks. Such good times!

Hiking to Lost City and El Questro Gorge

Kimberley aboriginal rock art

I missed my chance to hike to the Lost City when a bunch of staff did it while I was stuck at work one day last month, but finally the stars aligned during my last week and I got to join them this time. The Lost City cave system is reached via a turnoff near the end of the El Questro Gorge trail, and unless you’ve already done it and know the way, it’s damn near impossible to find. We nearly couldn’t locate the entrance, more or less stumbling upon it just before giving up and turning around.

It felt so satisfying to find that first cave and escape the crippling heat for a bit. We ogled some aboriginal art on the cave walls and marveled at the hoards of dragonflies congregating inside the cave, then crawled through a little tunnel to reach the next cave where we spotted some neon green tree frogs and bats inside. The caves after that weren’t that remarkable, though I suspect we didn’t venture far enough to discover some of the better ones.

El Questro Gorge

I’m glad I finally got to do this hike, but the best part for me was getting back to the main trail and jumping straight into MacMicking Pool at the end of El Questro Gorge. There’s so much to love about this spot: the phenomenally clear blue water, the peaceful pool, the refreshing waterfall. I enjoyed swimming in it even more than I did the first time around.

Making my big exit from El Questro

Australia roadtrip on a converted bus

I prefer to subtly bow out from parties, gatherings, and other occasions involving a goodbye, but when I left El Questro on my last day I went out in style. Anita and Andrew (fellow ELQ staff) and Anita’s two daughters drove their converted school bus up to my donga block to pick me up and take me with them to Lake Argyle. We attracted a modest crowd of onlookers comprised of some of my favorite ELQ people. So many hugs, and all sorts of warm fuzzies!

Hiking over Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle Ord River Gorge hike

I had low expectations for Lake Argyle and nearly didn’t bother with any of the dinky hikes available from the caravan park. But hey, a dinky hike is better than no hike, so I took my antsy ass up the Ord River Gorge trail and promptly had my mind blown with the gorgeous landscape. Lake Argyle looks so different from above!

Jumping off a boat in Lake Argyle

I love me some outdoor adventures, but I’m definitely no adrenaline junkie. Call me crazy, but I just don’t really feel the need to jump, fall, race, or do any other risky activity – like, ever. I was in the midst of enjoying a fantastic late afternoon cruise around Lake Argyle – wind in my hair, sun on my skin, wine about to be served – when we stopped the boat for a sunset swim. “You might have noticed the ladder in the back of the boat,” our captain bellowed. “Feel free to climb on up and jump off the roof if you’re keen.” Naturally, a few of the guys immediately bolted to the back to take the plunge from above while I started plotting the fastest path to the gourmet cheese platter.

Lake Argyle sunset cruise

“Are you gonna jump?”, Amy asked, with a glimmer of excitement in her eyes. “I’ll jump but only if you jump!”. Aw shucks, I thought – I’m not about to let a 10-year-old down on account of my being a pansy slash fatass. Without missing a beat, I said: “Let’s do it!”. I jumped in first, and Amy climbed up once I was safely in the water. “You’ve got this, girl! You can do it!”, I shouted back to her. She jumped. and loved it so much that she did it again 6 more times after that. My work done, I paddled back to the boat to grab a plastic cup of wine, which I held over my head while treading water while watching everyone else jump.

It wasn’t the actual jump I enjoyed, but the experience surrounding it: seeing a kid so full of joy, swimming in surprisingly warm lake water, kicking back with sunset drinks. Such a beautiful afternoon!

Running into ELQ friends in Kununurra

Friends in the Outback

After a couple days at Lake Argyle, I got dropped off at the Kimberleyland Caravan Park in Kununurra with my massive 40kg suitcase, camera bag, and camping gear. Then it hit me: I was finally on my own again! YAYYYYY! I giddily set up my tent, packed a day bag, and wandered into town thinking I might grab some coffee and climb to the Kelly’s Knob lookout point. Instead, I rounded the corner by Westpac and ran into Kylie and Claudia, two fellow ELQ staff who I knew might be in town around the same time I was. We had a three-way embrace and all plans for solo adventuring got put on hold til the following day as I followed them back to Kylie’s room at Hotel Kununurra. We drank Passion Pop poolside and later ran into Luca (another ELQ staff) at Coles while grabbing grub for our BBQ dinner. Chef Kylie dazzled us all one last time with her grill skillz by cooking up some kebabs and sausages she’d nabbed for AU$.90 on clearance and we reminisced on our time together and dished on our travels ahead. As much as I was looking forward to being by myself again, I’m so glad I got to spend one last day with these guys.

Looking straight up at the majestic Wangi Falls

Litchfield National Park

On my last day up north, I got to play in all the waterfalls at Litchfield National Park (just south of Darwin). The whole day was the perfect finale to my 3 months in the top end, but my favorite moment came while swimming out to the crazy-popular Wangi Falls. Sure, this waterfall looks perfectly nice from the other side of the massive swimming hole, but the view gets better and better the closer you swim to it. I had my hallelujah moment about 10 meters in front, just to the left of the foot of the falls: here I lay on my back, angled just so the sun rising over the falls was blocked by a tree branch, staring straight up with a clear view of the multiple tiers of falls jumping into each other. With the 50 or so other tourists in the swimming hole out of my sight, I had the moment all to myself and it was oh-so glorious.

Reading several fantastic books

I love to read while I travel, but I tend to do it in spurts: i.e. one month I might not make it through one book, then the next month I’ll whip through 5. This month fell more in line with the latter scenario, as I devoured exceptionally riveting murder mysteries by Jo Nesbo and Jonathan Kellerman while sunbathing and bussing. I took a quick break from that genre once I got my hands on the newly-released How Not To Travel The World by fellow travel blogger Lauren Juliff of Never-Ending Footsteps. Equal parts entertaining and inspiring, I swear to you: I only put my kindle down and stopped reading it while I was sleeping and working. A day and a half later, I found myself craving a sequel. Highly recommend reading Lauren’s beautifully written travel misadventures if you’re in need of new reading material.

Sunset in Darwin, Australia
Sunset over Mindil Beach in Darwin.

Crappy Moments From Month 9:

I honestly can’t think of anything worthy of being deemed a Crappy Moment from Month 9 – ’twas an exceptionally excellent month. The only slightly bothersome things that come to mind are 1). The god-awful humidity that smacked the Kimberley during the last week of August, and 2). My brand new Merrell hiking boots being FedEx’d back to the US because for some reason they couldn’t clear customs in Australia (?!?). But neither of these were enough to shake my stride.

Month 9 Numbers:

Total

Dates: 10 August – 6 September 2015
# of Days: 28
Top Expenses: Flight from Darwin to Melbourne – US$268.36
Total $ Spent: US$822.57
$ Made Freelancing: US$21.33
$ Made at Jobs: US$2077.31
Total $ Made: US$2098.64
Average $ Spent: US$29.38/day
Average Miles Walked: 5 miles/day
# Beds Slept In: 2
# Nights Camping: 5

Kununurra lake
The lake in Kununurra.

Year-To-Date Numbers (Months 1-9):

Dates: 12 December 2014 – 6 September 2015
# of Days: 269
Total $ Spent: US$9665.61
Average $ Spent: US$35.93/day
$ Made Freelancing: US$1243.77
$ Made at Jobs: US$5950.69
Total $ Made: US$7194.56
# Beds Slept In: 30
# Couches Slept On: 3
# Nights Camping: 50
# Days Roadtripping: 26
# Dates: 16
# Flights: 9

El Questro Homestead
El Questro Homestead.

What’s Next

As I draft this post, I’m on a plane heading to Melbourne! I’m mildly terrified of plunging straight into a 40-degree night, especially after 3 months in the hot hot heat – but this time around at least we’re on the upswing and heading into warmer spring days. I’m looking SO MUCH forward to house sitting and cat sitting and coffee bingeing and cycling and basically falling back into my old Brooklyn habits for awhile here. I’ll also be looking for work here, because I might as well make the most of my last 3 months of being eligible for jobs in Australia, right?

Note that the opinions expressed in this blog post do not reflect those of Delaware North – as per usual, they are solely my own.

Lindsay Buckley is the photographer and travel blogger behind Frugal Frolicker. She’s a New Yorker currently based in Sydney, Australia, documenting outdoor travel experiences Down Under and beyond.

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