7 686 850 km2
21 235 000
Australian Dollar (AUD)
Australia is a unique country in many respects - a continent (the smallest), a country (the 6'th largest) and an island all in one. It is huge, only slightly smaller than the USA, but most of the interior is uninhabited desert. The majority of the population live in a narrow band along the southern and eastern coasts. The country is a federation of six states (Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania) and two territories (Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). The people are crazy about every possible kind of sport, but particularly Cricket (in summer) and Australian Rules Football (in winter).
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[Thursday 19 April 2001 : Cape Town, South Africa] Boarded my Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur at Cape Town airport's new international departures terminal.
[Friday 20 April : Perth, Australia] I arrived in Perth knackered after two long, tedious layovers, first in Johannesburg then in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (which boasts a brand new state-of-the-art airport) ; I spent more than 24 hours in airports and on planes. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is fabulous, one of the best airports in the world if you have a long layover. There is a fully automated train that runs between the domestic and international terminals, and I rode it backwards and forwards once or twice to while away the time while waiting for my connecting flight to Perth.
When I finally arrived in Perth after many hours in airports and planes, immigration wouldn't let me into Australia - turns out I've got somebody else's visa and he's got mine. That meant another long wait at the airport while the foul-up was fixed. By the time I was allowed through and had collected my gear the last bus into town had left, so I shared a cab with two other people.
[Saturday 21 April : Perth, Australia] I spent the day walking around Perth, a pleasant city of about 1.4 million sited on the banks of the Swan River. Perth is the most isolated city in the world - from its location in the south-western corner of Western Australia (WA) it is several hours away by plane from any other place of comparable size in any direction.
I saw the major sights including the "WACA" (Western Australia Cricket Association stadium, where many classic cricket test matches have been played and which is reputed to have the fastest and bounciest pitch in the world), the WA museum, WA art gallery and other stuff too boring to mention. That evening I strolled around Northbridge, the buzzing and cosmopolitan area of restaurants and bars just north of the city centre. Two out of every three restaurants seemed to be Asian, and I had a fantastic Chinese food supper.
[Sunday 22 April : Walpole, Australia] Jet lag finally caught up with me this morning - I slept like the dead and only woke up after 9 AM, which meant I had to get dressed, pack my stuff, check out of the hotel and get to the station in a few minutes as the train I was booked on was leaving at 9:30 AM. The hotel's reception wasn't even open that early on a Sunday morning, so I chucked my room key through the grill at the front desk, sprinted to the station and just made it, wondering what I'd left behind by mistake.
The train south from Perth terminated at Bunbury, and from there I went on a bus south-east through Western Australia's "Tall Timber" country to a tiny village called Walpole (population 350). The whole area is full of forests, and most people here are connected to the logging industry. There isn't much to see in Walpole so after a short walk round town I settled down to enjoy a take-away pizza for supper.
[Monday 23 April : Walpole, Australia] Joined a day trip organized by Walpole Backpackers (where I was staying) in their 4-wheel drive Land Rover. First we went to the Valley of the Giants, a forest reserve just east of Walpole. It has an amazing "Tree Top Walk" - a 600 metre long metal walkway suspended 40 metres above the ground in the forest canopy. The forest has two main tree species - Karri and Tingle trees. Tingle trees are HUGE, but they have a very shallow root system and are extremely sensitive to damage to the surface soil. Thus nobody is allowed to walk among the trees. There is also a ground level boardwalk through the "Ancient Kingdom" containing some unbelievably massive trees. After that we took a 4-wheel drive track to the beach and drove round to a permanent fishing camp in the dunes. By then it had started raining and the wind was howling, but we nonetheless tried fishing for salmon, off the shore and from a boat. Amazingly, I caught a fish, but I chucked it back in the water again. I also had a swim in the rain in the Nornalup inlet.
[Tuesday 24 April : Fremantle, Australia] Took the bus back to Bunbury, and then the train to Perth. At Perth I took a suburban train down to Fremantle, a 25 minute trip during which I was packed in with commuters going home after work. Fremantle is regarded as a separate city from Perth, but in reality it is merely an outlying suburb, sited at the mouth of the Swan River. It's quite similar to Simon's Town near Cape Town in South Africa - like Simon's Town, Fremantle is also a harbour town at the end of a suburban train line from a nearby city (Perth in this case). I enjoyed a relaxed meal of spaghetti at a pavement cafe for supper.
[Wednesday 25 April : Perth, Australia] Today was ANZAC day in Australia, a public holiday commemorating all the soldiers that have died in various world wars. I spent the day exploring Fremantle (it has an impressive maritime museum as well as an interesting old prison) before heading back to Perth on the train. Unfortunately I didn't have time to visit Rottnest Island, but I did stop off at Cottesloe Beach, a fabulous spot between Fremantle and Perth. Rottnest Island lies about eighteen kilometres offshore of Fremantle and is home to a unique, indigenous species - the quokka, a beaver-like marsupial that looks somewhat like a large rat. The island is a popular destination for holidays or day trips from Perth and Fremantle.
[Thursday 26 April : Kalgoorlie, Australia] Took the train from Perth to Kalgoorlie, a still prosperous mining town on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert. Even though I was staying in a backpackers' place only two minutes walk from Perth's central station, finding the Kalgoorlie train was not as easy as you might think. The reason is quite complicated - all Western Australian railways use "Cape Gauge" tracks (1067 mm between the rails), EXCEPT for the inter-state railway line that heads east to Kalgoorlie then on to Adelaide in South Australia. This line, which crosses the entire country from west to east and ends in Sydney, uses "Standard Gauge" tracks (1435 mm between the rails) and does not begin at Perth's central station but rather at East Perth station. I therefore had to catch a local commuter train from Perth Central to East Perth (on the Cape Gauge tracks used in and around Perth), where I disembarked and crossed over to the special platform that accommodates the Standard Gauge inter-state railway line. The Kalgoorlie-bound train was parked there, waiting to leave.
The ride to Kalgoorlie was a long trip and took most of the day, through endless miles of gum trees and semi-desert terrain. Kalgoorlie is a pretty wild place, with saloon bars like you see in Wild West movies. Nearby is the town of Boulder, which boasts the "Super-Pit" - a MONSTROUS open-cast mine that will be 650 metres deep when mined out. To get to the mine you take a restored vintage steam train from Boulder's disused train station.
[Friday 27 April : Kalgoorlie, Australia] Spent the day exploring Kalgoorlie then in the early evening I boarded the legendary Indian-Pacific when it arrived from Perth. The Indian-Pacific is a train that runs across Australia from coast to coast, Perth to Sydney and back again (via Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill), a 65-hour trip one way. I was only going as far as Adelaide in South Australia, but even that relatively short distance meant two nights aboard the train.
[Saturday 28 April] I spent a day and two nights on the Indian-Pacific train through relentlessly barren country. The Nullarbor Plain is an area of Australia that is totally flat and treeless for 1200 kilometres - staggering to look at. The horizon is as flat and unbroken as the sea in every direction. The train tracks run ruler straight for 477 kilometres at one point! There is one old guy called Ziggy who lives in the desert hundreds of kilometres from the nearest human, in a shack he built himself. The train slowed down to look at his place and he came out. His nearest settlement is a railway village called Cook, which has a population of four.
[Sunday 29 April : Adelaide, Australia] I left the Indian-Pacific train in Adelaide (it continued on to Sydney via Broken Hill). Before looking for somewhere to stay I checked the train schedules for my onward trip, and discovered that I would have to spend an extra night in Adelaide as the next train to Melbourne was only in four days time. My plan had been to spend only a couple of nights in Adelaide, because I wanted enough time to explore as much of Queensland as I could. Australia is so big and sparsely-populated that in many cases the train system can only sustain a couple of services a week - unlike Europe, where there are so many people crammed into such a small space that there are multiple trains per day to every conceivable destination. Unfortunate, but these things happen when you're on the road and planning as you go.
[Monday 30 April : Adelaide, Australia] Explored Adelaide ... a very nicely laid out city, with wide boulevards and parks everywhere. The entire city centre is surrounded by gardens, including the South Australian botanic garden. Inside there is a conservatory containing a tropical rainforest - they maintain a high temperature, a constant humidity of 90% and use lots of water. Fascinating. Another highlight was the Sir Donald Bradman exhibition in the State Library - a tribute to the world's best cricketer ever and Australia's top sportsman of all time. Had a great Chinese lunch ; Australia has tons of Asian restaurants everywhere, all serving fantastic food at very reasonable prices.
[Tuesday 1 May : Adelaide, Australia] Took the historic Adelaide tram out to the beach resort of Glenelg. I had a day pass on the city public transport system (trains, buses, trams), so I went to all the places out of the city centre that cannot easily be reached on foot, such as Port Adelaide.
[Wednesday 2 May : Melbourne, Australia] A boring day on the train from Adelaide to Melbourne. The scenery was mostly farmland, except for the Adelaide Hills. The train got into Spencer Street station in Melbourne quite late, but I'd booked a room in a hotel not far from the station so I didn't need to look around for somewhere to stay. Unfortunately the place had seen better days and was a bit seedy ; like most budget hotels, it stank of cigarette smoke.
[Thursday 3 May : Melbourne, Australia] I walked around Melbourne, a HUGE, grim city of steel, glass and concrete. Narrow pavements, insane traffic and with everybody wearing black suits, carrying briefcases and looking tense and grim. A thoroughly awful place ; it reminds me of Johannesburg, except it's cleaner and you don't get mugged waiting for the traffic light to change. I went up to the 55'th floor observation deck of the Rialto Towers, the highest office block in the southern hemisphere - amazing views of Melbourne.
[Friday 4 May : Warrnambool, Australia] Eager to escape from Melbourne, I boarded an early train to Geelong then rode the bus on the famous Great Ocean Road from Geelong through Torquay and Apollo Bay to Warrnambool. It is a spectacular trip, past landmarks such as the Twelve Apostles (rocky outcrops in the sea left behind after the limestone cliffs had been eroded by waves), the Loch Ard Gorge and the Bay of Islands. Although it was a public bus, not a guided tour, the bus driver stopped at the major sights long enough for the passengers to get off and have a closer look.
[Saturday 5 May : Warrnambool, Australia] Walked up the coast from Warrnambool in both directions, along a boardwalk on the beach and on the cliff when the boardwalk ended. A relaxing day. Strolled into town for lunch and stuffed myself to the gunnels at an "All you can eat" Chinese food buffet.
[Sunday 6 May : Torquay, Australia] Spent a long and boring day on buses, first on an inter-city bus back to Geelong (unfortunately not on the scenic Great Ocean Road but inland via Colac - there are no buses on the Great Ocean Road on Sunday) then on a commuter bus the short distance to Torquay. Torquay is near Bells Beach, the venue for the annual Rip Curl world surfing championships ; Bells Beach was made famous when it featured in the 1991 movie "Point Break" starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. That evening I had a fantastic supper of fish and chips from a take-away place near where I was staying.
[Monday 7 May : Torquay, Australia] Walked along the coast to Jan Juc and then Bells Beach. Amazingly there was absolutely NO SWELL, not a wave at all. It was like a lake! Apparently they had three metre surf over Easter during the Rip Curl world championship event, but I've seen bigger waves at Fish Hoek beach on a flat day ... I also went to the Surfworld Museum at Surf City Plaza - interesting. That night I watched the movie "The Matrix" (starring Keanu Reeves) on TV.
[Tuesday 8 May : Melbourne, Australia] Back in the big city by bus and train after a great four days on the Great Ocean Road. Turns out this week is the centenary of Australian Federation (ie. when all the states, which like the South African provinces were pretty autonomous, got together to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901), so there are celebrations all over the place. This evening I walked past the Melbourne Exhibition Centre (a fine old building, which is next to the garish new museum and Imax, amazingly both in the SAME building) and there was a huge function going on - police everywhere, the area cordoned off and privileged guests being ushered in. No place for the average Joe (or Bruce), just the usual pompous gits, anal retentive political types and other celebrities who managed to get a personal invitation.
[Wednesday 9 May : Melbourne, Australia] Went to the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground for all you sporting ignoramuses out there). HUGE stadium! It also contains the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, the Olympic Museum and a Sporting Museum. Walked through the test cricket changing rooms (now I know where Steve Waugh puts his kit when he's playing at the MCG) and the hallowed Long Room. Next door is the Australian Tennis Centre where the Australian Open is hosted. I went in and had a look inside the main court (the Rod Laver Arena) with its massive retractable roof - very impressive. Last stop in Melbourne was a look at Captain James Cook's cottage, which was shipped Down Under from Yorkshire piece by piece in 1933.
[Thursday 10 May : Canberra, Australia] I took an early train from Melbourne's Spencer Street station to Canberra, capital of the Commonwealth of Australia. The train line from Melbourne bypasses Canberra so I had to get off at Wagga Wagga and take a bus from there. And yes, there really IS a place called Wagga Wagga ... Canberra exists in its own territory (Australian Capital Territory, or ACT), in much the same way that Washington is the capital of the USA and exists in its own district (the District of Columbia, or DC). ACT was carved out of New South Wales early in the 20'th century after the various states in Australia agreed to form a federation in 1901.
[Friday 11 May : Canberra, Australia] Rented a bicycle and rode around Canberra - it's a city that was completely designed on paper before a brick was laid down, and is ideally suited to cycling. It has miles of cycle paths, wide roads, wide pavements and acres of parkland. In fact, riding around it appears that Canberra is one huge park with an occasional government building hidden in the trees. In the centre of the city is a large man-made lake (Lake Burley Griffin) and I cycled completely around it ; the lake is named after Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect who originally planned the layout of the city. I visited the awe-inspiring Australian War Memorial, which is undoubtedly the most impressive single place I've been to since I've been here and an absolute must-see for anyone who visits Down Under.
The newly-opened Australian National Museum was also very enjoyable. One exhibit in the museum that really struck me was a video clip showing the very last Tasmanian Tiger in existence dying in captivity in 1936. Correctly called the Thylacine, but usually referred to as the Tasmanian Tiger, this creature was a dog-like marsupial unique to the island of Tasmania. It had become extinct in the wild in 1930 and after the death of the single remaining tiger in Hobart Zoo six years later the entire species became extinct ; a sad testimony to man's destructiveness. All in all, and contrary to the opinion of many people, Canberra is a very enjoyable and attractive place.
[Saturday 12 May : Sydney, Australia] I had a midday train to Sydney to catch, but before I left I had time to go on a guided tour of the Parliament Buildings in Canberra - a very impressive place. The train from Canberra got to Sydney at about 5 PM and after settling in at another budget hotel (it stank of cigarette smoke, just like the one I'd stayed in in Melbourne), I went to the harbour. My first sight of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House was thus at night, and the view is INCREDIBLE!
[Sunday 13 May : Sydney, Australia] Spent the day exploring Sydney. I walked over the Harbour Bridge to North Sydney, went to the Opera House, the Rocks (an old area now renovated and up-market), King's Cross and elsewhere. This is a VERY BIG city. King's Cross is a dump, a chaotic mess of prostitutes, drug addicts and porn shops.
[Monday 14 May : Sydney, Australia] After two nights I'd had enough of the sleazy hotel I was staying in and moved to a backpackers' place right in the city centre. It was a much better choice in every respect - cheaper, cleaner, more central and it was above a bakery that brought its surplus pastries upstairs every afternoon when it closed for the day ; not to sell, just to give away! Anybody staying there could help themselves for free ... the first night I was there I stuffed myself silly on custard tarts.
After humping my gear across town I walked around Darling Harbour - a very nice place, much like Cape Town's V&A Waterfront. The weather here has been amazing, and Sydney has been showing off. I did two loops of the city centre monorail and then had a very relaxing lunch on the restaurant terrace in Darling Harbour, looking over the water. This is the life ...
[Tuesday 15 May : Sydney, Australia] Went to Olympic Park by ferry, then to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), Fox Studios and a ferry to the beachfront suburb of Manly. Had lunch at a pavement cafe overlooking Bondi Beach (again, this is the life ...)
[Wednesday 16 May : Coffs Harbour, Australia] Took the train north to Coffs Harbour, on the east coast of New South Wales. What an unbelievable place! I'd stay here longer if I had time. Warm water, miles of white sandy beaches, a fabulous creek-side walk through mangroves on a raised boardwalk and a stunning botanic garden. The gardens have mangroves, rain forest and all kinds of vegetation from all over the world, even South Africa. Near the yacht marina there is a small island that can be reached on foot via a narrow causeway. Called Muttonbird Island, it is a nature reserve designated to protect the breeding grounds for the muttonbird, a migratory species that returns to the island in large numbers every summer to nest. There is a very pleasant interpretive walkway round the island.
[Thursday 17 May : Surfers Paradise, Australia] Swam on the beach in Coffs Harbour then spent a long day trundling northwards on the train to Murwillumbah in Queensland. Murwillumbah is on a branch line and was the last stop for the train, so from there I had to take a bus to Surfers Paradise, arriving at about 10:30 PM.
|Kuranda scenic railway|
[Friday 18 May : Brisbane, Australia] Fabulous weather ... I had a HUGE breakfast at an outdoor restaurant on the Surfers Paradise beachfront then rented a surfboard and rode (not too successfully) the waves for a couple of hours. Apart from the beach, which is incredible (no wind, warm water, good surf), this place is really tacky - neon lights, fast food, high rise apartments, cheap motels and souvenir shops. After an early supper of fish and chips I took a bus to Robina (the last stop on the Brisbane commuter rail system) and a train north to Brisbane from there. At Brisbane's Roma Street station I took a commuter train to the suburbs where I met up with two South African friends (Mark and Sheryl Gore) who had emigrated to Australia some years before. We had travelled round Europe together in 1987.
[Saturday 19 May : Brisbane, Australia] Spent the day relaxing at Mark and Sheryl's house in Brisbane, the first "break" I've had from travelling since 19 April. We took a drive up Mount Coot-tha which has fabulous views of Brisbane.
[Sunday 20 May] It's a LONG way to Cairns from Brisbane - I know, because I spent over 30 hours on trains to get here, although I must say that Queensland Rail is very comfortable. There were showers, toilets and a lounge/buffet on board the train and the scenery along the way was pretty enjoyable, although not spectacular. Going through Rockhampton (622 kilometres from Brisbane) was quite an experience because the railway tracks run right down the centre of the town's main street! Incredible ... this was apparently done in 1899 to save the cost of acquiring property when two separate rail systems were joined together. North of Rockhampton the train emptied quite substantially so I had lots of room to stretch out.
After passing through Mackay (964 kilometres from Brisbane) we entered sugar country ; along the route there are a great number of narrow-gauge (610 millimetre) tracks criss-crossing the main line used for hauling sugar cane. Sugar cane is definitely the dominant crop in northern Queensland - we passed miles and miles of the stuff. The Burdekin River, which we crossed just before reaching Townsville (1341 kilometres from Brisbane), is a pretty impressive body of water ; the rail bridge over the river is no less than 1100 metres long.
[Monday 21 May : Cairns, Australia] The train eventually rolled into Cairns at 5 PM (1681 kilometres from Brisbane) and I walked out of the station into a wall of tropical heat and searing sun. Everybody wears shorts here all the time and it's hot at 8 PM in late May. Guess I've reached the tropics at last, and it makes a welcome change from the freezing weather down in Melbourne and Canberra. I'd read that there is a very small risk of Dengue Fever in Northern Queensland, but when I asked a local about it he had no idea what I was talking about. So I just ignored the problem and nothing happened [Aside : Dengue Fever is an incurable, fairly serious disease transmitted by mosquitoes that are prevalent during the day and at night, unlike Malaria (which is only transmitted by mosquitoes that come out at night). Luckily Dengue Fever is quite rare and rarely fatal, although it can be extremely debilitating].
There's very little to see in Cairns itself - the main reason people come up here is to visit the Great Barrier Reef. The first thing I did when I got off the train at Cairns was to book a place on a snorkelling trip to the reef for two days later.
[Tuesday 22 May : Cairns, Australia] I went on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a spectacular ride on a vintage train from Cairns to Kuranda, through tropical rain forest, deep ravines and gorges, over countless bridges, fifteen tunnels and two stunning waterfalls. This is a MUST DO trip for anyone who comes to Northern Queensland ; I have no hesitation in putting this trip on my Best Train Trips in the World list. I relaxed with tea and scones in the delightful forest village of Kuranda before heading back to Cairns on the afternoon train.
[Wednesday 23 May : Cairns, Australia] Fabulous! I joined a dive-boat for a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. It took about two hours to get to the reef, where we tied up to a permanent concrete bollard built in to the sea-bed ; no anchors are allowed to be dropped onto the extremely sensitive coral. I signed up for an introductory scuba dive then spent the rest of the day snorkelling - warm water, incredible visibility and loads of fish, turtles and coral. What more can I say?
[Thursday 24 May : Airlie Beach, Australia] Took the early train south from Cairns to Proserpine, from where I got on a local bus to Whitsunday and Airlie Beach. This was a long day, with the train arriving in the dark two hours late. The reception at the place I'd booked to stay in in Airlie Beach was closed, so the night guard had to let me in ; he insisted on taking my passport but I managed to persuade him to accept my international driver's license instead (better to lose that than my passport). I checked in properly the next morning and retrieved my driver's license.
[Friday 25 May : Airlie Beach, Australia] Airlie Beach is a beautiful place and I totally relaxed - lay around the stinger-free lagoon, swam, lazed and ate fish and chips for supper at a sidewalk cafe. Unfortunately the sea in Northern Queensland contains the most poisonous organism on Earth (the Box Jellyfish), so you can't swim here in summer unless there are stinger nets or there is a lagoon. So although Airlie Beach has a magnificent sweep of white beach with gentle waves lapping at the shore, nobody swims there ; you have to swim in the lagoon, which is protected from jellyfish.
[Saturday 26 May : Airlie Beach, Australia] I went on a boat trip round (some of) the fabulously beautiful Whitsunday Islands - Aboriginal cave paintings on Hook Island, snorkelling off Border Island and touch rugby (league, not union) on heavenly Whitehaven Beach, which must surely rate as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. In the evening I caught the overnight train from Proserpine south to Maryborough West, the nearest station to Hervey Bay.
[Sunday 27 May : Hervey Bay, Australia] Arrived at Maryborough and caught the bus to Hervey Bay ; a long, tiring train/bus trip. I went for a long walk on the beach at Hervey Bay, which is a rather shabby and run-down place compared to Airlie Beach. It's quite a lot further south and thus a good deal colder. My main reason for coming to Hervey Bay was to visit Fraser Island, just off the coast, and I arranged a trip there the next day with one of the local tour operators.
[Monday 28 May : Hervey Bay, Australia] Visited Fraser Island, an island 124 kilometres long made entirely of SAND. This entailed getting a bus from Hervey Bay to the ferry terminal, going across to the island on the ferry and then being driven around in a 4-wheel drive truck (which the tour operator kept permanently on the island). You have to have a 4-wheel drive to get around the island because all the roads are just thick sand ; there are no rock or stones at all - amazing! It's the largest sand island in the world, and contains crystal clear fresh water lakes and streams, at the bottom of which is white sand. It's eerie. I went floating down Eli Creek, swam in Lake Birrabeen and walked through rain forest.
[Tuesday 29 May : Brisbane, Australia] The place I was staying in at Hervey Bay gave me a lift to the transit centre, from where I caught a bus to Maryborough then a train south to Brisbane. I spent the afternoon exploring Brisbane - it's quite a pleasant place, not very big, with an amazing artificial beach and rain forest in a re-developed area on one side of the Brisbane River. It's a lot colder down here after having been in the humid, wet tropics for ten days. I left most of my gear in a locker at the train station then caught a commuter train out to the suburbs and stayed the night with Mark and Sheryl Gore, as I had done ten days before when I first arrived in Brisbane.
329 750 km2
26 770 000
Malaysia is an Islamic state in South-East Asia, partly on the Asian mainland and partly on the northern third of the island of Borneo. Mainland Malaysia borders on Thailand in the north and the island state of Singapore in the south (to which it is connected by a causeway and a bridge). East Malaysia (Borneo) shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia.
[Wednesday 30 May : Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] Early in the morning I caught a Brisbane commuter train into the city, walked around and explored for a while, had lunch, retrieved my gear from the locker in which I'd left it the afternoon before then took the new Air Train (elevated railway) to the airport. This airport railway line is an extremely impressive construction - for most of the way it's above ground on pylons, not because there are houses and buildings underneath but because the environment was deemed to be too sensitive and would have been spoilt by having railway tracks built through it. So looking out of the train window you have great views of forests and wilderness, with hardly any "civilization" in sight.
At the airport I checked in for my flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, converted my last few Australian Dollars into Malaysian Ringgits then exited Australia via Customs and Immigration. This proved to be easier said than done - it seems that the problem with my Australian visa which had held me up when I arrived in Perth six weeks earlier (on 20 April) had NOT been resolved as the Australian Immigration guy back then had said it would be. Instead they had no record of me having entered Australia and the visa in my passport was still for somebody else. The lady at Immigration in Brisbane told me I should have gone to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra to sort it out. However, this time I held the upper hand, as I wasn't trying to get in but out, so I rather told them what I thought of their system and also how I'd been informed in Perth that the problem would be sorted out. They eventually agreed to let me leave the country (very generous of them) but cancelled the visa in my passport. At this I got a bit angry, as it was a multiple-entry visa valid for four years and I'd paid for it ; they saw my point and told me to contact the Australian embassy when I got back to South Africa - they would issue me with a new multiple-entry visa for free. And with that I had to be content [Aside : I contacted the Cape Town agents for the Australian Embassy in South Africa a couple of weeks later, and they did indeed give me a new 4-year visa at no cost].
So I eventually got on the plane to Kuala Lumpur - it was an eight hour daylight flight on a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 ; each seat had its own TV screen with a range of in-flight movies. I watched "Proof of Life" (Russel Crowe, Meg Ryan), "Unbreakable" (Bruce Willis) and some other thriller starring Judge Reinhold. Probably the most pleasant long-haul flight I've ever been on. I walked out of Kuala Lumpur airport at 9:45 PM to catch the bus into the city and was hit by a wall of heat and humidity - the temperature was still 32 degrees at 10:30 PM that night.
[Thursday 31 May : Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] The heat and humidity in Malaysia is crippling - I find myself drinking litres and litres of water and still feeling dehydrated. Kuala Lumpur is a huge sprawling mess of a city, with a mix of first world glitter and glamour and third world squalor, often right next to each other. The traffic is insane ; if you think minibus taxis in South Africa are bad you should take a ride in one over here! I strolled around the clutter and chaos of Chinatown then visited Menara Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur Tower), the fourth-highest telecommunications tower in the world. It sits on top of a forested hill, away from the frenetic traffic and crush of people ; you can take a lift up to the viewing deck on top (276 metres high) for great panoramic views of Kuala Lumpur.
[Friday 1 June : Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] Explored Kuala Lumpur, visiting (inter alia) the national Mosque, national square, the twin Petronas Towers (until 2004 they were the two tallest buildings in the world at 452 metres high), the Malay national monument, the atmospheric old central train station and the sparkling new central station (KL Sentral). That evening I went to the night market in the old town, which is quite an eye-opener. You can get any audio CD or DVD for under 20 Rand (about two US Dollars). The stall holders wrap and pack the pirated CDs openly in front of you. Knock-off watches for next to nothing are also all over the place. Of course, all prices are negotiable - I bought two fake Tag Heuer watches after protracted bargaining. One of these watches stopped working after about 18 months but the other was still going perfectly well nine years later.
[Saturday 2 June : Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia] My last day in Malaysia. I checked out of my hotel and walked around for the last time. A very interesting place, Kuala Lumpur ... My flight back to South Africa was at 1 AM the next morning, so I had lots of time to kill. Bought two more pirate CDs for R18 each.
Rather than taking the tourist bus to the airport (which picks people up at their hotels), I decided to do it the hard way, the way locals get to the airport. This entailed taking the spotless, super-clean and efficient elevated commuter railway to the central train station and getting a train from there to Nilai, the station nearest the airport. At Nilai I boarded a ramshackle bus which meandered to the airport via a tortuous and convoluted route [Aside : Since then an express train line direct to the airport from Kuala Lumpur's central station has been built]. I checked in for my 1 AM flight then had a leisurely supper at one of the many restaurants in the airport using my last few Malaysian Ringgits.
[Sunday 3 June 2001 : Cape Town, South Africa] Back home after 14 hours on planes and in airports. Quite an adjustment from the wall-to-wall heat and humidity of Malaysia to cold wind and rain in Cape Town. However, it was a GREAT trip, and for anybody who hasn't been there I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Australia. Six weeks isn't enough though - it's a BIG country ... next stop Switzerland and the USA in 2002.
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