Monday, May 28, 2007

Driving in Australia

Current Location: Whitsunday Islands, Australia
Next Destination: Townsville, Australia

After 16,000km of driving in New Zealand I have no problem driving on the right side (i.e. wrong) of the road. In fact it feels a little strange driving on the left side now. Australia is a HUGE country (same size as the 48 states) and there is no way we could drive the entire thing during our land travel segment. First, the weather doesn't cooperate; there are cyclones to the north with flooding inland that makes it almost impossible to get to certain places. Then there are the droughts to the south. I guess the expression "when it rains it pours" was invented here, because a lot of the major roads have water markers to help drivers determine the depth of flooding even though the drought is in its fifth year. Most SUV's (called UTEs here) have snorkels which go up to the roof at the side of the windshield. This allows drivers to "keep on trucking" right through the flooded sections. The drought is so bad, at one place we stayed they touted waterfront camping sites, even though they were now about a 1/2 mile away from the edge of the reservoir.

You'd think a country the size of Australia, with all the major roads, could agree on a few standards. In Australia, state pride is a HUGE thing. So big you wonder if the state governments ever talk to each other. In the past, this competitive spirit has caused a lot of problems, like incompatible rail road track gauges which required cargo to be off loaded and reloaded at the state borders because one states trains couldn't operate on the other states "inferior" track design. As a tourist it can be rather frustrating trying to navigate around a country where you don't know the exact direction and name of every town. On major freeways you'd think they would mark North, South, East, West like in the states or at least put the next MAJOR city down that road (hey Sydney this way - Brisbane that way). No that would be much too easy; they want to make it a challenge!! It seems as if the sign designers looked at the map and chose the smallest non-bold font name and put that town on the sign. Not only do you have to scan the map in ever expanding circles from your current known location, you have to check EVERY town no matter how small, and then expand your search to include towns that are not even located on the same freeway. It's like heading south from Massachusetts towards Florida, but the sign only says "Grand Canyon"; because in 200 miles you COULD head west towards Arizona and actually get there. The signs just don't help you figure out what you'll find if you don't turn west and actually continue south.

There is one saving grace however; Australians have a thing for roundabouts (rotaries). I imagine some road designer realized it served multiple purposes, 1) no "crazy" intersections with things called lights or stop signs, 2) gives the driver multiple choices, 3) slows them down a wee bit, and my favorite (and most frequently used) .. 4) gives the unsuspecting tourist driver a place to "park it" (e.g. drive in circles) while evaluating the various options, multiple times, all while completely wearing out the left side tires. Rental cars must have to rotate tires every time they go out. I don't know how many times we circled roundabouts while I shouted out strange Aboriginal names and sign details while KT furiously scanned the map looking for some unpronounceable name. The first pass allows you to get the names sort of correct, additional passes provide map scanning time until the name is found and you determine that, "No you don't want that one". I think our record is five complete revolutions, and then we took the wrong exit anyway because people were starting to stare. It's ok because just down the road is another roundabout, you can almost count on it; that is unless you really need one!! If you want to practice go to the fair and ride the spinning tea cup rides for kids and try scanning a map. Maybe lights and stop signs are more expensive here and asphalt or concrete is subsidized, who knows.

The other thing that gets my goat is the position of the signage. Do you put the sign before the exit, at the exit past the road but still viewable, or up the road a bit with a left turn arrow in front of a smaller road? Yet another thing they don't seem to be able to agree upon. More than once we either turned too soon and ended up on the wrong small road or went flying past the exit because it was marked inconsistently. Sydney was the worst. We figured it should be pretty easy to follow the signs to the airport which happened to be right in the direction we were heading. The airport; you know the place where almost EVERY tourist needs to get to. They DO have the international airport sign, which we chose to follow. It started out fine, albeit crazy, as if you know you're supposed to be in the far right lane and turn at the NEXT intersection without any help from a sign. After a couple of cut offs and angry drivers later (they must take their training in Boston), we finally got off the freeway onto another and whammo the signage was gone. We went down the road violently scanning every sign until I happened to notice one behind us. We "flipped a bitch" (initiated a U-turn) and we were back on track again. Then we got a choice, Airport toll road or standard route. Being the cheap a@@ cruisers we are we took the standard route.. right over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Well I knew this was wrong because we were now headed north instead of south. So we got off and turned around, paid our bridge toll and proceeded back towards the airport. This time we had five lanes of traffic to race across as the airport sign suggested we take the next exit (at the exit ramp). A couple more crazy turns and we were right back at our original turn-off. This gave us a chance to evaluate the signs, and determine that we were not insane; however the city planner or sign guy had obviously never been to the airport. I finally noticed an airport shuttle van and pulled in behind it like a sled dog following its leader and finally made it past the airport.

The scenery is amazing and varied but the most interesting side effect is driving amongst the wild life. Kangaroos and Wallabies are cute but some of the big Red Kangaroos are HUGE, with arms the size of my legs standing six feet tall. They have this incredible knack for standing right on the side of the road. I guess that is where the best grass must be. When they move it's usually right before you get there and then "boing boing" like a pin ball in a machine seemingly changing directions in mid-air. You never quite know where they're going to end up next. Luckily we never hit one but we've heard LOTs of stories and saw plenty of road kill. I don't think Aussies even slow down anymore. Once we were driving down some out of the way freeway frequented by logging trucks. I thought a tree branch had fallen off the back of a truck until it started moving. It was a HUGE lizard that took up the entire lane.

We survived our trek from Brisbane down the coast to Melbourne, our drive around Tasmania, and the trek back from Sydney to Mooloolaba. Would we do it again? .. in a second. You just have to adapt to the conditions and learn to use the roundabouts for a holding pattern. Oh and don't try to correctly pronounce the Aboriginal names until the navigator actually finds them on the map.

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