Oof! We’re in Australia…
Like a lot of Londoners, I’ve always taken a sort of lugubrious, self-hating pride in coming from one of the world’s most expensive cities (third in 2008, seventeenth this year).
Prices, in fact, along with national sporting failures, weather — the UK is currently in the annual winter paralysis induced by the kind of snow the average Canadian wouldn’t put on socks for — and the state of the Tube (still crowded!) are things we can dwell on with an enthusiasm so incomprehensible to outsiders that we are globally decried as a nation of whingers.
This does, however, have advantages. Notably, the rest of the world (excluding Japan, Scandinavia, parts of Switzerland and the odd Stan) seems pretty damn cheap once you’re out there.
In fact, it does until you reach Australia. A country still, bizarrely, listed as a budget travel destination. Travel destination? Sure.
Budget travel? Oof!
Because that audible, gut-punch, WTF “oof!” has been a soundtrack to our Australian experience. Most naturally experienced when bouncing off the seatbelt in a Toyota HiLux, assailed by swarms of giant locusts on a chewed-up 4WD track somewhere betwixt Mount Buggery, Mount Hopeless, Mount Disappointment, the Great Plains of Fuckall and the Archipelago of the Recherche (only one of these names, gentle reader, is made up: leave me a comment with your favourite Australian place name and you can win the change from $5 after buying a can of Coca-Cola at a gas station), it also comes out at times like these:
- Buying a bottle of mineral water at Darwin airport. $6 for 750ml. And, yes, the Australian dollar is worth more than the greenback.
- Buying a packet of cigarettes at Darwin airport to recover from the shock. 25 Marlboro Lights for $19.95. (Nicotine chewing gum, I should emphasise, is relatively cheap here.)
- Enquiring about the cost of standing in a glass tank surrounded by crocodiles, rather in the manner of the swimming pool shark slide at the Golden Nugget, Las Vegas, in Darwin. ($150 each, 2 people minimum, event duration 15 minutes.)
- Buying coffee and a snack at a mall in suburban Brisbane.
- Purchasing two and a half tickets for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Adelaide. $58. And, yes, you did read that right. So in addition to the fifty buck note you already palmed, you will need to rummage in your wallet for a further ten…
- The first time I heard someone use the term “Abo”, the first time I heard someone use the term “blackfella” and the first time I saw a bus fail to stop for indigenous people (Darwin, take a bow!).
- When the security chap told me I needed to stay within arm’s reach of my almost-ten-year-old son (sitting reading a book in an airport cafe) or “he could be in danger” (yep, Darwin really rocked my world).
- And, more positively, the first time we saw a wallaby (or, conceivably, a kangaroo, wallaroo, euro, whatevs). Which was, technically, sort of a “boing” followed by an “oof”.
Now, the Australian dollar is very strong right now. And, as Z who’s obsessed with exchange rates, never ceases to point out, our pound is kind of wussy.
So I knew, especially after almost three months in Indonesia, where you can buy a meal for under a dollar, a fizzy drink for 30 cents, two litres of water for 20 cents, rent a motorbike for $5 and dive two amazing sites from a boat in good equipment for $40, that this country was going to be a shock to the system but…
Three avocados for $4? They grow that stuff here, no? And two hundred bucks for a single dive, guide and equipment hire EXTRA?! Going down in the same spot that all the other operators go to?! From some kind of platform? You can get two days’ unlimited liveaboard diving with chef for that in Indo…
Lord knows. It beats me. It honestly does.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most common queries I get via the contact form on this site is, “How do you do Australia on a budget?”
And, I think, the brutal answer is, if you want to see Uluru (Ayers Rock), dive the Great Barrier Reef and explore Kakadu, you, err, can’t.
Sorry ’bout that. Go home and come back when you’ve got some moolah.
Seriously. Even coach tours (the ne plus ultra of travel hell) run to hundreds of dollars a day.
The cheapest way to get around Australia (barring an endless supply of friends and relatives to lend you utes, camping gear, spare bedrooms and the like, while plying you with food and wine and lending a sympathetic ear to your whining about the prices of the things they buy you) is the budget campervan approach.
You’ll need mechanical skills to buy one from a travellers’ noticeboard, keep it maintained, fix it when it breaks and sell it when you leave for what you paid for it (ideally more).
But you can still be looking at $30 a night for a powered campsite. And you’ll need to buy provisions that will last for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, plus systems for storing them. (Because city prices are kind of heinous, but in the Outback, good lord, they hurt…)
Couchsurfing provides a great entree to the cities but there really aren’t that many people in the Red Centre, and those few who remain are understandably more interested in selling accommodation than giving it away.
If you’re young, child-free and can get a working holiday visa, hostel and bar jobs are easy enough to get, particularly in the interior. You can cut costs by shopping at farmers markets (unlike in Europe, these are cheaper than supermarkets), drinking cleanskin (no label) wine if you drink at all, using Virgin Blue‘s 12-1 happy hour, JetStar or Tiger for those long, internal flights, and, err, not doing the expensive things.
Like, erm, seeing the things most folk go to Australia to see, but many Australians never see either.
So why are we here? Well, we’re here, essentially, to see family and friends, particularly for Christmas and for Z’s birthday. We’ve just come back from a great treat trip to the Flinders Ranges, which I’ll post about soon: Z’s at Adelaide Zoo with his grandparents right now; we’ve been ice skating in the tropics; and I’m developing an appreciation of the turbo-retro suburbia Australia does so well.
So, well, we’re seeing a bit of Oz. But the big three? Not on our budget. No sirree.