Finding the Unexpected in Tour of Australia

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Independent producer Jake Warga travels to Australia, where he expects the life of luxury. However, he winds up being the butt of jokes by hearty Aussies and suffering the discomforts of the outback.


From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

It's easy to imagine a travel writer's life to be glamorous and filled with endless adventure. Independent producer Jake Warga found out being a travel writer isn't all that. He sent us his audio travel log from Australia's Northern Territory.

Mr. JAKE WARGA (Independent Producer): Day one. I'm a fake. Somehow, my name ended up on a list of travel writers, and now I'm hiking in the middle of the Australian desert on a press junket.

LIAM(ph) (Travel guide, Northern Territory, Australia): Main troubles people have are probably blisters out here.

Mr. WARGA: Our guide is Liam, 24, good-looking but with enough wear and tear to be closer to 34.

LIAM: …spare water, too…

Mr. WARGA: Wind and rain, sun-worn face. I don't know what he looks like without a layer of dirt.

LIAM: You definitely always need your sunhat out here.

Mr. WARGA: Every bush and branch seems to be loaded with thorns, like we're not supposed to be here. It's too hot in December, summer, to hike. So we're here in the middle of winter, July, summer back home. It's confusing. Flying over, I lost a day crossing the International Date Line, a whole day. I've no idea where it went.

There are so many ways to die in Australia. The most poisonous animals in the world live here. That combined with how easy it is to make fun of Americans and you get what are called drop bears - bears that drop on you from trees and hoop snakes, neither of which, actually, exist.

LIAM: Yeah. Have you heard about the hoop snakes?

Mr. WARGA: No.

LIAM: They bite their tails and roll down hills.

Mr. WARGA: Really?

LIAM: Drop bears are some. I don't know where they came from. I always tell tourists, look out for drop bears.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WARGA: When we get to camp, I'm handed something called the swag that I'm supposed to sleep in, on, or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIAM: Well, a swag's just a nylon outer, pretty much flat with a zipper on the front and all you do is just open the zipper and lie straight out on the mattress.

Mr. WARGA: After the sun sets, I gape up at the sky in awe. The Milky Way is huge, a thick band of stars across the entire sky. But Orion is upside down, shooting his arrow the wrong way. I tried to get someone to point out the Southern Cross for me.

MALCOLM(ph): The one that looks like a kite?

Mr. WARGA: Yeah.

MALCOLM: And you have the pointers to the left of it.

Mr. WARGA: Malcolm is writing about this hike for the Sydney Sun Herald.

MALCOLM: If you draw a perpendicular line between the pointers heading towards the horizon, and a line from the two…

Mr. WARGA: Definitely that way.

MALCOLM: That way. That way.

Mr. WARGA: Oh.

MALCOLM: So that's it.

LIAM: Is that big bright star Jupiter?

MALCOLM: Yeah. And there's Alpha and Beta Centauri, all part of this big cluster of stars up in here.

Mr. WARGA: T.E. Lawrence said of deserts that they allow the awareness of one's own finitude, that we're ashamed into pettiness by the enumerable silence of stars. Sleeping in a swag in the middle of Australia, I felt a brief panic. I'm upside down on the globe, looking down at the stars. I fall asleep before falling off the earth.

Day two. What does one wear to a hike? How about clothing with so many pockets that it's easy to lose things on your own person? Malcolm's shirt was fresh out of the bag.

MALCOLM: Well, yeah. I got the digital voice recorder in one, the digital camera in another, and…

Mr. WARGA: So are you a professional journalist because you have the shirt?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALCOLM: I think, in spite of it.

Mr. WARGA: Leaving the camp, a dingo, a type of wild dog, scampers around the site smelling for food. I wanted to run past everyone frantically yelling a dingo ate my baby but I didn't know if that was an insult or not.

LIAM: About 350 million years ago, there was a big period of mountain building.

Mr. WARGA: The Larapinta trail offers an endless variety of rocks. While Liam is telling us some geological fact about the rocks we've just climbed, I start to hear snoring from somewhere.

LIAM: A heavy true quartzite…

Mr. WARGA: I take off my headphones and looked around. The snoring is coming from inside my own head. I've gone to sleep hiking.

LIAM: That's now the quartzite and…

Mr. WARGA: The brochure for the hike says, you, quote, "might discover something about yourself."

LIAM: …350 million years.

Mr. WARGA: I was hoping to find enlightenment but each step I seemed to grow closer not to nature but my own insanity. I thought and hoped for tranquility, something, but only composed e-mails in my head.

THORPEY(ph): That's it. It's such a mental game, hiking, I find.

Mr. WARGA: This is Thorpey, our other guide.

THORPEY: You have to program your mind to daydream and take your mind off walking and just mull over life a lot which is - it's great. And that's why people come out here to - out in the outdoors to spend a lot of time and have that thinking time and that break from the rat race of urban life, I suppose.

Mr. WARGA: That is the ultimate danger of hiking after snakes and cliffs, thinking.

Day three. By late afternoon, we make it to the top of Mount Sonder, the tallest peak on the Larapinta trail. I find our guide, Liam, perched on a boulder over a steep cliff, staring into that mental horizon of nothingness.

LIAM: I don't know why you climb a mountain. I suppose there's always something a little big exhilarating about being at the top of the mountain. People often need to do something that they don't usually do and I don't know why I do it. I like the outdoors and the wide open spaces. It's a good way to take it all in.

Mr. WARGA: Limping down off the newly-conquered mountain, my knees clicking, my calves aching, I feel the chill breeze of old age against my bare legs.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Once a jolly swag man camp by a billabong under the shades of…

Mr. WARGA: In celebration of the day's accomplishments, having thwarted all the guides' attempts to kill us and combined with some primal urge to sing into campfires. I get treated to the unofficial Australian National Anthem.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, you'll come a Waltzing Matilda…

Mr. WARGA: I don't know the song but I'm glad it's not just Americans who forget anthem lyrics.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible) shove that…

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) He sang as he shove that…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) jumbuck in his tucker bag. You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me…

Mr. WARGA: Day four. Our last day of hiking was the most exciting. Ormiston Gorge is a deep ancient canyon with gorgeous billabongs, water pools. I'm talking to Mal, the same conversation I find myself having a lot as an American abroad. No, I didn't vote for him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WARGA: Then a deep vengeful rumble fills the canyon. An avalanche of rock finally did something interesting. It tries to kill a group of travel writers. We scamper under a cliff as the falling boulder shatters apart, scattering into a rain of debris. The largest comes to rest near us at the bottom.

I hurry with the group to touch and photograph it because after all these, with my hand on a warm boulder, I think, I can finally call myself a travel writer.

(Soundbite of song "Waltzing Matilda")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong under the shade of a Coolibah tree. He sang as he watched and he waited till his billy boiled. You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me. Sing waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda. You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

NORRIS: Independent producer, Jake Warga, lives in Seattle. His work comes to us by way of

(Soundbite of Waltzing Matilda)

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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