Cycle touring: Berowra to Dharug National Park to Wondabyne Station (via hell)

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-15

Singletrack on the Old Great North Road


  • Total distance ~123km / 2 days
  • GPX tracks for Day One and Day Two [downloads forthcoming]
  • 68.6km to Ten Mile Hollow Campground (Dharug NP) (~4:21 moving time, 5:24 total time)
  • 54.7km day two Ten Mile Hollow Campground to Wombeyan Station (via hell) (~4 hours riding time, 6:21 total time — ~3km / 2.5 hours of hard hike-a-bike)
  • Total vertical ascent over two days ~2800m (~1497m day one, 1356m day two)
  • Train, Sydney Central to Berowra, regular departures.  Total transit time ~ 50 minutes.
  • Train, Wombeyan Station to Sydney Central, departures roughly every hour on the half-hour on weekends.Total travel time ~50 minutes
  • Check train timings at
  • Total trip time: ~48 hours (Leave Sydney 6.00pm Friday, Arrive Sydney 6.00pm Sunday)
  • Total cost: ~$27 (Accommodation = $0, Transportation = $8.90 (Opal card), Food = $18)
  • Route: Berowra to Berowra Waters Ferry to Great North Road to Wisemans Ferry to Old Great Northern Road to Simpson Track to Dubbo Gully Road to Wisemans Ferry Road to Peats Ridge Rd to Woy Woy Rd to Tommo’s Loop Track to Great North Walk to Wombeyan Station (last bit to Wombeyan Station not recommended).
  • Navigation: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 / Gaia GPS & Google Maps
  • Photography: Fuji X-T1, 10-24mm F4 lens, edited in Lightroom
Berowra to Wondabyne ride-18

Sunrise over the hills from Berowra Valley Regional Park.

The map is not the territory.

After my last thoroughly enjoyable (if also thoroughly cold) weekend out along the dirt track of Wombeyan Caves Road, I was determined to find a route that was mostly offroad for my next cycling microadventure. To do this, I broadened my range of map sources, consulting not only Google Maps and Google Earth and the Australian National Parks maps, but also WildWalks hiking maps and track reports, as well as my new favorite bit of software — Gaia GPS.

Gaia GPS is an Android or iOS app (pricey at around $20) that offers a huge array of potential maps overlays — satellite imagery, Open Street Maps, Open Cycling Maps, Open Hiking Maps and more. What makes the functionality of Gaia GPS truly fantastic, however, is the ability to download specific sections of any of these maps for offline use — meaning that when you’re out of coverage off on a mountaintop somewhere, you’ll still know where you are.

And though the Open Hiking Maps for my planned route were especially useful for determining if a track was cycleable vs. merely hikeable (there are different symbols for these two kinds of tracks, as well as campsite symbols that I wasn’t able to find on other map sources), the distinction between map and territory remained a very significant one. Whatever symbol the map uses, it’s all terra incognita until you actually show up to the place it marks. And no map, anywhere, can accurately describe the depths of human stubbornness or stupidity in people attempting to follow it places that they clearly should not go. More on this later.

Morning at the ridgetop campsite in Berowra Valley NP above Berowra Heights.

Morning at the ridgetop campsite in Berowra Valley NP above Berowra Heights.

Friday night after work, I took the train north to Berowra and camped along a firetrail that runs from the dead end of a suburban development up onto the ridge above the town. There were kangaroos rustling in the underbrush as I set up my bivy and went to sleep, and though I desperately wish to write that I hate a “‘rooed awakening” the next morning, it was only kookaburras that woke me, with no marsupials in sight.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-16

Ferry ramp at Berowra Waters.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-19

Morning sunlight breaks over the hills at the Berowra Waters ferry.

One of the reasons I’d planned this particular route is that it made use of two of Greater Sydney’s free river ferries — essentially open barges towed by fixed cables back and forth across arms and tributaries of the Hawkesbury River system. They’re free of charge and many operate 24 hours a day, and by the time I’d got down to the ferry at Berowra Waters in the early morning, a healthy group of cyclists were already parked at the little cafe beside the ramp, indulging in the Australian obsession with good coffee in all places.

Crossing the river, the road then wound uphill for a few kilometres before being joined by around 30km worth of motorised traffic on the tarmac north to Wisemans Ferry — a tiny, pretty riverfront settlement with its own ferry leading across the Hawkesbury, the forested rise of Dharug National Park greeting me across the water and a haze of smoke in the air as fire crews did a controlled burn in the surrounding hills.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-14

Motorcycles parked at the Wisemans Ferry Inn.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-1-2

Park on the water at Wisemans Ferry.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-12

Convict Road Kiosk at Wisemans Ferry waterfront.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-11

Across the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry.

Running thru the park is a section of the Old Great North Road, a famous bit of Australiana built almost entirely by convict labour back in the early-mid 1800s when Sydney was little more than Great Britain’s favourite penal colony. The wide graded dirt interpretive trail leading up Devines Hill from near the ferry launch on the opposite site of the river made an interesting place to take a breather, reading the various information plaques along the side of the road giving details and stories of its convict history. Within a couple of kilometers, however, the way had narrowed into singletrack, and shortly after became quite technical — steep and rocky, with significant sections that, with a fully loaded bicycle, had to be dismounted and hike-a-biked. Nobody else was about, only insects loud in the trees.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-10

Smooth section of the Old Great North Road above Devines Hill.

After a couple hours of more or less technical riding (in which I tentatively decided to nickname my Surly Disc Trucker ‘The Ute’ for its ability to haul significant amounts of gear across gnarly terrain without a complaint), I joined back up with a motorable dirt track on the ridgeline and zipped down to the deserted Ten Mile Hollow campsite, discovering it to be right next to a Buddhist Thai Forest School meditation retreat named Wat Buddha Dhamma.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-5

Meditation hall, Wat Buddha Dhamma, Dharug National Park.

A possum (or series of possums) came and nibbled my food overnight, leaving me with a rather gnawed-on baguette to have with my baked beans the next morning, but crossing the trail over to the retreat and having a quiet meditation in their lovely wooden sala, followed by a cup of tea while they charged my flagging phone, was more than compensation for the possum assault.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-2-2

Lower portion of Simpson Track near Mangrove Creek.

Packing up and leaving the campground, I zipped down the Simpson Track from the ridgeline to the flats around Mangrove Creek — a trail with a wealth of beautiful potential camping spots, though none with the toilets and water tap of the campground at Ten Mile Hollow. Continuing onto the dirt track of Ten Mile Hollow Road I stopped at an early settler cemetery for some photographs, then crossed a rough plank bridge and gritted myself for the steep climb up Dubbo Gully Road to the tar at Waratah Road in Upper Mangrove.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-2

Settler cemetery, Ten Mile Hollow Rd.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-1

Early convict grave site, settler cemetery.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-6

Morning sunburst along the Simpson Track.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-21

Plank bridge on Ten Mile Hollow Road over Mangrove Creek.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-22

Locked gate, Dubbo Gully Rd.

Back on the pavement, things were predictably less entertaining — being chased by the angry, territorial dogs of rural residents and avoiding traffic as best I could for a couple hours all the way east and then south to the beginning of the Thommo’s Loop fire trail in Brisbane Water National Park near Woy Woy.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-4

Waterfall and pool at Kairong Brook along the Great North Walk near Wondabyne Station.

It is worth mentioning at this point that this whole trip had been spurred by a single discovery late on Wednesday afternoon that Sydney actually has a train station without a single road leading to it — riverside Wondabyne station north of the city, nestled at the bottom of a steep hill in the national park. I decided, studying my maps, that I would investigate if it was in fact possible to reach this station by bicycle, noting that the only problematic section was a roughly 3km stretch of bushtrack following the Great Northern Walk down from the fire trail, across a couple of creeks, and then ascending again to a brief stretch of cycleable track that led down to near the station.


Aftermath of two and a half hours of hike-a-bike thru hard bushtrack with a loaded touring bicycle.

Within a hundred metres of beginning on the bushtrack section, of course, the trail became uncycleable, with the sort of steep, narrow, slippery stone-and-mud steps that occasionally required free hands. Nonetheless, in for a penny and in for a pound, I was committed to realise my ‘Wondabyne by bicycle’ ambitions.

I carried my fully laden bicycle on my shoulder as much as I pushed it, and I slipped and fell almost as much as I walked. I was pouring sweat and filthy, bleeding from cuts and scrapes on my arms and legs. People who passed me on the track greeting me with a worried, “You alright, mate?” or just laughed. And how could I blame them? The course of action that I was undertaking was clearly not rational, and aside from the motivation of my rather random quest, entirely unexplainable.

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-7

Wondabyne Station — platform only long enough for one car, and no roads leading to the station.

Two and a half hours later, and feeling like ten miles of bad road, I finally made my way down to Wondabyne Station — a single short platform only long enough for a single car — and flagged down the conductor like I was catching a bus as the train approached, thus realising my ambition of reaching Wondabyne Station entirely by bicycle (but having to carry the bicycle for two and a half hours as part of the bargain).

Berowra to Wondabyne ride-9

Back in civilisation — a ramp on the platform at Strathfield Station in Sydney.

Changing trains at Strathfield, two people very high on hard drugs (probably ice) were listening to 70s funk and having a loud impromptu dance party in the final carriage of the train where I’d parked my worn-out body and my bike, welcoming me back to the nourishing bosom of civilisation.

As a continued shakedown of my gear, everything on the bike had performed admirably (with the exception of the stock bottom bracket which from its creaking and clunking I believe I may have nuked), and the largely off-road route was as fun and pretty as I could have wished. Gaia GPS will, I sense, also become an increasingly indispensible tool.

I cannot, however, in good faith recommend cycling to Wondabyne. =)

“Being Productive”


I travel a lot. A few years back, in the midst of a yearlong trip, the father of a friend of mine took a shot at me on social media for travelling instead of “being productive” — ie, having a job.

Nevermind of course that my travelling, even in the frugal, low-key way that I usually do, puts significant amounts of much-needed money into the local economies of the places that I visit. The feeling that drove his argument was much simpler and more visceral than all that: if you’re an adult, you need to be “participating in the economy”, and that means working and consuming.

I’ve always found this incredibly pervasive way of thinking strange. You spend your entire childhood and adolescence in a highly controlled institutional setting (“school”), and then virtually the minute you’re out of it, the expectation is that for the next fifty years of your life, save for at most one to four weeks out of the year, you will spend most of your daylight hours, most days of the week, as an economic machine  earning money, grinding along and “being productive”.

Most people, of course, do not find self-actualisation in their jobs, despite the implict assumption frequently put to children in the all-important question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And yet, despite the fact that purchasing managers and sales reps and barristas and accountants the world over do their jobs mostly just to earn a crust, we all still participate in the deception that our jobs really define us — the first question you ask any new person is almost always, after all, “So, what do you do?”

Put aside for a moment that we — absurdly — spend our entire lives not living, not forming memories, but working, where work is so often a procession of days so much the same that they defy remembering. Instead focus simply on what “being productive” means, what “contributing to the economy” means.

See the endless factories in China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, running ceaselessly, producing shoes, computers, clothing, mobile phones, kitchenwares, appliances, furniture, plastic toys, sporting goods, televisions, microwaves. See the trucks and container ships crossing the oceans and the land, spewing exhaust, bringing these things to people who consume them, tire of them, and within a few months or years throw them away. See the landfills overflowing with our purchases, no longer new enough to bring a thrill of satisfaction to people zonked and numbed by the endless grind of earning enough money to maintain the lifestyle that demands these purchases. See the “economy grow” in these endless cycles of production and consumption and disposal, the land stripped bare for coal and oil and metals and wood, the oceans vacuumed of fish and full of plastic, the world getting hotter and hotter and the weather stranger and wilder and “the economy” growing like a cancer, and all the while no one willing to say that it is madness to expect or desire unlimited growth in the context of a completely closed system.

I think that the world is poisoned and that we are all in the grip of madness. The orthodoxy of “productivity”, this debasing of the relationship of human beings to work and consumption, to themselves and to the Earth and to each other, is the emperor without his clothes, and everyone too beholden to the orgy of endless overabundance to say that the party is over.

The takeaway from this, I suppose, is simple: you do not need to spend your life producing and consuming. You do not need to feel bad for taking the time away from work to go travel for a week or a month or a year. You do not need to have home ownership as a major life goal. It’s okay to grow your own vegetables and to spend your weekends out in the woods rather than shopping. Your kitchen does not need to be redone. Your clothes don’t matter, and owning a car is often more of a burden than it is a form of liberation. Downsize your life, downsize your needs. Seek satisfaction in what you are, rather than what you have.

No one on their deathbed wishes that they had worked more.

Saving Luang Prabang


Much happens in life that is celebrated, but essentially un-noteworthy — sporting victories and Grammy wins and celebrity marriages. Likewise, there are events of quite great significance that go entirely unheralded, and often completely unknown. Such is the time that my father and I saved the town of Luang Prabang.

Known for its morning almsgiving ceremony at which visiting westerners behave, with their ubiquitous cameras and flashes, in a completely abominable fashion, Luang Prabang is the jewel of the country of Laos, a quiet, beautiful riverside town full of tidy streets of lovely wooden colonial shopfronts and houses, pretty as a dollhouse and just as flammable.

The night was calm as we strolled the streets after dinner — the air soft and warm like bathwater and the hum of insects in the trees and the noise of the occasional motor on the river as a boat passed going upstream in the dark. The trees hung over the street like a pergola and the lights glowed in the houses and all was well.

As we passed the locked, open-air gate of a lighted patio, a loud pop suddenly sounded from within, then a crackling sound, quickly growing louder. We walked over to the gate to investigate; within, a collection of electrical appliances, plugged with baroque complexity thru a series of adapters into a single outlet, sparked and, as we watched, burst suddenly into flame.

‘That looks bad,’ observed my father Steve, ever sanguine. ‘We should probably do something about that.’

‘Well yes, no shit.’ The room in which the fire now burned ever-brighter was empty, as was the street. ‘Hello?’ I called. Then louder: ‘HELLO!’ Then: ‘Fire! FIRE!!!’

I might as well have been calling bingo numbers. The plastic adapters were beginning to melt and drip in the flames. I turned and ran down the nearest side street, looking for anyone who might be able to prevent the town we’d been enjoying for the last three days from going up like a UNESCO-heritage tinderbox.

Help, in this case, was a lone man trundling a wheelbarrow thru the darkness. I ran up to him, panting. ‘Hey, hey! Fire! Over here! Fire!’ I gesticulated wildly back around the corner. He rolled his eyes and laughed — crazy foreign person! — then went back to pushing his wheelbarrow.

‘No: FIRE! FIRE!!!’ I tried to mime something burning, which if you’ve ever drawn this card in charades is harder than it might seem. He laughed again and turned away.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ I grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him down the alley to the main street. To his credit, he did not appear to take umbrage at this. Steve had even gotten a bit exercised about the growing conflagration, and was forcefully gesturing at the man to come look as I dragged him to the locked gate.

A single glance and his eyes went wide in the universal sign for OH SHIT.

‘Ah!!!! Fai mai! FAI MAI!’ he yelled, apparently the magic words in Lao that Steve and I had been missing. All around us the houses suddenly came alive like a tree of birds roused by a gunshot. ‘FAI MAI! FAI MAI!’

Neighbors spilled into the street and, as we watched, a man burst forth, unlocked the gate, and hosed down the blaze with a long blast from a handy fire extinguisher, coating the entire patio in a white powder and bringing an audible sigh of relief from the gathered crowd. Wheelbarrow man flashed us a thumbs up, then went back to pushing his wheelbarrow, the crisis averted just as suddenly as it had arisen, and we started back on down the street through the dark.

‘No one is ever going to thank us for this, you know,’ I said to Steve.

‘I know. Nightcap?’

‘Eh, why not?’

The night around us was as beautiful as ever.

The measure of the world / Someone else’s awesome

musicianI think that the danger sometimes, having done work on ourselves to the point where we can look back at all the changes we’ve made for the better, at the way our lives have transformed, is to say to those around us, ‘Look at me — look at what I’ve done! You can do this too!”

It’s one thing to be justifiably proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished in yourself, of course, and quite another to to take that accomplishment and make it the measure of the world. That’s one of the dangers in personal growth — to say, rightly, ‘I’m doing really awesome!’, but then to say that someone else’s awesome has to look just like yours.

It doesn’t.

The world would be a very sterile place if everyone’s mountain, which they’d climbed over long years and with endless grief and striving and tears and effort, looked exactly the same from the top. There’s an internal dimension in people, in what they live, that you can never fathom from the outside. And in that dimension, though you cannot see it from your own vantage, and though it may look very different to your own measure of awesome, they may actually be crushing it.

Food for thought.

Cycle Touring Near Sydney: Mittagong to Wombeyan Caves (Return)

Puasing at the Wollondilly Lookout in Nattai National Park.

Pausing at the Wollondilly Lookout in Nattai National Park.


  • Total distance ~130km / 2 days
  • ~65km to Wombeyan caves (~3.75 hours)
  • ~65km day two return to Mittagong (~3.75 hours)
  • Total vertical ascent over two days ~3400m (~1700m each day)
  • Train, Sydney Central to Mittagong, regular departures. Change at Campbelltown. Total transit time ~2 hours 15 minutes.
  • Train, Mittagong Station to Sydney Central, departures roughly every two hours on weekends. Change at Macarthur or Campbelltown. Total travel time ~2 hours 15 minutes
  • Check train timings at
  • Total trip time: ~36 hours (Leave Sydney 9.00am Saturday, Arrive Sydney 6.30pm Sunday)
  • Total cost: Accommodation = $0, Transportation = $8.30 (Opal card), Food = $28
  • Route: (Mittagong) Old Hume Hwy to Wombeyan Caves Road all the way to Wombeyan Caves. Return the same way.
  • Navigation: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 / Google Maps
  • Photography: Samsung Galaxy Note 3, edited in Snapseed
Curve at the beginning of the long descent out of Bullio.

Curve at the beginning of the long descent out of Bullio.

There is no cycling route anywhere in the world that is enhanced by the presence of cars. At best, our planet’s dominant form of motorised life constitutes an annoyance to the cyclist; at worst, it represents the possibility of injury or death. Naturally then, when cycling, dirt is strongly preferred to tarmac — not only because dirt routes are typically prettier, but because they discourage the use of motorised transport, making the entire experience of cycling them considerably safer and more pleasant.

The 130km-return route from Mittagong to the famous Wombeyan Caves in the NSW Southern Highlands is a superb example of just such a ride. It starts out with a few kilometres along the heavily trafficked box-store wasteland of the Old Hume Highway before transitioning onto the much quieter (but still tarmac) beginning of Wombeyan Caves Road.

Blue skies above the first kilometres of Wombeyan Caves Road.

Blue skies above the first kilometres of Wombeyan Caves Road.

WIthin 20km, however, the road turns to dirt as it winds downward alongside (and sometimes thru!) the looming rock formations of Nattai National Park and  past the awesome vista of the Wollondilly Lookout. From there the road passes vast tracks of pastureland (goats, cows, horses, packs of wild kangaroos) and then onward thru the hamlet of Bullio before beginning the long, fast descent of an 11-km series of switchbacks to the Wollondilly River at Goodmans Ford.

The Wollondilly River from the causeway to Goodmans Ford.

Reflections on the Wollondilly River from the causeway at Goodmans Ford.

Now, beyond Goodmans Ford, Wombeyan Caves road is officially ‘closed’. I say ‘closed’ because this closure has absolutely nothing to do with road conditions — the road is in reasonable condition for a 4WD (as ever) and completely passable, but has been closed as ‘unsafe’ owing to a standoff between the NSW state government and the local shire council over funds for road maintenance.

As a cyclist, of course, this has absolutely no impact on you, except to make the beautiful, tiring 11km climb from the river even more pleasant for the utter absence of cars. The route is genuine backcountry, heavily wooded and winding, with dozens of roos and even a rare echidna scooting from the track as I approach.

15 kilometres -- almost all of it climbing.

15 kilometres — almost all of it climbing.

I stop to fill my water bottles at stream trickling down the rocks (see this excellent article for some information about backcountry water sources) before I make camp. As the climb tops out at the intersection with Langs Rd, and with the day’s light ebbing fast, I find a lovely campsite some distance off the road on an unfenced hillside, heat myself some dinner on my DIY sideburner alcohol stove and tuck in for the night under the wheeling sky and the bright band of the Milky Way.

Bivy setup at twilight on the hillside.

Bivy setup at twilight on the hillside.

Bicycle and gear covered in hard frost in the morning.

Bicycle and gear covered in frost in the morning.

wom ice2

I sleep out in my bivy, and by midnight a frost has formed on my bag, my panniers, my bike and all the grasses around me. My Sea to Summit TKII down sleeping bag continues to be a non-lofting, utterly useless piece of gear that begs replacement, but I huddle in and make it thru the night without desperation or misery.

The Wombeyan Caves themselves are just a few kilometres down the hill from where I’ve slept, so I pack up after coffee and head down to devour microwave meat pies from the kiosk there like an insatiable monster that’s happened into town from the wild. On the cave park grounds, people are camped beside their cars and there are teenagers playing music and I am abundantly glad to have slept away from all this ‘civilisation’, never understanding why people would come to a place with such beauty and then choose to sleep in sight of cars and buildings.

Inside Victoria Arch cave.

Inside Victoria Arch cave.

I spend a few minutes walking the grounds, wandering into the vast vault of Victoria Arch cave, but not lingering too long. It’s an extended climb on the bike back up to the hill where I camped, but afterwards the long, fast descent of the climb I’d done the day before rolls out before me, flying down over rutted dirt and rocks and leaning into the corners.

Back at Goodmans Ford I grit myself again and face the long, long ascent to Bullio, thru Nattai again, and back up to the tarmac on the early section of Wombeyan Caves Road. It’s worth noting that both Strava and Runkeeper track the vertical ascent on each leg of the out-and-back at just above 1700m, making the route, which is not particularly long, pretty taxing nonetheless. As Alastair Humphreys mentions, part of the joy of an intensely physical trip is simply the immense relief that you receive when you finally get to stop.

As for equipment: the Surly Trucker continues to be a rock-solid beast. I’m also increasingly aware (especially on the long climbs that occur on routes like this one) that that bomb-proofness comes with a weight penalty. Which is to say, the bike is definitely heavy, and I find myself seriously considering finding ways to ditch the panniers (which are *so* convenient, but also tip the scales at almost 2kg for the pair) and travel pannierless with a saddlebag, frame bag, handlebar bag and handlebar roll. At the very least, it’s a project that should keep me busy.

I also used the USB charging port on my B&M Luxos IQ2 headlamp for the first time on this trip. and despite running GPS the whole time, finished up with the battery charge above 90% — generally gaining 1% charge every few minutes when my speed was over 15kph or so. Very pleased with this result.

I also used the giant BBB Fueltank XL bottle cage for the first time, which certainly gets a pass — keeping some of that substantial water weight forward on my frame rather than back in my panniers, which is good because my setup tends towards serious back-heaviness already.

Finally, the beer-can alcohol stove was an absolute winner — tiny and light and reliable and working just fine, even at near-freezing temps. It doesn’t allow much potential for adjustment, and once it’s lit, it’s lit until the flame burns out. Still, I’m increasingly convinced that this little stove may be just the thing going forward. Next task is to try another variation on the sideburner stove with smaller and more efficient jets.

Not actually!

Not actually!

Burma Shave

Streets of Yangon

Streets of Yangon

The life-cycle of a beard is a curious thing. You begin clean-shaven, baby-faced and smooth, and within a day, your cheeks and chin are already darkened by a hint of stubble. For a few days that stubble grows, and with it a look of ruggedness suggesting a manly, western independence of the kind that once lured children to start smoking, or at least toward careers in the rodeo.

Sometime around day five post-shave, however, a sudden shift occurs, and that ruggedness is transformed – overnight or perhaps just too long away from the counsel of mirrors – into something much less appealing: a look of vagrancy, suddenly a tramp where before had been a handsome cowboy. Oh ho ho.

Nonetheless, many places in the developing world offer a very pleasant solution to traveller for this common problem: a by-hand straight razor shave in the stall of a local barber.

Now: my partner Dileeni and I were in Yangon (Myanmar) sometime around day eight of the shave cycle, and I had long since begun to look vaguely homeless. It was an aesthetic reinforced by my eating habits, and the tendency of my increasingly prominent whiskers to gather Shan noodle sauce as I dined.

Out into the morning streets of the city we went – into the light of the ramshackle centre with its taxis and temples and tea-stalls amidst canyons of mould-darkened edifices. Dileeni is gregarious: the first likely-looking man she could find she accosted, a middle-aged Burmese guy himself proudly sporting a wispy cub-scout moustache. “Oh, hi! A shave?” she asked. “Do you know?” she gestured broadly at me, “Where he? Can get? A SHAVE?” This pantomiming a razoring motion.

Needless to say, this is not my usual strategy when seeking for a bit of personal grooming abroad. I prefer to wander quietly, reconnoitring the shopfronts from a distance, carefully considering my options without the need to commit to anything prematurely. This, by contrast, was a full-frontal assault, and now the social contract had kicked in: regardless of where this man was to lead us, we were now obliged to follow, as we did for several city blocks to a ladies’ beauty salon owned (so Dileeni divined) by his sister-in-law.

The horror grew. A boy, no older than fifteen, was produced from the back room, grinning eagerly. I was seated in the barber’s chair while he rummaged in a disordered drawer for a razorblade, unsheathing it from its cardboard like a glittering curiosity unearthed on a beach. He fitted it into the handle and dabbed water lightly on my cheeks, then went to work.

If you have never been shaved dry by a fifteen-year-old while your girlfriend amiably chats up a barbershop full of wide-eyed people about the details of their native culture, allow me to dispel the mystery for you: it hurts. Absurdly.

Dileeni, pointing to circles of yellow paste on the women’s cheeks: “So what is this for? Makeup?”

Burmese women: “Oh no – sun! For sun! Is plant!”

Dileeni, clearly fascinated: “Oh, that’s fantastic! Natural sunscreen!”

Meanwhile, the boy tasked with shaving me was clearly having a rough go of it. He’d gone through first one new razorblade, then another, not so much cutting as ripping the hairs from my face. I flicked my eyes up in the mirror and looked at him as he concentrated. He was sweating with effort. My face was only one-third done.

“Oh – I’m Australian!” Dileeni was saying. “But my parents are from Sri Lanka.” The women were captivated. They cooed. Everyone save for the boy and I were having a capital time. He fitted another blade into the handle with a look a grim determination.

“More water,” I advised from the chair in the absence of any more suitable lubricant. The boy slapped his moistened palms against my neck, then scraped at it like a man removing wallpaper. The shave was now entering its fifteenth minute; I closed my eyes and did deep breathing like you do in a dentist’s chair when the novocaine hasn’t quite reached the nerve. Behind me Dileeni audibly continued to glean marvellous insights into our host country. I breathed and breathed and the minutes stretched out…

“All done.”

The words brought me back to myself, and I opened my eyes. On the counter before the mirror rested seven spent blades crusted with coarse whiskers. My cheeks were raw and red and I bled a sizeable trickle from a nick on my Adam’s apple. The boy hastily dabbed at it with a stinging block of alum, darting his hand in like someone who has left something incriminating on the coffee table only to realise it just as the guests arrive.

Dileeni turned away from her new friends, beaming, as I paid and gathered up my bag and we headed for the door. “Ooh, did you see there’s a cut right here?” She gingerly touched my neck.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“How was the shave?”

“Marvellous,” I answered.

We linked arms and out we walked into the sun of Yangon together, blunted follicles beneath the skin already starting the cycle anew.

Affordable Travel Sydney: How to Eat Out Without Breaking Your Budget

Opera Sails

Recently, with the fall in the Australian dollar against the greenback to around 75 US cents, I’ve seen a rash of posts in travel media talking about what an affordable ‘travel bargain’ Sydney has become .

To put this in perspective, Sydney is a ‘bargain’ in exactly the same way that waking up drugged in a bathtub full of ice in Cartagena and discovering that you still have one kidney left is a ‘bargain’. This fact may not trouble the more cashed-up traveller, and Sydney certainly has its share of superb haute cuisine for those who can afford it. For budget travellers who visit the city, however, and especially for the legions of backpackers passing thru on their way around Australia, eating out in Sydney can very quickly eat up your budget (as anyone who’s spent an eye-watering $24 on a lowly chicken parm in a pub here can attest).

To avoid going broke, or eating food with the nutritional content of cardboard (or for those times that you simply can’t bear the thought of another night of self-catering), Sydney actually has a fairly reliable range of options for those who want to dine out without breaking the bank.

Check out the following ideas for an inexpensive bite around the city:

(1) Chinatown food courts Chinatown has its fair share of overpriced and underwhelming restaurants (pro tip: avoid anywhere where only tourists appear to be dining), but it also has a couple of superb cheap-and-dirty Singapore-style food courts. Eating World on Dixon Street is my personal favorite example, with tons of excellent ten-bucks-and-under meals (as well as some slightly pricier options). Selection runs the gamut from Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese to Chinese BBQ and even a tonkatsu ramen outlet (Gumshara).

(2) Vietnamese rolls (normally found from “Hot Bread” shops and Asian bakeries). This is arguably the city’s cheapest decent meal, and can be found all over: chicken, BBQ pork, etc. with veggies and sauces in a crusty roll. Usually $4-5 bucks. Delicious and filling. Ask for mayonnaise and pate — whether you want chili is up to you.

(3) Weeknight pub specials Found all over and varying from night to night. Usually $10 or so, but sometimes as low as $5. Expect favorites like chicken schnitzel and chips or “pub steak” (though this last should perhaps be cautioned against, as it often requires a truly unbelieveable amount of chewing). Also plenty of good-value pub lunches on offer in many of the same places.

(4) Lunch specials at Thai restuarants Not universal, but certainly a common enough phenomenon that it bears mention, many Thai restaurants offer lunch specials (with rice!) for $7-9. This is arguably one of the city’s best cheap vegetarian options. Areas like Newtown have a bunch of Thai restaurants in tight concentration, so you can choose whichever takes your fancy.

(5) Kebabs You’ve no doubt discovered this already, as there is a kebab shop on practically every streetcorner, but this fast-food option is everywhere, and a significant cut above Maccas or Hungry Jack’s. Quality varies widely, and price a bit, but you can pretty much always get away for under $10. Falafel wraps are good for vegos, and pide (pee-dae) makes a good cheap alternative to pizza.

(6) Morning cafe specials.  The venerable bacon-and-egg roll is Australia’s national breakfast dish (ignore that talk from the Vegemite lobby). In celebration of this fact, each morning coffeeshops and cafes across the land offer up bacon-and-egg roll specials to weary wakers — often just $7 bucks for one with a coffee to accompany it. The caffeine-and-grease one-two punch is perfect, particularly after a big night out.

(7) Bottle shops and public parks Would any advice about any Australian city be complete without a word about where to get your grog on? If you’ve so much as breathed a whiff of Sydney’s air, you probably know already that drinking in the city makes money disappear at a rate that defies good sense, logic and the basic laws of microeconomics. Moreover, you know that Sydney’s greatest feature is its superb natural beauty, so combine these insights and take your drinking to one of the city’s many excellent public parks. A few specifically prohibit alcohol, but generally speaking this is not often enforced (provided you’re not, of course, acting like a drunk dickhead), so head to a bottle shop (one is never far away) and grab a six pack or bottle of wine (wine by the bottle is, of course, Australia’s best drinking value) to enjoy in the grassy out-of-doors. Your wallet will thank you.


America By Train: The #5 California Zephyr

Observation car of the California Zephyr

Observation car of the California Zephyr., the bible for train journeys worldwide, has this to say of crossing the United States on Amtrak’s #5 California Zephyr service:

Without a doubt, crossing the United States by train from coast to coast is one of the world’s great travel experiences.  Amazingly, it’s also one of the world’s great travel bargains… a 2-night, 2,438-mile journey aboard one of the world’s greatest trains.

Loving train travel (the more epic the better) and yet never having experienced it in my native country, when my partner Dileeni and I travelled to the USA in September 2014, visiting friends in Chicago before heading over to my old stomping grounds in the San Francisco Bay Area, I convinced her that we really wanted to go by train, seeing the country along the way (better than flying, but without having to drive).

We reserved a 2-berth Superliner ‘roomette’ sleeper for ~$800USD total, and leaving behind our friends in Chicago in the bright light of early afternoon, boarded the train, bound for a 4.00pm arrival in Oakland two days later.



While not personally over-fond of creature comforts, the “roomette” qualified as cramped, even by my lax standards — a broom closet pretty much exactly the width of the narrow bunks, into which we shoehorned our modest baggage with some effort. Still, you could lay down, and our snack supplies were plentiful, and we settled down into the rhythmic chuk-a-chuk of the rails, watching the city scenery give way to towns and fields for an hour or so before the train braked hard to a stop after we hit and killed a pedestrian outside Naperville.

This revelation — the drunk, now dead, pedestrian who had chosen to place a coin on the track to get ‘smushed’ and then failed to step out of the way of the passing train — was occasioned by an unexplained four-hour halt in the middle of a soybean field, and the eventual appearance of a white van with AFTERMATH SERVICES ominously stenciled on the side. Word of what had eventuated finally reached us in the sleeping car like a game of Chinese whispers, in rumors and speculations, but suffice it to say that your train killing someone mere minutes into a 50-hour journey is not exactly a favorable omen. Plus, this occured smack in the middle of National Rail Safety Month.

Nor, it can be said, did the trip improve from there. The Amtrak service several times halted for an hour or more in the middle of nowhere, waiting for other higher-priority trains to pass by our particular section of America’s chronically neglected rail network. We arrived in the morning to towns that we should have reached the previous evening; we reversed and backtracked with no explanation at random points in the journey; we rarely broke above 50kph. But it was meals in the dining car that we came to look forward to the least.

All meals are included in the price of a sleeper ticket, “adult beverages” (their words) excluded. Theoretically, getting three squares a day in the dining car should have been an unqualified plus — the food wasn’t bad, after all, although the menu was understandably quite limited — but being only two people, Dileeni and I couldn’t fill up an entire booth, and this meant that every meal became a round of dreaded “social roulette”.

Would you get bible-loving, Jesus-preaching churchies as dining companions? A bearded weirdo with prominent underarm odors and gun-centred libertarian notions? Or just people so dull, so utterly beige, that merely being party to their conversations compared unfavorably with watching paint dry? It was like a study in everything socially that had gone wrong in America since Reagan — the willful misinformation, the chest-beating patriotism, the born-again fervor and denials of reason, and the general dimness with which most everybody seemed aware that a world even existed outside the US of A.

Passing through the aspens of Colorado.

Passing through the aspens of Colorado.

We did one night get sat with an older British couple, Ed and Mary, who were good fun and liked a drink and felt similarly about the whole affair. We commiserated together in the way that kids do in a tragic summer camp, captive to the company of people you’d rather avoid, and yet unavoidably committed for the long haul, as we hadn’t even yet reached Denver.

There were compensations too, of course, — the climb into the mountains, eventually, outside the Colorado capital, and the forests of quaking aspens that rushed by outside the train window like waves of gold; or waking into the red-rock desert of Utah, with its horizon full of fantastical geological formations. And coffee, bottomless coffee in the mornings in the dining car after our companions had shuffled off, chatting to our wisecracking waiter Leroy who, if he was incredulous at the things his guests often said or did, was at least amply amused by them as well.

In the end, we arrived into the Emeryville section of greater Oakland deep into the night of our third day, more than seven hours late, and hopped an Amtrak bus (with, predictably, much delay) over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, a city that since my departure six years earlier seemed to have divided itself ever more sharply into a monied class working for the tech companies of Silicon Valley, and an underclass struggling to live in what was now, partially as a consequence, the most expensive city in America.

The final verdict on the California Zephyr, then: it’s painfully slow to begin with, and even then you will probably be delayed. The scenery past Denver is amazing, especially in the mountains (but a whole lot of cornfields before that). The “roomette” was affordable, and the price not much higher than a comparable one-way airfare, but it’s also pretty cramped, and even the full-on “rooms”, which cost a fair bit more, aren’t as nice even as a kupe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Food: not bad, but bring snacks and your own alcohol. If you’re a sociologist, you may find the dining car fascinating.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5). An ‘epic’ train journey to be sure, but hardly one of the world’s greatest. Consider renting a car and road-tripping instead, provided you have ample time.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the rocks at Baker Beach.

The Golden Gate Bridge from the rocks at Baker Beach.