Planning the gap year, the idea of taking a ferry from Japan to South Korea always appealed. But come the day, we discovered hydrofoils were our only option. So what was planned as our “slow boat to Korea” across the Sea of Japan, sitting on deck, basking in the sun, morphed into a comfy chair in a sealed craft.
The crossing from Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan, to Busan in South Korea took exactly three hours. There were only a few other boats, but we went close to the Japanese island of Tsushima.
The first things we saw on approaching our gap year’s 16th country were massive residential flats. Unlike Japan, with its declining population, South Korea’s has nearly doubled in the past 50 years. Welcome to the new world.
Travelling on these sleek bullet trains has been a real highlight of our time in Japan. Comfortable, smooth and relaxing, they are time machines, shrinking the country. We’ll go home thinking Japan is a lot smaller than it really is.
Here, there’s a pride in the railways, probably like nowhere else on earth. The timetable is guaranteed, people still queue on the platform, it’s plain-sailing to reserve seats, the conductors bow when they enter a carriage, everyone is quiet and respectful, and litter is taken home not dumped on the seats. Also, getting around is easy; all announcements and signage are in Japanese and English.
First introduced in 1964, and travelling along dedicated lines, the service has been regularly updated and the latest trains (N700 series) travel up to 320kph (200mph). There are five types of service, two of them excluded from our rail pass. Although from Tokyo to Kyoto we got onto a banned super-fast Nozomi service by mistake, and the conductor very politely asked us to leave the train at the next station, Nogoya. Not to worry, another Skinkansen, one we could travel on, came along five minutes later.
And being in Japan we can appreciate the difference these high-speed trains make to an urban population essentially living in a linear line from Fukuoka to Tokyo.
The train from Okayama pulled into Hiroshima at 9.56am, 160 km later.
Modern Australia is built on the back of huge road trains running the length and breadth of Australia. When you see one of these monsters bearing down on you in your rear view mirror, you quickly pull over.
This Truckers Museum, ten kilometres south of Alice Springs, is dedicated to the history and heroes of trucking across the centre of Australia.
Politicians invested in railways around the coasts, but during WW2 the Stuart Highway was made roadworthy for the army to reach and defend Darwin. Straight after that, in the absence of a railway from north to south, pioneering truckers started making the 30-40 hour drive, transporting anything and everything.
The first generation of truckers had to be mechanics, livestock managers, bridge fixers and flood survivors just to get through. Men like Kurt Johannsen are hailed for the successful conversion of the US Army trucks (left behind after WW2) into the first road train cattle transporters. Kurt also developed a self-tracking system for long multi-carriage road trains, enabling them to better go round corners.
This museum also gave us an insight into the future development of road trucks and their need to comply with increasingly tough specifications for pollution, gas efficiency and also home comforts to attract a new generation of drivers who want all mod cons in their cabs when driving and sleeping.
We decided to liven up the journey back to Alice Springs by visiting all four iconic and, dare we say it historic, Roadhouses. The equivalent of 19th century English Coaching Inns, they provide much needed accommodation, meals, water and rest on long journeys across the Outback.
Curtin Springs has 1 million acres, Mt Ebeneezer is Aboriginally owned, on the corner with the Stuart Highway is Erldunda, and Stuarts Well is where we stayed the night.
We’ve traded up from the tiny HippieCamper we had in Queensland. And, guess what, our Britz hi-top is so spacious and completely new. So a shiny kitchen, spotless floors and that new auto smell. How lucky are we!
Our only worry, the expected cold night temperatures. So we asked the lovely woman from Britz to give us an extra duvet, which she did.
Our first task, to stock up on supplies for eight days. So off we went to the Alice Springs Woolworths (Australia’s more upmarket supermarket chain) and filled up with tins, fruit and basics.
Four hours later, we pulled into free roadside parking on the Lassiter Highway, one of just four campervans, under a canopy of Southern Hemisphere stars.
Ahead of us the natural wonders of Kings Canyon, Uluru (Ayer Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). But right now, it was the Milky May that was the first star (or millions of stars) of our road trip.
And then, when we woke up with the dawn we experienced the most amazing Outback sunrise. We were speechless.
The Stuart Highway is long, straight and uncompromising. It’s not bothered by hills, rivers or much habitation. The steering wheel only needs to be turned to avoid Wallabies and Kangaroos in the road.
We boarded the Greyhound bus from Katherine and, after our eighth overnight journey of the gap year, arrived 16 hours later in Alice Springs.
For most of the time, it was a journey of darkness, as if the road existed in an empty black vacuum. Nothing to the right or left, except for the occasional flicker of an aboriginal fire or the neon of an isolated roadhouse
By law we had to wear seat-belts. But it didn’t need the government to suggest this was a good idea. Signs at the side of the road said “arrive alive not dead”, whilst our driver was foot down hour after relentless hour.
The half-full bus, soon fell silent and slumbered; asleep or in front of glowing screens. Aboriginals and global travellers all equal now. Upfront, the driver’s radio hopefully kept him awake by crackling semi-incoherent messages.
After 1400 km, the dawn sun revealed a landscape of deep red dust and few trees. We were in the Red Centre.
We couldn’t come to Australia and not experience the campervan lifestyle. Our Hippie Camper is wonderfully basic and a bit tired, but we got an incredible last-minute deal, a whole set of new chairs and kitchen equipment, and it’s ours for six nights.
After all the months in North America, we had to familiarise ourselves again with driving on the left and also the mechanics of using a gear stick.
North of Cairns is where rainforest meets the reef. Temperatures are lovely and the beaches remind us of Costa Rica, although there are few people swimming because of all the crocodile and box jelly fish warnings. We drove up through beautiful Palm Cove, before parking-up just outside Port Douglas.
Crossing the International Date Line en route from Honolulu to Sydney means we are just half way on our round-the-world adventure, with four months of travels in Australia and Asia to look forward to.
Jumping 20 hours ahead was a new experience for Roger, whilst Hilary crossed the Date Line in the opposite direction 30 years ago.
On our oneworld economy round-the-world tickets, it was good to swap American Airlines for Quantas. Even on the six hour flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii, the American carrier offered no free food. In comparison, on this flight, we enjoyed two cooked meals, healthy fruit, ice cream and a free bar.
We’re on the 6.30am Amtrak from Vancouver to Seattle. Our first train travel of the gap year.
We sat as advised; facing forward on the right hand side. The Pacific views were beautiful. Children waved to the train as they collected pebbles on the stony beaches. Eagles flew with us along the creeks.
This was train travel with an American twist. Idiosyncratic guards, long waits for goods trains, maximum speeds of about 50 mph and constant hooting to warn people off the line. Oh and at either end, near deserted stations; not many people take the train. In fact the whole affair seemed like a heritage ride – run by keen enthusiasts for tenacious travellers.