There are No Kangaroos in Australia: Misadventures in Running and Climbing Down Under

koalaAustralia, such a dangerous place—every turn fraught with peril. That’s what I tell myself as I pack for the trip. I picture how I’ll spring to action when I run into one of Australia’s most venomous beasts like The Taipan, The Stone Fish, or the Vicious Koala.

It’s exciting. Or frightening. I get the two confused.

I meet none of these creatures on my travels, and my expert dangerous-animal-ninja-training goes unused yet again. Sigh.

But while I’m there, I manage to run a marathon, watch a solar eclipse, climb the highest peak on the continent*, and meet a lot of fun people along the way, so I don’t write the trip off as a total loss.

Bonus: Because it’s taken me four months to get around to writing this, my memory of specific events has faded. This allows me to embellish stories in a way only someone who believes their lies can accomplish.


Babies On an Airplane

For once in my life, I’m not leaving on a red-eye. It’s 5:00 PM in Portland, and I’m thinking to myself, “This is the life, Tyler. Welcome to a world where planes leave during the day. You’re really moving up, you know?”

Then I meet Sarah. She’ll be my seat mate from PDX to LAX, and she has a baby—fresh out of the oven—who’s about to sound her baby sized air-raid siren for two hours.

As luck would have it, though, this baby does not make noise—not even on take-off or landing. In fact, she’s so quiet I question if she’s actually alive. Sarah is nice, though, and her husband is a pastor, so I opt not to alert the authorities.

This is my kind of airplane baby. Thanks, baby.

I head to the next gate for the long-haul from LAX to BNE ready for the same. It is only appropriate my expectations be at their greatest when they’re dashed to pieces.

Boarding the plane, I immediately realize the biggest mistake of my entire trip: a f***ing middle seat. The series of emotions you experience after the sudden realization you’ve accidentally chosen the middle seat on a 14-hour flight closely match the five stages of grief:

  • Denial: This isn’t happening. I do not make mistakes like this.
  • Anger: What the $*%&?! This is bull%$*&!! AHHHH!!!!!
  • Bargaining: Who wants to trade their aisle seat for $50? What, no one?
  • Depression: Life is no longer worth living. Please, pilot, just crash thing in the sea and get it over with.
  • Acceptance: Still waiting for this.

Picking seats months ago, I fail to look at the layout of the plane, opting to quickly select a seat based on the letter of the row I believe to be an aisle.

Note to future self: You are not good with the alphabet. Look at the seating chart!

Challenge #2: My seatmate to the right is an armrest hog.

Over the course of 14 hours, we engage in a fierce battle for the holy land. Six hours in, he breaks to the bathroom and I claim victory for the rest of the trip, taking the armrest and poking my elbow slightly into his space as a sort of reparations.

Hmm, perhaps I’m the armrest hog.

Luckily, my seatmate to the left is a real-life eclipse chaser. She and her husband live in a small astrological community in rural Arizona (yes, really) and travel the world chasing solar eclipses. I remark that it must be an expensive hobby. She remarks that running marathons and climbing mountains all over the world isn’t the cheapest way to spend a weekend.

Touché, eclipse lady. Touché indeed.

14 middle-seat-hours later, we touch down in Brisbane. Australia is truly beautiful.

Current kangaroo count: 0

Popping Pills in Queensland

I forgot to mention something: I’m sick. Very, very sick actually. For the last two weeks, I’ve fought a nasty cold spreading around Portland. This happens every time I train for a marathon.

Note to future self: Adjust training schedule so as not to trash body so much.

Nevertheless, I’m in Australia now (I made it!), and it’s time to have a look around after popping the seven nutritional supplements I’m taking three times a day to beat this cold down. Yes, Mr. Airport Security Man, I can explain why I have a bag of strange-looking pills in my carry-on.

Since I’m opposed to paying for airplane tickets I book my travel these days with frequent flyer miles.

One perk of flying with FFMs is that you often have to fly strange routes to your destinations and take long layovers in out-of-the-way cities to get there on the dates you want to go (and sometimes even that’s not possible). If you find it funny I call that a perk, understand that one requirement of flying with FFMs is that you must re-frame giant inconveniences as perks.

So, arriving in Australia, I’m ready to take advantage of my 12-hour layover in Brisbane. And, after the sticker shock of paying $30 for a transit ticket that would cost less than $5 at home in Portland wore off, boy did I!

Another perk to long layovers is that I get a chance to perfect my expert airport chillaxin’ skills:

Expert Airport Chillaxin'
Expert Airport Chillaxin’

The more I travel, the better I get at relaxing in the world’s least comfortable spaces—a valuable life skill.

But just as I settle in, I’m off again. The real destination is Port Douglas near the northeastern tip of Australia on the Great Barrier Reef. This is where the marathon will be in just two more days and where the best seats on the continent will be for watching the solar eclipse.

One short flight to Cairns and one long taxi ride with the world’s most racist cab driver later, I arrive at my hostel.

That’s right, high fallutin’ world traveler Tyler still stays in hostels when he travels. Why? Because hotels are boring. With my balance of reward points, a nice, relaxing hotel room all to myself could be, essentially, free. But I choose not to stay in them as often as possible because nothing fun or interesting ever happens in hotels. They’re painstakingly designed to be predictably boring. Not my cup of tea.

Staying in a hostel can also be unpleasant, but I rarely regret it.

One more day until the marathon.

Current kangaroo count: Still 0.

An Unplanned Reunion

Those of you who’ve followed this adventure of mine for a while will remember my first marathon outside The U.S. was on a wild game reserve in Africa. What a trip that was!

So, imagine my surprise when, standing in line for my race packet in Australia, I recognize two women I ran with in Africa more than a year ago. And imagine my surprise when they tell me there are six more old friends in town for the race.

How exciting!

One thing I’ve learned in my travels is I’m never really alone. Everywhere I go there are friends to be made, and I never end up isolated like I once feared. As fun as it is to run into an old friend unexpectedly, it’s even more fun to run into eight of them halfway across the world.

Here’s a quick shout out to Kaye, Brandon, Martha, Andy, Charly, Danielle, Gaétan, and Wendy. Hello from Portland!

We spend the rest of the day catching up and preparing for the marathon tomorrow like true athletes—drinking beer and eating fried food at the local pub. With my illness and jet lag, I will deeply regret this decision soon. But for now it’s great!

Back at the hostel, I settle in for the night after getting to know two new friends. This is what happens when you stay in a hostel. Instead of falling asleep, you stay up and have interesting conversations with fun people, like Taz and Sin, my bunkmates for the night in town from Melbun (That’s Melbourne for all of you not reading along in an Australian accent).

At 4:00 the next morning, I’m up and off to the starting line. The sun is just beginning to rise, and it’s a good thing I give myself extra time because it turns out my map reading skills could use some freshening up. Instead of the quick 1/4 mile walk to the beach I expect, the marathon is three miles away. I don’t realize this until I’ve already walked 2.5 miles, turned around several times and quietly asked myself, “Where the %*$& is the starting line!?”

Fear not, Dear Reader! I eventually stumble onto the startling line—miles away from where I expect it to be—and all is right in the world. I collect my super-funky-eclipse-viewing-glasses from the girl at the super-funky-eclipse-viewing-glasses booth that appears to rather be doing ANYTHING ELSE besides handing out super-funky-eclipse-viewing-glasses.

But I cannot be brought down now. Not by some snarky super-funky-eclipse-viewing-glasses girl! I’m about to see my first super-funky-solar-eclipse, damn it!

And then it happened. I saw a total eclipse of the sun. It was great.

What, were you expecting more? Fine, here’s a picture:

Like a picture could really do it justice…

A fun fact about solar eclipses: they confuse the hell out of the birds. Just before it hits, the sun is out and the birds are chirping away. Then, sudden darkness and they’re are all like, “Well, that was a short day. Good night everyone.” Total silence. Five minutes later and they’re back with a, “What the!?! Daytime again!? I didn’t even go to sleep yet! Oh well, here I go. Chirp chirp chirp.”

Sidenote: I spend much of the rest of my trip pondering the economics of the super-funky-eclipse-viewing-glasses industry. This is a business that must go bananas for a few weeks a year and then be absolutely dead the rest of it. What do these people do with all the spare time, I wonder? Maybe they sell super-funky-other-thing-viewing glasses.

As the only marathon on earth with an intergalactic starting gun, the race begins as the eclipse clears. Welcome to The Solar Eclipse Marathon—a clever marketing ploy to create an expensive running event. One, I might add, that I am happy to pay for. What a fun event!

Five grueling hours later, I cross the finish line and lay down in the grass to rest. Not my slowest time, but more than an hour above my personal best.

The thing about these adventure marathons I run is they all come with a very difficult course. On a flat trail with the right training and good health, I can run a sub 4-hour marathon. But these weird marathons around the world aren’t about time trials (so I tell myself). They’re about having an adventure.

If I calibrate the measuring stick for “fun,” then this race can only be called a success. It also helps to see I finished in the top 25% of all runners. I use this number to justify my incredible slowness. It helps.

Five worldwide marathons down. Two to go.

Current kangaroo count: 0 and counting…

A Quick Stop On Australia’s Tallest Mountain

Getting to Australia is a bit of an endeavor when you’re flying with frequent flyer miles. Tickets have to be booked far in advance, and you must be relatively flexible with your schedule.

So, I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to scale Australia’s tallest peak—Mt. Kosciuszko—just outside of Canberra while I’m here. Like most amazing natural features in the world, Kosciuszko has been known and climbed by natives for thousands of years but is named after a European.

At a towering 7,310 feet (2,228 meters), it may be the shortest mountain I’ve ever climbed. Shorter, even, than Mt. St. Helens, the first peak I ever reached in a pair of jeans. And “climbing” is a bit of a stretch as well. “Leisurely walked up” would be a more apt description.

But I’m still made to feel a hero when the other hikers on the mountain are astounded to learn I walked up and didn’t take the chairlift that drops you off just below the summit. A real ego booster!

Very Important Note: Mt. Kosciuszko is the 8th of the Seven Summits. The short but interesting story of how this came to be goes something like this:

About 30 years ago, a guy named Dick Bass decided to challenge himself to climb the tallest mountain on each continent. When it came to judging the peaks of Australia, he chose Mt. Kosciuszko, the tallest peak on mainland Australia.

When he finished his challenge, he wrote a book about it and everyone called him a hero. Except one guy named Reinhold Messner, a grumpy Italian dude who was all like, “Hold on, Dick. You have to include all of the Oceania Region, not just the mainland. Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea is the tallest you poser.” [Paraphrased]

Carstensz Pyramid is a taller and much more difficult mountain to climb than Kosciuszko. Turns out, most climbers agree and now Kosciuszko is considered the “Eighth Seventh Summit.”

The best part of the story is that Grumpy Reinhold set out to claim himself as the first to achieve the real Seven Summits, but was beaten at his own list by a Canadian named Pat Morrow. Poor Reinhold!

But all this is beside the point. I’ll be back to climb Carstensz Pyramid later. For now, I happily celebrate my ascent of the tallest peak on mainland Australia with this glorious photo:

The Money Shot!
The Money Shot!

Current kangaroo count: Damn it, still 0!

Seriously, Where are the Kangaroos?

Climbing Kosciuszko (it takes so long type that, try it…) is a treat, but the real adventure is in getting there. It’s a stunning two-hour drive from Canberra—recently confirmed as Australia’s most boring city (Thanks Taz & Sin)—and because getting there by bus takes an entire day, I choose to rent a car in town instead.

If you’re unfamiliar, Australia is a commonwealth state, and they drive on the left had side of the road. After a week in the country, I’m still confused just crossing the street. Driving proves to be similarly challenging.

  • Want to make a right hand turn? Better look both ways! (oops)
  • Want to put on your turn signal? Try the windshield wipers first. (oops)
  • Need to pass someone? Better think twice about which lane to use. (oops)

Fifteen minutes in the car and it’s all second nature, but I’d like to take a moment to apologize to the 20-30 Australians still coping with the trauma I caused them.

To and from the mountain, I make a point of counting dead wombats on the side of the road. There are 24. As one of my favorite animals, I pay each a salute as I pass—a humble gesture to a fallen comrade. With their stocky build, any driver who runs one down will be left with a bumper permanently reminding them of the incident.

Current kangaroo count: Kangaroos do not actually exist.

Remind Me Why I’m Here Again…?

A few years ago when all this adventuring started, I was pumping full of adrenaline and every trip across the ocean was a new and exciting experience. I had a goal, and nothing was going to stop me from going after it.

Today, I’m happy to report much is still the same. I still get nervous before every trip. I still feel like a stranger when I show up in a foreign place I’ve never been before. And I still have plenty of misadventures like hitting a donkey in a bus, chatting with a strung out heroin addict, or being accused of stealing sex toys.

But these days, if I’m not careful, I do run the risk of having “ordinary experiences.” When you’ve done something a while, it’s easy to fall into a routine. It’s easy to take extraordinary events for granted. I love my life, and I don’t want risk forgetting that.

I never want to be in a place where someone I’m talking to about my travels is more excited about it than I am.

So, as I work myself into a comfortable seat for a 14-hour flight back across the Pacific—complete with elbow room on both sides—I take a moment to close my eyes and remind myself how lucky I am to be able to travel around the world, chasing what many would call a fool’s paradise.

Is it a fool’s paradise? Maybe. But it’s my fool’s paradise, damn it! And chase it I must, with a skip in my step.

So I return home with one more marathon and one more mountain under my belt. I reacquaint myself with some old friends and even make some new ones. Life is good.

But I still have to go to the zoo to see a f***ing kangaroo.


More pictures from the trip: