Monday, February 10, 2014

Dispatch 69 Australia

May 2011

Australia, often referred to as Oz for short, is BIG!  It is pretty comparable to the size of the US, so, planning a month’s vacation there was daunting.  Where should we go?  The center of Australia is very desolate, so much of the tourist oriented stuff is in the population centers on the coasts.  We took our best shot and decided to fly to Sydney (southeast coast), fly to Adelaide (central south coast), drive to Melbourne (furthest southeast coast) along the Great Ocean Road and then play the rest by ear.  We knew, but didn’t worry too much (not enough as it turns out), that we were going to be in the south of the country in the late fall meaning it might be colder there.  But, as we had lived a year in Oamaru at 45 degrees S latitude, and nothing in Australia is south of 38 degrees, we thought it wouldn’t be an issue.

Sydney is a gorgeous city.  We enjoyed every minute even though it rained every day we were there in the beginning of our trip.  Port Jackson, the harbour that Sydney is on, is huge and beautiful with many inlets, sandy beaches and heaps of protected waterway, similar but not quite as large as Puget Sound.  There are many sailboats and even more ferry traffic than we are accustomed to and it made us feel at home.  The temperatures were cool (50’s-60’s), but we walk
ed all over, enjoyed the museums and gawked at the buildings.  The city has some gorgeous architecture, both old and new, not the least of which is the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, both iconic.  

We took in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Opera House just to experience it.  Our hotel was a bit of a walk from the central business district (CBD), but that walk took us through many of the gorgeous parks in the city including Hyde Park, the Domain and the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Sydney’s shopping opportunities are overwhelming.  As we walked through various neighborhoods, we found edgy, trendy or just high end shops everywhere.  One neighborhood we happened into, Paddington, (going to a photography exhibit that was quite good), has the largest collection of Victorian homes anywhere in the world.  It was gorgeous and we wandered the streets feasting our eyes on the homes after we walked the long business district with its very fashionably dressed people.

OK, maybe we just became hicks from Oamaru in the past year, but, hey, we’ve seen some great cities in the world and Sydney is right up there.  Let’s say Sydney reminded us of aspects of San Francisco and a bit of Seattle too.

What we learned on this trip was that Australian cities have great architecture and great gardens.  Despite its settlement even more recently than the US, the historic buildings in Australia are far more grand and ornate than anything we could think of in the US.  They were large stone edifices with fantastic carvings, much like, come to think of it, Oamaru (!), but on a much grander scale.  These grand old buildings sit cheek by jowl with gorgeous modern skyscrapers in a wonderful potpourri.

Onwards in our exploration, we flew to Adelaide.  Now that city wasn’t really particularly of interest to us except as a launching spot for further exploration.  As it turns out, Adelaide also has some gorgeous architecture to enjoy, but, it felt a little like flying from SF to St. Louis in that the terrain is nearly completely flat, the city is laid out on an organized grid and it felt, well, Midwestern.  There again, the gardens were terrific—really gorgeous.  And, there again, we started to feel our presence was a weather blight.  Sydney, in the week before we arrived, had been enjoying sunny, warm weather (in the upper 70’s) which turned to cool and rainy when we arrived.  Same for Adelaide—sunny/warm before we got there and cool/rainy while we were there.  Grrrr, we tried not to take it personally!

seeking the "outback"
From Adelaide, we made a decision to head north to experience a wee bit of the “outback”.  We both read a novel while we were there set in that part of the outback which made the travel a bit more interesting.  And the outback is much greener this year than normal according to the locals, because of much higher than usual rainfall.  Be that as it may, it was still a pretty featureless landscape.  We’ve both driven across the US on many occasions and, although it is flat in the center, it is certainly not all desolate.  But, north of a certain area, the center becomes very dry and uninviting.  We drove through certain towns where we joked to each other about whether there had been a deadly virus that killed all the people because we wouldn’t see a living soul about.  In fact, we stayed in one of those towns on the way to the Flinders Range, Hawker.  We had been advised to bring our own water and did need to use it along the way, mainly because the local water tasted so unusual.  But it was not life-threateningly hot or dry as the outback can be we understand.

Malpena Pound

We went to Malpena Pound, a very unusual large crater shaped mountain/ valley formation that is important to the local aboriginals and is really a fascinating place.  It is so remarkably bowl shaped that various literature proposes that it is a meteor crater.  Not so.  The mountains are lovely there in a dry sort of way and we took several beautiful hikes.  We saw our first kangaroos in the area and then saw emus right on the trail on one of our walks.  Australia has some bizarre wildlife and natural phenomenon.  As the Lonely Planet says, the trees shed their bark, not their leaves, for instance.  One of our first kangaroo encounters, we saw a female with her joey (young ‘roo) in her pouch, both looking at us in the woods.  We decided ‘roos are a cross between bunnies and deer and are very cute.  Emus are ostrich-like birds that just run around wild—I know it sounds silly, but it was kind of exciting to see them and get close to them too.  And, just to make the experience that much better, we finally had some good weather for a change.  (Hey, if it had rained in the outback, it would have been headline news!)
Emu and Richard
We had been encouraged by a local to drive through the middle of the country on our way back to Sydney, so we headed to Broken Hill, a city on the highway between where we were and Sydney.  Well, “highway” in this case means 2 lane road on which you are allowed to drive 110 km/hr (around 66 mph).  Unlike the roads in NZ, though, we enjoyed the roads in Australia.  There are actually 6 lane divided highways in Australia (which don’t exist in NZ) and the roads in the outback were straight so you really could do 110 km/hr unlike the windy roads in NZ!  But I digress.  Our hotel hosts in Adelaide were from Broken Hill so they were encouraging of us to go there as well.  Hmmm, well, to this day, we have no idea what attraction that town has for anyone.  The name comes from the hill that is being mined right in the center of the town, dividing it into 2 neighborhoods.  The downtown area looks out on the mine and the Lonely Planet talks about the café in the visitor center that has a view of the “broken hill”, making it sound like something attractive to look at.  Sorry, we didn’t understand the appeal and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
the "outback" highway
Scarlet Parrots

Southern Ocean
We scampered back down toward Goyder’s line, a theoretical line drawn by an early Australian showing the theoretical limits of the successful agricultural land as compared to the outback.  There is a huge change when one approaches that line—farms, vineyards and settlement suddenly appear out of nowhere, and it felt more comfortable.  We discovered Grampians National Park, a stunning place where we once again enjoyed the ‘roos and emus along with the exotic bird life and some nice walks.  It was there that we first had temps in the 30’s (Farenheit), but we were in a snug, lovely cabin and the days warmed up.  Because of the unusually heavy rain, many parts of the park were washed out, more evidence of the unusual weather. We continued south to the Great Ocean Road, the stretch of coast between Adelaide and Melbourne where the ocean has carved the limestone into fantastic formations in lovely colours.  There we found tourist busses to prove we were on the right track.  It was a beautiful drive even if it was “cold as” by this point.  The next challenge nature decided to throw at us was an unseasonable cold snap!  The wind helped whip the Southern Ocean into a wild state as it hit the scenic rock formations, so we had some good photo ops and took time to appreciate travel by car instead of by boat considering the weather conditions!

We stayed a night on Cape Otway at one of the most southern points on the mainland of Australia, and there we saw koalas in the eucalyptus trees.  Oh my goodness, how cute is that?  We were glad for our merino wool clothes (and the heat in the cabin we stayed in), but the area was gorgeous and we really enjoyed the wildlife.  

Melbourne is a city we found to be unique.  Try as we might, we couldn’t find one to compare it to.  It had the most fashionable people, the most interesting and fashionable boutiques, amazing cultural events, great architecture, beautiful parks and bizarre traffic rules.  Here’s one:  stay left to turn right.  The streets often had trains or trams in the middle so cars had to hang out in the left lane before crossing all the traffic, including the tram 
lines to turn right.  We did the sensible thing and parked our car in the hotel garage and walked or took public transport throughout our stay.  Yikes!  Despite the cold and rain (!!), we loved our visit there and felt it was too short.  We barely scratched the surface on the museums and galleries, didn’t even get to take the whole free tourist tram ride that circles the city (only part of it), barely sampled the delectable food options and didn’t shop nearly enough.  We’ll just have to go back!

From Melbourne we decided to go through Kosciuszko National Park to see the country’s highest mountain (about 7000 feet—the geography is very old, the mountains not very impressive, but, well, it was the highest one and worthy of a look), and home to a couple of the rare ski resorts.  In case you are smarter than us, you may have already figured out that, with our weather karma, this wasn’t going to be a warm decision.  Of course, we never saw the highest peak because it was totally clouded in with, you guessed it, SNOW clouds.  We had a gorgeous drive through windy, forested roads, snow along the side at the passes and ended up bypassing the area we intended to stay in favor of a slightly lower elevation.  It was still -3 degrees (in the 20’s) at the lowest one morning!!  But the mountains were beautiful and, after a little snow and rain, it became sunny and cold which we enjoyed!  

Blue Mountains
Our last foray was into the Blue Mountains (will they never learn?) outside of Sydney.  There we had some beautiful hikes through canyons and fantastic rock formations while we stayed in a cabin with adequate heating in the living room anyway.  The Blue Mountains are so named because of the blue gum trees (a type of eucaplytus) which exudes an oil that makes the air appear blue.  Whereas many people extol the beauty of the place in the mist and clouds (a frequent weather pattern), true to our luck, the weather was sunny while we were there.  No complaints from us!  We saw some fantastic birds there.  An evening stroll treated us to King Parrots.  (And a word about birds in general in Australia.  Parrots, cockatoos and other “tropical” birds (as we think of them) are native to Australia, in fact, the white cockatoos with the yellow comb which have previously in our lives been spotted only in cages are endemic to Australia.  Richard was busy in Sydney trying to capture pictures of these “rare” birds in the wild until we realized they are nearly as prevalent as pigeons in that city!)  So one morning we headed out early for our hike in the hopes we would spot a lyrebird.  This is a bird with an extravagant tail of feathers likened to a lyre.  The tail feathers are huge and long and probably only exceeded by a peacock in their size.  It was cold and early when we hit the trail, but, being the first there, we were rewarded by our glimpse of 4 lyrebirds at the very start of the trail.  They make burbling noises and scrambled about while we tried to stay quiet and still, but they skedaddled pretty quickly and we’re pretty sure we were the only ones to see them that morning.  Fun!

By then, we had realized that the south of the country really hadn’t been such a smart idea and we had booked our last few days to go north to the tropical part of the country for a little sun/swim break.  We dropped the rental car in Sydney and headed to Cairns, latitude 16 (closer to the equator than Tahiti and Fiji as they like to say), still not the furthest north you can get in Australia, but north enough for us.  We had warmth and sunshine (and some rain of course, “Very unusual for it to rain this time of year” our host at the hotel said, and we just ducked our heads and mumbled something about nearby rainforests and tried not to feel guilty about disrupting what is supposed to be their dry season…) at last.

You know that feeling of getting off the airplane and the air is warm and humid and 
tropical?  And you get led into you hotel room and the sliding doors to the veranda open onto the most perfect temperature and the sound of the waves crashing below?  Heaven, I must say.  There were many interesting tours and things to do from our hotel (we were actually on Trinity Beach north of Cairns), but we spent our first day doing almost nothing except walking on the beach and around town.  Swimming on the beach was limited to the 
netted area which limits the possibility of box jellyfish stings (which are fatal). There were also shark baited spots further out and signs warning of possible salt water crocodiles, but, I was assured by the lifeguard, if a croc was spotted they would have “beach closed” signs, so not to worry.
But, in truth, it was the 25-30 knot winds that made swimming less appealing (and cooled the air nicely).

Our second day, we had signed up for a Great Barrier Reef trip.  We were whisked by bus to Port Douglas and took a high speed catamaran (with, you know, a hundred other day trippers) to the “outer reef.”  There was a high wind warning and, starting with our bus driver, the message about taking something for seasickness was loud and clear.  They needn’t have worried about me—I had the meds in my bag and took them before anyone said the first word, salty dog that I am!  Well, it was a tad rough, even for a large catamaran and a few of the passengers, ignoring the warnings, got green and worse.  One guy paid to take a helicopter back rather than experience another 1.5 hours of such bad seasickness.  But my meds worked and the ride was fun.

The company we chose had a moored pontoon out at the reef.  This made for a nice stable platform for the day despite the choppy conditions.  Richard and I couldn’t wait to get in the water so we immediately put on our “stinger suits” (lycra suits advised to avoid jellyfish stings—i.e., death—and sunburn) and snorkel gear and hopped in.  The conditions were choppier than ideal, but the reef was gorgeous and some of the fishes were huge (parrotfish for instance).  Most intriguing of all were the giant clams.  We had seen these before in French Polynesia and Tonga, but they had been so decimated that all that remained were pretty small specimens.  But these were truly huge, 4 foot diameter clams, the kind Venus alit from in the Boticelli painting, and they were gorgeous and very cool.  Speaking of cool, 45 minutes or so later with teeth chattering we finally emerged from our explorations to have some lunch.  It took a while to warm up (and inexplicably, the inside of the catamaran was arctic in its air conditioning), but then we enjoyed the semi-submersible vehicle which took us around the reef in a submarine with glass walls to look at the fish and reef.  All in all, a totally enjoyable day!

And day 3 was for the rainforest for that area of Australia is dense rainforest once you are off the beaches.  This was another sort of tourist/Disney type day.  We took an historic railroad trip up the mountains into the forest—gorgeous views, interesting history.  Then we walked through the rainforest to the tourist village where they sell some “interesting stuff and some rubbish” as our tour bus driver had warned us.  We signed up for the Wildlife Park tour where we got to pet koalas and feed kangaroos and see wombats and salt water and fresh water crocodiles all at close quarters.  We also saw a cassowary, another ostrich-like large bird, and dingo dogs.  From there we took a rainforest tour in an amphibious “duck” vehicle and learned quite a bit about the plants and their medicinal uses.  The way down was done on a gondola over the rainforest—a stunning ride with 2 stops for further exploration in the forest, and quite an engineering achievement as well.  Wow, another wonderful day.

Being up north was a welcome relief after our bad spell of weather and our return to Sydney was greeted with more seasonable weather, sunny, low 70’s, and quite delightful.  We took one of the ferries to an outlying community, Manly, where we took a coastal walk of 6 miles of trail through bush and along beaches after enjoying the gorgeous beaches in the little town itself.  Fantastic.  What an amazing place! 

Pugsley reviews our route
When we unfolded our Australia map to trace our “epic voyage” we discovered we had seen a tiny corner of the country in our busy month.  We forgot to mention that we shared this voyage with our dog "Pugsly" who traveled with us from Seattle aboard our mighty ship (and lived in New Zealand and traveled through Australia all without requiring vaccinations or immigration quarantine.)  It would have been possible to move faster, but we felt our pace kept us going fast enough and we did see some wonderful sights.  I suppose it was enough to whet our appetite for more, but, for now, we’ve gotten our taste of Oz.  And we are winging our way back to the US, boatless, homeless, and without a true plan after 6 years of continuous travel.  I have a job in Seattle and we will see what the future brings.