Monthly Archives: June 2010

North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

I’m ignoring the fact that we’re ending the last week of our vacation. We’ve been having too good of a time to think about that. Besides, we don’t have to go back to work for about six more days — because of the date-line and the long holiday weekend. The truth is, we were having far too much fun on the beach to really think more than a half-day ahead anyway.

Since the last post about our Aussie adventure, we’ve returned to and left Alice Springs for the sunny Queensland coast. The Alice (as they call it here) was even more enjoyable the second time around. We visited a bunch of aboriginal art galleries and a gem/opal store or two, bought souvenirs of the cheap and expensive varieties, and generally enjoyed the cool weather. (Although it’s never too cold for ice cream, I could see my breath on an early morning run.) We also took in a few of the local attractions: the Reptile Centre, the Desert Park, and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and museum. That last one was kind of a whim on the way to the airport. They love them some over-the-road drivers in the center of Australia.

We’ve been in Trinity Beach — one of the “Northern Beaches” hamlets of Cairns — for the better part of a week, and I think we’ve been in the Coral Sea just about every day. It’s winter here; we watched the sun rise over Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa on the 21st. But the water is still warmer than the Milford High School pool, where we swam all throughout the autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the water temperature is about 25°C (roughly 75°F) which is the warmest water I think I’ve ever swam in. And the air temperature is a few degrees warmer still, so lying about on the beach post-swim is really great, too. It’s heavenly, and I don’t really want to leave*. (We’re renting an apartment just a minute’s walk from the beach, so it almost feels like we live here.)

We’ve done a bit more than lying around on the beach and frolicking in the ocean. One day we drove our tiny rental car northward toward Cape Tribulation. It’s one of the few places in the world where the rainforest, the ocean, and a coral reef all meet in one place. (Captain Cook renamed it that after the Endeavour ran afoul of the reef there. I’m really going to have to read more about his scientific/colonial journeys in the southern seas.) It’s also where we learned that Queensland drivers can be complete jerk-faces; “When the roads get more twisty, there will be fewer police, so we can drive as fast and as rudely as possible.” Someone passed me in a right-turn lane while someone was turning right in it. And it wasn’t like I was going slowly — I live in Massachusetts, after all.

But anyway. There’s one great leveler of drivers: the ferry. After hiking around Mossman Gorge and then crossing the Daintree River (via ferry) we meandered our way up to Cape Tribulation. stopping here and there to stroll on the beaches and walk along boardwalks through the rainforest. On one of these walks, we saw two cassowaries. The cassowary is a large, flightless bird. It’s also endangered and (allegedly) rare. Their rarity is belied by the fact that there are signs all along the Cook Highway and into the Atherton Tablelands warning drivers about hitting them. We kept a wary eye on the road, but saw nothing. But on our first Cape Trib walk we were surprised to see a large bird — taller than us — walk out of the undergrowth and then another juvenile bird follow it. Many a sign had warned us that they were dangerous, so we were cautious around them. It was only later that we learned they have a “dagger-like middle claw” that they will use when threatened.

We survived unscathed and were ready to try our luck the next day on the Great Barrier Reef. I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures of the Reef. There’s Jacques Cousteau / Steve Zissou diving down into the depths to see vibrantly colored fish, intricate corals, man-sized bivalves, and man-eating sharks. Okay, maybe I’m showing my age. At the very least, we’ve all seen “Finding Nemo” or been to a pet store with tropical fish. Beautiful fish with incredible details that I would surely kill within weeks of bringing them home. But in the wild . . . well, I was just giddy with anticipation of seeing them.** We swam all winter so that we would (1) look good(ish) on the beach and (2) not drown on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef was (to put it mildly) one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. While each portion of the reef is relatively small, it’s extremely large in its entirety. And we barely explored the two sections that we visited***. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so awe-inspiring. I thought that (like the cassowary) the wildlife would be hiding. That we would see the coral jungle but that we would have to search for the fish. But no, there they were, the vibrant parrotfish and the enormous 3-foot long stubby blue fish and (yes) even Nemo, as all clownfish are now called, even by the dive crew. And the coral itself, far from the white, chalky stuff I saw in my grandparent’s Iowa home, was delicate and colorful and amazing. It was, without a doubt, worth the moderately rough seas to get there.

Snorkeling was both easier and more difficult than I had expected. Breathing was easy. Diabetes was (for once) easy. Keeping the water out of my face mask (after I got one that fit) was easy. And at our first destination, the waters were shallow. We could see sandy bottoms just beyond the coral pedestals. I probably didn’t need the pool noodles — don’t judge me! — that made staying lazily afloat so easy. But swimming through the current caused by the waves breaking on the leading edge of the reef (where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Coral Sea) was much harder than I had expected. It was difficult staying connected with Lisa on that first go. So the awesome “Hey look at that!” experience we had expected didn’t materialize. But it did on the second dive, when the pedestals were far more pronounced and we pointed out to each other green sea turtles and giant clams and vibrant fish (whose names I still don’t know). Because the tide was going out, the water over the reef was quite a bit lower than before, and we almost beached ourselves when the current moved us over the top of the coral itself. (It’s good to know that those core muscles I developed while swimming hadn’t atrophied too badly over the spring and the three weeks of “laziness” in Australia.)

After the reef, you might think the beach just outside our apartment would be a bit of a let down. But very little on this trip has been disappointing. (Except maybe Darwin.) There’s something so wonderful about frolicking about in the warm salt water and then getting out and lazing about on a beach towel, watching the fellow beach-goers and reading what passes for journalism in this country. (I also started reading my book about the great Australian hoax platypuses.) As I mentioned earlier, the water is warm, as is the sun. The Trinity Beach is very family friendly but garners a good number of people of all ages, and it was never overly crowded or empty during the daylight hours. (Lisa even said that yesterday she saw some topless sunbathers as we were driving back to our place from the zoo, but I think she might just have been teasing me. She claims otherwise, but I, sadly, did not see them.)

Beyond having a nice, quiet beach, Trinity Beach is quite conveniently located. You aren’t located in the steamy heart of Cairns itself, which can be kind of a tourist trap, but you’re close enough — only 15-20 minutes driving — that you can go in to enjoy a good dinner and dessert or to watch “Toy Story 3″ or to engage in people-watching. You’re close to the zoo and to the cooler weather of the Tablelands. And you don’t have to deal with all the crazy drivers going to and from Port Douglas or Kuranda — unless you want to.

But now, we’re almost on our way home and (eventually) back to work. I guess we work so that we can have the chance to take these awesome vacations, but I wish it could last just a little bit longer.


* — I wrote about half this post in Trinity Beach and the other half on the flight from Cairns to Sydney.

** — I don’t have a “life list” or “bucket list” or whatever you want to call it. But I do have a ton of lists of things that I might consider doing or places that I would want to visit, along with a much shorter, very selective list of things that I’ll go out of my way to do. So far this trip, I’ve been able to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, swim in the Pacific Ocean, go to Kakadu, and see Uluṟu.

*** — We had a fast — but uncomfortably long — cruise out to Flynn Reef. The winds were blowing 20-25 knots, with three meter swells once we cleared land. I’ve never been sea-sick (touch wood), but about one third of the people on our boat were following the instructions at the bottom of the brown paper bags the crew was handing out when needed. I could tell that the man who was sweating profusely before we left the pier was going to need one, along with the hipster-looking guy who was green. (I’ve never seen a person that color before.) I was a little surprised that Lisa succumbed to the motion of the ocean, but she was one of the last people. If we hadn’t been going out to the farthest edge of the reef — if the cruise out had been twenty minutes shorter — she would have been ship-shape inside and out. But it didn’t put too much of a damper on our day.

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Aboriginal Australia – Part 2

This is an update to my earlier post on Aboriginal Australians.

After a really great hike through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuṯa on the 20th, Lisa and I stopped into the national park’s Cultural Centre. It was really interesting reading stories from the Aṉunga Dreaming about the formation and significance of Uluṟu.* Other displays in the Cultural Centre focused on how they thrived in this harsh desert environment. It was clear that a lot of consultation with the Aṉunga went into the creation of the Centre, which was commendable.

But none of the displays answered the main question that I wanted answered. So I went up to the (white) ranger staffing the information desk.

“If one wanted to learn about contemporary Aboriginal life, what’s available?”

He looked at me skeptically, as if sizing me up. “Are you asking about the daily lives of Aborigines?”

“Yes. There are a lot of exhibits about the traditional ways of life and knowledge of the Aṉunga, but it doesn’t say anything about whether that represents their daily lives.”

“The Aṉunga have lives very much like our own. They live just down the road, here.” He pointed to an area labeled “Restricted. No Entry.” on the map. “It’s very hard for them to live a traditional lifestyle because most of their lands have been taken over by pastoralists.”

We talked briefly about some of the similarities between the situation of Aborigines and Native Americans. The ranger got a little circumspect.

“It’s obviously going to be exceedingly difficult for any people whose land has been . . . overrun by another group. The best that we can do is to aim for reconciliation and to try to improve the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia. We’ve got a long, long way to go.”

It’s now a few days later. We’ve been back to Alice Springs, which has one of the largest Aboriginal populations in the Territory. I’ve talked to gallery staff about Aboriginal artists and their works; we even bought some art. We’ve seen people from all walks of life on the Todd Mall and in the shopping centers: old people, young people, parents with children, single people, packs of youths, native-born, foreign-born, tourists . . . everybody. Some Aboriginal women stayed at our hotel, and there were a couple on our flight to Cairns this evening. Clearly, there are many Indigenous Australians who have lives like white Australians and recent immigrants.

But at the same time, there’s clearly an enormous racial divide between Aborigines and everyone else. Everybody can occupy the same space, but that seems to be where it ends. The native-born and immigrants work in shops and service and construction and everything else; we didn’t see a single Indigenous Australian working in any of the restaurants, hotels, or shops that we visited, even the ones that dealt in Aboriginal goods. With a few exceptions that I saw in the public spaces, Aborigines stick together, not interacting with other groups; and vice versa. (This, in no small measure, is partly due to language issues.) Basically, there is no mixing between whites and Aboriginal people, and non-white immigrants seem better integrated into mainstream society.

I’m not going to pass any kind of judgment on this, except to say that it feels very odd. In fact, it reminded us of a trip that we took to Philadelphia, about six or seven years ago. I’ve never really spent any time in the south — not that Philly is in the South — and I’ve only ever lived in overwhelmingly white regions of the country; so this was my first trip as an adult to a place with large neighborhoods with “majority minority” populations. I wasn’t uncomfortable, just perplexed at how awkward everything felt. Alice Springs had that same feel.

And once again, I find myself looking in from the outside. Do Aboriginal people want more interaction with other Australians? I don’t know. Once upon a time, it was official policy that all Aborigines should become fully “assimilated” Australians, essentially just the same as whites (if they weren’t completely killed off beforehand).

All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the samerights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians.

In practice this was very cruel to Aboriginal people. And it never really took into account the wishes or agency of the Indigenous population. Those wishes and the results of exercsing that self-determination today is what I’ve been hoping to discover. It’s also what I haven’t been able to learn yet.


* — I don’t think I had realized just how much you can miss talking to people from your own country when away on a long vacation. They are living in Sydney now after moving from Seattle and have an interesting perspective on Australia. We couldn’t quite ferret out their exact feelings, except they think Australia’s a bit “behind on a few things.”

** — The Aṉunga are the Aboriginal groups most connected to the monolith of Uluṟu and the neighboring rocks of Kata Tjuṯa, and they hold the title to the land, which they have leased back to the government.

Posted in Australia, This is who we are, Travel | 5 Comments

Aboriginal Australia

Aboriginal Flag

I’m going to live a little dangerously now and write about race, specifically Aboriginal Australians. Hopefully reading about it doesn’t make you too nervous; although I have to admit that it makes me a little nervous that I’m going to accidentally write something that doesn’t convey my true feelings or (worse) that shows me to have biases that offend Australians. Try to bear with me, and feel free to call me out.

I still know next to nothing about Aboriginal people in Australia. (And I’m ashamed to say that’s almost as much as I know about present-day Native Americans, too.) I won’t feel bad about buying some of their very interesting art — if we do in fact buy any — but I would really love to know more about them: how they think about themselves, whether they feel or want to be “Australian,” what they do in their daily lives, what kind of lives they want to live.

I like the various “dreaming” stories that we’ve read during our travels; and I like the very idea of a Dreaming, of a set of beliefs that tie people and landscape and ancestry and law and custom and survival all together. It’s a powerful concept. The dreaming creation/preservation stories are excellent, multifaceted, multigenerational works of collective memory.

So I’m a bit sad that we’ve had few interactions with Aboriginal Australians. (I’m using the term advisedly, since I don’t know the names of the clans and tribes whose land we’ve been on.) It’s strange: All of the parks are tribal lands that have been leased back to the government, which runs and manages them almost exclusively with white people. And as we’ve come further into the middle of the country we’ve seen more and more Aborigines, yet we’ve had almost no direct interactions. (One man in Darwin — I think it was Darwin — said “G’day” to me, and the ranger Ubirr in Kakadu.)

When you consider that the white Australian holiday makers we’ve met will talk your ear off and are a jovial bunch, it seems odd. Of course, Aboriginal people aren’t here for my amusement; nor are they obliged to satisfy my bottomless well of curiosity about the world. It just seems like there’s a very distinct separateness between “white” and “black” Australians. One some occasions it seems almost actively enforced, especially at some of the road houses.* But, in general, it’s a feeling like people are expected to be in their own spheres. The supermarket in Tennant Creek was about the only place where everybody under the Australian sun was doing the same thing as equals (presumably).

I don’t want to feed into any stereotypes — after all, I’m not at work myself — but there seems to be a lot of “hanging around” by Aboriginal people.** Is that normal? Perhaps I don’t understand the rhythms of Australian life. Are they waiting for stuff to happen, just like those two white guys at Daly Waters who were sitting around playing the guitar until someone showed interest in their hand-carved wooden signs? And what should be the expected lifestyle anyway of a people who were happily doing their own thing until a couple hundred years ago when a colonizing superpower came through, seized all their lands, stole their children, depersonified them, and only recently came to feel the least bit bad about it? If (hypothetically) an Aborigine — or anyone for that matter — wants to live in a traditional way outside of the European “social compact,” should the state be allowed to say, “No?”

These are some questions that Lisa and I have discussed on this trip since we got to Darwin; and they’re questions that apply to our own country as well. Of couse, I have my inclinations and (probably incorrect) assumptions, but I have no answers. It’s certainly not my right as an American to answer or dictate to anyone else.

Maybe I can start to understand more over the next couple weeks. Maybe even starting tomorrow, when we plan to stop by the Cultural Centre in the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park.

Let me know what you think.


* — Incidentally, I met my first person in the flesh with a swastika tattoo in a visible place the other day when I was getting gas for the campervan.

** — I most emphatically do not want to traffic in the “lazy fill-in-the-blank” stereotype. I’m merely interested at a basic level in what everyone does and how they do it. I’m an anthropological/sociological busybody.

Posted in Australia, This is who we are, Travel | Leave a comment

Uluṟu

Uluṟu at sunset

I’m trying to build a time-lapse video from some photographs that I took today with my camera’s interval timer. It was very convenient having the camera do all of the hard work after I set up the tripod and set the timer to make an exposure every 45 seconds. Lisa and I were able to relax and watch the monolith of Uluṟu change colors as the sun set. Thanks, Ashish, for the suggestion!

UPDATE: You can see the sunset video online now.

Seeing Uluṟu* today was an amazing experience. Lisa and I arrived around midday, had our “Outback lunch” of ice cream and potato chips**, and went for a walk around the big rock. I’ve only ever seen one view of it before . . . the iconic sunset view (that we also witnessed this evening). But there’s so much more to it: shady side grottos and craggy caves and Indigenous Australian art and wooded groves and the ever-changing appearance of the light on the rock.

We could not photograph large portions of it on our 3-hour, 10 kilometer walk, since it’s one of the most sacred Aboriginal sites with mojo that the uninitiated (like Lisa and I) are not supposed to see — or at least record. But we took snapshots of a good deal of the rest of it. And it was quite a moving experience.

And seeing Uluṟu appear to glow as if lit from within after the sun had sunk below the horizon was a truly sublime moment.***


* — It’s also known as Ayer’s Rock. But it’s first and current name is “Uluṟu.”

** — The Australians like a big lunch. And a big dinner. And a big breakfast. Everything is big. And everything has meat on it. Usually more than one kind. One of which is almost always bacon. And an egg. So eating ice cream and potato chips for lunch is our way of not over-eating. And I’m not 100% sure that it’s even possible to eat better out in the outback. I yearn for fiber.

*** — The bloke from McCoy who said yesterday after we finished our hike around Kings Canyon that “Uluṟu is just another big, boring rock sticking out of the ground” must have slept through an important part of the bus tour.

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Northern Territory

As I write this on the evening of Friday the 18th of June in Watarrka National Park, Lisa and I have been in Australia the better part of two weeks. There’s no Internet in this particular part of the outback — not even a kiosk where you drop dollar coins in for a bit more time on Facebook. I hope to be able to post this tomorrow when we get to Uluṟu. Access to the web is not as pervasive — or as low-cost — as it is in the US. But that’s not really what vacation is really about, now is it?

We’re having a great time, and it’s hard to believe that our trip is half over. It took a while to feel like we actually were in a different country, despite having crossed the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the Equator, and the International Date Line on our way here. But I think it felt real after that first day with the campervan, having driven on the left side of the road through a strange landscape and then that night having seen the southern stars for the first time. Now, eight days later, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re a long distance from home — if only when measured by mileage.

We’ve been in the Northern Territory for the majority of our trip. First in Darwin and then in a string of national parks. Other than being on the Timor Sea and having a beautiful climate for the middle of winter, there’s really not a lot to Darwin. (At least not as we saw it.) The parks are pretty amazing, though.

But first: A few words about our temporary home away from home. We rented a 22-foot long, two-person Euro Tourer campervan. It wasn’t the biggest RV on the road, but it was definitely plenty big. And the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the vehicle — which makes sense, since it’s there to facilitate driving on the wrong side of the road. I think the only thing that saved me that first day was that it was an automatic transmission. It was a beautiful, almost blemish free vehicle with all kinds of amenities: toilet, shower, TV/DVD, air conditioning, water heater, fridge, etc.

It was blemish-free, and then I started driving it. Within the first 30 minutes I had made a nice big dent on the left side of the camper. The appropriate answer to my question of where to get groceries should not have simply been “Palmerston . . . just down the Stuart Highway.” It should have been a question: “How comfortable are you driving your behemoth machine in a tight car park at a mall where there’s a grocery store?” It was a split-second choice I had to make between getting very close to a tree on the left-hand side or another person’s car coming toward me on the right-hand. I thought the tree had it coming, so I let it have it. But I kinda freaked out while we shopped in the supermarket. A quiet freakout, but almost a complete “I just want to forget about this part of the adventure and go home and curl into a little ball and whimper” freakout.

But a few hours later, when we made it to Litchfield NP, I felt much better. Not perfectly secure in my decision to continue forth with the adventure, but much better nonetheless.

At first, I wasn’t so sure about these parks. In the Northern Territory, you drive for hours through the same scenery, and then — all of a sudden — you’re doing something truly amazing. In Litchfield it was looking at the beautiful waterfalls, swimming in the plunge pool of one of them, and seeing the southern stars for the first time.

After Litchfield, we went to Kakadu NP, which was on my list of things that I absolutely had to see while in Australia. I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to see this park, but I had a sense that it was something I had to do. Maybe it was the 20,000 year-old Aboriginal rock art. Maybe it was floodplains and billabongs that are home to crocodiles and 1/3 of Australia’s bird species. Maybe it was the pictures of the Yellow Water wetlands or Jim Jim Falls. Whatever it was, it turned out to be even more spectacular than I imagined. The 2-hour dawn wildlife cruise we took was more than worth getting up at 4:45AM to be at the jetty on time. And the rock paintings at Ubirr and Nourlangie are so amazing; it’s like they’ve come from a different planet.

Kakadu is also where I learned that vacation doesn’t always have to be packed full of action. In fact, sitting around the campground in the afternoon after a morning’s hike and before an afternoon’s swim in the pool can be quite enjoyable. Doing nothing but reading a bit or writing in my journal as the breeze rustles the leaves is pretty nice, too. (Australian national parks are quite a bit different than American ones, which are all about the nature. Here it’s all about the tourist experience.)

After leaving Kakadu, we started a long bit of driving to Alice Springs, 1500km to the south. The first day was short, only about 400km to Katherine. We stayed in Nitmiluk, another national park. And then we had a 600km drive — in a campervan, it’s worth remembering — to Tenant Creek. The last day was shorter, but even more lonely.

This drive was epic. Long, flat, unbending roads punctuated every 70-100km by an imperceptibly small town or (more usually) a roadhouse. The latter is a gas station attached to a pub/tavern with a few rooms and a caravan/campground nearby.* Staying there seems like it would be an act of pure desperation or the kind of thing one would do whilst on the lam. The straightness and flatness of the road allows for lines of sight in excess of 5km at a stretch and unbroken passing opportunities of 20km or more. The speed limit of 130 km/h is fast, and I never approached it in the campervan. It’s no wonder that we saw about a dozen overturned or destroyed cars and an uncountable number of swerve and skid marks that spanned the width of the road.

The road trains are easy enough to pass on the Stuart Highway, unless they’re carying an enormous piece of mining equipment. It just takes some extra caution and time to go around a cab towing four wagons that total more than 53 meters (170 feet) in length. It’s their highway, we just use it and try to stay out of their way.

Alice Springs is nice enough, and I’m glad that we’re going back for a couple days after we visit Uluṟu tomorrow and on Lisa’s birthday on Sunday. We stayed near the Todd Mall, a pedestrian walk with lots of Aboriginal art galleries and nicer restaurants, along with some more kitschy stuff, too. We’re going to see if we can find anything that we like when we go back. We don’t really know much of anything about Aboriginal art, and some of it’s unpleasantly close to modern and abstract art for Lisa’s tastes; but we’ll see if there’s anything we can’t live without that’s also within our price range. We just need to make sure that it’s authentic and not the typical knock-off stuff that you seem to be able to find all over the place here.

Yesterday we drove from Alice Springs to Watarrka. This morning we hiked Kings Canyon just after sunrise. It’s a beautiful canyon and has made my top-5 day-hikes. The six kilometer (about 3.5 miles) hike over two-and-a-half hours yielded an ever-changing view of the canyon and some beautiful light that never seemed to illuminate the same rock face the same way twice. The ghost gum trees and the spinifex provided nice contrast to the fiery rocks. It was a well-traveled path, and we were usually surrounded by a bunch of older walkers or a large group of college-aged backpacker folks on organized bus outings.

This part of Australia is much more picturesque than where we’ve been. And tomorrow we’re off to the most “iconic” Australian locale.

Details of our Trip to Uluṟu to follow soon.


* — Everything in Australia seems attached to a tavern, bar, or pub. I suspect that the Parliament house in Canberra is just a nice chamber attached to a pub.

Posted in Australia, Life Lessons, Travel | 2 Comments

Kakadu

We’re in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory right now. Yesterday we were in Litchfield NP.

These parks are unusual by American standards, but I love ‘em. You don’t know what you’re going to see until you’re there, because it’s mostly just monsoon forest. But then you stop at an amazing waterfall or 20,000 year old rock art. (We swam in the waterfall pool, but left the art alone.)

Having a great time. RV almost sent me over the edge. (I had definitely retreated into my “happy place” for a long time while we shopped for groceries.) But now that we’re out of Darwin, the fun is in the house. Our little house with wheels.

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Aussie Photos – Part 1

New photos are up on Flickr.

Posted in Australia, Photography, Travel | 2 Comments

Darwin

Wednesday, 9 June 2010, a bit after 9:00 PM (ACST)

Hopefully, yesterday’s dispatch wasn’t too incoherent, although I fear it was a bit rambling. I didn’t have enough change to feed the meter another time. So, there wasn’t a chance to proofread or make edits. And I was kind of tired. Even though it was only late afternoon, the jetlag was catching up to me. Last night was better; I was actually able to fall asleep again after spending about a half hour with Frankie Valli’s insistent singing, which started around 5:00 this morning.

Right now, we’re in Darwin, which it seems is a backpacker mecca. There are backpacker “hotels.” Loads of noisy bars. Spaniards lying about in the park practicing on their digiridoos. Plenty of shops to buy said digiridoos, along with every other kind of touristy thing. We couldn’t tell if the main drag had any legit Aboriginal art shops or not; but the park along the Esplinade sure is nice. (It’s also the first place we’ve been with any significant number of Aborigines.)

We won’t be in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, for too long. We flew in this afternoon from Sydney along with a lot of other holiday makers, including some trust-fund kids from the States on their ’round the world grand tours. (“Yeah, going through immigrations I got singled out because I was in Peru last week,” one young woman said. Her traveling companions agreed that was a total bummer.) We all went through security, but (I presume) none of us had to show ID. It was the damnedest thing.

It was a rather long flight — a bit more than five hours — which gives a sense of the distances involved. “It’s a four day drive from Sydney,” one of the shared van pool attendants told Lisa while I was in paying our fare. “While you’re in New South Wales and southern Queensland it’s not too bad. But then once you head into the Outback the towns get really far apart.”

So we saved ourselves some time by flying, but I think the news about the distances between towns might have touched on the “We’re all going to die!” nerve that I mentioned yesterday. Don’t get me wrong; we are determined to have a good time. (And we’re most assuredly not really worried about impending doom.) Lisa is game for a lot of things; this adventure is just more “adventurous” than some of them that we’ve done recently.

On a side note, Lisa is reading Shipwrecks: Australia’s Greatest Maritime Disasters. She’s a funny girl. She bought it today at the airport after I (unknowingly) teased her too much about the book she first picked up Vlad, a vampire fantasy romance.* Who knew she was (almost) into that sort of thing?

I picked up Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World. Some say the mammal is “mythic,” a true Australian icon. I say they’re a true Aussie snipe. Twice we’ve been to places claiming to have them in captivity. Twice I’ve been duped into looking into dimly lit tanks to search for them. Twice I’ve gone away thinking, “No, Jeff, it’s your fault that you can’t see these iconic beaver-ducks with venomous talons.” But it’s not my fault, because they don’t actually exist.

Tomorrow we get the RV and head out into the wilderness outback for about a week. I doubt we’ll have access to the Internets out in the wilds, though we may be able to pick up some in the dinky towns of Katherine and Tenant Creek. So, assume that we’re having a great time, and that I’ll be a natural at driving on the left side of the road. I have been telling myself that once we get into the Northern Territory the craziness of Sydney’s traffic — which is only terrifying because it comes at you from unexpected directions — will be a thing of the past. Darwin has about the same population of Des Moines, Iowa — around 100,000 people — and it’s where the majority of the population lives in the 200,000 square miles of the Northern Territory. So driving should be easier, right?

By the way, the sun being in the north instead of the south is a seriously disorienting thing. But that shouldn’t impact my driving too much. Just keep the sun at my back, stick to the sealed roads, and listen to my navigator.

Something occurred to me this morning about this “land down under.” It’s just different enough to be totally disorienting. Such is not the case with Canada or England. Australia is all kinds of mixed up.

When you go from the US to Canada, it’s more like you leave one state and enter another than if one traveled to a different country. Sure they use the metric system pervasively, and they have $1 and $2 coins. And there’s a bit of French when you go to Quebec, but after you get through border inspection and start looking at the little numbers on the speedometer dial, it’s like you’ve only entered a different region of the US. (Sorry, Canada. I love you more than you will ever know, but it’s the sad truth: Our two nations are just too similar in too many ways. We’re joined along the world’s longest undefended border because we’re two parts of a split personality. You’re the good one, the caring one, the nurturing one, the one that likes the cold and flannel and beards and curling and Asian people. We’re the confident one, the moody one, the one that’s great at parties until we’ve drunk too much and gotten out our gun and challenged everyone to reenact scenes from “The Deer Hunter”and “Why don’t you say that again to my face?” and “Can’t we all just get along?” and . . . Oops, where was I?)

England — well, I’m really only familiar with London, so I’m going to wildly extrapolate — is rather more different than the US**. In the UK, you know you’re in a different country; simple as that. Parliament. Magna carta. Unwritten constitution. Palaces. Lord Nelson. Elizabeth Regina. Where fries are chips, and chips are crisps. McDonalds is there wherever you go in the world, but everything else might as well be from another place or time.

Australia occupies some sort of middle ground. It’s too different to be Canada but too similar to be the UK. Sydney has the rush and bustle of any big East Coast American city and many of the brands are the same: Coca Cola, Subway, the Anglican and Catholic Churches, the dollar. You can turn on the television in the evening and watch American television on American networks (like Fox) that only aired in the US a few weeks ago. But then so many things are different, if only through evolution. Hungry Jack’s has borrowed the Burger King logo, and they both sell the Whopper. The ugly birds have beautiful songs, and the small birds sound like they swallowed squeaky toys. Young women dress nicely. Everything is so cutesy: the national soccer team calls itself the “Socceroos,” and there’s a “footie” (Aussie Rules football) rugby team called the “Rabittohs.” Peppers are called “capsicoms.” There’s a “Sanitarium” brand of breakfast foods. Etc. Etc.

It’s a nice country. It’s just . . . weird.

Pictures hopefully to follow soon.


* — Lisa tells me that it was not, in fact, a vampire fantasy novel. Rather it was a “fictional retelling of the true story of Vlad the Impaler.” Vlad the impaler, a.k.a. that guy known as Dracula. I stand corrected and ashamed at my mischaracterization.

** — Though certainly not as different as, say, Paris is different.

Posted in Australia, Travel | 1 Comment

Sydney

It’s a bit after 4:00PM on Tuesday the 8th of June in Australia right now.

We’re in Sydney for one more night before we jet off to Darwin tomorrow morning. We’ll spend a small amount of time before starting the big, big part of our adventure: the RV. But more on that later.

Sydney is nice. It’s something of a cross between San Diego and Toronto. It has the beautiful climate and sunshine and water of extreme southern California and the Britishness of Toronto. There are statues of Victoria and Albert and Capt. Cook and loads of other Commonwealth people that neither Lisa and I know. (Lisa can give you a good deal of Mary Poppins informed history of the Edwardian period, if you want it.)

Unlike Toronto and San Diego, they do drive left, which I didn’t think was going to be a big deal, because I was used to London by the time we left. But they have a lot of one-way streets there; and here there’s traffic everywhere. Yesterday, on my run from our hotel (located near where Darlinghurst meets Hyde Park) I did not get run over — or have anyone honk at me for that matter; they don’t seem to do that here — but I did have to stop short to keep from running into the street in front of turning traffic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had intended to post more about our trip earlier, but the Travelodge has no WiFi . . . so no frequent updates or pictures of skype or . . . We left Boston on Friday evening after taking a limo — an honest to goodness pimped out limo — to Logan. (It’s nice to have prom season coincide with our trip to the airport.) That was the highlight of the trip. The flight to LAX was uneventful. Then the layover started and lasted about two hours longer than expected. We ended up leaving LA at 2:00AM Pacific Time (which is 5:00AM Eastern Time). Having been up 19 or 20 hours, we were a bit tired. I fell asleep before we pushed away from the gate. Despite being one step away from narcoleptic, I can’t really sleep on airplanes for extended periods of time, so I didn’t sleep much: off and on for about 7 hours I’d say.

After seven hours, we were half-way there. Time to watch “Crazy Heart,” which I really think should have won the Best Picture Academy Award last year. “Hurt Locker” was good, but this was fantastic. Then I started watching “A Single Man.” Now, they put the film on the plane for us to watch, but it’s a little odd watching Tom Ford’s homo-erotic love story in a public place, especially when the captain’s PA stopped the film during the one naked scene in the film.

Anyway, we arrived. Tired. But starting a new day. And I was reminded of Paris. In particular, that not altogether well feeling that I seem to get after being awake far too long. But it passed after a bit of breakfast and a walk.

We left our luggage at the hotel and walked through a string of parks to the harbor, where we saw the two main icons: the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Both are different than they appear on TV or in print — better, more massive, more — I dunno — iconic.

And then we checked in around 3:00PM and took a nap. It’s a good thing we set an alarm, because we were both sound asleep a few hours later when it went off.

There’s a funny thing about jet lag. The first night you don’t notice it, becuase you’ve been awake for more than 24 hours and are wicked tired anyway. But the second night, that’s when it hits you. 4:00 this morning I awoke to the sound of my own wide awake thoughts, accompanied by the alt country soundtrack of Old Crow Medicine Show and Deer Tick. It’s better than the Violent Femmes from five years ago in India, but still a bit too loud.

So we headed out for a walk around the Domain and the Public Gardens, ending up at the harbor again. (It appears to be our Notre Dame, where seemed to end up everyday in Paris last year.) Three or four times we’ve been there, and we’ve never navigated our way out the same way twice. It’s almost a maze.

We haven’t done nearly enough of what Sydney has to offer — the zoo, the aquarium, Circular Quay, wandering around Observatory Hill, etc. — but I think we’re ready for something a little out of the ordinary.

I’m not sure we’re all 100% ready for the RV. I’m nervous about driving it. Lisa’s nervous about almost everything else: being out of contact, being away from civilization (laundry), being in the midst of a land full of critters that want to kill us as soon as look at us, being in the RV as I drive it, etc. I can’t blame her, but I think after the first day, it’s going to be great. Or we’re all going to die.

But now I only have one minute left on this internet terminal. More later.

Posted in Australia, Travel | 6 Comments

FAQs about our Trip to Australia

Q: Are you going to New Zealand?
A: No, Australia is big enough.

Q: Are you going to Perth?
A: No, Kelly. We’re not going to Perth this trip. Although it does sound awesome.

Q: Are you going to Tasmania?
A: Not this time. Everybody says it’s fantastic. Maybe next time — I’m going to suppose there will be a next time — when we also go to Melbourne and Adelaide and Coober Pedy.

Q: Where are you going?
A: First to Sydney for a few days. Then we’ll take a leisurely route from Darwin to Alice Springs in an RV. After that time in the Northern Territory, we’re flying to Cairns, where we’ll spend a week on the beach. We fly back home from Sydney.

Q: How long are you going?
A: Four weeks. We return (hopefully) on the 2nd of July, just in time for a three-day weekend.

Q: How are you flying?
A: Boston to Los Angeles. And Los Angeles direct to Sydney. It will be my first time on A380. I will report back.

Q: How long does that take?
A: The BOS to LAX part is about 6 hours each way. The LAX to SYD part is about 14 hours. It’s slightly longer on each leg going out.

Q: What time zone will you be in? How many hours ahead or behind me will you be?
A: Sydney and Queensland are in Australian Eastern Time, which is UTC+10. The Northern Territory is in Australian Central Time, UTC+9.5. US Eastern time is UTC-5. And US Pacific Time is UTC-8. But don’t forget, the US is on daylight savings time, while Australia currently is not. So, it’s somewhat hard to say. There’s a web site that will tell you the time. And don’t forget, it’s probably tomorrow there, too.

Q: What’s the weather like?
A: Varied, but still nicer than America’s or Europe’s winter.

Q: Why are you going during Australia’s winter? Aren’t you going to miss our summer?
A: I will miss the long days of summer in the US. But I won’t miss Australia’s 120-130ºF heat in the summer. Or their biting flies and mosquitos. Or the box jellyfishes that shut down open swimming. Or the monsoons.

Q: What’s the water temperature like? Won’t it be cold?
A: I hear the water will be in the high 70s ºF. I think that’s warmer than the Milford High School pool in the winter when we used it.

Q: How did you get that much time off?
A: Brown seems very generous with it’s time-off policy, probably because they feel bad about not paying Lisa very much money. And I’ve been at MathWorks for over 12 years, so I accrue a bit. Of course, I’m using it all on this trip.

Q: How much does such a trip cost?
A: It’s not as bad as you’d think. About a quarter of it is just getting the airline tickets to Australia. The exchange rate is favorable for us now, and we’ve already paid for most of the trip — which makes the rest much less stressful.

Q: Do they drive on the right or left in Australia?
A: They drive on the wrong left side of the road. That’s going to take some getting used to, and I’ve already had a couple dreams about it.

Q: Do they have ice cream there?
A: G-d, I sure hope so.

Q: Why Australia?
A: Why not? It’s big and dry and full of crazy critters and was settled by convicts. It sounds like a perfect place for an adventure.

Q: How can we contact you if we need to talk to you?
A: Call the house. We’ll be checking messages and calling people via Skype.

Q: Are there sharks?
A: Yes.

Q: How are you managing your diabetes on the trip?
A: The same as always. Test and make small adjustments. I’m taking almost double the amount of supplies I expect to need. And I have a Frio insulin cooler that should help keep the insulin potent. Snorkeling will be interesting, but I swam all winter, so it’s not terribly out of the ordinary.

Q: Are you going to go bicycling?
A: Probably not. I went for a ride yesterday and realized it will probably be my last for a while. There’s a place in Alice Springs that rents bicycles, and there’s a 25km trail to a national park there, but I’m not sure that’s everyone’s idea of fun.

Q: Why are you going to see a big rock?
A: Why not? It’s big and red and sacred and juts out of the flattest land imaginable (or so I’m told). And I hear it glows at dusk.

Q: Are you taking a GPS so that we can track you?
A: Despite repeated requests (from Kelly, the web mapping guy) that we do this, no one has stepped forward with a GPS for us to use. No, we will not be taking a GPS, but I’ll give all y’all stalkers our location. Is UTM alright?

Posted in Australia, Travel | 4 Comments