Wednesday, September 26, 2007
We flew from Brisbane to Sydney and took a cab to hotel on Coogee Beach, which is on Sydney's Tasman Sea coast, not too far from the airport. Picked this locale just to have a little sample of Sydney beach life that evening and the following morning.
My pocket itinerary that I had printed up with all our comings, goings, and doings said we left the following afternoon at 1:25 on our Qantas flight to LAX. Some time the afternoon of the 24th, Dick said, “Are you sure about our departure time? My reservation confirmation document says 10:20am and your itinerary says 1:25pm.” Yikes, he’s right! My flight doc does, too. Way back last spring when we made air reservations our original Qantas plans changed when we added our in-country flights. I had not gotten that change into the itinerary I had typed up and had not caught the mistake in subsequent updates. I’d been using that pocket itinerary for every day’s important times, confirmation numbers, and contact phone numbers. WE COULD HAVE MISSED OUR FLIGHT! Thanks, Dick.
Moral of the story: Check everything. Rely on original documents. Trust, but verify.
At any rate, with much relief, we found an open-air fish place on a street of beach-town sorts of shops and informal restaurants for one last fishandchips – maybe our best. You had your choice of various types of fish displayed in front of you and we chose red snapper, not some lesser variety generally used in takeaway fishandchip houses. Sat on wooden benches on the sidewalk and along with the fishandchips enjoyed the scene and a balmy evening.
The flight east is a little shorter in time than the flight over and it definitely seemed shorter. Watched a couple of movies and read most of Confederacy of Dunces, didn’t sleep. That may help with the jet lag because I didn’t have a problem in either direction this time, unlike our trips to and from Hong Kong last December.
Oh, one cultural oddity I've been meaning to mention is that Australian crossword puzzles are different from U.S. ones (I generally buy a newspaper and do crosswords while traveling). The Aussie puzzles have a lot more spaces and a lot less interconnection among their words. For example, a seven-letter vertical word may have three of its letters not connected with horizontal words -- there's just adjoining spaces. This can leave some words ambiguous, unless you really know what the clue is after. For some Australian place names, I didn't have a chance. I wonder why and how this different structure arose.
Another itinerary disconnect was that after our Qantas flights change, we didn’t change our SW flight home, thinking, on bad information, that the layover was about right. Now, it was seven hours. For a small fee, though, we could change flights, so we did, arriving in ABQ in early afternoon. Susie, who had spent most of this time traveling among her kids, met us.
After a little practice, a day later I think I can drive on the right side now. Have to think about where the turn signals and gas gauge are, though.
So, that’s it: Great trip, memorable times, really good to be home.
Planes, trains, campers, buses, helicopters, cars, boats. See Australia! We’ve done it all. Now it's back to a train for the 1000 mile, 25 hr. trip from Cairns to Brisbane, along the Queensland coast. Incidentally, the golfer, Greg Norman, known as the Great White Shark, is from Queensland. Was reminded of this by an Aussie tabloid story about his former wife’s bitter feelings about Chris Evert, the tennis player, who stole her man. I didn’t know that happened.
The Tilt Train is sleek, quiet, and smooth-riding. The seats are comfortable and versatile and the windows are large. There are even electrical outlets so that I can plug in the very computer on which I am now writing. No wireless, though. It doesn't have sleepers or a dining car -- there's a snack bar car and it sells airline types of meals.
The train, which is called the fastest narrow gauge train in the world (though narrow gauge here is not what it is in the US), is capable of speeds up to 100 mph. It won’t do this on our trip, it turned out, due to technical problems. In the first two-thirds of the trip there are too many unprotected intersections for that sort of speed. One wonders why the problem intersections have not been upgraded or eliminated. Nice lady tells us the government is foot-dragging. The Train mag notes that the TT was just extended to Cairns in 2003, though from what point south I don’t know, so that’s not a lot of time for designing and building new intersections. We had hoped for some high speed later in the trip, even though it would be after dark, but, as noted, it didn’t happen. Anyway, still a nice and interesting trip.
We start out passing through sugar cane fields – herewith starts a km by km report on the trip (just kidding). We stop at a station about every 30 mins. We soon see some tropical-looking trees with bags hanging from them and wonder what they are. Nice man explains they are banana trees; the bags are protecting developing bunches. Just tie ‘em off and ship them to the grocers.
On the topic of sugar cane, Dick was intrigued by the machines used to harvest cane and on the drive from Dan’s to dinner, the evening before, we pulled off the road so he could get a picture, and by good fortune, talk to the cane farmer about it. Turns out this cane harvester was manufactured in Louisiana. Next year’s version will be green because the company now belongs to John Deere. Here's a picture of an Iowa corn grower interrogating a Queensland cane grower.
One other point: They get one crop of cane a year and three years of production by sugar cane plants before they plow them under and start another three-year cycle.
Back to the liveblog: Three or four hours later the countryside transitions into much dryer, fairly barren pasture land. The mountains that had been on our right are gone. Brahma cattle, which we’ve been told do well in tropical climes, are seen. Isn’t this exciting! The pastures seem to have suffered from a combination of drought and overgrazing. Next to the track the grass is much lusher than in the pastures.
Oops, now we’re back into sugar cane. Maybe we’re going the wrong way! This train has a backward facing engine on its back end. They pushed the wrong button! Never mind. Think I’ll drop the running report and go tidy up earlier reports and get them ready for posting, some day, somewhere.
4:12pm. Just crossed a river.
Night: Now it’s dark.
I don’t sleep much. Watch a couple of movies. Read some Robinson Crusoe. This is my second shipwreck and survival book on this trip. The first was The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe, both from my Paul Theroux-inspired reading list. I think Theroux liked Poe's book because it was the ultimate trip gone bad story. Top ten things you don't want to happen on a sea voyage.
After one long chapter of Crusoe I decide I’ve had enough of the high seas for now. I have paid ample homage to historic English literature (endured long, ornate sentences) and so I switch to The Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest book I’ve ever read. (I will go back and finish Robinson Crusoe -- it is interesting and more than just an adventure story.)
Confederacy is a Pullitzer-prize winner that my book club did several years ago and I decided it was time for a re-read. Walker Percy, who wrote a really clever and to the point introduction (that you should not avoid reading), said he was astounded more on his third reading than on his first, which blew him away.
Confederacy is an example of a one-book phenomenon, tragically in this case. The author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide before the book was published. In fact the reason the book was published was because Toole’s mother implored Percy to read it several years after her son's death – she knew it was a great book. Oh, sure, he thought, but as he finally read it, after her repeated urging, he was hooked.
It’s morning, now. Dick reports success – he just saw a real live wallaby in the wild. Up to now it had just been a couple of road-kill kangaroos that I saw and Dick didn’t. A little bit later we both see wallabies, or maybe kangaroos – these are large fellas: size is the main distinction between wallabies and kangaroos -- near the track. Now we can go home with no unfulfilled expectations.
I also saw this prominent mountain along our route this morning. It was one of several such outcroppings along the way. Can't find any mountain names on my most detailed map.
We arrive in Brisbane an hour late, but still with several hours to occupy before we fly to Sydney. We’d left several hours between arrival and departure from Brisbane either to see some of Brisbane – check it off our life list – or to allow for major train delays. So, we took a city-sights bus tour. It was a good tour, driver drove his bus like a sports car, and gave me a good feel for the city.
Here are a couple of pix. Brisbane is the largest Australian city in area, and the third or fourth largest in population (Dick and I remember both Perth and Brisbane claiming third place after Sydney and Melbourne). You could look it up. The building below is former train station.
We fly on to Sydney for the night en route to flight home the next day.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
We check out of our Ellis Beach Bungalow and stop just across the road for “breaky,” pronounced breckie – Aussie slang for breakfast. I go for a special treat: baked beans on toast. Try it some time. Warm up a can of beans (plain, not with barbecue or bacon or detectable flavoring) and dump it on your toast and you can take credit for an Aussie breakfast. Nearly raw eggs, sunny side up, are an Aussie breaky tradition, too, but I got to where I skipped those, and I like eggs with some run to them).
From Ellis Beach we drive just over an hour north, first winding along the coast, then easier driving through an area of sugar cane fields. We find Dan and then head down river on his boat to pick up a couple from Santa Cruz, CA. Janelle is a botanist; her husband, Max, works in Silicon Valley (or has worked, we’re not sure). (Maureen told me that if you want to remember a name, you have to use it, so I just did.) Dan had planned not to take any customers this day, but these folks had only this day available and a real, professional interest in learning about the plant and animal life on the Daintree. Their interests helped expand our horizons so we were glad they were along.
Here’s Dan, in his office. He would have fit in among Captain Cook’s crew.
A little history. Captain Cook did not discover the Daintree River as he sailed up the east coast – its mouth is not at all apparent from off the coast. Gold discovered in the mountains inland from here in 1873 led to a search for a port and the river’s discovery a century after Cook's voyage. (Along this line, just before our trip I came across a current Aussie newspaper article on a virtually unknown river way out in the Outback. Bryson, in Sunburned Country, remarked on the “unknowness” of Australia even after 200 years of settlement. There are so many places you just wouldn’t want to go to and people don’t.)
Mangroves, the main theme of our tour, are amazing trees, the way they have adapted to their various environmental challenges. I probably don’t have these numbers right, but there are 51 mangrove species worldwide and 39 of them are along the Daintree. That’s why it is a world heritage site. (For a scientific discussion, may I suggest Google and Wikipedia. I started off asking Dan a question that confused mangroves with mangoes! Not the way to get the respect of a biologist and a botanist.)
Dan, of course, knows his flora and fauna. He can spot a small cluster of orchids high in a tree, instantly identify high-flying birds, and find crocodiles. We saw three crocs. These are the salt-water variety. A small one was swimming with just his eyes visible and submerged quickly (they can submerge 2-3 hours) as we went by. One big guy we saw was sliding into the water as we approached. Then, there was this big guy sunning on the bank. We obviously did not bother him at all. I should have zoomed in so you would think we were in danger, but that would be wrong.
We first worked our way down the river to its mouth. Dan said this was his favorite spot on the river – liked to come down here by himself, with a fishing pole and refreshments, and spend most of the day. I claimed its appeal was the flat horizon – reminiscent of our part of Oklahoma.
Then we went up river quite a ways, about as far as low tide would permit, skirting around islands and up side creeks.
Then it was back to the crossroads café and bar for dinner. Again, this is the sort of place you expect to see Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Dark barroom, with a bit of a rough feel, antique stuff hanging around, and a resident tree frog on the light fixture over the bar. I said he, the frog, probably feeds on barflies, doesn’t he – more great HS humor.
After a memorable day with Dan and his river we drove back to Cairns, found our motel and dropped off the rental car. Next up: Tilt Train to Brisbane, flight to Sydney.
Great Barrier Reef
By the time we got to Cairns and picked up our rental car, from a real chirpy guy at a low-cost agency not at the airport, it was about dark. We stopped for fishandchips at a take-away place, then drove north to find our lodging in Ellis Beach. It’s about a half-hour drive, if you do all the roundabouts correctly. Well, we missed one, but realized right away that we had. We were following the Captain Cook Highway, but all of a sudden it changed numbers and that took us off on the wrong exit from the roundabout. We could tell right away we were heading inland instead of following the coast (Captain Cook didn't always get it right, either). Getting turned around, though, somehow involved driving the wrong way on two different shopping center access roads, but we made it with no mishaps or insults, with one driver politely and clearly pointing out, "You're going the wrong way."
Here’s a shot from our porch of sunrise over the Tasman Sea the following morning. Nice place. Our Frommer’s Guide tipped it as a “real value.” Too bad we won’t be spending much time in it.
And here's a bungalow and rental-car view:
Here's a little beach-music video. Just click on the arrow in lower left corner. Turn your volume up.
Next morning we leave the bungalow at 615 am to go back to Cairns for our Green Island and Great Barrier Reef Cruise.
Green Island is a national park about an hour out from the harbor. It has nice beaches, crystal clear water, a resort, and other activities such as parasailing and glass-bottom boating. We used most of the two hours there to practice snorkeling.
Another hour on the boat got us to a tour-agency's pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef. There were various options there, plus lunch. We started with a semi-submersible ride. This a boat with a viewing compartment below water level. This gave us a good intro to the coral types and formations and the tropical fish.
After lunch I had decided to sign up for a SCUBA dive for beginners, but I was too late – it was already subscribed. We spent most of the rest of the time snorkeling. Dick and I were kind of nervous about leaving our possessions – cameras, passports, … -- unattended so we took turns in the water. There he goes now!
Also, they warned older guests against overexertion, so we didn't.
Bryson, with his fixation on the many ways to die in Australia, tells a tale of a tour boat returning from the Reef and leaving two snorkelers out there (not in the neighborhood of a pontpoon), never to be seen again. When we left, with probably a couple hundred people, the crew did a careful headcount, but a couple of people showed up after they declared the count to be correct!
The shapes, colors, and variety of corals are amazing. I had the feeling that I saw less fishlife than I had expected from movies and TV shows and what I remembered from a long-ago trip to Hawaii, but maybe such expectations are unrealistic. The photographers don’t always hit the right spot at the right time. I also wonder if a frequently occupied, noisy spot like the pontoon platform may deter the fish a bit (you're not allowed to feed them). Whatever, we had a great day in the sun and the sea.
Here's an internet shot. We saw comparable scenes, but through a foggy snorkel mask looking down from water level, not in a professionally lighted scene at fish level.
We stopped for dinner on our way back to Ellis Beach at a resort area called Palm Cove. The setting was like in the movies: second-floor open air restaurant, palm trees, fragrant air, the sound of waves hitting the shore, moon and stars over the ocean.
This was a nice restaurant – you could tell by the way they stacked the food – which seems to be the fine food trend. In Fremantle my steak came on top of mashed potatoes and gravy, so when you cut into the steak you smeared the potatoes and gravy all over the plate! Elegant? Maybe I’m missing something.
I don’t mean to be complaining, but Theroux says much of travel is dealing with things that don’t go right: our experience at this restaurant matched what we had encountered repeatedly, so maybe it’s an Aussie thing: When you’re through eating you have to make an effort to get your bill. The waitperson doesn’t bring it until asked and seems a little surprised by the request. Sometimes you have to go to the cash register. Sometimes the hostperson will bring it. Suggested tipping here is less generous than at home, even for me, so maybe there’s a connection. Or, maybe it's just a more Aussie/relaxed view of things. Just thought you’d like to know.
Tomorrow it’s the Daintree River and my HS classmate, Dan Irby. Until then.
Monday, September 24, 2007
We arrived at Ayers Rock Airport in mid-afternoon, found our way to our cabin in the Ayers Rock Resort campground. It’s a whole new climate: desert clime, near 90F degrees. The pilot vectored in to his landing so as to give everybody a good view of Uluru (the Aborigine name, a.k.a. Ayers Rock -- the Aboriginal people now manage this area so the native place-names are more in use now), but the big event of evenings out here is sunset. We take the sunset tour along with about 2000 other folks.
I was here 16 years ago, and wanted to come back on this trip. Such an impressive sight. I bought a t-shirt with statistics: height: 1141 ft., circumference: 6 miles. Here are a few of my shots this evening.
You can see better shots – more of a red glow, when atmospheric conditions are just right -- if you Google Uluru. (Because of limited internet access I’m not putting the links I usually do; you may have noticed. An exercise left for the reader.) Note that the layered sandstone that make up the rock run nearly perpendicular to the ground. During a period of violent upheaval this chunk of ancient seabed was tilted almost straight up. Eons of erosion uncovered what we now see as Uluru.
The next morning we take a helicopter flight over the area, flying by both Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta (Olga Mountains). And more. The third passenger on the trip is a researcher interested in getting a picture that shows Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and a far-off Mount Connor (perhaps not spelled correctly; I can’t find it on my map). They lie on a straight line and appear to be the remnants of an E-W mountain range through the center of Australia. We didn’t quite get the gist of his research objective, but it seemed to be the linkage of the Aboriginal theological beliefs with this mountain range. The continent is centered here and so are their beliefs. I think he wanted to generalize this observation to other religions. Brings to mind an earlier conversation about PhDs.
To get the desired alignment, Chris, our helicopter pilot, a pleasant young man from Scotland – he’d been here in this job two years -- took us to the west of the Olgas – a bonus ride of about 10 mins. -- so we could see the lineup of the Olgas, Uluru, and far off in the haze, mountain number 3. Didn’t quite have the visual effect our companion wanted, but it gave us some good sun angles for pictures of Kata Tjuta.
KT is a collection of 30-some sandstone domes, ranging up to quite a bit higher than Uluru. You can imagine this collection as a bunch of temples or tombs of minor gods progressing up to the major one(s).
Wait, there’s more. We were in a four-passenger helicopter, shown below. The good doctor’s wife was scheduled to take the trip but had to cancel because of illness. If she had come along we would have had to take a larger chopper, but one with less visibility for photography.
One more bonus: There were a couple of the Australian Air Force’s Hawk fighter jets on the runway when we took off. Chris told us they had been there for five or six days awaiting repair. We heard tower communication indicating the Hawks were ready to fly. Well, they took off just as we were descending, then came back around and screamed over the runway at 250 ft. just as we set down. Gave us front row seats. All in all, a thrilling morning, and only nine o’clock.
On the way back Chris said we should look for wild camels, but know that they are hard to see because of their camel-flage.
The rest of our morning was a little more mundane: we did some laundry, e-mail, phone calls, and packing. I wrote Susie while the laundry was going saying, Where’s a bloke’s mate when y’ really needs ‘er? (JUST KIDDING, I said, really. Having a great time but looking forward to home, too.)
Left Ayers Rock in mid-afternoon, bound for Cairns – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree River with Tonkawa’s other famous son, Dan Irby.
SW Australia - 3
Morning – some quality phone and internet time in Margaret River. At the visitor center we asked advice on winery tours – we’re interested in seeing the technology, not so much the tasting room. The person there suggested the Leeuwin Winery.
This is a historic winery. Along about 1967 some California wine bigshot was looking for a place to start growing grapes and made an offer to a cattle rancher near MR. Rancher was savvy enough to find out who this guy was and figure, hmm, there must be money in grapes, so he didn’t sell, but started his own vineyard and wine production. The rest is history. There must be 50+ vineyards in the region.
We got to the Leeuwin Winery, coincidentally named after the cape whose lighthouse we'd toured, and the chap on the desk asked if we’d like to take the eleven o’clock tour. As it was ten to, we said sure and congratulated ourselves on lucky timing. Well, we were the only two on the tour. A little earlier and I’m sure we could have gotten the 10:30 tour.
This place is more than just a winery. It’s a site of big-name concerts on the lawn, pictured here with the adjacent restaurant.
Also, each year Aussie artists are commissioned to produce paintings which are then used in wine labels. Several of the paintings are shown in a basement, that is, wine cellar, gallery.
Well, we got done with the tour, having asked a lot of questions, then each had a sip of one wine, nodded approvingly, just so our guide wouldn’t be too disappointed and headed north to Fremantle, a seaside town near Perth. An America’s Cup yacht race was held here when Australia hosted a challenge.
We got to Freo, as they call it, in late afternoon. We go downtown looking for a “torchlight tour” of historic Fremantle, find where it takes place, unfortunately, though, not on Tuesdays.
We split a kangaroo dinner and a ribeye steak dinner. Kangaroo is OK, but you wouldn’t “misteak” it for beef. Too late for pictures, though. You can go Google.
Next morning, up early for a drive across the S side of Perth at morning rush time. Goes OK, though, as often seems to be the case, it was hard to find a place to gas up near the rental agency. We had allowed plenty of time, so no reason to worry about making our flight. Until …
We wait fully 45 mins. while the one clerk in the office processes one customer. Luckily, we still had adequate time to catch our plane. Don’t know what would have happened if we’d been pressed for time.
So, that's it for SW Australia. Had a good time, saw lots, avoided driving mishaps, and managed to squeeze into the upper bunk four times. Here's a farewell shot of Perth, shot earlier in the week.
SW Australia - 2
Our campground in Denmark is on the Wilson Inlet. Here’s a morning picture. (One thing I should note now so I don’t forget it is that on all four nights in campgrounds we found cheerful, chipper folks on the registration desk.)
In the morning we drive west to the Walpole Normalup National Park, home to the Tree-Top Walk. All along Dick’s been scouting for wildlife. He thought he saw a kangaroo, but by the time we could park on the shoulder and walk back, it was gone, if indeed that’s what it was. A school-bus driver passing by and stopped to see if we needed help. Said he thought maybe we had hit a kangaroo, so we were in their territory.
Another thing we’ve been looking for is the Southern Cross – the star formation that ocean navigators use south of the equator. Couldn’t find it before turning in, but when I got up about 3am for relief I think I saw it. Didn’t have my glasses on so can’t be sure. Should have gotten Dick up to confirm the sighting.
At any rate, we got to the National Park before the gates opened so we went exploring down a side road, looking for ‘roos. Here’s the only one we found. Later in the day we saw two road-kill ‘roos, but so far that’s it.
Roadside signs promised kangaroos next 20 km, but it never happened.
Here are some pictures of and from the Tree Top Walk. It was a gray sky day with occasional sprinkles. The walkway's highest point is 130 ft. above the forest floor – like being on top of a 13-floor building. The walkway is designed to sway with the breeze, like the treetops. Walkways also are quite springy.
The preservation reason behind the walk is that people walking on the forest floor compact the earth and this damages the big trees’ roots and ability to absorb nutrients. So, for the sake of the trees and as an attraction they put people up in the treetops. Makes it easier on your neck, too.
The big trees are different versions of what they call a “tingle tree.” They’re varieties of eucalyptus trees – there must be dozens of varieties in Australia. The biggest is called a Karri tree. It looks like the big Kauri trees we saw in New Zealand – no doubt related -- but I recall the NZ trees as being larger.
The Tree Top Walk was the main attraction that drew us to this part of the country and we were greatly impressed. Somebody should build one in the USA.
Here are lighthouse pictures: inside (177 steps; the lighthouse keepers would carry two large buckets of kerosene up these stairs, sidestepping, once a week).
Had a very interesting and enthusiastic guide. Last tour of the day and he gave us extra time and info. In the early 1800s England started three settlements in SW Australia – Albany, Augusta (just above Cape Leeuwin), and Perth. This enabled them to claim the whole continent for the Queen (or King as the case may be). I’m conjecturing, but I think having just lost the US colonies, England had the resources available, and motivation, to colonize elsewhere. I mean, they had Canada and not much else, so it’s easy to see why Australia was important to them – Rule, Brittania -- and, ultimately, not just as a dumping ground for prisoners.
Our guide told us that if France had taken this part of Australia it would just have meant getting good wine sooner – a reference to the Margaret River region which has boomed here only over the last 40 years and which is our evening's destination.
We got to Margaret River after dark, spent a lot of time searching for a caravan park – we would follow arrows, but not find a park – and finally found one – another nice owner, I believe, who had just been in MR a few weeks. She pointed us to a spaghetti house for a good dinner.