Monthly Archives: October 2011

Sydney, my new old friend

I first visited Sydney back in July for work, and I was immediately comfortable there. Got some must-dos out of the way then, like the Opera House tour and a ferry trip to Manly Island.

Returning as a tourist (and Karen’s tour guide) was like visiting an old friend. Some of the highlights:

- Dinner with Nick and Deveri. Three months ago, Nick was my client, now I’m happy to “just” call him a friend. Meeting his wife and finally getting our Australia questions answered was a treat.

- The Museum of Sydney. Informative but not overwhelming displays on the history of the city, including some perspective on the aboriginal people who were here first.

- Walking through the Royal Botanical Gardens. I’ve been through them several times and still haven’t seen everything- they’re huge!

- Exploring the Sydney Opera House. Get this: there happened to be a free open house the weekend we were in town. We paid nothing and got a better tour than I did (and paid for) in July, traipsing through rehearsal rooms, walking across the concert stage, and visiting the elusive opera theater.

They did get some cash out of us- we went to see one of their current operas, The Merry Widow. Resident opera aficionado Karen called it “opera lite”, which means it was funny and overblown and I enjoyed it. Walked over to Luna Park beforehand and took the ferry back to Circular Quay, a quick ride with a killer view.

- Heading for the beach. The path from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach is well-traveled, and it’s easy to see why: beautiful beaches, craggy rock outcroppings, and saltwater pools. Despite the “no dogs allowed” signs (which we see constantly throughout Australia), there were plenty of pooches to make us smile. One of the things we miss most is not having a dog.

I finally needed a break, so I laid low while Karen took a tour of the nearby Blue Mountains, including a ride on the steepest incline railway in the world.

It was nice to just hang out. We did some shopping, caught up on our New Zealand research, and Karen saved us money by cooking meals at the hostel.

All is not wine and roses, of course. Transit is kind of screwy (one ticket machine at Circular Quay for train tickets… none for bus tickets; you have to buy them from a human… who only works until 5pm?!). And everything is so gosh darn expensive. Even as the US dollar gains ground on the Australian dollar, it still hurts to read the prices on a menu. Imagine our elation, then, when we discovered a Mexican restaurant (very much like Chipotle at home) with reasonable prices and yummy burritos. ¡Que bueno!

As our stay in Sydney winds down, so too does our time in Australia. I hope to visit this old friend again soon.

Great Aussie friends on the Great Ocean Road

Back in Hiroshima, we met John from Melbourne. Little did we know the effect he would have on our trip. He reminded us of an important lesson for travelers: if you want to make friends on the road, you have to talk to people!  It was John who started the conversation with us back at the Mazda tour, and he generously offered us a place to stay in the Melbourne area.

And that’s how we wound up in Riddles Creek, Victoria, a city north of Melbourne. Hanging out with John was a treat for us in many ways. For one thing, we were delighted to find out that he was born in Australia! Many people we meet are transplants from somewhere else, whereas John’s parents were born in Australia and raised 5 kids on 10 acres of land in Riddles Creek. John’s father, Hal, still lives in the family home, a classic rambling ranch with plenty of add-ons. At some point, Hal sold off his land and kept an acre for himself, including the out sheds, which mostly house his kids’ big toys, boats, etc. At the moment, John is staying with Hal, who could use his help a bit as he has a newly broken vertebra in his back.

We spent two nights in Riddles Creek and got to know the ways of a typical Australian family. Many homes do not have central heat; it comes via individual room heaters. Yes, they eat Vegemite, just spread it very thinly on the toast though! Dinner in these parts is called tea and many Australians enjoy a tea break mid-day, with a hot drink and scone. They shop at Target and K-Mart, and their two grocery chains are Coles and Woolworth’s. Most people have decent-paying jobs and get good vacation time. John is a firefighter. Everyone loves sports, mostly rugby, footy, cricket and netball. Delightful people really, just a wee confounding when they greet you with, “How ya going?”

When we first arrived in Melbourne, we thought we had a travel plan… but John had other ideas for us. He picked us up from the Melbourne airport and gave us a night tour of downtown. After a night in Riddles Creek, we woke to a lovely breakfast with Hal and John. Hal told us about his own travels in Australia, including driving all the way across the Outback, south to north. Twice. As we were planning our next move, John offered to act as tour guide and driver and take us to the Great Ocean Road. Oddly, it took us about 10 minutes to decide whether to do it. Thankfully we decided yes! (Do not decline an offer like that, right?) John’s friend Di joined us- she’s a lovely gal, with lots of energy and joy, working as a nurse, traveling and riding her horse when she is off.

We packed up and began our journey along the Great Ocean Road. This drive is popular with foreigners and locals alike, enjoying the rugged beauty of the raging ocean against ancient rock formations. Without a plan, except to have some fun, we headed out.

Australian hospitality was at its best, as John and Di showed us sites they had both seen many times before, yet loved all over again. They were kind and patient, answering our many questions about Australian ways. Of course we shared bits of Americana as well. We delighted over the big waves on the ocean, rock monoliths, crazy surfers, wild koalas and echidnas, glow worms, local cheese and each other’s company. We talked about hopes and dreams and agreed life was too short to live it unhappily or in fear.

Meeting people like John and Di is exactly why we want to travel the world. Getting to know people who are different from us, learning from them, teaching when we can and making connections. They may talk differently and call dinner “tea”… but in the end Aussies are you and me. “How ya going?” We are going all right!

Wonthaggi State Coal Mine

We were driving through the delightfully-named Wonthaggi and stumbled upon what turned out to be a hidden gem: the State Coal Mine. The mine operated from 1909 to 1968, and thanks to the work of volunteers, it is now open to the public. For 10 bucks, I figured a tour would be a good distraction for an hour, so I donned a hairnet and hardhat and followed our guide, Kevin Guthrie, down below.

The tour was absolutely fascinating. We took numerous twists and turns, while learning about the primitive work conditions. This recess in the wall… a good place to tuck yourself when setting off explosives, so the debris flies past you (hopefully). Need to use the toilet? It’s a wooden box… give it a kick before you open it, to scare off any rats. The old cliche of the “canary in the coal mine” was employed here- each morning the manager would hold a canary up to the ceiling to test for gas, before work commenced. Nowadays, volunteers (many of them former mine workers) do safety and restoration work one night a week.

Much of my enjoyment was thanks to our guide. Kevin has that combo you always hope for in a guide: knowledge, enthusiasm, and a sense of humor. His father worked at the mine for decades. Each worker had a tag that was used to identify coal he extracted (with payment awarded accordingly). After the tour, Kevin pointed out a case full of tags, each one an echo of the past, once hung there by blackened fingers after a day of back-breaking work. Kevin pointed to the one in the bottom corner: the one labelled Maurice Guthrie, his father.

If you ever find yourself in Wonthaggi, follow the signs to State Coal Mine and take a step (downward) into the past.

Melbourne wins me over

I’m a sucker for a big, noisy, modern, multicultural city, and Melbourne’s got the goods. After a dusty week in a campervan, I was slightly pleased to cruise into the big city. Well, “slightly” may be an understatement…

After missing my yearly film binge at the Milwaukee Film Festival back home, I was delighted to find two festivals underway: the Melbourne Festival and the Melbourne Fringe Festival (it’s October, solidly “shoulder season”, so what must summer be like?).

Over the course of a few days, I steamed from museum to museum, with interesting stops in between. There’s a free tram and a free bus looping through downtown just for us tourists. Meanwhile, Karen took a more leisurely pace and even rented a bike to get around one day.

As far as classic art museums go, the National Gallery of Victoria is now one of my favorites. It has two locations, admission is free, and the collections are well-presented and wide-ranging, including the work of aboriginal Australians.

In honor of my retired librarian mom, I hit the State Library of Victoria. It’s a research library with an ornate reading (and laptop-using) room, plus it has exhibits about Australian history on the upper floors. Windows in the domed ceiling allow daylight to flood in, giving the reading room a very open, spacious feeling.

Federation Square is the main gathering place in town, complete with the street performers and overpriced cafes you’d expect. It’s a bit looney, with its misshapen, multi-colored buildings, but hey, it ain’t boring.

Just off the Square, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image has a cool exhibit called Star Voyager, chronicling the portrayal of space travel (real and imagined) in motion pictures. It was the perfect lead-in to “Who, Me”, a Doctor Who-related comedy we saw that night. I also saw models from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Harvie Krumpet… whaddya mean, you haven’t seen Harvie Krumpet? It’s one of our favorite animated shorts- check it out if you can.

I also braved the long walk to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, which wasn’t all that impressive, except for one installation. It’s called “Yellow”, and it’s really just a walkway through some drywalled corridors. As I entered, I glimpsed someone down the hall. OK, I wasn’t there alone. I started walking down a narrow corridor, and in my peripheral vision I could see someone walking toward me- geez, he was about to run right into me! I looked up… and he was me. Come to think of it, when I first walked in, I had glimpsed myself from another angle, down the hall. A woman passed me, exiting the exhibit, and yet there she was around the next corner, locking eyes with me through an opening cut into the wall (and looking just as confused as I was). The artist constructed the space with mirrors and projectors to “challenge our perceptions of personal space” or whatever. I loved it for its funhouse qualities.

Oh yeah, one more unusual thing we did in Melbourne: took a day off. I actually sat in our hotel room on my computer, sifting photos and editing video, rather than seeing the city. And it was good. I got caught up, and we rewarded ourselves by going to see the last Harry Potter movie at a small theatre. I mean small, like 45 seats in the house. And tickets were (gasp) $17.50 a person for this non-first-run movie. The quality of the projection and sound wasn’t too great, but at least we finally saw the movie we’ve been trying to get to since July!

Melbourne was comfortable and easy to get around. It’s a big city (4 million people), but didn’t seem overwhelming or rushed. And oh, the crazy architecture. Special thanks to our mate John, for giving us the inside scoop on his city.

Karen’s Critters: Down Under

If this isn’t already clear, I (Karen) am a critter nut. Ken likes them too, yet I think he may like them more through my eyes. At least through my giddy laughter and girly hops when I spot the furry/winged/scaly animals.

Australia does not disappoint in animal entertainment. And they know it. There are plenty of zoos, wildlife reserves and tours taking people into the wild to spot all sorts of creatures. I thought most of our animal viewing would be through these options, as I kept reading how hard it was going to be to spot certain animals in the wild by myself. Animal karma opened wide and we saw many of the Australian classic animals in the wild!

Many wonderful winged animals fly through the skies, like cockatoos, rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, cranes, ibis and magpies. Fruit bats squawk in the trees by day and darken the skies by dusk, looking for dinner. Near Phillip Island, the world’s largest pelicans are fed scraps from the fishing boats each day. They do the best stretching exercise with their necks, I can only assume to make more room to eat more fish. Looking serious to me, the Laughing Kookaburra does not live up to its name. And splendidly colored are the Black Necked Storks. You can tell the sex by looking at their eye color; the female’s is yellow. And the most exotic to me, the Tawny Frogmouth, a nightjar that looks and acts similar to an owl, looks like it stepped off the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Lots of bird like creatures call Australia home, yet cannot fly. We spotted emus, Little Penguins and cassowaries. Little Penguins are the world’s smallest penguin and are delightful to watch at the Penguin Parade held each night on Phillip Island. Crowds, up to 4000 people, watch anywhere from 40 to 2000 penguins come in from feeding in the ocean to their land-based burrows. The Cassowary, found only at the Wet Tropics area of North Queensland and in Papau New Guinea, are an endangered bird and are vital to the future of the rainforest. They eat the fruit and “plant” the seeds that are necessary to keep the rainforest thriving. You do not want to see one of these in the wild as they are not friendly and could be capable of disemboweling you, should they choose to do so. Thankfully, we only saw the millions of road signs telling us to watch out for them.

There were more critters we never saw, yet we enjoyed the evidence they left behind of their passing. While hiking through Wilsons Promontory, we spotted lots of disturbed dirt and droppings, but sadly, not the wombats who created them. We marveled at the sand ball art left behind on Noah’s Beach by mini crabs who dig their holes each day.

No, I did not forget about Australia’s iconic critters: kangaroo, wallaby, crocodile, koala, platypus and echidna. All spotted in the wild, except the crocodile, yet I still swear that huge splash I heard in the mangroves of the Daintree Rainforest was not created by a tree branch. Here is a quickie of the echidna, a-mini-anteater-meets-porcupine specimen. Shy little bugger.

Some of my best memories of my time in Australia are thanks to its critters. He-he!!

Up close (very close) with a koala

We’re not big fans of zoos. You know: tiny cages housing animals who would rather be exploring in the wild. But we decided to give Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas, Australia a try. It’s a wildlife sanctuary, so they’ve taken in injured animals and nursed them to health. Plus, we figured this would be our one chance to actually hold a koala (Ken has a special connection to koalas, ever since creating his puppet character Pudding back in college).

And here we are with our new friend Grizzly…

He was a good sport to put up with us interrupting his daily routine (sleep, sleep, eat some leaves, sleep and sleep). We discovered that besides being lazy and sleepy, koalas are stinky.

I’m working on a post about the other critters we saw Down Under- stay tuned!