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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Days 39-41: Adelaide, South Australia

South Australia is the fifth and last state we visited in Australia. I was predisposed to like South Australia, because whenever we mentioned that this was the climax of our trip, we got the same question: “Why?” No one thought much of our plan to visit Adelaide. When we said we have friends there, most people (but not all) stopped their disparaging remarks. They also kept saying that Adelaide is a city of churches, as if this is a bad thing.  As I originate from a part of the States (the South) that is unpopular with many people, and that they don’t want to visit having never been there, I could imagine how a South Australian might feel.

Here are some facts I’d be proud of, if I were from South Australia: The first British settlement (at what is now Glenelg) was free, not convict—unique in Australia. Of course, someone was already there: the Kaurna. Despite a fraught history, South Australia was the first state to “grant” Aboriginal people title to their land. It was one of the first places in the world where women could vote, and they could stand for parliament as early as 1894. South Australia was also the first state in Australia to outlaw racial and gender discrimination, and to decriminalize homosexuality.

I walked along Rundle Street and along pedestrianized Rundle Mall, looking through at the beautiful old arcades running between there and Grenfell Street. In the evening we made our way over to Hindley Street, the red-light district. Right in the middle of Thai massage parlors and people smoking water pipes is Jerusalem Sheshkebab House, a hole in the wall serving hummus, falafel, baklava and Jerusalem coffee. It is the sort of place that has been there forever and doesn’t charge very much. The music was kind of like a Middle Eastern Betty Boop cartoon, as T. pointed out. You cannot go wrong with pictures of Jerusalem on the wall and a dive atmosphere—and shesh kebabs, of course.
At Glenelg, there’s a Bay Discovery Centre where you can learn about the Kaurna people and the early history of British settlement. There was also, more cheerily, beach volleyball. We had breakfast at “Australia’s best café” (they do love to claim things like this). Bushwalking hadn’t seemed like the best idea what with all the smoke and fires we’d been hearing about, so we opted for another day on the beach. After lunch in Chinatown and a walk around the Central Market. Victoria Square was all given over to a bicycle expo because the Tour Down Under was going on—the tram stopped for some of the cyclists to go through.

And so I swam in yet another ocean—the Southern Ocean (actually Gulf St. Vincent, but that’s what it empties into). Nothing between me and the South Pole, but it sure didn’t feel as cold as the Tasman Sea! Had the most delicious pasta arrabiata at Pellegrini’s Pizzeria Café and, of course, met up with said friends, some of whom I actually met through a church, for goodness’s sake. More accurately, through a wine tour that was raising money for a new church organ, but who’s counting?
That wine tour was also in January but in Canada, through the snowy Niagara ice wine region. What a contrast with the Barossa Valley in South Australia, where we spent our last day. Founded by Germans fleeing religious persecution (hence all the churches), towns like Tanunda held a lot of charm. We got to taste a lot of wines (or ports, in T’s case), most notably at an 1850s cellar door in an old stable that made sparkling shiraz. I think that may be a uniquely Australian wine. We had a lovely tasting lunch overlooking one vineyard, then whiled away the afternoon on the deck overlooking another. That was a more structured tasting, where I unfortunately found that the $100 bottle was to my taste. Bearing in mind this is Australia, where $100 doesn’t go very far!

One last walk along the sand, one last dip of feet into the Southern Ocean, one final barbecue. A wonderful way to finish our stay in Adelaide and Australia in general—with friends.

So what have I learned from my trip (three-quarters of the way so far) around the world? First, that we overpacked. The Discreet Traveler used to be pretty good about this—I’ve backpacked, literally, around Ireland and Germany in my time—but that adage about “pack what you think you’ll need, then take half of that” really is true. Seriously. If you think you might read two books, pack one and exchange it for another one later. Wear the same shirt or find more opportunities to do laundry. Believe me, it will work out. It is literally true that you only need half.

Australia is amazing. It has the oldest history on earth—the Australian Aborigines have lived there for fifty thousand years (or always, depending on how you tell history). The waters off Australia have amazing species like the manatee-like dugong and six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, all endangered. Australia is very far away from pretty much everywhere else, and it is expensive, but it is also a very friendly country. And because Australians travel all over the world, you are never far from a friendly Australian. South Australia was in fact a great way to cap off our visit, because what makes a city, state, or country is not its politics or geography or climate. It’s the presence of friends.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Days 36-38: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

For those who have been paying attention, yes, bathetic is a word ("characterized by bathos") and yes it really is a brush turkey, although sometimes called a bush turkey. I am not a proofreader for nothing! Now, to the bathrooms. I wish to praise the Australians for recognizing that human beings need the bathroom occasionally, and providing for that cleanly, conveniently, and free to the public. Imagine this. We walk to Melbourne Park and before even arriving at the tennis, we’ve passed multiple public bathrooms. In a little town on the coast, you’re on your way to the beach after lunch and your needs are provided for. And they are clean! This is not to be taken for granted by a traveler, as anyone who has spent time in Europe can tell you. Whether Australians spend more time cleaning bathrooms or just aren’t as dirty in the first place, I do not know.

We really lucked out because the terrible heat wave seemed to be leaving Victoria (and South Australia, for that matter) just as we arrived. It had been so hot in Melbourne the week before that play was canceled on the outside courts at the Australian Open, to which we had tickets. There were all kinds of bushfires. Australians seem to have plenty to fear from spiders, snakes, wildfires, or cyclones, but by and large don’t seem to be afraid of each other. I could be wrong, but that’s how I remember growing up as an American.

What I mean is this. In the 1980s my great-uncle and –aunt couldn’t stop talking about their trip to Australia and how much it reminded them of the U.S.A. in the ‘50s. They meant this positively. Australia now reminds me of the U.S. then (in the ‘80s). Not entirely, but in some ways it is like the America I grew up in. Remember how 25 years ago, if you took a flight, the staff would just ask you if you had anything dangerous in your bag, and anyone could go to the gate as long as they passed through security? It’s still like that here. And areas of the commercial landscape still look like the America I remember, as opposed to the country I visit now. Blockbuster, Woolworth’s, and frozen Cokes may have bitten the dust over there, but no one has told Australia, where they are still ubiquitous!

Arriving in Melbourne we looked in vain for the right minibus—they are all called Sun, Sky, or Star—before finally getting our ride into the city. I liked it right away. I liked the feel of Melbourne, the multiculturalism, the look of the streets. There are bookstores everywhere (along with Subways and 7-11s). Our hotel room was shoebox-sized, but somehow the building felt comfortable to me, in a dated way (see above). It reminded me of a hotel in Washington, D.C. that has a cameo in my novel The Trees in the Field. (It also had some kind of ‘70s ambience that reminded me of the college everyone in my family went to—it was a lot like a dorm room…)

Midsumma was going on while we were there. Midsumma is a festival “Celebrating Queer Culture.” There certainly seemed to be a lot of my people around in Melbourne; whether they were there for Midsumma, the tennis, or they just live there all the time, I’m not sure. I didn’t have the chance to find out if it’s really a queer city. We walked around the lanes of the Central Business District, along the Yarra River, then took a tram out to St. Kilda. Can I just mention here how much I love trams (or streetcars, as they’re called in Toronto). Few North American cities have them anymore, but they’re lovely. You’re in the middle of a busy city, hop on a streetcar and if you stay on long enough, there’s a beach. Isn’t that civilized?

We had a look around the century-old Luna Park, which has an original heritage “Scenic Railway” roller coaster—and then the site of the iconic Stokehouse restaurant which had just been razed after a fire a day or two earlier. It was, bizarrely, not hot enough to go swimming, though there were kite surfers to watch and the Esplanade Market to waste money in. Monday began the second week of the Australian Open and there we were, in Margaret Court Arena, watching women’s doubles. If you are not interested in tennis you might want to skip to the penultimate paragraph—here’s a sport I actually do follow!

I love doubles, and can never understand why it doesn’t get attention because 1) it’s a faster game and 2) most people who play tennis as a hobby are more likely to play doubles, so should be familiar with it. Anyway, since we had ground tickets doubles was mostly what we could see. First Madison Keys and Alison Riske of the U.S.A. lost to the seventh-seeded Czechs, A. Hlavackova and L. Safarova. I am not crazy about Riske, she’s one of those yelling women, but Keys has a great smile and seemed to be enjoying herself at first. Then we found ourselves in a “legends” match, Joakim Noah’s dad Yannick and F. Santoro of France vs. Mats Wilander and the Australian Pat Cash. I once saw Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams play doubles in an exhibition match, and that was some tennis pairing, but at the Australian Open “legends” seems to mean joke.

Canada had better luck, with Daniel Nestor and Serbian N. Zimonjic, the eighth seeds, eventually winning over the ninth-seeded Poles M. Fyrstenberg and M. Matkowski—much more competitive. That match was followed by more women’s doubles, Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and V. Dushevina of Russia vs. the sixth seeds, Cara Black (Zimbabwe) and S. Mirza of India. Bouchard had done well the previous evening to beat the Australian Casey Dellacqua in singles, and as I write, she’s going into her first Grand Slam semifinal. These singles victories are something because what television viewers might not realize is that on her “day off” between matches, Eugenie Bouchard played not one, but two doubles matches at the Australian Open—women’s and mixed. In this case, it was not surprising that Black and Mirza won. I have a soft spot for Cara Black, as she’s quite a legend herself in doubles—I saw her play a doubles match at the first professional tennis tournament I ever saw, and if you remember Jennifer Capriati, you know how long ago that was.

Having been at those show courts, we went back to Margaret Court for a while to watch the heavily outmatched fifteenth seeds, Lisa Raymond (USA)  and D. Hantuchova of Slovakia playing the third seeds, Russians E. Makarova and E. Vesnina. Something made us leave that match in the second set (which Raymond and Hantuchova did go on to take) and it must have been luck, because outside the arena, two ladies who were leaving offered us their seats in two different sections in Rod Laver Arena! So off we went in the middle of the second set of the men’s singles, Rafael Nadal vs. Kei Nishikori. I don’t know how it looked on TV but it was anything but your typical straight-sets victory. It took a tiebreak for Nadal to win the first set, then the second set went to 7-5. In the third set Nishikori looked to break Nadal in the third game, then in the fifth, finally did so in the seventh, had a chance to serve for the set, then a few moments later served to stay in the match instead! It then got even more interesting, with each player challenging a crucial line call, and in both cases getting it right. Nadal eventually came up with the third-set tiebreak but let me tell you it was thrilling to watch in person.

I couldn’t leave my first ever Grand Slam without seeing something I’d never before seen in person—mixed doubles. I think mixed doubles are one of the neatest things in sports, but Toronto and Montreal alternate between men and women at the Canadian open, and so they don’t have mixed doubles. The dessert of our day at the Australian Open was Nestor again (paired with Mladenovic of France) vs. Fyrstenberg again, paired with Raymond again! Lisa Raymond is a longtime competitor and really works for her money on the tour, but it was not her day. The Canadian and French prevailed but that was okay, as we were only up for two sets at this point.

And only then did I find that the convenience of bathrooms is completely canceled out in Melbourne by the inability to find a kitchen open after 8:00 p.m. I’d heard Australians eat their evening meal early, but in six weeks this was my first evidence. Even the Chinese restaurant in New South Wales was open at 9:00. But here there’s a Grand Slam tennis tournament going on, watched by millions around the globe, and although the night session had only just started, there were no restaurants serving food. Not in Melbourne Park, nor in the city. I don’t know, does New York shut its kitchens during the U. S. Open? Seems there’s some money to be made here. Maybe what would in other places be restaurant jobs go here to bathroom cleaners, so there’s no one left to serve food. But yeah, a major city needs some more opening hours, Melbourne. In the end we found a (relatively) cheap café serving what turned out to be delicious—even the house red was nice.

It’s too bad because up to that point, I was liking Melbourne better than Sydney (for the same reason I’m a Chicago person). It looked like the most multicultural city in Australia. And the pedestrian layout is so accommodating to people with disabilities that I felt at risk myself; “Walk” signs beep with frantic noises for visually impaired people, sending me panicking into the road, while the regular slopes in sidewalks for wheelchair use presented a tripping hazard to the unsuspecting sightseer. I was reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron.” If you haven’t read it, do.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Days 32-35: The Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

Our next stop was Coolangatta, on the border with New South Wales. Coolangatta is the home of not one, but two world champion surfers (2012’s Joel Parkinson is still up on posters all around town, and beyond). Throw in the Gold Coast’s Stephanie Gilmore and that’s another handful of championships. I don’t know any more about surfing than I do about cricket, but the professional surfers and their families whom I’ve met are the friendliest, most down-to-earth people you can imagine. That’s how Coolangatta seems too.

It’s a far cry from Surfers Paradise, just up the coast. To see the glitz and tall buildings up the coast from Coolangatta, it doesn’t look like paradise. And the surfers are here. The community here loves their public beaches, and with good reason. Let’s hope no one ever grabs the land to dredge it for a cruise liner terminal. Leave that to Surfers Paradise, which is neither. Parkinson, 2013 champion Mick Fanning, and the U.S.’s Kelly Slater are celebrating the defeat of one such plan for Kirra Beach.

I’d had about enough of Queensland between Townsville and Cairns, having traveled it first by road, then by sea, and finally by plane. I might change my mind if the temperature in Melbourne soars back up to what it was in the first week of the Australian Open, but up in the wet tropics T. was beginning to think we’d have foot rot. Speaking of Melbourne, I’m having a hard time pronouncing that city’s name, as well as Cairns. Pronouncing them without an r at all sounds very, very weird in a North American accent. It’s as if I pronounced Paris the French way, in ordinary English conversation. Of course it is correct...!

But back to the surf. I got up with the Beach Boys in my head and imagined a day of catching waves and exhilaration. Not, heaven knows, on a surfboard, but on a bodyboard like I did the first time I saw the ocean at fourteen. I remember it being easy and riding the waves all day until forced out by a lifeguard. Well, I was humbled by these waves. Maybe it was serious surf, or maybe I just lost my nerve. I watched for a long time to see if any of the kids knew what they were doing—only one or two of them seemed to be getting there, some of the time. Maybe it was the wrong beach, or the wrong decade! It’s sad when a dream dies.

Other than that, the water felt wonderful, and the sun was not too hot (by south Australian standards)—a great day to be on the beach. We took a long walk overlooking the beaches, all the way to the border. The state line runs down the middle of a street, not unlike Bristol (Tennessee/Virginia). What complicates matters is that this time of year, one side of the street is an hour ahead with daylight savings time. There was one awkward evening when we had to rush from happy hour over to the Chinese restaurant, which was about to close because it is in New South Wales. Nearly missed our takeout!

Another night we went for drinks on the balcony of a friend who lives at the first address in Queensland (#1 this side of the border). It overlooks Point Danger, which is the best view of the Quiksilver Pro surfing competition that takes place every March. I didn’t feel quite so bad after seeing people who knew what they were doing. Coolangatta is the first place I ever saw a guy pushing his kid in a stroller, while riding a skateboard. You might say Coolangatta begins with cool.

I will get back to the restrooms/washrooms/toilets in this country—you know The Discreet Traveler thinks these are important—but here’s another thing that’s amazing about Australia: the free grills. Barbecues, as they’re called, set up as commonly as picnic tables, on beaches and even on the side of the road. Free for people to roll up and use. Not vandalized, not filthy. I try to imagine pulling this off in the Anglo world, even if we had the weather.

At the unlikely location of the surf club, I got into an intense conversation with someone who works on indigenous people’s and LGBT rights. How is it, this Australian demanded indignantly, that her country is so stuck on the issue of same-sex marriage, when the majority of Australians couldn’t care less? It was kind of a nice break to get into a political issue TDT cares about—politics has not intruded much on the last several weeks of enjoyment.

Our last day on the Gold Coast we went to Burleigh and walked around the headland in the national park, and down to the beach by the estuary. There are good views of Burleigh surf here. Later, when we were walking on Kirra Beach, we found a guy by the free showers (to wash your feet—another nice touch) who was standing awkwardly on one leg. He asked if we could help him, calmly explaining that he’d just broken his ankle, and would we mind carrying his surfboard to the car. He didn’t mind hopping or complain of any pain; he was just worried about his board!

The next time we’re on the Gold Coast (!) we’ve been told, we must take a surf lesson. A bodyboard lesson would be about right for me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Days 28-31: The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of North Queensland, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, I believe, was the ultimate bucket-list experience before the term “bucket list” was invented. Snorkeling on the Reef, or diving if scuba is your thing, is something you really should do before you die. People know this. In Cancer in Two Voices, one of the things that co-authors Barbara Rosenblum and Sandy Butler do when they realize Barbara is going to die, is to go and snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Reef extends from Bundaberg, the rum capital in central Queensland, north to the coast of Papua New Guinea. The coral reefs of the Queensland continental shelf extend up to 220 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The present reef, grown over hundreds of meters of ancient reefs from previous falls in sea level, is between six and eighteen thousand years old. Corals (more than four hundred species of them) are, of course, animals that behave somewhat weirdly like plants. Trillions of them make up the largest living thing ever. It is like no place on earth.

So although we’d snorkeled on fringing reef in the Whitsundays, and had a glimpse of the tropical fish and corals, nothing could compare to the moment I first donned mask and fins and slipped off the ramp from the rear deck into the sea. The waters around Thetford Reef were filled with color and natural wonders, and although I’m very nearsighted, what I wanted to see was close to the surface, or swimming right in front of my mask. “Some nondivers may wonder if it’s really worth going to the Great Barrier Reef ‘just to snorkel,’” says the Lonely Planet guide to Australia. “The answer is a resounding yes. Much of the rich, colourful coral lies just underneath the surface (as coral needs bright sunlight to flourish)”.

They say you could snorkel different parts of the Reef all your life and never see everything. I find myself coming up with only bathetic comparisons—certainly no photographs could capture it, as I’m not an underwater photographer. It was like swimming in the tropical fish tank at my pediatricians’. It’s a wonderworld. For all that, though, I can’t say that Airlie Beach and the nearby islands aren’t still where I’d go back on vacation. And the Grand Canyon (once we were finally reunited at the traumatic end of a long hike) is still the pitch-black place in which I’ve seen the most amazing star-filled sky.

Because the Reef is wild and natural. Such an experience has to accept that we have no control over either weather or wildlife. There is no guarantee of clear weather or smooth sailing, especially in the wet tropics. Nor can sea turtles or Ulysses butterflies be made to appear. A clear night on the Reef with sunset or stars was not to be. Never take any experience for granted.

We began in Cairns, eating locally caught barramundi—such fresh fish. The moment our small ship set out we were on the top deck, the “sun” deck, sitting around the spa. Quickly the bumping around began and sloshed water from the spa all over us, so we figured we might as well get into our swimsuits and sit in it. This was to be as much as we’d enjoy the spa in three days!

The first snorkel, at Thetford Reef (an atoll reef), the song running through my head constantly was “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.” And it was. Whatever people say to describe the glorious coral and fish of the Reef, there’s nothing like actually floating over it for the first time. Elephant-ear coral, black surgeon fish, brilliantly colored parrot fish crunching away at the coral’s surface, and more other species than I could ever count, let alone name. The marine biologist told us more about some of what we were seeing in the glass-bottomed boat later, which led to T. sharing this Doris Day gem:

“The glass-bottomed boat, you will agree/ Gives you the secrets of the deep blue sea”

Everybody we ate with, even when extra people came and went, was British. Ten thousand miles I came to be surrounded by English people—well, there was a single Scot. So I learned a lot at dinner about English places and sports. I also learned more Australian lessons, such as, that I don’t get the point of oysters, nor do I like Moreton Bay Bugs (crayfish)—and why would I?

So there we were: a whole load of Brits, an Austrian, German, and New Zealand family (one each), an American couple who were older than everybody else but game for anything—and me. At dinner the Scotsman sat on the other side of T. and, as there was another man beside me and a heterosexual couple, the server put two and two together. Or didn’t. She assumed T. would pay for Scottie’s drinks. T. pointed to me and said, “I’m with her—not him!”

What we essentially did was go down the coast of north Queensland the same way we’d just come up, only on the sea side. So we sailed through Hinchinbrook Channel, of which an old sailor’s adage was quoted: “No one can sail through the Hinchinbrook Channel and not believe in God.” He must have been there on a sunny day; if I didn’t believe in God I’m not sure Hinchinbrook Island would convince me. It’s the rainiest place in Australia. No barbecue on the beach for us. Most of the Palm Islands are either national park or Aboriginal land, but we went to Pelorus Island, which is neither. Our nature walk showed us golden orb spiders, green ants, casuarina trees like those planted around Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and Moses-in-a-Basket rhododendron; but the only other wildlife we saw was the wickedly invasive cane toad. Again, it was the marine environment that was the star, with giant clams. We snorkeled again around Yanks Jetty, on Orpheus Island, where there was a really nice beach. By “really nice” I mean that it was sand, not coral rock, and that the sun came out for a bit. To be fair, it doesn’t much matter when it rains while you’re snorkeling.

From the sea side we now saw the impressively long (5.7-km) jetty at Lucinda, Queensland, which is used for sugar cane. And we came to Dunk Island, last seen from the land side at Wongaling Beach, where we saw the water taxi leaving from the beach. Wongaling is part of the community of Mission Beach, which takes its name from the ill-fated “mission” to the Djiru people. Decimated by malaria and cyclone, they were further removed to Great Palm Island, which is why the Palm Islands (except Orpheus and Pelorus) are still Aboriginal lands today.

I saw intricate pink and purple lipstick clams, which open and close like, well, lips. Thousands of little fish swimming right along with me. Strange birdsong and not even being able to see the birds was my experience of Dunk Island (Coonanglebah, “the island of peace and plenty,” in Djiru). Well, we did see a few plants and butterflies, and a rainbow over the nearby “desert” island. Back on the sun deck, the sun rapidly gave way to rain; at least being under 80% canopy cover made us feel part of the rainforest itself.

It’s safe to say I preferred the underwater to the rainforest environment. For a native of a landlocked state, who never saw an ocean until I was fourteen, I sure have been spending a lot of time at sea lately. The one sunny morning we had time to doze on the sun lounges, the sun was endurable because of the great wind tossing the ship up and down. What a relief to arrive at Nathan Reef, which was the best snorkeling experience yet—the coral gardens more spectacular, the fish more varied, and the sea swell greater!
The final morning it was raining so hard when we woke up I thought there was no way we were going to Fitzroy Island, or Gabarra as it’s called in Gungandji. In 1877 this island was used to quarantine Chinese workers on their way to the goldfields, and of course, many died of the squalid conditions. Seems there’s a bad story behind every place.

But amazingly, the weather cleared up long enough for us to snorkel one more time off the coral rock beach. Not even any injuries this time (they’ve healed wondrously—thanks, intern pharmacist at Airlie Beach!) We enjoyed seeing many more fish, including species I hadn’t previously seen, along this fringing reef. The sun came out again, briefly, just long enough for us to snap a group photo on the deck. Then just before we docked at Cairns, would you believe we saw dolphins on the starboard side. Not close enough to get a picture, but just seeing them was enough.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Days 25-27: North to Cairns via Townsville, Queensland, Australia

We didn't see any wombats in Wilsons Promontory National Park, and we didn't see any koalas on Magnetic Island, which is over half national park and has one of the largest concentrations of wild koalas in Australia. I was beginning to feel ripped off. But then we turned off the Bruce Highway towards Mission Beach, where all the signs are pictures of cassowaries and it's a cassowary conservation area, and--we saw a cassowary! There he stood, a blue-headed, turkey-wattled bird the height of a man--an endangered species and a vital link in the ecosystem, as many rainforest fruits are too large to be eaten (and thus the seeds dispersed) by other animals. We felt privileged to get up close to him, though there was some debate about the bird's sex. I thought it might be a female, as cassowaries practice gender role reversal--once the female lays the eggs, the male incubates them and raises the chicks on his own. But T. said no, she probably has some high-powered job in the City!

Midnight Oil was playing in mining country as we came to the end of the cane railway crossings (supposedly) and a hand-lettered, cardboard sign that just advertised "Mangoes Yum." Billabongs or actual isolated ponds (a Wiradjuri word) appeared, but not with the regularity of cane railways. We were driving through the burdekin, the delta of the Burdekin River in the Dry Tropics between Bowen and Townsville. Resisting the temptations of the Gumlu fruit stand or "Fisho at Servo," T. put the car in second gear to climb Inkerman Hill for a better lookout.

I mentioned every place has its bakery, no matter how small. Near Home Hill a road sign claimed "Finest deli this side of Milan"! We thought of challenging this, but the very next village claimed they had the best deli. Whom to believe? I busied myself with counting creek names. Waistcoat Creek, Christmas Creek (with forlorn decorations still on the sign), Boobah Creek, Jack Creek, and my personal favorite, Stagnant Creek. "Where do you live?" "Oh, just past Stagnant Creek!" Maria Creek (South, North, and Big) and Cowley Beach round out my collection.

South of Home Hill, Charlie's Hill was the World War II site of RAAF radar that could detect aircraft over 300 miles away. Everywhere there are reminders of the Australian armed forces and those that have served in them. Indeed, besides the bakery and the bowls club, no town is complete without the Returned and Services League (RSL). And war memorial.

From Townsville to Magnetic Island by ferry takes about the same amount of time (twenty minutes) as to cross from England to France via the Channel Tunnel. For those of us who've crossed the Channel by ferry, this never ceases to be remarkable. There was rain in Townsville and storms were forecast, but over on "Maggie" it was merely cloudy and breezy, which was just as well as it was a hot tropical hike we were taking. From the end of Mandalay Avenue (and it felt like Burma too), we walked through a pocket of rainforest and up to the saddle between Nelly's Bay and Horseshoe Bay. Saw lots of skinks, another amusing animal that looks like a snake that has not quite achieved lizardhood. (They are harmless and come in many beautiful colors). And butterflies.

We got good views over Horseshoe Bay, but didn't hike very far along the ridge, preferring a coffee at Le Paradis (very friendly French café) and a chill on the absolutely empty beach at Nelly Bay. There are so many beaches in Australia sometimes we get one all to ourselves. It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful places there are, and that they are free--not fenced off, blocked with warning signs or fee gates, or owned by rich people. At least not yet.

It was just too hot in Townsville to do anything (but swim) before the sun dipped behind the giant red hill that is the backdrop to the town. The beach waterfront, The Strand, is done up gorgeously. The papaya salad at Bountiful Thai appealed after all the tropical fruit we've been seeing, but I've rarely tasted anything so hot. Did not expect the red curry to be a relief from the salad!

From Townsville to Cairns the temperature rose five degrees Celsius in ten minutes. I have a lot of nice things to say about my time in Australia, but I can't let this go: The traffic lights are unbelievable. You sit at a deserted intersection, no matter what the size of city or town, for longer at a red light than anywhere else I have ever driven. Each lane seems to get its own turn, while everyone else continues to wait. And--pedestrians still don't cross on red, even if there is no automobile anywhere in sight, from any direction! I don't get the design of these lights. Other than to force everyone to slow down further, and take things at a pace that suits this heat.

They still have Woolworth's in Australia (everywhere) and Blockbuster, and one other thing that I find nice, though not personally useful. No matter how plain the bathroom (toilet or washroom), it is usually clean and usable and equipped with a "Sharps" container. Now, I once had some medical needles to dispose of and could not get anybody to take them anywhere in Britain, no matter if I went to pharmacies, hospitals, let alone a little bathroom in a gas station somewhere. But if you have a medical condition that requires you to inject something, by gum, Australia is the place to throw it away. Too bad it's too far for the rest of the world to commute.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Days 23-24: The Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia

 If I could only have visited one place on this trip so far (please note place, not people) I would choose the Whitsunday Islands. Which should be the Whitmondays, as on the Whitsunday after which the islands were named, it was actually Monday already on this side of the international date line. Yep, another ignorant explorer. The traditional people of Whitsunday Island are the Ngaro and their name is on the forest trail up to the lookout over peerless Hill Inlet. Oh, and they aren’t really islands, but wooded mountaintops, cut off from the rest of the range when sea levels rose after the last ice age.

T. says “Most people leave their heart in the Whitsundays; I left a bit of my finger and most of my shins!” We found out later that it takes four pages of paperwork to report an injury on one of these tours—“worse than America”—but it didn’t seem like that at first. We all piled into a small boat, a couple people sitting on the pontoons, and took off, before the captain even remembered to warn us to hold onto the boat. I think in the States we would have been told to wear lifejackets, but who knows? It’s been a long time.

Thanks to the rare northeasterly winds that made it impossible for the big catamaran to take us over to Esk Island, this was the bounciest boat ride I can remember. Fortunately, I’ve learned through experience I am not prone to seasickness. Otherwise the weather was great. The boat took us into the rocky beach at Esk, and the only reason I can think of we didn’t just go over the side of the boat was it was too small for us to put snorkeling gear on without disembarking first. This was when all the falling and sharp objects happened (see injury report above). Once first aid had been given, we snorkeled around the coral and beautiful tropical fish of the Coral Sea. It is not the outer glory of the Great Barrier Reef, but the barrier thereof is what makes the Whitsundays so sailable (or so I hear).

And the Coral Sea is a lot warmer than the Tasman Sea, but there’s a price to be paid for this. During the Wet season, we are told, the tropical sea is full of tiny box jellyfish or “stingers.” We were warned not to go in the water without a stinger suit to protect us. I suspect this is just the residents’ way of having a laugh by getting us all into full-body Lycra, but never mind. It is just as well we had these and not actual wetsuits, as for sure we would have been too warm to swim in those. Not the ocean swimming experience I am used to!

Whitehaven Beach is the 7-kilometer glory of Whitsunday Island. At one end, Hill Inlet has impossible swirls of turquoise in the water and pure sand where you can swim with little fish; at the other the beach goes on, pure white, some kind of unique silica (most tropical beaches, as we have learned, are sharp rocks). The sand is so special Americans came and took a lot of it to use in the Hubble space telescope and warfare.

The soundtrack up from Mackay was Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, appropriate given some of our detours through the sugar cane fields. Somewhere on the road to Habana (rum country) the thermometer said 38 degrees C. In Airlie Beach, the town where we stayed, life was simple enough. A self-catering apartment where we could make ourselves omelets and salads and not pay a hundred dollars for supper; then you walk out the back gate and there’s the lagoon, a safe artificial inlet for swimming in. It just goes on and on, and I only regret not having more afternoons to spend in it. The sea itself is full of sailboats as well as jellyfish; on the other side of the street are the backpacker bars, cheap drinks and music all night. Our hosts (Whitsunday on the Beach—book it) were excited because Lleyton Hewitt was beating Roger Federer in the final of a run-up to the Australian Open.

And so to our full day, boarding the catamaran before 7:00 in the morning for Whitsunday Island, which is 100% national park. The Wet season in the Tropic of Capricorn—not very wet so far. But I wouldn’t want to live in Queensland; it’s either flooding or bushfires, there never seems to be a dull season. Think of it as vacationing in Armageddon.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Days 20-22: Bicheno, Tasmania to Mackay, Queensland, Australia

I heard the Australians were really into their coffee, and they are. It may be possible to order a generic, slopped-out-of-the-carafe, American-style coffee somewhere in this country, but I have not found it. When you get a coffee here it invariably tastes excellent. A “flat white,” which seems the closest thing to a regular coffee, is more like a cappuccino, only it can’t be a cappuccino because that is something else on the menu. When your coffee arrives you will really enjoy it. But.

You cannot spend a reasonable amount of money on it, nor can you get it in a hurry. Four dollars will get you a (small) cup of coffee in a roadside café, and it will take fifteen or twenty minutes. If you’ve ordered food as well, the coffee will take as long as it takes you to give up and finish your food. You will never be able to have coffee and food at the same time. I believe the coffee is considered so important that it must be savored alone, like a wine tasting, so you’d better have a ton of time on your hands.

You’d better have a lot of time on your hands to accomplish anything, actually—it’s just that coffee is the kind of thing a North American is typically in a hurry for. I realize what I describe may not be true everywhere in Australia all the time, but in my experience it is.

Once you’ve had your coffee, look around for the sharks. They’re everywhere. No, not in the water—Australia has averaged only one shark fatality per year since the eighteenth century, and if you’ve heard there’s a cluster of attacks or they’re getting more common, I refer you to Risk (published in North America as The Science of Fear) which explains the misleading-ness of the news cycle, statistics, and hysteria generally. No, where you’ll find shark most commonly is at the fish and chip shop. It’s called “flake”—the fish they sell the way the English sell cod—and it’s delicious. But be warned, it is shark.

We were on our way to Bicheno, a fishing town on the east coast of Tasmania. We passed Break-Me-Neck and Bust-Me-Gall Hills, and creeks with names like Wackett and Old Man; even the “Rivulets” are named. We have guessed that the smallest bodies of water are named so you can identify where you are on the highway, as often there is no other way to tell.

This country moves at a slow pace generally. Sometimes, as with the coffee order, it is hard to take, but other times it is lovely. We made our final turn and had to stop behind a truck, who knew why? Turns out the driver stopped to let what looked like a very large hedgehog cross the road. We were delighted, first, that the animal was allowed to live; second to learn that it was in fact an echidna or spiny anteater, a member of the monotreme order. In other words, an egg-laying mammal. This was the next best monotreme to a platypus, which we have not managed to see although they are supposed to be numerous in a national park near Mackay, the last stop in this chapter. I have always thought that the platypus—a duck-billed, egg-laying furry mammal—was is proof that God was having fun that day.

Among the walnut orchards en route to Bicheno the echidna was the most unique animal we saw. Wallabies, with their pogo-stick ways, and the non-native rabbits have become routine. I was just happy not to have squashed anything with the car. Even the town bakery appeared to have a resident chicken pecking around outside, or maybe it was just our lucky day. Every town has a bakery, no matter how small—goes with the coffee.

The Freycinet Peninsula is a highlight of the area, and the steep walk up to Wineglass Bay lookout and down to the beach itself is worth it—supposedly one of the top ten beaches in the world. (Another will feature in the next breathtaking episode of TDT.) One can take the steep walk back up, or opt for the much longer roundabout way via Hazards Beach, which takes you through cool temperate rainforest, along the beach, and up along rocks overlooking the Tasman Sea. Either way, walking is the only way to Wineglass Bay and that makes it nice!

Residents take the wildlife for granted, of course, so we knew the “fairy” penguins that dwell in these southern seas could not be far away. We waited until dark at the Bicheno Blowhole (that’s well after 9:00 at this time of year and so far south) and were rewarded by the emergence of the little penguins scrambling out of the sea. After swimming around fishing all day, the poor little things looked exhausted and on their way to nest. I know how they feel...

My animal highlight of the trip so far may still be the chimpanzees in the Singapore Zoo, as I’d never before seen the species that shares 99% of its DNA with mankind (the final 1% must be asshole). The chimps, though, did have the sad disadvantage of not being in their native environment. Up in Mackay, via Brisbane, I didn’t expect to see much but the mining and sugar cane industries; yet we were surprised with a great colony of fruit bats! Flitting around Victoria Street, they may not have the cuteness appeal of their bird cousins, the smallest penguin species; but we were happy they sang in our night. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Days 17-19: Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

We spent the last day of the old year in Tasmania. This state was renamed after its Dutch “discoverer,” Tasman, because its history as Van Diemen’s Land was so frankly atrocious. Along with the usual unspeakable history with regard to indigenous people—brutality to the point of annihilation—Van Diemen’s Land was home to the most vicious penal regime in all the history of Britain transporting its convicts to Australia. But Tasmania is also a land of cool temperate rainforest and its capital, Hobart, is the last port before Antarctica. It is crazy to think we are so far south, but the southern cross in the million-starred night sky confirms it.

A surprisingly large percentage of transported convicts were women—perhaps one in five. We learned more about this at Female Factory, the historic site of the women’s prison, where a dramatization, “Her Story,” illuminated the real life of Mary James. The disgusting treatment she and her fellow prisoners received is depressingly familiar, and I could not help thinking of the United States’ prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, cleared for release more than a decade ago yet still subjected to inhumanities today. I would have been moved by Mary’s plight even had she not been played by our niece!

The “international airport” of Hobart reminds me of my hometown airport, only smaller. Nothing seems big or crowded in Hobart; even on New Year’s Eve there was plenty of room to breathe, and after the fireworks at midnight we simply walked away from the pier with no hint of claustrophobia. Paving the roads seems optional. As for internal Australian flights, it is still possible to go through security and up to the gate, just to meet passengers. Remember when you could do this in the U.S.A.? Except for brief periods like the Gulf war, when it was understood that security alerts would go back down again, not only ever up.

Tasmania is supposed to be very different from the rest of Australia; sniffer dogs even inspect the luggage coming in from the mainland for stray produce. Yet ironically, I’ve finally met some Australians here, who say “G’day,” drive “utes” (utility or pickup trucks), and put beets on their sandwiches as routinely as lettuce and tomato. 

The Coal River Valley, where we stayed, is yet another wine region, and I had a chance to sample some of its pinot noirs at the Taste of Tasmania which is going on at this time. The Coal River is crossed by Australia’s oldest road bridge (1823) at Richmond, a fabulous historic town. Scallop pies and Tasmanian ice cream are the order of the day here. You have to go to the Taste for a Fish Frenzy or Malaysian laksa and char kway teow, or more adventurous local fare such as wallaby burritos or possum confit. I wish I were making those up.

St. John the Evangelist Church, on a hill overlooking Richmond Bridge, is the oldest Catholic church in Australia (1836). The dates in its graveyard indicate how short lives can be in such a bleak place. I lit a candle for my cousin and wished he were here to show me how the constellations in the southern sky differ from those in the northern hemisphere. I suppose he can see it all clearly now.

Driving on the left is so much easier in Australia, where the roads are actually wide enough to have lanes. It helps that there aren’t so many other drivers, too, and speeds seem so slow. Down at the Elizabeth Street Pier we watched the fireworks at midnight. The yachts are all docked in Hobart from the end of the Sydney to Hobart Race, and readers of The Discreet Traveler may recall that in June, in Santorini, T. and I met the landlords of a Hobart pub called the Shipwright Arms. We were invited to the “Shippies” when we were here on New Year’s Day, and we could not pass up an invitation like that!

Sure enough, just down from Battery Point they were having “A Quiet Little Drink” in the beer garden of the 1846 pub. A band was playing out of the back of a truck, and the landlady, who was tickled to see us, explained that these same guys have played there for 50 years! Considering this they were still pretty good. It was nice to have a beer with the landlord and relax in such a non-crowded environment. The sun had come out by then and we could have stayed all afternoon.